Reel Opinions

Monday, May 30, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse Mini Review

Happy Memorial Day, one and all!  I've kind of fallen behind, so I thought I would write a quick review for X-Men: Apocalypse, since it will be a busy week coming up for me.

This is a crowded, stuffed, and fairly standard superhero movie, but there's also a sense that franchise director Bryan Singer knows what he's doing, and the film is entertaining for what it is.  It's as fun as always to see the wide variety of Mutants fighting it out with their wise variety of powers.  This time, however, the filmmakers may have gone just a bit overboard, as there are way too many characters to keep track of.  Not so hard if you've followed the franchise and the comics, but I can see how it may seem like too much if you're not too familiar.  After Captain America: Civil War and now this, I'm starting to think that maybe Marvel films are getting a bit too crowded for their own good.  Almost makes you long for the early Spider-Man films, where there was just one hero and villain to keep track of.

The plot isn't anything groundbreaking.  Professor Xavier (James Mcavoy) and his team of heroic X-Men must once again save the world from danger.  This time, the danger comes from Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), an ancient Mutant from early Egyptian history, who was seen as a god back in the day.  Now he's been awakened from a few thousand years slumber, and is assembling an army of fellow Mutants to conquer mankind.  Some of the members of Apocalypse's forces will seem familiar to fans of the series, as this film is set earlier in the time line of the overall franchise, and shows how they got involved.  All of this leads to a lot of world-shattering battles that is well done, but seem a bit overpowering as they drag on.  The movie is nearly two and a half hours long, and could have used some editing.  There's also a subplot for returning antihero Magneto (Michael Fassbender), about how he is trying to lead a normal and peaceful life, but circumstances keep on getting in the way and turning him to violence.  This is potentially interesting, and Fassbender gets some good moments playing the conflicted nature of the character.  Still, his plot and character does get kind of get drowned out by all the special effects and action.

Now, I don't want to stress only the negatives, as X-Men: Apocalypse is an entertaining film, and I enjoyed catching up with the characters.  It simply cannot be ignored that the franchise may be getting too crowded and overstuffed for its own good.  Should there be another sequel (and there no doubt will be), hopefully they can at least focus a bit more on just a small handful of characters, instead of trying to squeeze in as many characters and references to the comic in order to make the fans in the audience happy.  The movie made me smile a number of times, and I had fun.  But in the back of my mind, I couldn't help but think there was just too much going on here.

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Friday, May 27, 2016

Alice Through the Looking Glass

Alice Through the Looking Glass is a movie that's been made with a great amount of care, but it simply is not very memorable.  It works well enough while you are watching it, is briskly-paced, and certainly never dull.  But as soon as it's over, you'll be hard pressed to remember much about it.  However, I felt the same way about 2010's Alice in Wonderland, and that movie went on to gross over a billion dollars at the worldwide box office.  Perhaps history will repeat itself, but I somehow doubt it.

I will say this, it is a beautiful film filled with inventive images.  Since original director Tim Burton is busy with another film, James Bobin (Muppets: Most Wanted) has stepped in, and given Wonderland a bright, vibrant and sharp look.  I doubt I will be able to recant much of the plot by the end of the summer, but I am likely to still remember some random images, such as young Alice (Mia Wasikowska, back again) dangling from the hands of a giant clock.  Most of the original cast has returned as well, and at the very least, nobody seems to be cashing a paycheck here.  The problem with the film lies solely with the screenplay by returning screenwriter Linda Woolverton.  She has essentially given us a thrill ride that is long on spectacle, but short on storytelling and common sense.  The plot literally sends Alice rocketing back and forth through time, seemingly at a whim.  And why is she doing this?  So that the Mad Hatter (once more played by Johnny Depp) and the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter, back for more) can resolve their family issues, and become better people.  So the movie is ultimately a bizarre cross between a summer event, and a therapy session.

As we rejoin Alice, she has fulfilled her promise of adventure that she made at the end of the last movie by becoming a sea captain, facing off against pirates as she makes her way back home to London in the film's rather bloated and pointless opening action sequence.  Once back on land, she is informed by her mother (Lindsay Duncan) that the arrogant fop Hamish (Leo Bill) will take away her ship (which once belonged to her late father) in order for the family to keep their family home.  Alice is distraught over the notion of there being no more adventures, but is then lured to a magical portal through a mirror that leads her back to Wonderland, which needs her help once again.  It turns out the Mad Hatter has fallen into a deep depression.  His family seemingly perished a long time ago, but he has found evidence that they might still be alive.  However, no one believes him, not even Alice.  This somehow causes the Hatter to fall into a sickly and near-death state.  The White Queen (Anne Hathaway) informs Alice that the only way to save the Hatter's life is to travel back in time, and find out the truth about his family and what happened.

