Passengers


2016 sci-fi romance

Rating: 11/20

Plot: When a sleep chamber on a ship traveling to a distant planet wakes up Chris Pratt 90 years early, he's faced with a difficult decision: 1) Spend the rest of his days, lonely and masturbating while hurtling through space or 2) Waking up the hot chick and hoping she's into guys who look like Chris Pratt. He chooses the latter, but what will happen if she finds out?

Just what the world needs--a glossy sci-fi movie that seems to be a thinly-veiled metaphor glorifying rape. It's entirely possible that I'm reading too much into things.

There are elements that I enjoyed about this movie. Individual pieces were really good. I liked Pratt a lot, mostly in the beginning when he doesn't have much to do. The special effects were really good. Michael Sheen's android bartender was a fun character.

But those pieces don't really add up to anything, and the bads far outweigh the goods. I'm not sure what the message of this movie is; the romance never feels like anything real, just a necessity to appease horny 30-somethings; characters' poor decisions have no repercussions; sequences start feeling redundant; and it's a science-fiction romance movie. By the time Laurence Fishburne pops in to play the exact character you'd expect him to play, I was already pretty bored. That's the exact time the movie shifts and attempts to become something else, and that something else feels malnourished and doesn't work either.

What this attempts to do is combine spaceships and romance with a pair of young stars to be some sort of perfect date movie. Unfortunately for director Morten Tyldum in his follow-up to Imitation Game and writer Jon Spaihts, the guy who also wrote Doctor Strange and Promentheus, it doesn't work as a spaceship movie or a romance. It's just Pratt and Lawrence playing spaceship for a couple hours and winding up with nothing to think about, nothing to learn, and more than likely nothing to remember.

Unless those guys were happy settling for "almost enjoyable." If that's the case, congratulations, guys. You managed to make a movie that was almost enjoyable. An almost enjoyable rape movie.

Collateral Beauty


2016 drama

Rating: 9/20

Plot: A sad guy's "friends" hire a trio of actors to play Love, Time, and Death and engage with him in order to prove that he's crazy and enjoy financial gains. What the fuck?

I'd heard such bad things about this movie that I thought it would be worth watching and making fun of. It's a bad movie, and it's a despicable movie filled with dishonorable characters, but there's definitely no fun to be had. It drips with hyper-sappy melodrama, it attempts to break up the malaise with humor that falls flat, and really doesn't make much sense.

You've certainly got some big names in this. Will Smith isn't awful, but he has trouble playing a real person in movies. Here, he's required to play a really sad real person, and although he's got his moments, the performance isn't really consistent. Mostly, he just mopes around. Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, and Michael Pena go through the motions, at times seeming like actors who have realized they've made a horrible mistake and hope nobody actually sees the movie. Keira Knightley's easy on the eyes but apparently a poor decision maker. And Helen Mirren should really know better than to get involved with something like this. She's apparently just given up.

I didn't realize this was a Christmas movie or I would have saved it.

The movie has two twists. One of them is as predictable a twist as you'll ever see. The other doesn't make a lick of sense. Both of them made me a little angry.

I don't know the following:

1) How this story was greenlit
2) Why these actors who aren't hurting for work decided to be in it
3) What "collateral beauty" even means
4) Why I'm spending so much time writing about this

Into the Inferno


2016 Herzog documentary

Rating: 15/20

Plot: Werner Herzog and his new friend travel the world to explore various volcanoes.

