Now on Blu-Ray: Under the Skin a Keen Outsider’s Look at Human Condition

Blu-Ray Cover Art for UNDER THE SKIN, courtesy Mongrel Media, 2014
Blu-Ray Cover Art for UNDER THE SKIN, courtesy Mongrel Media, 2014

 

Review by Dominic Messier, Founder, Editor and Film Critic

Too few movies are ever produced with the unpopular topic of the human condition in mind, much less one from the point of view of a non-human.

Granted, such an attempt was made with moderate success with David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, a late 1970s arthouse film about an alien who comes to Earth in search of our precious water resources for his dying home planet.

In Jonathan Glazer’s recent outing Under the Skin, starring a very muted Scarlett Johansson, we discover that the mission itself becomes secondary when the discovery of humanity’s quirks and perks trigger unrealized yearnings in an alien visitor.

Scarlett Johansson in UNDER THE SKIN, courtesy Mongrel Media, 2014
Scarlett Johansson in UNDER THE SKIN, courtesy Mongrel Media, 2014

 

Johansson plays an unnamed girl who comes to Earth and adopts a seductive female guise in modern-day Scotland in order to attract human males, seemingly seeking the absorption of their body content, drawn to her makeshift home where they slowly sink into a featureless black lake of black goo, never to be seen again.

A quest for industrial-scale digested human fat? Genetic ingredients for the re-population of her race? A vampiric consumption of bio-waste? This is never explained, adding to the mystique of the visitor’s quest.

Aided by a mysterious high-speed biker (one assumes he is one of her kin arrived here as her wingman), she meets and ensnares more and more of these men and starts to discover the goodness in some of them, causing her to question her mission altogether.

Another poor Scotsman falls for Scarlett Johansson's charms (literally) in UNDER THE SKIN, courtesy Mongrel Media, 2014
Another poor Scotsman falls for Scarlett Johansson’s charms (literally) in UNDER THE SKIN, courtesy Mongrel Media, 2014

 

The film redefines the sci-fi indie genre with its captivating vagueries and thought-provoking perspectives, causing the viewer to join Johansson in her experiment, witnessing the everyday goings-on of Scottish folk.

Largely filmed in a sort of semi-cinema-vérité format, Under the Skin isn’t as interested in the mission itself, instead focusing its lens on us wee Earth folk and our foibles. Who’s to say we aren’t as interesting to aliens as they would be to us?

 

 

Admittedly, this won’t be a movie for everyone. I’d place it within the eclectic realm of Kubrick and Lynch, what with its haunting soundtrack and minimalistic production values, allowing us to fill in the blanks and assert for ourselves whether an alien visitor or its perception of us is more interesting a film subject.

Personally, I’d vote for the latter. There’s plenty to look at and explore right here on Terra Firma. This film is a perfect example of this. Try it out for the sake of something different, allowing yourself the chance to see the young American actress try something creatively new for a change.

4 out of 5

Dominic Messier is a media veteran who’s written and discussed movies for almost 20 years, from entertainment radio shows to newspaper columns to websites. Follow him on Twitter via @dommessier or join the Pop Culture Landscape with Dominic Messier page on Facebook.

Now on Blu-Ray: Batman Assault on Arkham Spotlights the Ambiguous Villains

Blu-Ray Cover Art for BATMAN ASSAULT ON ARKHAM, courtesy DC/Warner Home Video, 2014
Blu-Ray Cover Art for BATMAN ASSAULT ON ARKHAM, courtesy DC/Warner Home Video, 2014

 

Review by Dominic Messier, Founder, Editor and Film Critic

Given the plethora of available characters in the DC Comics stable, it’s no surprise that an average of two to three direct-to-video releases based on current titles would see the light of day. Just recently, we’ve seen appearances by Batman and his son Damian, a new Justice League piece where they fought Darkseid, and an earlier release late last year where The Flash ran so fast he switched realities altogether.

(Okay, it was a bit more complex than that, but you get the idea.)

So imagine my surprise when DC decided to pull a bit of a switcheroo by shifting the focus from the Dark Knight of Gotham towards some of his enemies, namely those undesirables known as the Suicide Squad…

The resulting title, Batman: Assault on Arkham, is pretty impressive and gives lesser known characters a bit of a chance to shine and make a name for themselves, at least on the home video front.

 

Meet the Suicide Squad, in BATMAN ASSAULT ON ARKHAM, courtesy DC/Warner Home Video, 2014
Meet the Suicide Squad, in BATMAN ASSAULT ON ARKHAM, courtesy DC/Warner Home Video, 2014

 

In the moderately short feature film, various criminals are recruited by shady government operative Amanda Waller (a popular figure in several titles in both the old DC arcs and the New 52 as well) and implanted with a explosive chip in their spine so to keep them in line with their mission or at least dissuade them from defecting or going AWOL.

