Friday, August 14, 2015

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. IS STYLISH & NEARLY FLAWLESS ★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Entertainment
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.
★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Official Synopsis:  In the early 1960s, CIA agent Napoleon Solo and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin participate in a joint mission against a mysterious criminal organization, which is working to proliferate nuclear weapons.

Director: Guy Ritchie
Writers: Guy Ritchie (screenplay), Lionel Wigram (screenplay)
Stars: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. film adaptation of the 1960's television spy series is pretty much a filmmaking class on how to properly do films based on old television series.  Director Guy Ritchie brings exciting stylized visuals and action sequences on a modern wide-screen scale.  Set in the early years of the Cold War (the early 1960s) the plot is a wry convolution of spy vs spy vs spy as the mysterious and deadly Soviet spy Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is paired up with unflappable American rival Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) to stop a nuclear bomb from getting in the wrong hands.  The film sweeps in and out of tense action sequences, beautiful locations, explosions, and more plot-twisting and plot-turning than your average summer movie.  The film also delivers legitimately funny moments throughout which lends an air of fun to the proceedings without ever diving into jokes and gags.

Cavill's suave, dry Solo is charming and brilliant.  Hammer's Kuryakin is equally brilliant but has protective stoic walls in place as high and as girded as the Berlin Wall itself.  Their chemistry onscreen as partners and rivals perfectly translates the chemistry of the characters (and actors) from the television series without doing impressions.  The smartest thing to do in an adaptation like this is to give a modern flair to the storytelling but stay true to the characters, even if you add some new bits to their backgrounds, which they do in this "origin" story.   What Ritchie gets so right is that the point of adapting a beloved old television series (or even a comic book like THE FANTASTIC FOUR) is not to go meta on it or give it a new "twist" or try to darken it up or lighten it up.  There is a reason why characters stay in the public consciousness and that is because the public likes them and is interested in them.  When adapting them into a film, then the audience should expect the characters to at least "feel" right.   In THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., Ritchie has distilled the essence of the show's tone and what makes these characters connect with the audience.

As far as I'm concerned this was about as flawless of a television series adaptation as I've ever seen. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is my favorite movie of the summer hands down!  Cannot wait to go see it again.

*Not that it really matters in the scheme of things, but I did not notice a single instance of swearing or even coarse language throughout the entire movie.  For those parents who are concerned about that sort of thing, this is a pretty clean movie for a spy movie with a little implied sex and some well-done torture and kill moments.

#manfromuncle

Saturday, August 8, 2015

IT'S TIME FOR THE FANTASTIC FOUR TO RETURN TO MARVEL STUDIOS! #OCCUPYFF

Entertainment



In light of the severe Tranking of the new FF movie, I think it's time for the geeks to unite and make our voices heard.
#occupyff
I'm making it a thing.

Friday, August 7, 2015

FANTASTIC FOUR FAILS FANTASTICALLY! ★1/2 out of ★★★★★

Entertainment
FANTASTIC FOUR
★1/2 out of ★★★★★

Official Synopsis:  Four young outsiders teleport to an alternate and dangerous universe which alters their physical form in shocking ways. The four must learn to harness their new abilities and work together to save Earth from a former friend turned enemy.

Director: Josh Trank
Writers: Simon Kinberg (screenplay), Jeremy Slater (screenplay), Josh Trank (screenplay) supposedly based on the works of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Stars: Miles Teller (Reed Richards), Kate Mara (Sue Storm), Michael B. Jordan (Johnny Storm), Jamie Bell (Ben Grimm), Toby Kebbell (Victor Von Doom), Reg. E. Cathey (Franklin Storm)

FANTASTIC FOUR is one of those movies that will probably have a Netflix documentary made about the production in about 20 years.  It is a bad fumble by a studio and talent that should never have messed up on this level.  My review is going to be in two-parts.  The first part is addressing the film on its own merits divorced from the source material.  The second part is a dissection of why the deviations from the source material sealed their....doom (pun intended).

