Sunday, May 20, 2018

Look Who’s Back (Er ist wieder da) - 7 stars out of 10

Look Who’s Back (Er ist wieder da) - 7 stars out of 10

“Look Who’s Back” is a German dark comedy that mimics “Borat,” only with Adolf Hitler...  There is something fascinating about watching a series of improvised candid sequences in which real Germans interact with Hitler, but there is a lot more to this film.  The comedic sequences are interspersed with a scripted storyline that develops poignant themes about social media and the entertainment industry.  It is a reflection of how our society will latch on to something that we know is immoral if the media presents it in the right way.  Throughout the film, everybody acknowledges that Hitler is terrible and yet, they can’t help but grab a selfie with him for Instagram.  A tv station knows that their rating will increase by incorporating Hitler into their programming, even if it means allowing him to present his twisted ideals.  Then, once he has his captive audience, they begin to put common sense aside and agree with him because that is the power that the media has over us.  Moreover, the characters love him for his historic genocide and only turn on him when they find out that he killed an animal.  Oliver Masucci deserves a ton of credit for bringing the famous dictator back to life.  His improvisations are witty and historically informed to give Hitler an authentic feel that drives the story from start to finish.  Most people will tune into this film for its outlandish and taboo use of Hitler, but everyone will walk away with a contemplation of how our morals are shaped by the influences of the media.  “Look Who’s Back” is full of scenes with Hitler on bumper cars, Hitler bowling, Hitler beekeeping - there is no shortage of anachronistic situations that they can put him in.  But the genius of the mockumentary is its social commentary on how the media can influence our morality, even with something as obvious as a reincarnate Hitler.

[Pictured: There is no shortage of anachronistic situations for Adolf Hitler]

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Silent Hill - 2 stars out of 10

Silent Hill - 2 stars out of 10

I did not enjoy “Silent Hill” when I first saw it in theaters but hoped that I would enjoy it more a decade (and more sophisticated movie-watching perspective) later.  Unfortunately, time could not make me enjoy this film more.  It gets high marks for its atmosphere but the story isn’t very interesting, the pacing creates a lack of suspense, and the horror relies on disturbing images that aren’t really scary.  In fact, the scariest part of the film is the maternal fear of losing track of your child.  I have found that the adaptation of a video game into a film is rarely successful.  The storytelling is completely different as one is interactive while the other is merely observed and there seems to be a struggle when repurposing the content.  The journey to Silent Hill is rather gripping but once they arrive in the alternate dimension, it all falls apart.  The synopsis and setting of the film makes me want to love it but the poor dialogue and editing make the story drag on until we don’t care anymore.  I honestly can’t even remember most of the film’s events.  The one thing that has stuck with me from both viewings (in a bad way) is the final gory sequence.  In place of a suspenseful, scary climax the film’s “payoff” is a brainless, unequivocally disgusting blood bath.  You will never look at barbed wire in the same way after the film’s “payoff.”  While “Silent Hill” develops a fascinating setting, the content is extreme and unsatisfying.  Leave this one off of your list and enjoy a classic like “Pan’s Labrynth” instead.

[Pictured: The vivid setting is ruined by a vague, illogical plot]

