Reel Opinions


Saturday, September 30, 2017

Flatliners

One initially has to wonder, why a remake of Flatliners?  It's a largely forgotten paranormal thriller from 1990 that featured a cast of at-the-time young talent such as Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts and Oliver Platt, all of whom have gone on to better things.  Do people remember the original enough for there to be a desire for a remake?  But then, I began to think that the original had an intriguing premise with a mediocre execution.  Perhaps a remake could build upon that.  Unfortunately, this update follows the original right off the cliff, refuses to embrace its ideas, and instead gives us a very confused and simple-minded morality story that boils down to "be nice to people, or else you will suffer in the afterlife". 

The premise is essentially the same as 27 years ago.  A bunch of young medical students begin to toy with the idea of life after death.  They use an underground area of a hospital to conduct their experiments, where one member of the group volunteers to have the others stop their heart for a certain amount of time.  They will then be brought back, and they can study what happens when we die, and if there really is a "white light" and angelic music as some people report when they have had near-death experiences.  The head of the experiment is Courtney (Ellen Page).  She's fascinated in the idea of life after death, because 9 years ago, she was in a car accident while she was texting while driving, which took the life of her little sister.  The other students involved include workaholic Marlo (Nina Dobrev), cocky Jamie (James Norton) and shy Sophia (Kiersey Clemmons).  All of them share Courtney's curiosity about the other side.  There is a fifth member, Ray (Diego Luna), who doesn't think they should be toying with the afterlife, and is basically around to make sure the others don't wind up permanently dead.

One by one, all of them but Ray perform the experiment and are legally dead for a few minutes.  They experience the sensation of flying, revisiting old memories, or seeing flashes of their lives.  When they are brought back to the land of the living, they seem to remember things that they have long forgotten.  Courtney, for example, suddenly remembers how to play the piano, and can even bake bread like her grandma used to when she comes back from the afterlife.  But there is something sinister, as well.  After their return from being dead, everyone finds themselves haunted by a paranormal force that seems to know their past sins and deepest secrets, and is haunting them.  Courtney begins to see the car her sister died in, Marlo is reminded of a time she lost a patient because she prescribed the wrong medication, Jamie sees a former girlfriend whom he got pregnant and backed out of when she had an abortion, and Sophia is tormented by visions of a girl she cyberbullied in high school. 

Just as in the 1990 film, Flatliners does very little with its intriguing premise of exploring the nature of the afterlife, and instead turns it into a marathon of jump scares where spooky visions of the past start haunting the individual people who partake in the experiment.  The movie all but drops any questions it may ask about the ethical nature of the experiment after the first 20 minutes or so, and instead dives head-first into cliched thriller territory.  The thing is, the movie is never quite clear just what exactly is happening, or what exactly this paranormal force wants with these medical students.  Does it want these people to face their sins, admit to what they did wrong in the past, and move on from their troubled memories?  That seems to be what the last half hour of the film is leaning toward, with its overall message of forgiveness and "being mean to people is wrong".  But then, why are these ghostly visions trying to kill these med students if they are supposed to move on?  One of the students is pushed off a fire escape ladder by a ghost, while another gets stabbed in the hand with a knife by their own ghostly vision.  In one of the film's unintentionally funnier moments, the character can be seen wearing a bandage on their hand in the next scene, but right after that, the hand is fine and healed.

Honestly, there are lots of ways this movie could have dug deeper into the ideas of the first movie, and really explored what it was trying to say.  Instead, director Niels Arden Oplev seems to be using the original Joel Schumacher movie as a blueprint, not as a launching point.  The main characters are also largely unsympathetic for most of the running time, so it's hard to get behind their individual plights.  Everyone who partakes in the experiment are essentially one-note characters.  Sophia, for example, still lives with her mother, who dominates her life and talks down to her.  She finally finds the courage to stand up to her mother and leave home, but this holds no weight, because the plot has been so poorly handled up to now, and is never brought up again afterward.  How are we supposed to be happy about her liberation if the movie largely ignores it and forgets to comment on it once it happens? 

All Flatliners proves is that if you do a faithful remake of a mediocre movie, you're going to get another mediocre movie.  Remakes offer a chance to look at an old story in a new way, or for the director to put their own spin on it.  It's a shame that nobody behind this version took that idea to heart.  It should be noted that one of the stars of the earlier film, Kiefer Sutherland, shows up in a small role here.  I guess Julia Roberts was either too busy, or just wanted nothing to do with this.  I'm leaning toward the latter. 

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Friday, September 29, 2017

American Made

In most Tom Cruise films, he plays the guy who mostly keeps his cool, and is usually the smartest man in the room.  In the highly entertaining biopicture/black comedy American Made, he gets to play someone who thinks he's the smartest man in the room, when in reality, everybody around him is setting him up to take a fall.  Cruise's Barry Seal, who in real life was a man recruited by the CIA in the late 70s, and throughout the early 80s was involved in some shady government business involving everything from drug cartels to the Iran-Contras, is a man who gets swept up in everything, never once realizing that he's in over his head from the beginning.

Director Doug Liman (who previously worked with Cruise on 2014's Edge of Tomorrow) takes the true story of Barry Seal, and twists it into an energetic and at times comedic "stranger than fiction" story.  Much of the details here have been fabricated or twisted for the sake of the narrative, but there's enough factual information here that you don't feel like you're getting cheated out of the entire truth.  This also at least is not a fluff piece about the man.  As charming as Cruise comes across in the film (a nice change of pace from his awful turn in The Mummy from May), the movie makes no attempt to hide the fact that Seal is essentially a terrible person, driven by greed and taking one too many risks.  Barry has all the cocky swagger of your typical Tom Cruise performance (since he's a pilot, it's impossible not to think about Top Gun in certain scenes), but this time it's a ruse.  Barry has no idea what he's doing, or getting into.  He just thinks he knows.

