Reel Opinions


Saturday, August 18, 2018

Alpha

Alpha is one of those rare studio movies where you can tell the studio has no idea what to do with it.  It's a minimalist adventure and survival story set 20,000 years ago in the days of Early Man.  Oh, and the entire thing is subtitled.  So, they are banking on the "boy and his dog" (or in this case, boy and his wolf) angle of the story to sell it to a family audience.  Fortunately, the film has more on its mind, and a lot to recommend.  Director Albert Hughes and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht have given us an old fashioned adventure story with some unforgettable images.

The "boy" in this story is Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), son of his tribe's Chief (Johannes Haukur Johannesson), and therefore he is expected to do great things and follow in his father's footsteps to lead his people into prosperity.  However, Keda is not as confident or as strong as his father would like.  He has trouble lighting a fire, and he cannot even finish off a wounded animal.  However, his father still believes in the boy, and takes him on a hunting expedition, which is filmed incredibly well.  The hunt ends with Keda hesitating to kill his prey (a bison), and that hesitation ends with the boy being defeated by the animal and dragged off the side of a cliff.  The father cannot reach the ledge where the unconscious Keda is lying on along the cliff's edge, and so he must mourn and leave the boy for dead.  When Keda finally awakens some time later, he must find a way down with an injured leg and nothing but fear in his heart.

How Keda gets down off that ledge, I will leave for you to discover.  As he starts to head back for home, he is attacked by a hungry wolf pack.  He climbs up a tree in order to escape, but not before seriously injuring the "Alpha" wolf of the pack.  With the Alpha injured, the other wolves leave him behind when they cannot get at Keda.  After the others are gone, Keda's sensitive nature takes over as he stares at the injured animal.  Even though it was just trying to kill him, he finds he cannot finish the creature off.  He nurses the wolf back to health, slowly gains its trust, and soon the two are inseparable as the wolf (whom Keda names Alpha) begins to follow the boy on his journey home.  Together, they will face the elements, other wild animals, and build a bond with one another.

If Alpha kind of sounds like one of those old nature or historical stories that you used to watch in Middle or High School, you're not too far off.  This is a rousing adventure story in its purest form that does not need a lot of additional characters, nor does it feel the need to distract us with a lot of unnecessary subplots.  It's a straight to the point kind of story that only detours for some out of sequence storytelling early on. (The film opens with the hunt in which Keda is injured, flashes back to the previous week where he see his life in the tribe, and then continues from there once the backstory reaches the point where we came in at the beginning.) The dialogue is minimalist, giving us only the barest information that we need.  This is probably not surprising, given that a good chunk of the film is devoted to a boy and a wolf walking together through the wilderness, and facing various dangers together. 

Still, screenwriter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt manages to make it all work by embracing the simplicity, and giving us some genuinely exciting sequences, such as when Keda is trapped under some ice, and Alpha is up above, clawing furiously to try to reach the human.  One of the braver aspects of the film (and a fact that Sony is apparently hiding in its dialogue) is not one word of English is uttered in the film.  All the dialogue is subtitled, which is welcome.  I have a hunch that this is a big part of the reason why the movie was moved from its original Spring release date earlier this year, and instead placed on a slow weekend in August, probably in the hopes that it will be overshadowed by the last few hits of the summer.  Can't hype a movie that encourages young children to read, after all.  Still, kudos for the filmmakers for taking this approach, and not having everyone speaking perfect English.

However, the main reason to watch Alpha is for its stunning imagery.  The film is being shown in IMAX in select areas, and I would imagine that this is the way to experience the film, as the wide nature shots would be spectacular in this format.  The filmmakers often take advantage of the vast open landscape where much of the story takes place, and there are even some stunning skies and shots of rolling clouds that were probably done with CG, but it is impressive and looks seamless nonetheless.  This is definitely one of those movies that will lose something if you watch it at home or on a mobile device, so definitely see it on the biggest screen possible if you can.  On the big screen, you can also admire the effects work, which flawlessly combines real animals with CG ones when necessary, to the point that it is hard to tell the difference. 

I imagine for kids 10 and older, Alpha will be perfect.  It's thrilling, it does have a bit of an edge and is not afraid to shy away from some of the harsher elements of the story, and it's heartwarming to see the boy and wolf bond during the course of the adventure.  I think this will be a hard movie for a lot of people to resist.  It certainly was for me.

