M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Last Airbender’ is a Cinematic Atrocity

the last airbender movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2010. I also want to dedicate it to my good friend Ed Mahoney who was brave enough to endure this cinematic monstrosity with me.

I couldn’t help it. I had to see this movie for myself. Ever since it opened, “The Last Airbender” has received some of the most atrocious reviews of any movie ever made. Audiences all over have been calling for M. Night Shayamalamadingdong’s blood for the last decade, and they just may get their wish with this monstrosity posing as a summer blockbuster.

But nothing could keep me or a friend of mine from witnessing the cinematic carnage of what was an eagerly awaited motion picture. The reviews were getting increasingly abysmal, and public perception made it look like a car crash you drive by on the freeway which you can’t help but look at. We knew we only had ourselves to blame since we paid $10 bucks each for our tickets, but we were willing to make the sacrifice.

Well, I came out of “The Last Airbender” laughing hysterically. In fact, I couldn’t stop laughing for an hour after I walked out of the theater, and it was for reasons Shyamalan didn’t intend. Everything you have heard about it is true. It is a complete and utter disaster and fails on just about every level a movie can. It proved to be so boring to where I almost passed out even when the soundtracks and explosions increased in volume. Furthermore, the plot is almost completely incoherent, and the dialogue will make you howl in disbelief. Shyamalan’s career has officially hit rock bottom with this atrocious adaptation, and no one is going to ever let him off easy for all the things he got wrong here.

I could tell from the start the movie was going to be terrible as the opening scroll fails to make any back story seem the least bit comprehensible. Then words “Book One” appeared, and it quickly reminded me of what Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi were once told by Irvin Shapiro when they were selling him a certain horror movie:

“Fellas, if you call this movie ‘Book of the Dead’ they’re gonna think they have to read it! Call it ‘The Evil Dead!’”

Campbell and Raimi thought it was the worst title they ever heard, but what did they know?

So, what is “The Last Airbender” about exactly? Well, it’s about this kid named Aang who is brought up out of the water where he has either been hiding or accidentally entombed in, and he is revealed to be the new Avatar. In plain English, the Avatar is the only living being capable of controlling the four elements: water, fire, air and earth. But wait, he wasn’t actually trained on any of them, and yet people take him at his word. What happened? Doesn’t it make more sense for him to be resurrected and have him be fully trained? Or are we going to watch him perfect these so-called talents in future sequels? You know Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon are just begging for a franchise here.

Oh, I see! Aang found out 100 years ago he was the new Avatar and ended up running away because he didn’t want the responsibility. Also, this meant he could never have a family. Now that sucks! You haven’t even gotten laid yet, and then you find out you have all these powers and can defeat anything and anybody in your way. But you know sooner or later, this kid is going to hit puberty and really scare the crap out of everyone. The question is, will he hit puberty in this movie or the sequel?

Those who know me best know how sick and tired I am of movies which have characters forever reluctant to accept the fact they are “the one.” We end up having to spend almost three quarters of the movie’s running time watching Aang bitch and moan about his unfair predicament, and all the time I found myself getting infinitely impatient as we know he will eventually accept the role the universe has given him. Look, you’re “the one,” so get on with it already! Take pride in the fact you can defeat so many enemies without ever having to use a gun!

The two innocent looking kids who accidentally resurrect Aang are Katara, one of the last waterbenders of her tribe, and Sokka. These characters were originally Asian in the television series this film is based on, but Shyamalan chose to cast Caucasian actors instead. To say fans were angered is one of the ultimate understatements of the year. If Shyamalan was such an ardent admirer of the show, he would have honored the source material without question. His casting decision is even more bewildering when you take into account he is an Indian American filmmaker, an ethnicity sorely underrepresented in movies. Furthermore, the actors he cast are personality free and spend way too much time emoting when they should have been acting.

The main antagonist of “The Last Airbender” is the fire nation which appears to be comprised of men who have had all the joy sucked out of their lifeless faces. All of them seem to be on the same emotional wavelength, and none ever appears to enjoy being pyromaniacs for life. Would it be too much to show the bad guys enjoying what they do even as we want to see them fail?

Most of the cast here are unknowns which I thought might give Shyamalan the power to discover some incredible new talent as he did with Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense,” But from the start you see that these actors are not going to even compare to that kid who saw dead people.

Aang is played by Noah Ringer, and his job seems to be playing the emotion more than the character. We never fully buy into what Aang is doing because Ringer is not able to give us a character worth rooting for. Nicola Peltz plays Katara, and Shyamalan said he refused to make the movie without her, but she is not given much to do other than pine for Aang who is way too young for her. She keeps coming on to Aang like some stalking fan, and I kept waiting for Aang to drop his polite guard and yell at her, “COULD YOU GIVE ME A MOMENT TO MYSELF???!! PLEASE???!!!!”

The biggest name “The Last Airbender” has to offer is Dev Patel whom we all remember from “Slumdog Millionaire.” Patel plays Prince Zuko who spends an obscene amount of time moaning and groaning over how he was once heir to the throne but has since been exiled by his father. The only way back into his dad’s good graces is to capture Aang. After a while, I couldn’t figure out if Zuko was a good or a bad guy. Maybe that ambiguity was supposed to be there in the screenplay, but it gave me a headache just thinking about what role this character was supposed to play in the story.

As for the screenplay, it features dialogue which sounds like people listlessly reading facts from some outdated history book which should have been removed from circulation seven years ago. Much of it cannot be digested without cringing in utter horror. This is the same problem I had with the “Star Wars” prequels as they too contained characters made to sound like they are in some stuffy period piece when they should sound relatively normal. Compared to those three movies, however, George Lucas’ dialogue sounds amazingly fresh compared to what comes from Shyamalan’s pen.

I’m not sure what else to say about “The Last Airbender” other than it is a monumental failure, and the blame for its epic awfulness lays solely at Shyamalan’s feet. One has to wonder how the director of “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs” could have stumbled so badly. He has gone from being a wunderkind of cinema to its abandoned stepchild, and I think success has spoiled him too much to where the creative freedom he has at his disposal needs to be reined in. This is the same guy who pulled off one of the most brilliant twists ever in a movie with “The Sixth Sense,” and now he has given us a summer blockbuster every bit as inept and infuriating as last year’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”

Do I regret watching “The Last Airbender?” No, not really. It was worth it just to watch the finished result so I could analyze everything wrong with it. But with so many movies out there worth watching, I would encourage you to avoid this one at all costs. Watching paint dry will prove to be a far more invigorating experience. Better yet, watch the Nickelodeon animated television series it is based on instead. You do not need to convince me it is better than this cinematic atrocity.

Maybe Shyamalan should just direct for the time being. No more screenwriting. Lord knows how long it’s going to be before he gets over this creative disaster. Considering the talent involved, there’s no excuse for it to be this atrocious. None whatsoever.

ZERO out of * * * *

 

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Ralph Garman Continues to Walk the Showbiz Beat with ‘The Ralph Report’

Ralph Garman photo

I first became aware of Ralph Garman when he and Kevin Smith hosted a screening of “Red State” at New Beverly Cinema. In the movie, Garman plays Caleb, husband to Sara (Oscar-winner Melissa Leo) who is a shameless member of Five Points Trinity Church, an infinitely homophobic religious sect which puts the WBC to utter shame. While Ralph has no dialogue, he left quite the impression on audiences as film acting requires you to do more with your face than with dialogue.

