Reel Opinions

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Early Man

Britain's Aardman Animation has made a name for themselves with their smart humor, and trademark stop motion animation style, which has a certain charmingly retro look to it in this day and age of expensive CG visual-fests.  (Although, the studio has tried their hand at CG films in the past.) Their latest effort, Early Man, is an unfortunately mediocre attempt by the usually reliable team.  Its visuals can only carry the film so far.  The movie itself is more or less a cliched and undercooked sports underdog story with some stone age puns that seem to have been pulled right out of The Flintstones.

Setting an animated film in the prehistoric times almost seems to be a curse for most animation studios, as it has largely led to mediocrity with past attempts like the Ice Age series, or The Croods.  The curse has now claimed the mighty Aardman, who are usually much smarter and brighter than the material they work with here.  Gone is a lot of the trademark wit and satire, and it's been replaced with a dull story about a largely inept stone age tribe trying to save themselves from a life of slavery by challenging a Bronze Age tribe to a game of Football (that's Soccer, to us Americans).  It would be different if the movie had some fun with the sports movie cliches that it uses, but director Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit) seems content to just follow the rules laid by too many films just like it.  And aside from the occasional funny line or background gag (a vendor in a city is seen selling "Jurassic Pork"), this is simply uninspired, and will likely appeal only to very little kids who just happen to be aficionados of British sports and prehistoric puns. 

The plot is kicked off by Dug (voice by Eddie Redmayne), a young caveman who is a member of a pretty stupid tribe who has somehow managed to survive by only eating rabbit, while avoiding the much bigger and meatier animals.  The Chief of Dug's tribe (Timothy Spall) wants things to remain the way they are.  After all, he's the eldest member of the tribe (he's 32), and feels his tribe should stay put where they are to survive, instead of seeking out mammoths to hunt.  One day, the tribe is attacked by a kingdom that has embraced bronze mining and making material out of metal rather than bone and rocks.  They are led by the flamboyant Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddletson), and conquer the land of Dug's tribe for the precious ore that is hidden underneath.  

The tribe is kicked off their land, and Dug quickly comes to the conclusion that the only way to get it back is by challenging the kingdom to a game of soccer.  The stakes are high, for if they lose, Dug and his tribe will be forced to work in the mines the rest of their lives.  Cue the training montage, where the tribe seems to be hopeless at the sport.  But then, they are aided by the spunky young Goona (Maisie Williams), who is not allowed to play the sport in the kingdom because she's a woman.  From there, anyone with the slightest knowledge of how these movies play out can figure out what happens next.  The girl who no one will let play ends up being a star athlete, the kid who wants to play but is kept on the sidelines (in this case, the "kid" is a wild boar named Hognob, who is Dug's pet) will have to step in and help the team out near the end of the game, one of the players on the good team will get injured at one point, and the evil team will cheat in order to win.  Do the cavemen end up winning the big game?  I wouldn't dream of spoiling the ending.

Early Man just seems content to exist, and is never better than it needs to be.  The characters who make up Dug's tribe are largely interchangeable and are not interesting.  This goes for Dug himself, as he never changes or seems to learn anything during the course of the film.  He's just endlessly optimistic and cheerful, except for the brief moment where the evil Lord Nooth tries to talk him into forfeiting the match.  Even the jokes seem oddly uninspired, and often come across like holdovers from The Flintstones, with the cavemen using tiny crocodiles as clothes pins and a beetle as a beard shaver.  The only gag that works is a Message Bird (voiced by Rob Bryden), who mimics the voice of the person who has sent the message, and acts out their part.  This is clever, and frankly, the movie could have used more jokes like it.

There are some great visuals and a couple chuckle-worthy lines ("You haven't touched your primordial soup!"), but outside of these fleeting moments, Early Man seems like an effort that was made by great artists who had something else on their minds at the time.  It's far from terrible, but there's just very little to get excited about here when you get down to it.


Saturday, February 17, 2018

Black Panther

Black Panther is the first great entertainment of 2018, and in my mind, is the best Marvel movie to come out in a while.  Yes, the movie has all the action and stunts you would expect, but it really has so much more on its mind.  It's a vibrant film, full of life, and with a large cast of characters who are all wonderfully developed and never once seem shortchanged or pushed to the background.  It also has a wonderful setting that we haven't seen in the movies before.  Not only that, it achieves what few superhero movies have been able to do, by giving us both a memorable hero and villain, and allows us to be engaged in their struggle.  This is a movie that fires on all cylinders.

