Friday, June 10, 2016

Warcraft, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Sing Street, The Meddler Reviews

Dir. Duncan Jones
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Movies based on video games don't have the best track record. Just recently we've seen Hitman: Agent 47, Ratchet and Clank, and Need for Speed tank both critically and commercially. The state of video game movies is much like how comic book movies used to be - considered as trashy b-movies not meant to be taken seriously. What the genre (if you can call it that) needs right now is the equivalent of Tim Burton's Batman or Bryan Singer's X-Men to legitimize it for the masses. When it was announced that Duncan Jones, the brilliant director behind Moon and Source Code would be directing Warcraft, it seemed like we just might have finally made that breakthrough. So, after 20-some odd years after the release of the Super Mario Bros. movie, is Warcraft finally the "Batman" of video game adaptations we've been waiting for, to usher in a whole new era of big-budget video game movies? I wish. Instead, it's yet another mind-numbing, cluttered, boring mess of a film that only reinforces the idea that video games don't inherently make for good movies.

The story follows two factions - the orcs and the humans. The orcs' homeworld is dying, so Gul'dan (Daniel Wu) leads the orc clans through a magical portal to a lush land called Azeroth. However, Gul'dan needs to suck the souls out of people to keep the portal open to bring the whole orc Horde through, so he basically wages war on the humans in Azeroth. Some of the humans defending the kingdom include military commander Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel, Vikings), a young mage (Ben Schnetzer), a "Guardian" (Ben Foster - I honestly am not sure what a 'guardian' actually guards in this world, but he's basically a wizard) and the King (Dominic Cooper). None of these characters have any depth to them whatsoever. The only characters with anything interesting going on are the orc Durotan (Tony Kebbell) and the half-orc, half-human Garona (Paula Patton). Durotan's "complexity" is that he's a father and isn't buying Gul'dan's war plans to wipe out the human's world. Garona is "complex" in that she doesn't fit in with either side, and fights more for what she thinks is right than any sign of loyalty. But, what little we're given amounts to nothing, as the film pretty much devolves into mindless CGI-filled action.

First off, what works: most of the special effects are incredible. The skin and hair texture on the orcs look as "real" as you could imagine a giant fantastical creature could look. Any time the orcs were on screen I really bought into the world - the set design, costuming, the environment (all of which I'm sure came from the game) were spot on. However, on the human side of things, we're witness to grade-A schlock. The humans' costumes look straight outta Comic-Con, and poor Paula Patton, wearing what appears to be those cheap vampire teeth you can buy at any Halloween store, tries to act through what looks like something out of the Battlefield Earth art department. It's laughably bad. I did also really enjoy the bombastic music score by Ramin Djawadi (who usually just makes "generic" stuff - this is by far his best work yet).

I can't think of much else to say that's positive. Besides the look of the orcs and the score, this was just painful to sit through. Having never played either the original Warcraft or World of Warcraft, maybe I'm just missing something, but this is flat out poor storytelling. It's a muddled mess with plot holes, unmemorable action scenes and iffy acting. While Fimmel, playing "our hero," looks the part, his delivery is so stale, I wasn't even sure if certain lines were meant to be comedic relief or not. Also, although the orcs look great, whenever the CGI and human elements mix together, the artificiality of the film became way too noticeable for me. One of the reasons why Peter Jackson's original Lord of the Rings trilogy works so well is because he found that exact right balance between practical reality and visual effects. Particularly in a fantasy film, I want to feel transported and lost in another world - I don't want to be constantly reminded that a team of craftsmen were behind every shot.

I'm a huge fan of Duncan Jones' previous films Moon and Source Code - which are MUST SEE films - but Warcraft feels too much like a mindless studio "franchise grab," despite the fact that Jones is clearly a fan of the source material as this project has been in the works for close to 10 years. I don't know if it will play better or worse with people who've actually spent a lot of time with the game, but for me, as a fan of movies, this was just bad. It'd be less tedious to slowly level up by killing boars in World of Warcraft than to sit through this garbage.

Rating: D

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Dir. Jorma Taccone & Akiva Schaffer
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The Lonely Island, a pop music-comedy triumvirate made up of Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, and Andy Samberg, were one of the best things to happen to SNL in its recent history. Their hilarious, catchy pop tunes like "Dick in a Box," "I'm on a Boat," and "Like a Boss" not only are irreverently brilliant, but they popularized the idea of SNL's 'Digital Short,' coming right at the time when "going viral" became a big deal. I've been listening to them for years now, so I was excited to see what their feature film debut would be. Popstar appeared to basically be a Spinal Tap for this generation of self-important pop stars - the title itself alluding to the Justin Bieber documentary Never Say Never. While the film certainly has some hilarious moments and catchy, offensive songs that you wouldn't want to be caught singing, overall it was disappointing for me. The humor isn't so much 'smart' as it is cloying and juvenile, and instead of presenting a narrative as clever, interesting, and bizarre as their music videos, this mockumentary plays out the same exact way as every other "behind the music," "rise and fall of a star" story out there and comes off as a name-dropping cameo-fest.

