Thursday, May 16, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness - Hey Wheelbarrow Balls!

Watching Star Trek Into Darkness awoke the part of me that wants to use dental floss as a garrotte, my impotent rage. Impotent, unending, head aching, day ruining, simmering rage. Director JJ Abrams better stay away from me or my rage might become pretty damned erect.

When a terrorist (Benedict Cumberbatch) attacks Star Fleet command, reckless douche bag space ship captain Jim Kirk (Chris Pine) decides to ignore exploration and feed his blood lust. His second-in-command, Spock (Zachary Quinto) talks to him about it. Eventually things blow up. Sound boring? It is.

Ire convulses from my body when a director has the balls to demand full admission price for a fraction of a movie and JJ is measuring his balls for a wheelbarrow. Star Trek Into Darkness requires hours of independent study. It does not bother to develop characters. It does not bother to explain relationships. It just presumes we will already know what the hell is going on and have emotional buy-in. Entire scenes in the movie make no sense without the context of previous movies and the television show. It stuffed so full of dialogue Easter eggs for fans, there is no room for plot or character development. There are entire subplots that can be entirely removed without sacrificing any plot.

Hey, Wheelbarrow Balls – no one calls you professor. You do not get to assign homework.

Star Trek Into Darkness is less science fiction and more sexless soap-opera. Characters give long winded speeches with their backs to their rivals which climax in a lonely tear – more than once. Someone call the ASPCA, we need to find out how many crocodiles were killed to harvest the tears used in this movie. The actors sputter unnatural, banal and obvious dialogue.

The terrorist was the only character the writers tried to give any depth. He was deep like a footprint but that is about 16 times the depth of any other character. Unfortunately, Benedict Cumberbatch's searing orations and cunning use of eyebrow could not overcome the droll, heartless, melodramatic dialogue.

Here is the trouble with failing to develop the heroes more than the villains: there is no reason to give a crap about them – so I didn't. I actively rooted for the terrorist. I wanted Spock and Kirk to die fiery, hellish deaths while feeling the air being sucked from their lungs in the vacuum of space. Stupid physics.

Abrams and writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof want to make sure no one in the audience leaves without getting the theme so they imply it, they show it, they talk around it, and in case a brain was still intact after the theme-driven skull-beating they just laid down, they summarize it explicitly at the end.

My husband is a fan of the series and he enjoyed the movie. I suspect that will be the case for many fans of the show and previous movies.

Now excuse me, I'm going to fill out a restraining order for JJ's protection. I don't trust myself.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel houses the newest thing to be outsourced to India; senior citizens. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is an uplifting, heartfelt film with an intrinsic warmth that can only come from emotional sincerity.

Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) thought her worst nightmare is a dark skinned doctor, but in order to get a new hip, she opted to have her medical care outsourced to India. She decided to stay at the The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful, a small family owned hotel run by the young, and ambitious, yet underachieving Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel). Dutiful parents Douglas Ainslie (Bill Nighy) and his wife Jean (Penelope Wilton) come to the hotel after an act of parental sacrifice makes old age very difficult. Judge Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) stays at the hotel while takes care of unresolved business from his childhood. Evelyn Gleenslade (Judi Dench) has lived a life sheltered from adventure and joy and decides to embark on an her life’s adventure starting in India.

Put most succinctly, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a film about love and all its accoutrement – especially regret. All incarnations of love are shown: parental, romantic, friendly, and societal. The richness, warmth, depth, scars, flaws and sacrifices of love are shamelessly laid out for the audience’s examination. It is displayed with all the insight, judgment, and wisdom of a person with a lifetime of experience benefiting and being stung by love.

Even though there are no giant curve balls that smack the audience in the face (flame throwing grannies), the stories are no less compelling. It is exactly because they could be any one of us or any of our grandparents that it impossible for an audience member not to see themselves in the characters. They are all deeply flawed, but no less endearing. Their excuses, duty, loyalty, love, status, and ease are ones we might all use to justify the decisions we make to make small compromises in our life. They show the path of those small bumps in a different direction.

