Category Archives: Half-assed

Sean says: you could do worse.

The Fate of the Furious

1488423016_80f557346e9c57a769fa41a2b284345aAs a movie franchise adds new instalments, we expect (and even demand) that the stakes get higher, that the setpieces get bigger, and that the payoff be greater when our heroes win in the end. Normally, the need to maintain some level of realism constrains the film in some way. Not so with the latest entry in the Fast and Furious franchise.

The Fate of the Furious is absolutely ridiculous from start to finish. There is only one law of physics in this world, and it is this: our heroes must succeed.  So if for Vin Diesel to win a race, a car needs to go faster in reverse than in drive after doing a 180, then that’s what is going to happen. That is always part of the pact that action movies (and action sequels in particular) make with their audience: accept the rules being bent now and again and in exchange, receive that elevated payoff I mentioned earlier. By and large, we are willing to accept that sort of thing in service of those higher stakes I mentioned. What sets the Fate of the Furious apart from most movies is that it doesn’t bend the rules at the climax; rather, it breaks them in the opening sequence. Right from the start, we know that absolutely anything goes, and it just gets more ridiculous from there.

If, like me, you can accept that in the service of entertainment  then you will enjoy this movie. On the other hand if, like Jay, you have no tolerance for big, loud, dumb action movies then you will want to choose some other form of entertainment. Because Fate of the Furious is among the biggest, loudest and dumbest movies ever made. It is also among the most gleeful, and I thoroughly enjoyed every over-the-top set piece, each of which is spectacular in its idiocy.

The Fate of the Furious is exactly what it aims to be, no more and no less. It was never going to reach the emotional heights of Furious 7, and it was never going to bring something fresh to the genre. It is a fun experience (especially in 4DX, which made this movie even more of a rollercoaster ride) but ultimately it’s a flashy, forgettable movie. Which may otherwise have been enough if I had not just seen Baby Driver at SXSW and been reminded how great an action movie can be when it is truly innovative instead of a formulaic eighth entry in a franchise that was all style, no substance right from the start.

The Fate of the Furious gets a score of six Lamborghinis on ice out of ten, with the caveat that if you have a time machine then jump to June 28 and see Baby Driver instead.

 

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Ghost in the Shell

ghost-in-the-shell-scarlett-johansson.jpgFor a movie whose very title references souls and finding meaning within glossy shells, Ghost in the Shell is unbearably hollow.  The packaging is nice but there is nothing underneath. At all.  It will leave you with a number of questions but none of them will be existential.

The first question is how uncomfortable should you be that in what I’m guessing is future Japan (judging from the robot geishas and the right-hand drive cars), basically everyone is white and speaks English. The answer, as always with Hollywood, is VERY.

The next question is how much are you allowed to take inspiration from classic sci-fi (and also shitty sci-fi) before you’re ripping people off. The answer is NOT THIS MUCH OBVIOUSLY YOU LAZY BASTARDS. Ghost in the Shell drops us into a grimy, dark, rainy future full of 3D billboards. To describe it as drawing from Blade Runner is too generous. There are elements of other fictional futures as well, like the Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic, and even Tron (lightcycles!). While this movie looks great at every turn, the total lack of originality left me cold.

Next question: does it count as good acting when Scarlett Johansson convincingly plays a Ghost_in_the_Shell_Scarlett_Johansson_2_aeac805303d6c795b51ea920f763a012.pngbeautiful but emotionless robot? As always, the answer is DEFINITELY YES AS LONG AS SHE RSVPS from the Hollywood Foreign Press and PROBABLY SINCE WE NOMINATED ENOUGH BLACK PEOPLE LAST YEAR WE HAVE A 5TH SLOT FOR A WHITE IN 2018 from the Academy.

Bonus question: does it count as nudity when a nipple-less female robot fights while basically naked? That’s a tough one but after much thought, the answer is SHOWING NIPPLES MAY AT LEAST HAVE DISTRACTED THE AUDIENCE SO THEY DIDN’T WONDER WHY THE ROBOT THAT CAN TURN INVISIBLE DOESN’T JUST STAY INVISIBLE ALL THE TIME DURING FIGHTS.

Obviously, lots of questions were raised by Ghost in the Shell, but none of them engage in anything interesting. Instead of the mundane, the film could have delved into questions like what are the attributes that make us human, whether memory is vital to identity, or why are we as a society unable to ascribe value to function in the same way we do to beauty.  Elements of those interesting questions are present in Ghost in the Shell but the film seems incapable of dealing with them. That is Ghost in the Shell’s biggest failing and the reason it gets a score of four glitches in the Matrix out of ten.