Lava movement is mesmerizing, and if you watch this to be impressed with the beauty that our world can produce, there's plenty of that sort of thing in here. Of course, this is a Werner Herzog documentary, and he's never been a documentary filmmaker who is interested solely in showing us pretty things. Herzog's nature documentaries are at their best when he's got science intermingling with the mystical. Herzog brings a volcanologist named Clive Oppenheimer along with him for the science part. Oppenheimer, likely only in this movie because he thought it would help him get chicks, seems to have that bit of obsessiveness that Herzog has made a career being attracted to, and he's a natural in front of Herzog's camera. The mystical is taken care of with interviews of people who live near volcanoes. Some of them are natives, having some spiritual connection with the volcanoes. And some have a church in the shape of a chicken because that's the sort of thing that Herzog manages to find and show us. Like a lot of his work, Herzog shows us that sometimes volatile relationship with nature. There's a volcanologist couple who wind up killed by a pyroclastic flow, which seems to be a horrible way to go. And there's the strange tale of a guy who refused to take off when his village was abandoned due to an impending volcanic blast.

And man, that nature footage! Herzog swoops cameras up and over volcanoes and peers deep within the things, giving nature enthusiasts enough lava porn and magma porn to send them beneath their sheets with fistfuls of Kleenex. The opening shot alone was enough to get me going.

My favorite moment had Herzog on the lip of a volcano, calmly observing and saying, "That was a good swoosh" in that accent of his as hot stuff was projected from below.

Grease


1978 musical

Rating: 11/20

Plot: A preppy girl and a greaser hit it off during the summer, but when the new school year starts, they find it difficult to be themselves and continue the romance.

I hadn't seen this in a long time and didn't mind being forced to watch it on a bus trip to St. Louis with a bunch of middle school students. Watching movies on a bus with a bunch of middle school students might be the ideal way to watch a film, by the way. I also got to watch The Goonies, the first Harry Potter movie, one of the Shrek movies, and Remember the Titans. For the most part, I just argued about politics on Facebook.

But I tried to pay attention to Grease as much as possible. The songs are memorable, maybe just because they managed to escape the musical in the last 40 years and spread throughout pop culture. And it's always fun to watch noted Scientologist John Travolta move around. Other than that, I can't think of anything enjoyable about the experience of watching Grease. It might be the most unoriginal musical ever made. It's yet another play on Romeo and Juliet themes, something that was already done in a musical about teenagers from different sides of the tracks. The songs aren't all that good, the 1950s feels artificial and plastic, the characters aren't memorable, and the dance choreography is boring. Individual scenes seem endless, and not enough happens in the movie to make any resolution of the conflict feel real.

Most reprehensible, however, is the message this movie develops. It's the idea that a person, in order to get somebody to love you, has to figure out a way to change in order to please that other person. That's a pretty sick message, probably more disturbing since it's the female character who has to change the most. What would a feminist say about that?

Split


2017 Shyamalan movie

Rating: 12/20 (Abbey: 15/20)

Plot: A crazy guy kidnaps some teenagers and introduces them to his various personalities.

To paraphrase Twain, reports of M. Night Shyamalan's resurrection have been greatly exaggerated.

I'll tell you who you can't blame for this one--James McAvoy, an actor whose versatility and dedication to this character (these characters?) nearly makes up for the sub-par material he has to work with. He channels Norman Bates, Travis Bickle, and Fight Club's Edward Norton, and lets all this potpourri of personalities run wild. McAvoy's compelling, the kind of performance where he squeezes every single bit he can from what he's given to work with. With characters like this, there's a fine line between realistically intense and hilariously campy. Here, he's actually somewhat in the middle, closer to realistic, and the movie's better for it because too intense would have made the whole thing unbearable.

Even an average performance would have made the entire movie unbearable. Shyamalan, with this and The Visit, is making movies better than he was a few years ago, but they still suffer from Shyamalanisms--first-drafty dialogue, unnatural character reactions, his own pointless cameos. He's still working hard to be a Hitchcock for the 21st Century, but his half-formed ideas and general silliness sink things.

I'll give Shyamalan credit for one thing though, and I suppose I should throw a [Spoiler Alert] here--he does have an interesting perspective on the superhero genre.

Fences


2016 movie-based-on-a-play

Rating: 14/20

Plot: A bitter man in 1950s Pittsburgh deals with stuff.