And so, Deadshot (Neal McDonaugh), Harley Quinn (Hynden Walch), King Shark (John DiMaggio), Captain Boomerang (Greg Ellis), Black Spider (Giancarlo Esposito) and Killer Frost (Jennifer Hale) head off on one of Waller’s missions, in this case the infiltration of the Arkham Asylum prison in order to retrieve a data key from the Riddler’s sceptre, and hopefully nix the puzzler in the process.

Things get complicated when Batman (Kevin Conroy, back in the voice role) tracks them down while hunting down a dirty bomb set up by the imprisoned Joker (Troy Baker) which could destroy Gotham City entirely.

It’s up to the ragtag group of inglorious anti-heroes to help save the day, thwart their bat-eared nemesis and escape alive, so long as Waller doesn’t flip the switch on their explosive restraints…

 

The Dark Knight Tracks Down the Suicide Squad in BATMAN ASSAULT ON ARKHAM, courtesy DC/Warner Home Video, 2014
The Dark Knight Tracks Down the Suicide Squad in BATMAN ASSAULT ON ARKHAM, courtesy DC/Warner Home Video, 2014

 

It’s incredibly refreshing to see a Batman Blu-ray title which contains minimal appearances by the caped crusader. As a result, much time is positively spent exploring the shaky dynamic between the Suicide Squad members, quickly revealing that there is truly no honor among thieves.

The film gets a PG rating due to some of the more mature passages (flashbacks include Harley Quinn biting off a nurse’s ear out of irritation) but contains plenty of clever one-liners and lighthearted twists, and is well paced enough to keep viewer attention as needed.

Blink and you may even spot the animators’ Easter Egg relating directly to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, though this film is based on DC/Warner’s Arkham Knight video game.

The movie gives villains a rare chance to interact up front, allowing us to see that the dark side can be just as interesting as the heroic deeds we’ve seen from the pages or related animated shows.

In the end, the outcome still works out in favor of the good guys, but the journey there is a real hoot; here’s hoping DC come up with more villain-centric titles in years to come.

If you’re keen on learning about the Suicide Squad, I encourage you to check out the title in stores under the DC New 52 banner, or check out a mid-season episode of the CW’s Arrow, in which we learn that Oliver Queen’s friend John Diggle worked with said squad, under orders from Waller. A neat look into the live action version of the above story.

3.5 out of 5

Dominic Messier is a media veteran who’s written and discussed movies for almost 20 years, from entertainment radio shows to newspaper columns to websites. Follow him on Twitter via @dommessier or join the Pop Culture Landscape with Dominic Messier page on Facebook.

Now in Theatres: Expendables 3 Cheesy yet Best Sequel Yet

 

Review by Dominic Messier, Founder, Editor and Film Critic

Is the third time really the charm?

Well, it all depends on who you ask. In the case of the nostalgic revival that is The Expendables franchise, it could very well prove true.

The latest go at bat by veteran Hollywood beefcake Sylvester Stallone and his company of equally dated co-stars, The Expendables 3 makes a valiant effort to keep the story going, albeit with mixed results.

Harrison Ford and Sylvester Stallone in THE EXPENDABLES 3, courtesy Lionsgate, 2014
Harrison Ford and Sylvester Stallone in THE EXPENDABLES 3, courtesy Lionsgate, 2014

 

First, a bit of background: Barney Ross (Stallone) and his band of titular mercenaries are off to retrieve one of their old team members, Doc (Wesley Snipes), from certain death in a foreign prison. Within moments of this daring rescue, the old gang learns through their government contact (Harrison Ford, replacing Bruce Willis) that a founding member of the team, Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), is now a megalomaniac billionaire hellbent on providing warlords and criminals worldwide with contraband weaponry of the highest grade.

When a revenge mission against Stonebanks goes South and Barney’s latest batch of mercenary recruits (Kellan Lutz, Ronda Rousey, Glen Powell and Victor Ortiz) get captured by his former friend, Barney sets out to rescue his new team members with the help of his old gang (Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Antonio Banderas and a cameo by Kelsey Grammer), finally tracking down and eliminating their rogue and former colleague down once and for all.

Jason Statham and Wesley Snipes find themselves with an equal set of deadly skills in THE EXPENDABLES 3, courtesy Lionsgate, 2014
Jason Statham and Wesley Snipes find themselves with an equal set of deadly skills in THE EXPENDABLES 3, courtesy Lionsgate, 2014

 

Very much like the first two installments, this third chapter is just as rife with machismo, testosterone-fueled banter, massive explosions and impressive hand-to-hand combat. Then again, what it lacks is well rounded characters, at least the type we can invest ourselves emotionally, rather than treat the entire endeavor as just one big-budget video game emulator flooded with familiar Hollywood action stars’ faces.

