Once again I have fallen behind with my movie reviews. Long story short, I am working a full time job during the week and a part time job on the weekend. I was also finishing the school semester, which just ended this week. Still, I did go to see movies. So, here are some very, very short mini-reviews.

Unforgettable
A laughably bad Lifetime TV movie posing as a feature film. It is silly and melodramatic. Katherine Heigl pretty much plays the public perception of who she is in real life. The steamy scenes aren’t even steamy, for a film that wants to join that Fatal Attraction/Basic Instinct genre, of which we get two or three of these being released each year. This one is pretty awful. D+

Phoenix Forgotten
Take the plot of the original “The Blair Witch Project” and its found footage format, combined the plot of the last “Blair Witch” film in which a sibling of one of the original missing kids searches for answers while making their own documentary, and replace a witch with aliens, and you have this film. It is reasonably well made and has some potential at the start, but the film ends up being the same blue-balling, show-nothing-and-explain-even-less approach of the films it is ripping off. By the end, where a shaking camera and magic tricks try to equal scares or excitement, I was bored and disappointed. C

Sleight
If you took an indie thriller about a young, poor black man and combined it with a superhero origin story, but gave the whole film the tone of, say, “Moonlight”, you’d have “Sleight”. While the film is held back from its full potential by some poorly written supporting characters (a girlfriend who is too perfectly supportive, a neighbor who is also too perfectly supportive) the main character is well developed and acted. For a story about a kid raising his younger sister who is a street magician by day and a drug dealer by night, the film ends up better than its high concept logline makes it seem like it will be. B

The Circle
The Circle is an interesting and intelligent film…but it’s not good. The movie is more fun to analyze and think about than it is to watch. The movie sort of portrays a dystopia of neoliberal corporate control of every aspect of our lives and governance operating under the guise of benevolence.
Lots of people hate the government. The reasons I hate the government may be different from the reasons a Conservative does, but hate exists. Conversely, lots of people like Google. Gmail, YouTube, the Android OS, etc. The movie wants to make you afraid that people would gladly hand over control of the government to Google because a veneer of benevolence and services that are useful and aesthetically pleasing are enough to make most people forget that Google exists to make a profit, and it only cares about people to the extent that “caring” leads to more profits than not caring.
Also, transparency does not equal truth, because if you know you are being watched your behavior becomes performative and takes on levels of artifice. Plus, enough videos of cops murdering innocent people in cold blood exist yet many still get acquitted. The end of privacy does not automatically lend itself to a more just society.
Emma Watson gives another serviceable but bland performance. Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt don’t get enough room to shine. Karen Gillan gives the best performance and steals the scenes she’s in. C

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
A very funny, colorful comic book movie that manages to not descend into camp. Baby Groot is adorable, but Dave Bautista steals the show as Drax, getting all of the funniest dialogue and the best moments. Kurt Russell is clearly having a helluva fun time playing Ego. The story is nothing special and fairly predictable, and the film feels very small scale (possibly due to a lack of connectivity to the larger MCU) for being so expensive and, you know, set in space. The soundtrack is pretty awesome, and the CGI-fest finale is kept from being boring by the added humor and characters you care a bit more about than usual in these films. I had a really fun time at this one. B

That brings us up to date on what I’ve seen. Not sure if I’ll have much time to write full reviews in the immediate future, though.

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“The Case for Christ” is the story of an atheist journalist who gets upset when his wife converts to Christianity, so he decides to investigate Christianity in the hopes of debunking it. I am reminded of a line of dialogue from Dr. House: “If you could reason with religious people, there would BE NO religious people.” Even if our journalist, Lee Strobel (Mike Vogel, doing his best Billy Crudup impersonation) somehow managed to concretely disprove “Christianity”, proof never seems to be a problem for the most devout of believers. Modern scientific advancements and historical evidence have already definitively disproved the Creation Myth and a number of other Old Testament stories, but people still believe in them. Strobel’s wife, Leslie (Erika Christensen, a long way from “Swimfan”) doesn’t really push her beliefs on her husband, so the only issue I can see is the potential indoctrination of their children. Luckily, the film shows us Lee condescendingly explaining Jesus from an atheist standpoint to their daughter in order to nullify this concern, as commits the sin of forcing his beliefs on their child first. Regardless of whether the initial conflict of two married persons with kids having different faiths is a serious problem for a relationship or not, the solution to that problem is not a journalistic investigation.

So the basic set up for this film is flawed, but not nearly as flawed as the execution. “The Case for Christ” is brought to us by Pureflix, the Christian movie studio that brought us the hilariously awful “God’s Not Dead” series. The real life Lee Strobel is a Christian apologist who played himself in “God’s Not Dead 2”. The audience for this film are Christians who want their view of the historical veracity of Christianity confirmed, and will enjoy cheap shots at atheists, who are always portrayed in these movies as condescending assholes. Granted, I myself am an atheist and often a condescending asshole when it comes to discussing religion, but not every atheist is me, or Dr. House, Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory”, Dexter, Rick from “Rick and Morty”, or every other atheist you see portrayed in modern fiction. A lot of this modern condescension comes from the rise of evangelical influence in politics that came with the George W. Bush administration, as well as religious politicians pushing against gay and trans rights and other important issues, combined with 9/11 being a partially religious-motivated terrorist attack and a greater public consciousness of religious-based violence from certain Jihadist groups around the world. If those of us who are secular did not view religion as being a dangerous force in politics, that condescension would likely dissipate into mild amusement, but I digress. The intended audience for this film wants their preconceived notions validated, not challenged, so the film delivers on that score at the cost of it being intellectually bankrupt.

How does one go about debunking Christianity anyway? Does one attack the very historicity of the events depicted in the New Testament? Does one settle for attacking the Old Testament and draw the conclusion that the New Testament falls apart if the foundation that is the Old Testament crumbles? Does one ignore the historical questions of the events themselves and simply look at the recovered historical documents and debate their authenticity? Do they question why some documents are considered canonical and others are not? Do they compare the early Christian church’s beliefs and the later church’s beliefs to simply poke at the infallibility argument? Do they ignore Christianity altogether and just go after the concept of an omnipotent, omniscient god? How about just attacking the underlying philosophy of Christianity? Or contradictions in the New Testament? There are so many conceivable lines of attack that it can make one’s head spin.

Lee Strobel, and thus the film, decide to narrow the issue to a single element: the resurrection of Jesus. One co-worker of Strobel’s tells him that if he can disprove the resurrection, the rest of the religion falls like a house of cards. For a two hour film that wants to be the Christian version of a journalism movie, a film like “Spotlight” or “Zodiac” or “All The President’s Men”, this narrowed focus works well enough. With the elements being narrowed, the film has enough time to provide us with a B story. While Strobel is investigating Christianity in his spare time, his day job as a newspaper reporter has him assigned to the story of a police officer who was apparently shot be a repeat offender. The circumstances of this shooting are such that it seems plainly obvious that the suspect is guilty, so Strobel of course goes along with that obvious conclusion based on the evidence. How much money do you want to bet that Strobel will have overlooked other evidence, find out that the suspect was innocent all along, and Strobel will thus be punished for his cockiness in jumping to conclusions. How much additionally would you like to bet that this B story will mirror the A story investigation into Christianity?

If you’re keeping track, we now have three story threads: Investigation into the Resurrection, investigation into a police shooting, and marriage troubles. Is that enough for the film? Nope. We also have a brief story thread involving Strobel having a poor relationship with his father (Robert Forster, who deserves much better than films like this). This story thread only exists for one reason: to paint all atheists as simply being people with daddy issues, and are thus lashing out at their heavenly “father”. I shit you not, this is one of the bullshit arguments the film makes. Hell, one scene in the film exists only for this reason. At one point in the film Strobel visits a psychologist, who the film helpfully tells us is agnostic, to see if the people claiming to have viewed Jesus walking around after his death could be suffering from a form of mass delusion. This psychologist is played by…Faye Dunaway. I shit you not, Faye Dunaway is in this movie for a single scene, and her entire purpose in the film is to argue that people are only atheists because they have daddy issues. She’s gone from “Chinatown” and “Network” to THIS? She deserves better than this. A few token famous atheists are mentioned as having daddy issues, including Freud (whose own theories were often as lacking in fact as religion) and Nietzsche. Since we’ve learned from “God’s Not Dead” that Pureflix doesn’t understand logical fallacies, I must point out to them that correlation, if one actually exists beyond the token names given here, does not prove causation.

Perhaps I should go back to the beginning and tackle the steps Strobel takes in this investigation. When the film begins we are told that Strobel is a very good journalist. He’s had a book published about his investigation into the Ford Pinto, and is now a cocky hotshot around the newspaper office. One night he goes out to dinner with his wife and daughter, and the daughter asks for some change to get a gumball out of a candy machine. He gives her the change, she gets a gumball, and she starts choking on it. Of all the patrons in the crowded restaurant, the only person who seems to know how to do the Heimlich Maneuver is an off-duty nurse (L. Scott Caldwell). Upon saving the girl from choking, the nurse claims that she wasn’t going to go to the restaurant that night, but Jesus told her to. So Jesus is okay with, I dunno, the Holocaust, but he makes sure to personally intervene by telling a nurse to visit a restaurant so she can Heimlich a choking child. Unless Jesus also made the child choke in the first place so that he could them have her saved, which leads to the nurse converting Leslie which leads Lee to investigate Christianity and eventually become a Christian himself. If that’s the case, I’m glad Jesus thinks almost making a child die, and at least scaring that child and subjecting her to the pain from choking and the injuries to the abdominal area that come from the Heimlich, is worth converting one atheist family.

