Ghostbusters: Answer the Call

Ghostbusters-2016

Who aren’t you gonna call? The new Ghostbusters.
★★
Movie Review #1,069

ghostbusters_ver6

Distributed by Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Releasing. Comedy, Fantasy, Sci-Fi. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. Released July 15, 2016. Directed by Paul Feig. Written by Katie Dippold & Paul Feig. Based on the 1984 film “Ghostbusters” directed by Ivan Reitman, written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. Starring Kristen Wiig, Ed Begley Jr., Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Neil Casey, Chris Hemsworth, Andy Garcia, Al Roker, and the voice of Adam Ray. With cameos from Katie Dippold, Bill Murray, Ozzy Osbourne, Cecily Strong, Annie Potts, Dan Aykroyd, and Sigourney Weaver.

“Ghostbusters” isn’t a thing of the ’80s, and it’s not just a movie. We didn’t exactly need a reboot to remind us of what a classic it is, because 32 years later, its influence on pop culture prevails. I’d bet that even if you haven’t seen the movie (and even if, god forbid, you didn’t know the movie existed), you’re probably familiar with the logo or the Ray Parker Jr. song. Its presence in America is somewhat similar to the presence of a family-owned diner in a small town: Seemingly everybody in town eats there, and those who don’t are still quite familiar with it. But nobody lives forever, and eventually, the owner decides it’s best if he retires and hands down the series to his grandson, who in this case is Paul Feig. For somebody who’s eating there for the first time, the food might taste fine. But by golly, if you’d ever known the restaurant while Grampa Ivan Reitman was running it, you’ll be very disappointed by what Mr. Feig has in store.

Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones are the new waitresses at the diner. We’ve seen all four of them do great work on Saturday Night Live, and we’ve seen McCarthy and Wiig perform hilariously in previous films by Feig. But in “Ghostbusters: Answer the Call”, three of the four are appallingly lacking. The odd one out is Kate McKinnon, whose quirky, eccentric character is the one upside of the cast. For those who follow SNL, this is almost as good as her interpretation of Hillary Clinton.

But as far as the cast is concerned, that’s where the compliments end. McCarthy and Wiig are never established as anything but slight imitations of Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd in the original films. Feig and Katie Dippold, in their screenplay, try and conceal that as best they can, and I’d rather they didn’t. I’d rather be watching characters that blatantly impersonated the original cast, than thinly veiled impressions that have no other substance. Meanwhile, the screenplay crafts Leslie Jones’s character as a stereotypical black woman whose catchphrase seems to be “Oh hell no!”. It’s fine when Jones is playing that sort of stock character on SNL, but in a feature-length motion picture, it’s rather annoying.

Even Chris Hemsworth’s role, while consistently amusing, is rather one-note. Hemsworth plays a dim-witted receptionist for the Ghostbusters, hired only because of his good looks. Given that he is the only employee for their small business, other than the Ghostbusters themselves, I have to question why he is in this film in the first place.

The remnants of the classic “Ghostbusters” film are even more disappointing. Bill Murray shows up for a few minutes as a famed supernatural debunker. Initially, we’re very glad to see him return, but then we realize how bored he looks. Dan Aykroyd’s cameo is slightly better. He plays a taxi driver who refuses to give Kristen Wiig a lift, and this exchange lasts fifteen seconds at best. Ozzy Osbourne enjoys an even shorter cameo in the film. His performance amounts to him shouting, “Sharon! I think I’m having another flashback!” Ozzy’s delivery of the line is a very welcome, unexpected, and self-deprecating moment in an otherwise dull film. But the sad irony of it is, the unrelated metal artist’s cameo is much more enjoyable than what we get from two of the original Ghostbusters.

As a comedy, “Ghostbusters: Answer the Call” is rather disappointing, and as a sci-fi movie, it is, too. The “science” of how the ghosts have taken over New York City is something that is discussed in vague terms throughout the entire film. Every bit of rationale that leads the Ghostbusters to save NYC from its ghost epidemic consists of pseudo-science and pseudo-reasoning. I suppose we are expected to simply nod our heads and go along with whatever plans the characters are discussing, regardless of whether they logically make sense. Katie Dippold and Paul Feig both have written comedies before, but it’s rather obvious that neither screenwriter has any prior experience in the sci-fi genre.

