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Dracula: Kiwi Comedy Style, 1 June 2015

Vampires, like most Gothic horror monsters have gotten a very infamous reputation. A reputation which has lasted over a millennia. They have been pegged as evil, blood-thirsty villains; soiling the innocence of all who become victim to their blood-lust. What's worse is within the last two decades their standing has changed to much more humiliating status; that of the romantic lead. Yes, we can all agree Twilight (2008) was a blight on the world but you can't deny the YA series' made an impact. Plus there were the better received True Blood (2008-2014) and Vampire Diaries (2009-now) which, for better or for worse, reformed Dracula's personal image. Between misanthropic movie monster and hunky boyfriend of the undead, is there maybe a better, more sympathetic portrayal out there for the besieged blood- sucker?

What We Do in the Shadows involves the semi-normal life of four vampires who have made New Zealand their new home. In-between feedings, Viago (Waititi), Vladislav (Clement), Deacon (Brough) and Petyr (Fransham) have to deal with the common trials of being flatmates. Such trials include dividing up the chores via chore wheel, juggling their active social lives and avoiding run- ins with vampire slayers, local werewolves and a mysterious creature known only as "The Beast". Their biggest obstacle is modernizing to the 21st century, a task that is helped by new friends who tip the balance of their creepy, decrepit home.

Co-written by half of Flight of the Conchords and given a mockumentary style, What We Do in the Shadows is the funniest movie you're likely to see this year. It's bolstered by goofy, self-deprecating performances and cheap yet seamless special-effects. Special mention should be given to Waititi's fussy performance as an Interview with a Vampire (1994) knock-off with an Eastern European accent. He becomes the center and voice of reason amid a growing group of rowdy undead friends and despite having the straight-man role, his nit-picking most often had me at medium giggle. The belly laughs however came from Clements's Vlad, designed to look like Dracula circa 1992. His one-liners showed a depth of skill when it comes to improvisation which hasn't seen a screen near me since Flight of the Conchords (2007-2009) ended its run on HBO. As far as mockumentary, What We Do in the Shadows matches This is Spinal Tap (1984) and Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) chuckle by chuckle, perhaps more so.

Along with being incredibly rich territory for situation-comedy, What We Do in the Shadows brings up some grounded if unconsidered questions about living with eternity. We all get older so we naturally struggle to keep up with the "next big thing," so what happens when a three-hundred-year-old man attempts to enter Wellington's most popular club dressed like an 18th century dandy? What happens the first time they use a cellphone or a computer? These aren't the chiseled, pristine vampires of Twilight; no these guys can't even use a mirror and are forced to draw each other to conceive what they look like. There's no way these guys have the sensibilities to make it in today's world. At least not without a lot of help and hilarity.

As with all movies that adapt the mockumentary format, there are some drawbacks. There's some pretty cheap production design here and due to the subject matter most scenes are shot at night (duh!). This kind of budget is not helped by a flat aspect ratio and single-setup, point-and-shoot-type camera work. Thankfully there are enough consistently funny gags that keep the film light on its feet even if the supposed documentary crew are not.

What We Do in the Shadows may not help vampires reclaim the staple horror movie villain image we grew up with and took for granted. I personally yearn for Nosferatu to jump out of the shadows and give the floozies of True Blood a run for their money. I suppose all things must go through reinvention and renewal. Modernizing overall is a positive force is it not? If for no other reason than we get fun little experiments like this Kiwi comedy classic.

17 out of 35 people found the following review useful:
An Action Film That Puts All Others to Shame, 16 May 2015

After watching Fury Road I can safely conclude that not only will the film be welcomed by a majority of people craving a good action- packed popcorn flick, this new movie will effectively change the action-adventure game for the better.

The story begins with Max (Hardy) being chased by a group of crazed goons across the desert in his signature Interceptor car. The vehicle crashes spectacularly and he's immediately captured. We're introduced to a host of characters warped by the landscape and made crazy by their circumstance. Immortan Joe (Keays-Byrne) sits atop of the social spectra. A violent, disfigured dictator who has hijacked not only the world's most needed resource, water, but the world's most precious: the future. He has taken the most beautiful brides among his dirt-pile civilization and forces them into a harem where he rapes them to birth a normal, untarnished heir. That is until Furiosa (Theron) a trusted marauder takes the harem and escapes in her war rig with a mission to take them to "the green place". With war parties in fast pursuit, Max is forced to be a feral warrior's "blood bag" until fate allows him the chance for escape and possible redemption from the thoughts that haunt him.

