Spy (****) is tailor made for McCarthy

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Spy – 2015

Written and Directed by Paul Feig
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Miranda Hart, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Jude Law, Miranda Hart, Peter Serafinowicz

Melissa McCarthy is unique in the world of comedy. If you don’t know why, then you haven’t viewed any sort of social media – or media even – since Bridesmaids. The challenge for her is avoiding the gross out humor that is beneath her skill level but right in the wheelhouse of every person who thinks that the 4th of July is a holiday to celebrate a country called ‘Murica. Word around the campfire is that Paul Feig, who directed her in the Bridesmaids and The Heat, had created the perfect vehicle for McCarthy.

McCarthy is Susan Jenkins, a CIA agent who works behind the scenes with a partner agent, Bradley Fine (Law) who takes the field. A botched mission leads Fine into a trap of Rayna Bayanov (Byrne). Since all the identity of the other field agents have been compromised Jenkins volunteers to step into the role of reporting on Bayanov from a distance.

Rick Ford (Statham) is a hot head field agent who refuses to accept the circumstances. Going “rogue” despite the odds. He provides a humorous wild card that wreaks havoc with his prototypical role, as well as Jenkins plans. Susan has her own challenges. After being granted a series of absurd identities, she ends up as Bayanov’s bodyguard. This sounds ridiculous, but McCarthy’s gifts make it all work on a hilarious scale.

That this is the most effective use of McCarthy’s talent, there is no doubt. Feig has honed his gifts for the absurd and scaled back his use of fat clichés that hampered his earlier efforts with McCarthy. It is a delight to see her progress from desk jockey with certain physical gifts into a surprisingly adept and skillful agent. Byrne is equally entertaining as the antagonist. It is a role she should have embraced a while back because she is a natural. Serafinowicz also deserves recognition as the films 2nd most delightful surprise performance.

There is nothing in the way of genius in the plot or its twists. The execution is excellent, however. Feig is as talented a comedy director as there is now. Even so, watching this film makes me question his and McCarthy’s decision to take on the hulking mess of the Ghostbusters franchise which registered almost no interest before Ramis died and left Akroyd holding the “Will work for food” sign. They should take their talent and find a new Harold Ramis; a female one, preferably.

(**** out of *****)

Ant-Man (*****): It’s about damn time

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Ant-Man – 2015

Director Peyton Reed
Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Peña, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Anthony Mackie, Wood Harris, Judy Greer, David Dastmalchian, Michael Douglas, Abby Ryder Fortson, Martin Donovan
Screenplay Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Paul Rudd, Adam McKay

Edgar Wright made, Shaun of the Dead, one of the 5 funniest films I have ever seen. When I heard that he was going to create Ant-Man for Marvel, I was pretty happy. When I discovered that Paul Rudd was going to play the lead, Scott Lang, I thought this can’t get better. It did get better, Lilly and Stoll were going to be great additions.

Then Wright got into a creative row with Feige over the direction and left. Okay. Peyton Reed, he of Down with Love fame, joined, only when Adam McKay could be convinced to do no more than re-write the script a little. Okay. At this point, my enthusiasm tempered a little. The more I thought about it, the more I realised it probably wasn’t going to be all that good even with Wright in charge. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World had been the only film besides Shaun… that I really liked that much. The last 2 parts of the Cornetto Trilogy had failed to live up to the immense expectations of the classic first film. Even if Ant-Man was a passion project, if he left, it might have stunk all along.

Well, that was a mistaken impression. In fact, Ant-Man is anything but a stinker. It is the most fun I have had at the movies since Guardians of the Galaxy. It may even be better than that film. In its simple aspirations, it exceeds either one of the Avengers films, while building on the mythology more successfully than any film but Captain America: Winter Soldier. The story flows effortlessly within and without of the overall initiative. This story gives the Marvel Cinematic Universe the heft it needed after the evacuation of emotion that watchers experienced in the excellent but exhausting …Age of Ultron. This film gives life to the best series of films Hollywood has ever seen during the second of a seemingly endless possible number of phases.

The story starts with Hank Pym (Douglas), circa 1989, meeting with Howard Stark, Peggy Carter and the obviously sinister Mitchell Carson (Donovan) about the Pym Particle. Pym, fresh off the loss of his wife, Janet, is reeling and swears to retire the Particle, along with its benefits, for good. One of these, we find, is the original version of Ant-Man. Forward to present day, we find Scott Lang getting out of prison and moving in with his friend, Luis (Peña). After trying to go straight for his estranged daughter’s (Fortson) sake, he caves into pressure and takes the opportunity to break into Pym’s house and secure the contents of his safe.