I will admit up front, I knew little about the Black Panther character or his comics walking in, other than his previous appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (He was introduced in Captain America: Civil War.) I even walked into the film knowing little about it, as I tried my best to avoid the trailers, so it could be as fresh of an experience as possible.  I feel this is the best way to approach the film, as it holds many wonderful surprises.  Of course, this creates a problem for me the reviewer, as how do I express my thoughts on the virtues of the film without giving too much away?  I will do my best to be vague with the plot details, as director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (Creed) has made a lot of smart choices in telling the story.  One of the wisest decisions he makes is to not waste a lot of time setting up the character.  This is more of an Introduction Story, rather than an Origin Story.

It also has a lot to say about certain issues.  The characters here talk a lot about their philosophy of inclusion, and competing the notions of isolation and nationalism.  A lot of the characters are against building barriers to the outside world.  This is very relevant, as the story is largely set in the fictional African country of Wakanda.  To the outside world, Wakanda appears to be a struggling third world land filled with poverty and strife.  This is all an illusion, however, as a technological shield covers the land and hides the truth from everyone.  The truth is that Wakanda is the most technologically proficient country in the world capable of wonders in science, mechanics and medicine unheard of to the rest of the world.  This is all due to a rare mineral from outer space known as Vibranium, which the people of Wakanda use to create all their technology and weapons.  The land's true power and purpose must remain hidden to the outside world, as there are a lot of forces who have been searching for Vibranium and the power it holds, and could use it for evil purposes.

Wakanda's new King, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) takes the throne after his father is killed in a terrorist attack, an event that was depicted in the previously mentioned Civil War.  If that makes you nervous that you will have to see a lot of previous films in the Marvel Universe in order to catch up or to understand what's going on, do not worry.  This is largely a stand-alone story, and it tells you all that you need to know without drowning in backstory.  He also takes on the identity of the Black Panther, a superhero clad in an all black technological outfit that the ruler of Wakanda routinely takes on in order to protect his people.  He is aided in his fight to keep the peace by his younger sister and scientist Shuri (Letitia Wright), who acts a lot like Q in the James Bond franchise, creating new gadgets and weapons for her brother, which she proudly shows off to him in her lab before he goes out on a mission.   The other two who stand by his side are his former lover, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and the head of the military, Okoye (Danai Gurira).

This leads to one of the more unexpected and wonderful elements of Black Panther.  This is a very female-centered superhero movie.  All three of these female characters are fully fleshed out, and not only play a big part in the story, but are written with intelligence and wit.  Even T'Challa's mother (Angela Bassett) is not a passive character, and remains a strong presence throughout the film.  A lot of people praised last year's Wonder Woman movie for its female empowerment angle, but in a lot of ways, I found this film to be even stronger in that regard.  These are all supporting characters, and could have easily been pushed into the background or have simply disappeared when the plot deemed it necessary.  Instead, they stand and even fight alongside Black Panther for pretty much the entire movie.  Not only that, they are interesting, intelligent and well-written women characters who immediately grab your attention and hold onto it.  

The plot centers around a black market arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who managed to steal some precious Vibranium weapons years ago, and is now attempting to sell them to terrorist armies.  He has even fashioned a mechanical arm for himself, which doubles as a powerful arm cannon.  The other central villain is Erik (Michael B. Jordan, who has appeared in all of director Ryan Coogler's films, creating a wonderful working relationship), who starts the film off as one of Klaue's lackeys, but his role in the story quickly grows for reasons I will not reveal.  All I will say is that both Klaue and Erik serve as perfect antagonists for different reasons.  Klaue is a somewhat comical, but definitely dangerous individual who murders without a second thought, while Erik is seemingly more controlled and maybe a bit likable, but just as unhinged, only by anger instead of madness.  His role in the story creates a complex blend of a character we can sympathize with as well as a someone who is easy to hate for some of his actions.  He's one of the better villains to appear in a Marvel film.

