Reel Opinions


Friday, August 31, 2018

Searching

Searching is not the first thriller to be built around the gimmick that the entire film takes place on line via cameras, texts and video chats.  Just this July, we had the disappointing and unnecessary Unfriended: Dark Web.  However, this is easily the best attempt at the stylized approach we have had.  In fact, I could see this being one of the great films of 2018.  First-time feature director Aneesh Chaganty (a former employee of Google) has managed to use the limitations of filming solely on smartphones, browser windows and security cam footage, and has created not just an enthralling film, but one that is emotionally effective and has a ton of heart behind it.

John Cho, an actor who will probably eternally be associated with his starring role in the Harold and Kumar movies, delivers a powerful leading performance as David Kim, a widower in California who grows concerned with his 15-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) does not come home or return his texts.  The last time he heard from her was when she tried to contact him in the middle of the night, but he was sleeping and missed her calls.  Now, there's total silence, and none of her friends have seen her at school or at her usual hang outs.  As time passes and there is just no word or information, David becomes increasingly concerned, and files a Missing Persons report, which gets him contact with Rosemary Vick (a wonderful Debra Messing), a police detective who is a mother herself, and guides David through the difficult process of going through Margot's on line life, and search for any clues that may lead to learning about just what has happened.

As David and Rosemary go through Margot's videos, texts, on-line friends and personal blogs, they begin to piece together a life that Margot was afraid to share with her father, one concerning a lot of pain concerning the death of her mother and David's wife just two years ago.  It's something that has been difficult for them to talk about since it happened.  One of the brilliant moves that Chaganty does is to open the film with a touching montage of the on line family life of the Kims as Margot grew up.  We see birthdays, first days of school, piano lessons, and shared family moments leading up to the day when everything fell apart, and Margot's mother passed away after a long battle with lymphoma.  This does a wonderful job of building the main characters and their relationship in an efficient way, without sacrificing any of the heart and pathos.  This also leads to the film's central mystery.  Was Margot keeping anything else from her father?  Was she kidnapped, or possibly murdered by someone on her Friends List?

Searching occasionally leaves the computer screen to show us media reports as the search for the missing teen becomes major news.  We also get to see the effect the case has on the viral community, as her classmates leave passionate and forced tribute videos, and haters and trolls start hounding David on line, accusing him of being responsible for his daughter's disappearance.  All of this creates a surprisingly compelling narrative, despite the limited storytelling technique of mostly using video chats and texts to drive the action.  We are involved in the characters, and in the mystery itself.  There are quite a few red herrings, most of them pretty obvious.  But, the final answer to the mystery is fairly clever, and doesn't feel like a cheat.  When it was over, I was not only satisfied with the conclusion the mystery came to, but felt I had been told a complete story with interesting and honest characters.  

This is ultimately a detective story, with the father playing the role of an amateur sleuth as he pieces the information together, going through his daughter's on line history.  What's impressive is how the movie never lags, and how the quick editing creates a nail-biting pace as information is slowly revealed both to David and to the audience.  Why did Margot stop going to piano lessons six months ago, while still accepting the tuition money?  And what is with the large sum of money that she supposedly took out right before her disappearance.  The logical answer is that she might have run away, but digging deeper, that seems unlikely and that there is something more sinister at hand.  The movie skillfully unravels the plot details, keeping us completely engaged and wanting to know more.  This is the rare thriller that left me wanting to know more with each reveal.

But what's most impressive is how the movie never once feels gimmicky.  It is a complete and well thought out story that just happens to take place largely on a computer laptop screen.  In fact, the way it is filmed is an advantage, as it adds a touch of authenticity to the story.  It also helps create a commentary about just how much parents know about their children's lives on line, without being preachy or heavy handed.  This is not just a movie about the dangers of the Internet, nor does it sensationalize it with paranormal or silly plot elements like the Unfriended films.  It's a compelling human drama told through the lens of a computer monitor, and it's as highly effective and as engrossing as any other drama that's out there.

Searching is just an extremely well thought out film, and one that pays off in just about every way.  It's emotional, suspenseful and well-acted.  I can see this becoming a late-summer sleeper, and I truly hope it doesn't get lost in the shuffle of Labor Day Weekend, traditionally one of the worst weekends for the box office.  Did the studio release this movie on such a slow weekend because they have little faith in it?  I sure hope not, because they have a great movie here.

