Reel Opinions


Saturday, March 30, 2019

Hotel Mumbai

My mind and my heart have been at constant war with each other ever since my screening of Hotel Mumbai ended.  My mind tells me that this is an incredibly well-made film, with good performances, and that it perfectly captures the terror of that tragic day in November 2008 when the Indian city of Mumbai was laid siege to terrorist attacks, and were largely centered on the famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.  The movie is brutal, unrelenting, and unflinching in its desire to show us the tragedies that the staff and guests endured.

That's when my heart chimes in, and asks why did I need to see this?  The movie made me feel unclean, like I was seeing something I was not supposed to.  I have admired and recommended movies about tragic real life events before, but this just seemed relentless and unending in its desire to flash misery and violent images up on the screen.  And just why is it being so unflinchingly brutal in the first place?  The movie never really seems to have anything it wants to say, other than to make us feel sorry for the victims.  The characters on the screen are thin, and many are not given any sort of personality.  This includes both the victims and the attackers.  I never got involved with anyone up on the screen.  It got to the point where it felt like the movie was just putting these people up on the screen so I could watch them die horribly in some way.

Now, please do not misunderstand me.  I am not wishing for a watered down or a "sanitized" cinematic take on the event.  I don't even think one could exist.  I simply am saying that the movie felt like it was reveling in the bloodshed and the carnage, and not giving me enough of a dramatic hook for me to get involved.  And when the movie does try to character build, it often feels forced or tacked on.  I'll give you one example.  This scene centers on a hotel staffer named Arjun (played by Dev Patel).  While hiding with some of the guests in a sealed room, a white woman expresses concern over his headwear and beard.  He approaches the woman, and gives her what sounds like a prepared and scripted speech, showing her pictures of him with his family, and explaining how his turban and hairstyle have ties to his religious beliefs.  The scene rings false, because it sounds preachy.  It doesn't feel like real life, and in a movie that seems to be striving for harsh realism, that's a big problem.

Rather than being real, Hotel Mumbai often came across as calculated to me.  There's a kind of sadistic coldness to the film's approach.  As I mentioned, we never really get to learn much about anyone in the movie, so we get to watch faceless people die in misery over and over for two hours.  Is it tragic and terrible when the terrorists force some ladies from the front desk to call individual rooms, and tell them that a rescue team has arrived, so that the guests will come out of hiding and can be killed?  Of course!  But, it also feels manipulative and needlessly cruel to depict such an act when it is just there, seemingly for shock value.  It is painful to watch, but there is also an emptiness to it.  And the more the filmmakers force us to watch horrific imagery, the more empty the movie seemed to me.  The movie is tragic, but it doesn't want to truly focus on the people involved in the tragedy.  It just wants to get to the next moment of cruelty and bloodshed. 

There were many moments where I almost felt compelled to walk out of the theater.  I wanted to stop watching the film.  Some may credit this to the movie being effective in its depiction of terrible events, but I think otherwise.  This movie sickened me.  It did not want to create an honest and intriguing dramatization of the events.  It almost seems to want to be an endurance test for the audience.  There are very few human or dramatically effective moments here.  One moment that is very good concerns one of the terrorists named Imran, played by Amandeep Singh.  It concerns a phone conversation that he has with his father while he is having a crisis of faith.  The screams of anguish that come after the phone call, and the expression on his face both during and after the call have an honesty that the rest of the film lacks.  It's a moment of humanity in a film that largely feels exploitative and nasty.

Outside of this moment, the entire cast seem to exist as plot devices.  Some exist to die, some exist to act stoically in the face of terror, and some exist to engage in scenes of survival that feel overly calculated instead of tense.  Watching Hotel Mumbai, I was often reminded of Paul Greengrass' film United 93, which depicted the events on one of the hijacked planes on September 11th.  That film took a similarly stark and realistic depiction of a tragic event, but it did so in a less exploitative way.  In fact, it felt more real, because it largely used unknown actors to play the roles.  This movie gives us some recognizable faces like Patel, Armie Hammer, and Jason Isaacs, which only adds to the cheap and manipulative tone.  When you consider that a lot of these name actors are given so little characterization to work with, it feels even more inferior.

Hotel Mumbai is not the worst movie out there by a long shot, but it is easily the worst time I've had at the movies in a very long while.  So, while my mind may tell me that this is a well-made film for what it is, I think my heart wins out in the end.  I did not need to see the kind of things this movie showed me, and I did not need such a dramatically hollow take on such bloody chaos.