To make this journey through time, Alice must sneak into a castle ruled over by Time itself, who in this movie is played by Sacha Baron Cohen as somewhat of an aristocratic buffoon who hangs around with tiny little steam powered comic relief robots.  Alice does manage to swipe an object called the Chronosphere, which allows her to rocket to any point in history she chooses.  She'll whisk about to different points in the Hatter's life, finding out about his relationship with his family, particularly his estranged father (Rhys Ifans), who never truly accepted his son.  Eventually, she will also try to look into the past of the Red Queen, and find out what led to her cruel ways, and her eventual falling out with her sister, the White Queen.  All this flying about to different time periods, and having Alice jumping back and forth between 19th Century England and Wonderland certainly sounds manic, and while the movie does have a certain level of silly energy, it's never as frantic or as imaginative as it needs to be.

That's because Alice Through the Looking Glass is never quite as grand as it should be.  For all of its talk about time travel, all we really get to see are the personal sad childhoods of two key characters.  If the film's look is full of visual invention, then the script and storytelling are sadly mundane.  At times, it seems like the fantastic images are really just there to distract us from the fact that there's nothing all that sensational actually going on.  This led to a strange disconnect for me with the movie.  I was interested and invested in the visuals and the performances, but I really just found it hard to care about what was going on.  It doesn't help that most of the supporting cast (and even some of the lead characters, such as the Hatter) are given little to do.  Characters like the Cheshire Cat and the Blue Caterpillar (voiced by the late Alan Rickman) are essentially given cameos, and only pop up because they were in the first film.  Otherwise, they really have nothing to do with anything, as do a lot of the returning characters.  Characters like the White Rabbit, as well as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, mainly are stuck in the background and made to look concerned at what's going on around them.

And yet, I can't really get too upset, mainly because I didn't think the first movie was all that great, and this never comes across as a betrayal of what came before.  Just like before, there are some enjoyable elements.  I particularly enjoyed Wasikowska's strong-headed portrayal of Alice.  She makes for an engaging heroine, even if her dialogue isn't exactly memorable.  The cast does breathe some limited life into the script at times, and everybody seems to be doing what they can to liven up what is essentially an unnecessary sequel.  At the very least, the movie doesn't play out like it knows it is unnecessary, which is more than I can say of some sequels I have seen recently.  I think those who enjoyed the original will find enough to like here.  The question is is there enough to like here in order to recommend?  This is a watchable, but very messy movie.  It never offends, but it also never seems as sure in itself as it should be.

I do think that Alice Through the Looking Glass could have worked beautifully with a different script, one which embraced the madness that its characters claim to cherish.  This ultimately ends up being a fairly mundane movie, with interesting characters, who would be even more interesting if the movie really let go and let them be what they should be.

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Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Angry Birds Movie

Though it's clearly been made with a lot of cheer and good will, The Angry Birds Movie failed to connect with me.  Maybe it's because I'm one of the very few people who has never played the video game before, so I felt no affection toward these characters.  Or, most likely, the film's loud, pop culture-heavy humor and mindless action just did little to charm me.  I imagine kids will like it, though.  Really little kids.

As the film opens, we're introduced to Red (voice by Jason Sudeikis), who is one of the rare Angry Birds on an island populated with generally happy ones.  Funny thing, Red never really struck me as being "angry", more so sarcastic and snarky.  Red has a blowup at an innocent family while working as a birthday clown, so the island's judge (Keegan-Michael Key) sentences him to anger management.  There, he meets some of the other resident Angry Birds, including speedy Chuck (Josh Gad), a bird named Bomb (Danny McBride), who actually explodes when he is surprised or mad, and the silent Terence, who speaks only in a series of grunts and groans, kind of like Lurch in The Addams Family.  Here's another funny thing - According to the cast list, Terence's grunts were provided by Sean Penn.  Why they felt the need to hire an actor of Penn's skill to play a character who has no dialogue is a mystery, and ranks as one of the oddest moments of Celebrity Stunt Casting in recent memory.

