Friday, March 4, 2016

I Saw This!! (2015 Unreviewed) - the one-paragraph-rundown challenge

Blerg!
As I've mentioned pretty much every time I've written in the past year, I've been absolutely terrible about writing about movies or TV in anything resembling a timely manner.  It's gotten pretty ridiculous. Four of the movies below I'm almost at the 1 year anniversary of having watched them.  Do you really think I can pull together a viable review of a film I've seen only once almost a year ago...?
Of course I can.  

But the point is I don't have time to.
So the challenge here is can I summarize my feelings on a particular movie in just one paragraph and still have any resembling a meaningful contribution to the discussion of the film?

Let's see shall we...

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Neighbors - 2014, d. Nicholas Stoller --superchannel
Don Jon - 2013, d. Joseph Gordon-Levitt --superchannel
Space Station '76 - 2014, d. Jack Plotnick --superchannel
Mission Impossible III - 2006, d. JJ Abrams --superchannel
The Maze Runner - 2014, d. Wes Ball -- netflix
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau - 2014, David Gregory -- netflix
Hardware - 1990, d. Richard Stanley -- dvd

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Zak and Dave have a DeNiro party

After seeing Neighbors I became a Zak Efron convert.  He's handsome, beefy and honestly a surprisingly capable comedic performer.  He was quite able to nail the role in a film like this where he's tasked with being a bit of a dope, somewhat of a tool andan unrepentant frat boy party prince, all while hiding a wounded little puppy of a soul underneath.  (If you know Marvel Comics, based on this he would have been perfect for the role of Starfox, Star Lord's dad, in the next Guardians of the Galaxy movie.  I think Kurt Russell's doing it instead, which is okay too... YOU'RE WASTING WORDS, KENT!!!) Anyway, this movie was funny as shit.  Tremendous casting all around.  Seth Rogen has stepped into his pre-mid-life crisis phase of playing 30-ish men transitioning into responsibility, and he does it better than any of his contemporaries.  Rose Byrne, for her part, is right there with him, playing a comrade-in-arm, a willing participant, rather than a nagging wife or some form of 'TskTsk'-er.  Supporting characters in the likes of Dave Franco, Ike Barinholtz, Carla Gallo, Lisa Kudrow and Jerrod Carmichael were all bang on, but even beyond that, cameos from the Lonely Island, the Workaholics crew, Randall Park, Hannibal Buress, Jason Mantzoukas and Natasha Leggero all rounded out the film as a power-house comedy.  It seemed too simplistic and too cliche a premise to be this entertaining but, dammit if it didn't succeed.  And the trailers for the sequel look pretty damn funny.

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Don Jon is director-writer-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt's pondering of one man's internet porn addiction and how it affects his love life.  Sort of.  In the end it's more about how you shouldn't make all the compromises in a relationship (you need to make some but it has to cut both ways).  But there's a few other things going on too, dealing with various aspects of relationships, sex, sexual dynamics, power struggles, happiness, and personal betterment.  Don Jon isn't a bad movie.  It's not even an unfocussed movie.  The ideas and even their general execution are sound.  Everyone acts well and the message(s) come through.  It's unfortunate then that Levitt chose set his first major directorial effort in the thick of the New Jersey shore, making his character a wife-beater-wearing lug and his object of affection an all-too-game gum-chewing Scarlett Johansson.  I mean, Tony Danza plays Jon's dad.  TONY effing DANZA!  The problem is these characters don't feel like real people, but broad stereotypes one would normally find in a Saturday Night Live sketch.  Or on MTV's Jersey Shore, but I couldn't stand to watch two minutes of Jersey Shore without wanting to gouge out my eyes and stab myself in the ears with uncooked spaghetti, so Levitt's decision to center the film around these broad stereotypes made the journey of watching them unattractive and somewhat painful.  I would have much rathered it be set in Philly or Boston.  Long Island probably would have been just as problematic.

