Reel Opinions


Saturday, May 18, 2019

A Dog's Journey

A Dog's Journey is basically pure audience manipulation, and it never once apologizes for it.  But you know what?  Sometimes I can enjoy that.  I am not made of stone.  Yes, this movie can easily be derided for being sappy and cornball.  But, it must be said that it is effective.  I smiled a number of times, I was touched during certain moments, and even though I knew the movie was bending over backwards to make me fall in love with it, I found myself unable to resist. 

The movie is a follow up to 2017's A Dog's Purpose, and should not be confused with A Dog's Way Home from back in January.  All of these films (including this one) are based on novels by W. Bruce Cameron.  The difference is that Purpose and this one are directly connected, whereas Way Home was an unrelated spin off.  What the stories do have in common is that they are told from the point of view of a dog.  In a book, I can see this working, but in a movie, this means we get an unnecessary and unwanted voice over narration, where a celebrity reads their lines in a cheerful and somewhat cloying voice whenever the dog is on the camera.  Just like in A Dog's Purpose, Josh Gad provides the dog's voice over, and he relentlessly comments on everything from a dog's perspective, saying things like, "I don't like cats" or "I wish this bed was made of bacon".  His narration is often obtrusive, and the movie would be better off without it.

Regardless, here is Gad back once more as the voice of Bailey, a dog who has lived many lives as many different kinds of canines.  Every time he dies, he is reborn as a puppy in a completely different life.  In the first movie, Bailey went through various lives trying to find his purpose, which he eventually learned was to be by the side and look after his original human owner, Ethan (Dennis Quaid, back to playing a nice guy, after an unwise detour into playing an over the top psycho in The Intruder).  As A Dog's Journey opens, Bailey is content living on Ethan's farm, hanging out with his favorite human, and eating freshly dropped food from the table.  However, these is tension in the family home.  Ethan's depressed and hard-drinking daughter-in-law Gloria (Betty Gilpin) decides to take her toddler daughter C.J. away from the child's grandparents after an argument.  Not long after, Bailey grows ill and has to be put to sleep.  Before he dies, Ethan tells the dog to find C.J. and look after her, just like he has been looking after him all this time.

Bailey is once again reborn as a playful beagle named Molly (Gad still provides the voice over for the female dog), and sure enough, a now 11-year-old C.J. (Abby Ryder Fortson) finds and adopts her.  By this point in her life, C.J. is a kind and wise for her years kid who has had to pretty much take care of herself, as mom Gloria is never seen without an alcoholic drink in hand, and is staying out all night with different men.  The remainder of the film follows Bailey through various lives, each one spent tracking down and spending time with C.J., as she eventually grows into a young woman (Kathryn Prescott) who walks dogs for a living, but dreams of performing her own music.  We follow C.J.'s hardships, struggles and successes, all the while Josh Gad keeps on chiming in unnecessarily on the soundtrack, while I kept on wishing that the filmmakers had enough faith in the audience to just let the story play out.

By all accounts, A Dog's Journey is a very odd movie.  It's primarily a cute dog movie, built around jokes about sniffing butts and eating messes left on the carpet.  But, it also is a surprisingly sad and kind of downbeat movie, with its various plots centered on child neglect/abandonment, psycho ex-boyfriends, and even cancer.  All of these serious subjects are seen through the child-like eyes of Bailey, and it really shouldn't work.  And yet, somehow it kind of does.  Director Gail Mancuso, a veteran of TV sitcoms making her feature debut, is surprisingly adept at handling the emotional whiplash the screenplay is constantly forcing upon the audience.  Not so adept that I didn't notice it, but enough that I found myself still able to enjoy it.  I guess the movie is kind of skillful that way.  It's clearly messy and manipulative, but it also works in a weird way.

I think that's because there's enough human drama to carry the film through all of its odd tonal shifts.  I found myself liking and caring about C.J., mostly through the effective performance of Abby Ryder Fortson.  And even if I was not keen on Gad's voice over, the various dogs who portray Bailey in different lives are appropriately cute, and steal more than a few scenes.  As already stated, I am not made of stone.  You go to a movie like this expecting to see a sweet or funny dog, and it provides.  It also gives you some manipulative melodrama to go with it.  The movie is a blatant tearjerker, but it knows what it's doing.  If you don't want your emotions twisted in knots, don't see this movie.  But, I admit, sometimes it's fun to go to the movies for such a purpose.  It's not exactly expertly done, but it's skilled enough that you can still enjoy the experience.

