The setting for Johnny Knoxville’s Action Point is based on an actual place called Action Park — a New Jersey amusement park opened in May of 1978. While it was operated by drunk, stoned teenagers, that wasn’t the reason for the park earning the nickname “Accident Park.” It was their boss who demanded the park test the bounds of physics and personal injury laws.
Action Park’s attractions were dangerous by design, famous to area youth and infamous to their parents for having no brakes and no speed limits. Seat belts weren’t just optional; they were mostly nonexistent. Action Park was a testing ground for amusement park attractions. Its employees were innovators, but employees and visitors alike often became victims of Action Park’s attractions. But all did so willingly, whether they paid or were paid to be there.
Action Park CEO Gene Mulvihill reportedly offered employees $100 to test rides, and he opened them despite those tests resulting in injuries. It wasn’t that Mulvihill didn’t care about his employees and patrons. He just didn’t think he or his employees should be solely responsible for the experiences patrons could have at Action Park. “You make your own fun” Knoxville says at one point in the movie, channeling Mulvihill, whose “philosophy was that amusement park visitors should be in control of their experience, envisioning a park where patrons managed the rides—including how fast and how high they went,” according to a piece by Brynn Holland for The History Channel. It should be no surprise that Mulvihill’s mind for mayhem attracted the eye of Knoxville — an eye he nearly lost in the making of Action Point.
Mulvihill basically believed amusement parks to be like ski resorts. Regardless of proper maintenance and supervision of attractions, they, like a ice- and snow-covered mountain, are inherently dangerous, and upon paying the price of admission, the patron, not the park, should be solely responsible for any injuries sustained as a result of the patron’s actions. While Mulvihill’s argument that any ride has the potential to cause injury is sound, that’s not how judges saw it when a handful of personal injury lawsuits forced Mulvihill to close Action Park in September of 1996.
The practice of Mulvihill’s philosophy by employees and patrons had predictable results. The wave pool was called “The Grave Pool” because lifeguards frequently rescued up to 30 swimmers on busy days. Women also frequently sustained yeast infections from the water. Six people died at Action Park, which was obviously not advertised in the movie. But the almost 20 years Action Park was open for business is a testament to its patrons’ acceptance and practice of personal responsibility, a quality which Knoxville’s character, D.C., assumes is foreign to his granddaughter, who I thought was a grandson for half the film.
Action Park is no doubt the perfect setting for Knoxville’s jackassian stunts, but it should have been the subject as well as the setting. The place didn’t just have character; it was a character. Instead, Action Point tries to be a story about a part-time father learning how to be a good father figure when it should tell the story of the most dangerous amusement park that’s ever existed and the men and women responsible for that existence.
I’ve long been a fan of Knoxville’s Jackass shenanigans. I was even a jackass myself back in high school. Some of the first films I made were of my friends and me doing stunts like riding office chairs down really steep streets, bicycle jousting, and being towed on a snowboard behind a GMC Jimmy. The Jackass movies are responsible for some of the loudest, longest laughs I’ve enjoyed in theaters besides maybe Your Highness. Even Knoxville’s Bad Grandpa had its moments (mostly the end, which wasn’t because of Knoxville) despite attempting to tell a story. But Bad Grandpa wasn’t much of a stunt movie. Action Point is, and John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky’s attempt at storytelling sinks Knoxville’s latest and quite possibly last attempt at making us laugh at the expense of his and his friends’ bodies.
Knoxville sustained four concussions, broke his hand, lost a five-inch piece of skin from his scalp, lost two teeth, one of which was shoved into his skull, and sneezed his eyeball out of his head while shooting the stunts for Action Point. He said in an interview on “The Dan LeBatard Show with Stu Gotz” that he had to put his sessions with his therapist on hold to get into character. In his first session, Knoxville thought his therapist was a genius for saying “think before you act,” because he had never seriously considered it an option. Stuntmen aren’t unlike athletes in that acting instinctively tends to be safer and more effective than thinking. Thinking leads to over-analyzation and fear.
But Knoxville should have thought about how to make Action Point before agreeing to make it. He should have demanded that this “based on a true story” story should simply tell the true story. Knoxville isn’t a good enough actor to give a convincing, dramatic performance, upon which the film’s story depends. A bear gave a better performance than Knoxville did in Action Point, and no amount of cannabis could make the stuntless segments of the film enjoyable, which is most of the film.
Had Knoxville simply done a mockumentary about Action Park, portraying a daredevil amusement park owner whose only family are his misfit employees and regular patrons, and whose challenge is to keep the park open despite a new competitor and threats of legal action, Action Point would have done Action Park justice. Instead, Action Point tells an all too familiar story so badly it makes the stunts less enjoyable. Action Point should have been another Jackass, not another Bad Grandpa with flashbacks.
Solo: A Star Wars Story opened to fine reviews but performed well below expectations at the box office, even for a non-episodic Star Wars Story. But that shouldn’t deter you from seeing it, and it shouldn’t deter Disney from making another.
