Saturday, January 13, 2018

Film Review: STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI by Mike Sullivan

There were two movies America couldn’t get enough of in 1977. The first, STAR WARS, went on to envelope pop-culture in such a suffocating, ever-present degree that the only possible way to escape it is death. The second was SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, a film in which the late Jackie Gleason briefly made racist, southern sheriffs not just lovable, but nearly cuddly. In short, STAR WARS stuck around while SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT didn’t. But I wish it was the other way around. I wish I could walk into any one of three remaining FYE’s on the earth and see too many Sheriff Buford T. Justice dolls on the shelf instead of too many Darth Vader dolls. I wish I could go to any Halloween party and see the uncertain faces of women as they have second thoughts about being coerced by their soon to be ex-boyfriends into dressing as Paul Williams in Little Enos drag instead of Princess Leia in her ‘slave’ get-up. I wish I lived in that alternate universe where SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT: THE FINAL JUSTICE is playing in theaters instead of STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI.

I don’t like STAR WARS. I never did. When I saw RETURN OF THE JEDI as a child I got so bored, I tried talking to the kid sitting next to me. When he ignored me, I started kicking him. I’m not proud of that moment but there it is. I’m a petty, violent asshole who is easily exhausted by space dogfights. Now, with that said, the obvious question is, “If you hate STAR WARS so much, why did you sit through THE LAST JEDI?” Well, three reasons: Like mostly everyone else on earth, I already sat through the previous chapters in the STAR WARS saga -- for various reasons -- and figured one more couldn’t hurt. It wasn’t genuine interest as much as it was the same kind of misplaced completism that led to me owning a full set of McDonalds BATMAN FOREVER tumblers. Secondly, I had to witness the PINK FLAMINGOS-esque sight of Mark Hamill jerking off the nipple-y, boob-penis of a Muppet before glumly drinking its green milk-cum. Finally, I kept hearing how different THE LAST JEDI was from the other STAR WARS movies. How it was more SPACEBALLS than A NEW HOPE, that it destroyed the legacy of Luke Skywalker and how it allowed black men, Asian women and Laura Dern in a purple Supermarionation wig to tread on the bland, E.E. “Doc” Smith-like space mediocrities that comprise STAR WARS’ inescapable legacy. The mashing of a thousand caps buttons whittled down the pudgy, brittle fingers of various Redditors into Cheeto-stained nubs so that the world would understand that STAR WARS had ceased to be STAR WARS, and became SCARY MOVIE rewritten by Andrea Dworkin. Manic, over-the-top criticisms of THE LAST JEDI caused me to believe it was a Porg-filled fartstravaganza where Dern pulls down Oscar Isaac’s spacepants to dismissively flick his penis and ends with Mark Hamill looking into the camera to say, “Menstruation is not a crime” as John Williams’ iconic theme swells in the background. It seemed heady and exhilarating. But much like the Magic Cards that were stolen out of the backpacks of THE LAST JEDI’s most scathing critics back in high school, my high hopes were flushed down the toilet and laughed at. Contrary to whatever unsolicited opinions are being screamed at to disinterested clerks at your local comic shop, THE LAST JEDI is not a STAR WARS movie for people that hate STAR WARS, this is a STAR WARS movie for people that love STAR WARS so much they have to pretend to hate it in order to impress STAR WARS fans who are pretending to really hate it for reasons -- that as a non-fan of STAR WARS -- I’ll never fully grasp. In spite of the fact that THE LAST JEDI has minor progressive touches and even slighter attempts at genre subversion, this is a STAR WARS movie right down to the cardboard characterizations, bad pacing, clunky dialogue, and the kind of comedy that suggests the only thing every STAR WARS creative team can agree on is that nothing will be funnier than the sight of those rats running the diner in THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN.

Still, as much as I disliked THE LAST JEDI, it has something I never experienced in any other STAR WARS movie, moments that not only stayed with me by the time I left the theater, but also caused my cold, STAR WARS-hating heart to unthaw but in that ineffective way a bottle of soda that gets pushed to the back of a fridge unthaws. It’s still a lot of ice. Although the sense of humor in this series still errs on the side of sub-Muppety, baby whimsies; genuinely amusing moments are almost hidden amongst gags involving terrified quivering robots and screeching CGI bird-things that look like Danny DeVito reinterpreted by a Sanrio artist. The film opens with a solid laugh as Isaacs’ Poe Dameron taunts Domhnall Gleeson’s fey authoritarian General Hux by pretending to have trouble with his communication device which causes Gleeson’s standard, bad-guy monologue to be repeatedly undercut by Isaac’s requests to, “hold please”. It’s funny simply because of how unexpected it is. The STAR WARS film universe is earnest to a deadening degree and to see something this sarcastic and self-parodic is refreshing. Unlike THE FORCE AWAKENS, which couldn’t stop reminding you of the past and felt like one of those cast reunion sketches Jimmy Fallon used to smirk through on THE TONIGHT SHOW, THE LAST JEDI isn’t as beholden to the original films. C-3PO is finally presented as the grating irritant he’s always been, one that’s openly ignored and mocked by the characters. Luke Skywalker isn’t just an embittered hermit but almost an attempted child murderer (more importantly he drank the green milk-cum that came out of a Muppet’s nipple-y-boob-penis). The darker, more adult streak Gareth Edwards was trying (and failing) to bring to the franchise with ROGUE ONE is better realized in THE LAST JEDI as it addresses class issues and politics with a degree of nuance the series is usually unwilling to explore (and by explore I mean the film addresses the fact that classism and war profiteering exists. Not exactly groundbreaking points, but a big step for STAR WARS). Yet as the film gently deconstructs its own tropes, it’s also tweaking expectations in surprising ways. Particularly in the way it depicts Isaac’s brash, hotheaded flyboy archetype. Initially, THE LAST JEDI appears to side with Poe because he gets results, man, and Princess Buzzkill (Carrie Fisher) and Admiral Holdo and her stupid Dame Edna wig won’t allow him to just go out there and fuck shit up, y’know? But then the film reminds us that he managed to get a number of his own men killed with an impulsive, half-hearted attempt to take out one measly spaceship, nearly gets John Boyega and Rose Marie Tran’s characters killed in an ill-considered secret mission that backfires and kills several more resistance fighters and commits mutiny simply because Dern wouldn’t let him in on her secret plans even though she was under no obligation to do so. After decades of Hollywood deifying the image of the loose cannon, THE LAST JEDI has the courage to finally explain why the police commissioner is grinding the captain’s ass: Harry Callahan, Marion Cobretti and anyone who insists on playing by their own rules are glib, harmful lunatics who would blow up your house if it meant they would get to say, “there goes the neighborhood” to your smoldering corpse. The only thing separating Martin Riggs from Jason Voorhees is a hockey mask.

