Friday, October 31, 2014

“Laggies” – Growing up is hard.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get just one movie about several different relationships that wasn’t an insipid ensemble movie featuring several pairs of people with tenuous, at best, connections between each other? You know what I’m talking about – movies like Valentine’s Day or Love Actually or What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Yeah, I know that last one is about pregnancies, but that didn’t stop it from sucking as hard as a hungry infant. My point is that Laggies is that movie you were waiting for. Unless, of course, you’re actually waiting for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, in which case maybe you don’t care about movies like Laggies at all and you probably clicked on this review because you just wanted to know what the hell a laggie is.

Even after seeing the movie, I’m not really sure what a laggie is, but I think it refers to people who are lagging behind their peers in some way or another. I know – my insight is astounding. Anyway, Keira Knightley plays Megan, our main laggie. She’s 28 years old with an advanced degree, but works for her dad as a sidewalk sign twirler and still thinks tweaking a giant Buddha statue’s nipples is hilarious (for the record, she’s right). She is still close with her high school circle of friends and still dating her high school sweetheart. Her friends and boyfriend, Anthony (Mark Webber), are all “grown up” while Megan still goes over to her parent’s house to surf cable have build-your-own-pizza night. I’m not sure what Anthony sees in Megan, but she must make one hell of a pizza, if you know what I mean.

Suffice it to say, Megan is basically still in high school and this point is emphasized when she befriends a group of teenagers when she buys booze for them. She quickly becomes close friends with their de facto leader, Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz). After a couple of days of hanging out and a marriage proposal by Anthony, Megan decides to crash at Annika’s house for a week to figure things out. Say it with me – SLEEPOVER! With a…28 year old!?…sign-twirler who misses skateboarding and buys liquor for minors? When do the cops show up and where are Annika’s parents?

Speaking of which, this is the point at which Sam Rockwell shows up, playing Annika’s father, Craig. Craig is a divorced divorce-lawyer whose ex-wife, Bethany (Gretchen Mol), ran out on Annika and him when Annika was just eight. We briefly meet Bethany somewhere around the half-way mark of the film, which is also the point at which we realize this movie is actually a coming-of-age story, rather than a relationship story, thus further explaining “laggies.” It’s also at this point that you notice Knightley is delivering an unexpectedly great performance.

For the first half of the film, Knightley is acting like a child and speaking like a child. It gets kind of annoying and you start to wonder how she doesn’t get slapped by people more often, especially by her bitchy friend, Allison (Ellie Kemper), who really didn’t appreciate Buddha’s nipples being tweaked. When Megan goes with Annika to see Bethany, her voice drops at least two octaves and her mannerisms age roughly twenty years. It’s the kind of performance that makes you pay attention and wonder how she could be the same person that crapped the bed in Pride and Prejudice. And, Megan’s not the only one we see advancing. Annika matures past her devil-may-care, rebellious teenage attitude, as do her friends. All of them are dealing with various relationships and all of them deliver performances that make you believe that those relationships might not be 100% fiction.

What’s really good about this movie is that there is at least one relationship or character that we all can relate to. We all know a Megan (or nine) in our lives, and who doesn’t have friends whose parents got divorced – or are divorced themselves? It’s a refreshing movie that doesn’t get too serious with those relationships, but doesn’t make any of them preposterous either. When all is said and done, you’ll walk away from this film satisfied, though I still wonder what a laggie is.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back. If there’s a flaw with this movie, it’s that Sam Rockwell is given nowhere near enough screen time, and honestly, he’s the main reason I went to this movie.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

“John Wick” – WTF?

When I walked out of the theater at the Mall of America, there was this girl surveying people about the movie they just watched. Here is how that conversation went:

Her: Did you just come out of a movie?
Me (thinking: I just walked out of the theater, what do you think?)
Me: Yes.
Her: What movie did you just see?
Me: John Wick.
Her: Would you mind answering some questions about it?
Me: (smiling like an insane person) I’d be happy to.
Her: On a scale from one to five, five being the best, how would you rate this movie?
Me: Zero.
Her: (incredulously) Really?!
Me: Yes, it was that bad.
Her: Why was it that bad?
Me: I generally prefer my movies to have some modicum of a plot.
Her: Would you recommend this movie to your friends?
Me: …
Her: Of course not, since you gave it a zero.
Me: You got it.
Her: Would you be willing to sign up for emails for future free movie tickets?
Me: I don’t live here.
Her: Ok. Thanks and come again.
Me (thinking: I don’t live here.)

I wasn’t really sure if I was going to write a review of John Wick, but on Monday I read that it had an 86% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That is not a typo; 86% of critics liked a movie whose entire plot is “Keanu Reeves slaughters scores of men because one guy stole his car and killed his puppy.” And I’m not talking about back-handed positive reviews; the vast majority of them were glowing reviews with ratings of three to four stars out of four, or B+’s or A-‘s, or eight or higher out of ten. I’ve been reviewing movies for a long enough time that when I think a movie is complete shit, the majority of other critics do too. So, of course I decided to write a review, but since there isn’t much to say about a movie that is nothing more than a series of choreographed fight scenes, I thought I’d read some of those favorable reviews and ridicule those critics. And, boy, they didn’t disappoint me.

(Note: Every one of these reviews can be found via Rotten Tomatoes.)

Richard Corliss, Time Magazine – “Quibbles aside, John Wick is the smartest display of the implacable but somehow ethical Reeves character since the 2008 Street Kings.”

Is it really considered ethical if a person murders more than 80 people when only three of them wronged him? And, over only a stolen car and dead puppy? Maybe Mr. Corliss doesn’t know what the words “smartest” and “ethical” actually mean. Or “quibbles”, for that matter.

