Movie Reviews

THE MARTIAN Review

"My God, the cast is full of stars!"

“My God, the cast is full of stars!”

I recall seeing Matt Damon in Interstellar and being blown away by his breakdown when his fellow astronauts revive him after being marooned and isolated from all human contact on a remote planet for years. Matthew McConaughey’s character embraces him and he is reduced to a torrent of tears and sobs. The camera hangs motionless on this scene for what feels like an eternity and I was totally convinced that I was looking at a guy who had spent a lot of time alone.

If only I felt that way about Matt Damon’s character in The Martian. Damon plays Mark Watney, who is left for dead on the Ares expedition to Mars when a freak storm hits the surface of the planet. He wakes the next day to discover that his crew has taken off, headed back to Earth. Over the next 45 minutes or so, we experience all the obstacles Watney must overcome to stay alive in the hopes that another mission will return to rescue him. How will he grow food on a planet that is incapable of sustaining agriculture? What will he do for water? Yes, it’s true, scientists have actually found water on the red planet, but it’s non-potable, so no luck there. Even as he navigates these obstacles, new obstacles spring up. Despite this, at no point do I feel any jeopardy for Watney, because he is such an unflappable character. He never seems to acknowledge his predicament in any way that a typical human being would, what with being trapped on an alien planet nearly 35 million miles from home, faced with starvation, thirst, explosive decompression, etc. His “can-do” attitude, while an appropriate mentality for staying alive, rings false and unreal for the duration of the first hour of the film. He states, “I’ve gotta make water and grow food on a planet where nothing grows,” with no more urgency than if he were trying to organize his dayplanner. No moments of despair, no grief, no anger…all the emotions I’ve seen in just about every prison movie or war movie where characters are thrown into desperate scenarios which include isolation and hopelessness. At some point, after being stranded for a number of days, one would expect to see some measure of these emotions (think the “hole” in Shawshank or in The Hurricane, or the remote Vietnamese jungles of Platoon). All that is thrown to the Martian wind here.

Exacerbating his insouciance is a level of humor that is also a bit off-putting for a man under Gatney’s circumstances. This humor is borne on the melodies of a 70s disco soundtrack which permeates the first hour of the film. The music is a source of comedy which grows tiresome quickly. Imagine just about every lifestyle romcom you’ve seen in the last two decades where there’s an obligatory scene of the main characters dancing/lip-synching/pantomiming a performance to a classic dance track from Motown or Gloria Gaynor, while holding a kitchen utensil or curling iron as a microphone. Now expand that into an hour and put that scene on Mars with a single individual. The result is a character who is poorly written as he uses humor to compensate to an unbelievable degree as he finds himself in a seemingly hopeless situation. And it leaves me unable to believe in the character.  I found myself far more interested in the goings-on back on Earth at NASA, as mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), and engineer Bruce Ng (the excellent Benedict Wong) work around the clock to help Gatney. I liked seeing Donald Glover portray a “blerd,” (black nerd; it’s a relatively new term) who is a genius level astrophysicist, even though he hams it up to an eye-rolling level. But again, the tone of these scenes see-saws from appropriately grave to comedic. I also found it annoying that more than a handful of the NASA think tank looked like extras from the Big Bang Theory (ageism even at NASA?), and Kristen Wiig as a NASA spokesperson is gratingly miscast.

Then something happens. Something that causes the entire tone of the film to change. Gone is the cliched disco music, the unflappable attitude. An hour into the film, something happens that makes me suddenly interested in Mark Gatney. For the first time, he seems worried, scared, frustrated, fearful, all the things he should’ve been from the start. The movie takes on an urgency that snapped me out of my ennui and I found myself on the edge of my seat. Even after having seen Gravity, Apollo 13, and other movies that follow similar beats, I must say this film creates a setup so fraught with risk, it is unmatched by any of those other films. I can’t say much more so as not to spoil, but the last hour of this film is possibly the most thrilling filmmaking I’ve seen in awhile. The all-star cast, also including Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña all shine in these scenes. Kate Mara is also on board, hoping to erase the stench of her last film, The Fantastic Four, even though she spends as much time looking at computer screens in this film.

I said earlier that I found Damon’s character in Interstellar, as he weeps for joy, to be a realistic portrayal of an isolated human being. It made me more interested to see what he went through to get to that point where he breaks down. Given the similarity of that character’s situation with what is presented here, The Martian had an opportunity to explore the psychology of a man lost in space. Had it done so, it would’ve made for a far better film. 3/5 reels

EVEREST Review

Fur men on the mount

Fur men on the mount

In 1993, I watched a harrowing nerve-wracking film called Alive, about the plane crash of a Uruguayan rugby team in the Andes mountain range and how they managed to survive. Through no fault of their own, the passengers were plunged into hell merely traveling from point A to point B. Fast-forward to 2000 and I’m watching The Perfect Storm, about a fishing crew, desperate for money, who decides to sail through a confluence of storms in order to get back to shore and sell their catch before it spoils, allowing them to feed their families. Their decision was definitely risky, but one can understand the desperation to provide for one’s family, which would drive anyone to behave in a foolhardy manner. Fast-forward a little later into the Aughts and I’ve got 127 Hours (young man trekking by himself in dangerous canyons and loses an arm), Into The Wild (young man decides to live in the wilderness and dies from consuming poisonous berries) and Grizzly Man (couple decides to live amongst grizzly bears. I don’t need to tell you how that ends). I assume I speak for most people when I say that part of the enjoyment, thrill, suspense of seeing a movie is the fact that we as the audience identify with the protagonist, or the hero (or the anti-hero in some cases). When we see the hero on screen, we enjoy thinking subconsciously, well, he or she is doing exactly what I would do in that situation!  I suspect with the typical horror movie, seeing the hero do the exact opposite of what we would do provides the fun. With that in mind, Everest is the greatest horror movie ever made.