I read this play in college and had just as much of a rewarding experience with just the text. I love the writing, thick with regionalisms and color, and the themes about fatherhood, being a man, and race are timeless and important.

I didn't really feel this filmed production added much. The period details are nice in what is essentially a one-setting story, and the performances are adequate, but the movie just lacks bite. It's gripping because of August Wilson's writing more than anything. Denzel Washington, who also directed, overdoes things a little bit, really seeming to enjoy spitting out some of these lines a little too much. Viola Davis snots things up again. I enjoyed Stephen Henderson's performance as Denzel's pal. Henderson actually got to be in two Best Picture nominees last year. The problem is that the performances never elevated above performances for me. They didn't really feel like real people, just actors playing these characters. And as a movie based on a play, the characters are very chatty. So for what seems like a lot longer than five acts, you're wading through all of these words delivered by people who are trying to win awards, and although those words are well written, it was still a lot to ask.

I think I would rather see this on stage.

It's not a bad movie at all. It's faithful to Wilson's material with themes still relevant today, but it's probably a little paint-by-numbers.

Bad Movie Club: Kindergarten Ninja


1994 action comedy

Bad Movie Rating: 4/5 (Johnny: 5/5; Fred: 6/5; Josh: 4/5)

Rating: 4/20

Plot: A former football star is inexplicably forced to work as a kindergarten teacher as punishment for drinking while intoxicated. Meanwhile, Bruce Lee is trying to earn his wings or something in heaven and is sent down to help out Blade Steel. Because that's the football player's name--Blade Steel. Bruce connects Blade with a karate guy who trains him in a series of montages so that he can rid the community of crime. And the kids just love him.

1) This starts with a friendly police officer talking about the dangers of drinking and driving.

2) You know the guy who plays the lead, as long as you know anything about football. Dwight Clark is the guy who caught "The Catch" from Joe Montana back in 1982. He was wide-eyed and mostly out of his element here in his only movie role. I almost believed in him as an action star and was impressed that he could show off his kicks and punches in slow motion without the benefit of any effects. He was slow all by himself.

3) You know who else is in this? George Chung, who plays the blind Mr. Miyagi role in this. Who the hell is George Chung? Well, that's the guy who played Alexander "Hawkeye" Hawkamoto in Hawkeye, another movie we enjoyed with Bad Movie Club. He brought a similar comedic charm to this action blockbuster that he brought to that movie. And that means he was neither funny nor charming.

4) This movie has somewhere around 19 montages. It starts with a montage actually, something that caught me off guard. Then, it had a variety of other montages--a date montage, kindergarten teaching montages, several action montages. After a while, I figured Anthony Chan was just messing with us.

5) The scene in heaven is a trip. Aside from Bruce Lee, played by an actor whose face is hidden in all of his scenes for what I believe are supposed to be comedic purposes, you get a guy who sort of looks like Elvis and a guy who sort of looks like a tall Charlie Chaplin. If I'm remembering correctly, I think Charlie and Elvis are about the same height. I can't tell you how pleased I was that Charlie Chaplin was a character in this movie. He's played by Mike Moen, by the way, and it's that guy's only movie, too. Erik Masalin was Elvis, also his only movie role.



6) The main villain--Hector Machete--is played with gusto by Juan Chapa. It's a fantastic performance.

7) I swear there was a scene where there were two George Chungs. He was playing the keyboards in a musical performance (see below) and then it showed his character walking in and being greeted by the hostess in the restaurant. I was perplexed.

8) During that musical number, some thugs come in and mess with Blade Steel's girl. But he's singing, so what can the guy do? Easy--he can simultaneously take care of those thugs and finish his song. It's not something I've seen before.

9) This movie has a little too much fun--breaking the fourth wall, throwing text on the screen for laughs--to get a 5/5 bad movie rating.

10) Lot of head scratching going on with some of the decisions in this movie. It's a lot of fun for bad movie lovers.

