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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

It was around the early 2000s that the Disney Studio started toying with the idea of making films off of their theme park attractions.  This idea was kicked off in 2002 with the quickly forgotten The Country Bears.  The notion probably would have died right then and there had it not been for the fact that one year later, there was Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.  With a lot of thrilling adventure and special effects, combined with an off-kilter performance by Johnny Depp that finally made him a bankable film star, the movie kicked off one of the biggest live action blockbuster franchises in the studio's history.

It's 14 years later, and as Dead Men Tell No Tales (the fifth Pirates movie) hits the screen, I can't shake the sense that it's time to move on.  I'm Pirated out, to be quite honest.  Yes, the battles and set pieces are as big and as elaborate as ever, there are some clever special effects (Zombie Sharks!), and Depp is as likable as ever as the frequently drunk and one-liner spewing Captain Jack Sparrow.  But the franchise has simply not evolved over time.  Instead, they have only increased the volume and included bigger and more ridiculous action scenes.  This entry kicks off with Jack and his men stealing a bank.  Not robbing a bank, mind you, but literally stealing the entire building itself, and dragging it down the street as it collides into homes and screaming extras.  I was actually smiling as this scene kicked off, as I was excited to see how it was going to work out.  That, and Depp gets off a couple funny lines before the chaos starts.  But then, yes, the chaos starts, and it kind of drones on until we're anxious for the scene to be done with.

After this rousing excuse of overkill, the movie sputters as it introduces our new characters in this entry.  Early on, it kind of seems to be jumping about various films to the point that I was starting to wonder when they would connect.  First we have our new villain - the ghostly Captain Salazar (Javier Bardam) and his skeletal crew, who are cursed and vow vengeance against the man who made them dead in the first place.  No prizes for guessing it's Jack Sparrow.  Then we have our bland young co-stars who assist Jack in this adventure, but never quite bring any personality or anything fresh to this adventure.  They are Henry (Brenton Thwaites), the adult son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann from the first three films, and Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an astronomer who is accused of being a witch due to her intelligence.  They team up with Jack to find Poseidon's trident, which can break any curse of the sea.  Oh, and Geoffrey Rush is back as Barbossa, and brings some fun and life to the proceedings.

The movie fills every corner of the screen with sword-wielding extras, cannons firing, living carvings, ghastly ghouls, skeletal birds, and those previously mentioned Zombie Sharks, which given the current status both zombies and sharks have in pop culture, I'm surprised waited this long until they appeared in this particular franchise.  And while I admired the technical skill used to bring them to life, I was never as thrilled as I should be.  Salazar and his ghost crew are fun and creepy looking, but they pale in comparison to the pirates in the first movie who turned into skeletons when they stepped in the moonlight.  And then there are the elaborate set pieces, such as the one where Jack narrowly misses a guillotine blade over and over, and even one where the sea itself splits in half.  This is impressive stuff on a technical level, and I applaud the artists who put this stuff together.  But none of it connects emotionally.

That's because Pirates is all overkill all the time.  Even in a movie that is supposed to be grand and over the top such as this needs to give the audience a chance to catch their breath.  As it starts to lay one spectacular event on top of another, the audience starts to grow restless.  We're essentially watching a tech demo that runs just over two hours.  Yes, the directing team of Joachim Renning and Espen Sandberg have successfully pulled off every spectacular feat that the script threw at them, and they should be commended.  But there's never a reason for us to be watching another one of these movies.  I would be much more impressed if I was watching these kind of images and battles in a story or with characters that actually evolved, or did more than spew one-liners and exposition about lost treasure and ancient curses.  This feels like a movie where they filmmakers knew they didn't have that great of a script, so they threw as much money into it as possible to cover it up.

If you haven't had your fill of this series yet, you'll probably enjoy it.  Heck, it's probably the best Pirates movie we've gotten in a while, and while it's still bloated, it's at least shorter than most of the other films have been.  But it still feels like we've sailed this course many times before.

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Baywatch

Baywatch is nowhere near as awful as that CHIPs movie we got a couple months ago.  But here's the thing.  CHIPs was memorable in how bad it was.  I likely will remember it as one of the worst movies ever made off of a TV show for a long time to come.  Baywatch, on the other hand, simply is lame beyond belief, and I will probably be hard pressed to remember a single thing about it by July.