That night the daughter asks her parents who Jesus is, because an upper-middle-class white girl of school age in Chicago would of course have never even heard of Jesus before this incident. Apparently neither her or any of her friends had ever seen so much as one Christmas decoration before. I’m always amazed that the writers of Christian fiction, whether it’s films like this or those Chick Tracts, seem to think a large portion of Americans are unaware of the existence of Christianity or devoid of basic knowledge as to the religion’s beliefs. Regardless, Lee dismisses Jesus as a fairy tale to his daughter, but Leslie has been moved by the incident, starts going to church with the nurse, and is soon an out and out Christian.

Upset, Lee visits a fellow atheist friend of his (Mike Pniewski) for advice on how to de-convert his wife. The friend name checks Bertrand Russell (Pureflix loves argument from authority in that it always name checks people who make arguments without ever telling us what their arguments were, as if mentioning famous names is enough), but Lee states that there’s no way Leslie would be willing to read his famous book “Why I Am Not A Christian” in “her state”. This later prompts Lee to start his investigation. Later in the film, when Lee cannot 100% disprove the resurrection, this atheist friend tells him something that no real atheist would ever say: that just as it takes faith to believe in religion, it also takes a leap of faith to NOT┬ábelieve. This sort of equivalence between religion and atheism as requiring faith is, of course, idiotic bullshit. When one side has much more evidence for their case than the other side, concluding that the stronger side is correct is not “faith”. Faith is believing in something with NO evidence or IN SPITE OF evidence. But certain evangelical Christians love to say that it takes “faith” to be an atheist. They confuse “faith” with “reaching a conclusion when 100% certainty does not exist or may be impossible”.

Now you would think that a well respected journalist would actually know how to conduct an investigation. They would know how to mine credible sources from non-credible ones, would know what follow-up questions to ask when certain claims are made, etc. The Lee Strobel of this film is not a good journalist. The first person he interviews is Gary Habermas (Kevin Sizemore). Habermas makes some claims that are not challenged by Strobel, the main one being that the Resurrection of Jesus was witnesses by over 500 people. I can think of many follow-up questions to this claim: Who are they? Did they write witness statements that are preserved in the historical record? How did they arrive at that number? What were the circumstances of these events where they witnessed? Locations? Strobel just kind of nods and moves on. He takes this claim as fact and moves on to his next hypothesis.

So the whole “500 witnesses” thing comes from one line of the New Testament. It’s in the First Epistle to the Corinthians. This one line in a document written by Saul of Tarsus, the founder of what we call Christianity, and was at an earliest written 20 years after the date Jesus is normally estimated to have died (30-32 CE), which is still about 30 years before the earliest of the Gospels was written, is hardly definitive, concrete, unimpeachable proof. The source is biased (trying to spread Christianity), and there is no other corroborating evidence, either Christian or secular. Also, apparently another part of the New Testament, Acts, claims that after the Resurrection Jesus’s followers only numbered about 120. So unless someone’s numbers are off the Bible itself claims that 380 people saw Jesus Resurrected and were not convinced.

Later, Strobel talks to a historian in Jerusalem over the phone. It’s worth noting that Strobel travels all over the country in person to talk to other “experts”. Since he’s apparently paying for these flights out of pocket (remember, this is his personal business, not the newspaper’s) he is wasting a lot of money and spending a lot of time away from home when he has a wife, a daughter, and eventually a newborn baby in the family. Anyway, this phone expert tells him to not worry about the differences in the Resurrection story in the four gospels because it’s similar to when eyewitnesses are interviewed by police and their stories are slightly different. Yes, the contradictions in the Bible are just as inconsequential as whether the getaway car at a bank robbery was a blue Honda or a black Honda. Never mind that none of the writers of the Gospels were contemporaries of Jesus, the first Gospel being written about 40 years after Jesus is said to have died, which is a long time to pass for someone who never knew you to write accurately about you in a time when stories were passed through the oral tradition and investigating the veracity of claims for decades earlier and miles away was nearly impossible. One of the biggest problems of this film is that Strobel is willing to accept the New Testament as an accurate historical document so easily. The film doesn’t even attempt to discuss non-Christian historical sources like Josephus.

This film really wants the audience to think the New Testament is viable as a historical document, as opposed to a document which has SOME HISTORY IN IT, but is not historical. Think of it as the difference between a documentary on the Vietnam war versus “Forrest Gump”. JFK is a historical figure, much like Pontius Pilot is a historical figure, and JFK is featured in “Forrest Gump” just like Pilot is in the New Testament. But “Forrest Gump” is still a fictional narrative. I’m not claiming the New Testament is completely useless to historians, because of course it isn’t, but accepting the claims of the New Testament narrative as factual, but with some minor eyewitness misrecollections, is something no good journalist, or historian, would do. That doesn’t stop the film from including a scene where Lee talks to a former archaeologist-turned-priest whose main argument for the New Testament being history is that far more historical MANUSCRIPTS of it exist than of almost any historical document. Okay, but the fact that the New Testament was copied down a lot in history doesn’t make the New Testament ITSELF history. The film specifically mentions about 5800 Greek manuscripts, since they are the earliest ones and the many that came can be credited to being copied off of those, and the preponderance of copies will of course grow as the Christianity itself spreads. Fewer copies of other works can be explained because there’s not as much call in the old world where literacy was a privilege to copy works that didn’t make up religion for the masses and would be enjoyed by the privileged few who were literate and had the time and interest to read. Plus, of those 5800 Greek manuscripts, only about 100 are from the 1st century, and many of those are just tiny fragments of a single page. Far from the entire modern New Testament being unimpeachable history, historians and religious scholars often have a hard time deciding what parts of the book were from the original authors (when we even know who THEY were) and what parts were added and when. The whole process is much more involved and fascinating than this film cares about, and Lee Strobel is such a shitty reporter in this film that he again has no follow up questions, and is simply impressed by such a big number of manuscripts when compared to “The Iliad”, the epic poem by Homer that survived even longer with fewer copies (and is also not entirely a historical document, I would add). You could even point to works from Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia that are older, in better condition, AND original copies. That doesn’t mean the myth of Osiris is history.

Eventually, Strobel ends up chasing after strawman arguments, such as the mass delusion hypothesis from the Faye Dunaway scene. The most absurd argument is when Strobel argues that Jesus survived crucifixion and the witnesses who saw him resurrected were just seeing a living Jesus who was falsely presumed dead. Look, I’m pretty active in some atheist circles, and I’ve never once heard this argument, probably because if you accept the story of Jesus being crucified, the chances of him surviving the details from the Passion are almost 0%. That doesn’t stop this movie from having Strobel talk to a medical doctor about crucifixion. At one galling part of this conversation, Strobel states that Islam believes that Jesus survived the crucifixion. This is partially true. Some Muslims believe Jesus rose bodily to Heaven without being crucified, and some in the Ahmadiyya movement believe he survived crucifixion and died in India. The doctor then points out that the Quran was written in the 600s CE and he says he prefers his history a little closer to the source. Honestly, that’s rich coming from a Christian when there are no contemporaneous accounts of Jesus even existing.

When I talk to other atheists, their attitudes about Jesus fall into 3 categories:
1. He’s a fictional character
2. He’s a composite of a number of real false messiahs who were executed by Rome.
3. He’s a real historical person who was executed, and myths developed following his execution which became Christianity.

“The Case for Christ” isn’t interested in laying the groundwork for the Resurrection by proving Jesus existed as a historical figure, or even do much work in trying to prove the content of New Testament can be trusted as history. It’s argument can be summed up as: The New Testament says it happened, there’s a lot of old copies of the New Testament, and some half-assed partial acceptance of the New Testament (like Jesus surviving crucifixion) make no sense. That does not translate into, as Lee later tells Leslie at the end of the film, “the evidence for your faith is overwhelming”. Not even close.

It is rather weird that Strobel never interviews other atheists in the film to learn their arguments and strengthen his questioning ability. While I have not read the book by the real Lee Strobel in which this film is based, apparently the only “experts” cited in that book are fellow evangelicals. I’m not even sure if the real Strobel ever WAS an atheist, or if he just chose that atheist-who-was-converted angle as a hook to sell more books. A better movie would have tried to deal with atheist arguments against Christianity, not pretend they don’t exist and replace silly strawman arguments in their place. But this film was never interested in playing fair. It’s about giving certain Christians in the audience the same smug sense of superiority over atheists that they think most atheists have over them. The film’s attitude can be described as: “All your fancy love of ‘facts’ and ‘truth’ won’t stop you from the One True Faith. What an IDIOT you were being.” Not to mention Lee is shown in the film to drive drunk and do other bad behavior that no good Christian would be caught doing. Heavens, no!