I rewatched the, mostly derided, FANTASTIC FOUR film from 2005 last night as a prelude to watching this one today.  After watching both of them I can say that the 2005 version comes off pretty much like a super-hero sit-com with fairly cheap special f/x but enjoyable while the 2015 version comes off dark, depressing, and mostly incoherent.  The new film is a bait-and-switch, or at least it was for me, in that the first half of the movie was actually kind of interesting and intriguing.  Kicking off with Reed Richards as a young and brilliant child who has already cracked the code for teleportation—IF ONLY SOME ADULT WOULD LISTEN TO HIM!  He has a lifelong friend and protector in the less brilliant but implicitly athletic Ben Grimm.  In this version of the story, both come from clearly blue collar backgrounds somewhere unclear in the state of New York.  Reed's parents don't have a clue what to really do with him and Ben's family runs a salvage yard.  This is clearly supposed to set up a bit of a class conflict between Reed and Ben with the more upper class Storms (Sue and Johnny) and Victor von Doom. And in a better constructed film that might have actually been followed through more explicitly.

Dr. Franklin Storm, Sue and Johnny's father, is a scientist in charge of a program attempting to perfect human teleportation to explore an other-dimensional planet they have discovered and named Planet Zero.  Why Planet Zero?  The less questions you ask the more you will be able to handle this movie, so it's better you just don't ask.

Reed, Johnny, and Victor are the ones who decide after a night of imbibing that it's just not fair for the government to come in and use their technology to send some astronauts to Planet Zero and prevent them from being as famous as Neil Armstrong.  So they decide recklessly to do it themselves under cover of night.  Reed calls in Ben to tag along because, sure, that's what stupid college kids do.  Sue, being the only one with any semblance of responsibility is not aware of this scheme.

So our four reckless drunk numbskulls transport themselves to Planet Zero where it's all dark and spooky and then things start going completely to Hell as the ground starts quaking and glowing green liquid (lava?) starts spewing everywhere and they hightail it back to their teleportation machine.  But Victor doesn't make it, and when last we see him he is at the bottom of a mountain and his space suit is melting into his skin.  For some inexplicable reason, as the door starts to close on Ben a whole bunch of rocks from the planet start flying purposefully into his compartment.  Also, some flames appear out of nowhere and fly into Johnny's compartment.  Again, no reason given for these seemingly sentient actions by rocks and flame.  Also, during this, on our world Sue has become aware of what's happening and is trying to get these guys back by doing some sort of manual override of the remote return system.  And when it does return, there is an explosion and she's blasted invisible.

What follows after the return is eerie and creepy and the stuff of a horror sci-fi film.  What follows is a bit disturbing with the government taking control of the four and housing them separately where they are experimenting on them and studying them.  Franklin Storm is demanding to see his children.  And this is all very interesting up through the point where Reed breaks out, stretches his way in to see Ben and promises him that he'll fix things, and then runs away.

This is the point where the movie flashes a "ONE YEAR LATER" title card and an entirely different movie starts.  Whereas the first half of the movie had a clear narrative and developing characters and relationships along with a unique horrific tone to it, the second half of the movie is all over the place tonally and narratively.  Suddenly we've gone from something kind of haunting to a pretty run-of-the-mill super-hero movie.  And it makes no sense.  But then the government sends some astronauts to Planet Zero which means Doom has a chance to return here.  So he does.  And every gawdamned second he's on screen I wanted to set my hair on fire.  Visually he's ridiculous looking.  His motivations make no sense. His dialogue makes no sense.  His powers make no sense.  He's gone from being a somewhat vain aristocrat type to a skinny combination of the 1940s gasmask-wearing super-hero Sandman and Edvard Munch's "The Scream."  At one point, he's literally walking down a hallway and just looking at random people and their heads explode like we've walked into a SCANNERS movie.  However, at literally no point during the increasingly idiotic final act when Reed, Ben, Sue, and Johnny are fighting him on Planet Zero does Doom look at any of them and make their heads explode.

