Saturday, September 14, 2019

Film Review: FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW by Mike Sullivan

I won’t dispute that TANGO & CASH is a laughingstock. It’s an action movie that waddles towards the direction of parody but falls face first into a puddle of homoeroticism, prefers the puddle and lays there burbling out catty, tough guy one-liners while showing its finely toned ass to anyone willing to step over it. But is that really a bad thing? I ask because when the trailer for HOBBS & SHAW was released, many people compared it to TANGO & CASH, as if that was a terrible thing to equate it to. TANGO & CASH is basically an unconscious version of that live-action Troy McClure movie THE SIMPSONS’ writers wanted to make. There’s a car chase involving a dune buggy with monster truck wheels, a stripper who stops stripping in the middle of her act in order to perform a drum solo, a grenade is duct taped into someone’s mouth as a joke and Michael J. Pollard plays a crazy inventor! It’s excessive and stupid and probably one of the most entertaining action movies made in the past 40 years. Comparing HOBBS & SHAW to TANGO & CASH will have the opposite effect its naysayers intended. If you’re like me, you’ll walk into HOBBS & SHAW with such insanely high expectations you’ll only be able to walk away disappointed. So here’s a more accurate comparison, you know how McDonalds French fries are just appetizing enough to mitigate how disgusting they actually are? TANGO & CASH are McDonalds’ French Fries. HOBBS & SHAW are closer to the French fries at Burger King. You’ll eat it and it’s fine, you guess. But maybe the disgusting qualities slightly outweigh the appetizing ones? Maybe while you’re eating them you’re readily aware of how much better and different the onion rings with the zesty dipping sauce are -- which, in this tortured analogy, represent the FAST AND THE FURIOUS series. Basically what I’m trying to say is that I will eat my way through the kitchen of a Burger King until my heart explodes, coating everyone near me with the insouciant zing of Buffalo dipping sauce (the best dipping sauce at Burger King)!

In the same way that FRASIER was a spin-off of CHEERS, HOBBS & SHAW is a spin-off of the FAST & FURIOUS series. And much like FRASIER, the only time I’ll watch HOBBS & SHAW again is when I’m paralyzed by depression and trapped in a couch-based-fart prison of my own making. Now, before I go any further, I should point out that cyborgs and faceless, Dr. Klaw-like supervillains now exist within the universe of the FAST & FURIOUS series. Wasn’t this a movie about Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez stealing DVD players at one point? How is it possible that movies about really fast cars and “hot” outmoded home media players could comfortably fit within the Marvel Cinematic Universe if, for whatever reason, Disney acquired this franchise tomorrow? Imagine if RIVER’S EDGE turned into a franchise. Now imagine that what started as a film about troubled teens and the murder that affects their already fractured social circle, eventually morphs into a movie in which Crispin Glover, Dennis Hopper and Daniel Roebuck (as a ghost) travel around in a big rig killing river witches and swamp things. As stupid and jarring as the sight of a spectral Roebuck shooting lightning bolts at a witch in a paddleboat may seem, it still isn’t as jarring or stupid as the idea that the antagonist in HOBBS & SHAW is an evil cyborg (Idris Elba, who to be fair, is good in this) that performs dainty trick-riding stunts on a self-driving motorcycle.

Dwayne Johnson’s Luke Hobbs and Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw were the breakout characters of the FAST & FURIOUS series. People loved their flirtatious tuff-talkin’ and sexually charged drop kicks to each other’s masculine but inviting Double D’s. More accurately, unlike the other characters in the series, Johnson’s And Statham’s on-screen presence couldn’t be summed up as “a cement block with a frowny face sharpie-d on the front of it” or ”five pork roasts and three frozen turkeys carefully balanced on top of each other in the driver’s seat of a muscle car.” No, it was closer to a convulsing QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT-style mutation of biceps, lats and smirks. It was terrifyingly arousing. Yet as much fun as it is to watch immovable beef dunes make cruel assumptions about the size of each other’s dicks, it’s hard to picture these tendony, bipedal Clydesdales getting their own spin-off buddy comedy. Especially when these hard-bosomed he-chunks are such thin wisps of characters.

As characters, Hobbs and Shaw are the Saturday morning cartoon versions of both actors’ public personas. Everything about them is broad, one-note and not well-defined. Even their jobs seem like vague afterthoughts. Hobbs is an FBI-ish agent-like lawman? I guess? While Shaw is Oscar the Grouch wrapped within Richard Kuklinski wrapped within a Calvin Klein underwear model? I think? There really isn’t much to these characters beyond the fact that one is very big and the other is comparatively less big. Pairing up characters without a personality in a genre that demands big, clashing personalities isn’t a great idea. A worse idea is pairing up characters without a personality and -- through a split screen montage -- declaring to your audience that, in spite of the fact that they consume eggs differently, there aren’t any noticeable differences between these quivering ab golems. In essence, they remade THE ODD COUPLE with two underwritten Oscars who take turns jabbing each other in the balls and asking if they enjoyed their “maple nut taps” for two hours and fifteen minutes.

But what this film lacks in compelling, realistic characters, it makes up in scenes where swollen, puffy men poke each other in the chest and verbally assault each other with random entries from 1001 Zany Insults and Silly Slams for Little Stinkers. Look, I may not be the best judge of action movie one-liners. To me, they don’t need to be clever, just memorable. The bar for good action movie zingers stands about as tall as Sylvester Stallone calling Rambo a “pussy” in TANGO & CASH. So, realistically, you’d have to dig four feet underground just to shimmy under this bar. HOBBS & SHAW effortlessly shimmies under that bar with its assortment of clichéd, public domain put-downs. At one point, a craggy living monument to the glory of Muscle Milk threatens to shove his boot so far up the ass of Statham that he’ll be “coughing up laces for a month.” We’re nearing the end of the second decade of the 21st century, don’t we deserve fresher, livelier tuff-talk? Why couldn’t their insults escalate until they reached a fever pitch of unchained homoeroticism? Why couldn’t Statham grab Johnson by his shirt, lean in closely and hiss, “Call me the cow because your ass is grass and I’m ready to graze?” Because, as it stands, the homoeroticism in HOBBS & SHAW could be far more homoerotic. Sure, Statham and Johnson flash flirty ‘fuck me’ eyes at each other while they punch through the faces of an endless succession of stuntmen. But we’re far from the sight of a nude Stallone peacocking his way through a prison for beefy, flagrantly glistening men in TANGO & CASH. I keep hearing complaints about how millennials are ruining everything with their SJW, gender-neutral sensitivity tendrils but if that’s the case, why are action movies less gay nowadays?

Yet, even as I was disappointed by the film’s resistance to basic characterization; tepid, barely there homoeroticism and the fact that Johnson and Statham make a pretty dire comedy team (It’s not Johnson’s fault, Statham can’t sell stupid dialogue the way his co-star can), I was impressed that HOBBS & SHAW managed to not just retain the stupidity of the FAST & FURIOUS franchise but take it into new thunderously dumb directions. For example, the plot revolves around Shaw’s sister (Vanessa Kirby, who like a cameoing Helen Mirren, is a bit too overqualified for this), injecting herself with an ill-defined nano-virus that liquefies organs. Eventually. Not right away. It takes several days and one exciting globetrotting adventure before your organs even start to soften, apparently. At any rate, Kirby does this in order to keep the virus out of the hands of a cybernetically enhanced Elba who, like the bad guys in ANGRY BIRDS 2, mostly exists in order to teach its protagonists the importance of cooperation. Of course, this barely there, afterthought of a plot exists only as a rickety framework to hang ridiculous stunts on such as a surreal FURY ROAD inspired sequence involving a helicopter and the tow truck equivalent to a Russian nesting doll. Let’s not forget the bizarre lengths the filmmakers go in order to justify the low-tech finale in which large Samoans beat Stormtroopers to death with wooden clubs. Evidently, Elba’s henchmen have guns that will not shoot without a decent wifi connection. It’s all very, goofy and absurdly unhinged. Yet, it’s never as much fun as it sounds.