Pym, meanwhile, is ahead of the game. He basically arranged for Lang to take the opportunity, so he could convince him to do a job for him and his daughter, Hope. The job: break into Pym Technologies and procure the secret project that Pym’s prodigal protegé, Darren Cross is on the verge of creating.

There is more to this, of course, but I will leave it for the viewer. What the Pym Particle and Cross’ corresponding project does should be obvious to those who can discern the title. There is so much more to this film, though. The world that is created just by going small and then big and then small again is remarkable and many-faceted. To the point which it’s almost a disappointment that they did not explore it more than they did.

They have a story to tell, though. And they nail it. The film works as a heist tale. It works as a coming of age story, a quest for redemption and especially as the journey of an Avenger. Every step of the way feels like the bounce in your feet just before the fastest mile in your life. And you don’t even feel tired when its done.

Every part of the cast works remarkably. Stoll’s Cross is the best villain Marvel has seen since Loki. Lilly is the most fully realized female character Marvel has had in a stable of good ones. Her performance is a delight and very strong in the best possible way. Hope authority is inherent in her character. Her strength couples with Lang’s humility to present a combination unique to superhero lore. Douglas’ performance as Pym is resonant and filled with historical context. Having him tied to late stage Howard Stark and Peggy Carter is a stroke of genius. Peña’s Luis steals almost every scene of which he is part.

This movie is Paul Rudd, through and through. It is the role he’s deserved after a career of being the best part of every film he’s made. He does not waste his moment in the spotlight, and the film is all the better for it. There is heft to the film, but with his performance, it doesn’t have to be an obnoxious weight. If he’s not as serious as Captain America, he is every bit as earnest. Marvel’s Cinematic Universe needs Rudd every bit as much as it needs Downey, Jr. or Pratt.

How much of the overall lightness of being in Ant-Man is attributable to the efforts of Reed, McKay and Wright, or even Feige has yet to be quantified. Even if it never is, I appreciate the difficulty involved in making such an exquisite product. If you don’t enjoy this movie, you really aren’t looking to be entertained.

(***** out of *****)

X-Men: Days of Future Passed / The Rogue Cut: We can go anywhere from here

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X-Men: Days of Future Passed – 2014

Director Bryan Singer
Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart
Screenplay Simon Kinberg based on Days of Future Passed by Chris Claremont and John Byrne

Theatrical Version:

The X-Men movie series has infuriated those who love the comics as  well as many who love the movies series itself. For those who love the comics its been an endless – some say haphazard – onslaught of characters ripped out of their own stories and thrown into the backdrop of “What’s Wolverine doing now?” episodes. These critics also insist that the key interplay between Magneto and Xavier has been downplayed, outside of X-Men: First Class. This ignores certain truths about Marvel itself, that has never had problems reinventing characters in multiple story lines – different universes even – whenever the creative impulse hits.

As for the movies, the biggest problem until now is how each of the visions and various stories intersect, diverge or are in some cases, prematurely ended. X-Men: The Last Stand and the first of the Wolverine movies are the biggest violators of the implied agreement between story-teller and audience. Each film has taken liberties, though, to be sure.

In the same way as Star Trek‘s reboot in 2009, the beauty of X-Men: Days of Future Passed gives everyone what they were looking for, and more.  We get:

  • Xavier and Magneto contemplating the weight of their friendship in the midst of crisis
  • A bone throw for Kitty Pride (who was the hero of the comic series) as the portal for time travel
  • Halle Berry’s continuous mis-fire as Storm is kept in her place
  • Jennifer Lawrence gets to kick ass in blue, if not much else.
  • Dinklage  delivering to us his version of Bolivar Trask with minimal screen time, which is certainly more advanced than the Bill Duke version we see in The Last Stand.
  • Nicholas Hoult and Kelsey Grammer as Beast.  Hoult’s performance always begs for more screen time, while Grammer seems the perfect result for Beast.
  • Evan Peters in a remarkably sly turn as Quicksilver, perhaps the best segment of the film.
  • And what would X-Men film be without Wolverine getting 2/3 of the screen time?

The conceit to time travel movies is, really, they can go back to any time to get it right. If they go back real close to the event, well you know it’s because they have to ratchet up the tension. Everyone knows that Bolivar Trask could be eliminated at birth, but that would make it a bit cruel. Singer’s skill is making all of this flow as if it were in real-time. His story lines gather and then diverge effortlessly. There is not an ounce of clunk to the early 70’s scenes, even if the “present time” seems as forced as it did in the comic. We all know there has to be a deadline. This time, plenty of people get dead on the way to that point. Some even pull it off twice.

