Thursday, February 16, 2017

FIST FIGHT

Charlie Day     Ice Cube     Christina Hendricks     Tracy Morgan     Jillian Bell     Dean Norris


     This is one of the most pathetic, obnoxious films I’ve ever seen.  It’s hard to know where to start.  It pains me to learn that it is supposed to be a comedy.  Mr. Campbell (Day) is an English teacher in a high school completely out of control where students are able to put porn on TVs, use their cell phones to disrupt a video on the Civil War, write obscene remarks on a teacher’s blackboard (which are not erasable), spray the hallway floor with oil, and so on.  (Hopefully, you don’t know of any school in the world like this, and that it’s completely a product of the filmmakers’ minds.)  Campbell is a nice guy, but on the wimpy side, who is not averse to being sneaky—both of which he is accused of by everyone.  He gets framed right and left, but often because he simply doesn’t stand up for himself.
     He is a perfect foil for the teacher-bully at the school, Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube), who is able to maintain authority simply with a loud, commanding voice and penetrating stare.  Strickland is a good example of how this kind of authoritarianism is ineffective at best and abusive at worst.  He is also primed to single people out with pointed finger to blame for his troubles.  He’s still a (very) big kid with poor impulse control.
     The basic scenario of the film is that these two characters get cross-wires with each other, abetted by the students, but aided by their own poor problem-solving skills.  They have regressed to the point that the bully insists on the wimp coming outside after school for a fistfight (Fist Fight; get it?).  “We’re gonna handle this like real men”, says Strickland.  Real men?  Not!
     To add “spice” to the drama, the script calls for the school counselor to be the hopeless counselor who does drugs and flirts with a student, and another (Hendricks), who whips out a knife, wanting Strickland to use it on Campbell. 
     I always dread films that have school or psychology as subjects because Hollywood is notorious for mishandling and miscasting them.  Here, most of the students look like they’re at least in their twenties (making the action even more absurd), and the adults behave like children with poor impulse control who resort to outright lying when confronted.  Fist Fight models such a bad school environment it becomes absurd. 
     But the most disturbing experience of the screening is that a significant number of people in the audience, laughed throughout and applauded at the end.  I wonder, “Who are these people?  Do they not grasp the importance of modeling in films?  Do they think it’s hilarious when mobs egg on two people to fight one another, even when there’s a mismatch?”

Fist Fight is not recommended for anybody anywhere anytime.


Grade:  F                                               By Donna R. Copeland

THE GREAT WALL

Matt Damon     Willem Dafoe     Tian Jing     Pedro Pascal     Andy Lau     Hanyu Zhang


     Visually striking with some impressive special effects, The Great Wall could be a lesson in our current times as to how effective walls are for countries.  The Tao Tei are vicious monsters known for invading China every sixty years, and that time has come again.  They are fearsome dinosaur-like (allosaurus) beasts with huge heads and pointed teeth.  They come in droves—thousands at a time—and can climb walls and leap into the air.  They’re even smart enough to figure out how to get inside the wall and attack from there.  The Chinese have their own special weapons, including balls of black powder that explode on impact or near fire.  They can send out female warriors anchored by ropes on narrow protruding fingers high up on the wall to fight in the air.  They can send out comets of fire to light on the invading troops. 
     Unfortunately, the story and the dialog among characters tend toward the unimaginative and ordinary.  Basically, two scruffy men hoping to beg, borrow, or steal the rare black powder, are captured by Chinese militia and taken prisoner.  William (Damon) is experienced in warfare all over the world and looks at the situation they’re in with the intent of finding an intelligent escape.  His friend Tovar (Pascal) is not as smart or sensible, and when they encounter another prisoner who has been there 25 years after he was caught trying to steal black powder, they devise a plan of escape.  The Chinese will not allow any of them to leave the compound so as to prevent any knowledge of their secret weapons getting out.  William and Tovar were supposed to be killed, but after they proved their mettle in a surprise attack by the Tao Tei, they were spared.
     Then, there is a complication.  Commander Lin (Jing) and William have developed an awkward relationship that is part competitive, part respectful and part mistrust.  In their brief encounters, she does get through to him on the importance of trust (xin ren), which influences his usually mercenary intentions.  In demonstrating to the Chinese his military skill and getting their respect, he becomes more invested in protecting them and, potentially, the whole world, because military strategist Wang (Lau) has said that China would be only the first country to fall prey to the Tao Tei.
     Tovar is incredulous and scornful of William, and thus begins a real schism between them that has been simmering for a long time.  The rest of the story plays out much as one would expect, with harrowing scenes, intrigue among the three rogues, and Chinese cunning.
     Damon is up to his award-winning reputation, but I was disappointed in Dafoe’s character not being more sinister, which he does so well.  That has more to do with direction, most likely, than to him personally.  Pascal is convincing as a rascal, and pulls off some of the few acerbic comedy scenes. 
     At a time when the Chinese and the U.S. are launching a major collaboration in filmmaking, this film may be a harbinger of success, but maybe not.  Director Yimou Zhang (House of Flying Daggers, filming of the opening and closing of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games), a respected filmmaker, must have had to incorporate the input of many writers and producers, which sometimes has a blunting effect on creativity.  At any rate, The Great Wall will probably not be an A-list movie, but for those who like action more than dialog and story, it may satisfy.

