Reel Opinions


Sunday, August 18, 2019

No Review of 47 Meters Down: Uncaged This Weekend

Hello, everyone, and I hope you all had a great weekend!

I am writing to inform that I will not be reviewing 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, as it is not screening locally, and is not really the kind of movie I think I will go out of my way to see.  It's been a busy weekend of reviews already anyway.

I will be back very soon, with reviews of Ready or Not on Wednesday, and Angel Has Fallen on Friday, so I hope you all will join me then.

Enjoy the week ahead, and take care, everyone!

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Where'd You Go, Bernadette

It's clear that Where'd You Go, Bernadette has been made by talented people.  I found myself admiring a lot of what I saw up on the screen, such as the performances and the settings.  What the movie failed to do was make me feel involved.  This is a dry, disconnected film that never left much of an impression, and pretty much left my head as soon as the end credits started.  This is the last thing we should expect when your movie is directed by Richard Linklater, and stars Cate Blanchett.

In adapting Maria Semple's best-selling novel, Linklater (who co-wrote the screenplay with two others) never quite gets to the emotion that's supposed to be behind the story.  This is a story about a woman named Bernadette Fox (Blanchett), who once was viewed as a star in the world of architecture, and had even won the MacArthur "Genius" Grant for her work, until some unfortunate circumstances cut her dreams short.  Now, she's a wife, a mother to a bright young daughter named Bee (newcomer Emma Nelson), and frequently argues with other local mothers, who genuinely don't like her.  Her chief rival is is her neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig), who passes herself off as a "Supermom", with everything under control, but secretly doesn't know how to deal with her own drugged out teenage son. 

It's obvious that everyone in this story is a frustrated, angry individual.  That much comes across loud and clear.  But it constantly feels like Linklater is merely scratching the surface, and that there is so much more to tell here.  I have not read the original book, but I could tell just by watching the movie that something was missing.  The story behind what led Bernadette to end her legendary career seems largely truncated, as if huge pieces of it are missing.  We're not getting all the details, and the script doesn't give what's there the dramatic weight that it needs.  There is something off here.  The characters are always talking about things that should be dramatic and powerful, but they don't quite have the intended effect.  We learn that Bernadette suffered multiple miscarriages before she gave birth to Bee, but the scene where she shares this information seems like it's just kind of pushing this information out there, rather than giving it the impact it should have.  At one point, Bee says that her mother is her best friend, but we don't really get to see that, as the movie never quite touches upon their relationship as strongly as it should.

The whole movie is kind of like that.  I wanted to get involved with these people, and I kept on waiting for the movie to really kick into gear and let these performances by these actors truly stand out.  Instead, the film just kind of meanders along, not really making much of an impression.  This also causes the relationship with Bernadette's husband, Elgin (Billy Crudup), less fulfilling than it should be.  This is strange, as it plays such a huge part in the story.  Her husband is clearly worried about her wife's behavior in recent years.  He fears she is suffering from depression, due to her current state and what happened in her past.  Of course, he is not home around enough to truly notice his wife.  Still, he stages an intervention, which leads Bernadette to literally run away, leaving her life behind, and making her way to Antarctica, so that she can do something on her own, and truly live again.

I assume that all of this works better on the page, where we can truly get inside the minds of these characters.  Up on the screen, Where'd You Go, Bernadette gives us just enough information to go on, without really telling us more than it needs to.  We don't fully understand why Bernadette is so manic, sometimes standoffish, and at times borderline rude.  We don't understand much about her rivalry with many of the local moms.  We don't get much feeling between the relationship with both her husband and teenage daughter, which seems to be a big part of the story that is being told.  Most of all, when Bernadette does decide to run away from it all, we don't get much self-discovery, or much of her finding herself again.  It seems that Blanchett is trying to work overtime here, giving a memorably quirky performance, but she just can't carry this leaden screenplay all by herself.  Neither can the rest of the cast, all of whom are very good, but are not given enough to play off of by the script.

Maybe I would understand these characters better if I had read the book, which I think I might do.  I was intrigued by a lot of the possibilities that this movie points at, but never acts upon.  For a movie about trying to find your creative spark again, this is very cut and dry.  It's been made with some skill, and some of the scenes work, but it simply never resonated.

