Darke Reviews – American Ultra (2015)

Well this proved to be an interesting evening. Go to a movie, get all settled in with the nice recliners at Roadhouse Cinemas, get a drink and a pizza and start to enjoy. Then the movie pauses. We’re given some excuse of a technical difficulty. Then…5 minutes later – “So yeah there’s been a bomb threat. We need to evacuate everyone.” They handled it well. Everyone was orderly, they comped any food & drink already ordered and provided free tickets to another show. All in all – very well done. I feel sorry for the loss of revenue tonight because some kid was a jackhole (note: this is an assumption). This is the reason you are only getting one review tonight rather than two as the next available showing for this gem was at 9:45 at another theatre. So my friend and I hauled ourselves over and watched the first twenty minutes again…and that should tell you a little something already.

Now…for the rest of the story.

It is entirely likely you have never heard of American Ultra unless you saw a trailer on my facebook page the other week. It was not marketed well, or at all, yet the trailer was oddly compelling.  Need a refresher?

The film was written by the same man who gave us the better parts of Chronicle, Max Landis, and directed by Project X director Nima Nourizadeh. I can’t really go in depth to their body of work as usual as I have not watched Nima’s first film; not my genre. Landis on the other hand I can talk a little more about having seen Chronicle and looking forward to his next writing project Victor Frankenstein. He seems to have a good understanding of personal interactions, humor, and action. While his pacing stutters a few times the movie has an incredible amount of heart to it for what appeared to be from the trailer a screwball, surreal, action-comedy.

It is so much more, and less, than that. Landis script gives us a reasonably well constructed almost satirical look at the action spy genre.  It knows what it is and isn’t. It warmly embraces it’s absurdities. It is closer to Mr. and Mrs. Smith than it is Pineapple Express. It is a character driven movie with the two stars moving things forward in very real and very human ways. I give Landis credit here as the people in this movie are some of the most realistic and honest I have seen in a very long time.  The relationship between Jesse Eisenberg’s character Mike Howell and Kristen Stewarts Phoebe Larson felt like a real relationship. The dialogue and subtle interactions that the actors, Nima, and Landis spun together put more heart into this film than probably any film in the past two months.

This isn’t to say it isn’t filled with action, because it is. This isn’t to say it isn’t surreal at times, because it is. I found myself laughing at various intentional beats in the film due to their pure absurdity and the straight man reaction of the players. The best comedy, in my opinion, is that where the people who are delivering it act as if they aren’t in on the joke.  That said, there are few actual jokes and more moments that will make you laugh, make you smile, make you cry. There are more than enough scenes where you go “what the-“.

What helps here is the actors. Jesse Eisenberg (Social Network, Zombieland, Not Michael Cera…) is able to sell all the emotional roller coaster his character goes through. Partnering him with former Adventureland co-star Kristen Stewart (The Runaways, Twilight) was a good call. The two have genuine chemistry in this movie. The first twenty minutes have more ‘real talk’ and actual relationship type behaviors than any movie I have seen since If I Stay last year this time (almost to the date). That takes a lot of skill, subtlety, and more acting than people give Kristen Stewart, or Eisenberg, credit for. While Twilight has earned her much in the way of mocking, it also did not provide her a lot to work with and if this is the potential for the young actor, then I am happy to support her in future films – you should be too. As an aside I have an interest in seeing Adventureland now.

From a technical standpoint the movie is ok. Again there’s something just off about the pacing, but that might be intentional to allow some of the more awkward moments to sell. Some fights we get shaky cam, others we don’t. Obviously the ones without are superior. The make up work is solid for the injuries building throughout the film and looks as believable as the bloodsplatter looks ridiculously over the top. It isn’t Hammer films bad, but you know what you are seeing and aren’t seeing.

TL;DR?

I frequently say in this section that the most successful films are those that evoke emotion. This made me tear up once or twice. It made me laugh a lot more. More than that though? It made me smile. It’s been a few weeks since I truly had a movie that I just found myself relaxing and enjoying through and through. It was a comfortable, fun little ride that I would probably go on again if asked. It’s also nice in a summer of sequels, remakes, reimaginings, and reboots to see and be able to celebrate an original property.

