Thursday, August 9, 2018

“The Meg” - I’m meltiiiiinnnnngggg.

Am I a bad parent for taking my six year-old to see The Meg?  Maybe.  In my defense, he really, REALLY wanted to see it.  I am not saying it is a good defense, just a defense that is slightly more effective than that of the Cleveland Browns.  Hi Clevelanders.  At some point, every parent decides when to let their kids watch their first scary movie and I decided to let my kid watch Jaws months ago.  And Jurassic Park (and all the sequels) a few weeks ago.  So, when my son saw a preview for The Meg after watching videos on YouTube Kids featuring fake Megalodons (eighty-foot, prehistoric sharks), the only real decision was choosing between coke and cherry for our flavor of Icee.

(Note: Coke is the correct answer.)

Writing a full review of The Meg is far more than it deserves.  There is a reason why nobody reviews SyFy channel monster flicks.  Those films are stupid on purpose and made on a budget little more than a high school kid’s allowance.  And good for SyFy.  Obviously, people watch these *ahem* films and enjoy them, so you do you, SyFy (though I am still mad at you for giving up on the excellent The Expanse which, thankfully, Amazon snatched up to continue producing).  The Meg is absolutely the same quality as those shitty monster flicks, but is getting a full review because a bunch of film studio executives bet $150 million dollars that those same fans will show up to the theaters in droves and that a billion people in China are willing to set their money on fire.  It really is a shame that the idiotic tariffs imposed by our idiotic White House administration did not prevent this film from showing in any theaters.

This is the high-water mark of special effects in this film.

Alas, it will show in theaters and we had the unfortunate opportunity to view it in an Imax.  Imax - where it is not just mind-blowing visuals and earth-shattering sound (their words, not mine), but where stupid is amplified to brain-melting levels (my words, but you know they are thinking it).  I was prepared to accept some Deep Core levels of bullshit in this film, but I was not prepared for “the ocean floor is actually a cloud.”  Yeahhhhhh.  You can hear your brain draining into your throat now, can’t you?

(SPOILERS ahead, which is exactly what this film deserves.)

Billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) has funded a billion-dollar, underwater research facility.  The scientists employed by Morris hypothesized the cloud-floor idea and have decided to send a submersible with three people to test the theory by diving through the ocean floor rather than sending a probe or something first.  You know – just in case the floor really is a floor.  And that was the best depiction of science in this movie.

I signed up for deep-sea clouds?

Once through the cloud, the explorers discover a full-blown ecosystem of life.  Twenty seconds later, the submersible is attacked and crippled by a Megalodon.  Trapped on the real ocean floor (which is inexplicably only a couple of hundred feet below the cloud) the explorers have twelve hours or so to live.  On the station, Mac (Cliff Curtis) and Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao) decide to bring in the best deep-sea rescuer they know, Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham).  Yes, that Jason Statham and he is no Ian Ziering.  Also, Statham never gets in a kick fight with the Meg, which is arguably the most disappointing thing about this movie.

Jonas quickly hops into another sub and, racing Dr. Zhang’s daughter, Suyin (Li Bingbing), reaches the crippled sub.  And is attacked by the Meg.  But not before Suyin is attacked by a giant squid.  Oh man, if this movie had been the Meg versus the Squid versus the Statham, I would have had so much more fun.  What was I saying?

We did not even get a chance to know you.

Science.  That is what this movie is really about.  Using smart-words to make the bullshit they are slinging sound slightly less plausible than the nonsense spewed by Flat-Earthers.  An absurd amount of time is spent trying to explain everything we are seeing in a movie featuring giant mythical creatures trying to eat people, including that the reason the Meg stayed below the cloud was because the cloud was cold.  We do not care and, holy crap, that might be the dumbest possible explanation short of the Meg being cross-eyed.  Update - the Meg is not cross-eyed.  Bring on the blood bath.  Wait, you are right - my son is there.  Bring on the not-too-much-blood bath.

After the Meg discovers the permeability of clouds, it races to the surface of the ocean and does not immediately die of the bends.  Also, neither do any humans.  The Meg starts destroying boats, as sharks do, so the humans decide the best course of action is to jump on a boat and chase it.  This chase goes on until the end of the film, as well as through the most crowded beach and waterfront you will ever see (imagine seven thousand people in inner tubes, all touching) until Statham slashes the Meg in the stomach with his submarine, then pokes the Meg in the eye.

Like that game where you try to fit as many Skittles in your mouth as possible.

As terrible as this movie was, I was primarily concerned with keeping an eye on my son rather than my eye on the screen.  Had we been in a non-Earth-shattering-sound theater, I would have been less concerned, but my son spent age four and five covering his ears around toilets that flushed loudly.  Like most six-year olds, he hates loud sounds (except the ones coming from his own mouth - what is that about, anyway?) and scares easy.  I asked how he was doing at every worrisome moment in the film (there were maybe five) and I was prepared to walk out of the theater if he gave me a thumbs down.  In short, we saw the whole film and I am definitely more scarred from it than he.  Now I just need to scoop up the rest of my grey matter before I get the bends. 

