Reel Opinions


Friday, June 30, 2017

Despicable Me 3

Watching Despicable Me 3, it's easy to see why it was made.  The last two films (and their 2015 spin off Minions) were huge hits with kids, and even adults.  With the kind of bank these movies have made, why wouldn't a studio green light a third?  It makes perfect sense on a financial level.  On the creative side, sadly, what we have here is a project that feels like it was slapped together out of desperation.  While far from unwatchable, there's very little comedic spark here.  This feels less like a story the filmmakers wanted to tell, and more like a studio requirement that nobody really wanted to make in the first place.

It's also a movie that frequently seems to be at war with itself.  The earlier movies were perfectly suitable for kids, while also slipping in some smart humor or throw away lines that adults could laugh at.  Despicable Me 3 seems to be aimed entirely at the under-10 crowd, with juvenile jokes making up a majority of the gags. (There are two fart gags alone during the animation studio logo before the film even properly begins.) Okay, fine enough.  But then, why does the movie throw in so many references to the 1980s that will fly over kids' heads?  These come in the form of the film's villain, Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker from South Park), a former 80s child star turned supervillain who uses breakdancing and relics from the era like Rubik's Cubes in his crimes.  It's kind of funny at first, but the writers quickly run out of inspiration for the character, and just have him constantly reference music and items from the decade instead of actually doing anything interesting.  In a movie full of missed opportunities, he's one of the bigger ones.

In a movie that exists simply to be a summer cash cow, the uninspired plot is usually the first warning sign, and that is definitely the case here.  We find Gru (voice by Steve Carell) and his new wife Lucy (Kristin Wiig) invited to meet Gru's long-lost twin brother, Dru (also Carell).  Gru has been depressed lately, due to the fact he was fired from his job at the Anti-Villain League for failing to capture Bratt during one of his capers, and hopes that the reunion will lift his spirits.  Little does Gru realize, Dru wants to get into the villain business, and is hoping that Gru will teach him.  Meanwhile, Gru's adoptive daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Nev Scharrel) are more or less pushed to the sidelines in this installment.  There's a bizarre subplot about Margo becoming engaged to a young foreigner boy because she participated in a local custom with him that goes absolutely nowhere, and Agnes hears a rumor that a unicorn exists in a forest nearby, and goes to look for him.  That's about it.  The plots are introduced, resolved haphazardly, and basically forgotten about.  Even the ever-present Minions don't have much to do this time around, and could have just as easily been written out of the film with no consequence whatsoever.

There's just such a sense here that everyone involved knew that the franchise had run out of inspiration, and they were doing their best to keep it afloat, but to little avail.  The characters are still likable, but they don't have the energy from before, nor do they get to interact with each other much.  There's a plot introduced early on about how Lucy is having a hard time adjusting to being a mother to Gru's three girls, but again, absolutely nothing is done with it.  This could have easily added some heart or a couple sweet moments, but it obviously exists to pad out an underwritten screenplay.  Nothing sticks or connects, unless you're of the youngest members of the audience.  I will acknowledge that the Despicable Me films have not been the greatest, but they still had a sense of heart, and even some genuine laughs.  This looks, plays and sounds exactly like a series that has run out of gas.

For an unnecessary sequel completely going through mechanical motions, Despicable Me 3 is not the worst out there.  Faint praise, sure, but sometimes you just have to look at the positives when you're faced with something this uninspired.  However, I have no doubt that the movie will break all sorts of box office records over the summer with kids.  That should at least let the corporate heads who insisted on this sleep a little easier at night.
Balthazar Bratt
Balthazar Bratt

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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Baby Driver

Edgar Wright's Baby Driver is not just the best all-out action movie since Mad Max: Fury Road, it's a reminder of what summer blockbusters used to be before superheroes largely took over.  Fast-paced, plenty of kinetic stunts, a few breathless chase and action scenes, some laughs, a romantic angle, and a soundtrack that would become just as famous as the movie itself.  This movie is all of the above and more.  If the Fast and Furious movies were half this good, I'd be counting down the days to the next installment.

The titular Baby (played by Ansel Elgort in a career-topping performance) is a getaway driver for an Atlanta crime syndicate who doesn't talk much, but listens quite well, and usually records the conversations of the people around him.  Not for any nefarious purpose or for reasons of payback, mind you.  Simply because he likes to record things people say with an old fashioned mini tape recorder, and remix them to music he composes.  Music is what drives Baby's entire life.  After a car accident as a kid left him with tinnitus, which causes a constant ringing sound in his ears, he spends most of his time with earbuds on to drown it out, listening to a wide variety of classic music of a wide variety of genres and decades that act as a score to the entire film itself.  Much has been made of how Wright picked out the music before he wrote the screenplay, and how a majority of the action has been choreographed to it.  This is no more apparent than in the showstopping opening sequence, where a brazen bank robbery and getaway chase is scored to "Bellbottoms" by the The John Spencer Blues Explosion.  Baby is the best getaway driver in the criminal underworld, but he needs music to work, and everything has to be precise to the music.  When a heist is delayed at one point, he starts the music over from the beginning, so that he won't be out of sync.

