Saturday, March 26, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Some of the most heated debates you'll ever see begin with a single question: "Who'd win in a fight?" Pick any two popular fictional characters, and the idea of them doing battle is enough to send any geek's imagination running wild. We'll even occasionally end up with these arguments bearing fruit, with movies like King Kong vs. Godzilla and Freddy vs. Jason hitting theaters and wars between the Alien and the Predator sprawling across comic books, video games, and two movies. But other than James T. Kirk versus Jean-Luc Picard, the one argument I've seen the most is who would win between DC's legendary superheroes, Superman and Batman. It's a battle that's actually happened in the past, most famously in the pages of Frank Miller's seminal comic book The Dark Knight Returns, but never on the scale of the newly released flick Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But I should have taken the movie's Rotten Tomatoes score (as of this writing, it sits at 30% and will probably drop lower) as a warning, because I don't know if I could have been more disappointed with it.

Eighteen months have passed since the city of Metropolis was left devastated by General Zod and his band of rebel Kryptonians. And while his intervention on that fateful day and his acts of selfless heroism since then have led many to trust Superman (Henry Cavill) as a benevolent force, there are those who are convinced otherwise. Among the doubters is billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who witnessed firsthand the death and destruction caused by Superman's battle with Zod and is now fearful of the day that he might switch from savior to conqueror. He's bound and determined to prevent this, using the expertise and equipment he's acquired as the masked vigilante "Batman" to develop a means to neutralize Superman should the need ever arise.

Wayne's paranoia is surpassed, however, by that of Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), an eccentric businessman who has grown obsessed with proving that Superman is far from the altruistic hero that appears to be. Luthor begins secretly orchestrating ways to sully his enemy's good name and shift the public's perception of him, while using his vast wealth and political connections to get access to the top-secret laboratory built around the wreckage of Zod's ship and find answers to all of his darkest questions about our superpowered visitor from another world. But his primary goal: to subtly stir the tensions between Superman and Batman and manipulate them into a fight, a clash of titans that that he hopes will end with Superman either dead or exposed as the villain Luthor believes him to be.

I wanted to like this movie. I honestly did. I went in thinking to myself, "There's no way it can be that bad." But I was wrong, dead wrong. Batman v Superman is a bloated mess of a movie that tries to accomplish way too much in the time its given yet never really does any of it right. It's painfully obvious that they're trying to play catch-up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet missed every single thing that Marvel Studios did well so wildly that it's almost like they were doing it on purpose. The movie practically assaults the audience with all of its failed potential and wasted efforts. Between that, the inconsistent writing, and the oppressively dark tone, Batman v Superman is an absolute chore to get through.

Zack Snyder returns to direct the movie after helming Man of Steel, and I'm not one hundred percent convinced that Warner Bros. was wise to bring him back. Snyder has always been accused of preferring style over substance, a criticism that is none more accurate when applied to Batman v Superman. There's absolutely nothing worthwhile about the movie beyond what's on the surface, and what is on the surface isn't very appealing. The movie's dark, downright bleak tone makes it really depressing to watch, as if the entire project was one big experiment Snyder was conducting in an attempt to discover the antithesis of fun. It's like he was actively trying to make a movie that was utterly devoid of any sort of happiness or glee, instead preferring to make a movie so gloomy and joyless that it makes me simultaneously sad and angry that this was the best Snyder felt that he could do.

It's also relentlessly dull until the climactic fight scenes, because it feels like Snyder and the writers are trying to cram so many things into the movie that nothing really ends up happening. And the fight scenes... oh dear, the fight scenes! By the end, it felt like Snyder was beating me over the head with a pipe while trying to make me go deaf and blind at the same time. It's one giant terrible mixture of cacophonic light and sound, an all-out assault on the senses that stops being entertaining and becomes annoying halfway through.

And then there's the piss-poor script credited to Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer. It feels like Terrio and Goyer just cobbled together pieces from other, better stories without trying to make any sort of coherent narrative out of it all. It feels bloated, trying to cram numerous movies worth of material into one 150-minute project just because the Justice League movie starts filming this summer and they've got to hurry up and get all this stuff out of the way now while they still have a chance. There's just so much going on that it does not allow for any sort of narrative flow at all. The story bounces around like it's trapped inside a pinball machine, with no chance to make any sort of sense of it or to give the audience a chance to care. You'd think that a movie that is ostensibly a sequel to Man of Steel would be more concerned with just being that. But instead we have to clumsily introduce Wonder Woman, shoehorn in cameos from Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash, and give Batman the lion's share of the movie's focus.