Additionally, the visual effects are underwhelming for a sci-fi movie. These ghosts look like they came right out of a video game. Perhaps, by the last half-hour of the movie, that makes all the sense in the world: we feel like we’re watching a video game. The use of practical effects, in an age where CGI didn’t exist and 3-D was primitive, was just part of what made the original “Ghostbusters” so much fun. Unfortunately, the exact opposite can be said about the reboot.

Independence Day: Resurgence

id4-gallery2

“We had twenty years to prepare”…for a dumber version of what we’d already seen.
★★
Movie Review #1,068

independence_day_resurgence

Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi. Running time: 2 hours. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and destruction, and for some language. Released June 24, 2016. Directed by Roland Emmerich. Screenplay by Nicolas Wright & James A. Woods and Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich and James Vanderbilt. Story by Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich and Nicolas Wright & James A. Woods. Based on characters created by Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich. Starring Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Jessie T. Usher, Bill Pullman, Maika Monroe, Judd Hirsch, Brent Spiner, Vivica A. Fox, Angelababy, Robert Loggia, and John Storey.

How curious that “Independence Day: Resurgence” is exactly the same story as the original movie, and yet it feels completely different. This is hardly a sequel or a reboot. It’s essentially a remake. Another movie where Jeff Goldblum investigates an alien mothership that is suddenly hovering over the earth. Another movie where scientists and military pilots team up to take out the mothership. Another movie where all this happens around the Fourth of July.

There are three minor differences in this story. One is that, this time around, the humans of Planet Earth think they’re prepared for another attack. The second difference is that, this time around, the mothership is so much larger than it was last time, which means they are in fact not prepared. And third of all, this time around, there is essentially no exposition at all. Director Roland Emmerich (returning 20 years after directing the first movie) doesn’t spend any time at all introducing the characters as he so preciously did for the first 45 minutes of the original. We learn their names during the first 5-10 minutes of the movie, and then it’s off to the races.

It’s tempting to call this a carbon copy of the first movie, but then again, a carbon copy means delivering the same quality as the first time around, which is certainly not the case. 20 years ago, writers Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich told the story on a very political level. It was essentially a movie about terrorism, only told through the exciting lens of science fiction. What’s interesting about “Resurgence” is that it took not two, but five writers to create the screenplay, and yet there’s nothing to show that the film operates on a higher level of thinking. The only thing remotely political this time around is the fact that the President is now apparently (and unconvincingly) a woman. But that only serves as further annoyance, thanks to the fact that, ever since President Obama took office, the President in just about every movie and TV show has been either a) Black, b) a woman, or c) a Black woman.

I’m not saying “Independence Day: Resurgence” had to be political; it should have been smart in some way, though. And let me tell you very frankly that if you happen to think there’s something smart in watching aliens and humans try and mindlessly blow each other up for two hours, you probably need your head checked.

The cast falters in mostly every aspect. Jessie Usher’s role is meant solely as compensation for the fact that Will Smith didn’t want to be in this movie (and boy, do I wonder why). He plays the stepson of Smith’s character from the original movie, and he’s a rather uninteresting character. In the lead is Liam Hemsworth, whose presence in this film is, for the most part, unwanted. Hemsworth’s terrible acting is something we should’ve gotten used to by now, but unfortunately it reaches a whole new level in “Resurgence”. Additionally, Charlotte Gainsbourg feels misplaced in this movie. She’s an outstanding actress, but she’s also a name that only fans of European cinema will recognize. How and why did she ever consent to going from the brilliant psychological dramas of Lars von Trier, to a $165 million movie where every other word in the script is “bang” or “kaboom”?

There are redeeming factors in the cast. It’s nice to see Jeff Goldblum and Jeff Daniels reprising their roles from the first film, as the computer expert and the former President, respectively. It does seem like they enjoy being here for a second time, and watching them might be all that we really enjoy in this film. But we still can’t help but feel sorry for them, knowing that watching them in “Resurgence”, a poor recreation of the first film, is like watching Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman in a junior high performance of The Phantom of the Opera.

The one area in which “Resurgence” actually improves upon its predecessor is in the visual department. The CGI is far superior to what we saw in the first film. This is largely because the technology used for special effects has greatly improved in the last 20 years. And as we have become accustomed to by 2016, “Resurgence” is available in both 2-D and 3-D. On one hand, the use of the latter feels much more gimmicky than creative, but then again, the experience is more realistic than the average movie is in 3-D. But clearly, the 3-D gimmick is the only area where “Resurgence” is actually superior to “the average movie.”