The acting is good throughout, with special mention to Hoult, Fassbender and McAvoy. Hoult’s Beast is a character that begs for its own story line. It would be great to see how we get from his uneasy early years to his confident older ones.

Fassbender’s character has the clearest delineation to McKellen’s performance.  Both are very driven and quite consistent with their rationale.

As his counter, McAvoy is all over the place.  It was a brave place to take the character, but he does a great job showing us what was on his troubled mind and not just saying it.

It’s easy to take Jackman for granted, since he’s been in every one of these films. The miracle is that he has evolved from Eastwood with a growl to a multi-dimensional bad ass. This time is a clear extension of everything he’s gathered from The Wolverine.

The best part about the movie is the epilogue. Seeing the result of the work is heartening because we get to see mistakes corrected without worrying about the consequences.This result will no doubt not give everyone a good feeling. Some might even feel like it’s pulling the rug out. It’s alright for this reviewer. Like merry go rounds, the ride is fun, even if it just goes in a circle.

(****1/2 out of *****)

The Rogue Cut

It is easy to understand why people become leery of the X-Men enterprise, especially when it comes to their home video releases. I bought 1.5 and wondered why the heck I did, and I followed through with purchases for every subsequent film, even following them to Blu-Ray. It is perhaps because I never read the comic and rarely followed any of the animated scenes that my patience has not frayed, even when the talk of Days of Future Past included news of a thread of scenes that would involve Rogue that were eventually excised from the theatrical cut. Most assumed that these few scenes would appear on the video release. By the time that arrived, the sequence had turned into a whole new cut of the film to be released at a future date.

If one decides that this is the place to draw the line…think again.

The Rogue Cut is like the bloom of a rose the day after you thought it had reached maturity. Instead of beginning to wilt, it flows even more thoroughly from its core, giving the bloom a depth and resonance it never had previously. The interesting thing about it though, is that it’s not only or even primarily because of the sequence of Anna Paquin scenes that this version of X-Men succeeds.

The best thing for viewers of the film is a fleshed out perspective of several characters, including Magneto, Mystique and Beast. The arc between past and present has more resonance and clearer connections. The weakest part of the film was that it never felt like it mattered what was happening in the present because even if it is riddled with challenges, the characters were able to continue manipulating time. This is changed for the better. Midway through the last act, they have a mission that takes them away from the stronghold. Accomplishing that mission is not without its cost. The consequence actually leads to a logical reason for a final battle, instead of just having the bad guys show up, because, well, it’s the last act.

The extra 17 minutes don’t feel extra at all. They are fully integrated within the story. Even when it changes the story slightly, this feels like the definitive version. There are some flashback scenes that go through every previous film, making their telling still relevant even if we know they will be ultimately stricken from the official record. It feels like this is the only way the story could have ever ended up. This is the new canon.

(***** out of *****)

Road Hard (***): Charisma is not my middle name

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Road Hard – 2015

Written and Directed by Adam Carolla and Kevin Hench
Starring Adam Carolla, Diane Farr, Larry Miller, Jay Mohr, David Alan Grier, Cynthy Wu, Illeana Douglas, David Koechner

I appreciate almost everything Adam Carolla represents, and most of the things for which he strives. His podcast drifts in and out of my life like an old friend that one feels comfortable with for a time, until the stories get too familiar. Then after a few months apart, the comfort is back. His work with Dr. Drew is classic. His books are good comic fodder. His building / reality shows are entertaining. His work with Jimmy Kimmel created a late night cottage industry for Kimmel and kept doors open for Carolla. What’s most important, neither he or Kimmel have ever forgotten their friends.

Road Hard is the second in Carolla’s ceaseless effort to expand in movie entertainment. The gist of the film covers a semi-autobiographical tour through Carolla’s post-Man Show career as a stand up musician. His character Bruce Madsen is divorced, lazy and desperately clinging onto the scraps of what he did not realize was going to be his main course at the time. He lives in the garage-turned guesthouse of the mansion his ex-wife now owns with their adopted daughter, along with the ex’s boyfriend and daughter. If that situation seems less than ideal, his work on the road is worse. He implores his manager, “Babydoll” to get him more work on television. Television just isn’t interested. Even when he tries his old (Kimmel-based) friend Jack Taylor (Mohr), he gets a job as a warm-up comic for the nightly show that lasts…not so long.

Along the bumpy road, Bruce meets Sarah (Farr) who gives him a different take on his self-monologue. Pointing out some of his foibles, she grows on him. She doesn’t make it clear that he is growing on her. After more time and disappointment goes by, they finally hook up and he takes a step off the road towards a totally different and more appealing life. This is not an easy choice to make, but it’s not too surprising what happens in the end.