Caleb Red State

But following the screening, which also served as my introduction to “Hollywood Babble-On,” a podcast I am a die-hard fan of, Ralph demonstrated to the audience a talent he has long since been gifted with, doing voices. Whether he spoke as Al Pacino, Christopher Walken or Sylvester Stallone (“GREEDY AND LAZY!!!”), it was clear he had more than eight voices in his repertoire.

Hollywood Babble On logo

Ralph Garman is an actor and radio personality who has appeared in such movies as “Sharktopus,” “Lavalantula,” “Ted” and “Yoga Hosers” to name a few. On television, he has lent his vocal talents to countless episodes of “Family Guy” and appeared on “The Joe Schmo Show.” But to many, he is best known for his time on “The Kevin & Bean Show,” a Los Angeles morning radio show on KROQ-FM. For almost two decades, he entertained audiences with his impressions and sketches which included him going nuts as Christian Bale and voicing the late Jerry Lewis so well to where he actually ended up talking with Jacques Chirac, the one-time President of France. This, of course, led to a lawsuit, but anyway.

On November 30, 2017, Ralph told audiences he was leaving “The Kevin & Bean Show” after 18 years and was very emotional about departing from a job he was at for a very long time. His exodus was the result of downsizing put forth by KROQ’s new management. To see him get laid off was painful as anyone who has gone through the same thing can understand the shock and sadness of seeing their regular routine upended for the sake of increased profits. It’s like your manager is telling you, “We would love for you to stay. We just don’t want to pay you and we figured you would have a problem with that.”

After interviewing with other radio stations for the possibility of employment, Garman came to realize he no longer wanted to work in an environment where he was told what he could and could not do. So, at the beginning of 2018, he debuted “The Ralph Report,” a weekly podcast which can be found on the membership platform website, Patreon. This has proven to be the perfect place for him to continue his work as he has developed a faithful following of listeners which he lovingly refers to as the “Garmy,” and it is a podcast I very much look forward to listening to Monday through Friday.

The Ralph Report Twitter logo

Wisely, Garman has tailored “The Ralph Report” to have different kinds of segments each day to keep things fresh and to not let it fall into a stagnant rhythm. He continues to “walk the showbiz beat” as he has said for years, looking at the latest news in Hollywood, listing the birthdays of celebrities, and checking out which movies did big business at the box office over the weekend. He also continues to have great fun at the expense of the reality show “The Bachelor” and its various incarnations along with his wife, Kari Watson. Hearing them riff on the latest “Bachelor” episode makes me want to watch it myself, and this is even though I typically live to avoid reality shows in general.

Like any good show, “The Ralph Report” continues to evolve to include new segments such as “Holiday or Holi-nay” in which he looks at each day’s national holidays to determine which one deserves to be celebrated over all the others. It’s constantly astonishing to see just how many holidays can be fit into a single day to where I wonder if there’s any day of the year which does not have one. It also reminds me of a classic episode of “The Simpsons” in which the following dialogue was spoken:

    Mayor Quimby: “Henceforth, this date shall forever be known as Flaming Moe’s Day!”

    Advisor: “Uh, sir, this is already Veterans’ Day.”

    Mayor Quimby: “It can be two things!”

Yes, it can.

Eddie Pence eating a peach

In recent months, Garman has also brought on stand-up comedian Eddie Pence to be his vice host, and the two play off each other very well. You also have to give Pence points for bravery as loyal members of the Garmy continue to pester him about the foods he should like but does not, facts he often gets wrong (“EDDIE!!! Is Wrong”), and those who continue leaving voicemails which start off with “DAMN YOU, EDDIE PENCE!” I think he deserves more respect than people often give him, and this is even though I am annoyed with him describing the sci-fi cult classic “Tron” as, in his words, “boring.” Hey, Eddie, no movie which stars Jeff Bridges, “The Dude” for crying out loud, can ever be considered boring. And yes, that includes “R.I.P.D.”

If I have to choose one segment from “The Ralph Report” I have come to like above all others, it is “Sex U.” Ralph originally did this segment on “The Kevin & Bean Show” until KROQ and the FCC forced the program to drop it. At first, I thought it would be poking fun at sex in general or at the sexually inexperienced, but it has proven to be a very thoughtful segment which deals with sexuality issues in an intelligent way. One episode in particular dealt with adult virgins who still find themselves celibate for varying reasons. This is actually a bigger issue than many even bother to realize. How do I know this? I’m not answering that.

But what’s especially appealing about “The Ralph Report” is that it is hosted by a man who remains a very down-to-earth individual. He moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles with the intention of becoming a serious actor, and while things for him may not have worked out the way he expected, I think he has ended up exactly where he needs to be. Ralph has a loving wife and daughter, his love of the “Batman” television show from the 1960’s has proven to be infectious, and he strikes me as a celebrity you can have an easy conversation with. Also, he has taken the large step of creating a business for himself through Patreon, and it has proven to be a success which has nowhere to go but up.

Please keep up the great work, Ralph! I look forward to seeing how “The Ralph Report” will evolve from week to week. Kudos to you as well, Eddie, for being an effective vice-host. Just remember Eddie, I love “Tron” and I mean it. Bye.

Click here to visit “The Ralph Report” website and learn more about the podcast and how to subscribe.

 

‘BlackkKlansman’ is Spike Lee’s Best Joint in Years

BlackkKlansman movie poster

Those who read my reviews know how much I despise the term “based on a true story” as it has long since lost its meaning for me. However, Hollywood has been looking for ways to provide variations on this phrase in recent years in an attempt to give it back the value it once had. One of my favorites was “Argo” which was advertised as being based on a “declassified” true story which made it worth seeing all the more. Still, every other movie these days is “based on a true story,” and pointing this out should make you wonder which ones were not. Besides, aren’t all movies based on or inspired by things we have experienced in real life?

BlackkKlansman,” a Spike Lee joint, is the latest movie to be “based on a true story,” but its poster has advertised as being “based on a crazy, outrageous, incredible true story.” Personally, I prefer the phrase Lee uses in the movie itself which says it is based on “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit.” This description feels far more honest as it would have seemed unbelievable were this movie released a few years ago. What results is the best joint Lee has made in years, and I could not recommend it more highly.

Based on the memoir “Black Klansman,” it stars John David Washington as Ron Stallworth who, when we first meet him, is on his way to apply at the Colorado Springs police department and become its first ever black detective. This distinction, however, doesn’t do much for him in the beginning as his fellow officers, particularly the slimy Patrolman Andy Landers (Frederick Weller) who does little to hide his racist attitudes, and he is eager to rise up in the ranks.

Following a boring stint in the records room, Stallworth gets transferred to intelligence where he comes across an advertisement for the Klu Klux Klan which looks to find new members. It is great fun watching Washington talk on the phone with Ryan Eggold who plays Walter Breachway, President of the KKK chapter of Colorado Springs, as he effortlessly convinces him he is as white as they come. This act quickly grabs the attention of Detective Flip Zimmerman who is played by Adam Driver, and it is a gas watching Driver slowly turn around in his chair once he realizes what Stallworth is up to.

Of course, Stallworth does make a critical mistake during this phone call; he uses his real name. As a result, he is forced to turn to Zimmerman who has to pretend to be Stallworth in person as they further infiltrate the KKK. This infiltration becomes a delicate balancing act as Stallworth continues to fool the racist organization over the phone while Zimmerman is forced to fool them in person. In the process, we come to discover how much easier it is for a black man to pretend to be white than it is for a white man to pretend to be black.

