focus movie poster

I’m behind the times—it’s true. To such a degree, in fact, that I’m using this (tentative) return from hiatus to talk about a movie that isn’t even in theaters any more. So, Focus, and the question that’s on everyone’s minds: can Will Smith bounce back from the two consecutive train wrecks that were After Earth and Winter’s Tale? Let’s find out!

Focus bills itself as a “romantic dark comedy” and comes to us from long-time writing/directing partners John Requa and Glenn Ficarra. The duo got their start writing for Nickelodeon and, since then, have built a résumé consisting of hits like Cats & Dogs (2001), Bad Santa (2003), that remake of Bad News Bears a few years ago, and I Love You, Philip Morris (2009). Interestingly, Requa’s most profitable enterprise to date was the romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love in 2011, which he directed but did not write.

Suffice it to say, the pair’s performance has been spotty at best, and that certainly shows when looking at Focus as a whole. The refrain that I kept going back to throughout the film was: do you expect me to believe that? The movie is trying to be this slick, contemporary Ocean’s Eleven that captures the glamour of the grifter lifestyle, and while it mostly succeeds from a visual standpoint, the plot is so full of holes and relies almost exclusively on happenstance and coincidence that it graduates from “suspension of disbelief” to outright impossibility.

I’m thinking of one scene in particular that involves Will Smith’s Nicky Spurgeon trying to keep a privately employed snoop out of his apartment, but—spoiler warning—later in the plot we discover that the Nicky and the snoop were on the same side the entire time, and that the only reason that the scene existed at all was to cynically build a momentary tension that makes zero sense in the larger context of the film. It’s falsely manipulative and moreover, it shows a certain contempt for the audience on the part of the writers.

Be that as it may, I have to tip my hat to Will Smith for looking halfway interested in what he was doing. In an age of too-cool-for-school protagonists who apparently think that displaying any sort of emotion beyond boredom tempered with general apathy is for sissies, it’s such a breath of fresh air to see a character look even vaguely passionate about what’s going on. Even Margot Robbie, a relative newcomer to the industry, looks like she’s having a good time on-screen. I just wish that they all had better material to work with.

In some ways, Focus is disappointing more than anything else, mostly because it was almost a good movie and did a few things right. There were a number of cool moments, and I found it really interesting and engaging how we didn’t know whether or not to trust Smith’s character until the end, but the broad strokes were what killed the experience for me. The film earns a lot of goodwill (perhaps unduly) for the charming performances in the middle of an otherwise barren cinematic wasteland, but looses that goodwill almost immediately with some lame plotting and a twist ending that insults the audience’s intelligence.

As I say, the film has already been pulled in most places, and mere mention of it at this juncture might provoke the raise of an eyebrow accompanied by the phrase, “Oh, that was a thing?” Indeed, Focus is fairly forgettable and doesn’t do a lot to distinguish itself, even during the customarily unremarkable Q1 release period.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Chappie-Movie-Poster

You know, even after three feature films I still can’t decide if Neill Blomkamp is actually a good director. From a conceptual level, he works wonders; the worlds he creates are rich and vibrant, and his 3D motion capture and visual work are second to none. The problem, however, is that significantly less consideration is afforded to how all those different pieces ought to fit together and, as far as his films are concerned, I’m kind of let down by how much the seams seem to show, as it were, as he tries to fit all the parts together.

I’d like to tell you that Chappie is a hard sci-fi exploration of the concept of artificial intelligence and its implications in a quickly changing and increasingly modernized world—but I can’t, because that would be lying. The actual film is about a robot adopting a thuggish affectation and then shooting up other robots. So forgive me if I sound bitter, but I can’t help but feel like I’ve been sold a lie here. Even the trailer boasted promises of uncommon substance, including a voice-over of the film’s title character proclaiming, “I am consciousness. I am alive. I am Chappie.” Suffice it to say the reality of the situation is that what we ultimately got was a much shallower and garish production, unfortunately devoid of any real substance.

