Thursday, May 18, 2017

“Alien: Covenant” – A great use of a mulligan.

After the visually pleasing, but narrative mess that was 2012’s Prometheus, and the continued misses in the video game arena, the Alien franchise has been on life support for years. To be fair, Prometheus turned something of a profit and the critical reception was favorable, but the majority of filmgoers felt as disappointed in it as I was. Throw in the terrible Alien vs. Predator movies and every fan of the series was ready for it to be over. Of course, being a film and Alien nerd, I knew a sequel to Prometheus was in the works, but I was understandably skeptical. Ridley Scott was asking for the (approximately) seventeenth do-over and I was willing to give it to him. Not because I believed he could produce another worthy Alien film, but because his last movie was the fantastic The Martian. So, he teed up Alien: Covenant, took a massive swing, and knocked the bastard right down the fairway.

The main point of Prometheus was to deliver an origin story depicting how the aliens came to be. It was filled with half-baked stories and barely developed concepts that clashed with each other and its characters, leaving the viewer wondering if half the movie was hiding somewhere in Scott’s closet. Alien: Covenant dispenses with nearly everything we saw in Prometheus except for a couple of core components. David the evil android (Michael Fassbender) and the aliens originating from black goo developed by pale-faced tall guys. Let the do-over commence.

You can stay, you creepy freakshow.

(SPOILERS ahead, but I promise I’ll keep them to a minimum).

Covenant picks up ten years after the events of Prometheus. A colony ship experiences some space turbulence and the crew is awakened to deal with the issues. After affecting some repairs, they discover a radio transmission of someone singing a John Denver song (I swear I’m not making this up) and track it to a nearby planet (relatively speaking). After some discussion in which executive officer Daniels (Katherine Waterston) argues they should continue to their original destination (Origae-6), the rest of the crew point out that Origae-6 is really far away and this other planet isn’t and who wants to go back into cryosleep?

The remainder of the film takes place on the planet (except for the obligatory final fight on a space ship), and there we get into the familiar structure of an Alien movie. Crew members get picked off one by one by lethal aliens, though not the familiar xenomorphs we know and love. What makes the movie interesting is that David is also on this planet and he’s been busy experimenting and evolving the black goo life forms and this is where we get the reduxed origin story. I will say no more, but the creepy factor is through the roof. What I will say is Michael Fassbender should win an Oscar for delivering such a chilling character. On that note, Fassbender also plays Walter, an android manning the colony ship. His versatility as an actor is on full display as he delivers a Walter who is straight-laced, but inquisitive opposite his David. Brent Spiner would be proud.

I hope you're not the evil android. You look really similar.

As strong and tight as this movie is narratively, there are some small technical issues that keep it from being a great movie. One example are the spores that are ingested by the crew members soon after planet fall. Rather than go with them simply ingesting spores in the air, the spores fly around like a little flock of birds with consciousness and into the human’s orifices. This took me out of the film because it felt like Scott and company were trying too hard. More than that was the look of the familiar alien we waited so long to see. It never felt completely there or with any real depth, despite the production including guys in creature suits. Prior to researching, I thought the aliens were entirely CGI, so learning about the creature suits is even more disappointing. What made the original two movies so great and terrifying was how real the creatures seemed. Mind you, I’m only complaining just a little about this, but I wasn’t the only one making this comment after viewing the film.

Sure, it looks scary when it stops moving.

Prior to this film, but after screening King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, my friend and I were discussing critical reviews and how they should be received. I know a lot of people love griping about critics, heck, I used to be one of them. But it’s not personal. Think of it this way - you probably will only see five or so movies per year and we are just trying to help you choose. In the case of Alien: Covenant, it’s worth giving Ridley Scott another chance.

Rating: Ask for fifty cents back and breathe that sigh of relief you’ve been holding in for this franchise.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” – By the power of Greyskull.

