Reel Opinions


Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Circle

Sometimes dumb movies happen to smart people, and that is definitely the case with The Circle.  Here is a movie so sloppily constructed, you're surprised to see the people who keep on turning up in it, as well as reading some of the names who were behind the camera.  The director is the usually reliable James Ponsoldt (of The Spectacular Now), who co-wrote the script with author Dave Eggers (the film is based on one of his novels).  And the cast includes such talents as Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega (of Star Wars), Patton Oswalt, and even the late Bill Paxton in his final screen role.  It even seems to have a potent message about how technology is taking over our lives, and is destroying human contact.  So, what went wrong?

Everything would be one way to describe it.  This is what happens when you throw a lot of great talent at a project that wasn't ready to be filmed in the first place.  Again, I must use the words sloppily constructed, as the movie never has a clear focus as to what it's about.  It kicks off with a young woman named Mae (Watson), who has a dead-end job and is trying to care for her ailing father (Paxton).  A close friend of hers hooks her up with a job with The Circle, a massive Internet company that seems to be a cross between Facebook and Google, with a touch of Apple thrown in.  The company is largely out there to make information as free as possible.  It seems to be a fun place to work, with its college campus atmosphere, all night parties and concerts, and the friendly CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks, in Steve Jobs mode), who holds weekly team meetings which he calls "Dream Fridays".  There are those who think Bailey wants to control all the information on the web, but the guy has this calm, folksy way about him that brings people together.  He claims he just wants to make the Internet a better and safer place.

Mae is immediately taken in by the friendly and supportive atmosphere of the company.  Bailey even goes so far as, when he finds out about her sick father, to give him total medical coverage that will save his life.  But, little by little, a darker side behind the company is revealed.  It all begins when Mae runs into one of the founders of the company named Ty (Boyega), who likes to slink about in the shadows of the campus, and pop up now and then and warn Mae that things are not what they seem at The Circle.  He's concerned about the company's latest product, SeeChange, which is made up of tiny cameras that can be placed anywhere, and can see anything and anyone at anytime.  Mae seems concerned at first, but after a while, she quickly turns into a total supporter of the company with little logic or payoff.  She begins a social experiment where she attaches one of the cameras to herself, so that every moment of her life can be filmed and watched by anyone.  This is an idea that was done much better back in 1998 with The Truman Show.

The Circle takes an extremely simple minded approach to its own dilemma, as characters can be placed in only two camps - Those who live completely off the grid and don't trust technology in any form, and those who are complete cultists to The Circle itself.  Mae has a love interest (Ellar Coltrane from Boyhood) who lives in the woods, and likes to make decorations out of deer antlers.  He gets to spout a lot of phony-sounding and preachy anti-technology speeches in the few scenes where he shows up.  The movie simply seems confused about what it wants to say about its message, and about its characters.  Sometimes it seems to be trying to make us fearful of big Internet companies, and other times, it actually seems to be trying to make an argument for them.  I can understand wanting to look at both sides of a debate, but when there's just no tissue to hold the narrative together, it simply becomes a giant mess with a lot of lost-looking actors wandering about the screen.

And do these actors ever suffer here from the material they've been given.  Emma Watson seems just as confused as I was about what arc her character is supposed to be taking.  And while it's interesting to see Tom Hanks tackling the role of a possibly shady executive, he never quite sheds his sunny and charming personality.  He's there simply to make speeches when the movie requires one, but is never quite built up to be the villain that the movie wants him to be.  The movie doesn't even do a good job of explaining why he takes such a big interest in Mae in the first place, which makes it seem more like plot convenience than anything else.  John Boyega simply pops up now and then to either warn Mae about what's really going on, or to stand in the shadows and look disappointed at her when she seems to be completely taken in by the company.  Why he's helping her is also not explained very well, as is the fact that even though he is one of the founders of The Circle, yet nobody seems to recognize him.   And poor Patton Oswalt is given so little to do as Hanks' right-hand-man, his role basically consists of him standing next to Hanks, and smiling or looking concerned.