The film's narrative is reminiscent of Goodfellas, in that it condenses a period of time in a man's life into a series of events defined by the time the story is set, and the rise and fall of its subject matter.  Barry Seal starts off as a bored TWA pilot who is tired of shuttling tourists back and forth to different destinations.  At a hotel bar, he is picked out by a CIA handler (Domhnall Gleeson) who wants to hire Barry to fly over spots in Latin America dealing with illegal weapons, and snap photos of areas from the air.  Barry's own greed and personal ambitions leads to him getting involved in drug trafficking with Pablo Escobar, and dealing with Noriega.  The American government even wants to employ him further, first delivering guns to the Iran-Contras, and then transporting them to America for training.  The only reason why Barry gets in so deep with all of this is that he seldom stops to think about what he's actually doing.  It's all about the money to him, and the lavish lifestyle that his wife back home (Sarah Wright Olsen) and their children begin to enjoy because of it.

American Made follows Barry's rise and eventual fall, as when things eventually start to fall apart, everyone turns their back on him and pretend they have nothing to do with him.  He struggles to stay ahead of the game, but by that point, he's in too deep with too many people on opposing sides.  It's a fairly typical story when you think back on it about someone who was lured in by wealth, and loses it all because he wanted too much.  But what sets the film apart is how Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli keep the action constantly running for the nearly two hours the film runs.  It never lags, and Cruise is definitely cranking the charm up to the maximum effort here.  Not only that, the movie is frequently laugh out loud funny in ways you might not expect.  You're definitely watching a somewhat sanitized studio effort, but it's one that remains constantly entertaining from beginning to end.

And it's really just nice to see Cruise using his usual on-screen charisma to play a character who's definitely a scumbag.  Behind that large smile and cool attitude is a man who simply doesn't know when enough is enough, and even puts certain members of his own family at risk because of his own actions.  It's a refreshing change of pace for Cruise, who usually plays faultless or charming guys.  Yeah, he's gone outside of his comfort zone in past roles, but he doesn't do it often, and it's always nice when it does happen.  Here, Cruise is selling this character 100%, and it's a great role for him, as well as a strong performance.  His on-screen charm that hides a somewhat rotten personality here perfectly complements the film's darkly comedic take on the life of Seal.

What American Made does is make us root for a man we know we shouldn't.  It has a great time setting him up for a fall, and we kind of enjoy watching it slowly happen.  But we also kind of hope he'll pull it off somehow.  It's a testament to Cruise's star-power that he can make a character like this into someone we can get behind.  This is a movie that is not only very enjoyable and frequently funny, but it also gives us a side of Cruise that we seldom see, and that I would kind of personally like to see more of.

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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Friend Request

Thanks to Friend Request, I have learned a few new things I never knew before.  Things like...

-There is a thing called a Black Mirror that has connections to ancient Witch rituals.  If you kill yourself in front of a black mirror, your spirit can then roam freely and wreak vengeance on the people who wronged you.  However, apparently you don't even need a Black Mirror to do this.  A laptop screen will suffice.  Once you are dead, you can mess around with people's Facebook accounts, summon wasps to kill them, and even post videos on their Facebook pages from beyond the grave.  It also gives you power over their on line accounts, as your victims will be unable to delete what you post, or even their own accounts.  Not even tech support will be able to stop you.

-If someone stabs you in the torso, you will simply suffer from a small wound, and have plenty of energy to run for miles, hail a cab, and do your own private investigation into the paranormal without any loss of blood.

-If you start to lose all your Facebook friends, you will immediately become a social pariah in real life, with everyone glaring at you suspiciously and keeping their distance.  You will also be harassed by hard-boiled police detectives who will connect you to a series of random murders that they have no evidence whatsoever to connect you with, other than the fact that you know all the victims.

I look forward to applying this newfound knowledge in my everyday life...

Friend Request is a cyber-thriller about popular college student Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey), who at the start of the film has over 800 friends on Facebook, a hunky boyfriend in Med School named Tyler (William Moseley), two best girlfriends (Brit Morgan and Brooke Markham), and leads a generally privileged life of parties and good times.  That all changes when she accepts the on line Friend Request of Marina (Liesl Ahlers), the outcast on Laura's campus who hides her face under a hood, and has 0 friends on Facebook when she sends her request to Laura.  Everyone thinks it's weird that she has no friends at all.  So do I.  The reason the movie gives is that everybody thinks Marina is weird because she draws Gothic art and likes to make short and dark animated cartoons.  In certain social circles, these talents would no doubt make Marina extremely popular.  She's just hanging out with the wrong crowd.

Regardless, Marina begins cyber stalking Laura, sending her texts and messages at all hours of the day and night, and stopping her in the halls or the cafeteria.  The breaking point comes when Laura lies to her, saying she's not having a birthday party, and is just going to have a quiet dinner with Tyler.  Of course, she has a huge get together with all of her family and friends, and very stupidly posts photos of the party while it is happening on her page, so Marina instantly knows that she lied.  Marina is so enraged, she takes her own life and posts a video of it on the Internet.  Somehow, this video shows up on Laura's page, and cannot be removed.  Laura immediately starts losing friends for this (the movie provides us with a counter that occasionally pops up now and then to show Laura's Friends List decreasing), and somehow the supposedly dead Marina keeps on posting graphic and dark videos on Laura's account.  Not long after that, Laura's close friends and family members start dying in mysterious ways, with videos of their murders showing up on Laura's Facebook page shortly after.

