Sunday, July 16, 2017

Film Review: TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT by Mike Sullivan

If Megan Fox is remembered nowadays, it’s less for her star-making role in the first TRANSFORMERS movie and more for what caused her to lose that star-making role. In a 2011 issue of the UK fashion magazine Wonderland, Fox compared Michael Bay to Hitler and the response was immediate. Fox was let go from the franchise and in her stead, a random Victoria’s Secret model was tasked with bending over in front of a green screen until the batteries in the digital camera died or she got too old. Fox was roundly mocked and criticized for the Hitler comparison, but maybe her comment was taken too literally. Maybe she was comparing Bay to Hitler in the sense that both men are really terrible artists? Maybe she caught a glimpse of the harrowing schizophrenia simulator that was TRANSFORMERS and maybe its incomprehensible parade of crumpled, shattered metal crumpling and shattering other shattered and crumpled metal reminded Fox of Hitler’s -- as one German art critic noted -- “profound uninterest in people?” But whereas Hitler’s landscapes could be considered “good” if your definition of good is “that print of Humphrey Bogart playing poker with Marilyn Monroe will really class up my 1996 cigar bar,” any given TRANSFORMERS movie could be replaced with three hours’ worth of Go Army commercials edited around still shots of random human asses and footage of that dancing NFL robot and barely anyone would notice or care. 


However, if taken within this specific criterion, Fox’s comparison doesn’t work. Hitler’s blandly competent craftsmanship recedes from your memory seconds after you’ve seen it. Memories of Bay’s movies remain in the way an ACL injury never really goes away. The pain can only flatten out until day to day life is somewhat manageable. No, Bay isn’t as bad as Hitler. He’s worse. And while we’re on the subject, he’s no Charles Manson either ("Garbage Dump" is a great song!).


It would be easy to say that the prologue to TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT is the worst moment you’ll find in the film’s nearly three hour running time. But it would also be untrue. After all, how do you qualify the worst moment in something that’s like a three hour ice cream headache crossed with a seizure? It’s unbearable until it ends. Opening with a sequence resembling the panicked, oxygen starved final thoughts of a Warhammer fanatic the moment before it sinks in that this is the way his family will find his body when they open the hallway closet, TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT takes the Arthurian mythos to a place that only Bay can take them. By which I mean it resembles a Superbowl ad for pewter dragons and sweat. Knights are fighting big screaming guys in bondage gear who could be anything from Vikings to those guys that got high off of silver chrome spray paint in FURY ROAD. It’s up to Stanley Tucci to hide behind a pile of dog hair and spirit gum as Merlin and attempt to convince a medieval transformer to save the knights by transforming into, I don’t know, a cathedral? DaVinci’s helicopter? What does a medieval transformer transmorph into anyway? The door Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to? Plague Boils? At any rate, whatever it was that Tucci was trying to do involves a two-headed robot dragon and an ornate staff that either holds the key to saving earth and destroying the Transformers' home planet or holds the key to destroying earth and saving the Transformers' home planet. It’s one of those or possibly something entirely different. It’s just that hard to tell because the story and plot are sloppy even for a Bay movie. Unlike the previous scripts which seem to have been dictated by a screaming seven-year-old as he repeatedly steps on the clumps of plastic that used to be his action figures, the series has matured and now seems to be written by that guy on COPS who doesn’t know how the angel dust got on his lap because he was sleeping at the time and someone must have dropped it on his lap and that isn’t angel dust anyway. TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT still seems to be making it up as it goes along but the childlike innocence has been replaced with the surreal, ‘Am-I-being-detained’-style yarn-spinning of a drunk idiot that has priors and can’t go to jail again.


After the prologue we’re introduced to group of modern day Little Rascals, each with a single defining personality trait. For the amount of time Bay spends on developing these characters and their adventures in the ruins of Chicago, you would think these deeply unappealing pre-teens will play a major role in the movie. But, no, they don’t. But neither does the scrappy orphan (Isabela Moner) they meet and her friend -- a giant robot yurt she apparently lives in. No, in spite of the fact that all of these characters had prominent roles in all of the promotional material, the real star is just moments away from claiming the movie as his own. Suddenly and without warning Mark Wahlberg will arrive, tearing ass in in his post-apocalyptic muscle car! Yeaaah! And so does Bumble-Bee (a yellow Transformer that speaks entirely in Wacky Morning DJ soundboard clips) who blows and up and dies but then doesn’t! Also, there’s a Anti-Transformers task force that never really does anything and suddenly Mark Wahlberg is in the desert! A Chicago desert? A Chicago desert junk yard? Yes! Guess what? Wahlberg, Moner, several baby robot dinosaurs live there! Steve Buscemi is the voice of a traveling robot scrap salesman who visits the junkyard and sells robots the severed heads of other robots. The earth is growing horns! Uh-Oh! Optimus Prime is in outer space and a little fairy (that is bad but floats) robot hypnotizes him into coming to earth to destroy it. Because of horns. Many film hours later Optimus finally visits earth to destroy it but Bumblebee falls down and talks words that aren’t film clips and hyptotism stops. Seconds after he arrives. A CLOCK KLLED HITLER!!!! Mark Wahlberg’s name is Cade and medallion with spider legs has dubbed him Sir Cade! Sir Cade also doesn’t like a tight dress professor (Laura Haddock) but then he rides around in a submarine until he does. The tight dress professor doesn’t believe in King Arthur but believes Mark Wahlberg is chesty and pretty without shirt. But only on submarine! Movey ends at Stone Henge were bang bnag plane happens outer space robort daeth. All over! Tony, Tony, Tony. Hale! He aslo in movie!


