Category Archives: Terrible Reviews

Terrible Reviews: A Dog’s Purpose (or, I’m not crying, YOU’RE crying)


No, that’s not rain outside your window. My wife and I are just watching A Dog’s Purpose, and, well, let’s just say Noah didn’t see my flood of tears coming.

I haven’t wept like this since I first grasped mortality at the age of six.

Normally, I’d write a lot more, but we’ve been packing for three days straight; I’m exhausted and ninety percent brain dead. Verdict on the movie? If you want to walk around red-eyed and snot-nosed for the weekend, you know, maybe check it out.

Watch your step on the way out. My wife walked through bawling and I haven’t had the chance to get the mop. Mostly because I’m bawling myself.

This mini-post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


Pareidolia, Foie Gras, and Guardians of the Galaxy 2: A (sort of) Terrible Review


Have you ever been in the midst of a dream, and then realized that you were dreaming? You’re there, and you’re standing naked in front of the class, or you’re taking the stage and you’ve forgotten your lines, or you’re soaring in the sky with psychedelic dolphins or whatever, and it clicks: this isn’t real. It can’t be real. The world doesn’t work this way.

Suddenly, the dream is a lot less convincing. Probably you wake up. Or maybe you turn into Neo and you’re able to change the dream to suit your whims or something. Either way, it’s like one of those pareidolia images of faces in everyday objects: once you see it, there’s no unseeing it. You can’t ignore it and go back to believing that the dream was real.

pew-pew-pew

What’s all this about, then? Well, the wife and I saw Guardians of the Galaxy 2 last night. And about halfway through the film, like Neo in The Matrix, I woke up. Not that I had fallen asleep — no, as is Marvel’s wont, the action is cranked to eleven in this offering. Rather, I looked around. Noticed the seams on the walls, the jagged edges at the periphery, the hidden patterns in the carpet. And the spell was broken. I wasn’t just watching a movie anymore, I was in a world that I knew had been crafted deliberately, created to work surreptitiously on my subconscious.

(Spoiler note: This isn’t exactly a review, and there’s nothing explicitly spoiler-ific here. But if you’re planning on seeing it, and want to be able to immerse yourself fully, you might want to don your peril-sensitive sunglasses now.)

Now, sure, movies are designed to do this to you anyway. Hell, so are stories. Creators craft these things to manipulate your brain from top to bottom: telegraphing some story elements to invite you to make predictions. Playing to well-known tropes to help you find your footing in a strange world.

And GotG2 does that. But this isn’t that. I wasn’t discerning the hand of the creator in the brush strokes. Rather, I was discerning the hands of the studio execs molding the story externally as it was crafted. A whole new matrix within the matrix.

Here’s what I mean: Marvel’s using a pretty simple formula these days. Stories get bigger and bigger. Crazier, wilder villains (see: Doctor Strange doing battle with a god). Savvier, snarkier self-satirizing heroes (see: the entirety of Deadpool). And a sequel is always measured against the yardstick of the original.

And how do you make a sequel better than the original? Easy, you take the same characers, craft an entirely new storyline that plays to their developing relationships and strengths that tests them in all new ways, encouraging more growth, more development, more feels from the audience. Right? HA HA HA no. The way you make a sequel that plays as well as an original is you take everything the original does well and you do it more.

Don’t sweat the storyline so much: you’ve already got viewers baked-in. Just ratchet up the things they loved about the first movie. Give the funny characters more funny. Make the romantic tension a little more taut. Make the explosions even more explodey.

What made GotG1 so much fun — what audiences loved about it — were a few things. The old-school music soundtrack laid over a futuristic world. The irreverence. The niche-ifying of every character (there’s the snarky central guy, the badass no-nonsense chick, the brick-joke, doesn’t understand sarcasm or interactions in general dude, the jerk-store a-hole raccoon, the mute monster with a heart of gold. See also: Five-Man Band.)

And about halfway through the film, I realized that this film wasn’t actually doing what a sequel should do. There was very little new development. Not much added to the larger universe of which this story is a part. Instead, this movie was focus-grouped to make me want to watch it by giving me more of what I liked about the first one.

