Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Girl on the Train Review

The movie that is "based off the thriller that shocked the world." That's what they say in the advertising, anyways. I can't speak for the book they speak of because I haven't read it, but if we pretend for a second that they are accurate and this book really did shock the world, then they impressively adapted a book that shocked the world into a movie that put the world to sleep. Based on hearsay, though, I would be willing to make a prediction that this book didn't actually shock the world. But it was a clever enough marketing trick that I certainly fell for. Back in 2014, there actually was a thriller released that shocked the world. It was also released on the first weekend of October. That movie was called Gone Girl and I absolutely loved it. Talk about a movie that literally made my jaw drop for the entire second half of the movie with all of it's crazy twists and turns as well as the jarring and hard-to-watch scenes towards the end. I love myself a good thriller and Gone Girl hit every note you want a thriller to hit. Going into The Girl on the Train, I was really hoping for another experience like Gone Girl. Instead I got a decently fun mystery movie that is ultimately forgettable, yet again continuing the annoying trend in 2016 of movies I'm excited for disappointing me.

The Girl on the Train is the intertwined story of three girls who all happen to have a connection to one guy. One of these three girls turns up missing and is soon after found to be dead. This was all in the trailer and I was worried that this was going to be a spoiler, but it's not. This murder happens towards the beginning of the film and thus sets up a movie that's actually more like Clue than Gone Girl in that we spend most of the movie trying to figure out who it was that killed this girl and how it was done. And the movie was told was much like Pulp Fiction in that it's told out of chronological order. We start at a certain point and slowly start to put the whole puzzle together, jumping back and forth from past to present quite often to figure out what happened. I should note before I continue that, lest you think I am calling The Girl on a Train a combination of Gone Girl, Clue and Pulp Fiction, all I'm really saying here is that this movie had similar cinematic elements to these three movies. It also means this movie had a whole heck of a lot of potential. I was ready for this to be one of the best movies of the year. While I'm not going to trash it like many people have, I will say this is a disappointing outing full of a lot of wasted potential, but not an overly terrible outing.

The biggest problem here is that this movie is very forgettable. I don't normally admit this in a review, but in this case I think my next statement will serve a point. Before starting this review, I kinda forgot what happened in the movie. As I mentioned, I saw this movie opening night and due to me being extremely busy, I haven't been able to keep up on all of my movie reviews, so some of them I had to shelf for a week or two. Or in this case three weeks. And in that time frame, this movie almost completely left my mind. It's a very by the numbers thriller, if it's even appropriate to call it a thriller since there is not a lot of actual thrills. Usually you want a thriller to keep you on the edge of your seat. You want the tension to build. You want the adrenaline rush. You want the movie to surprise and shock you. This movie just kinda... happens. Instead of being a crazy rollercoaster ride, this movie is like riding a train. Riding a train can be relaxing and enjoyable at times. But when you get home to your family and friends and you're recounting the events of the day, most days you're not going to brag about how awesome your train ride was. Unless you're five years old riding the train for the first time, which is where this analogy ends. This is not a kid's movie.

I do find this kinda ironic. Here I am on a train comparing a movie about a girl riding a train to riding a train. Yeah, you might have to read that sentence a couple of times. But let's talk about this girl riding on the train. That girl is played by the great Emily Blunt and due to things that have happened to her recently that we slowly learn more about as the movie goes along, she's spiraling downwards mentally. She's kind of a psychological wreck who stumbles onto this murder and begins to be convinced that she was the one who committed the murder. As the title of the movie would suggest, this is in fact Emily Blunt's movie. I said in my description that it's about three girls, but a more accurate description is that it's about one girl with the other two being supporting characters. And if there's one huge saving grace in this movie, it's definitely Emily Blunt. She's an actress who's been mostly on fire recently. I say "mostly" because she does have that huge stain of her awful performance in The Huntsman: Winter's War on her resumé now, but she recovers here. She did an absolutely phenomenal job as this psychologically damaged female and I genuinely enjoyed following her journey to see what really happened to her. Was she the killer? Was she a victim? I didn't know.

Our other two supporting females are serviceable. They are played by Rebecca Ferguson and discount Jennifer Lawrence. I say discount Jennifer Lawrence because Haley Bennett looks and sounds just like Jennifer Lawrence in this role. In fact, a lot of people who watched the trailer thought that was Jennifer Lawrence. But no, it's not. It's Haley Bennett. She's been having herself a decent year. She went from Hardcore Henry to The Magnificent Seven to this. And she was pretty good in all three of those even if the movies themselves weren't the greatest. In The Girl on the Train, she plays the troubled girl who experiences nothing but bad luck in her life. Which is topped off by her getting killed. Yeah, it's her death that we are trying to figure out who was responsible for. Rebecca Ferguson is the girl that kinda gets caught in the middle of all this. I definitely wouldn't call her a perfect angel because she's a big part of the reason why Emily Blunt's character spirals downward and starts conspicuously riding a train every day. But she's the one that seems the most innocent. And she plays it well. So yeah, our main trio of girls all did a great job in this. Yes, we have a whole host of other side characters/suspects, but in order to make things a surprise, I won't dive into any of them.

Overall this is not a bad film. There's obviously a lot of details that I purposely skipped over because this is a mystery film and I don't want to ruin the mystery for you if you are planning on seeing it. But the big takeaway is that this is a fairly forgettable film. It didn't shock me. The twists and turns weren't super crazy. There wasn't really any moment that had me on the edge of my seat. And quite honestly the movie dragged on quite a bit. It's a bit of a slow burn mystery movie instead of an outright intense thriller. But I was mildly entertained by the mystery it presented and I was blown away by Emily Blunt's performance. The other two girls, Rebecca Ferguson and Haley Bennett do a fine job. But when you go into a thriller you expect an intense, crazy rollercoaster ride. Instead I got a mild train ride. A lot of critics crucified this movie, saying it's an awful piece of trash. That's a bit unfair. But at the same time, this is not a must-see. If it's at Red Box or on TV some time in the future and you are curious about it, it's not a bad option. But if you didn't already rush out to see it like I did on opening weekend, you might as well keep waiting because it's not really worth a full ticket price. I'm going to give The Girl on the Train a disappointing 6/10.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back Review

Four years ago the movie Jack Reacher hit theaters, receiving average reviews from critics and an underwhelming opening weekend of $15.2 million, which is not good when your budget is $60 million. It was an attempted start at a franchise being that this is based off a series books by Lee Child that will be 21 books long come next month. This prospect of a failed franchise attempt really upset me because I thought the movie was a solid action/detective movie that was right in my ballpark. I gave the movie a solid 8/10 when I reviewed it back in January of 2013, which is a score I stand by after further viewings. I wanted more Jack Reacher movies. I wanted this to be the next Bond-esque series and I was sad that this wasn't going to happen. But then the movie had an incredible run at the box office, ending up with $80.1 million here in the U.S. box office after that middling $15.2 million. But that's not the end of the story, it would up earning an additional $138.3 million overseas for a grand total of $218.3 million worldwide. Thus the sequel was justified and I couldn't be happier! I impatiently waited nearly four years for more Jack Reacher and... I feel like I got punched in the gut at the result. This movie isn't good and that's frustrating.

