Wednesday, January 28, 2015

“Black Sea” – Dive! Dive!

As submarine movies go, you could do a lot worse than Black Sea. Phantom (2013) immediately comes to mind as one of the few submarine movies that offers almost no tension and if there’s one thing people see submarine movies for, it’s the tension. Conversely, Black Sea will clench you up so tight you won’t need toilet paper for a week. That’s not to say Black Sea is a particularly good movie, it’s just to say it delivers what people want from it. This is a good time to remind you that the story and characters are the most important parts of a movie for me. Yeah, I enjoy the feeling of the tension as much as the next person, but that doesn’t stop from me noticing plot holes the size of ocean trenches.

(This is also a really good time to warn you about major SPOILERS. Remember, there is no way to discuss the story or characters without actually talking about the movie.)

In Black Sea, Jude Law plays Captain Robinson, a submarine pilot for a deep sea salvage company. The movie opens with Robinson getting laid off from his job (actually, it begins with a bunch of completely unnecessary war footage from World War II because who doesn’t love a montage), then, meeting a couple of co-laid-off friends at a pub. We learn that Robinson is divorced and has a kid he never sees and that the job is the reason she left him. In other words, he’s the textbook clich├ęd hero from every movie ever made. Anyway, one of the friends tells him that before he was fired, they discovered a sunken German U-Boat from World War II in the Black Sea that they believed was the same boat thought to have sunk with millions of dollars of gold on board. They meet with some mysterious guy (Lewis) who agrees to finance an expedition to retrieve the gold and off they go.

At first glance, the setup for this expedition sounds completely rational. They say it has to be hush-hush because the Russians don’t know about the sub and the Georgians know about it, but don’t know where it is. So, if they want to keep the gold, they can’t be discovered by the Georgians or Russians, thus the need for a submarine – and here is where the story starts to break down. Robinson says they need half the crew to be Russians because the submarine they will use is Russian. Except, why not just find British guys who speak Russian? Even better, why not just find one guy who speaks Russian to interpret the writing in the sub and translate for an all-British crew? They spend several days refitting the sub before they go underwater (and it’s an old World War II Soviet sub because of course they’d keep those just hanging around seventy years later), so they’d definitely have to time to translate and put up sticky notes. And they’d have to have a translator anyway (which they do, named Blackie - seriously) to translate between the Russians and the Brits.

Even if we can accept the completely unnecessary Russian crew members, most of these guys, including the Brits, don’t seem to serve a purpose. Robinson says they have to have at least twelve for a full team – nine to sail the ship and three divers to go into the sunken sub. They specifically pick out a sonar guy and a navigation guy and the rest seem like filler composed of Robinson or Blackie’s buddies. When the friend with the plan mysteriously commits suicide (he was on anti-depressants and supposedly killed himself so family would get the insurance money, even though suicide nullifies insurance policies), Robinson replaces him with some random kid (Tobin) who came to tell him the news and has never been on a submarine let alone crewed one. Riiiiiight. Robinson also picks a guy named Fraser to be their lead diver even though Blackie says the guy is a psychopath. Robinson agrees and picks him anyway because every submarine (and heist) needs a guy who is the wildcard. Last but not least is Daniels (Scoot McNairy), who is there as Lewis’ eyes and ears.

Now that we have met our cardboard cutouts, er, crew, the sub finally gets underway and many days pass by without ever telling us how many, except that to us, it’s the very next scene. So, it’s a little jarring when Fraser is bitching about it not being fair that everyone gets an equal share and the other guys remark that he has been bitching for days. As they finally reach their destination, the writer of the film (Dennis Kelly) plays the wildcard and, wow is it stupid.

Tobin has been assigned to the engine room and when he makes a mistake, the Russian guys start yelling at him. This whole setup really bothered me because Blackie tells the kid the Russian words for less and more (which sound very similar, especially in a loud engine room), rather than telling the Russian mechanic the words less and more (which don’t sound similar). Whatever, logic.

Anyway, Fraser decides to defend the kid by…wait for it…stabbing Blackie in the chest. No fighting, no struggling, just some arguing and, blam!...stab. I guess Fraser really is a psycho. When Blackie falls, he knocks some fuel onto the sparking engine, the engine explodes, and the sub sinks to the bottom of the sea. When Robinson wakes up (he fell into a poll and knocked himself unconscious), he learns that the Russians and Brits have retreated to opposite ends of the sub and are threatening to kill each other, though mostly the Russians just want to kill Fraser. Since the crew is down to ten and their escape plan is to retrieve the driveshaft from the sunken sub to fix their engine, Robinson convinces them all that they still need Fraser. Luckily, the movie tests this theory for us and we don’t have to sit their saying “really?” for the rest of the film.

Remember, Fraser is some sort of superhero-level diver, so the next scene almost certainly will show his true worth. Fraser takes Tobin and another Brit out to find the sub and walks around or awhile. Since there’s a chance the sank on the other side of a ravine from the sub, the film tries to trick us into thinking the worst has happened when Fraser reports back that they found the hill they hoped not to find. Cue ominous music and pouty faces and…wait a minute…Fraser is squinting at the dirt. He’s squinting harder, he’s moving closer, he’s starts wiping at the dirt and….Swastika! German sub is found by what can only be assumed as Fraser’s X-Ray vision. He really is a superhero.

But the party doesn’t last long. I’ll refrain from more details, but know that Fraser is directly responsible for more deaths and every shitty situation the crew finds themselves in and all because he’s really good at walking on sea beds and pointing flashlights underwater.

At this point, you might have noticed two things. (1) I haven’t even mentioned the gold yet and the movie is more than half over and (2) Daniels. When catastrophe strikes, Daniels comes clean that Lewis was an actor hired by the salvaging company to trick Robinson into retrieving the gold, that the company had made a deal with the Georgians, and that they were never going to give the crew any money, opting to have them arrested under maritime law when they returned with the gold. Seriously? Why make up such a convoluted story and hire actors when they could have just offered Robinson and each crew member, say, 100,000 dollars/pounds/rubles to do the job (when they finally retrieve the gold, Robinson estimates its worth at $180 million)? Especially since the Georgians were in on it. Especially since the Russians didn’t even know anything (despite Robinson’s continued warnings about being under the Russian Black Sea Fleet). Especially since they paid for the whole trip anyway. Hello? Paging Dennis Kelly. Anyone out there?

This movie would have been far more plausible (don’t ever forget that suspending disbelief is the most important thing an audience member must do) if they had just used that plot, but made the Russian fleet aware of their intentions. They could have dispensed with the unnecessary Russian crew members, made Fraser sane and actually used his diving skills for something more impressive than underwater tour guide, and simply replaced the catalysts for the catastrophes with something non-stupid. They even could have made Daniels more surreptitious or simply just used him as the catalyst for the catastrophes instead of Fraser. But, that would have required actual reasoning and work in the writing and who needs that.

Like I said earlier, this movie is good for the one thing you want from it – tension. Not many things inspire the kind of tension you get with a bunch of humans riding in an ancient, rusty, steel tube travelling two hundred feet underwater, looking for gold, and praying they aren’t crushed like a beer can by the immense pressure. This movie uses that feeling to manipulate you into caring whether the crew lives or dies (well, some of them maybe) and gives you a thrilling ride while doing it. Of course, you can get the same thing from movies like The Hunt for Red October or Crimson Tide, but your brain won’t hurt after those.

Rating: Ask for half your money back and remember that diving is a little more than walking in the water.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

“The Boy Next Door” – Jennifer Lopez’s best comedy in years.

What’s that you say? The Boy Next Door isn’t a comedy? Considering the audience and I laughed more at this movie than we did at Horrible Bosses 2 and Tammy combined, I have to disagree with you. We all went in expecting a stalker-thriller and ended up with comedy gold. Sure, it was 100% unintentional comedy, but if the goal was to entertain an audience, The Boy Next Door nailed that goal (pun intended). The funniest moment of the night happened after the movie was over when I stopped to share my thoughts with the screening folks. When asked what they thought of the movie, the folks just in front of me said they thought it was pretty good. I thought I had misheard them, but the screening folks confirmed and all I could do was laugh and accept it. When asked the same question, my response was that it was a delightfully stupid movie that one would watch with their friends as a joke. My expectations for this movie were set at approximately negative one thousand and, to my absolute delight, this movie ended up worse by a few extra zeroes.

