Reel Opinions


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul

I was not a huge fan of the three previous Diary of a Wimpy Kid films, which were released annually from 2010 to 2012, however I did note in my review of the last film, Dog Days, that it was a slight upgrade over the first two.  However, now that I have seen The Long Haul, I realize that I may have been too hard on the earlier entries.  This is a desperate, chintzy and insufferably dumb children's comedy that somehow managed to end up on the big screen instead of straight to DVD where trash like this belongs.  It also manages to somehow be rated PG, despite having more jokes concerning urination, defecation and projectile vomiting than some R-rated comedies targeting adults that I have seen.

Even though this is not a reboot of the series, it does feel like one, as the characters have been recast top to bottom, due to the fact that many of the young stars are now too old to play them.  And while the first three movies were not exactly the peak of filmmaking, they at least looked like movies.  This one not only looks like a lame TV sitcom blown up on the big screen, there are awkward pauses in the dialogue that almost seem like they would be moments where the laugh track should chime in.  It would also seem as if returning director and co-writer David Bowers (he made the last two films in the series) has lost any sense of honesty for these characters.  While I would never call anyone in a Wimpy Kid movie "realistic", they at least had moments we could relate to.  Here, everyone is portrayed as a loud, obnoxious, over the top caricature of the people from before.

Once again, our protagonist is middle school kid, Greg Heffley (now played by Jason Ian Drucker), who gives us his insights into life and family through voice-over narration, and crude stick figure cartoons that he draws.  This time, Greg is dealing with social media humiliation when an embarrassing moment at a family buffet restaurant happens to go viral.  The only way he can see to redeem himself on the web is to appear in a YouTube video with his favorite Internet celebrity, an obnoxious guy who has made a living making videos about playing video games (Joshua Hoover).  It just so happens that his idol is appearing at a video game convention in Indianapolis, and Greg sees this as the perfect opportunity.  Unfortunately, it falls right at the exact same time that his mom (a miscast Alicia Silverstone) and dad (Tom Everett Scott) are dragging the family on a cross country road trip to celebrate their grandmother's 90th birthday.

So Greg, along with his dim-witted older brother Roderick (Charlie Wright), scheme to ditch the trip and make their way to the video game convention on their own.  The family trip makes up a majority of the running time, and basically seems like a more family friendly variation of the original National Lampoon's Vacation (the 1983 film, or the 2015 reboot - take your pick).  There are the usual pit stops, car trouble, overnight stays at scuzzy motels, and run-ins with weirdos that you would expect, although the movie can't find anything funny or interesting to do with anything that happens to the Heffley clan.  Case in point - In one scene, the family winds up inadvertently adopting a baby pig while visiting a country fair.  You would think that the pig might provide some problems or comical moments, but the screenplay is so bankrupt, the only thing it can think to do with it is have it poop in the car.  The family immediately drops the little oinker off at a petting zoo afterward, making the pig's addition completely pointless overall.

The main thing that kept me from embracing the earlier Wimpy Kid films is that I found them to have an unnecessary mean streak.  In The Long Haul, that mean streak has been replaced with an overabundance of gross out humor.  Whether you see this as an improvement depends on your tolerance for scenes concerning accidents with soiled diapers, people being splattered in the face with vomit on amusement park rides, and even a scene where our young hero is forced to hide out in a bathroom while a big, fat guy uses the toilet, with thundering farts and deafening plopping sounds playing on the soundtrack. (Believe it or not, this somehow leads to a parody of the shower scene in Psycho.) Maybe really little kids will find stuff like this hilarious.  I felt kind of nauseous.

I would like to close this review by recommending a much better kid's movie about a family road trip that this movie at times resembles a lesser version of.  That would be the 1995 animated film A Goofy Movie.  Both feature kids stuck on a lame road trip, and both are built around family bonding.  But that movie also had a heart behind it.  This exists only to steal money from bored families, in the hopes that possibly one more movie can be squeezed out. 

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Everything, Everything

Everything, Everything is a pleasant and unassuming little romantic melodrama that doesn't do a great job of plucking the heartstrings, but does its job well enough.  It also features two young and charismatic performances by Amandla Stenberg (from The Hunger Games) and Nick Robinson (Jurassic World) as the young lovers.  Even if the movie was never able to quite enthrall me, the leads at the center of the film held my attention.