Let me not drive this into the ground: a few examples will prove the point.

Musclebound Drax, whose brick humor was the cornerstone of his character development (what, again, does he actually contribute to the team?) is tossing out even more deadpan sarcasm-proof jokes here, at what felt like a ratio of twelve-to-one over the original.

Angry little ball of sentient fur Rocket, in GotG1, made his place by throwing out sarcasm and lashing out when people called him a raccoon and just general dickery. His character development here: he’s a total a-hole to everybody, with at least two characters specifically pointing the fact out to him along the way.

And of course, the soundtrack is just as jarring in its strange setting, but there feels like even more of it, and it even becomes a focal point of the story itself: the central villain spins one of the songs into a metaphor for his own development. It’s well done, mind you. What at first seems like this big, romantic yen about wanderlust morphs into a twisted, sociopathic rejection of humanity (and all lifeforms in the galaxy, actually — readers of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will hear echoes of the denizens of Krikkit in the villain’s desire to wipe out everything in the universe that isn’t him).

There’s nothing wrong with any of the above. But once you hear the voice in your head — the voice that says “OH YOU ENJOYED THIS THING ABOUT THE ORIGINAL MOVIE? HERE HAVE MORE OF THAT THING” — you see it everywhere in this movie. Douglas Adams wrote brilliantly about humor that what makes it so lovely is its rarity. In the midst of a hot summer, you run out into a surprise thundershower for the joy of splashing around in the puddles, for the sprinkle of the rain on your face, because these things are rare and not happening every day. But when humor is everywhere — when it’s been raining for weeks and weeks, each day like the last, with no hint of the sun — the rain is a little less magical. GotG2 is like that: it’s a week-long deluge when what I really want is the surprise afternoon shower.

Put another way: they make foie gras by force-feeding geese until their stomachs explode. Having watched GotG2, it feels that I’ve been force-fed in the single aim of extracting more dollars from my wallet. And my stomach is near to bursting.

I say all that to say this: GotG2 is good fun. It’s perfect summer fare — lighthearted, action-packed. If you liked the first one, well, you’ll probably like the second one; not least of which for the reasons I’m talking about here. But if you miss the movie? Well, you’re not missing much.


Terrible Reviews: LaLa Land


When was the last time you saw a film that rearranged your view of reality?

My wife and I saw LaLa Land last night, and as the kids say these days, I am shook. SHOOK.

I can’t do my typical review on this film: the good, the bad, the wtf. I’m reeling from it, like I stepped into the ring with Ali for kicks. I’m seeing stars, occasionally blacking out, chasing the dancing elephants into every corner where they evaporate in ice-cream flavored puffs of smoke.

I loved it. Absolutely loved it. To put it in perspective — this coming from a guy who hates everything — not only am I satisfied in having paid extra to see it in the theater, but I immediately rushed home to buy the soundtrack. Granted, the soundtrack is currently on sale at Google Play for only $8, but still — I gave them my money twice in one day. TWICE.

Okay. Let me focus and try to tell you why you need to pony up and see this movie.

The visuals.

From the striking primary colors of the protagonist and her cohorts at the beginning of the movie to a stunning Fred-Astaire-esque soft-shoe against the backdrop of the cosmos, this is a movie working on your subconscious wonder center with every shot. Not since Jet Li’s Hero have I been so struck by the use of color and composition in a film. It’s stunning. Absolutely stunning.

The music.

It’s usually the job of the music in a movie to vanish into the background, to hover in that liminal space where you don’t really notice it but it still works on your subconscious. To surreptitiously set the mood while fading featurelessly into the background. But you can’t do that with a musical; the music has to be front-and-center, the dancing elephant in the three-ring circus.

And here, the music has to pull double — or maybe even triple — duty. One of the two protagonists, as a jazz pianist, lives and breathes and dies with the music. So it’s not only the lifeblood of the form of the film, it’s an integral part of the plot as well. Luckily, the musical score delivers like Domino’s. The leitmotif is in full force and the melodies are magical. It’s catchy and touching and powerful and it makes you want to listen to it again, which leads me inexorably to …

The feels.

