Reel Opinions


Saturday, September 29, 2018

No Review of Hell Fest this Weekend


Hello, one and all!

I'm just writing to inform you all that due to the remainder of my weekend schedule and the upcoming week ahead, I will not be reviewing Hell Fest, as there are just no times at my local theater that work for me.

I will return next weekend with reviews of Venom on Friday, October 5 and the latest remake of A Star is Born on Sunday the 7th.

Until then, i hope everyone has a great rest of the weekend, and week ahead!

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Smallfoot

Smallfoot is a pleasant and sweet natured animated film that teaches kids a valuable lesson of thinking for themselves.  It has a game cast, some catchy songs (yep, it's a musical), and it's genuinely quite fun.  I don't see this becoming anyone's favorite any time soon, but it definitely works, and even has a few solid laughs.

The movie introduces us to a mountain where a society of Yetis live in isolation.  They have lived there for centuries, believing that there is nothing below them except clouds and a pair of mammoths who carry the mountain on their backs.  This is the way it's always been, and our hero Migo (voice by Channing Tatum) accepts this reality full-heartedly.  His only concern is to follow in the footsteps of his father, Dorgle (Danny DeVito), whose job every morning is to launch himself with a giant catapult, and strike a giant gong head-first, as the Yetis believe that this makes the sun rise.  But one day, Migo happens to venture down the mountain further than he has before, and witnesses a plane crash.  He sees a pilot emerge from the wrecked plane, and is shocked by his first sighting of a human, or "smallfoot" as the Yetis refer to the fabled creatures that are supposed to not exist.  He tries to tell the rest of the village what he saw, but the village elder referred to as the Stonekeeper (Common) shoots down his story, and banishes Migo from the village before he can fill the other Yetis' heads with ideas that go against what they believe.

Forced into exile, Migo becomes more determined than ever to prove what he saw, and eventually learns that he is not alone, as there is a small group of Yetis who also believe in the existence of the smallfoot, and that they are led by the Stonekeeper's daughter, Meechee (Zendaya).  With their help, Migo makes his way all the way down the mountain, where he happens to come upon a human village at the base.  Within the village, we are introduced to Percy (James Corden), a nature show host whose ratings are tanking, and needs a big story to save his job.  He hears about the pilot from the mountain crash who supposedly encountered a Yeti, and becomes determined to do an episode on the fabled creature, even if he has to fake it.  Fate brings Migo and Percy together, and the movie has some fun with how they fail to communicate with each other. (Percy hears Migo's speech as horrifying roars and growls, while Migo hears Percy as squeaky-voiced gibberish.) When Migo brings the "smallfoot" back to his mountain village, it gets everyone thinking wild thoughts about what else might be real, and possibly puts everyone in danger, as it is revealed the Stonekeeper has been keeping the Yetis isolated from the humans all this time because of a tragic moment in history that no one but he knows of.

Smallfoot has more than enough visual gags and slapstick to keep kids entertained, but with its overall message of tolerance and not being afraid of what you don't understand, it at least has a bit more on its mind than your standard animated comedy for kids.  I like that lead director and co-writer Karey Kirkpatrick (Over the Hedge) did not feel the need to give the film a villain or lead antagonist.  Even if the Stonekeeper is trying to prevent Migo from exploring beyond the mountain, it is only to keep his people safe.  We can understand and relate, and he does learn a valuable lesson in the end.  This is ultimately a gentle film that does not revel in crude humor, and there's only one fart joke to be found, and it's a mild one.  It also doesn't feel the need to be edgy, or toss a lot of pop culture at the audience.  Its sense of humor is sweet enough that it can appeal largely to kids, and I admit, I smiled more than once.

And while there are better looking animated films out there, I quite liked the visual design here.  The Yetis do each have their own distinctive design in order to differentiate them, and some are even given pastel colors.  The design of the creatures is goofy and simple, and I'm sure they'll make great plush toys should the movie prove to be a hit at the box office.  But the big visual standout is the design of the Yeti mountain village, and how the animators have created a primitive but functional society for them to live.  Their world makes sense within the context of the film, and the animators clearly had a lot of fun dreaming it up.  Throw in a voice cast that seem to be having a blast playing these characters (with Tatum, Corden and Zendaya being the main attractions), and you have a movie that is fairly standard, but genuinely works and has more energy than you would expect.

Smallfoot is a movie that quickly grew on me.  I was initially taken in by the design of the world the Yetis live in, but found myself further intrigued by its overall message.  It doesn't shake things up for the genre, but it doesn't need to.  It's just a simple, bright little movie.