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By purposefully going retro-futuristic, 1970's-style, director Jack Plotnick sets up expectations for a whimsical Naked Gun or Black Dynamite-style farce, only to deliver a surprisingly effective close-quarters drama instead.  It's a bait-and-switch that's difficult to accept at first, but eventually the films rhythms, and excellent cast (including Liv Tyler, Patrick Wilson, Matt Bomer, Marisa Coughlan and Jerry O'Connell) suck you into the lives of these people, leaving the anticipation of self-aware comedy gags a distant memory.  About as funny as the film gets is with Dr. Bot, the station's therapist who is only capable of spouting cliched platitudes in response to anyone's emotional unloading, but otherwise it steers away from its corny surroundings, avoids too much wink/wince inducing space-jargon and actually tries (and succeeds) at establishing real characters and real moments between them.  The most unfortunate thing about the film isn't the expectations vs. reality, but rather the fact that most of the effect are digital rather than practical... and pretty crappy at that.  It's sad that Plotnick and company didn't splurge for the extra effort of miniatures.  It's of nominal difference to the actual story at hand, but visually it would have been even more wondrous.  The practical sets and wardrobe, looking like remnants from Space: 1999 were both hokey and sumptuous, note perfect, making those CGI elements stand out awkward and atrociously.

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As past reviews on this site have mentioned, I've got a yen for espionage films...one I don't satiate quite enough.  The Bond movies feel like high points (even the bad ones) because the satisfy not just the spy element, but action, sci-fi, adventure, globetrotting, car chasing, and all sort of other elements, even if it's at the expense of being true espionage.  The Mission Impossible movies were meant to be Americanized Bond, in many respects, creating a high-octane action-adventure superspy sans accent, and I never bought into it.  With the first film, despite some excellent direction from Brian DePalma, the fact that the IMF team is immediately killed off leaving only Tom Cruise:Action Hero as our focus was quite the turnoff.  The less said about John Woo's second entry, the better (except to say that because of it we got Hugh Jackman as Wolverine instead of Dougray Scott, so thanks!).  I skipped the third entry, because I just didn't care, but the fourth entry drew me back in, since it was director Brad Bird's first live action.  Even still I only came back to MI:III not because of Ghost Protocol, but rather in anticipation of JJ Abram's Star Wars coming down the pike.  I've discovered, however, that in the end it doesn't really matter who's directing the damn thing, ever Mission Impossible movie is forgettable.  I remember next to nothing about any of them, except for the big action moments we see in the trailers all the time.  Tom Cruise's jumping away from an exploding helicopter in the second film is just as sharp in my mind as his jumping into the big swirling vortex in Rogue Nation... a film I haven't even seen... and I can't even remember a major action sequence for M:I:III.  The this third film has Michelle Monaghan as Ethan Hunt's wife (or wife to be, who can remember) being kidnapped (and apparently killed in a fake-out opening flash forward) by Philip Seymore Hoffman (RIP).  Then some stuff happens.  Keri Russell is there for some reason. Everything works out and Ethan Hunt goes off with his not-dead wife into retirement, only to return in two more films where I don't think his wife is even mentioned.  These are the epitome of "whatever" summer blockbusters.  They certainly pass the time, but as a series of films they don't connect well at all, just like it's an impossible mission to connect with or care about Ethan Hunt as a character (see what I did there?).  And those posters...woof, can they get any more dull?


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I tend not to watch most of these sci-fi-light-teen-dramas-based-off-a-young-adult-novel-series movies.  There have always been a copious amount of teen-focused novel series, but since the Harry Potter explosion they're being adapted to screen in ridiculous numbers in the hope of having the next Harry Potter, or Twilight, or Hunger Games (the cream of the crop).  The b-list has the ongoing Divergent series, the odd entry into the Percey Jackson mythology, the randomness of Narnia, and now The Maze Runner.  Of the b-list, The Maze Runner is by far the best of them, even if its plot, purpose, and eventual twist conceit is utterly ludicrous, it manages to sell it pretty well.  This first entry in the series manages to introduce its setting, add complications to it, explore the mysteries within it, and create a lot of meaningful (if cliche) dramatic friction to such positive effect that by the time it gets to revealing what the hell the maze is all about it's only stupid in hindsight.  There's a Lord of the Flies aspect that likely stems from James Dashner's source material, but the divisiveness amongst the young men never really reaches the same dire head (the threat is almost always without, rather than equally being within).  Mercifully, the introduction of a female into the all-teen-male setting doesn't send everyone on a primal hormonal rampage, and to its credit Teresa never faces a threat that the other boys don't also face.  In fact, there seems to be an intentional bucking of these sorts of in-fighting and stupid-machismo bullshit trends that stories like this usually take on, which is perhaps why I liked it so much.  Instead of things resolving with the expected drama there's often an air of civility to it, like these kids have figured things out a little better than we have.  Obviously the story ends with a sequel in mind, which David has conveniently already written up.
(and here's David's take of the first)