Carolla the actor is a tough sell. His range depends on how well one digests his self-proclaimed “nasally drone” and his penchant for dried out humor. His one-liners require everyone to wait for him to deliver them. When he shares the screen with a fellow comic / friends, the process becomes a series of setting up and waiting for each other’s delivery. This mutual admiration society may secure the bond of the friendships represented, but it doesn’t feel like a story. It feels more like name dropping when one sees Mandel, Dana Gould, Larry Miller and DAG. They get screen credit, and he gets to have them in his movie at a friend rate. More genuine are the moments with actors like Farr, Wu and even Mohr. They have to work extra hard to make it feel right, but the effort puts does help Carolla come closer to acting.

The story Carolla and Hench want to tell feels weird when one takes into account what they know of the lead actor’s real life. By selecting parts of the story as autobiographical and ignoring other aspects of Carolla’s real life and character, it feels like an estimation on what they think a movie goer would buy, rather something of genuine experience. Carolla is well-known for his hard work and preparation in all aspects of his life. He is also a dedicated road comic by choice.

Bruce is supposed to be lazy and tired of his trade. When combining his lack of true presence as an actor with the “choose your own version of the truth” plot, it takes the focus away from the tale being told and just makes one realize that this is just another attempt for Carolla to make movies.

There is nothing wrong with that. It could be better, though. This feels like art that is approached like a math problem. It’s a shame that Carolla’s ambition and talent haven’t come together in something that was even half as good as his first film, The Hammer. Maybe with different collaborators there can be a more salient effort. When Carolla gets it together, I will want to see that movie. I don’t need to see this one again.

(** out of *****)

Creep (*): Can you believe we made a profit on this one?

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Creep – 2014

Directed Patrick Brice
Starring Patrick Brice, Mark Duplass
Screenplay Brice and Duplass

Okay, full disclosure. I am not a fan of Mark Duplass. To now, one of the few times he’s been effective is on The Mindy Project, where he plays an arrogant practitioner of alternative medicine. The reason this seems to work is the character is a thinly veiled version of himself. He is one of many who live in the fringe of Hollywood, trying to eke out a living on his own terms. This an admirable trait, to be sure. It’s not easy to make it in the movies, and it takes a lot to make it on your own terms. For me, a lot of the stuff I’ve seen him in is just not my cup of tea.

A couple of weeks ago, while on The Adam Carolla Show Podcast, Duplass and Brice were on talking about this film and The Overnight. The discussion was interesting enough. Special points were made in discussing the conceivability of the horror film’s plot, which is a play on the inherent threat of Craigslist ads. One never knows who they are going to meet and what the other person’s motives are. Much was made on how improvisational the film is, and how it showed that one can get a lot of traction from a relatively small amount of effort or finances involved. They even said that while they saved The Overnight for the big bidders at Sundance Film Festival, they were pleasantly surprised to have had Creep bought by Netflix for a tidy little profit. Once I found out it would only cost me my time, I decided to go for it.

I want my time back. Somehow, Brice and Duplass turned the exciting premise into a drawn out torture of poorly written, half-heartedly executed and sloppily filmed hack work that could have been better done by someone taking it seriously. What could have been an expertly drawn, one night film, is brought to a thudding halt when it’s broken up over a series of mailed and not so thinly veiled threats that are never seriously acted out.

Aaron (Brice) responds to an ad on Craigslist driving to a seemingly remote location to visit Josef (Duplass) for a “discreet” job. That job is a relatively innocuous filming of a video for the unborn son of he and his wife, Angela. The reason for the video is Josef says that he will never see his son born due to his late stage cancer. Aaron begins his series of reluctant agreements by taking the $1000 cash promised for the job. What follows is a one half-thought through weirdness after another. Each one would call for leaving right away, were they not so boring.

That night ends with Aaron running past Josef who is wearing a wolf mask, he calls Peachfuzz. The action picks up a few nights later with Aaron watching a video of Josef burying two black garbage bags filled with a puffy material that is supposed to look like dead body. It doesn’t. The next thing we see is another very large package that, when opened is another video. Then there are the dreams and wacky hijinks. Then there is the Last Video.

Brice is not an actor. His work here shouldn’t qualify him for a S.A.G. card any time soon. Duplass’ version of lunatic fringe comes across as more a bored loser on a rainy Friday night. Or a Saturday night. There is no sense of fear created by any of his actions. Instead, it’s more a practice of patiently waiting for the Godot of a pending thrill. Godot never arrives.

So Duplass and Brice made enough here to put a little more money into the next project. That project maybe makes enough to pay for the next project. Maybe someday they strike gold. Maybe someday they make something more scary. Maybe someday they make something more memorable. Not this day.