There are some moments that hint at things that could have been interesting.  When Mae decides to go "fully transparent", and film her entire life so that people can watch her on line at all times, it seems to be leading up to some strong satirical elements of our viral video culture.  But, very little is done with this idea once it is introduced, and again, it simply makes us think back on how The Truman Show did this exact same idea much better almost 20 years ago.  There are also a couple nice scenes concerning Mae's parents, especially Paxton, who is the only actor here able to deliver a performance that makes us sympathize with them.  You do wish his final role could have been a much better one, but at least you can tell that he's giving his small role a lot of effort.  More than this movie probably deserved.

The Circle is easily the biggest disappointment of 2017 so far.  With all this talent involved, you would at least expect something to come out of it, and yet it offers nothing but confusion, and sketchy ideas and characters.  It features an expensive cast, when the money would have been better spent punching up the script, and making it into something that doesn't read like a first draft. 

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Friday, April 28, 2017

The Zookeeper's Wife

Here is a movie that is let down by its own lack of ambition.  The Zookeeper's Wife treats the Holocaust almost as a cliche.  It derives from numerous other movies about the subject, and never finds a unique tone or angle.  Based on the true story of Antonina and Jan Zabinski (portrayed on the screen by Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenberg, respectively), a husband and wife who ran the Warsaw Zoo during World War II and used it to hide numerous Jews, the movie's attempts to be uplifting are squandered on a rather underdeveloped screenplay.

Maybe it's because I had just seen The Promise (a somewhat flawed, but much better film about surviving in war time) just a few days before this made it seem all the more bland to me.  But, I really do think something is off here.  The movie tries to span a time of seven years or so in roughly two hours, and this leads to some gaping plot holes or continuity issues.  In one glaring example, a scene depicts Antonina giving birth, when there had been absolutely no mention or indication of her being pregnant at any time in the film leading up to it.  And rather than tell a basic human story about survival, the movie goes for melodrama, and has to throw a mustache-twirling villain into the mix (Daniel Bruhl, playing a standard movie Nazi).  Bruhl chews the scenery every chance he gets, while none of the rest of the cast get to stand out quite as much.

That includes Jessica Chastain, who plays Antonina as a quiet and all too meek woman who never quite grabbed my attention as a lead character.  Chastain is an incredibly gifted actress, but here she gets saddled not only with an uninteresting character, but she's forced to speak with an accent that makes some of her dialogue hard to follow.  It would help if the movie gave us a better feel for her, or perhaps a better grasp on her relationship with her husband.  Heldenberg is fine enough as Jan, but he doesn't get a lot of screentime, and his role seems underwritten.  There's really nothing to complain about in terms of performances.  These fine actors are simply fighting a losing battle with a script by Angela Workman.  She glosses over facts, hits a lot of the same notes other movies have, and just doesn't give us enough to care about these people like we should.

There is simply not enough emotional power on display to make The Zookeeper's Wife stand out.  This movie would probably be fine enough to show to preteens in a Middle School History classroom, but I doubt many adults will find much new here.  When the Nazis occupy Poland, and begin to use the Warsaw Zoo as a base for lab experiments and to breed meat for their soldiers, we do get a few shocking scenes of the soldiers killing the zoo animals that they believe will not survive or are not any use to them.  This is the closest the movie comes to working, as it's something we haven't seen before.  But then, it falls into a fairly conventional melodrama about the Zabinskis using the area beneath their home on the zoo grounds to hide Jewish families, and provide a secret escape route.  Again, we learn very little about the people whose lives they are saving.  The closest the movie comes to giving us anything is a frightened little girl who has been traumatized to the point she is mute at first.  But once she begins to talk, the movie basically forgets about her, and she only shows up as an extra for the rest of the film.

I would blame the somewhat watered down tone of the film on the fact that it is viewing the Holocaust through a PG-13 lens, but again, I must refer back to The Promise.  That movie shares the exact same rating, and it did not shy away from the brutality.  Was it censored in some form?  Most certainly, as there was a suspicious lack of blood in many of the scenes depicting mass graves.  But the point is that movie actually showed the atrocities.  This movie shies away from a lot of the harder images.  Yes, we see soldiers leading people out of their homes or setting fire to buildings, but we seldom see the aftermath.  Maybe the movie is trying to be uplifting, but if you have to hide the truth in order to put your audience in a better mood, you're not doing your job right. 

