Friday, August 26, 2016

Don't Breathe: Not That You'll Actually Have A Choice

2016 has certainly been a pretty unimpressive year when it comes to movies. However, it's been a spot on year for the horror genre. And this is essentially an indictment of the Hollywood trend of remakes and sequels.  The horror genre is really the only one making original movies. Films like Lights Out, Hush, The Invitation, The Shallows, and Green Room are giving us films that succeed in both terrifying us, as well as give us something original. Director  Fede Alvarez showed us back in 2013 that he was capable of being a horror staple with his remake of Evil Dead.  He was able to successfully take a beloved classic horror film (second, probably, to The Exorcist in cult status) and give us something that was both unique, but also a solid nod to the original. His next movie into the foray of mainstream horror is Don't Breathe, a film that illuminates Alvarez's skills as a horror director as well as provides horror lovers one last film at the end of summer to see. He's also shown that he's able to adapt to different types of horror as well.  He's definitely toned down the gratuitous gore in favor of actual scares.

Don't Breathe has a very compelling premise (to go along with a terrifying trailer). Three young people-- Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) who use keys from Alex's dad's security company to break into houses and steal goods with the end goal of getting out of Detroit for good. They're given a tip that an army vet, in the dregs of the city, is sitting on 300K from a lawsuit involving the accidental death of his daughter. Rocky, needing to get her little sister away from her abusive mother, pushes for one last job.  However, (obviously) it's not that simple. The man is blind-- and goddamn petrifying. What starts as a simple job, ends with them trapped in the house, discovering something horrific, and being pursued by a man that doesn't need sight to be more than a formidable opponent.

Don't Breathe is tense as shit. The tension that is consistently built within the movie never slows. It's a constant that doesn't allow its protagonists or its audience breathe. What Alvarez does with a film that takes place in one central location for a solid 88 minutes is nothing short of impressive. He's able to create very clever and grisly twists and turns within the house that keeps the tension sky high. To go along with this is a very minimalist soundtrack consisting of low tones and pulsing beats that go along perfectly with your heart racing a mile a minute. And finally, the ability to manipulate sound within the film lends itself further to the dread. A loud creak, the fingers clenching a phone, the scrapes of feet on wooden floors-- all amplified so that they're the only thing you can hear in a dead silent theater. This makes for good horror.

Stephen Lang (best known as the crazy General from Avatar) is perfectly cast as the blind man. His mere presence is enough to give you nightmares.  However, what I like best about his character is that he could've easily been written as a one-dimensional villain (blind man with super special skills to kill people who try to rob his house). But, what Alvarez has done is create an actual human being with deadly motivations that is more than a few layers added to his character.  There are no heroes in this film, and while we root for our protagonists, the blind man (super-human as he is) is still very much human as well and gives you that little bit of subconscious wishing that he might actually win.

It's going to be a bleak next few couple of months with only a small handful of films that look like they could muster any sort of goodness from the trailer. End of summer movies don't always have the best track record. But, Don't Breathe is certainly worth your time.


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Sausage Party: Another One Bites The Crust

There aren't enough animated films made for adults. They're almost never released anymore which makes little sense because there is always interest in them and money to be made.  Beavis and Butt-head do America, South Park, Team America: World Police, Anomalisa... these movies give us sick adults the satisfaction we can never get from Pixar-- swearing. Imagine if Marlin from Finding Nemo went through the catastrophe of losing his only son in an R rated movie-- well, it probably wouldn't have been any better, but it would've had a little more violence and a lot more cursing.  Really... it's just about the cursing.  And that's what Seth Rogen and company have realized. Animated movies can be hilarious and made for adults. And, really, the only difference is cursing.  Sure, I guess in some strange world Sausage Party could've been turned into a kids movie, but it's not... it's a Seth Rogen movie. Unfortunately, Sausage Party fails more often than it succeeds resulting in a movie that's lazier than anything Rogen has produced before.

Sausage Party is about grocery store food... if it was alive. We follow the exploits of a packaged hot dog named Frank (voiced by Rogen) in love with Brenda (Kristin Wiig), a hot dog bun he's in love with. All of the food in the grocery store sits and waits to be taken home by the Gods (us).  However, Frank discovers that instead of going to a place of peace and paradise, food is actually tortured, disemboweled and eaten by the Gods.  So, Frank, along with some other food, run around the store looking for proof to show the rest of the food that their expectations of an after-life were entirely wrong (a very un-subtle religion v. science "message"). During this mission, our heroes are being chased by an actual douche (voiced brilliantly by Nick Kroll).

