Friday, January 13, 2017

“Live by Night” – But only during the day.

There’s a throwaway line early in Live by Night when Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is lying in bed with his girlfriend, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), and Emma says something to the effect of “work by day…” She intentionally leaves off the second part of that phrase – live by night – in order to allow the viewer to automatically fill it in mentally, then go “oooh. I see what you did there.” The only problem is nearly the entire movie takes place during the day. I know – weird, right? This attention to detail is the kind of thing one might miss when one directs, produces, writes, and stars in one’s movie while also starring in Batman v Superman, The Accountant, and trying to write a kick-ass screenplay for a standalone Batman movie. Sorry Ben, you can’t do everything. You’re Batman, not Superman.

To be fair, he was only adapting a screenplay for Dennis Lehane’s 2012 novel Live by Night. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Lehane is also responsible for Mystic River and Shutter Island, as well as the short story The Drop was based on, which he also wrote the screenplay for. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, Google “nearest library.” Yes, we still have those things around.

Live by Night is the story of a gangster, Joe Coughlin, who does gangster things for 129 minutes. Those 129 minutes cover a few years of Joe’s life during the Prohibition Era and includes bank robberies, two girlfriends, a lot of bootlegging rum, two mob bosses, Joe getting his ass kicked, car chases, some KKK assholes, a lot of dead people, and Elle Fanning. Oh, and all of this happens in Boston, then Tampa. If that sounds like too much for a movie, that’s because it is. But only if you care that much about plot.

(Some SPOILERS ahead unless you read the book. Yeah, I laughed a little too as I typed that.)

You know how drunk people sometimes think they're being stealthy?

Maybe the book is better, but the film was very scattershot (no pun intended). The first act of the film covers everything you saw in the preview and that’s not a good thing because the rest of the movie is basically a different movie. Emma is the blond woman you saw, but the movie isn’t about Joe and Emma. Emma is cheating with Joe on her mob boss boyfriend, Albert White (Robert Glenister), then sells out Joe to Albert just as they are running away together. This is never adequately explained beyond one of Albert’s goons seeing them, but Joe and Emma were barely trying to hide it. At one point, they are having dinner together in a busy, fancy restaurant (they would hook up when Albert was out of town). And, besides, wouldn’t Albert have one of his men escorting her around since his competition would probably be interested in kidnapping her for leverage? Sorry, I’m caring too much about the plot.

Joe is beaten within an inch of his life and only survives because his police captain father (Brendan Gleeson) just happens to show up in the alley where they’re about to kill Joe. Joe wakes up a few days later in a prison hospital and spends three years in jail for armed robbery. Once out, the new story begins. Joe joins the Italian mob in order to exact revenge on Albert for killing Emma (Albert wasn’t about to forgive the cheating). His new boss, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) sends him to Tampa to take over his rum-running business there while simultaneously muscling Albert out of Tampa. On the surface, this seems like the logical road for a broken-hearted lover to take, but avenging Emma is soon forgotten when Joe meets Graciella Corrales (Zoe Saldana) and falls in love with her. At that point, Joe is just acting like a standard mob guy and we never actually see Albert until the end of the film. I won’t spoil the why, but it’s pretty dumb. And Joe verbalizes how dumb it is. Then bullets start to fly and bodies pile up as the movie climaxes, then we get three endings because Ben couldn’t decide how to actually end the film.

Her name was Elizabeth. No, Angela. No, something starting with M.

Like I said, there are parts of this movie that are good. The climax scene is very well done and Batman kicks some ass in that scene. There are good moments between characters, especially a diner scene between Joe and Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), the daughter of the Tampa police captain (Chris Cooper). Unfortunately, Loretta is one of the side plots that becomes the main plot for a time. At this point in the film, Joe has rid Tampa of Albert, and Joe is focused on getting a casino built. Loretta is preaching about the evils of gambling and drinking, and Joe doesn’t want to kill her. Later, the Ku Klux Klan show up because black people also drink rum and the movie becomes about racial history. It’s like if Batman was Forrest Gump, but made and sold hooch for the Italian mob.

And one Elle Fanning.

If the movie had stuck with a single plot like the love story (this could have spanned the entire film with the rum wars between the mobs woven in), it would have been a much tighter film. Then, Emma’s betrayal might have meant something to the audience rather than just being a forgotten plot device. They also could have spent more time developing the rivalry between Albert and Maso rather than trying to convince us of the animosity through occasional ethnic slurs. Even Loretta could have been a more important character (perhaps being played by both sides) rather than being an amusing anecdote in Joe’s life. The point I’m trying to make is that sometimes less is more. Live by Night is an average, but uneven movie that suffers from Ben Affleck trying prove that Batman is better than Superman. Or something like that.

Rating: Ask for half your money back. If Joe did any living by night, we never saw it.

Friday, January 6, 2017

“Hidden Figures” – At least math is colorblind.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a rising number of movies aimed at shining a spotlight on the history of racism in the United States. Well, maybe it’s more like a rising number of well publicized movies because there have been plenty of those movies prior to the last few years. Either way, it’s a good thing that this is happening because we all need to remember and acknowledge our past in order to continue progressing in the future. Sadly, it just got orders-of-magnitude more difficult what with the results of the presidential election. But, I’m not here to talk about that disaster-in-waiting, I’m here to talk about the latest movie to make me angry that people were (and still are, in some cases) such extraordinary assholes.

Hidden Figures is the story of three black women working for NASA in the 1960s. Specifically, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). All three of these women were extremely intelligent humans trying to break through systemic racism at an institution that shouldn’t have given two shits about skin color. Figuring out a rocket’s trajectory is incredibly difficult work, especially during the early days of the Mercury program (the focus of this film) – you would think the people working on that problem wouldn’t have time to cast disparaging glances at the black women getting coffee. Though, that does explain why there were so many failures in those early days.

This view of women by men still exists - in 20-effing-16!

A movie like this interests me for multiple reasons, the two biggest being that it’s about NASA and that it’s about a piece of history that I did not know. Like with the events at Selma, most schools do a shit job of teaching history – especially recent history – when the topics include components that make our country look bad. Hidden Figures does a good job of mixing subtle racism with overt racism while giving us a glimpse into the Mercury program. Things like: Katherine having to run across campus to use the colored restroom or getting the stink eye because she poured coffee from a coffee pot that, until she joined the Space Task Group, had only been touched by white men. Seriously, rocket scientists thought they would get cooties because she touched the same button on a coffee machine, even though they all had to touch the same door knob to get into the room.

I also learned a lot about the space race between us and the Russians and the tremendous pressure these people were under. These women worked at Langley (yes, that Langley) and were initially responsible for performing computing functions. Yes, like a computer does today and was about to start doing then. With the introduction of IBM mainframes, all of these women’s jobs were at risk. Dorothy saw this risk well in advance and took it upon herself to not only teach herself how to program the mainframe (and get it running initially), but teach the entire black computing group (also all women) how to program. This earned her the first black supervisory position after a lot of pushback from a supervisor named Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), who swears late in the movie that she has nothing against “you people” to Dorothy. Dorothy’s response is perfect – “you keep right on believing that.”

The way to our new jobs, not the bathroom.