So, Marina is somehow killing Laura's friends and posting things on the Internet from beyond the grave.  The police can't find Marina's body, and since Laura knows all the victims, they immediately suspect her for reasons the movie is not too clear on.  To prove her innocence, Laura teams up with hacker friend Kobe (Connor Paolo), and starts trying to dig into Marina's past to find out about her background and how she could be accomplishing this.  The answers we learn are disappointingly a mishmash of various horror cliches about tragic backgrounds.  We have an evil cult, a mother who was almost burned alive, and flashbacks that depict poor Marina as a child supposedly being raped by a pair of young boys who used to bully her.  What does all of this serve?  As far as I can tell, just some creepy imagery that horror fans have probably seen one too many times before.  In particular, the stuff about the rape is completely unnecessary.

This is one of the reasons why Friend Request has received an R-rating.  Other reasons include a few gruesome death scenes for some of Laura's friends, and a couple scattered "F-Bombs".  This baffles me, as the film is obviously aimed at the teenage horror crowd who would flock to a movie like this.  This is clearly not a horror film for adults to begin with, so why go so far with the violent images that you end up blocking your target audience?  This isn't exactly a hard horror film to begin with, and feels pretty watered down in just about every way.  All of the scares are of the perfunctory "jump scare" variety.  But, at least Friend Request is the kind of movie that lets you know what kind it is early on.  We get our first jump scare less than five minutes in.

Truth in criticism: There is one brief moment in the film that is effectively creepy.  It occurs when one of Laura's friend is sitting at a computer, and when he turns his head, we can see that his reflection in the monitor is still staring back at him.  This moment, which lasts about four seconds, is scarier than the rest of the film's 92 minutes.

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Tulip Fever

Originally filmed back in 2014, and initially planned as an Oscar contender, Tulip Fever is finally just now limping into theaters after years of various broken release dates, and an overall sense that the studio was trying to cover the stench of this once highly-regarded project when they refused to screen it for critics.  This is a lifeless, drab and contrived costume drama that ranges from lurid melodrama to moments of inappropriate comedy, and ultimately sinks despite the presence of a strong cast. 

I have not read Deborah Moggach's original novel that inspired the film, but just by watching it, I can tell that this adaptation more or less covers the important plot moments, but gives them no resonance or meaning.  The screenplay reads almost as if the writers simply looked at the book's plot synopsis on Wikipedia, and then used it as their inspiration.  This is surprising, considering that Moggach herself is credited as one of the screenwriters.  However, considering how long the movie has been sitting on the shelf, and the various edits it went through in order to make it semi-watchable, you have to wonder how much of her work actually survived the process.  Whatever the case, all the passion and life has been drained from what could have easily been an intriguing historical drama.

The title refers to a point in history during 1636 to 1637 when in Amsterdam, tulips were discovered, and the demand for these new flowers became so high that people were paying astronomical prices for them.  Many scenes occur in an auction house that somewhat resembles the modern day stock market, where people wildly bid and pay hefty wages for the rights to own the flowers.  However, much of this occurs in the background throughout the movie, so it never quite has the prominence that you would expect, given that the title is derived from this element of the story.  Instead, the main plot focuses on a love triangle that would feel right at home in any daytime soap opera, or perhaps a cheap paperback romance novel. 

The plot kicks off with a former orphan named Sophia (Alicia Vikander), and her forbidden love affair with a young painter named Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan, who is not having a very good 2017, having also appeared in bombs such as A Cure for Wellness and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets).  Sophia was once penniless, but now lives a life of luxury as the second wife to businessman Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz).  Her main purpose in the marriage is to give Cornelis a child.  Although her husband is kind to her and gives her everything she desires, Sophia feels no love toward him.  She is also unable to conceive a child, so she feels trapped in her dreary existence.  The audience shares in her misery, since many of the scenes between Vikander and Waltz (who, it must be said, is doing his best with this lifeless material) generates no emotion whatsoever.

The young artist Jan Van Loos is plucked from obscurity in order to conceive a portrait of the couple, and that is when the trouble begins.  It is love at first sight for both Sophia and Jan, and before you know it, she's sneaking out at all hours in order to have sexual flings with the painter.  This is interspersed with a subplot concerning Cornelis' maid, Maria (Holliday Grainger), who is also carrying on her own secret affair with the handsome young fishmonger William (Jack O'Connell).  All these secrets and sleeping around eventually catch up with our characters, and creates a complicated scenario where everyone involved will have their lives changed and destroyed.  However, it all unfurls at such a turgid pace, the audience simply remains detached during the entire experience.

Tulip Fever is filled with multiple plots vying for attention, yet none of them are interesting.  The movie tries to be a history lesson as well as a steamy and lurid love affair story, but this requires severe tonal shifts that the movie is incapable of pulling off.  Stranger still, there are moments that seem to be aiming for comedy that feel completely out of place.  Most inappropriate is the bizarre appearance of Zach Galifianakis as a good friend of the young painter, whose every attempt to lighten up the material crashes with a thud so loud, it can probably be heard in the next cinema over.  Judi Dench also turns up in a small role as an abbess, and while she delivers as usual, her character has so little to do with anything that it never builds to anything interesting.  You get the sense that Dench is here solely to lend what the filmmakers knew was a trouble production a touch of dignity.

But the film's ultimate downfall is that we simply are uninvolved with the complex romantic love story that it is trying to spin.  You can easily pin the blame on the witless screenplay that is often as dry as a bone in both its dialogue and drama, but it's even easier to point at the lifeless performances as being unable to generate any emotion or sympathy for these people.  The usually strong and always interesting Alicia Vikander seems awkward here, and plays Sophia not as a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, but rather as somebody who has never felt love before in her life, and is trying to sort out her feelings.  Likewise, DeHaan creates no interest in his performance as the painter, and is able to create little to no romantic chemistry with Vikander.  This is what sinks everything.  If we don't buy the central scandalous romance, we don't buy everything else.  Director Justin Chadwick simply finds no reason for us to connect with the story or the people inhabiting it.