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Saturday, August 17, 2019

Good Boys

Good Boys is being advertised as a raunchy comedy about three 12-year-old boys who drop "F-bombs" in their dialogue like they are being paid by the amount of times they say it, and get involved in situations involving sex toys, drugs and alcohol.  Having seen it, I can definitely say that it lives up to that reputation.  But, it's also surprisingly sharp and wise, both in its humor and in its depiction of what it's like to be at that "tween" age.  It's also kind of sweet and likable, without going all soft and gooey, like a lot of "edgy" comedies often do.

The kids are innocents who have been plopped into a Hard-R comedy, and that's part of the fun.  They talk about adult things, but often don't know what they're talking about in the first place.  This is funny, and very true to boys of the age.  At one point, one of the kids says that a nymphomaniac is someone "who has sex on both land and sea".  Not only does that line get a laugh, but it has a ring of truth to it.  Boys that age clearly don't know about these kind of things, but like to pretend that they do.  Some of the best gags in the film are built around the idea that these boys keep on finding themselves in over their heads, but don't want it to show.  At one point, a teenager starts talking about taking molly, and one of the boys reasonably asks, "Who's she?".

But the movie is also largely about adolescence, and that strange period in everyone's life when they start Middle School.  Max (Jacob Tremblay), and his two best friends Thor (Brady Noon) and Lucas (Keith L. Williams) are at that pivotal age.  They've just started sixth grade, and they plan to face it together the same way that they faced elementary school - with each of them constantly having each other's backs.  But only two weeks into the school year, there is already signs that they may be going down different paths in life.  Max is starting to show an interest in girls, and wants to talk to who he is certain is his forever love, his young classmate Brixlee (Millie Davis).  Thor loves singing, has a great voice, and dreams of auditioning for this year's school musical, Rock of Ages.  However, he's much more concerned about being seen as "cool" by the popular kids, so he is constantly bragging about how much sex he's had, and how many beers he's stolen.  As for Lucas, he's the naive and sweet natured member of the trio.  He's the one who's still interested in trading card games, and fully believes that his two friends still feel the same way he does about things like cartoons and video games.

Like many coming of age stories, Good Boys covers a pivotal moment where their friendship will be tested, and go on an adventure.  In this movie's case, the adventure is kicked off when Max accidentally breaks his dad's (a funny Will Forte) prized drone.  His dad's away on business, so the kids have two days to get another one to replace it.  If they don't, Max will not be able to go to the "cool kids" party that he got invited to, and he won't get to have the chance to kiss Brixlee.  This leads to a series of run-ins with cops, angry frat boys, and the most mysterious creatures of all to boys of this age, teenage girls.  All the while, they try to learn about kissing via various means, as they don't want to be seen as lame when they eventually go to the big party.  This leads to some unfortunate searches on the Internet, and learning that Thor's parents have some very kinky interests judging by the stuff they have in their room.

I can easily see how a movie like this could have gone wrong, but co-writer and director Gene Stupnitsky (Bad Teacher) handles this material by giving it a certain innocence, and some genuinely funny dialogue.  While the humor and language is often crude, it never goes to such offensive extremes that I was turned off.  The movie is first and foremost a lot of fun, and when it places these boys into horrible situations or ones that they could not and should not understand at their age, it gets laughs out of how the young heroes so wrongly react to them.  When Max gives the girl he likes a gift (which I won't spoil here), the humor comes not from what it is, but the fact that both he and the girl are too young to know what it is.  The film also impresses in how it creates a genuine and honest friendship between the three boys.  The young actors work wonderfully with each other, and never seem to be playing for the cameras, like many lesser child stars.

Good Boys might have a dirty mind, but it also has a lot on its mind.  Most of all, it knows how to express these ideas it has, and do so with genuine humor and more heart than you might expect.  The trailer might convince you that it just wants to be a good time.  It certainly is, but fortunately, it's a lot more.

