Reel Opinions

Saturday, July 14, 2018


Skyscraper is Dwayne Johnson's third starring role in less than a year after December's Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and Rampage in April.  This probably puts him comfortably in the position as one of the hardest working men in Hollywood.  However, after watching it, I can't help but feel he might need a break soon.  He still has charisma and star power to burn here, but the projects he picks are not up to his talents.  I'd hate to see him become a victim of overexposure.

As an action thriller, Skyscraper feels recycled from top to bottom.  It's a throwback to those countless Die Hard rip offs that were a dime a dozen back in the 90s, and usually featured Jean Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal in the lead role.  The special effects and stunt work have been updated to the current standards, but the script can't be bothered to give us anything we haven't seen before.  The people who inhabit the movie are character types that have been plugged into the screenplay by writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Central Intelligence), only because they're the kind of stock types who usually show up in these movies.  There's the hero's best friend who turns out to be a traitor, the smarmy business associate who speaks with a snooty British accent (he's a traitor too), the stoic wealthy man who refuses to give into the terrorists' demands, the icy cold female assassin who kills without a single thought through most of the movie, then acts really stupid in her final scene so she can be defeated, and the hero's little girl who acts as a hostage through most of the movie, and screams "Daddy!" a lot to the point that you wish she would just be shipped off to a good day care for the rest of the movie.

The action is set in a glistening high rise in Hong Kong called The Pearl, which is the brainchild of an eccentric billionaire named Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), and is the tallest building in the world, three times the size of the Empire State Building we are told early on.  Dwayne Johnson plays Will Sawyer, who was an FBI agent 10 years ago, until a hostage negotiation went wrong, and he wound up losing part of his left leg in a bomb blast.  We witness this event in an opening flashback, and it's the first of many instances where the movie has been cleverly edited to hide multiple casualties in order to obtain a PG-13 rating.  It gets a bit silly after a while, especially when we see armed men open fire on a room full of innocent people at one point, and despite the numerous innocent lives lost, the movie refuses to acknowledge it.  Since that day 10 years ago, Will has never touched a gun, and now lives in the Pearl building as a security consultant.  He also has a wife named Sarah (Neve Campbell), who was the nurse who treated his injuries back then, and two young twin children (McKenna Grace and Noah Cottrell).

There's a lot of clunky exposition early on as we learn about The Pearl, which is basically a high-tech city enclosed in a massive structure with all the latest security precautions.  Naturally, these precautions do not stop the terrorists from getting in, taking control of the building's advanced features, and using highly flammable chemicals to set one of the floors of the building on fire.  Led by the deadly Kores Botha (Roland Moller), the bad guys want a small device that Zhao Long Ji holds, which naturally holds some incriminating information.  Does the plot matter?  Not one little bit.  Thurber wastes no time in kicking the action up to high gear, and giving us a lot of thrilling escapes and shootouts.  The movie certainly looks good, and there are some impressive stunts on display.  It also gets some some interesting mileage out of the fact that Johnson's character has a prosthetic leg, and how he uses it in some situations.

But outside of these fleeting positives, Skyscraper feels like a movie from over 20 years ago.  The movies back then at least had the sense to be R-rated, and not hide the carnage from us.  We're supposed to be taken in by the thrills, and watching this somewhat "every man" outwit the villains and make up his plan to climb the building and reach his family as he goes along.  In this aspect, the movie does owe an obvious debt to the original Die Hard.  But that movie had a lot more tension and thrills, and the villains were more interesting.  This movie is never terrible exactly, it just feels assembled and overly familiar.  A movie like this can overcome these problems by adding in some unique action scenes or maybe likable characters, but like I said above, nobody is allowed to develop beyond their basic character traits.

I'm personally all for Dwayne Johnson continuing to make movies.  He's always enjoyable to watch, and he's one of the more personable action stars we have out there.  I just don't see the sense in plugging him into a role that relies so little on his charisma, and has him playing a character type we've seen many times before.  Skyscraper never lets him truly create a character behind the stunts, and that is its biggest flaw.