I wasn't bothered by the fact that Jack Reacher: Never Go Back had bad reviews. The first one's Rotten Tomatoes score stands at 60 percent and that is certainly way too low. Of course they were going to hate the sequel as well, right? I went in unfazed. I was still excited. Turns out they were right this time. Kind of. A score of 39 percent is a bit low. It probably deserves a score closer to what the first one got. Either way, though, I was expecting much more. Jack Reacher was based on the 9th book in the series, One Shot, while Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is based off the 18th book in the series, Never Go Back, which was the first book released after the release of the first movie. Jack Reacher is a man who never calls one place home and always gets himself into trouble. I've never read any of the books, but I do kinda want to. In this movie Jack Reacher is on the phone with a new female commanding officer, Major Susan Turner. When he goes to meet her, he learns that she has been arrested for espionage and he also soon after gets arrested. So of course he breaks both of them out and they go on an adventure trying to figure out the mystery behind these arrests. And Jack also learns that he might have a 15-year-old daughter that complicates things even more.

That's a premise that's interesting enough. On paper anyways. I certainly wasn't expecting anything super deep or crazy. I just wanted a fun, action-packed detective thriller. Like your basic James Bond or Sherlock Holmes type of movie. That's what the first one felt like. There were a lot of great moments in that film and it was a movie that had me guessing throughout as far as what was going on. This time around I was bored. It wasn't a well constructed plot. I don't know if it was the source material that wasn't that great or that it was just a poor adaptation. Whatever it was, there were a lot of scenes that took place that just didn't make any sense to the plot or were completely useless when you look back on the movie. Then the pacing and editing was off. There were times where it would be a slow burner but then suddenly things picked up without any warning or without an effective transition. And the build up to certain events wasn't handled well. There were certain portions of the movie where I was fighting to stay awake because nothing interesting was happening. In the first movie each scene built off the last scene and kept me engaged throughout. In this movie I was not engaged and the journey itself was really rocky. The movie was sloppy and boring.

Then you have the whole idea of it being a whodunit, mystery thriller. That was one of the huge positives of the first movie. In that movie, we have a guy who has been framed for murder. We as an audience know about it right away, but Jack Reacher doesn't and it's thrilling to watch him connect all the dots and come up with what really happened. As I said, with this mystery and drama, each scene builds off the last one and thus grabs your attention from the very beginning and never lets you go. With this sequel, there is another mystery set up. Who framed Major Turner for espionage and why? Is Jack Reacher really a father? And why did he get arrested as well. There were things to solve here and unfortunately I didn't give a crap. The scenes didn't build on one other. It was just a scrambled mess and I gave up early on even thinking about the mystery part of the movie. It was completely uninteresting. The action scenes in the movie were fun, but at the same time there's not one action scene that stands out like the car chase in the first one. It's just a bunch of brainless action that you forget about shortly after leaving the theater. I didn't want this franchise to become nothing but brainless action. I wanted a smart, fun mystery thriller with good action as a supplement.

As far as our cast goes, I think Tom Cruise did just fine. He's one of the best actors in the business right now and always brings a certain charm and charisma to his characters and that's the same here to a certain extent. I didn't seem like he cared as much for this movie, so I can't call this a great performance, but I would probably blame that more on him not having much to work with. We did have a director change from Christopher McQuarrie to Edward Zwick. That might be part of the problem. Zwick has made plenty of good movies, but I think he dropped the ball on this one. Tom Cruise's costar and love interest is Cobie Smulders as Major Turner and she did great. They didn't have good chemistry at first, but I think that was the whole. They both experienced some good character growth that I did appreciate and they ended up working well together. Tom Cruise is old enough to be Cobie's father in real life, but it wasn't weird this time because Tom Cruise is the youngest 54-year-old you'll ever meet. He's like forever 35, which is why he worked well with the 34-year-old Cobie. Same story with Cruise and Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow, actually. It's impressive. I'm sure it makes millions of 54-year-old men around the world super jealous.

I suppose it's unfair to call this an awful movie. It's not. The 39 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes is a bit lower than it deserves. But this is a movie that I was anticipating for nearly four years. I didn't need a masterpiece. I just wanted a movie on the caliber of the first Jack Reacher and I didn't get that. Tom Cruise and Cobie Smulders did just fine and they experience some good growth. And I also liked the young girl played by Danika Yarosh that was with them as well, even though she had a habit of getting them into trouble time and time again. That's what teenage girls do, right? But it worked for me. Her and Tom Cruise share a great moment at the end, which gave me some feel goods. But outside this, the movie as a whole was a bit of a mess. The action scenes were fine, but they didn't stand out. They tried to set up a mystery thriller, but I ended up not caring about that at all. The pacing was rocky and unbalanced and the individual scenes didn't continually build on each other like in the last movie. Instead we just wandered aimlessly and made it hard for me to stay awake at times. I hope this isn't a franchise killer because I want them to learn from this and make a better third movie. As far as this second movie goes, though, I'm going to sadly give it a 6/10.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Deepwater Horizon Review

You know you've made it in life when you do something so heroic that Mark Wahlberg ends up playing you in a Peter Berg directed movie. Or, on the contrary, I suppose it could also be said that you know your life sucks when you've gone through something so horrific that Mark Wahlberg ends up playing you in a Peter Berg directed movie. Two years ago, the two collaborated on the Navy SEAL movie Lone Survivor. Then just two weeks ago, their second collaboration about the Deepwater Horizon explosion, titled Deepwater Horizon, was released. Later this year a third movie by these two will be released about the Boston Marathon bombing called Patriots Day will be released. I don't know what to call this Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day trilogy, but it's an interesting thing they're doing that continues this interesting trend of turning recent news stories into movies. Peter Berg is pretty good at it, too, as he's now two for two on this. Lone Survivor was a phenomenal movie in my opinion and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Deepwater Horizon is just as good, if not better. Strange that this is the same man who directed Battleship.

In case you were living under a rock in 2010, the Deepwater Horizon explosion and ensuing oil spill was one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. If I have my facts right, it is officially the second largest oil spill in history and the largest accidental one as the only oil spill that was bigger was done on purpose in 1991. That according to this article I found about the 13 largest oil spills in history that I have linked right there. If you want to fact check me on that, that's up to you. Point is that this was a major disaster that was all over the news in 2010. Even if you're not an expert on the oil industry (I certainly am not), I would be shocked to learn if anyone didn't at least hear something about a giant oil spill back in 2010. This movie Deepwater Horizon is specifically centered around the events that transpired on April 20, 2010 when the explosion happened that ended up killing 11 people out of the 100+ people that were there that day. The movie is officially based on the New York Times article that was written about the event later that year. It's an absolutely fascinating read. If you haven't read it, I'd encourage you to take a break from this review to read it, then return.

