Reel Opinions


Saturday, October 31, 2015

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

The filmmakers behind Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse apparently realized that the zombie genre (even the comedic ones, as this one attempts to be) is kind of played out, and they needed to throw in some things we haven't seen before.  So, what we get in this movie are zombies bouncing on trampolines, legendary comic Cloris Leachman trying to bite someone in the ass, and one of the film's young heroes teetering out of a window while hanging onto the dick of a zombie.  You have to admit, those are new ideas.  Whether they are good or funny ideas is debatable.

I must report that I did not laugh once while watching this movie.  It is not funny, thrilling or exciting at any point of time.  The obvious inspirations for the screenplay (credited to four different writers) are Zombieland and SuperBad, with perhaps a bit of Shaun of the Dead thrown in for good measure.  Those movies had smart and funny dialogue, plus characters we could get behind.  This movie gives us non-stop gross out jokes and obnoxious characters that we want to see get chomped by the zombie hoard.  It's an annoying movie that seems to think graphic slo-mo shots of heads exploding is the height of comedy.  This movie's idea of a joke is to have a zombie suddenly start singing a Britney Spears song.  While I do think that this could be funny in theory, it would have to build to something more.  It never does.  Nothing in this mess of a movie does.

Our heroes are three teens and best friends who have been Scouts since they were six-years-old.  They include nice guy Ben (Tye Sheridan), the horny and foulmouthed Carter (Logan Miller), and the dorky Augie (Joey Morgan).  They have spent their entire youth under the guide of the Dolly Parton obsessed Scoutmaster Rogers (David Koechner), but as they are approaching their Junior year of high school, Ben and Carter are starting to have thoughts about quitting the Scouts.  Carter is excited about the idea of ditching merit badges for parties and women, but Ben knows that the sweet doofus Augie will be crushed, and is more torn.  When one of the popular kids (Patrick Schwarzenegger, son of Arnold) unexpectedly invites Ben and Carter to a secret party on the same night that their Scout group is planning a camp out, the two guys decide to sneak away in the middle of the night after Augie has gone to sleep, and go to the party.  Naturally, Augie catches them in the middle of their escape, and is hurt by their betrayal.

The guys head into town for the party, and find it strangely deserted.  Unknown to them, a disaster in a nearby science lab has started the Zombie Apocalypse, and now just about everyone in town is one of the walking dead.  Ben and Carter regroup with Augie (Scoutmaster Rogers has joined the zombie ranks after he is attacked first by a zombie deer, then a scientist from the lab), and must now find a way to get to the people at the party they were headed for before the zombies do, or before the military shows up to nuke the entire town and wipe out the zombies once and for all.  The young heroes are joined in their battle by Denise (Sarah Dumont), a cocktail waitress at a local strip club who knows how to handle a shotgun.  Honestly, this is all a set up for a lot of uninspired sex and bodily fluid gags.  And just to make sure the movie is really offensive, it actually tries to shoehorn in a message about friendship, loyalty, and believing in yourself.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse might have worked if it had a sense of satire, just as the previously mentioned Zombieland and Shaun did.  Instead, it's comprised of nothing but lame physical comedy that director and co-writer Christopher Landon (best known for writing the last few Paranormal Activity movies) doesn't know how to stage or pull off.  None of the jokes hit, and the audience ends up watching with stone-faced silence as the actors try to pretend that this is funny, instead of actually saying or doing things that are funny.  There were a number of scenes that I think were intended to get laughs, but honestly, I was just puzzled as to what the joke was supposed to be.  In one instance, the camera holds on an elderly lady zombie crossing the street on a motorized scooter.  Why is this image alone supposed to be funny?  A real movie would have given that lady something to do.  And in yet another instance, our young heroes venture into a crazy cat lady's house, and find themselves surrounded by zombie felines.  Again, the movie stops at just the image of this, instead of building to an actual laugh. 

We start to feel sorry for the actors up on the screen as the film grows seemingly obsessed with delivering no laughs whatsoever.  I understand that it is traditional for young actors to do a movie like this early in their careers, but they had to have known what they were getting themselves into just by reading the script.  You also wonder what comic veterans like David Koechner and Cloris Leachman are doing here, especially since the movie treats both the actors and the characters they play as an afterthought.  I like to think that maybe they had fun on the set.  That would at least explain their presence here, as the script offers them no favors.  Nobody in this movie gets to make an impression, not even the zombies, who are not gross or comical enough to stand out.

This is the kind of movie where you laugh at the title alone.  Maybe the poster art brings out a chuckle.  Those two aspects are clearly where all the creative energy behind this project went.  Everything else about it is dead in the water.  This is a repellent and ugly little comedy that never really shocks like it wants to.  It just offends us with its stupidity.