And honestly, none of it ever goes anywhere. It's setting up for movies down the road without worrying about taking care of itself. Instead of being a self-contained movie where Superman fights Batman, it's basically giving you an entire franchise worth of Cliff's Notes just so Snyder and Warner Bros. can skip straight to Justice League with as minimal effort as possible, and then give all of the characters that aren't Batman or Superman their own movies after the fact. It's a classic case of trying to put the cart before the horse. Rather than treat this movie with love and care, they just slap everything together in a great big rush and shove it out into theaters without really caring how good or bad it is because the Marvel Cinematic Universe has made nearly ten billion dollars combined at the worldwide box office and they want some of that action too. But rather than develop a world a world of heroes and villains and build towards Justice League as the natural payoff towards all of their hard work, it's like they've convinced themselves that people would rather just see all of the characters lumped onto the screen together and have a bunch of monotonous action scenes thrown at them without things like story or character development or good acting getting in the way.

And how about that acting, huh? One almost gets the feeling that even the majority cast realized how awful the movie was going to be and couldn't bother to even half-ass it. The rest were so hampered by the lousy material that even if they'd given their absolute best, they'd have barely made it out intact. Granted, there are a couple of good performances, but the majority of the cast is just disappointing at best. Among the good is Ben Affleck, who is a strong Batman. When his casting was first announced back in 2013, it drew an absolute ridiculous amount of criticism. How dare they hire the guy that played Daredevil? But now that the movie has been released, Affleck shows that he's a lot better in the role than anyone could have anticipated. He approaches the role with a grizzled, jaded demeanor that really suits the character. Affleck's Batman is haunted by years of emotional grief, his fight to protect Gotham City having taken a toll on him. We're only privy to bits and pieces of it ― the broken-down state of Wayne Manor, a desecrated Robin costume kept as a memorial in the Batcave ― but Affleck manages to convey so much through his actions, his facial expressions, his tone of voice. This Batman has been through absolute hell, and it's Affleck who shows us that.

I also really enjoyed Gal Godot as Wonder Woman. She isn't really given a lot to do until the finale (and Wonder Woman is completely irrelevant to the plot, to be honest), but Godot absolutely nails the role. Godot's Wonder Woman is a strong, charismatic heroine, just as she should be. Once she leaps into battle, you can't take your eyes off her. She commands your attention with a ferocity that makes one curious as to why it took so long for Warner Bros. to work Wonder Woman into a movie. But word is that they're making one as we speak with the intention of it coming out next year, which I'm actually excited for because I can't wait to see Godot actually have something to do as the character.

And while the movie does boast those good performances and some decent ones among lesser members of the supporting cast (Jeremy Irons, Laurence Fishburne, and Diane Lane are all fantastic, by the way), they're outweighed by the bad and the ridiculous. Henry Cavill, for starters, certainly looks the part. But the way his character is presented, he's stuck playing a whiny, emo bitch. This is not the big blue Boy Scout we all know and love; it's instead an emotionally conflicted wuss that feels more pathetic than heroic. I get the reasoning behind writing Superman that way, as I'm sure Snyder & Co. felt they were giving him more depth that way. But what's wrong with the traditional depiction? Regardless, Cavill seems to be trying hard, which I appreciate, but he just can't overcome how poorly written the script is. He's not playing a character to believe in, but to pity. And that is no Superman that I want any part of.

And why is Amy Adams even here again? She's dull as dishwater, having absolutely none of the likability, charisma, or spunk that made Lois such a beloved part of the Superman mythos. It doesn't help matters that Adams and Cavill have zero chemistry whatsoever either, but that's more the fault of the casting director than Adams herself. She is a talented actress, don't get me wrong, but Adams honestly doesn't feel like she was the right person for this role. One wouldn't be surprised if the only reason she was playing Lois at all is because someone wanted a multiple-time Oscar nominee in the role.

Speaking of roles that are woefully miscast, Jesse Eisenberg sucks. This has to be one of the absolute worst performances I've seen in quite a while. He's an annoying doofus that does nothing but inspire anger and frustration every time you see him. Eisenberg is painfully inconsistent, wandering all over the place throughout the movie, hitting all points of the map sometimes within a span of a few moments. This isn't Lex Luthor at all, but a schizophrenic hipster instead. Had Superman just torn his head off and punted it into orbit, I'd have been perfectly fine with that just so I didn't have to see Jesse Eisenberg in this movie anymore.

As I said earlier, the whole thing makes me think that Warner Bros. saw Disney raking in cash hand over fist with the Avengers and went into full-blown panic mode. And in doing so, they entrusted the franchise to a director who has made it abundantly clear that he has doesn't have a single clue as to what makes these characters so wonderful. Zack Snyder has given us the cinematic equivalent of all those crappy comic books from the '90s, the ones full of violent, brooding antiheroes because being "darker and edgier" was what they thought was cool, as if all the bright, shiny, happy stuff that had come before it had somehow suddenly become lame. I've loved the heroes of DC Comics since I was a little kid, but Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice makes me want to rethink that. Watching this movie hurts. It hurts a lot. If this is how the road to a shared cinematic universe starring DC's characters gets started, then I should probably just stick with the Avengers.