Baby works for Doc (Kevin Spacey), who plans and arranges the robberies.  In all fairness, he's working to pay off a debt that he owes to the criminal.  Were it not for a mistake Baby made at one point, he wouldn't even be where he is.  Doc's process is to hire three criminals, and then have Baby drive them to the place that needs to be hit, and then make the escape once the job is done.  As the film opens, Baby has just one more job to pull off for Doc before he gets out, and can live his own life again.  This being a crime caper film, it's naturally not that easy.  He's pulled back in just when he strikes up a relationship with the pretty young diner waitress Debora (Lily James).  They dream of hitting the road together and finding their place in the world, but naturally, Baby's past catches up with him, and he's talked into doing "just one more job".  Where things go from here, I will leave you to discover.  While this is not exactly a surprising movie, it's so kinetic, alive, exciting and funny, revealing more of the plot would seem like a disservice.

Baby Driver is the one of the very few times when music video-style editing and rhythm has been pulled off successfully in a feature film.  Every sound is perfectly timed with the music on the soundtrack, from the screeching of tires on the pavement, to the gunshots, right down to the sound of bundles of money being dropped on a desk.  This might lead you to think that the film is a gimmick, or perhaps an empty spectacle, but Wright allows us not just to be mesmerized by the choreography, but also drawn in by the characters and their individual quirks and relationships.  This is a high-concept film with heart to go along with the boundless style.  And it's not just the near-continuous soundtrack that adds to the experience.  The filmmaking (including a few select black and white sequences), and the way many of the stunts are performed with practical effects rather than glaring CG add to the excitement.  When the cars slam into each other here, the audience feels it, because it looks authentic rather than staged.  We know that everything up on the screen has been calculated right down to the smallest detail, but it never feels that way, because we are drawn into these people who inhabit the story.

And yes, these are fascinating characters, played by actors who have been perfectly cast.  From the mute old man who lives in Baby's rundown apartment, to the criminals who work alongside him during the heists (who are played by the likes of Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez), these are people who grab us.  This movie may be an action spectacle, but it's not hollow in the slightest.  We also get drawn into the love story between Baby and Debora, because the actors show such wonderful romantic and at times comedic chemistry together.  When Baby is dancing for joy to music over the idea of being in love for the first time, it's not just a sweet moment, but a moment of true jubilation that actually took me by surprise.  In a strange way, it ranks as one of the most romantic musical moments since La La Land.  The music here doesn't just stage the action, but also just about every emotion, making it perhaps the first action movie musical.

Even if the summer hadn't up to this point been filled largely with disappointing clunkers, Baby Driver would probably still rank as one of the high points of just about any summer movie season.  If I were a better man, I would be personally leading anyone who buys a ticket to the new Transformers to a theater showing this movie, so they could see what a genuine action movie looks like.  This is simply one of those small cinematic miracles where everything just works.

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Sunday, June 18, 2017

No Review of Transformers: The Last Knight This Coming Week

Hello, one and all!

I am writing this just to inform my readers not to expect a review of Transformers: The Last Knight this coming week.  I am done with the series, and I am not going to give it my money.  I have hated almost the entire franchise with a passion, and unless this fifth entry somehow receives amazing word of mouth, I am not going to pay to watch it.

The Transformers were a huge part of my childhood growing up, and were probably my favorite cartoon and line of toys back in the day.  Going to see the 1986 Transformers animated movie on opening day with my best friend at the time remains one of my favorite movie-going memories when I was growing up.  And yet, each film in this live action franchise has made me angry, sad, and extremely bored.  I understand, these new films are designed for a completely different audience.  And I think it's crystal clear by this point that I am not part of it.  I'm tired of watching them, and honestly, I'm running out of things to say about them, as many of the movies have been the same and shown no sign of improvement.

And so, since it's the only movie going into wide release this coming week, there probably will not be any new reviews this week.  I will be back when I see Baby Driver on Wednesday, June 28th.

Thanks for understanding, and I hope all of you have a wonderful week ahead!