Once upon a time a director set out to tell his version of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. That director had a grand vision of using his unique frantic style of cinematography and a pile of 3-D effects to bring King Arthur, dirt, and a bunch of arrows right into your face. With the gross domestic product of Kiribati at his disposal, he began production and proceeded to tell a story that only vaguely resembled the classic tale. Apparently, actually reading the story was of little importance to him or his co-writers, as they created a version of Arthur that was one part He-Man, one part Moses, and one part mob boss. Whence the story was shown to an audience - many of whom dressed for the occasion in their finest armor and linens - some in that audience became confused and disappointed in a story featuring unsympathetic and shallow characters, a story that lacked a coherent plot, a story with a villain who had everything he wanted in life, but threw it all away by continuously making bonehead decisions in order to control a magic sword that he thought would give him everything he wanted in life. After the story was over, some in the audience left with a bitter taste in their mouth, placing curses on that director’s house. Curses that will never take effect because nobody in the audience was an actual wizard. But one person made a vow before exiting - “I will forgive Guy Ritchie for this mess of a movie if he promises to make Sherlock Holmes 3.”

And the townspeople knoweth not what lyeth ahead. Eth.

Oh, you would like to hear another story? Very well. This is the story inside the story I just told you. But beware - this story has SPOILERS and not one thing I’m about to tell you did I make up.

Once upon a time there was a king named Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) who had a lovely wife and young son. We do not know if Uther was a good king, but his brother Vortigern (Jude Law) wore black, so Uther must be the good one. Uther ruled a kingdom that was under siege from an evil wizard named Mordred. Mordred sent three enchanted elephants the size of castles to destroy Uther’s castle. But Uther had a magical sword named Excalibur which he used to smite Mordred and his army. But the evil Vortigern murdered his wife and gave her body to an octopus with three ladies attached (it’s literally a three-lady octopus thing) so he could become Skeletor and kill Uther despite Uther wielding Excalibur. Anyway, to save his son Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), Uther sent young Arthur off in a boat (his wife was dead by this time), threw the sword in the air, and became a stone in which the sword was stuck until the true heir came to claim it.

If you aren't Merlin, you don't get a name.

Many years later, Arthur, having been raised by prostitutes and trained to fight by a Chinese martial arts master named George, became a mob boss running a racket in the city of Londinium. After cutting the beard off of a Viking, Vortigern’s soldiers raid Arthur’s brothel and accidentally send him to Vortigern’s castle to try to pull the sword out of the stone. When Arthur succeeds, he passes out from the power of the sword. Instead of doing the very logical thing and killing Arthur right away, Vortigern makes a huge spectacle out of executing Arthur, but Arthur is rescued by a mage referred to only as The Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who can control animals with her mind. She and her accomplices take Arthur to their cave in the woods to meet with Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and Bill (Aidan Gillen) to plan how to start a rebellion to oust Vortigern. They pull off many jobs harassing and disrupting Vortigern’s construction of a wizard’s tower, but I can’t describe them to you because they only talk about them. Then the next thing we know, they have already completed the tasks. Also, Vortigern’s wizardry begins and ends with making candles light themselves, so the tower doesn’t really make any sense.

You don't remember the war elephants from the classic tale?

After a botched assassination attempt, Arthur throws Excalibur into a lake because he’s a quitter, but gets it back after holding the Lady of the Lake’s hand in a mud puddle. Despite controlling an army of 100,000 soldiers, Arthur and friends win the day when The Mage controls an enormous snake that eats everyone in the castle. Somehow, Vortigern escapes and has time to run up to his daughters’ room, kill one of his daughters, take her down to the secret octopus-ladies’ cave to put his daughter’s dead body in the water, and transform, once again, into Skeletor. But, since Arthur is wearing white and is not distracted by a little boy like his father, he defeats Skeletor because magic is inconsistent. Arthur then becomes king, knights all of his friends, and builds a round table. The end.

Oh, you think I left out a part of the story? What about Merlin you ask? That’s a great question - you should ask Mr. Ritchie why he would leave the most interesting character of the entire tale out of his movie. I’m guessing because it risked making this movie seem absurd.

Rating: Ask for nine and a half dollars back and try to forget He-Man’s catch phrase that is definitely stuck in your head now.

Friday, May 5, 2017

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” - And the streak is no more (or, It’s a Trap!).

