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, Johnny, and Sue (who herself was caught up in the aftermath of that little misadventure) 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 his successful debut look like 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 (assuming said phone was a tin can on a string), 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 clue 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, had their plan to wreck the play gone off without a hitch and they'd never encountered the killer ghost, would have given the police 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?

Which further begs the question, 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 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 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

Friday, July 10, 2015

Terminator Genisys (2015)

The Terminator franchise has been traveling down a rocky road over the last decade or so. James Cameron's original movie and its sequel are classics, landmark entries in the action and science fiction genres that still hold up surprisingly well today. But as the franchise's copyright continually changed hands after the turn of the new millennium, Cameron's two fantastic movies were followed by a short-lived TV show and two more movies that were never any better than mediocre. So I guess someone figured that at this point, it would be as good a time as any to give the franchise a total overhaul. The result: Terminator Genisys, a disappointing hodge-podge of interesting ideas and lackluster execution that makes me long for the days when there were only two Terminator movies.

The year is 2029, and the war between Skynet and the human resistance is rapidly approaching its conclusion. A platoon of soldiers led by John Connor (Jason Clarke) stage a final offensive against a Skynet base in the ruins of Los Angeles, achieving victory but realizing that they were mere moments too late from preventing Skynet from activating their ultimate weapon to win the war: a time machine. Their investigation of the device leads them to discover that Skynet has sent a Terminator back to 1984 to assassinate John's mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke) before he is even conceived. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) volunteers to go back and stop it, but upon his arrival in 1984, he discovers that what he has expected is totally wrong.

You would imagine that events would play out similar to the original movie, but much like Reese, you're in for a surprise. Reese is only in 1984 for a few moments before he's attacked by a shapeshifting T-1000 (Byung-hun Lee). Clearly out of his element against a seemingly unstoppable model of Terminator he's never encountered before, he only manages to escape when he's saved by Sarah and an aging T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger). The duo were anticipating Reese's arrival, and — having already intercepted the Terminator Reese was sent to fight — need him to help with their plan to avert Judgment Day and the rise of Skynet.

None of this is what Reese had expected. Sarah is far from the frail waitress John had told him she would be. Instead, she is a jaded warrior raised since childhood by a Terminator she's affectionately nicknamed "Pops," a cyborg guardian programmed to protect her at all costs. It quickly becomes apparent that something has drastically altered the flow of past and future events. So drastic are these changes, in fact, that a series of clues indicates that Judgment Day will not be on August 29, 1997, as projected, but twenty years later instead.

Sarah and Reese use a homemade time machine to travel into the future and fight Skynet head-on. It'll be tougher than they'd hoped, however, as it has evolved from a simple military defense system into "Genisys," a soon-to-be-launched operating system connected to every Internet-capable device in the world. But something is waiting for them in 2017. It's not just Pops, who has spent the intervening three decades building an arsenal, but a model of Terminator unlike anyone could have expected, one that knows exactly how to hit them where it hurts the most.

I honestly wasn't expecting a whole lot from Terminator Genisys when I entered that theater a few days ago. I was already filled with a sense of malaise following Rise of the Machines and Salvation, The clips I'd seen online didn't exactly make me very hopeful, and the fact that the people behind the advertising campaign went out of their way to spoil the movie's big plot twist actually kinda ruined part of the experience for me. But when you remove all that, Genisys is a movie that's terribly frustrating because you know it can be good, you know it can be something exciting and fun and special. But it's the same overblown, soulless Terminator movie that never captures the magic that James Cameron brought to the saga all those years ago.

The movie was directed by Alan Taylor, who had previously helmed the okay-at-best Avenger movie Thor: The Dark World two years ago. I never really had a problem with his direction on the Thor sequel, but it only felt kinda adequate upon reflection. I bring it up because I felt similarly in regards to his efforts here as well. Taylor's direction's not bad; there are actually some really cool action sequences and his use of 3D is pretty effective at times. But the action becomes monotonous after a while, and I had this strange, nagging feeling that I'd seen much of it done better in a lot of other, similar movies.