Part of the reason why the FAST & FURIOUS franchise works is because as crazy as the films get, the tone is consistent. It’s not trying to laugh at itself, it doesn’t indulge in grating SHARKNADO levels of self-parody and its expansive almost Robert Altman-esque cast of characters insures we won’t hanging around any of these one-dimensional characters for very long. HOBBS & SHAW is tonally inconsistent. There’s something inharmonious about following up scenes of large men pointing at each other’s dicks and laughing as all the elephants at the San Diego Zoo are electrocuted (not actually a scene, but I’m hoping it appears in the sequel) with the cheesy earnestness of the FAST & FURIOUS’ “When You’re Here You’re Family” platitudes. The smaller cast also means we’re spending more time with the characters which seems like fun at first, but after twenty minutes you realize you would get a similar but more enjoyable experience by listening to "Shut Up, Little Man" over a loop of the Hindenburg exploding. I wouldn’t say that watching a movie like HOBBS & SHAW is like eating icing straight from the tube, mainly because it’s more like eating icing straight off the fist of someone who’s repeatedly punching you in the mouth. Which is to say it’s punishing, but not completely terrible.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Film review: DUMBO by Mike Sullivan

Did Tim Burton’s films always look like a leather jacket with a rockabilly Snow White airbrushed on the back? No, right? Yes? I don’t know anymore. Watching DUMBO makes you question everything about the director. Is he a talented visual artist with nothing left to say but isn’t above taking an easy paycheck? Did the oversaturation of THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS dilute his stylistic choices to such an overwhelming degree that now everything he does looks like off-brand Edward Gorey clip art? Were we so blinded by those once refreshing stylistic choices we never realized that the themes and messages of his films were never deeper than, “They laugh at me because I’m different. I laugh at them because they’re all the same?” Again, I don’t know because I’m afraid to know the real answer. Considering he now has a decade’s worth of loud, disposable, eye-searing, CGI-heavy Hollywood blockbusters to his name, I’m afraid the answer is that Burton has morphed into Michael Bay. Granted it’s a sexless, explosion-averse Michael Bay in a Robert Smith fright wig, but Burton’s films are no less headache-inducing or superficial. 

Even worse, because we now live in a world in which satire and its dumb, farting cousin parody are dead, Burton’s movies are now indistinguishable from a Funny or Die video mocking a Tim Burton movie. Tim Heidecker joked on twitter that he was cast as Ronald McDonald in Tim Burton’s -- for the time being -- fake McDonald’s movie, but the idea of Burton directing a Ronald McDonald movie is just as likely as him directing a DUMBO movie and maybe a little less ridiculous. Parody is useless in the face of DUMBO because nothing could be said about the film that the film doesn’t say about itself. At least unintentionally. After all, the McDonaldland gang seems a little more conducive to Burton’s ‘pale outsider’ trope and general mall-goth sensibilities than DUMBO does. Grimace even looks like a Burton drawing. Yet, with the possible exception of his unmade SUPERMAN LIVES, I can’t think of a concept more resistant to that Burton touch than DUMBO. But that doesn’t stop Burton from making yet another movie about an outsider who finds an unlikely family in an unexpected place while surrounded by sets that are the Disney Store equivalent to German Expressionism. Burton’s tics loudly clang against the simple, pastel storybook whimsies of the project and the end result is a MR. SHOW sketch that doesn’t realize it’s a MR. SHOW sketch. 

Burton has noted, “[he] wouldn’t know a good script if it bit [him] in the face” which explains a lot, but still, you would think, surely by chance, something would have bit him in the face at some point during the last twenty years. Did SLEEPY HOLLOW give him rabies and all of the good scripts were humanely put down after 1997? But with that said, there’s a big difference between recognizing a bad script and recognizing one that was written by Ehren Kruger. By that I mean there’s a difference between accidentally stepping in dog shit and willfully falling face first into a pile of elephant shit. Kruger was not only the screenwriter behind SCREAM 3, REINDEER GAMES and THE BROTHERS GRIMM, he was also responsible for three TRANSFORMERS sequels. For Burton to attach himself to a Kruger script after a long string of professional and creative disappointments seems to imply he didn’t care or couldn’t read. The script for DUMBO is bad, worse than ARLINGTON ROAD or THE SKELETON KEY or any of the $3 Walmart DVD bin titles Kruger’s name is typically associated with. Basically, it’s the story of a flying elephant told from the perspective of people who take in the majesty of a flying elephant with the tight smiles of actors on their twelfth take who can no longer pretend that a tennis ball on the handle of a Swiffer Wet Jet is a flying elephant. But where the original DUMBO ended at 64 minutes, the live-action DUMBO meanders onward for another 48 minutes with a takedown of Disney’s soulless commercialism that’s about as brave as telling your boss to fuck-off in a whisper while driving home from your job after you were fired. It doesn’t even feel like Kruger wrote a screenplay, it seems like he tried to wrangle an endless series of studio notes into a cohesive narrative. And most of those notes seem to be just the words “woker” written in blood across 120 pages. I understand Disney’s position in trying to distance themselves from all of the problematic parts of the 1941 version of DUMBO, but the updated elements carry the disingenuous and patronizing quality of Bradley Whitford expressing his questionable love for Obama in GET OUT. If Disney wanted to address the animal cruelty found in the animated original they just could have ended the remake with the titular pachyderm and his mother frolicking in the wild. It would be a perfectly fine, fitfully restrained conclusion. But we also get an epilogue in which the owner of Dumbo’s circus (Danny DeVito playing a sort of Disneyfied Frank Reynolds) announces he’s setting all the animals free and apparently replacing them with a zoetrope. If you can overlook the fact that this takes place in 1919 and just a few scenes earlier DeVito was keeping a monkey locked in his desk as a joke, it still feels like empty lip-service. It’s so perfunctory you wonder if the first draft of the scene was just “Note: DeVito died releasing all the circus elephants on the way back to his home planet” and Burton had to flesh that out as much as he possibly could. I appreciate what they’re trying to do but it isn’t subtle and this isn’t BLACKFISH.

Another idea that feels like a studio mandate: none of the animals talk. For me, if you have a flying elephant in your movie, you shouldn’t just have talking animals you should have three mops that sound like Jimmy Cagney and a farting Model-T that communicates through the snippets of Eddie Cantor and Rudy Vallee songs that play on its radio (like a turn-of-the-century BUMBLEBEE). Why are we trying to add realism to a movie where the first shot depicts a smiling, possibly sentient choo-choo train? Case in point, early in the film when Dumbo is revealed to have enormous ears during a circus performance, the audience – bizarrely – is so appalled by this, they start rioting. While this riot is going on, Dumbo’s mother is approached backstage by one of her handlers who starts taunting her! How is the idea of a talking mouse in a ringmaster outfit dumber than a carny berating an elephant by telling her “they’re all laughing at your baby boy” as if he was yelling at Carrie White about her dirty pillows? 