The movie opens by introducing us to Maddy Whittier (Stenberg), an 18-year-old girl who has been locked away in her germ-free and immaculate home ever since she was diagnosed with a weak immune system when she was very young.  The disease is known as SCID (severe combined immunodeficiency), and it's a rare genetic problem that forces her to stay away from the outside world, as simple everyday germs could kill her instantly.  Maddy has lived this way her whole life, and has learned to make the best of it.  She chats with friends on line, reads a lot of books, and writes reviews of them.  She also likes to build models of places that she would love to visit, but knows she cannot, such as libraries.  The only people who she ever has some kind of contact with are her overly protective mother (Broadway veteran Anika Noni Rose), and her doting nurse, Carla (Ana De La Reguera).

One day, while Maddy is looking out her bedroom window, she happens to see a young boy moving into the house next door with his family.  This is Olly (Robinson), and there is an instant attraction.  Since their bedroom windows are across from each other, they start writing messages and texting each other.  Rather than simply just show the two characters conversing on their phones, director Stella Meghie does some clever and imaginative ways to display their conversations.  We'll see Maddy and Olly inhabiting one of her models, having a normal conversation sitting across a table from each other.  Eventually, Carla figures out Maddy's fascination with the boy, and arranges a secret face-to-face meeting while the mother is away, inviting him inside.  This brings about one of the film's funnier moments, where the two young kids are awkwardly flirting and talking to each other, while subtitles underneath them express their inner thoughts and embarrassment over how they don't know what to say to each other.

This is the strength of Everything, Everything.  I found both of the kids and the actors playing them extremely likable.  They have an easy chemistry, and a very laid back charm.  Fortunately, the movie takes advantage of this, and gives them plenty of opportunities to be together.  There are not very many distracting subplots, and even though Maddy's mother does eventually find out about their relationship and is not happy about it, she does not suddenly become a villain bent on destroying their love.  She is acting out of concern, not as an antagonist.  The movie does begin to slip just a little during its middle and climactic portions.  The mid section is devoted to Maddy running away from home, health concerns be-damned, and going on a luxury Hawaiian vacation that seems a bit elaborate even if a kid was able to have their own private credit card.  Finally, there is a third act twist that is not only easy to see coming, but is just not quite as emotionally effective as it should be.

Even when the movie seems dangerously close to losing its way, the two leads are able to keep it grounded, and avoid causing it to go into all-out stupidity.  They are the reason for anyone who is not a fan of the Young Adult book by Nicola Yoon that inspired the film to watch this.  Stenberg and Robinson are able to portray the strong and sometimes uncontrollable feelings of first love, without making these characters insufferable or sappy.  These are supposed to be smart kids, and the performances are able to reflect that.  And save for the film's final moments, the movie just seems very quiet and avoids staged melodrama.  There is a simple honesty here that we don't see in a lot of teen romances.  The movie doesn't even make a big deal out of the fact that the lovers are an interracial couple, which is a nice change of pace.

Everything, Everything is not a great movie, but it shows some intelligence both in its two leads and in its casting.  The movie is probably as safe and sterile as the home that Maddy is forced to live in for most of the story, but it never bothered me as much as I thought it would.  In fact, I found the whole thing kind of charming.


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Friday, May 19, 2017

Alien: Covenant

2012's Prometheus was an attempt to revitalize the ailing Alien franchise by not only answering some questions that fans had been asking since the first movie, but also by bringing back the original film's director, Ridley Scott.  However, like in a lot of instances of a great filmmaker returning to a story they left behind a long time ago (see Steven Spielberg returning to Indiana Jones back in 2008), the end result highly divided fans.  Yes, Prometheus was skillfully made and beautiful to look at, but the plot made no sense the more you thought about it, the characters were largely dumb as rocks and unlikable, and there was an embarrassingly bad showing by Guy Pearce hidden by some of the most unconvincing "old age" make up in recent memory.  It was at least an ambitious summer movie, but one that was highly uneven.