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back because you already set it on fire.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

“Christopher Robin” - Rufio-o-o-o-o!

If I saw a kid carrying a bunch of stuffed animals and those stuffed animals were talking, I might raise an eyebrow as I walked by.  It is 2018 - a talking toy of any sort is commonplace.  However, if it were 1948, I might follow the kid home, then find a priest to exorcise the demons.  The unanswered question of Christopher Robin is why everyone in late 1940s London who sees a bunch of talking, moving stuffies come to grips with possessed toys in under ten seconds.  But, I am getting ahead of myself.

Christopher Robin is Hook on antidepressants.  That is not to say Christopher Robin is a sad, disappointing, or depressing movie.  It is actually a very good movie that will make you smile.  It is just that Hook featured Robin Williams acting like child in a movie that oozes 1991.  Where Hook is a manic, neon, skateboarding fever dream, Christopher Robin is a quiet afternoon, curled up on a couch with your favorite book.

The parallels between the two films do not stop at classic childhood-storybooks-turned-movies.  Somehow, five different writers are credited with this film (not including A.A. Milne or Ernest Shepard - the original creators of Winnie the Pooh) and all they did was tweak the plot of Hook and swap Pooh and friends in for Peter Pan and friends.  Five. Writers.  In Christopher Robin, Christopher is all grown up, has an upper-middle class job that sucks up all of his time, to the detriment of his family.  Christopher is then drawn back into the fantasy land of his childhood, where his friends do not recognize him, until he learns how to have fun again.  Eventually, he realizes how much he loves his family and everyone lives happily ever after.  The only thing missing to complete the mirroring is Julia Roberts flitting about, trying to break up Christopher’s marriage.

There was definitely not a scene in Hook where a character played with Peter's face to find the real Peter.

Yet, despite knowing full well that it would be Christopher Pan due to the previews spoiling every bit of the movie, I found myself enjoying the film.  A lot.  And that is not just because my six-year old son loved the movie.  The child in me that still loves playing with Legos (again, not just because of my son) took over my body for an hour and forty-four minutes and made me a kid again.  A kid with sometimes-achy knees, but a kid nonetheless.

Aside from loving Winnie the Pooh when I was a kid, this movie charmed me because Ewan McGregor was the perfect casting choice to play Christopher Robin.  In addition to simply being a great actor, McGregor has a smile best described as unbridled joy.  Early in the film, his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) points out that he has neither smiled nor laughed in years, which is a huge loss when you live in a city as joyless and dreary as post-WWII London.

What a Bergen looks like after eating trolls.

Of course, my son would say the best part of the movie were the animals and his opinion of this movie is more important than mine.  His favorite was Eeyore because Eeyore has a funny voice.  Eeyore is also most of the comic relief in this film, though most of the jokes fly right over the heads of six-year olds.  My son also laughed at the slapstick comedy, particularly when Pooh falls down the stairs.  I am okay with this until he pushes someone down the stairs…so just make sure you always let him lead if you come to my house.

There is still the open question of the anthropomorphic stuffed animals that everyone can see, when it was thought that they were purely constructs of Christopher Robin’s childhood fantasies.  Pooh and friends are not just figments of Christopher’s imagination.  They are not just his subconscious projecting onto inanimate objects to break his mind free of this grown-up rut.  They literally walk around in London and Sussex and introduce themselves to Evelyn and Christopher’s daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael).  Christopher literally takes his family to the Hundred-Acre Wood.  Eeyore and Tigger scare the hell out of a cab driver, a cop, and food stand proprietor.  In the wise words of Winston Zeddemore, “These things are REAL.”

"I have seen shit that will turn you white!"

I am really not trying to nitpick, but I want to know why the movie makes it seem like honey spilled on a drawing of Christopher and Pooh is what brought Pooh back.  That scene indicated that it took Christopher remembering Pooh to bring Pooh back into reality (Pooh is shown waking up in his tree home when the honey spills), yet the animals just decide to enter real life and talk to Madeline when they feel like it, no Christopher required.  Luckily, child-Kevin was still in charge of my body and brain, so none of this made the movie any less fun for me.

And that is the point.  Despite being very much a remake of Hook with a watered-down color palette and excellent motion-capture animation, Christopher Robin makes you remember why you liked Hook so much in the first place.  It reminds you of being a kid and allows you to forget about the bullshit of life for a while.  It is a relatable movie for both kids and adults, much of which is due to it staying very grounded in England rather than the acid trip that is Never Never Land.  Admit it - even as a kid, it was absurd to watch a kid dunk a basketball while riding a skateboard in a half-pipe.  Then again, Christopher Robin features Tigger, Eeyore, and Piglet being catapulted from a speeding trunk onto the windshield of Christopher’s speeding car and the kid in me approves.

Rating: Do not ask for any money back because your childhood memories are worth it.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

“The Equalizer 2” - Discount Batman.

