Tuesday, April 30, 2013

All Pain. No Gain.

Pain and Gain
written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
directed by Michael Bay
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Duane Johnson, Anthony Mackie and Tony Shalhoub
Rated R
129 Minutes

The best thing that can be said about Michael Bay's "Pain and Gain" is that, like most of its characters, it is pumped full of steroids.  This is such a sporadic and clumsy picture, that to call it incoherent would pay it a compliment.  I think what "Pain and Gain" proves is what I've always suspected - Michael Bay is not a first unit director.  He belongs in a special effects department, blowing stuff up real good and staying as far as possible from everyone else.

Supposedly, Michael Bay wanted to slow things down after delivering three "Transformers" blockbusters.  Well, wouldn't you know, "Pain and Gain" speeds things up exponentially, almost rendering those Autobots comatose.  It begins with a manic chase scene, only to rewind about four weeks to show a manic montage of Mark Wahlberg totally going nuts before REALLY totally going nuts.  He's been off the rails before, but I'm almost convinced he filmed this entire movie completely under the influence.  Strangely enough, "Pain and Gain" actually provides Duane Johnson one of his best roles yet, and he shows quite a range here in a film that doesn't deserve his performance.

"Pain and Gain" is 'unfortunately based on a true story' and chronicles three low life fitness freaks and the bizarre and gruesome crime spree they unleash in Miami during the 90's .  Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is employed with a Miami gym doing....well, not much of anything.  He seems to live by the philosophy "if I think I deserve it, the universe will serve it."  If you happen to have any friends that believe similarly, do yourself a favor and unfriend them on Facebook; the universe will thank you, I promise.  Daniel takes to envying a client named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and decides he wants "everything he has."  In order to take it, Daniel recruits Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Duane Johnson), two other body builders with nothing better to do.

What follows is a shamefully irreverent movie that defies categorization.  At first, "Pain and Gain" is supposedly a comedy, considering that the three criminals try crazy things like dressing up as ninjas to kidnap Kershaw.  Then, as the crime gets progressively more involved and the stakes become higher, there are jarring tonal shifts that are uncomfortable and awkward.  Bay apparently has no sense of comic timing; but what's most baffling is that he finds any of this funny at all.  Considering the unspeakable cruelty committed toward characters in this film,  I couldn't help but realize that the characters are based, however loosely, on real people.  If I were the families of the victims, I'd send Bay hate mail for the rest of my life.

With that said, I must concede that Duane Johnson is the best part about any scene he's in.  It's just too bad the material is so abhorrent, because this is exactly the kind of performance Johnson needs to widen his use. Mackie isn't weighty enough to leave an impression either way (and a running gag throughout the film is that he can't impress at all, if you know what I mean).  Popping up late in the game is the always welcome Ed Harris, basically pulling a glorified cameo here as a Private Detective that is apparently given international jurisdiction to chase Lugo to the Bahamas.

Do yourself a favor.  Do not see "Pain and Gain."  You'll only assist deluding Michael Bay into thinking he can make something good outside of "Transformers."  You'll also be party to finding humor in a series of events that aren't the least bit funny.  Sure, these guys were idiots, but they were idiots who had no regard for human life.  So why should anyone fork over money to watch a completely wrong-headed film that attempts to make light of anything they did?  I guess you could sum it up with that line: "if I think I deserve it, the universe will serve it."  And we wonder what's wrong with America.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sci-Fi At Its Best

written by Joseph Kosinski &Karl Gajdusek & Michael Arndt
directed by Joseph Kosinski
Starring Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko and Morgan Freeman
Rated PG-13
124 Min

For its first hour or so, "Oblivion" plays like it's assembled from the spare parts of all the classic sci-fi films.  That's not negative criticism either, because with direction by Joseph Kosinski, "Oblivion" immediately provides imagery worth remembering while setting up a story that at first seems inspired by countless familiar ones.  Then in the second act, it throws in some twists and surprises and becomes something else entirely.  This is a truly spectacular film that could easily stand next next to the great sci-fi pictures of old.