Alien: Covenant is an attempt to give the fans what they wanted the first time around, and if this movie is any indication, they essentially wanted the first movie all over again.  There are so many nods and throw backs to 1979's Alien that pop up throughout that it comes across as if Scott is trying to remind us of the greatness of the original, instead of enhancing his vision with this new story.  And again, the movie is skillful in its visuals for the most part.  A few of the CG special effects concerning the titular intergalactic monsters are surprisingly not as convincing as the "man in suit" effects used in the earlier movies, but it still looks good overall.  There's also much less leaden exposition dialogue to wade through this time around, though it does pop up later in the film.  But here's the thing - I never found myself drawn in.  I didn't care about the characters on the ship, I wasn't on the edge of my seat during the more suspenseful moments, and the whole thing kind of comes across as an uninspired monster movie with a big budget.  Scott clearly has a vision here that is leading up to something, but unless you're a diehard fan who has been eating this stuff up for the nearly 40 years these films have been around, I don't know how much this entry will speak to you.

Let's start with the characters, and how the movie fumbles their introduction.  As the film opens, a spaceship is making its way to an uncharted world with some 2,000 colonists on board, all in hyper sleep during the long journey.  The only one awake is the android Walter, who is played by Michael Fassbender.  He played the android, David, in the last film and was easily the standout performance in Prometheus.  He's the standout once again this time, playing a more advanced and less emotional model of the character he played before.  There is a crisis on the ship, and he is forced to wake up the crew, who are also in hyper sleep with the traveling colonists.  This leads to a chaotic action sequence that serves as our introduction to the main characters, and it just doesn't work out.  Instead of getting to know these people and their relationship with each other, we simply see them running around and screaming for their lives.  The movie never really tells us much about them after that.  Oh, we get little hints here and there, but nobody amounts to anything interesting, not even Daniels (Katherine Waterston), who eventually becomes the main character, and is obviously supposed to remind us of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from the original series.  However, she gets so little screen time before the third act, she essentially exists in the background for the majority of the movie.

Daniels happens to be married to the ship's Captain, Branson (played by an uncredited James Franco), who perishes in the disaster on the ship.  A new Captain is named when Oram (Billy Crudup) takes charge.  The early moments hint that Oram is unsure of his ability to lead the crew, and that Daniels is finding it hard to perform her duties after the loss of her husband, but these are quickly pushed aside after being introduced, and are never really brought up again.  It's around this time that the ship receives a strange and distorted message coming from a nearby planet that appears to be habitable.  Oram does not want to risk putting the crew back into hyper sleep to finish the seven years that remains in their journey, and thinks this nearby world could be a better option for them to explore and possibly colonize.  Daniels is against the idea, but is voted down.  A small portion of the crew is sent to explore the planet, which is currently experiencing a violent storm, making communication with the main ship difficult during their time on the surface.

From this point on, Alien: Covenant switches back and forth between two tones that never really connect.  In some scenes, the movie wants to be thoughtful, with drawn out scenes concerning two characters (who I will not reveal for the sake of spoilers) ponder life and play music, and even ends on an awkward kiss.  And in other scenes, we get those ever-nasty aliens in all of their forms, as they generally tear apart the human actors in gruesome sequences that seem right out of an 80s slasher film.  There is even a scene that seems ripped right out of a Friday the 13th movie, where two crew members are killed by an alien while they are making love in a shower.  This mix of high-minded Sci-Fi and cheap thrills is a tricky combo to pull off, and the movie never succeeds.  It feels like the filmmakers are fighting for control over what kind of a movie they were trying to make, or perhaps there was some studio interference demanding more blood and gore.

I can understand this approach, as I think Scott is trying to recapture what drew people to the first movie.  Its sense of tension, claustrophobia and genuine suspense were a constant throughout the 1979 film.  But here, a lot of that tension is lessened by the fact that it keeps on stopping to show us where the monsters came from, and how they came to be.  The one true thing in horror is that the less we know about a monster, the scarier it is.  Yes, it's good to give the audience some information, but overexplaining can be deadly.  And that's exactly what the screenplay does.  It explains, it explores the mythos, and it gives us some answers that fans have long been asking, but honestly I wonder if they will think it was more fun to wonder than it is to know.  This is a common problem with movies that try to explore the story behind an original successful film, and this movie doesn't do enough to avoid the traps.

Alien: Covenant is far from the worst film in the series, but its threadbare plot and forgettable characters do little to make this anything memorable.  I'm sure there's still an audience for these movies, but I've been feeling kind of left out after 1986's Aliens.  I know that Ridley Scott is planning more movies that delve deeper into the history, but I'm kind of hoping that pretty soon the fans will wise up, and start asking "why"?

