Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Terminator Genisys Review (2015)

I don’t know where to begin with “Terminator Genisys,” the abysmal fifth installment in the “Terminator” franchise. I don’t even know what to call it. Is it a sequel? No, because it doesn’t technically come after the last one (2009’s “Terminator Salvation”). Is it a reboot? Kind of? At the beginning we’re treated to a lengthy overview of the entire “Terminator” set up, with voice over from Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) to provide newbies with background info. We’re informed that the corporation Skynet brought on the apocalypse with computerized machines and how John Connor (Jason Clarke) rose out of the ashes as the savior and leader of the human resistance.

At the same time the movie is peppered with references to the original films-- “Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day—meaning newbies would get lost right away. Actually, “peppered” isn’t the right word; every third scene is a reference, a cheeky nod or a wink. In fact at certain points entire sequences—down to the shot—from those previous movies are recreated. The iconic sequence of the original Terminator (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) being sent back in time to 1984 to kill John’s mother Sarah, (Emilia Clarke) demanding that a random street punk give him his clothes, for example. “Terminator Genisys” isn’t a sequel or a remake; it’s an entirely new, unclassified species. Whatever it is, it’s a convoluted, insignificant mess that basically screams out at you to stop watching it and turn on the original films.

I won’t even attempt a formal plot synopsis of the film; to do so would be like attempting real-life time travel. Instead, imagine if the storylines from the first two features were tossed into a blender and mixed up along with a few other “new” underwritten storylines and you’ve got the cinematic slurry known as “Terminator Genisys.” The movie is all about alternate timelines and alternate timelines of those alternate timelines, caused by various events in the future. Sequences and plot points from the first two movies are slightly altered. Before the original Terminator can beat up that street punk he’s stopped by an older version of the Terminator (still played by Schwarzenegger).  We’ve got Schwarzenegger on Schwarzenegger action. That’s something, I guess.

Also, if you remember from the first film, Reese—Connor’s right hand man in the fight against the machines—is sent back to 1984 to protect Sarah. But what if, instead of being a weak helpless waitress unaware of the doom yet to come, Sarah was tough and already knew what was going down in the future? And what if she knew about the timeline in which she’s a helpless waitress? And what if when the new Sarah was nine years old, a Terminator—the older Schwarzenegger robot—came to her aid and sort of became a surrogate father, whom she calls “Pops?”

 I could go on but I think I would die of exhaustion. Simply put, the movie is too complicated for its own good, there’s too much plot to keep track of. The more you try to piece the story together the more incoherent and unstable it becomes. And for all this hassle nothing new really happens in “Terminator Genisys.” It tries to do everything and ends up doing nothing at all.  Fifty percent of the picture is plot points being dully explained while the other 50% is pure nostalgia, requiring an understanding of the earlier films. The same plot points and catchphrases are still there, just shifted around. Instead of Kyle saying “come with me if you want to live,” Sarah says it. Some of winky references are fun but after a while the nostalgia factor becomes stale-- the constant need to reference begins to feel forced. And most surprisingly, the end goal is still the same: stop Skynet before it can activate its super smart cyborgs. How can a movie with such an underwhelming end goal be so convoluted in the process?

Perhaps I should give “Terminator Genisys” some credit for at least attempting such an ambitious storyline in the first place. However, any ambitiousness is automatically undermined by terrible dialogue, lackluster acting and action that only gets bigger, louder and dumber. Like the “storyline” there’s nothing new in the action set pieces—a gunfight here, a melee fight there, a car chase. Buildings are destroyed, cars are flipped. These sequences are handled in the dullest and routine of ways while the CGI work ranges from mediocre to just plain bad. As the movie trucks on, it becomes a nonstop barrage of meaningless repetitive action. How many times can we see a Terminator get shot, only for it to regenerate itself? How many times must we see liquid metal reform into the T-1000? (Oh yes, the antagonist from “Judgment Day” is here too, don’t you worry). Again, this goes back to the nostalgia factor. Give the people more of the same.

As the main characters (originally played by Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton) Courtney and Clarke are miserable. Both of them overact big time, a majority of their scenes playing out like a bad sitcom. They have zero romantic chemistry and zero repartee. I haven’t seen “Game of Thrones” but Clarke is supposed to be good so I won’t blame her for her disappointing work here. On the other hand, having been bad in just about everything else he’s done, I’m convinced Courtney is just a bad actor. His attempts at genuine emotion are laughable, while his attempts to make quips are painful. The rest of the acting is unremarkable; the usually solid Jason Clarke is a competent John Connor and Schwarzenegger is fine—he gets a few funny lines in—but his whole performance is sort of underwhelming. A tired actor, playing a tired role. When he shouts his trademark line: "I'll be back" you can't help but sigh and role your eyes.