Friday, July 13, 2018

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation

The sole reason to watch Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation if you are an adult is to admire director and co-writer's Genndy Tartakovsky's unique character designs and animation.  This has been a staple of the franchise, and just watching the characters' movements and how their bodies bend, snap and stretch as they animate brings to mind the artstyle of the classic Looney Tunes shorts.  It's really quite refreshing to see a filmmaker use the CG format to invoke a classic animation style, rather than trying to create photo-realistic environments and characters.  Now if only the script was on the same level as the cartoons it was emulating, we'd have one heck of an entertainment.

Hotel Transylvania 3 is pleasant and inoffensive, and will probably work best for kids up to a certain age.  I'd say if you're 12 or older, you're pushing it.  The movie continues the story of Dracula (voiced once again by Adam Sandler), who is not the blood-sucking ghoul you may remember from other movies, but is depicted here as an overworked family man who runs a hotel for monsters, and is in need of a vacation of his own.  His daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) recognizes this, and books her father and his fellow monster friends on a cruise across the Bermuda Triangle, with its main destination being the Lost City of Atlantis.  Tartakovsky and his team of artists fill pretty much every square inch of the screen with a wide variety of monsters, ghosts and gremlins, and it can be a lot of fun to watch.  Unfortunately, behind the clever visuals, there's virtually no plot and little to care about.

What little plot we do get is centered around the Captain of the cruise ship, Ericka (Kathryn Hahn), who unknown to our monster heroes is the great-granddaughter of Dracula's age-old nemesis, the vampire hunter Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan).  She's set this trip up as a trap to get all the monsters together in one place so that she can destroy them.  But then, Dracula develops a romantic interest in her, and after a while, she starts to return his affections, and begins to wonder if monsters are as terrible as her great-grandfather told her.  We also get a few underdeveloped subplots for some of Dracula's monster friends.  Wayne the Wolfman (Steve Buscemi) and his wife (Molly Shannon) experience freedom for the first time after they are allowed to drop off their pack of destructive wolf children at the ship's day care, while Frank the Frankenstein's Monster (Kevin James) literally loses his limbs at the gambling table.  Other returning characters like Murray the Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key) and Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade) show up now and then, but don't really get to contribute anything.

The Hotel Transylvania franchise has always been somewhat of a second-tier animated series, with the inspired and clever animation being the main draw, but they were at least sort of fun and had some jokes that work.  There are still some good gags here, but they are fewer and far-between, and the whole experience just feels a bit slight and more unnecessary than before.  There are glimmers of inspiration to be found.  I liked the early scene depicting an airplane run by destructive gremlins, which transports Dracula and his friends to their vacation.  There's also a new character who was introduced in a cartoon short that showed before The Emoji Movie last year -a massive puppy the size of a dump truck named Tinkles, who sneaks on board the ship and tries to pass himself off as a monster when it learns there are no pets allowed on the ship.  He gets some laughs now and then, but again, the filmmakers seem unsure of what to do with him, and so they mostly just bring him on screen when the film requires some slapstick.

There's really not a whole lot to complain about here, other than the entire movie simply feels unnecessary, and the screenplay by Tartakovsky and Michael McCullers runs out of inspiration not long after Dracula and his friends have boarded the ship.  The movie tries to hold our attention with its technical and artistic style, and it works for a while, but it doesn't take long until you start to realize there's little to be offered here.  Still, the movie does provide a fun time that parents can share with young children, and maybe that's all you're looking for.  I would never discourage a movie for wanting to provide such a simple and noble goal.  There's just a certain lack of effort that eventually rears its head.

If you have young kids who want to see this, they can go without hesitation.  But if you're an adult animation fan looking for something to watch, you'll have to hold out a little while longer for something else.  Hotel Transylvania 3 can be a lot of fun to look at, but its joys are merely surface level.


