A few quick words on”Now You See Me” (2013)

I ought to pan “Now You See Me” (2013), but I just had too much fun with it.  It’s a smile-inducing heist film that barely qualifies as a thriller, given its upbeat tone.  It held my attention and made me laugh, so I’m giving it and 8 out of 10.

Much of it is preposterous, especially if you stop to think about it.  The comedians over at Cinema Sins really skewer it here, for example.  (Spoilers.  Do not watch the linked video until after you’ve seen the movie.)  But if you take it as an escapist fantasy, it’s a good movie — like maybe one of the Roger Moore-era James Bond films.  It’s got a terrific ensemble cast, it’s funny, and it makes great use of its novelty story device — famous stage magicians using their skills to commit high-profile crimes, and incorporating those crimes into their show.

I’d definitely recommend this.

Quick note — if you’re a movie buff and you haven’t checked out the Cinema Sins Youtube channel, then you’re cheating yourself.  Their “Everything Wrong With” and “Honest Trailers” series are two of the best things on the Internet.

 

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A short review of Season 1 of the “Wolf Creek” TV series (2016)

“Wolf Creek” (2005) and “Wolf Creek 2” (2013) are among the most chilling and effective horror films out there.  (They can be difficult for even seasoned fans of the genre to watch.)  And last year’s follow-up television series faithfully channeled so much of their mood, tone and atmosphere that it should have been just as effective.  What a shame that its first season falls short due to tremendous problems with pacing and story structure.  I’d rate it a 6 out of 10.

The six-episode arc has the feel of the films.  It was written, directed and produced by Greg McLean, as they were.  Once again, the forbidding Australian outback is itself a central character, gorgeously captured and lovingly presented by the show’s cinematography.   I think it’s been a long time since I saw a horror film or series so successfully project a mood.  Also returning, of course, is John Jarrett in his perfect and perfectly frightening portrayal of the serial killer Mick Taylor.

Lucy Fry’s young American antihero, Eve, is the latest to face off against him, but there’s a twist — after surviving the slaughter of her family, she resolves to find and kill him.  Fry is just great in the role; Dustin Clare is well cast as the nice-guy cop who alternately pursues and tries to rescue her from danger.  The rest of the cast is also roundly terrific.  The soundtrack and scoring are beautifully atmospheric.

Unfortunately, though, all of these elements appear within a plot that moves at a snail’s pace.  We actually don’t see much of Mick for many episodes — the story focuses on Eve’s haphazard, calamitous odyssey through rural Australia, encountering criminals, good Samaritans and just plain lunatics.  McLean scripts a protagonist that is compelling and cool, and Fry is a good actress.  But many of the events of her journey are only tangentially related to the story’s central conflict, which is her duel with Mick.  I get the sense that fans might tune in to see a horror film, but might be disappointed by a moody, loosely plotted travelogue through McLean’s brutal fictional interpretation of the Australian outback.

I wondered how the screenwriter here could make such a major miscalculation.  Then I remembered that the “Wolf Creek” films, despite their brilliance, were also quite slow.  They contained what seem like lots of supporting or ancillary material connected with Mick’s victims, which were ultimately interspersed with the intense violence that made them terrifying movies (not to mention Jarratt’s flawless portrayal of a violent sociopath).

But those movies both had an hour-and-forty-minutes running time.  These six episodes add up to four full hours.  The slow pace of films was a forgivable flaw — it even came across as deliberate pacing.  It’s frustrating, though, for any onscreen story lasting more time than that.  I honestly think I would have enjoyed Season 1  much more if it had been edited down to half its length — into maybe three episodes or one feature film.

Oh, well.  This series is still remarkably well made, and I do think it will please many fans of the films.  If you enjoyed those, I would recommend giving this series a shot.

 

A quick review of “Wolf Creek 2” (2013)

Is “Wolf  Creek 2” (2013) a well made film?  Yes.  It’s exceptionally well made.  Would  I recommend it?  I’m not sure.

