Archive for March, 2015

Get Hard (dir. Etan Cohen)

Posted: March 31, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Get Hard” has a few laughs in it, I’ll give it that. It’s hard to see Will Ferrell lamely pick a fight with bodybuilders, or see him suggest he visit members of a black gang in blackface, without chuckling.  The problem is that the majority of the film consists of sitting quietly through lame, failing jokes, and being upset that the film doesn’t do anything interesting with a pretty good premise.

The film is about James King (Ferrell) a wealthy hedge fund manager who, unbelievably, is a genius at finances but a naïve idiotic regarding every other facet of his life, and being a human in general. Okay, he can play guitar and later seems to have mastered an obscure, Brazilian form of martial arts.  Otherwise, it’s a surprise this guy ever learned to read.  The inability to believe this character could be a real human being that is so smart and yet so stupid hinders the film immensely.  See, it turns out that James is framed for securities fraud and embezzlement and sentenced to 10 years in a maximum security prison.  The film makes the character stupid and innocent so we will like him, thus throwing away a perfect opportunity to do a satire on any number of things: the upper class in general, Wall Street, Bernie Madoff, the entire 2008 financial crisis, Capitalism in general.  Nope, he’s stupid, not guilty, and seems to possess actual skills (unlike many stock market traders who rely on computer algorithms other people write combined with guesswork to accumulate unearned wealth through selective gambling).  The film positions him to specifically not be a comment or satire on anything.

King, fearing being beaten or raped in prison, turns to the man who owns the business he turns to for car washes, Darnell.  Darnell is played by Kevin Hart who can often be annoying in films (“Grudge Match”) but here comes across reasonably likeable. Darnell lives in a poor area of L.A. and wants to move to a better area with better schools for his child, but he cannot come up with $30,000 for the down payment on a house.  At one point early in the film, even a predatory lender won’t loan him the money. Way to let off another guilty party in the financial crisis, movie.  In any case, King mistakes Darnell for an ex-con because, well, Darnell’s black and King knows that 1/3rd of all black men in America are incarcerated at some point in their lives.  Considering virtually the only other black people we see in this movie besides Darnell and his family are gang members and their scantily clad female groupies, the film doesn’t exactly make a case that Darnell is racist, so much as he’s correct but lacking in tact and in making casual observations.  Later, in a scene full of wasted potential, King is throw into a white supremacist club and almost murdered, thus letting King off easy for his casual racism by showing full-on biker gang, topless-redneck-women racism.

In any case, Darnell needs the money, so he pretends to be a hardened ex-con and runs King through a variety of trials, mostly unfunny, in order to get him into shape for prison.  When the trials at first don’t work, Darnell takes King to a gay restaurant and tells him he might as well learn how to suck a dick.  We’re soon “treated” to a scene where King attempts to suck a random gay man’s penis, but can’t bring himself to do so.  I don’t read this scene as being homophobic, exactly, but more about straight men’s fear of gayness.  Sadly for this film, both “Hot Tub Time Machine” movies covered this material, and similar scenes, in far funnier ways, and one of those movies just came out last month.

That, in a nut shell, is pretty much this film.  We also get Alison Brie as King’s fiancé, whose only job in the movie is to look sexy in lingerie for one scene , and an unfunny cameo from John Mayer, whose lyrics I actually listened to for the first time in this movie and they are just awful.  The rest of the cast hardly matters as they rarely do anything funny or important.

The opening credits of the film contrast the lives of King and Darnell, and we think we’re going to see a satire that shows the needless opulence of the upper class contrasted with undeserved squalor of man who works hard and owns his own small business, yet remains poor.  Nope, that’s not this movie.  This movie has almost no interest in talking about any political or otherwise interesting issues which could have been explored with this premise.  Hell, even last year’s “Horrible Bosses 2” took a stab at satire and was half-way successful.  Nope.  “Get Hard” just wants to give us dick jokes, ass jokes, jokes based on racial stereotypes, Will Ferrell playing a role he plays in every third film he’s in, and Kevin Hart being Kevin Hart.

The film was directed by Etan Cohen, who has written smart satire on shows like “Beavis & Butt-Head”, “King of the Hill” and “American Dad”, as well as co-writing Mike Judge’s brilliant film “Idiocracy”.  Now, he’s made a film one of the dumb characters from “Idiocracy” would have liked.  There is a scene later in the film, where King is teaching gang members how to make money on the stock market by betting against investments and the characters compare it to gang robberies that borders on satire, and hints at a smarter movie which could have made, making clear that there isn’t much of a difference between white collar crime and street crime beyond public perception and the legal system’s whims.  My guess is that the two original screenwriters, Jay Martel & Ian Roberts, fleshed out an interesting idea from Adam McKay (writer/director of the “Anchorman” movies), turning in a shitty script. Cohen, probably realizing the script was shit but not wanting to give up his chance at his first directorial gig, gave the script as much of a “smartening-up” as possible (or as the studio would allow) and turned in a film that is largely crappy but hints at a better film it could have been.

In 1983, the year I was born, the film “Trading Places” managed to make fun of the rich, have a poor black protagonist who wasn’t completely likeable, have a rich white protagonist who was very unlikeable, have a female lead who was an unapologetic prostitute, and still be one of the funniest films of the 1980s and not play it safe.  If you took out that film’s indictment of the rich, made the Dan Aykroyd character a loveable buffoon, made Eddie Murphy a family man, and made the film 98% less funny, you’d have “Get Hard”. C-

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There is a character in the film “Focus” whose nickname is “Mellow”.  It’s later revealed this is short for “Marshmallow”, which is apt as the film itself is a marshmallow.  It’s tasty, and you enjoy it while you’re consuming it, but it’s mostly air and not really filling.  There was not a single minute of “Focus” that I did not enjoy watching, but the film is ultimately nothing more than a pleasant two hours that don’t mean anything.  It’s a fun film, but one wonders why this film, which is empty, got made when others do not.

“Focus” is about con men, but not the extravagant con men of an “Ocean’s 11”, and the film explicitly tells us this in dialogue.  The con men in this film do small time cons in large volumes, which equate to large profits with low-to-medium risk.  Without knowing any professional con men in real life, I have no idea how realistic the film is, but it feels reasonably realistic for most of the first half, as we see a lot of sleight-of-hand pick pocketing and such, and that was good enough for me to become engrossed in this world.

Our main character is Nicky, played by Will Smith.  Nicky is the leader of a not-too-small group of people who steal wallets, jewelry, and credit card numbers to sell on the black and gray markets.  One day, an attractive blonde tries to con him and fails, but he Nicky likes the cut of her jib, and takes her into the fold for a ring he’s running in New Orleans during a Super Bowl-like game that can’t be called the Super Bowl for trademarked reasons.  This blonde is Jess, played by Margot Robbie.  Robbie burst onto the American film scene thanks to her role as Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife in “The Wolf of Wall Street”, and in this film she shows she can do a lot with an underwritten and frankly sexist character.  Robbie is funny and engaging on screen, and I now am optimistic that she was hired to play Harley Quinn in the “Suicide Squad” movie, which Will Smith will also be in.  While Jess does become fairly adept at stealing watches and using her sexuality to con marks, her character is on that we think will become a double-crosser or show herself to be smarter than we anticipate, but the film never really makes her more than a likeable bimbo.  It’s really a shame that writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa didn’t take this character in a different direction, because Robbie shows she could have been much more versatile than the screenplay allows her to be.

