Friday, October 2, 2015

"Apollo 13 ain't got nothin' on me"

Ask a man to run a 5K. Snap a picture of the reaction on his face. When he’s done with that, ask him to run a 10K. Snap a picture. Half marathon. Snap. Marathon. Snap. Triathlon. Snap. Ultra marathon. Snap. Now you have a series of pictures, a flipbook version of Ridley Scott’s grueling new sci-fi juggernaut The Martian, a movie about one man’s epic endurance battle with science, space and the limitations of duct tape. 

Matt Damon is the Martian, and he’s stranded on the Red Planet after a violent dust storm has swept him away from his NASA team as they are aborting their 30-day mission a dozen or so days early. They rocket away thinking he’s dead, but the next day he claws from the soil very much alive and very much screwed. “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” he says in an instantly iconic line that will be on every Matt Damon clip reel from here on out.

What a fascinating time to be making science fiction films. Gravity and Interstellar were terrific warm-ups to this, and the three films make an amazing trilogy about discovery and survival in the endless vastness that is our universe. Scott’s an old pro at this, having already made Alien, Blade Runner and Prometheus, each with their own distinct visions of the future. Here, though, he sticks closer to the “science” versus the “fiction” and the story thrives because of it. 

The film presents Damon’s astronaut Mark Watney — and by extension us — with a never-ending string of problems. The Mars base was designed for 31 sols, or Martian days, and now must last upwards of 800 to sustain its solitary inhabitant. Food is in short supply. Plants have never been grown in Martian soil. Water is running low. The communication system is broken. The rover has limited range and abilities. On and on the list goes, each new item more challenging than the one before it. Each problem has its own gratifying solution that seems either based on actual science or at the very least plausible. 

The Martian finds its footing almost instantly by starting on Mars a dozen or so days into the mission. It doesn’t waste time introducing an endless stream of supporting characters, because Watney’s ordeal allows that to happen naturally. It drops all the setup and goes right to the meat: Mark is struggling to stay alive, the crew is questioning their decision to leave what they presumed was a dead astronaut back on the Mars, and NASA engineers back on earth begin assessing what went wrong. It feels very procedural, and that’s part of the charm because it allows the snappy editing and concise presentation to build the story from the ground up. 

The film has also found the right cast, especially with Damon as the resourceful botanist. He’s likeable and genuine, and he does things that we can relate to, like when he mouths a great big “WTF” in the initial days after he’s marooned. Damon also works because he’s believable as an inventive science geek. It wasn’t a stretch when he was a genius mathematician in Good Will Hunting, and it’s not a stretch here to see him as a NASA wiz-kid. You’ll cheer him on when he creates an ASCII-to-hexadecimal code board, or he tears through poop pouches to get fertilizer, or he rigs up an explosive hydrogen tent to create water. There is so much to see, and so much for Damon to do, that there is never a dull moment, even when the film is in its most reflective, existential state. 

Now, to be sure, this is a terrifying ordeal. And The Martian spends a lot of it kicking its hero when he’s down. Your heart just aches for him with every setback, and there are many. Drew Goddard’s script, from an Andy Weir novel, has this devilish ability to prepare you for the worst over and over again. So many awful events happen to Mark Watney that you start planning for them, assembling them into the plot even where their not needed. At one point when he was driving the rover through the rocky landscape, he starts rubbing his eyes and yawning, and my first thought was he was going to fall asleep at the wheel and roll the vehicle over. The movie had conditioned me for disaster, and I was ready for it, whether it was coming or not. 

Led by a strong team of actors — including Damon, Jessica Chastain as the mission commander, Jeff Daniels as the NASA director, Sean Bean as a flight specialist with a classic Lord of the Rings zinger, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as mission lead — The Martian takes a captivating tale of survival and gives it an immediate presence with strong writing and expert execution. It’s photographed gorgeously, with a fun mixture of documentary-like POV shots, found footage and epic Martian panoramas, and edited so precisely that you would be hard pressed to find a single frame that’s been wasted. I simply can’t say a bad thing about it because it’s one of the most entertaining movies of the year.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The broken brilliance of being young

It’s entirely possible that the world’s most brilliant mind is in the body of a child. And also imprisoned behind a veil of paralyzing awkwardness. 

In A Brilliant Young Mind we’re introduced to a number of worthy candidates, all of whom are trying to out-awkward each other with cold facts, debilitating shyness and enough social tics they could be charted into “trigonometric identities,” or whatever that is. 

Nathan (Asa Butterfield) is one of these young people. The British lad sees the world in geometry, algebra and calculus. He’s by all estimates a genius, yet he can barely function in the real world. When his mother orders take-out if the fish sticks and chips aren’t positioned symmetrically and in prime numbers then he flips out.

