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.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Extinction Level Entertainment

I've been catching up on a lot of 2014 movies this past week, and I'm going to get on to writing about them soon enough, but right now I just have to talk about Transformers: Age of Extinction. I have to talk about it because the fourth live-action movie in the Hasbro toy franchise might just be the best movie of director Michael Bay's career.

Now, I know what you're probably thinking: "That's not saying much," and normally, you'd be right. Bay has become known as a staple of big, explosion-laden blockbusters, dating way back to 1995 and directorial debut Bad Boys. The director has made a name for himself by making successful tentpole flicks ever since, and even though his stories and characters have been dumb as rocks (and getting dumber every time), people still want to see his movies. That's because Bay wants everything you see (in his own words) "to be awesome", and that energy tends to rub off onto the big screen and excite his audiences. But as I said, his storytelling has gotten dumber, and the first three Transformers movies are perfect examples of Bay's negative trends as a director: he doesn't know where to focus the story, his humor devolves into criminally racial stereotypes, he feels the need to pull a Lucas and create Jar Jar Binks-level caricatures for "levity", and despite everything we've been told in the past twenty years, he's really not all that great at directing action, where the characters clash in mishmashes of unreadable disaster porn.
"Take me to your Earth women."
And yet... Age of Extinction is actually pretty good. Not "great", but also not just "good for Michael Bay". In his surprising fourth turn as director of the franchise (the third was supposed to have been his last), Bay actually seems to be growing as a director. I know, I can't believe it, either! The story takes place five years after the climactic battle of Chicago from Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and in the aftermath a black ops CIA strike force has been hunting down the robotic aliens with a vengeance, with both the noble Autobots and evil Decepticons in their cross-hairs. They're even getting aid from a rogue Transformer bounty hunter named Lockdown (voiced by Mark Ryan) who seems to have an agenda of his own concerning his brethren. With the remaining "robots in disguise" in hiding, nobody knows where Autobot commander Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) is... until a damaged semi truck shows up in the barn of Texas technician Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg)...
Not even Marky Mark can stand up to these baddies...
So, to be honest, the reason I enjoyed this latest Transformers flick so much is because the whole thing is actually ABOUT something. Whereas the first three were nothing but the hidden war between the Autobots and the Decepticons and Bay's love of all things military, and yet somehow focusing mainly on the spasming face of Shia LaBeouf, Age of Extinction actually seems to have something behind the exposition and explosions. It's about being a father, as Wahlberg's character must deal with the realization that he can't always protect his daughter (The Last Airbender's Nicola Pelz) from the dangers of the world. It's about racial profiling in a post-9/11 scenario, as we see the human bad guys (played by Kelsey Grammar and Titus Welliver) expound "us vs. them" speeches without discerning between the evil and innocent under their gaze, with one even having lost family in the aforementioned Chicago battle. It's about cloning, corporate greed, the dangers of too-soon scientific progress, genocide, a veteran soldier's bitterness at being abandoned by the people he worked so hard to protect, and what it means to be a living being. There are deep, philosophical discussions to be made of any of these topics, and they all have a part to play in the plot. Now granted, Bay is not necessarily the best man to be putting these ideas out there alongside his CGI mayhem and robotic dinosaurs, but that he does so well introducing these ideas to a major Hollywood blockbuster makes you wonder if he's secretly been growing as a director while the world has scoffed as his "artistic achievements" thus far.
If struts could kill...
Another major upgrade made to this sequel is the cast. Gone are the boring, adolescent hi-jinks of Sam Witwicky and his useless, pointless, interchangeable love interests Megan Fox/Rosie Huntington-Whitely. Gone are the requisite military bad-asses and really just pointless cameos Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson. Gone are wacko John Tuturro, Witwicky parents Kevin Dunn and Julie White (who were appreciated by absolutely no-one), and almost every racist and sexist stereotype (just almost, because... Michael Bay) that has plagued the franchise to this point. They're replaced by a mostly-solid group of actors, especially Wahlberg in the lead. Finally, Transformers fans have a thoughtful, likable human protagonist who actually does things that MATTER, far beyond just being a cosmic MacGuffin who improbably gets the girl through sheer audience annoyance. Wahlberg has showed a heft of talent over the years, and working with Bay again (they paired up for last year's awful Pain & Gain) as an off-type everyman works surprisingly well, thanks to the equal parts tough guy and compassionate man that the role required, to which the actor took exceptionally well. He gets some good support as well, not only from Grammar and Welliver (the former also gleefully playing against type), but also Stanley Tucci as a results-oriented scientist dreaming of greatness, Sophia Myles (Madame de Pompadour!) as a geologist who discovers that what we know about Dinosaur extinction isn't necessarily true, Resident Evil: Retribution's Li Bingbing as Tucci's surprisingly kick-ass assistant, and even T.J. Miller providing a bit of decent comic relief in the first act. And the Transformers themselves get a bit more attention this time around, with the voices of Cullen, John Goodman, Ken Watanabe and John Dimaggio providing more personality and depth than we had seen from this group in the previous three entries. I've been saying for a while that the series needed to focus more on the titular heroes if it wanted my respect, and Bay actually seems to have addressed that issue, putting them front and center and writing some excellent material for the voice actors to work through. It's almost as if the director actually WANTED to make a Transformers movie this time around.