Joseph Kosinski has only one previous directing credit to his name - "Tron: Legacy," 2010's sequel to the 80's staple starring Jeff Bridges.  "Tron: Legacy" was essentially ignored on its release, but is an exceptional entertainment with striking images if its own.  Now with "Oblivion," Kosinski is apparently working from an original story, and if this is a sign of things to come, he will be in high demand.  The story itself starts out simple enough.  In the year 2077, earth has been wiped out from nuclear war, and sometime later, an alien race called "scavengers" came to utilize the planet's resources.  To preserve what little is left of the planet in hopes to rebuild, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) repairs drones that defend gigantic power converters that use sea water to do...something.  His partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) sits at a control desk in their sky tower to provide him with directives given by Sally (Melissa Leo), who commands everything from the Tet, a space station that sits just outside the earth's atmosphere.

This may sound like a live-action "Wall-E," but Oblivion has quite a bit more going for it.  For one thing, Jack and Victoria are lovers; after all, they are presumably the only two flesh bodies on earth.  Trouble is, Jack keeps dreaming about a woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko), but he's never met her and can't explain why he remembers New York City the way it was before he was even alive.  Although, there is that mandatory memory wipe every five years.  Hmm.  This is just where "Oblivion" begins to lengthen its mystery and intrigue the audience.  You may be wondering for instance where Morgan Freeman comes into play?  From the trailers you may have gathered he leads some sort of underground resistance.  Yes, but resistance to what?  The answers are where "Oblivion" has its fun and it unravels at a perfect pace, revealing bits of information at the exact moment that the same bits dawn on you.  Smart stuff.

Nobody should leave this movie bored, either.  There is plenty of action to satisfy those hungry for it, but "Oblivion" is not a slave to it, and employs only what makes sense for the world it inhabits.  What matters is how we feel about who the action is happening to, and Kosinski is wise to have cast Cruise and Kurylenko, who play their roles earnestly, which really sells the deeper ideas always just under the surface.  Sci-fi though it may be, this is pretty weighty material, with some truly thought-provoking ideas about the nature of our own existence.  Not only that, but how our existence both relies on, and contributes to the existence of others.  If you're thinking "well duh," just wait until the climax of "Oblivion" and you might get what I mean.

With the trend of sequels and remakes at its absolute crux, it's refreshing when something like "Oblivion" comes along; a mostly original sci-fi movie with timeless appeal and a great many things on its mind.  It's certainly worth more than one viewing just to wrap your head around everything it wants to say.  But even if you see it once, you'll be glad you did.  It's the kind of movie that won't leave you hanging.  I only had one question during the last moments and then "Oblivion" went right ahead and answered it with the last shot.  It's that kind of movie.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Other Cabin in the Woods

Evil Dead
written by Fede Alvarez & Rod Sayagues
directed by Fede Alvarez
Starring Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez and Lou Taylor Pucci
Rated R
91 Minutes

Horror movie remakes are a staple of the Hollywood machine now days; if for no other reason than to please the increasingly gore-hungry young adult audience.  In that regard, Sam Raimi's "The Evil Dead" seems like it would be a good candidate for re-visiting, which Raimi himself essentially already did with "Evil Dead II."  But as directed by Fede Alvarez, this new version slaps the cult classic in the face with a bigger budget and buckets of blood, completely missing the point of a good remake.  Oh sure there are nods to the original here, as well as unrelenting gore; but Alvarez' "Evil Dead" is irredeemably bad and does nothing to distinguish itself from any other run of the mill gore horror plaguing america's big screens.

The essential element of Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead" trilogy is the undercurrent of humor.  First of all, by casting Bruce Campbell as the iconic Ash, Raimi nails the absurdity of over-the-top horror movie acting.  He also softens the intensity of the violence by staging it like the punchline of a bad joke.  Sure, there is blood and guts, but you can also see the unfinished roof of the set as Ash runs through the house.  It's funny, you see.  But this new version, boy does it take itself seriously.  Not only are at least two of the characters borderline sociopaths, but they are completely and utterly stupid to boot.  Once things start spiraling out of control, their big plan is to flail about with kitchen knives, nail guns, chain saws, syringes hooked to car batteries (seriously), a shotgun and another, much bigger knife.  Sound like fun to you?  I thought not.