While the story of some of the characters is easy to predict, it is no less enjoyable to watch those characters develop predictably. There are a few characters though, especially Graham and Evelyn, who take journeys of love that challenge younger audience members to examine their choices, and whose stories are not easy to foretell.

The cast of seasoned actors matches the delicate writing, each giving their characters a subtle layered quality. It is pretty hard to go wrong with a cast whose cumulative years in the business may reach quadruple digits. I was most taken by Wilkinson, who used Graham to simultaneously rip apart my heart and sew it back together.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a gift to the heart, because it examines love without mania, without cliché Hollywood mechanics, without syrup, and without losing sight of how love should feel.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Avengers: Could Give an Infant a Mustache

When an immature demi-god has a megalomaniacal temper tantrum, it is up to the Avengers to save the world. With more fights and explosions than plot, The Avengers has enough testosterone to give a newborn girl a mustache the likes of which would make Tom Selleck weep with envy.

In a cosmic act of a cataclysmically immature sibling-rivalry, Thor’s little brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) comes to earth to have an emotional meltdown and punish the people of earth for it. After initial interventions fail, the government begrudgingly has to employ a semi-functional rag-tag bunch of misfit heroes to save the world and even gives them the snazzy name, The Avengers. The styling sassery of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the stedfast handsomeness of Captain America (Chris Evans), unpredictable green menace Hulk (Bruce Banner), god-like hammer-swinger Thor (Chris Hemsworth), beautiful emotional manipulator Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and her butt (Tushie Johansson).

Do not bother seeing The Avengers with an expectation to understand the plot or much of the dialogue unless you are willing to put in more than ten hours of homework. The Avengers requires the viewer have watched all the previous Marvel Universe films that feature the main characters, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, since 1998: Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger. The premise of the movie makes absolutely no sense having not seen Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger because the impetus and cause of peril are explained in those movies and not explained at all in The Avengers. The Avengers exploits relationships and characters from the other movies and does not explain them. They give only the most brief and implied explanations of the characters. There are constant references to characters or events that are not in this film, inside jokes, and dialogue Easter eggs that require having seen the previous movies. If you have not seen all of the previous movies past the end of the credits, you may be completely lost and not know some of some of the characters at all. As a consequence they demand the audience be able to identify all the characters, even the ones with the least amount of screen time and that appear only after the credits, relationships between characters, and have a strong memory of the plots of six flicks. With a grand total of 601 minutes, that’s over ten hours, of movie to watch before seeing The Avengers that is a huge expectation to place on a person just to see a movie.

Of course, even if you have done your homework there should be a very low plot expectation, because there is not much plot to The Avengers. Plot to the The Avengers as plot is to pornographic movies; words strung together to make the audience feel a bit better about themselves for watching a visualization of a carnal desire and enjoying it. You know, sort of like saying, “I read Playboy for the articles.”

The characters take advantage of any excuse to fight with each other and even fight when there is no excuse. They fight bad guys, they fight good guys, they fight each other. The only thing that happens more often is smashing things. You are thinking of one character – you are wrong. They all smash things. That building - SMASH IT. Mad at it – SMASH IT. Love it – SMASH IT. That car – SMASH IT! That tree – SMASH IT! THAT OTHER HERO – SMASH HIM! THE AIR – SMAAAAAAAASH IIIIIT!

The Avengers and Loki do not blow things up as often as they smash things or fight with each other, but there is no shortage of segments of explosive extravagance, especially toward the end of the movie.

There are some exciting transportation devices at the end of the movie that are both gorgeous and frightening but worth seeing.