(In case you are thinking of actually paying money to see this film, I’m going to SPOIL as much of it as I can, specifically to stop you. You can thank me later.)

The premise of the movie is perfectly reasonable – teacher sleeps with student, regrets it, student stalks teacher, people die. This is the premise of dozens, if not hundreds, of similar movies, but few of those movies were as unbelievable and stupidly written as The Boy Next Door. The setup is simple – Claire (Lopez) is a high school teacher with a sixteen year-old son, Kevin (Ian Nelson), and an estranged husband, Garrett (John Corbett), who cheated on her, but is trying to make amends. Hunky twenty year-old, Noah (Ryan Guzman), moves in next door and immediately starts befriending Kevin and Claire. The believability begins to break down when Noah informs Kevin that he moved there to finish school – high school. Incidentally, that was when the audience started laughing.

Since when do high schools allow twenty year-olds to attend classes? Isn’t that why G.E.D.’s were invented? Isn’t that the kind of thing that would cause every parent to lose their minds and demand that people be fired? Of course, that’s the least of the things about this high school that make it the worst high school ever, fake or real.

Anyway, Claire teaches classical literature and Noah just happens to have The Iliad memorized, which just happens to be what the upcoming semester will cover (if the writer of this film had been trying even a tiny bit, it would have been Oedipus Rex instead of The Iliad since Noah wants to kill Kevin’s father and sleep with Kevin’s mother). The two of them trade quotes in front of Kevin and Claire’s friend/vice principal, Vicki (Kristin Chenoweth), and Vicki voices what the audience is thinking – “this is just weird.” A couple of nights later the penultimate sex scene occurs and makes Vicki’s statement even more poignant.

I have to devote a whole paragraph to the sex scene because it’s really that weird (and also awkward). After returning home from a bad date, Claire gets a call from Noah for her to come over because he tried to cook a chicken in the microwave. As absurd as that sentence is to type, it’s made even more ridiculous by the fact that Noah was teaching Kevin how to replace the alternator in a car engine just a couple of days earlier. Despite that, she goes over and does what she can to fix Noah’s meat (pun intended and, no, I won’t stop). As she tries to leave, Noah starts kissing her, grabbing her, undressing her, and telling her how perfect they are. She repeatedly tells him no, but he keeps on in what can only be described as rape. Eventually, she gives in, but at no point during the rest of the scene does she ever appear to be consenting. It’s exactly as awkward as you think it is, in no small part because of his creepy whisperings and her obvious reluctance. I get that he’s supposed to be deranged, but nothing about this scene is convincing to the premise or the rest of the movie. Had she at least been drunk and into it, the rest of Noah’s character would have been far more believable, but definitely not as funny. When Claire wakes up the next morning, the film quits pretending that anything coherent was written in the screenplay and goes full-on stupid.

In one scene, Kevin is at his locker facing off with his bully when Noah comes flying in, drop-kicking the bully, punching him multiple times in the face, and smashing his head into the locker enough times to actually shatter the metal locker door. He even shoves Vicki to the ground when she tries to stop him. Moments later, Vicki is berating him in her office and informing the audience that he fractured the bully’s skull and broke several of his bones. Remember though, this is the worst high school ever, so of course exactly no cops show up to arrest the twenty year-old who assaulted the vice principal and almost killed a kid. On top of that, Vicki says that she went back and checked his records and discovered that he was kicked out of his last school for violent behavior. Let me get this straight – the vice principal didn’t bother to read the files of a twenty year-old transfer student. Again – HE’S TWENTY! Of course, this is the same high school that inexplicably has a gym solely dedicated to boxing, complete with ring and punching bags, so maybe kids beating the shit out of each other is actually homework and not a crime.

In another scene, Noah tries to make Claire angry by having sex with Allie (Lexi Atkins), the girl that Kevin takes to a school dance (and Noah beds her the same night as the dance, no less). Since Claire can see into Noah’s bedroom from her own bedroom, she (and we) gets to watch and we see all of Allie (and I do mean all). Oh, did I mention that Allie is a high school junior? Do you feel like a pedophile now? Have you realized yet that this scene literally depicts statutory rape? It doesn’t matter that Lexi Atkins, the actress, is twenty-one; the character Allie is seventeen at most. If you didn’t feel awkward before, you do now, because there’s a good chance that paying to see this movie constitutes paying for child porn. And, just in case you didn’t feel pervy enough, when the end credits start they reshow parts of this scene, including Atkins’ breasts.

But the best scene of the movie – read: the one that got the most laughs – was near the end when Claire goes to Vicki’s house after being lured there by the weakest fake message you will ever hear. When she gets there, she finds the door open and the power not working and people around me in the theater started yelling “call the cops!” I am not making that up; the audience crossed the line into Mystery Science Theater 3000. Claire pulls out her phone and….uses it as a flashlight. Un-freaking-believable.

While looking up names of the actors, I came across an interview with Guzman where he claims that we’re supposed to laugh at this movie and that the characters do and say dumb things on purpose. Do not believe this for a second. That is what people say when they see the finished product and realize it’s a pile of shit. I would believe him if the movie was satire, but satire requires commentary on a subject and this movie has no subject. The only thing Guzman says that is true is that characters say dumb things, none dumber than when Noah gives Claire an old copy of The Iliad and she says that it is a first edition. Um, no. It’s a good thing she teaches literature and not history given that The Iliad was written more than three thousand year ago and first edition would be on scrolls. Late night Cinemax porn has better writing, and we’re positive they aren’t trying at all.

The sad thing about this movie is that Lopez co-financed it in a desperate attempt to remain more relevant than “one of the judges on American Idol.” Given its extremely low $4 million dollar budget, it’s almost impossible that it will lose money, but it definitely won’t do anything positive for her movie career. The same woman who showed so much promise in movies like Selena and Out of Sight has stooped to letting some random guy from the later Step Up movies fondle her breasts. It would be sad if it wasn’t so funny.

Rating: I already told you, do not pay money for this movie. Wait until it comes out on a streaming service, invite your friends over to watch it, take shots every time Lopez looks like she forgot how to act, and see how many of you are still conscious by the time the awkward sex scene occurs.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

“Blackhat” – Disappointed for all the wrong reasons.

Have you ever felt simultaneously pleased and disappointed in a movie? Have you ever felt those two things for the exact same reason? That’s what Blackhat did to me. Unless you are a secret agent or an athlete, chances are pretty good that your profession is very rarely, if ever, depicted in a movie. When I was a kid, baseball was my life, so I watched just about every baseball movie released (I promise I’m going somewhere with this). I could never understand why the actors playing pitchers (my position) almost always looked as if they were taught how to pitch by a cockroach humping a sock puppet. Tony Danza (Angels in the Outfield), Chelcie Ross (Major League), and Thomas Ian Nicholas (Rookie of the Year) – among others – not only insulted baseball, but insulted actors by not bothering to even attempt to learn how to actually pitch. I always thought their punishment should have been to hand-wash a minor league team’s jock straps for a month, but that was before we had Internet polls. Twenty years later, I’m not a professional baseball player (frowny-face), but I am a cyber-security professional. When I found out someone made a movie called Blackhat, and after watching the preview, I was salivating at the prospect of a movie that was sure to do as much disservice to my profession as Danza did to baseball.

It’s easy to understand why I was expecting this movie to be idiotic in regards to cyber-security. For one thing, the last twenty years are littered with movies and television shows featuring hackers or computer experts and most of them are hilariously bad from a technical standpoint (yes, I’m a nerd – get over it). That’s not to say that some of them weren’t entertaining or good, just that if you know anything about computers (i.e. know the difference between a keyboard and a monitor), those movies become comedies.

For another thing, the preview all but guarantees that the movie will be technically moronic. The premise appears to be that hackers have taken over a nuclear reactor and that only a blackhat hacker can stop them. One character even explicitly states “we need a blackhat hacker,” which is the line that convinced me this movie would be dumb. A blackhat hacker is a hacker who commits crimes; why wouldn’t they need a whitehat hacker (a hacker who does not commit crimes)? On top of that, we see Chris Hemsworth running around shooting people and having sex with some hot chick. I promise you, this is almost the exact opposite of what a blackhat hacker would be. To my surprise, not only is that absurd blackhat line not in the actual film, but the film turns out not to be a technical dumbass. And, that premise isn’t even the actual premise.

