Original US release date: May 30, 2014
Production budget: $40,000,000
Worldwide gross: $87,189,756
Hot off the success of 2012’s Ted and the continued popularity of “Family Guy”, Seth MacFarlane was riding high and feeling confident. He was feeling confident enough to try something new: a crude, situational comedy set in the wild west. He put together a stellar cast to come along for the ride in Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson, and several fantastic cameos while, as with Ted, he took the directing reigns for himself. Unlike that film, however, MacFarlane also assumed the lead role. Critics and audiences loved Ted yet, even though the style of humor was much the same, they generally rejected A Million Ways to Die in the West. Did the film deserve such treatment?
MacFarlane plays lovable loser Albert. Albert is well aware of the ludicrous nature of the wild west and how, in this time, it’s dangerous simply to be alive. His only respite from the pure terror of simple, everyday life is his girlfriend Louise (Seyfried). After Louise breaks up with him, Albert meets Anna (Theron), the professional and romantic partner of Clinch Leatherwood (Neeson), the most notorious criminal in the territory. Anna works to help Albert improve his confidence and win back his beloved Louise.
As I mentioned before, A Million Ways to Die in the West employs much the same style of humor as Ted, but without the quirky and unique concept. Setting the film in the late-1800s certainly sets the film apart from others within its genre, but the level of inventiveness in terms of its concept is not quite on par with an anthropomorphic frat boy teddy bear. Much of the success of Ted lay within its high-concept appeal. Without that, A Million Ways probably had an uphill battle from the start.
I can understand it if not all of the humor is appealing to everyone. MacFarlane is a clever and witty guy, but he also complements that wit with a fair helping of crass toilet humor. Toilet humor has never been my thing and this movie did nothing to change that. But there’s enough intelligent humor throughout the film that I’m willing to take the bad in order to enjoy the good.
And there’s plenty of good. For much of the film, MacFarlane takes a Jerry Seinfeld/Larry David approach, invoking lots of wild-west-centric observational humor and plenty of funny-because-it’s-true comedy, in addition. MacFarlane excels at this sort of thing and, while I don’t mind when it’s infused with cruder elements, I wish he would focus entirely on these stylings and leave things such as laxative jokes on the cutting room floor. He’s better than that and the film attains a certain charm when he leaves the Lowest Common Denominator humor behind and focuses on doing and presenting the things that other people in the business aren’t thinking of.
The film is also not without heart. There’s a nice character arc as well as lessons that can be applied to everyday life. None of this is particularly new to film, but it may be a bonus to certain viewers who are looking for something in addition to the comedy. Honestly, I don’t know how much crossover there is from the group who loves MacFarlane’s comedic style into the group who likes to get the warm fuzzies. Clearly MacFarlane is one. And I guess I’m another. But I doubt there are too many of us. So, chances are good that if MacFarlane were to stick to being funny and leave out the warm-heartedness, the box office for films such as A Million Ways might be significantly larger. It’s likely that – upon being exposed to this material that leans a little deeper – his target audience loudly protests that they aren’t getting what they signed up for and drives others away. It’s a shame that it would come to that, but it seems to be a more frequent occurrence that filmmakers must choose between making money and being true to their own vision. In that case, I would never encourage anyone to sell out their brainchild for the sake of others who will likely be unappreciative of their efforts, no matter what they consist of.
The bottom line is that the film isn’t perfect – and it’s a little long for a comedy – but it’s consistently funny and entertaining. There will almost certainly be components that any individual viewer won’t care for, but the majority of the humor is clever and delivered impeccably by a fantastic cast, so it’s worth the time in spite of its flaws. I enjoyed re-watching it, myself, and laughed out loud a quite a few occasions. MacFarlane has a unique outlook on the world that repeatedly makes me wonder why I didn’t think of it first. If you’re open to some crassness mixed in with your wittiness, you can do much worse than A Million Ways to Die in the West.
This weekend, I took myself a little trip down to Greenville, South Carolina, for the third annual South Carolina Comicon. The fledgling con is growing in size rather quickly and is already attracting many thousands of people, as I witnessed, firsthand. This was my first time attending, but I’m a con veteran (it was my third convention in four weekends, including a cross-country trip to Seattle for Emerald City Comic Con).
I am a collector of many geek-related items, one of which is photos with and autographs from anyone who has appeared in a Marvel Cinematic Universe film or television show. I have done rather well in this venture, securing names such as Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner, and just three weeks ago in Seattle, Vincent D’Onofrio and Evangeline Lilly. While I respect these people for their work ethic and talent and appreciate the quality entertainment that they provide me, I don’t place them on a pedestal. I don’t get nervous and I in fact enjoy talking to them about the work and – if there’s time – learning a bit about filmmaking from them. I look at this as a collecting exercise, in which I can flip through my binder-o’-8’X10″s and think back to cool little moments when I got to live in a different world, just for a second.
Appearing at this particular convention was Spencer Wilding. He is best known as portraying the one and only Darth Vader in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. But he was also the Mean Guard in 2014’s crowd-pleasing MCU blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy. Sure, the role wasn’t exactly Captain America or the Hulk, but it counts, and one of my goals for the con was to add him to my MCU binder.
