GOOSEBUMPS REVIEW

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As one character reminds us in the film, Goosebumps was not a book series you read to your kids to get them to sleep; rather, it was one to keep them awake from fright. The bestselling book series for kids, as well as the television series based on the books, burst onto the scene in the ’90s and introduced an entire new generation to the wonders of horror.

As someone who holds R.L. Stine’s series in a special, nostalgic place, the prospect of a Goosebumps film seemed interesting enough, though not without its obstacles and expectations.

The resulting film takes the interesting approach of ditching the anthology approach — something that worked great for the show but wouldn’t translate for cinema — and placing Stine as a character trying to fix the chaos after his creations are released and run amok. While the movie benefits from a game cast, a memorable monster or two, and more terrific music work from Danny Elfman, Goosebumps is also brought down by an abscess of atmosphere regarding its fright factor.

The movie may be self-aware about the series’ ability to haunt kids’ dreams, but the Goosebumps movie itself just isn’t that scary for any age. Instead of going for chills and fright, the team behind Goosebumps is more interested in making a light romp with its horror elements that can be easily digested for minimal fuss.

Maybe I’m just a woefully out of touch old coot (at least in relation to how old Goosebumps is) but I distinctly remember Goosebumps being… well, frightening. Spine-tingling. Hair-raising. Full of danger and sinister twists. Cheesy and dated as it may be, even the ’90s TV show had some striking imagery to get under kids skin. These are things the movie just isn’t.

It’s a totally fascinating social statement how this new Goosebumps caters to a new generation of kids, aiming more towards the zippy comedy and thrills made popular by brands like Marvel instead of the spookiness of old. But, to be fair, the movie seems completely poised to reel in a new age of fans. As a family adventure that just happens to be lightly tinged with terror, Goosebumps is a successful family flick that can competently entertain on a baseline level for unfamiliar audiences. And that’s a good thing, yes?

Jack Black, Jillian Bell, and the remaining cast seem to genuinely be having fun with the Jumanji treatment of Stine’s material. Director Rob Letterman is perfectly comfortable letting Black do his over-the-top mugging and the actor’s dedication to being an anti-social creep in the role actually works in the movie’s favor.

The other aspect of production that breathes real life into the film is Danny Elfman’s score. Either Danny Elfman was born to write for Goosebumps or, more accurately, Goosebumps is a ripe property for Elfman’s musical voice. Whichever you prefer. The renowned composer’s sound here harkens back to his early work with Tim Burton and fits this iteration like a glove covering an outstretched claw.

If the human cast and Elfman’s music are two instances of character in the film, the third has to be the presence of Slappy the Dummy. The most-well known Goosebumps villain, Slappy is really the only character from the books afforded any charisma or personality at all. Voiced also by Jack Black, the Dummy with a chip on his shoulder is practically a perfect translation from his smarmy literary self.

Beyond that, all the monsters we see in the movie — including lawn gnomes, ghouls, the abominable snowman of Pasadena and the werewolf of fever swamp — are all just bargain bin CGI placeholders that show up to wreak havoc [That giant praying mantis from “A Shocker on Shock Street” wasn’t messing around though. Man…].

This all goes back to the workmanlike approach to the film. The horror elements  get downplayed to make room for frantic chases, when a little more style in the filmmaking and charisma in the monsters could have meant all the difference.

Will kids like Goosebumps? In all likelihood and their parents probably won’t mind it either. Was this Goosebumps purist satisfied? Meh, in a few regards, but I wish there was more to like. Did I forget to mention the amazing end credits that pay homage to Tim Jacobus’ amazing artwork for the books? Clearly. Will there be a sequel? With how much it made on such little budget, most definitely, and hopefully it will make bigger strides to live up to the mantle of Goosebumps.

5/10

WEEKEND REVIEW ROUNDUP: SEPTEMBER 18 – 20

Four movies, three based on real stories, two well worth seeing, all releasing on one weekend. Let’s do this.

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The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

It’s only been three years since The Hunger Games launched the genre into high gear but we’re already at the point of saturation with young adult novel adaptations. Instead of new and exciting series, most studios are content to regurgitate rote formula in a new, barely different package.

Enter The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trails, another in the line of unspectacular post-apocalyptic flicks for young-uns, this time with more running than you could ever ask for. Whereas the first Maze Runner was Lord of the Flies-light, Scorch Trials goes for a much different tone as an I Am Legend/The Walking Dead/Resident Evil imitation, with nothing innovative to show for.

With no story element that doesn’t come off as contrived and a cast verging on having no charisma, the only strength of the film comes in its chase scenes, which are passably exciting enough to make you forget how boring the rest of the film can be.

Like other films of its ilk, Scorch Trials ends on a set-up for the next film but judging by this film alone, there’s not much to get excited over.

4/10

 

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Black Mass

Johnny Depp hasn’t really acted in a while. Sure, he’s pretty regularly been in movies in the past few years, slathered in makeup with some silly voice or another, but it’s rarely measured up to many of his early performances. Not only is it great to say that Depp acts up a storm as Whitey Bulger, but also that Black Mass as a film is gloriously grim and fascinating.

Dramatizing the stranger than fiction story of how Bulger struck an unholy alliance with the FBI and rose through the ranks as a Boston crime kingpin, Black Mass is a testament to strong acting and dedicated tone. Director Scott Cooper takes a solid script about a villain’s reign of terror and brings dark and brutal excitement into the mix, all while giving the cast enough reign to consistently turn in great performances.