Being that THE LAST KNIGHT is "Metal Machine Music" adapted into a movie made specifically for babies born wearing a neon green trucker hat with the word Rage silk-screened across it, the preceding paragraph can only hint at how incoherent, headache inducing and so very fucking stupid the film is. Stupid enough to defy a simple plot synopsis. Stupider than even the stupid previous TRANSFORMERS movie and that had a scene where a furious man pointed to his face and called it “a warrant.” So stupid it can’t even tell its stupid story about an average, blue collar pork roast that sounds like it’s perpetually winded (Wahlberg) and its attempts to stop an armada of giant robots from destroying the earth in a simple manner. Yet, as stupid as this film is, it’s not fun. And believe me, these films should be fun. At one point, Transformers are shown fighting Nazis, at another a robot robbed a bank and went to robot jail! Anthony Hopkins says the word bitchin’ to his crazed robot butler that strangles people for no reason as they drive recklessly through the streets of London. For fuck’s sake, most of the original cast from BARTON FINK either appears as robots or men who play volleyball with robots (a returning John Turturro plays volleyball with a robot. Off-screen, unfortunately). Why isn’t this fun? Mainly because this fun is filtered through something that looks like an air horn, a strobe light and a half-empty can of Monster finally decided to undertake that creative collaboration they always talked about. It’s not just the cheap looking but undoubtedly price-y explosion of ones and zeros that surround the film like the dust cloud around Pig Pen nor is it the interchangeable selection of oversized metal shard things that either sound like the most regressive “that’s what I’m talkin’ about”, Budweiser commercial from 2001-ready, dated black stereotype or John Goodman that make this movie so unbearable. It’s not even the frenetic editing that practically renders everything into monochromatic blur of shouts and clanks or even fact that the ending looks like a soft reboot of last year’s equally excruciating INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE. It’s the fact that it thinks it’s a comedy that makes it so punishing. With a cast larger than three Robert Altman movies combined, THE LAST KNIGHT allows every actor in the film to just riff or workshop their tight five. Which, granted, is not explicitly terrible when someone like Stanley Tucci is doing it but nearly unwatchable when Wahlberg is ‘yes and-ing’ in his pissy, out of breath, ‘why-did-you-punch-me-in-the-stomach-and-then-yell-action’ cadence.


Like anything that’s terrible but inescapable, over the next several years the TRANSFORMERS series will go on to attract ironic, nostalgic appreciation, only to eventually give way to misguided critical reassessments. Shake your head all you want and mouth the word no, but the Chuck Klostermans of the future are coming and they’re bringing their think pieces with him. In fact, it’s already happening. The New Yorker qualified their negative review of THE LAST KNIGHT by dubbing Bay an, “experimental filmmaker of pure sensation.” I could see the discursive, excessive to the point of parody level of commercialism and generally incompetent qualities of Bay’s movies being mistaken for artfulness much in the same way that the unintentionally campy, melodramatic qualities of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray’s films were misconstrued as sly meta-commentary. Never forget Bay is not an experimental filmmaker. Michael Bay isn’t Man Ray. He’s not Kenneth Anger. He’s your Five Finger Death Punch loving neighbor who paralyzed himself by diving head first into a Slip ‘N Slide and spends most of his time editing supercuts of boobs jiggling in slow motion for his YouTube channel. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Film Review: THE MUMMY by Mike Sullivan

Maybe 30 years from now people will stumble upon this review and laugh. Not because they happen to love hacky, easy jabs at Tom Cruise but because it got everything wrong. “Pfft! What a fuggshettity ghost-brain,” some man will cuss in future-speak while wearing his ‘I’m Thinking’ t-shirt memorializing one of the most iconic Cruise lines from THE MUMMY. “I guess people back then couldn’t comprehend the beauty of an Alex Kurtzman film,” the man will mutter as he places a porcelain maquette recreating that memorable scene of Cruise being forced against his will by Universal Executives into pretending to enjoy being in the same room with co-star Annabelle Wallis in his display case of Dark Universe memorabilia. Maybe this could be like a Coen Brothers movie and we won’t ‘get it’ until five years from now. Maybe I’m wrong and Universal Studios’ misguided attempt to beat Marvel Studios at their own game won’t end prematurely and remembered only by people who write listicles about failed movie franchises. But there’s just something doomed about that Dark Universe logo. The fact that it’s incorporated into the Universal Studios logo with the kind of overblown pageantry that’s reserved for something established, familiar and well-liked places it somewhere in the realm of off-putting and unearned. It’s saying, “Hey, here’s that thing you love” with the misplaced confidence of your Mom’s dorky boyfriend who keeps buying you puzzles of Pink Floyd album covers because the only thing he remembers about you is that you ‘like music’. Even if it preceded a good or simply solid movie, the prematurity of the Dark Universe logo would smack of unchecked hubris and understand, THE MUMMY is neither good nor simply solid. In fact it looks unusual playing inside an actual theatre and not within its natural habitat: following a marathon of FRANKLIN & BASH episodes in the wee hours of the morning on TNT. THE MUMMY isn’t the cornerstone on which cinematic universes are based. It’s the cornerstone on which an ironic GAME OF THRONES throne entirely constructed out of flea-market VHS tapes is based.


Deceptively, THE MUMMY starts out well enough with an origin of its titular character Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). The backstory about an Egyptian Princess whose thirst for power leads her into making a pact with Set -- the god of storms and squalls -- only to find herself buried alive in a sarcophagus filled with mercury, is basically de rigueur for modern Mummy movies. But what separates this from the pack is its visceral qualities. The throat of an infant is slashed early on and even though we don’t actually see it, we do get a queasy sound effect of the newborn’s death rattle. Additionally, Boutella’s eerie, feral presence in these scenes is just fun to watch. In fact, every scene she’s in is entertaining. Whether manipulating those her around her in order to escape from Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe)’s secret lab or straddling Cruise at knifepoint on top of a mausoleum tomb, Boutella is the one reason you may want to half-watch this as you perform household chores when it finally arrives on basic cable a few years from now. But Boutella’s presence raises expectations in a way the filmmakers can’t help but betray. Even though Boutella’s Mummy is the most interesting character on screen, she is, for whatever reason, not the focus of THE MUMMY. That honor instead goes to Cruise.