The Avengers is a smashplosionfest sure to raise the testosterone and lower the estrogen of any one in its direct effect cone. I would not be surprised if there is a The Avengers babyboom nine months from its theatrical and DVD releases.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Raven - As Sharp and Deep as a Sock Full of Soup

Edgar Allan Poe’s final week on earth is a mystery, even to this day. The Raven is a cinematic midrash of Poe’s last week alive. The sparkle of gorgeous costumes, the shine of lovely cinematography, and luminance of a strong supporting cast cannot escape the black hole that is John Cusack as Poe, the vacuum that is James McTeigue’s direction, and the suck that is Poe’s dialogue.

The much loved poet, but much loathed man Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) returned to Baltimore to win the hand of his love Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve). While he is in Baltimore, a killer uses his stories as a blueprint for killing and to get Poe’s attention. Poe’s personal connection to the killings goes far beyond that of inspiration to the killer.

There is something special about a movie that can transport you back in time and The Raven certainly does that. The sets scream late 1800’s America with hints of opulence and gobs of unfairness. The costumes are equally transportative. The costumes are like time machines for the audience wrapped around the actors.

The supporting cast saved The Raven from full cosmic collapse. Even though their dialogue was often unnatural and unconvincing, they delivered them with conviction. Kevin McNally is especially rewarding as Maddux, the editor of The Baltimore Patriot and verbal abuse victim of Poe. Luke Evans gave Detective Fields a professional passion that gave some depth and urgency to the movie. It was not their fault that writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare provided them with a script that even the most obtuse person would realize is incredibly awkward and unnatural.

Livingston and Shakespeare wrote Poe like a thirteen year old stoner attempting to be sardonic but incapable because they lack the intelligence, depth, insight, or experience to take apart the self esteem of anyone without a suicide plan. As a result, Poe is constantly coming across as a dullard trying to come across like a literary genius, not a literary genius speaking down to lesser minds. I am certain Livingston and Shakespeare were trying to make Poe a total douche bag, but they don’t have the vinegar to fill the bag.

John Cusack does not give the character any sting or sour either. Endearing douche-baggery is a challenge for any actor to pull off successfully and Cusack fails at both. Cusack’s performance was as sharp and deep as a sock full of soup. He cannot muster the insecurity that makes sarcasm necessary, the malice to make it effective, or the impatience that comes with genius. Instead of embodying what they writers attempted to convey, he perfectly embodied and exaggerated what the writers actually created; a junior high schooler’s characterization of a meanie-pants.

James McTeigue should have worked with Cusack, Livingston and Shakespeare on giving the main character some depth. He was too busy ordering eyeball, teeth, and earring shots from the camera operators to bother improving Poe. Alice Eve’s eyes, the actor who plays the killer’s teeth and eyes all deserve their own credits. There must be fifteen minutes of slobbery teeth, and gushy eyeballs on screen.

About five minutes into the film, the man sitting next to me fell asleep and started snoring. We rode the elevator out of the theater together and he offered that he enjoyed the movie. Had sleep been part of my The Raven experience, I may have enjoyed it as well.

A pretty costume coating cannot change an overwhelming truth; The Raven is a masterful manifestation of mediocrity.

Friday, March 9, 2012

John Carter - The Death of a Thousand Lines

The tides of the thousand year Martian war shift when an earth man lands Mars in the western space fantasy John Carter. Gorgeous, but daft and rambling, John Carter can only hope to satisfy the most shallow and vapid of audiences.

Former Confederate soldier John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) accidentally comes across a portal to Mars while looking for a cave of gold. Once in Mars, the effects of the gravity and atmosphere differences on him make him extremely valuable to the warring factions on the planet. There is a pretty girl who captures his interest, there are priest-like characters called Therns who try to keep the people of Mars down using religion, and evil bad guys who do bad things in the name of religion.

I suspect the story was kept fast-moving and puddle-deep because the themes are potentially offensive to theists and other people who reject rational thought. The story is moved primarily by what the Therns allow or force to occur and what the people of Mars allow to happen because of submission to mythical thinking instead of critical thought.

