Reel Opinions


Saturday, October 21, 2017

Victoria & Abdul

In the opening moments of Victoria & Abdul, we see the words "Based on real events - mostly".  This is more or less director Stephen Frears' effort to let us know right off the bat that what we are about to watch is a sentimentalized and somewhat whimsical look at a true story.  It's a smart move, as it gets the audience ready for what is to come.  I'm sure that historical fans will nitpick the details of the movie to death, and yes, some of it can be quite broad and heavy handed.  But I also found it completely charming, and it works on a level of escapism.

It certainly helps that Frears has found the right actors to tell the story, or at least his version of it.  Judi Dench has played Queen Victoria previously in 1997's Mrs. Brown.  Returning to the role 20 years later to play a much older version of Victoria fits her perfectly, and is probably one of the smarter casting choices in recent years.  In a lot of ways, this film could almost be seen as a sequel to the earlier one. (I'll explain why soon.) As for Abdul, we have charming Hollywood newcomer Ali Fazal.  As the two begin a respectful friendship and eventual platonic love with one another, we believe every emotion.  Fazal shows a certain openness and sweetness that we can truly believe that an aging monarch would find endearing.  He was there when she needed human friendship and kindness, and the film portrays their growing relationship beautifully.

At the start, Abdul is a clerk at a jail in Agra, writing names down in a book.  He is picked by some British government officials to deliver a gold trinket to the Queen, simply because they were asked to bring back a tall Indian man to serve as its deliverer, and Abdul just happens to be tall enough.  He travels from India to England with another man plucked from obscurity named Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar).  After months at sea, they find themselves in Buckingham Palace under strict orders over how to act in front of the Queen when they present the trinket to her during a grand palace dinner.  Abdul is not to make eye contact with her, but when he presents the gift to her, he cannot help but glance.  To the surprise of everyone in the room, Victoria seems smitten by the "terribly handsome" Indian man.

Dench plays Victoria as a woman who has long grown tired with the life she's led.  She falls asleep during the royal dinner, and cannot stand the constant scheming and whispered backtalk of her servants and family members.  She is also incredibly lonely, longing for her long-lost loves Prince Albert, and her manservant John Brown, of whom her relationship was depicted in the previously mentioned Mrs. Brown.  The affair that was depicted in that film was scandalous enough, but as the Queen nears the end of her life and now seems completely captivated by Abdul, it seems to turn almost the entire palace against her.  Nobody in the palace, especially her eldest son Bertie (Eddie Izzard) seems to care much that Abdul's presence seems to have made Victoria the happiest she has been in years.  They simply don't want the brown-skinned man to be amongst them, and seem threatened when the Queen starts taking advice from him, and even talks of Knighthood.

Victoria & Abdul moves at a brisk pace, but not so brisk that we do not buy Abdul's quick ascent in importance in the eyes of the Queen.  The movie is wise to focus on the central relationship between the two, as this is definitely the strongest aspect here.  Dench and Fazal share so much chemistry and warmth, I just loved watching them up on the screen together.  They are what won me over.  What the film was less successful at was handling the racial undertones of the picture, and how much of the palace staff and family scheme to get rid of Abdul.  These aspects come close to being a bit too simplistic in their depiction, and rather than really explore the topic or these characters, the filmmakers instead choose to make almost everyone who surround the two central characters buffoons.  There had to be a little more even-handed way to portray the outside characters and their reluctance to accept Abdul without making everybody into pompous and at times comical boobs.

This may sound like a criticism that could bring the whole movie down, but fortunately, the performances of the central characters constantly left me captivated.  I also never felt like the flaws took so much away that I was no longer enjoying the film.  I knew that my emotions were probably being manipulated every step of the way, but because the two leads are so effortlessly charming, I was able to go along with it.  I believe that a film such as this succeeds or fails on how you feel at the end of the journey the two central characters take.  For me, I was deeply moved by the film's final moments.  By that point, it was clear that I may not have believed everything the movie had been trying to sell me, but I still bought it.

I don't know if Victoria & Abdul will be remembered much come Award Time, but that should not matter.  This is a charming and sweet film that ultimately made me happy, and that's all it's really trying to do.  It's the kind of movie where you can lose yourself in its characters, and the relationship that builds between them.  It may not be an important film, but it's a joyful one.