We learn that Red has been isolated most of his life, which led to his current state.  He was teased as a kid for his unusually large eyebrows, and he lives alone on the beach on the island, far away from the rest of the town.  But Red will get the chance to be the hero at last when some strange green pigs show up on the bird island via large boats.  The leader of the pigs is the seemingly-friendly Leonard (Bill Hader), who claims that he has come to befriend the birds, as well as party and dance with them.  But Red soon learns the truth, and that the pigs are really there so that they can steal the birds' eggs, which are a delicacy to the pigs.  When no one will believe him, Red and his friends must set out and seek advice from The Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage), a legendary bird known for his heroic deeds long ago, but now lives in seclusion on top of a mountain.  When it turns out the Eagle is a crackpot and won't be of much use, Red must rally the entire island, and encourage them that they will have to get mad if they want to stop the pigs from stealing their eggs.

I think The Angry Birds Movie would have worked with a more original approach.  I can only imagine what Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the minds behind the inventive and hilarious The Lego Movie, could have done with this idea.  Instead, screenwriter Jon Vitti (who has worked on a variety of TV shows like The Simpsons and The Office) goes for a much more standard and marketable approach.  Much like the most recent uninspired CG film offerings, this movie goes for celebrity cameos, a lot of pop songs on the soundtrack, and movie references and parodies that will fly over kids' head (like a reference to The Shining that shows up late in the film), and fail to make adults laugh, because they're not that funny in the first place.  This is one of those kid's movies that feels like it has been test marketed to death in order to appeal to the widest possible audience, and only ends up feeling like a giant corporate commercial product.

Does the movie look good?  Sure.  It's bright and colorful, and some of the character designs are cute.  But there's simply nothing underneath.  There's also no real sign of wit or intelligence to the dialogue.  Instead, we get scenes like the one where Red sees a mother bird walking with her large flock of kids, and he asks her "Haven't you ever heard of bird control?".  And when the movie can't think of anything to say, it simply increases the volume, either by blasting a song on the soundtrack, or throwing in an action scene that mainly consists of a lot of explosions and characters screaming at each other.  From watching videos on line of the original video game, I can see how the film's climax could be considered an accurate cinematic recreation of it.  But it really wore on me.  After you see the first bird get launched from a slingshot into a building in order to knock it down, it doesn't get any better when you see it five or six more times after that.  Maybe that's why the original video game never grabbed my interest.

The thing is, there's not a whole lot to complain about outside of how unnecessary and corporate the while thing feels.  The voice actors are enthusiastic, and the movie looks good for a mid-budget animated film.  I also smiled at some of the background gags, such as a poster in the pig city advertising a production of Hamlet starring Kevin Bacon.  And I can't really knock it for not being faithful to the source material, because based on what I have seen and heard, it's pretty accurate.  So, maybe you have to have a fondness for the franchise to really get this one.  All I know is that as an outsider, the movie just never really clicked.  It also created no desire to download the original game when it was over.  I felt like I had seen enough to get the idea.  Still, I would like to think that if I was a devoted fan of the series before seeing the movie, I would still be put off by the noise and the dated pop culture humor.

If I had to rank The Angry Birds Movie, I would put it above recent uninspired entries like Ratchet & Clank and Norm of the North.  But it's definitely no Zootopia, and not even in the same league as April and the Extraordinary World.

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Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is yet another unnecessary, contractually obligated sequel where the original cast and creators have returned, but the inspiration has left.  Why do this?  Why tarnish the memory of a financially successful comedy that was perfectly self contained, and did not need a continuation?  True, it's not the worst unneeded sequel so far this year (that "honor" belongs to Zoolander 2), but it does the fans of the first movie no favors.

What returning director Nicholas Stoller and his team of five credited screenwriters (including himself) have done is essentially given us a gender-flipped variation on the first movie.  This time, timid married couple Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) have their peaceful existence uprooted when a wild and party-centric sorority moves into the house next to them.  This could not come at a worse time, as the couple is trying to sell their house, and they think having drunken and hard partying college girls living next door will make it hard to make the final sale.  There is a nice couple interested in buying their house, but they have 30 days to change their mind if they don't like anything about the home or the neighborhood.  The movie wastes way too much time telling us the backstory of the three college freshman girls who start the sorority.  They are Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz), Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein).  What it all boils down to is that they want to start their own off-campus sorority that is free to have parties and do drugs, since the on-campus ones are not allowed to.  Also back from the original movie is Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron), the frat boy who made life hell for Mac and Kelly last time, only now he is on their side, since he is struggling in adulthood and has nowhere to go, and the kindly couple let him stay with them.