Well, it had to end sometime. Marvel was on amazing streak of great movie after great movie, but nothing goes on forever. Kind of like United States’ good standing in the world, but that’s a discussion for another time. Back in 2014, we all wondered how a movie featuring a raccoon and a talking tree could possibly be anything more than childish, mindless entertainment, and we were shocked to find out how much fun that could be with just the right mix of chemistry, writing, and directing. Everything in that movie clicked. Three years later and expectations are through the roof because we’ve been spoiled. Dance, acting monkeys, DANCE! But you’re not worried, right? We were wrong to be suspicious of the first Guardians of the Galaxy, we were wrong to be pessimistic of Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange? Pshh. It had Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton, let’s not be absurd; that movie was a tee-ball. By now, we’re Atlanta Braves fans in 2006. Fourteen years in a row making the playoffs and the division is a joke. Of course they’ll make the playoffs again. Like I said, all streaks end.

I don’t know if it’s just because Marvel got cocky or complacent, especially with DC continuing step all over itself, but everything that went right in the first Guardians failed miserably in Volume 2, and it’s very easy to find a culprit because nearly everybody returned for the sequel. James Gunn directed both, Kevin Feige produced both, and all of the actors are back. The difference lies in - surprise, surprise - the writing. The first flick was co-written by James Gunn (also directing both movies) and Nicole Perlman, whereas the second is only credited to Gunn. Considering both movies feature big action and juvenile comedy, but only the second feels like an episode of the Three Stooges featuring SpongeBob Squarepants, I’m going to go out on a limb and blame Gunn for this lousy sequel. It felt like two hours of dudes fucking around on a film set for two-plus hours and calling it a movie.

Son - do you want to have a catch?

(SPOILERS, not that it really matters. Nothing of consequence is in this movie. I’ll explain.)

The big trap to avoid with sequels is to not rehash the first movie or overdo or exaggerate elements that made the first movie great. Think every comedy sequel you’ve ever seen. Other traps to avoid are retconning your characters (like when Jobu-worshipping, chicken-sacrificing, scowling Pedro Cerrano in Major League inexplicably became a happy-go-lucky Buddhist in the sequel) and telling the same jokes. Guardians 2 belly flops into all of those traps, stands back up, then falls on the traps it missed the first time.

For starters, the movie doesn’t propel the Infinity Wars storyline at all. AT ALL. There’s one tiny reference during the end credits, but it’s so obscure that only uber-comic book nerds would get it. This movie’s plot is “hey, remember when Yondu said Quill’s dad was a prick at the end of the first movie? What if we made a whole movie about that, but stop writing any more than that because we can just throw music and dick and poop jokes out for the rest of the film?” What’s worse is that you will spend most of the movie wondering when they are going to get to anything resembling a point. For roughly ninety minutes, it’s just Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) dad, Ego (Kurt Russell), trying to bond with Peter while the rest of the characters bicker and occasionally fight with something or someone while Drax (Dave Bautista) loudly laughs at everything and baby Groot wanders around being cute. It’s funny because he’s a baby. Baby Groot. Get it? If you were eight years old you’d get it.

Awwwwwww. Look at the wittle bittie Groot.

Of course, during that entire ninety minutes, you’re waiting for Ego to reveal how much of a dick he is because the last movie already told you as much. And that’s a long time to wait, so here’s what you have to put up with. For reasons that have nothing to do with creativity, Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) are heavily featured. What’s that? You loved those characters; what’s wrong with them being in the sequel? Well, like Maleficent and the Wicked Witch of the East, they’re really good guys, they’re just misunderstood and had bad childhoods. Fuuuuuuck. Why can’t evil characters just be evil? Not everyone is misunderstood. Yes, I know Yondu revealed a slight soft spot in the first film, but do you really want to see him near tears because another Ravager shunned him? Besides Yondu, you can watch Drax and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) rarely use their fighting skills and Drax over-laugh at everything while simultaneously insulting people because he doesn’t understand metaphors. Remember how funny that was in the first movie? Double-down on that four, Mr. Blackjack dealer.

But don’t worry! Baby Groot, everyone! You loved him dancing in that little pot at the end of the first film, so here’s a truckload of baby Groot’s YouTube channel while you watch Nebula bear her soul about just wanting a sister (as she sheds a single tear) and Peter and Ego playing catch with a ball of light on Ego’s planet (a planet that looked like Willy Wonka’s fever dream after a hit of bad acid). Oh my god, folks, the Champ is down.