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone – “I know, it sounds basic to the point of brainless. Don’t let that discourage you.”

Do let that discourage you. Are you ready to advise your friends to spend $10 or more to be brainless for two hours? Some friend you are.

James Berardinelli, Reel Reviews – “John Wick is a rousing action thriller of the sort rarely encountered in theaters these days.”

This is how the review begins! (1) This movie is not rousing unless by rousing he means roughly one dead body per minute of running time. (2) Does “every couple of weeks” still count as “rarely”? Fury is less than two weeks old and The Equalizer just a month old. Shit, The Equalizer is essentially the same movie, except its lead is slightly older and slightly blacker.

Mr. Berardinelli continues – “There isn't much of a plot, but that's often the case with revenge-based tales. Movies of this sort aren't about narrative depth, they're about taking a hero through an increasingly difficult series of bad guys until he comes face-to-face with the Big Boss.”

In other words, this movie is a plotless video game that you don’t even get to play.

One more from Berardinelli – “My biggest gripe (and it's not a big one) with John Wick's presentation is the prologue flash-forward which adds nothing to the narrative progression while telling us pretty much how things are going to end.”

That’s your biggest gripe? Not the complete lack of story? Not the complete lack of character development? Not that in a movie trying to be a throwback to 80’s action flicks there isn’t a single female breast exposed? Or even a naked butt cheek of either sex? This guy’s bar is set so low the only way you’d know it existed is if you tripped over it.

Forrest Wickman, Slate – “The laconic screenplay stays away from high-minded dialogue. (The two lines that got the biggest laughs at my showing were both “Oh.”) Instead, it relies on visual storytelling, as when the killing of Wick’s dog is crosscut with flashbacks to the death of his wife, to show us Wick sees these events essentially the same way: as evidence of an unjust world.”

Ok, technically he’s right, but this movie doesn’t even feature low-minded dialogue, as evidenced by Mr. Wickman himself, when his only memorable quote from the movie is “Oh.” There is also no visual storytelling since there is no story and nothing ever indicates Wick is motivated to correct injustice. In fact, the opposite is conveyed, in that he is a retired mob killer/enforcer and he sees the killing of his dog as the rekilling of his wife. He’s not dishing out punishment to correct Mr. Wickman’s imaginary injustice; he’s out to kill the guy that interrupted his grieving (and kill pretty much everyone else as well).

Scott, Three Movie Buffs – “On the few occasions when he does stop, the story wobbles a bit. The worst cliche in the film happens when the head of the Russian mafia captures Wick for a short time. Despite the fact that Wick has proven to be possibly the deadliest man on the planet, instead of killing him right away, the mob chieftain decides to talk to him for a while and then, in the best tradition of James Bond villains, walk away when he wants Wick killed, which for some unexplained reason is to be by suffocation instead of a quick bullet to the head. The mobster then follows this stupidity up with another stupid move at the film's climax, just when everything has been settled.”

It’s impossible not to notice how idiotic this scene is. Seriously, how does this shit still appear in movies? The head mobster reminisces earlier in the movie about how he once saw Wick kill three guys with a pencil and how Wick “…isn’t the boogeyman; he’s the guy you send to kill the fucking boogeyman.” Didn’t it occur to him that Wick just might escape handcuffs, a chair, and just two henchmen?

Scott continues – “If you're a fan of action movies, this one is almost impossible not to like.”

Hold on, Scott. You just told us that the film contains one of the dumbest tropes/clichés of action movies, plus that the story “wobbles a bit” when the action breaks (“wobbles” is a polite way of saying sits on its own nutsack and falls off a ledge) – how can this movie be almost impossible not to like?

Louise Keller, Urban Cinefile – “The script is clever in that we slowly get to understand the code by which everyone lives. There are rules and protocols including special waste disposal teams who arrive on call, to efficiently remove bodies and all signs of carnage - for the price of a gold coin.”

At no point do we ever get to understand the code by which everyone lives. There is no code. The closest thing we get to a code is in the hotel where John stays where “nobody is allowed to conduct business on its grounds.” That’s it. There are no rules or protocols. The “special waste disposal team” is not special at all (nor clever or even unique). In fact, they serve no purpose to the movie or “story” at all, considering the two places they clean up are never seen again. Piling on is the fact that the police literally see the freshly killed bodies in John’s home and do nothing more than wish John a good evening. The clean-up crew could have fed the bodies into a mulcher on John’s front lawn while making small talk with the cops and the movie would not change in the slightest.

Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters – “John Wick isn’t any of that: he’s a veteran, a retired super-assassin of such renown that only his name need be mentioned for hard-faced killers and kingpins to reveal just the slightest quiver of concern…It also offers you a chance to feel smart about the genre…

Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian – “What Allen’s bratty-ass punk Iosef didn’t realize was that John Wick used to be the top hit-man for his father Viggo (Michael Nyqvist).”

So, if John Wick is so renowned, how is it that the kingpin’s own adult son and his son’s two lackeys have never heard of John Wick even though Wick has only been retired for five years? Did dad seriously never scare his idiot son (yes, his dad feels this way about his son) with stories of the guy who could kill the boogeyman with a pencil? Did dad seriously never introduce his son to John even though his son would presumably be taking over the business and John was their best killer? Does dad secretly want his son to die? Your guess is as good as mine, but none of them will make you feel smart.