Rumor has it that the original script for THE MUMMY gave equal screentime to Cruise and Boutella’s characters. It also revolved around a far more interesting idea involving a team of Navy SEALS fighting mummies in Iraq. But when Cruise came on board, he commissioned his screenwriting cronies Dylan Kussman and Christopher Quarrie to beef up his part and add a subplot about his character becoming possessed by Set. Reportedly, Cruise also oversaw the editing and, more or less, co-directed the film with Kurtzman. If true, this explains why THE MUMMY is a failure but it doesn’t explain why Cruise looks so disengaged from the material. It’s not a performance as much as it is a begrudging favor and this is strange because it’s nothing more than a vanity project thinly disguised as a franchise tentpole. Not only does Cruise receive God-like powers at one point, he’s so funny and sexy that corpses spring to life just to make out with him. But apart from Cruise’s clear yet befuddling indifference, he’s terrible at playing any character that isn’t a muted, less terrifying version of himself. Ethan Hunt is Cruise minus the perceived skeletons. You don’t watch MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and wonder if Hunt laughed when someone sort of like David Miscavige (but for legal purposes, isn’t) told him an embarrassing anecdote about the time he accidentally farted in front of that woman he handcuffed to the hotel sink and eventually starved to death for being a “suppressive person.” You don’t assume that when Jack Reacher is alone he screams into a pillow until thoughts of that swarthy key grip on the set of EDGE OF TOMORROW step outside of his poor ungay penis and leave it alone for the moment. Cruise’s Nick Morton is not a typical heroic Cruise surrogate, he’s a scumbag with a heart of gold. If the film were made a few decades earlier, the character would have been played by Bill Murray or Harrison Ford in full-on ‘can-we-get-the-fucking-shot-already-I-have-diarrhea-and-I-just-want-to-sit-in-the-dark-in-my-fucking-hotel-room’ angry grandpa mode. But considering that Tom Cruise can’t play anything besides a grim-dark variation on Tony Robbins, he has no idea what to do with this character. Cruise’s performance doesn’t suggest someone who won a Burger King sweepstakes to play a role in an upcoming Dark Universe movie because it suggests someone who won a Burger King sweepstakes to play a role in an upcoming Dark Universe movie but, through some scheduling mishap, could only shoot their scenes minutes after surgery when the anesthesia still hasn’t worn off. Disoriented and annoyed, Cruise’s Nick Morton is an indifferent shrug of a character who has zero chemistry with everyone on screen. Particularly Wallis, with whom he’s supposed to share a will they/won’t they vibe with even though everything about their forced coupling screams “please don’t.” He’s dead-eyed and oily, she’s a lifeless, immovable object and whenever they’re together it’s like watching a burnt-out Amway salesman make half-hearted love to a mid-century boat figurehead.


To be fair, Cruise isn’t entirely to blame for THE MUMMY. Tonally awkward, the film can’t make-up its mind about whether it wants to be a horror movie or a light and breezy, tongue-in-cheek action movie. Premature ejaculation jokes happen right in the middle of scenes where a zombified Jake Johnson starts stabbing everything in sight, including Courtney B. Vance in a thankless glorified cameo -- incidentally, while we’re on the subject of Jake Johnson’s pointless character: He gets possessed, murders a few people, dies and then his ghost strong-arms Cruise into being sacrificed by Ahmanet? Why exactly does Cruise utilize his newly acquired God-like abilities to bring this weasel-y asshole back to life at the film’s end? Did test audiences respond to Johnson’s comedy-like, quasi-quips that much? Additionally, it’s anti-climactic. The final showdown between Cruise and Boutella ends with a fight that feels like the cinematic equivalent to getting dumped via text. Even worse, THE MUMMY is a convoluted mess simply because of all of the spur of the moment world-building it’s forced to perform. Never mind that the Marvel movies didn’t get mired in their Moebius strip, every-movie-feels-like-the-second-part-of-a trilogy-that-will-never-end story structure until THE AVENGERS, yet in THE MUMMY what little momentum this film has built up grinds to a halt the moment we take a detour into Dr. Jekyll’s lab. Serving as this cinematic universe’s Nick Fury, Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll is a walking info dump whose only purpose is exposition. Not just for this shitty movie but for movies that haven’t even happened yet. Specifically that nebulous Monstervengers film where Cruise, Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem and The Rock team up to fight -- I don’t know -- The Phantom of the Opera, Fu Manchu and Sara Karloff? I guess? I miss the days when potential franchises weren’t really expensive TV pilots.


