Reel Opinions

Friday, November 16, 2018

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

I have a feeling that Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald will divide all but the most hardcore of Harry Potter fanatics.  I also have a feeling that this was the intention of author and screenwriter, J.K. Rowling.  In the past with her stories, she has shown a deft hand at mixing fantastic spectacle, warm and witty humor, and serious subject matter into grand stories.  But this time around, she's so fixated on world building and diving head-first into her increasingly convoluted narrative of her prequel story, that she kind of forgets about everything else.

There is obviously an audience out there who want to know everything about Rowling's fantasy world, and they will no doubt devour and analyze every story thread this movie throws at them.  But for me, as a somewhat casual fan (a somewhat casual fan who spent way too much money to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 and 2 on Broadway next month, mind you), it got to be a bit much.  The plot, which often plays out like fantasy soap opera, is so dense that it pretty much eclipses everything else in the movie.  There is little time for spectacle, joy, wonder, or even for the titular Fantastic Beasts, who seem to be making mere cameos in their own namesake movie.  Instead, too much time is devoted to having the actors stand around, trying to explain what's going on.  Like I said, there is an audience for this, and you already know what you think.  There are some moments that work here, but they are surrounded by lengthy segments where Rowling seems to be trying to cram too much into her own narrative.

Like a lot of prequels, the movie revels in connecting this story to the earlier films.  We go to Hogwarts to meet a young Albus Dumbledore (played here by Jude Law), we see a few familiar creatures and hear some famous names, and there are callbacks a plenty.  When watching a prequel, I often wonder why filmmakers bend over backwards to connect these stories set earlier in the timeline to the original franchise.  Not everything and everyone needs a backstory.  What's wrong with just creating a new stand-alone story in the same world?  Regardless, just like before, our guide through this world (set in the late 1920s) is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, more mannered and low key than ever before), a wizard who does not want to choose sides in an upcoming war, but would rather travel the world, collecting and studying the magical beasts that inhabit it.  The scenes where Newt is with his creatures are some of the best in the film, but they are not the focus this time.  Rather, the central focus is on villain Gellert Grindelwald, who was introduced near the end of the last movie, and pretty much drives the plot this time around.

Played by Johnny Depp with ice-white hair and a menacing soft-spoken manner, the film opens with Gellert's daring prison escape, which is one of the few sequences in the movie that is truly thrilling and full of spectacle.  Now free, he wants to gather up all the pureblood wizards from all over the world, and start a war with the non-magics.  His ultimate goal is to conquer both the world of magic and the everyday world.  Newt is tasked by Dumbledore to track Grindelwald down before he can gather an army of followers and begin his conquest.  Unfortunately, it's not that simple.  During his mission, Newt must deal with the fact that he has been banned from traveling due to events that happened in New York in the last film, so he has to find a way to travel undetected.  He also reunites with Tina (Katherine Waterston), also from the last movie, and tries to rekindle a romance with her.

Speaking of romance, there's a lot of subplots concerning couples this time around.  We have Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), Newt's classmate from Hogwarts, who is involved with Newt's brother Theseus (Callum Turner).  It turns out Theseus is on the Ministry of Magic, and is one of those people who wants Newt to choose a side when it comes to the upcoming war.  There is also Tina's ditzy sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), who is still involved with Muggle Jacob (Dan Fogler).  Queenie and Jacob pretty much exist for rare moments of comic relief when needed, and honestly, the movie could have used a bit more, as the tone of the film is very grim, dour, and lovelorn.  All this, and I have not mentioned Credence Barebone (Erza Miller), who is seeking his identity, and who is being tracked down by Grindlewald, because he is supposedly a key element to his plans for conquests. 

Again, I'm sure all of this will be thrilling to certain people, but as The Crimes of Grindelwald bounced these various plots, characters, relationships, and multiple settings (usually London and Paris), I found it harder to care much about what was going on, and who wanted to hook up with whom, and who was doing what or looking for what or who.  This is simply an overstuffed movie that could have benefited from some simplicity, and a lot more spectacle that would help us feel transported into the film's world.  It's surprising, because it's not like the people behind these films are stranger to the franchise or the world.  The film's director is David Yates, and this is his sixth time working with the Harry Potter universe.  He's shown a deft hand at mixing plot and adventure before, but there's just a very slow atmosphere here that makes this more of a slog than an adventure.  And yet, there are some moments here that capture the greatness and fun of earlier films, my favorite being a sequence where a circus packs itself up when it's time to move onto another city.  And when the Fantastic Beasts do show up, they're as much fun as they were before.  They just are given less importance and less to do.