While Taylor's efforts are still serviceable at their worst, at least his direction is a lot better than the script. Penned by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, the idea to revitalize the Terminator franchise by revisiting the first movie from 1984 and giving a new spin on familiar events is a really interesting way to shake things up instead of going the traditional reboot route. The plot is unfortunately way more convoluted than it needed to be, however, and Reese's confusion between the original familiar timeline and the new, altered chain of events only reminds me of (and was done better in) the movie Frequency. The whole thing ends up being one big, disappointing mess that actually makes me wonder why they didn't just do a remake of the original movie from the get-go and been done with it.

And then there's the cast, almost none of whom do the movie any favors. First off, I have no idea, why they hired J.K. Simmons and Matt Smith. They have practically no screen time (especially Smith, who is probably in the movie a grand total of five minutes tops in what amounts to a glorified cameo), leading me to think that there's more planned for them if the movie gets turned into a trilogy like I've heard is planned. Why else would they bring in J. Jonah Jameson and Doctor Who?

Jason Clarke isn't bad as the latest actor to play John Connor, but I don't really know how to feel about Jai Courtney and Emilia Clarke. Courtney is forgettable, feeling more like a generic action hero you'd find in a direct-to-video movie from the '90s, coming nowhere close to the intense desperation we saw from Michael Biehn thirty years ago. I can say the same for Emilia Clarke, who never really comes close to filling Linda Hamilton's shoes. (Or even Lena Heady's, if you remember The Sarah Connor Chronicles.) Clarke is okay for what is asked of her, but much like Courtney, she doesn't have anywhere near the same emotional complexity of her predecessors. She comes off like a little girl pretending to be tough, instead of the paranoid, battle-worn warrior fans would recognize Sarah Connor as.

But the highlight of the movie, as with practically every Terminator movie, is the one and only Arnold Schwarzenegger. Nobody will ever accuse him of being a master thespian by any stretch of the imagination, but with the right role, he's great. He steps back into the Terminator like he'd never left it, with some awesome bits of action hero business and funny one-liners. This is the Arnold people have come to know and love, and I'm happy to see him again.

I think it goes without saying that Terminator Genisys is a generally inferior, assuredly mediocre movie. I can't call it a bad movie, as it's actually pretty fun at times. But with a convoluted narrative, disappointing acting, and a few other weird hiccups (is a parody of that old TV show Cops really necessary in the year 2015?), it just makes me wonder if anyone other than James Cameron will be able to make a truly great Terminator movie. I guess we'll have to wait and see...

Final Rating: **½

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

It's weird thinking that what started in 2009 with a movie based on the Marvel Comics superhero Iron Man has blossomed into a mega-franchise that has grossed over seven billion dollars worldwide and shows absolutely no signs of stopping. Some people thought that the franchise's final endgame would have been The Avengers in 2012, but here we are three years and five movies later talking about an Avengers sequel. The hype machine is in full gear and the anticipation is high, but Avengers: Age of Ultron isn't quite as good as I'd hoped it would have been. But you know what? It's still pretty fun.

The movie takes us immediately into the action, as the Avengers launch a raid on a secluded Eastern European laboratory where Hydra scientists have been using the mystical powers of Loki's scepter for human experimentation and creating super-soldiers for Hydra. Despite the interference of Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), twin siblings granted superpowers through Hydra's experiments, the Avengers' raid is successful. The bad guys are apprehended and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) claims Loki's scepter for himself so that he can study it further.

His research proves fruitful, as Stark discovers that the gem within the sceptre contains a hyper-advanced artificial intelligence that Stark and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) believe could be the key to perfecting "Ultron," Stark's unfinished global defense system. But upon its activation, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) proves to be not only sentient, but also very, very angry. It downloads itself into Stark's mechanical peacekeeping drones and attacking the Avengers before it escapes with the sceptre.

Using the scepter and the leftover resources at the now-abandoned Hydra laboratory, Ultron builds himself a new, more powerful body and a personal army of robots. He recruits Pietro and Wanda to help him in his fight against the Avengers so that they might settle an old grudge with Stark, but what the Maximoffs don't know is that he has more than just killing a group of superheroes on his mind. In truth, his final goal is far more sinister: human extinction.

