Reel Opinions


Saturday, December 31, 2016

The 11th Annual Reel Stinkers Awards

It's New Year's Eve.  And as the clock ticks down the final moments of 2016, and everybody gets to look to the year ahead, I get to go back in time, and look at the movies that stole my money and my time the past year.

Yes, it's time once again for the Reel Stinkers Awards.  A time when I get to "honor" the worst of the worst that I sat through.  As you all know, bad movies come in all forms.  We've got blockbuster bombs, comedies with no laughs, thrillers that couldn't startle a mouse, unnecessary sequels, star vanity projects that went horribly wrong, and so much more!  I try to pick through the garbage, and find the really big stinkers.  Sure, I could easily make an entire list of cheap exploitation and low budget trash films, but where would the fun in that be?  I want to look back on the films that were big, or at least supposed to be big, and featured big talent, but still managed to fail.

As always, my "Best of the Year" article will likely come around February or so, as there are some late year releases still stuck in limited release at the moment, and will go wider during January and February.  I want to see and review as many of them as I can, so I always hold off on my Best list until then.

So, with all that out of the way, it's time to carve some cinematic turkeys!  Here's hoping that you didn't waste your money and time on them, and let us also hope that everyone involved with them will get to work on a good movie in 2017!

And now, I'm proud to give you...


THE 10 WORST FILMS OF 2016:

10. INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE - This 20 years too late sequel to the biggest summer blockbuster of 1996 was a total bomb in every sense of the word.   Even in a cinematic summer that (aside from a few exceptions) gave us one uninspired sequel after another, this one stands out as a total miscalculation on the part of the filmmakers.  It recycles the structure and basic ideas of the first, only with no life and enthusiasm.  It's like watching the Bizarro World version of the 1996 film.  Resurgence plugs in the same elements from the first movie (stock characters, big alien spaceship hovering over major cities, a lot of aerial dogfights and speeches about humanity coming together), and drains the sense and purpose out of it.  All we can do is watch with quiet despondence as the film slogs along.  There's never a sense of tension, humor, or even a scene that demands our attention.  None of the characters in Resurgence (original or returning from the last one) are the slightest bit interesting.  They exist to either shoot at aliens like targets in a video game, or make boring speeches.  The movie did, however, have the most ludicrous climax of all the summer movies, built around Judd Hirsch and Jeff Goldblum driving a school bus full of children through a desert while a giant Alien Queen chased after them.  From the poor dialogue, to the off tone acting, right down to the movie's views on interstellar life, this is as limp a summer blockbuster as there has ever been.
09. MAX STEEL - Based on a cartoon and toy line very few seem to remember, here is one of the goofiest and most downright incomprehensible superhero movies I have ever seen.  Max Steel is downright incoherent, with a plot that makes little sense, and characters that wish they were two dimensional.  It looks like it was expensive to make, but the filmmakers didn't bother to create any original images or ideas.  The hero of the movie wears a battle suit that resembles Iron Man, if Tony Stark happened to be a huge Power Rangers fan, and based his design of his suit on the show.  The villain wears a battle suit that looks like a reject from Tron.  The hero's sidekick is a little robot that looks like a failed design for a creature from a Star Wars movie.  The plot of the movie borrows heavily from 2002's Spider-Man film.  You get the idea.  Now that I think about it, is there anything in this movie that isn't borrowed from something else?  The film's teenage hero is so dull and uninteresting that he makes Peter Parker before he got the radioactive spider bite seem like Mr. Personality.  The plot centers around him trying to find out the truth of what happened to his scientist father, who apparently died in a mysterious lab accident that involved an explosion and a tornado. (You figure it out.) Max soon finds a robot that knew his father named Steel, and the two are able to combine their bodies to become the superhero Max Steel, which sounds less like a superhero and more like the name of a porn star.  For a movie based on an action figure, the plot in Max Steel is unnecessarily vague and more confusing than it has any right to be.  It's also easily one of the dumbest movies I sat through in 2016.
08. 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.  And just like a lot of "adult" comedies we got this year, it tries to get all sentimental on us in the last half.  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.
07. THE CHOICE -  The Choice is quite possibly the worst romantic melodrama I have seen in a long time.  The fact that it comes from the mind of the master of the genre, Nicholas Sparks, is particularly shocking.  There have been a couple good movies made off of Sparks' books (The Notebook being the gold standard), and yes, there have been plenty that have missed the mark.  But this movie is so lazy as to be mind boggling.  It plays like Sparks became sick of this story and these characters long before the audience does.  In a movie filled with improbable romantic moments, here is the one scene from this film that I will always remember.  After the two young lovers seem to have broken up for a while, the young man Travis realizes that he just can't live without the young woman Gabby.  So, what does he do?  He storms into the home of Gabby's parents, where she is currently staying, forcing his way in, and tells her he loves her and wants to marry her.  How does she take it?  She's annoyed, actually.  How do her parents take it?  They are so immediately smitten by this total stranger they have never met who has broken into their house to propose to their daughter that her mother actually takes her wedding ring off her finger, and gives it to Travis so that he can propose to her daughter with it.  The Choice seems to be a sign that even Sparks himself is getting tired of writing the same love story over and over.  I understand he's got a lucrative deal going on, but if this is the kind of stuff he's going to churn out, maybe it's time to slow down or stop completely.  People will come to this movie looking for some romantic escapism, and all they'll get is a cold and cynical experience by a writer who doesn't believe in what he writes about anymore.
06. ZOOLANDER 2 -  This is a stunningly awful career move on the part of Ben Stiller, who not only stars in this, but also directed, co-wrote and produced it.  It couldn't be more damaging to his film career if it had been made by someone who secretly hated him, and wanted to sabotage his career.  This movie has rounded up a lot of good talent, and then goes out of its way to either embarrass them, or give them little to do.  And since it can't think of anything funny to do with its cast, it just keeps on shoving celebrity cameos down our throats, hoping that alone will amuse us.  I'd wager to say a good part of the entertainment and fashion world gave up part of their time to participate in this.  In terms of cameos, off the top of my head, I can name Billy Zane, Benedict Cumberbatch, Justin Bieber, Kiefer Sutherland, Susan Sarandon, Katy Perry, Macaulay Culkin, John Malkovich, Sting, Willie Nelson, M.C. Hammer, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Susan Boyle, Tommy Hilfiger and Marc Jacobs to name a small few.  Again, none of these walk-on celebrities are given anything to do.  They were just paid to show up.  The plot is not really the issue in Zoolander 2.  It's everything else.  There is simply no excuse for professionals like the names I mentioned above being involved with a movie this wrong-headed and idiotic.  Yes, I know, the first movie was stupid, but it still knew how to have fun with itself and generate real laughs.  This sequel feels like a bunch of people have been gathered together, even though they don't want to be there.  They put on game faces and they try to make us laugh, but the screenplay foils their attempt at every turn by being as juvenile and unfunny as possible.  This is an appallingly tone deaf comedy that tries to get laughs out of the dumbest things possible.
05. NINE LIVES -  Barry Sonnenfeld's Nine Lives is a profoundly stupid movie.  It's about a billionaire New York businessman who is egotistical, full of himself and likes to put his name on every building he owns (Sound like anyone who's been in the headlines a lot this past year?), and how he learns to be a better father to his adult son and young daughter, and a better husband to his wife, while having his soul trapped in his daughter's cat.  Sometimes my mind boggles when certain movies get made.  This is one of those times.  Did anyone involved really think this was a good idea?  What scripts did the actors turn down in order to make this?  The movie stars Kevin Spacey.  Yes, Kevin Spacey, that most gifted and treasured of actors.  The man has won numerous awards, including the Oscar and the Tony.  Now he can probably expect a Razzie early next year.  The cat itself is played by a combination of a real cat, and a blatantly CG one for when it has to leap off a windowsill and bounce off an awning, or when it starts doing amazing dancing and backflip moves.  I'm not blaming the filmmakers for using special effects in order to display things that a real cat simply can't do.  I just wish they made more of an effort, so the effects would look slightly more convincing than Gumby and Pokey.  I will probably never know what drew Kevin Spacey to Nine Lives.  All I can say is I hope he got more out of it than I did.  At least he got paid.  I got to sit in the dark, and wonder what I was doing with my life for 90 minutes.
04. SUICIDE SQUAD -  Suicide Squad is not so much a movie, as it is an explosion at the screenplay factory.  We can see bits and pieces of workable ideas, and maybe an interesting character or two, but they've been pieced together by writer-director David Ayer (Fury) in such a way that the final result is a jumbled, sloppy mess of symbols and plot elements that never get going.  The movie has an interesting premise, taking a group of villains from the D.C. Comics roster, and having them be forced by the government to participate in a suicide mission.  However, it's all set up, demonstration and introductions, and it never builds to anything worth caring about.  Just imagine how fascinating a movie made up entirely of supervillains could have been.  How do they feel about being sent on what is basically a suicide mission for the government?  Do they crave vengeance?  Are they happy to be out on the streets again?  How do they feel about working together?  Ayer's screenplay doesn't come close to even breaking the surface of any of these questions.  Instead, he throws the characters headlong into one fight after another with CG creatures that are not very interesting to look at and are about as bright as the aliens from this summer's Independence Day: Resurgence.  With the severe edits this movie went through on its way to the big screen, it at times struggles to resemble a coherent narrative.  There are random flashbacks, misplaced subplots, ideas that seem like they used to be fleshed out a lot better before they ended up on the cutting room floor, and characters or plot elements that the film just doesn't bother to explain.  That's the kind of movie Suicide Squad ultimately is.  It rushes out information, then doesn't bother to explain or to focus on anything.  Instead, we get to watch a lot of mindless action, when we really just want to know who these people are.  This movie doesn't reward curiosity of interest.  It merely tramples it to the ground and goes screaming forward, creating an ugly, loud and forgettable experience.
03. THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM -  The Disappointments Room is a thriller in name only.  In reality, it's one of the more boring movies to hit in a while.  It has a suitably creepy haunted house setting, and seems to be building to an intriguing mystery early on.  But long before it's done, the mystery has been dropped for total confusion, tasteless scenes of children in peril, and an overall sense of indifference.  The only scary thing about it is that someone thought it was ready to be released.  I'd wager at least 65% of the movie contains nothing but lead star Kate Beckinsale slowly walking through halls and rooms while absolutely nothing happens.  A movie like this needs a smart approach to work, as it deals with such heavy issues as personal loss, grieving, child murder and endangerment and how a personal tragedy can affect an entire family.  But director and co-writer D.J. Caruso (I Am Number Four) has no sense of suspense or atmosphere, so he instead resorts to B-grade tricks such as jump scares accompanied by loud noises on the soundtrack, or ghostly little girls who stare morosely at our heroine, but don't really do much else.   How inept is this movie?  At one point a character is killed and left hanging from a noose on a tree, and is then apparently forgotten about, since nobody brings this up or mentions it ever again.  For all we know, they're still hanging there when the movie's over.  This is a movie completely devoid of thrills and tension.  It's a lifeless, dreary, dead in the water experience that doesn't bother to raise the slightest amount of interest in the viewer.
02. THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY - The Brothers Grimsby features a scene where the two main characters are forced to climb up into an elephant's rear end in order to escape some bad guys who are chasing them.  When the villains leave and our heroes are ready to get out of their unfortunate hiding place, a horny male elephant comes along, and inserts its massive sexual organ into the space where the main characters are hiding, leading to graphic close up shots of the film's stars being slapped in the face by the intruding organ.  You just never know what you're going to see when you're at the movies!  The two stars in question who find themselves in this predicament are Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Strong.  Both are fine actors, but are cast to the winds here by a mostly witless screenplay, which was co-written by Cohen.   It's intended to be a spy spoof, but it doesn't try to find any humor in the genre.  Instead, it takes aim at the poor and uneducated of England, the handicapped, AIDS, and celebrities like Daniel Radcliffe, Bill Cosby and Donald Trump.  Oh, and it also is obsessed with gags concerning anal cavities.  Besides the one involving the elephant, it also has a running gag about how Cohen finds himself in situations with a lighted firework stuck up his nether regions.  This is a movie that the filmmakers obviously knew wasn't working while they were making it, so they tried to throw in a lot of shock humor to grab our attention.  Nothing works here.  The overall tone of the movie is morose for a comedy, the editing looks like it was hacked with a chainsaw leading to gaping plot holes, and nobody looks like they were having fun making this.  The audience shares in their misery.