Yet as great and as promising as all of those above moments are, they’re still just moments. Blips in a nearly three hour movie. It’s amazing all of the uproar these things have caused because they’re almost negligible. Splotches of gray have entered the film universe but the characters’ motivations are still decidedly black and white. In spite of all the ways Rian Johnson has attempted to revise, update and otherwise shake-up the franchise, he’s still leaving basic characterization to the people who write the extended universe. As in THE FORCE AWAKENS, the characters -- with the exception of Luke and Benicio Del Toro’s stuttering code master -- are devoid of personality. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (Boyega), Kylo Ren, and even Andy Serkis’ Snoke are bland sci-fi ciphers, the kind of uninteresting clichés people would be ridiculing if these movies weren’t released under the STAR WARS banner. When Driver murders Serkis’ twisted Emperor Palpatine simulacrum towards the beginning of the third act, the moment carries no impact because we don’t know who this character is. He’s just a John Merrick looking motherfucker that likes to yell and wear gold lamé. Who cares? Additionally, Johnson undoes the goodwill generated by one of his gutsiest and most unexpected twists by having Dern note dreamily that she “likes Poe” after he held a gun to her head, called her a traitor and proceeded to kill several more resistance fighters. Sweet, sweating, ab-crunching Christ! Have the dudes who called this movie a SJW atrocity even bothered to watch it? Poe’s sociopathic actions not only carry zero consequences, they’re making everybody on screen dangerously horny and, realistically, nobody should want or need Llewyn Davis inside them after all of the selfish bullshit he pulls. Even worse, THE LAST JEDI is at least a half hour too long, which means we get much more dialogue like “Get your head out of your cockpit”, “Let’s go Chrome Dome” and “We're going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love!” which is so cloying your aunt should stencil it underneath “Live, Laugh, Love” on the walls of her dining room. Oh, and if you seriously think that Rey’s parents are exactly as Kylo Ren describes (scummy, faceless drunks buried in a pauper’s grave), you’ve either never seen a STAR WARS movie or you suffered severe head trauma before you entered the theater. I guarantee that in the next sequel her parents will be revealed as some kind of Jedi royalty or an already established character like Sy Snootles, Lobot or Loki (Disney owns both properties. Why not?).

Obviously, I’m not the audience for THE LAST JEDI, but even though I didn’t enjoy it, I didn’t exactly hate the experience either. Johnson is bucking against the constraints of audience expectations and that’s a good thing because this franchise has been coasting on nostalgia for close to twenty years. There’s a sense that the creative team wants to stop massaging every inch of its fanbase’s brain with rose-colored, STRANGER THINGS-esque memories of Gatorade Gum, Big Wheels and puppet Yodas and finally move forward. Who knows? I might actually like the next chapter in this unending saga, but I kind of doubt it. Unless it involves an unsettling, CGI Burt Reynolds causing a Southern accented Josh Gad to angrily throw his cowboy hat on the ground, I’ll probably avoid it.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Film Review: JUSTICE LEAGUE by Mike Sullivan

Zack Snyder strikes me as a man who would corner you at a party and evangelize over Atlas Shrugged. He also strikes me as someone who not only thinks Atlas Shrugged was written by John Galt, he also keeps referring to the Ayn Rand character as ‘Don Gall’. Joss Whedon, on the other hand, reminds me of every loud, industry wannabe who’s constantly holding court at your local comic shop. Someone whose idea of a joke is saying anything with a sarcastic lilt or whose conception of female empowerment is I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE if it was watered down with Scooby Doo references. Together the pair has reaffirmed the public-at-large’s most unfair, clichéd perceptions of nerd culture. It’s also why I treated their unintentional collaboration on JUSTICE LEAGUE with the same degree of apprehension you give to a blood test you know will come back positive. You just sit there trying to keep the inevitable at bay with happy but empty thoughts like “Maybe it’s going to be OK” or “Maybe it burns because I’ve been drinking too much coffee? That’s a side effect from drinking too much coffee, right?” but, no. Eventually reality proves your instincts were correct and not only was JUSTICE LEAGUE terrible but you’re kind of justifying the pain and disappointment by telling people things like, “Well, Robin Williams had it too.” Basically, what I’m trying to say is that I hated JUSTICE LEAGUE and I have herpes. Also, I have been told by a reliable source that -- legally -- this counts as a phone call.