Of course, there’s the ideas that are specifically Kruger’s own. Ideas that reek of his unique dumb guy pretention. Colin Farrell plays a once popular trick horse rider who comes back from WWI as an amputee and is demoted to being Dumbo’s handler. Kruger desperately attempts to draw parallels between Farrell and Dumbo without realizing how insulting it is to compare someone with an actual disability to a fucking cartoon elephant in a clown hat performing loop de loops. At least Kruger’s trying to give Farrell a semblance of a personality. Everyone else is horribly underwritten, particularly Michael Keaton’s vague shrug of a villain and Nico Parker as Farrell’s daughter whose entire personality could be described as “likes saying the word science”. Parker’s character is so boring and underdeveloped her big dramatic moment revolves around her staring blankly at a Marie Curie mannequin. And then there’s the clunky references which are there to ensure that nobody’s ribs in the audience goes unnudged. Timothy the Mouse is given a superfluous cameo, cartoon Dumbo’s drunk visions of pink elephants is recreated with large soap bubbles in a sequence that furthers grinds this overlong movie to a screeching halt, Michael Buffer performs a cleaned-up, spoken word rendition of “When I See an Elephant Fly” before exclaiming, “Let’s get ready to Dumbo!” There’s other stuff, smaller stupider stuff, like the fact that Farrell suddenly has a steampunk robot arm at the end without explanation or the dog dressed up as a werewolf or that Dumbo can only fly when he inhales a feather through his trunk for. If all of this sounds like a so-bad-its-good-you-need-to-see-it-to-believe-it masterpiece, understand that all of this kitschy nonsense is not only couched within the horrible pacing of a late period Burton film it’s also represented by the hideous visuals of a late period Burton film.

How do you describe the production design of DUMBO? The closest I can get is a Thomas Kinkade mural based around the hallucinations of noted serial killer Joe Kallinger but somehow more chilling and mawkish. Instead of the floating, mouthless head of a child named Charlie, we get a CGI elephant that looks like somebody put googly eyes on your grandfather’s withered testicles. And sometimes those elderly, googly-eyed balls are in clown makeup. Dumbo is a concept that can only work in animated form because the sight of a wrinkly, hyper-real elephant with enormous Walter Keane-style baby blue eyes flying around a circus tent with Eva Green on its back is unnerving and unnatural. That scene in THE FLY where a panicked Jeff Goldblum carefully pulls out his fingernails is less intense than any flying scene in Dumbo. And like the Brundle-Fly, vomiting acid on his pint-sized tormentors looks more natural for this Dumbo than a playful squirt of water from his trunk. Of course, the uncanny valley quality of its titular character isn’t helped by the fact the sets in Burton’s DUMBO suggests what HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES would look like filtered through the pages of A Little Golden Book. Burton’s DUMBO either needed to carry the gentle, water-colored hues of a Mary Blair painting or just be a full-on gothic reimagining of the concept; a circus FRANKENWEENIE, if you will. Unfortunately, it’s sort of a half-baked fusion of the two extremes and it never stops being ugly.

I can could go on, but you get the idea. DUMBO is terrible and that’s not surprising. What is surprising is when you consider there was a time when a Tim Burton movie wasn’t an F.W. Murnau film recreated with Precious Moments figurines. Didn’t he make one of Disney’s most iconic animated films of the 90s? Wasn’t he capable of making a quirky family film that wasn’t dull or alienating? No. That was Henry Selick. Burton’s the guy who’d probably make a feature-length version of Kevin Spacey’s Let Me Be Frank video if you sold Spacey to Burton as, “the ultimate outsider” and ensured him that Spacey is in no position to refuse to wear a Bride of Frankenstein wig and whatever hybrid Victorian straitjacket/striped ringmaster’s suit Burton has picked out for him.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Film Review: AQUAMAN by Mike Sullivan

The weekend after AQUAMAN was released I overheard someone note in the magazine section of a Books-A-Million that “AQUAMAN was fun! Like the Brendan Fraser MUMMY movies!” I laughed when I heard this because comparing AQUAMAN to the MUMMY series seems like the faintest praise you could damn a movie with. Those movies aren’t fun as much as they’re ‘something not unpleasant to half-watch on the TV at the Pizza Wheel if you went there too early for your take-out order and your phone just died.’ 

But then I realized that the steadfast, admirable mediocrity of THE MUMMY series seems almost too high of praise for a film concept that for several years existed only as cultural shorthand for the creative bankruptcy of Hollywood and its willingness to adapt any recognizable IP into a multi-million dollar franchise. For decades whenever there was an announcement that some obscure or seemingly lame comic book property was being adapted into a movie, the clicketty-clacketty sound of a million hilarious and very original dudes typing the words, “What’s next? AQUAMAN: THE MOTION PICTURE?” on the AICN comments section immediately followed. The idea of a movie revolving around Aquaman was such a lazy, comic conceit that one of the laziest shows on television -- ENTOURAGE -- took this rejected ROBOT CHICKEN gag and mashed whatever gristle remained on this long-dead, beyond decayed horse into the be-Kangoled foreheads of its undiscerning audience for an entire season. As a film concept, AQUAMAN wasn’t just a joke, it was one of the oldest, unfunniest jokes you could ever tell. And yet, if a concept as unwanted and failure bound as AQUAMAN managed to be as pleasant and watchable as THE MUMMY, wouldn’t that make it kind of successful? If taken within those meager terms, AQUAMAN is kind of successful.

AQUAMAN isn’t a terrible movie, but the filmmakers -- much like the editors at DC -- are clearly overcompensating for what they perceive to be the character’s wimpy past. Aquaman is a badass! A FUCKING BADASS! Do you hear me? And orange chainmail and wavy blonde locks are fine for King Arthur and his knights of the fish fuckers, but not for this ain’t yo daddy’s Aquaman! Aquaman needs to look like a divorced dad’s panicked mid-life crisis fueled makeover if he thought Criss Angel was still relevant. Aquaman needs to be Renegade-era Lorenzo Lamas, a Capri Sun commercial from the mid-90s and the intro to Viva La Bam after it all of it was consumed and pissed into a bottle of Venom Energy Drink. Greasy, grisly guitar riffs need to punctuate his every move when he’s murdering a black guy on a submarine. He needs to be an awesome party dude who speaks frankly about urinating in, on and around ancient cylinders. Yet, even though director James Wan leans into the idea of an Aquaman who looks like he could be that guy in a Denny’s and ragweed scented SONS OF ANARCHY jacket hanging around the parking lot of a Five Fingered Death Punch concert hassling people for tickets, the film clearly seems more at ease with the idea of a perma-grinned Aryan Aquaman; the kind that never stops waving at an unseen audience as he rides around on a giant seahorse. Seemingly inspired by THOR: RAGNAROK, AQUAMAN doesn’t take itself too seriously. But whereas the third Thor movie was helmed by a comparatively more artful director with a strong grasp of what does and doesn’t work in a comedic sense, AQUAMAN seems to be helmed by the same 35 writers behind THE FLINTSTONES movie. At one point an octopus is seen playing the drums, at another Amber Heard is seen wearing a prom dress made out of a squid and several jellyfish, a character calls another character a, “slack-bellied slug.” Hell, there’s even a bit involving the reverse scuba suits worn by Atlantean soldiers (why some Atlanteans can breathe on land unassisted while others can’t isn’t explained) and the desperate lengths these soldiers will go if their suits are compromised on land -- they’ll stick their head in a toilet. If RAGNAROK was a live action Jack Kirby comic, AQUAMAN is a nearly three hour episode of JABBERJAW. This is a cartoon. A dumb cartoon that’s dumb cartooniness is reflected in Heard’s cheap-looking, four-color getup as Mera. Heard doesn’t look like she’s playing a character as much as she looks like she’s cosplaying as a character from the AQUAMAN movie.