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Friday, September 28, 2018

Night School

There are six different writers credited to the screenplay of Night School, including the film's star Kevin Hart.  And what has all this combined effort given us?  A completely forgettable comedy that shows no trademarks of its talented cast, and will likely be forgotten by Monday by just about anyone who sees it this weekend.  The movie tries to get by on the comic skills of Hart and his co-star Tiffany Haddish, both of whom are clearly making an effort.  But their improvisational skills can only go so far when the movie offers them nothing in return.

The plot: Hart plays Teddy Walker, a barbeque grill salesman who is good at his job (he's won Employee of the Month on a continuous basis), but lives beyond his means in order to impress his much more successful girlfriend, Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke).  One night, he causes an accidental propane leak at work which winds up blowing up his business, and putting him out of a job.  His best friend offers him a job as a financial analyst at his company, but Teddy is a high school drop out, and needs to take the GED test before his friend can hire him.  Teddy decides to take a night school class, where he is paired up with a group of adult misfit students (including a convict, a juvenile delinquent, and an overworked mom with an inattentive husband and too many kids), as well as a smart-mouthed and underpaid teacher named Carrie Carter (Tiffany Haddish), who takes no nonsense from any of her students.  It's up to Carrie to whip Teddy and the rest of the class into shape, so that they can improve their lives.  Teddy, meanwhile, is mostly concerned about keeping his girlfriend in the dark about him having to go to night school, leading to a number of moments where the movie contorts itself in order to prevent Teddy from saying one single thing that would clear up any confusion.

Night School is harmless, but completely unnecessary.  It served only as a paycheck for the cast, who are given little to do here.  The film is a lazy enterprise, filled with narrative shortcuts, characters who barely exist, and just plain lame comic targets.  Example: Saturday Night Live's Taran Killam plays the principal of the school and Teddy's childhood rival, and the only thing the movie can think of is having him be a lame white guy who occasionally talks like a cliched black stereotype for no reason whatsoever.  The students in the night school class are especially generic, as they are not given any real character arcs.  This is bizarre, as the movie seems to be leaning in that direction, and keeps on telling us about how they're becoming better people under the guidance of their strict teacher, but we never actually get to see it.  This movie cares so little about developing these characters that at one point, one of the students falls off the roof of the school and breaks his arm, yet we never see him in a cast at any point afterward.

The few moments that do generate some energy are the scenes where Hart and Haddish get to improvise off of each other, and just go at it.  Sadly, the movie doesn't fall back on this as much as it should.  Instead, we get a lot of forced sentimental moments that serve as plot developments, and a ton of forced gags, such as Hart taking a job at a fast food restaurant where he has to dress in a chicken suit.  That's how lazy this movie is.  It thinks the suit alone is funny.  A good comedy would have thought up some crazy situations to put him in while wearing the suit.  This whole project has the feeling of something that was put before the cameras before the script had a chance to be truly thought out.  It reads like a first draft, and despite the large number of writers credited to it, it comes across as if nobody was really invested in this.  The filmmakers probably thought that Hart and Haddish could punch up the material, but talented as they are, they still need material to work with, and this script offers the bare minimum.

If I seem like I used words like "lazy" and "uninspired" too much in this review, I apologize.  Those are the only words that can be used to describe Night School.  Some movies leave you at a loss for words.  Then there are movies like this, where you struggle to remember anything noteworthy about it as you are walking out the doors of the theater.

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Saturday, September 22, 2018

Life Itself

Life is messy and hard, but Dan Fogelman's Life Itself (not to be confused with the wonderful 2014 documentary about film critic Roger Ebert that shares the same title) is messy, convoluted, disjointed, and just a real sad sack of a movie.  Throughout, Fogelman feels the need to spell out everything that happens, from the message he's conveying in a certain scene, to what a character is thinking.  And in case you don't pick up on the obvious dialogue, there's a voice over narrator to spell it out even more.  This movie is about as subtle as a speeding bus, which believe it or not, is a repeated image in this film. 

The movie is divided into four separate chapters, and takes a series of seemingly unconnected plotlines and characters, and shows how they are all connected to create that funny thing called life and death.  Despite the title, Fogelman seems especially fixated on the death part, as well as on the misery of life.  During the course of the film's two hours, we see and hear about suicide, a bus plowing into an innocent bystander numerous times, cancer, a little girl's father getting decapitated, and a young boy haunted by nightmares of a deadly accident that he inadvertently caused.  Just to add to the fun, there's a throwaway subplot about a teenage girl who lives with a sexually abusive uncle, and she has to shoot him in the leg in order to escape him.  This plot point really does not add much of anything to the film.  It's just there to add to the misery of the characters as they cope with loss, depression and isolation in the most basic and dramatically unsatisfying ways imaginable.