Final Rating:

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015)

Nobody could have possibly expected Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity would have been such a huge hit after Paramount Pictures plucked it from film festival obscurity and released it nationwide in the fall of 2009. It grossed nearly 200 million dollars and spawned a number of sequels, a Japanese spinoff, and a mockbuster from The Asylum while practically killing the Saw franchise in one fell swoop. But like many franchises before it, the Paranormal Activity saga started running after steam after a while. As much as I enjoyed the first three, I was ultimately burned by the tremendously disappointing fourth and fifth chapters. And with the release of a sixth chapter in the form of Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, I find myself drawn to it not by any real desire to see the progression of the story or to have any unresolved questions answered, but by a feeling that I've seen all the other ones, so I'd might as well keep going. Besides, how often does one get to see a found footage movie in 3D? Outside of that fleeting possibility, however, The Ghost Dimension just isn't worth bothering with.

Christmas is fast approaching, and Ryan (Chris J. Murray) and Emily Fleege (Brit Shaw) are preparing for the holiday season in the new suburban California home with their daughter Leila (Ivy George). As Ryan and his brother Mike (Dan Gill) decorate the house, the pair finds a stack of decades-old VHS tapes and an oversized video camera. The tapes depict young Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tylor Brown) being indoctrinated into a cult, while Ryan notices that the camera is picking up strange things around the house that are invisible to the naked eye, realizing that it was custom built to be capable of spectral photography. That'll come in really handy, as a series of strange events start happening around the house, each of them having an odd focus on Leila, whose behavior grows more and more strange with each passing day. Ryan sets up a video surveillance system to capture these occurrences in conjunction with his investigation into the tapes of Katie and Kristi. It quickly becomes evident that the demon we've come to know as "Toby" is in their house and has nefarious plans for Leila.

Wow. Just... wow. I don't know where to even begin describing just how disappointing this movie is. And that's really saying something, considering I wasn't expecting much to start with. The movie is painfully dull, the plot is nonsensical, the acting is mediocre at best, and as I sat in that theater watching, all I could think during the entire movie is that I wanted to stupid thing to hurry up and end so I could go home. It might not be as frustrating to watch as The Gallows, but Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is almost as lame.

Gregory Plotkin makes his directorial debut here, and his efforts are poor, poor, poor. I say that because Plotkin breaks violates the cardinal rule of the horror genre: it's not scary at all. There are no scares, no suspense. The scene where Toby chases Ryan and Mike into the kitchen comes close to mustering up a little tension, but it's dashed away almost immediately by a character making a stupid joke and the fact that the scene just stops. The chase has no payoff, no moment where Ryan and Mike barely get away and Toby is briefly repelled. It just cuts to the next scene like nothing happened. Even the token "boo!" jump scares are ineffective, serving only as an annoyance because it feels like the movie is shouting at the audience instead of trying to scare them. Throw in some of the most laughably bad CGI this side of the ending of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, and you've got a horror movie that was doomed for failure from the start.

Plotkin doesn't even try making franchise transition to 3D worthwhile. The majority of the movie is actually in 2D, believe it or not, with only a few brief instances of depth coming from the bits and pieces being shot from the spectral camera. And even then, the 3D's never used well. The franchise was built on a very angry demon throwing around everything it can get its hands on. Hell, the most indelible moment of the very first movie was Micah Sloat getting thrown at the camera at full force. That would make you think that a jump to 3D would be a perfect fit, right? But nope, The Ghost Dimension is actually relatively tame by comparison to the other movies in the franchise. There are one or two big moments, but outside of those, not a lot happens and the 3D goes underutilized for the most part.

Plotkin's direction may be underwhelming, but he isn't helped by the script, credited to Jason Harry Pagan, Andrew Deutshman, Adam Robite, and Gavin Heffernan. For starters, I am genuinely surprised that it took four people to write this movie. It really needed that many people to come up with this piece of crap? Did they each write their own script, then lump them all together in one great big pile? I can overlook the movie featuring stupid and unlikable characters since that's actually par for the course with the Paranormal Activity movies, but I can't get over just how abysmal the story is. It's all over the place, as if it were having a panic attack brought on by the vague mess that is the franchise's mythology. None of it makes any sense, and some parts actually seem contradictory to the point that I think I'd honestly have to sit down and come up with some kind of flow chart to make heads or tails of any of it.

The acting suffers too, with Chris J. Murray only really standing out from the rest. The majority of the cast are just kinda there, going through the motions, while I was actually upset that Toby didn't kill Dan Gill's character early into the movie. Gill is annoying as the movie's token comic relief, a clichéd character that I'm getting tired of seeing in movies like this.