Seems to me if you're a psychotic robot man attempting to destroy Earth and you have the power to look at people and make their heads explode you might want to do that to the Fantastic Four if they're trying to stop you.  And yes, Doom is tryin g to destroy Earth but we have no idea why or how he's doing it.  First he says he just wants to return to Planet Zero and remake the planet into a kingdom he could rule but as soon as he gets his desire fulfilled he is suddenly making giant rocks fly up from the ground creating some blue electricity ring that starts creating a "black hole" (we know it is a "black hole" because thankfully Reed declared it so for the audience's sake) that is somehow now slowly sucking Earth through it into Planet Zero.  Now, I'm not sure Doom has thought this through fully because if I'm on Planet Zero I'm not thinking it's a very smart idea to then bring AN ENTIRE OTHER PLANET piece by piece ONTO my planet.   I doubt very much that anyone, including Doom, is going to survive that experience.  Also...THIS IS NOT HOW BLACK HOLES WORK!

Anyway, the good guys win. Doom is defeated.  And the Fantastic Four are created through one incredibly painful round of dialogue between our four heroes trying to come up with a name.  And they also never actually sayyyyy the words but instead they flash the title card up instead of allowing us to hear Reed speak it.  Reminiscent of Lois Lane not speaking the name "Superman" in MAN OF STEEL.

Now most people who keep up with the film-making scene know that the production on this film was in upheaval almost from the start.  It started with Fox needing to get a movie rushed into production quickly so that their Fantastic Four contractual license (bought cheaply way back when Marvel was in bankruptcy rather than the darling of Disney) did not lapse and return the rights to Marvel.  Then Fox handed a $120 million dollar budget to inexperienced young director Josh Trank and by all accounts a behind-the-scenes disaster went down.  Taking into account some of the rumors that swirled and within the context of the movie I just watched, I'm going to hazard a guess that the first half of the film was basically all Trank had inside him to give to this movie.  I think he basically hit a point where he was "done" but he still had an entire second half of a movie to construct and decided to just maybe not show up anymore.  The entire second half of the movie (other than maybe the heads blowing up) didn't seem like the same movie as the first half.  It felt like the kitchen had a whole lotta cooks playing around with the ingredients but nobody agreed upon what they were making or even which recipe to use.

Even within all that chaos, however, I have to admit that I like each of the main four actors.  If I was going to make a FANTASTIC FOUR movie but keep the characters substantially younger than their comic book counterparts, then I would be completely okay with these people.  They're giving it their best, but the chaos behind the scenes and shit-against-the-fan storytelling prevents them from ever rising up to catch a breath.  They drown along with the rest of the movie.

What gets my ire up about this mediocre at best movie is that the source material from the comics really does completely give them everything they needed to make a truly fantastic film.  The idea of using the Fantastic Four as the basis for a horror story about four individuals who are changed and twisted from within because of a science expedition gone awry is certainly fodder for a good story.  Ask Warren Ellis.  He did that in his ground-breaking series PLANETARY.  So, it's not an original idea.

An original idea would actually be to adapt specific storylines from the classic eras of the FANTASTIC FOUR comics.  The key here is that the FANTASTIC FOUR aren't really super-heroes so much as a family. They also are not tortured (altho Ben gets depressed sometimes).  The relationships are clear with the brotherly interaction between Sue, the older sibling, and Johnny the hot-headed younger.  We get to see the best-friend/brothers relationship of Reed and Ben.  Then there's the comic relief of the Johnny and Ben relationship as buddies who both love and hate each other at the same time.  These four are a family and the dynamics are like that of a family where frustrations and tempers can flare, but also each is completely devoted to the others to the point of self-sacrifice.  And this family is a family of explorers and adventurers.  They don't go on assignments for the government.  They don't go on patrol looking for criminals.  They seek out mysteries and explore the unknown.  Their enemies come to them, more often than not.  Doctor Doom is the would'a-could'a of the group.  He's the vain and megalomaniacal college classmate of Reed and Ben's who was always just a little bit less intelligent than Reed and through his own hubris mangled his face in an experiment.  When he returns on the scene after the Four have gained their powers, Doom has returned to his homeland of Latveria, a third-world country where he rules with a totalitarian control.