I have a dirty secret to confess. I’m a theatre teacher, and I don’t get particularly sussed over musicals.

I know, I know. I can’t stand Grease, I would be fine without Les Miserables, and I barely bat an eye over Phantom of the Opera. I’m just not moved by the genre.

But this movie moved me. And, as has been well-documented here at this blarg, I hate everything. Yet, somehow, I found myself watching this movie, rapt, oftentimes with tears threatening to fall, as the two protagonists swirled around each other like binary stars in orbit.
I’ll concede here that I’ve been known to bust a tear at kids’ movies. Something about having kids myself makes me susceptible to leaking from my eyeholes when the emotional stuff starts. Mufasa falls into the ravine and Simba nuzzles at his lifeless corpse? Grab the tissues. Bing-Bong leaps from the wagon so that Joy can escape the ravine of oblivion? Definitely something in my eye.
But despite the decidedly lower stakes in La La Land — no dead parents, no shattered innocence, no longing for the simpler days of childhood — I found myself looking skyward and thinking of kittens, lest my wife glance over and catch me wiping at my face. The film is touching and heartfelt and, despite its whimsy, genuine.
The Verdict.
I could go on about how awesome the movie is. The freaking adorable tap dance number. The shameless homage to 80’s new wave music (complete with keytar). The (yes, I’ll mention it again) suspended-in-air dance among the stars as the couple falls head-over-heels in love with each other, and I fell right along with them.
All of that is secondary, really. What shocked me about the movie was this: I can’t recall the last time a movie jolted me so hard, so completely out of reality, as this movie did. For all of its two hours, I was literally transported. Pulled forcibly from the humdrum of the world I know and flung into the whimsical rollick that is La La Land. It’s just what the doctor ordered for a country desperately in need of a distraction; no surprise it’s up for so many awards.
This movie cracked through my carbon-reinforced, unemotional shell and inspired me. And if you can get past the super-campy opening number, it’ll inspire you, too.
Rating:
Four out of four lovingly polished Miles Davis EPs.
(If you’ve seen it, by all means, let me know what you thought. I’m still trying to rearrange my worldview around this movie.)

 


Terrible Reviews: Rogue One (with bonus terrible review of a terrible review)


Whether the downplaying of the formidable cast’s charismatic energies is an intentional downplaying of the potential risk to the characters that they play—whether it’s a matter of not actually allowing viewers to get too attached to characters or actors, not allowing viewers to be bummed out by bad news but rather breezing past it in a spirit of fealty not to these characters or performers but to the franchise—is the kind of corporate Kremlinology that would rightly take the place of criticism in assessing the substance and tone of the movie.

That’s culled from Richard Brody’s review of Rogue One in The New Yorker, and holy crap. I mean, holy crap. That’s one sentence. One. I challenge you to read that sentence without going glassy-eyed.

But let me circle back to that review in a minute.

I saw Rogue One this weekend. It’s good. Overhyped, I felt, but then, what in the recent Star Wars universe isn’t a little bit overhyped?

The film sort of paints itself into a corner, though. It’s branded as a stand-alone chapter in the Star Wars Universe, not part of the saga, but just a story living in that particular story world. Which … kind of … okay, I guess? It was important that we learn how the rebellion got hold of the Death Star plans, maybe? I dunno. “Many Bothans died to bring us this information” was a bit too glib for some, I guess, but I guess it doesn’t hurt to tell the particular story of how they came by the plans.

Except, the story’s a bit too flat, a bit too pat, a bit too much rehashing of old tropes with not enough of the Star Wars sweeping grandiosity and magic for me. I know, I know. Rogue One‘s selling point is: no Jedi, no magic, no Skywalkers, no soup for you. Still. For me, it’s a bit of a miss, but one that still hits some targets — like aiming for that one stormtrooper that’s running right at you, but missing him and hitting the big crane behind him that dumps a big load of space rocks and crushes, like, five stormtroopers instead. Except then, you get shot down by that one stormtrooper, which is totally demoralizing, not just because you got blasted, but because you got blasted by a stormtrooper.

So let me explain (and here’s where I flash the big red SPOILER sign).

