Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Grace Unplugged: A Review (Review #865)


Grace Unplugged is a rarity in Christian films: a movie that touches on sin and temptation that comes to both believers and non-believers.  The film isn't too afraid to acknowledge that outside the safe confines of the Church, even the strongest believer can be lured to leave the Cross when 'crossing over'.  It isn't perfect, but it is in terms of Christian cinema a firm step in the right direction.

Grace Trey (AJ Michalka) is the daughter of Johnny Trey (James Denton).  Johnny had a big hit song, Misunderstood, which catapulted him to the top of the charts.  Misunderstood, however, was Johnny's first and only hit, his career sinking soon after.  Johnny had a religious conversion and embraced Christianity.  Now a music director at a church, he is content in the Lord and has no desire to branch out of the safe confines of worship music.  In fact, despite what I imagine are offers to venture into the Christian music market, Johnny won't go beyond his own home church.

Grace, however, does want to go and venture into The World.  She also might be wanting to get away from Johnny's more strict world, chafing under his benevolent control (for example, going after her for not filling the car up).  Her own variations on worship music (such as belting out praise & worship during service) doesn't sit well with Johnny either.

As it so happens, Grace somehow manages to do her own cover of Misunderstood (my memory is a big vague as to whether she was talked into it or did it on her own).  Regardless, Misunderstood 2.0 attracts attention from the secular music scene, particularly Johnny's old producer, Frank 'Mossy' Mostin (Kevin Pollack).  The idea of getting the daughter to do a cover of her father's hit song is too enticing for Mostin, and the lure of success on her own is too strong for Grace too.

If you recognize the song,
You Might Be A Christian
It's off to sunny (and I imagine, sinful) California to go and cut Grace's debut record.  She finds aspects of California liberating, though she has trepidations about how fast the fast life is.  As she finds the world a bit harder to navigate, she really has no one to be accountable to.

She finds herself enthralled when a date is set up with Jay Grayson (Zane Holtz), star of the teen soap Thunder Falls.  Already she is starting to compromise her beliefs: though there is no intimacy (and to be honest I don't remember what the exact reason she didn't was), just the idea of her going to his place is already enough to raise eyebrows.  Grace is talked into this and a lot of other things by Mostin, insisting that being seen with Grayson will be good for her career.

One thing that might not be is with regards to her songwriting: namely, she has no experience in songwriting despite whatever impressions she may have left.  At the recording company, the only person who can understand her plight is Quentin (Michael Welch), an intern who is about the only Christian at the company.  He's not just a Christian, he's a committed Christian (he does tell Grace that it's so nice to have someone else there who can be a light to this world, an idea which Grace isn't too preoccupied with).

Another member of Mostin's bevvy of pop stars, Renae Taylor (Kelly Thiebaud), gives Grace a most curious bit of advice: your body is your biggest asset.  Grace now appears more lost in this world, with Quentin being the only one she can open up to.

With regards to Quentin and Grace, you know where it's going.

Mostin keeps pushing Grace to sing a more risqué song, One Fast Night, whose lyrics aren't overtly questionable but that to Grace seem a bit too much.  Despite the money Mostin has laid out (down to having a crew all ready to both record and go on tour), Grace leaves it all behind for the safe confines of Birmingham, where she and Johnny reconcile, even singing a new song for the congregation: All I've Ever Needed

Two Years Later, Grace finds that Mostin found a new girl to be his new pop-queen (and sing One Fast Night), while she, now engaged to Quentin, performs as the opening act for Christian singer/songwriter Chris Tomlin, where she's also joined by Johnny Trey, dueting on a wider stage.

I thought more and more on Grace Unplugged and began to wonder whether the various messages behind it were good or not. Allow me to get a little theological here.

In contemporary Christian thought there is the struggle between being IN The World but not PART OF The World.  In other words, while Christians cannot (and perhaps should not) separate themselves wholly from the culture around us, Christians should not be active participants in aspects of that culture that would go against Biblical principles.  For example, a Christian would be encouraged to participate in sports, but not to go to a bar or strip club after the game.  Maintaining that balance between The Word and The World is what causes many Christians various dilemmas.

Grace Unplugged touches on those aspects with Grace; for example whether she should sing songs that while not overt calls to sin are perhaps skimming the edges of sin.  There is a rich source of drama here, and we need only look at some figures in Contemporary Christian Music (CCM for short) to see how their own decisions affect their careers and personas.

Michael W. Smith and Third Day have had 'crossover' hits, but they've been pretty happy to stay within CCM.  Amy Grant, once the darling of the CCM scene, has ventured further out to where she's almost all 'secular' (and endured controversy when her first marriage collapsed under accusations of infidelity). Another music group linked with CCM, Jars of Clay, had a hit song in the 'mainstream' music world with Flood. They have come under fire over whether their lead singer, Dan Haseltine, appeared to come out in favor of same-sex marriage, a volatile issue within Christian circles. 

I won't even go into my own divided views on Switchfoot. 

In any case, this push-pull between the confines of The Church and The World are I think great sources of conflict. Grace Unplugged, as written and directed by Brad J. Silverman, I think went closer to the 'the World isn't a place for the Christian' worldview because rather than have Grace grow as both a woman and a Christian, she opted to essentially run back to her parents and the safety and security of the more sheltered/bubbled-in Christian world. 

I think they could have delved more into that conflict rather than have a safe way out, robbing the viewer (Christian and non) a chance to see that conflict grow and how someone brought up in the Church would handle this pressure.

Grace comes across a bit too naïve to be real, as if she wasn't sure what went on out in the world.  Johnny, for his part, did himself no favors, coming across as perhaps too strict and overprotective.  Part of me wants a film where Christians understand the world they live in is full of sin, temptation, darkness, and that they are not immune from falling into sin, temptation, and darkness.  If they didn't, what would be the point of grace and redemption?

Still, I think this is more the blame of the screenplay than of Michalka and Denton, who gave very good performances of the parts written.  Michalka in particular was adept at showing Grace's genuine fear at performing in public without the safety net of the church band. Yes, she was naïve, but she was also filled with anger at the restrictions placed on her, doubtful whether she was doing the right things.  Michalka showed herself a very good actress in bringing these conflicts to the forefront.

Another standout is Welch as Quentin.  His character comes across as someone who is genuine in his faith without being an idiot or unaware of how the world works.  In turns sweet and caring but also honest in his assessments of the industry and those it swallows up, it's a pity that Welch (best known as Mike the Human in the Twilight Series...excuse me, SAGA) hasn't broken out more.

Grace Unplugged is a strong calling card for Welch, who I imagine can do more, as well as for Michalka. The film is better than most of the Christian genre, but the fact that Grace ultimately went back to safety rather than try and fight for herself and her Lord, to me, struck a bit of a sour note, which is why I'm downgrading it just a touch. 

Still, I thought well enough of Grace Unplugged to recommend it to people who are forgiving of a flawed film that has some good acting, good songs, and doesn't treat Christians as either idiots or bigots.  All in all, again a good step forward.         



The Fall (2008): A Review


The Mystical Stuntman...

Oh, but how I struggle with The Fall.  It is one of those films where I get where they're going and what it wants to be, but also one which had my a bit frustrated and a little bit bored (bored enough to start wandering into schoolwork).  I figure many people will either love it or hate it: there will be no middle ground.  Director Tarsem Singh doubles down on the elaborate visuals and mystical nature of the story.  Its ultimate success or failure will depend on a viewer's patience with such elements.

A Hollywood stuntman, Roy Walker (Lee Pace) is severely injured after a stunt gone wrong.  He appears to be paralyzed and is at a hospital, where he meets Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), another patient at the hospital.  Roy soon begins to tell her a fantastical story of a Masked Bandit (Pace again) who joins forces with four others against the evil Governor Odious for vengeance.

