Wednesday, December 17, 2014

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” – Ever had a root canal and a colonoscopy on the same day?

Before I get into The Battle of the Five Armies, I need to apologize for a grievous error on my part. In my review of The Desolation of Smaug, I told you not to ask for any money back even though the movie featured one of the dumbest scenes ever put to film – the dwarves riding barrels down a river while being attacked by orcs. Not only that, I failed to even mention that scene’s existence. I should have ripped that scene to shreds for its idiocy, forced action, bad CGI, and absurdity and I should have told you to ask for half your money for that scene alone. For that, I’m sorry. I’m also sorry that the barrel scene isn’t the worst scene in the entire trilogy. In fact, it’s better than almost everything in The Battle of the Five Armies. And that makes me really sad.

The Battle of the Five Armies was like sitting though a bad high school play. A lot of people might accuse me of being a stuffy critic that hates fantasy, but nothing could be further from the truth. I love fantasy and this movie was a disgrace to the genre, to its fans, and even to the machinery projecting it onto theater screens. With the exception of Martin Freeman and Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), I take back everything good I might have said about the entire trilogy because, as a whole, it’s a bloated, rotting carcass masquerading as worthwhile cinema. The sad thing is that, based on the first two parts, my expectations for the final installment were set firmly at blah or meh. I never would have guessed that this movie would rival The Phantom Menace for shittiest disappointment, even with such mediocre expectations to begin with.

(As I said in my review of An Unexpected Journey, I don’t know who this SPOILER alert is for, but here you go. If you honestly haven’t found time to read a wildly popular, well known, short novel published in 1937 by now, I really can’t help you.)

I had honestly forgotten that The Desolation of Smaug had ended with Smaug getting ready to torch Laketown, so when The Battle of the Five Armies began with Smaug torching Laketown, I was a little disoriented. The disorientation might also have been from spending the first two minutes of the film taking my 3-D glasses on and off; realizing that the film was not, in fact, in 3-D. Good one, theater. Anyway, the best scene of the film happens in the first ten minutes with Smaug slowly crawling through the burning Laketown, taunting Bard (Luke Evans) just before Bard kills him. The visuals are stunning, Smaug is delightfully evil, and Cumberbatch has easily joined my list of actors who will get me to watch a movie just because they are in it. I realized that this should have been the conclusion of the previous film, ending with a shot of Thorin staring obsessively at the treasure in the Lonely Mountain. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Peter Jackson (writer/director/producer) decided to end the second movie where did, but I don’t think he could have picked a worse place.

After Smaug dies, the movie falls off the proverbial cliff. The last we saw of Thorin (Richard Armitage), Bilbo, and most of the dwarves, they had just finished fighting off Smaug and were watching him soar toward Laketown. When we see them again in this film, they are still standing there, watching Smaug burn everything, but with one notable exception – Thorin is staring, trancelike, at the entrance to the mountain. Later on, we’ll get some babble about dragon sickness (i.e. obsessive greed), but the problem is there is no transition time for Thorin basically going insane. It’s like a switch is flipped and the viewer simply isn’t prepared for it. On top of that, the sickness is another invention of the writers that didn’t need to exist. In the book, Thorin is just greedy and selfish (he also never promised the people of Laketown anything – another divergence from the book), which is perfectly fine. The only reason to invent a sickness is to make him seem more sympathetic because, then, it’s not really his fault. While not as overt as other recent films (Dracula Untold, Maleficent), this hits on the current asinine trend of devillainizing villains by blaming something other than the person for that person being a dick. But I digress.

The only non-battle time of the film occurs after Smaug dies, but doesn’t wait very long to pick up again. The dwarves wall up the entrance to the mountain, the people of Laketown take shelter in the ruins of Dale (a town at the foot of the mountain), and armies march toward the mountain. Meanwhile, Saruman (Christopher Lee), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) launch a rescue mission to retrieve Gandalf (Ian McKellan) from the Necromancer. In a wildly stupid fight scene, Saruman and Elrond fight with the ghosts of the nine kings of men (those guys that become the Nazgul in LOTR) while Galadriel helps that brown wizard (who is still covered in bird shit for some reason) whisk Gandalf to safety. I say it’s stupid for a couple of reasons. (1) Saruman will actually say to the ghosts “you should have stayed dead” (aren’t ghosts dead?), (2) Saruman uses exactly no magic during the fight; instead choosing to just swing his wizard’s staff around, (3) the CGI is pretty substandard here (to be fair, it’s substandard in almost the entire movie), and (4) after a few minutes, Galadriel uses her magic to just blow the ghosts – and the necromancer – into the horizon. I’m not much of a strategist, but why didn’t she lead with that? Was she as confused as we were that Saruman forgot he was a wizard and thought he was Donatello from the Ninja Turtles?

If you think that’s where the unintentional comedy stopped, you’re in for a treat because the big battle scene hadn’t even started yet. There’s no more plot at that point, so let me just share some of the other parts of the movie that had the audience laughing (seriously, we laughed a lot) in a movie that included exactly zero jokes.

