Reel Opinions


Saturday, June 22, 2019

Anna

Say what you will about filmmaker Luc Besson, but he usually makes films that are unmistakably his.  Even his last film, the big-budget Sci-Fi bomb, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, could have only come from him.  Either that, or an overactive 10-year-old boy.  That's why his latest film, Anna, is a surprise in the worst way.  It has none of his flourish, humor, or style.  I fear the rejection of his previous movie may have watered down his talents just a little.  Either that, or his mind has been on other things lately, primarily the several allegations of sexual misconduct that have dogged him lately, and caused the release of this film to be delayed.

Whatever the case, Anna will seem familiar to anyone who has seen La Femme Nikita, which launched Besson's career back in 1990.  So familiar, in fact, that he almost seems to repeating many of the same ideas as he did in that film.  To help perhaps make this new movie stand out, he employs a gimmick throughout the film in which the story is constantly backtracking and jumping around chronologically.  The story will start out by going in a fairly linear fashion, then there will be some kind of big reveal, and the movie will suddenly cut back to an earlier event, where it turns out there was some information that we didn't see before.  This is the movie's way of trying to be smarter than us, by withholding information.  It's the cinematic equal to listening to someone tell a story or a joke, and they're constantly going back, because they forgot to tell you something important.  If that sounds like fun to you, be my guest, but it irked me to no end.

Anna (played by fashion model Sasha Luss) is an attractive but down on her luck Russian woman who is stuck in a relationship with an abusive lout, until an agent from the KGB named Alex (Luke Evans) recognized her talents, and took her away from the life she knew in order to work for him and his boss, the chain-smoking and foul-mouthed Olga (Helen Mirren).  They promise to let her return to a normal life after five years, and Anna begins a life as an assassin.  In short time, Anna is one of their most skilled killers, using her beauty and deadly instincts to seduce and then murder her targets in various brutal ways.  Her current mission has her posing as a model in Paris, where she begins a romantic relationship with a fellow model named Maud (Lera Abova), all the while trying to keep her real line of work private.

Her cover is ultimately blown by an American CIA agent named Lenny Miller (Cillian Murphy), who wants to use Anna to get to the inside of the KGB.  Over time, Anna starts sleeping with Lenny, as well as Alex.  Not that any of these relationships matter much to the overall narrative.  It's just an excuse for some provocative love making that doesn't hold as much weight as you would expect.  Anna is basically playing all sides of the conflict in her desire to get out of being a killer, which naturally is easier said than done.  Again, this fairly straight forward narrative is told in a manner that confusingly jumps around.  We get constant subtitles that read "Five Years Later", "Three Years Before", "November 1990", "1985"...The whole time line jumping gimmick, as well as doubling back to reveal information we didn't see before, feels more like an attempt to mask just how simplistic the story actually is.

Besson would normally attack this kind of material with ferocity, and perhaps even a hint of lunacy that would generate some laughs.  But, as I've already stated, Anna feels cold and offers very little of interest.  The only stand out action sequence is one that takes place within a crowded restaurant, where Anna takes out the goons of an intended target with anything she can get her hands on, including the dinner plates.  However, a lot of this scene has already been shown in the trailer.  The studio obviously knew that this was the main highlight, so they built their ad campaign around it.  Fair enough, but it still feels like a cheat when you realize how little there is going on for the rest of the film.  Rather than creating a thriller that quickens the pace of the audience, Besson instead decides to distract us by telling his story out of sequence for no discernible reason.

Obviously, the studio is releasing Anna on a big summer weekend in the hopes that no one will notice it, and that it will be gone by the 4th of July.  Given the limited advertising this film has gotten, and its delayed release, they obviously are just pushing it out in order to be forgotten as quick as possible.  I say grant their wish, and save your money.

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Toy Story 4

Toy Story 4 is the latest sequel we've had this summer that we probably didn't need in the first place, but with a difference.  We may not have needed this, but it's still worth watching, thanks to a clever and funny script that helps make a return to these characters and their world an entertaining one.  It's a sequel that's been well thought out and executed.

