September 4, 2016

Blazing Saddles

It was wonderful to see this movie for the first time on a big movie screen, and a sold-out theater too! The big screen meant I saw at least a dozen jokes that I had never noticed before on my television set. Also, because I have mostly seen this movie on a VHS tape I taped off of broadcast television in the 1980s, I was surprised at how much swearing there is in the movie. And, I can't say I've seen many movies since then that have so much swearing, tons of raunchiness, and the smashing of racial and sexual taboos left right and center. Is it possible that this mostly white crowd felt okay about ourselves watching super racist people being made fun of? Was this a safe place to make the n-word something we could laugh at? Who the Christ knows. I also noticed that Gene Wilder is actually kind of a supporting player in this movie. He has a couple of memorable iconic scenes, but he's often hovering behind Bart in the movie. Also, see my Miscasting Awards post for more: it still doesn't make any sense that The Waco Kid, a washed-up legendary gunslinger would be played by Wilder, but of course, the movie would not be as good without him. (RIP Gene Wilder! AMC Loews Boston Common Screen 16)

September 3, 2016

Kubo & The Two Strings

Beautiful and sad. Some exciting and funny parts but mostly melancholy. Charlize Theron is terrific as the monkey and Matthew McConaguhey is charming and hilarious as the samurai warrior-turned-confused beetle. This film's serious tone and thoughtful Asian themes makes Kung Fu Panda look like an Asian minstrel show. Deep thematic similarities to Harry Potter and Star Wars. Recommended for older kids (9 and up) for pervasive sadness and scary relatives.

August 26, 2016

Off The Pace: Fall Movie Preview

As August comes to a conclusion, I've done the math: I only went to the movies eight times so far in 2016. That puts me on track to see 12 or 11 movies in 2016, an historic low.
Unless I want to set a ignominious record, I need to go to the movies at least five times in September, October, November, and December. So what's coming up this fall? I reviewed the upcoming slate and there's seven strong candidates coming up. Here they are ranked by likelihood I will see them:

  1. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story looks so great I may see it twice!
  2. Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them looks like a slam dunk.
  3. Moana looks like fun, so maybe I'll get to take my boy to see it;
  4. The Girl on the Train: The television commercial gave me goosebumps!
  5. The Birth of a Nation: Looks heavy but it's getting great reviews.
  6. All I know about Passengers is it stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, and the premise is right up my alley: "A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 60 years early."
  7. The Jack Reacher sequel: the first Jack Reacher was okay on home video (I gave it a C-plus in 2014), but this sequel is directed by Edward Zwick, a legit director who previously directed Cruise in The Last Samurai; Zwick also directed the war movies Defiance , Courage Under Fire, and Glory. I also liked his melodrama Legends of the Fall.

August 21, 2016

Jason Bourne

More of the same from the Bourne franchise, Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass continue to deliver, quality action and thrills, but there's not much point to it. The epic Greek riots / motorcycle sequence was masterful, and the Las Vegas smash & dash car chase was muscular. The scenes where the spooks follow Jason Bourne around the city are played out: Something happens and then some spook repeats what just happened out loud as if nobody in the room had seen it? Four films into the franchise and the CIA spooks continue to underestimate Bourne: no one ever thinks "he'll be expecting us to act just like this - how can we outwit him?"
I don't understand how a movie with so many cold-blooded murders, gunshots to the head, can be rated PG-13. The moment an assassin shoots an innocent person in the head point-blank out of convenience, that is no longer a PG-13 movie. The MPAA rating system is completely broken if this film can get a PG-13 rating. (Somerville Theater, screen 5)

August 20, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

Quality Star Trek story, even if the details are a bit hard to follow. A couple of lines of dialogue here and there were super clunky.
The chemistry between the leads is terrific, they really seem to be growing into their roles. The production design is outstanding; the best of the three new movies. I think they're trying too hard with the weirdly-shaped alien heads, but maybe that's just me. The Yorktown space station is crazy complicated, I think they cross the line from visually interesting to just plain old confusing, but it's hard to blame them for trying too hard when so many movies fall back on cliche. 
I found the cinematography dizzying. The director seems to be obsessed with rotating the camera around in barrel rolls like an old-timey barnstormer. (Somerville Theater Screen 2)
RELATED: For my complete history, see To Boldly Go To The Theater To See Star Trek

July 23, 2016

Ghost Busters

A good but not great comedy. Solidly entertaining and fun, just not brilliant. 
The four women are all terrific. Kate McKinnon has chosen a very particular brand of weirdo as the eggheaded engineer, and she steals every scene. Chris Hemsworth is a very particular brand of dum dum and he pulls it off perfectly: It's true, an aquarium is only a fish submarine!
The style and execution of the ghosts is good. I especially liked the demented Thanksgiving Day parade floats.
There's a couple of creepy parts, but only one truly scary moment: when the door opens. If you've seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about.
It would have been nice to excise all the seemingly mandatory tributes and references to the original 1984 movie. None of them fit seamlessly into the movie. All of the cameos could be cut out and the movie would be shorter and better. A discerning 12 year old who had never seen the 1984 film would wonder "why does this fringe character get so many lines?" The one tribute to the original that I liked was the scene where they consider renting the firehouse for their headquarters. Unlike 1984, the real estate in Hell's Kitchen is in high demand!
I also would have been happy to lose the subplot where the goverment tries to quash the Ghostbusters. It doesn't really go anywhere. Cecily Strong is a comic genius, but there's nothing new in her character, which is especially glaring in a movie where McKinnon and Hemsworth's eccentric weirdos are so fresh.
The audience was fun and totally engaged. I missed a lot of post-punchline dialog due to widespread laughter!