The film was directed by Jon Gunn (no relation to James Gunn), who previously directed “Do You Believe?” for Pureflix. “The Case for Christ” is, if nothing else, more competently made than most of their films. It has the production quality of a decent TV movie, and the acting quality of slightly better than that. The film is not as unintentionally bad as the “God’s Not Dead” films, and thus not as enjoyable, but credit must be given to them for improving their production values. The problem remains how intellectually bankrupt and disingenuous their films remain. They still resort to knocking down strawman arguments, half-truths about historical evidence, pious platitudes, and argument from authority. They are learning to make better films from a nuts and bolts standpoint, but they still can’t produce a screenplay worthy of the improved value.

“The Case for Christ” is another film preaching to the choir. It’s intended audience will think it’s more intelligent and fair than it is because the film is playing on that audience’s ignorance and naivety about the very religion they claim to believe in. When atheists like myself view this film, they’ll mostly spend it wishing they could pause the movie to add extra commentary, or at least jump in to help Strobel question the “experts”. It’s a better film that most of what Pureflix has produced thus far, but that also makes it less fun. D+

“‘The Boss Baby’? More like the Bad Movie Baby.” – Carson McLendon

“The Boss Baby” can’t decide if it wants to be a clever, adult-friendly kids movie drawing a direct line between narcissistic middle management and the demanding human ID that is the infant, or a stupid movie for the youngest of child audiences with the most immature and obvious toilet humor designed to make a four-year-old laugh that you could possibly imagine. The result is a movie that isn’t enough of either. You have references to “Glengarry Glen Ross” next to jokes about farting, infant-butt-slapping, infant-butt-sniffing, and the threat of a pacifier being inserted in any infant’s butt. At least half of the jokes in the movie are about baby ass, which is far too many for a movie that is trying to thread the needle between the kind of kids movie that parents enjoy alongside their children and the kind of kids movie the parents spend their time checking their phone during.

The plot involves Timothy, narrating from the future (Tobey Maguire). Timothy is the only child to two very loving and hands-on parents (Lisa Kudrow and Jimmy Kimmel) who read him multiple stories and sing him a Beatles song before he goes to bed every night. He’s also got a very active imagination, which only confuses the narrative by making you question if the Boss Baby (Alec Baldwin) is actually a secret manager from a baby-run business, or if the entire film is just Timothy (voiced as a child by Miles Christopher Bakshi) creating the scenario to cope with all of the attention going to a new baby. This could have been an interesting plot device, but the film makes it clear very early on that it’s the former, so I’m not sure why the device is even introduced to begin with. A sight gag involving Timothy hanging on to one of those cars that a baby can peddle from the inside and how the adults view this in contrast to how the kids view it ends up making no sense because of this, despite being a funny cut away.

The parents bring home the be-suited Boss Baby, and Timothy is very upset that the attention gets pulled away from him. He soon discovers Baby can talk is actually on a mission to infiltrate the parents’ workplace, a corporation called Puppy Co. which seems to exist to push the idea of people adopting puppies in lieu of having babies or other pets, and prevent them from unveiling a new designer dog breed so cute that babies will be supplanted as everyone’s favorite cute accessory. As someone who had a vasectomy to specifically make sure he never has children, I am genuinely wondering if there is any competition in the real world between babies and puppies with regard to which most people prefer. Hell, I’m a cat person. Babies are pretty low on my list of cute things I want in my home.

Anyway, Baby doesn’t want to stay in the family any more than Timothy wants him to stay, so they team up to stop Puppy Co. so that Baby can return to his company, where babies drink a special formula to never grow up but still somewhat age intellectually as they lobby the world for babies.

This concept has potential, and some of the plot holes (the mom is pregnant, so how did Boss Baby get from the corporation to inside her womb to be born? Did Boss Baby abort the real fetus? If babies are delivered via conveyor belt, how does that jive with pregnancy and our real world process of reproduction?) can be pushed aside under the defense that this is a cartoon meant for kids. The problem is that this film, unlike those by Pixar or some other companies, doesn’t know how to make a good grown up story that is also accessible to kids. Or, conversely, how to make a silly and fun kids cartoon that offers emotional or intellectual meat for the adults. A clever story bit or a piece of satire in once scene is drowned out by a stream of obvious, unfunny sophomoric humor an additional 10 times in that scene. I can forgive the lack of world building and the schizophrenic tonal shifts if the movie were simply funny enough to make up for its flaws, but the vast majority of the gags fall flat on their face.

I wasn’t expecting an astute satire of Capitalism or office culture in this film, but I at least expected it to be at the low level of, say, “The Belko Experiment” from earlier this month. “The Boss Baby” does nothing with a gangbusters concept and doesn’t engage in enough world building for it either. Remember how “Monsters Inc.” did a great job of creating a whole new world that was centered around a fictional corporation adjacent to our world? “The Boss Baby” fails where that earlier Pixar film succeeded. Other movies prove that the problems “The Boss Baby” exhibits are fixable, but the filmmakers just didn’t want to. As a result, nice voice performances by Alec Baldwin and Steve Buscemi (as the film’s villain, a former baby executive turned adult) are wasted in an unfunny cartoon that, to be honest, i dozed off during the third act of.

Bad movie baby indeed. C-

Before I get into this new, live action “Ghost in the Shell” film, I feel it is important to note that I have not seen the original 1995 film. I note this because anime seems to be in the midst of a resurgence in popularity in the United States, no doubt in small part due to the increasingly popularity of cosplay, of which anime characters are among the most emulated fictional creations among cosplayers. I, however, hate anime. The art style of anime is not aesthetically pleasing to me, as I see each big-eyed, sharp-edged-hair sporting character as interchangeable, and the weird frame rate movements and lazy, blurred-line-filled backgrounds in action shots strike me as downright repellent. Despite my personal antipathy towards the genre, I acknowledge that western pop culture has been borrowing from and stealing from the genre since at least “Akira”, if not earlier, and anime’s artistic influences have spread throughout western entertainment from the larger-eyed characters in Disney’s “Tarzan” to how superheroes are portrayed in modern comics. It must also be acknowledged that while some anime have pretty awful storylines (“Yu Yu Hakusho”, of which my ex was inexplicably fond of), others have stories that are quite rich (“Oldboy”, which was adapted into an excellent live action film from South Korea).

It seems that those who are not as repelled by anime as I am look upon the 1995 “Ghost in the Shell” with as much reverence as one can towards a science fiction film. Both that film and “Akira” (which I have seen) are usually regarded as the pinnacle of the genre, outside of the works of Hayao Miyazaki, who is usually considered his own thing. While the subject matter of that film feels derivative now, because the cyberpunk genre has been looted and plundered since at least the publication of William Gibson’s novel “Neuromancer” in 1984, in 1995 cyberspace was still in its infancy, and the concepts portrayed in the film must have seemed revolutionary. in 2017, we all live online, “The Matrix” from 1999 and its sequels are considered dated, and we’ve had less remembered films like “Johnny Mnemonic” to drive this genre into the ground.

This is a long way around to state this: the visuals of the new “Ghost in the Shell” are quite good, I liked the characters, but the story at this point just covers ground that has already been covered ad nauseum, and in a better fashion. When the film introduces philosophical concepts, such as what it means to be human, or how much humans can be augmented by technology before losing their humanity, it doesn’t explore them in any fulfilling measure, and just bringing them up doesn’t earn you brownie points because it’s been done before constantly. I also hesitate to praise the visuals too much because I simply do not know how many were just lifted from the anime, and how many can be rightly credited to this film.

I ended up seeing the film twice, but not by choice, exactly. I tried to see the film in IMAX 3D, but the 3D function of the projector was broken and it was shown to me in 2D. I was given a pass and came back to see it in 3D as I felt that would greatly enhance the experience, which it did. That also created the problem that, when not concerned with following the plot since I knew what would happen, the second viewing more greatly revealed the film’s flaws. The film moves too fast, careening from plot point to plot point without giving you a chance to breathe, or think. The themes of the film are spelled out in clunky, explicit dialogue. One of the three credited writers of this film is Ehren Kruger, who some readers may remember is the man I consider one of the worst screenwriters in Hollywood. The shitty dialogue has Kruger all over it, and I imagine the pacing was Kruger following a studio note to speed up the action in order to bring the script’s page count down.

The plot involves a near future where most humans have some cybernetic parts grafted to their bodies. In an age where people already seem glued to their smartphones, this isn’t as far fetched as it probably seemed in 1995. Some people get frivolous additions, like a cybernetic liver that allows them to drink as much alcohol as they like, while others get brain implants to allow them to learn multiple languages in minutes. The advantages of this technology, as well as the disadvantages (hacking, part of your body being a product produced by a corporation) are mentioned but not delved in to in this film. Without having seen the original, I do not know if it contained more material delving into the science, ethics, and philosophy of this stuff, meaning the American film dumbed the source material down for action’s sake, or if the original only contained what the new film contains, because in 1995 simply bringing up these issues alone would suffice as a job well done.

