Aisle of the Damned: 1/23/17- Best of 2016… and Passengers

*punch* No ticket.

Following our Christmas episode, we took a little time to enjoy the new year before we came back with one of the most anticipated episodes of the year: The Best and Worst of 2016!

After a discussion about the difficulties of seeing a lot of the stuff out there these days (there’s only so many entertainment dollars to go around) we lay out what rotted our eyeballs and delighted our brains over the last year. We also take on Underworld: Blood Wars, La La Land and Passengers before we’re done, and talk news about some blu ray announcements, Deadpool 2 news and how Warner Bros. still just doesn’t get it.

Music:
The Aquabats- Stuck in a Movie

Still Corners- Lost Boys

Aisle of the Damned: 6/6/16- It’s a Metaphor for the Suburbs

Baldpocalypse Now!

Bryan and Kent wonder if their mutant power is thinking they saw a different movie than other people; they actually like this critically-maligned X-film. Unless you can read minds, you’ll have to listen to find out why.

Also, find out our thoughts on Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, our recommended picks and a remembrance of the late, great Darwyn Cooke. All this and news in the latest episode of Aisle of the Damned.

Music:
The Aquabats- Stuck in a Movie
The Suicide Machines- It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men 5

We’re two for three in superhero movies so far this summer. Bryan Singer’s welcome return to the X-Men franchise is incredibly successful with Days of Future Past. I’m not sure that I can say I enjoyed it more than First Class, which I enjoyed initially and have liked even more with subsequent viewings, but between the two of them, the franchise has officially been rescued from the God-awful Last Stand and only slightly better Origins: Wolverine that were nearly the one-two punch that killed this cash cow. (Maybe I should have hoped for that so the characters could return to the Marvel fold, but we’ll let it go.)

Loosely adapted from one of the most popular stories that the characters have ever been involved in, it begins in an undisclosed future where mutants and many humans have been hunted down by the robotic Sentinels from the comic books. We get to see a few of the X-characters in this future that I honestly never believed would appear unless it was the kind of crap cameo that Brett Ratner relegated Psyclocke to. We get Blink, man. I am honestly flabbergasted about that one. And she is done well. (For those that don’t know, Blink is a popular mutant that creates portals. She seems depowered and decidedly non-lilac in this instance, but still.) It feels much less like the mutants of the film are getting short shrift here just to pack in as many as possible the way some of the lesser movies have done. In a departure from comic lore, Wolverine is sent back in time to stop the Sentinel program from ever being started. (In the comics, it was Kitty Pryde that did the honors, which I would have welcomed instead of getting yet another Wolverine-centric movie, but the bean counters at Fox apparently think only his bub-ness sells tickets, First Class to the contrary.)

It is a little surprising to me that Singer seems more at ease with the cast of First Class over the runtime than those of the original film since Matthew Vaughn was at the helm for that one. I guess maybe he was hands-on as a producer? In any case, aside from some clunky exposition that even Patrick Stewart can’t keep from sounding overdone (and he has a lot of experience with exposition from Star Trek) the movie gets going quickly and doesn’t stop often. It all comes out a bit Terminator-ish, but then Marvel beat Cameron to the punch by a couple of years so all’s fair.

The time-travel reset button is a brilliant thing to do on multiple fronts. Number one, it gives the people currently making the films a chance to eliminate all the horrible decisions made when Fox was in the mentality that the X-Men films a) needed to be forced into a trilogy, because that’s just how it’s done and b) needed to be crapped out as soon as possible in order to punish Bryan Singer for taking a job directing Superman Returns. I think making that movie was punishment enough. Number two, it allows the use of both the original characters and the new cast that earned the right to continue the series. Number three, it creates the possibility of doing two equally deserving continuities, one in the past and one in the present going forward. If this is Fox trying to play catch up with Marvel Studios, all I can say is bravo for doing it in an incredibly inventive and dramatically fulfilling way compared to Sony and their botched Spider-Man experiment.

Even though it is yet another movie with Wolverine front and center, we get to spend a lot of time with Charles (Professor X) and Erik (Magneto) in both timelines, and the film is all the better because of it. Their relationship is by far the most interesting part of this series and First Class made that painfully obvious. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender continue to be fantastic in their roles. At this point they own them just as much as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan. Combine that with pretty meaty parts for Mystique and Beast and you have a much more rounded ensemble film than it could have been. They lucked out when they cast Jennifer Lawrence and they seem to know it, making her an integral part of the story. As per the aforementioned Blink and Kitty (Ellen Page, returning as one of the two good things from X3 worth saving), as well as other mutants like Iceman, Bishop and Storm, they aren’t really given much to do for an arc, but they’re well used enough in action sequences that they don’t feel like they’re given short shrift. Many others have glorified cameos, but nothing feels particularly forced.