The best thing about the movie is Jyn.

Wait, scratch that. The best thing about the movie is Alan Tudyk’s K2S0, but if you’ve read any other reviews, you know that already. He’s Marvin, the Paranoid Android, of HHG2G renown, but with a healthy dose of ass-kickery thrown in for good measure, and he’s an absolute delight.

But yes, Jyn.

She’s the second heroine of the Star Wars Universe under the Disney regime, which is nice. Orphaned, scrappy, disillusioned, all par for the course; possessed of a convenient-but-not-gamebreaking skillset that will allow her to go far, but not without the help of some well-placed allies. Look, as a character, she’s fine. You’ll get no argument from me on Jyn, just like you’ll get no argument from me on Rey from TFA.

And I’ll go ahead and insert here the obligatory: the cast is diverse, which is a good thing. Female lead? Non-white males in major roles? Villains portrayed by the white dudes who would otherwise be excluded? Check, check, and check. Disney is making sure to show us that there are other things besides white guys in the galaxy. Some people might call that pandering, but for my money, there’s nothing forced about it. And that’s a welcome change.

The problem comes in, not with the actors playing the parts, but the characterization of  everybody else in the movie. I’ll be honest: I’ve entirely forgotten their names, and that’s not just because it’s two days after the fact and I’m up way past a martini. It’s because the characters are entirely forgettable.

There’s the captain of the ship, who’s tasked with bringing Jyn to a rebel leader for some help. He’s about as bland as they come, with hints of a dark past, but don’t go looking for any fleshing out of that dark past, because this is a stand-alone movie.

There’s the comedy-relief rock ’em sock ’em duo of Donnie Yen and another scraggly guy with a big heavy blaster. Yen is a blind monk who desperately wants to be in touch with the Force, and he kind of is, but not really? And his buddy is … well, he’s along for the ride, but we don’t particularly know why, and we won’t be finding out, because again, this is a stand-alone movie.

And there’s a defected Imperial pilot, who of course helps the ragtag band of adventurers sneak into the heart of the Empire to do the thing, and while it might be nice to find out why he defected or what he hopes to accomplish outside of suddenly-coming-to-his-senses-and-laying-down-his-life-for-the-good-guys, we won’t be finding that out either, because, as has been established, this is a stand-alone movie.

Look, it’s serious-spoilers-for-real time again, but remember how we established earlier that this movie painted itself into a corner? By dint of its placement (before episode IV, but after the prequels, which will not be mentioned) it practically shouts at you that none of these characters will have relevance outside of this movie. Which is shorthand for saying that they aren’t gonna make it out alive. I know, right? It’s a shock, except that it isn’t, because if Jyn and whoever the rest of these scrubs were actually played a role in the events that followed Rogue One, then where were they and why have we not heard of them in episodes IV through VI?

And therein lies the problem. We know from the start that they won’t be making it out of this — or even if they do, they retire to the edge of the galaxy and sip on blue milk for the rest of their lives — and so their stake outside of this movie is nil. Which means that, as far as an audience is invested in them, we have to make it count right away, right now, in this movie, in this moment.

But it doesn’t count. There’s no backstory for any of these guys except the standard Empire is evil, let’s band up and take them out because this is a movie and hey why not. Donnie Yen’s blind kung-fu master is awesome for a few fight scenes, but he gets himself killed because of course he does; he’s a blind man in the midst of a nutty laser battle. Then his buddy gets himself killed avenging Yen because what else is he gonna do? Imperial defector plays his role, too, and so does Captain NoName, and the bodies keep piling up.

Jyn, at least, has a lovely character arc established, and damn, if we don’t feel something when she goes. Problem is, what we feel is frustration, because we’ve been made to care about this heroine who then gets wiped off the table with all the ceremony of swatting a gnat.

So, Rogue One kinda sucks.

Except it doesn’t. It’s fantastically paced, visually striking (the overall drabness of the film as a whole contrasted with the final battle on a tropical beach planet? Superb), and witty — if mostly in the guise of the humble droid. It’s firing on many of the same cylinders as TFA, which, given it’s the second iteration of the franchise under Disney rule, isn’t surprising.