I think it's ironic that Paranormal Activity dethroned Saw as the horror franchise du jour. Both began with strong first chapters, their sequels starting out good too. But each franchise started going downhill from a creative standpoint starting with their fourth respective chapters, finally coming to an end with a so-called "final chapter" released in 3D. And much like Saw 3D, I walked out of Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension asking myself, "Is this it? Is this really the way they wanted to end these movies if this really is the last one?" Because if The Ghost Dimension really is the end, then it's a really lame note for the franchise to go out on. I'm stunned by just how genuinely boring and ho-hum this movie is; the majority of it feels like it's just doing a half-assed copy of things we saw done better in the first five movies. Hell, that forgettable Japanese spinoff was better than this. And that's the really disappointing part; the Paranormal Activity movies got off to such a promising start and ended up here. The movie's tagline is "for the first time, you will see the activity," but you know what? I wish I hadn't.

Final Rating:

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Fantastic Four (2015)

I guess I've been spoiled by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I'm so used to seeing Marvel Comics movies that you absolutely have to go see or you'll be missing out on something fun. They're so good that sometimes I actually forget that there's the occasional misstep with the movies based on Marvel's properties. Every so often we get a Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, or an X-Men Origins: Wolverine, or a Spider-Man 3. But the characters that I think have suffered the most are the Fantastic Four. Of the three times in the past that the Fantastic Four have been adapted into cinematic form, one was never released, and the two that actually were disappointed critics and were only modest successes at the box office.

It's been nearly a decade since they last appeared on the big screen. And say what you will about Roger Corman's movie, the 2005 one, or Rise of the Silver Surfer, but they're all far, far better than the newly-released reboot of the franchise. That nine-year wait was not worth it at all, as this attempt to revitalize the franchise is off to a terrible, terrible start.

Ever since childhood, Reed Richards (Miles Teller) has been attempting to build a machine capable of teleporting matter from one point to another. And while the prototype he and best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) have developed isn't perfect, it draws the attention of renowned scientist Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Caffrey), who invites Reed to join his team of scientists in building a similar, more advanced version. Also brought onto the project are Storm's children Sue (Kate Mara) and Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), along with Franklin's brilliant yet cocky former protégé Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). Their initial experiments upon finishing the teleporter's construction is successful, as they're able to transport a chimpanzee into an alternate dimension, a strange wasteland they've dubbed "Planet Zero," before bringing it back.

The bad news, however, is that their higher-ups want to take the project from them and give it to NASA for further development. A drunken Reed decides that they should be the first ones to travel to Planet Zero instead of a bunch of astronauts. Convincing Ben that he should tag along, they, Johnny, and Victor remotely activate the device and make the trip to this strange new world. But their trip proves to be a huge mistake, as the green lava-like energy that covers much of the area's surface begins to erupt. Victor is swallowed up by the collapsing ground, and an explosion destroys the device just as Sue arrives and pulls the other three and their shuttle back to Earth.

Reed, Ben, Sue, and Johnny are whisked away to a secret military base, where they find that the energy from the explosion has altered them significantly. Reed can stretch his limbs, Ben has been transformed into a giant rock creature, Johnny turns himself into a flying human fireball at will, and Sue is able to render herself invisible and create force fields. Reed quickly realizes that the government has no intention of curing them, choosing rather to study the use of their powers as it pertains to military application. He escapes and becomes an international fugitive as he tries to find a way to reverse the process that gave them these abilities.

Reed is recaptured in Central America a year later, asked to rejoin the teleportation project as the scientists who overtook it plan to return to Planet Zero. The explorers discover that not only has its entire landscape changed, but that Victor is still alive. Having fused with his environmental protection suit, Victor has himself developed a multitude of superpowers with which he intends to wipe out humanity and rebuild Earth in the image of Planet Zero. And while they have never quite been on the same page, Reed, Ben, Johnny, and Sue must come together and use their own abilities to save the world.

I went back and read my reviews of the previous three Fantastic Four movies before seeing this new one. And while I may not have been particularly kind to them (especially the Corman one), I would gladly watch any of them before going back and watching this new one again. Everything about it is cold, ugly, unappealing. Its depressingly bleak tone undercuts any sort of adventure or heroics the titular quartet may engage in onscreen. I'm not opposed to the idea of dark superhero movies, but unless you're going for parody, it only really works for dark characters like Batman or the Punisher. But the Fantastic Four? Really?

