Reel Opinions


Sunday, September 17, 2017

American Assassin

The opening scene of American Assassin depicts a happy young couple frolicking at a beach resort in Spain.  Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) has just proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Katrina (Charlotte Vega), and they seem destined for wedded bliss.  However, anyone who thinks that a movie with a title like the one this one has is going to feature the couple living Happily Ever After is fooling themselves.  Moments later, terrorists storm the resort, and Katrina is killed.

This fuels Mitch's quest for revenge, and a year and a half later, we find that he grown a shaggy head of hair and a beard (because everybody in the movies who is devoting their life to revenge always lets their personal grooming lapse), and has trained himself in the martial arts and guns to the point that he is now a one-man weapon.  He manages to infiltrate the terrorist cell that attacked the resort that day, and when he finally gets face to face with the man who killed his fiance, the CIA shows up and guns down all the extremists before he can.  It turns out the CIA has been following him and his actions to infiltrate the terrorists, and want to offer him a job.  Agent Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) is impressed enough by his skills, and wants him to join an elite covert group.  But in order to do so, Mitch must first pass the rigorous program set up by an ex-Navy SEAL named Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton, who as expected, delivers the best performance in the film).

American Assassin more or less follows a predetermined path set by many action thrillers just like it, and never once surprises or strays from the expected course.  It's the kind of movie where you could walk out after the first half hour or so, and then amaze your friends who stayed behind by almost correctly guessing every plot development that came afterward.  The cocky Mitch and the stern Stan start out hating each other, and while they never grow friendly, they do develop a begrudging respect for their ways.  Mitch must learn to not use his anger and past pain if he wants to be successful in the line of duty.  There's a trusted agent on the team who turns out to have a secret, and has another agenda.  Finally, the villain (Taylor Kitsch) is a former agent and student of Stan's who has gone rogue, knows all of his former mentor's secrets, and is plotting to put together a nuclear bomb. 

There's nothing wrong with anything here, it simply feels rehashed from beginning to end.  And were it not for some big names in the cast that the movie somehow managed to draw in, this probably would be right at home going direct to DVD.  The action is routine throughout, with a lot of fights depicted with close ups and a camera that just can't sit still.  But what really kills the interest is that a lot of the cast simply can't muster much energy, almost as if they know they're stuck in a retread.  Keaton is the only one who gets to display any life as the grizzled trainer who is not afraid to stick a gun his mouth, and laughs when he is being tortured by having his fingernails torn out.  It's the kind of dark, off-kilter, tough guy role that Keaton can excel at when needed, and frankly, I started to wish that he was the main character instead of the predictable Rapp.

This is also a very dark and dour movie, with no moments of levity or humor.  Movies like John Wick and its sequel have proven that even movies about a total badass can poke fun at itself occasionally, and still be awesome.  A sense of humor could have done wonders here.  In fact, the one time I did laugh was unintentional, and it didn't dawn on me until much later.  At one point in the film, the heroes kidnap a physicist who has been hired by the villain to help build the nuclear bomb.  They tie him up naked, and then stuff him in the trunk of a car.  Then, they douse him with gasoline, and threaten him with a lighted cigarette until he talks.  He gives them some information, but Keaton decides to close the trunk, and keep him locked up in there.  We never see or hear from the physicist after that, so for all we know, he's still tied up and waiting to be released back there when the movie is over.

American Assassin obviously wants to be a throwback to the more simplistic action thrillers of the 80s and 90s.  There's another movie out there that aims to do the same called The Hitman's Bodyguard.  It's not a great movie, but it represents its genre much better, and is a lot more fun than this in just about every regard.  This movie is competently made, but you just have to wonder what the point of it was when it's all over.

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Friday, September 15, 2017

Mother!

As a movie, Mother! defies description, and therefore it defies a conventional review.  It's plot cannot really be summed up in a synopsis that runs a paragraph or two.  It's a movie that seems to be designed to enthrall certain audiences, and baffle others.  It's challenging, disturbing, and kind of beautiful at times.  It's also very maddening, and not all of it works as well as it should.  But, I found myself embracing it, flaws and all.  Your mileage may vary.

If I must sum up the experience of watching the film, it would be akin to watching a cinematic interpretation of somebody's nightmare.  The kind of nightmare where something sinister is going on, and everybody seems to be either in on it or know something  The only thing is, you don't know, and nobody's willing to share any information.  Everybody acts like things are normal, however, there is something unsettling about what's going on, even when things seem to be normal.  If there is one thing this movie succeeds at, it's putting us in the shoes of its heroine, a young wife played by Jennifer Lawrence.  We share her confusion and sense of isolation as events unfold.  Like all the characters in the film, she does not have a given name.  She has moved into a large home located in the middle of a vast field with her husband, an older gentleman played by Javier Bardem.  He is credited simply as "Him", and is a writer and a poet suffering writer's block.