Independence Day

INDEPENDENCE DAY, 1996. TM and Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection

A very fun and patriotic movie, although quite dated.
★★★
Movie Review #1,067

independence_day_ver3

Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi destruction and violence. Released July 3, 1996. Directed by Roland Emmerich. Written by Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich. Starring Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, Randy Quaid, Margaret Colin, Vivica A. Fox, James Rebhorn, Harvey Fierstein, Adam Baldwin, and Brent Spiner.

With a title like “Independence Day”, you have to expect a patriotic movie—and that’s precisely what you get.  Yes, it’s a sci-fi movie about an alien invasion, but more than aliens, “Independence Day” is about the common man.  It takes pride in the one of the truest aspects that makes America, America, and that is diversity.  In just the first scene, we see a team of four scientists investigating potential alien life: a white guy, an Asian guy, a black guy, and a woman.  Twenty years later, you barely notice it, but it stands in stark contrast with the sort of team we might see in sci-fi movies of the ‘50s or ‘60s.

But the diversity found in “Independence Day” goes beyond races and genders.  There’s an even stronger message about social diversity in a subplot during the final third of the film.  Will Smith is Captain Steven Hiller, a pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps who longs to become an astronaut, even after NASA has rejected him.  Jeff Goldblum is David Levinson, a computer genius and avid chess player, who has a degree from MIT but works as a satellite technician.  These are two ordinary, everyday people who couldn’t be more different from one another, and either one of them has their doubts about the other’s abilities.  But ultimately, they recognize that their differences don’t matter; they are both Americans and are both willing to fight for their country together.

Director Roland Emmerich is clearly a patriot.  He recognizes that heroes come from all walks of life, and in this movie, every American is a hero.  There’s not one character in this movie who isn’t rooting for America, fighting for America, or strategizing America’s victory against the invading extraterrestrial life.  This may seem like just some silly sci-fi movie.  Over an hour of the running time consists of aerial fight sequences, where volunteer American soldiers make every effort to take out alien spacecraft that hovers over them.  Most of the movie reminded me greatly of the tie-fighter scenes at the end of “Star Wars”.  But there’s more to it than that.  Maybe it’s wrong to politicize a blockbuster action movie, but “Independence Day” is surprisingly political as a statement about militarism.  The alien invasion allegorically stands for terrorism.  Their fearful presence poses a very similar threat to national security.  In a world post-9/11, where every American is either directly or indirectly affected by the threat of global terror, the message of “Independence Day” feels even more heroic.

But despite that, it’s not very convenient to say that the film has grown with age.  The special effects feel extremely dated  In the very beginning, the title shows up in a typeface that looks like an ugly, bastardized version of the font used for the “Terminator” movies.  Only to make that worse is that the way the title makes an entry reminds us of a PowerPoint effect.  There’s no denying that this is a fun movie, or that the action sequences are awesomely choreographed.  But it’s also pretty hard to ignore the cheesy visual effects that “Independence Day” offers.  The fact that it won an Oscar for its lukewarm achievement in visual effects seems to confirm that our standards for special effects have evolved greatly over the past 20 years.  Beyond the all the ugly hues of lights and laser beams that pervades the action scenes, the biggest mishap seems to be with the film’s use of miniatures.  Surely this can be a good way of doing more with less, but in this case, it detracts from the film’s otherwise realistic look.

“Independence Day” is cheesy, and aside from how it fares in the visual department, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Composer David Arnold, perhaps best-known for scoring every James Bond movie since 1997, delivers a score that is cheesy but memorable.  But what sticks with you even more is the screenplay, written by Emmerich and his frequent collaborator Dean Devlin.  The script is shamelessly full of cornball dialogue, and it truly grows on us throughout the movie.  The good guys fighting to save our planet are having fun with it, and in return, so are they people watching their heroic feats.

The Shallows

Shallows2

This is no “Jaws” ripoff.
★★★
Movie Review #1,066

shallows

Distributed by Columbia Pictures & Sony Pictures Releasing. Drama, Horror, Thriller. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes. Rated PG-13 for bloody images, intense sequences of peril, and brief strong language. Released June 24, 2016. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Writer: Anthony Jaswinski. Starring Blake Lively.

It’s pretty difficult to make a movie with a shark and entirely avoid comparisons to “Jaws”. No film can do it. I’m sure that there’s someone out there, somewhere, somehow, who has compared “The Shallows” to “Jaws”. It’s the validity of the argument made, not the opinion held, that matters. So let me just say that, while I respect anyone who thinks that “The Shallows” is like “Jaws”, I disagree.

