Reel Opinions


Friday, January 18, 2019

Glass

M. Night Shyamalan has made Glass for a very specific audience, and I'm afraid I'm not part of it.  This is a low budget, low energy "realistic" deconstruction of the superhero movie.  What this means is that the characters are aware of the cliches and plot devices in comics, and have lengthy, drawn out monologues about them.  The characters are flat, and the whole enterprise just feels joyless while you're watching it.  This is not the filmmaker's worst film by a longshot, but it might be his most disappointing.

It should be said that if you have not seen 2000's Unbreakable, or 2017's Split, do not even attempt to watch Shyamalan's latest.  He has created a sort of trilogy, with this film serving as the big finale that ties the three films together.  The movie is also supposed to represent the director's return to the big time.  After hitting it big with early hits like The Sixth Sense and Signs, he suddenly was struck with a string of expensive and widely derided flops.  2015's "found footage" thriller The Visit found Shyamalan on firmer ground, and hinted at better things to come.  When Split arrived a couple years ago, it found a number of fans, although I was not one of them.  Still, I admired the ending moments that tied the film to Unbreakable, and seemed to be hinting at a continuation that would merge the two films together.  Now that the continuation is here, I kind of wish it was still a hint, rather than a reality.

Glass is a very dragged out film that is long on ideas, but short on results.  The execution is stilted and sluggish, and the overall goal of the film seems to have been to see how much energy the filmmaker could drain out of his own concept.  It's not that Shyamalan does not care or is not invested with his project.  In fact, he might be a bit too invested, and just enjoys pouring over every element to the point of frustration to those in the audience who are not as enraptured by his story as he seems to be.  He lingers on shots far too long, he has his characters speak mostly in endless monologues, and there's just not much to get excited about here, unless you really have fallen hard for these characters.  I'm sure there is an audience out there who will love pouring over the details this movie lays out, but are there really enough out there to support a movie like this?  Watching it, I often felt like an outsider who understood what was going on, but just couldn't get the appeal.

The plot picks up some weeks after the events of Split, and finds multiple personality serial killer Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy, giving an exhausting performance), and the 23 other personalities that exist within him, loose on the streets of Philadelphia, and holding some high school cheerleaders hostage in an abandoned factory.  Meanwhile, from Unbreakable, we have David Dunn (Bruce Willis) patrolling the streets as a superhero known as The Overseer.  You might remember from that movie that David learned he had superhuman strength, and that he could see people's past actions just by touching them.  By day, David sells home security equipment with his adult son (Spencer Treat Clark), and at night, he puts on a rain slicker and basically beats the life out of anyone who happens to cause trouble.  His son also helps him out with his superhero vigilante work, scoping out crimes from a home base, and feeding him information through a microphone.

David eventually manages to track Kevin down and free the hostages, which results in a fight that proves to be more anticlimactic than thrilling.  The battle is interrupted by the arrival of Dr. Ellie Staple (a lifeless and droning Sarah Paulson), who has the two guys locked up in a psych ward that serves as a setting for the remainder of the film.  Also locked up there is Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), aka "Mr. Glass", who has been there for the past 19 years ever since he took the lives of hundreds of innocent people all just to prove his belief that superheroes walk among us.  Elijah is sedated for a good portion of the picture, which means that Jackson is literally given nothing to do but stare at the walls until there's only about 45 minutes left in the film.  Dr. Staple wants to prove that the "powers" these three men seem to believe they hold are nothing more than mere delusions of grandeur.  This makes up a majority of the film's dramatic crux, as David begins to actually question his own abilities.

Glass reunites us with these characters, but it gives them nowhere to go, and nothing new for us to discover about them.  We know they are gifted with extraordinary powers of strength and intellect.  The films that introduced these people already established this.  The idea of introducing doubt about their own abilities is an intriguing idea, but one that is not successfully explored.  There are so many dragged out scenes where Dr. Staple tries to convince these three men that they do not possess any remarkable abilities that the movie seems to be repeating itself, or hitting the same notes over and over with its dialogue.  Speaking of the dialogue, a lot of it is delivered in hushed, melodramatic tones.  This is nothing new for Shyamalan, who likes to draw out his words with random pauses and have his characters speak in a low whispers sometimes.  Often, he is able to create some tension or drama with his approach, but here, it just feels lifeless and needlessly drawn out.

I think the real problem is that he has given us a follow up with nowhere to go.  We know these characters, and although they seem like they should fit well together, they just never do.  All of the characters seem to be inhabiting their own movie, instead of working together to create a narrative.  McAvoy is having the time of his life playing the multiple personalities of his character, Willis is doing his best to look pained and reflective, but often seems to come across like he's barely invested, Jackson doesn't have a real part to play until the third act, and is barely in the movie until then, and Paulson (the sole new addition) plays her role with such a deflated air that she drags down any scene she's in.  These characters and performances simply don't connect - Not with each other, and not with the audience.  The screenplay never finds a way to create a bond between these characters, and so everyone's off doing their own thing.

For some viewers, it may be enough just to get to spend some more time with these characters, but I really felt like I was getting shortchanged here.  I was never involved with the plot, the people inhabiting it, and I felt no connection to them, or that they had much of a connection to each other.  It's a watchable, but ultimately underwhelming, experience that just never adds up to a lot when you think back on it.

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Monday, January 14, 2019

The Upside

A Hollywood remake of the incredibly successful 2011 French film The Intouchables, The Upside gets most of its crowd-pleasing skills from its odd couple star pairing of Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart.  The movie is "inspired by a true story", but just like the earlier movie, it plays loose with the facts, and basically wants to be a genial and sweet entertainment that serves as two hours of escapism.  Thanks to the stars and some genuinely funny scenes, it succeeds.

Cranston plays Phil, a billionaire New York investor and author who became paralyzed from the neck down after a paragliding accident.  Ever since the loss of his wife to cancer, Phil sees little desire to go on, and basically wants to hole himself up in his penthouse, while he obsesses over what he has lost, and waits to die.  His assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman, making the most of a limited role) has begun searching for caregivers, and this is how Dell (Kevin Hart) enters the story.  Dell is a deadbeat dad and recently paroled ex-con who needs three signatures from businesses to show his parole officer that he is actually looking for employment.  He goes to Phil's apartment building, looking to apply for a janitor job, but due to a misunderstanding, he ends up in Phil's penthouse, interviewing for the caregiver position.  Dell is the least qualified man for the job, which is exactly what Phil likes about him.  If he is proved beyond help by a caregiver, maybe he can be left alone.

It's impossible not to think of the recent drama Green Book while you are watching The Upside, as both are about a black man and a white man from completely different worlds who manage to build a friendship, despite the differences.  And through their friendship, they realize that they both have a chance at life.  Phil is someone who once had it all, and feels he has nothing left to live for.  Dell, meanwhile, has never fully appreciated what he had, and now is trying his best to salvage what little he has left.  He is a decent man who was led down the wrong path in life.  Now that he is trying to change his ways, the people important to him don't trust him.  He has an estranged ex-wife and son that he is trying to reconnect with, but his past behavior have made them both distrusting of him.  These two men both fill a need for each other of emotional support, and help them realize that there is hope for both of them.

Director Neil Burger (Divergent) and screenwriter Jon Hartmere are not exactly doing anything bold or new here, although they do throw in the occasional nice moment, like when Dell takes Phil out to get some hot dogs, and chastises the food vendor for not asking Phil directly what he would like.  But we go along with it, because the performances of Cranston and Hart manage to pull us in, and they make a surprisingly good pairing.  Hart, in particular, has toned down his usual comedic motormouth routine here, and even gets to try his hand at some dramatic moments, which he shows some skill at.  It's nothing that will net him any award recognition or anything, but he believably sells the serious moments that he is handed.  And when he is asked to supply comedy to his performance, he wisely does not go quite so over the top as he sometimes does.  Even a somewhat slapstick-inspired sequence where he can't figure out how to use a high-tech voice operated shower in Phil's apartment manages to get laughs.

But it is Cranston who is giving the most effective performance, especially since he is forced to use only his face and his eyes to play his character.  Despite this, he manages to be forceful and command the screen just about every time he is on camera.  Even without the use of his full body, he sells every emotion, and we even believe the somewhat forced plot about how his cold exterior slowly melts away as he becomes friends with Dell.  And the reason why this all works is that we buy the chemistry between Cranston and Hart.  We see their hesitation with each other slowly melt away, and both do a good job of making us believe that these two men could wear down their defenses and become friends.  And since the entire movie hinges on their chemistry, they are what make the film works.  Even if the movie isn't always successful, we are invested because of them.

The Upside, just like Green Book, is not a subtle film, but it has enough heartfelt moments and great chemistry between the two leads that I ended up going along with it.  It's a simple and obvious movie, and that's okay.  Not everything needs a deeper meaning.  Sometimes it's nice just to spend a couple hours with some likable characters, laugh, and despite some obvious plot manipulations, maybe get involved a little more than you expected.

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Saturday, January 12, 2019

Replicas

The poster for Replicas tells us "Some humans are unstoppable".  I have no idea what this has to do with the plot of this wonky Sci-Fi film, about a scientist who clones his family after they are killed in a car accident.  All I do know is that this is the first film about human cloning that I can remember that does not take any real stance or view on the subject.  Not once does the movie slow down to examine the ethical and moral questions, and instead stumbles full-speed ahead into a boring chase movie where the scientist has to protect his clone family from government agents.

This is a movie that barely seems to be able to generate enough energy to exist.  The only moments where it comes to life are some unintentionally comical moments that are sprinkled throughout, though not enough to make this a "so bad it's good" guilty pleasure.  Keanu Reeves sleepwalks through the movie as Will Foster, a neuroscientist who has been unsuccessfully trying to transfer a human brain and its memories into a robotic body.  After his most recently failure, he heads home where his loving wife and three children are waiting to take their family vacation.  They hit the road, but a severe storm sends their vehicle off the side of the road, with Will being the only survivor.  I'm not sure if it's due to Reeves' barely there performance, or the cheap screenplay credited to Chad St. John (Peppermint), but Will seems to take the death of his entire family with what can only be called casual indifference. 

Will does, however, have a plan.  Rather than call the police and bury his family, he will create new genetically cloned bodies of them with the help of a co-worker and fellow scientist played by Thomas Middleditch.  He can then implant their old memories into their new bodies, and it will be as if they never died. The catch?  There are only three pods available with which to clone his family of four, so one of his three kids is going to have to be left out of the experiment.  He chooses his youngest daughter Zoe to be the one to not be brought back (he decides this by drawing her name from a bowl), and then goes to work to bringing his wife (Alice Eve) and other two children back from the dead with most of their memories in tact.  I say most, as he deliberately decides to erase all memories of Zoe from the minds of his family.  According to this movie, cloning is a relatively simple, if not lengthy process that only takes 17 days.  Also, erasing the memories of your loved ones are a simple "click and delete" process of scientific nonsense that makes no sense whatsoever.

Rarely has a movie treated the whole concept of cloning the dead with such passive indifference.  Will and his fellow scientist friend are pretty much playing with the laws of nature, but they treat it as if it's just another day at the office.  Heck, when Will's partner in the project learns that they have managed to recreate human life, he departs with a casual "Well, see you at work tomorrow".  And for all the movie's talk about Will being a brilliant scientist, he sure does some stupid things throughout the movie.  He doesn't even stop to think that his family's friends might come snooping around when they haven't heard from them for the past few days while the cloning process is going on.  So, he decides to sign in on his daughter's social media account, and tries to send messages to her friends, assuring them that she's okay.  And don't you think if you were missing work so you could clone your dead family in your secret house lab, you would come up with a decent excuse as to why you haven't been at work lately?  Because Will doesn't, and he has to have his friend think of an excuse for him.

Replicas is an insultingly idiotic approach to an intriguing idea.  You would think your wife discovering that she died in a car crash and was brought back to life as a clone in experiment would be a bit upsetting, but Will's trusting wife seems to react to this news the same way a woman reacts when her husband forgets to take the trash out.  You also would think that her discovering that she had a third child that her husband was unable to clone would lead to some kind of anger or outburst, but it barely seems to disrupt the family meal.  And just what is this movie trying to say about cloning in the first place?  As far as I can tell, nothing.  There are no consequences, no repercussions, and no moment where Will seems to be in doubt about what he is doing, and later what he has done.  According to this movie, cloning his dead wife and kids and keeping secrets from them is the best thing Will ever did, and it probably even saved his marriage.

This is a movie without a single thought in its head.  Oh, it has ideas all right, but it doesn't know what to do with them.  Either that, or it ignores them, and hopes the audience doesn't notice.  It's rare to have a movie that is so infuriatingly stupid, and yet deadly dull at the same time.  Replicas somehow manages to pull off both feats, which I guess is kind of impressive, but for all the wrong reasons.

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A Dog's Way Home

A Dog's Way Home is somewhat of a spin off of the 2017 film, A Dog's Purpose (which is getting its own direct sequel, A Dog's Journey, in May).  I don't know if anyone needed this many "Dog" movies in such a short amount of time, but at least in this case, it's mostly harmless and kind of effective.  It's not a great movie by any means, but it's warm and cheerful, and is smart enough not to humanize its canine star too much.

This is despite the film providing Bella the dog with an off-camera voice performed by Bryce Dallas Howard.  As I have stated numerous times, I am not a fan of when live action movies about animals put a celebrity voice on the soundtrack to tell us what the creature is supposed to be thinking.  It's even worse when they use CG to make it look like a live dog is supposed to be talking, as in last year's dismal Show Dogs.  Fortunately, we are only hearing Bella's thoughts here.  The surprising thing is that while I don't think the movie needed the voice over, the writers at least managed to get a dog's personality right with the dialogue.  I enjoyed how Bella lives in the moment, thinks about cheese and chicken often, and sees everything as a game.  Even if Bella has been given a voice, at least the filmmakers were smart enough not to have her think like a human, making smart wise cracks.

As the film opens, Bella is a puppy living with her mom and family underneath an abandoned building with a variety of stray cats.  Bella's family is taken away by animal control, never to be seen again, but she is fortunately rescued and raised by one of the cats (whom she calls "Mother Cat") who takes care of Bella.  Before long, Bella is found by Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King), a med school student who volunteers to rescue animals.  It's instant love when the two meet, and Lucas brings her to his home, where he lives with his war veteran mother Terri (Ashley Judd).  Bella loves life at her new home, and even becomes an emotional support animal at Terri's veteran group meetings.  The problem is, Bella is a pit bull, and an animal control officer (John Cassini) is looking for any excuse to take her away and put her to sleep because he thinks her breed is dangerous.  And so, Bella is sent to live at a temporary home in New Mexico until Lucas and Terri can find a home where pit bulls are accepted.  It doesn't take long for Bella to miss Lucas and her home, and so the dog runs away and begins a perilous journey home as she travels cross country to Denver, Colorado, where she knows her people are waiting for her.

During her adventures, Bella joins a pack of dogs for a short time, crosses snowy forests and hilly valleys, is threatened by some wolves and befriends a young cougar cub that Bella calls "Big Kitten".  The cougar is done entirely with CG, and it's some of the least convincing CG you're likely to see in 2019.  Still, there are plenty of sweet and heartwarming moments to be found to make up for any of the obvious shortcomings.  Bella also occasionally finds herself in the company of other humans, such as a kindly old homeless man and a nice gay couple.  She also learns how to hunt for food to survive.  All the while, Bella's mind remains on Lucas and finding her way home.  It's the kind of fantasy every dog-lover dreams of, that if there were somehow to be separated, that the dog would travel thousands of miles to find them.  The idea was heartwarming and likable back in 1993 with Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, and it's just as much so now.

A Dog's Way Home is pretty thin narratively, even as talking dog movies go.  It doesn't go out of its way to place Bella in any serious peril, probably so as not to upset the children in the audience too much.  Whenever Bella grows hungry or lonely, there is always someone right around the corner to help lift her spirits or fill her belly.  But it does have a lot of heart, and it's impossible not to fall for its four-legged star, who doesn't need Howard's voice to aid its performance.  It's a cute, likable and determined dog, as is required for a movie like this.  The human actors are likable too, except of course for that nasty old animal control officer who doesn't like Bella.  I don't think it's any surprise to say he will get what's coming to him eventually, and everything works out.

All you have to do to know if this movie is for you is to look at the poster image.  If it's enough to warm your heart, I say go and enjoy.  The movie may be a big heavy on the cornball at times, but I was eventually won over.  At the very least, I was happy that the movie did not take a bad view on cats.  It was kind of nice to see a movie about a dog who is not only raised by cats, but enjoys their company.

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Friday, January 11, 2019

On the Basis of Sex

Considering how many recent biopics have disappointed, it's a nice change of pace that On the Basis of Sex actually succeeds at telling the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  The movie succeeds where recent attempts at telling the stories of famous people have failed by focusing on a central issue, rather than trying to fit their whole life into two hours.  We learn just enough about the subject matter to admire her, and the movie manages to create a compelling narrative, rather than cherry picking different facts or moments from Ginsburg's life.  From its narrative flow, to the strong lead performance by Felicity Jones, the movie just works.

The movie basically focuses on two key moments in Ginsburg's life.  It kicks off in the late 1950s to early 60s, where we find her as a student at Harvard Law, along with her husband Martin (Armie Hammer).  As the couple, both Jones and Hammer create an instant warm and occasionally funny chemistry, which immediately draws us into their relationship, which is important, since their family dynamic and relationship plays a big role in the overall story to come.  Martin is a supportive and devoted husband, but when he develops testicular cancer, Ruth must pull double duty.  She handles both her husband's classes, as well as her own, and helps take care of her husband at home, while also taking care of their one-year-old daughter.  Despite all of this, she manages to graduate at the top of her class, despite the heavy load she took on, as well as facing inherent sexism on the campus, being one of the first women enrolled at Harvard.  After graduating, and after her husband has recovered, she goes out into the world, only to find that no law firm will hire a woman lawyer.  She is forced to accept a teaching position, where she helps young women learn about law, all the while thinking she gave up her chance make a real difference herself.

This first hour of the film does a great job of setting up Ginsburg's beliefs and strong personality, but it is the second half of the film where she truly gets to stand out, and makes up the most effective part of the story.  Here, Ruth gets the chance to join her lawyer husband to represent Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) in a suit against the IRS.  The case revolves around the unequal provisions between men and women.  With the help of fellow lawyer and childhood friend Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), Ruth and Martin take their case to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, and this begins Ruth's career built around gender equality.  The movie wisely puts all of its attention on the beginning of her career, rather than try to tackle too much of her life and legacy, which have already been explored in a wonderful and recent documentary.  This is the story of how her career began, and how she began to develop the drive that would shape the rest of her career.

On the Basis of Sex splits its running time between the engaging court case and career of Ginsburg, and the domestic aspects of her life, mostly dealing with her strong-willed 15-year-old daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), who is being drawn into the woman's movement of the early 1970s.  This allows the audience to see Ruth both as a professional, and as a mother, who shares her daughter's attitude and will, but is also afraid that Jane will get hurt at some of the rallies she attends.  There are certainly some contrived family scenes that definitely seem to have been thrown in by screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman, but these are offset by the family dynamic that the actors are able to create during some of the film's quieter and less dramatic moments.  There is also more than enough momentum created by the scenes surrounding the Moritz case that creates enough energy and intrigue to carry the audience through some of the more obviously "dramatized" moments. 

But it is the performance of Felicity Jones that holds our attention throughout.  From her mannerisms, to her effective Brooklyn accent, she does a wonderful job of portraying Ruth's journey from a wide-eyed hopeful student, to the beginnings of the confident woman she eventually became.  A smart move that the film makes is that it shows us how she struggled early in her career.  She could be easily led or manipulated in the courtroom, as evidenced by a mock trial that some friends set up in her home, trying to prepare her for what to expect.  She could be brash, and open herself to obvious attacks in the courtroom, and the film shows us how she honed her skills and eventually learned to control herself.  With so many biofilms treating their subject matter like saints or talented individuals right out of the gate, I appreciate it when one actually shows us the process and learning that the figure at the center of the story had to go through.

The film's director, Mimi Leder, has worked largely in television with a few feature film credits here and there.  This may lead you to think that On the Basis of Sex will be a fairly safe and cut and dry take.  And while there's certainly nothing inventive here, the performances and the way the script wraps us into the court case that kick-started Bader's career do more than enough to grab your attention.  If anything, the movie can only make the audience want to look up the documentary, RBG, which goes much deeper into her life and story.  I see nothing wrong with that.

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Friday, January 04, 2019

Escape Room

Escape Room is a toothless and bloodless throwback to those horror franchises from the 2000s like Saw, Hostel and Final Destination about people dying in creative and gruesome ways.  The big difference is that this movie is PG-13, so it can't exactly rely on over-the-top splatter effects to amuse its audience like its predecessors could.  One would think that director Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key) would use this as an opportunity to create some creepy atmosphere, or maybe some interesting characters trapped in the deadly game.  Sadly, one would be mistaken.  Outside of a few interesting set designs, the movie comes up short in just about every way.

The premise is a familiar one.  Six people from different walks of life find a wooden puzzle box, which when completed, invites them to compete in an immersive "Escape Room" game, where they must solve puzzles in order to escape from increasingly difficult rooms, with the grand prize being $10,000.  The catch, naturally, is that the rooms are really deathtraps, and have been designed where the six challengers must compete with each other to see who can survive.  There is one room that turns into a literal oven, one that is made up like a snowy forest with the temperature dropping to a deadly cold, and (my personal favorite), an upside down bar where the floor is slowly breaking apart.  The idea behind the film is that we the audience are supposed to take bets on who is going to survive, although the film does kill the suspense of this with an unnecessary prologue sequence that's set during events near the end of the movie, before it flashes back to the beginning.  The problem is, I didn't find much interesting, or to like, about the victims, so I didn't much care.

The people trapped in this deadly game run the gamut from a shy and withdrawn college student (Taylor Russell), a haunted young man dealing with some personal demons (Logan Miller), a war veteran suffering from PTSD (Deborah Ann Woll), a middle aged trucker (Tyler Labine), a hot-headed young business executive (Jay Ellis), and a young video game-obsessed geek (Nik Dodani).  Most of these characters have some kind of tragic backstory that is tied into the puzzles that they must solve, and it also connects them in a certain way.  So, whoever is behind this deadly game somehow knows everything about them.  The way the movie fits these backstories into its puzzles can be rather awkward.  For example, in one instance, they must escape a snowbound cabin by figuring out a seven letter name that can unlock the door.  The answer to the puzzle is "Rudolph".  The reason?  Because one of the players was in a car accident once, and "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" happened to be playing on the radio at the time of the crash!  Uh-huh...

Who is behind the game, and how do they know such intimate details about these peoples' tragic lives?  Naturally, I can't reveal the first answer for the sake of spoilers.  As for the "how do they know" part, I honestly cannot tell you.  Sadly, the ending does not explain much, and actually seems to be trying to set up a sequel, which I'm sure we'll see next January if this movie should happen to make back its budget during the opening weekend.  A mastermind behind the deadly game is revealed, but then the movie shows us that the answer actually is much bigger than we think, and that is the hook the filmmakers think will leave us clamoring for more.  Fat chance, I say.  The movie also has one of those endings where it doesn't seem to know when to end.  First we get a lengthy scene where the villain spells everything out, while managing to not really explain everything.  Then we get the fake out ending, where it seems like everything is okay, then it's not.  Then we get the epilogue set six months later.  Then we get the final reveal to set up a sequel.  It's like the screenwriters couldn't decide on what ending cliche to use, so they just tossed them all into the script.

You go to a movie like Escape Room for some gruesome thrills, but due to the film's rating and sanitized nature, it offers none.  Sadly, it also can't deliver on any thrills or suspense, so there's really nothing of interest on display.  Sure, some of the room designs are kind of clever, but that's not enough to support a 100 minute thriller.  In other words, this is your typical January dumping ground fare.

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Monday, December 31, 2018

The 13th Annual Reel Stinkers Awards

It's New Year's Eve.  And as the clock ticks down the final moments of 2018, and everybody gets to look to the year ahead, I get to go back in time, and look at the movies that stole my money and my time the past year.

Yes, it's time once again for the Reel Stinkers Awards.  A time when I get to "honor" the worst of the worst that I sat through.  As you all know, bad movies come in all forms.  We've got blockbuster bombs, comedies with no laughs, thrillers that couldn't startle a mouse, unnecessary sequels, star vanity projects that went horribly wrong, and so much more!  I try to pick through the garbage, and find the really big stinkers.  Sure, I could easily make an entire list of cheap exploitation and low budget horror films, but where would the fun in that be?  I want to look back on the films that were big, or at least supposed to be big, and featured big talent, but still managed to fail.

As always, my "Best of the Year" article will likely come around February or so, as there are some late year releases still stuck in limited release at the moment, and will go wider during January and February.  I want to see and review as many of them as I can, so I always hold off on my Best list until then.

So, with all that out of the way, it's time to carve some cinematic turkeys!  Here's hoping that you didn't waste your money and time on them, and let us also hope that everyone involved with them will get to work on a good movie in 2019!

And now, I'm proud to give you...


THE 10 WORST FILMS OF 2018: 


10. A WRINKLE IN TIME - I actually did not write a review for this film, as I was away on a week-long Caribbean Cruise with my girlfriend the weekend it came out.  I did see it when I got home, and it immediately earned a spot on my "Worst" list, from which it never left.  Based on the classic children's novel by Madeleine L'Engle, this is a confused and muddled fantasy about some children who go on a quest across multiple worlds and alternate dimensions in order to search for their scientist father (Chris Pine), who disappeared while doing research on time and space.  The kids are aided in their quest by three otherworldly women (played by Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling), who don't really do all that much in the film, other than speak in unhelpful inspirational dialogue like “You can do this!” and "You are a Warrior!".  This big budget adaptation disappointed the fans of the book by ignoring many of the subtleties and complexities of the story.  As for those who were not familiar with the novel, they were confused by the movie's time and space-bending plot, and how the movie just never really bothers to explain anything. (One of the main characters just literally walks into the movie and starts talking, even though we haven't been introduced to him up to that point.) The movie explains little, and makes even less sense.  And despite the big name acting talent, none of the characters or performances register.  This is simply a misguided movie all the way around.

09. JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM -  If 2015's Jurassic World was a soulless attempt to cash in on the nostalgia audiences held for the 1993 original film, then Fallen Kingdom is simply soulless.  This is a garden variety sequel that just throws non-stop action up on the screen, while making no attempt to engage the audience.  For all the rampaging dinos and narrow escapes that the film throws at us, the whole experience ends up being as thrilling as cardboard because there is nothing to care about here.  Yes, the movie has been expertly made, but so what if there is nothing here for those in the audience to grab onto?  This is a film that gives us nothing to think about, and nothing to discuss when it's two plus hours are up.  It's a cynical and mechanical device that gives us a lot of special effects, but creates no sense of wonder.  The dinosaurs are like targets in a video game, and the human characters either blunder their way through one close call after another, or in the case of the villains, make one bad decision after another.  The script reads as if it were written on a bunch of post-it notes, hitting the expected plot points, but not going any deeper than that.  There are movies out there that can make you feel, make you excited, and even thrill you.  Don't let Jurassic World steal your time with an experience that will make you feel nothing.  As popcorn entertainment goes, it's the cinematic equal to dumping all the popcorn out of the cardboard box it came in, and eating the box itself.

08. TAG -  This is a relentlessly mean-spirited comedy that turned me off early on, and was never able to win me over.  It has a premise that seems to suggest a good time at the movies, but when I left, I felt nothing but hatred for the characters at the center of it.  The movie (loosely based on a true story) is about five guys, all friends from childhood, who for over 30 years have spent the month of May playing the game of tag.  Why do they do this?  To feel young, they say.  And at one point, one of the guys even says, "It brings out the best in us".  I might have believed this if the movie didn't go so far in making the five guys such violent, aggressive, insufferable a-holes.  In the movie, the characters play the game not on friendly terms, but mostly to be jerks to one another.  They not only use the game to interrupt important events in their lives like the birth of a child, the funeral of a father, or a wedding, but they even go so far as to implement torture when they threaten to waterboard someone.  As the movie got meaner and dumber with each passing scene, I started to feel dirty watching it.  If Tag is dismal as a comedy, it becomes downright unwatchable when it tacks on a sentimental ending, which plays by the unwritten rule that most recent adult comedies must go mushy and soft in the last half after devoting a majority of the movie to jokes about masturbation and including every four letter word and obscene insult in the English language.  After 90 minutes of unfunny obscene humor, the movie suddenly throws in a terminal illness and weepy bedside hospital scenes.  Let me tell you, when the movie went in this direction, I was so moved I wanted to throw up.


07. THE PREDATOR -  Here is a movie that will please no one.  Say you're a fan of the long-running Sci-Fi franchise, and are anxious to see how it's been updated.  Well, you will be disappointed to learn that this is a slapdash effort to cash in on the recognizable name.  But, say you're not a fan, and you just want to be entertained.  Again, prepare to be disappointed, as there is nothing inspired, thrilling or original here. The movie is an assault on the senses - Overly loud, replacing CG blood and gore for genuine thrills, and downright incoherent in its editing, plotting and pacing.  This movie has all the markings of a project that got out of control, or perhaps never had a clear vision to start with.  The Predator is the kind of film that feels it doesn't have to tell a genuine narrative or give us character motivation.  All it has to do is crank up the gunfire and explosions really loud, splash a lot of blood around, and hope the audience doesn't catch on that nothing is happening.  This is such a shockingly inept movie, you're almost surprised to see seasoned professionals were behind it.  This is especially true of the plotting and writing, which frequently falls back on forced exposition dialogue to move the story along.  There is just this overall sense of laziness to the filmmaking on display.  Instead of revitalizing the franchise, this might bury it even deeper into obscurity.


06. LIFE OF THE PARTY -  I'm willing to admit that the problem lies with me.  I detested Life of the Party with such ferocity that I have to wonder if the movie really is as bad as I remember it being.  This is a film that rubbed me the wrong way from beginning to end.  It's not just that this is yet another comedy with no laughs.  It's toothless, pointless, and just obnoxious.  The movie is just a colossal miscalculation on every level.  The film stars Melissa McCarthy as Deanna, a 40-something woman who gets dumped by her husband, and decides to go back to college where her young daughter is currently attending.  If you want to see this exact same idea done with actual humor, go and watch Rodney Dangerfield's 1986 film, Back to SchoolLife of the Party just wants to be nice, and not ruffle any feathers.  It's so insistent on not letting its audience think, that it virtually has no plot.  It's simply 105 minutes of failed sketches that revolve around Deanna bonding with Maddie's sorority sisters None of these plots go anywhere, mean anything, or build to any substance.  Some don't even get resolved, the movie just seems to forget about them. I guess the filmmakers feared that things like plot elements and actual humor would take away time from more pivotal scenes where Deanna wears funny clothes, falls over things, and does goofy dances.  Life of the Party is so bad, it makes Billy Madison look like a thoughtful and quiet meditation on the education process.


05. HOLMES & WATSON -  The distinct smell of flop sweat permeates from the screen during Holmes & Watson, as actors who seem to know they're trapped in a bomb struggle to rise above.  Scene after desperate scene, they soldier on, performing through moments that the movie thinks is funny, but they know are not.  This is yet another movie where the studio knew the script was a stinker, and they hoped throwing some talent at it would save it.  The movie is being advertised as a comedy, but it has too strong of a hollow, aimless tone to it to generate any laughs.  It places Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in the roles of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, respectively, and then pretty much hopes that they can recapture the chemistry they shared in the previous films they did together.  The thing is, those movies had life to them.  They had a pulse.  Here, Ferrell and Reilly mug for the camera, pretending that they're enjoying themselves.  But both of them look like they can hardly contain their doubts about the project.  Talented as both are, you can't throw a dud script at them, and expect them to make gold just by playing off each other.  There has to be something in the material for them to work with.  Holmes & Watson is the kind of desperately unfunny comedy that will likely be swept under the rug, and never spoken of by the stars or their fans ever again.  


04. THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS -  A lot of bad movies get pushed out of Hollywood every year, but it's rare to get an inexplicably bad one like The Happytime Murders.  It exists solely to shock and offend, but it can't even do that.  This is a one-joke movie, and that joke is "puppets are dirty".  We see characters that resemble the sort of Muppets we see on Sesame Street or The Muppet Show chain smoking, snorting lines of sugar like cocaine, hanging out in porno stores, inhabiting strip clubs, acting like mobsters and prostitutes, and having rough sex with each other.  Put those images in your head, picture if you would like to watch that for 90 minutes, and you will know whether or not you are the audience for this film.  The screenplay by Todd Berger does some customary world building in the first 10 minutes or so, then forgets all about it, and just plops its puppet characters into a forgettable murder mystery story about an assailant who is knocking off the puppet cast of a popular 90s sitcom one-by-one.  Now all the puppets are junkies and sex addicts, and are turning up dead in brutal gangland-style murders.  Melissa McCarthy (pulling double duty on this year's list of Stinkers) plays a foul-mouthed human cop put on the case, and basically is giving the same performance she gave in The Heat a few years ago.  All it does is make us wish we were watching that movie instead.  The Happytime Murders never builds to anything worthwhile, and is simply lazy in its desire to shock audiences. 


03. LIFE ITSELF -  Life is messy and hard, but Dan Fogelman's Life Itself is messy, convoluted, disjointed, and just a real sad sack of a movie.  The movie is divided into four separate chapters, and takes a series of seemingly unconnected plotlines and characters, and shows how they are all connected to create that funny thing called life and death.  Despite the title, Fogelman seems especially fixated on the death part, as well as on the misery of life.  During the course of the film's two hours, we see and hear about suicide, a bus plowing into an innocent bystander numerous times, cancer, a little girl's father getting decapitated, and a young boy haunted by nightmares of a deadly accident that he inadvertently caused.  None of these plots add much of anything to the film.  They're just there to add to the misery of the characters as they cope with loss, depression and isolation in the most basic and dramatically unsatisfying ways imaginable.  The movie wallows in pain and misery, while never really finding a way to connect emotionally with the audience.  Everything has been oversimplified, from the dialogue, to the way the film constantly feels the need to feed us how we're supposed to be feeling through narration or obvious visual montages.  It doesn't take long for the movie to feel like it's stopping itself every few minutes to point out the obvious.  Life Itself so desperately wants to tug at the heartstrings, but it takes so much more than just piling death and misery into the narrative to do so.  We need to feel a connection with the people it's happening to, and we never do.  Instead of emotional, the movie feels cheap and exploitative.  Instead of tears, we feel used.  And instead of joy at the end, we feel anguish.  


02. WELCOME TO MARWEN -  Here is a movie of stunning awfulness, one that only truly talented filmmakers could achieve.  Welcome to Marwen is based on the life of New York artist Mark Hogancamp, who came into acclaim in the art world with his elaborate World War II photos using dolls and models.  It's a touching story, and it even inspired a documentary.  What director Robert Zemeckis does with his take is bury the heart and emotion with a lot of pointless CG fantasy sequences where the dolls come to life, and reenact war atrocities and bloody gun battles.  It's about as appealing as watching a CG Ken and Barbie reenact the Battle of Normandy.  It's a total mess of a film, and one that had me watching in silent disbelief.  When it was over, I actually had to question what I had just seen.  This is not only the worst movie Zemeckis has made, but it's also the worst that Steve Carell (who plays Mark in the film) has been involved with.  The movie wants to tell the inspirational journey of Mark's emotional recovery after he is attacked by some thugs at a bar, which led him to lose all of his memories, due to the head trauma he suffered.  But it keeps on getting distracted by the expensive and stilted "fantasy" animation scenes, so that we never learn all that much about Mark, or the people who supposedly inspired him to create his work.  That's because Zemeckis really has no personal stakes to the story.  He just wants to play with the technology of the CG fantasy sequences.  This is one of the most misguided dramas I have seen in a long time.

01. THE 15:17 TO PARIS - I have no doubt that Clint Eastwood had the best of intentions in making The 15:17 to Paris.  He clearly admires the three young men at the center of the story, and why shouldn't he?  On August 21st, 2015, Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler helped prevent what could have been a tragedy when they stopped a terrorist attack on a train bound for Paris, France.  Their actions on that day deserve to be celebrated, but I don't know if this movie was the right way to do it.  Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler portray themselves in the movie, and while it's a neat idea, they quickly prove their inexperience with acting before the camera, and the movie becomes awkward almost from the moment they open their mouths.  Thanks to the clunky script and the inexperienced actors at the center, The 15:17 to Paris quickly becomes a failed experiment.  What starts as a well-intentioned tribute to the men and their heroic deeds quickly dives right off the deep end of pointlessness when the movie literally becomes a home movie of their European vacation.  A good half hour or so of the film is devoted to the guys doing nothing but walking about Italy and Amsterdam, before they catch that fateful train to Paris.  Another annoying thing that Eastwood does throughout the film is that he flashes forward to the events on the train at random moments.  We see a flashback with the guys as little kids being yelled at by their gym teacher for talking back to him, and then we suddenly cut to the train to Paris for no reason, as the terrorist begins his attack on the first couple potential victims.  Then, the movie will suddenly cut back to the flashback of the three main characters as children.  I was practically dumbfounded by this movie.  Eastwood has made great movies, and likely will make another one soon, but he completely strikes out in just about every conceivable way here.  This is simply an overly padded movie that never finds a sense or purpose in the telling of the story, because it refuses to dig deep enough.



Well, that covers the Top 10, but I am far from finished.  It's time to cover the Dishonorable Mentions, the films that were bad, but not quite bad enough to break into the top spots.  Don't let that fool you into thinking these movies are somehow better than what's come before, however.  You should avoid any and all movies that appear on this list.  With that said, let's roll out the next batch of stinkers!

DISHONORABLE MENTIONS:

Winchester, Pacific Rim: Uprising, Sherlock Gnomes, Rampage, Truth or Dare, Super Troopers 2, Overboard, Breaking In, Show Dogs, Action Point, Unfriended: Dark Web, The Spy Who Dumped Me, Slender Man, Mile 22, A.X.L., Kin, Peppermint, Night School, Nobody's Fool, The Girl in the Spider's Web, The Possession of Hannah Grace


INDIVIDUAL REEL STINKERS AWARDS:

WORST SEQUEL:
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

MOST UNNECESSARY SEQUEL:
Sherlock Gnomes (a sequel to 2011's Gnomeo and Juliet)

WORST REMAKE:
Overboard

WORST PERFORMANCE BY AN A-LIST ACTOR/ACTRESS:
Helen Mirren in Winchester

OVERALL WORST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR/ACTRESS:
Three-way tie between Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler in The 15:17 to Paris. (These guys may be real life heroes, but actors they are not.)

WORST IDEA FOR A MOVIE THAT NEVER COULD HAVE WORKED:
The Happytime Murders

REPEAT OFFENDERS (ACTORS WHO APPEARED IN MORE THAN ONE STINKER IN 2018):
Melissa McCarthy in Life of the Party and The Happytime Murders
Maya Rudolph in Life of the Party and The Happytime Murders
Thomas Jane in A.X.L. and The Predator
Tiffany Haddish in Night School and Nobody's Fool

WORST ON-SCREEN TEAM:
Melissa McCarthy and her equally foul-mouthed Muppet police partner in The Happytime Murders

STUDIO THAT RELEASED THE MOST STINKERS IN 2018:
Universal Studios for bringing us Pacific Rim: Uprising, Truth or Dare, Breaking In, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Night School and Welcome to Marwen


 

Well, that's the worst of 2018 in a nutshell.  Time to look ahead to 2019, and hope for the best.  Have a wonderful and safe new year, everybody!

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Saturday, December 29, 2018

Vice

Back in 2015, writer-director Adam McKay stunned audiences with The Big Short, his cinematic take on the 2008 financial crisis.  Known primarily for his work on Saturday Night Live and assorted Hollywood comedies, McKay showed a side that was angrier and more satirical than we had previously known.  He was able to take his subject matter, and make it not just accessible and informative, but also entertaining.  He employed just about every trick in the book, from surprise celebrity cameos, down to flat-out fourth wall breaking, where the characters would turn and address the audience.  It was exciting, exhilarating, and unlike anything audiences had seen before.

His follow up, Vice, which tracks the life and political career of Dick Cheney, employs a similar "all bets are off" style of narrative.  He is not really making a conventional biopic here, but rather an off the rails satire that is constantly changing tones, using random TV clips to represent the messages he is conveying, and once again having the characters occasionally stop the action so that they can address the viewer, making you feel like you are part of the story while you are watching it.  It's very involving and entertaining, and if it never quite feels as daring as his last film, that's only because it's not meant to be.  McKay is using the same stylistic choices and tricks, and while they are effective, they are not as surprising, only because we are expecting it this time.  Yes, the movie could have been more hard-hitting in certain ways, but that does not mean it should be passed up.

When we first meet Cheney in the film (played at various ages by Christian Bale, in a remarkable performance), he's a 22-year-old alcoholic who dropped out of Yale, and who seems to be going nowhere.  His high school sweetheart and wife Lynn (Amy Adams) stands firm with an ultimatum to him.  Either he shapes up and improves his life, or she's gone.  Dick promises to be the best man he can be for her, and he can't be accused of not being true to his word, as by 1969, he is a congressional intern, and working in the White House under Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell).  In short time, he rises in power, and soon he is the White House Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford.

All of this is narrated to us by an unknown man (Jesse Plemons), who claims to be just an average man who loves his family, and enjoys watching SpongeBob Squarepants with his young boy.  How this man knows so much about Cheney, and what role he plays in the story is kept a secret until almost the end.  Still, the man tells us how Cheney rose to power by basically doing three things that Rumsfeld admired.  He was quiet, he was loyal, and he did what he was told.  The movie skims over the years where Cheney was Secretary of Defense, as well as his time serving as the CEO of the Halliburton oil company.  However, McKay never fails to drive home his main point in the film.  As Cheney rose to importance, and eventually became the running mate of George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), he became hungry for power.  The film suggests that he was an expert at reading people, and could manipulate them into giving him what he wanted, while at the same time making it look like he was giving the other person what they wanted.

For example, Cheney knew that his position as Vice President was essentially a "nothing" job.  In the movie's own words, his main job is to wait for the President to die.  However, Cheney uses his influence to manipulate and move things his way from behind the scenes.  He knows that the President he serves is basically seen as the "black sheep" of the Bush family, and uses that to manipulate him into invading Iraq, finishing the job that his father started.  We may already know the details of the story, but the way McKay tells it makes it seem fresh.  He uses cinematic tricks, such as setting up a false ending half-way through the movie, complete with end credits.  He shows us focus test groups that helped coin terms that were used frequently by Bush and his allies.  He even resorts to dramatic Shakespeare-style dialogue (complete with dramatic thunder claps outside) in one memorable sequence. 

Through it all, Vice never loses its focus, or its ultimate message of what happens when power goes out of control.  This is not a serious movie, nor is it a flat-out satire.  The end result is somewhere in the middle, kind of like The Big Short.  McKay is once again taking a complex issue, and helping us understand, without dumbing it down.  He also gets some incredible performances, especially from Bale and Carell.  Not only does everyone look like their real life counterparts, but they are giving genuinely great performances here.  Really, the only area where McKay does falter just a little is that his production is a bit too preoccupied with being slick, that he skims over a lot of the story.  Yes, this is still an informative film, but there are certain moments in the script that either gloss over key details, or seem kind of like an adaptation of a Wikipedia article.  We get the broad details, but not the smaller ones.

But we are still entertained, and I think that's really what McKay is going for here.  He wants us to be informed, and yes he also wants us to be angry, but he does so in such a way that we almost don't notice it.  He makes his point, he grabs your attention, and he makes us question what we know.  And he does all of this with a deft skill that comes from years of entertaining the masses with broad comedies.  Even if Vice is not as groundbreaking as what came before from the filmmaker, it is just as engaging.

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