• The elvenking (Lee Pace) rides a stag with the biggest rack of antlers you’ve ever seen and at one point during the battle, the stag slams into several orcs, lifting them all of the ground by his antlers and appearing to become a galloping clothes rack.
• Dain, Thorin’s cousin, shows up leading an army of dwarves. After getting knocked of his steed (a giant pig; which isn’t that much funnier than the stag) and losing his helmet, he proceeds to head-butt full armored orcs and send them flying. Jar-Jar Binks’ antics during the battle of Naboo were less embarrassing.
• Legolas grabs the legs of a giant bat flying by and proceeds to steer it to where he wants to go.
• Not to be outdone, Legolas later runs up the falling stones of a bridge and uses WWE-style moves to take down the orc he is fighting. Incidentally, the bat and falling stones scenes are the worst bits of CGI I’ve seen since the local weatherman on the news forgot what happens when he wears green.
• At one point, the orcs break into Dale and are fighting the humans who had retreated there. When Thorin finally breaks out of his “sickness” and joins the fight, the humans get a second wind, but the orcs are nowhere to be found. Was it halftime or something?
• Taking a cue from the Ewoks ability to fell stormtroopers by dropping rocks on their helmeted heads, Bilbo is able to fell orcs by throwing small rocks at their heads. It’s as preposterous as the head-butting dwarf.
• Thorin decides to kill the pale orc (Azog) and four giant mountain goats conveniently appear to take him and three other dwarves up a small peak. Seriously, where the hell did the goats come from?
• At the top of the peak, after Thorin and those three dwarves kill what have to be the most inept twenty-five or so orcs ever created, Bilbo shows up to warn them that a whole new army is on its way. As if to punctuate this, one hundred goblins (that number is specifically stated) start pouring over the walls to attack them. Thorin tells two of the dwarves to look for Azog and that he and the fourth dwarf will handle the goblins. This elicited the biggest laugh out of the audience, who I’m assuming had the same thought I did – “no, you aren’t winning in 100 vs. 2.”
• That whole new army of orcs that’s supposed to show up ends up being a few dozen that show up sporadically and attack the dwarves one at a time to make sure the dwarves win.
• Thorin and Azog end up fighting on a floating sheet of ice, and Thorin wins by throwing Azog’s own boulder (which we was swinging around by a chain) into Azog’s arm, thus tipping him into the water. Then, Azog floats just under the surface of the ice, appearing to be dead, when his eyes (not surprisingly) fly open, he stabs Thorin through the foot, and flies (yes – flies) out of the water as if he had jumped from a trampoline.

I guess these are the kinds of things that happen when you stage a 90+ minute battle scene designed at entertaining eight-year olds. In addition to that nonsense, other aspects of the film are just as terrible. The dialogue was as clich├ęd and soapy as you can possibly get. The attempts at humor – as few as there were – all centered around Alfrid (the Wormtongue-y creep from Laketown) being a coward and weasel and ended with a cross-dressing scene (plus, they didn’t even have the decency to kill this annoying character). The music was poorly timed and amateurish, sounding as if Peter Jackson outsourced the music editing to a kindergarten music class. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) serve no purpose whatsoever to the movie, but to sell more toys at Christmas and also challenge Edward, Jacob, and Bella for weirdest love triangle in film (the third being Killi the dwarf).

I think you’ve got the point now, but it is worth repeating that if it weren’t for Freeman and Cumberbatch, this film would have zero redeeming qualities. And you can watch them together in three seasons of Sherlock, which is infinitely better – even when watching for the third or fourth time.

As fantastic as the LOTR trilogy was, The Hobbit trilogy is incongruously bad. I’m sure I’ve missed other examples of putridity, but there were so many that this was the first movie that ever made me wish I had a notepad to write them all down. I’m glad that this disaster is finally over and I sincerely hope that someone remakes The Hobbit. Like, tomorrow. Middle Earth deserves better than to go out like that.

Rating: Ask for all of your money back for all three films. This last installment truly was that bad.

Friday, December 12, 2014

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” – Let it go; it’s a movie.

I was raised catholic, spent the first four years of my education attending catholic school, and attended Sunday school through my junior high years. What that means is, during all that time, I learned next to nothing about the Old Testament of the Bible. Oh sure, they told us about Moses, floating down the river, the burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea, leading the Israelites out of Egypt (and they purposely used the term Israelites instead of Hebrews for political reasons), Passover, and the ten commandments. What they conveniently left out were the details that made the story more than just an anecdote to recite during the first reading at mass. This goes for other stories like Job, Jonah, David and Goliath, Sodom and Gomorrah, and dozens of other stories that weren’t even hinted at. Essentially, we got the Cliff’s Notes versions because the full versions make God out to be something of a vengeful, murderous dick. I completely understand the motivation behind not telling children (whom they are trying to indoctrinate), but if they didn’t want the stories to be known, they probably shouldn’t be pretending to teach the Old Testament in the first place.

(As you might have guessed, I’m not a practicing Catholic anymore, but not for reasons as petty as the church being bad story tellers. I’m not a practicing Catholic because I simply don’t get anything out of practicing the religion and there are far too many hypocrisies for me to ignore. But I digress.)

Before I get into the movie itself, there’s one more thing that needs to be made clear – this movie is a work of fiction. If you are going into this movie looking to find inconsistencies in the story as compared to what’s in the Bible, you should just stay home. Also, stop reading this review. Not only has the story of Moses and the Exodus been rewritten, modified, and edited dozens of times over the centuries (like everything else in the Bible and every other religious tome); the Exodus probably never happened in the first place. Archaeologists have spent more than a century looking for evidence of the event and have found nothing. Considering that the Bible says the Exodus was 600,000 people – not including women and children or their livestock (which puts the true number around two million) – you’d think there’d be something – bones, trash, a dreidel – left behind. Plus, the entire population of Egypt at the time was only 3 million+; the loss of more than half their population would have destroyed the empire overnight. My point is that you shouldn’t get worked up over a work of fiction about a (most probable) work of fiction (and there are already lots of people who are). Besides, if you’re going to be pissed about this movie, story inaccuracies aren’t going to be the thing that boils your blood.

