Reel Opinions


Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Boxtrolls

With only two previous animated features to their credit (2009's Coraline and 2012's ParaNorman), stop motion animation studio LAIKA has set themselves apart not just with their distinctive look, but with the tone of their films.  They're not afraid to be a little darker and edgier than the stuff we usually see from Disney/Pixar and Dreamworks.  Their latest effort, The Boxtrolls, keeps the weirdness and the dark edge, but it also adds a very silly British sense of humor that might go over the heads of some families.  I hope not, because much like their other films, this one feels like nothing else out there and is truly one of a kind.

The Boxtrolls is offbeat, silly and very weird, but it's also incredibly charming and heartfelt.  This can be said both of the movie, and the characters who inhabit it.  The titular creatures are strange and industrious little gremlins who live under the streets of an odd British town called Cheesebridge which, as the name implies, is filled with people who view cheese as a necessity.  The head of the community, Lord Portley-Rind (voice by Jared Harris), at one point uses the money that is supposed to be used for a children's hospital to build a giant monument to cheese.  The people of Cheesebridge fear the Boxtrolls, mostly because of the lies of an evil man named Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley).  Archibald has led the community to believe that the Boxtrolls are dangerous after one of them ran off with a small baby boy one night.  Now Snatcher, and his dim-witted henchmen, pursue the creatures and try to capture them.  They say they're doing this to help the people, but the sinister Archibald has ulterior motives.

In reality, the Boxtrolls are harmless, and are actually afraid of the people who live up above.  They only come out to the streets at night, not to terrorize children, but to rummage through junk that they can take back, fix, and use in their secret underground community that is filled with a variety of clever gadgets that the creatures have made for themselves.  And remember that boy that the Boxtrolls apparently ran off with that night long ago?  His name is now Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), and he lives amongst them peacefully.  He knows nothing of the people who live above, so when he has a chance encounter with the brave young daughter of Lord Portley-Rind, Winifred (Elle Fanning), he doesn't know what to think.  Of course, neither does Winifred.  She's always been taught that the Boxtrolls were carnivorous animals, yet here they are taking care of this boy and acting polite toward her.  The two children decide to team up and change the town of Cheesebridge's mind about these creatures, hopefully before Archibald Snatcher can set his real plan into motion.

If I've made The Boxtrolls sound like conventional family fare with that description, I apologize.  This is a movie with a wicked and bizarre sense of humor that has a lot in common with Monty Python.  It's no surprise that one of the Python members, Eric Idle, was hired to write a musical number that plays in film.  I'm not sure how the British sense of humor will fly with American kids and their parents.  In fact, I have a hunch that this film might be enjoyed more by adult animation lovers, even though it is intended for kids.  There's a lot of clever word play in the dialogue, particularly between two of the villain's henchmen, Mr. Trout (Nick Frost) and Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade).  Their deadpan humor and conversations deliver some of the film's biggest laughs.  In fact, it is advised that you do not leave when the end credits begin, less you miss their funniest moment.

The frequently funny and witty dialogue would be reason enough to recommend the film, but this is a LAIKA production, and just like all of their animated films, it is a glorious wonder to behold.  The movie has so many sequences that are simply jaw dropping, especially when you consider the movie was created using model sets and tiny figures that were moved and photographed frame by frame in order to create the illusion of movement and 3D.  Not only does it create the illusion that these figures are moving around and talking on their own, but we eventually forget about the process, and simply accept these models as being characters.  But it's not just the incredible movement and animation.  The design teams had to create two separate worlds, Cheesebridge and the underground home of the Boxtrolls.  Cheesebridge kind of looks like a small British town out of a fairy tale or maybe a Charles Dickens story.  The underground world is alive with detail, with discarded junk and appliances like toasters and record players being remodeled into a society.