Does any of this have a point?  Well, there is a halfhearted message about gender equality and sticking together, and there are some sappy semi-dramatic moments where Teddy has to learn to grow up and leave his hard-partying days behind him.  But is anyone going to come to a movie like this for that?  We come to a movie like Neighbors 2 for laughs!  I will freely admit that I did laugh out loud once.  The rest of the time, I sat in stone-faced silence.  The project has the markings of a film that nobody really wanted to make in the first place.  The script has been cobbled together out of what seems to be rejected gags from the original movie, and reads like it was hammered out in a single weekend.  What energy the original film did manage to create is largely absent here, and frankly, there's just this very listless vibe to the performances.   

It's obvious that this movie only exists because Neighbors made $150 million two years ago around this time.  So, what we have here essentially is a total cash grab.  The studio knows that it will sink like a stone at the box office after a week or two, but as long as it has a decent opening weekend, the sequel will have served its purpose.  This truly mystifies me.  Why waste so much money on a movie that can't possibly be good, and will only anger those who liked the first one?  Why not try to come up with some new directions for these characters to go?  And if you can't think of anything new and find yourself just rehashing ideas and gags from the original, then maybe there shouldn't be a sequel.  Everyone involved with this have made movies I have admired, and are usually better than what's on display here.  Seeing them stuck in a low-energy sequel that didn't even need to be made is the furthest thing from entertainment that I can think of.

In the past, a movie this lazy would have gone straight to video or DVD.  Now it's playing on over 3,000 screens, and has a multi-million ad campaign to back it up.  I would say it's a sign of the times in Hollywood, but frankly, studio executives have been doing this for years.  And as long as fans continue to race out opening weekend before they even question if the first movie even needed a sequel, it will keep on happening.  Sometimes you get what you deserve.

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The Nice Guys

Filmmaker Shane Black started his career by writing one of the best action buddy comedies of the 80s, the original Lethal Weapon.  So, it's only fitting that he comes full circle with The Nice Guys, creating one of the best action buddy comedies in recent years.  The movie works well both as a mystery thriller, and a raucous comedy.  It also finds an unbeatable star duo in Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, who both look like they had the time of their lives making this one. 

If you stop and think about it, the movie shouldn't work as well as it does.  It's plot is an odd mix of dark, violent 1970s noir elements set in the seedy and corrupt porno industry, and broad physical humor and comedic banter.  It's an idea that easily could have gone wrong in so many ways, and could have easily led to severe tonal shifts as the script tried to balance its two extreme elements.  But co-writer and director Black shows a lot of confidence here.  Not only is the script solid, but he knows how to blend the traits of the movie so that one does not overpower the other.  It can often be very dark and violent, yet very silly at the same time.  Very few filmmakers can pull this off.  In fact, the only other person I can think of is Quentin Tarantino.  The movie has an intriguing mystery to guide its plot, and some high-octane action, but it never once takes itself all that seriously, thanks to the odd couple chemistry of Crowe and Gosling.

Russell Crowe is Jackson Healy, a man who describes himself as a "messenger".  Basically, people pay him to rough up other people.  He does this by any means necessary, and makes sure his victims don't forget his "message" by usually leaving behind a broken arm or two.  One of his clients is a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who is being followed by a shady and slightly inept private eye named named Holland March (Ryan Gosling).  She hires Jackson to go to Holland's house, and convince him to stop following her.  But then (and I'm being vague here for the sake of the plot), it turns out that Amelia is involved in something much bigger - something involving an adult movie that has led to a lot of the people who acted in and/or made the film being dead.  With the mystery deepening, Jackson and Holland are forced to start a reluctant partnership to get to the bottom of what's going on.  The plot involves a lot of hired thugs, government officials, and a dead porn star who crashed her car right through the middle of someone's house right before she died.

As with any buddy action film, The Nice Guys succeeds or fails on the chemistry of its two lead stars, and in this case, Crowe and Gosling strike the perfect balance between being a comic odd couple, and pulling off action and stunts.  Crowe's Jackson is the straight man of the duo, while Gosling plays Holland as more of an oddball.  He frequently breaks down and goes into sobbing hysterics, is drunk most of the time (often so much so that his 13-year-old daughter has to drive him where he needs to go), and he has a tendency to get nauseous at the sight of blood.  As strong as these actors are together, the real breakout star of the film is a young actress named Angourie Rice, who plays Gosling's daughter, Holly.  Not only does she hold her own against these two veterans, but she also is a strong candidate for one of the better performances of the year.