You're mailing it in. No, you're mailing it in.

My friend described the movie very well as “slap-sticky”, and I agree with that assessment. My other friend said he was entertained, but would not defend the movie. But more than that, the charm and heart of the first movie wasn’t just missing from this sequel, but ripped out of its body and laughed at because Drax said it looks like a penis. Or a turd. I can’t remember which, but they did talk about those two things a lot in the movie. I also think the actors knew this movie sucked. All of the chemistry was gone and they looked like they were mailing everything in, content to let Kurt Russell Wyatt-Earp his way through his scenes. It was almost as if every character/actor was really a doppleganger created by the aliens from Galaxy Quest after they watched the first movie.

You might think I hated this movie, but you’d be wrong. What I am is severely disappointed. The movie isn’t terrible, but it also doesn’t have any redeeming qualities and gets very tedious at points. It doesn’t even do a good job of using music (or even using good songs) like the first movie did. Mostly, it’s just uninteresting. It’s a movie aimed directly at eight-year olds and selling you baby Groot dolls…and that is why the streak is over.

Rating: Ask for eight dollars back and don’t act so smug, DC fans, your streak is still intact. You’re oh-for-three with three embarrassing whiffs so far.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

“The Lost City of Z” – It’s pronounced ‘zed’ if you want to be pretentious.

As you might already know, I’m a huge fan of history. Whenever there is a movie about a historical event, I’m in. I did not know that The Lost City of Z was non-fiction, having not read the book, nor did I do any research prior to the screening. All I knew about it was that it was based on a book of the same title and was about a guy either looking for a lost city near a South American river or actually finding that city. After watching the film, I now know that it’s the story of a guy looking for a lost city in South America (Bolivia to be exact) and who is also a really shitty husband and father. If you watched the previews for this film and expect to see an adventure flick, don’t hold your breath. No, seriously, don’t – it’s two hours and twenty-minutes long, but it feels like a week.

Because I like history, the first thing I did when I got home from the theater was look up the story and explorer (Percy Fawcett, played by Charlie Hunnam) to see how non-fictional the movie really was. As it turns out (and which was confirmed by several other writers), the movie is far closer to fiction than non. Percy Fawcett was a British military officer who took several trips into the South American jungle searching for a theorized ancient city he referred to as Zed. On his final trip, he took his oldest son, Jack (Tom Holland), with him and the two of them never returned. That’s it, that’s the whole story. Sure, there are stories about what happened to them, but multiple rescue missions came up empty and reports claiming to have seen them have never been verified. Now, does that sound like an interesting way to spend 140 minutes in a dark theater?

This is as close to historically accurate as this movie gets.

Based on that, it’s obvious that some creative license needed to occur for this movie to be more than a boring history lesson about a failed explorer. Unfortunately, that creative license didn’t result in expounding on the really good trailer. Instead of making the final trip the meat of the movie and spending the first act of the movie developing Percy, his family, and what it takes for him to get the trip financed, the film just meanders and rambles through Percy’s life, never deciding on what the film should actually be about. As the viewer, you want it to be an adventure tale filled with danger, drama, and near-death encounters with natives and jungle life (plant and animal). You want a reason to root for Percy to succeed, even if you know how this story ends beforehand. What you end up with is the film bouncing from his multiple expeditions to his family to the politics of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) to World War I (you read that right) over of the course of twenty years, all to tell you about someone who doesn’t really resemble the actual Percy Fawcett.

Aside from the exploration missions, the movie paints a picture of man who deserved to be murdered by his wife for continually ditching his family. I realize that in 1906, his behavior was typical, but this movie tries to paint him with modern values. His first trip is where the trouble with the writing starts. He is assigned by the army to map a river in Bolivia to help resolve a border dispute between the Bolivians and the Brazilians, and he is reluctant to leave his wife and newborn child. But, he has to restore his family’s name (restore it from what is never even hinted at), so he goes. During that trip, he finds old pottery shards and realizes that there was advanced civilization in South America at some point. When he returns home, we are told his wife (Sienna Miller) is an independent woman, verbally confirmed by both she and Percy, yet Percy denies her from accompanying him on his second trip. Also, he conceives of the trip and convinces the RGS to fund it. Any sympathy you felt for Percy for having to leave his family behind (for years) is trampled on by Percy himself.