Even the original "Evil Dead" story is throwaway, but this one sinks itself by going the other way and having too much plot.  Mia (Jane Levy), is a heroin addict trying to go cold turkey.  Her estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) meets her and some friends at their childhood vacation cabin with the intention of not leaving until Mia is sober.  Why the cabin has a totally implausible amount of decay and filth after just a few years is never explained.  But I suppose it looks that way because scary cabins must always look that way.  Indeed, things do get very scary when the gang finds a disturbing scene under the cabin via a hidden trap door.  What they find will not be mentioned by me simply because I'd like to keep my dinner down.  Those familiar with Raimi's original will recognize a book that becomes central to the story, although the book in this version isn't utilized nearly as well, and almost becomes an afterthought in the final act.

One of the idiots, Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), reads from the book and awakens some nasty demons that create some ruckus.  Ruckus is the nice word for it.  So demented is Eric that he doesn't even TELL anybody when he notices that pages in the book are being fulfilled before his eyes.  He pretends to be just as surprised as everyone else until he realizes that, you know, gruesome death is still death.  There ain't no coming back from that.  What sets Raimi's gore apart though is that he had a low budget and used creativity to fill in the gaps.  For instance, demon vomit was actually pea soup and looked like it, too.  Alvarez cranks the gore notch up to eleven and uses every make-up technique at his disposal to make each scene of carnage as disgusting as possible.  Good for him, I guess.

I could go on, but those familiar with the far superior Raimi version will know about how this one ends up.  My theory is that everything that happens is just imagined through Mia's drug-induced psychosis.  Heck, there is even some nasty business with a needle at one point and I heard a male in the audience at my screening say "sick."  There is your one-word review of the new "Evil Dead" - sick.  No doubt it will earn its budget back in spades.  Or blood.  But I would urge anyone and everyone to stay away from this one.  It isn't any fun.  Not without Raimi; and certainly not without Ash.

Monday, April 1, 2013

All You Need is Love. Seriously.

The Host
written by Stephanie Meyer & Andrew Niccol
directed by Andrew Niccol
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Diane Kruger, William Hurt and Max Irons
Rated PG-13
125 Minutes


After seeing “The Host,” I think I finally understand Stephanie Meyer.  She must be possessed by one of the alien life forms in this story.  The aliens, called Souls, inhabit human bodies and strip away anything resembling realistic human emotion.  While their ultimate goal is never quite clear, it makes for a story that is at least more interesting than “Twilight.”  But as Meyer’s M.O. goes, she forgoes the opportunity to flesh out compelling material in favor of sappy romance triangles and adolescent hormones.

Andrew Niccol is an excellent director and his best feature to date, “Gattaca,” is a modern sci-fi masterpiece.  He brings a similar visual panache to “The Host,” which has some truly glossy moments including vehicles that seem to be made of mirrors and a lot of inhabited human beings with the same ethereal blue eye color.  The Souls themselves are also pretty captivating, and Niccol takes at least two opportunities to focus on them while Antonio Pinto’s effective score accompanies.

The story has a lot of potential and Saoirse Ronan has a great deal to do with that.  For those that remember, she played the young Briony Tallis in “Atonement” and walked away with the movie.  Here she plays Melanie, and when the movie opens we find her fighting off a band of inhabited humans called Seekers.  After putting up a good fight, Melanie is captured and the Seekers imbed a Soul within her mind.  How they do this is pretty fun to watch, but disturbing if you think about it too long. 
The Soul that inhabits Melanie is called ‘Wanderer’ due to the fact that it has been on many planets before earth.  Wanderer’s job is to scan Melanie’s mind and deliver any information to the Seekers that may help them find remaining humans that they predictably dub “the resistance.”  Melanie, however, remains conscious within her body and fights with Wanderer for control of it.