The movie is the second directorial effort from Josh Trank, who'd previously helmed the found footage movie Chronicle in 2012. But while Chronicle was a solid, entertaining movie, Fantastic Four makes it look like his successful debut was a total fluke. Trank's direction here is subpar to say the least. The pacing is all over the place, the CGI is overdone and barely adequate at best (The Thing looks particularly weak), and it feels like the movie was edited with a chainsaw. The cinematography just plain sucks, with the only decent bit of it ― a tracking shot near the end of the movie that follows behind Doctor Doom as he marches down a hallway, effortlessly murdering everyone in his path ― being better suited for a horror movie than a superhero flick.

I read somewhere that Trank was inspired by the week of David Cronenberg when prepping production, and I believe him because the movie isn't exactly subtle about it. Elements of Scanners and The Fly are blatantly apparent, which only adds to the movie's bleak tone. The idea of a Cronenberg-style superhero movie does sound intriguing. But not only does Trank approach it weakly, it doesn't feel like this is the proper opportunity to do it either. Had Trank been making a movie based on Warren Ellis's Ruins, I could understand it. But doing dark versions of characters just because you can, being edgy for the sake of it, seems silly to me.

I'm not saying that comic book adaptations can't be dark and have to be completely, 100% accurate to the source material. Tim Burton's Batman killed people and those movies were really good. But sometimes you'll end up on the opposite end of that spectrum with movies like Man of Steel or Fantastic Four. But at least Man of Steel is a well-made movie, which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for Fantastic Four.

That's partly due not only to Trank's lousy direction, but the script as well. Credited to Trank, Jeremy Slater, and Simon Kinberg, the script just how little anyone cared about making a Fantastic Four movie that was worth a damn. There's no real loyalty to the source material in any serious effort, especially when it comes to the characterization of Doctor Doom. The three core parts of Doom's personality have always been his insufferably enormous ego, his irrational hatred of Reed Richards, and his genuine belief that the world would be a better place if he were its supreme ruler. We do see evidence of the first two when, in the character's first scene, Doom immediately accuses Reed of stealing his work despite the two having never even heard of one another previously and acting independently to develop their systems. The catch here, though, is that this version of Doom does not want to conquer the world, but destroy it. Doom is an incredibly complex character when handled well, but the movie depicts him as a stereotypical omnicidal villain with no depth or any sort of motivation. He actually even completely disappears from the movie for the entire second act and is barely mentioned subsequently, only reappearing with his new superpowers to raise hell during the last twenty minutes of the movie. It's an absolutely pathetic waste of a great villain, one that makes the rather lackluster depiction of him played by Julian McMahon in 2005 and 2007 look a lot better in retrospect.

The other characters don't fare much better, as they're chock full of an almost unbearable amount of angst because of their superpowers. I get that might happen, and it's expected in regards to Ben Grimm, but it's almost too much angst. I don't want to watch a superhero movie where the heroes are self-loathing sad sacks that are resentful of each other.

But the script has more problems than just that. Judging by how the movie plays out, the story must have been put together at random because it feels disjointed and haphazardly put together. I don't know if that's how it was written or if there was a lot of executive meddling (judging by the producers ordering rewrites, the studio doing reshoots behind Trank's back months after production ended, the terrible editing, and Trank's since-deleted tweets, I'm guessing the latter more so than the former), but the narrative skips and stutters like there was some heavy duty editing going on with no consideration of how the final product would flow. The movie never feels like it's going anywhere because as soon as it starts building some momentum, it comes to a screeching halt to go in a completely different direction.

I also got the impression that the cast would have preferred being anywhere else on the face of the planet than on the set. They came across like they're putting forth the absolute bare minimum amount of effort, but then again, they could have hired Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep and it still would have ended up being rough to watch.

Miles Teller and Jamie Bell aren't totally awful, I'll give them that, but Tony Kebbell is given practically nothing to do, which makes me wonder why they even bothered including Doctor Doom in the movie at all. Kate Mara seemed like she was phoning it in from a phone with a bad reception, but factoring in the rumors that Trank supposedly treated her poorly due to his anger with Fox ordering him to hire her, I can't admit to being all that surprised.

The only real standout among the entire cast is Michael B. Jordan, who was a controversial choice to play Johnny Storm simply because of his race. Much like Michael Clarke Duncan playing Kingpin in Daredevil, hiring a black actor to play a character that has traditionally been depicted as white rubbed a lot of the hardcore comic book nerds the wrong way. But Jordan isn't bad at all as Johnny. He's not the first person I'd have thought of when casting the role, but he's charismatic enough that he becomes the one bright spot in the darkness that is the movie.

Based on the word of mouth, I entered Fantastic Four expecting the worst. It's not as aggressively terrible as I'd anticipated, but the movie was still a waste of my time and money. The only worthwhile part of the whole thing was seeing the green-band trailer for Deadpool before it started. Fantastic Four is proof of how much a lack of respect for the source material and a director and studio that have no cue what they're doing can hurt a movie. I just hope that the rights will revert back to Marvel sooner rather than later, because if they could redeem Howard the Duck with one ten-second cameo, they can redeem these characters too. The Fantastic Four deserve so much better than this.