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Friday, October 30, 2015

Burnt

Burnt is a mildly entertaining movie that could have used some surprises to really push it over the top.  It features a fine cast, who simply are not put to good use here, outside of Bradley Cooper.  He has the unenviable task of playing a character who is not very likable, but we still have to want to watch an entire movie about him.  He succeeds for the most part, because he brings a lot of raw intensity and realism to his performance.  There are moments where the movie matches that intensity, and that's why I'm giving it a marginal recommendation.

All too often, movies about food or restaurants are overly cute or sentimental.  Heck, this film's writer, Steven Knight, wrote last year's drama, The Hundred-Foot Journey.  I enjoyed that film, but honestly, it was about as sharp and as edgy as a plastic fork.  Here, there is a sense of realism to the film's depiction of the world of fine dining that I really enjoyed.  The film does a great job of capturing the cutthroat atmosphere, the frustrations of trying to keep up with the critics and rivals, and the intensity of the kitchen.  We see aspects of the food industry that we don't usually get to see in films, such as how restaurants try to fill seats, or the rivalry between chefs, even within the same kitchen.  Even if the film itself is somewhat dramatically inert, this realism is what pushed it over to a recommendation for me.  I love movies that show me the world of a business that we don't usually get to see in the cinema, and Burnt simply felt honest to me about what it must be like when the pressure is on in a kitchen.

Cooper's instant on screen charisma goes a long way in his performance as Adam Jones, a man who can often be cruel, calculating and manipulative.  The opening scenes do a great job of setting up his character, and how others view him.  Adam was once one of the top young chefs in the world of fine dining, but he lost it all due to a self destructive personality that revolved around alcohol, drugs and sex.  He lost a lot of friends in the industry, and for the past three years, he has been paying penance by living in New Orleans, and forcing himself to work at a job where he shucks oysters.  Once he's had enough, he heads to London, England and tries to rebuild his career.  Easier said than done, considering the bridges he's burned with his various relationships.  Heck, many of the people he used to work or be friendly with thought he's been dead all this time. 

Adam uses his gifts of using and manipulating people to get a restaurant, get people to work for him, and start on the path for his true goal - obtaining a third Michelin Star.  He rounds up a crew which includes a single mom cook Helene (Sienna Miller), former friend Michel (Omar Sy), an ex-con named Max (Riccardo Scamarico), and maitre d' Tony (Daniel Bruhl).  There are some cameos by big names, too.  Uma Thurman turns up as a food critic whom Adam uses to his advantage, while Emma Thompson plays Adam's therapist who is tasked with making sure he stays sober this time.  Really, aside from Cooper, nobody gets to make an impact here.  It's the scenes in the kitchen that give the movie its energy, not the performances or the plotting.  There is just such an intensity and integrity to the scenes depicting these characters on the job that it made me forget about everything else.  Even if a subplot concerning some old drug dealers that Adam owes money to winds up not really going anywhere, the movie redeems itself the next scene by focusing on the action behind the scenes of a fine restaurant.

This was enough to make Burnt worth watching for me.  It understand the world that the characters live in, and pulls back the curtain, allowing us to enter and be entertained.  What's equally amazing is how fast-paced and kinetic the movie feels, despite a majority of the film taking place within the confines of a restaurant kitchen.  Director John Wells keeps things constantly moving, so even if the plot never really engages, I never found myself bored.  There were also small moments of snappy dialogue that I enjoyed, mainly when rival chefs were talking about each other, or behind each others backs.  This is what ultimately pulled me in.  Sometimes, I'm entertained because of what a movie has to show me, not because of its message.  There's no doubt that this is a very flawed movie, but it worked on a certain level with me.

I have a feeling that those in the food industry will feel like they're watching their daily lives up on the screen should they watch this.  What this means is that Burnt probably speaks to a fairly limited audience.  But, even though I am outside that world, I was intrigued enough while I was watching the film.  You've really gotta be behind or live within the world of these characters to get the most out of it, though.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Last Witch Hunter

The Last Witch Hunter is a B-Movie with a big budget.  That doesn't exactly mean that the movie looks better, or has better special effects than we would hope.  Truth be told, the effects are actually pretty mediocre.  No, where the big budget has been put to use is in getting some expensive actors, such as Vin Diesel, Michael Caine, Rose Leslie from Game of Thrones, and Elijah Wood.  At the very least, the movie knows what it is, and even has a bit of fun at its own expense once in a while.  I think if the movie took itself even less seriously, I would have liked it more.

The plot kicks off with a prologue set over 800 years ago, with Vin Diesel playing Kaulder, who is leading a group of soldiers and peasants into the lair of the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) to destroy her.  The Queen has cursed the land with a black plague that has killed many of the soldiers' families, including Kaulder's wife and daughter, and the men are determined to enter her "Plague Tree" fortress and destroy her.  A battle ensues, but due to the scarce lighting and fast editing, we can hardly tell what's going on most of the time.  All that matters is that Kaulder manages to defeat the Witch Queen, and she curses him with immortality.  He is now fated to walk the Earth eternally, hunting down and destroying the Queen's witchy sisters.