Chris Swain, Examiner – Title of review: “One of the best action films of 2014.”
“Unfortunately the film is very basic and that may be a red flag for some. "John Wick" is an at-surface-level kind of film without a lot of depth. It's a simple revenge story where the action is supposed to outweigh any other shortcomings. The dialogue is extremely lacking at times and the story is a little weak. Another feeble moment is the big fight scene that the film builds up so much, which has a beyond anticlimactic conclusion.”


No – Popeye was a little weak when he didn’t eat his spinach. John Wick’s story is a limp dick that no amount of Viagra or Cialis could ever shore up. More importantly, how can John Wick be one of the best action films of the year while it is very basic without a lot of depth, contains extremely lacking dialogue and a feeble conclusion, and uses action to outweigh other shortcomings? Doesn’t that describe a movie like Gangster Squad, which has a 32% Rotten Tomatoes score? When Chris Swain saw X-Men: Days of Future Past or Guardians of the Galaxy or Edge of Tomorrow (you know, actually great action films) did he just pee all over himself in ecstasy?

Bruce Ingram, Chicago Sun-Times – ““John Wick” doesn’t offer much in the way of a plot. It’s a standard-issue revenge thriller, basically, about a reformed assassin who breaks out his old hit-man kit for personal reasons. But that just means there’s not much story to get in the way when Mr. Wick decides to uncork some retribution.”

Yeah, don’t you hate it when story gets in the way of telling a story? I mean, who needs that shit? I’d also like to point out that Wick isn’t a reformed assassin, he’s retired. A reformed assassin doesn’t go on a killing spree over a puppy and a ’69 Mustang; he goes to therapy to talk it out and probably just buys a new dog. Well, maybe a reformed redneck assassin goes on a killing spree, but not a normal reformed assassin.

Stephanie Merry, Washington Post – “Even his old boss calls him the Bogeyman, because when you need to off the Bogeyman, you call John Wick.”

This bugged me throughout the entire movie. The boss makes a point of telling his son that Wick is NOT the boogeyman, then calls him the boogeyman for the rest of the film. Maybe he was distracted by the subtext featuring goofy comic book font of certain words when he spoke in Russian. I know I was.

Merry continues – “The story, especially toward the end, is a lot less important than those fight sequences. But early on, smart, funny scenes attempt to answer questions other action movies don’t address. For example: How do our invincible heroes navigate car chases so ably? In this case, we see John Wick practicing his skills amid obstacles in a parking lot. And what happens to all those dead bodies? Here, there’s a jaunty cleanup crew. But John Wick has a more interesting story and better fights than most…”

There’s a lot wrong with these few sentences, so let’s just hit them one by one.
(1) The story should never be less important, let alone a lot less important, than fight sequences ever. This is not Street Fighter.
(2) Has anyone ever wondered about the hero’s driving skills when that hero is a highly trained assassin? If the answer to that is yes, you were probably shaken as a baby.
(3) Wick isn’t practicing in a parking lot; he’s practicing on a runway. Where the fuck are you parking when you go to the airport?
(4) Who cares what happens to the bodies? If you don’t give a shit about the story over fight sequences, how can you possibly give a shit about proper housecleaning?
(5) No and no.


Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly - “And the screenplay by Derek Kolstad (2012's The Package) is a marvelously rich and stylish feat of pulpy world-building…They've taken a broken clock and lovingly restored it with Swiss timing and precision.”

Mr. Nashawaty is clearly vying for Hollywood shill of the year with this absurd quote. I know EW openly whores itself out to the studios, but this is a new low even for them.

Scott Mendelson, Forbes – “In an era when some of the best old-school action goes the DTV route (think Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning),…”
“What could have been a generic “reformed hit man takes vengeance after a personal loss” story is enlivened both by the quality of acting and action (more on that later), but by the rich world that has been created.”
John Wick is the real deal. It is a terrific action picture, filled with strong performances by a game cast, along with superb action set-pieces and a genuinely interesting world to boot.”


There are many ways to tell when someone is totally full of shit, but none are as obvious as a movie review appearing in a financial magazine and an author claiming Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is one of the best old-school action movies out there. Nature invented syphilis for guys like him.

Neil Miller, Film School Rejects – “Even better, John Wick also sports an interesting premise and a surprisingly sharp bit of world-building not normally seen in your average shoot ‘em up.”

Okay, that’s several times now these people have cited great world-building. Either my brain quit during this movie or these people watched a completely different movie than I did. The world-building I saw, at best, hinted at an underground world. This movie would have been far more interesting had they actually developed any (ANY!!) of that world’s characters or locations, but the action never stops long enough for any of that to happen. We know there are assassins (Adrianne Palicki, Willem Dafoe), we know there is a Russian mob and crime syndicate, we know that Mayhem from the All-State commercials (Dean Winters) is completely wasted, we know there is a special hotel where Ian McShane drinks cocktails and Lance Reddick tends the desk, and we know they use gold coins that look like those chocolate covered coins you get for Easter every year. We know nothing else; no explanations of any of those things. That’s not world building, that’s throwing shit at a wall and not caring why anything sticks.

Tom Russo, Boston Globe – “We’d be up for seeing John Wick get pulled back in again, but with good cause.”

We are all doomed.

The thing that stood out among all of these reviews (besides the insipidness) was they all loved the choreography and that was enough to forgive everything else in the movie. Except, these same people trashed Michael Bay’s flicks even though nobody does special effects and visuals like Bay and at least Bay makes attempts at telling a story beyond “guy kills everyone in sight.” So, again I ask – WTF?

Rating: Apparently, if all you want is near non-stop killing and action, it’s worth your money. If you care about any other component of film-making, you will want all of your money back and a survey-girl to talk to.