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Friday, October 20, 2017

Geostorm

Geostorm is the worst kind of action thriller.  It's the kind where something is constantly happening, and yet the whole enterprise feels dead inside.  Nobody looks like they had any fun making this one.  And for a movie that promises the spectacle of seeing major cities being attacked by extreme weather, we see very little of it here.  What we get instead is a mystery as to who is behind a plot to sabotage a weather control computer and control the world.  It should be easy for the audience to figure out the culprit.  Just look for the big name actor who has nothing to do for a majority of the movie.

The movie wants to be a throwback to those big budget disaster films that were so popular in the mid to late 90s.  The co-writer and director of this movie is Dean Devlin, who has some experience with this genre, having been partly responsible for Independence Day back in 1996.  Given the lifeless effort on display, he has either been to the genre well one time too many, or his heart is just no longer in it.  This is the kind of movie where we can see every cent that went into the expensive production, but none of it registers with us, simply because there is nothing to care about.  The plot, characters, suspense and one-liners are all old hat.  If you're going to fill your script with such bargain basement elements, you need to at least throw in some decent action to distract us from all of this.  In this case, the filmmakers forgot this necessary ingredient, so the film collapses in on itself.

As the film opens, a little girl narrator informs us that in 2019, global warming finally peaked with a string of extreme weather that wiped out most major cities.  The U.S. joined up with a variety of other countries to combat the threat with a massive satellite system called Dutch Boy.  Its purpose is to track extreme weather and destroy it before it can cause damage.  The Dutch Boy system was created by a hard-drinking scientist named Jake Lawson (a charmless and uncharismatic Gerard Butler), who originally ran the system from up in space, until he angered some Senate buffoons during a hearing, and he was fired from his own creation.  He was replaced by his younger brother Max (Jim Sturgess), with whom he has had a long-standing feud with.

Jump forward three years later, and Dutch Boy seems to be going through a series of malfunctions that is causing catastrophic weather down on Earth.  In one instance, a village in Afghanistan becomes covered in snow and ice, with all of the inhabitants frozen solid.  The President of the United States (Andy Garcia) wants Max to send someone up to the Dutch Boy satellite, and find out what happened.  Since Jake invented the thing, he seems to be the most logical choice to investigate.  Up on the satellite, Jake and a fellow scientist (Alexandra Maria Lara) figure out within minutes that the system has been sabotaged, and they begin a private investigation, since they fear someone on board the Dutch Boy is responsible for slipping a virus into the program.  Down on Earth, Max and his Secret Service agent fiance (Abbie Cornish) discover that someone high in the government is killing anyone who gets too close to uncovering the truth that the incidents of extreme weather (which includes hail the size of boulders in Tokyo and flash-freezing cold in Rio) is an act of someone involved with the project.

Geostorm is built around a world-wide threat that never resonates, frankly because the movie doesn't make the effort to get us involved.  Aside from a scene set in Hong Kong where the streets explode in fire, and a wild lightning storm that strikes Orlando, we get to see very little of the extreme weather's effect on the world.  In fact, most of the sequences of special effects destruction are so brief, they seem like snippets from the trailer.  We see people running from massive dust clouds and tornadoes, a little boy cowering in fear and clinging to his dog for support, a bikini-clad woman manage to outrun the cold, cars being flipped over by massive hunks of ice falling from the sky, and people getting roasted by the extreme heat, but it never stays on the screen long enough for it to make an impression.  It often feels overly edited, like the movie has been hacked to pieces, but the filmmakers wanted at least the tiniest portion of these effects shots to appear in the movie.  When you learn that the film has gone under massive reshoots and has missed several release dates, it all starts to make sense.

But more important than the fact that we don't care about the spectacle on display is that we also don't care about these people.  As the protagonist, Gerard Butler largely comes across someone you wouldn't want to sit next to during a bus trip, let alone watch a movie about him having to save the world.  He comes across as a loudmouth and a jerk, and no matter how many subplots the movie throws at him, such as his relationship with his daughter and his ex-wife as well as his estranged relationship with his brother, nothing gets us in his corner.  And let's face it, a movie like this is hard to take seriously to begin with, so it helps if the film can have some fun with itself.  This movie does try to have a sense of humor, but it's of the very lame one-liner variety.  When you consider that most of these jokes and gags occur while the main characters are staring death straight in the face, it seems all the more lame and forced.