So, let’s jump to this past Friday. My drive to Greenville is extended by an unnecessary 90 minutes due to three traffic jams. And I have also worked a full day, teaching at the university. So, by the time I arrived at the hotel, I’m pretty tired. Also, my dad wanted to do a father/son weekend, so he met me there, arriving several hours before I was able to.
Upon my arrival, knowing my dad is already there, I approach the front desk to get the key to my own separate room. There are a couple of different desk clerks helping the incoming guests and, after a few minutes, the first available clerk pleasantly asks me how she can help. I immediately notice that she has a warm, yet quirky personality, and she also happens to be rather cute. This isn’t all that uncommon, though; there are attractive people everywhere and we all see them, every day.
I show her my ID to confirm that I am who I claim to be. We have a moment of informal banter before she hands me my key and then says . . . something . . . else, but for whatever reason, I’m sure I heard her correctly. I think she said that she is also going to the convention and that she hoped to see me there. I’m toting my Hulk messenger bag full of my sketchbooks, comics, 8″X10″s and all of the other items I need for the show, so I think that perhaps she had seen that, correctly deduced why I was in town, and then attempted to initiate conversation.
Here’s where I need to inform you of something. I suck with women. Really, I’m awful. Putting modesty aside, it’s not because of my appearance, as I’m not hideously deformed and – though I’m not an Olympic athlete – I’m not in horrible shape. I’m not a buffoon, either; I teach at a university, learned to read at two, teach myself advanced mathematical concepts, and am as objectively intelligent as anyone. It’s not because I treat women poorly; I respect all people and get along well with virtually anyone, until they start praising Donald Trump. And it’s not a commitment thing. I hate change; commitment is perfect for me. I love the idea of commitment.
No, when it comes to women, I’m just a f*cking idiot. I don’t know what I’m doing. Some people have trouble seeing things from others’ perspectives. I’m the opposite; I’m capable of seeing things from everyone’s perspective. So, when it comes to approaching a woman that I’m interested in, I ask myself if she would prefer to be approached through method A, B, C, and so on, then I get wrapped up in the fact that I can see the benefits of each approach but I don’t know which one she would prefer, so I get all discombobulated and ultimately screw it up. Every time. A few years ago, I really put myself out there for someone I felt a huge connection with. It ended poorly. And I gave up on the whole thing.
So, with women, despite my best efforts, I’m just a f*cking idiot.
So, what do I do when this beautiful woman tries to initiate a conversation with me about my favorite hobby: going to comic conventions? I pretend I understand her, say, “Duuuuuuh, okay!” and then head up to my room. F*cking idiot.
So, I meet up with my dad and we come back downstairs for dinner. All I’ve had to eat that day since a small breakfast is a pear, a Snickers, and a NesQuik. I’m starved. We eat at the hotel restaurant and I mention that I want some chocolate. He suggests I get a dessert but I don’t want to overdo it, so I figure I’ll just grab something from a vending machine. We head back up to our rooms and I find the vending area, but there are only drinks – no snacks. He goes on to his room to retire for the night, while I head back to the lobby to look for chocolate.
As with many hotels, I find that there is a little “cupboard” near the front desk (basically a small convenience store with snacks, over-the counter meds, and so on). I step in and find my two favorites: Reese Cups and another Snickers. I go to the front desk to pay and my friend from earlier comes to my assistance. Like the moron I am around women I’m attracted to, I drop my Snickers, sending it loudly crashing to the floor.
“Oh, hey, you can get another one, if you want!” she says.
“Awww, okay. That will be . . . four dollars?” she states questioningly, biting her lip and raising her eyebrows as if to say, “I know this is overpriced. Do you still want it?” Of course I do. It’s chocolate.
She says something else, stumbling over her words. I follow in kind, stumbling over my words, as I say, “Earlier, when I was down here, you said something right before I went up to my room, and I didn’t quite catch it. What was it?”
“Oh, the con! I’m going to it, too!” We then have a casual and – more importantly, comfortable – conversation about our respective geekdoms and in which areas our individual interests lie. By the time I head back to my room for the night, I’m intrigued, not just by the content of the conversation, but by her spirit, her smile, and the way she exudes energy.
I wake up at 6:00, the next morning, and meet my dad for breakfast at the hotel. As we eat, I notice an extremely tall man come in and take another table nearby. I catch a glimpse of his face and realize that it’s Spencer Wilding! Darth Vader himself is having breakfast at the next table over!
I quietly say to my dad, “Hey, I paid to have get an autograph from and have a picture with that guy! He was Darth Vader in the new Star Wars movie!” My dad is a smart man, but he’s clueless about geek culture, so I kept it to the basics. He says, “You should just get it now and not pay.” That’s counter to the culture, so I just say, “No, I prepaid and he’s trying to eat. I’ll just see him in a bit.”
The plan is to take only my dad’s car. He was to drop me off at the con and then he was going to go to a car show (cars are his thing, whereas comics and movies are mine), then come back later and pick me up. He also wants to run his car through the car wash. He needs ones and I can’t help, so on our way out, he stops by the front desk.