Another argument not in favor of this nostalgic attempt at recapturing the 80s, is its terminal case of ambitious overcrowding. Yes, having Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford is every fanboy’s dream, hence the justification and rationale behind whatever box office this flick will earn (despite a highly publicized case of online pirating last month); all the same, you just can’t expect people to cheer on when you have 20 high profile actors in one two-hour film, expecting each of them to appear in any more than ten minutes each. It’s just not sound math, in any entertainment medium. Might as well call this film Ocean’s Seventeen.

 

Call it what you will, this film is a pretty looking, trailer-perfect popcorn movie, one devoid of any real cinematic value past that of its cast makeup and set effects (though one motorcycle stunt has to be seen more than once to be believed). If anything, it has more structure and plausibility than the previous chapters.

In the end, The Expendables 3 delivers exactly what it advertises. No one’s expecting any Shakespearian verse from these gentlemen. Bloody without being deep or insightful, violent without being too gratuitous, it will turn off your brain for a good two hours, guaranteed.

And sometimes, that’s exactly what the Doc ordered.

3 out of 5

Dominic Messier is a media veteran who’s written and discussed movies for almost 20 years, from entertainment radio shows to newspaper columns to websites. Follow him on Twitter via @dommessier or join the Pop Culture Landscape with Dominic Messier page on Facebook.

Please Don’t Watch This Clip Unless You’ve Already Seen Guardians of the Galaxy

Here’s a mid-August treat from the folks at Marvel/Disney, for those of us who’ve already enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy this month.

Enjoy. And please, do go out there and hug a tree.

You never know, right?

 

By all means, do go out and see this entertaining and fun film which just broke $200 million domestically, a well-deserved milestone for such a goofy but fun sci-fi romp!

 

Dominic Messier is a media veteran who’s written and discussed movies for almost 20 years, from entertainment radio shows to newspaper columns to websites. Follow him on Twitter via @dommessier or join the Pop Culture Landscape with Dominic Messier page on Facebook.

 

Now on Blu-Ray: Muppets Most Wanted, But No Takers

Blu-Ray Cover Art for MUPPETS MOST WANTED, courtesy Disney, 2014
Blu-Ray Cover Art for MUPPETS MOST WANTED, courtesy Disney, 2014

 

Review by Dominic Messier, Founder, Editor and Film Critic

Y

ou know how they always say “the proof is in the pudding?” Well, in the case of this latest Muppet Caper, the box art is eerily accurate: this film truly provides an “unnecessarily extended cut” of a product which, in my honest opinion, should never have seen the light of day.

Seriously, folks, just because some corporate juggernaut buys over a franchise, doesn’t necessarily mean said product will bat a thousand every single time.

Granted, the last outing, The Muppets, was a middling to half decent piece, what with Jim Henson’s characters’ performances having gone relatively absent since their last, pre-Disney acquisition flick Muppets in Space, which fared pretty well with seasoned audiences. Unfortunately, other than recapturing the nostalgic effect of a long gone franchise’s resurgence, the late 2011 film did little more than introduce a friendly character in Walter, and helped viewers connect with their puppet friends via Jason Siegel’s mostly transparent über-fan role.

And so, what else could happen to our friendly bunch of characters since three years ago?

Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) sweet talks the Muppets into a shady deal, in MUPPETS MOST WANTED, courtesy Disney Home Video, 2014
Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) sweet talks the Muppets into a shady deal, in MUPPETS MOST WANTED, courtesy Disney Home Video, 2014

 

Well, very little, as it turns out. Rather than maximize on their valuable new franchise, the new folks at Disney apparently decided to jump on the first plausible scripted plot based on the populous group, to hell with integrity or reputation.

As the Muppets successfully saved their old studio from the last film’s evil oil baron, they are approached by a shady production manager (Ricky Gervais) and talked into a world tour which just so happens to coincide with evil plans to steal precious artifacts leading up to the most desirable item of them all, the British Crown Jewels in the Tower of London. And so, the questionable Dominic Badguy (Gervais) arranges the somewhat iffy Muppets tour to take place, all the while Number One World Criminal mastermind Constantine, a doppelganger for Kermit the Frog, replaces his lookalike and plots his heists with maniacal precision.

Whether our furry but cuddly friends figure out this dastardly plot before the whole of them end up in a Siberian gulag with Kermit is up to Ol’ Cinematic Lady Fate. Then again, much of this story is poorly telegraphed, so expect a few questionable ditties, some bad puns and a criminally low level of Pepe the Prawn appearances, and you’ve actually got yourself a really shoddy sequel.