I mentioned recently in my review of The Last Descent that making a disaster film can be a tricky prospect. Unfortunately The Last Descent is an example of a movie that literally does everything wrong. On the contrary, Deepwater Horizon is a movie that manages to get everything right. I won't do a comparison and contrasting of the two films. If you want to read that review, you can check it and do that comparison yourself. As far as Deepwater Horizon goes, the first thing that I will mention is that this is a movie that properly builds tension. You go in knowing that there is going to be an explosion on the oil rig because, well, you lived life in 2010. Or you watched a trailer. Or you looked up the premise of the movie before buying a ticket. Either way there's definitely no surprises in this film and the film is very self-aware of that. If you are somehow the one person on the planet that had no idea what was going to happen before sitting down in the theater, you will quickly learn as there's brilliant foreshadowing like the scene from the teaser trailer where the daughter is teaching her parents with a Coke can what her dad does for work as practice for her presentation to her class and the Coke can explodes. Then while everyone is casually at work, we as an audience get shown shots in the water of the tension building up that leads to our explosions.

As we are sitting there watching, we are just waiting to get punched in the gut. Peter Berg successfully takes the audience on a meticulously planned journey through the day that plays with their emotions. You know this thing is going to blow up. You know people are going to get hurt. You know people are probably going to die. But the characters in the movie have no idea and you just want to scream at them to get out and get to safety. But you are absolutely helpless and you just have to sit there and watch them walk to their doom. This is an emotionally taxing, depressing film. And that's before the explosion happens. After successfully building tension through the first part of the movie, keeping the audience at the edge of their seat the entire time, it finally happens at the absolute perfect moment in the film's arc. KABOOM!!! And dang does this movie successfully knock you over the head emotionally like a ton of bricks. And here I give my warning. This movie is insane. It's graphic. It's violent. It's intense. Peter Berg's goal in this movie is to take you into the heart of this accident and make you as an audience understand what these people went through as many of them honestly had the fear that they were never going to get to see their family and friends ever again. And some of them didn't. Thus this movie is definitely not for the faint of heart.

In fact, here's a little discussion on this thing called the MPAA. Walking out of this movie I was absolutely shocked that this wasn't rated R. In fact, I had to go double check online to verify the rating. I don't know how this got away with a PG-13, but it probably should've been R with how graphic and intense it is. I of course don't mean that in a negative way. I'm just saying in an objective way that if you have a hard time watching movies that are super graphic and intense and you think the line of what you can and can't handle is drawn at the line between PG-13 and R, well then you might be unpleasantly surprised with your experience in this movie because it's a difficult watch at times. But in my opinion this gives the movie the exact emotional punch that it needed to give in order to make a serious impact. This is a movie that you're going to remember long after you watch much like Peter Berg's previous movie in this trilogy of sorts in Lone Survivor. Remember how it felt watching the Navy SEALs in that movie jump off their next cliff in order to get to safety? That's exactly what you get here. And you come away with the same level of reverence and respect for what these people went through as you do in Lone Survivor.

On top of all this, the technical aspects of this movie are also spot on. I'm talking about the cinematic elements of the making of this film. The visual effects were phenomenal. The editing was flawless. The cinematography was gorgeous. The camera work was perfect. The score in the movie was amazing. If this doesn't come away with a handful of Oscar nominations in January, I might be upset. In fact, speaking of Oscar nominations, one man that definitely deserves an Oscar nomination following this film is the man they call Marky Mark. Mark Wahlberg. Like seriously, he delivers the performance of his career in this movie. He nails the emotion. He nails his character. You come away with the honest feeling that the man he plays, Mike Williams, was a true American hero with how he put his life on the line to help others, which is a feat Wahlberg pulled off with his performance in Lone Survivor as well. There's still a lot of Oscar contenders to come out this year, so I don't know yet if I will be upset at a Wahlberg snub, especially since he will be going up against himself with Patriots Day, but after the Academy ignored his work in Lone Survivor, it would be upsetting if they also ignored this.

Overall, Deepwater Horizon is a really intense, emotional look into the disaster that we all heard about, but perhaps may not have realized how horrific it really was for the people that were caught in it. The setup for the movie is perfect. The movie carefully and meticulously builds tension up to the point where the explosion happens and you want to yell at people to get to safety, but you end up helplessly stranded in the theater watching them. Then when the explosion happens and the movie delivers a strong emotional punch. This is certainly not for everyone as it gets very graphic and violent at times, making it a more difficult watch, but if you enjoyed Lone Survivor, then this is a movie that you need to watch. With two home runs for director Peter Berg, I am now even more excited for Patriots Day, which will be released to the public in December. The Boston Marathon bombing is something that is very fresh on my mind. I remember sitting in front of the TV all day listening for updates on CNN, so I'm curious to see what they bring to the table with that movie. After a lot of disappointments this year, Deepwater Horizon is a breath of fresh air as it's one of the better movies to be released this year. I'm going to give it a 9/10.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Shin Godzilla Review

Because when a Godzilla movie hits theaters, you go see it. And you don't ask questions. I had heard about Shin Godzilla because I had seen trailers and advertising, but I had no idea it was coming to one of my local theaters until I was looking up showtimes early this week and saw it. After doing a little more research, apparently this is going to have a really funky release schedule and thus it might be a challenge for you to actually find a theater that this is in. But I was lucky enough to come across it by chance, so I hope you all can have the same luck. If not, it wouldn't be the end of the world if you had to wait for VOD or DVD to watch this. I do have a couple other reviews that are on my queue to write, but I decided to fast-track this review before all of them so that I can do my part before it disappears. If it's even still here. That out of the way, it's worth noting that I'm not one of those super mega Godzilla fans that has watched and re-watched all 6,987 Godzilla movies. Yes, that's an exaggeration, but not by much. However, I do like watching this creature terrorize cities when the opportunity is presented to me, so that's what I did. And yes, I enjoyed my time with this umpteenth iteration of this movie! If you get the chance to watch this, definitely check it out!

The story here is pretty much the same as every Godzilla movie ever made. There's really not a whole lot that can be done with this character that hasn't already been done a hundred times, so I don't really know why we keep feeling the need to make more Godzilla movies. But in this instance I'm not complaining too much. I do feel this is essentially Japan's response to the 2014 American Godzilla movie by Gareth Edwards, a movie that I personally enjoyed. There were some phenomenal special effects, sweet action sequences and some good build up with characters. One of the major complaints that movie got was that there wasn't enough Godzilla in it. To that I respond that all the best monster movies save the big reveal for later. The first appearance of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park or the shark in Jaws took around the same amount of time make their first real appearance, so I think that's a dumb complaint. However, if that was an issue for you, Shin Godzilla just might be your Godzilla movie because he comes early and often to terrorize Japan. And man are those sequences intense. This is a fantastically powerful beast that shows no mercy and is practically unstoppable.

My big problem with this movie is that when Godzilla is not on screen this movie is as boring as tar. The only human characters that the movie focuses on are politicians. Mostly Japanese politicians as this movie is stuffed full with meeting after meeting after meeting with a group of Japanese political leaders gathering in a variety of different rooms discussing the politics of what to do with this monster that is now there. And of course we go through all the same discussions that happen in every other Godzilla movie. First there are discussions of does this creature really exist when it is first spotted. Then we make decisions to tell the public that this is not a serious threat. Then it starts killing everyone and all the politicians have to eat their words and figure out how to stop it. Of course the first decision is to try to shoot it down and bomb it with the military. But as is the case with every Godzilla movie, that doesn't work. Then we have to do more strategic planning to figure out how to stop it. So yeah, it's like they felt obligated to safely move through every Godzilla plot point there is. In a very uninteresting way. With tons of politics and council meetings. And no character growth.

