April 29, 2015

Annie (2014)

Jamie Foxx, Quvenzhané Wallis, Rose Byrne, Cameron Diaz, Bobby Cannavale

Let's be honest--no one really likes the original Annie. It holds a special place in many of our hearts because of the nostalgic value of seeing it as a child, and its impossibly catchy songs that many of us can still sing today. (Seriously, try getting "Tomorrow" out of your head for the next week now.) But if given the option to revisit any childhood movie, would anyone actually choose Annie?

That being said, the original seems an AFI masterpiece in comparison to this remake. For one thing, the casting was off. Not the hotly contested multi-racial aspect of it, which was a great idea to help appeal to a new audience, but the actual performances of the actors. I thought Cameron Diaz would have nailed this part, considering her hilarious performance in the overall disappointing Bad Teacher, but she looked to be on the verge of laughter most of the time she was spitting out her lines. She's also not nearly repulsive enough to make her flirting scenes funny or desperate. She mostly seemed like she was doing a skit about a drunk high school mean girl or something.

It just felt like the entire movie had been sanitized. In addition to Cameron Diaz not being mean enough, Jamie Foxx wasn't either. Daddy Warbucks had a general distain for Annie, whereas Jamie Foxx seemed mildly disgusted by germs in general, perhaps not of Annie specifically. And Annie. Sigh. Poor, sweet, Annie. I still think Quvenzhané Wallis is one of the most adorable young actors out there, but frankly, she was too sweet for this part. The original Annie is full of optimism, sure, but she's also kind of annoying. I mean, she's so cheerful you sort of understand why the adults in her life are so annoyed by her. Seriously. You still root for her, but she's pretty annoying. But Quvenzhané is too cute and sweet to annoy anyone, so instead, everyone else's mean attitude toward her seems shallow and fake. Maybe film producers feel like kids today can't handle seeing mean people in movies? (#irony in the era of internet bullying to the point of suicide)

Even the plot had been sanitized. Instead of the orphanage, Annie suddenly lives in a foster home with only 5 other girls? And they live in Harlem? Is that supposed to signify she's poor? Because last time I checked, Harlem was becoming more well known for its gentrifying yuppies and trendy bars than anything. Part of what makes Annie so remarkable is her relentless optimism in the face of such abject poverty and sadness. Annie here has lost her parents and lives in a foster home, sure, but she doesn't seem to be facing quite the same obstacles as the original. She actually seems like a pretty normal, well-adjusted girl who happens to not have parents. The whole movie lacks the desperation of the first, which again, is ironic considering the desperate performance put on by Cameron Diaz.

Pulling the movie further away from its roots was this updated "cool" soundtrack where all the singing and dancing was essentially replaced with heavy beats and an inexplicable version of Stomp! The best part of the original movie are the songs, which are either missing here or re-imagined in a way that's trying so hard to be current and hip that it reminds you of 50-year-old men wearing tight Ed Hardy t-shirts and saying "dude" while trying to high-five you. It's a musical. For children. It's inherently not a cool thing. Stop trying to make it so.

Final word: Worse than the original in almost every way except that the people are cuter.

April 22, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Michael Caine

It's a fact that it is impossible to hate a movie with Colin Firth. It just is. You can't even hate oddball movies directed by the Coen brothers, simply because Colin Firth is in them. He is the Tom Hanks of Britain. But with a better voice.

So it was a genius choice to cast him in this odd, stylized, sort of cheesy action movie. Because even with the ridiculousness of exploding heads and James Bond-esque gadgets, you can't hate this movie. Because, Colin Firth. Now that Liam Neeson has opened the door to old guys being action stars, I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot more movies like this, where the old guy is still doing all the action sequences, and less of The Expendables or Red, where they do it, but make constant jokes about how old they all are.

My big issue is that the movie seemed to hedge its bets. It wasn't serious enough to be a real spy/action film, yet it wasn't really funny enough to be a real spoof. Maybe it's just my age, but growing up watching masterpieces like Airplane! and Top Secret! (even Hot Shots!) makes the comparison to this movie rather disappointing.

Ultimately, the casting of this movie is what saved it. Often, movies go south with their choice of the young protege (think: the kid in in A Good Day to Die Hard). A movie hinges on the likability and authenticity of the rebel kid who is going to be taken under their mentors wing. This is why Men in Black was so enjoyable, despite its inherent cheesiness. (But make no mistake, it is possible to hate a movie with Will Smith. Just watch Hitch. Or Hancock.) I wasn't in love with the kid, but he didn't distract me from the movie. Samuel L. Jackson, on the other hand, created an entirely unnecessary lisp (à la Jodie Foster's accent in Elysium), but even he made an okay villain (though his henchman sidekick was far more nefarious and interesting). He could have taken it up a notch with his signature yelling, but instead, he chose to commit to having a lisp. Maybe that's where the movie attempted to inject some humor?

The soundtrack, like so many other semi-decent movies, leads you to believe the movie is better than it is. The extended scene of the entire guitar solo of "Free Bird" that's one long shot of Colin Firth fighting is pretty much the highlight of the movie. In fact, it's probably the highlight of any movie I'll watch this year. And I don't even like violent movies. It's that badass. 

