Wednesday, April 18, 2018

“Rampage” – Keep it simple, stupid.

If you were to make a list of video games you would most like to see adapted into movies, I am guessing that list would include exactly zero classic arcade games.  I have never expressed a desire to see a Galaga or Centipede movie on the silver screen nor have I heard any other mammal express that desire.  The reasoning is simple - those games have no story on which to base a movie.  Ironically, that reasoning means some of those same games are the safest to adapt because there is no legion of middle-aged nerds freaking out because Hollywood crapped on their childhood memories or ruined a fantastic game.  Thus, we have Rampage, a movie based on a game in which players are tasked with destroying buildings using the fists of one of three (two if you only played the NES version, like me) giant creatures.  All the movie had to do to pay respect to the game was offer up rationale, no matter how absurd, for the existence of the creatures and why they would attack buildings.  And, they did not hold back on the absurdity.

(SPOILER ALERT for obligatory reasons, not because you do not know what happens in this movie.)

The biggest absurdity of this film is how hard the four screenwriters worked to explain nonsense.  The film kicks off in space.  Chew on that for a moment.  Alarms are sounding on a space station and a frantic astronaut is trying to escape from a giant mutant rat that has killed everyone else on board, but her (remote) corporate overlords will not let her leave without grabbing the scientific research on board the station.  She escapes in the nick of time, but her capsule explodes upon reentry and the three cylinders containing the research plummet to Earth.  Goodbye ten minutes of your life.  That is the explanation given for how a gorilla named George, a wolf, and an alligator become gigantic, destructive monsters and it was completely unnecessary.  The movie should have just begun with the three capsules streaking through the sky, but I am not four different writers, am I?

Do not think about why the gator grew orders of magnitude larger than George or the wolf.

Davis Okoye (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is a primatologist (he said while chuckling and remembering the time Denise Richards played a nuclear scientist) who has worked with George for George’s entire life.  Their relationship is so close that Davis can decipher anything George says (through sign-language), taught George how to flip the bird, and prefers the company of George (and other animals) over humans, including a very attractive woman who invites Davis to show her his other monkey.  By the sheer pull of Johnson’s animal magnetism, one of the research capsules lands in the gorilla enclosure and sprays green mist in George’s face.  The next morning, Davis discovers George is much bigger and killed a grizzly bear, but this movie is rated PG-13 so no gorilla-vs-bear action in a movie about rampaging animals.

Meanwhile, the corporate overlords are revealed to be Claire and Brett Wyden (Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy, respectively).  They send out private soldiers to track down the capsules and kill the mutant wolf, but that plan does not go well.  Plan B is to turn on a giant radio that will attract the beasts to the tower formally known as Sears so they can collect DNA samples and sell this weaponized DNA for profit.  Do not worry; they have a cure.  I promise that plan is flawless as long as you ignore every part of that same plan.  Suffice it to say, the animals race to Chicago to destroy the signal and everything in their path.

It's okay; that bear was a jerk.

(Side note and pet peeve: these same two siblings funded a space station, yet their stated goal here is to make money?  Four writers, everybody.)

The other big absurdity of this film was the casting.  This is par for the course for Johnson, who is this generation’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, but without the overt soldier aspect, but every other recognizable actor in this film should have had better things to do.  Akerman might be the worst villain this decade, but she sure tries to look the part when she scrunches up her face to look like a big meanie.  Lacy is obviously there for the comedic support, but none of the four writers appear to be familiar with the concept of humor and treat his character as nothing more than a bad pun.  But nobody is more out of place than Jeffrey Dean Morgan playing a special agent playing a birthday-party version of Negan, complete with chrome plated pistol and rodeo-sized belt buckle because carrying Lucille around would be copyright infringement.  Morgan’s performance is so ridiculous that you probably will not notice that Naomie Harris (playing Dr. Kate Caldwell) is laughably atrocious and literally an actor in this movie.  Not that I blame her or Morgan completely, considering the dialogue they were forced to memorize and repeat out loud, but yeeesh.

Don't worry, bad acting won't affect the box office of a movie like this.

I know many of you cannot wait to tell me how much of a film snob I am and that this movie was not intended to win Oscars, but remember I am the same person who enjoyed Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunter.  This movie is not bad because I am a film critic, it is bad because four writers, a director, a studio, and a bunch of producers forgot they were making a movie based on a game whose entire story is its own title.  This movie should have been all kinds of fun to watch, but the never-ending exposition coupled with rampant inconsistencies (why does only the wolf get the power of flight and porcupine quills and why do the other animals grow so much larger than George?) nearly put my theater’s entire audience into a coma.  And don’t even get me started on how asinine it was how George was cured (the cure being the animal just stops wanting to kill everything).  I just wanted to enjoy a mindless movie while on a work trip and all I could think of during the movie was how the game was better.  Some buildings did get destroyed in the movie, so mission accomplished, I guess.