Depp has an intensity to him that I feel like he’s been saving for a role like this. He completely immerses himself in the character and sets the malicious and imposing mood for the rest of the film. So many exchanges between characters are charged that you as an audience member are almost giddy from the anticipation for bad things to happen.

It’s because of Black Mass‘ unconventional story that this approach works. Bulger is by no means a protagonist but he is the focus of the story, which allows for such a dark approach. This is not a story of good cop goes after bad criminal — more like bad cop helps really bad criminal — which just comes off as more interesting anyway.

Depp’s performance shouldn’t be counted out for special notice in the coming months but it would be a shame to go without recognizing Black Mass as one of the better, more sinister crime dramas of the era.

8/10

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Everest

I was not prepared for Everest. Having long-ago seen the IMAX documentary and recalling things did not necessarily end well, I knew the story was getting a dramatized retelling and that’s it.

What actually went down should really be described more as an experience.

Everest is not a movie chalk full of narrative depth or flashy writing. It’s an exhausting, yet harrowing account of the events of the 1996 disaster on Everest, told as true to the experience as possible (which can admittedly result in some pacing issues.) This movie is an exercise in feeling what the characters do. Frigid winds blow off the screen and work their way into your bones while each grueling step in a place with almost no air comes off like a marathon.

Director Baltasar Kormakur wanted to make a film that conveyed the feeling of being on Mt. Everest for the 99 percent of people who would never experience it. For better or worse, he succeeded. Our main character, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), says early in the film that Everest is mostly a lot of pain, and that’s really what the cast and filmmakers convey perfectly. Within the adversity the cast/characters face in the elements, and with the help of some beautiful cinematography and an award-worthy score by Dario Marianelli, a noticeably moving film about mankind against nature emerges — one that does not sugarcoat the truth behind how this event ended.

There’s something beautifully tragic about the end of this film that reveals it not as a pure product, but as an attempt for film to mimic life. It’s up to you how close you want to be to a story so stark.

Everest opens in limited special IMAX screenings Sept. 18 before hitting wide release on Sept. 25.

7/10

PAWN SACRIFICE

Pawn Sacrifice

The story of Bobby Fischer, one of the greatest chess players of all time, is one of the relationship between brilliance and madness. The dynamic of watching Fischer battle against his own growing schizophrenia, while also climbing to the top of the ranks against the Soviets for the title of world champion should naturally be a winning concept.

Unfortunately, Pawn Sacrifice is an interesting story that isn’t told very interestingly. Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard and Liev Schrieber all give good performances by any criteria. However, the movie seemingly can’t decide if it wants to be a character piece or a film about propping up unstable talent for symbolic reasons (because the two approaches certainly don’t mix), and meanders on for way too long in uncertain spaces. The best scenes in the film, while not really trying to make chess more accessible, are the showdowns between Maguire and Schrieber, but how we get there is a mixed bag.

Making the film even harder to swallow is the part about how Fischer really comes off as an asshole. His rants quickly go from amusing to insufferable and stay that way. Unlikable characters can be totally fascinating but characters you can’t sympathize with are a problem. Ultimately, in spite of the cast and chess sequences, Pawn Sacrifice can’t pull a win because of this.

5/10

2015 SUMMER REVIEW ROUND-UP PART II

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Terminator Genisys

First thing’s first: Terminator Genisys is not a great movie, especially when held up to the first two films in the series. The story is incoherent, there’s an over-reliance on visual effects and the John Connor twist they gave away in the trailers is only half baked. Like I said, not a great movie.

And yet, damn it, did I have more fun with this one than I anticipated. If you’re going to bastardize a beloved franchise known for its hard-edge dystopian grit and turn it into a fluffy, PG-13-friendly summer action franchise, there are worse ways to do it than Terminator Genisys. The stars are likable enough with what they’re given and the action sequences (of which there are many) are competently, often thrillingly, choreographed to actually comprehend what’s happening.

I can’t speak for anyone with a great affinity for the original movies but as someone with appropriately adjusted expectations, the film delivered enough to actually be fun. Like Jurassic World earlier this summer, Terminator Genisys is cinematic cotton candy: light on depth but fun while it lasts.

7/10

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The Gallows

The mere concept of The Gallows has enough promise to get excited over. School ghost stories have a certain mystique about them that hasn’t been tapped back into for far too long.

However, if you’re looking for a movie to do something unique or even moderately satisfying with the concept, steer very clear of The Gallows, as it is a film that makes horror fans hang their heads.

Another in the long line of cheaply made found footage horror flicks, Gallows starts off on a major wrong foot by having our main character be the most detestable high school asshole imaginable. After following this horrible human being for the better part of half an hour, we’re rewarded for our patience with cheap jump scares, frantic camera work to disguise an absence of suspense (and/or money), and a phenomenally bad twist ending.

The film’s saving grace is that it is mercifully short, likely representing all the budget could muster. In all honesty, movies like The Gallows are the death of good horror: micro-budget projects that studios shit out with no care or quality so they can claim exponential profits at the end of the day. It’s high time a noose was put around this wretched practice.

1/10

S_10749_R_CROP (l-r.) Madeline (Natalie Martinez) and daughter Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) flee with Young Damian (Ryan Reynolds) in Gramercy Pictures' provocative psychological science fiction thriller Self/less, directed by Tarsem Singh and written by Alex Pastor & David Pastor. Credit: Alan Markfield / Gramercy Pictures

Self/less

In the right hands, the concept of switching bodies can be made into any number of fascinating, thoughtful, and even exciting stories. With Self/less, the central idea is wasted on a film so bland it seems intent on putting itself to sleep after the audience has all but konked out.