Silent Saturday: The Golem


1920 horror movie

Rating: 14/20

Plot: A rabbi uses sorcery to make a giant clay man in order to protect Jews from persecution.

With the gnarled architecture and angles of 20's expressionism and a "monster" that likely influenced 1930 monster movies, this is worth watching for silent cinema aficionados although there are a ridiculous amount of intertitles and large chunks that just drag.

Historically, it's interesting to see this movie with Jewish characters and themes made a decade and a half before the Holocaust. It puts the whole thing in an interesting context.

All in all, I can't recommend this to anybody who hasn't seen a lot of silent movies as it doesn't hold up as well as more notable silent sci-fi or horror films. It's still got a lot to like, however.

The Neon Demon


2016 horror movie

Rating: 14/20

Plot: A young aspiring model is poised to become the next big thing, but everybody wants to eat her.

I really wanted to like this a lot. If I judged the movie only on its visual appeal and the soundtrack, I'd definitely rate it more highly. While watching it, I convinced myself that it was pretty great. After watching it, I convinced myself that I didn't really like it very much because of a weak story, flat characters, tired themes, and an overly-cold feel. Now it's a little later, and I'm starting to wonder if I liked it more than I thought.

I'm still pretty convinced that it's an overall empty film. Thematically, it's a bit of a fish-in-the-barrel type deal. What? The fashion industry can devour a human being? No way! However, there's a certain ingenuity in using that idea at the center of a horror film.

And horror films rarely come as artistic or as visually stimulating as this one. The opening, both visually and aurally, is just about the best opening I've seen since seeing A Clockwork Orange for the first time. The Cliff Martinez score recalls the darkest corners of the 1980s and perfectly compliments the seizure-inducing colors of this thing. Visually, this is unapologetically artistic, just gaudy and so daring. Breathtakingly eye-opening, this movie elevates the horror genre to something artistic and completely pretentious, like you'd expect from a Dario Argento film or something.

There are a lot of people who aren't going to like this because of its weirdness and its darkness. I'd love to be able to say that those people would still love the way Nicolas Winding Refn can compose a shot, but I think the look would be equally off-putting to some. The film's ideas combined with the visuals, so different than almost everything else human beings see, are just too much for most people, I think.

That coldness. I realize it's all part of the point, but it almost drains some of the appeal from the movie. The performances are stilted for the most part although the villainous presences--like nefarious symbols in an allegory--are well conceived. I was impressed with the very young (too young?) Elle Fanning, a corruptible innocent in this ravenous world.

If you enjoy Refn's other work, you'll have a head start on this one though you still might not be completely prepared. I think this movie is worth seeing, especially if you're one of my more adventurous movie-watching readers.

Dirty Old Town


2010 independent comedy

Rating: none

Plot: An antique store owner has 72 hours to pay his rent.

After watching this and struggling to stay awake, I started to wonder if I even like independent films anymore.

The best thing about this was the use of the Pogues' song during the opening. I was hoping they'd use it.

I don't have anything else to say about this one. I watched it a couple weeks ago and barely remember anything about it. I apologize to fans of Dirty Old Town.

Antibirth


2016 horror movie

Rating: 9/20

Plot: I'm not writing a plot synopsis for this one.

I don't remember where I heard about this movie, but I was convinced I needed to see it. I hated it almost from the start. I hated the characters, I hated its general incoherence, and I hated the movies feel. This was frequently ugly and contained one of the most annoying characters I've come across in a while in Natasha Lyonne's Lou. At one point, the character actually says, "I love pissing." And Lyonne is really bad.

What's notable about this one is that it kind of feels like something completely fresh until you really think about it and break it into its smaller parts. Then, you realize it's kind of the same thing you've seen over and over again. The movie's loud and ugly, and I wouldn't recommend it to anybody.

Unless you absolutely love strobe lights. If you like strobe lights, this might be the movie for you.