After a fifteen minute setup the entire movie boils down to one, big, long, explosive, exciting, pulse-pounding chase through the desert. Each action set-piece is a master's course in chaotic beauty and mayhem. Lest you think you've seen it all, watch the first extended chase between the war rig and the war parties...then wait another five minutes, because the expectations you just set for yourself will be blown to smithereens. George Miller decided to film in the otherworldly desert of Namibia instead of the Australian outback. The hues of the rock and sands of Namibia make for some austere beauty and intensifies the desperation of the world of Mad Max. No longer are their paved roads, only basins of flat unforgiving dirt remain. Trekked by those most craven and those most crazed.

Through all the absurd chaos, characters emerge. Not through dialogue or long-winded explanations but through action. Everyone we meet is stripped to their essence and pitted against each other. The number one goal for our beleaguered protagonists? Survival; it's that simple. Max in particular has quite a complex character arc given the movie's structure. He is reintroduced in our psyche as a man who once had a moral compass now reduced to an animal; wild and instinctual. He lost those he loved most and is haunted by their memories. By the end of the movie his purpose is molded beyond simply survival. His resourcefulness and pragmatism follows a logical train that ends with Max becoming a restorer of hope. A rebirth of the dark anti-hero we once loved and all with little to no dialogue.

Now a game-changing movie like this is not without its controversy. Men's Rights Activists have been crying foul ever since this movie's been released, claiming the movie is feminist propaganda masquerading as a shoot-em-up. Noted chauvinist blogger and blatherskite Aaron Clarey even initiated a boycott over it's perceived "feminist agenda". "men in America and around the world are going to be duped by explosions, fire tornadoes, and desert raiders into seeing what is guaranteed to be nothing more than feminist propaganda, while at the same time being insulted AND tricked into viewing a piece of American culture ruined and rewritten right in front of their very eyes."

With as much respect as I can give people with rudimentary understanding of discrimination; knock it off. Having physically and emotionally strong female characters is not propaganda. Nor is making an enemy out of a thoroughly disgusting human who in no way represents the male gender or the patriarchy as it exists today. If anything the warped society that exists in Fury Road is an exaggerated view of patriarchy therefore categorizing the political elements of Mad Max as satire. Even to claim the film has a feminist agenda of any kind is suspect. Not all feminists believe the same thing but a majority believe portraying women in media in the mold of a traditional male sans male genitalia, is not the best way to empower women. Not to discount Theron's performance but her Furiosa does fit that bill.

My only real complaint is less about the movie and more about Hollywood's insistence that 3D is the way to go. Dazzling sequences of real stunt driving and explosions that would put the Fast and Furious franchise to shame are interrupted by obvious frames where 3D is injected for the sake of being injected. In one, almost delirious moment of climax, we see obvious computer generated twisted metal synchronized to look like a jack-in-the-box. It was distracting flaw but not a fatal flaw.

Mad Max: Fury Road is not just a spectacular action film; its an action film that truly raises the bar. Those who have never seen the original films won't be lost nor will they be disappointed. Through frenetic editing, solid, smooth camera work, strong acting, brawny, metal-meets-muscle action sequences and minimalist story, every action movie the foreseeable future is going to wish it was Mad Max.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Propaganda Through and Through, 3 May 2015

They say that good art challenges its audience. It imposes something on the viewer or the listener and gets them to ask questions about their world. Sometimes the questions we as the audience ask ourselves are deceptively simple like: can you capture real human experiences in a painting or in a piece of music. Sometimes they're overtly political or social in nature like: are you willing to live in a post-modern consumerist culture or are you willing to give up essential freedom for security. Bad art however, if you can even call it art; is just propaganda. Such is the case for God's Not Dead, a plodding, ill-conceived trifle of a movie that runs the danger of being taken seriously.

