Friday, October 6, 2017

My Little Pony: The Movie ★1/2

Image result for my little pony the movie

    Reader, I'm going to let you in on a little secret: No self-respecting movie critic will ever pen a rave review for a "My Little Pony" film, period. And you know, we really don't have much of a choice. I mean, think about it. Apart from the franchise's lustrous exterior, there's nothing of value for target audiences (that being, small children with the attention span of a fruit fly) beyond the usual themes of friendship and individuality, and this "Pony" production is no exception. (I'd liken the picture to a sugar rush for the eyes; I was spellbound for a total of about two minutes.) "My Little Pony: The Movie" may not be the worst animated feature of the year—that title inescapably belongs to "The Emoji Movie"—but it's darn close.

    The creative minds responsible for the revival of the "Pony" brand (director Jayson Thiessen and screenwriter Meghan McCarthy, respectively) pull out all the stops in this ninety-minute extension of the popular animated series, and as much as I love "Pony" puns and cutesy pop songs, there's just not enough substance here to offset all the fluff. (Parents, this is exactly the kind of dreck that is sapping our kids' brainpower; I hope that you'll take my warnings earnestly.) But let's stop beating around the bush, shall we? "My Little Pony: The Movie" has its moments—I even took a liking to Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt), an emotionally damaged pony who's determined to exact revenge—but where's the novelty? Where's the imagination? (Not only does the storyline suffer from a made-for-tv mentality, but I have every right to question the motive behind this particular "Pony" project. Meaning, I suspect financial gain to be the sole driving force.)

    It will be impossible for critics to comment on this film without mentioning the toy line in which the franchise is based, yet that's only a fraction of the problem. (Let's be frank, movies inspired by a child's plaything rarely pay off (artistically speaking), and in this era of filmmaking, it's become a moot point.) A few notable flaws: Outside of the "Mane Six," a moniker given to a handful of the most prized ponies in Equestria, the character designs are cheap and chintzy, and as far as I can tell, the entire storyboarding effort was little more than a shambolic session of devil-may-care decision-making and feckless brainstorming. (Now, one could contend that the aforementioned shortcoming was done purposefully in an attempt to keep the main protagonists front and center, but I'm not buying such hooey.) More importantly, however, this "Pony" venture never strays far from its calculable way of thinking, and I even had the time to mull over what seems to be a glaring classification issue. (A majority of the ponies have attributes that would link them to the mythical Pegasus or unicorn, but I guess "My Little Pegasus" just doesn't have that same ring to it.)

    I have to take my hat off to the behind-the-scenes talent for committing to parts that are, dare I say, unbecoming, and even though these voice actors give it their all, it is an infantile script that scarcely allows for quality showmanship. (Liev Schreiber does his best James Woods impression à la Disney's "Hercules," and Taye Diggs outshines the rest of the cast as Capper, a sly yet sympathetic feline who ultimately befriends our four-legged heroes. And to solidify my point, despite Diggs's charm, he's still forced to read this rubbish: "Apologies for the state of my litterbox. I wasn't expecting guests.")

    In the grand scheme of things, the "My Little Pony" franchise will surely be forgotten (as for this rendition of Ponydom, it was out of mind before the closing credits began), and I don't mean to be a downer, but this is one series that should never have been reborn. (Beneath all the glitter and good cheer, there resides a certain emptiness; we've got to find a better way to entertain our youngsters.) In any event, what it comes down to is this: On the biggest stage, these "Ponies" fail to deliver.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Friend Request ★

Image result for friend request movie images

    "Friend Request" has to be the dumbest picture of the year. (I know this may come as a shock to some, but hear me out.) It's predictable, poorly acted, and the slapdash script makes a tired story seem downright stolid. (I think you can see where this review is headed; I can't promise that feelings won't get hurt.) In all honesty, the only redeemable aspect of this production is the stellar work provided by the hair and makeup crewthey somehow managed to transform Liesl Ahlers, a beautiful young actress, into something, well, let's just say it's quite the metamorphosis. With all due respect, this third-rate exercise in horror deserves less than a one-star rating, but what the hell. I'm in a giving mood today.

    Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey) is the most popular student on campusof course, we only learn of this fact via the scores of friend requests and text messages that bombard her on a daily basis, all of which appear on the screen and none of which have anything to do with sound characterization. Marina (Ahlers), on the other hand, is a social pariah in need of companionship. She's the kind of girl that receives little consideration from the male coterie, and if this were an episode of "The Hills" (or some other teenage soap opera), she'd be the homely sidekick that no one talks about. (Not only does the movie mimic an MTV reality show, but it desperately tries to slip in a dash of drama to no avail.) After Laura begrudgingly accepts Marina's invitation to friendship, the two develop a breakable bond that is destined to result in heartbreak and humiliation.