For the first half of this movie, I was fine with this. It didn't necessarily interest me, but there was enough splicing this with the Godzilla action scenes that the movie had my attention. But then the movie slammed to a halt. Without giving specific plot spoilers, there are two major Godzilla action sequences. One towards the beginning and one towards the end. Between these two sequences there is a bridge of boring nothingness that almost put me to sleep and lasted way too long. One thing I loved about the 2014 Godzilla is that it gave us characters to care about and it spent time building these characters so that when we didn't have Godzilla in the movie, there was still a movie to watch. Not the case here. Certain parts of this movie are like going to one of those hour-long city council meetings when they're not talking about much and the council members themselves look bored to tears. Not a lot of fun. I would've liked to see some character progression with regularly people
instead of just sitting in political meetings where nothing interesting happens. Sure, there is plenty of political commentary and satire with all these scenes, but it still wasn't interesting enough to keep my attention.

But then Godzilla actually shows. If you are patient enough with the movie to endure all the boring politics and lack of characters, when Godzilla shows up or wakes up, the payoff is immense. It's really weird how this Godzilla starts off, though. When he first showed up, he looked so weird that I didn't think it was even Godzilla. But then he evolves or metamorphosizes into this giant, awe-inspiring monster that is in fact an outright monster. The special effects aren't quite as good as the 2014 Godzilla, but I half wonder if that was intentional in order to give this Godzilla a throwback look because I definitely got an old Godzilla vibe with this. It felt like a modern-day 50's disaster film. Or maybe that's just how live-action Japanese is. I really don't know any better. But either way, this Godzilla is enormous and terrifying. And it's abilities when it unleashes them are jaw-dropping. And there is this sense of panic because he comes with zero warning, forcing millions of people to abandon their homes, much like in real life with actual natural disasters. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and other natural disasters don't wait until everyone is perfectly situated and this movie was a pretty good metaphor for that.

Overall, despite a lot of boring politics in this movie, I would recommend you watch this if you get the chance. While I can't say for sure, my guess is that those who are huge Godzilla fans will have a fantastic time because this felt like a nostalgic throwback to the old Godzilla movies. I wish we would've had more depth and substance in between terror sessions instead of being a boring slog with only politicians as our main characters instead of some normal human beings to follow. I also wish this movie would've tried to do something new and different instead of being super safe by following point by point what every other Godzilla movie has done as if going down a checklist instead of making a creative movie that adds to the lore. But despite all of this, it's still a lot of fun watching Godzilla show up and terrorize the city and that level of terror is certainly kicked into high gear. Godzilla is large. He is terrifying. He shows absolutely no mercy. When people try to stop him, it only seems to make him angrier as he seems to be out for vengeance towards Japan and thus you really have no idea how to stop him. So when push comes to shove, despite this movie's imperfections, I do think it's worth a watch if you get the chance. I'll give Shin Godzilla a 7/10.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Spirit of the Game Review

Here's a unique review. Spirit of the Game was released in Utah theaters last weekend, Oct. 7. I got to see it much earlier than that, though, on Tuesday, Sept. 27. I was invited to an early press screening of the film. No, it wasn't because of me becoming super famous as a movie critic with this blog. Although that would be cool, I am currently working as an intern for the Deseret News and as a part of that, I was doing a story on the real-life Mormon Yankees that this movie is based on leading up to its release. So they invited me to the press screening of the film. That was a unique experience for me. Not often do I get the privilege of seeing a movie before most everyone else. Usually I get some indication of how critics or general audiences feel about a movie before I see it. Not here. Granted I always do my best to come up with my own opinions regardless of what the masses say. But here I had zero frame of reference, which was unique. But fun. I still don't really know what people think of the movie. I haven't looked into that. But I had a good time with this. More importantly I was gratefully for the opportunity to learn about a story that I think everyone should know about.

Who are the Mormon Yankees? To get the most accurate, in-depth answer to that, I'd highly recommend you read the book called Mormon Yankees: Giants on and off the Court by Fred Woods, a BYU professor who did extensive research on the Mormon Yankees, interviewing a total of 70 people leading up to writing his book. This included interviewing several Mormon Yankees themselves as well as many people in Australia who knew a lot about the Mormon Yankees for various reasons. It's a fantastic book by a fantastic man. Fred Woods is genuinely a great guy who I had the pleasure of talking to in preparation for my story. I know I'm doing a movie review, but I need to take this time to promote his book because it's so good and inspirational. When you buy the book, it will also come with a companion DVD documentary of the same name that will teach you more about this wonderful story of the Mormon Yankees. The movie Spirit of the Game is based off Fred Woods' book and I do think it gets the spirit of the story right, but it does take a lot of creative liberties to make for a good film, so watching that is not enough. You also need to read the book.

After talking to Woods and a few others about this, here's my personal brief summary about the Mormon Yankees. They originated back in 1937 in Australia. The people in Australia loved sports, but they didn't love Mormons. So the Mormon missionaries down in Australia had a bit of a rough time. In 1937, they started playing basketball with the YMCA in order to build bridges with the people in Australia. Establishing common ground with people makes missionary work much easier. I can personally attest to that. The YMCA referred to this as "muscular Christianity." The LDS Church called it "spiritualized recreation." From 1937 to 1961, LDS missionaries played basketball in various leagues in Australia through the YMCA and elsewhere and found enormous success. In 1954, the Harlem Globe Trotters came to Australia, giving people there a desire to play basketball, because while sports were big there, basketball really wasn't. But the Harlem Globe Trotters got their attention. One mission president in Australia took advantage of this and promised the press that if they would start covering the Mormon Yankees basketball teams, he would organize a team of basketball players that were better than the Harlem Globe Trotters. So they did.

Shortly after this exchange and formation of a team, LDS Church president David O. McKay came to Australia. This mission president initially felt a big sheepish and said these basketball leagues were only temporary as he felt President McKay would disapprove. It was the exact opposite. President McKay loved what was going on and promised to send even more missionaries that knew basketball. In 1956, the Olympic Games were coming to Australia and the Australian national team was in need of a lot of help, so the coaches requested the help of the Mormon Yankees, who obliged. Not only did the Mormon Yankees help the Australian team, but they also ended up played 10 different exhibition games against countries from around the world that also wanted to practice with the Mormon Yankees, winning five of these games. One major highlight was a game against the Russian national team where the Mormon Yankees only lost by nine points. This is impressive because this Russian team went onto win the silver medal in the Olympics, with the USA winning the gold. Following these events, the history of basketball in Australia was forever changed. But not just that, the Church membership in Australia tripled during the late 50's.

Incredible story, right? If you want to learn more about this, do as I said and read Fred Woods' book. You'll be grateful you did. Now onto this movie. In giving you my brief summary of what actually happened, I made sure to mention the mission president as well as LDS Church president David O. McKay. I should also mention that DeLyle Condie was a missionary who was both the coach of the Mormon Yankee team and their star player. And by all accounts, a fantastic man on and off the court who truly loved the people of Australia. These three individuals are all portrayed in the movie. But the movie's story is a bit different. Elder Condie comes to Australia and is approached by the coaches of the Olympic team after tracting into one of them. Elder Condie wants to help, but his mission president forbids it. He's one of those super strict, letter-of-the-law mission presidents. Finally President McKay intervenes and gives them the go ahead, but the mission president is still fairly weary until later and then we jump right into this basketball drama where they face off against the French twice, which was accurate. They played the French twice. But it was the Russians that were super physical and crazy with them, not the French. Yeah, it's all very dramatized to make a good movie.