“BlackkKlansman” couldn’t be timelier as it digs deep into a past which has a frightening resemblance to America’s present. The KKK is shown here to be as violent and racist as they are today as they keep chanting “America first” and plot acts of violence designed to eliminate those in their way and instill fear in the general public. One of the most disturbing scenes comes as we watch them cheer unabashedly at a screening of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” which portrayed the KKK as heroic and African-Americans as being unintelligent and sexually aggressive. Lee does nothing to hide the racist caricatures Griffith put onto the silver screen back in 1915, and they are as infuriating to take in today as they were a hundred years ago.

It’s very ironic how “BlackkKlansman” was released in theaters around the same time Dinesh D’Souza’s latest propaganda piece, “Death of a Nation,” came out. Both movies deal with “Birth of a Nation” in different ways and acknowledge how it was the first American motion picture ever to be shown inside the White House. D’Souza portrays President Woodrow Wilson as getting a liberal erection from watching Griffith’s movie, and he took this a step further in “Hillary’s America” by having a KKK member on horseback leap out of the screen to where Wilson is shown as being completely hypnotized by this image. D’Souza, however, leaves out “Birth of a Nation’s” more inflammatory segments which include deeply offensive depictions of blacks, something Lee does not shy away from showing here.

As is the case with movies “based on a true story,” “BlackkKlansman” does take numerous liberties with the source material. The events of this story took place in 1979, but Lee has moved the timeline back to 1972 which allows him to acknowledge certain Blaxploitation classics as well as the re-election efforts of President Richard Nixon. It is also said how David Duke never realized Stallworth was a black man until 2006, but the change here was worth it as leads to one of the movie’s best and funniest scenes. With movies like these, it is more important to be true to the spirit of the facts than anything else, and those who have a problem with that can always read Stallworth’s memoir instead.

There’s some additional irony here with “BlackkKlansman’s” release as it is coming out not long after the “Superfly” remake. One scene has Stallworth talking with his girlfriend, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), about which movie was cooler, “Super Fly” or “Shaft.” Patrice replies how “Super Fly” unfairly stereotypes black men as criminals, but it also showed a realistic grittiness to life in the city which was complemented by the brilliant soundtrack composed by Curtis Mayfield. It would be interesting to see how Patrice would have felt about this summer’s remake which threatened to glamorize gangster life more than ever before, and it made me wonder why anyone bothered remaking this blaxploitation classic in the first place.

Then there is former President Nixon whom D’Souza tried to convince us was a true progressive like any other Republican in “Death of a Nation.” We do not see much of Nixon in “BlackkKlansman,” but we do see his re-election posters displayed prominently in KKK hangouts as they were supposedly big supporters of his. Seeing this makes me think of the old Vulcan proverb Spock spoke of in “Star Trek VI” which said “only Nixon could go to China.”

“BlackkKlansman” is designed to make us mad at how history is repeating itself as white supremacist groups have flourished under the Donald Trump administration, but it is also insanely funny at times as it is almost impossible to believe anyone could have gotten away with what Stallworth and Zimmerman did here. Then again, in a time where John Melendez, a.k.a. Stuttering John of the Howard Stern Show, managed to trick Trump into believing he was Senator Bob Menedez in a phone conversation, perhaps it doesn’t seem unbelievable in the slightest

Honestly, it has been some time since I last saw a Spike Lee joint. His movies get overwhelmed at times by his camera tricks and flourishes and overly bombastic music scores which make me want to turn the volume. But with “BlackkKlansman,” Lee has crafted a film where everything feels perfect and spot on, and what results is highly entertaining and deeply visceral. Even as the “Do the Right Thing” director wants you to see how the past never left us, he invites us to revel in Stallworth’s successful infiltration even as those in power want to bury his victories.

There is not a single weak performance to be found here. Both Washington and Driver dig deep into their characters’ complexities as they try to remain professional in an increasingly volatile situation, but their own personal beliefs threaten to get in the way. Jasper Pääkkönen proves to be a fiery presence as Felix Kendrickson, the white supremacist who looks like a grenade primed to explode at any given moment. Corey Hawkins is magnetic as Kwame Ture when he rouses his followers at a civil rights rally. And Topher Grace proves to be an inspired choice to play a young David Duke who is shown to be aloof as to who Stallworth really is, and that’s even when Stallworth is assigned to be his security detail while in Colorado Springs.

It is no mistake Lee concludes “BlackkKlansman” with footage from the Unite the Right rally which took place in Charlottesville, Virginia as the movie is being released on its first anniversary. We see white supremacists marching the streets with tiki torches saying they will not be replaced, we see the real David Duke talk about how Trump is making “America great again,” we see Trump respond to the rally by saying how there were good people on both sides, and we see the car attack perpetrated by a white supremacist which injured many and killed Heather Heyer. While we look at the past as if it is barely visible in our rearview mirrors, it is real events like these which remind us how these same mirrors have the message of how things we see in them are much closer than they appear.

The image of an upside-down American flag which fades into black and white is the perfect image to end “BlackkKlansman” on as we are truly living in “The Twilight Zone” with everything that’s going on. It also reminds me of the final image of that same flag in John Singleton’s “Higher Learning” which ended with the word “unlearn” being typed out over it. Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it, and history continues to repeat itself again and again and again. The fight for justice has never ceased, and the progress we all thought Americans had made is not as great as it seemed. Lee has made an overtly political movie which could not have come out at a more appropriate time, and it is his best one in years.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Generation Wealth’ Finds Hope Outside of the Corrupted American Dream

Generation Wealth poster

In 1988, John Carpenter made “They Live,” a science fiction horror film about a drifter who discovers the ruling class are actually aliens who have managed to conceal their existence and manipulate the human race into spending money and to “obey” them through subliminal messages in mass media. Years later, when Carpenter was attending a screening at the Egyptian Theatre, he described “They Live” as being his response to his horror at the Ronald Reagan years and his distaste at the increased commercialization of politics and popular culture in the 1980’s. When I was at a screening of “Big Trouble in Little China,” and I got to ask Carpenter the following question:

“You have said ‘They Live’ was your response to your horror at the Reagan years. With George W. Bush currently wreaking havoc around the globe, don’t you think this is the perfect time for a sequel?”

Carpenter’s response stays with me to this day:

“The 80’s never left us.”

Looking back, he was absolutely right. While I am a child of the 80’s and have a great love for that decade, it marked the start of America becoming an infinitely greedy nation as we strove to become very rich, deficits began to explode, and politicians began selling us on trickle down economics which promised that tax cuts on the rich would benefit the middle and lower classes. This proved to be a big lie, and yet politicians still try to sell Americans on it.

All of this went through my head as I watched Lauren Greenfield’s “Generation Wealth.” This documentary comes to us in 2018, and it proves once again how the 80’s still live on as we watch individuals try to become wealthy or at least gain the appearance of being rich. What results is a look at how the American Dream has been corrupted, the cost of greed, and the chance for redemption.

Greenfield is an acclaimed photographer and filmmaker, and “Generation Wealth” starts off with her narrating how through her 25 years of work, she discovers her work has pointed to one uniting phenomenon: wealth culture. From there, she investigates the various pathologies which created the richest society in the world, and she interviews several people who look to increase their bank accounts or change the way they look to where society will view them as sexy.

We meet Florian Homm, a former hedge-fund manager who at one time had a net worth of $800 million and ended up fleeing the United States to avoid getting arrested by the FBI. Watching him sit back on a couch while smoking a cigar with glee makes him look the modern-day version of Tony Montana from “Scarface.” Homm is never shy about just how much he loves money, and he laughingly admits how Harvard Business School didn’t train him to be an ethical businessman but instead to be “fine-tuned to rule the world.”