A lot of things go into a film’s box office performance besides the quality of the film. I can assure you, Solo is just fine, and while fine might not be good enough for some, it’s a whole lot better than the atrocities that are Episodes I, II and III, and those performed very well at the box office.
Before seeing the film, I was excited for Solo to finally introduce Chewbacca as a main character and develop his relationship with Han, portrayed as well as could be expected by Alden Ehrenreich (although I think those casting the film could have sacrificed looks for performance potential). I wanted Solo to be a bromantic comedy of sorts, and it is, in a less-funny, Dude-Walter Sobchak kind of way.
When Chewie first sits in the Millennium Falcon’s copilot seat, I got goosebumps, and while nostalgia was the source of most of the joy I derived from the film, and most of the its best parts are in the trailer, the movie was worth seeing in theaters. You’ll want to see and hear Solo’s action-packed moments in a movie theater. There are some deep blacks displayed during moments of action that your television at home might not display very well. Despite Solo paling in comparison to Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War, it’s a solid movie that’s probably a tish too long and falls short of its unfair expectations. I don’t even know if I liked it as much as Tomb Raider, but I’ll probably see it in theaters again regardless.
Solo released two weeks after a Deadpool sequel that except for the first 15 minutes, might be better than the original. And young Han still has Avengers: Infinity War with which to contend. Oh, and box office returns were at record lows last summer and are only getting worse, with U.S. theater attendance the lowest it’s been in 23 years and home entertainment spending up 11 percent. It’s a very competitive movie market and one that’s most friendly to a select few blockbusters -- generally the ones with the biggest budgets.
Jon Cazares wrote about how Solo was a sinking ship from the start. The two original directors, Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, had reportedly shot 80 percent of the film and were fired for allegedly over-spending. Then the hiring of Ron Howard, who reshot much of the movie despite saying much of what Miller and Lord had shot was usable, probably doubled the budget. While Solo ended up a big-budget blockbuster, it wasn’t meant to. In fact, had Solo stayed on budget, it would have been the cheapest Star Wars film produced by Disney and cheaper than all but the original trilogy at $125 million, making its $104-million opening weekend look a whole lot better.
So while Solo is already considered a flop by the entertainment media, don’t let that be the reason you don’t see it in theaters. Think for yourself. Don’t let the mass media dictate your consumption. And if you’re looking to give your air conditioner a break for a few hours, hit a matinee and enjoy a Star Wars film that challenges the norm more so than any before it.
The first 14 minutes and 25 seconds of Deadpool might be the best beginning to a movie I’ve ever seen in a movie theater. It has everything every blockbuster film should have to draw you in and put you on the edge of your seat. It introduces you to an interesting character, it entices you with either drama or comedy, and culminates in a climactic scene that sets the scene for the hero’s journey through the movie’s plot.
Deadpool 2’s first 15 minutes aren’t as good as Deadpool’s, which is to be expected. While the opening credits of Deadpool 2 are just as hilarious as those for Deadpool, the first 15 minutes of Deadpool 2 just can’t measure up to its predecessor. You can only introduce the Deadpool character once, and Deadpool does it as well as any film has, including Batman, the opening to which serves as source for a joke in Deadpool 2. Thankfully, Deadpool 2 doesn’t attempt to outdo the first 15 minutes of Deadpool, opting instead to use drama to set the stage for the sequel.
The first 15 minutes aside, the rest of Deadpool 2 is not only more entertaining than Avengers: Infinity War, but it’s better than Deadpool, too.
Back when Super Troopers 2 was released, I wrote about how a select few sequels achieve the critical acclaim of their predecessors. Much of that is due to the precedent set by the original film, as is the case with the first 15 minutes of Deadpool. Despite the wild success of The Godfather, ask any Italian or most film professors which is the better film, The Godfather or The Godfather: Part II, and Part II, will come out ahead. Ask any Star Wars fan which Star Wars is best, and most will tell you The Empire Strikes Back is better than its predecessor, A New Hope. Empire’s Rotten Tomatoes rating is even higher than A New Hope’s. The same is true of Deadpool 2’s Rotten Tomatoes rating. It’s rating is one percentage point higher than Deadpool’s as of this writing.
If you liked that Deadpool brought attention to the fact you’re watching a movie and used it as comic relief, you’ll love Deadpool 2. The sequel ups the ante in this regard, blending reality and fiction in a sort of Gonzo journalistic attempt at filmmaking. The “whose balls did I have to fondle to get my very own movie” moments are many more and even funnier than the original’s. Instead of suspending reality for audiences, Deadpool and Deadpool 2 use reality as the butt of many of the films’ jokes, and it works wonderfully, even providing laughs through its casting of characters. (Hint: stay seated after the sneak-peak trailer following the end credits for outtakes during filming of Deadpool 2.)
If you liked the relationships formed between Deadpool and Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead in Deadpool, you’ll love how those relationships grow and the new relationships Deadpool forms with Josh Brolin’s Cable (who is just as good in this as he was in Avengers: Infinity War), Zazie Beetz’s Domino, who is equally fantastic in her role, and Negasonic Teenage Warhead’s girlfriend, Yukio.