After having just watch the MLB All-Star game, my mind was focused on trivial facts.  Baseball is full of them.  One running joke in my house is whenever my wife overhears a baseball announcer rambling about some statistic, she will add on something like “during day games on a Tuesday in leap years.”  Try hard enough and every baseball player can claim a record or cite some ignominious stat about themselves.  In the film Mr. Baseball, Tom Selleck’s character tries to impress his importance by noting “I led this team in ninth-inning doubles in the month of August.”  But, this is not unique to baseball.  Did you know that Denzel Washington has never reprised a character he portrayed in an earlier film until The Equalizer 2?  The correct answer to that question is “did I remember to turn off the coffee pot?”

(Fun fact: I did not remember to turn off the coffee pot today.  Another fun fact: SPOILER ALERT)

I am not impressed by that Denzel fact (though I would be if it ended with “on a Tuesday in a leap year”), mostly because it is nothing more than a technicality.  A large portion of his roles are either cop/detective or vigilante.  How sure are you that his Bob McCall (The Equalizer) is not also his John Creasy (Man on Fire)?  Both characters are former CIA special ops operatives who murder scores of bad guys in an attempt to serve vigilante style justice.  Do you not think a former special ops soldier uses aliases?  Russ is Ross.

I am not who you think I am.

When we last saw Bob McCall (Washington), he had just finished massacring a bunch of Russian mobsters in a hardware store in order to free a prostitute from their grip.  Now, Bob is a Lyft driver shuttling people around while keeping an eye out for someone who needs help.  He has just returned home from somewhere near the Turkish border where he rescues a kidnapped girl from three baddies in under thirty seconds.  He always times himself when meting out punishment.  I told you - Bob likes stats.  Anyway, a montage of fares ensues and we are treated to several shots of the side of Bob’s car.  Eventually, we learn that Bob is still the good Samaritan always willing to lend a helping hand, but is doing it on a shoe-string budget.  He lives in a run-down apartment building, cooks his own food, and volunteers to scrub graffiti off the building’s brick walls with a tiny little rag.  Bruce Wayne he is not.

You missed a spot.

I mentioned in my review of The Equalizer that it was based on a television series of the same name.  For the first half of the movie, we witness a series of instances of Bob helping people out as if the movie is trying to cram an entire season’s worth of episodes into forty-five minutes.  While it is entertaining to watch Denzel kick ass, none of these events have any bearing on what ends up being the main plot.  Weirdly, they also seem to serve as more character development; as if this movie had no idea that it was a sequel and that the audience did not already know Bob was a vigilante.  I promise, we did not forget what went down in that HomeMart last movie.

The main plot appears as if it will make this movie into a spy thriller with plenty of intrigue.  While Bob is slicing the throat of yuppie rapist with the rapist’s own credit card, some mysterious guys in Brussels kill a man and his wife and set it up to look like a murder-suicide.  Bob’s friend, Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo), is called into investigate the murders and is subsequently murdered herself.  Uh-oh.  Now Bob is pissed.  As he puts it to the head bad guy during the climactic fight scene, “the mistake you made was killing my friend.”  Suuuuure.  You maimed a quartet of random dudes after one of them put a random stranger in your car (the stranger being a woman who appeared drugged and whose shirt was not buttoned all the way up).  You do not seem to be that picky.

We are doing this one by the numbers.

As the movie wore on, the plot plays out as predictably as possible.  Bob investigates the murder, discovers clues that only mean anything in Hollywood (example: he figures out the murder-suicide was a frame job by guessing that the killer of the wife was left-handed, but the husband was right-handed), then surmises the identity of head bad guy because the movie is well-past half-over.  This spooks the head bad guy, who is also the inside man because there is always an inside man in these movies.  More assassinations occur in an effort to tie up loose ends, leading to a climactic showdown between Bob and four highly-trained mercenaries, in a town being ravaged by a hurricane.  Riiiiiight.

What if the killer was ambidextrous?

Throughout the whole movie, I kept waiting for the reveal explaining the purpose of the original murder in Brussels.  Was the guy a politician refusing to take a bribe from a criminal organization?  Was the guy a politician accepting bribes from a criminal organization?  Was the guy about to announce he perfected cold fusion?  Was the guy about to conceive John Connor?  Were they, or were they not, on a break?  Instead of any of these explanations, all we get is “it is nothing personal.  You are just a name on a piece of paper.”  That is some lazy writing right there.  But, hey - at least we get to watch Denzel go into Oscar-nominee mode as he scares the shit out of young Miles (Ashton Sanders) to prevent Miles from joining a gang and committing murder.

When all is said and done, this movie offered nothing even remotely memorable.  Yes, the credit-card move was unique and it was heart-warming to watch Denzel pummel a bunch of rapists, but try naming any of the bad guys in this film.  By the time you get home from the theater, you will have forgotten that the bad guy eventually states that he went bad because, to paraphrase “once the agency is done with you, they throw you away and tell you to go to the VA if you need help.  I have a family to feed.”  To be fair, this bland and generic reasoning perfectly fits a bland and generic villain in a bland and generic movie.  If you remember anything, just remember who played third base for Pittsburgh in 1960.  Don Hoak!

