Thursday, May 25, 2017

Lambcast: MOTM School of Rock


I again join other film fans on a podcast to celebrate a movie we loved.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

F8 of the Furious

OK, it's time to fill your tank, strap yourself in and forget everything you learned in science class. We have another entry in "The Fast and the Furious" franchise to watch.This logic defying, cheesy dialogue spewing, CGI mismash, is what I like to refer to as "Craptacular". It doesn't need to make any sense, it just needs to entertain us for a couple hours on a sunny weekend afternoon after we've had a nice lunch and we are looking for some air conditioned silliness. "F8 of the Furious" as I insist it should be spelled,  has a lot of things going for it despite the cockamamie story telling, paper thin characterization and 1000 yard stare machismo. I don't anticipate these films like some people do, In fact I was not even sure I would see this one. But when the history of my life is written, I won't hate myself for having enjoyed these movies a bit. They feel like summer.

From where I sit, the best things about this series are it's most recent additions. I missed the film where Dwayne Johnson first showed up as a character in these, but he is a guy that oozes charisma. Jason Statham is in his third one of these movies, having a brief cameo in 6 and then being the main bad guy in 7. Whatever they are paying these guys it is worth it because they inject the most energy into the movies of any of the actors. Kurt Russell shows up in a suit and tie for a few scenes, and his swaggering smarminess as a spook with no name, brings a smile to my face. If only Scott Eastwood were as much fun as the intern version of Russell's character.

Two new additions for this film are the ladies that figure heavily in the plot. Charlize Theron steps in as the villain for this edition of the story. She has tightly weaved hair extensions and a badass attitude. It looks like she was saving all her action chops for "Atomic Blonde" later this summer, because in her role as Cipher, she primarily barks orders and frantically types. In another of the mindless film sequences over the years, cyber hackers attack, block and outwit each other as we see who can really reach 70 words a minute on their laptop. Maybe if we edit it together tightly enough and inject some screen shots of computer graphics, it will feel like an action piece. [No it doesn't]. After giving us a dozen reasons to hate her and be ready to cheer for the comeuppance that we have been waiting for, there is an unsatisfactory close to her story. In all probability, we will see the same plot twist that has happened in every one of these films happen in the next one. Also stepping in in a brief scene is Dame Helen Mirren. She doesn't get to do much but she can act everyone else in the film right off the screen just by sitting there.

For thirteen years people have piled on Pierce Brosnon's last outing as 007, for some of the same reasons that they have embraced this franchise. CGI cars that defy gravity, preposterous super villains with all powerful knowledge, stunts that induce as much laughter as excitement, and jokes that don't produce either laughter or much character. With the exception of Statham's sequence on a plane, the humor here largely falls flat. Since I am at heart a sentimentalist, I sometimes find myself being drawn into the "Family" motif that strings these films together. Who doesn't like a hardy laugh as you celebrate your victory of a new bad guy by breaking bread and forming an alliance with the last bad guy. As I said earlier, it doesn't make a lot of sense but cracking the whip on a movie like this is a little like kicking a puppy. It ties so hard to please you that it is just wrong to punish it when it drops a turd on your carpet.

If you think you can take a giant grain of salt and choke it down, than you will almost certainly enjoy a car chase with a submarine, or a parachute jump that would make D.B. Cooper proud. You probably won't care that a convoluted double cross is arranged without any explanation or that people leaping out of cars traveling well in excess of the speed limit results in no physical consequences. "The Rock" doesn't need the force to levitate his opponents off the ground, Statham doesn't need gravity to interfere with a good fight or foot chase, and Vin Diesel doesn't need to act to star in a movie. All of these things are still more believable than finding enough clear road to chase on in New York City on a weekday afternoon.


Friday, May 19, 2017

Alien Covenant

There is always hope that a movie you have doubts about will overcome them and manage to please you. No one goes to a film hoping for disappointment, although we often go expecting it.My level of excitement for "Prometheus" five years ago was through the roof. The fact that it let me down has not vanished from my memory. In fact. it is a warning beacon, just like in the original "Alien" and also like in that original story, it was misinterpreted. You would think after all the crap he got for the last film in the franchise, Ridley Scott would stop visiting it or at least have a better vision of what he wants to say. Unfortunately, that is not the case here. "Covenant " is a let down. It's not as big a let down as "Prometheus" but that's because we were alerted.