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Mile 22

There is a moment in Mile 22 that gave me pause and concern.  It happens early on in the film, and concerns a scene where Mark Wahlberg is talking to two women in a cafe.  The editing during their conversation seemed very fragmented.  It would only show one person's face in the frame, and as soon as someone else started talking, it would cut in a very jerky manner to the next person.  The camera just kept on jumping around the people gathered around the table, almost as if the filmmakers were afraid to put more than one person in the frame at the same time.  It got to the point that I was so distracted that I could not really focus on what the characters were talking about.

Unfortunately, my mood did not improve as the movie went on.  Despite the presence of director Peter Berg and Wahlberg (who have worked together previously on Lone Survivor, Patriot's Day and Deepwater Horizon), they are both cast adrift here by a nothing plot, and a bunch of characters who are impossible to root for, because they basically act like giant jerks for 90 minutes, and much of their dialogue consists of them insulting and swearing at each other.  The editing also never improves.  If anything, it gets even worse as the film goes on.  The shootouts and chases that make up a majority of the film's middle portion are filmed incomprehensibly.  This is one of those movies where you sometimes can't tell who is doing what to whom, or what they're even doing in the first place.  It's all a lot of fast action, jerky motions and rapid-fire cutting that means nothing and leaves no impact on the viewer.

The plot centers on an officer from a Southeast Asian country named Li Noor (Iko Uwais from The Raid films), who has turned on his corrupt government and holds information that can help stop a nuclear threat.  He will only give up that information if he is given protected political asylum and is safely transported to the U.S.  Tasked with transporting Li to the plane that will take him to America is James Silva (Wahlberg) and his team of expert soldiers.  We are introduced to James and his team in a prologue action sequence (a raid on a house in the suburbs that is a front for some Russian villains) that is just as incoherent as everything else on display, and tells us nothing about James and his group other than they are not likable enough to headline an action film.  Two of the other members of the team are played by Lauren Cohan (from TV's The Walking Dead) and Ronda Rousey, who despite her experience as an MMA fighter, never once gets an action sequence.  John Malkovich also turns up to cash a paycheck as Wahlberg's superior.

He is not alone, as it seems everyone is simply here just to get paid.  Mile 22 creates no tension in its premise, and the jerky editing ensures that the fighting never thrills.  Maybe this wouldn't be so bad if the fighting did not make up roughly 60% of the film.  Once Silva and his teammates are tasked with transporting Li out of the country safely, they start getting attacked from all sides by various people who want Li dead.  They can't go anywhere without running into psychotic bikers, martial arts women, and gun nuts.  This could have been thrilling if the movie just cared about these fights in the first place.  Instead, the focus seems to be on the broken bones and flowing blood that always ends the battles.  And of course, since we know absolutely nothing about anyone who inhabits this movie, the audience has the same reaction watching them killing each other as they do looking at a wad of gum on the sidewalk.

It's been reported that the character Wahlberg plays was originally written as an antagonist, until both Berg and his star decided to make him the main character.  This is confusing on many levels, least of which, why did they think anyone would like the insufferable jerk that Wahlberg is forced to play here?  Also, if you're going to give the very talented Iko Uwais some fight scenes of his own, why not truly exploit what he can do?  Why hide it with such jerky and spastic editing?  It's like watching a Jackie Chan movie, and putting a blindfold on during the scenes when he starts to do his stuff.  And why introduce so many characters in your film if you're either not going to use them, or simply bump them off unceremoniously before we get a chance to know them?

I have a lot more questions I could ask, but I would rather stop thinking about Mile 22, so I think I will seize the moment and stop.


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Friday, August 17, 2018

BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman is not a subtle film, but then Spike Lee has never been known for subtlety.  It does embrace some of his better cinematic gifts, however, such as his ability mix anger and humor, as well as use satire to put a giant magnifying glass over some of our harshest and touchiest racial issues of the day.  This is a blistering, powerful and engaging film, even if Lee does hammer a few of his points a bit harder than needed.  Warts and all, it deserves to be seen.