The movie begins with a jumble of different characters all getting up and going to work/university/life chores to the sound of twangy country pop. You can tell which characters are Christians because they're the ones who are smiling and happy to be alive. We're then introduced to the various threads of, let's call them plots in fast procession. The main one focuses on Josh (Harper) a college freshman who butts heads with his philosophy professor (Sorbo). Professor Hercules tells everyone in class to write "God is dead" on a piece of paper so the class can dispense with religious philosophy. Anyone who refuses will not only force the class to discuss the topic but they will have to present their arguments to the class on why they believe God is real. Also in the mix is a Muslim woman (Sittu) with a crisis of faith, an atheist blogger who has a crisis of non-faith, a preacher who just wants his car to start and a Chinese exchange student who is drawn to Josh's pronouncements. The professor and his wife (Oliver) seem to be in for conflict too but perhaps I'm front loading this boat a bit too much.

Stylistically, this movie is not well developed. The stagecraft here is just bad with terrible blocking decisions, lazy camera work and a host of semi-professional actors left to talk at one another with little or no interesting action. Sorbo is easily the best actor in this entire mess but even he cannot escape moments of un-cinematic 180 conversations. The only time I noticed dynamic camera shots were in the opening credits and the last five minutes of the movie.

Though the direction and cinematography is nothing compared to the writing which fits each character into a neat little Crash-like box mistaking stereotype for character. Nearly every non-white character is treated with a disrespect bordering on racist. Poor Chinaman and his over-valuing of family honor. If only he could be free to make his own decisions like an American can. Oh poor Muslim girl, if only she could escape her wrongheaded, borderline abusive father and be free to convert to Christianity like an American can. Oh and lest we forget the Rafiki-esque African reverend who seems to think watching a man die on the street is evidence of a "good day".

Which brings me to the most egregious example of stereotyping in God's Not Dead, the angry atheist caricature. There are three people who are kindly enough to be the strawmen for this exercise in choir- preaching; the aforementioned blogger, the professor and a man I can only describe as the douchiest guy in the world. The blogger is brought to the good side when she is diagnosed with cancer. Before then she lived a life of selfish indulgences which included casual sex, environmental rebel-rousing and picking on red-blooded Americans like Willie Robertson and kin. Meanwhile the professor is revealed to be not an atheist but an anti-theist who denies God's existence because of something devastating in his past. Then there's the douche, who is just a douche. There's no explanation, he's given no motivation, he's just a big a--hole towards everyone he meets. So based on the very clearly drawn lines in the film, all atheists are jerks who if pressed, will acknowledge there is a God but refuses to believe because life is unfair.

I could fit multiple column inches going over point by point, destroying every little wrongheaded detail of this shrill piece of propaganda but I won't. Honestly, ranting about how awful this movie any further would be like beating an injured child. Christians, like all walks of life need to demand more of their art than just ham- fisted messages that reinforce a simple, whitewashed, easily- refutable worldview. Complexity is a good thing, especially when it comes to characters and their deeply held belief systems and I would welcome a movie that acknowledges that. For now though Christians will have to settle for a movie who only pushes its audience to ask one question: did I really pay money for this?

Ex Machina (2015)
1 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
Challenges the Mind with Bergman-Like Splendor, 30 April 2015

With The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) making its way to a theater near you this weekend, every fanboy from here to Timbuktu wants a piece of the action. They want to see familiar faces, face up against new villains and possibly team up with new allies. They're entranced by the spectacle, in love with the unabashedly overwrought story and eager to see what specific lip service Marvel will give their fans (Spider- Man cameo? Guardians maybe? Whatever happened to Bucky Barns?). I'd be lying if I said I wasn't giddy too. Who's thirteen year-old self wouldn't want to see beautiful people in skintight outfits (or iron armor) blowing things up and being forces of good. Yet with so many popular films doing similar things, is there room for movies that truly challenge the mind and enrich the soul?