Maybe this is one of those cases where a movie caught me in a good mood, but I honestly enjoyed A Dog's Journey more than I expected.  The movie is heavy-handed, sure, but I was able to go along with it.  Its the kind of movie where its flaws and manipulations are clearly evident, but you don't care, because the movie is still able to cast a certain kind of spell over its audience.

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The Sun is Also a Star

After the dreadful After, and the mediocre Five Feet Apart, it was kind of nice to have a teen romance film built around two likable leads who just enjoy each other's company, and spend the day together.  The Sun is Also a Star is not built around characters trying to keep the young lovers apart, or forced misunderstandings.  It's simply about two people, and sometimes that's enough.

Like all romance stories, this movie rises or falls solely on whether or not we want to see the couple at the center together by the end.  This film gives us two likable young actors, Yara Shahidi and Charles Melton, who I have not seen in many films, but wouldn't mind seeing again and soon.  They have a lot of warmth during their scenes together, and they individually give strong performances.  They play two Manhattan adolescents who fall in love during the course of a single day.  Natasha (Shahidi) is practical and science-minded.  Daniel (Melton) is the dreamer.  Both are immigrants, and are dealing with their own family situation.  His traditional South Korean family wants him to become a doctor, even though he would rather be a poet.  Her Jamaican family is set to be deported the very next day, after living in the U.S. for the past nine years, and she is fighting to keep her family in New York.

They meet by chance.  Actually, Daniel notices Natasha in a crowd of people at Grand Central Station, and becomes smitten by her.  He runs into her again, and happens to save her life when he prevents her from being hit by a reckless driver.  They spend the rest of the day (and the film itself) talking, which isn't so bad when you think about it.  Isn't that what young couples do in real life when they meet?  They don't get involved in idiotic subplots where jealous friends and ex-lovers try to break them up, nor do they walk away from each other after a simple misunderstanding, vowing never to see each other again.  Natasha and Daniel don't do these things either, thank goodness.  Instead, Daniel asks a simple question, "What if I told you I could make you fall in love with me by the end of the day".  Natasha is skeptical but intrigued.  She knows she doesn't have much time, and has to meet with her immigration lawyer (John Leguizamo) later that day.  But she agrees to spend at least one hour with him.

That hour turns into many more.  The more time they spend together, Natasha's defenses are torn down.  She doesn't forget what's going on in her life, though.  She knows there's a strong probability that she will have to leave the U.S. the very next day with her family.  But, he kind of helps her take her mind off of her worries.  There is a sweet chemistry between the lovers, and to the film itself, which is kind of wistful and romantic in a way that few modern day movies are.  It's sweet, but not sticky.  It's not exactly smart, but it's also not dumb.  Is can be a bit implausible at times, however, especially when the movie asks us to believe that Daniel and Natasha spent all night sleeping on the grass in a park, and wake up the next morning with their hair and faces clean and perfectly styled.  Regardless, it works as light, breezy entertainment for young teens, and director Ry Russo-Young manages to keep the film moving along at a brisk pace.

The Sun is Also a Star is kind of charming in its simplicity.  It's not a melodrama, nor does it drown itself in excess plot.  Its premise is pretty much set up in the first 15 minutes, and the remainder of the film is just letting us see that premise play out without any distractions.  I kind of admired how the movie was simply about these two people spending a day together, and talking about their lives.  Of course, none of this could have worked if the casting was just a little bit off.  Fortunately, both young actors are up to the challenge of creating people that we would actually want to see a movie about them walking around the city and talking.  Not only are they attractive, but they are able to create genuine chemistry, and make us feel for them.  They are both sincere, and make the material their own.

They also made me want to see a happy ending for them, so that alone is worth noting.  This isn't a particularly deep movie, and most of the stuff Natasha and Daniel talk about isn't innovative.  But, I enjoyed spending time with them, and when it was all over, I was happy with where their story had ended up.