The actual premise is hackers have attacked a Chinese nuclear reactor, the New York stock exchange, and more attacks are sure to follow. The Chinese and American governments form a team to identify and catch the hacker. The team is comprised of FBI Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), Chinese Captain and MIT graduate Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), network engineer/Chen’s sister Lien (Wei Tang), and some other agents that are definitely going to die when the shooting starts. After the first two attacks take place, Chen sees the malicious computer code used for the attacks and immediately recognizes it code that he co-wrote while at MIT. Guess which hammer wielding Avenger was the co-author and Chen’s roommate at MIT?

Nicholas Hathaway (Hemsworth) is the blackhat hacker – who, incidentally, is never once referred to as such during the film – and is in prison for his crimes. Chen insists that Hathaway is vital to the investigation due to his familiarity with the code and became pleased that Michael Mann (director/writer) came up with a logical reason for needing Hathaway rather than just that stupid preview line. The rest of the film is the team following the digital breadcrumbs until they finally figure out what the hacker’s true goal and identity are.

As pleased as I was that the preview was complete bullshit, I was very disappointed that the movie didn’t go cyber-stupid on us. They actually did an admirable job portraying the digital forensics investigation, even to the point of showing us screenshots of command line interfaces and actual commands on computer screens. While I’m no expert UNIX administrator, I recognized much of what we saw and they weren’t just typing nonsense on the screen. What impressed me most was, as far as the hacking part of the movie, they do a lot of social engineering, which is definitely the most effective hacking technique for gaining entry into systems (and places for that matter) rather than just putting some guy at computer who can hack any system with a few keystrokes. The only truly ridiculous part was when Hathaway tricks an NSA senior agent into clicking on an attachment in an email to change his password and Hathaway convincing agent Barrett that the NSA won’t notice. You might be able to trick some secretary at a law firm into doing that, but not an NSA agent (if we’ve learned anything about the NSA in the past year and a half it’s that they would have known Hathaway’s intentions before Hathaway did). But, hey, they just included a phishing attack, which alone makes this movie smarter than most.

I’m sorry if I’ve bored you a little bit, but the reason I’ve spent so much time talking about the technical details is because the movie was so boring that the tech details were more interesting than the movie itself. With a running time of 133 minutes, this movie is easily a half an hour too long. The action scenes are very few and far between and the downtime in between just isn’t engaging for non-technical wienies and it takes almost two hours before the hacker’s motivation is finally revealed. Since the first two attacks take place in the first ten minutes of the movie, that’s nearly two hours of time for the audience to wonder when the movie is going to get to the point. And, when the reveal finally does happen, it’s a huge letdown because the stock exchange hack makes the final hack redundant.

For all the time spent on the investigation, almost no time is devoted to character development. Chen and Wei have no apparent sibling bond at all and their relation to each other only becomes relevant after Chen discovers that Hathaway is sleeping with Wei. On that note, Wei’s only job in this movie is to provide Hathaway with some sex and make him rethink his criminal past. Even though she’s supposed to be the network expert, I’m not sure she even touches a keyboard until the last ten minutes of the film. Agent Barrett is given even less to do as Davis is relegated to making scowly faces and phone calls. And just to make sure everybody got the short end of the script, the villain isn’t heard or seen from until the last five minutes of the film, with the exception of a couple of short instant messages with Hathaway. If his character is ever even named in the movie, I missed it.

All of that is the long way of saying that this movie was a disappointment because it wasn’t even close to the preposterous crap that I was hoping for. Instead of being an idiotic and nonsensical, but entertaining action flick like Lucy, it ended up being a boring slog of a movie that was more interested in lines of code than entertainment. But if we learned anything it’s to never, ever, click on strange e-mail attachments.

Rating: Ask for nine dollars back and hope Hollywood leaves your profession alone.

“American Sniper” – If only this movie were as interesting as its preview.

When you were in school, you probably asked the following question at least once a week – “why are we learning this?” That’s the way I felt after watching American Sniper, a movie that managed to make sniping and war sound like a lesson as given by Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. While I didn’t actually fall asleep during the movie, I found my mind wandering as much as any bored student in school.

American Sniper is based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who served four tours of duty as a sniper in Iraq after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Before you get upset that I’m about to give a negative review of this film, know that it has nothing to do with the actual Chris Kyle and everything to do with the movie being just above lousy. I’m glad there are guys like Kyle that are willing to sacrifice themselves for our country, just like I’m sad there are directors like Clint Eastwood making disappointing movies about those guys.

Since this movie is getting award buzz, you’ve probably seen the previews more than once and you were just as interested in seeing this movie as I. The preview shows Chris (Bradley Cooper) in the back of a Humvee, talking to his pregnant wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), on a satellite phone when Chris’s team comes under enemy fire. Chris drops the phone and Taya drops to her knees as she listens to the battle, fearing the worst. It’s a very engaging scene because you immediately are concerned for Chris and Taya. Unfortunately, the preview is more tense and engaging than nearly the rest of the entire film and whatever relationship those two had in real life is barely displayed in the film.

The biggest problem with the movie is it never commits to any narrative and by the end of the film you won’t know what the point of the movie was. That preview scene should have been a crucial part of the story, but it turns out to be one of a string of anecdotes from Chris’ life. That preview scene would have nicely fit a number of possible narratives:

• Chris and Taya’s relationship and the strain his deployments put on it.
• A rival sniper trying to take out Chris and collect a bounty.
• The hunt for the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
• The hunt for al-Zarqawi’s enforcer, “The Butcher.”
• The point of the war and its effect on our soldiers.
• Chris helping wounded vets or those with PTSD cope with rejoining American society.

Any one of those had the potential to be a really compelling movie, but Eastwood and writer Jason Hall seemed bent on sticking to a clinical accounting of Chris’ stories while not exploring any of those narratives so you never feel like anything was at stake during the movie. Of course, it’s hard to be too surprised by Eastwood considering he’s the same guy that lectured an empty chair at the Republican National Convention just a couple of years ago.

Because they chose not to flesh out any of those narratives, this movie could have been about any American soldier of the past 13 years. Chris is portrayed as a guy whose entire motivation is to protect America, a guy whose multiple tours have changed him, a guy whose family is breaking down due to his absences, and a guy who has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after his tours. Doesn’t that describe a large population of American soldiers? Does the fact that he is billed as the most lethal sniper in American history matter at all in this movie considering his missions are almost never loftier than “provide cover for squads clearing houses?” None of the events depicted truly connect with the events preceding or following, regardless of whether they occur at home or in the field. The question I found myself continually asking during the way-too-long two-hour-and-twelve-minute running time is “why are we seeing this?”

For comparison, we can look at a couple of other (much better) sniper movies – Sniper (with Tom Berenger and Billy Zane) and Enemy at the Gates (with Jude Law and Ed Harris) – both of which have very defined narratives so you know what’s at stake. In Sniper, Berenger and Zane are on an assassination mission, but the movie is really about what it takes to be a sniper and kill another person (incidentally, the idea of killing people is definitely not a concern in American Sniper except when it’s a child). Enemy at the Gates is a much closer comparison as it is based on the tales of the most decorated Soviet sniper of World War II (Vasily Zaitsev), specifically focusing on his months-long duel with a German sniper in Stalingrad during the war. Enemy at the Gates is the movie American Sniper wanted to be (American Sniper even steals Enemy at the Gates’s opening scene depicting the young sniper hunting with his father), but fails in every way possible.

If I haven’t convinced you of how lazy this storytelling was, consider this example of Eastwood and company falling asleep at the wheel. Chris is portrayed as having gone through SEAL training prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and during that training he tells a drill instructor that he is 30 years old. At the end of the movie, we are told he is killed in 2013 at the age of 39. How did Chris manage to age only nine years over a (minimum) twelve year span? Remember, the writer actually wrote that down in the screenplay.

Despite the fact that the movie is essentially pointless and storyless, Cooper keeps the movie from being a complete waste of time. There is simply no way anyone envisioned this kind of performance when we saw him playing a douchebag in The Wedding Crashers, and Silver Linings Playbook seemed like more of an anomaly than anything. He appeared to be destined for a career of fun action romps and dirty comedies, but now we realize we’ve been underestimating him. I wish I could say the same thing about Sienna Miller, but Taya was so one-dimensional and under-used after her initial meet-cute bar scene with Chris, that Miller never stood a chance.