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Operation Finale

Operation Finale is a gripping story that's told sluggishly.  All the parts are in place for an engaging dramatic thriller.  The cast, which includes the likes of Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Melanie Laurent, Peter Strauss, and comic actor Nick Kroll (in a rare dramatic role), certainly cannot be faulted.  Everyone's giving a good performance here.  And the story, about the attempt to capture one of the most powerful and notorious surviving architects of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, 15 years after the end of World War II should be compelling.  But the movie frequently stalls with dragged out and talky dialogue scenes when it should be ramping up the tension.

The acting is the one thing to recommend here, and it's not enough to overcome the wordy and dull screenplay by Matthew Orton, or the oddly leisurely pacing and direction of Chris Weitz.  As a filmmaker, Weitz is hard to pin down.  He got his start with 1999's American Pie, peaked with the wonderful About a Boy in 2002, and then pretty much languished in Young Adult Movies for the rest of the decade, even helming one of the Twilight movies.  He seems a bit lost here, as he is never able to create any suspense out of a situation that should be nail biting.  The pacing of the movie seems off early on, and it never improves.  I kept on waiting for the story to really kick into gear, or to create some edge of your seat excitement.  There are some moments late in the film that come close, but the movie is constantly holding itself back.  The whole time I was watching it, I was admiring the craft that went into the acting, but was left feeling cold about everything else.

That's definitely the last thing I expected walking into a movie about such a great story of when in 1960, a team of Israeli agents slipped into Argentina to capture Adolf Eichmann, the notorious architect of the Nazis’ “Final Solution" to exterminate the Jews.  The capture of Eichmann is not exactly the focus of the film, as it happens fairly early in the film and with little difficulty.  Instead, the movie follows the agents as they are forced to hide out in a safe house after their escape out of Argentina is delayed, and they have to keep Eichmann in captivity while they wait for their transport to come through.  The tension is supposed to come from the fact that Eichmann's fellow Nazis become aware of his disappearance, and start investigating, coming ever closer to discovering his whereabouts.  Also, as they hold him captive, Eichmann (portrayed by Ben Kingsley in the film) proves to be a master manipulator, trying to get close to his captors and possibly worm his way into their trust and good will while he is locked away in a bedroom.

The story is told through the eyes of Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), a German-born Israeli who is haunted by the memory of the death of his sister during the Holocaust.  Eichmann has haunting visions of his own of a Jewish woman who was gunned down while she was holding her infant child up to him, begging to be spared.  A connection between these two recurring flashbacks is never quite made, other than both men are clearly haunted by their own memories, and for different reasons.  Malkin becomes the head of the operation to capture Eichmann, despite a botched earlier attempt that opens the film.  He enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend Hannah (Melanie Laurent), a medical doctor who has some qualms about joining him on the mission after she lost a patient during a previous mission.  Of the team, Malkin and Hannah are the only ones who get to make an impression.  The other members are largely interchangeable, and most probably won't remember their faces a few hours after they finish watching the film.

There's a training montage as the Israelis prepare for their capture mission, and then the capture goes down with little suspense or fanfare.  From that point, the movie is pretty much set entirely in the safe house, as Peter and his team wait for their transport out of Argentina.  Because of the limited scope of the film and the dialogue-heavy script (which relies heavily on exposition), I started to wonder if perhaps this script had started out as a stage play.  Whatever the case, the pacing is oddly inert and not very cinematic.  Characters are constantly explaining everything, violating one of the big rules of the movies - "show, don't tell".  What little action there is here is devoted to some of Eichmann's fellow Nazis and their investigation into his disappearance.  This is obviously intended to ratchet up the tension, and make us fear that Peter and his team will be discovered before they can leave with their capture.  But, thanks to the muddy screenplay and the aimless pacing, I never felt anything.

Despite the sluggish nature of Operation Finale, the music score by Alexandre Desplat pounds away, as if something exciting is happening, even if it isn't.  It begins to feel like the score is disconnected from the action on the screen, and it grated on me.  This is a movie that simply refused to come to life to me, despite the strong efforts of the cast.  Kingsley, in particular, creates a smug Eichmann who starts out guarded and cooperative, but slowly begins to enjoy toying with his captors, and even taking pride in his past actions.  Isaac is great to watch, as always, and does manage the film's few emotional moments whenever he is thinking back on his sister, or a scene early on when he happens to watch Eichmann spending a warm moment with a small boy, and enjoying family life.  The movie could have used more moments like this, as they're the only time it truly comes to life.