Yet as dumb and as cartoony as AQUAMAN is, the film is needlessly convoluted and bloated. A superhero movie with a message about the importance of believing in yourself shouldn’t be the exposition equivalent to THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT. Characters explain things within explanations within exposition-laden flashbacks of a Poseidon hologram made of water reciting exposition. Like too many superhero movies, AQUAMAN is mostly a bunch of actors in front of a green screen taking turns reading a Wikipedia entry about the property the movie is based on. But apart from the exposition, AQUAMAN is way too long. Roll your eyes as much as you want when discussing Tim Burton’s BATMAN, but it’s a leaner and a far better paced film. BATMAN didn’t need a twenty minute prologue revolving around the courtship of Batman’s dad and a freegan with white girl Trustafarian dreadlocks that lives in the ocean (Nicole Kidman). BATMAN didn’t take a break from its storyline so that its titular character could go on a treasure hunt in a sequence that plays like an unwanted mash-up of SAHARA, SPLASH and UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN. BATMAN didn’t need to nudge its audience in the ribs about past events while simultaneously setting up future events as if it was the fifth episode of an AMC series in its third season because it was a movie with a beginning, a middle and an end. Not a cog in the wheel of a bigger franchise that’s cycling through an endless second act.

But, again, like the Brendan Fraser MUMMY movies, AQUAMAN isn’t terrible. In fact, there’s quite a few things I liked. To start with, everyone is floating in this. Dolph Lundgren, Willem Dafoe, Graham McTavish and the rest are all bobbing unnaturally along in the ocean while standing bolt upright, arms crossed, their hair flailing wildly. Untold millions spent on CGI and everybody is stuck in an eerie tableau as if they were discarded JC Penney mannequins that were chucked into the river. And speaking of off-putting CGI, I loved the goofy touch of having Oceanmaster’s metallic helmet mirror the facial expressions of its wearer: the deeply unappealing Patrick Wilson. Watching a helmet cry out in anguish was nearly as sweet as seeing Wilson -- an actor who in a just world would play nothing but a string of pissy, insecure high school math teachers in either Alexander Payne or Todd Solondz movies -- accept the role he should have played far sooner: an unctuous racist with gills. On a less backhanded note, I genuinely liked Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta and the relationship he shares with his Somali pirate father (Michael Beach) and wished the movie could have instead been about these two robbing atomic submarines or stealing inexplicably advanced Atlantean technology. Unfortunately, we didn’t get that film. What we got was Brendan Fraser’s THE MUMMY: a movie you watched over a holiday weekend and instantly forgot about. But unlike THE MUMMY, memories of this movie will only come to mind when you stumble upon a Jesus Pez dispenser at a flea market a decade from now and realize that’s supposed to be that Khal Drago guy as Aquaman.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Film Review: THE MEG by Mike Sullivan

There’s a right way and a wrong way to make a Jason Statham movie. The right way is to ensure that his character is a beautiful man that kills beautifully. Statham’s characters should and always be Richard Kuklinski if he had the world’s most perfect, most glittering v-line abs. Nothing more, nothing less. You should also ensure that the movie is just that man-on-man wrestling scene from WOMEN IN LOVE expanded to 90 minutes after the homoeroticism was ratcheted up about twenty percent (two motor oil rubdown montages will bookend the feature). It should then be capped off by a scene in which Statham climbs inside a wheelbarrow, pushes himself off of the top of a skyscraper that’s under construction, removes his pants and uses it to strangle the neck of any surviving worker dumb enough to lean forward to watch as he falls to his seeming death. The wrong way would be to place him in an environment -- say, the bottom of the ocean -- where he can’t tough talk other Cronenbergian flesh-pillars in tank-tops and punch them in the throat once their anger-engorged rage-boners brush against his. The wrong way would be to make him play a character that might feel remorse if he shot someone in the forehead with a crossbow on a whim or put his character in a situation where there isn’t much to do beyond getting dragged by a towline in the ocean or getting violently jostled every so often. The wrong way would be to make him face off against one giant shark instead of several regular sized sharks he can fight throughout the movie. Basically, the wrong way to make a Jason Statham movie is to produce something along the lines of THE MEG.

The glib way to describe THE MEG is to say that it’s an expensive SYFY original movie but it’s not an accurate comparison. As obnoxious as SHARKNADO and its ilk can be, they understand why their audience is there and waste no time giving them what they want. THE MEG, on the other hand, wastes everybody’s time because it’s not really sure as to who its audience is or why it’s watching. Case in point, the first 50 minutes of THE MEG’s nearly two-hour running time revolves around the crew aboard a futuristic undersea research facility that looks like a ride queue at Epcot. But that particular aesthetic is fitting because the film itself looks like one of those pre-show videos you watch in said ride queues before an attendant shoves a pair of 3-D glasses into your hands and shuffles you into a violently twitching epilepsy simulator. At any rate, the purpose of this research facility is to finally reveal, once and for all, just how deep the Mariana Trench really is. A truly groundbreaking and important discovery. Especially if you’re the editor of Ranger Rick and the well for fun facts ran dry five issues ago.

A three person crew (Jessica McNamee, Masi Oka and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson)  from the facility is sent down to investigate the trench and quickly finds their submersible incapacitated by the titular megalodon. In any other shark attack movie, this would be the point where the momentum picks up and the fun would begin. In THE MEG’s case, the film takes an extended intermission as we’re introduced to this crew, their bizarre relationships -- in spite of the fact that Oka’s character is just a year younger than Ólafsson, Ólafsson treats him as if he’s his nine-year-old son. Maybe it’s just me, but as a man in my 40s, I wouldn’t have a secret octopus themed handshake I would share with my other 40-something year old friends. Even if I did, I wouldn’t force them to go through the motions of this cutesy bullshit while they were lying on their death bed much like Ólafsson does to Oka here -- and the reluctant rescue diver (Statham) who will eventually save them. Everything introduced in these moments, from revelations about Statham’s spotty past as a rescue diver, to the presence of Statham’s ex-wife aboard the submersible, to the doctor (Robert Taylor) who thinks Statham is just an unbalanced liar, has no bearing on the rest of the film. All of this aggravating, time-consuming minutia exists just to get Statham to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, because once he does, he bursts the bubble/unlocks the force field of some kind of oceanic-doggy-door-thing that allows the Meg to escape the trench and follow him into the ocean above? I guess? I don’t understand the science behind it. More importantly, I don’t understand why the film couldn’t have just started with the prologue where the Meg botches Statham’s last rescue mission, dropped the majority of the research facility plotline and picked the story up several years after the prologue with Statham (who, it should be noted, is dressed during this sequence like something in between a scarecrow and Brando at the height of his muu-muu years) being called out of his retirement in Thailand because, yes, there is a megalodon and only he can stop it. Sure, that version of THE MEG is just RAMBO III with more sharks and less of the brave freedom fighters of the Mujahideen, but then it’s not like the current version of the movie is some Alain Robbe-Grillet-esque experiment in genre defiance. The only thing these scenes add to THE MEG is a longer, more punishing running time.

