movie reviews May 2015

mad max: fury roadPoltergeistTomorrowlandex machinapitch perfect 2san andreasgood killan honest liar

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An Honest Liar
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

For 86 years, James "The Amazing" Randi has spent his years gleefully informing audiences that everything he's doing in front of their eyes is a trick. The Canadian born illusionist and escape artist is probably better known today for leading a single-minded and often entertaining crusade against people who aren't so upfront about their trickery.

With his verbal finesse and eye for the theatrical, he's been the bane of psychics, faith healers and medical quacks. Not only can he expose their fraudulent methods but also he can entertain viewers just as effortlessly as they can.

Considering the real harm these charlatans have caused, it would be tempting to erect a statue to the bald, bearded magician. Thankfully, directors Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein examine Randi with the same clear-eyed unsentimental manner of their subject with An Honest Liar. The two are clearly admirers of the man born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge, but they also consistently show that he's a complicated guy and that his valiant efforts often hit a brick wall because we as human beings want to be fooled.

In the documentary, Randi recalls how fans wondered if the sleight of hand he pulled off on stage meant that he could help them with problems that went beyond what therapists or scientists could fix. Randy didn't want his conscience tainted by making false promises, and like Harry Houdini before him he's devoted most of his life to exposing quackery.

With the help of supporters like “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson (a one-time magician), Randi has embarrassed Israeli pseudo-psychic spoon bender Uri Gellar (who actually at the gall to sit down for an interview in the film) and faithless healer Peter Popoff. In both cases, Randi was able to demonstrate that neither had the gifts he claimed to have.

In Popoff's case, Randi and his partners in crime caught the mendacious minister using a radio earpiece to hear his wife reading him prayer cards, which enabled him to know what ailed visitors to his church. Adding to the humiliation (but not seen in the film) is the fact that Randi sent an assistant who the pastor claimed to cure of uterine cancer.

This is an amazing bit of healing because the blessed individual didn't have a uterus. It was a guy in drag.

It's disconcerting to know that Gellar and Popoff are still making money despite being definitively proven as frauds. Thankfully, Randi hasn't given up, either. He's found a simple, honest, dramatic and hysterically funny way to prove homeopathic medicine is worthless. It's worth the price of admission, and it only takes about two seconds.

As damning as Randi can be toward supernatural fakers, he and the makers of An Honest Liar are equally and appropriately scornful of scientists and journalists who give these phonies a free pass. Randi and Deyvi Peña set up a successful sting on Australian media by claiming Peña was channeler able to hear the spirits of the dead. A cursory check of the press materials Peña brought with him Down Under should have revealed that his claims were bogus. For example, the newspaper clippings were obvious forgeries.

Measom and Weinstein also pose some tough questions for Randi, and he thankfully has the guts to answer candidly. Randi came out of the closet in 2010, and he and Peña married in 2013. He matter-of-factly explains what it was like being a gay man in the ‘50s and ‘60s and how he had to hide his sexuality because his family would never have approved.

Randi also gets bonus points for allowing the filmmakers to follow him around when he and Peña were in the middle of a horrifying crisis. Randi is clearly unhappy during these moments, but there's something to be said for a skeptic who has the courage to admit that he's human. (N/R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 05/31/15)

An Honest Liar

seems more impressive when he
is fully human.

Good Kill
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Andrew Niccol wrote Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, about a man who slowly learns that he’s the star of the biggest reality show in the world and wrote and directed Gattaca, a film about a new future where being born without genetic engineering is a crime.

His latest, Good Kill, is his most realistic film to date, but it’s also even more surreal than the ones that preceded it. In examining how drone warfare has gone from science fiction to something that’s become eerily mundane, Niccol doesn’t have to strain himself to come up with something that’s appropriately uncomfortable and weird.

Ethan Hawke, who also starred in Gattaca and Niccol’s Lord of War, plays as Maj. Thomas Egan, a former F16 pilot who flies drones. Working from the inside of an unassuming looking trailer, Maj. Egan shoots Hellfire missiles half the world away from where he’s sitting. The supply of targets is so steady that it seems like he might as well be working in an office or a factory. Because the people he kills and the buildings he destroys are in other time zones, he heads to and leaves for work like a banker.

If he and his fellow drone operators (Jake Abel, Bruce Greenwood, Zoë Kravitz and Ryan Montano) dish out lethal force on a regular basis, they joke that the most dangerous part of their day is the commute to and from Las Vegas.

