Reel Opinions


Friday, April 20, 2018

I Feel Pretty

One of these days, Amy Schumer is going to find a movie that knocks it out of the park.  I have enjoyed her in just about everything I've seen her in.  I even paid for a full price ticket to see her perform in the Broadway comedy play, Meteor Shower, last year.  Yet, she can't seem to find a script that truly suits her.  Even her breakout Hollywood film, Trainwreck (which she wrote the script for), had its faults.  I want to see her keep on doing film projects, because I know she has a truly great comedy in her.

Now here is I Feel Pretty, which casts Schumer in a pretty standard romantic comedy role.  She's quite good as expected, and she even gets some pretty good romantic chemistry with her male co-star, Rory Scovel.  But the movie flounders whenever Schumer doesn't get the chance to stand out or do some comedy improv.  It's a pleasant movie, but it doesn't go any further than that.  Yes, there are some scattered funny moments, particularly from Michelle Williams, who is often hilarious as an executive for a beauty company with a constantly vacant expression, and has a voice so soft and squeaky that she kind of sounds like a drowsy Smurf.  These moments, while undeniably effective, seem like they belong in a much better film.  It's like we're seeing glimpses of what the movie could have been.  This is a movie that never offends, but aside from a select standout moments, never really demands much attention.

Schumer plays Renee, a 30-something woman in a dead end tech job for a fashion company where she works in a tiny basement room with one other employee, and is so insecure in herself and her own self image that she is afraid to go after what she truly wants out of life, such as relationships and a job in the company's main corporate headquarters.  Her main wish is to be beautiful, and to have people notice her.  She starts taking fitness training at SoulCycle classes, and while working out on her fitness bike, she falls off and hits her head.  When she comes to, Renee glimpses herself in the mirror, and suddenly sees herself with the slender and perfect body she's always wanted.  She is the only one who sees her this way.  Her friends and everyone else all see her the way she's always been.  But this occurrence suddenly gives Renee the confidence she has been lacking her entire life.

With this new-found confidence, she is willing to talk to the nice guy she meets at the dry cleaners (Scovel), and start a relationship with him.  She is willing to apply for a job as a receptionist at her company's main corporate headquarters, and eventually becomes a trusted friend and partner to her not-all-there boss (Williams).  She participates in a bikini contest at a local bar, and does a full routine that wins the crowd over.  I can see how these sort of scenarios could have been funny if the screenplay by the writing and directing team of Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (How to Be Single) had allowed these moments to build into truly inspired comic pieces.  Instead, the movie has to follow worn plot threads, such as Renee slowly becoming shallow and conceited, and generally driving a wedge into her relationship with her two best friends (Busy Phillips and Aidy Bryant). 

In fact, I have a question regarding the two best friends that I Feel Pretty never addresses.  Why don't they ever speak up and tell her the truth?  Not once do they ever bring up that she looks the same that she always did.  You would think they would at least worry about her, or wonder what the heck is going on.  Instead, they just give her awkward stares whenever Renee is going on about her "sexy" body.  Another thing the script never addresses is why does she not receive medical attention from the numerous massive head injuries she suffers that causes this self-delusion she goes through for most of the movie?  I say numerous, because naturally, she hits her head again much later in the film, which snaps her out of her fantasy.  This leads to the inevitable dramatic moments where Renee has to apologize to her friends, see herself for the great person she is, and make an inspiring speech in front of a room of people who cheer her for her bravery about being proud of herself. (To be honest, this last scene does inspire a very funny moment where Renee tries to make a dramatic on-stage entrance that goes horribly and repeatedly wrong.)

And yet, sprinkled throughout the stuff that doesn't work are scenes that genuinely do.  I liked the scenes depicting Renee's growing relationship with the guy she meets at the dry cleaners, and starts a shy romance with.  Both Schumer and Scovel have an unassuming romantic chemistry that is very charming, and it made me want to see a movie that just focused entirely on their relationship, without any magical head injuries.  It's like the screenwriters created this likable couple, but weren't sure if they would be able to hold our attention for a full movie, so they kept on adding a lot of additional and unwanted elements to the script.  And every time Michelle Williams is on screen, the movie automatically comes to life, thanks to her inspired comic performance.  There is stuff to admire here, and I honestly wish there was more. 

Like I said, I want to see Schumer succeed.  She never fails to entertain me, even if the movie itself isn't so hot.  I Feel Pretty is too uneven for me to call it a success, but I also can't completely write it off.  You almost wish the script had gotten a few more rewrites before it went on ahead.  The filmmakers were really close to making a winning comedy here, but they come up short.