Soon, Alexandria begins finding the people around her become the characters, with Roy becoming that Masked Bandit and she herself as his daughter.  Fantasy and reality soon begin to blur as Roy uses the story to con Alexandria into getting morphine for him (more than likely to commit suicide with).  In her innocence she keeps botching the job, bringing either the wrong drugs or placebos, while Roy starts blending the tragedies in his life (his lost love, his injuries) into making his story a darker, more hopeless one.

Alexandria becomes more despairing as Roy/The Masked Bandit sees his comrades fall and the Bandit himself coming close to dying.  She pushes for a semblance of hope in his story, and it looks like the audience will ultimately see a happyish ending.  Alexandria recovers from her injuries and returns to her family's orange grove, and we see that perhaps Roy has recovered to where he can perform great feats in silent movies, or perhaps that was all in Alexandria's mind.

I imagine that one's tolerance for weirdness will affect how he/she views The Fall.  I found that The Fall was too weird for children to see as a pure fantasy...and it would be too weird for adults too.  Given that it has been some time since I've seen The Fall, my memories of how difficult I found the overall tone of it may have played against it.

This isn't to say that in some respects, The Fall is a little inaccessible and opaque.  Sometimes the visuals and overall mysticism it throws at us can make someone who wants a more straightforward film almost leap up in frustration.  If anyone said that The Fall was a bit pretentious, I wouldn't fault them for saying so.

However, if we look past certain things we can find that The Fall can be enjoyed for sheer visual splendor.  Eiko Ishioka can always be counted on to create fantastical, elaborate, otherworldly costumes (from her Oscar-winning work in Bram Stoker's Dracula to her posthumous nomination for the whimsical Mirror Mirror).  The Fall, another collaboration with Singh, is no exception to Ishioka's creative powers.

If anything, the Ishioka/Singh collaboration is something that future film students should study, to see how they complimented each other in the creation of fantastical universes.

The cinematography and score are also within the keeping of that fantasy/dream world that The Fall revels in.

In short, The Fall is certainly one for the avant-garde lover (though even then I find that maybe this film will try their patience).

When I first saw it, I wrote that I felt sorry for the actors to be in something this bizarre, but again, time has tempered my views on that.  Lee Pace, a top-rate actor who has stubbornly not broken out the way his talent merits, does the dual roles of The Masked Bandit and Roy, the hero and the broken man.  He balances the performances so well.  He is part of the show, and he does it quite well. Untaru, both an unknown and a newcomer, brings a mix of innocence and endearment as Alexandria without being too cute or annoying.  For someone that young and inexperienced, Untaru managed to hold her own against experienced performers, so

I still have a hard time with The Fall.  It is a little too mystical and avant-garde for me.  I feel it will at times try people's patience with its visuals and slow pace.  However, there's just enough, just enough, for me to not dislike it as much as I did the first time.  If you go into The Fall, have patience with it, enjoy the splendid visuals and costumes, watch Lee Pace's performance, and don't work hard to 'get it'.   


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Hulk (2003): A Review


A Heaping Helping Hulk of Horror...

Marvel seems to have the Golden Touch in adapting their characters to the big screen.  You have your Iron-Man, Captain America, even Thor. 

In all of the renaissance of comic book adaptations in their vested glory, however, there is the long-forgotten figure of The Hulk. 

The first feature film based on our un-jolly green giant is notorious for being the rare comic book adaptation reviled by the fans.  Hulk was a film I had avoided for some time now, but at long last, I finally sat down and watched all 138 minutes of it. 

The stories are true: Hulk is bad.

The reasons why Hulk is not just a failure but a fiasco are many.  Hulk, however, is a fascinatingly flawed film that leaves one puzzled as to how a film featuring the angriest of the Marvel canon could be so quiet.

Dr. Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) is a brilliant geneticist with a dark family past: his father David, a scientist himself, performed experiments on himself to prove his ideas on DNA modification and its potential uses for warfare.  David has disappeared from Bruce's life, and Bruce struggles with his legacy.

He also struggles with Dr. Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), his former love and now colleague.  They want to create something for good: using Gamma rays to bring healing to injured people.  A malfunction causes a mass amount of Gamma rays to explode from the machine, the exposure which should have killed Bruce...but he remains mysteriously alive and well.

A mysterious figure appears at the lab too, and it isn't the snarling Major Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas).  It's the long-lost David Banner (Nick Nolte), who wants to recreate his mad science experiments with Bruce as his guinea pig.  Bruce, however, has by now slipped into the alter persona of The Hulk, who cannot control himself when he becomes angry. David threatens Betty, and it's only The Hulk who can save her, even if he has no memory of what he is afterwards.

Seeing the wreckage at Ross', her father General Ross (Sam Elliot), orders Banner's arrest.  Both Talbot and David want to use Bruce for their own nefarious schemes.   Bruce, however, escapes the secret base he's being held at and creates a rampage through the Southwest desert until reaching San Francisco. It's decided that both Bruce and David Banner are too dangerous to be controlled, and need to be killed.  A final climatic battle between them leads to perhaps Bruce's death...though One Year Later, in the jungles of South America we find Bruce, telling them, "You wouldn't like me when I'm angry" in Spanish.

Hulk is pre-Marvel Cinematic Universe, long before critics and fans began lapping up every comic book-based character and spinning franchises around them.  It is the unspoken, unholy child in this comic book film world, that dark secret fans attempt to hide away in the attic (at least those who are aware of its existence).  Hulk is a horror of a film: a film that doesn't realize how hilariously awful it is, lost in its own sense of brilliance and homage to see how jumbled it all is.

It's easy to blame director Ang Lee, to say that because of his Asian background he had a hard time understanding the source material.  Lee can be blamed for letting his actors give some simply awful performances, some that are so cringe-inducing.  I have great respect for Eric Bana.  I even have respect for Jennifer Connelly, but their scenes together show two people who apparently are not acquainted with human emotions.

Both of them recite bad lines (courtesy of John Turman, Michael France, and James Schamus) that few actors, even the best ones, could make sound like they came from actual people.  However, their delivery is so flat, so dull, so utterly, utterly lifeless that they end up coming across as either drugged or dead. 

A particularly bad moment is when David, in disguise, tells Betty about what happened to the janitor after the first Hulk rampage.  "Benny's dead.  I'm the new guy," he tells Betty, but there's not a hint of emotion from Betty.  She's just been told that someone she knows is dead, and her reaction is to have no reaction, to behave as if she were told the chicken sandwich is cold. 

It's not just Connelly that has no sense of emotion, it's just about everyone.  Well, except perhaps for Lucas, who hams it up almost as a way to counter Bana and Connelly's thorough lack of emotion. 

Not that this helps, because the performances are done in by Lee's very bizarre decision to recreate visually the look of a comic book.  That in and of itself isn't a horrible idea, but it's done so often and sometimes at the worst possible time.  When Talbot is killed in an explosion, we get one of those panel-like shots and Lucas' most unintentionally hilarious face.

The decision to have a comic book-type look to Hulk in their panel shots makes it look like we are seeing alternate takes of the same scene.  Soon you start trying to focus which take to pay attention to and it becomes maddening.  It's as if Lee couldn't decide what shots to use, so he said, 'Let's use ALL of them'!

Again and again we are treated to things like this, and even stranger scenes.  I think we get flashbacks within flashbacks and Bruce's dreams and/or transformations that take on a weird, psychedelic, even esoteric, quasi-mystical turn. 

Certain elements were hilarious (Hulk vs. demon dogs, slipping into King Kong territory), and some make situations worse (Danny Elfman throwing big music in what I figure was an effort to make things better).

Hulk has a ridiculous story, universally bad performances, irritating multi-split screens, and nothing to make someone want to watch more stories about this Hulk.  When one character says, "You want to go home now?", I think that was Hulk giving the audience a hint.    