My wife saw it a few days before me, and her takeaways are worth sharing here too:
  • Who is this movie for? It's barely PG-13, so why can't they make it a less scary family-friendly PG so Generation X could take their kids, OR go hard-R! Let Kristen Wiig say "oh, shit" instead of "oh, shoot".
  • Compared to the 1984 film, this Ghost Busters is completely devoid of sex. Wiig has a bubbling-under crush on Hemsworth, but that's the totality of the sexual content. In the 1984 film:
    • Venkman puts the moves on a coed;
    • Venkman flirts with/sexually harasses Dana Barrett continually until she is raped/possessed by the Gatekeeper;
    • Barrett turns into a ravenous sex demon who eventually has sex with Rick Moranis' keymaster;
    • Stantz gets a ghost blowjob
We rewatched some of the 1984 movie this week and we couldn't believe how much smoking there is!
Arlington Capitol Theater

July 10, 2016

The Secret Lives of Pets

An outstanding voice cast elevates this silly, benign comedy.
Louis CK as the lead terrier Max, and Jenny Slate as his lovesick neighbor Pomeranian Gidget are standouts. Kevin Hart is good as a manic rabbit / Che Guevara-style radical revolutionary, and Lake Bell nails the sociopathic cat Chloe. I also loved Dana Carvey resurrecting his hilarious old-man voice he used to use on SNL- now Carvey's over 60 and the voice sounds even better! Oooh, I almost forgot Steve Coogan as a demented alley cat.
It's not Pixar-level brilliant, but it's a lot sillier and more carefree than a potentially heartbreaking movie like Finding Dory. The Secret Lives of Pets really captures the personality quirks we associate with these animals.
The Secret Lives of Pets is from Illumination Entertainment, the same studio that made Despicable Me. My wife and I saw Despicable Me when it first came out six years ago (before the movie and its sequels and spinoffs became a childhood phenomenon, before anyone knew who a Minion was).
At the time we both enjoyed "a terrific comedy for adults and kids" and that holds true here too. The Secret Lives of Pets also maintains a distincly non-American, universal flair: I appreciate the near absence of pop culture references, but why did they go to so much trouble to set the movie in New York City if none of the characters or locations has any New York personality?
The plot was a tad derivative and sloppy: just like with Woody and Buzz in Toy Story 1 (twenty years ago), Max's owner brings a new dog home (Duke) that upends Max's comfortable routine and rivals Max for her affections. Max's schemes to remove this threat triggers the chain of events that lands them both in peril, far away from home.
My only other tiny little complaint is all the moments of objects zooming directly in front of the "camera" to enhance the 3D effects. We saw the movie in 2D and usually those moments are pretty benign, but in The Secret Lives of Pets it felt like everything had to fly directly past our noses.
There's only two moments that the littlest kids would find scary- my six-and-a-half year old son claims the giant fanged anaconda wasn't scary, and the near-drowning scene wasn't scary either?
Belmont Studio Cinema

July 4, 2016

Terminator: Genisys

Like many people, I am a big fan of Terminator 1 & 2. I have seen most of Rise of the Machines, and Terminator: Salvation barely felt like a Terminator movie at all.
Even if you ignore the plot inconveniences of writing a new movie about an antagonist that has been destroyed several times over (Skynet), it has become more and more difficult to create a fresh angle on the Terminator dynamic.
The lameness of T3 and Salvation made it easy to stay away from Genisys, but I noticed that people were talking about it. There are plenty of lame movies with zero buzz, but something about Genisys grabbed the imagination of Terminator fans who saw it. Most of the buzz was bad:

  • "They've thrown away the whole Terminator canon";
  • "This movie hates Terminator fans";
  • "You won't like what they've done to your Terminator".