(* out of *****)

From the makers of Divergent: Insurgent (***)

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Insurgent – 2015

Director Robert Schwentke
Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Octavia Spencer, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet
Screenplay Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback based on the novel by Veronica Roth

It’s long, drawn out, with many useless angles. There are the expected twists. The world is supposed to expand yet strangely it feels smaller. They are breaking the last book into multiple movies. Again. Am I done with this series?

Not quite, but its close. For whatever reason, they give Tris (Woodley) that same trait given to so many heroines in the second movie of dystopian series: a crippling and overwrought conscience. She carries the burden of the people who have died before her as she struggles to formulate a plan with Four in the days following the events of Divergent. They bounce from faction to faction, run from some, face off with others, give up to even others and the cycle repeats. It all has a point, one can suppose, but it labors from scene to scene where the first one percolated with a simpler purpose.

This film even with its myriad flashbacks and dream sequences, feels disconnected for the first story. As Jeanine, Winslet has a few Empire Strikes Back moments with her quest to resolve a box discovered early in the film. If this. If this box is mentioned in the first film, I do not remember. That it plays a key role gives one the impression it should have been more memorably indicated in Divergent either way.

That the writing and directing team is different from the first film is very much noticed in the finished product. There is absolutely no development of any of the characters beyond Tris. Even her development is more of a regression and then a late film bounce back. If she does another Katniss / Bella depression in the next film, just write me off until the last film.

The regression of the property is not total surprise, but that it’s directed by Schwentke is disappointing, given his excellent work on R.E.D.. Of course he’s directed R.I.P.D. after that. This is way better than that pile.

How much one likes this film depends on how much one roots for Woodley as an actress and female heroines in general. It’s not a bad film, if it is a let down from the first episode. Take it from this uninspired review that I won’t be standing in line to see if it get’s better with the next film.

(*** out of *****)

Keep me from The Gallows (*) pole

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The Gallows – 2015

Writers and Directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing
Starring Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos, Cassidy Gifford, Jesse Cross, Alexis Schneider

The thing about these found footage films is that if they had any sort of realism to them, the camera would drop at the first sign of trouble. That never happens here, but there are times where the lens points to the floor while they are running. If Cluff or Lofing were better film makers, they might find a way to make this somewhat intriguing. Instead, we get several useless segments that are the closest thing The Gallows ever comes to being realistic.

Lofing and Cluff have a tight, concentric circle of a story within the confines of 81 minutes. In following Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters, there is no room in the budget of their film to waste an introduction, an accreditation, or even a seat in the auditorium. When one keeps this fact in their mind, watching a film like this becomes almost unbearable. There is nowhere for the mind to go. No place to hop in and enjoy the ride. At this point we are left searching for other aspects.

One thing that would help is if the acting is acceptable. Starting with the guy holding the camera, Ryan Shoos gets the award for most guy holding the camera since T.J. Miller in Cloverfield. His performance is so bad it comes across as an alien being doing its best impression of a High School jock. This guy makes Biff Tannen look like Bill Shakespeare. I haven’t seen any of Shoos’ earlier work, but this doesn’t make me want to see that or anything in the future. Which means he should be a sidekick in the next Michael Bay film. His girlfriend is played by Cassidy Gifford. I will mention nothing about her heritage here, but I can say she does not add nor does she detract from the proceedings. She does what the script asks of her, unfortunately.

Mishler does not stand out in any way. Here that would be a benefit, almost, were it not for the fact that he is one of the leads. The other, Pfeifer, is attractive and is the very essence of a high school drama junkie nerd. There is not enough of her in the film, until the end.

The film quality – absent any of the directorial skill or nuance of better low-budget films like, It Follows – has no hold on the viewer, except for perhaps two sequences. One, where a sound of footsteps comes from above, comes to no logical climax, making everything less. The other is a pranking sequence involving a geek that would have been awesome, if, you know, the ropes moving that way lead to anything. No need to explain it further. Not like I am giving anything away.

It’s an irony that in the era of digital filmmaking we have fallen into a dearth of films all of the same genre. Everyone carries a camera in Horror these days, and the effect is many bad camera angles, lots of disconnected noise and no one has a SAG card. It’s enough to make one wish we could go back to The Blair Witch Project and unwatch it. I still would watch the Paranormal Activity series, though. Well, not the 3rd one. Or the 4th. Might just skip The Marked Ones, too. The last one (we can hope) looks good, though.