I think the problem here is that Rowling is treating this film series like a novel, and is trying to cram so much plot and information that it simply overwhelms.  It doesn't help that Redmayne is not exactly a hero driven by personality, and he frequently mumbles his lines here.  There's still things to enjoy here, but this entry felt like a little bit more of a chore to sit through than previous films.  I can only hope any future films employ a bit more of a lighter touch when it comes to plotting and fitting everything together, though I have my doubts.


Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Girl in the Spider's Web

A long seven years after David Fincher and star Rooney Mara made their Hollywood adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we get the follow up that I don't think audiences were exactly clamoring for.  If they were, they probably won't be hungry for more after they see The Girl in the Spider's Web, a thriller so devoid of feeling, the tone is ice-cold.  That's not to say the film is brutal or hard to watch.  It's just that it leaves absolutely no impression whatsoever, and the stars have zero chemistry up on the screen.

This film, based on the novel by David Lagercrantz (who took over the series of books after the original author, Stieg Larsson, died in 2004), features stock action, a plot that is almost impossible to care about, and a weak interpretation of the series heroine, Lizbeth Salander.  Played in other films by Mara and Noomi Rapace (in the original Swedish language films), this time around we have Claire Foy, who puts on a shaky accent, and just never quite captures the hard edge and sexuality of the character like previous performers.  She simply never grabs your attention whenever she's on the screen.  Sure, she looks the part with her spiky black hair and pitch black leather attire, but she fails to command the screen with her performance, nor does she ever generate any connection with any of her co-stars.  We don't feel for her, because her performance gives us nothing to feel about.

Lizbeth now pretty much comes across as your generic angry butt-kicking woman, who is all attitude and no personality.  As the film opens, she has become a vigilante, striking out against men who hurt women.  The first time we see her, she breaks into the apartment of a powerful businessman who has just beaten his wife, strings him up, tasers him, and then transfers all of his money to his battered wife, who runs off with their kid.  This might have been powerful if Foy had been allowed any sort of emotion during the scene, even anger or perhaps a sense of satisfaction about what she was doing.  When she's not righting the wrongs of evil men, she's hacking the Internet.  She is approached by a recently-fired employee of the National Security Agency (Stephen Merchant), who developed a computer program called FireFall, which can access the world's nuclear weapon codes.  He's now having second thoughts about having developed such a program, and he wants Lizbeth to steal it.

What follows is a pretty standard plot, about a bunch of people who want the program for different reasons, and Lizbeth has to stay ahead of everybody, not knowing who she can trust.  There's a NSA Agent (Lakeith Stanfield from Sorry to Bother You) who is trying to track down who stole the program, as well as some Russian thugs, one of whom has a spider tattoo on his face that turns out to have a personal connection to Lizbeth's past.  There's a mysterious woman (Sylvia Hoeks) dressed all in red who keeps on turning up, and she wants the program too.  Also worked into the story is Mikhail Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), a reporter who has been Lizbeth's long time friend and partner in her adventures.  This time, he mostly stays on the sidelines, which is probably for the best, as Foy and Gudnason have all the chemistry of a hunk of wood during their scenes together.

The Girl in the Spider's Web simply seems to lack any reason for existing.  Gone is the visual style and the harsh brutality of David Fincher's vision from back in 2011.  Instead, director Fede Alvarez (who made the infinitely better thriller, Don't Breathe, a few years ago) gives us a visually drab winter landscape of grays, blacks and blues that fails to leave any impression on the viewer.  There are no moments of action where the audience catches their breath, no surprises in the narrative itself, and simply no reason for us to care about anything that's going on up on the screen.  The plot is so standard and convoluted, it could have come from any half-baked espionage thriller.  There's simply no identity to be found here.  Combine all of this with the strangely indifferent performances, and you have a movie that simply did not need to be made.

I can only picture the most devoted fan of the series getting something out of this, and even then, I doubt they will get much of anything at all.  If you are someone who has been waiting all this time for Lizbeth Salander to return to the big screen, I apologize.  You deserve better than this.  And judging by what's on display here, you probably won't be seeing her in another movie for quite a long time.


The Grinch

Let's kick this off with the one question you're probably wondering - Is this animated take on The Grinch better than the live action Jim Carrey film Ron Howard gave us 18 years ago?  The answer is a resounding yes.  While it's still no replacement for the original book, or the Chuck Jones TV special (still the best adaptation), this movie has the heart and the warmth that Howard's version lacked.  In all honestly, if the TV networks were to remove the 2000 movie from their holiday playlist, and put this on regular seasonal rotation, I don't think I would mind.

