★★ / ★★★★
Fans of sophomoric comedy are likely to walk away somewhat satiated by Seth Gordon’s “Baywatch,” but those hoping for a range of comedy equal to the talent of the cast are certain to be disappointed. There is a reason why comedies are usually only about ninety minutes and this film, which is about two hours, wears out its welcome by repeating one too many jokes. Here is a picture that suffers from diminishing returns.
The plot is simple and has potential to entertain. Three potential lifeguards (Zac Efron, Jon Bass, Alexandra Daddario) are recruited to be a part of Baywatch, an elite team of lifeguards (Dwayne Johnson, Ilfenesh Hadera, Kelly Rohrbach) who do more than save drowning people in Emerald Bay, Florida. Being a part of Baywatch is a lifestyle, being a family, doing other people’s jobs before the official professionals arrive at the scene. It is most unfortunate that the plot revolves around catching a drug dealer (Priyanka Chopra).
At times it turns into an action film instead of focusing on being a comedy. The chases are self-serious, usually manically edited, and there is little to no tension behind them. Part of the problem is because the screenplay by Damian Shannon and Mark Swift is so empty that it uses action as a crutch, attempting to pass whatever is on screen as entertainment. But there is no entertainment value created when not for a second do we believe that the protagonists are in any real danger. Notice how the material’s structure is quite episodic. Divide it into three parts and a three-episode arc is revealed. Still, many television shows nowadays are better than what this film has to offer.
I enjoyed all six members of the Baywatch team because the performers are wiling to make fun of themselves. It is apparent that the actors were encouraged to ad-lib. It works occasionally, especially when Johnson and Efron exchange barbs, but it would have been preferred if the material is able to support its performers. There is only so much an actor can do or say; they certainly do not have control over the freshness of the plot, how characters are developed individually as well as a part of a team, and the range of jokes provided given a particular situation. Filmmakers cannot depend on actors to carry the work.
The film, in a way, is about new beginnings and so it is curious—and a missed opportunity—that the material does not capitalize on this. It is about new beginnings in two ways: introducing “Baywatch” to a new generation (while satisfying the fans of the original television series) and introducing trainees to a particular lifestyle. Pertaining the latter, we do not learn much about what the job entails outside of the obvious, the personal characteristics necessary to excel at it, and some of the surprises one might encounter on the job. And with the former, the writing fails to capture a certain level of excitement. The filmmakers probably assumed that just because they cast actors who are physically appealing, audiences would inevitably follow.
In a nutshell, “Baywatch” is hampered by laziness. If a sequel were to follow, it would be wise to hire writers who do not depend on the usual tropes, writers who are aware of how interesting comedies work, writers who have something to say about how it is really like to hold a job even though this particular universe is tongue-in-cheek. Contrasts and variations are interesting; regurgitation and recycling of ideas is death to comedy.
San Andreas (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
There are two major elements that determine whether a disaster flick is successful. First is whether the special and visual effects coupled with sound effects force us to have a visceral response—an out-of-body experience, if you will, while watching the picture unfold. Second, whether the characters that we follow are creative, resourceful, strong, or smart enough to make their way out of prickly or downright unlucky situations. It is very necessary that they justify making it all the way to the end. No one wants to see a weak or unlikable character make it through the incredible trials.
“San Andreas” then, based on the screenplay by Carlton Cuse and directed by Brad Peyton, is a successful disaster film. It is entertaining, has some moments of humor, and is genuinely terrifying once the ground begins to shake relentlessly. It is limited, however, by too many conversations during the middle section between a couple (Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino) on the verge of signing the divorce papers. Right from their first interaction during the first act, we are able to tell immediately that they still have remaining feelings for one another. If they had been written more sharply, with more differing thoughts in their minds, these exchanges might have been necessary. Alas, it is not a character-driven picture—and it does not need to be.