Friday, October 17, 2014

“Fury” – What war really looks like.

A couple of weeks ago, thousands of high school students in Jefferson County, Colorado (part of the Denver metro area) walked out of school in protest of a proposed change in the curriculum of the AP History course. If you haven’t heard about this event, here is a direct quote from a Washington Post article published on October 5th covering the issue:

The school board plans to set up a new committee to review the curriculum with the goal of assuring that courses — in the words of board member Julie Williams — “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage” and “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system.” Williams also wrote that “materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder [or] social strife.”

Hopefully, you had the same reaction after reading that proposition that I did – rage and disbelief followed by wanting to mail those ignorant school board members copies of George Orwell’s 1984 followed by a flaming bag of dog poop. I don’t bring this up to turn this into a political diatribe, but because the movie Fury is a perfect example of what those kids are protesting for.

As I get older and learn more things about history, I think back on my American history classes through elementary, middle, and high school and realize how truly whitewashed they really were. My wife put it perfectly – they are a clinical version or history (my adjective was sanitized), basically just teaching us that things happened on certain dates involving certain people without including much context, if any at all. Fury is a lesson that none of us were ever taught – unless you were lucky enough to have a teacher who actually cared about teaching history – that war is worse than you can possibly imagine, especially World War II.

If you are an American (like me), you came out of high school with the impression that World War II was a glorious struggle and victory by the Allied forces, led by the Americans who stopped the evil Nazis and Japanese, passed out candy bars and flags after liberating cities, and were on our absolute best behavior during the entire war. It’s that last part that those school board members want emphasized even though it’s complete horseshit because they refuse to believe that war affects Americans the same as it affects everyone else. These people will either never watch Fury or they will accuse it of being some kind of anti-American/communist propaganda even though it also depicts those positive aspects they are so desperate to convey.

Fury takes place in April 1945 and focuses on a single American tank crew fighting in Germany. The crew is made up of Staff Sergeant Collier (Brad Pitt) – the crew commander, Technician Swan (Shia LeBeouf) – the main gunner, Corporal Garcia (Michael Pena) – the driver, PFC Travis (Jon Bernthal) – the loader and mechanic, and Private Ellison (Logan Lerman) – the assistant driver/machine gunner/new kid. There is no lofty plot or mission or goal – for instance, like saving Private Ryan – it’s just the story of these five guys and what war does to them and everyone else. Like the better war movies, Fury doesn’t shy away from showing the horrific things that happen during and after the fighting, but ups the ante by showing some of the things that American soldiers most likely did that we don’t like to think about or admit. It shows what happens (mentally) to men whose whole purpose for three solid years was to kill the enemy while riding around ina giant steel cannon on treads. To believe that our soldiers were somehow immune to the psychological toll that purpose would inflict is a fantasy deserving of the nuthouse.

While Brad Pitt is billed as the lead, the movie is just as much about Private Ellison. As Ellison informs his new crewmates after failing to kill a German, he wasn’t trained for tank combat, he was trained to type 60 words a minute. It was just Ellison’s bad luck that Sergeant Collier needed a replacement crewmember and Ellison was available. As the movie goes on, Ellison initially represents that ideal of American innocence and only killing when absolutely required, but eventually becomes the killing machine his country requires him to be. By contrast, the other crewmembers, sans Collier, are exactly the opposite – killing machines likened to animals (at one point, literally). Collier is the balance between the two and even verbalizes the lessons of war, just in case you were still in denial about the realities of war. Sometimes, he is the hard-nosed commander, pushing his men beyond their limits to fulfill their mission, forcing them to kill the enemy even if the enemy has surrendered. Other times, he is the voice of reason, protecting German women from drunken soldiers looking to celebrate their victory (you don’t think millions of soldiers all contracted syphilis consensually, do you?). He is also the guy that his men will follow anywhere and Ellison must learn why as the film marches on.

As a student of history, I highly recommend seeing this movie if you are interested in getting a peak at what really happens at the worst moments of human history. The acting is great and the visuals are stunning (in ways both good and terrifying). If you have a weak stomach or want to remain under the delusion that World War II (and other wars) were romantic and adventurous, you should probably steer clear of this film and keep to such films as Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. And, if you still don’t quite believe me on what this film’s message is, I’ll leave with you two quotes from Collier:

“Ideology is peaceful. History is violent.”

“This war is going to be over soon, but a lot more people gotta die first.”

That’s the way history should be taught.

Rating: Don’t ask for any of your money back from the theater, but do ask for some of your tax dollars back for teaching you nothing.

Friday, October 10, 2014

“Dracula Untold” – Bite me.

If you are wondering why I would bother seeing a movie as obviously wretched as Dracula Untold promised to be, it’s because it’s been two months since I last saw a skidmark of a film (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and they are the most fun to write about. Also, it screened the night after The Judge and I thought it would be fun to watch two polar-opposite films on consecutive nights. I was right. So, let’s get right to it with our old friend, Mr. Q&A, who is not shy about giving out SPOILERS.

Q: Ugh – is the title really Dracula Untold?

A: This is what passes for creativity in Hollywood these days -slapping dumb words that have been market-tested against the lowest common denominator on the end of movies to make them sound edgy or interesting. Rises, returns, untold – they’re all the same – except “untold” is extra stupid because the movie is telling you whatever it is that’s untold.

Q: Right. So, what are they telling us?

A: Following the current trend of neutering historically evil villains, Vlad/Dracula (Luke Evans) is actually a well-meaning prince trying to keep his people safe and only temporarily becomes a vampire to achieve that goal…

Q: Brruhhherrrerrr….

A: Are you alright?

