Review: Jurassic World

Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jake Johnson

Review: Entourage

Starring Adrian Grenier, Kevin Connolly, Jerry Ferrara, Kevin Dillon

Review: San Andreas

Starring Dwayne Johnson, Alexandra Daddario, Carla Gugino

Review: Ex Machina

Starring Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, and Domhnall Gleeson

Review: Pitch Perfect 2

The Pitch is Back!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Review: Ex Machina

Conceptually speaking, A.I. can be a scary thing.  No, I’m not talking about Allen Iverson – though the former NBA player’s crossover could be frightening for a retreating defender.  What I’m talking about is artificial intelligence – a term that can mean very different things depending on the layperson.  To some, it’s what makes their video games really difficult to beat; and to others it’s a fantastical concept born from the funny pages of the 1950’s.  Then of course there are the doomsayers, who see A.I. as the next step in evolution – an ill-conceived attempt on the part of humankind to play god – that will lead to the demise of human beings.  Does that seem over-the-top?  Yes.  Far-fetched?  Probably.   So far off in the future that it shouldn’t register as a blip on the alarmist radar?  Sure.  After all, back in 1985, Marty and Doc in Back to the Future had us all convinced the world would have flying DeLoreans by now.  But I digress.

Films like Terminator, I Robot, Alien, Terminator, and countless other movies have featured some manifestation of artificial intelligence as significant plot mechanisms and have done so with varying degrees of success.  This is a trend I am confident will continue in perpetuity until Skynet goes live and takes over the world (Terminator reference for the uninitiated).  In the interim, Hollywood will keep pumping out movies featuring A.I. once or twice a year and we’ll keep on watching them.  Given this context, what makes Ex Machina any different than its numerous predecessors?  The simple answer is “not much.”  The film asks all the typical questions that audiences have come to expect from movies with this premise.  When does programming and coding end, and actual consciousness being?  What are the implications of “playing God” and what are the consequences?

In writing this, I realize that I have not yet offered up a compelling reason for you or anyone else to rush out and watch this movie – a movie that I actually think is quite well done and absolutely worth your time.  But really, the merits of the film have less to do with artificial intelligence (though it is a compelling enough hook) than one would surmise from a distance.  Instead, what makes the narrative compelling is the use of space and time to create this sense of claustrophobia that pervades the protagonists’ fundamental struggle to find truth and authenticity while laying in a bed of lies.  Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Ex Machina is very much a textbook suspense/thriller wrapped up in a cloak of science fiction and to writer/director Alex Garland’s credit, he does a nice of job of dropping layer upon layer of conflict and misdirection in very small spaces.

A movie like this can only truly be successful though if the acting is up to snuff and Oscar Isaac (as Tech genius/mogul Nathan) and Domhnall Gleeson (as computer programmer Caleb) do a good job of establishing a dynamic in which their respective characters share a sphere of common interest but come to that place from polar opposite positions.  If their relationship is where the seeds of mistrust are sown, then their respective interactions (or lack of) with Alicia Vikander’s (Ava) is where the fundamental tension of the film is cultivated.  Vikander’s Ava uses her innocence to evoke a subtle foreboding sensuality that muddies what is already an incredibly polluted pool.

The pacing is methodical, like an iron on low heat slowly burning its way through a collared shirt.  The dialogue is smart but never aspires to answer unanswerable questions.  The direction of the film maintains its singular focus of telling a taut suspenseful tale.  The combination of these three elements makes the film very much a win for all involved, and one that is worth a look.  For Star Wars fans, it has the added appeal of featuring two actors (Isaac and Gleeson) who will be starring in Star Wars Episode VII at year’s end.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Review: Pitch Perfect 2 (The Pitch is Back!)

The Pitch is Back.

And it will be back for a third installment.  You can carve that in stone after we learned this weekend that the only thing that can beat Mad Max is the Bellas of Barden University to the tune of $70M at the domestic box office (to Mad Max: Fury Road’s $44M).  Between Pitch Perfect 2 and Furious 7, it’s been a good year at the cinema for Universal and all this success no doubt has left their deep pocketed but suddenly frugal neighbors down the street in Burbank feeling green with envy.

