Friday, August 28, 2015

Digging for Fire, and coming up empty handed

Digging for Fire spends 85 minutes scraping through the dirt and comes up with nothing but bloody fingernails and a deflated sense of purpose, disappointing rewards when compared to the fire in the title.

Joe Swanberg’s off-kilter romantic drama follows around housesitters Tim (Jake Johnson) and his wife Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) as they camp out in a luxurious house up in what I’m assuming is the Hollywood Hills. While enjoying the house and its huge yards, Tim finds a rusted revolver and what looks to be a human bone in the vegetation on the property’s edge. It sparks his curiosity, and he slowly becomes obsessed with foraging through the dirt and discovering the soil’s buried mysteries.

Lee, bored with her husband’s meaningless discovery, takes their 3-year-old to her parents for the weekend, thus beginning their separate adventures in which they have one of those High Fidelity “what does it all mean?” moments. Tim has friends over, and a party soon sprouts from what was supposed to be a dinner with his bros, and Lee goes out drinking and starts picturing the tangents her life could be taking with just the tiniest of pushes.

And meanwhile, the hills beckon. Tim gets a shovel. He enlists help. They find a leather shoe, a bag of bones. At one point a neighbor comes over and seems to hint that something dark happened up there in those hills and maybe a young man shouldn’t invite those ghosts into his life. The bones and their metaphorical purpose might seem like the backbone of Digging for Fire, but it’s mostly just background noise to Tim and Lee’s diverging routes through the landscape of the film. 

What could have been macabre and gruesome, is instead subtle and comically underplayed. What could have easily been a horror, instead turns into a series of drunken pool parties, coke-fueled joke riffings, mindless Uber rides, and conversation so pointless that the film seems to be aiming for wallpaper, audio-visual decoration for the thinnest and most high-minded excuse for a story. All of this is done with countless celebrities, who have little, if anything, to do. Anna Kendrick shows up to snort a line of cocaine and shimmy in her bra, Sam Elliott plays Lee’s father in one scene, Orlando Bloom is a hunky hero, Ron Livingston and Melanie Lynskey look dreadfully bored as a married couple, and even Sam Rockwell as an angry drunk can’t liven things up. I found a subplot with Johnson and Brie Johnson mildly interesting, but it doesn’t go anywhere or do anything. Like everything else in the movie, their scenes together are meant only as scale to the other relationships, a banana held up for comparison purposes. 

I did enjoy Fire’s nonchalant pacing, which I felt was setting me up for a big payoff. The camera lingers on scenes of people chatting, slumping over bottles, writhing together in the pool. It all has a very voyeuristic feel to it, like we’re silent members of the parties. Unfortunately, there is no payoff. The bones go nowhere, nor does the revolver or the shoe. I kept thinking that something more supernatural or metaphysical were happening, especially when Tim tries on the shoe and it fits perfectly.

But, when all was said and done, Digging for Fire wasn't really interested in the catalyst that sets everything into motion. Whatever mystery that was up there in those hills, will die with this movie.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Pineapple depress: stoner spy comedy flops

American Ultra is an ugly and soulless action-comedy with almost no comedy and enough action to render the plot gimmick of the point-blank headshot completely meaningless. It does do one thing right: it ends at a brisk, although still-too-long, 90 minutes.

I can’t say this spy ditty does much else right. All the things that make spy movies so endearing — spy gadgets, international travel, criminal intrigue, nefarious plots — never make an appearance here. Instead we get two grungy lovebirds in their podunk town as they get high and shoot people in the head, which caters to its two apparent demographics: ’90s-era stoners and John Wick fans. More on both those points later.

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) works at a convenience store that apparently stays open as a form of charity to Mike and his sad existence. The store gets about three customers a day, which allows lots of time for Mike to roll joints at the register and pilfer from the chip aisle. When a government agent comes in and says what is essentially “abracadabra,” Mike’s repressed past as a covert superspy comes racing back to him so he can defend himself from laughably awful assassins who can’t plant a bomb on Mike’s Buick in the dead of night without being spotted.

After committing what he thinks is cold-blooded murder, Mike calls his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) who arrives to survey the damage her wimp of a boyfriend has unleashed on two super agents. Once she arrives, the local police department shows up and it sets off a violent night of gunplay, explosions, cleaver hackings and government infiltration. 

Mike and Phoebe, as screwed up as they are, are kinda sweet together. Eisenberg and Stewart, forever defined by Facebook and Twilight  and reuniting after the fantastic Adventureland   are unsympathetic protagonists in almost everything they’re in, yet here they somehow seem just right for each other, even as American Ultra photographs them without even a vague hint of glamour. Stewart is a trailer-park princess with gritty hair and cheap makeup, and Eisenberg spends so much of the movie with his face drenched in tears, blood, sweat and snot that a product placement from Kleenex would have been appropriate and appreciated. I often wondered if Eisenberg’s long shaggy hair was only meant to hide the face of the stunt performer during the action scenes, including in bridge shootouts, a grocery store massacre and a rumble in some kind of porn dungeon bathed in banks of blacklights. There’s also a scene of Mike ricocheting a bullet off a frying pan, which is a neat trick that the film puts in the trailer in case you wanted to watch something else this weekend.

