Knives Out

Knives Out

By: Kevin Jordan

And just a dash of Foghorn Leghorn.

We’re finally to the last – arguably the best – big movie season of the year. Unlike the summer, it is not just filled with big, loud blockbusters plus even bigger, louder, dumb blockbusters. The end-of-year season includes prestige movies, smart dramas, Star Wars (usually), and, yes, big, loud, dumb blockbusters (looking at you, Jumanji: The Next Level). It means a time when blockbusters don’t fill ninety percent of the theaters because studios actually want you to see the other movies. Thus, we get movies like Knives Out.

Knives Out takes elements of Clue and Greedy, mixes in some Agatha Christie, and sprinkles a little Foghorn Leghorn on top. I am always up for a good whodunit. These movies are very few and far between, so when one comes along, I look forward to it. Especially when that whodunit promises Daniel Craig and Chris Evans. And Jamie Lee Curtis. And Michael Shannon and Christopher Plummer and Toni Collette and Don Johnson. Well, maybe not those last two, but maybe some of you get really excited for Collette and Johnson.

We all really love you…’re money.

Harlan Thrombey (Plummer) is very old and very rich. Harlan has been taking care of his family for decades, lending money to Joni (Collette) for her business, paying for Meg’s (Katherine Langford) college, gifting seed money to Linda’s (Curtis) business, and letting Walt (Shannon) run Harlan’s publishing business. When Harlan is found dead in his office (the opening scene of the film), the cops interview the family at Harlan’s home and the dysfunction and greed starts to reveal itself.

The interviews are initially conducted by Detective Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield), the audience getting a rotation of Linda, Joni, Walt, and Richard (Johnson) answering questions while private investigator Benoit Blanc (Craig) looks on in the background. Eventually, Benoit takes over the investigation, revealing that he was paid by an anonymous benefactor to investigate Harlan’s death (initially ruled a suicide). These scenes do a great job of establishing characters, setting up the scenes, and revealing the timeline of events that occurred the night of Harlan’s death.

Move! I got this.

The two remaining main characters are Harlan’s grandson Ransom (Evans), and Harlan’s caregiver Marta (Ana de Armas). Ransom is universally loathed by the family, mostly because he is a trust-fund baby freeloading through life. Marta is the opposite of Ransom and the one person Harlan fully trusted. She also has an interesting condition where she vomits if she lies. If this is a real condition, I want to meet the person that has it and test it. From a distance. Benoit most certainly does.

Now you know the basics of the film and the rest is trying to figure out the truth behind Harlan’s death before the movie reveals it. Like any good whodunit, there are red herrings, twists, and turns to throw you and the detectives off the scent. The problem is it is hard to focus attention on looking for clues and misdirection when we are being wildly entertained by a bunch of actors reveling in their roles and the screenplay. For my money, the best line comes when a character loses patience with Benoit, telling him to stop with the “absurd, Kentucky-fried, Foghorn Leghorn accent,” a line that simultaneously jabs at Benoit’s accent…and Craig doing Benoit’s accent. It also is an apt summary of a movie that is a legitimate murder-mystery…while also being a bit of a caricature of a murder-mystery. A movie that is an apt metaphor of the end-of-the-year movie season.

Rating: Worth ten dollars more than you paid for it, which should prevent you from paying for Charlie’s Angels.

Captain America: Civil War

By: Kevin Jordan

Let’s get ready to R-R-R-UM-M-M-BL-L-L-E.

At the risk of repeating myself, how is it that Marvel keeps making outstanding movies?  I’m not really surprised by this anymore, but I am surprised that they continually top my expectations.  At this point in time, the law of averages says they are overdue for a real stinker, but I’m happy to report that the new Captain America smells very nice.  Wait…that sounds weird – let me start over.  Captain America: Civil War knocked my socks off.  No, that’s weird too and makes me sound like someone’s grandmother.  Alright, I’ll figure out a better way to say it by the end of the review, but you get the point – Civil War is arguably the best movie released in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date.