There is simply nothing to Geostorm, even if you are a fan of big dumb special effects movies.  It's a lifeless, drab and dead in the water experience that looks like it had gobs of cash thrown at it in a vain attempt to liven it up.  When you consider how dead the movie is, it almost seems sad how much money (reportedly around $120 million) was spent on it.  That money could have gone to movies much more clever, exciting or funny than this.  This is as cynical a studio film as there has ever been.

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Saturday, October 14, 2017

Happy Death Day

Happy Death Day is the second movie this year to employ the Groundhog Day formula of a teenage girl who has to live the same day over and over until she gets it right, and becomes a better person in the process.  The other film, Before I Fall, treated the plot seriously, and was largely successful.  This movie, on the other hand, is an unapologetically goofy thriller that never manages to take itself seriously, and has a great amount of fun in offing its lead heroine over and over again, just like Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow.  If I have to be honest about which of the two films I preferred, I'd have to go with the one where the lead heroine gets stabbed in the neck with a broken bong by a killer wearing a Halloween mask that resembles Baby Herman from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. (Spoiler alert: This doesn't happen in Before I Fall.)

Director Christopher Landon (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) lets the audience know what they're in for right off the bat by playfully having the Universal Studios logo play out and then rewind itself and start over three times in a row right as the movie kicks off.  Not only does this tie into the idea of its heroine having to relive the same day over and over, but it gets the audience ready for the silly tone that the movie will embrace.  After that, we're introduced to Tree (Jessica Rothe), a vain and mean Sorority Girl who wakes up from a hangover in a strange student's dorm room.  We get the sense that this is not the first time she has woken up somewhere with no memories, but at least she had the good fortune to wind up in the room of Carter (Israel Broussard), a nice but geeky kid who just wants to help.  She naturally brushes off his attempts, and staggers drunkenly across campus back to her Sorority House, where her fellow Sisters are all too happy to point out that she is sneaking back in during the middle of the day once again.

Tree's routine includes ignoring phone calls from her father, pushing away her well-meaning roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), who was nice enough to make a homemade cupcake for Tree's birthday, and sneaking off to have sex with one of her college professors who naturally happens to be married.  That night, while walking to a party, Tree has a creepy encounter with a mysterious figure who hides their face behind a mask of the college's baby-faced mascot.  The figure quickly turns aggressive, and brutally murders Tree.  However, instead of heading off to the afterlife, Tree finds herself waking up in the same place she did that morning.  She's once again in Carter's room, she's hungover, she staggers drunkenly across campus back home, etc, etc.  After Tree is murdered again by the same mysterious figure that night (though under different circumstances), she wakes up again in the same place and realizes that she is somehow living the same day over and over.  Fortunately, Carter happens to believe her, and is willing to help.  After all, he admits he's seen Groundhog Day.

Thanks to Carter, Tree realizes that she has "unlimited lives", and thus has the chance to try to figure out who her killer is, and if there is a way she can prevent it.  Unfortunately, the list of people who would like to see her dead is quite long, so she has to narrow down the suspects just a little.  This lead to some genuinely funny moments, as Tree spies on her friends (or people who pretend to be her friends), and learns secrets about them.  She also takes advantage of this living the same day over thing by doing some bold actions, such as walking across campus naked.  Happy Death Day is completely self aware of how stupid it is, and has a blast with it.  Screenwriter Scott Lobdell (a comic book writer) unfortunately doesn't exploit the possibilities quite as much as he probably should have.  The murders and deaths that Tree encounters over and over are fairly basic. (I'm sure the film's PG-13 rating contributed to this.) However, he does pull off the neat trick of not only getting off a lot of successful jokes out of the premise, but also making us eventually care about its heroine as the film goes on.

This is something I did not expect, as the movie successfully creates Tree into such a hateful character during the first half hour.  But, even when we're not supposed to like her, the performance by Jessica Rothe (who played one of Emma Stone's roommates in La La Land) shows off her comedic and star potential.  She's fantastic here, showing a broad range of comic and also dramatic potential.  There's a scene late in the film when Tree is trying to make amends with someone important that she has hurt in the past that is genuinely touching in a way.  Based on her performance here, I truly hope she gets some great roles in the future.  I also liked her scenes with Broussard as Carter, her potential love interest.  They share great chemistry, and as they get closer, we actually start to hope that Tree will survive this ordeal so that she can have a normal life with him.  While the movie certainly never gets deep, it does eventually show a real heart to go along with the murders.