The couple have spent a good amount of time fixing up the house they are living in, with the wife doing most of the work, while her husband struggles with what to write next.  There are hints of marital struggle, mostly surrounding the hopes of her becoming pregnant soon.  Then one day, an unnamed man (Ed Harris) shows up at the door rather suddenly.  He claims to be a doctor, but it soon turns out that he is a fan of the husband's poetry.  His hacking cough seems to hint that he is ill, yet he is addicted to cigarettes.  The husband graciously invites the man to stay with them in their home, and the heroine is confused by this act of generosity.  Not only do they not know this man, but this is also an affront to her personal space.  This increasing sense of encroachment and loss of privacy will become a heavy theme as the film goes on.

Another visitor, a woman and the wife of the Harris character (Michelle Pfeiffer), turns up the very next day, just as unexpectedly as her husband arrived.  She too is welcomed into the home by the husband.  The mystery woman seems very standoffish toward the wife, probing, almost judgemental at times, even though there obviously should be no reason for her to be.  She is a hard drinker, but it does not explain why she acts so cold whenever the wife is around.  From this point on, I will have to tread carefully.  There are more unexpected visitors, and somebody dies within the home.  The wife is mortified, but the husband seems strangely calm the entire time, simply stating that they must be kind to their "guests".  As the wife tries to grapple with everything going on around her, she is haunted by visions, both concerning herself, and seemingly something about the house.

At its most basic level, Mother! could be described as a sort of home invasion thriller, but that's not really doing it justice.  After all, the husband invites these people in with open arms, even though he claims not to know who they are.  He is unflinchingly generous, even in the face of the sometimes rude or even violent behavior of the people who keep on descending upon the home for reasons unknown to the wife, and to us the audience.  More and more people begin to invite themselves into the home, and immediately start acting like the wife does not exist.  They trounce through the rooms without any care, they begin remodeling the house and painting the walls to their own design, and they completely destroy the sense of privacy the home once had.  And the entire time, nobody can understand why the wife is upset about this, nor do they sense her paranoia.

What it all leads up to, I dare not reveal, but I will say that the final half hour is simultaneously the most fascinating and frustrating time I've had at the movies in quite a while.  I get what writer-director Darren Aronofsky is going with, and after much meditation on the final scenes, I have a notion as to what he is trying to say.  But it will take a lot of investment for a lot of audiences, I think.  Anyone who insists on instant gratification with their movies would do better to look somewhere else.  Even those who admired the film, such as myself, will probably have to think long and hard as to why exactly.  It's easy to praise the film in a technical sense.  It's well acted, includes some wonderful camera work that creates a genuine sense of dread with its tight corners and close ups, and is constantly intriguing.  Does the film get to be a bit much at times?  Undoubtedly.  By the end, there is so much going on all at once, you feel like you're watching a train wreck.  But I was still enthralled by what I was watching.  Yes, it was a mess, but it was one that had captivated me.

The hard question to answer is how do I feel about this film?  I feel that Aronofsky has made an ambitious movie about a variety of topics, such as invasion of privacy, religion, and the allure of quick fame, as well as the fanatical fandom that can come with that quick fame.  It doesn't always work, and there are moments here that seem to be weird simply for the sake of being weird.  But, at the same time, I have to admit that this is a movie I will not soon forget.  There are powerful images, some great ideas, and I was certainly always captivated.  I was also completely unnerved in certain moments.  This is a movie where you feel like something sinister is always happening, but you don't know what exactly.  A lot of this has to do with the performances of Bardem, Harris and Pfeiffer, who seem to all be in on some kind of secret that they refuse to let anyone outside of their group in on.

Mother! is not the result of the filmmaker at his best ability, but it is suitably intriguing, and honestly, it's certainly unlike any movie you've likely to have seen, or will see again.  It's ominous, challenging, beautiful, and kind of wickedly funny in certain moments.  It also can be an alienating and isolating experience.  It's creepy, uncomfortable and unhinged.  It also probably tries to fit too much into one movie at times.  It's all this, and whatever your final judgement ends up being, I doubt you will forget watching it anytime soon.

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Saturday, September 09, 2017

Home Again

Home Again is a mostly harmless but brainless movie about a bunch of people who are mostly harmless, but very brainless.  Not much happens to them during the course of the movie, so we spend a majority of it envying them.  The characters live in a sprawling California luxury home, with a yard big enough to hold yoga classes, and lavish outside dinner parties where classic movies are projected on a big screen.  They sip expensive champagne and lounge about, until the third act crisis arrives, where it looks like everybody might not be able to make it to a little girl's school play on time.  I, for one, was on the edge of my seat.