Of course, I’m being facetious. Everest is not a horror film. It’s a survival thriller which begs to be viewed in IMAX. However, I make mention of all those other movies to make the following point: with each progressive movie, I found it more difficult to identify with the main character or characters because they were doing things throughout the course of the film that made no sense to me. This made it hard for me to identify with the main characters whatsoever. As these characters are based on real people, I say respectfully that I found it difficult to feel any type of sympathy for people who voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way. So you can imagine how difficult it was to comprehend any of the characters’ decisions to climb to an altitude of 32,000 feet, which, as they point out in the film, is the cruising altitude of a 747 and where your body is literally dying.

Jason Clark plays Rob Hall, a guide for Adventure Consultants, one of a group of climbers. At the beginning of the film, we see him departing from his pregnant wife (!) to begin his trek. When my wife was pregnant, I wasn’t allowed to leave the house to go see a movie such as this, let alone scale Everest. Clark, who is hit or miss with me–liked him in Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, disliked him in Terminator Genisys–is a hit with me in this film. Putting aside the fact that he leaves his pregnant wife behind to engage in an activity that could kill him, I was rooting for him. It would’ve been interesting to see how Christian Bale, who was originally cast in the role, would’ve played it, but Clark’s Hall is a nice guy, a natural leader whom you want to succeed. John Hawkes plays mailman Doug Hanson, who provides the most inspirational motivation for attempting the climb: to prove to his kids and all of their schoolmates that an ordinary man is capable of doing the extraordinary. Okay, I can sympathize with that. Does that mean I can make the leap to understanding why he’s climbing Mount Everest? Weeell…

Besides not being able to identify with characters, I wasn’t sure if some of them were being ostentatiously set up as foils or villains to provide conflict, as if the mountain itself weren’t conflict enough. There’s Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) the Texan who barks that Hall better get him up the mountain safely, given how much money he spent for the climb (is he the rich jerk who will eventually put everyone at risk for his own safety?), rival team climber Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) who spars with Hall about whose team should delay their ascent given there are too many climbers at the same time (will he sabotage Hall so his team can go make the ascent first?), Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), the team leader who doesn’t believe in using supplemental oxygen (will his ego be the downfall of the expedition?), Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) the base camp manager who notes that they can’t afford another climbing season with no one having made it to the top (is she just in it for the money?) All this leaves me with just Hall and Hanson, two people for which I have a modicum of sympathy, and then nearly everyone else, whose motives are in question. 

Using my logic, this film was a total bust for me, right? Wrong. Not since 2013’s Gravity has IMAX been more splendidly immersive. The cinematography is subtle but dazzling and dizzying. Even before the teams make it to the Everest basecamp, they arrive in Nepal and cinematographer Salvatore Totino puts you right in the midst of the clamor. I felt as though I had been plunked down in the middle of Kathmandu. Once the film reaches the mountain, it’s stomach churning. Walking across rope bridges (is that where they shot the scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom?), climbing across chasms on flimsy Home Depot ladders, walking along steep dropoffs at vertigo-inducing altitudes; I felt like I was freezing and swooning simultaneously. If I haven’t made the point, you must view this film in IMAX. Ultimately, the locale is the star of the film. The Val Senales, Alps, the actual Everett basecamp, the backlot of Cinecitta Studios in Rome and Pinewood Studios in the UK served as stand-ins for Mount Everest and the photography is seamless. I found myself engrossed in the technical aspects of the climb and the steps the crew takes to each new settlement as they ascend. I actually found myself buying into this expedition during these scenes. Then they come across a frozen corpse…and they keep going forward, which put me back into questioning their sanity. It also didn’t help that the inevitable tragic events surprisingly come off as anticlimactic. There’s a scene with two isolated climbers that evokes emotion, one of the few in the film, but the denouement is not given enough gravity (no pun intended) to make me feel sufficiently moved. I admit I’m a sucker for tearjerkers and it’s not hard to get my waterworks going. It says something that I never had an issue with that during this film.

So I don’t know if I’ve been fair with this review, if my common sense which balks at the notion of doing something as crazy as climbing 32,000 feet has made it impossible for me to be objective. I recommend seeing Everest for the vicarious thrill of experiencing a damn good replication of climbing to the peak. But the actual narrative and most of the characters can’t compete with the mountain itself. 3/5 reels

Mission Impossible Rogue Nation Review

"Stars like me…baby, I was born to ruuun!! In every movie!"

“Stars like me…baby, I was born to ruuun!! In every movie!”

How do you top hanging Tom Cruise off the side of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world? Answer is, you don’t. Well, you try topping that by hanging Tom Cruise outside a plane in midair, but when that stunt–displayed in every commercial, trailer and publicity still–is featured before the opening credits and there’s no exciting payoff, you realize the franchise may be on its last legs. The basic plot of the film involves Cruise’s Ethan Hunt attempting to prove that a rogue anti-IMF team called The Syndicate is plotting to overthrow the world order through a series of covert terrorist operations. Problem is, the IMF has been disbanded and CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) is gunning for Hunt. First issue: how many times have we seen the hero who knows the truth be derided, diminished and hunted by his peers? Second issue: in light of the Avengers and SHIELD battling Hydra and Bond preparing to battle SPECTRE, does an organization called The Syndicate instill any sense of fear in you?