Maj. Egan may get to come home to his wife Molly (January Jones) and their kids, but being a member of the “Chair Force” isn’t stress free. Thanks to the CIA’s seemingly arbitrary selection of targets, it’s easy to wonder if some of the people he’s killed weren’t imminent security threats. Furthermore, thanks to a delay of about 10 seconds between the moment he fires the missile and the instant it detonates, potential civilian casualties can wander into his strike zone.

Egan’s job is full of ethical quandaries, but he’s ill equipped to handle them. He’s not a talkative guy, and it’s a lot easier to drink than it is to level with his wife. By making Egan a weary participant instead of a whistle blower, Good Kill manages to weigh the pros and cons of remote warfare without becoming an advertisement or a pacifist sermon. Hawke, who has some formidable gifts as a writer and a speaker, handles a taciturn role well. He oozes a repressed angst when he’s tasked to do anything but blow things up.

After a while, even that drives him to more grief.

Niccol doesn’t have to try too hard to make Egan’s world look nightmarish. The drone program really has been based in Nevada because the terrain is similar to Afghanistan and other military hot spots. In addition to the garish lights and atmosphere of Sin City, Las Vegas makes a great backdrop because it has replicas of other regions’ landmarks.

With an Eiffel Tower, a pyramid and a miniature Statue of Liberty nearby, the distance between Egan’s targets and his home gradually shrinks. Niccol even depicts the protagonist’s neighborhood through “drone’s eye” establishing shots. It may not be all that subtle, but there’s no getting around the fact that nobody wants to be on the receiving end of a Hellfire missile.

Having worked as a military contractor, I found it pleasantly surprising to hear the actors recite the jargon as if they knew what they were talking about. The New Zealand born Niccol has clearly done his homework. Bruce Greenwood’s ambivalent Lt. Col. Johns sometimes seems more like a mouthpiece than a character, but Greenwood’s low delivery helps keep the specifying from dampening the film’s momentum.

Drones aren’t going away anytime soon. For all the harm and fear they can generate, they also protect ground troops by flying over them and preventing ambushes. Like Charlie Chaplin and Stanley Kubrick before him, Niccol wonders if human beings can be responsible stewards of a technology that seems to have advanced beyond its creators.

It takes little effort to doubt that we have the moral responsibility or wisdom to kill people by the push of a button. The title for Good Kill is a term that indicates the target has been killed without collateral damage. After seeing Good Kill or the Oscar-nominated documentary Dirty Wars, it’s unlikely that any death at the hands of somebody like Maj. Egan can be good. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 05/29/15)

Good Kill

The drone war isn’t
fun for either targets or
the weary pilots.

San Andreas
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

San Andreas depicts the super quake that Californians have been dreading for ages. Thanks to some expert special effects the quake and the aftershocks that follow are suitably convincing and spectacular. Mother Nature takes the West Coast and does to it what an irate six year old might do to an unprotected Lego city.

While director Brad Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) can make cinematic disasters that make the expense of 3D glasses less unreasonable, he and screenwriter Carlton Cuse (Bates Motel, Lost) aren’t nearly as successful at creating believable people to occupy the ruins. These guys are strictly landscape painters.

Actually, the acting is solid, but neither Peyton nor Cuse ask the performers to show much range. As a result, there’s no suspense to go with the admittedly tasty eye candy. By the time, each major character is introduced we already know if they’ll survive the seismic nightmare.

We know which characters will be courageous or cowardly, and the quakes and aftershocks arrive on cue. This takes some of the fun away from seeing iconic Golden State buildings turned into rubble. Part of the fun of the admittedly cheesy Irwin Allen disaster movies of the ‘70s like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno was trying to figure out which characters would come to a bad end.

With San Andreas, the guesswork is too easy.

Dwayne Johnson stars as Ray, a rescue pilot for the Los Angeles Fire Department who has saved hundreds around the city and even more in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like many an action hero before him, Ray hasn’t been as successful rescuing his marriage to Emma (Carla Gugino, Watchmen). Perhaps the divorce papers that have just arrived in the mail are a clue.

Both Ray and his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario, True Detective) have been holding out for a reconciliation, but for some reason it’s stunning to the two of them that Emma might prefer the smooth real estate tycoon Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd) to the heroic but brooding Ray.

That all changes when Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) and Kim (Will Yun Lee), a pair of seismology professors at Caltech, discover a way to detect quakes. Conveniently for the plot but not for many of the folks living in Nevada and California, the two have their eureka moment just before the San Andreas Fault starts leveling everything nearby.

There’s no point in mentioning the subplots or the supporting cast because most of the performers are like mannequins, stuck with one emotion throughout the film. Giamatti naturally excels at looking intelligent and concerned. That said, the Oscar-nominee has so much more to offer, so it’s a shame Cuse couldn’t think of anything else for him to do.