Flash forward to the present, and Kaulder is doing just that.  Through a hasty voice over narration, we learn that there is some kind of truce between the humans and witches, but not everybody plays by the rules, and it's up to our hero to take care of the ones who don't.  His current sidekick in his fight against supernatural evil is the priest Dolan the 36th (Michael Caine), who has been aiding Kaulder for decades, and is ready for retirement.  No sooner than his replacement, Dolan the 37th (Elijah Wood) is introduced, then Dolan 36 is attacked and apparently killed by an intruder who broke into his apartment, looking for something.  Kaulder decides to investigate into the murder, and discovers a secret plot that revolves around bringing the Witch Queen from 800 years ago back to life.  He must prevent this from happening with the aid of his new sidekick, and a "dream walker" witch named Chloe (Rose Leslie), who has the power to enter people's minds.


The Last Witch Hunter has no aspirations other than to be a dumb and fun fantasy adventure, and at times, it comes close to achieving that goal.  Diesel and Leslie actually seem quite invested in their characters, and are at least making an effort.  The problem is, nobody else seems to be working on their level.  Michael Caine is clearly cashing a paycheck, and doesn't give more than what's required.  I guess this is forgivable, since he doesn't have a lot of screen time.  Still, it would at least be nice if it looked like he was having fun in this silly movie.  And while Elijah Wood is no strange to fantasy and monster films, he seems a bit bored here, mostly because the screenplay gives him so little to do and actually forgets about him for long periods of time.  This is the kind of movie where everybody should be getting in on the action.  If they're not, then what's the point in paying the extra money to hire them?

But what I think disappointed me the most is the approach the screenplay takes to this material.  It treats it as if we're actually supposed to care about what's going on up on the screen.  There's a lot of dialogue, much more than a movie like this actually needs, and far too many scenes of people just standing around talking.  I think even Diesel's fans will admit that dialogue is not exactly the actor's strong suit, and not the reason that people go to see his Fast and Furious movies.  There's surprisingly little action, and what is up on the screen is often shot in low lighting, or feels like it's been edited in order to achieve a PG-13 rating.  The only smart decision the filmmakers have made here is to not include gimmicky 3D.  Audiences will likely walk into this expecting a mindless good time, and while it delivers from time to time, it doesn't do it enough in order to be successful.

The Last Witch Hunter feels like the kind of movie that you would watch during the early months of January or February, when the competition is a lot leaner.  With the big holiday movies only a few weeks away, it's almost certain that this will disappear from most theaters in a matter of weeks, before it hits DVD and the SyFy Channel, which really is the proper home for a movie like this.

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Sunday, October 25, 2015

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension

Over the six or so years it has been running, the Paranormal Activity franchise has gone from being a creepy little novelty, to a nearly annual Halloween annoyance.  It's like that visitor or family member who stops by every Halloween.  They used to be fun, and you kind of still tolerate them, but you're starting to dread their visit when the season starts to come around, because they keep on talking about the same stuff and pulling the same tricks every time they visit.  The latest (and supposedly final) entry, The Ghost Dimension, does nothing new other than add some gimmicky 3D and CG effects that add nothing to the experience.  Unless you've been dying to know how this stuff ends, you can skip this one.  And even if you have been dying to know, you're probably better off not knowing, because it's nothing special.

In this latest installment, we are introduced to a new family of victims.  They live in a huge, luxurious home, even though nobody ever seems to work or go to school.  That would get in the way of being able to film and videotape the latest antics of Toby, the malevolent demon who has been terrorizing hapless suburbanites for the entire series.  The family includes dad Ryan (Chris J. Murray), mom Emily (Brit Shaw), their sweet little eight-year old Leila (Ivy George), Ryan's slacker brother Mike (Dan Gill), and sister Skyler (Olivia Taylor Dudley).  Now that you know everybody's names, you know everything the movie ever tells us about these people.  While decorating the house for Christmas, Mike happens to find a box with an old fashioned camcorder and a bunch of tapes.  Ryan becomes strangely fascinated with the device, especially when he finds out that it has special equipment added to it that allows the camera to film spirits.  As soon as he picks up the camera, he begins to notice swirling masses of ghostly forms all about the house, particularly around his sweet daughter, Leila.  Does he do anything about this, or become concerned for the safety of his family?  Of course not.  He just goes right on shooting, saying things like "this is weird" over and over.

No prizes for guessing if the demonic Toby is somehow behind all the paranormal shenanigans that starts happening all over the house.  He's hatched a new plan that is tied around little Leila.  We learn that her birth date has some kind of connection to past events in the series.  This leads to a not-explained-very-well plot that has something to do with time travel, space and time portals appearing on the wall behind Leila's bed, and Toby attempting to become human so that he can take over the world, or something along those lines.  His true motivation is never really revealed.  For all I know, he wants to be human so that he can be first in line at the big weekend sale at the local Target store.  Ryan and Mike spend a good part of the film's running time watching the old tapes that they found in the box with the camera.  The tapes contain footage from a lot of the earlier movies (mainly Paranormal Activity 3).  So, what this means is that we spend a good part of this movie watching characters who are watching footage of the movies we've already seen.