With a strong visual palette and a halfway intriguing story, “The Host” starts off promising enough.  But poor Andrew Niccol is held back from really getting into the good stuff by a dud of a screenplay, which was co-written by Meyer herself.  So restricted and narrow is the story, Niccol could feasibly refer to Stephanie Meyer as “the ole’ ball and chain.”  Meyer has drafted a world with endless possibilities for dramatic tension and urgent conflict but instead chooses to again wallow in idealistic teen romance.  And the love triangle in this one is really bizarre – with two guys competing for the affections of two different female personalities but only one physical body.  Uh huh.

We never get a sense of what the Souls want, or even a backstory to explain why they came to earth at all.  And those pesky Seekers; try as they might, they can’t find Melanie/Wanderer once she runs off so they basically give up and go home so that the love story can play out in familiar fashion.  There’s another thing – Melanie and her Soul start to respect each other and become friends, and with infinite philosophies to discuss and things to learn from each other, they spend their time bickering about which boy the other one is allowed to kiss or not kiss.

I have no idea how much of this resembles the book it’s based on but really, who cares?  By now, Stephanie Meyer has proven herself to be a one-trick pony.  So caught up is she in her lovey-dovey fantasy land, she completely dilutes any sense of relevance in her own stories.  I have yet to see a couple in love that resembles anything close to an Edward/Bella or Melanie/Jared situation.  I know I am not the target audience for these things and clearly Meyer is earning her millions by pleasing her demographic; I just worry what she is teaching young ladies to expect from potential boyfriends.  That vampire guy watches you when you sleep and the guy in this one tries to kill you.  But like I said, it’s at least more interesting than “Twilight.”  So there you have it.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Sloppy Joes

G.I. Joe: Retaliation
written by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
directed by Jon M. Chu
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Bruce Willis and Channing Tatum
110 Min

What could Bruce Willis be thinking?  Last month, he put the nail in John McClane's coffin with "A Good Day to Die Hard" and now he's even giving the original Joe a bad name in "G.I. Joe: Retaliation."  I'd have considered "A Good Day to Die Hard" tolerable if I'd known just how bad "G.I. Joe" would be.  And boy is it bad.  This film is like the dumb jock in a room full of dumb jocks.  With one incomprehensible scene after another, this is an excruciating experience in every regard.  If you want a better use of your money, go to your nearest gym and pay one of the customers $10 to flex his muscles for you before punching you in the stomach.

I never saw the first "G.I. Joe" but I can't imagine it has much to offer if this is all they could come up with for a sequel.  It involves a group of supposedly elite soldiers who are dubbed "the Joes" and are apparently the gold standard in United States security.  They sweat a lot, and shoot stuff and blow things up real good and essentially run around doing pretty much whatever they'd like as far as I can tell.  Oh, one of them is Channing Tatum, code name 'Duke.'  I guess he's the leader; and he sucks at video games.  Then there is Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), whose name makes it sound like he should be fighting alongside another familiar set of Hasbro toys.

There are some bad guys as well.  The one called Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) is using nano-technology to pose as Jonathan Pryce, who is the POTUS.  Seriously, his character name is "President."  He performs the task as well as any other movie President, always asking a group of sociopath advisers what they think the proper course of action is.  In one really absurd sequence, the poser President attends an international meeting where several world leaders pull out their own nuclear launch devices as if it were the CES of WMDs.  Anyway, the POTUS poser uses his power to wipe out all but just a few Joes, who then must find and recruit who I think is supposed to be the original Joe (Bruce Willis) to help them pummel the POTUS and preserve the peace.  They're all still sweating, mind you.