The thing is, young Ms. Rice plays the kind of character I usually despise - the child who keeps on following the main characters around, and getting involved with the plot.  It starts out as a running gag, where Jackson and Holland keep on trying to ditch her, but she keeps on finding ways to follow them, as she wants to help.  Rice displays a certain unforced charm almost from the moment she walks on the camera.  And as the movie goes on, and she becomes more involved in the plot, she manages to get even better.  The movie handles her smartly.  She's never bratty, nor does she think she is smarter than the adults in the room.  She talks like a real kid would in the situations the movie puts her in, and she never seems like a forced or unnecessary plot device.  This is another element of the film that shouldn't work as well as it does, but Black again finds the right approach.  Even when the movie inevitably places her in danger, she remains smart and likable, and never becomes a victim.

The Nice Guys is that rare summer movie for adults that manages to be fun and doesn't dumb itself down.  It knows just how far to push the violence and the gags, so that one element doesn't overpower the other, or become too extreme that we lose interest.  Movies like this are a constant high wire act.  One little slip and the whole thing falls apart.  Fortunately, here, this is a confident and highly enjoyable entertainment.

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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Money Monster

When it comes to big, sleek Hollywood productions about corruption within the financial industry, Money Monster is definitely no The Big Short.  But don't let that stop you from seeing it.  Director Jodie Foster has made a kinetic and thrilling movie with first-rate lead performances from George Clooney and Julia Roberts.  It may be thinly plotted, but you can't help but get involved with the movie's fast-paced real time storytelling that's a lot more intense than you might expect walking in.

If The Big Short was an in-depth and entertaining look at what goes on behind the scenes behind a financial meltdown, then Foster's film focuses on the effect that meltdown has on the common working man.  Clooney strikes the perfect balance here as Lee Gates, a guy who hosts a financial show called Money Monster on TV, but really is basically a clown or comedian in a suit and tie.  He uses a lot of gimmicks on his show as he dispenses money wisdom, such as song and dance numbers, dancing girls, and improvised sketches.  He's kind of like Jim Cramer from TV's Mad Money, only with even less subtlety.  His long-suffering producer, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts, who is excellent here), only barely tolerates him, as does most of his staff.  In fact, Patty is considering leaving the show, but doesn't have the heart to tell him. 

One day during filming, a man sneaks onto the set armed with a gun and a vest of explosives, which he orders Lee Gates to put on live on camera.  This is Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell), a working stiff who put all of his meager savings into a company based on a tip Lee gave in a past episode.  Kyle has watched his investment go belly up due to a "glitch" in the computer system that was managing his money.  Now he wants revenge, not just on the guy who gave him the advice in the first place, but also on the man behind the company (Dominic West), whom no one can seem to find at the moment.  Kyle doesn't buy the story of a computer glitch, and thinks that there is a deeper corruption going on, and that the CEO of the company he invested in either knows about it, or is behind his money disappearing.  Kyle is convinced the financial system is rigged, and is going to use the live hostage situation to prove it.

The approach that Foster and her screenwriters take to telling the story is that of a real-time nail-biting thriller.  As the situation intensifies, we can see everyone struggling for control of the situation, even though nobody truly is when you sit and think about it.  Kyle seems to be having an inner battle with himself.  He knows he is right, but he has very little confidence in himself, and doesn't even seem to know if he can even go through with what he has started.  Things get even harder for him when the police track down his pregnant girlfriend, and have her lambast him live on the air through a comm link.  Lee Gates is essentially an entertainer dispensing empty financial wisdom (a role Clooney has a ball playing), and when faced with his life and death situation, he tries to talk his way out of it.  After all, talking is what he does on his show all the time.  But when Kyle won't listen, he is forced to be serious for perhaps the first time in his life, and begins to even sympathize with Kyle as he learns more about the situation, and the cover up that has occurred.

