SHARKNADO

sharknado-title2013 – A hurricane drives swarms of sharks into downtown Los Angeles, where they feast on the surprisingly uninformed populace.

“No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” – The Sopranos (paraphrasing H.L. Mencken)

Whenever I tell people that I enjoy watching bad movies, their first question is always, “Have you seen Sharknado?” No, I tell them. I like BAD movies, the ones that strive so hard to be good but fail so spectacularly.  Sharknado, I tell them, seems as though it’s trying to be bad.

The great bad movies are old shames for everyone involved. The creators try to deny their existence and don’t like talking about them. Sometimes the cast and crew were just collecting a paycheck. Other times, they genuinely thought they were crafting the next Citizen Kane. What cult fame they achieved later was often embraced only reluctantly and often bitterly. Sharknado, on the other hand, has continually played on its reputed wretchedness.

What’s shocking about this movie isn’t how bad it is, but how boring it is. Sharknado finds a way to make even a tornado filled with sharks tedious, bogging things down with a low-speed car chase and a truly interminable “rescue kids from a bus” sequence. The titular “sharknado” itself shows up with only 25 minutes left. We’re all familiar with the concept of “so bad it’s good” – but when something TRIES to be so bad it’s good, but ends up bad anyway… well, that just means it’s so bad it’s REALLY BAD.

The opening sequence, shot on a sunny day with horizontal spritzes of water standing in for a “hurricane,” involves a few nasty foreign types making some kind of deal for illegal shark fin soup. This makes their (spoiler alert) deaths by shark all the more ironic, you see? A whole little story begins and ends in this sequence, contributing nothing to the rest of the film other than “sharks are coming,” which we could have surmised already.

Once the actual plot gets going, we meet the insufferably-named FIN Shepard (Ian Ziering). He’s a surfer who also runs a bar with his rowdy best friend Baz (Jaason Simmons) and large-breasted bartender Nova (Cassandra Scerbo). When the hurricane hits (and it seems to hit with virtually no warning), this rag-tag gang realizes that the storm is driving a horde of sharks into the city’s streets and sewer system. They have to not only rescue Fin’s estranged wife April (the living corpse of Tara Reid) and children, but single-handedly save the entire city.

These sharks are your basic bad movie sharks. Their color, type, and size vary wildly from shot to shot (some are apparently capable of biting people in less-than-ankle-deep water). They roar. They can launch themselves twenty yards into the air. And their hunger for human flesh is so intense that they will strand themselves on dry land just for the chance to bite someone. The human characters are just as cliched, with a “divorced dad struggles to connect with his resentful kids” sub-plot that hits on zero cylinders. The film drags through one cheesy CGI shark attack after another, reaching its end, appropriately enough, at a retirement home.

I used to wonder why sharks are featured in so many bad movies, but now I know why: from an animation perspective, a shark is basically a big gray piece of shit with a mouth and fins. The body wiggles, the mouth opens, but other than that it has very few moving parts. It’s the lazy filmmaker’s dream.

Most of the performances are too vanilla to be laughable, although Cassandra Scerbo manages to make her character more sympathetic than most. Tara Reid looks awful and sounds worse, and Ian Ziering is so uninteresting that they have his character’s son actually save the day. The movie squanders a charming performance by Home Alone vet John Heard as a lecherous old barfly.

This is a bad movie for people who don’t know what a good movie is. Sharknado fools its viewers into thinking they’re in on the joke, when really the joke is on them (and they don’t know what the joke is to begin with). It isn’t clever enough to be a parody or homage, and isn’t bad enough to be legitimately entertaining. It’s a cynical, crass money-making ploy that has, amazingly, spawned FOUR sequels/spin-offs with smarmy titles like Sharknado 2: The Second One and Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! 

This is not the true spirit of bad movie-watching. It’s a hobby that’s all about discovering the hidden gems, the lost treasures. As soon as it starts to get popular and commercial, it’s ruined. There is no better example of this than Sharknado. Skip it and watch Zombeavers instead.

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THERE WILL BE BLOOD

This still shot, viewed for 2.5 hours, features slightly more action than the film itself

This still shot, viewed for 2.5 hours, features slightly more action than the film itself

2007 – A movie about oil prospecting, inspired by an Upton Sinclair novel but somehow even less exciting.

While watching the 2.5-hour-long There Will Be Blood, I kept wondering: how can movie with so much time to convey its message still manage to say virtually nothing? Why are the performances so overblown? Why is the direction so ham-handed? Then I realized: it was a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.

All my questions were immediately answered.

Paul Thomas Anderson made Magnolia, which ranks as my least favorite movie of all time. This movie – the story of a guy who starts out as a ruthless bastard and ends up exactly the same way – isn’t quite as bad, but it’s still not good. The only possible reason to see it is to watch Daniel Day-Lewis doing his funny-voice-and-walk thing, but even his performance is… well, I’ll get to that.