The Zookeeper's Wife simply tries to cover too much material in too short amount of time, and the characters and narrative greatly suffer.  I'm sure a wonderful documentary could have been made from this story, and I hope one exists.  I was kind of interested in the story, just not the way this film decided to tell it.

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Monday, April 24, 2017

The Promise

Terry George's The Promise brings to light a historical event that has sadly become faded with time.  During the final years of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, there was a time of genocide against the Armenian population that to this day the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge.  Despite a recorded 15 million deaths during this event, it is seldom spoken of, and sometimes even denied.  Because of this, and the fact it's hardly if ever been covered in film, the movie has a tremendous amount of emotional power, even if can be heavy-handed and melodramatic at times.

What impressed me the most about George's approach is that despite the PG-13 rating it has received, this film still feels like the tremendous emotional gut punch that it should be, and seldom if ever feels watered down.  He tackles the atrocity of the situation head on, and does not hold back from shots of dozens if not hundreds of innocent people who were murdered and left to rot in mass graves.  We get to see the many hardships the Armenians endured, and also how many of the murders and crimes were covered up or ignored completely.  This in itself makes for gripping storytelling, and I for one was seething with anger at some of the images up on the screen.  However, in an effort to make the movie more appealing to a mass audience, a love triangle story has been placed at the forefront.  And while it doesn't completely rob the film of its power, it does feel like a somewhat tacked on commercial element, and was probably a necessary evil in order to get the film made.

In it's main plot, an aspiring medical doctor named Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) leaves his small village in order to go to medical school in Constantinople.  He arrives roughly around the same time that the Ottoman Empire enters World War I, and when the Armenian people were being persecuted against heavily.  While there, he falls in love with a French-educated Armenian woman named Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), who happens to currently be in love with an American journalist covering the situation in Turkey named Chris Myers (Christian Bale).  Mikael has a woman back home that he has been betrothed to (the money that he got as a dowry is how he was able to afford medical school), but he cannot hide his feelings for Ana, nor apparently can she for him.  Eventually, the two are separated when Mikael is forced into a hard labor camp, while Ana and Chris attempt to help guide young orphans out of Turkey.

The most harrowing moments in the film deal with Mikael in the labor camp, as well as his attempts to reach safety.  He does eventually make his way back to his home village, where he is reunited with his family and the woman he was originally betrothed to.  However, fateful events will find Mikael once again in danger, fighting for his life, and eventually by Ana's side once more.  This is all told in the style of a sweeping epic, with grand visuals, beautifully shot locales, and eventually realistic depictions of war and the crimes that were committed against innocent people who were trying to escape from persecution.  It is definitely the political angle, rather than the romantic one, that gets you involved while watching The Promise.  Fortunately, as the movie goes on, it is the more successful aspects that take center stage, while the love story (while not forgotten) does not drive the narrative quite as heavily as it does during the first hour or so.

So, the historically accurate part of the film covering the war atrocities and the struggle for survival (which director Terry George and his co-writer Robin Swicord heavily researched) is much more effective than the fictional love story used to create personal human interest.  George does have a history of bringing harrowing situations to light, as he did with his 2004 film Hotel Rwanda.  And while this doesn't quite live up to the standards of that Oscar-nominated film, it still manages some unforgettable moments, and manages to make the audience truly angry about the situation and the human crimes that were committed during the time period.  Couple that with a beautiful physical production (the movie's budget was rumored to be at $90 million, and it shows), as well as some strong performances, and you definitely have a movie that is worth seeing, despite a few missteps.

Even if it can be a bit melodramatic at times, The Promise is never so broad as to lose the emotional power of the material.  It manages to be heartbreaking, uplifting, and even beautiful at certain times.  The fact that a film like this missed the "Award Season" train and is being released in late April obviously means the studio has little faith in it, but I really do hope it finds an audience.  It tells a story that has been largely forgotten, should be remembered, and hopefully will create some new interest in the actual event.