Rating: Ask for eight dollars back because Denzel kicking ass is worth something.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

“Skyscraper” - It wasn’t me. It was the one-legged man.

“It is good to see the Chinese are embracing the shittiest aspects of American cinema, just like us Americans.” – Me, minutes after the conclusion of Skyscraper

Before you start furiously typing a comment about how Skyscraper is not meant to be an Oscar winner, I know.  Calm down.  My expectations for this movie started and ended with Rampage, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s previous film.  But I’m pretty sure this movie was made primarily for a Chinese audience.  It was produced by two Chinese film companies (Legendary Pictures and Perfect World Pictures) with an assist from Beau Flynn and Johnson’s self-owned production companies (Flynn Picture Company and Seven Bucks Productions, respectively), is set in Hong Kong, features two Hong Kong-American Actors (Byron Mann, Tzi Ma), a Taiwanese actress (Hannah Quinlivan), and a Singaporean actor (Chin Han).  The only reason the entire film was not entirely in Mandarin is because Americans eat up shitty action movies, too.

As a human who understands the basic principles of security and film, Skyscraper is pretty dumb.  As a security professional at my day job and film critic in the moonlight, fuck everything in this movie.  Before looking up the cast and crew, I thought for sure the writing credits would be as long as the cast; that we could chalk up this garbage to the broken trash compactor that typically serves as the screenplay machine for big, dumb blockbusters (coincidentally, many of which feature Johnson).  To my amazement, Rawson Marshall Thurber is listed as the sole writer (also serving as producer and director), which means Thurber accomplished by himself what normally requires several writers who have given up on life.

This guy is putting more effort into filming than what went into the screenplay.

(SPOILER ALERT - I am going to ruin this film by describing the shitty screenplay and even shittier portrayal of security.  You are welcome.)

Johnson plays Will Sawyer, an ex-special soldier/FBI agent turned one-legged security consultant after getting blown up during a botched hostage-rescue attempt.  Do not worry about Will - he marries the surgeon who fixes him up, Sarah (Neve Campbell), and has two kids with her.  Plus, his friend and partner, Ben (Pablo Schreiber), also survived the explosion, goes out of his way to throw work to Will while reassuring Will that he does not blame Will for the explosion, and listens intently when Will gives thanks for the incident being his meet-cute with Sarah.  Nevermind that the incident resulted in the deaths of two children, their mother and father (the hostage-taker), and several of Will’s fellow soldiers (presumably) because Will sure did not mind.

After seeing Will attach his prosthetic leg prior to going to a meeting at “The Pearl” a.k.a. Skyscraper, I spent nearly the entire movie wondering how they were going to use the leg as a deus ex machina because Thurber definitely read a Screenplay for Dummies book once.  This would become a common theme for me as the movie introduced one specific, but dumb thing after another (no, wait, that is “specifically dumb”) with the obvious intention of bringing that back around to aid the heroes at some point.

Deus leg machina.

Will has been hired by Zhao Long Ji (Han), who owns the building, to perform a final safety and security assessment.  If Will’s assessment approves the building, Zhao can procure insurance for the building and open the residential sections to buyers.  This is roughly the point at which my security brain activated.  He approves everything in the building and has only to assess the building’s offsite control center.  Zhao hands Will a tablet which gives Will administrative privileges over every system in the building…at which point Will should have handed Zhao back the tablet and failed the assessment for giving a near stranger complete and total control over everything in the building.  Instead, Will literally praises the building as “Fort Knox” and I died a little inside.  In short, Will is so bad at his job that he should be put in jail for endangering people’s lives.

I wish that I could have turned off my security brain, but my brain just was not having it.  For one, the tablet does not even use multifactor authentication, just a facial scan of Will’s face.  For two, once logged in, it never turns off because neither Zhao nor Will know what screenlock is.  For three, Zhao brags about all of the security he has implemented, including knowing a lot of details about Will and Will’s family, yet doesn’t know the insurance representative, Mr. Pierce (Noah Taylor), standing next to him is a known associate of Zhao’s archenemy, Lores Botha (Roland Moller).  This, despite the police having at least one photo of Pierce and linked Pierce to Lores.  For four, why the hell would you have the control center for the building in a completely different building more than a mile away (which the movie decides to tell us the distance to down to the hundredth of kilometer)?  Now you have a second building requiring security and what happens if a bad guy cuts the connection between the two buildings?  There are more, but I need to turn off my security brain to tell you how stupid the bad guys are.

That is security spelled with a K, right?

Led by Lores, the bad guys set fire to the 96th floor.  They also steal the tablet so they can take control of the building, lock Zhao out of the system, and shut off the fire suppression system so the building will be destroyed.  The other goal is to steal a thumb drive from Zhao, which Zhao keeps locked in a safe in the penthouse, but will have to remove when he realizes the building is going to burn down.  On the surface, this sounds fairly straightforward, but the details seem like they were thought out by Hans Gruber’s brain-damaged cousin.

