“Passengers” (2016) Review

To call Passengers junkie science fiction would be too kind. This is the slick Hollywood glaze of science fiction which is not about high-concept ideas for fun pulp, but an excuse to place A-list actors in a romantic space setting. I can only imagine that the producers were only thinking of the star power for having the big names of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, both of them no strangers to Marvel movies, would make a golden duo for a romance among the stars. Perhaps they believed so much in their charisma that they could carry such an immoral, uneven and shlocky script past its glaring flaws. Oh, how I wish they had such power.

Pratt plays Jim, an average engineer who finds himself awakened on a starship of 5000 passengers before having reached his destination. The ship will not arrive at the planet he is traveling towards for the next 90 years. There’s no way to get back into his cryo-sleep pod to avoid dying of old age, no means of awakening the ship’s crew and no way to ask Earth for help from such a distance. He is destined to die on this ship. But at least he has enough entertainment on the ship to pass away his remaining days with video games, fine dining, books, movies and a robot bartender. Of course, he’ll get bored with the isolation and become so depressed that he contemplates suicide.

A cure for his loneliness, he reasons, is to awake one of the passengers so that he can converse with a real human being. Perhaps he could research all the passengers and find one that has the closest of skills to an engineer that could fix his hibernation pod and, you know, maybe fix the crumbling ship. Nah, he’d much rather seek the hottest lady on board and condemn her to death so that he can find someone to love on a dying ship. And, of course, he picks the hottest looking dame on the ship who happens to look like a movie star. Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) is an author from New York City who dreams of having new experiences on a new planet to write some great stories. Too bad her life is going to be cut short so she can die of old age on a spaceship with Chris Pratt.

Because this situation is the worst possible event you could wish upon a human being, Pratt must naturally lie about having nothing to do with her premature awakening. He’ll keep that tucked away for the valley of their relationship so that the two can frolic, stare loving at each other during dinner dates, go on spacewalks and have passionate sex. Even when Pratt finally slips out the truth, she seems to be over it after a few jobs around the ship. After all, they can’t stay mad at each other. They’re top movie stars and need to be a couple for the big screen in this dopey piece of science fiction.

As the story loses its sense of morality, it also loses its tone. I thought I was witnessing a romance among the stars, but the third act quickly turns into the most lame-brain of action movie cliches. All those malfunctions around the ships that the couple casually ignore come back to bite them when the ship is mere minutes away from being destroyed. And it’s no exaggeration when I say they put these repairs off to the very last minute, even going so far as to take a nap and have a swim when they finally reach the malfunctioning reactor. On and on the third act continues with one danger after another, mounting with such uninteresting inevitability. The reactor cannot be repaired unless they pull a switch, but the switch is outside. The switch outside isn’t working so they need to vent the chamber. The chamber can’t be vented unless someone stands in front of the vent to manually open them. Of course, the manual control for opening vents would be right next to the vent! Where else would it be?

It is so disappointing to see such a concept for great science fiction turn into the most vapid, immoral and stupid of stories. It’s a film that seems to have been sold on its cast, its special effects and its romance, without the slightest ounce of intelligence to its script. I will grant that Pratt and Lawrence look good as an onscreen couple and the designs of the starship are uniquely imagined and polished. But it’s all in service of such trashy writing better suited for that best-selling romance novel where readers care more about the kissy-faces of the leads than the dopey decisions they make. This is science fiction for those who don’t like science fiction, believing this junk will finally turn them over to the genre. Let’s hope this type of film, bereft of ideas and common sense, will fade away into a galaxy far, far away.

“Spectre” (2015) Review

I fear that Daniel Craig’s arc as the iconic James Bond has reached its height with 2012’s Skyfall. It’s not an easy task to follow up one of the finest Bond films of the Craig era after taking risks, restructuring the characters and featuring an intense story to follow. Perhaps there was no possible way to topple such a feat that the filmmakers just put their feet up for the fourth James Bond picture starring Craig. This is average Bond and, at this point in the Bond franchise, average tastes awful.