Watching Mission Impossible Rogue Nation, I felt the same way as when I saw Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. I felt like the magic had waned and that I had seen all this before, done much better. Tom Cruise is still an action beast, performing nearly all of his own stunts. But at 53, Cruise seems to be showing his age just a bit. Now, in all transparency, I’m not much younger than Cruise and I look absolutely nowhere as good as he does with his shirt off. Not by a long shot. But I suppose 63 year old Liam Neeson has changed the paradigm of the action hero, so Cruise looks to have many years in front of him hanging off planes and jumping off buildings. Maybe there’s something to be said about Scientology. Wait, I’ve seen recent photos of John Travolta and Kirstie Alley, so that’s no explanation. Perhaps I’m conflating Cruise’s age with the age of the nearly twenty year franchise. But watching this film, both felt like they’re getting old.

I was amazed off the bat that the film blows its wad on what I thought was going to be the central action set piece, that being Tom Cruise hanging off the side of a cargo aircraft as it takes off. But no, this scene runs its course rather quickly and as mentioned, occurs before the opening credits. It’s soon followed by an absolutely interminable scene which takes place at a Vienna opera house. The action is minimal, and there are a number of characters involved in the scene which makes it somewhat confusing. I wondered if director Christopher McQuarrie, who previously directed the plodding Jack Reacher, was going for a Godfather type of tone, having the diegetic sound of the opera serve as the soundtrack for the scene. I found it boring and overlong.

This issue of boredom dogged me throughout the movie, abating in stops and starts with a few decent action scenes. There’s a decent car chase, which ends too soon; there’s a decent motorbike chase, which ends quickly with Cruise traveling at what seems to be 100 mph, then crashing and walking away injury-free. The suspension of disbelief required to digest that improbability is not quite as much as is required for the head-on car collision in Fast & Furious 7…but come on. In between these set pieces are long periods of confusing interactions where we try to figure out or try to remember who is working for whom and where all the players are located. The movie suffers from what I’ve dubbed the Lost syndrome, where, on that seminal TV show’s latter seasons, it came down to the characters constantly moving from one end of the island to the other end of the island and back again (Heros suffered from similar issues in its first season). Here, every few minutes or so, loyalties seem to change and it’s about “we have to find this person! Well, if we find THIS person, we’ll find THAT person! We have to get THIS person back from THAT person!” It’s like a human chess game which gets tiresome.

There’s a big action scene where Hunt dives into a server farm that’s cooled with explosive currents of water. The trick is that he only has three minutes to hold his breath while he sabotages the underwater system. At no point did I feel any suspense.  In a film like The Abyss, we were held in suspense because there’s a chance any character could die underwater. Why? Because none of those characters were played by Tom Cruise! What’s really the point of showing us an oxygen meter which shows his oxygen steadily depleting? We know he will survive, which drains any suspense of him being trapped underwater. Addiitonally, all the obstacles are clearly telegraphed as to how they will prevent Hunt from smoothly doing his job. The minute I saw the set for this scene and all the components therein, I knew exactly what was going to happen and how it was going to affect Hunt. Even worse, one of the obstacles is Hunt’s own clumsiness, which is overly contrived. This setup attempts to create suspense by putting another team member at risk if Hunt does not complete his underwater mission. This is also a contrivance; I sat there thinking, why doesn’t this guy just wait until Hunt gives him an “all clear” before embarking on his portion of the mission? Lastly, critic Sean Hill of Hill Street Viewz also offers a great explanation as to why this scene really has no steam: because seeing people underwater is really not all that exciting.

The standout of the film is Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson. As a covert agent whose loyalties are in doubt, she has an amazing onscreen presence. She is one of the best Bond girls ever who does not appear in a Bond film. I know nothing about this actress, but she could give ScarJo some pointers for her next stint as Black Widow. Smouldering, sexy and deadly in what I believe is only her second Hollywood big budget film (the first being 2014’s Hercules), she goes toe-to-toe with Cruise vying for onscreen presence. Jeremy Renner and Alec Baldwin both are entertaining, but are not given much to do. Baldwin basically reprises his role from The Departed and Renner seems to have been demoted from rumored MI franchise successor down to comic relief. Simon Pegg brings the comedy and continues to make me scratch my head as to why anyone would allow him in the field. The most thankless role goes to Ving Rhames, who merits a welcome homecoming to the franchise, but has ultimately no purpose in the film.

Outside of the Fast & Furious franchise, it’s rare for sequels to consistently top each other in quality and entertainment. Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol set a benchmark that was impossible (I know, I know, it’s unavoidable) to overcome. Hell, the Burj Khalifa sequence blew away anything the previous films had shown me. So I shouldn’t be too hard on this film. But given the accolades it’s receiving, I guess I don’t have too much of a problem taking it down a peg or two (seriously, no pun intended, Simon).

2.5/5 reels

P.S. I predicted this movie wouldn’t open big, but looks like I couldn’t have been more wrong. It raked in $64 million, which apparently is a record for the franchise and knocked Minions out of the top spot. Combine this with the fact that 50 and 60 year old actors are accepted as action stars nowadays means that Cruise will definitely be choosing to accept another mission. I just hope the franchise gets back on track.

2.5/5 reels

 

ENTOURAGE Review

"Like I give a $h*t what Qstorm thinks!"

