Monday, January 16, 2017

Movie Review #552: "Elle" (2016)

Director: Paul Verhoeven
Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
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A middle-aged Parisan businesswoman with a checkered past tries to discover the identity of a man who raped her, all while balancing the ongoing dramas in her everyday life. 

"Elle" is a French language film directed by Paul Verhoeven, who is known for movies such as "Total Recall," "Basic Instinct," and "Showgirls." It stars Isabelle Huppert as Michèle Leblanc, the co-founder of a video game development company. She has a lot of skeletons in her closet, including the fact her father is an infamous serial killer. Director Paul Verhoeven has never been one to shy away from the sexually explicit, violent, or taboo, and "Elle" is no different as the first thing we see on screen will most certainly turn viewers off from the start. The film has a jarring opening as it begins with Michèle being raped by a masked attacker. Due to her past, she refuses to involve the police and attempts to find ways to protect herself and conduct her own investigation without their assistance to find the man responsible. She does this while dealing with many personal dramas going on in her own life involving her adult son, played by Jonas Bloquet, her aging mother, played by Judith Magre, her ex-husband with whom she is still close, played by Charles Berling, and her secret lover, who happens to be the husband of her best friend Anna, played by Anne Consigny.

Though the rape and finding the identity of the attacker at first seem to be the focus of "Elle," this film is far more of a character sketch about understanding Michèle herself and breaking down how she initially goes about her life after such a horrifying event happened to her. There's more than meets the eye when it comes to Michèle and what she chooses to disclose to those around her. Verhoven's handling of the rape scenes and Michèle's reaction to her assault, especially once the attacker is actually revealed, could be a point of contention for many viewers. Her reaction and the ultimate conclusion of the movie can be open for interpretation, and when we mention this, we mean her intent is what's questionable, not the final result itself. Isabelle Huppert does offer a fantastic performance as the blunt, somewhat abrasive, manipulative, possibly sociopathic, albeit charismatic Michèle. Huppert has been getting recognized left and right for her performance this award season, and we can't say we disagree with the choice to put her front and center as her performance is borderline exceptional.

"Elle" is not a film for everyone. Some may be downright repulsed by it, though this is nothing new for Verhoeven. It deals with not only sexual assault, but promiscuity, primal urges, and all things provocative, and it may leave a bad taste in the audience's mouths. Other viewers may see this as a film where this usually strong female lead character has to attempt to reclaim her power after an assault. Us? We're somewhere in the middle. We agree this film has merit, though we don't love it as much other people do.

My Rating: 7.5/10
BigJ's Rating: 7/10
IMDB's Rating: 7.3/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 88%
Do we recommend this movie: Yes!

Movie Review: "Train to Busan" (2016)

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Movie"Train to Busan" / "Bu-san-haeng"
Director: Sang-ho Yeon
Year: 2016
Rating: NR
Running Time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

A father takes his daughter to Busan on her birthday so she can visit her mother. While en route, a zombie outbreak begins to overwhelm the train and the cities of South Korea.

"Train to Busan" is a South Korean horror film written and directed by Sang-ho Yeon. It stars Yoo Gong as Seok Woo, a divorced father of a young girl named Soo-an, played by Soo-an Kim. Seok works in finance and his busy schedule keeps him from spending a lot of time with his daughter. Her birthday is coming up, and as a gift, she wants her father to take her to Busan so she can see her mother. Feeling bad about neglecting her recently, he agrees. The two hop on a train from Seoul to Busan, and just as they do, unbeknownst to them, a zombie outbreak strikes the city, and one of the infected has managed to get on their train. It isn't long before that one zombie turns into dozens more, and everyone aboard has to fight for survival.

There have been many different types of zombies used in movies and television throughout history. Some are slow moving, like the "walkers" seen in the television show "The Walking Dead," and others are fast and ultra aggressive, like the ones seen in "28 Days Later." This is definitely the latter. The zombies in "Train to Busan" are fast and even more aggressive than you can imagine. They crawl over each other to get to anything and everything living, and they murder people fast and quick. They contort in every which way once they are "turned" and writhe and wiggle about looking for their next victim. The zombies here aren't actually looking to feed on the living, but rather to spread like a virus as quickly as possible. They simply bite to kill, and once the people they bite is infected, they move on to the next victim, causing a rapid spreading of the outbreak.