That said, if you take the movie on it's own, it's a pretty entertaining movie. It reminded me a bit of a cross between Hoosiers and The Other Side of Heaven. An underdog basketball story combined with a mainstream missionary story. They don't really push the faith angle too hard. This is a basketball drama first and a story about missionaries making a difference in a very far second. From an LDS perspective, the actual story of what these missionaries accomplished is so great that you come out wishing they would've pushed that side of things stronger. But you can't blame them too much for not wanting to sound preachy and you do get enough of the faith element to satisfy that need. Meanwhile this is a movie that anyone can enjoy regardless of your faith because its about good people doing good things and standing up for what they feel is right. The overall feel is that they get the spirit of the story right. The family of Elder Condie is spot on to what they were like and how supportive they were. Elder Condie himself is done perfectly. He really was that great of a guy. The level of sportsmanship really was that high with this team. They really were that classy and they really did bond as a team and a group of missionaries like that. Thus I can't be too mad about the dramatizations.

Recently I wrote a review of another local movie called The Last Descent and I went on and on in that review about how poor quality of a film that was on every technical aspect. It felt like it was made by a group of junior high school students. Thus it was a breath of fresh air for me to walk into another local movie and see a professionally made film. The cinematography was beautiful. The script was well-written. The camera work, lighting, and editing were all done very smoothly. You don't need a large budget to make a good film and this movie proves that. And all the acting is fantastic, especially Mr. Aaron Jakubenko as Elder Condie. I had the privilege of speaking with him on the phone and he is the nicest man on earth who treated me, a perfect stranger, as his best friend. So easy to talk to. Such a great person. Thus I may be biased in thinking he did a great job, but that's what I thought before I talked to him, so I think I'm in the clear. Also, he is very Australian in real life with a thick accent. Yet he does a flawless American accent in this movie. I was shocked to learn he wasn't American. That in and of itself was impressive. The rest of the cast did good, too, but Jakubenko was the stand out here as the lead of this movie. Hats off to him.

Overall this is a movie that I would recommend if it's in a theater near you. Purdie is the distributor here and they play this little game with all of their films where they take it a week at a time. So if you follow them on social media you may think that you've missed your opportunity to see the film because they always say "this is only going to be here for one week!" But it's always in theaters for like a month or two like every other film. So you do have time. And if you miss it in theaters, catch it on DVD. It's a nice little film. Yet I do have a soft spot for sports dramas, so there may be a bias there, but so be it. Most importantly I will appreciate this film for teaching me about the Mormon Yankees. Had it not been released, I would've never taken on the project to research the real Mormon Yankees and thus I may have never known. Yes the actual story is much different. Yes they did dramatize this quite a bit to make it a good film. But in an ironic turn of events, the movie is called The Spirit of the Game and they do capture "the spirit of the story" so to speak, so nicely done. And of course I will put one final plug for you to go read Fred Woods' book Mormon Yankees: Giants on and off the Court to learn the in-depth, full story. It's fantastic. As far as my grade for the movie The Spirit of the Game, I'm going to award it a solid 8/10. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Movie Preview: October 2016

Happy Halloween! It's time now to discuss the movies on the schedule for October. As far as this past month goes, pretty much every movie outside Sully underperformed based on their expectations. The Light Between OceansMorgan, The Wild Life and The Disappointments Room were outright bombs. SnowdenBridget Jones's Baby, and Blair Witch were all disappointing. When the Bough BreaksThe Magnificent Seven and Storks weren't bad, but were all expected to go much higher. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar People  and Deepwater Horizon were decent, but also only had one day in September. All of these had potential to do well and make this a slightly better than average September. Instead they all teamed up make this a very average month even for September standards and easily the worst box office month of the year. Historically speaking, October is usually a better month than September, but not by much. This October has plenty of movies on the schedule that should get people talking, but yet there's no movie that stands out as the must-see of the month or the obvious box office winner, thus the overall outlook seems a bit cloudy. Nevertheless, there is plenty to talk about, so let's dive in!

October 7th - 9th-

I always have a goal to get these out BEFORE the first weekend of the month. Unfortunately that didn't happen due to my busy schedule, so instead we get a review of the first weekend instead of a preview. Three movies were released nationwide and only one of them made an impact on the box office and that was The Girl on the Train. The advertising here was incredible. This came out on the same weekend as Gone Girl did two years, which found enormous success both critically and financially. Gone Girl opened to nearly $40 million on it's way to $167.7 million in the U.S. Essentially The Girl on the Train was advertising itself as the next Gone Girl. It didn't get quite as high as Gone Girl, but it did pretty well for itself with $24.5 million. It's a psychological thriller that is based on the book that, according to advertising, "shocked the world." I can't speak for the book, but as it turns out the movie itself didn't shock the world. Reviews were average at best. The movie is essentially a whodunit mystery thriller about three girls and a guy. One girl goes missing and turns up dead and the characters and audience go on a journey together to figure out who killed the girl. Starring in the movie is Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett and Rebecca Ferguson.

The first of two duds this past weekend was easily one of the most controversial films of the year and that is The Birth of a Nation. This was released in Sundance and got a standing ovation from audiences. Right before it was screened. An important detail that many missed in that story. You see, the Sundance Film Festival happened right in the thick of the "Oscars So White" controversy early this year and here we had a mostly black cast and crew led by actor/writer/director Nate Parker in his directorial debut. It was something for people to get behind who felt Hollywood and the Oscars especially were racist. Thus it was touted as potentially the next 12 Years a Slave and was purchased for a record-breaking $17.5 million by Fox Searchlight. A price tag that would prove to be way too high as this didn't even hit $10 million in its debut. Following Sundance, it was all downhill for this movie. Not only was the movie itself apparently very average, but rape allegations against Nate Parker surfaced from 1999. He wasn't found guilty, but was most likely was. The girl committed suicide in 2012, which doesn't help Parker's case. These revelations most likely soured general audiences away from this movie, especially considering certain scenes that were in the movie.

Our second dud of the weekend was the family-targeted film Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life. The obvious comparison here is the Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchise, which has produced three successful films and has a fourth on the way next year. Both movies are based on successful books targeted at an audience of older kids and young teens. Diary of a Wimpy Kid successfully transitioned to the big screen with an opening weekend of $22.1 million while Middle School could only muster $6.8 million last weekend. I can't speak for the book, but the movie is essentially a gag-filled movie with middle school kids pulling pranks to get back at their mean teachers and mean principal for setting way too many rules that won't let the kids have any fun or creativity. This is a premise that could've worked if they played their cards right, but apparently it didn't. I guess it's possible that kids who saw it enjoyed it. I can't speak for them. But based on box office numbers, it's safe to say that not many parents were interested enough to actually take their kids to see this one.