For starters, even though the building is open to the public and they could have simply walked right in (it has dozens of commercial retail stores on the lower half which are evacuated after the fire breaks out), Lores and team infiltrate the building by burrowing a tunnel into the fifteenth subbasement because no movie had ever dug a hole to China before.  Second, after hacking the system to give them control, Xia shoots their hacker in the face, despite the hacker being on their team.  Third, Lores is stymied when Zhao locks himself behind the ten-inch titanium doors in his penthouse.  Despite Xia being given full admin access of the building and despite the audience literally being shown Zhao having zero control of his penthouse after the hack, Xia exclaims that she cannot open the doors because the penthouse system is self-contained and under Zhao’s control.  If only they had a hacker on the team.  Fourth, Lores has no contingency plans to account for any hiccups, but is bailed out by sheer dumb luck that Will’s family is in the building to be used as hostages (Lores’ plan literally had them purposely out of the building by Ben), that Will is not killed by Xia when they steal the tablet, that Will is not captured by the police after a shootout with the cops, and that Will climbs a one hundred story construction crane and jumps thirty feet through the air, through a broken window on the hundredth floor to rescue his family.  On one fucking leg, mind you.

(Side note: that is the best dig-a-hole-to-China joke I could come up with.  I am sure you, dear reader, can do better.  Reward my faith, Internet.)

Use the door next time.

On the bright side, the audience around me in the theater was well aware of how stupid was Skyscraper.  Throughout the film, people were laughing derisively at what they were seeing on screen, as was I.  When Will picks up a statue to try to break a window in a skyscraper?  Giggles.  When Sarah reboots the system with the still-logged-in tablet to regain control of the fire-suppression system (even though the hacker told us how he encrypted everything before eating a bullet)?  Guffaws.  When Will holds the end of a bridge up to keep it from collapsing?  Belly-laughs.  When Will keeps extolling the virtues of duct tape?  Cackles.  When Will is swinging upside-down from a rope and held only by a knot around his fake leg?  Near-death chokes of uproarious laughter.

The unintentional comedy is through the roof.

Even if we forgive all of that (we cannot) and ask if the movie was at least fun, the answer is a resounding “is it over yet?”  The film is proud that The Pearl is over 3,500 feet tall and filled with the wonders of Narnia (or something).  The entire movie should have featured Will battling through a gauntlet of bad guys as he works his way through a gauntlet of building insanity to get to the top floor.  After all, the movie repeats several times that Will knows the building better than anyone.  Yet, we know so little of the building and its features and so few bad guys that Skyscraper might as well have been Tri-Level.

As I drove home from the film, I openly pondered how any screenplay as obviously idiotic as this could get past reviews and edits, let alone be approved for actual filming.  My working theory is that it went something like this:

Thurber: Here is my finished screenplay.

Studio Executive: Seems a little too much like Die Hard.

Thurber: What if we cast The Rock and make it stupid?

Studio Executive: Where is my checkbook?

Rating: Ask for eighty-seven Chinese Yuan back.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” - Back to the future.

With the box office disappointment of Solo: A Star Wars Story, Disney executives are freaking out.  Star Wars has reliably been a billion-dollar-per-movie enterprise since Disney purchased Lucasfilm, and anything less is the equivalent of the New England Patriots failing to win the Super Bowl.  In other words, completely unacceptable.  Heads will roll, the children of executives will have to settle for less-than-life-size TIE fighters for Christmas, and they might have to delay the opening of Star Wars Land at Disney World to avoid bankruptcy court.  What’s that?  Avengers: Infinity War has made over two billion dollars at the box office?  Here is your full-scale TIE fighter, son.  And a functioning Iron Man suit, just because.

A lot of ink (or electrons) has been spilt by people trying to explain why Solo failed and most of them are trying way too hard, saying it failed because of so-called Star Wars Fatigue or bad marketing.  The reason we know marketing and fatigue are bullshit excuses, though, is because the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) exists.  The latest film, Ant-Man and the Wasp, is the twentieth film in that franchise and will succeed, in part, because it moves the story and universe forward instead of backwards.  Solo did not do that for the Star Wars universe.  And fans will be more than happy to make Ant-Man and the Wasp a box office success despite nineteen films worth of fatigue.

People are tired of this?  Please.

After watching Infinity War, I noted that I was really curious where Ant-Man and the Wasp was going to take us because, well, you know (and if you do not know, you definitely are not watching this film any time soon).  Ant-Man was conspicuously missing from Infinity War, so it became obvious that Ant-Man and the Wasp was going to explain why he was missing.  The genius of this film is that it is a standalone story about Ant-Man (and Wasp) that waits until the very end of the film to reveal that explanation.

It is not lost on me that I just railed against going back in time and Ant-Man and the Wasp does exactly that. It works in this case because it is much more sideways than backwards, filling in a gap that was left purposely and precisely for this film.  Incidentally, Captain Marvel almost assuredly will do the same thing.  The MCU was designed to operate this way, with several parallel stories going on that converge into one film.  Therefore, it is necessary to move sideways to avoid leaving a gaping hole in the overarching narrative.