    And this is where things go from bad to just plain stupid. (In case you are wondering, I'm solely referring to the idiotic plot, yet it does work as a broader criticism.) As if you couldn't already piece it together, Marina becomes clingy and begins to invade Laura's personal space, and this prompts Laura to unfriend Marina on the mecca of all social networking sites (Facebook). This egregious act (insert sarcasm here) will spawn several unwelcome consequencesfrom supernatural Internet coding to real-life terror in the form of wasps and other killer insectsall because our well-liked protagonist couldn't find the time for one more schoolmate. But enough about worn-out plotlines

    German filmmaker Simon Verhoeven makes a conscious effort to build the suspense naturally, and I must give kudos to the editing team for their use of a long-forgotten editing technique (the jump cut), but these elements become lost once the script begins to run its course. (I only require one word to describe the supporting cast of characters: airheads.) Worse yet, the stiff dialogue demands even stiffer performances, and if I may paraphrase famed director Sidney Lumet for a moment, it is the movie's lack of spontaneity that brings about its undoing. (In other words, inevitability should never beget predictability.)

    The bottom line: A few years back, critics had to sit through "Unfriended," a horror film worthy of journalism's finest bad press, and "Friend Request" is pretty much cut from the same cloth. And look, we could discuss the understated theme involving the dangers of Internet addiction disorder all day long (it's mentioned rather often), but where would it get us? (If only the victims had remained unplugged, the entire conflict could have been avoided. I guess that's the point.) The truth is, movies like "Friend Request" are made for one reason and one reason only: to loot horror fans of their cherished earnings. Still, the picture isn't a total loss. For, we're left with this laugher of a line — "Unfriend that dead bitch!"

Friday, September 8, 2017

It ★★★

Related image

    As I walked into an early afternoon screening of Andy Muschietti's "It," my concerns were threefold: (1) Would the film remain faithful to the source material? (2) Could a cast led by a bunch of teenagers capture the emotional intensity needed for this type of movie? (3) And lastly, would it scare me senseless? I'm pleased to report that "It" scored a two out of three, which isn't so bad considering the recent run of horror pictures I've had to ingest. (It seems that Hollywood has finally produced a horror flick that believes in story and character rather than ambling plotlines and aimless jump scares.)

    The good news: I must give credit where credit is due, and the success of this production of "It" ultimately lies with the oddball mind responsible for the written work: Stephen King. (I'm more of a classics man myself, but what King has accomplished in the realm of fiction is simply stupefying.) Muschietti's adaptation—he not only directs but had a hand in the script revision—features a majority of the book's most indispensable moments, and despite the obvious reworking of several scenes, it never fails to encapsulate King's vision with this sneaky sense of grace and poise. (For all you diehard "It" fanatics, there won't be any mentions of the "Ritual of Chüd" or Maturin, a planet-sized sage in the form of a turtle, yet there are plenty of Easter eggs for your perusal.)

    And that's the beautiful thing about this rendering of King's "It"—Muschietti and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung let the story tell itself. Sure, the canted angle makes an appearance, and there are some subtle uses of foreground framing (both contributing to the psychological tension of the piece), but Muschietti plainly opted for an unobtrusive directorial style, and the results could not be more flattering. I mean, who needs fancy camera work when you've got a surplus of King's trademark themes to feast on. ("It" is a tale of childhood trauma, sacrifice, and small-town fakery, and I'll relate more of the movie's message as this review concludes.)

Image result for King It film 2017

    I assume you'll need a plot summary right about now, so here goes—Derry is a whistle-stop with a secret: It's harboring one of the nation's deadliest serial killers. Of course, the townsfolk are unaware of this fact (remember, this is a story about the salad days, not adulthood), and only a close-knit group of youths, nicknamed The Losers' Club, can really see what's troubling the community. (It's also worth noting that Pennywise, a death-dealing clown who serves as the main antagonist, tends to terrorize children, which explains the adults' absence.) As expected, there's a healthy dose of supernatural mischief, adolescent bonding, and below-the-belt humor, and it is the film's coming-of-age subtext that truly steals the show. Millennials: Think "Stranger Things" with moderately better characterizations and a bigger budget.