Ultra is filled with an array of smaller characters played by actors who have nothing to do and nowhere to go. Connie Britton (TV’s Nashville) has a phone glued to her ear; Tony Hale (HBO’s Veep) is on the other end of those calls with dead jokes and meaningless subplots. The great Walton Goggins spends much of the film wheezing maniacally as one of the hitmen tasked with eliminating Mike. Bill Pullman shows up to prove to the world he’s still acting, and that’s pretty much it. John

Leguizamo has one sad line (“Wanna drop some acid and go to the titty bar?”) and then he’s removed from the movie as if he received a call, turned to the film and said, “Go on without me.” All these side characters are trumped by the still-infantile Topher Grace, here playing a government stooge with an ax to grind … apparently against us. His loud sequences have about three times more dialogue than is needed, all of which Grace chews on like it’s bubblegum made from a pair of yoga pants.

Going back to an earlier point, Nima Nourizadah’s juvenile film is largely geared to two subsets of viewers: people who still watch Half Baked on a weekly basis, and people are have fetishized bullets entering and exiting heads. With regards to the first point, the stoner comedy is a dead genre. With marijuana legal in more and more places, weed culture is quickly being diluted by regular users. Gone are the days of “rolling a fatty” under a Bob Marley banner while Snoop Dogg or Cypress Hill bang out of a boombox. Pot and its many forms are used by grandmas with glaucoma, kids with seizures, and lots of healthy people, too, including lawyers, dentists, blue-collar types, soccer moms, and yes, even undercover spies. Stoners like Mike certainly still exist  and Mike has made the famous Sleep lyrics his daily mantra: Drop out of life with bong in hand / Follow the smoke toward the riff-filled land  but they look like lost relics from a different time and place. 

As for the other point, the violence is just a stale copycat of so many other gunplay movies out today, including John Wick which turned the headshot into a celestial communion to the Church of the Second Amendment. That film has its fans, and it’s getting a sequel, but let me ask a serious question: how many is too many headshots? American Ultra doesn’t give it a dignified examination, and instead it just apes Wick’s action with less stylization and less irony. 

Skip American Ultra. It’s a dismal film pretending to be a slightly less dismal film.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Fantastic 4 is a monument to comic awfulness

If there is ever a museum for bad movies — and let’s all agree there should be, and it would be great — then the bronze monument at the entrance should be of the Fantastic Four. The plaque at the base can read: “Four heroes. Four films. Three franchises. Each fantastically awful.”

Chalk it up to divine intervention, Murphy’s Law, Chaos Theory, karma, Marvel’s pride or whatever, the universe will simply not allow the Fantastic Four to flourish. The disastrous race to beat expiring movie rights doomed 1994’s straight-to-video cheap-o-rama version. In 2005, an updated and CGI-heavy reboot, and its woeful sequel with the Silver Surfer two years later, bombed in an entirely new way with its characters, who bickered and sniped at each other like spoiled children. And here we are once again with a new Fantastic Four, and all new ways to wreck a film in spectacular fashion.

Marvel, the comic book company that now makes interlocking movie mosaics, has had a long and powerful run at comic movies. So long and so powerful that some people — people like me — are praying, hoping, cheering for the company’s eventual failure in Hollywood, which might just loosen the grip that superhero movies have on the cinema it has hijacked. Fantastic Four might not be Marvel’s death knell, but it’s proof that Marvel isn’t bulletproof. So ready, aim, fire on this clay pigeon of a movie.

Quantifying how bad this film is really very easy: it’s bad in almost every way. The actors are just atrocious, with dialogue that is forced and delivered in a drab monotone. The director, Chronicle helmer Josh Trank, is clearly out of his league with too many moving parts, an uneventful plot, a cast that is largely on screen to deliver meaningless exposition, and outdated, frankly embarrassing CGI. The pacing is off, with a long buildup to zero climax. The action choreography is uninspired and clunky. Even the score is dismal, its hollow notes punctuating the movie’s desperate failings. So little is done right that you can start to see why Trank, during the post-production of Fantastic Four, dropped out of the Star Wars spin-offs — that franchise might finally have its bearings, and Trank simply wasn’t cutting it. 

We begin with Reed Richards, a little kid in grade school called up to give a presentation about what he wants to be when he grows up. He expresses a genuine interest in science and discovery and the teacher laughs him back to his seat, because teachers just humiliate their students into submission. This is the first scene, and already I was laughing at the unintentional awfulness of Fant-four-stic, which is what the Internet has already dubbed it. Later, Reed and his new friend, Ben, who lives in what can only be described as an orphanage at a junkyard, borrow an industrial strength power converter to test out a quantum transporter. After blacking out the neighborhood, the toy car they transport disappears and in its place is a handful of foreign-looking space rocks. If this sounds interesting and slightly mysterious, don’t worry the film drops this completely so put it out of your mind. 