Like Universal’s failed Dark Universe franchise, JUSTICE LEAGUE is the by-product of a rushed, knee jerk reaction to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Whereas the original AVENGERS was seen as a fun possibility if the other franchises did well enough, JUSTICE LEAGUE was going to happen whether or not MAN OF STEEL was a hit. Basing a billion dollar franchise around something so forced and inorganic isn’t quite ‘starting off on the wrong foot’ as much as it’s ‘getting pushed out of a wheelchair and landing on your stump’. In addition to the film’s cynical origins, JUSTICE LEAGUE also suffered from severe retooling after audiences and critics alike recoiled from the adolescent nihilism of Snyder’s BATMAN V. SUPERMAN. Snyder also had to leave the project halfway through its production due to tragic family issues. Whedon was then called in to finish the film in a directorial style similar to Snyder’s, something he was either unable or unwilling to achieve. With odds that overwhelming, it’s surprising that JUSTICE LEAGUE didn’t share the same fate as Tim Burton’s SUPERMAN LIVES. 

It’s also disappointing. 

JUSTICE LEAGUE is the kind of film that could have benefitted from a cancellation or a shelving or even a man to stand behind you covering your eyes with his hands. Anything that would have prevented anyone from gazing towards its direction and frowning. Although many will disagree, JUSTICE LEAGUE is worse than BATMAN V. SUPERMAN because the whiff of compromise is so incredibly strong. BATMAN V. SUPERMAN may have been the cinematic equivalent to a 35-year-old man storming off to his bedroom screaming, "They’re not called funny books, Mother," but at least it was tonally consistent. In JUSTICE LEAGUE all of that grim-dark, ‘please-take-superheroes-seriously’ bullshit awkwardly clangs against Whedon’s desperate attempts to Marvel-up the proceedings in a way that only Whedon can. Which is basically what Aaron Sorkin would do if Aaron Sorkin punctuated his quips by flicking Cheeto dust in your eyes. It’s all cutesy, joke-like dialogue combined with nerdiness so cringe-inducing it’s practically weaponized.

If JUSTICE LEAGUE is a movie, then one of those ‘This Season on GAME OF THRONES’ promos that run at the end of a season-opening episode is a movie. It’s just a feature length highlight reel of disconnected scenes that won’t make dramatic sense until the entire series unfolds -- and that seems about as unlikely as seeing a second Dark Universe movie. Of course, the confusion begins in the most obnoxious way possible: a slo-mo title sequence that looks like the dumbest guy in your high school stopped making YouTube videos of himself headbutting steel blade fans to make socially relevant videos for Staind. It’s Snyder at his most self-important and obvious, clumsily dragging real world issues into a movie where The Flash (Ezra Miller) faceplants into Wonder Woman’s (Gal Gadot) cleavage. In the intro, a skinhead wearing a black hoodie with the word MAGA silk-screened on it in the death metal font is shown kicking over a fruit cart owned by a woman in a hijab. Presumably, a scene following that in which a cackling man dressed as the Monopoly guy strangling a woman with the words ‘a living wage’ written on her chest as a teary-eyed Uncle Sam looks on was cut for time. If obvious editorial cartoons adapted and re-contextualized by whatever editing software Snyder uses to make all of his films look a photocopy of a photocopy of '300' aren’t your thing, know that he’s doing something similar with New Yorker cartoons. At the end of the sequence, a homeless man carries a sign reading “I Tried” and, although intended to be poignant, it feels like a laziest gag Roz Chast never drew. At any rate, what this overwrought sequence is trying to convey is that the world isn’t the same since Superman died in BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, even though the world was still pretty terrible when he was alive, what with all the rogue Michael Shannons flying around and the Senate exploding and people pissing into mason jars. Yet, regardless of how the world feels about the loss of Superman, the film more or less forgets about him and starts performing random chores until about halfway through the running time when the film suddenly stops bopping along to that Rebel Just for Kicks song playing at Target while it shops for detergent to remember, “Oh, shit! Superman is supposed to be in this!” At which point, Henry Cavill’s smug, Ted Bundy-like take on the Last Son of Krypton is hastily resurrected. And what an abrupt, anticlimactic resurrection. Imagine if Dr. Frankenstein brought his creation to life by throwing a toaster into a bathtub. That’s basically the extent of what happens here. Members of the Justice League dig up Superman’s corpse and dump his body into that Kryptonian amniotic chamber from BATMAN V. SUPERMAN that transformed a rubbery Michael Shannon dummy into a shambling wad of CGI animated dough that was probably more expensive than the Shannon dummy but looks far cheaper. As stupid as the “healing coma” was that brought Superman back to life in the infamous Death of Superman comic story, at least that didn’t involve Flash and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) heading into the moors with wooden spades like Burke and fucking Hare.

In any other movie, the resurrection of an iconic figure like Superman would be, if not the point of the movie, then at least a strong B-story. In this film it’s treated as an afterthought because JUSTICE LEAGUE is attempting to do in one movie what Marvel Studios did in six two-hour movies. Not only is it dealing with the rebirth of a major character, there’s also a plot involving something that looks like somebody’s ill-considered World of Warcraft avatar (the voice of Ciaran Hinds) stealing several “motherboxes” to annoy a wacky Siberian family? I guess? To those who have seen the film, what was the point of repeatedly cutting back to that family? To get hilarious gags where the daughter jokingly attempts to defend herself with bug spray? Because it’s not enough that two very different movies with ever changing, inconsistent tones that are not so quietly at war with each other, we also get fragments from the solo Aquaman, Cyborg and Flash movies -- that should’ve happened prior to JUSTICE LEAGUE -- wedged awkwardly into this mess. Out of the three, the Cyborg mini-movie is the default winner mainly for the presence of Joe Morton and relative newcomer Fisher. Aquaman (Jason Momoa), on the other hand, feels like RENEGADE-era Lorenzo Lamas, a Capri Sun commercial from the mid-90s and the intro to VIVA LA BAM were consumed and pissed into a bottle of Venom Energy Drink. He’s everything you thought was totally bad-ass when you were twelve and it’s embarrassing. But not nearly as embarrassing as The Flash. Ezra Miller -- usually good as creeps and weirdoes -- has a lot to say in this movie and it’s almost all in the form of precious zingers! Did you know he’s a black hole of snacking? You might say he’s a snack hole! Oh, that’s not his superhero suit, Batman. He’s a COMPETITIVE ICE DANCER!!! You can’t sit there, Penny! That’s Sheldon’s chair! Bazimples! He’s so adorably awkward it’s like seeing Zoey Deschanel play The Flash but without the thrill of her playing the SUPERFRIENDS theme on a ukulele really fast. A character who reeks of Whedon’s most grating tics, The Flash is clearly intended to be an audience surrogate even though he’s an obnoxious coward too afraid to do anything and never stops flapping his unfunny jaws. So, there you go DC movie fans, Whedon thinks you’re The Flash.