My new friend is there and breaks a ten for my dad. She tells him to have a good day. I throw her a look and a smile, making eye contact, and she wishes me the same. I wonder if work would keep her from the con.
At the con, I meet Spencer. He is nothing but friendly and gracious. He comments on how much fun he had filming his scene with Chris Pratt in Guardians and he takes a great picture with me. I can’t say anything but positives about my interaction with him.
Dad and I finish going about our business and decide to come back to the hotel to take a break at about 2:00 that afternoon. I had to go back out to the convention to pick up a sketch and then we were meeting other family for dinner at 6:30, but we had a little time. I head back out to my car to grab a couple of things – noticing that the Woman of Interest (I’m going to call her Genie, though this is NOT her name. I just need something by which I can refer to her and don’t want to use her real name) is still at the desk and, on my way back in, I see that she’s now gone. Another woman working the front desk sees me and, asking about the con, says, “How was it?” I think this odd, as I can’t remember seeing or speaking to this woman previously, but as I approach to respond, Genie emerges from the back.
“Not making it to the show?” I inquired.
“Oh, is it closed? I was going to go after work!”
“No, it closes at 6:00.”
“Oh, okay. I’m going to try and make it.”
We proceed to have an easy conversation about Seattle, the fact that she’s from Montana, and the con. I inform her that I’m going back out, myself, so I’ll look for her. She consents and, as I head back to the elevator, she says, “Come back and see us! I’ll be here in the morning!”
Wow! Okay! I think. I then playfully respond: “Well, so will I!”
“I know, WHAT?! CRAZY!”
I’m more intrigued.
She’s not at the desk as I head back out, and I don’t spot her at the show. I have a nice dinner with my family, then relax the rest of the night.
Cut to this morning. I begin to wonder if I should maybe make an effort to maintain contact with Genie, once I leave the hotel. I’m resistant to the idea. Not only have I had enough of the stresses, frustrations, and heartbreaks that tend to come with sort of thing, but we also live three-and-a-half hours apart. Is it even worth the effort, despite the spark and obvious chemistry? I decide to take some of my belongings to my car, see if we interact, and just play it by ear.
I step off of the elevator. I should make a point of saying that, at this hotel, one doesn’t pass the front desk to get from the elevator to the hotel exit. When getting off of the elevator, the front desk is about thirty feet to the right and the exit is about fifteen feet to the left. As I walk towards the exit, I glance to the right to see if I can spot Genie. Sure enough, she’s there. She looks up and sees me, so I throw her a wave. She smiles and says something along the lines of, “Good morning!”
“Good morning!” I retort.
A stutterstep of a pause, and then, “It’s good to see you!” she projects.
Well, this can only be a good sign. “It’s good to see you!” I reply with a smile. Keep in mind that this exchange of pleasantries is occurring across the lobby, with thirty-plus feet of space between us.
On my way back in, I approach her at the desk.
“Did you get to go out, yesterday?”
“No, I didn’t. I’m hoping to make it, today.”
I inform her that I have to go back, one more time, to pick up a final sketch but that the con doesn’t open until noon, so I’m just trying to kill time until then. She thinks and says, “Well, have you eaten breakfast?”
“Um, kind of. I finished the box of Girl Scout cookies I got, yesterday.”
We proceed to have a completely silly, entirely tongue-in-cheek conversation about Thin Mints, how delicious they are, and their health benefits. It was goofy and fun and exactly the sort of banter I enjoy having. We finally formally exchange names and shake hands, as I make a joke about how it’s awful late to be doing such a thing, seeing as I’m about to leave. “Well, we still have the rest of our time,” is her reply.
I don’t want to take up her time on the clock and maybe get her in trouble, so I say, “Well, I’ll be back down in a bit.”
“Okay!” she says, cheerfully.
I head to my room and lay there, asking myself if it’s truly a good idea to make any effort that would potentially extend contact beyond today. I’m awful at reading women and their level of interest (see the previous f*cking idiot references) but I didn’t see her interacting with anyone else the way she had been with me, so I’m torn. I decide to give her my name and number on a Post-It as I check out and say that she should feel free to use it if she’s ever in my area or if she just wants to say, “Hi”. That way, she isn’t put on the spot by me asking for her contact info and she’s free to reach out to me, or not. If not, no biggie; it’s not necessarily a condemnation of me. After all, I have hang-ups, too, and they have nothing to do with this super-cool person I had stumbled upon. I take a breath, jot my info down, and nervously head downstairs to check out.
I depart the elevator and turn towards the front desk. I see one front desk clerk and then, further down towards the end of the desk is Genie. And Spencer Wilding. Darth Vader, himself. He’s leaned over on the desk, being charming and flirty and she seems to be eating it up. I approach the desk, waiting for her to see me and say something. I hand my key to the other clerk, who thanks me. It’s still just Genie and Spencer. I don’t even exist. I turn around and walk out. And that’s it.
I was just c*ckblocked by Darth Vader.
WHAT . JUST. HAPPENED. Movies and comics are my life. And now the biggest villain in cinematic history just actively prevented me from possibly making a meaningful connection!