The film tackles the true story of Ron Stallworth, who in the 70s became the first black cop on the Colorado Springs Police Force.  He's played in the film by John David Washington (son of Denzel), and it's a great performance, even if the movie oddly doesn't quite dig as deep into the character as you might expect.  Ron starts off working behind a counter, searching out documents for his superior officers, but he is quickly promoted to being an undercover detective.  He manages to infiltrate a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan by calling them and pretending to be white.  He tells them he wants revenge after a black man sexually ravaged his sister.  Ron then partners with a white Jewish detective named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who poses as the fake "Ron Stallworth" when he has to meet the heads of the local chapter face-to-face, and gain their trust.

One would think that the character of Stallworth would all but walk away with the film, but it is Flip who easily becomes the story's most interesting character, and the one whom the film explores the deepest when it comes to his thoughts about what he is doing.  After all, he is the one sticking his neck out, and has to actually infiltrate these private meetings and get togethers that the local Klan members hold.  He is a laid back individual, but being forced to surround himself with racists and bigots makes him often question what he is doing.  He must pretend to be one of them, and claim to hate the religion that he himself is apart of.  It's a fascinating character study, and Driver does a wonderful job of capturing the mixed emotions of his character.  He knows what he will accomplish if he goes through with it, but he is constantly being put in jeopardy.  At one point, he is led into a secret room where he will be forced to take a lie detector test to see if he is actually a Jew, as one of the members of the local chapter is suspicious.  It is only through Stallworth's quick thinking that Zimmerman gets out of it, but the movie does an excellent job of creating tension as he is forced to play this character that goes against everything he stands for.

As for the character of Ron Stallworth, he is not exactly underwritten, but BlacKkKlansman still could have dived just a bit deeper into what he thinks about some of the things he has to do than it does.  His first assignment as an undercover detective is to spy on a rally being held by former Black Panther member Stokely Carmichael, and we never quite get the inner turmoil that should exist created by his sense of duty, and perhaps his personal beliefs that may agree with some of the things that Carmichael talks about.  He also strikes up a romantic subplot with the head of the local college's Black Student Union, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier).  She believes that the police are corrupt, and can't be changed, even from the inside.  Ron is afraid to tell her that he is a detective (he tells her he's in construction), and the tension that should be created by their relationship and when he is finally forced to tell her the truth felt a bit underscored to me.

That's not to say the movie ignores the issues completely.  Even after Ron saves her life, she still does not fully trust him.  There could have been a lot more to the relationship, and while what's here is very good, it again just never seems to quite dive deep enough into the matter.  What does work is the film's sobering message.  Lee uses documentary footage to great effect, and manages to create a lot of parallels to this story in the 1970s and current events.  Sometimes, he does kind of force it just a bit.  One scene where a character mentions that it will not be long until someone who shares the beliefs of the Grand Wizard of the KKK, David Duke, is in the White House seems a bit too pointed and on the nose to be effective.  Speaking of Duke, he's portrayed in the film by Topher Grace as a charismatic man who sells the ideas of the Klan with a suit and tie rather than a robe and hood.  It's a fantastic performance, and the scenes where both Zimmerman and Stallworth (who is assigned to protect Duke when he comes to Colorado Springs to give a speech) must interact with him are powerful and filled with tension.

BlacKkKlansman does get its point across, especially near the end when it relies on some terrifying video footage of recent events.  This is what Lee excels at, and he's seldom been better than he is here.  No, this is not another masterpiece like 1989's Do the Right Thing, but it is effective in how it tells its "stranger than fiction" tale of how this black police detective managed to not only infiltrate the KKK over the telephone, but also managed to get all the way to the top.  The movie is great at telling the story, and in creating the place and time it is set.  Its only fault is that a few of the characters are painted with a bit too broad of a brush, as are some of the idea the movie wants to express.  It is highly entertaining, delivering plenty of big laughs to go with its subject matter, while never cheapening the effectiveness of the story.

At the very least, the movie is almost certain to spark conversation and debate, and how many movies this summer season can you honestly say that about?  In our current political and social climate, perhaps Lee's anger is what we need.  Sure, his methods are a bit heavy handed at times, but he is almost certainly captivating here.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians

So many reviews and articles about Crazy Rich Asians are focusing on the fact that this is the first Hollywood film since 1993's The Joy Luck Club to feature an all-Asian cast, so it's surprisingly easy to ignore the fact that it's also probably the best romantic comedy to come along since The Big Sick, and is definitely one of the more likable films of this summer.  This is an incredibly well-paced film that juggles some big laughs and a few serious and thought provoking plot elements regarding how immigrants are viewed.  To me, the ethnicity of the cast doesn't matter.  What matters most is that it's just a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

