Monday, February 27, 2017


In Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil: The Final Chapter he brings his six-film franchise to a suitably nonsense end. It started back in 2002 as a humble little sci-fi horror film, loosely adapting the video game of the same name into a high-tech haunted house movie with the final girl (Milla Jovovich) dodging death traps and zombies in an underground bunker. By now, though, it has piled up a rococo tangle of double crosses, conspiracies, and surprise twists involving: the evil Umbrella corporation’s machinations, a revolving door ensemble of action ciphers, endless mutated monsters, and a host of clone bodies enabling any and every character to die horrible deaths only to pop up later as the “real” one (for the moment). It’s a heck of thing to track, but luckily the latest installment not only attempts to bring the whole unwieldy B-movie mythos to some sort of conclusion, but also once again provides a quick recap at the beginning.

Maybe it’s the pessimistic mood of being in the midst of a national breakdown, but a movie about the apocalypse that attempts to bring some order to its chaos is a welcome sight. Anderson reveals the bombed-out zombie pandemic was no mistake. It was an Umbrella corporation plot to bring about the end of the world in order to have the monopoly on whatever came after. This means Jovovich’s Alice fought her way out of their bunker all those years ago only to belatedly realize the baddies had a cure there all along. Now she must drive and shoot and kick and punch and slice her way back to where it all began, in search of the glowing green MacGuffin vial that’ll heal the world. It’s a pretty neat U-turn of plotting, and an acknowledgement that the movies’ game-inspired levels and bosses are still endlessly and self-consciously modeled after the iterative nature of working through levels. They are the same techniques and same models in recombined sets and motifs. It’s familiar and obvious, with some fresh new twists. This one has a flaming barrel of gasoline flung by trebuchet into a mass of zombies chasing a Death Race tank. That’s not nothing.

Like every Resident Evil Anderson directed (all but two), this is an exercise in nutty genre plotting only insofar as it is an excuse to create stunning spaces – he’s always at his best working out architecture and symmetrical labyrinths in which to stage his gore – and stare in awe as Jovovich flips through a series of tough tumbles and scary scrapes. She’s a cool hero befitting the icy somber silliness on display. The only real problem is the movie’s retcon contortions and late-breaking stabs for emotional character development in what’s otherwise been a self-amused vacuous pit of clones and CG beasties endlessly replicable. They drain the weightless chopping and shooting of its insubstantial panache. Why overly and overtly stress the story when the series has always been merely a treadmill of plot, perpetually moving but never seeming to get much of anywhere? This is far from Anderson’s best work, or even the best Resident Evil. It cuts too quickly to savor the striking spasms and spaces. But his consistent commitment to lightning-fast B-movie trash is admirable. Passable fun is seeing a truck outrace a mutant pterodactyl, or finding our heroine hung upside down off a crumbling overpass spinning and kicking at her assailants. Less fun is tearfully considering which clone is the real original person and how it all ties into a possible contrived panacea.

Sunday, February 26, 2017


The best joke in The LEGO Batman Movie is an admission that Batman is bad at his job. This LEGO Movie spinoff is set in a candy-colored brick-laden Gotham City where the residents live in a time bubble of continuity, leaving them a been-there-done-that populace yawning with memories of tonal whiplash (aware of every iteration, from Snyder to Nolan, Schumacher, Burton, the Animated Series, 60’s camp and so on back to the original pulp comics and serials). This gives the residents a blasé attitude to the latest supervillain eruption from Arkham Asylum. Batman, you’ve been at this for nearly 80 years, they say. And Gotham is still the most crime-ridden city in the fictional world. Isn’t it time to hang up the cape and cowl and let someone else try to fix the problem? The fun in this silly whirligig is watching Batman realize he should work with the people of Gotham instead of showboating with gadgets before hiding out in his cave for the next call on the bat-phone. In the words of Barbara Gordon, the new police commissioner fresh from “Harvard for Cops,” ”We don’t need a billionaire vigilante karate-chopping poor people.”

A manic tumble of in-jokes, meta-winks, and hectic LEGO action, this everything-is-awesome approach is continually cranked up to eleven. It’s a cute conceit. At best, the whole project has a loose goofy charm rat-a-tat-tat-ing silly voices and quick quips. Will Arnett returns with a narcissist’s growl as a Batman craving attention, but shrinking from connection. He’s surrounded in the soundscape by a who’s-who of distinctive, warm voices in iconic comic book roles – Michael Cera as naïve Robin, Ralph Fiennes as dry Alfred, Zach Galifianakis as needy Joker, and Rosario Dawson as Batgirl. The movie blasts forward on pep and cleverness, piling on neat commentary about Batman’s most boring plot ticks and thematic obsessions in between drooling geek deep cut references and kids’ movie bright colors and careening sentimentality. The style, a breakneck faux-stop-motion CG swoosh, stops for nothing: no emotion, no thought, no moment to catch a breath or your bearings. The cuts are fast. The pop music is loud. The explosions are plumes of colorful blocks. The guns go “pew pew pew.” For a giddy hour and change in a movie theater, you could do far worse.