“Like I give a $h*t what Qstorm thinks!”

I was a big fan of Entourage on HBO. I loved the insider aspect of the show. It provided a mostly comedic and sometimes dramatic behind the scenes look at Hollywood. Sure, it was full of misogynistic debauchery and backstabbing, but I suppose that’s a part of the business. Judging by last year’s Sony hacking incident, the show could’ve been a lot worse.

At any rate, I enjoyed watching Vince, Drama, Turtle and E living the life in la-la land. I suppose being a frustrated filmmaker myself, I was able to live vicariously as an insider through this pogram for seven seasons. Thing is, around season six, the show ran out of things to say. There’s only so many bacchanals, dirty deals, and celebrity egos one can depict in a weekly half-hour program before it starts to get repetitive. And that’s the major problem with this film: it covers ground that’s already been covered, even as it starts off with a credit sequence that is cool from a visual standpoint, but uses the same concept from the TV show (credits on the sides of buildings) with the same theme song, Superhero. It plays like an extended version of the show that went off the air four years ago, but has even less to say.

If you were a fan of the show, you’re in luck. While the film’s adherence to the TV show’s aesthetic makes it feel somewhat dated, it’s fun seeing the guys again, like meeting up with old friends that you know you’ve outgrown in a TMZ world, but still want to hang with for old times sake. But when the plotline of the film doesn’t even measure up to the TV show, it’s a problem. At an hour and thirty-three minutes, the film seems much longer, probably because the story just doesn’t cut the mustard. In a nutshell, Vince (Adrian Grenier) is offered a role by new studio head Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven). Vince insists on directing, but quickly goes overbudget on the production. Then follows the exploits of Ari bumping heads with Texas financier Larsen McCredle (Billy Bob Thornton in an ephemeral role) and his son Travis, played by Haley Joel Osment.

Once you get past the shock of seeing Osment as a somewhat freakish looking pot-bellied adult made up as a Texas goober, you realize that this guy can act. He’s one of the most interesting things about the film and plays his part as the slimy entitled son of a redneck very well. As for the rest of the cast; there are subplots involving Eric, apparently separated from a pregnant Sloan and sowing his fair share of wild oats; the now wealthy Turtle (having sold his interests in his tequila business in the show’s last season) who pursues Ronda Rousey–I can’t help but wonder if the writers sought out Rousey for this role or was she the only female celebrity the producers could afford who was willing to do it? Unless I’d forgotten Turtle having a thing for female brawlers on the show, this attraction for Rousey comes out of nowhere. Rousey does seem to have taken an acting course or two since Furious 7. Well, maybe only one. And Drama provides the same level of comic relief as on the show, and I mean that as a compliment; I always thought Kevin Dillon was severely underrated as an actor.

Ari Gold is the center of the film, which isn’t a bad thing. Piven was gold as Gold; his quick temper and exasperation were entertaining to watch week to week and never got old. But it’s disappointing that the film is less interesting than what we saw on HBO. As I was watching, I couldn’t help but wonder why they chose to focus on the elements they did. At the beginning of the film, we learn that Vince wants to direct. This is a new motivation for the character; on the show, a major story arc for Vince was completing his passion project, Medellin. Here, we start the film off with the exciting prospect of seeing Vince’s character develop further as a director, but it quickly becomes evident that the filmmakers have no intention of pursuing this arc with any depth. Seeing Vince deal with the pressure of directing and starring in a film would’ve been a fresh approach. We get none of that. What we do get is a plot centering around Gold and Travis, which would’ve merely been the B story for one of the HBO episodes. I recalled excellent story arcs on the show–guest-star Martin Landau as an aging producer trying to make a comeback, Vince running afoul of guest-star Stellan Skarsgard as a difficult director, and arguably the highlight of the show where Vince jumps through hoops to land the lead in Aquaman. This story arc featured a cameo by James Cameron. Any of these plots were far more captivating than what we get here.

Speaking of cameos, whereas Cameron’s appearance was one of many throughout the series’ run that seemed completely organic, the cameos in this film (and there are plenty) come off as forced and contrived. It seems the only directive to everyone appearing in the film was they must utter a word that starts with an F and rhymes with duck. One guess as to which word they all chose. I mean, did Jessica Alba and Kelsey Grammer have some burning need to indiscriminately curse on film for no apparent reason? Actually, the word is peppered throughout the film as expected, as is the act itself. Both are gratuitous. In the same vein, the misogyny is ratcheted up off the charts. At least on the show, there was something of a balance between women who were running things (Babs Miller, Dana Gordon, E’s girlfriend Sloan, Anna Faris, Shauna Roberts) and women who were playthings (every other female character).

If you were a fan of the show, you will most likely enjoy this movie, if nothing else than for the nostalgia of seeing these guys again. If you’re a fan like me, you’ll wonder why they didn’t raise the bar even slightly. The Simpsons Movie managed to do it even while the Simpsons show was still on the air.

As a fan of the TV show, if I were to judge this as an episode, it gets 3 out of 5 reels. On its own merits as a film, it’s only gets 2 reels.

P.S. In one of the more pointless story arcs of the series, Vince falls in love with porn star Sasha Grey, who refuses to give up her career for him. I’m not sure if that makes her a woman in charge or a plaything. You can decide for yourself, just don’t bother watching these episodes on HBO Go. This story arc, as well as Vince’s out-of-nowhere drug abuse subplot are low points of the series.