Director Tarsem Singh, normally known for his elaborate visual style, guides Self/less with all the panache and flavor of a bowl of oatmeal. Every potentially interesting story beat is left hung out to dry by a creative team that seems genuinely apathetic towards the material, opting instead for repetitive chase scenes that play as equally uninterested.

Ryan Reynolds continues his streak as a fairly charismatic leading man who can’t catch the right break. His and Ben Kingsley’s presences are two of three things that win the movie points. The other is whatever story ideas you get to imagine for yourself that the film didn’t play upon.

3/10

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Trainwreck

This summer seems to have been especially empowering for women (well, as much as Hollywood can be). With Mad Max, we had a strong view of women as people, not things, embodied by a heroine who can hold her own with the male lead. Pitch Perfect 2 saw the second highest opening weekend by a female director at $69.2 million, with a vast majority of that number made up of female audiences. Spy completely subverted a mostly male-led genre and was all the funnier because of it.

And finally with Trainwreck, Amy Schumer showed us women can turn the tables and make female-led rom-coms that are just as familiar and uneven as the male-led ones.

Lest that last sentence sound too jaded, it’s important to note that 1) Judd Apatow actually directed this movie and 2) the film actually is quite funny in spite of that first point. The regular problems of Apatow films remain — the film is entirely too long, showing an inability to cut enough fat to make a concise comedy that pops, while also veering between comedy and drama not always successfully — but there’s still plenty of gold to mine from Trainwreck.

As with basically every comedy, the humor here can sometimes be uneven but Schumer is a charming lead and there are several instances of laughing so hard you need to catch your breath. A particular callback to The Exorcist took extra time to recover from. Sure, the whole story is completely familiar, with just a switch in perspectives, but I’ve always said familiar material can still be great if approached right. Trainwreck‘s approach is solid and the results, while varied, are worth marking as a win.

6.5/10

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Though the franchise started in the ’90s, I will continue to consider the Mission: Impossible films a hallmark of the last four years, due solely to the fact that that is when they became great.

Following the terrific Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation sees frequent Tom Cruise-collaborator Christopher McQuarrie take the reigns, resulting in an installment that continues some of the great things the previous few installments refined, while attempting to improve areas the previous films didn’t necessarily deliver on.

While Rogue Nation may not be the most boisterous or broad entry in the franchise, it’s most certainly a thrilling, well-crafted adventure that will keep our interest piqued. Cruise still makes these films pop as their lead, while the supporting cast continues to bring their individual strengths. The major stunts of the film (this time around consisting of hanging outside a plane, a high speed motorcycle chase, and an underwater heist) are awe-inspiring and masterfully crafted, though the highlight of the film may be an extended opera sequence that steals the show.

Tonally, the movie feels like a blend between the larger-than-life objectives of the latter films and the more restrained espionage aspects we saw in the first movie, giving Rogue Nation a particularly unique tone in the series. Helping the film to shine this time around is the presence of an interesting and fleshed out female lead in Rebecca Ferguson, and a solid villain in Sean Harris.

Only the end falters, feeling rushed and uncertain of how to conclude after a more personal outing. Luckily, it’s more abrupt than disappointing, leaving the door open for more exciting installments after this one.

7.5/10

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The Man from U.N.C.L.E

Every summer seems to have a dark horse movie that shows up, with little to no attention or anticipation before its release, and turns out to be a complete blast. Last year it was Edge of Tomorrow (or whatever they’re calling it these days). The year before, World War Z. This year, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. takes that prize.

Director Guy Ritchie has a reputation for being fairly style over substance, and Man from U.N.C.L.E. is no exception. Ritchie’s full intention was to create a film that threw back to the spy films of the ’60s, which included a fairly standard plot we’ve seen time and time again.

But that’s not what makes U.N.C.L.E. worth seeing. The plot gives way for Ritchie to create the summer’s slickest, coolest, funniest ride. Every single minute of this film has some infectiously fun aspect happening, whether it is the sublime banter between Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, some excellently edited sequences or Daniel Pemberton’s amazing score (which, together with the songs of the film, easily claims bragging rights as the summer’s best soundtrack.)

Though it didn’t make a huge splash in theaters, I’m confident audiences will discover on home video that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is one of the summer’s most entertaining offerings.

8/10

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American Ultra

American Ultra was a film that I was genuinely curious about and totally willing to go along with its silly concept. Conversely, American Ultra is now a film I can barely keep from forgetting, almost being omitted from this piece for that very reason.

In a film about a stoner sleeper agent, who’d have thought the most interesting thing was the pairing of Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart? The two have honest-to-Jeebus chemistry and are able to ever-so-slightly elevate material that is otherwise completely boring. For an action comedy, there’s very little to laugh at and almost nothing to be thrilled by. No one says stoner action comedies can’t be totally self-serious but this film is certainly an example of why no one should try it again.

Aesthetically speaking, there’s nothing pleasing about the film either. Scattershot action with copious CGI blood against the backdrop of dreary West Virginia is hardly exciting.

There’s certainly a sweetness to the story between Eisenberg and Stewart and the two actors do all they can with it; unfortunately, it’s entirely in the wrong movie.

3/10

2015 SUMMER REVIEW ROUND-UP PART I

Two observations for you all: 1) it would appear that summer is, by most accounts, over, and 2) I have been very lazy. Doing things is hard and setting time aside to do things in a scheduled manner is even harder.