Ex Machina (2015) is certainly one for the books and in my view a watershed in sci-fi. A science fiction film with state of the art special-effects which nonetheless offers a small, quiet and poignant parable of the human condition. Domhnall Gleeson (of Harry Potter fame) plays Caleb a mid-level coder for Bluebook; a Google-type internet search engine company. He's won a competition and is given the opportunity to meet and work with reclusive and brilliant CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The assignment at first is a mystery. Caleb meets Nathan at his quiet estate nestled in the mountains of a place unknown. After an off-putting introduction, Caleb is introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander), an A.I. humanoid. He's told his job is to conduct a Turing test of sorts. He must decide whether or not she is the first of her kind; not just artificial intelligence but real intelligence.

We've seen dumb down versions of this theme before from the Bicentennial Man (1999) to I, Robot (2004) yet in Ex Machina's case there's a much more contemplative tone. Much of this must be credited to its deliberate pacing and slow-cooking suspense. Yet we mustn't ignore the unforgettable visuals which evokes the austerity of Ingmar Bergman yet with a utilitarian twist. First time director Alex Garland seems to have a real eye for capturing beauty in everything from the intimidating grandeur of the glacier ladened mountains of Norway to the simplicity of a kitchen counter-top. They say that a great movie is three great scenes and no bad ones but in Ex Machina's case, every scene is breathtaking.

Story-wise, Ex Machina asks a lot more questions than gives answers. It's a ballsy move reserved only for the greatest of the great like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Persona (1966) and 3 Women (1977). There are cues in the film lifted from the aforementioned but A.I. as a subject has never looked and felt more beguiling than in Ex Machina. I'm slightly disappointed that the movie pulled its last punches of philosophical and psychological contemplation in favor of a potboiler final act. It is also disappointing that the majority of the audience I was with, concluded the movie was a cautionary tale and not a meditation on self-actualization. Ava, while exhibiting all the skin-deep trappings of an A.I. unit (wires, hardware, perfect diction and extensive vocabulary), she approaches every new sensation and experience with wonder. She sees Caleb as a curiosity then later as a confidant. She looks at Nathan with actual fear and resentment.

It's funny to think I have the opposite reaction to Her (2013) an impressive movie most audiences found to be rather charming but I saw as a cautionary tale. In Her, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) was never prone to violence like Ava can be yet in Her, it was pretty much stated the operating systems have moved beyond humans. Ava doesn't "move beyond" humans or at least not explicitly. The last tableaux is indicative of this. I won't ruin it lest to say Ava never seems to loose her sense of wonder. Here's hoping we never do either; even if our sense of wonder is limited to superhero movies.

Zombeavers (2014)
Almost Exactly What You'd Expect, 10 April 2015

B-Movie, laughable horror comedy, raunchy and bloody gore-fest; these are the words that many would use to describe Zombeavers. If you see those words scribbled here or there and are not turned off by the title I'm sure you'll get something out of this movie. Honestly me writing anymore would be a waste of time...yet I continue.

Zombeavers takes place near a remote cabin in the Indiana woods. Three college sorority sisters are driving up for a weekend so one can recoup from a bad breakup and the others can spend time away from their boyfriends. What the ladies don't realize however is their picturesque cabin along the lake is home to a family of mutant zombie-beavers who are out for blood. The boyfriends of course follow the women up to the lake guaranteeing a few more fresh corpses.

This may not be the best movie review to bring this up, but when did horror movies become less about making you scream and more about making you laugh? The line between the two emotions is fine, I get that but it seems that since Cabin in the Woods (2012) they don't even try anymore. There isn't any buildup in Zombeavers, there isn't any suspense, there aren't even any cheap jump scares in this movie just a decent stream of chuckles amid at a completely self-aware movie.

All this almost covers up the fact that the visuals, the draw of any good movie, aren't very good. Moments before the predictable horror clichés consist largely of characters sitting or standing around trading barbs or banter. There's no unease being brewed behind the camera, just people blocking the scene like they're doing a high school play.

The beavers themselves were not the stuff of nightmares. Is it too much to ask that a B-horror movie have monsters that look the part at least a little? I'm not scared of Muppets, and as the gag real at the end showed the arbitrary sacrificial dog wasn't scared either.