And that’s not all, we also get an amazing number of scenes where a dead-eyed, emotionally drained Ben Affleck trundles around in his bat suit without the cowl looking like a mopier version of Ralphie’s snowsuit bound little brother in A CHRISTMAS STORY, a cringe-inducing moment where Diane Lane and Amy Adams joke about “being thirsty,” J.K. Simmons standing around and not doing anything that would require him to get as buff as he was in the pre-production photos, Cavill’s distracting CGI upper lip and constant reminders that only Patty Jenkins seems to know what to do with Wonder Woman. In Snyder and Whedon’s JUSTICE LEAGUE, Wonder Woman is reduced to a den mother/fuck object whose superpowers seem to be looking stoic and reminding you she has an ass. Basically, she’s become the DC Universe’s equivalent to Black Widow. But as dumb and as ill-conceived as all of that may be, JUSTICE LEAGUE fails because it’s boring. For a film with so much story and characters, it’s surprising how slowly JUSTICE LEAGUE moves. It lacks the pacing of even a bad Marvel Studios movie, which is why I’m shocked that some people find this movie fun. Is it just for the thrill of seeing deep cut characters like Steppenwolf, the Parademons, Aquaman and the Green Lantern Corp. interact on the Silver Screen? Because I felt the same way after seeing Killer Croc and Captain Boomerang in SUICIDE SQUAD. Eventually the thrill goes away and all you’re left with is severe discomfort and a prescription for Valtrex. Seriously Janet, I’m not fooling around. Call a doctor immediately because you might have it too.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Film Review: BLADE RUNNER 2049 by Mike Sullivan

A friend of mine who likes to point out how often critics get it wrong will note the chilly reception THE THING and BLADE RUNNER received during their inaugural releases. In the case of THE THING -- a film Rex Reed called “a truly inhuman attack on human decency” not once, but twice in his hysterical review -- critics seemed to be a bit too distracted by Rob Bottin’s gooey creature effects to notice there was a film happening around them. Critics were also beholden to the inert Christian Nyby (but, c’mon we all know it was really Howard Hawks) helmed original and punished John Carpenter for tearing the rose colored glasses off of their nostalgic heads. There’s a sense of anger and confusion to these critiques, as if they were all still processing what they had just seen. That inevitably turned out to be the case when just a few years later THE THING was finally recognized for what it had always been: a modern horror classic.

On the other hand, those same people who missed the point of THE THING really understood what a vapid, self-important slog BLADE RUNNER was. Their negative reviews are as relevant today as they were in 1982.

A majority of BLADE RUNNER fans will tell you the main reason they love the movie is because of how it looks and sounds. But mostly its because of how it looks. It’s telling when art direction is the sole contribution a film can bring to its medium and art direction will always be BLADE RUNNER’s true legacy. The work of production designer Lawrence G. Paull and art director David L. Snyder defined the term dystopian future and was copied so frequently -- especially throughout the 90s -- the idea of a cramped, neon-infused megalopolis became an art department cliché. But without Paull, Snyder, DP Jordan Cronenweth or even Vangelis’ haunting soundtrack, BLADE RUNNER would be emptier than it already is. The story, characterization and “heavy thematic elements” are underdeveloped, shallow and so cursory they don’t seem inspired by the writings of Philip K. Dick as much as the hacked out ad copy on the back of a Philip K. Dick novel.  Additionally, Ridley Scott’s George Lucas-ian compulsion to tinker with and otherwise revise BLADE RUNNER every few years has stepped on the obvious point the film was trying to make. Batty isn’t “more human than human” if he spares the life of a Deckard replicant. He’s just a killbot protecting another killbot. For those who whine about Greedo firing first, at least Lucas didn’t throw in an additional twist that not only revealed Greedo didn’t actually shoot first but was actually Princess Leia in an alien mask. Lucas’ stupid creative decisions may slightly effect characterization but they don’t negate the film’s reason for existing. I won’t say that BLADE RUNNER is all style and no substance, but I will note that it’s a Patrick Nagel print in a trench coat. It’s that bad Nighthawk Diner homage in which Elvis is serving Bogart a frosty vanilla milkshake once a green LED strip was artlessly placed in the middle of it. It’s rag-weed and condescending guys with chain wallets who carefully explain to me why I’m stupid for disliking GHOST IN THE SHELL. In essence, BLADE RUNNER encapsulates everything regretful and embarrassing about my early twenties.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 is more of the same.