In any case, describing the plot in any details become hard without going into spoilers, and spoilers would ruin a film like this, which is based on surprises and how cons are set up and executed.  I will say that the first half of the film deals with the events in New Orleans and has a climax of sorts at the Super Bowl-like game, and the second half of the film takes place 3 years later in Buenos Aires.  The second half is less successful and enjoyable, and less believable, than the first half, and it sometimes feels like two slightly different movies were sewn together at some point, but the film still works enough.

I will mention that the climax at the not-Super Bowl involves Nicky gambling with an Asian businessman for increasingly large stakes in increasing ridiculous bets, and that scene is the highlight of the entire film, even if the revelations which come after it result in the scene being absurdly far-fetched in hindsight.  The Asian businessman is played by B.D. Wong, who is perhaps most famous for being the reserved psychologist on “Law & Order: SVU” or the closeted gay priest on “Oz”.  His role in this film, as Liyuan Tse, is unlike any role we’ve seen him in.  He is just over-the-top enough to make you realize the actor is having fun with a role that is kind of a stereotype, and he is engaging and delightful for every moment he is on screen.  One almost wishes for a spin-off film just about that character.

Another supporting character is Farhad, a con man who works with Nicky on the more technical aspects of his cons. He is played by Adrian Martinez and is an invaluable addition to the film. His character is supremely likeable and very funny.  He’s done extremely small roles in other films before, but in this film he makes us notice him, and he has the makings of a very funny and valuable comedic actor if he can get more roles of this size or greater.

The writer/directors of this film have previously made “I Love You Phillip Morris” (unseen by me) and “Crazy Stupid Love”, which was an enjoyable film that I often have trouble remembering because so little of that film stuck.  I feel like “Focus” will stick with me a little longer, mostly thanks to performances by Robbie, Wong, and Martinez, but otherwise there’s not much there here.  In addition to the films they have directed, they also wrote the children’s film “Cats & Dogs”, the excellent foul comedy “Bad Santa”, and the disappointing “The Bad News Bears” remake.  These guys are comedy writers first and foremost, and the comedy aspects of “Focus” work rather well, save for the disappointing though admittedly not clichéd ending.  I just wish these guys built up their dramatic bonafides, as a movie like “Focus” is really a mix of both and, while the bucking of conventions and the glimpse into a more realistic world of con men is appreciated, the drama, and especially the romantic drama, sometimes fall flat in the film.  It’d also be nice for a film to say something, and be more than just disposable entertainment.

One quibble on a screenplay level:  there’s a scene late in the film where a man goes into a pharmacy and buys a number of items (neck brace, rubbing alcohol, etc) needed to survive a premeditated car crash he plans on getting into. In a very nice one take shot (or a shot meant to look like it’s in one take) the man drives his car at high speed into the car of two characters he is trying to stop from escaping somewhere. My question is, how did he know where these characters were going to be far enough in advance to stop off at the pharmacy? He’d have to know when they’d be leaving their hotel room, and where abouts they’d be in the city, and that there wouldn’t be any other cars in his way for him to crash into them at the correct velocity.  It’s a great shot, but on a script level it simply doesn’t work.

The direction does work rather well in the film, though.  That one shot aside, there’s a visual motif of scenes either entering or exiting focus just after or before another scene, which works to tie in the film’s title and the concept of a good con man never losing focus, and it’s a nice leitmotif showing when Nicky is coming into or out of focus in his own life. It’s nicely done.  Aside from that, the pretty exteriors of exotic locales and nicely lit interiors of expensive hotel rooms do a good job of making this a visually pretty film to look at, as does dressing Robbie up in ever-skimpier clothing.

“Focus” is an entertaining film with some good performances and pretty visuals, and has an interesting soundtrack, that is ultimately about nothing and has a disappointing second half. I’m glad to have seen it, but I probably won’t remember much more than B.D. Wong’s scene as time goes on. B-

From the writer’s and studio of “God’s Not Dead”, this reviewer’s pick for the worst film of 2014, comes “Do You Believe?”, a film that is half really boring and half unintentionally humorous.  The film follows 12 some odd people in Chicago and how their lives intersect as they grapple with issues of faith.  That’s right, this is the Christian cinema version of the 2004 Oscar-winning film “Crash”, except that “Crash” focused on racism and not on faith.  Considering that “Crash”, 11 years later, is considered one of the worst films to ever win Best Picture and is usually looked upon with derision for how preachy it is, perhaps it wasn’t the best film to model your Christian version on.  There is an entire subgenre of films about multiple people stories that converge together. Robert Altman practically invented the damn thing, and Paul Thomas Anderson made a great film in this genre called “Magnolia” that itself dealt with religious issues, to the extent that the film ends with frogs raining from the sky.  Well, whatever the reasoning was, we’re left with a film that, much like an anthology, has mixed quality throughout.  Some stories are merely boring and feel like filler, others are ridiculous and didactic to the extreme, and at least one is morally and intellectually reprehensible.  The best thing I can say about this film is that it is both better made from a nuts and bolts standpoint and not nearly as offensive as “God’s Not Dead”, but this is still a very, very bad film.

Laying out who the characters are and what the basic plots are is probably in order. I believe bullet points will suffice:

  • Matthew (Ted McGinley) is the pastor of a small church and narrates the beginning and end of the film. His plot involves finding the healthiest and least-dirty-looking homeless pregnant woman ever to exist (Madison Pettis) and, when Matthew’s wife (Tracy Melchoir) refuses to let her stay in their home, Matthew puts her up in a hotel with a bag of food from Tim Horton’s and tells her he’ll check on her in a few days.  We later learn her mother tried to trick her into an abortion by taking her to an abortion clinic and telling her it was an OB/GYN check-up.  Yeah, because a doctor would play along with that and the patient wouldn’t have to be told anything or have to sign any forms, right?  As we all know, all abortion doctors are just chomping at the bit to perform as many abortions as possible, regardless of the mother’s wishes.
  • D (Lee Majors) and Teri (Cybill Shepard) are an older couple whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver. J.D. wants Teri to put away all of their dead daughter’s belongings, and Teri lashes out at him, asking where god was when their daughter died. J.D.’s response is that he was hoping the drunk driver wouldn’t get behind the wheel and urging the bartender not to pour the guy another drink.  Apparently god doesn’t have the power to actually do anything, but merely suggest things? Perhaps whisper in your ear and hope for the best? I don’t know, but this film does a pretty poor job of answering rudimentary challenges to god’s existence in the why-do-bad-things-happen vein.
  • Lacey (Alexa PanVega, who is a long way from “The Devil’s Carnival” and “Repo” with this role) is a girl who is suicidal, seemingly because her daddy won’t visit her. Yeah, I don’t know. She tries to eat a bunch of seafood even though she’s allergic and later goes to a bridge to jump off, only to meet Carlos (Joseph Soria) a guilt-ridden ex-marine with PTSD who happens to be at the bridge trying to kill himself at the same time. They later go for coffee.  This is the most boring and least Jesusy storyline in the film.
  • Samantha (Mira Sorvino, who is a long way from her Oscar-winning role as a prostitute in “Mighty Aphrodite”) is a homeless widow with a daughter, Lily (Makenzie Moss), who may be the most annoying child character I have ever seen in a film. They often spend nights at a shelter, but some nights there is no room and they sleep in her orange car.  One day they are in the ER and while Samantha tries to convince doctors to see Lily, Lily starts talking to a hulking man who compliments her drawings, Joe (Brian Bosworth).  Faster than you can say stranger-danger, Lily sidles up to the man, named Joe, and while Samantha is at first concerned that a lone man is so keen to chat up her little girl, she softens when the man gives up his place in line to be see at the ER to the Lily.  After that, he offers to let the two stay in his place, while he sleeps on a park bench.  Since Joe also works at the pastor’s church and has keys, one wonders why he didn’t think sleeping in the church would be okay. I’m sure the pastor wouldn’t have minded, but then we as an audience couldn’t be moved by how selfless the guy is. Shame he’s dying of cancer. I’m sure the audience watching the film will be moved to let homeless people live in their homes, and they’ll also take in every poor pregnant woman they meet to boot, in keeping with the example this film sets.
  • Pretty Boy (Shwayze) is a gang member whose brother, Kriminal (Senyo Amoaku) hatches a scheme to rob a rival gang member. First, we see Kriminal, Pretty Boy, and other gang members like, not kidding, 40 Ounce (Delpaneaux Wills) get harassed by a crazy man who wheels a cross (on wheels) through the streets asking people if they believe in Jesus.  Kriminal pulls a gun the man but doesn’t kill him, and later in the film he will pull a gun on the pastor but not kill him. What kind of gang member is this? Let’s ignore the fact that Kriminal’s house looks like it was decorated by a committee of old ladies who probably saw “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” last weekend (I guess they live with their mom…real gangsta), this film’s portrayal of what could be called “thug life” is something only two white guys who have never listened to, much less heard of, rap music could conceive.  Pretty Boy has a crisis of conscience when the crazy rambling man speaks to the van of gang members, and absconds with the stolen money after the scheme goes down.  He ducks into the church and even though cops physical enter and search the church, upon which the pastor and his congregation seem not to notice or care about the police presence as no one so much as looks in their direction, Pretty Boy is not apprehended (because the soaking wet black guy is so hard to find among the maybe 40 people there?).  He goes to the same hotel the pregnant girl is stationed in, steals the Bible (between this film and “American Sniper” it is clear that Christians do not care about the Bible being stolen. Isn’t that a Commandment?), and tries to pawn the money off on the pastor. Kriminal gets the money from the pastor after some local kids tip him off that Pretty Boy was seen leaving the church, and there’s a confrontation between Pretty Boy, Kriminal, and the man whose money they stole, which results in Pretty Boy being shot protecting Kriminal, and his dying wish being that Kriminal find Jesus. Yup.
  • Lastly, we come to the morally reprehensible plot line. Bobby (Liam Matthews) is a Christian EMT so devout that he tithes 10% of his income even though he and his nurse wife (Valerie Dominguez) have maxed out their credit cards. Apparently, the lord doesn’t offer much in the way of financial planning. One day he is at some sort of accident site where a man is trapped under something and going to die, and there is nothing more the EMT can do for him. The EMT decides to proselytize to the dying man, who we later learn was a member of the American Humanist Association (read: atheist) and tell him that he needs to accept Jesus. A man about to die may not be in his right state of mind and highly suggestible, but that’s okay because the film treats what the EMT did, up to and including pressing a wooden cross into the dying man’s hand, as the right thing to do, as long as there was no other medical attention the EMT could perform. Okay, let’s examine this for a second.  The film argues that it is okay for an EMT to proselytize to a dying person, so long as that EMT has performed everything he is capable of performing in the task of saving the person’s life.  After all, it is the EMT’s other duty, as a good Christian, to let this man know of Jesus lest he go to Hell, as any just and loving god would send a person to eternal torture for not stroking his otherworldly ego. Following this logic, a devout worshipper of Lucifer would be in the right to press an upside-down pentagram into a dying man’s hand and tell him he will not enjoy his afterlife unless he professes admiration for the dark lord Satan.  You know, as long as this Satanic EMT did everything he could to save the man with his medical skills first.  What if the EMT pressed a voodoo doll into the man’s hand and urged him to cast a spell?  Yeah, Christians are only okay with this crazy shit when they can do it.  In any case, the dead man’s wife decides to sue the EMT, but the EMT refuses to apologize for what he did, leaving him to have to pay for his own lawyer as his union abandons him.  Nice little jab at labor unions, eh Jesus movie?
  • The lawyer representing the dead man’s wife is Andrea (Andrea Logan White, an actress so bad one wonders if they named the character the same as the actress lest she forget to respond to other actors speaking to her in a scene), a joyless vindictive woman who is dating an ER doctor (Sean Astin, as annoying and piss-poor of an actor as ever) who is this film’s token so-angry-he-practically-froths-at-the-mouth atheist. This doctor is so anti-religion that he can barely finish his dinner at a restaurant when he sees a couple say Grace over their meal.  He also pretty much rips off Alec Baldwin’s speech from the 1993 film “Malice”, a film that has only remained unforgotten because of the speech in question, in which Baldwin’s character, a doctor, explains that he does not have a God Complex, but rather is God because he is real and actually saves the lives a god gets credit for.

So those are our characters and the basic plotlines.  The acting ranges from decent to atrocious, but the film itself is better made than some of these Christian films are.  It is admittedly well edited throughout, and the direction is better than these films usually are, even if the director, Jonathan Gunn, falls into the trap of awkward close-ups and boring medium shots during conversation.  I have not seen anything else Gunn has done, but this appears to be his first outright Christian film, which may explain why it’s directed half-way decently.  If he cut his teeth making “real” movies, he has more skill than the directors who only make Hallmark Channel-level work.

The writers, Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, I can’t say anything good about. Their films take place in an unusual alternative universe where Christianity is well-known but little practiced, and its adherents are constantly persecuted for their beliefs, in places like academia (their last film), the legal system, and the healthcare system.  They also do a pretty poor job of attempting to answer the questions of those who are not part of their fold. J.D.’s answer to Teri’s question about where god was when their daughter died seems to indicate god is either not omnipotent or passive and lazy.  Later, cancer-ridden Joe is asked by Samantha where god was when her husband died, considering her husband dragged her to church every Sunday and they were good people. Joe’s answer is to make a joke about the coffee they’re drinking, and he never actually answers her question.