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All Eyez on Me

All Eyez on Me, a bio-pic looking at the short but complicated life of rapper Tupac Shakur, was obviously rushed to screens after the surprising box office success of Straight Outta Compton two summers ago.  It shows in literally every way.  This script was not ready to go before the cameras.  It's clumsy, disjointed, bland, and does absolutely nothing to show us the man, his thoughts, or his personality.  It's as deep as a puddle, and runs through the facts of his life with all the insights of a Wikipedia article. 

There is absolute no flow to the screenplay credited to three screenwriters, or to the direction by Benny Boom.  Taking the most cut and dry approach they can, the filmmakers simply jump from one moment of his life to the next with absolutely no connecting tissue linking the events, or to the people in Tupac's life.  The only thing they did right was to cast Demetrius Shipp, Jr. in the lead role.  Not only does he look remarkably like Tupac, but he does his best to try to stand out from the material he's been given.  He's up there, giving it his all, and clearly don't his best to portray all the nuances of the man, both good and bad.  But he's fighting a losing battle when it comes to this leaden script, and the uninspired camerawork and direction that Boom uses. 

The movie gave me a bad feeling right from the start by using a clumsy and unnecessary prison interview as a framing sequence.  The reporter (Hill Harper) asks Tupac some pointed questions about his life, Tupac looks soulfully off into the distance, and then we are taken into a flashback.  And then another.  And then another.  It gets kind of comical eventually.  Instead of creating a proper narrative flow, the movie just jumps from one event to another, with some scenes only lasting literally less than two minutes before it's on to the next subject.  For example, the reporter will ask about a song that Tupac did, he'll talk a tiny bit about it, and then we see a flash of the music video, before it moves on to the next subject at hand.  Nearly every subject the movie covers, from his mother's early years as a Black Panther, to his close relationship with actress Jada Pinkett (portrayed here by Kat Graham) is treated in such a perfunctory manner, it barely has any weight, nor is it given any time for it to register with the audience.

There is such a casual indifference that All Eyez on Me takes to its subject matter.  The people who raised him, inspired him, helped him in his career or were there in his personal life come across as non-entities throughout the film.  The movie drops the "interview" angle after about the first hour of the film, and focuses on Tupac's career leading up to his mysterious murder (which has never been solved).  This should be intriguing, but again, the movie blunders with its laid back direction, cliched character depictions, and just an absolute lack of skill.  Moments that should be sad or inspiring end up as overly melodramatic.  The people in his life drift in and out of his life as total strangers to us the audience.  Even Tupac himself seems curiously distant to us, as we never truly learn what he thinks about everything that's happening to him.  He comes across as a supporting player in his own life story, due to how the film is content to just skim the surface when it comes to him.

Even the dialogue sounds unnatural at times.  In one early scene, his mother tells a young Tupac that "your daddy was a revolutionary", and the little boy replies with, "I'm going to be a revolutionary too!"  It's this kind of obvious screenwriting that grounds the entire movie.  There are entire scenes that read about as natural as those "dramatizations" you see on sensationalist TV crime shows.  Again, the script refuses to let us get close to Tupac or the people in his life.  It simply moves from one point of his life to the next with wild abandon and no dedication. (The way the movie handles the 1994 sexual abuse case for which Tupac was convicted for is particularly sloppy.) You can tell that the people behind this movie had no real interest in the subject they're covering.  They simply wanted to rush this out in order to meet a date, as the film was released on June 16th, Tupac's birthday. (He would have been 46 this year.)

All Eyez on Me is shockingly bad, and possibly one of the worst films to be made about a music celebrity.  It offers no insights, no opinions, and simply regurgitates facts that fans could learn on any website or article devoted to the man.  When the movie flashes some of his impressive sales and statistics at the end of the film, it feels like we learned more than this nearly two and a half hour feature told us.  I can only hope that somebody tries to cover this topic again with a much better film in the near future.

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Rough Night

The premise for Rough Night will be familiar to anyone who saw Peter Berg's 1998 film, Very Bad Things.  That was the movie about the bachelor party that went wrong, where a stripper was killed, and the guys had to find a way to hide the body.  This movie is about a bachelorette party that goes wrong, where a stripper is killed, and the women have to find a way to hide the body.  The difference is that Berg's film was savage and dark, while this comes across as a dopey sitcom with four letter words.

This is a movie that goes through many motions - From dull and uninteresting, to strangely off-putting, and even sentimental schmaltz, where the girls at the center of the situation begin to realize they've grown apart since their days as best friends from college.  Yep, there's a bleeding stripper in the middle of the room, but all Alice (Jillian Bell) cares about is that her best friend Jess (Scarlett Johansson) doesn't Skype with her like she does her other friends, and also didn't invite her to her bridal shower.  This is also a movie that doesn't have an original bone in its entire body, lifting wholesale from The Hangover, Bridesmaids and Weekend at Bernie's.  Finally, this is a movie that feels a lot longer than it is, despite running roughly 100 minutes.  Maybe the actresses had fun making this, but the audience doesn't get to share in their joy in watching it.