01. MOTHER'S DAY - I have a few questions regarding Mother's Day.  First, from what deep pit of romantic comedy sitcom hell did this movie spawn from?  Second, how does a movie this insulting even get made?  And third, what possessed talented people like Julia Roberts, Jennifer Aniston, Jason Sudeikis and Kate Hudson to get involved with it?  Did they all lose a bet?  The movie is directed by Garry Marshall (who passed away shortly after this came out), and I know he had a reputation for being one of the nicest guys in Hollywood to work with.  But no matter how great of a guy he was, nothing can excuse this movie.  Here is a film filled with one improbable scene after another, as the movie combines a bunch of intersecting plots and characters all built around the days leading up to the titular holiday.  Such plots include two people getting their hands stuck in a vending machine and falling in love with each other while trapped, some racist and homophobic redneck parents learning to accept their daughters (one of whom is married to an Indian man, and the other is a lesbian), a police chase involving a parade float made up of a paper mache vagina, and a woman getting advice on love and relationships from a very wise birthday clown.  Is there anyone reading this who thinks this sounds like a remotely plausible movie?  Heck, I don't think these ideas credited to three different screenwriters could have seemed plausible or even workable on paper.  Blown up on the big screen, and seeing these likable actors drudging through material like this is akin to watching your friends and family have to wallow through mud.  It's depressing, and you just want it to stop as quickly as possible.  There's not a single moment that isn't calculated, manipulative, sappy or idiotic.  Watching this movie, you almost feel like the people involved have never even seen a movie in their lives.  Yet, there are a lot of professionals both on and behind the camera.  Heck, Garry Marshall had 18 feature films to his credit.  But you wouldn't know that here.  Mother's Day is simply insulting.  It's insulting to its namesake holiday, insulting to mothers in general, and insulting to the intelligence of anyone who watches it.  But hey, at least it has a happy ending!  People fall in love, families are reunited, and the movie ends.  I liked that last part the best.


Well, that covers the Top 10, but I am far from finished.  It's time to cover the Dishonorable Mentions, the films that were bad, but not quite bad enough to break into the top spots.  Don't let that fool you into thinking these movies are somehow better than what's come before, however.  You should avoid any and all movies that appear on this list.  With that said, let's roll out the next batch of stinkers!


DISHONORABLE MENTIONS:

Ride Along 2, Norm of the North, The Boy, Jane Got a Gun, How to Be Single, Gods of Egypt, Triple 9, London Has Fallen, Hardcore Henry, The Boss, Criminal, The Huntsman: Winter's War, Ratchet & Clank, The Darkness, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Warcraft, Free State of Jones, The Purge: Election Year, Ghostbusters, Ice Age: Collision Course: Sausage Party, Mechanic: Resurrection, Morgan, Blair Witch, Masterminds, Keeping Up with the Joneses, Shut In, Collateral Beauty, Assassin's Creed, Why Him?


INDIVIDUAL REEL STINKERS AWARDS: 

WORST SEQUEL:
Zoolander 2

MOST UNNECESSARY SEQUEL:
Blair Witch

WORST REMAKE:
Ghostbusters

WORST PERFORMANCE BY AN A-LIST ACTOR/ACTRESS:
Kevin Spacey in Nine Lives 

OVERALL WORST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR/ACTRESS:
Jesse Eisenberg in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