Since I’m apparently incapable of doing this lately, the next best thing is to get everything out there at once. Everything, in this case, is the movies I saw this summer and my thoughts on them (excluding the ones I’ve previously written about because duh).

There’s definitely some catching up to do, but with the magic of friendship and caffeine, I think we can succeed. Let’s begin.

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Pitch Perfect 2

The first Pitch Perfect was a mostly all right, uneven comedy that somehow became a pop culture hit. I’d be lying if I said its inexplicable, undeserved adoration didn’t sour me to the film at least a little bit, but that’s neither here nor there. What does seem to be the case is that the follow-up is surprisingly more tolerable and doesn’t inspire nearly as much contempt.

Pitch Perfect 2 is just that extra bit more approachable. The musical numbers are still slick and some of the jokes really land (Keegan-Michael Key’s bits as a music producer are gold) — aaaand some are teeth-gratingly bad (awful Latin stereotype humor).  Upon reflection, it probably also helps that the main character has mostly stopped being a snotty bitch this time around. Yes, I’ve heard tolerating, or even liking the protagonist can be a boon for any film (just wait until we get to another entry later in the summer).

Though unspectacular, the movie as a whole is much easier to accept and go along with. We know now that the songs will be the highlight, humor will be hit or miss, and the story itself is mostly irrelevant. It’s undemanding entertainment and gets the job done as just that.

5/10

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Tomorrowland

There’s a real sense of wonderment and optimism permeating Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland that never caught on with audiences, ironically making it the biggest bomb of the summer. In reality, bad marketing is certainly to blame for people missing out on this film, as opposed to some general demand for all of our movies to be grim and depressing, though that doesn’t excuse the fact that movie itself is still far from perfect.

As mentioned, Tomorrowland‘s real sticking point is its message of hope and looking at the bright side for a better future, which is bolstered by some crisp visual splendor throughout. Unfortunately, the story that carries that message is a big missed opportunity. The first half of the film concerns itself far too heavily in the mystery of what Tomorrowland actually is, for which the payoff is fairly standard. Points where the film actually takes off are often mired by slack pacing and a sometimes far-too-heavy touch when it comes to the themes.

If pressed, I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeing the latest from Bird (who still has The Incredibles and the best Mission: Impossible to his name), but will always preface it as a “I see what you were going for” movie, as opposed to a “I enjoy what you did there” one.

5/10 

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San Andreas

Some time in the past five years, the cosmos aligned, mountains trembled and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson became box office magic. We’re seriously at a point where the man showing up equals cash-register dings for studio execs.

Not to generalize it too much, but that’s sort of the point of San Andreas. The Rock shows up to do Rock stuff against the backdrop of a massive earthquake and then MONEY!!!! Funny enough, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a certain cheesy, B-movie thrill to watching horrifying, over-the-top disaster chaos go down and then The Rock shows up to crack jokes and play out some rote familial drama because the script is just the worst. The fun of the film only goes so far — again, due to the script being compost — but then I’m guessing nuanced drama was never high on the creative team’s priorities for a disaster flick.

Will it stand the test of time? Probably not. But as a fun one-off, it’ll pass the time.

5/10

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Spy

People seem to like the pairing of Melissa McCarthy and director Paul Feig. Movies like Bridesmaids and The Heat are what has been described as “popular”, which indicates audiences seem to find them “funny”. I can’t say I’ve ever been in that camp but you can mark me down as being on the positive side for the duo’s latest offering, Spy.

Spy continues in the Feig tradition of relying on lewd tirades of insults as its main comedic hook. Whereas this still becomes tiresome in some spots, Spy is a much heartier movie than previous ones by these two. The movie finds a lot of success in spoofing the spy genre in a way that is not only frequently amusing but also genuinely empowering for women. Susan Cooper is not only an able spy, she’s more talented than her male cohorts — which the film hilariously points out through the rivalry between Cooper and arrogant, yet incompetent superspy Rick Ford (Jason Statham). The film is never too in-your-face about its subversive nature, but utilizes it to a point where it’s appropriately satisfying and funny.

That, along with some decently staged action/comedy set pieces, makes Spy a cut above the rest and a satisfyingly forward thinking comedy.

7/10

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Inside Out

Pixar films are almost always entertaining but have a reputation as often being something deeper and more universal. Now, they haven’t exactly lived up to that reputation for the past five years, so going into Inside Out seemed like a crapshoot on whether we’d return to the glory days of the studio.

Inside Out is not only among the studio’s finest work, it’s quite often feels like a transcendent step in family entertainment. Besides having crisp and flashy animation, beautiful voice work, a bubbly score, an infectious sense of humor, thrilling adventure sections, and consequences that feel genuine, Inside Out tells an amazingly human story about learning about life’s many emotions. We all experience joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust in our lives, some more than others, but this film reminds us that they are all natural and have their own place. We may not enjoy feeling sadness but the film never tries to make sadness an antagonistic force, instead showing how necessary all our emotions are and how they need to work together.

It’s this kind of humanistic storytelling that puts the film in the realm of not only being great fun, but also a heartwarming and introspective experience.

8/10

Stay tuned for July and August in Part II.

WHERE FANTASTIC 4 WENT WRONG

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Or, “The List of Doom that keeps on Growing”

I’ll be honest, I’m completely fascinated by the waves of reports chronicling the behind-the-scenes turmoil on the recent disaster we know as the reboot of Fantastic 4.