October 14th - 16th-

And now we switch over to preview mode for the movies that have yet to come out. This will start with a weekend of three movies that will probably be very similar to the first weekend. Two duds and one poorly received hit. The latter being the Ben Affleck led action movie The Accountant. I say poorly received hit on this one because it's one of the more hyped movies based on trailers, yet early critic scores are coming in as abysmal as it holds a current 21 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. But the curiosity among audiences will likely lead it to a strong debut. Thus the comparison to last weekend's The Girl on the Train. Ben Affleck stars as an autistic man who is also a super soldier of sorts and thus we get a Bourne-like premise with a super strong protagonist fighting a lot of people trying to stop him. Ben Affleck himself is on a roll right now. Even though Batman v. Superman wasn't received well, the one thing most people seem to agree on was that Ben Affleck was great as Batman and now people are excited for his solo Batman movie, which he will also be directing. This popularity alone should be enough to get people in seats, even if the movie itself isn't that great.

Now we have the two upcoming duds. The first of these being Kevin Hart: What Now? I suppose it's unfair to call this one a dud because it's a stand-up comedy movie and the expectations for these types of movies are much different. But don't expect it to make a ton of money. However, when it does come to stand up comedians, Kevin Hart is arguably the most popular in the business at this current moment. His first two stand-up comedy movies opened up to $7 million and $10 million respectively and Kevin Hart has only gotten even more popular since those two outings, so it's entirely possible this continues the upward trend. This particular routine took place at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia and broke records for ticket sales, so that's a good sign.

The other dud will be a a superhero movie! But not a Marvel or DC superhero movie. This one is called Max Steel and there's not many people on this planet that have heard of it. It started filming in 2014, then got shelved for a long time. The trailer for the movie didn't show up until late August, which is awfully late for trying to get the word out. The movie is directed by Stewart Hendler, the director of Whisper and Sorority Row, two movies no one has ever seen, and a web series called H+. In other words, he's a no-name director. The movie stars a bunch of no-name actors as well. It is based on the line of Max Steel action figures by Mattel, which are kinda like G.I. Joes. These Max Steel action figures got an animated TV show adaptation, which wasn't that popular. So nothing points to success for this. If you are wondering what it's about, a kid named Max combines with a certain alien called Steel to develop superpowers. Thus is why it gets the label of a superhero movie. One that will be quickly forgotten about. If it even gets anyone's attention in the first place

October 21st - 23rd-

And now we have the most crowded weekend of the month and one of the more crowded weekends of the year in terms of the number of releases. Five of them. That's a lot. And it's only five because A Monster Calls, which was initially schedule here as well, moved to December for an awards run. So there was supposed to be six. The film most likely to come out on top of this crowded weekend is Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Back in 2012, Jack Reacher opened in December to only $15 million on a $60 million budget and was initially seen as a bust. However, strong word of mouth propelled it to an incredible run and it finished with $80.1 million in the U.S. Then the sequel was justified after a fantastic foreign run saved it as it earned $138.3 overseas for a worldwide total of $218.4 million. Fans rejoiced. Jack Reacher started as a book series that is 20 books and counting is about this super smart action former military dude that goes around the country taking random odd jobs. Thus it's both a detective series and an action series. The type of role that Tom Cruise seemed born to play as it's very similar to his Ethan Hunt character in the Mission: Impossible franchise. In addition to comparisons to M:I, other obvious comparisons are James Bond and Jason Bourne.

Second up is the latest movie in Tyler Perry's Madea franchise with Boo! A Madea Halloween. From 2006 through 2014, Tyler Perry directed at least one or two movies per year, most of which consistently made between $30-60 million. They started to tail off a bit towards the end of that run, with his most recent movie, Tyler Perry's The Single Moms Club only making $15.9 million total. Out of these series of Tyler Perry movies, the most popular ones were those that featured his character of Madea, which is a crazy, old, black lady played by Tyler Perry himself. The most successful outing with Madea was Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail, which made $90.5 million back in 2009. Boo! A Madea Halloween is the second straight holiday themed movie with the Madea character following Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas in 2013. This holiday theme could very well resurrect Tyler Perry's movies as it's one of the few movies this month that's actually Halloween themed. The other one is coming up next.

The one and only horror movie during this Halloween month is, much to many people's chagrin, is Ouija: Origin of Evil. Ouija was a movie two years ago based on the popular board game that many think is a joke while many others think is a genuinely satanic, evil board that should never be messed with. Thus there was a huge controversy when the movie came out that played off people's fear of this evil board. Basically it was a movie where a bunch of people messed with the board and all died. The major problem here was not the controversy necessarily, but it was almost a universally hated movie as most called it one of the worst and most cliché horror movies, hitting every note that all the bad horror movies these days hit. But that didn't stop the droves of teenagers from showing up to the movie as, despite the poisonous reviews, the PG-13 rating helped it earn a total of $103.6 million wordwide, half of that in the U.S. That off a $5 million budget. What happens when you have a horror movie with that huge of a profit? You ignore the reviews and make a hundred more sequels until you've squeezed every last penny out of the franchise. Thus we have Ouija: Origin of Evil.

Movie number four of the weekend is the action comedy Keeping Up with the Joneses. This movie sports a cast of Gal Gadot, Isla Fisher, Zach Galifianakis and John Hamm and is directed by Greg Mottola, the director of Superbad and Paul, two very popular comedies. The premise is a very normal couple (Fisher and Galifianakis) ends up getting caught up in a huge international espionage plot after their seemingly perfect new neighbors (Gadot and Hamm) turn out to be government spies. This has all the ingredients for a very successful action comedy and if this gets great reviews, this could turn out to be a sleeper hit even if it doesn't open super high. The obvious elephant in the room is that with five wide releases, not everything can make bank at the box office. The two established franchises will most likely take precedence in people's minds when push comes to shove, so Keeping Up with the Joneses will be fighting the hardest uphill battle in this crowded weekend, even if the specific target audiences will be different for all the films involved.

Last and probably least for this weekend will be the faith-based film from Pure Flix in I'm Not Ashamed. Faith-based films have been known to break out in the last couple of years, but this is probably not going to be an example of that. Looking at the history of the films that Pure Flix has released, Do You Believe? made $12.9, Faith of Our Fathers made $1 million,  Woodlawn made $14.4 million, God's Not Dead 2 made $20.8 million and Hillsong - Let Hope Rise made $2.4 million. So there definitely seems to be a ceiling here with Pure Flix. If this ends up somewhere between Do You Believe? and God's Not Dead 2, that will be a win for Pure Flix. The movie itself tells the true story of Rachel Joy Scott, who was the first student killed in the Columbine High School shooting back in 1999. The movie is based on her journal entries. If played well, this could definitely hit the niche crowd of Christian film goers that Pure Flix aims for with their movies given that it's a subject matter that many people remember quite well.