When you stop and think about it, Happy Death Day is quite clever.  After all, most slasher movies increase the death count by having the lead hero have a lot of friends who wander off and get killed.  This time, we have the hero get killed over and over, desperately trying to learn from her mistakes.   Sure, the movie doesn't play it as smart as it could have, but if it has to be stupid, at least it figures out how to not only have fun with itself but also make fun of itself at the same time.  Yes, you get the sense that there are some wasted potential here, and another rewrite or two probably would have made it even stronger.  But for what we have, I doubt the teenage horror crowd will complain too much.  Heck, I even ended up liking this a lot more than I expected.

So what if the movie doesn't make much sense, and so what if it's kind of stupid?  At least it has fun with how stupid it is.  Now if it was stupid and was not aware, that would be a reason to pan the film.  But more than that, it's highly entertaining and has a bright sense of humor.  Hmm...Having said that, maybe the movie's smarter than I thought.

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Friday, October 13, 2017

The Foreigner

In recent years, Hollywood has treated Jackie Chan as a cartoon.  I mean this literally, as most of his recent English speaking roles have been in animated features such as the Kung Fu Panda films, The Nut Job 2, and the recent Lego Ninjago Movie.  In The Foreigner, Chan not only gets to prove that he still has what it takes to be an action star at age 63, but it also gives him his most serious and challenging role in a film.  I found myself just as impressed by his dramatic acting as I was by his stunts, which he still performs by himself.

Chan brings plenty of emotional power to his role as Quan Ngoc Minh, a seemingly-unassuming Chinese man living in London, and making a living running a restaurant.  But then his life becomes shattered when his teenage daughter (Katie Leung) is killed in a terrorist bomb blast.  Having lost his wife and previous children in a tragedy that we slowly learn of during the course of the film, losing his last remaining family member sends him spiraling into a deep depression that generates some of the best acting I have seen from Chan.  There is a scene where he is standing in his daughter's bedroom, looking about at her belongings left behind, that is just heartbreaking.  He doesn't cry or manipulate our emotions.  We simply see the pain and empty shell he has become, and it is such a stunningly powerful moment of grief.

Eventually, Quan finds out that the perpetrators behind the bombing were a group of Northern Irish radicals who call themselves the New IRA.  He becomes obsessed with learning the identities behind the attack, and even goes so far as to attempt to bribe a London police investigator (Ray Fearon) for information.  When that doesn't work, he turns to deputy minister Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan, wonderful here), whom Quan finds out has a background with the IRA.  However, Liam either doesn't know anything, or more likely is not willing to come forward with the info.  Certain that he is not telling the truth, Quan decides to use his special training as a government soldier to wage a personal war on Liam, get the names of the people responsible, and ultimately get vengeance by any means necessary.  As the plot grows (and it does get quite convoluted by the end), we are nonetheless kept going by Chan's performance, as well as his physical ability during the action sequences.

The Foreigner manages to be tightly wound, thanks to a script by David Marconi that despite having a number of subplots, never loses sight on the hero or his simple quest to find his own kind of justice.  He knows that getting at the people responsible for the death of his daughter will not solve anything, but he simply must have some kind of closure, and it must be performed by him.  Chan makes his performance very low key, which makes it all the more fun when he starts wiring up crude bombs, and stealth booby traps for Liam's hired goons to fall into.  It's impossible not to think of the Taken films with Liam Neeson when you're watching this, as both are about a father with a violent past who is forced to use their knowledge to get back at people who have hurt him.  But whereas Taken was essentially a violent fantasy (and become more over the top with the sequels), this movie takes a much more subtler and grittier tone, and is much better for it.

Director Martin Campbell (Green Lantern) also knows how to keep tensions high, so that the action never slows down.  There's political turmoil, a lot of backstabbing and shady government secrets thrown about the plot, which manages to be fun to follow even if it does get a big heavy near the end.  But, everybody knows you go to a Jackie Chan movie for the stunts and action, and there are some nice set pieces here, especially the climactic one.  The action here is a lot more brutal than what we have usually seen from Chan, but it still features plenty of his daring stunts and narrow escapes that we have come to expect.  And really, it's just nice to see him getting to do his stuff again.  This may be the darkest role he has tackled, but it still is undeniable who he is and what he can do.