Before I go, you should know that I have not read the book, nor had I even heard of Chris Kyle prior to seeing this movie. I have read a few things regarding the authenticity of his stories, but none of that affected my opinion of this movie. Maybe he was an American hero or maybe he was just another soldier, but either way, this movie didn’t care.

Rating: Ask for six dollars back and for Eastwood to quit lecturing. …Bueller?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

“Selma” – That’s the way history should be taught.

If that tagline sounds familiar to you, that’s because it’s the concluding line of my Fury review. I thought it pertinent for this review because Selma is exhibit B of things I was not taught in school and, probably, you weren’t either. When I saw the preview for this movie, the title baffled me because of (1) my education, (2) I’m under the age of sixty, and (3) I grew up in a place that couldn’t be whiter if it snowed. At my elementary school, you could count the number of black kids on your thumb. Two of those things couldn’t be helped, but the education part continues to burn me up. Like the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Era is a section of history that was glossed over in class. We learned that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a black preacher who fought for civil rights, gave his “I have a dream” speech, and we got a day off of school every January because of him. In all fairness, we learned about a couple other key events as well (Rosa Parks and the bus boycott, school desegregation, to name two), but nothing that really taught us why Doctor King and so many black people were so fired up about it. So, when I tell you that I wondered who Selma was and why her name would be the title of a Martin Luther King Jr. movie, now you know why.

As it turns out, Selma is the name of a town in Alabama and was a major battleground in the Civil Rights movement, particularly regarding the right to vote by black people. Even though federal law guaranteed their right to vote, many southern states did everything they could to keep black people from voting, including stopping them from even registering to vote. This is the kind of thing that infuriates me because my brain refuses to grasp the idea that people consciously acted like that. Don’t get me wrong – I get that it happens; I just can’t understand the mindset of those people who also claimed to be good Christian folk. I’m guessing those same people are still wondering why heaven is so damned hot.

It’s also very eloquently spelled out as to why voting was so important to Dr. King. There’s an early scene where Dr. King (David Oyelowo) is trying to convince President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) why passing voter protection legislation can’t wait years (at the time, Johnson was trying to get anti-poverty legislation passed which he believed was far more important to the black community). Dr. King explains to Johnson that white men who murder black men are never convicted in court because the juries are all white because juries are selected from registered voters and blacks aren’t being allowed to register. This part blew me away because nobody had ever pointed out the connection between jury pools and voter registration to me and Johnson’s reaction in the scene seemed to indicate the same for him. Alas, Johnson doesn’t back down and Dr. King initiates his plan B – organized and non-violent protests and marches in a place sure to draw national attention. Selma was identified as that place due to the local sheriff being a very predictable, violent racist and the state governor, George Wallace (Tim Roth), being every bit as racist, though more political about it.

If you’ve read any “best movies of 2014” lists (Selma was technically released in 2014 in four theaters to be eligible for awards), you saw that Selma made nearly every list. Had it actually been released to normal movie-going humans last year (its wide release is January 9, 2015), I would have put it in my top ten as well, though likely not for the same reasons as those other critics. Skimming through other reviews, most of them love it because of the subject matter, but that’s not what makes the movie so compelling; that’s what makes it required viewing in every school in America (incidentally, I strongly believe that it should be shown in every school in America). If you forget about the fact that the movie is essentially a historical docudrama, it’s a very good piece of storytelling and that’s what makes it such a good movie. The film does a great job of conveying what’s at stake, building the tension through the events and characters in Selma as well as the jockeying between Dr. King and Johnson, and climaxing with the very famous fifty-mile march from Selma to Montgomery (again, something I didn’t learn until this movie). The desperation and resolution of the black people is palpable and very real as is the hatred and racism of the white people fighting them. The screenplay even manages to break the tension at just the right times with moments of levity. The film elicited all kinds of emotional reaction from the audience, which was audible throughout (crying, gasping, laughter, grumbling), and most of which wasn’t because we were watching Dr. King do his thing.

That’s not to say the movie was perfect. While Ava DuVernay (director, co-writer) did a very good job with the stuff mentioned above, there are elements that did nothing to propel or enhance the story. For one thing, some of the scene transitions are accompanied by text indicating FBI surveillance. There is a lazy attempt at a sub-story that Johnson was using the FBI (with pressure from J. Edgar Hoover) to distract Dr. King from the Selma protests by harassing his wife. Maybe this actually happened and maybe it didn’t, but since the movie never commits to this idea, it doesn’t make the situation any direr. Another thing is DuVernay’s gratuitous use of slow motion shots. These shots are always used after violent attacks, I’m assuming to add gravitas to the scene, but fail to do just that. In one scene, a bomb goes off and we see splinters of wood and legs in slow motion, but the power of the scene is the shock because it’s unexpected. In another scene, a man is being beaten to death and after we are told the man was killed, we see his head hit the pavement in slow motion. The weight of this scene hits home when we find out the guy is dead (and the initial attack because he’s white), so why the slow-mo after the fact if not just because you can? Yes, those are small parts of the film, but they are large enough to break the spell of the rest of the film for a few moments at a time.

From a strictly historical docudrama perspective, Selma is a great example of why I didn’t think The Help and 42 were particularly good movies. Those two movies took a tepid approach when portraying the racism, almost making racism seem like a quaint anecdote from our past. Selma reminds us how ugly those times actually were and that they weren’t all that long ago. After the climax of the film, we see historical footage of the march to Montgomery and while it’s inspiring to behold the marchers, it’s equally disgusting and shameful to see what some of the bystanders were doing and saying (through signage). It’s for all of those feelings that I believe kids should be exposed to this history so they understand that more resulted from the Civil Rights movement than a holiday.

Rating: Worth every penny for you and your kids, if anything because you learned that Selma is a where, not a who.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

“My Year in Movies – 2014 Edition”

Happy New Year! At least, I think it’s the New Year. I know I’m not the first person to point this out, but have you noticed that the end of the year happens earlier and earlier every year? Starting around Thanksgiving, every media outlet starts printing Best-of-Year lists. Movies, music albums, cars, toys, people – anything you can think of. Having been born in December, I am part of the 1/12 of the population that finds it more annoying than most because every person who authors one of those lists is essentially saying whatever happens in December doesn’t count (or matter). This used to be reserved for the last week or two of December (still annoying), but lately has just gotten ridiculous. This is especially relevant to the movie industry because December is arguably the busiest movie month of the year for big movie releases, with the added bonus of featuring many of the films that will get heavy Oscar consideration. How can any self-respecting movie critic/reviewer make a list before the year is over? I get that they’ve already seen those movies, but the people reading their lists haven’t had the opportunity to see them, and what fun is reading a list like that if a person can’t agree or disagree with the author? It’s the same feeling you get when you watch the Oscars and you’ve never heard of two thirds of the movies nominated for stuff. My list will almost assuredly be the last one you read because I have the decency to wait until the year is actually over to review said year (plus, I refuse to include movies that aren’t in wide release during the calendar year).

(One more note on creep, as Gregg Easterbrook calls it – my wife and I went to buy a new car in February of 2014 and were told that 2014 models were no longer available. Does the new car model year seriously end in February now? Do automakers think people believe that when they buy a 2015 model in 2014 they are buying a car from the future? You know what – don’t answer that question.)

It’s also the time of year when you see the annual gripes about Hollywood start to pop up. Hollywood is dying, Hollywood has no creativity, too many sequels, blah, blah, blah. My personal favorite is the one about Hollywood’s lack of creativity. It happens every year because the typical film snob can’t wait to complain about the upcoming year’s slate of releases and what better time to do that than as part of ringing in the New Year. What I find hilarious while reading them is how serious they are that Hollywood has never been worse. This year, Mark Harris of Grantland wins the award for “Movie Column with the Most Sensational Subtitle and Which Disingenuously Cries about Hollywood’s Recent Lack of Originality Stopping Some Movies from Getting Made.” Okay – so I’m still working on the title of the award, but his piece is subtitled “How Hollywood’s toxic (and worsening) addiction to franchises changed movies forever in 2014.” Read that sentence again and try not laugh at the hyperbole. You’ll notice that “toxic,” “worsening,” and “forever” are superfluous words shoved in there specifically to grab your attention and make it sound like Hollywood is the equivalent of a crack addict who just destroyed its family (forever). The problem with that statement is that it assumes Hollywood ever had a family in the first place and was addiction free sometime in the past. Nothing could be further than the truth. Hollywood has always been a business and, like every other business, has only ever been addicted to making money. Franchises have always made money, so of course Hollywood is always looking for the next one. Harris’ complaint is like claiming a person is addicted to food because pizza almost always tastes great. But people need food to survive just like Hollywood needs money to survive and people don’t want to eat things that are bland or taste bad. When was the last time you heard someone say “ew, gross” after eating pizza?