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Friday, August 16, 2019

Blinded by the Light

I feel that in recent years, the term "fan" has been misused or sullied.  Most people view it negatively.  It creates the image of someone in a dark basement, sitting in front of a computer, and complaining endlessly or leaving ugly posts on various message boards and chat groups.  These posts can either be for or against a certain celebrity.  The mass social media culture has turned everyone into an online critic.  Everyone has an opinion, and due to the anonymous nature of the Internet, nobody has to be careful with what they say.  Everyone can be "off the cuff" and honest about a celebrity, and how they feel about them.  And they feel it is their right, because they are a "fan".

Blinded by the Light is a movie about true fandom, and I say that, because it is about the joy of discovering someone's work that speaks to you.  In the case of this movie, it is about a 16-year-old Pakistani Muslim living in a small England town in the middle of a recession in 1987.  He discovers the music of Bruce Springsteen, and for the first time, an artist's work truly speaks to him.  He can relate to the anger and passion that Springsteen speaks and sings with.  It is an experience everyone has, whether it be music like it is here, or art, film, professional sports and live theater.  We all have that moment where we make a connection with an artist of some sort, and we feel like they are speaking directly to us, or that they have lived through the same frustration or situations that we have.  Director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) has made a wonderful little film about that moment, and how important it is.

The fan in question is a kid named Javed (Viveik Kalra), who is based on a real life journalist named Sarfraz Manzoor.  Manzoor wrote a memoir about how Springsteen's music impacted his youth called Greetings From Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock 'n Roll, which was the basis for this film. (Manzoor also contributed to the screenplay.) In the film, Javed is living in the town of Luton with a traditional Muslim family that is struggling to make ends meet, like a lot of the British community was doing at the time during the Margaret Thatcher era.  His family is poor and foreign, which makes him the victim of racist bullying and attacks.  His mom (Meera Ganatra) works out of their home as a seamstress, while his father (Kulvinder Ghir) punches the clock each day at a dead end factory job.  Javed and his siblings are expected to give part of whatever money they earn to help the family scrape by, which gets even harder when his father is laid off from his job, and the mother becomes the main breadwinner on her limited income.

Javed has a lot of dreams, most of them surrounding leaving Luton behind once and for all, getting a girlfriend, and becoming a professional writer.  His father forbids him from going to parties, doing much socializing, and basically wants his son to focus solely on his studies so that he can have a good life.  He does not understand his son, because Javed is forced to hide so much of his dreams and personality from his parents.  He writes lyrics and songs for his best friend and aspiring musician, Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), but it seems like no one truly understands his desires to truly break free of the life that he feels is suffocating him.  But then, a classmate (Aaron Phagura) introduces Javed to the music of Springsteen, and it is exactly what the lost and isolated teen needs in order to express himself.  As Javed listens to "The Promised Land" during the middle of a raging storm, we see the lyrics to the song float through the air, and plastered on buildings.  We also see how the music reaches the teen, with Bruce's singing of troubled times, and the anger of the American working class.  Javed can relate to the anger and the passion in those lyrics, and it sparks something within him.

This is the simple truth that Blinded by the Light understands.  It perfectly captures that music when a celebrity or artist, who may be on the other side of the world or a thousand miles away, reaches you and seems to be speaking directly to you with their work.  The connection that Javed makes to the music convinces him that there is a way out of the life he is currently living, because for the first time, he feels like there are others going through the same troubles he has.  It instills the confidence within him to not only follow his dream of being a writer, but to also take a chance with a girl at his school (Nell Williams).  It also naturally creates tension with his father, who does not understand his son's sudden obsession.  It even creates problems with his best friend, Matt.  And even though it's fairly predictable where the story is going to go and end up, I still found myself enamored, because this is a film filled with many simple truths, wise observations, and wonderful performances.

There is an energy to the film and, even though it is not technically a musical, the Springsteen songs are so integral to the story and used to such great effect, it comes pretty close, especially during joyous scenes where the characters simply become lost in the music.  It is also a drama that avoids big moments and confrontations.  All of the problems that Javed faces feel natural and real, especially the ones he experiences with his father.  As the dad, Kulvinder Ghir gives the best performance in the film.  He is funny, sad, heartfelt, passionate, an ultimately a complex character.  He is not just the strict disciplinarian that we initially expect.  I truly hope that his performance can be remembered at Award Season next year.  The rest of the cast is just as memorable, with many in the supporting cast getting moments to stand out, like Javed's sister (Nikita Mehta), and how she too is leading somewhat of a secret life against her traditional family upbringing.