    I'd be doing a huge disservice if I did not talk up the young actors that breathe life into this picture. (Quite frankly, they deserve much of the praise; it's their naturalness in front of the camera that helps reinforce the film's believability.) Sophia Lillis is Beverly Marsh, the sole female member of the club and arguably the most charming. Lillis takes the role of the tomboy and displays such authenticity, and I know it's a tad premature for critical acclaim, but something about this young actress just screams talent. Which brings me to Bill Skarsg?rd as Pennywise, a demonic, dancing clown last portrayed by the amiable Tim Curry in the 1990's miniseries. Not only did Skarsg?rd have to separate this performance from the latter, but he had to find a middle ground in a sea of endless interpretations. In the most unlikely manner, the Swedish actor hits all the right notes, and his Yoda-inspired delivery (pay attention to the iconic first scene) adds a certain level of creepiness to the character. (I want to apologize for any names that have been forgotten; there's only so much room for commendation.)

    The bad news: I will decline the invitation to nitpick and get right to the point—"It," regardless of effort, rarely comes off as frightening, and reader, I did my best to keep a straight face the entire sitting. (At times, the scares appear more comical than paralyzing, and if not for the psychological portion of the program, this "It" would be a dud.) But let's put this into perspective: It's never an easy task spooking critics, and unless you're a filmmaker with a flair for the grotesque, then I'm afraid there's little that can be done. (I have seen my fair share of horror movies, and it's not exactly a genre known for reaching outside the box.) Come to think of it, barring a bathroom bloodbath (of the literal variety), the terror is relatively tame.

    This "It" brings back memories of yesteryear with its nostalgic and melancholic look at adolescence, and no matter how hard I try, I can't help but see the film as a metaphor for the destruction of innocence. (These interpretations are subjective by nature, yet one cannot deny the through line given to us.) Note: The adults are regularly depicted at arm's length (one could even argue that the parents are the real monsters), and who can ignore a line of dialogue spoken by our central villain that expresses this view: "Old age takes you back to the weeds." Now there's a scary thought. Before I forget, be sure to remember the names of the production design team—Claude Paré, Peter Grundy, and Rosalie Board. You'll know why once you see the set pieces.   

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature ★

Image result for The Nut Job 2 Surly

    It breaks my heart to review films such as "The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature." No, really. For whatever reason, animated pictures have become more or less intolerable as of late, and I hate to sound like a broken record, but this diminution in quality doesn't seem to be a temporary trend. In truth, the genre has all but lost its allure and drawing power. (Although I'm playing ignorant, I do have a hunch as to why the art of animation has diminished in value here in the twenty-first century: No imagination, no novelty.) And we wonder why our youngsters are becoming dumber by the day.

    In so many words, "The Nut Job 2" is boring, bland and all around bovine, and it's the kind of movie that makes ninety minutes feel like an eternity. (It will also test the sobriety of anyone with half a brain.) A list of grievances: The forgettable characters, led by an overconfident and smug squirrel named Surly (Will Arnett), belch out lines of dialogue infused with the film's multiple themes (we're told that there are no shortcuts in life, and there's a lesson in teamwork and diligence), but before long, the narrative sheds its solemnity in favor of inane humor and clichéd storytelling. (I shouldn't have to tell you this, but the banter on display will only appeal to small children, and if you're lucky, a salvific slumber will save you from any further suffering.) Topping it all off, the computer-generated imagery is below par, and the paint-by-number plot threads hang looser than a "fille de joie" on a Friday night. (Unfortunately, I am compelled to provide a summary of the story in the ensuing paragraph, so consider this a fair warning.)

    The film opens with the rodents of Oakton living large in the basement of a local nut shop, and according to Andie (Katherine Heigl), the determined yet uncoordinated female lead, they've become lazy, fat, and have forgotten their survival instincts. (I would make an effort to examine this aspect of the plot in an allegorical light, but I fear the script could never muster up that manner of meaning in a million years.) By sheer accident, their new abode is destroyed, and they must once again turn to the neighboring park for shelter and sustenance. And if that wasn't uninspiring enough for you, we're subsequently introduced to Mayor Muldoon (Bobby Moynihan), a timeworn antagonist fueled by greed and, well, that's about it. You see, Muldoon aspires to eradicate Liberty Park so that he may open "Liberty Land," an amusement park fashioned out of used parts. Surly and Andie will have to rally the troops if they are to stop the mayor of Oakton from committing this avaricious act and reclaim their former dwelling.