We also get introduced to Cathy, a bus driver from Virginia who travels to Brazil to get extensive plastic surgery which she charges to a credit card, the successful porn star Kacey who gained notoriety after Charlie Sheen paid her $30,000 for a days long party and drug binge, a young beauty queen who looks like a combination of Honey Boo Boo and JonBenet Ramsey, and former rapper Cliff (G-Mo) who we first celebrating the hip-hop version of the American Dream. They all want the best-looking bodies as well as all the money in the world, but as Greenfield says at one point, those who have everything never feel like they have enough.

I found myself getting sickened by the subjects Greenfield photographed and interviewed as it felt they were doing more damage to themselves than good to where they appeared, if not soulless, very empty on the inside. It proved to be a relief when someone like Chris Hedges shows up to put some much-needed perspective on what we are seeing as he compares America’s obsession with wealth to the end of Rome. At one point he even says, “Societies accrue the most wealth as they face death.” Can America be close to suffering the same fate? It certainly feels like it.

Greenfield doesn’t break new ground with “Generation Wealth” as Michael Moore already compared Rome’s fall with America in “Capitalism: A Love Story,” and “The Big Short” was an entertaining and sobering look at the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Do we need to go through how greed has wrecked America in yet another movie? Oh yes, we do! This country threatens to make the same mistakes yet again as politicians still insist on selling its citizens on trickle-down economics.

One key character from the 1980’s whom Greenfield highlights is Gordon Gekko, the fictional and unscrupulous corporate raider Michael Douglas played in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street.” But while Stone intended for “Wall Street” to be a cautionary tale about the downside of unchecked greed, Gekko proved to be such a charismatic character to where he became a huge inspiration for those desperate to make it big on Wall Street. It didn’t matter how Gekko set a terrible example for them, these wannabes still looked up to him, and there is a good deal of him in many of the people Greenfield interviews here.

Greenfield to her credit she never judges any of the people featured here. She presents their stories objectively and never tries to manipulate us into thinking about them in one way or another. Whether you are intrigued or repulsed by the things they do, there is a sense of empathy I had for them as they become more and more human as the documentary reaches its final act.

When it comes to “Generation Wealth’s” final act, we see the results and repercussions of the actions everyone has made as they reach a plateau in their quest for money. Greenfield aligns their journey with the catastrophic financial crash of 2008 which left much damage in its wake. Seeing these people on the other side of it has them finding something absolutely priceless while others find tragedy and financial ruin. This proves to be both inspiring and devastating all at the same time.

“Generation Wealth” does lose some of its focus as Greenfield awkwardly inserts herself into her documentary. Is she also interested in being rich and wealthy? Is she well off thanks to her photography? It’s hard to say what she is saying about herself, but it does lead to some very amusing moments as one of her sons admits he knows the name of each Kardashian but not those of his neighbors, and her other little boy ends up inserting a sign in front of her camera as she films everything and anything. I don’t want to spoil the moment for you as it had me laughing endlessly.

Watching “Generation Wealth” kind of reminded of when I first saw “Doc Hollywood” which starred Michael J. Fox as a doctor intent on making tons of money as a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, and who later finds a more meaningful life for himself in Grady, South Carolina. But that was a fictional movie, and this one deals with real life, and I came out of it with more hope for the human race than when I went in. This documentary also shows how life is about the journey rather than the final destination. While I wanted to sit some of these characters down and force them to pay close attention to the lyrics of Digital Underground’s “No Nose Job,” it is worth watching their journey as, like them, we come to see what matters most in life.

With that, I leave you with the words Harold Perrineau uttered as Augustus Hill on the HBO series “Oz:”

“We think we know what we need. We spend our time figuring out how to get what we want, who can help us, who’s in the way. We make our moves and sometimes we get lucky. We get exactly what we want. And life gets worse. Simple truth #22, be careful what you wish for, brother. Be very, very careful.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Mamma Mia!’ – Maybe You’ll Like It, Maybe You Won’t

Mamma Mia movie poster

I never got to see the musical of “Mamma Mia” when it was onstage, but I’m not really surprised it became a big hit. The musical tells the story of a young girl on the verge of getting married and of how she ends up secretly inviting three of her mom’s previous boyfriends to her wedding. The catch is one of these men may actually be her father, and she would like whoever it is to give her away at her wedding. But when her mother realizes these three men have arrived, it makes her weep for the past she thought she had forever lost, and all of this is done to the tune of ABBA’s greatest hits which include “Dancing Queen,” “Take A Chance on Me,” and “S.O.S.” among others.

I’m not sure I am the right person to be reviewing this movie because I don’t fit into its demographic, and I have never been a big fan of musicals. I don’t despise them, they just never really appealed to me as much as they do to my friends. There are a few musicals like “Evita” and “West Side Story” which appeal greatly to me, and the film adaptation of the “Hairspray” musical provided me with one of the most entertaining times I had at the movies in 2007. But “Mamma Mia” is not in the same league as “Hairspray” or even “Moulin Rouge.” Maybe it’s because those movies brought us into their musical world so deeply while we watched them and did things others in this genre dare not do.

“Mamma Mia” on the other hand, didn’t draw me in as much, and this is regardless of the boundless energy that all the actors had when onscreen. You come out of it thinking that they must have had the time of their lives while making it. I certainly don’t want to take away from the effort put into the movie by everyone involved, but instead of feeling excited by all that was going on, I instead felt alienated from the whole venture. There was this cloying feeling I kept feeling throughout which made me believe this movie was less than genuine in its emotions.

The other big issue I had with “Mamma Mia” is the fact it is basically a musical founded upon a gimmick: centering an old-fashioned love story around a number of ABBA songs which people all over the world have listened to over and over again. Plus, seeing other actors sing ABBA songs feels a bit off putting as it reminds me of how infectiously good the original versions are. The actors certainly do their best, and Meryl Streep belts out a tremendous version of “The Winner Takes It All” which reminds us again of the great singing voice she has. We should have never forgotten this fact, but it has been a long time since we saw Streep go country in “Postcards from The Edge.”

The one thing that I really did admire about “Mamma Mia” is it shows without a doubt how actresses over 40 do have a place in today’s Hollywood, and that their experience is invaluable to movies like these. Hollywood is ruthlessly notorious for going after the youngest of actresses to star in movies, but many of these actresses have no real-life experience to draw on as of yet. The actresses in “Mamma Mia,” however, end up stealing every single scene they are in. Whatever you think about the movie as a whole, the elder actresses (if you really want to call them that) are the best reason to check it out.

Streep continues to make us all aware of the fact she is one of the best actresses, period. She brings a strong life force to her role of a woman working alone on an island with her daughter, feeling she is past her prime in life while her two sisters convince her nothing could be further from the truth.

Two of my favorite performances in come from Christine Baranski and Julie Walters, and they are a gas to watch throughout. Baranski has basically been a professional scene stealer ever since she co-starred as Cybil Sheppard’s best friend on “Cybil.” Since then, she has stolen scene after scene in movies like “Bulworth” and “Bowfinger” among others. Her performance as Tanya, the often-divorced sister of Streep’s character is a hoot, and there is no doubt she had a blast playing this role.

Julie Walters is probably best known to today’s audiences as Ron Weasley’s mother in the “Harry Potter” movies, but never forget she can be a hell of an actress when you give her the right part. Watching her shamelessly trying to seduce Stellan Skarsgard’s character to the tune of “Take A Chance on Me” is a highlight, and she plays her role with no inhibitions whatsoever. I hope we see her in movies which use her for more than just a supporting role.

The role of the bride to be, Sophie Sheridan, is played by Amanda Seyfried. She is very fetching here and she has a wonderful voice to boot. She also has the wonderful privilege of working with Meryl Streep, and they play off of each other wonderfully.

