Thursday, July 2, 2015

Terminator: Genisys


1/2* out of ****

Most folks I know think that this movie looks bad, simply based on its trailers. I'm here to tell you that it's worse. I'm not a big Terminator fan, but I am certain that this fifth entry in the series will be the most insulting of the needless sequels to follow the first two quality productions by James Cameron.

I've never been able to get behind these movies due to their bad time travel logic, but Terminator: Genisys takes the concept of time alteration to a new nonsensical level where someone or something at every story turn is one step ahead because of another time alteration, essentially taking away any sense of tension. Without any rules, people can be saved or destroyed at the liberty of the incompetent writers with convoluted explanations intended to justify an impending action scene.

The plot mainly revolves around the concept that the events of the original 1984 film have been altered, which puts the movie's most engaging parts at the beginning. We finally get to see the futuristic events leading up to what led John Conner (this time Jason Clarke) to send Kyle Reese (this time Jai Courtney) back in time, thus revealing what a time machine that allows a naked man to arrive in a glowing electrical sphere actually looks like on the other side. You might be able to see the same thing more explicitly in Magic Mike XXL, but that's your choice.

Then Sarah Connor shows up, now played by Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke, in perhaps the least intense version of the role ever played. In this timeline, a reprogrammed Terminator (always Schwarzenegger) rescued her when she was a little girl and has raised her since, to be prepared for the cyborgs and the arrival of Kyle Reese.

I'd write more about Jason Clarke as John Connor and the major plot twist spoiled in the trailer, but I won't give it away here, even though I can't stress enough that you should not even bother seeing the movie. There's no point in continuing to pay attention once this plot element comes into play.

It's a terrible story, and that's not the worst of it. Along with the last two sequels, it tramples on a revered sci-fi classic, getting the tone all wrong, except this time we've entered the age of CGI dominance, where unrestrained levels of computer generated imagery rob us of the sense that anything we're seeing is real. It's not even that the effects are objectively low-quality. Once again citing the brilliant Cracked.com article, so many movies today utilize and display CGI in a way that diminishes its impact and usefulness. 

This movie's effects artists have infinitely better tools at their disposal compared to what it took to make 1991's Terminator 2: Judgement Day groundbreaking, but when CGI is used to substitute for vehicles, stunts, environments, and cinematography, what sort of wonder are we supposed to feel when we see a man who can break down his molecular structure? All that does is give us the impression that the movie's artificial environment is having some sort of glitch (There's a Matrix joke in there somewhere).

If there is an amazing special effect in this film, it's in seeing a digital recreation of young Schwarzenegger (We got a cool glimpse of him in Terminator: Salvation) take part in remade shots from the original film to fit in with the modern cinematography. However, once he starts fighting in what is supposed to be a major set piece, nothing about him seems real anymore. 

The film's dialogue by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier is rather insufferable, as is the idiotic comic relief that tries to lighten the tone of a franchise that has always been steeped in militaristic survivalism. Sorry, but when I see people in black leather with big guns, you might be able to convince me that they're heroes, but you'll never convince me that they're emotionally relatable. I'm not even going to get into how much I despise big studios irresponsible tendency to make PG-13 movies filled with HEAVY gunplay and no bloody consequences.  

The film is directed by Alan Taylor, whose TV career is quite respectable, but so far this film and Thor: The Dark World, show an ineptitude in giving big budget spectacle a sense of weight.

Following Jurassic World, this is the second movie of the summer to seem satisfied in working with some meta subtext to affirm itself. Jurassic World had Bryce Dallas Howard talking about how dinosaurs aren't enough to impress people anymore, motivating the new park to create a hybrid monstrosity - which was the filmmakers' way of saying that the promise of lifelike dinosaurs in a movie isn't a big deal anymore, but come see this movie because we promise it to be an unrestrained beast of mayhem.

So what does Terminator: Genisys do? It has the aged Schwarzenegger Terminator, known us "Pops," constantly remind the characters, that as his mechanical abilities begin to ail, he is "..old but not obsolete." Good one Arnie. So this movie simply exists for you to take us on a PG-13, CGI-filled nostalgia ride?

Look, it's cute when a movie is self-aware, but that's not nearly enough to make it a good movie. For all we know, it's an artificial being gearing up to lead an all-out purge of movie projects intended to produce REAL feelings.

Dope


*** out of ****


An unusual coming-of-age film called Dope from writer/director Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood) is in theaters and I can say that it reminded me of two very different movies: City of God and Risky Business. It follows the misadventures of a southwest LA high school student and his two friends, as their geeky existence as academic hopefuls gets turned upside down when an attempt to climb the social ladder unwittingly involves them in the underworld of drugs and crime, which surround them on a daily basis.