Surprisingly, Johnson gets to show off more than his broad-shouldered presence. Occasionally, Peyton asks the wrestler-turned-action hero to show doubt, fear or sorrow, and he skillfully obliges. Cuse’s clumsy, unimaginative back story does the Artist Formerly Known as The Rock no favors, but Johnson’s genial manner helps make up how numbing the destruction can get after a while.

It’s also odd that Ray commandeers a chopper belonging to the city of Los Angeles to rescue his ex-wife and daughter who happen to be in San Francisco during the quake to end all quakes. Might a few Angelinos need his help as well?

Nothing is made of how easily Ray gets a hold of a wide variety of vehicles when cell phones are useless or that he is apparently the only person on a planet of 8 billion who can save his family members.

It’s true that no one will buy a ticket to San Andreas expecting much more than some really impressive rubble. While we in Kansas City might be sore about being beaten in the World Series, the destruction of San Francisco isn’t all that fun without any interesting survivors. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 05/29/15)

San Andreas

It takes more than The
Rock’s shoulders to carry this
film past the clichés.

Pitch Perfect 2
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In 2012, Pitch Perfect took audiences by surprise to become a sleeper hit. Beyond the quotable dialog and ridiculous sight gags, the film about members of an all-girl collegiate a cappella group finding their voices and becoming friends has proven irresistible to many. Unfortunately, its follow-up doesn’t have the same heart; pandering to a built-in audience by cannibalizing the worst stereotypes of the characters without including the redemptive relationships.

After three straight years of championships, the Barden Bellas have lost sight of the simplicity that made them great. Under pressure to perform increasingly elaborate musical numbers and choreography, including gymnastics and aerobatics, they become a national disgrace when its sauciest member, Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), splits open her Lycra pants during a televised presidential performance. Because a fat girl flashing her privates is the worst offense ever, the Bellas are banned from all competition in the United States and stripped of their status. In order to regain their standing, they must vie for the world title, dominated by the German team, Das Sound Machine.

Making her feature directorial debut, Elizabeth Banks, pulling double duty by expanding her role as commentator Gail, has either forgotten what made the first movie so great or never understood it in the first place. Working from a script by returning writer Kay Cannon, the sequel isn’t nearly as insightful or kind to the characters. Although years have passed and the girls have spent untold hours, if not days and weeks, with each other, they don’t seem to understand or like each other any better than they did previously. They’re still treated as misfits and outsiders — some, such as Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) and Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean), even among the group.

Stranger yet, the sticking point between star arranger and performer Beca (Anna Kendrick) and the other members is their lack of personal growth. Brittany Snow’s Chloe claims to have flunked a class three times in order to postpone graduation. Benji (Ben Platt) is still relying on magic tricks to make friends. Even Bumper (Adam DeVine) is back as a campus security guard. What worked in the first movie causes pity for the repeat performances. It would have been better for Banks and Cannon to risk something new.

About halfway through Pitch Perfect 2, the members of the Barden Bellas reprise a signature song from the first movie in an attempt to recover their spark. In this solipsistic follow-up to about the all it’s a cheap shot, referencing a genuinely surprising and authentic moment and forcing it to burden an emotional appeal under an entirely different set of circumstances.

Only the most die-hard fans will be satisfied by this lazy remake that relies on retread bits and cameo appearances to exploit the popularity of its predecessor. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 05/27/15)

Ex Machina
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

To describe screenwriter Alex Garland’s (28 Days Later, Sunshine) directorial debut as film noir disguised as science fiction could be giving away the plot. But anyone unsuspecting of the final femme fatale reveal deserves to have the story spoiled.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a surprisingly unsuspecting software grunt at the world’s largest fictitious search engine, Blue Book, has won a helicopter ride to his reclusive employer’s high-tech jungle hideaway. The controlling Nathan (Oscar Isaac) wants Caleb to interview his latest research project, a prototype robot programmed with artificial intelligence. That Ava (Alicia Vikander) seems congenitally pleasing to Caleb gives him no pause; he’s too busy patting himself on the back for impressing Nathan with his knowledge of the Turing test.

Playing to pride can make people do dumb things. But naïve Caleb isn’t just oblivious to Ava’s custom amiability. He also shows no alarm at the prison-like conditions of the accommodations, the erratic and drunken behavior of his host or the ministrations of Nathan’s silent housekeeper Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). Caleb is already obsessed with Ava, responding to her distress and plotting her escape, but any experienced moviegoer will recognize the signs that Caleb shouldn’t trust Nathan and, by extension, Ava either.