It is these wonderful characters and their expertly written and developed relationships that make Black Panther one of the strongest entries in the expanding cinematic universe of Marvel Comics.  Yes, the movie can be thrilling in its action, but it is just as thrilling because we really and truly care about everyone who inhabits the story.  Nobody here is unimportant, and the movie would be lesser if one character was removed.  There are no moments here that feel like padding or filler, and nothing feels out of place or unnecessary.  This is a script that has clearly been thought out, and has been brought before the cameras by an expert team.  The performances, the visuals, the cinematography, and even the music score all create a complete experience.  Most importantly, the movie does not go flat in its final moments.  The big "epic" battle sequence is grand, not chaotic.  And the final standoff between the Black Panther and the main villain is built from much grander stakes than you would expect, and is appropriately thrilling instead of anticlimactic. 

This is probably the most ambitious project to come out of Marvel Studios.  While it follows the basic template of a superhero story, it breaks the traditional mold in so many ways.  It not only creates a great heroic character that we want to see in many sequels, but it gives him an entire world and a rich supporting cast that we want to see more of as well.  A lot of superhero introduction films are content to just give us a memorable hero.  Black Panther does so much more.  It's intelligent, a hell of a lot of fun, brilliantly planned out, and just an all around superb entertainment.


Saturday, February 10, 2018

Peter Rabbit

When I saw the early trailers for Peter Rabbit, I shuttered a little.  It came across as crude and crass, and it gave me bad flashbacks of the infamous live action take on The Cat in the Hat with Mike Myers.  Needless to say, I did not exactly walk into the screening with a spring in my step.  Having seen it, I can safely say that the movie itself ends up being a pleasant surprise, with enough charm and warmth to make it harmless for young children and watchable for adults.  It's no classic, but if the trailers turned you off, I can assure you that the actual film is nowhere near as annoying.  I can only hope whoever was in charge of the marketing wises up, and is made to learn the error of their ways.

This is not a faithful rendition of the classic children's literary character, like the recent Paddington 2, which, truth be told, is a better film than this, and you should make sure your children see that one first.  The movie employs a lot of modern humor, pop songs, and the unmistakable voice of James Corden as the titular rabbit, who is essentially playing himself in the guise of a CG bunny.  You almost expect Peter to break into a Carpool Karaoke sequence at any minute.  Fortunately, this is nowhere near as bad as you might expect.  The movie does have quite a few quiet and sweet moments, and generally has a big enough heart that shows through when required.  It even caused me to chuckle a few times with some of the one-liners.  It also has to be said that the movie is technically great to look at.  The animation on the rabbits and other various animals who make up a majority of the cast is not only top tier, but they blend in perfectly with the human actors and live action backdrops.  There's no "Uncanny Valley" moments, and when one of the human actors pick up or handle one of the CG animals, it's entirely convincing.

In the film, Peter is seen as a bit of a rebel, fighting a continuous battle with grumpy old Farmer McGregor (Sam Neill) over the contents of the old man's vegetable garden.  Peter delights in stealing the carrots, berries and other fresh produce from the garden with the help of his three younger sisters Flopsy (voice by Margot Robbie), Mopsy (voice by Elizabeth Debicki) and Cotton Tail (voice by Daisy Ridley), along with his cousin Benjamin (voice by Colin Moody).  When old McGregor passes away, Peter and his animal friends decide to take over the house and land, throwing a huge party.  Their fun is interrupted by the arrival of Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), a distant relative to the farmer who inherits the house and land, and promptly sets out to fix the house up so he can sell it and open his own upscale toy store in London.

Thomas is a perfectionist and a control freak.  We see him at his first job working at a department store, and how no detail escapes his eye.  Being born and bred in the city, he is not very thrilled about the country life or about the new home he has inherited.  But then, he meets the lovely young Bea (Rose Byrne), a painter who lives next door and is a good friend to Peter and his fellow rabbits.  She often protected them when the elder McGregor would chase them out of his garden.  Thomas and Bea start a shy relationship, and this is what gives the film a lot of its heart early on.  I quickly grew attached to the chemistry that grows in the scenes that Gleeson and Byrne share.  It also leads to some slapstick moments that's sure to delight children.  Peter feels threatened as Bea and Thomas begin to grow closer, and so he begins devising some over the top ways to get ride of Thomas, including electrifying the doorknob on his front door, and setting painful traps around his yard and garden.