    Parents: I'm really tired of ripping these movies—it's exhausting, and there are only so many ways one can condemn this perversion of children's entertainment. But I trudge on for two reasons: because it's my job, and I'm obligated to inform parental audiences of the asininity that has crept into every children's picture not being produced by Disney. (This surely doesn't mean that Disney and their sister company, Pixar, will avoid future castigation. It just means, very simply, that their films have a smidgen more soul to them.) I have been saying this for years; there's no harm, I guess, in beating a dead horse for the umpteenth time. If these production companies wish to restore the art of animation to its past glory, then it has to start with better writing and source material of a higher standard. In the case of "The Nut Job 2," just file it under insipid mediocrity.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Kidnap ★★

Image result for Kidnap movie film stills halle berry

    Halle Berry stars in "Kidnap," a movie that halfheartedly raises awareness for the missing person epidemic. I'm not saying that the film doesn't try. The problem is that it does, at least in one emotionally-driven scene, and it fails miserably. (For the sake of being fair, it's a thriller, an abduction thriller to be exact, and action unfailingly succeeds meaning in this subgenre.)

    Berry is Karla Dyson, a divorced, single mother with the cutest little boy imaginable. (We're shown enough home videos via the opening credits to where no other opinion can be formed.) Not surprisingly, the rest of the plot is pretty routine—mom takes son to the park, she loses sight of him, and (drum roll, please) he is kidnapped. Of course, moviegoers will have to ignore the cause of this complication (a mother's inattentiveness) if they are to enjoy this crapfest (we're supposed to feel sympathy for her plight), and if that doesn't tickle your funny bone, there's a laundry list of other cinematic "oopsies" to sneer at.

    I'm sure the intent was to craft a top-of-the-line suspense piece, but director Luis Prieto and screenwriter Knate Lee clearly bit off more than they could chew. How so? Well, the script is thin and seems unfinished, and the car chase scenes (which consist of Berry's character pursuing her son's captors for more than half the movie) are amateurishly done and chock-full of monotony. (If you want to be technical about it, the former suffers from a lack of logic and plot points; the latter relies solely on conventional shots of speedometers and passing asphalt in order to entertain.) To be candid, not even a brash, twenty-five-year-old filmmaking messiah could save this picture from complete mortification. (This is a reference to Steven Spielberg and his work on "Duel," which is the benchmark for highway thrillers. My advice to Prieto is this: If you have a template, use it.)

    How hard is it, I wonder, for Halle Berry to find a good screenplay in Hollywood? I mean, this is an Academy Award winner we're talking about, and here she is slumming around on the set of a movie that's one cheesy line of dialogue away from being a Lifetime premiere event. Now, there's no denying that Berry's career has tailed off recently; nonetheless, it is her sincerity that saves "Kidnap" from reaching putrid status. (Berry has never looked better, and her execution in this film, especially on an emotional front, proves that she still has it.) While we're on the subject, there is another scene-stealer in attendance—that being, a Chrysler Town & Country minivan. I can hear the advertisement now: "It has off-road capabilities, can stop on a dime, and it can even take the beating of your wildest dreams and still run." In all seriousness, however, this vehicle of vengeance laps up about as much screen time as our resident star, and if you can somehow get past the haphazard direction, it's one helluva ride.

    "Kidnap" pales in comparison to movies like "Breakdown," an abduction thriller with a gift for showing off, and it's only slightly more engaging than Berry's last outing ("The Call"), which isn't saying much. (In sum, it's a serviceable depiction of a mother who will stop at nothing to retrieve her missing sonjust without that pesky thing called reasoning.) I'm no expert in human behavior (if I were, I'd be making a lot more money), but a handful of questionable decisions were made by our rogue protagonist. For instance, there's a scene early on where Dyson actually confronts the kidnappers, but instead of defusing the situation, she allows them to gain the upper hand. (Then again, plots of this capacity need incompetence to fill up the allotted time.) Here's hoping that Berry lands a role with some brains and soon.  

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Girls Trip ★

Image result for Girls Trip movie

    A note to the reader: I just want to make this crystal clearI am not a woman, nor am I a black woman. I know nothing about the intricacies of sisterhood and womanhood, and I will not pretend as if I have the faintest inkling on the subject. But I do know film, and this review is a straightforward, free-flowing statement describing, in as much detail as possible, my thoughts on this particular movie. This is purely the opinion of a beat writer with an extensive knowledge of the medium.

    With that being said, "Girls Trip," a film that is unapologetic in its vulgarity and rotten humor, does everything in its power to showcase the ups and downs of this sororal clique, yet it does little in the way of women's empowerment, and the entire production reeks of immaturity. (More to the point, it is a movie solely for the braindead and feebleminded, and it's an enormous waste of one's time.) The story is simple enough: Four women, separated by life's unpredictabilities, come together for one last shindig, which in this instance, takes place at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, Louisianathe ideal setting for humor heavy on the lewd and crude. There's Sasha (Queen Latifah), a struggling journalist turned tabloid reporter; Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith), a recent divorcee and the "responsible" one; Dina (Tiffany Haddish), a risk-taker who, I guess, is the funny one; and Ryan (Regina Hall), a well-established author and television personality.

