Category Archives: Half-assed

Sean says: you could do worse.

King Kong (2005)

king_kong_2005Even if you haven’t seen King Kong or its many remakes (like me, until yesterday), you probably know the story. A struggling filmmaker (Jack Black) leads a rag tag crew on a voyage to a forgotten island where he’s going to complete his movie against the studio’s wishes. While there, the filmmaker and his cast encounter a mess of overgrown B-movie creatures including dinosaurs, bugs, lizards, bats, and of course, the giant gorilla who rules them all.

In the course of this grand adventure (which ought to have killed everyone involved several times over), the gorilla falls in love with the lead actress (Naomi Watts), now the damsel in distress, who already has a thing for the screenwriter (Adrien Brody). That leads to a very awkward love triangle.  Things get even more awkward when the filmmaker conspires with the ship’s captain to bring the gorilla back to New York City as a way to salvage the mission once his camera and footage (and film crew) are destroyed.  Indeed, once back in NYC the situation gets so bad that Brody’s character even starts to feel sorry for Kong, as Kong is now trapped in the Empire City with nowhere to go but up (and then a long way down).

Peter Jackson helms this remake and it shows.  That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, it just means there’s a three-hour-plus runtime, a lot of CG rag dolls flying across the screen/into walls/off cliffs during action scenes, and a significant number of emotional orchestral swells combined with ethereal vocals and closeups of teary eyed actors to make sure we feel sad at the proper times.  For better and for worse, he delivers a movie that feels like a throwback to classic Hollywood cinema.

But the “for worse” is really, really bad.  Black “savages” feeding a white lady to a monster bad.  It is possible that the issue of systemic racism is particularly fresh in my mind right now thanks to BlacKkKlansman (which, if Jay’s review wasn’t clear enough, you should see immediately),  but a movie pitting backwards black natives against righteous white people only reinforces racist stereotypes that we need to eliminate from our society.   One way to help eliminate those stereotypes would be using discretion and thoughtfulness when remaking old movies to ensure we don’t recycle harmful racial stereotypes.  Jackson failed in that respect, and his failure gives power to those stereotypes instead of helping to put them to rest once and for all.  It’s a glaring mistake.

That Kong contains such racially insensitive scenes is truly a shame, on at least two different fronts.  First, it’s a shame because the Kong that Jackson and Andy Serkis created is absolutely amazing.  Even though many of the other special effects in this movie have not aged well, Kong remains a marvel, an expressive and lifelike CG character who’s worthy of being the hero of this picture.  Of course, hero status is Kong’s by default, since the humans in the film are consistently terrible, destroying everything they touch, acting entitled all the way through the carnage, and worst of all, blaming Kong’s unfortunate ending on beauty rather than the beasts who tried to exploit nature for personal profit.

Which brings me to the second disappointing aspect of the film: but for the racism, the film’s main message would have been as suitable for our times as it ever was, but the presence of racism or at least racial insensitivity makes this film one that is better left in the past.

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Ant-Man and the Wasp

ant man and the waspThe very definition of superhero fatigue is seeing the latest Marvel instalment and having nothing to say. Not a speck of inspiration. Is that Ant-Man’s fault? Only partially. It’s very by-the-numbers, it doesn’t add anything to the ongoing MCU saga, and it’s hard to go back in time prior to Avengers: Infinity War, when we know half of these people will soon be dust (and also, soon after that, not dust anymore so the MCU can keep churning out sequels).

But also, when we’ve had a run of Marvel movies with spectacular visuals and fresh takes on flagship heroes (Thor: Ragnarok), timely and thoughtful takes on nationalism with a fully realized villain (Black Panther), and massive, galaxy spanning tales crammed with practically every hero there is (Infinity War), Ant-Man feels so small. While that’s entirely fitting for Ant-Man, it is a drastic change of pace from those three prior MCU films in particular, and the one-upping arms race that has been the MCU since the start.

Jay said some time ago (maybe on the site, maybe just to me) that the coming-of-age moment for superhero movies was when subgenres started popping up – superhero satire (Deadpool), superhero western (Logan), even superhero rom-com (this movie!). So maybe it’s time to get past this shared universe thing and evaluate Ant-Man as an actual movie. And on its own, it’s a team effort featuring a lot of memorable characters, a nice will-they, won’t-they featuring charismatic leads (and equals), and an entertaining way to spend two hours at the movies.

Overall, though, it’s a good thing we have a break in the MCU schedule until next spring, because I badly need one. Of course, you can be sure that I’ll be in line when the next superhero movie comes out, dragging Jay along like always.  What can I say? I’m addicted, always have been, but it’s to the point where I need something stronger to feel as good about these films as I did in the early days.

