Reel Opinions


Sunday, December 31, 2017

The 12th Annual Reel Stinkers Awards

It's New Year's Eve.  And as the clock ticks down the final moments of 2017, and everybody gets to look to the year ahead, I get to go back in time, and look at the movies that stole my money and my time the past year.

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

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

So, with all that out of the way, it's time to carve some cinematic turkeys!  Here's hoping that you didn't waste your money and time on them, and let us also hope that everyone involved with them will get to work on a good movie in 2018!

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


THE 10 WORST FILMS OF 2017:

10. THE EMOJI MOVIE -  The best thing I can say about The Emoji Movie is that it is not the end of cinema as we know it.  Given how some of my fellow critics have reacted to it, you certainly would think so.  The worst thing I can say is that it's probably the most generic and underwhelming animated feature to hit the big screen in a while.  The movie introduces us to the world inside of a cellphone called "Textopolis", where little emojis live, and go to work every day on a giant square grid.  The Emoji Movie has largely been made out of off the shelf elements of other hit animated films.  The whole idea of a world within the phone seems to be taken from the video game world of Wreck-It Ralph.  The whole idea of an emoji learning about emotions and what he truly is recalls Inside Out from two years ago.  And then there's the whole theme of bringing us into a hidden world that exists within an everyday object, which has been done so much in animation I'm surprised it hasn't yet gone out of style.  Director and co-writer Tony Leondis says that the movie and the main Emoji's plight to discover where he fits in in the world was inspired by his own experiences of growing up gay, and not knowing how to tell his parents.  That makes this movie sound more interesting than it really is.  Simply put, he has taken a by-the-numbers approach, and does absolutely nothing to make any kind of statement about fitting in that we haven't seen in a dozen other animated films.  This movie became one of the big cinematic jokes of the year, and for good reason.

09. WONDER WHEEL -  Wonder Wheel will make just about any audience member question Woody Allen's decision to release one film a year.  This is a surprisingly amateurish melodrama filled with dull scenes and a repetitive narrative that repeats the same notes and sometimes even the same dialogue multiple times in a single dramatic moment.  This often plays out like a first draft that Allen pulled out of the bottom of his desk drawer, brushed up a bit, and then brought before the cameras before it was truly ready.  To be fair, the movie is beautiful to look at, thanks to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s efforts to bring the beaches of Cony Island in the 1950s to life.  But everything that happens within the story and the people who inhabit it never demand our attention.  We're supposed to be watching Wonder Wheel with mounting interest as the pieces of the plot fall into place, and hint at elements of betrayal, lies and revenge.  But as a melodrama, the piece is curiously muted.  Nothing registers, certainly not the overwrought writing of Allen's screenplay, or the largely annoying performances.  In the past, whenever Allen would do a drama, he would at least have something interesting to say about the human condition.  But, he has little to nothing to say here.  It's a simple and basic love triangle story that we have heard too many times before, and we quickly begin to realize that we didn't need to hear it again.  At least not like this, where not a single character or moment manages to stand out.

08. A CURE FOR WELLNESS -  Gore Verbinski's A Cure for Wellness is one of the best looking bad movies I've seen in a long time.  The design of the individual rooms and seemingly endless corridors that make up the film's sanitarium setting are appropriately off-putting, and create a certain sense of dread.  But that's all the movie can muster in terms of thrills.  It's all atmosphere, attached to a story that's not worth the journey it takes to get to the end.  And what an interminable journey this movie puts us through.  At a length of two and a half hours, A Cure for Wellness not only long overstays its welcome, it seems to struggle to fill that time to begin with, which just makes you wonder why this movie wasn't shortened to a more manageable length.  To be fair, the movie is intriguing for the first hour or so.  We're drawn in by the beautiful images, and the early stages of the mystery.  Then the middle portion hits, and the screenplay by Justin Haythe (who worked on the script for Verbinski's equally bloated Lone Ranger film from 2013) just spins its wheels, almost like it's killing time.  When the third act comes, all credibility is thrown out the window by a final reveal that is not only easy to guess from the information that we're given, but also is so bombastic and over the top that it earns bad laughs from the audience.  Like so many other promising thrillers, A Cure for Wellness doesn't know how or even when to wrap itself up.  And the longer it goes, the patience of the audience grows shorter.  This is the kind of movie that could send audiences silently slinking for the theater exit long before it's over.

07. KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD -  This movie is at times an incomprehensible mess, shot and edited as if the entire movie were a trailer with quick cuts, flashes to other things happening while something else is going on, and out of place voice overs.  The soundtrack at times sounds like music, and at other times sounds like someone just put a panting dog up to a microphone.  And the acting...Well, actually, the acting is not bad, but I doubt even Sir Laurence Olivier could save this.  The film is an endless parade of bad ideas, many showing up one after another.  In retelling the story of the legendary King and his knights of old, apparently director Guy Ritchie decided to make it like one of his British crime capers that launched his career like Snatch or Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels.  That means that Arthur and his pals now talk like modern day wise guy British gangsters when they're around each other.  And while the story is fairly simple and basic, he decided to make it next to impossible to follow by adding a lot of unnecessary directing flourishes such as fast motion, rewinding the film to cut back to something earlier, and cutting back and forth between two scenes for no reason.  To add insult to injury, the movie looks awful, despite its reported $175 million budget.  The colors are often drab and dark, and the special effects look like something out of the late 90s.  When a giant CG snake shows up during the climax, it's kind of hard to look at because it's been so ineptly realized.  Here is a movie completely lacking in scope, grandeur and purpose.  You know, the kind of things one would expect in a King Arthur story.  After the film mercifully ended after an overlong two hours, I felt like I had just watched the rough edit of a potential summer blockbuster, not the concrete vision of a filmmaker.  Parts are out of place, the editing and camera work is a disaster, and everything's just kind of blown up to this grand level of stupid.

06. 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.  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, a reporter giving an interview 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 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.  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.

05. JUSTICE LEAGUE -  This is a big, dumb lumbering dinosaur of a movie that is as soulless as a blockbuster can get.  Nobody wanted to make this, outside of contractual obligations.  It's a lifeless, dreary experience designed to trick bored teenagers into thinking they're watching something worthwhile.  If the comics that inspired this movie were as bad as this, characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman wouldn't have lasted nearly 70 or 80 years.  To put it bluntly, this movie is hideous.  It's drab, out of focus, and filled with so much quick CG action, the mind often cannot keep up with what it is looking at.  The movie unites Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and then gives them nothing to do but fight an army of CG bug people for almost 2 hours.  You don't put heroes like these, and stick them in a nothing plot like this.  Not even the return of Superman (Henry Cavill), who comes back from the dead for this, can muster any excitement.  That's because the movie doesn't give a damn about these heroes, or their histories in the comics.  They are just generic action types here with little personality to show.  Justice League has been plagued with reports of a troubled production and massive reshoots, and it really shows.  You have scenes where the characters talk about things that never happened, because it's clearly been edited out of the final cut.  You have a plot that is barely there, character interactions that are largely missing, and an overall sense that a majority of the film wound up on the cutting room floor.  This is a production that has been micromanaged within an inch of its life by Hollywood executives who were obviously frightened by the dismal response to the dark and gloomy Batman v. Superman last year, and so they tried to throw in as much action as possible here.  By doing so, they have cost the movie any sense of coherency.

04. SUBURBICON -  Here is a movie that is directed by George Clooney, dreamed up by Joel and Ethan Coen (they originally wrote the script back in the 80s, and Clooney and his writing partner Grant Heslov updated it), and stars the likes of Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac.  All of these tremendously talented people have teamed up to make a creepy and unpleasant experience that manages to be heavy handed and tone deaf at the same time.  It's an uncomfortable mix of 1950s satire, a dark thriller about a boy who discovers his parents are murderers, and ugly racism directed at a black family who move into an all-white neighborhood.  Who on Earth was Suburbicon made for?  I kept on watching, hoping that the next scene would provide an answer, but it never came.  The movie is filled with dark, bad feelings, often directed at children who seem to be no older than 9 or 10.  It just repeats the same ugly images over and over.  The movie is trying to be a very dark comedy about the seedy lives that dwell within a quaint little upscale neighborhood, but the movie is so tone deaf, it never builds to any real laughs.  We're simply watching horrible people kill each other and threaten innocent children, who can't seem to comprehend what's going on.  Suburbicon is so bad that only truly talented people could have made it.  Lesser filmmakers and actors wouldn't have the guts to dive this deep off the edge.  George Clooney has worked with the Coen Brothers a number of times, and maybe he thought he understood their work enough in order to mimic their blend of dark comedy and thriller elements.  For whatever reason, he lost his way, and the movie loses all sense of credibility for it.

03. THE BOOK OF HENRY -  The Book of Henry is one of the most uncomfortable movies of this, or any other year.  It's a toxic package wrapped up in the good feelings of a Hallmark card.  Does the movie even know what it is trying to say?  I honestly don't know.  It wants to be an uplifting drama about a loving family, then it wants to be the tragic story of a little boy who loses his battle with a tumor, then it wants to be about revenge, with the mother of the family plotting to murder her next door neighbor who is abusing a sweet little girl.  I almost forgot, the murder plot is actually the idea of the little boy who gets sick before he can carry it out, so he asks his mom to do it for him.   Regardless, the movie still tries to be uplifting and jovial while mom is essentially plotting to murder her neighbor.  I don't remember the last time I have seen a movie fail so hard at juggling its tonal shifts.  Maybe a director like David Lynch could have made something dark and memorable out of this.  He at least would have had the good sense to not try to make it a feelgood movie, and see it for the total insanity it actually is.  But the movie as it is doesn't work in the slightest.  The sentimental moments feel forced, the melodrama is calculated, and the whole murder/revenge plot feels completely off, because the filmmakers try to treat it with the same level of sweetness and sincerity as the rest of the movie.  The Book of Henry received some of the harshest reviews of the year when it opened, and while it deserved to be panned, it did kind of fascinate me in a perverse way.  It's certainly not boring, as the movie is so wrong-headed, I was kind of excited to see what would happen next.  I can't recommend this in any good faith, but I almost want to, as we're certain to never get a movie like this ever again.

02. THE SNOWMAN -  The Snowman is one of the most inept major studio releases in recent memory.  Forget the fact that the script reads like it was fed through a pasta maker and then taped back together.  Forget the fact that the film's director has openly admitted that a good portion of the script was simply unfilmed due to time constraints.  You can even forget the inexplicable and out of the blue appearance by Val Kilmer in a throwaway role, where it sounds like his voice has been dubbed over for reasons unexplained.  The simple fact is, even if the movie made perfect sense, had been edited expertly and was not full of holes (the fact that a good number of scenes in the trailer don't appear in the final film suggest that this movie has been hacked to pieces), it still would be unwatchable due to the fact that it's one of the most dour and depressingly toned features I've sat through in many a moon.  It features one of those narratives that jumps around to different points in time, which at first makes you think it might be a stylistic choice on the part of the filmmakers, but you quickly pick up on the fact that the story doesn't even know where it's going, so it keeps on trying to go in different directions.  Characters literally fade in and out of existence, and whole scenes are clearly missing.  There are whole sections of the film that feel inexplicable and out of place.  And if you should try to follow the plot and solve the mystery, you will be rewarded with one of those endings where the villain shows up, points a gun at the hero's head, and spells out everything when they should just shut up and shoot the hero, thus ending the movie.  The movie is based on a best selling novel that I have not read, but I hear it has little in common with what has wound up on the screen.  In fact, the book's author has even requested to have his name taken off of the film. It was also was originally going to be directed by Martin Scorsese, who walked away, but remains with an "in name only" Executive Producer credit.  This most be how Scorsese's frequent editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, got involved in this mess.  I can only guess the look on her face when she saw the unassembled raw footage, and realized what she had gotten herself into.  There's little to anything left to salvage here, but at least the movie ends on a good laugh - It ends on a note that suggests a sequel.

01. CHIPS -  Of all the TV shows to bring to the big screen, why CHIPS?  Was there really an audience demanding a big screen version?  And if there has to be a movie, why this one, which is very, very bad.  It's the kind of lame, dead in the water comedy that makes you ask the same thing over and over - What were they thinking?  Actually, I know exactly what director, writer, producer and star Dax Shepard was thinking.  He obviously saw 2012's 21 Jump Street and it's 2014 sequel, and thought he could do the same thing by reviving an old cop drama, and turning it into a hard-R parody.  But you see, the Jump Street movies were not only genuinely funny, but they played off the cliches.  And not just the cliches of the buddy cop genre, but also of the entire genre of rebooting old ideas or TV shows into new franchises.  With CHIPS, Shepard has filled his script top to bottom with every four-letter world imaginable, as well as probably every sex joke he could think of.  The problem is, the jokes he has come up with are some the lamest you could possibly dream up.  There's not a single moment here that is inspired, bright or even hopeful.  It's simply a long slog of a movie where the only thing that gets you through it is the thought that it will be over at some point.  CHIPS seems to be trying to poke fun at male egotism and sexual lust, but it gets confused somewhere along the way, and instead ends up glorifying it instead of joking about it.  What we have is a movie with a very nasty homophobic streak, as well as countless scenes where women in various stages of undress throw themselves at our heroes one after another.  But, the movie never figures out how to make any of this stuff funny in the slightest.  This is a comedy that barely makes any effort to get the audience to laugh.  None of it builds, and the actors eventually start to look uncomfortable up there on the screen.  This is surprising on the part of Shepard, when you consider that this was obviously his vision for a movie based on the TV show.  CHIPS is simply wrong-headed in just about every way imaginable, and wrong in a whole lot of other ways, as well.  It's devoid of charm, spirit, laughs, good will and a sense of purpose.


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

DISHONORABLE MENTIONS:

Monster Trucks, Rings, Life, The Circle, Absolutely Anything, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul, Baywatch, The Mummy, Rough Night, The House, Wish Upon, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Kidnap, Leap!, Home Again, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Tulip Fever, Friend Request, Flatliners, Geostorm, A Bad Moms Christmas, Roman J Israel ESQ., Just Getting Started, Father Figures


INDIVIDUAL REEL STINKERS AWARDS:

WORST SEQUEL:
Rings

MOST UNNECESSARY SEQUEL:
A Bad Moms' Christmas

WORST REMAKE:
Flatliners

WORST PERFORMANCE BY AN A-LIST ACTOR/ACTRESS
Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel, ESQ.

OVERALL WORST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR/ACTRESS:
Tom Cruise in The Mummy

WORST IDEA FOR A MOVIE THAT NEVER COULD HAVE WORKED:
The Emoji Movie

REPEAT OFFENDERS (ACTORS WHO APPEARED IN MORE THAN ONE STINKER IN 2017):
Vincent D’Onofrio - Rings, CHIPS
Dane DeHaan in A Cure for Wellness, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Tulip Fever
Maya Rudolph in CHIPS and The Emoji Movie
Kate McKinnon in Rough Night and Leap!
Maddie Ziegler in The Book of Henry and Leap!
Nat Wolff in Leap! and Home Again
Cara Delevingne in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Tulip Fever
Halle Berry in Kidnap and Kingsman: The Golden Circle
Julianne Moore in Kingsman: The Golden Circle and Suburbicon
Kristen Bell in CHIPS and A Bad Moms Christmas
J.K. Simmons in The Snowman, Justice League, Father Figures

WORST ON-SCREEN TEAM:
Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

STUDIO THAT RELEASED THE MOST STINKERS IN 2017:
Warner Bros. for bringing us CHIPS, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, The House, Geostorm, Justice League and Father Figures


Well, that's the worst of 2017 in a nutshell.  Time to look ahead to 2018, and hope for the best.  Have a wonderful and safe new year, everybody!

5 comments

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

All the Money in the World

The most amazing thing about All the Money in the World is the fact that it remains an engrossing drama, even with the behind the scenes story of its original star, Kevin Spacey, being replaced and having his scenes be reshot with Christopher Plummer in the role.  I thought for sure it would be distracting, or perhaps make the scenes that were filmed later with Plummer stand out from the rest of the footage in some way.  But director Ridley Scott has pulled off a cinematic miracle, and has made a film with no seams that manages to be completely enthralling.

Based on the nonfiction book by John Pearson, this represents Scott at his very best.  The visuals, performances, and the way he creates a specific time and place all come together to tell a morality tale that is just as powerful now as it was when it happened back in 1973.  We are introduced to John Paul Getty (Plummer), who we are told is not just the richest man in the world, but the richest man ever at the time.  He brought oil over from Saudi Arabia, and turned it into an enormous fortune that he has mostly kept to himself, for tax reasons.  Early in the film, his estranged son, John Paul Getty, Jr. (Andrew Buchan), turns to his father for aid, as his family cannot afford a decent life anymore.  They are welcomed by the elder John with open arms, but neither John Jr. or his wife Gail (Michelle Williams) are prepared for what's to come.

The son accepts a job working for his father's oil company, and within a few years, he has been transformed from a loving family man into a drugged-out husk of his former self.  Gail leaves him, and takes their children with her, but as she learns, she will never be able to live down the Getty name, which represents wealth and power.  Even though she has no access to the fortune, everyone assumes that she does.  That is why her eldest son, John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation to Christopher), is kidnapped by thugs while he is vacationing alone in Italy.  The kidnappers demand that Gail pay $17 million, money that she does not have, for her son's return.  And when she asks her father in law for the money, he refuses to pay the ransom.

Why would he refuse?  Well, there's always the possibility that this could be an elaborate prank.  After all, the young John III has made jokes with friends in the past about staging a fake kidnapping in order to shake his grandfather down for money.  But even after it's proven not to be a hoax, he still refuses to pay, stating that if he pays the money, then other people will get the idea in their heads that they can threaten him for money by kidnapping his other family members.  He puts on a brave face before his family and the media, but in reality, it's pure greed and cowardice.  Gail finally finds an ally in Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), a Getty associate who has dealt with these kind of situations before, and agrees to help get her son back home safely.

All the Money in the World is a successful mix of a true crime story, and a personal family drama, as Gail is forced to witness the greed and uncaring nature of her father-in-law.  It's also a survival story, as young John Paul Getty III tries to escape captivity.  Those who know the story are aware of what happened to young John III while he was prisoner, and the movie pulls no punches in depicting the gruesome incident in question.  It is necessary to show it in order for the story to have maximum impact, and Scott shows us the horror of the situation without reveling in it.  This is not so much an exploitive story, as it is a quietly powerful one of a mother's determination to track down her missing son, and her ability to face those in her family who oppose her, as well as putting a brave face for the media.

And it is Williams' performance as Gail that shows that determination and power.  It's a quiet performance, and she never overplays her emotions, nor does she seem like she's acting for the camera.  She doesn't get a big scene where she grandstands or makes a powerful speech that spells out what she's feeling, nor does she get a scripted moment where she monologues about what she's feeling.  All of her rage, betrayal and fear are there in her face and mannerisms, and the performance is better for it.  As for Christopher Plummer, he could not be better, especially considering he was a last minute replacement for Spacey, and the fact that he only had nine days to film his scenes.  This is not just great acting, but a great directing and editing job as well, as Scott and his team had to insert the new footage with Plummer and make it look completely natural.  They have succeeded.  There are no seams, and if there had been no media coverage, you would not be able to tell that there was a casting situation and reshoots in the first place.

All the Money in the World is a timely and effective drama that burns with a certain intensity that manages to be subtle.  It's a quiet and powerful film that draws from the quality of the performances, rather than staged moments that feel false.  The behind the scenes drama has not robbed the film of a bit of its inherent qualities, and it is simply spellbinding to watch.

1 comments

Darkest Hour

Joe Wright's Darkest Hour could easily be viewed as a companion piece to Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, and I'm sure both will soon become part of a double feature someday.  It tells the same series of events, only from a different point of view.  While Nolan's film was an intense and immersive action film about the soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, Wright's film takes place in the hallways of British parliament, where the debate is just how to save those soldiers, and whether England should pursue a peace treaty with the advancing Axis forces.

The film is told in a simple but effective day by day approach (subtitles count off the days that have passed), which gives the film its own kind of intensity.  As the days tick by, the pressure rises, and we see how different people in power were reacting to the situation.  At the center of it all is Gary Oldman as Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  Not only is he completely unrecognizable here, but he is probably giving one of the best performances of his entire career.  The physical transformation he has undergone here simply has to be seen.  The make up drowns his face in jowls, and his walk is heavy and deliberate.  Even his voice, complete with indistinguishable mumbles between words, sounds accurate here.  When he recreates some of Churchill's famous speeches, we feel the same intensity.  And he also gets to occasionally show the softer side of the man, such as when a woman on a train mentions that her baby looks like him, and he simply replies "all babies look like me".

Darkest Hour not only does a magnificent job of recreating the famous events of the period, but simply in just creating the time and place of the era.  The scenes where Churchill watches the world pass by from the backseat of his car manages to show us the feeling and tone of the people at the time without any dialogue or bombastic music that tries to tell us how we're supposed to feel.  And even though we never really get to experience the battlefield, there is still a battle raging in the house of power.  Churchill's strategy of standing against the invading Axis forces is in stark contrast to the opinions of some of his fellow politicians,  particularly Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), who wants to take a more diplomatic approach with Hitler.  Although Churchill eventually gains the support of King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), he still faces opposition at pretty much all sides as he tries to rally the people to continue to fight.

And while this is clearly Oldman's movie, he is backed up by a powerful supporting cast, especially Kristen Scott Thomas as Churchill's wife, who shares some wonderful and personal moments with him that have a certain sweetness that makes you wish someone would make a full movie about their relationship through the years.  Lily James (from Downton Abbey) is also effective as Churchill's new secretary, who almost leaves the job minutes after being on it, but stays on and learns how best to work with him.  It's also interesting to watch Mendelsohn as King George VI, considering he was played so memorably by Colin Firth in The King's Speech a few years ago.  Mendelsohn is wise not to overplay the King's famous stutter, and is able to create his own interpretation of the character, so we are not constantly reminded of Firth's portrayal.

But what drew me into the story beyond the performances was Joe Wright's directing style.  He opens with a complex and beautiful shot which starts at the ceiling of the House of Commons before descending to ground level and approaching the speech-maker from the side.  The movie never features a shot this complex again, but he frequently employs long, unedited shots which go against the current popular style of quick cuts and rapid edits.  This allows us to savor the details in his settings and recreation of the time period.  I also admired how the screenplay by Anthony McCarten goes for a historical, rather than the emotional approach.  And even when the movie does go emotional, as in a scene late in the film where Churchill rides on the London Underground with some commoners, it never feels implausible.

Like the best historical films, Darkest Hour simply looks at an important period in a historical figure's life, rather than trying to cram their entire life into a two hour narrative.  It also transports us to the time, and gives us a feeling of being there.  From Oldman's incredible performance, right down to the settings and music score, this is a movie that feels genuine and never once hits a false note.

3 comments

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Father Figures

Father Figures has been sitting on the studio shelf for over a year, and at one point, went under the much more controversial title of Bastards.  With a title like that, you would probably expect this to be an edgy and raunchy comedy, but you might be surprised to learn that this is actually trying to be a heartfelt film about two brothers bonding while on a road trip.  You might also be surprised to learn that despite a cast featuring Ed Helms, Owen Wilson, Glenn Close, Christopher Walken, J.K. Simmons, Kat Williams, Harry Shearer and Ving Rhames, there are very few laughs to be had.

This is an extremely soft movie that lacks the edge you might expect.  The crude humor is kept at a minimum here, with the only real standout being a scene where Owen Wilson urinates on a child in a public restroom.  If that's something you didn't want to have spoiled for you, I apologize.  Like a lot of "adult" comedies, this movie wants to have laughs, and tug at our heartstrings.  However, director Lawrence Sher (a long-time cinematographer making his directorial debut) never quite finds the flow or momentum that a comedy like this needs.  The tone is strangely muted and meek, instead of wild and raucous.  Even the moments that are supposed to be sentimental feel strangely indifferent.  You know a comedy is in trouble when it's not really getting any laughs.  You know it's a lost cause when it brings in Christopher Walken in the third act, and he fails to liven things up.

The plot concerns Ed Helms and Wilson as twin brothers, Peter and Kyle Reynolds, respectively.  In accordance with the laws of lazy screenwriting, they are as different as can be.  Peter is an uptight and divorced proctologist with a kid who doesn't respect him.  Kyle is the laid back and free living sort who made a fortune after a barbecue sauce company asked to use his image on their label, and has been living the good life off of residuals.  The two reunite for the wedding of their mother, Helen (Glenn Close), who has told them all their lives that their father died of colon cancer.  On this particular day, she finally decides to tell the truth - She had a lot of free sex back in her youth ("it was the 70s", she explains), and she really has no idea who their father could be, although she suspects it might be football legend Terry Bradshaw (playing himself).  The two brothers fly out to Miami to meet Terry in person and find out the truth.  When that doesn't pan out, they follow the clues surrounding their mother's sexual exploits, and begin a cross country search for their dad's identity.

What follows are the usual oddball characters and wacky situations we expect from your average formula road trip movie, only with a suspicious lack of energy, which is especially strange given the talent this project somehow managed to rope in.  J.K. Simmons shows up as a possible dad candidate who is a shady con artist.  Kat Williams is a hitchhiker that the guys pick up who may or may not be a serial killer, but also seems oddly wise and patient in his ways.  The film has a fragmented structure, as each stop on the brothers' journey to find their dad is like its own individual short film, each with its own tone.  The movie tries to be ribald, silly, sweet and heartwarming at different times, and the various tones don't exactly gel.  But then, what do you expect from a movie that tries to have a gag about giant cat testicles and a heartfelt discussion about death in the same scene?

Father Figures lacks a consistent tone and a central focus to make it work.  There are a few moments that earn laughs, most of them surrounding Kat Williams as the hitchhiker.  But on the whole, this feels like a lot of talent being thrown at a script that was never thought out, or had a clear vision to begin with about what it wanted to be.  This is one of those times where it feels like a studio knew the project was in trouble, so they kept on throwing more talent at it, hoping they would lift it up.  Everybody is clearly doing what they can, but they can't keep the material from feeling flat and lifeless. 

3 comments

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Downsizing

For its first hour, Downsizing is a brilliant and intriguing Sci-Fi comedy that seems to be building up to be about Social Class Issues.  But then it changes its mind about what it wants to be about.  And then again.  It gets to the point that it seems like it doesn't know what it wants to be about.  Is it about people who want more out of life?  Is it about helping the poor and needy?  Is it about the environment?  Is it about the end of the world?  Director and co-writer Alexander Payne tries to tackle all of these topics, and winds up never settling on a central theme.

The film is set in an unspecified time in the near future, when a group of Norwegian scientists discover a way to shrink physical matter into five inch tall versions of themselves.  Their hope is that by shrinking people, they can reduce the carbon footprint, make less waste, conserve food and help with climate change.  In their smaller form, humans will not require so much.  Within a few years, "downsizing" has started to catch on, and tiny gated communities begin to pop up which house the people who have decided to go through the shrinking process.  There is some tension as well, as we see TV interviews where people argue that downsizing is also hurting the US economy and market, and there is also some animosity between regular people and those who have shrunk.  This could have possibly led to some intriguing views on social status, but they are pretty much ignored as soon as they are introduced.

An occupational physical therapist and everyman named Paul (Matt Damon) and his sweetly bland wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) start to wonder if they should "go small" when it turns out an old friend from high school named Dave (Jason Sudeikis) has been shrunk.  Dave proclaims to Paul that his wife and him have never been happier since undergoing the process, and that they live like kings in their tiny downsized community called Leisureland, which is made up of numerous dollhouse-sized mansions, and the finest restaurants and shopping.  Paul and Audrey decide to undergo the process themselves after listening to a lecture from a married couple who have already downsized (Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern), and after they learn about the tax credit incentives the government is handing out to those who choose to go small

The process of downsizing is described in detail, and is probably the best and most imaginative moments in the film.  All gold teeth and fillings must be removed before the process takes place, and all body hair must be shaved off.  The way that the screenplay creates a logical way to explain its shrinking process shows just how well Payne and fellow screenwriter Jim Taylor (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry) thought this through.   But once the process is complete, and Paul has been shrunk, the movie slowly but steadily derails until there is little left of interest.  When Paul awakens from the downsizing process, he learns that Audrey backed out at the last minute, and did not go through with it.  Now he must explore the tiny world of Lesiureland alone, which is the movie's first big mistake.  The problem lies with Paul himself, who never comes across as a very interesting character.  He leads a fairly mundane life, and after he shrinks himself, his life remains mundane, so there's little reason for the audience to want to follow him in the first place.

Paul does try to fit in with his new neighbors in Lesiureland, all of whom seem to be living a life of material and drug-infused excess, but his life lacks purpose.  That's when he meets a Vietnamese cleaning lady named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chan), whose government forced her to go through the shrinking process, and made headlines when she escaped to America in a cardboard TV box with some other refugees. (She was the only survivor.) Through her, Paul discovers that there is a whole other world right outside the gates of Lesirueland, where miniature immigrants and the poor live in squalor.  She takes care of her sick and hungry neighbors, and soon starts asking Paul to help as well.  She practically forces Paul into helping her, leading to some funny scenes, but it also leads to another big problem.  Chan's performance is much more interesting than Damon's, and I started to feel I would rather be watching a movie focused on her.

It's at this point that Downsizing stops being a fascinating Sci-Fi story, and becomes a preachy story about the haves and have-nots, as well as about protecting the world around you.  Funnily enough, after the extremely interesting opening half that goes into great detail about the downsizing process, the movie pretty much all but forgets about it to the point that it did not need the shrinking angle at all.  It kind of feels like a bait and switch, with Payne drawing in the audience with an intriguing angle, and then switching tones.  He also completely drops any and all ideas of being a tiny person living in a giant world, so the whole thing seems more and more superfluous as it goes on.  This is a movie that starts with a sense of wonder, and slowly devolves into something much more ordinary.

There are few experiences at the movies more disappointing than a film that starts out intriguing, and ends up going against its original promise.  I don't so much disagree with Payne's views, but more with how he went about presenting them.  If you start with the fantastic and unusual, you'd better give us the fantastic and unusual throughout, is all I'm saying.

4 comments

Friday, December 22, 2017

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

There are some scattered laughs and clever ideas to be found throughout Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, but they can't overshadow the film's core problem, in that there was really no need for a sequel to the 1995 original film.  At the very least, you can say that the filmmakers were not trying to do a rehash here.  They do throw in quite a few new ideas.  And the four lead actors each hold their own, especially Jack Black, who manages to steal most of his scenes from bigger names like Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart. 

I think what bothered me the most is that I saw a lot of untapped potential.  This time around, the movie is set inside a video game, instead of being built around a board game.  The film's opening scene, set in 1996, features a bored teenager being given the fabled Jumanji board game by his dad, who finds it buried in the sand.  The kid looks at the game, and shuns it, since no one plays board games anymore.  He then proceeds to pick up his video game controller, and play with that instead.  Somehow, the board game notices this, because in the middle of the night, it's able to magically transform itself into a more appealing form to the cynical teen - a game cartridge.  He puts the cartridge into his game console, and is pulled into his television moments after he starts to play.  So, we learn that the game of Jumanji can adapt to more modern means of entertainment to lure in unsuspecting players.  I imagine that if there is a third movie, it will transform itself from a 1990s video game to a phone app.

We flash forward some 20 years later to the present, where four teens from different walks of life will find themselves drawn into the game as well in due time.  For now, our heroes are the smart and video game-obsessed Spencer (Alex Wolff), popular football jock Fridge (Ser'Darius Blaine), social media addict Bethany (Madison Iseman), and the brainy Martha (Morgan Turner).  Each of them find themselves in after school detention for different reasons, and are ordered by the principal to clean out a dusty old storage room that's set to be renovated.  Somehow, the kids happen to come across a game console with the Jumanji cartridge already inside, and begin to play.  Just like before, all four teens are pulled into the game itself, and this time we get to follow them into the game where they get to become their in-game avatars. 

Here is where the film truly kicks off, and develops some good ideas, while all the while seemingly holding itself back.  In the game world, the four teens become the characters they play in the game.  Spencer becomes a muscle-bound adventurer with every advantage (now played by Dwayne Johnson), Fridge becomes Kevin Hart, giving his usual comedic performance, whose main character trait in the game is to carry the items and weapons that the other characters use, Bethany turns into a pudgy middle aged man with knowledge of ancient jungle cultures (Jack Black), and the mousy Martha is now a Lara Croft-style heroine skilled in martial arts and an inappropriately sexy outfit (Karen Gillan).  The movie does have some fun with the idea of these kids being trapped in these bodies, especially with the idea of Jack Black's character technically being a teenage girl who can't go anywhere without her smartphone, and is oddly fascinated by the new sexual appendage she finds that she now has.

At this point, I started to wait for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle to kick into gear, and really have some fun with its central idea.  But for me at least, the movie never quite picked up enough steam.  Oh, there are laughs for sure, but they were not as frequent as I was hoping for.  The movie does comes up with some clever ways to represent a real life video game.  Each of the four "players" have three tattoos on their arms that represent how many lives they have left.  As long as they have lives, if they die, they simply respawn by falling out of the air and landing where they had previously died.  I also like that all of the people they meet within the Jumanji world are capable of only saying a few select things over and over, since they are technically non-playable characters in a video game, and that's all they're programmed to say.  Again, this is funny, but the movie never truly takes this idea as far as it should or could have, and I felt like more could have been done.

I think what happened here is that the four credited screenwriters had some good ideas, but didn't know how to implement them into the narrative, which is fairly routine.  The quest that the heroes are on is to retrieve a mythical jewel that was stolen by a villain named Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), which allows him to control the local jungle wildlife to do his bidding, as well as give him command over an army of motorcycle-riding thugs.  They must retrieve the jewel and place it back in its proper resting place to win the game.  As the plot for an adventure, this is about as bare bones as you can get.  It doesn't help that the villain comes across as a total non-entity, with no real scenes where we get to learn his purpose or his plans.  The only thing that stands out about Van Pelt is the odd fact that he has worms, bugs and other creepy crawlies coming out of his mouth and ears for reasons unexplained.  I kind of wished the movie would have had more fun with its evil character, and maybe play off some of the cliches of video game villains.  He could kidnap a damsel, not for any particular reason, but because it's what's expected of him.

I really should stress that this is not a bad movie.  It simply felt to me like a lot more could have been done, and that the satirical elements could have been worked better into the plot.  As it is, it felt like a lot of times that the movie would pause to have some funny dialogue or clever observations, and then it would go right back to being a perfectly standard Hollywood blockbuster that fails to impress.  I also was kind of hoping that the action sequences could act as kind of a commentary on video games, and how insane the action can get at times.  But aside from a scene where Dwayne Johnson takes on a whole army of thugs on the streets of a marketplace, the movie never quite seems to go all out.  There's a scene involving a helicopter that comes close, but never quite clicked with me.  I have often compared some over the top action scenes in movies to video games.  This is one time where I think the approach would have been a benefit, as long as something clever was done with it.

I will say that this Jumanji movie is probably more fun than the tepid 1995 movie, but it just never quite managed to cast a spell on me that allowed me to embrace it.  This is one of those movies where it felt like to me that the pieces were in place for a successful movie, and while the filmmakers do strike a few successful notes, the whole thing just never came together.

4 comments

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Greatest Showman

As a movie musical, The Greatest Showman is all sizzle and very little steak.  Oh, there's a lot to admire here.  A lot of time, effort and energy has clearly gone into this.  And it also features Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum doing what he does best, being one of the best song and dance men around.  He's clearly having the time of his life, and I admired his performance and seemingly-endless charisma.  Where the movie seemed less sure to me was in telling the story of Barnum, and making it seem like one that was worth telling, even as a splashy musical spectacular.