The problem with the film is that it's not exactly that funny. By now we've come to expect a certain level of humor from Rogen and friends and a certain level of heart and humility to their films. Their track record is almost perfect. Each one has a blend of stoner humor, clever (yet vulgar) turns of phrase, self-awareness, and somehow a new and funny way to present a dick joke. Sausage Party doesn't really have this... minus, of course, the dick jokes.  Sausage Party is, essentially, one huge, lazy dick joke.  It feels like it was written by Rogen when he was twelve years old and just discovered drugs.  There's very little that works within the film.  Every food pun you can think of is in this movie... and that's the problem.  We don't want the obvious food pun someone walking a random grocery store could make. We want the unexpected food-related jokes. They're almost entirely absent here (think horseradish as a horse... but not as funny). And beyond the food based puns, there isn't much humor to interject into the pun based characters. Our hero's entire characterization is that he's a hot dog who is supposed to bang a bun.  He's not special in any way... he's just a hot dog... trying to bang...  a bun.  (BECAUSE HE LOOKS LIKE A DICK, GET IT?!?!?!). The rest of the humor is filled out by f-bombs, Edward Norton doing a weird Woody Allen impression, some c-bombs, some  food sex, and obtuse ways of trying to shock you.

There are moments, very scarce moments, but moments in the film where the obvious actually works. The villain (again... a douche) talks with a Jersey accent, "juices" and acts like a complete, well, douche. There's a running gag that every time he speaks, he uses a food-based idiom (like "spill the beans") and said food peeks out from behind a corner asking if the douche was referring to him. There are a few little obvious moments like this that work throughout the film that elicited a chuckle or two from me, but mostly it was just a shit show. There's also a lot of what was shown in the trailer that has been expanded in the movie that actually works too. The Saving Private Ryan spoof with food, the horrific, yet hilarious murder of food right before it is cooked. In fact, a lot of the visual gags worked in the movie, but it is accompanied by some seriously unimaginative dialogue and writing. The movie is even a little bit too frenetic in its pacing and does feel a lot like a strange drug trip/mindfuck. There's none of the clever Rogen-esque characters and certainly none of the heart.  I wonder if the movie suffers due to the fact that the actors weren't on set with one another and weren't as free to improvise as they normally are able to in their movies.

Yes, the movie has a very original and intriguing idea, but originality doesn't always mean quality. There are a lot of voices lent to the film (Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Salma Hayek, Paul Rudd, Danny McBride, Bill Hader, Craig Robinson, James Franco, Harland Williams) but almost everyone is underused, mostly because after a pun has been made about the type of food they're portraying, they're not left with much to do other than spew F-bombs or partake in a three minute, slightly graphic, food orgy (not kidding).  And while I applaud Rogen for having the balls to present some of the offensive material he does in the movie (food orgy, actual violence, the attempt at conveying a message about the absurdity of religion), the end result leaves a lot to be desired.


Bad Moms: Hangover-Lite For Moms

Writer/Directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore aren't exactly known for their subtlety. And, aside from the very first The Hangover film, haven't really broken out of comedy mediocrity. With a list of sub-par comedies like Four Christmases, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, The Change-Up and 21 & Over they haven't actually won anyone over. Their moves are still advertised as: from the writers of The Hangover. It's apparent what they are good at, however: high concepts. These dudes know how to come up with the idea for a very high concept comedy that is something any comedy lover will eat up. However, somehow in the writing process the high concept is somewhat bastardized and turns into a formulaic movie with sporadic laughs and unremarkable moments. The Hangover managed to escape this trend, but the rest of their movies suffer from it greatly.  Bad Moms is no exception.  While there is a lot to like about Bad Moms, in the end, it feels like we've seen this story several times before.

What I can praise the writer/director duo is being able to show us that female-driven comedies can be just as raunchy and uncouth as anything led by any member of Hollywood's Frat Pack. In fact, Bad Moms could've easily been Bad Dads-- just replace every dick joke with a vag reference and you're basically done. There's still a stigma around female-led movies, especially comedies, that is starting to break down. Bridesmaids broke down the wall... Ghostbusters should've done more damage than it did... and Bad Moms is a very serviceable movie. Especially if you're there to laugh.