I entered Age of Ultron excited to see it, but afraid that it wouldn't live up to the hype or that it wouldn't be as good as the first Avengers movie. And while I did think Age of Ultron was a tremendously fun, exciting ride, I simply didn't think it was as strong as the first one. It's a solid movie, don't get me wrong, but I felt a little... I don't know, perhaps "underwhelmed" is the word I'm looking for.

Returning to the Avengers saga is writer/director Joss Whedon, who, from the looks of it, adopted an "if it isn't broken, don't fix it" approach to making the movie. I saw a double feature of both Avengers movies at my local theater, and in watching them back to back, I couldn't help but notice so many similarities that it's like they're practically the same movie. There are differences, sure, but Whedon hits so many of the same notes that he hit back in 2012 that it feels like he isn't interested in bringing a lot of new to the table. Perhaps it was a case of burnout or being exhausted creatively, or maybe Whedon was being hassled by Marvel and Disney executives to deliver a certain kind of movie. I wasn't on the set, so I don't know for certain.

And maybe it's me, but the film's pacing seems to stutter and stumble every so often almost as if it was being put together from scraps. And truth is, Whedon's original version of the movie is supposedly over three hours long, but word on the street is that he had to do a bunch of haphazard editing due to Marvel executives being unhappy with some of the material he was producing along with wanting to keep the movie under two and a half hours.

But what I thought was the movie's real problem was its script. The plot is typical paint-by-numbers superhero stuff, and the returning characters are written pretty much the same way they were before. That's not what bugged me, though. What got me was the addition of some unexpected subplots that don't really go anywhere or add anything to the movie. Case in point: the Hulk/Black Widow quasi-romance felt awkward and forcibly tacked on. I didn't think it was really all that necessary to the story (or even well put-together, really), and all it did was make me wonder what the heck ever happened to Betty Ross? Did Liv Tyler not want to return, and Marvel Studios didn't want to replace her? Or could they be distancing themselves from The Incredible Hulk due to its relative lack of success compared to the rest of the franchise?

There were some things I did enjoy, though, like the additions of Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and The Vision to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I though each of them added something very cool to the movie, like there's more to the world of the Avengers than just good guys fighting bad guys. And I know a few people who were curious to see how this version of Quicksilver would compare to the one that appeared in X-Men: Days of Future Past last year. They're so completely different, though, that it's almost not worth comparing them. X-Men's Quicksilver was barely in the movie but contributed the movie's best, most memorable scene, while Age of Ultron's is an important character and appears throughout, which means he might not make as huge an impact as the one from Days of Future Past but still plays a continually important part of the story. Apples and oranges, the two Quicksilvers are.

The movie might have its share of weaknesses, but it also has its strengths as well, the greatest of which is its cast. Many of the returning actors have played their characters so many times that they could probably do it in their sleep, and although they're not given any material to shake things up, the cast is still top notch. Mark Ruffalo and Jeremy Renner get to do a bit more dramatic heavy lifting, with their characters being the only ones to experience any kind of growth or evolution. Both Ruffalo and Renner are great, showing why both of them were great choices for their roles. And despite the contractual hangups regarding it, I still want to see Ruffalo get his own solo Incredible Hulk movie.

But of the actors returning to the franchise, I thought Paul Bettany really stood out in particular. Having only appeared previously as the voice of Iron Man's snarky digital assistant Jarvis, Bettany gets to stretch his legs as the android superhero The Vision. While Vision doesn't appear until the third act of the movie, Bettany still gets to make a heck of an impression. He's really likable in the role, and it left me wanting to see more of the character.

Among the franchise's newcomers, we get some really great performances from Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, and James Spader. Taylor-Johnson still plays his role in a way that's fun to watch, but he ends up being overshadowed by Olsen. Olsen is a very talented actress, and she brings a lot of depth and a sympathetic nature to Scarlet Witch. And like with Bettany as The Vision, I'm genuinely excited to see Olsen turn up in future movies in the franchise.

The real star of the show, though, is James Spader. One could make the argument that the Ultron we see here is kinda boring and underdeveloped (could his "kill all humans" supervillain plan be any more clichéd?), but Spader's charismatic voicework makes the character captivating to watch. He's essentially playing a dark, twisted version of Tony Stark, believing his intentions are noble but in truth causing more harm than good yet with a more intimidating, angry, evil tone to it all. Ultron takes Stark's egotism and "know it all" nature and cranks them up to a million, and Spader plays it up for all it's worth. He absolutely steals the entire movie, and despite Age of Ultron's flaws, Ultron himself makes the movie worth seeing.

