Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones - 1 1/2 stars

I don't know much about fan fiction.  I understand that fans like to write their own stories involving the characters, and there's no reason a writer of fan fiction can't be a good writer.  Just because an author is using characters already created by someone else doesn't mean they can't come up with a good story.

According to my research, The Mortal Instruments book series began as Harry Potter fan fiction.  According to reviews on amazon.com, the author Cassandra Clare wrote a story about Draco Malfoy then just turned that story into The Mortal Instruments.

I don't know how true that is, and I don't care.  What I know is that this movie sucks.  It's derivative of every fantasy movie over the last several years, and it even rips off Star Wars.

It's about a girl named Clary (Lily Collins) who thinks she's a normal teenager, then finds out she has magical powers.  She comes from a line of shadowhunters - people who fight demons.  She meets a shadowhunter named Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) who explains the whole backstory to her.  The story starts out like any other fantasy story.  There has to be something the bad guys want (The Mortal Cup) that only she can lead them to, so they are after her.  The bad guys have to have a leader (Valentine) who used to be one of the good guys until he went to the dark side. 

This movie rips off so many better movies (and sucky movies like Twilight) that it's hard to know where to begin.  Besides the overall formula being so familiar, you've got vampires and werewolves, just like Twilight.  At least these vampires are actually scary vampires and not just sulky teenagers who sparkle in the sunlight.  Also like Twilight, there are two love interests for Clary.  The Mortal Cup is a bit reminiscent of the Deathly Hallows from Harry Potter, and there is a point where Valentine is revealed to be Clary's father (spoiler alert - if you really care). 

To give the movie a little credit, there are some good jokes, and once in a while a character says something that I was wishing they would say moments before.  At times the movie almost seems like it's aware of how bad and hokey it is.  But then it goes back to taking itself way too seriously.  The most ridiculous part was when we learn that Johann Sebastian Bach was a shadowhunter, and his compositions are actually mathematical formulas to get demons to reveal themselves.  The entire theater was howling with laughter during this sequence.

I could forgive this movie ripping off so many other movies if it were good, but it's not.  It's very by the numbers and boring.  The effects were good, and some of the creatures were kind of cool.  I liked the dog that turned into a demon, and there was also a sequence with a little girl playing in the street who turned out to be a demon.  That was nice and creepy.  But mostly the movie is just really, really dumb.

You're Next - 3 stars

This is a pretty typical home invasion / slasher movie, with a few quirks.  The movie starts with a couple having sex.  They finish, he gets in the shower and she goes downstairs to get a drink and turn on the stereo.  The guy gets out of the shower and finds the girl dead.  He sees the words "You're next" written on the window, then he's quickly dispatched.

It seems like an awful waste of time for the killer to write "You're next" on the window, then kill the victim right away.  What's the point in that?

Anyway, we then meet the main characters of the story.  Paul and Aubrey Davison are celebrating their 35th anniversary, and they're having their kids over for dinner.  They have 3 sons and 1 daughter, and each brings their significant other.  Paul and Aubrey are rich and live in a nice mansion outside of town.  It's the kind of place where it takes 10 minutes to walk to the neighbor's house to borrow some milk.

The movie stops for about 15 minutes while we are introduced to the characters, and these are the most annoying, pretentious douches I've seen in a movie in a long time.  It felt very amateurish.  The movie was filmed hand held, and at times it was so shaky for no reason that I can't believe they didn't film another take.  The dialogue was bad and the acting wasn't much better.  I was really not enjoying this movie at all.

Then the killing started and somehow the movie got fun.  There were some jokes that I couldn't tell whether they were intentional or not, but they made me laugh anyway.  It turns out one of the dinner guests is an expert survivalist, and while the others are behaving like typically stupid horror movie victims, she was prepared to fight back. 

By the end of the movie, I was having a great time.  I think the filmmakers may have deliberately made the characters so unlikeable on purpose, so that we would enjoy seeing them die.  They also may have wanted us to think it was a horrible movie so that they could surprise us in the end.  I'm not sure.  But as far as slasher movies go, this is a pretty good one.