Of the many companies that produce cybernetic parts, one such company, Hanka, seems to be partially funded by the government. Which government? The film doesn’t tell us where it takes place, but I assume it is either Japan, or some future federation of Asian nations. Our main character is Major (Scarlett Johansson), who is the first being to be made entirely of robotic parts save for her brain, which was recovered from a person. The next step to this society is obviously going full robotic, and the step between cybernetic parts and being able to upload your consciousness to a server is to have all of your body be artificial save for your brain, which is where YOU are contained. This film calls your consciousness/sentience your “ghost” and the robotic body is the “shell”, hence the title. For some reason, Hanka wants Major mainly as a weapon. They like the idea of a robotic killing machine that can improvise in ways robots (and, apparently, AI) cannot. This plan makes less sense as the film goes on and you find out the CEO of Hanka, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) wants something that can be easily controlled. Also, if eventually all of these people want to live forever, and Major is the first step in that direction (presumably Major’s brain will still age, rot, and die), then why waste her as the equivalent of an FBI agent or a Seal Team Six member?

Anyway, Major is made join Section 9, which is a cross between the FBI, the CIA, and the military. Hanka, despite being a private company with some government funds, seems to be able to pull rank over Section 9, a government agency, though the head of Section 9 (Beat Takeshi) can go over Hanka’s head to the Prime Minister. Yeah, I was kind of hoping the relationship between all of these entities would be made clearer. As the film begins, Section 9 is investigating the brain-hacking and murder of a number of high-ranking Hanka scientists. This investigation leads to Major finding out that Hanka has lied to her about her origins and how she came to be a ghost in a shell. Along the way we meet interesting characters like Batou (Pilou Asbaek), a tough guy who cares for Major and loves dogs, and Kuze (Michael Pitt), a cybernetic creature who many be more justified in his seemingly evil actions that we would guess from the start.

Kuze, as a character, is underdeveloped. In one scene of the film we’re shown a bunch of bald men, covered in ash, connected to a network. The film tells us Kuze is using them for…well, I don’t know what. Does he jump bodies into them? We are shown earlier in the film that he doesn’t need to be hardwired to a person to hack into them and take control of their bodies. Are they hooked up to provide energy, the way the machines in “The Matrix” use humans as batteries? I think the film just thought the image was cool (it is) and didn’t care about the logic.

It’s a shame because there is logic to other visuals. The shots of the city, while of course reminiscent of “Blade Runner”, feature bright and colorful holograms projected on and in front of bland, concrete tours. This presents the world as one where boring and dehumanizing utilitarianism are gussied up and painted over with the distractions afforded by the mixture of Capitalism and government advertisements. As almost every character we meet is in a stage of dehumanization as they augment their bodies with technology, portraying the city the way the film does helps make the thematic foundation of the film tangible.

The film does some stupid stuff too. Cutter is way too hands-on for a CEO, and the whole business with a “spider tank”, which is introduced abruptly and serves as a foe for a rather mundane and boring third act setpiece, feels like it comes from a different movie. Why would Hanka even make that thing?

Obviously I cannot discuss this film without going into the controversy regarding Scarlett Johansson’s casting as Major. There was a lot of uproar that she was cast instead of a Japanese actress, and this has been held up as the latest in a long line of whitewashing roles meant for other races, particularly Asians. Johansson is a fairly big star, lusted after by male fans and balancing her role in the popular Marvel Cinematic Universe as Black Widow with roles in smaller indie films like “Under the Skin”. She is arguably a safer bet for a studio to cast in the lead of an expensive sci-fi action film than any Asian actress of the same age range, especially when visual spectacles like this film make a lot of money in Europe and other foreign countries where star power and a recognizable name matter more than they do in the U.S. She has also played robotic or not-quite-human characters in the aforementioned “Under the Skin” and “Her” (the former film I hated, the latter I loved), so we know she can play a part human/part cyborg grappling with humanity.

The test I usually hold for such matters is, for lack of a better name, the Tony Montana test. Al Pacino, an Italian-American actor, played Tony Montana, a Cuban refuge, in the film “Scarface”. At the time there was uproar about the cross-ethnic casting. Now, could a Cuban or other Latino actor have played that role well? Yes, of course. But that Pacino performance is so unique, so iconic, that no actor could have done what Pacino did there. Even if you think that performance is too over-the-top or broad, it is a unique performance, and a big part of why that film is still held in high esteem today. I would argue that his performance MAKES that film, and thus the cross-ethnic casting was justified to make the film what it is. Johansson as Major? It doesn’t rise to that level. She does a good job, but you can’t argue that it’s a performance that another actress could not have done as well, or better, and the film’s positives do not begin with a discussion of that performance, like “Scarface” does with regard to Pacino’s.

That all being said, there is an in-universe reason for the casting, and it adds an interesting dimension to the plot. **SPOILERS** We find out that Major WAS a Japanese girl, a runaway who lived with other runaways in a decrepit and mostly abandoned part of the city and wrote anti-technology manifestos. Hanka had been kidnapping these runaways and experimenting with turning them into ghosts in shells. Major was the one that succeeded, and her memories were erased with small, indistinct fake memories being added to give her a drive to serve Section 9. This twist, that a Japanese girl was kidnapped against her will and turned into a machine with the likeness of a Caucasian woman, kind of serves as a metaphor for the film, or cultural appropriation in general. After all, what is “Ghost in the Shell” but an Americanized and presumably watered down version of what was originally a Japanese film? Isn’t cultural appropriation taking the fruits of one culture, hiding the source, and presenting it as a pretty product of your own culture? Granted, this metaphor probably wasn’t intended by the filmmakers, who were likely covering their asses once the shit hit the fan about Johansson being cast, but it’s interesting nonetheless as a comment on not just this film, but remaking cultural products in general. Now, I don’t believe all Western remakes of other culture’s films are appropriation. Some are just transplanting settings for a different audience, and some are actually cultural APPRECIATION that pay homage. Where the line exists between appreciation and appropriation, between celebration and stealing, will be in the eye of different beholders. As a white American male, I certainly shouldn’t be the person telling anyone definitively where that line exists. Insofar as “Ghost in the Shell” is concerned, it probably should have been made more multicultural and less Japan-specific in setting, or they should have just made it take place in Japan but had everyone speak English or a mix of languages. The film exists in a weird area where the bulk of the characters are Asian, except for a disproportionate number of the main characters, and the setting is very clear Tokyo, or a Tokyo-like city. **SPOILERS END**

While it has many flaws, I did enjoy “Ghost in the Shell”. Hell, I wouldn’t have sat through it twice, projector failure or not projector failure, if I didn’t. The movie is very pretty to look at, and I enjoyed the score, production design, art direction, and robot/creature designs (that geisha bot is beautiful). The characters could have been better developed, but I liked most of them. Cutter was the film’s only weak point, as his motivations make less sense as the film goes on, and the relationship between the government, Hanka, and Section 9 could have been spelled out better. I’d have also liked to know where Hanka’s competitors fit in. The deeper themes are brought up, but that’s about it. You can discuss them with other viewers, but it’d be nice if the film LEAD that discussion. And while the film is a CGI-fest, which I usually loathe, it only bothered me during the spider-tank scene, which features a very fake digital Major climbing a wall and jumping around. I also like the motif of Major being asked and giving consent for a number of things. The way Cutter is dealt with in this fashion is interesting. I perhaps didn’t like how the film pins all of the evil on Hanka and holds Section 9 and the government as being almost blameless, benevolent saviors, but I guess that’s similar to how, at the end of “Robocop”, it is not OCP that is defeated, but rather one employee in the form of villain Dick Jones. Sadly, “Ghost in the Shell” could have been a similarly scathing attack on Capitalism and the commodification of human technological advances as “Robocop”, but it decides not to, even as it apes the visual language of similar satires, like “Total Recall”.

The director here is Rupert Sanders who previous directed another visually beautiful but empty film, “Snow White and the Huntsman”. I am tempted to praise him for the visuals in this film, but honestly there’s nothing special about the shots or camera angles and movements. This is all production design, art direction, and the special effects department. Sanders seems to just shoot what they give him.

If this reviews sounds more negative than I mean it to be, it’s only because this film had the potential to be more than just a very pretty, derivative sci-fi film. As it is, it’s still better than most of the crappy blockbusters Hollywood puts out, but maybe that’s because the source material isn’t from Hollywood. B

CHIPS (dir. Dax Shepard)

Posted: March 29, 2017 in Uncategorized

“Chips”, which for some reason didn’t stylize its title like the TV series did, is a throwback to buddy cop comedies that seemed to have petered out from their heyday in the 1980s. If I had to pinpoint when the genre ended, I’d probably say it was around the time of “Bad Boys II”, a film so gleefully over the top that I can’t help but enjoy it. There have of course been buddy cop comedies since 2003, but they’ve largely either been loving tributes to the genre (“Hot Fuzz”) or really crappy examples of it (“Cop Out”). The last generally successful one that comes to find is the “21 Jump Street” reboot, and even that was more of a satire of the show combined with a general slapstick comedy with some Judd Apatow-isms thrown in than a full fledged entry into the genre. That adaption of “Jump Street” probably paved the way for reboots of other old TV shows to start making their way to the big screen now as comedies, either parodic in nature or otherwise. Later this year we get “Baywatch”, and now we have “Chips”, which is more full fledged buddy cop comedy than parody of one.