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the first legendary bomb of the summer, and it's only the second week of May.  Last year, we had to wait till late June until Independence Day: Resurgence showed up.  The movie is at times an incomprehensible mess, shot and edited as if the entire movie were a trailer with quick cuts, flashes to other things happening while something else is going on, and out of place voice overs.  The soundtrack at times sounds like music, and at other times sounds like someone just put a panting dog up to a microphone.  And the acting...Well, actually, the acting is not bad, but I doubt even Sir Laurence Olivier could save this.

The film is an interminable parade of bad ideas, many showing up one after another.  In retelling the story of the legendary King and his knights of old, apparently director Guy Ritchie decided to make it like one of his British crime capers that launched his career like Snatch or Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels.  That means that Arthur and his pals now talk like modern day wise guy British gangsters when they're around each other.  And while the story is fairly simple and basic, he decided to make it next to impossible to follow by adding a lot of unnecessary directing flourishes such as fast motion, rewinding the film to cut back to something earlier, and cutting back and forth between two scenes for no reason.  To add insult to injury, the movie looks awful, despite its reported $175 million budget.  The colors are often drab and dark, and the special effects look like something out of the late 90s.  When a giant CG snake shows up during the climax, it's kind of hard to look at because it's been so ineptly realized.

Here is a movie completely lacking in scope, grandeur and purpose.  You know, the kind of things one would expect in a King Arthur story.  Instead, we get one boring heavily CG battle scene after another, and a plot that we not only don't care about, but can hardly follow in the first place.  Characters kept on being introduced, but I often lost track of them in the muddled narrative, or just didn't care.  Here, Arthur (played by Charlie Hunnam) witnessed his father (Eric Bana) die at the hands of his treacherous Uncle Vortigern (a slimy Jude Law), after the villain gained ultimate evil power when he made a deal with a multi-faced octopus-like monster that apparently lives in the sewers beneath the castle. (Don't ask, the movie doesn't explain.) Arthur, a tiny boy at this point, escaped to a nearby village, and was raised by some friendly prostitutes.  He grows up to be kind of a street thug, hanging out with his rough buddies, and occasionally stealing from Vikings to give money to the women who raised him.

Arthur is soon kidnapped by some of Vortigern's goons, and forced to pull the sword Excalibur from the stone.  This is actually all a ruse, as apparently only the son of the rightful king can do so.  Vortigern wants to hold onto the throne that he stole many years ago, and needs to kill the heir to his brother, so he creates the sword in the stone contest to find out who he needs to bump off in order to keep on ruling the land.  Arthur pulls the sword out, and is rescued by a band of rogues, as well as a Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who apparently is allied with Merlin, although the great wizard himself never actually makes an appearance in the film.  And not only does Excalibur identify Arthur's royal bloodline, but it also gives him super powers and allow him to see visions of his forgotten past, as well as the future.  With the sword, Arthur and his friends will attempt to overthrow Vortigern, and build Camelot.

If only Legend of the Sword was as simple as I just described it.  The plot is told in such a way that it's next to impossible to remember what's happening, and why we're supposed to care.  Ritchie obviously cares little about the characters in his story, and only wants to stage "cool" sequences where giant elephants march across battlefields, and hundreds of faceless extras charge at each other and fight in incomprehensible squabbles.  There's little rhyme or reason to anything, other than you suspect Ritchie thought it would look good up on the screen.  He was wrong.  There's not a single visual or moment here that is memorable or even good.  And while the actors are clearly trying to rise above this material, the bloated mass that makes up the movie drags them down faster than you could ever imagine.

After the film mercifully ended after an overlong two hours, I felt like I had just watched the rough edit of a potential summer blockbuster, not the concrete vision of a filmmaker.  Parts are out of place, the editing and camera work is a disaster, and everything's just kind of blown up to this grand level of stupid.  I'll be doing my best to forget this one as soon as possible, except when I have to think of the worst films of 2017.

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Saturday, May 13, 2017

Snatched

I like Amy Schumer.  I just like her.  In 2015's Trainwreck, she showed a great amount of comedic screen presence, and managed to win me over.  She won me over once again in Snatched, an uneven comedy that has some laughs, but not enough to carry it all the way through.  Still, Schumer manages to rise above the hit or miss material, and is always interesting to watch.