Poltergeist Review

Trapped In The Closet

Trapped In The Closet

I’m not ashamed to say I’m old enough to remember the summer of ’82 when E.T. was released and then a few weeks later, Poltergeist followed. Although Tobe Hooper is credited as the director of that film, I think most people involved with that production claim that Spielberg was really in charge. In either case, it was a great film that I never really thought of as a horror film because it had so many Spielbergian touches. I always viewed it as an action/adventure film with elements of horror. Without a doubt, it is a classic. The phrase, “They’re heere,” has arguably as much pop culture cachet as “I’ll be back.”

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if a film is a classic that should remain unscathed. In the new age of filmmaking, Hollywood will remake whatever they can get their hands on and screw it up. Such is the case with the new Poltergeist. This was a doomed proposition from the start. Remaking a classic is never a good idea to begin with, but the filmmakers gave it a shot and it starts off promising, with familiar beats that made me, as a fan of the original, feel at home. A few unnecessary tweaks are made: instead of the Freelings, we have the Bowens; instead of Carol Anne, we have Maddie. But see, I have a problem with that. The name Carol Anne is synonymous with Poltergeist, just like,  John McClane is synonymous with Die Hard, like John Connor is synonymous with The Terminator. Before I go on, I must say that as a kid, my head was blown open when, early on in the original film, the Freelings are shown smoking pot in their bedroom when they’re interrupted by one of the kids. Here, the parents are engaged in light foreplay when they’re interrupted, but who would’ve thought the earlier film had the prescience to include a scene that would play to Denver audiences, to the entire country, so well here in 2015?

I suppose the filmmakers changed the names of the characters because they wanted this film to stand apart from the original. To be fair, some other tweaks worked better for me. In the original, the ghosts enter the home through the TV after the networks have signed off after the playing of the Star Bangled Banner. Now, that we’re in the age of 24 hour broadcasting, the filmmakers came up with an inventive method for getting the ghosts to appear. I also thought it was clever that they replaced the character of Tangina, so memorably played by Zelda Rubenstein, with the character of parapsychologist and reality TV star Carrigan Burke. I thought this was very inspired and totally apropos for today’s audience.

But the movie makes far more mistakes that betray these few inspired tweaks. It was established early on that the Freelings were a tight knit loving group. Craig T. Nelson, a masculine leading man presence as dad Steve Freeling, is replaced by Sam Rockwell’s milquetoast Eric Bowen, who with the exception of one scene, acts like he really doesn’t want to be involved with this production. I like Rockwell, I think he’s a great comedic actor, but I think that made him a bad choice for the role. Rosemarie DeWitt is bland and unmemorable as the mom. Saxon Sharbino as the teenage daughter is just a totally unlikeable character. The two bright spots in the cast are Kennedi Clements and Kyle Catlett as Maddie and Griffin, respectively replacing Carol Anne and Robbie Freeling. Clements is a great find and looks eerily like Heather O’Rourke, the late child actor of the original film. Kyle Catlett is also effective and is given more weight in this remake. As mentioned, Jared Harris as Carrigan is good, but much like the rest of the cast, he isn’t given much to do. He is given a ridiculous eye-rolling romantic conflict which delivers no payoff other than a goofy credit sequence. Except for Griffin, none of the cast does anything of much interest onscreen nor are they given much of anything to do onscreen other than step through familiar beats that were better done by the original cast in 1983.

From the beginning, things feel a little off. Whereas Steve Freeling was a successful real estate developer already living in the house with his family, this movie starts off with the age-old trope of the family moving into the home at the beginning of the movie. Dad has been laid off; we get clues that the dad is a recovering alcoholic, which would have been an interesting element to explore, but oddly, nothing comes of this. We hardly get to know these people before Maddie is talking to imaginary friends through her bedroom closet door. But the biggest miscalculation in this update is that when the house first becomes malevolent and attacks, the parents aren’t even at home; they’re at a dinner party. The gruesome history of the house and the neighborhood are also revealed at this dinner party which occurs within the first thirty minutes. So the children are at home under attack and the parents arrive just after Maddie is abducted. In the original, the parents were at home during the abduction and were a part of the phenomena, making them instantly emotionally invested in the conflict, because they experience it themselves when it first happens. Not so here. There’s no skepticism whatsoever from the parents when they arrive home. When the siblings tell them that Maddie is gone, it’s hard to believe that by the next scene, they’re calling the ghostbusters. And why the screenwriters reveal the neighborhood secret so early on is beyond me. It robs the film of a chilling revelation in the final act.

Even the set is not as interesting as the original. Granted, the fact that the Bowens are downsizing their home due to Eric’s layoff may have something to do with the pre-fab innocuous appearance of the home, but in every haunted house flick, the house is just as much a character as the people within. Here, the house is just as bland as most of the characters. And that includes the ghosthunters, who are understandably much younger in this version–video production is now a young person’s business; I assume that’s the case with ghosthunters who use video as well–but again, these characters provide absolutely nothing of interest as compared to their predecessors. I’ll go one step further: the spirits are more boring here as well. Part of that is because someone on the production team had the horrible idea of showing us the spirits onscreen as well as showing us the Other Side. Really? Do filmmakers in the 21st century not understand the concept of leaving certain things to the imagination? But even more egregious than attempting to show us unhappy spirits and a netherworld rendered as CGI images, the filmmakers here make another big mistake: in the original, film, the spirits had much less screen time, yet were afforded much more depth and sympathy due to an additional element of malevolence which is not present in the remake. Here, the spirits are not given any dimension at all. They’re just muddy claylike CG figures along the lines of the creatures from 2007’s I Am Legend.