Still, there’s something a little off-putting about the mechanized joy of the enterprise. Director Chris McKay (Robot Chicken) and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) aren’t Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the man-boyish kings of threading the needle between product and meta-product in their string of unlikely successes: not just LEGO Movie (in which everything really was awesome, or near enough) but the stoopid/clever Jump Streets and their comic masterpiece Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, as well. They have the alchemy, the gee-whiz earnest commitment to serving up corporate brand deposits with winning grins. Here, though, we have their imitators making a double product placement: for a comic book franchise and for a toy company. The whole thing is plastered from beginning to end with reminders of the ledger sheets and advertising budgets at play behind the brisk bright nonsense. Think of it as feature length LEGO commercial also working as a calculated pressure valve for DC’s dour live-action slogs. Sure, it’s basically fun, and a reasonably good time, but the hollow production’s highs fade fast and leave little worth lingering over.

Saturday, February 11, 2017


The ending of Fifty Shades of Grey really made the picture. Before a finale in which meek Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) firmly turns down the imposing and domineering Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), the movie had been a modestly enjoyable adult drama, a sort of half-sexy, half-preposterous interlude between pretty young people engaging in teasingly revealed sexual exploration between bouts of bland business speak and low-boil rom-com flirting. Ah, but in its final moments it turned what had been a lopsided power dynamic – rich sadist gets off hurting a sweet underling who likes it, but only up to a point – into a loaded denial. He pleads with her to stay. She, having finally realized he liked hurting her more than she liked it and more than her willingness to play along could withstand, says a firm, simple, strong, “No.” It’s the last thing we hear as the elevator doors close on the final cut to black. Because Johnson had been such a fun performer, equally enthusiastic and full of personality in bedroom scenes and barroom conversations alike, she almost single-handedly kept the movie from tipping over into prurient giggling or exploitative leering, especially with Dornan’s dour wooden display at her side. This final assertion of her control over the situation lent the movie a nice, contained little arc the sequels were bound to trample.

As Fifty Shades Darker begins, Anastasia continues to rebuff Christian’s creepily insistent attempts to get his way back into her life. Alas, as following the dictates of the garbage book that inspired this whole thing demands, she must allow this to happen. If the first film was ultimately about a young woman trying out a relationship with a cold, distant, persnickety man just to see if she could make it work, the second is about that same woman getting pulled back into the relationship just because. If these stories are theoretically about true love, and I suspect that’s the ending we’re angling towards in next year’s supposed finale, it has done a poor job showing it. This installment, directed by James Foley (both a long way, and somehow not, from his better, similarly icy-toned, attractively cast and photographed 90’s thrillers Fear and After Dark, My Sweet), finds the couple trying out a new dynamic, with fewer rules and diminished expectations. She gets a new job. He buys the company. She meets his family. He takes her sailing. Playing out with smooth adult contemporary ballads under the glossy catalogue spread looking montages – people standing around in sweaters, on boats, at masquerade balls, and beside fireplaces – it tries to gin up interest with some workplace drama and Dark Secrets From The Past. At least it allows for the introduction of Kim Basinger, a welcome sight in an all-too-tiny role.

What little attention paid to the central relationship takes their chemistry and compatibility for granted. Even the sex scenes, the most memorable a fully-clothed shower make out session, aren’t as entertaining as the first’s, more actors’ contract negotiation than character development. (That’s really saying something when the original had literal contract negotiation built into the plot mechanics.) It’s like everyone involved suspects this couple’s long-term happiness won’t, or shouldn’t, work out, but are obligated to stand by them and see it through. (I’m sure many of us have been to weddings like that.) Even when we learn Christian is not just a dominant lover, but also a bit of a burgeoning cult leader – an ex (Bella Heathcote) still falls submissive before his meekest gestures, like she’s still under his spell – the weird sense of inevitable True Love pulls at the main couple. But why would the movie insist watching the funny, bookish, charming young woman continue to be drawn back into the world of this clearly unwell, closed-off, stone-faced billionaire is a route to a happy ending? It tries to be both a romance and a modern Gothic mystery (the question simmering underneath: what’s the deep darkness at the heart of family Grey?), but the latter continually turns the former far more sinister than intended.