The people in Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension are incredibly dumb, even by the standards of a horror movie.  They set up cameras all over the house in order to record what's going on, but they hardly ever actually check the footage that they capture.  They seemingly set up the cameras just so a cheap looking CG swirling black mass that is supposed to represent the demon can bum rush the screen over and over again in a series of ineffective and easily telegraphed jump scares.  And even after they figure out that whatever is haunting them is targeting their little girl, they still let the kid sleep alone in her room so that Toby can get to her while everybody is asleep.  To be fair, the mom does sleep on the floor of the kid's room at one point, but she immediately stops after that.  And when they finally get the idea in their heads to leave the house and stay in a motel (long after any sane person would while experiencing what these people go through, mind you), they immediately come back home so that they can do a little more investigating.  This is one of those movies that make you want to scream not-so-nice things to the people up on the screen.

The big gimmick this time around is that the audience gets to actually see the spirits for the first time, as Toby has previously largely been invisible in the earlier movies.  What this amounts to, sadly, is a lot of low rent CG effects that look like they came from a straight to DVD horror film.  The movie is also being presented for the first time in 3D.  I saw the movie in good old fashioned 2D, so I can't judge how well the effects are pulled off, but I would not get my hopes up.  Because the movie is designed to be in 3D, we get a ton of gimmicky shots of things flying at our face and knocking the camera over.  That's certainly not worth the extra charge to see this in an extra dimension, if you ask me.  This whole enterprise comes across as being so lazy, I'm sure the added effects aren't that special to begin with.

I'm not enough of an optimist to believe that this will be the last Paranormal Activity movie, as the filmmakers claim.  I know with time there will be a reboot, or an attempt to start a new storyline once interest in the franchise begins to build again.  When that time comes, I can only hope that the films come up with a new gimmick, and don't run it into the ground like they did with this original series.  Although, again, I'm not enough of an optimist to assume they won't.

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Saturday, October 24, 2015

Rock the Kasbah

It's always sad to see a comedian floundering with the material he's been given.  It's especially sad when the comedian is a great one like Bill Murray.  Rock the Kasbah is an instantly forgettable yarn that features Murray throwing himself into a project that gives him little in return.  He's energetic, and he even gets the occasional chuckle.  But we don't go to see Murray for chuckles, we go for laughs.  This is a movie that should have been a sharp satire, but ends up being pretty thin stuff all around.

At least Murray seems to be in his element in the early scenes of the film, playing a scheming and down on his luck music manager named Richie Lanz.  Richie used to be a big name in the music industry.  He talks about the old days of hanging out with the great artists, and especially likes to bring up how he discovered Madonna ("back when she was just Donna") singing outside of a hamburger joint for spare change.  Now he lives and works out of a fleabag California motel, and his only client is a cover artist (Zooey Deschanel) who plays tiny clubs.  Murray has always excelled at characters who were a little unscrupulous or use sarcasm in every day conversations, and the character of Richie seems like a perfect fit.  Heck, judging by the dialogue, it sounds like the character was written with him in mind.  It probably was, given that the film's screenwriter is Mitch Glazer, a long-time friend of Murray's.

Desperate for money, Richie manages to get his client booked performing for military soldiers in Afghanistan.  She seems to be against the idea from the start, and shortly after they arrive, his client runs off with his money and abandons him there with no way to get back to the U.S.  As Richie struggles to get a new passport (which his client also took) and find a way to get home, he happens to find another musical discovery - a young Afghan woman with a beautiful singing voice and a passion for Cat Stevens music (Leem Lubani).  But it's against her peoples' tradition for her to perform.  Against all odds, Richie gets her a shot on a singing TV competition called Afghan Star.  He also finds time to romance a call girl named Merci (Kate Hudson), who has soldiers and warlords lined up outside her door for a chance to spend some time with her. 

Rock the Kasbah never really takes shape.  It's kind of formless, and never creates a compelling narrative.  We're simply watching Bill Murray wandering around Afghanistan, throwing out one-liners.  If the jokes he was telling were funny, this approach might have worked.  He's obviously trying his hardest.  But the movie that surrounds his performance needs structure in order for this to work.  The film never finds a satirical target, whether it be the music industry of the war effort.  It kind of lazily tosses these subjects into its screenplay, and hopes Murray can make some kind of comedy out of it.  The film's director is Barry Levinson, who is no stranger to war satire, having made the biting dark comedy Wag the Dog back in 1997.  That film hit hard, and knew exactly who it was taking aim at.  This film is so aimless, it's the cinematic equivalent of dough that hasn't even been molded into any shape or form yet.

