Tag Archives: popular culture

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.

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SXSW: The Director and The Jedi

the-director-and-the-jedi-sxswWhen I was a kid, I had a behind-the-scenes book detailing how they filmed the space combat in Star Wars, and I loved it. I could think of nothing better than to get to play with the spaceship models and the huge Death Star set used for the climactic scene. I found it fascinating to see how the movie was made.

And though my book did not inspire me sufficiently to pursue a career in film, my story is not much different than one that Rian Johnson tells in The Director and The Jedi, or for that matter one that Barry Jenkins told in his amazing keynote speech here at SXSW a couple of days ago about filming Moonlight in the same projects where Jenkins grew up.  Peeks behind the scenes can inspire the next generation of filmmakers, and give birth to a dream that a kid might not otherwise know to have, because it’s not immediately obvious that for every actor there are ten creative people behind the scenes, designing sets, making costumes, and on and on. But beyond that, even for someone like me who’s made a career choice that is not film, it’s just really cool to see how a huge film like Star Wars: The Last Jedi gets made.

The Director and The Jedi spans the course of The Last Jedi’s creation and documentarian Anthony Wonke was clearly given full access to the production. In granting unfettered access to Wonke and his crew, Johnson seems to have been trying to pay it forward, and in doing so he’s given a huge gift to all Star Wars fans.

There are some really amazing moments captured in The Director and The Jedi, with a particular favourite of mine being the destruction of the Jedi library, especially seeing the creature designers lose their shit over meeting Frank Oz.  And really, who can blame them? After all, he’s probably the reason they got into that career, and maybe even the reason their jobs even exist!

Maybe, just maybe, one young Star Wars fan will be inspired by this film to become the next Rian Johnson or Barry Jenkins. But even if not, there will be something of interest in The Director and The Jedi for every kid who ever wanted to fly his or her own model X-Wing through the trench run.

Ready Player One

ready-player-oneThere are very few immutable truths in this world, but here’s one: if you don’t like Steven Spielberg’s movies, then you don’t like movies. The brilliance of Ready Player One (and it is brilliant) is that it’s a Spielberg movie through and through, only because its source material references Spielberg repeatedly, the result is something exponentially more Spielberg than you could ever have though possible.  Ready Player One is a true blockbuster and a worthy addition to Spielberg’s list of classics.

All the references contained here, not just to Spielberg’s past work but to every pop culture thing ever, are essential for this movie to work, and Spielberg clearly knows it. Moreover, he embraces it without reservation. After all, the book (which should be read immediately by anyone between ages 30 and 50 who grew up playing videogames) is the perfect vessel for 80s nostalgia. The movie clearly is trying to top the book’s reference count, and it may have succeeded (the totals are way too high to accurately count).

What is great about the book remains great in the movie. And yet, the movie and book tell significantly different stories, which is greater still because there are all sorts of some amazing surprises to be found in the film even if you’ve read the book repeatedly. At tonight’s SXSW world premiere, Spielberg introduced the film by stating he approached it as pure fan service and his mission was to give the people in the seats exactly what they wanted, and I can confirm he accomplished exactly that. Oh, yes, that’s right, WE GOT TO WATCH READY PLAYER ONE WITH STEVEN SPIELBERG. It was every bit as mindblowing as it sounds.

Also mindblowing: one particular sequence in the movie that pays homage to a classic film (incidentally, it’s not an homage to a Spielberg film; rather, it’s to a film directed by someone who influenced Spielberg – and it’s not something that was in the book).  I do not think I am exaggerating to say it is one of the finest sequences that Spielberg has given us, which obviously is a big deal because we are talking about STEVEN FUCKING SPIELBERG. You will know this sequence when you see it, and as soon as you do you will want to immediately see it again. And again. And again.