Considering the pathological need studios have for extended cinematic universes, I suppose the idea of a Universal Horror-verse isn’t a bad idea if we must have one, I guess. It’s just a bad idea to follow the Marvel Studios model this closely. A horror concept doesn’t work if it’s forced to conform to the mechanics of a superhero movie. Even still, THE MUMMY wants to be a Marvel Studios movie in the worst way but the differences between these franchises are glaringly obvious, right down to the in-jokes and Easter eggs. But whereas the sight of Klaw or Howard the Duck will cause a theater to echo with the dull, nerdy thud of ribs getting elbowed, THE MUMMY’s in-jokes err on the side of duh. Hey, there’s the severed hand of the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Dracula’s skull and that golden book thing from the Brendan Fraser Mummy. What’s that? You didn’t even notice it? Yeah, nobody did. Most likely because nobody really wanted to see this movie. I feel like the only people who sat through this were those who couldn’t get into that sold out screening of WONDER WOMAN or families who got the times wrong for CARS 3 and didn’t want to wait an hour. Seeing this is about as good as not seeing it because you won’t remember a single moment from THE MUMMY.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Film Review: PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES by Mike Sullivan

What happened to Johnny Depp? Wasn’t there a time when he was more than a steampunk scarecrow made out of black eyeliner and whatever was found in the dumpster behind Urban Outfitters? Didn’t he used to be cool? In spite of the fact that Johnny Depp’s public image has morphed into that of a petty, vain, abusive asshole who allegedly keeps a sound engineer on retainer because he’s too lazy to memorize his dialogue (reportedly, Depp’s dialogue is fed to him via an earpiece he wears on set), prevailing logic would dictate that he was cool at one time. Very cool. In fact, as late as THE LONE RANGER, I was still insisting he was cool. It wasn’t until his bizarre portrayal of Whitey Bulger as Nosferatu in Fonzie drag in BLACK MASS that I finally realized that Depp isn’t just currently uncool, he was always uncool.


In retrospect, the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series was one of the worst things that could have ever happened to Depp in that it raised his profile, revealed his one-note tics and made them so goddamned inescapable. Even before PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, Depp played almost every role like a precocious theater kid who wings you with his bamboo cane in the halls of The San Diego Comic Con because he got way too into his Charlie Chaplin cosplay. The main difference is that he was doing it in disposable, quietly-released-in-February fluff like DON JUAN DeMARCO, CHOCOLAT and BENNY & JOON. Critically acclaimed films like ED WOOD, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS obfuscated his more commercial endeavors and helped maintain his cred as a cultish, arthouse fixture. Even if one or two of those cultish, arthouse fixtures carried the sort of safe, mall-punk qualities of a Hot Topic hoodie. Depp was a B-list leading man but an A-list character actor, he was Crispin Glover minus all of that Andy Kaufman-esque face kickery: quirky, but not too weird for your mother. Depp carried the vibe of an indie minded Hollywood outsider but only because we were getting him in measured doses. Of course, after the first PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN film, the world started mainlining him and it wasn’t long before all of us were hunched over, grinding our teeth and left with the bitter realization that we all got burned on this deal.


Yet, in spite of the fact that I carry almost no respect for the infinity scarf wrapped mummy formally known as Johnny Depp, I can’t help but keep up with his career. A misplaced sense of nostalgia for films like DEAD MAN have left me dopesick waiting for the next fresh hit of buzzy, warm, mannered quirkiness. Who knows, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES could be the right kind of summer garbage that could help us all relive that massive, toe-curling high? Right? Well, no. I should have known from the trailers that DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES was a waste of time. Seeing a 54-year-old Depp pretend to be drunk in a Rasta wig yet again is like watching a 53-year-old Bob Denver slip back into his red polo shirt just to make an ironic appearance on an episode of ALF. There’s a sense of overwhelming sadness behind it. Imagine someone begrudgingly repeating that scene from STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. where the house falls around Buster Keaton for fourteen years. Now imagine someone doing it because they need the money to buy 70 custom Les Paul guitars and a giant red, white and blue cannon to fire the ashes of every dead writer that appeared in Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism. It ceases to be sad and morphs into infuriating. And understand, DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES is infuriating. Like an estranged, unloved family member who shows up uninvited at your birthday party but still manages to look bored and annoyed, DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES feels like it’s doing you a favor simply by being there even though you haven’t really thought about the franchise since 2007. Yet in addition to DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES’ clear disinterest and misplaced sense of obligation to exist, it’s also impossible to follow. Granted, this isn’t exactly a new observation. This complaint has plagued the franchise since the beginning. However, I’m not sure if these movies are hard to follow because they’re convoluted or if it’s because PIRATES is so boring it’s difficult to pay attention to whatever bullshit is unfurling on screen. Either way, I have no clue what’s happening in DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES.


One of the first few images we see is Orlando Bloom and he has barnacles all over his face. He is a ghost? I think? It’s up to his sylph-like, blank slate, walking Bop Magazine pin-up of a son (GODS OF EGYPT non-entity Brenton Thwaites) to reverse his ghostiness with a trident that doesn’t exist but does? I guess? I don’t know. From there Jack Sparrow trades his magic compass for rum and this somehow allows an undead Javier Bardem to leave the confines of a Bermuda Triangle-like purgatory to kill Jack Sparrow and also track down the trident that doesn’t exist but does. For some kind of a reason. I’m assuming. Nothing is clear nor does it matter. Oh, and in case you had a burning desire to understand Jack Sparrow’s relationship with a character we’ve never met before, we get an overlong origin sequence needlessly explaining the rivalry between himself and Bardem. Long ago when Jack was just a hastily generated CGI bobblehead with lopsided, weirdly proportioned facial features, he tricked Bardem into steering his pirate ship into a bunch of rocks, causing him and his crew to explode into a series of poorly rendered ones and zeros. Other things happen too. For example, a sassy, cleavage lady (Kaya Scodelario) is nearly executed for loving science but learns her father (Geoffrey Rush) has an ornate peg-leg, Paul McCartney appears in a fleeting cameo but isn’t recognizable or funny, penises are alluded to as a reminder that some of us have handled them and it is hilarious. Eventually it all ends with confusingly written sequence that appears to be the end result of an extensive reshoot (Bardem’s character suddenly has the ability to possess the living? Why is this the first time he’s taking advantage of this power?) on a set that looks like a churro stand, Snow White’s Scary Adventure and somebody’s angry, red-faced mother nearly slapping a crying nine-year-old are in danger of sneaking into frame. In other words, it’s a mess filled with way too many characters, a surfeit of meandering action sequences and far too many undeveloped storylines that trail off into nothing. DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES is essentially just out of sequence footage of two different, late period Robert Altman movies edited into stock footage of exploding pirate ships. Why is something that’s based on a dark ride where things are never more complicated than the sight of pirates getting outsmarted by a dog insist on only the most impenetrable, befuddling world-building and plotting?