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Chappie - 4 stars out of 10

Chappie - 4 stars out of 10

“Chappie” was a total letdown.  I was hoping for director Neill Blomkamp to recreate the sophistication of his film “District 9” (with robots instead of aliens) but I should have known that this film would not be the same.  Or even close.  I now understand that much of the acclaim garnered by “District 9” was due to its documentary style, which allowed it to transcend the realm of fantasy and become reality.  Removing that style leaves us with little more than a sci-fi-robot-action-fantasy film whose R-rating blocks out the young teenagers and families that should have been its target audience.  The film opens with a lot of promise by revealing a unique South African setting in which a rampant crime wave has been completely shut down by a robotic police force.  It also introduces interesting themes that involve artificial intelligence and the characteristics that make us human.  Even without the documentary style, I was intrigued.  The design of Chappie was cool, Dev Patel developed a character that we could really support… and then they introduced three of the most annoying characters that I have ever encountered in any movie.  The cast includes Sigourney Weaver (who receives about 5 minutes of screen time), Hugh Jackman (who receives about 20 minutes of screen time), and wastes TWO HOURS of our time on three obnoxious gangster wannabes.  They remind me of the bad guys from a children’s cartoon, but the film obviously is not geared toward children with its annoyingly excessive amount of unnecessary profanity.  Then there’s the titular character whose design looks amazing on a movie poster.  And then he spoke… They really overdid the idea that Chappie is “born” with the intelligence of an infant.  He could have had an adult style of speech and learned “like” a child but they elected to have him learn “as” a child, which is almost as annoying as the three gangsters that teach him.  I think that it gives us an idea of what a Jar Jar Binks standalone film might look like.  There are a few interesting twists toward the end but they aren’t enough to redeem the painful journey that we travel to get there.  “Chappie” had enormous potential with its concept, big names, setting, and special effects, but some major script issues and poor casting decisions make this film completely unremarkable.


[Pictured: "Chappie" looked good enough to bring people into the theaters but the story wasn't good enough to make it memorable]

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Alien Resurrection (1997) - 6 stars out of 10

Alien Resurrection (1997) - 6 stars out of 10

"Alien Resurrection" saved the Alien franchise.  After the editorial and production nightmare of "Alien 3," it felt like it was time to let the franchise die alongside Ellen Ripley.  However, the appropriately named "Resurrection" breathed new life into both the main character and the Alien universe.  Let me first be clear that this isn’t a masterpiece.  There is some questionable acting and many of the surprises are recycled from previous installments, but the film itself feels much more complete due to the fact that it actually has a cohesive plot.  It also helps that Sigourney Weaver was able to reinvent her character as she transitions from victim to aggressor.  While I didn’t love Ripley’s new personality, it was necessary to the success of the story and really resonates after the mix of humanity and otherworldly in the creepy laboratory sequence.  This all drives us to the prospect of a human-alien hybrid, which is exploited with the best possible results.  I believe that the payoff toward the end of this film exceeds the moment that we first see the Queen in “Aliens.”  The new creature is so disturbing that you will continue to feel unsettled far beyond the ending credits.  Perhaps the largest improvement to the series is the handling of multiple xenomorphs in a single film.  The key was to spread them out enough that each one is as sinister as if they were only fleeing from one.  This is a large improvement to the shooting gallery style of "Aliens."  It is amazing that there are only five years between the release of 3 and Resurrection when you consider the advances in computer effects and realism of the aliens.  The underwater sequence does a great job of giving the xenomorphs a new setting to terrorize the actors.  The only memorable acting comes from Weaver, Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman, and Dominique Pinon, but all of the actors successfully contribute to the atmosphere of terror onboard the Auriga.  "Alien Resurrection" isn’t the best film in the franchise but provided an important turning point.  Without it, we may have never experienced the amazing “Prometheus” prequel series and would inevitably hold David Fincher responsible for ruining this sci-fi horror universe with "Alien 3."


[Pictured: Just when you thought that it couldn't get any scarier, the xenomorphs received a more sinister design. And it continues to escalate from there.]

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Gift (2015) - 8 stars out of 10