So there’s this guy named Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis, really flexing his acting chops by playing a guy named Daniel). He’s your standard turn-of-the-century businessman, which – as anyone who has taken an American history class in the last 20 years knows – means he’s a just a real meanie. He has an orphaned kid who he calls his son (Dillon Freasier) so he can say it’s a “family business.” He attempts to pay people somewhat less than their land is worth. He pretends to be more religious than he really is. He drinks alcohol.

Clearly this Daniel Plainview character can take his rightful place in the villainous pantheon right next to Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader.

As part of his most ruthless scheme to date, he starts buying up oil-rich land near some middle-of-nowhere town. Horribly, this results in the dirt-poor town being able to afford bread and send their children to school. Damn you, Plainview!!!

Daniel Plainview RUTHLESSLY slaps a guy around and gets his clothes dirty

Daniel Plainview RUTHLESSLY slaps a guy around and gets his clothes dirty

But conflict – surely potentially bloody conflict – is on the horizon. Local minister Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) can somehow sense that Plainview isn’t such a great guy, and this initiates an epic power struggle. On one side is a wealthy, ruthless man with hundreds of henchmen, while on the other side is one wimpy bitch of a guy and the old ladies from his church. WHO WILL WIN?!? Along the way (and by that I mean over the next hour and 45 minutes of film), Plainview’s “son” goes deaf, and he meets a guy who claims to be his brother (Kevin J. O’Connor).

Throughout the viewing, I kept having to ask myself what kind of movie this was. It’s an incredibly long film, but it’s not an epic or a biopic. It’s shot like it’s a big, important movie, but the most important thing that happens is a guy drilling for oil. The real focus is the guy himself, Plainview. So it’s gotta be a character piece, right? It’s gotta be Citizen Kane, a classic rise-and-fall story.

The only problem is, there’s very little rise and no discernible fall. Plainview is an interesting character, yes, but he’s the same character for the entire movie. He doesn’t get an epiphany or a “Rosebud” moment. He’s challenged by the Sunday character, sure… but if you’ve taken an American history class in the last 20 years, you’ll know that Sunday is one of them hypocritical FAKE ministers anyway! So the real conflict is which guy is more of a jerk, and it’s the guy we know is the biggest jerk all along.

Daniel Plainview RUTHLESSLY puts a handkerchief over his face and does a funny voice

Daniel Plainview RUTHLESSLY puts a handkerchief over his face and does a funny voice

Daniel Day-Lewis seems to specialize in assignments like this. Don’t get me wrong: he’s a great actor. Take Lincoln (a movie that has a lot of the same flaws, come to think of it): he plays Abraham Lincoln to the hilt. But it’s almost as though he becomes so mired in becoming these characters that they get locked in stasis. Abraham Lincoln goes shuffling off to Ford’s Theater pretty much the same man he was in the opening scene. When There Will Be Blood mercifully ends, we’re nowhere closer to knowing what makes Daniel Plainview tick than we did when we first saw him. He’s a fascinating collection of mannerisms, but you need more than that to make an actual character.

For a movie where the very title promises abundant blood, there is a disappointing lack of it. They should have called it There Will Be Long-Winded Speeches, because that’s what about 80% of the dialogue is. Imagine a Shakespeare play comprised entirely of soliloquies – that’s There Will Be Blood. In those rare instances where real action does take place, it comes out of nowhere or makes virtually no sense, and it’s over so fast you’re left wondering what the heck happened. [Insert your own Bill Cosby joke here]

Someone should have told Paul Thomas Anderson that just because it’s filmed like an epic and acted like an epic, a movie can still be a complete snooze. There Will Be Blood has been in my Netflix queue for a long time, and it’s better off left there. No Country For Old Men is better.

POKEMON GO

* Not at all what the game looks like

* Not at all what the game looks like

Sometimes I feel completely disconnected from the modern world and all of its horrific accouterments. This can be awkward; earlier today someone told me that Taylor Swift was dating Loki, and I thought she was still with that mongoloid werewolf kid. The vast majority of times, though, I’m grateful to not be so plugged in.

Case in point: when I saw a guy wandering around the lake by my office building, phone in hand, swiveling this way and that and snarling, “Where is it? Where is it?” The guy was wearing transition lenses, too, which told me that whatever he was doing, it wasn’t cool.

He was playing Pokemon Go, of course. I realized this when a girl about my age came bursting outside, saw the guy, and exclaimed, “Where’s the Pikachu?!? Did you find him?”

Yes, it’s the game that brings everyone together by forcing them to walk around, stare at their phones, and try to imprison imaginary cartoon animals! Six days ago, I’d never heard of this thing. Now, I can’t go to the bathroom at work without running into someone on a quest for a rare Kookaburra (or whatever).