As I mentioned before, the 3D animation in all of Blomkamp’s films, not just Chappie, is unrivaled, owing chiefly to the fact that Blomkamp’s background before he entered the film industry was, in fact, animation. Much like Oblivion and Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski, their backgrounds are in visual design, not writing, meaning that they generally have gorgeous-looking films that are riddled with plot holes and sloppy development. There are a lot of instances when the film just sort of glosses over the details only to move rapidly on to the next major point, hoping that the audience didn’t notice; and although I sometimes don’t mind the “artful dodge” technique (like in Looper, for example), in this instance it really took me out of the experience.

It seems strange, but in each of Blomkamp’s films, I can almost point to the exact moment when the story takes just slightly too large a leap, which ultimately ends up losing me. In District 9 it was the fact that the allegorical drama I’d been watching suddenly turned into an action movie apropos of nothing; In Elysium (probably my favorite of the three) it was the magi-technological wonder-machines that instantly repaired Sharlto Copley’s mangled neck-stump; and in Chappie, it was the inexplicable discovery of human consciousness uploading—mere days after the invention of a primitive AI, mind—that was somehow attained thanks to the computing power of, like, six PlayStation 4s stacked on top of one another.

In all honesty, the film’s ending devolves into narrative gibberish. It’s like listening to a five year-old kid recount his imaginary adventures during playtime. Any pretense of realism is dropped so that everything can be wrapped up in a neat, nice bow, which was a weird shift of tone that really threw me for a loop. Blomkamp is a fan of what you might call ‘soft’ sci-fi, and indeed, the science in Chappie is so soft that you could spread it on your toast and have it for breakfast.

Even without the more substantial plot elements and thematic exploration that I would have like to have seen, the film wasn’t all bad. The always-excellent Sharlto Copley does a lot of the mo-cap and voice action work for the character of Chappie, and to his and Blomkamps’s credit, it’s all pulled off beautifully. Likewise, it’s always a joy when you get to hear some genuine accents in a Hollywood movie, and Blomkamp’s dedication to his South African heritage is genuinely praiseworthy.

After having given it a bit of thought, I think I’d really like to see Blomkamp team up with someone like Dan O’Bannon, or with Ridely Scott to a lesser extent, to function in a sort of “ideas-man” capacity, much like George Lucas was the ideas-man during his collaborations with Stephen Spielberg. Either that, or Blomkamp really needs someone who can fill in the gaps that are missing in his stories, as well as the general world building.

Blomkamp’s movies are generally fun, and Chappie, at the very least, holds interest, but I was really quite disappointed that the film turned out to be just another slick, Hollywood action movie with the central conceit: hey, wouldn’t it be funny if a robot acted like a gangster?

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

kingsman_the_secret_service_xlg

I was watching Kingsman: The Secret Service a while back and I remember thinking, “Damn, this feels a lot like Kick-Ass.” Turns out, I surprised myself with my homing missile-like powers of observation because, as I discovered after the fact, Kingsman and Kick-Ass were both helmed by director Matthew Vaughn, also the man behind X-Men: First Class.

Kingsman is incredibly loosely based adaptation of a comic series simply titled The Secret Service, created by Mark Miller and Dave Gibbons. Kick-Ass, lest we forget, was also based on a comic series co-written by Miller as well, which is fine, in as much as we know, more or less, what to expect as far as Vaughn’s stylistic sensibilities are concerned.

The film is a throwback to a number of genres, chiefly the spy-thriller of yester-year, though part of the problem is that it’s trying to keep too many balls in the air at once. Part coming-of-age drama, part action comedy, and part spy thriller, the tone is all over the place like the results of a darts tournament for the blind. Perhaps the best illustration for this claim can be found within the first ten minutes of the film: the opening scene depicts a daring rescue mission, complete with blaring rock music and exploding typography loudly proclaiming the title; the second scene depicts a grieving widow soberly being given news of her husband’s death; and the third presents a Kick-Ass-esque action sequence with weirdly timed a presented comedic elements.