 

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

4129b10ddb987ee9-600x400Shouldn’t a sequel feel twice as big as the first movie?  And shouldn’t the fifth Jurassic Park and the second Jurassic World feel at least five times bigger than a T-Rex and double the size of the giant fish/dino that ate the Indominus Rex? And shouldn’t Chris Pratt have twice as many raptors on his strike force? And shouldn’t Bryce Dallas Howard be running around in even higher heels than last time? Well, yes, all of that should be happening in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, but instead, JWFK feels really small.

Part GMO cautionary tale and part dinosaur conservation dissertation, JWFK takes too long to get going and then when it does, there are almost no dinosaurs to be found! Okay, every once in a while a dino pops up and eats one of the bad guys or nearly bites a good guy, but more often then not, the danger facing Howard and Pratt is of the non-dino variety, which as everyone knows is the most boring kind of danger there is.

JWFK is not a terrible movie but it’s also not a good one. It’s more forgettable than anything, fading from memory only an hour or so after I left the theatre, mainly because it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. For my part, all I wanted it to be was a bunch of loosely-connected dinosaur set pieces, and strangely that is something that JWFK didn’t go for.

One thing JWFK does succeed at is in setting up a whole bunch more sequels, so the studio execs are probably happy with the end product.  But for those of us who aren’t getting a cut of the box office, it isn’t nearly as satisfying. Maybe next time.

Anon

anon-trailer-clive-owen-amanda-seyfried-0“Done before and done better.” I could probably leave that as my comprehensive review of Anon, last week’s Netflix original movie, but what fun would that be?

Anon’s premise is simple. In the future, the police can rewind and review anyone’s point-of-view, so can instantly solve any crime. Except lately, there is a glitch in the Matrix, because killings are carried out without the police being able to see the murderer. It’s up to grumpy cop Clive Owen (whose child died young) to solve these cases before the killer does him in and figure out how Amanda Seyfried’s mysterious hacker fits into the puzzle.

In case it’s not obvious by now, Anon is Minority Report’s fraternal twin, somehow born 16 years after its much more atractive sister. Incidentally, Minority Report is currently available on Netflix, at least in Canada, which seems cruel.  But you’ve seen that one before, right?

If you liked Minority Report (and you would if you have any sense at all) then Anon is exactly mediocre enough to watch before you watch Minority Report again – good enough that you won’t feel like you totally wasted your screen time, and bad enough that it will make you appreciate Minority Report even more.

That’s the unexpected virtue of “done before and done better”, that’s the niche that Anon has found, and that sums up nearly all of Netflix’s “original” content.  There’s  simply no need to waste time coming up with your own original idea when it’s way cheaper and easier to tweak someone else’s, and to be safe Netflix covers its bet by having the original on standby, either as a replacement or a superior second feature. Well played, Netflix. Well played.

Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers infinity warAssholes Assemble!

Matt, Jay and I all took in Avengers: Infinity War last night and I expect you can guess how that went.  I loved it, Jay hated it, and Matt liked it but would have preferred to be at a DC movie instead.  Of course, it is clear that Matt backed the wrong horse in the DC/Marvel race, as Marvel continues its streak of good movies.  Marvel’s so hot they even managed to resurrect the Spider-Man franchise for Sony along the way and might soon get the rights to use the X-Men and other characters currently being held hostage by Fox.

Whether adding more characters to this already bloated roster is a good thing is something we can (and will) argue about, but for a Marvel fan like me, the best thing about an Avengers movie is seeing all my favourite characters team up to save the world just like they’ve done in the comics a hundred times previously.  It’s particularly sweet now that Spider-Man is helping Iron Man and Co. on a regular basis (and fantastic that Spidey gets about as much screen time as anyone in Infinity War).

Even better, in Thanos, Marvel has found a threat big enough to require these countless heroes to team up to fight.  Finally, we have an Avengers movie that doesn’t have to use internal conflict as a plot point.  Past grudges are quickly put aside as we jump right into the fight, where literally half the lives in the universe are at stake.  Though the film is two and a half hours long, it didn’t feel like there was ever a lull in the action, not even for a second.

But.

But.

But.

I don’t ever expect Jay to like the superhero movies I drag her to, but she hated this movie much more strongly than I had anticipated.  In hindsight I should have seen this coming and prepared her for it.  Anyone who has read the Infinity Gauntlet crossover event will not be surprised by how the movie plays out, and anyone who has read comics in general knows that rule #1 is no one ever stays dead.  But when anyone can (and almost everyone does) come back to life in the comics, and in this movie, it makes death feel cheap.  Without getting too deep into spoiler territory, let’s just say there is at least one on-screen death that feels like it is going to be undone in the next Avengers movie (and when I say at least one, I really mean every single one).  That resurrection expectation takes away from this movie significantly because it doesn’t mean anything if everything gets reset.