Finally, if you thought you laughed a lot when you saw Deadpool, you’ll laugh even more often and harder and longer when you see Deadpool 2. It is without doubt the funniest comic book movie ever made, overtaking its predecessor, of course. I laughed more during Deadpool 2 than I did during Super Troopers 2 and think you will, too.
Josh Brolin, who portrays Thanos, the villain in Avengers: Infinity War and the character with the most screentime, is listed 27th in the credits for the film -- just ahead of Chris Pratt, the star of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. In all, the stars and co-stars of seven film franchises are represented in Avengers: Infinity War.
The result of so many superstars sharing one screen is a two-and-a-half-hour-long movie and a billion-dollar budget for Marvel Studios, 80 percent of which has already been recouped. Regardless of the film’s box office success, we know The Avengers franchise can’t last forever and are reminded of that throughout Infinity War.
Spoiler alert: Infinity War writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely abandoned the Hollywood ending for this one, probably at the request of Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige, who hinted that Infinity Wars would bring the first 22-movie arc to a “finality.” While that doesn’t mean there won’t be more Avengers movies after next year’s, different characters could be wearing the costumes.
Spoiler alert: Many of the Avengers “die” in Infinity War. I put that in quotes because now that The Avengers has borrowed a tactic from X-Men: First Class that originated in Superman, no one is ever really dead. Knowing the Avengers can now turn back time, the deaths, at least at the end of the film (wink), didn’t invoke much of an emotion in me. But the ending was shocking nonetheless.
Spoiler alert: I for one appreciate a film that ends with the villain winning, like The Joker did in The Dark Knight. Thanos beats the Avengers like The Joker did Batman, which will result in Avengers 4, the untitled sequel to Infinity War set to release next year, likely making more money than Infinity War. That was the case when a similarly solemn ending in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers resulted in an even better box office return for Return of the King.
Since all the Avengers actors and actresses have signed contracts for two Avengers films, this one and the next one, there’s no way of telling who actually died in Infinity War. That’s the point of those vague contracts, but we do know a few Marvel heroes will survive to make more sequels.
Pratt and his fellow Guardians are the only Marvel characters with a movie on Marvel’s schedule after the next Avengers film, set to release in 2019. Chris Hemsworth, of the Thor franchise, is expected to return given both the box office success and critical praise of Thor: Ragnarok. Plus, he hasn’t exactly taken Hollywood by storm with his roles outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Benedict Cumberbatch will likely get his own sequel thanks to the $670 million Doctor Strange made worldwide.
Spoiler alert: “It was the only way” are Strange’s “last” words to Tony Stark after giving Thanos the Time Infinity Stone to spare Stark’s life. That tells me Thanos winning the first battle and Stark surviving that battle are both necessary for the Avengers to eventually overcome Thanos. I’m also certain the Avengers will go back in time to resurrect the “dead” Avengers with the help of Captain Marvel, according to the short preview revealed at the end of Infinity War’s credits.
If Captain Marvel, set to release March 9, 2019, is even close to as good and successful as DC’s Wonder Woman, it will help Marvel fans get over the inevitable end of the Avengers as we know them. Rumors are that Chris Evans of the Captain America franchise will play the character for the final time in the next Avengers film. Robert Downey Jr. is also under contract for just one more film and has to be getting prohibitively expensive. He made $50 million for Infinity War. Scarlett Johansson was the next-best paid Avenger at $10 million and is expected to get her own Black Widow spinoff. And we know Ant-man and the Wasp is on the way.
Growing old in roles isn’t often allowed in Hollywood, unless you’re Sylvester Stallone, who has done it with Rocky and Rambo. Women are almost never allowed to grow old in roles, with Renée Zellweger’s Bridget Jones not much of an exception since the character was supposed to be “old” from the start. Sigourney Weaver’s run in the Alien franchise might be the longest Hollywood’s allowed a woman to grow old in a role, and Weaver aged so gracefully there wasn’t much reason to take her off the screen.
The point is Infinity War serves as a warning to those who thought Downey Jr. would play Iron Man long after his famous facial hair turned gray. The film’s ending encapsulates how it feels when things end -- film franchises and life alike. It’s depressing, but you’ll find reason for hope if you just sit patiently through the credits, consisting of mostly digital artists’ names printed so small and moving so fast you can’t read them. The same goes for life -- patience is rewarded, and no matter how bad it gets, there is always hope.
It has to be hard to be Broken Lizard. Like the Farrelly Brothers starting their careers with the comedy classic Dumb and Dumber (1994), Broken Lizard started their careers with a comedy classic of their own in Super Troopers (2001). But unlike the Farrelly Brothers, the members of Broken Lizard also act in their films, which has made it more difficult for them to find continued success as a film cooperative. Not only does the production company have to deal with being pigeonholed as a low-brow, comedy specialist, but its members also have to deal with their own case of Jon Heder syndrome. Heder’s the guy who played Napoleon Dynamite and hasn’t been able to escape it since.