As Bill Murray wanders about, trying to hold our attention, some other actors come and go from the narrative, seemingly at will.  Bruce Willis turns up as a square-jawed mercenary who helps Richie's client escape Afghanistan, and Danny McBride appears as an arms-dealer, but neither actor manages to make the slightest impression.  And when the movie finally does start to focus on something other than Murray (namely Leem Lubani as the talented young singer), it doesn't give her anything to do, and mainly keeps her standing in the background except when it is time for her to sing.  It would be nice if there were more scenes with Murray and her interacting.  They could maybe create some comedy together with their culture clash or something.  But the movie constantly misses this opportunity.  It also never bothers to answer some basic questions.  Questions like, why did Deschanel's character take his passport?  And who thought it would be a good idea to give Bill Murray's character a cute little daughter, who looks like she's only about eight?  Not only does Murray look too old to have a girl so young, but she's completely unnecessary to the film.

Rock the Kasbah seems to know that its main strength is with Murray, and he really does try to hold this movie up the best he can.  But it's not enough.  Outside of him, and a catchy soundtrack made up of music from the 60s to the 90s, there's very little that is worth paying much attention to.  Much like the lead character, who seems lost and confused for a good duration of the story, the filmmakers seemed to be lost on just how to breathe life into this thing.

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Friday, October 23, 2015

Jem and the Holograms

Jem and the Holograms is an overly long, lethargic and cheaply made mess of nostalgia.  It completely misses what made the 1980s cartoon such a big hit with girls at the time, so much so that Jem was briefly able to dethrone the all-mighty Barbie as the queen of the fashion dolls.  The cartoon was a wild and raucous mix of MTV and Sci-Fi, with the kind of corniness only a show aimed at kids in the 1980s could get away with.  This live action film is a meandering and dull story about a Youtube star who almost loses her friends, and goes on a scavenger hunt set up by her dead father with the aid of an R2-D2 knockoff.

What's strange is despite the sluggish nature of the film, the plot rushes through itself at breakneck speed, almost as if director Jon M. Chu (who brought us both Justin Bieber documentaries) was as anxious for the movie to be over with as I was while I was watching it.  The plot of Jem takes place within the time span of a month or so, by my estimate.  And what happens to these characters during this one month?  Let's see...Our heroes become Internet celebrities, become a cultural phenomenon, get a record contract, create a rock band image and perfect dance routines, perform three concerts, break up with each other, get back together, go on a treasure hunt with a robot, fall in love, break into a record studio, receive a holographic recorded message from beyond the grave, inspire millions of young people to stand up for themselves, and change the course of the music industry forever.  Oh, and they also apparently prevent their Aunt's house from getting foreclosed on, but the movie kind of forgets to tell us if they were successful or not at this.  I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt.

You're probably asking yourself how a movie can cram all of that into just under two hours, and be boring.  Looking back over the paragraph I just typed, so am I.  The characters in this movie are so devoid of life and personality, it doesn't matter what crazy stuff happens to them, it still manages to be utterly dull.  For a character like Jem, who prided herself on being "truly, truly, truly outrageous" in her theme song, this is like a slap in the face for former fans who will come to the movie hoping to recapture some nostalgia.  Jem's true identity is Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples), a withdrawn 18-year-old who likes to write music, but is afraid to perform in front of other people.  The only way she is comfortable performing is when she slaps on a pink wig she finds in a garage, puts on outlandish clothes and make up, and calls herself "Jem", which was her dead father's nickname for her.  Jerrica lives in a big house with her Aunt Bailey (80s icon Molly Ringwald, sadly given little to do here), sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott), and adopted sisters Shana (Aurora Perrineau) and Aja (Hayley Kyoko).  The girls make music together, while poor Aunt Bailey frets all day about the eviction notices she keeps getting in the mail.

One fateful day, Kimber happens to upload one of Jerrica's "Jem" videos up on Youtube, and overnight the thing goes viral.  Almost instantly, the shady head of Starlight Music, Erica Raymond (a lifeless Juliette Lewis) is banging on their door, offering a recording contract and concert deal.  The girls are moved into their own mansion, complete with a hunky bodyguard named Rio (Ryan Guzman), who becomes Jerrica's love interest.  The girls are launched into superstardom in a matter of hours supposedly, and performing sell out gigs.  Forget a movie about these girls, I want to see a movie about whoever managed to turn them into a professional band and got them these gigs only hours after they signed the dotted line on the contract.  While all this is going on, the girls discover a robot named Synergy that Jerrica's dad was working on before he died.  It communicates through whistles and chirps, and leads the girls to a series of clues left behind by dear old dad.  Luckily he chose to hide the clues in places that wouldn't be disturbed in over 10 years.  There's also a subplot where the scheming Erica creates a rift in the band by convincing Jerrica to go on as a solo act, but since this is resolved immediately after a three minute montage, it's hardly worth mentioning.