Yes, I really wish every film could be a knockout and take no pleasure in a film’s repeated embarrassment. But my god, the juice flowing from this particular kill is more dramatic and harrowing than movie surrounding it!

At very least, this Tinseltown story is a particularly revealing lesson in pride and vanity that helps illuminate why the film we have now is such a train wreck.

Therefore, I have compiled a list of the most recent reports surrounding the tumultuous making of Fantastic 4. And to address the headline of this piece, the answer is almost immediately.

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  • The director’s attitude reportedly caused plenty of conflict between him and the cast. Michael B. Jordan starring was agreed upon by both parties but the studio wanted someone other than Miles Teller for Reed Richards. Trank got his way but the two still ended up in what was described as a “mutually disdainful relationship” (they don’t like each other). Kate Mara was a casting choice of the studio’s and Trank was reported to have treated her badly. Another instance of the director and cast not getting along.
  • There was a sentiment after filming that very little of what Trank turned in was salvageable. Most troubling was the absence of an actual ending. It was here that X-Men writer Simon Kinberg and producer Hutch Parker had to step in and retool much of the film.
  • The ending was mostly done in reshoots despite several of the cast members being unavailable. Most of the scenes were filmed months later in L.A. against a greenscreen with Teller being the only reported cast member in attendance, the rest being filmed with CG, stand-ins and stunt doubles.
  • Trank was present for the reshoot but was essentially put in the corner (“neutralized by committee”).
  • Days before the film’s release, Trank said this on Twitter:

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  • While it was deleted just nine minutes after being posted, the timing of this tweet and the already sour mood towards the film proved disastrous for Fox. It is reported that this tweet lost the studio an estimated $10 million on opening weekend.
  • Apparently Trank wasn’t too down on the film a few days before opening. The director emailed the cast and crewmembers saying that F4 was “better than 99 percent of comic book movies ever made.” One cast member perfectly replied, “I don’t think so.”
  • Despite the embarrassing opening weekend gross of $26 mill (it was originally predicted at $46 mill) and even-more crushing critical reaction (9 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the worst reviewed Marvel movie ever), Fox are sticking their collective heads in the sand again and forging ahead with a sequel to the film. I mean, you can’t have the rights revert to a group that might make a good movie in less than four attempts.
  • A release date of June 9, 2017 was announced a while ago but that date looks highly unlikely now, and may be used for a rumored Deadpool sequel instead.
  • Trank will not be involved with the supposed sequel (duh) and was also dropped from involvement with one of the Star Wars spinoff films earlier this year due to his behavior.
  • There is no word yet on the story, direction or cast situation with the sequel, minus some rumblings of X-Men director Bryan Singer being courted to helm the film.

Clearly there’s a lot of fault on both sides, as this was a project with a lot of cooks n the kitchen. However, given what we know now, the story is shaping up to look more and more like the studio cut lots corners on a dispassionate legal project and ended up with a worst-case scenario with Trank’s direction and attitude.

Whose side are you on? Is this Fox’s fault for being stubborn and not caring enough? Or did the director’s lackluster ideas and terrible behavior tank the film?

FANTASTIC 4 MOVIE REVIEW

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“You made it ugly.”

About two thirds of the way through Fantastic 4, Miles Teller’s Reed Richards grumbles this line in reference to a remade teleportation device. If that’s not the most representative statement on this debacle of a movie as a whole, I don’t know what is.

Since its announcement, the reboot of Fantastic 4 has faced heavy backlash, helped in no small part to reports early this year of mandatory reshoots, heavy studio interference and turmoil behind the scenes with director Josh Trank’s erratic behavior.

Ultimately, regardless of who’s to blame for the production woes, none of this changes the situation that the movie we have before us is a mess of opposing interests and surface-deep ideas that never fully delivers on a single thing it tries for.

After building a makeshift dimensional portal, young genius Reed Richards attracts the attention of the Baxter Foundation, a group meant to foster young brilliance headed by Dr. Franklin Storm. Given the chance to complete his designs, Reed is paired with Storm’s children, Sue and Johnny, as well as the arrogant Victor Von Doom, to complete the project and send living beings to the Negative Zone (here known as Planet Zero). In using the device, an accident occurs that leaves Reed, Sue, Johnny and Reed’s childhood friend Ben with life-altering abilities.

Fantastic 4 is fantastic in the sense that it never fails to find a way to disappoint you, despite containing bits and pieces that hint at a good movie underneath the weight of its colossal failure. The feeling that this was a film by committee, existing to first and foremost satisfy a legal obligation, engulfs the whole picture, which would explain the overwhelming lack of passion coming from everyone involved.

In an effort to remove themselves from the previous F4 movies, the creative team has taken the gritty approach and has gone on record as saying this new story is largely inspired by the science fiction work of David Cronenberg. On the surface, this seemed great. “What superhero franchise could benefit more from a change of pace than Fantastic 4?” Well, there are several ways this approach could have payed off: multi-dimensional characters (hah), a good script, an interesting plot, emotional investment.

Yeah, this movie has approximately none of those.

There’s just no depth in any aspect to sell such a self-serious mood. We’re made to follow a set of characters we barely know anything about, who seem to have only a passing interest in each other, in a plot that almost prides itself in not advancing. A good half hour of this film is devoted to just the building of the machine that will take the team to the other dimension and it’s here that the movie shows that it could have been something.

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These are now my default faces when thinking of this film.