The Pokemon cartoon came out in America in 1998. I was 15 and a devoted fan of Batman: The Animated Series; I just wasn’t interested in a comparatively slipshod “Japanimation” show. However, the franchise appears to have the longevity of Power Rangers – we see a new iteration every few years, and the original, catch-em-all-able stock of little monsters has ballooned over time.

Enter some magnificent corporate bastard, who realized that the kids who spent their hard-earned allowance back in 1998 will be willing and able to dump a lot of their much larger adult income into basically the same thing. Ergo Pokemon Go, which encapsulates everything wrong with modern games and the modern world.

Starting The Game

Your first option is to log into the game using your Google account. Yes, it’s Google, the company that cheats on its taxes, suppresses dissenting viewpoints, and happily aids oppressive Communist dictators in censorship programs that Hitler could only have dreamed of. For all its “genius,” it also has the most unintuitive email service in the world. I used one of my many phony accounts to move along.

Then you have to select a username, even the most obscure of which (including “SeagalFan1” and “PrendergastOil”) seem to be taken already. Next, you design your game avatar. Very limited choices here – you can’t change the face at all, and there are only three different shirts. An essential – essential – element of modern games is the ability to custom-design your character down to pubic hair style, so expect the brains at Pokemon Go to expand these selections. Also, expect them not to be free.

Crazed Pokemon fans will gladly provide truckloads of cash in order to purchase a “unique” hat or funny boots. This is basically how Team Fortress 2 has stayed alive so long – once the actual game objectives have been completed, players will endlessly obsess over cosmetics.

Finally, I was ready to start the actual “game.” If modern games have told us anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as a well-designed, intuitive experience that you naturally pick up as you play. Oh no! We need an endless tutorial section where some guy explains what the hell you’re doing. Don’t take “what the hell you’re doing” to mean “the game’s plot,” however; this game has no plot. There are no levels, no bosses to defeat, no princess to rescue. “Story” and “characters” are for lame people.

Before beginning, I was treated to this important safety warning:

Pokemon Go warning

Yeah, STAY AWARE when you’re walking across a fairy tale bridge that has tripwires instead of a safety rail, or you might miss the huge exclamation point and the giant monster. This looks like four random pieces of clip art slapped together. Who designed this?

Playing The Game

Simply standing at my desk at work (FACT: 90% of Pokemon Go activity is done in the workplace*), I immediately caught three creatures and leveled up. WOW! Quite an adventure. And it only cost me 10% of my battery life.

* May not be an actual fact

The thing takes forever to load. I managed to open it once and it froze; I opened it again, and it froze again. Just trying (and failing) to re-enter the game cost me another 3% of my battery life. That’s a huge drain for less than 5 minutes of actual playing time. At this rate, you’d be able to play for maybe a half hour before your phone is completely dead.

IT'S SO FUN HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

Get ready for server failure ACTION!

After finally managing to re-enter the game, it froze and crashed in the middle of catching some kind of plant monster. Then it wouldn’t load back in. When it finally worked, I discovered I had reached Level 3 and I was down to 70% battery life. Still standing at my desk, I captured three new Pokemon, bringing my level up to 4 and my battery down to 60%. In total, I caught 12 Pokemon without taking a single step. What a great game.

Now, what’s the point of all this, you ask? Basically, if you “collect” enough Pokemon of the same type, you can evolve them into more powerful forms. For instance, your Kookaburra may evolve into a Kumbabumbra! Why? So that you can go to a “gym” – which, keep in mind, is in a real-world location – and fight other Pokemon. Ask why you’d ever want to do this and we’re into real existential territory.

The game’s interface is basically a Google map on which your avatar and various Pokemon will appear. When you attempt to capture one, the game uses your camera to show the creature hopping/flying/crawling right in front of you! WOW! It’s just like real life!!! You then swipe your finger on the screen until you catch it. That’s it.

Work can wait, I've got a thing to throw balls at!

Work can wait, I’ve got a thing to throw balls at!

Hey, but here’s some fun: the game tracks exactly where you catch each and every one of your Pokemon. That’s right, parents: some heartless corporate entity can now see every move your Pokemon Go-playing children make – where they live, where they go to school, where their friends live… Sweet dreams!

Allowing The Game To Consume Your Very Soul

To catch Pokemon, you need Pokeballs. These eventually run out, which brings us to an important decision: do we physically go to a “Pokestop” to get additional supplies for free… OR, do we simply BUY more stuff with an in-app purchase?

Yep. That’s how they get you, folks. Why take the time to actually play the game when you can simply buy your way to success? Making it free, but structuring it so that there is a direct correlation between money spent on the game and in-game success, is the equivalent of a heroin dealer telling a junkie that the first fix is free. People can and do get addicted to these things; I’ve rarely seen such a blatant, cynical money-making scheme.

