Movie Review: Skyscraper

Let’s say you are a villain – or a secondary one – in a summer Hollywood blockbuster like “Skyscraper.” Your prey (Dwayne Johnson) has just decided that he’s going to scale the biggest building in the world (with one artificial limb) that’s currently on fire to save his wife (Neve Campbell) and two young children. You’re fully armed, but he only has a roll of duct tape with which to aid him in his quest. Would you a) give him permission to virtually commit suicide, or b) go after him at once? Well, obviously it’s going to be b) thus ensuring the kind of “action packed” movie that is as popular around this time of year as fireworks and cookouts. When Dwayne finally arrives, Neve asks him how he got there. “It’s a long story,” he replies. And it is – at least two hours by cinematic measurements.

In “Skyscraper,” Dwayne plays a security systems analyst, who used to be a hostage negotiator, who was badly injured in one situation. However, it led to him meeting and marrying Neve, who is some kind of super-surgeon veteran with various other skills that come in handy throughout the movie. When the movie starts, Dwayne is prepping for a meeting in Tokyo with the creator of “The Pearl,” (Chin Han), the world’s largest skyscraper which has self-contained communities and is totally computer-controlled. Though the meeting goes well, things quickly start to deteriorate when afterwards Dwayne’s “friend” (Pablo Schreiber) reveals himself to have a shady side, and Neve, upon returning from a trip with her children, runs into suspiciously accented men hanging around their apartment floor (which is supposed to be empty except for them). Sure enough, they proceed to start a fire which soon engulfs the entire floor. As it turns out later, Chin possesses a drive that the bad guy (Roland Moller) is desperate to “retrieve” because Chin is using it as blackmail of a sorts.

Meanwhile a giant group of onlookers gather at the site (many filming the entire thing), to cheer on Dwayne’s bravery. The kids are very brave, too, at one point, the little boy, faced with the prospect of having to cling to Neve and go crashing down through the flames in an elevator acknowledges, “I’m scared” but otherwise doesn’t protest. Neve also turns out to have save-the-day skills, whether it’s speaking Japanese, fighting off a demented bad girl (whose role in the whole thing I never figured out), or getting the fire under control via computerized remote control. (If “Skyscraper” had a motto, it might be, “Never underestimate the power of rebooting.”) This movie has a high body count, or maybe it just seems that way because virtually every minute, someone is fighting for his or her life.  Overall, “Skyscraper” is pure mindless summer movie entertainment, although it left me a tad worn out, just like the characters involved. “What are you going to do next?” Dwayne inquires of Chin at one point. “Rebuild,” he wearily replies. One hopes Dwayne’s plans include some therapy for his shell-shocked family, as well.


Course Catalog for Superheroes: A Sample

“In the Nick of Time:” Part of being an effective superhero is mastering the art of getting away from the villain in an effective but still impressive manner. While multiple kinds of vehicles may be employed while being pursued by the bad guys, the car still remains what many would consider the most reliable one. More durable than a bicycle, less complex than a plane, train or speedboat, the humble auto will be our vehicle of choice to practice leaving/arriving at the scene of the crime. We will learn such skills as hot wiring (or instinctively knowing which car in the lot still has its keys in the ignition), climbing in and out of the car while it is in motion, using random items inside to stave off our attackers, navigating one way streets and narrow alleyways, hydroplaning safely after colliding with a fire hydrant, and how to avoid hitting panicky pedestrians who are scrambling to get out of the way. For the final exam, you will complete both a written exam and road test by a licensed superhero driver, and upon successful passing, you will receive certification.

Vehicles provided, but there will be a fee, as well as legal forms to sign upon registration.

Soliloquizing 101: A famous Shakespeare character once said, “To be or not to be/ That is the question.” While rescuing the kidnapped, busting out the imprisoned, and killing the person responsible is always satisfying, it’s equally important to give a meaningful speech right before this occurs. We will examine famous speeches given by superheroes throughout the ages and analyze them for their tone, pacing, wit and use of trademark phrases. We will also discuss the importance of timing, as a common mistake even with seasoned superheroes is to talk so much that the villain is able to regain his/her bearings and manage to once again escape. For the final exam, students will prepare a ten to 15 minute soliloquy which will be rated by the class and the instructor.