Not everything works out, however. Bay's dislike of strong women seems to show no sign of ending, as the woman who gets the most screentime is the whiny, bratty, completely useless Nicola Pelz. And her character isn't that great, either (zing!). Frankly speaking, Tessa Yeager just makes no sense, in one scene decrying the head-in-the-sky nature of her inventor father and declaring herself the real manager of the household, the next screaming for her "daddy" to save her from the giant robots battle she's too stupid to run in the opposite direction from. Even her singular "redeeming" moment is shortchanged, as she really doesn't do anything besides help her boyfriend (played blandly by Jack Reynor) do one solitary - albeit admittedly important - task, and it never really makes up for how insufferably annoying she is. Forget comparing her to Megan Fox - whose uselessness was at least mitigated by her coolness and take-charge attitude - Pelz's role and performance make Rosie Huntington-Whitely look like an Oscar-caliber actress. If there's one thing that could be said positively about Pelz, it's that she does a better job here than she did in the abomination that was The Last Airbender, but anybody who saw that knows that pieces of rotting driftwood could have done better.
No, wait, Chevy Camero! Better time! 'Murica!
Another downside - or at least a surprisingly inconsistent element - is the SFX use, which most of the time looks positively gorgeous but on occasion flickers into cartoonish territory. And it's not the Transformers animations, which you could forgive for having more uncanny valley than the average Robert Zemeckis movie. No, those look crisp as ever, and combined with the excellent voice-work, make for some amazingly compelling visuals. No, it's the smaller effects that stand out, such as when some human characters are scaling down a building side, and the CGI is just SCREAMING, it's so noticeable. Bay does use some practical effects, but when he uses computers to render something other than the title's main characters, it just doesn't look quite right. This is a shock when you consider how relatively flawless the previous entries were as far as special effects went (it was universally the best aspect of those moves) and how Bay has essentially built his career on said big screen spectacle. It's only a minor gripe, nowhere near the worst the film has to offer.
It's a robot... with a sword... riding a robotic T-Rex. I have no words.
Now, despite the praise I've been heaping on the movie brought to us from Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (whose last great screenplay was The Ring, and that was an American remake of a Japanese classic), I'm not saying that Transformers: Age of Extinction is great. Like I said, despite the surprising depth and metaphor present in the story, Bay still is still not the best director at developing the "human element". The ending is a bit rushed, the only reason they filmed the third act in Hong Kong was a blatant attempt to cash in on the Chinese box office, the product placement is fairly obvious, and the characters often refer to things they couldn't have learned but for a choppy film editing process. The movie also feels a bit long at almost three hours, though it should be pointed out that it never feels as long as, say, Zack Snyder's fellow advertising firm Man of Steel.  But despite these perfectly obvious blemishes, to Bay's credit he doesn't do a half-bad job, either. The action is actually pretty clear, and despite some pointless slow-motion bits (like Pelz' dialogue, Bay doesn't always know how to properly emphasize) the battle sequences are engaging and pretty easy to follow, the antithesis of the first three.
Speech, speech! Oh, who am I kidding, we all know he's going to make a speech.
For the director, this surprising maturity between the first three Transformers movies and now really does bring this fourth entry to a whole other level, blending some serious filmmaking with his usual bombast and bright shininess to create something that isn't entirely brainless and idiotic. I know that might sound like damning with faint praise, but I'm just SHOCKED that Bay was able to create a movie this GOOD and I'm not sure how to say good things about his work. Every action director usually has ONE really good movie, but as Bay really hasn't had one yet, I thought perhaps he had peaked back in the 90's. But - and I'm totally serious when I say this - Michael Bay has made the best movie of his career, and it's a good action film. Not just good compared to Armageddon, or to The Island, or to any of his previous Transformers movies. No, Michael Bay has actually created his magnum opus, a surprisingly cohesive popcorn film that doesn't automatically offend your sense of intelligence every time someone opens their mouth. And Age of Extinction is actually a whole lot of fun, to boot. Sure, you probably need to see the previous dreck to get a full sense of the storyline as a whole, but even if you're not a hardcore fan of the 80's toy craze, there's still a lot to appreciate about what has transformed here.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Million and One Problems but This Ain't One