The only other new characters to truly be of note are pretty much Evan Peters as Qucksilver and Peter Dinklage as Bolivar Trask. Both are excellent. For all the hubbub about Quicksilver appearing in both this film and the second Avengers film, I doubt there will be much similarity in the portrayals. In Future Past, Qucksilver, really only brought in for the purpose of one action scene, is less the abrasive speedster from the comics and is instead an carbon copy of DC Comics’ Impulse with a worse costume. An ADHD-riddled kid with bad hair and a penchant for being charmingly annoying. The action scene in question is possibly the most fun scene in the entire film, so it’s understandable that Singer was so hyped to use him.

Trask does horrible things in his quest to realize his dream of the Sentinels. He cautions that mutants will replace humans, citing Neanderthal man’s disappearance as a warning. (Of course he wouldn’t be privy to the current theory that Neanderthals actually interbred with cro-magnon.) We’re given glimpses of his life that indicate he’s a genius and he talks about doing a lot of good things for humanity. But it’s obvious he doesn’t see mutants as humanity, only as a means to an end. They don’t exactly subtle-up the Nazi metaphors. And just to make one statement about who would normally be one of the villains of the film, it was nice to see Richard Nixon portrayed as an actual human being and not a complete cartoon bad-guy for once. The government and the military aren’t shown to be evil or even necessarily in favor of wiping out mutants. They simply get used by Trask as more means to his end.

The movie is paced elegantly with never a dull moment, but also never being overwhelming. It feels like all of Singer’s superhero movie experience has been leading to this moment where he finally feels comfortable with all the things he was holding back on in the second film. (Having the brass at Fox on his side instead of demanding Jon Peters-esque changes on a whim it probably helps.) The action sequences feel fresh, despite several of them having a lot in common with previous installments which is a testament to their presentation and the quality of the effects. There is no question in my mind why this movie cost so much and it honestly seems worth every penny. It is polished and even the questionable CGI just makes it seem that much more comic book-y.

After seeing the teaser at the end which brought many a “What the hell?” from the crowd in our theater, I am very much looking forward to seeing what Singer, Vaughn and their cohorts bring to us next.

(Four damns given out of five)

Kent’s Movie Diary: Hungry For You

Some more stuff off Netflix this week (the disc service, not the streaming.) I’m not too happy about yet another price hike from them. I don’t get cable, it’d be a shame to have to drop them too. (Though there is still a good video store in Lawrence so I’ll be OK. Liberty Hall, y’all!) On to the movies!

AOTDHungerGamesFireTHE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE- I kind of get it now. I was only a very moderate fan of the first film in the Hunger Games saga. Despite the raving declarations of love by its very large, very vocal fanbase, I just didn’t understand the furor caused by what amounted to a post-apocalyptic Battle Royale pastiche with a ton of holes in the fabric of the plot. I did give myself an out in that. I said that it’s possible the film simply didn’t capture the book and cut out lots of necessary exposition in creating a society. A society of people descended from Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter who somehow rule with a foppish iron fist. The sequel, while not fixing any of the logical problems that drive me absolutely nuts, does manage to work much better by pushing the political metaphor, deepening the character work and giving stoic heroine Katniss a truly badass moment in the finale.

I have to say, one of the things I really enjoy is the reversal of traditional gender roles at play here where the guy is considered the sensitive of the pair and she’s the hotheaded berserker. She’s Wolverine, without the forest of body hair. This doesn’t exactly match her manipulative, cunning huntress from the first film, but it’s an interesting direction to take the character.