In the first narrative, we are introduced to Will (Oscar Isaacs), a man who is seen as an angry drunk who likes shouting about the genius of Bob Dylan in coffee shops.  He visits his therapist (Annette Bening), who he was appointed to after he spent some time in the hospital for severe depression.  The sadness he feels seems to stem from his former wife Abby (Olivia Wilde), who left him.  Or did she?  As we listen in on his session with the therapist, and view a series of random flashbacks that date back to his college days, up to his last days with Abby, we begin to get the sense that things are not what they seem.  I have to be vague here to avoid spoilers, but one of the key themes of the film (which Fogelman hits you over the head with) is the idea of the "Unreliable Narrator".  Not only does Abby write a thesis on this while in college and explains it in great detail, but the movie's voice over narrator further explains the idea of the concept.  All the while, Will's world begins to crumble around him right there in the office, leading to...

Well, let's just say that the second chapter focuses on Will and Abby's daughter (Olivia Cooke), who in a severely truncated storyline, grows into a morose and miserable young woman after all the tragedy she endured while she was young.  She's having a hard time connecting with her family, makes no secret that she's pretty much a junkie, goes off to play in a band, punches someone in the face while stuffing a sandwich in her mouth afterward, and then sits on a bus bench and cries about her life.  That's pretty much her story in a nutshell, taking us to the third and fourth chapters, which focus on a loving family living in Spain, and how the husband's boss (Antonio Banderas) becomes close to the family, and ultimately threatens to tear it apart when he gets closer to the wife and son than the husband is.  Eventually, all of these characters and stories come together in a way that is not at all clever or thought out.  Oh, and just to make sure he checks off all the things on his audience manipulation list, Fogelman makes sure we get to see a dog die at one point.  Again, not important.  He just wanted to throw that in there.

Life Itself is built entirely around putting its characters through the wringer as they deal with one tragedy after another.  Indeed, the tragedies, betrayals and brutal accidental deaths come so fast and furious here, you feel like you're watching an entire season of a soap opera crammed into two hours.  There is ultimately an uplifting point to all of this that is supposed to at least have us go home with some glimmer of hope, but it's handled in such a brief and haphazard manner, it doesn't lift our spirits, so much as it seems like an afterthought.  The movie wallows in pain and misery, while never really finding a way to connect emotionally with the audience.  Everything has been oversimplified, from the dialogue, to the way the film constantly feels the need to feed us how we're supposed to be feeling through narration or obvious visual montages.  It doesn't take long for the movie to feel like it's stopping itself every few minutes to point out the obvious.

Even if Fogelman has bungled his story and characters, he does show some skill with working with his gifted cast.  These are fine actors, and some are able to rise above the material they're given, while some have potential but are never given the time in the screenplay to grow or develop.  A good example is Mandy Patinkin, who shows up as the grandfather of Will and Abby's rebellious teenage daughter, and has a couple good scenes where he tries to connect with her.  Then we never see him again after that, which made me feel like both the character and the performance got shafted.  Oscar Isaacs and Antonio Banderas are good in their respective roles too, and probably come the closest to rising above the material and making the characters their own.  Unfortunately, the movie forgets to give Banderas a proper send off, and Isaacs exits the film too soon.

Life Itself so desperately wants to tug at the heartstrings, but it takes so much more than just piling death and misery into the narrative to do so.  We need to feel a connection with the people it's happening to, and we never do.  Instead of emotional, the movie feels cheap and exploitive.  Instead of tears, we feel used.  And instead of joy at the end, we feel anguish. 

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Friday, September 21, 2018

The House with a Clock in Its Walls

There are things I enjoyed about The House with a Clock in Its Walls, but the movie as a whole failed to connect with me.  I liked the performances from the two stars, Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, who share a surprisingly strong comedic chemistry here.  But the characters they're playing are just not that engaging.  I also admired the film's set design.  The titular house where a majority of the action takes place is a mix of Hogwarts and the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disneyland, with a touch of Pee-Wee's Playhouse. (There are objects around the house such as a chair, a pipe organ and a suit of armor that can move around on their own.) But, the story never quite picks up enough steam to the point that the house truly feels like anything more than an impressive set.  This is a movie that's all dressed up with nowhere to go.