What strikes me the most about the look of the film is how it looks somewhat quaint and hand-crafted, but not dated.  There is nothing particularly slick about the look of this film, but it is enchanting nonetheless.  When you see the detail in the costumes these model figures wear, particularly during a ballroom scene at young Winifred's home, you really appreciate the detail that the designers used.  I also admired the little details about the Boxtrolls themselves, like how they roll themselves into little box-like formations when they are afraid, or how they stack themselves on top of each other when it is time for them to sleep.  When you think back and realize that these scenes were all accomplished by hand, and not fed into a computer, it becomes all the more amazing.  This is easily the most exquisite looking animated film of the year.

To top it off, there is an amazing voice cast behind these characters.  It's hard to pick a highlight or favorite, as everyone's in fine form here, but if I must, I would have to say that Ben Kingsley delivers a hilarious villain performance, and is obviously having the time of his life.  Everyone finds the right tone to their performance that is silly, but not overreaching.  And even though the Boxtrolls themselves speak in a made up language of grunts, squeaks and gibberish, they are still able to emote in very human and relatable ways, thanks both to the actors providing their sound effects, and the animators bringing them to life.  If you sit through the end credits, you may find some surprising names.  Who knew that Tracy Morgan could pull off a British accent?

My only concern with The Boxtrolls is that it's not flashy enough for some kids, and that it will be largely looked over during its theatrical run.  I can easily see it happening, yet at the same time, I can see it finding an audience with families looking for something different than the animated norm.  This is a joyful, witty and warm movie that deserves to be discovered.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

The Equalizer

I cannot in any good conscience label The Equalizer a bad movie, but I can certainly label it a disappointing one.  This is a movie that works as a superbly well-crafted slow-burn action thriller for a little over an hour or so, and then little by little, it declines into repetitive one-note mindless action.  It's a gradual decline, but a noticeable one.  When it was over, I had to wonder how something that started out so fascinating and involving could end on such a ludicrous climax, as this one does. 

The Equalizer is based on a TV series that ran for four years from 1985 to 89.  I remember the show being on, but have never actually watched it.  So, if you are looking for a review that will tell you how close this movie follows the original show, this isn't the one.  This review, instead, will focus solely on the film itself.  It features Denzel Washington in the lead role, and he manages to give a strong performance, even when the screenplay is requiring him to take out the bad guys with power tools, microwave ovens, and other assorted things that he finds off the rack of a local Home Depot-like warehouse store, where the film's climax occurs.  Heck, the last half hour or so is like one long product placement shot for Black & Decker.  He plays Robert McCall, a seemingly simple man "with a past".  He lives a fairly solitary life, until some local Russian mobsters start roughing up a friend of his.  That's when he starts to show his talents for killing people in graphic and improvisational ways, which hints at the kind of past he has.

I really enjoyed the first half of the film, where we get to witness both sides to Washington's character.  In his everyday life, he's quiet, charming and supportive of the people around him.  The movie gives him some nice relationships with his co-workers at the warehouse store where he works, such as an overweight guy that he's helping to become a security guard for the store.  He also strikes up a friendship with a teenage girl (a very good Chloe Grace Moretz) that he sees every night at a local diner.  She's a prostitute with dreams of leaving her current life behind and starting a singing career.  They talk casually each night (usually about whatever book Robert happens to be reading over at his table), and over time, the two strike up a genuine bond.  However, she is under the thumb of the Russian mob, and when she winds up making her bosses angry, they rough her up to the point that she is hospitalized.

Robert tracks her pimp and his goons down, and wipes them all out in a scene so brutal and strong, it's kind of a shock to the audience, considering how low key the film has been up to this point.  This is the first time we get to witness his talent for taking out a room full of bad guys in a matter of minutes (if not seconds), but far from the last.  The men that he killed were low-level thugs, and now the higher level mobsters come out, seeking who pulled off the hit.  The villains are led by Teddy (Marton Csokas), a chilling and smooth-talking killer who works for a mysterious crime boss whom we seldom see.  When Teddy and his men start hunting Robert down, he in turn must try to stay ahead of them, and get the jump on them whenever he can.  This is the point where my interest began to wane little by little.  This complex and likable character that Washington was playing turns into the generic sort of action hero who walks away from explosions in slow motion, as flames erupt behind him.