In other words, all the elements are right here for a relevant film about family, about wonder, about adventure, and maybe even a commentary on current world politics.   Where the first film adaptation failed was in going for superficial laughs over substance, this film failed because it did not embrace the large canvas it had available and made, instead, a very insular and small film.  It feels claustrophobic almost.  There's grand cgi spectacle in it but it all feels very small and limited.  The world of the Fantastic Four should be a world of excitement where anything is possible and mankind's potential is limitless.

The Fox bean-counters really need to reevaluate the cost-benefit analysis of whether it is in their best interest to keep dumping hundreds of millions of dollars down the shitter attempting to keep making movies that bear little more than the title in common with the Fantastic Four concept itself.  Take a cue from Sony and their recent Spider-Man deal with Marvel giving Marvel back the basic creative control of the films but retaining involvement and profit potential for Sony.  Imagine the marketing blitz available around 2020 after Marvel wraps up their Phase 3 with THE AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR PART 2 if Phase 4 was able to launch with "MARVEL'S THE FANTASTIC FOUR".

You don't even need to pay me for that million dollar idea, guys, but I wouldn't turn it down if you offered.

By the way, the following video is still the best FANTASTIC FOUR origin story ever done outside of the comics:



#fantasticfour
#fantasticfourmovie
#fantasticfourreview



Wednesday, March 4, 2015

FITTY SHADES O' CRAY-CRAY, or HOW BAD IS FIFTY SHADES....REALLY?

Entertainment


FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
★★ out of ★★★★★

I never planned on seeing this movie and I most certainly was not planning to see it on Valentine's Day.  So, in the intervening couple of weeks since it premiered I have spent some time observing the reaction to the film and contemplating whether it was one of those awful movies that I should just bite the bullet and use my MoviePass to go see.  Of course, the danger is that I could walk in expecting the worst and end up with something like JUPITER ASCENDING which exceeded even that in its awfulness.  So I caved into my morbid curiosity and walked into a theater late last night to where I noted 4 other couples (kinky, I know) scattered strategically around the theater.  At this point in the rapidly collapsing attendance numbers, nobody was forced into sitting uncomfortably close to a stranger.

Oftentimes the first indicators of what I am about to endure in a theater is found in the movie trailers the powers-that-be have chosen to attach in front of the movie.  In this case, the ridiculously foul red band trailer for some upcoming Vince Vaughn movie and the regular trailer for TED 2.  That right there started lowering my expectations straight up.

Then the movie started and lo and behold, it is essentially EXACTLY what I expected.  Two fairly good actors caught like scared gerbils in a situation they can't get away from fast enough but giving it their best effort to find something resembling quality.  I'll say this, Dakota Johnson surprisingly brings a level of reality to her ridiculously simplistic character with the "laugh-out-loud" name of "Anastasia Steele."  The mere fact that anyone can say that name out loud without laughing (or cringing) is an impressive example of acting talent.  Jamie Dornan, as "Christian Grey," on the other hand, is trying his best but is unfortunately saddled with lines that would make Roger Corman turn over in his grave (if Corman were dead).  The absolute worst was Grey roaring "I'M FIFTY SHADES OF FUCKED UP!!!!"  And yes, I snorted embarrassingly out loud at that moment. I actually laughed inappropriately a number of times.

The movie almost kind of works as a parody.  The problem is that it is parodying itself so it is schizophrenically serious but ridiculous at the same time.  There were only 4 or 5 sex scenes crammed in between listless boredom. And the sex scenes were sometimes titillating, but that's all.  I was more distracted by the strategic cutting of the camera to avoid giving the movie an NC-17 rating by showing actual genitalia or penetration.  There is none to be had here. You will see more vagina in the half-second flash by Sharon Stone in BASIC INSTINCT.  Other than relentless lingering shots of both actors' nipples and butts, the most you are going to see is quick-flash glimpses of their pubic hair.  I also took note of Dornan's face being positioned way too far away to actually be doing to her what she was acting like he was doing and also his butt being positioned way too high for actual penetration (unless he's built like Long Dong Silver).  So, in other words, their efforts at simulating these "hot" sexual experiences resulted instead in an erotic detachment.  The single sex scene between Jennifer Lopez and her boy-toy in the mostly forgettable THE BOY NEXT DOOR was more graphically erotic than all the sex scenes in this movie.  I would almost say the movie would have benefited by going ahead and pursuing the NC-17.  At least it would have more authentically embraced its source material rather than a nervous self-parody.