Monday, November 28, 2016

God's Not Dead 2: A Review


Well, 2016 will go down as The Year of The Sequel, where the film market was flooded with Parts 2, 3, 4 or more of films that either we knew were coming (who wasn't aware that there would be more entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) or that one wouldn't have expected from the first film.  A good (or bad) example of this is Now You See Me 2: a sequel to a movie that to my mind wasn't having America clamoring for more stories of The Horsemen.

Never ones to stay behind for long, the Christian film industry has decided to be imitators of the World by bringing us God's Not Dead 2.  This sequel to the surprise hit God's Not Dead can be called a cash-grab.  It can be called a weak and/or pale imitation of the original (whose connections to it are tenuous at best). 

Yep, let me call God's Not Dead 2 all that, and so much less.

Teacher Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart) is a Christian who has a pretty strong, positive outlook on life.  She invigorates her history class with games and activities, but then runs afoul of parents and the school administration when a student asks her about Jesus Christ and any similarity between the teachings of Christ and the actions of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Grace's measured answer (going so far as to say 'the author of Matthew' as opposed to just 'Matthew') doesn't sit well with at least one student, who sent a text to someone, who in turn got in touch with school officials.  The fact that Grace quoted Scripture at all is cause enough to suggest she was proselytizing and thus should be dismissed.  As it happens, she's a union member, so she gets a union-paid attorney.

Tom Endler (Jesse Metcalfe) is not a Christian, but he is willing to take the case (or rather, is assigned the case by the union).  His only interest is in winning, and questions like faith are of no interest.  Come to think of it, the case isn't either: with a permanent stubble and slightly disheveled look, Tom is no one's idea of Perry Mason.

The prosecution is Peter Kane (Ray Wise), who I think is with the ACLU and wants to prove once and for all that 'God is dead'.   As this goes to a jury, the jury selection process ensnares Pastor Dave (David A.R. White), the minister from the last film.  He doesn't want to be on the jury, nor does he want to answer the 147+ questions new believer Martin Yip (Paul Kwo), also from the last movie, has.

However, serve he must, and as the trial continues we can see he has troubles of his own.  The city has now requested that pastors hand over copies of their sermons for review, and Pastor Dave, not the most enthusiastic of people, submits a letter stating he won't turn his sermons over instead.

At the center of Grace's trial is Brooke (Hayley Orrantia), a girl who lost her brother and is searching for answers.  Her parents would sooner brush their son's memory under the carpet, but Brooke is still struggling with his death.  She discovers that he has been reading the Bible and come to accept Christ, but never told his humanist parents before he was killed in a car accident.  Brooke too accepts Christ and sides with Grace.

Dave (as a pastor the juror everyone thinks would be most sympathetic to Grace) suffers appendicitis during the trial, forcing him to go to the hospital and bringing in an alternate.  Tom brings in Biblical experts like Lee Strobel and J. Warner Wallace (playing themselves in cameo roles) to argue that Jesus was a historic figure and thus an appropriate subject in a history class.  Brooke's dramatic testimony for Grace backfires when Kane uses her testimony to suggest that Grace has been trying to convert her.

Tom, finally clean-shaven and well-dressed, takes a dramatic step by putting Grace on the stand and making her a hostile witness.  Her tearful testimony about how she could not deny Christ has enough power to sway the jury to rule in her favor (and Grace is surprised to see that the alternate juror, who looks like a punk rocker, has a cross tattoo on the back of her neck, suggesting that despite appearances she is a Christian).  Covering the trial is Amy Ryan (Trisha LaFache), also from the last movie, a former atheist who is now in remission from the cancer that caused her a crisis of faith.

In a post-credit scene, Pastor Dave is arrested for not turning his sermons over.

At first, I was disposed to be gentle towards God's Not Dead 2 (and despite what I heard somewhere, giving this movie the title God's Still Not Dead sounds a bit silly, almost deliberately blasphemous and taunting).  It wasn't until the post-credit scene that I finally decided that it was one step too far for me.

I've always been an 'art before theology' reviewer (in the interest of full disclosure, I am an evangelical Christian).  As such, when a film is weak, I will call it as such even if I were to find it from fellow believers (few people have been as hard on the Kendrick Brothers as I have been). 

This post-credit scene bothers me for two reasons.  One, it suggests that there will or could be a God's Not Dead 3 (which to me is flat-out insulting in that it violates one of my Golden Rules of Filmmaking: Never End Your Movie By Suggesting There Will Be A Sequel).  Even if I could live with this kind of open ending, the fact that it couldn't be included at the end of the movie itself rather than have it be a tease after the credits roll (despite the fact that this scene is featured in the trailer) meant that people who left during the credits would miss this and leave puzzled as to why Pastor Dave's arrest wasn't in the movie.

It's one thing for a Marvel movie to have a post-credit scene (even if I personally don't like it).  That's been established as part of their repertoire.  It's another to have it in a film that attempts to send a message about courage of your convictions.

There is plenty that sinks God's Not Dead 2.  First and foremost are the performances.  Director Harold Cronk (who returns along with cowriters Chuck Konzelman and Cary Sullivan) brought some shockingly bad moments and led the few good actors in the mix into showing all but no or one emotion.  Hart, who can act, is perpetually sad despite her character supposedly being an optimist.  Metcalfe is pretty, but his turn as a dramatic attorney feel so amateurish.

Kwo still cannot get past that eager persona he had from God's Not Dead (apart from a scene where his father makes an unexpected appearance who ends up slapping his son when Martin refuses to deny Christ).  A quick mention of Josh Wheaton appears to tie things together (and explain Shane Harper's absence), but wouldn't Martin and Pastor Dave know each other by now?

As a side note, other elements from the first film (like the Muslim convert who got kicked out of her home) never get a mention.

Image result for god's not dead 2

Subconsciously or not, the casting of Wise as the 'evil' lawyer was a brilliant move.  I don't know if the producers were aware that Wise literally played the Devil (in the short-lived television series Reaper) and the incestuous demon-possessed murderer on Twin Peaks (sorry if that's a spoiler...Laura Palmer was killed by her father while under the control of a demon).  Who better to play the antagonist than the Devil himself (unless it's Tom Ellis from Lucifer, but I digress).

Wise, along with all the actors save White, show why God's Not Dead 2 is a weak film.  There's no subtlety in their performances (Wise, for example, is always evil with a capital E).  This lack of subtlety pushes the film down, as a more deft touch, a more nuanced way of presenting the case (figuratively and literally) would have gone a long way.

It's interesting that White, the most openly-Christian of the cast (one who has had a long history with the Christian film industry) is the only one who appears to be a real person.  That is because Pastor Dave has flaws: he's cynical, jaded, slovenly, sometimes cranky but beneath that a man of deep faith. 

Pastor Dave is allowed to be human.  Everyone else appears to be a walking symbol.

Some moments are downright hilarious (Brooke's sudden emergence to the court should have people laughing at how clunky it was). 

It's a real shame because some of the points that the film makes (such as those from Strobel and Wallace) would perhaps be better received if presented in a better forum. 

There were many things God's Not Dead 2 could have done to make it a better film.  It could have focused on Martin's character as he grows in his faith with Pastor Dave helping him.  It could have brought the Pastor Dave story up-front.  Instead, by going for the trial of a teacher who, to my mind, said something so innocuous it wouldn't have raised any eyebrows, let alone a scandal, God's Not Dead 2 goes down as an unnecessary sequel.  At the very least, it could have been better, and that is perhaps the film's biggest sin.

I was going to give it a mild C-, but the post-credit scene, with its vague suggestion of a God's Not Dead 3, was too much for me.            


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride Review


The Abominable Bride is the New Year's Special for Sherlock, the wildly popular Sherlock Holmes adaptation from the BBC.  It's also the only Sherlock episode this year, as the next episode will air in 2017.  Ostensibly, there will be no new Sherlock episodes due to the heavy schedule of its two leads: Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.  This may be true, or perhaps partially true.