Beyond that, the dialogue is often atrocious. Characters state their Christian beliefs in explicit sentences that sound less like human speech than like treatise on a pretentious “700 Club” press release.  I’m sorry, but when a pregnant woman has delivered her baby and is about to die, having her cry and talk about how she hopes Jesus has accepted her rings every bell of falsehood there is.  Having a gang member say similar things while being slammed against a wall? Same. The film itself knows nothing of words like “subtlety“ and “subtext”.   You may have heard the old axiom “if it’s not in the frame it doesn’t exist”.  Well, to these writers, if god or Jesus is not mentioned every 15 seconds, the film is not religious enough.  That’s if we’re ignoring hokey dialogue like “Just because I’m homeless doesn’t make me a bad mother”, or clichéd scenes where there is a scuffle downstairs in a home and a child appears on the staircase having been woken from sleep, causing the scuffling adults to stop in their tracks and feel ashamed.

The writers obviously have no idea what atheists are like in private.  Look, it’s true that many atheists are angry about religion, and not just because it causes crappy movies like this to be made.  The filmmakers just can’t seem to grasp that atheists are not always angry about everything.  I may think it’s stupid for people to pray over their food (or over anything) but it doesn’t ruin my day. If I were so angry and humorless, I wouldn’t have gone to see this movie of my own free will so I could laugh at it.  The writers also think atheists are somewhat amoral, it seems, as both of the film’s atheist characters seem perplexed that a person would not commit perjury. “When these people place their hand on the Bible they actually tell the truth”.  They don’t seem to know that atheists don’t have to swear on the Bible and can merely affirm if called to testify under oath, but whatever.  To the writers, every atheist is a potential perjurer, apparently.

The ending of this film is hilariously ludicrous. There’s an admittedly fairly well shot car crash scene on a bridge, a multiple pile-up.  Many, but not all, of our main characters are on this bridge.  There’s  a silly thing about one of the cars, containing J.D., Teri, and Lily (because Samantha and Lily end up staying with the older couple after Joe and a few nights at the shelter…jeez, can’t homeless people go about their business without being offered a place to stay?) almost careening off the bridge.  Instead, it dangles halfway between being on the bridge and falling off of it, and we’re treated to that old chestnut of people saving the passengers before the car plunges into the water below. Of course our PTSD sufferer is one of the rescuers, thus ridding himself of guilt and being no longer suicidal. This film’s simplistic depiction of PTSD is only slightly less insulting than “American Sniper”’s.  The other rescuer is Bobby, our EMT, who also saves our atheist lawyer Andrea.  Andrea then decides god must be real because, I guess, an atheist would never pull someone they dislike out of a flaming car?

That’s not the most ludicrous thing about the ending, though.  While this is going on, Samantha is at Joe’s hospital bedside as Joe passes away.  The nurse, who is EMT Bobby’s wife, merely checks Joe’s heartbeat with her stethoscope after he flatlines.  Yup, that’s all a nurse has to do when someone flatlines. Anyway, our atheist doctor comes to sign the death certificate, but not before sneering at the wooden cross beside the bed.  Then…are you ready for this…JOE COMES BACK TO LIFE.  Never mind that he’d been dead for eight minutes and that any brain recovery after three minutes of a stopped heart is rare.  Never mind that the god who decided not to intervene in the death of J.D. and Teri’s daughter or Samantha’s husband decided to RAISE THIS MAN FROM THE DEAD!  Nope, the audience is merely supposed to accept that this man comes back to life, and then cheer as he and the nurse snarkily put down the atheist doctor, who realistically has concerns and wants to run some tests to see what has happened.  FOOLISH DOCTOR WITH YOUR TESTS AND EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE. KNEEL BEFORE ZOD, I MEAN GOD!  While we’re at it, the doctor is right earlier in the film when he tells Joe that prayer and spending the night on a cold park bench when he has cancer are not the best of moves.  This film treats legitimate medical advice as heartlessness.  Odd, especially when Joe does seek medical attention himself twice in the film and, again, he could have slept in the church…or maybe the pastor’s home since he’s so keen to take in the homeless.  In any case, the film creates a miracle which would not happen in real life, and then has the nerve to say “see, atheists. Suck it”.  I admit things that may look like miracles on the surface happen, but there’s always a logical explanation that doesn’t involve supernatural voodoo and resurrections.  To quote Dr. Manhattan from “Watchmen”: “Miracles, by their definition, are meaningless.  Only what can happen, does.”

While we’re on the subject of Joe, there’s a hole in the story. Samantha and Lily stay at Joe’s a night, then leave to spend time in a shelter. After this, J.D. and Teri take them in.  When Joe checks himself into the hospital to die, he sends a note to Samantha.  A new character we’ve never met before delivers this to Samantha AT J.D. AND TERI’S HOME!  How did Joe know Samantha was there?  Did god tell him, or did the screenwriters make a mistake?

“Do You Believe?” takes place in a world where homeless people always look clean and are often taken indoors by random strangers.  It’s a world where the level of god’s intervention in human affairs doesn’t operate with any consistency.  It’s a world where stealing Bibles are okay, pushing your beliefs on a dying man are okay, PTSD can be cured by saving three people’s lives (give or take), atheists are constantly angry and humorless and don’t understand ethics even though they adhere to their professional ethics, suicidal depression can be overcome by going on a date, parents and doctors conspire to trick girls into getting abortions, god kills pregnant women to bestow their children on richer, whiter childless Christians (whom god made barren to begin with, but whatever), gang members can have a change of heart by being talked at by a crazy man on the street, and people come back from the dead to spite atheists.   This film puts the Deus in Deus ex Machina.

So yes, this film veers from boring to laughable awful to ludicrously absurd.  It feels like it condescends even to its own intended Christian audience. It has gaps in logic and believability (like religion) and the dialogue is often awful when it’s not merely stilted.  The acting is sometimes better than other Christian films, and sometimes just as bad.  The direction is better than most of these films, but worse than your average non-Christian indie.  Do you believe? No. D.

Chappie (dir. Neil Blomkamp)

Posted: March 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Chappie” is first and foremost a film with a lot of potential that is hopelessly and frustratingly hampered by a ton of script issues.  The film sets itself up to say something about drone warfare, artificial intelligence, singularity, or maybe even open carry laws. In the end, it doesn’t really say anything about anything.  On top of this, the film has issues dealing with its characters, their motivations and actions, and especially Chappie the robot’s rate of mental development.  Also, while I know every science fiction film will have to deal with a little bit of junk science in order to function, “Chappie” is unusual in how completely unconvincing it portrays its junk science to be.  The willing suspension of disbelief cannot abide by a robot with the intelligence of maybe a 9-year-old boy who suddenly learns to drive a car without being taught to do so.