Q: Yeah – just threw up in my mouth a little bit. You were saying?

A: Mehmed, the sultan of Turkey (Dominic Cooper), demands that Vlad give him 1000 boys and young men for his army, including Vlad’s son, as part of their annual tribute. Vlad refuses and kills the sultan’s men, knowing that he just doomed his people, though he only really cares about his own wife (Sarah Gadon) and son. Luckily, he knows there is something powerful living in Broken-Tooth Mountain and goes up for a chat.

Q: Wait – Broken-Tooth Mountain? Are you sure you didn’t make that up?

A: As sure as I am that the vampire living in the mountain is played by Charles Dance (aka Tywin Lannister) and that that vampire is actually the Roman emperor, Caligula.

Q: Wow. That’s worse than when Christopher Lee slummed it as a leprosy-riddle cardinal in Season of the Witch.

A: Tell me about it.

Q: What did you mean by “temporarily becomes a vampire?”

A: Vlad must drink some of Caligula’s blood to gain Caligula’s powers. Caligula explains to Vlad that if Vlad can resist drinking human blood for three days, Vlad will return to normal. Caligula agrees to help because if Vlad succumbs to the thirst, then Caligula is freed from his curse. We don’t really know what that curse is (it’s definitely not just being made a vampire), but we know he wants revenge on the demon that cursed him. This will not matter to the story at all nor will we so much as see Caligula again until just before the credits roll.

Q: So, three days to defeat the entire Turkish army and probably also must avoid being killed by his own people for being a vampire? Tough gig. I’m guessing this doesn’t go so well considering vampires can’t go out during the day (at least those outside of the Seattle, Washington area).

A: Lucky for Vlad, the Turks only fight at night. I couldn’t stop thinking about how ridiculous a contrivance that was, even for this kind of movie. Militaries rarely fought at night throughout most of human history due to that pesky problem of not being able to see in the dark. Of course, this will become a moot point later in the movie when Vlad is able to control the weather.

Q: Hold on – what do you mean he can control the weather?

A: On the third day, he simply causes the sky to cloud over so he can go outside. Never mind that clouds still allow sunlight through; he’s out of time and the Turkish army is upon them.

Q: WTF? What other powers does he have? Night vision? Teleportation? A utility belt? I thought we were talking about Dracula here – a traditional vampire that is just strong and immortal and can maybe turn into a bat. The kind that can be killed by silver, sunlight, garlic, and crosses.

A: Nah. The silver and sunlight thing is true except when it’s inconvenient to the plot. The cross thing only applies after a couple of tries by a priest (he’ll even remark that Vlad is immune to it) and then only when it’s convenient. In fact, this movie should have been called Dracula: An Inconvenient Truth.

Q: Is that all?

A: God no. He actually does have night vision (he sees in infrared), can control creatures of the night, moves around extremely quickly as a swarm of bats (except when his wife is about to die, in which he moves just too slow), heals as quickly as Wolverine, and has super-heightened senses. And remember, he can do all of this stuff tirelessly and without having to sustain himself with blood. He is basically the X-Men, but with dragon armor.

Q: I can see why you were so excited about this movie. There’s one thing I don’t understand – you said the sultan demanded a tribute. Why is the sultan marching his entire army into Vlad’s kingdom if that kingdom is (apparently) already under his control?

A: He’s a big meanie-head? There isn’t a good reason. In fact, it’s dumber than you think. Vlad originally offers himself in place of the 1000 because he claims he is worth the same on the battlefield. The sultan agrees with Vlad’s claim, but would rather have the children anyway because he’s the villain and stuff. It’s the same tired trope we see in lots of movies where the bad guy spends all of his resources to stop a good guy who isn’t even a threat. Even after losing 1000 soldiers in the initial attack, the sultan continues on, despite remarking that Transylvania is his least favorite part of his kingdom and despite that he has plans to conquer other parts of Europe. The only conclusion here is that the sultan is a terrible general and a raging pedophile.

Q: So, I guess since Vlad is invincible, he saves the kingdom and his family and destroys the Turkish army?

A: Actually, no. Most of his people are killed in the battles, including his wife.

Q: No effing way.

A: Yes effing way. Plus, as his wife is dying in his arms, she convinces him to drink her blood because the movie needed to render meaningless everything he did and stood for.

Q: Wait. Stop…I don’t think I can take any more.

A: Sure you can. Renfield shows up a couple of times as some kind of homeless guy trying to tempt Vlad with his blood so he can be Vlad’s servant…

Q: No…more…

A: …and after destroying the Turks, Vlad kills himself, only to be resurrected by Renfield and appear in modern day London flirting with a woman who looks like his old wife.

Q: BRRUHHHERRRERRR!!!!!

A: Tell me about it.

Rating: Leave the poor theater manager out of this – you knew this movie would suck (rimshot) and you handed your money over anyway.

“The Judge” – A peak at Robert Downey Jr.

If you’re a sports fan, chances are good you’ve seen an all-time great playing during his peak, dominating the competition. Michael Jordan during the 90’s, Roger Federer during the 00’s, and Tiger Woods before his wife beat up his car with a golf club after she found out what he really meant when he said he was going on tour. Entertainment is no different, with plenty of stars dominating at different times. Arnold Schwarzenegger during the 80’s, Tom Cruise before he jumped on Oprah’s couch, and Mel Gibson before revealing his tolerance toward certain religious faiths that rhyme with Newish. Now, here we are in 2014, witnessing another dominating run by an actor who decided to be an idiot early in his career rather than torpedo his legacy at the end – one, Robert Downey Jr.