Sometimes you have to move sideways to go forward.

Ant-Man and the Wasp picks up with Scott Lang, a.k.a. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), nearly finished serving a three-year house-arrest sentence for violating the Sokovia accords (see: Captain America: Civil War).  With three days left to go, he has a crazy dream about Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) wife, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer).  Hope, a.k.a. Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), kidnaps Scott because she and Hank believe the dream was actually a message from Janet from the quantum realm, where she was lost decades earlier.  That would be our main plot - rescue the damsel in distress (side note: could this plot be any more Disney?).  Our secondary plot revolves around Ghost, a.k.a. Ava Starr (Hannah John-Kamen), a woman who can pass through objects, due to an accident involving a quantum tunnel when she was a child.  She also wants to get her hands on Scott for the location of Janet because she believes she can use the quantum energy Janet has absorbed to cure her of her affliction, which is killing her.  Toss in Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) as a black-market technology dealer who wants Hank’s quantum technology and we complete what becomes a fantastically fun and humorous action movie.

What I love about the recent spat of MCU films is they have really embraced the comic part of comic-book movie.  While they have included comedic relief since Iron-Man kicked off the franchise, the films were always much more serious than funny.  Guardians of the Galaxy shifted the balance to something much closer to fifty-fifty and the films have become that much more enjoyable.  For example, Scott is always joking about how he completely understands what all the scientists in the room are talking about, then, in a moment of perfect movie self-awareness, Scott asks Hank and Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) if they just put the word quantum in front of everything.

(Side note: Infinity War is definitely much more serious, but the attempt to end half of all life by Thanos is not exactly haha funny).

Is this quantum?

Another thing that is really good about this film is that Wasp is arguably the main character of the film.  Much time is devoted to fleshing out her character, her motivations, and her skills and she easily has the best action scenes in the movie.  By the end of this film, it is clear that if she got in a fight with Ant-Man, she would take him out without breaking a sweat.  That is not to say Ant-Man is a bad fighter, rather she is that good.  In a moment of cockiness normally reserved for men, she remarks to Scott that if she had been with him at the airport fight in Civil War, he would not have gotten caught.  I am definitely Team Wasp after that exchange.

I got this.

Overall, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a great movie that continues the string of high-quality films produced by Marvel.  It has great pacing, really good writing, and a retro-70s-cop-show feel that comes off as genuine and subtle rather than as a cheap stunt for purely nostalgic purposes.  If you are not entertained by this film, do me a favor and avoid saying it is because of Marvel fatigue.  Accept that you are probably just dead inside.

Rating: Worth every penny no matter how many times you see it.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” - Whistling at dogs.

Note to readers: I have tried to keep politics out of my movie reviews, but when viewing Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the film’s politics are impossible to ignore given recent events.  Thus, it is impossible not to write about politics here.

A list of current events in the United States includes: (1) the White House, Justice Department, and Department of Homeland Security directing Border Patrol and ICE to commit human rights violations by separating migrant children from their families and then, losing track of those children (more than 2,000); (2) the Supreme Court upholding a travel ban that discriminates based on religious beliefs (despite the fully debunked national security claims, despite Trump’s own words and previous attempts that clearly show the ban is solely based on banning Muslims, and despite every lower court ruling the ban unconstitutional and lacking evidence supporting a national defense claim); and (3) Trump calling for ending due process rights for immigrants - another example of Trump attacking constitutional rights.  Enter the new film Sicario: Day of the Soldado, which puts those issues into its mouth, chews them up, and spits the resulting ball into your hand like a five-year old who mistakenly thinks the resulting wad is awesome.

Maybe we should try manning border checkpoints to process immigrants.

(SPOILERS to discuss plot points because the First Amendment is still a thing.)

Right off the bat, the film rubbed me (and my friend) the wrong way.  The film opens by depicting myths that insist countless terrorists are entering the United States illegally via the Mexican border, which serves to demonize both Mexicans and Muslims in one fell swoop.  This myth has been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked (for details, you can start here, here, or here), and, while the idea should be a concern when vetting immigrants (illegal or otherwise), the number of immigrants discovered with suspected terrorist ties over the past several decades is infinitesimal.  Put another way, crossing illegally via the US-Mexico border is arguably the worst way to get into the United States.

The opening sequence of the film depicts suicide bombers detonating themselves in a Kansas City grocery store and another bomber detonating himself at the border rather than be captured by ICE.  Cut to agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) interrogating a just-captured Somali pirate, demanding to know who helped smuggle the terrorists through Mexico and into the United States.  Addressing the due process rights issue, Graver threatens to call in an air strike on the pirate’s home (noting that the pirate’s brother is there) if the pirate does not answer Graver’s question.  The pirate tells Graver he thinks Graver is bluffing and Graver responds with “we are in Africa.  I can do whatever the fuck I want,” then, proves it by ordering the strike.  Not only did Graver piss all over due process for everyone killed in the strike, but he committed a war crime.  After threatening more of the pirate’s family members, the pirate reveals that a Mexican drug cartel leader, Carlos Reyes, is responsible for the smuggling.  The New York Times addressed why this is not a thing, but this movie is committed to depicting fairy tales.  So, the next logical question is - is there a princess involved?

