Reel Opinions


Sunday, September 16, 2018

White Boy Rick

As a movie, White Boy Rick is fine as is, but with one small tweak, it could have been improved.  The film is the true story of how a teenage boy in 1980s Detroit became an informant for the FBI.  Young Richard "Rick" Wershe, Jr. was eventually arrested and sentenced to life in prison at the age of 17.  His crime was possessing 8 kilograms of cocaine, and he was convicted under a controversial Michigan drug policy.  The tragedy of the situation is that Rick was largely used and then thrown under the bus by the law that he was helping by uncovering some drug gangs and crooked cops.  It was not until last year that Rick was released on parole, at the age of 47.

The thing is, we don't learn about much of this in the film until it is almost over.  This is one instance where I think a flashback structure, starting the film off with Rick in prison would have been the way to go, as it not only would have helped grab our attention, but it would have helped us sympathize with young Rick right from the beginning.  The story of Rick and what happened to him within the Justice System is not the focus of the film, although that probably would have served as an intriguing movie itself.  Instead, we get to see his rise and fall, and the personal toll that he played.  It's an engaging story, if not a little by-the-numbers at times.  And although the movie does drag from time to time, the fine performances and some genuinely powerful and anger-inducing moments held my interest throughout.

Rick is played by first-time actor Richie Merritt, and when the story kicks off in 1984, he's 14 and living with his dad, a smooth talking hustler named Richard, Sr. (Matthew McConaughey), who dreams big dreams of one day opening a video store, but until then, he sells modified AK-47s out of the trunk of his car in order to make a living.  He's a single dad, doing his best to raise both of his kids.  Rick looks up to and genuinely respects him, while Rick's older sister Dawn (Bel Powley) views their dad as a hopeless loser, and dreams of escaping the house.  Dawn is on the verge of becoming a junkie, and while Richard, Sr. tries his best to keep his daughter in line, he can't do anything when she runs off to live with a guy. 

It's well known in the local area that Richard, Sr. has been selling guns to some of the local drug gangs, and one day, a pair of FBI agents (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane) stop by to pay Rick's father a visit.  They want information on who he's been selling to, but he won't give the information.  Rick, however, is willing to give some information, and before long, the agents make him a full-time informant infiltrating some of the most powerful gangs in Detroit.  Rick is quite attracted to the drug scene, especially the lavish lifestyles and huge parties that the local dealers seem to enjoy.  He gets involved in the gangs, working as a double agent, makes some friends on the inside, and even starts making some big money on the side which he stashes in a shoebox under his bed.  By the time his dad catches on to what's going on, the kid has over $9,000 stashed away in his room.

White Boy Rick eases us into the story with a certain humorous tone as we are introduced to the Wershe family.  They are brash, frequently argue, and there is some fun in the early moments where Rick's grandparents (Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie), who live next door to him, act exasperated over Richard, Sr.'s attempts to keep his house under control.  Even when the story takes a more serious tone as Rick is pulled into the criminal underworld, the movie still keeps a sly sense of humor that shows itself from time to time.  I especially liked the moment where Richard, Sr. is talking about how the family isn't doing too bad, and Rick reminds him that his daughter is a junkie and he himself is involved with violent gangs.  His dad's response?  He's a glass-half-full kind of guy, and chooses to look at the positives.  I also admired the way that the film creates a sense of the mid-80s time period with scenes set in skating rinks, Footloose playing at the local drive-in, and soap operas on TV.  The movie even manages to create a small community vibe that gives the film a sense of realism.

If there is any fault to be found, the movie does drag a little from time to time, and some of the people in the gangs that Rick hangs out with could have been handled and developed better, especially a young woman who he ends up having a baby with.  However, this is offset by just how well developed the members of the Wershe family, as well as the performances are.  McConaughey, in particular, is a force of nature.  Hidden behind a huge mustache and slick hair, he nonetheless commands the screen every time he comes on, and he gets some of the film's best moments.  I also really admired Bel Powley as Rick's drug-addict sister.  She's an actress I'm not very familiar with, but would love to see more of given her performance here.  As for Richie Merritt in the title role, he shows a lot of promise, but his performance can also be a bit stiff at times, especially when he has to act alongside an old pro like McConaughey.  He obviously has talent, and he sells his big scenes well enough, though.  It's definitely a fine performance, considering it's his first movie, and he manages to stay afloat.