For a good part of The Equalizer, the film strikes the perfect balance between character and action.  I was involved and interested, and wanted to see how the movie would handle both of Robert's worlds (a quiet, unassuming man and a cold-blooded killer) colliding with one another.  Much to my disappointment, it doesn't.  Little by little, Robert loses his humanity, and simply gets involved in one shoot out after another.  The characters that he had built friendships with during the first half are also pushed completely out of the picture, so the main character can just run and gun his way through every scene without consequence.  Sure, the supporting characters do come back at the end, but the movie never deals with their reaction to seeing someone they've gone to work with everyday suddenly snapping necks and setting up explosives in the employee lunch room microwave.  Nobody really says anything, or even seems all that surprised.

The action also gets increasingly silly as the film goes on.  In one scene, Robert is at his favorite diner, when one of the Russian thugs shows up, disguised as an electrician.  The guy working the counter at the diner steps into the back room, allowing Robert to kill the power to the entire place, and murder the violent thug.  And no, we never see or hear from the guy who went out back while this is happening.  You would think the power going off in the building would have at least gotten his attention.  Oh, and the other bad guys?  They're parked across the street from the diner, but they can't see what's happening, because a giant truck pulls up in front of them, blocking their view.  Right.  The only way this set up could be more to the hero's advantage is if the villain sent to kill him actually put a gun to his own head and shot himself.

I really want to recommend The Equalizer, because the movie starts out so well, and it's genuinely well-acted.  But, I'm sorry, the more it went on, the more detached I became.  Should it be successful enough to spawn a franchise (as the ending suggests), I hope the filmmakers will study what made the first half work, and ignore the second.  If they can carry the tone this movie starts with all the way through, they'll have a guaranteed winner.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones

Scott Frank's A Walk Among the Tombstones is a dark, grim and depressing movie that is built around acts of violence toward women.  Yet, I am recommending it.  You may recall that just two weeks ago, I was quite harsh toward the thriller No Good Deed for being much the same way.  How can I slam one, and recommend the other?  It's all about filmmaking and approach, really.

Frank's film is complex, and features characters and a storyline that rewards the audience's attention.  It does not compromise, and it does not talk down to the audience.  It's stylishly made, well-acted, and it's actually about something.  Compare that to the earlier movie, which was a cheap, nasty and exploitive piece of work.  It didn't care about the characters, it had no interesting dialogue, and it existed simply to parade images of cruelty and violence across the screen.  A Walk Among the Tombstones is probably just as, if not more so, violent than No Good Deed.  But it uses its violence to tell a story, not just to grab our attention.  It is a necessary tool for what the movie is trying to achieve.  This movie also fully embraces its R-rating, while the other was PG-13, which oddly made it all the more disturbing, since it contained images that simply did not belong in a movie that teens can see by themselves, no matter how edited those images are.

This movie takes its inspiration from a novel by Lawrence Block.  Its hero, Matt Scudder, has appeared in 17 of Block's stories, and has even been brought to the screen once back in 1986 when Jeff Bridges played the character in 8 Million Ways to Die.  This time, Liam Neeson takes on the role of Matt, and from viewing the ad campaign, you might think that Neeson is really just giving a repeat performance of his character from the Taken films.  The ad campaign does surround itself with images of a kidnapped girl, and Neeson giving his cool tough guy act over the phone with the villains.  In reality, the films could not be more different.  Taken and its sequels are escapist and silly action films, while this is a gritty and sad film where sometimes the heroes and villains are indistinguishable from one another.  While there are action scenes, they are not the fun, white knuckle variety where we're cheering the hero on.  They are brutal and realistic.  Its hero is somber and weary, and the movie creates a very cold yet compelling tone where everybody, even the plucky kid who shows up from time to time, has lost a lot in their lives and are visibly wearing scars for all the world to see.