Meanwhile, Mary was trying to break barriers in the engineering world, but literally had to go to court to persuade a judge to let her attend night classes at an all-white high school that were required for her to be accepted into an engineering program. 1961 wasn’t that long ago, folks, and this kind of crap pisses me off, especially because similar bullshit still happens now.

Most notably, at least in this film, Katherine was working as a number cruncher in the Space Task Group, double-checking the trajectories computed by the men in the room. While doing this, she had to put up with having her name removed from her own work and being forced to work with heavily redacted files because her skin color and gender precluded her from having the same clearance as the men in the room. Even with her help, how the fuck did we ever get a rocket off the ground with groupthink like that?

Anyway, the three actresses gave excellent performances, as did the supporting cast, most notably Dunst and Kevin Costner (playing Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group). One scene in particular stood out to me – when Al openly questions where Katherine disappears to every day (the bathroom – across campus), she gives the entire room an earful and Costner looks ashamed enough for his entire family tree. The great thing about his character is that he seems to be the one person who doesn’t care about color, but about astronauts surviving the rocket launches, and he’s in a position of power. Had the progressive person been his deputy, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), it would have been too much of a cliché. Whether Al really did take a crowbar to the colored bathroom sign or if that was just Hollywood writing, I’m glad that it happened in this film.

When you know you aced the math test.

The one complaint I have about this film is the same complaint I had about The Help and 42 – the racism was tempered down. If a movie about racism doesn’t make you uncomfortable, then it’s not showing you the raw reality of the way humans have – and still do – treat other humans. Hidden Figures was even further tempered by its PG rating (the other two films were PG-13) and relegated most of the overt racism to spliced in news footage of Civil Rights protests. I’d like to think that a place like NASA and Langley were the least racist places, but I’ve read history books and know better. I know that this movie is based on a book of the same name that includes interviews with these people and that they tried to stay true to the source material, but I would have liked their plights to be more palpable. It felt a little too watered down and I don’t think that does anyone a service.

That aside, Hidden Figures is a very good, if not by-the-numbers, flick. If you like little-told history movies with great acting, you will love this movie. If you are just a science nerd who built model rockets, you’ll like this movie too. If you’re the kind of person who thinks we’re getting too PC, especially in Hollywood, you’re the kind of asshole I mentioned earlier and should just stay home.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and don’t forget history, because there’s a chance we’re about to repeat it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

“My Year in Movies – 2016 Edition” – The unnecessary sequel.

In two of my past three year-end reviews, I mentioned that people love to complain about there being too many sequels and remakes. Though there is merit to this complaint, these same people can’t stop flocking to the theaters to watch them, which completely contradicts their whining. And it’s not just with movies, this happens in other societal facets too. People complain about high gas prices, but won’t stop driving SUVs and pick-up trucks. People complain about taxes, but keep playing the lottery and tithing at church. People constantly complain about Congress (polls routinely put Congress’ approval rating in the single digits), yet overwhelmingly re-elect the same people over and over again. Hell, they just did the same thing with the Presidential election – bitching and moaning about corruption and big business in politics, then electing a guy who literally bragged about corrupting politicians (during the primary debates) and also literally being a big business CEO. The only logical conclusion to this behavior is that people love to complain about things they actually like. And that’s why we’re all going to die.

Here are the top 10 grossing movies of 2016, (not including Rogue One, which should have no trouble cracking this list in a couple of weeks, cracking $1 billion, and might end up as the top grossing movie of the year).

Captain America: Civil War
Finding Dory
Zootopia
The Jungle Book
The Secret Life of Pets
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Deadpool
Suicide Squad
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Doctor Strange


That’s two completely new movies, three sequels, one remake, and four franchise additions. And, the two new movies happen to be formulaic cartoons, which get inflated box offices because of all parents taking their children. Actually, now that I’m looking at this list, doesn’t it seem like Hollywood might be run by children and nerds? Anyway, keep going down the list for the full year’s results. With the exception of the random Chinese movie, you have to go all the way to number 31 – Sully – to find a movie that isn’t a franchise/sequel/remake/cartoon. You might point out that standalone franchise movies (like Doctor Strange in the Marvel universe) shouldn’t count and I might agree with you. But, that sequel/remake complaint is always part of a conversation titled “Hollywood has no creativity or originality anymore.” If you want to know my rebuttal to that conversation, check out my 2014 Year in Review, but that’s not the conversation I want to have. I also don’t think there are too many sequels and remakes because there are plenty of those that are very good (like Finding Dory). The conversation I want have is about the sequels and remakes that are completely unnecessary and this year was chalk full of them.

To begin with, sequels to comedies should never happen. This year featured Zoolander 2, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, Barbershop: The Next Cut, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Bridget Jones’ Baby, and Bad Santa 2. In full disclosure, I watched none of those movies, and only a total of 5 minutes of Zoolander 2, so maybe I missed the first-ever good comedy sequel. But, I doubt it. The reason those movies should never have been made is for the same reason I didn’t see them – I had no desire to hear the same jokes and premises rehashed for two hours. Judging by the box office returns, neither did you.

Next, we have unnecessary sequels to really good standalone movies. This includes Now You See Me 2, Alice through the Looking Glass, Blair Witch, and Independence Day: Resurgence. These movies ranged from disappointing to dry heaving. These are naked money grabs based on the false notion that there are mobs of people out there wondering “what happened to these characters years later?” Could you imagine if studios decided to try to capitalize on a Shawshank follow-up where we get to see what happens to Red and Andy in Mexico? Don’t you throw up in here – you swallow it like a girl would.

To be fair, it’s very possible to make good sequels to exactly those types of movies, though they are almost universally inferior to the originals and they are almost universally action flicks about cops. Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon, Ocean’s Eleven, and Die Hard come to mind (though the second installment of any of those was not necessarily the decent sequel). Cop movies work for the same reason CSI and NCIS routinely lead TV ratings – their procedural nature is perfect for multiple stories featuring the same characters (this is also why franchises like James Bond and those featuring superheroes work).

Then, there are the sequels that studios make out of sheer inertia to initial movies that weren’t good, but made a lot of money. I’m also going to throw in horror, cheap action flicks, and cheap comedies (usually spoofs) because they get sequels for the same reason – easy profit. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ouija, The Mechanic, Madea, Ride Along, and Snow White and the Huntsman all got sequels this year and you probably forgot or didn’t know about any of them. Hopefully, this year changed that thinking a little bit after Turtles and Huntsman both failed at the box office (at best they broke even, which is a failure).

Finally, we have the worst of the bunch – the remakes or reboots. Back in 2012, I created Rules for When Remakes are Okay in my review of The Amazing Spider-Man. 2016 was teeming with remakes that should never have been made – The Jungle Book, Ghostbusters, Pete’s Dragon, Ben-Hur, The Birth of a Nation, and The Magnificent Seven – all of which break at least one of my rules. The easiest ones to bash are Ben-Hur and The Birth of a Nation. The original Ben-Hur won eleven Oscars and The Birth of a Nation was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for its cultural significance. There is no possible way to improve upon those movies (and both remakes were miserable box office performers). Ghostbusters is also an easy target since the original is a comedy classic and the remake was less humorous than 12 Years a Slave. The Jungle Book was a massively successful film in 1967 (as was this year’s remake) and I maintain that the remake was a far inferior story (they ruin the ending) and lacking the charm of the original. The Magnificent Seven is a remake of a remake of Seven Samurai, another film that is considered one of the all-time greats. And, even if it wasn’t, the original Magnificent Seven is a cult classic that is shown on television more often than any movie except The Wizard of Oz. That leaves Pete’s Dragon, which doesn’t actually break any of my rules, but falls under the category “who even asked for this?” Then again, nearly all movies fall under that category, so I’ll give it a pass.