When the film does stay true to the original, it unfortunately comes across as dated. In a post-Chucky Annabelle world, are clown dolls all that scary anymore? Does it make sense that the previous owner of the home would stash a box of clowns in a closet? It does if you want to include callbacks to the original, far superior film, yet you don’t improve upon them. And the callbacks all come across as nothing more than checkboxes, insuring the filmmakers touched upon them, while not bothering to explore them. To be fair, I suppose having a man rip off his face in a PG film in 1983 (despite it looking fake even back then) would be frowned upon today (and also because the PG-13 rating didn’t exist at the time). Even so, the callback in this remake is the definition of lame. It begs the question, why even attempt it? Which is the question I pose to the entire cast and crew of this film.

On my way out, I came across the only other guy in the theater at this screening. I asked him if he had seen the original film, to which he said no. I asked him what he thought of this film and he shook his head, indicating he didn’t like it. I told him to do himself a huge favor and go see the original. If you want to see this story done right, in the old days when CGI wasn’t even a blip on the radar, yet the effects are still for the most part mesmerizing, Jerry Goldsmith’s score sets the perfect tone for each scene and the performances are properly emotional, humorous and serious as necessary, I recommend you see the original. You won’t be sorry. I can’t say the same if you go see this remake.

2/5 reels

 

Furious Seven Review

"Ya know, adding one more guy to the team would justify the title even more."

“Ya know, adding one more guy to the team would justify the title even more.”

NO SPOILERS, BUT GENERAL PLOT POINTS DISCUSSED

I saw Furious Seven tonight and I learned a great many things! For example, did you know:

  • that it’s possible for a guy to fall out of a window ten storeys up, smash into a car and not die?
  • that you can drive full tilt over a cliff, smash into rocks multiple times, and walk away unscathed (women are required to wear helmets, of course).
  • that you can walk away from a head-on collision at 80 mph, with no airbags?
  • that a car can launch from a ramp and sideswipe a helicopter?
  • that you can jump out of a car moving at 80 mph and not break a single bone?
  • that the quickest way to travel from one building to the next, if you find the need to do so, is to drive through the windows, even if you’re over 1000 ft up in the air in said building?
  • that if a person is unconscious, unresponsive and not breathing, tears are more effective than CPR?
  • that if you smash your badass muscle car, another one will magically appear in the next scene?
  • that all women associated with men who drive fast cars, no matter how remote or obscure the association, are fine as hell, have unbelievable bodies and wear either bikinis or tight dresses?
  • that whomever is cast as Shazam opposite Dwayne Johnson as Black Adam in the upcoming DC film better start training now if he wants to stand toe-to-toe with Johnson, because Johnson is built like an effing Terminator?

Okay, I’ll just stop. I could go on for another few paragraphs, but I think you get where I’m going. As my fellow movie buffs from Podcast Juice informed me, Furious 7 is the type of film that, prior to entering the theater, you should go buy one of those portable coolers that they use to transport organs when a patient is in need of, say, a heart or a liver transplant; and put your brain in the cooler for the two hours you’re watching this film. Only then will you be able to enjoy it. Which, for the most part, I did.

I enjoyed it because at some point, what with the corny dialogue, the nominal to bad acting, the outrageous stunts and action scenes, and the nonsensical plot, I accepted it for what it was. And that is, this is nothing more than a “so bad, it’s good” popcorn action flick. Maybe “bad” is the wrong word; “silly”is probably more apropos. There are some excellently staged fight scenes, and the driving scenes are off the charts. The story–and make no mistake, it’s ridiculous for me to even analyze the story–is needlessly convoluted. I sat there wanting to make sure all the plot points were holding up, but it ultimately didn’t matter. The basic premise is that former British black ops agent Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the brother of a baddie who was injured in the previous film by our heroes, I suppose (I didn’t see it) strikes back at Brian (Paul Walker), who is attempting to live a domesticated life (his introduction in this film provides a quick but genuine laugh). Dominic and crew want to track Shaw down and exact revenge, but are enlisted by government agent Frank Petty to locate Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel from Game Of Thrones) who’s been kidnapped by a terrorist (Djimon Honsou) because Ramsey possesses the God’s Eye, an Orwellian tracking device that can locate anyone anywhere on the planet. If Dominic and Co. deliver Ramsey and the God’s Eye to Petty, Petty will allow them to use the device to locate Shaw. The fact that Shaw is stalking Dominic and Co. to kill them all, and he engages them throughout the film would seem to make their search for the God’s Eye moot. Did I say “basic premise?” Had I left my brain in that cooler, I wouldn’t be ruminating over any of this.

As I mentioned, the acting is nominal at best. While Tyrese Gibson provides humorous comic relief in the film, Vin Diesel provided some real-life comic relief when he suggested this film would win the Oscar for best picture. While no one will be taking home any trophies for acting, there are some bright spots. Ludacris surprised me as an effective actor, playing a cool computer geek. Johnson is a naturally charismatic performer, and while every other line he utters is an eye-rolling catchphrase, he sells it.  And Kurt Russell brings some gravitas to the second act of the film. I couldn’t help but think he was slumming, though; I wonder if he caught Robert Redford in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and got on the phone with his agent.

And then there are those moments with Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez. They share a number of scenes together and each time they appeared onscreen, I could hear the screeching of brakes as they brought the film to a halt. We’re talking love scenes on the level of Anakin and Padme. They’re really bad.