When Depp has finally shuffled off this mortal coil (presumably with his personal sound engineer in tow, who will be buried alive right next to him in his spirally, Tim Burton designed tomb in order to accommodate an eternity of all of those ALICE IN WONDERLAND and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN sequels he’ll be making in hell), it’s clear what series of films Depp will be remembered by. PIRATES and Depp are so closely intertwined, that you can’t describe one without inadvertently describing the other. Both arrived at just the right time, both seemed fresh and interesting at first and both eventually became tiresome, self-important tchotchkes collecting dust on the bureau of the apartment of that friendless Wiccan woman whose body was found in front of her TV as it blared the DVD menu of THE CORPSE BRIDE for nearly six days straight. It would be nice to say that DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES has effectively stalled Depp’s career but considering that he will be appearing in seven upcoming films, including a pair of wannabe franchise tent-poles, it’s safe to say we’ll probably never escape this much-loathed-but-still-inexplicably-bankable leading man who reminds you of that slimy dude at a party who makes fun of your taste in music while he tries a little too hard to sell you on the virtues of polyamory.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Film Review: ALIEN: COVENANT by Mike Sullivan

Mentioning you dislike PROMETHEUS is a lot like mentioning how much you hate the noodling, dimwitted pretention rock of Tool: the damned souls of one thousand Redditors will suddenly blink into existence and moan “you just didn’t get it” as they shake their ghostly nerd shackles in your face. But the thing is, I did get PROMETHEUS. In fact, I don’t think there’s a single person on earth who didn’t get PROMETHEUS. Who didn’t understand that PROMETHEUS was about faith and the origins of creation? The point of PROMETHEUS was clear; everything else wasn’t. Damon Lindelof’s plot-hole riddled screenplay (which, to his credit, wasn’t nearly as big of a mess as his screenplay for TOMORROWLAND) was filled with so many vague plot-points and unexamined character motivations that it played like a strangely solemn book of unfinished Mad Libs. It was beautifully photographed, meaningless but posturing and covered in a preponderance of black alien jizz. In other words, PROMETHEUS was a Matthew Barney movie for people who believe that crisis actors actually exist (not all PROMETHEUS fans are Truthers but, I guarantee, every Truther is a PROMETHEUS fan). Yet, as much as I hated PROMETHEUS, I’ll still take it over ALIEN: COVENANT. Because as affected as PROMETHEUS was, it was still its own thing. ALIEN: COVENANT simultaneously feels like a weird apology for PROMETHEUS while also sort of functioning as an EVIL DEAD 2-style remake of PROMETHEUS. It commits a sin even its predecessor didn’t commit: it’s shrug inducing and forgettable.



On the plus side, COVENANT opens with a prologue that’s probably a bit more bizarre than the one found in PROMETHEUS. Mainly because it gives us the daring return of Guy Pearce as old man Weyland, one of the more ‘who-cares’, tertiary characters found in PROMETHEUS. It should also be noted that Pearce’s elderly make-up this time around has improved. It now looks like a rubber Nixon mask instead of resembling the end result of having someone hurl small pieces of wet toilet paper at Pearce’s face from across the room. In this scene Weyland has just added the finishing touches to android David (Michael Fassbender) and literally after seconds into his creation’s birth, Weyland is passive-aggressively picking apart the way David plays Wagner on the piano. If COVENANT was just a fake old man belittling an android as if it was some kind of mannered, Merchant Ivory sci-fi spin on SHUT UP LITTLE MAN, I would have loved it, but almost immediately the pair discuss creation and creators and gods and monsters and ‘hey, man! What if Ferris Bueller was just a delusional manifestation of Cameron’s desire to be the coolest guy in Chicago?” As in PROMETHEUS, every time the film tries to get philosophical it just feels like getting stuck in a room with a really stoned friend of a friend who has a theory that “every time an angel is mentioned in the bible, it’s actually just a cyborg because the bible didn’t have a word for cyborg yet.” It’s the kind of freshman dorm ‘deep thoughts’ that made PROMETHEUS so goddamn insufferable.



From there, COVENANT flashes forward about 30 or 40 years. We’re now aboard the colonization ship the Covenant. In a development that unfortunately mirrors last year’s PASSENGERS, the Covenant receives a slight bit of damage causing the main crew to awaken from cryo-sleep several years before their arrival on some earth-like planet where everybody is totally pumped to build log cabins for some reason. As it turns out, the Covenant’s crew is comprised of bland or sorely miscast character actors. There’s Billy Crudup as an insecure second-in-command who, through awkward expository dialogue, alerts us to the fact that he is a man of faith who takes the funerals for his fellow crew members as a personal insult. Katherine Waterston plays her Ellen Ripley surrogate as if she was channeling Jane Adams, in that she’s just frayed nerves and dewy eyes. It makes you wonder if she is going to fight the aliens or is Jon Lovitz going to call her “shit” after he rips a gaudy Franklin Mint ashtray out of her hands? Danny McBride is here and he’s doing a toned down variation on his foul-mouthed Apatow-ian redneck character (at one point he calls a character sweet tits). Seeing him in this is about as distracting as it would be to see Buddy Hackett play a wise-cracking purser in the original ALIEN. Yet it’s still not nearly as distracting as the fact that James Franco briefly appears as the ill-fated captain of the Covenant and Waterston’s husband. Like McBride, it’s not clear why he’s in it. Especially considering that he’s doing that weird thing where he seems to be appearing in this because he thinks it’s ironic or funny or whatever. Fassbender is on hand as well as another android called Walter who speaks with an American accent so atrocious you think it’s going to be part of a big reveal; sort of how Ben Kingsley’s bad American accent was part of the twist in IRON MAN 3. But no, it’s just bad.