I know that for a lot of this review, I've been kinda down on the movie. And personally, after how good Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy were, Age of Ultron is a bit of a letdown. But I really couldn't imagine a better way to open 2015's summer blockbuster season. Even if it's nothing we haven't seen a million times before, I can't ague that the movie isn't a totally fun way to spend two and a half hours. I enjoyed the hell out of it, but then I'm totally a sucker for this kind of stuff. And there's nothing wrong with that, is there?

Final Rating: ***

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Unfriended (2014)

Bullying has always existed in some form or fashion. It sucks, but it has. And it seems like bullying has only gotten worse thanks to the rise of social media and the Internet. More and more you hear stories of kids taking their bullying too far and going online with it to prolong their tormenting, with those targeted by this harassment many times feeling that suicide is their only recourse.

Much like the rash of school shootings from the end of the 1990s, the recent trends in bullying have fodder for overwrought made-for-TV movies and episodes of police procedurals like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. And it's also spawned the new horror flick Unfriended. Originally having premiered under the title Cybernatural at last summer's Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal before it got a new name and was picked up for distribution by Universal Pictures, Unfriended introduces the idea of cyber-bullying into the tired, worn-out world of found footage movies in a way that brings us something unique. I'm not going to argue that the movie is great or even really that good, but hey, one can't fault somebody for making an effort.

It's been a year since teenager Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) committed suicide after a humiliating video of her ended up on YouTube and led to her facing a ton of online bullying. On the anniversary of her death, it's readily apparent that her friends have put it all behind them, six of them getting together online via a Skype video chat hosted by Laura's former best friend Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig). However, a mysterious, anonymous seventh party has entered their conversation and cannot be ejected from the group. That's when the threatening messages begin, both in the Skype chat and from Laura's Facebook page. As the messages from this unknown person grow more and more intense to the point of violence, their darkest secrets ― and their roles in the events leading to Laura's death ― begin coming to light.

I've been seeing Unfriended getting some really glowing reviews lately. Far be it for me to judge someone for enjoying a movie (though I'll insult the hell out of the Twi-hards), but I'm not seeing what's so great about this one. I'm not saying it's a bad flick, because there are some really solid moments. But I walked out of the theater feeling underwhelmed. I mean, was this it? Was this the best it had to offer? I really don't like being able to sum up my opinion of a movie with the word "meh."

To the movie's credit, I did think the concept was pretty novel. The whole thing being done in a real-time view of the main character's computer screen is a really neat idea. It's like someone took Joe Swanberg's "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger" segment from V/H/S to a crazy extreme. And director Levan Gabriadze constructs it well, for the most part. The problem is that I just didn't think the movie was that scary. There are a handful of scenes that I thought were genuinely suspenseful and creepy, I'm not going to lie. But there's just something here that I really felt that Unfriended was lacking.

Maybe it's because the movie isn't really aimed towards people like me. I'm 32 years old and I've seen dozens, if not hundreds of horror movies. Unfriended is the kind of movie made for the teenage crowd that isn't seeing every scary movie that comes along. If you bleep the profanities, you could probably air the movie on MTV between reruns of Catfish: The TV Series and Teen Mom. I also found it was hard to care about the characters, since they all seemed kinda flat (or just plain unlikable in one or two cases). I don't know if I should blame writer Nelson Greaves for it being this way in the script, or if it's because I can't really connect with modern teenagers. But it's hard for me to get into a horror movie like this when I don't give a crap about any of the people in it.

Even the movie's cast is more "just kinda there" than anything else. I did think Shelley Hennig did a great job and that Moses Jacob Storm had his moments, but the actors are largely paint-by-numbers at best. They did what they needed to do, but never do much better than that. The cast just does the bare minimum enough to get by without sucking outright. A great cast could have made this movie worthwhile in spite of its flaws, but nope, we'll have to do with what we have.