Having never watched a single episode of the original TV series, which starred Erik Estrada, I can’t say to what extent the film is faithful or not. I was generally familiar with the concept that it followed two officers of the California Highway Patrol, or CHP (the “i” and “s” added to make a nice little word there), and the film is about that. One of our main characters are Frank Poncherello, or “Ponch”, though that’s just his undercover name. He’s an FBI agent played by the always likable Michael Pena who is assigned to go undercover with the CHP to find out which officers there are corrupt and a part of a series of armored car heists that have taken place. Ponch is also a sex addict, and most of the humor from this character is related to that trait.

The other main character is Jon Baker, played by Dax Shepard, who also wrote and directed this film. Baker is a former professional BMX rider who had to quit after multiple injuries. His wife (Kristen Bell, Shepard’s real life wife) and he are on the outs, with the wife clearly having sex with her fellow swimming instructor. Baker is oblivious to this, and thinks that if he becomes a cop he can win back his wife because her dad was a cop, and he heard that women like men who remind them of their father. Baker as a character isn’t an idiot in general, but he does have a giant blind spot where his wife is concerned. Anyway, Baker is allowed on the CHP simply because he’s great on a motorcycle and his superiors feel sorry for him.

We meet a number of other CHP officers, and the film makes no secret that our villain is a Ray Kurtz (Vincent D’Onofrio), whose motive for the heists seems to be so he can take his recovering addict son (Justin Chatwin) to Europe…or something. The point is he’s not particularly evil or bloodthirsty (he even makes a point, early on, to save a civilian bystandard’s life), but he’s willing to go to dark places if his family or his plan are threatened. I liked this aspect of the character, as too often bad guys in these movies are one dimensional evil, when in real life people who commit crimes like this usually think they are justified for one reason or another.

The plot doesn’t unfold in the tightest of manners. Twists to the story are telegraphed really early on, and if you’re looking for a good police procedural behind the comedic goofiness, this is not the film for that. Shepard’s talents do not include writing a tightly plotted mystery. That, however, is secondary, as the reason people are going to see this movie is in the hopes that it is funny, and I found myself laughed more often than I expected in this film.

Pena and Shepard have good chemistry together and their interplay works when they share the screen. There’s a bit of “The Odd Couple” in any buddy cop comedy, and Shepard’s character’s touchy-feeling, woke-from-couple’s-therapy attitude toward life plays off Pena’s more hard-ass, tough-guy-who-likes-promiscuous-sex character. When the movie transitions from them being at odds to being best friends it is rather abrupt, but the actors play off each other so well that they make it work in spite of itself.

For a directorial standpoint, the movie does what it needs to do. There’s some good shots obtained from cameras mounted to the motorcycles that bring a nice bit of urgency to the car chase scenes (no pointless CGI for the most part), and the comedic scenes are cut in a way that the timing enhances the jokes. Shepard directed two films prior to this, unseen by me, but “Chips” showcases that he’s a competent, if unspectacular, behind the camera talent. Shepard got his career start on “Punk’d”, the hidden camera show targetting celebrities headlined by Ashton Kutcher, and had had supporting roles in films ranging from middling (“Without a Paddle”) to very funny (“Idiocracy”). Still, he’s never had a role that made me think he had the makings of a great comedic talent. “Chips” doesn’t do that either, but as one of two leads he is likable and charming in the right place, and you enjoy watching his character. Pena is bigger comedic talent, but its to Shepard’s credit that Pena doesn’t completely steal the show from Shepard, but rather enhances his costar’s humor and screen presence.

It’s hard to talk about why a comedy works without spoiling the best gags, so I won’t do so here. I will say one of my favorites involved the cops chasing down a speeder while a song you wouldn’t associate with a highspeed chase blares on the soundtrack. While I was never doubled over in gut-busting laughter, I laughed at more jokes than I didn’t, and I smiled and overall had a fun time at the movie.

“Chips” doesn’t do anything new with regard to the genre, but it has enough laughs and charm to make it worth seeing if you’re a fan of buddy cop films. Color me surprised, but the film was better than I expected. B-

“Life” is the textbook definition of generic. The film comes close to not having a single, original bone in its body. Watching the film, I was struck by how a movie this well-made, with good actors, and written by the guys who wrote “Zombieland” and “Deadpool”, could make such an utterly pointless film that has no reason to exist.

Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have written other films that weren’t very good, but those were obviously jobs they did just for the money and to try to break into the business (“Cruel Intentions 3”). After “Zombieland” and “Deadpool”, two films that comment on their respective genres without being outright parodies, they would seem to have enough clout in the business to earn them the goodwill to get a project they are passionate about made. So why, then, do we have “Life”, a film that feels like it came out of the bargain bin at Blockbuster video circa 1996? Did the writers pull one of their early scripts from the bottom of a drawer and get a studio to finance it? It seems like a pretty empty project to feel passionate about, if this is a film they have strived to make for a while. Honestly, I have no idea what the production history surrounding this film is, so I have no idea why Reese and Wernick wrote this, but the fact that the film feels like it could be written in an afternoon by anyone who has watched a sufficient number of sci-fi films is not a good sign. I didn’t watch the writers’ failed “Zombieland” TV pilot for Amazon, but I know it received negative notices. I’m starting to wonder if their writing talent fluctuates in and out from project to project. Having never seen another film by the director, Daniel Espinosa, I can’t be sure how much to place on him.

Directorially, there’s not much to complain about with the film. It’s competantly made, even if there is a distinct lack of tension in many of the key scenes, though perhaps the script’s predictability undercuts that more than a director can make up for. The effect of weightlessness on the characters is conveyed nicely, with subtle movements to hair and fabric pulling off the illusion quite nicely. The filmmakers obviously studied how “Gravity” pulled off its tricks, and benefited accordingly. I similarly have no problems with the shot composition or editing, and the space station of the film’s geography and layout weren’t confusing. Overall, the skill put into the film is satisfactory at the very least.

We are also given a good cast to watch these proceedings unfold with. Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ariyon Bakare all do the job that is expected of them, though their characters are maybe given one personality trait a piece to raise them about a one-dimensional sketch of a human being. One’s paralyzed, one’s depressed, one’s a jokester, one has a baby, etc. If it weren’t for the actors who portray them, there would be no reason to care about any of these people. Unlike, say, “Alien”, the film “Life” most resembles on a surface level, this film doesn’t take its time to slowly build dread, making us as an audience feel like we’re on the ship with the characters, and thus having us bond with them even though we don’t learn much about them beyond a few traits. “Life” moves fast, and we already know where it’s going.

The scientists discover a single-celled organism in a soil sample from Mars. Earth is apprised of the discovery, and an elementary school is allowed to name the organism Calvin, after the school, which itself is named after Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States, was probably the first Republican that can pointed to as being a small government Conservative. If naming a murderous alien being after him has anything to do with politics, I wish the writers would have made that more clearly.

Anyway, the scientists experiment with bringing it out of a state of hibernation, which it was in when found in the soil. They do this by playing with atmosphere and glucose levels. If you were tricked into thinking this film might be interesting by dealing with an evil alien with a film that was Hard Sci-fi instead of Soft Sci-Fi, well, I have bad news to tell you. Anyway, Calvin wakes up, then there’s a bit of trouble with its containment unit, and it goes back into hibernation. They try to wake him back up with electric shocks and, well, I guess Calvin didn’t like that. From then on the film involves him attacking the crew as he absorbs more organic material for food and grows bigger and bigger.

The creature design of Calvin is kind of nice. He starts off as looking something like a cross between a jellyfish and a starfish, but small and with veins underneath a translucent exterior. He becomes more like crab-like as he grows in size, until eventually obtaining an evil-looking face. Why a creature that, we’re told, has every cell of its body as equal parts muscle, nerve, and eye cell would even have a face (especially with no endo or exoskeleton) is odd.

Anyway, the creature kills the crew in about the order you expect them to die in. The location of the creation on the ship is sometimes a secret, and sometimes they have ways of tracking it. The ideas behind these are kind of fun (like when it tried to get back inside through the thrusters), but mostly the whole film unfolds with the blase attitude of been-there-done-that. A supposed “twist” at the end, well, you see it coming from a mile away.

I don’t expect every film to be original, and I certainly have more leniency with certain genres of horror film. What I do expect is for the film to present me with some new elements to make the viewing experience worthwhile: one story idea I’d never seen done before, an interesting character or two, a visual style that’s new or at least repurposed in an interesting way, etc. “Life” gives you nothing. It’s not so dull that I felt like I was watching a blank movie screen for the duration of its runtime (“The Strangers”, I’m looking in your direction), but when a film is so lacking in ANYTHING to differentiate it from any other film of its genre, I fail to see a reason why anyone should spend time watching it. “Life” isn’t a bad movie, it’s just a waste of time. C

Nostalgia aside, can we all agree that the original “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” TV show is ridiculous garbage. I was about 9 or 10 when the show came on, and as a kid I loved it. As an adult, the show does not hold up one iota. There are few things I loved in my childhood that hold up LESS when the nostalgia goggles are removed than MMPR. Hell, the “Howard the Duck” movie holds up better. The concept was always pretty stupid: a powerful alien imbues five squeaky-clean middle-class teenagers with super powers so that they can karate chop golems and fight giant monsters on a weekly basis, while an evil sorceress who lives on the moon (or something) keeps trying to defeat them and conquer Earth. Trying to turn that concept into anything that is not dripping with cheese and campiness is quite a feat.