But it's the final moments of White Boy Rick that are the most emotional and powerful, when Rick is used and betrayed by the same people who got him into this mess in the first place.  I almost think a satisfying film could have been made by extending the last 20 minutes or so, and going over the details of the trial that led to his conviction.  But, that's not this movie.  What we have been given is effective enough, and does a good enough job of making you want to know the real story of Rick Wershe, Jr.  When you hear his real voice talking in an audio interview over the darkness before the end credits roll, you really get a sense of everything he went through.  It's an emotional conclusion to a film that can be a bit messy, but is well worth watching.

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Saturday, September 15, 2018

A Simple Favor

After a brief detour into soulless blockbuster territory with 2016's disastrous all-female reboot of Ghostbusters, director Paul Feig returns to what he does best - Films where his female stars are given plenty of opportunity to play off one another and create memorable characters and relationships.  A Simple Favor attempts a tricky combination of being a suspense thriller and a broad dark comedy, and it succeeds beautifully.  This is the rare film that is hard to predict where it's going at any one time, and even though it is pretty much built around one plot twist and revelation after another, I never once felt like I was being jerked around by the plot. 

There is so much to admire here, starting with the lead performances of Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively as two very different moms whose young kids go to the same school.  They strike up a friendship that is built around trusting one another with their own personal secrets, said secrets that will come back to haunt them many times during the course of the story.  But I'm getting ahead here.  Let's focus on the individual performances here.  Kendrick is a cheerful, upbeat "supermom" type, while Lively's character is cold, distant and unapologetically foul mouthed.  Yet, the two find a common ground, and the way the Feig allows both of these characters and the performances to grow and play off one another shows how he excels at intimate and character-driven films such as this.  Throw in the wickedly smart and often hilariously funny screenplay by Jessica Sharzer (adapted from the novel by Darcey Bell), and all the elements just come together to create a satisfying and genuinely surprising mystery story with an often comedic bent.

Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a single mom to a boy in elementary school who divides her time between volunteering for just about every school function available, making all the other parents feel inferior to her parenting skills, and hosting a Youtube vlog where she shares recipes and parenting tips with her viewers.  Stephanie's life revolves entirely around being a mom, so she has no social life to speak of, until she has a chance encounter with Emily Nelson (Lively).  Their two boys are friends at school, and arrange a play date, which brings the two together.  Emily has a high-powered job at a fashion company in New York City, is dressed in the finest fashions, and lives in a gorgeous home with floor-to-ceiling windows.  The two strike up a friendship while drinking martinis, and Stephanie almost seems shocked that someone as wealthy and "important" as Emily would want to be friends with her in the first place.

It is perhaps because of this shock and her desire to please her new friend that Stephanie ignores a few bizarre quirks about Emily, such as how furious she seems to get when Stephanie tries to snap a photo of her.  This, and other small moments, seem to reveal that there is something that doesn't quite click about Emily.  Behind her beautiful home, designer clothes, and attractive husband (Henry Golding from Crazy Rich Asians), there is a sense that there is someone else lurking behind that cool and controlled exterior that she gives off.  Then, one day, Emily disappears.  She calls Stephanie out of the blue to tell her that she is stuck at work, and asks if Stephanie will pick up her kid at school.  Hours pass, and Emily does not show up or return any calls or texts.  Soon, the police are called in, and little by little, Stephanie begins to wonder about her friend and how much she really knows about what's going on. 

A Simple Favor develops an intricate and ever-winding mystery as Stephanie plays detective and uncovers the truth behind her friend and her disappearance, and I'm happy to say that it's a plot with revelations that you will not see coming.  The screenplay is so delicate in the way it slowly feeds us information and sends us in different directions that it's a kind of cinematic miracle that it works as well as it does, given how the movie is constantly shifting tones from a dark mystery thriller to a very black comedy.  This also is a movie where each twist that the plot throws at us and the multiple paths it leads us down makes sense.  It never feels like the screenplay is trying to trick us, exactly.  It's simply weaving a complex and involved story in an intelligent and entertaining way.  It rewards our attention with revelations that not only genuine surprise, but also make us want to know what's going to happen next.  When you see as many movies as I do, you start to pick up on clues that writers often fall back on.  This one kept me guessing, and I often had no idea where the plot was going to go next.

And yet, the movie never feels like its been overly thought out, or like its only desire is to fool us.  That's not the goal.  The main reason why it excels is because Feig always puts the characters and the performances front and center at all times.  These are smart, funny and sometimes awkward characters, and part of the fun is seeing how they relate or react to the twists and turns of the story they're trapped in.  That also is what makes the film work so successfully as a comedy.  Kendrick's Stephanie seems to be in over her head, but the deeper she digs into the mystery, she seems to be getting kind of a giddy thrill over playing detective and piecing the clues together.  I think a lot of people dream of throwing off their mundane everyday personas, and going on an adventure or unraveling a mystery, and Kendrick's performance is built around that secret desire.  Her transformation from a over-achieving mom to a super sleuth is one of the many joys of her performance, and it carries the film a long way.