But this level of engagement - good or bad - was curious enough that I was willing to try it out on Amazon Prime.
The first act of the movie is a wonderful fan service remake / mashup of the first two movies. Scenes from The Terminator are remade but with a nutty alternate timeline; the silvery T-1000 shows up; and Arnold fights Arnold! At the end of the third act the true villain shows up, and I was bored and confused almost immediately. The new villain does not make much logical sense, and as an opponent in action scenes, he brings nothing new to the conflict that the T-1000 already did.
So the last two-thirds was mostly battle-escape, battle-escape, battle-escape, but with little innovation on the battles Cameron invented with much more flair 25 and 30 years ago.
This movie brings back many of the characters from the franchise, and they've all been recast except for Arnold (Jason Clarke is the sixth actor to play John Connor!):

  • Emilia Clarke was excellent as Sarah Connor. She actually looks a bit like Linda Hamilton in 1984! 
  • I first saw Jai Courtney (Kyle Reese) as a cold-blooded assassin in Jack Reacher, and it's impossible for me to see him as a good guy.
  • Likewise, Jason Clarke (no relation to Emilia) never seems trustworthy in this film.
  • Oscar winner JK Simmons plays who exactly? I think he's a cop who believes in the whole Skynet/Terminator story, but has no real idea what's going on - kind of like Fox Mulder on the X-Files. I don't know why he's in the movie. I don't think he's playing a character from one of the earlier movies, but if he's a new character, what purpose does he serve?
  • The other acting standout is Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has no problem playing the T-800 again; what's a welcome surprise is the bone-dry jokes they've written for him. The level of humor in this movie is set just right. That's important for a story dealing with the mass extinction of humanity!
  • Coincidentally, there's two Clarkes and two Courtneys in this movie too- Courtney B. Vance plays the scientist character that Joe Morton played in T2 (yes, he died in that movie, that's totally irrelevant here).

I'd recommend this movie to Terminator fans for the fun remake/reimagining of the first third, but it gets pretty confusing and dull the rest of the way.

Fun Fact: I saw Terminator 2: Judgement Day exactly 25 years before watching Genisys - July 4, 1991.
Further Reading: How the Terminator franchise makes George Lucas look good.

June 6, 2016

Lethal Weapon 1 & 2

I distinctly remember scrutinizing this movie poster while waiting for
a train in 1989 and wondering "does that little red dot on the gun mean
the safety is ON or it's NOT on?"
The cable TV channel REELZ showed Lethal Weapon and Lethal Weapon 2 back-to-back the other night; I watched most of the first one on Sunday evening, then TiVo'd the sequel to watch Monday evening.
  • The whole point of the movie is that Riggs is the loose cannon rogue cop who doesn't follow the rules, and Murtaugh plays it safe. There's no arguing that the bad guys are bad guys, but the complete disregard for civil rights and due process is completely out of fashion in 2016, especially for the LAPD. Riggs is cut from the same vigilante cloth as Dirty Harry, but in our post Rodney King, post Ferguson America, Riggs looks more reckless than effective. In Lethal Weapon 2 he breaks into the house on stilts, and later, sneaks into the South African embassy. Both times I thought to myself "without a search warrant, what is the point of this illegal entry? Even if there was no diplomatic immunity, any evidence he finds will get thrown out of any court in America!"
  • I tried to feel bad for Patsy Kensit-- In Lethal Weapon 2, Riggs seduces her when he's already marked for death by her bosses. If his motivation is to gather intel from her while seducing her (James Bond style) I can understand that cold calculation, but that does not appear to be the case- not only does she not pump her...for information (pun intended), he does not seem at all concerned that he is endangering her life by getting her involved with him. Indeed, even after the helicopter firefight at his mobile home, he takes Kensit home to her apartment, aggressively ignoring the possibility that the baddies will find them there (which they do). A few minutes later, when Riggs recovers her very soggy and dead body in his letterman jacket from the harbor, his distress rings pretty hollow to me. If he hadn't gotten randy for the cute secretary, and he had made the smallest amount of strategic thinking, she'd still be alive.
  • Mel Gibson's "American" accent was still really terrible in these movies.
  • Michael Kamen's score is bombastic, but that's appropriate for the tone of the movie!
  • There were a lot of helicopters in action movies in the Eighties! I understand the baddies in the first movie are all Vietnam vets, so there's a history of helicopters, but the helicopter stunt flying is given lots of screen time too.
  • The destruction of the house on stilts is very impressive. For 1989 it must be real, right? It does not look like a model!
  • I just confirmed what I have always suspected: Gibson was born in 1956, which makes Martin Riggs 10 years too young to have served in Vietnam. Even if he was a crack sniper at age 19, that was 1975, the year the US left Vietnam. I suppose if Riggs is 5 years older than Gibson the math works?
  • By contrast, Gary Busey, the "albino jackrabbit sonovabitch" who plays crazy very convincingly, was born in 1944, which is just right for a Vietnam vet.
  • Mel Gibson plays the insane berzerker TOO effectively! It's easy to see why we all wanted him to play Wolverine in an X-Men movie.
  • I forgot how funny Joe Pesci is! A real treat. So adorable! On the other hand, when he's tied up and beaten by the South African thugs, I wanted his Tommy DeVito character from GoodFellas to appear and start shooting everyone in the foot.

June 3, 2016

The Nice Guys

A terrific retro buddy comedy from Shane Black: Lethal Weapon divided by Boogie Nights crossed with L.A. Confidential, 20 years later.
Embassy Cinema Waltham with George.