WORST IDEA FOR A MOVIE THAT NEVER COULD HAVE WORKED:
Mother's Day

REPEAT OFFENDERS (ACTORS WHO WERE INVOLVED IN MORE THAN ONE STINKER IN 2016):
Ken Jeong in Ride Along 2 and Norm of the North
Penelope Cruz in Zoolander 2 and The Brothers Grimsby
Rebel Wilson in How to Be Single and The Brothers Grimsby
Gerard Butler in Gods of Egypt and London Has Fallen
Gal Gadot in Triple 9, Criminal and Keeping Up with the Joneses
Radha Mitchell in London Has Fallen and The Darkness
Zac Efron in Dirty Grandpa and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising
Kristen Wiig in Zoolander 2Ghostbusters, Sausage Party and Masterminds
Melissa McCarthy in The Boss and Ghostbusters
Chris Hemsworth in The Huntsman: Winter’s War and Ghostbusters
Jennifer Garner in Mother’s Day and Nine Lives
Seth Rogen in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising and Sausage Party
Tommy Lee Jones in Criminal and Mechanic: Resurrection
Sam Hazeldine in The Brothers Grimsby, The Huntsman: Winter’s War and Mechanic: Resurrection
Michelle Yeoh in Mechanic: Resurrection and Morgan
Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters and Masterminds
Leslie Jones in Ghostbusters and Masterminds
Jason Sudeikis in Mother’s Day and Masterminds
Owen Wilson in Zoolander 2 and Masterminds
Andy Garcia in Ghostbusters and Max Steel
Zach Galifianakis in Masterminds and Keeping Up with the Joneses
Isla Fisher in The Brothers Grimsby and Keeping Up with the Joneses
Will Smith in Suicide Squad and Collateral Beauty
Adam Devine in Ice Age: Collision Course and Why Him?
Zoey Deutch in Dirty Grandpa and Why Him?

WORST ON-SCREEN TEAM:
Max and Steel in Max Steel

MOST OBNOXIOUS MARKETING AND PRE-RELEASE HYPE:
Ghostbusters

STUDIO THAT RELEASED THE MOST STINKERS IN 2016:
Lionsgate/Summit Films for bringing us Norm of the North, Dirty Grandpa, The Choice, Gods of Egypt, Criminal, Mechanic: Resurrection, and Blair Witch

Well, that's the worst of 2016 in a nutshell.  Time to look ahead to 2017, and hope for the best.  Have a wonderful and safe new year, everybody!

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Why Him?

The director and co-writer of Why Him? is John Hamburg, who is best known for writing Meet the Parents and its two Focker sequels.  I bring this up, because he is essentially stealing from himself here.  He once again is doing a comedy about the generational gap as a group of people come together for a family bonding weekend.  However, he apparently felt that if he added a whole bunch of "F-Bombs" and gross out gags involving a dead moose preserved in a tank full of urine, it would make things more interesting.  He was wrong.

Here is yet another fairly desperate example of what I can only describe as "feel good smut".  Why Him? wants to shock us by including pretty much every curse word under the sun and having them used repeatedly to the point that you think the cast were getting paid extra for each time they slipped one into their dialogue.  But then, it also wants us to fall in love with these characters, so it gets all soft and gooey at the end, and wraps up with everybody getting together for Christmas and singing carols.  I fail to see the appeal of this approach, yet Hollywood keeps on doing it.  If you want to make a hard and edgy comedy, go all the way.  Don't cop out and end things with a sparkle in the eye and a message of family togetherness.  I have nothing against movies wanting to end on a happy note, but when you build your movie around your main characters behaving like foulmouthed jerks, and then end with them with their arms around each other in Yuletide glee, it just comes across as being unconvincing.  The movie has not earned its feel good ending.

The movie stars Bryan Cranston as the stern and uptight father of a Stanford University senior (Zoey Deutch from Everybody Wants Some!), and James Franco as the goofy and far-too-eager to please man who wants to marry Cranston's daughter.  The rivalry and eventual relationship between these two men is what drives the screenplay.  It drives it so much that the women in this movie are pretty much ignored for the entire running time.  The daughter is more or less treated as a prop who usually stands in the background while her father and boyfriend exchange dialogue.  Sometimes she gets a private moment with each of the two stars, but they don't amount to anything.  Megan Mullally, who plays Cranston's wife, is given even less to do.  Heck, the movie goes so far as to shortchange her character.  Much of the movie is built around the fact that Franco wants to marry the daughter, but won't do so unless he gets Cranston's blessing.  Not once does he even talk to the mother about this, nor does he ever ask for her blessing.

Cranston plays Ned Fleming, the longtime owner of a printing business that is about to go broke.  When his daughter falls for Franco's Laird Mayhew, Ned, his wife, and his teenage son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) fly to California to meet him.  Turns out Laird is a tech billionaire and the mind behind a highly successful series of video games and apps.  He lives in a massive house overlooking Silicon Valley, which is littered with various pieces of pornographic art, which the film constantly makes references to, as if it thinks we don't get the joke.  His house also is filled with various friends, co-workers, celebrity chefs and the occasional farm animal.  He has a high-tech Japanese toilet, a very nosy and intrusive Siri-like computer device (voice by Kaley Cuoco), and a right-hand man named Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key) who more or less runs things both around the home and in Laird's personal life.

Why Him? doesn't really have anything to say about the lavish lifestyle Laird leads, nor does it make much of a satirical effort.  Instead, the movie plays the same one note over and over for its comedy.  Laird is far too eager to please, often goes too far in trying to impress his girlfriend's family, and constantly uses obscenities when he talks.  Ned is stressed, thinks the guy is a doofus, and doesn't want him anywhere near his little girl.  Once you understand this simple concept, you have the whole movie, which repeats this idea over and over until the end credits decide to show up far later than they should have. (This movie runs nearly two hours, when a slight 80 minutes or so would have sufficed.) These characters and the performances that both Cranston and Franco give are so repetitive, I found myself exhausted.  I didn't like either one, and didn't exactly care which side the daughter was going to take by the end.