The movie is the writing and directing debut of Hallie Meyers-Shyer.  If her last name sounds familiar, that's because she is the daughter of Nancy Meyers, the creator of such romantic comedy fantasies as The Holiday, Something's Gotta Give, and What Women Want.  From this film, it's clear that Hallie has mastered the visual style of her mother's work, and has given us all the beauty, lavish homes and attractive people that appear in just about all of the above movies.  What she has not learned is the secret ingredient that makes her mother's films watchable.  Nancy Meyers specializes in light and breezy comic dialogue that wraps you into its spell.  That never happens here, because Hallie Meyers-Shyer never creates any interesting characters, situation or dialogue.  These are people who have enough idle time to pursue dream jobs and pursuits, but don't have anything interesting to talk about. 

As the film opens, we're introduced to Alice (Reese Witherspoon), a single mother with two precocious daughters, who has just recently left her music mogul husband (Michael Sheen) in New York to come live in California.  Fortunately for Alice, she gets to live in the massive and gorgeous home of her late father (a Hollywood filmmaker who was a hit back in the 70s), and her various friends and mother (Candice Bergen) are always available to drop by like characters in a sitcom to dispense advice when needed.  But, Alice is single and 40 years old, so she's depressed, and we're supposed to feel bad for her.  In a parallel plot, three 20-something filmmakers (Pico Alexander, Nat Wolff, and Jon Rudnitsky) are in the process of making their first film deal, but have been kicked out of their apartment.  They happen to meet up with Alice, party with her during her birthday celebration, and before you know it, the guys are living in her luxurious guest house as they make their way through the Hollywood system, and sell their brilliant script.

There is supposed to be tension when Alice and one of the young guys (Alexander) start to have feelings for each other.  After all, not only is he young and attractive, but he knows how to fix kitchen cabinets that don't close all the way!  What woman can resist?  But, wouldn't you know it, Alice's husband starts dropping hints that he wants to patch things up, and even shows up so he can be with her and the girls.  And, more trouble!  The three young guys start to disagree over the direction their career should go.  Should they sell out, and accept the offer that the powerful Hollywood producer is offering them?  After all, the obviously clueless producer might not respect their wishes to have their movie filmed in black and white like they would like.  And horror of horrors, there might be nothing for our characters to eat except leftover lasagna!!

These are the "problems" the people in Home Again face on a regular basis.  Try as it might, I just can't see many audiences sympathizing with plights like this.  Other problems faced are the fact that the three young guys don't like the idea that Alice might move back in with her husband, and Alice's older daughter is nervous about having to put on a one act play that she wrote herself.  Watching this movie is like being trapped at a party where people are telling you anecdotes that are not interesting, and have nothing to do with the conversation you were having moments ago.  It's aimless, it's banal, and there's just no personal involvement or interest.  The actors are fine, and the movie as I said is harmless, but there's just nothing here.  I suppose we're supposed to be happy for these people, but in order for me to be happy about them, they have to possess personalities that grab my attention. 

I suppose certain audiences might find an "escapism" quality to this, but so what?  Even escapism entertainment needs to give us something to chew on, and this is just all fluff and sugar with no nutritional value whatsoever.  At the very least, the movie is only 97 minutes.  Just writing that sentence makes me feel like I'm stretching for positives, and I probably am, so I should stop now before I start complementing how beautiful the trees in the background looked.

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It

Stephen King is one of the hardest writers to adapt to the big screen.  That's why it's such a joy to see one of his most famous horror stories, It, be adapted so deftly.  The movie only covers roughly the first half of the book (The end credits promise this is only Chapter One, with the second film set for release in 2019.), but it doesn't feel incomplete or leave audiences wanting.  This is as thrilling, exciting, funny and as crowd-pleasing as a movie based on one of King's books has ever been.

King's original story (which weighed in at a massive 1,138 pages) has already been adapted famously back in 1990 with a two-part TV miniseries that played up the shock horror, and featured a scene-chewing performance by Tim Curry as the villain, a monstrous entity that takes the form of a child-killing clown named Pennywise.  Curry played the character to the highest tilt, as is his style, and pretty much gave a performance that was all at once terrifying and pure camp.  Director Andy Muscheietti (2013's Mama) goes for a much subtler approach with the story.  Rather than hit you over the head with the shocks like the previous film, and play up the presence of the evil clown as much as possible, this take prefers to take a more subtle and eerie approach.  There are frights for sure, but the film also emphasizes the adventure element and the humor that can be found in the story.  King's story was deep and complex, and while the movie does not perfectly capture its complexity, it does a much better job at pulling off its mixed nature of tone and elements than the earlier film adaptation did.