A quick plot summary: A joint U.S./South African weapons manufacturer called Tetravaal has created titanium robots to supplement the Johannesburg police force in dealing with street crime.  The creator of these robots, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) goes home late at night and attempts to create artificial intelligence while fueled by Red Bull until, after 900 or so days, he does.  This is big step up from the Nintendo robot he has cleaning his house when he’s gone.  When he brings his AI breakthrough to the company’s owner (a wasted Sigourney Weaver) she scoffs at his major scientific breakthrough by telling him that Tetravaal is a weapons company and she has no use for it. Regardless of what type of company it is, you’d think any business executive worth their salt would see the potential to make money, or at least garner good press, from a scientific achievement, but alas, she does not.  This could potentially be a comment on how the United States isn’t interested in science unless it can be used to kill enemy combatants, but “Chappie” fails as a satire on the United States because it takes place in South Africa, and the only reason we as viewers is aware that Tetravaal is also a U.S. company is because of a blink-or-you’ll-miss but of production design: an American Flag next to a South African flag are painted on the wall of one of Tetravaal’s big workshop hangers.

In any event, Deon decides to defy his boss and in an unrealistically easy process manages to take the company’s major piece of security software home, as well as take a robot ready to be destroyed after receiving damage in the line of duty, and uploads his AI software to it.  Of course, when he does this, it is after a three person street gang had kidnapped him, thinking Deon has the power to “turn off” the robots, because they want to be able to commit a heist to pay off another gangster they owe money to (Brandon Auret, whose English dialogue the filmmakers felt it necessary to subtitle).

The gang that kidnaps Deon is made up of Ninja (Watkin Jones, a South African rapper), Yolandi (Yolandi Vissar, another rapper), and Yankie (Jose Cantillo).  They live in an abandoned factory that looks like it was decorated by a mix of scratcher tattoo artists and the guy who draws “Tank Girl”.  Yankie is your traditional Hispanic gangster, but Ninja and Yolandi are odd characters.  Yolandi dresses like she stepped out of “Blade Runner” or the late 90s rave scene and at times seems to have the intelligence of Milla Jovovich’s character from “The Fifth Element”. Ninja, well, his character is a mess.  At times, he is an evil man who is willing to shoot anyone who annoys him.  Then after he tries to shoot Deon and misses, he lets Deon drive off from no reason when he could have easily fired again and killed him.  Later, he treats Chappie the way an abusive and overbearing father would treat his child, but then seemingly develops warm feelings for him though the film gives us no reason for this.  Towards the end, Ninja decides to make a selfless sacrifice without his character earning it, or the film giving him any sort of character arc or teaching moment or anything to make us even like this guy.  The film seems to want us to like Ninja or at least find him interesting.  I’d guess that he and Yolandi get more screen time than any other human character in the film, but he’s too goddamn all over the map to feel like anything more than what he is: a rapper the director likes.

So Deon disappears for almost an entire act of the film and we’re treated to Chappie, now alive, being raised by the gang as Ninja wants him to eventually help him with a big heist (and maybe steal a few cars).  Since Ninja is essentially a wannabe white gangster, Chappie starts acting like a 9-year-old attempting to emulate gangsta rap, and is occasionally funny.  Of course, Johnny 5 already kind of did this in “Short Circuit 2”when he’s tricked into stealing car radios by a Latino gang in that film, but whatever.  Chappie as a character is likeable enough and humorous, but the film never makes up its mind as to how smart, or naïve, or grown up, or childish it wants him to be, and never gives us a solid rate of trajectory as to how he grows and evolves mentally and behaviorally.  He childishly makes a doll, calls Yolandi “Mommy” and Ninja “Daddy” (Deon is “Maker”), his understanding of vocabulary and phrases is whatever the screenplay decides it wants him to understand. At least “Short Circuit” showed us Johnny getting “imput”.  I wonder if there are reams of deleted scenes from the second act of Chappie learning things, but that these scenes were judged too boring.  Look, it’s funny to watch Chappie commit various carjackings while thinking he’s taking back Ninja’s many stolen cars, but if you then want me to believe he learns how to transfer both human and AI consciousness to different bodies after a simple internet search, well, you better write a damn better screenplay than this one.

I’m 1,000+ words into this review and I haven’t even mentioned the character of Vincent (Hugh Jackman).  Vincent is a religious former-solider turned engineer who has moral issues with Artificial Intelligence.  Think Chris Kyle is Kyle were smart enough to become an engineer and not dumb enough to take someone with PTSD to a gun range and get himself killed.  Vincent has created a different robot to rival Deon’s police droids, and while Vincent’s robot is a giant, expensive behemoth more apt for military missions than civilian control, Vincent remains jealous of Deon’s success.  The behemoths, called the Moose in the film, are extremely derivative of the ED-209 from “Robocop” and its recent remake. Since the Moose is completely operated by a human (it’s done remotely through a headset that lets a human’s neural pathways do the work) this was an opportunity to make a comment about drone warfare, or about the increasing militarization of civilian police, but the film decides not to do that.  The police force repeatedly refuses to purchase the Moose, Tetravaal is only barely interested in it, and in the film it is really only used for Vincent to exact his personal revenge on Deon, Chappie, and the like.  No real, social comment is made.  Even the lackluster “Robocop” remake at least had that one delightful scene of ED-209s walking down the streets of Iraq saying “Peace be upon you” to the citizens.

Similarities to “Short Circuit” and “Robocop” aside, this film is extremely derivative of other films. When Chappie’s technology is used to make characters switch bodies, we’re getting into films as recent as “Transcendence”.  When Chappie, who only has a battery life of 5 days, asks Deon “Why did you make me to die?”, that good line which could have lead to a discussion about birth, life, death, and any number of philosophical thoughts doesn’t, and we’re just left with ANOTHER film about sentient machines. Spielberg’s “A.I.” covered this material better 14 years ago.  There is nothing “Chappie” does that hasn’t been done earlier and better and, most importantly, smarter and deeper.  I suppose to transferring of consciousnesses could be a really strained Christ-resurrection metaphor, especially since Yolandi talks to Chappie about the soul and dying meaning you go to “the other place”, but it’s a stretch. We see Vincent wear a cross throughout the film, and drop to his knees to cross himself once or twice, but the film only casually dips its toe into any religious discussion.  Ninja kneels before a yellow machine gun and crosses himself too, so what are we really to make of this?