Despite devoting entirely too much time to a single piece of the “plot”, this section of the movie comes closest to working. We get to spend the most time with House of Cards‘ Reg E. Cathy here — whose presence as the father figure of the characters is the movie’s biggest asset — and actually are given some sense of buildup for what’s coming.

Spoiler alert: it’s nothing good.

Somehow, the Fantastic Four here are more boring after they get their powers than before. The accident that gives them their abilities is impressively horrific but it’s practically an afterthought for the rest of the movie. There’s an unnecessary excursion to Panama, but most of the middle of the movie sees our main heroes stewing about in blank, cement-basement sets (don’t be fooled by the posters, New York plays only a cameo part in the film), bargain-bin visual effects and unclear purpose. Reed’s entire anemic crux of the film is learning how to make his arms not stretchy. Seriously.

Then Doom shows up, a sore sight for eyes, and the film rushes into its one and only action set piece. The ending fight of this movie is so sudden, garish-looking, poorly conceived of, wrote and all-around lame that it’s like you can practically see the Fox execs taking the scissors to the celluloid and the budget simultaneously. If the movie up to this point was simply boring, here’s where it becomes downright laughable.

I would say that this film is like the old days when studios thought they could get away with delivering subpar superhero movies as long as the titular characters appeared and looked cool, but F4 bungles even that low bar. There’s no character to this film and thus nothing to even define it as a Fantastic 4 movie. It’s simply that hollow.

For what it’s worth, this is all coming from someone who really championed giving this movie a shot in the midst of all the bad buzz in recent months. The basic ideas were there and they had the cast to hit home on at least some of it.

Yet, here we are with a film so destroyed even one of its most accepting patrons thinks it’s garbage.

The characters deserved better. The cast deserved better. Fans deserved better. The very art of movie-making deserved better.

Flame over.

2/10

GUEST COLUMN: CAPTAIN AMERICA THROUGH A POST 9/11 LENS

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How a Cinematic Captain America is Interpreted through a Post-9/11 Lens

by Michael Maurer

Comic book characters are currently at their most popular in pop culture since their creation in the 1930’s and 40’s. These characters are mostly superheroes, and their moral decisions set a standard for acceptable vigilantism and prosocial causes. While these characters saw their birth in the comic book medium, it is safe to say that a majority of the American population (and possibly the world) have only experienced them through blockbuster films and that is why in this study we will look at where Captain America’s values are founded in his box-office appearances, most notably the films Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. These films are one of many iterations of the hero, but as of 2015, this interpretation of the character is the most relevant. It will also reflect how a character created in a time of world war and moral clarity is now interpreted for modern audiences in a post 9/11 world where high levels of distrust for American government exist and America’s enemies are much more difficult to identify.

Captain America through name and action is a character directly attributed to beingRMK2338GM_Classic_Captain_America_Giant_Wall_Decal_Assembled_Product a representation of his nation the United States and the values of its population and government in ideal circumstances. He was created in 1941 by Marvel writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby. In the cover of his very first issue he is seen delivering a right hook to Adolf Hitler, which expresses that character’s original intent as a propagandist war superhero meant to encourage American involvement in World War 2. Since then, Captain America has evolved to one of the most respected superheroes in the Marvel pantheon. Steve Rogers (Captain America’s alter-ego) is consistently treated with the utmost respect by other Marvel characters. This is due to his history as a war veteran as well as his never faltering ethical code. But was exactly does Captain America Represent? How does he do it? And how does he reflect modern American culture in his new cinematic format?

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ANT-MAN MOVIE REVIEW

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There’s been a noticeable habit among superhero movies, as of late, to aim bigger and bigger in scale. Some properties naturally lend themselves to the enormous blockbuster approach while others are a little to overwhelming for their own good.

It’s therefore interesting that Marvel is following up Age of Ultron — one of those latter movies I mentioned — with Ant-Man. Like a true David and Goliath scenario, Marvel’s smallest hero shows the big dogs how it’s done, delivering a movie that uses its scope to its advantage in delivering a well-balanced heist comedy that’s one of Marvel’s most fun films in years — even if it is more than a little familiar.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) can’t hold a job or get permission to see his own daughter on account of being a convicted burglar. Desperate to catch a break, Scott goes through with the robbery of an anonymous millionaire’s safe.

Little does he know, said figure wants him to rob that safe. The man behind the curtain is Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), former S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist, expert in microphysics and originator of the Ant-Man identity. Pym reaches out to Scott to pull off a very special heist. With the help of Pym’s prickly daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), the trio must infiltrate Pym’s company to stop its new head, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), from utilizing Pym’s uncovered shrinking technology to create an army of miniaturized assassins.

To do this, Scott must take up the mantle of Ant-Man and become the world’s smallest hero.

In a cine-scape of prolonged battles, multiple subplots, dozens of characters and endless tie-ins to other movies, Ant-Man is a superhero film that embraces refreshingly old-school principles that make it wholly accessible.

The film (previously to be helmed by Edgar Wright) is a mostly self-contained story that sticks to a core handful of characters, saves most of its action for the third act and keeps the core of the film between the characters, as opposed to the special effects. It’s because of these choices that the film is more genuine and embraceable than many other of its ilk.

In keeping things more focused, director Peyton Reed and crew can hone in on more of the colors that make the film unique. The best Marvel movies tend to be strong genre pics with a superhero twist; Ant-Man is the studio’s first foray into the heist genre and plays like Ocean’s meets Iron Man (that’s a compliment). The decision to have Ant-Man as a heist movie is damn near inspired, allowing Reed and the myriad of writers on the film to mix things up in fun ways, like combining the practice run montage on a heist film with the superpower discovery section of a superhero pic.