This is simply a well through out and incredibly enjoyable movie.  You get the sense that A Simple Favor was a lot of fun to make, and it's just as much fun to watch.  This is the kind of movie where the less you know about it walking in, the more you'll like it.  Not only can I almost guarantee that you'll be genuinely surprised, but you'll get to truly enjoy just how intricate it is.

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Friday, September 14, 2018

The Predator

The Predator is a movie that will please no one.  Say you're a fan of the long-running Sci-Fi franchise, and are anxious to see how it's been updated.  Well, you will be disappointed to learn that this is a slapdash effort to cash in on the recognizable name.  But, say you're not a fan, and you just want to be entertained.  Again, prepare to be disappointed, as there is nothing inspired, thrilling or original here.  This could be an all-time low for the series, and given the mixed quality of some of the past sequels, that's saying something.


The movie is an assault on the senses - Overly loud, replacing CG blood and gore for genuine thrills, and downright incoherent in its editing, plotting and pacing.  The fact that this was co-written and directed by Shane Black, who co-starred in the original Predator back in 1987 and is usually much better than this, tells me that he has either taken a temporary leave of his senses and I can only hope he recovers soon, or that there was some major studio tampering behind the scenes, and what we're seeing is not his intended vision.  Given the film's highly publicized massive reshoots and multiple missed release dates, I'm leaning toward the second scenario.  This movie has all the markings of a project that got out of control, or perhaps never had a clear vision to start with.  The Predator is the kind of film that feels it doesn't have to tell a genuine narrative or give us character motivation.  All it has to do is crank up the gunfire and explosions really loud, splash a lot of blood around, and hope the audience doesn't catch on that nothing is happening.

The plot, which seems to be told in constant fast-forward, as if it's afraid if it slows down for one second it will lose our attention, tells the story of Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook).  He's got the action hero grit, but none of the personality or humor that you would expect.  He almost comes across as a placeholder character that screenwriters Black and Fred Dekker put in the early drafts until they could figure out a more interesting hero for their movie, but never got around to it.  Quinn is a military sniper who happens to witness the Predator alien (Brian A. Prince) crash land on Earth.  He manages to get his hands on some of the Predator's advanced technology and weapons, and sends it to his private P.O. Box address, but the package somehow winds up being shipped to the home of his estranged wife and autistic son, Rory (Jacob Temblay).  Little Rory mistakes the alien technology for being some sort of high-tech video game, and in a matter of minutes, he's cracked the technology behind the alien helmet and weapons.

Rory is one of those autistic kids you see in movies who can decipher alien code in a matter of seconds, hack computers like a pro, and basically serves as a walking plot device.  No offense to young Mr. Tremblay, who is a fine child actor, but the material he's been made to work with is desperate and dumb.  Quinn realizes that the Predator is tracking down his kid to get his equipment back, so he teams up with a ragtag group of soldiers who are all crazy misfits.  There's one with tourette's syndrome, one who's obsessed with the Bible, and one who can't stop cracking jokes when he's nervous or scared.  There.  You now know everything the movie tells us about these people.  He also teams up with a female scientist (Olivia Munn), who is fascinated in life from outer space, and wants to study the Predator.  She is introduced as a key character early on, and then spends the majority of the movie running alongside our hero, and not really contributing much.  But hey, at least she doesn't have to be a love interest, so points for originality, I guess.

Watching The Predator, I got the sense that nobody knew what movie they were making, or even what it was trying to be.  Most of the film follows the rigid rules of a Sci-Fi thriller, albeit one that fails on just about every level.  The monster is not scary or interesting, the action is cut so tight and edited so rapidly (either that, or shot in total darkness), we often have a hard time telling what is being done and to whom, and all the major characters more or less talk and act the same.  But then, the movie will suddenly veer into some very bizarre humor that borders on parody.  This too doesn't work, once on the basis that the movie is never funny, and on the basis that it feels completely out of place here.  Shane Black is famous for his ability to mix violent action with clever and funny dialogue, but here, he falls completely flat on his face.  It's like he wanted to make a self-aware Predator movie, but lost his nerve, and threw in a lot of uninspired action.  Therefore, we get a lot of goofy ideas, such as little Rory going out on Halloween wearing the Predator mask and accidentally blowing up a neighbor's house, mixed in with your standard B-Movie action thriller elements.