It has always been a mix of a sweet coming of age story about a bunch of kids bonding in friendship, and a supernatural horror story, and that's what this movie gets and pulls off.  It's a difficult balancing act.  Go too far in either direction, and the movie would suffer severe and possibly fatal tonal shifts.  Muscheietti guides the film with a steady hand, and creates the right balance.  The way it flows from the stuff with the kids (who all look and act like they stepped out of an 80s Spielberg movie), to the horror elements with the evil creature lurking in the sewers and snatching local children away, it all works here and creates an experience that is memorable and fun.  You could say that the recent success of the Netflix series Stranger Things (which shares a lot of the same elements) probably gave the filmmakers a template to work off of, and you would probably be right.  But, this always manages to feel like a tribute to a beloved novel, not a cash in on something else that's popular.  There have been some omissions and changes made from the original story, obviously, but the important thing is that the movie understands why the story worked, and the important elements are represented up there on the screen.

Just as in previous tellings of the story, the town of Derry, Maine is being besieged by a series of child kidnappings and disappearances.  In the original story, the setting was 1958, but here things have been updated to summer 1989, and the movie has some fun with some nostalgic throwbacks in the background. (One of the kids has a Beetlejuice poster on his wall, and the local theater is showing Tim Burton's Batman and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5.  There are also some very funny references to The New Kids on the Block throughout.) The child kidnappings and murders are the result of a creature that lives beneath the city, and has been terrorizing it literally for centuries.  It can change its shape into whatever form it chooses in order to lure in or terrify children (the creature is attracted to the smell of fear), but its favorite form to assume is that of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard).  Unlike Curry's take on the homicidal clown, Skarsgard is much more subtle, and has an almost child-like innocence to his line delivery.  That's what makes it all the more terrifying when the character suddenly turns vicious and attacks, as he does in the opening scene, when a poor little boy named Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) has an unfortunate run-in with the clown, which kicks off the series of murders and kidnappings.

Georgie's older brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher, recovering nicely from The Book of Henry), becomes obsessed with his brother's disappearance, and wants to spend his summer vacation looking for clues as to what happened to him.  This is one major difference from the original story, as in previous versions, there was no denying what had happened to poor Georgie.  Bill hangs out with a group of kids who are all outcasts in school for one reason or another, and so they call themselves the Losers Club.  Bill, himself, has a terrible stutter when he talks, which makes him an easy target for local bully Henry Bowers (Nicolas Hamilton) and his friends.  Bill's friends include the smart-mouthed and wise cracking Ritchie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), who is a hypochondriac and seems to know everything about every disease known to man, and average kid Stanley Uris (Wyatt Olef).  During the course of the summer, their group becomes bigger as they are joined up by the sweet natured and overweight Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the recently orphaned Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), who lost his parents in a fire, and the tomboyish Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis).

As the children dig deeper into the mystery surrounding their town, they not only learn about its dark history of murder and tragedy, but also form an inseparable bond.  They have all had experiences with the supernatural evil, and since many of the adults in town cannot see or are not aware of the creature's actions, they decide that they must be the ones to stop the monster's current killing spree.  The friendship that forms between the kids is what sets this version of It apart from the earlier TV movie.  This film devotes plenty of time to let us get to know and love these kids, and when they get together, they create one of the more natural and innocent depictions of childhood friendship to hit the screen in a while.  It certainly helps that these are all talented kids, and that the screenplay gives them unique personalities so they can play off one another.  Whether they are riding down the streets of Derry on their bikes and talking about girls, or confronting an ancient evil in the sewers, this movie never forgets that their bond is the most important aspect of the story.  This gives the film a surprising amount of innocence, heart and humor to go with the terror.

And when it does come time for the scares to come, the film is mostly successful.  I say mostly, because while the filmmakers have a real knack for atmosphere and for creating tension, they also have an unfortunate habit of relying a bit too heavily on CG for their monster effects.  The special effects that are employed here are not terrible, but they simply do not have the same skin crawling effectiveness as Skarsgard as the clown.  Just watch his performance, and the ways his eyes shift (often in different directions in the same time, like he is checking all corners for any adults who may be coming), combined with his line delivery.  It's one of the better "monster" performances I've seen.  But whenever the movie requires a more complex vision of terror, it turns to CG, and it's just never as convincing or as scary.  I understand why it is necessary, but it can't help but take you out of the film when a blatantly animated monster is suddenly standing in front of the kids.  These moments are the only time when It loses just a little bit of its creepy effectiveness.  Fortunately, there are plenty of moments that are successfully pulled off, most memorably Beverly's encounter with the evil in her bathroom sink.

In all fairness, I couldn't be happier with this adaptation.  It not only manages to create some genuinely frightening images, but it also has a sense of wonder to it, and some genuinely heartfelt and even laugh out loud moments.  This makes it so much more than just a horror story.  It's a total entertainment from beginning to end, and it has left me anxious for the second installment.  After the embarrassing Dark Tower movie we got last month, this is Stephen King done right.