This film was directed and co-written by Neil Blomkamp (the other writer is his wife, Terri Tatchell).  It is becoming clear, after three films, that Blomkamp needs to stop writing his own screenplays.  “District 9” was quite good, and operated as a decent metaphor for Apartheid-era South Africa, but its third act devolved into meaningless action, and for some reason that film started off as a fake documentary and then switched to a straight ahead movie with no rhyme or reason.  It was smart movie that still could have been better.  Then came “Elysium”, which Blomkamp wrote on his own.  That was a film that set itself to talk about two important issues: economic inequality and healthcare.  The film’s set-up, however, left it so that there was literally no reason why the rich wouldn’t provide their magic healing machines to the masses except for pure, unrealistic evil.  Even at the end of the film, when the people of Earth now have free healing, they are still stuck on Earth to work as cheap labor. Wealth as not been redistributed, and a healed population just means you have healthier workhorses.  In fact, it almost makes LESS sense for such an unequal society to keep its population so sick since sick people don’t work as well as the healthy.  Oh, and the illegal immigration aspect of that film was kind of lost, as it doesn’t appear much of the Earth citizenry would, at the end, be allowed to emigrate to the Elysium space station for capacity reasons if nothing else. Also, it was the second of his films that sets up smart issues, and then just says “fuck it” and becomes a soulless action movie in the third act.

“Chappie” now shows a pattern. Blomkamp is capable of coming up with dystopian or near-dystopian stories that give lip service to serious issues and political commentary, but then become lazy action films in the third act. Characters are not always given proper motivations and character development in total is often weak.  Blomkamp is good with special effects and can direct effectively (I have no real issues with how any of his films look or are shot) but a good screenwriter, Oscar nomination of “District 9” aside, he is not.  If Blomkamp wants to, next time, come up with a story and let another screenwriter flesh it out, he may have one hell of a movie on his hands.  “Chappie” had a bit less going for it because, come on, even “Iron Man 2” covered the droid soldier angle, but “Elysium” especially had potential for greatness.

“Chappie” is not a bad film, though. Sloppy screenplay aside, the direction is suitable, the score is pretty damn good (Hans Zimmer’s score recalls the original “Terminator” theme and is often more dramatic than the film itself), and Chappie himself is pretty likeable. A lot of credit goes to Sharlto Copley, who voices the robot and whose movements were motion-captured for him.  Copley has been Blomkamp’s go-to actor, the Deniro to Blomkamp’s Scorcese, but he also did interesting work in Spike Lee’s compromised but still underrated “Oldboy” remake.  Chappie, while not being a well-written character, is largely funny, likeable, and endearing because of Copley and the little touches he brings to Chappie.  Chappie is the star of this thing, and he’s the only character we really like in this thing.  Even Deon irks you for no reason, Yolandi’s penchant for attention-getting shirts is grating (for poor gang members, these guys seem to have an excellent and fast shirt supplier…Ninja makes a shirt with Yolandi’s face on it in, like, hours, and Yolandi makes a Chappie shirt in a day), and Ninja barely exists as a cohesive character.

Chappie is a good but derivative character, flagged by a good but derivative score, with good direction and good special effects, stuck in a movie called “Chappie” that’s saddled with a wasted, empty, and sloppy screenplay.  It’s entertaining, but maybe 20 minutes too long, its junk science is too ridiculous even by science fiction standards, and the experience of watching the film ultimately results in frustration. C+

“Still Alice” is a wrenching, powerful film that had me either on the verge of crying, or just plain crying for most of its running time.  Movies like to show us disaster and danger from external sources, be it the destructive evil plots of supervillains in comic book movies, or the blade of a machete wielding slash movie villain, but “Still Alice” shows us something far scarier: the unstoppable internal destruction of our mind, our memories, our personality, and who we are.  With all due respect to those of you who believe in a “soul”, as human beings all we are is our brains and the chemical and electrical impulses that make us a person.  A disease like Alzheimer’s destroys who we are without having the kindness to kill us first.  This film does a remarkable and excellent job of showing us a little bit about what that’s like to the person with the disease, and the loved ones around them.

Julianne Moore won the Best Actress Oscar for playing Alice Howland, a Columbia University Linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at only 50 years of age.  The Oscar is well deserved, as Moore is given the difficulty of playing a character at different stages of the disease and, while the character may be miles different in the first scene of the film and the last scene, the transition from scene to scene can be at times infinitesimal. When you know that most films are not shot in chronological order, you’ll know having to play a character that can be in a very different mental state from scene to scene is extremely difficult.  There is not a single scene in this film where Moore doesn’t come across as 100% her character, or 100% accurate.  She deserves every accolade she has received for this film and then some.

Centering a film on a relatively young, intelligent, and very attractive character brings the crushing horrendousness of the disease home to an audience in the way that featuring your stereotypical Alzheimer’s sufferer (i.e. very old already) would not.  We expect, rightly or wrongly, the old to suffer from some mental acuity loss as they get older, so Alzheimer’s in them can sometimes just read to us as the worst case of a case they’ll all get in some way, shape, or form.  When we see it strike a woman who could very well still have a lot of time and good work ahead of her, and who looks very good for her age, adds a level of tragedy and sadness that just simply wouldn’t be there to an audience with no personal experience with the disease if the average Alzheimer’s story were being told.  Some may call this choice of story manipulative for that reason, but the film never comes across like it’s trying hard for your tears, sadness, or potentially your activism.  It simply tries to show what would, and often does, happen when this relatively rare but all-too-real disease hits.

It’s one thing for a disease to effect you, but the type of Alzheimer’s that effects Alice in the film is genetic, which means her kids had a 50% chance of inheriting the gene, and if they got it, they are 100% guaranteed to develop Alzheimer’s.  Imagine learning that you have this disease that will destroy your memories and your personhood, but also the extra insult that you may have condemned your children to the same fate.  Alice has three children: Anna (Kate Bosworth), who is undergoing IVF to try to have children of her own; Tom (Hunter Parrish) who comes across as something of a playboy but is otherwise a successful surgeon; and Lydia (Kristen Stewart) who lives 3,000 miles away in LA trying her hand at becoming an actress.  That this film actually coaxes a good performance out of Stewart should tell you how good this film is.  Along with her children, we see how his wife’s disease affects Alice’s husband, John (Alec Baldwin).  John is a medical researcher who loves his wife, but experiences the realistic frustrations and sadness that one would when their loved one becomes someone other than who they once were.  He often throws himself into work, as much to keep them in good finances for his wife’s car as it is to escape facing his ever-deteriorating wife.  One scene, where John and a very-far-gone Alice get frozen yogurt is particularly powerful and crushing that even thinking about the scene as I type this brings the beginnings of tears to my eyes.

This film shows the transition of the disease very well.  We see as it starts innocuously enough, forgetting a word or mistaking a reference in conversation to your sister rather than your daughter.  It then progresses to losing track of time, forgetting plans or a recipe, and even forgetting you met someone that you just met mere minutes ago.  Later, you’re asking questions you just asked seconds ago, or forgetting where the bathroom is in your own house.  The short term memory trips, then falls, and the long term memory goes after that.  It’s all very gradual, and then sudden.  The film doesn’t keep us rigorously anchored in time, but the progression of the disease feels real and we, as an audience, don’t feel lost or catapulted too fast through the progression (the film itself doesn’t take place over a period much longer than maybe 2 years or so).