You could argue that the original series was never meant to be good. A company took footage from a Japanese TV show and spliced it in with new footage shot in America to create a cheap show that would be profitable and follow in the success of similar programs like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Captain Planet”. Then the show became ridiculously popular, spawned two terrible feature films, and is apparently still ongoing, even if it has generally left the cultural zeitgeist except as a memory in our now-nostalgia-soaked heads.

But, since everything my generation once loved is being rebooted, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that we now have a new “Power Rangers” film, rebooted with better production quality and strained of as much campiness and cheese as possible. I am pretty shocked to report that this shitty TV show has been adapted into a pretty decent, fun film. The concept is still stupid, but by focusing on a cast of likable characters and approaching the material as a quasi-“Breakfast Club” with superheroes, we end up with a film that is shockingly successful at being a fun B-movie.

Our five main characters, in a “Breakfast Club”-like fashion, are a jock, a geek, a princess, a rebel, and an outcast. Three of them even meet in detention. We’re first introduced to Jason (Dacre Montgomery), the captain of the football team who is kicked off of the team and has to wear an ankle bracelet after a stupid prank goes wrong (there’s even a joke about accidental bull masturbation…yeah). Jason defends an autistic nerd named Billy (RJ Cyler) in detention, and soon they’re going to the local gold mine (just go with it) where Billy accidentally uncovers some glowing alien coins (just go with it). Also at the mine at the same time, in what the film suggests is not as coincidental and convenient as it seems, are former cheerleader turned social pariah Kimberly (Naomi Scott), sort-of rebel Zack (Ludi Lin), and a brooding outcast named Trini (Becky G). They each end up with a color coded coin and have super powers like abnormal strength and jumping abilities.

As the plot unfolds, then end up in a millions of years old alien spaceship underneath the mine, which is watched over by a robot named Alpha Five (Bill Hader, sounding like Patton Oswalt for some reason), and the appearance of the kids leads to the awakening of Zordon (Bryan Cranston…yeah, he’s in this). See, Zordon was once a Power Ranger (the stupid name “Power Rangers” can possibly be chalked up to a translation issue from Zordon’s native language into English) but his team was defeated by the evil Rita Repulsa (a hammy Elizabeth Banks). That the name Rita is apparently alien in origin and millions of years old is humorous. Anyway, Rita apparently wants some crystals so that she can have the power to control the universe, but the crystals are hidden somewhere in the vicinity of Angel Grove, the town our five main characters live in. Zordon was able to imprison Rita in the Earth, I guess (the film doesn’t really explain this, or how Rita is resurrected), but now she’s back and will obtain the crystals and destroy the world unless our five kids can learn to work together, and all of that touchy-feely “Full House” type stuff.

This concept is stupid, but the film does its best to patch over the stupidity. Zordon finds it unusual that the coins, which apparently choose the people worthy of being Rangers, selected give teenagers. It’s always been weird that middle-class teens of all possible people would be endowed with alien powers, but the film makes it work by addressing the absurdity. We also get decent explanations for why the Zords (vehicles used by the rangers) look like prehistorical animals, and why they don’t just start off as the Megazord right away (always my complaint with the original show). The film also makes Alpha Five far less annoying, and even funny, though he does deliver his catchphrase of “Ai-yi-yi-yi-yi”. The film even finds ways to incorporate the dialogue of “it’s morphin time” in an almost organic fashion, and we do get a few bars of the iconic theme song.

Where the film doesn’t succeed is in Rita Repulsa. She’s given a backstory that works (I’m told it comes from one of the comic book series that reinvented the Power Rangers mythos), but the character spends most of the film hunting for gold in a manner that reeks a bit too much like Warwick Davis as the Leprechaun. See, Rita hunts gold because it seems to give her power (why?) and also so she can build a giant gold monster to help her find the crystals. I’m sure there might be some symbolism behind the main monster being a literal being of molten gold, as opposed to the original Goldar, who was kind of a primate in gold armor with red eyes, but the whole gold aspect is the weakest part of the script. Banks is obviously having fun playing the character, and reimagining Rita as a sort of witch who has gone insane from a mixture of being evil and cosmic power mostly works, but that gold stuff is a bridge too far. Having Angel Grove have a gold mine I can excuse, as it provides an excuse for Zordon’s alien ship to be underground and for the main characters, mainly Billy, to be poking around in there, but the gold itself didn’t have to be this big a part of the plot. Gold plays as much a part of the plot of this film as it did for the movie literally titled “Gold” that came out in late 2016.

While the third act of the film involves all of the general silliness we associate with the TV show, where our Rangers are suited up and piloting their Zords while a big monster terrorizes the town, most of the film fits the general outline of a superhero origin story, as our characters try to overcome their own inner struggles and adversity to embrace their newfound powers. The actual process of obtaining and discovering their powers is vaguely similar to “Chronicle”, which might be because that film’s screenwriter, Max Landis, took a stab at writing this film before the producers went in a different direction (five different writers ended up with on-screen credit for the finished product). While origin stories are getting more and more boring as Hollywood continues to pump out dozens of superhero movies a year, “Power Rangers” works because the characters, while by no means deep, are genuinely likable. The film even explicitly tells us Billy is on the autism spectrum, making him the second positive autistic role model in a film in recent history after Ben Affleck in “The Accountant”, though that latter character is a multiple murderer. Trini isn’t explicitly identified as gay, but she does mention not believing in labels, and it’s fairly obvious that if she isn’t gay, she’s at least bi or pan, which is also a nice progressive step for the film to make.

Overall, the film is quite charming. The film threads the needle between trying to teach potential child audience members good lessons and keep that wholeheartedness the original show had, that after-school special morality, without being outright lame. The film could have easily tipped over into groan-inducing moralizing, but it carefully finds the right notes as it proceeds through the plot machinations. Even when one of our characters is revealed to have not been the best person in life before the events of the film, the movie steers clear of Lifetime TV movie territory or “Dawson Creek”-level schmaltz and lets the character arc play out nicely. I’m actually quite astonished by how many times this film sets itself up for failure only to end up successful at what it attempts.

The director here is Dean Israelite. The only other film of his I have seen is “Project Almanac”, which had a good concept (found-footage time travel film) that was undone by poor script execution. Here the script works, and his direction pulls it together. Even in the third act, where we watch digital monsters fight digital robots, he keeps the action focused on the characters so we don’t get bored, like I did when watching the latest “Kong” film. There’s also some impressive camerawork here, like in a scene involving a car accident at the beginning of the film where he spins the camera 360 degrees in what seems to be a single take (there’s probably some hidden cuts) to keep the action inside the vehicle and very kinetic. I have some issues with the film’s color palette, which is again that same washed-out blue/grey that makes us think the film takes place in Washington state under constant cloud cover, but it’s not as annoying here as in some other films.

Look, “Power Rangers” isn’t art, and the story is still pretty derivative and lackluster, but it gets by on likable and just-developed-enough characters. The humor hits the mark (even an insanely obvious product placement for Krispy Kreme and a jab at the “Transformers” films work), the CGI-fest third act is more fun than most of these things are lately, and I didn’t mind the logic gaps and stupidity of the underlying story as much as I normally do in movies like this.

If you’re going to see a movie based on the old TV show, this film is about the best we could have hoped for given how shitty the source material is. It’s true to the material, there is a decent amount of fan service, but the filmmakers recognized the weaknesses in that material and compensated for it. I went in expecting to hate this film and make fun of it, and I left having had a good time and being pleasantly surprised. I liked the characters, I laughed, I had fun, and I wasn’t bored. B-

“The Belko Experiment” is a fun movie, and my saying that basically tells you all you need to know about it. The film is very derivative, with similarities to dozens of films, of which I’ll list a few: “Battle Royale”, “Exam”, “Cube”, “The Running Man”, “The Hunger Games”. In the film, an American company called Belko is operating a branch in Columbia. One day the branch has extra security and sends any native employees home for the day, leaving only 90 or so American expatriates. Soon, the building goes into lock down, with a weird indestructible metal blockading every exit and window, and a voice on an intercom starts telling the people to kill a certain number of the employees or risk an even larger number of employees being killed by the magic voice (the employees, we learn, have explosive devices in their heads). So, we have the moral dilemma of whether killing a smaller number of innocent people in order to save a larger number of innocent people is justifiable.

 
Now this is an interesting premise for a film. You could attack this from the morality versus pragmatism angle. I’m reminded of the forgotten Hugh Grant and Gene Hackman film “Extreme Measures” where a doctor kidnaps and experiments on homeless people to find a cure for cancer. The key line of that film is “If you could cure cancer by killing one person, wouldn’t you have to do that?” I’m also reminded of Ozymandias from “Watchmen”, who saves the world from complete annihilation by killing millions of people and staging that holocaust as being caused by something else (a giant alien squid in the comic, and a near-omnipotent god-man in the film). “The Belko Experiment” is a movie that will remind you of a lot of other movies.