Right off the bat, this is a kinder and gentler film than Howard's.  Gone is the inappropriately crude humor, the sexual innuendo, and the Whos are no longer depicted as greedy and materialistic creeps, played by actors whose faces are hidden by bizarre make up and rat-like noses. (I still have no idea what the filmmakers were thinking on that one.) Instead, the team at Illumination Studios have given us an appropriately Seuss-like design to all the characters and settings, backed up with a warm and inviting Christmas environment of snow and comforting colors.  That's another problem I always had with the 2000 film.  The "festive" reds and greens that graced that movie looked garish and sickly, instead of joyous.  Here, everything is much softer and pleasant to look at.  It's no technical marvel, but when you stop and think about it, Dr. Seuss doesn't need to be state of the art.  It just needs to get the heart of the story across, and that's what this movie does.

If there is a downgrade to be found, it's in who they got to tell the story.  Instead of Boris Karloff in Jones' masterpiece, or Anthony Hopkins in Howard's film, we have recording artist Pharrell Williams doing the narration, and his voice just doesn't have the impact that the film needs.  He's soft spoken and pleasant, but there's just little life to his delivery.  Fortunately, in the role of the Grinch, we have Benedict Cumberbatch (sporting an American accent), and he works just fine.  He's cranky enough, but there's always a tiny hint of humanity when the need arises.  One of the smart choices that the screenplay by Micheal LeSieur (Keeping Up with the Joneses) and Tommy Swerdlow makes is that it does not try to overly-humanize or explain its lead anti-hero.  In the live action film, we got a lengthy and unnecessary flashback to the Grinch's childhood that was supposed to make us feel sorry for him.  This movie keeps its information to the minimum.  We see brief glimpses of the Grinch growing up alone in an orphanage, and being sad around Christmas, and the movie pretty much leaves it at that.  If we need a backstory to the Grinch (and we really don't), at least the writers are smart enough to just touch on it and be done, rather than stopping the entire movie.

Just as always, the Grinch lives atop a mountain with only his dog Max for company, and looks down at the people of Whoville with hatred as they prepare for their holiday festivities.  When he realizes that their Christmas celebration is going to be bigger than ever this year, he figures that the only solution is to stop Christmas from coming by dressing up as Santa Claus, going to the town down below, and stealing all their presents, food and decorations while they sleep on Christmas Eve.  Not much has been changed or added to the main story, other than the fact that for a short while, the Grinch gains the services of a morbidly obese reindeer named Fred to help out in his scheme.  No, the movie didn't really need Fred, but at least the filmmakers were smart enough not to have him talk.  Meanwhile, down in Whoville, little Cindy Lou Who (voiced by the likable Cameron Seely from The Greatest Showman) is making a holiday plan of her own.  She wants to be the first kid ever to stay awake long enough to see the arrival of Santa, because she has one special Christmas wish, one that is not for herself, but rather for loving and overworked mother (Rashida Jones).

The Grinch is a simple, lean movie, running just under 90 minutes and never outstaying its welcome.  It's colorful, kind of sweet, and has more than enough emotion and heart in its final moments to maybe make accompanying adults choke up a little.  It's full of good feeling, has a few laughs, and even manages to sneak in some classic Christmas music on its soundtrack.  The music score by Danny Elfman is also bright, and manages to capture the mood of the film quite well.  I also liked the gadgets that the Grinch uses on his big Christmas heist, which are largely impractical, but make sense existing in a Dr. Seuss universe.  This is one of those movies that won't stick in your mind long after it's done, but you certainly won't regret watching it.  I'm also sure it will make for something pleasant to have on the TV during the holidays.

Best of all, unlike the 2000 movie, this Grinch won't make parents feel uncomfortable occasionally should they watch it with their kids.  This may not be a great animated film, but it understands the story that it's trying to tell, and it's entertaining and kind of innocent in a way that most family films are not.  Did we need this movie?  Not really.  But I'm still glad it's here.


Friday, November 09, 2018


Like a lot of thrillers, Overlord is much better in its setup than it is when it is giving us answers or a payoff to it all.  However, the setup here is so good and engrossing, it doesn't matter if the movie kind of flies off the rails in the last half hour or so.  This is a surprisingly effective mix of an old fashioned World War II B-Movie, and a body horror film.  Even if the climactic moments don't quite live up to the promise of most of the film, I still found myself much more involved here than the recent Halloween from a few weeks ago.