The movie begins much like Gladiator – with a battle scene. Moses (Christian Bale) and his brother (well, Moses was adopted, so adopted brother), Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are generals in the Egyptian army and leading them into a battle with the Hittittes. Ramses is also the son of the Pharoah Seti (John Turturro), making Moses a prince of Egypt. Just before the battle, Seti’s seer gives a prophecy about the battle that one leader will be saved and that the savior will become a leader. Okay – so the prophecy is a little more than blunt foreshadowing, but whatever. They fight, they win, Moses saves Ramses’ life, and the religious people in the audience are already uncomfortable because Moses just killed a whole bunch of people.

Some time passes and Moses goes to the city of Pithum (which, over the course of the movie, somehow migrates closer to Memphis to the point where it’s a suburb) to investigate suspected thievery on the part of the governor. While there, Moses meets an elder named Nun (Ben Kingsley) who tells Moses about his true ancestry – that he’s actually a Hebrew saved by his sister when the Egyptians slaughtered all the first-born Hebrew children because of a prophecy (always a prophecy). The story gets to Ramses (who is now Pharoah) and Ramses confronts Moses about it. For me, this was the weakest part of the story because no evidence is provided, the story came from the corrupt governor, and Moses only admits to it to stop Ramses from cutting off his sister’s arm (whose true identity isn’t even known to Moses and Ramses). In addition, Bithia (a relative of the Pharoah), has a little Hebrew band that belonged to Moses that easily could have been the evidence and brought logic to the scene, but I guess threatening to mutilate people is good enough.

Anyway, Moses is exiled and the movie slogs through for a while. During this time, it sets up later parts of the movie, as well as what Moses ends up sacrificing for God, but it’s a pretty dull part of the film. When it gets interesting is when you see God for the first time – as an angry child. No doubt the religious folks in the audience experienced a collective jaw drop at this image. It’s also a very apt characterization of the Old Testament God and makes a lot of sense. Maybe God’s not just a vengeful dick, but a petulant child. It would explain how quick God is to smite people and whole towns.

The rest of the film is the rest of the Cliff’s Notes with some very good special effects. No, not the 3-D (again, completely useless), but the imagery itself. Obviously, the parting of the Red Sea is awesome, but the ten plagues are something to behold. Between the frogs, the flies, the maggots, the locusts, and the boils, you can feel your own skin crawling as if they are on you as well.

But aside from all that, the Passover is the thing that hits hardest in this film. Again, it’s a story that kind of gets glossed over in church. They really try not to emphasize that God killed thousands of children. In fact, Ramses will specifically confront Moses with that after it happens. He says “How can you worship a God who murders children?” and Moses responds with “No Hebrew child died.” Can you really blame Ramses for wanting to kill the Hebrews after that?

By the time the movie was over, the historian in me was very pleased, even though I know perfectly well the movie was fiction. For me, it was getting a chance to see a true interpretation of the Exodus, sans religious censorship. From a film standpoint, I’d say the movie was a little better than decent. For all of the epic-ness that director Ridley Scott was going for, he forgot to make the movie compelling. It just doesn’t emotionally draw the audience in the way a movie like Gladiator does. It’s almost clinical in its storytelling, an example being the plagues. Sure, they look fantastic, but they come and go a little too quickly, barely showing their effects. Also, Moses is always outside of the plight of the Hebrew slaves, so you never really feel sympathetic towards him. Had the movie spent more time on the characters themselves and the plight of the slaves, it would have been, well, more compelling and drawn the audience further into the story. But it sure beats Sunday school.

Rating: Ask for a couple of dollars back and some of that time you spent in mass.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

“Snowpiercer” – How do I get off this train?

Every year, there is always at least one movie that is wildly overrated. In 2013, it was Gravity. In 2012, it was Flight (with very strong competition from Magic Mike and Zero Dark Thirty). In 2011, it was Bridesmaids (yes; it really was). And so on and so forth. I wasn’t sure what it was going to be this year, but then I watched Snowpiercer. If you haven’t heard of Snowpiercer, that’s because it went straight to video on demand while simultaneously opening in a limited number of theaters in the United States. If you have heard of it, it’s probably for the same reason as me – upon its U.S. release, the main stream critics and the first wave of viewers raved about it and told everyone they simply had to watch it. Knowing it was a science fiction flick – and one that looked very creative – of course I was excited to check it out. Can you guess where I’m going with this?

Snowpiercer is not a good movie. In fact, it’s a very bad movie. It’s not John Wick stupid or The Last Airbender gouge-your-eyes-out atrocious, but it’s not too far off. Snowpiercer has a 95% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes which means that only 5% of their linked-to critics watched the movie with their brains turned on. Over the last few months, I’ve noticed a couple things about those critics. (1) The last two years have featured inexplicably good reviews for a science fiction film that was entertaining, but had screenplays that cause you to make the same face as you would when smelling a person’s toe jam. It’s almost like they’ve decided that every year they’re going to pick a science fiction movie made by a director they like in order to be able to say to regular people “see? We do too like syfy movies” (Yes, they misspell sci-fi when they say it). (2) Almost none of those critics ever critique the screenplays of films. They’ll tell you about acting, dialogue, set pieces, directing, costuming, and if they’re feeling wordy, special effects and sound, but when it comes to the screenplay and story, they usually just give a summary. Considering the entire reason for a making a movie is to tell a story, you’d think they would pay a little attention to things like character motivations or reasons why certain events happen, but they’re too busy trying to find a spot on fill-in-the-blank’s ass to plant their lips to worry about such things as plot holes.