It's also great to see Goldie Hawn on the big screen again, making her first appearance since 2002's The Banger Sisters.  Like Schumer, she shows a natural on screen presence, as well as wonderful chemistry with her co-star.  The two women work so well together up on the screen that you almost start to wonder why they hadn't been paired up sooner.  You also kind of wish that the screenplay by Katie Dippold (The Heat) was more up to their level of talent.  It's pleasant and it never offends, but it's not much more than that.  It's a good concept for an action comedy, but it never truly goes for broke, and makes these characters into ones we can get behind.  We only get behind them because Schumber and Hawn are there, giving this material their all.  We like watching them, and we fall in love with them, not the characters they're playing. 

The film's strongest half is the first 20 minutes, because we get the sense that Schumer was allowed to improvise a lot with her dialogue and character.  And while she's not playing all that different of a character than she did in Trainwreck, she's still a lot of fun to watch and gets some laughs.  Her Emily is a hard-drinking and somewhat selfish woman whose life already seems to be going nowhere, but then she loses her job and her boyfriend on the same day.  The two had been planning a romantic getaway to Ecuador at the time he dumps her, and the trip is nonrefundable.  She can't find any friends to go on the trip with her, so she turns in desperation to her last choice, her mother.  Hawn plays Linda, her mother, an overly cautious cat lady-type who pretty much gave up on her dreams after her husband divorced her years ago.  After much coaxing, Emily is eventually able to convince her mom to come on the trip. ("Help me put the 'fun' back in 'nonrefundable' ".)

The two travel to Ecuador (the film was actually shot in Hawaii), where Emily has a chance encounter at the hotel bar with a charming British man (Tom Bateman).  He immediately takes a liking to her, and takes Emily and her mother sightseeing.  However, it all turns out to be a trap, as the two women find themselves kidnapped by some smugglers who hold them for ransom.  The villains in Snatched are largely interchangeable, and never get to create any real personalities.  They exist simply to chase the two women all over the island, and shoot at them once in a while.  This is around the point when the movie sinks.  Schumer and Hawn do what they can with their roles, and manage to hold the interest of the audience.  Nothing else does, however.  What starts as a very clever mother-daughter comedy turns into a chase picture, and a fairly conventional one at that.

The movie does try to liven things up by having the women encounter some weirdos along the way.  These include a goofy guide who tries to help them get through the Amazon to safety (Christopher Meloni, getting some laughs here), as well as a vacationing lesbian couple (Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack) who use Special Forces training to help the lead characters out of various situations.  Sykes and Cusack are interesting to watch, but the movie never gives them as much to do was we would hope, so they're kind of left adrift in the movie.  There is also an amusing subplot concerning Emily's brother back home (Ike Barinholtz) dealing with a largely disinterested and quick tempered Stare Department official (Bashir Salahuddin) that gets some off-kilter moments, but again, seems to be held back somewhat by the rather conventional motions of the rest of the film.

Snatched manages to be a pleasant enough diversion, but it never aspires to be anything more.  It's the kind of movie that you wish was better, because there is stuff that works here, and the cast is clearly giving it their all.  I do want to see Schumer in a movie again, one that hopefully takes full advantage of what she can do.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Absolutely Anything

Much like The Circle from two weeks ago, Absolutely Anything is filled to bursting with top tier talent, only to be let down by a script that doesn't know what to do with the actors it managed to attract.  This is becoming a trend with star-studded films.  In this case, we come for laughs, and as the names of the cast and crew flashed on the screen during the opening credits, I grew increasingly excited.  But the cast is largely wasted, and the movie itself never lives up to its potential.

The movie is directed and co-written by Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame), making his first film since 1996.  Apparently, this had been a dream project of his for over 20 years when he made it back in 2014. (The film was released in the U.K. in 2015, and is just now getting a small release in the U.S.)  Not only is Jones behind the camera, but he has managed to reunite his fellow surviving Python members (John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, and Jones himself).  They provide the voices for a group of CG aliens (who look like left over special effects from the Men in Black movies) who call themselves the Galactic Council.  Fans will be disappointed to learn that their roles in this film amount to basically an extended cameo.  In the live action roles, we have Simon Pegg, Kate Beckinsale, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Eddie Izzard, and Joanna Lumley,   We also have Robin Williams giving his final performance, in a voice over role.  There's even a fun pop song by Kylie Minogue to play over the end credits.  The movie does its best to juggle all this talent, but it often comes across that they are being shuffled in and off the screen at random, and nobody gets a chance to stand out.