Now before I continue to rub my hate into the open wounds of its fanbase, I want to point out what I did like about BLADE RUNNER 2049. To start with, Ryan Gosling is good in it. An air of defeat hangs around his replicant character and Gosling plays him like a man whose reasons for living dwindle every day. Unlike Harrison Ford whose acting choices always seemed to be dictated around how much diarrhea he currently has and whatever gets him back to the hotel room quick enough to glumly stare into the darkness until he falls asleep on the toilet, Gosling brings depth to his android detective; not a sense of annoyed distraction. Incredible set-pieces emerge from the film. A sequence where Ford and Gosling fight each other in an abandoned Vegas lounge as malfunctioning holograms of Elvis and Liberace eerily blink in and out of existence around them is both otherworldly and knowingly silly. There’s also a surreal moment in which a replicant sex worker (HALT AND CATCH FIRE’s Mackenzie Davis) is hired to join Gosling and his girlfriend -- a sentient hologram named Joi (Ana de Armas) that is programmed to unconditionally love its owner. To BLADE RUNNER 2049’s credit, there’s a subtle emptiness in the way this relationship is depicted -- in a trippy, awkward threeway. And, of course, there’s Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography which manages to outdo Cronenweth’s work in the original, not just in the way he photographs sweeping irradiated Vegas desert vistas but the way he depicts people slowly walking through ultra-modern office buildings or talking to receptionists in orange-hued waiting rooms. Which is great, because there’s much more footage of people slowly walking through office buildings than there are of the sweeping desert vistas. But take away Deakins’ lyrical photography and you’re left with a half-finished film noir padded out with surveillance footage of people dejectedly wandering around a parkade. Speaking of dejected people, Gosling’s performance, as good as it is, is somewhat muted by the fact that his depressed character is adrift in a sea of the saddest faces imaginable. Everybody’s sad even though they managed to live through a famine. Even Dave Bautista is sad and this is a man who should always be photographed laughing his head off as he tries to eat a melting ice cream cone. If you cut out every scene where sad faces stare purposefully out a window or at their feet, BLADE RUNNER 2049 would barely be feature length. If Scott’s BLADE RUNNER was the video for Murray Head’s "One Night in Bangkok" if it was filled with flying cars, BLADE RUNNER 2049 is R.E.M.’s "Everybody Hurts" video recast with Neuromancer cosplayers.

Like every movie Denis Villeneuve has directed, BLADE RUNNER 2049 is hauntingly beautiful but that’s it. The experience of watching this movie in theaters could be replicated by having a friend hold an "Art of BLADE RUNNER 2049" coffee table book in front of you, have them turn the page once every twenty minutes and, every so often tell them to make dumb-guy profundities about how technology is dehumanizing us and how people stare at their phones even when nothing is on the screen and, “Hey! Who’s the real phone here? You or your phone? Think about it, bro!” Villeneuve was the perfect choice to pick up Scott’s directorial reins because, much like Scott, Villeneuve’s films imply depth without actually having any. SICARIO was alternately naive and obvious, ARRIVAL was cloying and derivative, and his breakthrough film PRISONERS was an affecting film about loss until it suddenly morphed into something resembling a Riddler origin movie. BLADE RUNNER 2049 is Villeneuve’s most bloated and facile movie to date. Like its predecessor, BLADE RUNNER 2049 feints towards a deeper meaning without bothering to develop or even dwell upon its themes. Fans will tell you that Scott was asking his audience what makes us human but it’s a question he neither adequately addressed nor seemed to have much interest in answering. Especially after watching his various director’s cuts. Villeneuve seems to be saying even less as he halfheartedly rehashes Scott’s freshman dorm deep thoughts but with the addition of pseudo-intellectual red herrings, like a character waving around a copy of Nabokov’s Pale Fire. It’s JOHNNY MNEMONIC after it got kicked in the head by a mule and thought it was a Tarkovsky movie because it didn’t move as fast as it used to. But still, it’s a genre movie with the appearance of meaning so people will continue to dissect it much in the way people dissect THE SHINING even though Kubrick’s message was never deeper than, “I needed a fucking hit after BARRY LYNDON ate shit at the box office!”

Yet, in addition to regurgitating Scott’s vague themes, BLADE RUNNER 2049 perpetuates the dimwitted sexism of the original (every female character in this is never anything more than a bitch, a killer, a prostitute, a victim or arm candy) as well as its tone deaf racial politics (why are the WASPiest individuals outside of a Coachella concert portraying an oppressed minority?). The film also gives us a Sean Young cartoon from an unmade SHREK sequel to unnaturally shamble through the uncanniest valley and take up a permanent residence in our nightmares (although, I’m hoping the CGI Sean Young can eventually team-up with the creepy plasticine Peter Cushing from ROGUE ONE for a romantic comedy). And if all of that still wasn’t enough, Jared Leto is here to remind us how truly awful he is. In spite of his method actor bullshittery the guy still plays every one of his roles like that hyper dude at the Halloween party who is dressed as the Joker and, goddammit, will BE the fucking Joker until that clock strikes midnight! Sweet Christ, only Eddie Redmayne is worse.

I realize I’m in the minority with this. Disliking BLADE RUNNER is as loaded as disliking CITIZEN KANE or The Beatles in that people see it as trolling. Nobody has to agree with my thoughts about BLADE RUNNER nor do I expect anyone to agree with me. All I ask is for people to give BLADE RUNNER 2049 a little more time before they start calling it a masterpiece or even the best film of the year. I can only assume that seeing a big budget sequel to a movie everybody thought would never have a sequel created a kind of false positive in its viewer’s brains preventing them from seeing just how thin and portentous BLADE RUNNER 2049 is. Even compared to its predecessor.