(* out of *****)

Terminator Genisys (*1/2): Time to abort mission

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Terminator Genisys – 2015

Director Alan Taylor
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, J. K. Simmons, Dayo Okeniyi, Matt Smith, Courtney B. Vance, Lee Byung-hun
Screenplay Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier

I have no animus towards sequels. In fact, since AliensLethal Weapon 2 and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, I have kind of held out hope that we could get something more with each new installment. It doesn’t always work, sure. More often than not, sequels are just treading over the same ground laboriously. Even so, one can still get enjoyment if there is something one that holds one’s interest. Special effects keep the Transformers series going, even if there is no real attempt to even pretend there is a cohesive background story. In short, it takes a lot for one to say “No mas.” In the latest attempt to breathe life into Terminator, I have come to the conclusion that they should give it a rest.

That’s not the only conclusion I reached. In fact, here are some others:

  1. James Cameron must have a stake in the profits to this film. There is no other way that one can surmise any sort of logical reason for him to say that he considers this the 3rd film of the franchise.
  2. If one sticks to the films that Linda Hamilton has a presence in, either on camera or via audio, they should be fine.
  3. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the only actor besides J.K. Simmons to provide any real charisma in the film. Both have roles that are way too small compared to the Clarkes and Courtney.
  4. Any film that wipes the best film of the franchise out of existence should be better than said film.
  5. Jai Courtney should not be allowed to be in the fifth film of any franchise.
  6. Having one actor fake an American accent in a movie is fine. By the time one gets to 3, maybe try casting a few more Americans.

The story starts out in the future, with John Connor finally living up to his potential and gets to the point where Skynet is on the ropes. This attempts to tie neatly to events that start the first film, when we see Kyle Reese (Courtney) thrust back in time in pursuit of the original Terminator. This is where things take a turn sideways. Not only do we discover that there is another Terminator who’s been “waiting” for the naked one, but Reese is being pursued by a liquid metal Terminator (Byung-hun). Sarah (Emelia Clarke) Connor and her Terminator, whom she unconvincingly calls “Pops” rescue Reese. They make a getaway to a spot where they expect they are being followed by the liquid Terminator. They are, and they dispatch him quite effectively. From here they decide to go forward into the future themselves with a time machine they have developed to take their own steps in ending Skynet.

By this point, the film could have been great, were it not for a trend that initiates with the first face off between Schwarzenegger’s T-800 and the T-1000. As that fight begins, we follow the actions of Sarah and Reese. Reese has to battle a newly re-generated T-800 that they finished off in the first moments after reaching 1984. Sarah heads downstairs, making very clear that she is familiar with her surroundings and is wanting to make sure that everything is prepared for…

All of the sudden, we see the T-1000, but there is no sign of Arnold. What happened in their fight? This was a large part of the 2nd film, and it seems like he was dispatched easily this time. No. Sarah springs the ingenious trap and we see the T-1000 begin to disintegrate. He almost escapes, but before he can get to Sarah, the Arnold Terminator comes out of nowhere, looking no worse for wear, finishes the job.

What happened between them in the first fight? The filmmakers don’t seem to care. So why should we?

The rest of the film consists of such moments. We are pushed from location to location, where no scene is set up with more than a few obligatory shots before the next clash occurs. Many of these moments are deliberately meant to echo better moments in the earlier films. This only accentuates the lack of requisite skill with which they are handled. Tension is not allowed to build before you are thrust into the next chaotic moment. The choice of what to cover during these clashes is odd and really uninspired. Why go to the effort of bringing Arnold back to the fore if one chooses to cut away from the T-800 clashing with an all new threat to see the soft tissue folks running down a stairwell?

One has to wonder if there is a reluctance to show Arnold in action because he is nearing 70, or if, perhaps they realize there is nothing they can show that was not done better by Cameron. Two have tried already and no one is discussing their work in college classrooms as far as I can tell.

Clarkes, Emelia and Jason and Jai Courtney bring little real excitement to the proceedings. There is absolutely no heat in any of the scenes that they share. The one liners between Sarah and Reese are as flat as anything  since A Good Day to Die Hard. Courtney was half of that magical combo as well. For his sterling legacy, Schwarzenegger just seems happy to be there as the writers attempt to come up with more technical things for him to say so we can chuckle at his ESL skills. The recurring references to his age just sounds cliche now. We’ve all seen enough movies going this route, it’s just not worth mentioning obsolescence by now. We all get it. No one cares.

Of the special effects, they are muted by quick cuts. There is very little time to marvel over anything because the camera rarely lingers. Those complaining about the Arnold cutout used for Salvation will get to see more of that here. At least in the 4th film we saw things that were different. The filmmakers are extremely self-conscious of the safe ground of modern-day on which they continue to tread. It’s like they understand the longer that they linger, the more boring we realize it’s nothing really new.