That’s why Broken Lizard’s follow-up to Super Troopers was so hard to watch. Before I knew Club Dread (2004) wasn’t any good, I had a hard time accepting the members of Broken Lizard in their new roles. By the time Beerfest (2006) came around, though, I had accepted the fact there might never be a Super Troopers 2 and could understand why. That’d be like asking F. Scott Fitzgerald to write a sequel to The Great Gatsby, or more on topic, asking the Farrelly Brothers to do a sequel to Dumb and Dumber immediately after its release.
It took 20 years for the Farrelly Brothers to commit to Dumb and Dumber To, so we should all be thankful it only took Broken Lizard 17 years to give us Super Troopers 2. Jay Chandrasekhar, Steve Lemme, Kevin Heffernan, Paul Soter and Erik Stolhanske are back where they belong, portraying Vermont Highway Patrolmen in a cop comedy that pokes fun at the state of the United States and Canadian culture.
The first rule of reviewing a sequel is not comparing it to its predecessor. Very few sequels are as good as the original, and Super Troopers 2 is no exception. Holding it to the impossible standard only realized by The Godfather: Part II and The Empire Strikes Back is unfair.
We can, however, compare Super Troopers 2 to similar films within the genre and subgenre. In the subgenre of buddy-cop comedies, Super Troopers 2 is no Hot Fuzz (2007), but it’s more enjoyable than The Heat (2013) and CHIPS (2017) and way better than Ride Along (2014) and Cop Out (2010). Super Troopers 2 probably falls behind The Other Guys (2010) but before Let’s Be Cops (2014).
As far as contemporary comedies go, since the release of Super Troopers in 2001, I’ve only seen a few that made me laugh out loud as much as Super Troopers 2. They are, in no particular order: The Other Guys, Tropic Thunder (2008), Jackass: The Movie (2002) (which shouldn't even count but has spawned Jackass Number Two (2006), Jackass 3D (2010), Bad Grandpa (2013), and now, Action Point, which will release June 1, and actually has a story), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Anchorman (2004), Step Brothers (2008), Old School (2003), Pineapple Express (2008), This is the End (2012), Office Xmas Party (2016), Grandma’s Boy (2006), Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011), Team America: World Police (2004), Your Highness (2011) and Beerfest (2006). That’s pretty good company for a list that you’ll notice includes just one sequel (unless you include the Jackass franchise).
You should definitely see Super Troopers 2. You’ll laugh enough to forget that you’re basically watching the same plot as the original except to the music of Eagles of Death Metal instead of .38 Special, which is a treat. You’ll get some laughs out of Rob Lowe playing a former, minor league hockey player turned mayor, and you’ll no doubt enjoy the pranks pulled by and on the Canadian mounties competing with the Super Troopers to keep their jobs. The story is far-fetched at best, but the situations created by the story are worth taking the leap.
Update 4/20/18: MoviePass has updated their terms of service, which is explained below.
A few months ago I wrote Movie Pass: What is it (and is it too good to be true). At the time I wrote that piece I didn’t actually have MoviePass but I had ordered one and was waiting for it to arrive.
Well, it arrived and I’ve since used it for two glorious movie filled months! For those not in the know:
When I bought MoviePass it was a subscription service where you pay a monthly fee (usually $9.99) and then you can use your MoviePass card to see one free movie every day but they have recently updated their terms of service. New subscribers are limited to one movie per week and a maximum of four movies per month. If you are a new subscriber you also receive a free subscription to iheartradio all access.
Wait, seriously? That sounds too good to be true.
Yes. Seriously. MoviePass is totally legit! Since I received my MoviePass card in the mail on Friday, February 16th, here are the movies I’ve seen with it:
Ready Player One
Pacific Rim 2
A Quiet Place
I even kept track of how much each ticket would have cost had I not been using MoviePass - $126. I actually bought a full year subscription which gave me a discount ($7.95 per month) and a one time sign up fee of $20. So my total cost up front was approx. $120. Alas, that deal is no longer available. The new deal is nice but just not as good as those of us folk who have subscribed for a while.
I have now made my money back and still have another ten months on my subscription.
But you don’t have to pay all that money up front. You can sign up for the monthly subscription at $9.95 per month and cancel any time. But you should know if you cancel you can’t sign up for MoviePass for nine months.
But, wait - how is MoviePass sustainable?
Fair question! The average ticket price across America is somewhere in the $8.50 range so if a typical MoviePass customer attends the cinema twice per month - MoviePass loses money! And they have been losing money this last quarter claiming a $150 million loss. If that sounds like a lot of money to you (it does to me) that doesn't seem to phase the CEO of movie pass who says that they have enough start up money to operate well into 2019 when they expect to be profitable. (Of course, what else is the CEO going to say?) I guess I am reminded of Amazon - which lost money for a staggering six years in a row before turning a profit. I don't understand how that's possible but there it is.