The only bright spots in Tulip Fever is the production design, which is often quite handsome, and the music score provided by Danny Elfman.  They hint at what the film was supposed to be, before it became a dirty little secret that the studio tried to keep hidden by pushing it out in limited release over Labor Day Weekend, one of the slowest movie weekends of the year.  It's obvious that there were grand ambitions here, but they were brought down by an overall leaden script and the lifeless or just wrong performances.  Instead of the awards and critical acclaim that the studio had in their heads when they embarked on this, the movie is likely to be greeted with empty cinemas and a quick trip to DVD.

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Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Lego Ninjago Movie

The Lego Ninjago Movie is fine enough for what it is, but it pales in comparison to 2014's original Lego Movie, or even The Lego Batman Movie from just seven months ago.  It feels like Warner Bros. is stretching this franchise a bit too thin here.  There are some laughs to be sure, and the voice acting is fine, but it holds none of the imagination that we expect, and is all around pretty standard for a kids movie.

I think the problem here is that the film forces itself into a very limited and narrow scope.  The previous Lego Movies covered a broad range of subjects and pop culture parody.  Even the Batman film managed to extend beyond the Universe of its subject matter, and give us some hilarious cameos and parodies of outside franchises.  The Ninjago Movie is disappointingly small in this regard.  The movie is based specifically on a line of toys and action figures that have inspired a TV cartoon that I have never seen, but from what I hear, this movie shares little in common with.  Because the filmmakers (which include 3 directors, and a grand total of 9 different writers and story people) choose to limit themselves solely to one universe, they limit their own potential.  The movie lacks the element of surprise of the previous two Lego features.  And since the movie is basically focused solely on its target audience (i.e. the kids who know and enjoy the toys), this movie gives adult animation fans less to enjoy, other than a rare funny throwaway line.

The movie follows a group of teenagers who are secretly heroic ninjas that, like the Power Rangers, wear colored uniforms that are pretty much their sole distinguishing trait.  Well, that and they have different elemental powers.  One can control fire, another ice, yet another earth and rocks, one can call down lightning...You get the idea.  None of the ninjas are given any sort of personality or real defining qualities, save for the fact that one of them is a robot who is trying to pass himself off as a teenage boy. (The movie does absolutely nothing with this idea.) The only one who gets a real background and story arc is the Green Ninja, Lloyd (voice by Dave Franco).  Lloyd may be a superhero whenever trouble strikes the city of Ninjago, but in his real life everyday persona, he's treated as an outcast due to one simple reason - His father (who left his mom and him behind when Lloyd was just a baby) just so happens to be the evil warlord who constantly tries to take over the city everyday, and whom he has to battle with as the Green Ninja.

That would be Garmadon (Justin Theroux), who is constantly plotting to take over the city from his volcano lair that rests just on the outskirts of Ninjago.  More than anything, Lloyd would like to truly get to know his father and make peace with him.  But, Garmadon doesn't seem to remember he even has a son, and whenever they do talk with each other, he mispronounces Lloyd's name. (He calls him "La-loyd", due to the two ls at the front of his name.) Lloyd and the other ninjas have been trained by the wise old Master Wu (Jackie Chan), who is Lloyd's Uncle and the brother of Garmadon.  The battle has lasted for many years, and one day, Lloyd decides that he can finally end it by stealing The Ultimate Weapon, which Master Wu keeps locked away in a chest in his dojo.  With The Ultimate Weapon in hand, Lloyd tries to use it on Garmadon to finish him once and for all.  But, the Weapon turns out to be a laser pointer, and it winds up summoning "Meow-thra", a monster that is actually a live action tabby cat, who terrorizes the Lego world by knocking over the toy buildings, and crushing the vehicles.

Now that Meow-thra is laying waste to the city, Lloyd finds himself an outcast both as a superhero, and as a regular teen.  The solution?  Master Wu leads the ninjas out into the jungle in order to find the only thing that can save Ninjago - The Ultimate, Ultimate Weapon.  Not only can it apparently stop Meow-thra, but it can also unlock our heros' true ninja powers.  Garmadon goes after the Weapon as well, thinking he can use it to conquer the city himself.  The two teams cross paths, and are eventually forced to rely on each other.  This brings Lloyd close to his father for the first time in his life, and the two must work out some complex emotions as they are required to work together.  The scenes between Lloyd and Garmadon come the closest to working, as both Franco and Theroux do some great and very funny line readings in their awkward father-son relationship.  But, just like everything else, not enough is done with it in order for the film to be a success.

The Lego Ninjago Movie is filled with a lot of potentially good ideas that often seem like they weren't fleshed out enough.  When Meow-thra was revealed to be an actual house cat who lays waste to the tiny Lego people and knocks toy planes out of the sky, I smiled.  And then I waited for the filmmakers to truly come up with something other than a cute sight gag with the idea.  They never do.  Once the ninjas and Garmadon leave the city for the jungle, we don't get to see it again until the climactic scene.  I was hoping the movie would cut back to the townspeople trying to deal with this giant rampaging kitty, and maybe come up with some clever monster movie parodies.  Surprisingly, once the action leaves the city for the jungle, the movie seems to run dry on ideas.  Yes, there's the bonding between the hero and villain, but that's not enough to carry the lengthy middle section of the film that seems devoid of ideas.  Other than an encounter with a tribal village made up of Garmadon's former disgruntled employees, nothing much happens.