Andy Samberg stars as Conner4Real, a successful solo artist who first came to the spotlight in a boy band called the Style Boyz. He had a falling out with the songwriter, Lawrence (Schaffer), and pursued a solo career with the other of the Boyz, Owen (Taccone), as his DJ. While Conner's first album was a success, his follow-up is not so much (one website giving it out of four stars: a 'shit emoji'). Popstar essentially records Conner's not-so-humble downfall and ultimate rise, eventually realizing the power of friendship and getting the Boyz back together.

What I loved about the movie: the songs are yet again top notch, and are as well-produced as anything you'd hear on the radio. I will definitely be listening to this soundtrack for a while. Songs like 'I'm So Humble,' featuring a holographic Adam Levine and 'Incredible Thoughts' with Michael Bolton hilariously skewer the giant egos of some celebrities. Also, one of the most genius tunes in the film has already made the rounds on the Internet: 'Finest Girl,' in which a young girl requests to be...f*cked like the US fucked Osama Bin Laden. It takes a certain kind of twisted, determined mind to not only write a song with such a concept, but to actually see it through to the end, and create a legitimately well-produced track with those insane lyrics. However, even these songs aren't nearly as funny in the film as they are presented in their online music videos; the songs in Popstar are mostly recorded as "concert footage," and they definitely lack the kind of comic energy from the digital shorts.

Overall, this isn't a terrible movie, it's just not particularly memorable, and less jokes landed than hit for me. I think Andy Samberg's humor works much better in small doses, especially since he seems to be mugging for huge laughs every time he's on screen. The pacing of the film also feels weirdly rushed and edited so rapidly that some jokes don't even have time to register (I could be wrong, but it feels like this might be the case just so they could shoehorn in as many celebrity-friend cameos as possible). I also think the target here may be too easy - pop stars are already so ridiculous that Samberg's antics don't even appear that shocking. While I give them credit for trying to stretch the Lonely Island brand to the big screen, Popstar confirms to me that The Lonely Island's schtick is better fitted for Youtube.

Rating: C+

Sing Street
Dir. John Carney
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John Carney made headlines recently for some controversial comments he made about his Begin Again actress Keira Knightley, calling her out for being kind of a snob on set. In effect, Sing Street, his follow-up, features a decidedly "no-name" all-Irish cast, much like his breakout film Once. Again tackling the "modern musical" genre, Carney presents a coming-of-age story set in Dublin in 1985, during the height of New Wave artists like Duran Duran and A-ha. The film follows Conor (first-time actor Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), an aimless 15-year old whose parents' marriage is deteriorating, his older, pot-smoking brother is living at home (Jack Reynor, looking like an Irish Seth Rogen), his Catholic school master is a grade-A asshole, and all the while the Irish economy is in a slump, causing many people to move to London or the US. Raging with both his personal life and his hormones, 16-year old Raphina (Lucy Boynton), decked out in 1980's garb, catches Conor's eye one day and he invites her to star in a music video for his band. When she says 'yes,' he goes to form said band. This is when things start turning around for Conor, and the band provides the springboard for Carney to yet again express to audiences the life-changing power of music.

While it does fall to convention at points, and at times feels pretty sappy, I have to say I was totally charmed by this movie. The Knightley-less no-name cast of characters felt authentic and likable, the songs were catchy and fun, and it has a quirky sense of humor. Similarly to We Are the Best!, a Swedish film following a group of young girls forming a punk band, Carney really captures the energy of youth finding out who they are through music itself, which seems to be the perfect conduit for young people to express themselves when they haven't found their way through life or "figured it out" yet. Well, I'm not sure that anyone on the planet has really "figured it out," but journeying alongside the lives of these fleshed out characters and listening along with their new wave jams is a great way to try.

Rating: A-

The Meddler
Dir. Lorene Scafaria
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Even in bad movies Susan Sarandon delivers - luckily The Meddler isn't a bad movie. Sarandon plays Marnie Minervini, who after the death of her husband has moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles to live closer to her love-lorn workaholic daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne). The two personalities obviously clash, but not in an over-the-top, eye-rolling way; Lori and Marnie's mother-daughter relationship feels very human and realistic. As the title suggests, Marnie meddles her way into her daughter's life, even at one point seeing her therapist to ask if she's OK. When Lori pleads with her mother to respect her boundaries, the retired Marnie takes her giving spirit elsewhere, going all around Los Angeles, helping people she barely knows, whether being a chauffeur for an Apple store worker, or presenting one of Lori's acquaintances with a seaside wedding. In what could have been a grating, emotionally manipulative character, Sarandon plays with just the right amount of vulnerable generosity. You get the sense that she finds it easier to help others than to help herself, and the film, in a soft, charming way, presents a heart-warming story of overcoming loneliness and grief.

Even though the story at times feels like a lightweight "tragicomedy," the performances really ring true here, and I found myself laughing at Marnie's antics and emotionally connecting with the characters. Marnie's coping mechanism of being overly-generous is a little quirky, and the basic premise of an overbearing mom has been done to death, but for some reason Lorene Scafaria's deft handling of the material worked for me, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't get a little misty during certain scenes. The Meddler is the kind of movie that will make you want to call your mom afterwards.

Rating: B

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