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

Unforgettable

Unforgettable is the kind of movie that you want to fly off the rails.  You want it to revel in camp, and you want to howl at the movie.  And thanks to the knowing direction of Denise Di Novi (a long-time producer making her directing debut), there are moments where it does revel, and the audience does howl.  There simply aren't enough.  If this movie had been allowed to truly take its place as the great trash it really is, we'd be looking at one hell of a guilty pleasure here.

Not that the movie doesn't try its hardest.  This is kind of a gonzo mix of Fatal Attraction and Mommie Dearest, anchored by a wonderful villain performance by Katherine Heigl, who after years of being stuck in forgettable romantic comedies seems to have found her niche playing a tall, statuesque blonde who must have been born with ice water flowing through her veins.  Her character, Tessa, is the kind of villain who could only exist in a romance novel or a Lifetime Original Movie.  She's a manipulative woman who has set her sights on Julia (Rosario Dawson, who proves here that she's still one of the most beautiful women acting in films today), the new girlfriend and potential fiance to her ex-husband.  The fun in this film comes from Tessa's attempts to secretly destroy Julia's life, as well as attempt to turn her sweet daughter Lily (Isabella Kai Rice) against Julia.  Tessa is such a fun, snarling villain, and Heigl is clearly relishing the chance to play her, you start to wish the movie was told entirely from her perspective. 

Sadly, we mostly get Julia's side of the story, and how she attempts to fit into the life of her attractively bland fiance David (Geoff Stults).  As the film opens, Julia moves to Southern California in order to live with him and his daughter.  She's doing this to start a new life, as we learn early on that she was in an abusive relationship with a former boyfriend.  It's not really clear what Julia does for a living.  She does work for some kind of online company for writers, but we never actually see her work.  She does, however, have plenty of time to call her best friend from back home (Whitney Cummings), which is great, since the friend apparently has nothing to do but sit around and wait for Julia to call her.  Not long after Julia moves into David's home, Tessa starts showing up at all hours.  She does have shared custody of little Lily, but she seems to be taking an unhealthy interest in Julia as well. 

Not long after, Tessa steals Julia's cell phone, and starts hacking into her life.  She discovers a copy of the restraining order that Julia has against her old boyfriend, and decides to create a fake Facebook account so that she can get in touch with the abusive ex, and convince him to come and stalk Julia.  This is all interspersed with scenes of Tessa obsessively polishing the silver in her home, and chopping off her daughter's hair when she misbehaves.  It's all so theatrically evil, and Heigl is obviously having a blast.  However, she's the only character who is allowed a personality.  Julia and David are your generic couple who don't seem to hold much personality, and often have nothing to talk about when they're alone together, other than dialogue that conveniently moves the plot along.  It's kind of like Tessa (whom one character describes as "Psycho Barbie") is inhabiting an over the top and trashy melodrama, while everyone else is inhabiting the blandest domestic drama ever put to film.  It creates a bizarre tonal shift in the movie, depending on whichever one of the two leading ladies happens to be on camera at the moment.

Outside of Heigl, the only other actor who gets to have fun is, appropriately enough, the one who plays her mother.  This would be Cheryl Ladd, whom the movie could have used so much more of.  Not only does she allow us to see where Tessa got her personality, but her passive aggressive sarcasm gets some of the biggest laughs.  Watching the scenes between Heigl and Ladd, I quickly came to the realization that I would much rather see an entire movie where these two characters do nothing but horrible things, and put each other down with withering remarks.  Now that would be the kind of movie I would recommend full-heartedly.  Not only that, but it would probably be the funniest trash comedy in years. 

Unforgettable is slickly made, and does have some moments of fun throughout, especially the off the wall climax.  But in between these moments of self-aware trash are long periods of awkward dialogue and scenes that just don't connect.  I'm not recommending the movie, but if I have to be honest with myself, I do kind of admire it.

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Phoenix Forgotten

While I don't think it's quite strong enough to revive the dormant "found footage" horror genre, Phoenix Forgotten is one of the better entries in the genre we've gotten in a while.  It mixes fact with fiction, and does a fairly good job of creating a documentary atmosphere.  Sure, there's some sketchy acting on display at times, and the movie mixes up some of the details (part of the movie is set in March 1997, and two of the characters are talking about the Robert Zemeckis film Contact, which was released in July of that year), but it does have an actually intriguing mystery at the center of the film.