If the purpose behind 2010's Toy Story 3 was to wrap up the storyline as a whole, then the whole purpose behind this latest entry in Pixar's flagship franchise seems to be to answer a question that I doubt anyone was asking - What happened to Bo Peep, the little porcelain figurine voiced by Annie Potts, who served as the love interest for Woody the pull string cowboy in the first two movies, but was curiously missing from the third?  For those of you who have been wondering, I'm sure you'll be happy to know that she's been happy living on her own as a "lost toy" out in the open world.  In a flashback that opens this film, we learn how Bo Peep was given away to someone, and eventually found her way to an antique store.  Not content living on a shelf, waiting for someone to buy her, Bo took her fate into her own hands, and set out into the world with her sheep.  This is how we find her when she is reunited with Woody (once again voiced by Tom Hanks).

Woody, if you remember from the ending of the last film, has found a new home with a new kid named Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), and all of his toy friends, including Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen).  As the film opens, he's dealing with the fact that he's not Bonnie's favorite toy, and is sometimes left in the closet while she plays with the others.  It's a stark difference for the somewhat-neurotic cowboy to deal with, after years of being the top toy of his previous owner, Andy.  However, he gets the chance to take charge once again when little Bonnie makes a toy of her own at school out of a spork and some google eyes, which she calls Forky (Tony Hale).  Little Forky is the film's most interesting creation, as he does not see himself as a child's plaything.  He was designed to be thrown away after a meal, so he is constantly trying to toss himself in the trash.  Woody makes it his personal mission to try to convince Forky how important he is to Bonnie, being a toy she created herself.  But the odd little guy won't listen, and tries to make an escape by leaping out the window of an R.V. during a family road trip.

Woody follows Forky out into the open world to look for him, and encounters not only Bo Peep, but many other new toy characters as well.  There's the somewhat creepy talking doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), who rules over an antique store with an army of even creepier living ventriloquist dummies.  A visit to a local carnival introduces us to the comedic team of Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele), a pair of plush prizes who have somewhat of a mean streak.  Finally, there is Duke Caboom (a very funny Keanu Reeves), who makes the strongest impression outside of Forky when it comes to the new characters.  He's a toy modeled after Canada's greatest stuntman who was shunned by his former child owner when he couldn't do motorcycle stunts like advertised in his commercial.  Now he wrestles constantly with self doubt, all the while performing wicked stunts and poses atop his bike.

It's these memorable new characters that make Toy Story 4 worth watching, especially since many of the returning toys are given little to do this time around, aside from Woody and Bo.  And while the storyline here isn't quite as compelling as previous entries, the warmth, heart and emotion that has been present since the 1995 original is still strong.  The creates a somewhat odd film that probably didn't need to be made, but at the same time, you're glad they did.  It's a movie that feels familiar and welcoming, but nothing groundbreaking.  It doesn't really do anything that we haven't seen in the previous films, but we're glad to be watching it again, due to the care that the filmmakers and writers have given the project.  This was apparently a hard film for the studio to put together, as it went through many hands, and at one point had over 70% of its script thrown out and rewritten in the middle of production.

Whatever problems plagued this film behind the scenes do not show in the final product, as the script feels as fresh as the classic entries that many have grown up on.  In contrast to Toy Story 3, this is a much lighter and funnier film.  And the many memorable new characters at least make this not feel like a retread.  At the same time, you can also see how this film had Pixar stumped for a while, as the plot seems a bit thin for a feature length film.  The characters and the gags do keep it afloat, but the narrative does seem a bit dragged out at 100 minutes.  But then, that only makes this film's success greater.  It still works, these characters are still wonderful to watch, and the movie is still a lot of fun, even if it doesn't really seem to be stretching the limits of modern day computer animation.

I think it's safe to assume that Toy Story 4 will be our last visit from Woody and his friends, outside of the occasional short or TV special.  I just don't see how they can get any more out of this beyond where this entry ends.  But hey, everyone said that about the last one, which was the proper send off to these characters.  This is a nice extended and unexpected encore that understands what made the earlier films last with viewers, and doesn't shake things up too much.

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Child's Play

Chucky, the notorious killer doll who was introduced in 1988's original Child's Play, and has hacked and slashed his way through six sequels since, has survived a lot of things.  Now he must face what all the horror icons dread - the modern day reboot.  It's always a gamble when Hollywood takes a fan-favorite horror franchise like A Nightmare on Elm Street or Halloween, and tries to recapture the magic.  And usually, the results are tragic.  How does Chucky's reimagining hold up?  Honestly, it's not as bad as it could have been, but the end result is still fairly lackluster.

