Monday, 30 November 2015

John Wick

Lowdown: They killed his dog and stole his car. This time, it’s personal.
Review:
If you ever wondered whether something as tiny as the eye of a needle can serve as the basis for an entire movie to rest on, then John Wick is your answer. As in, yes, it can; but no, do not expect much of that movie.
Keanu Reeves is our hero, John Wick, who starts the movie losing his wife to cancer. That wife leaves him a farewell gift so he’s not alone in grieving: a puppy. Alas, the spoilt son of the local Russian mafia branch (a typecast Alfie Allen, of Game of Thrones fame) fancies Wick’s classic Ford Mustang and comes stealing it, killing the puppy while at it. The rest of the movie is all about Wick executing his revenge.
Yes, they messed with the wrong guy, and even the head of the mafia knows that (Michael Nyqvist, the journalist from the original Swedish Girl with Dragon Tattoo). Thus what follows is an hour plus of Wick executing bad guys with much panache and very little regard for human life. The body count here is truly massive, in direct inverse correlation to any shred of sense. And that, really, is all there is to this movie.
The real mystery behind John Wick is why. Why do the likes of Reeves or Willem Dafoe take part in such a silly escapade? I suspect the answer is “money” and the role model in the minds of the studio powers that be was Taken.
Overall: Redundant, shallow and repetitive, John Wick earns a weak 2.5 out of 5 crabs (after throwing in a “so stupid it’s funny” bonus).

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Avengers: The Age of Ultron

Lowdown: The Avengers fight an all destroying AI they themselves have helped create.
Review:
It’s hard being a sequel, and Avengers: The Age of Ultron can tell you all about it. It’s hard for a sequel to come up with an original plot, and Age of Ultron proves the point by being yet another movie about artificial intelligence getting created by humans with all the best intentions but going wrong. It’s hard for a sequel to continue developing its complicated world and characters, and by having to go through each Avenger’s moment of crisis and then salvation it sure as hell sags. And by having the extra chore of setting things up for the next sequel in the Avengers universe, things often become rather tedious and unfocused.
So yes, there is a plot, and it is rather silly/unconvincing. Evil Hydra comes up with a baddie, Ultron, which isn’t really a baddie until Ironman/Stark turns it into one by fitting it with his software with which to cure the world of its problems. But no, the software doesn’t work, and Ultron sets forth doing its best to destroy humanity. Geographically, affairs focus on the an East European nation whose name sounds a lot like Slovakia; Action wise, affairs revolve around the ensuing battle between the Avengers, Ultron/s and two more superheroes for whom this movie is an Avengers’ recruitment piece. By the end of it all there’s not much left of poor little Slovakia.
With all the good intentions, good actors and megatons of special effects at hand, Avengers: The Age of Ultron is a movie too heavily burdened by being forced to act as a cog in the Avengers grand design to be a good movie.
Overall: If this is what the first Avengers sequel is like, I hate to think what’s next. 2.5 out of 5 crabs.

Monday, 23 November 2015

The Great Buck Howard

Lowdown: A guy escaping law studies becomes the assistant of a has been illusionist.
Review:
2008’s The Great Buck Howard is one of those movies that makes one go “what were they trying to say in there, exactly”, but where the answer to that question doesn’t really matter because the hour and a half you spent with the movie trying to figure out the answer was pleasant enough anyway. Between its mildly interesting plot and its fine actors one really cannot argue with this film.
Troy (Colin Hanks, the son of) defies the orders of his father (portrayed by Colin's real life father Tom, who also happens to be a producer) and abandons law school in search of some dream. The matter of what dream it is rather elusive; he wants to be a writer, but then again who doesn’t?
Through this and that, Troy ends up supporting himself by becoming the assistant of a rather peculiar guy, an illusionist called Buck Howard (John Malkovich), whose character is apparently based on a real life dude. Buck is a has been: he used to be a regular on the old Tonight Show, but has been left high and dry for a while and therefore considers Jay Leno the enemy of all that is decent. He does go about the USA performing before smallish audiences at various not so famous establishments, which is where Troy fits. And as peculiar as he gets, Buck is also a decent person.
Eventually Buck comes up with a trick that would bring him fortune & glory back, which is why he calls upon for some PR aid. His agency sends a rather reluctant helper (Emily Blunt) instead of the guy he was after, but Troy sure doesn’t mind. Through this and that, all turns out well, and we learn that in this universe what goes around comes around; follow your heart, be good, do good things, and good things will happen to you.
Oh, that good old American dream. Pity it mostly happens in movies.
Overall: Not a bad way to spend an evening. 3 out of 5 crabs.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Aloha