 
Unfortunately, the film isn’t really interested in philosophical issues about morality. Despite the corporate setting, it’s not even entirely interested in the easy target of how corporations slowly murder their employees through mundane work, bureaucracy, and the horrors of Capitalism in real life. Hell, we don’t even get many “Office Space” or “The Office”-worthy jabs at corporate life, save for an elevator muzak gag and a spattering of other passing jokes. Odd, since writer James Gunn was once married to Jenna Fischer, who played Pam on “The Office”. You’d think this film, originally written sometime before they divorced, would have been Gunn’s Troma-and-horror-background spin on his then-wife’s successful sitcom.

 
No, Gunn is mainly interested in making an often funny and sometimes gory but always fun B movie. No more and no less, even if his concept could have been the blueprint for a much better film. Perhaps it was Gunn’s sensibilities, forged by making horror comedies like “Tromeo and Juliet”, “Slither”, and “Super” (or, to a lesser extent, the “Scooby Doo” live action films) that he just wants to make gory comedies of the type that teenagers back in the 90s would blind rent from the video store or catch one late night on HBO when their friends were over. Whatever the case is, “The Belko Experiment” is the film it is, and not some phantom better film I can imagine in my mind. For a director, we have Greg McLean, who made the stone-serious and nihilistic “Wolf Creek” (loved by many horror fans, but I was indifferent towards it). I have not seen any of McLean’s other films, but he wouldn’t have occurred to me as the first choice to direct this film. In fairness, he lands all of the comedic beats and he knows how to stage violence effectively, but he seems to do no more and no less than direct Gunn’s script.

 
“Belko” has some superficial similarities to Gunn’s “Dawn of the Dead” reimagining, which was directed by Zack Snyder back when Snyder was still capable of making a good film. Both films are about groups of people trapped in a dangerous scenario as tensions rise and certain characters show their true colors under the pressure. Snyder brought his own visual flair to that film, whereas McLean doesn’t seem to have a stamp to put on this film, making me view it as more of Gunn’s work than anything else. If Gunn wasn’t busy directed the super-popular “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise, he probably would have directed this film himself, and it might leaned ever further toward comedy and absurdism. My guess is that the film didn’t end up as the serious exploration of morality and social criticism that it could have been because Gunn is too silly, and it didn’t end up as “The Office” with gore because McLean is too serious, so we get something that doesn’t lean toward either pole, where greatness lay, and instead we get a film that is, I must reiterate, very fun, but feels like a missed opportunity.

 
Aside from this feeling that the film is a half-measure, and an ending that undercuts any moral intrigue by leading us to conclude that nearly everyone was going to be required to die regardless of the moral decisions made by the trapped employees, my biggest issue with the film is that the characters who end up becoming our villains become villainous very quickly, and don’t necessarily struggle with that decision. This makes sense for some characters, like John C. McGinley’s Wendell, who seems like a skeevy asshole the moment we meet him, but for a character like Barry, played by Tony Goldwyn, it seems like he probably should have struggled more before turning into a dictator-like villain when his character starts out as an amiable but typical corporate executive. McGinley, by the way, had a role in “Office Space” and showed his comedic chops in the hospital workplace comedy “Scrubs”, showing that he would have been capable of playing his role more comedically if asked. Goldwyn, who tends to emanate evilness in an everyday package in films like “Ghost” and TV shows like “Dexter”, probably would have had a harder time in a goofier film, but would have shined more in the more pitch black, morality-minded version of this film.

 
The cast in this film is actually pretty top notch, from protagonist John Gallager Jr to bit players like David Dastmalchian and Michael Rooker (whom Gunn has worked with in “Slither” and “Guardians”). With the exception of maybe Sean Gunn, playing a pot smoking cafeteria worker who wears a “Viva la Revolution” t-shirt for the second half of the film, most of the cast plays this material straight, which helps the film in serious moments, such as a scene where our antagonists stage execution style killings in order to meet the deadline imposed by the intercom voice. I’d say that a good 70% of the film is played seriously, and there are good scenes of tension and a handful of scenes that engage in the morality versus pragmatism aspects of the story, though I wish there was more of that.

 
At the end of the day, I really did enjoy “The Belko Experiment”. It’s not the film I would have wanted it to be, but as it currently exists in this form it is a delightfully fun, well acted B-movie that we don’t really see any more, either because studios don’t make them or because they wind up on Video OnDemand and get lost in the shuffle of new product. This film would have had a good life as a blind rental in the Cult section of my video store when I was a teen. I miss films like this, and was happy to have seen one done this well. If anything, my insistence that this film could have been even better is a compliment to all parties involved, as I recognize that the premise and the talent bringing it to the screen are not just competent, but skillful enough to have done that. B

 
P.S.: This is the first film in years that I have seen to have the old Orion logo in front of it. The wave of nostalgia that brought back alone made me grin from ear to ear.

Words that came to mind while watching the “Beauty and the Beast” remake: Stilted, empty, lazy, ugly, perfunctory, miscast, and cynical. I feel that the people who will say they like it will not recognize the difference between liking a movie because it’s good, and liking a movie because it simply reminds you of a different good movie you previously enjoyed. Not since Gus Van Sant’s Psycho has a remake been so faithful while completely missing the point and lacking the magic of the original.

There’s a lot of blame to go around here. Certainly director Bill Condon deserves a heaping pile of blame. Why was the choice made for the film’s visual style to be dark and dark with an ugly blue/purple filter over the whole thing? To take a gorgeous animated film and reduce it to such uninspired, muddy visuals should be a crime. While the sets seem like they are grand, and a lot of hard work must have gone into the production design and art direction, the settings just sit there in the frame, uninspired and boring. What a waste. Condon used to be the talented director of films like “Gods and Monsters” and “Kinsey”, but since then he has done overrated garbage like directing “Dreamgirls” and co-writing the film adaptation of “Chicago”. Then he directed the last two “Twilight” films and, well, whatever talent he once had is dead and buried. Condon has taken an animated film so renowned for its visual splendor that it became the first animated film to receive a Best Picture nomination and made it a lackluster, muddy mess with lame CGI and an unappealing color palette.

The film is woefully miscast. Emma Watson, while talented in other things, makes for a bad Belle. While she doesn’t exactly phone in her performance, she certainly Skypes it in. You can tell that behind her eyes she has no passion for this role or film, and would much rather be doing an indie movie or a drama of some sort, but likely took this role for the money and as a resume builder to allow her the freedom to choose more fulfilling roles. When her character makes the leap from angry at being imprisoned by the Beast (Dan Stevens, who does an okay job despite the film’s choice to portray the character with mediocre CGI instead of animatronics and/or make-up), it is so abrupt and feels so out of character that any hope of emotional investment is killed by the whiplash the script just gave you. Despite this live action remake adding screen time to the animated original, the film doesn’t let the story breathe so that the characters’ arcs feel natural, instead of just the characters doing what they do because they did so in the original movie. Of course, what works dramatically in a Disney cartoon is different from what works in a live action film with a visual style indicating an enhanced and ahistorical “realism” that is meant to be more grounded and “realistic” than the cartoon. For a character to turn on a dime with a musical interlude in an animated film feels fine in animation. In live action, not so much.

That’s the main problem with the script: it is often so faithful to the original that it shoots itself in the leg. I tend to prefer adaptations that are super faithful, but there are necessary alterations that need to be made when jumping from the medium of Disney animated feature to a live action film, and this new film doesn’t do any of them. It doesn’t want to decide between lighthearted silliness and gritty realism because it doesn’t seem to understand that what is lighthearted in animation can feel like full-on slapstick in live action, and what passes for drama in that same animation will match in that film, but seem very jarring against the slapstick when performed by real actors on real (and digital) sets. Like Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” taught us, mere recreation does not take into the ineffable qualities under and behind and inside a film that make it what it is. You cannot carbon copy the animated movie into a live action format and expect it to work as well.

 
Then again, maybe they just didn’t care. It’s quite possible the filmmakers knew that if they threw up some pretty and likable actors (even if miscast) and had them sing the same songs people have loved since 1991, then people would like the film because they liked the original, and this film will take them back to how they felt when they first watched the original movie. It’s like how masturbating to the memory of a previous good sexual experience can evoke the pleasure of that sexual experience…but it’s nothing but an echo, less fulfilling and relying solely on the original experience for any pleasure it causes.

Another comparison would be watching a high school drama club performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays. They may hit the major moments, you might enjoy parts of it because you like the play itself and seeing it performed in general is kind of nice, but it’s always going to be lackluster and nowhere near what it would be like watching it performed at the Globe Theater in London. Saying the words, hitting the beats, and going through the motions is the bare minimum, and that’s what this film does. It moves along in a utilitarian, paint-by-numbers fashion through all of the original films high points, doing nothing to make ITSELF a good film, expecting the goodwill the original film generated to make the audience feel like they’ve had a good experience instead of wasted their money for a watered down, uglier version of a better movie they probably already own at home.

I must also mention that Gaston is also miscast. Luke Evans is a fine actor, but he’s too old for the role and not as pretty-boy-meets-muscle-daddy for the role. He also doesn’t find the right note for the character. Gaston is such a broad character that he needs to be an over the top douche, like Nathon Fillion’s Captain Hammer from “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog”, or he needs to be a more realistic portrait of a narcissistic masculine asshole (think guys who won’t shut up about Crossfit). Evans tries to thread a needle between the two (much like the film itself tries to be both cartoon and realistic) and winds up with a performance that isn’t enough of either quality to do the role justice. While we’re on the subject of Gaston, we should discuss Josh Gad’s LeFou, as much has been made about this character being gay. Well, he’s not explicitly gay, but rather the film codes him as gay, which is nothing new. There are plenty of characters in Disney animation who have been coded as gay (Scar from “The Lion King”, I am looking in your direction), and Gad’s LeFou breaks no new ground in that respect. If his sexuality hadn’t been announced in a press release, he’s be like any other coded character: obvious to most, and denied by others.