The tone to Absolutely Anything is completely off.  It's lethargic and tired.  Here is a premise that cries out for endless comic possibilities, and all it can dream up is jokes about dog droppings and massive male genitalia.  How has Jones, the man who directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail, been reduced to this?  What was going through the mind of these actors as they were being forced to play out scenes that feature gags on the same intellectual level of a knock-knock joke?  Were they just thrilled to be working together?  This probably was a fun movie to make, but it's hard to watch sometimes.  It has a lame and cheesy look (and it's not just the special effects), and the script is filled with blackout gags that seem to be building to something, but pull back before something funny can actually happen.  It's frustrating, and it often comes across like the movie is selling itself short.

The plot: The aliens calling themselves the Galactic Council have decided to destroy Earth, as humankind has proven itself to be a silly and useless race.  However, they decide to give the planet one last chance.  They will grant a random person with God-like powers to do anything they wish.  If that person can use those powers to make the world a better place within a certain amount of time, they will spare Earth.  The man that is chosen is Neil (Simon Pegg, overacting and constantly mugging for the camera), an overworked and stressed school teacher who has to look after horrible students all day, gets yelled at by his landlord, and longs for Catherine (Kate Beckinsale), the young woman who lives in the apartment below his.  He learns he suddenly has these powers to make his every desire come true when he makes the flippant wish that all of his students were dead, and an alien spacecraft flies in, blasting his classroom and killing all the students within.

Let me use this scene as an example of how Absolutely Anything constantly goes wrong.  Is the idea behind this dark?  Very much so.  But, I can also see how it could be funny.  But the gag never builds, not even when Neil wishes that the students were alive again, and he unwittingly starts the Zombie Apocalypse by having the dead rise from their graves.  Again, I can see this idea being funny, but the movie bungles it by simply not building to anything.  We see the dead rise, we see some people scream, and then Neil wishes it all way, as if nothing had happened.  Wouldn't it be funnier if one of his co-workers said to him the next day, "You won't believe what happened to me last night...".  Whenever Neil changes the world to suit his own desires, nobody seems to notice or care, which kills a lot of the comedic potential that lies within its very premise.  When he wishes that Global Warming would end, we get to see a brief news report about the world going into another Ice Age, and that's all we get before he wishes things were the way before.

Neil initially uses his powers to help himself out (he wishes for a better body, or a bigger penis), as well as to give his dog Dennis the ability to speak English (his voice is provided by Robin Williams).  He also tries to help out others, such as his friend at work, Ray (Sanjeev Bashkar), who has longed for a woman at the school for years.  Neil's power not only makes her fall in love with Ray, but to worship him to the point that she creates a cult-like religion built around the guy.  Again, funny in theory, but the joke doesn't build to anything worthwhile.  He also naturally tries to use his powers to get closer with Catherine, which often don't work out as he plans, until he learns to be himself around her.  This provides some nice moments during the last 10 minutes that come far too late to salvage the film.  Unfortunately, most of Catherine's scenes are built around dopey scenes of an obsessed stalker of hers (Rob Riggle) that provide no laughs and an obnoxious character that I wish had been written out of the movie.

With the cute talking dog showing up in so many scenes and the whimsical premise, you would think that Absolutely Anything might be aiming for a family audience.  However, the movie contains some strong language and a lot of unfunny sexual humor, giving the film a confused tone as well as a lifeless one.  I'm trying to think of the kind of audience this would attract, outside of the fans of the actors who got suckered into it, and I'm coming up blank.  I'm sure the fact that this is the first time the Monty Python team has worked together in over 30 years would be a draw, but those who show up for that reason will be disappointed by how little they're given to do as the grotesque aliens who kick off the plot. 

However, it's the Python team who sum up the film best with a line of dialogue, when the John Cleese alien remarks late in the film, "The dog's not so bad, it's the people I can't stand".  I kind of hate it when a movie reviews itself with its own dialogue, but there you go.

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Saturday, May 06, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The people behind Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 must have had silly grins on their faces the whole time they were making this.  This is easily the most absurd of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, and yet, it can also be the most human and fulfilling at times.  From the film's memorable opening credits (which features Baby Groot, the tiny alien tree, dancing to ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky", while a massive intergalactic battle rages behind him), to the very ending moments, this is the rare summer blockbuster that has not let the enormous success of the original or its massive budget take away its sense of whimsy, and ignores pretty much all restraint. 