As I said in my review of Batman v Superman, I was really looking forward to Civil War if only to get rid of the taste in my brain from viewing BvSBvS was always destined to fail at a story level because Superman could just throw a building at Batman and movie over.  But the real reason it failed was because the reason Superman and Batman are fighting at all is murky at best and completely nonsensical and dumb at worst.  Civil War is exactly the opposite and is more than Captain America v Ironman: Dusk of Avengers – they are fighting for reasons that actually make sense.  Sorry DC fans, but the sooner you admit BvS and Man of Steel were just bad movies, the sooner you can start demanding that Warner Brothers hire some writers and directors that don’t suck, follow the Marvel formula, and start making movies worthy of DC’s source material.

Captain america civil war

The Avengers have always been a tenuous alliance of superheroes, not so much because they don’t get along, but because they have different ideas on how to achieve the mission – world peace and protecting the human race.  The film kicks off with the newly reformed Avengers (that we saw at the end of Age of Ultron) chasing down some bad guys in Nigeria who were trying to steal a bioweapon.  By the time the scene is over, some collateral damage has occurred including eleven civilians dead.  The Secretary of Defense (William Hurt) informs the group that more than one hundred nations have come together to decide that The Avengers should no longer be a private entity and must start operating under the purview of the United Nations.  Any crime fighting undertaken outside of that oversight is to be considered a crime.  As the team digests the information and debates amongst themselves, sides start form.  One side, led by Tony “Ironman” Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), agrees that oversight is necessary because they are powerful and dangerous, but mostly out of guilt for the Sokovia incident (from Age of Ultron).  This is understandable since it’s literally his fault that Ultron came to be.  The other side, led by Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans), believes the opposite – that the various countries and diplomats have their own agendas and the team would end up becoming a weapon to be wielded by the U.N.  This is understandable because Cap didn’t trust what S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury were doing in The Winter Soldier (and rightly so, as it turned out).  The conflict arises because they are both right – oversight is a good idea, but the decision makers are completely untrustworthy.  Talk about art imitating life (*cough* Republicans v Democrats *cough*).

Side commentary – the logic of the SecDef mirrors the short-sighted-can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees thinking that we see in real life today.  While making his case to the Avengers, he places the collateral damage blame on them for the following events: (1) the Loki-led Chitauri invasion of Earth (The Avengers), (2) the Hydra-led invasion of D.C. (The Winter Soldier), (3) the destruction of Sokovia (Age of Ultron), and (4) the eleven dead in Nigeria.  Here’s how the team should have responded to those: (1) we stopped an alien invasion aimed at destroying/enslaving humanity, (2) we stopped Hydra from taking over America and the world, (3) yeah – that was our fault, and (4) hello – bioweapon.  I find it stunningly narrow-minded to get upset about the collateral damage when, had they not intervened, everyone dies or the world is taken over by bad guys or everyone dies.  My point is they could have come up with a better list of examples or just stuck solely with the Ultron incident.  Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

The part I really want to put emphasis on is that the competing sides didn’t just jump to punch-kick-shoot, like Batman and Superman did, they literally talked about their ideologies.  Following their disagreement, another incident happens and they talk about it again.  I know that sounds a little boring (trust me, it’s not), but it makes the battle royale later in the movie much easier to accept because it’s the logical result of the escalation that occurs during the film.  And that, dear DC fans and Zack Snyder, is how you make a superhero v superhero movie.

On that note, the battle royale is a phenomenal piece of filmmaking.  I won’t spoil the who takes whose side, but here are your contestants – Ironman, Captain America, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), Vision (Paul Bettany), Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Warhammer (Don Cheadle), Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) – and all of them get their fair share of the camera.  The scene also has great special effects, a very smooth escalation of fighting, and plenty of fun banter (at one point, Spider-Man is praising Captain America while simultaneously fighting him).  Yes – Marvel and directors Anthony and Joe Russo handled a twelve-person superhero fight movie better than DC and Zack Snyder handled a two-person fight.

