Thursday, March 19, 2015

Zombieland (2009) **

I think I speak for all of us when I say that a certain amount of zombie-fatigue has set in. The ubiquity of zombies in movies, TV shows, t-shirts, archery targets, and so on has long passed the saturation point. I think we are all ready for the next big, supernatural thing. (Leprechauns, maybe?) Back in 2009, however, zombies were still de rigeur, which I suppose is why someone thought this zombie-apocolypse comedy was necessary.

Jesse Eisenberg plays a wimpy agoraphobe whose reclusive, obsessive-compulsive traits help him survive a zombocalypse. He is making his way from Texas to Columbus, OH to search for his parents when he meets an unbalanced wild-man (Woody Harrelson) headed for Tallahassee,FL. Rather than exchange names, they just call each other by their hometowns, and Columbus and Tallahassee agree to ride east together for a little while. On a search for Twinkies (Tallahassee's weakness), the pair meet sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), and after some hijinks, the four form an unlikely team. Inspired by Wichita's hotness, Columbus gives up on heading east, and they all travel west in search of Pacific Playland (a thinly-disguised Disneyland), which is reputed to be zombie-free.

There's no reason you couldn't hang a perfectly decent movie around this framework. With the right screenwriter, this could have been four wacky characters on a gonzo adventure. “Zombieland” just never comes together, though. The stupid plot makes the characters do too many senseless things for the story to be taken seriously at all, and so what we are left with is a pure comedy that isn't really very funny. Woody Harrelson is wasted on this; Abigail Breslin hardly does anything at all; Emma Stone spends the movie wearing a ridiculous amount of eye makeup; and Jesse Eisenberg just isn't a compelling lead. Bill Murray makes a brief appearance, but his scenes manage to be some of the least funny parts of the movie. Also, we have to listen to Eisenberg's annoying voice way too much.

If you want a comedic take on zombies, watch”Shaun of the Dead.” “Zombieland” isn't worth your time.

2 stars out of 5

Friday, March 13, 2015

We Are the Best (Vi ar Bast, 2013) ***1/2

Almost all movies about kids create kid characters who rarely or never existed. They are precocious, hyper-verbal, and self-aware. The coolest thing about the Swedish film “We Are the Best” is how real the kids are. These are genuine 13-year-old girls, silly, sensitive, and confused.

Klara and Bobo are a couple of junior-high punk-rockers, resisting the New Wave movement that says punk is dead. With their spiky hair and disinterest in team sports, they strive to stand out from the flaxen-haired girls at their school. The obvious thing for punk rockers to do, of course, is to form a band. With no musical training, the girls start jamming on the bass and drums at the local youth center, and they make music that is, well, awful! They do manage to capture the essence of punk, however, shouting their lyrics about the idiocy of organized sports. When they add an actual musician; quiet, religious guitarist Hedvig; to the group, they improve their sound slightly and change the dynamic of their little clique.

It could be said that not much of consequence happens in “We Are the Best.” The girls all have acceptable, if imperfect, home lives. Their band doesn't turn into a sensation or anything. The biggest conflict in the film involves two of them liking the same boy. The film succeeds, however, because it recognizes that these seemingly minor events are very big to the girls themselves. When you have never had a boyfriend before, fighting over a boy with your best friend is intense stuff. The actresses do a nice job portraying the emotional swings and fluctuating maturity levels of their 13-year-old characters. It turns out this is not a coming-of-age film. In the end, “We Are the Best” is fun because it shows its protagonists as still being kids, playful, and not quite ready to come of age.

3.5 stars out of 5

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Oblivion (2013) ****

There are a lot of 3-star movies out there, movies that are decent and entertaining, but easily forgettable. It's a relief to see something that is truly amazing, that I won't have forgotten by this time next year. I didn't really have any expectations of “Oblivion,” but within ten minutes I had the feeling I was in for something special, and I wasn't disappointed.

Sixty years after an alien invasion, earth lies devastated by a war that the humans won, but which left most of the planet radioactive and uninhabitable. Humankind now lives on Titan (a moon of Saturn), and all that's left on earth are massive generators that suck up the water and turn it into the energy needed to sustain life on Titan. Jack (Tom Cruise) remains on earth as part of a small, skeleton crew of humans who maintain the generators and protect them from the remnants of the alien army, called Scavengers (Scavs). This is all Jack knows, as his memory and that of his wife Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) have been wiped, in case they are captured and questioned by the Scavs. Jack and Victoria live in a beautiful house, and their life doesn't look too bad. Jack actually likes what remains of earth, and he has troubling dreams of earth before the war and of a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko.)

Their world is shaken up when a mysterious beacon from the Scavs brings down a space capsule filled with human survivors. Then Jack is captured by the Scavs, and things get really crazy.

There is so much more I could say about “Oblivion,” but I don't want to spoil it. This is definitely one to watch. It's a tight, sci-fi thriller that starts out strong and doesn't let up. I like action movies, but let's face it, most of them are designed to capture an audience of 13-year-olds. You usually have to turn your brain off to avoid groaning at the lame dialogue and plot points. A 13-year-old could enjoy “Oblivion,” but it doesn't feel like it was written by one. The performances are nuanced (especially Andrea Riseborough's), the visuals are beautiful, and the director maintains a potent sense of menace. Tom Cruise doesn't generate the greatest emotional depth in this one, but he displays a consistent intensity that reminds us why he is an action star.