The Spectacular Now - 3 stars

Miles Teller (Footloose, Project X) and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) star as Sutter and Aimee.  Sutter is a bit of a player.  He's the kind of guy who lives in the now.  He enjoys his life but doesn't worry too much about the future.  He's a high school senior with a bit of a drinking problem.  He breaks up with his girlfriend, gets drunk at a party, drives home, and wakes up on Aimee's lawn.  Amy is a nice, shy girl.  She doesn't have a boyfriend and is into science fiction. 

He starts hanging out with her, and at first he says he isn't interested in her.  When telling his friend about her, he says he's just helping her out, helping her build some confidence.  When his friend asks what happens if she falls in love with him, he says no, that won't happen.

They of course do fall in love, and their relationship is great for a while, until it isn't.  Even though Sutter is the life of the party and always seems to know what to do, that is just a facade to hide the pain and self loathing going on inside.  Things take a turn when they go to see his father in another town.  Sutter hasn't seen his father in years and reaches out to him, only to learn there is a good reason why his father isn't a part of his life.

The movie starts out kind of slow, like a lot of independant movies do.  But as it goes along, the characters started to grow on me.  The perormances are really good, and it doesn't follow the stereotypical teen romance story format.  Overall I enjoyed the movie.

Crystal Fairy - 2 stars

Sebastian Silva had 2 movies at the Sundance Film Festival this year.  Both movies were shot in Chile, and both starred Michael Cera.  One was called Magic Magic and it was really good.  But it's already available on VOD and DVD.  If it had a theatrical release, I didn't notice.

The other movie was not as good, and that's Crystal Fairy, or The Crystal Fairy and the Magic Cactus as it was called at Sundance.  Michael Cera stars as Jamie, an American tourist.  He and his local friends are planning on making a trip to some remote part of Chile where they will cook up a cactus with hallucinogenic properties, hang out on the beach and trip balls.  Before leaving on the trip, he meets a woman named Crystal Fairy at a party.  Since he was high or drunk at the party, he invites her to come along on the trip with them.  The next morning, a sober Jamie doesn't remember this and doesn't want her to come along.

She does, and most of the movie is their road trip.  They don't really know how to get this cactus, and they're always on the lookout for it.  When they do find it in someone's garden, the person who lives there is reluctant to sell any of the cactus.

Crystal Fairy is an interesting character.  She's into mysticism and she also likes to walk around naked a lot.  At one point Jamie comments on her grooming practices by calling her "Crystal Hairy".  She has a good sense of humor most of the time, even though Jamie makes it clear he doesn't want her around. 

The road trip was semi-interesting, but once they get to the beach and get high, the movie doesn't really go anywhere.  I was bored for most of this movie.  The only reason to see it is for Michael Cera's performance.  He is definitely evolving from the characters he played in Arrested Development or Superbad.  But if you want to see a better Michael Cera movie from this same director, watch Magic Magic.

Lovelace - 3 1/2 stars

This is a reprint of my review from Sundance.  Now that more people have seen it, it looks like I'm in the minority.  Most critics seem to be saying that the movie just doesn't say enough about the situation, it just kind of presents the events as they happened.  Well, whatever.  I enjoyed it.

Amanda Seyfried stars as Linda Lovelace, the star of the 70s porn movie Deep Throat. It's hard not to be reminded of Boogie Nights, since both films are about the porn industry and set in the 70s.
As the movie begins, Lovelace and her friend are typical teenagers. They meet an older man, Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard) who Linda starts to date and eventually marries. Chuck owns a bar and is involved in some illegal activities, and when the IRS comes after him, he needs to make some money. He convinces Linda to audition for a porn movie.

She gets the job, and the movie Deep Throat becomes the highest grossing porn movie in history. The movie and its star become so popular that everyone from Bob Hope to Johnny Carson start referencing them.  Thanks to Lovelace and Deep Throat, porn has invaded pop culture.

One thing interesting about the movie is the way it seems to rush through the story so quickly. By the time Lovelace is hanging around with Hugh Hefner, I was feeling like the movie was just giving us the cliffs notes. But then, the movie jumps back to the beginning of Linda's porn career and we see the details we didn't see the first time around. We learn how she didn't want to do it, and how her abusive husband forced her to do whatever he wanted. We see what a tragic story this really is.

At the post-screening Q&A, the directors explained the reason for the structure of the movie. They said that when everyone learned about Linda Lovelace, it was just the happy, fun stuff. It wasn't until years later when her autobiography came out and she went on talk shows that we learned the ugly side of her story. The movie mirrors that. We as the audience experience Lovelace's stardom the way the rest of the country did.