 

Kermit the Frog encounters his nemesis, the dastardly Constantine the Frog, in MUPPETS MOST WANTED, courtesy Disney, 2014
Kermit the Frog encounters his nemesis, the dastardly Constantine the Frog, in MUPPETS MOST WANTED, courtesy Disney, 2014

 

Sadly, much of this sequel feels half-baked and gratuitous, from the truly pointless cameos to the bare use of the full range of Muppets to choose from. Yes, it’s fun to watch Ty Burrell play out a Clouseauresque Interpol inspector opposite Sam the Eagle’s American opposite. Then again, much of the film feels barely touched upon, with the voice talents resembling each other to the point where one man could voice the entire cast (we miss you, Jim and Frank!) and a supporting cast of willing actors hoping to add a Muppet film to their pedigree just prancing and overacting in order to compensate for their meager roles (I’m looking at you, Tina Fey and Ray Liotta.)

 

 

Like them bonus features? There’s a blooper reel mostly composed of Muppet ad libs cracking up the camera crew, but little else really stands out unless you’re a fan of Flight of the Conchords, what with Jemaine Clement starring as a gulag convict and Bret McKenzie penning the better tunes in this flick.

Do yourself a favor: keep a pristine impression of your favorite Muppets by either seeking out releases of the original run of The Muppet Show on DVD, or watch any of the films up to late 1999.

Just because you acquire a popular title doesn’t always mean you can always spin it into gold. Somebody page Miss Piggy and have her judo chop this dud in half.

1.5 out of 5

Dominic Messier is a media veteran who’s written and discussed movies for almost 20 years, from entertainment radio shows to newspaper columns to websites. Follow him on Twitter via @dommessier or join the Pop Culture Landscape with Dominic Messier page on Facebook.

 

Book Review: Chuck Palahniuk’s Doomed a Droll Take on Nihilism and Celebrity Culture

Cover Art for DOOMED by Chuck Palahniuk, courtesy Random House Canada, 2014
Cover Art for DOOMED by Chuck Palahniuk, courtesy Random House Canada, 2014

 

Review by Naomi Szeben, Book Critic

 

For those who never heard of Chuck Palaniuk, know this: he’s one of the rare authors who makes nihilism seem edgy and cool. Palaniuk is probably best known for what he calls “transgressive fiction,” and created a cult following with the iconic figure Tyler Durden, from his book Fight Club.

Palaniuk’s fascination with flawed characters and charismatic but destructive leaders continues with Doomed, this year’s sequel to 2011’s Damned.

As a chubby child of an uber-celebrity couple, Madison Spencer is out and about on earth, temporarily out from the clutches of purgatory. Her mission: To prevent her parents from creating a religion called, “Boorism” which could trigger the Apocalypse.

 

The well spoken tween hilariously describes her experiences with her processed food-loving, middle class American Grandparents, as well as she describes the various religions and lifestyles her jet-setting parents dabble in. Palaniuk skewers the urban rich and the rural poor equally. America’s love-hate relationship with consumerism is the same underlying theme that Fight Club and Doomed share.

 

Unlike Tyler Durden, Maddy has no urge to be the religious figurehead of a destructive cult. Through her rich vocabulary occasionally lapses into plausible tween-talk (such as referring to genitalia as, “hoo-ha’s,”), we learn that Maddy’s journey to purgatory may have been part of a larger plan to bring about the end of the world.

 

Palaniuk himself describes this two book series as, “if The Shawshank Redemption had a baby by The Lovely Bones and it was raised by Judy Blume.” Sure enough, in the previous work, Maddy is quoted as saying  “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison.” The novel’s style embraces tween girl culture without resorting to excessive girlishness or making a parody of female teenage-hood. While Doomed mocks organized religion and disorganized cultists, the theme of family and longing for stability still shines through.

Palaniuk is known for his irreverent style, a way of almost-but-not-quite crossing the line and Doom does not disappoint. However, Maddy’s impressive vocabulary, even for a voracious reader and a Swiss boarding school student, might be a bit hard to swallow, despite the author actually confronting readers with that very doubt.

The book’s range of wild and mild characters compensates by creating a vast landscape and a quick pace to the narrative.   A perfect read while sitting by the pool, ideally while enjoying a slice of Nana Minnie’s peanut butter cheesecake.

Were I to suggest a libation to enjoy this book with, I’d go with some sun-brewed sweet tea (again, just the way Nana Minnie made it) but served in a hand blown glass, with an artisanal, retro paper straw, the way any Maddy’s mother or boarding school classmates would have it.

