Reel Opinions


Sunday, January 31, 2016

Kung Fu Panda 3

Now here is a real and very pleasant surprise.  You would expect the latest installment of a beloved franchise like Kung Fu Panda being released in the dreary early days of the year would be a sign of trouble for the franchise.  Instead, Kung Fu Panda 3 is utterly charming, and just as likable as the previous two.  This is a series that has really grown on me over time, and has easily become my favorite films to come out from Dreamworks' fledgling animation studio.

We once again follow Po, the rotund and extremely likable martial arts panda hero.  He is also once again voiced by Jack Black, whose performance has easily made Po one of the most endearing animated heroes in recent memory in the past films, and is even better here.  Over the years, Po has embraced his place as the "Dragon Warrior", the legendary hero chosen by the wise and benevolent tortoise mentor Oogway (voice by Randall Duk Kim) to protect his village, and lead the Furious Five, a band of animal martial artists which includes the quick Monkey (Jackie Chan) and the stoic Tigress (Angelina Jolie).  But when his patient and sometimes long-suffering teacher, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), suddenly and unexpectedly tells Po that the time has come to teach the other students in the art of Kung Fu, it quickly seems that Po may be in over his head.  He may be the Dragon Warrior, but that doesn't mean he has the skill to successfully teach others.

Poor Po feels defeated, until he gets an unexpected surprise when his long-lost father, Li (Bryan Cranston), arrives in town to seek out his son.  The two are reunited and instantly bond.  Followers of the franchise know that over the years, Po has lived under the care and guidance of his adoptive father, the noodle shop owner Mr. Ping (James Hong), who just happens to be a goose.  Now that his adoptive son's biological father has returned, Ping feels threatened, and fears that he will lose Po.  This family triangle between Po and his two fathers generates some honestly emotional moments, as well as laughs, and is one of my favorite new angles that this sequel introduces to the main character.  However, Li's return also coincides with the return of another much more-menacing figure.  The brutal ox warlord Kai (J.K. Simmons) has found a way to return to the land of the living after being trapped in the spirit world for the past 500 years.  He plots to capture the spirit essence and energy (or "chi") of all the great Kung Fu masters, absorb their power and become invincible. 

All of this is mixed in with Po returning with Li to where he came from - a hidden village up in the mountains comprised entirely of pandas.  All this time, Po thought he was the only panda left in the world, and encountering an entire village of his kind is a total shock to the guy's very beliefs.  He plans to lead a relatively carefree life learning about the ways pandas move (they prefer to roll instead of walk), eat and generally live.  This is interrupted when the evil Kai arrives, seeking Po's chi.  It's at this point that Po must accept responsibility and teach his panda brothers and sisters the art of fighting so that they can protect their kind and way of life.  If Kung Fu Panda 3 sounds a bit plot heavy as I described it, especially for an animated family film, that's because it certainly can be at times.  But the swift screenplay by returning writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger never once gets bogged down.  It's generally funny with quite a few laugh out loud moments, very touching and endearing when it needs to be, and never once feels like its overreaching.

This is also just a simply beautiful movie to look at.  The film has a unique art style that mixes 2D and computer generated 3D animation at certain moments which really looks like nothing else out there.  Even the better stuff from Disney and Pixar doesn't often reach this level of detail and clarity.  There are also some wonderfully designed settings in the film, particularly the lost Panda Village and the ethereal Spirit Realm.  Directors Jennifer Yuh (who also directed Panda 2) and Alessandro Carloni fill the screen with so much detail, color and energy, but it never once becomes overwhelming.  They know how to perfectly balance the humor and fast paced action with more quiet moments.  The end result is the first animated feature since last year's Inside Out that can truly be enjoyed just as much, if not more so, by adults as it can be by kids.  The level of quality and care displayed here is probably what Dreamworks should have been doing all along.  If they had been doing stuff more of this quality, instead of forgettable fluff like Penguins of Madagascar and Home, they probably wouldn't be in the financial difficulty that they have been experiencing the past year or so.

It's rare to see such a top quality production like this in January, so I urge all families and fans of animation to support it.  Not only just so this wonderful franchise can continue, but also so that maybe we can get some other quality animated films this time of the year in the future, instead of disposable garbage like Norm of the NorthKung Fu Panda 3 is filled with so much life, humor and spirit that it immediately becomes the first great film of 2016.