This is an amazingly exciting zombie outbreak film executed in a simple but effective manner. It is very exhilarating to watch and is full of extremely intense action horror, but it is also has a well thought out narrative with deeper issues at play. Those behind the scenes have made comparisons between those who are completely self-serving and only concerned with self preservation, to others who are willing to risk their own well being to help others. Fast-paced zombie movies aren't usually a go-to for emotionally moving moments, but this film has those, too. We feel there are also some political undertones here as well, making this more than your average "kill-kill-kill"-fest.

We really love "Train to Busan." We are huge suckers for Korean cinema and zombie flicks, but both of them in the same movie? WINNING. If you're reserved about this for whatever reason, take a chance on it because we absolutely recommend this film. It will get you deeply invested in the characters and their various plights, and may even make you a little scared or excited at all of the zombie action.

My Rating: 9/10
BigJ's Rating: 9/10
IMDB's Rating: 7.5/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 96%
Do we recommend this movie: ABSOLUTELY YES!!!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Movie Review #551: "Monster Trucks" (2017)

Director: Chris Wedge
Rating: PG
Running Time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
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When an oil company called Terravex drills through a water deposit, they inadvertently release three undiscovered creatures from their subterranean environment. After one of the creatures escapes, the company will do whatever it takes to keep its existence hidden from the public so they can continue drilling. When a young man named Tripp (Lucas Till) finds this blob-like specimen in the junkyard where he works, he befriends it and uses it as a motor for his lifted truck. 

"Monster Trucks" is directed by Chris Wedge, who has previously only directed animated feature films like "Ice Age" and "Epic." The concept for this film sounds like it was thought up by a four year old child, and word has it, it actually was. We can just imagine the pitch in our heads: "You know how there are those big things called monster trucks? Well, what if we double down on the monster trucks idea and have the characters in our movie literally be monster trucks? The monsters will be used as engines for the trucks. Oh, and the monsters in the trucks also like to watch monster trucks." BINGO! You have "Monster Trucks." That's the plot of this movie in a nutshell (or should we say camper shell? HEYOOOOOO!).

We went into "Monster Trucks" having seen the trailer a handful of times, and each viewing of it was somehow worse than the last. We expected this movie to be a slogging dumpster fire like "Nine Lives," or "Norm of the North," or "Jem and the Holograms," or "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (2014), or "Eight Crazy Nights," devoid of humor and ripe with burp and fart jokes. As the credits rolled, there was a period of dead air in the theater between BigJ and I as we sat, stunned by what we had just seen, staring at the screen in disbelief. He turned to me, and I to him, and at the same time, we both uttered, "I didn't hate it."

This movie stars Lucas Till as Tripp, a young man with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, who works at a junkyard owned and operated by Mr. Weathers, played by Danny Glover. When an oil company called Terravex tries to usurp environmental laws by drilling through a water deposit, they unintentionally release three undiscovered subterranean creatures to the surface. One of them gets away while the other two are captured, and Terravex sets out after it so it can be kept a secret. This creature, which eats oil, shows up in the junkyard looking for food and runs into and eventually befriends Tripp. When the monster crawls inside the empty engine bay of Tripp's truck, he discovers this being makes a damn fine engine. Now, Tripp must do what he can to keep the creature safe, along with the help of Meredith, played by Jane Levy, a girl from Tripp's school who is supposed to tutor him and is clearly smitten with him even though he does not give a hoot about her whatsoever.

First of all, let us say that "Monster Trucks" isn't a good movie in the traditional sense. The acting is borderline awful, the dialogue is atrocious, Till's hair color changes multiple times, even in the same scene, along with lots of other inconsistencies, and the story is loaded with plot holes like the creature's aforementioned oil-drinking. Is it not one of the biggest contradictions ever put into a script to make a greedy oil company the villain of the movie, only to watch the protagonist spend hundreds of dollars on gas to feed the monster oil?! Talk about a mixed message! It also doesn't help that the protagonist has a fondness for lifted trucks with big block V-8 engines sporting duel four barrel carburetors. Some won't be able to get over this glaringly dumb contradiction, and we get it. Filmmakers have to make movies that make sense, but kids won't care when there is a goofy looking gelatinous goo-monster driving an awesome truck on screen! We personally don't really look too hard for messages in silly adventure films for children, unless they are made by Disney, Pixar, or Laika.

