Archive for March, 2017

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

“Before I Fall” suffers from the faux-profundity that a lot of teen-centered fiction falls into in the age of CW and Freeform TV series. This is nothing new, as I remember growing up when shows like “Dawson’s Creek” and other WB-ilk were aired. MadTV once did a funny parody of these shows called “Pretty White Kids With Problems”, and Lisa Loeb even sung the theme song. The reason why these shows exist is simple: teenagers are designed to be self-involved and pretentious. So, gussy that up with the with fulfillment of being as attractive and rich as the characters in those shows, portrayed by actors in their 20s, and you have all of the angst and “depth” of teenagers wrapped in a much better package than most teens experience in their actual formative years.

 
It wasn’t always like this. While the actors in the John Hughes coming-of-age films were often very attractive, they had a certain reality to them. Maybe it was acknowledging that characters in “The Breakfast Club” had legitimate issues beyond silly high school stuff, or it was the portrayal of topics like abortion in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “The Last American Virgin” that helped separate them from indulgent teen fantasy. Even something newer, like “Mean Girls”, at least gave us humor and a fish-out-of-water protagonist to comment on the Teflon world of teens as filtered through glossy fiction. Sadly, that self-awareness, or even those touches of reality, have been replaced by glossy soap opera masquerading deep fiction for teens. You see it on bookstores shelves as the YA books that don’t involve fantasy or the paranormal, and you see it on the CW and Freeform. Now, the latest example is “Before I Fall”, based on a YA book (which I read, but only vaguely remember), and directed with the icy color palette of a TV movie for 14-year-olds who write bad poetry in spiral notebooks. There is some skill at work here, with a good lead performance by Zoey Deutch and an at times really nice synth score, but it’s all just mediocre, self-serious mush.

 
Deutch plays Samantha, who is prettier than most of the girls most of us ever go to high school with, lives in a house that looks like it’s at least half a million dollars, and goes to the most expensive public school I’ve ever seen, with mountain views no less. She’s 1/4th of a clique of popular girls, lead by Lindsay (Halston Sage), who is a dialed-down version of Regina from “Mean Girls”. It’s Valentine’s Day, which the film annoyingly keeps calling “Cupid Day”, and Lindsay is getting ready to lose her virginity to Rob (Kian Lawley), her boyfriend for a year. Rob is an idiot and a drunken douche, and the film never convincingly shows us how Sam is able to date this guy for a year, or how Rob stayed with her for a year without cheating on her given how popular he is, or giving us any positive aspects to that character whatsoever. I know girls in high school (and beyond) often fall for assholes who are pretty and offer them nothing, but not NOTHING nothing. Most films at least make this type of character superficially charming.

 
Lindsay and the gang tend to make fun of other girls, as popular girls often do, including the class lesbian, Anna (Liv Hewson), which makes me wonder how, in 2017, this upper class school in a Liberal state only has ONE open lesbian. Then there’s Juliet (Elena Kampouris), who has really long, wavy hair. That’s all the film does to try to convince us she’s dark, or depressed, or socially ostracized. Juliet gets the worst treatment, and her continuing to commit to suicide in the film is a main plot point.

 
No, that’s not a spoiler, because this film takes the “Groundhog Day” idea and is about how Samantha keeps reliving this same day over and over, trying to change little and big things here or there. I remember in the book that she only lives this day for 7 days straight, but the movie makes it seem like maybe a month or so goes by trapped in this day. Sam tries to cope in different ways: acting out in anger, hanging out with her family, actually choosing the nice guy who was friends with her as kids and still pines for her (Logan Miller), which plays as geeky guy wish fulfillment in a film ostensibly aimed at a teenage female audience who, if they are crushed on by classmates, probably look more the way I did when I was 17 then Logan Miller looks now. Through all of this, Samantha evolves from a slightly-asshole-ish-but-normal teenage girl into a grown up person who can reflect on their mistakes and act with empathy toward everyone she knows, friend or foe. Jeez, most adults in their 30s don’t even grow up this much.

 
This isn’t a bad idea for a film, and maybe some grit and realism would have done it a world of good, but it feels hermetically sealed in a pretty perfume bottle. There’s some pretentious narration that basically boils down to the most annoying carpe diem aspects of “Dead Poets Society”, and the ending is problematic.