My own view is that Sherlock co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss so tied themselves into a Gordian Knot with their efforts to be oh-so-clever that it will take months if not years to try to sort out their mess. 

They ended last season with a character we saw blow his brains out suddenly reappear (this trope of a character coming back from the dead being so favored by Moffat that it's downright parody); they then were left with having to find a logical way to explain this.  The Abominable Bride, in a way, was created to try and bring an explanation, but it ended up being a big tease where we were told he was really dead...or was he?

Well, now I have finally gotten around to watching The Abominable Bride.  Dear GOD but I've tried and tried so hard to like Sherlock, to get into it the way so many have, to hold it up as this great turning point in television history in the same way that so many critics have.

I can't, I simply can't.  The Abominable Bride is rubbish.  RUBBISH, RUBBISH, RUBBISH.  It's simply the worst thing I've ever seen on television.  I've seen The Librarians episodes that are more rational, logical, and coherent...and that series' premise is that magic is real!  The Abominable Bride, at first, was to my mind, the world's longest trailer.  When I reconsidered things, I think The Abominable Bride is a true horror, never answering the central question and making a mess out of the one they do have.

We get an alternate version of Sherlock Holmes (Cumberbatch) and Dr. John Watson (Freeman) in 1895, deep in the Victorian Era.  Watson's chronicles of Holmes' many varied cases have made them both celebrities, though neither is too fond of this.  Neither is their housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs), who complains that she does nothing but show people in and clean the apartment.

It's now that Detective Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves) presents Holmes, Watson, and Watson's much-neglected wife Mary (Amanda Abbington, Freeman's real-life mistress) with a most curious case.  It is about Emelia Ricoletti.  She was first seen shooting at people from her balcony, then apparently turning the gun on herself.  I say "apparently" because later that night, the same Mrs. Ricoletti appeared on the streets of the Lime House district, dressed as a bride, shooting her own husband.

Sherlock can't quite put things together at the morgue, and Dr. Watson comes up with his own theory (a secret twin).  Even morgue director Dr. Hooper (Louise Brealey) finds that idiotic, but what other explanation could there be?

Well, the case goes unresolved for some time, until Sherlock's older brother Mycroft (Gatiss), a monstrously obese man who has a running bet with Sherlock about how long Mycroft has to live until his weight kills him, brings him the case of Lady Carmichael (Catherine McCormack).  Her husband, Sir Eustace (Tim McInnerny) is being haunted by something in his past...Mrs. Ricoletti, enacting revenge or some wicked sin.

Holmes and Watson go to the Carmichael estate to stop Sir Eustace from being murdered, but they fail, thanks in large part to Watson being 'fraid of ghosts (he insisting he saw the Specter of Mrs. Ricoletti behind him).  Holmes angrily insists that there is no ghost, but he does find a strange clue on Sir Eustace.  It's a note pinned to the dagger in his chest, with two words: "Miss Me"?

It's here that Holmes' archnemesis Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott) emerges, taunting Holmes to find how he managed to return from the dead just like Mrs. Ricoletti.

It's at this juncture that The Abominable Bride begins hopping back and forth between 1895 and 2015, where we go to the present-day to see the present-day Sherlock, apparently in the throes of a wide variety of drugs, wrestle with how Moriarty managed to apparently come back from the dead.

Eventually, with Mary Watson (secretly working with/for Mycroft) leading the way, Holmes and Watson find the truth of the Ricoletti case.  It was the result of a coven of suffragists (let's call them The Witches of Mrs. Pankhurst) killing off bad men.  Among the coven was Dr. Hooper (whom Watson, in a rare moment of reason, deduced was really a woman in drag), the Watson family chambermaid, and Lady Carmichael...or at least we think it's Lady Carmichael. 

The Witches of Mrs. Pankhurst, who counted Mrs. Ricoletti among their coven, staged her first death (allowing the real and very-much-alive Mrs. Ricoletti to off her husband before they kill her rather than let the tuberculosis she has do it).  Taking on the guise of the Avenging Ghost, they commit other murders.

However, to Sherlock's surprise it isn't Lady Carmichael who comes into the Satanic ceremony dressed as the bride.  It's the ever-flamboyant Moriarty, taunting Sherlock with what I'd call the best description for The Abominable Bride: "Is it silly enough for you yet?" Flipping back and forth, we end up in two places.

In the present, Holmes finds that Moriarty is most sincerely dead...he just has to find out what Moriarty is going to do next.  In the alternate past, Holmes and Moriarty face off at Reichenbach Falls, only this time Watson shows up with his gun to push Moriarty off the cliff.  Holmes then realizes he will be safe, and jumps off same cliff a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

I wonder whether a better title to The Abominable Bride would have been The Satanic Rites of Emily Davison, given how the suffragist movement played a prominent role in the story.  Now, while The Abominable Bride won the Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie, I suspect that the Television Academy is thoroughly impressed by British accents and something that appears clever but on closer examination is downright insulting.

As I kept watching The Abominable Bride, I seriously wondered whether the whole thing was meant to be a comedy or spoof of Sherlock.  I'm not being facetious, I'm being perfectly honest in my view.

This view comes from the fact that Mrs. Hudson comes across as a total ninny, that apparently no one could tell that Dr. Hooper was a drag king, that Watson seriously suggested a 'secret twin', that the repartee between the chambermaid and Dr. Watson went for screwball but ended up as just screwy, that we had some sort of purple-hooded ceremony going on that looked as if were lifted out of Young Sherlock, that Dr. Watson was literally scared off by a ghost (thus validating that this version of Watson is giving Nigel Bruce's version a run for his money in making Watson a total dolt) and that Sherlock Holmes apparently ends up floating through all time at the Reichenbach Falls.

On a more serious note, The Abominable Bride was such a failure in how it treats both the story and the audience.  What we could have had was a nice treat: seeing Sherlock in the traditional setting for a Holmes story (even giving a nod to the Granada series when we first see Victorian London with both the visuals and musical cues from the Sherlock Holmes theme).

As a side note, I'm willing to wager that the vast majority of Sherlock fans would not get the Granada references, they too besotted with the idea that Sherlock Holmes is the original creation of Gatiss and Moffat to realize there were other versions.  Truth be told, I doubt many if any Sherlock fans would even bother watching any version that didn't have Benny or Marty.

I could even go along with the 'big reveal' that we are really in Sherlock's Mind Palace...if it had come at the end.  Instead, by coming when it did, it robbed us of any real mystery as we waited for them to go back to the future.

This episode is also, the first to my memory, to suggest that Sherlock had any kind of drugs problem.  If memory serves correct, the strongest addiction Holmes had on Sherlock was nicotine.  Now, apparently, he used a wide variety of drugs (including morphine and cocaine).  If this drug addiction was mentioned before on a previous Sherlock episode, it's been so long that I don't remember.

In terms of performances, the setting may have changed but it's a case of 'well, here we go again'.  I find every character on Sherlock to be completely insufferable: Sherlock less a detective and more a clairvoyant (and an arrogant one at that), Watson a complete nitwit, Mycroft a total ass, Mary secretly smarter, Lestrade a lesser nitwit, Mrs. Hudson a ninny. 

There was no variety between Victorian-set Sherlock and contemporary-set Sherlock, and while maybe that wasn't the goal I couldn't help wondering why if they were creating an alternate universe for our characters they didn't opt to change some elements.

Maybe it was just me, but I got the sense that with The Abominable Bride, co-writers Gatiss and Moffat decided to 'fix' Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Final Solution by 'improving' it.  They decided that Watson would appear at the Falls to stop Moriarty from killing Holmes rather than send him on a wild goose chase that led to Watson coming up with an erroneous conclusion. To my view, Gatiss & Moffat felt that they could give an alternative version of The Final Solution that would be better than the one ACD came up with, a more action-oriented one.