This is such a shockingly inept movie, you're almost surprised to see seasoned professionals were behind it.  This is especially true of the plotting and writing, which frequently falls back on forced exposition dialogue to move the story along.  This is one of those movies where a character will pick up an alien artifact they have never seen before in their lives, glance it over for a few seconds, and then somehow be able to tell us the whole history behind it.  This is also one of those movies that introduces a character, makes a big deal about them for most of its running time, and then dispatches them in such a quick and haphazard matter that you'll miss it if you even blink.  There is just this overall sense of laziness to the filmmaking on display.  Instead of revitalizing the franchise, this might bury it even deeper into obscurity.

Naturally, The Predator has a final scene that hints at a much bigger sequel to come, but like a lot of films that fall back on this technique, it doesn't do enough to build the interest of the audience after the movie we've just witnessed.  Instead of focusing on what's to come, why not just put all your effort on making a good, solid movie that fans can enjoy and excite with the possibility of more to come?  This movie promises us so much, but gives us little in return.

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Saturday, September 08, 2018

Peppermint

Peppermint is a sleazy and scuzzy little piece of audience manipulation starring the usually likable Jennifer Garner as a mom who witnesses her husband and young daughter get gunned down in a drive-by-shooting, and takes revenge on the people responsible.  It's a simple-minded work that never once stops to ask the obvious ethical questions, and instead just plows right ahead into sensationalist violence.  How out of touch is this movie?  It doesn't even slow down long enough to explain its own title.  I mean, yes, her daughter is eating peppermint ice cream when she is shot, but this fact never comes across as significant enough to serve as the title of the film.

Not only is the movie nasty, it's also sloppy.  There are random moments of the movie where the editing suddenly goes haywire for absolutely no reason, and when nothing of interest is happening.  Garner will be sitting on a bus, and all of a sudden, the camera will start shaking.  Why?  There also seems to be large chunks of the plot missing.  After the husband and daughter are shot down, the movie speeds through the details of Garner's character getting an unfair trial (the Judge is paid off, and lets the killers go), and going on the run.  The movie then cuts to 5 years later, where she has become a full-fledged vigilante who is somewhat of a hero on social media, and to a community of homeless people.  None of this is explained in the slightest.  We don't get to see how she went from being a soccer mom to a hardened killer who participates in illegal cage fights to hone her skills.  We don't even get to see her actually take vengeance on the three people who were responsible for the murder of her family.  It happens mostly off camera, aside from a brief glimpse of her getting back at one of the thugs during the film's opening scene.  She spends the rest of the movie going after the violent drug dealer, Diego (Juan Pablo Raba), who was their boss.

Garner plays Riley North, a woman who is solely driven by vengeance for her kid (Cailey Fleming), who appears to her as a ghost now and then to encourage her on her bloody revenge.  Oddly, she doesn't seem to care all that much that her husband was gunned down as well.  It's not until a scene almost at the end of the film that she even mentions him.  Riley's husband, Chris (Jeff Hephner), was actually being talked to by a friend at work into a job where they would rob Diego the drug boss.  Chris declined, wanting to spend the night with the family for his daughter's birthday, but this did not stop Diego from ordering a hit on Chris when he found out about it.  After the hit, Riley cooperated with the law, until she found out Diego's influence pretty much spread to every corner of the justice system, and she was not going to get any help.  So, she went off the grid, and is now back as a heavily-trained assassin who can rig explosives and murder with her bare hands with ease.  Again, this transformation is never explained or shown to us, which makes it feel like we missed out on the most interesting part of the movie.

Pursuing Riley are two police detectives, Carmichael (John Gallagher, Jr.) and Beltran (John Ortiz), who were involved with her case five years ago, and an FBI agent (Annie Ilonzeh), who is brought on the job.  All three of these characters come equipped with dialogue that sounds like it came from watching a marathon of crime dramas, and then the screenwriter did their best to remember the gist of what they heard.  There's not a single word these people say that sounds honest or authentic.  They talk strictly in the cliches of the genre.  These characters do nothing to stand out, aside from the fact that the one from the FBI has one of the strangest character introductions I've seen in a long time.  She's sitting at her desk, and there's an obnoxious singing Santa Claus toy (yes, the movie is set at Christmas) near her work station bothering her, so she throws something at it.  This tells us nothing about her, and it has nothing to do with anything.  It just happens, and we're left scratching our heads.