The movie gets structurally messy when it takes some unexpected turns and changes gears. It is still refreshing to see something so unpredictable. Regardless, the film is full of flavor, often hilarious, and sure to horrify most parents.

Ted 2


**1/2 out of ****


Despite Seth MacFarlane's constant flaws, I enjoyed 2012’s Ted, immensely. Since then, I’ve become disenchanted with his inability to grow as a comedy artist, while taking on too many business responsibilities. Family Guy only seems to get worse and his last film, A Million Ways to Die in the West was inexplicably vacuous despite being such a good idea for a comedy.

After ignoring his creations for about a year, I'm disappointed to report that Seth still follows that FOX TV comedy tradition, which believes that being mean is funny. He also follows the Farrelly Brothers' tendency to go for witless gross-out gags. Look, these things can be funny, but when MacFarlane and Co. build up to Mark Wahlberg being doused in semen with total predictability, there's nothing to laugh at. 

In this movie, Ted, now married to Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth), feels that having a child would be a nice change to bring love to their fragile marriage (in real life, this can be a mistake), but finds his legitimacy as a legally protected person - who can marry, adopt a child, or even hold a job - called into question by the authorities. This begins a vague little allegory for same-sex marriage.

I continue to insist that the worst thing about MacFarlane is how he pretends to care. The first Ted wasted time trying to treat a relationship story with sincerity, climaxing with a wedding as the movie's happy ending. This time, the movie opens with Wahlberg's character divorced so that he can conveniently behave like a manchild with Ted again and meet another serious woman. This time, the serious woman is a lawyer, played by Amanda Seyfried. Even though this new love interest shows more comic compatibility by sharing a love of marijuana - and is hilariously ignorant of anything pop-cultural - she's still there to help him grow up a little... again.  

HOWEVER, I was surprised, while watching Ted 2, that Seth can still make me laugh... a lot. There’s a scene where Liam Neeson makes a cameo as a paranoid man in a checkout line, struggling with the purchase of a box of Trix cereal. Among his tributes to classic entertainment, like a showy Busby Berkeley style musical opening, there’s also a part that makes better use of John WilliamsJurassic Park theme, than Jurassic World managed to a few weeks ago. Essentially, MacFarlane has always been so close to achieving the same anarchic glee that the Jim Abrahams/Zucker brothers collaboration had with Airplane! and the Naked Gun movies, but he gets annoyingly preoccupied with counterproductive aspects of his comedy. 

I still think of Seth as a friend who pisses off my other friends, putting me in an awkward position. His work is still a hodgepodge of comedy after my heart, brought down by forced cruelty colliding with false sentimentality. I just wish he'd stop having his characters "grow up a little" and start doing it himself.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Jurassic World


*** out of ****


Jurassic World is the best sequel in the Jurassic Park franchise… and that’s a minor compliment. It’s the first entry to throw caution to the wind and behave like the unrestrained dino-rampage movie that big kids want to see. The result is a mixed bag full of fun and stupidity.

The movie asks the question: What if at some point between the first movie and the present day, the vision of the original park's creators was finally realized? In this movie, we visit an alternate universe where de-extinction is commonly accepted and the renamed “Jurassic World” is one of the most popular vacation resorts on the planet.

We follow two adolescent brothers (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson) as audience surrogates into the world of the movie. The younger one of the two, is excited at every opportunity to see a dinosaur, while the older one is distracted by his smartphone, and just as impressed by real live dinosaurs as we are with modern CGI.

Their Aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the resort’s power-suit administrator, with the careless motivation to take the park’s already booming popularity up a level with a dangerous new twist to their dinosaur cloning, courtesy of genetic engineer, Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong -the only returning JP alum).

Chris Pratt is the park’s Velociraptor-wrangler, who works on training the animals, which is catching the eye of a security specialist (Vincent D’Onofrio) who sees their potential for military weaponization.

All these elements culminate to result in dinosaurs on the loose, kids in peril, a badass who can wield the rage of raptors in his favor, and an uptight businesswoman letting loose to save the day. These contrivances are justified by the generic sci-fi jargon of writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) -and are lightened-up through the humor of director Colin Trevorrow and his collaborative writer, Derek Connolly. How their semi-entertaining comedy, Safety Not Guaranteed, landed them this coveted project is beyond me, but at least it isn’t boring.

Michael Giacchino's new score conveys excitement, but fails to use John Williams' original music creatively. Sometimes it's just awkward where you hear the original themes (Yes, themes. Williams was so awesome back in the day, that you left the theater with more than one melody dancing in your head). Giacchino is one of the better composers working on major films today, but it's sad how seldom his work has a big impact.