When the "Halloween" story got franchised,  there was an attempt with one film to try something different. "Season of the Witch" had nothing to do with Michael Meyers, and the objective was to make the franchise more of an anthology concept using the idea of Halloween as the connective tissue. I think that would be a good approach to this film series. The adventures and horror should be concentrated around new ideas and new aliens each time. Than you would not have to keep trying to figure out how all of the stories fit into a time line or make sense in light of the last film. This movie might have been better if it was not trying so hard to be "Prometheus Part 2" without actually saying that.

Here is how someone wiser than I and less blinded by the hope that Scott could get Alien right again put it, according to my daughter, "Alien Covenant"  is  a hybrid of Alien 3, Alien Resurrection sprinkled with Prometheus as a topping." If that sounds like a tasty concoction to you, by all means indulge. To me it sounds like adding onions to a PB and J made with whole wheat bread and "natural" peanut butter" . That is a lot of ingredients that I don't care for being combined to make something else I don't care for. I never go into spoilers in these commentaries because I want you to listen to my opinion about the film, not my reconstruction of it. I do however have to occasionally mention components that are part of the story. To begin with, just assume anyone who's name you do not have in your head after the first ten minutes is going to die in the story.  Also, assume that the reason they die is that they do something stupid, inappropriate for the moment, or in violation of a protocol. The story telling in this movie is just irritating.

Katherine Waterston does make an effective heroine in the film. I did not recognize her at first but then it dawned on me that she was one of the charming new additions to the world of Harry Potter, having played Tina in "Fantastic Beasts". There are a couple of dramatic moments, an intense scene or two, and a realistic portrayal of someone forced into making decisions she does not want to. Michael Fassbinder has dual roles in the film, both of them as synthetics and each one with some distinctive personality characteristics. The novelty has worn off a bit and the character David is not much more than an Evil Genius, with no real heart. Walter, the more contemporary [or should it be more futuristic?] synthetic person has very little personality for most of the film. There are two turns with his character that make no sense whatsoever, and they are the things that are supposed to launch the last act of the film. Billy Crudup is the man who reluctantly assumes command after an early catastrophe, and there is supposed to be a backstory that involves his faith and how it may have effected the decisions about command in the first place. That story goes nowhere and he is reduced to making the same kinds of silly choices that every other person in these stories makes. Danny McBride goes by a nickname, wears a cowboy straw hat, and doesn't get to show any of the obnoxious charm that might be his reason for being in the film in the first place. I was a little surprised by two uncredited performances, both are early in the film, one makes a little sense, the other must be an inside joke because it was completely unneeded.

The movie looks solid, but it lacks the pizazz of  it predecessor,   which was the main redeeming quality of that film. For me, the best part of this film was the use of the original Jerry Goldsmith theme as a motif in the opening credits. So, thirty seconds in, it is mostly downhill. The third act is a logic defying series of events, designed to sucker punch you in much the same way as "Life" attempted earlier this year. That movie pissed me off and this one leaves me with the same irritated feeling.

Since my dander is up about the film, let me add my two cents about the experience and presentation. We chose a theater based on when the film was playing, and it was not one of our typical haunts. In fact, we ended up paying a little extra to see the film in a "Dine-In" experience. I have always had my reservations about the concept, but since we had driven out of our way and already paid a premium, we went with the flow and ordered concessions off the menu and had a "usher/waiter" take care of us. Other than popcorn and soda, we splurged on nachos, but not the kind that come in a box with melted cheese in a plastic container. These were restaurant style with guacamole and other toppings. They cam twenty minutes after the popcorn. The traditional movie fare arrived before the film started, the nachos did not. The soda we ordered came not in a large cup like the overpriced style at the concession stand, but in a medium sized plastic cup designed to look like a glass coke glass.  The size of the serving, which I was sharing with my wife was diminutive compared to a regular theater, and insured that we would need a re-fill to go with the spicy nachos during the movie. So we got a second visit from the "usher/waiter" while the film was running. He returned a third time with a check in a folder, much like a restaurant, that I would need to sign before we left. A fourth visit was made to try to collect the glasses and silverware that we were not yet finished with. Also, the button for calling for service is over my right shoulder, and it is surrounded by embedded lighting that identifies the theater chain. So the whole time I am watching the film, I have four interruptions and a light in the corner of my eye. Fortunately, the black cloth napkin I was provided, draped nicely over the service button and removed that distraction. Now, if only everything we ordered could arrive before the movie began, we would have half as much to object to. Frankly, eating hot food off a plate, set on an attached tray, in the dark is a pain in the butt as well.