The movie wastes no time throwing us into the thick of battle as Allied ships are sailing Normandy while fighter planes hover overhead.  On board one of the planes is our hero, Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo), a soldier who was drafted only three months ago, and is already in the thick of combat.  The platoon on board the plane are to parachute into France, find a small village that has become a German stronghold, and destroy a communication tower so that the boats below can storm the beach.  The plane is savagely attacked by enemy fire, wiping out part of the team before the mission can even begin.  Alongside Boyce, the main survivors are a demolitions expert with a mysterious past (Wyatt Russell), and a Brooklyn-accented soldier (John Magaro).  The survivors manage to make it to the town, where they meet a woman named Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), who hates the Germans occupying her village, and offers to hide them in her attic while they figure out what to do.

It is at this point that the movie starts to add a subtle supernatural horror bent.  Chloe claims that she is caring for her sick Aunt, whose violent coughing and gasping breaths can be heard from behind a barely cracked-open bedroom door.  When Boyce happens to catch a glimpse of what's inside the room, it does not appear human.  For reasons I will not reveal here, the men are almost discovered by some Nazi soldiers, and Boyce must make his way to the local church, which is serving as the German base in the town.  Inside the church, Boyce discovers a passageway underground that leads to a vast lab where a scientist and his cronies are experimenting on local villagers.  This entire sequence is easily the best in the film, and the less said about what Boyce discovers, the better.  From this point on, Overlord tows the line between a war drama, and a horror film about man tampering with human nature, and creating something unspeakable.

This is a movie that does such a good job of creating genuine tension and dread, both in its war scenarios and the secrets that Boyce discovers in that basement lab, that it's somewhat of a letdown that the last half hour or so turns into an over the top action cartoon, with non-stop fighting and explosions.  You want the movie to go back to the more unsettling and mysterious tone that it had been creating so beautifully for a majority of its running time.  Regardless, on the whole, what works here is so good, the movie is worth seeing.  Before everything goes off the rails, and before that completely inappropriate rap song that plays over the end credits, this is kind of an ingeniously crafted thriller.  From the very opening scene, showcasing an intense air battle, this is a movie that knows how to draw you in.  As a war movie, this isn't a great one (the characters are a bit thin), but the way that the movie quietly turns up the tension, and constantly keeps its heroes in a sense of danger is highly effective.

Even when Overlord starts to dip into Sci-Fi horror, it still knows how to keep us invested.  We see sights that are singularly shocking, but also kind of intriguing, because we want to know where the story is going to take these elements, and how far.  I found myself really invested, and the way that the movie plays with the audience, and slowly introduces this element works surprisingly well with the real world war scenario.  The way the movie balances both the gritty and realistic, and the gritty and fantastic, makes sense.  It's only in the third act that the movie goes too far into the horror genre, almost to the point of camp.  It is disappointing.  Was this silly climax insisted on by the studio, or was it in the script from the beginning?  I may never know.  What I do know is that this movie resembles something that is so good for most of its running time, and then loses its nerve.

I'm recommending this on the strength of everything that comes before the third act.  It's not exactly a smart or deep thriller, but it's amazingly effective, and creates a genuine sense of dread, leaving you fearing for the people in the movie, and what's going to happen to them.  I can't say I'm not a little disappointed with the outcome, but to skip this because of a poor last half would be a mistake.  There's a lot to like here, and even if it doesn't nail the landing, it has one hell of a take off.


Sunday, November 04, 2018

Nobody's Fool

Just last month, I saw Night School, a movie that wasted the improvisational talents of its star, Tiffany Haddish.  Now we have Nobody's Fool, a movie that gives Haddish too much of an excuse to improvise.  Her role in this movie is to basically walk into a scene, and start commenting on everything and everyone around her, while making numerous obscene jokes about dirty sex and drugs as much as possible.  This is what happens when you take a talented comic actress, and don't give her any restraints.  She clearly was allowed to throw away the script and just do whatever she wanted, and her performance (and the movie in general) suffers.

Haddish does not even play the main character in the film, but she steamrolls her way through every scene, so that we can't focus on anything else but her.  I don't really blame her, as I think she was just doing what the director, Tyler Perry (yes, the man behind the Madea movies), wanted.  Perry has never been known for being a director with restraint, or much common sense.  His films are frequently sloppily edited, and go in too many directions, as is the case here.  Here, he is trying to leave his comfort zone, and give his fans a different kind of film than he usually makes.  He's trying to make a racy, raunchy hard-R romantic comedy that goes for broke.  Here, he goes for broke, and gets there.  He is trying too hard to shock his audience with a lot of overly frank talk about sexual acts.  But he never gets any real laughs.  He thinks having his characters talking about dirty sex alone is funny.  A better comedy would think of funny things to say about dirty sex, instead of just referencing it constantly.  And rather than going for a real joke or punchline, he simply unleashes Haddish in a fury of frenzied improvisation. 