Years later, Reed and Ben (now played by Miles Teller and Jamie Bell) are apparently in their early 20s and participating in a sixth-grade science fair. Even stranger still, super-secret government science contractors, including Sue Storm (Kate Mara), are trolling the little kids’ baking soda volcanoes and potato clocks for insight for their own experiments. When they see the quantum teleporter they kick Ben back to the junkyard and give Reed a full-ride scholarship to continue testing his device. Back at their lab, Reed meets Sue’s brother Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), some Fast & Furious reject who can weld, and Victor Von Doom, whose name indicates he will most certainly be the villain. Doom is a hacker, something we know because he sits brooding behind six computer monitors, one of them plays video games and the others have streams of code scrolling down all Matrix-like. Also, Doom doesn’t shave — he’s angsty. 

The movie seems to be moving along at a decent clip, and then it just keeps on going, blissfully unaware that it’s on the wrong road entirely. As 10 minutes stretches to 20, then 30, then 45, Fantastic Four still has no plot, which is odd because this is the third franchise featuring this origin story, so we know what happens. It’s not a mystery: Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben are exposed to cosmic radiation and turn into mutant superheroes. It takes an agonizingly slow 45 minutes to get to the mysterious planet on the other side of the quantum teleporter. At the 55-minute mark the four finally get their powers, and only at the 90-minute mark do all of them share the same frame together as the Fantastic Four. The whole movie is 100 painful minutes long — only Marvel’s mercy saved us from more.

By the time Reed is a super-flexible Stretch Armstrong doll, Sue can turn invisible and create blue energy orbs, Johnny can fly and turn into a fireball, and Junkyard Ben is made of rocks, the film has already overstayed its welcome. Even worse, the actors have largely checked out, including the great Teller, so wonderful in last year’s Whiplash and here left to give impassioned pep talks with no passion or pep. He just lets the dialogue flop out of his mouth, especially in the anticlimactic finale where he pleads for unity among the four. “Alone we can’t beat him, but together we can,” he says in a voice meant for reading world news briefs on NPR. Mara has the regretful line, “I’m not going to be a tool,” and an early scene where she blurts out that she listens to music because of “pattern resolution.” Jordan and Bell have few lines, and maybe it’s best for them and their promising careers. The lines they do have reveal no depth to their characters or to the world they inhabit. 

The acting is just the worst, and the only excuse I have for these fine actors giving these awful performances is that maybe these were the performances Trank wanted. Or maybe the actors just turned it off once they realized the plot was a literal black hole. In any case, this is abysmal acting with no heart, no humanity, and certainly no payoff within Fantastic Four. It starts bad and only gets worse from there. When Doom’s black hole does open in the last 15 minutes, I was grateful that the first things sucked in were the Fantastic Four.

I suspect, as have others, that the reason the film has these abbreviated character storylines and why it takes so long to get going is because it’s building Fantastic Four’s world. The idea being that the universe is established here in this film, and then explored deeper in subsequent films, like Marvel’s Avengers universe. If that’s true, and I believe it is — proof: a Fantastic Four sequel was announced before this one was even released — then Marvel is the greatest risk to film since flammable film stock. The cinema has its troubles: writers are fleeing to TV, 3D is still a dastardly grift, and these abhorrent prequels, remakes and sequels will just never end. But these shared universes are going to ruin everything. That might sound like an overstatement, but Fantastic Four is a prime example of what happens to projects that focus on whole networks of films and not just the film at its feet. You end up getting an undercooked, overwritten piece of story filler that’s meant to take your money now, next summer and every summer after until it gets absorbed by one of Marvel’s other franchises. Its not the art of film; its a pyramid scheme. 

This has to stop. And Fantastic Four’s epic failure is a step in the right direction. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Grace, beauty in Tarzan's river dance from 1934

In an interesting post today over at The Verge about CGI nudity and digital stunt doubles, writer Lux Alptraum, drops an interesting little fact into her first paragraph. While addressing the long history related to nude body doubles, she mentions that “Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim stood in for actress Maureen O’Sullivan during a nude underwater ballet scene in Tarzan and His Mate.” I wasn’t familiar with the scene, so I checked out the link and was surprised at the beauty and technical achievement of the underwater scene from the 1934 movie — not to mention it contained five or six times the amount a nudity that would land an R rating by today’s MPAA standards.

The scene begins with Tarzan in full-on Alpha mode, tossing Jane into a river, her dress snagging on a branch and ripping off during her fall. Tarzan, in only his famous loincloth, dives in after his nude “mate” and the two have this playful swim, much of it underwater as they paw at each other’s feet and shoulders, eventually somersaulting through the water in lovely pirouettes, light from above reflecting off their skin against the murky backdrop of their bubbly stage. The scene could use some music, but otherwise it’s a perfect moment in what might be a terrible film — or maybe’s it’s great, I’ll have to find out. The nudity is there, and I’m sure you can see some more explicit bits if you freeze the video at the right moment, but it’s not tasteless or crude. Quite the opposite — it’s gorgeous. It’s easy to fall into that trap of “old movies are so conservative” routine, where we laugh at how wholesome and pure movies were before the mid- to late-1960s. That’s not always the case, as we see here with a scene that certainly defies puritan modesty, but also shows us something beautiful and not the least bit scandalous.