So, I can now say I have tried it, and it is officially more cumbersome than eating KFC in the car while at a drive in. Maybe if I had ordered the hard liquor from the bar, I would not have minded so much, but since I don't drink, and I have a low tolerance for people who can't hold their liquor well,  this was never going to be a solution for me. If that is how you roll, more power to you, but in the future, I'd rather stand in line at a concession stand, juggle my purchases in my arms walking back into the theater, and be left the hell alone while I am watching a movie. I've now had the "dine-in experience", and I'm not sure if it was more irritating than the movie, but I do know I won't be doing either one of them again.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2





Let's be clear, you can't catch lightning in a bottle twice. Your emotional reaction to a previously experienced event will always be influenced by that previous experience. So, inevitably, a second helping is going to go down differently than the first. That said, Volume 2 of this franchise from Marvel Studios, maintains the right tone, humor and high production quality of it's predecessor, while adding some interesting layers to the story and characters. It is a great follow up which will leave you with another sense of euphoria, but it won't quite be like your first piece of the pie.

I swore five years ago that I would stop going to these late night preview screenings on Thursdays. After having left the house at six am, worked at my desk for almost three hours, taught for more than four hours, attended a meeting late in the afternoon, drove to another campus, taught two more hours, rushed home, took the dogs to their training class and finally returning home at 9pm, I got up after eating and went to a 10:30 pm screening. With trailers and movie, I did not get to bed until 2 am. I'm not whining, I'm simply explaining that it was a long, complicated day and I'm bushed. Still it was totally worth it and if my prose comes across a little toasty in this review, well, that's the reason why.

For several years now, I have used an example in my classes about how cultural references from different generations can be misunderstood. For instance, one time in class, as I was passing back grades, one of my students was named Phillip, and when I called his name I joked that I really just need five bucks worth. People who who have only ever pumped their own gas might not get that. Another time, my student got her quiz back and when I called her name, "Brandy" , I said , "you're a fine girl, what a good wife you would be". I got horrified looks from millennials who thought I was hitting on this poor girl and did not get the pop culture reference. After this movie, that will never happen again. As much as this film is a product of today's Hollywood, the cultural appropriation of late seventies and early eighties pop music and culture is one of it's strongest points. Hearing the great Kurt Russell, quote the lyrics of a pop song from 1972, as a way of summarizing his characters plot line was just perfect for an old guy like me. Baby Groot should sell a million copies of ELO's greatest hits, and if you don't have Fleetwood Mac's "the Chain" on your music feed, you will.

Our main characters are known quantities at this point. There really are not a lot of surprises when it comes to the way they act and talk. Writer/Director James Gunn and his screenwriting collaborators have a clear understanding of the emotional neediness of Star Lord and match it with cocky bravado at every point. Rocket is a badass for some clearly emotional reasons, but you don't expect them to be as poignant as this film manages to make them. There are several new characters in the story but the best narrative belongs to two characters from the first film who take a more prominent role in Volume 2. Nebula has daddy issues like everyone in the story, but she is taking them out on Gamora. Their relationship continues to splinter, mesh and then separate again on a regular basis.  The surprise feature character is Michael Rooker's Yondu. This turns out to be the key reason for this movie working as well as it does to supersede comic spectacle and actually achieve some emotional resonance. Who'd have thought that?

Drax continues to be one of the oddest comic relief characters in films. David Bautista's deliver of deadpan insults and bon mots earns him some acting cred in the range he handles very well.  Zoe Saldana has the narrowest story developments in the film, but Gamora still manages to be an important presence in the story. New character Mantis has the sincerest demeanor in the plot and her by play with Drax is a highlight.


Peter Quill gets to be the hero of the story, but it ends up being a position that is well earned and paid for. The Guardians add a few new enemies to their list of folks they have to watch out for. You can see a few threads of future stories lurking in the background, but the one major story from the previous version is cleanly tied up here. Not having heard of this comic series before it became a film, much less having ever read one comic, the denouement of  the family story was a good twist that made the film a lot more interesting.

The special effects of the film are impressive. We went to a 3D IMAX showing and it showcases the space battles and weapons very well. The soundtrack is loaded with music that if you don't yet know, you will because it is used so well in the story. There are some nice details in the film that you may miss if you don't watch closely.  For example, I'm pretty sure Peter's grandpa is in one shot very briefly. It wasn't necessary but it shows that the film makers care about details and in this Universe, details seem to be pretty important. If you liked the first film, you should be more than satisfied with Vol. 2. And if you like Mary Poppins, you'll love Yondu the most.

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