But, ok. Once the giant shark is introduced the fun can finally begin, right? Statham’s shirt will finally come off, he’ll crawl into the giant shark’s roaring mouth and kick his way out of its eye socket right before it swims head first into a large patch of that electrified seaweed from the first Ninja Turtles game? Something like that has to happen, right? Oh, fuck no. In fact, the shark doesn’t even growl (but it does hide under a whale to avoid getting hit by a missile, so there’s that). There is one scene that lives up to the lofty expectations of Statham’s fans. In it, the guns on Statham’s personal sub fail, so he’s forced to use the sub as a giant knife to repeatedly hack and slash the Meg to death. It’s an amazing moment, but you have to sit through most of the film to see it. The other shark attacks aren’t nearly as crazy and are mired in weak PG-13-level bloodlessness.  But what the film lacks in breathless, entertaining gore, it more than makes up with genuine, four-on-the-floor, hardcore chuckles! Do you know there’s a Roomba WITH A SHARK FIN in this movie? Do you like when characters in movies remember that FINDING DORY is a movie that exists outside of their movie? Statham plays one of those characters! How about Rainn Wilson? Did you like when he played Dwight on THE OFFICE? Well, good news, he plays a dull-witted billionaire who is nothing at all like that character but he does overestimate his ability to speak Chinese and looks for wifi in unusual places. And for those who might find all of those gags a bit too challenging, there’s also a sassy black guy who can’t swim and plenty of misplaced sentiment following any scene where fat Swedes stumble off a boat and goofily land in the mouth of a giant shark. THE MEG wants to be DEEP BLUE SEA, but it’s mired in director Jon Turtletaub’s signature touches like clumsy character development and tons of laff-track ready zingers. It’s like one of his bad Disney movies was unconvincingly dolled up in grindhouse drag.

Reportedly, Eli Roth was originally set to direct the Meg but left due to creative differences with the Warner Bros. In spite of the fact that Roth has devolved into a lazy provocateur who adapts locked Reddit threads into movies, Roth would have had a better grasp on the material and, at the very least, made THE MEG memorable. Unfortunately, we got Turtletaub, a blandly competent studio hack whose entire filmography can be found collecting dust in the DVD section of a truck stop. But then, what was I expecting? THE MEG was based on a series of novels that could be charitably described as airport fiction. The fact that it wasn’t adapted into an USA Original Movie 20 some years ago is the only remarkable element about THE MEG. Yet, this generic summer product has been number two at the box office for nearly a month. If anything, that proves how dire our entertainment options were this summer.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Film Review: JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM by Mike Sullivan

JURASSIC WORLD was the consummate summer movie and by that I mean it was disposable in just the right way. I saw the film three years ago, enjoyed it and never bothered to sit through it again. I wasn’t even sure why I liked it in the first place. I know B.D. Wong is in it and -- because LAW AND ORDER: SVU loudly blares throughout my house with an alarming frequency that suggests to anyone passing by that I’m a 78 year old shut-in whose pets scavenged the last bit of soft tissue off my body three weeks ago -- the idea of Wong talking about something that isn’t a rape kit to someone who isn’t Diane Neal or Richard Belzer was so exhilarating to me. And considering that Wong escapes via helicopter at the end of JURASSIC WORLD, it’s heavily implied that his character Dr. Wu will return in FALLEN KINGDOM. Which means more of the pained hesitancy of Wong and his talent for reciting all of his dialogue as if he’s forced to tell you he only pretended to wear a condom that night.

But even though the promise of Wong is what got my ass in the seat, the immediate stupidity of FALLEN KINGDOM not only got me to stay, it’s what reminded me of why I liked JURASSIC WORLD in the first place. FALLEN KINGDOM is JURASSIC WORLD remade by a twelve-year-old who never saw the movie but pieced together the film’s storyline from a series of collectible JURASSIC WORLD tumblers his aunt bought him at McDonald’s. It’s disjointed and dumb. So fucking dumb. At one point Ted Levine -- playing a mercenary -- stumbles across an unknown species of dinosaur in a cage. In spite of the fact that Levine is aware that his boss is an evil industrialist whose business model is based around taking dangerous genetically modified monsters and turning them into even more dangerous genetically modified super-monsters, Levine shoots two tranquilizer darts into its neck, enters its cage and tries to yank out its teeth. Dumber still, as Levine struggles with the extraction, the dinosaur turns to the camera. Yes. That’s right, it turns to the fucking camera and reacts as if Dwight Schrute wandered into the filming of its confessional interview and started talking about black bears. And yet this is far from the dumbest moment in something that plays like it’s just two fart jokes and a Lindsay Lohan reference away from becoming a full blown parody movie.

Taking place three years after the events of JURASSIC WORLD, FALLEN KINGDOM opens with a reveal that a volcano is about to erupt on Isla Nubar effectively wiping out any remaining dinosaurs living amongst the ruins of the Jurassic World theme park. This is great news and instead of treating this strange twist of fate with a sense of relief, the world loses its mind. Apparently it’s inhumane to allow these dinosaurs to die, but why? Why is it a bad thing that Mother Nature is cornering these monsters at the nearest windmill and then setting it on fire? These are dangerous genetic mutations that were created in a lab and have killed countless people. If that bald, Laura San Giacomo-looking-thing from Vincenzo Natali’s SPLICE escaped from its barn and somehow got itself trapped down a well, would we fill the well with concrete or spend 58 man-hours attempting to free this thing just so it can forcefully inseminate Canadian treasure Sarah Polley? Also, why is it a big deal if these things die? Again, they were all created in a lab. Countless scientists have the genetic codes to replace any brontosaurus, t-rex or raptor that may be destroyed in the incident. Killing these things is about as a pointless as asking someone on the internet to take down that embarrassing photo of you after it was turned into a meme that went viral. Luckily, Jeff Goldblum -- returning as Dr. Ian Malcolm in a role that seemed far more substantial in the trailer -- has convinced a senate subcommittee to just allow nature to take its course by looking into the camera and making a clumsy reference to the original JURASSIC PARK in that trademarked Jeff Goldblum way; which is to say a stoned Humanities professor’s digression filled reaction to the existence of hot yoga. As a side note, does Jeff Goldblum understand why people are laughing or does he watch his appearances on talk shows or on Tim and Eric produced programs with a sense of bemused incomprehension? He reminds me of Christopher Walken in that his public persona is now reduced to a sarcastic impression of other people’s sarcastic impressions of him (By the way, welcome to your future, Christoph Waltz). 

At any rate, just as science’s greatest mistakes are about to be erased from existence once again, we’re reintroduced to the main characters from JURASSIC WORLD. Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt reprise their roles as “Basically Olive Oyl, if Olive Oyl was dumber, whinier and far more dependent on Popeye” and “Han Solo, if he was played by John Ritter,” respectively, but the characters have changed. I don’t mean they’ve grown over the previous movie, I’m saying they seem like totally different characters. As if the producers were certain Howard and Pratt weren’t coming back, told the screenwriters to create new characters in their stead and never bothered to change anything once the actors returned to the project. For example, considering that Howard’s character was responsible for creating the Indominus Rex -- a whirling dervish of genetically enhanced evil -- and witnessed firsthand the death and destruction these monsters can wreak, why is she now an activist for dinosaur rights? Meanwhile, Pratt’s already thin character is reduced to a Henley shirt draped around a smirk. Yet, as different as the characters may be, they’re still incredibly stupid. Both Pratt and Howard are easily conned into thinking they’ll be helping to relocate Blue -- Pratt’s favorite trained raptor -- and the rest of the endangered creatures to a nearby island. Even though the person feeding them this honeyed lie is an oily millionaire (Rafe Spall) who looks like he just finished breaking a golf club over his knee when that cad Rodney Dangerfield wouldn’t stop asking the people around him if they stepped on a duck. Of course this scenario ends exactly where you expect with Spall and his band of mercenaries (led by Levine) betraying Pratt and Howard and leaving them for dead on an island that’s gradually becoming volcanic ash. Even less surprising is that Blue is about to become an unwilling participant a sort of advanced raptor genome project. What is unexpected is where FALLEN KINGDOM goes after this. 