What remains intact is the visual splendor we expect from every James Bond picture. Spectre opens up strong with James on a mission in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead. There’s an exciting chase, a fight on a helicopter and a grand explosion that sends Daniel Craig racing across rooftops that crumble. It’s a thrilling opening that sadly doesn’t match the ho-hum plot. Bond is told to lay low by a company taking over the agency, but he just can’t help himself from investigating a secret organization he uncovers. He breaks out the usual gadgets, talks to all the right people and fights Dave Bautista on a train. The dots connect fairly early, but we’re stuck with Bond going through the motions of slowly uncovering clues in lavish locations with no big surprises.

Our villain for the picture was intended as a twist with Christopher Waltz playing the new Blofeld. There’s a backstory revealed of Blofeld’s family ties to James Bond and an orchestrating of the secret agent’s life, but all of this comes too late as a third act surprise that is anything but. More importantly, Waltz felt underused as Blofeld – never cackling or shouting at the camera loud enough to be a notable character. If a Bond film is going to go backwards, can it at least have standout villains?

The James Bond checklist is followed as a mix of both faithfulness and nostalgia. He sleeps with women and slurps some martinis (shaken not stirred). There’s an expensive car chase around a snowy cliff as a plane descends on our hero, piloted by gun-toting bad guys. Bond is taken to the secret base of the evil Spectre operation where our antagonist tortures him. Dave Bautista pops up as the muscle that gives Bond a good fight. There are plenty of big explosions to admire that may be too massive for their own good. And, of course, it wouldn’t be Bond without a cool car armed with all sorts of weapons and devices.

But is this all that’s required for a James Bond movie? After the brilliance in both Casino Royale and Skyfall, I’m not ready to see James Bond slip back into its old habits. It can’t go this route with such a fantastic cast with Ralph Fiennes as M and Naomie Harris as Moneypenny. At over two hours, the picture is far too long for floating between globetrotting questioning and gorgeous action set pieces amid a standard agency conspiracy plot. There’s no tension or wit to any of this – relying more on subtle grit than secret agent excitement. It may be time to retire the Bond franchise for a few more years before Daniel Craig stars in a much lesser James Bond movie. As it stands, Spectre is his worst Bond picture and I hope this is as bad as it gets.

 

“Batman Returns” Review

Of the many Batman movies released in the 1990s, Batman Returns (1992) is by far the most dark. Needlessly dark, in fact. It’s as if Tim Burton was so embarrassed to be making a movie about a man who fights crime in a bat costume that he was determined to put a bafflingly maccabe and odd coat of darkness on this superhero franchise. He may have achieved his goal of distancing himself from the usual Batman hype, considering that McDonald’s pulled their Happy Meal tie-in deal.
The movie begins with perhaps the most depressing of openings in any Batman movie: The abandonment of an ugly infant child into the river.

Due to an incident with their baby attacking a cat, the Cobblepot family decide that the only sane thing to do is literally send their child downriver. I can only imagine how they would respond if their toddler tortured the dog. The unlucky baby Oswald ends up at an abandoned zoo where he is raised by penguins, hence his villain name of The Penguin (Danny DeVito). He grows into a bitter, dirty and hate-filled human with penguin-like features that desires revenge on a city that shunned his ugliness. He also somehow has some colorfully dressed henchmen to do his bidding.

Before you can shed a tear for Penguin’s plight, the movie leaves his pathos and steers us towards another villain. The white-haired Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) wants to control an energy monopoly on Gotham City. Blackmailed by Penguin, Shrek devotes his resources to making Penguin socially acceptable and eventually a mayoral candidate. If Penguin can make his way into office, Max will be able to build his own energy factory without interference from the current mayor. It’s rather easy to run for mayor of Gotham considering Penguin’s lack of political experience, his shadowy past and his short temper which leads to biting off noses.

And then there’s the third addition of Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). Her origin is perhaps the most confusing of all as Selina Kyle, a secretary of Max who was tossed out a window for knowing too much. When she lands on the cold pavement, she is somehow nursed back to health by a swarm of cats. Animals sure do a lot of parenting in this picture. The cats have apparently endowed Selina with nine lives, a spell they must have cast amid trying to eat her body. One room-destroying mental breakdown and S&M outfit later, she is ready to play the role of Catwoman and get revenge on Max. Or just go crazy as she runs rampant in a department store for no reason, whipping the heads off mannequins and making the building explode.