We can't sit here and say we hated this movie because we sort of had fun watching it. Not a ton of fun, but we were not so miserable that we wanted to be at the dentist rather than at the movies (which is how we felt watching any of the above listed films). There are a lot of fast car chases and massive amounts of wanton destruction without any sort of consequences starting at the very beginning of the movie. These fun action sequences often left us, shockingly, with a smile on our faces. This reminds us a lot of other various films from our childhood, ones like "Richie Rich," "Jumanji," "Blank Check," or "Matilda," where a ton of destruction and multiple illegalities happen, but by movie's end, all is forgotten because everyone is safe and alive! "Monster Trucks" will be some little kid's "Jumanji," fun and flashy on the outside, but utterly devoid of sense come age 9-14. The CGI surprisingly isn't terrible despite what the trailers may have shown, but what do you expect from a film with a $125 million budget? Even though the creature is a slimy little squid-like monster, it's actually kind of cute. In the end, we "enjoyed" ourselves a lot more than we expected to, which proves you can never judge a movie by its crappy trailer (ohhhhhhh yes you can...see, we can make contradictions, too). This movie may have a lot of appeal for a younger pre-teenage audience, but we won't be the least bit surprised when it doesn't make any money at the box office.

My Rating: 5/10
BigJ's Rating: 5.5/10
IMDB's Rating: ~5.4/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: ~31%
Do we recommend this movie: Meh.

Movie Review: "Armageddon" (1998)

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Director: Michael Bay
Year: 1998
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hours, 31 minutes

When an asteroid the size of Texas is found to be hurling towards Earth, NASA enlists the help of a team of oil drillers to go into space, land on the asteroid, drill a deep hole into it, and drop a nuclear weapon down inside the hole so they can blow the asteroid apart in an effort to save the world.

"Armageddon" is an epic disaster film directed by Michael Bay. When you read the above summary and see how absolutely ridiculous it sounds, the fact that NASA needs oil drillers to save the world, it just sounds absolutely absurd. Then, when you realize it's directed by the king of the needless explosions, Michael Bay, you may start to think, "there is no way this can be a good movie."

Look, we are the first people to readily and gladly mock Bay for his dopey "Transformers" series and his involvement in many projects we have completely hated, but there is something about "Armageddon" we really, really enjoy. It is one of our favorite guilty pleasure movies. Sure, the story is full of plot holes, the dialogue is mostly ludicrous, and it's filled with more genre tropes than we can count, but damn it, it's just such cheesy fun. We start to overlook these factors, however, as the movie progresses along its run time. A lot of this may have to do with the awesome cast. It stars Bruce Willis as Harry Stanton. Willis always has a certain charm about him and a way to deliver his lines with this slightly annoyed, dry wit that is quite funny and fits this film perfectly. Maybe it's the massive supporting cast that includes the likes of Ben Affleck, Steve Buscemi, Michael Clarke Duncan, Will Patton, Billy Bob Thornton, Peter Stormare, Owen Wilson, Liv Tyler, Jason Isaacs, William Fichtner, Ken Hudsen Campbell, and Keith David. This cast comes together wonderfully to create a rather motley crew of surprisingly relatable, likable characters. If you have good characters that the audience can connect to on some level, then half of the job of making an enjoyable movie is done right there, even when there are awkward scenes involving animal cracker cozy love talk, someone bringing a gun into space, and Steve Buscemi riding a nuclear warhead. Beyond the cast and beyond the characters, this movie knows it is not meant to be taken seriously. The tone stays fun and light as the film is loaded with funny quips and quotable cheesy one-liners.

If you are looking for a planet-destroying asteroid movie from 1998 that has a more serious tone and better (we guess??) acting, check out Mimi Leder's "Deep Impact." For us, we'll take the big, incredible explosions, the silly dialogue, the charismatic characters, one hell of a heartbreaking ending, tons of over-the-top action, and the cool visuals of the Oscar nominated "Armageddon." You read that right, Oscar nominated, bitches. Michael Bay, ladies and gentlemen, Michael Bay made a movie we like.

My Rating: 7.5/10
BigJ's Rating: 7/10
IMDB's Rating: 6.6/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 39%
Do we recommend this movie: Sure, why not?