There’s not much else I can say about the film without spoiling specific scenes, which I do not want to do as it will blunt the power of them if you choose to see it yourself, which I strongly recommend you do.  This is a film that will make you appreciate your loved ones even more when you walk out of it, and appreciate the time that you do have, even more so than a film about, say, terminal cancer would.  A film about cancer merely makes you fear death, but to me, and my guess is more than few of you, a disease like Alzheimer’s is a fate worse than death.

I’m sure there are some of you who simply do not want to see a film that will make you feel sad, or cry.  For those of you that are not scared off by that, who see the value in a cathartic experience given by a film of excellent quality, this is a film you should make an effort to see.  The writer/directors, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, do a great job of keeping the film framed in tight or medium shots so that we’re always oriented on the characters, as this is first and foremost a story about people.  I have not seen either of the men’s previous work before, but this film makes me want to go back and check out their filmography up to this point.

“Still Alice” is based on a novel that was originally self-published by its author, Lisa Genova, who is also a neuroscientist.  If the book is half as good as the film, and history usually tell us the book will be better, she should be credited for showing us that not all self-published novels are garbage, and there are some diamonds in the rough.

I wish I had waited to make my top films of 2014 list, as “Still Alice” would have rightly deserved a place near the top of it.  Few films I see are as emotionally powerful as this one. A.

“Hot Tub Time Machine 2” is not as funny, or oddly enough as bound in reality or story, as the first one.  It is largely a collection of dick jokes and jokes about gay panic for an hour and a half, with some humor directed at the film’s version of what 10 years in the future will look like (self-driving cars and Neil Patrick Harris as President).  While the film is enjoyable all of the way through, thanks to very likeable lead actors playing characters we really shouldn’t like but do, it isn’t quite as funny as it should be.  It is funny enough, I guess, but with only one scene of heavy laughter, and a few scenes that fall flat, the film could have been more.

Since the first film, which ended with our main characters using knowledge of the future (their present) to make their lives better for themselves, Lou (Rob Corddry) is sitting on an internet empire that is starting to lose ground to competitors. Nick (Craig Robinson) has been recording hit songs from the future before they’re created by the original artists, but has been reduced to recording songs he only vaguely remembers the original lyrics too.  In a scene seemingly inserting into the film only for me, Lisa Loeb cameos as herself, but since Nick is recording her hit song “Stay” before she can, she has been reduced to the music video’s set cat wrangler.  Meanwhile, Lou’s son Jacob (Clark Duke) is resentful of his father’s manipulation of the time line, and disrespect.

You may be asking yourself what happened to Adam, playing in the first film by John Cusack.  Well, Cusack is seemingly too busy making bad movies that go direct to VOD these days and has sat this film out.  In any case, the plot kicks in when someone tries to assassinate Lou by shooting him in the penis.  In order to save him, Nick and Jacob drag him into the hot tub with the intent of going into the past to stop him from being killed.  Instead, the hot tub takes them 10 years in the future to 2025, where things looks mostly the same as in 2015, except for self-driving sentient smart cars, new designer drugs, and really abhorrent shows on television.

While in the future, they try to track down Adam, but wind up finding Adam’s now-adult son Adam Jr. (Adam Scott), who seems mildly mentally handicapped, wears a skirt over pants, and is just an odd character altogether.  A new foursome complete, they work to solve the mystery and keep Lou from blipping out of existence.

I’m a sucker for time travel movies, and while “Hot Tub 2” isn’t the boldest, funniest, or most interesting view of the future movies have given us, I do like that realistic approach that, yeah, in only 10 years not much actually changes. 2005 and 2015 look mostly the same, save for more power cell phones and my receding hair line.  The actual time travel is handled by having the travelling character inhabit their future bodies, as opposed to walking around a time when they could run into their other selves, which saves the film from falling into the paradoxes that this year’s “Project Almanac” did.  The only issue that really comes up is at the end when the characters start traveling to times they weren’t alive in, which raises the question of whether they’re traveling into other people(ala “Quantum Leap”) or going to alternate universes (which is implied) or what.  Still, you’re not going to this film for the plot, or how well it deals with time travel.  You’re going to laugh and, yes, you will likely laugh if you enjoyed the humor of the first film, you just won’t laugh as much or as hard.

The funniest scene involves a weird game show where people are challenged to do odd things in virtual reality, leading to odd questions as to whether rape in virtual reality counts as rape, and thus the unsettling feeling in the audience member that the funniest joke in the film might actually be a rape joke.  The scene that falls flat the most if a scene of Adam Jr. on a psychotropic drug as the film gives us a montage of weird visuals that aren’t as interesting as the film thinks they are, and is really just a waste of screentime.

I’d estimate that “Hot Tub 2” is 35-40% worse than the first film, but there’s enough chuckling to make the film enjoyable enough, and the lead actors really give their all and are a delight to watch.  The Lisa Loeb cameo obviously boosts my opinion in ways it likely won’t for yours, but it’s my review and I can do what I like in it. As such, my grade stands at a B-.

It’s almost cruel to criticize the “Atlas Shrugged” movies.  Whatever you may think of Ayn Rand’s novel, and it should be no surprise that I despise it, anyone can see that the films are not the best representation of the book.  The films have been uniformly poorly made and the budgets have been inadequate for presenting the filmmakers’ visions, resulting in films that look sloppy and amateurish, even when recognizable and occasionally respectable actors are in the frame.  The first of the films had weirdly composed framing and shots that were constantly underlit. I’ve seen amateur Youtube short films from pre-teens that are more competently directed that Part I.  Part II, the best in the series, still suffering from a budget too small for its story, but it had the best acting and most polished script of the series, making it the most watchable.  The cast has almost completely changed in each film, as have most of the crew save for the producer who owns the rights to the novel (and presumably rushed that first film into production to retain them).  Lastly, we have part III, and while better than part I, is sloppy and unintentionally hilarious.

The makers of Part III, subtitled “Who is John Galt?”, did not have enough money to follow the old axiom of Show, Don’t Tell.  Large chunks of story are communicated with awkward voiceover narration, sometimes over stock footage for footage from the film we have already seen, and instead of special effects scenes we sometimes get badly photoshopped still images to suggest things like a blown up bridge.  Much of the scenes take place in cheap, barely decorated sets with our modest cast sitting around talking about things in the most stilted way possible.  The acting ranges from wooden to hammy as hell, depending on the individual actor and whether or not they’re aware of how bad the film they’re in is.  Stephen Tobolowsky stands out as a person who knows he’s in a bad film but didn’t want to turn down an easy paycheck and so subtle hams it up.