Where is Batman in all this? Once more played by Michael Keaton, the titular character is more aloof than he was in the previous picture. He doesn’t have much to do aside from punching a few henchmen and stopping Max’s evil scheme. But he isn’t much of a hero in how his Batmobile is easily sabotaged by henchmen and even fails to save a woman from being murdered by bats. There’s a romance that develops between Batman and Catwoman, but it never reaches the erotic tension that is greatly implied. How sexual can two characters be when they spend all of their romantic moments dressed up as a tire and a suitcase?

Batman Returns thankfully has a strong cast and unique visual style in an attempt to cover up its murky tone and muddled story. But Burton’s trademark style of Gotham City, with its gothic design and costumed henchmen, can only go so far to make one overlook the shortcomings of the characters. I didn’t feel anything for Penguin’s sob story, Catwoman’s sexiness, Max’s desire for power or Batman’s mysteriousness. The movie attempts to be dark and noirish, but features surreal moments of comedy as when Batman adds record scratches to Penguin’s audio admission of public manipulation. The lack of maintaining a consistent tone or narrative gives this aimless production a stylishly bitter nihilism – something that feels out of place for a Batman movie.

“Terminator Genisys” Review

The Terminator franchise has reached a point of no return. After the thrilling neo-noir elements of the first film and the spectacular action bonanza of its sequel, the series has not progressed much since. It went for the typical summer vibe of including a sexy female Terminator for T3: Rise of the Machines and it tried to play with straight grit in Terminator Salvation. I’m not saying the PG-13 ratings of summer blockbusters hampered these films, but it sure didn’t help. And here we are back in the mode of Terminator acting more as campy summer fair with nostalgic banking. But there’s a bit of a twist this time in that Terminator: Genisys, the fifth movie in the franchise, takes a kamikaze approach.

All of the Terminator movies up to this point have been fairly faithful in sticking to the timeline of events as they unfold. This is not the case with Terminator: Genisys as it deliberately rips pages out of the original story and rewrites everything. It may be considered blasphemy towards the franchise and ludicrous for time-travel logic, but what more can we expect from Terminator at this point? Its story has been told in more ways than one. We know all about Skynet and the events that transpire before and after the rise of machines over man. It’s time to shake things up with a story we don’t entirely see coming a mile away.

The movie begins with the familiar scene of John Connor (Jason Clarke) preparing to send Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to stop the machines. Even with the grand battle of humans versus robots in the opener, it’s all stuff we’ve seen before (and most likely better). But then something strange happens when John travels back to 1984. Some new sentient software dubbed Genysis and experiences new memories on his journey to the past attack John. When he arrives in 1984 to save Sarah Connor from the evil T-800 (younger Arnold Schwarzenegger), except the good T-800 (slightly younger Arnold Schwarzenegger) arrived early to help her. And the T-1000 shows up ahead of schedule as well. But, wait, there’s more! You also get more time travel where Connor and Reese travel into the modern present where they must stop Genysis in the form of a cloud application with the aged T-800 (present day Arnold Schwarzenegger). AND there’s a new Terminator that can heal faster and is allergic to magnets.

All of this sounds as though it were a Terminator fan-film come to life with its changing storyline, nostalgic callbacks and laughable means of making sense with time travel. The story is convoluted, the acting is not to scale and the action is comically overblown with flipping cars and explosions that are a hair short of matching an atomic bomb. And, yet, I didn’t mind this movie so much. Perhaps I am so enamored with Genysis‘ desire to trash the legacy of its lesser predecessors. If the Terminator movies want to continue being sequels or anything other than reboots, they can’t keep repeating themselves with the same old Skynet doom scenario. I could have done without the goofy franchise house cleaning to get to this new story of different evil robots, but this is the world we live in. You can’t completely do something new in a franchise without tossing in a few references or familiar characters.

Naturally, the biggest draw will be the action. Director Alan Taylor stages some big sequences of war-torn battlefields of the future, massive-sized research facilities for chase sequences and large enough buildings to demolish. There are car chases, gunfights, laser fights, Terminator fights and even a helicopter chase. From a technical standpoint, you can’t fault Genysis in the action department. Another surprising plus was the humor. While there are plenty of nostalgic nudges and winks that almost all fall flat, the more original and genuine comedy between Arnold, Emilia and Jai is actually rather amusing. If the character can’t be engaging on a dramatic level, there’s at least a twinge of cheesy amusement. The addition of J.K. Simmons as an eccentric conspiracy nut adds a little more levity to this doomsday plot.