Chaplin Mutual Shorts: Part Three


1916-17 shorts

Rating: no rating

We're at the end of the school year, the second year I've had with this batch of students. They're about to head to the high school, and I don't really feel like I've taught them much. The way our schedule works, my second class of the day has an extra half an hour every single day. Lately, I've stopped caring about language arts and have decided to just show that class silent comedies. If I've taught them nothing else, I'll at least teach some of them to appreciate Chaplin and Keaton. So far, we've watched a Buster Keaton short and The General and The Gold Rush and Modern Times. They laugh and, I think, enjoy the movies enough. They definitely prefer Chaplin over Keaton though, but I've got a few Keaton shorts up my sleeve that I think will knock them out.

But this isn't about Buster. This is about Chaplin's shorts that he made for Mutual. The other two can be found here and here.

Easy Street

This classic comedy short has a great opening shot--a curled Chaplin at the steps of Hope Mission. From there, it unfolds in that typical comedy short stream-of-conscious fashion with the character bouncing around from situation to barely-connected situation so that comedy can happen. Here, a tramp (but not necessarily the Little Tramp) becomes a police officer and helps rid a neighborhood of crime.

There's great physical comedy and action sequences, but I'm most impressed with Chaplin's acting here. He does some beautiful and modern things here, and it's amazing that he's doing it in 1917 and that he'd only been doing it for a few years.

A funny bottle gag, Eric Campbell tossing around police officers and one hilarious police officer dummy, a weaponized lamppost that led to a Chaplin injury, and a great use of limited space in a climactic chase/fight sequence. It all shows that Chaplin, when given complete control, was world's better than anybody else working at the time.

This movie also shows the powers of drug use similarly to a scene taking place in prison in Modern Times. Chaplin seemed to revisit his ideas quite a bit actually. But why not when the ideas are this fucking good?

The Cure

It's not 1917, but I'm just as entertained at watching exaggerated drunkenness just as much as audiences back then. There's probably a lot that makes me old fashioned, but that might be the number one thing.

This one's funny though you look at the initial set-up and figure out exactly what some of the physical comedy's going to be. Yes, Chaplin's upper-class little fellow and likely others are going to fall in that hole. Yes, that revolving door is going to be used for humorous effect. Yes, he's going to meet a girl. But it all works so well, and you can hardly complain about any unpredictability. And with the added ironic twist featuring that hole of healing waters, it becomes magical.

As with almost all of these shorts, this features both Eric Campbell, this time as a guy suffering from the Gout, and the lovely Edna Purviance as the love interest. It's also got the old guy as a bell hop.

And man, there really is a lot of play with that revolving door. The amount of time these cartoon characters go through that revolving door is something that you couldn't predict.

The Immigrant


If I had to, I'd guess this was the very first Chaplin short I ever saw--way back when I was a little kid and only slightly bigger than Charlie Chaplin. As a kid, I think I could identify with him because he was a little fellow, an underdog. Here, he's playing another traditional underdog character--an immigrant.

This short is top-heavy with all the funniest bits--the fish, the hiccups, the wildly-rocking boat--all happening in the first half. If it maintained that level of greatness throughout, this would be the first Chaplin I'd expose other people to. It's not that the second half isn't worth watching, but this is definitely a case of a movie shooting its wad too early.

One of my favorite things I like about Chaplin is watching his characters fall in love. It's old-fashioned, trite, and whatever other adjective you want to throw at it, and if one actually acted like Chaplin does when he experiences love at first sight, he'd likely be arrested, but they are some of my favorite movie moments ever.

The Adventurer 

Buster Keaton's physical abilities are perhaps more obvious, but you shouldn't underestimate Chaplin's athletic prowess. That's on display here in this short where he plays a convict on the run from the law. He plays with sand and hills and water, showing off his swimming skills. The direction shows a creative use of the landscape. You almost get the sense that he had a tiny bit of an idea and one more film to do with Mutual and decided to just find a location and see what he could do.