(I’m about to SPOILER a lot of those plot holes, so turn away now if you want to be disappointed while watching this movie rather than before watching it.)

The premise of the movie is tough to swallow, but not impossible – the remainder of humanity lives on a train that endlessly circles a frozen Earth. Your very first question should be “why are they living on a train?” Honestly, you just have to accept it because there is no logical reason, not even when it’s creator and driver, Mr. Wilford (Ed Harris), spends several minutes explaining the train to the protagonist, Curtis (Chris Evans). You’ll even find out that the train’s engine is a perpetual motion machine, begging you to wonder why they didn’t use that technology to power bunkers or biodomes or any kind of habitat that isn’t a vehicle hurtling at dangerous speeds over icy tracks in the Himalayas. That sound you just heard was your brain sighing.

And if that’s not enough, the movie begins with script telling you how the ice age came to be and that “all life became extinct.” Yes, that is an exact quote and no, I don’t think the writers realized how stupid that line is when it is immediately followed by scenes with humans. And insects. And fish. And polar bears? Seriously, the movie ends with a full grown polar bear standing on a mountain. Even in a fantastical movie with this absurd premise, how the hell can a polar bear exist if “all life became extinct?” Plus, Mr. Polar Bear renders the train concept completely pointless because if polar bears have survived the cold, surely humans didn’t need to hop on an elaborate globe-circling train to survive.

Anyway, it’s obvious almost from the start that director/writer Bong Joon-ho wasn’t interesting in telling a story so much as he wanted to create a train allegory depicting social class separation. Taking a cue from such things as Titanic, 1960’s American-South bus etiquette, and insert-country-here’s current social structure, the train is divided into castes with the rich and affluent living in opulence in the front and the poor, starving, and destitute living in squalor in the back. The problem is that Joon-ho doesn’t go any further than that. The people in the back don’t serve a purpose; they’re just there. Their job seems to be to eat nasty protein gelatin, be dirty, and get counted by the guards every so often. At the end, Mr. Wilford gives some bizarre explanation regarding keeping the population of the train static – that revolts are required every so often to thin the heard. He’ll even go so far as to say they can’t wait for natural selection, so then why the hell don’t they just kill all the poor people? Aren’t they just taking up resources?

In addition, he also says the back of the train provides children that are required to help keep the engine running in what is the craziest explanation of the entire movie –a small child is shoved into the engine as a replacement for some part they can’t make anymore because this movie needed to be even less plausible. But, even if that’s true, it doesn’t explain why the poor people have been on the train for the entire seventeen years of its existence since that engine part had only recently failed.

Not only are the proles pointless, but the rest of the train has no real logic to it either. As Curtis and gang are revolting their way towards the engine, we see several of the train cars, but very few of any real importance and all which are mostly empty of people. If the whole thing is supposed to be a self-sustaining environment, where are all of the middle class or working class cars? The closest we ever get is an aquarium car where Curtis’ group stops to eat sushi. No, really – their hostage, Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) invites them to sit down for sushi and they do because the smartest thing to do in a rebellion in such a confined space is to take a snack break. Sure, we also see a schoolhouse car, a meat locker car, and an orange grove car, but we also see a dentist car, a sauna car, a hair salon car, a drug den car, a nightclub car, and even one car that is completely empty. Half this train appears to be filled with non-essential bullshit, which would make sense for its original purpose (akin to a cruise liner), but makes no sense seventeen years into being humanity’s last shelter. Where’s the kitchen car, the sleep cars, the livestock cars (the meat locker had beef and chicken in it, so we know they’re there somewhere)? And, since nobody seems to actually work on this train, why is there a caste system at all? Typically, the poor are taken advantage of, usually in the form of slavery or forced labor, but here they seem to just be ballast for the back of the train. The explanation for the workings of the train always goes back to “the engine always provides” as if it’s actually a creation of Willy Wonka and spits out everlasting gobstoppers and socks. I get that Joon-ho was exaggerating the train for his caste allegory, but it doesn’t work in the post-apocalyptic world he stuck it in.

It’s not just the train that is wildly confusing – the characters don’t make much sense either. Curtis and his best friend, Edgar (Jamie Bell), want to revolt because they don’t like the food, at one point reminiscing about not being able to remember what steak tastes like. Shortly into the revolt, the gang picks up two people from a car that houses prisoners in morgue-like wall-drawers (again, why does this car even exist?!) – Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), the guy who designed all of the door security features, and Yona (Go Ah-sung), Namgoong’s daughter who may or may not be clairvoyant but is definitely a drug addict. While Namgoong at least serves a purpose, Yona has no reason to be in this movie at all. Every now and then she will warn them about opening the next door, but since their goal is to get to the engine, they’re going to open the doors anyway. Of the remaining characters, Mason is the only one who isn’t there solely as walking meat puppets and even she seems fairly pointless. She appears to be Wilford’s mouthpiece and enforcer, but her bodyguard, Grey, is essentially the same character. For much of the revolt, Mason is a hostage, but her main function is to narrate much of the movie because, like the opening script of the film, Joon-ho was too lazy to use film techniques to tell the story.