Terminator Genysis is no ’84 Terminator or T2: Judgment Day, but why would it want to? Those movies were perfect and it’d be impossibly pointless to try to replicate them in the form of a reboot. I guess this is why I found Genysis more enjoyable than it should have been, as the divergence appears healthy. There’s a happy ending where crisis is averted and we don’t have to watch Schwarzenegger die yet again for the sake of humanity. That bit is as old as Schwarzenegger. This movie does its best to buff out the wrinkles of a franchise that is past its time. While it may not succeed entirely, it’s at least refreshing to watch the commitment to trying something new – even if it’s a mess of silly time travel and flawed characters.

“Pixels” Review

Pixels is a movie that used cheat codes to get to its own nostalgic special effects. It bypasses all the story, character and necessary logic to feature Adam Sandler and his friends battling video game characters in real life. It’s not important that there is any rhyme or reason to any of spec of this action comedy – all that matters is Adam Sandler’s passive commentary on video games and Josh Gad screaming at the top of his lungs. Sadly, there is no cheat code on the DVD to make any of this funny.

Nothing about this premise is all that original. The idea was based off a visual effect short of the same title and the story is ripped straight from an episode of Futurama. Slam them both together with the usual lazy writing of Happy Madison productions and you have one big mess of a movie about video game themed aliens invading Earth. The aliens – which we never see out of the form of licensed video game characters – declare war on Earth after viewing some of our video games from 1982. I never thought Pac Man or Galaga were declarations of war, but what do I know about aliens? I can tell you I don’t know much about these aliens considering how little of their intent is revealed.

To combat this threat, the United States decides to enlist the aged video game champions of 1982 comprised of Adam Sandler, Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage. Why are they recruited as opposed to all the other video game champions or alien experts of the past three decades? From what I can gather, Sandler is apparently able to recognize that the Galaga enemies were from the arcade version and not the home console version. Why is this important? It’s the script’s laughable excuse for using men in their 40’s for a video game themed movie. Could they have at least tried to make the scenario plausible and maybe abduct everybody on Earth born after 1982? It wouldn’t make much sense, but would be far more plausible.

Pixels banks entirely on nostalgia. Most of its comedy seems to derive from the mere sight of a CGI Pac Man devouring cars and Centipede ripping up buildings. Director Chris Columbus crowds the screen with so many of the visual gags, perhaps to cover up the script of lesser characters and dialogue. Sandler is portrayed as a tired and boring nerd that has been reduced to house calls for setting up electronics, but he’s still not above picking up chicks while on the jobs. A bad hygiene trait is forced on his character to enforce some sort of nerd stereotype. Peter Dinklage is an imprisoned champion of Donkey Kong, performing the worst accent of his entire career. Kevin James is the president of the United States and doesn’t have much to do until the third act. Josh Gad plays an alien conspiracy theorist who spends most the movie screaming.

I suppose the movie wants us to marvel at such unlikely heroes, but I’m more floored by such unlikable characters with nothing all that funny to do. Gad must instruct some soldiers on the mechanics of video games and makes a plethora of gay jokes while shouting at the men. He then spanks their butts while they are playing video games. There might have been a subplot to this humor about Gad’s character being a closeted homosexual, but such creativity is not in the cards. After all, Gad has a terrible romantic subplot about being in love with a female video game character. And if you can make any sense of that arc, I would love to hear about it.

I’m not much for video games, but even I was staring at this picture in astonishment for how much it got wrong. There are no cheat codes in Pac Man or Donkey Kong, but the scriptwriters believe every video game has a cheat code. Q-Bert pops up as an ally, but speaks in perfect English as opposed to the garbled babble he spoke in the video games. Even the title of the movie is wrong as the CG video games characters are assembled with voxels and not pixels. If the movie gets so many of these geeky facts wrong while focusing on a very geeky subject, the mind reels at just who this movie is intended for. It’s not for the geeks for its inaccuracy and it’s not for kids since they won’t get the references to Max Headroom or Hall and Oates. I can only fathom that it must be meant for baby boomers who played a lot of arcade games in the 1980’s and haven’t played one since. What an oddly specific demographic for such a terrible comedy.