It could have been a powerful and important commentary on the crises caused by religion and a refusal to employ reason on our own planet. Today a refusal to critically examine beliefs has lead to the justification of the coverup and systematic rape of children all over the world, global warming deniers, those who would deny women access to contraceptives, conspiracy theories, vaccine hysteria, the spread of HIV/AIDS because of intentional misinformation about condoms, the oppression in women, the hunting of albinos, killing people for being witches, necklacing, non-consensual genital mutilation of children, and slowed advances in stem cell research to name a few. Actually, pointing this stuff out literally does not seem to be working, we need a movie that can stab at the heart of irrational thinking. John Carter is not that movie.

Even though it is obvious the writers were trying to cover that ground, they breeze by it so quickly, it has no chance to sink in. It is basically a side note to a war movie. In fact, everything that is not blowing up or killing something is basically a paper cut on the film – insignificant irritation. There are so many themes that the film breezes through that by the end it feels like no part of the film is free to watch without fear of injury.

The heroine and love interest Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) is beautiful, bad-ass, and brilliant. She could be considered a role model for girls, but every other line of her dialogue made me want to kill myself. One second she is capable of making an unprecedented scientific discovery, the next second she speaks like a thirteen year old cheerleader who was just waking up to Justin Beiber giving her CPR after having a jar of chloroform dumped over her head. It was not limited to Dejah though. All of the characters seem utterly incapable of going five minutes without speaking a line that made the audience laugh.

The actors are not to blame for the cringe-inducing moments. There were no award winning performances but the actors were convincing enough that to make the film a comfortable watch had the writing not been so awful.

The writers were not the only ones guilty of crimes against cinema, the director, Andrew Stanton, needs to brought up on charges too. Much of the film is a direct rip off of other film sources, including the sounds that some of the ships make.

I think most of the budget for John Carter went to the special effects and wow – the sparkle. It was not flawless, but there was something magical about the way John Carter looked. The costumes were captivating and interesting; except for the Dejah’s jewelery, which looked cheap and I am convinced was assembled by 3rd graders. The war scenes were fun to watch. Oh how I wish it were a silent film.

John Carter lacks heart, depth, feeling, and meaning. What it provides in abundance are stunning visuals, undeveloped themes, intellectually insulting dialogue, pointless fight scenes, killing, plot points that must be accepted without question or explanation, and opportunities to place the back of one’s hand on the forehead and tilt the head back without a smidgen of irony.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Salt: A Bloody Belly Flop

Russia and America have to worry about agent Salt. Salt answers the age old question: What’s worse than an action movie with no plot?

CIA agent Evelyn Salt’s (Angelina Jolie) life is thrown into turmoil when her loyalty is questioned in front of her bosses by a man named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) who claims to be an agent high up in the Russian government. They accuse her of knowing about the murder of a Russian dignitary. Worse, she knows that her husband, a Mike Krause (August Diehl), a German arachnologist, is in danger from the people who think she’s betrayed them. Like a caged animal, she breaks out of her surroundings, to find her husband.

When I left the theater after seeing Salt, I all could hear was the eternally true expression; two wrongs don’t make a right. While the acting could pass as adequate, the writing and directing left that adage bouncing around my brain. The writing was shallow and lacking any emotional connection, even though it was obvious that there was an attempt to pull on our heart strings. Writer Kurt Wimmer tries to throw curveballs at the audience but only succeeds and t-ball quality pitches. The actions of the characters range from perplexing to downright strange.

The director, Phillip Noyce, couldn’t elevate the action scenes to a level to compensate for the thin writing. The actors, most of which were convincing and interesting, just had nothing to work with. They were like Olympic divers trying to do triple pikes off a six inch high diving board into a puddle; a bloody belly flop is inevitable.

Noyce should be nominated for the “Use of Stereotypes: Costumes Award”. One could create a drinking game around spotting a Russian. Every time he wants to plant an inference about Jolie’s character, or the other spy characters, there is a clumsy use of fur. American’s can’t be credited with the greatest international understanding, but even to us, using furry hats to tell us something about the character tells me that Noyce thinks we have the culture understanding of a bowl of soup.