I actively disliked the film, because for all of the hard work that obviously went into it, and with so much money spent on it, it feels so lazy and cynical. Why bother trying to craft a good live action remake of a beloved animated classic when you can just do the bare minimum in terms of adaptation and let people’s love of the original trick them into thinking they are seeing a good movie. There are a handful of things to like here: Kevin Kline works as Belle’s father, the modulation on the Beast’s voice is nice, and the servant characters are brought to life with voice actors and decent CGI which make their scenes function more or less as they should, even if the big musical set pieces do not (ugly, garish, under lit CGI abounds in “Be Our Guest”). Also, trying to have Watson and Stevens recreate the animated film’s famous dance number step-by-step does not work in live action, as the steps feel forced and less fluid, and you wonder why these two people would choose to dance like this with no communication between them or any practice. Animation allows for an easier suspension of disbelief about such things than live action does.

The greatest failure of the film is that Watson and Stevens have zero chemistry, though whether that is because Watson is so obviously bored, Stevens is hidden behind frigid CGI motion capture , or because the film does a piss poor job of convincing us they go from hating each other to loving each other based on the Beast showing Belle his library and almost nothing else, I do not know. Likely both in equal quantities. Since this love story is the heart of the film, feeling no love, and the film not convincing us that they are in love, leaves the film with a hole in its center where that heart should be.

One more minor quibble: this film takes place sometime in the mid-to-late 1800s, most likely. While I appreciate Disney’s attempt at diverse casting, I have a hard time accepting that there was so much racial equality and tolerance between Whites and Blacks in France during this time that interracial romance (of which the film has two, even if the participants are sentient household objects for the bulk of the film) is calmly accepted. The film is obviously not trying to be a realistic depiction of history, but perhaps because the film so poorly tries to ground its action in “realism” it sticks out as anachronistic.
So call the film what you want: an echo, a shadow, a high school drama club production, or masturbation. The point remains that is a lackluster remake that gets its visual style wrong, its casting wrong, its tone wrong, and its mere conception wrong. If you were able to forget the original movie existed, and just judged this remake on its own merits, it is sloppy and just not good. C-

“Kong: Skull Island” is not a good film. It has groan-inducing dialogue, introduces us to a slew of characters we don’t care about, and eventually devolves into a film that ends with a CGI cartoon beating up another CGI cartoon, something I am quite frankly just bored with seeing. Whatever the limitations of practical effects may be, whether it’s the stop motion of the original “King Kong” or the rubber suits and animatronics of the 70s remake, there’s just something downright better when something that actually exists in the physical world is present on set when a movie is filming. That isn’t to say practical effects can’t be augmented with CGI, but when I see a film that expects me to be excited when a too-clean-too-shiny cartoon rips open another cartoon, I wonder if the filmmakers were only looking to impress 10-year-olds who have never seen a movie that was made before their birth.

Granted, I did not expect “Kong” to be a good film anyway, but I did expect it to be a fun B movie. There are a few scenes that live up to this expectation. The first key scene with Kong, the giant gorilla, taking out an entire formation of helicopters while Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” blasts on the soundtrack is pretty killer, and would make for a fun 3D ride at Universal Studios some day. While 3D does have the tendency to make mediocre CG look better, I wasn’t particularly happy with the CG in this film, which looks less photo-real than the last few Pixar movies have looked. If the film can’t trick me into believing it’s eponymous character is actually there on screen, your effects are pretty much a failure. Regardless, we get that one scene, and another that takes place in a field of dust and skeletons that is visually interesting and kind of fun, even if the film breaks its own rules about the dangers of flammable objects (that flamethrower fires out in a perfect stream among all of the fumes?).

If there is a savior of this film, it is the director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Not since maybe David Fincher’s “Alien 3” has a director done so much with so little. Vogt-Roberts has thus far been an indie director, having done one independent film, a few TV episodes, and some Funny or Die shorts. I understand why an up-and-coming director would sign on to a big budget effects film for career purposes, even if the script (and it took THREE people to write this thing, apparently) was sub par, but a lesser director would have phoned it in and done a just-good-enough job to get more work. Vogt-Roberts, however, seeing that this film took place at the tail end of the Vietnam era, probably said to himself “Fuck it, I’m gonna pretend I’m directing ‘Apocalypse Now'”, so we get a film with numerous visual (and soundtrack) callbacks to that seminal Vietnam War film by Coppola. “Kong: Skull Island” is one of the most well-directed, good-looking bad movies I’be seen in quite a while. Whatever problems this film has, it’s not the director’s fault.

The story involves a secret government agency, Monarch, that finds an uncharted island in the early 1970s. Why was the island uncharted? Because it’s constantly surrounded by storm systems, making it invisible to satellites. Okay. Wouldn’t CONSTANT STORMS actually draw MORE attention, and not less. The fact that a single area of the South Pacific has a storm system that NEVER GOES AWAY seems like the type of meteorological event that would draw thousands of scientists a year to that area to study it. In any case, the two Monarch officials, Bill (John Goodman, wasted in this film) and Brooks (Corey Hawkins) convince a Senator to let them piggy back on a military squad doing one last mission before to the end of the war to chart the island now that they’ve found a temporary gap in the storm, allowing them access. Monarch claims they want geological data, but they are really looking for giant monsters. Why? I dunno, probably weapons. Governments always want to use monsters as weapons in films like this.

The Monarch guys hire a tracker, Conrad (a wasted Tom Hiddleston) to help them navigate the island. Conrad, I assume, is named after Joseph Conrad, the writer of “Heart of Darkness” of which “Apocalypse Now” is based. Sadly, Conrad is a bland, generic hero character of no discernible personality of interest. We also, for some reason probably to do with the lack of female characters, meet an anti-war photojournalist named Mason Weaver (a wasted Brie Larson), who is here to…document this secret government monster-hunting mission…I guess? Because a photographer whose work was done in the hopes of ending the government’s illegal and pointless war is the perfect choice to photograph a government’s covert and secret science mission? Don’t think about it too much. We do get one other female character, San Li (Jing Tian), another Monarch scientist who exists in the film only to be a love interest to Brooks.

The head of the military contingent leading them to the island is Col. Packard, played by Sam Jackson. Packard’s role in this film is a cross between Captain Ahab from “Moby Dick” and a caricature of every pro-War, military-loving Conservative you’ve ever met who thinks Chris Kyle was a hero. He’s the closest thing the film gives us to a non-monster villain, and he plays into the film’s super literal and obvious anti-imperialist message. See, the Vietnam war was doomed because America stuck its nose into a civil war it never should have gotten involved with. Many of Packard’s men are killed because Kong gets upset when his peaceful island is blown up by bombs from invading Americans. There’s also a line delivered about creating an enemy when there wasn’t one before. So the message, for contemporary audiences, is that if you invade a country and blow up parts of it, you can’t expect the citizens of that country to not, with good reason, hate you. I appreciate and agree with the message, but it’s delivered so ham-fistedly and inelegantly that it makes the “Purge” movies looks subtle. At least the “Purge” series is SUPPOSED to be blatant, being satire and all. “Kong” just ends up looking amateurish and obvious, yet I’m sure many American audiences won’t bother to even see that surface message.

So they bomb the island, the bombs unleash lizard-monsters who live below the surface, and Kong is mad as the lizard monsters killed his family and he hates them. So, Kong kills a lot of the military, Packard wants revenge, and the other surviving humans just want to get off the island and see Kong correctly as the island’s protector and that they, the invading humans, were truly in the wrong. That’s our story.

Oh, but we do get one shining star in this film, and that is John C. Reilly playing Hank Marlow, a solider who crash landed on Skull Island during WWII and has been living there ever since. Reilly is the only actor in this thing who realizes, or at least acknowledges, that he is in a piece of crap, and thus he’s the only actor who seems to be having fun. He’s the film’s center of humor, and he hams it up with everything he has to offer. He’s the most interesting character, the one most fun to watch, and he single-handledly raises the quality of the film every time he’s on screen.

How much you like the film will depend on how much tolerence you have for mediocre CGI and bad dialogue, and how much of those you are willing to forgive based on the director’s ingenuity and visual flair, and Reilly’s performance. Personally, this film occupies an uneasy middle ground. It is not silly or stupid enough to be fun in a bad Syfy Channel creature feature way, but it’s not nearly good enough to be enjoyable as, you know, an actual good movie that just happens to have giant monsters in it. “Kong: Skull Island” is just weak. An A-list cast and a clearly talented director are absolutely wasted. I weep for the better films that all of these people could have spent months making if their time wasn’t tied up making THIS.

I might have had more respect for “Kong: Skull Island” if it had the balls to be as stupid as “Sharknado”. Instead, it’s a pretty bore with two good sequences and one interesting and fun character. What a waste. C