Way too much of this scenery in a movie about jungle explorations.

However, the second trip happens and it feels like this is going to be the rest of the film. The trip includes some hardships for Percy and friends (including Robert Pattinson as his trusty sidekick), including having to drag along James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), their main financier and slothful douchebag. (Side note: Macfadyen was great and delivers the one character that evokes an emotion). A whole bunch of bad things happen, and it appears the gang are going to die, but then they decide to turn around and, poof, we’re back in England and everyone is safe. Ugh. At this point, I lost all interest and wondered how much longer the movie was going to be. Would it have an intermission? Would I need to shave at some point? Is that really the Battle of the River Somme, 1916, WWI? Did I black out and wander into a different theater?

Suffice it to say, his son Jack calls out Percy for abandoning them multiple times, and you should be nodding your head. We’re supposed to believe this guy cares about his family, but he leaves them at pretty much every opportunity, and he leaves them for months or years at a time. If Jack had stabbed Percy with a bayonet upon finding out Percy was leaving for the war, we would have justifiably applauded. Instead, Jack invites Percy to go on one more expedition to find the city and this movie still isn’t over yet.

World War I for some reason.

As if all of that isn’t enough to cram into a movie, the film dabbles in rewriting history by writing Percy as an enlightened thinker on the intelligence of the natives. Where most of the RGS (and white Europeans) referred to the natives as savages or basically beasts, Percy is arguing they are equals and just as sophisticated as Europeans. There is nothing to substantiate such a claim, and it’s a tough sell, considering that Percy barely cares about his own family. But sure, why not? The film never decides what it wants to be about, so one more subplot that goes nowhere won’t make a difference.

Normally, after watching a movie based on history, especially a book, I’d want to go read more about that history. But this story is just too boring. The reason nobody knows about Percy Fawcett is precisely because his exploits just weren’t that notable. I know the book was a best seller, but any chance of me reading that book died well before the film was over. Considering how much this movie seems to have embellished, it would have been a far better decision to just make a historical fiction inspired by Fawcett’s theory and fill the majority of the movie with a single, penultimate expedition.

Rating: Ask for seven dollars back. The movie isn’t bad, it’s just utterly meh.

Friday, April 14, 2017

“Gifted” – Good Mary Hunting

In 1999, George Carlin recorded a set called You Are All Diseased, in which he did a segment ranting about the then current obsession with children. Not that that obsession has abated at all over the last two decades, but he specifically went off about parents overloading their children with structure and play dates. After a couple of minutes of this, he hammers the point home with a quote that perfectly sums up the movie Gifted - “if you want to help your children, leave them the fuck alone.”

(Mild SPOILERS ahead.)

In Gifted, Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is raising his seven-year old niece, Mary (McKenna Grace), in Nowherespecial, Florida. Mary is a mathematical prodigy, like her mother and grandmother before her. Prior to Florida, Frank was a college professor in Boston and Mary’s mother was working on one of the so-called Millennium Prize Problems (the Navier-Stokes problem - Google it). When Mary was six months old, her mother committed suicide, prompting Frank to move to Florida with Mary to get away from her maternal grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). Somehow, Evelyn learns about Mary’s gift and decides to sue Frank for custody of Mary. Much of the film focuses on the lawsuit, while the rest of it spends ample time developing the three characters, plus Frank’s neighbor and landlord, Roberta (Octavia Spencer), and to a much lesser extent, Mary’s first-grade teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate).

Even without seeing Gifted, you should already see the parallels to Good Will Hunting. A super-smart kid is caught in a tug-of-war between two really smart people with one pushing the kid toward academic superstardom and the other pushing the kid toward being a decent human. In Gifted, Evelyn is obsessed with Mary being substituted in to continue her mother’s work because Evelyn regrets giving up her own ambitions to raise her children. Frank is just trying to be the best father he can be and believes that Mary’s mother wanted Mary to have a “normal” life, which is why he took Mary to get away from Evelyn. Mary doesn’t know what she wants because she’s seven, but then nobody ever asks her either. The only thing missing is a great story about missing a Red Sox game, which is actually really plausible in this film.