The structure works and the acting is really, really good. I wouldn't be surprised to see Amanda Seyfried nominated for some acting awards at the end of the year.

The movie is tough to watch in places, but it isn't depressing. In the end, I believe it's actually empowering to women. Linda Lovelace had no support in her life. Her husband treated her horribly and her parents were no help at all. Eventually she had to find the strength to leave her husband and reclaim her life. She did this all on her own, and I think it's a really moving story. I really enjoyed the movie.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Jobs - 2 1/2 stars

Back in 1999, there was a great made for cable movie called Pirates of Silicon Valley.  This movie told the story of the rivalry between Apple and Macintosh.  Noah Wyle played Steve Jobs, and Anthony Michael Hall played Bill Gates.  This was a really good movie.

Jobs is not as good.  Ashton Kutcher does a good job playing Steve Jobs, but not as good as Noah Wyle.  The script skims over a lot of important things in the history of Apple.  Personally I was most disppointed that the way Apple got the technology for the mouse from Xerox was never even mentioned. 

The movie opens with Steve Jobs introducing the iPod in 2001.  Then it flashes back to 1974 when Jobs was a college student.  He and his friend Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) come up with the idea for the personal computer, the get an investor and start Apple Computers, and then the movie quickly flashes forward to a few years later when Apple is a successful company. 

One problem with the movie is at times it feels like the 'cliffs notes' version of the story.  There is a lot of stuff that could be in this movie, and they would need to do a miniseries to get everything in.  Maybe a 2 1/2 hour movie could get everything in, but not this movie. 

There were some good sequences in the movie, and the performances were pretty good.  But Josh Gad's beard was really strange.  Every time he was on screen, it was really distracting.  Also, the movie was too melodramatic.  Every time Jobs makes a speech, the scene is filmed with a crane so the camera can lift up over the crowd, and the music swells like it's the most dramatic moment of the 20th century.  This happens several times in the movie.  Also, Jobs cries too many times. 

I think the more you know about Apple and the history of the personal computer, the more you will get out of this movie, because then you can kind of fill in the missing pieces yourself.  This movie should have been a lot better.  I've read that Aaron Sorkin is working on his own Steve Jobs movie, and that the real Steve Wozniak is consulting.  I can't wait to see that movie.

Paranoia - 1 1/2 stars

This is a dumb movie.  This is the kind of movie that pisses me off - the writers either have no idea how life in the real world works, or they think average moviegoers are so stupid that they won't question anything.  This is pretty much how I felt about every movie directed by Robert Luketic, most notably 21, the movie about MIT students taking down casinos by counting cards.

Where to start?  Liam Hemsworth plays Adam Cassidy.  Adam works for Nicholas Wyatt (Gary Oldman) who runs a successful cell phone technology corporation.  At the start of the movie, Adam and his team are about to pitch some new idea / technology they've developed to Wyatt and his executive committee.  The pitch doesn't go well, and in the next scene, Adam and his team have been fired.  Why were they fired?  The movie doesn't explain this.  In most corporations, employees aren't fired for giving a bad pitch.  They are just sent back to their desks.  Was this a condition of their pitch?  Were they gambling their careers over this?  "You'll love this idea or you can fire us."  Was that how they got the meeting scheduled? 

Anyway, for whatever reason they have been fired.  Adam consoles the team by using the corporate credit card (which no one at the company bothered to ask for back) to take them out for a night at an expensive bar.  There is also a dumb scene where the doorman won't let Adam in, and the next night he does.  Why does he let him in?  Because he has this credit card?  Why didn't he use the card the night before?  I digress ... too much stupidity in this movie.

They run up a $16,000 bar tab, so Wyatt has his men grab Adam and threaten to have him arrested for this.  Adam says he'll pay it back, but of course he can't, so Wyatt gives him an option.  Go work for his competition Jock Goddart (Harrison Ford), steal their new prototype and bring it back, and he'll not only forgive the debt, he'll also pay him a million dollars. 

Luckily the movie doesn't make us sit through a sequence where he has to think about it.  Wyatt has him over a barrell, so he has to take the deal. 