To start with, there’s an unsubtle animal rights message interwoven into this sequence with slo-mo shots of CGI dinos overwhelmed in lakes of magma. The film is trying to make a point about animal cruelty but it’s like trying to make a point about our broken penal system by showing closed circuit camera footage of the prison-shanking of Jeffrey Dahmer set to the strains of an acoustic cover of "Easy to be Hard." Technically, in both cases we’re presented with something that’s terrible, but this terrible thing is happening to something that knows what human brains taste like, so whatever point you were trying to make is lost. This moment also marks a turning point for FALLEN KINGDOM in that it’s the first time the film sheepishly reboots itself and turns into a transparent discourse against animal poaching. If things weren’t duh-inducing before, they are during this stretch of the film as we’re introduced to Toby Jones, slurring his dialogue through enormous Chiclet sized caps looking like a broken-down middle-aged version of Bob’s Big Boy and basically playing a broader version of a Captain Planet villain. The film also reintroduces one of the most moronic plot threads found in JURASSIC WORLD: the weaponization of raptors. It’s not clear why any of the characters think this is a good idea. Apart from some of the smaller details like, the fact that dinosaurs aren’t bullet proof or the question of how these things are getting corralled back into their cages after they rip apart their target, why are they so confident these things aren’t going to turn on their human masters yet again? It’s happened four times already in this film universe. Even in a world without dinosaurs, animals regularly attack and kill their trainers and these are animals that are just being trained to stand on their hind legs or wear a hat without batting it off in disgust. Still, these fucking dum-dums want a drone they have to feed and clean up after, which is why we get the Indoraptor -- a super-intelligent, genetically enhanced version of a raptor that reminded me of the pipe-smoking, British accented raptors that appeared in a JURASSIC PARK parody on an episode of THE CRITIC. This thing understands locks, quietly opens windows and even understands pranks. And with the introduction of the Indoraptor, FALLEN KINGDOM reboots itself a second time by not only becoming a dinosaur themed slasher movie featuring the Indoraptor, it’s also a secret, DIE HARD sequel starring Blue. Watch as Blue reluctantly crawls around in confined spaces, runs away from an explosion in slow motion and defeats the Indoraptor by picking him up over his head and impaling the creature on the horns of a stuffed and mounted dinosaur. It’s kind of amazing the film didn’t cut back to Blue making some kind of quip like, “Hope you got my point” in dinosaur gibberish.

Amazingly, I haven’t even scratched the surface of how idiotic this is. I haven’t mentioned James Cromwell’s character -- a wheelchair bound partner of Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond -- a character the franchise never mentioned until this movie. Or Isabella Sermon, whose character isn’t just unnecessary, she’s also wrapped up in one of the most superfluous plot twists in film history. Nor have I mentioned how the movie can’t make up its mind whether we should pity, fear or laugh at dinosaurs. FALLEN KINGDOM is a tonally awkward mess that feels like three separate sequels were edited together into one ridiculous movie but goddamn if it isn’t entertaining. Partly it’s because the film is top-heavy with character actors. Apart from Levine, Jones, Wong and Cromwell, we also get Geraldine Chaplin in an admittedly thankless role as Sermon’s doomed nanny. But mostly it’s because director J.A. Bayona (also responsible for 2007’s THE ORPHANAGE) keeps things moving and even manages to wring some surprisingly tense moments from a movie that grows increasingly goofier as it barrels along. Bayona also mercifully forgoes the dimwitted meta-bullshittery that plagued JURASSIC WORLD, which is strange considering that Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connelly returned to script FALLEN KINGDOM. Like watching a drunk friend headbutt a steel-bladed fan for reasons that will always remain lost to the alcohol, this movie is stupid and it will probably make you cringe, but you’ll enjoy yourself watching it more than you’d ever care to admit. Besides, Wong survives to see another sequel yet again. So, guess what JURASSIC WORLD 3: A MAMMOTH CHRISTMAS? You’ve already got my money. 

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Film Review: RAMPAGE by Mike Sullivan

Criticizing a film by Brad Peyton is like criticizing a meal at The Cracker Barrel. You knew how bland and regrettable the experience was going to be before you walked through the door, so why complain? Like his peers, Jonathan Liebesman and Paul W.S. Anderson, Peyton makes movies that are, in essence, too expensive to be released directly to Redbox, but not good enough to be released in theaters outside of entertainment dead zones like January, April and September. He makes filler, basically. Cinematic placeholders with decent trailers that get a biggish opening weekend before they’re quickly undone by negative word of mouth. In short, Peyton is a man whose legacy lies within the dust covered DVD section at any given interstate truck stop. But here’s the thing, in spite of the fact that his filmography consists of seemingly anything playing on a Sunday afternoon on TNT, he’s done something that both Gareth Edwards and Peter Jackson were unable to do. Brad Peyton -- the artist behind a forgotten CATS & DOGS sequel and INCARNATE, a movie in which a gravel-voiced, wheelchair bound Aaron Eckhart described human souls as “wifi that attracts demons” -- has given us a giant monster movie that is non-pretentious and -- god help us all -- legitimately entertaining.

RAMPAGE opens in a space research facility that is being torn apart by a giant rat. The only surviving astronaut on this mission is tasked with retrieving the purpose of this research: vials that are filled with a substance that can perform “genetic editing”. What genetic editing does, how it makes living things bigger and why it can give a wolf bat wings but not a gorilla is never explained properly. RAMPAGE just wants you to know that an evil corporation called Energyne has subverted genetic editing beyond its original, also vaguely defined, intent. What is important is that Marley Shelton is playing the astronaut! And it’s good to see her on the big screen again. I can’t be the only one who thought GRINDHOUSE was going to be a career breakthrough for her. But then, I’m sure I’m not the only one who had inflated expectations about GRINDHOUSE and what it was going to do to the pop-cultural landscape. I want to say that Bella Heathcote made her irrelevant what with her similar haunted, but sexy, thousand yard stare, but Heathcote is just as underutilized as Shelton. At any rate, Shelton dies in an escape pod explosion as she makes her way back to earth causing the trio of vials to land in various locations throughout the USA. 

We then cut to a primatologist played by a sinewy beef hill (Dwayne Johnson) who is taking care of an albino gorilla named George. To sort of explain why a primatologist is as insanely jacked as the one played here by an affable pork boulder, RAMPAGE tells us that the chilling site of an upset gorilla caused the shambling man-brisket to shed his special forces fatigues in favor of a primatologist’s safari jacket. This is not an origin story befitting a veiny, glistening rump roast. It should revolve around the Cronenbergian wall of pecs and flesh’s attempt to take out Ugandan dictator Milton Obote, his friendly fire that caused the death of Dian Fossey and the pec wall taking her place as a kind of penance, even though he would have to be 13 for this to make any kind of sense. As it turns out, George is intelligent, but not only that, understands pranks and several filthy hand gestures such as the fuck you finger and that thing you do when you roll your left hand into a fist so that your right index finger can have sex with it. I should mention that every scene from this movie looks like something the characters in a Coen Brothers movie would watch or be in the process of making. RAMPAGE is dumb but dumb in a way that makes it an accidental commentary on the shallow qualities of Hollywood blockbusters. And yet it keeps getting dumber.