But TFA has something that Rogue One doesn’t, and that’s the give-a-fargo factor.

Rey and Finn, Han Solo and Chewbacca, Luke and Leia, Kylo Ren and Snoke? Yeah, I may be missing some backstory on some of them (*glares hard at Rey and her deliberately mysterious past*), but I know those details will be given to me in future chapters. These characters are woven from a larger tapestry, they expand beyond TFA, and that means I don’t mind being strung along a little in TFA because there’s a payoff coming. Jyn and captain guy, kung-fu dude and heavy blasters, K2s0 and imperial defector pilot? This is all we’re getting of them. There’s no more to come, so I’m not nearly as invested.

So, Rogue One, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t measure up to The Force Awakens. It just doesn’t. It’s a good Star Wars movie — I might even say it’s a decent movie in general — but TFA, for all its recycled tropes and paper-thin homages to the original films, is better in every phase of the game.

Still, Rogue One is way better than the prequels. Which isn’t much of a yardstick, but anyway.

Which brings me back to the review I quoted at the top.

The review is subtitled “Is It Time to Abandon the Star Wars Franchise,” and I know that the hotness these days is provocative, clickbait-y titles, but holy shark. Maybe The New Yorker‘s target demographic is a bit more intelligent than the average bear, but just try re-reading that sentence. Try it. That single sentence has more tentacles of dangling modifiers and criss-crossed clauses than Cthulhu, and more self-important verbal masturbation than Donald Trump’s twitter feed.

“Corporate Kremlinology”? “Time to Abandon the Star Wars Franchise”? Did I just watch another bit of fluff in the Star Wars Universe or a goldfingered treatise on socioeconomics in the alternate realities of a fascistic puppet regime?

Star Wars, for all that it’s a product of our times, and as such, has meaning beyond itself, and everything is symbolic, and yadda-yadda-English-teacher-babble blah blah blah. Fine and good. But sometimes? Sometimes we go to the movies to watch the rebels stick it to the Empire, whether the narrative is “perfect” or not, whether the movie delivers in all respects or not.

So can we maybe cool it on the microscopic overanalysis of a film which is, at its heart and core, just a bit of fluff and filler? A plate of cheesesticks and mozarella, delivered to us to keep Star Wars in our hearts in anticipation of ep VIII next year? THINGS DON’T ALWAYS HAVE TO MEAN THINGS.

TFA is a more perfect piece of the Star Wars Universe than Rogue One. It handles its characters better, it plays on the motifs of the saga and panders to its audience better. It’s a bloody fantastic aperitif for the banquet that looks to be in the making. (I watched it again this afternoon. It’s still awesome. When Ren freezes that laser blast in the beginning? The literal darkness overtaking Ren before he kills his father? Rey summoning Luke’s lightsaber right past Ren before their climactic duel? I STILL GET CHILLS.)

But that doesn’t mean that Rogue One is part of the prequel dumpster fire. It isn’t. It’s savvy and sharp and compelling like TFA, it’s got shout-outs and nods to the old, grizzled fans like myself while delivering enough of its own punch to stand outside of the saga as a whole, albeit less strongly than I’d like.

All of which is to say, it’s not a perfect film, by any stretch. But it’s a damned good time, a thrilling bit of escapism. And given the 2016 we’ve all been having, a bit of escapism is exactly what we need, no matter how flawed.

I give it three out of four Imperial AT-AT Walkers in smoldering ruin.

Constrained by a flat and inexpressive script, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” lets neither its characters nor even its special effects come to life.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JONATHAN OLLEY / WALT DISNEY STUDIOS MOTION PICTURES / LUCASFILM LTD. / EVERETT

Anyway. I know some people out there (including my dad!) think that Rogue One is basically the best thing to come out of Star Wars, but it didn’t do it for me. Your thoughts?


Penny Dreadful’s Dreadful Ending


We watched Penny Dreadful recently, a show that finished its run on Showtime a year or so ago and then washed up on the shores of Netflix. Of course, we began watching the series before reading the spoilers and reviews which suggested that the third (final) season was terrible and disappointing, but it starts off pretty gangbusters. Victorian heroes and heroines? Gothic stories, wicked violence, thrilling adventure? The perfect summer guilty pleasure, and so it was — we gobbled up two seasons in the space of about a week at the end of the summer.