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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Jane Got a Gun

Filmed in early 2013 and just now getting a halfhearted theatrical release, Jane Got a Gun looks and feels like a troubled production. You don't have to read the long behind the scenes story of this movie's trip to the big screen, which includes a variety of actors and directors who came and left the project, as well as last-minute script changes.  All you have to do is watch the film itself, and see how choppily it's been put together.  It feels like whole chunks of the film are missing, with multiple clumsily placed flashbacks to fill in the gaps.  Despite the talent up on the screen (and there are some good actors here), the movie ultimately is a very long and slow trip to nowhere in particular.

Set in the dusty New Mexico territory of 1871, Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman) is a wife and mother taking care of her young daughter as the film opens, when her husband, Bill (Noah Emmerich), comes riding in, nearly dead from multiple gunshot wounds in his back.  After treating him the best she can, Bill informs her that the Bishop gang, led by notorious outlaw Colin McCann (Ewan McGregor), are headed to their home to seek revenge for something that happened in the past. (The movie is intentionally vague at this point.) Seeking help, Jane drops her daughter off at a friend's, then heads to the home of a former lover, Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), who is not very happy to see her.  She pleads with him to help her husband and her in the upcoming attack, and he at first refuses.  But, by the time Jane has ridden into the nearby town to pick up some supplies for the battle to come, Dan has apparently changed his mind, and begins to help her prepare her home in order to fight back.

While Jane and Dan get ready to fight, the movie gives us one flashback after another, filling us in on the history between these characters.  These flashbacks are usually introduced with unintentionally funny subtitles which read "1864 - Seven years before", in case we can't figure out for ourselves that 1864 happened seven years before 1871, where the present action is taking place.  The next flashback is five years earlier, then eight, then it's six years earlier...It gets to the point that you need a scorecard to keep track of what happened and when.  Most of these flashbacks revolve around how Jane and Dan used to be in love, but then he was sent off to fight in the war, and Jane somehow found herself in the arms of Bill by the time Dan came home.  Of course, there's a reason for this, and this will be explained in yet another flashback.  Further flashbacks will explain the bad blood between Jane's family and the gang of outlaws coming to her house. 

All of this information is unveiled to us slowly (as in very slowly).  I enjoy a slow burn movie as much as the next guy, but Jane Got a Gun sometimes feels like an experiment to see how much you can slow down a story with endless flashbacks and exposition dialogue.  Some of the information the flashbacks provide give us very little, such as the one that seems to consist solely of Jane and Dan happily frolicking through fields of wheat, then taking a hot air balloon ride.  I guess this is supposed to show us they were happy once.  Good for them.  The movie moves so lethargically to its destination, refusing to build any tension or dramatic interest.  When all the secrets and personal histories have finally been revealed to us, it's time for the big shootout scene, which never creates the suspense that it should.  But by then, I was happy just to have an action sequence of some sort, instead of another scene of the main characters talking about times long ago.

This is one of those movies where a documentary on the making of it would be more interesting than the actual movie itself.  As I mentioned, the movie not only sat on the studio's shelf for a long time (only to have the studio go bankrupt, and have it get picked up by another one), but the production itself was plagued with delays, problems, fights on the set between the talent, actors signing on then leaving the project, the original director leaving, and the script being constantly tinkered with in order to save what was obviously a doomed production.  Clearly, this script must have been very different at some point in order to attract talent like Portman (who also produced the film), Edgerton (who took a stab at the script at one point, and is credited as a co-writer) and McGregor.  The finished project, however, feels like a lot of stuff got left on the cutting room floor.  What wound up on the screen is a narrative nightmare that jumps around to different time periods with little sense of time or place.

Maybe Jane Got a Gun was troubled from the start, and no matter how many talented people they threw at it, they weren't going to save it.  It certainly feels like it.  While I'm sure this film started out with the best of intentions, it ended up as one of those movies that the cast have long, sad talks with their agents about.

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Friday, January 29, 2016

The Finest Hours

I am of the belief that a film does not need to be wholly original in order to be successful.  The Finest Hours is a testament to that belief.  The movie can be incredibly corny in some of its dramatized moments, and it obviously plays loose with a couple facts in order for it to fit the template for a Hollywood feel good story.  And yet, there's no denying that this is a highly effective film.  As an action thriller, the movie is wonderfully tense, and some of the action and special effects sequences are downright jaw dropping.