The action pieces are stunning. The first earthquake in Nevada, as we follow two seismologists (Paul Giamatti, Will Yun Lee) on the precipice of making a potentially game-changing discovery, is very nicely executed. The camera is active, the score is carefully modulated, and one can believe the two performers as genuine scientists who work at Cal Tech. Giamatti is not a stranger to playing somewhat eccentric, really smart, ordinary-looking men but he surprised me here. When he looks directly to camera, I felt that his character really cared about the people about to lose their lives in the series of massive quakes—“the swarm effect.” With the few scenes he is given, he is able to inject some heart, as well as a bit of camp, into the science of tectonic shifts.
Most central is the annihilation of San Francisco Bay Area. The aforementioned couple’s daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) meets two British brothers (Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson) prior to the first earthquake in the city and they team up eventually in order to survive. They are young and a romantic connection is established so one might expect that this strand of the story would be at least somewhat annoying.
It is a breath of fresh air that it isn’t. The key, I think, is that there is a sweetness in the relationship between the brothers and also a sweetness between the eldest and Blake. It would have been so easy to make the brothers be somewhat combative or embarrassed by one another. Instead, there is a real bond to them that is relatable without being sitcom-like or boring. I would have liked to have seen more threats toward the well-being of all three because when one ended up injured or on the verge of dying, I found myself wondering if he or she could make it—and if they did somehow then I wondered how much further.
Although “San Andreas” does not redefine the sub-genre, it has a lot to offer when it comes to entertainment value. Appropriately, it is highly driven by astonishing visuals and sound work that really puts the viewer into the situation. Test this by closing your eyes for a few seconds when an earthquake is unfolding. Lastly, compare the performances here against lesser modern disaster flicks and one can really notice the difference. Thus, what we have here is a piece of work that can hold its own against similar movies released during the 1970s, the golden age of disaster films.
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013)
★ / ★★★★
For years, Camp Half-Blood, a refuge for half-human, half-god children of Olympian deities, has been safe from outside forces due to a magical barrier surrounding its perimeter. But when a mechanical bull manages to break through, the demi-gods become in danger of extinction. Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena, has an idea: if they obtain the Golden Fleece from the Sea of Monsters, it can be used to reestablish the camp’s defenses. Although Clarisse (Leven Rambin), daughter of Ares, is chosen to retrieve the fleece, Percy (Logan Lerman), son of Poseidon, and his friends decide to acquire it, too.
“Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters,” based on the screenplay by Marc Guggenheim and directed by Thor Freudenthal, is a sequel at its limpest, most predictable, and least entertaining—so frustratingly unimaginative despite special and visual effects present in just about every other scene. The story should have been more fun, daring, and intriguing given that it has ample sources of inspiration. We deserve better than this.
The material takes its time to take off—and for nothing. This is reflected in the amount of time the protagonists spend in the camp. A new character is introduced: Tyson (Douglas Smith), son of Poseidon and Percy’s half-brother. He also happens to be a cyclops. The screenplay does nothing to this potentially interesting character. We get to see that he has superhuman strength and fire does not hurt him.
However, the human element is lost. Because he is a cyclops, a select few hold a level of prejudice against him. None of it is explored in a meaningful way and so when those people who eventually come around and “learn” a lesson, they come off disingenuous. Furthermore, the relationship between the siblings is not given enough gravity. Percy, who should be the most interesting character of them all, is reduced to being reluctant to call Tyson “brother.” Really? Why not perhaps explore real emotions—like jealousy—since Percy feels that their father is closer to Tyson?
Action sequences seem very similar to one another. Oh, there’s trouble? Percy takes out his sword and swings it about. He loses grip on his weapon? Well, that’s what fists are for! Whatever happened to teamwork and creativity? Percy and his friends are supposedly on a journey together and yet we do not get a chance to feel their bond, how well they work together, and why each of them is a necessary piece to succeed on their mission.
The villain is as boring as a brick under the sun. Luke (Jake Abel), son of Hermes (Nathan Fillion—a breath of fresh air), does nothing interesting other than to look like a constipated Bond villain who tries too hard to look menacing. I did not believe for a second, at this stage in his rivalry with Percy, that he is a formidable enemy.