But all the financial success aside, Pitch Perfect 2 is very much the same movie as its predecessor only it’s different.  The movie is different from Pitch 1 in that the plot and its characters are meaner, more cynical, and thus a little less likable.  And it’s the same as its predecessor in that the creative team knows the film’s audience, knows what that fan base loves about the first movie, and gives them the exact same formula – fluffy story lines and snarky pulp references dressed up with catchy acapela mashups of pop hits from yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

There is something to be said for the ole saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but there’s a lot of truth to the caveat of “going back to the well one too many times.”  And while I muster up every possible cliché in the book to describe the experience of watching this movie, what I am trying to say is that this movie is not fun enough and its characters not likable enough to offset the been-there-done-that feeling that pervades this film.  See formula below:

Act 1: Bellas find themselves in a bit of a pickle. 
Act 2: Bellas try to come together but have a falling out while trying to remedy the issues in Act 1.
Act 3: Bellas reconcile and put things back together to deliver a rousing musical performance.

Like I said, been-there-done-that.  In a lot of ways, Anna Kendrick’s careers arc is emblematic of Pitch Perfect’s in that Kendrick used to be the cool plucky underdog in Hollywood on the fringe of the big-time churning out good performances here and there in movies such as Up in the Air and 50/50.  Then somewhere along the way (really, after the first Pitch Perfect), she became a big star not only for her acting skills, but also for her vocals and social media savvy.  And as her star shined brighter and brighter, her sharp sarcasm started to play less charming and more the product of unwarranted ego.  In much the same way, Pitch Perfect 2 feels less charming and more obnoxious – no doubt the product of the cult status its predecessor received during its post-theatrical life.

That’s not to say that the movie is not funny.  There is a lot of fun to be had with the supporting cast – Rebel Wilson (Fat Amy), Adam Devine (Bumper), Snoop Dog (Snoop Dog), and Keegan-Michael Key (Becca’s Boss) supply plenty of laughter, but Kendrick’s Becca is the rock upon which this foundation is built and whether its her performance or the way the character is written, it never really comes together for her.  She’s no longer the too-cool-for-school outsider who realizes that friends do matter, but instead the too-cool-for-school insider who decides maybe they don’t matter as much until maybe they really do. 

But very little of what I has to say here really matters, because if you were all in on the first movie, then nothing will really change how you feel, especially if you are anything like the Kool-Aid drinking crowd that I watched the movie with – a crowd that buzzed with anticipation when even David Cross came on screen.  And if you are someone who has to see the movie because the person you are with wants to see the movie, then well, you’re going to see it and endure it because you have to.  Just don’t expect a “Cups” moment or any originality.  This one’s for the congregation and there’s no need to preach.  They’re going to love it.  And for the non-believers, well, not all the music is rubbish so there’s that.

Since movie will be an A+ to those who really want to see it, and a D to those who really don’t, I’ll Split the difference and call it a C+.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Why Should We Care About Deflategate Anymore?

Tell me why I am supposed to care about Deflategate anymore?  And don’t tell me because it hurts the integrity of the NFL and the game.  Any sense of integrity was tossed down the garbage chute when Roger Goodell – the ultimate carpetbagger – was named commissioner.  We’re talking about a commissioner so inept and duplicitous that he makes David Stern seem like Honest Abe Lincoln.

The cynic (and realist) in me knows this story has been packaged into television programming designed to bridge the gap from the NFL Draft to the NFL Preseason.  And make no mistake about it - the league and the networks are loving it.  If you don’t believe me, look at the gallery of rogues and jokers they’ve paraded in front of the camera.  The next time Shannon Sharpe has anything cogent and intelligible to say, it will be the first time. 

Full discloser, I am a Patriots fan.  I grew up in New England and love the sports teams, but I have never been a Brady sycophant.  My loyalties have always been with the QB who helped build Gillette Stadium, Drew Bledsoe.  So with that being said, let’s get into it.  Did Brady have a general idea that these guys were working to get the ball inflation down to the lower end of the scale?  More probably than not (to borrow a line from Ted Wells).  But the problem with this investigation as with any that is headed up by an attorney, is that:

1. It is trying to assign blame rather than to discover.
2. It is trying to make black and white something that is incredibly gray.