So, how does MoviePass plan to survive?
Well, they've already raised the money so they're not going anywhere - just yet.
Second, MoviePass has 2 million subscribers. Third - MoviePass is the only company that can tell theaters exactly who and when people are going to the movies. This is valuable information for theater chains to have and it has led studios to pay MoviePass to advertise specific films through the MoviePass app.
Finally, MoviePass will sell your data in some situations but they are very open about it on their website saying,
“Except where outlined in this policy or otherwise communicated to you, we will not sell, rent or disclose your personal information to third parties without notifying you of our intent to do so. In such an event, Users will be notified in advance, giving you the opportunity to prevent your personal information from being shared.”
Finally, concessions. MoviePass, as of yet, does not get a cut of concessions but they are certainly pursuing that option. It is no secret that theater chains make the overwhelming majority of their money selling concessions. For example, that $12 bucket of popcorn you buy at the theater cost the theater chain about five cents. That, my friend, is a lot of profit.
And if MoviePass can demonstrate that it is driving customers to the theaters, customers that would not normally attend - why not cut them in? I am proof positive that MoviePass is driving me to the theater. And I am proof positive that I will NOT go to a theater that does not accept MoviePass.
Of the thirteen movies I have seen with MoviePass I bought concession twice. Which, to be honest, is probably unusually low for a typical consumer. I suspect the average cinema attendee buys concessions closer to fifty percent of the time. Maybe higher.
MoviePass has already shown the theater chains that it is driving about 5% of moviegoers to the theater but when MoviePass promotes a specific film that percentage jumps up to 20%.
Studios and theater chains are taking notice. MoviePass currently has approx. 2 million subscribers but if they can get that number up to four or five million that will be a game changer for them.
What about their lousy customer service?
Yeah, I read all about that too. When MoviePass jumped from a few hundred thousand subscribers to 1.5 million (in the span of about a month) they had serious delays in meeting demand. I mean, they still have to produce and ship an actual card to your house. It’s not just an app.
They just didn’t have the manpower to keep up with the sudden demand. They also didn’t have the manpower to respond to emails and phone calls.
Mitch Lowe, the CEO of MoviePass sat down with CNN money and discussed this very problem. Basically he was like, “Yeah, our customer service sucked for a while but we’re working on it.”
And they did. I signed up for MoviePass and recieved my card in about a week. It takes me all of fifteen seconds to use the app and check in to the theater and access my free movie. The only minor hoops you have to jump through:
These are very minor hoops and I have not had a single issue with MoviePass. It is a totally legit service and I will use it until the end of days!
To learn more about MoviePass and / or to sign up for the service, visit their site here.
Update 4/20/18: MoviePass has updated their terms of service. If you purchased a MoviePass before today's date you continue to receive your one movie a day plan. If you purchase a MoviePass starting today, their new plan allows one free movie per week (total of four per month) and comes with a free three month subscription to iheartradio all access. This is still a great deal but, sadly, not the awesomely phenomenal deal I wrote about when I put this story up last week. With the new change I would recommend you purchase the month to month plan and receive the free iheartradio subscription. You will be billed for the first three months and then billed quarterly. Hold off on buying the full year subscription. But for now - at $9.95 a month for one movie a week MoviePass remains a good deal!
Spielberg's new film, Ready Player One, is based on the once loved, now often ridiculed or outright disliked novel of the same name written by Ernest Cline. The novel is unread by me but I understand the premise. And I’ve seen the movie now which probably means all the good parts of the book have been spoiled for me.
The novel, from what I understand, is a nostalgic, geek lore Easter egg hunt oft criticized for being fun but not exactly a writing masterpiece, but whatever. The reader was bombarded with nostalgic, nerdy, geek references from the 80’s. And that nostalgic weight carried RPO on to the NYT best seller list for a long time.
And now Steven Spielberg, the man directly responsible for much of our actual 80’s pop culture and nostalgic geeky moments has his new movie! So what is it about?
“In the year 2045, people can escape their harsh reality in the OASIS, an immersive virtual world where you can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone-the only limits are your own imagination. OASIS creator James Halliday left his immense fortune and control of the Oasis to the winner of a contest designed to find a worthy heir. When unlikely hero Wade Watts conquers the first challenge of the reality-bending treasure hunt, he and his friends-known as the High Five-are hurled into a fantastical universe of discovery and danger to save the OASIS and their world.”
Okay. Fair enough. Dystopian world - bad. Super cool VR world - good! That premise seems Spielberg enough. And, for the most part the movie is charming, nostalgic, good fun. With only a single swear word (one delightfully placed F bomb) the movie is standard Spielbergian Hollywood family entertainment and kids of all ages will probably dig it. RPO has at least two beautiful action sequences and one perfectly recreated set piece from a beloved horror film (which I suspect will go down as the one truly great scene of the film).
Anyway. I like RPO. To get that out of the way. I was hoping to love it, I was worried I was going to hate it but - no, I like it. That being said, despite all its stunning technical charm, the movie is a little shallow and the characters are poorly drawn and one dimensional.