All in all it was all just bricks in the wall

Here’s something your college economics book didn’t teach you: Make a great product. Sell it to to kids. Wait until the kids grow up and then start advertising it for you, for free. Marketing department? Who needs one when you have devoted followers. 

The product in this case is LEGO, which is embracing its cultural zenith following last year’s LEGO Movie — an impending sequel is in the works — and now with a tell-all documentary about the Danish toy company. A LEGO Brickumentary, like the LEGO Movie before it, is a cheerful examination of all things LEGO, and it innocently blurs the line between entertainment and commerce. But really, says the film’s subtext, aren’t they one in the same?

It’s narrated by Jason Bateman, who plays a little astronaut minifig, or minifigure, who’s animated into the interludes of the film’s chapters that chronicle LEGO’s formation, its rise to prominence, a sudden downfall and then its eventual rise back up to be a $4-billion empire. Other toy companies, like Mattel and Hasbro, the film says, have different lines of toys, like Barbie and G.I. Joe, but LEGO makes only one line, building blocks. And it makes a lot of them, enough to give 100 bricks to every person on the planet. 

The film spends equal time with LEGO product engineers and with its many fans, young and old. It’s remarkable how much the company stays in contact with its biggest collectors and builders, and even goes as far to employ them in developing new designs and innovations. Many of its designers simply sit in rooms all day and build new sets, tweaking little details to tell stories and then pitch their sets as eventual products.

We learn all kinds of useless LEGO phrases: Clutch Power is the name given to the strength of the interlocking mechanism at LEGO’s core, AFOL is “adult fan of LEGO,” tubes and studs are the names of the major components of an average brick, and Mindstorms is the robotic line that users are hacking for their own purposes. The company found out about the hacking and instead of telling users to cease and desist, they encouraged them to discover and build new creations. Embracing the blocks many uses is on of the companys many triumphant successes.

We meet an artist who uses LEGO bricks in his fine art, a designer who creates a successful architecture line of famous buildings, autistic children who enhance their learning with team-based LEGO projects, a man who creates LEGO guns because the company won’t, and the man who made every LEGO user a potential designer with his CUUSOO crowdsourcing site. One potential designer is an awkward man who creates a model of the Curiosity Mars rover, complete with the cantilever-style suspension of the famous robotic explorer. 

In many scenes, adults are shown to be just as involved as children. These adults found LEGO as kids and never gave it up. They snap bricks together in zen-like states. That reassuring click of the bricks just feels right. I played with LEGOs as a kid, and I could relate to the sensation of snapping those famous bricks into place. NBA star Dwight Howard is a LEGO fan, as is South Park co-creator Matt Stone.

A LEGO Brickumentary rarely strays too far from LEGO’s corporate agenda, one of imagination, design and invention. A movie about Nike, for instance, would almost have to examine its labor practices in poor countries or else it would be seen as pandering to corporate interests. LEGO doesn’t seem to have skeletons like that worth digging up. The film does acknowledge severe corporate and brand negligence during the 1980s and ‘90s, when executives felt the all-powerful brick was obsolete and introduced an array of simpler, streamlined sets that stripped bare the core values of the company. The film doesn’t acknowledge the toymaker’s strong links to big oil — the toys are, after all, made of plastic — although that is something the company has only just begun to address. 

All considering, this is a fair, if altogether toothless, examination of the company’s culture of creativity. If you played with LEGO, or have kids with LEGOs, there’s something for you here in this charming documentary.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

This Mission Impossible franchise is out of gas

Maybe you haven’t heard yet, but Tom Cruise did a big stunt for the new Mission: Impossible movie. Remind me to send you a link to the trailer. And the post-stunt interview. And the behind-the-scenes featurette. And all the articles. And blog posts. And pictures. And poster. Actually, if you’re willing to not ask about Scientology in any way, I think we can get Cruise himself to re-enact the stunt in your driveway.

The acrobatic performance, with Cruise’s spymaster Ethan Hunt clinging to the side of big transport plane as it taxis and takes off, was billed as a major piece of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. Turns out, it was just a marketing stunt. The scene, dropped into the first five minutes of the movie and left largely untethered to the rest of the plot, might be the most overhyped thing since Amazon’s disastrously unrewarding Prime Day. 

But the scene, and its function as an innocuous jump-start to Rogue Nation, is revealing because it highlights a dangerous lean this franchise is making toward the James Bond franchise — all that’s missing from Cruise’s plane scene are those blaring horns and a silhouette firing a pistol into screen. One of Ethan Hunt’s endearing charms is that he clearly wasn’t James Bond. This, and so much more in Rogue Nation, feels like an abandonment of the franchise.

What irks me most about this lovably goofy spy caper is that it’s a cliché factory. Most action movies are, but this one hams it up under the guise of “serious espionage thriller,” as if it’s immune to sniper assassins blithely waltzing past security guards at the opera, or rubber masks that can flawlessly render wearers into anyone else in the film, or the umpteenth “impenetrable computer behind an impenetrable vault within an impenetrable fortress” gag. We get it already with the spy stuff! It's also interesting how everything is hackable, until the plot requires it to be unhackable. 