As for Garner, I understand that this is a chance for her to get back to her action film roots that launched her career, and I'm sure it's the main reason why she took this project in the first place.  But why did she pick this one in particular?  Was it really the best thing being offered to her?  The movie never allows her to become a real character.  We don't know how she feels personally about her own actions.  Is she somewhat horrified by what she's doing?  Does she sometimes miss her old domestic life?  These are the sort of questions a better script would have not been afraid to ask.  Instead, she's treated as a soulless individual with no real thoughts or complex feelings.  There are moments that hint at a deeper character, such as when she finds out the drug dealer has a daughter of his own right when she's about to kill him the first time.  She hesitates, which leads to the dealer to escape.  Fortunately for her, the movie forgets about the daughter as soon as she's introduced, so Garner has no problem doing horrible things to him from that point on.

Peppermint gave me no joy or release like a truly great action film can.  It simply revels in violence, and manipulates the audience from beginning to end without a single thought.  That's what bothered me the most - There was simply no thought put into this, and it shows.

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The Nun

If I were reviewing The Nun solely on its visuals, this would end up being a rave review.  Beautifully dark, tons of Gothic atmosphere, and a certain sense of dread is created by the visuals, and the setting itself (a secluded abbey where something terrible obviously has happened) is one we don't see very often in modern horror, and is used effectively here.  Nearly every shot has been laid out by director Corin Hardy to create a sort of tension, and the deeper the characters go into the settings, uncovering lost tunnels and ancient crypts, my excitement only mounted. 

So, I guess the movie is effective in that regard.  I also must admit that there are a few effective jump scare moments here, which are actually somewhat subtle in their set up.  This is a movie that has been made effectively, and by people who know what they're doing.  The only thing that prevents me from fully embracing the film is that the plot doesn't really go anywhere, or at least takes too long to get to where it's supposed to go.  We also surprisingly get to see very little of the titular demonic nun   Portrayed by Bonnie Aarons, clad all in black, and with her face a twisted and evil-looking concoction, the nun itself is an imposing villain figure, just as she was when she was introduced in 2016's The Conjuring 2. (This film serves as a spin off to that franchise, and while there is some connection, this is mostly a stand-alone movie.) But the movie doesn't use her nearly as much as it should, and for a good part of the story, we're watching the main characters wander about in the dark for far too long. 

The Nun clearly wants to be a mix of religious mystery and old-school adventure, but there is just something off about the pacing.  It meanders a bit when it should be thrilling us, and when the thrills finally do come, and the menacing nun apparition is finally getting up in the faces of our intrepid heroes, the movie is nearly over.  And yet, I was never exactly bored.  The movie constantly gave me sights and images to admire.  As much as I was enjoying the technical craft, there was a voice in the back of my mind telling me that this was beautiful, but not very exciting or scary.  If I walked out disappointed, I also found myself enjoying it in a certain way.  Not enough to give it a full recommendation, but not enough for me to write it off as a failure.  There's stuff to enjoy, but it just doesn't work like it should.

The plot is set some 20 years before the events in The Conjuring movies, in 1952, where an incident at an old abbey in Romania has gotten the attention of the Vatican.  A nun has mysteriously taken her own life after she uncovered a door deep within the hidden chambers of the abbey that had a message scrawled across the door that reads, "God ends here". (Never a good sign, and if one should ever come upon a door containing such a message upon it, it's probably best not to open it.) The Catholic Church calls in Father Burke (Damian Bichir), a self-proclaimed "Miracle Hunter" who is usually assigned to handle Vatican City's more baffling mysteries.  They want him to investigate not only the tragic mystery behind the nun's suicide, but also the grounds itself, which has a very dark history. 

Father Burke is assigned a partner in Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, real life sister of Vera Farmiga, who stars in The Conjuring), a young novitiate who has not yet taken her vows.  After arriving in Romania, they are joined up by a French-Canadian man who calls himself Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), who was the one who discovered the suicidal nun hanging from a noose outside a window, her body being pecked apart by crows.  The three step inside the abbey, begin to learn its dark secrets, discover it is full of some very frightened and untrusting nuns, and are constantly being menaced by a shape-shifting evil entity that seems to be the cause of everything bad that's happening within.  All of this has the makings of an intriguing slow-burn mystery, but the screenplay by Gary Dauberman (It) never raises the stakes like it should.  I constantly found myself interested, but never quite invested to the extent like I thought I should be.

There are some individually thrilling moments throughout The Nun, such as when Father Burke finds himself buried alive at one point.  That whole sequence, including Sister Irene's effort to rescue him, is probably the closest the film comes to truly being great.  All of the other thrills are of the variety where something menacing is lurking in the shadows, while the heroes are unaware of its presence as they continue their exploration.  There are also a lot of jump scares here, and like I said, some are effective.  But there are even more that are not, and I have kind of grown weary of horror films that rely heavily on things jumping out at you for thrills.  All of it looks great, and some of it even works.  But I also found myself wishing that there was just more to this than what I was being given.