Most of all, Blinded by the Light is a truthful film, not just on what it truly means to be a fan, but also of the cultural and societal rifts that can form within immigrant families living outside of their home.  It understands the desire of youth to create their own life and engage in their culture, but it also understands how the older generations want to keep traditions and family customs alive.  This is a very smart, joyous, and just plain wonderful film that I hope you will make a point to see, because movies of this level of understanding and happiness are very rare.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Angry Birds Movie 2

I'm pretty certain that kids will enjoy The Angry Birds Movie 2 as much as they did the original film from three years ago.  As for the accompanying parents, they might like it a little bit more.  I know I did.  This is a weirder, quirkier and funnier film than the first.

If you'll recall, the original Angry Birds Movie told the story of Red (voice by Jason Sudeikis), an angry bird who pretty much lived in isolation on an island of other birds.  When an army of pigs from another island led by King Leonard (Bill Hader) tried to invade the bird's home and steal their eggs, Red and his two friends Chuck (Josh Gad) and Bomb (Danny McBride) led the charge in fighting back the evil pigs.  As the sequel opens, some time has passed, and Red is still being hailed as a hero by his fellow birds due to his actions.  Red's home island and the pig island are still at war with each other, and are constantly playing childish pranks on one another.  But now, a new threat has arrived that threatens both the birds and pigs, which will force them to call a truce and work together to save their individual homes.

A mysterious third island has been discovered, this one an arctic wasteland that is home to some eagles.  Why the eagles don't live on the bird's island, the movie never explains.  The ruler of the eagles, Queen Zeta (Leslie Jones), is tired of living in a land of ice and snow where you can't get a hot shower, and baby seals are always stealing your freshly caught fish dinner.  She wants to live on a tropical climate like the birds and pigs do, so she launches an attack on both islands by hurtling massive cannonballs of ice at the island from a super weapon that her team of scientists built for her.  Her plan is to drive the inhabitants from their homes with her invasion campaign, and take control.  With both the birds and pigs threatened by this new island, Red and Leonard will have to team up and form a small team of heroes to make their way to the arctic land, and destroy the eagle's weapon.

It may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but The Angry Birds Movie 2 is probably the best movie we could hope for when it comes to a film based on a mobile app video game built around flightless birds.  I was not taken with the earlier movie, but this one made me laugh more.  There is more dialogue-driven humor this time around, with plenty that are bound to go flying over the heads of small children.  Not to worry, though.  The kids at my screening were still laughing plenty, especially at the jokes built around butts, of which this movie has several.  Maybe it's the fact that this movie has different writers behind the script than the first, but this just feels like a lighter and fresher film.  It's weird, it's silly, and it just feels like the right approach to take these characters.  The last movie got lost in a plot about Red never quite fitting in with his other birds.  This movie just gives us a simple comedy adventure story.

The tone helps this movie feel light on its feet.  It never lingers on any scene or joke for too long, so it never gets bogged down.  There are some character building moments, like a love interest for Red, but that's not really what this movie is about.  It just wants to be a goofy time at the movies that parents and kids can share, and it succeeds at what it sets out to do.  I do have to wonder about the film's chances at the box office, however.  There's some strong family competition, even this late into the summer, and it might be a bit too slight to grab much attention.  I have a feeling that this movie will be a lot more appreciated when it comes home on DVD.

And yet, there is a certain Looney Tunes-inspired "anything for a laugh" approach to The Angry Birds Movie 2 that helped its appeal with me.  This is a movie that's not afraid to be random.  This is a good thing, as the film is at its best when it's not trying to tell a proper story, and just goes for broke.

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Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Art of Racing in the Rain

Does it ever seem to you that Hollywood executives get the exact same idea at the same time?  How else do you account that The Art of Racing in the Rain is the third movie in 2019 that's narrated by and seen through the eyes of a dog, as they witness the victories and tragedies of its human family?  The earlier films that we got, A Dog's Way Home and A Dog's Journey, were relentlessly cornball, but had a certain charm to them that eventually won me over.  But this time, I had no problem withholding my cynicism, because this is one of the sappiest and forced tear-jerkers to come along in years.