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In this, the Twenty-Teens entertain-you-glut where Television and Movies and web programming and video games and board games and comics and novels can be created and distributed by anyone, there's a whole subgenre of documentaries emerging: movies about movies.  In the past these were a rare beast, Hearts of Darkness (the making of Apocalypse Now) being the first major entry in the subgenre back in 1991.  But with DVDs presenting a viable medium for distributing behind-the-scenes documentaries as special features, it became commonplace to create a documentary alongside a film.  Retrospective documentaries of popular phenomenon like Star Wars were also frequently in the offing, but it's only in the past few years, especially with Netflix catering to the documentary crowd and Kickstarter providing a vehicle for funding niche passion projects (spurring on the rise of docs about films that were never made).  It's almost too much.  But something like Lost Soul, detailing how a passion project became a major flop straddles the middle ground, presenting you with a vision for a film that never got made because it was so corrupted by the people who eventually made it.  In Richard Stanley's efforts to bring H.G. Wells' novel to life, he found himself out of his depth wrestling the demands of a big studio, big stars, and the elements of a remote location wholly not designed for major motion picture production.  Summarily he was booted off the film which went from being one unfortunate train wreck to just a flat out miserable experience under the guidance of a completely detached John Frankenheimer.  It's a fascinating talking heads picture detailing the personal and emotional turmoil the film had from a broad swath of people involved, including Stanley (the oddest of odd ducks, bless him), some of his cast (Kilmer didn't participate and Brando was obviously unable to, but they loom as large of natural disasters as the typhoon that struck the set), makeup and effects teams, producers, script writers and others.  It's very thorough and very weird, plus it's a thousand times more interesting and entertaining than the actual film that wound up getting released.  (For the record, Frankenheimer jumped on the project because he had no other opportunities at that time, and did so only with the caveat of having a 3-picture deal with the studio.  Ronin was on of those pictures, so it was totally worth it to him to dispassionately crank out this shitty, already troubled adaptation).

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Having watched the above mentioned Lost Soul documentary that worked on the thesis of Richard Stanley being an unheralded and misunderstood visionary of then-modern horror, I made a concerted effort to find a copy of Hardware on DVD (I didn't need blu-ray...in fact, Hardware seems made for the grainy, warbly, crisplessness of the VHS home video market).  It's one of those films that seemed exclusively advertised in mature readers comics and (I'm guessing) horror magazines like Fangoria.  I don't recall ever watching a trailer, but the comic book ads lingered in my mind for decades.  I don't know that I ever saw a copy of the film on a video store shelf back when there were video store shelves.  I certainly can believe I would have ever passed up the opportunity to watch it should it have presented itself.  Suffice it to say I'd waited a long time to watch it.  And yep, it's a post-apocalyptic piece of garbage.  Literally and figuratively.  Like Rey in Star Wars Episode 7, Dermot Mul...ahem Dylan McDermott ventures out into the wastelands to find useful remains amidst the detritus of a great war.  Some he sells and some he gives to his girlfriend, a welding artist who makes sculptures from trash.  One piece is an old Terminator skull (it's not an actual Terminator, but it's a military war robot of similar ilk) which reboots and starts rebuilding itself from the scrap.  Some stuff happens, people get killed, scream queen style screaming, gloopy red blood, good-for-their-time-but-pretty-crappy-by-today's-standards gore effects.... Hardware is a rash of cliched and derivative moments cobbled together for a wholly unsatisfying viewing experience.  It's like if this were the disappointing, somehow smaller sequel to Terminator the way Predator II is so much the lesser of Predator.  It's not even bad in the let's-entertain-ourselves-by-making-fun-of-it way, it's just kind of there.  It certainly did little to cement Stanley as some sort of auteur or neglected filmmaking genius as posited by Lost Soul.  Had he not lost the Dr. Moreau opportunity he may have had the opportunity to develop a unique voice, but Hardware shows only slight promise of anything fantastic to come.