This isn’t a shark attack movie. It’s a survival movie. “The Shallows” follows roughly the same formula that “127 Hours” followed six years ago. Blake Lively is the single most important element of the film. Her charismatic, lighthearted character, Nancy Adams, makes us eager to watch her and solely her for most of the movie. Her character defies the biggest stereotypes in Hollywood’s book. She’s a blonde vacationing on the beach, but that’s only because she’s taking a break from medical school to spend some time surfing. She is bitten by a shark and manages to crawl safely onto a rock and stay there, her only companion being a seagull that is also injured. She now has to plan her escape, but this is more difficult than she’d like it to be, for one reason: the shark is continuously circling the rock where she’s stationed herself.

“The Shallows” is Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra’s seventh film. His first three were horror movies, and his next three were action movies starring Liam Neeson. His experience in the latter does him a huge favor during the final act, but it’s really the former that makes the film so exciting to watch. “The Shallows” works because it’s suspenseful but not mysterious. The story is simple, even predictable, but contrary to what its title might indicate, not “shallow.” Simplicity seems to work in its favor. We can estimate what is going to occur throughout most of the story, but the question that remains on our mind is when it will happen.

Pacing is everything to Collet-Serra. Sometimes it’s to take us out of our comfort zone as viewers. The director prolongs the gore to the point that it becomes difficult to watch. Watching Nancy use her necklace and earrings to give herself stitches is a sight that should have earned the film an instant R rating. Sometimes the pacing works to make us doubt our expectations of the film. Again, the question here is not what will happen but when it will happen. “The Shallows” operates at a lifelike pace that leads its audience to wonder if the film is so predictable after all. Especially during the final third of the movie, we begin to wonder whether the heroine will actually survive the film. Let’s be honest: the film isn’t 100% original, and its deliberate pace isn’t always put to such a creative use. Early on, it’s used for humorous effect, where the increasing tension only results in a “false alarm.” If you’ve seen any horror movie, then it’s likely you’re familiar with the concept. But at the same time, the filmmaker’s sense of humor, coupled with Blake Lively’s spirited (or perhaps “lively”) personality, has a definite role in setting “The Shallows” apart from other horror movies.

Finding Dory

finding-dory-xlarge

Pixar is on a roll.
★★★½
Movie Review #1,065

finding_dory_ver6

Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Animation, Adventure, Comedy. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. Rated PG for mild thematic elements. Released June 17, 2016. Directed by Andrew Stanton. Co-director: Angus MacLane. Original story by Andrew Stanton. Screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Victoria Strouse. Additionally screenplay material by Bob Peterson. Additional story material by Angus MacLane. Starring the voices of Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Hayden Rolence, Diane Keaton, Sloane Murray, Bob Peterson, Kaitlin Olson, Ty Burrell, Eugene Levy, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Sigourney Weaver, Andrew Stanton, Lucia Geddes, Bennett Dammann, Willem Dafoe, Vicki Lewis, and Jerome Ranft.

It’s rather interesting that Pixar has never released a film about everyday people like you and me, and yet we identify with their stories better than most any other movie. We can be as stoic as we want, but at the end of the day, it’s a simple truth that we, as human beings, have feelings. We know what it’s like to be an outcast. We know what it means to love, to be loved, to miss, and to be missed.

“Finding Dory” is the latest film in the studio’s canon to bring out those emotions from within us. Dory, we learn, was separated from her family long ago. She cannot remember when or how this happened; all she knows is that she loves and misses her family. Soon enough, sh pursues her burning desire to finally find them. It’s not so easy, given her short-term memory loss and her reliance on vague memories of her early childhood to figure out where her home might be. But being the determined fish that she is, neither of those have any chance of stopping her.

We needed “Finding Dory”. There’s nothing we remember Ellen DeGeneres for better than her performance as Dory in 2003’s “Finding Nemo”. Her reprise of this role makes waiting 13 years for this movie feel somewhat worthwhile. Because she is now the primary focus of the film, this sequel offers significantly more humor than “Nemo”, as well as many more heartfelt moments. We see the story this time from a different pair of eyes–a pair that offers a much deeper perspective, and which makes the characters and their situations much more relatable. Ultimately, the message about the importance of family, while similar to the message of “Nemo”, is much more strongly reinforced.