Rogue Nation begins in the bureaucracy of Washington, D.C. The director of the CIA (Alec Baldwin at his most Jack Donaghy) is lobbying congress to let the CIA absorb Hunt’s IMF branch — they’re no longer needed, he says. Hunt, meanwhile, is convinced that a group known as SPECTRE … oops, I mean the Syndicate, is plotting terrorist attacks around the world. The CIA, an organization that took us to war in Iraq on faulty intelligence, now suddenly balks at bombing, spying and eavesdropping on the Syndicate. The easier solution, inexplicably, is to disavow Hunt and make him the fugitive. 

Off Hunt goes around the world, or at least to places that helped finance the film, in his race to track down a nefarious villain he has only seen through a smoky window. Along the way he meets Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a British spy who is so entangled in the Syndicate that she has some kind of exclusive tenure. Every mission she’s on is bungled by her or Hunt, yet the Syndicate keeps welcoming her back with open arms for no other reason than the plot demands it. 

The middle part of the film takes place in Morocco, where Hunt and Faust — and the remnants of IMF, including characters played by Ving Rhames, Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg — must break into an unbreakable place. These mid-movie heists are classic Mission: Impossible stunts, and this one is suitably silly inside a flooded liquid-cooled vault cylinder. Nevermind that no one — ever — has had this many redundant and needless security features, and within a nuclear power plant of all places. Of course, it’s not hackable from the outside, so Hunt has to go in and swap out a lo-fi cartridge inside the vault’s hi-fi wheel of death. It’s all preposterously dopey, but it’s hard not to smile at it all.

What follows are rote passages involving motorcycles, bad guys firing blindly around our heroes and a CGI car crash that might be the automobile version of that terrible CGI plane crash at the end of Air Force One. Seriously, this crash must have been uploaded into the film from a floppy disk — it looks old and outdated. 

But Rogue Nation does have some light-hearted laughs, though, including a scene in which Hunt and one of the opera snipers silently fight on the overhead background lights during a performance. The lights lower and raise, like platforms in a video game. The sniper has a flute-rifle and it’s gloriously stupid and charming all at once. It’s also fun to watch Pegg and Renner spar with Cruise, who is always a good sport. There are more jokes this time around. There’s also more product placement, including an unforgivable Halo 5 scene that should be shot into space and what amounts to about 30 minutes of BMW commercials. 

With James Bond tackling SPECTRE later this year, and that whole 007 franchise growing increasingly more serious in tone and structure, Mission: Impossible should try another approach entirely. We saw a shift in the franchise before, particularly from Part 2 to Part 3, and again moving into Part 4, Ghost Protocol, which found the right breakdown of fun/serious. Rogue Nation feels like a step back for a franchise that was slowly starting to figure it all out.

Ant-Man points deeper down the Marvel pipeline

Ant-Man as a stand-alone film would be a nearly perfect summer superhero movie. It has a likeable hero, an appropriately evil villain, jokes, a love story, sidekicks, a sage old mentor, a train sequence (something every movie can benefit from) and a suit that allows a man to shrink to the size of a grain of salt. 

But Ant-Man is not a stand-alone movie. It’s a Marvel movie, which means it must give shout-outs to the Avengers, to Captain America, to the incoming Spider-Man, to other films and other franchises. When a character whistles “It’s a Small World,” is that because the movie is about shrinking people or because Marvel is owned by Disney? At some point the “Marvel Universe” ends and greedy corporate synergy begins, and that’s when this mostly witty movie turns into a hyper-linked footnote in a sub-paragraph of the third appendix of the next Avengers movie, itself a slave to the decades-long Infinity Gauntlet storyline.

This might sound blissfully orgasmic to fans of Marvel movies, but it’s maddening for me. I like movies to have beginnings, middles and ends — they should be at least mostly self-contained, even sequels. Ant-Man is like a jigsaw puzzle with all the edge pieces removed: the completed picture tells a full story, but those jagged edges are made to click into other films, other characters, other franchises. And where does that leave Ant-Man? Borderless. 

This increasingly cantankerous ranting is becoming a weekly tradition for me as I slog through another, and another, and another superhero movie. I’ll do it again in the rebooted Fantastic Four very soon, and again next year for a slew of new releases. In any case, here we are with Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man, a movie about a man who can shrink down to the size of termites and fleas and ticks. Oh, and ants. The man in the shrinking costume is Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and he has an opening scene with Tony Stark’s father and a young lady in old-lady makeup — Agent Carter on ABC, check your local listings. “The suit is too dangerous, and the only way you’ll get it is if I’m dead,” Pym tells them.

Decades later, Pym’s technology has been discovered by a power-hungry tech corporation, which has a CEO that personally liquefies his critics if they dare speak their minds. Pym, too old to don the shrinking suit to fight him, sets a trap for a master thief, someone perfect for the new Ant-Man. He catches Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), who ingeniously uses superglue, a metal ring and some packing tape to break through a fingerprint lock. When Scott puts the suit on for the first time he thinks it's a motorcycle outfit, but then he fidgets with the buttons and whoosh, down he goes to the size of a bug. He braves a tsunami in a bathtub, stomping feet and a spinning record in a dance club, and narrowly misses being sucked up into a vacuum. The suit comes with other perks, including an earpiece that allows him to speak to four different species of ants, which comes in handy at picnics.