Anyway, the Roman parallels are far more explicit in this go round and by the time we get an ipecac introduced it’s pretty much the most obvious thing ever. I find myself really wondering the author’s intentions because there are a few ways to take the whole thing. It could be a really mediocre gripe against the 1% as I’m pretty sure I’ve seen some people read into it, but given the setup, it seems to work so much better as an impugning of Soviet Russia, at least as presented on film. You have a capitol where the political elite lord over people with nothing. When they want to punish everyone, they crack down on the “black market,” the last bastion of economic freedom the people have.They destroy their possessions. They flog and shoot people in the street. Sounds like a communist regime to me. President Snow blames Katniss for his woes because he fails to acknowledge what a dumb system he’s running in the first place and when he talks about reminding people of their proper place, he forgets that with such a low life expectancy, there practically aren’t any people alive who can remember their great war of subjugation to begin with.
The ending reveals yet another issue with the logic of the series; if they can destroy District 12 without fear of having to lose what they take from them by force, why were they so determined to keep them under their boot in the first place? As I said in my review of the first film, however, the whole matter of subjugation and confiscation makes no sense when the technology apparently exists to rearrange matter at will as we see in the games themselves. Hell, they should be in a Star Trekian utopia.

Regardless of the issues present in the narrative’s background, the character work builds mightily on the previous film, giving those we’re familiar with a lot of milage. Elizabeth Banks’ character may be part of the upper class, but she seems fatigued to exhaustion and skittish under pressure. Woody Harrelson manages to portray his high-functioning alkie to wondrous effect as he looks at these silly kids with both worry and disdain. It’s extremely sad that Phillip Seymore Hoffman passed away after this film because he will be a tough act to follow. The calculating behind his eyes sells the character and his nature well beyond what is written for him to say. (Stanley Tucci remains the exact same brand of weird, though.)

It’s all pretty impressive despite the issues. Impressive enough that I may catch the next movie in the theater, even if I’m bitter about it being on the two-parter finale bandwagon that needs to just stop. The revolutionary feeling in the air of Pan Em is a pretty good draw as it turns more towards being a cross between Battle Royale and Animal Farm. And while I’m not sure how that combination sounds, I mean it in a good way.

AOTDZatoichiFugitivesZATOICHI AND THE FUGITIVES- The 18th chapter of the Zatoichi saga displays how the films are often at their best when they are very straightforward and simply head from point A to point B without trying to put in a lot of extra storylines and b-plots.

It is the kind of simple ‘walking tall’ style story the franchise does so well. Zatoichi arrives in town, meets up with someone goodhearted, gets caught up in the middle of a skirmish involving the local yakuza and it ends with him more or less reluctantly dispensing *ahem* blind justice. It is the very essence of the series, but when it is done as effectively as in this entry, it still packs a punch.

In this case, a group of hoods (the Fugitives of the title) help the proceedings along as they try to take him down several times, leading to several instances of entertaining escapes. It also was a good move to make the leader of the gang have patience and foresight we rarely see from Ichi’s adversaries. While the underlings howl about going after him, underestimating him again and again due to his blindness, he illustrates a shrewd understanding of just how dangerous our hero is. He also is responsible for some family drama that adds just a little flavor to the proceedings. The gang is better fleshed out and shows more visual diversity than many of Zatoichi’s foes, making it so some of them are recognizable instead of being a ‘uniformed’ sea of sword fodder.

In Fugitives, we see him get worn down and hurt over the film. He may be a preternaturally good swordsman, but he’s not invincible and this film does a good job of reminding us of that. The only real gripe is that the ending comes just a little too easily given the extent of his injuries, but that’s just complaining to complain.

AOTDAllisLostALL IS LOST- When you get down to it, this is 100 minutes of watching Robert Redford fart around on a boat. That said, it’s a pretty engrossing 100 minutes of watching Redford fart around on a boat.

I saw Kon Tiki not too long ago and All is Lost makes a very interesting companion piece in which folks can contrast having a half-dozen men bickering in the middle of the ocean or being alone in screaming solitude and decide which is worse.

Similar in many ways to last year’s Gravity (but saving a lot of ink on the screenplay) it is a tale of survival where everything that can go wrong does. Splotchy and lined like an old work glove, Redford is the only real character in the film and he barely speaks, seemingly using less than two dozen words after an initial opening salvo. I am increasingly distressed by the overused trope of starting at a random point in the story and flashing back for you to find out how you got there, but maybe they felt like it would stick out if they shoehorned a monologue in at the actual place it would belong after only hearing him scream one obscenity in the previous hour. (Remember when they did that with Mr. Bean in his first movie when he suddenly launches into that monologue? Yeah, that was just weird.)

Beginning with a large hole being put in his boat by a lost shipping container full of crappy sneakers, he loses power and the use of his radio. This doesn’t phase him too badly and he seems pretty capable of fixing most of it. However, sensing he is screwed, nature decides to kick him in the backside with a violent storm. It’s pretty much all downhill from there for him.