Which leaves me with Paul Walker. By no stretch a master thespian, he was good in the film. I commend the film and the marketing department for not exploiting his untimely death. Perhaps because this is an ensemble franchise, I never felt like he was being given a spotlight, rather he just played the part he was given and he played it well. I can’t help but think of The Dark Knight, where nearly every line by Ledger’s Joker was afforded applause, gasps, chuckles, etc. from the audience with whom I saw that film. Then again, Ledger wasn’t able to share the screen with an ensemble. Walker doesn’t overwhelm the film because of the tragedy; there is a weight when he first appears onscreen, but that quickly disappears, as it should, so that we can simply enjoy his performance, which I think is the best way for an actor who passes suddenly to be remembered. Having said that, the filmmakers prove themselves a class act by giving Walker a very moving tribute at the film’s conclusion. I don’t want to reveal anything, but the last scene is an overhead shot that is so moving in a metaphorical sense that, I have to say, even though I haven’t invested anything in these characters or this franchise, it brought me to tears. Kudos to the filmmakers for the classy and moving manner in which they handled this delicate matter.

Bottom line, I recommend Furious 7, because even though it’s silly, it’s fun. Adding Statham to the cast makes it feel like The Expendables on Yokohamas. It’s really all about the cars, the machismo, gorgeous women, and mindless action. And mindless action, if done right, can be entertaining (your pen ran out of ink while taking notes, Mr. Bay? Please, borrow mine, I insist). So I say, go and enjoy. Just don’t forget to pick up a portable cooler on your way to the theater. I think they’re on sale at Target. 3/5 reels

P.S. Can anyone tell me what Dominic Turetto, or for that matter, any of these guys do for a living? I still don’t get whether they’re just muscle car enthusiasts who became special agents or if they’ve worked for the government all along? I suppose given that I liked this film, I could go back and watch all the others to get the backstory, but honestly, life’s too short and Wikipedia was created for a reason.

 

Selma Review

"We'll cross the Edmund Pettis bridge when we come to it."

“We’ll cross the Edmund Pettis bridge when we come to it.”

It’s astonishing to think that Malcolm X, whether justly or unjustly perceived as a radical black leader, made it to the big screen before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s pacifist crusader. As did Spike Lee struggle to get Malcolm X off the ground with financing, lead actor David Oyewole jumped through hoops to get this film completed, according to director Ava Duvernay. And a mere 46 years later,  a chapter in the story of one of black America’s most prominent leaders is realized in Selma.

It’s too easy to describe Selma as an important film. The fact that it took over four decades for Hollywood to release a film about MLK (ironic, in light of the fact that as recently as 2000, some states had still not validated the MLK holiday); the fact that an African-American female directed the film, that Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt (who’s Plan B Productions also produced 12 Years A Slave) provided backing; that the cast is loaded with star power, including Tom Wilkinson, Wendell Pierce, Tim Roth, Giovanni Ribisi, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Carmen Ejogo (portraying Coretta Scott King as she did in HBO’s superb Boycott), Lorraine Toussaint, Niecy Nash, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Dylan Baker, Common, and Martin Sheen make it a pretty important film. But that doesn’t absolve it from being a flawed film, a film that at times goes to great pains to portray itself as an “important” film.

The movie starts off with a heart-rending tragedy; four young girls casually descend into the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and are killed violently in a bombing. That gripping moment is depicting shockingly and boldly as slow motion images of the girls float through the frame in a maelstrom of debris. You get the impression that this film is going to be a visceral ride through the events of 1965 in the town of Selma. But it isn’t, not completely. The film loses it’s edge when it feels the need to slow down to deliver “important” speeches that weigh heavy when more succinct dialogue may have been just as effective, and I’m not talking about speeches from King’s pulpit. Ejogo as Coretta Scott King delivers a soliloquy that pounds you over the head with its “importance” as she confronts Martin about a possible infidelity; similarly, Stephan James as John Lewis gives a verbose speech during a car ride about how Martin’s eloquence galvanized the SNCC. While these moments provide the requisite drama and motivation necessary for a film of this nature (kudos to the filmmakers for showing a flawed hero), sometimes less does provide more.

Having said that, for every slow scene, for every moment the film starts to resemble a film student documentary, there are scenes that contain pure electricity. Witness the scene where King, along with the SCLC and Selma citizens descend upon the Selma courthouse to demand entry in order to register to vote. The silence of the scene renders it eerie, only to later be rent asunder by violence. And then there is the cornerstone scene of the film, where King and his fellow protesters attempt to march across the Edmund Pettis bridge from Selma to Montgomery. Ava Duvernay proves herself a masterful director by creating a truly hellish setting, a Dantean landscape shrouded by the fog of tear gas, a backdrop where brutal officers materialize on horseback and deliver crushing blows with whips and batons to innocent and fleeing protesters. I never would’ve imagined this event, which I’ve seen in archival footage in the singular documentary Eyes On The Prize, could be re-created with this level of vision.

The film doesn’t try to tie things up into neat little bows either. There are conflicts between the SCLC and the college students of SNCC. Alliances are forged that remain tenuous throughout the film. King’s shortcomings are put on display here, whether having to convince his wife that it’s not his voice on a recording of a sexual tryst; or his reticence on the eve of protest, where he needs to hear “the voice of God” within the confines of his kitchen of Gethsemane. Admittedly, some subplots could’ve used a little resolution, such as the appearance and quick dispatch of Malcolm X and the tension between Coretta and King.