Right now let’s focus on the good in RPO. Remember the scene in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King where Legolas kills the Oliphant? Well, the technology was there to … well … make it look like a CGI Legolas awkwardly bouncing around on a giant moving elephant and finally sliding down its trunk. Despite my dislike of the scene, the CGI isn’t quite capable of pulling that off perfectly. Things don’t look entirely real. It kind of gets the job done. I guess. We get what was going on. The oliphant looks good but the motion of Legolas is just - bizarre and not based in real world physics.
Well, those days are gone! The CGI is now there and the work in RPO is stunning. Movement and motion of all CGI (and / or motion captured) characters are flawless. RPO effortlessly blends realistic looking monsters and creatures with virtual looking avatar figures and their realistic looking weapons, vehicle and gear.
The scavenger hunt / investigation portions of the film are as entertaining as the action. Nothing slows the pace of the film. The moments of humor all work and we easily understand the motivations off the lead protagonists, (Ty Sheridan and Olivia Cooke) and the story’s main antagonist (Ben Mendelsohn). If you are looking for beautiful looking family friendly action - RPO is your movie.
But it’s not exactly a sophisticated think piece - and it doesn’t have to be! But RPO is a bit hollow at its core for me to love it. Casting is a slight issue. Ty Sheridan plays lead Wade / Parzival. Sheridan was a fairly accomplished child actor and has turned into a totally adequate teen actor. He will not fuck your scene up. Nor will he take a poorly drawn character and breath true life into it. And Wade, as a character is … you know. Fine. Except for that one thing (which I’ll get to later).
Which is the polar opposite of wunderkind Olivia Cooke who wowed me a couple of weeks ago in Thoroughbreds. Watching that film I kept thinking, “Who the F is this incredible actress and where did she come from?” From many things it turns out, but most famously from Bates Motel. Cooke is great and watching the film I couldn’t help but wonder how fantastic a lead she would have been if they switched the genders of Wade / Samantha. (Imagine the nerd rage). Sadly, Cooke’s character, Samantha / Art3mis is a little underdrawn and mainly acts as a prize for Wade to win.
Of the additional three supporting cast - Aech gets the most virtual time with Daito and Sho rounding out the High Five (as they call themselves). But once we meet them in the real world they just kind of stand around. One of them drives a van. Not exactly the stuff of supporting cast legends.
But if you were to say, “But the story is about Wade! He is the only one that has to be a fully realized character!”
Fair enough. But do we really need yet another tent pole Hollywood blockbuster featuring a white male lead who is backed up by his super hot white trophy prize girl friend with a couple of people of color in the background who don’t get to do much other than stand around and be people of color? Steven Spielberg virtually has the clout to do anything he wants in regards to his film. Perhaps he could have pushed a little on this point.
The other main issue I have is the lack of real world empathy our lead, Wade, seems to have. There is a brutal tragic event in the film (which I will not spoil) that should leave Wade, at the very least - affected!
But no. Not so much. The very next scene Wade is ready to Game On!
It seems to me that there is a great movie somewhere in RPO or maybe it’s all there on the cutting room floor. But instead of delivering that, Spielberg delivered the safest movie possible.
And it’s a very fine safe movie. There are things I like. I honestly believe that most folks who see it will enjoy it. The visual spectacle is such an eye feast that I might actually see it again. Perhaps I will warm up to the supporting cast a bit more. Perhaps not.
Ready Player One is fun, energetic and totally Spielberg. I just wish it had been a little more, I don’t know - wiser.
Indie darling film director Steven Soderbergh officially “retired” from filmmaking in 2013 but since then has directed HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, Logan Lucky, and now the made in secret Unsane.
I mainly want to talk about Soderbergh’s process and less so review the film. This will be spoiler free for Unsane.
Soderbergh’s had a few mainstream hits like Ocean’s Eleven, Erin Brockovich and the Academy Award winning Traffic but mostly he works on under the radar indie experimental films like Out of Sight, The Limey and the Solaris remake.
He’s actually been quite prolific in the last few decades since his debut feature film Sex, Lies and Videotapes wowed audiences at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989, winning multiple awards. He’s directed 30 something features since then and produced (which means he actually worked on producing the film) or executive produced (in where he “puts up the money”) another 30 something movies.
And he continues to experiment. Sometimes he uses non professional actors, sometimes he releases a movie without a marketing campaign, he was the first mainstream director (that I’m aware of) that released a feature film on the theaters and on VOD at the same time. He is often quoted in interviews saying he’s not a storyteller and he doesn’t make movies because he feels he has a story to tell. He makes movies as an exercise in storytelling form. And form is what he plays around with in many of his films, offering unconventional ways of telling his story.