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Friday, May 17, 2019

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum

With John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, the action franchise is starting to settle into a bit of a routine.  There are a lot of brutal and well choreographed fight scenes, there's a cute dog somewhere, and in the middle of it all, there's Keanu Reeves, who is oddly charismatic in an underplayed role as a hitman who kills probably around 200 faceless goons during the film's two hour-plus running time, but still seems to have a certain kind of humanity to him that makes him worth following throughout the series so far.

At this point, the series is starting to include standard elements, with the major difference being how the film itself is being executed compared to the previous entries.  For this installment, I would say that this is just as good as the earlier two films, but it just doesn't really do anything new.  It does build upon the film's world, which exists in kind of a comic book noir take on New York City.  It seems to be raining 90% of the time, and killers and assassins can have battles and brutal executions in the middle of Grand Central Station with no one blinking an eye.  You buy it here, because the movie draws you into its bizarre reality.  This is a series that has grown in scope and complexity over time, while still retaining the crucial elements that have been set since the beginning.  The first film had an almost comically genius premise of a retired assassin who goes out to kill the punks who murdered his dog when they broke into his home.  Since Chapter 2, however, the series has been adding more characters, more backstory, expanding the world, and creating a bizarre crime epic that is equal parts bonkers and brilliant.

Picking up where the last film left off, we have the titular contract killer (Keanu Reeves) having been made a marked man, and is now on the run from pretty much every assassin and killer in Manhattan, who seem to be crawling out of the woodwork to nab the $14 million bounty that's been placed on his head.  Along the way, he encounters as fellow assassin named Sofia (Halle Berry) whom he has a history with, and a mysterious figure known only as The Director (Anjelica Huston).  There are some old faces from the previous films as well, such as a crime boss known as the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), and hotel owner Winston (Ian McShane).  Really, the plot exists to set up the action scenes, which as per tradition with the series, are clean, well-edited, and incredibly graphic at times.  There were certain death scenes in the film that made my audience gasp and groan with discomfort at some of the violence on display. 

Still, the film should be commended.  These are some of the most brutal and elaborate fight scenes I have seen in a long time in a Hollywood film, and they definitely create tension and excitement.  Even though we know that John Wick will be okay in the end, the movie does definitely put him through the wringer.  Even though the goons he fights are clearly no match for him, they don't go down without a fight.  And I admire the filmmakers for letting their hero get so brutalized, instead of simply having him blow through mobs of bad guys effortlessly like so many recent action films do.  John Wick's life is incredibly painful, and the movie never lets us forget it for one second.  The action set pieces in this movie are not as elaborate as the ones seen in the recent Mission: Impossible films, but they carry a sense of danger and urgency that we just don't get in a lot of modern day action thrillers. 

John Wick: Chapter 3 carries on all the best traditions of its predecessors, so it's likely that if you found anything to enjoy about the earlier movies (as I did), you'll feel the same way about this (again, as I did).  However, there is some small cause for worry this time around.  I somewhat fear that the series might be going a bit too far out there as it carries on.  What started as a simple revenge story has grown into a massive and bizarre crime world that has an increasingly large cast of characters that have titles like the High Table, The Director, The Adjudicator, and so on.  I can imagine a future film in this series that goes too far over the edge, and loses the simplicity that has made things work.  I really hope they can try to keep this grounded in some kind of reality, even if it's a tiny bit, because I fear that in the future, this will just become an over the top kill-fest with none of the personality that I have come to enjoy.

For now, though, I am optimistic.  The movie carries on the well-worn tradition, and does so with a style and occasional humor that I found enjoyable.  Does the movie run a bit too long?  Probably.  But I am still invested in John and his world, and the action scenes probably are some of the best we will see this year.  My concerns lie solely with a vision that I can see the series going with time, and I hope it never comes to that.  Chapter 3 is more over the top than before, but it still knows what makes this series work, and it's largely a success.