Seth MacFarlane never really gets the respect he deserves.

Oh, don't mistake me, because if you've seen any of his work, you know it's entirely his own fault. If you can stand watching TV shows Family Guy or American Dad! for more than a few minutes at a time, it's obvious he's a smart, clever entertainer. In terms of wordplay, he can blow his contemporaries away with ease, and he his timing is so smooth and perfect that he will not only catch you off guard with his witty repartee, but do so in the best, most efficient way possible. But he torpedoes his own talent in two ways. One, he's at times excessively vulgar. A byproduct of the "extreme gross-out" comedy format that became big at end of the 1990's, MacFarlane lives and dies on his ability to deliver whatever shock value that the FOX network won't censor on his TV shows. Sometimes it works... and more often than not he goes a little too far, depicting gags that go on too long, or are so vile as to disgust. Naturally, this is only my opinion; your mileage may vary. The second complaint about the filmmaker is that he has one joke: the nostalgic non-sequitor accompanied by immediate visual recreation. Now, while I wouldn't say it's his ONLY joke, he used it so often on Family Guy that it's become his signature style, and since he definitely doesn't do anything in moderation, it gets old. Again, my opinion.
"Get on with it!"
So when MacFarlane's directorial debut Ted came out in 2012, what came as the biggest shock was that, from a first-time live-action filmmaker whose TV shows were VERY hit-or-miss, Ted's gags were mostly hits. The humor was creative, the storytelling was solid, and the material was approachable and understandable while also undeniably being MacFarlane's usual brand of adult-only entertainment. A Million Ways to Die in the West, however, is more like the director's previous work. That is, it tries really hard to force gags that don't work and winks for the camera to make sure you got it. If Ted was an example of MacFarlane successfully refraining from his too-frequently used vices, then this is his movie where he revels in them. Appearing live on the big screen for the first time, MacFarlane plays a Albert Stark, a cowardly sheep farmer in the 1882 who regularly bemoans the danger of living in the Wild West, where everything from nature to outlaws to sickness is out to get you. This thinking drives away the love of his life Louise (Amanda Seyfried), and as she was the only happy thing in Albert's life, he tries to get her back from her new douchebag boyfriend Foy (a hilarious Neil Patrick Harris). Along the way he befriends Anna, a tough-as-nails female gunslinger (Charlize Theron), pisses off a notorious outlaw (Liam Neeson) and take a drug trip with a Native American tribe. Truly, this is a story for the ages.
The moustache is the real star of the show.
There is a lot wrong with MacFarlane's second feature, but the most obvious is that the story is so... ordinary. The themes are readily apparent, most of them drawn from the usual Western cliches. The only think that makes A Million Ways unique is the treatment of Albert, who readily admits that he is not a hero, but "the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero's shirt." It's a refreshing change of pace to not see a John Wayne or a Wayne-wannabe taking the top spotlight in this kind of movie. However, there's a definite message here for the "nice guy" (that they don't finish last if they try), and while that's kind of unique for a Western setting, we've seen it a million times in teen comedies, and it's no fresher for the change of locale. And MacFarlane's attack on the romanticizing of the old west comes out as not timeless, but out-of-time; the average movie-going public doesn't care about the Western genre, so making fun of it isn't so much a whimsical nostalgic homage as it is kicking someone while they're down.
Obviously, Theron's on a new diet...
It doesn't help that the characters are a bit of a bore as well, with most actors not nearly used to their best effect. MacFarlane could almost be called the exception, but for the fact that a man known for doing funny voices never once alters his speech, even as a joke. It's like having Michael Winslow in a movie and NOT having him do his human beatbox routine. In fact, the actor/director's performance highlights the holes in his acting talent, as he's just not the lead actor type. He's got some charisma, but his screen presence is just off, since he doesn't know how to actually work in front of a camera after years of work behind it and doing voice-over work. At least Harris knows how to mug for the camera effectively, adapting well to MacFarlane's brand of storytelling. He really is the film's best performer, even if he's not given nearly as much to do. It's not that the rest of the actors are BAD, but that they're just written poorly and have little to do, playing nothing but stereotypes. Seyfried is a classic "bitchy ex-girlfriend". Neeson is the deadly outlaw with no sense of humor (he doesn't even get good dialogue). Giovanni Ribisi is the "mild-mannered best friend". Sarah Silverman is Ribisi's golden-hearted, dim-witted girlfriend (points off for Silverman's limp performance, but I'll give the character credit for being a prostitute who wants to wait for sex with her boyfriend until marriage because she's Christian. That's clever.). Theron is the "cool girl friend (not girlfriend)", and Theron doesn't so much play her as show up to speak her lines. And no, I don't think the Academy Award-winning actress was doing such a good job that I couldn't tell the difference. At least she seems to be having fun, which is a trait most of the cast seem to be sharing. Again, Neeson appears to be the exception, because he's playing the villain so straight. A bit TOO straight, in face, considering this production.
Neeson: a straight shot in a winding narrative.
Thankfully, the dialogue and humor isn't bad, and redeems some of the film's more lifeless efforts. MacFarlane (who teamed up on the script with his Ted co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild) delves full into his chosen topic, the variety of deaths in the American West, and has a lot of fun playing around with the concept. And when he focuses his the story here and not on the primary plot, THAT is when A Million Ways lives up to its premise, with Albert ranting on about the dozens of diseases rampant in the area (dysentery is referred to as "the black $#!&"), to the occasional off-handed comments about the hostility of local Native Americans ("...we're basically sharing the country with them 50/50.") to the numerous surprising cameos that I will not spoil, because they're just too perfect. Finally, MacFarlane has always had a good feel when it came to music, and he and composer Joel McNeely do a great job scoring this picture, mixing classic western music with more modernistic parody songs like "If You've Only Got a Moustache" and title track "A Million Ways to Die", for which you will want to sit through the closing credits to hear. This is where we get the upper level of MacFarlane's creativity. It's just too bad that the main story needed some work, as if the director had put as much effort into the plot that as he did making it anachronistic and edgy and fun, this could have been a great movie.
I know, I can't believe I'm giving this a decent review, either.
So no, it's no Ted, but A Million Ways to Die in the West isn't that bad, either. Does MacFarlane have the chops to be a lead actor? Absolutely not. Does he need a filter on occasion? Yes, the man never found a barrier he wouldn't cross just to say that he did. Is the script surprisingly and incredibly lazy? Yes, but the actors do try to have fun with it anyway. There are enough laughs to get you through the surprisingly long (nearly two hours, unheard of for a modern comedy) run time, and they hit more often than they miss. Heck, even when they miss, they aren't as bad as say... the worst bits from his Oscar hosting performance. There's no denying that those who do not think much of MacFarlane's brand will do best to stay away, but that's not to say that you have to be a fan to "get" this movie. It's harmless fun, albeit of a decidedly adult nature. The biggest complaint I have is that MacFarlane definitely half-assed this production, and that's the main reason it doesn't compare to even his best televised work. He relies too much on his usual schtick, and that's just not good enough to succeed at this level. Maybe one day he'll live up to his true potential (as he got close with Ted) but for now he'll just have to settle for not getting that respect a little bit longer.