The real emotional punch of the film comes during the final moments, when we see archival footage of Eichmann's trial, which was televised.  All this did was make me wish I was watching a documentary on the subject, rather than the lifeless two hour dramatization I had just witnessed.

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Saturday, August 25, 2018

A.X.L.

A.X.L. is the name of a robotic dog developed by an arms company for the U.S. military.  It has hidden guns and cannons, looks kind of like a canine variation of those robot skeletons from the Terminator movies, has knives for teeth, a set of tiny whirling saw blades inside of its mouth, and is designed to kill on command.  What writer-director Oliver Daly was thinking making this thing the hero of a family adventure movie, I have no idea. 

The robot dog is creepy and unlikable.  I don't remember the last time I have been so repelled by a special effect that I was supposed to warm up to.  It has an unnatural way of moving, but that just might be the unconvincing and stiff puppet that is used for the close up shots. (It's movements are smooth and fluid when C.G. is used, creating a strange disconnect.) I never did warm up to A.X.L., because the movie is constantly changing tones.  Sometimes, it wants the dog to be playful and fun, such as when it plays fetch with its new human friends.  Other times, its normally blue glowing eyes turn red, and it starts acting like the villain in a slasher movie, stalking its victims, and suddenly jumping into frame, barking fiercely.  The movie can also never focus on what it wants to be about.  It starts out as an underdog sports movie, where a young kid just wants to race.  Then he discovers A.X.L. (which we learn stands for Attack Exploration and Logistics), and the movie turns into a bizarre mix of Short Circuit, Michael Bay's Transformers franchise, The Iron Giant and The Terminator, as the boy and his new girlfriend try to protect their robot friend from the scientist who made him.

A.X.L. is the creation of an unethical scientist named Andric Craine (Dominic Rains), who hopes to mass produce the robot dogs for combat purposes.  It escapes from the lab, and eventually encounters our young hero Miles (Alex Neustaedter), a young bike racer who sees no way out of his current life of helping out his dad (Thomas Jane) at his auto garage.  Miles thinks racing is all he has, and that there is no other future for him.  His dad disagrees, but since the movie forgets to build the father-son relationship beyond that, that's all we get.  Miles comes across A.X.L. after he's been stranded in the desert by the local jerk, Sam (Alex MacNicoll).  The robot-dog initially tries to kill Miles, but when the kid sees that he's been damaged (it has mysterious bullet holes in the side of its metallic body), he fixes A.X.L. up, and they become best friends.  They race each other, the dog helps out the kid's financial problems with its ability to hack into ATM machines, and the dog even helps Miles win the affections of the lovely Sara (Becky G), who has the Megan Fox role of looking beautiful, wearing revealing clothes at all times, and falls in love with Miles simply because he's the main character.

From there, the movie basically goes nowhere.  Miles and Sara try to figure out what to do with A.X.L., while the evil Andric Craine watches the progress of his invention from monitors back in his lab, ominously saying "Let's see how this plays out" over and over.  We never get that all-important sense that the boy and the machine are building a lasting friendship that is so important in a movie like this.  Probably because the dog itself is whatever the screenplay requires him to be.  Sometimes he's Miles' best friend, and other times, he's a soulless killer, such as when the evil Sam hurts the robo dog with his flamethrower, and the dog hunts him down and tries to murder him in front of his terrified friends.  And yes, this movie is being marketed to kids.  A.X.L. is prone to violence, will kill on command, and is frequently filmed as a terrifying object, such as when he opens his mouth and threatens to slash someone with the tiny blades that whirl away in its mouth.  The filmmakers must think there is a market for kiddie movies about a best friend who can rip your throat out if you look at it the wrong way.

This movie just made me uncomfortable.  I tried to think of a possible audience for it, and I came up empty.  A.X.L. itself is just plain unlikable, and the human characters pretty much speak in well-worn cliches.  The movie can't even think of anything interesting or appeal for its robot dog to do.  Occasionally it speaks English in a low, heavy monotone that kind of sounds like Darth Vader getting over a hangover.  Neat, I guess.  It's also supposed to be extremely intelligent, but it never exactly shows any examples of this at any time.  I really think the movie is aiming at being heartwarming, but it fails at just about any level.  There is no scene where we're allowed to fall in love with the dog.  It's just an odd, bizarre military weapon, and the movie treats it as such.  But, for some reason, it thinks we want to see more of the dog, especially when it ends on a note that suggests a sequel.  No thanks.