October 28th - 30th-

Halloween weekend was supposed to have three new releases. But both horror movies that were scheduled were taken off the calendar for this month on a somewhat last minute decision, most likely to avoid competition from Ouija: Origin of Evil. The first of those was Rings and that will now be a February 2017 release while the second one didn't even have a title, so who knows what that one was or when it will show up again. All this means the movie Inferno gets the weekend all to itself. Plus whatever staying power the holdovers have, of course. Inferno will be the third movie in the series of Dan Brown's Robert Langdon books. The book series currently includes Angels & Demons (2000), The Da Vinci Code (2003), The Lost Symbol (2009) and Inferno (2013). The fifth book in the series, Origin, is scheduled for release next year. In the movie universe, they first started by adapting The Da Vinci Code in 2006, which had a monster box office run of $217.5 million in the U.S. and $758.2 million worldwide. Angels & Demons was next in 2009, but that took a huge dip with $133.4 million/$485.9 million. Now it's been seven years and we're jumping straight to the fourth book instead of doing the third one. Is this a franchise people are still interested in? Another significant dip from Angels & Demons is probably to be expected, but it still should do well enough to win the month. Tom Hanks won September and he can win October, too.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Magnificent Seven Review

In case you couldn't tell, Hollywood right now is obsessed with remakes. It's gotten to the point where I would consider it unhealthy in that we seem to be remaking anything and everything. I mean, to heck with coming up with original ideas. Let's just redo everything that has been made in the last hundred years and call it good. With The Magnificent Seven, this is the second time in about a month where we've gotten a remake of a remake. The other one was of course, Ben-Hur, which started out as a book, then became a play, then became a short film, then became a silent film, then became the classic that we all know and love. In that case I was never excited for the 2016 remake. It sounded like a horrible idea to begin with and only got worse when I saw the trailer. In case you didn't see my review of that, I was absolutely justified in my worrying as that was an outright piece of trash. The Magnificent Seven on the other hand was a different story. When I first heard about this remake, I was actually excited. Not only did they have a fantastic director and an incredible cast, but western remakes have had a good track record recently with movies such as 3:10 to Yuma and True Grit. Then the trailer was released and holy fire did that look phenomenal. All signs pointed to this being a phenomenal film... or dare I say, a magnificent film? Turns out this movie actually has a ton of flaws, which was disappointing. But overall I still think it's a fun movie worth your time.

If you don't know the story of The Magnificent Seven, you probably actually do without releasing it. As I said, this year's The Magnificent Seven is a remake of a remake. Akira Kurosawa's 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai is the origin here. The 1960 version of The Magnificent Seven was a western remake of Seven Samurai and it definitely wasn't the last movie to either directly use that movie's premise or take influence from that movie. In Seven Samurai, a village is threatened by a certain villain. In order to protect themselves, the enlist the help of a samurai, who in turn recruits a small army of seven samurai to fight this villain. A group of heroes uniting to fight one common enemy? Can you think of a movie that follows that basic plot? There's about a thousand of them. And I'd be willing to bet that most of them can trace their roots and inspirations back to Seven Samurai. Thus you can claim that Seven Samurai is one of the most influential movies ever made. So yes, that premise is the premise of the 1960 version of The Magnificent Seven and the premise of this current movie. A villain comes and attacks a town. In this iteration, the town turns to Denzel Washington for help. Denzel then recruits people like Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Byung-Hun Lee to help him and this results in an epic showdown of heroes vs. villains.

Perhaps I had my hopes a little too high with this movie, but when it comes to hero team-up movies, I was hoping I would get a movie on par with The Avengers. Or at least in the same ball park. Spend the first half of the movie slowly building up this awesome team of heroes, with each getting their moment to shine and having several small battles along the way as the team learns to grow together before going up against an epic villain with a ton of depth. Instead what I got was closer to Avengers: Age of Ultron, which is a movie that I gave a great initial review to, but didn't quite hold up as the months went on. I will still defend it to those who say it's a bad movie, because that's a little harsh. But Ultron himself is a pathetic villain who is evil just for the sake of being evil with no depth at all. The character growth with our heroes also isn't quite on the same level as The Avengers, so instead of this deep, epic journey and amazing final battle, we have a bit of a brainless popcorn flick that is a lot of fun, but not super memorable. It's actually a really good comparison. The 1960 version of The Magnificent Seven is like The Avengers while the 2016 version of The Magnificent Seven is like Avengers: Age of Ultron. And yes, all four are definitely a part of the Seven Samurai family tree.

Now that I've doused you in comparisons, shall I get into specifics? Yes, just like in Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Avengers, the first half of this movie is devoted to setting up our team. Our big baddie played by Peter Sarsgaard has arrived into this town and terrorized it, burning down their church and shooting several of the people. Why does he decide to do this? I don't know. The movie never really tells us. He's just evil for the sake of being evil. He's not deep and complex like Loki in The Avengers. He's more like Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron, who simply decided that shortly after his creation that he needed to kill the Avengers. Same with Peter Sarsgaard. He arrives at this town and just decides to terrorize it. OK. There's our super cliché western villain. Granted, Saarsgard did a pretty good job at being crazy and evil, when he wasn't overacting (which happens on occasion), but he was a shallow villain. This causes our townsmen to turn to my man Denzel Washington, who single-handedly turns this into an awesome movie. Why does Denzel take on this challenge? That we do learn. But not until like the very end of the movie. I don't want to say it was too little, too late, but it would've been better to get that at the beginning.

Our other members of the magnificent seven? I have to say, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio and Byung-hun Lee were pretty sweet. Zero depth and zero backstory. But they were pretty sweet. Chris Pratt looked like he was having a ton of fun every day on set as his character is also a blast to watch. Although unfortunately I'm not going to praise him too much this time around because it felt like Chris Pratty dressed up as a cowboy having fun instead of a character in a movie. He didn't disappear into his character at all and I didn't see him as an old-west gunslinger. There were two others. I don't remember who they were and what they did. I mean, I can look up their names on IMDb, but I don't remember much of what they did. One of the two was Mexican, meaning we had ourselves a diverse seven. Black guy, Mexican guy, Asian Guy, Native American guy, old guy and a couple of younger white guys. I don't know if that really means anything, but it was just an observation. Overall, outside being cool characters, none of our characters had any depth. And we don't learn too much about any one of them. I get that we don't have the time to give each of our characters an in-depth backstory. But something would've been nice. Thus the stakes were never too high because I never cared too much about any of the characters. Consequently, the hour of setup was surprisingly boring.

Despite all this bad that I am bringing up, there is plenty of good in this movie. If you are a fan of westerns, I do believe that this movie will have a ton of nostalgia for you. If you want to go in and have a fun, nostalgic time with a new western movie, this hits every note that you want it to hit. Our opening scene where Saarsgard comes in and terrorizes the town is super intense. The technical aspects of the movie were spot on. All the sets looked great. The costume design was perfect. The cinematography was beautiful. They did an absolutely phenomenal job of making this look like a western. The score wasn't great, but it was good enough. Once we did get to our action sequences with all the showdowns it was quite the wild ride. Prepare to strap in and have a fun ride. Thus the comparison to Avengers: Age of Ultron continues. Despite a lame villain and not much depth, Age of Ultron was a pretty darn good popcorn flick. Same here. Lame villain and not much depth with our story or characters, but this was a pretty darn good popcorn flick. I was hoping for more than just an entertaining, brainless action movie. But compared to other brainless action movies, this fares pretty well. Not anywhere close to its predecessors, but still a fun time at the movie theaters.