Finally, the sequence of events is what really provides the locomotive-sized plot holes. For one thing, it’s eventually revealed that the gelatin was introduced several years after the apocalypse and is made by grinding up large insects. Remember – all life became extinct so where did the insects come from and why did they wait so long to start making it? As the revolt moves forward, there is a battle in one car between the rebels and a group of security enforcers dressed in body armor and wielding axes. This scene is eventually revealed as the turning point in the rebellion, as Wilford eventually explains that the revolt was allowed to happen but supposed to have ended there. Wilford also says that he always intended on Curtis taking over for him, but if that’s true, then the battle scene makes no sense because Curtis was supposed to die there with the rest of the rebels. Plus, Grey never stops trying to kill Curtis. If Curtis is so important, shouldn’t Grey know not to kill him? To that end, why not just take Curtis to Wilford in the first place?

Perhaps, the strangest (and only decent) scene in the entire film happens in the school car. A bunch of elementary kids are watching a history lesson; an homage to George Orwell’s 1984. They are learning the goodness of Wilford and the train and if fits the theme of caste warfare nicely. The problem is that indoctrination of that sort doesn’t serve a purpose in this particular world. All they have to do is look through their windows at the outside world to know that the train is good. It’s also the only scene that even attempts to develop the caste system as everybody else on the train (except the rebels) is busy doing drugs or partying.

Essentially, the entire movie boils down to a single question – why is anything we are seeing happening on this train? There is no logic to anything we are seeing and the revelations presented at the end only enforce the idea there is no logic. But maybe the biggest logic problem with the entire film was asked by a friend of mine – why is the train even moving at all? Like every other question, the answer is syfy.

Rating: Can you ask a Redbox machine for your money back?

Friday, December 5, 2014

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” – Stop the madness.

I realize it’s been two weeks since Mockingjay opened, but the extra time allowed me to read some other reviews because there’s not a lot I enjoy more than picking on main stream movie critics. This isn’t a case where a shitty movie inexplicable enjoyed glowing reviews (John Wick) or where the hands-down, best movie of the year (Interstellar) inexplicably received worse review than said shitty movie. This is a case where I was simply curious to read other opinions because Mockingjay the book is a little divisive among readers. Charlie Jane Anders at Io9 wrote a great piece explaining why Mockingjay is a better book than Catching Fire and while I liked both books equally, she provides a great insight into why people prefer one or the other. Conversely, many of the movie reviews I read chose not to bother with this type of examination (or any type of examination of anything, for that matter). Instead, they generally did one of two things – either they heaped praises on the film for its action and acting or they crapped on the film for being Part 1. Both of those angles are equally funny to me because the former read like a canned response written by the studio (Lionsgate) and the latter read like a bunch of spoiled brats whining just for the sake of whining.

It amuses me (maybe a little too much) that the people who love complaining about Hollywood’s mythical lack of imagination are the same people who think it’s original to tell us many times over how obvious a money grab it is to split the concluding book of a series into two movies. Wait, you mean it’s surprising that a business is doing whatever it can to make as much money as possible? Wow – I need to take a knee so that revelation can sink in. What’s funnier is that they are acting as if their opinion is somehow going to convince these studios to leave hundreds of millions of dollars on the table by not splitting future movies the same way. I don’t like it either, but it’s really only a bad idea if the movies are executed poorly (Twilight and Harry Potter), not to mention it’s been going on for decades. You might think the original Star Wars trilogy was three separate movies, but The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were the same movie split into two parts. Think about it – Star Wars stands alone and has a very definitive ending, the destruction of the Death Star. Empire ends in a cliff hanger and big revelation and Jedi ties those things up. And you can be sure I’m right because had Star Wars not been so popular, 20th Century Fox wouldn’t have greenlit both sequels. The same thing was repeated with The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean (to name just two).

My point is that these angry critics seem to be most upset at the Part 1 in the title rather than the movie itself and they really need to get over it. Had these movies not been based on three books, Mockingjay would serve as an adequate title. For next year’s finale, Mockingjay doesn’t fit so cleanly, but calling it anything else would end with a legion of tweens breaking the Internet. The only reason The Hobbit trilogy isn’t using Part in the title is because Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema are trying to hide the fact that they split a 300-page children’s book into three absurdly long (and not very good) movies.

As I hinted at earlier, Mockingjay Part 1 is easily the best of the unnecessary, part-one-of-final-book movies (though that’s not saying much). Harry Potter spent the majority of his in a tent and at a wedding and Bella and Edward spend theirs on their honeymoon. Both of those movies easily could have been whittled down to the first ten minutes of the final film, but again, $$$$$$$$. I’d be lying if I said Mockingjay couldn’t do the same thing, but the overarching story benefits more from Mockingjay Part 1 than Twilight and Harry Potter do from theirs.

Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games author) had a much bigger goal with her books than “defeat Voldemort” or whatever the hell was at stake in Twilight. She wanted to write about class warfare and a totalitarian government and how the United States is slowly going down that path (that these books ended up in the Young Adult category has always fascinated me considering a great deal of time is spent murdering children). While you can see those ideas in the first two movies (and books), they are relegated to the background as everybody’s attention is on Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and the games themselves. Part 1 remedies that by focusing all of its attention there. Yes, Collins easily could have condensed it down since we did get enough in the first two films to understand that the districts would rebel, but she really wanted to make a statement. One of the criticisms by some critics is that Mockingjay gets away from that formula, but those critics are willfully pretending Part 2 hasn’t already been written and that, as a whole, it follows the formula exactly. The only difference is that the arena is the Capitol and it’s not just kids playing this time.