In the game “Store,” all your purchases are made with Pokecoins. You can buy 100 Pokecoins with a mere $0.99. That’s an entire song on iTunes – a tangible thing you could listen to and enjoy for eternity. Or, you know, you could buy a make-believe egg that hatches after you walk two kilometers. Yeah, not miles, KILOMETERS. What is this, socialist Europe???

Even worse, a lot of these Pokestops are located at churches. Don’t worry, kids: you don’t actually have to go into the church, so God won’t be quite as depressed while you’re wasting the beautiful, miraculous life He provided you with. I was also told about a stop located on a country club golf course – where only the children of THE RICH can get to it.

We’re being told that this game will get kids out of the house. With the game being out less than a week, they’re assuring us that it’ll create this wonderful sense of community (with zero evidence to support that claim). Meanwhile, there are actual verifiable stories about criminals using this game to mug people, players breaking into buildings, people falling off cliffs, etc. Shockingly, the evidence here seems to point more toward “people aren’t good.”

It's a FUN game!

How shocking.

What will actually happen – when the inevitable in-game chat features are enabled – is that kids will be sitting inside as they always are, staring at their phones as they always do, and spending money that isn’t theirs on a shitty game that has no objective beyond “acquire more imaginary stuff.”

Is there any more eloquent summation – and condemnation – of 2016?

THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR

The Purge Election Year

2016 – On a night when all crime, including murder, is legal, a rag-tag group of soda-commercial-level diversity must protect a presidential candidate who wants to end the Purge.

I haven’t seen either of the previous Purge movies (2013’s The Purge and 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy), but I think this is likely the best of the lot. Channeling a little early George Romero magic, The Purge: Election Year is a summery blend of action and horror, with a dash of straw political commentary.

The movie takes its time setting up a number of intersecting plots. We have reform-minded Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell – from LOST!) and her security chief Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo – from… uh…), who are trying to evade both the “purgers” and government troops who want to end her candidacy. There’s also deli owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson, who I was trying to place the whole movie and then realized was Bubba from Forrest Gump!), who just wants to defend his store, and former Purge celebrity Laney (Betty Gabriel), who drives around in an armored van trying to help the injured.

The villains are lifted straight from everything Stephen King has ever written: an over-the-top insane minister (Kyle Secor), a white supremacist mercenary (Terry Serpico), and an all-white cadre of politicians called the “New Founding Fathers.” Senator Roan argues that the Purge harms low-income citizens and minorities the most – sorta like the Obama administration – and that the government promotes it to keep the population down and increase gun sales – sorta like the Obama administration.

After seeing the movie, this doesn’t seem like a very good plan. Sure a lot of people get killed, but there’s also a hell of a lot to clean up the next morning. There are fires and corpses all over the place. There’s at least one giant pendulum blade set up in an alleyway. Someone paints “PURGE” in blood on the Lincoln Memorial. I’m guessing the cost of post-Purge cleanup would far outweigh the savings in healthcare and housing… but maybe this is why I’m not a New Founding Father.

Speaking of the NFF, the movie does a really good job of making them as detestable as possible. They’re always filmed in harsh, stony blues and grays, and they refer to our hero Charlie as a “c-word” right away. There’s also something subtly off about them – they’re old, or fat, or sickly-looking, or have a mustache. They’re like those golf course pricks that Michael Douglas runs across in Falling Down.  I like a movie where it’s easy to identify who you need to root for.

The main cast, especially Mitchell, Grillo, and Williamson, turn in surprisingly heartfelt performances. The supporting players… good lord. I haven’t seen that much chewing outside of the Grand Floridian lagoon. Special mention goes to Britany Mirabile, who plays a homicidal schoolgirl with all the subtlety of William Shatner on a coke binge. There’s a lot of violence but surprisingly little gore – even a horror movie novice will find little to wince at here. It plays more like a thriller than a true horror film, in that regard.

It also features the best in-movie use of “Party in the USA” I’ve ever heard.

THE ASIAN CONNECTION

The Asian Connection title

2016 – Amateur bank robbers Jack (John Edward Lee) and Sam (Byron Gibson) run afoul of Cambodian drug lord Gan Sirankiri (STEVEN SEAGAL) when they unwittingly steal a cache of his money during a heist. 

As with his previous movie, Sniper: Special Ops, the cover art for [The] Asian Connection is a tad misleading. See that guy in the background, just over Steven Seagal’s God-like right shoulder? He’s our star. See those cars tumbling through the air on that brightly-lit highway? That never happens. See Seagal? Yeah, of course you do. He’s the bad guy, a kind of righteous spiritual martial arts drug lord with a soft heart and a great reverence for fish.

The movie opens very promisingly, with Sirankiri having a sit-down with a rival drug lord to hash out some drug-related stuff. It’s not really important; what IS important is that they decide the only way to settle things is via sword duel. Sirankiri says that this puts him at a disadvantage, as his foe is a master with the blade. I don’t want to give away this scene’s twist ending, but Sirankiri may be slightly more skilled with the blade than he lets on.