Aside from the main story, they even managed to give due diligence to the introductions of Spider-Man and Black Panther, which is amazing considering how many characters were in this film.  That includes the additions of Emily VanCamp as CIA Agent Carter (to be fair, she’s not new, but she’s given far more to do this time around), Daniel Bruhl as the one true villain of the film, Martin Freeman as another government higher-up (and doesn’t he have to appear in Doctor Strange opposite Benedict Cumberbatch?), and even Marisa Tomei as Aunt May.  As incredible as it sounds, not one of these characters felt like a throw-in just to get a silly cameo for an upcoming sequel or standalone movie (seriously D.C. and WB – get your shit together).

So, yeah – Civil War was freaking awesome from pretty much every aspect you can think of.  Great characters, great story, no obvious plot holes, tie-ins with previous movies to maintain continuity, great new characters (and a big thank you to Marvel for fixing Spider-Man), great action, great acting, great dialogue, and most importantly, great entertainment.  See?  I told you I’d figure out a better way to describe this film.

Rating: Ask for all of your money back for Batman v Superman again.  Then, see Civil War again.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

By: Kevin Jordan

Give me more!

avengers_age_of_ultron

Are you tired of superhero/comic book movies yet?  Apparently, a lot of critics and film snobs are, based on their latest round of whining in reviews of The Avengers: Age of Ultron (the film was released internationally last week, so reviews are everywhere).  And, it’s not just them – a lot of regular moviegoers have been complaining about the number of superhero/comic book movies too.  Listening to all of these people talk, you’d think half the movies released in the past ten years or so fit in that category.  Of course, we’ve heard this Chicken Little refrain before, and they were rightfully ignored as well.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth and I’ll prove it.  If we start with the beginning of Marvel’s domination of Hollywood and your bank account, we also find the most saturated year for those movies in the history of the industry – 2008.  Already, you’re thinking “bullshit; that can’t be right.”  2008 saw the release of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Dark Knight, Hellboy 2, Punisher: War Zone, Hancock, and The Spirit.  Toss in Jumper (actually a novel and not a “graphic novel”) and Wanted (which really comes off as just a straight action movie) and you have nine of those movies.  No other year has had more than six and this year has the fewest releases (three – Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Fantastic Four) since 2002 (only Blade 2 and Spider-Man).  Not convinced yet?  In any given year, there are approximately 600 movies released world-wide, 200-300 of which make it to theaters.  If we do the math, that’s between three and nine superhero/comic book movies out of more than two hundred or more.  That is not too many unless you don’t understand math (in all fairness, I understand why people think there are so many – it’s because they make tons of money and get tons of attention).  If anything, there are not enough because nothing belongs on a big screen more than these movies.  In contrast, there were 24 American and British horror films released just last year (which is how many total superhero/comic book movies were released from 2010-2014), and nobody complains about that, even though most horror movies aren’t worth the time, effort, or money of a theater trip.  What I’m trying to say is sit down, shut up, eat your popcorn, and enjoy a movie that is ridiculously entertaining.

In related news, Age of Ultron is the eleventh movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and is easily as good as Guardians of the Galaxy, if not The Avengers.  Incidentally, that’s the other reason I don’t understand the complaining – the quality of these movies has only improved and every one of them is, at worst, very entertaining.  More is not a bad thing unless we’re talking about mutant turtles or exotic marigold hotels.  The Incredible Hulk may have been a fairly bad movie, but it beats sitting through slogs like Boyhood.

Like its predecessor, Age of Ultron isn’t going to win any awards for plot, but like its predecessor, it doesn’t need to.  The plot is the same as every superhero/comic book movie before it – bad guy wants to destroy humanity and the Avengers must stop him.  What matters is that the characters don’t get ruined by bad writing, the overarching plotline of the Infinity Stones progresses, and things go boom.  Anyone complaining that the plot isn’t original or that the movie is overstuffed (and a lot of critics are saying just that) are people who hate life, kick puppies, and write things purely as click-bait.  They also dismiss all of the smaller things happening in the movie that are very interesting and make it well worth watching.

(Mild SPOILERS coming.)