    At this juncture, I usually delve into the plot and begin to dissect any discernible themes, but what's the point? ("Girls Trip" is a long-winded raunchfest, and the movie's licentious material will have film fans feeling more disgusted than cheerful.) Is the script really that unpardonable? Well, let's see: There's an overuse of the F-word and N-word, talk of stuffing illegal drugs in one's "booty hole," a discussion on how to perform oral sex with a grapefruit, and several references to male genitalia which I dare not utter here. All told, this sinfully sordid affair should set back women's equality a decade at the very least. (Sober moments are in short supply, but even when they do surface, the movie cannot separate the sincere from the unsavory.)

    I mean, I get it. No one is going into "Girls Trip" expecting anything other than brainless comedy. The problem, though, is the film's scattered air and its weak attempts at empowerment. (A subplot involving infidelity is confronted head on by the movie's end, which, I suppose, is meant to give female audiences an inspiring take-home message, but the damage had already been done.) Would it have killed the writers to tone down the folly so that their message would be more viable? Apparently.

    I've never been a fan of these types of pictures; I hate to see such talent wasted on projects that have more slapstick than smarts. (Pinkett Smith is the only bright spot amidst the heap of incomprehensible trash, and I applaud her for her efforts.) Coupled with last month's "Rough Night," it seems that Hollywood is determined to depict women behaving badly (and enjoying themselves while doing so), but this reversal of formula is far from flattering, and I just can't stand behind it. I know what you're thinking: Why should men have all the fun? Admittedly, male conduct on the big screen has historically been less than honorable, but that is our nature. Allow me to put it this way"Girls Trip" isn't a good look for anybody.

Friday, June 16, 2017

47 Meters Down ★

Image result for 47 meters down film stills

    Here is the plot of "47 Meters Down," this summer's annual shark-infested thriller, in a nutshell: Two siblings, Lisa and Kate, embark on a fun-filled trip to Mexico in order to overcome life's mundane tendencies and messy breakups. (In essence, one's a nervous Nellie, and one has trouble saying "No." I'll let you guess which is which.) After a drunken night out with a pair of potential suitors, our threadbare protagonists elect to take on shark cage diving, the latest craze among the thrill-seeking crowd. Once underwater, something goes awry—as the title implies, they become trapped "47 meters down"—and we're left with roughly 60 minutes of plodding suspense and pointless maneuvering. The uneventful score, composed by Thomas Hajdu and Andy Milburn (a Princeton duo widely known as "tomandandy"), is mechanical and useless, and the principal characters, portrayed by Mandy Moore and Claire Holt, are nothing short of moronic. (Forgive me for being blunt, but I've seen enough dumbed-down female personas to last a lifetime. Case in point: While gearing up for their initial dive, one of the simple-minded sisters, it doesn't matter who, quickly progresses from a petrified state to one in which she asks the other, "Does my butt look cute in this?" These actresses deserve better, and so do we.) I promise you this—by the film's end, you'll be rooting for the sharks.

    It's pretty clear where this half-hearted production pinned all of its hopes: on the allure and pull of its two leading ladies. (I'm trying to remember the last time Moore starred in a live-action setting, and Holt, God bless her, couldn't muster a line of dialogue with any sort of conviction even if she wanted to.) Granted, they both should receive credit for enduring the physical demands required of the roles, yet muffled screams and incessant hyperventilating aren't exactly attributes of an Oscar-worthy performance. It comes with the territory, or in this instance, the subject matter. Moreover, director Johannes Roberts and underwater cinematographer Mark Silk frequently swap disheveled camera angles for substance, and this creates an ambiance completely devoid of terror and emotional intensity. Although close-ups abound—the majority of which focus on the panic-stricken eyes of our daring yet doltish heroines—the best shots simply went unused. (It would help to have an editor who understood the principles of continuity editing.)

    Sadly, we're never given a reason to fear these notorious predators, except, of course, for their reputations and past on-screen appearances. Spoiler alert: The ill-famed antagonists are rarely seen until the climax of the film, and their long-awaited arrival is upstaged by a script that is inherently misguided, and above all, it evinces inexperience. Evidently, the writers thought it would be wise to rob Moore's character of her defining moment for a plot twist that is about as foolish as it is gutsy, and this injudicious move only proves that risk-taking doesn't always pan out in cinema. (You know, it's one of those endings where a reverie is confused for reality in an effort to shock and startle audiences; I have to say that it wasn't very effective.)