If the trailer above intrigued you , I would ask that you go see this movie this weekend. Don’t wait. Studios rarely care little beyond the actuals of the first weekend. With next to no movies coming up for a full month that look to be worth anything – give this one your time.

If you weren’t intrigued by the trailer or were put off by it, I understand. This won’t be the movie for you; so don’t try to defy the odds.

I am glad I got a chance to see this one tonight, make a chance for yourself.

Darke Reviews – The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

I have only a passing familiarity with the original TV series that ran from 1964 to 1968. I think I caught some reruns in syndication when I was a kid. I am pretty sure I remember the awesome Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo and David McCallum (Duckie from NCIS) as Illya Kuryakin. It was very much a product of it’s time in a similar Cold War era vein of James Bond, The Avengers (no not those Avengers), Mission: Impossible, Danger Man/Secret Agent, Get Smart, The Saint, I Spy, culminating in the end of the Cold War with Scarecrow and Mrs. King (I never missed an episode).

Something you may notice, I made all of those links to the original series. Something else you may notice almost all of them have been remade into modern movies – very very poorly with only two notable exceptions. As a reminder ( I am cruel) here you go to the notably bad ones.

I understand if you need to pause reading to take anti psychotics or antidepressants at being reminded of those films. I needed to set the stage for what is one of the last of the genre of old spy movies being redone.

Did it work better than the others? Does it break the curse?

If you are a regular reader you know the Three Writer Rule. 3 or more writers goes bad almost invariably. This movie has four unique story credits and with two of those repeating on the screenplay. This is excluding the Sam Rolfe credit for the TV series. Lets knock a few parties out right now. Jeff Kleeman is a producer with a pen. He generally is the money and some influence on a film, with no major film credits  prior as a writer it’s clear he wanted a say in the film enough to get himself a story credit. Then there is David C. Wilson, who has precisely two credits; the 1991 martial arts movie that made Escrima cool The Perfect Weapon and the oft forgotten 2000 film Supernova. I am almost wondering if David C. Wilson is an Alan Smithee in disguise? This brings us to Lionel Wigram and Guy Ritchie. Now things begin to get interesting as Wigram helped give us the RDJ  Sherlock Holmes in 2009 as a writer, then has largely served as an executive producer for such films as Harry Potter 5, 6, 7.1 and 7.2. He also gave us Cool as Ice. I am trying to decide if that wipes all the other good credit out. Then of course is Guy Ritchie, writer, director, producer. Gaining his fame from Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, later to give us the two new Sherlock Holmes films.

Did they tell a good story together? Well yes and no. The film is so predictable with its beats and overall plot that I probably could have looked like some sort of PreCog from the Future Crimes division if I had written this review first. Every single plot point is 100% unsurprising and even telegraphed. The movie then goes onto explain, as if we’re idiots, how some of the beats happened when a cut was used to show not tell. Not good. What is good is when the movie takes small moments to be quiet. They are a touch absurd and a bit off, yet bring the whole thing back together. The downside of course is they, like the movie run a bit long and rather than allowing you to catch your breath leave you checking your watch. Not that the movie needed time to let you catch your breath, the pacing, music, and overall feel of the film read more like Steven Soderbergh (Haywire, Oceans 11,  Traffic). The only touch of Ritchie I see is some of the cuts he chooses and a deliberate attempt to give it that 60’s film grain vibe.

From an acting perspective the mediocre retreaded script does little to help the actors. Thankfully someone reminded Henry Cavill he wasn’t working with Zack Snyder and that he could smile again and be charming again. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that and that isn’t a good thing as beyond his magnificent physique the man actually has natural charm. Armie Hammer, who hasn’t had much work since the atrocity of the Lone Ranger plays our Russian. If you want a man to be charming and charismatic when he reads wooden – don’t let him play a cold war russian. It doesn’t mix. Thankfully Hammer and Cavill both transcend the script and what must be poor direction to at least make me crack a smile a few times. They made it work. They had the quiet moments and bromance that fan fic writers are already scribbling down ideas for. Supporting the stars we have a star in her own right, Alicia (I am really not an AI) Vikander, coming off of a stellar performance in Ex Machina. She at least has chemistry with the male leads which allows this film to work and Ritchie and the script realize she is not just a window dressing and use her appropriately.