One more thing “Dory” offers that “Nemo” didn’t is a 3-D experience. Sure, seeing the movie on the big screen is enough to immerse us in the film, but the added factor of 3-D goes a long way. By 2016, or perhaps even by last year’s “The Good Dinosaur”, Pixar has perfected their execution of 3-D animation. I generally don’t appreciate the 3-D trend in Hollywood, but I’ve come to the conclusion that after being put to extremely wide usage for nearly seven years, it is here to stay. “Finding Dory” eases our worries about the 3-D trend and even welcomes us to embrace it. The way “Dory” employs it is no cash grab. It’s cinematic art.

“Finding Dory” carries a simply-woven narrative that could’ve finished in a matter of 20 minutes. The excitement throughout the film lies in how, when Dory comes closest to finding her parents, she is sent straight back to square one again. The concept feels rather repetitive, but in an otherwise perfect film, it’s a drop in the bucket.

Warcraft

warcraft movie 1

One of the stupidest, most confusing movies of the decade.
½
Movie Review #1,064

warcraft_ver5

Distributed by Universal Pictures. Action, Adventure, Fantasy. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes. Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy violence. Released June 10, 2016. Directed by Duncan Jones. Screenplay by Charles Leavitt and Duncan Jones. Starring Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Robert Kazinsky, Clancy Brown, Daniel Wu, Ruth Negga, Callum Keith Rennie, Terry Notary, and Michael Adamthwaite.

It’s never a good sign when the director’s close relative dies in the middle of production. Prime example: Ridley Scott in 2013. His brother Tony died while he was filming “The Counselor”, which, as it turns out, is one of stupidest, most confusing movies of the decade. That label is equally true of “Warcraft”, directed by Duncan Jones. We all mourned the death of the late David Bowie, but I’m sure Jones mourned the tragedy far more, being that he is the legend’s son. The evidence is the final product of Jones’s latest film. The movie is so painstakingly bad that it seems to be Jones’s way of taking out his wrath on the world. The message he intends to give his audience can be whittled down to a quote from “The Princess Bride”: “You killed my father, prepare to die.”

I couldn’t tell you what this movie was supposed to be about if I tried. I have never played World of Warcraft, nor do I intend to after seeing this beastly adaptation, and apparently that is an inhibiting factor to my ability to enjoy, not to mention understand, the film. World of Warcraft fans will get it, apparently. It’s like going into a movie not having read the book on which it is based, and spending two hours being told, “Sucks for you, you should’ve read the book.” My basic understanding of “Warcraft” is that the orcs are the bad guys and the humans are the good guys. The orcs are also really f–king ugly. They look like nothing more than ugly humans with prosthetic horns and tusks and an awful lot of makeup. It’s probably CGI, though, given the film’s enormous budget of $160 million. If you’re dealing with that large of a number, the CGI should at least look decent. Instead, most of the special effects appear, in an unfortunately humorous way, to have been taken directly from a video game with graphics that are, to say the least, unimpressive. Why a movie as visually distasteful as “Warcraft” was released in 3-D, while films with creative and clever visuals like “Deadpool” aren’t, is beyond me. I watched “Warcraft” in 3-D and it is the single biggest waste of the concept I have ever seen. Perhaps Universal knew they weren’t going to turn much of a profit with this film—not in the States, at least—and went with a marketing concept that would at least help it break even. Which didn’t happen at all, by the way: “Warcraft” barely grossed ¼ of its budget.

“Warcraft” is virtually all style and no substance. That’s a rather unfortunate when the style sucks and maintains no sense of originality, much less cinematic value or purpose. But I would not have preferred it to be all substance and no style, because “Warcraft” is equally anemic when it comes to substance. There are supposedly writers—Charles Leavitt and director Jones—but their job here seems to be expendable. Y’all can see that I’m not much of a writer, but I guarantee that I could sit down with a pen and a stack of paper, and within two hours, I could have written the same movie with far better dialogue—even with my below-basic understanding of the Warcraft universe. Worse yet, all we get from the cast, which is composed almost entirely of unknowns, is a flat reading. The performances are so dry and monotonous that it is very difficult to take any scene in the movie seriously. The villain Blackhand, who is chieftain of the Blackrock orcs (I had to look that up on Wikipedia and I still don’t know what it means), is voiced by Clancy Brown, otherwise known as the voice of Mr. Krabs. I think that illustrates my point well enough.