This is all pretty straightforward superhero movie stuff. It doesn’t deviate too far from any of the formulas established by Spider-Man, Iron Man or Batman. It benefits greatly from Rudd, though, who is genuinely charming and funny as he clobbers his way through Pym’s nemesis. One of the great early scenes shows us how Scott learns of Pym’s heist frame-up: the camera swoops into a wine-tasting event, a gangster grill-out and a softball game as rumors and tips are exchanged from one criminal to another. The film also benefits greatly from Michael Peña as Scott’s waffle-making best friend, who sums up an entire heist explanation with “We’re gonna steal some shit.”

The Ant-Man powers are especially nifty, if only because we get to see giant versions of things, including a fight on a Thomas the Tank Engine toy. The film explains that the suit allows Ant-Man to shrink to the size of an ant, but he still punches like a 200-pound man. OK, whatever — it works, though.

The movie loses focus after Scott has to break into the Avengers headquarters to steal something largely inconsequential to the plot. In the screening I was at, the Marvel fans (mostly everyone) reacted to this scene about the same way as Elvis fans at Graceland. I mostly rolled my eyes because I knew what the scene was: Marvel shamefully cross-promoting a yet-to-be-made future movie with a C-list superhero during Ant-Man. The arrogance of that is just astonishing, and it makes the film pander as a marketing hack.

But what do I know? I’m just a guy who wants to watch a movie, just a single movie, without being told about another one, a better one, that’s in the pipeline.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Who let Sandra Bullock in my Minion movie?

The Minions might be my guilty pleasure. They are stupid, unredeeming, relentlessly pointless characters who were created to cute-up the mostly despicable Despicable Me franchise. Here they star in an awful prequel filled with awful characters, and all I can do is smile with delight. Because Minions!

These little pet characters in their blue overalls and yellow pill-like bodies, their unintelligible gibberish of a spoken language that sounds like a mix-up at the Rosetta Stone factory, their squeaky optimism shrouded in child-like innocence … they are very hard creatures to not like, although Minions does its best to test your limits. 

The film is an origin story for the lovable henchmen, who previously served (and stole the show from) supervillain Gru in two other films. In the opening credits, we learn that the Minions are their own species, one that evolved in the shadows of greater beasts from the time they were single-celled protozoa through the Jurassic period and right into the age of man. In the opening sequence, it’s revealed they were henchmen for a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a caveman, Dracula and Napoleon — and each time they failed miserably.

The Minions end up in a snow cave, where life is not the same without a master to serve in evil. Kevin, Stuart and Bob volunteer to leave the cave to search for their new boss, and once again restore order to the Minion species. The three explorers eventually land in New York City and it’s 1968, a great time for crooks, there was even one in the White House. Through casual mistakes and happy coincidences — the universe shines bright on these dopey characters — the Minion trio learn of Villain-Con, a convention for nefarious evildoers. Certainly, they think, they can find a new boss to serve there.

Villain-Con could have been it’s own movie entirely, with countless booths of crime gadgets and criminal empires conducting job interviews, but the film spends two short sequences there until it bounces away with Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock), who enlists the Minions to steal the Queen of England’s royal crown. This is where Minions falls apart. 

Kevin, Stuart and Bob — and Bob’s tiny stuffed animal Tim — break into the Tower of London, hypnotize three stripping Beefeaters, tear through London on a stagecoach and a grappling suit, and eventually crash land at the Sword in the Stone, which sets the rest of the film into motion in an unpredictable and mostly blah sorta way. 

Minions is not high art here, I know that. But it literally could have went anywhere it wanted. The African Serengeti, time traveling, Venus, an office park in Toledo ... anywhere. It begins in primordial soup and quickly features dinosaurs, vampires and a caveman with a primitive flyswatter. How and why this silly film decided to go with this route, of all the routes out there, is a question that will puzzle me. It’s just not interesting, mostly because it requires us to believe that Scarlet Overkill would aim her wrath at three characters that did exactly what she asks of them. She tells them to steal the crown, and they do, and then she goes all supervillain on her supervillain henchmen for no other reason than the plot demands it. Gru wasn’t written much better, but at least he had more of an arc. 

One of the problems here is clearly Bullock, who is not a voice actor and who was added to the cast list because movie executives still think little kids care about celebrity voices. Kids don’t, and guess what, most adults don’t either. I would much rather listen to some unknown professional voice actor do this than someone whose name looks good on a poster. Bullock phones it in, and Minions devotes so much of the second half to her that it’s aggravating. I just want more Minions. How hard is that? Apparently very hard.