The three potential fathers of Sophie are played by Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, and Pierce Brosnan. Colin’s effortless charm has never faded in the slightest ever since he played Mr. Darcy on the BBC miniseries “Pride & Prejudice.” As for Skarsgard, it is great to see him in a role where he is acting ever so serious like he did in “Insomnia” (the original) or “The Hunt for Red October.” This brings me to Pierce Brosnan, and while he is always a good actor, I need to be honest and say the man cannot sing. He just can’t! After watching him sing “S.O.S.,” I got that cringe inducing feeling as did the rest of my family while we were all watching this movie. As a result, we watched the rest of the movie in fear of him singing yet again. Did he sing again? Oh yes! Brosnan has had a long and celebrated career which included playing James Bond, but please, please, please don’t let him sing in the future! PLEASE!

In spite of all the strong elements “Mamma Mia” has, I still felt indifferent to it. In the end, I don’t think I fit its target audience. If you like musicals, then I would not stand in your way of watching it, but I can see why I didn’t bother with the film while it was in theaters. I certainly don’t hate “Mamma Mia” as there is a lot about it to admire, but it didn’t affect me in the same way as “Hairspray” or “Moulin Rouge” did. I enjoy the music of ABBA as much as the next person but listening to it here does not leave me with the same musical exhilaration. Perhaps you will feel differently.

* * ½ out of * * * *

History Repeats Itself to a Depressing Extent in ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’

Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom movie poster

Remember the scene in “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” where John Hammond told Ian Malcolm they were not going to make the same mistakes, and Malcolm quickly replied they were going to be making new ones? Well, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” doesn’t make new mistakes and instead repeats the old ones as the humans once again try to save the once extinct species in way we have all seen before. Yes, the visual effects are fantastic, but everything else feels astonishingly banal as nothing new is brought to the franchise. As for the storyline, it simply shows history repeating itself, something we see happen in the real world more often than not.

Three years have passed since the events of “Jurassic World,” and the theme park has been left in ruins. Now an active volcano threatens to destroy what’s left of the dinosaurs, and those in the government debate whether it is worth the trouble to save the species from becoming extinct again. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) argues it would be best for the volcano to destroy the dinosaurs as he sees this as nature’s way of correcting the mistake Hammond made in cloning them years ago. Meanwhile, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) has formed the Dinosaur Protection Group in an effort to save them. When the U.S. senators do not come through for her, she finds a savior in Sir Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), Hammond’s partner in developing the technology to clone dinosaurs, who is intent on moving the dinosaurs to an island where they will have zero interaction with humans. Of course, this also means she will have to acquire the services of her ex-boyfriend, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), in the effort to rescue them.

Okay, the “Jurassic” movies have never been heavy on complex characters as the attention is focused mostly on the dinosaurs. The reasoning is understandable, but I have grown weary of letting the filmmakers get away with weak characterizations which are always upstaged by the special effects. Howard and Pratt are fun to watch in anything the appear in, but their talents are wasted as their characters are relegated to the romantic will-they-or-won’t-they scenario which will all know will end with them kissing passionately as they can only fight their intense feelings of love for so long.

The screenplay by Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly proves to be “Fallen Kingdom’s” biggest stumbling block as it takes the story of “The Lost World” and follows it to the letter to where the twists and turns the story takes are not the least bit surprising. As I’m sure you have derived from the trailers, the plans to move the dinosaurs to another island are thwarted by a team of mercenaries led by Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine) and Lockwood’s slimy right-hand man Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) who looks to sell the dinosaurs to the highest bidders. You would think after all these movies humans would realize they can never fully control what they have created, but when dollar signs are involved, common sense and morality always take a backseat to greed.

Actually, some characters here had interesting potential which the filmmakers really could have built on. Eli Mills, thanks in large part to Rafe Spall, wins the audience over as he does Claire when he tells her of the plan to save the dinosaurs, but he is later revealed to be a slimy bastard as he looks to profit off them instead. Spall has described Eli as being a victim of high ambitions and of allowing himself to believe he is doing the right thing. He has been entrusted with securing the financial future of the Lockwood estate, and he feels this is the only way he can do it. Still, the character eventually becomes a one-dimensional baddie whom the audience is made to hate, and it got to where I kept waiting for him to say, “Hey look at me! I’m dino-meat!”

The same goes with Gunnar Eversol who is played by Toby Jones. Gunnar is the auctioneer who sells off the dinosaurs, and Jones has compared him to a rogue arms dealer who is morally neutral about the work he is doing. This could have made for an especially fascinating character, but alas, Jones is given only so much to do here as Gunnar is designed to be an appetizer for the “Jurassic” franchise’s newest dinosaur, the Indoraptor. Considering how morally neutral Gunnar is, it would have made more sense for him to take his fate as though he saw it coming instead of screaming like he doesn’t deserve it.

B.D. Wong returns again as Dr. Henry Wu, the chief geneticist of the Jurassic theme parks. Wong plays Henry as a man whose love for science is as big as his own ego, and he is a welcome presence in this deeply flawed sequel. But like the other characters, Henry is given short-shrift to where he just ends up acting like a one-dimensional jerk.

There are some new characters added to the mix such as Dr. Zia Rodriguez, a Marine veteran and a paleo veterinarian, played by Daniella Pineda. Pineda makes Zia into a quirky presence throughout, but the character feels half-realized never fully human. As for Justice Smith, his character of hacker and systems analyst Franklin Webb is this sequel’s most annoying as runs all over the place screaming as if we couldn’t already tell how unprepared he is to be around dinosaurs. I kept wanting to slap Franklin in the face and tell him to grow a pair as his whining made this sequel even more frustrating than it already was.

It is great to see Jeff Goldblum back as Ian Malcolm, one of the most popular and fascinating characters in the “Jurassic” franchise, but his appearance here is a mere cameo as he serves to bookend “Fallen Kingdom.” This is a real shame as the speeches he gives offers us a glimpse at what this sequel could have been: a look at humankind’s abuse of various powers, and at the possibility of if and how humanity and dinosaurs can co-exist. As he makes clear how Jurassic World is no longer the name of a theme park, but of the times humanity now lives in, we are reminded of the opportunities this sequel lost out on exploring.

And yes, there is the little child character named Maisie Lockwood played by Isabella Sermon who constantly sees through the deceptions of the adults and manages to outwit the dinosaurs chasing her. Of course, seeing her being smarter than the adults quickly becomes exasperating, and that’s even though this kind of character serves to remind adults of why they need to listen to children more often. Remember the child from Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits” who told his parents “don’t touch it, it’s evil” and they did anyway? Well, you get the picture.

I couldn’t help but walk into “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” with high expectations as it was directed by J.A. Bayona, the Spanish film director who gave us “The Orphanage,” “The Impossible” and “A Monster Calls.” “The Impossible” had an especially profound impact on me as he depicted the devastation of 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in a way to where I felt I experienced and survived it along with the characters. I guess I was hoping he would bring that same cinematic power to this long-running franchise, but his efforts do little to improve this sequel’s poor story and screenplay.

For what it’s worth, Bayona does give us some memorable moments. The scene where the characters observe one of the vegan dinosaurs crying out to be rescued as the volcano lays waste to Isla Nublar is truly heartbreaking, and the moment where the Indoraptor stalks the helpless Maisie in a sequence which evokes “Nosferatu” as the dinosaur stretches his creepy claws out is wonderfully chilling. I also loved how Bayona started this movie off in near silence as it opens in an underwater environment. It is times like this where I am reminded of how silence is golden, and I was hoping he would use it to his advantage. But as many sequels go, this one is noisy as hell and is at times undone by Michael Giacchino’s overambitious score.