Not that the movie didn't warn me where it was going, when literally the very first thing we see after the studio logo is a shot of a dog laying sick and weak in a puddle of its own urine.  Then we get a voice over narration from the dog's perspective.  The dog, named Enzo, has his thoughts read aloud by Kevin Costner in a low, growling Harrison Ford-like voice.  As Enzo lays near-death, the voice over starts waxing long, poetic prose about what it means to be a dog, and what it means to be human.  Right from the word go, I knew that my emotions were under extreme assault.  And the movie only got worse as it flashed back to the beginning of Enzo's life, and the events that lead up to this sad, lonely scene.

During the course of the film, Enzo is adopted by Denny (Milo Ventimiglia), a Seattle-based race car driver who feels a special bond with the little puppy as soon as he lays eyes on him.  He brings the little guy home, the movie throws in some prerequisite humor about the dog doing its business (the first of many), and then we're off and running on a heavy-handed and manipulative story that only gets more contrived as it goes along.  It all starts innocently enough, with Denny having a run-in with a young woman named Eve (Amanda Seyfried).  They hit it off, and are soon married, though Eve's stuck up parents (Martin Donovan and Kathy Baker, playing snooty dog-haters) don't approve of the union.  They have a precocious little daughter named Zoe (played by the precocious Ryan Kiera Armstrong), and seem to be forming a happy family.  All the while, Enzo provides long-winded nuggets of wisdom on the soundtrack like "That which we manifest is before us; we are the creators of our own destiny".  I assume lines like that read better in the original novel by Garth Stein that the film is based on, rather than hearing them spoken out loud in Costner's voice.

But, just as Enzo is becoming happy with family life, tragedy has to strike.  There are the telltale signs that Eve is secretly popping a lot of pills. ("It's just a headache", she says.) Before you know it, she's been struck down with cancer, every writer's favorite disease when it comes to constructing a melodrama.  So, we get an extended part of the film where the family rallies behind Eve as she fights for her life, almost as if the movie is delaying the inevitable.  All the while, her parents stare accusingly at Denny.  They don't like that his job as a race car driver keeps him away from his wife and daughter for long periods.  Her father even suggests that maybe if Denny were around more, he would have known she was sick, and she could have been treated faster.  He has to think this way, because he has been written not as a three-dimensional character, but as a cold hearted villain.  Every action and line of dialogue has been written to make the audience despise him.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is shameless in extracting tears from its audience.  It does so relentlessly by piling on one manufactured crisis after another.  Aside from Eve's battle with cancer, we get the dog fighting for its life after being hit by a distracted driver, and (would you believe it) a courtroom scene where Denny has to defend his character and prove that he's been a good parent to his daughter, because his scheming father-in-law has hit him up with a phony assault charge, where he sends the police to drag Denny away in front of the dog, who barks in protest.  What's wrong about making a simple and sweet film about a race car driver building a bond with a dog, and the dog learning to love cars and racing?  Would that be so wrong?  Why did the story need so much forced melodramatics?  I've not read the novel, so I can't say if it's accurate or not.  I've learned that the book was a massive best seller, so I can only assume that something got lost in the translation.

As it plays, the movie is a long, depressing slog of tragedies, lessened only once in a while by the occasional dog poop joke.  It's so desperate to hit the emotional buttons of its audience, and slams upon those buttons so hard, that it eventually got to the point that I wanted to start slamming back.  I felt emotionally assaulted for almost the entire running time.  I can enjoy a good tear-jerker built around a dog as much as the next person.  Like I said in my review of A Dog's Journey, I am not made of stone.  But I felt violated watching this.  It was so desperately trying to wring the tears from my eyes, I found myself resisting and constantly fighting the movie's forced charms.  That's not a fun experience.  It's better when a movie slowly works its way onto an audience, rather than when it's forcing itself upon you.