Final Rating:

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Gallows (2015)

Found footage movies are all kinda the same nowadays. At least, that's how it feels. It takes something serious to make one stand out from the rest. Cloverfield had a giant monster, [•REC] had zombies, the V/H/S trilogy were anthology movies utilizing a multitude of different horror styles, but everything else comes off like the same tired haunted house movies churned out by filmmakers hoping to replicate the success of the Paranormal Activity franchise.

This brings us to the new flick The Gallows. Its trailers and TV commercials make it look like a found footage slasher flick, an idea that doesn't fill many horror fans I know with much hope. (Just go on a horror website and ask for opinions about the rumored found footage Friday the 13th sequel if you don't believe me.) But the "Tuesday the 17th" segment of the first V/H/S movie turned out well, so there's a shot, right? As it turns out, The Gallows isn't as much of a slasher movie as it is just more of the same supernatural horror we've gotten from every other found footage movie over the last couple of years. And if you haven't seen The Gallows yet, take my word for it: you aren't missing much.

Welcome to the small town of Bernice, Nebraska. Back in 1993, the high school drama club's performance of a play called "The Gallows" ended in tragedy when leading man Charlie Grimille (Jesse Cross) was killed when a prop noose malfunctioned. Now, twenty years later, saying Charlie's name has become bad luck among the drama club, similar to the superstitions surrounding Shakespeare's Macbeth. But that aside, they're now prepping a revival of "The Gallows" under the assumption that enough time had passed to prevent old wounds from reopening.

We're quickly introduced to the new production of "The Gallows" by Ryan (Ryan Shoos), a football player filming his buddy Reese (Reese Mishler) as he rehearses for his role as the play's male lead. Ryan has nothing but contempt for the drama club, relentlessly teasing them while razzing Reese for taking the play seriously. But it really hits the fan when Ryan realizes that Reese has something of a crush on his co-star, pretty nerd Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown).

Upset with the fact that Reese is attracted to one of these lowly theater geeks and unwilling to let him embarrass himself with a lousy performance, Ryan decides to wreck the play on the eve of its opening night. He pesters Reese until he agrees to participate, and with Ryan's girlfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford) tagging along, they sneak into the auditorium and start dismantling the stage.

They're interrupted by the arrival of Pfeifer not long thereafter, but as the quartet try to leave, they discover that they've somehow been locked inside the school with no way out and no means of contacting the outside world for help. They're not alone, either, trapped inside with a malevolent supernatural force that does not want them to leave alive.

I really didn't have very high hopes when I sat down to watch The Gallows earlier this afternoon. The commercials didn't fill me with any sort of confidence, the reviews have been overwhelmingly terrible, and I only really decided to see it at all because I was bored and wanted to go to the movies. I actually kinda regret it now because The Gallows is spectacularly lousy. It's one of those horror movies that no matter how much it may try, there's no way that the audience could ever take it seriously. There is a severe lack of scares, atmosphere, suspense, likable characters, or anything else that would make it a decent horror movie. But to its credit, at least it's short.

Part of the reason why it's so bad is because the writer/director duo of Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff completely fail at everything. Lofing and Cluff don't even try to bring anything new to the table, choosing not to innovate but to rely on the same tired clichés from every other found footage haunted house movie. There's nothing you haven't seen a hundred times over in a hundred other movies.

Lofing and Cluff don't even make these clichés interesting to watch, and the movie continues to fail when you start looking at the slasher movie elements that they've ever so slightly adopted. A slasher movie doesn't need gore or ultra-creative kills to work; Bob Clark's Black Christmas and John Carpenter's Halloween proved that. But a lame-duck of a movie like The Gallows would have been helped by bloody, over-the-top deaths and it doesn't even try to go there. The movie is just one dull moment after another. There are one or two decent jump scares, I'll give them that. But There's no atmosphere or suspense, or even a reason to care. I just sat in the theater with my head in my hands, wondering when anything interesting would happen.

It doesn't help anything that Lofing and Cluff's script is so unbelievably abysmal, either. For example, the "why do they keep filming this?" argument plays into this very heavily. The characters never once put down their cameras for any reason, which gives the cops plenty of evidence with which to prosecute them for breaking and entering and vandalism. I get using the lights and night-vision option on the cameras to see, but why keep filming?

And did the movie even need to be in found footage at all? There's a lot of screen time devoted to just the cast's feet as they're running from Charlie, time that Lofing and Cluff could have devoted to using the admittedly really frightening looking sets to build some serious atmosphere. But the found footage thing really hurts the movie something fierce, because it really constricts what Lofing and Cluff could have been able to do with it. Some movies can work using the format, but The Gallows is not one of them.