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is not this franchise’s worst installment (“Jurassic Park III” still holds that honor), but it is pretty close. “Jurassic World” managed to do the impossible which was bring back much of the awe and wonder from Spielberg’s 1993 classic, but this one finds those things sorely missing to where I wondered if there was ever enough of a reason to make another sequel other than money. What we get here is the same old thing, and the results are depressing as its storyline points out how humans will keep making the same mistakes over and over again as they refuse to learn from history. It left me wondering who would be better off here, the humans or the dinosaurs. As I left the theater, I kept thinking about what Ellen Ripley said in “Aliens:”

“You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

Ripley had a really good point there, and this line was also proof of how James Cameron could come up with good dialogue when he put his mind to it.

* * out of * * * *

 

‘Looper’ – From the Director of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

Looper movie poster

Rian Johnson’s “Looper” is an ingenious movie which combines the genres of noir, science-fiction and western into a mind twister of a film which will have you enthralled throughout. It reminds you of all those time travels movies you grew up watching, and yet it feels very original when compared to them. It also proves Johnson is a creative filmmaking force to reckon with, and it gives each cast member an opportunity to give their best performance in any film they appeared in during 2012.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe Simmons, an assassin in the year 2044 who works for the mafia and kills agents sent back from the year 2072. In this future, time travel is possible and also illegal, and the mob takes advantage of it to get rid of their garbage. The movie’s title refers to the kind of assassin Joe is, a foot soldier who is paid on the condition their targets never escape. They are given a shotgun called a Blunderbuss which doesn’t have much of a range but it is powerful enough to kill a person up close. When “Looper” starts, Joe looks to have been doing this for a while and has been living the good life as a result.

Things, however, change drastically when the mob decides to “close the loop” by sending back the Loopers’ future versions of themselves to eliminate. Joe ends up coming into contact with an older version of himself (played by Bruce Willis), and the old Joe escapes before young Joe can get him in his sights. From there, the young Joe is on the run as he has searches for his older self in order to get the mob off his back and live to see another day, so to speak.

To say more will spoil some of “Looper’s” most inventive moments as it is full of surprises you don’t see coming. The story looks to have been very well thought out, and its focus is more on the characters than anything else. Also, it creates a future which looks futuristic and yet not far removed from our present. Some movies can alienate you with their overreliance on special effects, but “Looper” isn’t out to blow you away visually. Instead, it finds its most potent moments involving the insane situations Levitt and Willis find themselves in.

Seeing Levitt and Willis face off in a diner gives us one of the most riveting scenes in any movie released in 2012. Considering how brutal they are to each other throughout “Looper,” I couldn’t help but think: talk about being hard on yourself!

Time travel as a concept has been done to death in movies, and Johnson is fully aware of how familiar audiences are of the rules surrounding it. I loved how he used this familiarity to his advantage here as it makes “Looper” easier to follow than it might seem at first. Johnson also succeeds in juggling different storylines to great effect as things could have burned out creatively speaking before the end credits came up. You go into “Looper” thinking it’s about time travel, but then it becomes about something else entirely. It is a film which demands to be seen multiple times for you to take in all its meanings.

Levitt had a fantastic year so far in 2012 with terrific performances in “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Premium Rush” and “Lincoln,” but “Looper” was truly the icing on the cake for him. As the young Joe Simmons, he gets one of his meatiest roles ever as an assassin who’s a drug addict (what’s in those eye drops anyway?), but who still has a conscience even after all the damage he has done to himself and others. While the prosthetics on his face, which were used to make him look more Willis, are a bit awkward to take in at first, Levitt gives the role his all and looks thrilled to able to transform himself into a character like this.

So much has been said about Bruce Willis over the years as his role as John McClane from “Die Hard” will forever be burned into our consciousness, but seeing him as old Joe in “Looper” reminds us of what a great actor he can be. His Joe is driven to correct the past so he can save the future he has built up for himself, but it also forces him to do things which leave him morally conflicted. Seeing the pain which crosses Willis’ face makes us root for him somewhat in “Looper” even as his character goes seriously astray with his deadly actions.

Then there’s Emily Blunt who plays hard bitten single mom Sara, and she is an incredibly powerful even when she is not wielding a heavy-duty shotgun. Blunt has been a continually wonderful presence in each movie she’s appeared in, and here she gets to be both bad-ass and very vulnerable. Her scenes with Pierce Gagnon, the 5-year old actor who is amazing as her son Cid, are as emotionally powerful as they are deeply suspenseful.

There are also other terrific performances to be found in “Looper” from actors like Paul Dano who plays the neurotic assassin Seth, and Noah Segan who channels Billy the Kid into his role of a six-shooter carrying killer named Kid Blue. And there’s no forgetting the great Jeff Daniels who brings both danger and humor to his role of mob boss Abe. Some are surprised to see Daniels in this kind of role given how he has been typically cast as nice guys in movies, but keep in mind, this is the same guy who played the most embittered of writers in “The Squid and The Whale.”

It’s a treat for moviegoers that a film as endlessly inventive as “Looper” got produced in a time where creativity was at a cinematic low. Everyone involved in this picture clearly came to it with tremendous enthusiasm, and it shows in every single second which unfolds before us. It is not only one of the best movies of 2012, but also one of the best time travel movies ever made. And watching it again makes me all the more excited for Johnson’s biggest movie yet, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Ti West and Gene Jones on Preparing for ‘The Sacrament’

The Sacrament movie poster

You may not know who Gene Jones is, but odds are you have seen him in at least one movie he has co-starred in. Many know him best for his role as the gas station owner who is subjected to one of Anton Chigurh’s terrifying coin tosses in “No Country for Old Men,” and he also appeared as Wild West Barker in “Oz the Great and Powerful” and co-starred in “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.” But after watching him in Ti West’s “The Sacrament,” it will be impossible to forget who Jones is as he gives us a character who seems sweet on the surface but is really a vicious devil in disguise.

“The Sacrament” follows a couple of reporters as they travel out to a commune located out in the middle of nowhere to find one of a long lost relative. Upon their arrival, they discover the commune is a technology-free zone called Eden Parish, and they meet Father (played by Jones) who is the leader and treats his loyal followers with tremendous warmth and care. But when these outsiders arrive, he quickly sees them as a threat and eventually convinces his followers to take a sinister course of action which leads to an unspeakable tragedy.

The press day for “The Sacrament” was held at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California, and many who worked on this movie, be it in front of or behind the camera, participated in an informative press conference. Among those there was West who told us he wanted to audition Jones after seeing him play a pharmacist on “Louie.”

Ti West: There’s a scene where there is a woman waiting in line and asking all these inane questions to the pharmacist who’s not paying attention, and Louie (C.K.’s) waiting behind her and he’s getting bored. And then Gene eventually turns to her and is like, “Have you had a bowel movement today and was it soft?” And then she gets uncomfortable and then that’s the scene, and I was like, “That’s the guy.” So, what we did was that we tracked him down and then I asked him to do a quick audition. Most of the reason I asked him to do the audition wasn’t so much to see if it would be any good. I just wanted to see if he would not be into the material. So I knew that if he did the second audition that he wasn’t going to be uncomfortable with the subject matter like that because you never know if you don’t know people. Gene likes to say that the first audition wasn’t very good and that’s why I asked him to do a second one which is not true. But there was enough from those, just seeing him do it, to know what I had thought was going to happen was going to happen.