This is a movie that tries to teach us the joys of racing, the love of family, the pain of loss, the acceptance of death, the bond of a father and a daughter, the bond between a family and a dog, and how we all know when it is time to leave this world, and that we will come back in another life when it is all over.  I can agree with these sentiments, but the way this movie tries to ram these ideas down our throats is kind of repulsive. 

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Saturday, August 10, 2019

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

I did not exactly walk into Dora and the Lost City of Gold with high expectations, but I was pleasantly surprised, and I think a lot of adults will be as well.  This is a playful and energetic adventure comedy that blurs the line between parody and tribute to the source material (the long running Nickelodeon cartoon series), while at the same time delivering a solid comedic adventure that's just a lot of fun.  It also features a star-making turn by young Isabella Moner as the titular Explorer, who shows a boundless energy here, and great comic timing.

Director James Bobin (Muppets Most Wanted), and the screenwriting team of Matthew Robinson and Nicholas Stoller, strike the right tonal balance here.  They understand the inherent weirdness of the concept of the original cartoon, and in bringing it to live action, don't shy away from it.  In fact, they're having a lot of fun with it.  Nobody in this movie questions why there's a CG cartoon fox named Swiper (voice by Benicio Del Toro) running around in the real world, although one person does question why a fox would have to wear a mask in order to conceal its identity.  It also doesn't feel the need to be "hip", by being mean or cruelly mocking the show.  They admit it's all very weird, but you can also sense the admiration.  They have taken the elements of the show, poked the right amount of fun at it, and then plopped it into an adventure ripped out of Indiana Jones or Jumanji

At the center of it all is Isabella Moner, who easily comes across as if she were born to play the role of the now-teenaged Dora, who despite being older, has not changed all that much.  She's endlessly enthusiastic, stopping total strangers to say "hello" in both English and Spanish, and is just unflappably sunny in just about anything she does.  Dora is the type of girl who never lets anything get her down, and has a song for just about any occasion.  There is this joyful, borderline insane at times, exuberance that she brings here that just seems right for Dora.  It often reminded me of Amy Adams in Enchanted, probably because both that film and this deal with a flamboyant cartoon figure who is taken out of their environment, and into a more realistic setting.  Moner, who has stood out in supporting roles in films such as Sicario: Day of the Soldado and Instant Family, finally gets to show her stuff in a leading role, and I honestly can't want to see where she goes from here.

16-year-old Dora, we learn, has been living in the jungle all her life with her ancient ruin-obsessed parents (Michael Pena and Eva Longoria, both very funny), and her CG monkey companion Boots, who doesn't normally talk, but when he seldom does, it is with the voice of Danny Trejo.  Dora has lived a great life of learning about the world and discovering lost civilizations, but her parents feel that she needs a more normal life, and should be with other kids her age.  So, while her parents are off in search for Parapata, the fabled lost city of gold, they send Dora to Los Angeles to attend public school for the first time with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), who used to be best friends with Dora when they were children, but he is now a jaded and cynical teen, who is embarrassed by her endlessly cheerful demeanor. 

The stuff about Dora trying to fit in at school are easily the funniest moments of the film, and create an almost Mean Girls-like satirical vibe, as Dora runs afoul of the "queen bee" at the school, the over-achieving Sammy (Madeleine Madden).  But, adventure is waiting, as Dora, Diego, Sammy and the video game-obsessed Randy (Nicholas Coombe) are kidnapped by evil mercenaries, who are looking for the fabled city of Parapata as well, and want Dora and her friends to lead them there, thinking that Dora shares her parent's knowledge.  The adventure element remains fun, although it's not quite as funny as the "fish out of water" portion of the story.  Still, there are some imaginative sequences, and the movie has a tone similar to The Goonies, as these kids find themselves looking for lost treasure, and constantly being pursued by criminals (and their CG fox ally), and making a lot of daring escapes. 

There is an energy here that keeps the film going, even if not all of the jokes work.  I was so enamored with Moner's lead performance, and the overall oddball adventure tone of the film that I couldn't resist falling for it.  Dora and the Lost City of Gold is the kind of family film that is checking off the required narrative notes and required pit stops, like having a romance bloom between two of the kids, and having Dora and her friends forced to outwit some ancient traps that guard the hidden temple.  But, it's done with such energy and humor, you don't really have time to notice.  This is simply a highly enjoyable film that just wants to make the audience happy, and it succeeds.  There's not much to think about here, but there shouldn't be in the first place.  It's silly escapism that works, because it knows how to poke fun at itself, while still giving us a reason to care.