That amazing sequence is a standout but it’s not alone. There are several other incredible set pieces in Ready Player One, containing some of the best visual effects we’ve ever seen. Of course, the effects are only window dressing. What makes the scenes so great is Spielberg. As the camera swerves and dodges, and as avatars fight monsters, drive cars through obstacle courses, and traverse epic battlefields by leaps and bounds, the viewer is never lost for a second, because we are being guided through the chaos by a master. I loved this movie and I bet you will too. I’m just sorry to have to wait two weeks before I can watch it again.

 

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.

 

Bright

bright_unit_06597_r_wide-67b1f15cb792c81ccc1359a7e8a2e6c0bce7b718-s900-c85What’s worse than being flat, derivative and uninspired? Being all those things, showing a tiny bit of promise in spite of them, and then throwing the interesting parts away in search of a flashy climax and tidy resolution. That’s Bright.

The concept is sound – what if there were Elves and Orcs and magic in our world? It’s not a new idea and that’s fine. The hodgepodge of fantasy elements forming the basis of this world are standard fare as well, straight out of Tolkien or World of Warcraft. Orcs are brutes with sharp teeth, Elves are beautiful and rich, magic wands are super powerful but not everyone can use them. The script, complete with minority and 1% allegories, practically writes itself.

The problem is, it feels like no extra effort was put in to creating Bright. Like, at all.  Like, I’m pretty sure Will Smith was quoting himself from Men in Black every time he let a sarcastic quip fly. Not incidentally, well over 90% of his lines in Bright are sarcastic quips. Either stop phoning it in or stop being in movies, please.

Joel Edgerton doesn’t phone it in like Smith but he is totally unrecognizable and totally wasted here as the sensitive Orc sidekick. He had no chance of saving this mess. Full disclosure: this is a recurring exchange between Jay and me:

Jay: We should go see [small indie movie]. Joel Edgerton is in it.

Me: Who’s Joel Edgerton again?

Jay: The guy from [slightly older small indie movie that we saw a few months prior].

Me: That was Joel Edgerton?

Jay: We literally just had this conversation when you made me watch the Star Wars prequels.

Me: JOEL EDGERTON IS IN STAR WARS?

Jay: I hate you.

It happened again in Bright only I swear, this time it was not my fault. It was David Ayer’s, and Bright is proof that we should have cut Ayer off long before Suicide Squad. Thanks for writing Training Day, really, but that goodwill was used up long ago.  A glimmer of promise and then an avalanche of mediocrity and disappointment – just like Bright.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

ridley-hamill-last-jedi-trailer-ht-jef-171121_12x5_992It is a good thing that Disney did not try to stick a Frozen short in front of Episode XIII, which weighs in at a hefty 2 hour and 33 minutes not including ads and previews. It doesn’t help that much of that time is spent watching Poe Dameron try really, really hard to learn a fairly simple lesson. Poe got it on what by my count was the fourth try, during a battle that took me by surprise because I expected the movie to have ended before that fight even started!

So this was not the ideal movie to have dragged Jay to, with it being an unusually long entry in a nerdy franchise she has less than no interest in. At least trying to spot the rumoured William & Harry cameo kept her busy for a while. I hope.

For those of us invested in this behemoth franchise, this is a solid Star Wars film that changes things up a bit more than did The Force Awakens, though this one sometimes feels like it’s spinning in place. Still, being the Star Wars fanboy I am, I was more than willing to forgive a few extra scenes and a few too many contrivances because what this movie gets right, it REALLY gets right.

At the top of the “gets right” list are the Last Jedi. And  since Jedi is plural, that makes for multiple entries on the list.

First, Luke is actually in this movie for more than one scene and it’s the Luke we know from all three original films, for worse and then for better, and then for so much better. Bear with Luke as in the course of this movie he manages to transition (again) from whiny back-planet farmboy to ass-kicking robed avenger. It’s truly fantastic.

Second, Daisy Ridley’s Rey is really, really great for the second movie in a row. She is the heart of this third trilogy and for my money she’s the best Jedi we’ve ever had (because unlike Luke, Anakin and Ben Kenobi, Rey never had a whiny phase).