Lowdown: A Hawaiian is brought home to promote a private space launching operation.
Review:
Some movies are good. Most are mediocre. Too many are bad. Some movies, however, make one go “WTF”. Aloha is such a movie. And no, I do not mean it as a compliment. It is a movie that feels as if it was made with everyone involved high on something; it is a movie that feels as if its audience is meant to watch it while high on something, too.
We follow Brian (Bradley Cooper). We’re introduced to the character through a quick flicking montage implying the guy is some sort of an astronaut/rocket scientist/soldier/superman. Or, in other words, we have no idea what he did/does for a living despite all the good intentions. What we do learn, eventually, is that he is originally from Hawaii, and was brought back to Hawaii at the whim of billionaire Carson (Bill Murray). The latter seeks to have his private space launching facilities established at Hawaii.
Carson is working in partnership with the US Army; both billionaire and army are encumbered by the need to appease the aboriginals before they can have their spaceport, hence Brian’s presence.
Countering Brian in this triangular romantic comedy are Tracy (Rachel McAdams), whom Brian almost married but abandoned and who is now married with two kids yet clearly wondering what could have happened; and air force ace Captain Ng (an Emma Stone who, as has often been often noted, looks nothing like an Ng). The former represents the careless character that Brian used to be; the latter is the idealistic person whose role it is to turn Brian into the man he could be.
The challenge is Hawaii. Or rather, does Hawaii need a spaceport, with all the military involvement that would bring (as if Pearl Harbor does not exist)? Should we put such facilities in private hands? And should we endanger that mystic Hawaiian state of mind (remember, this film is meant to be consumed on a high) for such earthly (pun intended) endeavours?
The way I summed it up makes it sound as if Aloha actually has something going for it. Clearly I have wronged the movie, because Aloha has nothing going for it but that druggish feeling and a multitude of pretty faces exposing their perfectly white teeth to us because there’s nothing better for them to do in this movie (sadly, it seems American Sniper was not badness enough for Cooper). Aloha is a movie that never gets anywhere, is never clear about its intentions, and really – makes one wonder what happened to an otherwise talented Cameron Crowe.
Overall: 1 out of 5 crabs. Save yourself an hour and a half of WTF and avoid Aloha at all cost.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Inside Out

Lowdown: The imaginative struggle taking place inside a girl’s head after she and her parents move interstate.
Review:
Truly imaginative movies are hard to come by. Take The Matrix as an example; I know I’m at a minority opinion, but I always argued that in a world one can imagine anything there is so much more to do than kung fu. Similar arguments apply to Inception. On the other side of the scale we get movies like Tomorrowland that do have imaginative stuff all over but, alas, are just bad at the basics. Against this background, Inside Out stands like a true gem.
The narrative along which Inside Out is based is very simple. A family of three, including loving mother/father/daughter is moving from middle of nowhere USA (Nebraska, if I remember correctly) to San Francisco. From the daughter’s point of view, everything she has known is taken away from her, replaced by the uknown/scary/inferior. The movie is all about how she copes with that, and the bulk of it takes place inside her head, where the various states of mind a person feels are personalised and the various inner workings of the mind are modelled through physical contraptions we are familiar with in our daily lives. Thus the leading characters of Inside Out are Joy and Sadness; memories are represented as bowling balls doing their things in the gigantic/complicated bowling alley that is the brain; the mind is a control centre, not unlike Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).
As I said, imaginative.
This creative idea at the core of Inside Out overshadows its relatively simple narrative (people moving from one place to another) and the fact that, at the core, this is a Disney movie with all the predictability a Disney movie can bring to the table. On the other hand, Inside Out is a kids’ movie, and given the subject matter is so easy to identify with – we all went through scary changes of the type our heroine goes through – it is probably one of the better movies your child can watch (file that last statement under “understatement of the year”).
Overall: Although personally I did not like Inside Out as much, I think it deserves 4 out of 5 crabs for its marvellous imagination and for the way this imagination has been utilised to resonate with children.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