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Sunday, April 15, 2018

Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero

Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero pulls off the seemingly impossible task of covering a subject like World War I in a children's animated film, and doing so without shying away from the realities of war, while at the same time being sure not to go so far as to frighten the kids in the audience.  We don't see a drop of blood in the film, but we do get to see many wounded, and even an entire village get threatened with poisonous mustard gas in one effectively eerie sequence.  But the main attraction here is a little Boston terrier who became an Army mascot after he wandered onto a military base, and went on to become the most decorated and celebrated war dog in history.

The film is directed by Richard Lanai, a documentary filmmaker who came across the story of Stubby while he was researching a different project.  He saw the story as a chance to work in a different film medium and to speak to a different kind of audience by making a kid's movie.  One of the smartest decisions he has made is to not make Stubby the dog speak, despite this being an animated feature.  He did this in order to preserve some historical accuracy.  What we do get is the simple and true story of how in 1917,  the little dog wandered into the Yale training grounds for the 102nd Infantry, part of the New England-based 26th “Yankee” Division.  He quickly befriended one of the soldiers, a young man named Robert Conroy (voice by Logan Lerman), and became not just his companion, but a fellow recruit.  He would participate in army drills along with Robert and the other soldiers, march alongside them, and even learned how to lift his front right paw in a salute when superior officers approached him.

Eventually, Conroy and his fellow soldiers were shipped off to France to help the weary soldiers there on the frontlines fight off the advancing German troops.  Stubby managed to sneak aboard the ship bound for France, and when he was discovered, he was made an honorary soldier, and was even given his own dog tag.  Stubby grew to be invaluable even on the battlefield, and he would chase off rats and other vermin from getting in the soldiers' food, learned how to alert others when a bomb or missile was approaching, and would comfort the wounded.  Given his many heroic actions on the battlefield, he became the first dog to ever receive an Army rank, and was seen as a true hero in the eyes of many who knew him.  All of this is told with brisk storytelling that covers all the facts, and allows us to get close to Stubby and his human companion, and enjoy the bond that they share.  And despite the film only running around 80 minutes or so, it doesn't feel rushed or hurried.  The best treat for the audience comes during the end credits, where we get to see photos of the real life Stubby and Robert Conroy.

Just like the recent Isle of Dogs, this movie gets a lot of mileage out of the simple joy of seeing a human bonding with a dog.  But the movie also works wonderfully as an entertaining history lesson for small children who may be budding enthusiasts about American history, and want to learn as much as they can.  I imagine that the film will become very popular in schools as an early introduction to learning about World War I.  The screenplay does a great job of suggesting the hardships that the soldiers went through, without getting too depressing.  There's even a Narrator (voiced by Helena Bonham-Carter), who helps explain to the kids in the audience the everyday ordeals that the soldiers face, or sometimes helps explain what they are watching.  The movie explains war without talking down to the audience, and is effective as a learning tool.

And while Sgt. Stubby himself is obviously the star of the show and certain to win the heart of anyone who watches this film, there is a very strong voice cast to tell the story.  You have the unmistakable voice of Gerard Depardieu as Gaston, a French soldier who befriends both Robert and Stubby, and teaches them both how to survive in the trenches of the battlefield.  There are also Robert's two human comrades in battle, the German-American Schroeder (Jim Pharr), who wants to prove that immigrants can fight for America as well, and Elmer (Jordan Beck), who at first kind of resents all the attention that the dog gets from the other soldiers and even commanding officers, but slowly begins to respect the little stray.  The movie keeps it fairly simple with a very limited cast, but it's probably for the best, as it allows the filmmakers to focus on the relationship between Robert and Stubby.

Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero uses bright animation and simple storytelling to tell an engaging war story to kids in an effective and educational way.  I suspect accompanying adults will love hearing the story as well.  By the time little Stubby is given a hero's welcome near the end of the film, it's almost impossible not to get a tiny bit choked up, and that really just shows how effective the film really is.

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Saturday, April 14, 2018

Truth or Dare

On a weekend when A Quiet Place is playing in theaters, there is absolutely no reason to see Truth or Dare.  Even if that movie wasn't playing, there would still be no reason to see this.  This is a bland and lame-brained thriller filled with characters who are about as thin as the bag your popcorn comes in.  But say you're not looking for a well-executed thriller.  Maybe all you want is a little bit of escapism and a quick jolt.  Well, you still won't find it here.