Another curious thing - The movie opens and ends with a live action sequence where a lonely little boy walks into an Asian market, and meets up with a mysterious shopkeeper (Jackie Chan, again) who tells him the story about the Green Ninja in order to teach the boy to believe in himself.  The obvious question is, why?  Nothing funny or interesting happens during these live action segments, and the movie would be no better or worse without them.  Why did it need a framing device to begin with?  My only guess is that the filmmakers thought having Chan appearing in live action would help the film in some of the foreign markets. 

The Lego Ninjago Movie never offends, but at the same time, it just doesn't do much to stand out.  Yes, I laughed a few times, but nowhere near as frequently as the last two attempts to bring the Lego world to the big screen.  This is pretty much the soulless corporate product that everyone thought the original Lego Movie was going to be.  Either the creative well is starting to run dry, or the studio is now treating it as just another franchise to milk until it stops being profitable.  Both scenarios fill me with sadness.

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A Note to My Readers: Movie Pass

WRITER'S NOTE: This is the first time I have done something like endorsing a product.  I am not making any money off of this article, nor am I affiliated with the company behind Movie Pass.  I am simply writing this, because this is a product I love and I want to spread the word, because I think it can increase the amount of people who go to the movies.


Back in August, an announcement kept on popping up on my Facebook feed about something called Movie Pass, and how they had slashed their membership fee to $9.95 a month.  I had not heard of the product before then, but a lot of people seemed to be excited about it, and a number of my friends (who know how often I go to the movies) started sending me links to the announcement.  I decided to look into it, and ever since I have become a member, I have fallen in love with the product. 

Movie Pass is truly one of the better things to have happened to audiences in years if not decades, and if you go to the movies multiple times a month or even during the year, you need this product.  It's efficient, easy to use, and is almost guaranteed to save you money every time you use it. 

I have compiled a sample of questions and answers below that describe Movie Pass, how to use it, and the individual perks and potential drawbacks.  If you have any other questions, feel free to ask me in the comments below.  Or, you can go to the company's website www.moviepass.com for more information. 

Q: So, let's start with the basics.  What is Movie Pass?
Movie Pass is a program designed to get people to start going back to the theaters.  With so many ways to watch movies these days, sometimes audiences bypass the theater, and wait to watch a film on line, or on DVD. 

Movie Pass is a subscription-style membership program that can be used at just about any major theater nationwide, and is good at over 4,000 theaters.  Membership costs a simple monthly fee of $9.95.  When you sign up, you use a credit card that will be charged that amount each month as long as you are a member.  And what does that membership get you?

Basically, you can see one movie every day every month that you are a member.  By paying the monthly flat fee of $9.95, you have access to as many movies as you want, one every day.  So, for example, in the month of September, if you went to one movie a day, you could see 30 movies, and simply pay a one time fee of about $10.  You can see the movies whenever you want - Day or Night.  There are no blackout dates.  You can even go on Opening Night if you want to.  You get unlimited movies, with no commitment on your part.

Q: How does Movie Pass work?
You go to www.moviepass.com in order to sign up for the program, by giving your address and credit card information.  A week or two later, you will receive your own Movie Pass card in your mailbox.  The card is essentially a debit card, and is one of the essentials for using it.  The other essential thing you will need is the Movie Pass app, which is free to download, and is available for all iPhone and Android devices.  The Movie Pass app is also required, so don't forget to download it.

Once you have both the card and the app, you are ready to use Movie Pass.  Here's what you do.  When you arrive at the theater, you activate the app.  It will use the GPS on your phone, and give you a list of theaters near you that support Movie Pass.  You pick the theater you are currently at.  Next, it will give you a list of movies that are playing.  You scroll to find the movie you want to see, and then pick the showtime that you want to see.  Once you pick the time, the app will ask to confirm your choice.  Double check the info, and make sure that you picked the right movie and time.  Once you have confirmed this, select "Check In", and the app will tell you that you can walk up to the ticket counter.  You now have 30 minutes to pick up your ticket.

Once you have used the app, it will transfer the funds you need to your Movie Pass debit card.  You walk up to the ticket counter, and tell them the movie you want to see.  Hand them your Movie Pass card, and they will swipe it just like a traditional credit or debit card.  That's all you need to do.  The ticket will print out.  The app and the card act as your access.  As long as you have both, you can see one movie a day every day as long as you are a member.  And all you have to pay is a flat fee of $9.95 a month.

Q: How do I know if my local theater supports Movie Pass?
Go to www.moviepass.com, and scroll down to the bottom of the page.  You will see a map with a space to enter your 5-digit zip code.  Enter your personal zip code, and the site will tell you what theaters near you accept Movie Pass.  If you find your nearest or favorite theater on the list, you can use it there.

Q: Can I use Movie Pass to get my whole family, or friends, or date into the movie?
Movie Pass is only good for the member, and only works for them.  If a friend or your date wants to use the program, they will need their own personal card and their own personal app.  A personal card cannot be shared among multiple people.  Also, you must be at least 18 years of age to use Movie Pass, so you cannot sign up your kids for the program to help them get in.

Q: Are there any restrictions?
The main restriction is that Movie Pass is only good for 2D movies.  You cannot use it in order to get into specialty films, such as 3D or IMAX movies.  It also cannot be used at Fathom Events, DBOX, ETX/RPX, film festival screenings, etc.