To be fair, director Lars Klevberg does find a unique angle on the character to try to make this remake stand out in a summer already filled with bloated sequels and uninspired nostalgia trips.  Rather than using the supernatural angle of having the doll being possessed by the soul of a serial killer like in the original franchise, here Chucky is an A.I. toy that can connect to all of your smart devices around your home.  This not only gives the movie a unique angle for the character that we haven't seen before, but it serves for some potentially dark satire on our technology-obsessed society.  Sadly, this is another case of a movie having a great idea, and not fully exploiting it.  Yes, the movie does have some inventive and over the top gory death scenes to appease those who come to the movie looking for it, but it doesn't have as much fun with the idea of the murderous doll being able to control all smart devices made by the same company that built him.

One particular missed opportunity is the fact that its young hero, a shy and withdrawn young boy named Andy (Gabriel Bateman), has an electric hearing aid.  How do you not exploit that in a horror film built around technology?  You could have the evil little toy mess with his device so that Andy could not hear anything, therefore allowing the demon to sneak up on him without the kid being able to hear him.  That would be a suitably creepy and tense sequence.  However, I don't know if this Child's Play is going for frights.  The movie has a strong darkly comic vibe that at times seems to be drawing inspiration from Joe Dante's Gremlins.  It veers so strongly toward the comedic that the movie is just not scary in the slightest, and comes across as goofy more often than not.  It can be said that the original Chucky franchise has frequently found time for dark humor, but it still always managed to make the doll come across as sinister.  This new take on Chucky (who has an innocent child-like voice provided by Mark Hamill) is just too silly to be afraid of.

It doesn't help matters that the design for the evil toy is absolutely horrendous.  How this got past the approval stage is a mystery to me.  The movie tells us that this is the newest tech toy sensation, but that is something I just could not accept.  Imagine if someone made a life-size doll of one of the puppets used in 2004's Team America: World Police, and then gave it WiFi and tech capabilities, and you have a good idea of what this thing looks like.  It's not appealing in the slightest, and often looks cheap.  The whole point of doing a remake of a fan-favorite special effects film is to use the increase in technology to give us a better monster.  But this Chucky can't hold a candle to the work that Kevin Yagher and his team did some 30 years ago.  It only adds to the goofiness of the film, and makes it impossible to take seriously.  The filmmakers try to make the thing look menacing by having its eyes glow red when its angry or about to go on a killing spree, but it still looks off.  And why would a toy company add a feature like glowing red eyes to the doll in the first place?

Since they got the doll so wrong, this Child's Play doesn't work like it should.  I do admire that writer Tyler Burton Smith tries to strike out on his own with the script, and not slavishly follow the original.  The main gimmick behind the film is that this doll has been reprogrammed by a disgruntled factory worker, so its murderous actions are the result of a factory defect.  This Chucky genuinely wants to be friends with its human owner, Andy, and sees its evil actions as a way to help the kid by getting rid of people who either are mean to or hurt him, such as mom's sleazy new boyfriend.  The movie does try to add a human element to the story, by giving Andy some other kids to hang out with, who often come across as if they walked out of a mid-80s Steven Spielberg movie.  There's also a police detective (Brian Tyree Henry) who hangs out around the apartment building, because his mom lives down the hall from Andy.  He's there mostly to provide comic relief, and grow suspicious of the kid when the movie's body count starts to rise.

Again, the problem here is that none of the human characters are as interesting as they should be.  In particular, a big problem is with Andy's mom, Karen, played by Aubrey Plaza.  The way Plaza portrays her is very cold, detached and sarcastic, making her come across as being severely miscast.  As the lead child, Gabriel Bateman does come across as likable, but he has a hard time connecting with his co-stars, particularly the group of friends that he hangs out with.  I just never felt a connection between the kids.  It also bothered me how many comic relief characters this movie has.  Even when there's a murderous toy on the loose, everyone's tossing quips left and right, which really undermines the tension that the film is supposed to be creating.  I probably wouldn't mind so much if the jokes were better, but save for an extended gag involving a severed head that plays as gruesome slapstick, I never laughed or smiled.  The film's climax, set in a Wal-Mart like big box store, has the potential for some manic energy, but the end result is disappointing and nowhere near as memorable as the buildup promises.