The Foreigner is strong as an action showpiece for its star, but it's also intriguing and highly emotional, and just a wonderful opportunity to show off Chan's acting skills that some English speaking audience members have not gotten to see.  As much as I enjoyed the action on display, it was his dramatic performance that really grabbed my attention here.  This is a movie that surprised me, and in the best way possible.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Battle of the Sexes

In the fall of 1973, a much hyped and televised tennis match played a big part of the women's rights movement at the time.  A record 50 million people watched a game between 55-year-old former tennis champ and self-proclaimed "male-chauvinist pig" Bobby Riggs and 29-year-old Billie Jean King, the leading female tennis player at the time.  King insisted that women players should be paid equally to men, and this match was to determine whether or not she was right.  With a trophy, $100,000 and the hopes of women across the US riding on the line, King had her work cut out for her.

Since the outcome of the game and King's eventual victory is well known, the filmmakers behind Battle of the Sexes have made the smart decision to go into the lives of both players leading up to the big match.  This isn't so much a sports underdog movie, as it is the story of both personalities, and how they were handling the pressure leading up to the match.  Both Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell, looking the spitting image of the person he's portraying) are given equal time and sympathy by the screenplay credited to Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), and the directing team of Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) give the film a light and fun tone, without sugarcoating the importance of the women's rights movement.

As the film opens, King has just become the top female tennis player in America.  As she quickly learns, however, her accomplishment does not carry much weight among the veteran players in the community.  The head of the pro tennis organization, retired player Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), believes that male players are "more exciting to watch", and does not feel that women should be payed equally.  When King learns that she will be paid eight times less than the men for her future tournaments, she takes a stand and creates a women's tournament with eight other players who sign up for her cause.  They are able to get an endorsement from Virginia Slims, with King's manager (Sarah Silverman) encouraging the girls to smoke on camera when they can.  The money from the tobacco company does at least give them money to go on the road, and compete in their own games.

During the cross country tour, King finds herself drawn to a hairstylist named Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), who accompanies the women as their personal stylist.  The two women kick off a shy friendship that quickly grows to both of them wanting more from each other.  Soon, they are sharing hotel rooms, and trying to keep things under wraps, although many on the tour suspect that something is going on.  For King, who has a husband back home (Austin Stowell), this could make or break not just her personal life, but also her career, especially if the big company funding their tour were to find out about it.  This not only effects her performance on the tennis court, but makes her tightly wound as her private life possibly spins out of control.

Battle of the Sexes creates some genuine tension with King's situation, especially when one of the other players (Jessica McNamee), who happens to be the only one who has her husband and baby traveling with her, starts to look down on her.  On the other side of the story, we have Bobby Riggs, whose compulsive gambling habits over the years have put his marriage to his wife (Elizabeth Shue) in jeopardy.  She genuinely loves him, but she can't stand that he still gambles, even though he is seeing a therapist (whom he frequently bets with secretly during their sessions) and is going to a support group.  When he wins a Rolls-Royce in a game of chance, and the car is dropped off outside his home, his wife has had enough and kicks him out.  He becomes inspired to create the highly publicized match as a chance to perhaps put his life back together.  King, who is reluctant at first, eventually accepts mostly due to the principle of it.

This leads to some scenes where we get to see how both of the players handled the pressure and expectations leading up to the big match.  King basically locks herself away, taking stock of her life and what she truly wants, while Riggs does a boatload of celebrity appearances (including nude photo shoots) and endorsements.  When we get to the big game itself, it is appropriately exciting and well shot, but what really fascinated me is how the filmmakers use documentary footage of celebrities of the day like Ricardo Montalban and Lloyd Bridges talking about the match and what it stands for.  We also get to see plenty of shots of the audience, and how they were divided in their loyalty to the two players, which is equally fascinating.  What we see in the audience is just as exciting and a sign of the times as the match itself, which is mostly performed by obvious stunt doubles, except for a few close up shots of the two stars. 

Despite its sometimes lightweight and comedic tone (the movie does have a lot of fun with its 70s fashions), Battle of the Sexes still holds a lot of weight, and is just as relevant now as it was 44 years ago.  The fact that the movie actually bothers to dig deeper into the lives of both of the players at the center of it, rather than give us another inspirational story arc, grabbed my attention.  I was further riveted by the fact that the movie truly shows us all angles of the debate that swirled around the highly publicized event.  This is a well-made and even-leveled movie that is not just entertaining, but also stays with you when it's over.

