Wednesday, February 27, 2019

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - ROBIN HOOD

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

You’ll have to forgive me this week; I’m struggling to find something good to say about this movie.

Hold on…wait…there’s a…

…nope. It sucks. Plain and simple: I cannot find anything remotely redeemable about this…this thing. I cannot refer to it as a “movie” or a “film”, as that would insult those that actually work hard to obtain that status. I also cannot refer to it as a “train wreck”; lots of good people have sacrificed their lives to lend a serious tone to that phrase, and they certainly would not want to be associated with this endeavor. I would use “bucket of monkey turds”, but I’m afraid I would be offending those hard-working monkeys, and I do not need the Primate Union beating on my door.

Allow me to get to the point: remember all of those other films about Robin Hood, the hero that stole from the rich and gave to the poor? GO WATCH THEM INSTEAD. I’ll even throw in that Kevin Costner travesty in the mix—even that is better than this. First-time screenwriters Ben Chandler and David James Kelly (apparently, he needs three names to emphasize his suckiness) have taken the classic tale you know so well and giving it a giant overhaul with crayons made out of goldfish poop and sadness. It’s really that poorly written. And having Otto Bathurst (who could have just stuck with one of those names to emphasize his suckiness) direct it doesn’t help. Honestly, it’s like a bunch of coked-up kindergartners hacked into screenwriting software and threw up all over the screen.

For starters, don’t expect the costumes to follow any historical themes. Even the peasants wear shiny black leather, and the women attending balls wear high heel stilettos (not invented until the 1950’s, thankyouverymuch). Next, don’t expect the classic characters to follow their original parts and/or paths. This is referred to as “reimagining” of the stories, which basically means the writers were allowed to bastardize EVERYTHING. Also, physics apparently did not exist in the time period in which this “reimagining” takes place. Neither did gravity, wind, and/or dependable combustibles (at one point, a wall of fire is supposed to spring up behind a row of bad guys, and it only lights halfway…there is a brief pause…aaaannd then the rest is magically lit). Oh, and carts pulled by horses could drift. And accents come and go—Jamie Foxx tries for Arabic, then just gives in and goes full British—until he gets angry, then he’s All American, baby!

The CGI here is reminiscent of my pre-school drawings, meaning that an epileptic sea monkey could have drawn this crap better. There are a lot of fight scenes, but it is mostly with bows and a marvelously endless supply of arrows. If you want to see great choreographed fight scenes, I recommend 1938’s THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, with Errol Flynn as Robin; this was actually the second film I ever purchased on laser disc, and is arguably the best iteration of the legendary hero. If I ever happen so see this particular version of the story on laser disc, I’m sacrificing my player to the Old Gods.

So, really, DON’T WATCH THIS. Watch anything but this. Two other great films were recently released on Blu-ray: BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, and A STAR IS BORN. Go watch those; they are actual films, and will actually illicit an emotion out of you other than boredom. Or anger for having wasted your money. Yes, go watch BOHEMIAN—it shows Queen playing at Live Aid, whereas ROBIN HOOD is more of a sleep aid. You’re welcome.

Film Grade: F

Special Features: The outtakes are boring, the deleted scenes should be a lot longer (by, like, 116 minutes), and there is a really short making-of doc that justifies your using this as a death Frisbee come the zombie apocalypse.

Blu-ray Necessary: Oh hell no!

-- T.S. Kummelman

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: 
on ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019, 122 minutes, PG-13)

The Quick of It -
Director Robert Rodriguez gives us a glimpse into a future that will probably never come to be… but it seems a dystopian blast!!!  Okay, maybe not in the best way.

With James Cameron, you know the AVATAR and TITANIC guy, is behind the screenplay, the project is going to have a strong worldbuilding aspect.  And again, bringing up Rodriguez, of the DUSK TILL DAWN and the “Matador” ethos, action is promised at a high level.  Yes, a lot of name-dropping to help paint this unfortunate tragedy befalling this picture to understand the struggle…

ALITA is set into the far future, where the use of tech has come to dominate the world.  This is the last industrial complex of humanity.  Only the ruthless survive… until Alita comes along.  Falling as scrap from the floating city, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds her and uses his renowned skills in cybernetics to bring her ‘back’.  Alita (Rosa Salazar, a MAZERUNNER alum) begins to piece together her lost memories.  As the story unfolds, which in some ways the weakest facet of the movie, we discover many things… but are still left wondering on others.

Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Jackie Earle Haley, and Ed Skrein round out the cast.  As you can see, all the pieces are there for a great movie.  The characterizations are just as vibrant as they are dark and menacing, fitting the setting at the extremist levels.  The tone is there but the continuous action keeps you from really empathizing with the truly dismal life that exists below the floating city, a place held in high reverence as no one ever goes up. 

The imagery is on par with other super-CGI settings, all details included to give the scenes grit and glamour, even if not enough attention is given to making the setting a central piece.  You are rushed about, as with the character storylines, with the action sequences being the frontrunner of the pacing.  This is not a bad thing as the action is amazing in choreography, but you feel like you missed out on so much. 