Ultimately, I can label Child's Play as a noble effort that comes up short.  It's nowhere near as generic as some other horror remakes like Poltergeist or Friday the 13th, but it also makes too many missteps for me to label it as a success.  I'm really not sure how fans of the original franchise (which is still running, and is even getting a TV series on the SyFy Channel) will react to this take on the beloved horror icon.  It lacks the intimacy and genuine creepiness of the 1988 film, and sort of comes across as way too silly for its own good.

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Sunday, June 16, 2019

Late Night

Back in the 2000s, Mindy Kaling found herself on the writing staff of the TV show, The Office, where she was a diversity hire.  This experience obviously inspired Late Night (which she wrote, co-produced and stars in), a genial and formulaic, but smart, comedy where she plays a woman who finds herself a diversity hire on the writing staff of a talk show that once was at the top of the late night wars, but has since fallen into obscurity.

This is a sweet and funny film that wants to show a woman making it in a mostly male-dominated world, but is also conventional enough to not shake things up too much.  Director Nisha Ganatra wisely uses Kaling's unique and likable gifts as a comedic actress to great effect, giving her a winning lead role.  The movie puts Kaling's sunny humor and personality up against Emma Thompson, as her boss, who is skilled with the withering insult or comment.  Thompson might be channeling a little bit of Meryl Streep from The Devil Wears Prada here, but she also puts a unique spin, and makes us laugh just as much, even if she is sometimes being a terrible person.  It's the teaming of these two actresses, and their unique comic sensibilities, that makes the film stand out, even if what happens within it is never all that surprising.

The plot is centered on the behind the scenes turmoil that happens around "Tonight with Katherine Newbury", which has been hosted by Katherine (Thompson) for nearly 30 years.  She has numerous Emmy Awards lining her walls, but in recent years, the show has taken a dip in quality.  She hasn't been relevant in over 10 years, and she refuses to update the format on her show.  She's still respected in the industry, but we get the sense it's because of what she's done in the past, rather than anything recent.  In the writers' room on her show, she refuses to learn their names, referring to them instead by an assigned number.  When it's brought to her attention that all of her writers are men, she decides to hire a woman in order to quiet the critics.

Enter Molly (Kaling), who has worked at a chemical plant most of her adult life, and whose main experience with comedy has been entertaining her co-workers, and occasionally doing some amateur stand up for charity causes.  Regardless, she is hired as a writer out of desperation as a diversity hire.  Naturally, she does not fit in with her new environment.  She is outspoken and critical of the show, and the downward spiral it's been facing for about a decade now, which obviously does not win her any favors with Katherine.  As for the other writers, they don't take her seriously at first, and one even mistakes her for a production assistant when he first lays eyes on her, giving her his lunch order.  And yet, Molly soon finds her place in the writers' room, offering her suggestions for the opening monologue, and also trying to get Katherine to add some more personal subject matters into her humor, such as politics and elements from her own life.

Late Night honestly could have used a few more surprises up its narrative sleeve, but what we're given is likable, because both Kaling and Thompson work so well together in the scenes that they share.  It's great how the movie has these two characters working or bouncing one-liners off of each other, even if they have nothing in common.  These two characters sometimes find themselves on the same team, but more often find themselves pitted against each other.  Katherine is a traditionalist, and some of the ideas that Molly pitches for her show genuinely terrify her.  And yet, we can always sense that begrudging respect that stays strong, and helps build an effective relationship that is built on a form of respect.  Molly becomes determined to make Katherine realize that updating the show is not the end of her career, while Katherine begins to slowly understand where Molly is coming from with her ideas.  It's an effective relationship that starts because they're both women working in a male-dominated field, but it grows bigger than that.

There are some strong subplots here as well, my favorite involving Katherine's relationship with her husband (John Lithgow), a brilliant musician who is suffering from Parkinson's.  Their relationship is one that I sort of wish I could see a movie about.  There is obvious love between them, but also a lot of pain.  She is his second wife, and he left a lot behind in order to have her.  Now that he may be fighting a losing battle with his disease, he is reflecting on his life a lot.  It all builds up to a third act reveal that is genuinely touching when both Lithgow and Thompson sit down and talk about where their relationship truly is.  These scenes have a certain tenderness to them that I kind of wish the more sitcom-style "behind the scenes" moments had.  It makes you wish there was a way they could expand upon these characters, and we could see them appear in their own story somehow.