Lots of butt-kicking with slide whistles in this one. I'll say this about the butt-kicking. It still works with middle school audiences. I'd really like to see the Fast and Furious franchise incorporate kicks to the rear in their fight scenes eventually.

Sadly, this is Eric Campbell's final film. He was killed because he was driving while intoxicated.

Amanda Knox


2016 true crime documentary

Rating: 14/20

Plot: Man, America sure does like when pretty white girls commit crimes.

This documentary was also recommended by Cory.

Essentially, this is an extended episode of a TV newsmagazine detailing a case that captured everybody's attention a decade ago. I didn't know much about it, really just the name, but even though I'm not a fan of those true-crime TV documentary expose shows, this story was gripping. I guess the appeal of pretty white girls committing crimes is too alluring even for me.

Amanda Knox gets her name in the title, but for me, this is less about her and more about the investigators and the media. The investigators botch this thing in epic fashion, influenced by outside pressures to quickly make arrests and put Italians' minds at ease. The news media, believe it or not, turns this into a complete circus. They, more than Amanda herself, really drive this story. Don't get me wrong--Knox is an intriguing figure. She's impossible to read, something that probably didn't help her much as this whole thing unfolded. And although it's impossible to know how one is supposed to act in a situation like this, it just didn't seem like her responses to some of these twists and turns made complete sense.

This documentary does a good job of telling the story and is engrossing from beginning to end.

Gleason


2016 documentary

Rating: 16/20

Plot: Former NFL hero Steve Gleason and his wife live life and inspire others after he's diagnosed with ALS.

There's something so honest about this presentation. Gleason starts as a hero, that typical sort of artificial hero in America known for being fast and strong or for one silly-when-you-really-think-about-it thing. He gets this unfortunate diagnosis, finds out he's going to be a father, and starts fighting, and you really root for the guy because he and his wife are so likable. Not that you'd stop caring if Steve was unlikable. But instead of just painting this guy as 100% courage and heroism, this shows the reality of the situation. That dealing with something like this is impossible, that disease absolutely wrecks life, and that even the most courageous and heroic people are still flawed.

I was touched throughout. I loved this couple, and watching his friends--members of the band Pearl Jam, former teammates--step up brought tears to my eyes. At times, my tears were sad ones, but other times, I was moved by watching what human beings are capable of, always surprising since my misanthropic self lost faith in humanity a long time ago. At times, this isn't easy to watch, not always for the same reasons. I didn't always like scenes with Steve's father, felt something close to pain when Steve and his wife would argue, and wondered if a scene in a bathroom was exploitative. But it all adds up to something completely authentic, and I think it's a better film because of it. Plus, the overall optimism keeps this firmly in inspirational rather than depressing territories.

This was recommended (sort of) by Cory. He included it in his list of top films from 2016. I'd also highly recommend it as a documentary that could easily be about a disease but is instead about a remarkably strong and inspirational couple of human beings.

Roma


1972 love letter

Rating: 15/20

Plot: Rome, at various stages in director Federico Fellini's life.

This impressionistic glimpse at Rome sort of washes over you. It's filled with moments. Some vignettes, like when a bunch of people are having dinner, are beautifully mundane. Others, like the Catholic fashion show, are beautifully wild. That latter blast of blasphemy is the highlight, climaxing with a shot of a pope who manages to out-funky every other pope put together after a parade of bishops lit like arcades, roller-skating cardinals, and nuns in flapping garb. Prior to that, things are only mildly strange. You get a couple trips to brothels, fascinating footage in the subterranean parts of Rome with some disintegrating frescoes, and the eerie blue shadows of nocturnal dogs.

This feels like an artistically manufactured documentary, almost more like orchestral jazz than a traditional movie. It's got its beautiful movements, its darker and uglier ones, and its crescendos.