As for Oyewole, he is made to casually resemble Dr. King; however, unlike Denzel’s Malcolm X, Oyewole does not nail Dr. King’s oratorial dexterity in terms of his speeches. He does capture King’s subtle southern drawl in passing, but moreso Oyewole capturess the power and the presence of King. I was a bit disappointed with his performance of the speeches and I wonder if the fact that the King estate did not give up the rights to King’s speeches had anything to do with it. No matter. Oyewole gives us a charismatic leader, but more importantly, we see a man, occasionally fraught with doubt, a man who requires a shoulder to lean on from time to time. Forget about his shortcomings, Oyewolo anchors the film and pulls it off over the two hours of running time. In terms of the star-studded cast, if there was a sour performance in the bunch, I sure missed it. Perhaps the slight-of-build Tim Roth as Alabama governor George Wallace was a surprise. Perhaps a couple of the younger actors hit false notes occasionally. But Roth brings convincing menace to his role, as he usually does, and a couple actors in no way bring down the show.

I was provided a screener of Selma in order to write this review. I will be paying to see it in theaters tomorrow. If you’re wondering why I’m willing to pay to see something I’ve already seen for free, well, I guess I’ve hinted at the answer already; despite the problems with the film, despite the controversy about certain historical figures’ actual contributions or quotes in regards to the creation of the Voting Rights Act (which some provisions have been struck down by the Supreme Court as of 2013), this is a film that must be seen, not just because it’s important, but also because it’s good. 4/5 reels

P.S. Oprah Winfrey is one of the best actresses not working in film today.

Top Five Review

 

"Yes, this is me, Chris Rock, being serious. No good?"

“Yes, this is me, Chris Rock, being serious. No good?”

I am not a fan of Chris Rock as an actor. I saw Head Of State back in 2003 and swore never to be suckered into watching him on film again. I’ve enjoyed all his standup and HBO specials, but with the exception of 1991’s New Jack City, where he showed some dramatic potential, I never found him to be all that engaging on screen. But I decided to take a chance on his latest film Top Five, in which he directs and stars. The top five of the title refers to one’s top five best hip hop emcees. I’m not sure why the movie is called Top Five, because that subject is rarely broached, maybe not more than twice in the film. I think a better title may have been JoJo Pookie, Your Life Is Calling.

I say that because there are elements of this movie that remind me of Rock’s character Pookie in New Jack City; Rock plays Andre Allen, a comic actor saddled with being typecast in a ridiculous comedy franchise–Hammy The Bear–and he’s intent on remaining himself as a serious actor, but in an equally ridiculous dramatic film about a Haitian slve rebellion. He’s also a recovering alcoholic, which has negatively affected his comedy career (although he fares better in recovery here than did Pookie). The film also seems to offer an exaggerated peek into the life of Rock as a comic star, reminiscent of Richard Pryor’s 1986 semi-autobiographical film JoJo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. The biggest problem with this film is that it bounces between being an insightful moving drama, despite Rock’s shortcomings as an actor, and a balls-out comedy. There are laugh out loud funny scenes that are nonetheless suited for a heartfelt drama, such as the scene where Allen meets with a few of his comedy contemporaries at a strip club to discuss marriage, sex and fidelity; more so when Allen visits his family and ex-wife and they engage in a hilarious reunion. This scene feels like improv and it’s genuinely warm and engaging, as well as extremely funny.

Contrast that to other scenes where the humor seems to have leaped out of an Adam Sandler or a Farrelly Brothers movie. Writer Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) has been assigned to tag along with Andre during his press junket in NYC for an article she’s writing about him, during which time she’s confronted with serious doubts about her boyfriend. This leads to a montage and a sex scene that are absolutely over the top ridiculous, homophobic and ultimately have no place in this movie. Another scene involving a shirtless Cedric The Entertainer and a nude Chris Rock with hookers goes on far too long and is a bit more gratuitous than it needs to be for such a small payoff (I imagine I made the point with “a shirtless Cedric The Entertainer” and could’ve stopped there). And then there’s the cameo by a washed-up rapper, in jail, of course, who probably thought the brief role would revive his career, but just solidifies him as a punchline and furthers his descent into obscurity.

Dramatically, the film took me places where I wouldn’t have expected a Chris Rock film to go. There are insightful themes and situations involving Allen dealing with his alcoholism, dealing with the pressures of being a star and having one’s life play out in the media, both professional and personal–his fiancé, played by Gabrielle Union, is a reality TV star who has little to offer humanity–and also dealing with the traps fame has to offer. There is a minor twist in the third act, which was a genuine surprise (or maybe it was obvious and I just wanted to give the film a chance by not thinking too far ahead); at any rate, I appreciated what Rock was trying to do by including this rom-com trope, but because it’s ultimately so minor, something I’d think celebrities deal with regularly, the fact that the conflict resulting from it plays out for so long makes it wear thin quickly.

Overall, I appreciate what this film does in showcasing a more serious Chris Rock. I think it’s his best film to date. I do find myself revisiting some of the themes in my head a few days after having screened the film. I hope to see more films from Rock along these lines, and I hope he decides to explore an all-out drama that simply has funny moments. I am thoroughly satisfied that I won’t be fooled into another Head Of State and that’s saying something. 3 reels

P.S. Seeing Jerry Seinfeld in a strip club…$10. Seeing Jerry Seinfeld confront a black stripper…$10. Seeing Jerry Seinfeld list his top five in the credit sequence while slightly intoxicated…priceless.