There have been much worse comedies than this in 2016, but Why Him? is yet another example of lazy, assembly line Hollywood filmmaking.  Nobody tried to buck the trend or attempt something different here.  They just threw in a lot of four letter words, and hoped audiences would respond with gales of laughter.  If it were really that easy, Andrew Dice Clay would still be selling out arenas.

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Monday, December 26, 2016

Assassin's Creed

"What the f*** is going on?" - Dialogue from Assassin's Creed.

This is a question that the film's main character, Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender), asks about 40 minutes into the film.  I had been asking that exact same question for much longer, and by that point, had not really been given an answer.  This is a murky and dumb movie that takes too much time to clue us in, unless you have played the video games that the film is based on.  By the time the answers did start coming, I had stopped caring.

The movie does come with an impressive cast.  Aside from Fassbender, we also have the invaluable Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons in supporting roles as shadowy characters who seem to know more than what they're telling.  But what are we to make of the plot?  And what are we to take from their involvement in this film?  Was the script really that much better before it went before the cameras?  Are these actors just big fans of the games that inspired it, and wanted to be a part of bringing it to the big screen? (I chuckle at the mental image of Jeremy Irons racing down to his local Gamestop in order to pre-order the latest game in the series, or anxiously downloading the newest DLC.) It's not so much that Assassin's Creed is hard to follow, it's that the plot is so insane and downright stupid that it's just not worth following.  Maybe the games tell the story better.  I have not played them, so I honestly don't know.  All I know is that the games cannot be as turgid as this film is.

Let me go over my memories of this film, and see if I can't make some sense out of the story it attempts to tell.  So, for the past six centuries or so, there has been a battle between the Templars, who want to control all free will and remove all violence from the world, and the Assassins, who want to protect free will.  The Templars have been after an object called the Apple of Eden, which supposedly possesses the ability to remove all free will from humanity, and make them mindless slaves of the shadowy organization.  How the Apple achieves this, I honestly don't know.  When we see it, it emits a strange blue light, which I guess is all of humanity's free will being sucked into it.  The movie doesn't explain.  Some 500 years ago, the Assassins hid the Apple somewhere, so the modern day Templars are using science to find the descendants of these Assassins, and hook them up to a device called the Animus, which allows them to connect mentally to their ancient Assassin ancestors.  With the people connected to the memories of the Assassins, the Templars hope to find out where the Apple is hidden, so they can rule the world.

The latest person to be forced into this bizarre experiment is the previously mentioned Cal Lynch, a Death Row murderer who, instead of getting a lethal injection, is instead kidnapped by the Templars and taken to their secret base, where a scientist named Sofia (Cotillard) tries to explain what's going on, and hooks Cal up to the Animus, so that he can be transported back into the memories of an Assassin in 1492 Spain.  The Animus looks like a giant robot arm which picks up Cal, and swings him around wildly all around the room.  Somehow, this is able to allow Cal to travel back in time, enter the body of the ancient Assassin whom he is descended from, and see everything that he sees.  The head of this cockamamie program is Rikkin (Irons), who has a number of other captives who he also hooks up to the Animus, trying to get information from their pasts about the Apple.  One of the prisoners is Cal's father (Brendan Gleeson), who murdered Cal's mother 30 years ago while dressed in a cloak and hood.  Or did he somehow save her life by killing her?  We get flashbacks of this moment scored by an obnoxious and distorted version of Patsy Cline's "Crazy" on the soundtrack.

The highlights of Assassin's Creed are obviously supposed to be the sequences where Cal finds himself inhabiting the body of an Assassin in 1492 Spain, but most of these big action sequences are filmed so ineptly, they're hardly worth commenting on.  Not only are they completely bloodless and unexciting (most likely due to the film's toned down PG-13 rating, when it was obviously meant to be an R at one point), but they've been filmed in such a way so that much of the action is covered by smoke, soot, dust or in grimy and dark underground tunnels.  It got to the point that I wanted to spray Windex on the screen.  From what I could see of the action, I don't think I was missing much, as the fight choreography didn't exactly seem all that impressive.   And by the time the plot starts explaining this madness to us, we wish we could go backwards.  Not to the beginning of the movie, mind you, but to the moment we handed our money to the ticket counter, so we could put the money back in our pocket.

This is an artless and incompetent film that somehow managed to attract some genuine talent, only to throw them to the wolves with one of the most ludicrous plots of any movie this year.  In a year already full of bad to mediocre video game adaptations (Ratchet & Clank, Warcraft, and The Angry Birds Movie), Assassin's Creed easily leaps to the bottom of the barrel.

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Fences

Based on August Wilson's Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and featuring almost the entire cast from an acclaimed 2010 Broadway revival (all but one of the main Broadway cast reprise their roles here), Fences manages to be just as powerful and at times emotionally draining on the screen as it was on the stage.  The intelligent dialogue and raw emotion is all here, which is sure to make fans of the original work overjoyed.  The movie does seem to be a bit limited in scope, and sometimes it can feel like we're watching a stage play up on the screen.  But the drama here is so involving, I honestly did not care.