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Movie Review #550: "Underworld: Blood Wars" (2017)

Director: Anna Foerster
Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
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The lycans are hunting Selene (Kate Beckinsale) in the hopes of finding her daughter Eve, who has been hidden somewhere unknown. Marius (Tobias Menzies), the new lycan leader with a super organized army, knows Eve's blood will give them the advantage they need to finally win the war against the vampires.

"Underworld: Blood Wars" is the fifth installment in the "Underworld" franchise. It is directed by Anna Foerster, who is the first woman to direct an "Underworld" film. This is also the first feature film she has directed as she previously only worked on TV projects. The film is written by Kyle Ward, who previously worked on "Machete Kills," and Cory Goodman, who wrote "The Last Witch Hunter." Kate Beckinsale returns as former Death Dealer Selene, who is now on the run from both vampires and lycans. She is sought by the vampires because she killed two of their elders, and the lycans want her because they want to find her daughter Eve, the first naturally born hybrid, for her blood. Also returning to reprise their roles are Theo James and Charles Dance, who play David and his father Thomas. Also in the film are Laura Pulver, the power-hungry, war-mongering vampire Semira, and Tobias Menzies as Marius, the leader of a massive, highly organized Lycan army.

Going back and watching all the "Underworld" films, one thing we've noticed is this series is terrible at setting up its sequels. Really, this series has a terribly disjointed narrative since movie #1. The writers constantly rewrite the past in an effort to create new twists by writing off previous knowledge as a lie. They also build characters to supposedly do amazing things that never wind up happening. In the past, the franchise spent two movies building up the character of Michael, the hybrid lycan/vampire played by Scott Speedman, only to completely minimize his role by the fourth movie and by totally writing him out come "Blood Wars." They spent all of "Awakening" building up the character of Eve and her probable immense power, only to use her as a reference point in this installment. Meanwhile, Selene is the one who constantly gets stronger and stronger each film, at one point gaining super-bleached hair tips which come with nice perks beyond an edgy hairstyle. They do the whole build-up/let down shtick again in this film towards a specific object that must be retrieved by the end of the film. It is mentioned as an amazing wielding of power that causes its enemies to cower in fear at the mere sight of it, but is never used in such a way and becomes completely insignificant to the plot by movie's end. The CGI, though somewhat improved????? (others may argue this is true), is still rough at times, especially on the character of Marius when he does his odd transformation thing. The use of CGI is in overdrive here as almost all of the practical effects have now fallen by the wayside in favor of computer generated graphics, no matter how bad they look.

Honestly, we know people don't go see the "Underworld" movies for their deep plots. They go to see Kate Beckinsale and others run, jump, flip, and fight around in leather outfits with big guns and other cool weaponry. That's what you'll get in "Underworld: Blood Wars." Despite all its faults, this movie still winds up having some semi-good, mostly tolerable moments of ultraviolent bloody action and that is probably all fans of the series crave to see. We wouldn't hate it if there were never a sixth movie, though we know if this one makes enough, our asses will be back in the theater come 2-4 years for the inevitable "Underworld: The Final Chapter." The series is not improving as a whole over time.

My Rating: 4.5/10
BigJ's Rating: 5/10
IMDB's Rating: 6.4/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 19%
Do we recommend this movie: Meh.

Movie Review #549: "Hidden Figures" (2016)

Director: Theodore Melfi
Rating: PG
Running Time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
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A look at the lives of three black female pioneers working at NASA and their contributions to the United States space program.

"Hidden Figures" is directed by Theodore Melfi, who is known for the 2014 film "St. Vincent." It is written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder and is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. It stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe as Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, three hidden contributors to the NASA space program who, until recently, had not received much recognition. These three women worked for NASA as "computers," who basically verify the calculations of engineers and other mathematicians. These three brilliant woman, however, would prove to be so much more than that.

Though all three woman have their own character arcs, the primary focus is on Taraji P. Henson's Katherine, an accomplished mathematician who, because of her race and gender, is often forced to take a back seat to those she is better than at math. She, of course, eventually starts to show that she is a valuable, indispensable asset, calculating launching, landing, go/no go, and all of the other space and math jargon stuff we honestly don't comprehend, but sure makes for compelling subject matter. Monáe's Mary strives to become the first female engineer at NASA, but has to petition the court to allow her to take night classes at an all-white school, and Spencer's Dorothy, who finds she is not getting a pay raise and proper title for doing a supervisor's job, takes it upon herself to learn an entirely new computer language as IBMs are coming in to replace the human "computers." These three woman put on wonderful, layered performances, each doing a great job bringing their true life characters and their struggles in a still-segregated Virginia to life.