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Sunday, May 12, 2019

Poms

Poms is the kind of gentle and innocuous entertainment that we have come to expect from Diane Keaton in recent years.  There's nothing wrong with that, and I have even admired some of her later work.  Plus, I'm sure it's hard to find really good scripts for an actress her age.  But this movie is a bit too gentle and innocuous for its own good.  It raises no stakes for the characters, offers little to nothing to get behind, and barely allows us to know the characters at the middle of it all.  I'm sure the movie was a lot of fun to make, but it's too bland to be much fun to watch.

Keaton plays Martha, a cancer patient who has decided to stop her treatments as the film opens, and live out her final years at a Georgia retirement community called Sun Springs.  Martha is not shy to admit her reasons for being there.  "I've come here to die", she flat out tells the welcoming committee when she arrives at Sun Springs.  She never married, never had kids, and has few friends in her life, so Martha sells off most of her possessions in an estate sale, and settles into a life of what she is certain will be quiet isolation.  That's until she meets her wacky and free-spirited new neighbor at the retirement community named Sheryl (Jacki Weaver).  She's the sort who likes to hold all night poker parties while playing loud music, and enjoys crashing funerals for the free food.  The two strike up an unlikely friendship quite quickly, and Sheryl eventually learns that at one point Martha was going to be on the high school cheerleader squad in her youth, but never got to perform, because her mom got sick and she had to devote all of her time to taking care of her.

Hanging around with Sheryl ignites a spark of life within Martha, who comes up with the idea of creating a cheerleader squad at the retirement community.  Apparently, this is a real life thing, as director Zara Hayes (a documentary filmmaker making her Hollywood debut) was inspired to make this film when she started coming across photos of retirees doing cheerleading routines.  Martha and Sheryl round up a diverse group of eight women from around the community to form their squad, and from there, the movie kind of loses all sense of storytelling, and turns into a bunch of scenes where the ladies work on their routine.  They're supposed to be bonding, but the movie tells us little to nothing about these ladies that make up the cheerleader team.  One of the ladies has a disapproving husband who won't let her try out for the team, but he immediately falls over and dies, so she joins.  That's all we learn about her.  Another lady has an overly protective and rude adult son who is worried that his mom will hurt herself, so he mostly keeps her locked up like a prisoner in her home.  But, since she never gets any real dialogue (either with her son, or the other ladies), we never really get to know her.

I'm afraid that this is the way Poms wants it.  It just wants to entertain us with the images of these old ladies performing these cheerleader routines, and slowly gaining confidence in themselves.  But the movie also has a confused tone.  It doesn't know if it wants the audience to laugh with these ladies when they're performing, or at them.  The elderly women are largely depicted as cartoon caricatures of retirement home citizens, so we can never see them as real people  That's a shame, because there's some big talent here as the women, including Rhea Perlman, Pam Grier and Phyllis Somerville.  None of them get a chance to stand out, and the cast of old ladies who are supposed to be rising above and proving they still have life in them kind of become one big faceless mob.  Only Keaton and Weaver are allowed to get some personal scenes, and they both are very good, obviously.  But the movie doesn't care enough about them for us to truly care.

There are also really no challenges for the ladies to face.  Sure, there are some people who stand in their way once in a while, like the crusty old senior citizens who don't like the fact that some of the members of the retirement community are trying to feel young again.  There's also some mean high school cheerleader girls who ridicule the old lades.  But, the teenage girls turn out not to be so bad at all.  Heck, one of them (a likable Alisha Boe) quits her team to help coach the old ladies.  The main struggle in the film has to do with the fact that Martha is slowly dying.  That storyline is treated more with sweet whimsy than sadness, and it kind of clashes with the broad and cartoon-like tone of the old ladies picking up cheerleading.  It creates a tonal problem that the film never quite overcomes, nor does it successfully resolve with its rather mawkish ending.

Poms is a wish fulfillment fantasy for the elderly that encourages them to go after their bucket list fantasies, no matter how out there they might seem.  That's kind of admirable, but the movie just never goes anywhere that's worth following.  It's harmless, and a few scenes are kind of sweet, but it's bound to be forgotten sooner rather than later.

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Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Hustle

You've most likely seen The Hustle before.  That's because this is the third time Hollywood has made the movie.  The first time was in 1964, with Marlon Brando and David Niven, and it was called Bedtime Story.  Then, in 1988, we got a remake with Steve Martin and Michael Caine called Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.  The 88 movie was pretty popular, and even inspired a successful Broadway musical, so technically this marks the fourth telling of the story.