Matt Scudder used to work for the NYPD, but after a shootout with some thugs wound up killing an innocent bystander, Mike just couldn't face himself or his job anymore.  He blames the accidental death on the fact that he was drunk at the time, so he's been sober for 8 years, but the past still haunts him.  He now works as an unlicensed private investigator, doing jobs that most people in law enforcement wouldn't touch.  This brings him in touch with the Kristo brothers, Peter (Boyd Holbrook) and Kenny (Dan Stevens).  Kenny is a drug dealer whose wife was recently murdered after she was kidnapped, and he made the mistake of haggling over the ransom money with the kidnappers.  Now Kenny wants to hire Matt to track down the people who killed her, and sent her back to him in small pieces in bloody bags.  Matt is hesitant to take the job at first, but when he realizes that there have been a rash of murders of women whose bodies have been chopped up and scattered at the crime scene, he becomes determined to track the killers down before they strike again.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is uncompromising, and can be hard to watch at times, but it is always fascinating.  Scott Franks has created a slow-burn thriller that draws us in little by little, until we don't realize just how much of a grip the plot has on the viewer.  It is also aided by a strong performance by Liam Neeson, who gives a quiet and haunting performance here.  He never once loses his steely determination, not even when he is occasionally teamed up with a street smart city kid named T.J. (Brian "Astro" Bradley, recently seen in Earth to Echo).  When the kid entered the movie, and started getting wrapped up in the story, I became worried that he was going to become a wise ass comic relief sort, always putting Matt down.  Fortunately, the movie allows them to build a genuine relationship, one that is not built around insults and one liners.  The presence of the child does not soften any of the movie's emotional punch, or the chill we are supposed to feel from these characters.

Really, if there's any fault to be found with the film, it's that the final half hour or so feels needlessly dragged out.  This story, which has been moving at a pretty good pace up to this point, suddenly feels the need to slow things down just when it feels like things should be speeding up even more.  We also get a lot of odd interruptions during the climactic moments, such as flashbacks, and even a character reciting the 12 steps to the AA program.  It just feels very odd and unnecessary.  With these bizarre editing choices, as well as how slow the film's climax feels, it drags everything to a crawl so that we're ready for the end credits to come long before they do.  It's not enough to drag everything that's worked before down, but it is enough to make us wish things had ended on a stronger note.

A Walk Among the Tombstones may have a hard time finding a wide audience, due to its brutal and icy tone.  But, those who can look past that can find a really interesting mystery, some strong characters and a real sense of tension that hangs over a majority of the film.  As long as you're not the type who requires that every movie have a happy ending or a hopeful message, this is a film that is worth your time.

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Sunday, September 21, 2014

This Is Where I Leave You

This is one of those movies that is fine and goes down easily enough, but really should have been a heck of a lot better given the talent on display.  This Is Where I Leave You has some funny moments, and also some good dramatic ones.  It's also blessed with a cast that headlines Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda and Rose Byrne, just to name a small few.  Where the problems start is with the tone of the film, and how familiar it all seems.  It's starting to feel like all movies about dysfunctional families coming together for something, usually a wedding or a funeral (in this case, a funeral), are the same.  For all the talent up on the screen, no one rises above the familiarity of it all.

Perhaps the problem lies with the director, Shawn Levy, who is best known for his big family blockbusters like the Night at the Museum films.  I admire him for trying to step outside of his comfort zone (which he has done successfully in the past with films like Date Night and Real Steel), but he seems wrong for this material.  The slapstick humor is a bit too broad, and doesn't gel with the quiet and somber moments of the film.  He films the movie at a surprisingly sluggish pace, lingering a bit too long on certain shots.  I understand that this is intended to be a slow and thoughtful picture about family, but I think he takes the "slow" aspect just a little too literally.  The movie is only about 105 minutes, but it feels a lot longer.  And yet, there are quite a few scenes that do work, and you can see how this could have been something really good.  I think it needed a different director, or maybe one more trip to the editing room.

