Movie review: Replicas

•January 15, 2019 • Leave a Comment

It is one of my favorite movie times of the year: the January dumping ground, where studios offload projects that they don’t know what do with and hope to scrounge up a few bucks from desperate souls tired of awards bait and holiday blockbusters.

It is a perfect place for a film like REPLICAS, which somehow got dropped into 2000+ theaters despite bursting at the seams with laugh-out-loud special effects, incoherent plotting and classic Keanu Reeves ennui. I know we are living in a mini-Keanu renaissance, and I’m all for it, but this is a reminder why Reeves’ career has contained several valleys over the years.

Aside from the January date, this film had trouble written all over it from the start. The smattering of commercials that appeared leading up to its release contained a credit reel that listed the names of 30 producers attached. Thirty producers! 3-0! With that many cooks in the kitchen trying to make chicken salad out of chicken shit, there’s bound to be some issues. That may explain why the film’s first trailer appeared way back in October 2017 – an eternity for a non-Marvel movie.

And then there’s the Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures issue. Props to Byron Allen for evolving from “That’s Incredible” co-host to mini-mogul, but the ES label doesn’t exactly scream quality, from its seemingly fake name to the cheesy fanfare when the title card came up on the screen.

Reeves plays neuroscientist William Foster, who, at the start of the film, is working on a project that attempts to transfer the mind of the recently deceased into synthetic bodies. The initial 10 minutes is filled with hilarious attempts by Reeves and his assistant Ed (Thomas Middleditch) to speak in “scientific” jargon while waving their hands around to do fancy computer stuff. Things get even funnier when the robot they are using, which was apparently created by a special effects team with a 2004 Mac, goes haywire, leading to further awkward acting attempts.

Reeves is confronted with the moral and ethical quandaries of his work at home by his understanding and hot wife Nora (Alice Eve). Last time I checked, neuroscientists aren’t usually married to buxom model types, but maybe things have changed. Anyway, immediately after that conversation, William’s wife and three children are killed in a horrible auto accident that could have easily been prevented in several different ways.

After spending more time neatly arranging the bodies of his family than actually grieving, William decides to use his tech to create clones of his loved ones, dragging in poor Ed for this unbelievably insensitive and highly illegal scheme. William even makes Ed dispose of the bodies! C’mon, man, that ain’t cool at all.

Since it takes 17 days for the replicas to come out of their pods, we get to see a lot of shots of status bars slowly filling up and William making poor excuses for the sudden disappearance of his wife and kids. Oh yeah, since there are only three cloning pods, he decides that his youngest daughter is SOL and erases all traces of her being. (Couldn’t he have just re-used a pod later for that?)

Of course, bringing back people from the dead never goes well, but aside from a few personality quirks and bad dreams, nothing that horrible happens to the newly replicated Fosters. In fact, when Eve comes out of the pod, she’s impeccably made up, with not a hair out of place and her arms perfectly positioned to keep that PG-13 rating. No, the drama comes from William’s boss Jones (John Ortiz) realizing what his employee has done and wanting to use the tech for his company’s nefarious purposes.

Did I mention this movie is set in Puerto Rico? There doesn’t seem to be any discernible reason for that other than the aforementioned 30 producers surely received a tax break for filming there. Will and his family go on the run, but are quickly captured thanks to a bit of duplicity you can see from a mile away, forcing him to use his tech to create another (surprise) replica to save the day.

A movie with this premise could dig into all sorts of interesting theories, but writer Chad St. John and director Jeffrey Nachmanoff seem content with skimming the surface and trying to gotcha! us with a ending that only works if you haven’t seen the Ryan Reynolds dud “Self/Less” before.

Reeves is on auto-pilot for most of the movie, letting his stubble do the work. Several times, people mention how bad William looks in the aftermath of the unknown accident, but to be honest, he looks exactly the same as he did in the opening scenes, when he’s allegedly at his best. Middleditch actually comes out of this as the most developed character, asking the kind of questions all of us would in this kind of situation.

Make no mistake, “Replicas” is a bad movie. But there’s enough unintentional humor and sci-fil gobbledegook that, when it begins its inevitable run on TNT, you can stop and watch without feeling too much shame.