Still, Date Night manages to stand out as it is, because there is an intelligence to its humor, and Kaling obviously drew upon a lot of personal experience in the industry while writing her script.  It might be familiar, but it holds some true laughs, some memorable characters, and great performances all around.  I kind of wish it delved a little bit deeper into its subject matter, but what we did get is very good.

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Saturday, June 15, 2019

Shaft

Shaft is a follow up to the John Singleton-directed 2000 film of the same name, which featured Samuel L. Jackson as the nephew of the original 1971 Shaft, Richard Roundtree.  Both Jackson and Roundtree are back in their respective roles for this one, only now Jackson is the son of the original.  This is explained in a throwaway line of dialogue, stating that Roundtree was only *pretending* to be his uncle last time around.  If that doesn't make sense to you, consider the fact that in real life, the age difference between the two actors is only six years.  Now we're getting into a whole other strange territory.

Fortunately, the movie itself is easier to follow.  It's a lightweight action-comedy that starts out kind of poking fun at the generational gap between Jackson and his newly-introduced estranged millennial son, Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher).  There's a lot of back and forth dialogue about how to best handle the situations that our heroes find themselves in.  Jr. doesn't like guns, and is not keen on bar joints and banging every woman in sight, things that his dad and granddad live by.  If the movie had taken a satirical look at this generational gap, this could have been something.  Instead, director Tim Story (2005's Fantastic Four and its 2007 sequel) begins to embrace the elder Shaft's way of thinking, and seems to suggest that the only way Jr. can get ahead in the world is by emulating the Shaft family name of hookers, guns and booze.  It's also not slick or exciting enough in its action, so we can only focus on its dated homophobic humor.

In this movie, the two elder Shafts are just horrified that Jr. (a computer whiz working for the FBI) is not a "Sex Machine to All the Chicks".  He drinks coconut water, he doesn't like hanging out in clubs, and he is only "friends" with his potential love interest, a pretty doctor (Alexandra Shipp).  His dad blames it on the fact that he was raised by his mother (Regina Hall, not served well here), and never learned how to "be a man".  We learn in the opening sequence that Hall's character left Jackson's Shaft after a hit was made on his life, with little baby Jr. in the car with him.  She took Jr. and left, and the kid has never seen his dad since.  But when one of Jr.'s friends ends up dead from a suspicious overdose, he needs his dad's help to crack the case.

So Shaft and son go around Harlem, questioning suspects, and generally arguing about everything and nothing, until Jr. finally "comes to his senses", and starts acting like his dad.  Not only does this make him a better person in this movie's eyes, but it also makes the young nurse fall for him in a terribly-handled scene where she only becomes sexually interested in him after she witnesses him gun down some thugs in a restaurant.  This movie, which has been trying to have fun with the different view points of the characters, suddenly shifts entirely to one side of the argument, and forgets the other.  Before this point, Shaft had been a middling, but kind of amusing film.  After it, the movie goes into all out embracing dated macho philosophies. 

Honestly, this Shaft is never funny or exciting enough to truly thrill.  It primarily wants to be a good time, but the jokes are stale.  Any pleasure that does come from the film is created by Jackson's performance, who occasionally gets laughs with his line readings even if the joke itself isn't all that funny.  There's a kind of sitcom level to the writing here, with the elder Shaft griping about Facebook and texting, and not knowing anything about computers. (He apparently doesn't know about downloading porn, which I find hard to believe.) Even when the movie doesn't work, Jackson and Usher do have some strong chemistry, and it's kind of fun to see them together.  They simply are being hampered by a bad script, which seems to be a major downfall of a lot of recent summer movies.  It's getting to the point where you wonder if Hollywood's top writers are getting paid too much.

This is a movie that runs out of comic inspiration long before its nearly two hour run time is up.  By the time granddad Shaft is brought in for a third act cameo, and the three generations are gearing up for a raid on a penthouse, the movie has gone on slapstick autopilot. (The heroes try to break into the villain's base through the window, and Jr. can't kick the window open, despite repeated attempts.) I think a satirical take on the ideals of John Shaft could work in a film, but that would require a much smarter approach than has been taken here.  One that doesn't just give up halfway through, and just side with one point of view for the rest of the film.  And thanks to the rather bland direction by Story, the movie is just not that visually interesting.  It tries to throw in some slow-mo and special effects to enhance some of the gun battles, but these effects often feel gimmicky rather than cool.