Me Before You

maxresdefault-2

As predictable a romance as any, but more enjoyable than most.
★★★
Movie Review #1,063

me_before_you
Distributed by New Line Cinema. Drama, Romance. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some suggestive material. Released June 3, 2016. Directed by Thea Sharrock. Screenplay by Jojo Moyes, from her novel. Starring Sam Claflin, Emilia Clarke, Vanessa Kirby, Jenna Coleman, and Janet McTeer.

“Me Before You” focuses on a seemingly unlikely bond between Lou Clark (Emilia Clarke) and Will Traynor (Sam Claflin). Lou is a modest young woman who doesn’t believe herself to have any sort of talents, but she needs to work to put food on the table. She reluctantly interviews for a job where she must care for Will, a quadriplegic. As soon as she is hired, she likes the job even less. Will is essentially a wealthy asshole who disrespects those who help him most and uses bitter sarcasm to put some mild enjoyment in his life. Soon enough, the two get to know each other a little better. After watching the French film “Of Gods and Men” with him, Lou starts to realize that there’s much more to him than meets the eye. She soon discovers that Will is actually quite likable.

You could probably predict what starts to develop between them as we delve further into in the story.  We can’t dismiss the fact that “Me Before You” is entirely predictable, even if it wasn’t meant to be a completely unpredictable movie. This is what one might call teaching an old dog new tricks. We’ve seen this movie in its basic form a million times: where, by getting to know each other, two individuals progress from enemies to best friends to lovers. But there’s something special about “Me Before You”, and that is how the tale is told. Clarke and Claflin play their characters excellently, in a sense where the bond they develop throughout the movie parallels our own connection to them as an audience. Their less personable moments in the beginning portion of the film are offset by a brand of humor that we might expect from a British film like “Me Before You”. Neither one of these characters is the most likable starting off, but as much as they grow to care for each other throughout the film, we too start to become engrossed in their love story.

But ultimately, “Me Before You” is not as much a love story as it is a reflection on the meaning of life. The two have grown extremely happy with one another, but it has also become increasingly evident that Will just isn’t the same person after the accident that left him paralyzed. This tragic realization is what leads to a heartbreaking conclusion. The message were left with is that love conquers all, but it doesn’t change all. You don’t often find an ending so beautifully honest in a romance movie; certainly not in 2016.

The Program

film-xlarge

Not the Hollywood movie that it started out as over a decade ago, but still far from terrible.
★★★
Movie Review #1,062

program_ver2

Distributed by Entertainment One and Momentum Pictures. Biography, Drama, Sport. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. Rated R for language. Released March 18, 2016. Directed by Stephen Frears. Screenplay by John Hodge, from the book by David Walsh. Starring Lance Armstrong, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Denis Ménochet, Edward Hogg, and Dustin Hoffman.

If we truly live in a society where a person should be defined by a single controversy, then perhaps we should stop recognizing “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” because one of its stars is a child molester and another one of its stars killed somebody while on vacation in Ireland. My point stands with many celebrities, including Lance Armstrong. I will not defend Lance for his actions with regard to cheating in seven consecutive Tours de France. But at the same time, I will never view him as anything less than a hero. I respect the man, and I view him as an icon for determination, hard work, and perseverance. Let’s not forget, Lance has accomplished outstanding feats purely through his own effort and willpower. He fought through three separate cancers almost simultaneously, and he raised over half a billion dollars for cancer research through his foundation (Livestrong). If you think either of those can be done easily, I challenge you to accomplish either one of them.

“The Program” depicts Lance in a fair and respectable light. We see him here as a man we can admire and enjoy. That works well in contrast with the film’s titular focus: what the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has called “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program” in the history of pro cycling (which, I have come to understand, is a sport in which doping is fairly common). In layman’s term, Lance is an antihero in this movie. There are many scenes in “The Program” that feel inspiring. We see Lance pay a hospital visit to young children battling cancer. In one instance, Lance ignores the busy fundraising schedule that has been laid out for him, in order to spend time getting to know a particularly shy cancer patient. This scene, along with a handful of others, is truly touching. However, we must balance those moments with the ones that stand in stark contrast, where we watch Lance and his teammates lying down as they intravenously feed EPO into their bodies.

Ben Foster may hardly look like Lance, but he sure does a damn good job playing him. This man’s completely unrecognizable face adds further authenticity to the character he develops; as does his use of performance-enhancing drugs while filming, a method unbeknownst to the entire cast and crew until after the film was completed. In a film that features Dustin Hoffman in an important role, you’ve got to hand it to the guy who not only outperforms Hoffman, but also matches the creative forms of method acting on which Hoffman has built his entire career.