The main character who brings us into the home of the dysfunction family is Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), a man who is still reeling from the shock of walking in on his wife having sex with his boss (Dax Shepard), a shock jock radio personality.  Not long after this, he gets a phone call from his sister Wendy (Tina Fey) that their father has passed away.  Now he must return home and reunite with his mother (Jane Fonda) and three siblings.  There's a lot of animosity in this family.  The mother made a career by writing a best selling book about raising children that aired a lot of personal family secrets, something that none of her kids have ever been able to forgive her for.  Eldest son Paul (Corey Stoll) has been struggling to have a baby with his wife for years, and is frequently at odds with the youngest child in the Altman family, the undependable and rude Phillip (Adam Driver).  As for Wendy, she has a husband who refuses to acknowledge her or their kids (he's constantly on the phone harboring business deals).  All of these problems, along with Judd's confused feelings about his soon-to-be ex-wife, will all come into play as the family comes together to sit Siva, the dying request of their father.

There are some moments where This Is Where I Leave You feels a little shortchanged in the character department.  The film is based on a novel by Jonathan Tropper (he wrote the screenplay, as well), and there are some characters or relationships that really feel like they should be opened up more, and most likely were in the book.  For example, there's the relationship between Wendy and the man who lives across the street, Horry (Timothy Olyphant).  They dated back when they were teens, but then Horry got in a car accident and suffered brain damage.  He can function well enough to hold down a job, but he forgets things, and has to live at home with his mother for his safety.  The movie makes no secret that Horry and Wendy still have feelings for each other, and that Wendy is giving serious thought of going to him when she becomes frustrated by the lack of attention she gets from her husband.  But, the movie keeps this subplot on the back burner the entire time, and never really goes in depth with their relationship.  We know they like each other, but that's about all we do know about them.  I get the feeling that this is one of many aspects about the film received more detail in the novel, but get glossed over here.

Naturally, the cast is splendid, and certainly can't be blamed.  They have fantastic chemistry together, especially Bateman and Fey.  Corey Stoll and Adam Driver are also both fantastic as the eldest and youngest brothers in the family, as are the female supporting characters, such as Rose Byrne as a sweet woman from Judd's past.  Everybody up on the screen is giving it their all.  The problem lies with the script, which loves "shocking" family secrets that seem kind of tired and cliched, as well as overused slapstick like the brothers getting into all-out wrestling matches on the front lawn, or Wendy's young boy having a running gag about the training potty that he always carries around with him.  For all the good will that the cast creates, the movie just feels far too familiar.  These are people who know they are in a movie, and do things that is expected of them.  These people are likable enough (thanks mostly to the performances), but there's just nothing spontaneous about them.

And then there's Shawn Levy.  I know I touched on it a little bit already, but his directing style really does kill the momentum at times.  The first time Horry and Wendy meet each other at the funeral, the camera lingers on them, letting us know that they have a past together and there are feelings between them.  And then it just keeps on lingering, far longer than it should.  It's not until long after we've gotten the message that the movie finally decides to move on.  There are lots of little moments that just feel off.  At the very least, Levy does know how to get good performances out of his actors, and he has them play off of each other at every opportunity.  But the pacing really slows things down a lot more than it should be.

This Is Where I Leave You really should have been more enjoyable, if not a home run.  I just couldn't get over the off-putting directing style, and the fact that the screenplay felt assembled, not written out of experience or from the heart.  This is one of those movies you wish you could just turn around and remake right away.  Keep the cast, but uproot the director, and maybe freshen up the screenplay a little.  All the elements are here, but they fail to come together somehow.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

The Maze Runner

Of the seemingly dozens of film adaptations of Young Adult novels vying to become Hollywood franchises, The Maze Runner is probably the most intriguing out of all of them.  It has a serious Sci-Fi premise that immediately hooks the viewer, and a genuine mystery that becomes all the more interesting as it is unraveled during the course of the film.  Sure, the movie offers more questions than answers (which will surely be answered in the sequels), but it's well made and just thrilling enough that I find myself anticipating what happens next.

The main problem going against the film is that it is similar to the many other films based on youth novels that have been turned into films lately, such as Divergent, The Giver and naturally, The Hunger Games.  All of them are set in some kind of apocalyptic future, where the hero becomes "the one" who can change the course of the world.  My only hope is that The Maze Runner does not get lost in the shuffle of like-minded films, as it's strong enough to stand out on its own.  I have not read the source novel by James Dashner, nor its sequels, but this film at least is a dark and often engaging story that seems more interested in creating a compelling narrative and a fantastic world, rather than create yet another teen love triangle in the middle of a battle for the future.  In fact, there is no love story in this film.  I don't know, maybe in future film, the young male and female lead will get together.  But for now, the movie is content on letting us explore its world.