But what simply cannot be forgiven is that the film does play the original film's Oscar-winning theme song over the end credits, instead choosing to play an awful heavily-autotuned remake.  Just when you want the movie to stop making mistakes, it ends on the biggest one of all.

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Friday, June 14, 2019

Men in Black: International

I feel the need to ask, is there anyone who still anticipates the Men in Black movies?  I ask this not to be snarky, but because I am genuinely curious.  This feels like a franchise stuck in a time warp, repeating the same gags and ideas over and over, and acting like we've never seen them before.  Much like last weekend's Dark Phoenix, this comes across as lukewarm leftovers of a franchise that is long past its inspiration.

Men in Black: International tries to shake things up by introducing two new stars, Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, who play Agents H and M, respectively.  You might remember that Hemsworth and Thompson worked wonderfully together a couple years ago in Thor: Ragnarok.  Obviously, the filmmakers thought that they could recapture the magic they had there, but no such luck, as the movie doesn't allow them to build a real on-screen relationship.  There are hints at a partnership growing, but I was never convinced.  And even though they are new characters, they're basically playing the same roles that Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones filled in the earlier movies.  Thompson is the brash young newcomer who acts as our eyes into the world of the M.I.B.  Of course, we've seen this world in three previous films, so it's not as thrilling to us as it is to her.  Still, the movie acts like it's all new to us.  Hemsworth is the grizzled veteran who's seen it all.  We're supposed to fall in love with these characters the same way we did with the original stars back in 1997, but to me, they came across as cheap knock offs.

The characters they play might be new, but their material is old hat.  They shoot at slimy aliens with great big blaster guns, they exchange witty and sarcastic banter non-stop, and they drive around in alien cars and motorcycles that can convert into flying machines.  Again, nothing new is done.  Screenwriters Matt Holloway and Art Marcum must have had a marathon screening of the earlier entries, and made up a list of what elements they should include.  But rather than create a new spin or do a fresh take, they just repeat the movies verbatim.  The main thrill of the Men in Black films have always been the aliens that would be dreamed up.  This time, very few have an actual role to play, with most reduced to cameos.  The only one who is given anything to do in the plot is a tiny alien named Pawny (voice by Kumail Nanjiani), a creature who fits in your pocket, and acts as a comic relief sidekick for the two human stars.  He might have worked, if the movie had given him anything funny or interesting to say.

As for the plot, the movie doesn't seem to care very much, so neither does the audience.  There's some kind of alien weapon that an evil shape-shifting race known as The Hive wants in order to destroy the Earth.  There also might be a Mole within the Men in Black, feeding information to the evil aliens.  If you actually care to guess the identity, just look for the instantly recognizable famous actor who works for the organization, and is given nothing to do for a majority of the film.  There's actually two of them, but it's still pretty easy to guess which one it is.  This continues to show just how little this movie cares.  The plot carries no weight in the film itself.  Even with the threat of total extermination, the M.I.B. act like nothing is amiss most of the time.  I know these guys are supposed to have seen it all, but if you want the audience to get invested, you have to at least act like this stuff matters just a little.

As I sit here writing, I am thinking back over the movie in mind, trying to find something that is new, original or clever, and I come up empty.  Men in Black: International offers no inspiration of any kind, and acts as a black hole designed to suck up the audience's money, time and attention, without giving them anything worthwhile in return.  I'd like to say more about this movie, but...Wait, no I wouldn't. 

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Saturday, June 08, 2019

Dark Phoenix

Dark Phoenix, the latest and final film in the current X-Men film franchise before the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes over control of the characters, is not so much a fond-farewell to the current cast, as it is an obligation.  Nobody looks like they wanted to appear in this installment, and for good reason.  This is a drawn-out, talky, and dull entry that is just solemn and sad, with no subtext.  We get a lot of tortured faces, and scenes where the X-Men lash out angrily over and over with their powers.  What we don't get is a proper send off.