At the same time, the film mimics the general arc of such films and touts the power of buildup rather than sheer geek-gasm. Sounds strange for a modern superhero film, no? Well, it helps that the film is paced near perfectly, coming in at a brisk 1 hour, 57 minutes. Alongside films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Inside Out, it’s not a stretch to say that Ant-Man is one of the summer’s leanest offerings that uses its runtime to its advantage.LOz04Ry

Being a Marvel film, there are naturally a lot of effects going on but not to the point of exhaustion. Ant-Man‘s shrinking abilities and his communication with ants is positively playful and acts more as a character beat than a studio-mandated effects shot. Reed and co. use just the right amount of restraint in the film until the end, letting us appreciate the effects more rather than getting spoiled by them.

In the meantime, the real strength of the film comes with the main three cast members. Rudd, Lily and Douglas all tap into the lightness of what the writers are going for but never phone it in, tackling the humor of the piece with charm and grace. This film may be more on the comedic side of the Marvel spectrum but serious kudos should be given the cast and creative team for making both the humor and the drama of the film genuine (the father/daughter themes in the film are beautiful), instead of having things come off as too cool for school… unlike certain other Marvel flicks.

That’s not to make it sound like everything about Ant-Man is shiny and new. Right off the bat the similarities between this hero and Marvel’s other super-powered suit-wielder are pretty clear. The benevolent suit-wearer up against the military industrial complex is Marvel’s shining cliche, but at very least they find a few new ways to go about it to keep things fun.

On the topic of Marvel cliches, let’s talk about how much their villains still suck! One day these guys will pick up the ball on their bad guys but Ant-Man isn’t the film to break the streak. Corey Stoll is a fine actor and gives it his best go here, but there’s only so much to do with the same cookie-cutter role the studio keeps carving out for their antagonists. Unfortunately, Yellowjacket is a one-two punch of the studio giving the villain weak motivations, then having him possess the same powers as the hero.

Then there’s Luis.

Coming out of this film, I was elated to realize this was no where near as aggressively annoying as Guardians of the Galaxy… with this one character being the exception. Michael Pena is quite good in a great many things but here his presence is just, well, ants to my eyes and ears. At best, he’s a major annoyance that hampers the vibe of the movie; at worst, he’s an insulting stereotype of the Latino community that Marvel let get out of hand and would be better off distancing themselves from.

Even with weak villains, cliched plot points and a Hispanic Stepin Fetchit, it’s hard to dismiss the pure charm Ant-Man has going for it. With only limited ties to the greater Marvel universe, it’s oddly comforting going in knowing you can have a fun time contained just to this one film. And fun it is. With movies like this you can hear it in the score (excellent, by the way) and see it in the edits.

At just under two hours of two-for-one genre thrills, Ant-Man is the type of playful film that has the confidence in it’s own strengths to escape its trappings.

7.5/10 

BATMAN: ARKHAM KNIGHT VIDEO GAME REVIEW

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Some people say video games aren’t art. They say complex human emotions, narratives, morals and themes can’t be conveyed through the interactive game format.

At least, there was that sentiment several years ago when video games were relatively new; these days… not so much. However, for any holdouts left, allow me humbly point out Batman: Arkham Knight, a spectacular example of playability and storytelling combined to create a breathtaking Batman experience that matches the greats, regardless of medium.

It’s been 9 months since the horrors of Arkham City and Gotham is experiencing a rare time of peace. That peace comes to a screaming halt after the Scarecrow threatens the city with a apocalyptic amount of his latest fear toxin. Out for revenge after Arkham Asylum, Scarecrow has resurged with alarming force, thanks to his partnership with the mysterious militia commander, the Arkham Knight. Against overwhelming resistance, Batman must face both his greatest foes and fears to emerge triumphant as Gotham’s savior.

But will it be his final hour?

Arkham Knight follows two game-changing titles — Asylum and City (not as much for Origins) — and sticks the landing to make for a terrific conclusion to the series. Not many doubted developer Rocksteady’s ability to deliver another great Batman game, and they, in turn, delivered another deeply layered, highly detailed, amazingly playable entry in their impressive catalogue.

It is both a blessing and a curse to say that I have been devoting a vast majority of my free time over the past month to completing as much as I can of this behemoth; there’s just that much to do! Completing the epic main storyline only accounts for about nine hours of gameplay, a fraction of what is all there. Between rescuing missing firefighters, solving the mysteries of gruesome murders and mysterious monster sightings, stopping Two-Face and Penguin and tracking down those pesky Riddler trophies, there is never not enough to do in Arkham Knight. Rocksteady has made this game worth every last penny.

The increased time it takes to beat this game can also be attributed to the level of difficulty. As the last of the series, Arkham Knight ramps up the difficulty, making fights more varied, predator missions trickier and puzzles more head-scratching. It can, admittedly, be a little frustrating to get hung up on a challenge when all you want to do is continue on, but the added difficulty makes the experience all the more rewarding.

The major addition to the gameplay this time around, besides the little fact that the Gotham City map is three times the size of Arkham City (and lightyears more developed than the one in Origins), is the Batmobile. Players not only are given a Batman at his peak, but are given access to a whole new gameplay dynamic with the car. From the get-go, players are taught to rely on the Batmobile, as it comes into play for a majority of the game.