On the other side, the critics praising the film are going a little overboard. There is far less action this time around and the film gets a little redundant. Part 1 is the calm before the war and is all about rallying the districts together behind Katniss. Many scenes feature a film crew following Katniss through destroyed districts for propaganda purposes interspliced with political wrangling by the leaders of the rebellion and the chess match between the Capitol and rebellion on the air waves. In addition, some of the characters are notably flatter, especially in Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman’s Plutarch seemed like a completely different character than the one in Catching Fire and the only time Moore ever showed emotion was through fist pumps (I’m not kidding), which looked as ridiculous as it sounds. While it might have been the directing, it seemed like the two of them didn’t care that their characters had all the charisma of Eeyore on Prozac. Luckily, Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, and Josh Hutcherson pick up the pace, reminding us who the truly interesting characters still are. I particularly enjoyed Hutcherson’s Peeta, who is forced to give a series of interviews and statements to the districts and looks worse for wear with every appearance. If anyone in this film is underappreciated, it’s Hutcherson.

If you’ve made it through all of my rambling, the answer to your questions is yes, I enjoyed the film and no, not as much as the previous two. Like I said, it’s completely unnecessary to split the book into two movies, but at least they made a decent movie out of it. Before I go, there’s more thing that some of the media has been harping on and acted surprised by – that Mockingjay has not performed quite as well at the box office as its predecessors, even though it’s still crushing it. Given that many people will decide to just wait until next year and watch it right before the finale opens, it’s not at all surprising. One of these days these critics will actually start deconstructing movies instead of rehashing them and complaining about non-issues and this madness will finally end.

Rating: Ask for three dollars back because you know you’ll be seeing Part 2 at least twice.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

“Horrible Bosses 2” – There’s a first time for everything.

After watching the terrible Dumb and Dumber To, I tried to think of any comedy sequel that was good or even worth watching, but came up blank. Considering the premise of Horrible Bosses, it was difficult to come up with a scenario in which a sequel would be anything but redundant and humorless. As you can see, my expectations were not very high. Compounding on this, my drive to the theater that normally takes 30 minutes ended up taking an hour and twenty minutes and I spent at least half of it fantasizing about turning I-25 into demolition derby. By the time I got to the theater, I was frustrated and angry and in no mood for comedy. Imagine my surprise when I found myself laughing twenty minutes into Horrible Bosses 2.

Before watching this film, I was guessing that our heroes from the first film would be our horrible bosses in the sequel and I wasn’t wrong. However, they were horrible in a different way; not horrible in an evil way like their former bosses, but horrible in that they just weren’t good at it.

The movie begins with the trio of Nick (Jason Bateman), Dale (Charlie Day), and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) appearing on a morning talking show to promote their new product – the shower buddy – which is their new business’ only product. The scene quickly devolves into a faux masturbation scene and I thought we were going to be in for a very long movie since whipping out that kind of comedy (ahem) is usually something you don’t do in the very first scene. Luckily, that ended up being the low point of the movie.

The next scene introduces us to Rex Hanson (Chris Pine) and his father, Burt (Christoph Waltz), owners of a company that wants to distribute the shower buddy. Burt orders 100,000 units and the guys are ecstatic. They acquire a loan, hire a staff, and build the units, even finishing the order three days early. But when they go to meet Burt, Burt informs them that he is cancelling the order, explaining to them that when they default on their loan, he will buy the shower buddies at a fraction of the cost, including the patent, and sell them at a bigger profit. Thus, we now have the true horrible boss established and the only redundancy occurring in the form of the guys coming up with a plan to defeat him.

If you‘ve seen any of the previews, you know that plan is to kidnap Rex and hold him for ransom. Now you know why. The nice thing about this plot is allowed them to continue the theme of the bumbling fools trying to perpetrate a crime without feeling like a rehash. Even the scenes with the other returning characters (Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston) felt fresh and not forced. Their scenes even serve to move the plot forward instead of just being inserted for a cheap, nostalgic laugh. Of course, it helps that all three of those actors are very good at their jobs, stealing their scenes from the main characters. Not to be left out, Pine and Waltz also perform their parts well, though Pine was much more enjoyable (Waltz is coming dangerously close to becoming a caricature of his Inglorious Basterds role).

By the time the movie was over, I had completely released all of the anger and frustration I walked in with and, quite possibly, seen the first decent comedy sequel in years (if not ever). Maybe it’s true what they say – laughter is the best medicine. Of course, there’s a good chance demolition derby would have accomplished that release as well.

Rating: If you can handle some pretty crass humor, don’t ask for any money back. If you can’t, then a couple will dollars back will do.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

“Dumb and Dumber To” – Stupid is as stupid does.

The first thing I thought when I found out this movie was happening was “Who asked for this?” I understand that it’s pretty rare when people do ask for a movie (Serenity comes to mind), but were there really people out there sending messages to Universal Pictures insisting the studio tell us what happened to Lloyd and Harry after they gave directions to the Swedish Bikini Team? And if so, were those messages pranks or secretly hiding viruses or anthrax? Because, I don’t want to meet the people who were serious about a sequel (or those other message senders, for that matter). Besides – it’s been twenty years since the last movie; any fervor for a sequel would have died years ago anyway.

I’m sure the question you want answered is “how bad is this movie really?” The answer to that question is “not nearly as bad as you thought it would be.” Make no mistake; it’s a bad movie, but it has a couple of sporadic moments that keeps it from being completely putrid.

(Dumb SPOILERS ahead.)