Rating: Ask for thirteen dollars back because movies do not cost ten dollars any more, like they did when I started writing these things.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

“Ready Player One” - Whew!

If you are not a fan of CGI and think that CGI is ruining film, Ready Player One might kill you.  At the very least, it will give you an aneurism or a stroke.  Possibly both.  If so, you deserve it.  I am not quite ready to devote my year-end review to all of the incessant whining about the use of CGI in movies, but I am seriously thinking about it.  CGI is one of those topics that film snobs love to use as an excuse for hating some movies, right alongside with “there is no more creativity in Hollywood.”  Forget about the fact that CGI has allowed us to realize hundreds of movies and tens of thousands of elements within movies that would otherwise be impossible.  Could you imagine how stupid Spider-Man would look if all of his web-slinging was done via wire-work?  Oh, right, they tried that on Broadway.  I rest my case.

My point is if there is one thing Ready Player One has a ton of it is CGI.  My greater point is that Ready Player One could not be made without a ton of CGI.  Nearly the entire movie takes place in a virtual simulation called the OASIS where anyone can be anything or have anything they want.  Want to race through a city in an exact replica of Doctor Brown’s Delorian while dodging a rampaging T-Rex?  Want to be seen as a nine-foot tall warlock or the Iron Giant?  Want to pilot Mechagodzilla while fighting an army on a planet called Doom?  None of that is happening without a lot of help from computers.  And if it is, it probably looks terrible.

Be all that you can be.

Having read and loved the book of the same title, I was terrified that the movie was going to be a disappointment.  Mostly, because I managed to see multiple previews at other screenings, but also because with great CGI comes great responsibility.  Happily, the effects of the movie are fantastic, as well they should be given the $175 million budget of the film, but also because director Steven Spielberg is a genius.  Everything felt like it had depth and texture and nothing felt flat.  One great example is an early race scene that manages to feel claustrophobic and tense, even though it is happening on open streets and is nothing more than pixels, even for the characters.  At no point did I ever feel like the visuals were just throwing ones and zeroes at me in attempt to overwhelm my senses.  I even appreciated the 3-D effects, which I normally hate, despite the arms of the cheap 3-D glasses jabbing me in the side of the head.

It was pretty dazzling.

The film also stays fairly faithful to the source material, in no small part aided by the author (Ernest Cline) co-writing the screenplay (with Zak Penn).  If you have not read the book (do it now), the main plot is a treasure hunt within the OASIS, a hunt designed by the creator of the OASIS, the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance).  Competitors must solve three puzzles (including discovering the location of the puzzles) to obtain three keys, which will unlock an Easter Egg hidden in the OASIS.  Whoever finds the Egg gets full control of the OASIS and inherits Halliday’s half-trillion dollar fortune.  The details of the puzzles vary between the film and the book, but the structure remains intact.

Naturally, everyone is trying to win the game, but nobody has figured out how to complete the first puzzle.  Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a.k.a. Parzival is a Gunter - players who spend all of their time hunting for the egg - and also knows virtually everything about Halliday and the things Halliday liked (movies, video games, music, etc.).  This knowledge eventually leads him to crack the mystery of the puzzle and put him on the radar of everyone in the world, including Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI) and all-around jerk-off.  Sorrento has tasked an army of indentured servants (people who have accrued debt within the OASIS) with winning Hallday’s Egg in order to assume control of the OASIS and monetize the crap out of it.  If you are any kind of gamer, even the kind that plays Candy Crush on your iPhone, you would hate this guy because he is the one advocating for inserting ads and incorporating microtransactions into games (think freemium games where there are things you can only get if you pay actual money for, but the game itself is free).  He will stop at nothing to win the game, including kidnapping and murder, but excluding actually playing the game himself.  In other words, he is the guy who buys a game, then buys the walkthrough guide for the game so he can get to the end without effort.  What kind of loser does that?

It's all just a game.

Along the way, Parzival joins forces with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), and two other kids (Philip Zhao and Win Morisaki) whose characters are so underdeveloped they are literally just avatars.  Together, they try to solve the remainder of the puzzles, but not before Art3mis welcomes Parzival into “the rebellion.”  This rebellion Art3mis is referring to is a group of people trying to stop IOI from taking over the OASIS because IOI will wreck the openness/freedom of the OASIS by indebting more people and creating a class structure of the haves and have nots.  If you get this from the film, it is only because you read the book, as the film only occasionally mentions such social issues.  If there is one criticism I have of this otherwise excellent movie it is that the film has plenty of CGI, but none of the book’s balls.