Movie review: Den of Thieves

•January 23, 2018 • Leave a Comment

I have a confession to make: I’m secretly a Gerard Butler fan. Yes, the guy is approaching Cage-levels of bad taste in his projects and he looks like the older brother of former Pirates reliever Jason Grilli, but somehow, I wind up watching his movies and thinking, “That wasn’t too bad.” (Except that weird one where Butler and a bunch of white people cosplay as ancient Egyptians – even I have to draw the line somewhere.)

So yeah, I was excited to see DEN OF THIEVES even though the trailers practically screamed, “WE ARE A B-MOVIE KNOCKOFF OF HEAT, PLEASE WATCH!” and the January release date portended disaster. And make no mistake, “Den” is clearly a ripoff of “Heat,” which IMHO, is one of the greatest films of all time. But, instead of hating it for that reason, I was able to grudgingly appreciate its pleathery, diet-flavored charms, especially since it also apes “The Usual Suspects” in its finale.

Butler, in all his sweaty and unshaven glory, stars as Big Nick, the slovenly leader of a crew of cops that the movie would like us to believe is bad-ass, but actually winds up serving as a guide as to why people distrust cops in the first place. Nick and boys act without impunity, and to be honest, since we never see them deal with any other cases besides this one, which they have struggled to solve for 10 years, don’t seem to be very good at their jobs. (Several times during the movie, people remark on how bad Nick smells or looks, which gives you an idea of what we’re talking about here.)

On the other side is Merriman (Pablo Schreiber), the meticulous leader of an efficient crew of bank robbers whose opening-scene heist goes south, leading to a bloody shootout with the local police. Merriman and his boys, including right-hand men Enson (50 Cent) and Bosco (Evan Jones) are the the military-trained specialists, while Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is the wheelman. Their latest plot revolves around stealing $30 million in dead money from the Federal Reserve, a bank that has never been robbed.

Co-writer and director Christian Gudegast follows the “Heat” formula to a tee, showing us the family lives of both cops and crooks, while setting up the epic nature of the heist. He even gives us a version of the Pacino-DeNiro diner scene, as Nick and Merriman have a wordless showdown at a gun range. And like the better, older film, “Den” will have you rooting for the bad guys, who have put so much thought and care into their plans only to have them seemingly foiled by fly-by-night, lucky police work.

Gudegast is pushing his limits by asking viewers to sit through 140 minutes, but the film winds up strangely compelling, with riveting shootouts and some genuine tense moments as the robbery unfolds. And, to the film’s credit, I didn’t see the ending coming.

Butler does a good job with the part, and feels more believable as a burnt-out, semi-dirty cop who smells like alcohol than as an uber-awesome Secret Service agent or a romantic interest for Katherine Heigl. I don’t know much about Schreiber (yes, I know, “Wire” fans), but he’s appropriately menacing and calculating as the bad guy. Jackson continues to impress, with a long career in Hollywood on the horizon.

Despite the odds, “Den of Thieves” is a better-than-average thriller. It won’t make you forget “Heat,” but as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

CD review: A Better Tomorrow

•December 3, 2014 • Leave a Comment

wu-tangAll good things must come to an end. That’s the lesson gleaned after a few spins of A BETTER TOMORROW, the latest, and long-awaited CD from the Wu-Tang Clan.

It’s been seven years since 8 Diagrams and 13 since Iron Flag and I’m not about to let revisionist history get in the way and tell you those are landmark albums. But for their flaws, there was always promise on the horizon – that the Clan would truly come together, that RZA would find the renewed creative spark for his original art form, that the ravages of time and culture would spare these emcees who changed the game in bone-shattering ways.

Alas, that is not the case.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger Wu-Tang apologist than myself – I have all four U-God albums for God’s sake – and so this is a crushing, yet inevitable, disappointment. And to be honest, I have to place most of the blame at the Abbot, the man who has fought so valiantly to keep the group from splintering. But sometimes, there’s something to be said when everyone appears to be against one, as was the case with the Wu members, primarily Raekwon, against RZA.