As for Patty, she is forced to be the calm of the storm brewing around her.  She dispenses words and advice to Lee through an earpiece, and does her best to keep the situation under control.  She is obviously frayed by the whole situation as it unfolds, but she knows she has to stay calm, and Roberts does a fantastic job in portraying these qualities.  It's a nice recovery after Roberts appeared in the miserable Mother's Day just two weeks ago.  It is the three lead performances that makes Money Monster so compelling to watch.  The script suffers somewhat from a lack of insight into the characters, and the way the situation ends probably could never happen in real life.  But we buy it because these actors make it convincing, and Foster's direction never lets up on the intensity for a second.  It's the kind of movie that is flawed, but still grabs you and refuses to let go while you are watching it.  I was personally completely invested, no matter how far-fetched certain elements seemed.

Besides, Money Monster doesn't want to be the blow off the lid kind of film like The Big Short was.  It wants to be an entertaining and intense action thriller, and at that, the movie is a success.  It's also a lot of fun, and is not afraid to have a sense of humor about itself from time to time.  Given the talent both on and off the camera, this movie is probably not as great as it could have been, but it's still a worthy effort and is definitely worth watching.

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Friday, May 13, 2016

The Darkness

One has to wonder what The Darkness is doing being released just as the summer movie season is kicking off.  If ever there was a movie that deserved to be sentenced to the cinematic dumping grounds of January or Labor Day Weekend, it's this one.  Here is a supernatural thriller that is about as fresh and appealing as five-year-old cheese that's been forced to sit in the desert sun the entire time.  It's a lame collection of the most elementary scares that will be hard pressed to get the slightest rise out of even the most timid of audience members.

Like a lot of recent haunted house movies, things kick off by introducing us to a seemingly happy family who have a lot of dark secrets.  Meet the Taylors.  Father Peter (Kevin Bacon) is a workaholic architect, with a past of infidelity.  Mom Bronny (Radha Mitchell) is a stressed out stay at home mom trying to take care of their kids, and has a past built around alcoholism.  As for the kids, teenage daughter Stephanie (Lucy Fry) is anorexic, while youngest son Michael (David Mazouz) is autistic and closed off from the world.  While vacationing in the Grand Canyon, Michael falls down a hidden hole into an underground cave while he is briefly unsupervised.  There, he discovers five stones from an ancient Native American tribe that we eventually learn have some connection to evil demons from another realm.  The kid brings the stones home with him, and before too long, he is talking to an invisible friend he calls "Jenny", and seems to live in the walls.  Not long after that, the usual paranormal shenanigans associated with these kind of movies start up around the house.  Water faucets and TVs are turning on by themselves, local animals such as the neighbor's dog and a friendly cat start acting strangely and violently around the family, footsteps can be heard in the attic, and dirty hand prints start appearing all over the walls and bed sheets.

Thanks to a few convenient and oddly specific Internet searches, Bronny figures out the connection between the paranormal happenings and this ancient tribe that once lived in the Grand Canyon area.  Peter, however, is less inclined to believe her, especially when he starts finding liquor bottles hidden about the house.  Not that Peter really has much reason to doubt her.  He's witnessed plenty of odd happenings all over the house, but it's not until the movie is about 90% over that he finally decides to pack up the family, stay in a hotel, and call a spiritual expert to examine the house.  You would think the large black vortex that suddenly appears on Michael's wall after the kid starts a fire in his room would kind of tip him off.  He thinks the vortex is just a burn mark that can be painted over, and doesn't even seem to notice that it is frequently bubbling with black ooze, and sometimes has inky arms and hands reaching out of it.  I know that the character of Peter is intended to be a father who is distant from his family, but the screenplay pushes him beyond the point of credibility, and goes into all-out cluelessness.

The Darkness was directed and co-written by Greg McLean, who is best known for making the hyper-violent Wolf Creek horror films.  Here, he seems to have lost all source of inspiration, and instead delivers a haunted house movie that is completely and depressingly by the numbers.  There is no sense of joy behind this movie, like a great horror movie can hold.  Nobody seems to have wanted to make this movie, and so it just rolls out in the most perfunctory manner possible.  Not only can the scares be telegraphed from a mile away by any viewer who is half-awake, they are not even original, with many being lifted wholesale from other horror films.  The movie most shamelessly rips off the Poltergeist films, but I'm sure savvy horror fans could pick out over a dozen other sources of "inspiration".  There is no life to the movie, or the performances within it.  Not only that, but the editing is severely choppy, with characters and plot points being introduced and then forgotten by the next scene.  The entire film has the grim tone of a doomed project that was heavily edited beyond recognition in order to attempt to save it.