I’d rate it a perfect 10.  Its technical expertise in undeniable.  The cast is roundly excellent.  John Jarratt is absolutely perfect in the role he seems born for.  He’s so effectively menacing as this film’s serial killer that I think I’d find it unnerving even meeting the actor in real life.  The only other actor I think I can say that about is Ted Levine, who so indelibly portrayed Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs” (1991).

Ryan Corr is damn perfect, as are the actors in smaller roles.  I think Shannon Ashlyn portrays terror better than any other actress I’ve seen.  She isn’t just a horror movie “scream queen;” her performance was so skilled that she rises above such a trite label.  (And I’ve seen a lot of horror movies, people.)

It’s extremely well directed.  The conclusion of an action sequence involving a truck must have looked downright stupid on the page, but damn if Greg McLean doesn’t make it plausible and shocking.

The entire movie is gorgeously shot.  It was enough to make me want to visit Australia … if the story didn’t make want to stay the hell away from Australia.

I just get the impression that some movie studio planned to produce a generic, derivative slasher movie … but just inexplicably employed the best creative talent available for all aspects of its creation.

Now, about my reluctance to recommend this …  Please understand that this film is incredibly dark, even by horror movie standards.  At times it was just too much for me.  I actually stopped playing this on Netflix several times to “take a break with something lighter” by watching “The Walking Dead.”  Yes, you read that right.

The story depicted is just brutal.  There are very few movies that are too dark for me … I think I could count them on one hand.  (And one was 2005’s original “Wolf Creek.”)  And this film is just so masterfully made that its victims seem like real people suffering — something at which the “Saw” films and various other slasher movies rarely succeeded.

I honestly think it might have been so “good” that it went past the point of entertaining me.  Can I honestly recommend a movie that I felt the need to switch off?

You make your own call.  Again — this is exceedingly dark material, even by horror movie standards.  But if you think you’re up to it, watch it.

 

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A review of “Goodbye World” (2013)

“Goodbye World” (2013) is technically a post-apocalyptic drama.  I say “technically” because this sometimes misguided movie contains little tension associated with its apocalyptic event.  (A cyber-attack destroys the technological infrastructure of America and possibly the world.)  Indeed, this catastrophe doesn’t even truly drive the plot — it’s more of a background subplot that fails to even affect the tone of the film.  (The poster you see below is misleading.)

Instead, the film scrutinizes the personal lives of a group of thirtyish college alumnae who have an informal reunion at a mountain cabin — one of their number is a plot-convenient intellectual-turned-survivalist.  They’re portrayed by an (admittedly quite good) ensemble cast.  I think a lot of my friends would smile at “Gotham’s” Jim Gordon (Ben Mckenzie) being a rather meek, feckless husband.  And Caroline Dhavernas here is no longer the alpha female we saw in NBC’s “Hannibal,” but is rather an insecure, overly sensitive young wife who immaturely pines that she was the student “everyone hated.”

And there lies a problem that the movie has … few of these characters are terribly likable.  Only Gaby Hoffmann’s surprisingly tough civil servant made me root for her.  And Kerry Bishe’s perfectly performed, chatty neo-hippy eccentric was also pretty cool … Bishe might have given the best performance in the film.  Finally, Linc Hand is a surprise standout, arriving halfway through in a menacing supporting role.  It’s a far smaller role, but damn if he doesn’t nail it.  (Please, Netflix, cast this guy as Bullseye in Season 3 of “Daredevil.”)

The others all seem either self-absorbed, self-righteous and preachy, or inscrutable and vaguely dumb.  Dhavernas’ character actually steals a child’s teddy bear (which she herself had brought as a gift) and … sets it free in the forest.  It was a belabored character metaphor when written.  Worse, it just seems jarringly weird when it plays out on the screen.