There is simply no life here, not even during the action scenes, which often are truncated and unmemorable.  There is no joy either, or scenes that thrill.  It's simply a turgid affair that repeats the same or similar ideas that previous, better films in the series have already expressed.  Heck, even the story this movie is telling has already been told back in 2006 with X-Men: The Last Stand.  Sure, it wasn't told very well back then, but in all honesty, it's not much better here.  The story tells of how Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) develops unusual powers after she is absorbed by what looks like a solar flare of some kind, but is really some sort of alien menace that has the power to destroy worlds.  Now that Jean Grey is in possession of said power, she begins to lose control and lash out.  In the original comic book, this led to one of the more memorable and dramatic storylines in the series.  Within the confines of a two hour film, all the subtext, substance and emotion have been replaced with a lot of embarrassed-looking actors reciting dialogue that wants to sound deep and meaningful, but is really just banal.

The film kicks off with a flashback in 1975, where Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) meets a recently orphaned eight-year-old Jean Grey, and offers to help her control and use the powers she already has within her at a young age.  She grows up to become a member of his X-Men team, and this leads to the film's one good sequence, where Jean and her fellow Mutants Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) team up and use their powers in order to save the crew of a space shuttle that is spinning out of control.  This rescue mission is how Jean becomes exposed to the alien force that grants her powers that she never had before, and beyond those of her fellow X-Men.  Aside from the spike in power, nothing seems amiss at first.  But soon, Jean is lashing out uncontrollably, and she becomes a threat to her fellow Mutants.

Her new powers unlock some memories that Xavier has suppressed all this time, which leads to her turning against her mentor, as well as having a lot of her fellow X-Men question Xavier's true motives.  This may have created some drama if the actors looked like their hearts were in it.  Jennifer Lawrence, as Raven, questions his motives the most early on, and as good of an actress as Lawrence is, she can't rise above some of the dialogue she is forced to say.  Meanwhile, some aliens arrive on Earth disguised as humans, led by the evil Vuk (Jessica Chastain).  She wants the power within Jean, for reasons the movie does not really bother to explain.  When it comes to villains, Vuk and her alien forces are some of the most underwritten non-entities to ever grace an event movie.  They have little dialogue, next to no motivation, and simply stand around, or engage in boring battles with the X-Men that leave no impression whatsoever.

Dark Phoenix is such a washout of a movie, it doesn't even get the vibe of outsiders trying to fit in with the everyday world right, which is pretty much a key ingredient to every X-Men film.  Early on, we learn that humanity has become more accepting of Mutants and their kind.  Heck, the President of the United States even has a direct line to Xavier's office, so he can send his team up into space to save the shuttle crew.  But, as Jean Grey becomes the "Dark Phoenix", and starts to lose control of her rage and powers, humans begin to distrust Mutants all over again.  This would be a major plot point in just about any other movie, but here, it's pretty much brushed aside, and has no impact.  But then, that is how the whole movie plays out.  Plot points and ideas are expressed, but never acted upon, and the movie just trudges along to the next uneventful scene or wannabe action sequence, such as one built around the X-Men trying to cross the street, and everybody else trying to stop them.  I wish I was joking.

It might have helped if the dialogue had an ounce of wit, or at least if somebody would just say a one-liner or something.  But the movie takes itself so deadly serious to the point of unintentional comedy.  There is no sign of joy to the words that are spoken here.  Everybody spells out what they are thinking, feeling, and I don't think they ever stop moping or glowering about how miserable they are.  Everybody comes across as such a sad sack, you can't help but wonder what is supposed to be thrilling about this story in the first place.  Jean Grey's evolution from her normal form to that of a dark and powerful entity is supposed to be tragic, but because Grey never really hits the emotional weight her character is supposed to have, neither does the movie.  I don't fully blame Turner's performance, as writer-director Simon Kinberg seems to struggle with all of his characters here.

This is essentially what happens when a film franchise has run out of steam, and the actors simply don't act like they care anymore.  Yes, some previous entries have missed the mark, but the cast at least always seemed game.  In Dark Phoenix, there's just an unmistakable sense that everybody knew they were trapped in a troubled production that they wanted no part in.  Instead of thrills, we get actors who look like they wish they were somewhere else.  At least the audience can relate.