Just as in real life for us, the film picks up twenty years later. Lloyd (Jim Carrey) is in a mental hospital, having never gotten over Mary (Sampsonite) Swanson and Harry (Jeff Daniels) visits him once week to change Lloyd’s diaper. Lloyd hasn’t spoken in twenty years and Harry informs him that he can no longer visit due to some personal business. At this, Lloyd finally mumbles something and then bursts into mock-laughter, revealing that his condition was just a twenty year prank. You see what the Farrelly brothers (writers and directors) did there? Are you already cringing? If you aren’t, the scene ends with Harry and two Latino gardeners trying to pull the catheter out of Lloyd’s penis; only succeeding in dragging him across the lawn. Yes – this is going to be a long movie.

Once back at Harry’s apartment (which is shared with a guy cooking crystal meth – egads!), Harry reveals that he has kidney failure and needs a transplant. Lloyd refuses to donate one of his, so they go to Harry’s parents’ house to ask them and also let the audience know that there are going to be a lot of unfunny race jokes. You see, Harry was actually adopted by a Korean couple, but never made the connection. Why aren’t you laughing? This isn’t the end of the race jokes; there will be another gag about Chinese Canadians and one involving a black Englishwoman. Hi-frickin-larious.

Anyway, the movie goes nostalgic on us (another running theme) and we end up meeting the legendary Fraida Felcher (Kathleen Turner) after Harry reads an old letter from her insinuating he’s the father of her daughter, Penny (Rachel Melvin). Fraida reveals that Penny refused to write her back, so to kill two birds with one stone (or lots of birds with one cat – another nostalgic gag involving blind Billy from 4C), Harry and Lloyd agree to track down Penny for Fraida and also ask Penny to donate a kidney to Harry. If this doesn’t sound amazing familiar, here’s Peter Farrelly said in January of 2013: “I love the script. It’s exactly like the first one.” Trust me; he’s not kidding.

As I’ve pointed out in the past and which has been demonstrated time and time again, comedy sequels never work because they always end up rehashing the jokes and plotlines (and yes, I’m shuddering at the upcoming Horrible Bosses 2 and Hot Tub Time Machine 2). What was funny, original, and clever in the first film is redundant, tired, and redundant in the sequel. Throughout Dumb and Dumber To, you get rehashes of Lloyd’s daydream date with Lloyd’s romantic interest (complete with ninjas and a semi-truck), a rich person trying to steal money (Laurie Holden), our two heroes riding with a guy who wants to kill them (Rob Riggle), a prank on said man that nearly kills said man, dead birds and a blind kid, Binaca, costumes for a big gathering, and a mysterious package that must be delivered to Lloyd’s romantic interest. Ol’ Petey really wasn’t kidding.

Maybe I could have forgiven all that if the movie had actually been funny. There were a couple of times when I giggled, though none of them had to do with our returning characters. Riggle and Melvin provided a couple of good moments leading to those giggles, but the rest of the film was a slog of intense boredom. Besides the rehashing of old jokes, the film doubles down on the dumb exhibited by Lloyd and Harry and not in a good way. In the first film, their dumbness seemed accidental and innocent and made Harry and Lloyd endearing. This time around, it felt forced and intended, making Harry and Lloyd annoying. The flattest jokes come in the form of misused words and phrases, almost as if the Farrellys had purchased Bob and Tom’s “Joe Johnson’s Vocabulary Builder-Upper” and written every word into the script (Google it if you want an actual laugh). I don’t remember them ever butchering the English language in the first film, so it made no sense here and there was certainly nothing funny about it.

If the recycled story and jokes weren’t enough, the lousiness of the movie is punctuated by none other than Carrey and Daniels themselves. I wouldn’t say they turned in bad performances – though Daniels delivering his lines as if he was wearing a retainer was both bad and uncalled for – there just wasn’t any chemistry between them. After twenty years, Carrey still hasn’t figured out that he isn’t the only person in a movie and Daniels appeared not to care at all that he was actually in a movie. If there’s anything to be learned from this failure it’s that even twenty years isn’t enough time to convince one’s self that comedy sequels are a stupid idea.

Rating: I’d tell you to ask for all of your money back, but you aren’t dumb enough to hand it over for this film in the first place. Right? RIIIIIGHT?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

“Interstellar” – It’s all relative.

Two years ago, one of the best movies I’d ever seen – Cloud Atlas – went largely ignored by the American public. It was an amazing movie that was meticulously crafted and beautiful to behold, but poorly marketed and horribly misunderstood by many critics. Then, last year, Gravity came out and every critic thought they’d seen the best science fiction movie in the history of ever, despite that Gravity had almost no plot, contradicted its own physics as well as factual reality, featured a grand total of two characters – neither of which was well-developed, and had nothing at stake beyond the main character’s own life (seriously – how did not a single critic note that if she had died, it wouldn’t have mattered to anyone or anything because she had no family and she wasn’t trying to save or stop anything from happening?!). Sure, it had cool special effects, but Michael Bay’s been doing that for years and nobody has ever accused his movies of being Best Picture material. Now, we have Interstellar, the latest from Christopher Nolan, as our annual fall sci-fi flick and again, an oddball response from the main-stream critics (by which I mean those who are featured on Rotten Tomatoes) and a “fresh” rating of only 73%.