The only thing that stood out to me was Kevin Bacon, and it's not because of his performance.  He looks sickly here.  His skin is extremely pale, and he looks eerily thin, as if we can see his skin hanging off of his bones.  It was distracting looking at him.  I'm not the type to criticize an actor on their appearance, but I just couldn't help but notice it every time he was on camera.  He looks downright gaunt in this movie.  I wish I could say he at least gives an interesting portrayal, but he seems lost.  Bacon has done well with paranormal horror before, most notably 1999's criminally underrated Stir of Echoes.  But this script gives him nothing to work with, so all I could do was notice how strangely unhealthy he looked up there on the screen.

This movie is a total lost cause on just about every level.  It's not thrilling, holds no new or interesting ideas, and has been made without the slightest trace of imagination.  It's a total dead zone, free of entertainment value and purpose.  When you get right down to it, sitting in the dark for 90 minutes would be more fulfilling than watching The Darkness.

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Saturday, May 07, 2016

Green Room

I would like to go on record to say that it's really starting to annoy me how poorly lit a lot of movies are starting to become.  Darkness can be used effectively and can be used to create atmosphere, but when a movie is so dark that sometimes the action and even the characters are indistinguishable from each other, it just is laughable.  Such is the case with Green Room, a thriller that is mostly effective, except for the fact large parts of the film almost can't be seen, due to how little lighting there is in certain crucial moments.

The premise: A small time punk rock band made up of four friends have the misfortune to book a gig at a forgotten and dingy dive located in the middle of a barren wilderness, and filled with Neo Nazis and Skinheads.  The band is made up of  Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole) and Tiger (Callum Turner).  The friends perform their set and collect their money, but just as they are about to leave, they happen to witness a dead body in the green room backstage.  The men working the bar trap the band inside the room with the body, and with an innocent bystander named Amber (Imogeen Poots).  As the victims trapped in the room wonder what is going to happen to them, the owner of the bar, Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart, effectively playing against type here as a cold and calculating villain), decides that the only way to handle the situation is to kill the witnesses and clean up the mess afterward, pretending nothing has happened.  The young victims must now try to survive the night as they fend off Darcy's hired thugs and vicious attack dogs.

The first half of Green Room is the most effective, where the people trapped within the Room and their tormentors engage in a battle of wits.  Patrick Stewart may seem like an unusual choice to play the head of a bunch of burly thugs and skinheads, but his performance is effectively chilling.  No, this is not the first time Stewart has played a villain in a film, but the way he is so calm and almost cordial about the whole ordeal not only makes the character more frightening, but also gives the impression that this is not the first time he has been placed in this situation.  The movie builds some wonderful tension as the band tries to figure out a way to escape from their prison without being seen, and all of the young actors play well off each other as they bounce about ideas of how to escape, and whether anyone in this place can be trusted.

Then, the movie slowly but surely changes gears, and turns into an action thriller instead of a psychological one.  Here is where writer-director Jeremy Saulnier suddenly decides to shoot certain scenes almost in total darkness for reasons that escape me.  Oh, I can certainly understand certain scenes.  A sequence where one of the victims is viciously attacked and killed by a dog seems to have been edited heavily and shot at close angles in order to secure the film an R-rating.  But other times, the characters just seem to be wandering about in the dark, and it gets to the point where I got impatient.  This is a similar problem I had with the action thriller Triple 9 from earlier this year.  Both movies stage some key action sequences in such dark and tight spaces, it can be hard to tell what's going on at times, or who is getting attacked or killed.

It's not that I have any real issue with movies that use darkness, it simply has to be used effectively.  Just shooting the action in dark and narrow corridors does not build suspense or atmosphere.  You have to use the darkness of the scene, and shoot it in such a way that the audience can still keep track of what's going on.  I am reminded of the old black and white noir films, where the shadows almost seemed to be a character in the screenplay, and every scene was effectively and beautifully shot.  Recent movies that try to shoot almost entirely in darkness often come across as muddy and dull looking.  Something has changed over the years.  Filmmakers either don't know how to shoot in darkness, or they have lost their nerve.  There are still some beautiful dark films out there, but it is becoming more of a rarity.

Green Room has effective performances and more than a few tense moments, but the way it was shot annoyed me a great deal.  I do hope that the next time around, Mr. Saulnier learns how to shoot around the darkness better.  I want to see more of his vision and images.