Evolution is a necessary element in life, as well as music, but when your fanbase is 35-and-older rap heads bemoaning the Bobby Shmurda-ization of the genre and 22-year-olds wishing they grew up in the Golden Age, why not give the people what they want? RZA, the master of dusty soul breaks and grimy samples, willfully ignores this on A Better Tommorrow, instead serving up live-instrument based sonic backgrounds that prove an ill-fitting glove for the hands of the Wu.

This record also houses the most unfortunate song the Clan has ever recorded, and they’ve unleashed some clunkers, from “Black Shampoo” to “Conditioner” to “Starter.” But, oh god, where to begin with “Miracle,” a treacly piece of junk that physically left me cringing as I listened to it? Is it the horrible, “sensitive” music, complete with tinkling pianos and laughable hook? Or the verses from rappers who should know much, much better? Or the fact that it shares a title with an Insane Clown Posse song? Whatever the reason, I question what else was recorded if this made the cut.

But it is symptomatic of RZA’s shepherding of this project. He claims he will lose $500,000 on the record, but I don’t see where it adds up, unless you are talking about airline flights for his wayward group. The entire production feels lazy, whether its from the phoned-in hooks or recycled songs like “Preacher’s Daughter,” “A Better Tomorrow” or “Wu-Tang Reunion” (the latter two of which I like, but still).

As for the MCs, these guys are professionals, so they do their jobs to a certain extent. Method Man delivers on all his verses and Raekwon, begrudgingly, drops heat as well. Ghostface is Ghostface and even U-God steps up. But Inspectah Deck seems content to toss off pop-culture references (from The Mentalist to Big Bang Theory to Breaking Bad, it seems Rebel INS is a major TV fan) and GZA sounds like a 50-year-old science professor, shoehorning in his theories in 16 bars.

Lest you think I completely hate the record, I don’t. “Ruckus in B Minor” is a strong album opener, with the kind of experimental RZA production I can get behind. “Crushed Egos” has a solid beat and nice verses from Rae and RZA (although the hook is shaky). And the aforementioned title track is a smoothed-out song that’s carried by its Harold Melvin sample. But those bright spots don’t take away from the spirit-crushing overall picture.

Look, individually some of the Wu are in fine shape. Ghostface continues to make critically acclaimed music with producers who challenge his fierce storytelling ability. I expect his 36 Seasons record, coming next week, to continue his impressive track record. I just saw Method Man in concert two weeks ago – the guy still has the energy and enthusiasm he had 20 years ago, and he is always good for a killer guest verse. Raekwon put out two fantastic records, Only Built for Cuban Linx 2 and Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, in the past few years. Inspectah Deck was shockingly great on the Czarface project.

But it hurts to see the group reduced to this – ill-advised nostalgia and for the sake of what? You can’t expect they’ll be able to tour off this record, what with all the sniping and backbiting and “Miracle”-level songs? The ship seems to have sailed. We’ll always have the Wu, and I hope they don’t go out with this as their final group project, but maybe it’s for the best.

Movie review: Oblivion

•May 1, 2013 • 2 Comments

Oblivion-2013-Movie-Poster1-600x876About midway through OBLIVION, I was slightly surprised, thinking that I wasn’t going to see Tom Cruise do what he does best – run very, very fast, very, very earnestly – seeing as how there were spaceships and other sci-fi elements that precluded him breaking into a sprint.

Nearly five minutes after that thought, however, Cruise took off sprinting across the desert, signaling that while the film has some unique elements, at its core, it’s still a Tom Cruise Movie, complete with all the standard beats one comes to expect from such a production. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily.

As one of the few people who unabashedly loves “Tron: Legacy,” I was on board with whatever director Joseph Kosinski was going to bring to the table with this, his second film, and the visuals do not disappoint, especially in the crystal-clear IMAX format. Like “Tron,” your mileage may vary with the creaky story.

Cruise stars as Jack Harper, who helpfully informs us at the beginning of the film that Earth fell victim in 2017 to a roving group of aliens called the Scavs, who, while during the war, destroyed the moon and wreaked havoc on our planet, forcing the population to flee to Titan, or a holding facility that looms over the planet called the Tet.