I guess it does have one ball.

One of the highlights of the book is the way that Cline was able to focus on social issues through the lens of the OASIS like income disparity, class separation, and the inability of poorer classes to improve their standing in life.  Whenever the film seems to be ready to make some real social commentary, it shies away from the conversation and distracts the viewer with action and adventure.  For example, book-Parzival talks about how it is nearly impossible for him to compete for Halliday’s prize because he does not have money to pay for transit to other worlds.  Like with our freemium games, real money is used to purchase power-ups and Parzival has no real money.  By finding the first key first, he gains instant fame and earns money through endorsements, allowing him to better compete, but also that a poor guy suddenly has lots of cash.  The book explores how money opens doors and effects people and makes the reader think about that with regards to people in the lower classes.  I am not saying the film should go deep-diving into social commentary, but those elements were key in developing Parzival and his character arc in the book, and film-Parzival was noticeably shallower.  But, then Parzival and Art3mis get into a shootout while dancing in a zero-G club and deep thoughts are forgotten.

Good luck affording that (in the book).

Having said that, it was refreshing to see Spielberg jump back into directing a big, fun, blockbuster flick and knock it out of the park.  His handling of the CGI was near perfect (and props to all of his effects folks and cinematographers).  Perhaps the most fun thing is that the movie is stuffed full of pop-culture references from the late 1970s to now (reportedly, acquiring licensing for all of it took years) and all of them are fun and well incorporated.  My personal favorite is a small one from a movie called Krull and if my brother had been with me, we would have high-fived over it (if you spot it, please, please comment as proof that more than two people have seen Krull).  We also would have high-fived about the CGI because this movie would have sucked without it.  If you still hate CGI after this film, I will still call you an ambulance because you deserve it.

Rating: Do not ask for any money back and spend more for the book.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

“Pacific Rim: Uprising” - I’ve seen worse.

Coming out of Pacific Rim: Uprising, there were plenty of moviegoers that enjoyed the film and that is cool.  There is plenty of room in our lives for big, loud, popcorn flicks like Pacific Rim: Uprising.  I, myself, enjoyed the hell out of Pacific Rim and gave it a gigantic pass on many aspects of it that were really weak.  But then those same moviegoers said Uprising was much better than the first film and much more fun.  Wait - hold on a minute, I must have misunderstood.  *Checks notes* - Yep.  That is what they said.  *Sighs* Uprising may be enjoyable, but it is not nearly as good or entertaining as its predecessor.  This is why we can’t have nice things.

I am no fan of Guillermo del Toro, but I believe Pacific Rim is the best movie he has made.  And, yes, that includes the hilariously overrated The Shape of Water.  As I stated in my review of Pacific Rim, it hit all the marks that a summer blockbuster needed to hit.  It delivered on its promise of lots of robot-on-monster fight scenes, it had a very simple plot dressed in fun nonsense, someone gives a big motivating speech when all seems lost, the comic relief was both funny and well-timed, the characters were all endearing or likeable, and it delivered on its promise of lots of robot-on-monster fight scenes.  Yes, I had to say that twice; there was that much action.  Uprising falls well short of Pacific Rim on almost every one of those components, though to be fair, somehow manages to not completely suck while doing it.  Just mostly suck.

Have you been practicing your big speech?

(Big Dumb SPOILER ALERT for a Big Dumb movie)

Uprising takes place ten years after the events of the first film, introducing us to our main character, Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of one of war hero Stacker Pentecost.  Jake is currently living as a thief who specializes in acquiring old jaeger technology.  During a run into a decommissioned jaeger factory, he comes across a teenaged Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), who beats him to a valuable jaeger part.  He tracks her to her hideout where he discovers she has built her own (very small) jaeger.  They are soon discovered by the cops and have a quick chase scene where they are eventually captured by a real jaeger.  This entire sequence exists solely to establish and develop our two main characters and explain how they end up at jaeger pilot training school (not to mention hang a blazing neon sign on the small jaeger saying “THIS IS IMPORTANT FOR LATER”).  It is very paint-by-numbers, which is fine for a popcorn flick, but then the movie decides to forget almost everything it established.