Adapted from the highly successful novel by Kevin Kwan, the film's premise of a young woman in love who must face her boyfriend's judgemental and wealthy family is nothing new, but the way it is executed here, and especially the sparkling cast, make it a story worth listening to all over again.  The young woman is Rachel (Constance Wu, from TV's Fresh Off the Boat), an economics professor at NYU, and the daughter of a single mother who came to America from China when she was pregnant.  Her boyfriend Nick (newcomer Henry Golding), whom she has been dating for the past year, seems like an average guy.  He plays basketball at the Y, is charming and well mannered, and has a habit of finishing off Rachel's deserts when they go out together.  What he has not told her about himself is that he is the heir and son of a massively wealthy Singapore family, and was being groomed to take over the family's multiple businesses and wealth before he left to live in America. 

Now he must return home to be the Best Man at a friend's wedding, and he asks Rachel to come with him and meet his family.  She is not prepared for what is waiting for her when they arrive, as it turns out not only is Nick's family one of the wealthiest, if not the single wealthiest, in Singapore, but that the media is constantly covering the event, and following Rachel, who immediately becomes the target of multiple jealous young women who try to shame her as being a gold digger.  And then there is Nick's mother, Eleanor (a magnificent Michelle Yeoh), who immediately gives Rachel a cold reception.  She does not approve of Rachel, for even though she is Chinese, she was born in America.  Nick's family is huge, and sometimes the amount of characters and their individual subplots that the movie asks us to keep track of can seem overwhelming at times.  But the pacing and structure of the story never once falters, and not only do we keep track, we realize we're having a great time doing it.

Crazy Rich Asians is directed by Jon M. Chu, a filmmaker who up to now has not exactly had the best track record, and is actually more well known up to now for directing forgettable sequels like G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and not one but two documentaries about Justin Bieber.  He also was responsible for the awful Jem and the Holograms movie that we got.  To say that this is easily the best film of his career is an understatement.  I'm actually amazed by the talent he shows behind the camera here.  He balances the excess of the incredibly wealthy world that Rachel finds herself dropped into, while also masterfully handling some smaller intimate moments that are well-acted and touching.  He also has made what is easily the most beautiful looking movie of the Summer season.  This is a film that is so awash in color and detail, it's worth seeing on the big screen just so you can savor it all.  The way that he juggles the various performances, plots, and exotic and memorable scenery shows a filmmaker who is almost being reinvented, as this is nothing like anything he's done before, and shows a certainty that was lacking in his previous efforts.  Whatever he did here, I hope he gets to do it again soon.

However, it's the cast and the way that the characters are handled that really make this worth watching.  Wu and Golding have great romantic chemistry.  The way they kind of flirt and tease each other comes across as being very natural.  They never seem like a phony movie couple, not even in the film's final moments when Golding makes a surprise appearance when Rachel is getting ready to leave Singapore.  The way the movie handles the character of Eleanor is also masterful.  Yes, she is very cold to Rachel, but the movie also allows us to understand and even sympathize with her.  There's a wonderful prologue scene set in a posh London hotel that shows us a glimpse of why Eleanor has had to be so tough all of her life, and is not so willing to welcome Rachel into her life.  And even though it's a smaller role, Singaporean stage and TV actor Tan Kheng Hua gets to stand out as Rachel's mother in a few choice scenes late in the film that hold a lot of emotional power.

But if there must be a cast member to be singled out as the MVP of the film, it is recording artist Awkwafina, who turned up earlier this summer in Ocean's 8, but all but steals the film here as Rachel's best friend from college and main sidekick, Peik Lin.  She's one of the better "best friend" characters we've had in a comedy in a while, as not only does she get some wonderful comedic lines, but she's been written in an incredibly smart way.  Yes, she grabs your attention, but she's also used well enough so that she doesn't overpower everyone else who may be sharing the camera with her.  Her advice, her fashion sense, and the way that she guides Rachel through the world of the elite is just so wonderfully written, as well as performed.  It's one of the great comedic performances of the year, and I can only hope Hollywood continues to use her this well in the future.

Crazy Rich Asians is the rare romantic comedy that combines laughs with intelligence.  It's not wholly original, but it doesn't have to be.  In my review of Dog Days last week, I said, "I don't need my movies to be completely original, as long as they offer something smart or witty in the script that gives me the impression that the writers were not sleeping at the wheel while dreaming up the story".  This is an excellent example of just that.  Not only did the writers truly care, but so did the cast and the director, and everything has come together to create a memorable entertainment.

