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.

The Overnight bares its soul and more

“This is California. Maybe this is what parties are like?”

It’s that refrain that keeps a married couple stuck in a Los Angeles house for an increasingly awful and awkward overnight dinner party, one that involves breastfeeding how-to videos, paintings depicting “portals” into the human body, red-light massage parlors, and not just one but two prosthetic penises. 

We aren’t supposed to know they’re prosthetics, because the actors are depicting nudity with a special effect, but it’s obvious they are because, well, the pale color, the stiff rubbery flop, and the ’70s-era pubic hair growth. Does it sound like I’m an expert? Well, I am, because I’ve seen Patrick Brice’s The Overnight, which stars four people and two rubber stunt dicks.

Before these faux phalli come out, we have to back up to the previous afternoon: Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) are in a park with their young son, and they meet proto-hipster Kurt (Jason Schwartzman), who invites them over for dinner. Kurt has a son about the same age, and Alex and Emily are new to the area, so they agree. At Alex’s beautiful home, they meet his wife Charlotte (Judith Godrèche), and they settle in for what appears to be a lovely evening.

If you can sense this going south quickly, then a gold star for you. After the children tucker themselves out and fall asleep, the evening slowly tips into the wild and weird. First wine, then more wine, then pot and then before you know it Kurt is showing Charlotte’s acting video, which involves a nurse manipulating her bare breasts to demonstrate a breast pump. Kurt smiles up at the screen like he’s watching Citizen Kane. Alex and Emily’s jaws are in their laps. 

But that’s just the beginning as Kurt and Charlotte slowly unravel their complex and often sordid lives in front of their consistently shocked party guests, who try to leave several times but get roped into sticking around. Eventually they are skinny dipping in the pool, and the film is not shy to show us gratuitous, albeit fake, male nudity. The joke here is that Kurt is well endowed and Alex is not, but one pep talk later and Alex is flaunting his little guy with an exuberant glee.

This strange behavior — and don’t get me started on Kurt’s X-rated paintings of human voids — unlocks buried fears, anxiety and desires within Alex and Emily, who find themselves less shocked in their hosts and more surprised in each other and their revealing actions. I kept waiting for Kurt and Charlotte to be a more malevolent force, but they are mostly good people, just utterly confused about life, love and each other. And Alex and Emily are hiding repressed feelings that glow white-hot once unearthed. After one particular revealing moment, Alex says, “I feel like I just gave birth to myself.” 

This is a strange, strange movie. And it gets stranger the longer it crashes itself into the screen. I can’t say it all works, but it has a kind spirit and a good heart. It’s certainly made better by the four leads, who maintain their chemistry across this one bizarre evening. Scott and Schilling are especially great because they have to contain these bewildered people, who should flee in terror but stick around out of sheer curiosity.

The Overnight is not for everyone, but it has its charms. It also has two fake penises that hijack the movie.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Family Ties: Uncle Pablo & The Canadian Surfer

Nick Brady: Paradise Lost does not have the ring of Escobar: Paradise Lost, but then again Nick Brady does not have the charisma of Pablo Escobar. 

But Nick Brady serves a purpose in movies like Andrea Di Stefano’s Escobar. He’s our everyman. Our stranger in a strange land. Our innocent guide into the foreign and deadly world of the most notorious cocaine kingpin the world has ever seen. He’s also a foreigner to Colombia, the people and the movie’s plot.

Nick (Josh Hutcherson) is a Canadian surfer who ends up Colombia in 1983. He falls in love with Maria (Claudia Traisac), a confident young woman who points to a billboard with a picture of a menacing face and says that’s her uncle. Uncle Pablo seems nice enough, and he’s some kind of politician. When Nick and Maria attend a lavish party, Nick asks how Uncle Pablo made his fortunes. Maria doesn’t miss a beat, and her smile never fades: “Cocaine.” 

What transpires next is mostly predictable, but altogether fascinating. Nick is so smitten by Maria that he barely notices himself sinking deeper into Pablo’s clutches of money and extravagance. The hacienda where the Escobar keeps his family is paradise: pools, elephants and other exotics animals, life-size fiberglass statues of dinosaurs in the pastures. At one point we see Pablo dusting his prize keepsake: the car that Bonnie and Clyde were killed in. 

The real draw here is Pablo Escobar, played with psychotic finesse by Benecio del Toro. He’s a lovable kind of kingpin. Oafish, domineering, dispensing sage advice in ways that disarm his intimidating 1,000-yard stare. He’s made even more terrifying as he struts around with his wireless briefcase phone, Cosby sweaters and, hilariously, a green corduroy Boston Celtics cap. If you admired Steven Soderbergh’s Che and the great lengths del Toro went to craft that complex character than you will likely be disappointed that this film doesn’t quite reach that level of storytelling. His Pablo is marvelous to watch, but he doesn’t have much arc. He begins the film as Uncle Pablo, and then one day, on the eve of a prison term, he decides to kill everyone, including two infants—two infants too many for this kind of movie. There is no nuance in his monstrosity. And the fact the he would spend so much time doting on and then ultimately trying to kill Nick, seems laughably pointless. A country full of Colombians and we spend the whole movie with the lone gringo. 