I spent more time shifting in my seat than captivated. My fingernails suffered no nibbling from intense emotion but came out of the theater especially clean from the preening they experienced during Salt. I was so disinterested during Salt, I deliberately focus myself on the movie and had to stop myself from writing the review in my head in the cinema.

The ending of Salt left me shaking in fear. It was the only time in the movie that I felt truly, deeply rocked by emotion. Just as I could feel the wave of relief that the movie was finally coming to an end, the ending was a tsunami of terror washing away all my hope.

Angelia Jolie kicks major cross-continental ass, but the fight choreography and killings add nothing to the overall story. In the end she was the unfortunate Olympic diver. Salt’s answer the age old question: What’s worse than an action movie with no plot? A boring action movie with no plot.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Last Airbender: It's Good, If You Don't Like Good Dialogue

The Last Airbender does not just bend air to his will, he is in charge of keeping the world in balance – but he is not ready for the task. Atrocious writing is the pustule on a strikingly beautiful movie with decent acting and captivating action sequences.

While out hunting, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), of the water tribe, find a frozen sphere with a boy and his floating beast of burden inside. When he escapes the bubble, the brother and sister realize he is different. He is an airbender. Aang (Noah Ringer) is the last of the Air tribe. Aang is not just the last of his kind, he is what the world has been missing to keep the world in balance. When the leaders of the Fire Tribe realize Aang is alive, they dedicate their resources to hunting him down.

A bender is a person who can manipulate the elements of the earth. There are earth, fire, water and wind benders. They control the elements using what appear to be martial arts forms. Much of the movie is the characters using these forms. Occasionally the forms get a bit tiring because there is a disconnection between the motion and the effect, but generally, they are beautiful expressions of discipline. More than just the forms, the fight choreography is captivating. There are transitions between live and computer generated fights that are hard to spot.

In fact, there is no shortage of pristine aesthetics in The Last Airbender. Director and M. Night Shyamalan paid extraordinary and particular attention to the way movie’s visual story. The settings, across an entire world, are rich with cultures. Each group of people and place has their own clothing, terrain, and lifestyle. The differences between different places and people range from subtle to blaringly obvious.

Shyamalan’s most obvious point is that not respecting the sacred is not only immoral, but has world changing consequences. As an atheist, I spent the entire second half of the movie rolling my eyes at how evil those who do not respect the gods are portrayed. M. Night Shyamalan’s opinion about atheists is that 1: We put power first, 2: we don’t care about the world, and 3: we will take, take, take without remorse. It wasn’t enough for him to show spirits that show up for work, it was not enough to show the heroes as warriors of their spirits, no. He had to go a step further, showing those lacking a reverence for the supernatural beings of this realm as so ruthless that they are willing to sacrifice everything for power. Shyamalan can blame us evil atheists all he wants to, but he is only showing his complete inability to escape the restraints of his faith, not the truth of the matter.

The thinly veiled theological biases aside, The Last Airbender is full of lines dumped in the middle or end of a scene that make no sense. Twenty minutes will go by, I’d be lost in the beauty of the movie and the kung fu, when BAAM – a line, usually delivered with all sincerity but horrible timing, that made me go cross-eyed. In one particularly memorable scene, out of nowhere, one character waits fifteen seconds after the last line is delivered and then orders another character to do something so obvious, it didn’t need to be said. She might as well have said during a fight, “Hit that guy.” Every time one of those dump sentences popped up, I checked out for a moment, unable to suspend my disbelief. M. Night Shyamalan then had to earn my trust again, taking time and energy that should have been applied to being emotionally involved in the story.

If you are a theist who wants to watch fights in pretty places, The Last Airbender is just the movie for you. For my ten bucks though, I demand writing that doesn’t make it impossible to care about the story.