Screenwriting tip: the first few minutes of the movie are vital when it comes to setting the tone. It sets up what the audience comes to expect from the film, so that you can either go ahead with building your dramatic tension, or subvert the audiences’ expectations later on. Kingsman doesn’t know what it wants to be—and it shows— as it flits disconcertingly between largely unconnected aspects of the story. What am I supposed to be feeling, movie? You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Talking of story, I can’t seem to wrap my head around some of the more fantastical elements of the plot, mostly because the mostly sober interactions between Firth and his protégé, played by Taron Egerton, keep body slamming to tone back down again. The plot largely centers on a lot of nonsense involving Samuel L. Jackson as some sort of tech-geek cum eco-terrorist wanting to kill everybody, but in a more practical sense, it’s just a largely vestigial framework around which a bunch of contrived action sequences are strung like glimmering Christmas lights.

Frankly, it feels like writers Vaughn and Jane Goldman came up with all the big, showy set pieces, knocked off for lunch, and never came back. Significantly less attention has been afforded to the details of the plot, and it seems like no one really knew or cared how the characters got from point A to point B as long as some people got shot along the way. Sometimes it’s the little things that take me out of a story, as was the case here. From the jaw-dropping stupidity of the villain’s master plan to the way in which none of the cadets reacted in the slightest once they discovered that their training entailed killing them off in order to determine who among them was the most capable, my reaction was generally the same eye-roll and inward sigh of frustration.

But I can occasionally get behind a stupid premise if the idea is done with passion—the Roger Moore era James Bond movies spring to mind—but what I simply can’t abide is attempted humor that just isn’t funny. Nothing is more tortuous to sit though than a film that thinks it’s funny when it isn’t. Kingsman, unfortunately, is one of these movies. It really just drove me up the wall when joke after joke, obvious remark after obvious remark, kept falling flat. And Samuel L. Jackson’s lisp? I bet that was much funnier in the writing room, wasn’t it, guys?

Kingsman subscribes to that incredibly lowbrow, groan-inducing, lowest-common-denominator kind of humor that permeates shows like Family Guy, and I know I sound pretentious as hell right now, but the fact is that I wouldn’t have a qualm if Kingsman had actually made me laugh. But it didn’t. And now we’re here.

Some computer-generated special effects that scream, “Our budget dried up faster that we’d hoped,” certainly didn’t improve matters but, in truth, I had checked out long before that.

The bubblegum-pop infused, blood-lusty action sequences of Kick-Ass are here, but they’re stretched over a hollow, token framework of a story that has far too many plot holes and logical dead-ends for my liking. More than entertain me, Kingsman: The Secret Service just made me weary.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Jupiter Ascending Poster


If it wasn’t apparent already, the Wachowskis are nothing if not massive nerds, so it’s easy to see how the prospect of creating their own complex and detailed worlds, as we see in The Matrix franchise and indeed in Jupiter Ascending might appeal to them. There’s a difference, however, between telling a compelling a story and just showing off all the cool stuff they’ve made, and I’m afraid to say that Jupiter falls into the later category.

As we know, film is a visual medium and, given the stylistic flair present in their other work, the fact the Wachowski’s understand that fact is laudable. But like so many other filmmakers operating today, they’re not so much using special effects to tell a story as they are using a story to tell special effects. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it: visual effects just don’t impress audiences any more and, in truth, haven’t really done so since maybe the late 1970s. As part of the whole original mythology the Wachowskis built for the film, nearly every piece of on-screen tech—from ships to clothing, space stations to aliens—is over-designed clutter. Now, I’m no artist, but I do know that the most vital aspect of visual design is the silhouette; the audience needs to know who or what they’re looking at at a glance.

For good examples of successful visual design, look no further than the original Star Wars movies. For instance: the Death Star? Circle. Star Destroyer? Triangle. Millennium Falcon? Sandwich with a bite taken out of it. What we have in Jupiter Ascending, however, is something akin to visual diarrhea. If a thing can be designed it’s almost always over-designed to the point where any given frame is so jam-packed with meaningless clutter that it’s nearly impossible for the audience to tell what’s going on, particularly during what one might charitably refer to as the action sequences.

Which brings me nicely to my next point. When it comes to the Wachowskis, it’s their original works that you have to watch out for; Don’t get me wrong, I like the Matrix movies, but I wouldn’t exactly call them the benchmark of cinematic storytelling. Whereas V for Vendetta, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore, as well as Cloud Atlas, based on the David Mitchell book, are not only more adequate from a writing standpoint, but are also just better films in general.