But Caleb wasn’t actually chosen for his intellect; it was his predictability that Nathan was after. Generous speculation points toward a storyline involving more than mere sexbots, female beings programmed to fulfill every desire, even if that largely entails supposedly deep philosophical discussion. But in the end, the narrative really does depend on Caleb’s being manipulated by his own Internet searches sating or inciting his own particular brand of lust. Anyone only scarcely aware of stories about the NSA and its data warehouses full of keyword searches can quickly figure out what Nathan has done with that information — only he has made it anatomically correct.

A darker narrative employing entrapment and torture of actual living sex slaves instead of machines dressed in flesh and wigs could have raised the stakes and blurred the lines between human and human approximation. As it is, there are moments of where a viewer can sympathize with screams for help, even from an artificial being. Slap the right knob on a toaster, and anyone could project feelings onto it. But there are no real women with true agency here; only digital and prosthetic effects that for all their precision calibration toward real-life beauty still reside in an uncanny valley. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted on 05/27/15)

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If another merely competent director had been responsible for the new Disney offering Tomorrowland, the film might have seemed more satisfying. Knowing that Brad Bird, the mind behind The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol makes the new film seem like a letdown. Bird’s previous movies are filled with so much awe, wit and heart that any effort falling short of his previous achievements seems more lacking than it actually is.

Sometimes it’s difficult being that good.

Working from attractions at Disney theme parks, Tomorrowland ask a simple but profound question: Why is our vision for the future much gloomier than the one our parents and our grandparents had?

The story begins in 1964 when a farm boy named Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) confidently strolls in the World’s Fair to show a new jet pack he’s developed to David Nix (Hugh Laurie), a skeptical scientist. Frank hasn’t come all this way and worked so hard on his gizmo to simply accept rejection.

With the help of an unusually friendly girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), Frank discovers a hidden dimension at that can be accessed through the It’s a Small World ride. In this bright new land, just a couple of adjustments make his jet pack viable. He’s now in a future where his homemade jet pack is only one of the wonders that can be seen. The technology Frank encounters with every step seems far ahead of anything we encounter today.

Coming forward 45 years later, the advances Frank saw as a child seem far more remote. NASA is shutting down some of its explorations, and the world is filled with a cynical malaise. Casey Newton (Britt Robertson, The Longest Ride) is a scientific enthusiast just like Frank who refuses to give in to potentially deal breaking setbacks. She uses drones and other devices to hamper the demolition of NASA launching pads.

That gets her into legal trouble, but she receives a mysterious pin that allows her to see into the same world Frank saw as a boy. The catch is that the pin only takes her there for a short time, or it doesn’t let her step beyond wherever she is in the real world. To find out what is actually happening, she gets some help from Athena and the adult Frank (George Clooney).

It’s hard to believe that Frank was once the bright hopeful lad seen earlier in the film. He’s still got lots of cool high tech toys around his house, but his optimism is long gone. Before he can tell the girls to get lost, a horde of menacing robots come after them, forcing to save both themselves that the future that once seemed so bright.

Working with a budget of $190 million and special effects courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic, it’s a given that Bird can deliver breathtaking sights. He and co-screenwriter Damon Lindelof (Prometheus) also make a solid case that settling for paltry goals can be the most harmful thing we can do.

Actually, the two hammer that point so forcefully that the can do attitude gets oddly numbing. It probably doesn’t help that much of what happens in Tomorrowland seems murky. There’s exposition, but it’s easy to sense that the filmmakers wanted to get past the explanation and show off something cool. Without a little bit of logic here and there, the movie begins to feel more like a sermon than an adventure.

As sermons go, Tomorrowland does feature some snappy dialogue and some intriguing characters. Keegan-Michael Key of Key and Peele is great as a memorabilia dealer who wants Casey’s pin a little too much. What’s odd is that some of the more fascinating people in the film are actually robots. The flesh-and-blood individuals don’t seem to have been presented with as much love or insight.

There’s still fun to be had in Tomorrowland, but it’s a little tricky for youngsters or even some adults to grasp. Nonetheless, the movie is better for stumbling with ambition while other films gracefully stroll through the motions. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 05/27/2015)


Brad Bird’s flops are much
more fun than any hit that
Michael Bay has made.

Reviewed by Mike Ireland

A seemingly genuine homage to the 30-year-old original, this remake of 1982's Poltergeist winds up being less a re-imagining than a facelift; updated on the surface, but old and tired beneath. The result is not a terrible film, just an unnecessary one that rarely manages to frighten.

The script by David Lindsay-Abaire (based on the 1982 story co-written by Steven Spielberg) hews closely to the original plot: archetypal family (a mom, a dad, and 2.5 children) moves into cookie-cutter suburban development — the sort of place where bad things just don't happen — and bad things happen.