Now we have this most recent version, which plays like old material being performed by actors who don't know how to make it work.  This is a labored comedy that slavishly recreates scenes from the earlier movies, only without the comedic timing and energy.  Just like before, the movie tells the story of two professional con artists who are competing with each other to seduce and steal from an ignorant tourist flashing around a lot of cash.  Only this time, the movie has been gender flipped.  The cons are women this time, and are played by Rebel Wilson and Anne Hathaway.  Wilson can be very funny, and proved she could carry a comedy on her own just a few months ago with Isn't It Romantic.  Here, she's left floundering as she tries to put a fresh edge on material that Martin did better a little over 30 years ago.  As for Hathaway, she too can be funny, but here walks around with her nose up in the air, and basically acts like she's doing a perfume commercial.  After Serenity and now this, she's having a tough year.

The mark that the two cons are competing for has also been flipped.  This time, it's a naive and gullible young tech billionaire (Alex Sharp) who comes across as having more money than common sense.  The way that the women try to go after this guy and his bank account will seem very familiar to anyone who has seen the other versions.  Heck, aside from a few small differences, this is almost the exact same movie as before, only without the energy.  So, the obvious question becomes why do it again?  None of the actors bring anything new to the material, and the movie mostly seems to be trying desperately to recreate the 1988 remake.  If you've seen Scoundrels, you no doubt remember the scene where Steve Martin had to pass himself off as Caine's idiot brother, who was forced to have a cork on the end of his fork at the dinner table, so he wouldn't hurt himself with it.  Martin milked that performance and the scene itself to its fullest, providing some of the better broad and physical comedy of his career.

Here, Wilson does something very similar, only her portrayal is nowhere near as funny or as full tilt.  She's just not trying hard enough.  She also recreates the scene where she asks to go to the bathroom while at the dinner table, but the payoff is nowhere near as good.  Martin used his face and physical comedy for the gag.  Wilson does something much cruder, and nowhere near as memorable.  Hathaway has been given the "straight" role of the two leads, and doesn't get to stand out much.  That didn't stop Caine in the last remake we got.  He managed to get some laughs when he passed himself off as a German doctor with some unorthodox methods.  Here, Hathaway does almost the exact same bit, but she gets no laughs, because again, she's just not as invested in it.

The Hustle just plays out like an inferior version of a classic story.  All the bits and pieces that you liked before are there, but they don't generate the same good will.  It's not that I think the earlier versions of this story are sacred and just should not have been touched.  It's just that this new version is no damn good.

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Pokemon: Detective Pikachu

Let's chalk this up as another movie that was not made for me.  Pokemon: Detective Pikachu is made solely for the masses of fans who have made the Nintendo video games, anime, card games and various other spin offs such a massive success.  It's a chance to see the creatures from the games in a more realistic design, and interact with human actors.  That's fine.  But for someone like me, who has never gotten into the franchise in any of its numerous forms, the movie offers very little aside from a few snarky one liners from Ryan Reynolds, who voices Pikachu, the most merchandised rodent since Mickey Mouse.

My main exposure to Pokemon stems from the brief time in 1999 when I worked at a Software Etc. store at my local mall.  It was the height of the fandom, the first anime movie was a couple months away from hitting US theaters, and at least at the store I worked at, a vast majority of the stock we moved every day was Pokemon-related merchandise.  We received numerous visits and calls each day, asking if we had the dolls or the trading cards in stock.  Even with the at the time recent launch of the Sega Dreamcast game console in September of that year, people mostly wanted Pokemon-related goods.  The games themselves are a Japanese Role Playing-style adventure, where you wander the world, collecting the vast amounts of creatures to battle other Pokemon.  I can see the appeal, as I am a huge fan of the Japanese Role Playing genre to this day, but I just never got into the series for whatever reason.  Now we have this movie, which is based specifically on the Detective Pikachu video game, a spin off of the main series.  So, I guess this movie can be considered a spin off of the earlier films.