So, the problem is that this movie brings nothing to the table.  Yeah, blasphemy from all the hype surrounding the actors and people behind the lens.  We have a crap-ton of superhero movies, so plenty of action to go around.  We have ample futuristic settings filled with death and ruin, like the disastrous MORTAL ENGINES.  We have award worthy interpersonal movies that dive deep into the human psyche, to include objects.  ALITA has just enough of each but doesn’t embrace a true theme to call their own.  Being based on a manga, they have had pages to do all the story-building they want.  A movie… not so much. 

In the end, the $200 million budget will sink any idea that this film was a success.  I suggest you sit back with some popcorn in a comfy chair and just enjoy the battlebot show.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - THE GRINCH

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

It felt kind of weird, watching this film in February. I live in Maine, so yes, there is still snow on the ground, which lends to my surroundings a wintry air. But it is no longer Christmas—the snow that falls now isn’t the same you wish for in order to have a more befitting holiday. It’s the kind that you dread a little, as in “still have another month of shoveling”, or “this outta make for a fun walk to work today”.

In other words, the Christmas spirit is understandably lacking. It would probably help to watch DR SEUSS’S THE GRINCH in December, when that most treasured of holidays—especially from the retail point of view—is within reach. But the lack of a brightly lit and passably decorated tree in my living room doesn’t mean this is a film you should ignore. Remember what Ron Howard attempt in 2000? The one with a poorly cast Jim Carrey as The Grinch? With all the creepy looking Who’s in Whoville?

Well, Universal Studios decided to give us something to replace that odd, dismal film. Instead of allowing a classic twenty-six-minute television cartoon to be turned into a movie four times that long, they have offered the world a tale told like the classics which precede it. You’ve listened to me whine about the unnecessary length of some of the recent animated features before, but Universal keeps this one under an hour and a half, and it is the tight, imaginative storytelling which saves this film. That, and the incredible animation. The wunderkinds at Illumination have crafted a story that is touching, relevant, and extremely funny, and have wrapped it in sharp animation that pays homage to its predecessor and creates a sense of wonder which overshadows that prior attempt. There is something glorious about seeing all those lights in Whoville, and the attention to detail in the animation is precise and breathtaking.

Directors Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier, working from a script by Tommy Swerdlow and Michael LeSieur, keep the pacing consistent throughout. There are no lulls in the storytelling or the laughs, and the cast does a wonderful job in making you care about the goings-on of a tale you probably already know. The standouts are Pharrell Williams as the narrator, whose lyrical delivery makes you want to reread the book (out loud, and with his voice), and young Cameron Seely as Cindy Lou Who. Ms. Seely does a fantastic job capturing the nuances and attitudes of a child (probably because she is one, but her comedic timing nears brilliance in certain moments). Benedict Cumberbatch is an interesting choice for The Grinch; he is confident and spontaneously erratic (when needed), and at times seems to channel only the better moments of Jim Carrey’s attempt at the role. Yet he makes it his own when it comes to his delivery and his commitment to the material; whereas Carrey never seemed to stop being Carrey, you feel the change in Cumberbatch’s Grinch. Occasionally, though, you wish Cumberbatch would just let loose a little more; his delivery is, again, confident, but there are points it falls flat.

The special features are a bit lacking, however. There are three new animated shorts from Illumination: two featuring the Minions, and one with Max, the Grinch’s loyal dog. None of them are entirely necessary, and only one of them provides consistent laughs. Meaning they all feel sort of out of place here. The other special features—making of docs—are short, and light on information. They mostly feel more like commercials than they do behind-the-scenes featurettes.

So yes, do purchase this on Blu-ray. The detailed animation and the great soundtrack necessitate the higher quality format. But please, do watch this when the snow outside is of the more festive variety. Your holiday spirit can thank me later.

Film Grade: B+
Special Features: C
Blu-ray Necessary: Absolutely

- T.S. Kummelman

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

There have been several good films that got their start as stage productions; some classics would include A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, DRIVING MISS DAISY, and GLENGARRY, GLEN ROSS.

Sometimes the transition from stage to screen isn’t all that impressive, and much is lost in translation. BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS and BILOXI BLUES, despite being written by esteemed and legendary playwright Neil Simon, were horrible films. Hollywood may want to take over the world, but there are times when it fails miserably.

So to watch a film and think that it would probably work better as a play is something different for me. BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE was written and directed by Drew Goddard, the same man who wrote several episodes of “Lost”, the wonderful CABIN IN THE WOODS, and WORLD WAR Z. He has written for television and the big screen, but this time around, you wonder if he hasn’t become a playwright as well.

The El Royale is a hotel/motel built along the California/Colorado line. The film takes place sometime in the late sixties; there are references to an unnamed senator having an affair there, all of the vehicles and music are dated, and there is even a Charles Manson-like character looming in the distance. Several characters show up on the same day at the otherwise vacant hotel, and of course their paths must intersect in murder, mayhem, and madness. Literally.