There are still some choice gags here, including brief scenes involving a faked moon landing, The Beatles on Abbey Road, and a news reporter who calls the Minions “bald, jaundiced children.” A stop-motion sequence, or a scene made to look like stop motion animation, is a fun addition. The soundtrack is simply perfect, with hits by the Turtles, the Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Beatles and other great era-appropriate bands. I appreciate how the title characters aren’t really that evil, and are genuinely kind and compassionate little creatures — if only they could find fulfillment in some other career. 

I love these little characters. I wish they had a better movie to call their own.

When the heroes become the villains

“We don’t want to be doing this,” the man in the mask says as he looks at the camera crew documenting him. “If we could we would have normal jobs, like you guys.” And then he and other men in masks, assault rifles slung around their necks, start making meth in the Mexican desert. 

Cartel Land is an unnerving documentary about the way the drug trade, in particular the Mexican drug cartels, are ripping apart worlds north and south of the border. On the north side, we are shown America’s self-appointed border protectors, an armed militia of conspiracy nuts and soldier of fortune types who watch Sean Hannity while they clean their guns, sharpen their knives and mumble about conspiracies in their soup. They keep saying they’re not racist, but then say what can only be interpreted as racist opinions.

The meat of this film takes place south of the border, where a tall gray-haired doctor named José Manuel Mireles has had enough of the cartels and their wanton cruelty, including one particularly awful massacre in which 13 men, women, children and babies are killed after a lime grower refused to pay cartel protection money. Mireles jumps into action in the southern state of Michoacan, where the Knights Templar Cartel has reigned over the people. Enough is enough, he says. He tours through villages and gives a heartfelt plea: join us to rise up against the cartel so we can take back our towns. And people join him. 

Cartel Land depicts the uprising with a patriotic zeal, with convoys of armed young men bouncing through the Mexican streets, manning checkpoints at the village edges, and raiding cartel members’ homes. Some of the men are skilled fighters, and look the part with body armor, advanced weaponry and communications equipment. One man wears a holster that holds a nickel-plated revolver with a pearl handgrip — it’s the Wild West. Other fighters are just kids, their tiny hands comically out of place on oversized pistols and AK-47s. 

Through diligent patrolling, cartel raids and tight security, Mireles’ paramilitary defense force succeeds in driving out Knights Templar members. When the Mexican government gets wind of armed groups maintaining order, it sends the army to confront Mireles and his group. Soldiers disarm the ragtag defenders, but the townspeople hit the streets in protest of the army, who they say are in cahoots with the cartels. The crowd grows so big and so angry, the army returns the guns and drives away. What happens here is in your hands,” a top-ranking soldier tells Mireles.

These events are exciting and moving, but Matthew Heineman’s film doesn’t let you off the hook that easily, though. It portrays these events with a hint of malice, with just a slight suggestion that something more diabolical might be at work here. In one scene, we see the good doctor tell another man to question, and likely torture, a known drug member. “Get everything you can out of him and put him in the ground,” Mireles says in the shadows of a roadside checkpoint. Later scenes seem to hint that the raids aren’t linked to cartel members, but to people the defense force wants to rob. After one raid, armed men ransack the house and leave with electronics and stacks of clothing still on hangers.

The turning point came for me during a daytime raid that nabbed a man that supposedly fired on the town’s police force. As the man is being hauled away, his family pleads with the men in tears to let him go. His daughter threatens to kill herself. It seems unlikely that the man would fire on anyone with his family in the car, right? But then he also has a big luxurious car, designer clothes, what might be a gang tattoo that has been disfigured, and one man notices his skin is too smooth for hard labor? Maybe he is a cartel lieutenant. So much is unknown, but the man is hauled away to a detention center where the screams of men can be heard piercing through the concrete hallways. 

Cartel Land is essentially a Batman story. It’s about vigilantes, their origins and their undoings. Remember that line from The Dark Knight: “Die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” It’s the only possible outcome here for Mireles and his defense force, which eventually becomes exactly what it was created to fight, a cartel. 

Heineman captures all this beautifully, with shots that seem almost too good to be true — guns hanging out car windows, an apparition-like shape emerging from smoke produced during a meth cook and numerous gunfights in Mexican villages. I think the film could be a little more focused, especially with the mostly unnecessary segments north of the border. It has a twist ending that feels a little manipulative, but is still bonkers in how it changes everything we just witnessed. 

This is a fascinating and polished documentary that reveals how complicated the war on drugs has been, is now and forever will be.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Book of Genisys sets back Terminator franchise

Cheering for the villain is only called for in extreme cases, but here, with the woefully spelled Terminator Genisys, all I can say is: Go Skynet!

Yes, Skynet — the sentient robot army that becomes self aware, nukes mankind and then enslaves the survivors in futuristic death camps — deserves your cheers and untethered adoration if only because it’s the second best way to protest the existence of this clunky hunk of sequel. The best way is to not see it at all, but Terminator fans have taken abuse before (see Terminator 3) and they’ll do it again here.

Terminator Genisys is a big dumb movie. From its big dumb title all the way down — it’s dumb at a cellular level. It’s so stupid that one movie couldn’t contain all it’s idiocy, so it had to reach back into its own filmography to fondle with the earlier movies in an inebriated stupor. It plays this up like an endearing tribute or homage, but it feels more like aggravated assault.