Now, please don’t read into my use of the word “c*ckblocked”. That’s just a buzzword that succinctly sums up the situation (unlike this post). This was never about sex for me. I enjoyed talking to this woman. I enjoyed her vibe, her humor, and her whole deal. I simply wanted to let her know that I was open to getting to know her better if she was also interested. If not, fine, but I thought she deserved a say in the matter. That’s it. And I never got the chance. Because of the Sith Lord Vader.
Believe me, I can see the humor of the situation from the outsider’s perspective. Feel free to chuckle; it’s okay, really. It’s incredibly absurd, isn’t it? I always fall back to movies because they never let me down; they only make my life better and not worse. And now this.
But, as funny as it is, I’m also legitimately a bit bummed out. For once, I think I was doing well. I think I was handling it perfectly – exactly as I should. I think she genuinely enjoyed talking to me as much as I did talking to her. I had no expectations. I just wanted to learn more about her. And my plan for achieving that was appropriate – direct, but not too forward. Respectful of her, but taking my own needs and wants into account as well. And then I was thrown off by the most ridiculous of circumstances that left me with no acceptable methods of resolution.
What was I supposed to do? Walk up to her anyway, with Darth Vader doing his thing? In retrospect, that would have been pretty badass, sure. But that’s not who I am. I don’t forcefully interrupt people’s conversations, unless it’s an emergency. And this wasn’t. Maybe this was a sign not to give her my number, right? How can one know? Also, I have to figure that she knew I was there, in all reality, and she made the choice to not acknowledge me. That’s what I think.
But, if not, I had an idea that might have worked. I thought that I could buy a box of those Thin Mints while I was back at the con, return to the hotel before I left town, and presented her with the cookies and the number, both. And I can hear half of you, now: “Yes! You should have! It’s just like something out of a movie!” And I can hear the other half of you: “So glad you didn’t! That kind of thing only works in the movies!” And that’s what it’s like to live in my head.
To be clear, Spencer Wilding did nothing wrong, and I don’t actually have any resentment towards him. It’s the absurdity of the situation and the fact that something always seems to get in my way and keep me single. I just wish it wasn’t the movies, this time.
Life is not a Venom prequel. It’s not. Stop it. There are vague similarities between the alien lifeform in this film and the Klyntarian symbiote made famous by Marvel’s Spider-Man comics, but it ends there. Just because this is a Sony film and Sony also holds the rights to Spider-Man and his cast of supporting characters and villains, some people let their overactive imaginations get away from them and then convinced themselves and others they were onto something. No. Shhhh.
But here’s what Lifeis. Life is a science-fiction/horror film from a burgeoning director in the form of Daniel Espinoza and starring a cast that’s equal parts talent and name-value. It’s also a stylish, atmospheric thriller that’s tonally reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien, while distancing itself from that and other space stories enough to establish and maintain its own identity.
It’s got to be tough being the first alien-centered film to come along after the instant classic (and best alien movie in many, many years – probably even several decades) that we got towards the end of 2016 in the form of Arrival. Fortunately, while – much like Arrival – Life takes a lower-key approach to science-fiction storytelling than your typical action-adventure shootout, there are also plenty of exciting moments and rushes of adrenaline to be found throughout the course of the movie. And there are surprises to be discovered, as well, as the filmmakers play with conventions and zig when you are likely expecting a zag. The running time clocks in at approximately one-hour-and-forty-five minutes, but (for me, at least), it flew by and felt closer to an hour, flat. I was gripped by the twists, thrills, and events playing out on-screen and that’s really all I should need to say about the film. About any film, really.
But you know me.
I wasn’t actually sure what film I was going to see, tonight, until this past Tuesday, or so. I wanted to feel like I could expect something good out of Life before choosing it over the more likely clickbait, Power Rangers. The Rotten Tomatoes score came in strong, but I had a feeling even before that that the film would be a strong one, simply because of the presence of one person: Jake Gyllenhaal. There’s undeniably no questioning the man’s talent, but – more than that – I’ve paid attention to his choice of projects, over the years. He never opts to star in a film unless it has something interesting going on. If he’s listed in the cast, then one can probably be confident that the film will be a good one. I’ve been somewhat critical of him in the past because I want to see him have a little more fun and choose some films that aren’t quite as heavy as what he tends to gravitate towards, but he’s a grown man and can do as he pleases. It’s obviously working out well for him, anyway, so it really doesn’t matter what I want. Having said that, Life is exactly the kind of film that I’ve been wanting to see him in: solid with subtext, but also containing a substantial helping of escapism. And I thoroughly enjoyed Gyllenhaal and the rest of the cast as they helped drive home exactly what astronauts/cosmonauts/whatever-else-you-want-to-call-space-explorers sacrifice for nothing other than the pursuit of discovery and knowledge, only to have that pursuit turn on them in the worst possible way.
This film isn’t as provocative as something like Arrival but, beyond working as an excellent locked-box science-fiction thriller, it also functions pretty nicely as an explosive metaphor for . . . well . . . .life. The gut instinct of every living creature is to simply live for as long as possible. We can accomplish nothing else – be it a personal goal or a biological imperative – if we aren’t alive. The alien creature in this film is not spitefully malicious. It’s not inherently evil. It’s simply trying to survive. As are our protagonists. It’s simple and effective storytelling. And it’s all show-not-tell, which is exactly what this type (and really any type) of film needs to be.