    I can't believe Hollywood is still churning out these tacky, stale pictures. (As one would expect, revenue remains the chief incentive, yet there has to be a limit on these shark attack movies, which are bordering on unwatchable.) I mean, Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" actually meant something, and "47 Meters Down" can be dubbed the fast-food variety of the genre. For reasons I cannot fathom, the viewing public continues to have an eternal fascination for these flaccid, watered-down productions—"Shark Week" will even hit theaters for a one-night event next month. I hate to be the bearer of bad news (on the contrary, I enjoy it immensely), but all this fear and trembling at the hands of these predaceous creatures is entirely ungrounded. As a matter of fact, here are a few nuggets I found while researching the film's misunderstood villains: 

    (1) As reported by The Washington Post, on average, 28 people were killed each year from 2001 to 2013 by man's best friend. How many died as a result of a shark attack? Well, if you round to the nearest whole number, sharks killed about one individual per year during this span. 

    (2) More importantly, however, according to the Shark Research Institute, 100 million sharks are slain every single year by humankind, and yet we're frightened to death of this predominantly fabricated evil. 

    Now, I understand the method behind the madness, but movies such as "47 Meters Down," regardless of content, aren't worthy of our attention—to sum it up with a few choice words, it's just not interesting writing. And so, in the opinion of this critic, save your precious time and avoid this piffle as if it were the plague. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales ★★★

Image result for Pirates dead men tell no tales film stills

    Call me crazy, but in an industry where sequels and spin-offs are a dime a dozen, the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise has long remained ahead of the field. (This is mostly due to its familiar storytelling and to a booze-hounding protagonist who's as personable as he is inebriated.) And to think that these films have preserved in the face of redundancy time and again only makes them that much more admirable. Indeed, there's a slew of shortcomings that tend to sabotage these productions: puzzling plotlines, wishy-washy acting, and hammy dialogue to name a few. And yet, there resides an indefinable charm, the kind that has moviegoers suspend their disbelief and empty their pockets. This fifth "Pirates" installment may not fit the bill as obsessive filmmaking, but it's a step above its predecessor, and—oh, I dunno—there's just something about the Caribbean that kindles ebullience.

    Here is a brief run-through of the plot: The film picks up as Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the newest hero to hit the high seas and son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), devises a plan to help his father rid himself of the terrible curse that entails a lasting commitment as captain to the Flying Dutchman. (To make a long story short, Henry must retrieve Poseidon's legendary trident if he is to break the anathema and reunite his loving family.)

    Concurrently, Captain Jack Sparrow (played by the always animated Johnny Depp) is down on his luck—the reward for his arrest has even plummeted. After an unsuccessful bank robbery attempt, the egocentric pirate captain finds himself in an often experienced position: that is, captured by the British army and set to be hanged. (Unbeknown to Jack, this is the least of his worries. For, Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), an undead pirate hunter, wants him punished for a previous dispute.) Enter Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a mysterious young woman who is also sent to the gallows albeit for a different reason—the practice of witchcraft. (You see, she's not really a witch but intelligent; her intellectual capacity provides the opportunity to rouse up a statement on gender, which I found to be quite misplaced.) Following an action-packed rescue from certain death, the trio made up of Jack, Henry, and Carina set off for Poseidon's tomb in what becomes yet another egoist tale where every character fends for themselves.

Image result for Pirates 5 stills

    Let's face it, this is the type of movie where you know what you're getting going in. (One could view this flagrant repetition negatively, but I find that most audiences prefer pictures that they're accustomed to, which explains the popularity of genre films.) It's no surprise that every "Pirates" story is the same old schtick: there's exotic locations, outstanding art direction, themes with a touch of destiny, childish humor, and who could forget Jack Sparrow's shenanigans, which the latter has become the central concern of the last several installments. (Not only does Depp take center stage in "Dead Men," but every scene is constructed in an effort to place Sparrow in a comical circumstance and nothing more—luckily for us, Depp is still amusing.) 

    I will say this: Despite a beat-around-the-bush plot, a recycled score, and a couple of underdeveloped supporting characters (namely the newcomers), Jeff Nathanson, a writer who's worked on a number of industry sequels, knows how to spin a good yarn. In fact, I would say that this is a fitting end to the "Pirates" universe; however, there's obviously more to come. (Make sure to stay for the post-credit scene that insinuates this unavoidable continuation.) 