Johansson plays Jess, the bride-to-be.  She's set to marry Peter (Paul W. Downs), the safe and boring type whose idea of a bachelor party is to do a wine tasting with his friends. (Cue the classical music playing in the background, and the "snobby" stuck up friends.)  Jess is also running for Senate, and is having a hard time relating to the voters.  Regardless, she takes some time off her campaign to go to Miami in order to party with her best friends from college, do shots, and snort cocaine.  You know, the kind of thing any public figure running a campaign would do out in the open and the public eye.  Her friends include Blair (Zoe Kravitz), a successful businesswoman struggling with a recent divorce, Frankie (Ilana Glazer), a lesbian and activist, and schoolteacher Alice (Bell), who arranged this whole get together in the first place.  They are also joined by Pippa (Kate McKinnon), a friend Jess met while studying abroad in Australia.  And yes, McKinnon's Australian accent is hit and miss, but at least her performance is the most interesting one in the film.

The women are set up with a multi-million dollar house for the weekend, provided by one of Jess' wealthier donators to her campaign.  It's right next door to an oversexed couple (Ty Burrell and Demi Moore), who seem to have walked in from a 1970s sex film.  The friends reunite, drink a lot, hit the clubs, and then head back to the house where they order a pizza and a stripper (Ryan Cooper).  When the stripper shows up and starts his routine, he's rudely interrupted about a minute in when an over eager Alice knocks him over and winds up cracking his skull, instantly killing him.  The women go into panic mode.  Yes, the death was an accident, but they have drugs and alcohol all over the place, there's Jess' campaign, and Frankie has had a lot of problems with the law recently.  And since this is a comedy (in theory, not in execution), the ladies make one bad decision after another, and screw up nearly every opportunity they get.

Rough Night sputters and wheezes to its conclusion.  There are periods where the friends almost seem to forget that there's a body in the house, and just crack wise, or have "girl talk" about their friendship.  We also get a bizarre subplot where Jess' fiance, Peter, is afraid that she doesn't want to marry him anymore due to a misunderstanding over the phone.  So, he straps on an adult diaper, and drives non-stop to Miami in order to face her.  This leads to a scene where he has to stop to gas up the car, finds out his credit card doesn't work, so he needs cash.  The two guys he asks for help happen to immediately come on to him, and ask if he wants to have sex with them.  No, this scene goes nowhere particularly interesting, and neither does the entire plot itself.  It's just there to pad out the running time, because the filmmakers knew that the movie was floundering.

Nothing that happens is all that funny.  There's the occasional line that made me crack a smile, but outside of that, it's kind of a lost cause.  This is one of those movies that seem to think the sight of women shrieking, panicking, and generally acting like morons is enough to build an entire comedy around.  And when the movie does try to make us care about these women by having them talk about their feelings and how hard their lives have become since their hopeful college years, it feels like false sentiment instead of genuine character building.  I simply had no interest in these people, and I never bought them as best friends to begin with.  The movie does give us a happy ending for these women, but a happier one for me would have been them realizing they've just grown apart, and going their separate ways.

Rough Night does little to hide its inspirations, and then does next to nothing to add its own inspired ideas.  It's lazy, it's cheap, and it wastes some true talents in its cast.  In other words, it fits right in with what has largely been a disappointing summer movie season thus far.

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47 Meters Down

Originally planned as a direct to DVD release, 47 Meters Down was bumped up to a theatrical summer release after last year's shark thriller, The Shallows, became a surprise sleeper hit.  At the very least, the movie feels like it was meant for the big screen from the beginning.  The movie is taut, suspenseful when it needs to be, and holds two strong lead female performances by Mandy Moore and Claire Holt.

They play sisters Lisa (Moore) and Kate (Holt), who are vacationing at a Mexican resort.  Lisa was originally supposed to be there with her boyfriend, but he has recently broken up with her because "she was boring".  Kate, naturally, is the polar opposite of the conservative and somewhat shy Lisa.  Kate is brash, adventurous, and basically wants to see her sister happy again.  They meet two local guys at a bar who try to talk them into an experience where they could go diving with sharks.  Kate, naturally, leaps at the idea and signs them both up.  Her excuse as to why Lisa should come along?  They can take photos of them swimming with sharks, and send them to her ex to show just how exciting Lisa can be.  Lisa reluctantly agrees eventually, and the next day, the women are being led by those guys to a rusted old boat captained by the grizzled Captain Taylor (Matthew Modine, who makes the most out of a limited role, and is quite good).