On March 13th, 1997, thousands of people claimed to see a triangular formation of lights in the sky over Phoenix, Arizona.  Some reported seeing stationary lights hovering over Phoenix, which was later identified by the Air Force as flares being dropped from an air craft performing exercises at the nearby Barry Goldwater base. But there were other reports of the triangular formation passing over Arizona towards Nevada.  The eyewitness accounts achieved national headlines, and even the governor of Arizona famously held a press conference where he made fun of the incident, by saying they had captured the person responsible, and had a staff member walk on stage dressed in an alien costume.  Oddly enough, years later, that same governor claimed that he saw those lights in the sky, and said he had no explanation for what they were.

This real life event serves as the jumping off point for the film, as first time director and co-writer Justin Barber crafts a Blair Witch-style story about a group of teens who go missing while trying to investigate those lights.  But the movie actually manages to go an extra mile that I appreciated.  Instead of just focusing on those missing teens, the film actually spends a lot of time with their grieving parents, who for the past 20 years or so have been trying to figure out and deal with the disappearances.  This is an angle we don't usually get in these kind of movies, and it does give the story a more intimate and dramatic tone.  We get to see a lot of "before and after" moments, and how the disappearance of the children have affected their personal lives.  I actually kind of found myself more involved with these scenes, rather than the stuff about the three kids venturing into the desert to learn the truth.

The leader of the three missing kids is Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts), a young man obsessed with filmmaking and The X-Files, who naturally becomes fascinated when he happens to see those lights in the sky during the evening of his six-year-old sister's birthday party.  With the help of two of his friends, he ventured into the desert for information, and was never seen or heard from again.  At this point, the movie kind of splits in two directions.  In the main narrative, we have Josh's now-adult sister, Sophie (Florence Hartigan), returning to her hometown to make a documentary about her brother's disappearance.  Here is where we get the background information from the parents, friends, and local police about the investigation.  She also uncovers some of her brother's old video footage, which showcases his own search for the truth.  As she uncovers more videos, she eventually pieces together what may have happened.

Phoenix Forgotten is constantly blurring the line between reality and fiction, as the movie does interview some actual locals about the events of that night 20 years ago and what they saw, as well as some archival news footage coverage.  It's an effective approach, and Barber does a fairly decent job of not making the fictional stuff stick out too much.  We can definitely tell when we are watching something real and something staged, but the "staged" sequences are filmed in such a way that it doesn't feel like it's out of place.  Yes, we do get some moments where we don't know why Josh (or whoever) might be filming what's going on at the moment, but this is a common problem with found footage films.  At least it didn't distract me too much, and other than some moments near the end, the infamous "shaky cam" style that is a necessary evil in these films is kept to a minimum. 

I think where this movie succeeds where so many films just like it have failed is that it's not actually about the doomed kids.  Rather, it's about how the disappearance of the kids have impacted everyone else, and the search for answers.  Yes, the last half of the film is devoted to "lost footage" that explains just what happened to the missing teens, and it's pretty much exactly what you expect.  In fact, it's what I thought the whole movie was going to be walking in.  But outside of all this, the movie does find a few unique angles, and even when it is showing us what we have seen before, it does so in a way that is kind of genuinely creepy and suspenseful at times.  Yes, it could be argued that the whole thing is essentially a clone of the original Blair Witch, but it's not boring.

Phoenix Forgotten is the kind of movie where you know where everything is leading up to, but you still have fun going along for the ride.  I would love to see what these filmmakers could do with an actual budget and a more original plot.  They already have the support of Ridley Scott (who produced this film), so hopefully he will see their potential and give them a chance.

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Friday, April 21, 2017

Gifted

Gifted is the kind of sentimental movie that will go to such great lengths to push your emotional buttons that I eventually had the strong desire to start pushing back in resistance.  It's a real piece of work about a precocious seven-year-old named Mary (played by the very precocious Mckenna Grace), who is skilled with one liners and sharp observations, but is just as skilled with complex mathematics and formulas.  In other words, she's essentially a cross between every smart-mouthed kid you've ever seen on a sitcom, and Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting.