When All Else Fails: Sometimes despite our best efforts in the heat of the battle, our weapons get lost or broken, our allies don’t show up when we most need them, and our super-suits malfunction. Then it is up to us to depend solely on our own ingenuity when it comes to dueling the villain. Fortunately, many ordinary items both indoors and outdoors can come in handy and provide adequate protection, at least for awhile. Many everyday objects turned into weapons can also retain some effectiveness, even after they are partially damaged. We will be viewing an array of action/thriller films in order to pick up pointers. For the final, each student will be required to give a practical demonstration for approximately a half hour, after being blindfolded and led to an unfamiliar location.

The Great Escape: It’s a rare superhero who hasn’t found themselves at least once trussed like a Thanksgiving turkey or imprisoned in a seemingly inescapable fortress at the mercy of one’s nemesis. Fortunately, though, there are time tested methods of getting out of such jams. We will study such escape artists as Houdini, as well as other famous superheroes in order to increase the odds that we will be able to get away in such a situation. We will also examine the role of disguise as an aid to getting away, as well as the advantage of bonding with the minions of one’s nemesis. A practical exam will be administered at the end of the course.

Hacking 101: While it’s possible to find a hacker who can provide key assistance on the spur of the moment, doing so when the fate of the world is at stake and you’re on the run can be a challenge. In this course, we’ll learn tips and tricks for gaining access to other people’s secure systems in the least amount of time possible. Although most villains have the mental capacity of a Wheat Thin when it comes to protecting their personal data, there are still some who have working brain cells and enact barriers more complex than having “password” or their birthday plus their dog’s name be their ultimate protection. The final will consist of a practical exam in which each student will have a limited amount of time to access and retrieve data.

Gymnastics 101, i.e. “Flips and Dips.”: Agility is a necessary quality for a superhero. In this course, we will learn maneuvers that will best help us dangle out of buildings, scale cliffs, and navigate grids safely while decreasing the odds of pulling a muscle, breaking a bone or winding up dead. For the final, there will be a practical field exam.

Movie Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp

Being a superhero (as every superhero movie since the dawn of time solemnly reminds us) is tough, but sometimes it’s even tougher being the child of one. This was true for Harry Potter, whose mother made the ultimate sacrifice: herself to protect him from Voldemort, and it’s true for Hope (played as an adult by Evangeline Lilly) who, as a little girl, lost her mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) after she sacrificed herself to save her husband (Michael Douglas) and wound up trapped in the Sub-Atomic realm. Superhero-ing is also tough for Paul Rudd who, after breaking a law of superhero-ing in Germany, is under house arrest, which makes it difficult to entertain his adoring little girl (Abby Ryder Fortson). Luckily, in “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” the heroes are able to transcend their physical and emotional barriers to save the day.

When the movie starts, Paul is struggling to entertain himself, so among other things, he takes an online magic course (that will come in handy for more than just entertaining his daughter). But when he has a “really weird” dream, he does what everyone who has a weird dream does, tell someone which of course, reduces it to sounding stupid. However, Michael decides it’s worth looking into since it involves Michelle. So after an arrangement by Evangeline which involves a giant animatronic ant impersonating Paul in his house, Paul heads off to help Evangeline and Michael make another attempt at rescuing Michelle. Soon all sorts of people are involved including Paul’s McJob colleague (Michael Pena taking his role as comic relief seriously), a villain (Walton Goggins), and Lawrence Fishburne. Their quest will involve magic suits whose functions sometimes malfunction just when they’re needed most, super-powered cars, a cell with a Morrissey ringtone, a whale watch, and truth serum. It goes on a little too long, but at least does what all astute movies of this genre do and recognizes the absurdity of many of the set-ups. When a bad guy escapes in the nick of time, smugly waving from a tourist boat, Paul marvels at the speed at which the villain manages to buy a ticket.

In between lab work and battling the bad guys, the heroes of “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” do a lot of pondering about the role of ethics in being a superhero. It got me thinking, too – for example, why – except perhaps for Spider-Man – do we never see much concern for the trauma innocent people must experience after being placed in the path of a creature who alternately shrinks and swells, not to mention stomps craters into the city’s infrastructure that must take significant time to repair? Why do superheroes never reimburse anyone for the damage they cause during car chases, including the poor guy with the sidewalk fruit cart? And why do they never replace the items they commandeer as spur-of-the-moment weapons, like the kitchen chef’s entire inventory of chopping knives? Surely, those things must be expensive. But “Ant-Man and the Wasp” ignores those questions in favor of the more pressing ones like what the best course of action is if your child wants to grow up to be a superhero just like you. Hopefully, you would tell her that saving the world is a worthy profession, but a little consideration for those hapless souls in your path is nice, too.