I’ll stop picking on Harris because his column is no different than every other column trying to convince us that there actually was a time when Hollywood didn’t care about money and only cared about making art. That theory is the film snob’s mantra and is used to assign negativity to movies they don’t consider to be FILM©. I picked a year at random – 1966; a year I knew absolutely nothing about and which occurred several decades ago – to see just how “creative” Hollywood was back then. Here are the top ten grossing movies from 1966 with the 2014 equivalent(s) in parenthesis:

1. The Bible: In the Beginning – Covers the first 22 chapters of the book of Genesis (Exodus: Gods and Kings, Noah).
2. Hawaii – Based on a novel of the same name (Divergent, Mockingjay, and many others).
3. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Adaptation of a play (Into the Woods, Jersey Boys).
4. The Sand Pebbles – A period war film (Fury, Unbroken).
5. A Man for All Seasons – Biopic of a British guy (Sir Thomas Mor) and also an adaptation of a play (The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything).
6. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – The final movie of the Dollars trilogy (The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies).
7. Lt. Robin Crusoe – Based on the novel Robinson Crusoe and released by Disney (Maleficent).
8. The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming – Based on the novel The Off-Islanders (Edge of Tomorrow, see number 2 above).
9. Grand Prix – The first of this list with an original screenplay, but an action movie with an international cast (Expendables 3 or, if you want the racing parallel, Need for Speed).
10. Blowup – A murder mystery based on a short story (Gone Girl).

If you were to keep going through the rest of the top twenty-five, you’d find two original screenplays – one of which was the first of ten films pairing Jack Lemmon and Walter Mattheau, nine movies based on novels or stories, one remake, a spy parody spoofing James Bond, a romantic film that spawned a sequel, and a biker movie that spawned three sequels (one of which spawned three more sequels as a spin-off franchise). Keep going through the entire slate of movies that year and you’ll find a Tarzan sequel, a Godzilla sequel, two Godzilla spin-offs, a Dracula sequel, a Flintstones movie, and a Munsters movie. And if that’s not enough for you, guess which pointy-eared, caped crusader debuted on the silver screen that year? That’s right folks – Batman.

(Note: I swear to you I didn’t pick 1966 because of Batman. I only happened to notice it as I was looking at the entire list of movies released that year after going through the top twenty-five. But, it sure makes one hell of an exclamation point.)

Original screenplays have always been difficult to bring to film because business executives have always been leery about risking money on an unknown venture. The reason so many movies come from books is because they already have an audience (though, a cynic would say it’s also because people are too lazy to read), which includes people who haven’t even read the book, but have heard of it. Ditto for plays. Plus, both have already been written, so the screenplay is already halfway done. Substitute sequels for book adaptations and 1966 Hollywood sounds nearly identical to 2014 Hollywood. The only real difference between then and now is better special effects. So how about we quit with the pretense that Hollywood has only recently become uncreative and risk-averse?

What really gnaws at me with these film snobs is that they are unable to watch blockbusters and franchise movies through the same lens as their darling little arthouse indie flicks. It’s like, in their minds, larger budgets and special effects immediate disqualify films from being great. Skimming through a variety of 2014 top movie lists reveals the annual parade of movies you never heard of with the occasional main stream movie thrown in. Metacritic has compiled the various top ten lists and has created a list of the most mentioned movies. I’ve heard of most of those movies (as I should), but even I throw an eyebrow at a few of them (Under the Skin, Whiplash, Ida) that don’t ring a bell. The average moviegoer won’t recognize a title until number eleven on that list (Gone Girl); maybe not even until Interstellar at number nineteen. Furthermore, on the off chance you’ve heard of those movies, you’d be hard pressed to name the month they were released in theaters (if they even were released in theaters). Metacritic also lists the different individual critic’s lists and some of them are filled with movies so obscure you’d just as easily believe that it was the lineup of horses at the fourth race at Belmont.

Reading the “best of” lists from this year, I realize that most critics are even more boring than the Oscars. I refuse to believe that even the stuffiest of film snobs didn’t enjoy the shit out of Guardians of the Galaxy and any list that doesn’t include Interstellar should be ignored. But, kudos to those critics who included at least two main stream movies on their list – you are the people worth listening to.

For me, this year was a very weird movie year. People love to ask me what the best and worst movie of the year is and, for most of the year, I didn’t have a good answer. From January through April, I hadn’t seen a truly good film or a truly bad film. Granted, this was partially due to my real life getting in the way of seeing movies, as well as my friend being out of town a lot, and I ended up not seeing some of the early year releases until much later in the year. It wasn’t too surprising that there weren’t any really good movies, but those four months usually feature a couple of mesmerizingly crappy flicks. As the end of April neared, I even wrote about it, wondering what was going on since the summer season was about to start and I really didn’t want the summer lineup to suck.

By that point, the worst movie I had seen was Pompeii and it was tolerable. At the top of my list were Robocop and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, two movies that were worth watching, but definitely not worth arguing about. Then, Brick Mansions happened, followed by The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and I suddenly had the front runners for worst movie of the year. Memorial Day brought the first great movie in X-Men: Days of Future Past, but was bookended by a mediocre Godzilla and the much less than mediocre Angelina Jolie’s Cheekbones (also known as Maleficent). The second great movie – Edge of Tomorrow – released and a lot of people missed out on how fun it was to see Emily Blunt shoot Tom Cruise in the head dozens of times.

Then, the summer took a month-and-a-half-long crap on itself. In the time between Edge of Tomorrow and Guardians of the Galaxy, the only movie worth watching was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and even it was a disappointment compared to its predecessor (though was still pretty good). Some hay has been made of this year’s box office tally being down about half a billion dollars (US box office only) compared to last year, but it’s easy to see why. Not only was last year a record high year (so it was bound to come down), but for a month and a half of the summer, the choices were:

• Optimus Prime rides a dinosaur
• Unfunny moron takes a road trip
• Unfunny western dick jokes
• The Rock’s Greek tragedy
• Scarlett Johansson’s thumb drive
• Kevin Hart’s 79th movie of the year
• Clint Eastwood made a musical?!
• Cameron Diaz’s sex tape movie twenty years too late
• Anything else besides going to a movie

It’s a good thing Guardians of the Galaxy stayed in theaters so long because it was immediately followed by one really good movie (The Drop), more forgettable, mediocre movies, and topped with a Ninja Turtles movie that murdered your inner child. September and October went by with the only real movie talk being whether or not Ben Affleck’s penis made its screen debut (in Gone Girl). By that time, I had been asked many times what the best movie was and I still had no answer. The best I could do was a toss-up between Edge of Tomorrow, Guardians of the Galaxy, and X-Men. While all three of those movies are wildly entertaining and very good movies, none of them really blew me away.

The two movies that appear on almost every “best of” list are The Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood. I’ve seen the former – which was excruciatingly boring – and based on what I’ve read about the latter, it sounds like it would make The Grand Budapest Hotel seem like the X-Games. I’d rather lick a cactus than sit through Boyhood because at least I’d know I was still alive after the experience. I respect that people have different personalities, likes, and dislikes, but anyone who gets excited about those movies is probably the same person who would corner you at a party and talk about the weather for an hour.

More than that, those people are just wrong. The best movie of the year opened in early November and no other movie is even close. As good as Christopher Nolan’s portfolio is, Interstellar is his best and that’s really saying something. Interstellar is what movies are supposed to be – great story, mind-blowing sound and music, jaw-dropping visuals, memorable characters, spot-on acting, and gripping drama. In a word – moving – in every way possible for a film to move you. It’s the entire package and, like I said, any critic who doesn’t include it in their “best of” list is a film snob who has lost sight of what movies are capable of being.