Q: What happens if I get to the theater, and the app is not working?
I personally have not had this problem, but I have heard of people experiencing this.  Due to the $9.95 monthly promotion, membership to Movie Pass has grown incredibly, and the company is kind of scrambling to keep up with the demand.  There have also been crashes and issues with using Movie Pass.  If you experience any issues, the company does have an excellent customer service that you can contact either through text, e-mail, or live chat.  I have heard great things about the customer service they provide, and they will go out of their way to either fix the issue, or refund you.  This is a small company, and they are working to improve their service.  Like I said, I have been using this for almost a month, and I have not experienced any issues personally.  But, that doesn't mean it won't ever happen.  The company also provides a helpful FAQ on their site that can help you with issues that can be found at https://moviepass.zendesk.com/hc/en-us.

Q: Can I purchase Advance Tickets with Movie Pass?
Movie Pass can only be used on the day you want to see the movie, so you cannot purchase tickets weeks or months in advance with it.  You can, however, purchase tickets for later the same day.  For example, if you wanted to see a movie at night and you wanted to avoid the rush, you can go to the theater in the afternoon when it is less crowded, and use Movie Pass to purchase your ticket for that evening right then and there.

Q: What if I want to cancel my membership?
You can cancel at any time, and not pay any penalty or fee.  This is not like a magazine subscription, where you have to wait a year or so for your membership to run out.

Q: What happens if my local theater raises their price for tickets?
This will not matter.  You will still pay the flat monthly fee of $9.95.

Q: Is membership always going to be $9.95 a month?
I have a hunch that this current pricing is an enticement to get people to sign up for the program.  I am expecting that sometime next year, they will announce a new monthly membership fee.  The reason why I say this is because people who were members before the $9.95 deal was announced received an e-mail saying that the price would be good for the next year.  So, I don't think it will stay at this price for long.  If and when the price goes up, you can decide if membership is still worth it, based on how many movies you see or plan to see.  If it doesn't work out, you can always cancel without any penalty or fee, as mentioned above.

Q: Can I use Movie Pass at the Concession Stand?
Sadly, no.  Movie Pass is good only for tickets.  After all, the Concession Stand is where the theater makes all of their money.

Hopefully this gives you enough information to let you know if Movie Pass will work for you or not.  If you have any additional questions, feel free to ask in the comments, or you can simply use the company's FAQ page at https://moviepass.zendesk.com/hc/en-us

I personally have been extremely happy since I signed up almost a month ago, and it has already proven to be a huge savings for me.   If you're someone who goes to multiple movies a month or during the years, this card is almost essential.  It's fast, easy to use, and can save you a lot of money. 

Thanks for taking the time to read all of this.  Hopefully you will look into Movie Pass, and see if it is right for you.  I will be back soon with reviews of The Lego Ninjago Movie, Tulip Fever and Friend Request over the weekend, so I hope you will join me then.

Have a great weekend, everyone!


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Friday, September 22, 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Kingsman: The Golden Circle more or less regurgitates the same premise as 2015's Kingsman: The Secret Service.  The whole idea of the first film was that dapper English gents could save the world with manners and respect, while all the while engaging in some ridiculous and over the top violence that was too comedic to be offensive.  I liked the original quite a lot, but found much less enthusiasm for the sequel.  It exists not to continue with the story, but only because the first movie raked in some big dough at the box office.

I suspect the first movie was a hit because it was surprising and new to audiences.  This time around, we know exactly what to expect.  In the original, Taron Egerton played Eggsy, a tough British street kid who got roped into the Kingsman Service, a top secret British agency who battle evil all over the world, all the while disguising their operation as an upscale tailor shop.  His mentor was Harry (Colin Firth), who taught him everything he needed to know about manners, proper etiquette and kicking butt when the time arose.  Now, Eggsy is an experienced agent, going on his own adventures.  In the film's opening scene, he is attacked by an old enemy, and it leads to a car chase that is so heavy on the CG special effects, it never once looks real.  We're not watching the sequence unfold, we're simply looking at the obvious and sometimes cartoon-level effects.  The sequence would have the same level of intensity if it were Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd duking it out with each other. 

In his efforts to make this movie bigger, more elaborate and more over the top than the first, co-writer and director Matthew Vaughn has more or less given us overkill in cinematic form.  The action is far too extreme, and while the jokes are broader, they simply do not hit like before.  The special effects and sets do everything they can to distract us from the plot, cast and characters, to the point that the movie resembles a long ride to nowhere in particular.  And given that the movie has the bloated running time of nearly two and a half hours, it's an extremely long ride to nowhere in particular.  Despite the non-stop action and CG-assisted stunts, time passes slowly when you're watching this, to the point that there were a couple times that I thought my watch had stopped.  How desperate is this movie to distract us from the fact that it's basically giving us nothing?  It throws in a celebrity cameo for Sir Elton John just so it can have a celebrity cameo.

The plot: The Kingsman Headquarters has been destroyed, and all of the agents are killed except for Eggsy and his chief handler, Merlin (Mark Strong).  The evil mind behind this act is a drug kingpin named Poppy (Julianne Moore), who looks and talks like a sitcom mom, and has such a strong love for 1950s nostalgia, she has made her entire evil fortress in the middle of the Cambodian Jungle in the form of a quaint 1950s neighborhood which she calls Poppy Land.  She's wiped out the Kingsman as the first step in her plan to legalize all illegal drugs that she traffics.  Her ultimate goal is to put a virus in her drugs that will turn all recreational users of her products into diseased carriers who will uncontrollably start dancing, before they go comatose and die.  She's developed an antidote and wants to blackmail the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) into legalizing her drugs.  Poppy has all of her henchmen dress up like 50s-era milkmen and gas station attendees, and surrounds herself with robot guard dogs.