He’s guided by teacher Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall, son of Timothy), who suggests he participate in a mathematics olympiad for the most brilliant young pupils. Nathan takes the test, passes and soon finds himself in Taiwan studying with other mathletes his age. He gets a crude wake-up when his fried prawns are delivered in an eight-count container … so close to a prime number, but yet not.

The film dips into darker territory as the characters open up and reveal their even more fragile cores. One boy, Luke, is likely autistic, which leads to bullying even in these nerdy circles. A Chinese student that Nathan is paired with is harassed because her uncle is the director of the team. Nathan’s issue is just communicating on a basic level. He mumbles, recoils at the lightest touch and his eyes reveal sparkles of brilliant pain. This wounded kid is thrown into a new culture and he remarkably thrives, which breaks the heart of his mother (Sally Hawkins), who can’t seem to understand why he’ll open up to everyone but her. 

Of course, the film all boils down to the math olympiad, but then it’s not that simple. It’s written with care and truth, and no “big game” sports climax will ever solve all the issues swirling around in this layered and pristinely textured script by James Graham. There is some stale cliche, including a “surprise car crash” still in the clamshell packaging and a race to the train station to get the girl, but even those conventions are given new spins, fresh perspectives.

The math is dense and confusing, and is barely explained outside of one sequence in which Nathan turns a card trick into a binary matrix. In other scenes the equations are just glossed over in broad strokes. I knew it was complex stuff, though, because the math problems had more letters than numbers, and brackets within brackets within brackets. “If truth is beauty and beauty is truth, then surely mathematics is the most beautiful thing in the world,” says an olympiad leader played by the great Eddie Marsan. I’ll take your word for it. 

Although the surface of this coming-of-age story is rather blandly paced and acted, there are deeper currents of emotional agony that are running through this film. Scratch but a tiny bit down and it opens some terrifying places related to love, family, success and acceptance. But in the end, like math, it has an inherent beauty to all of it.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Stunning climbing movie opens 1996 wounds

Nothing in the world feels as helpless as watching people suffer within an arm’s reach of safety. You can see them, you can hear them, you can almost reach out and touch them, but they might as well be on the moon. Help will not come. Only death.

Everest does not sugar-coat this cold — bone-rattlingly cold — reality, but it does dress it up a bit with adrenaline-fueled adventure that comes with climbing to the highest point in the world. Mount Everest, at 29,029 feet high, is the gold standard for pushing the human body to its most extreme potential. The summit is so high it shares an altitude with a cruising 747 jet. The air is so thin that the human body slowly fails as it gasps for oxygen. The edges are steep enough that one false step and a climber will never be seen again, their bodies are consumed by the mountain and its icy pores.

Why go then? That’s what reporter and author Jon Krakauer asks a group of climbers who’ve paid five figures to joust with nature on Everest’s slopes. “Because it’s there,” they all laugh, stealing George Mallory’s famous line about the deadly peak, a peak that killed many climbers, including George Mallory. Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest features Krakauer, author of the book Into Thin Air, but largely focuses on Rob Hall, a dedicated and skilled climber who guides “climbing tourists” up Everest during the month or so of good weather that creates a window of opportunity through a collapsing glacier field, over a rocky plain, across a knife’s edge, up a vertical step of rock and onto the summit of the world’s highest mountain.

It’s no easy feat. The cold is relentless, the air is dangerously thin, the physical stamina required is second to none, and the weather is violent and unpredictable. All totaled up, everything is deadly, but nothing more than a climber’s own body, which slowly betrays its own muscles and nerves with every failed, agonizing breath. Humans weren’t made for these conditions, so it’s Rob Hall’s job to guide everyone up and down the mountain before their bodies collapse. And they pay him $65,000 for the privilege. 

Hall, here played with a gentle warmth and crucial demeanor by Jason Clarke, is the star of this ensemble mountaineering adventure and he’s joined by his clients Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), his base camp leader Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), Krakauer (Michael Kelly) and a colleague with another company, Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), as well as many other characters all portraying actual climbers and sherpas.

The film does not skimp on details, and routinely shows climbing in an authentic light, from the slow acclimatization process that is required for climbers to maximize the thin air on Everest, to the tediously slow pace the climbers take as they lumber up the mountain. This is not Cliffhanger, or even that mixed cheese plate Vertical Limit. Everest, using much of Krakauer’s fact-checked text, and his personal observations, treats the events of the 1996 climbing season with delicate reverence. 

As Hall and his company, Adventure Consultants, creep up the mountain, everything seems to be going well. The Everest newbies are struggling, but not dangerously so. As they prepare for a big ascent day, the day is almost perfect until a rapidly moving storm sweeps up and over the mountain essentially stopping the expedition in its tracks after a successful summit attempt. The serenity of the snow and the mountains is suddenly gone, and the climbers are left stranded in deadly conditions. Hall and Hansen are highest up, and have a long way down with little oxygen left. Below them Fischer, Weathers and others claw through the white-out conditions.