The boat has a less-than-secure looking shark cage hanging off the back, which will drop the girls just five meters, so they can take photos safely.  But while the girls are down there, the cable holding the cage snaps, and they dropped 47 meters below.  Trapped and with no way to contact the ship, since they are too far down for radio communication with the boat above, the sisters must rely on each other for survival, while avoiding detection from the various sharks that inhabit the waters.  They do manage to eventually get to a point where they can communicate with the boat, with the Captain informing them to stay put while they send help, and contact the Coast Guard.  But, there are a variety of complications, ranging from their oxygen tanks only having a limited amount of air, to being trapped within the cage that is the only thing keeping them safe.

Thanks to this simple premise, some effective acting, as well as convincing special effects, 47 Meters Down is able to create a strong sense of tension for most of its rapid running time.  It's the kind of movie that effectively delivers thrills, gives us a couple quiet moments that allows us to get behind these two characters trapped underwater, and even throws in an effective jolt once in a while.  It also adds an angle we don't usually see in shark movies, where the human leads are trapped in the shark's domain, instead of having the aquatic predator approaching our turf.  The movie is smart too, making the leading women not just sympathetic, but intelligent survivors.  There's even a sort of twist near the end, but it's pretty easy to spot coming if you're paying attention.  Regardless, the movie is simple and effective, and that's really all you can ask from a movie like this.

It's true that no movie will ever top 1975's Jaws, the Citizen Kane of shark movies.  But, at the very least, there's still life in the genre.  It's the kind of movie that will give you enough shocks to be satisfied, and maybe make you second guess that aquatic adventure vacation you might be planning for the summer.

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Friday, June 16, 2017

Cars 3

If 2006's Cars was a story about a cocky race driver discovering his true potential, and its 2011 follow up a misguided attempt at a spy spoof that oddly focused on one of the supporting characters instead of the main one (Seriously, Cars 2 should have just been called The Mater Movie), then Cars 3 is the Rocky Balboa-style story of what happens when that cocky race driver from the first film is past his prime.  There are moments of genuine emotion here (things the last sequel lacked), but it's not up to the usual level we expect from Pixar, and quite honestly, the movie comes across as being pretty standard in every way.

The Cars films, with its world made up entirely of living automobiles who race each other, have always been more about merchandising and selling toys than most films to come out of the studio.  And at the very least, first time director Brian Fee does try to give the story some heart to the story as hot shot race car Lightning McQueen (voiced once again by Owen Wilson) is forced to reevaluate himself and the lessons he learned from his former mentor Doc Hudson (voiced in flashbacks posthumously by Paul Newman, employing unused takes from recording sessions on the first film).  But the pacing of the film can also be idling, and a lot of the big racing scenes lack the intensity they require, save for one set at a demolition derby that occurs about halfway through the film. 

However, I guess the key question to ask regarding Cars 3 is will kids like it, and will it sell toys over the summer?  My guess is the answer will be "yes" to both.  As the film opens, we find Lightning still at the top of the auto racing world, until a snotty and technologically superior young rookie named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) shows up, and starts winning one race after another, making Lightning feel like he's past his prime.  After being sidelined by a crash, McQueen goes on a journey of self-discovery.  He starts by working with his corporate sponsor (Nathan Fillion) in a high-tech training facility, complete with a virtual racing simulator, which bring about one of the film's funniest moments.  It's at this facility where Lightning meets his personal trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who tries to help Lightning find the spark within himself that made him a great racer in the first place.  We also gradually learn that she has a more personal history with the sport of racing than anyone could have ever realized.

When the high-tech training doesn't pay off like he expects, Lightning looks to his past, and seeks out Smokey (Chris Cooper), the car who once trained his mentor, Doc Hudson.  He begins a more grounded and basic method of training under Smokey's watchful eye, and before long, Lightning has that fighting spirit to face Jackson Storm once again.  I have no doubt that kids will find this stuff absolutely thrilling.  I actually heard a few audible gasps from the children around me when Lightning had a huge crash at one point in the film.  And you know what, with the right approach, this plot probably could have worked for the adult animation fans in the audience as well.  But this film never quite finds it, and seems content to tread water.  We never get a deep connection between Lightning and Smokey, the rivalry with Jackson Storm never seems as intense as it should be, and while Cruz definitely has her moments (she's the best part about the film), she never quite has the strong emotional payoff that we expect.