This is all your kids really want from you.

While there are some minor plot issues, almost all involving the court room scenes (Frank’s lawyer apparently doesn’t recognize badgering when he sees it), the strength of the movie lies in the characters and their performances. Roberta is the wise sage continuously warning Frank that he might lose Mary if he insists on putting Mary in public school. Spencer gives her typical great performance, including a couple of heartfelt scenes with Mary. Evans isn’t spectacular, but he gives a very solid performance, making you care about Frank’s choices and you believe that he really is trying to do right by Mary. Slate makes the most of Bonnie, but her character is the very definition of supporting from the background. Her only real moment in the film is her initial exchange with Mary where Mary answers remedial arithmetic questions, followed by much more difficult multiplication questions, and the epiphany that Mary is gifted. The good thing is that while she predictably becomes Frank’s love interest, she is never used to deliver a piece of advice or have that misunderstanding moment with Frank. She’s literally there to support him while he deals with Evelyn and she gets that.

But those three are nothing compared to Evelyn and Mary. By the climax of the film, you will be rooting so hard for Mary to stay with Frank and so hard against Evelyn that you might be actively wishing for Evelyn to get eaten by an alligator. It is Florida, mind you. When you try to think of truly loathsome villains, you probably think Joffrey or the Governor from The Walking Dead. Add Evelyn to that list because she is the person George Carlin was talking about - awful people who care nothing for the needs of the children and only about living vicariously through those children, pushing them in order to gain fame through them. Gross and well done Miss Duncan.

This is what evil looks, honey.

Topping Duncan, young McKenna crushes her role, delivering a performance that is far beyond her ten years on Earth. Mary is the kid every parent wishes for. She cuts through the bullshit, asks the right questions, and follows Frank’s rules about as good as any seven-year old can be expected. The best part is we get to watch her taking in human lessons as easily as math. In one of the best sequences of the entire film, she deals with a bully on the bus (who bullies another kid), then congratulates the kid during class on having the best project (that was wrecked by the bully). It’s the kind of touching moment that very few films can manage and I found myself wiping away tears. Yeah, I’m a parent and now I cry at scenes like that in movies, as well I should.

Among the current movie slate of subpar action films and soulless remakes, Gifted stands out as an honest bit of storytelling with very memorable characters. If Carlin were still with us, I’d like to think he’d applaud this movie for realizing his rant in the form of Evelyn and bringing home his point in the form of Frank. If anything, enjoy two great performances and take Carlin’s point to heart.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and go give your kid a hug.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

“Going in Style” – You forgot a word. (or, A movie for old people).

To quote myself from my Beauty and the Beast review, “I realize I am not the intended audience for this film.” The difference with Going in Style is that I should be. Just because the average age of its three stars (Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin, and Michael Caine) is 82 doesn’t mean that non-octogenarians can’t still enjoy a good old-guy comedy. The problem is Going in Style does everything possible to prove that wrong. I’d say the average age of the audience at the screening was 118 and they all loved it. My 38-year old self found it…somewhat amusing.

The obvious comparison to Going in Style is Grumpy Old Men. I was 14-years old when that movie came out and it slayed me. Maybe that movie was also specifically targeting old people, but it worked for everyone for two reasons – great comedic actors and great writing. Going in Style has one great comedic actor (Arkin) and is a remake of a 1979 film of the same name. I think somewhat amusing is probably an overachievement.

(SPOILERS coming for everyone of all ages.)

It's amusing that a motorized shopping cart carrying two grown men can outrun a cop.

The main problem with Going in Style is that it takes itself way too seriously. The film begins with Michael Caine going to his bank to find out why his mortgage payment has skyrocketed, finding out his pension checks stopped coming months earlier, being told he’ll be in foreclosure soon, then forced to lay on the floor as the bank is robbed. A few minutes later, he and his two pals (Arkin and Freeman) find out that the steel company they worked for was purchased by another company that has terminated the pension. I know – hilarious, right? Wrong. In case you are wondering, the original film featured three old guys who were bored and simply decided to rob a bank because they thought it would be fun. Now, which of those movies do you think is funnier?