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Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Meg

When it comes to summer movies about people being devoured by giant prehistoric CG monsters, I'll take The Meg over Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom any day of the week.  This is a supremely silly B-movie that's been dressed up with a $100 million+ budget and a very game cast.  At times, it feels suspiciously like a made for TV SyFy Channel movie blown up on the big screen.  However, director John Turteltaub (Last Vegas) strikes the right balance between suspense and fun, and reminds us we're not supposed to be taking this too seriously without laying the cheese on to the point that the audience gives up on the film.  After all, this is a movie where Jason Statham battles a massive shark long thought extinct.  If that's what you want, it delivers on what it promises.

The presence of Turteltaub in the director's chair should also probably tip you off on what this movie wants to be, as he's not exactly known for helming thrillers.  His specialty lies in silly spectacles, like the National Treasure movies.  That doesn't mean there is no shark-based carnage to be found here.  Though a lot of it has clearly been edited to gain a PG-13 rating, we still get to see some innocent beach goers get snacked on by a hungry megalodon shark.  The creature is nearly 70 feet long, fears nothing, and is appropriately menacing.  How is this shark still around if it's believed to have gone extinct centuries ago, and where does it come from?  The movie does give us a "Scientific Explanation" to these questions, but it's best not to think about it.  In fact, it's best not to think of anything while the movie plays out.  Trust me on this one.

The film's prologue introduces us to its hero, Jonas Taylor (Statham), a deep-sea rescue diver who became disgraced after a failed rescue mission where an unseen massive creature attacked the ship where he was trying to lead the people to safety.  There were many casualties, and no one believed his story of a creature attack, so Jonas was forced to go into exile.  Five years later finds Jonas in Thailand, drinking his problems away, when he is approached by an old friend (Cliff Curtis) and the friend's boss (Winston Chao).  They are part of an underwater research facility project that is being funded by a fast-talking billionaire (Rainn Wilson), and a small team of undersea explorers including Jonas' ex-wife (Jessica McNamee) have been attacked by a similar creature that Jonas claimed to have encountered on that day long ago.  His ex and the team she was working with are still alive and trapped at the bottom of the sea floor with whatever attacked them, and they need Jonas' help in order to save them.

Jonas arrives at the research facility, and meets the rest of the team, which includes the usual character types who are played by actors better than the material usually gets.  We have the comic relief characters, both Caucasian (Olafur Darri Olafsson) and African American (Page Kennedy), the tough talking and tattooed young woman who handles the tech on the facility (Ruby Rose), the romantic love interest who keeps on getting into danger and needs frequent rescuing by Statham (Bingbing Li), and the love interest's cute little daughter (Shuya Sophia Cai), whom the movie uses wisely so she doesn't seem shoehorned in or intrusive.  As the crew attempts to track down the megalodon shark and destroy it before it can reach populated areas, the movie definitely feels familiar.  What sets it apart is the script, which knows not only how to handle these characters, but gives each of them some genuinely funny or clever dialogue to say to one another.  And when they are fighting the shark, there is enough tension generated that we really do want to see them survive.

Where The Meg is less certain is in its storytelling outside of the shark hunt.  In particular, the whole backstory surrounding Jonas' troubled history seems oddly underwritten, almost as if there was supposed to be more to it, but it was left on the cutting room floor.  There is a doctor on board the research facility (Robert Taylor), who happens to be the same doctor who tried to treat Jonas five years ago, and was convinced that the guy was crazy for all of his talk of a giant sea monster attacking the ship he was on.  There is one or two scenes where some old wounds show up between the characters, but after that, it's pretty much forgotten and never really explored.  Same goes for the ex-wife character, who supposedly left Jonas because she did not believe his story either, and became distant as her husband fell into near-madness trying to convince others.  They again get one or two scenes to talk about their relationship and the past, but it's unsatisfying, and never really feels as dramatic as it should.  I know why the screenwriters threw these elements in, but they're not developed in an satisfying way.

Regardless, the movie excels where it should.  It's big and silly, has a sense of humor to itself, and the shark itself is menacing.  Through it all is Statham's performance, who manages to create a heroic presence while also having a bit of fun.  He's in on the joke, as is the rest of the cast, but he never plays broad to the camera.  He plays it straight, which is the way it should be.  The Meg is certainly not great entertainment, but I did enjoy it a lot.