This tedious horror film is the latest project from producer Jason Blum, who has gained some notoriety recently with his company's effort from last year, Get Out, earning some major Oscar recognition.  Perhaps that recognition is why he has had his production company's name awkwardly shoehorned into the title of the film, so it is now technically called Blumhouse's Truth or Dare.  The film is in the tradition of many a horror film where a bunch of teenagers are menaced by a supernatural evil, and are picked off one-by-one, until usually one or two are left alive at the end.  These movies (which Roger Ebert used to describe as "dead teenager movies") usually follow a set path, despite changing up the rules in each film.  The fun, I guess, is guessing who is going to die next, and how it's going to happen.  Sometimes movies like these can be fun if they're made with spirit and a morbid sense of humor.  But there is nothing here to suggest that anyone's heart was behind this one.  It's an experience designed to deaden the emotions in the viewer and steal their valuable money and time.

Our cast of teens are played by a group of fresh faced young actors with a lot of TV work under their belts, who probably are hoping this will catapult their careers into feature films.  This is nothing new, as many a fresh-faced talent has gotten their start in low budget horror films.  But the actors here don't show conviction in their performances.  They're stiff, awkward, and generally come across as bores.  They're also fairly interchangeable, save for the fact that each of their characters has one big secret or personal vice that will be exploited by the evil demon haunting them before the movie is done.  One is an alcoholic, one is a habitually cheating on their boyfriend, one is gay and afraid to come open to their father...You get the gist.  If you're going to build the characters in a screenplay around a single character trait, you should at least try to make them funny, or give them some interesting dialogue.  I got the sense that if these people didn't have these problems, they would have nothing to talk or think about.

The kids are on a Spring Break vacation to Mexico as the film opens, when the lead girl (Lucy Hale) is picked up by a guy at a bar (Landon Liboiron).  He leads her and her group of friends to an abandoned old monastery for a game of Truth or Dare that quickly gets out of hand, and that's before the evil demon shows up.  You see, it turns out the guy who led our heroine and her friends here has ulterior motives.  There is a demonic entity who collects young victims and forces them to play a deadly game of Truth or Dare, where they must answer honestly or perform its life-endangering dares in order to stay alive.  The film's main gimmick is that the demon can possess anyone at will.  When a person is under the influence of the entity, their face suddenly morphs into a ghoulish grin that kind of looks like they had plastic surgery to make them look like The Joker.  This "face distortion" trick is the main scare tactic the movie falls back on over and over, and it's never scary, not even the first time we witness it.

The whole point of the deadly game is to force people to confess their deepest and darkest secrets, and to possibly turn the heroine and her friends against each other.  But the movie shortchanges itself by keeping some possibly interesting character moments off camera.  One of the young teens (played by Hayden Szeto) is gay, but has never told his father (Tom Choi), who is a straight-laced and conservative cop.  When it is his turn to play the game, the demon forces him to confess to his dad that he is gay.  How does his father react?  We actually never get to see what happens.  He keeps on talking for the rest of the movie how hard it is to be around his father since he told him the truth, but we never witness any heartfelt or confrontational moments between father and son for most of the movie.  Why bother creating character conflict if you're going to ignore it anyway?  Instead, the focus is on numerous scenes where people sneak up behind the heroine, a loud music sting blasts on the soundtrack, and the innocent person who suddenly popped out of nowhere just smiles and says, "Hey, I didn't mean to scare you", or "Are you okay?".

Truth or Dare is such a lifeless experience that it never comes close to generating a single thrill in its audience.  It is not daring, clever, original or smart in any way.  Perhaps this movie could have been salvaged if it had a sense of humor about itself.  I am immediately reminded of the last teen horror film that Blumhouse put out, Happy Death Day.  That movie certainly wasn't anything great, but it knew not to take itself all that seriously, and it had a sympathetic and very funny lead female performance by Jessica Rothe, who knew how to handle this kind of material and make it work.  The cast here are just slogging through this material, and we feel like we're right along with them as we watch it unfold.

There are so many great movies out there right now, why waste your money on one like this that will make you feel nothing?  I've already recommended A Quiet Place if you're looking to be scared or thrilled, but there's a lot of movies out there that are perfect if you want to laugh, be moved, or be engaged.  All you have to do to feel these emotions is stay away from this one.