I'm not sorry I saw The Nun, but I also have a hard time drumming up much enthusiasm for it outside of the technical artistry.  This is one of those movies that you really want to be better, because you can see so much potential within, and there are moments that resemble what it should have been.  But those moments are like small episodes in a larger whole of something that just never takes off.

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Saturday, September 01, 2018

Kin

In Kin, we're introduced to two brothers.  One of them is Eli (Myles Truitt), a fourteen-year-old kid who is adopted and discovers a strange alien ray gun while he is exploring a dilapidated old building.  He keeps the gun hidden under his bed, but likes to take it out now and then and pose with it in front of his mirror.  The other and older brother, Jimmy (Jack Reynor), has just been released from prison, doesn't have much of a future, and is in trouble with some criminals that he owes $60,000 to.  The gang's leader is played by James Franco, giving a seriously off-kilter performance, and not in a good or interesting way.

Eli and Jimmy live with their stern father (Dennis Quaid, making the most out of a limited role), who is trying to raise Eli right, and has pretty much given up hope on Jimmy.  There is some family tension in the home, particularly when Eli overhears an argument between his adopted father and brother, and Jimmy refers to Eli as a "replacement".  Up to this point, Kin plays as a moody family drama with a bizarre Sci-Fi bent, given the laser gun that young Eli has found.  I found myself somewhat intrigued about where the story could be going.  Having seen the film, I kind of wish I could go back to that early feeling of intrigue, as all that awaited me was disappointment.  I'm going to have to be vague here for the sake of spoilers, but things go south when Jimmy tries to get some money to pay off the criminals that's in a safe in dad's office at work.  Now Jimmy and Eli must hit the road, driving cross country to a cabin that the family owns in Tahoe.  Eli brings his alien weapon along with him, and no prizes for guessing if he will have to use it at some point.

This is a bizarre movie, but much like Franco's performance as the film's heavy, not in a good or interesting way.  We have the supernatural element of the alien gun, and the fact that the brothers are secretly being pursued by two armored soldiers from another world who want the gun back.  But the movie seldom takes advantage of the possibilities.  They're also being pursued by Franco and his men.  Again, they don't add up to much, despite Franco's chewing of the scenery.  What we do get are the brothers making a pit stop at a strip club (one of those rare PG-13 ones where nobody takes off their clothes), where they pick up a friendly stripper named Milly (Zoe Kravitz), who joins them in their adventure for a little while.  They use Eli's gun to hold up and rob some crooked card sharks, they hit Vegas, and then there's the big climactic showdown that leads to a last minute plot revelation concerning young Eli and the alien gun that is so absurd, you wouldn't believe me if I told you.

Kind of like the Sci-Fi film we got last weekend, A.X.L., Kin seems confused as to just what it wants to be, or what audience it is speaking to.  It tries to be a movie about a dysfunctional family, a movie about two distant brothers bonding during a road trip, a movie about a young boy learning how to be a man, and a Sci-Fi epic all rolled into one.  I have no doubt that these elements could be combined into a successful movie.  Here, the elements are placed together in a disjointed and ill-formed manner by sibling filmmakers Jonathan and Josh Baker.  They just never seem to have a handle on the story they're telling, nor do they seem to know how to make it all that suspenseful or interesting.  There are long stretches where very little happens, and the information that we get about Eli and the gun are shoehorned in so abruptly and sloppily in about five minutes right near the end, it's almost comical.  It's obviously intended to be sequel bait, but it instead feels like the desperation of screenwriter Daniel Casey throwing up his hands and giving up on the plot.

There's also the troubling idea behind the character of Eli, which I'm not sure how audiences will react to.  This movie seems to be suggesting that he becomes a stronger and all around better person when he gets his hands on a gun, leading him to become a fine and upstanding young man.  That being said, the performance of young Myles Truitt is quite good, and easily the highlight of the film.  He gives Eli more personality than what's on the written page.  Everyone else comes across as oddly unlikable, especially Jack Reynor as his older brother Jimmy.  I understand that his character is supposed to be somewhat obnoxious and untrustworthy, but he still plays the character that way even when we're supposed to finally be warming up to him.

Kin is an overall confused movie that could have been fun in a crazy way if it wasn't so dire and dull in its storytelling.  There is no sense of the joy or energy that you would expect from a loopy premise such as this.  The whole thing ends on an open ended note that seems to hint at a sequel, but after everything that came before it, it can't help but feel like hopeless optimism on the part of the filmmakers.