A Look Back: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

At first blush, sequels, regardless of medium, can seem much easier to compose than the original – after all, the main characters have been established, including the flaws and strengths with which they must overcome/rely upon to emerge the victor in their various conflicts. Their audience is already familiar with their trademark phrases, tics and, most importantly, if the main character is a teen girl in a fantasy/sci-fi/dystopian world, her two love interests. Any implausibility in plot, such as why a human girl would choose to fixate on a guy who is actually a vampire (old enough to be her great-great-great-great-grandfather) and one who’s a werewolf (who might go beyond French kissing) has been ironed out or at least does not matter to the audience. On the downside, however, if there’s to be a trilogy, the hero needs to have at least a few unresolved problems by the end of the book – in other words, the world can be a step closer to being saved – but not completely.

In the first “Hunger Games” film (based on the bestselling trilogy by Suzanne Collins), the heroine (Jennifer Lawrence) plays the daughter of a single mom who is the primary breadwinner in District 12, where the primary job is coal mining. Thanks to Jennifer’s skill at (illicit) hunting, her family manages, until her younger sister (Willow Shields) is chosen to compete in the titular games, in which two youths from each district are chosen by lottery to fight to the death in an elaborate contest in the “Capitol,” overseen by evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Though Jennifer manages to defeat the other contestants (many much better trained) and save the life of her fellow District 12 love interest (Josh Hutcherson), (although she may prefer broody childhood friend, Liam Hemsworth) they are about to pay a heavy price for faking a love affair during the Games. Now when “Catching Fire” opens, they’ve fooled the world (but not Donald) and are doomed – if not to death, then to having to follow up with an engagement. Life, as Matthew Broderick once memorably put it, sometimes moves pretty fast.

However, when Jennifer and Josh go on a mandated “Victory Tour” to the other districts, including the one of Jennifer’s former friend/contestant, they realize that they’ve set in motion a potential rebellion against the system. While the minor signs of this are promptly quashed, after Jennifer returns home, she receives a visit from Donald warning her that continuing to encourage this – not to mention refuse to marry Josh – will put her loved ones at risk for harm, too. Fast forward to the next lottery for the Games, only to learn that this is the super-special “Quarter Quell” consisting of all living “tributes.” Because the rules call for one boy and one girl, and Josh refuses to let their mentor (Woody Harrelson, now an alcoholic) compete, they’re in for round two. Not exactly a trip to Japan (see “Bad News Bears,” and “Karate Kid 2“) for a sequel setting.

A return trip to the Capitol gives the author a chance to introduce a fleet of new characters, some of whom like Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer, have actually been instructed to help Josh and Jennifer during the Games. There’s also Sam Claflin, who plays a Tribute from a seafaring district whose popularity with the Capitol is revealed to have a horrifying high price. You might also be wondering if the viewers following the Quell are okay with star-crossed lovers risking their lives once again – the answer is yes, but they’re not totally cold-hearted, after Jennifer reveals she is pregnant (though she isn’t), most aren’t thrilled at the prospect of her competing at all. However, compete they must. As it turns out, the uprising is much bigger and complex than Jennifer realizes, though as the Games proceed, with the water-bound arena revealed to be shaped like a grid, the challenge becomes identifying allies and helping each other escape. Surprisingly, Donald and his minions realize what is occurring and respond by destroying District 12. Unlike “The Neverending Story,” wishing it back in an upbeat montage isn’t an option, so the survivors take refuge in a bunker to wait for the third and final installment.

Catching Fire” is an engaging sequel, as far as sequels go, because while simply having the heroine compete again in the Games might initially seem like a safe choice to generate drama, it does have a different angle, and it does open the curtain further as to the evilness of the whole Games set-up. In the third installment “Mockingjay,” Jennifer and co. are clearly showing signs of post-traumatic stress, and the whole love triangle thing takes a backseat entirely. But that’s the price to pay when you’re a character in a dystopian sci-fi trilogy.


Oh, Hollywood: A Rant

Note: This refers to the trailer only, as the movie itself has yet to be released.

Last week, I went to see “Ocean’s 8,” which is an example of how true “equality” in the movie industry consists not of making sure high-powered male and female stars receive identical salaries but by taking a popular franchise and replacing the all-male cast with women. Personally, I think it’s a case of playing it safe – the industry typically stretches out franchises like someone serving their family turkey tetrazzini the weekend after Thanksgiving. Or perhaps it’s a struggle to come up with an wholly original action/suspense/thriller movie, regardless of the gender of the cast. Still, it seems like Hollywood is trying to acknowledge that women, too, have the ability to mastermind crimes, shoot guns, scale buildings in a single bound and kick ass. Nothing wrong with this – unless you just aren’t a fan of gratuitous violence on the big screen, period.