Final word: It's worth watching just to see Colin Firth fight an entire church full of people.

April 14, 2015

Furious 7 (2015)

Everyone. Even Lucas Black.

I know there are people who are die hards about this series, but I think most of us can agree that while they are entertaining, they are also mostly vacant and somewhat ridiculous. I mean, how do you differentiate each movie from the next when they all center around driving fast and half naked girls? (Come to think of it, the rap music industry seems to be doing just fine with having every single video almost identical to the last.) So after six movies, this movie had to ratchet up the stakes and come up with new ways to incorporate cars into a brainless action plot.

Unfortunately, I was stuck in douchebag hell (aka a movie theater full of what looked to be drunk, obnoxious, male techies), and the audience thought it was appropriate to laugh and cheer loudly every single time one of these absurd car stunts occurred. Also necessary for them? To clap every time Paul Walker appeared on screen, with someone behind me shouting "Paul Walker!!" Do you know how many times Paul Walker appears on screen in a movie IN WHICH HE IS THE STAR?!? (The answer: long enough for me to contemplate the different ways I could assault the shouter after the credits rolled.)

But even without insufferable people who clearly shouldn't see a movie like this if they expect a cinematic masterpiece, it was pretty clear this movie was somewhat ridiculous. If you're wondering how ridiculous, The Rock breaking a cast off his body by simply flexing his muscles is one of the more believable parts. But again, no one watches these movies for the plot.

Apparently, no one watches them for the acting either. While Toretto is clearly Vin Diesel's career-defining role, others don't fare as well here. Michelle Rodriguez, who is normally a welcome splash of feminism in a series dominated by testosterone and gold lamé bikini bottoms, is stuck playing a soft, vulnerable amnesiac for much of the movie. (Amnesia: the stuff of great movies. And soap operas.) While I might appreciate the attempt to make her a more three dimensional character, it doesn't quite make sense why the writers would suddenly, seven movies in, try to create realistic people. Also, while Michelle Rodriguez can do a number of things (like look tough and, um, I'm sure there's something else...), acting sensitive is not one of them. I almost wanted to call in her character from Blue Crush to give her one of those tough love pep talks.

Jason Statham, however, was the biggest disappointment. Not only is he British (which already gives him a leg up by having an accent that automatically makes him sound cooler), but he's actually been in other movies. You know, movies that people don't call a "guilty pleasure" (Here's looking at you, xXx). But it seems Jason Statham can only play the reluctant hero. You know, the guy he plays in all the Transporter movies. And Crank. And pretty much every other movie he's in. He excels at being a gruff but ultimately lovable good guy. That's doesn't translate well into being a dislikable assassin. Maybe it was the writer's fault, but Statham was almost laughable as a one-track minded killer.

[Fun side note: In all the scenes between Statham and Vin Diesel, I amused myself by imagining Vin Diesel standing on a box of some sort to make it look like he was the bigger, stronger guy (à la Josh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence), but IMDB claims Vin Diesel is 5'11 1/2" to Statham's 5'10". So not only are both those heights more inflated than an NBA program guide, it seems I can stop lusting over Jason Statham seeing as he could probably fit into my pocket.]

Also, I don't know how I never noticed before, but Rodriguez's giant veneers were so distracting during the movie all I could think about was getting out of the movie and Googling before and after photos of her teeth. Don't get me wrong--I appreciate a perfect set of teeth. But they should at least seem like they could reasonably be your real teeth. She looked like she had a retainer in her mouth. Jordana Brewster's apparent veneers were also too large and distracting, but considering she's long been relegated to some boring housewife role, you really only see her with Paul Walker, who, if you remember, received all the attention and cheers of the audience. You can't compete with a ghost.

I choose to believe this movie ultimately failed because Han and Gisele weren't in it. I just don't know how you can kill off the two best side characters, but still have Lucas Black make an appearance. And the sequencing of this series really leaves something to be desired. It should not be a requirement that people watch every single one to know what the hell is going on and who died when. It's a friggin' action movie, man. Where cars go skydiving.

Final word: The worst of the franchise so far. Possibly even worse than Tokyo Drift.

Related: Fast & Furious 6, A Good Day to Die Hard

April 9, 2015

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)


There is just so much crazy in one movie I'm not sure I'll even be able to cover it all. I almost feel silly writing a review about it because I'm not sure how anyone who isn't a Scientologist could watch this movie and still need someone to add commentary. It's pretty self-explanatory. But I do it for the fans, man.

The movie doesn't necessarily introduce much new information that hasn't already been known for some time, but it does re-introduce the facts from the mouths of some of the highest members within the organization, which lends it some serious credibility. My personal favorite was hearing from Marty Rathburn, who was the former #2 and was responsible for carrying out many of the unsavory actions of the organization. (Ahem. Church.) It was also super interesting to listen to Hanna Ettringham, a founding member of the Sea Org, one of the branches of Scientology. Again, it lends credibility to claims when made by people who were not only a part of it for so long, but who were there from the beginning and were in positions of power and influence. Because honestly, it wouldn't surprise me if most Scientology members either weren't aware of what the organization (ahem, church) was doing, or chose to ignore it because frankly, it's all so unbelievable.