If you’re craving a drink that a Hellbound Judy Blume character would love, perhaps a can of Yoo-Hoo with a grilled cheese sandwich would do.

4 out of 5

 

 

Book Review: Toss Taylor Stevens’ The Catch Back In The Water

Cover Art for THE CATCH by Taylor Stevens, courtesy Random House, 2014
Cover Art for THE CATCH by Taylor Stevens, courtesy Random House, 2014

 

Review by Naomi Szeben, Book Critic

 

Do you like books where there is more exposition than plot? Do you have a limited vocabulary, and have taken a solemn oath to only learn one foreign word per year? How about reading a story that drags on but is seasoned with purple prose? Perhaps you like a hero that defies gender norms, but only as a blancmange, one-dimensional character?

Then, oh boy, have we got a book for you! The Catch, by Taylor Stevens is an example where the advertising team has created a press release far more exciting that the book itself. The shiny black, minimalist cover exercises more restraint than the pages within.

Meet the hero, Michael Munroe.   She is described as “long and lean with an androgynous body.” Munroe dresses like a man, and is treated as a man as part of a crew of mercenaries in Africa. Her band of outlaws contribute to the typical patriarchy that exists where males are acknowledged and females are ignored; one can almost see why Michael doesn’t correct anyone who refers to her as a boy.

Being a soldier of fortune or mercenary is a cut-throat line of work. It requires an attention to detail and an intimate understanding of potential co-workers, if only to avoid getting killed or arrested, so it’s odd that nobody, especially team boss, Leo never noticed the following:

1. Michael doesn’t shave

2. Men generally have larger hands, even if she were the teenage boy her boss assumes her to be.

3.  There is no mention of an Adam’s apple.

4.  As androgynous as Munroe torso is purported to be, women have a softer pectorals than males, and she is never binds her breasts. Strangely, nobody notices.

 

In fact, for the purpose of interrogating the enemy as a woman, Munroe later oh-so conveniently steals a skirt (that fits!) a bra (what luck! It also fits!) and some cosmetics that just so happen to be in her skin tone and colour palate from a complete stranger’s hotel room.

This contradiction turns Munroe’s acquired masculinity into something supernatural in its implausibility: “…she changed her hair back into something feminine; painted her face into what most people reacted to as beautiful. The transformation was striking – it always was…”

 

It “always was?” If Munroe and her desperadoes were sent on a mission – frequently on a boat, which means shared quarters – wouldn’t this underlying femininity be just one clue to her gender? Perhaps Leo The Boss is the most stupid criminal lord on the continent. Maybe he recruited his crew members through Craigslist. Perhaps Leo scouted every Justin Bieber concert for alpha-male, wannabe gangstas for crewmates. Either that, or the Mercenary Makeover via stolen, haphazard items, is truly magical.

Munroe is a shallow specimen of a feminist hero. Stevens writes her protagonist as almost aggressively, ‘no homo.’  Consider this badly constructed paragraph that serves as an example to its protagonist’s style: “ ‘It’s a cultural thing,” Munroe said. One example out of thousands as to why she dressed and carried herself as a boy so much of the time. “Not Personal.” If indeed this is “cultural” as Stevens posits, give the readers an example. Just one out of the hinted “thousands of reasons.” This character may have been lifted from a superficial glance at G.I. Jane, played by a cargo pants sporting, T-shirt wearing, shorn headed Demi Moore, but with none of that heroine’s attributes.

 

To contrast her androgyny and self-identification to her crewmates as a male, she pines for a man who is a former boss or co-worker, the barely described, seldom mentioned Miles Bradford, a name I suspect was taken from a soap opera’s list of rejected characters. Frankly, Bradford is so marginal, one wonders why he was even brought to surface. He’s a device that reminds readers that Munroe is a straight, cisgender female, who can only relay her competence in a male dominated industry by presenting herself as a fellow man.

 

Oh, and what is Michael Munroe’s real job description? She’s a self-described spy who apparently can master languages fluently within days. Stevens does nothing to suspend the disbelief that we are in the presence of a gifted linguist. By way of explaining Michael Munroe’s prowess, Stevens hacks out an argument between Munroe and a belligerent crewmate. Munroe simply lists the names of four other language wizards by rote, as if the existence of other geniuses is validation enough. Miraculously, this somehow convinces her antagonizer. I’d be more likely to believe her language skills if the book were peppered with more foreign words throughout the book, or made an attempt to have Munroe say more than one possibly Google-Translated sentence at a time.