Throughout his career, Downey has been recognized for the talent he is, but his dominant run didn’t start until 2008, when Ironman was released and he took his acting to the next level as Tony Stark/Ironman. Later that year, Tropic Thunder happened and we found out what happens when an American actor hitting his peak plays a white, Australian actor playing a black soldier uttering the line “What do you mean you people?” And, if that wasn’t enough, he scored the triple crown in 2009, delivering us a Sherlock Holmes we never knew we were missing. And just like that, Downey was at the top of the heap, effortlessly delivering more Ironman and more Sherlock and making us all wonder what will happen when Ironman and The Avengers run their course and Sherlock is put back on the bookshelf because he and Benedict Cumberbatch will never be topped. Well, wonder no longer because The Judge has proven that he doesn’t need to portray a superhero to show us how good he can be.

In The Judge, Downey plays Hank Palmer, a big-shot defense attorney who is forced to return to his childhood home in nowhere-ville, Indiana for his mother’s funeral. Hank is immediately established as priggish jerk who cares nothing of innocence or guilt in his clients and cares only for himself and maybe for his daughter. This veneer is almost immediately attacked when his younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong) stealthily films Hank alone in the funeral home holding his mother’s hand. Soon thereafter, we meet his older brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), and his father, Joe – the judge – (Robert Duvall). There is bickering and tension, mostly between Hank and the judge. Hank tries to leave, but the judge is arrested on suspicion of murder and Hank reluctantly returns at the behest of Glen to defend his father. Now, based on the previews, you probably think this movie is a courtroom drama (think A Few Good Men or anything adapted from John Grisham) with some family strife thrown in, but it’s the other way around. In fact, it’s probably the most disappointing thing about the movie because the law and the case play a distant second fiddle to the family dynamics and Hank and the judge’s relationship. That’s not a bad thing, but people aren’t going to be too excited to see a movie featuring a main story that Julia Roberts has already beaten to death on numerous occasions and is probably the reason behind its current 50% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

While the movie is filled with worn out clichés, Downey does what every all-time great does – he puts the film on his back and carries it and everyone in it to a better place. In this film, Downey is ridiculously good and you can see it most clearly when he isn’t saying anything. His body language and reactions to other actors or dialogue during scenes is so well done that it seems as if he isn’t acting at all (which is really the whole point of acting). There is a scene where he is sitting in a hospital with Glen and Dale, Glen says something rude to Dale, and Hank gets a look of disgust on his face that looks so real you’d think D’Onofrio’s line wasn’t even in the script, but an actual jab at Strong himself. That kind of thing happens often and you truly believe that Downey feels what the screenplay says Hank is supposed to feel.

While Downey was doing all the heavy lifting, his supporting cast held their own. Dax Shepard, Vera Farmiga, and Billy Bob Thornton rounded out the cast in smaller roles, but were important in that they provided the catalysts and development needed to further flesh out Hank’s character and growth. Though, I will admit that every time I saw D’Onofrio, all I could think was “tell ‘em what they missed Detective Goran.”

As I said, if you are hoping for a courtroom drama with lawyers screaming about handling or deserving truths, you are going to be disappointed. If you are okay with a family drama that probably hits a lot closer to home for more people than it should, you will appreciate this movie. But, either way, if you are a fan of Downey for more reasons than a snarky attitude and cool facial hair, you won’t see a better performance.

Rating: Ask for a dollar back because, like me, you really did want this to be a little more Law and Order and a little less Steel Magnolias.

Friday, October 3, 2014

“Gone Girl” – A plea for help.

After advanced movie screenings, we are always asked by the organizers of the screening what we thought of the movie. It’s an interesting thought exercise because you’re giving them your initial reaction to the movie based on as much thought as you can muster in the twenty-eight seconds it takes to walk out of the theater. Then, on the drive home, you’ll dwell on what you said, hoping you didn’t sound like a babbling fool. Or maybe that’s just me. When I was asked what I thought of Gone Girl, all I could do was stare blankly, but, luckily, my friend and formed her opinion and was sharing it. At that point, all I could do was hope they didn’t notice I was temporarily dumbstruck and, quite possibly, drooling on myself.

It’s pretty rare that I don’t have a good idea what I think about a movie by the time I get back to my car, but Gone Girl baffled me. My initial reaction was a mix between “that was a pretty good thriller” and “did we really just see Ben Affleck’s and Neal Patrick Harris’ junk?” and the thirty minute drive home did nothing to help resolve my mindset. The movie really was a pretty good, tense movie, but something was nagging the back of my brain through almost the entire film. What I came to realize after two days of racking my brain was this is exactly the type of movie that I started writing these reviews for and is a great example of a movie that needs to be discussed in detail. That also means I’m going to be spoiling a large portion of the film, so here’s my advice – I think this movie is worth a viewing and Rosamund Pike and Affleck are very good in this film. So, you have two options. Option 1 – stop reading, go see the movie, then come back and finish reading so you weigh in unbiased by me. Option 2 – keep reading, go see the movie with my thoughts in your head and then come back tell me your thoughts along with things I missed. Either way, I really want to get other opinions on this movie because I feel like maybe I missed something. Heck, I’d go see the movie again myself just to get my own second opinion.

(In case you nodded off at the end of the last paragraph, this is your last chance to look away from the upcoming SPOILERS.)

As you may already know, Gone Girl is an adaptation of a book by the same name. I have not read the book, but this is one of those rare occasions where the movie should be as good or almost as good as the book because both were written by the same person (Gillian Flynn). If you are like me, then the only thing you knew about the story was what the previews showed – Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) has gone missing and, as the investigation goes on, the evidence hints that Nick killed Amy. The problem is that the film (and the book, according to my friend) never commits to this theory.