Maybe you genuinely believe BLADE RUNNER 2049 is masterpiece. If so, I hope you realize how much you sound like every STAR WARS fan in 1999 who insisted that THE PHANTOM MENACE was every bit as good as THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Critics aren’t the only ones that can get it wrong.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Film Review: Darren Aronofsky's MOTHER! by Mike Sullivan

When people say the metaphor is obvious in MOTHER!, did they mean to say it was obvious there was a metaphor in MOTHER!? Because I can definitely agree with the latter observation. MOTHER! is definitely making a point about something but what that point may be, I’m going to leave to our nation’s greatest minds to decipher. Like the guy in ROOM 237 who insisted Barry Nelson has a boner when he shakes Jack Nicholson’s hand in THE SHINING or that dude who just wanted to make sure I’ve earned the right to wear a RICK & MORTY t-shirt and that I’m not wearing it for the wrong purposes (it turns out that I didn’t). There is a message in MOTHER! but that message is conveyed with all the grace of someone whose idea of charades is to give you the finger with one hand while making that “c’mon, c’mon” gesture with the other. Interpretations as varied as nuclear catastrophe, a stealth biblical history and even the perils of fame were used by various critics and observers to explain away the strange nuances of MOTHER!. But much like the films of David Lynch or even Louis Malle’s BLACK MOON, MOTHER! is far more enjoyable if its surreal structure and imagery is taken at face value. Granted, this can be difficult considering that unlike Lynch or Malle, Darren Aronofsky’s dreamy, pointed images drip with so much purpose you can’t sit back and enjoy the sight of an angry mob accidentally breaking the neck of the dancing, Ooga-Chocka baby from ALLY McBEAL (was the CGI purposefully that bad in order to neuter the queasy impact of that scene?) without thinking it has something to do with the goddamned Giving Tree or something. In fact, you’ll never be able to separate the images from their perceived meaning because MOTHER! is nothing more than an object lesson. Luckily, it’s also an object lesson whose point is so muddled and opaque you’ll never really be certain what any of it means (unless you listen to Aronofsky’s interpretation, which, we will get to in a moment). Sure, you’ll have a theory of what the moral of the story may be, but then Kristen Wiig will suddenly appear on screen, shoot several prone bodies in the head before succumbing to an explosion and you’ll start to wonder if you should even care.

Speaking of Kirsten Wiig, is MOTHER! supposed to be a comedy? Because I was laughing pretty consistently throughout its two hour running time. To start with, an exclamation point is present in the title. That’s usually a film’s way of letting you know that a romp is waiting just ahead so you better fasten your laughing belts because this is going to be one hilarious ride (Notice to any publicist or P.R. person who may be reading this review: Please make this the pull quote)! Additionally, MOTHER! feels like a gritty, almost pretentious reboot of WHAT ABOUT BOB?, MADHOUSE and other basic cable mainstays from the '90s about unwanted houseguests. Basically, Jennifer Lawrence’s unnamed character is the Dr. Leo Marvin of the film. An uptight voice of reason whose frequent pleas to be left alone are ignored by her oblivious, unnamed spouse -- Javier Bardem -- who functions as this film’s equivalent to Fay Marvin. The Bob Wiley in MOTHER! is everybody who strolls into and quickly plants their ass in the sprawling Lawrence/Bardem estate. There’s Ed Harris as a strange old man who carries around a black-and-white snap-shot of Bardem (whose character is apparently a popular, high-profile poet. Which is probably the most unbelievable element found in MOTHER!) that looks like some highly goofy amalgam of an author’s photo, a high school yearbook portrait and a novelty Olde Tyme photograph from an amusement park. There’s Harris’ wife Michelle Pfeiffer, who drunkenly insults Lawrence, throws Lawrence’s wet laundry on the ground of her cellar for no explained reason and casually fucks an enfeebled, dying Harris in the middle of the day in the couple’s living room. There’s even Harris and Pfeiffer’s horrible sons who show up to the house uninvited just to beat each other to death over the contents of their dying father’s will in front of everybody. These guests, as well as the many guests that show up throughout MOTHER!, are all depicted as unstable, self-centered monsters and yet they all manage to delight Bardem even though many of them wander into their house and piss on the floor shortly before sitting on the couple’s kitchen sink until it comes crashing to the ground. Further strengthening the WHAT ABOUT BOB? connection is the fact that both films are about high-strung rich people learning about the joys/horrors of life through free-spirited poor people, both delight in putting its tightly wound leads through a series of unending humiliations and both end with the destruction of an ornate summer home. The only real difference is that MOTHER! is far more nihilistic and absurd. The reassuring face of Bill Murray is not on hand to remind us that everything is going to be ok. Instead, people are going to come into your house, kill your baby and then paint the walls of your living room in a misguided attempt at repentance. Sure it’s dark, but if you’re not laughing at that, you’re just not laughing.