Jem and the Holograms is a confused mess that veers wildly between teen girls living the rock star dream, and those same girls following a little robot around as it shows them holographic maps of California to track down the next clue to a cryptic puzzle.  The movie never meshes, flows or finds a consistent tone.  You would think that a movie like this would at least have a sense of humor to itself, but no; the tone is flat and serious.  Everything is treated as if it has such immense dramatic weight, even though it doesn't.  Maybe certain events would have more dramatic weight if the movie didn't just constantly gloss over the details.  The girls want to get into an exclusive nightclub, because it holds a key to dad's riddle.  Unfortunately, the nightclub is so exclusive, they're told they could never book it.  Cut to the next scene, and the girls are being told that they've booked the club to perform.  And at one point, it looks like Jerrica's sisters are mad, and are going to leave the group.  But don't worry - After a quick music montage, they're hugging it out in front of Jerrica's old home, because you know, they're sisters.

Oh, did I dislike this movie.  It's one of those films where the only question you can ask is what were they thinking?  Why choose to do a live action adaptation of a cartoon that prided itself on bizarre Sci-Fi and Fantasy-related plotlines, and make is so thoroughly mediocre and ordinary?  I'm sure that the robot was supposed to be a nod to those qualities, but if it is, it's a failed attempt by the filmmakers.  This is a movie that seems to have had all life and energy drained from it.  Not even the musical performances are enough to salvage what's up on the screen.  Not only are the songs instantly forgettable, but they're just plain badly shot and boring to watch.  The movie keeps on stressing that Jem's music is about hope and rising above bullying and hatred, as evidenced by fake Youtube videos that keep on interrupting the movie where fans talk about what her music means to them, and how it has helped them in their young lives.  It would be nice to hear those songs the fans are talking about, as I never heard any such messages in the music played during the film.

Jem and the Holograms is a misfire in just about every way imaginable, and the fact that the movie has a scene during the end credits that sets up a sequel (the scene involves the rival girl band from the cartoon, The Misfits) can only be seen as blind optimism on the part of the filmmakers.  Actually, that credit scene captures the spirit of the cartoon better than the movie that we just saw, kind of making you wonder why they didn't just go in that direction in the first place.

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Bridge of Spies Mini Review

Well, things have been crazy, and I haven't had a chance to write a full review for Bridge of Spies.  And with a crowded movie weekend coming up, I figured I would at least write this short review, because this latest film from Steven Spielberg is more than worthy of mention.

What could have easily been a dry and dull "history lesson" turns into a highly entertaining, thrilling, and surprisingly at times dryly witty film that really captivated me.  Set in the late 1950s, Tom Hanks plays attorney James Donovan who is charged with the task to defend in court Rudolf Abel (a wonderful Mark Rylance), who is suspected of being a Soviet spy.  Despite his best efforts, Donovan is unable to avoid a "guilty" verdict from a largely prejudiced courtroom.  However, he does manage to get Abel a prison sentence, rather than the death penalty.  In a parallel plot, an American spy pilot is shot down over Soviet territory.  The CIA, afraid of the information that the pilot may give, decides that a prisoner swap between Abel and the pilot is the best course of action, and Donovan must now make his way to Berlin, and negotiate a plan that can return both prisoners to their proper homes.

The screenplay, credited to Matt Charman, as well as the writing duo of Joel and Ethan Coen, is sprawling in scope.  It starts out as a courtroom drama, touches on the impact Donovan's decision to defend a Soviet spy has on his own reputation and how other people see him, and then ends as an intense spy negotiation thriller.  And yet, despite the constant changing of tones, the movie never once misses a beat.  This is a superbly constructed film, filled with great performances and individual moments that will stay in your mind long after the movie has ended.  In particular, a shot concerning some people attempting to climb the Berlin Wall is one of the most powerful Spielberg has pulled off in a while, and that's saying something.  The movie is filled with smart decisions, such as allowing a lot of scenes to play out silently, and with as little dialogue or background music as possible.  Spielberg lets the actors carry the emotion of each scene, and it works beautifully.

From the performances, to the way the film has been structured, Bridge of Spies is a surprisingly involving piece of work that serves as yet another reminder as to why Spielberg is one of the great living masters of the cinema format.  This is a superb film, filled with drama, tension, and a surprisingly smart sense of humor to itself.  One of the year's best.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Goosebumps

Before seeing this movie, my only experience with R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series of books was when I worked at a library, and would be putting his books back on the shelf.  They all had outlandish covers, with appropriately B-Movie titles like "Night of the Living Dummy", "The Cuckoo Clock of Doom" and "Monster Blood".  This new film adaptation is pretty much what I expected from looking at those covers long ago.  It's silly, energetic and just weird and spooky enough that kids will have a great time watching it.  What I didn't expect is how much I would enjoy it myself.  There are some moments where I genuinely laughed out loud, and it's just a lot of fun to watch.