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Sunday, October 08, 2017

Brad's Status

Comedic actors by their nature are drawn to doing dramatic roles once in a while, but in my experience, the best examples of this are when the actor or actress finds a role that is essentially a more serious take on their usual comic persona.  This is a big part as to why Ben Stiller is so good in Brad's Status.  This is essentially a more somber take on Stiller's usual character, the hard-luck schmuck who is usually more than a little self-centered and kind of hounded by his own failures in life.  While there are some moments of humor throughout, writer-director Mike White (recovering nicely from his screenplay credit on The Emoji Movie here) gives us a film and a performance from Stiller that is easy to relate to.

The movie is built entirely around that moment everyone goes through (usually around middle age) where they take stock of their life, and how it has stacked up to what they dreamed about when they were an idealistic 20-something in college, as well as how their life compares to the people they were friends with during that same time period.  The night before Stiller's Brad Sloan is set to take his 17-year-old son to Boston for a college campus tour, he can't help but reflect on how everyone he was friends with back in the day have gone on to have interesting or successful lives, while he's living a fairly ordinary suburban existence in Sacramento.  His son Troy (Austin Abrams) is a musical prodigy, and has a good chance at getting into Harvard.  Brad is naturally excited for his son, but he can't help but have visions of his son going on to enormous fame, while he gets left behind, envying him like he does everyone else.  His loving wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) is complacent with the life they have together.  Maybe too complacent, and that's what scares Brad.

Of Brad's former college friends, there is Billy (Jemaine Clement), who is a tech giant who managed to retire at 40, and now lives a life of non-stop sex with two girlfriends on a private beach house in Hawaii.  Nick (played by writer-director Mike White) is now a successful Hollywood filmmaker  with a mansion that is regularly featured in architecture magazines.  Jason (Luke Wilson) married into money, and is now one of the most successful businessmen in America with his own private jet.  But the one who haunts Brad's mind the most is Craig (Michael Sheen), who is a successful author, a frequent political panelist on Cable News, and even lectures at his son's dream school, Harvard.  When Brad is forced to call Craig for a favor to help Troy get a meeting with the Dean as well as a music Professor he admires, it opens a floodgate of personal feelings and resentment.  It gets even worse when he finds out that Nick recently got married, and all of Brad's old group was invited, except for him.

We constantly know what Brad thinks about these people, due to the fact that he narrates and gives an inner-monologue for a good part of the film.  It's a technique that can be risky, but White's screenplay pulls it off, because of how he delves deep into these characters.  We get to see not just Brad's inflated expectations on the people who he once saw as his equal but now views them as being superior in every way, but also how they really turned out.  Sometimes it's not quite what Brad has expected.  But all of this is not heavy-handed or melodramatic.  White has a way of finding honest and relatable characters, so we can see a little bit of ourselves perhaps in these people.  There is no moment of realization on Brad's part where the music suddenly swells.  In fact, the music score by Mark Mothersbaugh is used quite well, and hardly spells out the emotion. 

What we get instead is a brilliantly acted scene where Brad has a conversation with a young musician (Shazi Raja) who is friends with Troy, and studying at Harvard.  As Brad speaks with her at a bar one night, he sees his former self in her, and how much possibility life used to have.  He tries to explain how he got to where he is in life, but she simply gives him a clear observation of Brad's life in general, and what he truly has.  We get the sense that Brad is not ready to hear some of the things she has to say about him.  But, what makes the scene work so beautifully is how White does not treat this as a big dramatic moment.  It's quiet, unassuming, and casual.  Likewise, the scene late in the film where Brad finally sits down for dinner with Craig is equally spectacular in the way it doesn't play out the way we expect. 

Brad's Status is a quietly effective comment on people who wish for more in life than what they have.  In other words, it's a movie that everybody can relate to.  We are always wanting more, and that doesn't make us terrible or selfish people.  Indeed, it's human nature.  But this isn't a moralistic story about a man learning a lesson.  Maybe these experiences will change Brad, maybe they won't.  The film intentionally leaves on a note that doesn't make a lot of things certain for him.  He's faced some hard truths during this college visitation, but we don't know if he will take all of the advice and observations he goes through and receives to heart.  And while it does have a deadpan humor to itself, it never loses sight on the honest nature of the topic.

It's almost a crime that this movie is being buried in a limited release, as I think just about anyone who watches it will take something away from it.  It not only contains the best work Ben Stiller has done in ages, but it tells an important and emotional story without the need for forced sentiment or phony resolutions.  Brad's Status is a somber but kind of beautiful little film.