For one thing, James Spader steals the spotlight as Ultron, the titular villain and artificial intelligence created by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to bring peace to the world. (Ultron wants to bring peace alright, but quickly realizes – like Skynet before him – that the only way to do that is to rid the world of humans.)  Spader’s smarmy delivery, sans any robotic or growly Batman-esque intonations, sets Ultron apart from any other movie robot before him.  He’s so humanlike, you often forget he’s a robot until he reminds other characters of that fact.  Essentially, he’s playing a James Bond villain if Bond villains had a sense of humor.

Building on top of that, the movie takes time to further humanize the rest of the team.  Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) has a family, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) has a heart, Banner and Stark have scientific blinders doubling as fatal flaws, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) have doubt, and Jarvis (Paul Bettany) gets a body.  I’d argue that saving the world is less interesting than what all of those things mean for the future of the characters and the team.

Another thing is that the wit and banter between all of the Avengers is as fun as ever (and the thing that is sorely missing from DC’s movies, save The Green Lantern).  There’s a running joke about bad language and an entire scene devoted to lifting Thor’s hammer – as well as dozens of smaller quips and japes throughout the film – all of which kept the audience laughing and the film from taking itself too seriously.  Perhaps the best moment of the film comes when Hawkeye acknowledges how ridiculous it is that he fights with a bow and arrow.  I mean, come on – how can anyone not like a movie that can pull off a stunt like that without coming across as a joyless hobgoblin?

Perhaps the best thing about the movie is what I liked the most about the first film – none of the characters seem expendable, none of them are short-changed, and there seem to be more than ever.  The film introduces two new characters – Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) – Russian siblings who have been enhanced by Hydra with the help of Loki’s scepter.  The two are given back stories that explain how they got their powers and their motivations and ample screen time for the audience to enjoy them.  The two actors even manage to make us forget how bad they sucked in last year’s Godzilla.  Plus, even the bit roles for lesser characters (War Machine, Falcon, Agent Hill, Agent Carter, Nick Fury, Heimdall, Professor Selvig, Thanos) work since they remind you that this movie is just a chapter or two of a very large story.  And yes, that’s a lot of characters.

If the movie has any real flaw (besides the 3-D), it’s that a couple of the action sequences rely a little too heavily on CGI and it’s very noticeable.  The opening scene in particular, while exciting and fun, leaves a little to be desired in the realism department (yes, I realize how that sounds).  I think the problem is that Joss Whedon (writer/director) had something in particular he wanted to show, but that something was impossible to do with actual humans, so the computer got the full assignment.  Maybe time and schedule dictated it be done this way, but it’s definitely the worst part of the movie.  It’s a flaw, but a small one that is easily forgiven because of the rest of the movie.

The real problem with this movie is that the rest of the summer is going to be downhill.  There are quite a few movies to look forward to this summer, but what are the chances that any of them are going to be as fun and entertaining?  Sure, Mad Max: Fury Road looks like a crazy romp, Chris Pratt may or may not actually be a velociraptor (Jurassic World), Arnold will be back (Terminator: Genisys), The Fantastic Four is rebooting itself, Paul Rudd is Ant-Man(?!), and Rogue Nation is Tom Cruise’s next impossible mission, but….wait, nevermind.  Give me more!!!

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back, then, pay to see it again.  Nobody ever ate steak and thought “there’s too much steak being made.”  They just sat down, ate it, and enjoyed it.

Snowpiercer

By: Kevin Jordan

How do I get off this train?

snowpiercer

Every year, there is always at least one movie that is wildly overrated.  In 2013, it was Gravity.  In 2012, it was Flight (with very strong competition from Magic Mike and Zero Dark Thirty).  In 2011, it was Bridesmaids (yes; it really was).  And so on and so forth.  I wasn’t sure what it was going to be this year, but then I watched Snowpiercer.  If you haven’t heard of Snowpiercer, that’s because it went straight to video on demand while simultaneously opening in a limited number of theaters in the United States.  If you have heard of it, it’s probably for the same reason as me – upon its U.S. release, the main stream critics and the first wave of viewers raved about it and told everyone they simply had to watch it.  Knowing it was a science fiction flick – and one that looked very creative – of course I was excited to check it out.  Can you guess where I’m going with this?