Jake is never asked to use any of his street skills, in fact, quite the opposite.  He is forced to become an instructor to a bunch of adolescent jaeger pilot trainees and team up with square-jawed, by-the-books pilot, Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) as Nate’s co-pilot.  In fact, by the end, Jake will even give the big motivation speech (which was anything but motivational) while wearing his uniform straight.  Meanwhile, Amara tries to fit in with the others, but one trainee girl has it out for Amara because she doesn’t think Amara earned her spot there.  At no point are her skills at building jaegers ever put to use on screen, but instead just mentioned again late in the film as a throwaway line to explain how they suddenly have four working jaegers one day after pretty much everything was destroyed by evil jaegers (we’ll get to them in a second).  When I said paint-by-numbers, I meant one color and two numbers.  Three, at most.

You'll have to trust me when I say I already repaired a whole squadron.

The reason I found this movie so lackluster is because it spends the vast majority of its running time telling us about stuff rather than showing it to us.  Considering this movie’s entire purpose in life is visuals, it should have had maybe ten percent as much dialogue as it actually gave.  For example, oodles of dialogue are spent telling us how Jake had some sort of falling out as a jaeger pilot prior to ending up on the streets.  Rather than showing us the falling out at the beginning of the film, we get a quick exchange where he just spells out it to Amara.  And another where he and Nate kind of talk about it.  And another where - you get the point.  For another example, the script instructs Amara to tick off the names of all of the jaegers as she sees them upon first arrival at the training base, rather than revealing them organically during missions or fight scenes.  I realize that the world of Pacific Rim is fantastical enough to require an extra spoonful of exposition, but Uprising piles it on by the quart.

The rest of the movie is a convoluted mess of corporate greed, rogue jaegers, and red herrings trying desperately to tie itself together into a coherent plot by the Precursors (the trans-dimensional beings who sent the kaijus - giant monsters - to Earth in the first film) to terraform Earth (their goal from the first film as well).  The primary success of the first film was showing us giant robots fighting us giant monsters, so the four (FOUR!!) writers of this film decided to replace the monsters with other robots because five (FIVE!!) Transformers movies wasn’t enough.  I am not exaggerating; there is just one scene featuring a giant robot vs a giant fleshy monster and, by then, I forgot we were watching a Pacific Rim sequel.

If it looks like a Transformer and sounds like a Transformer...

(Side note: some people will argue the semantics of the rogue robots being more than just robots, but the fight scenes are still just robots fighting other robots.)

On the character side, you would be forgiven if you couldn’t remember the name of any character beyond Jake and Amara, and I’d forgive you if you forgot Jake and Amara’s names as well.  With the exception of those two and Nate, none of the other pilots are memorable.  For that matter, you should be asking where the hell were all the grown-up pilots in this film.  Then, there is the corporate executive (Jing Tian) who is cold, calculated, and power hungry when her hair is tied up, but comes to the rescue after letting her hair down (seriously, her hair does this).  Finally, there is Dr. Geiszler (Charlie Day), the comic relief of movie one (along with Burn Gorman as his buddy), but who is chewed up and spit out as a really bad version of an Austin Powers villain this time around.  And, he doesn’t even get to do comedy, which might have saved the character as a villain.  Come to think of it, nobody got to do comedy, though you would have thought this movie was funny by the way the person behind me in the theater was cackling at anything and everything even resembling a joke, including a robot flipping the bird to a vanquished opponent (never funny).

Hair up!

The strangest thing about watching this film is that I didn’t hate it.  I just didn’t care about anything happening in the film.  The screenplay made no attempt to develop any characters beyond cliches and most of them didn’t even get that much.  The jaegers were okay, I guess, but the bright color palate of this film took away all of the ominous and dark feel from the first film (a consequence of newbie Steven DeKnight directing this film rather than del Toro), giving it a Care Bears kind of feeling.  Plus, only the main jaeger (Gipsy Danger - the one with the glowy orange chest) is in the vast majority of the film, the climax being the only scene where all four jaegers from the movie poster are seen fighting.  Come on - which writer(s) sharted out that miss?  I wasn’t even all that bothered by Eastwood’s performance coming out as stiff as his jaw.  On the bright side, none of the robots were racist, had genitalia, or tried to hump Megan Fox and for that, we can be thankful.

Rating: Ask for all but a dollar back, but consider that dollar thoughtfully.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

“Tomb Raider” – We might finally have a winner.

Growing up playing video games, my generation has been waiting year after year for a good movie adaptation of a video game.  Hell, we would settle for just average at this point.  The genre kicked off back in 1993 with the ridiculously inept Super Mario Bros. and has continued to be a wasteland of shit since.  That is not to say I didn’t enjoy watching several of them (I might even defend a couple as solid), but I recognize just how bad most of them are.  Of all of the movies in the genre, the peak critic rating (Rotten Tomatoes) is 44% for Final Fantasy.  When I heard Michael Fassbender was cast in Assassin’s Creed, I thought maybe Hollywood was finally going to put an honest effort into a video game movie.  Then, I watched Assassin’s Creed and cried myself to sleep that night.