This is a movie that doesn't know if it wants to be a spoof of the TV series that spawned it, or if it wants to take its plot seriously.  Therefore, we get a lot of scenes early on that poke fun at the slow motion running that was made famous on the show, followed by long stretches where the movie seems to think we actually give a damn about the plot concerning drug dealers and dead bodies washing up on the beach.  It also gives us the prerequisite cameos of David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson, but gives them nothing to do in the context of the movie other than to just show up. (Miss Anderson does not even get any lines, and is a literal walk on.) Therefore, I cannot say with any certainty if the fans will enjoy this comedic adaptation.  All I can report on are my personal thoughts, and to be honest, this movie did next to nothing for me.

The movie more or less follows the original formula of the TV show, with a bunch of California lifeguards saving lives, and getting wrapped up in bizarre criminal plots.  The difference is that this is the hard-R interpretation, so we get a lot of "F-Bombs" and jokes built around the male genitalia, such as a scene when a hapless and overweight lifeguard trainee named Ronnie (Jon Bass, who seems to be channeling Josh Gad for most of the movie) gets his privates stuck in a chair, and we get graphic close ups.  But the real plot concerns head lifeguard Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson, likable as always) trying to get to the bottom of a high level drug cartel that seems to have moved onto his beach.  He suspects that the mastermind is a sultry land developer (Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra) who has recently started buying up most of the land, as well as buying the support of wealthy political figures, and having her henchmen murder the ones who refuse to cooperate. 

Mitch is teamed up with Matt Brody (Zac Efron), a disgraced Olympic swimmer who has been placed on the lifeguard team mainly as a P.R. publicity stunt.  He has two Gold Medals that he likes to carry around with him at all times to remind everyone and himself of his former glory, but he is mostly a washed up drunk these days.  Still, some of the people on Mitch's team still believe in him ("You're like the Stephen Hawking of swimming, minus the whole paralysis thing", someone tells him.), so he ends up working alongside Mitch.  When the dead body of a powerful local Councilman washes up, Mitch is the first to suspect foul play.  However, as local cop Sgt. Ellerbee (Yahya Abdul-Mateen, II) likes to remind him, Mitch is a lifeguard and not a police officer, so he should stay out of investigating the murder.

And so Baywatch unfolds, without much inspiration or invention.  It's the kind of movie that seems designed to be watched by a listless and bored audience.  Maybe there's an occasional giggle or two, but they are not worth the experience of sitting through this dragged out and tedious film. (Did I mention the movie runs an overly long two hours?) And because the movie frequently goes from parody to slightly more serious-minded action comedy, I was never able to detect a consistent tone that director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) was going for.  He seems to be trying a different angle in each scene.  This is why some of the characters seem to change from scene to scene, depending on what's necessary.  In the case of Matt Brody, sometimes he's depicted as a totally clueless bozo who can barely speak English, while in other scenes, he seems a bit more on the ball. 

Baywatch also simply doesn't build momentum like a comedy should.  It's curiously flat and muted, with long periods where the movie seems to forget it's supposed to be trying to make us laugh, and just goes for straight up action.  Even the more absurd action set pieces, such as the one where Mitch gets in a dragged out fight with one of the villain's goons in a little girl's bedroom and they beat on each other with her dolls and other toys, seem desperate instead of genuinely funny.  We're supposed to laugh at the fact that Dwayne Johnson is getting choked by a SpongeBob doll, I guess.  A better movie would have found a funnier use for it.

You can tell that this movie has been made in good cheer, and only wants to entertain, but it never quite succeeds at that noble goal.  It's not that funny, the gross-out humor isn't shocking, and the action is immediately forgettable.  I expected many things from a Baywatch movie, but I must confess, being bored was not one of them.

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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul

I was not a huge fan of the three previous Diary of a Wimpy Kid films, which were released annually from 2010 to 2012, however I did note in my review of the last film, Dog Days, that it was a slight upgrade over the first two.  However, now that I have seen The Long Haul, I realize that I may have been too hard on the earlier entries.  This is a desperate, chintzy and insufferably dumb children's comedy that somehow managed to end up on the big screen instead of straight to DVD where trash like this belongs.  It also manages to somehow be rated PG, despite having more jokes concerning urination, defecation and projectile vomiting than some R-rated comedies targeting adults that I have seen.