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Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Mountain Between Us

In The Mountain Between Us, we get two different movies for the price of one.  One of the movies is a so-so survival story that holds our attention, but never quite builds to the tension or thrills that we expect.  The other is a dreadful romantic melodrama that kicks in right when the movie is supposed to be ending, and drags things out for 15 unnecessary minutes.  It's like right at the point it should be wrapping up, it instead goes in a completely different direction.

The film opens with two people arriving at the same airport for different reasons.  There's a storm on the way, and both need to make the next flight.  Ben (Idris Elba) is a neurosurgeon who has an important surgery that he must perform the next day.  Alex (Kate Winslet) is a photojournalist who is getting married in less than 24 hours, and needs to get home in time.  Their flights are canceled, and there are no flights going out until tomorrow because of the storm.  Learning that they are in a similar situation and headed for the same destination, Alex gets an idea.  She approaches Ben with the idea that they both pay a pilot to take them in a private plane.  They hire a jovial pilot named Walter (Beau Bridges), who brings along his trusty dog and flies them to their destination.  But while the plane is flying over some snowy mountains, the pilot suffers a fatal stroke, causing it to crash.  Both Ben and Alex (as well as the dog) survive the crash, and must now rely on each other in order to survive and find rescue.

With actors as talented as Elba and Winslet in the lead roles, it's not hard to buy the fact that these two people are in a perilous situation.  And while the screenplay never really throws anything at these characters that we haven't seen in other survival stories, the actors are what make it worth watching.  There are some good scenes where the two banter with one another, or make dark jokes as a way to keep their spirits up in the face of their impending doom.  What doesn't work quite as well is the fact that the movie never really raises the stakes.  They never seem to be without food or a fire to keep them warm, and the threats are minimal.  A mountain cougar tries to attack Winslet at one point, and she also falls through some ice much later in the film.  But these situations are resolved almost as quickly as they begin, so we never get the sense that lives are in danger here.

Regardless, I was going along with the movie, and their plight for survival.  Aside from the strong lead performances, there is also some lovely cinematography naturally, and the music score by Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones) is appropriately subtle and never once spells out the emotion of the scene.  I was even liking the dog, even though it never really plays any part in the film, and it seems like it was added in by the studio to make the film more crowd pleasing.  But then, some sexual tension begins to show between the two main characters.  They're trapped in the snowy wilderness, and all they can think about is wanting to make PG-13 sex with each other.  I didn't exactly buy this, as I doubt people in survival situations are really thinking about desires of the flesh.  I would be able to forgive this, if it didn't completely hijack the last half of the movie.

All of a sudden, The Mountain Between Us becomes less about whether our heroes will survive the harsh conditions, and more about whether it's okay for them to make love when she has a fiance waiting for her, and he apparently has a wife, but is very guarded and secretive about his past, which tells the audience that Elba "is hiding something".  They do make love after finding an abandoned cabin for shelter.  Not only is this a key moment in their relationship, but it takes over the focus of the movie.  Little by little, the movie becomes a cornball romantic melodrama that grows more unbelievable with each passing scene.  While the survival stuff wasn't the strongest, it was at least holding my interest.  Once the love story angle took center stage, I was ready to write the whole thing off.

If the whole "will they or won't they" angle and the last 15 minutes of the film had been dropped, I could see myself recommending the film despite its flaws.  As it is, this is a tragic example of a perfectly fine adventure story that gets mixed up with a really bad romance novel that eventually overpowers everything that was working previously, and ends up sinking the lead actors first, and eventually the movie itself.

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Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 is visually masterful, and intelligent in a lot of ways that most Hollywood Sci-Fi epics are not.  It's pretty much the movie that the failed live action adaptation of Ghost In the Shell from earlier this year desperately wanted to be.  It's an engaging film through and through, despite a few drawbacks, which include a nearly three hour running time, a few plodding scenes, and the occasional off performance.  These criticisms, though severe, are not enough to bring down what does work here.

1982's Blade Runner basically set the standard for any and all dark and gritty Sci-Fi that came after it.  To this day, filmmakers are still inspired and lifting ideas and images from it.  Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) and famed cinematographer Roger Deakins expand upon the world that Ridley Scott created, and manage to make it their own, so it doesn't feel like a dated throwback.  That this movie manages to be just as visually stunning as the first did when it came out is no small feat.  Do the visuals warrant the extreme length?  No, not really.  But they do help make it more tolerable.  To be honest, the movie moves quite well, and feels closer to two hours than three.  There is so much to take in, it simply can be exciting to watch at times.