Picking up shortly after the events of the first film, the four original Guardians (along with the previously mentioned Groot) are neck-deep in a dangerous mission for a race of gold-skinned aliens known as the Sovereign.  The group once again includes the human Peter Quill, aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt), the green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the massive alien Drax (Dave Bautista), and the smart-mouthed Rocket Raccoon (voice by Bradley Cooper).  Their mission is to protect some valuable batteries from a giant space monster, said battle making up the previously mentioned opening which sets the tone perfectly for what the audience is to expect for the next two hours or so - A lot of special effects, over the top action, and a genuine sense that nobody took this seriously while it was being made, so neither should we. 

With the battle won, the Guardians collect their reward, a prisoner being held by the Sovereign, who just happens to be Gamora's sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan).  They leave with their bounty, but Rocket happens to help himself to a few of the rare and valuable batteries on the way out, which leads to the Sovereign ruler, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), to send her planet's massive and heavily armed space fleet after our heroes to destroy them for the theft.  She also happens to seek out someone else to help her in her quest for vengeance against the Guardians, which just happens to be the Ranger Yondu (Michael Rooker), who has past experience dealing with them, and is also the man who raised Peter.  With so many different people chasing after them, the Guardians find themselves stranded on an alien world, where they have a run-in with Peter's biological father, a Celestial being named Ego (Kurt Russell), who has been seeking his son across the galaxy.  Now that he has tracked him down, says that he wants to share his secrets with him.

The theme of "family" becomes the main central focus of the film in more ways than one.  In the main plot, we have Peter torn between his true father, his adoptive father, and the group he travels with that he has bonded with.  There is also the sibling relationship between Gamora and Nebula, which eventually plays a bigger role than first anticipated.  I have heard some people complain that the film uses the family dynamic a bit too heavily to the point that it hits the audience over the head with its message.  However, I personally feel that returning writer-director James Gunn finds a good balance, and I never found it overbearing.  It creates the emotional core that the original Guardians movie lacked.  Whereas the first film was mainly focused on setting up the characters and their universe, this movie manages to create genuine emotion, and focuses on the bond that has grown between them since their first adventure together.

Guardians Vol. 2 simply feels like a more complete film than before.  This is helped greatly by the fact that it is truly an ensemble piece, and allows the entire cast to be more developed than they were last time.  It's great to see the Guardians working off of their own personal quirks and flaws, and the fact that Gunn's screenplay allows these characters to truly breathe and become interesting individuals shows that he has a deft skill for mixing all-engrossing action with moments of personal reflection.  However, most amazing of all is that this does not feel like a rehash of any sort after the surprise success of the first.  There are new ideas here, new planets and alien races (all of which are designed and brought to life beautifully), and the action just comes across as all around grander than what we saw previously.  Add to all of this the film's sharp verbal humor, and you will see how everything really just does come together.

This film simply made me happy in so many ways.  The soundtrack is memorable, mixing a lot of classic rock from the 70s and 80s in with the action flawlessly, and the cast has really come into their ways with their characters.  Of the Guardians, it is Saldana (who gives Gamora a quiet elegance) and Bautista (whose Drax once again lacks a personal filter, and gets some of the best lines in the film) who stand out the most, but everybody gets their own moment to stand out.  It's especially evident in the very crowded climax, which mixes an apocalyptic battle for the universe, while at the same time making sure that all the characters involved are not stranded or left unfulfilled with all the special effects and fighting going on around them.  Again, the movie's ability to mix the fantastic, the human, and the absurd is its strongest aspect, and one that helps it stand out from a lot of movies we've had so far this year.

With so many superhero movies out there (and to come during the summer), it's easy to initially dismiss Guardians Vol. 2 as another comic book movie.  However, there is real energy behind the film here, as well as a sense that the filmmakers were not just resting on their laurels here, as so often happens with sequels.  This is a movie alive with excitement, heart and humor, and is easily the best time I've had at the theater so far this year.

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Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Circle

Sometimes dumb movies happen to smart people, and that is definitely the case with The Circle.  Here is a movie so sloppily constructed, you're surprised to see the people who keep on turning up in it, as well as reading some of the names who were behind the camera.  The director is the usually reliable James Ponsoldt (of The Spectacular Now), who co-wrote the script with author Dave Eggers (the film is based on one of his novels).  And the cast includes such talents as Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega (of Star Wars), Patton Oswalt, and even the late Bill Paxton in his final screen role.  It even seems to have a potent message about how technology is taking over our lives, and is destroying human contact.  So, what went wrong?