Those are just a couple of simple nitpicks (and I've got a hell of a lot of things to nitpick about The Gallows), but the really big problem I had with it is the twist ending comes completely out of nowhere with practically no foreshadowing whatsoever to set it up. And then you start thinking about the logistics of it, and you start noticing things that make absolutely no sense at all given the facts that the movie presents us. Add the epilogue into it, and it's just another ridiculous thing that makes the movie really freaking infuriating to watch.

And if you're making a horror movie where the characters are getting picked off one by one, the audience may root for the villain, but the characters still need to retain some sense of likability in order to keep the audience invested in them. But Lofing and Cluff have written a movie where not only is the villain completely uninteresting, but practically the entire primary cast is unlikable. You can't even root for Charlie to kill them because you just want them to go away and never come back. They're legitimately some of the most unlikable characters I've seen. And if you're like me, you'll even find yourself growing to loathe them. They're so annoying and stupid and awful that I'd rather do pretty much anything else than watch these idiots stammer around the screen for 80 minutes.

The actors just make this worse, because they're all pretty awful. I spent the movie wishing I could replicate the scene from Wayne's World 2 where Wayne has the gas station attendant replaced with Charlton Heston because they're all just that bad. Cassidy Gifford (whose only real claim to fame is being Kathy Lee Gifford's daughter) is forgettable thanks to her character being so flatly written that there are no defining features to her whatsoever, while Reese Mishler and Pfeifer Brown don't do any better than mediocre. (To her credit, though, Brown is pretty cute in her role up until the ending, so I'll give her that.) But I cannot write anything about The Gallows without mentioning just how freaking terrible Ryan Shoos is. Shoos is an awful actor, something exacerbated the fact that the character is absolutely unbearable to put up with. You'll spend the entirety of the movie wanting him to be absolutely slaughtered by Charlie here, as Shoos is playing the most insufferable douchebag ever. Had the entire last hour of the movie just been all the drama nerds beating the everloving hell out of him, I'd have been satisfied with that. The movie would have gotten a rave review if his fate had been ten times worse.

The Gallows is one of those movies that left me unable to wrap my head around just how stupid it is. I'm glad I saw the movie alone in an empty theater, since being able to talk back to the screen and berate the movie as it was playing was actually pretty cathartic. I can say the same for writing this review, because The Gallows is one of the most mind-bogglingly frustrating movies I've seen in quite a while and being able to get my thoughts out in writing really helps me feel better about it. It's the kind of movie that should have gone straight to video and been ignored as I passed by it while checking my Netflix recommendations. But it was released by Warner Bros. in 2,000 theaters, which puts it on a level with movies like Devil's Due and The Last Exorcism Part II that really makes me weep for the state of the horror genre. If you gain any knowledge from this review, I hope it is this: The Gallows sucks. It is a horrible movie that, if you haven't seen it yet, should be avoided at all costs. And the real tragedy? It's too late for me to ask the theater for a refund.

Final Rating: *

Friday, July 17, 2015

Ant-Man (2015)

I wrote in my review of Guardians of the Galaxy that Marvel Studios has been so unbelievably successful that they can make practically whatever movie they want at this point. They made a movie starring a gun-toting talking raccoon, for crying out loud! And it was a huge hit! It's probably this line of thinking that brings us here to take a look at their newest effort, Ant-Man. It may not be as risky a venture as the off-kilter space opera that was Guardians, but considering the Ant-Man character's relative obscurity among mainstream audiences, it seemed like it might have been a hard sell to some. But while Ant-Man may not be widely known among those who aren't comic book geeks, his movie is still a ton of fun.

The focus of our story is Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a talented cat burglar who, as we're introduced to him, is being released from a stint in prison after robbing his employers and posting evidence of their corporate malfeasance online in the process. His attempts to return to civilian life are wrought with failure; his ex-wife won't let Scott see his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) until he can start making his child support payments, but he can't hold down a job because most businesses won't hire a convicted felon.

Stuck in a serious Catch-22, Scott agrees to take a job breaking into a safe in a retired businessman's basement. He's able to get into the safe with very little effort, but the only thing inside it is what he initially believes to be a motorcycle suit and a odd-looking helmet. Scott, not wanting to leave empty-handed, takes the suit home and figures he'll try it on. But he's startled when he hits a trigger sewn into one of the suit's gloves and is shrunk to the size of an insect. The disorienting experience terrifies Scott so much that he immediately tries returning the suit to its rightful owner, only to be caught by the cops and arrested while trying to break back in.

Fortune soon smiles upon him, however, when he's visited in jail by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Pym reveals that he's not only the owner of that suit, but set everything up so Scott could steal the suit in the first place because he wanted him to have it. And since Pym has greater plans for him, he smuggles the suit into into Scott's cell so he can escape.