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Monday, September 04, 2017

The Book of Henry

WRITER'S NOTE: I usually only review movies that I see in theaters, and since my local theater never got The Book of Henry during its theatrical release back in June, I never reviewed it.  But, I had a chance to catch up with this film, and it's something I really am desperate to talk about having seen it.  So, I'm going against my policy just this once and reviewing a film that has since left theaters.  The following review also contains spoilers, so you have been warned. 


The Book of Henry is one of the most uncomfortable movies of this, or any other year.  It's a toxic package wrapped up in the good feelings of a Hallmark card.  Does the movie even know what it is trying to say?  I honestly don't know.  It wants to be an uplifting drama about a loving family, then it wants to be the tragic story of a little boy who loses his battle with a tumor, then it wants to be about revenge, with the mother of the family plotting to murder her next door neighbor who is abusing a sweet little girl.  I almost forgot, the murder plot is actually the idea of the little boy who gets sick before he can carry it out, so he asks his mom to do it for him.  If you ever meet someone who says they actually enjoyed this movie, I recommend you check their pulse.

The movie introduces us to the Carpenter family, which is made up of single mother Susan (Naomi Watts), and her two sons Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) and Peter (Jacob Tremplay).  While Peter is your standard movie kid, Henry is your standard movie genius kid.  He talks like a preteen Mr. Spock, and is often inventing little gadgets to amuse his younger brother.  Heck, their tree house in the backyard looks like something any kid could put together if they had the assistance of an entire Hollywood film crew.  As for Susan, she dreams of writing children's books, but for now, she's stuck in a job in a diner with her best friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman, made up to look like Amy Winehouse for some reason).  When Susan comes home from work, she can be seen playing violent video games, while little Henry settles her finances, invests her money in different companies, and plays the stock market with mom's money.

The Carpenters live in one of those idyllic little neighborhoods that you always see in these kind of movies, while the piano-laden soundtrack by Michael Giacchino twinkles away, trying to underscore every single moment with a forced sense of tranquility and innocence.  Everyone is generally nice to everyone else.  But Henry knows there's a dark side to his street, and it happens to live right next door to his house.  In that house, there's a young girl who goes to his school that he likes named Christina (Maddie Ziegler), and Henry knows that her stern stepfather Glenn (Dean Norris) beats her.  Christina is always coming to school with fresh cuts and bruises, and when Henry spies on her through his bedroom window, he can see how afraid she is of the man.  Henry tries to tell the Principal at his school and even Child Protection Services about what's going on, but no one will listen to him, because there's not enough evidence.  That, and Glen just happens to be the local Police Commissioner, and he has deep ties to the government which protects him and covers up his deeds.

Up to now, The Book of Henry has more or less resembled a TV family drama that somehow got blown up on the big screen.  But upcoming plot developments will drive the movie so far off the rails, you start to wonder what both director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) and writer Gregg Hurwitz were thinking.  (Supposedly, this script was written 20 years ago, and Trevorrow really pulled for it to finally get made.) It's at this point that Henry decides that if the law will not help poor Christina, then he will just have to take the law into his own hands.  He goes into town, investigating the local gun shop, studying security cameras, and basically plots out the perfect foolproof murder.  He jots all this information down in a little book that he always carries with him where he writes down his hopes, dreams and ideas.  Henry is quite the calculating little 11-year-old, as he is able to create an alibi, the perfect place for the murder to occur, and even the time it should happen.  But then, tragedy strikes.  Henry's been having a lot of headaches lately, and after suffering from a seizure, he is rushed to the hospital, where the kindly but glum-faced doctor (Lee Pace) gives him a dire diagnosis.

There are tears, a lot of sad bedside talks, and that damn music score pounds at our emotions with all the subtlety of a semi.  After the kid is gone, Susan is distraught and aimless in her life, even neglecting poor little Peter.  But then she discovers Henry's book, and even a series of tapes that Henry left behind where he gives Susan step-by-step instructions on how to carry out his murder plot without him.  Susan actually goes along with the plan, at one point saying to herself, "I am the worst mom ever", which is the only intelligent line of dialogue in this movie.  Does she carry out with her actions?  I'll leave that for you to discover if you are unwise enough to see this.  Regardless, the movie still tries to be uplifting and jovial while Susan is essentially plotting to murder her neighbor.  I don't remember the last time I have seen a movie fail so hard at juggling its tonal shifts.  Maybe a director like David Lynch could have made something dark and memorable out of this.  He at least would have had the good sense to not try to make it a feelgood movie, and see it for the total insanity it actually is.