And that's all there is to say about Unfriended. All you've got is what it gives you, and that'll just have to suffice. I really wanted to like the movie. The concept shows a lot of promise and when it's good, I thought it could have been great. But the vast majority of the movie is, frankly, dull. I might give it a second chance when the DVD comes out in a few months. I might like it more at home on TV than on a big movie screen. (I'd actually get a kick out of watching it on a laptop, truthfully.) But as it stands, all I can say about Unfriended is, "meh, it's okay, I guess." It's not bad, it's not good, it just... is.

Final Rating: **

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Every so often there comes along a phenomenon that just cannot be stopped and cannot be avoided no matter how much you may try. And a few years ago, you couldn't go anywhere without hearing about Fifty Shades of Grey. An erotic romance novel written by E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey became an unexpected viral sensation that seemingly everyone was talking about in some form or fashion. The book might have been heavily criticized for being poorly written and a grossly inaccurate portrayal of certain sexual fetish subcultures, but that actually only propelled it further. Such was its notoriety that Universal Studios quickly snatched up the movie rights and gave us the cinematic adaptation we're here to discuss today. And oh boy, is this thing an absolute mess.

As the movie begins, we're immediately introduced to Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a shy, mousy college student who'd be more comfortable fading into the background than anything else. With her roommate sick, Anastasia is drafted into taking her place interviewing wealthy businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). She's woefully out of place in his office and intimidated by Christian's mere presence, stumbling her way through the awkward questions her roommate has prepared for her with all the gracefulness of a moose trying to ice skate.

But there is something about him that captivates Anastasia, and Christian is likewise drawn to her. What begins as a series of typical "meet cute" encounters leads to a relationship, one in which both are expecting something far different. Anastasia wants romance with the man of her dreams, but Christian is looking for someone to help him indulge in his BDSM fetish, to be the submissive to his dominant. She hesitates, knowing that this is way out of her comfort zone, but the thrill is too much for her to completely turn away from. Anastasia herself represents a bigger change to Christian's world than he expected as well, as she has unknowingly started chipping away at his rough, serious exterior.

I went into Fifty Shades of Grey having been forewarned that it wasn't all that good. I was still optimistic, though. What I'd heard about the book (which I have no intention of ever actually reading) made it sound so ridiculous that if the movie was really bad, it would at least be the fun kind of bad. I can handle bad movies as long as they're crazy enough to be entertaining. The movie is most certainly bad, no doubt about it. It's so stupid that there's no way, no way at all, that anyone involved with its production could have possibly expected anyone to take it seriously. But the catch is, though, the silly things that make Fifty Shades worth seeing when viewed as an unintentional comedy only make up a small fraction of the movie. In truth, the movie is as dull as dishwater. There are long, long stretches where the movie grows almost insufferably boring because there is nothing worthwhile going on. I spent a lot of it just rolling my eyes, wondering to myself if this was all there really was to it.

There are a lot of factors that contribute to why the movie is such a snoozefest, so let's start with the direction. At the helm is Sam Taylor-Johnson, who apparently took the title literally because the whole thing looks like it's done in dark, muted colors with varying shades of black and grey. It all looks very cold, lifeless. There's no spark to anything. Everything looks so drab and dreary, but considering that Christian's fetish workshop is decorated all in a bright crimson red, maybe that was the point? Upon sudden reflection, I think that might have been intentional, to create a dichotomy between the sex room and the rest of the world... but then maybe I'm just reading too much into it.

That could have actually been pretty neat from an artistic standpoint, but it's still ruined by the fact that the sex scenes themselves are so boring that they elicit not titillation but apathy. I get that a lot of the crazy stuff in the book had to either be severely watered down or eliminated outright in order to maintain an R rating, but in watching what the final movie has to offer, I realize that I've seen worse on Cinemax at 2:00 in the morning. The scenes are constructed in a way that they're nowhere near as steamy as they could or should have been. In a movie whose source material is known for its overly kinky elements, the fact that a girl being tied up, blindfolded, and spanked with a flogger is actually boring blows my mind. I mean, what the hell?

But where things really start going downhill is with the script. Written by Kelly Marcel, the script is full of corny, clichéd dialogue and a brain-dead story that goes absolutely nowhere. The movie doesn't even end, instead just coasting to a stop. The climactic scene in Christian's playroom isn't much of a climax either, because it feels like just another boring scene in a movie full of boring scenes. Everything just feels so pointless that I can barely wrap my head around it.