Next, Wyatt says he will put him through training to teach him how to be a corporate executive.  That consists of ... giving him a suit and expensive apartment, and telling him to make contacts.  That's it.  Because the movie is hoping we won't think about this too much.  Also, it's not clear how Wyatt gets him the job with Goddart.  He is taken to a restaurant where he meets with Goddart's recruiter and another executive named Emma Jennings (Amber Heard), and they are excited to have him, and suddenly he's an executive.

Oh, and he knows Emma because the night they were partying, he ran into her at the bar.  He went home with her and the next morning, she kicked him to the curb.  She knew right away he was a 'bridge and tunnel' guy, meaning a lower class citizen then herself.  Yet she doesn't bust him when he turns up at the lunch.  This also isn't clear - does she know he's an imposter of some kind, or does she just think he suddenly climbed the corporate ladder really fast?  Not explained.  But if you've ever seen a movie before, you know that they will wind up together.

Anyway, what follows is typical corporate espionage stuff.  There is some new cell phone technology that Wyatt wants Adam to steal - basically it's a phone that you can roll up into a ball or something.  The movie tries to look cool, but no one involved in this movie even talked to anyone who knows anything about the corporate world or science.  So any time they are talking about their technology, it's not about how it actually works on a technical level, just how it will look to the consumer.

Another part that bugged me - Wyatt's enforcer gives Adam a cell phone.  He says if I call you, you answer immediately no matter what.  Adam isn't smart enough to say "What if I'm standing right in front of Goddart?  Won't that, you know, blow my cover?"  At some point, the FBI gets involved.  It seems they are already investigating Wyatt, and he's done this before.  Adam's predecessors have all ended up dead.  There are also security cameras all over his apartment and his dad's apartment.  The movie really wants to be The Firm, but it doesn't have a tenth of that movie's intelligence.

In case you can't tell, this movie bugged me.  I haven't even mentioned that Adam's dad is played by Richard Dreyfuss.  There you go, I just did.

Elysium - 3 1/2 stars

Elysium was written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, who also wrote and directed District 9 a few years ago.  Set in 2154, the movie is a pretty good allegory for the division between the haves and the have nots.  The Earth has been basically ruined by overpopulation, war, pollution, all that stuff.  Most of the population lives on Earth, but the 1% live on Elysium, a colony orbiting the Earth.  Elysium is basically paradise.  It's peaceful with fancy houses and perfectly manicured lawns, and the best part is the free health care.  Every home has a medical bed that can scan you, instantly detect any diseases or other problems, and quickly heal you.  On Earth, the 99% are left with hospitals which apparently haven't made any advancements since 2013.

Matt Damon stars as Max, a regular guy working a crappy job.  Earth has also become a police state with robotic patrol officers who will search you if you have any kind of criminal history, and they'll beat you if you try to crack jokes.  We get the impression that even horrible jobs are hard to come by.  When there is a malfunction at Max's job, he is told he better get in that room and fix it, or clean out his locker.  The room is some kind of radiation room, and when he fixes the malfunction, he gets a lethal dose of radiation.  He now has 5 days to live, so he needs to get to Elysium to be healed. 

Everyone on Earth dreams of making enough money to go to Elysium.  Just like people try to sneak into America and have to evade border guards, there is a scene where a bunch of people try to sneak into Elysium aboard spacecraft.  The government minister of Elysium, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) has no problem destroying the ships rather than capturing them, even though that means killing women and children.  She represents that ultra right wing American mentality that thinks all illegal immigrants are criminals and should be shot on the spot. 

The movie looked and felt a lot like District 9.  Instead of the slums of Johannesburg, we get the slums of LA.  We never see any other locations on Earth, but we assume that every city is pretty much the same as LA.  I really like the way Blomkamp doesn't overuse the CGI.  Everything looks practical and the effects never took me out of the movie.  I also think for the most part the depictions of violence were realistic.  There are some pretty gruesome scenes of violence, including one scene where someone's face is mostly blown away by a grenade. 

Sharlto Copley, star of District 9, plays Kruger, a ruthless mercenary who works for Delacourt, and for most of the movie he's just hunting Max.  There is also a semi-love interest for Max.  Alice Braga plays Frey, his childhood sweetheart.  She has a daughter, and her presence in the movie is mostly to give Max a couple of characters to try to protect.