The bad news is that this trend is going to continue into 2017. There are plenty of sequels and franchise entries that won’t surprise anyone. There are also plenty of sequels and remakes/reboots that will make you facepalm and say “seriously?” The good news is that many of those sequels and franchise entries are going to be very good and you’ll forget you were mad. The better news is that none of the remakes are of Oscar winners or classics, though definitely be skeptical of Jumanji and It. The best news of all is that there are plenty of non-remake/sequels/franchise movies for you to choose from as well. You just need to put your money where your mouth is or we’re all going to die.

My Top Five Six
I broke my own record for watching movies this year, topping out at seventy-five movies. Like last year, there were a lot of very good movies this year and it was hard picking the best of the best. Unlike last year, I couldn’t whittle it down to just five, so I gave up trying. Here are my top six movies of 2016.
Deadpool – It’s not my top movie of the year, but it’s my favorite movie of the year. Deadpool exceeded my expectations so awesomely that they broke. Thanks to work travel, I watch Deadpool several times on flights, plus a couple of times at home. Think about that 75 number again.
Captain America: Civil War – Of the three superhero movies featuring superheroes fighting with each other, this is the only one that didn’t crap the bed. In fact, it did the opposite. The battle royale scene alone was worth the price of admission and as if that wasn’t enough, Marvel has gotten so good at movies that they even managed to fix Spider-Man in this film. We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!
Sausage Party – The spiritual cousin of South Park, Sausage Party presents some biting social commentary in the form of foul-mouthed food trying to have sex with other foul-mouthed food. Scratch that, they don’t just try, they succeed. And not just on the sex part.
Arrival – When taking all film components into consideration, Arrival is the best movie of the year. Amy Adams crushes this film and the presentation of the aliens and their language is fantastically realized and incredibly unique. It also doesn’t hurt that I love science fiction, which pushed this flick over top for me.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – It’s been almost a month since I watched it and I’m still nerding out at how nearly perfect this movie was. If CGI Princess Leia hadn’t cameo’d at the end (it’s a word now), I might have put it above Arrival. Still though – just seeing the Death Star actually doing Death Star and an ending that perfectly fits a war movie….aaaaaahhhhhhhh.
The Lobster – This movie is the reason I went to a top 6, having to add it in here at the last minute after a recent viewing. Featuring dry, British wit and a wickedly creative and startlingly random premise, I love every minute of this film. The biggest surprise is that Colin Farrell has a legitimate chance at winning an Oscar after his performance. Yeah – that Colin Farrell.

You Almost Made It
Here’s where you can really tell how much trouble I had deciding my top movies of the year. If you named any of these movies as being in your top movies of the year list, I would just nod at you. As I watch movies throughout the year, I populate all of these categories and several of the movies here were at the top of my list at some point. What ended up being the discriminator was how likely I would be to watch a given movie multiple times. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t watch all of these again, just not as many times as my top 6.
Bad Moms – There’s something to be said about watching movies with a crowd of people and watching movies by yourself. I think comedies should be watched as a group. For this movie, that group should be moms drinking wine. You’ll thank me later.
The Infiltrator – A very tense and well-acted movie that nobody saw because some idiot thought it would be a good idea to release the film in mid-July and barely market it. On a list of movies that people should have watched, this one is near the top.
Sully – This is the movie that Flight wanted to be, even following the same story of a crash investigation and trying to place blame on the pilot. The difference is Sully really happened and makes you care about the pilot. It also will scare the crap out of you if you are a nervous flier.
The Girl on the Train – A great mystery movie that keeps the audience in suspense until the end. Emily Blunt was fantastic and carried this movie. If you thought Gone Girl was good, check this one out because I thought it was better.
War Dogs – I like movies that depict historical events that I know nothing about because it makes me go read about the actual events. This one is definitely one of the more fascinating stories and also manages to pull the curtain back a bit on the military industrial complex. Also, Miles Teller might just be out of the doghouse (pun intended) for this flick.
The Accountant – For a movie with such a boring title, it packs quite a punch. Ben Affleck and Anna Kendrick are really good and you definitely won’t be bored watching it. It also proves that Affleck’s good turn as Batman wasn’t a fluke.
Passengers – Wow are people missing the point of this movie. While everyone is focusing on the surface love story and complaining that Chris Pratt’s character’s sin is unforgivable, they are completely ignoring the question that the movie is asking that makes it so fascinating. Besides that, Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are fantastic, not to mention really easy on the eyes. Yes, science fiction always does better with me than most critics, but this movie didn’t need that bump.
Zootopia – When you have a four-year old, you tend to watch the same movie over and over (and over). The impressive thing is I liked it a lot the first time and didn’t want to kill myself after the 37th viewing. Even now I could still watch it again and enjoy it.

The Squirmers
These movies were very good, but every one of them is tough to watch for one reason another. And, just like the previous category, rewatchability played a big factor in my rankings here. So, they get a separate category so you don’t mistake them for family affair.
The Revenant – Yeah, yeah, I know this movie is technically a 2015 movie, but I didn’t see it until 2016 because that’s when it was released to actual moviegoers (January 8), even the advanced screening (January 5). Why was this one tough to watch? You mean other than Leonardo DiCaprio climbing inside a horse carcass?
Free State of Jones – This one is a tough watch because it should make you very angry about our past and present with regards to racism. But it’s worth watching if only because there is some history there that nobody is ever taught and we really shouldn’t be forgetting these lessons.
The Light Between Oceans – This flick features two miscarriages, a refusal to report a baby found adrift, a refusal to tell the birth mom her child is still alive, and a couple torn apart through a combination of guilt, betrayal, and sacrifice. I don’t want to watch a movie that makes me cry that much more than once.
Denial – Movie number two that should make you very angry. Like Free State of Jones, this one is based on a true story, but is about a dickhole Holocaust denier suing an historian for libel because she called him a dickhole for denying the Holocaust. It also has the added bonus of said dickhole being scarily similar to a certain President-Elect and not in any good ways.