Mary lives alone with her uncle Frank (a scruffy bearded Chris Evans), who has been looking after her ever since her mother (Frank's sister), a math prodigy herself, took her own life.  She's been living in Florida in Frank, along with her treasured pet one-eyed cat, Fred.  But, the time has come to decide what to do with Mary when it comes to school.  Frank knows that the kid is brilliant, but he wants her to go to a "normal school", where she can learn to make friends with other kids.  On the first day of school, Mary is standoffish in class and mouths off to the scary and mean Principal, but she also happens to impress her teacher (comic actress Jenny Slate, giving a rare dramatic performance) with her ability to multiply large equations without the use of a calculator.  The teacher becomes convinced that Mary would thrive in a school for gifted students, but Frank is quick to sway her to his way of thinking that she belongs in her classroom.  Before long, the two are engaged in a halfhearted and unconvincing romantic relationship that serves no dramatic bearing on the story whatsoever.

One day, Mary's grandmother (Frank's mother) unexpectedly shows up.  This is Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), and she is estranged from Frank, because she thinks that Mary is not living up to her true potential.  I'm not quite sure what role Evelyn is supposed to play in the film, and I'm not quite sure the script knows either.  She's the sort of character who changes her mind and attitude from scene-to-scene.  Sometimes she seems to be softening to the idea of Frank and Mary living together.  But most of the time, she hisses, gnashes her teeth, and is utterly disgusted that her granddaughter is living in Florida, of all places.  She wants to ship the girl off to one of the best schools in the nation, where she can follow in the footsteps of her mother.  Frank obviously can't go along with this idea, so the movie switches gears and goes from being a sentimental family drama about a bright little girl trying to fit into a normal school, to an over wrought courtroom drama.

My heart began to sink when I realized the direction that Gifted was taking.  It's also the point where the movie pretty much drops little Mary, and turns into a lot of scenes where attorneys recite dialogue that must be required in just about every movie ever set in a courtroom, while a somber judge gives appropriate reaction shots whenever there's a revelation, and the camera just happens to be pointed at him.  It's all so contrived and calculated, I almost couldn't believe what I was seeing.  Why couldn't this just be a simple movie about a little girl trying to fit in the world?  Yes, she's obviously bright, but she also is socially awkward and finds it hard to make friends with kids her own age.  The movie touches on this idea, and the characters talk about it once in a while, but it never really explores this issue.  Instead, it turns into a John Grisham-style legal dispute about custody.

This movie starts out being about Mary, then it kind of forgets about her or treats her as a prop, trotting her out once in a while to sing a song with her sassy black friend who lives next door (Octavia Spencer, in a role that feels like it was left largely on the cutting room floor), or to hug Fred the one-eyed cat.  Speaking of the cat, I did not expect it to play such a large part in the climax, where Chris Evans becomes involved in a high-speed race in order to save its life.  Give me a break.  Gifted obviously only wants to please, and has its heart in the right place.  But the whole thing is just so mechanical and contrived, I was able to resist any and all of its forced attempts to win me over.  It's one thing to take a movie about a bright little girl, and turn it into a courtroom melodrama.  But when you throw a cute animal in danger for no reason other than the movie couldn't think of a proper climax, I have to cry foul.

To be fair, the performances are good here, but they are constantly underscored by the manipulative music score that spells out every single emotion that's up there on the screen.  Gifted is a movie that just rubbed me the wrong way.  I have no problem with sentimental films, and have enjoyed a great many of them.  But this movie is kind of shameless at times.

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Friday, April 14, 2017

The Fate of the Furious

Sometimes a review is merely a technicality.  You already know what you think of The Fate of the Furious given your history with the franchise.  It's the rare film series that has gotten more successful with each passing entry.  And now, here's the eighth film, which once again centers on Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his "family", who do a lot of insane and practically impossible car stunts as they do battle with shady terrorists and criminals.  I feel I described the series as a whole best when I described the last movie as being about cars doing things that cars can't do, being driven by people doing things that people can't do.

