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?

Saturday, January 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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