Would it help for me to have seen the first film?  I don't think so.  This one does a bang-up job of telling the audience who is who and what's what and all that.  But each scene is completely disconnected from the one before it.  If the narrative were constructed of sentences it would look something like: "BANG!  Dumb action.  Stupid dialogue.  Dumb action.  BANG!  Mediocre musical score.  Sweat.  Dumb action.  BANG!  You get the picture.  There is a middle act ninja fight on the side of some snowy cliffs.  So if that's your thing, you're welcome to it.  But not a single event in this movie challenged my thought process or so much as gave me a heart palpitation.  

Mercifully, the film does eventually end; but I kept wondering what could have possibly delayed the film's release for nine months.  It certainly could not have been improved in any way.  My guess is the studio figured "G.I. Joe; Retaliation" would get smashed by all the blockbusters that it would have competed with on its original release date last summer.  Or maybe somebody said: "this is literally the worst movie ever made; let's make it worser."  Yeah, I know 'worser' isn't a word, but "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" isn't a movie.  It's a disaster.  I think Bruce Willis owes everyone an apology.

Monday, March 11, 2013

What happened to the North's witch?

Oz the Great and Powerful
Starring James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Zach Braff and Joey King
Written by Mitchell Kapner & David Lindsay-Abaire
directed by Sam Raimi
Rated PG
130 Minutes

It is undeniable that "Oz the Great and Powerful" is a lot of fun.  This is a beautifully realized film, with the unmistakable Sam Raimi signature on it.  The very opening credits almost not need mention his name for their revealing style.  With plenty to offer a modern-day family, but not much to stand on when compared against the classic, this is a movie worth seeing just for the sake of seeing the land of Oz on screen once again.

As a prequel, I suppose "Oz the Great and Powerful" has a whole lot more going for it than the stage musical "Wicked," which will undoubtedly be translated to film at some point.  "Wicked" undermines every plot detail of "The Wizard of Oz" and completely misses the point.  This new Disney film wins just by staying more true to the magic and scope of the 1939 classic.  It even begins in black and white; filmed and displayed in a square frame format to match its predecessor and emphasize the dreary relism of Kansas.  James Franco plays the Oz of the title; Oz being short for something I can't recall.  Or even pronounce.

Oz is a talented but selfish circus act; breaking girls' hearts by selling them a line of bull just to integrate a pretty face into his show.  He comes off as obviously phony, and when an audience member calls him out, he pulls off a pretty neat trick.  Of course, being good isn't good enough.  Oz wants to be truly great.  So much, in fact, that he turns down the offer of a happy life with Annie (Michelle Williams) just to make it big.  And boy does he make it big.  When a wild tornado hits the circus, he is swept away in his hot air balloon to the wonderful land of Oz.  Believe me when I say he notices the name.

Right off the bat, he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), a soft-spoken witch who gets a bit of a crush on him.  Seeing how naive she is, Oz is more than happy to oblige, especially when she tells him he is the great wizard whose coming was fortold by her father.  The problem, you see, is that the wicked-witch (nope, not that one) Evanora (Rachel Weisz) will do anything to stop the prophecy coming true, including sending her batch of flying monkeys to intervene.  And this is just the beginning of Oz's laundry list of hurdles he must overcome.

It's worth noting that once the wizard makes it to Oz, the screen format opens up and the color becomes blindingly vibrant.  This is an absolutely beautiful movie, with cinematography by Peter Deming and a list of art directors worth checking imdb for.  The only complaint I have is that so much of this is obviously digitally created; giving it more than a passing resemblance to Tim Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland,' but also taking away from the magic of the original film, which was a landmark production in 1939.  The characters, too, aren't as much fun this time around.  Just like Dorothy had companions, so does Oz.  He acquires a truly good flying monkey named Finley (Zach Braff), who sounds a lot like his friend Frank back home.  And there is a fragile little girl made of china (Joey King) who must remind Oz of a crippled girl he failed to heal during a cricus performance.

These are well-developed characters, but I was longing for the living, breathing presence of the Scarecrow and Tin-Man.  Even the cowardly lion makes a brief appearance, just not as you remember him.  The best connection to "The Wizard of Oz" is Michelle Williams as Glinda the good.  She gives a truly enchanting performance that echoes the Billie Burke version while also claiming it as her own.  As Theodora, Mila Kunis is fine; but considering the-uh-transformation her character goes through, she was perhaps miscast.