Everything would be one way to describe it.  This is what happens when you throw a lot of great talent at a project that wasn't ready to be filmed in the first place.  Again, I must use the words sloppily constructed, as the movie never has a clear focus as to what it's about.  It kicks off with a young woman named Mae (Watson), who has a dead-end job and is trying to care for her ailing father (Paxton).  A close friend of hers hooks her up with a job with The Circle, a massive Internet company that seems to be a cross between Facebook and Google, with a touch of Apple thrown in.  The company is largely out there to make information as free as possible.  It seems to be a fun place to work, with its college campus atmosphere, all night parties and concerts, and the friendly CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks, in Steve Jobs mode), who holds weekly team meetings which he calls "Dream Fridays".  There are those who think Bailey wants to control all the information on the web, but the guy has this calm, folksy way about him that brings people together.  He claims he just wants to make the Internet a better and safer place.

Mae is immediately taken in by the friendly and supportive atmosphere of the company.  Bailey even goes so far as, when he finds out about her sick father, to give him total medical coverage that will save his life.  But, little by little, a darker side behind the company is revealed.  It all begins when Mae runs into one of the founders of the company named Ty (Boyega), who likes to slink about in the shadows of the campus, and pop up now and then and warn Mae that things are not what they seem at The Circle.  He's concerned about the company's latest product, SeeChange, which is made up of tiny cameras that can be placed anywhere, and can see anything and anyone at anytime.  Mae seems concerned at first, but after a while, she quickly turns into a total supporter of the company with little logic or payoff.  She begins a social experiment where she attaches one of the cameras to herself, so that every moment of her life can be filmed and watched by anyone.  This is an idea that was done much better back in 1998 with The Truman Show.

The Circle takes an extremely simple minded approach to its own dilemma, as characters can be placed in only two camps - Those who live completely off the grid and don't trust technology in any form, and those who are complete cultists to The Circle itself.  Mae has a love interest (Ellar Coltrane from Boyhood) who lives in the woods, and likes to make decorations out of deer antlers.  He gets to spout a lot of phony-sounding and preachy anti-technology speeches in the few scenes where he shows up.  The movie simply seems confused about what it wants to say about its message, and about its characters.  Sometimes it seems to be trying to make us fearful of big Internet companies, and other times, it actually seems to be trying to make an argument for them.  I can understand wanting to look at both sides of a debate, but when there's just no tissue to hold the narrative together, it simply becomes a giant mess with a lot of lost-looking actors wandering about the screen.

And do these actors ever suffer here from the material they've been given.  Emma Watson seems just as confused as I was about what arc her character is supposed to be taking.  And while it's interesting to see Tom Hanks tackling the role of a possibly shady executive, he never quite sheds his sunny and charming personality.  He's there simply to make speeches when the movie requires one, but is never quite built up to be the villain that the movie wants him to be.  The movie doesn't even do a good job of explaining why he takes such a big interest in Mae in the first place, which makes it seem more like plot convenience than anything else.  John Boyega simply pops up now and then to either warn Mae about what's really going on, or to stand in the shadows and look disappointed at her when she seems to be completely taken in by the company.  Why he's helping her is also not explained very well, as is the fact that even though he is one of the founders of The Circle, yet nobody seems to recognize him.   And poor Patton Oswalt is given so little to do as Hanks' right-hand-man, his role basically consists of him standing next to Hanks, and smiling or looking concerned.

There are some moments that hint at things that could have been interesting.  When Mae decides to go "fully transparent", and film her entire life so that people can watch her on line at all times, it seems to be leading up to some strong satirical elements of our viral video culture.  But, very little is done with this idea once it is introduced, and again, it simply makes us think back on how The Truman Show did this exact same idea much better almost 20 years ago.  There are also a couple nice scenes concerning Mae's parents, especially Paxton, who is the only actor here able to deliver a performance that makes us sympathize with them.  You do wish his final role could have been a much better one, but at least you can tell that he's giving his small role a lot of effort.  More than this movie probably deserved.

The Circle is easily the biggest disappointment of 2017 so far.  With all this talent involved, you would at least expect something to come out of it, and yet it offers nothing but confusion, and sketchy ideas and characters.  It features an expensive cast, when the money would have been better spent punching up the script, and making it into something that doesn't read like a first draft. 

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