Sixty years later, working with his partner/lover Victoria (an eerily effective Andrea Riseborough), Jack keeps watch on the planet, repairing monitor drones and patrolling the ruins of the world under the guidance of absentee boss Sandy (Melissa Leo).

It’s a lonely life, one that Jack goes through with a great deal of wistfulness. Even though his memory was wiped, he still has flashes of a mysterious woman who appears in his dreams from a life that appears to be his. On his patrols, Jack collects mementos from the former planet, using them to help populate a homey lakehouse/man cave that’s a far cry from his spacey digs high above the clouds.

Atmospheric, stunning, creepy and backed by a moody score from M83, the early part of the film is the strongest, with Cruise jettisoning some of his action star tendencies for a portrait of an everyday man with, literally, the world at his hands. I would have loved to seen the film explore this angle further, with Jack and Victoria coming to terms with their own madness and frustration with being stuck in this thankless mission on an alien planet.

But $150 million movies don’t work like that.  Continue reading ‘Movie review: Oblivion’

Movie review: Spring Breakers

•April 11, 2013 • Leave a Comment

spring breakersIt’s almost impossible to fathom that in 2013, you can walk into a multiplex theater in well-heeled suburbia, as I did, and see the latest film from Harmony Korine amid the big-budget blockbusters and romantic comedies of the day.

After all, Korine was once the enfant terrible behind a series of notorious, button-pushing films, from “Kids” to “Gummo” to “Trash Humpers,” that made him one of the outre young directors. However, his relative notoriety began to fade as his later films were met with diminishing returns, making it seem as if he might be forever consigned to the extreme corner of indie cinema.

But you can never underestimate the power of babes in bikinis in resuscitating a career.

Stuffed to the gills with sex, drugs,violence and trashy characters – all Korine trademarks – but enhanced with a glossy sheen, star power and a healthy budget, SPRING BREAKERS is the most accessible film the director has ever made, so it’s no surprise that it received a major marketing push and wound up at your local AMC.

Now, those expecting any kind of straightforward story from the previews might be in for a bit of a bait-and-switch, although Korine keeps some of his more avant-garde tendencies in check with this tale of a quartet of girls who find much more than they bargained for when they travel to Florida to participate in the debaucherous rite of passage known as spring break.

Good girl Faith (former Bieb paramour and Disney queen Selena Gomez) joins her very bad-girl friends Candy (former Disney queen Vanessa Hudgens), Cotty (Rachel Korine) and Brit (Ashley Benson) on a trip to St. Pete that happens only after the latter three girls rob a restaurant to get the money they need to fund the journey. Continue reading ‘Movie review: Spring Breakers’

Movie review: Movie 43

•February 6, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Movie-43_510x756Hyperbole is a weapon wielded recklessly during our pop culture discourse. Not a month goes by before something is labeled “the most awful thing of all-time” or “the greatest song evar!,” which truly devalues the best and worst of our myriad entertainment offerings.

The most recent victim of this tendency to leap to wild, unjustified conclusions is Movie 43, a sketch comedy masterminded by Peter Farrelly and starring a host of familiar faces, all of whom distanced themselves from the product – which took four years to complete – upon its release last month.

This, of course, brought out the jackals, who were quick to pounce. Review after review gleefully eviscerated the flick. Stories were written about how Farrelly coerced poor stars like Halle Berry and Richard Gere into appearing. Suddenly discerning audiences stayed away in droves. And just like that, Movie 43 seemingly had snatched the title of “the worst movie ever.” Richard Roeper called it “the Citizen Kane of awful.”

The inanity of that statement is mind-boggling. Can a hit-or-miss sketch comedy be worse than R.O.T.O.R.? Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li? New Year’s Eve? Miss March? That movie where Madonna has a one-night stand with her gay friend and they raise a baby?

Of course not. Movie 43 is by no means a great movie or even a good one. But the fact that there are a couple of laughs in there automatically disqualifies it from any discussions of the worst film ever made. No, it’s only gaining this much publicity because of the cast involved and the tortured process it took to bring it to the screen.