“The Divergent Series: Insurgent” Review

If you’re familiar with the current crop of young adult novels turned movie franchises, you may find yourself with a bit of Deja vu while watching Insurgent. Didn’t I just see this movie a few months ago, and wasn’t it called The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1? They both feature scenes of running through the woods with gunfire following our fleeing characters. Wait a minute, that happened in The Maze Runner as well. These young adult heroes do so much running through the woods I’m surprised they all don’t run into each other at some point.

For as tired as I’m becoming of this formulaic subgenre, there was one aspect of Insurgent that brought me a small bit of relief. The movie sets up a society-changing MacGuffin that the corporate villains possess, but need our hero to activate it. It appears as too much of a game-changer that I was sure it would just be left on the shelf for the next movie. Thankfully, I was wrong. This story feels more complete in how it follows through on its premise by providing a beginning, middle and end to an event. After having seen so many of these young adult series that use their sequels as mere bridges of half-arcs to the final showdown, it was refreshing to watch a movie in a series that can stand on its own.

That is the good news. The bad news is that Insurgent can’t quite seem to shake those common young adult tropes. We find our hero Tris (Shailene Woodley) hiding out in the woods as the Divergent messiah in a world where roles are predestined. She bands together with the resistance that are doing their best to defend themselves from the evil Jeanine (Kate Winslet) of the evil Erudites. As Jeanine struggles to open a mysterious box that is said to be a solution to the problem with Divergents, Tris becomes a prime target as the key. Assaults are waged, hostages are taken and lives are threatened unless Tris turns herself in to open the box. Good of the people, fight the oppressors, all the jazz.

The story itself proceeds rather straightforward as you’d expect, but with some strong performances by Woodley, Winslet and, surprisingly, Jai Courtney. For being another messiah of a dystopian future, Woodley plays the role with more emotion than I’d expect in how she tearfully resists a truth serum and darkly accepts responsibility for being a big target. She even gets some great moments of action in between all the escaping and hiding. The action scenes are not too shabby either with some well-staged shootouts and a memorable battle of the psyche in a crumbling metropolis.

But while Insurgent does provide in these areas, it still forgets to give a reason to be invested in its story. The plot is still just as simple and lacking in depths as much as it predecessor. I wanted some drama and a reason to care about the acting and design which has been paid much more attention. I appreciate that the director pulled off some decent style and acting in what is an otherwise bland clone of the young adult genre. Whatever inspired him to more, please slide some of it by the screenwriters as well.

The Divergent Series has improved with Insurgent and just needs an extra kick to stand out from the young adult competition. That kick happens to be an engaging script with more believable drama. Despite some improvements in the acting and design, I just can’t bring myself to recommend the picture on those merits alone. There are much worse young adult movies out there, but Insurgent still finds its stuck in the same box – desperately clawing its way to get out its by-the-book structure. If you never saw the first movie or it just did nothing for you, there’s no reason to get back into the Divergent series with this sequel.

“Jurassic World” Review

While sharing an elevator with a small boy and his dad, this kid ecstatically informed me about how he was going to see Jurassic World for the second time. He beamed with excitement as he described to me the grand finale in which the bad raptors turned good to join forces with the T-rex and beat the evil dinosaur. I smiled deeply at this young man’s enthusiasm which mirrored that twerp of a dinosaur-lover I was when I saw Jurassic Park at the age of eight.

I tend not to bring nostalgia into my reviews since I believe it cheapens the effect for those who are not in on the franchise. But when I first saw this movie in the theater, I sat next to two little girls under the age of 10. Some critics have cited how the grim violence may be too dark and shocking for kids who are into dinosaurs. These two girls were on the edge of their seat during the action and cackled with thrills as dinosaurs gobbled humans. Most kids are smart enough to enjoy the PG-13 action of a monster picture without cowering in their seats. If I could take this type of intensity at 8, then today’s kids are more than capable of not only handling the action, but enjoying it as well. It was such an amazing sights to witness that thrill once again and share it with a new generation.