There is a pretty rousing climax that sets things up nicely for a sequel to bridge this film with the classic you know and love.  For that, it's worth the price of admission.  Sam Raimi is apparently not on board to do another, and that's just as well.  He has provided a wonderful entertainment that really reaches to honor its inspiration.  Sometimes it hits the mark.  But I think if you're anything like me, you'll want to go home after, put in your copy of "The Wizard of Oz" and smile while thinking to yourself: they don't make them like they used to.

Down, but not out...

Dead Man Down
Starring Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace and Terrance Howard
written by J.H Wyman
directed by Niels Arden Oplev
Rated R
110 Minutes

It’s too bad that the trailers for “Dead Man Down” make it look like just another generic action movie with gratuitous gun violence and explosions; because director Niels Arden Oplev serves up what is actually a deeply involving character drama featuring two tortured souls against the backdrop of an organized crime setting.  Sure, “Dead Man Down” has violence on its mind, but with knockout performances by Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace, this is a much smarter feature than its marketing would imply. 

Colin Farrell is a criminally under-used actor, but turns in possibly his best performance yet playing Victor, an enforcer for Alphonse (Terrance Howard), who operates a number of buildings throughout New York to maintain crime rackets.  Victor doesn’t say much; but instead seems to always be regarding things with quiet focus.  He listens intently to his only friend Darcy (Dominic Cooper) talk about his new baby and how fatherhood can turn even the hardest hearts soft.  There are other characters of interest; like Beatrice (Noomi Rapace).  She lives across from Victor and they have entire conversations that consist almost entirely of waves and glances.

Beatrice is slightly disfigured after a car accident, but gets the courage to call Victor up for a meal.  He doesn’t even notice her facial scars, but holds back for other reasons.  Without spilling the beans, Victor and Beatrice are both grieving and both want revenge.  While Victor has set up an elaborate scheme for his revenge, Beatrice struggles to even function because she’s so shattered by what has happened to her.  It is quickly revealed that she has witnessed Victor doing something related to his occupation.  She has video and threatens to turn him in unless he kills the man who disfigured her.  He explains that what she saw is not what it appeared to be and reveals his background.

It is these developments that occupy the bulk of “Dead Man Down” with maddening urgency.  Both of these characters are short-sighted by their grief and while the organized crime plot plays a vital role in Victor’s past, it is mainly just the vehicle for his journey of renewal.  Victor and Beatrice begin to realize things about one another that make them rethink their original plans.  And while the film is not devoid of action, it is sparse and serves only to punctuate the desperation of Victor’s circumstances.

The screenplay by J.H. Wyman is so nuanced in its presentation of these characters.  When the film is winding toward its conclusion, with the tension becoming unbearable, the script finds a perfect balance of payoff; offering action, but resisting the urge to end on cathartic carnage.  What happens to the people who deserve what’s coming to them isn’t what you’d expect.  And that’s really kind of nice.  There are even brief moments of sympathy for Alphonse, who isn’t painted as pure evil; and Terrance Howard plays him subtly, as a man who is probably a coward.  As Beatrice, Noomi Rapace continues to show her range and appeal to an American Audience.  She worked under Oplev for the original Swedish adaption of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and there are shades of her Lisbeth Salander character from that picture in this one.

The real standout of “Dead Man Down” is Colin Farrell.  He is fantastic as an introspective man tortured by his tragic past, and mercilessly patient in his plan for revenge.  And  “Dead Man Down” requires a patient audience; one that can sit through scenes of subtle glances and grim conversation.  Action hungry audiences won’t find what they’re looking for, but it’s great for those who can relate to loss and desperation.  That a movie called “Dead Man Down” can wallow in these things and still end on a happy note is impressive.  After all, it begins with two people wanting revenge and in the end getting exactly what they need.