Rather than try to adapt any of Stine's books, the filmmakers have instead decided to place the author himself (played here by a very game Jack Black) in the middle of a plot that brings many of his classic monsters, demons, ghouls and evil ventriloquist dummies to life.  Director Rob Letterman and screenwriter Darren Lemke (working from a story by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) find the right tone with the plot.  The set up of a teenager thinking that there is something weird and possibly murderous going on at the house next door has a certain Rear Window quality to it.  From there, it builds into a full-blown adventure story that hits the right notes of being creepy and fun.  The "scary" moments of the story are tense, but not so much so that kids of a certain age (I'd say around 8) can't handle it.  And even if the story does start to get a little scary, it's always in a way that lets the audience know you're not supposed to be taking this all that seriously.  For example, when the heroes are being chased down by a werewolf, the creature is wearing what looks like gym shorts for some reason.  I'm sure it makes sense if you've read the books, but it still got a laugh from me.

The plot kicks off when lonely teenager Zach (Dylan Minnette) moves with his mom (Amy Ryan) to the sleepy little town of Madison, Delaware.  Zach is not happy about his new surroundings ("Couldn't we live in Guantanamo Bay or North Korea?"), and is still trying to get over the recent death of his father.  At his new school, he quickly becomes friends with the awkward and geeky Champ (Ryan Lee).  But more importantly, he catches the eye of the sweet 16-year-old girl living next door, Hannah (Odeya Rush).  There's an obvious connection between the two, but Hannah is being kept under the strict and watchful eye of her obsessive father, "Mr. Shivers", who forbids her from being with anyone or going outside of the house.  We soon learn that her father is actually R.L. Stine, the reclusive author who wrote the series of Goosebumps books back in the 90s, but now spends his life moving from town to town, running from someone or possibly something.

Zach suspects something sinister going on at the Stine home when he hears what sounds like violent arguments between Hannah and her father late at night from his window.  He tries to report a domestic disturbance to the police, but when the cops arrive, everything seems normal.  This does not deter Zach from learning the truth.  While Stine is gone, he gets his friend Champ and they decide to investigate the house together.  As they search for information, they come across a room filled with Goosebumps manuscripts that are strangely being kept under lock and key.  Opening one of the books happens to somehow magically unleash the creature within, in this case the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena.  It seems that all of Stine's monsters that he has been writing about for years are real, as he has always had the ability to dream up creatures and bring them into reality.  He has kept them locked in these books all this time, and now that our heroes have accidentally released one, the other monsters want their freedom back as well.

Zach and his friends have the misfortune of accidentally unleashing one of Stine's most evil creations, a possessed ventriloquist dummy named Slappy (voiced by Jack Black, pulling double duty).  The malevolent little guy sets about releasing each and every monster from their proper book, and then burning the manuscript so that they can't be returned to their literary prisons.  Before long, the entire town is besieged by evil lawn gnomes, giant praying mantises, vampire poodles, killer clowns, and aliens with freeze ray guns.  As Stine joins up with the kids to face the demons he has created, he realizes that the only way to save the people is to write a new story that contains every monster he's ever written about, and trap them inside one book.  If this all sounds silly, that's because it is.  It's also a lot of fun.  Playing the famed children's horror author, Jack Black is obviously having a blast portraying him as a cantankerous and egotistical man who is so full of himself, he gets offended when someone calls him a Stephen King knockoff.  He also enjoys casually dropping the worldwide number of his book sales in the middle of a conversation for no reason.  Like the movie itself, Black finds the right note of intensity and humor with the various characters he plays throughout the film. (Aside from Stine and the evil Slappy, he also provides the voice for another monster, the mischievous Invisible Boy.)

The whole cast is actually much better than I expected.  Dylan Minnette and Odeya Rush make for a sweet on-screen couple, and they even get to share a nice moment when they visit an abandoned amusement park for a romantic scene early in the film.  Ryan Lee has the role as the comic relief best friend, and while he comes across as a bit grating at first, he does settle into the role and never becomes as annoying as I feared he would be at first.  There are also a number of supporting adult characters who get some big laughs through, chief among them being Jillian Bell as Zach's lovesick Aunt Lorraine.  Bell is becoming one of those actresses who show up in small roles in movies, and always winds up making a big impression.  She stole every scene she was in last year with 22 Jump Street, and here she does the same.  I also laughed a lot at the banter between Amanda Lund and Timothy Simons as a pair of over-zealous cops who find themselves in over their heads when the monsters arrive.

Goosebumps is a chaotic movie, with its non-stop action and various creatures lurking about seemingly every corner of the screen.  But, it also knows how to reign itself in and focus on the characters.  It has a genuinely funny script, and enough action to keep us involved.  The special effects used to bring the monsters to life (provided by Sony Animation Studios) work well enough, but don't exactly stand out in any way.  I really don't think kids will mind.  The movie does a great job of thrilling kids without actually scaring them, and it always has a sense of fun to itself.  And adults who used to read the books as kids can enjoy the various references and cameos to the different stories and monsters.  This is probably the best movie we could have hoped to be made from this particular franchise, and is probably more clever than you'd expect.  There are some fun nods and spoofs of horror cliches to look for.