The whole movie suffers from a lack of a strong emotional payoff.  The movie plays out pleasant enough and it never offends, but it also never excites or truly comes across as inspired.  This must have felt like busy work for animators who have worked on projects as diverse as The Incredibles, Inside Out and Ratatouille.  All of those films (and most Pixar movies in general) found a way to reach both kids and adults, but the Cars franchise has always seemed a bit more shallow and commercial to the rest of the studio's output.  I get it.  Corporations need to make money, after all.  And Cars 3 does at least hide its corporate intentions better than the last two movies.  But just like the other two films, this one just never connected with me on any level.  Yes, there are some scattered laughs here, but there's very little to get excited about.

I still believe that Pixar can be strong, however.  The proof is in the short film that plays before the movie, L.O.U., where a schoolyard bully gets taught a lesson by an unusual source.  That roughly five minute short has more heart and good will than the entirety of the main feature that comes after.  Cars 3 is a passable diversion made by some very talented people.  It will make its money, it will be watched over and over again by kids on DVD, and we may get a fourth film.  But I highly doubt even some of the people who worked on it will view this as one of their better efforts.

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Saturday, June 10, 2017

It Comes at Night

With its ominous title, poster art and even the ad campaign, you would be forgiven for thinking that It Comes at Night is a horror film.  And while it certainly does contain elements of a thriller with its claustrophobic settings of a boarded up house located in the middle of a mysterious forest where strange sounds can be heard off in the distance, this really is a devastatingly sad film about paranoia.  I have a hunch that the mainstream summer audience isn't going to get behind this one very much, but if you're looking for something very dark and incredibly powerful, you really can't go wrong.

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults throws us into the middle of a post-apocalyptic world with little answers as to what is going on.  From its opening scene, where three people donning gas masks take an elderly and obviously sick old man out into the woods to end his life, we can tell that the world is in ruin, and obviously at the mercy of some kind of plague.  We never learn the full effects or what the disease even is, but the people inhabiting a boarded up home in the middle of the woods are obviously doing whatever they can to keep it out.  We are introduced to these people, which include survivalist father Paul (Joel Edgerton), his concerned wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their sensitive 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.).  The elderly man we see in the beginning is Sarah's father, who had contracted the disease.  Paul and Travis take him out in the woods, kill him, and then burn his body.  This act lingers with Travis, as he will be haunted by nightmares concerning his grandfather throughout the film.

The family lives day-by-day in their boarded up house, trying to stay one step ahead of whatever disease has taken out most of the world.  They take extreme security precautions to ensure their survival, but that security is compromised when a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks in to look for supplies for his own family, thinking the house was abandoned.  Paul is suspicious of the man, and ties him up to a tree out back until he can make sure that Will is not sick.  When it appears that he is healthy, he listens to Will's story, learning that there is food and valuable supplies waiting with Will's family a good distance from Paul's home.  The two men go out for a few days to find Will's house, and when they return, they not only bring the promised food and supplies, but also Will's wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner).  The two families live together peacefully under the same home for a while, but perhaps inevitably, tensions and paranoia begin to rise between them.  Not only that, but Travis' nightmares concerning the disease are only getting worse, and there seems to be something lurking just on the outskirts of the forest outside their door.

It Comes at Night is certainly not your conventional thriller, although it does fall back on a few classic tricks, such as "jump scare" nightmare sequences and plot misdirection.  Fortunately, it's doesn't try to throw us off too much, and is really just a simple, straight forward and slowly burning story about survival, and what happens when trust between people begins to break down.  It's the kind of movie where tension can be created just by the empty and quiet forest landscape that surrounds the boarded up home the characters inhabit, creating a quiet but no less ominous sense of dread.  Again, we have no hard evidence as to what is actually going on in the world, or what this disease is.  Some may find this frustrating or unnecessarily vague, but I think the fact that we don't know the whole story adds to the tension.  We don't know what could be out there, or what this disease could truly do to these people.  And when things start to fall apart and suspicion becomes rampant within the home, we find ourselves second-guessing these characters, and wondering just who is exactly telling the truth.

This is ultimately an emotionally wrenching film, and the performances are more than capable of creating a sense of paranoia, dread and mistrust.  Joel Edgerton stands out as the serious-minded type who goes above and beyond to help his family, but quickly learns that he has no control over the situation.  Likewise, Christopher Abbott as Will creates a sense that his character is perhaps a bit more hopeful and agreeable, but loses it during the course of the film.  We can see the trust within him die, and by the climax, he might no longer know what to think about anything that is going on around him.  Also of note is Kelvin Harrison, Jr as the young Travis, who mostly acts as the film's narrator.  We see much of the events through his eyes, and even though he has little dialogue, he delivers a no less powerful performance as someone who may be too young and naive to fully grasp the situation, but is horrified by what he does know.  As for Ejogo and Keough, they both get individually powerful moments, especially near the end.