 

SXSW: Paris Can Wait

paris-can-wait-F72057.jpgI’ve been to France twice and would go back in a heartbeat if we got the chance.  It’s a beautiful country with so much history, and their climate is warm enough that their spring feels like summer to Canadian visitors like us.   And above all else, the food in France is wonderful – the French do gourmet dining as well or better than anyone else in the world.  Eleanor Coppola seems to have similar feelings in France but instead of wistfully looking at pictures of Paris (which is what I’m doing right now), she got to work and made her own chance to spend time there, by writing and directing Paris Can Wait.

One thing that is readily apparent is Coppola’s background in documentaries (most if not all of which have chronicled her family members’ films).  She captures some beautiful shots of the French countryside and intersperses some well-shot photographs into the movie (courtesy of Lane’s character’s convenient hobby).  The photos were a good way to show off the food, and Paris Can Wait features so much delicious-looking food.

I can’t fault Coppola for taking the opportunity to sightsee in France on other people’s money, and tagging along on the journey was enjoyable even though there is nothing particularly memorable about it.  Diane Lane plays the same role she always does as the hopeful and optimistic woman who is taking stock of her life, Alec Baldwin appears for about five minutes total as Lane’s husband before jetting off and leaving Lane with his business partner (played by Arnaud Viard), and that basically takes care of all the speaking parts in this movie.

Paris Can Wait is simple and straightforward with no surprises.  You get exactly what you’d expect, which may or may not be a good thing.  I think you will enjoy this movie if: (a) you like traditional by-the-numbers rom-coms; (b) you are a member of Diane Lane’s fan club; or (c) you wish you were in France eating gourmet meals that cost 800 Euro and up.

If you’re not in that last category yet then get there!  My advice?  Instead of reading about romantic comedies, take a date and your chequebook to a Michelin-starred restaurant immediately (preferably one that brings individual carts to your table for the cheese and dessert courses, like we were treated to at Guy Savoy).  And then post your food porn pictures in the comments (bonus points for pictures of the carts in all their glory)!

 

John Wick: Chapter 2

wickbarI lagged way behind and only saw the first John Wick a few weeks ago when it popped up on Netflix. If you haven’t seen it, and like action movies, it’s a good one (definitely good enough to warrant a sequel). And that sequel is now upon us.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is faithful to the first chapter’s formula, almost to a fault. That fault is repetitiveness, in a somewhat strange way. You see, one of the things I liked about John Wick (both the first movie and the character) is that he bleeds. He makes mistakes and the bad guys capitalize. He wins in the end through sheer force of will.

The same basic formula plays out in John Wick: Chapter 2 but since it’s a sequel, everything has to be tougher for our protagonist Jonathan (note to Ian McShane: emphasizing that this hit man’s full name is “Jonathan” is weird; please stop).  The problem is the way the difficulty is ratched up. Wick is not given tougher bad guys to face. He’s just given more of them, which makes the extended fight scenes a tedious series of guys running at Wick and Wick then shooting them twice in the body and one in the head.john-wick-chapter-2-keanu-reeves-419484-jpg-r_1920_1080-f_jpg-q_x-xxyxx

Or, if two guys (or more) run at him at once (a SERIOUS violation of movie bad guy etiquette) he puts one in an MMA- style hold, shoots the other(s) in the body then head, then gives a head shot to the guy he wrestled down and has probably been using as a human shield while dealing with the other(s). Keanu Reeves obviously practiced this move particularly hard and good on him for still being credible as an action hero, but a little variety would have been nice in order to continue the first movie’s realistic feel.

(Don’t even get me started on the part where Wick is specifically given a gun with limited ammo and then immediately gets a magic movie gun from the first bad guy he kills that shoots about 30 times before he has to cock it again. Or the fact that in this film every second person in Central Park is an assassin.)

There’s more good and bad, and more good than bad in John Wick: Chapter 2. But when this movie’s ending set us up for the third instalment, I immediately thought of Jason Bourne, which I seriously considered turning off on a plane. That is a bad road for John Wick to be headed down.

John Wick: Chapter 2 gets a score of six smashed-up classic Mustangs out of ten. Essentially, the opening car-smashing sequence was a metaphor, in which Wick was this movie and my goodwill toward the first movie was the car. That it was such a nice car to begin with is the most disappointing part.