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Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs is likely to be the boldest and most polarizing animated film we are likely to get this year.  Yes, the movie is a visual feast with its gorgeous and fluid stop motion art style.  And like a lot of Anderson's films, the deadpan humor and wordplay is quite strong.  But, the movie also has a lot on its mind, including a political undercurrent that will resonate with adult audiences.

In fact, the movie seems to be tailored almost exclusively for adult audiences.  Despite the cast of talking dogs, the film contains a lot of Anderson's trademark dark humor, such as an early scene where a dog gets part of his ear bitten off in a fight.  It also has his trademark whimsy and light tone, which, combined with the stop motion animation, gives the film an unearthly and almost dream-like quality.  Anderson and his team of co-writers (which include Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura) have crafted a simple but emotional story that is filled with hard truths, honest sentiments, and an overall sense of wonder that we seldom get in movies.  It's the kind of movie where the imaginative visuals and the world it's set in draw you in, and then you find yourself captivated by not just the look, but also the tone and the dialogue.  This is a movie that sucks you in little by little, until you are completely under its spell.

Set 20 years in the future in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki, the story kicks off when the city's cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by screenwriter Kunichi Nomura) is forced to take action when a disease known as "dog flu" sweeps across the canine population, and threatens the human residents.  Using fear mongering, he whips the citizens up into a frenzy, and talks them into a plan to gather up all dogs and transport them to far-off Trash Island, a toxic wasteland of garbage and filth where the dogs are forced to fight one another over scraps of moldy food to survive, and basically are sentenced to slowly waste away and die until starvation or their disease consumes them.  There are scientists who are working diligently on a cure for the disease, but they are constantly stopped in their progress by Kobayashi and his shady followers, who want the people to rally behind the Mayor and his cause.

The first dog to be sentenced to the island is Spots (Liev Schreiber), who just happens to be the beloved companion of the Mayor's orphaned ward, the 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin).  Wanting to stay by his faithful dog's side, the boy constructs a crude plane and flies to the island, where he promptly crash lands and finds himself at the mercy of a pack of once-domesticated dogs who are sympathetic and want to help Atari.  The pack of helpful dogs include the leader Rex (Edward Norton), along with former Baseball mascot dog Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum).  Also along for the journey is a stray dog named Chief (Bryan Cranston), who at first wants nothing to do with the child.  In fact, his first instinct when he sees the boy crash is to eat him.  Unlike the other dogs, Chief has never been one for human companionship.  He did have an adopted human family for a short while, but it did not end well for Chief, so he has survived mostly on his own.  But through Atari and his search for Spots, Chief slowly learns the value of depending on others and the special relationship between a boy and his dog.

While the simple plot that celebrates the love between humans and canines makes up the main heart of the story, it is also used as a launching point for a variety of subplots which cover a wide range of themes, such as political corruption and using fear to rally voters, a minority rising up and standing against the establishment, and even a touch of satire on technology when robot dogs are created in order to replace the flesh and blood ones that have been discarded.  The movie never seems overly busy, despite its tackling of multiple themes, and its large cast of characters.  In fact, this is the rare instance where I actually kind of wished the film was longer, as I wanted to know more about some of these characters.  Regardless, for the film's 100 minutes, I sat spellbound by the world that the artists have created using puppets and models.  There is a lot of detail in the settings and in the dialogue that explains the film's world.  Some critics have complained that there is too much detail.  But to me, the film's light and fairly jovial tone made everything go down quite easily, and I never felt like I was being bombarded with information.

Isle of Dogs is a movie that manages to be sophisticated and playful at the same time.  It's explained early on that all the humans in the film will speak in Japanese, with subtitles or radio announcers translating what they are saying.  Meanwhile, the dogs' "barks" have been translated into English for the sake of the audience.  It's a clever touch, and Anderson manages to make it work.  The film is also lifted up by its beautiful music score by Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water), who uses Japanese-infused music and instruments like taiko drums, while also mixing gentle pop tunes when appropriate.  I also loved some of the film's funny visual touches, like whenever the dogs get into a fight, they suddenly turn into a cartoon-style cloud of smoke and dust which look like cotton balls.  There is a comic sensibility on display that keeps the film grounded in a certain kind of innocence, while never downplaying some of the more mature themes that the film does tackle.  Parents be advised, the film is PG-13, and is probably not appropriate for young children, despite the cast made up of talking dogs.

Not only is Isle of Dogs visually captivating, but it is also enriching and rewarding.  It's seldom that we get an animated feature with a love for dialogue, but perhaps it's not surprising here, since Anderson has always been a master at wordplay.  This is a great little film, worthy of a repeat viewing not just to catch all the visual touches and gags that you missed, but to also appreciate the work that went into what these puppets and model figures are saying.

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Friday, April 13, 2018

Rampage

"Well, that sucks" - Dialogue from Rampage

It's rare for a movie to review itself so accurately in its own dialogue.  Rampage is the latest argument for my belief that Hollywood no longer makes B-Movies.  They just throw globs of money at scripts that 10 years ago would have been hard pressed to find an audience on the SyFy Channel, dress them up with top tier talent and special effects, and call it an "event movie".  Rampage is only an event if you're looking for a movie that will assault your senses, make a lot of noise without actually accomplishing or saying anything, and take your money without giving anything in return.

The movie is loosely based on the old video game (I hesitate to use the word "classic".) from the 80s and 90s where players took control of giant monsters, and pretty much laid waste to every major city in their path.  Granted, the game did have some initial fun as you smashed buildings, ate people, and destroyed the tanks and puny military soldiers that were trying to stop you, but it always became incredibly repetitive if you tried to play it for an extended period of time.  The movie at least captures this aspect of the game.  It's long, it's monotonous, and it's completely brainless.  What's odd about the movie is that the script doesn't seem to know if we're supposed to be laughing at it, or taking it seriously.  We get a lot of quips and one-liners from its heroes, and a massive albino gorilla who can communicate in sign language, but prefers to flip people its middle finger instead.  And the next minute, it's showing us touching reunions as survivors of a city-wide attack embrace one another while heavy-handed dramatic music wails on the soundtrack.  It's like the movie knows it's dumb, but doesn't want to admit it.

But hey, the movie lets you know what you're in for right as soon as the studio logos fade.  In its opening scene, we witness a female scientist on board a space station who is the final survivor after a giant mutant rat got loose from its lab, and killed everyone else on board.  She wants to escape, but her mysterious superiors down on Earth whom she is in radio contact with won't let her until she retrieves some genetic samples from the lab.  She does so and makes her escape, but does not survive.  The samples that she was trying to flee with fall to Earth, and immediately mutate the first animals that they come in contact with.  We see a wolf and an alligator get exposed, and before long, they've grown to enormous skyscraper-shattering size, and are munching on innocent people and hapless military troops who try to stop them.  But the main focus of the movie is George, a rare albino ape who has been living peacefully in a San Diego animal preserve zoo.  As soon as he is exposed to the mutating substance, he begins to grow to enormous size, escapes from his enclosure and becomes extremely violent and aggressive, killing one of the zoo's grizzly bears.

George's trainer and closest human friend is Davis (Dwayne Johnson), who has a military background, and has devoted his life to helping animals because he likes them better than most people.  That's about all the backstory we get on our lead hero.  When he sees what has happened to George, he becomes determined to find out what's going on.  He is eventually teamed up with a scientist named Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), who seems to know a lot about what's going on with all these animals growing to the size of a jet plane, and turning violent.  Turns out she used to work for a shady corporation that was partaking in a "Rampage" project where they were trying to weaponize and create massive mutant monsters.  How they came to create this project, what they hoped to achieve, and how they were able to afford a full-scale space station hovering above Earth in order to perform their experiments is never answered. 

The evil corporation is headed up by the evilly over the top brother and sister team of Claire (Malin Akerman) and Brett Wyden (Jake Lacy).  Both are portrayed as such extreme teeth-gnashing and snarling villains that it's impossible to take them seriously.  In what is perhaps a touch of meta humor, the two have an actual Rampage arcade game in their office that appears in the background in a lot of shots.  This is kind of like if the recent Tomb Raider movie had a scene where Lara Croft was seen playing one of her own video games.  Regardless, the villainous siblings have a device on the top of their corporate tower that emits a signal that calls the three mutated beasts to come to them, and start tearing up the streets of Chicago.  This brings about the film's climactic moments, where the monsters attack the Windy City, leaving most of it in ruin.  It was only a few weeks ago that we had Pacific Rim: Uprising, where giant robots and monsters did battle in Tokyo.  Despite the location change, if someone were to mash up the climax of the two movies into one sequence, you probably wouldn't be able to tell which movie was which.