Based on Rick Riordan’s novel, “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” need not have darker content or tone than its predecessor to be interesting, but it must increase the ante somehow or else it risks doing the same thing. In the end, I felt as though its universe did not at all progress despite the material laying groundwork for another sequel.
Texas Chainsaw (2013)
★ / ★★★★
Heather (Alexandra Daddario) receives a letter from a lawyer which states that her grandmother has passed away and she is required to sign some papers since she is next of kin. Confused as to what it all means since her grandparents have long been dead, she asks her parents about the matter and they reveal to her that she has been adopted. Curious about her origins, she goes to Newt, Texas along with Ryan (Trey Songz), her boyfriend, Nikki (Tania Raymonde), a friend from work, and Kenny (Keram Malicki-Sánchez), a guy that Nikki is sort of seeing. It is not long until Heather is informed that she has inherited her grandmother’s mansion and everything inside it. Is it too good to be true? Of course it is.
“Texas Chainsaw” is a well-made horror movie. The direction by John Luessenhop is capable: he sets up the exposition with curiosity and the rising action with sufficient urgency. The camera moves with purpose especially when it comes to scenes in which a character cannot help but enter a dark room to see what is inside until it is too late.
The attacks are brutal. There is something about the sinister growl of the chainsaw that rattles the depths of my core. Couple that terrifying sound with the image of a potential victim within arms length of a serial killer wielding such a weapon, I wanted to scream at the prey to run because his or her life literally depends on it. I was somewhat disappointed that chase sequences do not last very long. After a person falls down twice–thrice maximum–it almost certain that it is game over.
Gorehounds’ thirst will be quenched. Blood is front and center, from hands being chopped off to a torso being cut into two. I could not help but flinch every time someone is sliced. I did somewhat enjoy–if that is the right word… perhaps relish?–Leatherface cutting off a man’s face and then later sewing it onto his own. Nothing much is left for the imagination.
The actors do a good job with their roles even though their characters are as dumb as bricks. They are not asked to do much other than to look really terrified when that chainsaw threatens to dismember them. The dialogue is standard and it certainly could have used more enthusiasm at times. For instance, if I had heard news of inheriting a mansion, I imagine I would not look so glum. In fact, I would probably be jumping up and down while sharing the news on Twitter and Facebook. Why not? One of the characters is shown using an iPhone as a flashlight to follow a trail of blood. (That is never a good idea, by the way.)
“Texas Chainsaw” is a well-made horror movie… but it is not well-written. Yes, this strange phenomenon happens once in a while and it is important that we recognize it. While I liked about half of it when taken as a whole, mostly during the build-up, the final third drops the ball completely.
Eventually, the screenplay by Kirsten Elms, Adam Marcus, and Debra Sullivan asks us to root for Leatherface, not the ones experiencing the pain and getting chopped into pieces. There is something about that which feels very wrong. With the way that is written on the script, it implies that murder is okay. While circumstances surrounding the killer’s background is there, not once do we get a chance to understand his psychology. There is an important but subtle difference. That is why a movie like Mary Harron’s “American Psycho” works and a movie like this does not.
I suppose credit must be given for trying something a little different with a franchise that has gone through its fair share of sequels. But credit is earned, not given. While I welcome any avenue that screenwriters wish to traverse, it must make sense with respect to its universe. And since this is a slasher film, not a fantasy, it plays by our rules–rules of “the real world.” Logic is a prerequisite. There is nothing logical about its final third.