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Friday, March 29, 2019

Dumbo

The idea of doing a live action remake of Disney's Dumbo must have been like catnip to a filmmaker like Tim Burton.  After all, the story pretty much contains most of his favorite elements.  There's a sad, misunderstood hero at the center of it all who is shunned by the rest of the world, a majority of the cast is made up of circus people, and there's kind of a bizarre off-kilter whimsy to everything.  At times, the movie plays like a love letter to everything Burton believes in, and he has fully embraced it, giving us one of his more visually beautiful films he has done in a very long time.

Burton has always excelled at being a visual storyteller, and he gives us a film that is rich in glorious colors, production design (provided by Rick Heinrichs), costumes (Colleen Atwood), and visual effects.  This modern day take on the 1941 animated classic has all the visual splendor, atmosphere and technical wizardry you could hope for.  That's why it's so disappointing that the foundation all of this mastery is built upon, the script credited to Ehren Kruger, is so flimsy.  This is a movie that is filled with glorious sights, but there's nothing underneath.  Oh, the movie does have a big heart at the center of it all.  This is the most sentimental Burton has gotten since he made Big Fish.  But, the characters who inhabit this visually rich world just don't stack up.  Even little Dumbo himself, adorable of an elephant as he might be, just never comes across as that captivating of a screen presence, because he often feels like a co-star in his own self-titled feature.

Rather than the story being told from the point of view of the sweet, floppy-eared elephant who is gifted with the ability of flight, we get the story of Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), and his two young children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins).  They befriend little Dumbo, teach him to be the best he can be, and eventually make him a star at a circus.  They also all get their own backstory, which takes up most of the film's nearly two hour run time. (The original cartoon barely ran 60 minutes, and probably needed to be fleshed out, but not like this.) Holt, we learn, worked with the horses at a traveling circus until he was called away to fight in World War I.  Now he's back, missing an arm, to find his children waiting for him, and his wife gone after a bout with an illness.  Holt struggles to find his place in the circus, and is put in charge of taking care of the elephants by the ringmaster, Max (an energetic Danny DeVito).  This is how his children and him are introduced to little Dumbo, and take care of him when everyone else initially rejects him because of his oversized ears.

Little Milly and Joe are the first to bond with the elephant, and learn his secret ability to fly.  The kids are largely the stars of most of the film, and this would be fine, if the kids didn't come across as being so wooden.  I really don't like criticizing child actors, as I don't want to be mean, but I just did not buy these performances.  As Milly, young Nico Parker seems to speak in the same tone of voice, no matter what might be happening, and seldom seems invested.  As for Joe, little Mr. Hobbins is given little to do by the script, other than to point out the obvious.  When they discover what Dumbo can do, they build an act around it, which catches the media's attention.  This brings the villain into the story, a big city circus producer named V.A. Vandermere (Michael Keaton), who sees Dumbo as his road to fame, and wants to ship the elephant's mom off to be slaughtered.

Keaton is appropriately oily and hateful in his portrayal, but again, the script gives him little to do outside of overacting.  There is no real motivation to his character as a villain.  He is simply mean because that is his part in the story.  Same goes for everyone else.  Nobody gets to be developed outside of the role they get to play.  We have Eva Green as a French aerialist who befriends Dumbo and eventually begins to fall for Holt and his children, although she never really is given much of a reason to.  We have the entire crew of the circus, which include clowns, strongmen, side show attractions, and the like.  They're there mostly to react to what's going on, and engage in a daring rescue mission during the third act.  This is one of those movies that features a large cast, but nobody gets to make much of an impression.

Dumbo, for all of its visual strength, does not have much of a story to tell.  In expanding upon the simple plot of the animated film, Kruger seems to be at a loss.  He does his very best, even throwing in an action-heavy climax involving Dumbo soaring to the rescue to save the children from a burning building.  But, the whole thing is running on empty.  I remember the sights and visuals that Burton and his cinematography team have given us, but I'll be willing to bet I'll have forgotten most of the people who inhabited them in a few weeks.  This clearly wants to be a big-hearted movie about outsiders finding their place and banding together, but it simply doesn't have enough emotion to truly come to life.  The heart is there, but the banal writing fails to kick it into motion.

Burton has always been one of those filmmakers who really needs a strong script to go with his visuals.  Otherwise, you're just admiring the technical credits, and nothing else.  Sadly, this is another one of those cases.  I don't regret seeing the movie, as it's filled with sights I won't soon forget.  I just wish it got to have a few more rewrites to flesh out the characters before Burton got to put his trademark style on the project.