Rampage clearly wants to be a check your brain at the door piece of entertainment, but like I said, I think the script is confused about whether it wants to be a self-aware piece of cheese along the lines of Sharknado, or if it wants to be a genuine Hollywood spectacle.  It tries both approaches, and the two halves never mesh.  It also gets to the point where the human actors are drowned out by the massive special effects and set pieces.  Even the charismatic Dwayne Johnson gets lost in the chaos, and genuinely is forced to run around and yell at a giant CG gorilla in most of his scenes.  What tiny bit of character development there is is perfunctory and ends up making us care very little about these people.  There's a potentially interesting character in Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a government agent with a cowboy's swagger and manner of speech.  He at least grabs our attention, but the movie never knows what to do with him, so he routinely stands on the sidelines and mostly watches the action from afar.

I can see how some people might view this as harmless dumb fun, but the movie really wore on me, and never gave me an inkling that it knew what it was doing.  In one of the film's final shots, we see George the giant gorilla giving the camera the middle finger and laughing.  A more appropriate ending would be having the entire cast and crew of the film joining him in flipping off the audience.

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

Double Mini Review: Chappaquiddick and Beirut

Well, dear reader, the time has come for me to play catch up with reviews.  Due to my current work load, I have lagged behind in keeping up with some reviews.  And rather than just not review them, I have decided to post two short reviews of the films I have most recently seen, as I feel they are both worthy of attention.

This weekend will see reviews of new movies such as Rampage, Isle of Dogs, Truth or Dare and Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero.  I will do my best to make time to give full reviews to all four films, and I appreciate your patience with me.

And so, here's a brief look at both Chappaquiddick and Beirut


Chappaquiddick


Here is a memorable and possibly polarizing film that takes a look at an event that has kind of been kicked to the shadows of history over time.  On July 18th, 1969, Ted Kennedy’s car drove off a bridge and plunged into the water, and his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, died.  It would be some 10 hours before Kennedy reported the accident to police.  Chappaquiddick takes a close look at Kennedy himself (portrayed wonderfully here by Jason Clarke), and how he handled the situation, as well as how his family and political handlers reacted to it.  It also looks at how the fact that the event happened right around the time of the Moon Landing almost pushed this event into obscurity before it even happened, and how some political people wanted the story to just disappear.

During the week that the film covers, we get to see how Kennedy himself tried to manipulate the story, and used his famous name in order to draw sympathy from the public.  The film is quick-paced, never getting so bogged down in historical details, while never once downplaying the situation or the people who were involved.  We see scheming advisors, Ted's wife silently suffer through the scandal, and we see Ted's desperate attempts to garner sympathy with the public, such as when he showed up at Mary Jo's funeral wearing a neck brace.  This is a film filled with fine performances, but the one that stood out the most to me is Ed Helms in a rare dramatic role as one of Ted's chief advisors, who is constantly pushing for Ted to do the right thing, which he never does.

This is a movie that's bound to generate discussion by just about anyone who sees it.  But most importantly, Chappaquiddick puts the focus on where it should be - the woman who tragically died and was largely forgotten about, mostly due to the Kennedy name that was attached to her death.


Beirut 


As a thriller, Beirut is sometimes a bit too convoluted, and the ending is a bit too tidy.  But, it is still an effective story about a hostage exchange that manages to keep us guessing, due to the fact that the movie mostly plays it smart.  Jon Hamm plays Mason Skiles, a former diplomat to Beirut who is forced to return in order to participate in negotiating for the safe return of an American official named Cal Riley (Mark Pelligrino) who is being held hostage by terrorists.  Mason is a drunk and a far cry from who he used to be 10 years prior, when he witnessed his wife get murdered in a terrorist attack.  As the plot unravels, we learn why Mason was chosen, and his connection to the hostage situation.

This is a calculated spy thriller that, despite a couple slow moments, has been well thought out and well executed.  Hamm plays the tortured hero with a tragic past who must confront a lot of his personal demons well, drawing sympathy from us, as well as creating a strong screen presence that makes us want to watch him get to the bottom of the mystery.  He is headed up with a strong supporting cast, especially Rosamund Pike as one of the officials who must work with Skiles, and eventually develops a strong working relationship with him, which fortunately never develops into a romance of any kind. (A rare thing in Hollywood, even in thrillers.) Part of the fun of the film is watching how Skiles tries to stay ahead of the terrorists (and sometimes the people he's working for) in order to ensure the mission's success. 