Friday, June 6, 2014

'Maleficent': Absolutely Malodorous

No movie studio knows when to let a good thing stand on its own, but if any of these powerful entertainment companies have squeezing blood from a stone down to a science, it's the good folks at Disney. Drive off director Edgar Wright from Marvel's long-gestating Ant-Man due to corporate meddling? Certainly! Push for a new episode of Star Wars every other year, and fill the time in-between with spin-offs to overly saturate the market? Absolutely! Whitewash and cleanse free of controversial topics those pesky "based on a true story" flicks, whether they focus on J.B. Bernstein or Walt Disney? Par for the course! So it's really no surprise that the company decided to remake one of their own tales from the vantage point of one of their most celebrated villains. Ironically, Disney's Sleeping Beauty is one of the company's lesser animated films. Yes, it had its basis in the original fairy tale and the variant La Belle au bois dormant by Charles Perrault, but even as a story it doesn't stand up compared to even fare from twenty years ago: the plot is illogical, the dialogue and music are corny, and the "heroine" is a void shell desperately in need of rescue. In fact, Sleeping Beauty's ONLY saving grace is its villain, the great evil fairy Maleficent, whose awe-inspiring presence and unique character design make her one of the greatest all-time animated creations.
... and is STILL a great character.
Naturally, Disney does what it can to screw that up in the first few minutes of Maleficent by giving the audience a painful - EXCRUCIATING - opening sequence, where we see young, totally-not-as-talented-as-Angelina-Jolie actors spit inane dialogue that could have been handled by animated sequences and the in-house narrator (Janet McTeer), who was already doing a fine job of laying out the exposition in a timely and appropriate fashion. Then there's the story, which insists that the future villainess (Angelina Jolie, who hasn't been in a movie since 2010's atrocious The Tourist) is not really evil, but forced into doing wicked things by MAN (in this flick, that word seems to be in reference to the gender, not the species), who seem to want to wage war against the mystical creatures over whom Maleficent rules, for no good reason. Really, none of the character motivations make any sense, as the only reason the kingdom of Man are so malicious and greedy is... because they're so malicious and greedy. There's never any exploration into WHY there's friction between these two next-door nations, as for the most part the magical realm seems quite content to keep to itself. So from moment one, you're already not buying the movie's premise.
Because the hot guy quotient must be filled. There are girls in the audience, after all!
The acting is at least solid across most of the board, though not completely. Jolie, returning to the screen after four years, picked a gem in which to make her return, as she casually and naturally personifies a character that remains powerful after 55 years. And it's not just the make-up, either (normally I don't bother to mention the make-up department, but they did an amazing job with all the characters, and not just the title heroine), as Jolie's charisma and talent do an amazing job, despite not having the best material with which to work. Not too far behind are Elle "not-Dakota" Fanning as Princess Aurora and Sam Riley as Diaval, Maleficent's lackey. Fanning has a much simpler role than Angelina (and it's not much of an improvement over her animated counterpart) but she does her absolute best to give Aurora a personality, which is more than I possibly could have asked. And while Riley falls squarely in the "comedic sidekick" genre, he also has his moments to shine. In fact, the best scenes of the movie often involve Jolie, either by herself or working opposite Fanning and/or Riley, and the trio present some of the film's most human moments. Sadly, good times pretty much end there. Sharlto Copley tries hard but is a disaster, and obviously not a good enough actor to overcome the deficiencies of a script that give him every cliched villain bit in the book. And the buffoonery of Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple as the three good fairies gets achingly old after their first appearance, and their smaller, computer generated forms suffer from extreme uncanny valley. Finally, Brenton Thwaites' obligatory appearance as Prince Philip feels unnecessary, most notably because his presence IS unnecessary by the virtues of the plot and the concept, rounding out a simultaneously talented and disappointing cast. Obviously Jolie was always going to be the star of the show, but they could have at least TRIED to surround her with more interesting stories and people.