Older viewers will chuckle in recognition as the iconic elements of the source film appear: the static-filled TV, the toy clown, the old tree, the tag line, "They're here." Director Gil Kenan, who helmed the inventive animated Monster House, brings the proceedings into the 21st century world of smartphones and reality TV, where the television is now a flat-screen (exactly where the static originates on digital TV is one of the movie's many unsolved mysteries), and the eventual investigation into “the other side” involves GPS tracking and a nifty little iPad controlled drone-cam.

But the very familiarity that makes the film's core elements iconic also undermines their ability to shock, a liability the filmmakers struggle unsuccessfully to overcome. An entire trunk-full of dilapidated clown dolls turns out to be less terrifying than the single, silent, elusive doll of the original film. And the CGI effects that replace the old-school mechanical effects of the scary old tree in the original make it even less convincing.

Nevertheless, the film is surprisingly well cast and acted. Sam Rockwell is engaging and wry as husband and father Eric Bowen, Rosemarie DeWitt convinces as wife Amy Bowen, and in an early interrupted bedroom scene, they capture well the connection and spark of young parents. Too bad little else about the characters makes much sense. Eric is a laid-off John Deere executive for no particular reason, and Amy is not just a housewife, as JoBeth Williams' character was in the original, but also a "writer" of no specified type, for no specified narrative purpose. Although the Bowens are downsizing to a foreclosure and socio-economic concerns, such as the housing market bust, are raised throughout, the theme is never developed.

Instead, as the paranormal high jinks escalate, the film slides quickly into the Insidious / Paranormal Activity school of horror, with less focus on characters and theme than on showing viewers something really weird on screen. Jane Adams is wasted as university paranormal investigator Dr. Brooke Powell. And by the time Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris), host of a Paranormal State-style TV show, arrives to "cleanse" the house, any attempt at sense or context has been abandoned in favor of nondescript bodies writhing in the semi-darkness of the afterlife — in superfluous 3D, of course.

When the original Poltergeist was released, rumors abounded that director Tobe Hooper had been merely a pawn for writer/producer Spielberg; hence, the suburban locale and the sense of wonder when the paranormal initially emerges. Ironically, one of the few truly eerie moments of the remake occurs early on when Kenan allows the camera to slowly prowl the rooms of the house as lights flicker, toys jump to life, and iPads power up, unbeknownst to the sleeping Bowens. Without the specter of the TV or suburbia, or cultural conformity lurking behind it, however, this is just a neat effect. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 05/24/15)

Mad Max: Fury Road
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller has brought back his vision of a nightmarish post-apocalyptic wasteland, which turned Mad Max (1979); Mad Max 2 (1981), known better as The Road Warrior, and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) into cult classics; their raw post-punk expression influencing on-screen dystopias for the last 30 years. Neither prequel nor sequel, the latest in the series is a do-over in the same vein of George Lucas’ 1997 Star Wars re-releases — altered to take advantage of advances in visual effects and sound quality — but at least Miller had sense enough to leave his originals intact.

Not quite a blank slate, the new film abides by the one lesson to be learned in Miller’s cruel and unrelenting desert landscape: respect a clan’s sacred relics. The signature fast editing and mumbled Aussie dialect that turned chase scenes into live-action, highly choreographed cartoons and made audiences in the ‘80s feel as if they’d encountered something new, different and terrifying are still here, albeit ratcheted up, as are sets, costumes and timing.

Working with a script improvised from the storyboard with the help of Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, Miller set out to make not just a movie but also a myth. The story — really just an outline — brings together its characters — some just crude sketches — to participate in a collective relentless forward motion. Described as one long scene shot over 138 days, the film is actually presented in two acts. A first chase followed by a second, both over the same territory, slowing only for brief exposition.

For this Miller convinced cinematographer John Seale (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley) to come out of retirement for his first digital film. However beautifully shot, the incessant action doesn’t allow for highlights or climax. By the time the runaway posse has turned around, it’s gotten boring, and also exhausting. Miller is extremely talented at keeping chaos from completely overtaking the hectic, crowded scenes, but the unremitting chase ultimately subsumes his actors.

It’s only by his blood type — universal donor O negative — that the title character played by Tom Hardy is placed in the middle of the fracas. In this version Max isn’t all that mad; he’s haunted and desperate. Inexplicably, his emotive mouth is again masked, though not as unrecognizably as in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012).

Rightly so, Max is upstaged by one-armed, rogue big rig operator Imperator Furiosa, portrayed by Charlize Theron, whose exquisite physicality is a joy, ruined only by a brassy American accent saying things she’d never really say. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 05/20/15)

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