I'll understand if you are doubtful.  I was too.  But I can almost guarantee that should you see it, you'll be walking away having more fun than you thought.  Just like Isabella Moner's portrayal of Dora, this movie is just kind of impossible to resist.

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The Kitchen

The Kitchen has the misfortune of coming out less than a year after Widows, a much better movie with the same idea of the wives of criminals taking over for their husbands.  It also has the extreme misfortune of being a very bad movie.  This is a deadly-dull crime thriller that not even the performances of the three lead actresses can lift up.

With talent like Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elizabeth Moss involved, you would think there would be more of an effort.  The movie also marks the directing debut of screenwriter Andrea Berloff, who in 2015, gave us the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Straight Outta Compton.  This time, she's taking inspiration from the DC comic book series written by Ollie Masters.  All of these elements should prove successful, but they never do.  There is a hollowness to the storytelling here, with characters who don't connect (not with each other, and not to the audience).  Also, the movie seems to be rushing through its own premise, almost as if it was as excited to get itself over with as much as I was.  It never stops long enough to dig deep into its own ideas, instead throwing out a lot of montages set to hit songs of the 1970s.  Sure, the movie is set in 1978's Hell's Kitchen, but that doesn't mean it has to stop every few minutes to toss another song from the era on the soundtrack.

The plot centers on the three wives of some New York gangsters who end up getting three years in prison after attempting to pull a job that I don't quite understand how it was supposed to be successful in the first place.  The women are Kathy (McCarthy), Ruby (Haddish) and Claire (Moss), and they are now at the mercy of the mob their husbands worked for.  The mob is supposed to support them financially, but the money they get isn't enough to pay the bills and, in the case of Kathy, support her young kids.  Kathy also seems to be the only one of the three who misses her husband (Brian d'Arcy James) while he's locked up.  The other two are married to lowlifes (Ruby's husband constantly ridicules her, while Claire's was physically abusive), so they are less choked up by their husbands not being around.

Regardless, the three are united in a common goal when the local mob boss won't give them enough money to live on.  That's when they decide to get into the crime business themselves, and start muscling the old goons out of the protection business that they have going on around New York City.  We can see potential everywhere, if only the movie would slow down and truly show us how these three women who have had no experience in the organized crime world could rise to the top so quickly, and hire hardened street thugs to work for them.  But, like I said, the movie is not actually interested in exploring these details.  All of this information is brushed aside in brief montages, so we never really get to see these women adjusting to their new lifestyles.  It all just kind of falls in their lap in an unsatisfying and contrived sort of way.

The Kitchen is not aided by the performances, which are strangely lifeless.  Melissa McCarthy usually excels when she steps away from comedy, and tries a more dramatic role, as her turn last year in Can You Ever Forgive Me proved.  But here, she seems to struggle with finding the emotion of her character.  In a rare dramatic performance, Tiffany Haddish is obviously trying here, but sometimes seems uncomfortable when she's not cracking jokes like she usually does.  It's not a terrible effort, just forgettable.  Elizabeth Moss comes the closest to creating a real character, as we see her fully embrace becoming her own woman for the first time after a lifetime of abuse and violence.  But, at the same time, her character leads to some troubling moral questions.  Are we supposed to be cheering as this woman learns to be successful at chopping up and disposing of bodies, because the movie seems to be viewing it as some kind of empowerment stance.

This is simply a muddled crime drama that is nowhere near as good as it could have or should have been, especially when you look at everyone who got involved.  Perhaps this project just went wrong somewhere along the line, or maybe it got butchered in editing, as it does seem like there used to be more to this movie than what's on the screen at some point.  All I know is The Kitchen had a lot of potential, and it never gets around to using it.