That again, is just my view, but it's one I can't shake, this sense that they think they know better.

There are some elements that I did like.  The resolution as to how Mrs. Ricoletti came to die twice was good (at least until we got the Witches of Pankhurst bit that made it look really silly). 

As a side note, given that Steven Moffat has been accused more than once of sexism, and that Mark Gatiss has no first-hand knowledge of 'the woman's perspective' in a relationship, was it a good idea for them to make suffragists our villainesses?

I know many, many people love Sherlock and loved The Abominable Bride.  More power to them. 

I, however, respectfully dissent.  A story that does nothing and moves nothing forward (we don't get a resolution as to how Moriarty survived or how Holmes came to the conclusion that Moriarty is not just merely dead, but most sincerely dead), with performances that solidify how the characters are never real, The Abominable Bride is something I would not watch again.

"Is it silly enough for you yet?"  Yes, which is why, try as much as I have, I simply have no love for Sherlock.   


Next Sherlock Episode: The Six Thatchers

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Librarians: And the Rise of Chaos Review


For Season Three of The Librarians, we seem to be moving away from the literary whimsy of Season Two and now are delving into Egyptian mythology and nefarious government agents running about. And The Rise of Chaos sets up the season with a so-so episode that has its positives (The Librarians: The Musical?) but that as independent episode I think won't go far.

The various Librarians are working pretty well together, having gotten into a routine where they continue finding magical artifacts and keeping them safe within the Library.  Things take a heady turn when The Clippings Book, the book which leads them to their investigations, spontaneously combusts.  Head Librarian Flynn Carsen (Noah Wyle) tries to play it off, but he realizes that this is a big deal.  The Caretaker of the Annex, Jenkins (John Larroquette) surmises that the Clippings Book was so overwhelmed with information that it couldn't handle things.

It all leads to Boston, where we learn of the machinations of our newest villain, Apep, the Egyptian God of Chaos also known as the Eater of Souls.  It is in Boston where a portal exists that will help Apep unleash Pure Evil in the world.  As it stands, being in Boston causes problems for our Librarians.  The guys, Jacob Stone (Christian Kane) and Ezekiel Jones (John Kim) want to go explore the submarine next to the Boston Science Museum, but both The Guardian Eve Baird (Rebecca Romijn) and Cassandra Cillian (Lindy Booth) couldn't care about it.

Apep has taken over the body of a former Navy man who was touring Egypt, and he uses his skills to try and find the portal via that submarine.  As the God of Chaos, he is master at bringing dissent to anyone working against him, and soon the Librarians are at each other about things.  It isn't until Flynn realizes that to defeat chaos, they need harmony. 

And BOY do they deliver harmony, by doing an impromptu a cappella version of Battle Hymn of the Republic!  This so puzzles Apep that he lets his guard down long enough to be defeated (at least for now) and manages to outwit DOSA: The Department of Statistical Anomalies, headed up by the mysterious General Cynthia Rockwell (Vanessa Williams). 

With Apep temporarily out of the way, and the other Librarians toying with forming a musical group (suggested names: The Dewey Decimals or Bibliotechnos...I like the latter), Flynn and Jenkins fear for the worse, an upcoming battle between good and evil.

I wasn't strictly disappointed with And the Rise of Chaos.  It has a lot of what made The Librarians such a successful and enjoyable weekly romp.  It's breezy, doesn't take itself seriously, has a rapid-fire pace where quips come fast and furious, and even throws in some really out-there moments (that sing-along).

What And the Rise of Chaos has is a slight hitch in introducing what I presume is our villain for the season.  Having a swarm of darkness infiltrate a human isn't the same as when we had the Fictionals in Season Two.  There, both Prospero and Moriarty were allowed to develop in that hour.  Here, Apep really has no personality, nothing that makes him either menacing (like Prospero) or menacing yet humorous (like Moriarty).

Granted, this is just the first episode, but I was a bit underwhelmed with the introduction of our villain.

I also wasn't sold on our DOSA antagonists.  It's not a slam on Williams (though she wasn't even the primary human antagonist).  It's just that the DOSA agents were a bit too Men in Black/Keystone Kops to be of great interest.

Delving deeper into things, the scene at the museum where the janitor is attacked by the mannequins is clearly a (rip-off/homage) to the Autons from Doctor Who, particularly the first episode of the revived series (Rose).  A previous nod to Doctor Who on The Librarians (a quick shot of what could be the TARDIS with a faint lift from the Doctor Who theme) was a nice touch.  This one, more overt and blatant, struck me as less fan-service and more straight-up copy.

As much as I now dislike Doctor Who, this sequence veered dangerously close to being a shot-for-shot remake which didn't go over well with me.

And the Rise of Chaos does keep a lot of what made The Librarians a great, rollicking frolic.  The cast continues to work well, each character showcasing what makes them unique and endearing.  We get a lot of humor (when speculating on forming a band, Jones points out that they have instruments at their disposal: Pan's Flute, Gabriel's Horn...and Mozart's Piano). 

One thing that I was pleased with is how Wyle's Flynn Carsen worked within The Librarians without being the center of things.  Given how he had in the past either been out of the picture altogether or intermittently in the show, a worry had developed whether as the original Librarian he would become the de facto star of the series that the Carsen-centered television movies created.

I'm very pleased that far from taking center stage, both Flynn and Wyle shared the stage with everyone else.  Granted, he was the Head Librarian and as such people tended to defer to him, but on the whole Flynn has been well-integrated within The Librarians (emphasis on the plural).

However, this beginning is if not the weakest one at least the one that didn't pay off as well as others.  It served as a way to introduce two story elements for the season: DOSA and Apep. I hope that the rest of the season builds on And the Rise of Chaos, but builds up something stronger.


Next Episode: And the Fangs of Death

Finding Dory: A Review


It was Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Ernest who wrote, "to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness".  Perhaps this was the inspiration for Finding Dory, the sequel to the highly successful Finding Nemo.

I'd like to think that, but I suspect that it is a combination of attempting to cash in on Finding Nemo's massive financial haul plus the general laziness of putting out a sequel in this Year of the Sequel that was the real motivation.  Regardless of the reason for Finding Dory, in a year as abysmal as 2016 I find that this generally sweet little film is entertaining enough, with just enough to hold one's interest along with some simply beautiful visuals to make it a good sequel.

Even if it was completely unnecessary.

Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), our very forgetful regal blue tan fin fish, has been living with her new friends, the clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks), a constant worrier, and his son, Nemo (Hayden Rolence).  She is happy, but still senses something is missing.

Despite herself, she realizes what it is: her parents, whom she lost many years ago when she wandered off and forgot where they were.  With that, she decides that she must find them, using the only clue she can muster memory for (the Jewel of Morro Bay).

With that, she's off to find her parents, with a very reluctant and aggravated Marlin and more optimistic Nemo in toe. Eventually, they all end up at the Marine Life Institute, an institute that rehabilitates aquatic life and returns it to the wilds off the California coast (though separated after a falling-out between the cantankerous Marlin and the naïve Dory).  Dory finds herself almost headed for a rehabilitation aquarium in Cleveland, but is spared this by Hank (Ed O'Neal), an octopus with seven tentacles who wants desperately to go to the safety and reclusiveness of Cleveland rather than stay at the MLI.  He agrees to help Dory find her parents in the MLI in exchange for her tag that has her Cleveland-bound.

Marlin and Nemo, for their part, are desperate to get to Dory, so they get help from two sea lions and a very whacked-out loon to get them there.  Dory, for her part, finds an old friend, Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a whale (proving that Dory does indeed speak whale), along with another creature in rehab, the beluga whale Bailey (Ty Burrell). Dory eventually finds that her own parents went in search of her after she disappeared and they have never been seen again.  She's sad, but somehow, despite herself, finds them alive and well.