Surprisingly Decent
It’s almost impossible to go into a movie without some sort of expectations. Usually, it’s due to something you saw in a trailer, actors who are in the movie, or the director. In this case, my expectations were all low or guarded expectations going into them and was pleasantly surprised at the end. Some of these were even better than decent.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi – Does it really surprise you that the first movie I would list here is a Michael Bay movie? The man has made some very entertaining flicks, but he’s also made some of the worst things ever put to film. This is one of the former and has the added bonus of putting some context behind the events that unfolded that night in Libya without coming off as hyperpartisan (in either direction).
Money Monster – I love that this film made fun of the ridiculous financial shows that appear on CNBC and Fox News, including the talking heads that pretend to know anything about investing and the markets. Just don’t be the guy in the movie who lost all his money, then decided to strap a bomb to his chest and take hostages in order to get it back because he took stock advice from an asshat with a buzzer.
Don’t Breathe – This movie would have gone into my squirmers if it had been a little better, due to one scene in particular in the third act (if you haven’t seen it, just know that it involves a turkey baster). As it is, it’s a good enough cabin-in-the-woods, horror flick that will leave keep you on the edge of your seat for most of the film.
The Nice Guys – I was enjoying the crap out of this movie until the epilogue took a giant eraser to the rest of the film. A word of advice – if you decide to check it out, turn it off after the climax wraps up or you’ll be where I am.
Office Christmas Party – Two years in a row now we’ve had hilarious Christmas themed comedies that are the opposite of family holiday flicks. Think Christmas Vacation, but if the whole movie revolved around Uncle Eddie.
Trolls*Everybody! Move your hair and feel united! Oh-whoa-OH!* This is a good time to tell you that I became an official movie critic this year (by joining the Denver Film Critic Society), which means I started receiving screeners in the mail for awards purposes. One of those movies was Trolls and, also because…four-year old. I’m not sick of it yet. *Hair up!*
Captain Fantastic – I’m quite certain you’ve never heard of this movie, but come on – it’s right there in the title. Okay, the title is overselling it, and the story is not about what you think it is. But if you were wondering what happened to Viggo Mortensen, he’s still doing movies. You’re probably still not going to watch it, are you?

Movies for Me
Many of these movies are for you too. A couple of them are even really good and probably belong in the almost made it category. For the other ones, I believe everyone should have guilty pleasure movies. This is how you know I’m not a film snob, even if I am a bonafide film critic now.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – I had to start with this one because it’s the epitome of this category. I do wish they’d stuck to the book a little more because the book was marvelous, but it was still a really fun and silly movie.
10 Cloverfield Lane – Take away the tacked on ending (most of what happens outside the bunker) and this would have ended up higher. I even liked that tacked on ending, but a whole lot of people didn’t and get that. But I’d watch this movie again and so should you.
Doctor Strange – Positives: Benedict Cumberbatch, great visuals, very entertaining. Negatives: cloud monster that eats planets. The cloud monster never works and that’s why this movie is here.
The Huntsman: Winter’s War – Emily Blunt, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Jessica Chastain, fantasy. Moving along…
Allied – There is some Oscar buzz around Allied, but it doesn’t deserve it. I like World War II movies and Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard are great, but this movie was not great, just good. If it had tied its two halves together better, you might be able to talk me into some gold statuettes.
Eye in the Sky – If you ever wanted to know what goes on behind the curtains of the decision of a drone strike on terrorists, this is your movie. While Eye in the Sky is a good title, Red Tape would have been more accurate.
Zero Days – I’m not sure I’ve ever included a documentary in my year-end wraps (or any reviews for that matter), but here you go. This one is about the Stuxnet virus that we (allegedly) used to attack Iran’s nuclear program. This stuff fascinates me and this film gives you some a great look at how our government (and Israel’s, allegedly) behaves. And, if you’re paying attention, you’ll understand why the Iran nuclear deal had to be done (hint: cyberwar).
Anthropoid – If you love war movies about somewhat obscure topics, Anthropoid is the film for you. It covers the only assassination of a high-ranking Nazi in then-occupied Czechoslovakia, as well as the immediate aftermath. Now that you’ve heard of it, you can watch it and thank me after.

Meh…
Flip a coin on these films. All of these movies were decent, though a couple of them are wildly overrated. None of them spoke to me in any way, but maybe they spoke to you.
The Magnificent Seven – An uninspired remake with a title exaggerating its characters. Not even Chris Pratt could save this flick from being lifeless and forgettable. The title isn’t even all that accurate since Haley Bennett is more magnificent than at least three of the seven and she isn’t one of the seven.
Masterminds – I rated it as slightly better than meh, but for our purposes here, it’s still meh. The stink of Saturday Night Live’s lackluster writing is all over this film (though their Trump skits have been exquisite), not to mention half of its cast is three-fourths of the unfunny Ghostbusters quartet. Let’s move on before I start rethinking that slightly-better-than-meh rating.
InfernoThe Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons were great books and very good films. The main reason for that is they are tight stories. Inferno is not tight, mostly due to a gaping plot hole that, once realized, is as bad as water-allergic-aliens invading Earth (Signs).
Demolition – Rereading my review, I thought it was a solid enough flick, but I had to reread my review because I barely remember anything about it. That’s pretty much the definition of meh.
The Boy – I watched this one for my Movie Fixers podcast and we all agreed that there were many things that needed a fix. But, none of us thought it was a bad movie either, so this seems like the perfect place for it.
Hell or High Water – Maybe I’m missing something because I was not impressed with this film. There isn’t anything wrong with it, but I thought the end was far too convenient. I’m also not a fan of movies where the cops are always a step behind and never catch up at the end.
Hacksaw Ridge – If you wanted to get a feel for how brutal was World War II in the Pacific, look no further than Hacksaw Ridge. Other than that, it’s a not particularly well-written movie about a combat medic who rescues 75 wounded men without ever touching a weapon. Cool story, but it felt far too much like Pearl Harbor and that’s not a compliment.

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. All of them were very short on story, incredibly redundant, or based on hugely popular video games that also have no real story. People are starting to recognize some of these films earlier and spending their money elsewhere, but we still have a lot of work to do to get this category down to zero entries.
The Jungle Book – I am definitely in the minority on this one, but I was not impressed with this movie. Yes, the special effects were phenomenal, but the rest of the film was very ho-hum. It lacked charm, the ending was very obviously there to set up sequels (even though the original cartoon ending can just as easily be used for sequels), and the singing was exactly what you’d expect from too old actors who can’t sing. The bare necessities is exactly what this movie delivered (pun intended).
Warcraft – Another video game movie adaptation, another box office bummer. Well, except for the Chinese box office – they watched the crap out this movie. I didn’t hate this movie, but if even I can’t find the fun in a fantasy movie, you know it wasn’t good.
Jason Bourne – The biggest mystery of the Jason Bourne series isn’t “who is Jason Bourne,” it’s “why do the showrunners continue to ignore the source material to use as future stories?” The well is dry guys.
Allegiant – My expectations for the Divergent series is so low that I didn’t think this movie was all that bad. Of course, I can barely remember watching it, which tells you all you need to know.