Ultimately, however, if we want to analyze the controversial nature of the film, it is less disturbing because of the sex and more because of the psychologically abusive relationship.  Christian Grey was the victim of sexual abuse by a trusted adult who seduced him when he was 15 and used him as her submissive sex slave until he was 21.  She turned him into a sociopath who craves nothing but dominance.  He feels nothing but anger and pain and derives pleasure from inflicting it.  In fact, near the end when he is whipping Anastasia with a belt, the camera keeps cutting back to the clothed Christian reacting absurdly like Rob Schneider's "Orgasm Guy" on Saturday Night Live.  None of this justifies Christian's psychological raping of the young Anastasia's mind.  By being the shy introverted bookworm's first sexual experience and her first boyfriend, like all sexual abusers, he is replicating his own abuse with her.  Only now, he is the victimizer.  He becomes obsessed with her, to be sure, but there is no emotional connection on his end and she, being so inexperienced and naive, begins to mistake her attraction to him for love -- which is what he wants.  When the sociopathic abuser can make his victim think she loves him, then he has achieved his goal. He has her caught in his web where he can now feed on her at his leisure and on his terms.  Even in the end when she rejects him, there is no sense that she is leaving for good.  He has her where he wants her.  He knows she will always return.  And, like a good sociopath, this is all he really wants. There is no give and take in the relationship because there is no real relationship.  She serves a purpose for him and him alone and he does not have any concern for pleasuring her -- except as a means to further attach her to him.  All of this, by the way, is contrary to any real understanding of BDSM as a lifestyle between committed couples.  In Grey's case, the BDSM is merely an intriguing tool of seduction so the emotional vampire can be satiated and he can convince himself that he is powerful and in control (as a reaction to the 6 years he was a powerless victim himself).

It's all quite preposterous that so much of his time could be spent in these endeavors all while achieving billionaire status by age 27 and barely be seen spending any time actually doing his job.  I never believed him in that role as opposed to Anastasia's role as shy college student with butchered bangs -- she was imminently believable.  And from a personal standpoint, after actually seeing this, it is pretty shocking to me that the fantasy of subjugation by a sociopathic abuser appears to be the preferred fantasy of so many women out there. It is so contrary to what I would desire for any woman I care about.  In the end, however, the film itself suffers from the worst sin possible -- it is dull and boring most of the time.  It was less than 2 hours but felt like 3 and that's pretty bad.  I think there was an approach here that could have been good, but it would have required a wholesale rewrite of the entire story so that we actually got real characters and not caricatures.  They chose to play it safe, however, so that the studio could be more confident of making a profit.  But artistically, this is a movie that thinks it is clever just to frame shots and sets with a lot of gray.  It would have benefited from a director with a real personal style and approach who could have given this movie a heightened reality sense -- brought us into another world that is more exciting than our own.  A better director could have made us feel the pleasure and taste the sensations so we would find ourselves in Anastasia's place and experiencing her attraction and revulsion.  Instead, we got lingering shots of boobs, butts, abs, and watery Christian Grey eyes with no sparkle and a smarmy boyish smirk.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is watchable but forgettable and not anything I can really recommend.



Sunday, February 22, 2015

OLD FASHIONED Film Review ★★ out of ★★★★★

Entertainment
OLD FASHIONED
★★ out of ★★★★★

This is a movie about 2 damaged people who take a less-than-normal path to fall in love. It's no spoiler to say that they fall in love. This is an intentional and explicitly "Christian Romance" movie marketed, in very groan-inducing ways, as a Christian alternative to FIFTY SHADES OF GREY (a film I should be seeing in a few days for contrast).