Third, we get a Jedi ghost appearance that was an unexpected bit of closure I didn’t even know I needed, as it’s one last advice-giving opportunity from master to student.  It will make you wish that Han Solo was a Jedi so he had a chance to pop up in ghost form during Episode IX to rehash the good old days.

Speaking of the good old days, it is bittersweet to see Carrie Fisher get a prominent role here. Great as it is to have Leia be the true leader of the resistance, her importance means Fisher’s death will leave a massive hole in Episode IX that can’t (/shouldn’t) be filled (CG stand-ins creep me out and should creep you out too). RIP Carrie.

It occurs to me that a two hour version of this movie might have been my favourite Star Wars of all, if they had cut out much of the Poe and Finn stuff (which are the scenes that inspired my earlier reference to spinning in place).  As it stands, this is still a good film that did not disappoint, and it might edge out Return of the Jedi for third place on my list, which is pretty damn respectable.

 

El Camino Christmas

El-Camino-Christmas-featureI count Die Hards 1 and 2 as two of my favourite Christmas movies, so I’ve seen a hostage situation or two play out on-screen during the holiday season. But El Camino Christmas proves that not all hostage situations are created equal, mainly because not all cops are Bruce Willis. Some cops are Dax Shepard or worse, drunken Vincent D’Onofrio (who is either a very good actor or has a serious alcohol problem, or maybe both). El Camino Christmas is the opposite of a how-to hostage negotiation video, as things start bad and somehow get worse.

With Dax Shepard involved with the film, I expected some dumb comedy but El Camino Christmas seems to not even be trying to be funny. And if it was trying, well, it failed miserably.

On the “plus” side, if you have been suffering from Tim Allen or Jessica Alba withdrawal, El Camino Christmas will give you a shot of both. Neither needed to be here but they both showed up anyway for a little Christmas green. Really, why not say yes, when Netflix is throwing money at everyone else?

Some of those other Netflix originals have been pretty good but El Camino Christmas is not even middling.  It’s a totally predictable, cliched, and boring film.  It’s not the least bit entertaining, not even unintentionally. There is really nothing to recommend about El Camino Christmas. It is bleaker than a stocking full of coal, so just watch those Die Hards again instead. Especially if you can catch the dubbed for TV versions for the true holiday experience. Yippie-ki-yay, Mister Falcon!

Transformers: The Last Knight

why-critics-say-transformers-the-last-knight-is-2017s-most-toxic-movie (1)I wrote a whole other review of this horrible, awful, infuriating movie and then accidentally deleted it.  Honestly, my review was unremarkable for the most part so it’s not a huge loss.  This movie makes no sense, it’s the fifth movie in a tired franchise that was only ever enjoyable if you, like me, liked seeing robots decapitate other robots in slow motion (and which stopped being awesome four movies ago), and it’s got Mark Wahlberg doing his usual “acting” by which I mean that he talks really fast in a whiny voice when he is under pressure and otherwise just stands around flexing his biceps and looking confused.  In short, it is the worst Transformers movie yet, and the next one will probably be even worse.

But there was one part of my review worth saving, and it’s this: Mark Wahlberg was clearly born to be in Michael Bay movies.  It is the perfect match of all perfect matches.  These two eventually found each other, but there are so many Wahlberg-less Michael Bay movies, and isn’t that a shame?

So…what if Michael Bay made special editions of his back catalogue, George Lucas style, and digitally inserted Wahlberg into all his “classics” as a way to link all his movies together?

Think about it!  It would be the greatest shared universe of all time.  We could have Bad Boys fighting bad robots under the supervision of Wahlberg and his good friend Joe Pantoliano, the space shuttle in Armageddon could be a robot who owes a favour to Wahlberg and who figures out a way to save Bruce Willis as payback, and Wahlberg could help bring Sean Connery and his estranged daughter Claire Forlani together while at the same time helping Nicholas Cage foil Ed Harris’ plot to steal that face-meltingly-deadly VX gas, this time without losing Michael Biehn’s whole SEAL team.  And then Wahlberg could assemble a team of one million Ewan MacGregor clones along with the time travelling pilot duo of Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett to destroy the Transformers once and for all, saving us all from ever having to see Transformers 6: Shia’s Revenge.