Is Peter Rabbit a great movie?  Not really.  It relies a bit too heavily on pop song montages at times, and some of the physical humor seems to be carried over from the Home Alone movies.  But that's not really what appealed to me.  I like that director and co-writer Will Gluck (2014's Annie) finds plenty of moments for us to get behind and feel for these characters.  The moments of physical comedy almost seem to be a requirement that he fulfills, but the movie is much more interested in the more quiet scenes where the characters reflect on themselves.  There's also some clever word play and humor, with plenty of gags that will rightly fly over kids' heads, and make the parents laugh.  The movie ultimately finds a nice balance of kid-friendly physical comedy and some slightly smarter scenes, and that's what ultimately won me over.

This is also a beautiful film to look at.  From its stunning English countryside setting, to the wonderfully detailed animation and artwork on Peter and his animal friends, there's always something here to grab your attention visually.  The animals have a nice look that is somewhat realistic, but still has enough of a cartoon sensibility that it doesn't look strange that Peter and the other creatures are usually wearing clothes.  The fact that the animals are depicted wearing tiny jackets and outfits does bring up an interesting aspect that the film never addresses.  During the course of the story, Thomas becomes convinced that Peter and the other rabbits are plotting against him, and causing him all the pain and suffering that he is being subjected to.  Bea does not believe this notion, as she believes them to be simple rabbits.  And yet, she never seems to address the fact that rabbits do not usually wear clothes, even though they are always clothed in her presence.  You would think that might tip her off a little bit that maybe Peter and his friends are not your garden variety woodland creatures.

Peter Rabbit does have enough warmth, humor and visual stimulation for me to recommend, but like I said, make sure you see Paddington 2 first.  If you must make the choice, that's the British talking animal movie you should watch.  Still, this movie is just fine.  It never offends, and it's a heck of a lot better than the ad campaign makes it out to be.


The 15:17 to Paris

I have no doubt that Clint Eastwood has the best of intentions in making The 15:17 to Paris.  He clearly admires the three young men at the center of the story, and why shouldn't he?  On August 21st, 2015, Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler helped prevent what could have been a tragedy when they stopped a potential terrorist on a train bound for Paris, France.  Their actions on that day deserve to be celebrated, but I don't know if this movie was the right way to do it.

The movie that Eastwood has made is essentially 90% padding, with about a good 15 minutes or so depicting the actual event near the end of the movie.  Even with a running time that barely crosses the 90 minute mark, the movie seems unnecessarily dragged out.  Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler portray themselves in the movie, and while it's a neat idea, they quickly prove their inexperience with acting before the camera, and the movie becomes awkward almost from the moment they open their mouths.  It doesn't help that they have been given dialogue that sounds like it was written by someone trying to mimic Fraternity House "bro talk", but not quite getting the gist of it.  This is an ungainly and aimless movie, and the first massive disappointment of 2018.

The three heroes are depicted as good ol' boys who love America, love their guns, love their women even more, and are just generally misunderstood.  We get to see flashbacks of the guys in elementary school during the first half of the movie, and how the strict principal and teachers at the Catholic school just did not understand their rebellious spirit.  In one early scene, a teacher tells Spencer's mom that her son may suffer from ADD, and that she should look into medication for the boy, which the mom flat-out rejects.  When the teacher goes on to say that statistics suggest children from single parents home are usually troubled, the mother dramatically yells back, "My God is bigger than your statistics!".  It's this kind of tin-eared dialogue that lets you know what you're in for with the script.  It also tells you that the movie is going to have a very negative glance at just about any authority figure who may try to rope the boys into any kind of confining condition or keep them under control.  They are rebels and heroes, built for great things.  One of the three men even says something along those lines at one point, and in another scene, they are told by someone "God spoke to me in a dream, and said you are going to do something amazing".