Now, let's talk about the date rape.
Because seriously, you want to piss her off?
I know I'm not the first or only one who noticed this, but I'm honestly shocked there's not more of an outrage by parents who brought their young daughters to the theaters to see this. At the end of the first act, Maleficent is approached by the grown-up man (Copley) whom she'd fallen in love with in the first five minutes, settles into trusting him, is drugged, and then is violently stripping of her wings, which are not the source of her power but a powerful metaphor nonetheless. And in case you don't get the emphasis, it's nailed home in the following scene, which sees the woman awaken from her drug-induced coma, realize the physical violation that has come upon her, and break down emotionally and physically at the betrayal from someone she thought she could trust. She even has difficulty walking afterwards - to the point where she needs a cane to get around - and if that doesn't bring up flashbacks of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I don't know what will. And THAT movie was deservedly rated R.
Evil, and big hats. That's all Man seems to be exporting these days.
And the sad part is, I wouldn't even argue that the scene shouldn't be here, as the near-silent performance by Jolie speaks volumes and creates extremely powerful emotions in those who witness it. I am a man and have never been subject to that kind of cruel behavior, nor could I ever truly empathize with that kind of trauma, but my God as a decent human being, I FELT her pain. It is by far the best scene in the whole movie, and while that might seem like faint praise when I finish I assure you it is not. That this scene even exists is both a revelation and a tragedy when you really think about what it represents.Honestly, my chief complaint is that Maleficent isn't a PG-13 movie, as many recent fairy tale adaptations have been, and this kind of scene would have been more appropriate for that audience, rather than the age 6-12 set that this was film was marketed towards. Because of that, this scene feels woefully out of place.
You're not your sister, but you'll do.
Further complicating matters is that after so poignant, so powerful a scene, the film just can't keep up the momentum. Both the script (Julie Woolverton, whose last atrocity was Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland) and direction (first timer Robert Stromberg, an award-winning Art Director) are completely lacking, disappointing when you consider the enormous potential this film had. There are a few decent scenes later on (most of which involve Jolie not just chewing the scenery, but dicing it up with her extra-sharp cheekbones), but the story is just so much of a mess that it derails the whole process every time you think it might just be getting started. However, the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora is given a ton of attention, and for the most part I believe this is one element that the filmmakers got 100% right. In this variation on the tale, Aurora believes the woman who put that curse upon her as a baby (which she knows nothing about, of course) to in fact be her fairy godmother, which goes hand in hand with Maleficent actually raising the child in secret, instead of the aforementioned doltish fairies who have no business caring for the her (again, the logic of Maleficent makes absolutely no sense) and developing feelings of her own towards the young woman whom she soon realizes she no longer holds a grudge against. That relationship (starting with the classic cursing scene in the castle throne room) is the only thing that keeps the movie from being a total train-wreck, but only by a few threads.
So, Robert Zemeckis was in charge of the CGI, right? That's why it's so bad?
The special effects are also shockingly uneven, with some of the more monstrous creature designs feeling so meticulously designed and gorgeous to behold (including a giant man-eating earth worm, tree-people warriors, and the obligatory fire-breathing dragon), while many of the elements take on a cartoonish appearance, most notably the atmospheric effects, but also the more "innocent" of the magical creatures. This also applies to the aforementioned Good Fairies, who never look remotely authentic when they're shrunken down to their smaller forms. The lack of chemistry between these two styles is jarring, and every time it upends the mood of the film, which definitely wants to be dark and brooding but just can't resist going down that comedic path every chance it gets. When you need your visual effects to keep up the spirits of your younger audience members, it helps when they look as though they were cut from the same cloth, something an Oscar winner apparently forgot.
Even at a distance, Angelina owns.
Disney plugged date rape into a family film geared towards young girls. And then they had the audacity to wrap a bad movie around it. Maleficent has its moments, especially when Angelina is deservedly front and center, and at the very least it's a visually appealing - if inconsistently so - couple of hours. But the story makes Snow White and the Huntsman look like Shakespeare in comparison, and doesn't have nearly the talent behind the camera to pull everything together. The story is junk, the motivations are insane, and the morals are all over the place, as there doesn't even seem to be a message behind all this pomp and circumstance. I think Jolie can do no wrong, but even if she gets nominated for an Oscar I don't think that would justify sitting down with your family and checking out this movie. It's easily one of the year's worst, and exists as proof that Disney needs to reign in on its cash-cow business methods. They wrung blood from that stone, but it's a funky shade of puce, and I really don't want any more of it on me.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Catching Up: Four Films on DVD

So as I've mentioned, moving to Florida and going to school put a damper on my movie-going plans for a bit. But as you might have noticed, I've been writing on a semi-regular schedule lately anyway. That's because I only have one class at the moment, so when I'm not doing assignments or working, I've actually had time to make it to the local theater. Though I'm not seeing EVERYTHING (and even when I was, I really wasn't), most of what I want to see I've taken the time to drive the ten miles to see. But what about those titles that came out between January and April that I had missed? Was there anything that I didn't get the chance at the time that I REALLY wanted to see? All I can say is thank God for the quick turnaround on DVD releases (remember when it was a year's wait?) these days! Otherwise, I'd probably have forgotten all about these four flicks before too long.

Okay, yes, I'm starting out with a film that technically doesn't count in comparison to the previous paragraph. But South Korean disaster film The Tower was definitely a title I'd been itching to see since I'd caught a trailer sometime last year. It was originally released in its native country in December of 2012 - where it set box office records - and expanded to several international markets the following year, though I'm unaware of any US releases. Director Kim Ji-hoon was inspired by the classic Hollywood film The Towering Inferno, and imagining what it would be like trapped in a burning skyscraper. He sets his story on Christmas Eve in the fictional "Sky Tower", a 108-story luxury condominium complex built for the enjoyment of the wealthy and privileged. When disaster strikes, leaving hundreds of people trapped on the higher levels, firemen can barely get to the fire to contain it, let alone rescue everybody. The story focuses on a small group of determined survivors as they attempt to escape the deathtrap, though it's safe to say that most won't make it out alive.
Did I mention he was three days away from retirement?
It's been a long time since we've had a really GREAT disaster movie, and with The Tower... you'll be waiting a bit longer. It IS quite a bit of fun, with explosions and collapsing structures and CGI effects beating much of what we've seen from our western shore this past decade. And yet it's disappointing that this film feels so westernized, being from the other side of the planet from the Michael Bays of the world. Some scenes are a little too gruesome (people cooking alive in an elevator, for instance), but for the most part the movie is your standard PG-13 action fare, from relentless (and physics-defying) explosions to basic character archetypes. The acting is quite good throughout, but suffers from a dearth of one-note roles that we've seen a billion times, from the single father (Kim Sang-kyung) and daughter (Lee Ha-na) separated in the tragedy, the woman he is in love with (Son Ye-jin), the rookie firefighter (Do Ji-han) and the veteran (Sol Kyung-gu) who is so dedicated to his job that you KNOW he's going to sacrifice himself at the end. There's even a pregnant woman, though I don't recall her name ever being spoken. Like The Towering Inferno, there is a ton of support cast present, and they all have the charisma to make an impression, even to the point of you liking them and not wanting anything bad to happen (well, for most of them). There's even a bit of comedy, in the form of a Christian group who break out into prayer and treat another fireman as an angel sent by God, to the point where he starts to believe them. But beyond the few leads, most of the characters don't get story arcs, existing solely as a source of expendable cannon fodder for the dozens of kills we're expecting to see.
This is really impossible.
The special effects are another downside to Ji-hoon's obvious infatuation with Hollywood cinema, as it's apparent the budget just did not quite support what he really wanted to show. The practical effects are used to great effect (whether it's torrents of fire or cascades of water washing over non-stuntmen actors), but when scenes call for major CGI use, they don't look nearly as realistic as they should. Distant shots of the fictional tower look like cardboard cutouts, and a scene where our group tries to cross a glass bridge that is cracking under their weight, you can see every single computer-generated imperfection. The story needed a face-lift, as well; there were two subplots concerning the owners of the building being warned of impending disaster and ignoring it, and the fire department prioritizing the rescue of politicians and the rich over the blue collar workers, but neither story goes anywhere, giving way to more death and destruction.
You might like these people, but you have no idea who they are.
But despite my griping, I actually did like The Tower. Yes, the script is manipulative and unfinished and the special effects don't always work the way they're supposed to, but you really care about these characters, since it's all too easy to draw comparisons between the story here and something like the tragedies of 9/11 (though as this is a Korean production, I'm sure the connection is merely unintentional). It's Western mentality also means that it's more open to American audiences than many Eastern flicks you'll see, so it's definitely worth a rental if you want to see something a little different from your usual fare, but not inaccessible.