 

Blade Runner

Jay provides an excellent litmus test anytime I’m unable to separate nostalgia from quality.  It happened with Star Wars, it happened with Indiana Jones, and it has now happened with Blade Runner.  As I write this, it occurs to me that Jay may just hate Harrison Ford, but let’s leave that aside for now.

Yes, because Blade Runner 2049 is on the horizon, I was able to convince Jay to watch Blade Runner with me earlier this week.  Anytime I can get Jay to watch what I will call nerd-fi, a category that includes most movies I saw in the 80s and 90s, it feels like a major brunner4victory.  But only until the movie starts, because so far, about 5 minutes into each movie I proudly show to Jay, she wonders why I bothered to beg her to watch this one, asking things like, “Do you remember it being this bad?” when the flying cars first come into view.

Maddeningly, I can’t even argue against her assessments.  In 2017, Blade Runner is not a great movie.  It’s not really even a good movie.  It’s a movie with vision, it’s beautiful to look at (though the flying cars do look as horrible as Jay pointed out), it brought dystopian futures and particularly Philip K. Dick to mainstream cinema, and it has an ambiguous ending that becomes even more so with every new cut issued by Ridley Scott.  But it’s also a movie with cornball acting, disposable characters that we are barely introduced to, and a ton of sequences that are beautiful but: (a) extremely repetitive (how many times do we need to see a car fly by a Coke billboard or the offworld blimp ad);  (b) essentially silent (like Ford’s visit to a food cart/open air diner); and (c) do nothing to advance the plot (which, let’s be honest, is probably about 35 minutes worth of movie without being padded by all the beautiful shots of futuristic Los Angeles).

brunnerStill, there is something to be said about Blade Runner and something reassuring about its continued relevance.  A big reason reason that the movie feels thin today is because it has been so influential.  We’ve seen so many films build on what Blade Runner started, and in comparison, Blade Runner is like a wheel made out of stone.  In that way, it’s important but if choosing between the original or the best that the genre has to offer today, the modern film is going to be the better one.  But there is still room in my heart for the rickety original, the one that was ahead of its time (and ahead of ours, as Blade Runner is set in the “distant” future of 2019).

And in some distant future of our own, maybe I will find a movie that I feel nostalgic for that also stands up to Jay’s critical eye.  Your suggestions are welcome!

Collateral Beauty

collateral-beauty-trailerWhile searching for Will Smith’s filmography, I was surprised to see the pleasure with which critics are tearing this movie apart. The reason I was looking for Smith’s info was to try to figure out whether Collateral Beauty is his best dramatic performance (and I quickly realized that since I haven’t seen Ali, I’m disqualified from weighing in on that topic). With that lead-in, it probably goes without saying that I again think it’s been too long since the critics were thrown a juicy morsel, they’re searching for anything to bite down on as a result, and Collateral Beauty has been flagged as an easy target.

Collateral Beauty is not a great movie by any means, but it’s very watchable for several reasons. First, Smith reminds us that he can hold his own against anyone, no matter how many Oscar nominations/wins they may have (his co-stars in Collateral Beauty, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren and Keira Knightly, have two Oscar wins and countless nominations between them – incidentally, how does Michael Pena not have any yet?). Smith is consistently the most interesting person on screen even though for a significant portion of the movie he doesn’t say a word.

Second, there’s something undeniably watchable as the movie tries to take aim at cliches, even when it does so by using other cliches. Perhaps it’s just that the cliches that bother me the most were the ones under attack. I can’t really say any more without spoiling some of the characters’ arcs, so if you want more of a rant on that point then feel free to request more details in the comments section.

Third, I found out early on that I was wrong about how the movie’s plot would play out in a major way, which almost never happens nowadays due to the sheer number of trailers foisted on me (especially when half of them have no qualms about spoiling the best parts of the movie they’re promoting). On a related note, seeing a movie in Hawaii earlier this week was sobering because I think they showed every trailer currently in rotation. I am sure Canadian theatres will soon follow suit and it’s already too much here! Just let me watch the movie I paid for already.

Since I’ve started complaining (it never takes too long), it seems like a good time to talk about negatives from Collateral Beauty, and there are some significant ones.  The bigggest problem is that Smith’s character’s supposed friends treat him in the worst way imaginable during the worst time of his life, and it seems we are supposed to forgive them for it. The film attempts to make it easier for us to do that but its method requires a major swerve by Smith’s character that came too quickly to feel natural, as well as a twist that seemed too convenient a fix.