Even though this is not a reboot of the series, it does feel like one, as the characters have been recast top to bottom, due to the fact that many of the young stars are now too old to play them.  And while the first three movies were not exactly the peak of filmmaking, they at least looked like movies.  This one not only looks like a lame TV sitcom blown up on the big screen, there are awkward pauses in the dialogue that almost seem like they would be moments where the laugh track should chime in.  It would also seem as if returning director and co-writer David Bowers (he made the last two films in the series) has lost any sense of honesty for these characters.  While I would never call anyone in a Wimpy Kid movie "realistic", they at least had moments we could relate to.  Here, everyone is portrayed as a loud, obnoxious, over the top caricature of the people from before.

Once again, our protagonist is middle school kid, Greg Heffley (now played by Jason Ian Drucker), who gives us his insights into life and family through voice-over narration, and crude stick figure cartoons that he draws.  This time, Greg is dealing with social media humiliation when an embarrassing moment at a family buffet restaurant happens to go viral.  The only way he can see to redeem himself on the web is to appear in a YouTube video with his favorite Internet celebrity, an obnoxious guy who has made a living making videos about playing video games (Joshua Hoover).  It just so happens that his idol is appearing at a video game convention in Indianapolis, and Greg sees this as the perfect opportunity.  Unfortunately, it falls right at the exact same time that his mom (a miscast Alicia Silverstone) and dad (Tom Everett Scott) are dragging the family on a cross country road trip to celebrate their grandmother's 90th birthday.

So Greg, along with his dim-witted older brother Roderick (Charlie Wright), scheme to ditch the trip and make their way to the video game convention on their own.  The family trip makes up a majority of the running time, and basically seems like a more family friendly variation of the original National Lampoon's Vacation (the 1983 film, or the 2015 reboot - take your pick).  There are the usual pit stops, car trouble, overnight stays at scuzzy motels, and run-ins with weirdos that you would expect, although the movie can't find anything funny or interesting to do with anything that happens to the Heffley clan.  Case in point - In one scene, the family winds up inadvertently adopting a baby pig while visiting a country fair.  You would think that the pig might provide some problems or comical moments, but the screenplay is so bankrupt, the only thing it can think to do with it is have it poop in the car.  The family immediately drops the little oinker off at a petting zoo afterward, making the pig's addition completely pointless overall.

The main thing that kept me from embracing the earlier Wimpy Kid films is that I found them to have an unnecessary mean streak.  In The Long Haul, that mean streak has been replaced with an overabundance of gross out humor.  Whether you see this as an improvement depends on your tolerance for scenes concerning accidents with soiled diapers, people being splattered in the face with vomit on amusement park rides, and even a scene where our young hero is forced to hide out in a bathroom while a big, fat guy uses the toilet, with thundering farts and deafening plopping sounds playing on the soundtrack. (Believe it or not, this somehow leads to a parody of the shower scene in Psycho.) Maybe really little kids will find stuff like this hilarious.  I felt kind of nauseous.

I would like to close this review by recommending a much better kid's movie about a family road trip that this movie at times resembles a lesser version of.  That would be the 1995 animated film A Goofy Movie.  Both feature kids stuck on a lame road trip, and both are built around family bonding.  But that movie also had a heart behind it.  This exists only to steal money from bored families, in the hopes that possibly one more movie can be squeezed out. 

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Everything, Everything

Everything, Everything is a pleasant and unassuming little romantic melodrama that doesn't do a great job of plucking the heartstrings, but does its job well enough.  It also features two young and charismatic performances by Amandla Stenberg (from The Hunger Games) and Nick Robinson (Jurassic World) as the young lovers.  Even if the movie was never able to quite enthrall me, the leads at the center of the film held my attention.