For something more traditional, you can always check out Ride Along, the surprisingly funny movie starring Ice Cube and current comedian sensation Kevin Hart. For those few who aren't familiar with it (the movie broke box office records as the highest-grossing January domestic release), the story focuses on aspiring policeman Ben (Hart), whose life is going great, with his acceptance to the police academy and the love of Angela, played by Tika Sumpter. But Angela's cop brother James (Cube) isn't impressed, and gets the idea to take Ben on a 'ride along', and see what he does for a living. James hopes that by giving Ben the most insane initiation to police work, he can rid himself of an annoying hanger-on and what he considers an unworthy match with his sister.

So yeah, Ride Along is your formulaic buddy cop story, with the main exception being that one of the pair is not yet an actual police officer. And this is a film that really relies on it's pairing to work, as almost every single joke revolves around how tough James is versus how geeky and physically inadequate Ben is. The side characters serve little purpose other than as narrative tools, prodding the story from outrageous scene to outrageous scene with casual indifference and substandard dialogue. So it's a good thing that Hart and Cube have as much chemistry as they do, overcoming the shoddy story though genuinely funny gags and playing to their strengths as performers. It also helps that director Tim Story is in his element making lighthearted comedies (and NOT blockbuster flicks like Fantastic Four), and the movie benefits from an experienced hand behind the camera, as Story has worked on similar comedic fare such as Taxi and Barbershop.
...and the production truck just blew up. Keep filming!
But yes, by all intents and purposes, Ride Along is not a very good movie. The script (cobbled together by four separate screenwriters) is full of stupid ideas, ironically reminds viewers of the much better films on which it's based (most notably Training Day), has a stupid ending, and to make things worse the final product doesn't have a strong performance outside of it's co-leads. But it's Cube and Hart (who hasn't worn out his welcome yet after playing the same character in his last dozen roles) who effectively carry it to the point of respectability, if not quality. In fact, I'm glad I didn't do a full review of this movie, as all I would have talked about is how good the main actors worked, and it would have driven me crazy. This is brainless entertainment, and as long as you keep that in mind you'll make it through those 100 minutes in no time, and may be entertained just enough to have been worth it.

I wish I could say the same for Paul W.S. Anderson's Pompeii, which sees the director of fun popcorn films Mortal Kombat, Death Race and the Resident Evil franchise try his hand at channeling his inner Ridley Scott, and failing miserably. Similar to his unintended attack on literacy in 2011's The Three Musketeers, Anderson actually tries to tackle something that has historical and mythological significance - the destruction of the ancient city of Pompeii thanks to the eruption of nearby Mt. Vesuvius, only to turn in a final product that feels like the cloned baby of Gladiator and Volcano.