It’s clear that the Wachowskis are fans of the Dune series, given that Jupiter Ascending shamelessly rips it off to a rather frightening degree. Fair enough, though; I mean, Dune is great, but what I could do without is the simultaneously inanely dense and utterly childish mythos that permeates the film.

Now here’s an interesting little point/counterpoint scenario we can work through together. On one hand, the massively complex and intricately crafted world of Game of Thrones and, on the other, the unapologetic shambles of Jupiter Ascending. Apart from the obvious—that is, being actually good—what makes something like Game of Thrones succeed where Jupiter falls short? There are a few reasons: one is that while Game of Thrones has seven books through which to sprinkle exposition, Jupiter Ascending has only a few grim, tortuous hours during which it has to shoehorn in a bunch a totally irrelevant and not particularly well thought-out exposition which functions as little more than filler. The other reason, simply put, is characterization. Game of Thrones has a collection of interesting and diverse characters, most of which change and grow over time in an engaging way. Jupiter Ascending, alternatively, has no characters to speak of.

Let me explain. I was re-watching Mr. Plinkett’s reviews of one of the Star Wars prequels (because I have that kind of time), when he mentioned a sort of test he sometimes used to illustrate characterization, or lack thereof, in a film.

The test is this: Without describing a given character’s appearance or occupation, how might you describe them to someone who has never heard of the film or franchise before?

I was certainly given pause for thought as I considered this question after having seen Jupiter Ascending. Virtually all the characters are interchangeable, uninteresting, and one-dimensional, and I think it might have been a standing order on-set to display as little emotion as possible. If the characters themselves don’t seem interested in what they’re doing, why should I?

To add to the film’s laundry list of problems, the plot as a whole is as monotonously one-note as the characters are—so at the very least, I guess it’s being consistent. There’s a really severe case of “second verse, same as the first” going on, which can be illustrated by four separate instances in which Mila Kunis finds herself in a situation she doesn’t want to be in, whereupon Channing Tatum bursts through a bit of wall or ceiling or floor and rescues her. Is that supposed to be a joke, movie? Because I am absolutely not laughing.

If the film has one saving grace, it must be Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne’s delightfully hammy performance as incorrigible evildoer Balem Abrasax. But again, Balem Abrasax ain’t no Vladimir, Baron Harkonnen, and the little light that Redmayne does bring to the production isn’t nearly enough to compensate for the film’s other massive faults.

Jupiter Ascending is lighthearted and campy, but it’s also interminably boring and a real grind to sit through. Predictable, monotone, and visually off-putting, this is decidedly not the rollicking space adventure that I had hoped it would be.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

the loft poster

Welcome to the 2015 winter dead-zone, where the studios are so spent from their respective Oscar Season blowouts that they feel safe enough to release the heaping mounds of filth neither blockbuster-ey enough for summer nor award bait-ey enough for fall. This is when stuff like Blackhat, Mortdecai, Seventh Son, and indeed The Loft comes out, because at time of writing the actual Oscars haven’t happened yet, meaning that everyone’s still caught up in the speculation and not really paying too much attention to new releases.

The history of The Loft is an interesting one. The film, directed by Belgian filmmaker Erik Van Looy, is based on a 2008 Belgian film simply titled Loft, also directed by Van Looy. At time of release, Loft enjoyed generally positive reviews and, in fact, proved to be the most commercially successful Flemish film ever made. Apparently not content to leave well enough alone, Van Looy was determined to remake a not particularly old film for an American audience and, spoiler alert: it’s absolute shit.

Now, I haven’t seen Loft and I don’t really care to after having seen The Loft, but surely the story had been told adequately well the first time round. It’s not like the tech had vastly improved in the intervening six years, so honestly, why even bother? More money, probably; but the fact that the project inexplicably attracted a handful of high-profile talent and still managed to suck is really a marvel. Karl Urban, James Marsden, and Eric Stonestreet star and, as a big Karl Urban fan myself, I hate to see these otherwise adroit actors flounder through this poorly written mess of a film.