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Friday, August 31, 2018

Searching

Searching is not the first thriller to be built around the gimmick that the entire film takes place on line via cameras, texts and video chats.  Just this July, we had the disappointing and unnecessary Unfriended: Dark Web.  However, this is easily the best attempt at the stylized approach we have had.  In fact, I could see this being one of the great films of 2018.  First-time feature director Aneesh Chaganty (a former employee of Google) has managed to use the limitations of filming solely on smartphones, browser windows and security cam footage, and has created not just an enthralling film, but one that is emotionally effective and has a ton of heart behind it.

John Cho, an actor who will probably eternally be associated with his starring role in the Harold and Kumar movies, delivers a powerful leading performance as David Kim, a widower in California who grows concerned with his 15-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) does not come home or return his texts.  The last time he heard from her was when she tried to contact him in the middle of the night, but he was sleeping and missed her calls.  Now, there's total silence, and none of her friends have seen her at school or at her usual hang outs.  As time passes and there is just no word or information, David becomes increasingly concerned, and files a Missing Persons report, which gets him contact with Rosemary Vick (a wonderful Debra Messing), a police detective who is a mother herself, and guides David through the difficult process of going through Margot's on line life, and search for any clues that may lead to learning about just what has happened.

As David and Rosemary go through Margot's videos, texts, on-line friends and personal blogs, they begin to piece together a life that Margot was afraid to share with her father, one concerning a lot of pain concerning the death of her mother and David's wife just two years ago.  It's something that has been difficult for them to talk about since it happened.  One of the brilliant moves that Chaganty does is to open the film with a touching montage of the on line family life of the Kims as Margot grew up.  We see birthdays, first days of school, piano lessons, and shared family moments leading up to the day when everything fell apart, and Margot's mother passed away after a long battle with lymphoma.  This does a wonderful job of building the main characters and their relationship in an efficient way, without sacrificing any of the heart and pathos.  This also leads to the film's central mystery.  Was Margot keeping anything else from her father?  Was she kidnapped, or possibly murdered by someone on her Friends List?

Searching occasionally leaves the computer screen to show us media reports as the search for the missing teen becomes major news.  We also get to see the effect the case has on the viral community, as her classmates leave passionate and forced tribute videos, and haters and trolls start hounding David on line, accusing him of being responsible for his daughter's disappearance.  All of this creates a surprisingly compelling narrative, despite the limited storytelling technique of mostly using video chats and texts to drive the action.  We are involved in the characters, and in the mystery itself.  There are quite a few red herrings, most of them pretty obvious.  But, the final answer to the mystery is fairly clever, and doesn't feel like a cheat.  When it was over, I was not only satisfied with the conclusion the mystery came to, but felt I had been told a complete story with interesting and honest characters.  

This is ultimately a detective story, with the father playing the role of an amateur sleuth as he pieces the information together, going through his daughter's on line history.  What's impressive is how the movie never lags, and how the quick editing creates a nail-biting pace as information is slowly revealed both to David and to the audience.  Why did Margot stop going to piano lessons six months ago, while still accepting the tuition money?  And what is with the large sum of money that she supposedly took out right before her disappearance.  The logical answer is that she might have run away, but digging deeper, that seems unlikely and that there is something more sinister at hand.  The movie skillfully unravels the plot details, keeping us completely engaged and wanting to know more.  This is the rare thriller that left me wanting to know more with each reveal.

But what's most impressive is how the movie never once feels gimmicky.  It is a complete and well thought out story that just happens to take place largely on a computer laptop screen.  In fact, the way it is filmed is an advantage, as it adds a touch of authenticity to the story.  It also helps create a commentary about just how much parents know about their children's lives on line, without being preachy or heavy handed.  This is not just a movie about the dangers of the Internet, nor does it sensationalize it with paranormal or silly plot elements like the Unfriended films.  It's a compelling human drama told through the lens of a computer monitor, and it's as highly effective and as engrossing as any other drama that's out there.

Searching is just an extremely well thought out film, and one that pays off in just about every way.  It's emotional, suspenseful and well-acted.  I can see this becoming a late-summer sleeper, and I truly hope it doesn't get lost in the shuffle of Labor Day Weekend, traditionally one of the worst weekends for the box office.  Did the studio release this movie on such a slow weekend because they have little faith in it?  I sure hope not, because they have a great movie here.