Outside of the visuals, 2049 is a dark, brooding film that offers little moments of levity.  But the amazing thing is that unlike other like-minded movies, it actually is as tough and as challenging as it thinks it is.  It tackles such heady questions such as what is humanity, or even reality itself, and does so in a way that it never seems overly pretentious or long-winded.  It doesn't get bogged down in an air of self-importance, and never once feels self-indulgent.  This is a tough act to pull off, but Villeneuve manages to keep his balance for a good part of the film.  Yes, certain scenes do go on a little long, but it doesn't happen as much as you might expect.  When doing a sequel to a classic film from over 30 years ago, there's always the temptation to stick too close to the original template, or perhaps play on nostalgia too much.  This film strikes the right balance of respecting the past, while at the same time expanding upon the world and the characters within it.

This time around, our eyes into the world are represented by K (Ryan Gosling), a Blade Runner for the LAPD whose job is to hunt down the outdated old-style Nexus 8 replicants, which have been replaced by the more controllable Nexus 9 series.  He lives a completely solitary life, with his only companion being a holographic woman who is programmed to look after him named Joi (Ana de Armas).  While investigating a case, he finds evidence that a replicant has somehow given birth, which could lead to some world-shattering repercussions if the incident is not covered up and solved.  K is a replicant himself, but as he digs deeper into the case, he begins to question his own existence and nature in the world, and even begins to wonder if the memories he had programmed into him might actually be real.  This is a clever flip on the first film, where its hero Deckard (Harrison Ford) questioned his own humanity.

It's not a spoiler to reveal that K and Deckard do eventually find each other, and wind up helping each other out.  After all, Ford's face has been all over the trailers and marketing posters.  It seems as if Ford has become the king of reviving his own long-dormant franchises, so there's no chance he would have skipped out on appearing in this.  The scenes that Gosling and Ford share together are some of the best in the film, and it's almost a shame that the movie takes almost two hours before it brings Deckard into the story.  You kind of wish you could have seen more interactions between them when the whole thing is over.  The introduction of Deckard also brings about some of the film's most exciting visuals, where we're introduced to a post apocalyptic Las Vegas that looks about as barren and as alien as Mars.

The plot of 2049 basically revolves around people searching for evidence of this child born of a replicant for different personal reasons.  On the side of the antagonists, we have Jared Leto as Wallace, the leading manufacturer of replicants, or "angels" as he calls them.  Leto's performance is the one drawback here, as his somewhat stilted line delivery can draw an occasional unintentional chuckle from the audience, but he's not in the movie very much, so he doesn't drag things down.  It's up to Gosling to carry the movie almost entirely on his own, and as you might expect, he's more than capable of the challenge.  He has an appropriately detached and robotic air to his performance that never once feels dull or uninterested.  As he is drawn deeper into the mystery and begins to question his own history and himself, he feels conflicted, and we can feel every struggle he's going through.  The real find of the cast, however, is Ana de Armas as the lovely holographic Joi.  She brings such warmth to her role that this movie is certain to launch a major career.

With all of its technical wizardry and the labyrinth plot that accompanies it, the movie can seem to be a bit much at times.  Accompanying all of this is an overpowering and sometimes bombastic music score by Hans Zimmer that at times seems to be overstating the action.  But, this is still a movie worth sticking with all the way through to the end, as the film does have some wonderful pay offs that are not only emotional but also through provoking.  This is also a movie that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen imaginable.  Try to track it down in a large screen format if you can.  I can already tell you that waiting to watch this on DVD or (heaven forbid) a tiny smartphone screen will lessen a lot of this movie's impact. 

Much like Mad Max: Fury Road, Blade Runner 2049 successfully builds upon the themes and ideas set forth by the earlier film, and manages to go off in its own unique direction.  Some have declared the movie to be a masterpiece, and even one of the greatest sequels ever made.  I don't know if I would quite go that far, as there are more than a few imperfections if you look closely.  But, the fact that you have to look closely to find them should tell you that there's little reason to skip this one.  If you're a fan of intelligent and adult Science Fiction, it's almost your duty to watch this at the theater.  And if you're someone who adores the original, you're likely to find just as much to love here.

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