Then we got about three episodes into season three and … just stopped. Partly because we ran out of time — when the summer goes for a family of educators, so goes the free time for binge-watching — and partly because the show lost its sense of what it was.

Here’s the part where I warn you that there are spoilers ahead for this show that’s over a year in the can, if spoilers are a thing you care about.

The first season was basically like the Avengers meets the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen meets all those dusty old novels you’ve thought about reading but never quite got around to: it mashes up Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde and Dorian Gray, and turns them loose on the seedy, foggy streets of London. We end up with werewolves and gunslingers and vampires and witches stalking each other through back alleys and holy sharknado, is it a wild, dark, sexy ride.

The second season takes those heroes and fixes them firmly in orbit around the only female hero in the bunch, one Vanessa Ives. She’s a badass witch, and we learn just how she became so badass, and the perils of becoming so badass — she’s sought after by basically all the forces of darkness. More adventures. Frankenstein re-animates a woman for his monster and falls in love with her himself, but hey, whoops, turns out she won’t be owned, and she wreaks absolute hell in the streets of London herself.

That’s what made the show so satisfying: it was a bloodbath every episode, with a ragtag group of mercenaries fighting for their lives against the ultimate darkness, and the strongest, most fearsome, and most interesting characters in the series were the women.

Until season three. Wherein Vanessa, the most fearsome witch in the land, goes into a dark, existential struggle and gives in to become the bride of Dracula, and the aforementioned bride of Frankenstein falls into orbit with and becomes the diversion of Dorian Gray.

And it just becomes so … boring.

Well, we hate to leave a thing unfinished, and having sunk in the time to watch two seasons of what was once a pretty good show, we felt compelled to commit the time to finish the series out, to see if it turned itself around.

And it did … kind of.

There’s a sort of lovely duality to the final two episodes. The two women — Ives and the Bride — are both kept women, slaves to the men who have tamed them, bested them. But they respond differently: Vanessa gives up, stops fighting, and accepts that she can no longer fight against the forces that pursue her, even though she’s free to leave at any time, while the Bride fights with every breath, though she’s literally chained in a dungeon. Too much of it has escaped from memory, because I waited too long to put down these thoughts about it, but it’s all actually very poetic and sharp.

Except — and here’s the big spoiler — Vanessa kills herself at the end.

Which, I dunno, is a thing that makes sense, given the world that’s been built up around her. She has, after all, been pursued by the devil himself, and then by Dracula, and, due to the events of season three, been left by herself to stand against these advances. She sees no way out. She succumbs, and death and destruction ensue as the world’s most powerful witch and the father of vampires open the gates of hell.

But she kills herself. Or rather, she asks the man who loved her to kill her, and he does. And … that’s it. This woman who has been built up as the baddest, most indomitable spirit between heaven or hell? She sees no way out, gives up, and doesn’t even do it herself; she asks a man to kill her.

Horribly anticlimactic and disappointing.

Now, the Bride — she uses her cunning, plays upon her captor’s heartstrings, and escapes into the wild again. That’s an ending we can get behind. But the show isn’t about the Bride, not really. She’s a side-plot. If the show’s about anybody, it’s about Vanessa, and at the end, she gives up. And it’s hard to get behind that.

Not because she dies; a character choosing death can be valiant, if it’s for the right cause. And the argument can be made that Vanessa’s cause is valiant — the union between her and Dracula is literal poison for London, and eventually, for the world.

But she goes out weak. And I was led to believe, by everything that the show showed us up until the moment of her death, that this character was anything but weak.

That, I think, is why the show’s final season got panned. But it’s not like Showtime hasn’t seen horrible finales before — this is the network, after all, that turned one of the most compelling anti-heroes in recent memory into a reclusive lumberjack in his series finale. (Oh Dexter, we hardly knew ye.)

Tonight’s viewing? The first episode of Westworld. And initial impressions are double plus good.


%d bloggers like this: