Reel Opinions


Saturday, November 11, 2017

A Note to My Readers

Hello, one and all!

The time has come for me to take a much-deserved vacation.  I will be gone most of next week, and will not be coming back until Sunday the 19th, so there will be no new reviews next weekend.

I will, however, be seeing some films during my time off, so you can look forward to many reviews when I return including Justice League, Wonder, Last Flag Flying, Lady Bird, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

I hope everyone has a great week ahead, and I will see you all when I return!

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Daddy's Home 2

Just like last weekend's A Bad Moms Christmas, Daddy's Home 2 doubles down on the parental figures, adding some veteran actors to play the parents of the parents from the first movie.  Both are also set during the holidays, and both generally also serve as sequels to movies that didn't need one in the first place.  The main difference?  The Bad Moms sequel was a huge step down from a successful movie, whereas this one ends up being just as workmanlike and uninspired as the first.

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg are back as the feuding fathers Brad and Dusty, who as the film opens, have agreed to a truce to keep their blended family together.  If you remember from last time, Wahlberg's Dusty was originally married to Sara (Linda Cardellini, given as little to do here as she was before), until they broke up.  Now she's married to Ferrell's Brad, a touchy feeling clutz who can barely enter a room without getting bonked on the head with something.  The fact that the original has spawned a sequel, and the filmmakers still have not explained what Cardellini sees in Ferrell is baffling.  In the first movie, the two dads competed with each other for the love of their shared kids.  Now, they're cooperating as "co-dads", sharing bake sales and school events.  As the holidays approach, both Brad and Dusty's father decide to stop by to visit the family.

Dusty's dad, Kurt (Mel Gibson), is a macho dinosaur with steel gray hair, and frequently cannot leave a place without a woman he's just picked up on his arm.  He hasn't seen his son or family in years, but he quickly sets about criticizing every move Dusty makes.  Brad's father is Don (John Lithgow), a cheery dip of an old man who likes to give very long, wet kisses on the lips to his son.  Not long after the granddads arrive, the whole family decides to pack up and stay in a luxury cabin in the mountains for Christmas.  Tensions are supposed to mount, but thanks to the slapdash nature of the screenplay credited to returning director Sean Anders and John Morris, nothing quite rises to the top.  There's the issue of Don not being able to tell his son that Brad's mom has left him, and Brad and Dusty find their newly formed friendship tested at various times.  All the while, Kurt stands in the background, cackling with evil glee at the family turmoil all around him, and not really contributing much to the plot.  I guess Hollywood's still not sure what to do with Gibson after his long absence. 

Daddy's Home 2 is not unwatchable by any means, and I actually chuckled a few times.  I particularly liked a scene where the whole family finds themselves watching a holiday-themed action movie starring Liam Neeson as a tow truck driver who must battle terrorists while still giving his kids a good Christmas. (It's called Missile Tow, appropriately.) But aside from a fleeting laugh or two, a majority of the film feels like it's been stitched together with the threads of various sitcom plots of the 1980s.  Ferrell's little boy likes a girl, and doesn't know how to talk to her.  Cardellini can't get close to Wahlberg's new wife, who dresses provocatively and is much sexier than her.  There are even a couple eyebrow-raising subplots concerning the little girls in the family.  In one, two of the little girls get drunk on spiked eggnog, and wind up ruining a live Nativity, and in another, one of Ferrell's daughters asks for a shotgun for Christmas at the urging of Grandpa Kurt.  She then ends up accidentally shooting Kurt later in the movie when he takes her out hunting.  I can see how maybe these could have been funny in a much darker and edgier movie, but this seems to want to be a fairly family-friendly comedy, and they really have no place here. 

The other focus of the film's comedy is physical gags, which seem to be heavily influenced by the ones Chevy Chase went through in Christmas Vacation.   Will Ferrell in particular can't walk across a playground without getting kicked in the head by a child on a swingset.  And when he's using a snowblower on the driveway, he winds up sucking up all the Christmas lights into it and being launched up onto the roof.  There's also naturally scenes built around sledding accidents and snowballs to the noggin.  I'm not blaming the filmmakers for including this kind of stuff in a broad Christmas-related comedy.  But they at least could have tried not to make them so agonizingly telegraphed. 

Honestly, I wasn't much of a fan of the first Daddy's Home, but I know people who were.  If you're one of them, you have my permission to go and enjoy.  But if the first didn't do much for you, neither will this.  It's one of those sequels that's created for a pre-made audience, and I'm simply not part of it.  But if I were forced to choose, I would take this over the Bad Moms Christmas, simply because it feels like the actors weren't under the gun when they were making it.

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Friday, November 10, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express is a lavish and old fashioned murder mystery that's been spruced up with the kind of budget that's usually reserved for superheroes these days in Hollywood.  It features some lovely images, an all-star cast, and Branagh himself in the lead role as a Belgian detective who is trapped on a train full of suspects, a dead body, and a lot of questions that need answering.  That's about as deep as this movie gets, and it can be fun if you're in the right mood.

The cast of suspects include the likes of Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz and Daisy Ridley.  All of them seem innocent enough at first (Well, maybe not Depp, who is playing a weirdo scoundrel as usual.), but as we discover, looks can be deceiving.  These actors are having a great time chewing the scenery, casting suspicion upon themselves, and trying to convince the detective investigating the case that they are innocent of the crime at hand.  Said detective is Hercule Poirot, who is played by Branagh as a brilliant man with some OCD issues and a glorious mustache that practically steals the show.  His Poirot is obsessed with finding imperfections in the world, and making things right.  If one of his shoes accidentally steps in a pile of manure on the street, well, he just has to step his other shoe in it in order for there to be balance.

His ability to observe the tiniest details and imperfections in solving a crime is shown brilliantly in the film's opening sequence, where Hercule stands before the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and helps solve a theft in front of a crowd that's on the verge of rioting.  Afterward, he winds up on the Orient Express after a chance encounter with an old friend, and a promise of a much-needed rest.  The other guests on the train include a slinky widow (Pfeiffer), a governess (Ridley), a doctor (Leslie Odom, Jr.), a suspicious art dealer (Depp), who brings along his valet (Derek Jacobi) and bookkeeper (Gad), a princess (Dench) and her maid (Olivia Coleman), a German Professor (Willem Dafoe), a religious zealot (Cruz), a dancer (Sergei Polunin) and his wife (Lucy Boynton), and finally a Count (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo).  When someone turns up dead on the train from multiple stab wounds, it's up to Poirot to find the person or persons responsible, and it's up to us in the audience to try to keep everybody and their stories straight.

If there is a problem with Murder on the Orient Express, it's that even at two hours, the movie does feel a bit rushed.  On one hand, it's certainly well paced and never seems to sag or slow down.  On the other, because of it's fast paced, many of the talented cast except for Branagh get kind of left behind.  Some do stand out.  Pfeiffer seems to be having a blast strutting about the hallways and flirting with everyone she comes in contact with, while Gad shows some very strong dramatic acting in a few key scenes involving his character. (I'm forced to be vague, to avoid spoilers.) And while Depp is clearly hamming it up in his role as a sleaze, he does seem a bit more restrained than usual, and is delivering an actual performance, not just hiding behind make up and a silly voice.  But if the movie belongs to anyone, it's Branagh, whose performance veers from self-parody to all out seriousness when the need arises.  While it may not be a classic interpretation of Poirot (many actors have played him on the screen and on TV in the past), he at least manages to stand alongside the other actors who have tackled the character.

I also admired the way that as a director, Branagh tries to avoid making things too claustrophobic.  Since the majority of the film is spent on a train and its various cars and personal cabins, he does manage to find some interesting camera angles and even set a few scenes outdoors that obviously did not happen in the book, but have been added to increase the visual stimuli.  When the train becomes stuck in an avalanche of snow, he stages a few scenes outside and even upon the roof of the train, with some scenic backdrops and wide tracking shots.  Even within the confines of the train itself, however, he is able to hold our attention with his shots and angles.  This is something I wondered how he would handle when I was walking in, and I am glad to say that he manages to keep things interesting visually, while not going so far as to be distracting.

There are moments where the movie feels like it hails from a different age of filmmaking.  There is CG, but it is used sparingly thank goodness, and the way that the characters and the actors' portrayals are mannered do seem to come from some old black and white who done it.  There is melodrama a plenty, especially as the truth is eventually revealed.  Pfeiffer, in particular, seems to relish some of her scenes with the same intensity as if she were acting on a soap opera.  And yet, this kind of acting works in a movie like this.  The actors are supposed to be a bit off, and throw suspicion upon themselves.  They're supposed to be a bit odd, and maybe act like they're guarding secrets.  In that case, the talented cast does their job.  Do I wish there was more to some of these characters, and that Branagh had afforded them as much attention as he clearly did his portrayal of Poirot?  No doubt.  But at the very least, everybody is making the most of what they have.