It Comes at Night is so relentlessly grim, it could have seemed overwhelming.  But the filmmakers know just how to handle such a dark story.  It is powerful, well-acted, and above all a memorable and emotional experience.  And while I question the studio's judgement to release it right in the middle of the big summer movie season, I am nonetheless glad it's here, as it severs as a powerful antidote to many of this summer's big budget disappointments thus far.

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Friday, June 09, 2017

The Mummy

The new reboot of The Mummy is credited to three different screenwriters, but it has the distinct feeling of a film that had one too many hands involved in the making of it.  This is filmmaking by committee, a corporate product that tries to cover all bases, yet succeeds at none of them.  The tone is completely off, with middling thrills mixed with out of place slapstick humor that seems to be trying to mimic the earlier Mummy franchise with Brendan Fraser, only without success.

The film is intended to kick off a Cinematic Universe built around the Universal Horror Monsters of old.  However, those of you with very good memories will likely remember that there was an earlier attempt to do just that.  That would be 2014's Dracula Untold, which was supposed to kick off the franchise.  But, since that movie soundly bombed with critics and audiences, The Mummy now gets to be labeled the inaugural film.  On the surface, this appears to be a smart move, as this film features big name talent like Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe, as well as a lot of expensive looking set pieces and exotic locales.  But look just below the surface, and you will see a movie that's trying too hard to please, yet at the same time holds no identity.  It borrows from numerous past films, and comes across as a careless mix of ideas that were probably contributed by a combination of writers and studio heads that only cared about making a product that can set up future films, and not a successful standalone movie.

But the core problem here is that the movie is not so much about the titular Mummy, as it is about Tom Cruise, who is woefully miscast as a charming rogue and adventurer.  Cruise's Nick Morton is supposed to be a con artist and treasure hunter, who is willing to seduce, steal and bribe his way to fortune.  And yet, the entire time, we never forget that we are simply watching Tom Cruise.  He never inhabits any sort of character.  He's just up there on the screen to flash a smile, say a one-liner, or do battle with the CG Undead.  For any Cinematic Universe to succeed, we need to be involved with the characters who inhabit it, and want to see them show up in other films.  Same goes for Russell Crowe, who turns up as Dr. Henry Jekyll.  Yes, *that* Henry Jekyll, complete with Mr. Hyde.  He has a supporting role here, but he's obviously being set up for his own movie in the future.  Again, given how little impact both the character and Crowe's performance makes, we could care less about seeing his further appearances that the studio has planned.

But before all that, we do get some backstory on the Mummy herself, Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who sold her soul to the dark god Set, and murdered her family so that she could rule Egypt with Set by her side, inhabiting a new human host body.  Her plans were stopped before they could be completed, and she was mummified and locked away.  Now, in the present, Nick Morton, along with archeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) and his comic relief sidekick (Jake Johnson) uncover her tomb, and accidentally release her.  Ahmanet more or less wants to use Nick as the new host body for Set, and rule the world.  There's the nearly two hours of the movie right there.  Not only are the characters not strong enough to build a continuing Cinematic Universe, but the plot is dead in the water.  Instead, we get a lot of scenes of Nick and Jenny running from undead monsters, and quite a bit of comedic banter that not only seems out of place with the dark tone the movie seems to be trying to create, but also kills whatever small amount of tension it manages to build.

You can see the lack of creative energy that went into The Mummy in just about every scene.  The script is banal, lifting wholesale from past movies as varied as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, to An American Werewolf in London.  Even the scope of the movie seems oddly small, especially for a movie that is supposed to be kicking off not just a new franchise, but a whole Universe of movies.  Even the special effects seem curiously dated and not as much fun as the ones seen in the 1999 comic adventure reboot, which makes you wonder if maybe Tom Cruise's asking price was maybe a bit more than the filmmakers could afford, and had to cut costs in other departments.  Nothing is big or grand here, and when you get right down to it, it's simply a cynical exercise in making money.  And just to make it all the more cynical, director Alex Kurtzman couldn't be bothered to make an effort for that.  He is phoning the whole movie in, and it shows.

The movie can't even be bothered to end on a satisfying note.  The climax is rushed, unsatisfying and makes little sense in the grand scheme of things, and the final scene ends things on a bad laugh.  Universal has had a very hard time with this whole Monster Reboot, which they've been trying to make a thing ever since 2004's disastrous Van Helsing with Hugh Jackman.  Judging by The Mummy, they still haven't figured it out, and maybe should just stop trying. 