Special effects over story for this film.

Grade:  C                        By Donna R. Copeland

Friday, February 10, 2017

FIFTY SHADES DARKER (2)

Jamie Dornan     Dakota Johnson     Eric Johnson     Marcia Gay Harden     Rita Ora     Kim Basinger     Bella Heathcote

     In Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is wooed by Christian Grey (Dornan), but flees from him when he demonstrates—at her request—the limits of his taste for BDSM.  It’s too much for her.  Fifty Shades Darker opens with his begging her to come back to him, indicating that he has changed—or is at least trying to be better—and that he will do anything to get her back.  She has clearly moved on, including having a new job that she loves; but she finds that his pleas are irresistible.  She agrees to have dinner with him to talk about her concerns.
     Not much comes from this; she indicates that their reuniting must go slowly, and that there be “no rules, no punishments, and no secrets.”  He agrees to anything she requests, but it is clear from the outset that his underlying character is still the same.  He has high control needs, is bossy, and wants her to be submissive toward him outside the bedroom.  In the bedroom he pretty much defers to her.  But like many women, Anastasia finds it hard to assert herself and maintain boundaries. 
     And this is the biggest fault of the movie to me:  It completely departs from modern women’s goals of achieving self-confidence, an effective independent identity, and equal status with men.  The movie flirts with these ideas in showing Anastasia moving up in her profession and becoming the fiction editor at her publishing company.  But uh-oh, Christian has bought the company and fired her boss Jack (Eric Johnson), so she moves up to his place. Granted, it was after a sexual harassment incident, but still, it was Christian who enabled her promotion.  Moreover, the character of Anastasia is wimpy and self-effacing (“Who, me?”  “I can’t steer a boat.”  “I am nothing.”) in many different situations in the film.  So we have the stereotypical arrangement of a “man in charge” with a submissive woman. 
     Another fault of the Fifty Shades Darker is a hackneyed script with lines spoken as if they had deep meaning (“I know how difficult it is for you to open up to me, but it means the world to me” and “I thought I lost you forever”) (Niall Leonard, screenplay; E. L. James, novel).  Although the title of the film suggests something more, i.e., “Darker”, the plot adheres fairly closely with the previous film.  In fact, it’s a bit tamer.
     The acting is up to par, especially when Marcia Gay Harden and Kim Basinger are in scenes, but their characters should have been better fleshed out.  Director James Foley, whose experience has primarily been in television, will need to make the next film in the Fifty Shades series more movie-like than an episodic television show.  Danny Elfman’s music and John Schwartzman’s cinematography are probably the best parts of the film.

Rather than darker, I would say this is fifty shades worse than its predecessor.


Grade:  D By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, February 9, 2017

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER TWO

Keanu Reeves     Ruby Rose     Bridget Moynahan     Ian McShane     Laurence Fishburne    
John Leguizamo     Common     Ricardo Scarmacio     Lance Reddick