However, I can’t completely fault the actors--the screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier is the true Achilles heel of the picture. Maybe the most saddening thing about it is that because of the dense plotting, the human element is missing. All of the central relationships that we’re supposed to be invested in get lost in a flurry of alternate timelines, recycled lines of dialogue and tedious action.

Ultimately, I don’t really know why anyone would waste their time on “Terminator Genisys.” It’s a confusing, over plotted amalgamation of the first two movies, with poor acting and repetitive, exhausting action. By rehashing the same characters and plot points, all the movie does is remind you of the better “Terminator” movies that came before it.


Monday, June 29, 2015

Magic Mike XXL Review (2015)

Back in 2012, the male stripper movie “Magic Mike” came as a pleasant surprise. Directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Channing Tatum as the titular Mike the picture turned out to be a silly, endearing character study about Mike’s desire to leave the stripping game and open his own furniture business. As ridiculous as it may sound, Soderbergh and Tatum humanized a male stripper and did so with the right balance of comedy and drama. It may not have been the most profound movie ever made but the characters felt authentic; the central relationships, between Mike and rising stripper Adam (Alex Pettyfer) and veteran stripper Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) were strong and vibrant.

The sequel, “Magic Mike XXL” is another pleasant surprise but for different reasons. The ending of the original didn’t exactly scream “sequel,” or at least a sequel that involves more stripping. To get around this, new director Gregory Jacobs—Soderbergh stays on as the DP under the pseudonym Peter Andrews—and screenwriter Reid Carolin acknowledge the original film’s existence while at the same time ignoring it. 

At the beginning, we see that Mike has successfully opened his furniture company. However, before long Mike is back to the dance floor. While working in his shop one night the moves seem to bubble up directly from his subconscious. He tries to fight them, but they eventually possess him. So he decides to join his old stripping buddies, Richie (Joe Manganiello) Tarzan, (Kevin Nash) Ken (Matt Bomer) and Tito (Adam Rodriguez) on the road for one last striptease at a stripper convention.

That’s it as far as set up is concerned, and it’s done all within the first five to ten minutes. Jacobs and Carolin avoid lengthy, boring story exposition and jump right to the point. After all, we’re here to see the pretty boys dance, not worry about what came before. Jacobs and Carolin do have to explain the absence of some significant characters, namely Dallas, Adam and Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn) but even these explanations are handled swiftly and without hassle.

And anyway, the movie gives us enough reason to forget them. “Magic Mike XXL” lacks the depth of “Magic Mike” but it’s a lot of fun—blending silliness with sincerity. It’s aware of how ridiculous its premise is without continually winking at the audience and rarely references the first film. As we’ve seen in a number of recent big budget sequels there’s a tendency to constantly remind the audience of the film that came before it.  With “Magic Mike XXL” we’re here to see the pretty boys dance, not worry about what came before.

The plot of “Magic Mike XXL” can best be summed up as: male strippers strip on their way to a stripping convention. That’s it. The stakes are low. Even the most serious hiccups the gang encounters along the way are no big deal. But with strippers this likable and attractive who cares about plot. Jacobs wisely keeps the focus on the core five as they goof around with one another; their bromantic chemistry becomes infectious. They may not be the most fleshed out characters but the bond they share feels true; their friendly ribbings and antics are surprisingly endearing and the movie never once slips into forced sentimentality.  

The focus on the core five also means the picture is free of fat (much like our beefy young lads). There’s no forced tension or forced romantic angle. The gang doesn’t have a falling out with melancholy guitar music playing over. At the stripper convention there’s no competition with a rival group. Through the lack of “plot” the movie avoids unnecessary clichés, making for a leaner, funnier, more satisfying film.

Tatum is superb as Mike and it’s a role well suited for him. He gets to flaunt his good looks but beneath those magnificent muscles lies a caring, compassionate, goofy and all around lovable personality. Tatum’s performance here is less of a surprise than it was back then. At the time of the original, Tatum was still trying to find his acting identity. His chiseled, godlike looks couldn’t mask his rather dull onscreen presence. He often starred in action movies like “The Eagle and “GI Joe,” taking himself too seriously. “Magic Mike” allowed him to let loose and embrace his comedic side. Since then he’s turned into a legitimate acting force. Though Mike is still my favorite of his performances; it’s the role where he feels most alive, most energetic. He puts his heart into every crotch grab and hip thrust and a smile can't help but form across my face every time Mike’s in the frame.