At that point (and I saw Interstellar twice), the rest of the year had no chance. The only thing left for people to do was to see Mockingjay and the last Hobbit movie, skip the unnecessary sequels (Dumb and Dumber To, Horrible Bosses 2, Night at the Museum 3), and maybe watch Christian Bale and God slaughter hundreds of people in Exodus: Gods and Kings. By the end of the year, I managed to watch seventy movies and, as usual, enjoyed every minute of it – even the really bad ones.

(As usual, links provided for the movies I wrote full reviews of.)

My Top 5
This category could be called “Interstellar and four other not-as-great movies,” but I think you’ve gotten the point by now. Yes, four of these movies are sci-fi/fantasy/big-blockbuster flicks, but that’s because this year was a very forgettable year in movies otherwise.
Interstellar – I don’t normally tell people to spend the extra money for Imax, but Interstellar is worth every penny and more. Twice. I really can’t stress enough how much better this movie was than anything else that came out this year. Yes, that includes the movies I didn’t see – I’m that sure.
Guardians of the Galaxy – Probably the most entertaining movie of the year, as well as the most surprising. Nobody expected this movie to be so fun and will definitely be one of those movies you watch whenever it comes on TV. It also included the best joke of 2014 (the Jackson Pollock one).
Edge of Tomorrow – As much flak as Tom Cruise takes for his personal life, the guy still does good sci-fi. It also helps that, in this film, he dies hundreds of times. Of course, the real story of this movie is how great Emily Blunt is as an action star and that she was the person ending Cruise’s life for most of the flick.
X-Men: Days of Future Past – It only took them seven tries, but, with all due respect to X-Men 2 and First Class, we finally got the X-Men movie we wanted since the mildly disappointing first one debuted in 2000. Also, this was the only movie not named Interstellar that I saw twice in theaters this year.
Better Living Through Chemistry – How are we still underestimating Sam Rockwell? In this dark comedy, Rockwell kills it playing a pharmacist who is trapped in a crappy marriage, having an affair with a trophy wife (Olivia Wilde), and dabbling in some pharmaceutical chemistry. Like pretty much every movie he’s in, it’s well worth your time and a movie you probably didn’t even know about.

You Almost Made It
If I had done a top ten, these would have been the other five, but none of them are as good as the first five. It was actually kind of tough coming up with these five, if only because they don’t really stand out from a lot of other movies I saw. Did I mention this was a weird movie year?
Fury – If you like war movies featuring lofty, feel-good missions or uber-happy endings, Angelina Jolie has just the movie for you (Unbroken). If you like war movies about actual war, it doesn’t get better than Fury.
The Drop – This was a movie I thought was really good when I saw it, but forgot about it just a couple of days later. So, how good could it have really been? That’s right – almost great.
Into the Woods – It’s still fun asking people if they know this movie is a musical. It’s still fun being surprised by Emily Blunt (this time, she’s showing us all how well she can sing). It’s still fun escaping into silly fairy tales.
Gone Girl – I’ve talked to a lot of people about this movie since I saw it and the consensus is that the girl is crazy, nobody can explain why she’s crazy, and that really was future-Batman’s little crime-fighter making a cameo.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 – Honestly, I almost ended this category at four entries and put this film in the category featuring money grabs that actually try to be good movies. Make no mistake – this movie was a very naked money grab, but if it didn’t have two movies preceding it, it would stand very well on its own.

Surprisingly Decent
This is the first of two categories where expectations play a big part in my opinion of the film. I had low or guarded expectations going into them and was pleasantly surprised at the end. All of them were movies that I probably would have blasted if I had high expectations going in, but none of them had enough problems for me to dislike them.
Robocop – Add this to the list of recent sci-fi remakes (Total Recall, Dredd) with one notable exception – it was much better than the original and much better than anyone expected a remake of Robocop to be.
That Awkward Moment – Even though there was very little in this comedy that made me laugh, the actors had good banter between them that I’m guessing some people laughed at. The biggest flaw with the movie is the pact the three men make to stay single. By the end of the film, they mysteriously start referring to it as a bet and the whole idea of the pact in the first place could have been lifted from the movie without changing anything else. If I hadn’t thought the movie was going to suck, I’d have put it in “Meh.”
3 Days to Kill – A better Luc Besson movie than we’ve seen in the past few years (or this year – Brick Mansions – blech!), Kevin Costner still has something left in the tank. He carries the movie, making up for some very uneven writing, by providing some believable action with well-delivered comedy.
Bad Words – Jason Bateman has been very up and down for me. Bad Words is an up. You wouldn’t think a black comedy about a 40-year old man entering the national spelling bee on a loophole would be a great source of comedy, but it works. Bateman is at his finest and you will hate him for a very large chunk of the movie while hating yourself for laughing at his hijinks.
Open Grave – An interesting horror flick that isn’t really a horror flick. It seems like it’s going to be a cabin-in-the-woods, generic slasher movie, but it pleasantly surprises by steering well clear of that. However, just because there’s no psychotic killer doesn’t mean there isn’t blood or killing.
Draft Day – The NFL draft is arguably the most boring thing aired on television…and they show golf, bowling, the spelling bee, and Kardashians on television. I expected Draft Day to be nothing more than a two-hour advertisement for why the draft is so awesome to actually watch. Fortunately, the film turned out to be very Sorkin-esque and gave us a look at what we all would like to believe happens behind the scenes. The only flaw with this film was that it was about the Cleveland Browns. You know what they say – God hates Cleveland.
Neighbors – I was fully prepared to hate this movie and found myself laughing a lot more than I thought I would. It also helped that the movie breaks the typical comedy trope by not forcing an absurd reconciliation at the end.

Movies for Me
Make fun of me all you want for these films; I won’t even argue with you. In fact, I could make very strong cases against all of them, but they are films that I just like for no real reason. This is how you know I’m not a film snob.
Need for Speed – Well, you see…I…look over there!
The Maze Runner – Of the two Young Adult franchise starter movies (Divergent being the other), this one has the better story. In case you were wondering, I have read both series, and The Maze Runner series is a superior read as well.
Exodus: Gods and Kings – For the love of, er, God? let it go already. So it’s not very biblically accurate and doesn’t feature black people in prominent roles. It’s a movie about a mythical story set in a place controlled by non-black people. It’s not even a very good movie; there are bigger injustices out there to worry about than a movie portraying God as an angry, vengeful child.
The November Man – One of these days, Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson are going to star together in a movie about retired secret agents that are still extremely dangerous. Hmmmm….
Knights of Badassdom – You have to be in the right mood to enjoy a goofy movie like this one. Peter Dinklage, Steve Zahn, and Summer Glau lead a group of LARPers (Live Action Role Play) in the forest when their game is invaded by a real demon. It’s an insane comedy/slasher flick that is easily as silly as Strange Wilderness.
Noah - I think it was better than what you heard, though you need to be two things to enjoy the movie. (1) A Darren Aronofsky fan (The Fountain, Black Swan). (2) Someone who doesn't take their religion too seriously. Aronofsky plays with the Noah story quite a bit, but not so much you don't recognize what's happening. Give it a chance if you’re at least number 2.
Third Person – I’m not sure how good or bad this movie really was, but I liked it more than I thought I would. It’s very similar to The Words, except it didn’t suck like The Words. It also showed how smart my wife is – she guessed the twist about a quarter of the way into the film.

Meh…
None of these movies were bad, though a couple of them are wildly overrated. None of them spoke to me in any way, but maybe they spoke to you.
Non-Stop – There’s a reason Neeson’s movies keeping getting referred to as “Taken in the Sky” or “Taken in Alaska” or Taken 2Taken was a really good movie and the rest have been attempts to mimic it. Honestly, I’m really just waiting for The A-Team sequel to come out.
Laggies – For a movie casting Sam Rockwell, they seemed to forget they had cast Sam Rockwell. Since you probably never heard of this movie, you have no idea what I’m talking about.
The Equalizer – R-rated, black MacGyver; Denzel Washington rounds out this year’s trio of old action stars and making everybody slightly nervous about the clerks working at Home Depot and Lowe’s. If anything, it was more fun than last year’s slog, Flight.
The Judge – The opposite of A Few Good Men, it’s a courtroom drama movie with virtually no courtroom. As usual, Robert Downey Jr. was very good, but Robert Duvall didn’t seem up to the challenge.
Lone Survivor – An interesting and true story about a SEAL team on a mission in Afghanistan that loses something in the translation from the book. The last hour of the movie is nothing but shooting, chasing and falling and the title tells you how it’s going to end. It’s the kind of movie you watch on a fourteen-hour flight to Australia – like I did.
Labor Day – If you think this is a good movie for a date night, think again. Based on a novel of the same name, the film is mostly ominous and depressing and a lot of detail and nuance seems to be missing. Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet are very good, but the premise is very hard to accept.
The Grand Budapest Hotel – It’s a quirky little movie that I kind of liked, but will probably forget in a week. Though, it was nice watching a movie made in a manner that hasn’t been seen in at least fifty years as a counter to all the Michael Bay I’ve seen lately.
Oculus –It's a decent enough horror flick, but I think I've realized what the problem is with horror movies. None of them ever truly develop the monster or ghost or mirror. The frustrating thing about Oculus is you don't learn anything interesting about the mirror. It just does stuff and causes people to kill each other or themselves. It's a genuine lack of commitment that makes you say "meh" and the movie renders itself moot with its ending.
The Fault in Our Stars – I know a lot of women and teenage girls thought this movie was really good and really sad, but my wife wasn’t one of them. She had the exact same reaction I did – boredom and slight interest in the Willem Dafoe storyline that never developed into anything truly meaningful.