Okay, enough about the kids. Does the movie succeed without the amazing dinosaur special effects? For what is essentially a winking homage to the original, Jurassic World does its job well. It fulfills that dark fantasy I always wanted to see in the original – the opening of the dinosaur park. All the rides, attractions and exhibits are all fully operational alongside the containment of prehistoric beasts. It’s all very elaborate and commercialized. And I couldn’t wait to see it all come crumbling under the weight of dinosaur carnage. The movie constantly teases all the gruesome fun to come from the “trained” raptors to the giant sea creature that can swallow whales whole.

But what of the human characters? As with any monster movie, the characters are mostly just vessels for the destruction. The good news is they’re likable enough to not be completely one-dimensional. Chris Pratt naturally steals the show as the likable scientist/dinosaur ranger – dressed in a ruff garb and riding into the action on a motorcycle. His romantic interest is a shrewd park manager played by Bryce Dallas Howard with a good mix of being overly business and frazzled with emotion. Vincent D’Onofrio is well cast as the war-hungry military man that becomes the villain and Irrfan Khan does a nice job as an eccentric investor. The only returning character comes in the form of B.D. Wong – reprising his role as the scientist Doctor Henry Wu.

But there are far more returning elements from the original Jurassic Park than just one character. Several winks and nods to the original and peppered into both the story and visuals. The park itself is built around the ruins of the previous movie – leading to its discovery as a tomb of nostalgia. The new prehistoric creatures that roam the park use familiar methods by placing their eyes close to their prey and sniffing them before taking a big chomp. It does become a little tiresome with all its callbacks, but there’s thankfully enough originality at play by the third act when the all the park attractions savage the human guests.

Jurassic World is genuine adventure and excitement that will entertain adults, but perhaps entertain the kids even more. It’s packed with enough dinosaur action and genuine thrills to make up for all the usual tropes of the monster movie genre that usually dampen the experience. Sure, I could be the downer adult who rains on the parade by berating the lack of deeper character, the banking on nostalgia and the level of violence, which could be deemed inappropriate for kids. But how could I deny the same level of joy that I experienced when it’s renewed for a new generation?

 

“Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection F” Review

While the previous Dragon Ball Z movie managed to win me over by taking a new spin on the fantastical fighting formula, Resurrection F finds the franchise going back to its old bad habits. The villain this time around is the purple-domed alien Frieza, the most powerful warlord of the series that just can’t seem to stay dead. He is once again revived by his crazy zealots and once again seeks out Goku so he can once again get his revenge. This is a character that was once fearsome for controlling the galaxy’s greatest army and more than able to handle any warrior that could be thrown at him. But with this movie marking the second time he’s come back from the dead, he has lost that edge as a worthy antagonist. Even our heroes seem to be underwhelmed by his presence since they already know the outcome.

It’s not that Frieza doesn’t have any unique aspects to make him a great villain. He was once the ruler of the galaxy – lording over the villain-turned-hero Vegeta after having decimated his planet and his Saiyan race. Having been beaten twice by the Saiyan race which he once slaved has consumed him in rage. He lives only to see that Goku and Vegeta are dead. But after failing at this exact revenge plan once already, what has he learned since then? Apparently not that much. He builds up a new army to rule over the universe, but they serve as little more than a large amount of fodder for our lesser heroes to fight. Frieza has acquired a new form, but doesn’t have any new powers or surprising traits. And for a being that is revenge-driven, he sure spends a lot of time laughing manically and monotonously monologuing.

Resurrection F goes back to the direction which made Dragon Ball Z both iconic and deeply flawed. Whereas the previous movie Battle of Gods had character, this movie is mostly just fights. Veteran characters Gohan, Krillin, Piccolo, Tien and Master Roshi finally get a chance to show off their fighting abilities in how they dispatch wave after wave of Frieza’s forces. I had forgotten that Master Roshi – as old and feeble as he appears – could bulk up like the Hulk when he’s ready to fight. They all get to battle and show off their trademark special moves that I’m sure will make the hardcore Dragon Ball Z fans cheer to see these attacks once more.