But sometimes it seems that when Hollywood makes a few strides in the right direction, it promptly takes four steps back.

At a certain point in the summer, the powers-that-be, confident that their blockbuster-to-be-released has been sufficiently advertised, allow the fall movies to start gathering buzz by releasing the trailers. Which is how I stumbled across the one for “A Star Is Born,” which at first looked like unremarkable fare: a singer biopic starring Bradley Cooper who appears to be playing a made-up, not a real-life musician. A look at the Internet Movie Database told me that he’s playing a washed-up alcoholic musician, but who cares? He looks good in a beard, grips a mic convincingly, and can even act when acting is called for. Since it doesn’t appear to be Oscar-bait that works for me.

But, as it turns out, Bradley is not alone center stage – he has a co-star, none other than Lady Gaga, who also plays (what else?) a musician. As it turns out she, too, is struggling. She has a secret! Which is keeping her from achieving her dreams!

So what horrible secret is this perfectly ordinary-looking woman hiding that has crippled her to the point of agonizing low self-esteem?

She’s – gasp! – unattractive! People have told her so! Repeatedly! Sure she can sing like an angel, but well, there’s that problem of – what exactly? The stringy brown hair? Any decent stylist could fix that in an hour or so, even for a price that wouldn’t require selling one’s organs on the black market. As for the rest, there’s nothing an upgrade in wardrobe and some makeup couldn’t take care of.

As for stage fright and shyness, some judiciously prescribed medication and a little therapy might be just the ticket to help with that. But that’s not as romantic as having Bradley Cooper become your savior.

“A Star Is Born,” turns out to be a remake that was already remade. The first starred Judy Garland, the second, Barbra Streisand. Now (see Struggle with originality) the third time may work like a charm at the box office. Nothing like a makeover story – look at how “Cinderella” has endured.

A rather forgettable comedy, “Sorority Boys” featured a trio of college guys who, after being kicked out of their fraternity, don drag so that they can join a sorority and stay on campus. The “ugly” sorority members included Heather Matarazzo (long past her “Welcome to the Dollhouse” phase), who the late Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, should be picketed by women who were actually plain.

He had a point. When it comes to judging physical beauty, Hollywood doesn’t just miss the boat, it belly-flops into the water.

“Unattractive” characters still resemble people you’d pass on the street (without gaping at in horror).

But “attractive” characters are often played by actresses (and actors) who have surgically altered their faces to the point of no return. Who hasn’t had the experience of watching a new movie featuring a lead of whom you’re a fan, who has managed – since their last film – to have enough plastic surgery so that their face appears permanently frozen into a mask? As the movie proceeds, whether they’re happy, sad or in-between due to the events unfolding is anyone’s guess.

The first is ridiculous, the second unhealthy.

Here’s a suggestion for Hollywood. When a woman character gets an on-screen makeover, stick to what I dub the Hermione Granger Rule. Unless she’s been in a cult or a coma, acknowledge that she’s probably savvy enough to know what to do to look more attractive already if she chooses. After all, movies are supposed to mimic the real world, and in those, both genders are bombarded with tips from the media on how to become “better” from an early age.

Let her fall in love, if you want, but let her ultimately be the mistress of her makeover – and her destiny, too.

Thank you.

Movie Review: Ocean’s 8

We’ve all heard the adage: “Money can’t buy happiness,” at least once in our lives; how we respond may depend on our net worth at the time. Most of us would probably think something along the lines of, “Yes, but at least we’d be comfortably unhappy if we were rich enough to go around saying things like that.” However, actual research has been done and found that there’s a set point with wealth. Simply adding more does not, in fact, guarantee an increase in one’s contentment; people continue to feel like they don’t have quite enough to be “comfortable.” The plot of “Ocean’s 8,” revolves around the theft of a $150 million dollar Cartier diamond necklace which, if successful, will result in wealth for the eight women conspirators. But none of them appear to have that unhappy a lot in life, and as it turns out, the ringleader (Sandra Bullock) is doing it for another reason altogether, as the viewer eventually learns.