All the earlier movies have been animated and made in Japan, then brought over here and dubbed in English.  This is the first time an American studio has tried to make an original Pokemon film, and the first one to be in live action with CG monsters.  This is largely what the hype for the film has been about, and if you're a fan, I'm sure you'll get excited about seeing the various creatures interpreted in more realistic looking CG.  But to me, outside of Pikachu himself (who looks good, and is well animated), the other creatures just didn't seem to look all that real.  We see them walking about the settings alongside human actors, but they never seem to occupy any kind of space.  Some almost look like they're just kind of floating there.  It's also disappointing how most of the characters taken from the games are given so little to do.  I would say a good 95% or so are regulated to simple walk-on cameos.  Fans can point at the screen when they briefly see their favorite monster.  The little monsters don't really interact with the human actors.  Heck, the most Pikachu ever does is climb up on the shoulder of his human friend.  The movie simply never fully created the illusion that the actors and the CG designs were existing in the same space to me.

In a situation like this, I look to the script to maybe offer some wit or intelligence, but as I mentioned earlier, the only bright spots are a few lines that Reynolds gets to spout off, which sound improvised.  The story itself is kind of an ungainly combination of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Zootopia.  It involves a young man named Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), who lives in a world where humans and Pokemon co-exist peacefully with one another.  His father is a detective who was investigating a mystery surrounding Pokemon suddenly turning savage and wild when exposed to a mysterious gas, until he supposedly died in a suspicious car crash.  Tim thinks he's still alive, and goes to the city to search for clues.  The only lead he has is his father's Pikachu, who was working on the case with him, but has amnesia.  Stranger still, Tim can understand what the Pikachu is saying, as humans and Pokemon cannot usually speak to each other.   The two must work together to solve the mystery behind Tim's father, and who is behind all the Pokemon turning savage.

It's an okay premise for a kid's mystery story, but the story never goes all that deep.  The movie gives us little reason to care about Tim and his plight to find his father.  We get some talk about how he was distant with his dad, and never had that good of a relationship with him, but it never quite reaches the emotional level that it should.  As for the mystery itself, it couldn't be more blatantly obvious who the villain is if the character walked on screen with a flashing sign that said, "Hi, I'm the Villain!!".  Their ultimate plot involves spraying a deadly gas onto a crowd of people from giant balloons during a city parade.  And yes, you would be correct in saying that plot was also used in Tim Burton's original Batman back in 1989.  It made me hope that the movie would really go off the rails, and just throw in Jack Nicholson's Joker being the true mastermind of it all, but no such luck.

This is one of those movies that will appeal only to people who have played the Detective Pikachu video game, are fans of the franchise, or nostalgic for it.  That's perfectly fine.  If you fall under one of those categories, go and have fun.  I just was wishing that director Rob Letterman (Goosebumps) and his four credited screenwriters would maybe add in some interesting characters or clever dialogue to the mix.  But, what we get here is mostly going through the motions.  There's a female reporter (Kathryn Newton) who is also trying to uncover the mystery, and acts as another person for Tim to talk to, but she never grows into a character worth caring about, and the movie itself would be no different without her.  We have the very talented Bill Nighy cashing a paycheck here as someone who exists mostly to spout exposition.  Ken Watanabe also shows up as the head of the police department, but he mostly gets to speak in cop movie cliches, and say lines like "Your dad was a legend on the force".

Even thought I am not up on my Pokemon, the movie never confused me.  It simply disappointed me that it didn't try to do more for people who have not devoted time to learning about the characters and their world.  It's total fan service through and through, and that should be more than enough to tell you if you should spend your money or not.

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Friday, May 10, 2019

Tolkien

Given the real life author's gifted imagination and his love of language, the biofilm Tolkien is a rather cut and dry approach to bringing the life of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien to the screen.  Perhaps it was to be expected, and it seems the current approach when adapting anyone's life to cinema is to take the form of a visual Wikipedia article, taking bits and pieces, while not truly exploring the subject matter.  This is a well made and acted film that simply lacks depth.