The Gift (2015) - 8 stars out of 10

"The Gift” appears to be another typical creepy movie for teens but it is actually a sophisticated psychological thriller that builds intensity through a progressive revelation of the past.  The character-driven story will have you asking “who is the victim and who is the villain?”, with its clever script causing you to change your mind every few scenes as the mystery unfolds.  Writer/director/actor Joel Edgerton builds suspense in a masterful Hitchcockian style with small twists that lead to a big twist while saving the climactic moment for the very end.  The most interesting part of the film is the transformation of Jason Bateman’s character.  We think that he changes throughout the film but he actually doesn’t; instead, our perspective of him slowly changes as information is revealed to create the illusion of transformation.  The consistency of who he is and has always been leads to every situation throughout the story.  I can’t remember any other film that tells its story in this way!  The hidden association between the main characters isn’t too shocking - the true mystery is how deep the connection goes.  It is hard to believe that this was Edgerton’s directorial debut and I appreciate that he had the foresight to save all of his scenes for the last 10 days of filming.  This allowed him to focus on creating his vision and setting the film’s tone from behind the camera first, then inserting his character into the story.  My experience with this movie was similar to my recent experience with “Get Out.”  The previews build a certain expectation but the script teaches lessons and goes in directions that you would never expect.  I really appreciated the story’s statements about the lifelong psychological effects on someone who has been bullied and how bullies never grow out of their ways.  Don’t write off “The Gift” because you think that it’s just another teen horror film.  It is so clever that it doesn’t need jump scares - the unsettling stalker plot is enough to disconcert anybody.

[Pictured: The scariest part is how realistic the story seems.]

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Greatest Showman - 7 stars out of 10

The Greatest Showman - 7 stars out of 10

“The Greatest Showman” is an energetic (though often fictional) look at the life of P.T. Barnum.  This purposely anachronistic presentation pairs a historical story with modern pop music to draw parallels between the hardships of “different” people of all generations.  A project this bold is inevitably polarizing, which accounts for the disconnect between theater-goers that loved it and critics that hated it.  I have a lot of strong options about it, many good but some bad.  I’ll start with the obvious: the music is great.  High Jackman’s performance parallels his character as his success depends on the supporting cast around him but he is the glue that holds everything together.  His singing is quite good and his exuberant personality drives the energy of the film, though Keala Settle manages to steal the spotlight with her performance as the bearded lady.  Zach Efron and Zendaya keep stride, setting the bar of musical expectations very high and then surpassing it.  Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have put together a playlist of hit after hit after hit that allows each character to express him and herself through song.  It’s almost difficult to latch on to a single song during your first viewing because every song has an engaging and catchy quality.  In fact, I believe that there was actually too much music!  I adored “La La Land” because it was so organic.  Every song was a natural extension of the scene and you didn’t even realize that they were singing until the song was halfway through.  This film has that 1940’s musical quality where you can tell that the director was like “Wait, we probably need another song here.  Quick, start singing!”  With a 105-minute runtime, the editing team should have realized that the songs would feel rushed and required more transition between them.  There are operas and there are musicals, but this one gets caught somewhere in the middle.  There are sometimes entire scenes without a song, other times a single song linking multiple scenes together to show the passage of time, and other times, three unrelated songs run one into the next without a transition.  This film needed to either commit to being a rock opera or take time to introduce each song with dialogue.  I didn’t mind the anachronistic style of the music as it made all of these centuries-old events feel relevant... until Jenny Lind performs “Never Enough.”  Let’s ignore the fact that Rebecca Ferguson didn’t actually sing the song for a moment.  When a story emphasizes that a character is the greatest opera singer in Europe, I feel like she then has to sing opera.  If they would have referred to her as the “greatest singer,” they could have given her a pop song to draw a parallel between society’s reaction toward opera singers of the 1800’s and our reaction to pop singers today.  But specifying the character as an opera singer and then having her sing a pop song with cheesy arm motions just didn’t work for me.  Back to the casting of Ferguson - I find it counterproductive and disingenuous to cast someone for their appearance and dub over their singing voice (arguably the most important part of the character) when there are so many actresses in Hollywood with the ability to sing.  This isn’t the 1961 production of “West Side Story” where it was acceptable to cast Caucasian actors with dark makeup to play Latinos and dub over their voices because that they have the right look but can’t sing.  Modern movies focus on creating realistic imagery instead of using our imagination to pretend that an actor is a different race and it is time to properly cast people with the abilities and specifications that fit the role.  If they had cast Tom Thumb with an actor of a typical height and used green screen to shrink him down, people would have been completely annoyed.  That’s how I feel about the casting of Ferguson (even though her portrayal of the character was very nice).  The biggest takeaway that I have from this film is the production design.  It was robbed of an Oscar nomination after producing epic set designs and inventive ways to use them.  A few examples include the entire trapeze dance sequence between Zendaya and Efron, the final Greatest Show sequence with lions jumping through rings of fire, and that moment where the real-time bearded lady walks through the slow-motion ensemble as they jump in the air.  Add the Barnum house, grandiose theaters, and the recreation of Barnum’s American Museum, and it’s hard to deny that the set design was one of the most creative of 2017.  I was hoping that this film would be the next “Moulin Rouge” or “La La Land” but, in spite of a few issues with the production and editing of “The Greatest Showman,” I look forward to watching it again and listening to the soundtrack on repeat.  If you love musicals, you need to see this movie.