The plot follows Danica (Tika Sumpter), a buttoned-down woman who is living the good life with a beautiful big city apartment, and a huge promotion on the way at her job at a marketing company.  For the past year, Danica has been dating a guy named Charlie (Mehcad Brooks) on line.  She has never met him in person or seen his face, as he claims that he works on an oil rig, and that he has terrible wi-fi.  They audio chat often, and he has a smooth, sexy voice, but he just doesn't have the video connection.  Regardless, Danica is madly in love, and hopes to build a life with him.  Then her life goes out of balance when her sister Tanya (Haddish) is released from prison after five years, and needs a place to crash and find a job, since their pot-smoking mother (Whoopi Goldberg) doesn't trust Tanya.  Naturally, the two sisters are as different as can be.  Danica is quiet, calm and focused on success, while Tanya is compulsive, obsessed with sex, and outspoken.  Unfortunately, thanks to Perry's undercooked screenplay, we never really get a real relationship or bond between the two sisters, or to their mother, as Goldberg (who can be amusing in her few scenes) is underused.

Here, the plot starts to spin off in multiple directions, never really picking a tone or style.  In one plot, Tanya is suspicious of this Charlie that her sister is dating, so she hires the MTV show Catfish to investigate him.  At this point, the movie kind of turns into a bizarre extended episode of the television show, with the actual hosts teaming up with Tanya to track Charlie down.  This seems odd at first, but then you realize that MTV is owned by Viacom, who also owns Paramount Studios, who released this movie.  Another plot is centered on Frank (Omari Hardwick), the guy who runs the local coffee shop, and obviously is attracted to Danica.  He's kind, supportive, and has the kind of body usually reserved for male models in magazines.  Danica likes him too, but she wants to stay loyal to Charlie.  Also, she finds out that Frank has a criminal past, and so she shuns him, because she wants a "decent guy" that she can trust.

The whole stuff with Danica and Frank being attracted to each other, but Danica being unsure if she can trust him, is played up for drama, but it's the kind of cartoonish and simplistic drama that Perry specializes in.  Rather than genuine character development, we get Danica acting like an indecisive idiot, who is constantly hurting Frank or being cruel to him, yet somehow the dope stays with her.  And we're supposed to be happy for them when they are together.  All I could think is that Danica comes across as a terrible person most of the time.  The movie also falls back on a lot of contrived situations.  There are so many scenes where Frank happens to overhear Danica saying something not that nice about him that it starts to almost become a running gag.  The thing is, both Sumpter and Hardwick are good together, and do create some romantic chemistry.  But the way the characters have been written by Perry is so simple-minded, we end up liking them only for the performances, and not for who they are.

Nobody's Fool also never quite figures out what it wants to be.  Is it a romantic soap opera, or an over the top raunchy comedy?  The movie wants it both ways, and never finds the right balance.  The first time we see Haddish's character, she's having rough, dirty sex with a crackhead in the backseat of a van in the prison parking lot.  It sets a coarse and racy tone, which the movie employs from time to time, but then it will switch gears and want to be a tender and sweet love story.  It gets to the point that the two sisters seem to be existing in their own individual movie, and neither one of them are worth watching.  Haddish just walks through the movie, making off-color jokes, and treats the whole thing like a stand up routine that's flown off the rails.  Sumpter, meanwhile, is doing what she can, but the script never gets a handle on her, and forces her to make a lot of bad decisions, making it hard to get behind the character. 

So, even though this movie serves as somewhat of a departure for writer-director Tyler Perry, he still seems attached to his usual bag of tricks of forced melodrama and confused tones.  Despite a somewhat dirtier mind than usual, this is just the same old routine from Perry.


Saturday, November 03, 2018

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Can we all just be honest with ourselves, and admit that there will never be a successful filmed version of The Nutcracker?  I simply don't think the story lends itself to the cinema all that well.  Granted, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms makes an admirable effort.  It's beautiful to watch at times, and there are quite a few gorgeous costumes on display.  But the story is loopy, and it's just not that much fun to watch, other than a few curious moments that kind of stick out like a sore thumb from the rest of the film.