     It’s rather amusing that a group that thwarts society’s rules at every turn has a strict set of rules they must follow.  This is the world of crime syndicates, which John Wick (Reeves) became involved in, but is trying to leave it behind.  But Wick owes a debt marked with blood to Santino (Scarmacio), part of a crime syndicate, and Santino wants to extract payment.  No small thing; it’s to kill his sister, Gianni.  Santino wants her seat at the Table of 12, rulers of the syndicate.  But Wick is “out of the business” and refuses to do the job.  Pressure is brought to bear (as in fire-bombing his house), and Wick has no choice but to go to Rome and carry out the assignment.  Because the syndicate is rich and international—once again, with strict rules—Wick is given all kinds of luxurious accommodations (transport, hotel, grooming, and guns) to carry out his task. 
     He goes to Rome, is taken by surprise by Gianni, and Santino’s actions then make the story much more complicated.  The strict rules of the syndicate are broken, Santino is foolish in not listening to Winston’s (McShane) counsel, and so all hell breaks loose.
     The film maintains the momentum of the first film, and keeps us intrigued.  Writer Derek Kolstad made the script intelligent and gripping, throwing in line after line of quotable quotes:  “Death’s very emissary” (Gianni to Wick), “Consider this a personal courtesy” (spoken a number of times), and “What have you done?...Finished it.”  Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is breathtaking to look at on its own, the pièce de résistance, being the last shoot-out in a museum’s hall of mirrors (ironically called Search for the Soul).  And since the director, Chad Stahelski, is a former stuntman, he and his crew have highlighted the fights with masterful choreography.  (There are so many, that without the artful rendition, they would end up being boring.)
     Reeves continues in his ability to portray a powerful action figure with soulful inclinations and heartbreak while still being able to fight off however many adversaries come after him.  Supporting figures offering gravitas (McShane), intrigue (Rose), sleaziness (Scarmacio), depth (Common, Fishburne), and humor (Leguizamo), strengthening the movie’s quality.
     All in all, if the viewer takes to action films—with their obligatory car chases, loud gunfire, and choreographed hand-to-hand combat—John Wick:  Chapter Two will satisfy and please.  For others, it is a well-conceived and engaging story if your ears can take it.

Hold your hats for a crime story ride.

Grade:  B+                                    By Donna R. Copeland

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE

Voices of:  Will Arnett   Ralph Fiennes   Zach Galifianakis   Michael Cera   Jenny Slate   
Rosario Dawson   Zoe Kravitz     Channing Tatum   Jonah Hill   Jemaine Clement   
Ellie Kemper   Adam Devine   Kate Micucci   Seth Green   Eddie Izzard


     The humanization of Batman (Arnett) turns out to be very funny with glitzy animation and some substance to the message.  As evidenced by audience reaction at the screening, those familiar with DC comics will get many references that fly past those of us who are uninformed.  But even for those unfamiliar with all the Batman comics and movies, this is a flashy, entertaining story that will even pull your heartstrings in places.
Batman is full of himself, depicting the stereotypical male out of touch with his emotions or others’, and needing to be a savior in order to feel good about himself.  He has boxed himself in by shutting everyone else out, thinking he has to do everything on his own, ignoring his own needs for support and connection, and hell bent on being the hero of Gotham City.  His competitiveness with others—including Superman—is not overlooked.
     But the Joker (Gallifianakis) is back on the scene, and is intent on taking over Gotham City.  The police commissioner (Dawson) wants to help, as does Alfred Pennyworth (Fiennes), Batman’s aide, but he puts them off and strikes out on his own.  Someone he can’t put off is an orphan whom he absent-mindedly adopted one day.  Dick (Cera) is entranced with Batman, and insists on following him everywhere and getting outfitted in Batman-like clothes.  Batman tries to brush him off repeatedly, but the little guy is so persistent, Batman starts feeling some attachment to him—not admitting any such thing, of course.
     Themes that are treated both seriously and funny recurring throughout the movie include attachment, responsibility, cooperation, and the joy of play.  Even the Joker can’t get Batman to acknowledge that he is meaningful to him, and his wheedling and arguments with Batman are some of the funniest scenes.  A sense of responsibility outweighs anything else in Batman’s mind, preventing him from accepting help from others and making him actually lonely.  Pennyworth tries his best to get Batman to lighten up, and Dick enthusiastically takes to everything like it’s one big joyous game.  It takes a while for all this to get through to Batman and for him to become aware of his own emotional experience.
     Lego Batman is highly entertaining and visually beautiful, and is not directed toward any one age.  Children and adults should enjoy it for different reasons.  Although many of the references to other DC Comics film productions are likely to go over kids’ heads, there is enough animation and color—and even jokes—to keep them engaged.  Lorne Balfe’s music enhances the different moods of the film, notably playing Three Dog Night’s “One is the Loneliest Number” when Batman returns home and finds he is warming up his dinner and eating alone. 
     Director Chris McKay and the whole Warner Brothers-Lego-DC Comics team deserve the immense pride they most likely take in this production.  The voices of the actors deserve praise as well.

Fine animation with humor, adventure, and thoughtful points for viewers of all ages.