Where can they go from here? They obviously have plans for more, based on the way this one ends. We will have to endure more of the worst characters that we have seen. If you think this is a spoiler, just consider that this film has ALL of the worst characters in the series.

There are moments to enjoy here. Damn few of them though. The ship has run its course and its time to run it into the iceberg. Think of it as an act of mercy.

(*1/2 out of *****)

Love and Mercy (****) is the song we’ve been waiting for Wilson to sing

Love-and-Mercy-Poster-2015

Love and Mercy – 2015

Director Bill Pohlad
Starring John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
Screenplay Michael Alen Lerner, Oren Moverman

I was sittin’ in a crummy movie with my hands on my chin
Oh the violence that occurs seems like we never win

There is nothing like going into the cool atmosphere of a movie theater on a hot California day. Sitting in the 3rd row of tiny Room 2 of the Minor Theater in Arcata, I was accompanied by 3 other random men, all older than I and looking somewhat more haggard. Even so, there was a definite kinship between us in our random seats. We all were there for a reason.

Love and mercy that’s what you need tonight
So, love and mercy to you and your friends tonight

As the opening credits roll and the heat of the day dissipates, we see a young Wilson (Dano) in a moment of creative crisis. Its taking place during the Smile era. He is at the pinnacle of his creative power and he is quickly running out of whatever it is that keeps someone of his fragile genius together. The screen goes dark.

I was lyin’ in my room and the news came on T.V.
A lotta people out there hurtin’ and it really scares me

Next moment we have Wilson (now played by Cusack) in the early ’80’s at a Cadillac dealership. He looks haggard and worn, and skittish as hell. His interaction with sales agent Melinda Ledbetter (Banks) are fraught with obvious fear, but also laden with a strange, burgeoning affection. There is a man waiting for Wilson to complete his transaction, and it is obvious that his anxious feelings are tied to who he represents. That person is none other than Eugene Landy (Giamatti). Landy is Wilson’s therapist, keeping close tabs on him and controlling every facet of his life. He leaves her with a request to see her again, a purchase of a Cadillac and a note that says: lonely, frightened, scared.

Love and mercy that’s what you need tonight
So, love and mercy to you and your friends tonight

There have been so many depictions and documentaries of Brian Wilson’s life, its easy for one to mingle all of them into one giant ball of woe and top 40 hits. There is more to him than that, of course, and Love and Mercy shows two important facets to the story with the high points and low points. There is little in between.

I was standin’ in a bar and watchin’ all the people there
Oh the lonliness in this world well it’s just not fair

It might be a tough sell to garner some sympathy for a guy who made so much money that he was allowed the (mis)fortune of laying in bed through much of the me decade half out of his mind on drugs. We don’t get to see more than glimpses of this phase, as if there were anything more to see than the skit he did with Belushi and Aykroyd. Still, I have always wondered if there was anything more to that period.

Oooooo-ooooooo-ooooooo
Oooooo-ooooooo-ooooooo-ooooooo-ooooooo
Ahhhhh-ahhhhhh-ahhhhhh-ohhhhhh-ohhhhhh

What we do get from Pohlad is a well acted and poignant vantage of Wilson at his most vulnerable. The first phase is during the time of the Beach Boys high point. Just before embarking on a worldwide tour, Wilson has a breakdown and he uses the event as a catalyst to have Bruce Johnston join in his stead as a touring member. Brian’s plan is to stay home and create. And man does he ever create. The music he creates, the basis for The Pet Sounds album, is a source of amazement for the professional musicians that he uses to create. Not everyone is a fan, though. Wilson’s father, Murray, just fired as their manager, thinks God Only Knows is a depressing suicide note. Mike Love, the de facto touring leader, fails to understand the music at all, and resents the idea that none of the band members actually play on the album at all. The album’s relative lack of financial success appears to confirm Love’s myopic wisdom, even though the work is considered a classic. The work continues on a follow-up, but the seeds of undoing are set for Wilson.

Hey love and mercy that’s what you need tonight
So, love and mercy to you and your friends tonight

Forward to the 80’s, Wilson and Ledbetter begin a courtship imperiled as much as it is romantic. The two have a not so obvious chemistry, but she is kind and of all things, that makes her a perfect match for him. Landy’s unconventional methods involve heavy doses of suppressants that make Wilson look gaunt and wasted half of the time. Landy comes across as ultimately a controlling, talentless asshole, much like his father. His ability to push Wilson is at times helpful, but overall he is, like Love and Murray, more of anchor dragging Wilson down, for a quest for his own personal glory.