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Saturday, March 23, 2019

Us

Jordan Peele's Us (the follow up to 2017's Get Out) is one of those movies where critics need to tread carefully.  It's the kind of film where the less you know about it walking in, the better.  And so, the job of the critic becomes to convey their thoughts, while revealing as little as possible.  It's a tricky balance, and I really want to accomplish it, because what Peele has done here is create a nerve-wracking thriller that is constantly gripping, even if some of the answers it provides to its own mysteries don't make complete sense.

This is a film with a lot on its mind, and even more on its plate.  And even if the screenplay doesn't nail all the landings, the ride getting there is a lot of fun.  In only his second time as a filmmaker, Peele shows a masterful skill at creating mood and an uneasy air that creates a mounting sense of tension.  The best comparison is M Night Shyamalan, and how in his better efforts he is able to draw the audience in with silence and minimal dialogue.  Watching Us, you're constantly glancing about the screen for clues that it provides about where the mystery is going.  You also find yourself hanging on every word.  Not only this, but the movie shows a masterful skill at using music to create a mood, both with hit songs from the 90s, and the unsettling and odd music score by Michael Abels.  Even if there are moments where the plot doesn't seem to be on the most stable of ground, you're still engaged, because of the atmosphere and mood that Peele creates.

The story kicks off with an incredibly creepy prologue set around a Santa Cruz amusement park in 1986, where the less said about it, the better.  All I will say is that it's a wonderful set up to the film's overall mystery.  After this, it cuts to the present day, where we see a family of four driving to a vacation home near that same amusement park from the opening.  The family includes the father Gabe (Winston Duke, providing some great comic relief throughout the film when necessary) and the mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o, who has never been better, and gives the first standout performance of 2019), as well as their two children, teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and youngest son Jason (Evan Alex).  We spend about a half hour or so with the family, showing their bond and a strong sense of humor in the screenplay.  However, the movie never lets us forget its unsettling opening scene, and how the family is involved, even if most of them don't realize it yet.

At night, after the family has spent the day at the beach with some friends, there is a power outage in the vacation home, and the family discovers that there are four shadowy figures standing mute at the end of the driveway leading to the house.  Gabe tries to be intimidating and scare them away, while Adelaide seems more nervous.  At first, the strangers do not seem to respond to anything, but the situation quickly escalates, and before long the visitors are trying to storm their way into the house.  This leads to one of the creepiest home invasion sequences I have seen in a movie in a long time, especially how it expertly draws us into the mood that Peele is going for with this film.  We eventually learn that the four invaders resemble each individual family member, only they act and talk in a much more primitive and almost animal-like manner.  How this is possible, I will leave you to discover, but the performances here (each actor playing a family member also plays their twisted doppelganger) are fantastic as these people are forced to face these bizarre attackers.

As the layers of the plot are slowly revealed, we discover that Us is not just an effective twist on the home invasion thriller, where the person trying to break into your home is literally yourself.  As mentioned previously, this is a movie with a lot on its mind, and it delights in leading us down the various paths and ideas that it wants to take us.  With such strong performances and an eerie atmosphere unmatched by a lot of recent horror films, we're more than happy to go along.  Over time, the scope of the film grows much bigger, and this is where the film starts to lose a little bit of its effectiveness, because it seems to be taking on too much.  The film is at its best when it is tackling a simple idea, and while it is still thrilling throughout, I did find myself kind of missing the intimacy that the first half of the film had.  Again, I don't really want to go much further than that in explaining, as the audience deserves to know as little as possible.

Some of the answers Peele gives us to his mysteries left me scratching my head.  It's not enough to make me write off the film, but it does give a few moments a slightly sour aftertaste.  But, that's mostly because what came before was so wonderful, I wanted this to be the rare movie that perfectly nails every solution and every revelation.  I wanted to fully embrace everything about it.  Even if things don't work out perfectly, this is still something to get excited about.  The superb performances, unsettling atmosphere, camerawork, and music score all create an original experience, one that I don't think I have had before at the movies.  Much like in Get Out, the film is making a statement here, and it does so with a strong sense of tension and even some biting satire and dark humor.

In some ways, I think I liked this more than Get Out, as I really got into its weird and unsettling vibe.  Regardless, even if the movie doesn't perfectly pull it off, it should not be ignored, as it's one of the more engrossing Hollywood thrillers we've had recently.  Us might leave you with more questions than answers, but it will undoubtedly leave you glued to your seat for its entire run time.

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Sunday, March 17, 2019

Captive State

Here is a movie that is going to divide a great number of people who watch it.  Captive State is either going to frustrate or engage anyone who sits through it, and I think the studio understood that, which is why they released it cold this weekend without any advance screenings for critics.  I, however, was kind of engaged by the world and society that it created.  Director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) is essentially making a story about humankind after an alien invasion, but he has done so with little Sci-Fi thrills, and an extremely low budget.  So, the focus is almost entirely on the humanity, and not on the more action-heavy elements of the plot.

The aliens themselves (who we see very little of) don't really play a role in the story.  Using mostly handheld cameras, Wyatt is kind of going for a docudrama style, depicting the ways that humanity is silently defying the alien oppressors.  The invaders basically control all technology, so humans have resorted to using carrier pigeons in order to send secret messages to one another.  I admit, I'm kind of fascinated in this kind of stuff.  I like stories that really delve into the society that has emerged since an apocalyptic Sci-Fi event, and that's just what this movie is.  The movie has gotten a lot of criticism for being drab and lifeless, but I didn't see it that way.  This feels like an honest depiction of what a society under alien control would feel like.  There is no comic relief or joy in this movie, and I admired that.  This is a straight-faced, no thrills movie that still managed to work for me, because I was drawn in by the world it inhabited.

As the film opens, it has been nine years since the aliens invaded and essentially took control of our entire society.  Humankind surrendered, and now we basically have a government system that is run by the invaders.  The humans who decided to cooperate with the aliens are protected and live in luxury, while the rest of society are forced to live in the ruins of the poorer neighborhoods.  Law enforcement, under the control of the aliens, has turned our world into a police state.  All humans are forced to have a tracking device implanted in their necks so that they can be monitored at all times.  One of the more fascinating aspects of the film is how it explores how certain people believe that the invasion was a good thing, and has improved our society.  Crime is at an all time low.  As long as you are on the side of the E.T.s, you are pretty much guaranteed a good life.

Naturally, a resistance movement has formed, who plan terrorist-like attacks on major events planned by the alien visitors.  The film looks at both sides of a growing war, with the resistance represented by some locals, and the side of the police represented by a straight-laced agent named Mulligan (John Goodman).  Goodman plays Mulligan as a man who is doing his job.  Maybe he supports the aliens, maybe he doesn't.  He uses a poker face the whole time, and while we get a few hints that maybe he still believes in humanity, it's hard to tell.  It's the right way to play the character.  The side of the resistance is represented by a young man named Gabriel (Ashton Sanders from Moonlight).  He witnessed his family get wiped out by the invaders while they were trying to escape from their home in Chicago, and now supports an underground movement called Phoenix.  His brother Rafe (Jonathan Majors) was also part of the movement, and Gabriel believes he died for the cause.  Now, as Phoenix is planning an attack at an upcoming Unity Rally where the aliens are scheduled to make an appearance, Gabriel learns that there's more to all of this than he knows.

The screenplay credited to Wyatt and his wife, Erica Beeney, shows that a lot of thought went into its vision of an Earth under the control of invading alien forces.  I especially liked how it explores the two sides of human society.  Those who support the invaders still have access to current technology, which the aliens now control via a signal on top of a skyscraper.  The resistance is forced to use primitive technology so that their efforts are not discovered.  Newspapers have also taken on a vital role, as the Phoenix movement is sending secret messages in the classified ads, via a supporter who works on the staff.  The film also takes on an almost spy thriller approach, as we see both the resistance and the law enforcement trying to stay one step ahead of each other, crack their codes, and infiltrate one another.  The movie also creates a believable image of a post-invasion Chicago, where parts of the city are in ruins, while others still function as normal.

But what really sells the film are the performances.  Everyone treats this as if it were real, and gives it a hard, honest edge.  The cast includes some familiar faces like Vera Farmiga, Alan Ruck, D.B. Sweeney and Kevin Dunn,  and each of them find the right note to their performances.  This is not a light movie, nor does it rely on a lot of special effects or action to grab the audience.  As I mentioned, we seldom see the aliens themselves, and when we do, they have been brought to life with low budget but effective CG.  This is a sad, human story, and the cast brings the right amount of intensity.  If anyone were to crack a smile or not take this seriously, the tone of the film would be completely ruined.  The tension is built around the two sides of humanity in a secret war with each other.  This is a human thriller that just happens to have a Sci-Fi backdrop.

Captive State is most likely not going to do great business at the box office, but I can only hope it gets discovered at home by people who like their Sci-Fi when it delves into the world itself, instead of giving us expensively realized battles and special effects.  I found this to be a very sharp and involving film, but I will understand if you don't agree.  It's not a movie for everyone.  But I can see it getting a loyal following.

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Saturday, March 16, 2019

Wonder Park

Wonder Park is an ambitious but messy animated kids movie that I can neither brand a success or a failure.  On one hand, the movie does have a lot more on its mind than you might expect, grappling with some tough issues, like the effect the idea of losing a loved one can have on a child.  But on the other hand, the movie does not have the confidence to fully explore these themes, since it mixes it with the usual cartoon slapstick humor provided by the talking animal cast.  This is a movie that constantly seems to be at war with itself, and never knows if it wants to take itself seriously, or if it wants to be a fun romp for very little kids. 