Think about it.  It is trying to connect the dots to formulate a direct chain of events that reveal a precise systematic operation to manipulate footballs, when really, there seems to be very little that is precise in regards to how teams and the NFL handle the footballs on game day (right down to the ball pressure measurements).  Look at the skeleton buried in the footnotes of the Wells Report, and you will find plenty of cause to question the whole process.  Because really, it seems like this whole ball pressure thing was something no one REALLY cared about (i.e. $25K fine for an infraction), until suddenly someone cared.  I am of the belief that every QB has different football preferences and they let that be known to low-level (and low paid) equipment guys.  To varying degrees, Aaron Rogers, Eli Manning, Jeff Blake, and Brad Johnson have admitted as much.  But let’s not get high and mighty about the integrity of the game and a level playing field when we are talking about a game that is predicated on cheating.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s have a look.

Do you think 300 lbs. men naturally have 4% body fat and can run a 4.4 40 yard dash naturally?  Make no mistake about it.  The league has a PED problem, but the powers-that-be and the fans-in-the-stands (myself included) turn a blind eye to it because that would ruin our Sundays from September to February.  And contrary to popular belief, the Patriots were not the only team to videotape signals.  They were the team that Goodell decided to reprimand.  Ask Jimmy Johnson, Bill Cowher, or the video evidence of other teams doing it, which Bill Belichick provided to Roger Goodell.  Oh wait.  We can’t check that evidence, because Roger Goodell had it destroyed.  Even the pinnacle of integrity, Mr. Football himself Jerry Rice, admitted in a video documentary that he used Stickum on his hands, when it was explicitly against the rules.  Unfortunately for Rice, that was revealed after he had ripped the Patriots for Deflategate.  Funny, I missed the NFL and ESPN running that on a constant loop in their news crawl. 

And that leads me to the BIG reveal.  It’s because this whole thing hasn’t been about deflated footballs.  It’s been about the league versus the Patriots.  The report, which Goodell and his puppet Troy Vincent claim is indisputable because Ted Wells has an impeccable reputation, states that Bob Kraft, Bill Belichick, and the coaching staff have no guilt in the matter.  Yet, the team was fined one million dollars and a first and fourth round pick.  What would the punishment have been if they were guilty? Would the Patriot then be playing for the Gray Cup next year in the CFL? 

For a bit of context, let’s look at some of the punishment doled out this offseason by Goodell.  The Falcons organization pumps in noise during games and as a result, the team is penalized a late round draft pick.  The Browns GM Farmer sends illegal texts to the sideline during games and the team gets fined $250K.   Jets Owner Woody Johnson tampers with and ultimately signs Darelle Revis and the team is fined $100K.   Meanwhile, Bob Kraft, Bill Belichick, and his staff do nothing wrong and get fined $1M and lose a first and fourth round pick.  Ridiculous.

I would respect Goodell, his puppets, and some of the GMs around the league more if they just admitted that this is a witch-hunt rather than express their incredibly hypocritical self-righteous sense of indignation.  As much a hit as Brady and his reputation has taken, it really is not about him.  That four game suspension will be argued down to two if not none by the time the NFLPA and Jeffrey Kessler are done dominating the league and the league knows this.  This is about trying to knock the Patriots down – something very few in the league have been able to do these past fifteen years. 

How the rest of this plays out, I have no idea, but if I were a betting man (another thing the NFL allegedly does not condone though it forces teams to produce injury reports for the purposes of sports gambling), I would bet that the league and the networks will continue to milk this story for all the ratings and web clicks it is worth and the Patriots will ride the negativity straight to Super Bowl 50.

See you in San Francisco.

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron (Can't We All Just Get Along?)

Why the hate?

Forget the cinema score (for which Avengers: Age of Ultron scored an A), because those ratings are often skewed by super fans.  The reality is that there is a significant segment of the population that walked out of the cinema feeling less than satisfied with Marvel Studios latest release.  Now, I’m not asking you to queue up the violins; Age of Ultron is doing more than enough business to keep Bob Iger off the street corner with a tin cup.  What I do wonder is why some feel the movie is so lacking and nefarious that it warrants trolls sending twitter death threats to Joss Whedon and a series of blog commentaries declaring the portrayal of Black Widow an affront to gender equality?   

Relax, people.  It’s a movie and an entertaining one at that.