There’s not much of a connective tissue between the sketches, other than a mentally unstable producer (Dennis Quaid, wearing a god-awful wig) pitching his movie of crude shorts to a stuffy studio exec (Greg Kinnear), which forces the film to cut back and forth between them after nearly every skit – not the smoothest way to set up a film like this.

The tone is set from the start, as the first “story” features Kate Winslet as a woman set up on a blind date with a guy played by Hugh Jackman. Sounds good, right? Except for the fact that the guy has a pair of testicles dangling just under his chin, which seems to faze no one except the flustered date. Yes, this is a tasteless gag, especially as the balls are lifted, dipped and dangled, all to the horror of Winslet’s character. But I guess I’m a tasteless kind of guy, because that’s a funny bit, especially given the short and sweet nature of the skit.

(Winslet and Jackman were the first to sign up for the film, and they shot their scenes four years ago – at some point, they were probably hoping Farrelly forgot about the film and this would never see the light of day.)

Some of the sketches work better than others, as is usually the case with this kind of movie. Highlights include real-life married couple Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts being 100% authentic in homeschooling their son, and Terrence Howard’s motivational speech to his young basketball charges amid 1960s era racism. I didn’t even mind the one in which Anna Faris asks Chris Pratt to poop on her as a sign on love, because, let’s face it, poop is funny.

I wasn’t too keen on the angry leprechaun skit (directed by Brett Ratner) or the iBabe sketch, both of which were a little too straightforward in their crudeness. But I give everyone credit (even if they don’t want to take it at this point) for being game and playing against type in these off-the-wall scenarios.

So no, Movie 43 is not the affront to cinema I went in expecting – it’s just a mediocre movie undeserving of the critical brickbats its been receiving. We’ll just have to wait til next month for the next-worst thing.

CD review: Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors

•December 13, 2012 • Leave a Comment

big boiRemember when we thought that Andre 3000 was the outre member of OutKast? Recently, however, he’s been spending his shrinking musical output on 16-bar guest spots for the likes of A-list rappers like Rick Ross and Young Jeezy.

Meanwhile, Big Boi, previously considered to be the traditional boom-bap member of the duo, seemingly has been getting in touch with his alt-side, apparently spending all his free time studying Pitchfork for obscure indie artists.

The result of this newfound musical freedom is Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, Big Boi’s sprawling, messy, sonically diverse, rambling and thrilling new CD – a 66-minute mind through the mind of Daddy Fat Sacks, who, by virtue of this musical odyssey, is a much more complex artist than we ever thought.

“If ya’ll don’t know me by know, y’all ain’t never gonna know me,” he says on the album-opening “Ascending,” and yes, perhaps we don’t know as much as we thought about Big Boi.

While half of the album sounds like an extension of the underrated “Sir Lucious Leftfoot,” the other half is what the soundtrack of “Drive” might be if it were set in the ATL. I’m not sure that it all works as a cohesive album, but if you approach each song separately, it’s a spectacular collection of work from an artist unafraid to cross musical borders or push the limits on those with which he’s familiar.

I’ve never heard of Phantogram, Little Dragon, Wavves or any of the other indie artists that Big Boi is working with here, but the collaborations are pitch perfect, blending rapid-fire verses with lush, electro-sounding rock backgrounds.

Who else today could tackle the thumping “In The A,” a hardcore slice of braggadocio with T.I. and Ludacris, and then shift to “CPU,” a synthy, dreamy collabo with Phantogram that is a complete 180 from what you’ve just heard? Big Boi moves effortlessly across genres here, a testament to his talent and appreciation of the musicians he’s working with.

OutKast of course, has traversed non-traditional rap avenues during its career – one of the all-time great Kast songs is “Liberation,” a tender, nine-minute jam  buoyed by Erykah Badu’s sweet choruses – and Big Boi continues the tradition here with “Descending,” a funky, pensive ode to his family that brings to mind the sonically similar “Toilet Tisha” from Stankonia.

Big Boi has said in interviews that he’s nine-to-10 songs deep into his next album, and if it’s anywhere as visionary and challenging as this release, I eagerly look forward to it.