One only needs to look behind the scenes to get a good idea as to why the movie seems to suffer from an identity crisis.  The film was originally intended to be the directorial debut of former Pixar animator, Dylan Brown.  However, he was removed from the project early in 2018 after he was met with accusations of Sexual Misconduct.  He was then replaced by three other directors (David Feiss, Clare Kilner and Robert Iscove), who were tasked with finishing the film in his place.  The weird thing is, none of the directors involved get final credit.  In fact, the movie has no "Directed by" credit at all.  Perhaps this explains why the movie seems to have such clashing and alternating tones.  For most of its running time, the film wants to be a metaphor for both creativity and depression.  But every so often, the movie gets sidetracked by some very noisy action and comic sequences that seem completely out of place.  Clearly there was no unified vision, and the movie just never comes together because of it.  There are bits and pieces where it works, but it's just too unorganized to recommend. 

The film's plot centers on a bright and inventive young girl named June (voice by Brianna Denski), who enjoys spending most of her days designing a fantasy amusement park called Wonderland.  With the help of her supportive mom (Jennifer Garner), June has managed to build elaborate blueprints, models, and even some crude working versions of some of the rides and attractions she is constantly dreaming up.  The rides that June and her mother come up with together vary from the imaginative and the enchanting (a carousel where the guests ride flying fish), right down to the potentially dangerous.  One ride June designs consists of a giant ball that passengers enter that is sent flying from one end of the park to the other with reckless abandon.  It looks like something out of that Johnny Knoxville movie from last year, Action Point, and would probably result in numerous lawsuits if attempted outside of a child's imagination.

All of June's dreaming and imagination is brought to an immediate halt when her mom is diagnosed with a serious illness that is never mentioned, but appears to be cancer.  After her mom is sent away to a hospital for treatment, June loses all of her creativity, and devotes her entire time to being overly protective of her dad (Matthew Broderick), so that he doesn't become sick or injured also.  Wanting his daughter to get out of the house and to stop obsessing over his safety, dad sends June away to Math Camp for the summer.  During the bus ride to camp, June makes the snap decision to ditch the other kids, and go off on her own.  While walking through the woods, she somehow discovers a physical version of the Wonderland theme park that her mom and her used to dream of.  The park, however, has fallen into total disrepair, and a dark cloud hovers overhead, destroying everything that was once fun and good about the land June once created.

Not long after, June runs into some living versions of the stuffed animals that she used to play with, and often were involved in her elaborate dreams.  The gang of animals include a narcoleptic bear named Boomer (Ken Hudson Campbell), beaver twins Gus (Keenan Thompson) and Cooper (Ken Jeong), a no-nonsense boar named Greta (Mila Kunis), and an uptight porcupine named Steve (John Oliver).  They explain to June that the dark cloud hovering over the park is called The Darkness, and that it suddenly appeared one day, and started destroying Wonderland.  The leader of the animals, a chimpanzee named Peanut (Broadway veteran Norbert Leo Butz, doing very good voice over work here), disappeared that same day, and since then, there has been no magic or joy in the park.  Adults in the audience will quickly pick up that the mysterious Darkness destroying Wonderland is actually June's fear and depression over her mom's illness taken physical form, and that it is destroying all of her creativity and imagination.  The only way to save the park is to find Peanut, and encourage him to create once again, since he too has fallen into a depression, and no longer has the creative spark within him.

Wonder Park does have a lot of ideas, perhaps too many for a film that only runs 85 minutes.  Therefore, the movie seems to rush through most of its plot, creating a kind of nonsensical tone.  Not a whole lot is explained here.  Is June somehow in another world when she encounters the physical Wonderland?  That seems to be the case, as when her mom and her were dreaming up the park, they would whisper their ideas into the ear of a stuffed toy monkey.  Somehow, Peanut would hear these whispers on the wind, and would start creating the rides and attractions they dreamed up.  So, the toys are somehow a gateway between the real world and this alternate world Wonderland and these animals exist in?  That seems to be the direction this movie wants to go, but it never really explains.  Another curious thing, when Wonderland is thriving, we see it filled with people enjoying the rides.  However, when The Darkness arrives, all the people vanish instantly.  So, did these people even exist in the first place?  Were they too part of June's imagination?  I must admit, these are not the kind of questions I usually ask while I'm watching a movie from the Nickelodeon TV network's film division.  I look forward to the existential ponderings that the next SpongeBob movie will provide.