The cast includes Jeff Bridges as an aging ex-con, whose brain is slowly withering under the pressure of Alzheimer’s; Jon Hamm as a salesman who isn’t selling anything; Chris Hemsworth as a psychotic cult leader; and the versatile Cynthia Erivo, whose wondrous singing voice lifts this film up when it shouldn’t. There are others here as well, but there isn’t enough variety of craft to consider this an ensemble piece. Sure, everyone is game (especially Hemsworth, who seems overjoyed to finally be playing a bad guy), but there isn’t enough going on during the two hours and twenty minute runtime to keep you interested enough to care. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey (GODZILLA, THE AVENGERS) is a character unto itself, insomuch as that is one of the main reasons I think this would work perfectly on stage.

There are some sweeping shots, flawlessly executed, showing what is going on within the rooms of the El Royale. These fluid moments are actually quite lovely; they give a certain grace to the proceedings, lend it a sophistication (much like Ms. Erivo’s voice) it really doesn’t deserve. And this isn’t a horrible film—it’s an okay movie. But it would probably make a great play, and that isn’t what we’re here for, is it?

There are enough gunfights, violence, and musical moments to deem this a necessary Blu-ray purchase—but only if you must own it. Everyone involved here has been in (and directed) better films. This one struggles far too much to try and be noir. The packaging is cool, and some of the lines are funny and/or memorable, but methinks it would be a better time on Broadway. Seriously, there would also be an intermission.

Film Grade: C
Blu-ray Necessary: Only if you must

- T.S. Kummelman

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - FIRST MAN

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

If you haven’t been paying attention to director Damien Chazelle, you might want to start now.

His 2014 debut, WHIPLASH, was a tour de force, a film that used sound as a weapon and J.K. Simmons as its delivery system. The film perfectly blended the violence of making coherent sound with an Oscar winning, abusive performance by Simmons. He followed that up with 2016’s Oscar winning LA LA LAND—this time using sound to propel the story and to develop the budding relationship between two L.A. devotees.

Now he takes us to space with FIRST MAN, once again allowing Ryan Gosling to lead us there. Gosling plays Neil Armstrong, the first man to have ever stepped foot on the moon. And the surprising thing is that Armstrong’s lack of sound—not a great communicator, Neil—tells just as much story, if not more, than blaring alarms in a space capsule ever could.

Gosling, who also starred in LA LA, gives a thoughtful and thought-provoking performance as the astronaut that carried the hopes and dreams of Americans, let alone every human being on the planet, to the moon and back. Without giving any spoilers, tragedy visits Neil’s family early. This lends credence to his shyness/reserve, and Mr. Gosling does an amazing job of carrying the silence; it is a palpable burden, one which affects those around him dramatically.

There are several good performances here: Jason Clarke as best friend and fellow astronaut Ed White, and Corey Stoll as an outspoken Buzz Aldrin, are most notable as they come across as the most relatable. But when Mr. Gosling isn’t stealing your attention, the amazing Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife Janet is more than happy to ground things. Her performance feels the most honest; left at home to care for their two sons, she is the force which tries desperately to keep Armstrong’s dreams cemented here, on Earth, with his family.

Yet after all this, it is Mr. Chazelle’s directorial efforts and production designer Nathan Crowley who combine to make the definitive unseen character which drives this film. For films based on real life, stories whose endings you already know (ARGO, DARKEST HOUR, etc.), it can be difficult to convey a tale which keeps you invested in that inevitable outcome. But the best (like those aforementioned Oscar winners) keep you glued to your seats, and Misters Chazelle and Crowley pull that off masterfully. From the cockpit of a plane to the inside of the lunar module, you experience everything alongside the astronauts. The dynamic cinematography by Linus Sandgren—who makes a seamless transition from LA LA LAND—creates close quarter tension one moment, and eases you back in your seat with the grand spectacle of the wide open lunar landscape the next. All this amounts to a journey that feels as turbulent and exhilarating as what the astronauts must have went through, only you don’t have to leave the planet (or your living room) to experience it.

The special features are entirely necessary; from the use of LED wall-effects to more backstory on Armstrong, you get a little bit of everything. My only complaint is that most of the docs are far too short, and some lack what you really want to hear about. It isn’t enough for me to tell you to skip any of them, but I felt that there were certain elements lacking, as if the studio didn’t have enough time to put together a proper fifteen-minute-long “making of” doc.

While none of the people I mentioned in this review are nominated for the upcoming Academy Awards (which is a shame in several cases), you know what was? The sound editing and mixing by Ai-Ling Lee and Co. Which just goes to show you how effectively Mr. Chazelle uses sound in each of his films. It isn’t just his eyes that map the course of our cinematic journey, but also his ears—and that, kids, is the mark of a truly effective storyteller.

Film Grade: A
Special Features: B-
Blu-ray Necessary: Absolutely

- T.S.Kummelman