I, for one, would have been happy seeing a movie focused on Seagal’s drug lord character. He may be the bad guy, but he lives a fascinating life. He’s from America but he has an Asian name, and his chief lieutenant is a guy named Klahan Sirankiri (Byron Bishop). Are they brothers? Distant relations? Did Klahan save Gan’s life and Gan took his last name as a sign of gratitude and friendship? We never know.

Sirankiri also has a startlingly large-breasted Asian girlfriend who he appears to be training in martial arts. He grows roses in his back yard. He is interrupted during a lecture on how the fish is “the most important sentient being,” and we never learn what the hell he was talking about. It’s like you’re at the multiplex watching a crappy movie about a generic Jack Nicholson wannabe, but you keep catching glimpses of a more fascinating film on your way to the bathrooms.

Tragically, we have to spend most of our time with this Jack fellow, who has few discernible character traits aside from liking his girlfriend Avalon (Pim Bubear). Jack and the hot-headed but much more entertaining Sam are stuck in one of those awkward situations where the drug lord’s treacherous henchman is forcing them to rob more banks so that he can steal the boss’s money. This henchman is the “Asian connection” of the title, because he’s Jack’s connection. And he’s Asian.

Robbing banks is especially easy in Cambodia, it seems. Every one of them has the exact same layout, employs one or fewer guards, and has lots of money in convenient stacks in the vault. The police also have a strict “one car per bank robbery” rule, so they’re never especially effective.

We’re supposed to see Jack and Avalon as one of those doomed True Romance-type couples, but they’re just annoying and poorly-acted. Avalon doesn’t seem too concerned that the heap of money in their bedroom is obviously stolen; instead she asks Jack, “Why don’t you do me on all this cash?” When was the last time you heard the term “do me” in any context?

Michael Jai White is in the movie for all of two seconds, but why anyone would care is beyond me. He’s another one of these “why is he famous” guys to me. Is it because he was in The Dark Knight? So was Anthony Michael Hall, but you don’t see everyone slobbering over his tiny role in Foxcatcher. And yes, by this logic, Michael Jai White : The Asian Connection :: Anthony Michael Hall : Foxcatcher. Deal with it.

In the grand pantheon of Seagal movies, this ranks pretty low. It also follows the recent trend of very minimal involvement; it makes me fear for the rest of 2016’s Seagalian releases.

SNIPER: SPECIAL OPS

Sniper Special Ops
2016 – On a mission to rescue a kidnapped US Congressman from Taliban fighters, sniper Jake Chandler (STEVEN SEAGAL) is left behind and must hold out until his comrades can return.

This is a very different type of Steven Seagal movie, in that it contains very minimal amounts of Steven Seagal. The majority of the film focuses on the efforts of the rest of his unit to get back to him and the wounded comrade he stayed behind to protect. Every once in a while, we’ll cut back to Seagal sitting in a room, staring out the window. There aren’t any classic Seagal lines; there’s no hand-to-hand fighting; he doesn’t even get the girl at the end.

All that said, Sniper: Special Ops is a good movie. The acting is in the decent-to-okay range (except for Three-Headed Shark Attack‘s Rob Van Dam), there’s some tense action (especially the opening sequence), and the plot is free from the unnecessary complications that plagued Seagal’s earlier direct-to-video efforts.

The real main character is Vic, played by Tim Abell – an honest-to-God real life Army Ranger who plays his role with convincing toughness, humor, and charm. He’s the kind of guy who isn’t afraid to bend the orders of his superior, Colonel Jackson (Dale Dye, who you may recognize as Captain Garza from both Under Siege movies) if it means getting a shot at rescuing his friends and taking out a local warlord.

Abell really carries the film, and he’s a good enough actor to make even Rob Van Dam seem halfway competent. The other standout character is Janet (Charlene Amoia), an embed reporter who everyone avoids like the plague because she’s an Admiral’s niece and a “jinx.” I don’t want to give anything away, but she turns out to be cool, competent, and capable of kneeing a terrorist in the balls and telling him to burn in Hell. Now THAT’S how you establish credentials for a character, Star Wars Episode VII.

What will likely upset most viewers is the real lack of classic Seagalian stuff. Considering that he’s billed first, and he’s the only character on the DVD cover art, AND the trailer focuses entirely on him, I can see why people might feel… misled. But look on the bright side: this shows that Steven is still a bankable star that can put a movie over the top. At this stage in his career, he’s like a late-80s Andre the Giant – not what he once was, but still a respected enough force to give a push to up-and-coming talent.

There’s one moment, at the very end, that plays almost like an homage to Seagal’s entire career. He’s been wearing his sunglasses the entire movie, but as Janet approaches him he finally takes them off and gives her his trademark squint. They have the following exchange:

Janet: Are you really as good as they all say you are?

Seagal: …Every once in a while.