The movie opens by introducing us to Maddy Whittier (Stenberg), an 18-year-old girl who has been locked away in her germ-free and immaculate home ever since she was diagnosed with a weak immune system when she was very young.  The disease is known as SCID (severe combined immunodeficiency), and it's a rare genetic problem that forces her to stay away from the outside world, as simple everyday germs could kill her instantly.  Maddy has lived this way her whole life, and has learned to make the best of it.  She chats with friends on line, reads a lot of books, and writes reviews of them.  She also likes to build models of places that she would love to visit, but knows she cannot, such as libraries.  The only people who she ever has some kind of contact with are her overly protective mother (Broadway veteran Anika Noni Rose), and her doting nurse, Carla (Ana De La Reguera).

One day, while Maddy is looking out her bedroom window, she happens to see a young boy moving into the house next door with his family.  This is Olly (Robinson), and there is an instant attraction.  Since their bedroom windows are across from each other, they start writing messages and texting each other.  Rather than simply just show the two characters conversing on their phones, director Stella Meghie does some clever and imaginative ways to display their conversations.  We'll see Maddy and Olly inhabiting one of her models, having a normal conversation sitting across a table from each other.  Eventually, Carla figures out Maddy's fascination with the boy, and arranges a secret face-to-face meeting while the mother is away, inviting him inside.  This brings about one of the film's funnier moments, where the two young kids are awkwardly flirting and talking to each other, while subtitles underneath them express their inner thoughts and embarrassment over how they don't know what to say to each other.

This is the strength of Everything, Everything.  I found both of the kids and the actors playing them extremely likable.  They have an easy chemistry, and a very laid back charm.  Fortunately, the movie takes advantage of this, and gives them plenty of opportunities to be together.  There are not very many distracting subplots, and even though Maddy's mother does eventually find out about their relationship and is not happy about it, she does not suddenly become a villain bent on destroying their love.  She is acting out of concern, not as an antagonist.  The movie does begin to slip just a little during its middle and climactic portions.  The mid section is devoted to Maddy running away from home, health concerns be-damned, and going on a luxury Hawaiian vacation that seems a bit elaborate even if a kid was able to have their own private credit card.  Finally, there is a third act twist that is not only easy to see coming, but is just not quite as emotionally effective as it should be.

Even when the movie seems dangerously close to losing its way, the two leads are able to keep it grounded, and avoid causing it to go into all-out stupidity.  They are the reason for anyone who is not a fan of the Young Adult book by Nicola Yoon that inspired the film to watch this.  Stenberg and Robinson are able to portray the strong and sometimes uncontrollable feelings of first love, without making these characters insufferable or sappy.  These are supposed to be smart kids, and the performances are able to reflect that.  And save for the film's final moments, the movie just seems very quiet and avoids staged melodrama.  There is a simple honesty here that we don't see in a lot of teen romances.  The movie doesn't even make a big deal out of the fact that the lovers are an interracial couple, which is a nice change of pace.

Everything, Everything is not a great movie, but it shows some intelligence both in its two leads and in its casting.  The movie is probably as safe and sterile as the home that Maddy is forced to live in for most of the story, but it never bothered me as much as I thought it would.  In fact, I found the whole thing kind of charming.


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Friday, May 19, 2017

Alien: Covenant

2012's Prometheus was an attempt to revitalize the ailing Alien franchise by not only answering some questions that fans had been asking since the first movie, but also by bringing back the original film's director, Ridley Scott.  However, like in a lot of instances of a great filmmaker returning to a story they left behind a long time ago (see Steven Spielberg returning to Indiana Jones back in 2008), the end result highly divided fans.  Yes, Prometheus was skillfully made and beautiful to look at, but the plot made no sense the more you thought about it, the characters were largely dumb as rocks and unlikable, and there was an embarrassingly bad showing by Guy Pearce hidden by some of the most unconvincing "old age" make up in recent memory.  It was at least an ambitious summer movie, but one that was highly uneven.

Alien: Covenant is an attempt to give the fans what they wanted the first time around, and if this movie is any indication, they essentially wanted the first movie all over again.  There are so many nods and throw backs to 1979's Alien that pop up throughout that it comes across as if Scott is trying to remind us of the greatness of the original, instead of enhancing his vision with this new story.  And again, the movie is skillful in its visuals for the most part.  A few of the CG special effects concerning the titular intergalactic monsters are surprisingly not as convincing as the "man in suit" effects used in the earlier movies, but it still looks good overall.  There's also much less leaden exposition dialogue to wade through this time around, though it does pop up later in the film.  But here's the thing - I never found myself drawn in.  I didn't care about the characters on the ship, I wasn't on the edge of my seat during the more suspenseful moments, and the whole thing kind of comes across as an uninspired monster movie with a big budget.  Scott clearly has a vision here that is leading up to something, but unless you're a diehard fan who has been eating this stuff up for the nearly 40 years these films have been around, I don't know how much this entry will speak to you.