On some of the other points against Scientology, I felt a bit more sympathetic. For example, the footage of their rallies (or whatever you call them--ceremonies?). Do I think it's weird to have the organization's (ahem, church) leader stand at a podium on a gigantic stage while proclaiming the good deeds they've done? Yep. But do I also think it's weird that Catholics think they're drinking the actual blood of Christ every Sunday? Yep. Now, I know that one is a rite and the other is well, a rally? but the point being, everyone thinks stuff other people do in the name of religion or belief is weird. What about revivals where everyone shouts along and people faint and stuff? Also weird. 

Which brings me to the $64,000 question. Is Scientology a religion? Well, it's not really for me to say. And I don't care to wade into those waters. But I certainly don't think it should be up to the IRS to decide. I mean really, who cares if people want to believe some sci-fi story that L. Ron Hubbard made up that they are possessed by the frozen spirits of aliens, ruled by the Galactic Overlord? Frankly, this would all be less of an issue if religious organizations weren't able to accumulate so much property, tax-free. (And while we're at it, let's revisit the tax policies surrounding universities too...) Sure, the free speech protections surrounding a religion are a big deal, but as the documentary kept pointing out, much of Scientology's power comes from it's money, which is what continues to keep it relevant these days, even in spite of declining membership. I think everybody in this country understands that money buys you influence and power, so even an organization (ahem, church) like Scientology can continue to reign over certain populations because it has money.

Where I started to feel sad was when members told their stories of abuse and intimidation and how they chose to stay with the organization (ahem, church) through it all. Because listening to their stories of how they got started, it all seemed pretty innocuous. Good, even. I could easily see how so many people got hooked into it. And as the tale unfolded, you could hear how they were wrapped into this abusive relationship and felt unable to get out. For me, that's my issue with Scientology. Not that people get e-meter readings or pay money to the organization (ahem, church) because again, Catholics do basically the same thing with confession and tithing. It's the "reform centers" that "re-educate" members in a way that makes those Christian "gay conversion camps" seem rosy in comparison. Oh, and the forced cutting off communication from non-believers. If that doesn't raise any red flags with you, well,  you are probably in an abusive relationship.

But while I oddly now feel less judgmental toward the members (ahem, parishioners) of Scientology, that understanding only extends to pre-existing members. Now, with the wealth of information on the organization (ahem, church) out there: the details of abuse and intimidation of both its members and those who defy it and the backstory of the Galactic Overlord no longer a secret from its members until they're deeply entrenched in the organization (ahem, church), I wonder how anyone sees that and thinks to themselves, "I want to be a part that." But hey, there are also people leaving our country to go join ISIS, so who knows. (In Scientology's defense, I'm pretty sure they're not trying to kill anyone or return us to the Stone Age, so they've got a leg up there...)

Final word: Probably only Scientologists and people who have no empathy for people in abusive relationships can watch this without being affected.

P.S. I know my blog isn't that big, but talking about both Scientology and ISIS probably ensures I'm flagged by the FBI now. ;)

April 2, 2015

Top Five (2014)

Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, J.B. Smoove

This is not a movie.

I mean, sure, it has characters, and a semblance of a plot, but ultimately, it's just a hodge podge of clips of Chris Rock and/or other comedians talking. If not for the "Top Five" theme of asking everyone who their top five rappers were, this movie would lack any sort of tie between many of the scenes. It's bizarre.

For a large chunk of the movie, I wondered if Chris Rock was making some sort of parody/commentary on his own career. After all, he was a successful stand-up comedian who really hit mega-bucks in the mainstream by voicing the zebra in the Madagascar series. Then, like his character in Top Five, he stopped being funny. He tried the serious role in I Think I Love My Wife, as well as just flat out not-funny comedies like What to Expect When You're Expecting. It's crazy! How does someone just stop being funny?

I thought this movie might have some insightful answers because frankly, I think we'd all welcome a return to Chris Rock's humor, wherever it's gone. Instead, I got a convoluted attempt at tackling the depths of alcoholism via snippets of cliched conversation about drinking. Perhaps I imbue too much political thought into trivial movies, but reading this deeply thought-provoking article shortly before watching this movie has made me suddenly skeptical of any movie that talks about alcoholism. (And weirdly sympathetic to all the celebrities bouncing in and out of rehab.)

It's almost as if he thought this movie would absolve him of what hipsters like to call "selling out." I don't have a problem with people trying to cash in on their talents and going mainstream. "Making it" is the dream. This is why you don't see underground bands turning down huge record label contracts to keep playing in nightclubs for $50/night. No one's craft is so special that they won't make some compromises for money. But essentially taking every role offered to you, then pretending each one is special and worth people's time and money to watch? (I'm talking to you too, Nicholas Cage.) One semi-serious movie written, produced, and performed by you will not make me forget Grown-Ups 2 any time soon.

And for the record, "Top Five" should really mean this, but I'll play along.
1. Tupac
2. Jay-Z
3. Eminem
4. Snoop
5. Biggie 

Final word: Save yourself time and just play Top Five with your own friends. It would be more entertaining.