There’s an element of clichéd storytelling as we get further into the narrative and begin to approach the climax but, by that point, the film has built up so much good will with all of it’s other innovative ideas and set pieces that it doesn’t really matter. Plus, as clichéd as this one, single, solitary aspect of the tale may be, it’s also organic, natural, and believable. I will take an honestly-framed cliché over a forced and contrived surprise, any day.
While Life isn’t a soul-searching cinematic masterpiece such as the one that the world is still coming down from after seeing Arrival, it is a smart, sophisticated, sleek little film that enthralls and entertains from beginning to end. There are a lot of genuinely good movies out in theaters, right now ( with something for everyone), and Life is just the latest to come along. So, put Venom out of your mind, head out to your local cinema, and give Life a chance to exist on its own terms. If you jettison your preconceived notions, you never know what you’re going to get. And isn’t that what makes life so exciting?
Original U.S. release date: July 28, 1959
Production budget: $3,100,000
Worldwide gross: $13, 275,000
Alfred Hitchcock is unquestionably one of the most renowned directors in all of film history, yet if one was to ask an average person on the street to name every Hitchcock film they know, most would quickly exclaim, “Psycho!” and then be hard-pressed to come up with another (The Birds would probably come in a distant second). Yet, as highly regarded as Psycho is among film lovers and critics, it’s probably not their most beloved film from his library; that honor would more likely fall to either Vertigo or this film, North by Northwest.
Starring the legendary Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint (a then-future Martha Kent), and James Mason, the film tells the story of Roger Thornhill (Grant), who gets unwittingly and unknowingly swept up into an ongoing game of cat-and-mouse involving law enforcement and a group of spies (led by Mason’s Phillip Vandamm). Throughout his efforts to unravel himself from this less-than-ideal predicament, there are beautiful women (Eve Kendall, played by Saint), mystery, intrigue, humor, and everything that people generally love in their movies.
North by Northwest is certainly a product of its time. The blu-ray version that I own is impeccable, so it doesn’t particularly look or sound as old as it is, but the presentation and execution unquestionably betrays its period of origin. For those who haven’t seen many films from the fifties and sixties, there may be a bit of an adjustment period; the characters are fast-talking (and not always particularly well-enunciating) and larger than life. The more subtle, nuanced performances that modern audiences are accustomed to seeing simply weren’t the typical acting practices of the time. Movie stars were seen as bigger and better than everyday civilians and their performances were crafted to reflect that perception.
So, be ready for exacerbated body language, dynamic dialogue, and type-double-A personalities abound. All I know is that if I used the direct approach on women that Thornhill uses on Kendall (who is nearly a full 20 years his junior, to match), my efforts would not conclude with the same results that his do. My jaw dropped at some of the things he said – in 1959 – to this woman he had just met. Her responses are partially explained by the narrative, but not entirely. This was absolutely a different era and it shows all over the surface of the film.
But, underneath all of that, basic filmmaking fundamentals haven’t changed in the last 58 years and Hitchcock had as firm a grasp on those as anyone. The mystery lays bait early and it’s practically impossible to avoid biting. We follow Thornhill from one exciting locale to the next as he pieces the puzzle together, desperately but confidently taking control of the situation in any way he can fathom in order to get himself out of a situation that he had no role in getting himself into.
Grant is spectacular throughout all of this, oozing an irresistible mix of charm, wit, and conviction – and all while wearing a suit. The film jumps from spy thriller to action film to suspense movie and everything in-between and Hitchcock navigates these transitions effortlessly. There’s even a scene at an auction that plays as straight-up comedy, and Grant excels at this, too.
A pair of iconic action scenes add some adrenaline to the proceedings. The first is a riveting one-on-one encounter between Thornhill and a crop duster that occurs in the middle of the film. The second is a pulse-pounding finale atop one of the United States’ most iconic landmarks. This scene in particular is expertly crafted and features some truly astonishing work by the stuntpeople involved. There were certain moments throughout this finale when I had to stop and marvel at the dexterity and control these professionals had to maintain in order to pull off the required stunts. Amazing work.
The end scene is admittedly rushed, but it’s not a full blindside like the ending of The Birds. It had been a while since I’d seen the film and my thought was, “Well, that wrapped up quickly.” If you were frustrated by the time it took for Return of the King to tie up its loose ends, then you’ll love North by Northwest. Despite that, the journey to get there is full of thrills, laughs, surprises, excitement, sexiness, and that old-school Hollywood panache that has all but evaporated in today’s world of film. This film is an allt0ime classic and an absolute must-see for anyone who purports to be a lover of film.
Despite my best efforts at avoiding intimate knowledge of a film before I sit down to watch it, sometimes, one can’t avoid going into a screening without a preconceived notion of what to expect. I certainly had such a preconceived notion regarding The Belko Experiment. Most of it came from the fact that the screenplay was by James Gunn, best known as the director and co-writer of Guardians of the Galaxy and its upcoming sequel. That original Guardians film is, in my opinion, the highest-quality comic book film ever made. I was expecting much of the same sensibilities from that film to carry over into this one: dark humor, frequent witticisms, memorable characters, and so on.