The plot is borrowed from a 1973 children's mystery novel by John Bellairs, which is apparently beloved by many, but I had never heard of until I saw the trailer for the film.  A boy named Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) is orphaned after he loses his parents in a car accident.  He is sent to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) who lives in a brooding old house that is eternally dark and creepy, and decorated with Jack O'Lanterns at all times of the year with iron gates at the entrance. ("To keep evil spirits out", he says.) As Lewis spends time around the house, he notices strange things, such as how a stained glass window within the house seems to move and be a different image every time he looks at it.  And late at night, Lewis thinks he can hear the sound of a clock ticking somewhere within the walls of the house.  While he sleeps, Jonathan wanders the halls alone, seemingly searching for the source of the mystery ticking sound.

Lewis is a sharp kid, and quickly picks up on the fact that his uncle is actually a warlock, or "boy witch" as this movie calls them.  Jonathan is not the only magic user on the block, as his next door neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) is a witch herself, and possesses even stronger magic than Lewis' uncle.  Since he's having a hard time fitting in at school, Lewis decides to "embrace the weird", and wants to learn magic.  Jonathan and Florence oblige, and before long, Lewis is learning all about basic magic.  But, as he delves into the world where his uncle lives, he learns that there is a darker side to the house.  Its former owner, a warlock by the name of Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), was attempting to unleash an apocalyptic spell, but died before it could be completed.  Now, evil forces are at work to revive Isaac from the land of the dead, and the mysterious clock hidden within the walls of the house seem to be ticking down to the end of all mankind.

This is a movie that seems to have everything going for it.  It promises plenty of mystery and adventures with magical spells, and I enjoyed the kind of playful tone that the film takes with its own mystery.  It's mysterious and eerie, but never actually scary, so children don't need to be too worried.  The film is directed by Eli Roth, who is best known for making films built around extreme gore such as the Hostel franchise, and is probably the last person you would expect to be behind a family-friendly adventure film.  However, I think he finds the right tone for this movie.  Yes, it can be suspenseful at times, but there is always a kind of goofy energy to the film that's bound to appeal to kids.  I also greatly enjoyed the screen presence of Black and Blanchett, and the way they would comically insult one another as only real friends sometimes do.  It's an acting combo that really shouldn't work, but by some strange force of nature, it does, and they're great together every time they share the screen.

And yet, the film ultimately feels hollow and empty, and I think I know why.  There's absolutely no weight to the story.  As much as I admired the fantastic sets, the performances and the funny touches, I never felt truly involved, because the movie takes so long to get going.  So much is built around Lewis uncovering secrets about the house and his new uncle and learning magic, that the movie ends up feeling kind of weightless.  And when the evil warlock finally enters the story and things start to pick up, the whole thing kind of flies off the rails and turns into endless special effects with no sense of purpose.  Our heroes are attacked by creepy dolls brought to life by magic and vicious pumpkin monsters that vomit goop all over them, and yet, there is never a sense of genuine thrills.  We're simply watching the actors react to the special effects that were added in later.  With all the CG creatures and frantic action that's crammed into the last 15 minutes or so, it starts to feel like a demo for the inevitable video game adaptation of the movie.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls promises us wonder, and gives us meaningless special effects and characters that don't feel developed.  Everything we learn about these characters we discover through clunky and lengthy exposition dialogue that stops the film dead in its tracks.  Someone will just need to start explaining the backstory of Florence Zimmerman, and why she doesn't like to use her magic, or the personal connection that uncle Jonathan once had with the evil Isaac, and what drove them apart.  The technique this film uses to pass information to the audience lacks grace, and feels like the filmmakers had no idea how or when to fit the backstories for these people in.  The pacing also feels off, with most of the film being curiously leisurely, then suddenly ramping things up to insane levels for the third act.  Like I said, I have not read the book, but the entire third act feels like a good six chapters or so crammed into less than a half hour.

This is one of those movies that seems to be trying to tap into the mystery and the thrill of childhood adventures, but looses its nerve, and just turns into another soulless blockbuster that you're likely to forget less than a week after you watch it.  There is stuff to admire here, but when it's all over, there's just not a whole lot memorable about it either.

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Sunday, September 16, 2018

White Boy Rick

As a movie, White Boy Rick is fine as is, but with one small tweak, it could have been improved.  The film is the true story of how a teenage boy in 1980s Detroit became an informant for the FBI.  Young Richard "Rick" Wershe, Jr. was eventually arrested and sentenced to life in prison at the age of 17.  His crime was possessing 8 kilograms of cocaine, and he was convicted under a controversial Michigan drug policy.  The tragedy of the situation is that Rick was largely used and then thrown under the bus by the law that he was helping by uncovering some drug gangs and crooked cops.  It was not until last year that Rick was released on parole, at the age of 47.