I have become increasingly bothered by the fact that all movies tackling the life of a person seem to be going for an "information dump" approach.  The screenwriters to these movies almost seem to view these projects as homework, looking up and researching the subject on line, and then creating the most basic narrative imaginable, which usually amounts to cherry picking key moments in the subject's life, without any connecting tissue.  A lot of recent movies about famous people (the most recent example being Bohemian Rhapsody, which turned the life of Freddie Mercury into a forgettable bore, outside of the brilliantly staged concert scenes) just don't seem all that interested in the subject matter, and just pass out the facts of the person's life with little passion.  I guess that's why I'm personally anticipating the upcoming Elton John biofilm, Rocketman, which seems to be taking a musical fantasy approach mixed in with his life story.  I'm hoping that will provide some needed life to the currently dry landscape of true life cinematic takes.  I guess we will see when the movie hits theaters in a few weeks.

But on to Tolkien, which has the look and acting talent of a prestige picture, but the script never quite lives up, despite some good moments.  Right off the bat, the movie makes a mistake in its tone, by opening the story in the middle of a war in 1916, with Tolkien himself (played here by Nicholas Hoult) as a soldier desperately trying to reunite with an old friend (another soldier) whom he has not heard back from, and is worried about him.  As he makes his way across the battlefield with the aid of another soldier, he begins to hallucinate visions of dragons, and other images that he would popularize in his fantasy stories right there on the battlefield, and frequently flashes back to his younger years as he is surrounded by bloodshed and chaos.  The framing device of the battle does not work, as it drags on endlessly, and removes some of the power of the author's imagination, by linking it to a famous war.  The flashbacks that make up the central part of the film are strong enough to stand on their own, without having to constantly cut to battle.  I kind of wish the screenplay had just focused on the man himself, and what led up to the events to him writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, without the framing device.

We first meet the future author as a young boy being raised by his mother (Laura Donnelly), who instills in him a love for myths and storytelling.  She dies rather suddenly (at least in this film), and his younger brother and him are taken in by Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney), who places them both in a boarding house.  We get some scenes of Tolkien not being able to fit in at school, until he befriends a small group of boys who become his best friends.  They include Christopher Wiseman (Ty Tennant), Robert Gilson (Albie Marber) and Geoffrey Bache Smith (Adam Bregman).  The young men create a "fellowship", where they can talk about their passions for art and literature.  They call themselves the Tea Club, Barrovian Society, or T.C.B.S., which one of the boys rightfully states sounds like a disease.  The four young actors do have good chemistry together with their scenes, although I do wish the movie had spent more time on their strengthening bond, which obviously makes up a big part of the film's heart.

The other element of the heart is when Tolkien meets Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a fellow orphan whom he is immediately smitten with, and becomes the love of his life during the course of the film.  They have a great early scene together, where they discuss language, and the sound of certain words.  This led me to think that the movie would truly begin diving into this couple, and what brought them together.  But again, the movie disappoints.  It doesn't exactly go wrong, mind you.  Rather, Edith does not play as big a part in the film as you would initially expect, and aside from the scene I mentioned earlier, we don't get many instances where they just get to sit and talk about their interests.  Rather, the movie takes a much more predictable route, where he makes a mistake, they go their separate ways, but he still loves her, and even after she is engaged to somebody else, she still loves him, it turns out.  Edith was clearly a large part of Tolkien's life, but the movie never quite sells that importance to the audience like it should.

There are other good moments here, like the relationship that he sparks with a philology professor played by Derek Jacobi, where Tolkien and him have a few wonderful scenes where they discuss language.  Again, these are the moments where Tolkien truly seems to come to life as a film, where the characters actually discuss their passions.  Unfortunately, most of the film wants to take a much more traditional approach, where it checks off moments in the subject matter's life, rather than truly exploring his ideals.  This is not really that bad of a movie, just one that slightly disappoints in how it approaches the subject matter.  The brief glimpses we get into Tolkien's love for writing, creating worlds and creating language are so wonderful, you want to see more of it.  You want the movie to savor these scenes.  But just when it seems to be getting good, it distracts itself by cutting back to the war story that just didn't spark any interest in me. 

The movie ends with Tolkien beginning to write the first few words of The Hobbit, so we never get to see his success, or just how deeply he got into his own world.  That alone could have made for an interesting movie.  Regardless, as standard biofilms go, this does well enough, but there are hints throughout at the even better movie that it could have been.  Tolkien was a man deeply invested in his own work and the world he created, and the movie doesn't express that as strongly as it should.