Hiding out from the police at Pym's house, Scott learns that his new benefactor had invented the suit during the Cold War, operating as an agent of SHIELD codenamed "Ant-Man." After forcing Pym out of the technology company he founded, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) ― Pym's former protégé and the current CEO of PymTech ― is now on the verge of replicating the chemical that Pym developed to allow the Ant-Man costume to shrink. Doing so would allow him to manufacture what he calls "the Yellowjacket," a flying suit of armor that could be used to create miniature armies. And to make matters worse, he fully intends to sell the prototype to everyone's favorite terrorist organization, Hydra.

Disturbed by Cross's growing insanity and refusing to allow his creation to be weaponized, Pym and his estranged daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) have conspired to sabotage Cross's plans before he can bring them to fruition. That's why Pym sought Scott out, because his history with burglary and corporate espionage makes him the perfect person for the job. Scott will need to break into PymTech in order to accomplish this, but he'll have to learn to properly use the Ant-Man suit and a built-in device that would allow him mental control over ants. And that'll be far, far harder than it looks.

A lot of people, myself included, thought Ant-Man might be kind of a hard sell to some people. The character doesn't have quite the notoriety of an Iron Man or a Captain America, and his powers (the ability to shrink and use mind-control on ants) admittedly sounds like a weird joke. And then there was the initially troubled development that saw delay after delay between its initial announcement in 2006 and the beginning of principal photography early last summer. The good news, however, is that while Ant-Man isn't one of the best chapters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's still a funny, entertaining movie that is definitely worth checking out.

The movie was helmed by Peyton Reed, a last-minute replacement for Edgar Wright, who had originally been pegged to write and direct the movie. While I would have liked to have seen what Wright could have done with the movie, I thought Reed still made a movie that was better than I'd anticipated. His direction is tight, fluid, and makes the movie an engaging watch. The quick transitions from big to small as Ant-Man changes his size can be dizzying, especially if you see it in 3D on a large-format screen like I did, but other than that, Reed does a satisfying job building the movie.

I do wonder, though, how the movie would have turned out had Wright actually stuck around and directed the movie. Similarly, I'm also curious what would have happened had the script by Wright and Joe Cornish not been rewritten by Adam McKay and Paul Rudd. While Wright and Cornish are given co-writer and "story by" credits, I don't know quite exactly how much of their work survived the rewrites. The final result is something of a mixed bag. There are elements that are strong and well put-together, and the story ― a superhero-themed heist movie ― is simple enough to suit the movie's needs and make it stand out from the rest of the MCU franchise. I also liked how the characters of Hank Pym and Scott Lang were set up to mirror each other as two sides of the same coin. Scott is trying to rebuild his relationship with a daughter who never sees him yet adores him all the same, while Hank tries the same with a daughter who resents him for being too controlling. It's an intriguing dichotomy that isn't really dwelt upon for too long but still adds a bit of depth to the movie.

But there are also parts that that don't really click either. The relationship between Scott and Cassie is painfully underdeveloped, and ends up taking a back seat to Scott's training to become Ant-Man. The sort-of romance between Scott and Hope feels unnecessary and doesn't add much to the movie. And the movie ultimately feels like the first Iron Man movie was just retooled to suit the Ant-Man character and reflect where the franchise has gone in the wake of the two Avengers movies.

But at least the weaknesses are counterbalanced by its positives, among them its cast. Corey Stoll plays his character solidly, but much like Obadiah Stane in Iron Man, his character is a rather generic villain. Stoll still does a fine job with it and makes the role his own. Evangeline Lilly is capable and strong despite not having a lot to do other than react to everyone else in the movie, and I really enjoyed Michael Peña as the movie's token comic relief. But Ant-Man is really bolstered by the performances of Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas. I thought Douglas was appealing as Hank Pym, bringing a lot of depth and pathos to the role. Rudd, meanwhile, is charismatic and very likable as Scott Lang, but a bit more low-key than you might expect from Rudd's past roles. He plays the role in the way that makes the characters feel like he's realized he's in way over his head but knows this is the best chance to do something good. I know Rudd doesn't seem like he'd be the first choice to play any superhero, but he still plays it to the bets of his ability and the movie is better for it.

Ant-Man feels like it might be the least of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, with its smaller scale and lesser-known characters. But after the bloated mess that was Avengers: Age of Ultron, some low-key superheroics were a nice change of pace. It'll never be accused of being the best entry in the franchise, but Ant-Man is still an amusing ride that I thought was most certainly worth the price of admission. But I'll tell the truth: I still want to see how the director of Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World would have made Ant-Man instead of the director of Yes Man and The Break-Up. I can always wonder, right?

Final Rating: ***½