That is the peril of these types of movies, these pictures about famous people and their sidekicks, assistants or secretaries: the film can’t sustain itself on the Nick Brady’s of the world, and there’s never enough time to develop the Pablos. It happened in The Last King of Scotland, in which a doctor found himself in the inner circle of Idi Amin, and in The Devil’s Double, in which a body double is roped into Uday Hussein’s twisted universe, and it happens here in Escobar. Hutcherson does what he can, and del Toro hits it out of the park, but they don’t have much to work with because their characters are on different trajectories. 

Di Stefano does do a commendable job holding these trajectories as best he can, and the film has a unique look and feel to it, although I found the drifting focus and handheld shots to be frequently annoying. He structures the movie out of sequence, and it works really well, especially since the flashbacks and flash forwards don’t tip off the plot points any more than they should. The first half of the film is largely a romance and psychological drama, but it quickly becomes a terrifying narco-thriller as Nick is sent on a mission to bury Pablo’s treasure. It’s a jarring acceleration, and doesn’t altogether work, but the scenes are well executed and appropriately nailbiting.

I did find it very hard to believe, though, that Pablo Escobar would ask his niece’s Canadian surfer boyfriend to drive his loot up into the mountains and then have to commit murder to hide it all. And Nick, apparently out of inexhaustible fear, goes along with it to a point. Let me repeat an earlier sentence here: A country full of Colombians and we spend the whole movie with the lone gringo. 

Listen, I’m fond of what this movie does, and what it attempts to do, with Pablo Escobar, who might be one of the greatest villains of the late 20th century. But Paradise Lost doesn’t go far enough. Pablo needs to run, as fast as he can, away from Nick until he finds himself in his own movie.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Farewell Party gives reverence to death

There is dignity in death and The Farewell Party searches for it in humorous bursts of empathy. 

It begins with an elderly tinkerer ringing up an older woman. “This is God,” he says, and the woman, senile and confused, believes him. “You are certainly going to heaven, but we have no vacancies, so you must get your treatment.” The woman nods. 

At this point you realize you’re in for for something very unique, and likely heartbreaking. 

The tinkerer is Yehezkel (Ze’ev Recach) and he is watching his best friend suffer in pain in a care facility. His prognosis is terminal. Morphine no longer works, and he’s developing bedsores that are increasingly painful. His wife, at the end of her rope, suggests they end his agony and the gears in Yehezkel’s head begin spinning. 

What happens next is a devastating examination of mercy as Yehezkel and his band of helpers plan, build and implement a euthanasia machine. The device is crude -- it is driven by a small motor and a bicycle chain, and uses drugs intended for animals -- but it is effective at ending the suffering of Yehezkel’s “patients,” who seek him out at great risk for themselves and their loved ones.

The Farewell Party handles all this in a serious way, but you can’t help but smile at its subtle brand of bleak comedy, from the gay man literally trapped in the closet and an overzealous traffic cop repeatedly talked out of writing tickets, to a touching scene with much of the elderly cast nude and high in a greenhouse to cheer up a friend with dementia. The gallows humor manages to give brief reprieves between each heartbreaking death. 

The Israeli film, directed by Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon, is beautifully staged and photographed. The camera almost never moves, preferring instead static shots that give the scenes and their terrifying implications reverence. When it does move, in a lovely musical number and later in a tragic moment of realization for Yehezkel, it does so to punctuate the delicate nature of life and death.

It ends precisely where you want it to, but it stings even as it rings true. This is a beautiful film, one that gazes long and hard into the soul of the dying, and those who look over them.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

"They're dinosaurs — they're wow enough."

Jurassic World desperately craves 1993, when CGI was in its infancy, the internet was not in wide use, and when dinosaurs could inspire awe and wonder from all who gazed upon them. Just picture the film as a Scooby Doo villain, an old crotchety man shaking his fist: “If it weren’t for those meddling kids and their Tweeter and their Facepages, then this park would be the greatest park ever.”

I’m not one to miss the 1990s, but Jurassic World makes me yearn for those halcyon years, before we became cynical and jaded, before we started turning our back on the Mona Lisa to take selfies with selfie sticks, before we started thumbing our nose at the marvelous. That’s the attitude of Jurassic World, in which a theme park with living, breathing, chomping dinosaurs is struggling to pay its bills because “no one is impressed by dinosaurs anymore.” Times are so tough that they have bio-engineer the Indominus Rex, whose DNA is a chunky stew of other creatures’ chromosomes. Kids these days, the film laments, they just want their phones, their Snapchat, and a hoodie to retreat into. One character has to be reminded to put his smartphone down to see a Titanic-sized sea monster gobble a great white the way a child crunches on goldfish crackers.