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Wednesday, May 08, 2019

UglyDolls

The latest merchandising trend to get their own movie, UglyDolls are cute, blobby and misshapen stuffed toys that I'm sure look cute on a store shelf, or in a child's room.  As characters in a film, however, they don't quite hold the personality of the Lego characters.  This is a bright and energetic film that sadly falls flat when it comes to narrative and personality.  Little kids will like it (very, very little kids), but I'd say if you're pushing 10, you won't find much here.

With a story dreamed up by Robert Rodriguez (he also serves as a producer), and direction by animation veteran Kelly Asbury, one would hope that this would at least hold some imagination or clever humor to entertain the parents in the audience.  However, it would seem that the filmmakers saw this strictly as a marketing piece, and not just to sell toys.  The movie has been cast almost top to bottom with pop stars and rap artists, who contribute multiple songs to the soundtrack that sound cheerful, but don't linger in your mind.  That seems to be how the whole movie goes down.  Everything is cheerful and colorful, but nothing sticks.  Not the world these characters exist in, not the characters themselves, and certainly not the listless story, which seems to be cobbled together from the cliches of other animated films.  An effort is being made here, but it all falls flat.

As the film opens, we learn that dolls that are made in a factory and come off the assembly line looking odd or misshapen are thrown down a tunnel, which leads to UglyVille.  It's here that the various UglyDolls live, and our lead heroine, a spunky and pink little thing called Moxy (voice by Kelly Clarkson), introduces the audience to her friends with a rousing pop song about how life just can't get any better.  Turns out the song is a lie, however, as Moxy dreams of leaving UglyVille behind, and going to the "big world", a mythical place where a child chooses a special toy, and bonds with them.  Moxy knows that there is a little girl out there that she is meant to be with, and decides to explore a large pipe with some of her friends to see where it leads to.  Turns out it leads to the town of Perfection, where "pretty dolls" are put through a rigorous process to learn to be the perfect toy for children in the "big world". 

The leader of the "pretty dolls" is Lou (Nick Jonas), a blond-haired crooner who immediately shuns Moxy and her UglyDoll friends, but decides to let them participate in his training to be perfect toys, mostly to ridicule and humiliate them in front of everyone.  But Moxy lives up to her name, and won't give up on her dream.  She befriends one of the "pretty dolls" named Mandy (Janelle MonĂ¡e), who is not as perfect as she seems. (She wears glasses, but doesn't want anyone to know she has poor vision.) Along the way, there are a lot of musical numbers performed by the voice cast to pad out the running time to 90 minutes.  It's all well-meaning, but very thin stuff.  There's little invention in the way of storytelling, and not really any jokes for the adults that will fly over the kids' heads.  This movie is so toothless and harmless, I have to wonder how it got a PG-rating, when a G obviously would have done just fine for something like this.

UglyDolls sticks to a tried and true children's film formula that can best be described as "Self Esteem Building for Dummies".  Moxy is the sort who doesn't let anything get her down, until she learns a shocking secret about somebody she trusted, which sends her spiraling into a depression and almost giving up on her dreams, until a good friend lifts her spirits back up, and she tries again, ultimately succeeding, and learning that she is beautiful on the inside and out.  Yes, you have seen that movie a number of times, and probably much better than this.  While the film is never unwatchable, it just never deviates from the norm.  Even the characters are total stock.  Moxy is a one-note upbeat heroine, Lou is a villain with no real motivation, and Moxy's friends mostly stand in the background and nod their heads in agreement with her.  When I heard the unmistakable voice of Wanda Sykes as one of Moxy's friends, I had hope that she would at least deliver some funny one liners.  But, the movie gives her nothing to do.

This has been designed as a corporate product for small children from top to bottom.  As long as it sells some more toys and music soundtracks, its done its job.  When you consider some of the great efforts in animation that have been on screens the past few years, UglyDolls feels like a throwback to a time when animation was largely a corporate industry selling junk.  I can't imagine anyone being nostalgic for that time period, so it makes you wonder why the filmmakers thought this would fly.

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