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. Of course, I missed a ton of the sequels and remakes this year, which probably means this category (and the previous one) could have been much longer.
The Legend of Tarzan – Like with The Jungle Book, I’m in the minority, but this time I’m with those who thought this movie was perfectly fine. If you want to argue that Tarzan is no longer relevant, I’m with you. If you want to point out this movie is a Tarzan sequel and that’s weird, no argument here. If you think that the writers didn’t try very hard to modernize a century-old story, I will disagree with you and remind that you didn’t seem to think that was a problem with the didn’t-try-at-all-to-tell-a-new-story remake of The Jungle Book.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – It’s unfortunate that J.K. Rowling isn’t more creative (she’s the sole writer on this) and caved in to tying this film into Harry Potter too much, but it was a pretty good movie otherwise. Well, except for the Johnny Depp thing. That is inexcusable.
The Angry Birds Movie – This is an example of critics having corks up there asses and their noses too high, with just 43% of critics giving it a thumbs up. What’s weird is the consensus of the movie on Rotten Tomatoes is “The Angry Birds Movie is substantially more entertaining than any film adapted from an app has any right to be.” That alone should mean at least a 51%, right? I get math, but I don’t get why a lot of critics hate fun.
Finding Dory – Count me as one of the skeptics of this movie being anything but redundant and very unnecessary, but it actually managed to be quite good. Chalk it up in the win column for sequels (which is still wildly outnumbered by bad sequels).
Star Trek: Beyond – I have no idea why people thought this movie wasn’t very good because, when asked, their response was it was like an episode from one of the shows. Yeah?....And? That’s a good thing. How is being “too Star Trek” a bad thing?

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. You also might notice that three of these movies are heavily talked about in awards conversations, just not mine.
Triple 9 – It looked like it was going to be a high-octane, corrupt cop movie, but that octane was roughly eight. The trailers for this film are why it ended up disappointing – they promised a heist movie and only managed to steal from the audience.
Nocturnal Animals – The second most disappointing film of the year for me, especially after hearing the initial opinions of it. I wouldn’t argue with people applauding the acting, but the story was dull and the structure of the film was amateurish. It seemed to be made specifically for an introductory film class on symbolism and analogy. What a shame.
The Witch – Like last year’s It Follows, the majority of critics wildly overrated this indie horror flick that is not even remotely scary, but is definitely boring. The Witch has the added bonus of its characters all speaking in 17th century Puritan English (is thouest a word?) – the father of the featured family growling all of his words out – so you can’t understand most of what they are saying. But it’s all okay because the end is too stupid for you to even want to understand.
X-Men: Apocalypse – As an X-Men fan, this movie was only a little bit of a letdown because it’s filled with X-Men doing X-Men things. That being said, Apocalypse was just a bad character and nothing like the teaser at the end of Days of Future Past. But it’s definitely not the worst X-Men movie we’ve seen.
Green Room – Another overrated film, though not nearly as much as The Witch. Green Room fails to engender its protagonists with the audience, so when they become the victims trapped in the proverbial cabin in the woods, you only care because the people trying to kill them are neo-nazi shit bags. Think of like this year’s election – you probably only cared that someone didn’t win because that someone was awful.

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.”
The Forest – Essentially a knockoff of The Blair Witch Project, but without the groundbreaking marketing campaign or invention of a new film technique (found-footage), The Forest assures you that you’ve wasted your time by RAWR-ing in the final frame.
Central Intelligence – I do not understand people who think Kevin Hart is funny and I do not understand people who go to a movie to see Dwayne Johnson (The Rock). Yet, those people exist and that’s how we keeping getting movies starring one or both of them.
The Finest Hours - $52 million box office on an $80 million budget. It’s a good thing Disney also owns Marvel and Lucasfilm so they can laugh off losses like this. Still though, maybe it wasn’t a great idea to make a movie about a Coast Guard rescue of a fishing boat that took place in 1952. That’s the kind of story your grandpa tells you, not the kind you spend $80 million on.
Love and Friendship – Based on a Jane Austen novel. That’s all you need to know.
Jackie – I’m sure Jackie Kennedy was a fascinating person, but you wouldn’t know it from this film. What I do know is that Natalie Portman managed an uncanny impersonation of Jackie and should probably return Jackie’s soul now that she’s done with it.
Fences – Denzel Washington spends the first two hours of this movie telling stories and complaining to his friend and family. He does this in his backyard and inside his house. I am not making that up, that’s all that happens in this movie until he dies fifteen minutes before the credits roll. Considering how boring this movie is, the play it is based on must be coma-inducing to see in person.
Now You See Me 2 – This movie was a waste of time for the same reasons Ocean’s 12 was a waste of time. It’s a revenge plot by the guy who got ripped off in the previous film. Plus, they couldn’t even get Isla Fisher to come back, so they had to shoehorn in Lizzy Caplan to still have four horseman. But that’s nothing compared to what they did with Morgan Freeman’s character. He goes from minor villain in the first film to head of the magic clan in the second film and we all just threw up in our mouths a little bit. Oh, sorry, Spoiler Alert.
Moana – I think all little kids are preprogrammed to watch movies or TV shows they like dozens of times without stopping and not just because they know how to drive their parents crazy. My son did it with Finding Nemo, Cars, The Incredibles, Frozen and many, many more. He was so utterly bored with Moana that he it took us three days just to get through it once, and when I asked if he liked it, he said “can we watch Trolls again?”

Not the Worst, But You Sure Tried Hard
Like the really good movies this year, I had a really hard time coming up with the worst movies of the year. I tried to find positives in these films and succeeded, but not without getting a headache.
Hail, Caesar! – I realize there is a weird infatuation with the Coen brothers’ movies, but I can still count the movies of theirs I liked on one finger (O Brother, Where Are Thou?). Hail, Caesar! is another example of film geeks making movies for other film geeks and congratulating each other for it. Positive: points for film nerdery.
Suicide Squad – In a normal year, this movie would end up in the letdowns as it is easily the most disappointing movie of the year. But it’s also shitty on most film levels. Terrible story. Terrible villain. Terrible logic used to justify the squad even existing within the DC extended universe (DCEU). Positive: not as shitty as Batman v Superman.
How to be Single – For the love of god, please stop making ensemble romantic comedies. They never, ever work and this one is no exception. Positive: Rebel Wilson tried hard.
Into the Forest – The first screener I’ve ever watched from the comfort of my couch and I regret it. I hate films that have no plot and this is one of those films. Exactly three things happen in a film where the electricity goes out for good (i.e. apocalypse movie) and the rest of the time is spent watching two girls argue about using their last bit of gasoline to listen to music. Positive: Their father dies by chainsaw in an “accident.”
Alice Through the Looking Glass – Why must Disney insist on centering franchises around quirky Johnny Depp characters that are supposed to be secondary characters? Pirates of the Caribbean has been disappointing since after the first film and now they’ve tanked Alice in Wonderland by insisting it’s really all about the Mad Hatter. It isn’t. It’s in the title: Alice. Pay attention. Positive: I like Alice in Wonderland in general and this film wasn’t completely awful.

Pooping on the Silver Screen
And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for – the five worst movies of the year. To be fair, the last two in this list are far worse than anything else I saw this year. And I could easily have put any of the previous five into this category. I just had a harder time thinking of positives for these so I stopped trying.
The 5th Wave – Prior to seeing this film, I was very curious about reading the book. I no longer want to read the book.
London Has Fallen – This movie could have been in my sheer money grab films, but nooooo. They had to invent a scenario that was even less believable than the idiocy presented to us in its predecessor. This also means Gerard Butler is featured in two of the worst movies of the year (Gods of Egypt). Good for you, Gerry.
The Ones Below – It sounded good on paper – a thriller involving the strange neighbors living below a couple expecting their first baby. There was a real Hand that Rocks the Cradle vibe in the description regarding said baby. The film ended up being so un-thrilling that, less than halfway through, I fast-forwarded to the end of the film just to see how it ended. Wish I had just shredded the disk instead.
Gods of Egypt – For $144 million, you’d think at least the special effects would be good, but no. That was just the terrible icing on this shit-cake of a movie. I also think it’s safe to say that Gerard Butler has burned the last sliver of credibility he earned from 300 and P.S. I Love You.
Ghostbusters – Hey, look. The people mainly responsible for Bridesmaids made another piece of shit masquerading as comedic cinema. Except, this time, they took a dump all over a classic comedy rather than just dumping on their own creation. Don’t kid yourself into thinking this movie wasn’t that bad. When the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man is all but tea-bagging the heroes, it’s that bad.