Thanks to the clunky script and the inexperienced actors at the center, The 15:17 to Paris quickly becomes a failed experiment.  What starts as a well-intentioned tribute to the men and their heroic deeds quickly dives right off the deep end of pointlessness when the movie literally becomes a home movie of their European vacation.  A good half hour or so of the film is devoted to the guys visiting Italy and Amsterdam, before they catch that fateful train to Paris.  It's at this point that the movie turns into the experience of watching home movies of people you don't know having fun on vacation, and seeing the sights.  They tour Venice, visit the Rome Colosseum, meet some nice ladies, party at a nightclub...Sure, it looks like a lot of fun, but there's just absolutely no point to any of it.  It's just biding time until the guys board the train, and the terrorist attack happens in Act 3.  The attack is well staged and executed, and does have some tense moments.  But by that point, most of the audience has already checked out, and it's too little too late, especially since the movie is basically over.

Another annoying thing that Eastwood does throughout the film is that he flashes forward to the events on the train at random moments.  We see the guys as little kids being yelled at by their gym teacher for talking back to him, and then we suddenly cut to the train to Paris, as the terrorist begins his attack on the first couple potential victims.  Then, the movie will suddenly cut back to the flashbacks of the three main characters as children.  Why?  I really want to know this.  Maybe Eastwood is trying to hint at what lies in store for these boys when an authority figure tells them that they will never amount to anything unless they follow the rules, but it's really just sloppy and comes across as awkward editing.  It's heavy-handed, overstated, and fails to build the suspense that it's obviously trying to build.

I am practically dumbfounded by this movie.  Eastwood has made great movies, and likely will make another one soon, but he completely strikes out in just about every conceivable way here.  This is simply an overly padded movie that never finds a sense or purpose in the telling of the story, because it refuses to dig deep enough.  What a mess this movie is, and what a misstep from a usually great filmmaker.


Friday, February 09, 2018

No Review of Fifty Shades Freed This Weekend

 Oh, I'll be missing the climax, alright...

Hello, one and all!

Just writing a brief note to let you know not to expect a review of Fifty Shades Freed this weekend.

In keeping in my recently adopted policy of not seeing sequels to movies I have either hated or have no interest whatsoever in seeing the continuation of (other examples include Michael Bay's Transformers, and the Resident Evil film franchise), I will not be screening the movie. 

On Saturday, I will be having the quite bizarre double feature of The 15:17 to Paris and Peter Rabbit, so you can expect reviews of those either Saturday night or on Sunday.

I hope everyone has a great weekend!


Sunday, February 04, 2018

I, Tonya

I, Tonya is one of the most entertaining bio-pics I have ever seen.  It simultaneously managed to make me laugh, cringe, anger me, make me tearful, and ultimately make me feel completely and utterly enthralled.  Based on "irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly" (as the opening credits inform us), the movie is a whirlwind telling of Harding's life, leading up to the infamous 1994 knee-bashing of Nancy Kerrigan, Harding’s Olympic skating teammate and rival, and the aftermath that followed.

The movie is told using both dramatic recreations, and "interview" segments with the actors portraying the characters talking to the camera in documentary-style clips.  Even in the recreation moments, the characters will occasionally break the fourth wall, and turn to the camera, such as when a character will do something awful to someone else, and then they will stop the action to tell the audience "this never happened, by the way".  The genius of the film is how even though the film is told mostly from Tonya Harding's point of view, we also get the viewpoints of the other people in her life, and their contradicting opinions on what really happened.  Sometimes, the movie will go split screen, with Harding (played here in a career-topping performance by Margot Robbie) and her ex-husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) giving us their personal view of what happened, and acting as bickering narrators.

We meet the couple first in the present day, both at middle age and far from their days of tabloid fame, and then are drawn in flashbacks which depict Harding's troubled home life growing up, her fateful meeting with Jeff, and her struggles to make a name for herself in the professional ice skating world, where she never truly fit in.  Director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours) seems to be having a blast telling this story.  His take can be satirical, darkly hilarious, and sometimes even heartfelt and tragic.  He knows when the story is supposed to be crazy and over the top, and when we are supposed to be sympathizing with these people.  It's a genius high wire act of tone and narrative, and it turns the film into such a tremendously enjoyable experience that seems to fly right by.  And at the center of it all is Robbie's performance, who is able to handle the film's severe tonal shifts as deftly as possible.  She can be funny, rough, sympathetic, and strong whenever the film calls her to be.  She joins the long list of memorable female performances that have graced 2017.