Now it's up to Dory, along with a highly reluctant Hank, to save Marlin, Nemo, and others from the confines of Cleveland.

In many ways, Finding Dory feels like one of those direct-to-DVD films the Disney company cranks out to cash in on a character (all those sequels to Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, Beauty & The Beast, etc.). They carry the name, can be diversions, but don't come close to being in the same league as the original.  Finding Dory follows in that tradition, giving us a story of a character one likes but one isn't desperate to know more about.

I think it has to do with the fact that in Finding Nemo, we got the backstory of how Marlin's fears were brought to life even as Nemo gamely kept going.  In Finding Dory, we really weren't looking for her.  We were looking for her parents, but since we get hopping from the present to the past (and could never really trust that ever-forgetful Dory would have accurate memories) it didn't have the same emotional impact.

Finding Dory has some wonderful visual moments, such as when Dory and Hank go to the massive tank where her family originated from.  It's a visually arresting and splendid sequence that really is breathtaking.

That being said, I cannot fault Finding Dory for being a slight trifle.  Not on the same level as its predecessor, Finding Dory has some visual delights, and some moments of tenderness, suspense and comedy. 

I can only hope we don't get Finding Marlin (though I offer no objection to Finding Crush). 


Thursday, November 24, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse: A Review (Review #860)


Apocalypse Never Again...

During X-Men: Apocalypse, some of our junior mutants are seen leaving a screening of Return of the Jedi.  One of them, Jean Grey, makes the witty comment that 'the third part is usually the worst'.   Accompanying her was a character identified as "Jubilee", though through the course of X-Men: Apocalypse we don't hear that name said or see said character do anything that is relevant to the plot. 

This in short reveals one of Apocalypse's myriad of problems.

Perhaps the makers of X-Men: Apocalypse thought at that "third part is usually the worst" they were being cute, funny, making an in-joke.  Perhaps an homage to X-Men: The Last Stand.

Beware of taunting the audience, for X-Men: Apocalypse more than lives up to one of my Golden Rules of Filmmaking: A "Part III" Will Be Either A Disaster or the Harbinger of a Greater DisasterX-Men: Apocalypse goes through the motions, but it is a dead, sad affair, with a story that is boring on its own and worse, makes trying to keep continuity with the original X-Men films (let alone the two in the new franchise) all but impossible. I'll get to some of my questions regarding continuity within the overall X-Men universe later on.

In ancient Egypt, the first and most powerful of mutants, En Sabah Nur, is about to perform another quasi-Satanic rite that will give him another mutant's powers (a bit like Sylar from Heroes).  However, humans manage, at great cost, to stop him and he ends up buried alive.

Fast forward to 1983, a good ten years since the events of Days of Future Past and twenty-one years since those in First Class.  The constant struggle between Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erick Lehnsherr aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender) continues, though for the moment there is détente. Charles is still at this School for the Gifted, working to have humans and mutants coexist (and rocking some era-appropriate Miami Vice-style threads).  Erick is hiding out in his native Poland under an assumed name, with a wife and adorable little girl.

If you've seen movies, you can imagine what will happen to the villain/antihero's wife and adorable child.

Also at work is Raven, better known as Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), attempting to find mutants and take them to Charles' school, though she wavers between the Xavier and Magneto worldviews.  One of those she rescues is Kurt Wagner, aka Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a mutant who can teleport.  She gets him from a cage match where Nightcrawler is forced to fight Angel (Ben Hardy), who has large wings.

Thanks, in part, to CIA Agent Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne), En Sabah Nur has reawaken.  He now goes by Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) and is going to force all, mutants and non, to submit to his will and turn from the 'false gods'. His first recruit is Ororo Munro (Alexandra Shipp), a mutant who can control the weather.  He also picks up another mutant (to be named later), Angel...and Magneto, affording him a chance to avenge both his wife/adorable child but his parents killed at Auschwitz.

There is also the matter of Scott Summers, soon to be known as Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), who has a literal meltdown when he finds that his eyes can emit fire.  He's the high school-age brother of Alex Summers, better known as Havok (Lucas Till), who worked with Charles Xavier to stop the Cuban Missile Crisis, along with one of the top teachers at Charles' school, Hank McCoy aka Beast (Nicholas Hoult). Scott meets and somewhat bonds with Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), who works to keep all her mutant powers controlled/hidden.

Apocalypse becomes aware of Charles Xavier's great powers and wants them in the ultimate weapon to TAKE OVER THE WORLD and will stop at nothing to get at them.  Those not part of Apocalypse's "four Horsemen" will also stop at nothing to prevent this from happening, even if in the case of Havok, it costs them their lives.  Aiding in all this are not just all the aforementioned figures, but also Peter Maximoff or Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who not only has super-speed but is Magneto's illegitimate child.

Apocalypse has decided that it is his time, and that Charles' powers must be transferred to him in a revived quasi-Satanic rite.  Only with the uniting of all the others, fighting against the forces of darkness will they save all from the massive destruction that Apocalypse and his minions are wreaking.  Magneto, the most moral of the Four Horsemen, turns on his master, and they all manage to destroy Apocalypse.

X-Men: Apocalypse, is one of if not worst comic book-based films of 2016.  Nowhere near the horror that is X-Men: The Last Stand, Apocalypse suffers from other maladies: being boring, chaotic, and in so many ways indistinguishable from others in the genre.

Whole things that don't make any sense are thrown in just to have characters put in.  First, let's look at Jubilee.  Not once was her name used, or her powers shown, or given anything to do.  In Apocalypse, she had no reason for being there at all.  She served no purpose story-wise, and worse, she wasn't even there for fan-service precisely because she didn't get a name check.

Let's now go over another flat-out bizarre situation: that of the Summers Brothers.  First, a little math. 

Lucas Till (Havok/Alex Summers) is 26 years old (born 1990).  Tye Sheridan (Cyclops/Scott Summers) is a mere 20 years old (born 1996).  Havok was involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was in 1962 and which play a major part in First Class.  IF we put in that Havok was around 21 at the time of First Class (the age Till was when the film was made), that should make him 42 years old in 1983 for Apocalypse (estimating a birth year of 1941). 

Further estimating that Scott was a junior in high school at the time of Apocalypse, with a birth year of 1966 (making Scott 17 years old in 1983), we have a situation where Alex Summers is theoretically old enough to be Scott Summers' father!

I'm not well-versed enough to think about things like age gaps between mutants or whether being a mutant preserves you so well, but this playing fast-and-loose with time and characters just makes things a bit muddled for me.  I do leave it up to other people, more seasoned than I on mutant matters, to try and sort this out for me.  I'm sure I just missed something.

One thing I didn't miss was the lack of performances from most of the cast. Out of all the returning cast, I think Lawrence was the worst.  She had simply awful delivery in almost every scene, looking bored and desperate to get out of this (and desperate to not get into her Mystique paint given that she appeared as Mystique a total of two and a half times versus looking like J-Law almost all the time).  Fassbender at times looked equally bored, which I figure he thought was showing him as 'sad' and 'tragic', but there didn't seem to be much reason for him to join or abandon Apocalypse.

Let me now touch on Psylocke (Olivia Munn).  What was HER reason for joining Apocalypse, or being the last one to remain loyal to him?  Did she have any lines of great importance?  Apart from showing off the latest style in S&M wear, did Psylocke do anything of great importance in the film?

The same for Angel, who did nothing in the film and worse, had a great dramatic moment stolen from him.  Apocalypse gifts him with metallic wings, but what could have been impressive, even thrilling was not thanks to the decision to have such dark cinematography that one almost can't see what is going on.  What could have been a fantastic moment ends up leaving no impression.