Love and mercy that’s what you need tonight
Love and mercy tonight

The story goes to great lengths to present Melinda in the best light, and Bank’s performance really helps in this effort. The story portrays her efforts at contacting Wilson’s family in concurrence with her attempts to figure out the extent of Landy’s hold on him. It’s obvious that Wilson not seeing his family in over two years is not a good thing. Landy appears to have a ll of the cards, until Melinda gets through to the housekeeper and ultimately helps him win his freedom.

Love and mercy

The dual portrayals of Wilson produce a chilling effect. I have not once enjoyed a Paul Dano performance until now. His presentation is spot on. The character of a young, talented and loopy Wilson really fits in his wheelhouse. One would hope that the job he does merits attention when it comes to award season. While the same cannot be said for Cusack, he does offer enough value to the role to offset the awkward feelings for those not familiar with the Bob Dylan biopic a few years ago. Overall, it is one of Cusack’s best efforts and an absolute revelation when compared to the work he’s done since 2000. Both actors give one a sense of a fragile but kind person. The talent is one thing, but he is kind with no filter to protect his fragile heart. It’s not that he was not loved. The depth of his feelings and his illness were not understood.  Banks gives the best performance of her career. Even if some of her actions in the film are in dispute, her Melinda is humble and not without flaws. Moreover, she is totally a single woman of her time, nearing the point where her best days are behind her. Giamatti does what he does best, creepy, earnest and filled with a rage that can only be found when trying to avoid being found out as a fraud. As a group, Pohlad is generous with his portrayals of the band, even Love. For the first time, even in documentaries, they do not come across as caricatures who think that early Beatles movies were the only example of how to present yourself for public consumption. Longtime fans can at least be satisfied with this, if by some miracle nothing else does this for them.

I was praying to a God who just doesn’t seem to hear
Oh the blessings we need the most are what we all fear

Wilson’s life has been a blessed one, it’s plain to those who have noticed. While not without trials, and a constant challenge of maintaining sanity and sobriety, Wilson has felt the warmth of the sun for some time. That the makers of the biopic should choose Love and Mercy as the title to their enterprise is not by accident. Many consider this a minor song in his catalogue, but it is not. The tenderness and simplicity of the song are on full display here, and they manage to make one realize that if it’s not just the genius that so many people appreciate about him. It’s his kindness and his simple message that love should rule the day. Questions of historical accuracy aside, they nail this basic truth.

(**** out of *****)

Inside Out (*****) Pixar puts just enough thought into feelings

inside-out

Inside Out – 2015

Director Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen
Starring Voices of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
Screenplay Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley

This is the most original movie since Up. Not only does one get a fresh perspective on the role of emotions on someone’s life, but we get to see life in a more deep and meaningful way without being an insult to the intelligence. It’s in the telling as well as the subject that we are so enraptured from the moment we first see Joy (Poehler) burst upon the scene of baby Riley’s personality the moment she is born. We also get to see Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust (Smith, Hader, Black and Kaling), marvelling at how they work together to form Riley’s outlook as her experiences turn into long-term and sometimes core memories.

The journey the five emotions are taking us on takes a big hit when Riley and her family move from Minnesota to San Francisco. The collision of events lead to Sadness touching the core memories. Joy, always competing with Sadness in the kindest way possible, tries to keep her counterpart corralled. Unfortunately, this leads to Joy, Sadness and the core memories being lost in the vast library of long-term memories.

As they try to make their way back, things start to falter within the control center. Anger, Fear and Disgust try to right the ship, but the imbalance can only make things worse. Riley’s reactions to her stimuli provide a perfect counterpart for what is going on inside of her. Things get worse and parts of her emotional core begin to break down, making the journey of Joy and Sadness increasingly difficult.

Just as things start looking bleakest Bing Bong (Kind) shows up to help the two find their way. Bing Bong is Riley’s childhood imaginary friend and he’s been lost in long term memory for a while now. His efforts give a spark for Joy when she needs it most, but she still has a long way to go in the end.

The journey through both sides of Riley is an incredible thing to behold. It’s not only an emotional thrill ride, it’s also incredibly smartly handled. Even if it is all a fantasy and so much fun, it is a great film for kids as it starts a discussion that is essential at some point.

This is filmmaking at another level than hunting dragons, fighting pandas and zoo animals on the run. This is college level thinking in what is normally a Jr. High world. Docter and his team have become the cream of the animated crop leaving all others in their dream-like wake. It’s more than animation, which is exceptional. This Pixar team knows that an integral part to storytelling is a great story, relatable characters and situations and yes, humor too.

If you have kids, this film is a must. If you were ever curious about how you might be constructed, watch this movie. If you just want to be entertained, just watch this movie. If you like classic films, just see this movie.

(***** out of *****)