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Operation Finale

Operation Finale is a gripping story that's told sluggishly.  All the parts are in place for an engaging dramatic thriller.  The cast, which includes the likes of Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Melanie Laurent, Peter Strauss, and comic actor Nick Kroll (in a rare dramatic role), certainly cannot be faulted.  Everyone's giving a good performance here.  And the story, about the attempt to capture one of the most powerful and notorious surviving architects of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, 15 years after the end of World War II should be compelling.  But the movie frequently stalls with dragged out and talky dialogue scenes when it should be ramping up the tension.

The acting is the one thing to recommend here, and it's not enough to overcome the wordy and dull screenplay by Matthew Orton, or the oddly leisurely pacing and direction of Chris Weitz.  As a filmmaker, Weitz is hard to pin down.  He got his start with 1999's American Pie, peaked with the wonderful About a Boy in 2002, and then pretty much languished in Young Adult Movies for the rest of the decade, even helming one of the Twilight movies.  He seems a bit lost here, as he is never able to create any suspense out of a situation that should be nail biting.  The pacing of the movie seems off early on, and it never improves.  I kept on waiting for the story to really kick into gear, or to create some edge of your seat excitement.  There are some moments late in the film that come close, but the movie is constantly holding itself back.  The whole time I was watching it, I was admiring the craft that went into the acting, but was left feeling cold about everything else.

That's definitely the last thing I expected walking into a movie about such a great story of when in 1960, a team of Israeli agents slipped into Argentina to capture Adolf Eichmann, the notorious architect of the Nazis’ “Final Solution" to exterminate the Jews.  The capture of Eichmann is not exactly the focus of the film, as it happens fairly early in the film and with little difficulty.  Instead, the movie follows the agents as they are forced to hide out in a safe house after their escape out of Argentina is delayed, and they have to keep Eichmann in captivity while they wait for their transport to come through.  The tension is supposed to come from the fact that Eichmann's fellow Nazis become aware of his disappearance, and start investigating, coming ever closer to discovering his whereabouts.  Also, as they hold him captive, Eichmann (portrayed by Ben Kingsley in the film) proves to be a master manipulator, trying to get close to his captors and possibly worm his way into their trust and good will while he is locked away in a bedroom.

The story is told through the eyes of Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), a German-born Israeli who is haunted by the memory of the death of his sister during the Holocaust.  Eichmann has haunting visions of his own of a Jewish woman who was gunned down while she was holding her infant child up to him, begging to be spared.  A connection between these two recurring flashbacks is never quite made, other than both men are clearly haunted by their own memories, and for different reasons.  Malkin becomes the head of the operation to capture Eichmann, despite a botched earlier attempt that opens the film.  He enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend Hannah (Melanie Laurent), a medical doctor who has some qualms about joining him on the mission after she lost a patient during a previous mission.  Of the team, Malkin and Hannah are the only ones who get to make an impression.  The other members are largely interchangeable, and most probably won't remember their faces a few hours after they finish watching the film.

There's a training montage as the Israelis prepare for their capture mission, and then the capture goes down with little suspense or fanfare.  From that point, the movie is pretty much set entirely in the safe house, as Peter and his team wait for their transport out of Argentina.  Because of the limited scope of the film and the dialogue-heavy script (which relies heavily on exposition), I started to wonder if perhaps this script had started out as a stage play.  Whatever the case, the pacing is oddly inert and not very cinematic.  Characters are constantly explaining everything, violating one of the big rules of the movies - "show, don't tell".  What little action there is here is devoted to some of Eichmann's fellow Nazis and their investigation into his disappearance.  This is obviously intended to ratchet up the tension, and make us fear that Peter and his team will be discovered before they can leave with their capture.  But, thanks to the muddy screenplay and the aimless pacing, I never felt anything.

Despite the sluggish nature of Operation Finale, the music score by Alexandre Desplat pounds away, as if something exciting is happening, even if it isn't.  It begins to feel like the score is disconnected from the action on the screen, and it grated on me.  This is a movie that simply refused to come to life to me, despite the strong efforts of the cast.  Kingsley, in particular, creates a smug Eichmann who starts out guarded and cooperative, but slowly begins to enjoy toying with his captors, and even taking pride in his past actions.  Isaac is great to watch, as always, and does manage the film's few emotional moments whenever he is thinking back on his sister, or a scene early on when he happens to watch Eichmann spending a warm moment with a small boy, and enjoying family life.  The movie could have used more moments like this, as they're the only time it truly comes to life.

The real emotional punch of the film comes during the final moments, when we see archival footage of Eichmann's trial, which was televised.  All this did was make me wish I was watching a documentary on the subject, rather than the lifeless two hour dramatization I had just witnessed.

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