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Friday, August 10, 2018

Slender Man

Slender Man is a joyless and dreary thriller that is dripping with atmosphere, but has nowhere to go and nothing ever happens.  The main characters are high school girls who seem to have had all the vitality drained from them, and that's before they start getting stalked by the faceless ghoul.  The movie is dark and underlit to the point that the most supernatural occurrence that happens is when someone actually turns on a light.  There are dark woods, ominous and slow church bells that ring over the town, and the main adult figure in these girls' lives is an alcoholic and abusive father.  It's moody, gloomy, and doesn't make a lick of sense.

The titular Slender Man is obviously the famous Internet creation of Eric Knudsen (who goes by the name of Victor Surge), who built a creepy urban legend around a demon dressed in a suit and has no face who abducts children.  The character took off since its inception back in 2009, inspiring viral videos, stories that explored its background and origins, and video games.  There is some controversy surrounding the film's release, due to an attempted murder that happened four years ago by two 12-year-old girls who were obsessed with the Slender Man character.  There was a documentary made about this case called Beware the Slender Man, and it's scarier than anything this Hollywood effort has to offer, as that film explored the disturbed psyche of the two young girls, while this is just your generic boogeyman jump scare movie.  It's a slow and plodding affair that seems to have been filmed in slow motion, and where everyone just seems to sit around looking depressed while they wait to die.  What fun.

The plot provided by screenwriter David Birke more or less lifts wholesale from 2002's remake of The Ring, only instead of a cursed videotape wiping people out, it's a cursed viral video that tells you how to summon the demonic Slender Man.  Four high school girls who are best friends decide to watch the video while they are bored one night together, accidentally summon it, and start disappearing and seeing the apparition wherever they go.  Poor Katie (Annalise Basso) is the first of the four friends to become a victim when she mysteriously disappears during a field trip.  This leaves our main heroine Hallie (Julia Goldani Telles), and her two remaining friends Wren (Joey King) and Chloe (Jaz Sinclair), to solve the mystery.  And by "solve the mystery", I mean making every possible wrong move, such as wandering around alone in the dark and creepy forest that seems to make up 80% of the town they live in, and blindly following strange voices that call out to them in the night.  Speaking of the town these girls live in, it seems oddly deserted.  The streets are dark, almost every home is empty, and the local library and hospital can't seem to afford their electrical bills.

For all of its dark and brooding atmosphere, nothing actually happens during Slender Man.  The creature itself lurks in the shadows and pops up to reach out for the girls now and then, but as far as movie monsters go, he lacks the personality and screen presence of Freddy Krueger or the Chucky doll.  Anyone not familiar with the character from the countless Youtube videos and creepypastas that have been made about him will probably wonder what the big deal is while they're watching this.  Director Sylvain White (Stomp the Yard) can't think of anything scary to do with his demon, so he relies on a lot of cheap jolts and loud bangs on the soundtrack.  Even the mythos behind the creature is woefully unexplained, or somethings makes no sense.  The movie hints that the influence of the Slender Man is spreading to some of the other kids at school, but this idea is dropped pretty much the instant it is brought up.

And when you stop and think about it, just what is the motive of the Slender Man?  To stalk and abduct teenagers, clearly.  But then what?  What does he do with them?  The film's climactic showdown ends on a note that will leave most viewers scratching their heads and pondering this very question.  And how does the young girl who's been locked away in a hospital know what has happened?  And why does Hallie decide to go on a date with the cute boy at school after two of her friends have gone missing, and one is slowly slipping into madness as she uncovers the truth behind the demon stalking them.  Shouldn't she have other things on her mind then boys?  Oh, and here's some helpful advice.  If you should find yourself blindfolded in the dark and spooky woods to perform an ancient and evil ceremony, and someone tells you not to take the blindfold off or else a monster will drive you insane, please don't take your blindfold off in the middle of the ceremony.  Otherwise, the demon will come into your room and mess up your music playlist.  I hate when that happens.

The only way Slender Man stands out is in the bad decisions it makes throughout.  It promises a spooky good time, but all it gives us is a lot of dreary atmosphere and idiotic characters.  You can also tell that this movie went through extensive reshoots and edits, as the early trailers contain a lot of footage that's no longer in the movie.  Maybe it's for the best.  All I know is that there's a lot of missed opportunity on display here.