That same convenient fix also transformed the tertiary characters’ motivations from awful to divine and again the turn felt too abrupt. While it made thematic sense and actually tied the movie together well, the execution was too rough to be satisfying (and it also gave rise to a new (/old) complaint about the trailer that I can’t discuss without getting into spoilers so again, comment if you’re curious to hear more of a rant on this point).

All in all, Collateral Beauty is worth a watch and is definitely not deserving of the hatred it’s receiving from critics. It’s quite decent and gets bonus points for making me choke up a few times (something that doesn’t happen very often). Sure, it’s cheating a bit by focusing on death and loss, but Collateral Beauty is intended as a tearjerker and wholeheartedly embraces its nature. Is that such a bad thing? I don’t think so.

Collateral Beauty knows what it is and delivers exactly what you’d expect. If you’re in the mood for a sob story then this is your horse. I think riding this teary pony wore Jay out, though, so be prepared if you’re a real cryer like Jay as opposed to a robot who occasionally feels sad (which is the category Jay has put me in and I’ve really got no valid argument against it – beep-boop).

Collateral Beauty gets a score of six teary-eyed robots out of ten.

Thor

thor-movie-theme-song-1I finally saw Thor and to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what happened. I know Thor got hit by Natalie Portman’s car a couple of times after being banished to Earth for being a dick. Then he learned a lesson and could pick up his hammer again, so he smashed a rainbow bridge to save a planet. But then he couldn’t see Natalie anymore because he wrecked the bridge.

Except I know he got back to Earth somehow in time to appear in the  Avengers but he didn’t bother to check in with Natalie. That doesn’t bode well for them and yet she’s in Thor: The Dark World so I guess she didn’t hold much of a grudge.

Thor felt different than the other Marvel movies, which is sort of a good thing except in being different it felt much less super-heroey than the others. Then again, that might be my anti-Thor bias showing. I never cared much for Thor in the comics. I always found him snooty and boring. He’s no Spider-Man, that’s for sure.

So while kudos may be due to Kenneth Branagh for trying to put a fantasy spin on Thor’s cinematic debut, I guess I would rather have seen him fight the Hulk than some random fire-breathing robot. The good news is that I might get my wish now that Taika Waititi has been handed the franchise’s reins!  November 2017 can’t come soon enough, as Thor: Ragnarok is arguably my most anticipated Marvel film yet.

While I’m waiting, I suppose I could take in the other Thor movie between now and then. After being underwhelmed by Thor, I’m in no real rush to take in Thor: The Dark World. I’m far more likely to rewatch Hunt for the Wilderpeople instead. Because unlike Thor, Ricky Baker is definitely my kind of superhero.

 

Man vs Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler

I am too young to remember Nibbler from the arcade but it was on my computer at some point during university, along with Solitaire, Hearts, and Free Cell.  In Nibbler, the player controls a snake with the goal of eating all the dots on the board.  But every dot you eat makes your snake get longer (in a very non-sexual way), and if you let the snake run into itself then it dies (I guess because it is super poisonous?). All in all, a pretty simple concept, but like most 80s games, you can playmanvssnake-cartoon-billionpoints-700x374 the game forever doing the exact same thing over and over, just a little faster each time.

As a natural-born procrastinator, I played a few rounds of Nibbler while avoiding writing research papers.   Is it just me or has YouTube/Facebook/Twitter made all those games obsolete?  Anyway, back in the day I became quite good at Free Cell but mastery over Nibbler always eluded me.  Part of it was that I found the game extremely boring (possibly more boring than writing the paper I was trying to avoid), so I’d only last one or two games and then I’d move on to something else.

Unlike me, there are 40+ year olds who seem not to get bored by Nibbler, and who play that game for marathon sessions, 30 hours or more, in order to score a billion points.  Nibbler’s claim to fame is that the developer had the foresight to display a score nine digits long instead of the usual six, so Nibbler’s whirring numbers went that much higher than its contemporaries before flipping back to zero (which may be part of why we feared Y2K so much, because in all these games you could lose everything by playing just a bit too long).  Nibbler focuses primarily on the first player to hit a billion in the game, the unfortunately named Tim McVey.  He hit the high score back in 1983 and promptly moved on to other games because after playing the game for 40 hours straight he couldn’t bear to touch a Nibbler machine ever again, but hemanvssnake_1280-720x405 returns to the competitive Nibbler arena in his 40s when he learns he might not actually have held the world record all those years.