I can't believe we've gotten to this point but we need to ask more of our low-brow schlockers. Never expect that they pull off the scares and guffaws in equal measure but at least expect they try. If noise like this becomes the norm we'll never see another Sam Raimi or another Peter Jackson. Instead we'll just get a slew of big- headed film students who'll think they can make a movie out of anything.

4 out of 11 people found the following review useful:
A Spoof lacking Character, 16 March 2015

How do you parody something that already parodies itself? James Bond boasts 23 cannon films. 25 if you include David Niven's Casino Royale (1967) and Sean Connery's remake of Thunderball (1965), Never Say Never Again (1983). Those who venture to see the whole series will no doubt understand just how far-fetched and outlandish the world of James Bond is. Crazy megalomaniacal villains, convenient gadgets, patronizing (at best) treatment of women; Maybe Daniel Craig's severe take as 007 has made audiences forget just how silly the series got.

Kingman: The Secret Service is the story of a British hood named Eggsy (Taron Egerton) who is given the chance to prove his mettle as a member of an elite secret service organization. Colin Firth plays his mentor (code name: Galahad) because years ago his father saved his life during a mission. While Eggsy is in training an eccentric tech billionaire (Samuel L. Jackson) is in the final stages of his nefarious plan to stop global warming. Can the Kingmen stop him before he submerges the world in chaos?

Critics are calling this movie a cheeky send up of the spy film genre. "Stylish, subversive and above all fun..." says the banner over a 74% critic score. I must have missed something. Stylish? I suppose if you think the interiors of an old-timey tailor shop mixed with the interiors of Professor Xavier's School for mutants is stylish. Subversive? Does this movie subvert conventions? No it embraces them. Fun? Well, if your definition of fun is a church full of innocent people getting slaughtered while "Free Bird" plays in the background.

Now I'm not saying that gratuitous amounts of violence can't be fun. Who can't see a movie like Shoot'Em Up (2007) without a sense of awe an infectious giggling. But in that movie there was a premium on innocence. Those not directly related to the plot were omitted from the bloodletting and the one innocent in the film (the baby) was the one thing Clive Owen was protecting. The point driven home in Kingmen is there is no innocence. By virtue of being alive (and living in London, Rio or Kentucky) you're a participant in the villains endgame and an "entertaining" pawn in the story.

But hey, the good guys succeed in the end right? Well they do but the villain convinced nearly every head of state to go with his plan so realistically the world would still descend into chaos anyway. And what of our heroes? An organization that is old-money-rich, white, and British with one co-opted hood laying the kill stroke. Meanwhile the conspiracy they stop is diverse, largely new money and Samuel L. himself is black and if the medallion around his neck is to be believed, Muslim. His ultimate goal: stop global warming. Well if that's not a plot dreamed up by the editorial board of The Daily Mail I don't know what could be.

Each scene that doesn't involve gratuitous violence is rushed at the expense of the actors humanizing their characters. Firth sits in an office full of Sun headlines and explains that each headline represents a day he accomplished a mission for the Kingmen and the world never noticed. Egerton leaves his mother's house by taking a moment to comfort his little baby sister. These are moments that could have shown emotional resonance but were undermined by the villain making an appearance and Egerton escaping baddies with parkour respectively. Why get to know the characters at all when we could briskly move onto the next martial-arts set piece.

All in all, Kingman is an overloaded male fantasy with a fatalistic view of human behavior and an insultingly out of touch, Anglos- know- best mentality. The action, while occasionally cool to look at, can't hide its hatred filled heart and its attempts at parody are at the very most half-assured. Yet despite all this, I'm taken aback by the movie's critical success and the formation of a cult following. What is society coming to when we celebrate the demise of hundreds with computer chips in their neck and laugh at the potential deaths of billions who only wanted free cellphone service.

1 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
A Cautionary Tale That Speaks Volumes, 14 February 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Movies are meant to entertain right? The primary focus of a movie should be to distract right? If you sincerely believe that stay as far away from Taxi Driver (1976) as you possibly can. It's not that Taxi Driver is boring, far from it. It's that it doesn't sugarcoat or enthrall its audience with flashy special-effects or a twisty- turny tale. It's a movie about being; specifically a movie about being the darkest most menacing version of yourself. It's a movie that forces you to confront and battle your innermost demons and you may not like who you are by the end of it.