Let's start with the characters, and how the movie fumbles their introduction.  As the film opens, a spaceship is making its way to an uncharted world with some 2,000 colonists on board, all in hyper sleep during the long journey.  The only one awake is the android Walter, who is played by Michael Fassbender.  He played the android, David, in the last film and was easily the standout performance in Prometheus.  He's the standout once again this time, playing a more advanced and less emotional model of the character he played before.  There is a crisis on the ship, and he is forced to wake up the crew, who are also in hyper sleep with the traveling colonists.  This leads to a chaotic action sequence that serves as our introduction to the main characters, and it just doesn't work out.  Instead of getting to know these people and their relationship with each other, we simply see them running around and screaming for their lives.  The movie never really tells us much about them after that.  Oh, we get little hints here and there, but nobody amounts to anything interesting, not even Daniels (Katherine Waterston), who eventually becomes the main character, and is obviously supposed to remind us of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from the original series.  However, she gets so little screen time before the third act, she essentially exists in the background for the majority of the movie.

Daniels happens to be married to the ship's Captain, Branson (played by an uncredited James Franco), who perishes in the disaster on the ship.  A new Captain is named when Oram (Billy Crudup) takes charge.  The early moments hint that Oram is unsure of his ability to lead the crew, and that Daniels is finding it hard to perform her duties after the loss of her husband, but these are quickly pushed aside after being introduced, and are never really brought up again.  It's around this time that the ship receives a strange and distorted message coming from a nearby planet that appears to be habitable.  Oram does not want to risk putting the crew back into hyper sleep to finish the seven years that remains in their journey, and thinks this nearby world could be a better option for them to explore and possibly colonize.  Daniels is against the idea, but is voted down.  A small portion of the crew is sent to explore the planet, which is currently experiencing a violent storm, making communication with the main ship difficult during their time on the surface.

From this point on, Alien: Covenant switches back and forth between two tones that never really connect.  In some scenes, the movie wants to be thoughtful, with drawn out scenes concerning two characters (who I will not reveal for the sake of spoilers) ponder life and play music, and even ends on an awkward kiss.  And in other scenes, we get those ever-nasty aliens in all of their forms, as they generally tear apart the human actors in gruesome sequences that seem right out of an 80s slasher film.  There is even a scene that seems ripped right out of a Friday the 13th movie, where two crew members are killed by an alien while they are making love in a shower.  This mix of high-minded Sci-Fi and cheap thrills is a tricky combo to pull off, and the movie never succeeds.  It feels like the filmmakers are fighting for control over what kind of a movie they were trying to make, or perhaps there was some studio interference demanding more blood and gore.

I can understand this approach, as I think Scott is trying to recapture what drew people to the first movie.  Its sense of tension, claustrophobia and genuine suspense were a constant throughout the 1979 film.  But here, a lot of that tension is lessened by the fact that it keeps on stopping to show us where the monsters came from, and how they came to be.  The one true thing in horror is that the less we know about a monster, the scarier it is.  Yes, it's good to give the audience some information, but overexplaining can be deadly.  And that's exactly what the screenplay does.  It explains, it explores the mythos, and it gives us some answers that fans have long been asking, but honestly I wonder if they will think it was more fun to wonder than it is to know.  This is a common problem with movies that try to explore the story behind an original successful film, and this movie doesn't do enough to avoid the traps.

Alien: Covenant is far from the worst film in the series, but its threadbare plot and forgettable characters do little to make this anything memorable.  I'm sure there's still an audience for these movies, but I've been feeling kind of left out after 1986's Aliens.  I know that Ridley Scott is planning more movies that delve deeper into the history, but I'm kind of hoping that pretty soon the fans will wise up, and start asking "why"?