 

The clumsy writing drags the book down to the pulpy “Soldier of Fortune” genre. At the very least, could Stevens have used more synonyms for Hawaladar – a money changer, perhaps? (Average amount of times Hawaladar is used in one page: Six.) Stevens writes like a gifted fourth grader, prone to using exposition instead of letting a story unfold. Why is Munroe so good with a knife? Because she was “abused by a sadist when young.” Any flashbacks, or examples that would flesh out her character, get the reader to sympathize with this character? No. Stevens spells it out for her simple readers, with the eloquence of a Post-It-Note on a fridge.

She counteracts this terseness with the heavy prose of a Harlequin novel: “Death followed her, embraced her, and beckoned her.” (Note to the proofreader: Wouldn’t death beckon before following or embracing? If so, death is more of a rapist than a stalker.)

 

Good writers know enough to, ‘show it, don’t tell it,’ and this advice is repeatedly ignored by Stevens. Whereas spy writers like Le Carré and Deighton will treat readers to tight sentences, and well-crafted paragraphs that unveil their characters’ skills and motivations, Stevens made the deliberate choice to ignore The Elements of Style. A potentially interesting scene where Munroe chitchats with a woman to glean information is reduced to a generalized paragraph that sums up the activity. Similar opportunities to get a sense of a criminal’s culture, language or logic are abandoned and dumbed down with crude sentences, which she alternates with florid Biblical overtones.

Take this ham-handed Deutornomy-flavoured snippet, presented as an homage to Frank Herbert’s Litany of Fear: “Munroe clenched her fists against the invisible bloodstains and turned again toward the distance…her lips moved with the chant of violence: I whet my glittering sword. My hand takes hold on judgment. I will render vengeance to my enemies and will reward them that hate me.”

In short, The Catch is not for people looking for a satisfying, well-written spy novel. If thrillers with a cold war theme interest you, read Smiley’s People, by John Le Carré, instead. The hero, Smiley, is believable and clearly written, whereas Munroe is implausible, and shoddily assembled from various parts of other, better written, female characters.   If you want a female champion who lives and thrives in a dangerous, patriarchal environment, Len Deighton’s Little Drummer Girl would make a better read. If you occasionally fist pump the air while humming the theme from Team America (“America! Fuck, yeah!”) without irony, Taylor Stevens is your kind of author.

My summer drink recommendations for this read: Kool-Aid fermented in a garbage bag for two months, or a high-octane cough syrup. Preferably, use one of the brands of syrup used in the production of crystal meth, if you can’t actually get your hands on the drug itself. Drink it in a Solo cup garnished with a spritz of paint thinner if you’re feelin’ fancy, or if you have company.

1 out of 5

Now on Blu-Ray: Need For Speed is Very Fast, Not as Furious

Blu-Ray Cover Art for NEED FOR SPEED, courtesy Disney/Touchstone, 2014
Blu-Ray Cover Art for NEED FOR SPEED, courtesy Disney/Touchstone, 2014

 

Who doesn’t love a good racing film, right? Sharp corners, adept drifts and pulse pounding soundtracks, they manage to keep you on the edge of your seat. Also, if somehow there happens to be a story attached to it, so much the better. Failing that, at least you’re left with some pretty impressive stunt driving and attractive vehicles.

Based on the highly addictive driving game by Electronic Arts, Need for Speed follows the misadventures of Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul, of Breaking Bad fame), a gifted but down-on-his-luck driver and car designer about to lose his late father’s car shop due to late payments on loans. When a childhood rival (Dominic Cooper) comes home with an offer to restore and complete construction of a unique Mustang Shelby to be sold at a high profit, Tobey jumps at the chance to earn some money and save the family business. Things don’t go according to plan, though, and when one of his buddies crashes and dies during a quick race, the beleaguered driver is framed for the crime and sent away.

Upon his release, Tobey vows to track down his old rival and seek revenge for his fallen friend, by following the nemesis and enrolling in the country’s most notorious illegal street race, created by an eccentric car nut (Michael Keaton.)

Essentially a cinematic clone that looks, smells and tastes like any of the Fast and Furious films, Need for Speed suffers from an utter lack of team chemistry or back story. Think of it in terms of The Really Fast and the Rather Upset.

 

"Warp Speed, Mr. Sulu..." Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) goes airborne to evade authorities, in NEED FOR SPEED, courtesy Dreamworks SKG, 2014
“Warp Speed, Mr. Sulu…” Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) goes airborne to evade authorities, in NEED FOR SPEED, courtesy Dreamworks SKG, 2014

 

Granted, the film boasts a very diverse set of race and chase scenes, all of them kinetic and pulse pounding. Also, the movie doesn’t waste time with superfluous montage edits of scantily clad girls dancing in slow-mo around high performance vehicles, à la Fast and Furious. Instead, expect some tight shots of cars drifting around corners, racing down opposite traffic and evading authorities while trying to get to where they’re going (be it the finish line or a race they need to reach by a certain date.)

