Monday, June 30, 2014

Another 2014 Catch-Up: The Baddies

Oh, hooray! Another compilation review! Everybody loves those! ...right?

Okay, I've been away for a bit. There are a couple of reasons for it, but mainly it boils down to devoting most of my time to schoolwork during the summer semester. I HAVE taken the odd hours to get down to the movie theater or to the local Redbox to check out the latest DVDs, but for the most part that hasn't left much time elsewhere to pen my thoughts on them. I've missed a lot this year: even after my recent surge, I've only seen thirty-two 2014 movies at this time, and there are plenty more (Non-Stop, Transcendence, others) that I'm still waiting for an opportunity to rent on DVD. But I'm much further along than I was a few weeks ago, and now it's time to get it all down before I forget. I'll start off with some of 2014's truly horrible releases, and work my way up the ladder in the next couple of posts. Enjoy!

Based on a story from the mind of Luc Besson, 3 Days to Kill follows veteran CIA operative Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner), as he goes from a botched operation, in which he is the only survivor, to learning he is in suffering from an advanced case of terminal brain cancer that has spread to his lungs to semi-retirement so he can reunite with his estranged wife (Connie Nielsen) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) for what little life he has left. But soon, the CIA's elite agent Vivi (Amber Heard) intrudes on his life, offering him a double chance at redemption. She wants him to continue the mission he had been unable to complete before, and in return Ethan will be given access to a prototype cancer treatment that could extend his time on the planet. All he has is to eliminate his target in three days... for some reason. Yeah, the title is by far the most confusing aspect of the story, but since this is a McG film, that's to be expected.

Yes, the middle-aged, absurdly-named action director who everyone agrees shouldn't direct action movies is back, this time with a straight-up cloak-and-dagger story with a deus-ex-machina plot device that sometimes get addressed, though not all that often. There are some obvious weaknesses here, from the banality of the character designs - they're either wonder-bread bland or overly silly - to McG's inability to blend the two dynamics of the tale, as the reuniting of Ethan and his family, which is done almost humorously, doesn't quite gel with the more action-y sequences that are supposed to be exciting. Supposed, being the key word. Too often it feels like we're watching two different movies by how night and day the tone changes, and even when the two halves are forced together at the film's end, they barely have an impact on one-another, making you wonder if they were two disparate screenplays in the beginning. The script is also chock full of contrivances that make little sense and serve only to push the plot forward to its uninspired and unsurprising conclusion.
Dear God, what a horrible dye job.
The cast is at least talented, though that makes the fact that they have nothing good to work with much more frustrating. Costner is at least compelling as a veteran government agent, a screw-up who let his work ethic get in the way of raising a family. Of course, we've seen his emotionless performance a bunch already this year (in Draft Day and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, which I'll get to next time), so better material would have let it stand out a bit better. But I digress. He and Steinfeld have great chemistry, and their scenes together (when McG remembers that she's supposed to be part of the story) are probably the best elements of 3 Days to Kill. And add this director to the multitude of those who have no idea how to capture the numerous talents of Heard, who frustratingly keeps getting terrible roles in mediocre movies. Here, she's a leather-wearing, BDSM-promoting, blonde-dyed bad-ass, but the writing is so bad that she can't tap into her true potential. The action is likewise hit-or-miss, as there are some great setups here (especially with the beautiful Paris setting) that suffer from poor direction and lackluster implementation.
Costner and Nielson are going to need a drink after this.
Of all of the movies I'm going to discuss today, 3 Days to Kill at least doesn't pretend to take itself all that seriously. There are a few laughs, and occasionally the hits the upper notes of a standard Besson action production. But McG was simply the wrong director for this project, as the man hasn't made an enjoyable film since 2000's Charlie's Angels, and that was far more tongue-in-cheek than we get here. There are some times when you can see this movie wants to break out of its eternal humdrum, but the inability behind the camera to produce a decent film doomed this one from the start.

Of today's group, I probably had the HIGHEST hopes for Vampire Academy, based on the teen fiction book series and from director Mark Waters, whose biggest contribution to date is arguably the much-loved Mean Girls. Come to think of it, my hope for this probably says a lot about my opinion about this group of flicks going in, but back to the details. Vampire Academy stars Hollywood youth Zoey Deutch and Lucy Fry as best friends and fellow creatures of the dark, Rose and Vasilisa, who live and learn at St. Vladimir's Academy, which I guess is supposed to be kind of like Hogwarts School. In Montana. For vampires. They've just been returned to the school after running away, for reasons that aren't entirely clear, even to the two young women. Upon their arrival, they become aware of a plot threatening to change the posh, upscale setting irrevocably, they are the only two able to put a stop to this diabolical plot. And then they get to go to the prom!

