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Films I Neglected To Review: Unnecessary Sequel Edition

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/17/19 08:40:00

Please enjoy short reviews of "Gemini Man," "Maleficent: Mistress of Evil" and "Zombieland: Double Tap."

For more than two decades, people have been trying to get "Gemini Man" made but have been stymied because the technology required to make the central plot device--a government hitman on the verge of retirement is pursued by a younger clone with his exact same skill set--work in a convincing manner simply did not exist. At long last, Ang Lee--a filmmaker who is no stranger to technological challenges--has finally brought the long-gestating project to life with Will Smith doing battle with a CGI-generated version of him at about the age of 20 and has even gone the extra mile by shooting the whole thing in 3-D and in the hyper-sharp 120 frames-per-second format that he deployed to mixed results with his previous film, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk." In other words, an enormous amount of time, money and effort has gone into bringing the film to fruition and that only makes the puniness of the end results all the more startling. From a technological standpoint, Lee's attempt to make his HFR fetch happen is a mixed bag--however one feels about the process (which makes the film look like one of those in-theater opera presentations) as a whole, the ultra-sharp visuals have the inadvertent effect of highlighting the generally unconvincing nature of the CGI clone character, who never feels like an actual person for a second. That said, even if the technology was 100% flawless and convincing in every aspect, it wouldn't matter because it would still be in the service of a shockingly silly and banal screenplay that feels more suited for the basis of a Jean-Claude Van Damme potboiler from the mid-90s. Then again, if it had been a Van Damme joint, it might have worked on some mindless and cheesy fundamental level but Lee never finds a way to make it remotely exciting or engaging and not even the efforts of a good cast (which also includes Mary Elizabeth Winstead as The Girl, Clive Owen as The Villain and Benedict Wong as The Doomed Best Friend) are able to salvage it from total disposability. Who knows--maybe one day, HFR will finally take off and future generations will look at "Gemini Man" in the way that we look at "The Jazz Singer"--a bad movie that heralded the birth of a technological revolution. Until that happens (and I am betting that it won't), it is pretty much destined to go down as this generation's "Scent of Mystery."

I know that I saw the original "Maleficent" when it came out in 2014 but other than the basic conceit of Angelina Jolie portraying the evil queen from "Sleeping Beauty" in a revisionist take that suggested that she was far from the monster suggested by her reputation, I cannot for the life of me recall a single tangible thing about it. Thanks to the magic of a $750 million worldwide gross, we now have "Maleficent: Mistress of Evil" and if there is any luck in the world, my memories of it will quickly fade as well. As this installment opens, Maleficent is serving as the protector of faeries and fantastical creatures of the land known as The Moors when she learns that her adopted human daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning), has just accepted the marriage proposal of Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson), whose parents rule the kingdom next door. Against her better judgement, she agrees to meet with her future in-laws, only to be framed by the ruthless Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) to casting a sleeping curse on the King (Robert Lindsay). After escaping with a serious wound (apparently exposure to iron is now fatal to magical types because why not), Maleficent is rescued by a group of renegade fairy types and winds up leading them in battle against the Queen in order to save both The Moors and Aurora.

From the early gorge-inducing shots of the allegedly adorable fantastical creatures to the numbing chaos of the seemingly endless climactic battle scene, "Maleficent: Mistress of Evil" is the kind of vacuous, empty-headed spectacle that has absolutely nothing on its mind other than squeezing several hundred millions more out of a property that barely had enough material for a single story, let alone a follow-up. The whole conceit supposedly driving the films--seeing the ordinarily malevolent Maleficent showing a noble side after all--has essentially been abandoned this time around--outside of a couple of snarky bon mots and a moment where she zaps a cat in mid-air before it can attack her animal/human sidekick (Sam Riley), she comes across as noble but dull throughout and never begins to live up to the promise of the film's subtitle. Perhaps in response to this, the normally lively Jolie turns in one of the least compelling performances of her entire career--between her palpable sense of boredom and the extra-pallid makeup she is sporting throughout, she never seems a part of the proceedings and feels more like a CGI creation that the Will Smith clone in "Gemini Man." That said, she still comes off better than Michelle Pfeiffer, who is fairly embarrassing throughout as an evil queen whose conception is so misogynistic at times that it makes the old school fairy tales that this is supposedly rebuking seem practically progressive by comparison. About as exciting as a reading of the financial report that no doubt inspired its making, "Maleficent: Mistress of Evil" is a leaden bore that will unite younger and older audiences alike in a sense of total boredom.

Though it is certainly preferable to "Maleficent: MIstress of Evil" in terms of unnecessary sexual to somewhat forgotten movies opening this weekend, "Zombieland: Double Tap" falls into the same trap that has befallen so many comedy sequels over the years--all it really has to offer are slightly altered versions of the same jokes and set pieces that helped make the 2009 original a reasonably refreshing alternative to the already-saturated market for zombie-related popular culture. This time around, it is ten years later and the four characters from the original--Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (Jessie Eisenberg), Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin)--are holed up in the White House and seem to be perfectly safe and sound. However, when Little Rock begins to chafe at being cooped up and Wichita freaks out when Columbus proposes marriage (which she rejects because she has commitment issues that have survived the apocalypse), the two disappear and when Wichita returns a month later, it turns out that Little Rock has fled with a peace-loving hippie (Avan Jogia) and Columbus has taken up with blonde bimbo Madison (Zoey Deutcj), who had been riding things out in a Pinkberry freezer. Tallahassee, Columbus, Wichita and Madison hit the road to track down Little Rock and run across a few more humans--Albuquerque (Luke Wilson), Flagstaff (Thomas Middleditch) and Nevada (Rosario Dawson)--before arriving at Babylon, a gun-free hippie enclave where Little Rock has turned up and where a swarm of tougher and smarter zombies is preparing to attack.

Although no classic, the original "Zombieland" had a few gruesomely funny sight gags, good chemistry amongst the four leads and an out-of-nowhere cameo appearance from Bill Murray that became the stuff of instant legend. Although the four main stars still play well enough off of each other, virtually everything else is as hollow and lifeless as the creatures that they spend the entire movies disposing of in the grisliest ways imaginable. Instead of finding a new spin on the material--something that last year's borderline brilliant zombie Christmas-themed musical-comedy "Anna and the Apocalypse" managed to do with startling ease--the film tends to either make the same jokes that were seen in the first one or meta-jokes in which the film cracks wise about itself. When those run out, the script is reduced to dumb blonde jokes and an increasingly ugly climax in which man's-man Tallahassee has to whip the stupid and helpless hippies into shape. A bigger problem is that while Wichita and Little Rock were fun and interesting characters before, they are little more than appendages this time around--a fate that also befalls Deutch (who does throw herself fully into her dumb bulb character) and Dawson (who would be the most interesting thing in the movie if it didnít sideline her for long periods of time). Yeah, I laughed a couple of times but it has only been a few hours since I saw it and I will be damned if I can remember any of them except the final gag, a callback to the original's most famous scene (and one apparently hinted at in the trailers) that contains enough funny moments to make up for its lack of originality. Alas, as the end credits are already rolling when it begins, it is possible that most people will be heading up the aisles when it occurs. Basically, watching "Zombieland: Double Tap" is like watching a feature-length compilation of deleted scenes and subplots that were shot for the original film--they may inspire a few smiles and perhaps even a laugh or two but there is not a single moment here that comes close to reaching the heights of what made the final cut the first time around.

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