Apart from being funny there is, as I noted earlier, a message. As indecipherable as the movie can be, it’s still hard not to draw your own conclusions. Maybe you were like me and assumed that MOTHER! was a feminist treatise. Maybe you thought Lawrence’s cipher-like performance and her frequent claustrophobic close-ups were Aronofsky’s way of uncomfortably placing the viewer in Lawrence’s shoes, a means to experience the constant aggravations, threats and indignities she faces on an hourly basis. Perhaps because Lawrence can’t have a single interaction without another character ignoring or treating her with a combination of hostility and condescension, you assumed MOTHER! was addressing the difficulties women face in the workplace or the world at large. Conceivably, you may have gathered that the third act about the warring cult-like factions that take over Bardem and Lawrence’s home is noting how organized religion alternately demonizes and marginalizes women. Mayhap you were struck by Bardem’s character, an unctuous cad who is never impressed by her accomplishments, finds himself marrying increasingly younger women, is described by Lawrence as someone who only “loves the way [Lawrence] loves him” and most tellingly, rips Lawrence’s heart out in the finale. And I mean that literally. If that was your interpretation, let me be the first to give you enthusiastic thumbs up, kiss you gently on the forehead and then whisper softly in your ear, “’Try again, you dunce. You fucking dunce.” Surprise! MOTHER! has nothing to do with anything I mentioned above. According to Aronofsky, MOTHER! is actually about climate change. Lawrence is an embattled Mother Earth protecting her home from careless outsiders, Bardem is a vain, self-involved God, while Harris, Pfeiffer, Wiig and the rest are supposed to be you and me: petty, self-destructive idiots stomping around on our giant carbon footprints, stinking everything up with our Burger King farts. Knowing this particular factoid ruins MOTHER!. Significantly. It not only removes the mystery behind the film, the clumsy allegory cheapens MOTHER! and places it alongside the same shame-based, hard sell approach to environmentalism as CAPTAIN PLANET and films like THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW. Realizing this is akin to the realization that every movie Brad Bird directed at Pixar was actually the same “Highlights for Children” spin on The Fountainhead. It’s so disappointing. Additionally, the environmental theme doesn’t clear up many of the film’s elements. It doesn’t explain what that yellow Alka-Seltzer-like substance is that Lawrence keeps taking every time she gets stressed out. It never really makes it clear what earth is supposed to represent (Is earth supposed to be Lawrence’s house? Or her baby? Both? Lawrence herself?). Nor does it explain what that third act hot take on religious fanaticism has to do with climate change or why religion has to play a role in this. If Aronofsky is going to wallow in loaded GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER level preachiness, why couldn’t Bardem’s character symbolize corporate greed or political non-action? Why is God getting dragged into this? I wish I could go back to those heady moments when I thought Aronofsky was telling me to stop being mean to ladies and that terrorism is bad.

And yet, even though Aronofsky ruined the experience of his own movie for me, I still can’t hate something this strange and upsetting. The kind of strange and upsetting you could only get on a twelfth generation VHS bootleg of an unsubtitled print of some Japanese movie from the '70s where yakuza members are murdering each other in a Technicolor chicken coop (more people need to see Hideo Gosha’s VIOLENT STREETS). MOTHER! somehow manages to out-weird Aronofsky’s NOAH and that had a rock monster with the voice of Nick Nolte and Ray Winstone as a guy who bit the heads off of lizards and carried a flaming sword. It’s also, thanks to DP Matthew Libatique, a beautifully shot movie with affecting performances. And considering the Rorschach Test qualities of MOTHER!, nobody will experience the film in the same way. You might be amused, enraged or horrified, but you’ll never be bored. MOTHER! is a flawed film. It’s a self-indulgent film. More to the point, it’s probably not a good film. It is however, the most unforgettable film you will ever experience and isn’t that what really matters?

Monday, August 14, 2017


I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong about this. Not just because I sense this theory doesn’t apply to Europe, but also because I could be misreading his reception in the U.S. Is it no longer cool to like Luc Besson? I ask because I’m pretty sure it’s no longer cool to like Luc Besson. Again, I could be wrong but I get the feeling that general audiences and even the more serious film-goers who would read this blog kind of just roll their eyes and yawn at the thought of a Besson movie. Why wasn’t the crazed, genre-defying LUCY a bigger hit or, at the very least, a cult hit? Two years after it was released, the film waivers somewhere in-between forgotten and loathed, overshadowed by the similarly crazed but inferior JOHN WICK. With every passing moment hits like LA FEMME NIKITA, THE FIFTH ELEMENT and the achingly French LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL slowly loosen whatever grip they had on the pop-cultural zeitgeist. Ridley Scott -- another purely visual filmmaker -- carries more weight than Besson does these days and that’s unfair. Unlike Scott, there’s no pretense to what Besson does. More importantly, Besson has never made a boring movie. He’s made bad movies. Several of them. Who remembers ANGEL-A? Or ARTHUR AND THE INVISIBLES? Or that Joan of Arc movie where Dustin Hoffman plays the voice of god? But as bad as these movies were, they were never boring. VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS is the closest Besson has come to making a film that is both bad and boring. Mind you, it never quite gets there but, fuckitty fuck, does it come close.

The film opens on an appropriately bewildering note as we’re thrown into an alien landscape without a pre-credits scroll or a voiceover to hold our tiny hands and reassure us that everything is OK. Blue, sylph-like aliens with tall willowy bodies happily go through their inexplicable daily routines as they wander in and out of seashell houses. Throughout this sequence, these otherworldly creatures rub luminescent pearls into their faces and feed those same pearls to friendly, Muppet-y, aardvark beasts that puff up and shit crystal-like objects into a well. Like the Pierre Christin/Jean-Claude Mézières comic on which this movie is based, it’s all very appealing in its Euro, Jean Girard (Moebius) inspired visuals. VALERIAN also has confidence that you’ll either figure out what’s happening on screen or simply adjust to the alien goings-on. Admittedly, the look of the aliens seems to be cribbed from those from AVATAR. But unlike James Cameron’s shrug-inducing creations, there’s a dreamy, almost creepy quality to these aliens. Like a Pixar project filtered through the surreal sensibilities of Alejandro Jodorowsky, it’s hard not to get your hopes up throughout these gently crazy moments. Of course, it’s only moments later when those hopes come crashing to the ground. As it turns out, these aliens appear to exist only in the dreams of Valerian (Dane DeHaan), a mopey secret agent/astronaut.