But I digress.  The movie is obviously trying to copy the formula Pixar perfected of mixing family entertainment with more adult themes about loss or depression, such as Up or Inside Out.  But there is not a proper flow here.  The movie will frequently get sidetracked by lengthy slapstick-inspired sequences featuring the animal characters that seem shoehorned into the narrative to give the kids something to laugh at.  Naturally, these moments are here to lighten the mood of the film, but they simply seem out of place.  It often feels like the movie is distracted.  It doesn't want to get too moody or sad, so it will suddenly throw in a wacky scene where Boomer the Bear has to test a roller coaster ride that goes awry.  This wouldn't be so bad if the very next scene didn't involve June grappling with her own fear and anger over her mother's hospitalization that turns everything deadly serious, and having to face "The Darkness" head-on.  This is a movie that tries to be melancholy and goofy almost from scene-to-scene, and it just doesn't connect like it should.

Wonder Park does have some good moments.  I liked the look of the film, and some of the more serious topics it covers were actually handled quite well in a way that won't scare young children too much.  Will kids like it?  I honestly can't say.  The movie often seems to be confused as to whether it's trying to teach a valuable life lesson, or if it wants to be a zany and fun cartoon.  It tries to have it both ways, and ends up accomplishing little as a result.  The movies it's trying to emulate knew how to speak to all audiences, while this one seems to be unsure of who it's trying to speak to.


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Friday, March 15, 2019

Five Feet Apart

Five Feet Apart starts out as a fairly effective and intelligent drama about cystic fibrosis.  The early scenes gave me a good feeling.  I was enjoying the performances of the two lead actors, and even felt like I was learning about the challenges of living with the disease.  But then, for absolutely no reason, the screenplay decides to dive right off the far deep end of melodrama, throwing one contrived situation after another to the point that it all leads up to a ludicrous climax.  Here is a movie that feels honest and real for about an hour, then abandons all subtlety and thought.

And yet, actor-turned-director Justin Baldoni starts things with such a clear vision.  It's a simple story about two teenagers fighting a deadly disease, their lives, their hopes, and how they bond with one another.  To further add to the effectiveness, we have two wonderful lead performances from Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse as the young lovers who grow closer, even though their disease forces them to keep a six foot distance from each other. (The title refers to the fact that they decide to cheat just a little, and only keep a five foot distance.) Even in these early stages of the film, there are some manufactured elements, such as the fact that these kids' parents seem to be virtually non-existent, the hospital staff pretty much lets them get away with murder, and Richardson's character has been provided with a gay best friend for no other reason than it's expected.  But, the performances and the film's tone keep the movie grounded in some sort of reality.  Little by little, the movie betrays that reality, and not only has the characters doing stupid things for the sake of the plot, but it throws the two lovers into the most forced third act action crisis you can imagine.  It's like the filmmakers sent home the original writers halfway through, and brought in some hacks to finish the screenplay.

But before all that happens, we are introduced to Stella (Richardson), who has lived with cystic fibrosis most of her life, lives in and out of the hospital, and is hoping for a lung transplant that could help add some years to her life.  She hosts a video blog on YouTube about her experiences and various medical procedures that she has to go through, which is a clever way to teach the audience about the disease.  Stella is fairly optimistic about her situation, but her smile hides a lot of pain.  One day, Stella meets a new patient named Will (Sprouse), who not only also has cystic fibrosis, but also carries a bacteria within him that could be possibly fatal if he came in contact with another patient.  Will has all but given up on life, but Stella reaches him, and before long, they're bonding.  Of course, they have to keep a certain distance from each other for Stella's safety. 

So, right there, we have a good set up for a tear jerker.  We have two kids who love each other, but cannot touch, kiss, or have any kind of physical contact with each other.  Why does this movie need so many other sob story elements added on top of this?  We have Stella hiding a secret pain concerning a family member, we have talk of survivor's guilt, we have the gay best friend who is also suffering from cystic fibrosis, and is afraid to love because whoever he loves would be burdened with his medical needs, we have a nurse who understands what Stella and Will are going through but won't let them endanger each other's lives...And then we have the climax.  Oh Lord, the climax.  It's the kind of thing that just keeps on building layers upon layers of forced contrivances to the point that you almost want to bail out. 

And yet, Five Feet Apart does have some moments that feel like they come from a genuine place.  I especially like how this movie does not back away from the realities of the disease it is covering.  These kids are sick, they are dying, and the movie never lets us forget it.  There are scenes where they look exhausted, or that they have all the weight of the world on their shoulders.  This is in stark contrast to a lot of dramas about sick teens we've had lately, where they are often beautiful and healthy looking until the script decides they should not be.  This movie has a very unglamorous and raw look and tone, which is why it's such a giant let down to see the movie go down the road of forced manipulation.  This is a movie that seems to promise hard truths, and instead gives us the usual song and dance.  It also forces us to believe that these reasonably intelligent kids would do things no kids in their position would ever do. 

