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.

June 2, 2016

Lucy

Luc Besson, who always has leavened his action spectaculars with a dash of philosophy (see The Fifth Element and Leon) has made a thinking-person's superhero origin story...without the heroics. The Big Question Besson seems to be asking is "what is the greatest purpose of mankind when granted omnipotence and omniscience?" The movie is urgent and serious, ie, not much fun and over very quickly: The first half hour creeps by- just get to the chop-socky action already! And then it's the entire movie is a slender 90 minutes.
Viewed at home on HBO Go

May 30, 2016

Octopussy

Some pretty lazy and dumb Indian jokes mar an otherwise coherent and exciting Roger Moore Bond film:
The action and stunts are terrific, especially the minijet stunt flying through the exploding hangar during the opening sequence, and then near the end, the spectacular train stunts.
There's two Swedish-born leading ladies: Maud Adams as Octopussy, and Magda - who I thought was Barbara Bach with thinner eyebrows until I did some research and discovered she's Kristina Wayborn. The two ladies are rather redundant, I wonder if they felt Maud Adams wasn't young enough to bring the adequate sex appeal?
I quite enjoy Louis Jordan as the villain Kamal Khan - I love the backgammon scene where Bond beats his with his own loaded dice and pulls the super-cool "no look" roll.
"Spend the money quickly, Mister Bond" Khan advises while handing over the winnings.
Another great villain - perhaps too good for the movie - is Steven Berkoff as rogue Soviet General Orlov. Berkoff also made a great impression the following year as Victor Maitland, the art dealer / cocaine importer from Beverly Hills Cop.
Viewed on Amazon Prime Instant Video

May 22, 2016

Diamonds Are Forever

Sean Connery looks puffy and out of shape throughout. There's very little physical action for him, and he doesn't look great doing it...except for one neat trick where he leaps off the back of an ATV. I assumed it was a stuntman but no, he literally leaps off, runs over to Case's Mustang, and peels out.
I love the "ironic" exposition- the diamond expert explains in a smug, patronizing manner how the Empire has brought civilization to South Africa in exchange for the diamond mining business, but his exposition is played over images of the smuggling operation in action.

Tiffany Case (Jill St John) and Plenty O'Toole (Lana Wood) are two of the sexiest Bond girls ever - too bad Plenty is just a gold digger looking for high rollers in the casino, and Tiffany has some terrible overacting and bad line readings. At least Tiffany has agency - she doesn't sleep with Bond until the end of the second act (that's restraint!) and she has a purpose other than looking amazing- she's a diamond smuggler who nearly gets away with her larceny.

Explaining A James Bond Plot in Eighteen Easy Steps
Often the plots of Bond movies fall apart if you take two steps back and try to justify how the schemes could have been planned in advance. For example:
  1. SPECTRE needs a stockpile of diamonds to build its satellite laser.
  2. A dentist working for a mining company, servicing South African miners, pays cash to the miners for diamonds, and delivers the stones to one of several middlemen.
  3. Apparently SPECTRE has learned of this underground conduit and decides to divert the diamonds.
  4. Mr Wint & Mr Kidd intercept the dentist's dropoff, kill the dentist, AND kill his next contact in the pipeline (the helicopter pilot).
  5. Mr Wint & Mr Kidd then deliver the diamonds to the elderly missionary teacher in South Africa, so she can smuggle them to Tiffany Case in Amsterdam. This little old lady is the ideal smuggler because she will draw no suspicion while travelling internationally. There's a little joke where she hides the diamonds in a hollowed-out bible.
  6. Mr Wint & Mr Kidd follow her to Amsterdam and murder her after she makes the dropoff with Ms Case.
  7. Ms Case is due to deliver the diamonds to Peter Franks. Franks is being paid $50,000 to come up with a plan and smuggle the diamonds into America. Ms Case makes a clear point that Franks must hatch a scheme for smuggling the diamonds.
  8. Franks is arrested and Bond takes his place and meets Case posing as Franks.
  9. Franks escapes custody and arrives in Amsterdam. Bond successfully kills Franks and switches wallets with him. Case is fooled into thinking "Franks" has murdered "Bond".
  10. Bond decides to use Franks' body to smuggle the diamonds into America. Bond implies the stones are in Franks' colon, but it's possible he just hid them under the butt of the corpse. This is important later, trust me.
  11. When Bond, Case, and the dead Franks land at LAX, a hearse and three men from "Slumber, Inc" meet Bond at the airport with a hearse. Here's where things start to go sideways for me. Case somehow contacted her employer to say "Franks is smuggling the 'items' in a dead body. We're arriving at LAX on Friday" or whatever.
  12. Bond and the three gangsters ride in the hearse for four hours to Las Vegas. The hearse arrives at Slumber Funeral Home.
  13. Mr Slumber, the funeral home director, goes through the motions with Bond as they send the casket into the crematory oven.
  14. A minute later, an assistant appears in Slumber's office with an urn filled with the diamonds from Franks' body.
  15. Still going through the motions, Slumber directs Bond to a chamber in their mausoleum, where he leaves the urn filled with diamonds and picks up an envelope full of cash.
  16. Mr Wint & Mr Kidd whack Bond over the head and load him into another casket. They never intended to pay Mr Franks, so they don't need to recover the fifty grand from his pocket- the envelope they left for Franks is full of counterfeit bills.
  17. Bond's about to be cremated when Slumber and a stranger (comedian Shady Tree, apparently tied to the Mob too) save him because they've just discovered the diamonds Bond smuggled are fakes. Bond counters that they've paid him with counterfeit cash - "you wouldn't burn up fifty thousand real dollars, would you?" and he saunters off.
  18. Bond spends the counterfeit bills on the craps tables at the Whyte House and wins big.
What's wrong with this?
  • Where did Bond get a huge stockpile of fake diamonds and when did he make the switch? Did he bring them with him to Amsterdam in Step 8?
  • Before Step 10, there was no system in place for smuggling diamonds to Las Vegas in a dead body. Bond just made that up. Who found a Mob-connected funeral home that would make all the arrangements to accept a dead body and extract the diamonds from the corpse? This was all set up between Steps 10 and 11.
  • Step 14: How the heck does the undertaker get the diamonds out of the corpse and into the urn so quickly? Burning a body and casket takes HOURS. Even if they didn't burn the body, how did they retrieve them from the body so fast?
Viewed on Amazon Prime Instant Video