Snowpiercer is not a good movie.  In fact, it’s a very bad movie.  It’s not John Wick stupid or The Last Airbender gouge-your-eyes-out atrocious, but it’s not too far off.  Snowpiercer has a 95% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes which means that only 5% of their linked-to critics watched the movie with their brains turned on.  Over the last few months, I’ve noticed a couple things about those critics.  (1) The last two years have featured inexplicably good reviews for a science fiction film that was entertaining, but had screenplays that cause you to make the same face as you would when smelling a person’s toe jam.  It’s almost like they’ve decided that every year they’re going to pick a science fiction movie made by a director they like in order to be able to say to regular people “see?  We do too like syfy movies” (Yes, they misspell sci-fi when they say it).  (2) Almost none of those critics ever critique the screenplays of films.  They’ll tell you about acting, dialogue, set pieces, directing, costuming, and if they’re feeling wordy, special effects and sound, but when it comes to the screenplay and story, they usually just give a summary.  Considering the entire reason for a making a movie is to tell a story, you’d think they would pay a little attention to things like character motivations or reasons why certain events happen, but they’re too busy trying to find a spot on fill-in-the-blank’s ass to plant their lips to worry about such things as plot holes.

(I’m about to SPOILER a lot of those plot holes, so turn away now if you want to be disappointed while watching this movie rather than before watching it.)

The premise of the movie is tough to swallow, but not impossible – the remainder of humanity lives on a train that endlessly circles a frozen Earth.  Your very first question should be “why are they living on a train?”  Honestly, you just have to accept it because there is no logical reason, not even when it’s creator and driver, Mr. Wilford (Ed Harris), spends several minutes explaining the train to the protagonist, Curtis (Chris Evans).  You’ll even find out that the train’s engine is a perpetual motion machine, begging you to wonder why they didn’t use that technology to power bunkers or biodomes or any kind of habitat that isn’t a vehicle hurtling at dangerous speeds over icy tracks in the Himalayas.  That sound you just heard was your brain sighing.

And if that’s not enough, the movie begins with script telling you how the ice age came to be and that “all life became extinct.”  Yes, that is an exact quote and no, I don’t think the writers realized how stupid that line is when it is immediately followed by scenes with humans.  And insects.  And fish.  And polar bears?  Seriously, the movie ends with a full grown polar bear standing on a mountain.  Even in a fantastical movie with this absurd premise, how the hell can a polar bear exist if “all life became extinct?”  Plus, Mr. Polar Bear renders the train concept completely pointless because if polar bears have survived the cold, surely humans didn’t need to hop on an elaborate globe-circling train to survive.

Anyway, it’s obvious almost from the start that director/writer Bong Joon-ho wasn’t interesting in telling a story so much as he wanted to create a train allegory depicting social class separation.  Taking a cue from such things as Titanic, 1960’s American-South bus etiquette, and insert-country-here’s current social structure, the train is divided into castes with the rich and affluent living in opulence in the front and the poor, starving, and destitute living in squalor in the back.  The problem is that Joon-ho doesn’t go any further than that.  The people in the back don’t serve a purpose; they’re just there.  Their job seems to be to eat nasty protein gelatin, be dirty, and get counted by the guards every so often.  At the end, Mr. Wilford gives some bizarre explanation regarding keeping the population of the train static – that revolts are required every so often to thin the heard.  He’ll even go so far as to say they can’t wait for natural selection, so then why the hell don’t they just kill all the poor people?  Aren’t they just taking up resources?

In addition, he also says the back of the train provides children that are required to help keep the engine running in what is the craziest explanation of the entire movie –a small child is shoved into the engine as a replacement for some part they can’t make anymore because this movie needed to be even less plausible.  But, even if that’s true, it doesn’t explain why the poor people have been on the train for the entire seventeen years of its existence since that engine part had only recently failed.