The plot involves John Galt (Kristoffer Polaha), a poorly rendered two-dimensional Libertarian messiah who has built a utopia under a forcefield in the Colorado wilderness.  His philosophy is Ayn Rand’s philosophy, which when you dig underneath a fountain of words basically equates to “Selfishness is awesome, Altruism sucks. Fuck you, fend for yourself.”  While I can understand why someone who grew up in the Soviet Union would be wary of government, her gleeful hatred of anything remotely resembling helping another person is baffling.  As presented in the film, it mostly comes across as hatred of government safety regulations, which makes it even more ridiculous.  If the film’s anti-regulation ethos were put into practice, any drug, medical device, or product would be allowed to be sold and if it killed people, well, the free market would decide if it was good or not.  If it killed people, then people would stop buying it, and the product would be discontinued! Capitalism works! Sure, regulations about testing things before you can sell them might have resulted in zero deaths, but it’s not the government’s place to keep its citizens safe, right?  The film gives us a doctor who bitches that regulations kept him from producing a device he has in the film, which seems to be an X-ray machine app on a cell phone.  I’m not sure why regulations would keep it from being invented, unless the app causes Super-Cancer, but whatever.  The film also blames government regulations for a housing crisis when a character who was the head of bank claims that he only ever gave housing loans to people who could pay them back, until the government told him he had to give loans to the poor (never mind that this is not what actually caused the Housing Crisis which lead to the 2008 Great Recession).  In the word of “Atlas Shrugged” the government can never do anything good, and selfish Capitalists can never do anything wrong.

So, the Capitalists in Galt’s utopia set up a quasi-frontier village where the gold standard is used, homeschooling keeps the nasty government from telling you what to teach your kids, and people can presumably sell you unsafe food at highway robbery prices.  It’s weird that Galt only recruits the heads of companies and seems to think they can run a business themselves without any of the labor power that actually, you know, runs the damn business.  I don’t know about you, but I think Amazon.com could still run is Jeff Bezos disappeared, but if all the people in his warehouses disappeared, Amazon might have a hard time filling its orders.  The world of the film only allows for entrepreneurs and parasites, but sometimes a business can’t be run by one, lone person.  I also doubt a utopia of a couple hundred super-selfish people would run efficiently for very long.  If you’re the only person in the utopia, named Galt’s Gulch because that sounds inviting, who controls an important utility, such as water or electricity, you can charge as much as you want and bankrupt the entire populace in days or less.  If you have no regulations or legal structure to protect you, than a greedy business person with no morals who cares only about their personal profit can destroy you financially by preying on your basic needs.  This seems like a weird thing to strive for.

In any event, our protagonist Dagny (Laura Regan), when she’s not being unnecessarily carried around the woods by Galt, spends half the movie playing a weak Devil’s Advocate in order to allow Galt to profess his naïve and adolescent philosophy to her and the audience.  She later returns to the regular world, is upset to learn her brother (Greg Germann) allowed her company to be nationalized in her stead, and is suddenly on Galt’s side.  She also apparently falls in love with Galt, or something, despite their complete lack of chemistry or the film giving us a reason for these two people to like each other, and they have PG-13 sex atop a desk in a room located somewhere near underground train tacks.  O…Kay.

Eventually the government tries to keep a crumbling society together (Grover Norquist has a silent cameo as a cigar-smoking Socialist government official), but Galt delivers a speech on TV which seems to rally the people.  Why? I don’t know, especially since Galt tells the people to form their own communes away from society and doesn’t invite them to his own. Also, the film heavily abridges Galt’s speech from the book (which runs into 70 pages) so what the film let’s us hear is nothing that would believably stir a nation.  It mostly sounds like a bad Glenn Beck rant. Glenn Beck actually has a cameo in the film, as do Sean Hannity and Ron Paul.  Yeah.

Later, the government captures and tortures Galt. Why? Who knows?  The film never gives us a reason as to why the government doesn’t just kill him if he’s not a threat, and they’re not trying to get information from him.  The film hilariously tries to get us to believe he is tortured by some weird new technology called “Project F”, but really he’s just electrocuted slightly (his skin is not burned or singed).  As Dagny attempts to rescue Galt, she shoots an innocent guard dead for not allowing her access.  The reason the film gives, through that guard’s speech, is something about him being too weak to decide his own fate, which is weirdly hilarious because a) no one would talk like that with a gun to their head and b) it’s odd that the film thinks it’s good that he dies for refusing to not do his job.  It’s also weird for a Conservative film to be anti-torture and pro-striking. Granted, the film’s voice-over tells us about a different strike in which “Government’s Union Thugs” try to strike and have a confrontation between non-striking workers, so the film is about management or CEO/COO strikes and not labor strikes (or the film has a skewed view of how much labor power executives contribute), but the government-is-evil-because-it-tortures thing is weird.  Maybe if they just claimed to do “enhanced interrogation” of John Galt, it’d be okay.  Also, if I selfishly want to torture, isn’t that okay under Galt’s philosophy?  What if I charge admission?

John Galt is an asshole.  He’s a guy who left his job because he didn’t want his workplace to become a profit-sharing cooperative, and he has a device which could power the world without harming the environment or running out, but refuses to let the world have it because the government won’t allow him to make enough money off of it.  Imagine is Jonas Salk decided he wouldn’t let the world have the Polio vaccine because the government wouldn’t let him get rich off of it (for some reason.  It’s not like the United States nationalizes fossil fuels or drugs now, but Rand seemed to think it does).  If you meet someone in real life who thinks John Galt is cool, that is a person you don’t want in your life for very long.

Philosophy aside, because I could spend all day ripping apart Rand’s Objectivism, this is a stupid film.  Why is a Science Institute (called SSI…is this a dig at Social Security, which Rand hypocritically benefited from at the end of her life) acting like the CIA?  Why does the government only send 4 cops to arrest Galt, who is public enemy number one?  Why did Galt recruit a wine-growing Philosophy teacher for his utopia?  Why do Galt and Dagny fall in love and/or lust?  Did Dagny’s brother kill his wife?  If you sabotage your business before you leave it, can it really be said that the business can’t survive without you?  Wouldn’t leaving it intact and letting it fail in perfect operating condition make your point that a business can’t run without the mind behind it better?  What exactly are the government’s motives? They seemingly make bad decisions simply for the purposes of making them, with no reasoning given.  Why does Dagny need a walking stick in some scenes but not in others?  Why does the government need the inventor of a torture device’s signature before they can use it? Does the government not know how to forge a signature?  If the device is classified and no one will know about it anyway, what’s the point?  Why are super-secret conversations held in places where anyone can overhear them?  Why does a closed electronics store keep the TVs in its store window on at night? Why is Hank Reardon (Rob Morrow) no longer a main character, and barely in this film?

Theoretically, a non-laughable “Atlas Shrugged” movie could be made with the right budget.  It would probably have to be a period piece that took place in a futuristic 1950s-ish time.  Think “The Rocketeer” or the videogame “Bioshock” (which was an attack on Ayn Rand).  I’m not saying the material deserves a competent film made of it, but it’s certainly possible.  As it is, we have three poorly made films espousing a shallow, adolescent philosophy in an often-times hilarious manner.  Part III is not the worst of these films, but it’s MST3K-quality bad. In 2015, is there any excuse for a film released in theaters to be as bad as a 1950s Roger Corman film? D-