Despite some rousing chase sequences of warriors battling through caves and woods, the fights become simpler and cheaper per Dragon Ball Z‘s budget-tightening animation. Characters will fight in blurs of action lines when in closeup and in spherical explosions when fighting from a distance. Blasts of energy are fired off as big, blinding lights that consume opponents. It’s amazing how this feature-length animation can have such rich colors of design and still revert to the old dog tricks of the series.

I suppose that given my familiarity growing up with the Dragon Ball Z TV series and its movies that I should be having some nostalgia for all this. There is no doubt in my mind that those who grew up on the franchise will have a soft spot in their heart for Goku delivering a Kamehameha wave or Frieza gnashing his teeth in rage at those pesky Saiyans. Memories are most likely surfacing of weekday afternoons huddled around the television to see what Goku would do next. Maybe I’m getting too old, but nostalgia just doesn’t do it for me anymore. After 14 of these Dragon Ball Z movies, I’d expect the resurgence to be something more than the same old thing. Would it kill the franchise to give just a little more depth and personality to Frieza?

But it’s Dragon Ball Z – why would I come in expecting more character than fight? It’s because Battle of Gods actually gave some character and humor in addressing the flaws and finding the stronger points. The past villain Beers, the galactic god of destruction, was such a welcome presence from the usual that he’s actually trotted out in this movie to give some comedic support. He’s just such a great villain as a lazy cat creature that refuses to destroy Earth as long as they keep providing him with ice cream and pizza. Beers grabs the attention of nearly every scene that it’s such a shame his purpose is to provide the most overused third act plot device of the sci-fi genre. They even announce this plot device early just so it doesn’t appear as though the writers just pulled it out of their butts when needed.

At its best, Resurrection F will at least hold your attention. I didn’t like how Frieza was so underwhelming, but was amused at how Goku and Vegeta were so disinterested in him as a threat to fight over who will destroy him. The day jobs of the Z warriors are only addressed as lip service, but still very much appreciated to see Krillin as a cop and Piccolo as a babysitter. These are all nice touches, but they still adhere to the usual formula as being minor strokes of character amid fight after fight. The only thing that truly feels different about this movie is the color palette. The new Super Saiyans have swapped out their yellow hair for blue and Frieza has ditched the white and purple exterior for gold and…purple. I guess the new purple is a shade darker so there’s at least some effort present.

“San Andreas” Review

What exactly is the highest peak for disaster pictures? For what essentially amounts to a visual effects showpiece of massive destruction, it’s a genre that tends to be heavy on display and light on just about everything else. Characters and arcs? Mere dressing for a tidal wave to wipe out a city or a volcano to engulf a town. Most audiences going into these pictures are not expecting to care about whether the characters grow or develop from such a situation. They mostly just want to see them tossed into a blender of carnage and really just watch for the spectacle of who will survive. Film critic Gene Siskel, when talking about the movie Twister, stated that you know you’ll get great special effects with the right team behind such a picture. So why not actually conceive a story just as engaging as the effects? Can such a film exist?

At this point, the answer is probably no. Popcorn-chomping audiences favor the bigger disasters over the bigger scripts. It is why the disaster genre of movies is now more of a ride. You strap in for the experience and hope it doesn’t bore or make you sick. With San Andreas, I got what I paid for and was more impressed with what it did not do. There were no cartoonish characters played up for laughs amid all the violence. There were no lame jokes at the cost of toppling buildings or a shuttering Earth. There were no overly ridiculous methods to save the day. It plays to many of the common clichés, as expected, but only to the sufficient degree required – catching itself just before it tumbles over the cliff of lunacy.

Our muscle-bound protagonist running around a crumbling California is a rescue worker played by Dwayne Johnson. He’s a decent man willing to risk his life and, of course, has to save his ex-wife and daughter from the apocalyptic destruction. These characters are all familiar including the hysterical scientist played by Paul Giamatti, but never for the level of camp in that of a Roland Emmerich production. They all just fit neatly into their place for this template – especially the way Dwayne Johnson gets plenty of chances to punch looters and carry the injured to safety. No ridiculous banter or Michael Bay style plays for jokes in the setup. The actors all just seem to be along for the ride – desiring only to enjoy it just enough without appearing as fools.