We’ve reviewed some very good documentaries on Netflix recently (like Ava DuVernay’s excellent 13th).  Man vs Snake does not come close to those heights.  It is unlikely to inspire you or educate you or show you anything worthwhile.  This lifelong quest for high scores in a dull, repetitive game is led by people who like dull, repetitive things and inevitably are stuck in the past due to their nature.  Certainly, the gameplay footage, which features prominently in a whodunit-type post-mortem of one marathon attempt, is going to hurt your eyes because it’s painfully archaic.  I don’t know how I ever stared at any of those screens.  It’s impossible for me to stare at them now or hear the incessant beeping that was a staple of the arcade experience back then, the equivalent of the bells on a slot machine, over and over and over.

While it is interesting to peek inside these people’s lives for a few minutes, my interest faded long before the movie wrapped up.  At its core, Man vs Snake is a dull, repetitive experience, much like Nibbler itself.  It’s a decent time-waster that you will likely get bored of before it ends, and you may want your quarter back.  There are much better documentaries to be found in the Netflix arcade.

Deepwater Horizon

07Disoriented. I walked out of the theatre disoriented. Was it the strobe light effect while the power failed? Was it the glass shards being pulled by Kurt Russell out of his own foot? Was it the bone sticking out of a redshirt’s leg? Was it that 11 people died and I wondered how the other 115 on the rig survived?

Yes.

Deepwater Horizon is a war movie where the good guys don’t have a chance in hell, the bad guys are greedy bastards who were supposed to be on the good guys’ side, and the real enemy is an almost unstoppable 130 million gallons of oil spewing from the sea floor. Deepwater Horizon makes it perfectly clear where the blame for the worst oil spill in history rests: with the money-grubbing assholes who tried to cut corners and lost their gamble. The film is not subtle. It finds ten different ways to show us the choices that led to the disaster. It works.

image1-3Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) gets bloody. Jimmy Harrell (Russell) gets bloodier. The stand-in for greedy BP, Donald Vidrine (John Malkovitch), does not get as bloody as you’d hope. They are some of the lucky ones. Deepwater Horizon takes us into the heart of the mess. Tons of mud, oil, fire, explosions, and rag dolls flying all over the screen. It is hard to watch but not too hard to follow. We are provided with title cards and a grade school explanation of the Deepwater Horizon’s mission. They help the exposition fly by so we can get to the destruction faster.

By the end you will have been appropriately beaten down by the disaster. It is a suitably somber end. The survivors are consumed with grief. The restraint shown, especially in the closing minutes, elevates this movie above the Michael-Bay-esque fire show I thought we would see.

Deepwater Horizon is not a great movie but it’s far better than expected. By the time the credits roll your head may be spinning like mine was, especially if you remember that beyond the immediate devastation depicted in the film lies the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, one that ended up costing BP $54 billion in cleanup costs and penalties. Deepwater Horizon makes clear that BP in general and Vidrine in particular got off too easy, but it puts itself in an awkward position by barely mentioning the environmental effects of the disaster, which left me feeling that the movie entirely missed the point.

 

 

 

TIFF: American Pastoral

pastoralbar640Ewan McGregor makes his directorial debut with American Pastoral, an adaption of Philip Roth’s novel. As always, I haven’t read the book and Jay has. She reports the movie to be quite faithful to the book, even pared down to have a two hour run-time.

I feel like the book must have a black cover, because American Pastoral is dark from start to finish. It is methodical in chronicling a family’s unravelling and is as far from idyllic as you can get.

With its dialogue-heavy scenes divided by contextual stock footage clips, American Pastoral felt more like a play than 21st century cinema. It is richly shot but largely static. The style mostly fit but at times the transitions were jarring. When they worked the transitions felt like covers of Life magazine, reenacted. Except as far as I know, Life magazine never featured a pipe bomb explosion at a small-town post office. Perhaps my dad’s magazine collection is incomplete.

In the Q&A session following the screening, McGregor described his approach to directing as an attempt to give life to the movie he saw in his head when he read the script. He imagined some nice shots and paid the price to get them (literally in the case of some costly train platform scenes). His foray into directing is a workmanlike effort but not a distinguishing one.

As an exploration of the destructive power of children, American Pastoral succeeds. As entertainment? Not so much, not for me.

By the closing credits I felt sad and drained, which I have no doubt is exactly how McGregor and Roth would have wanted me to leave the theatre. But because nothing stuck with me other than that empty feeling, American Pastoral is not a movie I can recommend.  If you enjoyed the book it’s likely worth a shot though, and in that case I hope you can connect with it in all the ways that I didn’t.