I’m not going to trash the critics like I did in my John Wick review, but sometimes I think they have a form of brain damage that occurs temporarily and randomly and causes them to hate something in a movie that they absolutely loved in another movie. In Gravity, the critics loved the realism and science – even though both of those things were wildly inaccurate – and thought the story was incredibly riveting, even though it was incredibly generic and predictable. In Interstellar, they deride the science and realism – even though both are driven by pure theory, thus open to all kinds of imagination – and thought the story was tedious and boring at times, even though it was never either of those things. It doesn’t make any sense –unless they have brain damage.

But enough of that – let me tell you why this movie is far and away the best movie of the year.

Interstellar is the kind of hard-core science fiction that reminds you of guys like Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Joe Haldeman, and Larry Niven – guys that wrote science fiction that was both incredibly creative and scientifically fascinating. All of them used prevailing theories or topics of the time to build their universes and write about what-if scenarios and their possibilities. What if humanity developed regular space travel? What if humans fought intergalactic wars? What if wormholes were real? Those guys asked those questions with more depth than something like Star Wars – they actually cared about the consequences of things like relativity with regards to faster-than-light travel or acceleration and deceleration to and from high velocities. Interstellar follows in their footsteps by including things like wormholes and black holes and then imagining the effects of those things. As a science fiction fan, I was geeking out worse than a man dressed up like a Reaver at comic-con finding himself locked in a room with Summer Glau.

Interstellar takes place in a future an indeterminate number of years from now. Blights have decimated global crops, starvation has killed millions and the situation has gotten to the point where corn is the only crop left that will grow. Oh, and massive dust storms regularly ravage the land and everything is constantly covered by a layer of dirt. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, an engineer/pilot-turned farmer, ekeing out a living with his son Tom, daughter Murph, and father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), on their farm. One day, with some help from Murph, Cooper stumbles upon a secret NASA installation and Cooper is recruited by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway) to captain a space mission to find a new planet to colonize. Yes, it’s an amazing coincidence that Cooper just happened to have been previously trained to fly their specific space plane and just happened to live within driving distance of the secret facility without them knowing it, but you’ll just have to live with it.

Anyway, Brand explains to Cooper that a wormhole appeared near Saturn and that they have already sent twelve explorers through to find suitable planets for humans. Since communications through the wormhole are spotty at best, Cooper’s mission is to go to the best candidates to retrieve the explorers and their data and return to Earth. In parallel, Brand is working on finishing a formula that will allow them to manipulate gravity to the point where they can launch an entire station off the Earth and through the wormhole to start the colony. All of that is Plan A. As a Plan B, Cooper’s ship is being loaded with 9,000 fertilized human eggs to be used to start a new colony in case they are unable to return or must explore further for a suitable planet.

Ok – I know that’s a whole of detail there, but I wanted to make sure you understand that this movie’s plot is far more detailed and layered (I’ll get to the other layers in a moment) than the incredibly shallow plot of Gravity. Plus, there’s more at stake than just the entire human race. Due to relativity, Cooper and his crew will age slower (when they travel) than the people of Earth, so they can’t just succeed – they also have to finish and get back before all of their loved ones age and die. How freaking awesome a concept is that (I told you I was geeking out hard)?!

Time dilation is also one of the consequences I talked about earlier and one of those hard core science concepts that is hard to grasp, but included in most science fiction dealing with travelling through space. Basically, the concept is that the faster a person moves, the slower time passes for that person relative to the people who are not moving with them. This is showcased in the movie during a sequence in which one of the planets they visit is near the event horizon of a black hole. Because the planet is moving incredibly fast around the black hole, seven years will pass on Earth for every hour that passes on that planet. In other words, if Cooper and crew spend three hours on that planet, his kids will age twenty-one years during that same. Considering Cooper’s driving force is to get back to his kids, he probably doesn’t want to find out if Starbucks has already found that planet.

Because I think this movie is awesome, I won’t reveal anything else about the planets they visit – which are visually spectacular – or anything else from a plot perspective in the movie, but I do want to talk about the other main topic in this movie – human emotions and motivations. One reviewer claimed that you won’t care about the characters’ fates because they are poorly developed, but nothing could be further from the truth. In addition to trying to save the human race, Nolan looks into the human element of such a grave task. We get to run the gamut of greed, stubbornness, despair, love, fear, betrayal, courage, anger, and deceit among the main characters. Hell, even the intelligent robots display their humanity, adding humor and sacrifice to the list. And, yes, I did say robots.

As if the story and visuals weren’t enough, the acting is great and the music and sound are off the charts. In order to get the audience emotionally invested, the actors have to convince us to connect with them and boy, do they ever. There were a couple of times during the film when I felt myself tearing up with the actors, a couple of times I wanted to shout warnings to them, and other times when I was just as angry as they were. And, if the actors don’t suck you all the way in, the music finishes the job. If you’ve never quite understood the meaning of palpable, you will after this movie. Not only does the Imax make you feel the music and sound, but the tone of the different pieces fit their scenes perfectly, even when there is silence. The music alone is enough to make you feel some of the emotions wrought during the film; so good it’s almost its own character.

I know I’ve gone for a while and gushed for a lot of it, but it’s only because I haven’t seen a movie this close to perfect since Cloud Atlas. My biggest hope is that Interstellar has a better marketing campaign than Cloud Atlas and that it crushes the box office. Actually, my biggest hope is that this movie wins Best Picture because there hasn’t been a movie even in the same ballpark as Interstellar this year and it would restore some faith that the Academy isn’t completely worthless even if most main-stream critics are.

Rating: Worth more than the next best five movies combined. I’m pretty sure I didn’t blink for the entire 169 minute running time.