The plot, such as it is, tells the story of Clay and Amber. Amber, just off an emotionally and physically abusive relationship takes off on her own to a small town to start over. There she rents the upstairs apartment owned by Clay who also owns the antique store below. Amber is worldly wise and outgoing. Clay is an odd introverted duck who keeps to himself and conducts himself insufferably with an odd set of obnoxiously off-putting rules about his interactions with women. For 9 years, he has holed himself up like a hermit and annoyed the living Hell out of everyone around him with using God, the Bible, and his made-up rules about courtship, love, and marriage as a barrier to expressing any real emotion or allowing himself to be emotionally vulnerable or intimate with a woman on any level.

Why, you may ask? A really bad break-up.

So, the movie is really about us watching this completely self-absorbed paragon of self-appointed virtue lording his bizarre fake chivalry under the guise of respecting Amber, when he's actually disrespecting her. What he is actually doing is using his obsessive compulsive disorder and fear of attachment issues as a "Rebel Without A Cause" outcast with deeply hidden feelings as fishbait to hook her attention and then proceeds to demand that if she wants to be with him she has to cowtow to his endless, and inconsistent (sometimes incoherent) absurd list of rules.

He is surrounded by his long-suffering best friends. One of whom is in a committed long-term relationship (unmarried) and raising their child together. The other is an obnoxious radio talk-show host supposedly in the style of the revolting misogynistic Tom Leykis Show. Unfortunately, this being a Christian movie, the guy's show is actually just absurdly hilarious in how tame it actually is even though everyone listening acts like it's incredibly offensive.


 They also surround Amber with 2 new friends who I have to assume he just cast from the pews of some random local church. Ugh. Oh yes, also Clay takes care of his elderly Aunt who had me wanting to leave the theater if she said "tuh-maters" one more damn time!!!! 
75% of this movie is excruciating. Basically anything that involved the lead actor, the writing, the directing, and producing (coincidentally the same guy, Rik Swartzwelder, for all of that) made me want to set my hair on fire. The other 25% that was not excruciating was because of the very charming and likeable lead actress, Elizabeth Roberts and the moment near the end where the annoying Aunt finally tells Clay off about what an incredible twit he is and how his narcissistic self-absorption is preventing him from living the life God put him on this planet for in the first place.

Basically, the deal is, there is a good movie idea buried in here. The flaws that make it excruciating to watch are the result of the execution of the idea and the eyeroll-inducing sepia-warm filter placed on the outdoor scenes, and the rocking chairs on the porch, and the grating soft guitar pluck music played under every conversation. And the dialogue is so hackneyed that I was cringing half the time. Really, only Elizabeth Roberts seems to be able to rise above the script to bring some sparkle and energy to an otherwise listlessly paced story.
 But that good idea kept poking at me as I watched it. I kept wondering to myself as my mind wandered at times about how this could be so easily turned into something awesome. First of all, it needed to have a sense of humor! This movie is so relentlessly serious it is painful. This is a crazy guy obsessed with being "old-fashioned". Have some fun with that!!! Second, they need to hand that script over to director Paul Feig (who directed BRIDESMAIDS among others) and let him massage the script and find those points where real circumstantial and character humor would best fit. Then dump this cast completely and replace them like this: Amber needs to be Jennifer Aniston. Clay needs to be Owen Wilson. Clays best friends need to be Kevin Hart as his good friend in the long-term relationship and Bradley Cooper needs to play the misogynistic radio host. Cloris Leachman needs to be the annoying aunt.

Hollywood really needs to take this and run with it. I think the idea of a guy and a girl damaged by life and love and one of them decides he is going to obsessively (and obnoxiously) commit himself to a distorted form of chivalry that never actually existed is gold. But this version of it should never have made it into theaters. It is, at best, a discount bin DVD in a Christian bookstore movie or something you might check out from your own church library.

I really can't recommend it because 75% excruciating is really too much for most people to waste their $10-$15 on. But then again, I did see JUPITER ASCENDING....and it made this movie seem like CITIZEN KANE, so.... maybe some of you might want to see it. I don't want to see it again.