As Walter and the main crew attempt to repair the Covenant, they stumble upon a distress signal from a nearby planet. Since nobody wants to return to their cryo-chambers because -- well, the film doesn’t really explain why they don’t want to return to their cryo-chambers. Which is weird because it doesn’t look that bad. There’s no catheters you have to get hooked up to or anything. I guess everybody just wanted to stay up, drink Dr. Pepper and play Super Mario Party for the next 45 or so years. Nonetheless, Crudup proposes instead to colonize this nearby planet. Of course, this is the same planet from PROMETHEUS where David was infecting his fellow crew-members with an alien virus. And, hey, wouldn’t you know it? It turns out that David has been living here in what appears to be a genuine, motherfucking Dracula castle, growing out his robot hair (Why would Weyland program this option into David? In addition to repairs and average ordinary upkeep, why would you want the extra hassle of a giant goddamned Dolly Surprise who requires a fresh Richard Spencer haircut every two weeks?) and waiting for more humans to infect. Why? Again, I don’t know. You’re going to have to visit Ridley Scott at his H.R. Giger designed spinal-phallus stronghold and ask. Because even though he’ll happily explain to you why in interviews, he’s unwilling to put that same information in his movies.



The smartest thing Ridley Scott ever did with the Alien franchise was in handing over the directorial reigns to people like James Cameron, David Fincher and, yes, even Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Because even if most of those particular films were flawed, they still had their own distinctive identities and managed to take the franchise in slightly different directions. They weren’t simply one man going, “Ugh. What? Oh, Xenomorphs, right? That’s the thing you like, right? Whatever. I need my tumbler of black alien jizz. Needy pricks.” Apart from some moments of Cronebergian body horror that take the facehugger concept and make it far more terrifying, ALIEN: COVENANT feels like it was made by someone who made too many compromises and doesn’t care anymore. Someone who’s blindly going through the motions just to get it done. It’s less a creative act and more of a contractual obligation. ALIEN: COVENANT is lifeless and rote. Even worse, COVENANT manages to retain everything bad about PROMETHEUS. Character development is clunky, subplots are introduced and suddenly dropped and it’s still very, very stupid. Do the space helmets in the Ridleyverse constantly smell like a combination of hot dog burps and that farty smell Campbell’s soup makes when you open the can? Is this why characters are constantly compelled to take them off on weird alien landscapes? If an effete android with implacably sinister intentions asks you to follow him to his castle basement and tells you to stick your head in a vaginal Venus flytrap thing, would you do it if he asked nicely and just had a temper tantrum because you killed his pink alien buddy that slaughtered your fellow crewmates? What was up with that slapsticky sequence where two different people slipped on blood? Wouldn’t it have made more sense in the Friedberg & Seltzer parody movie version of COVENANT? If that wasn’t enough, it also retains all of PROMETHEUS’ pretention. A low point occurs when Walter and David argue over who wrote Ozymandias and it’s like watching a knock-down-drag-out-fight between the guy who has a bumper sticker that reads, “My Other Car is a Pynchon Novel” and the dude who goes to the bar alone to pretend to read Infinite Jest. It’s “smart” in that empty, showboating way that blowhards in their early twenties consider to be smart.

ALIEN: COVENANT could be summed up by the scene in which two Michael Fassbender’s make out: It looks really good but it doesn’t go where you want it to go and, most importantly, there’s a lot of build up for such a small disappointing payoff. In short, if you’re bold enough to include hot, steamy Fassbender on Fassbender action, you better follow through to its bitterly erotic end.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Film Review: THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS by Mike Sullivan


Who wrote THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS series? Whoever it is, please don’t tell me. Never reveal to me the identity of the writer or writers behind this franchise. In my mind the true author of these screenplays is a dimwitted man-child in an engineer’s cap who recently realized that cars aren’t those things with the sails that float. I want to believe that before his screenplay was given a slightly different rewrite, it was just 200 pages of the words ‘family’, ‘vroom’, ‘that’s what I’m talkin’ about’ and pictures the screenwriter traced out of the most recent issue of CARtoons. I don’t want to think that an adult in their right mind who doesn’t constantly wear an engineer’s cap sat down in some place that wasn’t the top bunkbed in a halfway house and decided that a computer is somehow powerful enough to hack a reflection in a car window. Because this is the adult equivalent to a picture of ‘army guys doing war and stuff’ that a ten-year-old doodled in their notebook during math class. 

But whether the FAST AND THE FURIOUS franchise is written by a 48-year-old man named Jimmy who grabs gas station hot dogs off the rollers, shoves them in his mouth and wanders off without paying or a slumming Kenneth Lonergan under a pseudonym who is secretly making fun of the people that ignored MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (I was one of those people. Also, if true, fuck you Kenneth Lonergan), the series is still dumb. Granted, I’m not exactly breaking new ground by saying that, but the films are dumb in a way that never stops being entertaining. Somehow THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS sequels always manage to be dumb without teetering into the two hour, ice cream headache inducing abyss of stupidity that is any given Michael Bay movie. And though slightly aware, they never sink to the insufferable level of I’m-not-nearly-as-clever-as-I-think-I’m-being’ self-parody of the SHARKNADO series. It’s a very difficult balancing act and at any moment the series could easily stumble and fall into either extreme but with THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS, the series still manages to prove that a dumb movie is sometimes better than a legitimately good movie. At least in terms of entertainment value.


THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS opens in Cuba. Why it opens in Cuba, I’m not sure. I’m also not sure why the series insists on making Michelle Rodriguez and Vin Diesel a couple. Watching these two kiss or share pillowtalk is like watching an Arby’s Meat Mountain sandwich wrapped in a black tank top get dropped on top of a concrete slab that someone sharpied a frowny face upon. I think this why the characters are rarely seen together throughout the film’s two-hour-plus running time. At any rate, they’re in Cuba and they’re using their very shaky grasp of car-mechanics to settle a score with a smug repo man. Basically, the pair challenge him to a street race in a CHITTY, CHITTY BANG, BANG whimsy-jalopy that’s rigged with a soft can pull tab that makes the car drive backwards really fast. They manage to somehow win the race but being that Diesel’s character is nothing short of a Christ-y, Oprah-like figure, he gives the repo man a car just for trying. In fact, he basically gives everyone a car within earshot because even though Diesel looks like the Thing from the Fantastic Four after somebody buffed his cracks out with Bondo, he’s a good dude. From there, THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS awkwardly reminds you once again that this series stopped being about illegal street racing several sequels ago and is now -- quite inexplicably -- about illegal street racers who secretly drive really fast for the government to stop bad guys. Charlize Theron, looking like she just shot a sketch about freegans for PORTLANDIA, blackmails Diesel into helping her commit crimes for reasons I could never fully grasp. Something about a nuclear powered submarine that can destroy all of the Wi-Fi? I don’t know. Nonetheless, we don’t immediately find out what she has on Diesel. She just shows him something on her phone. Personally, I was hoping it was that picture of Diesel looking dopey and bloated without his shirt on that took the internet by storm a few years back.


At this point, I lost whatever narrative thread was driving THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS. But that’s ok, because plot is disposable and only presented in the five minute increments that exist between the film’s various automotive pop-shots. Which is just as it should be because if this film was nothing but automotive pop-shots, you’d never be able to go to the bathroom and the world of THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS needs to be entered on a bladder that is as empty and voided as humanly possible. This is a world where oily pork mounds like The Rock and Jason Statham wear provocative muscle shirts, kick each other in the chest and inanely tough talk each other in locations that simultaneously function as highway underpasses and abandoned factories. This is a world where one woman -- apparently cosplaying as 4 Non Blondes’ Linda Perry -- can hack into and somehow control every car in Manhattan. This is world where -- Holy Fuck! Is that fucking Helen Mirren?!? What the fuck!?! Helen “Fucking” Mirren is in this fucking film! In short, it’s a flashy, shallow world but in a way it needs to be because it doesn’t understand what character development or even dialogue is. Theron’s character isn’t a character as much as she’s the stiff semi-human equivalent to that scene from THE DARK KNIGHT where the Joker wires the two ferries to explode. The word family is said so much THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS eventually becomes a feature length Olive Garden commercial with shrinkage jokes. By the time Jason Statham is running around on a plane murdering Theron’s henchman as he carries around Diesel’s character’s son (we know it’s his son because the kid looks like he’s trying to figure out who farted in an elevator after he was hit in the face with a frying pan) it’s such a relief because nobody really needs to say anything. Least of all Diesel, who at this point in his career sounds like an unfair SNL sketch character version of Vin Diesel.


If it sounds like I’m being way too hard on THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS, I kind of am. Not just because it’s a very stupid movie that just wants to give the world a scene where The Rock leans out of an SUV and casually guides a missile away from scratching his vehicle but also because I genuinely loved this movie. It’s THE AVENGERS if it wasn’t so up its own ass about its convoluted mythos. It’s what happens when 11 TANGO AND CASH's makes love to 12 DEMOLITION MAN's. It’s the sweatiest, gayest porno movie ever made after it was re-contextualized into something a J.G. Ballard character would masturbate to on YouTube. Much like my love for The Grand Mac at McDonald’s, I realize that championing this movie makes me part of the problem but on the other hand, my love for The Grand Mac means I won’t be around much longer. So relax and enjoy TONI ERDMANN or whatever.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Film Review: TERKEL IN TROUBLE (2004) by Mike Sullivan

The worst part about the success of SOUTH PARK isn’t that it was the show that launched a million bad Eric Cartman impressions. Nor is it that, for a few years, it emboldened Trey Parker and Matt Stone to use their series as a cudgel to beat their contrarian, lib-bro-tarian values into the skulls of their fan base, it’s that the show’s perceived simplicity made hacky individuals think to themselves, “Pfft. I could do that”. If SOUTH PARK never existed, Seth MacFarlane would have remained an obscure storyboard artist known only by the hardest of hardcore animation nerds. Even better, the Danish radio serial TERKEL IN TROUBLE would have never been adapted into a poorly animated but still popular movie. In some ways this would have been a slightly less awful world. 