There’s a lot of odd casting decisions in VALERIAN: Herbie Hancock shows up in a surprisingly large role as earth’s defense minister, Rutger Hauer is cast as the president of earth, Ethan Hawke appears in a glorified cameo as Rihanna’s oily pimp, Olivier Megaton plays the sci-fi equivalent to a Wal-Mart greeter. Like Richard Kelly’s SOUTHLAND TALES, Besson peppers Valerian with non-actors and intentionally casts performers in roles they’re ill-suited to play. It’s an interesting experiment but like the casting in SOUTHLAND TALES, it’s an experiment that always doesn’t work. And the reason it doesn’t always work is because the camera is almost always focused on DeHaan and Cara Delevingne -- as Valerian and Laureline, respectively. Individually, they’re terrible, but together they suggest what would happen if texter/murderer Michelle Carter had been cast in dual roles in some kind of sci-fi infused Klumps tour de force. When we first see the duo they’re trading flirty exposition in a bored, disaffected way. DeHaan and Delevingne’s performance is reminiscent of Monica Vitti’s decision to play her titular character as a drunk, faintly annoyed socialite in Joseph Losey’s underrated MODESTY BLAISE. Unfortunately, in DeHaan and Delevingne’s hands, disaffected and bored reads as wooden and blank. They also look so much alike, I thought Valerian and Laureline were supposed to be incestuous fraternal twins, which is, ironically, a plot development that would have made Valerian a lot more interesting.

Still, Besson manages to briefly distract attention away from DeHaan and Delevingne’s deadening performances by introducing a set-piece so insane and so knowingly, beautifully convoluted that you’ll nearly forgive the film for the many flaws that will be forthcoming in the next two-and-a-half hours. For muddled reasons that will be kind of explained later, DeHaan and Delevingne pose as tourists in order to retrieve one of the Muppet-y aardvark beasts from the prologue at something resembling a decaying flea-market/refugee-camp on a very Tattooine-ish planet. What makes this sequence incredible is the fact that the flea-market exists in another dimension and all of its customers are required to wear a special VR Helmet in order to visit it. Throughout these moments Besson juxtaposes footage of DeHaan and Delevingne attempting to navigate through a separate dimension, in which everything seems to exist within one giant alien bazaar, while they clumsily stumble into various unseen obstacles in their own dimension. Although, flashy and CGI driven, there’s a sense of playful invention throughout this sequence the rest of the movie mostly lacks. Once they acquire the aardvark thing and escort it back to the titular City of a Thousand Planets (a/k/a Space Station Alpha), Valerian morphs into something inert and conventional.

It’s strange that Valerian falls apart the moment they arrive aboard Alpha, especially considering this is the exact moment when the film should be gaining even more momentum. If Alpha is the home to thousands of different alien species, why does this film world suddenly seem so narrow? Probably because this is the exact moment when Valerian drops its surreal set pieces and the plot kicks in. Valerian and Laureline are tasked with protecting Clive Owen as a space commander and not-so-secret badguy whose evil intentions Besson telegraphs almost immediately. If it isn’t obvious when Owen is rude to Herbie Hancock for no particular reason, it will be when it’s revealed he has a private army of killer robots that only listen to him. At any rate, the aardvark thing that Valerian and Laureline retrieved from the Phantom Zone garage sale holds the key to destroying a perceived threat that’s hiding in the center of Alpha. However considering just how transparently oily Owen’s character is, it’s easy to figure out that not everything is as it seems. As the story becomes more mechanical and the weirdness goes on an extended intermission, everything bad about Valerian is magnified. Dialogue, never Besson’s strong suit, is atrocious. The phrase, “We’ve got company”, may or may not have been uttered in this movie but it feels like that was the only thing the characters ever said. The dialogue carries the generic, unmemorable, fuck-it-there’s-going-to-be-a-laser-here-so who-really-gives-a-shit qualities of STAR WARS knock-offs and, let’s face it, STAR WARS itself. Making matters more unbearable is the fact that this bad dialogue is mumbled out indifferently by DeHaan and Delevingne who, again, are so sorely miscast in this movie. In a just world, they would have been models who made one ironic cameo appearance in a Larry Clark movie as junkies ten years ago before being mostly remembered for a mildly controversial VMA Awards scuffle in 2002. Maybe Marilyn Manson threw a phone at one of them or something. My point is, they both have the generic qualities of someone a decade ago whose fame was defined by the fact that they were hot enough for Wilmer Valderama to fuck and discard. Even worse, the film’s points about multi-culturism and the environment are heavy-handed but also unfocused and secondary. It’s like being lectured by someone about global warming who keeps forgetting what their point was and, instead, starts talking about their favorite episodes of FARSCAPE.

But sandwiched between these elements and way too many “funny” bits in which a trio of sleazy, alien informants speak in that sing-songy way Huey, Dewey and Louie completed each other’s sentences are genuinely amazing moments. At the end of the second act, the film diverges briefly from its storyline as Valerian and Laureline separate briefly. Laureline finds herself held captive by Ogres after she was snagged by fishing lure made specifically for tricking humans. Valerian is forced into enlisting the help of shape-shifting stripper (Rihanna) in order to rescue Laureline. For just a brief moment the anything goes craziness of THE FIFTH ELEMENT returns with a slapstick fight scene, Delevingne decked out in a strange ceremonial outfit that at first glance seems gratuitous but reveals a more practical, sinister purpose and a show-stopping music number in which Rihanna (who is fun, charming and underused) morphs into every possible stripper persona in a manner of seconds. But once this tangent ends, VALERIAN goes back to trying the audience’s patience for the remainder of its overlong running time. 

VALERIAN is not a successful movie. It’s uneven and, at times, surprisingly predictable. But, it’s not the trainwreck Rotten Tomatoes would lead you to believe. With that said, VALERIAN is still a disappointment. It’s probably one of the rare films that’s improved if you go to the bathroom a lot in movie theatres because you’ll miss a big chunk of the dialogue.

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.