Pooping on the Silver Screen: The Sequel
This is the bonus category for movies that were made as sheer money grabs, but were also terrible movies in general. They are the shitty sequels that keep getting made because you won’t stop watching them. I expanded my top five to a top six, so consider these three of the worst eight movies of the year.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Unlike Suicide Squad, I expected this movie to suck. But, it sucked so much harder than I imagined it could. After the Suicide Squad debacle, I’m terrified of how they’re going to fuck up Wonder Woman.
Zoolander 2 – I tried watching this movie on an international flight and couldn’t make it more than five minutes before switching to anything else. FIVE MINUTES.
Independence Day: Resurgence – It pains me that this movie was made at all. I expected it to be terrible and it was worse than I imagined. If someone shows you a script and that script says “dinosaur-sized alien chases a school bus through the desert,” you call security to show them out of the building.


So, was 2016 better or worse than 2015, as movies go? I’d go with better, but it’s very close. I saw far more really good movies and far fewer really bad movies. A lot of that has to do with me deliberately missing obviously shitty movies, but that’s really my whole point this year. As fun as it is to skewer movies like that in reviews, I don’t want to watch one every week. It also helps when the studios decline to offer advance screenings of those same movies. Independence Day: Resurgence is the perfect example of a movie I absolutely would have watched had they screened it (I ended up watching it on a long flight instead). Lionsgate tends to be responsible for many of the terrible action flicks and sequels and our local screening agency doesn’t screen Lionsgate movies. Suffice it to say, there were plenty of awful movies this year that you were on your own with when deciding if should pay to watch them.

It’s officially 2017 now and I will be watching a number of Oscar-bait movies in the next couple of months, followed by a composite review of them (including some that showed up here). As always, this year I’m hoping that the writers will try a little harder and the main-stream critics will be a little less snobby. I’m hoping Warner Brothers fixes the DCEU because there’s no reason they can’t make good movies (the removal of Zack Snyder at the helm is a step in the right direction). I’m hoping the Alien and Bladerunner sequels aren’t completely garbage, that Dunkirk is much more Saving Private Ryan than Hacksaw Ridge, that the It remake isn’t a waste of time, and that The Dark Tower is at least half as good as the book and worth the years of waiting through persistent rumors. Most of all, I’m hoping for more good science fiction like Arrival, Interstellar, Passengers, and The Martian. I wish we could get more than a couple per year, but just one of those is worth sitting through any ten sequels. If nothing else, Star Wars: Episode VIII is just a year away and that’s a sequel worth waiting for. Unless, of course, we all die first. Happy movie-ing everyone.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

“Passengers” – Are we there yet?

The best science fiction usually focuses on a question or topic having to do with psychology or society and dressing it in technology or science and placing it in a fictional world. District 9 tackled apartheid through the lens of alien refugees living in slums. Interstellar wondered if humans were capable of saving themselves when staring extinction in the face. Most recently, Arrival took a look at xenophobia and how fear of the unknown makes people do really stupid things. This week, Passengers asks what you would do if you accidentally woke up from stasis 30 years into a 120-year flight? If you’ve been reading me for a while, you know that I have a soft spot for science fiction and this film sat right on that spot.

(I really liked this movie, so I will keep the SPOILERS to a minimum, but there are a couple I cannot avoid. So, see this movie, then come back. I’ll wait *wink*.)

That’s the question facing Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) when his stasis pod malfunctions and wakes him up way too early (89 years and 8 months too early). The ship he is on is carrying 5000 passengers and over 250 crewmembers, all of whom are in stasis for the long journey to a colony planet called Homestead II. The very first question you will ask as an audience member is: can he go back into stasis? No, he can’t and the movie explains why (lack of required equipment). Then, you will ask why they wouldn’t have spares on this trip or the necessary equipment, to which the answer is the pods have never malfunctioned and include multiple redundant failsafes. Guess who just won the galaxy’s worst lottery? Also, this movie is taking care of potential plot holes, which I couldn’t be happier about.

Being a mechanic, Jim does exactly what you expect he would do – try to solve the problem. He tries to fix the pod, rig the pod to restart, access the crew quarters where the crew is (passengers are denied access), look for spares, and look for alternatives. This goes on for more than a year, during which time he frequents the ship’s bar and talks with the closest thing to a conscious human on the ship – an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen). As his efforts continue to fail, we see him losing hope both mentally and physically and we are laser-focused on that question – if you were alone a ship in space knowing you would die before getting to your destination, what would you do? Your choices are wake someone else up, commit suicide, or continue living alone with no purpose and limited activities at your disposal (a fun detail they add is that he is the equivalent of economy class, so doesn’t have access to many of the things on the ship), constantly thinking of the other two choices.

It sure looks like he tried everything.

Since you’ve seen the previews and know Jennifer Lawrence is in this movie, you know what choice he makes. Like I said, I really liked this movie, but I think there were two missed opportunities in this film. The first has to do with waking someone up. During his hopelessness, he stumbles across Aurora Lane’s (Lawrence) pod. Since you’ve seen Jennifer Lawrence, you know how beautiful she is, especially in this movie as a first-class passenger, so you’ll understand that Jim starts researching her. Seriously, she is gorgeous in this film; you’d do the same thing. Anyway, if I could have contributed to this story, I would have had Jim investigating all of the passengers and just zeroing in on Aurora. And, maybe, in the long version of this story, he does. If it were me on that ship, that’s what I’d have done in my boredom. To me, this would have added much more depth to the feelings he developed for her prior to waking her up. It also would have added some potential fun as he learned about other passengers.

Everything is beautiful in this movie.

The thing you need to know about this movie is that the surface story is a romance. You probably already know this because you’ve seen the trailers. That being the case, it follows the standard romance formula. Meeting, getting to know each other, falling in love, break-up, attempt at redemption. The second missed opportunity happens during the break-up and it’s that the movie doesn’t spend enough time during this phase. I know that’s also standard romance movie procedure, but this movie’s main premise is delving into the psychology of the situation and this is a fascinating component of this scenario. (SPOILER) After learning the truth about how she woke up, Aurora is confronted with just as difficult a choice as Jim, but with a bonus choice. Commit suicide, wake someone else up, spend the rest of her life alone on the ship (she at least has more entertainment choices due to her class), or take Jim back. Considering that Jim gave her a death sentence by waking her up, you can understand how pissed off she would be at him, but after time, she was going to end up in the same position as him. How great would it have been to see her struggling with herself as she begun to rationalize Jim’s despair and loneliness as she experienced it herself?