I have seen the story of The Nutcracker interpreted numerous ways.  I've seen the ballet performed live twice on two different school field trips growing up, I've seen a filmed version of the ballet with Macaulay Culkin, I've seen numerous animated versions, and I've even seen one that managed to squeeze in Nathan Lane playing Albert Einstein, and an army of evil mice depicted like Nazis. (And that was a thing, let me tell you.) Now, here is this movie, which treats the story as a fantasy spectacle about war, betrayal and friendship.  It's not that I don't think this idea could work, it's just that the film itself feels rather scattered.  If you look into the behind the scenes story, you can kind of see why.  The film has two credited directors, Lasse Hallstrom (A Dog's Purpose) and Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger).  Apparently, Hallstrom was initially the sole director, and Johnston was brought on for extensive reshoots, and to add more special effects and action to the film.  So, that explains why the movie at times feels like a quiet fantasy, and at other moments a bloated CG spectacle.  The pieces that make up the narrative don't mesh, and the movie feels somewhat truncated, as if there was a lot of ideas left on the editing room floor.

The film kicks off by introducing us to its heroine Clara (Mackenzie Foy), an inventive young girl who likes to hang out in the attic of her house and work on little mechanical creations.  She spends a lot of time in the world of invention and dreams as a way to cope with the recent loss of her mother.  Her grieving and eternally glum-faced father (Matthew Mcfadyen) pulls her back to reality when he makes her attend the Christmas party of her godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman, cashing a paycheck in a role that is essentially a glorified cameo).  At the party, Clara hopes that Drosselmeyer can explain a gift that her late mother left behind for her - a mysterious golden jewel egg that can only be opened with a key that she cannot find.  All that accompanied the gift was a note stating that it contained everything Clara would ever need in life.  Drosselmeyer cannot help her find the key, but later, Clara finds a mysterious golden string that leads her down a dark and forgotten hallway within the house, and ends up in a fantasy world that is made out of four Realms that are close to being at war with one another.

Shortly after entering this strange, alternate world, she is befriended by a living nutcracker soldier named Phillip (likable newcomer Jayden Fowora-Knight), who informs Clara that her mother was once the Queen of this world, and everyone has been awaiting her return so that she can restore the Realms to peace.  Clara is officially now the Princess of the Four Realms, and Phillip sends her to an ornate castle to meet her followers and subjects, which include the ruler of the Flower Realm (Eugenio Derbez), the ruler of the Snow Realm (Richard E. Grant), and the Sugarplum Fairy (Keira Knightley).  The ruler of the fourth Realm is Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), who is the one causing all the trouble in this world, and is threatening to conquer the other realms with her army of mice.  In order to save her mother's world, Clara must lead an army to find the golden key that can open the jeweled egg in her possession, and supposedly can also save the four Realms from destruction.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms has been beautifully visualized, but the plotting and writing by Ashleigh Powell never quite comes together.  There are a number of sequences throughout the film that simply don't thrill like they're supposed to.  One example includes a scene where Clara and Phillip must do battle with a swarm of mice that join together to form one giant mouse.  It's a neat effect, but it doesn't have any tension or wonder, so it basically becomes a very expensive tech demo.  There is also just a lack of weight to the entire enterprise.  There are no high stakes, and no sense that Clara and her friends are ever in any real danger.  Not even a third act twist can add much to the plot.  I admired how it tried to take the story in a new direction, but it just doesn't excite like it should.  It simply leads to more mundane and underwhelming "thrills".

This is simply an odd movie that just doesn't work like it should.  Clearly an effort is being made, but it never manages to create a worthwhile experience.  Of the actors, many are likeable, but they just don't do much to stand out.  The sole exception is Keira Knightley, who seems to be relishing playing the Sugarplum Fairy in a manner that is kind of girly with an insane edge to it.  At times, she almost seems to be channeling the performance of Carol Kane playing the fairy-like Ghost of Christmas Present in 1988's Bill Murray comedy, Scrooged.  There's a bit of an unhinged air to her performance, and I liked the little touches, such as how at one moment she can't help but grab off a piece of her cotton candy-like hair and eat it.  I have a feeling if the rest of the movie had her kind of manic or fun energy, it might have worked out a little better.

There is some imagination on display here, but unfortunately it all went into the visuals, and not into the storytelling, which is trite and dull.  There are some nice images, a beautifully choreographed dance sequence or two, a lot of wasted potential, and an overall sense of what were they thinking when they were dreaming this up.


Friday, November 02, 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody

What we have here is a paint by numbers movie that is lifted solely by the extraordinary performance of Rami Malek as Freddy Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, as well as the incredible energy and recreation of the music and concert scenes.  Everything outside of these two elements is uninspiring, safe, and at times uninformed, as the narrative gets a lot of details wrong in the third act when it comes to telling the story of the legendary rock group.  I understand that some narrative changes are always necessary in a biopic, but Bohemian Rhapsody goes almost to the point of revisionist history at times.