Beirut is a well-executed slow burn thriller that never really blows the lid off the genre, but it's also strong enough to stand out.  It's also a movie that reward the audience for paying attention to the finer details of the story and the screenplay.  Though it's not without some flaws, the movie is still admirable in how it handles itself, never once dumbing itself down for the sake of reaching a bigger audience.  It's the kind of small thriller that I hope will find an appreciative audience, and gain a cult following.

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Saturday, April 07, 2018

Blockers

Blockers is a movie that is easy to admire, but hard to laugh at.  For what is supposed to be a broad comedy, this can be deadly.  There are some very likable actors here who are all giving good performances, and there are even some good ideas throughout the script.  But the movie is never as funny as it needs to be, and there is a lot of stuff here that simply does not work.  It's the kind of film that might amuse if you come across it on TV, but it also won't hold your attention for long.

It's also the latest in a genre I like to call "feel good smut".  These are movies that try to be raunchy and push the boundaries for most of their running time, but then go all soft and sentimental, with the final half hour focused on moments where the characters have tears in their eyes as they explore their feelings.  Blockers wants to make us feel good about ourselves, while still leaving room for gags about projectile vomiting.  It's a hard balance to pull off, and when it's done wrong such as here, it can give the viewer the experience of whiplash.  For a movie to successfully go from heartfelt sentiment one scene, to having the next focused on one of the main characters chugging beer with his rear end, we have to really be behind these characters, and that's something that never happens here.  While the cast is good, the characters they're playing simply are not written strong enough for us to buy the sudden and drastic change in tone, and it feels like the desperate calculations of a screenplay rather than genuine character growth.

In the opening scene, parents Lisa (Leslie Mann), Mitchell (John Cena) and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) stand outside an elementary school, and watch their three daughters become instant best friends as they head off for their fist day.  The parents, in turn, become friends as well and prepare to face the future together.  Flash forward to the present, where the three daughters are Seniors in high school and still the best of friends, while their parents are not exactly on good speaking terms.  Lisa and Mitchell are still friendly with each other, but seldom talk outside of Facebook posts.  As for Hunter, he cheated on his wife at some point, and is basically looked down on upon by Lisa and Mitchell, as well as by his own daughter.

As for the three daughters, it's Prom Night, and they are anticipating having sex for the first time with their individual dates.  Lisa's daughter, Julie (Kathryn Newton), is dearly in love with her Prom date, Austin (Graham Phillips), and wants this to be her first time.  She's even hoping to follow Austin when he goes to UCLA in the fall, even though her overprotective mother wants her to go to the University of Chicago, which is closer to home.  Julie has been accepted to UCLA, and doesn't know how to tell her mom.  Her two best friends, the adventurous Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and the much more meek Sam (Gideon Adlon), also are planning to have sex with their dates, though it seems more experimental for them than out of genuine love.  Sam, in particular, is secretly more interested in a relationship with another girl at school.  The three girls share their excitement over losing their virginity in an on-line chat using mostly emoji symbols, and when their parents stumble upon the conversation by discovering Julie's open laptop, Lisa, Mitchell and Hunter decide to head out and track down their daughters before they "make a mistake".

To its credit, Blockers is fairly smart for a teen sex comedy.  The girls are not written as sex-starved airheads.  They are smart, and they actually talk honestly about what they're going into.  But while the movie may be smart about certain things, it is never as funny as it should be.  You have Mann, Cena and Barinholtz getting trapped in various awkward sexual situations, flipping over cars during high speed chases, and pretty much racing their way through every scene the movie throws at them.  But the things they talk about with each other just isn't that strong.  The one-liners don't hit like they should, despite the energy and chemistry of the actors.  The script has the stench of a project that was probably rewritten multiple times, trying to please everyone in the audience.  It ultimately becomes a generic and forgettable experience that is likable from time to time, but just never takes off like it should.

There are good moments here that hint at the funnier and more genuine movie that it could have been, but this is let down by a tone that gets increasingly sillier and off the wall with each passing scene.  By the time John Cena is breaking into numerous hotel rooms looking for his daughter, and picking up and throwing her Prom date into a wall (all somehow without attracting the attention of hotel security, mind you), the movie feels like it has left reality behind.  That's what makes the sentimental scenes feel so forced.  Either you go zany and over the top, or you go honest.  The filmmakers never seem to pick a side.  I also think the characters suffer a lot from this uneven tone.  We're never sure how to feel about them.  Sometimes they seem to make sense, and sometimes they're live action cartoon characters.