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is a Vietnam veteran looking for a job. After a short interview he's given the graveyard shift at a Taxi company thus exhausting the small, slim cords that tether him to the faulty structures of the human condition. He meets an underage prostitute (Jodie Foster) an aspiring Presidential Candidate (Leonard Harris), a homicidal cuckold (the director himself) among a menagerie of different characters all peeling away at his inner psyche. That is when he isn't doing that to himself in his isolated apartment.

When first watching Taxi Driver I watched it on the 14" screen of my old college TV set. I lived alone in a basement apartment next to the University and I worked nights as a University Police helper of sorts. I had no girlfriend and angry because of it. I had a handful of friends who I was "too busy for" and parents I still resented because I was still technically a teenager. I almost wept watching Taxi Driver because I felt Bickle's isolation. I automatically sympathized with the character on a most intimate level...then the third act of the film started.

A progression of events turn Bickle from a well-meaning if socially inept loner into a monster of sorts. Everything became a blur of violence and reactionary machismo. I no longer knew him. I no longer knew myself. He was a funhouse mirror of who I could possibly become. It was downright scary.

Director Martin Scorsese eases the audience into his grimy nocturnal New York City by first showcasing the alternatives; the moral compasses of fellow cab driver Wizard (Peter Boyle) and Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) a campaign worker who Travis fancies. Wizard shows concern for Travis but every time he attempts to connect Travis bristles. Betsy is uneasy around Travis and ultimately his attempts to woe her fall embarrassingly flat, further pushing him into isolation and the hellish cityscape. His last solace is Jodie Foster, a runaway and prostitute who is being taken advantage of by her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel). His attempt to redeem himself through her becomes the violent and ultimately selfish conclusion to his sordid tale.

There is a popular film theory that Bickle suffered from PTSD which while probably true I feel takes away from the movie's universal impact. I am a larger fan of Slavoj Zizek's analysis where he claims Taxi Driver is a loose remake of The Searchers (1956). In both a cynical anti-hero and veteran attempts to save a young woman from what he doesn't really understand. When "successful" they are unable to return to the life they had. Like a fallen angel Travis, like Ethan in The Searchers is still alone and unsatisfied.

When I think of the hatemongers of the KKK or the misogynistic voices of the "Men's Rights Movement" I think of Travis Bickle and by extension my college-aged self. All want to accomplish what they feel are worthwhile goals but do so as reactionaries. Some have been known to be borderline violent and all see through a lens of selfishness. Thankfully I grew out of that stage in my life and while I can't 100% pin that maturity on Taxi Driver I can say that Taxi Driver is an uncomfortable watch that made me a slightly better person.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
It Had So Much Potential, 6 February 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Imagine a world where no one had the ability to lie. Everyone told the truth forever and always until one day an unassuming man came up with the idea of making something not be, be. It's a concept so simple and so rich with possibilities that it's a wonder it hadn't been thought up before. With that simple concept comes a swirl of ideas ranging from how people perceive their world and their relationships to how ideas like religion and advertising came to being.

Sadly The Invention of Lying does not take advantage of its amazing premise. Instead of pushing the boundaries by dipping it in absurdity and taking deadly aim at its possible victims it only grazes the target and binds the story in a formulaic romance while trying desperately to remain realistic. Our amiable lead Ricky Gervais tries so hard to be just that, amiable. A bad move which makes me miss the misanthropic dentist of Ghost Town (2008) and the clever ascorbic stand-up he's famous for. Cleverly portrayed characters and smile-inducing cameos are pushed to the side to give the romance breathing room and the satire while occasionally inspired cannot overcome the clichés of the movie's second and third act.

The film starts with a down-on-his-luck writer (Gervais) who has called in a favor from a friend. He's on a date with Anna (Jennifer Garner) a woman way out of his league as said and understood by her, himself and the waiter of the restaurant. A day later Gervais is fired from his job at Lecture Films (a studio that makes documentaries of sorts) and is behind on rent. While at the bank retrieving the remainder of his cash he comes up with an idea. What if he tells the bank teller he has more in his account than he does. Thus he begins a web of lies that changes his life and spirals into a religious movement complete with him writing all the information he "knows" about "the man in the sky" on the back of pizza boxes.