I think she wants to kill you Jim.

For as much time as the film spent with Jim, an equal amount of time should have been spent with Aurora. Instead, the film jumps to the big event that allows Jim the opportunity to redeem himself. Of course, this being a spaceship movie, and given that the film sprinkles in shots of the ship’s computer depicting more and more ship failures (the movie starts with the ship getting hit by a meteor, which is what led to Jim’s pod malfunction), that event is obviously Jim trying to save the ship from exploding. Plus, you’ve seen the trailers so you already know they have to deal with the ship failures. I never said this movie wasn’t predictable.

Redemption time.

Based on all that, the movie sounds decent at best, but what elevated this movie for me were the stunning visuals of the interior and exterior of the ship and the performances of the three main actors (Laurence Fishburne enters in the third act, playing a crew member). I liked the story and the first and second acts were done quite well (the third act was a little over-the-top, but still fine). Pratt did a fantastic job of emoting despair, then emoting the internal torture of his decision before and after waking Aurora. Lawrence equaled Pratt and more (her reaction to the truth was so perfect it was almost scary) and their chemistry together was amazing. There’s also an extremely cool and slightly terrifying swimming pool scene. Put all that together and you’ve got a very good movie that can sit on my spot as long as it wants.

Rating: Worth your money with or without a soft spot.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” – Sooooooo worth the wait.

Has it already been a year since Star Wars: The Force Awakens? It doesn’t seem like that long ago that we were all giddily applauding the resurrection of one of the greatest and nerdiest movie franchises of all time. Okay, maybe not all of us – 8% of critics and 11% of audience members (on Rotten Tomatoes) gave it a thumb’s down and probably kicked a puppy for good measure. For the rest of us, the countdown to Rogue One began the moment the proverbial curtain closed on TFA because, like the addicts we are, we wanted our next fix. Finally, that clock has hit 00:00:00:00 and we nerds rejoice.

(I will keep the SPOILERS to a minimum, but beware.)

My favorite conversation about this movie right now is the bizarre notion that Rogue One is a standalone movie in the Star Wars universe. If you have been paying even the tiniest bit of attention, you know that this movie can only be a prequel to A New Hope. The entire plot is how the rebellion manages to steal the plans to the Death Star and (SPOILER ALERT) you know they succeed because A New Hope opens with Princess Leia hiding those plans in R2-D2. If you somehow forgot that or didn’t know it, you probably aren’t going to watch this movie anyway.

On a related topic, I predicted that everyone was going to die by the end of Rogue One because of a line spoken in the original trilogy by Mon Mothma – “Many bothans died to bring us this information.” I would have sworn that this came from A New Hope and I think most people believed that as well (I confirmed this by asking several people about it). As it turns out, that line was said in Return of the Jedi and was referencing Death Star II. Whoops. I’m not going to tell you how right or wrong I was, but I will say I wasn’t surprised at any death in this film because of my prediction. I’m telling you this so you don’t make the same mistake. The impressive thing about this film is that the characters were written so well that, even though I was expecting them all to die, I still hoped they would all pull through. You know what I mean – every time you watch A New Hope there’s a small part of you that thinks Obi-Wan will hightail it out of there rather than letting Darth Vader kill him.

More.

The most important thing you need to know about this movie is that fix you’ve been waiting for is the equivalent of mixing Viagra with Ecstasy while drinking absinthe and consuming edibles – all through a firehose. There are AT-ATs, AT-STs, and death troopers. There are TIE fighters, X-Wings, Y-Wings, star destroyers hovering over cities, and the Death Star rising over the horizon. There is a new snarky droid (K-2SO), a new evil imperial commander (Orson Krennic), a new roguish pilot (Cassian Andor, who is dressed like a Han Solo worshipper), a new orphaned hero (Jyn Erso), and a new guy who might be a Jedi (Chirrut Imwe). There are even familiar characters making cameos (Vader, to name one) or prominently featured (Grand Moff Tarkin). It’s so much Star Wars that you’ll practically float through the next year waiting for Episode VIII.

MORE!.

You also need to know that the action in this flick is fairly limited. Where TFA was almost non-stop fireworks finale, Rogue One saves almost all of the action for its actual finale. That doesn’t mean things don’t happen, but not everything is draped in explosions and lasers. It’s a nice change and gives the audience the ability to really admire the detail and care put it into realizing these places. In other words, the special effects are so amazing that I’m half convinced that Disney created a wormhole to this galaxy, sent a camera crew through, and is literally just filming what is happening there. If you don’t get shivers when you see the Death Star rising over the horizon of the planet in the finale…you…I just…bruised puppies.

Aaaahhhhhhhhh. That's the stuff.

Another positive of reducing the action is we get to know the characters better and these actors shine. Jyn (Felicity Jones) is exactly that mix of Skywalker and Solo without being quite as optimistic as Rey in TFA. Cassian (Diego Luna) is the type of intense character that you now realize has been missing from a rebellion. Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) is just as loathsome an imperial commander as we like, though not as coldly evil as Tarkin, but far more intimidating than General Hux. Then there’s K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Cassian’s droid companion, who arguably steals the show. K-2 provides the vast majority of the comic relief, but is also the trusty sidekick (to everyone, really). Speaking of sidekicks, Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) provide the muscle, with Imwe appearing to be a quasi-Jedi, praying to the force and kicking ass, but with no light saber to be found. Make of him what you will. Rounding out the cast, we have Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) – an extremist rebel, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) – imperial defector, and Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) – Death Star designer. All three are good secondary characters, though Galen and Saw get very little screen time. That might seem like too many characters, but Saw was the only one that felt underutilized/underdeveloped to me.

We've been a waiting for you.

The last thing you need to know is that this movie is drawing comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back and rightly so. The movie is serious for far more of its running time than its brethren, with only a minimal amount of comic relief (but very well-timed comic relief). The ratio of action to non-action is perfect for me, though I’ll understand if some folks get a little fidgety through the first half of the film (put the gigantic soda down). And, again, those special effects…just wow (though one little facial rendering at the end of the movie proves we still have work to do with human faces). As much as I liked TFA, I liked this one more simply because we got more of the nerdy stuff that we haven’t seen since the original trilogy, but wanted more of (like the Death Star doing Death Star things). Like I said, the year was more than worth the wait and you will most likely agree. If not, just leave the puppies alone.

Rating: Sooooooo worth more than the price of admission.

Friday, December 9, 2016

“Office Christmas Party” – Jingle our bells.

The best scene in a movie about an office Christmas party doesn’t actually occur at the party. It happens in an airport lounge and is further evidence that Jennifer Aniston was horribly miscast for most of her career. I’m not talking about starring in comedies, I’m talking about being cast as the good girl or heroine. I get why it was done (Rachel from Friends), but it turns out she’s so much more fun to watch playing a villain, or at the very least, an anti-heroine.

For at least a few months (and maybe still going), Aniston was featured in a commercial for St. Jude Children’s Hospital, asking for help in fighting children’s cancer. It’s a great cause and I love that she is helping with that effort. In one shot, she’s literally holding two little girls with bald heads who are cancer survivors and your heart melts (as it should). Try to remember that when you watch the airport lounge scene in this movie when (SPOILER ALERT) she confronts a little girl who ate Aniston’s Cinnabon by calling Santa to report the little girl, then tells the little girl “fuck you” while walking away. Again, your heart melts a little bit.