Joining her in those ranks is Allison Janney, who portrays Tonya's mother, LaVona Golden.  She is a chain-smoking, abrasive, physically and verbally abusive woman, and Janney plays her to hilarious perfection.  Her LaVona pushes Tonya to her limits physically and emotionally.  And when her daughter doesn't meet her lofty expectations, she is not above beating her with a hairbrush, or pushing her to the floor.  Janney plays these scenes with a mix of spiteful venom, but also with a strong twinge of dark comedy.  In one scene, she throws a steak knife at her daughter, which gets stuck right in Tonya's arm.  This is an act that has been disputed and questioned for years, but the movie plays this moment brilliantly, by letting the shock of the violent act sink in to the audience with having the two women just stare awkwardly at each other after it happens, and then immediately cutting to the present day LaVona in an "interview" segment, saying "Well, what family doesn't have its ups and downs"?

I, Tonya is electric as it races through different points in Harding's life.  We see the awkward early moments of her relationship with Jeff (they met as teens, and she basically fell in love with him because he was the first guy who ever said she was beautiful) , and how that relationship eventually became abusive.  Again, the genius here is that we get the point of view of both characters, with Jeff taking a kind of victim mentality, saying that he was the one abused instead of Tonya's narrative of him being a controlling monster.  It's also around this point that we meet Jeff's friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), an overweight man living with his parents who acts as Tonya's bodyguard when she starts to become famous, and in a self-delusional way, sees himself as some kind of top secret agent whose skills are in demand all over the world.  He is the one who gets the ball rolling with the attack on Tonya's rival, Kerrigan, and sets up the film's equally energetic second half.

Here, the movie takes on an even more comedic tone, as it plays up the fact that Shawn and the people he hired to pull off the attack really did not know what they were doing, and how they did very little to cover their tracks.  According to this movie, it's a miracle the attack even went off as planned, given how disorganized Shawn and his cohorts were.  The movie takes on a semi-slapstick tone during this scene, while still keeping itself in reality.  We can buy that these were stupid criminals who were in over their heads, and we can buy that what we're watching actually happened, as unbelievable as it may come across.  Here again, the movie strikes a difficult yet perfect tone of humor and shock, as we see how brazen these guys were, as well as how idiotic, with Shawn bragging to everyone and anyone that he was behind the Kerrigan attack.  These are some of the most hilarious moments in any movie last year, and include some big laughs.

As funny as the movie is, there is always something very dark at the center, and that is Tonya's constant and desperate need for acceptance.  As the end credits play out, we watch a grainy video of Tonya nailing the difficult triple axel move at the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championship (making her the first American woman to do so in a competition).  What strikes me is Tonya’s face after she performs the move — it’s marked by unfiltered, pure happiness. She has acceptance, if only for a moment, and she is thriving on it.  Robbie perfectly captures this aspect in her performance.  She never felt she got the love or respect she deserved from her mother, her husband, or even from the judges who would grade her skating performance.  She wanted to be her own woman out there on the ice, and she wanted the accolades and admiration and endorsement deals that she felt she deserved.  And when they did not come like she expected, she desperately clung to whatever small victory or personal happiness she could find.  And when scandal began to overtake her life, she did not know to handle it, and ultimately succumbed.  It is this basic desire for acceptance which puts us in her corner for much of the film, and gives the film a mark of tragedy.

In one of the final moments of I, Tonya, we see her as a female fighter in the boxing ring, long after her glory days have passed.  She takes a hit from her opponent, and begins to fall to the ground, blood spilling from her mouth, the audience cheering as she falls.  As this moment plays out, the movie also cuts to Tonya nailing the triple axel for the first time, and the audience rising to its feet in applause.  These two scenes cut back and forth, one with the audience cheering as she rises, and the other cheering as she falls.  It's a perfect metaphor for celebrity, and how no matter how much people will love you when you're at the top, they'll love you even more when they can kick you around when you're at the bottom.