This needs to happen.

 

Blade Runner 2049

blade4Has there ever been a more beautiful vision of a dystopian society than what Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins serve up in Blade Runner 2049?  Even a photo of a dead tree will be captivating to those around you.  Nuclear wastelands, city-sized garbage dumps, and coastal dams will all amaze.  Visually, this is exactly the sequel that Blade Runner deserved.

Story-wise, Blade Runner 2049 is probably the sequel that Blade Runner deserved as well, though that’s not necessarily a compliment.  The story is muddled right from the hard-to-read title cards that try to bring us up to date on what’s happened in that world’s last 30 years.

The facts in the title cards turn out to be quite important to keep up in Blade Runner 2049’s world as we follow an LAPD officer (Ryan Gosling) trying to solve a 30-year-old mystery involving our old friend Deckard (Harrison Ford).  Though it is unfortunate that the title cards are as dense as they are, I would not have wanted the movie to try to retell its background story, as the 163 minute run time is plenty long enough already!

Refreshingly, Blade Runner’s world is not our world.  It is an alternative future, so there is no attempt to revise the original’s timeline (as you may recall, Blade Runner is set in 2019 in a world where robot slaves are fighting space battles and colonizing other planets for humans, so things did not exactly turn out in our world as the first film predicted).  Interestingly, those differences make it easier for the view to focus on the similarities between their world and ours.  Villeneuve has delivered another very thoughtful, deliberate and satisfying sci-fi film, and it’s easy to analogize to our world every time a replicant is treated as disposable property (which happens a lot).  The film also offers a lot to chew on regarding memory and the nature of reality.  Honestly, I’m still digesting it all as a I write, while also trying to sort out a few of the story’s finer points, and this film is one that I’m going to have to watch again to get everything sorted.

It’s remarkable how closely this sequel resembles the first movie,  in style and substance, despite being released 35 years later.  More remarkably, at the same time it is paying tribute to the original, Blade Runner 2049 is telling a fresh story set in this familiar world, and manages to leave the original movie’s largest question unanswered in a surprisingly satisfying way.  So while Blade Runner 2049 is not the best movie of 2017, it is a good movie made great by its technical excellence, which naturally makes it the perfect sequel to Blade Runner.

Nico, 1988

nico-1988-trine-dyrholmYou may not know Nico by name, but I bet you have heard of some of her friends, people like Andy Warhol and Lou Reed. Nico, born Christa Päffgen, was part of the Velvet Underground for their first album (getting co-billing in fact) and, as a musician, that would seem to overshadow anything else one might do from then on. Nico, 1988 joins Christa in 1986 as she tours in support of her latest solo album. Understandably, Christa would prefer to keep the focus on her new music, but the press keeps asking about her past.

Nico, 1988 makes the viewer feel the weight of that past. This film gives a revealing and honest look at Christa’s life, stitched together from memories of those who knew her, including her son. It feels like a documentary, in large part due to a great performance by Trine Durholm in the lead role. Durholm shines both offstage as well as onstage, handling vocal duties herself.

The music is the beating heart of Nico, 1988, which is entirely appropriate for a biopic about an avant garde innovator whose music Rolling Stone called “a really worthwhile venture into musical infinity”, music that others have described as desolate, terrifying and unlistenable.

Judging from the soundtrack in Nico, 1988, all those descriptions are accurate. Sometimes, Christa sounds horrible, but once in a while, it’s magic. One ill-fated concert in Prague shows the heights that Christa can hit. Her energy and the crowd’s mesh perfectly and draw the viewer into the front row. Not coincidentally, that’s the only performance in the film that Christa delivers drug-free. Christa’s struggles with addiction are part of her story, and they feature in this film just as they did in her life.

For music lovers in particular, Nico, 1988 is essential viewing. It provides a behind the scenes look at the life of a true artist, a musician’s musician who cast a shadow too large for herself to escape from. Catch it if you can!