Yeah, Janet. He is. Haven’t you ever seen Marked for Death?

Sniper: Special Ops is, admittedly, a niche movie, but it’s a pleasant surprise as opposed to the typical big, bloated disappointment that most major studio films turn out to be.

Despite minimal screen time, Seagal still manages to kill 20 bad guys.

CRIMSON PEAK

Note: Despite its size, this house is comprised of no more than 5 rooms

Note: Despite its size, this house is comprised of no more than 5 rooms

2015 – Heiress Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is swept away to an obviously sinister mansion by the equally obviously sinister Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Everything you expect to happen, happens. 

“But basically what it is is a really, really, almost classical Gothic romance ghost story, but then it has two or three scenes that are really, really disturbing in a very, very modern way. Very, very disturbing, it’s a proper R rating. And it’s adult.” For those keeping score, that’s four “really”s, four “very”s, and two “disturbing”s dropped by director Guillermo Del Toro, who is trying really, really hard to make us think this movie is very, very good.

It’s not.

Allow me to get a little English major on you by telling you about an author named Anne Radcliffe. She blazed the trail for the Gothic novel, which were stories about innocent heroines trapped in big, scary houses filled with creepy people and, possibly, ghosts. Her books sold incredibly well… in 1794. Nowadays, they’re derided for their reliance on stale, predictable tropes (despite the fact that she invented most of them).

Crimson Peak plays like a straight Anne Radcliffe novel. It has absolutely no awareness that every one of its “twists” and “turns” is a cliche that has been telegraphed to the audience well in advance. If you’ve read any fiction or watched any movie in the past 75 years or so, there are no surprises waiting for you.

For instance: in the opening scenes, a young Edith is visited by her mother’s ghost, who warns her to “beware of Crimson Peak.” Later on, after she’s moved into the world’s most preposterously awful house, Sir Thomas casually mentions that all the red clay in the soil led to the place’s nickname: Crimson Peak. There’s an ominous rumble of music. Our heroine is shocked. The savvy viewer is left wondering whether the filmmakers actually thought this was a surprise.

The movie is littered with non-shockers like this. The “stray” dog that shows up. The tea that the Sharpes insist Edith drink. The way Lucille is so concerned with whether Thomas and Edith have slept together yet. All the luggage in the off-limits basement. Duuuuhhh gee, what could dese tings mean?

Del Toro seems to have lavished so much attention on the baroque atmosphere and extravagant costumes that he forgot what the hell was happening in his own movie. One character is killed by having his head repeatedly bashed into a sink; the other characters conclude that he “slipped.” It’s repeatedly mentioned that the house itself is slowly sinking into the red clay; this fact never comes into play.

Crimson Peak is a scary ghost story with no scary ghosts; it’s a psychological thriller with no psychology or thrills. Spend your two hours on a couple Twilight Zone episodes instead.

STAR WARS EPISODE VII: The Force Awakens

2016: [See the plot of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope]

Setting: JJ Abrams’ throne room. Nubile young women carry sparkling wines, gourmet cheeses, and exotic fruits on golden trays. One man, Writer 1, kneels reverently at Abrams’ sandal-clad feet. Another man, Writer 2, stands further back and seems perplexed by the entire scene. 

Writer 1: Oh great JJ Abrams, creator of Alias and LOST, we come before you to hear what new creations you prepare to reveal!

Writer 2: …Yeah, hi JJ. You did say to be here at 1:30, right?

Abrams: Arise, my servants. Just as Felicity unleashed my greatness upon the Universe, so shall I now unleash a new cinematic vision upon the unsuspecting populace!

Writer 1: Glory be!

Writer 2: …We’re here for the specs on the new Star Wars movie. You know, fans have waited a long time for a good Star Wars – since 1983, in fact. We’re hoping you can deliver.

Abrams: Can I deliver! You’re speaking to the mastermind of Super 8 and Star Trek Into Darkness! Does that answer your question?

Writer 2: It actually raises more questions, for me.

Writer 1: Don’t pay him any attention, JJ. Just blast a hot load of Star Wars plot on us and we can die happy men.

Abrams: And so it shall be, my friends, and so it shall be. Envision, if you will, a strange alien galaxy full of adventure and magic, full of heroism and villainy, full of wonder and whimsy and romance and daring-do!

Writer 1: My God! It’s beautiful!

Abrams: But all is not well with this galaxy.

Writer 1: (gasps)

Abrams: Yes. The Empire has fallen, but a virtually identical force has replaced it, and the only things standing in its way are the New Republic and the Resistance!

Writer 2: Wait, hold on… the New Republic and the Resistance? What’s the difference between these two groups? What happened to the Rebellion?

Abrams: SILENCE! You’ll miss the best part… the Resistance obtains valuable plans that will help defeat the forces of evil. These plans are concealed in an adorable, spunky little droid, who ends up on a desert planet in the hands of a most unlikely hero.