But acting alone isn’t enough to develop a character or his story to their fullest. That’s the one problem that appears to pull “The Program” below its potential. Despite ever enthralling rise and every shocking fall Stephen Frears’s film presents, the script never truly digs as deep as we’d like it to. Rather than elaborating on many specific moments, the narrative seems more concerned with shifting chronologically from event to event. I would imagine the storyboard could parallel a timeline one might find on a museum wall, with numerous event and descriptions that give us just enough information. But “just enough” on a museum timeline is a bar set much lower than “just enough” on film. As the young ones on a series of AT&T commercials told us a few years ago, we want more, we want more, we want more.

You don’t expect any meta dialogue in a straightforward, biographical drama such as “The Program”, but in a way, it’s there. A film about Lance Armstrong had been in development since the early 2000s, so we’re treated to entertaining discussions among Lance and his teammates about who will play him in the movie. At an early point, Matt Damon is in consideration, and it is set to be a Hollywood movie. It’s rather unfortunate how drastically the project changed after Lance’s fateful revelation in 2011. The film they are discussing finally came to fruition over a decade after development started. It’s the very film we’re watching. But rather than a Hollywood production with Matt Damon, it’s an independent film, produced outside the U.S., starring the still up-and-coming Ben Foster. What’s more, you more than likely had not heard of “The Program” until you stumbled across this review. The good news is, it’s far from a terrible movie. Lord knows the Hollywood movie could have been an utter misfire, and I’ll take a decent movie that no one has heard of, over a pile of shit that everybody and their dogs knows about, any day of the week.

A Walk to Remember

a-walk-to-remember-559158l

This one is syrupy enough to suck the whole state of Vermont dry.
★½
Movie Review #1,061

walk_to_remember

Distributed by Warner Bros. Drama, Romance. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. Rated PG for thematic elements, language and some sensual material. Released January 25, 2002. Directed by Adam Shankman. Screenplay by Karen Janszen, from the novel by Nicholas Sparks. Starring Shane West, Mandy Moore, Peter Coyote, and Daryl Hannah.

A brief note to the reader: I am returning to reviewing mostly older movies now, since it has become increasingly difficult to find the time and money to visit the movie theater on a regular basis. I suppose this is a better idea, anyhow, because let’s be honest: a Netflix date is just as good as dinner and a movie, and it’s far cheaper and far less time-consuming.

You can’t go wrong with Nicholas Sparks. His books have been adapted into eleven different films so far, seven of which have been released over the last seven years. His movies have an average Rotten Tomatoes score of 24%, with all but one of them falling somewhere between 8% and 32%; the outlier is “The Notebook”, whose middling score of 52% seems almost too good to be true. And yet despite the quality of these films, as well as the fact that most are released during the dump months of January and February, the films inspired by his books have reeled in a total of nearly $890 million worldwide.

The man practically gets away with murder, and there’s nothing that makes that more evident than the lasting popularity of “A Walk to Remember”. It was released 14 years ago and only managed to reach #3 at the box office, but somehow, it’s become something of a cult classic in the time since. That’s to say that it is better “remembered” than Sparks films that grossed nearly twice as much, such as “Nights in Rodanthe” (2008) or “The Best of Me” (2014). How the film managed to succeed so well is beyond me, but I guess Father Time is the only man alive who can polish a turd.

I guess it was a bit of a mistake to tell my ex-girlfriend that I hadn’t seen “A Walk to Remember”, because I wouldn’t have ended up watching it if I hadn’t. It’s not that I don’t like syrupy “chick-flicks.” I think they can be quite amusing, especially when the amusement isn’t intended. “A Walk to Remember” is a prime example of that. The dialogue is a choppy bastardization of how real people speak in normal conversation, both by writing and by performance. Just as laughable is the soundtrack. There is some good music here, and most of it is from the Christian rock band Switchfoot. Unfortunately, those songs that we actually enjoy are recycled several times throughout the movie. What’s more, the rest of the soundtrack highlights the exact sort of music from the early 2000s that we were all glad we’d forgotten: post-grunge and alternative rock. Not the enjoyable kind that we got from bands like Linkin Park, but rather the kind you get from unknown bands like Cold and Fuel. I like the idea of using up-and-coming bands in teen movies, because young people truly do like to listen to new artists. But when you look back on a movie and realize that those bands never even became famous, it’s a little embarrassing.