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the first legendary bomb of the summer, and it's only the second week of May.  Last year, we had to wait till late June until Independence Day: Resurgence showed up.  The movie is at times an incomprehensible mess, shot and edited as if the entire movie were a trailer with quick cuts, flashes to other things happening while something else is going on, and out of place voice overs.  The soundtrack at times sounds like music, and at other times sounds like someone just put a panting dog up to a microphone.  And the acting...Well, actually, the acting is not bad, but I doubt even Sir Laurence Olivier could save this.

The film is an interminable parade of bad ideas, many showing up one after another.  In retelling the story of the legendary King and his knights of old, apparently director Guy Ritchie decided to make it like one of his British crime capers that launched his career like Snatch or Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels.  That means that Arthur and his pals now talk like modern day wise guy British gangsters when they're around each other.  And while the story is fairly simple and basic, he decided to make it next to impossible to follow by adding a lot of unnecessary directing flourishes such as fast motion, rewinding the film to cut back to something earlier, and cutting back and forth between two scenes for no reason.  To add insult to injury, the movie looks awful, despite its reported $175 million budget.  The colors are often drab and dark, and the special effects look like something out of the late 90s.  When a giant CG snake shows up during the climax, it's kind of hard to look at because it's been so ineptly realized.

Here is a movie completely lacking in scope, grandeur and purpose.  You know, the kind of things one would expect in a King Arthur story.  Instead, we get one boring heavily CG battle scene after another, and a plot that we not only don't care about, but can hardly follow in the first place.  Characters kept on being introduced, but I often lost track of them in the muddled narrative, or just didn't care.  Here, Arthur (played by Charlie Hunnam) witnessed his father (Eric Bana) die at the hands of his treacherous Uncle Vortigern (a slimy Jude Law), after the villain gained ultimate evil power when he made a deal with a multi-faced octopus-like monster that apparently lives in the sewers beneath the castle. (Don't ask, the movie doesn't explain.) Arthur, a tiny boy at this point, escaped to a nearby village, and was raised by some friendly prostitutes.  He grows up to be kind of a street thug, hanging out with his rough buddies, and occasionally stealing from Vikings to give money to the women who raised him.

Arthur is soon kidnapped by some of Vortigern's goons, and forced to pull the sword Excalibur from the stone.  This is actually all a ruse, as apparently only the son of the rightful king can do so.  Vortigern wants to hold onto the throne that he stole many years ago, and needs to kill the heir to his brother, so he creates the sword in the stone contest to find out who he needs to bump off in order to keep on ruling the land.  Arthur pulls the sword out, and is rescued by a band of rogues, as well as a Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who apparently is allied with Merlin, although the great wizard himself never actually makes an appearance in the film.  And not only does Excalibur identify Arthur's royal bloodline, but it also gives him super powers and allow him to see visions of his forgotten past, as well as the future.  With the sword, Arthur and his friends will attempt to overthrow Vortigern, and build Camelot.

If only Legend of the Sword was as simple as I just described it.  The plot is told in such a way that it's next to impossible to remember what's happening, and why we're supposed to care.  Ritchie obviously cares little about the characters in his story, and only wants to stage "cool" sequences where giant elephants march across battlefields, and hundreds of faceless extras charge at each other and fight in incomprehensible squabbles.  There's little rhyme or reason to anything, other than you suspect Ritchie thought it would look good up on the screen.  He was wrong.  There's not a single visual or moment here that is memorable or even good.  And while the actors are clearly trying to rise above this material, the bloated mass that makes up the movie drags them down faster than you could ever imagine.

After the film mercifully ended after an overlong two hours, I felt like I had just watched the rough edit of a potential summer blockbuster, not the concrete vision of a filmmaker.  Parts are out of place, the editing and camera work is a disaster, and everything's just kind of blown up to this grand level of stupid.  I'll be doing my best to forget this one as soon as possible, except when I have to think of the worst films of 2017.

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Saturday, May 13, 2017

Snatched

I like Amy Schumer.  I just like her.  In 2015's Trainwreck, she showed a great amount of comedic screen presence, and managed to win me over.  She won me over once again in Snatched, an uneven comedy that has some laughs, but not enough to carry it all the way through.  Still, Schumer manages to rise above the hit or miss material, and is always interesting to watch.