All the characters seem strangely detached about the watershed national or global crisis. Some cursory dialogue is devoted to the imagined welfare of their family, colleagues or other friends; the character interaction is devoted mostly to  marriage issues and personal emotional crises that I have mostly forgotten as of this writing.  And those seem maudlin and slightly selfish compared to the Fall of the United States.  The characters mostly failed at engendering viewer sympathy in me.

The screenwriters’ juxtaposition of personal matters and the end of the world also seemed tone deaf.  We follow what the writers hope are educated, successful and endearingly quirky fun people, and we’re asked to worry about their love triangles and spousal communication issues.  But … we’re then asked to view this in the context of a pretty frightening collapse of society, complete with plot elements that are interchangeable with those of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”  (One secondary character turns violent over the issue of resources, then charismatically justifies his violence to  a crowd using a half-baked ideology that seems to channel “The Governor.”)

I felt like I was watching two movies at once, and not in a good way.  The opening motif is brilliantly creepy — the virus causes cell phones everywhere to receive a text reading the titular “Goodbye World.”  Our laconic, uniformly telegenic protagonists kinda just shrug at it.  And even when suspicions arise in the group about whether one character is connected to the cyber-attack, there is dry, dialogue-driven humor instead of any real consequent tension.  It was like John Hughes wrote a thirtysomething dramedy, but then tried unsuccessfully to sprinkle in the human pathos of one of George A. Romero’s more pessimistic zombie films.

But don’t get me wrong.  This wasn’t even really a bad movie.  I didn’t hate it.  It held my interest, its actors gave good performances, and I am a shameless fan of Dhavernas in particular.  The cinematography was very good too, and the story’s tonal differences were occasionally interesting.  (This is definitely a unique end-of-the-world tale, if nothing else.)

I’d honestly give “Goodbye World” a 7 out of 10.  I think my expectations sitting down with it were just unusually high, seeing Dhavernas attached to what looked like an independent, cerebral, apocalyptic science fiction thriller.  I might even recommend it if you’re in the mood for a really unusual doomsday movie.  Just don’t expect “28 Days Later” (2002) or “The Divide” (2012), and you might like this.

 

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A quick review of “London Has Fallen” (2016)

“London Has Fallen” (2016) includes two very good action sequences.  The first is an establishing major action set piece in which a state funeral in London is the occasion of a major terror attack.  (SPOILER!)  The second is a finale that should really please action fans — it’s fun and exciting to watch; the first-person-shooter style of it actually works, rather than coming across as cheesy.

That’s probably about all the positive things I could say about it … as others warned me, it was a pretty brainless movie.  It’s a thin, poorly scripted story that isn’t nearly in the same league as 2013’s outstanding “Olympus Has Fallen.”  The dialogue is painful to hear.  And that’s especially sad considering that the film’s two fine lead actors (Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart) have terrific chemistry with each other.

The terrorists pull off an operation that is logistically incredible in this movie.  No exposition is given about how the @#%$ they accomplished what they did, and in so little time.  (Two years to put those assets in place?)

How does the entire population of London become invisible within minutes — even if they were told to stay indoors?  Why did this movie suddenly turn into “The Quiet Earth” (1985)?

Am I mistaken, or did a Butler’s Secret Service Agent actually tell the terrorists exactly where he and the president were, as part of a macho personal challenge?

And if Butler and Eckhart are alone and on the run on the streets of London, doesn’t it make sense to seek refuge in a random home or apartment?  The odds are astronomical that they person from whom they’d seek quarter would be in league with the bad guys.

I’d rate this movie a 6 out of 10.  Honestly?  I’d really recommend you wait until it comes out on DVD.  Then watch only the opening and closing set pieces, and imagine your own coherent story and engaging dialogue in between.  You’ll enjoy it more.