As the film opens, a young man named Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) finds himself in a transport elevator with no memories.  He doesn't even remember his name until some time later.  The elevator he's riding on transports him to a society called The Glade, a commune established by teenagers just like Thomas who have no memory of who they are, except their names, and also no idea of who brought them here.  All they know is that they came here on the elevator just like Thomas, and whoever brought them here brings a new kid up on the elevator about once every month.  The Glade itself is a primitive society ruled by some of the elder kids in the village, like the kind Alby (Aml Ameen), who teaches Thomas their ways, and the village bully Gally (Will Poulter), who likes to push around the newcomers that show up fresh off the elevator.  Thomas is different from most of the other kids in The Glade.  Whereas just about everyone has accepted this life they have made for themselves, Thomas wants to find out the truth about why he's here, who sent him, and why he can't remember anything.

Surrounding The Glade is a massive stone maze.  The kids of the village don't know its purpose, but they know that the maze changes everyday.  They know this, because they send in select kids called "runners" to make their way through the maze and try to find if there is an exit to it.  When night falls, the door to the maze closes.  Any runner who is still within the maze when the door closes is immediately thought to be dead, as at night, bizarre alien creatures called Grievers come out and roam the maze structure.  These Grievers kind of look like the acid-spewing monsters from the Alien films, with the legs of a spider, and the stinging tail of a scorpion on its back.  Early in the film, no one knows what these creatures look like, as no one has survived an encounter with them.  But when Thomas goes into the maze to save a friend, and manages to actually kill one of the Grievers in the process, he sets about a chain of events that will not only divide The Glade as to which path they should take (should they all enter the maze and try to find an exit, or should they stay where they are?), but may also lead to some long hidden answers to many of the questions Thomas has about how all of this came to be.

The Maze Runner throws us right into the middle of the action by starting up front with Thomas on the elevator leading up to The Glade, with no explanation as to what's going on.  It may take a little while for viewers not familiar with the books to get a handle on things, but it doesn't take long to catch on.  Once the set up is out of the way, the movie moves along at a brisk pace, never getting bogged down in exposition, while at the same time never making it feel like we're completely in the dark.  First time director Wes Ball not only knows how to keep the pace and the tension building, but he also knows how to create a truly intriguing and dangerous maze for the film's young heroes to confront.  On the outside, it sort of looks like a massive stone garden wall.  But, with its constantly shifting walls and passageways, as well as the various dangers that reside within, it kind of takes on a life of its own.  The maze itself is one of the more interesting set pieces I have seen so far this year.

It also helps that the filmmakers have gathered together a talented group of young actors to tell the story, which helps, since they're literally the only people we get to see for 98% of the film.  Most of them have past screen and TV experience, so they're not exactly amateurs.  Still, the ones I did recognize had never had to carry an entire film by themselves, and they do a wonderful job here.  While some of the kids do fall into cliches (there's the bully, the stern yet understanding one, and the youngest kid who becomes a sidekick and best friend to the hero), they are at least given interesting personalities beyond just their basic description.  Also, even though the film is PG-13, I was surprised that it was willing to show quite a few on-screen deaths of some of the children who make up the society.  It does add a certain emotional impact, since the film does not use it as a cheap gimmick or shock tactic, but treats it as the tragedy it deserves to be.   

I usually detest it when a movie ends on a cliffhanger, or exists simply to set up a sequel.  It's a tricky prospect to pull off successfully.  The Maze Runner, however, handles its ending well.  It leaves us with a bunch of questions as to what's happening, while showing us a tantalizing glimpse as to what's waiting in the next installment.  The best compliment I think I can give this film is that I found myself kind of hooked, and am now anticipating the inevitable sequel, provided the fans turn out for this one.  This is one time I'm hoping they do.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Dolphin Tale 2

I was not one of the big supporters of 2011's Dolphin Tale.  It was a sweet enough film, but it never really grabbed me.  Now we have a sequel, and you know what?  I kind of like this one.  It's not that this is a better movie than the first.  Heck, it's actually more of the same, so those of you who did love the first can jump into this one with no worries.  I don't know, maybe this sequel just caught me in a better mood.