This is a glossy Hollywood biopic that runs through the typical biopic formula, but feels much more urgent and important to share with the world at this particular juncture and climate. It takes a few liberties here and there as the telling of true stories often do, but director Theodore Melfi and co. manage to capture the accomplishments and the spirit of the film's protagonists brilliantly. They do show much of the shameful past of segregation in America and manage to use that conflict to draw parallels to issues we now face in our modern times. There is no better example of this than in a scene between Octavia Spencer and Kirsten Dunst, as the latter assures the former she has "no problem with y'all." Spencer's response? "I'm sure you believe you feel that way." Could you ask for a more relevant response to such a comment? Each woman has her own individual powerful "Oscar reel" moment like this. Janelle Monáe's takes place in a courtroom, and Taraji P. Henson gets the biggest showcase scene in the film when she is forced to explain why she takes so long to go to and from the restroom.

"Hidden Figures" is an engaging film that will keep audiences fully enthralled and moved emotionally. It is tremendously acted and is a story we wish we had heard of sooner. Its biggest flaw comes from a few pacing issues in the middle of the movie, but never to the point where we felt bored. It remains captivating and harrowing, and is an absolutely great film worth checking out on the big screen.

My Rating: 8/10
BigJ's Rating: 8/10
IMDB's Rating: 7.9/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 93%
Do we recommend this movie: Yes!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Movie Review: "Mazes and Monsters" (1982)

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Movie"Mazes and Monsters"
Director: Steven Hilliard Stern
Year: 1982
Rating: PG (TV)
Running Time: 1 hour, 31 minutes

A group of four college friends regularly play the fantasy role-playing game Mazes and Monsters. When they take the game into a more realistic setting, the lines between fantasy and reality start to blur. One of the friends begins to lose touch with reality entirely, putting his life in danger. 

"Mazes and Monsters" is a made for television movie directed by Steven Hilliard Stern. It is based on a novel of the same name written by Rona Jaffe. The novel was inspired by urban legends stemming from a false news report that a teen had committed suicide while playing the fantasy role playing game Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D for short. This report also led to nationwide mass hysteria and the belief that the game was in some way evil or satanic and that playing it was actually dangerous. It stars Tom Hanks as Robbie Wheeling because everyone has to start somewhere. Joining him are Wendy Crewson as Kate, David Wallace as Daniel, and Chris Makepeace as Jay Jay. It is these four friends who come together at their college and bond over their shared love of "Mazes and Monsters." When Jay Jay gets the idea to take the game out of the dorm room and into some nearby caverns, Robbie starts to lose touch with reality. He becomes his pretend character in real life, immersing himself in the fantasy while losing his real life identity. He hears voices and starts to enact quests in real life where he gets into dangerous situations with the potential to harm himself and others.

This movie is basically an after school special propaganda piece against the dangers of D&D. It is a pretty awful film with a terrible script, abysmal and laughable dialogue, a thin plot, and a dopey narrative. Tom Hanks does his best to act the hell out of his horrible part in this dreadful film, and though it is clear he has true talent underneath his cheesy dialogue and bad robes, not even one of the best actors to ever grace Hollywood's presence can elevate this part out of the sewer in which it exists. The score and soundtrack never really fit what's going on on screen, and the songs don't match the tone of the film. Most of the songs sound like they are being sung by a bad Carpenter's cover band but with 75% less joy. The entire thing stinks of propaganda as it is clear the makers of this movie were paid to talk badly about Dungeons & Dragons as best they could, but instead, made off with the money and produced this shit-show instead.

If you take the most basic concept of the horribly done "Mazes and Monsters," about a person who gets lost in the fantasy of a game that is often far too real, you could make an interesting psychological horror out of it. This film, however, is based on an ill-informed cautionary tale and on faulty information. Everything about it sucks. Just say no, this movie.

My Rating: 2/10
BigJ's Rating: 2/10
IMDB's Rating: 4.2/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: ---%
Do we recommend this movie: AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE!!!

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