It's also great to see Goldie Hawn on the big screen again, making her first appearance since 2002's The Banger Sisters.  Like Schumer, she shows a natural on screen presence, as well as wonderful chemistry with her co-star.  The two women work so well together up on the screen that you almost start to wonder why they hadn't been paired up sooner.  You also kind of wish that the screenplay by Katie Dippold (The Heat) was more up to their level of talent.  It's pleasant and it never offends, but it's not much more than that.  It's a good concept for an action comedy, but it never truly goes for broke, and makes these characters into ones we can get behind.  We only get behind them because Schumber and Hawn are there, giving this material their all.  We like watching them, and we fall in love with them, not the characters they're playing.

The film's strongest half is the first 20 minutes, because we get the sense that Schumer was allowed to improvise a lot with her dialogue and character.  And while she's not playing all that different of a character than she did in Trainwreck, she's still a lot of fun to watch and gets some laughs.  Her Emily is a hard-drinking and somewhat selfish woman whose life already seems to be going nowhere, but then she loses her job and her boyfriend on the same day.  The two had been planning a romantic getaway to Ecuador at the time he dumps her, and the trip is nonrefundable.  She can't find any friends to go on the trip with her, so she turns in desperation to her last choice, her mother.  Hawn plays Linda, her mother, an overly cautious cat lady-type who pretty much gave up on her dreams after her husband divorced her years ago.  After much coaxing, Emily is eventually able to convince her mom to come on the trip. ("Help me put the 'fun' back in 'nonrefundable' ".)

The two travel to Ecuador (the film was actually shot in Hawaii), where Emily has a chance encounter at the hotel bar with a charming British man (Tom Bateman).  He immediately takes a liking to her, and takes Emily and her mother sightseeing.  However, it all turns out to be a trap, as the two women find themselves kidnapped by some smugglers who hold them for ransom.  The villains in Snatched are largely interchangeable, and never get to create any real personalities.  They exist simply to chase the two women all over the island, and shoot at them once in a while.  This is around the point when the movie sinks.  Schumer and Hawn do what they can with their roles, and manage to hold the interest of the audience.  Nothing else does, however.  What starts as a very clever mother-daughter comedy turns into a chase picture, and a fairly conventional one at that.

The movie does try to liven things up by having the women encounter some weirdos along the way.  These include a goofy guide who tries to help them get through the Amazon to safety (Christopher Meloni, getting some laughs here), as well as a vacationing lesbian couple (Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack) who use Special Forces training to help the lead characters out of various situations.  Sykes and Cusack are interesting to watch, but the movie never gives them as much to do as we would hope, so they're kind of left adrift in the movie.  There is also an amusing subplot concerning Emily's brother back home (Ike Barinholtz) dealing with a largely disinterested and quick tempered Stare Department official (Bashir Salahuddin) that gets some off-kilter moments, but again, seems to be held back somewhat by the rather conventional motions of the rest of the film.

Snatched manages to be a pleasant enough diversion, but it never aspires to be anything more.  It's the kind of movie that you wish was better, because there is stuff that works here, and the cast is clearly giving it their all.  I do want to see Schumer in a movie again, one that hopefully takes full advantage of what she can do.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Absolutely Anything

Much like The Circle from two weeks ago, Absolutely Anything is filled to bursting with top tier talent, only to be let down by a script that doesn't know what to do with the actors it managed to attract.  This is becoming a trend with star-studded films.  In this case, we come for laughs, and as the names of the cast and crew flashed on the screen during the opening credits, I grew increasingly excited.  But the cast is largely wasted, and the movie itself never lives up to its potential.

The movie is directed and co-written by Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame), making his first film since 1996.  Apparently, this had been a dream project of his for over 20 years when he made it back in 2014. (The film was released in the U.K. in 2015, and is just now getting a small release in the U.S.)  Not only is Jones behind the camera, but he has managed to reunite his fellow surviving Python members (John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, and Jones himself).  They provide the voices for a group of CG aliens (who look like left over special effects from the Men in Black movies) who call themselves the Galactic Council.  Fans will be disappointed to learn that their roles in this film amount to basically an extended cameo.  In the live action roles, we have Simon Pegg, Kate Beckinsale, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Eddie Izzard, and Joanna Lumley,   We also have Robin Williams giving his final performance, in a voice over role.  There's even a fun pop song by Kylie Minogue to play over the end credits.  The movie does its best to juggle all this talent, but it often comes across that they are being shuffled in and off the screen at random, and nobody gets a chance to stand out.