By the end of it all, I felt like I was being jerked around.  The movie was trying to force the tears, instead of letting them come from this simple and heartbreaking situation that it had initially set up.  It didn't need all the generic soap opera antics, and mechanical plot manipulations.  I liked the movie enough when it was a simple story about two kids falling in love while facing their own mortality.  Then the film had to shut its brain off, and ruin the whole experience.  I hate when that happens.

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Friday, March 08, 2019

Captain Marvel

In the grand scheme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain Marvel is not one of the great entries, but it is a lot of fun.  It's the kind of movie that does its job, and does it very well, but it never goes above and beyond.  I doubt it will have the same impact that Black Panther had last year, but it doesn't have to.  All it has to do is successfully introduce a new hero into the Universe, make us want to see more, and make us more excited for the next Avengers movie on April 26th.  And that's just what it does.

There is quite a lot of backstory here, however, and the movie does take a little while to truly get moving.  One thing that the directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck do to hold our interest is throw us immediately into the action.  The film's heroine, Carol Danvers (portrayed by Brie Larson), is already a superpowered warrior deeply entangled in an intergalactic battle right as it opens.  She is fighting on the side of the Kree, an alien race that is in constant battle with the Skrulls, shape-shifting aliens who can assume any human or alien form, but usually appear as green-skinned creatures that kind of look like the long lost love child of Mr. Spock and the Jolly Green Giant.   Carol has a Kree mentor named Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who has trained her how to use her powers in battle, and now wants her to join his fighting force as they battle a small band of Skrulls led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn).  The first half hour or so of the film is not so much a superhero origin movie, as it is a space opera, with the actors throwing a lot of made up technical jargon and blasting each other.  It's impressive visually, but we don't learn much about Carol during this segment, other than she's skilled at kicking green alien butt.

To be perfectly fair, Carol doesn't know much about herself at this point of the story.  She was found by the Kree with no memories of her past, other than some small flashes of a life she knows nothing about, and makes no sense to her.  When Carol is forced to land on Earth in order to pursue some Skrulls, she finally begins to learn about herself before her time with her alien comrades in arms, and it's here that the movie starts to find its focus.  Her arrival on Earth is brought to the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who has both eyes in this movie, due to the fact that the film is set in 1995.  Jackson has also been digitally altered to look younger via special effects.  I thought this would be distracting, but I was quickly able to stop looking at his digital face, and just focus on his performance.  The movie does have quite a lot of fun giving us a Nick Fury who is not yet the battle-hardened badass that we know from other Marvel movies.  He's a bit more optimistic here, and is just now learning about how big the universe beyond his own world can be with the arrival of these two warring alien forces, and him being stuck in the middle of it.

The friendship that builds between Carol and Nick makes up a big part of the human element of the story, but another important relationship concerns Carol and an old friend from her lost days, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch, giving a standout performance), a former fighter pilot turned mother who helps Carol unlock her memories.  There are other important relationships that she develops that I cannot talk about for the sake of spoilers.  What I can talk about, however, is Goose the cat, who begins following Carol around shortly after she arrives on Earth, and whom Nick becomes especially attached to.  Goose is one of the great movie cats, stealing most of the scenes it's in, and it would be a crime to restrict her appearance to only one movie.

It is through these relationships that Carol finds her humanity and personality, and it is how Captain Marvel itself finds solid ground.  The whole alien conflict stuff never really connected with me, but once the movie slowed down enough to actually explore these characters, I became more involved.  A lot of this has to do with how Larson successfully portrays a lost soul who is looking for some kind of connection.  For all of the incredible powers the Kree have taught her, Carol is essentially a blank slate for a good part of the movie.  This is intentional, and fitting with the character from the comics, but it did give me worry early on that she was just going to be treated as a walking special effect.  Given Larson's past performances in films like Room, I knew she deserved more.  Fortunately, the movie does eventually let her develop, and I can see how she could grow into a much more interesting character in future appearances in Marvel films.