Mila Kunis is Amy, a workaholic mother whose husband is a worthless life-suck, she's over used and under paid at her job, her children don't exactly respect her, and she's late for everything in her entire life. She's constantly put down by the Mean Girls of moms, Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate) and her entourage.  Finally, after Amy has had enough, at a PTA meeting, she quits.  She quits trying to be a perfect PTA mother and says screw it and bails.  Her speech inspires single mother and foul-mouthed queen Carla (Kathryn Hahn), and adorable mommy pariah Kiki (Kristen Bell).  The three form a bond of swearing to become bad mothers in order to rid themselves of the daily routine and stress that comes with actually giving a shit about your life, kids, etc. This, in turn, pisses off Gwendolyn and the two battle it out for ruler of the PTA.

What starts as a pretty good set-up winds up very formulaic and familiar. The best parts of the film are watching the three mothers let loose and do things they normally would never or have never done before. Rampaging through a grocery store, watching movies in the middle of the day, throwing PTA kickbacks and forcing their children to fend for themselves is the meat and the fun of the movie. However, it's when Amy decides to rid Gwendolyn of her PTA presidency and run against her that the movie takes a recognizable turn. It's the crutch of nearly every Disney Channel original movie, except with more swearing and alcohol. I would've liked to have seen the writers give us something a little more new and a little more challenging.

I've never been a huge fan of Mila Kunis.  I think her head is weird and her voice is grating, but if you like her then she's at her Mila Kunisiest here.  She's a serviceable lead, but I didn't entirely buy her as stressed out mother and damn the girl can not cry. Christina Applegate is perfect as the bitchy rich mom who chastises everything and everyone because they're not up to par with her standards. Kristen Bell is freaking adorable as Kiki, the mom without friends, multiple children and a controlling husband.  The glee in her eyes as she bonds with other females and discoveries she makes about how to have fun with others is both endearing and absolutely hysterical.  Katheryn Hahn steals the show as the crass, vulgar, single mom with an oafish son.  Her outbursts will regularly crack you up and her attempt to sleep with every dad in and around the school provide for some pretty good comedy fodder. Finally, and this is actually where I have some extra respect for the writers... is the new love interest for Amy.  Had this been a movie about fathers, the love interest would be a pretty face and almost certainly one-dimensional. Jay Hernandez shows up as Jessie, a single father with a hard body and a pretty face... and is exactly that. The women are fleshed out characters we love and care about and the love interest dude is nothing but a pretty face and a "good dude". I thought that was a very clever nod to the male-centric movies of yore that pull the same crap.

Overall, Bad Moms is a decent watch.  I found myself laughing a lot more than I thought I would, but there were also a lot of awkward moments, jokes that didn't land, and formula that kept the movie from being something truly original and great. It's one of Lucas and Scott's best jobs since The Hangover, but it's not that female-Hangover movie to give the ignorant public the insight that lady-driven movies are here to stay and hauling ass full force into theaters. It's definitely a step in the right direction, and there is a lot to like, but it's just quite not where it needed to be.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Suicide Squad: It's Not Perfect, But It's Better Than Late Marvel Fluff

For someone who is a little bit tired of the fluff of Marvel lately (X-Men: Apocalypse, Captain America: Civil War, Fantastic Four, The Avengers: Age of Ultron) the DC world should be a welcome change. Something DC comics, especially those involving Batman normally have is a very dark and violent world surrounding the heroes. They're not filmed with bright colors and a ton of comic relief... it's dark times in a dark world with (mostly) villains who aren't brightly colored CGI monsters that rely on the uber-smash rock punch... they're literally insane geniuses who play mind games with the heroes and act without fear.  This is how DC is supposed to be. Unfortunately, the DC extended universe hasn't started off very well.  With Zack Snyder's terrible vision of the Man of Steel and the damn near unwatchable Batman v. Superman, DC hasn't brought the same quality product as Marvel has-- even if Marvel is becoming more and more mundane, brightly-colored, and kid-friendly. Already bogged down by a slew of negative reviews, Suicide Squad didn't appear to be that breakthrough film DC was looking for, but after having seen the film... don't let the reviews dissuade you if the trailers interested you.  I had more fun watching Suicide Squad than I have the last two years worth of Marvel movies (three if you don't count Guardians of the Galaxy).