Denzel Washington not only leads the cast, as he did in the earlier stage play, but he also directs the film.  This is only the third time he has stepped behind the camera, and while he doesn't really show off any great directing or film tricks here, he doesn't need to.  He simply lets his cast brilliantly deliver the dialogue, and lets the drama of the situation grow from the performances.   Just as when I saw the production in New York back in the summer of 2010, the cast manages to capture every bit of power and essences from Wilson's words.  As for Washington himself, I feel that this stands as one of his truly great performances in his career, ranking alongside Malcolm X and Training Day.  It's a versatile performance that truly shows off his range, and will hopefully be remembered during the Award Season.

Like all of August Wilson's work, Fences takes a look at race relations during a time of change.  Here, it is at some point in the mid to late 1950s.  Troy (Washington) is a former baseball player for the Negro League who has lived with the frustration the past few decades that he never got a chance to play for the Majors, and that his time came before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the game.  Now 53 years old, having been married 18 years to Rose (Viola Davis, giving a career-topping performance) and with two sons (one from a previous marriage, and an adult and living out of the house, the other a teenager in high school), Troy has a lot of regrets and dreams of what could have been if things had worked out differently.  He now works as a garbageman with his best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson).  In his small home, it's just him, his wife, and his teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo).  His older son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), often stops by when it is Troy's pay day, asking to borrow money.  There are also frequent visits from Troy's brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who is mentally ill ever since he suffered a massive head injury while fighting in World War II.

The film follows many of the struggles and personal conflicts that occur within Troy's home.  A majority of the drama is built from his relationship with his youngest son, Cory.  Both are hard headed, and don't want to set aside their beliefs.  Cory's main dream is to attend college with the help of a football scholarship, but Troy's memories of his time playing sports and never getting anywhere makes him completely against the idea, and creates a large rift between the two men.  Everything builds to a head when Troy must confess to Rose that he has been having an affair, and that the woman he has been seeing is now pregnant.  Just as in the play, this is the best written scene in the film, and the way that Viola Davis portrays Rose's frustration and anger over her husband's actions should pretty much guarantee that she will get nominated right alongside Washington.  (Both won Tony Awards for their original performances, and I can only hope the Oscars repeat.)

Fences is for a certain kind of audience, and I fear that it might be a limited one.  This is a movie built entirely around dialogue.  There are no big moments, other than the emotional ones, and the action never really leaves Troy's house or his backyard.  Some have criticized this approach, saying that the film isn't opened up enough beyond the confines of the original play.  But, I think it works here.  Using this minimalist approach, Washington is able to put all the attention on where it needs to be, the masterful words and the performances delivering them.  This is not your typical Hollywood holiday movie, and some people might be put off by the film's approach.  But those who are willing to let themselves get wrapped up in the lives and intensity of these characters will be richly rewarded. 

Rich in emotion and power, Fences is easily one of the great films of the year, and hopefully will be met with numerous awards.  Since the 2010 Broadway production was never filmed for television, it's great to have this film to capture these unforgettable performances.  In my mind, this is the best acted film of 2016.


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Sunday, December 25, 2016

Passengers

As Passengers opens, we see a massive spacecraft making its way through the stars.  On board, there are over 5,000 paying passengers and around 200 crew all placed under a state of inanimate hibernation in massive pods.  The ship is taking a 120 year journey from an overly-populated Earth to the planet Homestead II, where the passengers and crew will hopefully start a new civilization for humans to inhabit.

A meteor strikes the ship in the opening moments, and this causes a malfunction on the ship itself, which is completely under computer control while the humans are in their sleeping state.  This malfunction causes one of the hibernation pods to open and awaken Jim (Chris Pratt), an engineer.  He finds himself alone in the large, gleaming space structure which seems to have all the comforts of home, but is eerily isolated.  He quickly learns that he is the only person awake.  Even worse, it is only 30 years into the journey to Homestead II, and the others are not expected to awaken for another 90 years.  The only person he can talk to is the ship's computer (which is not much for conversation or for giving information Jim can use), and an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen), who dispenses drinks and listens well, but obviously hasn't been programmed to understand Jim's situation or his fears. 

Jim spends the next year alone, basically biding time with the recreational activities programmed on the ship, trying to explore certain sections that may hold answers for him, and growing a Grizzly Adams-style beard.  The isolation also begins to affect his mental state, leading to thoughts of suicide and hopelessness.  But then, he becomes fixated on a young woman in one of the sleeping pods.  Her name is Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), and he looks up her information.  She's a writer, heading to Homestead II so she can publish a book about her journey and the new world.  Jim becomes fascinated by the woman, and begins to harbor thoughts about awakening her as well, so that he can meet her.  He is torn by this decision for a long time, but soon makes his move.  He awakens her, and pretends that she has been accidentally awakened, just as he had been.

This is where a lot of people seem to have problems with Passengers.  They see Jim's actions of awakening Aurora as selfish and inexcusable.  The movie does not ignore that fact.  We're not supposed to agree with Jim's decision to awaken her.  But, I also think the movie does a good job of emphasizing that he is not exactly in his right mind when he makes the decision.  He has been alone on the ship for a year by that point, and the isolation and fears he has felt have been eating at him for so long.  It's a fascinating moral dilemma that I wish the movie had focused a little more on.  Instead, the movie goes headfirst into Jim and Aurora exploring a possible relationship, being the only two people awake on the ship.