No one else is really able to transcend the script, except Hugh Grant who as near as I can tell is playing Hugh Grant.

TL;DR?

Short version the movie is a meh.

You can get a few smiles and maybe some nostalgia from it if you enjoyed the original series. Hammer and Cavill pull off Illya and Solo rather well and I buy them and everything about them. If you were interested give it a matinee shot, otherwise this is a pass.

Slightly longer version? I think the Spy Genre is dead in film. Sad thing is I like Spy Movies. Always have. We’ve been Bourned to death. Mission Impossible and Bond work because they are larger than life. They are so huge from both the characters and the enemies. Even in the grittier and more reality (hah) centric film style we’ve gotten both Bond and MI are still bigger than us and that makes them truly timeless. The world that produced these earlier works is gone and even though the idea of vintage everything is still popular it doesn’t work as well when your genre needs a black and white enemy that is firmly of this world. Maybe in another few years this could be revisited but right now in the context of the world we live in the genre just does not work if you dance too close to reality. That thought, even watching the movie, took me out of it so hard that I started seeing the figurative paint and set dressing.

I think that explains why this was released in August. People might just be desperate enough to see it and it could make some money back.

So again – It’s a Meh. If you were planning on it anyway – Matinee. Otherwise, save your money a few more weeks until something that is must see comes out.

Darke Reviews – Fantastic Four (2015)

In the interest of full disclosure, I have been dreading this movie since the first trailer landed. All I could think of was how much it reminded me of the final beats of Mass Effect 3 (which we all know is epic). That the casting looked horrific for some of the critical roles. I am not talking the fact that Sue & Johnny are part of a mixed race family either. That is 100% irrelevant if the casting is good. Remember the Daredevil movie? I know some of you just winced and went for the nearest blunt object to bash your heads in; however Michael Clarke Duncan was a perfect Kingpin. I am talking about the fact that they barely looked old enough to shave. Ok, your argument is the studios change characteristics of thematic characters all the time. Wolverine isn’t a short, squat, lumberjack. Rogue wasn’t a southern belle. Storm wasn’t someone who can actually act. These kind of changes happen all the time and if done well; such as Wolverine, Beast, and Quicksilver can be an improvement and enhance the film.

So did they enhance the film or was it as bad I thought it would be? Spoiler free as always!!

Let us pause and examine the writers before all else. We hit the three writer rule, excluding ‘characters created by’ credit to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Screenplay credits go to Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater, and Josh Trank (also the director). I will talk about Trank in a minute. I do not know, nor want to know, who did what at which part of the development process. Slater has one credit prior to this, the much maligned and forgotten Lazarus Effect from earlier this year. I cannot speak to it’s quality not having seen it. Kingberg. I must ask myself why people give him work. He is so hit and miss, but mostly miss that I can see where so much of this train wreck came from. xXx: State of the Union, X-Men 3, Jumper, all are his. Yet he also has a hand on Sherlock Holmes and Mr. & Mrs Smith and several episodes of the fan favorite series Star Wars Rebels. Maybe the lesson here is that he needs to stick to TV?

Trank. Tank. Yep, bout right. Josh Trank has but one film credit prior, the quite spectacular Chronicle. This is what gave Fox the idea he would be good to direct this. I mean it was about a bunch of teen “heroes” with powers, so thats good enough right? Fox really needs to stop thinking. It rarely ends well for anyone involved when it comes to fandoms. What at first feels like a man with vision and clear ideas on how to do something new has turned into a nightmare with a 9 figure budget proportion; an estimated $120,000,000. With his hand on the script as well, Fox having their hand in the pot as producers, and Kinbergs previous work so much becomes clear to me; yet I am left with a profound sense of despondency.

The story begins with young supergenius Reed Richards and his friend Ben Grimm determined to make a device that allows teleportation. Enter Dr. Franklin Storm and his adopted daughter Sue who find interest in Richards work and bring him to the Baxter building to further his research and take it to the next level. Of course this cannot be done alone and others must be enlisted to finish the project; including Ben and Johnny. When the incredibly young scientists use their teleportation device they end up in another dimension when something goes wrong….