 

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A very short review of “Coherence” (2013)

James Ward Byrkit wrote the screenplay for “Coherence” (2013), then filmed and directed it on a shoestring budget in his living room.  And the result is pretty impressive — this a trippy, unusual, and unusually cerebral science fiction thriller.  I’d rate it an 8 out of 10.

The movie portrays eight friends at a dinner party who find their sense of reality frighteningly altered after a comet flies overhead.  I really can’t write much more than that without spoilers — even this movie’s central story device is best arrived at as a surprise for the viewer.    I don’t even want to name which “science” serves as the basis for the “science fiction” here, as that would be a big hint as to what transpires.

It’s pretty good.  The thriller elements here are creepy.  And it’s a wonderfully intelligent “what-if?” story that other reviewers have compared to “The Twilight Zone” episodes.  (I myself … mostly kept up with it — I was sometimes a little murky about the strategies adopted by the group to address their predicament.)

The closing minutes are damned good.

I’d recommend this to sci-fi fans looking for a unique, dialogue-driven brain-buster.

Hey, just for fun, consider this — the refreshingly intelligent “Coherence” employs the exact same MacGuffin as one of the stupidest, overrated cult “classics” of all time — 1984’s “Night of the Comet.”

 

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Batman vs. Superman vs. a Terrible Script

[THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MINOR, GENERAL SPOILERS.]

Wow.  The script for “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) was really bad.

I hate to begin a review with a statement so negative, but it’s true.  I really think that I could have done better than this, and I know nothing about screenwriting.  Hell, parts of the movie were actually MSTy-worthy.  I just can’t believe that the gifted David S. Goyer had a hand in this.

Batman is flatly rendered and barely likable.  Superman is capably played by Henry Cavill, but has little to say.  Lex Luthor is portrayed as a cloying, verbose, flamboyant, attention-seeking manchild.  He gets all the screen time in the world (and more dialogue than Superman, it seems), and he really come across as a whiny, rambling high school student playing at theologian, trying in vain to impress the girls.  Luthor seems to want to ingratiate himself to every other character on screen.  Strangely, this includes even those he is threatening or endeavoring to murder.  He has weird vocal tics that quickly get on our nerves.  “Mmm.”  He makes repeated references to god, who he hates, and … this makes him hate the godlike Superman, via Freudian transference.  Or something.

He consequently wants to kill Superman.  He has kryptonite and demonstrably capable mercenaries at his disposal.  But, for some reason, he wants to employ unreliable, convoluted plans to prompt Batman to do it.  His plans to motivate Batman include harassing him with newspaper clippings and nasty notes, like a deranged stalker.

He also has a photograph of Wonder Woman that she would like to keep secret.  She goes ahead and mentions it to an ostensibly drunken Bruce Wayne at a party anyway.

Oh!  Luthor also knows the secret identities for both Superman and Batman, and has known for some time.  We don’t find out how he knows, and he does far less to exploit this information than you would think.  Couldn’t he easily (and quite legally) cause problems for both men simply by exposing them?  Superman knows Batman’s identity too; I guess we can chalk that up to his x-ray vision?  Batman is not in the know, and spends much of the movie trying to play catch-up, and is easily manipulated by Luthor.  This is despite the fact that, in the comics, he is the world’s greatest detective.

There is bad dialogue, weird science, and bad science.  There are murky, vague plot points and unsupported character motivations.  Some things are just plain dumb — Metropolis and Gotham City stand within sight of each other, just across a bay.  Either hero could easily intervene in the other’s city … but they apparently respect each other’s nearly adjacent turf, even though they don’t know or trust each other.

Even the premise is shaky — legions of people hate Superman because they blame him for the damage inflicted by Zod during the events of “Man of Steel” (2013).  Couldn’t he just exonerate himself by simply telling the truth — that Zod attacked earth and he rose to defend it?  I’m willing to bet most people would get that.

There are … dream sequences … and/or visions … and/or messages from the future?  And … conversations with the dead?  Or … not?  You tell me.