Do people really believe that I, a 13-year old girl, am a rapist?  Seriously?

Funny you should ask that.  Not only is there a princess, Graver literally uses the terms “king” and “prince” when describing his plan to attack the cartels to the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine).  He wants to kidnap Reyes’ daughter, Isabela (Isabela Moner), but make it look like a rival cartel kidnapped her in order to start a war between the cartels.  Since this plan is obviously wildly illegal, it must be done off the books and fits perfectly into what this movie is selling.  Mythical problems require drastic solutions.

Putting the political stuff aside for the moment, the plot and premise are solid for a fictional movie and are executed well for the first two acts of the movie.  Graver is menacing and soulless in the execution of his duty as a soldier and Brolin nails this role.  His superior, Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener), is also a soulless government ghoul, one-upping Graver by ordering him to kill Isabela after the mission goes awry (not a spoiler; this is literally shown in the previews).  Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) is there as well because this is a sequel to Sicario, not Pacific Rim, and working with Graver until Gillick’s murder is also ordered by Foards.  Moner does a good job making scared faces and screaming, but Isabela is given no character development and is little more than a prop, both literally and figuratively.

By the end of the second act, the movie had mostly removed the bitter political taste, but then the third act happens.  As mentioned earlier, Graver’s plan is wrecked when their Mexican military escort turns their guns on the Americans in the convoy.  The Americans kill all of the Mexicans and escape back to the US, but Gillick remains behind to track down Isabela, who ran off during the fight.  Gillick finds her, calls Graver for an extraction plan, but learns about Foards order to kill them (still no spoilers because whomever made and approved the preview are jerks).  You would be forgiven for thinking this sets up a showdown between Graver and Gillick.  It does not.  At this point, the film just quits on itself.
Did we lose another kid?

My friend summed it up nicely, saying “it came off like they had no idea how to end the story.”  For starters, the order to kill Isabela and Gillick only makes sense if you turn off your brain.  Isabela only knows that she was kidnapped and rescued, which was completely by design, and Gillick is as trustworthy as Graver.  Why not just send Isabela home and bring in Gillick?  Second, no kind of showdown ever happens, which is maddening because that is the main hook in the preview.  Finally, none of the plot lines are closed out, leaving the audience completely unsatisfied and with plenty of unanswered questions.  Did the two cartels go to war?  Are there repercussions for the botched plan that left a lot of dead Mexicans, including soldiers and police?  Are terrorists still being smuggled across the border by the cartels?  Did DHS and ICE really lose more than 2,000 children and have to be shamed into giving a shit?  So.  Many.  Questions.

As a whole, Day of the Soldado is an uneven film with good acting, mediocre writing, and bad politics.  To be fair, the film tosses a bone to the left when the President is referred to as a coward, but this film is largely an anti-immigration, propaganda wet-dream, complete with a child being forcibly separated from her parents by American officials (quite the accidental coincidence).  Her father may be a drug-lord, and if the President is to be believed, all Mexicans are drug-lords (or something), so everything is okay.  Also, this is not okay.

Rating: Ask for six dollars back and tune out the dog-whistles.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” - How to train your dinosaur (or, A steaming pile).

“I am never mad at the end of movies.  All I wanted from this movie was to be entertained and it could not even do that.  And, I liked A Wrinkle in Time.  Well, at least until I started thinking about it.”  - My friend, after the conclusion of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

Expectation are a fickle thing.  Even when you think you have them properly adjusted for a particular movie, that movie can take those expectations and feed them into a wood chipper.  Even movie reviews can do the same thing since you were probably expecting that last sentence to end with a dinosaur play on words and got a Fargo reference instead.  There is a reason why my year-end review has two categories specifically dealing with shattered expectations (both good and bad).  Even after more than ten years and hundreds of movies, my expectations are often proven wrong.  Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom just was not one of those times.

I am in the minority of critics who thought the first Jurassic World was a giant, redundant waste of time (71% of 314 critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave it the ol’ thumbs up).  I realize that I gave Star Wars: The Force Awakens a giant pass on being basically a remake of A New Hope, but I maintain that The Force Awakens was at least a wildly entertaining movie in a franchise that jumped off a cliff fifteen years earlier, and also a franchise that everyone was clamoring for more of.  Conversely, there was nobody out there screeching for a return to Dinosaur fun-land, especially after watching the two Jurassic Park sequels, and Jurassic World was only the tiniest bit entertaining.  Of course, the billon-dollar box office take of Jurassic World indicates that people just did not know they wanted more bad Jurassic Park sequels, so what do I know?

He's really just a big teddy bear.

(Side note: My son watched Jurassic Park for the first time and loved it.  While hi-def TVs make it harder to ignore the green-screen technology of 1993, the film holds up amazingly well twenty-five years later and watching it again was a reminder of how bad all three sequels were.  Also SPOILER ALERT.)