The sad thing is that there's actually a talented cast wasted here. Game of Thrones' Kit Harrington continues to pay his dues by appearing in whatever schlock will have him as a gladiator who is also the last surviving member of a Celtic horse tribe (wah wah, irony!), while Emily Browning (Sucker Punch) does her absolute best to hem the wretched dialogue she (and everybody else) is given into something actually presentable in a big-screen motion picture. The support cast is easily strong, with Carrie-Anne Moss, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas and Jared Harris filling their respective - if limited - roles well. And beyond the cast, the special effects are absolutely stunning, as Anderson's abilities working with CGI artistry cannot be understated. Argue if you want about how quickly death comes from Mt. Vesuvius, it looks GREAT. Even Anderson's worst movies are at least visually appealing, and that's absolutely the case here, where one-note characters will get offed in a multitude of imaginative ways (or, at least as imaginative as "death by volcano" gets).
"You wear nothing, Jon Snow..."
But, that's where all the good feelings end. It's apparent from the start that the director is out of his depth from the get-go, as he sets a chilling opening montage of ash-mummified Pompeii victims to a surprisingly upbeat, epic score, which is well out of place when we're being set up for the destruction of an entire city and its inhabitants. And it gets worse from there, as the script borrows every cliche and genre trope it can (or in most cases, can't) get away with. Character motivations are simplified to the point of stupidity, and the twists and turns are telegraphed a million miles away, meaning there are absolutely no surprises when all is said and done. That two of the three screenwriters were responsible for Batman Forever, but the third worked on Sherlock Holmes, so I'm shocked that the story could have gotten THIS dumb. My usual complaint about James Cameron's Titanic is that there was a whole ship full of interesting, compelling and complex characters, and the filmmaker decided he'd rather focus on two fictional, useless, boring individuals whose actors were far from their best. That's kind of what Pompeii is, only it manages to make Titanic look like a genuine masterpiece by comparison. And, let's not even get into Kiefer Sutherland and his head-shaking combination of poor casting and a mouth full of industrial strength cotton, though I will admit that as an actor he did make the most of his badly, badly, badly-written role.
You won't sway me with pretty faces and skimpy outfits... THIS time...
It's clear that Pompeii's mid-February release was an effort to try and make a quick buck when there wasn't much more genre fare available, but also sweep it under the rug before people could take too close a look. I'm glad I saw it, if only to confirm that Anderson will never be the director he hopes to become, only the director he is. The same man who brought us Event Horizon and Soldier is never going to give us Alien or Blade Runner or the movie he's obviously trying to copy here, Gladiator. This was a bad, bad effort to build Anderson's repertoire, only to discover that he has a definite, inflexible limit to what he can do on the big screen. As long as his movies are something innocuous like next year's Resident Evil flick, he is a perfectly adequate, semi-talented filmmaker. But when he goes out of his way to try and create something PROFOUND or IMPORTANT, his products aren't worth his time or yours.

Oh, thank god I followed up Pompeii with That Awkward Moment. This ribald, adult comedy was just the antidote I needed to the previous film's dour, pointless, cliched drama. The story focuses on three friends, played by up-and-coming actors Zac Efron, Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan, as they live day-to-day in modern-day New York City. Jason (Efron) is a successful ladies man and book cover artist whose single life is upended when he meets Ellie (Imogen Poots), with whom he can connect on an intellectual and emotional level. His coworker and co-Casanova Daniel (Teller) is the single lifestyle's biggest champion, while also developing feelings for the trio's female friend Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis). And Daniel (Jordan), the responsible member of the group, has just been dumped and divorced by his wife and struggles to figure out what went wrong. The movies plays out much like season 6 of Sex and the City, where the show concluded after successfully finding matching romantic partners for each of the four main ladies by season's end.

Don't judge me, it was a great show.
In New York, the good-looking guys all run in packs.
The story relies on us liking these three guys who, for all intents and purposes, are the types that parents warn their daughters about with regularity. Naturally, their antics are never presented as malicious, dishonest or completely self-serving (as opposed to last year's Don Jon), simply as the way single life works in this day and age, as men and women who aren't attached just want to go out and have a good time. Heck, even the women out there just want to enjoy their single lives, as well. And it's a good thing it got three of the most charming young actors to play these roles, because I'm not sure any other actors could have pulled this off. Well, okay, MAYBE Jaime Bell. Efron of course has been around what seems like forever but now finally seems to have found his niche in adult comedies (see Neighbors for confirmation of this), much like Channing Tatum did in 2012. Teller and Jordan have emerged more recently, but have already shown an aptitude for comedy that translates nicely here. And the female cast is nicely represented by Poots (who looks younger with every film I see her in), Davis, and Jessica Lucas. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it's obvious this cast had a ton of fun working on this movie, as it would have been far easier for it all to fall apart under the tutelage of freshman director Tom Gormican, who also wrote the screenplay. It's obvious the actors involved worked well together, as it really shows up on the screen, whether the scenes are happy, sad, or somewhere in the middle.
This is kind of what I imagine Zac Efron looks like in his own mind.
Naturally, the movie has its share of issues. Despite the marvelous cast, the script (again, Gormicon is a relative newcomer) doesn't give them a whole lot to do, nor does it really explain much of a setting or backstory, beyond that the characters live in New York City, and have jobs doing... stuff. That we rarely see impacting their everyday lives. Beyond that, not all the big laughs work, although most do, and the plot follows many of the usual tropes for a romantic comedy, but with only the genders reversed (or just seen from the other point of view). The film also suffers from trying to appeal to both sides; on the one hand, guys will get into the immature humor and the bro-tastic central characters, while women get to ogle naked Zac Efron and will appreciate the romantic plot more, but there's little that actually appeals to both sides.
Nope, never mind. THAT'S what he looks like in his own mind.
Basically, That Awkward Moment looks like a male-centric SatC with a bit of Judd Apatow humor thrown in. That is to say, it doesn't reinvent the wheel (or even really try) but is charming and irreverent and gets by just fine. It'll be forgotten before too long, but hopefully helps provide career boosts for its cast, as this group is far too talented not to succeed in joining the next generation of Hollywood royalty. They help take this film from being a disappointing mess to an entertaining, if unambitious, time-waster. Worth a quiet night in.

That's it for catching up this week! Anything from 2014 I haven't reviewed on DVD that you want me my opinion on? Let me know and I'll see if it's something I can do. I'll be returning to new releases with the next few reviews, but hopefully soon I'll be able to catch up on all of this year's entries that I've missed, even the truly horrible ones. Hope to see you then!