For levity, expect some goofy zingers courtesy of Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi) as Aaron Paul’s eyes in the sky in this movie.

 

 

The plot and dialogue are minimal at best, with a cardboard cutout villain (Dominic Cooper) who does little more than glower and squint; a couple of female characters are introduced, but to very little effect. Imogen Poots appears as Paul’s unlikely car mate, bringing little more than a pretty face to an otherwise threadbare revenge story.

The plot is a bit all over the place, with some squandered moments of humility drowned out by machismo and posturing. The movie even jumps the shark by having a one-of-a-kind Mustang Shelby jump over traffic, seemingly undamaged by the hard landing. Cool to watch? Yes. Plausible? Not even for K.I.T.T. in Knight Rider.

 

“Yo, did that car just talk to us?” Aaron Paul and his cohorts in NEED FOR SPEED, courtesy Dreamworks SKG, 2014.

 

This movie is a mixed blessing. It’s refreshing to finally see Aaron Paul play high profile lead outside of his usual white boy gangsta persona from his hit TV show, though this movie doesn’t quite give him the tools needed to expand his thespian range. For a better example of his skills, I recommend you see his work in Smashed, a decent drama about alcoholism.

This movie is clearly designed to leech off of the popularity of the Fast and Furious franchise as well as fans of the game. Well, good luck with that. Despite impressive visuals, the plot is so transparent you’re left with the impression of sitting on the couch while watching a friend of yours play a game without giving you a chance to jump in. Potentially fun, but only if you enjoy being a backseat player.

2.5 out of 5

Dominic Messier is a media veteran who’s written and discussed movies for almost 20 years, from entertainment radio shows to newspaper columns to websites. Follow him on Twitter via @dommessier or join the Pop Culture Landscape with Dominic Messier page on Facebook.

 

Now on Blu-Ray: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Sabotage a Flawed Success

Blu-Ray Cover Art for SABOTAGE, courtesy VVS Films, 2014
Blu-Ray Cover Art for SABOTAGE, courtesy VVS Films, 2014

 

Review by Dominic Messier, Founder, Editor and Film Critic

He always said he’d be back…after nearly a decade as California’s “Governator” and a few attempts at a cinematic comeback in The Last Stand and some Expendables films, Arnold Schwarzenegger finally decides to drop the muscular roles and offers us a more nuanced performance in David Ayer’s Sabotage, surrounded by today’s young and capable up and coming action stars.

It’s a plan that can’t fail…until you realize the dialogue is atrociously bad, despite a fairly decent premise.

Schwarzenegger as Breacher, surrounded by his response team ( including Josh Holloway, Joe Manganiello, Sam Worthington, Mireille Enos, Terrence Howard, Max Martini and Kevin Vance) in SABOTAGE, courtesy VVS Films, 2014
Schwarzenegger as Breacher, surrounded by his response team ( including Josh Holloway, Joe Manganiello, Sam Worthington, Mireille Enos, Terrence Howard, Max Martini and Kevin Vance) in SABOTAGE, courtesy VVS Films, 2014

 

At first glance the film sounds like a decent Ah-nuld vehicle: a specialized DEA strike team rakes up score after score of successful raids, becoming legends in the department by capturing drug traffickers and busting rings, confiscating millions in illegal funds.

When the team decides it’s time for a little payback, they get into serious water when ten million dollars of seized loot goes missing, putting all of John “Breacher” Wharton’s (Arnold Schwarzenegger) team members under the top brass’ microscope under accusation of corruption.

When the higher-ups can’t pin the crime on the strike force, they send Breacher and his crew back out into the field, where each of the teammates start getting picked off by an unknown killer one by one, in increasingly gruesome ways. Retaliation by an angry cartel? An inside job? Discord amongst brothers in arms?

Hounded by a keen investigator (Olivia Williams) and her partner (Harold Perrineau), Breacher needs to figure out which of the team’s enemies is out for blood, or whether someone’s flipped and is aiming to find the stolen money by offing the rest of the outfit, one by one.

Olivia Williams as the DEA Investigator assigned to the agents' murders in SABOTAGE, courtesy VVS Films, 2014
Olivia Williams as the DEA Investigator assigned to the agents’ murders in SABOTAGE, courtesy VVS Films, 2014

 

To be brutally honest, Sabotage is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it offers Schwarzenegger the first chance to truly act as opposed to posing as the standard muscle-for-hire stereotype. At his age, the former Terminator hasn’t got too many options left aside from a handful of Expendables sequels, so this film, ably directed by Ayer, has great potential in showing us a much better and different Arnold performance.

So what’s the problem?