The plot of the film is taken from the true story of the S.S. Pendleton, and the rescue mission surrounding the ship which occurred on February 18, 1952.  The Pendleton broke apart during a ferocious storm at sea, stranding 34 crewmen upon the ruins of the ship as it slowly began to sink.  The Coast Guard at the time was busy tackling another emergency, so they could only send out four men to answer the Pendleton's distress call.  The leader of the rescue crew is Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), who has a haunted past concerning a previous failed rescue mission, and a woman waiting back on land named Miriam (Holliday Grainger), who is hoping to marry him and forces her way into the Coast Guard office so she can immediately hear any word about his situation during the rescue mission.  The film's opening 20 or so minutes deals with Bernie and Miriam's relationship, and frankly, it doesn't get the film off to a good start.  Their romance feels incredibly rushed and kind of cornball cute.  But once the action switches to the disaster on the Pendleton, the movie picks up and doesn't slow down for a minute.

The screenplay successfully balances two stories at once, as it covers not only the rescue attempt by Bernie and his limited crew, but also focuses on the men of the Pendleton and their efforts to survive and keep the ship above water as long as they can.  The man placed in charge of the crew's survival is Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), who is not well-liked by the man, but the injured head of the crew puts him in charge, because he knows the ship better than anyone else, and can keep everyone alive the longest.  The movie does a wonderful job of building suspense here.  We know in the back of our heads that things will most likely end well, but the movie does not for one minute hide from the fact that these men are facing certain death.  Even though the film is being released underneath the Disney logo, parents should heed the PG-13 rating.  This is not really a film for children, as it gets incredibly intense at times.  This is a life and death struggle for everyone involved, and the movie never once lets us forget that.

Another thing that adds to the effectiveness of The Finest Hours is the remarkable special effects work.  Even though a lot of the storm and ruined ship effects were obviously done with computers, they are completely convincing, and never once looks like it was shot on a soundstage, unlike the recent sea adventure stinker, In the Heart of the Sea.  We can feel the chill and cold , as well as the danger these characters are going through.  This is a film that creates a wonderful sense of place and atmosphere, so we become so absorbed in the action, we forget about everything around us.  It really is amazing to see such a technically efficient film being released during the dreary days of January.  The effects work here is as good as anything you would see in your average summer blockbuster, and I have no idea why the Disney Corporation has decided to bury it this early in the year.

Before I move on, I would like to make one more note regarding the effects and the visuals of the film.  The movie is being shown in both the 3D and 2D format, and should you have the choice, definitely go for 2D.  This is a movie that is shot largely at night or in dark stormy seas, and wearing those glasses will only make the images loose impact and color.  Some people who saw the movie in 3D complained that the nighttime images looked muddy, and since this movie is pretty much 90% nighttime shots, you'll wind up paying a higher ticket price for a worse viewing experience.  While I'm sure some of the storm and shipwreck effects are great in 3D, it's not worth losing so much visual clarity for almost the whole movie.  In fact, I could see how that might affect your enjoyment of the film itself.

That being said, The Finest Hours works purely on a thrill ride and suspense level.  Yes, the performances are fine, even if the characters are not as well developed as they could be, but that's not why we're here.  We're here for spectacle, and the movie delivers in spades without once dumbing things down.  In fact, in terms of sheer intensity in terms of action at sea, this movie could be compared to 2000's The Perfect Storm.  It packs the same visual punch and sense of danger, but is a bit more hopeful than that film was.  This film strikes the perfect balance of creating a dangerous atmosphere, while at the same time not bogging us down with depression or terror.  Like I said earlier, once the movie gets past the slow opening and corny character introductions, it quickly evolves into a film that is tight, concise, and exciting as hell.

This is the first mainstream January release I've seen this year that doesn't feel like it's being shoveled out by the studio just to sucker some bored audience members.  In fact, I don't know why it's being released now, and not in a better time of the year.  I'm not saying The Finest Hours is a classic or anything, as it does have its flaws.  But it certainly deserves better company than a lot of the movies that are currently playing on screens.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The 5th Wave

The 5th Wave is a teenage drama about a struggle between humanity and an alien race known as The Others for control of the Earth.  I suspect there was a struggle over the tone of the film by the three credited screenwriters (Susannah Grant, Akiva Goldsman and Jeff Pinkner), as the movie often comes across as two completely different films struggling for dominance.  In one movie, we have the stuff about the alien invasion, and humanity's will to survive.  In the other, we have one of the dopiest teen romance stories to hit the screen in years.