I wonder how Murder on the Orient Express will do with today's fast-paced audiences.  While the movie is brisk, some who are used to the quick edits of today's blockbusters might complain.  I don't know the size of the audience this will attract, but at the same time, I'm glad that a major studio figured there would be enough of one to gamble on a movie like this.  It's been a long time since we've seen a classically styled murder mystery on the big screen, and while this isn't a great one, it's more than enough.

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Saturday, November 04, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

I enjoyed Thor: Ragnarok in the moment that I was watching it, but looking back on it, the movie does seem a bit inconsequential in the grand scheme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It's a total sugar rush of a movie - Bright, fast-paced, and it kind of gives you a giddy high as it plays out.  But when it's over and you go crashing back down to Earth, it can be easily forgotten.  I am recommending the movie to a certain audience.  If you want to see Thor tossing out a lot of one-liners while he pals around with the Hulk and battles weird aliens, this is it.  But, if I must be honest with myself, I kind of wish Marvel would stop spinning its wheels so much and get to the Infinity War already.

At the very least, you can't blame Chris Hemsworth for not giving it his all as Thor.  He's able to tackle everything this movie throws at him, from being a hulking action star, to being a common everyman, and even a physical comedian.  It's that charisma which holds the movie together, which largely seems to be an excuse to throw as many special effects and sight gags into one movie as possible.  There is only the slightest connection to other Marvel films here, including a cameo, and an opening scene where Thor finds himself imprisoned by the fire demon Sutur as he searches for the Infinity Stones.  Sutur tells him that his home of Asgard will soon be destroyed by Ragnarok, the coming apocalypse.  There's a trip back to Asgard, where Thor tires to find his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and has another run in with his antihero brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

Eventually, it is revealed that Thor's long lost sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), has designs on ruling Asgard and destroying anyone that stands in her way.  During the chaos of Hela's initial attack, Thor is warped to the alien world of Sakaar, and this is where the movie truly begins, and takes on a more comedic tone than viewers might expect.  The planet seems to be made up largely of a junk heap, except for the center of the city, where a massive coliseum has been built for the entertainment of its alien inhabitants.  Thor finds himself an unwilling combatant in the games, and is pitted against the champion on the planet, who is none other than the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).  Turns out he's been warped to the planet as well, and now largely fights for the entertainment of the ruler of Sakaar, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum).

Goldblum not only is one of the best aspects of the film, but serves as a wonderful addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  His trademark droll performance fits so well in the part of an alien ruler who is a bit too cool and detached to be actually threatening, but also clearly takes sadistic glee in the cruel games he forces his people to participate in for his amusement. ("Let's have a hand for all of our competitors who died so gruesomely", he says at one point.) Even though Blanchett is the main villain of the piece (and does a perfectly fine job, as expected), it is Goldblum who walks away with all the best scenes and one-liners in the film.  He's clearly having a blast playing this villain who specializes in withering put downs (he refers to Thor as "Sparkles" when he sees he can produce lightning from his fingers) and calm, cool detachment.

There are a lot of moments where Thor: Ragnarok comes dangerously close to spinning out of control, especially during the large battle scenes, which seem to be built around CG bodies flying around the screen as they're tossed about with wild abandon by whoever happens to be fighting in the current scene.  But, the characters do help keep things grounded, especially with the sense of humor they have been given.  As the new female lead, Tessa Thompson gives a memorable turn as a fallen Valkyrie who is facing a troubled past, and has mostly turned to drinking to forget her past. (The first time we see her, she staggers drunkenly off a spaceship, and falls from the ramp leading down to the ground.) And of course, Ruffalo is fantastic pulling double duty in a motion capture performance as the Hulk, and as his human alter ego, Bruce Banner.  The interplay between between Thor and Bruce/Hulk create some very funny moments, and a few surprisingly poignant ones as well, such as when we learn that the Hulk likes it better on Sakaar rather than on Earth, since the aliens on the planet treat him like a celebrity there, rather than with fear.

These are the moments that make the film worth watching.  When the movie turns to action, it gets to be a bit overpowered yet strangely forgettable at the same time.  There is often so much happening with cosmic battles, giant demons, rampaging armies and bodies falling from the sky that the battle sequences kind of lose shape, and just turn into massive technical demos.  There is little involvement whenever these characters start fighting one another.  We almost want them to go back to exchanging one-liners instead of fists and blows to the head.  And like I said, the movie as a whole does little to push the overall Marvel narrative forward.  This is yet another largely comedic stop to something much bigger, much like this past summer's Spider-Man: Homecoming.  The difference is I thought Spider-Man worked because it still felt like it belonged in the Universe as a whole, and you could see it was leading to something.  This just feels like a very silly little stop that has little to do with anything in the long run.  Yes, there are some third act developments that will definitely lead to next year's Avengers movie, but you have to wait until almost the end for them.