So, did I learn my lesson upon hearing Alicia Vikander was cast as Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider reboot?  Of course not!  In fact, in preparation for the film, I devoted a healthy amount of time to playing the 2013 video game reboot that this film was based on and I found the game to be quite good and fun.  I even broke my rule of never watching previews and those previews did not scare me off either (despite featuring a terrible scene with Lara holding two pistols and cockily saying “I’ll take two”).  It also helps that I would watch Alicia Vikander read a phone book for two hours, but I digress.

(Side note: Don’t judge me.  I would also watch Michael Fassbender read a phone book for two hours.)

If pictures speak a thousand words, they should use her voice.

If you are looking for an explanation for why video game movies almost universally suck, it is because the stories and elements of those video games are almost universally absurd and poorly written (note: they have gotten much better in recent years).  To be fair, many comic books are also absurd or poorly written and Marvel figured out how to make great movies, so that isn’t a good excuse.  This new Tomb Raider flick appears to have taken note of that.

(Very mild SPOILERS, but nothing you can’t predict.)

Unlike the idiotic and convoluted plot of the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider film in 2001, Tomb Raider (2018) takes the video game plot and streamlines it.  Lara’s dad (Dominic West) has been presumed dead after going missing seven years earlier.  Lara discovers what her dad was working on and a clue to his whereabouts and sets off to find him.  She enlists a Chinese boat captain, Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) to take her to a mythical island called Yamatai where she believes her father to have vanished.  After crashing on the shoals surrounding the island, Lara and Lu Ren are captured by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), who has been on the island for seven years searching for the tomb of an ancient Japanese Queen named Himiko who was believed to possess powerful magic.  The company Mathias works for (Trinity) believes Himiko’s body still possesses power and wants that power.  In short, Lara wants to find her dad and Mathias wants to find Himiko’s tomb and, obviously, their paths cross and action ensues.  The end.

I knew we would discover a good plot.

What I found refreshing was that the movie doesn’t stray down roads filled with mythical or fantastical nonsense.  They talk about the legend surrounding Himiko, but the film doesn’t inundate the viewer with scenes or stunts designed to convince us of the magic.  Rather, it stays grounded in its reality and focused on its main plot while only vaguely hinting that an evil sorceress may be unleashed.  This allows the movie to retain suspense, shrouding Himiko in mystery and only exposing the truth when her tomb is finally discovered.  Despite Lara’s father’s insistence that releasing Himiko from her tomb will unleash evil on the world, resurrected dead aren’t constantly popping out of the shadows and people aren’t killed by magical curses or demons.  It’s a good old-fashioned tomb raid reminiscent of why the Indiana Jones movies were so fun.  If somebody’s face is going to melt, it won’t be until they actually open the box.

Nothing weird has happened yet.  I say we open it.  Who's with me?

The small cast of main and supporting characters were also a breath of fresh air.  Yes, there were plenty of disposable characters, but the four I discussed earlier are the cream of the film.  Goggins is in his element as the menacing villain, willing to stop at nothing to accomplish his mission for a surprisingly relatable reason.  West and Wu are solid, though I would have liked to have seen Wu given more to do (if you have seen him in Into the Badlands, you know what I am talking about).  Most importantly, Vikander owns this movie and her role, making us forget the fever dreams caused by Angelina Jolie’s awful portrayal of Croft.  Vikander delivers a character that is strong, but not invincible; intelligent, but prone to making common sense mistakes.  In other words, she is human (though looks like she went on Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine training regimen, not that I am complaining).

The last thing of note is how well they incorporated elements of the game into the film without making them seem completely ridiculous.  In the game, Lara wields a climbing ax and a rope ascender, both of which only make cameos in the film.  There are also a couple of action sequences pulled straight from the game which worked really well in the film and do not go over the top.  They even dressed Vikander exactly like Lara from the game, all the way down to the bandages on her arm and leg and Lara being covered in dirt most of the time.  The only negative criticism I have is they tacked on that shitty “I’ll take two” scene just before the credits roll as an homage to the original game from two decades ago (or worse, the original film).  The game reboot got rid of that for a reason and so should have this film.

Trust me - it works.

The moral of this story is that we finally have a video game movie that doesn’t make us want to quit movies (and video games) or only watch them when nobody else is looking.  It reminds us of fun adventure movies that didn’t have to resort to pure fantasy to keep our attention.  It means that we don’t have to pretend any more that Resident Evil movies are watchable video game flicks because the bar was set so low back in 1993.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and make sure Vikander always has a phone book nearby.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

“A Wrinkle in Time” - And several in my brow.