The film begins with a narration of Nick talking about unraveling Amy’s brains while he is stroking her hair, then quickly moves on to set up the premise. We are with Nick at his and his sister, Margo’s (Carrie Coon), bar when he gets a call from his neighbor that his cat is outside. We are with Nick the entire time and when he gets home, we both discover that his living room has been trashed and his wife is missing. Because we are with Nick this whole time, we know that he didn’t kill or kidnap and hide his wife, so we never believe, even for a moment, that he might be responsible. Like I said though, we’re not meant to and you can see why I continually advise you not to watch previews or at least not believe what they show you.

The first forty minutes or so are filled with the first few days of the investigation spliced with flashbacks based on Amy’s diary and seems as though the movie is going to conclude with Nick being arrested for killing Amy. Instead, at that forty minute mark (or so), they show us Amy. That’s right – the movie shows us Amy driving away the same day Nick finds her missing. The movie does a sort of reset to show us what she was up to during those first few days and that she staged the whole thing specifically to frame Nick for her murder. The first half of the film is spent trying to convince us that Amy was stuck in a dead-end relationship with a guy who became a deadbeat after losing his job and moving them to Missouri (from New York) to take care of his dying mother. We find out he’s been cheating on her, refused to have kids with her, and that he’s pushed her a couple of times. We feel sympathy for her and we’re expecting the rest of the movie to reveal the culmination of her plans and end with her vindication – something like her standing in the crowd outside a courthouse after his conviction (they make a big deal out of Missouri having the death penalty) and him spotting her just as he’s being put into a police car. Alas, we got something much weirder and much more confusing.

The reason for that nagging sensation in my brain is that Amy’s motives become convoluted to the point that, by the end, the only thing that makes sense is that she’s just crazy. The nagging began when she reveals that much of the stuff from her diary was fiction. She says the first part – the romantic part – was all true, but we’re not told where the fiction starts. The only thing we know for sure is that he really was cheating on her with that girl from the Robin Thicke, “Blurred Lines” video (Emily Ratajkowski) and we know this because we see them have sex in Margo’s house. In addition, Amy never blows the lid off the affair as part of her plan to frame him, even though she knew about the affair and revealing it would have fit very nicely into the frame job. So, if the affair wasn’t worth revealing and the other stuff was fiction, why the elaborate plan when Amy could just leave, especially because their money was all hers?

By this time, Nick has hired a big shot defense attorney named Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry). Don’t laugh, that’s the character’s name and he might be the most pointless character in the movie. After Nick tells him the story and his theory, Tanner’s response is “wow, she really screwed you over.” Nick asks what their plan is and Tanner’s $100,000 advice (that’s his retainer fee) is “our only chance is to find Amy.” Thanks Madea – I’m not sure Nick thought of that already. Tanner tasks two “ex-secret service guys” to find Amy and that’s the last we ever hear of their search. To summarize, Tanner basically laughs at Nick’s misfortune, gives legal advice that a gerbil could give, and fails to find even one clue as to where Amy might be hiding. If you can tell why he needed to be in this movie at all, you’re smarter than I am. The only thing Tanner does produce is the address of two of Amy’s boyfriends from more than a decade earlier and gives them to Nick (why Tanner doesn’t investigate these guys himself is another mystery). This is also where the movie basically does a 180 on the audience.

The first boyfriend tells Nick a story about how Amy framed him for raping her. He explains to Nick that Amy did this to him because he couldn’t change enough to please her. This adds weight to the crazy theory, but also manages to turn the audience against her – kind of. Are we supposed to be rooting for the vindictive, crazy Amy or the cheating, deadbeat Nick? I don’t know either, but it gets more confusing.

The second boyfriend, Desi (Neal Patrick Harris) enters the fray when Amy calls him to pick her up after she is robbed. At first, I thought he might be part of the plot, but he turns into the scapegoat when he tells Amy that he isn’t going to let her leave him again. This might have made sense had they spent any time whatsoever developing his character, but instead, all I could think about was how convenient it was that he happened to have a lake house within driving distance of Amy and Nick’s house even though they hadn’t seen each other in over ten years. While Desi isn’t completely pointless like Tanner, he still felt like a throw-in given how little screen time he has.

The movie wraps up with Amy killing Desi and framing him for her kidnapping and this is where the movie truly breaks down. A more developed Desi – maybe he’s been stalking her this whole time – ends up killing Amy and Nick discovers it and kills Desi. Or, Desi kills Nick, Nick still takes the fall for the kidnapping/murder of Amy, and karma kicks Amy in the vagina as she lives the rest of her life a captive of Desi. Either one of those maintains the original concept and resolves it quite tidily. Instead, Amy drives back to Nick’s house and the entire media captures them reuniting on their front lawn while Amy is covered in blood. After far too much epilogue, the movie ends with Nick trapped by Amy when she claims that she is pregnant by him. All I could do was sit there stunned that this movie could end as nonsensically and sloppily as it did.

For one thing, after Amy returns covered in blood, she spends the rest of the day not washing it off or having someone wash it off of her and nobody says anything about it. She even goes to a hospital to get checked out and they change her clothes, yet they leave the blood and even send her home still covered in blood. Huh? The movie also does a terrible job with the Desi angle and follow-up investigation, choosing to barely pay lip service to it so they can just wrap up the film. What’s maddening is that the first part of the film goes to great lengths to show us the investigation in detail, yet abandons it at the end, when it is just as needed. Plus, not only does the FBI suddenly and inexplicably show up (where were they this whole time?) at the hospital, but Detective Boney (Kim Dickens), the original detective on the kidnapping case, is literally moved to the back of the room and is ignored when she asks questions about the inconsistencies in the whole story. Her partner, Jim, will even verbalize this when, during Amy’s story about being tied up by Desi, Nick asks how Amy got the box cutter if she was tied up the whole time and Jim says, just shut and be happy she’s back. No, no, no. To top it all off, why would Amy go back to Nick after all of that if she wasn’t just crazy?