Written by stand-up comedian Anders Matthesen (who supplies most of the characters’ similar sounding voices in the original Danish version), TERKEL IN TROUBLE is basically how most critics perceived SOUTH PARK to be in the late-'90s, in that the film really is just pre-teens swearing, farting and killing each other. Bullied at school, ignored at home and currently receiving death threats for accidentally sitting on a spider, Terkel is a mopey, adenoidal lump who, like every other character in the film, looks like a flayed, plasticine mole and never stops being the personal doormat to the world. Along with his best friend Jason (who carries around a lead pipe simply for the purposes of foreshadowing), Terkel drives a classmate to commit suicide, numbly watches as his little sister blinds herself with forks and slips in a big puddle of piss because piss is the ultimate utmost in red-raw edginess, dude (as is Hitler cameos! And child-molestation sight gags! Somebody stop this envelope before it gets pushed too far!) There’s nothing inherently wrong with filling your comedy with unlikable characters but shouldn’t those unlikable characters be funny in some way? Because apart from the clever opening that satirizes those wannabe SE7EN-style credits sequences that were so ubiquitous in the early aughts and a song (yes, this is a musical. Thanks again, SOUTH PARK), from a criminally negligent children’s help line operator, there’s nothing particularly funny about TERKEL IN TROUBLE. The film lacks a motivating factor and specializes in the kind of bland nihilism preferred by 14-year-olds who think they’re blowing your mind that their Facebook profile picture is of themselves flipping off the camera. Very much a product of its time, TERKEL IN TROUBLE boasts a pair of rap rock numbers, gratuitous references to THE MATRIX and the kind of jittery, unappealing computer animation that wouldn’t make the grade as a video game cut-scene nowadays. In short, TERKEL IN TROUBLE isn’t the kind of movie you watch, it’s the kind of movie you grow out of.



Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Film Review: INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE by Mike Sullivan

From the moment it was released, INDEPENDENCE DAY was already a yellowing Taco Bell Collector’s cup of a movie, awaiting the day when people at a flea market would absently pick it up, snicker and then put it back where they found it. A film so disposable and so of its time, it should have bypassed theaters completely and simply released in pog form. Like AVATAR, INDEPENDENCE DAY was an enormous success that somehow managed to leave almost no impact on the pop-cultural landscape. Apart from that exploding White House scene used in the trailer (but not the movie, for some reason) and Will Smith’s hotly contested pronunciation of earth, does anyone have memories of any other scenes or moments? Not even fond memories, just memories? As much as I dislike STAR WARS and the attendant fuzzie wuzzies brought on by the release of THE FORCE AWAKENS, I understand why people would be getting their nostalgic panties in a misty-eyed bunch. Getting nostalgic over INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE is like getting wistful over a discarded Big Mac wrapper.


Taking place twenty years after the events of the first movie, RESURGENCE exists within a film world in which the characters reverse engineered alien technology for the benefit of humanity, although apart from propeller-less helicopters, moon bases with the structural integrity of a Jenga tower and the existence of slightly more monorails, it doesn’t look that much different from our world. Also, why? If the aliens’ technology was so advanced, why the hell did they use our primitive satellites to communicate with each other in the first movie? At any rate, like a lot of elements in this movie, the advanced technology doesn’t amount to much because the aliens are very big. So big, that characters are compelled to remind us about this at least twice. But instead of throwing down their puny weapons in the face of such towering bigness, the world (but mostly just America) stands tall by pissing on the floor of this stupid alien threat’s spaceship and gives it a good ol’ fashioned American middle finger! Yee-Haw! Listen up you Extra Terristicles, when all-star-Mr.-USA-American Liam Hemsworth (who is actually Australian and boring) finally puts his penis away, he’s going to jump into one of your spaceships (which he inexplicably knows how to operate) and piss on your squishy heads with your own space-bullets! HA, HA! That’s what you get for messing with “erf” (but mostly just America)! However, pissing space-bullets and murder isn’t enough. Once we kill off the alien queen, an elderly lesbian named Cheyenne who works at a vegan coffee shop (Brent Spiner. Didn’t he play a scientist who died in the first film?) brusquely shoos us out of the theater with a promise/warning that they’re going to piss earth-bullets on the aliens’ home planet in the next movie!


If that sounds clich├ęd and a bit on the thin side, understand that RESURGENCE isn’t just two hours of people trying to kill aliens, failing, trying again and then urinating on the floors of whom or whatever is frustrating them. It also has too many characters. Of course, that surfeit of characters is there mostly just to accommodate the giant Will Smith shaped hole that sits in the center of this movie. One of those square pegs RESURGENCE repeatedly tries to cram into the Smith-hole, is Hemsworth, and, for Christ’s sake, could we please leave all of the Hemsworthing to brother Chris from now on? Liam is like a Ken doll that somehow memorized a year’s worth of Garfield punchlines. I don’t want to watch him in a movie even if he’s pissing on the floor of a spaceship. But still, he’s here playing a test pilot or a moon miner or something and he’s also interacting with Jessie T. Usher and IT FOLLOWS' Maika Monroe as other test pilot-y, moon miner-ish characters who shoot things and say generic things like “Did you miss me?” and “We’ve got company!” But who cares about them? All of your favorite characters that weren’t Will Smith or Randy Quaid are back! Such as Vivica A. Fox who the film can’t kill off quickly enough. There’s also a logy Jeff Goldblum who appears to be losing a personal battle against the bottle of Nyquil he chugged shortly before director Roland Emmerich shouted “action”, Bill Pullman playing President Whitmore in such an inexplicably enfeebled way it’s like the screenwriters were challenged by Emmerich to turn the phrase, “get off of my lawn” into a character and Judd Hirsch whose role isn’t just unnecessary but so stereotypically, offensively Jewish. Imagine if Garry Marshall was called in to punch up THE ETERNAL JEW with a kvetching grandpa who just wants a nosh and you’ll understand just how awful Hirsch’s character is here. About the only element that works in RESURGENCE is Deobia Oparei as an African warlord who, for ten years, had to hunt down and kill the aliens from the first film after they crashed landed in his small village. Why the fuck couldn’t RESURGENCE have been about this instead?


If there’s a plus side to INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE, it’s the fact that after 19 movies, the world is finally realizing that Roland Emmerich is Steven Spielberg with severe head trauma. Neither fun nor fun-bad, RESURGENCE is a slog and somehow manages to be dumber and emptier than its predecessor. INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE rips the rose colored glasses off of our heads and reminds us once again that nostalgia is a virus that will never, ever leave us.