 
***SPOILERS FOLLOW**

 
Sam ends up breaking the cycle of the day by throwing herself into traffic, killing herself and saving Anna in the process, who we’re told through some bad ADR dialogue is probably no longer suicidal after this. Okay, but WHY does Sam have to sacrifice herself? She’s culpable in the harassment of Anna, sure, but does she have to suffer through repeating the day and die for it? If any supernatural force has the power to do this, why isn’t Lindsay being punished? She’s the main harasser, she made up a lie about Anna which started the harassment, and she was DRIVING the car this hit and killed Anna, driving drunk and not paying attention to the road. This story would be a lot more powerful, and show a much greater change in a character, if the main character were Lindsay instead of Anna. This movie picked the wrong protagonist.

 
***SPOILERS END***

 
“Before I Fall” is kind of enjoyable at times, but its self-importance is as irritating as a teenager’s blog. Its saving grace is capable direction, a nice score with some good song choices, and some good acting. Maybe I’m spoiled since I grew up in and just after the golden age of teen movies, John Hughes films and interesting stuff like “Heathers”. Kids today are being sold pretentious soap operas with little depth, disposable pretty faces, forgettable of-the-moment soundtracks, and facile moral lessons. “Before I Fall” is better than average on those counts, but just barely. C

Logan (dir. James Mangold)

Posted: March 4, 2017 in Uncategorized

“Logan” tries really hard to transcend the superhero genre. The stakes are fairly small, the film is very character centric, there are more dramatic scenes than there are action scenes, and the tone is a steady diet of gritty sadness. While some of the action is “cool” in the traditional sense, this isn’t a movie one would describe as “fun”, for the most part. If you were to judge this film by the first act alone, “Logan” really is more of a neo-western than a superhero film. That act, where we see Logan older and bitter, more tired and sicker than we’ve ever seen him, is truly phenomenal. After an opening bit of violence, the film settles in to wading into the sadness of Logan (Hugh Jackman) as he works as a limo driver, trying to raise enough money to buy a boat so that he, an ever-sickening Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), and former mutant-tracker-turned-caretaker Caliban (Stephen Merchant) can set out to sea, away from a slowly dying world.

Before the film forgets about its setting, we are told the year is 2029, and much like the afterlife for suicide victims in “Wristcutters: A Love Story”, the world is similar to our own world now, but slightly worse. We get some background details that the anti-immigrant sentiment is high, and that the effects of global warming are getting worse and worse. A main plot point involving GMOs comes up later, and sadly the film plays into anti-GMO sentiment (GMOs are safe, all scientific evidence points to them being safe, and it is sad that some people on the Left are ignorantly against them because the Left is supposed to be pro-science and rely on empirical evidence and not conspiracy theories, but I digress), but the surface reason for genetically modified corn is to deal with climate change’s effects on crops (as it is in real life). When we later find out that ***SPOILER ALERT*** mutants were eradicated by genetically modifying corn to poison those with mutant genes into extinction, it’s a very disappointing anti-science twist. ***SPOILERS END**

The story picks up when a woman, Gabriella (Elizabeth Rodriguez), tries to hire Logan to drive her and a mute little girl, Laura (Dafne Keen) to North Dakota. While no new mutants have supposedly been born in years, Laura is a young mutant with the same healing powers, and grafted adamantium skeleton, as Logan. Gabriella wants Logan to take the two of them to North Dakota, so that they may cross into Canada where there is, supposedly, a safe haven for mutants (shades of “I Am Legend” and “Waterworld” here with a mythical safe haven as the McGuffin plot driver). Logan doesn’t want anything to do with it, merely hoping to care for Xavier, who has some sort of degenerative brain illness which, went left unchecked, causes him to have seizures that, with his powers, tend to paralyze and hurt those within a certain radius.

