Reel Opinions


Monday, January 30, 2017

Gold

With Gold, the filmmakers forgot to ask one important question before the screenplay went in front of the cameras - Is this a story that's really worth telling?  This is a very uninvolving film that keeps us at a total distance from the hearts and minds of the characters who inhabit it.  We watch the events play out, but we're not connected in any real way, because the film itself is almost curiously devoid of emotion.

The sole thing that does grab out attention is Matthew McConaughey, and his physical transformation in order to play Kenny Wells, a real life prospector who hit on the biggest gold find of the decade in 1988, and then lost everything.  With his heavily receding hairline, pot belly and chain smoking mannerisms, McConaughey is virtually unrecognizable at times.  His performance is pretty good also.  But the thing is, there's nothing to connect us with the character or the performance.  We're just watching an actor who went through a physical change.  His performance never connects with us truly, and is never able to bring the character to life.  I found myself appreciating what McConaughey must have went through to portray this character, but that was about it.  I never reached the point where I felt like I had bonded with the performance or the character.

His portrayal of Kenny comes across almost as a street hustler, desperately trying to convince much wealthier people to invest with him, and occasionally pawning off what little he has left in order to scrape together whatever he needs.  He's in the precious metals game, and business is not going well.  Out of desperation, he flies off to Indonesia to meet with a geologist who specializes in tracking down the precious gold that Kenny deals with back home.  This is Mike Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), and although he is suspicious of Kenny based mostly on his sleazy appearance ("You look like you stole that suit you're wearing", he tells him.), the two eventually make a business deal.  After months of searching, the two do come upon what seems to be a massive gold deposit, instantly making Kenny into the toast of the precious metals game as well as the Stock Market.

Watching the film, I found myself wondering why they decided to focus on Kenny and not Mike, who comes across as a character who would make a more interesting movie.  Mike remains an enigma throughout, though, as we follow Kenny into the good life with posh hotel suites at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, where he welcomes his supportive girlfriend (an underused Bryce Dallas Howard) with hundreds of her favorite flowers.  Seeing Kenny in these lavish surroundings seems somewhat off, and indeed, even the people he's possibly going to be investing with don't take him all that seriously.  He's a low level schnook who's now suddenly at the top of the world, and everyone either wants to work with him, or take advantage of him with the hopes that he won't catch on.

We follow Kenny as he goes up, then comes crashing down, then goes back up, and finally comes crashing back down again thanks to some third act twists.  But the way that Gold handles this narrative is a bit strange.  For the first half of the film, we have Kenny narrating these events, supposedly to the audience.  But then, halfway through, there's a jarring scene where he is suddenly seated in a hotel room being interviewed by some FBI agents.  Turns out these are the people he's been talking too all along.  But there is no warning about this.  Of course, we do find out who these agents are eventually, as well as why he's being questioned by them.  But when it just suddenly happens, it's so out of the blue as to throw us out of the movie.  It comes without warning, and though we understand that this is obviously foreshadowing future events, it feels like lazy filmmaking.

Through all of this, I never felt any connection with what was happening up on the screen.  It's been competently made, and the performances are fine, but nothing resonates.  When it's over, the movie had all but faded from my mind for the most part.  As good as McConaughey is here, and as impressive his physical transformation is, it's not enough to make Gold into a compelling film.  It's simply a performance without a character to attach itself to.  This is also one of those movies that introduces a character, then keeps them off camera so long so that when they come back, I found myself kind of replaying events back in my head to try to remember where I saw that person previously.  There's simply not enough here to answer the basic question - Why did this film need to be made?

Gold is a movie with an identity crisis, ultimately.  It doesn't know if it wants to celebrate or shame its hero.  For a film that handles this tricky balance better, look no further than The Founder with Michael Keaton, which knew how to skirt the line between worship and critiquing.  This isn't an unwatchable mess by any means, but it never quite seems sure of itself at the same time.