Why, you may ask?  I wish I could tell you.  I honestly have no idea what Vaughn is going for with this character.  Yes, she's kind of a kooky villain, but there's absolutely nothing to her.  We learn nothing of her, her possible history with the Kingsman that would have led to her trying to kill them all, or even much about her overall goals.  We don't even understand why she is so obsessed with 50s pop culture, or why she has Elton John chained to a piano with a shock collar, and forces him to play for her.  As a villain, she's a total non-entity.  It would seem that Moore, one of our most talented actresses, didn't even have a grasp on her, as she fails to give the slightest bit of interest to her performance.  I was about to say that this could be a possible record low point in her career, but then I remembered her appearance in the 2000 Saturday Night Live film spin off, The Ladies Man.  Regardless, it's still a terrible performance, but at least it's understandable, since it's a terrible character.

In order to combat Poppy and her henchmen, Eggsy and Merlin turn to the American division of the Kingsman.  They're called The Statesman, make their headquarters in a liquor factory, are all named after drinks, and basically all talk like Southern-Fried stereotypes that are about as authentic as Foghorn Leghorn.  They're led by good ol' boy Champ (Jeff Bridges, slurring his words as usual), and the agents include Ginger Ale (Halle Berry), Tequila (Channing Tatum) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), who comes armed with an electric cowboy lasso that can cut people in two.  Many of these characters are introduced, and then go out of their way to contribute nothing to the film.  Channing Tatum in particular gets a big introduction scene, but then spends the rest of his screen time unconscious.  Halle Berry mostly sits in front of a computer in all of her scenes.  As for Bridges, he simply sits behind a desk, and looks like he is simply waiting for his scene to end.  Why go out of your way to introduce these characters and cast expensive actors if you're not even going to use them?

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is as bad as the last Kingsman movie was good.  Yes, the original had its flaws, but it was a lot of fun and had some memorable characters and action sequences.  Here, everything has been turned up and intensified to such an extreme that everything that made the first film work gets lost in the chaos.  Yes, the movie is well made for the most part, but then how could it not be with some of the talent it managed to sucker into appearing in it?  And when you consider how little these talented actors are given to do by the script, it resembles a giant tease.  The first movie had a kind of devilish glee behind it, like the actors knew that it was ridiculous, but they were having a blast anyway.  In the sequel, the returning actors look like they're being swallowed up by the overblown tone, while the new cast members seem to be wondering what they're doing here.

I wish I could say that there was one bright spot here.  A performance that stood out, or maybe a moment that made me laugh.  As the movie rapidly leaves my brain mere hours after my screening got out, all I can remember is feeling annoyed and angry while I was watching it.  There's no excuse to spend almost two and a half hours being annoyed or angry.  Maybe diehard fans of the first will get something here, but it will be a diluted sense of entertainment compared to the original.

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

American Assassin

The opening scene of American Assassin depicts a happy young couple frolicking at a beach resort in Spain.  Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) has just proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Katrina (Charlotte Vega), and they seem destined for wedded bliss.  However, anyone who thinks that a movie with a title like the one this one has is going to feature the couple living Happily Ever After is fooling themselves.  Moments later, terrorists storm the resort, and Katrina is killed.

This fuels Mitch's quest for revenge, and a year and a half later, we find that he grown a shaggy head of hair and a beard (because everybody in the movies who is devoting their life to revenge always lets their personal grooming lapse), and has trained himself in the martial arts and guns to the point that he is now a one-man weapon.  He manages to infiltrate the terrorist cell that attacked the resort that day, and when he finally gets face to face with the man who killed his fiance, the CIA shows up and guns down all the extremists before he can.  It turns out the CIA has been following him and his actions to infiltrate the terrorists, and want to offer him a job.  Agent Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) is impressed enough by his skills, and wants him to join an elite covert group.  But in order to do so, Mitch must first pass the rigorous program set up by an ex-Navy SEAL named Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton, who as expected, delivers the best performance in the film).

American Assassin more or less follows a predetermined path set by many action thrillers just like it, and never once surprises or strays from the expected course.  It's the kind of movie where you could walk out after the first half hour or so, and then amaze your friends who stayed behind by almost correctly guessing every plot development that came afterward.  The cocky Mitch and the stern Stan start out hating each other, and while they never grow friendly, they do develop a begrudging respect for their ways.  Mitch must learn to not use his anger and past pain if he wants to be successful in the line of duty.  There's a trusted agent on the team who turns out to have a secret, and has another agenda.  Finally, the villain (Taylor Kitsch) is a former agent and student of Stan's who has gone rogue, knows all of his former mentor's secrets, and is plotting to put together a nuclear bomb. 

There's nothing wrong with anything here, it simply feels rehashed from beginning to end.  And were it not for some big names in the cast that the movie somehow managed to draw in, this probably would be right at home going direct to DVD.  The action is routine throughout, with a lot of fights depicted with close ups and a camera that just can't sit still.  But what really kills the interest is that a lot of the cast simply can't muster much energy, almost as if they know they're stuck in a retread.  Keaton is the only one who gets to display any life as the grizzled trainer who is not afraid to stick a gun his mouth, and laughs when he is being tortured by having his fingernails torn out.  It's the kind of dark, off-kilter, tough guy role that Keaton can excel at when needed, and frankly, I started to wish that he was the main character instead of the predictable Rapp.

This is also a very dark and dour movie, with no moments of levity or humor.  Movies like John Wick and its sequel have proven that even movies about a total badass can poke fun at itself occasionally, and still be awesome.  A sense of humor could have done wonders here.  In fact, the one time I did laugh was unintentional, and it didn't dawn on me until much later.  At one point in the film, the heroes kidnap a physicist who has been hired by the villain to help build the nuclear bomb.  They tie him up naked, and then stuff him in the trunk of a car.  Then, they douse him with gasoline, and threaten him with a lighted cigarette until he talks.  He gives them some information, but Keaton decides to close the trunk, and keep him locked up in there.  We never see or hear from the physicist after that, so for all we know, he's still tied up and waiting to be released back there when the movie is over.