The Belko Experiment isn’t that kind of movie. This is the James Gunn that brought us Slither and Super. This film is a brainchild of the non-family-friendly James Gunn. And that’s okay. He doesn’t pigeonhole himself into one restrictive style, instead choosing to wear several different hats. It’s good to push oneself and not become complacent and no artist should bend to the will of what the audience expects from them. I have a feeling, however, that this is going to be one of those films with a commonly mistaken director, as the directing duties fall not to Gunn, but to Greg McLean, probably best known for Wolf Creek.
At the simple mention of Gunn having significant creative input, my inner-film geek begins to salivate. He has a fantastic creative mind and it’s impossible to tell exactly where he’ll take his stories. As a result of the expectations that follow such a reputation, I was surprisingly a little underwhelmed by The Belko Experiment.
It’s sometimes said that there is only one actual story to be explored in fiction: Who am I? The Belko Experiment works from that perspective. In essence, it’s the “Who Am I?” story after six Pulp-Fiction-style adrenaline shots to the heart. For 80 characters. Don’t worry; there aren’t 80 full-fledged characters to keep track of. The Belko office begins with approximately 80 workers in the building. And it ends with fewer.
It would be dishonest to suggest that the film isn’t thought-provoking. The larger narrative at play unfolds in practically the only way a situation like this could; that’s not where the introspection comes in. Rather, the fun is involved in seeing how each character (there are about a dozen who are focused on) reacts to the experiment as an individual. Who plays along? Who doesn’t? And why or why not? It’s all presented in a believable fashion (though some of the violence is a little over-the top), with nobody becoming a caricature. I certainly found myself imagining who would be taking what stance if this sort of thing occurred at my own place of employment. Even scarier is that I came up with some potential answers. I’ll continue to choose my friends and acquaintances carefully.
While all of that works fine, the story, itself – again, while conceivable as presented – is almost entirely predictable. There are no true twists or surprises regarding the main story arc. Some of the minor details might offer a bit of a startle, but when it comes to the narrative, I never once thought to myself that I didn’t see something coming. I’m not trying to suggest that this is necessarily a requirement for any given film, but it was pretty clear that some of the “revelations” were intended to be just that: revelatory. Instead, I considered them a natural and inevitable progression of the events that were playing out on-screen. Maybe that’s more of an issue with McLean’s directorial presentation. If these moments hadn’t been framed in a way that communicated their intention to be a shock, then there would be no disappointment for anyone who not only saw them coming, but could envision no other sensible outcome.
In a way, that may come across as a backhanded compliment. Because, under the premise, the film does, indeed, play out sensibly. And anyone should want that for their film. I think McLean should have altered his style a bit, however, in order to strike a tone more derivative of a suspense thriller, who-bites-it-next pulse-pounder, instead of a mystery surrounding who is behind the experiment and what their motivations may be. I believe, with that adjustment, the film would have ended with a bigger bang and not the feeling of having arrived at a foregone conclusion. The Lord of the Flies-style questions about the human condition are valid and provocative as a what-would-you-do? thought experiment but the surrounding entertainment aspects fall victim to tropes and clichés. If you were interested in the film, go ahead and see it. But if you were on the fence, there are four genuinely fantastic blockbusters out, right now, in Get Out, Logan, Kong: Skull Island, and Beauty and the Beast that I would suggest are far more deserving of your time and money.
My excitement level for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, however? Still at maximum capacity.
Well, here we have a big one. It seems like awareness of the new Beauty and the Beast live-action adaptation from acclaimed musical director Bill Condon has permeated every corner of our existence. From the trailer dropping and scoring a record number of views to the latest controversy surrounding LeFou’s (Josh Gad) sexual orientation, the film certainly has the world talking.
I had previously made the bold prediction that this film would end up as the highest-grossing live-action film of all-time that is titled under the Disney brand. In order to do that, it must top the $1,066,179,725 worldwide total earned by Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest back in the summer of 2006.
That’s a lofty goal, but it’s certainly possible. With all of the obvious consumer interest and market penetration, combined with the love and fondness for the 1991 animated classic (the first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. There have been just two others in the years since – Up and Toy Story 3 – but only Beauty and the Beast pulled it off when there were still only five nominees.), the potential is there. After all, last year’s live-action Disney version of The Jungle Book finished its worldwide run with $966,550,600 so I reason that Beauty and the Beast is likely to at least top that film. One has to briefly wonder if the recent controversy will affect its performance at the box office, but, typically, controversy creates cash (except in more damaging cases, such as the fake news story that recently crippled A Dog’s Purpose), so it will be fun to see what happens. Also, a movie will always make more money if it’s good than it will if it’s bad, and reviews have been solid, but not overwhelmingly enthusiastic. So, what’s my take?