The plot of “The Sacrament” was largely inspired by the 1978 Jonestown Massacre when Jim Jones made the followers of the Peoples Temple commit mass suicide. When Jones first appears onscreen as Father, you can’t help but be reminded of Jim, especially with those sunglasses he’s wearing. But in describing his preparation to play Father, Jones shot down our assumptions of what he did to prepare for this role.

Gene Jones: It’s less than one day in Father’s life, and not a typical day. So, I didn’t do any Jim Jones research about what he read and how he interacted with people on a daily basis. What I tried to do was be a guy who was so nice, you would leave your family and you would leave your country and go with this guy. I never met Ti until I stepped onto the set. I did audition for it, but it was a video audition. Actually it was two auditions and Ti commented on those, and those comments gave me the freedom to go where I wanted to go which was in the direction of being so damn trustworthy and so avuncular and nice. A phrase that popped into my head a few weeks ago when I was doing one of these (press conferences) was I wanted to show you somebody who was evil but not mean. Somebody who believed absolutely poisonous things but was the nicest fellow you ever met.

West said when he first met Jones in the flesh was when he arrived at the movie’s set located in Savannah, Georgia. Jones’ first big scene was when he does the interview with the two reporters, and it involved a lot of work and memorization on his part. West was more than prepared for things to go wrong as he described this scene as a “massive undertaking,” but we all felt his astonishment at how things actually turned out.

Ti West: It’s the kind of production day that you dread because it’s a night shoot, there’s 200 extras, it’s 12 pages which is like six times more than anyone wants to shoot in a day and there’s just so many moving parts, and it was cued up to be a disaster. I remember on the very first take I hadn’t told the extras what to do yet, and you’ve got to keep in mind that the extras are just there for one night to be in a movie. They don’t know what the movie is about and they haven’t read the script. They are just like, “Yeah we’re in a movie!” They’re all seated and you figure that some of them aren’t going to be good and will have to move them around, but before we do any of that let’s just wing it. Let’s just try one where Gene comes in and we’ll tell them to cheer. He can come in and then start talking to A.J. (Bowen), and its 12 pages so if the lines get screwed up we’ll stop and then we’ll do it in chunks, and this is how we are going to get through this night. Well on the very first take, Gene came in everybody went crazy. He sat down, did a 17-minute unbroken take without dropping a line, got up, everybody cheered and he walked out, and all of the reactions from the extras were their genuine reactions. They weren’t me feeding them things to do because I just wanted to assess the situation, but the assessment of the situation was we don’t need to do anything because Gene nailed that so effortlessly, and then all the extras chimed in perfectly. Gene had figured out how he was going to do it, and all I had to do was just capture it.

Jones’ comment on how the extras fueled his performance was great because he made it sound like he was doing a play more than making a movie.

Gene Jones: I loved, loved the congregation, and there’s little variations each time you shoot. They were tuned to that and I didn’t have to say, “Give me an amen somebody.” They would give me an amen. They would just give it to me and they would nod, and it was just alive. It was like talking to a group of friends. They all chimed in and they were great.

In a business which can be so ridiculously youth-oriented, it is nice to see an actor like Gene Jones defy the odds. If this were a studio movie, executives would have probably forced Ti West to cast a young adult who was more demographically desirable. But in the end, there are certain parts only actors of a certain age can pull off, and this is one of them. Jones succeeds in giving us a villain for the ages as Father draws people in with ease and then destroys their lives for the most selfish of reasons.

“The Sacrament” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Click on the video below to check out the interviews I did with Ti West, A.J. Bowen, Joe Swanberg and Amy Seimetz about “The Sacrament” for We Got This Covered.

‘Tron: Legacy’ Digs Deeper into the World of the Computer

Tron Legacy movie poster

“There is no better moment than this moment, when we’re anticipating the actual moment itself. All of the moments that lead up to the actual moment are truly the best moments. Those are the moments that are filled with good times. Those are the moments in which you are able to think that it is going to be perfect, when the moment actually happens. But, the moment is reality, and reality always kinda sucks!”

-Lewis Black

I include this quote up above because it more or less symbolizes what I feel about the promotion Disney did for the long-awaited sequel to “Tron.” The company overhyped it to an alarming degree, making several different movie trailers and spent a good three years promoting it. With this kind of marketing, many may go into “Tron: Legacy” thinking it will be one of the greatest movies ever made.

As for myself, I weary of the hype and try to go into most movies with little to no expectations whatsoever. In fact, I think it’s better to watch most films with the lowest expectations possible. With the hype which has greeted movies like this or the “Star Wars” prequels or even “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” it is way too easy to be incredibly disappointed by the finished product. Nothing ever does come out as well as it does in our imaginations.

Well, reality may suck, but “Tron: Legacy” did not. I walked in expecting a fun time, tickled to death Walt Disney Pictures even bothered to make a sequel to a movie which was not a huge box office success back in 1982. At the very least, this sequel, which has been in the making for over 25 years, is more of a continuation of what came before. What it may lack in a fully coherent storyline, it more than makes up for with amazing visual effects, a fantastic score by Daft Punk, and a pair of great performances from the always reliable, and no longer underappreciated, Jeff Bridges.

So, here’s the story behind “Tron: Legacy:” after saying goodnight to his son Sam, Kevin Flynn rides off to Encom to work on a new digital frontier which will revolutionize the world of technology. Instead, he disappears without a trace. Shift to more than 20 years later, and Sam has become a rebellious young kid with strong technology skills he gleefully uses to thwart the executives at Encom who intend to profit and exploit Flynn’s work, work which Flynn wanted to make available to everyone for free.

Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) comes to Sam’s domicile one night to inform him he got a page from his dad the other night, and that it came from a line at Flynn’s Arcade which has been shut down for 20 years. Sam goes to the arcade to see what’s what, and we all know what happens from there as he gets sucked into “the grid” the same way his father was, and he is forced to fight for his life by hurling discs and racing light cycles in games which are deadlier than ever.

The premise behind “Tron: Legacy” is actually quite interesting. Kevin Flynn ends up developing a more advanced version of his Clu program who, of course, looks exactly like him. Together, they work to create the perfect system meant to bring about a new kind of life form, but somewhere along the line Clu grew resentful and comes to see a world of perfection far more different than his creator does. Soon afterwards, Clu turns against Flynn, making himself the ruler of all programs, and Flynn is trapped inside “the grid” with no way out.

Throughout, we watch as Clu coldly eliminates those programs which do not meet his high standards. It’s an interesting Frankenstein motif in how a creation runs amuck despite the master’s best intentions, and we all know what this leads to). It also reminded me of a line from “Star Trek: First Contact” which the Borg Queen says, “You’re an imperfect being created by an imperfect being. Finding your weakness is only a matter of time.”

The visual effects are unsurprisingly amazing, and they clearly reflect how far technology has come since the 1980’s. This time, they are much more fluid to where not everything is shown going in a straight line, and this gives the action scenes far more friction than they had in the original. The use of dark and neon-like colors doesn’t feel dated, and the costumes have been given a much-needed upgrade. There’s no more of those bulky suits which Sark’s guards and the MCP had, and the digital world presented here is a dark one and very un-Disney like.

By having “Tron: Legacy” focus on Flynn’s son, it seemed like Disney was desperately trying to court the youth demographics and would have been happy to cast the hottest teen or young adult heartthrob the role. Garrett Hedlund, however, turns out to be quite good and holds his own with Bridges. It’s not a great performance, but he does solid work here and keeps his character from becoming some annoyingly whiny brat whose daddy issues get the best of him. He does, however, have the disadvantage of saying the movie’s cheesiest lines like “this isn’t happening” and “this can’t be good.”