Suicide Squad doesn't waste any time getting its audience to know its heroes villains. We're first introduced to eventual badass Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) who is pitching the idea of getting a group of bad guys together to form a squad to take down even badder guys. We get to meet Deadshot (Will Smith) first, an assassin in prison who has is a very accurate gun, he's a wiseass, he's very much a villain, but he's got a daughter so it gives him heart.  Next we meet Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), an ex psychiatrist at Arkham who turned psychopath/Joker lover who is as much screwed in the head as she is quick-witted and feisty. There's Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and some dude who can climb shit that dies in the first five minutes of meeting him. The weakness in the script comes from the fact that we're not given a whole lot of character development for everyone. Deadshot is very much human, Harley Quinn is very much insane, but we're not given a whole lot from everyone else other than a couple of bland stereotypes. They're hired to take down some sort of witch-type girl who becomes a CGI villain and weakens the movie even further. However, the chemistry between the squad, and especially Smith and Robbie, the darkness and violence of the movie make it more of a success than a failure.

So, we can start with the bad news-- the movie has its major flaws. Everything moves a bit too fast because it is a little bit over-crowded and not enough time is given to each character to make us care for each one. There are some "twists" and "turns" that aren't necessarily that creative or interesting.  And the main villain of the film is too confusing.  She's building a giant weapon for some unknown reason to destroy Earth for some unknown reason and she's resurrected her brother who becomes a CGI walking statue that Hulk-smashes his way through the movie.  They're not crafty or clever or really all that interesting of villains.  I mean, you've been given gold here with the fact that you have a group of bad guys who need to face off against someone even worse than they are. This should be someone so inherently intelligent or frightening that our ragtag team of expendable villains might not make it out alive. 

Now, the good news-- the rest of it is very entertaining. And what's actually very cool about it, is that it very much reflects everything you've seen in the trailer. From the quippy one-liners, to the dark, yet neon feel, to even the soundtrack straight from the 70s and Wayne's World... it's all a lot of fun. Margo Robbie straight up kills it as Harley Quinn balancing badass and insanity very carefully and very precisely. Viola Davis increasingly becomes more and more tough and unforgettable. And finally, Will Smith who, essentially, carries the movie reminds us why we love Will Smith.  He reminds us why he used to be the king of the summer blockbuster.  He can take a mediocre movie and make it something fun and enjoyable. His mere screen presence elevates a movie two extra levels and Suicide Squad is no different.  Take away the fact that his character is cool by itself, Smith is able to add that Fresh Prince charm and toughness to make it the most screen-worthy addition to the movie. 

Then there's the Joker. There has been a heated debate in the past week as to how fans feel about Jared Leto's Joker. While I think I would agree that the "look" of the Joker was pretty stupid (slicked back green hair, lipstick, tattoos, teeth-grill, and absolutely no extension of the Joker we know and love), his portrayal of the Joker, I thought, was spot on. There are two characteristics of the Joker (outside the visual) that are always supposed to be there-- the genius and the insanity. And due to the fact that the Joker neither has much screen time nor is the main antagonist... we don't get to see the genius of the character.  But, oh, do we get to see the insanity.  His evil charisma shines through his shitty exterior. He's downright dastardly, but thoroughly enjoyable to watch. He's also not trying to emulate Nicholson or Ledger with his portrayal, but taking the nuance of the character and making it his own. If the next Suicide Squad focused on him going up against them, he would be a very formidable opponent. 

I'm a fan of writer/director David Ayer (Training Day, End of Watch, Fury) because there's always a grittiness to his films. He doesn't use fluffy characters to populate his movies.  He writes dark characters in dark scenarios that wind up being dark movies that are both uncomfortable to watch and still gratifying. He's the perfect contribution to the DC world because, much like Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan, it suits his style (unlike Zack Snyder who literally uses a green screen to jerk off). And even though there have been a lot of reports of Hollywood meddling with the entirety of the production, what winds up as the final cut of the film, though imperfect, is still a very dark and raucous ride. I mean, say what you will about the studio messing with the film, the first mistake it made was having a guy like David Ayer agree to make a PG-13 version of the film.  There should never have been a PG-13 thought in their heads.  I mean, the film is very violent and it toes that line of almost too violent for PG-13, but if it had just taken that extra step (like Deadpool-- which I still think is overrated), the movie would've benefited from it. 