But all this writing is taking away from the true stars of this picture: the disasters. The Hoover dam bursts in an amazing display of violently gushing waters. Buildings caught in the quake wiggle from side to side as they come apart with people falling out of the holes in the structures. A giant tidal wave threatens the area and the only way to avoid it is ride to the top of the wave (of course). All these special effects do a great job acting at the screen – convincingly playing the role of a decimated Los Angeles. Maybe I’m reviewing this picture the wrong way in that I favor visuals or people when it comes to this genre, but what else is there to root for in a movie such as this? As far as these type of pictures go, San Andreas is about as good as it gets. The best way to conceive a big-budget disaster picture at this point is to fill the screen with lots of detail and make the humans small enough so that they don’t intrude or annoy the spectacle. It’s a passive plot up to the big salute of the national guard that was more pleasing than forced. The disasters occur, the speakers shake and the movie ends. Please watch your step after exiting your seat.

“Tremors 5: Bloodlines” Review

Did they really make a fifth Tremors movie? Yes. Did there need to be a fifth Tremors movie? No. Is it even any good? Surprisingly, yes. For being a direct-to-video feature and the latest entry in a dead franchise, Tremors 5 manages to be a rather pleasing bit of campy monster-hunting action. Am I lowering my expectations having spent so much time in the direct-to-video soup? Perhaps, but this is still one of the more enjoyable bowls of both the genre and the series. And sometimes you just want to enjoy a crazy movie about exploding bugs.

The series staple Michael Gloss returns for the role as the mustached gunmen Burt Gummer. Now a seasoned veteran at dealing with the wormy Graboids, Burt now has his own survival television program where he showcases his monster-hunting skills. Such promotion brings with it pushy young brand manager Travis Welker (Jamie Kennedy). Taking the show abroad, Burt accepts an invitation to hunt Graboids in South Africa. But the plot grows thicker as more Graboids are discovered and a greedy black market dealer desires to have these monsters captured alive.

Naturally, Tremors 5 never takes itself seriously. It’d be hard to do so when the type of Graboid our heroes are hunting is designated as an Ass Blaster class, based on the fire it spews from its rectum to launch through the air. True to the campy spirit of Tremors, the script by the original writers maintains a certain level of fun throughout. Burt showcases his usual gung ho attitude with plenty of guns in tow. He’s such an amusing character that the movie actually has enough faith to lock him in a cage and work with very little. The addition of Jamie Kennedy to the cast is solid given that he perfectly inhabits the role of an eager young assistant. He never plays the role up too heavily by acting as a suitable counter to the crusty old Michael Gloss.

The monster hunting is heavy on the computer graphics, but the picture makes due with the best with what it has to offer. The Graboids don’t appear very cheap for such a production and actually look pretty decent in most scenes. There are some sequences that are awkwardly staged as when one unlucky soul is gobbled up by a Graboid launching out of the sand and swallowing before burrowing back. But there are also scenes that easily avoid being laughable as when an Ass Blaster flies off into the night with human prey in its claws.

Plenty of firepower is brought to the party as Burt goes hunting in South Africa. You’ll rarely find a scene where Burt isn’t armed with a trusty hunting rifle. He may not do as much shooting as I’d like, mostly just taking aim for a Graboid kills, but the picture tries to make up for it in the second act with a helicopter armed with missiles that decimates a Graboid nest. The movie at least delivers on the blood and explosions as the grand finale involves a giant burst of bug guts over an entire African town.

Despite some slow spots, Tremors 5 delivers on a genuine sense of fun for another monster romp down the direct-to-video series. There’s a surprising amount of charm in how it delivers on some capable humor for what could have been a tired change of location and smattering of computer graphics. It would be nice to see Kevin Bacon return to the series after all these years, but Michael Gloss seems to do a good job at keeping a certain level of enthusiasm after all these years. After five Tremors movies, he still has all the intensity with his cackling at victories and teeth gnashing at those who hinder his hunt. He owns this series and he knows it, despite the attempt in this movie to spur a passing of the torch. I also really dug the concept for his reality show that would fit in snugly on National Geographic or the Discovery Channel. If the series has a future, I would be more than okay with a Tremors TV series of Burt hunting Graboids around the globe. Could you imagine him running through the streets of Tokyo with a hunting rifle as monsters emerge into crowded intersections?