The positives here are sadly few and far between. The cast has some real chemistry, and the dialogue is solid, as screenwriter Daniel Waters (Mark's brother) delves a little too deeply into Diablo Cody territory but otherwise manages to keep the written word on somewhat realistic terms. And, not surprisingly for a movie based on a whole series of novels, the lore presented is excellent and highly intriguing, even if the nature of the story means it needs to be spelled out with a monologue-heavy opening sequence and voice-over narration, and we the audience wish we could have learned a lot more. And as a highlight of the cast, Modern Family's Sarah Hyland provides a nice spark of comic relief against the base dramatic story of vampires meets typical teenage romance coming-of-age.
If only the movie was as good as their fashion decisions...
But Vampire Academy just can't find it in its heart to break free from the molds of the genres it is trying to combine. The teen story hits all the usual notes - high school politics, poor relationship choices, the prom - so there's nothing special there. And the vampire side of things is so rushed and maligned that it never really gets explored so much as it should. Audiences can't help but feel that they're missing some important bits, as characters and situations are introduced that don't have a lasting impact on the main plot, but are obviously represented ONLY because they were in the book, and to add to the potential of a franchise (which definitely won't happen, now). While the acting is solid, Deutch's leading lady is one of the more annoying and unlikeable lady protagonists in recent memory, never growing as a character and making the kinds of decisions that make her easy to hate and difficult to see how she's attracted the friendship of Fry's more proper vamp. The special effects are nothing to write home about, not surprising for a low-budget pseudo-monster movie. You'll be looking at the veteran support cast - which includes Olga Kurylenko, Gabriel Byrne and Joely Richardson - and wonder to whom they owed favors to appear in this mess. Even the soundtrack is uninspired, featuring songs from the types of musicians - Katy Perry, Iggy Azalea, Au Revoir Simone - that panderingly reach out to that young female audience, taking what is often the best part of a bad teen movie and reducing it to pop irrelevance. Finally, the whole story ends with one of these cliched speeches from the main character that sounds like a 50-year-old man writing what HE thinks a teenage girl sounds like. Or maybe this was the fault of the novel's author, Richelle Mead, but as I've never read her books I'm going to assume the former.
Oooh, computers... DO SOMETHING COOL!
Of this batch, there's probably no better example of missed potential than this adaptation of Vampire Academy, even if it is just the latest teen series to hit the big screen and fail miserably. There is that rare moment when Hyland is on the screen that something entertaining actually happens, but there was certainly a reason this title bombed as badly as it did when it came out last February. I simply didn't care about anybody who appeared on the screen, and that's a good way to guarantee I won't be recommending your shoddy adaptation to anyone anytime soon.

Remember when the Paranormal Activity series was groundbreaking and clever in its implementation? Just three years ago Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman elevated the franchise with some impressive and inventive camerawork to make Paranormal Activity 3 one of the most shocking and scary movies that year. Sure, their 2012 follow-up Paranormal Activity 4 failed to live up to that standard, but you could see the directors were at least still trying to put together something different than just another haunted house tale. That doesn't happen in Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, which not only doesn't feel like a part of the same franchise, but apparently didn't even deserve to be part of the numbered series (Paranormal Activity 5 is due to be released this October, barring any more delays). Maybe the directorial job of Christopher B. Landon - who wrote the last three numbered titles in the series - has something to do with it.