Why does Superman need a winter jacket?

Why does he refer to his mother as “Martha?”  Do any of us refer to our mothers by their first name?

I could go on, but you get the idea.  I actually found my attention wandering during this movie.

All of this is a shame, because there are hints of brilliance hiding among the mediocrity.  The movie is ambitious.  It seems to want to say a lot about weighty themes such as power, unlimited power, its ability to corrupt, and the unintended consequences of unilateral action.  There seem to be visual references to real world horrors like 9/11 and ISIS’ terrorism, which I found pretty bold.  I’ve never been good with subtext.  Were there allegories here that I missed, connected with U.S. foreign policy or the War on Terror?

I will say this — the film isn’t quite as bad as the critics are making it out to be.  It isn’t all garbage, it’s just a below average superhero film.  And it appears worse because it’s part of a genre characterized by a lot of really good films — Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies were groundbreaking, and most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s titles were quite good.  So this ambitious misfire seems far worse in contrast.  I myself would rate this movie a 5 out of 10 — even if I might be biased here by my lifelong love for these iconic characters.

I’ll tell you what — why don’t I go ahead and list this movie’s successes?  There are a few things that I really liked, and this blog post is so negative it’s starting be a buzzkill.

  1.  Ben Affleck did a damn good job in his portrayal of Batman.  I’m sold.  I strongly get the sense that he worked hard to prepare for the role.  The man is a good actor; this was a good performance.  Somebody get Batffleck a better script!
  2. Amy Adams and Diane Lane are both skilled actresses, and are both a pleasure to watch here, as Lois Lane and Martha Kent, respectively.
  3. The special effects are damned good.  If you’re a longtime fan of Superman, then his heat vision alone might make this movie worth the price of a ticket.  His flights and landings look damned good too.  The scene where Wonder Woman lassos Doomsday was downright beautiful — it’s one of the best FX shots in recent memory.  I couldn’t conceive of anything better by using my imagination.
  4. The fight choreography when Batman takes down multiple thugs is quite good.
  5. It’s a little hard for me to articulate, but … the final showdown here really does capture the epic, mythic feel of a major superhero battles in the DC Comics I grew up with.  We’ve got two heavy hitters — Superman and Wonder Woman — battling a super-powered villain in an apocalyptic battle, with the quite-mortal Batman holding his own just fine, employing the power of badass.  It was a hell of a fun finale for me, as it recalled the superpowered clashes I used to find in the better-written “Justice League” comics, or those various Jeph Loeb-written team-ups between Bats and Supes.  The vibe was just right, and it really struck a chord with me and improved the movie.
  6. As much as I’ve complained about the script, there were parts here and there that were actually surprisingly awesome.  The scene at the Capitol was darkly inspired.  Luthor’s modus operandi for controlling Superman was a nasty bit of business.  And one character delivers a monologue about a flood that is vivid and hauntingly sad — and it was made all the more effective because the actor delivering it is so talented.  I’m genuinely surprised that the movie went so dark with all of these moments.  Again — there were hints of brilliance among the mediocrity.

Postscript:  a note to those who might be new to comics — this movie cribs heavily from two famous comic book story arcs.  The first is 1972’s “Must There Be A Superman?” and the second is 1986’s  graphic novel, “The Dark Knight Returns.”  I haven’t read the former, but let me assure you that the latter is incredibly good.  It was written and illustrated by Frank Miller, and it was so damn good it actually transformed the medium, by changing how fans and the general public viewed comic books.  It’s a masterpiece.  The point I’m trying to make is this — please don’t judge the seminal comic series by its putative representation by this film.

Postscript II: has there really been a great live-action Superman movie since “Superman II” in 1980?  It’s well known that the third and fourth installments in the 80’s franchise were abominable.  I thought that “Superman Returns” (2006) and “Man of Steel” were both good, but they got mixed reviews from audiences and critics alike.  Weird.

 

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