After a while, it finally realizes that it’s supposed to be a comedy and a few funny things happen or are said here and there. When the three of them finally agree to rob Caine’s bank (which they decide on because the bank is somehow profiting off of the pension money), the movie forgets about the ominous stakes (Caine losing his house, which would also put his daughter and granddaughter out on the street) and gives us a training montage followed by a practice run where they attempt to shoplift from a grocery store. At this point, the old people in the audience were cackling in delight while I chuckled every now and then because, again, somewhat amused.

Training montage.

After those two scenes, the movie shifts into heist mode and all but stops being funny at any level. There aren’t any noteworthy hijinks, but there are a handful of decent lines that remind you that this movie has no soul. This is painfully obvious whenever Matt Dillon shows up on screen to suck the life out of everything, as he apparently thought he was in an episode of Law & Order: SVU (to be fair, the script made him do it). Equally as unfunny is every scene regarding Freeman’s kidney failure, including having some sort of attack in front of a little girl in the bank during their robbery. It’s almost as if director Zach Braff and writer Theodore Melfi were trying to tell the audience “here’s a few laughs; they might be your last.”

In case you didn’t think the main plot and kidney side-plot were depressing enough, Caine’s ex-son-in-law is a deadbeat dad who gets more than one lecture from Caine. Plus, there’s a ham-fisted sex subplot featuring Arkin and Ann-Margret, where Arkin rebuffs her sexual advances for a while, then jumps in the sack with her when she confirms that she doesn’t want a relationship, just sex. There’s no actual comedy, but the audience is supposed to laugh because old-person sex is gross. It also doesn’t help that the once-gorgeous Ann-Margret has a Botox face that makes her look like she is storing a sideways Dorito in her upper lip (possibly the most depressing part of this entire affair).

See, they're "going in style." Get it?

The crux of the problems with this movie is a combination of unfunny writing and poor casting decisions. I’m not saying Freeman and Caine are bad actors, I’m saying they’re not comedic actors. Had the writing been worth a damn, I’m sure they would have delivered a lot of laughs, but Arkin is the only true comedian here (well, Christopher Lloyd too, but his role in this film was too small to make a difference) who can riff and ad-lib to improve the script. The others can only work with what they have and what they had was merely somewhat amusing. Or as 118-year olds would say, the funniest thing since sliced bread.

Rating: Ask for $7.50 back or just go watch the original.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

“Ghost in the Shell” – Anime, manga, whatever.

What do you get when you cross Blade Runner with Robocop and sprinkle in a little Johnny Mnemonic? A movie during which I almost fell asleep. Twice. To be fair, I had to wake up before five o’clock that morning to get to a meeting, but a loss of an hour of sleep isn’t enough to explain why I had to fight nodding off during an action film. An action film starring Scarlett Johansson. There might actually be something wrong with me.

As it turns out, there’s nothing wrong with me. Ghost in the Shell is pretty boring and pretty empty. I had a shell pun all prepared, but my friend said no. Anyway, I perused a few early reviews and they all had a similar experience as me. Essentially, Ghost in the Shell is all style and little substance. Like them, I found the plot to be very lacking, the characters woefully underdeveloped, and the point of the movie missing. As an unintentional confirmation, a friend said arguably the worst defense one can possibly give for a movie – “if you saw the original, this one makes a lot more sense.” He wasn’t saying that to point out this movie’s flaws, he was saying it as evidence of how good he thought this remake was. If knowing the source material is required to understand a movie, that movie has failed at least one degree of filmmaking and probably others.

(SPOILER WARNING for everyone out there who is not an anime nerd. That same friend said the film stays very close to the 1995 version and, apparently, anyone who is a fan of anime has seen this movie so they already know what’s going to happen in this one.)

The biggest problem with Ghost in the Shell is the movie can’t decide what its plot is supposed to be. That probably has something to do with the fact that the screenplay was written by three different people and I’m betting at least one of them doesn’t give a shit about anime. It also has five different production companies, which isn’t terribly abnormal, but when two of them are Paramount and DreamWorks and two others are Chinese companies, you know there were far too many muckety-muck fingers in this pie demanding things that had nothing to do with good writing, but I digress.