What was slightly less effective for me is how the movie throws a lot of mid-90s pop culture references and music on the soundtrack.  There are instances on the soundtrack that are just a bit too on-the-nose with the scene they were accompanying, or just came across as being kind of campy, like how they work "Just a Girl" by No Doubt into a key scene.  If you want a recent example of a Sci-Fi movie that used a decade's nostalgia effectively, look at Bumblebee from a few months ago.  That movie actually probably had an even stronger influence of pop culture (in this case the 80s), but it worked, because it was actually tied into the Transformers franchise itself, and the filmmakers knew how to use the nostalgia in such a way that it was warm and appropriate.  This movie seems to just be throwing nostalgia up on the screen, and saying "remember that?".  It's not integral, and it exists just for some extra gags.

Captain Marvel is the kind of movie that does work, but I think will be more effective as the future films build her character, and her overall place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself.  The movie is a gamble, and has already created some controversy within the fan community before it even opened, but I think it will pay off in the end.  Much like DC's Wonder Woman movie from a couple years ago, it brings some much needed diversity to the superhero genre, but more than that, it's an effective introduction that made me want to see more.

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Friday, March 01, 2019

Greta

I get that Greta is supposed to be a loopy little thriller.  I even get that it's supposed to go off the rails as it goes on.  But, I just didn't believe a second of it, not even when it was pretending to be subtle early on.  Co-writer and director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) has made an implausible movie out of a concept that could have been lean and chilling.  And the further he goes for broke, the more I felt distanced from what I was watching.

The concept is simple enough.  A timid and sweet young woman named Frances (Chloe Grace Moretz) finds a purse left behind on a New York subway.  Rather than take it to the authorities, she decides to personally track down the bag's owner, and deliver it to her.  The owner in question is Greta (Isabelle Huppert), an elderly Frenchwoman living on her own, and pining over the various things she has lost in her life, including her husband (now deceased), her dog (also gone), and an adult daughter who lives in Paris, studying music, and will not speak to her.  For reasons not fully explained in the film, Frances is immediately taken in by this woman, and begins shunning her friends for Greta.  I get that Frances has lost her mom, and maybe she sees Greta as a sort of mother figure, since she does not have a good relationship with her father.  But, the movie does not really develop the relationship between these two women all that well.

That's because the movie wants to hurry things along, and get to the crazy and over the top stuff.  After a few scenes of Frances and Greta sharing some nice moments in the park, or helping Greta pick out a new dog at a shelter, it's quickly established that something is not right.  It turns out that the bag Frances found on the subway that night was planted.  Greta has a whole cupboard full of identical bags which she uses to lure in naive young women like her into a clingy and controlling relationship.  And when Frances tries to back away and cut Greta out of her life, the old woman just won't take a hint.  She calls constantly, leaves hundreds of texts, and then she starts showing up everywhere in Frances' life.  Greta is not just a stalker, you see, but a Movie Stalker, who can seemingly be anywhere at any time.  The police can't do anything as the woman starts popping up everywhere, even while Frances is at work, or at her own apartment building. 

I can see how a movie like this could be creepy or intimidating with a different approach, but Jordan is using a very broad brush here, almost as if he is constantly winking at the camera.  Things intensify to such extremes that we're not shocked when the true psychotic nature of Greta is ultimately revealed.  As Greta goes off the rails of madness, poisoning her victims or dancing ballet as she drugs somebody who happens to get too close, the movie goes right along with her.  If Jordan is going for shocks here, it's just too silly to take seriously.  And if he is trying to make a very weird dark comedy of sorts, it's just not strange enough to be funny.  It exists in that strange middle realm where I was admiring the performances and the craft of the film, but I just wasn't invested in what I was watching.  As weird as the movie was, I never found it all that interesting.  It's certainly not a tame movie (there is a moment of strong violence that is quite shocking), but it was not off-putting enough to put me on edge.

Greta is also not that smart of a thriller.  It relies on tired old gimmicks, like characters wandering into places they shouldn't be, or doing things they obviously shouldn't.  The movie is so gimmicky, it even has a scene where the main character is having a nightmare, wakes up, and then it turns out they're still in a nightmare, and wake up again.  I thought that dream-within-a-dream stunt went out in the 1980s.  I also never believed that Greta wasn't crazy, even when the movie was trying to convince me she was just a harmless old woman.  Huppert's performance is just off enough that she raises red flags in the audience from the beginning.  This makes it all the more frustrating that Moretz is forced to go along with her for so long, and takes too long to piece together that this woman does not have her best interest in mind. 

I understand that this is not meant to be a subtle movie, but that does not excuse the music score that drives home every moment with a sledgehammer, or the sometimes stilted dialogue.  I honestly don't know what Jordan was going with this.  He starts out with a clever and potentially creepy idea, and then he tackles it so broadly that I lost all interest.  In the end, Greta delivers no genuine thrills, nor does it get any laughs from its increasingly ludicrous tone.  It simply disappoints.

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