Dolphin Tale 2 continues the story of Winter, the brave little dolphin with an injured tail who became an inspiration when she learned how to swim with the aid of a brilliant prosthetic tail that was designed for her.  Winter has now become a star attraction at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which is owned and run by the people who gave her a second chance, and help other marine animals that are in need.  Winter in the movie is played by the actual dolphin herself.  Not only is this a neat fact, but it led to one of the problems I had with the first film.  Since that film was based around whether or not Winter would survive, it kind of killed the suspense to have the real dolphin up there on the screen.  This time, her life doesn't hang in the balance of the outcome of the story, so I was able to enjoy this film without thinking of this obvious flaw.

As the film opens, Winter seems to have fallen into a depression when her long-time dolphin companion dies of old age.  Dolphins are social animals, and according to this movie, it is against the law to have one alone in a tank.  Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), the young boy who bonded with Winter in the last film, tries to bring Winter out of her funk, but the creature resists, and even lashes out violently at him in one scene.  The owner of the aquarium, Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick, Jr.) doesn't know what to do, and may have to move Winter to another aquarium in Texas unless a companion can be found.  A beached dolphin is soon found and rescued, but what if Winter does not take to this new arrival?  The investors behind the aquarium obviously don't want to lose Winter, as she's a major cash cow for them.  But, these animals obviously don't care about things like that, and if they don't get along, there may be little that Haskett or anyone can do.

There are subplots for the human characters, the main one surrounding around Sawyer and the fact that he's been given the opportunity to attend a 3 month boating mission in Boston that will raise awareness about aquatic animal life.  He doesn't know if he should take the offer or not, as he doesn't want to leave Winter behind when she needs him.  Also, he may be developing some feelings for his young lady friend and Dr. Haskett's daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), who is frequently at his side.  There are also some opportunities for Morgan Freeman (likable) and Kris Kristofferson (underused in a cameo) to show up once in a while and give the younger characters some grandfatherly advice.  But really, what impressed me about Dolphin Tale 2 is how the movie treats Winter and her fellow animal co-stars.  As Dr. Haskett reminds us at one point, the dolphin is a wild animal, not a pet.  The dolphins and other animals are never required to give cute reaction shots, or perform on camera.  You can see the respect that writer-director Charles Martin Smith has for these creatures.

I always appreciate it when a movie shows us just about every aspect of a job.  This movie feels authentic, as it takes us through just about every major step of running an aquarium, from dealing with potential safety and health violations, to how to introduce a dolphin to a new environment, or introducing it to another of its own kind.  This is a movie that is focused on details and realism, but not so much that the film becomes stagnant or bogged down.  The human characters are likable enough to create an emotional core, and the underwater photography concerning Winter is really quite beautiful to behold.  The filmmakers show a real eye for realism here, without having to resort to cheap sentimentalism too much.

One small word of warning: If you do intend to see Dolphin Tale 2, please do not view the full trailer, as it gives away just about every major plot point in the film.  It actually gives so much away that it may impair your enjoyment of the film.  That said, this is a sweet little film that kind of grew on me as it went along.  It's not going to change the world, but then, it doesn't have to.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

No Good Deed

Was there no one on the set of No Good Deed to tell Taraji P. Henson and Idris Elba that they were too good for this?  No one to sit them down and ask what they were doing starring in this exploitive, nasty thriller that is far below their talents?  Apparently not, as not only are they headlining this trash, but they are also credited as Executive Producers.  They must have seen something in this script.  What it is, I cannot tell you.