The other four are also strong and the absence of Dallas, Adam and Brooke allows them to move into the foreground and be more developed as characters. We learn a little about their interests and yearnings outside of stripping (Tito wants to open a frozen yogurt shop, for example). Like Mike, they don’t want to do this forever but there’s uncertainty about what the next step is. They’ve been adult entertaining for so long that they’ve grown accustomed to it. Would they function in a standard office job?

These are big, intriguing dilemmas the movie doesn’t really explore. Then again, doing so might have bogged the movie down with too much story and caused it to cross into melodramatic territory--ruining its giddy comedic momentum. The boys aren’t on the road to a stripper convention to worry about their future. They’re here for one last chance to strut their stuff before going back to reality. One last chance to be on top of the world together, in front of thousands of screaming excited ladies.

I have little doubt “Magic Mike XXL” will be a success with general audiences, particularly female. The first movie had a slight dramatic kick towards the end—which I think added more dimension to the characters and story—that a lot of people didn’t dig. They wanted stripping and fun times not the harsh, lonely morning after.

“Magic Mike XXL” has no dramatic kick and a lot more stripping and good times. With the amount of singles that accumulate on the floors of various facilities, you could give someone a full ride to an expensive university. At 115 minutes the movie is perhaps too long but just when it begins to wander, a striptease scene or a comedic beat gives the movie a shot of adrenaline and you’re back clapping and giggling with joy.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Ted 2 Review (2015)

Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted 2” is overwritten, which is peculiar considering MacFarlane’s work is usually underwritten. The MacFarlane style joke structure consists of random, isolated gags. Some of those isolated gags may be funny but they could be watched on YouTube—out of the context of the show-- and still be just as funny. The humor doesn’t service the overall narrative or develop characters.  In “Ted 2,” the MacFarlane-style joke structure is still present but there’s just a lot more story to get through. The sad thing is that it needn’t have been so complex—the central dilemma and central buddy relationship is, I think, compelling enough to fuel the movie. However MacFarlane simply mixes in too many ingredients and doesn’t want to edit, making the movie an overlong slog to get through.

“Ted 2” continues the saga of Bostonian John (Mark Wahlberg) and his animatronic, trash talking, weed smoking teddy bear Ted (voiced by MacFarlane).  Ted marries his girlfriend Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) and decides to have kids. The first twenty minutes are strong. Per usual, the gags are uneven but the action moves along quickly and I appreciate that MacFarlane—and co writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild-- try to develop the titular bear. In “Ted” Ted was the obnoxious slacker best friend, keeping John from growing up and being in a mature relationship with Lori (Mila Kunis, absent from the sequel). This time around Ted has slightly matured and moved to center stage—he’s still obnoxious, he still smokes weed but he’s grown as a character.

The main thrust of the movie comes when Ted finds out he’s not a person but property. With the help of young hot lawyer Samantha (Amanda Seyfried) the three fight for Ted’s civil rights. As ridiculous as this conflict may be it’s far more compelling than simply having Ted be the slacker best friend. And it seems like a logical next step in his development that Ted’s true identity would come into question.

However, around the halfway point “Ted 2” plummets with the reintroduction of Donny, (Giovanni Ribbisi) the creeper villain from the first movie that’s trying to steal Ted yet again. First of all this storyline is completely unfunny and superfluous. The civil rights case through line provides sufficient conflict and opportunities for humor, so I’m not sure why MacFarlane felt it was necessary to include this additional, forced tension. Even worse, it’s rehashed from the first film. What’s the point in trying to further develop your characters if you’re just going to step backwards?

This recycling of the villain and added tension speaks to the main problem with the movie: it’s tediously plotted. “Ted 2” wants to be everything; it wants to be a two-guys-sitting-on-a-couch-getting-high comedy, and an action comedy. It wants to be a road trip comedy and a romantic comedy (between John and Samantha). It wants to be a relationship comedy (between Ted and Tamie-Lynn) and dramedy about civil rights. Problem is, there’s way too much going on and it’s frustrating to watch because most of it could easily be cut out. Had it been just about the civil rights case and the friendship between Ted and John, the film would have worked but MacFarlane makes it needlessly complex. In fact he even struggles to maintain and resolve the various plot strands over the course of the movie. The Donny dilemma eventually fizzles out, making you wonder why MacFarlane wasted our time in the first place. At 115 minutes “Ted 2” is too long, overstuffed and—due to the isolated random nature of the jokes-- moves at a snail’s pace, three of the worst problems that can plague a comedy. Very few successful comedies are two hours and pacing should generally be quick so as not to lose comedic momentum.