The film is a welcome entry into an already weak start to the DC universe, and it certainly doesn't deserve the type of harsh criticism it has received from critics. I had way more fun watching this movie than I did watching Captain America: Civil War (a statement I realize could take away all of my film credibility and leave me an interent pariah).  I got out of it exactly what I wanted. If the trailer looks like something you'd be interested in seeing, then what you expect after seeing the trailer is exactly what you'll get. 

It still should've been rated R, though. It really should've. 


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Jason Bourne: Don't Start Nothin, Won't Be Nothin

As far as sequels and movie franchises go, it's hard to argue with the Bourne series. They're very good movies. Based on Robert Ludlum novels, they're fun espionage, action-packed, chase movies that bolster intelligent writing and good acting. It's one of the few times, or really the only time, that each movie progressively gets better, but none of them are bad. (Keeping in mind Jeremy Renner's Bourne Legacy trash doesn't count as a Bourne movie.) The one thing that they do, however, is they progress the story in a natural and organic way. In the first film, The Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne is just trying to figure out who the hell he is and who is chasing him.  The second film, The Bourne Supremacy, he's figured out pieces, but he's still trying to remember everything.  However, instead of figuring out who is chasing him, he's trying to figure out why. In the third film, The Bourne Ultimatum, he's figured almost everything out and he's out to put a end to it.  And he does. The Bourne Ultimatum essentially ties everything up from the series and gives a proper ending to the character in what is still the best film of the trilogy. Jason Bourne, while still as entertaining as the originals, feels like it's more of a forced extension of the previous three rather than a story that needed to be told.

Bourne is off the grid fighting dudes in desert circles and underground fight clubs (for some unexplained reason). Nicky (Julia Stiles from the previous films) has hacked into the CIA database and stolen their confidential files that contain all the information about Treadstone, Blackbriar, and even new missions the evil old white dudes at the CIA are cooking up. She tracks down Bourne and gives him the information.  However, she's killed (Bourne def cannot have a girlfriend, like, ever) and Bourne is tracked again by the CIA-- this time it's the Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and another higher up leading the task force, Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) after him. They awaken another "asset" (Vincent Cassel) to take him out.  Bourne continues to figure out the mystery behind his past as well as evade the CIA and outsmart them in their conquest for... evil stuff.

I liked this movie. I really did. It stayed true to the originals and had the same feeling to it, the same energy, and the same fun within the action sequences. Yet, I couldn't get over the fact that no matter what happened in the film, everything felt forced. While the previous movies were all serving a single purpose of finding out what happened to Bourne, how he got involved with Treadstone, why they needed to silence him, etc., this one didn't really carry on the story or the mythology.  In order to actually make the movie exist, new problems and a new mythology had to be created that, again, just felt a little forced. And while a lot of the action felt fresh, the story almost didn't. It's still Bourne losing someone, getting tracked down by an evil white guy who activates a specialized killer, and tracks Bourne all over the world until he, inevitably, outsmarts everyone. There was a lot of good in the movie, but the herd of elephants in the room really make this movie feel as though it didn't need to be made.

Matt Damon is, once again, very good as Jason Bourne.  And, staying in the evil old white dude tradition, Tommy Lee Jones is a welcome addition to the film.  Rising star Alicia Vikander, however, to me, felt like a wooden broomstick reading lines from a teleprompter.  Her voice never leaves the same octive.  Her facial expressions never change.  Her posture remains the same.  She's takes an interesting character and turns her into something hollow and questionable. Her arc is also something I'm still not entirely sure was convincing. The action sequences were very entertaining and clever, but Director Paul Greengrass, previously criticized for using too much of the handheld-shaky-cam action style, hasn't changed much over the past years. Most of the action is still very much shaky and nauseating... to a fault in a few places (come on dude, don't shake the camera like an asshole when you're trying to show us a text message Bourne is reading). But, it's pretty redeeming by the ending with a massive car chase through Las Vegas that would make the ending of Con Air proud.

Greengrass, directing his third movie in the series, really does know what a Bourne movie should feel like.  His directing style, while flawed at times, does make the movie a lot better than it should be.  He also took over the reigns of writer and, even though a lot of the dialogue is pretty cringe-worthy and a little too explain-y, he keeps the dialogue to a minimum.  It's a smart decision action-wise and suspense-wise because it seems when it comes to actual, believable, human dialogue he's walking the George Lucas tightrope. Overall, I walked out of the theater fulfilled.  I wanted a Jason Bourne movie and I got exactly what I wanted. It just wasn't a necessary Jason Bourne movie.