And your little dog too.

While Aniston is doing her best to remind you that Horrible Bosses wasn’t a one-off for her, the rest of Office Christmas Party does it’s best to remind you that office Christmas parties used to happen and some might have even been fun. I’m certain they didn’t happen like the one in this movie, but they used to happen when companies still cared about such things as employee morale. For the record, I’ve worked for a major corporation for the past thirteen Christmases and there hasn’t been a Christmas/Holiday party thrown in the last ten. Not that I mind all that much – they’re usually awkward and filled with people talking about work – but it’s the thought that counts. Incidentally, the party in the movie starts off exactly like that. My friend even commented that if we had an office Christmas party (we work for the same employer), that’s what it would be like. This is both hilarious and depressing.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a plot beyond “out of control party,” this movie brings a surprisingly decent one. Clay Vanstone (T.J. Miller) is trying to save his employees’ jobs from his sister Carol’s (Aniston) cutbacks (she’s about to be CEO). His idea is to throw a raging Christmas party to convince a prospective client, Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance), to sign a deal with them. Clay enlists his CTO, Josh (Jason Bateman), and top programmer, Tracey (Olivia Munn), to help win over Walter by the end of the party. Hijinks ensue due to alcohol, cocaine, and fear of getting fired, but I won’t ruin any of that for you. Let’s just say that Vance gets to play against his traditional typecast of quiet lawyer and Miller plays up his traditional typecast of stoned funny man and both are fantastic. Munn is also very good, making us forget about whatever she thought she was doing in X-Men: Apocalypse. Even Kate McKinnon (playing the Human Resources lady) shines in some moments, though still has a lot of work to do level up to Miller, Bateman, and Aniston.

Let it all out Courtney. You earned it.

What I like the most about the movie is that the party never blots out the plot, but is used to good effect to move the plot forward or give a minor character a quick little spotlight and extra bit of comedy for the audience. Yes, the plot does get a little absurd, even for this kind of movie, but it never stops being funny. There are also plenty of fun set pieces (an Iron Throne being my favorite) that get wilder as the movie progresses. It was like watching a modernized Bachelor Party, but with gender equality.

Winter is here.

Like The Night Before last year, Office Christmas Party is a good comedy for the holiday season that delivers laughs throughout its entire running time. Yes, there are some raunchy jokes and nudity and depictions of drug use, so if you are the type of person who thinks there is a war on Christmas and takes the holidays way too seriously, lighten up. It’s not about you. Stay home and be dead inside and the rest of us will enjoy another hilarious entry in the Christmas comedy genre. And if that makes you mad, Jennifer Aniston has something to say to you.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and enjoy your company’s party (if it still exists).

Saturday, November 26, 2016

“Allied” – Two movies in one.

Sometimes, the toughest question to answer about a movie is “what’s it about?” Trailers almost always lie or mislead you if the movie is more complicated than transforming robots fight with each other. That’s why when people try to guess what a movie is about based on trailers, they always start with “It looks like…” Allied is a great example of this. Prior to seeing the movie, if you had asked me what it was about I would have said it looks like a World War II spy movie with Brad Pitt. That doesn’t really tell you what the movie is about, just its premise. Google “allied movie synopsis” and this is the first thing you get:

“During World War II, intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is stationed in North Africa where he encounters French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Reunited in London, their relationship is threatened by the extreme pressures of the war.”

Right away, you can see that the trailers are leaving out a ton of information, including that this movie is really two small movies lashed together. And, of course the trailers are made this way – they don’t want men to know that the second half of this movie is about relationships. It’s a war movie – keep your Nicholas Sparks out of it, thank you very much.

This is what you came for men.

However, that synopsis is misleading as well. They don’t tell you what the actual plot of the second half of the movie is about because they wrongly think that would be a spoiler. I’ll get to that in a minute, but the important thing you need to know about this movie is that you’re getting two movies for the price of one.

(I will have some SPOILERS that are actual SPOILERS, but nothing major.)

Allied is about two spies and their time together. The first half of the movie covers how they meet and the mission they undertake together – an assassination attempt of a high ranking Nazi official in Casablanca. Right away, you should be thinking about the movie Casablanca and that there are probably all kinds of parallels and homages to it by Allied. If you spot them, let me know, because I barely remember Casablanca.

A lot of time is spent getting to know Max and Marianne and this first hour has to sell you on their chemistry together in order to set up the second half. Unfortunately, it’s less than convincing, basically boiling down to them having sex in a car during a haboob (I know I could have said sandstorm, but come on…Sex scene. Haboob. Heh. I’m basically a man-sized child). Once the mission is over, he proposes marriage to her and the movie just cuts to “London. Three weeks later.” Because of what I knew from the trailers, my first thought was “wait – what’s this movie about then?” It’s also very jarring because when the mission is over, the mission becomes a plot device for the second half. If you wanted to leave the theater at this point because you thought the movie was done, I wouldn’t blame you. But, then you’d miss out on a rather good second-half matinee.

Wanna see my haboob?

The second part of the movie stays a spy movie, but Max gets a new mission. A year after Casablanca, Max’s boss, Frank Heslop (Jared Harris), summons him to the base and he’s informed by V-section (think CIA) that they suspect Marianne of being a German spy. They set up a trap for her to prove it and order Max to do nothing different. Naturally, Max ignores this order and investigates on his own to discover the truth before the trap is sprung. This half of the movie is much more dramatic than the first half. It also tells you that the last sentence of the synopsis I quoted you is a flat out lie. Their relationship isn’t threated by the extreme pressures of war, it’s threatened by her possibly being a German spy married to an Allied spy. Don’t worry – I liked this movie so I won’t tell you if she is or isn’t.

I guess this is one way to do it.

What I will tell you is that Cotillard makes this movie worth watching. For starters, she is a Frenchwoman in real life, but looks like she was lifted straight from the 1940s era. The make-up person responsible for her in this film had the easiest job in Hollywood during Allied’s filming. She also does duplicitous better than anyone. Think about her biggest roles. Mal in Inception and Miranda Tate/the-other-villain in The Dark Knight Rises. Again, I’m not saying she is a German spy in Allied, but you won’t be able to guess. She’s that good. At this point, she probably has the same reaction as Ron Perlman does when they get a script. He knows who he is when the script says “deranged freak walks in” and she knows that she’s getting the character “who isn’t who she seems.” When Robert Zemeckis was casting for her role, do you think he even bothered auditioning anyone else?

I mean, look at her.

While I did like this film and recommend people give it a view, I think it would have been much better if they’d woven the two stories together. That would have allowed them to do a better job building the chemistry and relationship between the two and also would have allowed them to stage the reveals better rather than just having a mysterious V-section guy just tell us everything in an interrogation room. The flow of the movie would have been much better instead of the intermission we ended up with. But we at least got a decent movie and a good movie without having to pay twice. That’s far better than one dull Nicholas Sparks flick. Am I right, men?

Rating: Ask for two dollars back for the first half and fifty cents back for the second half.