Soderbergh’s 1999 revenge film, The Limey, starring Terrence Malick comes to mind. What could have been a fairly straight forward revenge thriller turns into something quite different with an extraordinary sound design / editing technique employed during the production. The film often uses dialogue clips from previous scenes or flash forward sound clips from future scenes, juxtaposed with the current scene you are watching. This is used primarily to punctuate a scene with emphasis but it also creates a rhythmic sound structure of the film which really has to be seen and heard to fully appreciate. Anyway, my point being - no one else had ever done anything like that and overwhelming critical praise suggests it was quite effective.
And, one would assume, if a director finds something that works, why not use the technique again? Because that’s just not what Soderbergh is interested in. He used his sound juxtaposition as an exercise in form for that one film and then moved on to other experiments.
Which brings me around to Soderbergh’s latest experiment, his newly released film, Unsane, starring Claire Foy (the Queen on Netflix’s The Crown). Soderbergh decided to shoot the entire feature film on the iPhone 7. Now, I know he’s not the first director to do this (but he might be the first "big name" director to do so). There are a handful of films I can think of shot on an iPhone in recent years, 2015’s Tangerine being the most popular, and also the Oscar winning documentary, Searching for Sugar Man.
Actually, Searching for Sugar Man wasn’t entirely shot on an iPhone. Some of it was shot on 8mm film but when the director ran out of film he used iPhone app called 8mm Vintage Camera to finish portions of scenes.
I can see the appeal of shooting on an iPhone. Inexpensive. No clunky rig set-ups, no apple boxes, no grip tape, no ten crew members just to track and push your dolly. Soderbergh acted as director, director of photography and camera operator. And he was able to just follow the actors around with relative ease.
The actors loved it, of course. Without all that excess gear and crew and Soderbergh allowing scenes to go on and on the actors were fully immersed in the scenery and the story.
Claire Foy talks about the process in an interview she gave for Entertainment Weekly:
"The thing I loved about it was that Steven was in the room, he was operating , so it really felt like he was there, watching everything, being part of it, which felt really amazing. I've never had that before … We shot it in 10 days, and it meant Steven had huge amounts of freedom in where he could put the camera, what he could do with the camera, what he could try and then get rid of … He was just experimenting all the time. We shot it entirely chronologically. It just moved. It just moved a lot. And it had an energy, and a rhythm, and a momentum to it that felt fresh, and unrehearsed, and full of life.”
Soderbergh was equally in love with the iPhone shoot telling appleinsider.com:
“I have to say the positives for me really were significant and it's going to be tricky to go back to a more conventional way of shooting. The gap now between the idea and the execution of the idea is just shrinking and this means you get to try out more ideas so I wish I'd had this equipment when I was 15."
Later saying that iPhone's 4K footage looks like "velvet" and calling the device a "game changer."
Well, I’m all for experimentation in art and storytelling. But experimentation doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” And, Unsane, for all its form experimentation - is okay. Unlike 2015’s beautiful looking Tangerine, which does not look like it was shot on an iPhone (but was), Unsane actually looks like it was shot … well … on an iPhone.
The Highlights: It certainly has a gritty, voyeuristic feel to the visuals. It’s almost like you’re watching this awful thing happening in real time on security footage. So, that’s creepy. Which, at times is effect since Unsane is a thriller.
The Lowlights: A standard iPhone doesn’t allow you to play much with deep focus. You can pretty much only create a flat space look. Another problem is that the iPhone lens can’t handle close ups, sadly, it “fish eyes” the edges of the screen rounding them out. Again, sometimes this works but most of the time it just looks ridiculous. The blacks all get crushed and the lights are overly pixelated.
So when Soderbergh says the final product looks like “velvet” I seriously don’t understand what he’s talking about. Unsane, quite literally, looks like your kid brother shot a movie in the basement using his iPhone.
Velvet it is not.
That being said, sometimes the crushed blacks and pixelated lights work in favor to the story. The movie is, after all, about a woman going insane (or is it?).
Unsane is kind of review proof. It’s experimental on so many levels that some folks will just like it for what it is, and some will not. I kind of like a lot of it but I also wish Soderbergh had just used a film camera. Super 16mm would have been perfect for the tone. But using super 16 would have been a story telling choice and not a “form experiment,” which is what Soderbergh wants.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t think the problems with Unsane have anything to do with what camera was used. The problems, like the problems with many, many horror films, is that there are too many dopey script choices.
And by dopey, I don’t mean silly because Unsane, to its credit, goes out of its way to be believable and I appreciate the tone of the film.
I could also say bad acting is a problem with many horror films but that’s certainly not anything Unsane has to worry about. All of the actors are quite believable. Even when they’re screeching ridiculous lines.
When “form” isn’t getting in the way, Unsane is as effective as it tries to be. And there are lots of things I admire about the film. But “shot on the iPhone,” isn’t one of them.
Seeing a lot more bad movies is to be expected when you become a MoviePass member. You’ll see more movies when you’ve got an annual membership to see as many movies you want, even if you only need to see one movie per month to make the membership worth the price. And most movies are bad these days. Gringo is one of those movies.