And I think I figured out why I thought the characters were so stupid. While watching the movie, it's readily apparent that Fifty Shades of Grey got its start as E.L. James's Twilight fan fiction. Look it up, that's actually true. If Christian and Anastasia aren't Edward Cullen and Bella Swan, I'll eat my hat. He's a mysterious bad boy with a wealthy family and a dark secret, she's a klutzy, innocent wallflower that's too awkward for her own good. Anastasia has a coworker that's sweet on her, a sure stand-in for Jacob Black, her mom has divorced her dad and married a new guy in another state, and the whole thing is set in the Pacific Northwest. The only things it's missing are vampires and werewolves. I thought I was done with the Twilight movies after seeing Breaking Dawn: Part 2, but I guess I was wrong because I just sat through the BDSM version of it.

Last but not least is the acting. Oh dear, the acting. I actually kinda feel bad for the cast, having to play such dumb, badly written characters. But with the exception of the two lead actors, the entire cast is fairly inconsequential. They don't make any sort of mark on the movie, and are so unimportant that they simply don't matter in the slightest. The two leads, though, are totally worth talking about, but for far different reasons.

Our female lead, Dakota Johnson, is actually very good, better than this movie deserves. She's very sweet, likable, and charming. And she's actually pretty funny too, as she provides some genuinely humorous comedic moments amidst the dourness of the rest of the movie. But then there's Jamie Dornan. You'd think a movie like this would cast actors who have at least a little chemistry together, but Johnson and Dornan have less than none. There are multiple times where it's readily apparent that they don't even want to be in the same room together, let alone engaging any sort of staged eroticism. Their discomfort is absolutely palpable.

It doesn't help anything that Dornan is awful, awful, awful. Not only is his performance wooden and uncharismatic, but he plays the character in such a way that makes him woefully unappealing. If Dornan's Christian were a real person, he'd probably be a serial killer. He's obsessive to the point of being creepy, secretly following (stalking, if we're being honest about it) Anastasia across the country to keep tabs on her. She's not a romantic partner, but sexual property. It's like all of the negative aspects of Edward Cullen in the first Twilight multiplied by a million. Combining that with Dornan's performance, and you have a recipe for failure.

There's really nothing to get worked up over with Fifty Shades of Grey. It's not as racy as some would have you believe, and by bad movie standards, it's just kinda there. To tell you the truth, I actually would have liked the movie more had it been worse. If they'd gone full bore, over-the-top melodrama and aimed for an NC-17 rating with a fully faithful adaptation of the book, it would have been ridiculous and awesome and I'd have enjoyed the hell out of it. But the movie we've got is the one we're stuck with. And well, that's pretty lousy.

Final Rating:

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Project Almanac (2015)

I've always been a sucker for time travel movies. The idea of seeing the future, visiting the past, and altering the present have always fascinated me. And as I've espoused upon in the past, I often find myself drawn to found footage movies as well, even though a lot of them fail to rise above mediocrity and the style has long worn out its welcome. The idea of both time travel and found footage being fused together is what drew me to the newly-released flick Project Almanac. The reviews have been relatively "meh" so far, but I figured I'd check it out anyway. And while I did think the movie was fun enough for what it was, that "meh" feeling was actually pretty accurate.

Genius high school student David Raskin (Jonny Weston) has just been accepted into MIT, but is devastated to learn that the scholarship he earned will only cover a small fraction of his tuition. While rummaging through the attic, he discovers some junk belonging to his father, an inventor who passed away ten years earlier. David hopes that his father's things can push him in the right direction in finding some other means of paying for his education. But what he finds, however, will change his life far more dramatically alter his life than four years of study at MIT ever could. Among his father's junk is a camcorder with a tape of David's seventh birthday party and the last time he and his sister Christina (Ginny Gardner) saw their father alive. When they watch the video, though, they're surprised to see a present-day David briefly walking through the background.