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Friday, June 07, 2019

The Secret Life of Pets 2

2016's The Secret Life of Pets was not a great movie, but it had enough heart, laughs and likable characters to make it worth watching.  In comparison, the just-released sequel feels like a workmanlike effort that plops the likable characters into contrived and forced multiple plots, and foregoes what made the original a success.  There are laughs to be had, and a couple breathtaking sequences, but it never adds up to a lot.

Watching The Secret Life of Pets 2, you get the sense that the filmmakers were not sure which direction to take the movie, or the returning characters.  The movie features multiple plots, perhaps too many for a movie that barely runs 85 minutes.  The first movie had kind of a multi-plot structure also, but it knew how to tie it all together.  Here, the large cast of animals seem to be existing in their own stories, and the movie keeps on jumping haphazardly from one plot to the next, with little care or concern on bringing them all together.  What made the first film work was that it created a community with all the various pets who lived within a Manhattan apartment building.  They visited with each other, they hung out with each other, and they all had a part to play in the overall narrative.  Here, the pets are mostly given their own separate storyline, forced to act on their own for the most part, and it's just not as fun.

Just as before, our lead pet is a Jack Russell Terrier named Max (voice by Patton Oswalt), who lives with his canine "brother" Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and human owner Katie (Ellie Kemper).  Since the last time we saw them, Katie has since married a man named Chuck (Pete Holmes), and given birth to a young son, whom Max has become overly protective of to the point of being neurotic.  The whole group takes a weekend trip to Chuck's family farm, where Max meets a steely farm dog named Rooster (Harrison Ford, at his crankiest), who teaches Max that it's okay to let kids get hurt once in a while, since it's how they learn, and to face many of his own fears.  The relationship between Max and Rooster plays out kind of the same way as the one Billy Crystal and Jack Palance had in 1991's City Slickers, and I liked how the two played off of each other.  Unfortunately, the movie never has the time to focus on it as it should, as it's too busy juggling a variety of other unrelated plots that keep on cutting in to the stuff that works.

The most obtrusive plot concerns the bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart), who fancies himself a superhero now, and is hired by another dog named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) to rescue a white tiger cub from a cruel Russian circus owner (Nick Kroll, speaking with an accent that sounds about as authentic as Boris and Natasha from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons).  This is a plot that goes nowhere, and only exists to add some generic villains to the mix that are unnecessary.  Sadly, it's also the story that gets the most attention.  It's supposed to be the plot that brings all the characters together, as everyone joins in to rescue the tiger from a runaway circus train in an action climax that is as creatively bankrupt as it is boring.  All it does is prove that this movie never needed an action plot centered on a kidnapping villain in the first place.

The final plot the film throws at us is the one that gets the most laughs, because it centers on the two most memorable characters from the first film.  Gidget the dog (a scene-stealing Jenny Slate) loses one of Max's favorite toys, and to get it back, she must venture into a crazy cat lady's apartment that is crawling with ferocious felines.  She must disguise herself as a cat, and in order to do so, she seeks advice from the deadpan cat Chloe (Lake Bell), who teaches her the ways of cat nip, knocking stuff off of tables, and walking on the computer keys when the human owner is using it.  This whole segment would probably be great as a half hour TV special with these characters, but buried within the confines of this narrative, it never really finds a proper place.  It's very funny, with both Slate and Bell having some great one-liners, but because it has nothing to do with the overall movie, it can't help but feel like a distraction.

Because it never finds a way to connect these wildly different plots, save for bringing everyone into a chase scene for the end, The Secret Life of Pets 2 feels wildly unfocused.  It keeps on touching on subjects like letting go and letting a child make their own mistakes, or the value of friendship, but it never really has time to focus on anything, because the movie is too busy trying to juggle its multiple angles, and never finding a connection.  It often feels like we're watching three failed pilot episodes for a TV series based on the first movie that have been spliced and edited together to make a feature.  And because the movie lacks focus, we just don't get to be behind these characters like we were the last time.  The heart and emotion that brought all these characters together is completely absent.  It doesn't feel like they exist in one big world.  Due to the largely fragmented nature this film takes, I just could not get involved.

Not that it will matter to little kids, who will no doubt thrill at seeing their favorite characters from before on the big screen again.  But fans who are over 10 will probably feel like this is diminished returns.  It's not bad in any way, it just can't settle on a proper tone or angle, and so it feels uneven and lacks focus.  There's stuff that does work here, but the filmmakers never figured out how to bring it all together.

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