It’s a very different role from this summer’s Captain America, but one that equally relies on the gravitas that he has inherited due to his decades in the industry and the persona he has been assigned from them. This could have easily been filmed with a younger actor, but Redford brings a lot to the role simply by being Redford. It is reminiscent of roles Clint Eastwood has performed since Unforgiven or late-era John Wayne. One senses he’s been through the ringer and with his worn countenance, old wedding ring and fairly spartan lifestyle, it becomes heavily implied that his solitude and silence are self-imposed, perhaps as he tries to get over some late-life tragedy. As I said, none of it is explicit, but the use of Redford and visual cues simply gets you to start writing the story of how this guy got into the middle of the Indian Ocean. It’s a neat trick by the writer/director, J.C. Chandor.

The film is also very well made technically. In an instance of someone actually adhering to “don’t tell, show” it is a darn good thing that they make the things interesting visually. I personally think the film makes a mistake by often going long periods without any kind of score. I think the purpose behind these long moments is to express more isolation and to stress how he is out of touch from other human beings, but some of the times that try to stress it really could have benefitted from some kind of music, especially when he’s just rummaging around. The music is good enough that they really should have trusted it to help carry these scenes.

This is a film that will require patience in the viewer. I wonder if people more versed in seafaring may be more bored than me since a lot of what he does will probably come across as pretty routine. For me though, it was a well-made and interesting film. I don’t know if I’ll revisit it any time soon. However, for those that want a survival tale and a good leading performance from a veteran in an industry where it seems like people of his vintage are often only taken off the shelf to slum in niche “old people” films, it’s a very refreshing change of pace.

AOTDOddThomasODD THOMAS- I am a little surprised that this Dean Koontz adaptation seems to have essentially gone straight to video. Surprised for two reasons. Number one, because the main creative force behind it is Stephen Sommers, who was a pretty big name no more than a decade ago. Van Helsing really seems to have damaged his career in a big way (even though it did decent business) since the only other thing he’s done since is the first GI Joe movie, but you’d still think his adaptation of a book by a big selling writer would manage to get a theatrical release. Part of it may have been legal troubles, it looks like, but Cabin on the Woods sat on the shelf for a couple of years and still managed to get a wide release. Number two because it’s better than your standard direct to video film.

First the bad news. There’s a moderately awful twist ending that actually made me angry and though I haven’t read the books, I’m assuming Sommers was hamstrung by the novel to include it. The way it ends is very much setting up a series that will likely never be and it feels like a wasted opportunity to simply make one really good movie instead. It’s just one part of the film’s biggest weakness; sometimes it just plain feels like the pilot to a TV series. Ready made franchises are now second nature in Hollywood, so it’s not surprising that this one makes the attempt, it is just disappointing. Adding to that, the way it’s structured, the staging, the nature of the mystery, the parting coda and the narration by the titular character all combine to make it feel very much like a WB Network horror comedy, albeit a pretty good one. One that would probably be a little controversial given the villain’s plan of this first “episode.” I would go so far as to say this argument is more praise for the increase in TV’s entertainment value than damning the film’s quality, but there you are.

The best thing about the film is the casting and that is where it differentiates itself from other similar fare. Anton Yelchin simply has charm. He has proven himself in the new Star Trek films and he was a very, very big reason for me enjoying the remake of Fright Night. In fact, this film has a lot of similarities to that one. Sommers’ touch makes it feel like much lighter fare despite having some pretty dark ideas though. Say, it is to Reaper as Fright Night is to Supernatural.

In this film he is Odd in name and action. He sees dead people, but that’s not where his powers end. He can see demonic entities, he can see people’s dreams… He’s got a whole bunch of not very clearly defined supernatural powers that crop up when convenient, kind of like in Superman II.

His love interest since childhood is named Stormy and she’s played very well by Addison Timlin. I’m not familiar with her other work and seeing what she’s been in, it’s no wonder why. However, she’s got great chemistry with Yelchin which leads to some very enjoyable banter. And while this is not the basis of a good performance, dang it, she’s a looker. What I really enjoyed is Stormy and Odd actually have that rarest of fictional couplings, a healthy relationship that is endearing. (Sommers did a good job of this with Mummy Returns as well, now that I think about it.)

The main guy that people will have heard of in the piece is Willem Dafoe and he’s damned good as the competent cop that’s befriended Odd and has a symbiotic relationship with him. As much as I enjoy him hamming things up as a psychotic, I think people forget that he can be a damned funny guy when given the chance.