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Friday, August 09, 2019

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Andre Ovredel's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark understands a simple truth - Kids love to be scared.  It has the feeling of an old fashioned ghost story, mixed with some elements of an 80s kids adventure film that is exciting in a lot of ways, a little genuinely creepy, and funny when it needs to be.  Anyone who grew up reading the series of books with the same name by Alvin Schwartz will probably find that this movie strikes the perfect tone, creating the vibe of a cinematic campfire story.

Best of all, this is a fairly low-tech campfire story.  A majority of the creature effects are practical and done with make up, rather than CG, which is featured, but sparingly.  As someone who has fond memories of the illustrations by Stephen Gammell that brought to life Schwartz's twisted tales, it was a real treat to see some of Gammell's designs recreated with detailed physical creature designs.  Fortunately, you don't have to have read the books to enjoy this.  This is largely an original story dreamed up by a team of writers and story people headed by Guillermo del Toro, who occasionally pay tribute to some of the stories that were featured in the books like "Harold", "The Big Toe", and "The Red Spot".  It tells a simple and effective yarn about the power of storytelling, while bringing the stories and creatures within into the real world.  I guess it could be compared to 2015's Goosebumps film in some way, only much less tongue in cheek, and more of a great introductory horror film for older kids and teens interested in the genre.

The plot kicks off as it should, on Halloween night - 1968, to be exact.  A group of misfit teens decide to have some fun by breaking into a boarded up old mansion that is believed to be haunted, and has a sinister connection to the history of the town where they live.  The leader of the kids is the sweet and shy Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), a lonely girl with a single father who has aspirations of being a writer.  Stella is obsessed with monsters (many of her movie favorites line the walls of her room in posters), as are her friends, including the nerdy Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and the smart-mouthed Chuck (Austin Zajur).  The trio of friends are joined by Ramon (Michael Garza), a teenage drifter who is hanging around the town, and helps the kids escape from some bullies before they make their expedition into the obviously haunted mansion.

The home in question once belonged to the wealthy Bellows family, who had a daughter named Sarah that they supposedly kept locked away in a secret room.  The young Sarah was supposedly connected to the disappearances and possible murders of some of the local children, and when she became persecuted by both her family and the town, she took her own life.  The kids naturally stumble upon Sarah's old hideaway room, and find a book of creepy stories within that seem to be written in blood.  The book is apparently directly connected to Sarah's vengeful spirit, as when Stella removes the book from the home, the pages begin to have new stories appearing upon them built around Stella and her various friends.  As the stories start coming to life, and the kids start being hunted down by nightmarish creatures dreamed up by Sarah's imagination, Stella and her friends must find a way to stop it before they all disappear, much like the children from long ago did.

I can see older and jaded horror fans yawning at all of this, as Scary Stories doesn't really do anything new.  But, it still manages to be effective, thanks to how much of the film has been staged.  There are some individual moments here that really stand out, particularly the kids' encounters with the various monsters.  These manage to create just enough tension, while not being too scary for the kids that this movie is obviously aiming for.  There are some moments of humor here, and they are fortunately used to lighten the mood now and then when needed, rather than lessening the tension.  The filmmakers know when to be scary, and just how far they should go to draw in their young audience.  It's a delicate balancing act, and this movie pulls it off.  It manages to create tension and put the kids in some real danger, while not resorting to exploitative or overly gory means. 

This is also kind of a beautiful film, using its fall small town setting to the fullest, and adding some clever nods to the time period it's set in thanks to TV and movie clips, as well as music from the era. (The film opens with a wonderful montage introducing us to all the main characters set to "Season of the Witch".) And like I said, the practical monster effects that emphasize make up and costumes, and only use CG when needed, are beautifully constructed and faithful to the original illustrations from the books.  This is something that might be lost on younger audiences, but to me, it was thrilling, and I admire that the film gave us enough time with these creatures so that I could admire their design and the effort that went into them.  The young cast also do a good job here, with young Zoe Margaret Colletti being a great lead, creating a likable and sympathetic performance.

Much like the original books, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is almost certain to connect with young kids and preteens who want to dip their toes into the horror genre without going in too deep.  I would welcome these filmmakers and this cast returning to the books again.  They have a knack for understanding what made them appealing to kids in the first place, and properly bringing it to life on the screen.

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