I cannot judge how faithful “A Walk to Remember” it is to the book on which it is based, but having seen other Nicholas Sparks movies, I will attest to the fact that it adheres very faithfully to the formula that pervades Sparks’s filmography. Rebellious boy and goodie-two-shoes girl meet, try not to fall for each other, but end up doing so anyway. I’m not good at predicting movies. My mother is, and I’m always amazed by it. But I suppose I amazed myself when I was watching this very movie, so much that I felt like my mother. I was predicting the movie left and right. It wasn’t even twenty minutes into the movie that my ex-girlfriend decided to ask me if I had actually seen it.  “This is my first time watching it,” I responded, “and yet it seems I have already seen it a million different times, under a million different titles.”

Sisters

SISTERS

Very funny, until it starts to feel like a disaster movie.
★★½
Movie Review #1,060

sisters

Distributed by Universal Pictures. Comedy. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes. Rated R for crude and sexual content and language throughout, and for drug use. Released December 18, 2015. Directed by Jason Moore. Written by Paula Pell. Starring Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Ike Barinholtz, Dianne Wiest, Madison Davenport, Dan Byrd, James Brolin, John Cena, John Leguizamo, Bobby Moynihan, Greta Lee, Rachel Dratch, Kate McKinnon, Chris Parnell, and Paula Pell.

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are a really, really funny pair.  If you don’t believe me, go back and watch clips from the Golden Globes, which they co-hosted from 2013 through 2015, or their respective impressions of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live.  That being said, their collaboration in “Sisters” offers many good laughs.  But unlike their comedy as a standup pair, “Sisters” has a plot, and it often seems to stand in the way of humor.

“Sisters” reunites sisters Kate (Tina Fey) and Maura Ellis (Amy Poehler).  Kate is a careless woman who works as a hair stylist from home, and doesn’t even bother to do a good job with that.  Even her teenage daughter is embarrassed by her sloppy way of life, and so she moves out frequently and refuses to tell her mother whom she is living with.  Maura, on the other hand, enjoys helping people.  She’s a nurse, and she’s starting to find a new life for herself after a recent divorce.

One prominent message here is that people don’t change.  The two recount stories of when they were teenagers: Kate was a party animal and would host house gatherings that she dubbed Ellis Island on a regular basis.  Maura would be the “party mom” during these parties, which essentially means that she made sure nobody died from choking on their own vomit, and of course that she served as the designated driver at these parties.  Now, both of them are in their forties, and their house is being sold.  Kate wants to bring all their high school friends back for one last ride at Ellis Island.  However, she also needs a place to stay, having been recently evicted.  Maura agrees to the party, and vows to help Kate get back on her feet again, but only under one condition: that she gets to party this time and Kate gets to be the “party mom.”

The cast is complete with members and recent alumni of Saturday Night Live.  Fey and Poehler, as already mentioned, make as great a team on film as they do on the late-night program.  Maya Rudolph plays a former wannabe who never got invited to the Ellis Island parties, and wants revenge when she finds out she wasn’t invited to the most recent one, either.  Rachel Dratch, Chris Parnell, Paula Pell (who also wrote the screenplay), and Kate McKinnon all have their moments to amuse, as well, but the one whose performance truly takes the cake is Bobby Moynihan.  Moynihan plays a guy who loves telling jokes but isn’t funny.  But he seems ignorant to the fact that nobody’s laughing, which makes his character a laughing matter, anyway.  Kudos for the scene where Moynihan snorts cocaine and poorly impersonates the movie “Scarface”.  Maybe the one character who delivers more laughs in the entire movie is John Cena, who plays a muscular, overly serious drug dealer.

If the Ellis Island reunion were a normal party, this movie might have been a fun, albeit predictable, time.  It certainly starts off that way, but it doesn’t last long.  What starts as a house party becomes an out-of-control apocalypse in “Sisters”.  Every step in the process of gradually demolishing the Ellis house is meant as a joke, but the feeling seeing it all happen grows tiresome and even a little stressful to watch.  Watching a character on drugs spray painting a gigantic penis onto a wall is rather amusing.  Seeing a group of Asian characters pour an entire container of laundry detergent into a washing machine to make a giant bubble bath flood the house, not so much.  At that point, we’re not laughing; we’re dreading the conclusion.  By the time the conclusion finally arrives, there’s a massive sinkhole in the family’s backyard, and the house is in absolutely no condition to be sold anytime soon.  Sure, the idea of destroying a house on the market can be very funny; I just feel writer Paula Pell took the concept way too far.