Again, on paper this idea is too good to not have happened until now. Even when the movie swerves into spiritual territory where Hollywood oft-not go, it mines its high-concept with wit and insight to spare. Then we're stapled back into the perfunctory romance. Unlike most comedies where it's tacked on, here its the center of the story. A little less Life of Brian (1979) and a little more 27 Dresses (2008).

And what of the religious/spiritual undertones? Religion, the afterlife and God are, in the film, fictional but serve all- important functions that benefits the society of Invention of Lying. An afterlife gives a cold and confusing universe meaning the movie posits. While the human race has made progress in understanding the evident truths of natural laws and has made great strides in science there's still the nagging question of where we go when we die. Therefore the characters naturally seek comfort in things that require an amount of faith even if that faith is limited to whether one man is telling the truth or not.

The second all-important function of religion and the one which gets the most attention is it gives non-alphas the chance to live and possibly enter the gene pool. in other words The Invention of Lying makes a valiant effort to explore Patton Oswalt's sky-cake argument. The second "purpose" is enough to give a sane person pause. The world of Invention of Lying has a very uncomfortable eugenic-y vibe. Jonah Hill and Louis C.K. play with the notion of killing themselves and/or enter extended periods of self-loathing largely because their genes just aren't palpable to attractive women. Garner's character while goodly enough to go out with Gervais in the first place repeatedly mentions or is coaxed into believing his genes are inferior saying "I don't want fat kids with snub noses." You mean to say if we always told the truth we'd never take personality, talents/abilities or personal history into account when it comes to relationships? And if we did (which I believe we would) does that make Garner's character worth all this grief?

Evolution deniers and theological conspiracy theorists like to link Progressive/secularist/humanist/scientific thought with some kind of weird fascistic breeding-cult endgame. If evolution is a thing and religion is made up then we should naturally weed out "inferior" genes so human dominance of the natural world would continue right? Plus is not like there's some all-knowing moral guide who can stop or punish us for doing just that. Yeah, let's please all agree that notion is a disgusting and offensive thought. Yet The Invention of Lying seems to give those idiots ammo to call those on the other side of the cultural divide fascist. After all the love story in the film is ultimately reduced to a cost-benefit analysis much of which revolves around (drumroll) genetics.

And now I'll get off my soapbox and stop reading way into the motivations of this movie and of the American religious-right. Even if you get none of what I just expanded on from this movie, the fact remains that The Invention of Lying doesn't take full advantage of its premise and sadly surrenders to the conventions of romantic comedies everywhere. It pulls its punches when it comes to its most controversial bits and ultimately it feels like a flat compromise with small gleeful moments of inspiration.

Soul Plane (2004)
Not Exactly Torture, 6 February 2015

Soul Plane (2004) was one of those films recommended to me by a friend, meant entirely as a gentle ribbing at my expense. The idea is I sit through it, write a scathing review and everyone gets a good hardy- har. Turns out watching Soul Plane isn't exactly suffering. Let me explain.

Kevin Hart plays the part of Nashawn an aspiring entrepreneur who after a terrible flying experience decides to start his own airline. On his plane's maiden voyage however things don't go according to plan thanks largely to a glut of eccentric passengers and the pot smoking Captain of ceremonies Mack (Snoop Dogg). Can the newly minted N.W.A. Airline make a safe trip from Los Angeles to New York and more importantly can this crude and blatant rip-off make it into the audience's hearts and minds.

I don't think I'm giving much away by saying yes, by-the-skin-on- their-teeth, just barely yes to both questions. Instead of outrageous parody anchored by puns, visual gags and innuendo Soul Plane proudly wears its colors as a raunchy, dirty and stereotype filled send up to the mile-high club. Even when the jokes were as stale as a rejected In Living Color (1990-1994) skit I couldn't help but crack a smile or two. I hate to admit it but Soul Plane should be what Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg should aim for (largely because they might actually achieve this D+ standard of excellence if only they actually tried).