But the dumber it gets the more fun RAMPAGE becomes. Especially once the vials start infecting its unwilling participants -- a wolf, a crocodile and George. Obviously, half the fun is in watching sequences where a wolf with porcupine quills and bat wings brutally massacres Joe Manganiello and his fellow soldiers of fortune or the goofy finale that finds the trio of monsters clashing in downtown Chicago, but most of what makes RAMPAGE enjoyable is that it’s structured like a bad Saturday Morning Cartoon. Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy (better remembered for playing “New Jim” during the last sad gasps of the US iteration of THE OFFICE) play the CEOs of Energyne as CAPTAIN PLANET villains. Not just because they’re one-dimensional, mustache-twirlers but because their plan makes so little sense. They’re developing genetic editing as a weapon of war but it’s not clear how. Are they planning on using it on animals or people? If so, how are they rounding up these monsters once the mission is accomplished? Granted, there’s a beacon that’s supposed to draw these things to their target but it doesn’t really calm them down or deprogram them once they finish their objective. The monsters just punch the device until the building they’re on collapses. Also, why did Akerman and Lacey insist on placing this beacon in the middle of downtown Chicago at the top of their corporate headquarters? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to put this beacon in the Nevada desert or a sparsely populated area in Alaska? If that isn’t cartoonish enough, Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s government spook character is a Tommy Lee Jones impression wrapped up in an oversized belt buckle, nickel-plated revolver and unwavering shit-eating grin. His character feels like an unproduced GI Joe action figure called Rhinestone. Additionally there’s a ton of weird inconsistencies such as the fact that bullets are useless against the genetically enhanced animals but tranquilizer guns aren’t and really dopey attempts at Marvel Studios-style easter eggs. As you may have already known, RAMPAGE is based on a video game. Peyton’s idea of an in-joke is to place a RAMPAGE arcade cabinet in Akerman and Lacy’s sprawling office but never allude to or even mention its existence, which is very weird because the events in this movie mirror what happens in the video game. Right down to the fact that the wolf, gorilla and alligator that punch buildings in this are named after the wolf, gorilla and alligator that punch buildings from the game. Was the video game the inspiration behind the idea of genetic editing? Why the fuck is this in here! It’s like having a scene in LITTLE WOMEN where all the characters are reading a copy of Little Women but never acknowledges just how strange that is. 

RAMPAGE is a stupid film. It’s loud, empty and will drown in INFINITY WAR’s wake. But none of that matters because RAMPAGE is such an enjoyable experience. It’s not only what video game adaptations should be, it should be what giant monster movies should model themselves on in a post Godzilla/Skull Island America. RAMPAGE does what it needs to do and does it decently. Plus, it’s nice to see a throwback to '50s sci-fi like THE CREATURE OF THE BLACK LAGOON in which a scientist -- or in RAMPAGE’s case, a primatologist – somehow manages to order generals around and is able to declare martial law. You finally did it, Brad Peyton, you made an entertaining movie. Now do the world a favor and retire.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Film Review: READY PLAYER ONE by Mike Sullivan

“...Shawn Brown’s classic hit "The Rappin’ Duke is Back" blared in the distance as I crashed through the side entrance of the vintage Hickory Farms. The customers, gawped in Reagan-era amazement at my '80s centric vehicle and all of its period specific finery. My car was the same car from GHOSTBUSTERS. Not the Ecto-1, but that Model-T buggy thing from that off-brand GHOSTBUSTERS cartoon. Y’know, the one with the Gorilla in the Panama hat? That one. I’d swapped out the wheels with the larcenous ferrets from the first BEASTMASTER movie and replaced the doors with the title sequence from YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION to remind everyone that I was very young during the '80s but now I am not. Finally, a hologram of Robert Guillaume’s BENSON character was my silent co-pilot. I programmed it to nod in solemn agreement at everything I said to show I was cool with black people. Especially when they didn’t challenge me. Excitement filled the air until I stepped out of my gnarly, radicle (rad-vehicle) and started waving around an exact replica of the gun Peter Weller waved around in ROBOCOP. Before this day is through, I vowed, everybody inside of this goddamn Hickory Farms will be able to recite every last word from THE BREAKFAST CLUB. Backwards and forwards. And that’s a final truth...”
- An excerpt from Ernest Cline’s upcoming novel, “Hey Dudes, Thanks for Rescuing Me. Let’s Go for a Burger... Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!”

If you managed to get through the paragraph above, you’re probably a fan of Ernest Cline. For everyone else, it was probably like a boot stamping on a human face forever, except the boot is an elbow attached to a 40-something man in a Rush baseball jersey and it’s not stamping your face as much as it’s nudging your ribs. Forever. And that is the READY PLAYER ONE experience in a nutshell. It was a novel that seemed to ask the question, “What if we made a book out of all of those passages from American Psycho in which Patrick Bateman described the things he owns in clinical detail but swapped all the references to Rolex watches and Brooks Brothers suits with anything fetishized by that guy who works at Gamestop who just wants you to know that Cuphead isn’t some Candy Crush thing. It’s actually very hard. Is it for your boyfriend?” To be fair, READY PLAYER ONE was exactly the kind of novel I would expect from an author whose photo on the dustjacket is of himself leaning on the DeLorean from BACK TO THE FUTURE. By which I mean insufferable. But even though I didn’t expect it to be good, I still expected it to be a novel and not an episode of VH1’s "I Love the 80s" after a vague narrative structure was imposed upon it. And call me crazy, but I really can’t stand when even my disposable airport fiction is constantly bogged down with the literary equivalent to Mo Rocca riffing on the underrated qualities of the keytar to an off-screen researcher. Yet as bad as READY PLAYER ONE was as a novel, it still had potential as a movie. It needed creative collaborators to recognize that Cline’s obsessive, pop-cultural monologuing should be dialed back to a point where it didn’t remind the audience of all the times in high school when an acquaintance would pelt their face with half-chewed Bugles as he shouted MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL quotes during study hall. Maybe Paul Verhoeven or Terry Gilliam or his less grope-y alternative Jean Pierre Jeunet would offer a satirical, darkly silly approach to a book whose basic message is, “I can name all of the Swordquests, so I deserve things!” Unfortunately, Steven Spielberg was the director we got and instead of the funny, thoughtful approach, we got the Iron Giant recreating the tearful T-800 thumbs up scene from TERMINATOR 2. This isn’t a love letter to geek culture, it’s an unsolicited dick pic.