The End of All Things by John Scalzi

Lowdown: The causes of the human division are finally unveiled.
Review:
Another year, another Scalzi book. With this, The End of All Things, the sixth book in the Old Man’s War saga and the long awaited direct sequel of the two year old The Human Division, Scalzi proves he’s like good wine. Not only is can he be counted on to always deliver, he’s actually improving as he goes. [I should have really found a better metaphor here, since I do not like wine, but let us go on with the show.]
I will avoid pretty much any plot discussions here; let us just say that The End of All Things acts as the second half of The Human Division and provides a satisfying ending to that end-less book (while opening the window wide to further sequels that, through Scalzi’s much hyped contract with his publisher, we know will come). There are differences in style between End of All Things and Human Division, though: the newer episode is made of only four stories, and they are each told in first person mode by different people (some of which are non human people). One story teller per each story.
Probably what I liked the most about The End of All Things was the way Scalzi plays with the politics of the world he had created. Make no mistakes about it, although our book features action, it mostly concerns the unfolding of a political drama. The power play at hand, and all the detailed factors causing it to traverse the specific path it does, remind me of another series of science fiction books altogether: Asimov’s Foundation. That used to be the cornerstone of my sci-fi universe; it therefore brings me great delight to witness a contemporary author step up to take the role of a contemporary Asimov and provide entertaining, clever and, well, contemporary science fiction.
The only sad part of this equation is that Asimov delivered us with several hundred books, while Scalzi only manages a fraction of that. Come on, John Scalzi, you can do it!
As an anecdote, I will note The End of All Things features bits where it is clear Scalzi wrote himself into the story. How do I know? Well, being a daily reader of Scalzi's blog for the past seven years or so has granted me with some familiarity with the author, to the point he sort of feels like a family member. I guess that's what happens after daily interactions over so many years. Seriously, though: if you haven't done it thus far, do examine his blog; it is one of the Internet's best. Even better than mine.
Overall: A clever, entertaining, conclusion in an ongoing space opera. 4.5 out of 5 crabs.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Jurassic World

Lowdown: A reboot/remake of 1993’s Jurassic Park.
Review:
I did not like Jurassic Park; I was impressed by it. It had ground breaking sound design, ground breaking digital effects, and some scenes that were just state of the art Spielberg at his best (think first t-rex encounter, or that kitchen scene). But as a movie? Meh. The two sequels that came and went proved my point.
Jurassic World attempts to set things right by offering an up to date, bigger than the biggest, sequel. It is not trying to be episode 4; it's going for the reboot experience. To achieve that, Jurassic World uses a simple formula: do everything the first movie did, because that first movie was the best one, but make it all bigger.
On paper that should have been easy, given technological progress. The filmmakers even had a seemingly sound idea in mind, a park of genetically enhanced dinosaurs to scare the people that got used to “ordinary” dinosaurs. However, the outcome, Jurassic World, turns out to be the classic uninspiring sequel; an entertaining action movie that lacks in each and every department other than special effects.
Plot wise, we have the exact same story as Jurassic Park. Kids stuck in the park with dinosaurs on the loose, adults having a crisis, an adult that stands out by figuring the dinosaurs out, people who see nothing but dollar signs where everyone with the least amount of sense sees dangerous animals, and villains that seek to exploit the situation for their own special interest.
At the core stand two characters: ex navy (and therefore, by implied definition, a real man) Owen (Chris Pratt). Owen is the only guy in this flick that can handle his way through a dinosaur cage. Against him stands the cold blooded, high heeled, park operations manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard). Together they demonstrate how Jurassic World fails at the character development department: beyond the “he was always right” angle, Owen’s character does not change through the course of this movie. Neither, it has to be noted, do Pratt’s substantial comedy talents receive their chance to be deployed. On the other hand, Claire’s journey is of the classic misogynist type, that of the clueless woman wearing a skirt and high heels to a monster infested jungle, the woman that can only be saved by having a good (ex navy!) man come to her rescue. In more than one way, the affair at hand is a carbon copy of Romancing the Stone (duplicate scenes included). If it was progress that you sought in Jurassic World, prepare yourself for a hell of a u-turn.
If all of the above wasn’t enough, I will point out the climax of non originality: even the ending is the same as the original’s.
Overall: It’s kind of amazing how so many dollars resulted in such an uninspiring step backwards, but that's Jurassic World for you. If it is a dinosaur's world that you seek to visit, do yourself a favour and stick to Spielberg’s original. 2 out of 5 Jurassic crabs.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The Five-Year Engagement