With that being said, it’s by no means a perfect movie and some of that disappointment has to stem from the weight of expectation born from Marvel Studios’ two most recent cinematic releases: Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy.  The former is a clever, well-paced action film cut from the same cloth as those political paranoia suspense flicks that so defined the 1970’s; and the latter is a witty unapologetic sci-fi flick loaded with all the charm that the Star Wars prequel films lacked.  Unfortunately, Avengers 2 is neither of these things and I think that contributes to the opinion of some that the movie falls well short of some incredibly lofty expectations.  Personally, I can boil my issues with the film down to two key points.

First, it suffers from a hybrid malady that is two parts Iron Man 2 and one part Spider-Man 3.  Like Iron Man 2, the film dedicates much of its time acting as an infomercial for the next phase of Marvel films.  I almost expected to see Tony Stark bust out a Slap Chop and start cutting up some onions.  But seriously, that Marvel wants to use their biggest film-to-date to set up the next phase of movies is not necessarily a bad thing - it just can't be the most important thing.  I absolutely enjoyed the winks and nods and the promise of things to come embedded in casual references, but at the end of the day, the film has to have a clear unimpeded arc and this movie has a few too many open ended narrative strings branching off from the main plot.  And like Spider-Man 3, the film seems to suffer from the toxic combination of a director in his franchise swan song and good old-fashioned studio interference.  Joss Whedon has candidly stated in a number of interviews that there is a lot going on in this movie and that some significant pieces were mandated by the studio, which most definitely would account for some mismatching plot pieces and incomplete storytelling (See: Thor’s arc).

Another area where the film has issues is the relationship between Black Widow and Bruce Banner.  To those who view this as misogynistic and a slap to face of women’s equality, I would respond with this: some people end up in relationships with people that they work with.  Now whether or not that is a good idea, is another discussion all together, but regardless it happens.  So no, my issue is not about gender equality, but instead a cinematic mechanical issue.  The dynamic between Black Widow and Banner feels the opposite of organic and the lack of chemistry between Johansson and Ruffalo really exasperates that feeling.  It would normally be forgivable had we not just recently seen what great chemistry in a Marvel movie looks like in Captain America: The Winter Solder – in which the dynamic between Johansson and Chris Evans elevated that movie from really good to great.  And thus, the Widow/Hulk coupling feels less than authentic and more a plot layer written for the purposes of adding weight to Banner’s decision at the end of the film; a decision that could have stood on its own.

Despite these shortcomings, there are some really great things going on in this movie. First and foremost, the movie is incredibly fun.  I didn’t go into the cinema expecting Godfather 2 and neither should anyone else, but in reading the comments from the knights of the keyboard and everyone else with a soapbox to stand on, the film failed because it’s not on display at the Louvre.  To those who demand cinematic art, I would like to remind them that it’s called the ENTERTAINMENT business for a reason; because it is supposed to entertain (and to make money).  This film does both.  Still, even the most ardent detractor would be hard-pressed to deny that the jokes are snappy and the action sequences are immense and thrilling.  There’s a witty camaraderie shared between the cast members that is not unlike that of George Clooney’s Ocean’s Eleven crew, but fortunately for Downey Jr. et al, they don’t plummet into the self-congratulatory hubris that doomed Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen (to a lesser extent).

Another thing that worked in this movie was Ultron.  One of my fellow film enthusiasts and a former colleague has long championed the belief that Marvel underwhelms with its villains.  I do not necessarily disagree with his assertion, but what I would argue is that it’s a byproduct of dedicating their screen time to establishing not only the heroes, but also their respective places in the vast cinematic universe.  The one exception here would be Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, who should almost be considered a co-star in the Thor Franchise.  And while Ultron is not necessarily the strongest villain and is visually banal, I think the way the character is written – that of a petulant, immature, uneven character bearing all the worst parts of Tony Stark’s narcissism, is smart.  He’s not a perfect villain, not even close, but James Spader (shout-out to Andover) elevates the character considerably.

So what’s the verdict?  It’s pretty darn good, but not great.  It’s fun and worth seeing on the big screen (if you haven't already), and most definitely a second time on the format of your choice to make sure you’ve digested everything that was going on, because there’s a lot.  Love it, like it, or hate it, I think the one thing everyone can agree on is that the best part of the movie is that it promises that there are some very big things to come… or should I say little things as Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man is up next.