    How could you not love Geoffrey Rush? The veteran actor once again steals the spotlight as Captain Hector Barbossa, and even though Depp's Sparrow may garner the most attention, I've never come across a more perfect portrayal of a pirate before. (Rush delivers an electric performance with such style and panache that I almost felt sorry for the other actors appearing on screen.) As for Depp, the Oscar-nominated journeyman continues to serve as a vital contributor to the series, regardless of age or decline in stardom. Depp's character of choice, apart from a growing likeness to Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, displays the same mannerisms and drunken demeanor, and my only complaint pertains to the actor's unwillingness to let this role pass on—as much as I have enjoyed the hijinks of Jack Sparrow over the last decade and a half, it's time for Depp to dabble in the art of drama anew. 

    Other notable mentions: Bardem, an actor who is no stranger to parts brimming with villainy, was clearly the right pick for the role of the ruthless and vindictive Salazar; Thwaites and Scodelario, two rising stars in Hollywood, certainly have their work cut out for them if they are to carry these films with the same magnetism as the original ensemble cast. 

    More so than anything else, the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise is about fluid storytelling and cinematographic freedom, and first-time directors Joachim R?nning and Espen Sandberg hit the nail on the head with their execution. From bird's-eye views to sublime director's interpretive shots (most notably in the gallows scene), these Norwegian filmmakers prove they have a knack for punctilious filmmaking. (More importantly, they bring a sense of continuity to a story that is undoubtedly at a crossroads.) Will I be reflecting on this movie a week from now? I doubt it. Nevertheless, there's more than enough substance here to warrant a positive review, but I have the feeling that I may not be as understanding next time around. Savvy? 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Monster Trucks ★1/2

Image result for monster trucks film stills

    Paramount's latest debacle entitled "Monster Trucks," a movie about a young man who befriends an unusual creature that is keenly adept in the art of truck driving, should serve as a reminder of how half-baked ideas seldom give way to box-office greatness. (It should also provide hope for every wannabe screenwriter in the greater Los Angeles area—if Paramount considers the plot of "Monster Trucks" to be worthy of development, then anything is possible.) This action comedy, which is painfully purposed for the youngest of viewing audiences, may have an appealing cast with genuine promise, yet I could never heap praise on a picture whose main attraction is a giant squid. (In truth, Creech, as the beast is called, is more of a cross between an octopus and a whale; nevertheless, there doesn't seem to be much room for marketability.) And I thought E.T. was repugnant.

    Tripp (Lucas Till) is an ambitious North Dakotan teen who desires to leave his hometown in search of bigger and better things. (The movie implies that it is the dullness of the surrounding countryside that fuels this inclination, and this is not only a slight to the residents of North Dakota, but it's a poor excuse for a motivating force.) Meanwhile, Terravex Energy, which is plainly a representation of Big Oil, hits trouble on a nearby fracking operation when it unleashes three subterranean creatures, one of them being the likable yet repulsive Creech. Eventually, Tripp and Creech happen upon each other, and from this point forward, the feature blossoms into a full-fledged chase film with enough meaningless drivel to make any contemporary of mine sick with boredom. (As for me, I'm afraid that I've become accustomed to these one-dimensional productions, which are slowly becoming the standard in Hollywood.) The only thing worse than the simplistic storyline is the manufactured villains, which, believe it or not, includes a Terravex bounty hunter by the name of Burke (Holt McCallany).

    "Monster Trucks" has all the makings of a Steven Spielberg adventure: there's the troubled teenager with parental issues, the presence of a human-unearthly bond, as well as a conflict stemming from a corrupt corporation, but nothing can subdue the elephant in the room—that being, the unattractiveness of the material. In fact, this is what I like to call a "step back" film, as all parties involved showed signs of regression in their particular filmmaking positions. (It also gives our screenwriter and director an opportunity to view their work objectively, which I'm sure will be a harrowing experience.) Filmmaker Chris Wedge, who's mostly known for his role in several animated successes, shows his competence behind the scenes in what becomes his live-action debut, yet sweeping camera movements and nifty boom shots cannot divert one's attention from the disastrous dialogue that propels the script. (Take away the subtheme concerned with environmentalism, and you have a screenplay that could have been written by any imaginative child or film school dropout.)

    I'm saddened to see budding actress Jane Levy and up-and-coming actor Lucas Till in such abysmal working conditions—quite honestly, they hardly stood a chance. (Levy is as charming and capable as they come; Till, if given the proper nutriment, could become the next Marvel Avenger.) Unfortunately for them, neither star looks or sounds the part—they play a pair of teenagers even though they're clearly much older—and their passionless performances can be chalked up to a bad case of casting fever. (Meaning, they were chosen for their popularity as opposed to their fitting the characters.) Young actors take heed: Sometimes, one must forgo a paycheck in favor of what's suitable, which the latter is more conducive to long-term success.