Hold on, I think you've got something in your eye...
Yes, The Marked Ones is a bit of a mess. Though it is supposed to be based in the same universe as its predecessors, it doesn't contain any of the atmosphere, inventiveness or scariness that made the franchise so beloved in the first place. The story focuses on high school graduate Jesse Arista (Andrew Jacobs), and that right there is the most interesting thing this entry to the series does: it gives us a Latino protagonist. In fact, all but a few members of the cast are non-white, which is a curious and positive decision made immediately disappointing by the fact that Landon surrounds his characters with the most cliched Los Angeles settings, the story swathed in racial superstition and ethnic tropes, feeling very out-of-place compared to the other movies. The tale plays out much like the rest, with Jesse's like being plagued by demons and being targeted for possession himself, and all caught on camera.
Ladies and gentlemen, your D-grade demon chow.
The Paranormal Activity series has always played it fast and loose with exactly why everything is caught on camera for our terror, but The Marked Ones is easily the fastest, loosest and silliest when it comes to the concept. By that I mean, the characters in the other movies were either narcissistic assholes, overly-curious investigators, or young privileged people who couldn't live without the latest technology, so their need to capture every action on camera kind of made sense. But these blue collar young people have absolutely no REASON to follow that same line of thinking, except to serve the plot. There's no REASON for a half-asleep teen to grab his camera when he wakes up to realize his dog ran out the curiously-open front door. There's no REASON for his associates to carry cameras themselves when he's not in the scene. There's no REASON for them to tape such boring scenes as getting a snack from a vending machine. It doesn't help that we never really get a sense of who these people are, as nobody has enough personality to stand out from the crowd. That is, with the possible exception of little-used Awesome Grandma (Gloria Sandoval), if only because she's Awesome Grandma.
People are into the weirdest fetishes these days...
That's not to say Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is a total loss. Well, yes it is, but there are still a few positives. The ending is actually quite clever, even if you have to accept some contrivances and idiotically-random foreshadowing in order to get there, and there are a few genuinely scary bits, though not as many as there should be. The Latino influences are an interesting turn for the genre, not to mention the series, but unfortunately they change the style so much that if you actually just called this movie The Marked Ones and took out the few tacked-on connections to the rest of the franchise, you wouldn't have known it was from the same universe. Landon simply isn't as good as the directors who came before, taking a series that was known for its edgy style and inventive camera techniques, and simply churned out a threadbare found footage flick, as though that were something special in this day and age.

To finish up, I present to you the most wretched movie I saw in this latest catch-up (and perhaps all year), January's The Legend of Hercules. VERY loosely based on the... you know what? It isn't even that. Besides appropriating the name of Hercules (and casting the suitably buff Kellan Lutz to play the part), popping in genre-appropriate names such as Hera, Zeus, Hebe, Amphitryon, Iphicles, and the like, and installing a few random feats of valor such as the Nemean Lion, this so-called "legend" has NOTHING to do with the mythical superhero and renowned icon of the written word. Obviously this is NOT from the same Renny Harlin who brought us Die Hard 2, but the one who brought us Cliffhanger, Cutthroat Island and 12 Rounds. Oh, joy.

You can see right from the opening scene (which bizarrely tries to blend visual cues of D-Day, video game Total War: Rome, and World Wrestling Entertainment in one go) to see just about everything wrong with this mess of a movie. The special effects and set pieces are horrible, the writing is laughable, and the acting isn't much better. And when you cast the likes of Gaia Weiss, Scott Adkins, Roxanne McKee, Liam Garrigan and Liam McIntyre in your lead roles, you can't argue that the poorly-written material was their sole downfall. This Hercules is a prime example of overreaching your boundaries, as all the elements in play look like the kind of work you would put into a direct-to-DVD or limited release, but someone actually looked at this and thought it was a good idea to push it into over 2,000 theaters, where it got exactly the amount of respect it deserved.
He's not old enough for this $#!^...
If The Legend of Hercules has anything going for it, it's Kellan Lutz. Oh, I'm not praising the Twilight alum's acting, which comes off as a slightly more charming Channing Tatum circa GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Lots of folks think he has potential, and he'll get more chances to prove his worth, but you have to wonder if anybody sees potential in the actor beyond his admittedly-impressive physique. Granted, he does well in the scenes where he's given opportunity to emote, but the real reason he works so well here is that muscle mass, which does absolutely capture the raw physical nature of the Greek legend. And when Lutz is called upon to perform the more strenuous aspects of his gig, such as throwing his weight around in a gladiatorial arena, it looks genuinely impressive, really the only positive thing that can be said about the visual effects.
Aaand he's falling asleep.
Even more damning for The Legend of Hercules is that Brett Ratner and Dwayne Johnson are about to release their own Hercules later this summer, and it looks heads and tails better than any one scene of footage that Harlin has managed to translate to the big screen here. Perhaps I would be a LITTLE less harsh on this movie if the filmmakers had created an original story and not so terribly adapted a well-known, legendary tale, but even if this movie had not included the name Hercules, it would have been just as excreble. I have a hard time believing I'll see anything worse than this train wreck, which makes the writing in Pompeii seem cohesive and intelligent, and the acting straight out of Ben Hur. There's just no reason for The Legend of Hercules to have existed in the way it attempted, and hopefully we can all soon forger this bland, uninspired tragedy of the silver screen was ever conceived.

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