Jackman's rendition of Barnum has been sanded completely of any vices, faults or imperfections.  He has a constant twinkle in his eye, and a spring in his step.  He dearly loves his wife Charity (Michelle Williams), and constantly delights in his two young daughters, Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely).  His daughters, who seem to be around seven or eight, never age during the course of the movie, even though the story seems to span a number of years.  Or at least it seems like a number of years in Barnum's life have been crammed into roughly 100 minutes of musical storytelling.  We first see Barnum as a young boy, broke and poor, who falls for the wealthy Charity, whose parents forbid the two from being together.  He sends her letters while she's away at a private school, and takes a job at a railroad in order to make some money.  A quick dissolve later, and Barnum is now a full-grown adult, walking up to the now adult Charity to propose to her, much to the disappointment of her parents.  They sing a romantic ballad while dancing on the rooftop of their new home, and another dissolve later, they have the two daughters, and Barnum has just gotten fired from his desk job when the company he works for goes under.

But Barnum, being the constant wide-eyed dreamer that he is in this movie, has an idea.  He opens up a museum of historical wax figures and stuffed wild animals, which fails to draw a crowd.  Not wanting to give up, he decides to go in a different direction.  He will turn his museum into a show that will celebrate all walks of life that the world usually shies away from.  He searches out "Oddities" that he can put into his show, including a bearded lady named Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) and the pint-sized adult whom Barnum dubs Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey).  These people are naturally afraid about being in the show, as they think Barnum wants to exploit them.  But, his charm wins them over.  He wants to celebrate them, and to show the world how special they are.  In the show, Barnum is dressed in a red impresario's coat and top hat, and leads a large cast of "Oddities" (there's a "giant" and a "dog boy" in the group, too) and circus performers in one of 11 rousing musical numbers featured in the film written by the team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the tunes for La La Land, as well as the current Broadway smash Dear Evan Hansen.

The musical sequences are definitely something to see, featuring some fine pinpoint choreography and a lot of spectacle.  But, I also quickly realized something.  The songs never feel like they're part of the story.  They feel separated, like small individual music video sequences.  As impressive as some of them have been staged or performed, they never quite add to the story.   A good example of this happens about halfway into the film, when Barnum does not allow the cast of his show to attend a party, because the guests are high society and he's afraid how they will respond to them.  This leads to Lettie Lutz and the entire cast of Barnum's production to sing a stirring song called "This is Me", where they sing about how they have been shunned all their lives, but will stand out from now on.   The song is powerfully performed by the Tony-nominated Kela Settle, but it holds little dramatic weight, because the song has no influence on the plot.  It's not connected to the story, and feels like a separate entity.   Once the song is over, the movie moves on, as if it never happened.  What is supposed to be a song about demanding respect and acceptance never quite gets off the ground, because the movie never quite finds a way to fit it into the narrative.  And when it's over, no one ever mentions it again.

I feel a little bit cynical, as the movie clearly exists solely to entertain, and there are moments when I was caught under its spell.  But, the plot would always send me crashing back down to Earth with its undercooked narrative.  This is a movie that hints at plot developments, rather than fleshes them out.  At one point, Barnum hires a young playwright named Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) as a partner.  Aside from a musical number where the two hammer out their partnership over some drinks in a lively choreographed number, the movie never explores their relationship, professional or personal.  Also underdeveloped is a romantic subplot between Phillip and an African American trapeze artist (Zendaya).  Yes, we know that their relationship is looked down upon by high society because their skin colors are mixed, but the movie never goes any deeper than that, nor does it give them any dialogue that tells us how they feel about each other.  They do share a romantic song together, but after that, they spend most of their screentime simply making longing glances, and wondering why no one will accept their love.

There is also the introduction of Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), a singer with a remarkable voice that Barnum helps to make a star, and whom he seems to be infatuated with.  Barnum sees her as his ticket to being known for more than just the circus, and perhaps appealing to an upscale crowd.  But, his wife Charity is afraid that he might have more on his mind, as she expresses in song when her husband takes off on a tour with her.  Again, the movie never really goes that deep into the relationships here, so we never feel the tension that we're supposed to.  And when everything in Barnum's life falls apart as a result of a scandal that erupts while on tour, it again seems to be glossed over, and resolved in a matter of minutes.  I know, this is a musical, and that we're supposed to be taken in by the magic of the production numbers.  At times I even was.  But I couldn't help but feel that the story was being shortchanged by the decision to cram more songs in.

I guess I wanted The Greatest Showman to have a little bit more substance.  Just because you have your characters breaking into song is not an excuse to gloss over, and ignore most of the narrative.  This film left me with a sense of wonder, but I felt kind of empty at the same time.  It was a strange experience that would lift me up from time to time, and disappoint me all at once.  This is not the fault of the actors, director, choreographers or performers, who are indeed giving this their all.  All this talent has simply been handed a script that it simply does not deserve.  And anyone who knows the real story of P.T. Barnum will probably object to how he is depicted here, almost like an innocent child in an adult's body.  Jackman is great in the role he's been given, but Barnum he is not.

I do admire this movie in a lot of ways, but it's too uneven for me to fully recommend.  I really tried to get wrapped up in this one.  I wanted to shut off the part of my brain that kept on telling me that the movie wasn't fully working.  But, as it went on, that nagging little voice got louder and louder.  If you are able to get fully behind this movie when you see it, more power to you.  I kind of envy you, actually.

3 comments

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