We begin with Kyle Reese, who you’ll recall is the future soldier sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor, mother of the leader of the human rebellion, in 1984’s The Terminator. After infiltrating a Terminator time travel base in 2029, Reese is sent back a handful of decades to what should be James Cameron’s first movie, but instead he finds an alternate timeline that now is a convergence of both The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, including another blank-faced liquid metal T-1000. In the future, somewhere between “almost defeated” and “defeated” Skynet realizes that the humans had out-Back to the Future’d them, so they just start sending Terminators everywhere, or everywhen, which is how Genisys acknowledges its cinema roots and also exploits them. 

The movie stars Jai Courtney, who opens the whole damn picture with the most unnecessary and heavy-handed exposition-filled narration — it makes Harrison Ford’s theatrical Blade Runner voiceover sound downright peppy. He plays Reese, rebel leader John Connor’s right-hand man, and also his younger father, which only makes sense in the Terminator universe. Sarah Connor, John’s soon-to-be mother (stay with me!), is played by Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clark, a feisty little robot killer with a gun taller than she is by at least a foot. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the only returning actor, and here he plays several Terminators, including one fresh out of the Skynet bubble wrap (it’s a naked stunt double with a CGI Arnold mask). The main Terminator, called Pops, is showing his age, a point that is explained away by saying that Terminators age, which seems to go against canon, but whatever. 

These three go tearing through 1984, and then time-travel to 2017, where Skynet is ready to launch Genisys, a computer system that gadget-hungry modern-dayers paw over in gleeful anticipation. I wasn’t really sure what the product does, and I’m assuming it’s some kind of Siri-like appointment scheduler — Genisys: “Today is your salon appointment. And tomorrow nuclear armageddon.” The subtext here is that Skynet is a lot like Apple, another company with a legion of devoted fans and enough hardware to link the world (nukes and all) in web of disharmony. But the joke falls dreadfully flat. 

The film is largely a series of despondent chase sequences, each more mindless than the one that preceded it, including one that begins with a liquid Terminator materializing out of nowhere, and another that ends with a crashed helicopter arriving at the intended destination faster than a non-crashed helicopter. A school bus chase on the Golden Gate Bridge has both a school bus and a bridge of golden gates and yet has a climax so utterly boring that it has to end with the COPS theme song to jazz it up. The chases go nowhere and accomplish nothing, and they only serve as interludes to bigger set pieces in spark factories and generic server warehouses. Recall the build-up in the earlier films: Terminators doing their detective work, hunting for leads, killing other Sarah Connors, waving photos of John around at the mall dressed as a cop … all that nuance and prelude to action is gone. It’s traded in for lines like, “Oh no, he’s behind us,” and “faster, faster” and then 22 minutes of vehicular destruction. But how did the Terminator get there? Where did he come from? Where are you driving? What is even happening? I couldn’t hear an answer in the noise.

Say what you will about James Cameron and his well-documented eccentricities, but he was, and still is, a visual storyteller of the highest caliber. He knew how to edit his films, how to pace action, how to use film’s complex grammar to create visual coherence, and he knew how to make grand science fiction masterpieces out of very simple ideas. Genisys is not simple, and I’m not just talking about the time travel. It’s a sloppy mess all over, with plot holes, dead ends, choppy editing, characters of little significance, dialogue that is recited (never spoken), and it tinkers with the franchise in such a major way that it feels malignant and terminal. There is no coming back from what this film sets in motion.

Cameron’s T1 and T2 are action juggernauts, and nothing was going to touch them, so I’m not faulting Genisys for failing to top those classics. But it’s just as sloppy as Terminator 3, if not more so, and that says a lot because that movie was all over the place. And people like to dump on Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation, but despite their obvious faults both films made noteworthy deviations in Terminator lore: T3 showed us that the robot apocalypse was unavoidable, no matter how many Arnolds came back, and Salvation ditched the time travel elements completely to just focus on John Connor and what made him so important to the resistance. Genisys does its damndest to undo the whole franchise by reaching way back to fumble around with the very origins of what Cameron created. It’s so unfortunately ill-conceived it feels blasphemous. And if the franchise keeps degrading at this rate, we’re two movies away from late-night Terminator infomercial. 

Now, to be fair, Cameron has come out in support of this movie, which seems odd, but I will take him at his word. Fans, though, don’t owe Genisys any lip service and I think they’ll see through the film’s wanton disregard for what made the franchise great to begin with — impressive visual storytelling and its straightforward science fiction plot, both of which are muddied here. Director Alan Taylor, so good with everything he directs on HBO, should stick to television, where plot and characters aren’t steamrolled into the landscape. He was dealt a hard blow when the marketing team revealed the plot twist (spoiler alert, sorta) that John Connor (Jason Clarke) had turned into a Terminator. But problems began long before that. They began when the film decided the rest of the franchise was fair game and then — and this is my key argument — didn’t even attempt to make a film that could match the power of the first two. 

The last time I saw a franchise fall this hard it involved crystal skulls and Shia LaBeouf Tarzan swinging with monkeys. Franchises should stop while they’re ahead.

And, hail Skynet.