The thing is, we don't learn about much of this in the film until it is almost over.  This is one instance where I think a flashback structure, starting the film off with Rick in prison would have been the way to go, as it not only would have helped grab our attention, but it would have helped us sympathize with young Rick right from the beginning.  The story of Rick and what happened to him within the Justice System is not the focus of the film, although that probably would have served as an intriguing movie itself.  Instead, we get to see his rise and fall, and the personal toll that he paid.  It's an engaging story, if not a little by-the-numbers at times.  And although the movie does drag from time to time, the fine performances and some genuinely powerful and anger-inducing moments held my interest throughout.

Rick is played by first-time actor Richie Merritt, and when the story kicks off in 1984, he's 14 and living with his dad, a smooth talking hustler named Richard, Sr. (Matthew McConaughey), who dreams big dreams of one day opening a video store, but until then, he sells modified AK-47s out of the trunk of his car in order to make a living.  He's a single dad, doing his best to raise both of his kids.  Rick looks up to and genuinely respects him, while Rick's older sister Dawn (Bel Powley) views their dad as a hopeless loser, and dreams of escaping the house.  Dawn is on the verge of becoming a junkie, and while Richard, Sr. tries his best to keep his daughter in line, he can't do anything when she runs off to live with a guy.

It's well known in the local area that Richard, Sr. has been selling guns to some of the local drug gangs, and one day, a pair of FBI agents (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane) stop by to pay Rick's father a visit.  They want information on who he's been selling to, but he won't give the information.  Rick, however, is willing to give some information, and before long, the agents make him a full-time informant infiltrating some of the most powerful gangs in Detroit.  Rick is quite attracted to the drug scene, especially the lavish lifestyles and huge parties that the local dealers seem to enjoy.  He gets involved in the gangs, working as a double agent, makes some friends on the inside, and even starts making some big money on the side which he stashes in a shoebox under his bed.  By the time his dad catches on to what's going on, the kid has over $9,000 stashed away in his room.

White Boy Rick eases us into the story with a certain humorous tone as we are introduced to the Wershe family.  They are brash, frequently argue, and there is some fun in the early moments where Rick's grandparents (Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie), who live next door to him, act exasperated over Richard, Sr.'s attempts to keep his house under control.  Even when the story takes a more serious tone as Rick is pulled into the criminal underworld, the movie still keeps a sly sense of humor that shows itself from time to time.  I especially liked the moment where Richard, Sr. is talking about how the family isn't doing too bad, and Rick reminds him that his daughter is a junkie and he himself is involved with violent gangs.  His dad's response?  He's a glass-half-full kind of guy, and chooses to look at the positives.  I also admired the way that the film creates a sense of the mid-80s time period with scenes set in skating rinks, Footloose playing at the local drive-in, and soap operas on TV.  The movie even manages to create a small community vibe that gives the film a sense of realism.

If there is any fault to be found, the movie does drag a little from time to time, and some of the people in the gangs that Rick hangs out with could have been handled and developed better, especially a young woman who he ends up having a baby with.  However, this is offset by just how well developed the members of the Wershe family, as well as the performances are.  McConaughey, in particular, is a force of nature.  Hidden behind a huge mustache and slick hair, he nonetheless commands the screen every time he comes on, and he gets some of the film's best moments.  I also really admired Bel Powley as Rick's drug-addict sister.  She's an actress I'm not very familiar with, but would love to see more of given her performance here.  As for Richie Merritt in the title role, he shows a lot of promise, but his performance can also be a bit stiff at times, especially when he has to act alongside an old pro like McConaughey.  He obviously has talent, and he sells his big scenes well enough, though.  It's definitely a fine performance, considering it's his first movie, and he manages to stay afloat.

But it's the final moments of White Boy Rick that are the most emotional and powerful, when Rick is used and betrayed by the same people who got him into this mess in the first place.  I almost think a satisfying film could have been made by extending the last 20 minutes or so, and going over the details of the trial that led to his conviction.  But, that's not this movie.  What we have been given is effective enough, and does a good enough job of making you want to know the real story of Rick Wershe, Jr.  When you hear his real voice talking in an audio interview over the darkness before the end credits roll, you really get a sense of everything he went through.  It's an emotional conclusion to a film that can be a bit messy, but is well worth watching.

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Saturday, September 15, 2018

A Simple Favor

After a brief detour into soulless blockbuster territory with 2016's disastrous all-female reboot of Ghostbusters, director Paul Feig returns to what he does best - Films where his female stars are given plenty of opportunity to play off one another and create memorable characters and relationships.  A Simple Favor attempts a tricky combination of being a suspense thriller and a broad dark comedy, and it succeeds beautifully.  This is the rare film that is hard to predict where it's going at any one time, and even though it is pretty much built around one plot twist and revelation after another, I never once felt like I was being jerked around by the plot. 

There is so much to admire here, starting with the lead performances of Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively as two very different moms whose young kids go to the same school.  They strike up a friendship that is built around trusting one another with their own personal secrets, said secrets that will come back to haunt them many times during the course of the story.  But I'm getting ahead here.  Let's focus on the individual performances here.  Kendrick is a cheerful, upbeat "supermom" type, while Lively's character is cold, distant and unapologetically foul mouthed.  Yet, the two find a common ground, and the way the Feig allows both of these characters and the performances to grow and play off one another shows how he excels at intimate and character-driven films such as this.  Throw in the wickedly smart and often hilariously funny screenplay by Jessica Sharzer (adapted from the novel by Darcey Bell), and all the elements just come together to create a satisfying and genuinely surprising mystery story with an often comedic bent.

Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a single mom to a boy in elementary school who divides her time between volunteering for just about every school function available, making all the other parents feel inferior to her parenting skills, and hosting a Youtube vlog where she shares recipes and parenting tips with her viewers.  Stephanie's life revolves entirely around being a mom, so she has no social life to speak of, until she has a chance encounter with Emily Nelson (Lively).  Their two boys are friends at school, and arrange a play date, which brings the two together.  Emily has a high-powered job at a fashion company in New York City, is dressed in the finest fashions, and lives in a gorgeous home with floor-to-ceiling windows.  The two strike up a friendship while drinking martinis, and Stephanie almost seems shocked that someone as wealthy and "important" as Emily would want to be friends with her in the first place.

It is perhaps because of this shock and her desire to please her new friend that Stephanie ignores a few bizarre quirks about Emily, such as how furious she seems to get when Stephanie tries to snap a photo of her.  This, and other small moments, seem to reveal that there is something that doesn't quite click about Emily.  Behind her beautiful home, designer clothes, and attractive husband (Henry Golding from Crazy Rich Asians), there is a sense that there is someone else lurking behind that cool and controlled exterior that she gives off.  Then, one day, Emily disappears.  She calls Stephanie out of the blue to tell her that she is stuck at work, and asks if Stephanie will pick up her kid at school.  Hours pass, and Emily does not show up or return any calls or texts.  Soon, the police are called in, and little by little, Stephanie begins to wonder about her friend and how much she really knows about what's going on. 

A Simple Favor develops an intricate and ever-winding mystery as Stephanie plays detective and uncovers the truth behind her friend and her disappearance, and I'm happy to say that it's a plot with revelations that you will not see coming.  The screenplay is so delicate in the way it slowly feeds us information and sends us in different directions that it's a kind of cinematic miracle that it works as well as it does, given how the movie is constantly shifting tones from a dark mystery thriller to a very black comedy.  This also is a movie where each twist that the plot throws at us and the multiple paths it leads us down makes sense.  It never feels like the screenplay is trying to trick us, exactly.  It's simply weaving a complex and involved story in an intelligent and entertaining way.  It rewards our attention with revelations that not only genuine surprise, but also make us want to know what's going to happen next.  When you see as many movies as I do, you start to pick up on clues that writers often fall back on.  This one kept me guessing, and I often had no idea where the plot was going to go next.

And yet, the movie never feels like its been overly thought out, or like its only desire is to fool us.  That's not the goal.  The main reason why it excels is because Feig always puts the characters and the performances front and center at all times.  These are smart, funny and sometimes awkward characters, and part of the fun is seeing how they relate or react to the twists and turns of the story they're trapped in.  That also is what makes the film work so successfully as a comedy.  Kendrick's Stephanie seems to be in over her head, but the deeper she digs into the mystery, she seems to be getting kind of a giddy thrill over playing detective and piecing the clues together.  I think a lot of people dream of throwing off their mundane everyday personas, and going on an adventure or unraveling a mystery, and Kendrick's performance is built around that secret desire.  Her transformation from a over-achieving mom to a super sleuth is one of the many joys of her performance, and it carries the film a long way.

This is simply a well through out and incredibly enjoyable movie.  You get the sense that A Simple Favor was a lot of fun to make, and it's just as much fun to watch.  This is the kind of movie where the less you know about it walking in, the more you'll like it.  Not only can I almost guarantee that you'll be genuinely surprised, but you'll get to truly enjoy just how intricate it is.