The director, Joseph Kosinski, is also the author of the graphic novel on which “Oblivion” is based. His only other film credit is “Tron: Legacy,” which I just added to my Netflix queue despite mixed reviews. For that matter, “Oblivion” only scored 53% on Some reviewers found it slow or thought there were holes in the story. I guess there's no point arguing over questions of taste. I found “Oblivion” to be entertaining and tightly-wound from beginning to end.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, March 08, 2015

22 Jump Street (2014) ***

Did you ever know someone who is a jerk, but who is actually fun to be around because he acknowledges being a jerk and makes that a part of his persona? “22 Jump Street” is the movie version of that, a completely unnecessary sequel that manages to be fun by making fun of its sequel status.

Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are still cops and hetero-life-partners. After busting up a high school drug ring in “21 Jump Street,” they are assigned to go to college to “Do exactly what you did last time.” With a bigger budget (carte blanche, or as Jenko malaprops it, “Cate Blanchett”), they set out to find the supplier of the latest designer drug. At college, Jenko fits in great with the football-playing frat-boys, making a new friendship that jeopardizes his relationship with Schmidt. Schmidt, meanwhile hangs with the art-majors and scores a tasty girlfriend (Amber Stevens).

As much as I want to hate on a sequel, I found myself having a good time. It's true that “22 Jump Street” is completely formulaic, right down to the see-them-from-a-mile-away plot twists. In truth, all the best jokes are the ones where the movie is making fun of itself. They are good jokes, though, including the ending montage of possible sequels, Like “27 Jump Street: Culinary School.” I would say that, just as “21 Jump Street” succeeded in the improbable task of turning the TV show into a decent movie, “22 Jump Street” manages to be an unnecessary sequel that actually works.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Elysium (2013) **

It's impossible to talk about Neill Blomkamp's “Elysium” without talking about politics. It's a shame, because the insistent, one-sided political message ruins the story and what is an otherwise promising action, sci-fi movie.

“Elysium” imagines a future earth which is so overcrowded and polluted that those who can afford it have abandoned the surface to live on a giant, ring-shaped, orbiting space station called Elysium. Conjuring up the biblical image of a “wheel in the sky,” Elysium is visible from the gritty sprawl of Los Angeles and serves as a tantalizing lure for the slum-dwelling millions below. Is there anywhere on Earth that isn't this squalid? The movie doesn't tell us, nor does it reveal to us much about the citizens of Elysium other that they live in nice houses, each equipped with a medical scanner that can diagnose and cure any disease.

Down on the over-populated earth, they don't have these scanners, so that is a strong draw for sick earthlings to try to sneak up to Elysium, break into the houses, and get access to the healing devices. When factory-worker Max (Matt Damon) gets exposed to a lethal radiation dose, he becomes desperate to get up to the station before radiation sickness kills him. He contacts smugglers he knows from his days as a criminal, and they agree to smuggle him to Elysium if he will first hijack a rich executive and steal secrets from his brain.

Meanwhile, Elysium's ruthless security chief Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is engaged in a political tug-of-war with the station's weak-willed president. He doesn't have the stomach for Delacourt's policy of shooting down unauthorized shuttles when they refuse to turn back, but he has no plan for dealing with the “undocumented immigrants” or the inequality that draws them. Delacourt cooks up a rather un-believable plan to depose him with a computer system reboot. Max uncovers this plan when he hijacks the executive, and the computer code he downloads makes him a hunted man.

Science-Fiction has always provided plenty of opportunity to explore political and social issues. Neill Blomkamp did this well in “District 9,” where he explored the complexities of dealing with a refugee population. The initial contact between the humans and the starving aliens in that film is filled with promise, but due to poor communication, the aliens are not able to integrate into earth society. Openness gives way to suspicion and fear, and the aliens become a ghetto-ized underclass. The film recognizes that the situation is not the result of intentional evil on the part of either side, but rather developed as a result of one unfortunate incident after another, as well as basic human (and alien) nature. By acknowledging these complexities, “District 9” is able to serve as a vision and a warning about relations between different groups of people, while at the same time serving up satisfying sci-fi action.

“Elysium” gets the sci-fi action part right, with stunning images of the space station and of guys duking it out in cool exoskeleton suits. The concept is cool as well. As with the movie “Snowpiercer,” however, the movie is ruined by a sloppy story that seems to be written solely to promote a simplistic, one-sided political message. Blomkamp clearly has a very Liberal attitude towards issues of health care, immigration, and economic inequality, and some may agree with him strongly enough to enjoy the movie. I imagine that even most liberals, however, will find the reductionist message heavy-handed, like something a college freshman in a Che Guevara T-shirt would have written.

As it happens, in a recent interview, Blomkamp basically apologized for the film, admitting that the story was half-baked.

I feel like, ultimately, the story is not the right story. I still think the satirical idea of a ring, filled with rich people, hovering above the impoverished Earth, is an awesome idea. I love it so much, I almost want to go back and do it correctly. But I just think the script wasn’t… I just didn’t make a good enough film is ultimately what it is. I feel like I executed all of the stuff that could be executed, like costume and set design and special effects very well. But, ultimately, it was all resting on a somewhat not totally formed skeletal system, so the script just wasn’t there; the story wasn’t fully there.

It's rare to hear a director admit so freely to his mistakes, and it gives me hope that Blomkamp still has great work in him. I wasn't very impressed with the trailer for his latest film, “Chappie,” but I liked “District 9” so much that I will probably give the movie a chance. As for “Elysium,” it's a good idea, wasted.

2 stars out of 5