The original story—the Belgian version, that is—was written by Flemish comedian and screenwriter Bart De Pauw, though the screenwriting credits in the remake are afforded to De Pauw and another gentleman by the name of Wesley Strick. Strick, responsible for a number of B-horror/thriller films is, in short, a hack. One of my major problems with the film is that the dialogue sounds as though it was written by someone with no conception of human interaction. Every line of dialogue seems forced and unnatural and conversations flow like a cement waterfall. Frequently, we have entire exchanges where characters just spout exposition at one another, engagement of the audience be damned.

It’s ridiculous! They expect us to care about these characters and become invested in their struggles, but the problem is that there are not characters! There’s just a bunch a passionless cyphers with precisely one character trait apiece, trying to weave their ways through what could laughingly be called a plot. I can generally dig it when movies ask us to suspend our disbelief—that’s the fun of the movies, after all—but the “twist” ending in The Loft was so jarringly out of nowhere and relied on a huge number of assumptions and coincidences, and that’s that kind of thing that really takes me out of movies.

Like Blackhat, The Loft tries to incorporate this slick and modernistic visual style with lots and grays and dark-blues, and lots of semi-transparent glass panes, but also like Blackhat, the film seems to neglect the notion that a compelling visual effects only works when there are interesting characters to populate the world. Remember: visual effects are used to tell a story; a story, alternatively, SHOULD NOT be used to tell visual effects.

All in all, The Loft is a one big, stinking mess from beginning to end. It’s a dull, uninspired death-march across an unforgiving landscape littered with clumsy dialogue and lifeless characters. Why does this film exist when the film that inspired it was, and still is, perfectly serviceable? Beats me. But maybe don’t waste your time with this one.

Rating: 2 out of 5

blackhat movie poster

As you may or may not be aware, the term “blackhat” is 1337 H4X0R speak for an operative that infiltrates a secure network in attempt to steal stuff or generally just spread alarm and discord. How apropos then, that the actual film in question is basically akin to cinematic terrorism, perpetrated by the known insurgent Michael Mann.

I can picture Mann sitting alone in his smoke-filled office at four o’clock in the morning, half-empty bottle of whiskey on his desk, racking his brain, trying to figure out what the kids are into these days. Apparently, he arrived at “computers” and presumably by extension “hacking,” but significantly less thought was afforded to whether or not those particular thematic elements are entertaining to watch. Say will you will about the virtues of real-life computer coding, but an associate of mine assures me that it’s not a terribly engaging enterprise for whatever spectators may be around.

Let me not mince words here: Blackhat is a dull, plodding, downright arduous film to sit through. Mann, once the king of the high-impact action movie, seems to be pitifully floundering these days. Gone are the days of colorful and exciting films like Heat, Collateral, and Thief, only to be replaced by this absolute slog of a film. Mann was trying to do the whole rebooted 007-franchise thing: all sleek exteriors and muted colors, offset by dazzling set pieces and engaging action sequences. But the visual style aside, the Bond series fills its world full of interesting characters and actual moments of humanity and levity—you know, like the things and actual human being might experience. Blackhat, alternatively, consists entirely of a collection of lifeless characters humorlessly grumbling their way through a miasma of unconnected motivations, betrayals, and obfuscations, strung together with a paper-thin chain of nearly unwatchable gunfights made all the more excruciating by camerawork that looks like it was done on a middle-schooler’s iPhone.

Maybe it was just the shitty writing and wholly uninspired plot, but Blackhat really drove home how inadequate an actor Chris Hemsworth actually is. Bored monotone and inexpressive grumbling seem to the order of the day, and not only for old Thor. Every single person in this fiasco seemed like they had just come round from a chemical-induced coma for the duration of the picture, from Viola Davis to Wang Leehom. Somewhere along the line, I remember having one of those little dissociative moments that you get sometimes; I was watching myself watching the movie, and I remember thinking, “I will never get these two hours of my life back.”