You can probably already guess which part of the movie interested me more.  The opening 40 minutes or so of the film are a surprisingly dark, violent and brutal depiction of mankind's downfall as The Others arrive, and slowly begin to wipe out humanity in a series of attacks (or "Waves").  We later learn that the invaders want to populate our planet, and need to get rid of us first in order to do so.  However, we never learn exactly why, where they came from, or what happened to their previous planet.  I'm sure the original novel and its sequels by Rick Yancey goes into much more detail.  So far, The Others have launched four Waves of attacks on humanity.  The first Wave was a massive electromagnetic pulse which wiped out all electricity and power to our planet.  The second was a series of coastal floods that wiped out a large majority of the population, and destroyed every coastal town and city.  The third attack was a deadly virus which was spread by The Others using the birds of our planet.  By the time the 4th Wave came along, The Others had started inhabiting human hosts like parasites, and began gunning down the few surviving humans like snipers.

All of this is seen through the eyes of Cassie Sullivan (Chloe Grace Moretz), who begins the film as a typical suburban teenager.  She has a crush on the local high school football hero (Nick Robinson), parties with her friends, and looks after and cares for her little brother, Sam (Zackary Arthur).  When The Others arrived, Cassie's life changed little by little, until she was ultimately forced to watch most of her friends die, and even lost her mother to the virus attack.  Now it's just her, Sam and their father (Ron Livingston), as they flee their home and attempt to make it to a camp of human survivors who are making a life for themselves amongst the carnage of the world around them.  After spending an unspecified amount of time at the camp with her family, the military rides in with their armored vehicles, saying they are there to help.  As soon as they show up, Cassie asks why the military has power and energy to fuel their vehicles and equipment, while the rest of the world does not.  Good question.  Too bad the movie forgets to answer it.

The head of the military operation is Colonel Vosch (Liev Schrieber), and he promptly goes about separating the kids and adults in the camp.  He places the kids on buses that will take them to a military base where they will be safe, and assures everyone that the parents will be taken to the same base later on.  Cassie, however, gets left behind (she got off the bus in order to get Sam's teddy bear, and doesn't make it back in time before it leaves), and learns that the military are not who they say they are by witnessing a terrible scene of violence.  Now, Cassie must flee alone, and find a way to get back to her little brother.  Up to this point, I was completely with the movie, and found it strongly compelling for something that's supposed to be marketed for the teenage girl crowd.  But then, she runs into Evan Walker (Alex Roe), a handsome young man who lives alone in a farmhouse, and claims that his family was wiped out by The Others.  This is when the romantic subplot of the movie kicks in, and I gradually lost interest.

From this point, The 5th Wave becomes two completely different movies that feel like they are constantly pushing each other aside, competing for our attention.  In one plot, we follow her little brother Sam as he is trained to be a youth soldier by the suspicious Colonel Vosch, along with a bunch of other kids and teens.  One of the other kids in his squad just happens to be that former football jock that Cassie had a crush on at the start of the film, and both Sam and the football hero kid form a bond.  The other plot is a totally silly and completely ineffective love story as Cassie slowly falls for the rugged and mysterious Evan.  We get a lot of scenes of Cassie oogling Evan from afar, as he chops firewood, or bathes in the nude in the middle of a natural spring.  Cassie, who starts the film off as a capable and sympathetic young woman, suddenly turns into your typical underwritten romantic heroine, who falls for the young guy simply because of his body, and not because the two get to share any personal moments or connection.  Watching the scenes between Cassie and Evan, you can almost hear the awful romantic narration that would normally go over their actions. ("I quivered at the sight of him chopping the firewood outside, and I could barely sustain my lust...")

I have not read the original novel, but doing some research, I learned it received excellent reviews, and that it can be enjoyed by adults as much as the teen audience it was intended for.  With this in mind, I have to guess that the romantic angle is much smarter in the book than here, because the romantic leads here come across as personality deprived and shallow.  The fact that the original author has recently expressed disappointment with the film adaptation backs up this theory.  Why do this?  So many teen movies give us unconvincing relationships that hijack the entire story.  Why not use the same intelligence you used on the part of the movie that covers the alien invasion on the romantic angle?  Why not give these characters something to talk about, or give them strong personalities that they can play off of one another?  Or better yet, how about not giving us a romantic subplot at all?  How about making the guy interested in the girl, but she's too driven to find and save her brother that she doesn't have time?