Lowdown: A couple’s engagement drags on as the guy sacrifices his career in favour of the gal’s.
Review:
Jason Segel comedies do have the tendency to be tediously silly, but some of them also pack a punch – take Forgetting Sarah Marshall as a fine example. As it happens, The Five-Year Engagement belongs to the latter. Not only that, but in addition to Segel it stars Emily Blunt, a long time favourite of this blog.
The premises are simple. A short flashback tells us how the promising would-be-chef Tom (Segel) and student Violet (Blunt) met and fell in love at San Francisco. Now, a year later, they decide they want to get married – cool, even if Violet’s sister and Tom’s best friend (a Chris Pratt that often steals the show) decide to do the same, not long after, on account of them getting pregnant.
Alas, life happens. Or, in our couple’s case, Violet gets a job offer she cannot resist from a Michigan university. Our loving Tom is perfectly happy to put his culinary ambitions on hold for a year so that Violet’s career can take off. Alas, once they actually get to Michigan, reality hits: Michigan really sucks (as in, the movie does not do the state any favours); and besides, what was supposed to take a year drags on and on. And on.
There is a price to pay. Tom deteriorates on all accounts while, in parallel, Violet flourishes and love wanes. In contrast, Pratt’s character now runs his own restaurant despite being the lesser chef, and with Violet’s sister that couple seems to have a lovely family + kids going for them.
If you read between the lines, you would see The Five-Year Engagement goes the opposite of conventional wisdom. We tend to take it for granted that, in a relationship, it’s the guy’s career that’s matters and the woman is there to look after the kids (as per Pratt/sister’s case). However, our movie tells the opposite story, with the ups and downs that come along. And for that it should be praised!
Not to mention the fine, non politically correct comedy it offers along the way. The Five-Year Engagement may be two hours long, but it never feels long (excuse the pan). Some scenes, such as Pratt’s engagement party song (based on Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire) got me laughing so badly I was crying.
Ultimately, The Five-Year Engagement is an allegorical story on the realities of love and relationships. Not every day can be fireworks; the heights of passion that are there at the beginning do not last, and no one is perfect. Most of us are, by definition, average. In my book, packing such a message in a funny comedy is quite an achievement.
Best scene: Violet and her sister hold a serious discussion on the state of Violet’s relationship with Tom. Only that, because the discussion takes place in front of little kids, it is held Sesame Street style. It’s funny how such a serious and pretty deep conversation can take place in such a way, but the result is testimony to the qualities of Blunt as an actress.
Overall: A fine comedy with a punch that fully deserves 4 out of 5 crabs.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Spy

Lowdown: When all the proper spies are out, the unlikely, however farfetched, will step in to replace them.
Review:
The James Bond movies have turned into a genre of their own, involving international roaming, over the top action scenes and various misogynist activities. Clearly, a genre waiting to be preyed upon, with Spy coming in for the kill.
Susan (Melissa McCarthy, around whose presence the whole movie has been constructed) is a spy operator. From her CIA basement she guides the real spy (sexy Jude Law) as he goes about being all James Bond. Alas, that spy – acting like the James Bond that he is – dies in the thick of the action. And when no one else can defend the world from the evil portrayed by Rose Byrne, Susan has to do it. And do it well, the way she always could had people not discounted her due to her sex and excess kilos.
So yeah, between McCarthy and Byrne, we have ourselves a worthy answer to James Bond. Throw into the equation Jason Statham playing a guy who thinks himself the world’s most capable spy (but really is useless and a danger to himself), and you get the point.
The point being Spy taking the piss over James Bond and doing it better than most Bonds. [But yeah, it is good to see Statham abandon his usual super-macho persona and assume a more casual position.]
Overall: Clever in its own way, funny and entertaining. 3.5 out of 5 crabs.