Overall I did have a lot of fun with this movie. It has a good opening scene and a fantastic finale. Denzel Washington proved yet again why he is one of the best actors in the business because he took this role and made this his movie. The rest of the cast was serviceable. Plenty of fun characters, but not enough depth. If you are expecting something on the level of Seven Samurai or the 1960 version of The Magnificent Seven, you're not going to get it. Those two movies had a ton of depth, a lot of emotion, and plenty of charm and charisma with the cast. This movie has no depth, a story that we've seen a thousand, a villain that's bad just for the sake of being bad, and a main cast of characters that we never learn too much about and thus don't care for as much as you would want, but I'm not going to chalk this up into one of the many useless remakes. It's not as close to as bad as this year's Ben-Hur. If you're a fan of westerns, I honestly think you are going to into this movie and have a lot of fun. It does everything that you want a western to do. With how many hero team-up movies that have taken place since Seven Samurai, this is nothing new, but it's a movie where you can turn off your brain, shove popcorn into your face and have a lot of fun. I'm going to give it an 8/10.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Last Descent Review

It's time for a small, local movie! If you've never heard of The Last Descent, don't feel too left out. This is a movie that opened in select Utah theaters a few weeks ago, mostly just the Megaplex theaters throughout the Wasatch Front. Quite honestly there wasn't a huge advertising push for it, so it kinda just showed up almost unannounced. But I personally was curious when I learned of it. This is the story of John Jones, who got trapped in Nutty Putty Cave in Utah County on the day before Thanksgiving in 2009 and never made it out. Movies similar to this are made all the time, but this specific story seemed like an odd choice for a movie. This was a very sad, tragic event. What angle were they going to take with this to make it either an enjoyable or powerful film? What was their motivation behind making it? Was there some sort of message they wanted to teach us or were they going to just force us watch a good man slowly die for 105 minutes? And what are they going to do to keep my interest given that this is about a man who gets stuck in a dark cave? If done right, movies like this can be incredible. But there's always a risk that you could accidentally hit all the wrong notes and be a disaster. Unfortunately this is an example of the latter and thus if you haven't seen this movie, I would recommend you keep it that way. This is not worth your time and money.

The Last Descent is directed by a man named Isaac Halasima Not only did he write and direct the movie, but he also did the cinematography and editing. While that may seem impressive on paper, after watching the movie I think he should've shared some of those duties, but we'll get to that in a second. The first challenge when you're making a movie about a guy who gets trapped in a dark cave is to keep my interest for 105 minutes, because there's not a lot to work with when it's a story about a man trapped in one position. You need to have a well-written script, good acting, and a story that successfully builds up to the final emotional moment. Unfortunately it feels like Halasima had an interesting idea, but had no idea how to successfully turn this into a full-length movie. This is his first time writing and directing a feature-length film. Apparently he previously worked on some Imagine Dragons music videos and done some editing and cinematography work for a few documentaries, but that's it. This time the lack of experience shows. Not only is this movie emotional for all the wrong reasons, but the cinematic, filmmaking elements of this movie are just plain awful all around. It felt like he wrote a rough draft of a script, grabbed a cheap camera, shot a bunch of random footage, and lazily edited it together into one giant mess of a film.

Let's talk about the specifics with this. First off, I don't want to put any blame on the actors here. They did the best with what they were given. But the dialogue on the movie was so painful to listen to. The script is just bad. The editing and camera work as they are driving to the cave is atrocious. And the cinematography throughout is an absolute mess. The camera work is not good. The lighting is awkward. The editing is choppy. It literally looks like a movie that made in an amateur junior high film class. Like seriously. I think I've seen higher quality films made my my friends and classmates for various school projects. Then we get to our cave. And of course John gets trapped in a really awkward spot and rescue workers come to try to save him, but he's in such a rough spot that they have a hard to figuring out what to do. So while they're figuring things out, one rescue worker goes down to keep him company. This is all fine and dandy because that's what happened in real life, but I'd be willing to bet that over half of this movie is of these two men down in that cave talking. Most of it is small talk that isn't super pertinent film. This makes sense in real life because a rescue worker in this situation needs to keep the trapped person awake and talking, but with such poorly written dialogue, it makes for one heck of a boring movie. There's no building up to an emotional climax. There's just aimlessly wandering through the movie trying to fill space.

Speaking of aimlessly wandering, one of the conversations that John and the rescue guy have is about how John met his wife. I'm sure they probably had this conversation in real life and I was expecting some flashbacks to tell John's backstory, but I wasn't expecting nearly half the movie to be a romance drama about how John met his wife and their dating stories. A few minutes of this would've been fine. But they spent way too long on this. And why? They needed to fill space, I suppose. Because this is about a man trapped in a cave. And they didn't seem to know how to turn this into a feature-length film, so they decided to go with the dating stories. And did I mention that when we were in the cave that we kept awkwardly jumping back and forth between two weird camera shots? One shot was a close-up shot of John's face. The other was a worm's eye view of the rescue worker. Neither were good shots and the editing between two shots was bad. Then we'd occasionally go above ground to see what the crew up there was doing and spliced into that were what I believe were real-life news footage back from 2009 of the police chief and other people telling the press what progress was being made. This can work in movies, especially when it's a recent news story. This time those shots felt out of place and awkward. Overall it was a slog getting to the climax.

Then we have the emotion. I'm not opposed to tragedies on film. I don't think every movie ever made needs to be wrapped up in a pretty little bow. But when you are making a movie where your main character dies, you should have some pretty good reasons for why you doing this and some good messages or themes to go along with it. A movie like The Fault in Our Stars is a good example here. You know the movie isn't going to end in a happy way, but it tells some great themes about living life to the fullest, thus making for a beautiful film. It's OK if you know the ending of a movie as long as the journey to that ending is a good one and the themes are strong. The Last Descent does none of that right. Being that this is a local movie, they could've pushed the faith-based angle. In fact, they should've. If this was an emotional, spiritual movie that told us that life isn't the end and we'll all be together again soon, that would've worked. Thus in the hands of someone like T.C. Christensen, this could've been a beautiful, emotional film, especially since the guy's wife has an incredible story of faith with how she's dealt with it all and what it taught her. This movie does none of that. Instead we get to slowly watch a guy die with no real purpose or direction. Instead of making me sad, yet inspired, this made me angry because it started digging up personal memories for me of people I have lost and I started to hate this movie for taking me through all of that.

As I said, the wrong type of emotions. There's no spiritual message here. There's no point to this film. I don't know how the family and friends of this man feel about this movie, but I would be angry if I had to watch a movie about how someone I cared for passed away without there being any purpose to it. It would be like reliving the worst day of my life for no apparent reason. Not cool. It's not even put together well cinematically. This movie needed several revisions to the script by someone with more experience in writing  and probably could've used a more professional cinematographer and editor. I do kinda feel bad trashing a local film like this because sometimes the people involved might actually read my review. If that's the case, I hope they can appreciate my honesty and use this as constructive criticism. Often in life you need to make a big mistake so that you can learn from it and do a better job next time. No actor is at fault here, especially not Landon Henneman who played our main rescue worker. Being that the writing, directing, cinematography, and editing were done by one man, I have to point the finger of blame at him. Sorry Isaac Halasima. Better luck next time. I can't recommend anyone see this film. Not only is it not worth your money, but it's 105 minutes of your life that you will never be able to get back. My grade for The Last Descent is a 3/10.