In short: almost-overwhelmingly enthusiastic. When Disney’s live-action adaptation of Cinderella was released in 2015, I left the theater deflated and underwhelmed. It wasn’t a bad movie; it was just bare-bones. There was no energy, no creativity, no extra thought put into it in order to make it stand on its own when compared to its animated predecessor. It was a C paper when I was expecting an A paper. I have yet to read any complete reviews of 2017’s Beauty and the Beast (I always wait until I write my own), but I had picked up the impression that this was possibly going to be a repeat of that situation, where the film would be what we saw in 1991’s animated version, only in live-action (maybe even a shot-for-shot remake a la Gus Van Sant’s 1998 version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho). After Disney put out an excellent live-action adaptation of their Jungle Book, last year, and considering that 1991’s Beauty and the Beast is possibly my favorite animated film (it’s in a constant battle with Frozen), that would have been pretty crushing. Happily, I can say that I needn’t have been concerned. The 2017 version is hopelessly devoted to the beloved original while also bringing enough fresh moments and modern sensibility to allow itself its own identity.
The moments you want to see are there. The songs you want to hear are there, and some of them are even extended (no “Human Again”, though, for those of you who enjoyed that previously cut tune that was re-inserted back into the re-release and home video version of the original film. There is a new song that echoes many of the same sentiments as that one, however.). But everything is fleshed out and . . . I’ll say adjusted . . . in order to fit within a fully-realized, live-action environment. The characters are very much the characters you’ve been watching over and over since 1991, but now they’re also more. They’re rounder. They’re more complex. They’re deeper. They have backstory and history. They’re, quite simply (and appropriately), more real. Maurice (Belle’s father, played by Kevin Kline) and LeFou probably benefit the most from this, but Belle (Emma Watson), the Beast (Dan Stevens), and Gaston (Luke Evans) are all more fully realized, with additional motivations and layers that are afforded by the live-action medium (an animated film in 1992 wasn’t going to be gifted a two-hour running time).
That’s not all, though. There are new songs (the best is a heartbreaking number by the Beast), new jokes and gags (one of them genuinely laugh-out-loud funny), and even a new subplot to help the supporting characters shine. Much of the dialogue is lifted directly from the original version, and you’ll be able to sing along with the songs you love (though don’t, unless you’re watching at home. That’s rude.). The songs are sometimes slowed down with extra measures of score in order to allow time to replicate cherished sight gags from the 1991 version that simply can’t occur as quickly in live-action as they can in animation. But Condon finds a way to get them in. He clearly understands the audience and loves the original film, but also manages to put his own personal stamp on this new one.
Let’s talk about Emma Watson. This . . . I almost typed “girl”, but that’s no longer the case, is it? This woman grew up before all of our eyes as she filmed the Harry Potter films. I always had a concern in the back of my mind that she would forever be so strongly associated with Hermione Granger that she wouldn’t get a chance to escape the young wizard’s shadow. (Think Christopher Reeve and Superman.) From the beginning, she was easily the most gifted actor of the entire Hogwarts student body and I felt happy for her tonight as I saw her coming into her own as Belle. She and Belle aren’t twins, but she absolutely embodies the spirit of the character. I never once thought that I was watching Hermione; Watson is Belle, without question. And when she is on-screen, the lavish settings, colorful supporting characters, and her monstrous co-star vanish into the background as she commands the attention of the audience. There’s a sense of freedom to her performance that’s irresistibly infectious. With this film, she matures. She’s radiant. Emma Watson is a bona fide star, now.
The rest of the cast is strong, as well, if not quite as effervescent as Ms. Watson. Kline is remarkably empathetic as Maurice. Evans is positively repulsive as Gaston (in a good way!). Stevens is at once stoic and powerful as the Beast. Gad is fantastic comic relief as LeFou (and that moment you’ve been hearing about? Not that it should matter, but it’s gone in the blink of an eye. Also gone in the blink of an eye? All of your sweet, sweet Beauty and the Beast money, that one theater in Alabama.). Ewan MacGregor does fantastic voice work as Lumiere the candelabra. And I was glad to see Ian McKellan as Cogsworth; maybe he’ll finally find that breakout role and make something of himself and his young career. All of them perfectly toe the line between grounding their characters for live-action and being just ebullient enough to remain larger than life.
I have to admit that I felt the energy of the film drop a bit after the first act. At the beginning – particularly during the performance of “Belle”, the opening number that most of you are familiar with – the film is absolutely permeated with an undeniable electricity that transforms the picture from a movie into a genuine event. I was genuinely swept away by the film. Once Belle gets to the castle, the ardor drops from a level ten to about a level eight. I’m not exactly sure why and it’s entirely possible that it was all in my head and others won’t get the same feeling. It’s an intangible that I can’t yet put my finger on. Other than that, I could nitpick a thing or two (I’m not crazy about Lumiere’s character design, for example), but in the grand scheme of it all, how much weight do those nitpicks really hold?
When the credits rolled, the audience at my screening applauded. That’s all I need to know. People are going to love this film and it’s going to rake in a lot of money. I’m sticking to my prediction; I think it will top Dead Man’s Chest and become the highest-grossing Disney-branded live-action film in history. If so, it’s due to the one-two punch of Condon’s vision and Watson’s heartfelt performance. The nostalgia for the original is only good for the opening weekend. If audiences keep coming back, it’s because of Watson. I’m anxious to next see her alongside my favorite actor Tom Hanks in The Circle. I hope that film can break out and be another hit for both of them. Until then, be Disney’s guest and don’t miss out on being part of the biggest movie event of the year, so far!