The tone to Absolutely Anything is completely off.  It's lethargic and tired.  Here is a premise that cries out for endless comic possibilities, and all it can dream up is jokes about dog droppings and massive male genitalia.  How has Jones, the man who directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail, been reduced to this?  What was going through the mind of these actors as they were being forced to play out scenes that feature gags on the same intellectual level of a knock-knock joke?  Were they just thrilled to be working together?  This probably was a fun movie to make, but it's hard to watch sometimes.  It has a lame and cheesy look (and it's not just the special effects), and the script is filled with blackout gags that seem to be building to something, but pull back before something funny can actually happen.  It's frustrating, and it often comes across like the movie is selling itself short.

The plot: The aliens calling themselves the Galactic Council have decided to destroy Earth, as humankind has proven itself to be a silly and useless race.  However, they decide to give the planet one last chance.  They will grant a random person with God-like powers to do anything they wish.  If that person can use those powers to make the world a better place within a certain amount of time, they will spare Earth.  The man that is chosen is Neil (Simon Pegg, overacting and constantly mugging for the camera), an overworked and stressed school teacher who has to look after horrible students all day, gets yelled at by his landlord, and longs for Catherine (Kate Beckinsale), the young woman who lives in the apartment below his.  He learns he suddenly has these powers to make his every desire come true when he makes the flippant wish that all of his students were dead, and an alien spacecraft flies in, blasting his classroom and killing all the students within.

Let me use this scene as an example of how Absolutely Anything constantly goes wrong.  Is the idea behind this dark?  Very much so.  But, I can also see how it could be funny.  But the gag never builds, not even when Neil wishes that the students were alive again, and he unwittingly starts the Zombie Apocalypse by having the dead rise from their graves.  Again, I can see this idea being funny, but the movie bungles it by simply not building to anything.  We see the dead rise, we see some people scream, and then Neil wishes it all way, as if nothing had happened.  Wouldn't it be funnier if one of his co-workers said to him the next day, "You won't believe what happened to me last night...".  Whenever Neil changes the world to suit his own desires, nobody seems to notice or care, which kills a lot of the comedic potential that lies within its very premise.  When he wishes that Global Warming would end, we get to see a brief news report about the world going into another Ice Age, and that's all we get before he wishes things were the way before.

Neil initially uses his powers to help himself out (he wishes for a better body, or a bigger penis), as well as to give his dog Dennis the ability to speak English (his voice is provided by Robin Williams).  He also tries to help out others, such as his friend at work, Ray (Sanjeev Bashkar), who has longed for a woman at the school for years.  Neil's power not only makes her fall in love with Ray, but to worship him to the point that she creates a cult-like religion built around the guy.  Again, funny in theory, but the joke doesn't build to anything worthwhile.  He also naturally tries to use his powers to get closer with Catherine, which often don't work out as he plans, until he learns to be himself around her.  This provides some nice moments during the last 10 minutes that come far too late to salvage the film.  Unfortunately, most of Catherine's scenes are built around dopey scenes of an obsessed stalker of hers (Rob Riggle) that provide no laughs and an obnoxious character that I wish had been written out of the movie.

With the cute talking dog showing up in so many scenes and the whimsical premise, you would think that Absolutely Anything might be aiming for a family audience.  However, the movie contains some strong language and a lot of unfunny sexual humor, giving the film a confused tone as well as a lifeless one.  I'm trying to think of the kind of audience this would attract, outside of the fans of the actors who got suckered into it, and I'm coming up blank.  I'm sure the fact that this is the first time the Monty Python team has worked together in over 30 years would be a draw, but those who show up for that reason will be disappointed by how little they're given to do as the grotesque aliens who kick off the plot. 

However, it's the Python team who sum up the film best with a line of dialogue, when the John Cleese alien remarks late in the film, "The dog's not so bad, it's the people I can't stand".  I kind of hate it when a movie reviews itself with its own dialogue, but there you go.

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