But the movie as it is doesn't work in the slightest.  The sentimental moments feel forced, the melodrama is calculated, and the whole murder/revenge plot feels completely off, because the filmmakers try to treat it with the same level of sweetness and sincerity as the rest of the movie.  The talented cast are obviously trying up there on the screen, but they can't keep the leaden and tone deaf script from crushing them.    But then, I don't think any actors could survive this one.  Honestly, this movie may have needed a lighter touch.  Trevorrow spells out every emotion, and practically screams how we are supposed to feel.  Meanwhile, the audience just sits there confused by the tonal shifts, and the just plain oddness of the piece.  There is no meaning here, and nothing feels genuine.  This is the kind of movie that wants to wear its heart on its sleeve, but the heart is artificial.  As for the brains behind the story, they're nowhere to be found.

The Book of Henry received some of the harshest reviews of the year when it opened almost three months ago, and while it deserved to be panned, it did kind of fascinate me in a perverse way.  It's certainly not boring, as the movie is so wrong-headed, I was kind of excited to see what would happen next.  I can't recommend this in any good faith, but I almost want to, as we're certain to never get a movie like this ever again.

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Friday, September 01, 2017

Wind River

At the end of Wind River, the new crime thriller from writer-director Taylor Sheridan (who wrote the screenplay for last year's Hell or High Water), we get a curious disclaimer that states there are no records kept on how many Native American women go missing every year.  It's curious, because although the plot does revolve around a young Native American woman going missing and turning up dead, it's not really what the movie is about.  Rather, it's about the pain of the father, and the pursuit of revenge.

If Wind River does come up just a tiny bit short in some ways, it's not for lack of trying.  The sprawling winter landscapes that Sheridan has captured creatures a sense of isolation, loneliness and eerie calm that carries throughout the film, and creates a genuine sense of tension.  There are also some great performances here, particularly by Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, as the two people placed at the head of the investigation when a woman's body is discovered dead and oddly barefoot in the middle of a vast snowfield where there's not a sign of life to be found for miles.  It's an intriguing set up, and the characters are easy to like.  But as the plot unravels, we're disappointed to learn that the movie has little else on its mind other than simple revenge.  I'm not saying a mystery has to be complex to be satisfying, but I guess I was expecting just a little bit more.  This is a good movie, but we know that Sheridan is capable of more, and probably will do even better next time.

Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Agent who patrols the snowy wilderness of Wyoming, looking for predators feeding on the local livestock.  He goes out in search of a family of mountain lions, but instead finds a young dead woman lying frozen in the snow (Kelsey Asbille).  When the body is examined later, it is discovered that she was sexually assaulted.  She apparently managed to flee, until the cold finally got to her.  Cory instantly recognizes her as Natalie, who happens to be the daughter of a close friend of his (Gil Birmingham).  The incident becomes personal for Cory, as he too once had a daughter who was killed years ago, and was found frozen in the snow under similar mysterious circumstances.  The traumatic event still haunts him, as well as his ex-wife (Julia Jones), who is distant to him during their brief meetings.

The connection between the recent murder and the murder of Cory's daughter years ago is supposed to give him a personal reason to get involved, even if it does feel a bit too overly coincidental.  Regardless, the investigation into the young girl's death moves on, led by a tribal police officer named Ben (Graham Greene), and a rookie FBI agent named Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who is not quite ready for the harsh winter environment, having just been flown in from Las Vegas.  Jane recognizes early on that Cory's hunting and tracking skills will be of use to her in the investigation, and asks him to help.  This leads to the strongest and most likable aspect of the film, as the dialogue the two characters share, and the chemistry between Renner and Olsen, creates some of the strongest individual moments in the film.  Just watch the scene where Cory tells Jane about his past with his own daughter who died under mysterious circumstances, and you will see some of the best acting in the movie, as well as probably one of the better acted scenes of the year so far.

The characters are easily the strongest aspect of Wind River.  Sheridan creates these people, gives them interesting personalities, and then gives them plenty of opportunities to play off one another.  The performances are first rate too, giving them more dimension than they might have had on the written page.  We get involved in the mystery because of these people, and we're genuinely interested in what they're going to find and say next.  However, when the mystery is finally revealed in the form of a lengthy flashback, we're disappointed to learn just how little there is behind it all.  Yes, it's appropriately tragic, and the reveal is acted just as well as the rest of the movie.  It's just, kind of basic in its explanation and how everything is kind of spelled out for the audience.  Maybe I was a bit disappointed because Sheridan's previous two crime drama screenplays (Sicario and Hell or High Water) were such high water marks for the genre.  The mystery's not really bad, it just is not up to what we know the writer can do.

But there's still a lot to enjoy here.  As is to be expected with Sheridan, the dialogue is largely first rate, with strongly developed characters and moments of quiet humor sneaking in once in a while.  And cinematographer Ben Richardson uses the snowy landscape to the best of his advantage, creating some wonderful wide shots that capture the beauty and the emptiness of the setting.  The ominous silence of the snow-covered valleys creates a layer of tension for most of the film, and helps ram home the fact that the environment itself can be just as deadly as any murderer who may be lurking in the nearby town. 