There are, of course, shadowy corporate mercenaries after Laura, seemingly lead by Donald Pierce (Lloyd Holbrook), who has a cybernetic arm and, despite having knowledge of Logan and Xavier, is really only interested in Laura. Unless you haven’t seen an X-Men movie before, it’s not a spoiler to tell you that the evil corporation has been experimenting on children to turn them into mutants so that they can be used as soldiers, because of course they would be. Laura was an escapee, and Gabriella was a nurse at the Mexican facility where the experiments were being done. The film goes out of its way to tell us that these kinds of experiments are illegal in the United States and Canada, but not Mexico, so the American-based┬ácorporation set up shop there (shades of outsourcing commentary here). The movie proceeds from this point on to be less of a neo-western and more of a road movie, with some scenes tipping into action and even one sequence which is almost horror movie-like.

The story of “Logan” is pretty predictable, and you know where it is going all the time. You know a special bullet will be used on a special villain in act three. You know the nice family that takes in Logan and the gang are going to suffer because of it. For a movie that seemingly wants to eschew the common tropes of a comic book movie, it sure hits all of the story beats in a traditional fashion. Sure, that first act is fairly original in structure and tone, and the second act is a lot of fun and features one absolutely extraordinary sequence involving a hotel/casino and one of Xavier’s seizures. The problem is that by the third act, we’re watching a traditional and kind of lazy X-Men film, when the first act set this up with the potential to be so much more.

I also have major problems with the Laura character. It is beginning to be something of a quasi-sexist trope to have these ass-kicking, young mute female characters. I am immediately thinking of Eleven from “Stranger Things”, but also River from “Firefly”/”Serenity”. The reason why I mind those characters less is because they have had an entire season of TV episodes to develop into fleshed out characters, whereas Laura has only a two hour movie to be an undeveloped character who is little more than a young, murdering plot device. While it is understandable that a young girl who is abused and experimented on to become a weapon (like River and Eleven) would be mute, this film lazily has her begin to speak for no internal movie reason other than the plot requires her to, and because the film needs comic relief after a very sad sequence of events. Then she speaks Spanish, which makes sense since she is Mexican, but she also has the ability to speak English and is attempting to communicate with Logan, who is not bilingual. So is the flurry of Spanish speech just for humor? If so it is semi-racist humor. “Oh, how silly of her to speak in her native language so fast. Speak English, you stupid little girl. Otherwise we just laugh at you.”

Also, despite the film trying really hard to make us feel something, it really doesn’t. While it makes sense for Xavier to be a shadow of his former self given his illness, the film doesn’t let us know what happened for him to hate himself. Granted, we can guess what happened from the details, and in some ways not knowing the full story is better and more in keeping with the western tradition, but it also keeps us from feeling the full brunt of the guilt he feels, and lets us not feel as sad when he meets the end of his character arc. As it stands, his character is a sad old man who gets an innocent family killed (which also might have resonated more if we knew what happened before, as it would be more tragic if he repeated past mistakes while trying to do good). As for whatever connection Logan and Laura are supposed to have, the film never really makes us feel it. They don’t connect as much as, say, the Terminator and young John Conner do in “Terminator 2”, another action-road movie of similar design to this one. I almost felt a little something with the Xavier arc, because Patrick Stewart is so damn good, but otherwise this supposedly emotional film didn’t moisten the eyes one bit.

If I seem like I’m being harsh it’s only because this film had the potential for greatness. The structure and tone of the first act is some of the best stuff I’ve seen in a superhero film. The second act, while not as tight, contains probably the best sequence in any X-Men film. But the character of Laura is fatally flawed and cliched, and the third act feels like it was written on autopilot. I don’t mind the traditional weak comic book villain that is a given for any Marvel film these days, but the way the climactic battle unfolds is exactly as you’d expect it to, with the mild exception of a villain’s expository speech being cut short with a bullet. If “Logan” had followed in the mold of its first act, and developed Laura into a character as opposed to a plot device that generates occasional humor, and if we had been allowed to feel more of the emotional burden placed on Xavier and on Logan (relying on the previous films is not enough, especially went one of them, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, is probably the worst Marvel film of the past 20 years).

Still, this is a fitting end to the Logan character, if indeed this is the end of Jackman playing the character. After the bad taste left in our mouths from “X-Men: Apocalypse”, it was nice to see an X-Men film that is actually of reasonably high quality (“Deadpool” functions as part comic book film and part satire of them, so I’m discounting that as an X-Men film, but I also enjoyed that one). “Logan” suffers from high expectations, and it starts off too damn good for where it ends up. B