The answer is: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. Much of the script feels amateurish and lazy, with the majority of the banter between allegedly experienced special ops team resulting in a pile of gratuitous profanity to no viable end. Just because your guns-for-hire are the best at what they do, doesn’t mean every other word needs to originate for Fucking Fuckery From Fuckerton Farms. We get it. Adults swear. Often purposefully.  You see where I’m going with this.

Anyway, here’s a look at the full length trailer, to give you an idea of the carnage and gore involved in sanctioned precision assault teams:

The cast is diverse enough to keep you interested, with many familiar faces changing their appearance to the point where you’ll have to stop and try to remember where you’ve seen them before (especially Josh Holloway and Sam Worthington, the real chameleons here); altogether, Sabotage is a decent story plagued by an inadequate script, one with a great premise but littered with useless swearing and posturing.

Here’s hoping your next projects reflect your potential comeback, Arnold. You’ve given me hope with this one, let’s hope your follow-up is up to the task.

2.75 out of 5

Dominic Messier is a media veteran who’s written and discussed movies for almost 20 years, from entertainment radio shows to newspaper columns to websites. Follow him on Twitter via @dommessier or join the Pop Culture Landscape with Dominic Messier page on Facebook.

 

Now on Blu-Ray: Transcendence Barely Scrapes the Surface of Evolved Human Intelligence

Blu-Ray Cover Art for TRANSCENDENCE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014
Blu-Ray Cover Art for TRANSCENDENCE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014

 

Review by Dominic Messier, Founder, Editor and Film Critic

The subject of human evolution and the potential to become something greater than the sum of our parts has been mined repeatedly in cinema, to a mixed degree of success.

Just as Luc Besson tried to recently illustrate the full (albeit highly theoretical and mostly fictitious) potential of the human brain to transcend human existence to the point of universal unity with his film Lucy, so did filmmaker Wally Pfister, this time studying the potential ramification of developing a computer system so advanced it could very well become smarter than its creators. Further still, how dangerous can this entity become if a brilliant human mind is embedded within its computer code?

 

Johnny Depp is Dr. Will Caster in TRANSCENDENCE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014
Johnny Depp is Dr. Will Caster in TRANSCENDENCE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014

 

Transcendence explores such a premise, when a brilliant scientist name Will Caster (Johnny Depp, in a muted but humble performance) develops a computer system capable of more brain power than all humans ever born, combined.

When an activist makes a semi-successful assassination attempt against Caster’s life, his wife (Rebecca Hall) and best friend and colleague (Paul Bettany) try the unimaginable: to copy his brain pattern onto the advanced computer system, in order to preserve his consciousness into the computer, allowing Will to continue existing, albeit in a virtual environment. But does the man still exist, or does the A.I. use the pattern to its own ends?

When Will’s intellect merges with the computer software and becomes increasingly intelligent and aware, his/its advances in cybernetics, robotics, eugenics and botany signify a quantum leap in science, not to mention a drastic and potentially catastrophic change in mankind’s way of doing things…

Doctors Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) and Max Waters (Paul Bettany) in TRANSCENDENCE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014
Doctors Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) and Max Waters (Paul Bettany) in TRANSCENDENCE, courtesy Warner Home Video, 2014

 

The film touches, however briefly, on some important points such as sentience, humanity and self-identity. But to what end? Rather than harness this potentially talk worthy subject, Pfister turns this promising cyber-thriller into a drab power-trip the likes of The Lawnmower Man, to very little effect.

Whereas Johnny Depp infused the tale with some credibility as the brilliant scientist turned power-mad uber-program, his performance takes a back seat to mostly reactionary shots of capable actors like Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany staring at a once trusting face onto a computer screen. Add to this a handful of subplots about human/computer control, a need to forcibly perfect humanity and the need for POWER, MORE POWER! And you’ll find yourself with an ambitious but deeply flawed piece of fiction.

 

I’d argue the need for a villainous terrorist group thrown into the mix, when the big bad turns out to be Big Brother with a personality, even if it’s Depp’s wrangled performance, a drastic change from his usually animated Jack Sparrow antics.

I’d humbly suggest you skip the Blu-Ray’s handful of extras, a repetitive bunch of interviews with redundant sound quips about the dangers of giving artificial intelligence too much power. The cast members seem forced to try and find something good to say about the film, which is never a good sign.

A sci-fi thriller that makes for a great trailer but a film lacking in a punchline or satisfying dénouement, Transcendence fails to deliver on its full potential, a promising story squandered on the merits of artificial intelligence and its potential dangers.

2.5 out of 5

Dominic Messier is a media veteran who’s written and discussed movies for almost 20 years, from entertainment radio shows to newspaper columns to websites. Follow him on Twitter via @dommessier or join the Pop Culture Landscape with Dominic Messier page on Facebook.