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Friday, September 14, 2018

The Predator

The Predator is a movie that will please no one.  Say you're a fan of the long-running Sci-Fi franchise, and are anxious to see how it's been updated.  Well, you will be disappointed to learn that this is a slapdash effort to cash in on the recognizable name.  But, say you're not a fan, and you just want to be entertained.  Again, prepare to be disappointed, as there is nothing inspired, thrilling or original here.  This could be an all-time low for the series, and given the mixed quality of some of the past sequels, that's saying something.


The movie is an assault on the senses - Overly loud, replacing CG blood and gore for genuine thrills, and downright incoherent in its editing, plotting and pacing.  The fact that this was co-written and directed by Shane Black, who co-starred in the original Predator back in 1987 and is usually much better than this, tells me that he has either taken a temporary leave of his senses and I can only hope he recovers soon, or that there was some major studio tampering behind the scenes, and what we're seeing is not his intended vision.  Given the film's highly publicized massive reshoots and multiple missed release dates, I'm leaning toward the second scenario.  This movie has all the markings of a project that got out of control, or perhaps never had a clear vision to start with.  The Predator is the kind of film that feels it doesn't have to tell a genuine narrative or give us character motivation.  All it has to do is crank up the gunfire and explosions really loud, splash a lot of blood around, and hope the audience doesn't catch on that nothing is happening.

The plot, which seems to be told in constant fast-forward, as if it's afraid if it slows down for one second it will lose our attention, tells the story of Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook).  He's got the action hero grit, but none of the personality or humor that you would expect.  He almost comes across as a placeholder character that screenwriters Black and Fred Dekker put in the early drafts until they could figure out a more interesting hero for their movie, but never got around to it.  Quinn is a military sniper who happens to witness the Predator alien (Brian A. Prince) crash land on Earth.  He manages to get his hands on some of the Predator's advanced technology and weapons, and sends it to his private P.O. Box address, but the package somehow winds up being shipped to the home of his estranged wife and autistic son, Rory (Jacob Temblay).  Little Rory mistakes the alien technology for being some sort of high-tech video game, and in a matter of minutes, he's cracked the technology behind the alien helmet and weapons.

Rory is one of those autistic kids you see in movies who can decipher alien code in a matter of seconds, hack computers like a pro, and basically serves as a walking plot device.  No offense to young Mr. Tremblay, who is a fine child actor, but the material he's been made to work with is desperate and dumb.  Quinn realizes that the Predator is tracking down his kid to get his equipment back, so he teams up with a ragtag group of soldiers who are all crazy misfits.  There's one with tourette's syndrome, one who's obsessed with the Bible, and one who can't stop cracking jokes when he's nervous or scared.  There.  You now know everything the movie tells us about these people.  He also teams up with a female scientist (Olivia Munn), who is fascinated in life from outer space, and wants to study the Predator.  She is introduced as a key character early on, and then spends the majority of the movie running alongside our hero, and not really contributing much.  But hey, at least she doesn't have to be a love interest, so points for originality, I guess.

Watching The Predator, I got the sense that nobody knew what movie they were making, or even what it was trying to be.  Most of the film follows the rigid rules of a Sci-Fi thriller, albeit one that fails on just about every level.  The monster is not scary or interesting, the action is cut so tight and edited so rapidly (either that, or shot in total darkness), we often have a hard time telling what is being done and to whom, and all the major characters more or less talk and act the same.  But then, the movie will suddenly veer into some very bizarre humor that borders on parody.  This too doesn't work, once on the basis that the movie is never funny, and on the basis that it feels completely out of place here.  Shane Black is famous for his ability to mix violent action with clever and funny dialogue, but here, he falls completely flat on his face.  It's like he wanted to make a self-aware Predator movie, but lost his nerve, and threw in a lot of uninspired action.  Therefore, we get a lot of goofy ideas, such as little Rory going out on Halloween wearing the Predator mask and accidentally blowing up a neighbor's house, mixed in with your standard B-Movie action thriller elements.

This is such a shockingly inept movie, you're almost surprised to see seasoned professionals were behind it.  This is especially true of the plotting and writing, which frequently falls back on forced exposition dialogue to move the story along.  This is one of those movies where a character will pick up an alien artifact they have never seen before in their lives, glance it over for a few seconds, and then somehow be able to tell us the whole history behind it.  This is also one of those movies that introduces a character, makes a big deal about them for most of its running time, and then dispatches them in such a quick and haphazard matter that you'll miss it if you even blink.  There is just this overall sense of laziness to the filmmaking on display.  Instead of revitalizing the franchise, this might bury it even deeper into obscurity.