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Saturday, June 03, 2017

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

Captain Underpants is a movie that understands its audience - Mostly 10-year-old boys.  More importantly, it understands how to reach the inner 10-year-old of most adults who will be watching it with their kids.  I can imagine a lot of fathers and sons having a blast with this movie.  It's not a major animated film, and never pretends to be.  It's silly, breezy, and it features a villain named Professor Pee-Pee Diarrheastein Poopypants, Esq.  If that doesn't warrant a recommendation, I don't know what does.

Even though I have never read any of them, I am aware of the immensely popular series of children's books written by Dav Pilkey where Captain Underpants got his start.  I also am familiar with the fact that the books have been banned from some schools, which makes me wonder what some adults are thinking.  The movie is harmless, and I assume the books are in a similar good nature.  Yes, there is some juvenile humor, but the worst thing we get is a giant robot toilet running rampage through a city during the climax.  The movie's really all about the joys of boyhood playground humor, and a parody of superhero tropes.  Captain Underpants himself is a funny creation.  He kind of looks like an egg crossed with a human baby, and even though he possesses no actual superpowers, he still fights crime and usually succeeds through sheer dumb luck.  Like most superheroes, the Captain has a secret identity.  In this case, it's the strict, kid-hating school Principal Mr. Krupp (voice by Ed Helms).  Unlike most superheroes, Mr. Krupp has no idea of his heroic alter ego, because he only becomes Captain Underpants when he's under hypnosis.

How did this happen?  That would be thanks to George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch), two young boys who attend Mr. Krupp's elementary school, and survive day by day by cracking each other up, and drawing comics about the courageous and dim-witted Captain Underpants in George's tree house.  They also enjoy planing elaborate pranks to play on Krupp and their teachers.  When the two boys are finally caught in the act, Krupp threatens them with the ultimate punishment that any child could face - Being forced to attend separate classes, so that the two friends won't be able to see each other during the school day and cause trouble.  Never mind that they live immediately next door to each other, and can see each other outside of school.  To George and Harold, being in separate classes is akin to being separated by the vast reaches of the universe.  Out of desperation, George tries his luck with a hypnotizing ring that he found in a cereal box, and amazingly, it manages to put Mr. Krupp in a trance.  With their Principal under their power, all they have to do is snap their fingers, and suddenly he thinks that he is Captain Underpants, and begins roaming around the city wearing nothing but his underwear and a cape, looking for crime.

It just so happens that the city could use a hero right about now, as it turns out that the school's new Science teacher is none other than Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll), a German-accented villain who has invented a device that can destroy all laughter and humor, as people have always laughed at his name all his life.  With the aid of the school nerd Melvin (Jordan Peele), the Professor carries out his diabolical experiment on the school kids, and ultimately builds a giant robotic toilet to serve as his mode of transportation and destruction.  I'm looking back over this synopsis I have written, and I can understand if you would be quick to brush it off as being dumb and juvenile, and it certainly is.  But it's also smart in a way.  The screenplay by Nicholas Stoller (Storks) juggles a fine line between toilet humor and genuinely funny superhero satire.  Besides, the movie is never crude or disgusting.  It has an innocence to it, and genuinely sounds like the kind of story a kid of a certain age would write in order to crack their friends up.  There are funny names, words puns, and visual gags plenty, some including actual sock puppets and even a flip book animated sequence, which my friend who accompanied me to the screening and is familiar with the books informs me is a regular thing in the stories.

Captain Underpants is the kind of movie where you often find yourself laughing at the absurdity of it, and then laughing even more at the fact that you're laughing in the first place.  This is a silly movie made by smart people.  The game cast helps a lot, too.  Ed Helms is often hilarious in his larger than life portrayal of Captain Underpants, as well as his short-tempered true identity, Mr. Krupp, who enjoys nothing more than to torture his students by making them come in to school on Saturdays.  But Kroll is the real scene-stealer here.  His Professor Poopypants gets laughs just from his line delivery alone.  The fact that most of the things he says is actually funny just adds to the hilarity.  It's the kind of comical villain performance we seldom get, where the actor just throws all subtlety out the window, and just lets us have as much fun as he clearly was playing the character.

Is the movie slight?  Probably.  Would it have probably worked better as a TV movie rather than a theatrical release?  Maybe.  But I can't deny that I had a great time with this one.  It may be juvenile, but it's not dirty, and it never revels in bad taste.  You get the feeling that this is an animated movie a kid like George or Harold would make if they had the budget, the means, and the smarts to also reach an adult audience, and make them laugh as much as the kids.

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