Blockers just never settles on a tone or what exactly it wants to be, and I think that's what holds it back from being the movie it wants to be.  It's never exactly terrible, but it is disappointing.  You want to see these actors work together again with a better script.  I'm hoping this happens sooner rather than later.

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A Quiet Place

Here is a thriller that has been constructed and executed so perfectly that it almost seems effortless.  John Krasinski's A Quiet Place is a cinematic short story that wastes no time.  It sets us into its world and introduces and allows us to sympathize with its main characters in a matter of minutes.  It then uses atmosphere and economic story telling to wrap us into its plot in a way that few horror films have ever even attempted.  Each scene seems designed to raise the stakes, either emotionally with the characters, or through the physical threat that is hunting them.  This is as lean, tight, and as intense a thriller as you are likely to see.

The film opens with a title card reading "Day 89", and then drops us into a mostly abandoned post-apocalyptic world.  Through scattered newspapers that are lying about on the street, we see reports of some kind of possibly alien menace that are attracted to and hunt their victims by sound, and have apparently wiped out a majority of the world's population.  We are then introduced to a family of survivors.  Krasinski (who co-wrote the script, as well as directs and stars) plays the unnamed father who has devoted his life to keeping his family alive during and after the attack.  His real-life wife, Emily Blunt, is the mother, and their three children are played by Millicent Simmonds (from last year's Wonderstruck), Noah Jupe (from Suburbicon) and Cade Woodward.  The family has survived this long because they speak to each other in sign language, with subtitles provided for the audience.  Their eldest daughter is deaf (as is young Millicent Simmonds in real life), so we have a hunch that knowing sign language in advance has become a survival tool in a world where the slightest sound can attract the giant creatures who are usually hiding in the trees or bushes before they strike.

The family walks slowly on tiptoes through a local store, looking for food and medical supplies, as one of the two boys appears to be ill.  Through this brilliantly executed opening sequence, we learn not only about the threat to the family, but also how they survive and interact with one another, all without a single spoken word of dialogue.  But on their way out of the store, the youngest child finds a loud battery-operated toy and activates it, which pretty much seals his fate with the monstrous creatures that lurk unseen.  The film flashes forward to about a year later, and the event we have witnessed obviously still weighs heavily on the family.  We also learn that the mother is now pregnant, and almost due.  This creates an obvious problem, as giving birth to and raising a baby in a world where silence is the only way to survive is almost a death sentence.  Still, the father is determined to keep his family alive, and continuously pours over research to try to figure out how these monsters can be killed.  He also endlessly sends out radio distress signals from his basement, hoping to contact other survivors.  Aside from one brief sequence, we don't see anyone else alive, so this family may be all that's left.

A Quiet Place is an entirely visual film.  There is almost no spoken dialogue, and just about any sound in the movie is used as an instant moment of tension.  We also see how the family avoids making the slightest noise.  For example, in one scene, the kids are playing Monopoly, and they are using small pieces of cloth as their pieces, rather than the traditional game pieces which would obviously make tapping sounds on the board.  Krasinski's direction is also effective at setting up things that could cause a problem for the family in the future, such as an exposed nail sticking out of a basement step.  He is able to generate suspense out of the slightest object, such as a kitchen timer or an object hanging precariously off a shelf.  This style is subtle, and helps pull us further into the world that the movie exists in. 

The movie also displays a brilliantly economical way of storytelling.  Not a single shot is wasted here, and almost every moment is used to further the suspense or the characters.  I will have to be careful not to go into spoilers here, but this is as much about the family banding together as it is about surviving the monster threat that is constantly present.  This is as much an emotional drama as it is a thriller, and it succeeds at both.  And when the monsters do finally appear to threaten the family, the movie creates the same kind of tension that Ridley Scott's original Alien created, with a creature that we do not fully understand, but is able to hunt its victims usually using just hearing and cunning speed.  It is the fact that we do not fully understand the threat or the world the movie inhabits that keeps us riveted.  We know just enough to understand, but we don't really know much detail.  That makes the survival of the family at the center that much more uncertain.  Here is the rare thriller where we don't know the outcome when we walk in the theater.

If there is a solitary flaw to be found in A Quiet Place, it is the overblown music score by Marco Beltrami, which spells out every emotion and scare, when the actors do such a superb job of doing this just with their faces and emotions.  I almost wished there was no music in the film, making the experience of watching it completely consuming to the audience.  Regardless, this is a brilliant horror film, one of the better ones we are likely to see.  It is also a strong contender to be one of the great films of 2018. 

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