Recently, I have watched a couple of classic movies with my five-year old son - Jaws and the original Godzilla (the black and white Japanese version from 1954).  He loved them and has now watched them multiple times.  And, in case you are wondering, no, he has not had any nightmares (#goodparenting).  Upon completion of a screening of the horrific A Wrinkle in Time, my friend asserted that I was being too hard on a movie aimed at kids and that my son would probably enjoy A Wrinkle in Time.  We are talking about a child who has also watched Titanic at least twenty times and I assured her that he would be bored out of his mind watching A Wrinkle in Time

(Do I really need to issue a SPOILER ALERT for a 56-year old book that almost everyone has read except me?)

Having not read the book, I do not know why so many people have such fond memories of it, but if the book is anything like the movie, then those people have really faulty memories.  I had no advanced knowledge of the book, and I watched zero previews.  My only bias was based on the rosy nostalgia from friends, so I went into the movie with positive expectations.  What I saw was a movie that was the equivalent of the glitter farts from Guy Diamond in Trolls.

What little plot existed in this film revolved around the search for Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine), a physicist who successfully figures out how to teleport himself across the universe, but never returns (the story takes place four years after his disappearance).  Unfortunately, nobody knows about the teleportation idea except his wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), so everyone believes him to have simply run out on his family and life.  Luckily, precocious young Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), Alex’s adopted five-year old son, has been chatting with three magical women, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who want to help find Alex.  They enlist Alex’s thirteen-year old daughter, Meg (Storm Reid), who spends most of the movie brooding and sulking, even after she is teleported by witches to other planets, converses with flying flowers, and told that her father is alive.  Teenagers, right?

Hello?  Has anyone seen a plot around here?

While on the flower planet, they see a black tentacle cloud in the sky, identified by Mrs. Which as the It and that the It is pure evil.  Mrs. Which also explains that the three women are warriors that fight the It to prevent evil from spreading, but that they avoid the It.  Paging Mrs. ExcuseMeWhatNow?  Did you just say you fight the It by steering clear of it?  This is the first of many, many (MANY) nonsensical statements and actions that make you furrow your brow so hard you draw blood.  It turns out the three Mrs. are nothing more than exposition spouts who can teleport, but are actually worse than that.  At the start of the third act, they literally tell Meg, Charles Wallace (who is annoyingly always referred to by his full name), and Calvin (Levi Miller) - a boy who has a crush on Meg and is brought along on the quest for his diplomatic skills, which consist entirely of telling Meg she has great hair - that they are leaving the evil planet they brought the kids to, so the kids are on their own.  But, don’t worry, each Mrs. gives the kids a gift to aid their quest, consisting of magic eyeglasses that only work in a special room that only the It can take them to, Meg’s character faults (not kidding), and advice to never split up (still not kidding).  Of course, being teenagers, they almost immediately leave Charles alone, but overcome evil when Meg screams her faults at the It.

It is worth noting here that the three women are terribly written characters and the actors knew it.  Oprah appeared as disinterested as possible, as Mrs. Which is given nothing to do beyond wearing sparkly, aluminum foil outfits with cartoonish, glittery makeup and sequined eyebrows.  Mrs. Who literally only speaks in random quotations from other people (most of which aren’t even recognizable), and very few of them for that matter, and Kaling was visibly frustrated at how obviously worthless her character was.  As the rookie warrior (whatever the hell that means) Mrs. Whatsit, Witherspoon chews up scenes trying to cover for the fact that Whatsit is kind of a blithering jerk whose dialogue sounded like Witherspoon had to make it up on the spot.

Do not be fooled; she is dying inside.

During all of this nonsense, there is no point in which we get a clear idea of any motivations for anything happening besides Meg wanting to find her dad.  We don’t know why the It has been holding Alex other than the It is evil, we don’t know if the It actually wants Charles (he’s mentioned as being a genius, though the only indication of it is he is articulate) or Meg (she had a high GPA before Alex went missing, so…) or why the It doesn’t just murder them all when they show up on the It’s planet.  Most importantly, we are never given any sense of time or urgency regarding how long they have to find Alex or stop evil, but the It can make sandwiches out of actual sand so Alex simply must be rescued.