This is one of those movies you don't exactly walk in with big expectations, but you wind up enjoying yourself more than you thought.  Should it spawn a franchise (and I think that is the intent), hopefully the filmmakers can keep the sense of silly fun that this film has in spades.

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Monday, October 19, 2015

Crimson Peak

"It's not a ghost story, it's a story with ghosts..."

This line of dialogue is spoken early in Crimson Peak by its heroine, Edith (Mia Wasikowska), as she struggles to find a publisher interested in her novel.  They could also be the words spoken by co-writer and director, Guillermo del Toro, to describe his own film.  Despite the ad campaign heavily marketing this as a Victorian Haunted House story for Halloween, this is in truth a romantic mystery that owes more to the works of Jane Austin than things that go bump in the night.

Del Toro has brought his usual sense of style and atmosphere, and has easily created the single most beautiful film I think I will see this year.  From the design of the Gothic old mansion that serves as most of the story's setting, to the recreations of the streets of 19th Century Buffalo, New York, just about any frame in this movie has some kind of visual beauty to it.  What bothered me is what lies beneath the surface.  This is a surprisingly simple story, with underwritten characters, a narrative that never truly engages and a mystery that almost seems to spell itself out for us at times.  Outside of the images, I was never engaged.  This is no fault of the talented cast, who do what they can with what they've been given.  All of the problems can be traced back to the script by del Toro and Matthew Robbins, which is far too light on genuine thrills and suspense to be effective.

As the film opens, Edith is living in a lovely and large mansion with her protective widower father and businessman, Carter (Jim Beaver).  Edith tells us in narration right at the beginning that she believes in ghosts, as she was visited by the spirit of her mother shortly after she died when Edith was just 10.  This flashback of the encounter is suitably chilling, and gets us ready for a lot of thrills, which sadly the film fails to deliver.  As Edith is trying her hand at being a novelist, hoping to sell a Gothic story she is working on, she has a chance encounter with the handsome Thomas (Tom Hiddleston), who has come all the way from Britain hoping that her father will help fund an invention that he is trying to get off the ground.  Accompanying Thomas at all times is his emotionally distant sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who always seems to be harboring some sort of secret, even when she's just playing the piano at a festive gathering.

Edith and Thomas fall madly in love, but Carter will not accept their relationship due to something he learns about Thomas' past.  Carter forces Thomas to break things off with his daughter, but shortly after that happens, tragedy strikes and Edith finds herself again in Thomas' arms.  They are married, and Edith soon finds herself shipped off to Thomas and Lucille's crumbling and decaying mansion home back in England.  The mansion has a large hole in the roof of the center room, lots of dark and mysterious hallways, as well as a few ghosts who seem to be trying to get Edith's attention and warn her about something.  Oh, and there's also the soil in the ground, which is heavy in red mineral which makes the constantly falling snow turn blood red when it hits the ground.  With all the ghostly warnings and secrets being revealed, we have to wonder why it takes Edith so long to put two and two together and realize that maybe Thomas and Lucille don't exactly have her best interests in mind.

Crimson Peak wants to be a romantic mystery thriller, but the truth is, the answers are far too obvious for the movie to be any fun.  It kind of kills the tension when the movie throws so much suspicion on certain characters, and then it just keeps on piling on the suspicion as if it thinks we don't realize who is behind it all.  Despite the constant warnings Edith gets from beyond the grave, she still seems naively clueless.  Del Toro does a great job establishing a creepy atmosphere, but he seems to be at a loss when it's time to actually deliver on the scares.  The ghosts that haunt the halls of the mansion are plainly CG, and sometimes don't look quite right with the live action settings.  Moreover, once the answers behind the mystery start coming, they are simply not frightening or engaging.  The constant shadows and dark corners of the setting promise more than the movie's premise can deliver.

This is one of those movies that grabs our attention solely with the visuals.  If we focus on the story being told, our attention drifts.  Strip away the darkly beautiful sets, with the cavernous hallways and dark spooky basement rooms filled with hidden secrets, and there's very little here to hold our attention.  Even the ghosts themselves seem to be an afterthought, and actually seem unnecessary the more you think back on the story.  They act almost like a red herring, making you think that something supernatural is afoot, when in reality, the evil behind it all is all too ordinary and not that interesting.  Again, this is of no fault of the cast.  They know how to play up the Victorian Melodrama angle and are doing their jobs.  This is a well-made movie built on a weak foundation.  The visuals and performances promise something truly thrilling, but the script betrays that trust.

Much like The Walk from a couple weeks ago, I really want to be more enthusiastic about Crimson Peak.  There is so much to admire here, but I simply cannot recommend the story it tries to tell.  There's just not enough to support the grand work of the set and visual artists and the actors.  Guillermo del Toro has always been a filmmaker with a strong visual sense, but he usually rewards us with a strong story as well.  This time, he goes for style over substance.

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