To my relief, after the online criticisms, like the one on Cracked.com, the final color grading in this movie is normal, resembling the look of the previous movies. It's also primarily shot on film. However, the CGI often suffers from a lot of the industry's needless indulgences pointed out in that brilliant article.


If there’s one thing I know, it’s that I’m probably never going to get the Jurassic Park sequel that I want. The original movie proposed some profound concepts, for which every sequel has refused to expand upon, favoring dinosaur carnage being the result of sheer stupidity and the repetition of the same old mistakes. 

Until this movie, we hadn’t even returned to the original island. As far as spectacle-driven entertainment goes, Jurassic World contains things I always wanted from a JP sequel accompanied by things I never wanted from a JP sequel. I don’t have the time to list them, but the overall experience they create, is acceptable, brainless entertainment.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Poltergeist (2015)


*** out of ****

Gil Kenan's (Monster House) 2015 remake of Poltergeist is almost as good as the original - a film I've always found to be overrated - so I guess that's not a big compliment.

The original movie made some kind of undefined cultural commentary about the excess of suburban life during the dawn of yuppie culture, but the artistic confusion between its director Tobe Hooper and producer Steven Spielberg resulted in a movie that succeeded in entertaining but had little to say beyond its broad messages about materialism and television infecting the modern American family. However, the movie was filled with product placement and one too many needless special effects scenes.

Naturally, the remake doesn't have any new filmmaking techniques with which to impress us, but Kenan understands how to achieve the same tone the original movie had. Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt are well cast as the imperfect parents in a family, haunted by a presence in their suburban home. And Jared Harris plays a ghost-hunting reality TV star signifying the filmmaker's wise unwillingness to find a Zelda Rubinstein surrogate.

The remake has some lame touches, such as a whiney smartphone-fixated teenage daughter, which may be a stereotype inspired by reality, but not one worth re-enforcing through cinema. Marc Streitenfeld's creepy music is no match for Jerry Goldsmith's, but whose is? There's also a stupid scene, late in the film, involving a toy drone being used against the spirits, begging us to wonder why they don't start controlling it as they have every other piece of home electronic equipment earlier in the film.

Writer David Lindsay-Abaire (whose suburban drama Rabbit Hole seemed like the right kind of experience for this project) seems to miss out on the original films emphasis that the then-new subdivision homes worked as an unlikely place for a haunting. In this movie the suburbs look old and decayed, coming off as haunted to begin with. As silly as this sounds, I would have found it very interesting if the family were haunted by ghosts from the early eighties.

The movie still has enough intrigue and genuine scares for me to recommend it for anyone who doesn't feel like watching a movie made in 1982.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Spy


**1/2 out of ****

Writer/director Paul Feig’s latest comedy, Spy, is what I expected it to be, but thankfully, not worse. I’m still fed up with comedies, which surpass the ninety-minute mark in a misplaced obligation to see through aspects of the movie that have nothing to do with making people laugh.

In this movie, Feig works with Melissa McCarthy again, but gives her the opportunity to show more range. I’ve always liked McCarthy, but ever since Bridesmaids escalated her fame, I’ve seen her being typecast as an obnoxious insult-queen to a tiresome degree. She gets the opportunity to revisit this shtick in Spy, but only when her timid character is forced to play a part, while doing her job.

As you could guess by the title, McCarthy is playing an undercover agent, continuing Feig’s overpraised reputation for grabbing genres – and subgenres - normally associated with men, and giving them a female twist. In Bridesmaids, it was the lowbrow filthy comedy revolving around a wedding. In The Heat, it was the buddy cop comedy. This time, it’s the seemingly incompetent and unglamorous spy sent on a glamorous mission, worthy of James Bond.

In my opinion, giving women movie projects that have been so worn-to-death by men isn’t an example of progress. It’s more like a lame hand-me-down. However, Feig’s projects tend to be quite funny and Spy has some pretty big laughs. McCarthy thankfully tones it down here and works well with her co-stars. Jude Law and Jason Statham play delusional spies convinced of their male superiority. Miranda Hart is a goofball CIA coworker envious of her friend's opportunity to go out into the field. Rose Byrne steals some scenes as the film’s bitchy villainess.

Feig knows how to make jokes, but as the online video series Every Frame a Painting points out, he is one of so many filmmakers lacking vision in the art of comedy filmmaking –and favors conventional studio aesthetics to keep the audience engaged. As a comedy-action movie, this one is no exception in the genre’s tendency to waste lots of time near the end with extended fights and chases, which wouldn’t be worthy of a good action movie - and jokes spliced-in, which aren’t worthy of the comedy that preceded.


Feig is still developing his all-female Ghostbusters remake with McCarthy in the cast. I expect the results of that project to be similar to this one: Lots of laughs, but not enough to forgive the film’s long uninspired structure, which drags the entire experience into mediocrity.