And yet, why, then, does the movie give off the dull, consistent feeling of moderate surface pleasure? Perhaps it is because Johnson’s tremulous, dancing, sparkling line readings pirouette off the clunky dialogue (scripted by author E.L. James’ husband) and Foley’s use of competent cold grey photography is seductive Hollywood sheen. And even when I was baffled by the plot’s direction – and by how little actually happens – I was tickled enough by the splashes of melodrama – a drink thrown in a woman’s face at a fancy party! improbable publishing office politics! a random helicopter accident thrown in to gin up false suspense before the movie’s narrative totally flatlines! – to get carried along in its dumb gloss. It’s an empty-headed diversion, as silky a nothing as the original Zayn/Taylor Swift duet that twice slickly slides in one ear and out the other on the soundtrack. These are hardly the best reasons to recommend a movie. And, sure, it’s the sort of faux-transgressive that, say, The Handmaiden’s silver bells would make blush. But I was moderately entertained by this low-key mind-numbing polish.

Friday, February 10, 2017


John Wick, the 2014 directorial debut of stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, had cool, impeccably choreographed action sequences. The film’s considerable appeal is in the smooth Keanu Reeves spinning and shooting in blissed-out sequences of zen gun-fu. But it wasn’t just the sweet, sleek look of the thing that made it a cult classic. It was the brutal, elemental motivations involved. Malcontents killed this ex-hitman’s dog. What else could he do but exact revenge? He systematically dismantled a whole shady kingpin’s operation over the sight of a bloody puppy corpse. It makes pure action movie sense. Now, though, John Wick: Chapter 2 must labor to bring the ex-hitman out of retirement again, layering more mythology on top of what was already a neatly cracked video game world in which a whole secret society of assassins carries its own currency and code of conduct, rules and regulations controlled by the dispassionate hoteliers and coroners who cater to this select clientele. There’s an agreeable B-movie vibe to the enterprise, but the convolutions of this sequel lead to a muddier set of motivations, and eventually even the well-staged gunplay started to wear me down.

There’s simply too much of a good thing. Reeves is still perfectly poised, and director Stahelski (alone this time, since Leitch was off making his own solo outing) can stage effective fight scenes. But the story – ballooning to slightly over two lumpy hours – is stretched thin, and the emptiness is filled with nauseating gun love. Wick is back in action, pulled, after a roaring car-centric demolition derby of a curtain raiser, into the hitman game once more when a debt from his past comes due sending him off to Italy to off an heiress. Already we’re removed from the clear emotional lines of the original, but Derek Kolstad’s script finds reasons to keep upping the stakes. As the film moves along, more and more factions in the hitman world turn against Wick, until a whole host of rivals are out to claim a bounty on his head. That should be fun, but it gets tiresome, leading to endless rounds of gun fire, punctuated with kicking and stabbing and punching, each blow considered and crunchy. But even more time is given over to loving shots of Wick’s endless array of weapons, with lengthy sequences involving his procuring of these weapons, examining them, hyping up their qualities for maximum deadly impacts. It’s queasy to watch the film making drooling admiration over the tools of death. 

It’s one thing for a bloody actioner to get off on violence. That’s par for the course. But here it goes too far for my taste, slobbering in glee over the arsenal, talking up the benefits of machine guns and automatic weapons as essential for anyone planning on mowing down a crowd. There’s no moral counterbalance provided, or consideration given to collateral damage. One scene finds Wick going up against an assassin (Common, who, after the far superior Run All Night, seems to be making a habit of these roles), both men armed with silencers. They’re walking parallel on two separate platforms in a subway station, taking potshots at each other through the crowds. We’re meant to realize they’re such good shots no innocent is wounded or worse. This is a throwaway detail, intended humor in how cavalier and dispassionate their demeanors. (They share a drink during their down time, professionals off the clock.) But I couldn’t shake the nastiness of the staging. Many scenes play out like this – one in an art museum had me cringing as blood splattered paintings on the walls – and though it might be fun watching a gory shootout in a Lady from Shanghai hall of mirrors conclusion, I was by then thoroughly displaced from caring, or even enjoying the surface visual pleasure. There’s a case to be made for the amoral action movie. Plenty of downbeat, messy, grim, or exploitative genre pictures provide low pleasures. But here I just couldn’t get on board.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Voracious Filmgoer's Top Ten Films of 2016

1.     Lemonade
2.     The Witch
3.     Certain Women
4.     Other People
5.     Zootopia
6.     Toni Erdmann
7.     O.J.: Made in America
8.     Cameraperson
9.     Fences

The Alternates (alphabetically):
The Handmaiden
Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids
Mountains May Depart
Swiss Army Man
Train to Busan