Having seen the trailer and read the synopsis, I had reason to hope Gringo wouldn’t suck. It’s a relatively original idea: dirty, pharmaceutical CEO doing off-the-books business with dirtier drug dealer needs the business with the drug dealer to stop in order to facilitate a merger. Conveniently, the business conducted with the drug dealer occurs in Mexico -- the kidnapping capital of the world -- and the CEO already has a patsy in mind, but his patsy doesn’t act as the CEO expects.
Despite quality casting, I didn’t laugh out loud once during Gringo. Charlize Theron (A Million Ways to Die in the West) produced the picture and plays the CEO’s business associate. The CEO is portrayed by Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby, Black Mass), brother of director Nash Edgerton. Edgerton was good for a few laughs, but Theron was easily funniest, and it wasn’t because of the dialogue written for her by Anthony Tambakis (who wrote Warrior and Jane Got a Gun, both featuring Edgerton) and Matthew Stone (Life, an actually funny film starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence).
Why Theron was willing to put up money for this heap of garbage is beyond me, but maybe it was a good script before David Oyelowo was attached. Oyelowo plays the patsy and wasn’t funny nor realistic. Spoiler alert: he’s clueless about his wife’s cheating on him with his CEO and “friend,” who treats him like a subordinate. What’s unrealistic about Oyelowo’s performance is that his character is too clueless to exist in real life.
But Jason Bateman is never clueless and always funny, and Game Night is another relatively original idea: a group of friends gather for their weekly game night expecting to solve a staged kidnapping and end up attempting to solve an actual kidnapping. Sure, it has its roots in The Man Who Knew Too Little, a brilliant picture starring Bill Murray, who thinks he’s portraying a spy in the “Theatre of Life” while actually thwarting an act of international terrorism. Game Night isn’t as entertaining as The Man Who Knew Too Little, but we can’t expect Bateman to channel Bill Murray. Like Theron, Bateman put up money for Game Night to be produced.
Game Night is also casted well, with Rachel McAdams (Wedding Crashers, Mean Girls) playing Bateman’s wife and Kyle Chandler (Super 8) his “cooler,” older brother. The screen is stolen, though, by Jesse Plemons (Paul, The Post), portraying the perfectly awkward neighbor, who loves his dog a little too much and wants nothing more than to be included in the group’s game nights after his wife has left him.
I laughed out loud throughout Game Night, and while it wasn’t The Man Who Knew Too Little, or even Horrible Bosses, the jokes are at least written and delivered well. Mark Perez (Accepted) wrote a quality script and Rich Delia (Dallas Buyers Club, The Help) put together a better cast than Carmen Cuba (The Martian) did for Gringo. if you’re looking for laughs, see Game Night, not Gringo.
If you need more reasons to avoid Gringo and see Game Night, Gringo has received a 39-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes while Game Night sits at 82 percent as of this writing.
"I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider."
Frances McDormand’s closing words to her Best Actress acceptance speech left many folks, including me, to wonder - what the F! is an inclusion rider? So I looked it up!
The idea comes from Stacy Smith during her 2016 TED talk. Smith is the founder of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the U of So. Cal and has studied data on diversity (and lack there of) in films produced in the US from 2007 until today. Her fifteen minute speech is well worth watching although the results will probably not shock you.
Diversity in US films is - well - doesn’t exactly represent the diversity of the country. In fact, it’s not even close. Her data shows that a very small margin of speaking roles, crew members and directors are women, people of color or members of the LGBT.
From Smith’s talk:
“Across the top 100 films of just last year (2015), 48 films didn't feature one black or African-American speaking character, not one. 70 films were devoid of Asian or Asian-American speaking characters that were girls or women. None. Eighty-four films didn't feature one female character that had a disability. And 93 were devoid of lesbian, bisexual or transgender female speaking characters.”
And later, talking about the ethnicity of the directors in the several hundred top grossing films from the last eight years,
“…800 films, 2007-2015, 886 directors. Only 4.1 percent are women. Only three are African-American or black, and only one woman was Asian.”
One of her solutions is to hire more women behind the camera and, as her data suggests - women are just better at hiring a diverse cast and crew. Another solution is to have A-list actors demand an “inclusion rider,” which is a clause in the actor’s contract that demands that the crew and the cast be more equally represented in regards to women, people of color and LGBT folk.
Smith’s exact wording on the inclusion rider stipulation:
“Second solution is for A-list talent. A-listers, as we all know, can make demands in their contracts, particularly the ones that work on the biggest Hollywood films. What if those A-listers simply added an equity clause or an inclusion rider into their contract? Now, what does that mean? Well, you probably don't know but the typical feature film has about 40 to 45 speaking characters in it. I would argue that only 8 to 10 of those characters are actually relevant to the story. Except maybe "Avengers." Right? A few more in "Avengers." The remaining 30 or so roles, there's no reason why those minor roles can't match or reflect the demography of where the story is taking place. An equity rider by an A-lister in their contract can stipulate that those roles reflect the world in which we actually live.”
And so that, ladies and gentlemen is exactly what Frances McDormand meant in her speech.