The sheer failure of X-Men: Apocalypse is more disheartening given that some of the newer members actually gave good performances.  A particular highlight was Sheridan, showing that he not only can do drama but can handle action pictures on this magnitude.  His Scott Summers was a real figure, one who had anger about what he considered a curse until he saw that it could be a force for good. 

Smit-McPhee did a credible German accent and was more endearing than annoying as the put-upon but still somewhat naïve and innocent Kurt.

Turner's Jean Grey was a conflicted character, and it's credit to her that she made the most of her time.

Sadly, the worst is Isaac as our titular villain.  I don't blame him, but blame writer/director Bryan Singer for not just encasing him in so much makeup you could have had anyone play (or overplay) another boring megalomaniac power-hungry villain, but also for telling him to deliver his lines in such a portentous manner that it comes across as the worst of monologuing.  This super-villain ends up coming across as the title character in the fictional film The Mummy Returns Again.

Actually, a lot of people were directed by Singer to deliver their lines in a heavy-handed manner, so again Isaac isn't at fault for how bad this was.

Too much of Apocalypse is repetitive of both other X-Men films and comic book-based films in general.  Quicksilver's saving of everyone as the school is about to explode is almost beat-for-beat a redo of the same situation in Days of Future Past (substituting Sweet Dreams for Time in a Bottle), but what was once exciting and plot-necessary now here comes across as rote.  It doesn't even look exciting: Peters' face looking laughable as he speeds through the school, saving dogs and goldfish. 

Also, isn't it just so wonderfully coincidental that he just happened to show up at that precise moment?

The climatic battle where the Earth gets literally torn apart is just another entry in this 'let's see which comic book can destroy the world the most' contest.  We've seen in it Man of Steel, in Age of Ultron, in Batman v. Superman, and now here.  Just give it a rest.  The world doesn't have to end EVERY TIME.

What should have ended was a scene where Apocalypse uses sand to behead some thugs.  For a PG-13 film, I thought that moment was rather grotesque and not obscured enough to not push it to an R. 

Suffice it to say X-Men: Apocalypse is just another big, loud, comic book-based films that doesn't expand on what came before or add anything interesting in and of itself.  Apart from the younger set of Sheridan, Turner, and Smit-McPhee (who should have gotten their own movie), X-Men: Apocalypse is the weakest entry in the revived franchise.  The fact that it doesn't rank lower is less about this film and more about the weakness of the others. 


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Now You See Me 2: A Review


Now You Don't...

Now You See Me was a decent if not particularly good film because it was done in by one too many outlandish twists that made the whole thing too impossible to believe.   It was OK for a long time, but then it got too silly.  Now You See Me 2 (perhaps the most unoriginal title of 2016) decided that rather than take itself seriously like it did the first time around, it was going to embrace its implausibility and grandiose twists.

One year after their big farewell performance, the criminal magicians called The Four Horsemen are still waiting to emerge back into the limelight.  One of them, J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) is itching to get out again and is tired of waiting for an assignment and chafes under the mastermind that is the intermediary for The Eye (the secret organization behind their machinations).  "The Eye" assures Atlas that things will go his way and that his gifts will be rewarded.

Two of the other Horsemen, hypnotist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and card shark Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) don't seem to mind waiting for The Eye and are not about to plot a coup against Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), the double agent who works for both The Eye and the FBI.  The Horsemen get two new things: an assignment to expose a tech conglomerate which is stealing user's private information to sell to the highest bidder, and a new Horseman, Lula (Lizzy Caplan), who is taking the place of former Horseman Isla Fisher's Henley Reeves (Fisher being pregnant at the time of production and thus unable to join the cast).

The Horsemen make their big debut at the product reveal, hypnotizing Owen Case (Ben Lamb), the tech guru to reveal the truth.  However, the trick's on them as they, along with Agent Rhodes, are the ones exposed, including Jack Wilder, who had faked his death in the last film.  In making their escape, the Horsemen inexplicably find themselves in Macau (the fact that the Chinese market is now the one major market Hollywood caters to having nothing to do with the location, I'm sure).

They are cajoled by billionaire tech genius/Case's former partner Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), who had faked his own death, to perform a magic feat of great importance to Mabry.  He wants them to steal the chip that Case had created which will allow the holder to decrypt every piece of information.  Aiding Mabry is Chase, Merritt's unknown-until-now-twin brother, a magician and hypnotist who holds a great grudge against Merritt.

Meanwhile, Rhodes, still on the run from the FBI himself, is forced to join forces with Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), whom they got locked up for the crimes they committed and whom Rhodes blames for the death of his father, Lionel Shrike, when Dylan's father failed in a magic act to which debunker Bradley goaded into performing.

The Horsemen manage to steal the chip, but then we get twists after twists, including one involving Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), the fan the Horsemen fleeced last time.  It all comes to a head in London, where the Horsemen have one last trick up their sleeves that will reveal mostly all.

Even that doesn't end the film, as Thaddeus, now a free man, reveals his own secrets, and the Horsemen, including Rhodes, now may find themselves on the cusp of a new adventure, with The Eye still just slightly out of reach.

I'm not going to knock a bad movie when it either knows or at least lets on that it's a bad movie, and Now You See Me 2 is, I think, aware of itself.  That's a slight improvement from last go-round, where it was trying oh-so-hard to be oh-so-clever but only tied itself in knots with some really outlandish, even downright ridiculous situations.

Here, I got the sense that everyone involved was aware that if you looked closely, it doesn't make much if any sense.  Again like last time, Now You See Me 2 relies on what made the first one a bit of a bungle.  Too many things have to go perfectly, with no room for error, to make things even plausible, let alone believable.  For example, the fake Eye gets Atlas to inadvertently reveal information by putting his phone down on what he thinks is a mere flat surface but which is really a decrypting device. 

What if he'd done what I would have: put his phone in his pocket?  How'd then would the fake Eye get the information it wanted?  Another plot point is to hypnotize Chase, and that's done by him bumping into whom he thinks is a hobo but who turns out isn't.  What if Chase hadn't bumped into this figure, or not even paid attention?  When the Horsemen are exposed at the product launch, again having Wilder and Rhodes exposed at the precise moment they appear is all too neat.  When the Horsemen reveal themselves on various London streets performing their acts, or in Las Vegas for the tech launch, I kept wondering why no police ever bothered to try and arrest these fugitives right then and there. 

It stretches believability, even in a magic act.

Putting aside the sheer illogic of the plot, Now You See Me 2 doubles down on some really awful and/or silly performances.  Radcliffe, I figure, is attempting to really branch out, but his 'psychopath' role makes him instead come across as the silliest and weakest villain, one who makes Blofeld in drag from Diamonds Are Forever more menacing.  Come to think of it, Blofeld's pussy would make a more menacing antagonist than Radcliffe, who here is still too much of a kid to be thought of as some sort of murderous lunatic or evil character.  Even with a full beard he still comes across as a kid trying to play at menacing and failing every step of the way.

When he has his minions fighting off Rhodes and Atlas, one can almost hear the "POW" and "BAM" from the Batman TV show.

Caplan came across as annoying and just silly as the newest Horseman, making one wonder why this novice would be thrown into this highly dangerous assignment.  From her first scene what she tries for is 'adorkable', but instead ends up as 'insufferable'.

Bless Ruffalo, Caine, and Freeman for not having great interest in keeping their reputations when an easy check comes their way.  I cannot say whether they took any of this seriously, but I figure even if they didn't have fun making the film, they had no problem taking the money and running.

As a side note, the age gap between Michael Caine and Daniel Radcliffe is 56 years.  Make of that factoid what you will.

Harrelson, however, probably did have some fun doing that whole 'twin' business.  Chase, unlike Merritt, had a full head of hair, bringing to mind when we find out that Mr. Rumbold on Are You Being Served? has a twin brother.  The bald manager of the Men's & Ladies Apparel Department greets his brother, who removes his hat to reveal a massive amount of hair.  Laughter ensues, but at least in that instance it was meant as a joke.  Here, one isn't sure.