Writer 1: It’s a triumph of the imagination!

Writer 2: I’m sorry… are we discussing the new movie? Because this sounds an awful lot like –

Abrams: SILENCE I SAY! Clench your buttocks, because you might lose control of your bowels when you hear this next innovative twist! Our heroes will be stalked by a black-clad masked menace who is skilled in the Force!

Writer 2: So, like, a Darth Vader-type character?

Abrams: Oh, God, no. Who wants to see that? This character will be a wispy young thing portrayed by some big-nosed long-haired emo-looking douche, and instead of choking people he’ll get all pissy and smash stuff when he gets upset.

Writer 1: My spine is tingling with fear!

Writer 2: I have to say, this villain doesn’t seem like he’s in the same class as Vader or even Darth Maul… will we have some really strong heroes to oppose him?

Abrams: Your hopes have been realized, for I have devised heroes destined to be just as legendary as Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi!

Writer 1: Oh my…

Abrams: BEHOLD! I give you… a girl and a black guy! KAZAAAAAAAM!

Writer 1: Holy SHIT.

Writer 2: This sounds kinda pandering, to me. I mean, what next, this random girl will turn out to be so incredibly bad-ass that Han Solo will say something like, “Kid, you’re a damn fine pilot, why don’t you join me on my ship even though it’s always just been me and Chewy…”

Abrams: Excuse me, “this random girl”? I put a scene in there where she fixes something on the ship! It’s like, “Oh, I re-routed the capacity through the auxiliary drive matrix” or some shit. Boom, instant street cred.

Writer 1: Oh, you’re the king, JJ, you’re the best there is, best there was, best there ever will be!

Writer 2: (Sighs) Alright, so the unlikely heroes are on the desert planet with the robot, what next?

Abrams: Well, you’ll never see this coming, but it turns out the evil militaristic space organization –

Writer 2: – like the Empire –

Abrams: – NOT AT ALL like the Empire – is commanded by a sinister, robe-wearing figure whose mind is as twisted and corrupt as his body!

Writer 2: …like the Emperor.

Abrams: NOT AT ALL like the Emperor! In fact, this evil mastermind’s name… IS

Writer 1: Here it comes.

Abrams: Supreme Leader SNOKE.

Writer 2: You’re kidding.

Abrams: SNOKE. Doesn’t that name just inspire fear and awe? Say it with me. Say, “SNOKE.”

Writer 1: I can’t! I’m that afraid of this guy!

Writer 2: It sounds like a sock puppet from a kids’ TV show.

Abrams: Perhaps your impudent tongue will be silenced when I tell you that Snoke will be an entirely CGI character! Oooh, aaah, the magic of film-making!

Writer 2: Who’s going to play him?

Abrams: Well, he’s an all CGI character created after 2003, so…

Writer 1: Andy Serkis?

Abrams: Bingo.

Writer 2: Oh, come on. You know, JJ, the Star Wars franchise used to be a bastion of unrestrained imagination and creativity. This sounds like a tired old re-hash of every trope that we’ve seen a thousand times before. I’ve read Star Wars fan-fic more creative than this.

Abrams: Oh ye of little faith! Was it not I who rescued the Star Trek franchise via the never-before-explored avenue of TIME TRAVEL? Wait until you hear my finest plot innovation yet!

Writer 1: I don’t know if I’m worthy to hear this.

Abrams: It turns out that the non-Empire has… a gigantic space station capable of destroying entire planets!

Writer 2: …So, the Death Star.

Abrams: No, bigger than the Death Star. Like, colossally bigger. And, therefore, different and better.

Writer 1: That’s a fact.

Abrams: In a thrilling race against time, our heroes will have to infiltrate this massive space station, disable its shield, and attack its weak point for massive damage!

Writer 2: Wait, wait, wait… wait. This is literally the plot of both Episode IV AND Episode VI. You can’t be serious.

Abrams: Oh, can’t I?

Writer 1: JJ, I’m not blowing smoke up your ass when I say this… but you are literally the Jesus of franchise resurrection.

Abrams: And the best part is, all of this is set 30 years in the future, so we get to see the stars of these magical films of our childhood as haggard, wrinkled old sacks who can barely run for two seconds on screen! Remember hot Princess Leia in the slave costume? Well now you get to see her visage wracked by age, and hear her old lady denture voice!

Writer 1: It’s like all my dreams have come true at once!

Writer 2: In what world would anyone want to see the exact same story played out with vastly inferior new characters and old, sad versions of the original characters?

Abrams: You’re so short-sighted. You’re forgetting how legendary these original characters will be. They’re like mythical heroes now. Some people don’t even believe they exist. They’ll be like living legends, something out of a fairy tale.

Writer 2: 30 years in the future people don’t even believe they’re real? 1986 was 30 years ago. That’s like saying people today think Jack Nicholson and Ronald Reagan are just legends or fairy tales. How short are people’s memories in this universe?

