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