Grade:  A                                     By Donna R. Copeland

THE RED TURTLE





     This visually beautiful and engaging animation from the Ghibli Studio combines fantasy with deep human experiences of loss, loneliness, love, and desperation simply through visual animation, music, and a few shouts.  It reminded me of last year’s Swiss Army Man, with a man stranded on an isolated island showing the value of fantasy in survival, but the feel of the two films is entirely different one from the other. 
     The film opens with a fierce storm on the ocean, and we see a poor figure being tossed about until he is thrown up on the sand.  He is awakened by a crab crawling up his leg, which he rapidly shakes out.  The ever-curious sand crabs reappear from time to time and constitute some of the more humorous moments.  Very clever.  They are sometimes his only companions.
     The man is ingenious at devising ways to survive.  He builds a number of rafts, but most of them get upended by some mysterious creature underneath, which he can never see.  Eventually if appears as a huge red turtle.  The man is furious with it and tries to destroy it, finally turning it on its back so it can’t navigate.  As time goes by and the turtle appears to be dying, the man feels guilty and tries to revive it with water. 
    The charm of this film is to see events gradually unfold, so I’m going to skip any more description of the plot.  It’s best to discover it on your own.  But there is continuing drama and extremely tense moments alternating with blissful happiness.  The Red Turtle is about more than just the turtle, by marking the milestones of human existence that involve significant events in a person’s life.  It could be seen as a fable illustrating fortitude, forgiveness, grappling with fateful events, human values of connection, and inevitable separation. 
     This is the first feature film from Director, Michael Dudok de Wit, who has previously written and directed shorts (The Monk and the Fish, Father and Daughter, and The Aroma of Tea), but all his work is related to human intersection with the world of nature.  Here, he collaborates with French screenwriter Pascale Ferran to create a longer fanciful tale that still maintains his interest in human connections with others and with nature.

Survival at its most fanciful and truthful.

Grade:  A-                                          By Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

CURE FOR WELLNESS

Dane DeHaan     Jason Isaacs    Mia Goth

     For those who love horror thrillers, this will probably fit the bill.  Less enthusiastic fans, however, may find that although it is strong in the mystery that is set up in the first half with fine cinematography and sound, the last half-hour should have been cut, especially since the film is overly long at 146 minutes.  Director Gore Verbinski and the editors also missed a few inconsistencies, such as a car that has crashed way down into a ravine ends up by the side of the road a few scenes later.
     The story starts out well in setting up the mystery of a man dying suddenly of a heart attack after he reads the guilt-ridden letter of a dear friend/colleague who is CEO of his company and who has fled to a wellness center in Switzerland.  Up and coming, ambitious Lockhart (DeHaan), junior employee in this large U.S. investment firm, has been recognized by the board, which forces him by threat to go to Switzerland and retrieve CEO Roland Pembroke, who needs to take care of some paperwork before a merger with another company can take place.  Time is of the essence, because the company’s stock is falling.
     Lockhart hustles off to Switzerland, expecting to bring Pembroke back in 24 hours.  Then events begin to happen.  Despite his pleas for an expeditious departure, the director of the Center, Dr. Volmer (Isaacs), denies his request to see Pembroke.  Told to come back later, Lockhart leaves to get a hotel and return. However, on the way there, a deer lunges into the road in front of his car, which goes crashing down the hill.  Lockhart ends up with a broken leg and crutches, not waking up until three days later and finding he has been admitted as a patient to the wellness center.  Nevertheless, he is still persistent in trying to get Pembroke on the plane back to the U.S.
     Much happens to prevent this, including his being told by Dr. Volmer that he is not healthy and should be treated for all kinds of ailments, which gradually begin to appear.  He continues his sleuthing, finds Pembroke, and convinces him to fly to the U.S.  While the man is packing his bags, Lockhart meets mysterious Hannah (Goth), a young woman he had seen earlier standing on a ledge high up on the castle looking as if she will jump at any moment.  The film enhances fear by showing extreme threat, then bringing the viewer down to reality.
     A Cure for Wellness is good at keeping the viewer engaged in Lockhart’s investigation of the wellness center, how it keeps its residents there for so long (no one ever wants to leave), and the ultimate outcome for this bright, ambitious man and, eventually the whole story of Hannah.  Unfortunately, it evolves into unbelievable theatrics toward the end that become so implausible the viewer disengages with the main characters and leaves the theater feeling exasperated.  Moreover, an added concern is that the film is likely to increase unjustified suspicions toward research in medical settings, another exaggerated sub-plot.

If only filmmakers of horror movies could restrain themselves before entering the absurd.

Grade:  C+                                    By Donna R. Copeland