May 18, 2016

Ferris Bueller's Day Off


Fenway Screen 10:
This was supposed to be Eve and Emily,
but fate brought Amy, Mandy, and I together instead.
I have seen Ferris Bueller far too many times- I need a ten-year moratorium in order to make the movie fresh again - but it was fun to see it on the big screen with friends. Also, Mandy and I had a chance to catch up and eat dinner at the fancy new Wahlburgers across the street!
Emily and her friend Eve were supposed to go to this screening, but due to circumstances, they both had to drop out.
Eve bought these reserved seating tickets way in advance. Reserved advanced ticketing is a real mixed blessing. It's very convenient to take all chance out of a movie screening buy reserving a seat in advance. You don't have to show up early to know you're getting a good seat.
The downside is, advanced ticketing removes all flexibility:
  • If someone gets sick, you are stuck with a $12 movie ticket.
  • Especially for new releases, you cannot spontaneously meet up with friends, because the seats are all sold out in advance.
  • Even if the seats are not sold out, you may not be able to sit together.
For the theaters, it's a win-win - they get to charge more money for a service that allows/forces you to spending your money on a ticket:
  • The theater gets to keep your money even if you have to change your plans
  • The theater gets to deposit (and earn interest on) your cash for the time between when you bought the ticket and when you attend - in theory you could earn that interest for yourself for those two weeks. It's not much for you, but the theater corporation must have an enormous pool of cash for advance sales that helps pad their bottom line!

May 17, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

I skipped Age of Ultron, so I have NO IDEA who
this is, but I CAN tell you he's completely derivative.
Most of the Avengers team does a good job of tackling the essential truth of super-powers- should superhuman power be governed? This is territory that has been covered already by the X-Men franchise, and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, but this version may be the best at it.
I skipped Age of Ultron in the theater after some bad word-of-mouth, and I still can't rent it on my Roku, so maybe I'm missing some pieces:
  • Why is Tony Stark so pro-oversight? In all his previous movies he was mostly suspicious of the government. I found his pro-oversight stance unbelievable.
  • Paul Bettany's Vision is so derivative of every previous superintelligent AI. So boring.
The twists at the end of the movie were completely surprising, HUGE, and totally worth it. I only wonder where the franchise is going to go next when they've painted themselves into a corner- if massive destruction (like we enjoyed so much in the first Avengers movie) is so morally wrong, what are the next movies going to be filled with?
How do you reunite Iron Man and Captain America after this? It looks like the Avengers are going to continue to be the most serious of the Marvel franchises - if you want levity you gotta hope Guardians 2 is as fun as the first.
I love the new Peter Parker, played by a very young-looking Tom Holland (who is nothing like Tom Hollander). I had totally forgotten about Paul Rudd / Ant Man's appearance, so I was delighted to see him. Ant Man and Spider-Man provide the only levity in this movie.
Embassy Cinema Waltham, with Adam, Screen 5

May 1, 2016

Spotlight


After finding an unrepentant pedophile, Pfeiffer
surveys the neighborhood with new eyes.
A powerful, amazing true story. As good an investigative journalism movie as All The President's Men, if not better. Also a tough watch for me, a native of the Boston area, as the culture that created, sustained, and ignored the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal is revealed in its ugly, inert reality.
Thanks to Em for insisting I watch it- it's essential viewing for any New Englander, and any supporter of our free press.
It's not only a grim history lesson: it's a visceral story with terrific performances. I was especially amazed by Rachel McAdams as Sascha Pfeiffer - her doorstep performance as she interviews a unrepentant pedophile priest was gripping- you could see her character aborb and adapt to the shocking information she's receiving while also not breaking her role as a journalist, and trying to squeeze as much information out of this monster while she has the opportunity. McAdams is juggling three different emotions and motivations all at the same time andit was captivating. With Emily on Amazon Prime Instant Video