Naturally, The Predator has a final scene that hints at a much bigger sequel to come, but like a lot of films that fall back on this technique, it doesn't do enough to build the interest of the audience after the movie we've just witnessed.  Instead of focusing on what's to come, why not just put all your effort on making a good, solid movie that fans can enjoy and excite with the possibility of more to come?  This movie promises us so much, but gives us little in return.

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Saturday, September 08, 2018

Peppermint

Peppermint is a sleazy and scuzzy little piece of audience manipulation starring the usually likable Jennifer Garner as a mom who witnesses her husband and young daughter get gunned down in a drive-by-shooting, and takes revenge on the people responsible.  It's a simple-minded work that never once stops to ask the obvious ethical questions, and instead just plows right ahead into sensationalist violence.  How out of touch is this movie?  It doesn't even slow down long enough to explain its own title.  I mean, yes, her daughter is eating peppermint ice cream when she is shot, but this fact never comes across as significant enough to serve as the title of the film.

Not only is the movie nasty, it's also sloppy.  There are random moments of the movie where the editing suddenly goes haywire for absolutely no reason, and when nothing of interest is happening.  Garner will be sitting on a bus, and all of a sudden, the camera will start shaking.  Why?  There also seems to be large chunks of the plot missing.  After the husband and daughter are shot down, the movie speeds through the details of Garner's character getting an unfair trial (the Judge is paid off, and lets the killers go), and going on the run.  The movie then cuts to 5 years later, where she has become a full-fledged vigilante who is somewhat of a hero on social media, and to a community of homeless people.  None of this is explained in the slightest.  We don't get to see how she went from being a soccer mom to a hardened killer who participates in illegal cage fights to hone her skills.  We don't even get to see her actually take vengeance on the three people who were responsible for the murder of her family.  It happens mostly off camera, aside from a brief glimpse of her getting back at one of the thugs during the film's opening scene.  She spends the rest of the movie going after the violent drug dealer, Diego (Juan Pablo Raba), who was their boss.

Garner plays Riley North, a woman who is solely driven by vengeance for her kid (Cailey Fleming), who appears to her as a ghost now and then to encourage her on her bloody revenge.  Oddly, she doesn't seem to care all that much that her husband was gunned down as well.  It's not until a scene almost at the end of the film that she even mentions him.  Riley's husband, Chris (Jeff Hephner), was actually being talked to by a friend at work into a job where they would rob Diego the drug boss.  Chris declined, wanting to spend the night with the family for his daughter's birthday, but this did not stop Diego from ordering a hit on Chris when he found out about it.  After the hit, Riley cooperated with the law, until she found out Diego's influence pretty much spread to every corner of the justice system, and she was not going to get any help.  So, she went off the grid, and is now back as a heavily-trained assassin who can rig explosives and murder with her bare hands with ease.  Again, this transformation is never explained or shown to us, which makes it feel like we missed out on the most interesting part of the movie.

Pursuing Riley are two police detectives, Carmichael (John Gallagher, Jr.) and Beltran (John Ortiz), who were involved with her case five years ago, and an FBI agent (Annie Ilonzeh), who is brought on the job.  All three of these characters come equipped with dialogue that sounds like it came from watching a marathon of crime dramas, and then the screenwriter did their best to remember the gist of what they heard.  There's not a single word these people say that sounds honest or authentic.  They talk strictly in the cliches of the genre.  These characters do nothing to stand out, aside from the fact that the one from the FBI has one of the strangest character introductions I've seen in a long time.  She's sitting at her desk, and there's an obnoxious singing Santa Claus toy (yes, the movie is set at Christmas) near her work station bothering her, so she throws something at it.  This tells us nothing about her, and it has nothing to do with anything.  It just happens, and we're left scratching our heads.

As for Garner, I understand that this is a chance for her to get back to her action film roots that launched her career, and I'm sure it's the main reason why she took this project in the first place.  But why did she pick this one in particular?  Was it really the best thing being offered to her?  The movie never allows her to become a real character.  We don't know how she feels personally about her own actions.  Is she somewhat horrified by what she's doing?  Does she sometimes miss her old domestic life?  These are the sort of questions a better script would have not been afraid to ask.  Instead, she's treated as a soulless individual with no real thoughts or complex feelings.  There are moments that hint at a deeper character, such as when she finds out the drug dealer has a daughter of his own right when she's about to kill him the first time.  She hesitates, which leads to the dealer to escape.  Fortunately for her, the movie forgets about the daughter as soon as she's introduced, so Garner has no problem doing horrible things to him from that point on.

Peppermint gave me no joy or release like a truly great action film can.  It simply revels in violence, and manipulates the audience from beginning to end without a single thought.  That's what bothered me the most - There was simply no thought put into this, and it shows.

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