A lot of people love these movies, which goes without saying, as the series is now getting near the double digits in terms of sequels.  I can even admit to enjoying some of them.  But as of late, the series seems to have become all about the special effects and the obviously green screened stunts, rather than building on these characters or its story.  The Fate of the Furious is a particularly mind-numbing entry in the series.  The movie itself not only seems to go on too long, but so do most of the action set pieces.  You know a movie is not working for you when there's a massive chase/car pile up sequence occurring on the streets of Manhattan, and it goes on so long, you start looking at your watch after a while.  If you haven't had enough of these films yet, you have my permission to ignore this cranky critic, and go have fun.  As for me, I think my cup has begun to overflow on these movies.

It's not that I don't admire this series in some way, and I even have no qualms with the audiences who turn out for them.  In theory, it sounds like a blast.  Take a lot of souped up cars, and then throw them in a bunch of over the top action scenes that make the stuff in James Bond seem subtle and withdrawn in comparison.  Throw in a globe-trotting adventure, a lot of cool spy gadgets and computers, and snarling international terrorists who have their plans foiled by a bunch of street racers working for the government, and I can see how it could be fun.  But for some reason, these movies seldom work with me like they should.  I just can't get into these characters and the expanding lore, because the movie's not really about them.  Each sequel is about topping the last one in terms of stunts.  Last time, we had cars moving inside and around a skyscraper, so this time we have city streets being turned into a demolition derby when a parade of computer-guided cars go haywire.  In one of the movies, we had cars parachuting out of a plane, so this time we get cars battling a submarine on the icy planes of Russia. 

I get that this is supposed to be all-out fantasy, and we're not supposed to take this seriously for a second.  Heck, these movies have become so detached from reality that they don't even bother putting a safety warning about not trying the stunts depicted in the film, like they did in the earlier entries.  However, with each passing film, I find myself enjoying this approach less and less.  The movies have become about smashing your senses instead of thrilling them.  It doesn't help that many of the big action set pieces this time around seem to go on a lot longer than they should.  I guess there's only so much you can do with cars flipping over and exploding, and no, adding a submarine or an armored tank to the mix does not change things enough to keep it interesting.  I eventually started to feel assaulted with the way the movie just piled on the action bigger and bigger.  I didn't find myself getting more involved with each increasing challenge the film threw at the heroes.  I actually didn't find myself all that involved in the action at all.

That's because The Fate of the Furious just keeps on throwing stuff at its audience, but never gives a chance for any of it to sink in.  By the time something has happened, something else is waiting to pop up just a second later.  It got to be more exhausting than fun, at least to me.  There is also a certain emptiness to the spectacle here.  There are no real stakes, since the heroic drivers are all but invincible.  It doesn't matter if these characters are breaking into an armored base to steal a deadly weapon, or if they're breaking into a Russian stronghold to stop a nuclear war, they're going to do it with minimal damage to their perfect faces and hair, as well as their perfect automotive paint job.  I guess for some, that's the fun of these movies, but I expect a few more stakes or peril in such situations.  When these guys are having guided missiles fired at them, they seem way too flippant and causal about it.

Before I forget, there is a plot to all this.  A cyber terrorist named Cipher (Charlize Theron) uses some private information to blackmail Dominic, forcing him to turn against his friends and work for her.  The trailers really play up this whole betrayal angle, and it's pretty easy to figure out that he's clearly being used.  With the team of heroes down their most important member for a majority of the film, they are forced to turn to a former enemy, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), who is not crazy about working with them either, but wants to get back at Cipher for his own reasons.  Of the heroes, it's Statham who makes the best impression, as he gets a few genuine laughs with his dialogue, and especially during his big action scene near the end, which is a comedic high point in the film.  There's also a cameo for Helen Mirren, as a new character in this film's universe.  Like a lot of movies, this one probably would have been better off if she had more screen time in it.

I don't want to sound jaded.  I walked into The Fate of the Furious to have a good time, just like everyone else.  But the movie is simply a bombardment of action without enough to carry through to the end of its bloated two-hour-plus run time.  I won't take away anyone's enjoyment of these movies, as they are well done on a certain level.  I simply feel like this franchise has run its course, and I may be bailing out shortly.