This is more or less where anything resembling a plot ends. After that the movie meanders aimlessly for the remaining hour without once giving me an “Oh yeah that was awesome” moment. How does a comic book movie do that? Rather how does it fail to do that?

First it takes actors who are actually rather good and sucks all the charm and charisma out of them nearly as bad as M. Night Shyamalan can. Miles Teller, best known for Whiplash, the Divergent series, and Footloose, has a natural charisma to him that you like him even when he is a jerk. He is the *only* one who shows any sign of his potential here. He has the chops to try to pull off Reed but is failed by the script and director so horribly I forgot he was actually supposed to be Mr. Fantastic and he just comes across as a moping science dude. Kate Mara (Shooter, House of Cards), another actress who can do most anything. She is far more believable as a scientist than Alba was, yet once again her own gifts are drowned out by a humorless script that gives her absolutely nothing to work with. I can count on one hand the number of smiles I saw from her in the film. Rising star Michael B Jordan (Chronicle, Creed, The Wire) is another person who should have done well. I mean Johnny Storm isn’t that hard to play, without even comparing him to Chris Evans performance, he just comes across petulant and dull. How do you make the Human Torch dull? He turns into living fire! How can you make that boring? Even Jamie Bell (Snowpiercer, TURN, Adventures of Tin Tin) just is so bland that he could become forgettable without the FX work that makes him The Thing.

I cannot recall a single emotion on this film regarding our heroes. Not one. No joy, no excitement, not even anger or sadness. Not a single emotion was felt towards them, and nary a smile was to be seen on my face. What little good will the actors were able to bring with the performances they tried to give us was destroyed by Tim Blake Nelson’s Dr. Allen. Rarely in my life have I wanted to watch someone truly suffer; which I suppose means the actor did ok, but he was just so damn annoying and stereotypical that I hated him for those facets alone. You may note at this point I have not mentioned Victor vonDoom, played by Toby Kebbell (Wrath of the Titans, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Sorcerers Apprentice). All I will say on the topic is he is actually, and somehow impossibly, worse than Julian McMahon in the original two films with the same role. It is godawful. He is godawful. I do not wish to see his career end as I am certain the bad story, bad script, bad directing, bad production design hurt anything he could possibly do.

The *only* thing that works. The effects for The Human Torch and The Thing. Thats it. Every other effect is bland, forgettable, and ultimately as dull and lifeless as the rest of the film. Some effects were clearly inspired by superior material from other sources such as Mass Effect and Halo. Thats right folks, video games look better than this did. From a color perspective, and sit down for this, Man of Steel and the recent Batman movies seem bright and cheerful by comparison. The movie is dark, dingy, and at times even dirty. It probably is what makes The Thing look good since the lines can be hidden, but the reality is the movie looks so bleak and dirty that Gotham city is considering suing for identity theft.

TL;DR?

Jess, where is the hate? Where’s the Die Hard levels of vitriol we were hoping for?

I am sorry. I cannot hate this movie more than it hates itself. I would love nothing more than to tell you this is a pile of fetid refuse hiding in the remains of six week old chinese food, left in the bog of eternal stench, after being coated in the bile of a rabid howler monkey that smothered it in rotting durian fruit. I would love to tell you that I hate this more than I do World War Z.  I would love to tell you that the raw putrescence of the film is so gag inducing that those who suffer from Bulimia will be able to watch this to trigger their condition. But I can’t.

This movie hates itself more. It hates science. It hates the characters. It hates the actors. It hates color. It hates laughter. It hates happiness. It hates chemistry (literal and figurative). It hates the military. It hates the government. It hates the source material.

Most of all it hates the audience.

I watched this so you don’t have to. Save your money. Do not let them think we should go ahead and make the sequel.

Please for the love of all you hold holy, unless you are being dragged to this do not see it. If you must, be drunk. Be stoned. Be in some kind of altered state. You might find enjoyment somewhere in this soulless mass of self loathing celluloid; at the very least you won’t care.

I know I didn’t at the end.