My two biggest problems with Fallen Kingdom’s predecessor were the invention of a cross-species dinosaur (the Indominous Rex) and reducing raptors down to trained attack dogs for soldiering purposes.  Rather than learning from these two mind-numbingly dumb plot devices, Fallen Kingdom doubles down on them.

This time, the bullshit dinosaur is the Indoraptor - a cross between Indominous Rex, a raptor, Krampus, and the Predator’s dreadlocks.  Indoraptor has been genetically engineered for military purposes, specifically that when a laser sight is focused on an object and an acoustic frequency is triggered, Indoraptor will attack it.  Congratulations, you are now slightly stupider after reading that last sentence (and watching this film).  I am no weapons expert, but if you have a laser sight - which is almost certainly attached to a gun, as it is in this film - would not a cheaper, less dangerous, and more efficient method of killing an enemy be to fire that gun?  Ha-ha - of course not.

As for the raptor pooch - named Blue and returning from the last film - we are now told that this former killing machine feels empathy for humans and shown Blue as a baby cuddling with Owen (Chris Pratt) in old videos.  Awwwww.  I guess that makes two bullshit dinosaurs.  Incidentally, Blue is the most sympathetic character in the film and Michael Crichton’s remains just burst into flames.

Isn't he just the cutest wittle thing?

One last thing about dinosaurs before we get to the, erm, plot - has anyone else noticed that the T-Rex is little more than a deus ex machina, or Deus Rex, if you will (and I will!)?  Just when a protagonist is about to become chow for a dinosaur, Deus Rex (I told you I would) comes out of nowhere (somehow sneaking up on everyone like a ninja) and chomping down on the threat while ignoring the tasty humans.  It was cool the first time in Jurassic Park when Deus Rex (you cannot stop me!!) saves Alan and friends from the raptors because it was unexpected.  Now, it is just annoying and tired.

All of this bullshit fits nicely into the larger pile of bullshit masquerading as plot.  Or in the case of this film - plots.  Plot number one - rescue the dinosaurs from an erupting volcano on the island where the theme park was destroyed.  This entire plot plays out within the first forty-five minutes of the film when it should have been the entirety of the film.

(Side note: Please, do not think about the fact that multiple organizations capable of cloning dinosaurs did not notice they built their theme park next to an active and dangerous volcano.)

What took you so long?

Plot number two - the rescue mission is actually a cover for a mysterious organization led by the most obvious of bad guys to collect the dinosaurs in order to auction them off to weapons dealers, big game hunters, military generals, and other equally detestable people.

Plot number three - predictably, the indoraptor escapes his cage in the mansion where the auction was taking place (along with where all of the dinosaurs were being stored; please do not ask) and we are back to the plot of all five of these films - do not get eaten.

Plot number four - save the little girl of the man (Benjamin Lockwood) funding the original rescue operation.  What would a Jurassic Park/World movie be if children were not in danger?  The little girl in question is Lockwood’s (James Cromwell) granddaughter, Maisie (Isabella Sermon).  Or is she?  I will not spoil her reveal for you, but I promise you it came straight from the M. Night Shyamalan book of bad and pointless plot twists.

Unlike my friend, there were a handful of moments during the film when I was entertained, though mostly for sarcastic reasons.  The first involved Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen (Pratt) trying to draw blood from a T-Rex in order to give Blue a blood transfusion.  No, seriously - I am not making that up.  It sounds really dumb on paper, but the actors and director (J.A. Bayona) pull it off.  Or my brain quit for a minute.  At any rate, the second and third were lines of dialogue that made me laugh out loud at their absurdity.

I swear to you this scene works.

Line one - When questioning if the batteries in the trackers implanted in the dinosaurs would be dead or not, the response given was “the batteries are powered by body heat and movement, so the batteries never die.”  Um, no.  That is not how batteries work, even in a world where new dinosaurs can be invented and brought to life.

Line two - when trying to figure out where to get blood for Blue, the paleobiologist (Daniella Pineda) says “any dinosaur with the same number of fingers will be compatible.”  Smell that?

I was also entertained by Chris Pratt delivering all of his lines as if they are gallows humor; like a guy who drew the short straw to feed the cobra.  He is joking about everything because he knows he is about to die.  True, he was only dying on the inside, but it hurts just as much.

Life finds a way.  Anyone?  Is this thing on?

Finally, Jeff Goldblum making a depressing cameo (returning as Dr. Malcolm) tickled me.  He is arguing to Congress (really, do not ask) that the dinosaurs should be left to die and delivers a line of dialogue that is accidentally meta.  “How many times do we have to learn this lesson?”  There is no way the writers are that self-aware, so the only explanation for that line is that they are taunting the audience for watching terrible sequel after terrible sequel.  I do not believe audiences will heed the taunt, but I am hoping my expectations are proven wrong this time.

Rating: Ask for all of your money back, but only if you asked for all of your money back for the last Jurassic World.  The rest of you are seemingly cool with paying for bullshit.