Regardless, I was still intrigued, and drawn in by the visuals.  The set designers have created a wonderful spacecraft for its lead actors to inhabit, one that seems like it could be plausible at some point in the future.  The technology on the ship has a certain quality to it that seems futuristic, but not so much so that it seems implausible.  It seems like a logical extension of some technology that we have now, such as the little cleaning robots that constantly patrol the floors.  I also liked the chemistry that Pratt and Lawrence have during their scenes.  Their performances help with the fact that Jim and Aurora are not exactly a deeply defined couple, and often seem to be with each other out of necessity.  Of course we understand that.  But then, the movie starts to suggest that there is an actual relationship blooming between them, and it felt just a little bit forced to me.  Not so much that I was taken out of the movie, but enough for me to wish that it would spend a bit more time on it.

However, like a lot of movies, Passengers starts to crumble in the third act.  I'm going to have to be careful with spoilers here, but it starts with the abrupt introduction of a third character portrayed by Laurence Fishburne.  He basically exists for an exposition dump that leads to the third act crisis.  It's about this point that the movie turns contrived.  Again, I don't want to give anything away, but the last half hour or so is nowhere near as intriguing.  Still, what has come before worked well with me, despite a few faults.  I am recommending the film on the basis of the first two acts, which hold some interesting ideas.  True, the movie never quite takes as much advantage of those ideas as it should, but I still found myself interested.  I also liked the film's minimalist approach, making the most of a very small cast and limited setting.

I do have to question the studio's decision to release this the same time as Rogue One has just hit theaters, though.  This one often comes across like a small, independent Sci-Fi film that somehow got an A-List budget and cast.  Maybe if this were a smaller production, it would have solved some of the third act story problems, as the last half seems like it went through some major Studio tampering.  While the first two Acts do have their problems, the movie still managed to work with me.  The third Act caused me to consider writing a very different review, but in the end, I think the stuff that works outweighs the stuff that doesn't.  It's movies like this that are why I never employed a rating system for movies.  Some movies work well for a majority of the time, but fall apart at the end.  I wouldn't know how to rate it.  So, I do my best to sort out my thoughts, and eventually come to a conclusion.

And my conclusion with Passengers is that if you want a minimalist space opera that focuses on character for a majority of the film, and don't mind that it loses its way in the end, you will get enjoyment out of this, as I did.  This movie could have been so much more, but I don't regret seeing it.

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Saturday, December 24, 2016

Sing

Sing may not be up to the level of some of the animated classics we've had this past year like Zootopia, Kubo and the Two Strings and April and the Extraordinary World, but in all honesty, it's probably my favorite film to come out of the Illumination Studio (the Despicable Me movies and Secret Life of Pets).  This is a vibrant film with a large cast of likable characters that I honestly kind of wish I could see in another movie.  Most importantly, as this is a musical, it also has a fantastic soundtrack with over 60 songs featured that cover the past 50 years or so of music.

Much like Zootopia, the film takes place in a world made up entirely out of animals, though the settings are much less realized and developed than in the Disney film.  The simple story focuses on Buster Moon (voiced by an energetic Matthew McConaughey), a down on his luck koala with big dreams of saving the theater that he runs and has recently hit hard times after a string of flop productions.  He figures the best way to save his business is to hold a singing competition with a cash prize of $1,000.  However, thanks to a mishap involving his elderly and not-quite-right in the head secretary (voiced by the film's writer-director, Garth Jennings), the cash prize is accidentally advertised as $100,000, and pretty much every mammal in the local area turn out to audition.  So, it's the old "Hey, gang, let's put on a show in order to save our home!" plot that used to dominate Hollywood musicals of the 30s and 40s.  What helps the film stand out a little bit more are the characters that have been created to participate in the contest.

We're immediately drawn in by Buster Moon's endless optimism, as well as the performance by McConaughey, but he's just the tip of the iceberg in this talented menagerie that the film gives us.  First we have Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), a pig who happens to be an overworked stay at home mom with over 20 piglets and an inattentive husband.  Music and singing is the one thing that keeps her sane, and this contest gives her a chance to stand out for the first time.  Next up is Mike (Seth MacFarlane), a mouse with the voice of Frank Sinatra and whose dreams of the good life often finds him living beyond his means.  There's also Ash (Scarlett Johansson), who quickly rose to be my personal favorite of the hopefuls.  She's a rebellious porcupine with a hard rock spirit and a broken heart, as her unfaithful and less talented boyfriend (who was part of her band) left her when she was chosen for the singing competition over him.  Johnny (Taron Egerton) is a soulful gorilla torn between his dream of singing professionally and his father, a bank robber who wants his son to be part of his criminal gang.  Finally, there's Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant with big talent, but she is too nervous to stand out on stage.

Sing is a movie that can easily be labeled a "crowd pleaser", and it definitely succeeds at being that.  It's easy to get behind the film's animal cast, portrayed as relatable down on their luck types who keep hope alive through music.  The filmmakers have done a good job of balancing these characters out, so that everyone gets enough screentime, and no one character stands out above the others.  Watching the film and the characters unfold, I often found myself thinking that I would love to see a stand alone animated feature focused on some of the singing hopefuls, especially Ash and Johnny, who seem to get the most emotion in their individual storylines.  Regardless, it's these characters that make the film rise above its rather basic plot, and will probably help hold the attention of adult animation fans. 

And then there is the music, which the filmmakers obviously spent a lot of time and money on securing the rights to a large number of fantastic songs that range from hits from the 60s to the present day.  Each song is not only perfectly chosen, but also well performed by the talented cast.  The only problem is that in fitting over 60 individual songs into a movie that runs roughly 100 minutes, we obviously only get to hear small snippets of most of them.  It's not until the climax during the big show that we finally get to see what these performers can do.  Still, the soundtrack covers a wide variety of musical styles and hit songs, and should include favorites for just about anyone in the audience.  The filmmakers obviously understood how important the soundtrack would be for a film like this, and have succeeded beautifully.