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp

I think for me the big reason why the Marvel Cinematic Universe has worked as well as it has for the past 10 years is that for all of its superheroics and premonitions about world-ending doom, the heroes at the center of the stories have a certain looseness to them.  They understand the stakes, but at the same time, sometimes when you're facing a planet-conquering titan, you just need to crack a joke in order to lessen the tension.  Detractors will say that this makes Marvel films aimed squarely at kids, and that the much more dark and dire DC Comics fare like Batman v. Superman are superior, because they are more serious, and therefore made for adults.  I never understood this, as to the best of my knowledge, adults enjoy humor too, and it's not often frowned upon.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is pretty lightweight stuff, even for Marvel, but it still works because it's playful with its humor, not cynical.  The filmmakers and writers are clearly having a lot of fun with this world where its hero can shrink himself to "ant size", thereby making everyday objects like Hello Kitty Pez Dispensers into the size of mammoth tanks.  It also has a great leading man in Paul Rudd, who plays Scott, better known as the titular Ant-Man.  This time, he's teamed up with his potential love interest from the 2015 Ant-Man movie, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who gets a super suit of her own, which allows her to not only shrink to ant size like Scott, but can also fly and is armed with blasters on her wrists to knock out foes.  She calls herself The Wasp, and when Scott sees her in action, he asks Hope's father, scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who invented both the Ant-Man and Wasp suits why he didn't give him wings and blasters.  Turns out Hank just didn't feel like it.

As the film kicks off, Scott is nearing the end of a house arrest sentence and slapped with an ankle monitor bracelet after he participated in the big smackdown battle in Captain America: Civil War.  He's lost touch with both Hank and Hope, and pretty much spends his days with his adorable 10-year-old daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), and under the constant surveillance of a nosy FBI agent (Randall Park, a hilarious and welcome addition to the series).  Meanwhile, Hank and Hope are continuing their research into the disappearance of Hope's mother (Michelle Pfeiffer), who was the original Wasp, and disappeared when she shrank to subatomic size while trying to save the world.  Because Scott went to subatomic size and returned near the end of the last movie, they think he might hold the key to finding her.  The fact that Scott is having strange dreams that seem to be messages sent by Hope's mother only strengthens the notion that not only is she still alive, but she can be reached.

Fortunately, Hank has all the technology he needs to find his missing wife in his lab, which in one of the film's most cleverest visual gags can be shrunk and used as a wheeled suitcase.  But of course, it's not going to be that easy, as various evil forces want the technology Hank holds for their own ends.  First, there's the shady science technology dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who realizes that he can make a profit out of the work that Hank and Hope are doing, and wants to double cross them.  But the more prominent threat is a masked figure who calls herself Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who has the ability to pass through solid matter after an accident at a lab granted her the ability.  Unfortunately, this genetic mutation is slowly killing her, and she needs Hank's research in order to save her life, and she doesn't care who she has to hurt in order to get her hands on it.

Ant-Man and the Wasp basically becomes one large chase picture, as the heroes constantly try to stay one step ahead of the villains who want their technology.  This by itself sounds fairly routine, but again, the film's imagination and coming up with inventive ways of playing with the size of the main characters and everyday objects is what sets it apart from your standard summer blockbuster.  This imagination and comic use of everyday objects being giant carries right through to the fight scenes, especially during a sequence where Hope as The Wasp battles some thugs in a kitchen.  This is simply a fun movie to watch, and returning director Peyton Reed obviously is having a great time coming up with new approaches to what would be generic action sequences in other movies.  An extended car chase late in the film ends up being a lot more fun than it should, due to the fact that Ant-Man's suit starts malfunctioning in the middle of it, causing him to grow to mammoth size, and he's forced to participate in the chase by using a truck like a child's scooter, riding on the back, and kicking his leg against the street to make it go.

This is also just a wonderfully cast film.  Paul Rudd (who also contributed to the screenplay) brings his signature joyful humor to just about every scene, but he also knows not to overdo it, so that the movie never becomes too silly.  His returning co-star, Evangeline Lilly, is the real stand out here, as she gets to finally step into the spotlight this time around as The Wasp, and proves that she not only can easily act alongside Rudd, but can hold her own in every action sequence.  Even more impressive are the supporting characters, who each bring their own sense of humor to the film.  Michael Douglas brings the grumpy sarcasm, Michael Pena (returning as Scott's business partner from the last movie) is winning with his somewhat detached sense of humor and love for epic, rambling stories, and Randall Park is scene-stealing as an FBI agent who wants to be tough, but can't help but hint he might want to join Scott for dinner one night when he's supposed to be grilling him. 

It's the playful way that Ant-Man and the Wasp lets everyone in on the fun in some way that makes the film more charming than your usual superhero blockbuster.  It's not as self-aware as the Deadpool movies, but it doesn't need to make fun of itself or point out its own cliches.  It's simply a light, fun summer film that's clever enough for adults and never too violent or scary for small kids.  And even though Ant-Man is not exactly an A-List superhero in the Marvel Universe, I would love to see more of his adventures.


Won't You Be My Neighbor?

If the current toxic political and social world that seems to thrive on cynicism and corruption has you feeling down, then Won't You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary about kid's show host Fred Rogers, may be just the movie you need to see.  It's impossible not to admire and be drawn into the story of how this ordained minister wanted to help children make sense of the world around them, so he created a low budget TV show that ran for nearly 2,000 episodes from 1968 to 2001 (he passed away at age 74 in 2003), and helped children cope with topics as diverse as losing a beloved pet, to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, racism and Vietnam.

Early on, we're told by someone who worked on the show that everything you could do to make a good television show, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood did the opposite of it.  The sets were low budget and cheap, the pace was slow and reflective, and the host was not exactly overflowing with TV star charisma.  Fred Rogers got into the TV business, because when he looked at children's television, all he could see was humor based around humiliation, with characters being hit in the face with pies.  He knew that shows for kids could do so much more, and his main mission was to connect with children and let them know that he understood them, and could talk to them on their level without talking down to them.  The pokey pace and calming atmosphere of the show was obviously different from anything else that was being marketed to children at the time (and today, as well), and it led to a lot of skepticism and ridicule from people who did not understand what Rogers was going for.  But he carried on with his personal mission up to the end, when he became ill and could no longer do the program.

We don't learn much about the private life of the man, as he was notoriously secretive about his personal and family life up to the end.  We do, however, hear from his widow and two sons, one of whom admits that it was not easy being raised by "the second Christ".  What we do learn is that Fred was incredibly in tune with what was going on in the world, and knew how to explain these difficult topics to children.  When there was an incident involving an attack on some black people for trying to swim in a hotel pool, Rogers had a segment on his show where he invited a cop, played by gay African-American Fran├žois Clemmons, to soak his feet with him in a plastic pool to show children that there was nothing wrong with people of different color sharing a pool together.  This interview with Clemmons leads to a fascinating story of how when Rogers found out Clemmons was gay, he told the actor not to come out with his sexuality, as he feared it would hurt the show.  However, over time, Rogers softened his stance on gays (even though he was a political conservative in real life, and it went against the stance many in the party held at the time), and would personally apologize.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? is simple and straightforward in its structure.  You won't learn any shocking truths about the man here.  It simply exists to celebrate the ideals of love, understanding and compassion that Mr. Rogers imparted to children on a regular basis.  What insights the movie does give us is that he actually hated television and celebrity fame, and yet used both in order to reach the children of the world.  We also learn that of all the puppet characters that appeared on his show, he most strongly identified with Daniel Striped Tiger, a sad-faced and sensitive little tiger who often feared that he was different and too tame compared to others like him.  The character seemed to be inspired by Rogers own childhood, where he was an overweight boy from a wealthy family who was nicknamed "Fat Freddy", and who often suffered bouts of loneliness, bullying and anger.  And before you start to think that this will be a sad or preachy film, the movie does take plenty of time to show Rogers' distinctive sense of humor with the people who worked on his show, such as when a crew member took a picture of his bare behind on a role of film Rogers' was using in a camera, and the prank that Rogers pulled in return.

But it is not so much the story of Rogers that makes this documentary so compelling.  It is the argument the film makes for his belief in love and understanding one another.  Listening to him talk about his message in either clips from the show, or rare interviews, it's hard not to let his words wash over you and make you feel his emotion.  Near the end of the film, we see a commencement speech that Rogers gave to the graduating students at Middlebury College in 2001, and how he tells them that you don't have to do anything sensational in order to be loved.  I think this statement represents his philosophy best of all, and it's hard not to tear up as you listen to his words in that gentle voice of his.  I was saddened to learn that his funeral was picketed by gay rights protestors, not because he was gay, but because he was tolerant of them.  They were protesting tolerance itself.  This contrast between Rogers' words that have been reaching us throughout the film, and the stupidity of the hatred outside of his own funeral is heartbreaking.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? is not just a movie with a message, but it's also entirely compelling and completely enthralling in a quiet and unassuming way, much the way the show was to children all of the world.  It's one of the best films I've seen this summer, and probably the year itself.  Rogers' influence can still be felt by children who were born after his show went off the air, and I can only hope that this documentary can strengthen his message.


Monday, July 09, 2018


It's impossible to watch Fireworks and not think of the recent Japanese anime blockbuster, Your Name.  Not only do they share the same producer, but they are both simple young romance stories with a Sci-Fi element to make them more intriguing.  This worked in Your Name, because the characters were rich in detail and worth caring about.  It doesn't work quite as well in Fireworks, because the movie is told entirely from one point of view (the young boy in the couple), making the central female character somewhat generic and bland.

The film is actually a remake of a popular live action TV movie from 1993, which I have not seen, so I can't say if this is an accurate adaptation.  I can say that the movie is beautiful to look at, with gorgeously realized backdrops that at times look almost photo-realistic.  Granted, the effect is lessened a little bit with some glaring CG that's been mixed in with the hand-drawn art.  Regardless, it's lovely, and a lot of time and attention obviously went into the look of the film.  Now if only the plot was worth caring about.  Our heroes are a group of middle school boys who are largely immature, enjoy playing pranks on their female teacher (whose sole characteristic is that she has large breasts), and are constantly debating the question as to whether fireworks are round or flat if you look at them from a certain angle.  Our lead hero of the boys is Norimichi (voice by Masaki Suda), who is probably the most quiet and perspective of the group.  He is fascinated by a young girl at his school, Nazuna (Suzu Hirose), who has been wandering the halls of the school a bit sad and dejected lately, because her mom has a new boyfriend, and is forcing her to move somewhere she doesn't want to.

Rather than move and leave all her friends behind, Nazuna has decided to run away from home.  She hopes to go to the city and maybe "become a bar waitress", or perhaps become an idol singer.  She happens to bump into Norimichi, and while they are talking about life, love and other things, Nazuna's mother suddenly shows up and forcefully starts dragging her back home.  Norimichi is not sure what to do, and on a whim, he picks up a strange crystal-like orb that Nazuna found on the beach earlier that day, and throws it in anger.  It turns out that the orb allows the user to go back in time, so that Nazuna and Norimichi can start the day over again, and maybe do things differently so that they are not caught.  The two try various ways to make their escape, but they always end up being caught by Nazuna's mom, or by one of Norimichi's friends who is also in love with Nazuna, and is jealous of all the time they are spending together. 

I don't doubt that Fireworks could have made a compelling story about second chances or alternate realities.  The more that the magical time travel orb is used, the reality around the two young lovers is shifted and altered.  In one instance, the city they live in is surrounded by a crystal-like dome.  In another, the fireworks in the sky from a nearby festival don't look like they should.  Unfortunately, the film never really expands upon the potential of this mystical device being able to shape different worlds or realities.  In one intriguing sequence, we see shards of glass that depict different possible future outcomes for Norimichi and Nazuna, but the scene doesn't have the emotional impact that it should, because so little about the world this movie inhabits has been explained to the audience.  It's not a successfully told minimalist story like Leave No Trace.  It simply feels like lazy screenwriting.

We also don't care enough about the young couple at the center of the story, and that's really the big failing, and what sets it apart from Your Name, which is the movie it obviously wants to emulate.  We pretty much see everything from Norimichi's point of view, and so we never truly understand Nazuna's fears about her mother, her homelife, or even much of her feelings toward Norimichi.  She exists simply as an object of desire, a "dream girl" that any 14-year-old boy could objectify.  Nazuna is attractive and kind, but we really don't know anything about her.  There is also a certain lack of wonder.  These two kids find this mystical orb that can change reality itself, and they don't seem all that impressed by it.  Yes, they notice and sometimes admire the differences in the worlds they find themselves in, but they never seem truly astonished as they should be.  They're a bland couple, and because they drive the plot, the movie suffers as well.

All the attention obviously went into making Fireworks look great, but it never quite grabs the viewer.  The end result is never unwatchable, but undeniably frustrating, as so much more could have been done with the premise.  Compared to some of the other recent foreign animated films that have gotten small theatrical releases (such as The Breadwinner from last year), this one is pretty enough, but just doesn't hold up.


Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace is quiet, assured, and one of the year's better films.  It doesn't spell a lot of things out for the audience, and there are a lot of moments that rely simply on atmosphere and the actor's faces in order to get the point across.  And yet, the movie is constantly absorbing, and as thrilling as any drama can be.  This is one of those movies that you should go out of your way to see, and want to tell others to see as soon as possible.

Writer-director Debra Granik has a talent for discovering new female acting talent.  Her last film, 2010's Winter's Bone,  was the film that launched Jennifer Lawrence's career.  With this movie, she introduces us to Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, a young actress from New Zealand, and one of the true breakout performances of the year.  She gives an Oscar-worthy portrayal as Tom, a 13-year-old girl who lives in the forest along with her veteran father Will (Ben Foster, also powerful here).  He has PTSD after his time fighting in the war, and cannot handle modern life anymore ever since the death of his wife when Tom was very young.  And so the two have been living "off the grid", only going into town for Tom's required medications and other necessities when needed.

This life is the one that Tom has known for as long as she can probably remember, and she has a loving relationship with her dad.  They collect rainwater, gather mushrooms, build tents, and rely on one another for protection from wild animals.  Will makes what little money he has by selling his medications to dealers.  We learn little about their lives and what led to them living this way, and this is intentional.  We don't get to see any flashbacks to Will's days as a soldier, and we don't see the events that led to them living this way.  We figure things out just by watching them living their daily lives.  But one day, they are discovered, and both are forced by the government to work their way through social services if they want to remain together.  The social workers are kind to young Tom, and are even impressed by her knowledge and what her father has taught her.  Will, meanwhile, has to answer a bunch of questions about his mental state, which he soundly fails.  This leads to the two having to live in a home in a rural community.

Leave No Trace ultimately becomes a story of how this close father and daughter relationship becomes divided when Tom experiences modern society for the first time, and learns to enjoy it.  She likes the people she meets, especially a young boy her age (Isaiah Stone) who raises rabbits for local 4H competitions.  She also learns about bike riding and beekeeping, and becomes fascinated by it all.  Will, however, becomes restless in a home environment.  He wants to go back to where they were, but the question becomes if he has his daughter's best interests in mind.  This is not a movie where the drama is overplayed, the music swells, and there are "powerful" moments where the actors perform scripted speeches explaining their views.  We can simply see the pain on the faces of these two as they feel they are being pulled apart, because they both want something different.

There is naturally still love between them, but Tom simply begins to realize that the life her father lives does not have to be her own, and that she can choose her own way.  Will, meanwhile, has to learn to let go and maybe realize that he has been holding his daughter back in some way.  The way that the movie expresses this is incredibly powerful, yet never overstated.  As glimmers of hope begin to form for a better life for Tom, we also see how hard it is on her, because she has so much respect for her dad.  She never exactly expresses this in dialogue, but we can see it in so many other ways.  This is a wonderfully subtle movie that captures the emotion of love, loss and letting go with minimal storytelling.  And by the time we get to the film's quiet but striking final scene, we are incredibly moved by the simple image we see.

Leave No Trace manages to be a unique but accessible film that should speak to just about anyone who watches it.  Its tremendous power and grace comes from the fact that the movie trusts in its audience, and never feels the need to explain more than it does.  But more than that, it introduces us to a remarkable debut performance by a young actress who hopefully will go on to even better things.


Sorry to Bother You

I guarantee that you have never seen a movie like Sorry to Bother You.  While it's not a complete original (you could argue that the movie is an odd mix of Mike Judge's Office Space and the dark satire of Terry Gilliam), the elements here are so seemingly random yet expertly plotted out that you will never be able to guess where the film is going at any time. 

Writer and director Boots Riley has managed to make a movie that has deep social insights, while at the same time going into hilarious absurdist comedy.  He doesn't always succeed, however.  A few of his points seem a bit heavy-handed and forced.  Regardless, on the whole, you just have to admire him for actually attempting a film such as this.  This is his first feature, so maybe he felt emboldened and that he had nothing to lose.  What he has essentially done is make a social satire, a wacky comedy, and a Sci-Fi thriller all mixed into a narrative that surprisingly is able to make sense of it all.  This is a movie that is constantly making sharp veering turns into other narrative territories, and just when you think you have it figured out, it goes somewhere you don't expect it to.  And yet, the audience never suffers whiplash, which shows a remarkable filmmaking talent for his first time out.

The film is set in an unspecified time, but it seems to be in the near future where the world has essentially become a dystopian society divided by a company that is basically drawing people into slave labor.  We see this world through the eyes of Cassius Green (the versatile Lakeith Stanfield, from Get Out and TV's Atlanta), an unemployed man who lives with his starving artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in his uncle's garage.  Cassius desperately needs a job.  He's behind in his rent with his uncle (Terry Crews), and can't afford a decent car.  Pretty soon, he's going to lose his home as well, as the uncle has financial problems as well.  Desperate for work, Cassius turns to RegalView, a soulless company that hires telemarketers, but pays only by commission and offers no benefits.

The movie shows its sense of humor early on when Cassius shows up to the job interview with a fake employee of the month award for a company he never worked at, and phony trophy that he made himself.  The guy giving the interview quickly pieces together that Cassius is full of it just by making a few quick calls, but he admires his ambition, so he hires him.  As soon as Cassius is seated at his little cubicle and has to start making calls to uninterested clients, he realizes he's made a mistake, and that he might not be cut out for telemarketing.  A veteran in the workforce seated next to him (Danny Glover) knows what Cassius is doing wrong.  He has to work on his "White Voice" when making his sales pitch.  This way, he will sound less threatening to potential clients.  Cassius is uncertain at first, but before long he has perfected his "white guy voice", and his dialogue is being dubbed over by comic actor David Cross whenever he switches over to it.  Because of his mastery of sounding pleasant and bland over the phone, he suddenly becomes a master of his industry, and is making more sales than anyone else.

His bosses notice his sales number, and Cassius is promoted to being a "Power Caller", which means he gets to work on the luxurious upper floor with the big executives, gets better pay, and gets to work on bigger deals.  The deals that Cassius finds himself working on over the phone are illegal and shady, but Cassius is enjoying his power and status too much to care.  The company's primary client is Worry Free, a corporation that promises people lifetime housing and employment, but it essentially boils down to slave labor.  Cassius is so emboldened with his own self worth that he barely bats an eye at what he's selling or dealing with.  His girlfriend, Detroit, however is more concerned, and joins many of Cassius' fellow telemarketers in a protest for better pay and working conditions for those who are not "power callers" like her boyfriend. 

And just when you think Sorry to Bother You is going to be a social satire about the wealthy and the poor, the movie throws a curve ball when Cassius meets up with the head of the Worry Free Corporation (Armie Hammer), and discovers some unsettling truths behind the company.  It's at this point that the movie starts to veer into thriller and Science Fiction, with plot elements that I cannot possibly successfully explain, and yet the movie manages to make it all work come together.  If you can, avoid reading other reviews that might hint at the revelation.  It's best to walk in as cold as possible.  This is certainly a bold movie, and one that you can never really pin down while you are watching it.  True, not all of it works.  Running gags surrounding a TV game show where contestants are beaten up severely for cash, and a viral video involving someone getting hit in the head with a soda can don't really work as intended, and are a bit too obvious in their satire about society and our obsession with media.  But the rest of the time, this is a very funny and surprisingly complex film that looks at a lot of issues, but is also never afraid to just cut loose and be wonderfully bizarre.

The fact that the movie manages to look at such a wide number of subjects and still manage to be entertaining speaks not only for Mr. Riley's broad outlook, but also at his skill as a filmmaker.  He wants to make a point, but he also wants us to have fun, and maybe be frightened just a little.  Even if a couple elements here are familiar, you're bound to be impressed with the imagination that went into this.  I can only hope that the film finds an audience, so that he can continue to expand his vision, as he's definitely got something with this.


Saturday, June 30, 2018

Uncle Drew

I don't know how much about Uncle Drew I will remember two weeks from now, but I will remember it being a genuinely pleasant experience while I was watching it.  When you consider that this is a feature length movie inspired by a series of Pepsi commercials, and that the soda company is listed as the production company behind the film (Watch out for those product placements!), that's probably the highest praise you can give it. 

This is a surprisingly charming and goofy movie that has a lot of energy and even some genuine laughs.  Yes, it's predictable as all get-out, and the screenplay reads like every underdog sports movie cliche mixed together.  But, it has a big heart, a talented cast who know how to sell this admittedly tired material, and it just has a positive energy to it that is infectious.  The movie stars Lil Rel Howery (who played the scene-stealing TSA agent in last year's Get Out) as Dax, a down on his luck basketball coach who works at Foot Locker to pay the bills, and has a girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish, a big comic stand out, as always) who walks all over him emotionally, and is spending him into the poorhouse.  Dax hopes to lead his team to victory at the annual Rucker Classic - a legendary outdoor-court tournament in Harlem featuring some of the best freelance players in the country, with the aim that it will change his luck in life.

All of Dax's hopes are riding on his star player, Casper (Aaron Gordon of the Atlanta Magic), carrying his team to a big win.  But then, his arch nemesis and rival coach Mookie (Nick Kroll, who is quickly becoming Hollywood's go-to actor for comic jerks) swoops in, and steals his entire team, as well as his girlfriend.  He now has no team, no apartment, and seemingly no hope, until a local barber tells him about the legendary Uncle Drew (NBA star Kyrie Irving, unrecognizable under some very good old man make up), a player from 50 years ago who supposedly was one of the all time greats, but has since gone missing, and no one has seem him in decades.  As luck would have it, Dax happens to bump into Uncle Drew at a street game, and after seeing how Drew handles himself in a game against some trash-talking young punk players, Dax knows that he needs Drew to be at the head of the new team that he is forming.

Uncle Drew has just one condition - He will only play with his old team.  The two hit the road in Drew's vintage old van, complete with eight track player, and the heater constantly blasting even though it's summer. (Old people are always cold, you know.) They drive cross country to gather up Drew's old teammates before the big game, and the team eventually includes Preacher (Chris Webber), the legally blind Lights (Reggie Miller), the wheelchair-bound Boots (Nate Robinson), and the appropriately-named Big Fella (Shaquille O'Neal), who is holding a grudge against Uncle Drew after an event surrounding a woman that both men loved back in the day.  They are also joined up by Preacher's wife Betty Lou (three-time WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie), who joins the team after spending a majority of the movie chasing after them in her own vehicle in a series of slapstick chase sequences.  Boots' sweet and attractive granddaughter Maya (Erica Ash) also comes along for the ride, and plays the role of Dax's new romantic interest.

Look, I'm not saying that Uncle Drew isn't derivative.  You can pretty much predict every moment that's going to happen before it does.  If the old guys walk into a night club, of course there's going to be a dance contest against some young folks who were dissing them.  And if you honestly can't predict the outcome of the big climactic game, you probably haven't watched any form of media in the past 70 years.  But there's a sweetness to this movie that won me over, and even some genuinely big laughs.  It's not surprising that the stars like Howery, Haddish and Kroll are good, but what is surprising is how good the professional basketball stars are playing their characters.  They're not just walking around under a lot of make up to make them look older, they're genuinely creating characters.  Maybe not deep or rich characters, but ones who are likable and that you find yourself caring about before it's over.

If I must be honest, I probably had more fun watching this than the overhyped and idiotic Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.  At least this movie has a genuine charm and energy to it that the movie about dinosaurs lacked.  I'm not saying this is a great movie or anything.  But it is a sweet and winning one.


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