★ / ★★★★
Martin was little boy with congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis (CIPA). While his mother was explaining to a potential babysitter about the boy’s condition, Martin was, in the blink of an eye, kidnapped by a passing serial killer, Ted (John Savage), whose goal was to train the innocent kid on how to gut women like animals. Five years later, Allison (Alexandra Daddario) moved in with her Uncle Jonathan (Michael Biehn) after her parents died in a car crash. While on her routine run, she noticed a boy watching her from an abandoned meat-packing factory. Written and directed by Stevan Mena, “Bereavement,” a prequel to “Malevolence,” had a relatively interesting premise but it failed to take off because it neglected to draw characters we could root for nor was it particularly entertaining due to a lack of creative horror chase scenes. Let’s start with its title. Allison had a reason to grieve. Her obsession with running was obviously a way of coping; the physical act of running took her out of her muddled thoughts and it helped her put things into perspective. Her uncle and his family cared for her but she found it difficult to care for them on the same level. She probably thought loving a new family was an act of betrayal to her biological family. Furthermore, it was also a symbol of her running away from grieving over her parents’ death. She rarely communicated with anybody so she came off as moody, almost unlikable. When she did make a connection with the boy next door, William (Nolan Gerard Funk), the writer-director made a decision to interrupt their blossoming connection and inserted a scene of Ted kidnapping or murdering another woman. By doing so, we failed to learn more about Allison. It was critical that we got to know her because she was, inevitably, going to be the final girl standing. We needed reasons, aside from the fact that she was prey, to want to see her survive. It was a shame because when Allison and William finally went on a proper date, that was when I realized that the two actors had chemistry. It was the first time the movie changed tones and the emotions came alive. A horror film should not be afraid to let its characters laugh and have fun. Moreover, the picture’s lack of heart-pounding chase sequences was gravely disappointing. The story took place in a rural area where farmlands could be seen for miles. There were some creepy instances when Allison was stalked by Ted while in his truck. It was repetitive but at least it attempted to generate some minute level of tension. But Allison was captured rather quickly and she was stuck in one place. She was given nothing to do but scream and it got annoying. The first half of the movie tried to convince us that she was a strong woman, but the second half failed to prove that to us. Instead of allowing her to sleep off her increasingly grim situation, I wanted to see her actually play the hand she’d been given. Yes, she was stuck in a big freezer but if the fire inside her was strong and desperate, then we would have had a reason to keep watching. “Bereavement” lacked focus and therefore power. If it had found a way to highlight the similarities between Martin and Allison, like their parents prematurely being taken from them, it wouldn’t have felt so brazen in recycling old formulas.
Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) thought that he was nobody special but was, in fact, the son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd). After Hades (Steve Coogan) kidnapped Percy’s mother (Catherine Keener) because he believed that the boy had stolen Zeus’ lightning, Percy, his best friend (Brandon T. Jackson) and Athena’s daughter (Alexandra Daddario) went on a quest to find a way to go to the underworld, rescue Percy’s mom, and save the world. Based on a series of novels by Rick Riordan, the film impressed me with its special and visual effects but the big picture left me wanting more. It’s strange because for a two-hour undoubtedly thrilling action-adventure, it felt somewhat like an empty experience because it failed to really explore its characters except for exposing their most obvious quirks and dominant personalities. I like Logan Lerman as an actor but there were times when I spotted weaknesses in his acting. Some of the lines he delivered fell completely flat and I caught myself either rolling my eyes or chuckling because I just did not believe the words that were coming out of his mouth. There was a disconnect between him and the character and therefore his character and the audiences. This was particularly glaring during the most emotional scenes when he was supposed to summon sadness or rage. Perhaps if he was given more takes, he could have nailed the lines. However, as far as children’s adventures, I hardly think the movie was a failure. I enjoyed many scenes such as the duel with a minotaur, a nice surprise on who played Medusa (and I think she did a wonderful job), and that brilliant scene in Las Vegas in the Lotus Casino (it was nice that it illuminated why it was called as such). It was fun to watch, despite the characters making unnecessarily stupid decisions, lacking internal dialogue and angst, because it was very energetic and creative when required. If a sequel is in store for “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” directed by Chris Columbus, I’ll be interested in watching it. People have compared this film to “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and its sequel so I’m curious to see if it can grow as a strong franchise. In order for it to achieve “Harry Potter”-level, it is going to need more focus on the story and characters, much stronger acting especially from the lead, and more magic via playing with our expectations and emotions.