Sing is really just a bighearted movie that doesn't really do anything special, but is consistently enjoyable due to the energy that the cast and crew have put into it.  It's warm, vibrant, colorful and a lot more fun than you might expect walking in.  If anything, it's almost certain to have you looking up songs on line as soon as you get home.

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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Collateral Beauty

There are two movies at your local theater right now dealing with grief over the death of a loved one.  One of them is Manchester by the Sea.  It's powerful, kind of brilliant, and features a career-topping performance by Casey Affleck.  The other is Collateral Beauty.  It features an all-star cast, many of them previous Oscar nominees or winners, but nobody is giving this their all.  Maybe it's because they knew how ludicrous the film was while they were making it.  This is a wannabe tearjerker that just doesn't try nearly hard enough.

For a movie that wants to tug at the heartstrings, this is a strangely lifeless affair.  There's so little energy to the performances and the storytelling that it turns into a slog.  We wait for the inevitable big dramatic scenes that are supposed to have us reaching for the Kleenex, and when they come, there's not a moist eye in the house, because everything just seems so perfunctory.  Even the settings seem underused.  The movie is set in Manhattan at Christmas time.  Anyone who has been there during the holidays can tell you that there is nothing quite like it.  However, if your only experience were to be this movie, it would seem lifeless and dull.  None of the settings or seasonal trappings matter anyway.  This movie could have been set anywhere and at any time of year, and it wouldn't change a single thing.

The plot: In the opening scene, we are introduced to Howard (Will Smith), a fast-talking ad executive who teaches his fellow employees to embrace the ideas of Time, Death and Love in everything they do.  What Time, Death and Love have to do with the ad industry, I honestly don't know, but I digress.  Then we jump ahead to three years later, and Howard is morose and despondent.  He is grieving over the death of his six-year-old daughter, basically doesn't interact with anyone, rides recklessly down the streets of New York on his bike, and pretty much does nothing but set up overly elaborate domino displays in his office all day.  His three fellow ad execs, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Pena) are worried for their friend.  But they're more worried about how his current grief-stricken attitude is affecting their business, as company partners are starting to drop out.

They hire a private investigator to follow Howard around, hoping they can find something incriminating that will prove he is not in his right mind, and that they can fire him.  Isn't that a lovely thought?  What the investigator finds is that Howard has started writing angry letters addressed to "Time", "Death", and "Love", demanding to know why they took his daughter away from him.  Unfortunately, this isn't a crazy enough idea for Howard to get fired over.  That's when Whit gets an idea.   They will hire three struggling theater actors, and have them pose as Time, Death and Love.  They will pretend that these ideals have somehow read his letters, and have now come to Earth to confront him.  Even more, they will hire the private investigator to film Howard having these conversations with these actors.  However, they will digitally remove the actors from the footage, so the tape will make it look like Howard is talking to himself.  That will convince the board of directors that Howard is crazy, he will get fired, and the company will be saved.  Yes.

So, three actors are hired to play the parts that will haunt Howard and make him think he's losing his mind.  They are Brigitte (Helen Mirren) playing Death, Amy (Keira Knightley) playing Love and Raffi (Jacob Latimore) playing Time.  They perform their roles, and force Howard to confront his own past and feelings, which leads to him to start going to a support group for parents who have lost their children.  So, you see?  It's a good thing that Howard's friends are trying to sabotage his career.  They're actually helping him come to terms with his own feelings!  But wait, it turns out that Whit, Claire and Simon all have their own grief that they have to deal with.  They get help, too.  By the time it's over, everybody's so full of good feelings, and the movie obviously wants us to be happy. 

But Collateral Beauty just doesn't earn any feelings, because it's just so tone deaf when it comes to emotion.  Will Smith plays Howard mostly like a zombie, dead eyed and completely devoid of feeling.  I can understand that grief can completely devastate a person and make them a shell of who they once were, but I think Smith takes it a bit too literally.  He's listless here, and does nothing to grab our attention.  As the three friends behind this whole harebrained scheme, Norton, Winslet and Pena have obviously decided to leave their usual on screen chemistry at home, and spend a lot of their scenes going through the motion.  The only performance that gets a response is Helen Mirren, who does add a spark of wit and intelligence to her role that the movie could have used a lot more of.  The movie comes the closest to working when she's on the screen, so you kind of wish that director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) had used her more.

It's clear that the filmmakers think they are making an uplifting Christmas movie here, but everything from the bizarre plotting to the off-kilter performances work against it.  It's also just not that emotional.  Anyone who knows me knows that I can be a big softy.  Heck, I choke back tears at those ASPCA commercials on TV with the sad-eyed puppies and kittens shivering in the cold or locked in cages.  But I did not come close even once to getting a lump in my throat here.  It's a total miscalculation.  Instead of sentimental, the movie just comes across as crass.  And when it wants to be thoughtful and tender, it's just kind of stupid.  I don't remember the last time a movie has been this out of touch with the emotions it wanted to inspire.

The French director Jean-Luc Godard was famous for saying that the way to criticize a movie is to make another movie.  Manchester by the Sea is the perfect criticism of Collateral Beauty.  It's honest, warm and uplifting - Everything that this one is not.

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