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Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Dog's Purpose

Writer's Note: Before beginning the review, I will briefly cover the controversy concerning the video released by TMZ that supposedly depicted one of the dogs used in the film possibly being abused, because it refused to perform a stunt, and has led to PETA to propose a boycott of the film.  At the time, there is too much conflicting information for me to make a solid judgement.  Many say the video was edited in order to create a certain point of view, while others are demanding more information.  I believe in waiting until all the information is out there before I make a permanent stance or opinion.  All I can say is that I truly hope the video was somehow doctored or taken out of context, and that the event in question did not happen as depicted.  With all that said, on with the review.

A Dog's Purpose is a not-entirely successful adaptation of W. Bruce Cameron's heartwarming and tear jerking novel.  I think the biggest problem is that director Lasse Hallstrom (The Hundred-Foot Journey)  has wrapped the story in the ancient movie cliches of Americana, instead of any sort of reality.  Much of the film feels overly wholesome and sanitized, making it into just another "cute dog" movie.  Much of the harder edges of Cameron's novel are gone.  Even the book's bittersweet and effective ending has been completely changed to bland feel-good sappiness. 

The fact that there are five credited writers listed for the screenplay tells me that this was probably a troubled adaptation that never quite got a handle on the tone or meaning of the book.  One of the more unfortunate decisions the movie makes is to try to recreate the narrative structure of the novel, by having the story being told from the point of view of the dog itself, as it is reincarnated into a variety of different lives.  We get to see this dog as a stray puppy, as the lifelong playmate of a little boy, as a police dog, as a pampered pooch, and finally as a neglected soul who eventually finds his way back home.  Through all of these different lives and experiences, we have the voice of Josh Gad chiming in on the soundtrack, making cute little remarks, and telling us what the dog is supposed to be thinking.  This is a huge miscalculation from which the film never recovers.  Gad's narration is not only intrusive, it adds nothing to the film itself.  Nothing he says gives us any real insight into what a dog would be thinking in most of these situations, and most of them are cute little throwaway one liners. 

Anyone who has owned or spent a good amount of time with a dog can tell you that their eyes can say so much.  This is something the filmmakers should have taken to heart.  We don't need a celebrity voice over talking for the dog when the animal is perfectly capable of expressing its feelings to the audience.  I have seen plenty of much better movies about dogs that did not require a voice over, such as My Dog Skip, or even one of Lasse Hallstrom's previous movies, Hachi: A Dog's Tale.  That was an intelligent film that talked about the special bond between a dog and the human it loved (played by Richard Gere), and it didn't feel the need to sugarcoat or add cute little situations where a voice cracks wise on the part of the canine.  Why didn't he trust the intelligence of the audience here as he did with that film?  Why spell everything out?  The sad thing is not many got to see Hachi, as I believe it went straight to DVD.  I would recommend anyone interested in this movie rent that film instead.

But back to the movie at hand.  As I mentioned, we learn that dogs are constantly reborn when they die into the body of another dog.  Or maybe it's just this one dog.  The movie doesn't really make it clear.  Supposedly this one little dog is being reincarnated over and over so that it can figure out what its purpose in life is.  Its first life is cruelly short, as it is picked up by a dog catcher about a minute after we meet it, and is euthanized off camera.  It is then reborn for the first time, and we get the film's main plotline, or at least the one the film spends the most time on.  Here, the dog is named Bailey, and he is owned by a sweet little boy named Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) in the 1960s.  Ethan lives with his sweet mom (Juliet Rylance) and a father (Luke Kirby) who shows signs of alcoholism early on, which only gets worse as time goes on.  As Ethan grows into a strapping young teenager (K.J. Apa), Bailey is right there by his side, sharing the boy's experiences with love, loss and tragedy.  This entire storyline is about as sweet and as deep as a Hallmark Card, save for when dad starts to get abusive, or when the local bully develops a taste for arson.  Even with the occasional trouble, this sequence comes across as overly sweetly bland, and perhaps a bit dragged out.

The time eventually comes for Bailey to leave this life behind, and he is reborn into a female police dog in the 1970s named Elle. (Despite being a female, Josh Gad remains the narrator.) Here, he helps his police officer owner deal with some past pain, and becomes a hero.  Once that life is over, it's the 1980s, and the canine now belongs to a loving young woman (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) who longs for a family, so naturally the dog helps her find love.  Here, the dog gets to enjoy the company of children and leads a carefree life until it is time for it to be reincarnated once again, this time into the life of a poor, neglected dog who is unloved by its owners.  When it escapes this cruel couple, it manages to track down its owner from an earlier life, Ethan, now a middle-aged man played by Dennis Quaid.  The scenes with Quaid are probably the most effective and the closest the movie comes to working.  But again, the fact that the ending has been completely changed and scrubbed clean left a bad taste in my mouth when it was over.

A Dog's Purpose never offends, but it also does very little to raise much interest in the viewer.  It's sweet and can be very cute, but it's lacking in any real substance.  The original novel had its moments of cornball as well, but it also had plenty of moments that felt tender and honest.  Here, the honesty has been replaced with nostalgic schmaltz, dripping with gooey sentimentality.  It's not just the ending that made me feel cheated, certain moments that did make it into the film just don't feel as powerful or as effective as I pictured them on the page.  When seeing a movie based on a book, it's always going to seem different than how the reader envisioned it inside their head.  But here, everything does just feel overly safe.  It's as if the filmmakers were trying to make it as crowd pleasing as humanly possible.  The end result feels more than a little manipulative. 

You don't really want to be too rough on a movie like this.  After all, it's bighearted and just wants to entertain.  I have no problem with that.  I just think there's a certain amount of substance that did not make it in the transition to the screen.  A Dog's Purpose mostly wants to be silly and safe, which kind of goes against what the original author intended.

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Friday, January 27, 2017

La La Land

La La Land is easily the most effortlessly charming movie I have seen in years.  It's a dizzying, joyous, and vibrant musical that positively leaps off the screen with the kind of life few films possess.  Whenever a movie earns the kind of praise that this one has during the months leading up to Award Season, it's easy to be skeptical, but I implore you to believe the hype here.  And if you can, see it on the big screen.  It's one of the few films I can think of that truly deserves to be seen in a theater with a crowd lost under its spell.

This is writer-director Damien Chazelle's second major feature, after his breakthrough debut, 2014's Whiplash.  If his first film proved that he could make a powerful and intimate drama, then here he proves that he can create a truly unforgettable cinematic musical dream.  It's the kind of leap from one film to the next that makes you excited to see what else he can do, and also a little nervous.  I don't want to see this guy get chewed up by the Studio System, or hashing out forgettable franchises.  In just this one movie, he puts so much heart and wonder into it, you just hope you never have to see him working with his hands tied.  This is a filmmaker who deserves to be let free, and let his imagination carry his films wherever it will take them.  If his first two movies are any indication, audiences are in for one heck of an experience.

The inspiration behind his vision for La La Land is obvious right from the studio logo, which is represented in a 1950s style, followed by the old fashioned CinemaScope screen that used to open many Hollywood epics.  We are then transported to a modern day Los Angeles that seems inspired by the dream-like images of Hollywood from classic musicals like Singin' in the Rain.  Were it not for the fact that everyone has a smartphone, the movie could have been set in the Golden Age of the movies.  We are then introduced to two young hopefuls who will be our gateway into the world Chazelle has created for us.  Mia (the luminous Emma Stone) is a 20-something coffee barista with dreams of making it as an actress.  Stone is winsome, precious without being cute, and just impossibly engaging.  We sense her determination, her desire, and her frustration as she flubs one audition after another.

At the same time, we also meet Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, at his best), a young man obsessed with preserving classic jazz music, and with big dreams of his own of opening his own jazz club.  Until then, he's forced to take any gig he can, such as playing at a piano bar for a gruff boss (Whiplash star, J.K. Simmons, making a hilarious cameo), or being part of a cheesy80s cover band.  The two young future lovers have various run ins with each other early on.  They first briefly meet on the L.A. overpass in the film's rousing opening musical number, where various motorists exit their cars to join in an elaborate choreographed song.  They meet again at a bar, and then at a poolside party, which is where their relationship finally takes off, and we enter a gloriously romantic fantasy where the two spend a year together dreaming, falling in love, and finding themselves possibly slowly torn apart by their own dreams.

Gosling and Stone have worked together before, first in 2011's Crazy Stupid Love, and again in 2013's Gangster Squad.  Here, they not only create instant romantic chemistry, but are just wonderful individually.  It's easily some of their best work, both alone and when they have been paired together.  La La Land is a musical, but it's not the kind that stops every few minutes for the characters to break into song.  It saves those moments for fantastic dream-like sequences of romance and wonder, or for when the characters are faced with a crossroads in their lives.  Both Gosling and Stone have natural voices.  They don't sing like trained professionals, nor do they seem like they're auditioning for a talent contest.  Their emotion rings just as true when they are singing as much as when they are delivering their lines.

And even though this is a romantic and sometimes dream-like musical, the movie does have an undercurrent that you would not expect walking in.  Mia and Sebastian do get hit by hard times, have troubles, and yes, have a falling out or two.  But it is not played up with melodrama as you would expect from a modern day, or even a classic, musical.  We can feel and understand the pain of these characters and relate to them.  The use of music, as well as the performances from Gosling and Stone, adds so much it's hard to describe.  I don't remember the last time a movie musical has affected me so emotionally.  The movie can be joyous and filled with wonder, but it is also honest and rough at times.  The fact that it can pull off both aspects so effortlessly is not only rare, it's also just incredibly well done. 

La La Land is a truly rare film, one that likely will not be forgotten once the Awards have been handed out.  It's a true cinematic event, and something that you just don't see at the movies all too often.  It not only leaves you on a natural high, it makes you want to turn around and see it again as soon as it's over. 

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Thursday, January 26, 2017

A New Policy Regarding Sequels

You may have noticed that I did not bother to review Underworld: Blood Wars when it came out earlier this month.  Well, the reason why is the same reason why you will not be seeing a review of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter this weekend.  And that reason is because of a new policy I am implementing regarding sequels.

In the past, I have tried to review as many movies as I could possibly see, and I feel I have kept up that end of the bargain, even as I am getting older, and time is shorter for me with work and other obligations.  However, there are certain movies that I just find that I can't bring myself to go see once in a while, and one kind of film are sequels to movies I have hated.  Both Underworld and Resident Evil are long running franchises with devoted fanbases, which I unfortunately am not a part of.  And yet, I have sat through numerous of their sequels with the best of intentions, only to find that the films have no intention of improving themselves, or making progress.

Ans so, I am implementing a policy where if a franchise has not improved itself by the second or third film, I am not going to review any further sequels.  The only exception to this rule will be if the sequel suddenly gets amazing word of mouth or uncommonly strong reviews in comparison to the rest of the series.  A good example of this exception would be last year's Ouija: Origin of Evil.  I hated the original, and had no intention of seeing the second film.  But then, it started attracting good word of mouth, so I decided to check it out, and ended up being very positive about it.  But this is a rare instance indeed.  Most franchises by their third film are pretty much set in stone.

So, therefore, you will not see reviews of sequels to long running series that have largely disappointed me.  In other words, do not expect to see a review of Transformers: The Last Knight this June.  Michael Bay's take on the cartoon and toys that ruled my youth has been some of the worst summer blockbusters ever in my opinion, and in all honesty, I would rather stay home and watch the 1986 animated Transformers movie that weekend than have to shell out money to see Bay's latest insult to my childhood icons.

So, there you have it.  I'm sorry if this disappoints any of my readers, but honestly, I need to give myself a break once in a while.  And when a franchise just seems to drag on and never seems to improve, there's just little reason for me to hold out hope that things will change or improve.  Even though you won't be hearing my thoughts on Resident Evil this weekend, I will be reviewing La La Land (finally), A Dog's Purpose and Gold this weekend, so I hope you will look forward to those.

I hope everyone has a great weekend ahead!

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Monday, January 23, 2017

The Founder

The Founder was, at one time, being groomed by The Weinstein Company as a big Award Season movie.  But, for whatever reason, the studio got cold feet, and is now dumping it in January with little fanfare.  I honestly can't imagine why.  This is a great little movie, with a captivating lead performance by Michael Keaton.  In all honestly, I ended up liking this much more than Lion (which I did enjoy), the movie the Weinsteins did choose to be their Award hopeful.

Even if it lost out on the chance of being one of the great films of 2016, it is now officially the first great film of 2017.  It tells the true story of Ray Kroc (Keaton), a middle-aged fast-talking salesman who in 1954, was struggling to make ends meet by working on the road and selling milkshake mixers to largely uninterested clients.  His life and his fortunes took a turn when he discovered a revolutionary little burger stand in California run by two forward-thinking, but naive, brothers.  Their restaurant, called McDonald's, was unlike anything at the time, creating a streamlined cooking process that could have your order in seconds instead of a half hour, and dreaming up many ideas that would become staples of the fast food world, such as having the food packed in wrappers, and a walk up window to order food from.  The film tells the story of how Ray appealed to the brothers to franchise the business, and then slowly but surely took total control of their empire by doing things on his terms, and generally rewriting history.

The McDonald Brothers, Dick and Mac (played wonderfully by John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman), knew they had something good, and were very protective of their dream restaurant.  However, Ray had the ambition that they did not, and the instinct on how to build a multi-million dollar empire.  That's what separated them.  In a way, The Founder is not far removed from The Social Network, which also told the story of someone who had the ambition to take an idea like Facebook and fly with it.  Ray saw the "Golden Arches" logo (which one of the brothers had dreamed up) as a sign that could be as American as the flag, and he knew how to capitalize on it.  As Ray's ambition grew, and he started placing McDonald's restaurants all across the Midwest and eventually the U.S., he also found himself wanting to work away from the McDonalds themselves, and turn the franchise into something entirely his own.  By the time it was over, he had fleeced his former bosses out of their own company, and was telling everyone that the restaurant had been his idea.  He even went so far as to name the first McDonald's he franchised as the #1 restaurant, instead of the original in California.

The success of the movie is credited to two crucial elements.  First, there's the incredibly smart screenplay by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler), which is not only sunny and breezy, but also incredibly funny in a very dark way.  It views Kroc as somewhat of a smooth talking con artist who knew all the angles, and how to get what he wanted, while essentially cheating certain people out of what was rightfully theirs.  But at the same time, he comes across as being charismatic, and well, kind of likable.  This is thanks to the second element, which is Keaton's performance.  His casting can only be labeled a stroke of genius, as he is able to make Kroc into somewhat of a shady character, but an undeniably charming one, who knew how to talk people into working with or for him.  We get to see how he wooed different investors into franchising the restaurant, and even how he wooed the wife of one of his investors. (He was married at the time, his first wife played by Laura Dern, who does the best she can with a somewhat underwritten, but still somewhat heartbreaking role.)

There are some fascinating moments here, as we see how Ray Kroc cut costs in order to boost profits, such as using powdered milkshake mix instead of real milkshakes, whose ingredients required a massive and expensive refrigeration unit.  We see how he put his entire life, even his own home, on the line for the company, and how he constantly came out on top, while the exasperated McDonald Brothers back in California could do little about it.  To be fair, I would have liked to have seen what went into some of the more popular aspects of McDonald's.  We don't get to see the invention of certain famous menu items like the Big Mac, nor do we get to see the creation of the Ronald McDonald character.  This is entirely Ray's story, and his determination to get to the top no matter what it took, or who he had to step on.  Fortunately, it's an interesting one, and the screenplay and Keaton's performance know how to grab our attention from early on and never let go.

The Founder was directed by John Lee Hancock, who is famous for making more uplifting biofilms, such as The Blind Side or Saving Mr. Banks.  Here, he inhabits a gray area.  It pulls no punches in showing that Kroc was essentially a crook who took a lot of people for a ride, and wound up laughing all the way to the bank.  Still, he is wise not to entirely vilify him, and to essentially make him the all around story of the American Dream.  How through hard work and determination, this man who thought life had passed him by was able to make it in the world.  The tone of the film seems to both admire and be just a little bit horrified by its subject matter, and I think the movie finds the right balance.  It gives the movie a certain darkly comic edge that we don't usually find in a lot of "based on a true story" films, which usually try to paint their subject in as grand a light as possible.

The Founder is strongly compelling, and one of the rare times I wanted a movie to be longer, as I thought there was even more to the story that could have been told.  It's so perfectly paced and well written, you can't help but want more.  The movie ends up being memorable, not just because it's a great movie being released in a month usually reserved for sludge, but also because it's just a great story that I'm surprised Hollywood didn't try to tell sooner.

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Saturday, January 21, 2017

xXx: Return of Xander Cage

With only the slightest tonal shift, xXx: Return of Xander Cage could have worked as a spoof of over the top action films.  As it is, the movie is incredibly dumb, but it's at least smart enough to know this.  It's the kind of movie where the entire cast can't seem to suppress their laughter at some of the dialogue or scenes they're required to do.  Fortunately, the movie lets us know early on that we're not supposed to take this seriously in the first place.  This may be junk, but I would be lying if I didn't say I had a lot of fun watching it.

Diesel returns to the role he created back in 2002 (and abandoned for the 2005 follow up), playing an extreme sports and stunts enthusiast who is also a government operative.  Xander Cage has been presumed to be dead these past 10 years or so, but those pesky government agents led by the ice cold Jane Marke (Toni Colette) track him down for a new mission.  They need him to stop some renegades from getting their hands on a device called "Pandora's Box", which has the ability to bring satellites down from the sky on specific targets.  Once you know that, you understand the plot for the most part.  The rest is pure dumb spectacle, though it's been done with a sense of humor, and even the occasional breaking of the fourth wall.  This is a movie that is aware of what it is, and makes no apologies for it.  And unlike just about every movie Michael Bay has made for the past 20 years or so, it's successful both as an intentionally dumb spectacle, and at poking fun at itself.

xXs is not a masterful pure action film like Mad Max: Fury Road.  It won't be up for any Oscars, and it won't win over the critics.  But the movie works on a basic level.  We come for a lot of stunts and action, and the movie delivers.  We're not supposed to ask questions like how does Xander's motorcycle suddenly sprout skis, which allows him to not only ride the water, but surf a tidal wave?  We're also not supposed to try to make sense of the plot, which is filled with backstabbing and changed alliances, but it all really doesn't really make much of a difference in the end.  A movie like this, you can only judge by the simple fact of whether you had fun watching it or not, and I had a lot of fun.  What can I say, Vin Diesel knows how to deliver this kind of material (as well he should by now) and director D.J. Caruso (making a turnaround here after the dreary and dumb The Disappointments Room) knows how to stage some impressive action sequences.

Some people will find the movie overkill, and I certainly won't argue with them.  The only thing that saves it is that there are some moments of humor that I genuinely laughed at.  If it weren't for the fact that this movie is aware of how insanely stupid it is, I probably would have not been able to fully recommend it for a certain audience.  And yes, I can only recommend this to certain viewers, and I think you know if you fall under the category.  Here are some simple questions that can help you know if you would enjoy this or not.  Does the sight of the film's hero base jump off of a TV tower, fall 400 feet, land on a pair of skis, glide through a mountain, and then make his way down the street on a skateboard make you smile, or shake your head in disbelief?  Maybe both?  If you can add a big dumb grin to that reaction, this movie is for you.

Does every movie have to be good for you, or be intelligent to work?  Of course not.  Heck, with so many serious "Award" movies going into wide release, it's kind of a nice change of pace.  xXx is not a great movie, but it succeeds at what it wants to do. 

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Friday, January 20, 2017

Split

I honestly am not sure what to make of M Night Shyamalan's Split.  The movie managed to simultaneously fascinate and frustrate me to no end.  On one end of the spectrum, we have the powerhouse performance by James McAvoy, who plays a man with 23 different personalities living inside of him.  This would be a challenge to any actor, and the way that McAvoy throws himself so completely into the role (or roles) is something to definitely see.  But at the same time, it feels like this is a movie built entirely around that performance, and not much else.  While McAvoy is captivating, the movie he's in is less so.

This is intended to be a return to form for the filmmaker, a return to the low budget, tense thrillers that helped him make a name in the industry.  Shyamalan seems to be drawing upon Hitchcock for inspiration here, trying to juggle gripping suspense with a pitch dark sense of humor that ranges from the playful to the downright disturbing.  It should be fascinating, but something felt just a tiny bit off to me.  The movie is never exactly scary in any way, and the tension never builds as it should.  I have heard some people say that this is intentional, but I'm not so sure.  I think Shyamalan is trying to play with his audience here, and generate the emotions of tension and fright.  But far too often, the movie is more weird than genuinely frightening.  Weird is not scary.  It can be creepy, yes, but the way it's used here, it often seems to be weird just for the sake of being weird.  There are even a couple scenes that generated some bad laughs from the audience attending my screening.  Split can be interesting to watch, but it's far too messy for me to label it a total success.

As the film opens, three teenage girls are abducted from the parking lot of a shopping complex after a birthday party.  Two of the girls, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), are pretty and popular.  The third girl, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy from The Witch), is an outcast who seems to have been invited to the party out of pity.  The kidnapper (McAvoy) takes them to a massive underground bunker that immediately brought flashbacks of 10 Cloverfield Lane to my head.  As the girls try to figure out their situation, they learn that their kidnapper takes on a different persona each time they see him.  Sometimes he's a cruel man obsessed with keeping things clean, sometimes he's dressed as a woman and behaving quite prim and proper, sometimes he's a fashion designer, and he even takes on the personality of a nine-year-old who talks with a lisp.  These personalities seem to react to the girls in different ways.  Some are gentle and compassionate, while others are domineering and have bizarre fetishes, such as enjoying watching the girls take off their clothes and dance.

We learn a little about what is happening from the scenes concerning a therapist (Betty Buckley) who is treating this man.  She believes that a multiple personality can be almost supernatural, with people taking on completely different traits or even features.  She explains once case where a blind woman taught herself how to see because of creating other personalities who were not blind.  The therapist does not know that her patient is keeping the three girls hostage, but the more time she spends with him in their sessions, the more concerned she becomes that this man has either done something awful, or is about to.  The many personalities who live inside this one man keep on talking about a new one that is about to be born - One only known as "The Beast", and who is planning to feast on the flesh of the three captive girls.

I never exactly bought into the science that was being used to explain the disorder that McAvoy's character possessed, but I was at least fascinated.  He is obviously relishing this role, and the opportunity to create these numerous off kilter personalities that inhabit one body.  Whenever the movie is focused solely on the lead performance, it works.  It's the rest of Split that is on somewhat unsure footing.  The three girls at the center of the film never quite develop into unique personalities that we can get behind.  The closest we get are some flashbacks concerning lead girl Casey's childhood, which are supposed to show us how she is a survivor and has overcome great pain.  But these flashbacks are far too fragmented to be dramatically successful.  They often interrupt the flow of the film, as well, so we are taken out of the action.  As it quickly turns out, this would be my central issue with the film.

Split is a movie that seems to stop and flow at random.  The movie would be moving along quite well, holding my interest, and then we would get a flashback, or an extended sequence with the therapist, and it would stop my interest cold.  The pacing of the movie feels off.  In order for a film like this to work, the tone needs to be claustrophobic and suffocating.  We have to feel like we are trapped right along side the girls who are being held in this underground bunker.  But the movie keeps on cutting away from all this, and giving us lengthy scenes where the therapist explains her ideas about what is happening inside McAvoy's character.  The movie never quite creates that sense of mounting dread or terror that I was looking for.  And when the climax comes, it seems more like Shyamalan is desperately trying to keep everything from falling apart, rather than a filmmaker in control of his own story.  I mentioned earlier the Hitchcock influence the movie has.  He would have known how to keep a better focus on this story, and he would have done so without stopping the momentum every few minutes.