Rather than strive for a coherent plot or use its characters to any worthwhile affect (including getting the audience to empathize), the screenplay focuses on a love-trumps-evil trope, fashions it into a cudgel, and bludgeons the audience with it in the hope of keeping us from noticing the movie sucking.  But it’s not just the writing that makes this film so lousy.  The special effects range from top notch (the first planet they go to is visually stunning) to elementary school play (a scene with Zach Galifianakis asks all of the actors to pretend to teeter while standing on what look like painted-orange Styrofoam blocks).  The music was like listening to four kids singing through kazoos for the last five hours of a road trip.  Most of the actors appear to be there against their will, delivering performances as shallow as their characters.  The film even manages to insult the intelligence of the audience when Alex attributes the success of certain scientific achievements to magic and Meg incorrectly explains how lift works when flying.  You might think that second one is a nitpick, but when a film goes out of its way to tell you a character is brainy, then has her explain a scientific concept wrong, it deserves a call-out.  Plus, it’s a fantasy film - why are they talking about science at all?

Just a nit?

Despite this film being a front runner for worst movie of the year (relax, it’s early, folks), I still want to read the book.  I have a really hard time believing that so many people are remembering a shoddy book so favorably, and I am always willing to give a book a chance.  But, if the movie is a faithful adaptation of the book, I will be pointing my kid toward reading Cujo because I know what my kid likes (#parentingfail).

Rating: Ask for all of your money back, plus the twenty minutes of my son’s music class that I gave up to get to this movie on time (#iffyparenting).

Sunday, February 25, 2018

“Annihilation” – Is something burning?

One of the best signs that you have just seen a worthwhile movie is you want to see it again.  It doesn’t matter if you aren’t sure whether you liked it or disliked it because bad movies almost never illicit yearning for a second viewing.  Well, unless you are into ironic viewings of garbage like Evil Dead 2 or Rocky Horror Picture Show, in which case, you keep doing you.  Annihilation is definitely worthwhile and I think I liked it, but I am not sure.  Somewhere around the midpoint of the film, one of the characters explains what was happening to them and everything around them and my brain went “I am not so sure you have figured it out.”  For the rest of the film, I tried to make sense out of the explanation and I may have smelled charred bacon at one point.  But I am getting ahead of myself.

Think about it, but not too hard.

(SPOILER ALERT, but since this movie is based on a trilogy of books, I’m only mildly apologetic.)

After a year missing, special forces soldier Kane (Oscar Isaac) shows up at his home, scaring the crap out of his wife Lena (Natalie Portman).  Kane remembers nothing about the past year, then quickly becomes violently ill.  En route to the hospital, men in black grab Kane and Lena and take them to a secret facility called the Southern Reach.  There, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) questions Lena, then recruits Lena to accompany her and three others, Anya, Josie, and Cass (Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny, respectively), into the Shimmer, a region of swamp land that appears to be covered in a giant soap bubble.  Ventress reveals to Lena that Kane is the only person to return from the Shimmer and suggests that an answer to why Kane is dying lies at a lighthouse inside the Shimmer where the Shimmer started (from a meteor strike).  Ventress also makes it clear that their main mission is to get to the lighthouse to find a way to stop the Shimmer from spreading (which it has been doing for three years) and eventually enveloping the Earth.

Once in the Shimmer, the group experiences odd happenings (forgetfulness, rashes, paranoia, among others), as well as taking in sights straight out of Wonderland.  There are crazy flowers and plant life, mutated animals that suddenly split into copies (think cell division), and a couple of large predators that will keep you from getting a good night’s sleep after watching the film.  One beast in particular is terrifying, especially when it is fully on display in one scene (you’ll know the one).

That is not the nightmare beast.

Everything I have described so far is why you should see this movie, especially because this film asks you to think a lot.  It is similar to Arrival in that things are not exploding every five minutes and you have to pay attention to what is happening lest you miss a detail.  Cerebral science fiction flicks are my favorite kind of movies.  The problem with this film is that it asks you to think a lot and it isn’t as smart as it thinks it is.  For example, all five women have a specific vocation - psychologist (Ventress), biologist/former soldier (Lena), physicist (Josie), geologist/surveyor (Cass), and paramedic (Anya) - but those skills are used to the barest minimum, almost always simply to lend a modicum of credence to whatever exposition is being recited.  Most of the time, they are just walking.  At another point, the physicist tries to explain her theory that the Shimmer refracts everything, including DNA and that is why everything is mutating.  This is also the point I mentioned earlier regarding my brain.  It has been two decades since I studied physics, but I still remember how refraction works and that isn’t it.

That word does not mean what you think it means.

Luckily, the refraction explanation is minor enough that one can accept it and move on, but then, unluckily, you notice how thin Josie and Anya are as characters.  Like every survival movie (which is what this movie really is), there are always characters who you shrug at when they die or almost die and Josie and Anya are those characters.  We know their jobs and a nugget of their back story (thanks to Cass) and that’s about it.  To be fair, Anya’s demise will evoke a response from you, but that’s because of the scene itself, not because you are invested in her character.  Aside from Lena, the only other character who was interesting was Cass and I was sorely disappointed when she bought it so early in the film.