Regardless, what does work here works very well.  I don't want to give the impression that this is a bad movie.  It's a lot of fun while you're watching it, you just might be left wondering how much of an impact it will have when it's done.  And besides, whenever it does feel like the movie is going to fly off the rails, it catches you off guard with a funny quip or one liner, such as how Thor will comment on the tacky decor of the alien planet.  Thor: Ragnarok is pretty mindless, but I have a hunch that was the goal all along.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2017

A Bad Moms Christmas

A Bad Moms Christmas is being released just 15 months after the original Bad Moms movie.  It was filmed during the month of May, and just six months later, is playing on over 3,000 screens.  Where am I going with this?  It doesn't take a lot of thought to figure out that this is a total cash grab that was forced by the studio.  And while returning writers and directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, as well as their returning female stars, do their best to stay afloat, it can't help but feel like a pale follow up to the hilarious original.

What separates the original from Christmas is a reason for existing.  The first Bad Moms was not only wildly funny, it had something to say about moms in general.  It had some smart and truthful observations about all the pressures and expectations that are placed upon mothers, as they race to please everyone in the family.  It also had some winning comedic performances by Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and especially Kathryn Hahn, who all but walked away with most of her scenes.  All three actresses return for the sequel, and are actually just as good here as they were before.  But they're struggling with weaker material this time.  This is a movie that's been made under a strict deadline, and it shows.  There are a couple moments where I smiled, but none where I laughed like I did the first time around.  The script was rushed and not thought out as well, and so the actresses seem to be trying to rise above what they have to work with, rather than enjoying themselves.  And while it's never unwatchable, it does feel very desperate at times.

As the title suggests, the holidays have come, and returning moms Amy (Kunis), Kiki (Bell) and Carla (Hahn) find themselves struggling to make Christmas perfect for their families.  There are the gifts, decorating the house, going to school concerts, and generally trying not to crack under the pressure of keeping up a perfect home for the holidays.  There are plenty of opportunities for the movie to dig into some good satire or observations about the expectations of perfection that is forced upon all parents during this time of year, but it largely ignores each and every one.  Rather than have the moms bond and unite under shared stress as in the original, they simply get drunk, and we get a montage where they get nasty with a Mall Santa. (There are actually a lot of montages here, suggesting the filmmakers were desperately trying to fill up time.) But the real attention of the film is not so much on the returning moms this time around, but rather on the moms of the Bad Moms, who come home to visit for holiday.

Amy's mom, Ruth (Christine Baranski), is a domineering and controlling perfectionist, who often comes across as a Martha Stewart from Hell, and is constantly criticizing Amy's lack of "Christmas Spirit". (Amy wants a small, quiet Christmas with her kids and new boyfriend, while Ruth wants to throw a lavish party where Kenny G is the live entertainment.) Kiki's mom is Sandy (Cheryl Hines), who is hopelessly clingy toward her daughter ever since her husband passed away, and is obsessive over being her daughter's best friend.  Finally, Carla's mom, Isis (Susan Sarandon), is a drunken layabout who shows up outside Carla's house being dropped off in a semi, and only turns up when she needs a place to hide or wants money.  Of the new moms introduced here, both Baranski and Sarandon get off a couple good lines, while Hines doesn't get enough screentime to make Sandy into an interesting or funny character.  Regardless, all three seem like a lost opportunity, as the movie never develops any of them beyond their one-note characteristics.  This is an obvious result of the rushed script that needed to be fleshed out more, but time did not allow.

The movie is supposed to be about how the original Bad Moms work out their issues with their own mothers, and how ultimately everybody comes together as a family, but it just doesn't have the natural flow, humor and smart observations of the first.  This feels from beginning to end like something that was forced upon the filmmakers and actors, rather than something they genuinely wanted to make.  I think if the film had a longer development period, the script could have been hammered out enough for it to work.  Maybe it wouldn't have been as good as the first, but this feels like such a disappointment, because it was so clearly rushed.  All that mattered was getting it out by a certain date.  You can see potentially funny ideas or moments throughout, but because the screenplay did not get the attention it deserved, pretty much every moment falls flat.

Next weekend, we are getting Daddy's Home 2, which, judging by the trailers, features the exact same plot as this movie. (The dads of the dads from the first movie come home for Christmas, chaos and eventual bonding ensues, etc.) Time will tell if it ends up being as much of a rush job as A Bad Moms Christmas.  At least it will have the luxury of the original being two years old, so hopefully the filmmakers were not under such a strict time schedule.


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