The movie gained some attention last night when the film's distributor pulled all advance screenings less than 24 hours before they were to be held.  The official statement was that the studio did not want the third act twist to be revealed in early reviews, so that audiences could discover it on their own.  Anyone who knows the slightest thing about movies knows that things like this just don't happen, and the real reason Screen Gems was afraid is that they knew the movie was going to get torn apart by the press.  But there is also an uglier reason.  You see, this is a film that is built around repeated scenes of women being beaten, maimed, tortured and murdered.  And given the current controversy surrounding Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, the distributor obviously got cold feet, and could feel the backlash that was to come. 

Now, I'm not saying the studio is at fault for releasing this movie the same week as the controversy.  They obviously had no idea what was going to happen.  But, even without that ugly shadow hanging over it, this is a vile film.  It's made even more vile by the fact that the film has been sanitized just enough so that it can receive a "family friendly" PG-13.  This is a movie where the male lead character murders a pair of prison guards, then makes his way to his ex-girlfriend's house, where he breaks in, waits for her to come home and then strangles her to death with his bare hands and smashes her head with a lamp.  He later bludgeons another woman to death with a shovel, frequently beats and torments the female lead character, and holds a cute little five year old girl and her baby brother hostage at gun point.  I don't care what kind of editing you use, these kind of images do not belong in a movie rated PG-13.

No Good Deed is offensive dreck, but it doesn't even have the courtesy to be interesting offensive dreck.  It's slow, boring and fails to generate any tension.  All it does manage to create is a sense of disgust, and a sense of pity that talented actors like Henson and Elba are forced to endure it.  Henson plays Terry, a woman who once had a successful career as an Atlanta prosecuting attorney, but she gave it up so she could raise her two kids, while her husband (Henry Simmons) frequently leaves her alone as he goes away on business or golf trips.  One night, a storm is raging outside and Terry is getting her kids wound down for the night, when there is a knock at the door.  It's a stranger by the name of Colin (Elba), who claims he got in a car accident, doesn't have a cell phone, and needs to use her's. 

We've already witnessed Colin's adventures before he wound up on Terry's doorstep.  We saw how he was denied parole after seemingly being involved in the murder of five different women, as well as a deadly bar fight.  We've also seen him escape from the prison van by killing the guards, and make that deadly visit to his ex-girlfriend's house.  Terry invites him inside so he can wait for the tow truck to arrive.  Colin walks menacingly around the house, looking at the family photos, and gets a little too close to the kids.  All the while, the storm outside intensifies to the point that a tree branch literally flies in through a window in the house just so there can be a jump scare in the middle of a scene.  Terry's best friend (Leslie Bibb) also stops by for a "girl's night", but we know she won't be around for long.  Her character is blonde, and obsessed with sex.  And everybody who has ever watched a mad slasher movie knows what happens to the blonde girl with the dirty mind.

The remainder of the film is a "cat and mouse" game as Terry tries to keep herself and her kids alive, and fend off the murderous Colin.  Her main form of attack is to wait for him to come around the corner, then strike him in the head with some kind of blunt object, like a fire extinguisher or a candlestick.  He takes so many blows to the noggin that he starts to resemble a Home Alone villain.  The movie is so long and labored in its set up that we become impatient for the action to start up.  And once the action does kick in, it's about as routine as a thriller can get.  Henson and Elba are good actors, and bring some skill to their performances, but the script does them no favors, or even much character motivation.  They're pretty much on their own the entire time they're up on the screen.

No Good Deed probably wouldn't seem so offensive if it felt like it had more of a point other than to parade violent and cruel images done to women across the screen.  If there was some kind of inspiration to the screenplay, or perhaps an interesting character, I would be able to look at it as a thriller.  This movie does not want to thrill or excite.  It simply pumps us full of bad feelings, then sends us on our way.  The fact that nothing really happens between the outbursts of violence is a telltale sign that the filmmakers were at a loss to keep things interesting.  This is a film that spins its wheels hopelessly, assaults us with some nasty images, and then spins its wheels some more.

I don't know who a movie like this is made for.  Maybe I'm better off not knowing.  As I sat there watching it, I tried to think of the person who would enjoy a movie built around cliched thriller tropes mixed with images of violence to women, and I came up empty.  That fact that I was watching the film in an empty theater at least gave me hope that whoever is out there who would enjoy it, there aren't many of them.

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