Vehicle sequences, including chasing down militia caravans, engaging in tank warfare with the Arkham Knight’s drones and racing on the Riddler’s race courses, are definitely fun and unique. The problem comes from how over-reliant the game is on them. So often it feels like the tank battles are just obstacles the developer throws in to pad the game, while the main story provides too many instances where you are dependent on the car to bail you out of tough spots.

“Wait, couldn’t I have just ‘Batman’d’ myself out of this situation in previous games?,” I thought more than once while playing.

Still, if there’s going to be anything wrong with a game like this, it’s preferable that there’s too much of a good thing.

Yet, going even further, I oftentimes found myself wanting less gameplay in general. Not because it was, in any way, bad; because the story of this game is so damn engaging. Once again we have a plot that essentially puts Batman at the end of his crusade and asks how Gotham could survive without Batman. Better yet, it tests him like never before by mixing in consequences from his past and present that come back to haunt him and gives him an internal struggle with his self control that is beautifully realized through the appearance of a surprise figure. Geoff Johns’ writing for this entry is a real asset to the game, in that it makes you want to watch a cutscene as much as beat up some thugs.

Much has been made of the plot point of the Arkham Knight himself. I certainly understand the deception that was at play with the character (think Benedict Cumberbatch in Star Trek Into Darkness) but the inclusion of this new foe largely works in favor of the story, minus the overwhelming feeling that they named him the Arkham Knight just to nail down a title that was consistent with the rest. What doesn’t work is everything after the Knight’s identity is revealed, as he is essentially shuffled off with no followup.

While one antagonist left a little to be desired, it was Scarecrow who t took the cake from the beginning, receiving another ghastly redesign and a stronger presence to great effect. Yes, I wish they would find a deeper motivation for him beyond “He wants to cause fear because HE’S EVIL,” but the design, writing and vocal performance by John Noble is so irresistible that it’s hard not to see this iteration as the best Scarecrow representation in media yet.

Like the previous entries, Arkham Knight has its little things to pick at, but like those games, I hardly think those things will be what we remember in the coming years. The fact that this piece of software has acted as a complete narcotic for several weeks on end is either a frightening realization of this writer’s priorities or the hallmark of excellent craftsmanship.

I prefer to think the latter but feel free to congratulate me on my Arkham-free way of living next time you see me. Hopefully I’ll have given it up by then.

8.8/10

JURASSIC WORLD MOVIE REVIEW

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There are several movie franchises where the sequels are as beloved as the original film; the Jurassic Park films aren’t one of those. The second and third films in the series largely failed to capture the wonder, excitement and brilliance of 1993’s Jurassic Park, a classic that easily holds up to this day.

Over 20 years later, the stage has been set to recapture the magic of the original, much less do it right. To pull this off, Jurassic World goes for an old, reliable method:

“If you can’t beat ’em, copy ’em.”

Jurassic World certainly has some different wrinkles appear in its plot but one could argue that it is, on the whole, practically the same movie as Jurassic Park. And while it’s nothing short of familiar, the movie is still successful in being downright entertaining.

Decades after the events of Jurassic Park, Isla Nublar is up and running as the fully-functional Jurassic World. In an attempt to boost attendance, the park’s geneticists, headed by operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), create a hybrid dinosaur, the Indominus Rex, made up of several dinosaurs and comparable amphibians.  Paired with animal behaviorist Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), the two are to observe the man-made monster before debuting it to the public. But, as expected things go very wrong as the Indominus escapes and lays a path of murder and mayhem on its way toward the park, where Claire’s nephews Zach and Gray are visiting.

Dinosaurs running loose on an island and eating people is essentially what a Jurassic Park movie means, and World certainly delivers on that. Director Colin Trevorrow has clearly taken steps to recreate many of the aspects that are attributed to the first movie: gradual set up before chaos breaks out, a knowledgable male lead who foresees the danger on its way, a pair of kids to put in peril, a schemey schemer in the midst of the staff, a cautionary tale about the dangers of science that seems archaic in this day and age. It’s all there.

While it’s certainly easy to point out the parts that have been used before, it rarely ever feels harmful to the movie. Stories like Jurassic World are like grilled cheese (thanks Ben): nothing terribly complicated or nutritious, you’ve had many before and will have many to come, but it’s all still pretty good.

For me, this is the actual first film where Chris Pratt shows he can be a serviceable leading man (or at least that he can not be entirely annoying in a lead role) while Howard shines brighter here than in her previous large-scale roles. Together, they make a pretty convincing old-school Hollywood odd couple. Everyone else in the cast does relatively well for what the script allows them (comparatively little to Pratt and Howard).

What’s unfortunately not always as convincing is the quality of visual effects the movie has to offer. World steps up the scale of the story in comparison to the original, which calls for some elements that practical effects can’t create. As its own movie, the CG in World might have looked decent (given there’s an absolute abundance of it). But held up to the timeless skill and artistry of the first movie’s practical effects, the effects on screen come off like a circle-jerk of studio cost-cutting.

In the realm of special effects, Park is how you do it right, World is how you do it cheap.

On a better note, while John Williams doesn’t return for scoring duties, Michael Giacchino — William’s ultimate sonic doppelganger and successor — crafts an exciting and fitting followup score.

Jurassic World isn’t bound to break any cinematic barriers (box office being the enormous exception) but it fulfills its purpose as a fun, fluffy summer blockbuster. In this case, that’s enough.

 

7/10