Sadly, this is not the only way in which The 5th Wave betrays the interest it builds in its opening half.  Eventually, the movie becomes a string of Young Adult cliches that we have seen in the numerous post apocalyptic teen dramas over the past few years.  I have expressed in previous reviews that these movies are all starting to look the same to me, and how I am finding it harder to generate excitement within myself when I have to watch yet another story about a teenage girl who rises up or leads a rebellion against a tyrannical regime, and still finds time for a romantic love triangle.  This movie at least saves its love triangle aspect for the sequel, should it ever get made. (The box office returns have not been too strong.) Late in the film, Cassie has a run in and teams up with her high school crush from before all of this started, and there are hints that she will have to choose between him and the rugged Evan at some point.  I'm sure that certain members of the audience will find the question of whom Cassie will end up with endlessly fascinating.  I personally could take it or leave it, and will not feel any loss if no more movies are made.

If only this movie had been allowed to be different.  If they had cut out all the required elements and trappings of a Young Adult Sci-Fi story, this could have been a game changer for the genre.  Instead, we get another cookie cutter offering of a genre that gets less interesting with each installment of each franchise.  There is stuff to admire here, but it gets drowned out by stuff we've seen too many times before.

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Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Danish Girl

Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl tells the story of transgender artist Lili Elbe, and tells the story with beautiful settings and strong performances.  But something crucial is missing, and that is passion.  This is a very pretty, but rather mannered and drippy biopic that never gets close to the heart of the matter.  It is oddly restrained, and feels like it's been test marketed within an inch of its life in order to desperately appeal to the widest audience possible.

The movie has been designed not to offend, and not to spark any real conversation.  It's simply there to look pretty, and maybe score some Oscar nominations for its performances.  It doesn't even have the nerve to truly be about the transgender figure who is at the center of the story.  Rather, a lot of the focus is put on Lili's wife, Gerda, who serves as the emotional core for much of the film.  Gerda is played in the film by rising actress Alicia Vikander (from Ex Machina), and she does a great job showing her conflicted emotions as her husband, Einar Wegener, slowly assumes the identity of Lili Elbe, and becomes one of the first people ever to undergo a sex change operation.  That definitely should be a part of the story, but where the movie comes up short is in depicting Einar/Lili's courage in choosing which life to live.  The movie goes way too easy, giving Lili no real obstacles in the outside world, and no one really questioning the decision to change genders in the 1920s.

Recent Oscar-winner, Eddie Redmayne, has the difficult role of Einar and Lili.  He starts the film as a successful landscape artist, while his wife Gerda struggles with selling her portrait artwork.  One day, Gerda needs a female model, and Einar has to step in.  Later, for a laugh, Einar decides to attend a party disguised as a woman.  This is the first time he steps into his Lili identity, and we can see the outside change.  He gradually becomes more comfortable as Lili over time, and begins to associate more with this side than with his own self.  Just think about what a fascinating movie we could have if it could truly explore the mind of this man, and his ultimate decision to go through a gender change surgery, despite the dangers and unpredictability of the procedure.  Unfortunately, in this film, the change from Einar to Lili is merely surface-deep.  We see him change on the outside, but we never truly get to explore what's going on inside of him.  Instead, we get a "love conquers all" story, about how Gerda decides to support and stay by the side of her former husband during the difficult procedure.  The movie plays it safe and focuses on the relationship, rather than the person at the center of the story.

That's not to say that there are no beautiful moments in The Danish Girl.  There's a wonderful scene with no dialogue where Einar goes to a strip joint, and as he is watching the dancer on the other side of the glass, he begins to imitate her movements.  We can see the joy and longing in him as he mimics her movements, and it's one of the few moments in the film where we truly sense his inner desire.  It's also one of the few moments where Einar/Lili is truly alone, and we get to see the struggle within.  Most of the film are scenes between Gerda and her former husband, and while they are well-acted, they are mostly stoic and oddly understated.  We don't get a real sense of what their relationship was like before all of this happened, and what this gender change is truly doing to them.  There are obviously tears and fights, but even these seem oddly restrained.  It feels like the script has been confined.  It doesn't want to push too much, or probe too close into these characters and the situation.  It doesn't want to offend, doesn't want to spark real thought about the subject matter, and most of all, it simply wants to be a fairly standard bio movie about a subject matter that really should explode right there on the screen.