[Pictured: Strong leads, a great supporting cast, and a stunning production design make "The Greatest Showman" worth seeing in spite of its faults]

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Alien 3 (1992) - 3 stars out of 10

Alien 3 (1992) - 3 stars out of 10

“Alien 3” has been maligned for its jumbled storyline, poor pacing, and lack of character development.  That may seem harsh but those criticisms have actually come from its director, David Fincher!  The root of the problem was the film’s rushed production schedule.  Fox set an unrealistic release date so that the film could fill its summer blockbuster slot and all quality was sacrificed in order to meet the deadline.  This led to a new script being written as they filmed, creating plot holes and forcing the crew to use sets that were already built for an obsolete script.  It is a shame because Fincher’s vision for the next chapter in the series could have been fascinating.  From the onset of the warped 20th Century Fox introduction that precedes the film, you know that this is going to be a weird one.  The difference in tone and style is obvious from the opening credits, trading the slowly developing Alien text of previous installments for quick cuts that thrust us into the center of the story.  The series returns to form with a single, terrifying alien that is able to stalk and destroy the crew on its own.  “Aliens” gave us more aliens but cheapened their scare factor since the humans could easily dispose of them.  The xenomorph is much scarier when it is so powerful that 25 testosterone-filled, double-Y chromosome criminals struggle to kill it.  There are two sorts of scenes in this film - the ones where they try to capture the alien and the ones where they have a conversation about trying to capture the alien.  The latter requires every third word to be the f-word while the former only requires every eighth word to be the f-word.  There is so much unnecessary profanity in this film that it is difficult to stomach.  I suppose that it emphasizes the “tough guy” persona of every character in the film but we could have gotten the idea without so much profanity.  The acting is decent considering the lack of non-profane dialogue provided by the script.  Sigourney Weaver delivers another strong performance, I always love Pete Postlethwaite, and Charles Dutton manages to create a well-developed character in spite of the weak script.  My favorite character is actually Jonathan (the doctor played by Charles Dance) but he is completely underused in the theatrical release.  It wasn’t until I saw the Assembly Cut that I realized how well-developed this character could have been.  In fact, everything about the Assembly Cut is better... except that it is so long and slow.  The additional footage helps us to better understand Fincher’s vision but adding content to a subpar production merely makes it a longer subpar production.  The addition of Weaver washing up on the shore and the alien bursting from an ox add some extra grit but the most significant difference is the story’s most interesting plot point: Golic freeing the alien.  I felt legitimate anger when I realized that the Theatrical Cut completely circumvented this subplot.  It is crucial to the story, devastating Ripley when she is finally victorious and motivating her to take her desperate measures at the end.  The exclusion of this portion of the story from the Theatrical Cut also robbed the film of its most interesting theme: man-turns-monster-into-a-god.  Science fiction stories often have the hero defeating a monster but things get interesting when a character begins to believe that the monster is something other than the enemy.  It is painful to think that someone believed that the film could be better without this element.  The most interesting thing about “Alien 3” is what it could have been.  When you strip away the philosophical discussions about the flawed production and the potential of David Fincher’s vision, we are left with a subpar movie that is only tolerable because it links “Aliens” to “Resurrection.”


[Pictured: The alien is scarier than ever but the story is less interesting than ever]