If you’re like me you’ll start getting very anxious in your seat during the second half of this film. These men are in mortal danger, and yet they shamble along with their coats open, their hands ungloved and their feet stumbling over rocks and patches of ice. Some men can’t even stand, and they slump down in their tracks to fall into a numbing sleep. You want to scream at them, “Hurry! Your life depends on it.” The thin air plays tricks on their bodies. Their muscles can only move so fast, and their brains flicker on and off from a severe lack of oxygen. Everest is killing them slowly, and there is nothing they can do except descend, if only they could stand and walk. Some men fall off the mountain, which a non-climber can understand and fear, but this slow death is worse — sinister and cruel.

What’s even worse is the small army of rested climbers who are held at bay by the storm, unable to ascend further than they already have because they lack oxygen, strength or the willpower to sacrifice themselves. In some cases, climbers are left on the mountain to die because they can easily slow down healthy climbers or pull them off the edge. And even when climbers do die, their bodies are left right on the trails, because hauling them down is a risk all by itself. At one point, no one can get to two climbers, and all the base camp can do is put one climber’s wife on the radio to say goodbye as he drifts into eternity. 

The facts of the 1996 climbing disaster on Everest are widely known, and have been documented in a number of ways, including the IMAX movie led by David Breshears, who returns as consultant, second unit director and Everest cinematographer for this film. This is an old story, but it’s given a fresh new examination here with Kormákur’s brilliant filmed movie. It’s well acted, marvelously paced, as accurate as any historical movie can hope to be, and the cinematography is simply gorgeous. Some of the shots look like IMAX stills, with sherpas hauling goods over tiny bridges stretched across valleys, oxen cresting ridges against the backdrop of the Himalayas, and of Everest reaching into the starry heavens.

This is an incredible movie, one about heroism and its devastating limits in a place like Everest. The rules on that rock are absolutely absurd. And failure to comply to them usually results in fatalities. Yet every year people line up to risk everything and make the trek upward. Everest makes the joke that they do it “because it’s there,” but the film also makes a point to address another answer as to why people climb it — “because it’s magnificent.”

Sex comedy aims for zero laughs, hits bullseye

Sleeping With Other People is a soul-crushing void of raunch, flimsy paper-thin comedy and dialogue written by a sixth grader who likes to snicker at the entries for “penis” and “vagina” in Webster’s Dictionary. It’s about people who are having lots of sex, although I left wondering if anyone involved with the movie had actually participated in the act or if they had just learned of the practice from cheap porno and a dial-up connection.

I will gladly sit through edgy, or vulgar, or filth as long as there is something that anchors everything into place. This is just random word association with sex flashcards, and delivered with dialogue so mundane that two mechanics discussing radiator repair would be downright erotic in comparison. It’s the kind of movie where the two stars are introduced by her complimenting his porn, and him complimenting her panties. Classy. 

She is Lainey (Alison Brie) and he is Jake (Jason Sudeikis). They meet in college and lose their virginity to each other. Fast forward 12 years and they meet at a sex addiction support group, which is really where all the nymphomaniacs go to get ideas (Billy Eichner’s here doing a routine that would funny in any movie but this one). Lainey’s boyfriend has just broken up with her, and her side-guy, a dorky gynecologist, refuses to leave his wife. Jake drifts from one sexual encounter to another, a boat bobbing in the current. “Hey,” they figure, “let’s be benefit-free friends to keep each other company during our miserable descents into nowhere.” They even have a safe word, “mousetrap,” to signal when the sexual tension is overwhelming.

Yeesh, this movies just doesn’t stop blabbing. So much dialogue, it feels like it never stops. Not just dialogue either, but then narration, pop-up text messages, phone calls, all of it made up of grown adults internalizing their sexual failures until they eventually glitch out and have to reboot in safe mode. And all of it explicit in one way or another. At one point they talk about their favorite sex positions in front of a TV salesman, who smiles and nods like it’s the most normal thing in the universe. The film really lost me in an early scene, when Jake’s business partner turns to Lainey and asks, “Are you the one who made my friend a slut, or was it his father who molested him?” Yikes, it’s so bad it stings. 

The wheels really come off when Sudeikis, who’s unable to hide complete and utter embarrassment at this point, takes an empty tea jar, jams his fingers inside and instructs his female costar where all the landmarks are in her most intimate place. And the detail he goes into is enough to make Larry Flynt gag. Poor Brie, she’s watching this poor jar and wishing a truck would crash through the set and drag her off the studio lot. She was on Mad Men, damn it, and this is so far beneath her it’s subterranean. 

The logical path through the filth is telegraphed in the opening scenes: of course these two wayward souls must fall in love, “mousetrap” or not. Getting to that point is so agonizing that even people who fetishize agony are searching, clawing, scraping for their safewords. 

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.