American Assassin obviously wants to be a throwback to the more simplistic action thrillers of the 80s and 90s.  There's another movie out there that aims to do the same called The Hitman's Bodyguard.  It's not a great movie, but it represents its genre much better, and is a lot more fun than this in just about every regard.  This movie is competently made, but you just have to wonder what the point of it was when it's all over.

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Friday, September 15, 2017

Mother!

As a movie, Mother! defies description, and therefore it defies a conventional review.  It's plot cannot really be summed up in a synopsis that runs a paragraph or two.  It's a movie that seems to be designed to enthrall certain audiences, and baffle others.  It's challenging, disturbing, and kind of beautiful at times.  It's also very maddening, and not all of it works as well as it should.  But, I found myself embracing it, flaws and all.  Your mileage may vary.

If I must sum up the experience of watching the film, it would be akin to watching a cinematic interpretation of somebody's nightmare.  The kind of nightmare where something sinister is going on, and everybody seems to be either in on it or know something.  The only thing is, you don't know, and nobody's willing to share any information.  Everybody acts like things are normal, however, there is something unsettling about what's going on, even when things seem to be normal.  If there is one thing this movie succeeds at, it's putting us in the shoes of its heroine, a young wife played by Jennifer Lawrence.  We share her confusion and sense of isolation as events unfold.  Like all the characters in the film, she does not have a given name.  She has moved into a large home located in the middle of a vast field with her husband, an older gentleman played by Javier Bardem.  He is credited simply as "Him", and is a writer and a poet suffering writer's block.

The couple have spent a good amount of time fixing up the house they are living in, with the wife doing most of the work, while her husband struggles with what to write next.  There are hints of marital struggle, mostly surrounding the hopes of her becoming pregnant soon.  Then one day, an unnamed man (Ed Harris) shows up at the door rather suddenly.  He claims to be a doctor, but it soon turns out that he is a fan of the husband's poetry.  His hacking cough seems to hint that he is ill, yet he is addicted to cigarettes.  The husband graciously invites the man to stay with them in their home, and the heroine is confused by this act of generosity.  Not only do they not know this man, but this is also an affront to her personal space.  This increasing sense of encroachment and loss of privacy will become a heavy theme as the film goes on.

Another visitor, a woman and the wife of the Harris character (Michelle Pfeiffer), turns up the very next day, just as unexpectedly as her husband arrived.  She too is welcomed into the home by the husband.  The mystery woman seems very standoffish toward the wife, probing, almost judgemental at times, even though there obviously should be no reason for her to be.  She is a hard drinker, but it does not explain why she acts so cold whenever the wife is around.  From this point on, I will have to tread carefully.  There are more unexpected visitors, and somebody dies within the home.  The wife is mortified, but the husband seems strangely calm the entire time, simply stating that they must be kind to their "guests".  As the wife tries to grapple with everything going on around her, she is haunted by visions, both concerning herself, and seemingly something about the house.

At its most basic level, Mother! could be described as a sort of home invasion thriller, but that's not really doing it justice.  After all, the husband invites these people in with open arms, even though he claims not to know who they are.  He is unflinchingly generous, even in the face of the sometimes rude or even violent behavior of the people who keep on descending upon the home for reasons unknown to the wife, and to us the audience.  More and more people begin to invite themselves into the home, and immediately start acting like the wife does not exist.  They trounce through the rooms without any care, they begin remodeling the house and painting the walls to their own design, and they completely destroy the sense of privacy the home once had.  And the entire time, nobody can understand why the wife is upset about this, nor do they sense her paranoia.

What it all leads up to, I dare not reveal, but I will say that the final half hour is simultaneously the most fascinating and frustrating time I've had at the movies in quite a while.  I get what writer-director Darren Aronofsky is going with, and after much meditation on the final scenes, I have a notion as to what he is trying to say.  But it will take a lot of investment for a lot of audiences, I think.  Anyone who insists on instant gratification with their movies would do better to look somewhere else.  Even those who admired the film, such as myself, will probably have to think long and hard as to why exactly.  It's easy to praise the film in a technical sense.  It's well acted, includes some wonderful camera work that creates a genuine sense of dread with its tight corners and close ups, and is constantly intriguing.  Does the film get to be a bit much at times?  Undoubtedly.  By the end, there is so much going on all at once, you feel like you're watching a train wreck.  But I was still enthralled by what I was watching.  Yes, it was a mess, but it was one that had captivated me.

The hard question to answer is how do I feel about this film?  I feel that Aronofsky has made an ambitious movie about a variety of topics, such as invasion of privacy, religion, and the allure of quick fame, as well as the fanatical fandom that can come with that quick fame.  It doesn't always work, and there are moments here that seem to be weird simply for the sake of being weird.  But, at the same time, I have to admit that this is a movie I will not soon forget.  There are powerful images, some great ideas, and I was certainly always captivated.  I was also completely unnerved in certain moments.  This is a movie where you feel like something sinister is always happening, but you don't know what exactly.  A lot of this has to do with the performances of Bardem, Harris and Pfeiffer, who seem to all be in on some kind of secret that they refuse to let anyone outside of their group in on.

Mother! is not the result of the filmmaker at his best ability, but it is suitably intriguing, and honestly, it's certainly unlike any movie you've likely to have seen, or will see again.  It's ominous, challenging, beautiful, and kind of wickedly funny in certain moments.  It also can be an alienating and isolating experience.  It's creepy, uncomfortable and unhinged.  It also probably tries to fit too much into one movie at times.  It's all this, and whatever your final judgement ends up being, I doubt you will forget watching it anytime soon.

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