This is Jurassic World’s most fundamental failure: it wants us to believe that a theme park with dinosaurs would get old. Lions, tigers and elephants have existed longer than man has, yet we still line up to gaze at them at zoos, so what makes Jurassic World thinks we’d be bored with cloned dinosaurs? It’s an idiotic concept that produces no fruit, just leafless limbs that end in broken stumps, and it’s a premise that the entirety of the film is grown around. More on that later.

Jurassic World has many failings, but it is, first and foremost, a rip-roaring dino-adventure. If you watched the first three films and thought “not enough dinosaurs” then this fourth entry in the franchise has you covered in every combination imaginable: I-Rex on raptor, mosasaurus on I-Rex, pterodactyl on human, human on raptor, T-Rex on human, T-Rex on I-Rex … so many variations that it sounds like an erotic personals section in a paleolithic newspaper. The scenes are long and action-packed, and they give heroic treatment to dinosaurs that were only glimpsed at in previous films. The velociraptors, so often the villains in the other pictures, are essentially good-guy sidekicks here. Think of them as trained orcas at SeaWorld, another disaster park with deadly man-eating attractions. 

The raptors are trained by Owen (Chris Pratt), who was with them when they hatched and who now oversees their development as park stars. They may know tricks, but they’re still deadly predators as we see in an early scene involving a rookie taking a spill into their pen. (My question here is why didn’t Owen use the raptor flute from the third movie, but then I remembered that even a raptor flute is too ridiculous for this movie.) Owen has to fight back a corporate stooge who wants to militarize the raptors into some kind of living battle-drones. I wish I could tell you this character was played by Paul Reiser from Aliens, but I cannot — he is played by Vincent D’Onofrio who actually has the line, “These things would have been great in Tora Bora.” At the conclusion of this line the sound of 400 collective eye-rolls was loud enough to fill the theater in 3D sound.

Owen flirts occasionally with park director Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is busy negotiating deals around the park, including a Verizon Wireless sponsorship —”what’s next, the Pepsisaurus?” a computer tech asks. (Yes, says Pepsi.) Claire is hosting her nephews, Zach and Gray, who are taking some time for themselves so their parents can divorce, because what you want in a dinosaur movie is lots and lots of family drama. 

As Zach and Gray set off into Jurassic World the film wonderfully establishes the setting as a working theme park, something way beyond what even Jurassic founder John Hammond could have hoped to achieve. There are canoe trips down brontosaurus-lined rivers, herbivore tours inside glass gyro-bubbles, an aviary with winged creatures, and many opportunities to watch carnivores gobble up their lunches in bloody clouds of pink mist. The mosasaurus exhibit is especially nifty: the bleachers begin topside at the lagoon with live feedings, and then they lower behind glass walls to get submerged views of the croc-like monster. An absolutely adorable petting zoo with pudgy little leaf eaters makes an appearance as well, and it is cuteness overload. 

People look like they’re having a lot of fun, but the evil “board” doesn’t like sagging attendance numbers, so they greenlight the I-Rex, which is smarter than any character in the film and has heat-vision like the Predator. And this is where Jurassic World loses its damned mind. The dinosaur itself is awesome, but its existence, its origins, its supernatural powers … it’s all a bit much. Of course it escapes, of course it goes on a killing rampage, and of course every human character suddenly decides it’s time to make the worst decisions of their lives. I want smarter characters in a movie about the genius of mankind. Instead I get Claire, who would rather watch dinosaurs regurgitate half-chewed guests then evacuate the park; Owen, who carries a John Wayne-style lever-action rifle when everyone else carries machine guns; the military guy who apparently has a contract from Weyland-Yutani; and Jurassic’s CEO, who fatefully admits in his first scene that he’s got two more days of flying to get his helicopter pilot's license. Yep, that helicopter is totally crashing. 

The characters in the original Jurassic Park were guilty of hubris and for “playing God,” but they were generally smart people taken down by a computer hacker with selfish motives. In Jurassic World, though, the gruesome deaths — including one entirely unnecessary devouring of Zach and Grey’s wedding-planning babysitter — are entirely linked to the complete and utter stupidity of the plot, its characters and director Colin Trevorrow, who jams so much garbage into his film that you have to wonder if he really wanted to make a movie about dinosaurs at all. 

The biggest failure, though, is that Jurassic World truly believes that dinosaurs alone aren’t enough, which is why it throws in a romance, family drama, battle-raptors, sulking teens, obsessive marketing mavens and that hulking bio-fabricated dinosaur. “We have to up the wow factor,” one characters says. 

“They’re dinosaurs — they’re wow enough,” responds Owen. Amen to that.