Having said all that, it is very possible I missed a bunch of nuance and subtlety due to thinking about refracting DNA and gaping at the gorgeous visuals in the film.  Despite its flaws, the film is very engaging and there are some genuinely tense scenes that have you holding your breath along with the characters.  I really do want to watch this movie again and, thanks to Netflix, I can do that from my couch in three weeks (much to the chagrine of director Alex Garland).  Hopefully, a second viewing will calm my brain.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back and see if that scary-ass beast doesn’t haunt your dreams tonight.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

“Game Night” – Can I play?

Have you ever wanted to participate in one of those murder mystery nights with a group of people?  Yeah, me neither.  I tried it one time years ago and it was one of the most awkward memories I have.  In order for it to be even remotely fun, everyone involved has to be 100% into it and also be an extrovert and that does not describe my experience.  Otherwise, it’s like to trying to conduct a bible study with people who believe everything in the bible is literal and agnostic biblical historians who bet on the Patriots to beat the Eagles.  Now that murder mystery nights are not a thing any more, Game Night introduces a gaming concept sure to be the next big thing after we’ve exhausted every Escape Room in the city - hiring a company to conduct a kidnapping of the game night host and offering a prize to whomever tracks down the host first.  This is a bulletproof idea that definitely does not have the potential to involve law enforcement.

Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are an ultra-competitive married couple who live for hosting game night.  They invite the usual crew, married couple Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury, respectively), and their friend Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and his flavor-of-the-week/date, Sarah (Sharon Horgan).  Everything is going swell until Max’s brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), returns to town and shows up Max at the latest game night.  At the end of the night, Max offers to host the next game night, promising to up the ante, as it were.  Thus we learn about Brooks contracting the kidnapping game and offering up his corvette as the prize.  The game starts out as planned, but is interrupted by two men breaking into Brooks’ house, fighting with Brooks for a couple minutes, and dragging him off while the three couples look on.  They erroneously believe the break-in is all part of the game and the movie kicks into its main plot - the couples start playing the game, but eventually learn the men who kidnapped Brooks were not part of Brooks’ game.

What could possibly go wrong?

You probably noticed I did not give a spoiler warning and that is because I want you to enjoy this movie as much as I did when you go see it (and you should definitely go see it).  The film is one part mystery and one part adventure, all drizzled in comedy sauce.  If I were to tell you any more about the plot, it would spoil much of what I found so entertaining in the movie, namely that I could not guess what was going to happen and being shocked on numerous occasions at what did happen.  This is the kind of movie that makes sitting through crap like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword worth it.

What I can tell you about is how much I enjoyed the characters, especially McAdams and Jesse Plemons. Plemons plays police officer (and next-door neighbor of Max and Annie) Gary Kingsbury.  Gary is super creepy and stopped getting invited to game night after his wife divorced him.  Plemons’ delivery is so awkward and unsettling that he would fit right in as host of a murder mystery game night, except you would believe Gary is an actual murderer.  One scene in particular (when the couples go to his house for help) punctuates how likely it is that Gary is secretly keeping a woman in a well in his basement.  Make sure to listen to the music playing in the background and look at the things decorating his house.

Do you guys have any lotion?  I ran out.

But, McAdams is the one who carries this film to its comedic heights.  If she has played a true comedic role (in contrast to the kind of role she did for Wedding Crashers or Mean Girls), I’ve missed them and that makes me sad.  McAdams is brilliant as Annie, manages to out-funny Jason Bateman (no small feat), and nearly had me in tears a couple of times.  Like with Chris Hemsworth in the latest Thor, McAdams shows how funny she can be given the chance.  I will definitely be checking out some of her past comedies to see if I missed out (not to mention how, like Hemsworth, easy she is on the eyes).

Did we win?

The best part of this movie though?  Somebody hired a continuity person/crew that didn’t take a night off.  With the exception of one small subplot, everything introduced in this film is wrapped up when the credits roll.  Each couple and person is given a sub plot/issue to work through and all of them are given a chance to breathe and play out throughout the film.  The best movies have this figured out, fleshing out their characters while moving the plot along without having to crush the momentum of the film to do it.  There are also great technical continuities on display, one of which is a continuous long take of a scene featuring our couples trying to evade capture inside a mansion (another of which didn’t occur to me until all of the reveals and explained what I initially took to be a standard action movie cliche).  Add it all up and Game Night is a movie where everyone ends up a winner.  Now, who is up for another Escape Room?

Rating: Do not ask for any money back and remember at the next game night, it’s just a game.