Much attention has been given to Redmayne's performance, and how he seems to transform himself right there on the screen in his role.  It is indeed impressive, both the transformation and the performance itself.  But, in the end, it is simply the showier of the two lead roles.  It is Vikander as Gerda who has the more three dimensional personality, and the scenes that pack more emotional weight.  I don't think I need to explain how or why this is wrong.  She does bring some life to the performance that probably wasn't there on the written page, as does Redmayne.  Most of the dialogue in this film is very mannered and kind of stuffy.  So is the movie itself, on the whole.  Director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech, Les Miserables) has a talent for making beautiful movies, but this time, he forgets to give us something to feel along with the visuals.  He simply wants to make a movie that wins awards and looks important, instead of truly exploring the difficulties the subject matter presents itself with.

The Danish Girl ends up being very gentle and mute with its emotions, which is obviously the wrong approach to go with this material.  I would actually love to see another filmmaker tackle this story, preferably in a more probing and powerful way.  As it stands, this is a very pretty movie that is well acted and has been made with the greatest of care.  It's just not that powerful or memorable.

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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Dirty Grandpa

The whole time I was watching Dirty Grandpa, I found myself thinking back to Bad Grandpa.  That was that comedy from a couple years ago that featured Johnny Knoxville hidden under old man make up, doing a lot of crude hidden camera pranks on unsuspecting every day people.  That wasn't exactly a great movie, but it had some laughs at least.  That's more than I can say for this movie, where I did not laugh once.  You know you're watching a bad movie when Robert De Niro is up there on the screen, and you find yourself wishing you were watching the guy from Jackass.

And oh yes, Dirty Grandpa is a very bad movie.  Lousy, even.  It's built solely around the idea that De Niro playing a horny old man whose dialogue is made up of endless innuendos, and dreams of having sex with college women is all a comedy needs to be successful.  It exists only to shock and offend.  Okay, fair enough.  But in order for us to be shocked and offended, we also have to be invested in what's going on.  If all you've got is one of our great actors insulting everybody's manhood and screaming about tits and ass, you obviously aren't trying hard enough.  That's exactly this movie's problem.  It doesn't want to try.  Oh, it's certainly gross and inappropriate, but that alone doesn't make a successful shocking comedy.  The better movies of filmmakers like Mel Brooks and the Farrelly Brothers understood this.  Your jokes are not simply the shock value, rather your jokes should build from the shock itself.

Here, we get a tepid road trip comedy with De Niro as the horny old coot, Dick Kelly, and Zac Efron as his suffering and constantly embarrassed grandson, Jason.  They're on a trek across Florida during Spring Break, so that De Niro's character can have sex with a woman much younger than him.  His wife has just died, and he hasn't had sex in 20 years, so he's more than ready.  As for Efron?  His character is a young, up-tight lawyer who is about to get married to a Bridezilla, and has never actually lived life.  So, naturally, this trip is also designed so that the grandson can cut loose and have fun for the first time in his life, and realize that people have been controlling him and telling him what to do his entire life.  Yes, just like all recent raunchy comedies, this one has to have a message tacked on, and turn all gooey and sentimental near the end.  Dick Kelly may be insensitive, a racist, a jerk, and an oversexed old dog, but he really does care about his grandson, and he also wants to improve his relationship with his son (Jason's dad), because he was never there for him growing up.  Barf.

We're supposed to be happy to see the two characters bond during the trip, and we're also supposed to be happy that Efron's character sees how life really is.  Also, he realizes that he doesn't actually love his fiance, rather he loves an old friend from his college days (Zoey Deutch) that he bumps into early on in the film.  But the two actors never create a believable chemistry with each other.  They start out estranged and distant, as they haven't seen each other in years.  And when the movie reaches its happy end, they still seem like they don't actually like being near each other.  De Niro I can completely understand.  He's obviously in paycheck mode with this one, and didn't have to bring his best to the set.  And Efron?  His popularity with audiences continues to elude me.  Sure, he is good looking, but he has no screen presence or comic timing.  This isn't just something I noticed here, it's the same with every performance I've seen him in.  Any relatively handsome guy under 30 could do most of the things that he does.