I really enjoyed Elysium.  I'll take a movie like this over most of the overblown, overdone, over-CGI'ed movies we've gotten this summer. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

We're the Millers - 2 1/2 stars

Jason Sudekis stars as Dave, a pot dealer who lives in Denver.  He sells pot for Brad Gurdlinger (Ed Helms), and when his stash and money is stolen by muggers, they only way he can pay Brad back is to smuggle a bunch of dope across the border from Mexico.  His plan is to recruit a stripper (Jennifer Aniston), a homeless teen (Emma Roberts) and a nerdy virgin (Will Poulter) to pretend to be his family.  He figures that will make him less suspicious to the border guards.

This starts out as a very funny dark comedy.  They're only doing this for money, and they don't really like each other much.  But along the way, they discover that they really like each other and they want to be family.  By the end, the movie expects us to care for these unlikeable characters.  Which isn't so bad, but they stop behaving the way they really would in this situation.

For example, there is a point where Dave has to get the drugs back to Denver by 9pm that night.  They're currently stuck in Phoenix and the kid has been bitten by a spider.  They take the kid to the hospital, and all Dave has to do is leave the kid there, drive the drugs back to Denver, then come back the next day and pick the kid up.  But he doesn't bring this up at all.  He leaves the 'family', has a change of heart, and comes back.  It's not like he's leaving the kid stranded in the middle of nowhere, and he stands to lose something like $500,000 if he doesn't deliver.  I don't mind the characters starting to like each other, but their behavior doesn't make sense.

Along the way, the 'family' keeps running into a real family in another RV (Nick Offerman, Kathryn Hahn, and Molly Quinn).  These guys just about steal the movie, Offerman in particular.

The movie tries to hard to provide a happy ending with everything working out just right.  But for most of the running time, there are some pretty good gags.  The funniest part is when the kid is being shown how to kiss a girl by Roberts and Aniston.  You can easily predict what happens, but it's still a pretty good laugh.

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters - 2 stars

I don't remember much of the first Percy Jackson movie, but I remember I really disliked it.  This one isn't as bad, but that isn't saying much. 

For some reason the first movie was called Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, and this time they decided to drop the 'and the Olympians' from the title.  In this movie, Percy is used to his status as a demigod.  He and his friends live at Camp Half-Blood where they mostly have contests with each other.  A bunch of these demigods live there, and they're all teenagers.  The movie makes no mention of what happens to these kids when they grow up.  Do they just go live in the real world and try to blend in with humans?  Why are there so many demigods?  Do the gods hook up with mortal women that often? 

Sorry, but this movie leaves a lot of questions unanswered.  The protective force field is destroyed by a gigantic robotic bull, and the kids go on a quest to recover the Golden Fleece, which is the only thing that can repair the force field.  The force field is generated by some tree that used to be a demigod before she was killed, so this tree has to be saved to repair the force field.  Whatever.

The acting isn't very good, and it just felt like this movie really wanted to be Harry Potter.  Attention movie studio executives:  not every young adult fantasy series is as good as Harry Potter.  Stop making these movies, please.  I might have enjoyed them more when I was 12, but I overheard a couple of fathers saying they had kids who were fans of the book series, and even they recognized that the movie wasn't good.

2 Guns - 3 stars

Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington are a couple of bank robbers / drug smugglers.  As the movie begins, they are casing a bank and planning to rob it.  The reason is they believe a drug lord keeps $3 million in a safe deposit box, and they want to take it from him.  When they rob the bank, instead of $3 million, they find $43 million in the vault, which they take anyway.  Then they try to double cross each other.

It turns out each one is working undercover, but the other doesn't know it.  Denzel Washington is an undercover DEA agent, and Wahlberg is a Naval Intelligence Officer.  Even once they find out the truth about the other, they still hate each other.  But then they are forced to work together when it turns out the money they stole belongs to some kind of CIA slush fund, and they are both being hunted by a ruthless CIA black ops operative (Bill Paxton). 

The movie is very convoluted, but it's still a lot of fun.  It's a very forgettable action movie, but the two stars elevate it with their star power.  The main thing that makes this enjoyable is they have good chemistry together.  I enjoyed the movie and I was able to go along with the ridiculous plot twists, even though they got hard to follow.  I'm still not quite sure what Wahlberg's commanding officer (James Marsden) was up to.  This is one of those fun, dumb action movies that doesn't hold up if you think about it too much, but if you can go along with it it's not a bad time at the movies.