Sommers’ direction lends itself to the material when it comes to establishing a tone that could be a pretty tough balancing act. It could be more original to be sure, but then so could Deep Rising and I remain a huge fan of that particular creature feature. The film probably isn’t gory enough to satisfy the horror fiends that feed on similar genre comedies such as Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil. It is also likely too much on the side of a light R or hard PG-13 to be for young teens so it misses that whole audience. I found the tone to be fun without feeling like it was trying too hard to be pandering and that middle ground may actually hurt it, however it worked great for me. I’ll probably revisit this one on blu ray at some point. (Unfortunately, Netflix only had it on DVD, which ticks me off. Get on the ball, guys!)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: American Hustle

Do the hustle

The con movie, like its close cousin the heist movie, is a weird animal. As long as you present a protagonist that is somehow charming or likable, you can get people to follow complete scumbags and root for them to pull one over on whoever they are trying to rob or scam. In David O. Russell’s newest film, Christian Bale is the con man that becomes our loosely-defined hero, and his odyssey through an ever-escalating sting is at turns humorous and uncomfortable. To call American Hustle Russell’s Boogie Nights is not accurate and a bit reductive, but not completely out of line, either. They’re both a strange mix of comedy and explosive drama, often in the same scene and they both involve outsiders from the weirdest era in American history.

Since the film is loosely based on actual events, it makes sense that it is set in approximately the same era that the original “Abscam” scandal occurred, aka the 1970s. But there’s more to it than that. I have always seen the 70’s, despite being born in them, to be the decade that America was lost in sleaze and ugliness. And not so much even the good kind of sleaze like corny porn films and grindhouse movies. But more that everything about it seems unpleasant. The clothing and general sense of design and style went against all common sense in the broadest terms of even the most basic rules of taste. Music was by and large awful (thank God for The Ramones coming along as an antidote to disco and arena rock) and sex lost the icky but playful naivete of the 60s free-love hippies and just became kinda icky. And that’s not even getting into the political arena. So it makes sense to set such a sleazy (but goofy) story of crime, sex and political expediency in this period. When your most virtuous character is a bribe-taking politician, you know that things will get worse before they get better.

And when the first shot in your movie (following the nice touch of an era-accurate Columbia logo) is a fat, bald Bale navigating an incredibly complex technical ballet to set up his comb-over, it expertly sets up that the whole film will be about people building huge facades to fool the world, but most importantly themselves.

It’s a film with a very nihilistic point of view; everyone lies to everyone, but they especially do it to themselves. Some people are just better at it than others.

Thankfully, that depressing thought is wrapped in some very broad but very good performances, beginning with Bale playing far against the type that he established with the larger budget fare he’s been in like the Batman films. It’s the kind of physical transformation that we saw from Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder, but more startling because it isn’t just some make-up job for a gag. He commits to and embodies the character. Opposite him is Amy Adams as his partner in crime and Bradley Cooper as an FBI agent that conscripts them into his service and slowly seems to lose his mind as he sees more and more opportunity for glory. While I think he’s the wrong choice for the voice of Rocket Raccoon, I’ve liked Cooper ever since his days on Alias. I would say without a doubt that this is some of his best work. The tightrope he walks as he goes around the bend is taut through the film and, despite chewing scenery like a beaver, he never quite falls off. Also, I am convinced that he and Louis C.K. could be a comedy superteam.

You’ve also got Jeremy Renner doing something new as the Conan-haired New Jersey mayor that gets swept along in their schemes. He represents the old ways and the older generation. The family-style backbone of New York from the earlier part of the 20th century. There’s a fantastic juxtaposition in the film using music, swinging from a disco tune accompanying Cooper’s next-gen, drug snorting fed to Renner and Bale singing along to Tom Jones’ mega-hit crooning of Delilah that works to show the difference between the new guard and the small-time folks caught up on the new mechanisms emerging, about to be caught under the wheels of ‘progress.’

That said, the best work in the film may belong to Jennifer Lawrence’s manic housewife that is equal parts self-destructive narcissist and manipulative sociopath that lashes out to hurt everything she cares about.

Set against a set of super-hits from the 70s that K-BILLY would give a stamp of approval, these characters seek to screw each other over at every turn and the point seems to be seeing who truly does end up coming out on top. The finale is suitably satisfying without glamorizing any of these amoral Looney Tunes too much. They take themselves very, very seriously, but thankfully we can laugh at their delusions. And possibly some of our own. If we happen to see them there.

(Four damns given out of five)