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Saturday, April 08, 2017

Your Name

With such mediocre recent efforts like The Boss Baby and Smurfs: The Lost Village still fresh in my mind, here is Your Name to remind me of the real power of animation.  This import from Japan (which was the biggest money maker at the box office in its home country last year) is a beautiful, poignant and ultimately powerful story that really sneaks up on you.  At first, the movie seems like kind of a cute body-swapping lark.  But, writer-director Makoto Shinkai (adapting from his own novel) lets his characters and the drama build, until it grows into an ultimately moving and heartfelt experience.

The plot centers on two high school students who live on the opposite sides of Japan, but become connected due to a supernatural event that allows them to share each other's lives.  Mitsuha (voice by Mone Kamishiraishi) is a girl who lives in a quaint little village in the country.  Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is a boy living in Tokyo.  The two lead ordinary lives, and in most regular circumstances, would not even know that the other exists.  Until one day, they wake up and find themselves in each other's body.  Taki wakes up in Mitsuha's body, and can't help but fondle his new breasts.  Mitsuha, having lived in a small town all her life, finds herself completely enamored with the city life of Tokyo, and does her best to fit in with Taki's friends and active lifestyle now that she's in his body.  The next day, they wake up in their own bodies, with only vague memories of what happened the day before.  Their friends and family comment on how strange they were acting previously, and the two try to ignore it all, thinking it was just a dream.  However, the strange event of them waking up each other's body keeps on happening, seemingly at random, and seemingly off and on during the week.

As the two try to figure out what is going on, they also become fascinated by the other person that they are inhabiting.  They start leaving messages for each other to discover when they return to their rightful bodies, wanting to learn about each other, and their lives.  They even help each other out.  Whenever Mitsuha is inhabiting Taki's body, she leaves him pointers on how to impress a girl he likes, and helps them get closer.  This goes on for a while, but one day, the body switching suddenly stops.  Taki tries his best to get a hold of Mitsuha or track her down, but he apparently cannot.  Not only that, his memories of her are starting to fade to the point that he cannot remember her name.  From that point on, Your Name stops being your standard and cute body swapping comedy, and becomes something much more.

But even before the story starts to take some unique and interesting directions, we are already drawn in by the artistry of the film, as well as the way that Shinkai has written his two lead characters.  The eye for detail that the artists display here is something to truly admire, to the point that there were many moments sitting in the theater where I wished I could pause the film and study what I was seeing.  From the skyscrapers of Tokyo, to the small homes in the country village, everything has the feel that it was lovingly crafted and designed.  There's an amazing use of color, especially during the scenes where we see a sky and horizon shot in both of the film's main settings.  There's even a certain beauty to the detail in the character's movements, like how they will fidget when they are nervous, or how Taki and Mitsuha's mannerisms and body language will change ever so slightly when the other is inhabiting their body.  This is the kind of film where you completely forget you are looking at hand drawn images, and almost start to admire the characters as a performance.

The main focus behind the story of Your Name is I think finding a connection with someone who you would never expect to.  After all, in just about any circumstance, the two leads would never even know the other existed, let alone meet.  The way that the movie builds their relationship as they are trapped in this bizarre body-swapping event is quite ingenious.  The diary and journal entries that they leave for each other seem natural.  Taki and Misuha come across as real teenagers.  The way they talk, how they react to different situations, and how they ultimately feel about each other after sharing each other's life has a naturalness to it that we don't see often from Hollywood.  Despite its heavy supernatural tone, this is a deeply human story, and one that leads to some surprisingly thought provoking moments near the end.

This movie is the perfect blend of the honest and the fantastic.  It's genuine and heartfelt, but has a real sense of wonder.  It's rare to see such a balance pulled off this well, but Shinkai has done just that.  The movie is getting a small theatrical release in both an English dub, and in its original Japanese soundtrack with English subtitles.  Whatever your preference, this is a film worth tracking down as it expands across the US during the coming weeks.  Your Name is a subtle film that ends up being capable of enormous emotional power.

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