I bet if we zoom in we'll find some replicants.

Here’s the plot of the first half of the movie, summed up by Major (Johansson): “They can hack into people’s minds and they won’t stop until they control everyone.” Here’s the plot of the second half of the movie, again summed up by Major: “They created me, but they cannot control me.” Don’t be fooled into thinking those are the same plot because the word ‘control’ appears in both of them. The ‘they’ in those two sentences are two completely different people and neither one of ‘them’ is actually trying to control anyone.

Right away, the movie gets off on the wrong foot by showing us title cards that explain the premise of the film, then follow that up by immediately showing us what those title cards said – cybernetic implants are all the rage and a big cybernetics corporation (Hanka) has figured out how to marry a human brain (the ghost) with a cybernetic body (the shell). In the words of CEO Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) upon the success of Major’s creation, “she’s the future of this company. She’s the perfect weapon.” The film jumps to one year later where Major is leading a team of soldiers or policeman or private security to fight crime…or something. The film never clears up the actual purpose of this team, so infer what you will and be prepared to be confused later. The first action sequence sets off plot number one where Major and team must track down a brilliant hacker, Kuze (Michael Pitt), who is murdering Hanka scientists to stop Hanka from controlling everybody. Think CSI: The Six Million Dollar Woman. I’d tell you about the rest of her team, but they are nothing more than single adjectives in the background, with the exception of her loyal sidekick, Batou (Pilou Asbaek). He has maybe three adjectives, but mostly you’ll remember him for his eye implants and white hair.

Dude - you've got something in your eyes.

Eventually, the team closes in on Kuze, but Kuze escapes after revealing himself to be a failed version of the technology that created Major. He also reveals to her that the story Hanka told her about her nearly being killed by terrorists was a lie; that she was actually a runaway living in a slum whom Hanka captured specifically to experiment on. It’s at this point that the movie switches to plot number two where Major wants to know about her past and Cutter decides Major must be killed even though he has the technology to wipe her memory and even though he spent the first half of the movie emphasizing that she was the future of the company. Eventually, Major fights a spider-tank (yes, a spider-tank), then the movie ends.

The problem with the dual plots isn’t so much that they are poorly connected, but that they want different things. The first half wants you to root for Major to stop Kuze from destroying Hanka and the second half wants you to root for Kuze to stop Hanka. As the viewer, you end up not caring about either one because neither is developed well. The plot fails as a whole because it sets you up to root for Hanka because Major works for Hanka, then asks you to hate them by contriving a clich├ęd abduction story for Major and Kuze. To top it off, it ends with Major and team still working for Hanka, but under a new CEO. The only thing clear about any of this is that nobody is trying to control people, rather they are trying to kill people. Also, Cutter is trying to maintain Hanka’s profit margin. Now you know why I had trouble staying awake.

A better movie explores the deeper meaning of a scene like this.

I’d like to tell you that the visuals of this movie are a redeeming quality, but that would be giving it too much credit. There isn’t anything wrong with them, but they don’t bring anything new or interesting to the table. If anything, they are nothing more than a modernized version of Blade Runner on steroids. And don’t even get me started on how lazy they got with Major. Her skin allows her to become invisible, yet during half of the action scenes she is inexplicably wearing body armor and jeans and not using her invisibility at all. Or wearing a strappy tank top, which is totally what a robot with no emotions would do.

The bottom line is that this movie could have been much better. A better movie would have spent more time on Major’s memory fragments and used them to show how her ghost wouldn’t let go and fought with the machine of Major. A better movie would have kept Kuze as the antagonist (a fully human one at that) who was simply just fighting Hanka on the grounds of stopping the dehumanization of cyber enhancements (which goes along with Major’s inner turmoil). A better movie would have used Batou to push Major towards her human side while using her doctor (Juliette Binoche), the doctor who created Major, to push Major the other way. A better movie would have used all of that to explore the concept of humans becoming less human. Most importantly, a better movie wouldn’t have leaned so heavily on people knowing a twenty-two year old movie (and even older TV series) and being manga nerds. Or anime. Or whatever.

Rating: Ask for seven dollars back and make sure to wake up the man next to you.