But the acting isn't even the real problem here, it's the script itself.  It's the kind that thinks that talking dirty and four-letter words being repeated endlessly is funny.    It builds contrived embarrassing situations that don't seem real in the first place, so we don't laugh.  There's a particularly horrible scene where Jason finds himself naked on a beach, with only a stuffed bee toy covering his privates.  His fiance calls, and wants to talk on video chat.  She brings her parents, and even their Rabi in on the call, as Jason frantically tries to pretend he's not naked on a beach, that he's at home.  It gets even worse when some random little boy runs up to him, and wants to play with the toy that's covering his privates.  This isn't an embarrassing situation, it's simply stupidity building on itself to the point that we give up on the scene and wait for it to end.

But that's just the kind of movie that Dirty Grandpa is.  It tries so hard to push edges and boundaries, and only ends up falling flat with each attempt.  It doesn't understand that merely pushing isn't enough.  We have to be invested in what's happening, and who this stuff is happening to.  Adding a layer of sentimentality to the film's final half hour isn't going to do that.  We have to like these people from the start when they're being crude.  I never liked these characters, and liked them even less when the movie was trying to force me to like them.

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Carol

Some critics have accused Carol of being too cold and distant with its romance between its two central female figures.  In fact, some have said that very issue is why the movie, despite getting many Oscar nominations, missed out on the big prize of Best Picture.  I would challenge that notion, and say that this is not a cold movie, but rather an intentionally reserved one.  Its two characters are forced to be guarded with each other because of the era they live in.  They are not so much cold, as it is quiet, restrained and absolutely beautiful.

On the surface, the movie is about two women who are plainly attracted to each other, but they must abide by society's rules at the time (the film is set in the 1950s), and keep their feelings secret.  They even at times feel the need to keep it secret when they are alone, and it is not until later in the film that they finally start to get fleetingly comfortable with expressing their love.  The titular Carol (Cate Blanchett) seems to be the bolder and more confident of the two, but she has plenty of struggles in her private life, most of them revolving around her former husband (Kyle Chandler) and their young daughter.  He is upset about her secret sex life that came out during the course of their marriage, and wants to use this against her in order to get full custody of the child.  Carol is willing to fight, but we can also see that she is very weary, perhaps almost defeated.  Our other main character is Therese (Rooney Mara), a quiet and somewhat sad young shopgirl working in an upscale department store in New York.  She has some good friends outside of work, but she is plainly lonely.

Carol picks up on this when she sees her working at the store one day, and they strike up a conversation while Carol is shopping for a Christmas present for her daughter.  Their conversation is friendly, but even then, there is a hint at a non-verbal attraction.  This is most likely why the film's detractors accuse it of being "cold" or "distant".  Most of the feelings between Carol and Therese are visual instead of verbal, and exist in the performances, or how the women look at or act around each other.  A lot of their relationship is small talk, instead of flat-out innuendo.  And while it is focused on a forbidden relationship for the time, the feelings that they have are something that is almost universal.  It's the emotions anyone feels in the early moments of a relationship - Those moments when you know how you feel about the other person, and wonder if they feel the same way about you.  It also deals with the fear of admitting your real feelings to that other person. 

In the film, a lot of that fear comes from the culture, and how no one would accept them.  But the brilliance of Carol is that the emotions can be felt by just about everyone, and it doesn't just have to be because of social prejudices.  There is always a fear of misunderstanding in every relationship, and that movie taps entirely into that nervousness during the early going.  Are you going too far with your emotions?  Will the other accept?  You feel like you are constantly being judged, and I think a lot of that is felt by the Therese character.  The reserved feelings these two characters have for each other is not "coldness", its them trying to get a feel for each other.  There is also always the sense that no one will understand them, and the movie never lets us forget that.  The love story in this movie is quiet and subdued, but it still manages to come through.

It's this quietness and intimacy that really appealed to me.  The movie does have its moments of passion, but it doesn't need to shock or throw in our faces these heavy feelings that these characters are going through.  I actually found myself incredibly engaged with each little scene of Carol and Therese chatting in a diner, or getting comfortable with each other when they are together during a road trip that they take together.  These building emotions, mixed with the tension that they could be caught at any minute, creates a more gripping sensation than some recent thrillers that I could name.  It is a movie filled with passion, anguish and triumph, but it never rubs our face in it, or feels like it is playing it for dramatic effect.  Everything about this movie, from the performances to the production design of the time period, feels intimate and small.  There are no big moments that are designed to look really good in a trailer, or a clip during an Award show.  It is simply a story that is completely captivating in its intimacy.