I realize I was rather long winded there, but those are the things I ended up thinking about when I tried to decide how good this movie actually was. So, now that you’ve read my thoughts and seen the movie yourself (right?), what do you think? What was Amy’s motivation? Was she really just crazy? Was this all about revenge? Was she trying to mold the perfect man? Was that just about the worst ending possible considering how many better, more logical, and satisfying ways in which the movie could have ended? Did we really just see Batman’s penis?

Rating: Hell if I know what this movie is worth – I just spent 2000 words explaining the large flaws in the screenplay after telling you I’d watch the movie again.

Friday, September 26, 2014

“The Equalizer” – MacGyver’s a sissy.

The Equalizer continues my string of going into movies and knowing next to nothing about them. This one ups the ante of my ignorance because, not only did I see exactly zero previews, but it’s based off a television show of the same name that ran from 1985 to 1989. I only know that because my friend told me about it after we watched the movie. I was alive during those years and watched similar shows like The Fall Guy and The A-Team, yet I had never even heard of it, let alone seen an episode. So, if you ever needed proof that I might not have the first clue what I’m talking about, there you go.

(SPOILERS coming, but only the gross kind.)

I’m also not the only one continuing a trend. Denzel Washington has jumped onto the bandwagon of middle-aged dudes starring as super spies/agents/soldiers, following Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan (guys like Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis don’t count because they’ve been doing that role for decades). In The Equalizer, (in my head, the title is always Denzel Washington is The Equalizer) Washington plays Bob McCall, a quiet, OCD widower, working at HomeMart (it’s essentially Home Depot), living alone, and spending nights at a little diner because he can’t sleep. His hobby is encouraging people to better themselves and applicants need not apply. Are you a fat clerk who wants to make security guard? Bob will help you lose weight. Are you a hooker who can sing? Bob will listen to your CD. Did your pimp beat the shit out of you and put you in the ICU? Bob will shoot that pimp in the neck and kill the pimp’s henchmen with a corkscrew. You don’t even need to ask, Bob’s just that kind of guy.

Incidentally, that last one is what sparks the rest of the movie. During the diner scenes, the hooker, Alina (Chloe Grace Moretz), and Bob develop a friendship. Bob decides he can’t allow the pimp to go unpunished for nearly killing Alina, resulting in the previously mentioned scene. What Bob doesn’t realize is that the pimp he kills isn’t just some run of the mill pimp; he’s a Russian mid-level gangster in charge of East-coast operations. Bob has unwittingly kicked off a chain of clichéd action events in which the bad guy will expend a tremendous amount of resources to kill Bob, even after learning that Bob isn’t a threat. This also introduces us to Bob’s counterpart – head henchman Teddy (Marton Csokas) who has no qualms about killing low-level competitors, his own prostitutes, or cops on his payroll, whether they know anything or not. He’s an adequately terrifying (at least to other characters) villain and, even though he begins as a patient and calculating guy and we’re told he is an ex-Russian special forces soldier, he slides into the standard villain tropes such as kidnapping Bob’s friends and trying to lure Bob into a trap. Rookie mistake, Teddy.

I’d like to tell you there’s more plot than that, but there isn’t. It’s nothing more than a two hour and fifteen minute exercise in Bob doing his best impression of MacGyver, but only if MacGyver were a sociopath and finding ever more intricate ways to kill people. What makes the movie interesting isn’t everything I’ve just told you but Bob himself. The movie uses a Sherlock-ian film technique whenever Bob is morphing from softball teammate to assassin by quickly panning and zooming between specific details in the shot, giving the impression that Bob is sizing up and planning every move in the next minute or so and transforming into killer-Bob. Killer-Bob likes to stare at enemies he hangs with razor wire, watch the corkscrew turn through a guy’s tongue as he twists it, sit next to a dying foe while narrating to the foe how the next thirty seconds will kill him, and watch a bad guy slowly suffocate in a car being pumped with exhaust fumes. Why is this interesting? Denzel is so good with his performance that you aren’t sure if he is not enjoying the killings along with Bob. As the bodies piled up, I found myself wondering why Bob actively avoided picking up guns off people he just killed since it sure would make it easier to kill the rest of them rather than setting up semi-elaborate traps using pole-saws and microwaves. If that’s not enough, Bob seems to only be able to sleep after killing people and after visiting a friend from the mysterious agency they elude to, she informs the viewer that Bob didn’t go to them for help with his Russian problem, but, rather, permission to deal with it. It’s a fascinating character trait contradicting nice-guy Bob who is trying to read through the one-hundred-classic-novels-that-everyone-must-read that his wife didn’t finish.

As far as action movies go, The Equalizer is a pretty standard fare and doesn’t do enough with the other characters to make us care about anything. Alina disappears after Bob sees her in the hospital and doesn’t appear again until everything has been dealt with. We’ve already talked about Teddy, Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman make cameos, and the rest of the characters are fodder for either side. This movie is all about Bob, but, luckily, Denzel owns it.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back. As good as Denzel is, the movie is about 25 minutes too long and nobody needs to see that corkscrew in full IMAX detail.