What makes Soul Plane palpable to put it simply is its energy. Much like its largest influence Airplane! (1980) every joke pops out of the wormwood in fast progression so for every groaner there are just as many chuckle-worthy moments even if every chuckle is coaxed like sentimentality is forced out of an Adam Sandler movie. Additionally the movie has some actual thoughts when it comes to black culture, air travel, family and love; not always good or well-established thoughts but enough nuggets of cogency to warrant pause.

There is also something to be said about the established theme of entrepreneurship. Nashawn bravely and knowingly accepts the risk of owning and operating a business. A business which for four hours is responsible for the lives of a plane-full of people. In real life the decisions he makes would make him criminally negligent but in the world of Soul Plane he's freakin' Andrew Carnegie. It's not quite clear why he wants to accept such responsibility (fame, money, attention) though in a near-gushy moment he admits his fears but affirms what his mother always told him, he needs to try.

I've become increasingly aware that in today's franchise-laden movie-scape the themes of today have been boiled down to Good vs. Evil and Evil=destroy the planet. So despite its myriad of hack-job japes, lazy stereotyping and low-hanging-fruit crudity, Soul Plane manages to be, at least partially, about a man looking to be successful by starting a business, being true to his family and owning up to his mistakes. Not a bad message for a movie who un- apologetically crams a poop joke in the first five minutes.

Post-script warning: This movie co-stars Tom Arnold as the only semi-normal white perspective in the entire movie so if that isn't you particular cup-o'-latte then don't even bother.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Theory of Everything Illuminates Little, 1 December 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I was never much of a scientist growing up. Not because I didn't find the answers to the complexities of the natural world fascinating but because I was never patient enough to do much of the leg work. The forming of hypotheses, the testing, the recording of data the rigorousness of the scientific method etc. I much rather read about the newest discoveries than dedicate eons discovering them myself.

The Theory of Everything (2014) is much like the rushed scribbles of scientific data I jotted down in grade school. There's a modicum of passion and a dollop of research but ultimately there's not much behind it. At best it's a straight-forward, paint-by-the-numbers biography with a little directorial flare and two very strong performances by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. It's reminiscent of The Last Station (2009) for that reason only there's even less reverence to the protagonist's life's work. I dare say at worst The Theory of Everything is a subversive insult to one of the smartest men alive.

The film plots the relationship of physicist Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) and Jane Wilde (Jones) which budded while they studied at Cambridge in the 60's. It was during that time Stephen contracted ALS and was given only two years to live. Decades later he and Jane married and had three children all while Stephen achieved his doctorate, published his infamous book A Brief History of Time and becomes celebrated as a leader in his field.

He's also an atheist. If you didn't know that rest assured it will be brought up again and again. It seems scribe Anthony McCarten wanted to mold an atheist character like screenwriters wrote gay characters in the 90's. Nearly every scene of courtship is overshadowed by talk of religion and later in the film when the differences between quantum mechanics and general relativity are expressed all we really got was the phrase "God is back on the endangered species list." Along with his ALS, his atheism and a general understanding of his job, there's nothing really underlining the character or the importance of Hawking's contributions to the world. This is a man who changed the way we see the universe like no one has since Einstein. Yet a biographical rendering on screen is given even less pomp and circumstance than John Nash in A Beautiful Mind (2001). At least there was a mystery afoot in that movie. The polish and conventionality of this film actually does the man a disservice as it doesn't draw attention to anything other than the bittersweet 30-year love story. His revolutionary mind? Forget about it.

I will give credit to director James Marsh for treading the very thin tightrope of cliché romance tropes. He manages to throw in a few saccharine moments here and there but pulls his punches before they become manipulative. Thing is he employs this strategy so often that many times I felt like I entered the room just after the drama had ended and all that's left is a visual imprint of what was.

Ultimately The Theory of Everything is a decent film with great performances, polished if flawed directing and boring screen writing. It's flawed because it's a safe movie about a man who is anything but; who did the research and the long hours to accomplish a lot. I suppose there is some consolation to that though. At least now more people will actually know who he is and will search on their own for what he's actually done.

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