And I’ve seen some bad writing in my time—I’ve seen some abortively bad writing, I’ll tell you now. But the word-vomit that must have constituted the final draft of the script, written by Mann and Morgan Davis Foehl (Click, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry), has got to be some of the absolute worst. Aside from the blatantly unlikable and senselessly hostile protagonist, the majority of the inter-character dynamics might have been written by someone who has literally never interacted with another living human being. It’s just sad, really, because I know Mann can do better than this. I just want to grab him by the lapels and shake some sense into him, preferably while shouting, “Come on, man! You’re better than this!”

I know the critique is basically just adding to the cacophony of negative press that’s surrounding the film already, but I really can’t stress enough how much of a farce this production really turned out to be. Hopefully the film won’t torpedo Mann’s reputation too much, because I genuinely believe that he’s got much greater ability than he’s exhibited here, but, it must be said, Blackhat is pretty much a write-off.

Rating: 1 out of 5

American Sniper Poster

Now, I’ve seen a good number of movies in my time, and I fully admit that I’m probably a little jaded, but I can’t be the only one frustrated by the insurmountable arduousness of this whole Oscar season in general and American Sniper specifically. The professional news sources will tell you that Mr. Eastwood’s latest opus has broken all kinds of box office records and has made more money that God at this point; but after having put quite a bit of thought into my review of the film, I honestly couldn’t tell you why. It irks me that original and imaginative movies like Birdman only end up raking in a fraction of the cash that something like American Sniper does, but that’s people for you—forever loath to get out of their tiny comfort zones.

Clint Eastwood is a very old man—he’s eighty-four, according to Wikipedia—and it seems to me that a lot of his later work, and American Sniper specifically, is mired in a lot of really uncomfortable old-world machismo and outdated nationalism which manifests itself and a weirdly earnest “us vs. them” mentality that seems singularly out of place in this Web 2.0 world. Eastwood’s actual technical direction isn’t as much at fault as the writing is, which usually what it comes down to with these kinds of things. Weirdly, a lot of the special effects in the film look laughably fake, and I’m reminded specifically of one sequence in which Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller are trying to have a serious exchange, but they’re very clearly handling a fake Fisher-Price baby; and I’m sitting in the theater all the while, barely stifling laughter.

Cooper, playing real-life American sniper Chris Kyle (whose biography inspired the film), does a pretty fair job, though as I mentioned before, a lot of the problems I found with the movie stem from the protagonist coming across as a bit of a bully and more than a little dense, which proved problematic as the film progressed, as Cooper’s was of course the character the audience was meant to identify with. Cooper is joined by a host of more or less low-key actors, who all give serviceable performances, though playing the gritty, emotionally detached soldier is probably one of the easier jobs as far as acting goes.

This particular review will probably be a little more subjective than normal—you know, since usually my reviews are models of level-headedness and non-partisanship—but the problem that one runs into a lot of the time with character driven films like American Sniper is that the success of the movie lives or dies on whether or not the audience can connect to the protagonist. I had the same problem with David O. Russell’s 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook, also starring Cooper. It wasn’t a terrible movie, per se, but the fact that I found the main character almost totally un-relatable was what killed it for me, and I think the same idea applies to this film as well.

Apart from having a rather dull protagonist, the film mostly consists of a series of factual events from the life of Chris Kyle, occasionally spiced up with some classic Hollywood sensationalism. While the aforementioned nationalistic pride is certainly there, I think the Eastwood may have missed an opportunity to make a broader connection in the form of Kyle’s role in a much larger and increasingly ambiguously defined conflict. It’s pretty obvious the American Sniper wants to be something like The Hurt Locker, but the fact that if writer Jason Hall had entertained even for a moment the idea that his writing ability is on par with that of someone like Oscar-winner Mark Boal, then he’s got another thing coming.

Despite the earth-shattering commercial success of the film, I mostly found it pretty lacking. Maybe that’s my inborn desire to be contrary about everything speaking, but I really feel that the majority has really missed the mark on this one. I’ve seen good war movies, and I’ve seen bad war movies, and I’ve seen shocking war movies, and I’ve seen emotional war movies, but American Spectrum falls right off the spectrum, right into the pit where the downright bland and mediocre war movies reside, hopefully never to see the light of day again.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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