Writer 1: Man, don’t you have anything positive to say?

Writer 2: Well… maybe it’s just growing pains. I’m sure the second installment will be better.

Abrams: I’ve already got an idea! It begins in this frozen wasteland…

Writer 2: I quit.

HARDCORE HENRY

Hardcore Henry first person

2016 – After being resurrected as a cyborg, Henry must unlock the secrets of his forgotten past to save his wife (Haley Bennett) from a telekinetic villain and an army of super-soldiers.

This is it, people. This isn’t just an action movie. This is THE action movie.

Filmed entirely in first-person, Hardcore Henry takes the action film and refines it to its purest possible state, free from such tedious accouterments as “plot” and “characters.”

Let’s face it: we’ve had to endure hundreds of plots and thousands of characters in our pursuit of pure thrills. We’ve had to sit through lame romantic interludes when we just want to see arms being broken. We’ve had to endure dull exposition and backstory when all we craved was cars exploding. Hardcore Henry tells us we don’t really need any of that. All we need is a gun and a GoPro.

Characters? Why do we need characters? We might as well be Henry ourselves – he awakens in a strange place with no memories and no idea what’s going on. Within five minutes we know who the villain is (a metrosexual albino douche! KILL HIM!) and we know what our motivation is (hot wife kidnapped! SAVE HER!). And then we’re off on a 90-minute journey that’s 90% gunfights, fistfights, car chases, foot races, and more. “Relentless” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Events play out like a video game. After each battle or chase, Henry’s mysterious buddy Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) shows up or calls with a new mission. Brief interludes akin to cut-scenes fill us in on details we might need, and the action spikes with more challenging “boss fights” against bad guy Akan’s (Danila Kozlovsky) increasingly powerful henchmen.

Despite the brutal violence and relatively grim story line, Hardcore Henry doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are moments of genuine humor, made even better because they’re so unexpected. You can tell that, behind all the carnage, the filmmakers had a genuine enthusiasm for this project and are getting a lot of enjoyment out of making it.

I know what the faint of heart are wringing their hands over: will the camerawork be too jittery? Will I get a headache? Will I get sick? If you experience a moment’s hesitation due to these issues, don’t go. Not because you’ll get sick (I was so enthralled that, after the first five minutes, I didn’t even notice the first-person perspective), but because you’re obviously not ready for a movie like this. There’s a reason the word “hardcore” is in the title.

Catch it in theaters while you still can, because this is an experience that needs the big screen.

It also features the best in-movie use of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” this side of Shaun of the Dead.

ZOOTOPIA

Zootopia header

2016 – Social lessons abound when a rabbit police officer teams up with a con artist fox to fight crime in an anthropomorphic animal metropolis.

I’ll admit it right off the bat: Zootopia is a good movie. The story is funny and lighthearted, the characters are easy to like, and the voice acting is fine-to-excellent. I enjoyed it, had a few laughs, and walked out of the theater pleased with the viewing experience.

Judy Hopps (Ginnifer [“GINNIFER”?!?] Goodwin) always dreamed of becoming the first rabbit officer on the Zootopia police force, despite the fears of her small-town parents. Her idealistic hopes are challenged when she arrives for duty and encounters the pompous Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons, playing every J.K. Simmons character), the hostile Chief Bogo (Idris Elba, in a role that amazingly might NOT be used to argue that he’d make THE PERFECT James Bond), and the cynical Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman, doing his best smug Jason Bateman-ing).

Despite initially not liking each other AT ALL, Judy and Nick surprise us all and soon prove to be the perfect crime-fighting team. When they discover that members of the city’s predator species are “going savage” and reverting to their animalistic instincts, they have to overcome a sinister conspiracy and a whole bunch of they’re-just-animals-but-you’ll-probably-relate-this-to-the-current-political-situation-in-America prejudices to save the day.

Disney isn’t re-inventing the wheel with this one. The lessons of Zootopia are your typical kid lessons: believe in your dreams, be yourself, don’t judge others. It’s a safe, middle-of-the-road film that avoids major missteps, but lacks any truly memorable moments. The dearth of real challenges or surprises somehow works and makes for a comfortable, easy watch.

Everything you’d expect is in here. There’s the “Depressing First Day” sequence, where Judy realizes that life in the big city isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There’s the “Turn In Your Badge” scene, where the Chief gives the upstart young officer 48 hours to solve the case. There’s the “Heart of Gold” scene where the snarky Nick reveals that he’s just a big softie after all. There’s the “Tragic Misunderstanding” scene where just when you think our leads are going to get together, they have a falling out.

None of these things are bad. I’m just saying Zootopia isn’t Aladdin or The Lion King – it’s not even Frozen. It isn’t a generation-defining animated movie, but it’s good vanilla entertainment. And, as an unexpected plus, there are actually moments that won’t go over the heads of every kid in the audience!