The main reason I can recommend you watch this is for the performance of James McAvoy, and a few well done scenes that pop up.  Also, if you are a fan of one of the director's earlier films, you will most likely enjoy the final moments of the movie. (I apologize for being so vague, but I have to avoid spoilers here.) Split only works in fits and starts.  It's kind of odd and overlong, and it never quite comes together, but I also don't regret seeing it.  Not the most ringing of endorsements, I know, but that's the kind of movie this is.  I appreciated it in a lot of ways, but in the end, I think I found myself appreciating it more for what it was trying to do rather than what it actually did.

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Patriot's Day

Patriot's Day is the second collaboration based on a national tragedy between director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg in roughly three months after late September's Deepwater Horizon.  And while it suffers from a few of the narrative problems that the earlier film did (both are so focused on giving a minute by minute recreation of the tragedy and aftermath that a few characters are not as fleshed out as they should be), this is the better of the two films.  It's much more powerful emotionally, and does a better job of making us care about the people at the center, unlike Horizon, which was technically excellent, but felt hollow on an emotional level to me.

The film works as an almost hour-by-hour study of the events of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing, starting on April 15th, and leading through the following days covering the manhunt for the people responsible.  The story takes a kind of multi-perspective narrative, introducing us to a wide variety of characters whose lives will be changed in one way or another during the events to come.  But, the main focus is Boston police officer Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg), who the filmmakers created for this dramatization, so that a main character could be present for all the major events that are covered.  The movie was supposedly made up of two separate scripts covering the event, and at times it shows, as the movie does try to shoehorn in a few too many characters and side plots.  But, when the movie does work, it works beautifully.

Berg shows a real eye for detail here, faithfully recreating events almost exactly as they happened, apparently.  At times, he seems to be using actual video and hidden camera footage, mixing it in with his dramatic reenactments.  People who watched the actual events unfold almost four years ago will likely recognize a lot, as Berg seems obsessive about recreating each detail about the actual tragedy and the police investigation that followed.  Aside from Wahlberg's fictional cop, a few real life officers and investigators like Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), FBI agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) and police Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) are portrayed in supporting roles.  It is kind of odd that these real people involved in the event have to take a backseat to a made up one, but at least these veteran actors get to deliver some strong performances here.

What was most interesting to me personally is how the film handles the two responsible for the bombing, brothers Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze), along with Tamerlan’s wife, Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist).  This is the aspect of the story that has been given the least amount of attention in the media, so it's interesting to see how they watch the manhunt unfold on TV, and then begin to plan their next move.  Patriot's Day obviously has to walk a fine line here, as the filmmakers don't want to make these people out to be sympathetic, but at the same time it has to give them some kind of motivation for what they did.  The filmmakers have pulled this off for the most part.  These are clearly people capable of evil and great harm, but you can also sense a kind of bond that becomes all the more strained as the police close in on them. 

And even if the narrative does become a bit jumbled as it jumps from various subplots concerning innocent people involved in the disaster, like a married couple who get sent to separate hospitals at first, or a father separated from his young son, the movie does still manage to generate emotion out of these somewhat underwritten characters.  Yes, it would be impossible not to sympathize with them in just about any way, shape or form, but the movie does give them a few nice moments during the opening scenes, introducing them to us before the fateful event, and letting us get to know them.  It helps that the film closes out with a mini documentary, showing the actual people, and giving them a chance to tell their story probably better than the dramatization ever could.

Patriot's Day is just as imperfect as Deepwater Horizon was, but I found myself more emotionally involved here.  Yes, it is very messy in a lot of ways, but its effective and emotionally potent when it needs to be.  A filmed documentary like the one this closes with probably would have been a better choice to tell all the stories that this film wants to tell, but it does enough to honor the real people who were involved in just about every way.

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