Carol juggles the joy and anguish of relationships better than just about any recent movie that I can think of, and it does so without any forced moments or scenes that feel staged.  It even manages to end on a note that is just perfect for these two characters, and it's wise to close on no dialogue at all, just the looks the two women exchange with one another.  It says more than any words could.  Perhaps this movie is too subtle for some.  But I found it completely fascinating. 

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The Boy

The Boy is a supremely silly and not-at-all effective thriller.  It's about an elderly couple who live alone in a stately Gothic house with a creepy porcelain doll that is modeled after their eight-year-old son who died in a fire 20 years ago.  Yes, the doll looks creepy.  Now if the movie could think of something interesting or scary to have happen around it, we would be in business.  We might even have a real movie. 

The couple in question are Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire (Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle), whose gloomy old house is located in the middle of nowhere in the British countryside.  The only company they have, aside from each other and the doll used to remember their son, is a grocery delivery man named Malcolm (Rupert Evans), who stops by quite a bit to drop off food.  He must have been doing this a long time as the film opens, as he doesn't seem to find the couple's behavior surrounding the doll the least bit strange.  The Heelshires suddenly decide to leave on holiday, so they must hire a nanny to look after their "boy", whom they call Brahms.  The woman they pick is Greta (Lauren Cohan from TV's The Walking Dead), an American woman who is living in England in order to escape an abusive ex-boyfriend.  When she arrives for the nanny job, she is naturally confused by their request to look after this strange doll while they are away.  But, she needs the money to start a new life, so she takes it. 

She is given a long list of rules that she must follow in order to keep Brahms "happy".  These daily tasks include reading to him at a certain time each day, to playing his favorite music.  Before the Heelshires leave, they ominously inform her "be good to him, and he'll be good to you".  Naturally, as soon as the couple is gone, Greta puts Brahms away, and tries to go about her own business.  But, while she is alone in the house with the doll, strange things start happening.  She can hear the sound of someone moving about in different rooms of the house, or her clothes, jewelry and shoes will suddenly go missing, and show up somewhere else.  Strangest of all, the doll never seems to be in the last place she left it.  With Malcolm's help, the two do a few simple experiments, and come to the conclusion that the doll does seem to be moving around on its own.  After this, Greta starts pampering Brahms, much the same way the Heelshires did, and treating it like a living person.  Is she losing her mind?  Is the doll truly alive?  Both are intriguing questions, neither of which are explored all that deeply in the underdeveloped screenplay by first-time writer Stacey Menear. 

The Boy is what I like to call a "Step One" movie.  It has all the set up and early elements that could make an effectively creepy story.  That's Step One.  Step Two would be building on that, creating some actual tension, and rewarding our early curiosity with satisfying answers.  The movie never even bothers to make it to Step Two.  Instead, it simply wastes our time with scene after scene of Greta walking around dark hallways, thinking she heard something, when it turns out to be nothing, or it's just Brahms sitting on a bed, staring at her.  Even worse, the only scares that we do get for a majority of the film are of the "it's only a dream" variety.  The movie cheats time and time again by having something actually happen, only to suddenly cut to Greta springing up in bed in fright.  That's one of the most tired cop outs in the horror genre, and the fact that it's the only source of scares this movie can rely on seems to hint at desperation on the part of the filmmakers.

While we wait much longer than we should for something to actually happen, we do get to admire that the set design of the house itself is well done, and the performances really aren't even all that bad.  In her first lead role in a film, Lauren Cohan does at least create some sympathy for her character in her performance.  But so what?  We have come for thrills, and the movie offers us none.  And when we finally do get some answers in the last half of the movie as to what is really going on, they play like something out of a cheap slasher movie rip off from the 1980s.  And I'm not talking about the big-name slashers like Freddy, Jason and Michael Meyers.  This is like something out of one of those countless low rent knock offs that used to clog the horror aisle in video stores back in the day.  It's a ludicrous conclusion that not only refuses to give us any real answers, but makes even less sense when you think back on everything that happened before it.

As thrillers go, The Boy is about as tame as you can get, and has obviously been designed to sucker money out of some teenagers during a slow weekend in January.  My only wish is that audiences will be able to see right through it, and forget about this movie as soon as possible.  I know I plan on doing just that as soon as I finish this sentence.

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