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Thursday, August 09, 2018

Dog Days

The smartest thing about Dog Days is that it lets the dogs be dogs.  They don't chime in on the action with voice overs on the soundtrack, and they don't act like tiny humans.  Yes, there is one dog who watches TV, but I've seen that kind of behavior before.  The movie is essentially designed to make the audience go 'awwwh" at a lot of cute dogs and their antics.  If that's all you want from the film, you'll love this.  But the movie also wants to be a romantic comedy that juggles multiple plots and characters, and at that, the film is on less certain footing.

This is a completely conventional movie about a bunch of intersecting storylines revolved around dog people living in L.A.  The movie is pleasant enough, as is the cast (both four-legged and human), but as far as these things go, it's pretty thin soup.  The screenplay by Elissa Matsueda and Erica Oyama just kind of throws in a bit too many familiar plot elements to the point that it feels overly safe.  You've seen these characters before, too.  We have the mismatched co-workers who start out hating each other, but soon fall in love, only to break up again because the guy has gotten a better job offer, and didn't tell the woman.  We have the couple nervous about adopting their first kid.  We have the grumpy old man who learns to open his heart after losing his wife.  We have the young woman who strikes up a friendship with the geeky guy who secretly loves her, but she's more interested in the more handsome guy, who of course turns out to be a vain and egotistical jerk.  About the only new twist this movie gives us is that the mismatched co-workers have their big break up live on camera on a morning news show while interviewing a clown.

And just how do the dogs connect all these storlines?  Let me give you an example.  A lonely old retired professor (Ron Cephas Jones) loses his beloved and overweight pug dog when a 16-year-old pizza delivery boy named Tyler (Finn Wolfhard) distracts him, causing the pug to run away.  The professor suffers what seems to be a mild heart attack at the exact same time, and the kid helps him.  The movie then completely forgets that this medical emergency ever happened, as both the professor and the kid are immediately teaming up to look for the dog.  As they search, it's revealed that Tyler is struggling in his high school literature class, and that just so happens to be the old man's forte.  He tutors him, and Tyler's grades immediately improve.  Meanwhile, it just so happens that Tyler's high school teacher (Rob Corddry) and his wife (Eva Longoria) have just adopted a daughter, and are having a hard time getting the kid to open up to them.  They then find the professor's missing dog, and the little girl immediately blossoms emotionally because of it.  Eventually, the high school teacher finds out about the professor's lost dog through Tyler, puts two and two together, and there's a lot of hard decisions about how the couple should break the news to their daughter that they found the owner. 

Other plots: The host of a morning news show (Nina Dobrev) gets a co-host (Tone Bell), and they bond over the fact that their dogs like each other.  An irresponsible musician (Adam Pally) has to take care of his sister's great big dog after she goes into labor and gives birth to twins.  He is not thrilled at first, but he grows to love the dog, and even rushes it to the handsome young vet (Ryan Hansen) after the dog gets into some pot brownies.  Speaking of the vet, he has the attention of a sweet young coffee shop worker (Vanessa Hudgens), who doesn't realize that the right man for her is the equally sweet and dorky guy (Jon Bass) that runs an animal rescue shelter.  I'm guessing by now that not only do you get the picture, but pretty much know how these plots will unravel, and where the characters will end up.  I don't need my movies to be completely original, as long as they offer something smart or witty in the script that gives me the impression that the writers were not sleeping at the wheel while dreaming up the story. 

Dog Days never gave me that impression.  It's content to just go along, not ruffling any feathers, or creating much of a response in its audience outside of "look at the cute dogs".  In all honesty, there are a few weird side characters who show up now and then that might have been interesting if the movie had given them something to do, such as a dog therapist who finds herself helping her human clients with their problems more than the dogs, or a weather lady on the morning news show who rambles about the problems in her personal life on air instead of covering the weather.  However, these come across not so much as characters, as potentially funny ideas that just were never fleshed out.  Instead of making its characters interesting or relatable, the movie instead focuses on forced manipulation.  And yes, the movie does resort to one dog having to be put to sleep in order to ensure everyone tears up at least once while watching it.