Monday, June 2, 2014

These are the Days of an X-Men Renaissance

It's actually kind of amazing how much information we got about X-Men: Days of Future Past between when its production was announced in May 2012, and now. Of course, we learned the title, which immediately heralded back to the classic X-Men comic book storyline of the same name. We were disappointed that X-Men First Class director Matthew Vaughn was leaving the project to focus on other work, but then excited again when we found out that Bryan Singer - who had directed the first two wonderful movies - was returning to direct the newest installment of the franchise he helped build. We learned that it would combine the casts of both pre-existing X-Men storylines, with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan playing alongside their younger character counterparts of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. We learned that Hugh "Wolverine" Jackman would once again be the face of the series. Empire magazine published their special issue about the film with 25 collectible covers. We were given what seemed like half a dozen full-length trailers, countless promotional clips and set pictures, and the sight of speedy newcomer mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters) eating an X-tra Bacon, Egg & Cheese biscuit in a Carl's Jr. ad (yeah, that was kind of stupid). We also got some bad or potentially bad news, ranging from the complete cutting of fan favorite Rogue (Anna Paquin, whom the trailers had initially featured) to the current sexual assault allegations leveled against Singer. Point being, there was an almost insane amount of hype surrounding this entry to the X-Men film franchise, almost too much to actually hope the final product would live up to expectations. Well guess what? It lives up to expectations. And in some ways, it surpasses them.
Just promise me there'll be no singing.
Days of Future Past takes place within two disparate timelines. In a chaotic, post-apocalyptic future, Professor Xavier and Magneto (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan) lead a small band of mutants trying to avoid extermination at the hands of mutant-hunting Sentinels, robots built during the time of Xavier and Magneto's youth. Through one of the group's ability to send people backwards in time (because, you know, the story demands it), de-facto tough guy Wolverine's mind is sent back in time to his younger body to prevent the actions that have brought about the chaotic world in which our heroes live. When he wakes up in 1973, he must unite the two young mutant leaders, now at odds with one another, into a team that can halt the future war on mutant-kind before it ever starts.
... I'm sorry, was I saying something?
The best thing about Days of Future Past is that it combines the greatest elements of the X-Men films. For the old-school fans, you have the return of several classic franchise actors, including Halle Berry (Storm), Shawn Ashmore (Iceman), and Ellen Page (Kitty Pryde), not to mention Stewart and McKellan. For fans of the most recent First Class kinda-reboot, you have the the unique (for a superhero film) 1970's atmosphere, the best from the cast with McAvoy, Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult, and the main focus of the narrative. And of course, there's Jackman in the lead role once again, not that the casting agent would let you forget. Singer melds these disparate parts fairly well, mixing timelines and art styles with precision, flipping from young Xavier's private plane in one scene to Sentinels battering down a door in the future, and the transition works without any loss of cohesion. The fact is, if you liked ANYTHING from the previous X-movies, you'll find plenty to enjoy here.
One of these things is not like the others...
But Singer doesn't just rely on combining nostalgic elements when it comes to building his latest effort, and his newest additions make for a nice compliment to the preexisting franchise. Games of Thrones' Peter Dinklage is perfectly at home as an adaptation of classic X-Men villain Bolivar Trask, putting an appropriate face to the public discrimination and fear that has long been the dividing line the team from the likes of the Avengers or the Fantastic Four. And even Evan Peters' take on Quicksilver is surprisingly effective. Yes, that Carl's Jr. commercial was an incredibly poor marketing idea, and at first glance his costume is just plain silly. But when Singer actually uses the character in the context of the movie (in a slow-motion action sequence set to Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle"), it's such a thrill ride that you wish it wouldn't end. Sadly, the character practically disappears after this, but hopefully he'll make a re-appearance further down the line, if the directors can capture the same level of fun and excitement that Singer nailed in that one scene.
Fifty bucks on him gutting the hippie!
And that actually sums Days of Future Past up quite nicely; it's fun, and it's exciting. People haven't been enamored with this particular superhero franchise of late, from the spottiness of the Wolverine movies to the bad script elements of First Class to the plain awfulness that was X-Men: The Last Stand. But thankfully Days of Future Past rises above those faults. The cast is perfect - even Lawrence finally seems comfortable sitting in the bright blue skin of pseudo-villain Mystique after conquering just about every other role she's been handed - and the script is not just well written, but includes more than a few inside jokes for the lifelong comic book fans. In fact, that the story was based on such a well-known comic book storyline is a main reason this new entry was hyped so heavily, and so effectively. And yet this isn't just a pandering adaption, or at least if it is, it's hidden well enough to not be immediately insulting to those paying for tickets. Beyond that, the visuals are stunning, the dialogue and character development are amazing, and - especially important when Amazing Spider-Man 2 had so many jarring, bloated bits - it doesn't feel like too much has been crammed in to make the movie unwatchable. Instead, just the right balance means that you'll be riveted to your seat for the entire 131 minutes.
They act like they've never seen a man in purple armor and a cape before... oh, wait...
In closing, I think it's safe to say that after years of mediocrity and unfulfilled potential, the X-Men franchise is back on its feet and on a path to glory with Days of Future Past. Sure, the story has a few hiccups, some parts kind of rely on the audience remembering the plots and unseen characters of the previous films, and the ending isn't particularly clear how the universe will play out in future films. But despite the weariness the hype might have on your decision whether or not to see this in the theater, let me assure you that this is a superhero movie well worth a trip to your theater, even if you're not a fan of the genre. It might be one of the best of its kind in recent years, and there's no better way to celebrate that than seeing it on the big screen.