When “Ocean’s 8” begins, Sandra’s character is busy humbly assuring the parole board guy that she’s been rehabilitated and once out of prison, will be content to lead a simple life. It’s a load of excrement, of course, no sooner is she released than she goes on a shoplifting spree: makeup, jewelry, clothes, a free hotel room, etc. This is because she’s the infamous Debbie Ocean (sister of the late George Clooney of the “Ocean” franchise) who has spent her time behind bars constructively planning the mother of all heists. After she reunites with her partner (Cate Blanchett), she wastes no time enlisting old and new partners to help her steal the aforementioned necklace – which will decorate the neck of Anne Hathaway, who is playing an actress, the night of the Met Gala. The Met will be full to the brim with celebrities which turns out to mean that pretty much no one will have their eyes on the actual art itself. Later, we’ll discover why this matters, too.

The cast includes Helena Bonham Carter, who returns to playing an eccentric, here the wacky fashion designer whose role is to literally get close to Anne. Others are Rihanna, Awkwafina, Mindy Kaling and Sarah Paulson (a fencer turned suburban housewife, who blames the multiple equipment stacked neatly in her basement on eBay to her spouse). The heist itself requires a lot of computer hacking, disguises, phony accents and subterfuge. Oh, and though Sandra claims that she does such things because “it’s in the family,” and she’s good at it, there’s another reason involving her former double-crossing partner (Richard Becker). So it’s complicated. “Can’t we just go to the gala?” one of the women asks at one point, but no, they have work to do.

There are a couple of hairy moments during the heist, and then there’s act 2, where detectives try to figure out just where the heck the real necklace has disappeared to. There’s a happy ending for all involved, except Sandra’s louse of an ex-partner, and except for a woman who kept falling asleep in my row, my audience seemed to enjoy it. After some thought, I decided she must have been narcoleptic or had a late night because while “Ocean’s 8,” isn’t a laugh a minute, it’s still an engaging enough summer flick.

Movie Review: Thoroughbreds

In Martha Stout’s “The Sociopath Next Door,” she points out to the reader that if they happen to be sitting there concerned that they might possibly be a sociopath, they aren’t. Actual sociopaths, she writes, may have some understanding of what they are, but it’s not going to distress them – because that would require the capacity to feel genuine emotion. So since that’s settled, what are the markers? None that you can tell from simply looking at someone, but if for example, they lie repeatedly, that’s a good indication.

Thoroughbreds,” features two upper-crust Connecticut teen girls, one of whom (Olivia Cooke) confides to her former childhood friend (Anya Taylor-Joy, an eerily Neve Campbell clone) that she doesn’t feel anything, but she can compensate – and has been doing so her whole life. In one scene as they watch a movie, Olivia instructs Anya in the art of crying on cue. As for Anya, her domineering stepfather (Paul Sparks) informs her in one scene that she treats everyone in her orbit as if they’re her personal staff, and even Olivia concludes that empathy isn’t her strong point. Unlike the two Australian teens (Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet) in “Heavenly Creatures,” another movie about friends who team up to commit murder when they’re threatened with separation, these two are mostly ice cool. While Melanie’s and Kate’s passion for each other causes them to imagine an elaborate fantasy world of giant clay figures, Olivia and Anya rekindle their friendship solidly in their cushy world of private schools, parties and estates that come complete with tennis courts, giant outdoor chess games and waterfront views. But there are cracks that soon become apparent: Anya has been expelled from Andover due to cheating and is in danger of being set to a boarding school for problem girls. As for Olivia, her scandal has something to do with her horse – it’s gruesome, but fortunately is only described not shown.

When the girls first reconnect, they are tentative, but eventually Anya confides how much she hates her stepfather, and Olivia suggests she kill him. Anya doesn’t want to go quite that far, but then changes her mind. The girls enlist Anton Yelchin, a drug dealer with ambitions bigger than his intellect, who is on probation for sexual assault. Unlike “Heavenly Creatures,” the true story behind the crime is not (as far as I know) based on a real scandal. It is, however, a typical indie with the story told in “chapters.” There’s also the obligatory clichéd scene where a character goes underwater, and sees how long she can stay there, as well as a complete lack of indoor lighting, even in day time because – thriller. While I assume directors do this to up the creepiness factor, all it does for me is draw attention to the fact that they’re trying overly hard to be creepy. But in movies luckily no one ever barks their shins, or has trouble reading things, or falls down the stairs unless, of course, they’re pushed. That doesn’t happen in “Thoroughbreds,” but the crime itself is grisly and drawn out. The ending just made me go, “Huh?” but the movie does disprove the nursery rhyme that little girls “are made with sugar and spice and all things nice.” Some are borderline sociopaths. And some are just really troubled.