Original US release date: July 9, 1982
Production budget: $17,000,000
Worldwide gross: $33,000,000
I had previously seen TRON so long ago (and so infrequently – once, perhaps?) that it was all new to me, again, upon the re-watch for this column. In fact, I remembered more from the TRON world within the “Kingdom Hearts” video game than I did from the film, itself. It wasn’t a movie that I discovered as a kid, so I was introduced to it as an adult.
That’s probably fine, because it’s a little high-concept for a kid, in my opinion. It’s not inappropriate; it’s just sophisticated. The story follows the plight of Flynn (Jeff Bridges), whose video game designs were stolen by Ed Dillinger, the diabolical senior executive of Flynn’s former tech company employer. In order to protect his illegal machinations, Dillinger creates the Master Control Program to guard and control the company’s server and operating system as Flynn works from the outside to hack the system and find the proof he needs to bring Dillinger down and get his games back in his own hands. The events escalate when Flynn is physically sucked into the system, itself, and must now not only find his evidence, but uncover a way out in order to save his own life.
The first thing that struck me is how prescient the film ended up being. I’m not referring to the obvious theme of the artificial intelligence becoming sentient. That hadn’t been seen as often back in 1982 as it has been, by now, but it had still been addressed by other stories before Tron came along.
No, what I’m referring to is the fact that the entire core of the narrative is centered around an instance of intellectual property theft. IP theft is, of course, all the rage, these days. The vast majority of the population is guilty of it and continually finds a way to justify their actions. “It’s just a [movie, TV show, video game]”. So? “Well, I can’t afford to go to the movies, so this is the only way I can see them.” 1. Not true. 2. I can’t afford a Jaguar. Guess what I don’t have? A Jaguar. And it goes on and on. But theft is theft, and in TRON, it’s appropriately treated as such. There was no way that Disney, director Steven Lisberger, or his fellow writers Bonnie MacBird and Charles Haas could have foreseen how this crime would eventually become socially acceptable groupthink, but I would guess they’re probably hanging their heads in shame and hoping that there’s a TRON, somewhere, working to correct the problem.
The film also serves as a metaphor for a dictatorial state, where freedoms are revoked and dissenters are pitted against one another. Also eerily prescient, yes? Much as was the case with the artificial intelligence aspect of the script, this political component isn’t original to TRON, but Lisberger and crew sure seem to be batting 1.000 regarding their choice of imminently relevant themes. Practically everything this film chooses to warn us about is coming to fruition. TRON was “The Simpsons” before “The Simpsons” existed.
In addition to all of that, there’s a religious metaphor going on, as well. Many of the computer programs refer to their programmers/creators as “users” and see them as gods. Others, who believe in no such thing, refer to those programs as religious crackpots and there is a deep divide between the believers and the non-believers. I never got the impression that Lisberger was making any particular statement about religion but was instead just presenting it as a thought-provoking conversation starter. Once Flynn – a user – is sucked into the system, the film once again seemingly predicts the eventual creation of “Undercover Boss”, of all things, as Flynn has no immediate desire to reveal his true point of origin to the rest of the programs.
Aside from the surprisingly poignant subtext, the film is a lot of fun and extremely visionary. Obviously, TRON was Disney’s response to the overwhelming success of Star Wars, but there’s enough here that’s unique to this specific property that it, like David S. Pumpkins, is very much its “own thaaaang”. There’s also an element of The Wizard of Oz, here, as each real-world character has a counterpart within the network. It’s admittedly odd that the anthropomorphized computer programs have feelings and even show affection for each other in the same ways that humans do. None of these programs are Leisure Suit Larry, so I’m not sure where they learned to do such things if they were never programmed to know them. But maybe I’m overthinking.
The special effects are clearly outdated but it’s within the effects’ rudiment that lies the film’s charm. I can’t say this for certain, but the world within the network feels simplistic by design, perhaps in an effort to not overwhelm an unsuspecting audience who wasn’t as used to this type of film in 1982 as we are, today. Or, maybe not, and this was the best Disney had to work with in 1982. Either way, I wouldn’t change a thing. The film has a look all to itself that has never been replicated – or even approximated – in any other franchise in the decades since. There’s no mistaking TRON for any other property when one sees it. The bright colors, the innovative physics, and the borderline-creepy atmosphere work in conjunction to set the film apart from any that came before or has come in its wake.
The film actually didn’t make a whole lot of money upon its release and that’s probably because audiences were no different 35 years ago than they are, now: the film looked different and American audiences don’t truly want originality in their films. The movie didn’t get a foreign release, so the domestic gross was all it had to work with. That’s a shame, as there are a lot of great ideas in TRON (no! Not ideas! Anything but IDEAS!) that are presented through a truly distinctive veneer. No self-professed geek’s brain library is complete without adding at least one viewing of TRON to its database.