Friday, February 02, 2018


Three years ago, I was fortunate enough to see Helen Mirren perform in the Broadway play, The Audience, where she portrayed Queen Elizabeth II at different stages in her life.  It was truly a wonder seeing Mirren seemingly transform herself into this woman at different ages, from her 20s, to elderly.  To this day, it stands as one of the great theatrical performances I have seen. 

I found myself thinking of that performance a lot while watching Winchester, a dragged out and deadly dull supernatural story that finds Mirren with little to do other than to wander around a spook house while dressed all in black.  She seems bored, and why shouldn't she be?  Directors and co-writers Michael and Peter Spierig obviously cast her to give their low budget horror film a touch of class, but forgot to give her a part to play.  She plays the real life Sarah Winchester, a reclusive woman who from 1884 until her death in 1922 built a sprawling and labyrinthine mansion home that she believed held the souls of the victims who were killed by the guns designed by her rifle manufacturer husband William.  She was constantly adding to the house, building more rooms to house the spirits.  The house itself (which remains a tourist attraction today) is a marvel, full of curious rooms, hidden passageways, staircases leading to dead ends, and well over 160 rooms in all.  At one point, the house stood at seven stories, but after an earthquake that hit the home in 1906, it had to be rebuilt and was never truly finished.

This is certainly a wonderful jumping off point for a truly atmospheric and creepy film, but what the Spierigs have done is given us a sluggish and exploitative film built around tedious jump scares that amount to little more than a scary face popping up either behind or in front of somebody over and over again.  For a movie like this, the scares are few and far between, and the tension practically non-existent.  The movie does try to have a sort of purpose by giving us some tragic background for some of its characters, but it doesn't amount to a whole hill of beans, because the audience never gets a chance to be invested in the story.  It's a dreary experience that seems to be told in slow motion, and performed by actors who deserve much better than what the script is giving them, and they seem to know it.  The first time Mirren enters the film, the look on her face almost seems to say, "Okay, let's get this over with".

As the film opens, noted therapist Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is hired by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company (which Sarah inherited control of after the death of her husband) to evaluate Sarah's mental state.  They are concerned about her obsession with ghosts and the house itself, and are hoping that Eric will find her mentally unfit to be the head of the Company.  Eric arrives at the Winchester House with a lot of personal baggage, all surrounding the death of his beloved wife Ruby (Laura Brent).  The house comes with a gloomy staff that is constantly keeping up the place as new rooms are added on a continuous basis, as well as Sarah's niece Marion (Sarah Snook), who seems concerned about her young son Henry (Finn Scicluna O'Prey), and the fact that he has recently become prone to sleepwalking and wandering the massive house in a trance in the middle of the night.

Almost as soon as he arrives, Eric is plagued with spooky visions of ghostly faces appearing in mirrors or behind cracked doors and dark corners.  We learn early on that Eric is addicted to opium, and there is a small part of the film devoted to the notion that perhaps these visions are drug-related, but very little is done with it.  He is quick to believe Sarah's story that the Winchester family is cursed, and that there is an evil force within the house that wants revenge on her and the entire family.  Of course, Eric soon learns that he has a connection to the house as well, and it doesn't take long before Marion's little boy is walking the halls possessed by a malevolent force.  Instead of building to anything truly meaningful or frightening, the movie just throws a lot of random images of decaying corpse faces, and hopes that we will jump out of shock.  But we don't, because the scares are far too easy to predict.

Winchester is stock, trite and predictable.  It never seems to be going anywhere, and it doesn't even make very good use out of its unique setting.  Oh, the house itself looks fine (all of the sets are replicas of the actual rooms in the house), but the movie doesn't take advantage of the stranger aspects of it as much as it should.  The pacing and tone are also completely off.  Instead of building tension or a sense of dread, the movie plods along with boring dialogue scenes between Eric and Sarah, where the actors seem to know they're too good for this material.  And when it does try to be scary, it falls back on tricks that are rehashed from other movies, and not successfully.  This is a movie that holds so little interest and passion, you have to wonder what the actors did in order to amuse themselves on the set.

I would love to see Helen Mirren try her hand at the horror genre again, preferably in a role that allows her to play an active part in the story, and not just dress her up in a black veil and gown and have her talk to ghosts.  If you're going to spend the bucks to hire her, you might as well use her to the best of her ability.  Just sayin'. 


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