David shows the video to his friends Adam (Allen Evagngelista) and Quinn (Sam Lerner), who are equally as blown away. They venture into his father's workshop in the basement looking for clues, when they discover a secret hatch containing blueprints for a time machine. That, combined with David's appearance in the video, inspires them to start building it out of household objects and stolen school supplies. Their initial experiments don't go so well, but through trial and error begin to see that the machine has the potential to work.

Pretty classmate Jessie (Sofia Black-D'Elia) gets roped into the whole thing after stumbling upon one of their test runs with the time machine, helping continue their experiments that culminate with the whole group going back in time to the previous day. Bolstered by their success, they start having a little fun with it. They use it to pass tests they'd previously flunked, get revenge on bullies, give themselves winning lottery numbers. They even go back to Lollapalooza with souvenir VIP passes they bought on eBay three months after the fact. But when David misses a chance for romance with Jessie at Lollapalooza, his secret decision to rectify his mistake only ends up causing a ripple effect that does more harm to the present than good. His attempts to go back and fix those problems instigate even more catastrophic consequences, leaving David with an ever-growing mountain of problems that threaten to ruin everything he holds dear.

While I did enjoy Project Almanac for the most part thanks to its energetic pace, I felt it left something to be desired. I've heard it described as a hybrid of Chronicle and The Butterfly Effect, but the movie is nowhere near as strong as either of those. The problem is that it largely feels unfocused, as if it knows what it wants to do but is unsure of how to get there and gets distracted along the way. It just struggles along, hitting its head against a proverbial brick wall for an hour and a half before realizing it could have just walked around that wall.

Director Dean Israelite does a decent job of holding the movie together and keeps it moving fast and lively, but I thought the whole "found footage" style hindered him more than it helped. Not only does the shaky camerawork get old really fast, but there's no real reason why it has to be done that way anyway. Israelite could have made Project Almanac with traditional cinematography, and the movie probably could have been better off for it. The found footage aspect adds literally nothing to the movie outside of the occasional bits where the cast finds cameras that have sent back and fourth through time.

But then again, the script isn't really worth much either. I noted earlier that the movie felt unfocused, and it's mostly due to the script. Writers Jason Harry Pagan and Andrew Deutschman don't really get to the serious drama, the consequences of the cast's actions, until there's roughly just twenty minutes left in the movie. Things don't start spiraling out of control until the movie's almost over, which doesn't really give it enough time to have any sort of serious impact with the audience.

That Butterfly Effect comparison I made earlier doesn't really fit if the consequences don't hit hard. There are little things ― the high school's basketball team goes from success to failure after the star player breaks his leg; the school bully is suddenly and without explanation everyone's best friend ― that we see are different. But then there's a plane crash and one of the main characters ends up in a coma after an accident. A plane crash and a comatose main character seem like they should be a big deal, right? But they never have the emotional impact that they should have. Pagan and Deutschman spend some time telling us what's happening rather than showing us, robbing the movie of any potential tension that could have been drawn from the ripples caused by their excursions into the past. Why should I care about what's happening if the movie itself doesn't care either?

To the movie's credit, I thought the cast was strong despite the characters being rather shallowly written. While Ginny Gardner is stuck in the role of "found footage camera operator" and is thus given next to nothing to do (rendering her a near-complete non-factor in the process), Allen Evangelista and Sam Lerner provide some amusing comic relief. I also thought Sofia Black-D'Elia was cute and charming, and had a fun chemistry with Jonny Weston. Weston, however, is the standout player. He gets to do the lion's share of the acting, and I thought his work was great. I'd have liked to have seen just what Weston could have done had the whole thing been fleshed out better. His excitement at the creation of the time machine and growing despair at his failures is very believable, and in a stronger movie, I think he could have gotten some attention.

That actually sums up Project Almanac fairly well. There are some parts I genuinely enjoyed, but they'd have been so much better had the rest of the movie been stronger. The movie has a fun energy and some decent acting, along with an interesting premise. It only does so much with what it has, though. Combine that with its weak script and unnecessary usage of found footage, and you have a movie that is probably only good as a mild diversion if anything. The DVD release in a few months could make for a decent watch on a boring afternoon, but it's probably not worth the $7.50 to see it theatrically. Just wait for it to pop up on DVD or on-demand, and you might enjoy it.

And risks or no risks, I still want to own my own time machine. That'd be awesome.

Final Rating: **½