“Wonder Woman” Review

Wonder Woman is more of a superhero movie than a movie with superheroes in it. Warner Brothers’ previous DC Comics “superhero” movies seemed to deal with wavering themes, much too heavy for the likes of capes and cowls. Considering how obsessed Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice became with the idea of gods to the point of crucifying Superman, I wasn’t looking forward to a DC movie about actual gods. Thankfully, director Patty Jenkins knew what she was doing to make a Wonder Woman movie work. She knew you couldn’t take a superhero film too seriously when a tiara-wearing Amazon warrior tries to stop the God of War and his evil sidekick Doctor Poison.
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“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” Review

Guy Ritchie firmly establishes from the first few scenes that this won’t be the same old tale of King Arthur. Within the first minute, there’s already an attack on a kingdom by evil wizards leading a pack of gargantuan elephants that could trample castles. A king jumps into battle with his magical Merlin sword, decapitating his enemies with magic fury in his eyes. The king’s jealous brother (Jude Law) wants that power and is willing to strike a deal of blood with a female octopus monster to make it happen. And there’s a giant wielding a flaming scythe that savagely brutalizes anyone in his path. For as over-the-top as such sights are in Richie’s wild vision of the classic character, it could stand to be a little more crazy, a little more creative and a lot more Ritchie.
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“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” Review

The best and worst thing that can be said of the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy is that it’s more of the same. If you liked the last movie, you’ll be delighted to hear that Vol. 2 is just as abundant with crass, crude, cute and kicking 70s tunes. Not only are these elements present, but they’ve been doubled and smushed into 138 minutes. More subplots, more characters, more music, more slow-motion shots, more end-credit scenes and more than enough starship battles to make Star Wars blush. It’s rather surprising that, for as much fun as this movie transfers over from the previous film, it forgets to add the originality that made it stand out so well against the competition of other superhero movies.
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“The Fate of the Furious” Review

What can you do with cars in an action scene that hasn’t been done before? The Fast and the Furious film franchise seems to always have the right answer, letting the imagination run wild with automotive stunts and destruction that make any other movie about cars seem timid by comparison. Now on its eighth installment, The Fate of the Furious still has some of that giddy insanity that keeps the blood pumping as much as the nitro in the cars, even if there’s much less in the tank than there was before.

The plot plays as a cross between a soap opera and a James Bond picture. Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is considering being a father with his love Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). Thoughts of settling down are put on hold as Dominic and his familiar team of drivers, hackers and government agents are tasked with stealing an EMP weapon. The mission proceeds smoothly until Toretto shocks everyone by going rogue and handing over the weapon to the blonde-haired terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron). Her plans are rather simple as far as villain ambitions go: Steal some nukes and hold the world for ransom. Sure, other bad guys have tried and failed with this exact scheme, but she’s a little more confident having convinced the seemingly invisible Toretto to do her bidding for the hostages she is holding. While she will get the blood boiling for the desire to see Toretto exact revenge on her, she’s not exactly a memorable villain with her infrequent tones and noodle-like hair. Theron must not have got the memo about what movie she was starring in as she’s playing her role far too seriously for a woman that wants to nab some nukes.

It’s a little disappointing that the series’ central theme of family doesn’t feel as strong here as it should, especially with how lacking in chemistry the movie appears. Not only do the protagonists spend more time apart, but can do little more than crack a few jokes on their laser focus to stop a terrorist. The nuke plot is so standard and boring that the passing of character development for easy quips makes the film a disappointment of lost potential. The heated relationship of agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and rogue assassin Shaw (Jason Statham) could have been fun if they did more than just shout insults at each other. Chris Bridges and Nathalie Emmanuel have no time for an implied romance between hackers, Kurt Russell is mostly in the background with commentary and Tyrese Gibson can do little more than shout his way into the plot.

Where the film does try to make up for its average action script is another barrage of over-the-top action sequences. Cool looking cars are thrown into a variety of locations where they burst into flames, skid around ice, avoid missiles, shoot grappling hooks and topple into each other by the dozens. Sure, these are all fun scenes, but they don’t have that certain level of craziness and creativity that makes The Fast and the Furious franchise so unique. One can only smash so many cars before the audience is just watching a tornado of a junkyard explosion.

Newcomer director F. Gary Gray attempts to give Vin Diesel more emotion and make the story a little more personal, but only as well as he can through the filters of the Furious series’ requirement for quips and car chases. It felt more as though Gray was sticking to a formula rather than doing his own thing in how he shoots and direct scenes that feel derivative of both the franchise and other action films. Lines and scenes that should be fun come off more standard than unique, which is saying something for a movie where a flaming car speeds backwards towards a finish line and hundreds of cars reenact World War Z. This is a franchise that needs to be taken into the shop if it hopes to maintain any sense of charisma and energy before reaching the big one-zero as more than just another dumb blockbuster where cars go vroom and explode into pretty balls of fire.

“300” Review

While Sin City used a CGI-created world to amplify the grit and bite of classic noir, 300 uses that same technology to turn a Greek war epic into a pro-wrestling cartoon. Based on Frank Miller’s overblown depiction of The 300 Spartans, this film is a visual feast of farce. There are massive armies of seemingly endless soldiers, far more than I doubt any kingdom would be able to manage for a single battle. The muddy palette of foreboding skies and darkly lit battlefields was probably intended to look gritty but comes off more like a vibrant depiction of a cloudy Sunday in August. And I can’t forget those laughably buff and greased-up muscles, always showcased in battle. Spartans would traditionally wear bulky armor to protect themselves, but maybe those rock-hard abs are as strong as metal.
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“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.