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

Film Review: VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS by Mike Sullivan

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.

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.