A perfect example of this comes during a scene late in the film, where Freddy decides that he needs to move on to a solo career, and is going to break up the band.  The thing is that this never happened.  Yes, Freddy Mercury did move on to a solo career, but the band Queen never truly ended as this movie would want us to believe.  It also tells us that his fellow bandmates including lead guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and bassist John Deacon (former child star Joseph Mazzello) were angered by the news that Freddy was embarking on a solo career, when in fact some of them had participated in solo projects before Freddy did.  The movie is just creating melodrama, and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour) is staying slavishly faithful to the traditional "rise and fall" plotline that is as old as the hills, where the main character gets an inflated ego after years of success, shuns his friends, and destroys his life until he is forced to come crawling back and reconcile with the people he hurt or misused. 

The thing is, Queen's story does not need these kind of traditional elements.  For a band that was constantly changing the rules and creating some of the most memorable music ever created, the fact that this film feels so overly conventional and undernourished whenever the actors are not on stage or in the recording studio is frustrating.  There were some well-publicized behind the scenes turmoil during the film's production, mostly surrounding the film's credited director, Bryan Singer, who was fired at some point due to difficult behavior on the set, and so Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle) was called in to do some uncredited work to finish the film.  But does the production problems explain the film's bizarre stance toward the fact that Mercury was bisexual, and seems to look down upon this, and almost shame him for being in love with men?  That's a much harder thing to ignore.

After a brief intro sequence set at Queen's legendary performance at Live Aid in 1985 (this also closes the film), the movie dives head-first into Mercury's life story told at fast-forward, and with little connecting tissue that allows us to grasp the impact of the individual moments.  This is another one of those movies that tells the life of a famous person by cherry-picking certain moments, and telling it in the manner of "This happened...then this happened...then this happened..." with no substance in-between.  We first meet Freddy as an awkward young man handling the luggage at an airport, and not being able to truly connect or communicate with his father. (A plot point that is brought up once in a while, but goes absolutely nowhere.) He goes to a bar where he sees a band perform, and then goes to talk to them after the show.  As fate would have it, they just lost their lead singer to another group, and Freddy immediately gets the gig.  A couple scenes later, and Freddy is performing live for the first time, and wowing the crowd with his energy and enthusiasm.  A couple more scenes later, and the band is called Queen, being courted by record producers, being put on TV, and is soon traveling the world.

Although we see brief glimpses into the creation of some of their most famous songs, Bohemian Rhapsody never truly lets us into the creative process.  We also never truly get a look at what Mercury and his bandmates think of each other, or their personal relationships.  What we do get is the sense that the movie is trying to tell us that the rest of the band looked down on Freddy's lifestyle of being gay.  The movie depicts them as happy family men who just don't understand or support Freddy's choice.  The movie treats the band with such a cursory indifference, we actually at times wonder just who these people are who are playing with Freddy.  Equally ignored is the character of Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), who supports and marries Freddy, and then leaves him when she finds out he's gay in a scene that lacks any sort of the emotional power it should have.  Mary was such an important figure in Freddy's life, and remained a dear friend right up to his death in 1991.  But in this film, she simply fades in and out of his life, existing only to shake her head with dismay as she sees her former husband falling into sin, and then smiling from the sidelines as she watches him perform at Live Aid.

It's become an unfortunate trend that a lot of biopics about famous musicians completely lose what made the artist so interesting, and simply insert them into a generic formula picture.  I was often reminded of last year's All Eyez on Me, the film that took the life of rapper Tupac Shakur, and turned it into an uninspired Hollywood retread that had all the complexity of a Wikipedia article.  I named that film one of the worst of 2017, and while this is a better movie, it shares a lot of the same problems.  It offers us no insights into the subject matter, and does nothing but regurgitate facts that anyone could easily look up on line.  Combine that with the fact that the movie makes up quite a few facts in the last half of the film, and it loses all reason for existing, except for the fact that the musical and concert sequences are downright brilliant.  Also troublesome is the way the film depicts Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), Freddy's gay lover.  The movie presents Paul as a villain, and almost makes it seem like Freddy had no thoughts of gay sex until Paul led him down the path.  From that point on, he is seen constantly manipulating, and shutting Freddy away from the other people in his life.  The movie never once shows the attraction between the two men, or what they meant to each other.  He simply exists as a controlling, sinful evil-doer.