It really is only in the third act that Wind River goes a little bit off, but not so much that I can't still recommend the film.  There's a lot to be awed at here, and even if the answers waiting at the end aren't as good as I was hoping for, I enjoyed taking the journey with the characters and these great performances.  And really, the movie only falters just a little when you hold it up to Sheridan's previous work.  On its own, it's perfectly fine.

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Friday, August 25, 2017

Leap!

Leap! (And yes, the exclamation mark is part of the title.) is a very strange animated film that seems distracted by itself.  It wants to tell the story of a plucky young orphan girl who dreams of dancing ballet, but it keeps on throwing in subplots about romantic triangles, rival dancers, a young inventor, dead mothers, and the cranky old man who works at the orphanage who's really not as bad as he seems.  As if that's not enough, the movie goes completely off the rails with a ludicrous climax where the young heroine is chased up the Statue of Liberty by a crazed sledgehammer-wielding villain in an action sequence that seems to be lifted right out of the Roger Moore-era of James Bond.  To be honest, I did not see that one coming.

Originally titled Ballerina, this is a French-Canadian film that has slowly been released around the world during the past year, and is just now hitting America.  Certain actors like Elle Fanning (as the young girl who dreams of being a dancer) and pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen have had their voices connected to this film from the beginning.  But for whatever reason, certain characters have been recast for the American release, with their voices being dubbed by the likes of Nat Wolff, Mel Brooks and Kate McKinnon (who gets to provide the voice of three different characters).  The end result is, quite frankly, a mess.  The performances run the wide range of just sounding wrong (Fanning's voice sounds too old to be coming out of what appears to be a 12 or 13 year old girl), not sounding very interested or involved (Jepsen), to non-stop rambling (Brooks frequently talks, even when it's clear his character's mouth is not even moving).  It's distracting, and gives the film a shoddy feel.

As the film opens, we're introduced to young dreamers Felicie (voiced by Fanning) and Victor (Nat Wolff).  They're stuck in a ramshackle orphanage, but quickly make plans to escape, run away to Paris, and pursue their dreams.  As mentioned, Felicie dreams of practicing ballet at a world famous school.  Within a day of being in the city, she manages to scam her way into joining a class when she steals an invitation letter intended for a spoiled brat named Camille (Maddie Ziegler), and poses as her.  But don't worry, it's okay that Felicie is performing mail fraud and identity theft in order to get what she wants, because Camille was mean to her, and broke the music box that Felicie's dead mother (Kate McKinnon, in flashbacks) gave her once.  Also, Camille's mom (also voiced by McKinnon) is pure evil.  Not only does she look strikingly similar to the Wicked Stepmother from Disney's animated Cinderella film, but she's frequently cruel to the crippled girl who acts as her maid, Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen).

Turns out Odette used to be a dancer herself, until an injury ended her dreams.  She takes Felicie under her wing, and begins to train her in ballet in a series of exercises such as standing in a puddle of water, and jumping up to reach a bell, only to land without making a splash in the puddle.  But the movie's not really about dance, or learning about it.  Just about everything that has to do with dance is brushed aside in music montages set to forgettable modern day pop songs, even though the movie is set in 19th Century France.  What the movie instead chooses to focus on is the young Victor, who dreams of being a famous inventor, and winds up getting a job helping to build the Eiffel Tower.  Victor is the "Nutty Professor" type, frequently walking into things, bumping his head, and providing fart jokes when needed.  He's also apparently not smart enough to realize that chickens don't fly, even though he appears to be around 13 or so.  There's also a love triangle, when Felicie falls for a handsome young Russian dancer in the class, and Victor feels betrayed, as he has always had feelings for her. 

Leap! struggles to make us care about its plot, so it instead tries to dazzle us with its animation, which often comes across as a mixed bag.  While I wouldn't exactly call the character designs ugly, there is something very artificial and plastic to them.  Maybe it's the somewhat oversized heads, and faces that look just a little too flawless and scrubbed clean to look natural.  Where the artists have clearly put all their attention to is the backgrounds, which feature some stunningly detailed locations for the streets of Paris and the dance school.  They're lovely to look at, but since nothing all that interesting is happening in front of these backdrops, we quickly realize that staring at a still frame of one of the backgrounds in this movie would achieve the same effect. 

And then there's just the fact that the movie seems far too modern for a film that's supposed to be set in 1880.  I already mentioned the pop music that scores most of the movie.  When Felicie gets a chance to perform in The Nutcracker, I expected to hear some of Tchaikovsky's music, but instead, she starts dancing to a Carly Rae Jepsen tune.  There's also the dialogue, where people say things like "your dancing sucks" and even at one point make a reference to M.C. Hammer.  This movie simply dumbfounded me.  I didn't know how to react to it, or who exactly it was made for.  Young girls will obviously be pulled in by the story of a girl becoming a famous dancer, but they'll be disappointed to learn that this plot isn't as important to the overall movie as you would think.  And just when you think the movie actually will finally be about dancing, we get the previously mentioned action climax that manages to be both bewildering and laughable all at once.