Sporting a Bostonian accent as thick as molasses, Wahlberg is funny and endearing even though he’s not given much to do. He was the star of the first one but since the sequel is Ted-centric, he’s crammed into the dopey supportive sidekick role, who’s sole conflict is trying to meet a new girl. His friendship with Ted was the driving force of the original but here it sort of takes a back seat to everything else until a heavily dramatic sequence at the end that feels like it was transplanted from an entirely different movie.

Meanwhile Seyfried essentially plays the dream girl; attractive, intelligent, has her life together but you know, also cool with getting high and chucking apples at random strangers at night. Seyfried demonstrates that she has good comedic timing and charm but ultimately she’s beholden to the plot; serving as the love interest for John.

I did laugh during “Ted 2” but not nearly enough. The inconsistency of the jokes is made worse by the overplotting. The picture can’t sustain comedic momentum and eventually runs out of gas, crawling along to its inevitable conclusion. But the worst part about the movie is that all of this could have easily been avoided if MacFarlane had done some editing, at the script level and the film level.


The Overnight Review (2015)

It’s difficult to discuss “The Overnight” in great detail. I went into Patrick Brice’s new sex comedy without having any idea what it was about, which made my viewing experience all the better. Taking place over the course of one wild night, the movie keeps you on your toes; it’s one of the few comedies I’ve seen recently where I’ve been on edge practically the whole way through, never being able to predict its twists and turns. And yet, through these twists and turns, Brice ultimately crafts an endearing and introspective feature about self-reinvigoration and coming out of your shell.

Things start off innocently and predictably enough; Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling star as Alex and Emily, an unremarkable couple. They get along with each other just fine but there’s a spark missing, Alex seems unhappy and their sex life is unremarkable (for very specific reasons you’ll find out about later on). And the few moments they do find time for such activities are interrupted by their son R.J (R.J Hermes). While in the park one day they meet Kurt, (Jason Schwartzman) an overly nice but kind of pushy gentleman with a hint of arrogance to him. Kurt eagerly invites the three over to his house to have dinner with his wife Charlotte (Judith Godreche) and son Max (Max Moritt).

Having recently moved to L.A. from Seattle, Alex and Emily don’t have any friends so they accept, thinking what’s the worse that can happen? Oh, Emily and Alex, how naïve you are. Although in their defense, I don’t think anyone would be prepared for the night they’re about to experience.

Kurt and Charlotte are the kooky, free spirited couple, more open about personal matters like sexuality than Emily and Alex. However before long, Kurt and Charlotte go way beyond the standard kooky and free spirited couple. After the kids have fallen asleep, when the booze and the marijuana are brought out, when skinny dipping is suggested, personal barriers come crashing down. And Kurt and Charlotte’s actions become increasingly bizarre and inappropriate. As far as plot summary is concerned, I’m going to stop right there because one of the pleasures in watching “The Overnight” is how wildly unpredictable it is.

Somehow Brice manages to blend together the right amount of sheer awkwardness and outrageousness. You’re made so uncomfortable you want to seek refuge underneath your seat, while at the same time you want to stick around to see just how crazy this night can get. Like driving past a car wreck on the side of the road--you know you should keep going but you’re too curious. Kurt and Charlotte appear to be locked in a serious game of “How Uncomfortable Can We Make Our Guests,” while Alex and Emily continue to play along for whatever reason. You’d think that when a couple you hardly know invites you over for dinner and proceeds to show you videos of people using breast pumps you would leave immediately. But then again, what do I know?

A lot of times comedies have a tendency to be bogged down by too much plot and exposition. They may be funny but they also begin to feel tedious when you realize the story isn’t going to yield any real surprises. “The Overnight” demonstrates that creating a successful comedy can be as easy as bringing two couples together for a single night. With one inappropriate violation of personal boundaries after another, Brice gradually peels back the layers of each character and relationship like an onion. The facades of politeness and uneasiness shatter and our two couples let it all hang loose (very literally at one point). Insecurities and uncertainties are brought out into the open. We begin to see the cracks in each marriage form and startling revelations—mainly in regards to why Kurt and Charlotte are so goddamn weird this night—are made apparent during the film’s conclusion. “The Overnight” may be small in scope but a lot happens and by keeping it within an intimate space Brice keeps the focus on the characters.

Aside from Brice’s surprisingly intricate script, the success of “The Overnight” lies in the hands of its leads. All four have such effortless, easy-going comedic chemistry and each bring a surprising amount of nuance to their performances. The strength of the characters in turn strengthens the outrageous antics--making them add up to something substantial. By the end, both couples go through major transformations and learn new things about each other for the better…and for the worse.

That’s really all I want to say in regards to “The Overnight.” On the outside it appears to be a slight, mundane little comedy, one you’ve seen a thousands times before, but it quickly turns into much more.