Bohemian Rhapsody almost seems to suggest that it was Freddy's sexual preference that led to his downfall in his career, and ultimately his life.  Rather than focus on the man and the music, the movie is content to twist and contort the facts in order to fit a structured Hollywood narrative.  This, and other questionable decisions (including a truly groan-inducing meta appearance by comedian Mike Myers of Wayne's World fame as a music executive who hates the Bohemian Rhapsody song) overwhelms the aspects of the film that do work, such as Malek's portrayal of Mercury, which is nearly flawless.  Even though he is not actually singing the songs, his performance is so good, you never question that he is Mercury up there on the stage.  For everything the movie gets right, it makes many staggeringly bad decisions, and ultimately winds up coming up empty.


Friday, October 26, 2018

Hunter Killer

Compared to some of Gerard Butler's recent attempts at thrillers (I'm looking at you, Geostorm!), Hunter Killer is at least watchable, and it contains some decent practical effects.  It's also bogged down in way too much plot, way too many characters that the movie doesn't bother to develop, and a ludicrous theme that oversimplifies the complex relations between the U.S. and Russia.   It wants so much to be a Tom Clancy-style thriller, and it would have succeeded if it had just trimmed away a lot of the excess that clogs up the narrative.

This is the kind of movie that introduces us to our hero, Joe Glass (Butler), as he is hunting in the Scotland woods.  He comes across a deer, and is about to kill it, when he notices it has a family following after it.  He puts down his bow, and lets the deer continue on its merry way.  Not only does this scene tell us that Joe has a heart of gold, but it's about the closest we get to character development for him in the film's two hour run time.  Joe is then called upon to take command of the USS Arkansas submarine, and to investigate a recent incident where a Russian sub sunk an American vessel after it was believed the Americans fired upon them.  Or did they?  Joe is put in charge of a team of faceless young extras who speak only in military movie cliches.  They have studied their jobs well, and can say lines like "Brace for impact!" and "Fire the torpedoes!" with total ease. 

They find the wrecked sub, but something is suspicious.  The hole in the side of the ship did not come from an outside torpedo, it was blown up from the inside.  Joe suspects sabotage.  At that same moment, over in Russia, we meet the Russian President Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko), who is betrayed by his scheming Defense Minister Dmitri Durov (Michael Gor, playing the role as if he were playing a Bond Villain).  Dimitri wants to ignite war between the U.S. and Russia, and is trying to stir up hostility and confusion on both sides.  As a matter of fact, at that same moment over in Washington D.C., we find Adm. Donnegan (Gary Oldman, in one of his paycheck cashing roles) trying to convince the President that they should strike at Russia.  However, the much cooler-headed Rear Adm. John Fisk (Common) and NSA senior analyst Jayne Norquist (an underused Linda Cardellini) think something doesn't smell right, and want to send some ground troops into Russia in order to investigate.

This leads us right into the third plot of the movie, where some Navy SEALS are dropped intro Russia, and tasked with the mission to rescue President Zakarin, who is being held captive by the evil Dimitri.  The SEALS do a lot of heroics, get in many shootouts, and try to get the President to Joe's sub, which is going to transport them to safety.  And while all this is going on, Joe discovers that there are actually some Russian survivors on that sunken sub, brings them aboard, and then gives the Russian Captain (the late Michael Nyqvist) full access to the sub and its systems.  Joe's crew is against this idea, but Joe knows in his gut that he is right, because he and the Russian Captain are both in charge of submarines, and are therefore "brothers".  You figure it out.  Actually, Joe seems to react almost entirely on hunches throughout the entire mission, and seems to get by largely on luck.

Hunter Killer is overloaded with too many military movie cliches, both on the sea and on the ground.  The scenes on the sub at least have some tension (there's a moment where the sub has to make its way through a sea of mines that is actually quite well done) and some very good effects.  The stuff concerning the SEALS and the rescue of the Russian President, however, are the kind of third rate stuff we've seen many times before, where the heroes never miss, and the villains only score a hit when the script says they can.  It also has a share of clunky, overly-scripted lines that the cast don't know how to make sound natural.  Ir ranges from the overly dramatic ("You've doomed us all!") to the just plane awkward. ("I'll see you court martialed for this!"  "Then it's my job to keep you alive so you can!")

This is a perfectly watchable and standard movie that is just overstuffed and filled with too much familiar dialogue spoken by characters we know next to nothing about.  We can admire the craft of the film, and a couple tense moments, but in the end, it never builds to anything all that special.  Like too many movies I've seen lately, it's okay for what it is, but I doubt I'll remember much of anything about it come the end of the year.


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