If you want to see a movie about a boy bonding with an animal, go see Alpha.  It's everything that A.X.L. is not.  The fact that it uses an actual animal, and not a mechanical killing machine is just one of its many merits.  Alpha is beautiful, majestic, and has a real sense of adventure.  This movie should be sold for scrap.

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Friday, August 24, 2018

The Happytime Murders

A lot of bad movies get pushed out of Hollywood every year, but it's rare to get an inexplicably bad one like The Happytime Murders.  This is the kind of movie that makes you ask, "What were they thinking?", over and over.  It exists solely to shock and offend, but it can't even do that.  This is also the kind of movie that can sink careers.  Not that I wish for that to happen.  The movie was directed by Brian Henson (son of Jim), and features human actors like Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks and Maya Rudolph.  They all put on game faces, but you can tell they're struggling to rise above this.

This is a one-joke movie, and that joke is "puppets are dirty".  We see characters that resemble the sort of Muppets we see on Sesame Street or The Muppet Show chain smoking, snorting lines of sugar like cocaine, hanging out in porno stores, inhabiting strip clubs, acting like mobsters and prostitutes, and having rough sex with each other.  Put those images in your head, picture if you would like to watch that for 90 minutes, and you will know whether or not you are the audience for this film.  The idea of putting Muppet-like characters in adult situations has been done before, and successfully.  There is of course Peter Jackson's early film effort, Meet the Feebles, which got away with more than this movie can ever dream of.  Even Broadway has gotten into the raunchy puppet act with the Tony-winning musical, Avenue Q.  I knew what I was walking into, so please don't read this as I was offended by the film's content.  If anything, I was ready to be offended, and walked out bored and disappointed.

There is at least a sort of intriguing idea behind The Happytime Murders, where puppets and humans live side by side in real world L.A., and where puppets are basically treated as second class citizens.  I can see a more successful screenplay really building on this idea, and maybe making some comments on our society.  This movie makes a few fleeting attempts , but it quickly gives up, and falls back on unfunny shock imagery such as a puppet cow being "pleasured" by an octopus squeezing all of its udders at once, or a dalmatian having rough bondage sex with a fireman.  The screenplay by Todd Berger does some customary world building in the first 10 minutes or so, then forgets all about it, and just plops its puppet characters into a forgettable murder mystery story about an assailant who is knocking off the cast of a popular 90s sitcom one-by-one.  The show, titled The Happytime Gang, was once noteworthy for being the first TV show to cast puppet actors.  Now all the puppets are junkies and sex addicts, and are turning up dead in brutal gangland-style murders.

Our hero is Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta), a puppet private eye who talks kind of like Robert De Niro, and has a past.  He once was the first puppet to join the L.A. police force, but after an incident involving a shoot out went wrong, he was kicked off the force and now he spends his days investigating low level crimes for hire.  A femme fatale named Sandra (voice by Dorien Davies) walks into his office with a job that leads him into investigating the series of puppet murders, which include Phil's brother, who acted on the show back in the day.  Phil is put on the case, but he is forced to team up with his former human partner from his days as a cop, Detective Connie Edwards, who is played by Melissa McCarthy.  She basically is giving the same foul-mouthed cop performance she did in The Heat with Sandra Bullock a few years ago, and all it does is make us wish we were watching that movie instead.

Other human characters are involved as well, such as Elizabeth Banks as Jenny, who used to star on The Happytime Gang, but now works as a stripper, because the movie can't think of anything else shocking for her to do.  Maya Rudolph turns up as Bubbles, who is Phil's secretary and closest friend.  And then there is Joel McHale, easily giving the worst performance as FBI agent Campbell.  Of course, it's not his fault the script gives him such terrible dialogue and scenes to do.  At one point, he's forced to do a tired parody of the interrogation scene from Basic Instinct, and you can almost see on his face that he knows it's lame.  None of these stars are given much of anything to do, because this is not really their movie.  We're supposed to be amused by the raunchy puppets.  But you can't get laughs just out of showing puppets having rough sex, and then shooting off silly string when they climax.  You have to build to something, or give the puppets something clever to think or say, and this movie never does.

The Happytime Murders never builds to anything worthwhile, and is simply lazy in its desire to shock audiences.  This could have been something bold and daring, but it only ends up being crass and unmemorable.  I'm all for the Henson Company branching out into more adult projects.  In fact, I encourage it.  But is it too much to ask that we get a real script and some genuine laughs to go with it?  This is director Brian Henson's first film since 1996's Muppet Treasure Island.  If this is any indication, he didn't wait long enough to make his comeback. 

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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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