The writers should have found a better way for this film to play out, one that didn’t feel like any hero’s death was just a temporary setback, particularly because the MCU can afford to lose several dozen characters – if it did then we might actually have enough screen time for heroes like Ant-Man and Hawkeye!

I could overlook the inevitable resurrection issue because that’s my expectation of comic books, but it is not going to be so easy for most to deal with.  And really, whether you can get past it is almost secondary, because it would undeniably have been so much better for the MCU to have risen above that trite comic book convention and given our heroes a loss that felt irreversible, instead of one that we feel certain is going to be undone within a year.   Avengers: Infinity War is still an enjoyable, fan-pleasing blockbuster even with this problem, but due to the perceived lack of permanent consequences, Infinity War is missing the dramatic heft that should have followed naturally from a battle over the fate of the universe.

 

Rampage

dimsI didn’t know what to make of this movie after seeing the trailer but I had a bad feeling this would be one of those movies that Jay uses as leverage against me. But I knew I would drag her to anyway. You see, when I was a kid one of my favourite quarter-munching arcade games was Rampage, because it let me be Godzilla, smashing buildings, eating army guys, and grabbing helicopters out of the air. So when I did not realize this movie was based on that videogame until the title popped up at the very end of the trailer, I was more than a little skeptical.

After seeing the movie, I can confim my skepticism was totally warranted. Rampage is just another middling entry in the Rock’s mindless action movie portfolio. It’s not a standout as an action film generally, and not even noteworthy when compared to the Rock’s other action films. At least Rampage knows it’s dumb and has some fun at its own expense (a Rock specialty), and it actually feels quite a lot like the videogame once the action starts.

images (1)Where Rampage fails is that it takes FOREVER for the action to start, which is the worst thing a dumb action movie can do. That plodding pace is particularly egregious when the video game version is as light on exposition as anything ever made, while the movie wants to include a lentghy origin story for the monsters. I didn’t care how the monsters came to be (“radiation” has always been a good enough reason) and I definitely didn’t care to spend time with a sociopathic brother-sister team who made this DNA modifying thingamajig that fell from the sky. Three city-destroying monsters fighting the Rock would have been enough. No more was needed.

So Rampage manages to be too dumb for someone like Jay, who doesn’t like dumb action movies, and not dumb enough for someone like me, who just wanted to see an old mindless videogame become a new mindless blockbuster. If you liked the game you could do worse when Rampage is available on Netflix (but probably also do better), and if you didn’t know Rampage was a game until reading this review then you should probably skip this one altogether.

Mute

mute.jpgFor me, the most memorable scene in Mute was a few-second long callback to director Duncan Jones’ debut, a marvelous little movie called Moon, starring Sam Rockwell, that you should track down immediately if you haven’t seen it yet.  Apparently, Mute is intended to be the second entry in a very loose trilogy, an approach that Netflix seems to be very keen on at the moment (as evidenced by The Cloverfield Paradox along with Mute).  Come to think of it, we saw this same thing happen with Split not so long ago, where two movies really have nothing to do with one another except that they happen in the same “shared universe”, with that link often seeming to constitute a big reveal.

I have asked before and, thanks to Mute, have to ask again: why is it becoming a thing to tie movies together in this way?  What is the point, when Mute is a totally separate story not at all influenced by the events in Moon (and vice versa)?  Why does it matter that these movies occur in the same world at the same time if the events of one film do not impact the other in any way?  Why are we even mentioning this link and including a scene with Rockwell in Mute (other than the fact that he is so hot right now)? sohotrightnow Are people being drawn to Mute because it’s related to Moon?  Did anyone choose to watch Mute because of that link who otherwise would not have?  Is Rockwell such a big box office draw that his inclusion got Mute off the ground?  I have a hard time believing this one little throwaway scene helped Mute and yet, why else even bother?

Really, the only benefit of Rockwell’s inclusion was that it made this review easier to write, because Mute is otherwise forgettable even as you are watching it.  Visually, it is for the most part a shameless ripoff of Blade Runner only it’s bereft of any philosophical discussions about anything meaningful, with the only takeway being that parents should not make friends with pedophiles, a point which, much like the movie itself, did not really need to be made.

Goosebumps

20151007fdGoosebumps.6c5f8Turns out, it’s Jack Black week around these here parts. Today’s instalment is Goosebumps, a movie written for (and possibly by) people a third of my age or less. And those damn tweens must have seen this one a LOT of times because a sequel is coming out this fall just in time for Halloween.