Another actor I enjoyed was Olivia Wilde who plays the warrior program, Quorra. She is a strong and engaging presence here, and her role as a Data-like figure eager to learn about the real world leads to some of the movie’s more intimate, as well as some of its funniest, moments. And yes, she does kick serious ass in the action scenes, easily derezzing those evil programs without even breaking a sweat.

But one actor I truly got a kick out of was Michael Sheen who plays Castor, the owner of the End of The Line Club. Stealing every scene he is in, Sheen holds nothing back as he gleefully hams it up as the life of the party, completely unbound by the soulless machinery at his disposal. We never really did see a program like this in the original “Tron,” did we?

And then there is Bridges who remains one of my all-time favorite movie actors. His performance here reminded of just how good he was in the original as he never let the special effects overwhelm his work as Flynn. Even though he was acting against a green screen more than he wasn’t, he makes himself feel like part of the reality to where it seems like nothing is impossible for the Oscar-winning actor. Oh, and if you listen close enough, there is a line designed to remind you of his famous role as The Dude. Trust me, you will know it once you hear it.

Yes, “Tron: Legacy” does have plot holes and some wooden dialogue, but so did the original. Thankfully, none of the dialogue is as cringe-inducing as the kind George Lucas gave us in the “Star Wars” prequels. Also, the story does get slowed down by exposition which could have been shortened. All the same, I’m glad the writers didn’t get lazy and bring back the Master Control Program (MCP) as if it was never defeated back.

Joseph Kosinski made his directorial debut with this sequel. In the past, he has received acclaim for the “Mad World” commercial for the video game Gears of War, and he has since gone on to direct “Oblivion” and “Only the Brave.” For my money, he does a much better job of blending actors with special effects in a way Lucas never could, and he does well in keeping “Tron: Legacy” from becoming overly-cheesy or infinitely monotonous.

The soundtrack by Daft Punk is infinitely awesome, and the duo is a perfect fit for this kind of material which serves as their first official film score. Like the brilliant score Wendy Carlos did for the first film, their music is a strong mix of orchestral and electronic elements which, and brings a strong sense of humanity and emotion to a wholly technological world.

Could “Tron: Legacy” have been a better film? Sure, but why can’t we just be happy Disney took the big risk of making this sequel? For what it is, I enjoyed it and admired the fact it was made by people who respected its predecessor. More than two decades is a massively long period of time to wait for any sequel, but “Tron: Legacy” was worth the wait for me, and I would certainly be open to seeing it again.

Still, I have to wonder, can human beings really exist in a digital world even though they are users instead of programs? Can a program actually be brought into the real world? Oh, who cares! I had fun!

End of line.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Cell

Cell movie poster

I did have the opportunity to read Stephen King’s “Cell” while I was on vacation in Hawaii. It’s not one of King’s best novels, but it was an entertaining read as it delved into our increasing obsession and dependence on technology, in particular cell phones. When the novel was released in 2006, cell phones still had a bit of a ways to go to get to where they are today; devices that can do just about everything and anything in our daily lives except make coffee. But now it’s 2016 and we have long since reached that point where we can’t bear to live without our cell phones and are a slave to them.

A movie adaptation of “Cell” had been in the works for years and Eli Roth was originally going to direct it, but that didn’t work out. Now it has finally arrived in theaters and can be quickly added to the garbage heap of terrible Stephen King adaptations like “Maximum Overdrive” and “The Mangler.” While its subject matter is still timely, “Cell” quickly devolves into just another zombie movie where the clichés are rampant to where we know exactly what to expect to where any suspenseful moments it hoped to have are rendered moot. In short, it is an uninspired retread of “28 Days Later,” a movie this one can only dream of being as terrifying as.

“Cell” opens up on Clayton Riddell (John Cusack) getting off his flight which has brought him back home, and he is eager to reconnect with his wife and son, both of whom he has been estranged from for too long. But it doesn’t take all that long for all the fellow travelers around him to start losing their minds and convulse to where they start attacking everyone and everything in sight. Clayton manages to escape the airport and teams up with subway worker Tom McCourt (Samuel L. Jackson) and Alice Maxwell (Isabelle Fuhrman) to find a safe haven away from those infected with the cell phone virus that controls the actions of everyone infected by it.

The movie gives us sights and sounds we have seen endlessly in one apocalyptic movie after another. We see scenes of cities in utter ruins, cars turned over, survivors travelling through empty roads and fields, etc. All this does is remind me of other movies that are far scarier and more unnerving to where it’s tempting to turn off “Cell” and watch them instead. There’s almost nothing to separate this film from others of its genre, and it becomes a glum and languid bore of a motion picture that feels too long even at 98 minutes.

Watching John Cusack here made me feel sorry for him. After suffering through a number of bad movies these past few years, he delivered a truly great performance as the elder Brian Wilson in “Love & Mercy” which proved he still has much to give to the world of acting. But here in “Cell,” Cusack just looks bored and barely interested to be a part of this particular Stephen King adaptation. His character is just another father trying to get to his child to ensure his safety, and the actor just goes through the motions with little to show for it.

Samuel L. Jackson fares a little better here as Tom McCourt as he gives a performance that is subtle instead of bombastic. The “Pulp Fiction” actor effortlessly turns his character into an everyman who has seen far too much in this lifetime to where this apocalyptic situation is no different to him than being a soldier in a foreign land. Jackson has been in countless movies over the years, many of them flat out bad, but there is no doubt that he will survive this critical catastrophe to give us great performances in the future.

What’s especially galling is that both Cusack and Jackson starred in another Stephen King cinematic adaptation almost ten years ago, “1408,” and that proved to be a scary time at the movies. Why they couldn’t bring the same enthusiasm they clearly had on that one to “Cell” almost feels like a mystery.

But then again, we shouldn’t be blaming the two stars as much as we should be blaming the director of this uninspired mess, Tod Williams. Back in 2004 he gave us the blistering drama “The Door in the Floor” which starred Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger as a couple forever torn apart emotionally by the death of their sons. It was a breakthrough feature for Williams as he got some of the best performances out of Bridges’ and Basinger’s careers, and he dug deep into the lives of unlikable characters whose psychological wounds were too deep for us to look away from. A few years later he directed “Paranormal Activity 2,” a sequel which proved to be as terrifying as the original. And considering how terrifying the original was, that’s saying a lot.

Those two movies show Williams to be a huge talent behind the camera, so it is very hard to understand why he couldn’t make “Cell” the least bit scary or unnerving. King’s novel dealt with material that was familiar to him, but the writer made “Cell” more than just another exploration into the end of civilization as we know it. Williams doesn’t bother to do that here as he simply throws out one tired cliché after another at us, and some scenes are so badly lit to where it’s impossible to figure out what is going on. This is also not to mention the horrible CGI effects on display which illustrate how this low budget horror movie had an even lower budget than others.

This all leads to a climax which is not at all satisfying, and an ending that is unforgivably confusing. King’s conclusion to “Cell” was a bit anticlimactic and too ambiguous for many readers, but it was still a haunting conclusion that Williams doesn’t bother to include here.

Adapting Stephen King novels to the silver screen has always been tricky as filmmakers have to balance out their attention to both the gory aspects of his stories and the characters which inhabit them. Perhaps Williams tried to do both here, but he’s not able to shock us or care about the protagonists at the center of “Cell.” What we get instead is a very below average genre movie that isn’t worth anyone’s money or time. That should more than explain the studio’s decision to dump it in a handful of theaters this past weekend for a limited release. Do audiences even know “Cell” is out in theaters this weekend? Well, even if they do, I can’t blame them for not caring.

* out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016. All Rights Reserved.