Leap! is an all around haphazard production that never settles on what it wants to be, or a proper tone.  You can tell that all the enthusiasm here went into the settings and animating some of the dance montages.  The plot, script, characters and just about everything else were all a second thought, which is probably why this movie feels so strange when you're watching it.

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Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Hitman's Bodyguard

The Hitman's Bodyguard is an energized throwback to a genre long dormant in Hollywood - the action comedy centered on two people who despise each other, but are forced to work together in order to survive.  This genre was nearly everywhere throughout the 80s and even the early part of the 90s.  Notable examples included 48 Hours, the original Lethal Weapon, Midnight Run, Tango and Cash and The Last Boy Scout.  Not only does Hitman know the best aspects from these type of films to use as inspiration, but it gives us some genuine laughs and surprisingly strong thrills for a late summer blockbuster.

What director Patrick Hughes (The Expendables 3) has done is given us an old fashioned summer movie that, save for a few modern day references to cell phones, could have been made back in the 80s, and probably would have starred Schwarzenegger, Stallone or Willis in one of the lead roles back in the day.  The movie's mix of strong violence and playful word humor, along with some physical comedy, usually hits the right balance.  I say usually, because there is one moment early in the film where it is implied that the villain kills a wife and child that has no place being in a lighthearted comedy such as this.  Save for the rare misstep, the movie is just plain fun.  The lead stars (Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson) are obviously barely hiding their grins as they do their scenes, and it's just joyful to watch them play off each other.  The film is as much fun to watch as it obviously was to make.

Reynolds plays Michael Bryce, a man who once had a reputation for being the best in the business when it came to protection services.  His job was to transport people who others wanted dead safely to a destination, or out of the country.  That all came crashing down when two years ago, he lost his first client - a Japanese arms dealer who was assassinated right before the plane took off.  Since then, he's still in the business of protection, only he now drives a crappy car, and his clients are much lower on the ladder of importance, such as lawyers strung out on drugs.  Out of the blue, he gets a phone call from a former girlfriend, Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung), who is forced to turn to him for help.  She's been placed to protect a hitman by the name of Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson), who is needed alive in order to testify against a tyrannical dictator (Gary Oldman) currently standing trial.  Due to a mole within Interpol, armed thugs have discovered Kincaid's location, and are now tracking him down and killing anyone who gets in their way.  Michael and Kincaid have had their share of differences during their run-ins in the past, but now must work together if Kincaid is able to make it to the trial alive, as he's the only witness that hasn't backed out.

Turns out Kincaid has 250 kills to his name, and has made 28 attempts on Michael's life over the years.  Naturally, this leads to a lot of tension as the two are forced to hit the road together, while dodging the various people trying to make sure Kincaid does not testify.  This not only leads to some strong and occasionally laugh out loud funny interplay between Reynolds and Jackson, but it also leads to some very well done action sequences and car chases that, like the films it draws inspiration from, seem to be done with largely physical and practical effects instead of CG.  Also like the films it seems to be following the path of, it is unapologetically R-rated, with four letter words making up a majority of the dialogue.  We expect this from Reynolds and Jackson with their humor, but the big surprise here is Selma Hayek, who plays Jackson's wife, and is often hilarious as she tries to out-curse her male co-stars in a lot of her scenes.

The Hitman's Bodyguard is not a smart movie, but it knows what it's doing.  It's well-made, has plenty of scenes that allow its stars to fling comic insults and one liners off of each other, and is thrilling enough that the audience holds their breath during some of the narrow escapes.  It's also smart enough to put its actors in roles that they are comfortable in.  Jackson is the bombastic loudmouth with a profanity-laden zinger for any situation, while Reynolds is the slightly more laid back straight man.  And yet, these are not just "types" that the actors are playing.  We get to see some flashbacks that led these two men to their current path in life (many of these are funny), and the chemistry that eventually builds between the two is real.  We're not just enjoying watching these actors share the screen, but we eventually grow to like the two characters being together.  The movie perfectly captures the silly and hyper violent tone that a film such as this requires in order to be successful, and the actors know how to carry it.

If this movie often feels like a relic from another decade, I think it's intentional.  The fact that the soundtrack features quite a few pop hits from the 80s is also probably not a mistake.  Does this mean that The Hitman's Bodyguard will probably play better with older viewers than younger audiences?  Probably, and there's nothing wrong with that.  As someone who grew up watching these kind of movies on HBO, I had a good time with this, and the presence of Reynolds and Jackson only sweetens the experience in my opinion.

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