I don't want to come across as a cynic.  This movie only wants to be a sweet and pleasant experience, and I guess it kind of works.  Despite the thin writing, the performances here were enough to make these characters likable.  There's just not much here outside of watching some likable actors and cute dogs.  Maybe that's what you're looking for.  If so, I say go and enjoy.  Just don't expect anything more than that.

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Saturday, August 04, 2018

The Spy Who Dumped Me

It's kind of amazing to watch Kate McKinnon in The Spy Who Dumped Me.  The Saturday Night Live star is bringing so much energy and life to her performance, you just have to admire her effort.  Too bad nobody else in this movie shares her enthusiasm, creating an odd tone where the movie seems to be dragging its feet, then the camera will suddenly cut to McKinnon clearly improvising her heart out, and then cut immediately back to the drab and mirthless movie that her performance is trapped in.  I may not have laughed much at what McKinnon was doing or saying, but I still appreciated her being there, because everything else up on the screen was dead on arrival.

The movie tries to cross the girl bonding comedy, with a grisly and hyper-violent spy thriller that has a body count higher than probably every action movie we've had this summer so far combined.  Not surprisingly, the combo does not exactly work.  On one end, you have McKinnon and her co-star Mila Kunis acting silly, throwing out one liners, and shrieking like idiots whenever gunfire or violence erupts around them.  On the other, you have scenes where numerous extras are blown apart, have their necks snapped, and are impaled in bloody detail.  I have no doubt that these two elements could have been combined successfully, but it would take a screenplay that is smarter and brighter than what's on display here.  It would also require better screen chemistry between the lead female stars, and while McKinnon is enjoyable on her own, she never quite clicks with Kunis' performance when they're sharing the screen.  That's probably why the movie keeps on finding ways to keep McKinnon on the sidelines and commenting on the action.  The filmmakers probably knew she worked better on her own.

Kunis plays Audrey, who works as a cashier at an organic food store, and who was recently dumped by her boyfriend of one year, Drew (Justin Theroux), via a text message.  Audrey is ready to move on with the help of her best friend, Morgan (McKinnon), who recommends that they burn all of his belongings.  Of course, that's the precise moment that Drew decides to show up and explain everything about why he suddenly had to leave.  Turns out he's a globe trotting agent for the CIA, and he's gotten himself involved in some very nasty international espionage concerning a terrorist organization.  Through reasons too complicated to recount here, both Audrey and Morgan find themselves in the possession of a flash drive that every spy and Eastern European trained assassin want to get their hands on, and now have to dash wildly across Europe to stay ahead of their pursuers until they figure things out.

They have a hard time sorting out who they can trust.  The audience has a much easier time, as you can pretty much guess who is there to help and who wants to kill them almost as soon as the characters walk on the screen.  All the while, Kunis and McKinnon often act like they're in a completely different movie.  They witness a bloody massacre in a Vienna cafe, and the two can't stop trading yuks with each other as they escape.  A former Olympic Gymnast turned ice-cold killer (Ivanna Sakhno) tortures and bloodies their faces, and all our heroines can do is talk about comically embarrassing secrets about each other.  The movie is a complete tonal miscalculation, mixing ditzy verbal comedy with hard-R gore.  Even when the blood is not flowing, the movie's gags come across as undercooked and awkward.  Case in point: At one point we learn that Morgan's last name happens to be Freeman, and the movie can't get a laugh out of it.

Certain scenes and subplots also feel curiously truncated and cut short.  There are awkward moments that seem to be leading up to a joke, only to have the movie cut to the next scene without a laugh.  There are also some talented actors here, ranging from Jane Curtin to Fred Melamed to Gillian Anderson, all of whom kind of just show up, and then disappear before they can generate a memorable moment or line of dialogue.  I would accuse the movie of being severely hacked in the editing room, but the movie runs nearly two hours and feels long enough as it is, so I don't really know what happened here.  Maybe the screenplay just wasn't that good, and director and co-writer Susanna Fogel thought that McKinnon's non stop improvising would save it.  In order to do that, she would have to be given an actual character to play.  She often comes across that she's just trying to liven up what she knows is a dreary script.

The Spy Who Dumped Me is not only unfunny, it has an unnecessary violent mean streak to it.  And while I admire McKinnon's efforts here, it's clear that Hollywood is not yet sure what to do with her.  She needs to get a chance to develop her own vehicle with a script and a director who knows how to use her, not just be plugged into a lifeless film, and expect she'll automatically make it watchable.

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