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Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War could be seen either as a sequel to 2014's Captain America: Winter Soldier, or last year's The Avengers: Age of Ultron.  I really don't think there's a right answer.  This is a movie that not only follows up the story of Captain America (Chris Evans) trying to repair his fractured relationship with his former teammate, turned brainwashed assassin, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), but it also tries to expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe even further by adding two new characters (one of which is hitting the screen for the first time), and building on the ideas of the earlier Avenger movies. 

For a film packed with this many characters, plot lines, subplots and character motivations, it manages to stay fairly grounded and never feels too busy.  In fact, directors Anthony and Joe Russo try to add a bit of real world politics and concern into the superheroics.  Due to the actions of the Avengers and the destruction and casualties their battles have caused in the past, the world's nations have become suspicious of a group of superpowered protectors who answer to no government or figurehead.  The Avengers are asked to sign up for a program that will have their actions be overseen by an international commission that will decide their actions, and when they will be called out into battle.  Avengers members Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Vision (Paul Bettany) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) agree to the terms, some more reluctantly than others.  Others, such as Captain America, Falcon (Anthony Mackey), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and newcomer Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) disagree, and think they are better off without government supervision.  Two new characters to the series, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland), are also dragged into the battle and forced to take sides, both siding with Iron Man.

The idea of superheroes having to answer to their own actions and the damage they cause during their struggle to protect innocent people is not a new idea.  In fact, it was explored much less successfully back in March in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.  You can actually draw a lot of comparisons in themes between both films, as both the earlier movie and Civil War deal with superheroes forced to stand on opposite sides as to what they think the best way to dispense justice is.  The big thing that does set the films apart is that while Batman v. Superman was dark, gloomy and fairly dull, this movie is full of energy.  While both films sadly do not go as deep into the intriguing issue of heroes having to answer to their own actions as much as they should, this movie does end up doing it much better, and in a way that is more entertaining and less melodramatic.  Marvel has figured out how to keep the tension and drama of the situation, without sacrificing the fun or turning its heroes into insufferable mopes.  It also helps that many of the movie's big action scenes are shot in brightly lit daylight, unlike the rain-soaked night streets of DC's superhero match up film.

There are two major action sequences in Civil War in which the collected heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are forced to square off against each other.  The first which occurs around the 90 minute mark is one of true exhilaration and spectacle.  And while it does come across as being a bit off in tone from the rest of the film (a majority of the movie is fairly serious, while the big fight scene has a lot of humor and one liners within it), it still manages to be highly entertaining, and well worth the price of admission, since this is what we have come to see.  The other major fight, which occurs at the climax, is much smaller in scale, but actually manages to be a lot more dramatic, since it's a more personal battle, and is drawn from character motivation, rather than spectacle.  You could actually say that the big brawl between the Avengers is all about fun for the audience, while the last battle could effectively change certain courses that the Marvel Universe will take in future films.  At the very least, the film's final moments have me curious as to what will happen next.

There are a couple missteps along the way.  Spider-Man is introduced in kind of a hurried manner, but this doesn't seem to matter so much when you see the guy in action, as well as Holland's performance.  He immediately wins over the audience with his one liners and physical performance, and it's probably the most accurate screen depiction of the web crawler that we've ever gotten.  Yeah, it's obviously all a big set up for his upcoming movie, but at least it works and doesn't feel quite as shoehorned in as Wonder Woman's participation in Batman v. Superman (also used to set up her own movie).  I also would have liked to have seen more of Black Panther, since he's the character in this film that we have never seen before.  We get enough information as to who he is and what he stands for, but it still would have been nice if the movie gave him more personal moments.  And as I mentioned earlier, the big square off between the Avengers in the middle of the film does feel just a tiny bit jarring with how comical it is, considering how serious the rest of the film takes itself, save for the usual sarcastic quips from Downey's Iron Man.  As a stand-alone sequence, it's highly entertaining and worthy of being brought up among the finest moments of the Marvel film series.  It simply feels a tiny bit out of place with the film, given its somewhat jokey tone.

None of this really subtracts from the film, surprisingly.  For a movie of this size, it's amazing how tight and well constructed it actually is.  I personally prefer Winter Soldier, as I felt it was a more personal story for Captain America.  But, as a superhero match up film, this does rank above Age of Ultron, and is so much better than the gloomy Batman v. Superman that it's not even a contest.  Like the best Marvel films, it offers top entertainment, while actually being about something.  And it manages to do this without taking itself so seriously that it stops being fun.

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