Not only are the proles pointless, but the rest of the train has no real logic to it either.  As Curtis and gang are revolting their way towards the engine, we see several of the train cars, but very few of any real importance and all which are mostly empty of people.  If the whole thing is supposed to be a self-sustaining environment, where are all of the middle class or working class cars?  The closest we ever get is an aquarium car where Curtis’ group stops to eat sushi.  No, really – their hostage, Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) invites them to sit down for sushi and they do because the smartest thing to do in a rebellion in such a confined space is to take a snack break.  Sure, we also see a schoolhouse car, a meat locker car, and an orange grove car, but we also see a dentist car, a sauna car, a hair salon car, a drug den car, a nightclub car, and even one car that is completely empty.  Half this train appears to be filled with non-essential bullshit, which would make sense for its original purpose (akin to a cruise liner), but makes no sense seventeen years into being humanity’s last shelter.  Where’s the kitchen car, the sleep cars, the livestock cars (the meat locker had beef and chicken in it, so we know they’re there somewhere)?   And, since nobody seems to actually work on this train, why is there a caste system at all?  Typically, the poor are taken advantage of, usually in the form of slavery or forced labor, but here they seem to just be ballast for the back of the train.  The explanation for the workings of the train always goes back to “the engine always provides” as if it’s actually a creation of Willy Wonka and spits out everlasting gobstoppers and socks.  I get that Joon-ho was exaggerating the train for his caste allegory, but it doesn’t work in the post-apocalyptic world he stuck it in.

It’s not just the train that is wildly confusing – the characters don’t make much sense either.  Curtis and his best friend, Edgar (Jamie Bell), want to revolt because they don’t like the food, at one point reminiscing about not being able to remember shat steak tastes like.  Shortly into the revolt, the gang picks up two people from a car that houses prisoners in morgue-like wall-drawers (again, why does this car even exist?!) – Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), the guy who designed all of the door security features, and Yona (Go Ah-sung), Namgoong’s daughter who may or may not be clairvoyant but is definitely a drug addict.  While Namgoong at least serves a purpose, Yona has no reason to be in this movie at all.  Every now and then she will warn them about opening the next door, but since their goal is to get to the engine, they’re going to open the doors anyway.  Of the remaining characters, Mason is the only one who isn’t there solely as walking meat puppets and even she seems fairly pointless.  She appears to be Wilford’s mouthpiece and enforcer, but her bodyguard, Grey, is essentially the same character.  For much of the revolt, Mason is a hostage, but her main function is to narrate much of the movie because, like the opening script of the film, Joon-ho was too lazy to use film techniques to tell the story.

Finally, the sequence of events is what really provides the locomotive-sized plot holes.  For one thing, it’s eventually revealed that the gelatin was introduced several years after the apocalypse and is made by grinding up large insects.  Remember – all life became extinct so where did the insects come from and why did they wait so long to start making it?  As the revolt moves forward, there is a battle in one car between the rebels and a group of security enforcers dressed in body armor and wielding axes.  This scene is eventually revealed as the turning point in the rebellion, as Wilford eventually explains that the revolt was allowed to happen but supposed to have ended there.  Wilford also says that he always intended on Curtis taking over for him, but if that’s true, then the battle scene makes no sense because Curtis was supposed to die there with the rest of the rebels.  Plus, Grey never stops trying to kill Curtis.  If Curtis is so important, shouldn’t Grey know not to kill him?  To that end, why not just take Curtis to Wilford in the first place?

Perhaps, the strangest (and only decent) scene in the entire film happens in the school car.  A bunch of elementary kids are watching a history lesson; an homage to George Orwell’s 1984.  They are learning the goodness of Wilford and the train and if fits the theme of caste warfare nicely.  The problem is that indoctrination of that sort doesn’t serve a purpose in this particular world.  All they have to do is look through their windows at the outside world to know that the train is good.  It’s also the only scene that even attempts to develop the caste system as everybody else on the train (except the rebels) is busy doing drugs or partying.

Essentially, the entire movie boils down to a single question – why is anything we are seeing happening on this train?  There is no logic to anything we are seeing and the revelations presented at the end only enforce the idea there is no logic.  But maybe the biggest logic problem with the entire film was asked by a friend of mine – why is the train even moving at all?  Like every other question, the answer is syfy.

Rating: Can you ask a Redbox machine for your money back?