We’re Really Only in it for the Money
Better known as ‘popcorn flicks,’ these are the movies that are uninspired, big-budget, CGI-heavy blockbusters, or cheap, low-budget, anonymous actor, horror flicks, or Horrible Bosses 2. All of them were very short on story, incredibly redundant, and included some elements that bordered on absurd, even for them. Oh yeah, and all of them are very obviously there for the sole purpose of generating large amounts of cash with no risk attached.
Night at the Museum 3 – Just stop it already. What’s next – National Treasure 3? Wait, forget I said that.
Divergent – It was a boring movie and a boring book, but the studios needed something to replace Katniss with. Divergent is the obvious choice when you look at current book sales of Young Adult dystopian future series.
Godzilla – Do you think at any point during production, the director or producer or actors or anyone involved in the making of this film noticed how much screen time Godzilla wasn’t in?
The Purge: Anarchy – There is no hope for this franchise to deliver something resembling an intriguing story after two failed attempts that barely scratch the surface of an incredibly intriguing premise.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – I’m not sure there’s anyone out there clamoring for the Jack Ryan movie franchise to continue, but here it is. And yes, he’s that Patriot Games guy.
Maleficent – I strongly considered including this film in my new bad sequels category below, but it wasn’t nearly as crappy as the other movies there. Plus, a lot of people seemed to like the movie, even though it was poorly written and sanitized a character whose name literally means evil.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones – Okay, so this isn’t a big budget, CGI-heavy, popcorn flick, but it doesn’t exist solely to keep milking the franchise. Considering they’ve switched to possession as their “activity,” it’s obvious they’ve got nothing left of interest to show us.
Hercules – While much better than The Legend of Hercules (not exactly a high bar to clear), it was still not a good flick. It probably wasn’t a great idea to surround Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) with a bunch of good actors or forgetting to write a plot that had anything to do with the actual Hercules myths. But all that can be forgiven if you enjoy watching lots of extras die non-bloody deaths.
The Expendables 3 – Sylvester Stallone is the epitome of the phrase “he will never learn.” This film mimicked the crappy first installment of the franchise even though the second one was far better and much more fun. When you literally can’t pay Bruce Willis enough money to entice him to do four days of filming, you might want to rethink your screenplay, Sly.

We Decided We Weren’t Just in it for the Money
These movies are no less money grabs than the films you just read about, but they actually try to provide some decent entertainment for your money. Three of these won’t surprise you, but the other one might.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier – This movie saved Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD show from slowing killing itself and suddenly made SHIELD much more interesting. The big flaw in this movie is that it treats the Winter Soldier the same way Star Wars treated Darth Maul, and that’s never a good thing.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – It was a decent follow-up to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but don’t believe anyone who says it was better. Those are the same people who believe North Korea was behind the Sony hack and they’re wrong on both accounts.
Horrible Bosses 2 – This movie could have shown up in several different categories here. It was better than I expected and did an admirable job of not mirroring the original, but it wasn’t quite good enough to elevate to surprisingly decent due to some forced inclusion of past characters. Also, it starts with a masturbation joke, effectively jerking itself off.
The Lego Movie – All animated films these days seem to be somewhat uninspired (or straight-up sequels), but this film was pretty fun. It also contained a lot of humor aimed at adults, so it wasn’t just made for your kids.

The Letdowns
The second category where expectations are key. This time around, I had high expectations (foolishly) and walked out of the theater (or away from my DVD player) grumbling. It’s their own damn fault though, mostly by just being plain lazy on some fronts, especially story.
Lucy – Lucy was this year’s Prometheus – a terribly written movie that way too many people defend as being a good movie. I will admit that it was somewhat entertaining from an action standpoint, but it was an incredibly stupid movie. Even worse, it was an incredibly stupid movie about brain power.
Transcendence – This movie was Lucy with Scarlett Johnassen’s hotness traded for Johnny “Max Headroom” Depp’s digital noggin, but not as stupid. That’s not a good trade.
Pompeii – This one was probably my fault. I have no idea why I had any expectations; probably because I really like the actual Pompeii. Shame on me.
The Monuments Men – For me, the most disappointing movie of the year. I have no idea how they managed to turn a treasure hunt movie, set in World War II, and with such a great cast into a boring slog, but it they did.


A Waste of Time
At least ‘The Letdowns’ contained some entertainment quality. These films were all very boring, not the least bit entertaining, and lacked any plot beyond the initial premise. They are the very definition of “two hours of your life you will never get back.”
If I Stay – This was supposed to be the second biggest tear-jerker of the year behind The Fault in Our Stars. Instead, it jerked almost no tears from an audience brimming with estrogen.
Dracula Untold – Should have stayed untold.
The Legend of Hercules – This movie was obviously made for the sole purpose of insisting that 3-D is here to stay. Unfortunately, the translation to 2-D makes for some very strange looking scenes. Also unfortunate – the rest of the movie. The only connection to the actual Hercules of myth is when he kills a lion. Other than that, I was so bored by the rest of the movie that I may or may not have blacked out for parts of it.
I, Frankenstein – Well, I’ll give them points for using the Frankenstein myth in a clever way. Then, I’ll take those points away for insisting on referring to angels as gargoyles. And, can anyone explain to me what Aaron Eckhart was doing in a film about demons fighting gargoyles over a diary? Actually, nevermind. I don’t care.
The Bag Man – I like John Cusack movies, but what the hell was this movie? It’s supposed to be some kind of thriller, double-cross movie, but comes off as a mess with no story.
A Million Ways to Die in the West – Considering how bad Seth MacFarlane’s last film was (Movie 43), I expected this one to be just as unbearable. I admit I was wrong this time, though not by much. While the movie did have some laughs, the title is irrelevant to the story and is barely even touched upon during the film. And, as usual, MacFarlane’s sense of humor still hasn’t matured to middle school, so his streak of juvenile comedies is still intact.

Not the Worst, But You Sure Tried Hard
These movies weren’t quite as bad as my bottom five, but they were all crap in their own ways. Top ten worst lists are much more palatable than best lists, but I stand by my ideal of sample size.
Dumb and Dumber To – If Dumb and Dumber is an example of a movie released at the perfect time, the sequel is an example of the opposite. I understand Jim Carrey trying to force this movie – his career is on life support. Jeff Daniels, on the other hand, did not need this skidmark on his resume.
John Wick – Oh Keanu, what happened to you? Will you ever recover from The Matrix sequels debacle? Despite the inexplicably high Rotten Tomatoes rating, John Wick was just as loathsome as last year’s 47 Ronin. Well-choreographed fight scenes do not a good movie make.
Ride Along – It’s hard to say what was worse in this movie – Kevin Hart or Ice Cube. Or John Leguizamo. Or the comedy (all three jokes of it). Or the premise. Or the, well, you get the idea.
Vampire Academy – Of all of the Young Adult, supernatural/dystopian future books turned into movies, this one is easily the worst. Bad acting, an incomprehensible story, and an extremely tired premise doomed any thoughts about extending the franchise past one movie.
The Other Woman – One of these days, Hollywood is going to come to their senses and realize that Cameron Diaz has no business being in a comedy. Besides her, Leslie Mann cannot carry a movie as a co-lead and Kate Upton is exactly how you would expect a swimsuit model to perform in her first flick. Even still, those women had no chance with the terrible script they were given. It takes an hour before you even see Upton and the payback the previews promised lasts for five minutes. Women will hate this movie and men will be bored except during the single minute when Upton is in a bikini.
Welcome to the Jungle – Nothing is worse than watching a comedy that has a ton of potential comedy crap all over itself because of lazy writing and dumb jokes. Maybe you’re a fan of jokes centered around a guy being a complete dick and his targets never doing anything about it, but I’m not. If it weren’t for a handful of laughs, including Jean-Claude Van Damme getting attacked by a tiger, this movie would have been completely worthless.