First things first: Goosebumps is not scary at all. Planet Earth II is more harrowing.  Though in fairness, the Planet Earth segment with the snakes chasing an iguana is one of the scariest things ever:

There is no chase sequence in Goosebumps that even comes close to that level of terror, but that’s by design. Goosebumps is completely non-threatening right down to its protagonist, who you might recognize as the non-threatening guy from 13 Reasons Why if, like me, you watch too much Netflix.  He is perfect for Goosebumps because in his spare time he is a singer/rhythm guitarist for a band that got its break at a social inclusion and autism awareness concert (that’s right, two non-threatening causes at once)!

There are monsters in Goosebumps but they are the kind that chase you with a smile on their face. The kind that Jay would adopt and make me build a shelter for in our backyard. The kind that I can watch with my nephews and not get dirty looks from their parents. The kind that must make Goosebumps author R.L. Stine pat himself on the back for being as non-threatening as the guy from 13 Reasons Why (it helps immensely that Stine has written dozens of joke books and G.I. Joe choose-your-own-adventures under the pen names “Jovial Bob Stine” and “Eric Affabee”).

The only way Goosebumps will give you goosebumps is if you watch it while your furnace is broken. But I’ll take that over nephew nightmares any day of the week.

 

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

636866-jumanji-dwayneThe trailers for this movie set the bar so unbelievably low that I thought Jumanji could not possibly disappoint. The only surprise this movie has to offer is that it is a sequel not a reboot. Otherwise, it is completely by-the-numbers, including lots of CG animal stampedes and even more cliched character growth. In short, it is the perfect counter-programming for liberal propaganda like Spielberg-Streep-Hanks snoozers about fake news. More on that later.

The rules of Jumanji were well-established in the first film and Jumanji so compulsively follows those rules that it’s scary. The only difference between the two movies is that Jumanji 2.0 takes the form of a video game rather than a boardgame. That way, there can be lots of jokes about video games, which comes in handy because the main character is a video gaming nerd so when he becomes the Rock we can be reminded that he is still a nerd and he can explain to the other characters and the audience how video games work.

I can’t remember if Jumanji 1.0 had as much explanation about board games but I feel like even it aimed slightly higher than this. I guess that’s why it is a “classic” that has now spawned a “franchise”. Putting those words in quotes is the only thing keeping my head from exploding.

I hate to play the movie snob card and honestly, I never imagined I would be this guy, but there are a ton of really good movies in theatres right now, it being Oscar season and all, and Jumanji is not one of them. Nonetheless, Jumanji is by far the biggest box office draw right now. That’s not surprising, North America, since we are just the worst right now (LIKE, THE WORST), but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Let’s resolve as a continent to stop making bad decisions in 2018. Let’s do things differently. Let’s stop dumbing things down. Let’s start thinking critically. Let’s challenge ourselves. Let’s watch films like The Post, The Shape of WaterLady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, instead of mindless, vapid and soulless fare like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Saying no to Jumanji is one small step toward a better world.

 

Victoria & Abdul

31victoriaandabdulIs there anything more awkward than finding out the guy you recruited as a token Hindu is actually Muslim? There is, actually – it’s far more awkward when the guy you literally shipped from India as a parlour trick starts getting special attention from the Queen, more attention than you and all your fellow white sycophants combined. The worst part? He doesn’t even seem to be trying to play your game, yet he’s still beating all of you at it.

Victoria & Abdul tells the (mostly) true tale of the unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, the former being the head of the Empire that oppressed India for nearly 100 years, and the latter being the guy who was sent on a two month boat ride to present a ceremonial coin to the Queen.

Director Stephen Frears and writer Lee Hall do their best to find humour both in Victoria’s self-involvement and in the shockingly blatant racism that Abdul is subjected to at every turn. That approach works very well, mainly because of the strong performances by Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in the titular roles. Dench’s Victoria is smart and self-aware even in her self-indulgence and stubbornness, and Fazal’s Abdul is such a capable, charismatic individual that at every turn he exposes the ridiculousness of the hate directed toward him. Perhaps in another hundred years our great-grandchildren will find today’s racial turmoil similarly humourous, ideally without seeing similarities to their time’s headlines. One can only hope.

One shortcoming, though, is that we are left to guess at Abdul’s motivations. Presumably, he would rather put up with cold, prejudiced England than live in impoverished, subjugated India, but we don’t ever see his home life so never really know why he puts up with being treated like dirt by every white character other than the Queen. Even so, Abdul is still a character I invested in despite knowing so little about him.

Beyond the stellar core performances, Victoria & Abdul is fairly by-the-numbers, playing out exactly as it must. There are no narrative surprises here but despite its predictability, this film kept me invested from start to finish, and that’s not an easy task for a 9 a.m. screening five days into a film festival!

Victoria & Abdul likely won’t end up in my top tier of films from Venice but I’m glad I saw it, especially for Oscar pool purposes – Dench should be a strong contender for Best Actress. And while the rest of the film doesn’t match the high standard that Dench sets, it’s an entertaining film that you won’t regret watching.