    Film criticism is a paradoxical profession—this has been the theme of much of my work—and pictures like "Monster Trucks" only prove this notion. On the one hand, the movie's climax is thoroughly engaging, and you'd be hard pressed to find a more jovial conclusion. And yet, where is the lasting value? Where's the significance? (These are rhetorical questions, mind you, but they still touch on the complications associated with film commentary—should we regard the medium strictly as escapism or evaluate it as an art form? There's also the question of whether or not a children's picture should be graded on a different scale (less stringent), but that is neither here nor there. The intent is key no matter the profundity.) Oftentimes, I must decide if I am to give a film, whose aim is that of amusement, a pass for its superficiality or condemn it for the same reasons. (Hence, the contradictory nature of the craft.) In many cases, subjectivity will inevitably rear its head; this is one of those instances. Needless to say, "Monster Trucks" just isn't very good.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Blair Witch - Zero Stars

Blair Witch Movie Review

    Much like "The Forest," a 2016 horror movie that relies heavily on its macabre setting to spur success, "Blair Witch" takes audiences into the Black Hills Forest of Maryland where it proceeds to bore and benumb, and I couldn't help but feel as if I'd seen this rodeo before. (Perhaps that is because this sequel to "The Blair Witch Project" functions more or less as a rebootit not only resembles the fictitious documentary in terms of its story and structure, but it attempts to frighten viewers with the same uninvolving and predictable plot devices.) The formula here is simple: build up a small amount of suspense until there's about a half hour of running time left in the picture, and then pummel moviegoers with an inordinate number of jump scares and grotesque images in the hopes that at least one audience member's blood curdles. Not to sound too harsh, but I hated this movie.

    The storyline goes something like thisJames Donahue (James Allen McCune), a younger sibling to one of the missing hikers from the first film, stumbles upon some video evidence that suggests his older sister may be alive. (Although it has been 20 years since her disappearance, and despite the fact that the FBI scoured the area with little confirmation of her survival, our impressionable protagonist believes there is still hope. To be fair, the FBI never found D.B. Cooper, either.) Donahue recruits a couple of poor saps to aid him in his search (this includes a childhood friend named Peter (Brandon Scott), an aspiring filmmaker in Lisa (Callie Hernandez), and two locals who are obsessed with the Blair Witch legend), and before you know it, the horror flick becomes a carbon copy of the original minus the ingenuity. In layman's terms, the motivation for this particular venture into the woods is dissimilar, yet the happenings that take place are all too familiar.

    Sure, there are several different subjective viewpoints this time around (each character has his or her own filming device), and there are a handful of pulse-pounding moments that might stir up some frightful feelings, but one has to see the bigger picture. (I rarely award a movie zero stars; it is the lack of inherent value, I think, that brings about this rather unenthusiastic assessment. And you know, sometimes you have to send a message.) Of course, there is nothing structurally significant about this film, and outside of a gripping performance by Hernandez, the acting seems to be bumbling at best. Let's call a spade a spade"Blair Witch" is offensively banal and bromidic, and Lionsgate should be ashamed of themselves for this obvious money-grabbing effort.

    Part of the problem is that there is no accountability when it comes to films of this magnitude; I could never blame the actors or filmmakers for their involvement. (It's hard enough getting work in Hollywood as it is, and you've got to take what you can get.) This is simply a blatant attempt to repackage a prior success and sell it as if it were something that it's notunique and worthwhile. I mean, it is "The Blair Witch Project" just refinished and with less inventiveness. Case in point: Screenwriter Simon Barrett is on record stating that his participation in this collusion merely consisted of the crafting of one or two minor characters, and he was basically given a synopsis that mirrored the first script. (Perchance the protagonists could have been a tad more interesting.) Even if "Blair Witch" bombs at the box office, the consequences will surely not be felt. For, Lionsgate has a multitude of profitable products, so what's the big deal if one doesn't perform up to par? It's low-risk filmmaking at its finest, and that, folks, is the real issue.

    In the meantime, can we not put an end to the found-footage film? Clearly, the horror genre has used up all of the allure attached to these kinds of movies, and the camerawork involved could be pulled off by any regular Bob Burns. Which brings me to my follow-up question: Are we ever going to get back to true terror in cinema? Today's horror selections are visibly plagued by an inadequate amount of suspense, and if the truth be known, they also seem to suffer from poor scriptwriting and acting that is by all accounts dreadful. I know I've said a variation of this before, but filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock or even Wes Craven (bless his soul) are not walking through that door. At this very late hour, the horror genre is undoubtedly ailing, and it is going to take more than a heavy dose of jump scares and shaky camera movements to generate something of a worthy offering. One can only trust that next time Lionsgate will spare us all and forget to pull the trigger.