Pooping on the Silver Screen
Here are the worst five movies I saw this year, including the three sequels I have yet to mention. I can make a case on a pure entertainment stance for those three sequels, but not these five movies. These five are the inflight entertainment for prisoners on their way to Guantanamo.
Brick Mansions – If there was an award for worst final movie for recently deceased actors (or even just retired actors), Paul Walker would win for Brick Mansions. Luc Besson has made a lot of shitty movies (hell, he made two just this year – hi Lucy), but this one is a new low. If this movie was supposed to be an advertisement for Parkour, I feel sorry for Parkour. You know what – no I don’t. Parkour is stupid too.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Why does Michael Bay keep trying to assassinate our childhood memories through celluloid? He was only a producer for this film, but you wouldn’t know it. It was easily as embarrassing as the fourth Transformers movie, even for a movie based on children’s toys/comic books.
Tammy – Melissa McCarthy single-handedly murdered the Fourth of July this year. For me, she is the anti-Emily Blunt. I am well past the point at which I will refuse to pay to see a movie just because McCarthy is in it.
300: Rise of an Empire – What a miserable piece of crap. The first 300 was bad enough, distracting a bunch of people with stylized visuals from noticing that the story was complete garbage. Rise takes distraction to a whole new level by ripping Eva Green’s clothes off and showcasing her breasts. Admittedly, they are fantastic breasts, but…uh, what was I saying?
Snowpiercer – This movie is proof that many main-stream movie critics don’t know what a good movie actually looks like because Snowpiercer looks like that guy’s stomach after the Alien popped out. It appeared on dozens of “best of the year” movie lists and is easily one of the worst movies since Battlefield Earth. I’m also not alone in this thinking – many people have expressed the same disgust as I did at Snowpiercer after buying into the critics' hype and watching it. Seriously, fuck this movie; it was atrocious and is, hands down, the worst movie of the year.

Pooping on the Silver Screen: The Sequel
I created a special category for movies that were made as sheer money grabs, but were also terrible movies because they needed to be separated from the other garbage released this year. They are the shitty sequels that keep getting made because you won’t stop watching them. Seriously, stop it, because if you don’t, they never will. Between the three of them, they will account for almost three billion box office dollars. How anyone who has graduated second grade could enjoy watching these movies is a mystery I will never solve.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – It’s almost as if the people at Sony have a bet to see how many bad Spider-Man movies they can put out and still make at least half a billion dollars. I’m not so sure the Sony hack was entirely a bad thing.
Transformers: Age of Extinction – How did Michael Bay trick Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci into being in a movie featuring a robot truck riding a robot tyrannosaurus? A tiny robot humping Megan Fox’s leg suddenly doesn’t sound as idiotic.
The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies – If any movie should make people cry, it’s this one. It’s just that sad.

After a mostly forgettable year in movies, my one remaining hope is that Interstellar gets the recognition it deserves and wins the Best Picture Oscar. Other than that, I’m hoping 2015 features a better slate of films, or at least a more memorable slate. There are quite a few movies to look forward to, most notably Jupiter Ascending, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Yeah, I’m a nerd, but I’m your kind of nerd. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

“Into the Woods” – Lies, damn lies, and previews.

When it comes to movie previews (or trailers, if you prefer), you always have to ask yourself how much of the movie you want spoiled and how much you want your expectations swayed prior to watching previews. It’s been awhile since I last gave this advice, so here it is again – if you want to get a peek at a movie, but not have the preview ruin your expectations or spoil the movie, watch the first theatrical preview and avoid all other previews like the plague. The first theatrical preview always comes out before the movie has finished post-production editing, so they are the least likely to do something stupid like show you the ending of the movie. Subsequent previews are almost always made after the film is in the can and usually reveal far too much about the film as part of the marketing push that occurs in the 2-4 weeks prior to the film’s release. These later previews are the ones that tend to give away the best jokes of comedies, show the misunderstanding that breaks up the couple in a rom-com, or reveal how the thieves steal the gold in The Italian Job.

The other thing previews tend to do is deceive you. Sometimes they’ll feature scenes that aren’t actually in the movie, and other times they’ll make the movie seem like something else entirely. Into the Woods does the latter and does it by neglecting to mention a tiny detail about the movie that is kind of important – it’s a freaking musical. Unless you are a fan of the stage, there is no way you can know that detail unless someone like me tells you about it. And don’t think Disney just made a mistake – they intentionally kept the previews from revealing that because it would murder their box office receipts by turning off nearly every male between the ages of six and dead. Dishonest shenanigans like that are part of the reason why Sony got hacked (and for the last time, it wasn’t the North Koreans).

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Into the Woods; it just surprised me to find out it was a musical. I was looking forward to a fun mash-up of fairytales that would help me forget ABC’s incredibly disappointing Once Upon a Time (also owned by Disney). When the movie immediately kicks off with a song, my first reaction was “we’re going to find out what Emily Blunt and Chris Pine sound like in the shower? Nice.” Of course, most of us would rather see what those two ridiculously beautiful people look like in the shower, but I digress.

(Very mild SPOILERS ahead.)

Into the Woods is a fairytale about a couple (James Corden and Blunt as a baker and his wife, respectively) trying to lift a curse on them that prevents them from having children. In order to lift the curse, they must collect four items for the witch (Streep) who placed the curse on them. The twist to the story is that it weaves Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and Rapunzel into the greater story, though Jack and the Beanstalk is by far the dominant of the four; the other three really just there as side stories to provide supporting characters. All of the actors are delightful, the stories are fun and amusing, and the audience was thoroughly enjoying the film. That is, until it ended halfway through and a new movie started. Yeah, you read that right.

Of course, it wasn’t actually a new movie, but it might as well have been. There is most definitely a happily ever after concluding the first half and then the movie completely switches tones, going from lighthearted and fun to dark and cynical. It’s as jolting to the viewer as finding out about the singing, but is much more confusing than the singing. After the movie concludes, it’s obvious that the intention of the film was in the spirit of a true Grimm’s fairytale, but the two halves are such polar opposites that the movie as a whole doesn’t feel like a whole. It seemed almost as if a sequel was just bolted on because neither half was long enough to be its own movie.

Before I get to the truly confounding component of the movie, I want to reiterate how fun and entertaining the first half of the movie is. The movie hops between the different stories and brings them all together seamlessly. There’s a wealth of humor and the actors, appear to be having the time of their lives, including Anna Kendrick, who is making everyone forget she was in the Twilight series. Surprisingly, Chris Pine has a very good singing voice, though one that I never would have attributed to him if I didn’t see his name listed as the performer in the credits. Unsurprisingly, Emily Blunt is amazing and, like Benedict Cumberbatch, is on my list of people who I would pay to watch read the phone book.

About that confounding component, fairy tales traditionally include a moral for the reader. Based on what you actually see and hear in Into the Woods, the moral is “be careful what you wish for,” which is plainly observed in the second half of the film. What’s confounding is that the movie ends with Meryl Streep singing the moral of the story, but it’s something else entirely – “be careful what you say because children will listen.” Huh? Nothing in this movie points to that moral, in fact, the opposite is stressed since the children in the film don’t listen to what anybody says. I have no idea where that came from and even less idea what it’s supposed to mean. Was the movie actually trying to tell us not to cuss around our kids? Or that we should lie to them? Were they trying to tell us we should act like parents from the 1950’s?

Like I said, I enjoyed the film – the first half much more than the second half – though I’m not sure I’d recommend it to young children on Christmas. Though, come to think of it, lying on Christmas is an annual tradition.

Rating: Ask for two and half dollars back. In addition to the non-moral, I confess that I lied too – and this is a lie of omission – Johnny Depp gets a short cameo that is just above cringe-worthy.