To its credit, READY PLAYER ONE the movie isn’t quite faithful to Ready Player One the novel. Sure, it’s still about a virtual reality scavenger hunt set in the far off year of 2044 and a kid named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) who knows so much about The Mighty Orbots and Cassingles that he’s a much better person than you. But a lot has changed because a truly faithful adaptation would mostly amount to Wil Wheaton reading a listicle of 90 Things Only '80s Kids Remember over YouTube footage of a Robotron 2048 walkthrough. Clearly, some liberties were taken with this adaptation and, at least initially, it’s the right kind of liberties. At first glance, Spielberg appears to be mocking Cline’s (who, sadly co-wrote the screenplay) pathological need to lionize anything and everything he consumed as a child. Within the first twenty minutes, characters get caught in the middle of a race across an elegant, Manhattan hellscape to capture one of the film’s trio of Macguffins. What makes this sequence so exhilarating is the fact that it involves the destruction of iconic vehicles from movies and television. The 1966 Batmobile, The Mach 5, Akira’s motorcycle and others are crushed, stomped by the T-Rex from JURASSIC PARK and even eaten by King Kong. There’s a sense of joy in the way Spielberg reduces iconography to rubble. “Here’s this stupid thing you love”, he’s saying. “Now watch me burn it to the ground.” Unfortunately, this gentle, Cineplex nihilism is unintentional and you suddenly remember that READY PLAYER ONE opens with the overplayed strains of Van Halen’s "Jump", which is the '80s nostalgia equivalent to opening your Vietnam movie with "Fortunate Son". If "Jump"’s inclusion was to get me misty-eyed over ads for Time Life CD comps, well, mission accomplished. READY PLAYER ONE the movie is every bit as empty and shallow as the book because Spielberg doesn’t have anything to say about fan culture beyond, “Isn’t it great!?!” Jeepers, I remember Wacky Wallcrawlers too, guys!!!” Spielberg is striving for the epic crossover spectacle of WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? and misses. Hard. When Daffy Duck interacted with Donald Duck in ROGER RABBIT, you were seeing full-fledged characters with personalities bounce off of each other in a way a classic comedy team would. In READY PLAYER ONE, when a Xenomorph pops out of the chest of Goro from Mortal Kombat it feels lifeless and rote. Partly because they’re reduced to props in a not very funny sight gag but mostly because we’ve seen this kind of pop-cultural mash-up a million times before on the laziest tumblr posts imaginable. Usually in between the pictures of Obama riding a unicorn and Spock carrying a lightsaber. The cameos in ROGER RABBIT added something to the story around them. Here the cameos are never anything more than a cynical showreel for corporate IP, dead-eyed action figures lined up along the desk of the “quirkiest” guy at your office. All of this might be irrelevant if the central characters didn’t carry all of the depth of the teens who passed over the purple stuff in old Sunny D ads. This is a problem, especially in scenes like the extended SHINING riff where the characters’ distinct relationships and personalities are supposed to serve as an amusing counterpoint to the familiar goings-on at the Overlook hotel. But being that the characters in the film have neither, the whole sequence plays out exactly as it appears: a bunch of visually unappealing avatars playing through a customized mission on a modded Grand Theft Auto rom. 

In his novel, Cline managed to flesh out the characters and their dystopian world to a point where they were at least a little more than faceless, audience surrogates. Spielberg reduces them to faceless, audience surrogates. Presumably to make more time for exploding Madballs and walk-on appearances from Michael Bay’s iteration of the Ninja Turtles. At best, Wade Watts and his gamer buddies are vessels for fun facts and embarrassingly geeky wish fulfillment. At worst -- well, let me tell you a story: When I saw READY PLAYER ONE in the theater, there was a kid in the back row who made a stereotypical karate guy noise when Win Morisaki -- a fellow member of Wade’s scavenger hunting crew -- appears on screen. It’s a dumb teen thing a dumb teen would do during a movie that’s probably boring the living shit out of them. It’s something that would be offensive if it wasn’t so inane. Yet shortly after that, READY PLAYER ONE reinforces this kid’s narrowminded observation by showing Morisaki karate kicking bad guys in the back of a van. So, really, who’s the bigger asshole here? A shitty teen in the back of an Ohio theater trying to piss off an audience who have mostly checked out at this point? Or a director and two screenwriters who pay lip service to not judging a book by its cover throughout their terrible movie but, in their own way, still manage to yell “Hwhaaaaaaa!” the moment one of the film’s few Asian actors stands in front of the camera? I won’t answer for you, but I’ll give you a hint, the kid in the theater had nothing to do with THE COLOR PURPLE or even MUNICH.

Aside from being vapid, READY PLAYER ONE is riddled with plot holes. The biggest one being, why are so many kids in 2044 obsessing over things that were created about 60 years ago? I mean are kids today totally into all the great pop-culture from 1958? Are 15-year-olds cosplaying as Richard Boone from I BURY THE LIVING? Re-listening to all the songs on the KING CREOLE soundtrack? Streaming episodes of SUGARFOOT on their Ipads? I’m not saying as others have weirdly suggested that there should be some pop-cultural representation from 2044, because why would you want to feature made-up iconography that doesn’t exist yet? Besides, its inclusion would mean even more exposition and the last thing this film needs to do is to take an even bigger info-dump on its audience’s laps. But shouldn’t there at least be some Caveman SpongeBob, Walter White or Demogorgon avatars wandering around? Why would teenagers in 2044 be intimately familiar with BUCKAROO BANZAI when teenagers in 2018 aren’t even aware of its existence? Still, I can understand why these kids are latching onto the iconography of the past. The non-branded elements of the Oasis -- the virtual reality world the characters inhabit -- are surprisingly generic. The avatars Wade and the other gamers embody look like they were designed by your elderly mother at gunpoint as she struggled to remember that cartoon from Japan you liked so much. Ike Hearya? A-KerKoo? They had those, y’know (opens hands) eyes.  What isn’t generic looks oddly familiar. Parts of Oasis eerily resemble that Grand Central Station Purgatory the cast from WRECK-IT RALPH hung around in during breaks from their video games while more than a few set-pieces mirror those from the 2017 box office smash THE EMOJI MOVIE. Both films include a pivotal moment revolving around a mid-air dance off, both allow TJ Miller to just totally riff and, most importantly, both rely heavily on their audience’s knowledge of branded products. Too bad THE EMOJI MOVIE wasn’t smart enough to make sure its product placement was at least 30 some years old. Otherwise, THE EMOJI MOVIE might be at 74% instead of 8%.

Yet, the absolute worst thing about READY PLAYER ONE is that it fails to address just how nightmarish the future featured in this movie really is. Now, I’m not talking about the severe economic inequality of this world or the “wifi famine riots” or whatever that inexplicable, unfunny laugh line was about, I’m talking about the fact that, in READY PLAYER ONE, true human worth is determined by how much junk culture you’ve absorbed. Spielberg reinforces Cline’s message that unless you’ve spent a majority of your life re-watching KRULL in between your marathon attempts to reach the kill-screen in Super Pac-Man, you’re probably some evil, dumb, corporate Chad who will steal the internet while they dump the world’s Magic Cards down the toilet. You get the sense in READY PLAYER ONE that the bad guy’s (Australian Ben Mendelsohn, speaking in one of those flattened out “I’m American from America-town” accents usually favored by Rachel Weisz) plan to essentially end net neutrality within the Oasis stems from the fact that he never understood how to enjoy a John Hughes movie. Yet, as much as this film evangelizes over studying and retaining useless knowledge, it still has the nerve to tell you to, “Put your phone down and just live life, man” even though the star of the film just saved the world by knowing an obscure fact about an old Atari game that he spent countless hours playing on his future, virtua-phone-treadmill-helmet. Obviously, it’s ok to like this film, but understand, by liking this film (and book) you’ve forfeited any right to make fun of TWILIGHT or FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. Sure, they’re all wish fulfillment at their most dreary and pathetic, yet for all of their faults, TWILIGHT and FIFTY SHADES allowed its viewers and readers to step into exotic worlds involving vampires and mysterious, possibly dangerous millionaires, READY PLAYER ONE allows its readers to step into a world where they live in a trailer with their aunt, hang out in an abandoned car yard where they play D&D in total isolation and are aware there was a live-action Japanese Spiderman series. That’s so much better than mom porn or some dumb vampire thing for girls, right?