Eisenberg, figuring that he shouldn't change his method, continues giving the same performance he gives in every Eisenberg film: that of the rapid-fire obnoxious fellow who thinks he's always smarter than you.

Again, only Franco is worth mentioning of a performance, though I won't go to bat for him.

It isn't as though Now You See Me 2 is all awful.  The stealing of the chip, with all the 'will the guards catch them or not' twisting and turning of playing cards to misdirect the guards is flashy if nothing else.

Again, in all this I never got the sense Now You See Me 2 took itself seriously.  It is by no means a romp, but it isn't about to get as serious as it was the first go-round. Perhaps this is why I'm not as harsh on it as others have been.

Still, in the end Now You See Me 2 relies on the same bag of tricks: generally one-to-no-note characters, outrageous twists that don't stand up under scrutiny, plot points that come and go at whim (the FBI are remarkably inept to not figure on the mole) and a vague suggestion of another sequel.  I won't lie: I found Now You See Me 2 entertaining.

Not good, but entertaining, in a 'you-don't-think-about-it' kind of way.


Monday, November 21, 2016

Captain America: Civil War. A Review (Review #858)


In the ongoing saga that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we have reached a breaking point.  The unity between our superheroes now is coming apart.  Captain America: Civil War is a good film.  Good, not great, and to my mind, not this epic, life-altering event that some of the fanboys/girls are making it out to be.  It is just another chapter in what to me is the world's longest (or at least most expensive) soap opera ever created. 

We go back to 1991 (when Spider-Man wasn't even born yet...yes, I feel old).  Our least-favorite figure from the MCU, Winter Soldier "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is given a new assignment, one that involves killing and acquiring some secret material to create more soldiers like him.  Fast forward to today, where the Avengers have a mission in Lagos, Nigeria.  Led by Captain America (Chris Evans), it is to stop a villain from getting chemical weapons.  Joined by Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), they have some success, but their actions lead to non-combatant casualties.

This, along with what has happened in New York, Washington, D.C., and Sokovia, is one step too much for the United Nations.  Secretary of State John Ross (William Hurt) presents the Avengers with what are called the Sokovia Accords: a treaty where the Avengers will fall under the auspices of the U.N., and they will now direct the currently independent Avengers.

The group is divided on the issue: Captain America, along with those in Lagos save for Black Widow, are firmly against it.  Those NOT in Lagos, particularly Iron-Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), along with his friend/partner War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Vision (Paul Bettany) (whom I think was once Iron-Man's computer Jarvis...someone get me my program to tell who is who) believe this Accord is best.

Well, it's off to Vienna to sign the Accord.  Cap hasn't changed his mind, but he's got the funeral of his great love Agent Peggy Carter to go to.  His ex-lover Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), who also happens to be Agent Carter's niece (something Cap wasn't aware of despite them sharing the same surname...I can let that slide I guess) is there too.  In Vienna among the signees is the small African monarchy of Wakanda, where Crown Prince T'Challa is learning all about diplomacy.  He also learns about assassinations, as a bomb goes off and he sees his father the King among the killed.  He swears revenge against Bucky, who was spotted as the bomber.

Captain America wants desperately to bring Bucky in alive, but Bucky insists that isn't going to happen...and that he isn't responsible for the bombing (a rare moment when he wasn't).  Well, I think in Bucharest is where Captain America (aka Steve Rogers) finds Bucky, and so does Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who after the chase is unmasked as His Highness Prince T'Challa.

In all this machinations is Helmut Zimo (Daniel Bruhl), who is on the hunt for the code-book that will get him the information that will unlock Bucky's memories and lead him to other super-soldiers.  His reasons become clearer as time goes on, though they appear to be contradictory but more on that later.

Now the teams are fully divided, with the pro-Sokovia group gathering some new recruits, particularly Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland) out in Queens, while the anti-Sokovia group gets Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). The battle ends with Captain America/Bucky fleeing, while the other members (Scarlet Witch/Hawkeye/Ant-Man/Falcon) are imprisoned.  Just when we think that Cap & Iron-Man are going to come to terms, we get one last 'shocking' twist that brings them to blows, and we find that Zimo's motives are not what they seem either.  It all ends with both of them making an apparent permanent break, but who knows.

I have grown pretty disenchanted with the MCU in that I don't have enough emotional investment to keep track of everyone.  Truth be told, I had no idea who Sharon Carter was, so the 'shocking' twist that she was Agent Carter's niece didn't have any impact (apart from my puzzlement as to why Rogers didn't think it was a curious coincidence that two of his lovers had the same surname).  It's certainly big, but sometimes lost in all the spectacle is a chance to let situations grow naturally.

For example, Hawkeye and Ant-Man join the Captain America side not because they believe the Avengers should be independent of the U.N. (Ant-Man isn't even an Avenger, so why he should care about the Sokovia Accords is left unexplained).  Rather, they are there because they are required to fill the ranks and make things more bombastic.

We don't get an explanation as to how Stark found out that Peter Parker is Spider-Man.  Spidey is there because a deal was made to put Spider-Man in Civil War, but how this will play out in the future for this large-scale series remains to be seen (or even if it is relevant to any future Spider-Man films).

However, let's pause at this point to praise Tom Holland's interpretation of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.  Consider this a tease for Spider-Man: Homecoming, but it's clear that Holland is an excellent choice.  He succeeds in his American accent, and makes Parker less the smart-aleck of old and more the eager enthusiastic kid from Queens marveling that he finds himself in all this mayhem.

His participation in the epic battle between the pro-and-anti Sokovia wings lightens things up considerably, from his shout-out to "that really old movie, The Empire Strikes Back" to Rogers' acknowledgement of a fellow New Yorker (pointing out to the kid from Queens that he hails from Brooklyn).  Holland gives perhaps the best performance in Civil War, and I suspect is that his character is allowed to show lightness and enthusiasm, and not behave as if all this is some grand epic spectacle of deep meaning.

This may also explain why Rudd as Ant-Man is also a highlight (even if he essentially is there for an extended cameo). 

The best moment is the battle between the Avengers, where they are able to match each other blow for blow and throw quips in from time to time.

The other battles seem to have a rote manner to them (I confess to falling asleep when they were in Berlin...or was it Bucharest, they were all over the place).  Lagos was good but not great, and I didn't know or care who the villain was seeing that he was disposed of.  It might just as well have been some random terrorist.

My big problem with Civil War really boils down to the actual cause of the conflict.  The Sokovia Accords seems a flimsy reason to break the group apart, especially when the backstory of Bucky and his actions against Stark seem a stronger reason to break the group apart (a group of Avengers going rouge).  Moreover, Zumo's motives switch from "I want super-soldiers" to "I want to avenge my parents and family".  It goes back to the idea that a villain (such as he is) cannot be a villain just because he's evil.  Instead, we again have to feel some sort of sympathy for him/her.

We get good performances, particularly by Downey, Jr. as Stark, playing the guilt he feels over all the chaos he's responsible for so effectively.  Newcomers to the MCU such as the already-mentioned Holland and Boseman too did excellently (his African accent worked well).  Everyone else knows their roles to where they don't break new ground.  Marisa Tomei, appearing for the first time as Peter's Aunt May, is the hottest Aunt May in history.  She's no old woman with white hair in a bun...she's a very attractive, modern Aunt May to where one almost gasps to think she could be considered a little old lady.

Captain America: Civil War is OK, not great.  It is lifted by a great battle of the superstars along with a fantastic debut by Tom Holland.  Apart from that, it's just another entry in the world's most expensive soap opera, one made for fanboys and few others.  It wasn't bad, it wasn't the greatest, it was another entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  So-so.

Next Marvel Cinematic Universe Film: Doctor Strange