Reel Opinions


Saturday, October 26, 2019

Countdown

Remember how back in the 2000s we got a string of horror movies about how technology was trying to kill us?  There was of course The Ring, with its cursed video tape.  We also got One Missed Call, with its voice messages from the future that would tell you how you would die.  And who can forget Pulse, where computers were somehow able to open a portal to the realm of the dead.  Countdown will seem very familiar if you've watched any of those movies, with the only difference being that, unlike the three I mentioned, it's not a remake of an Asian horror movie.

That doesn't mean that there's much original about this wannabe thriller where people download an app that counts down the years, days, hours, minutes and seconds to your inevitable demise.  In fact, writer-director Justin Dec (an editor and Production Assistant making his feature length filmmaking debut) seems all too happy to stick to the familiar shocks of loud noises on the soundtrack, and CG demons lurking in the shadows, until they naturally pop out and scream at our lead heroes, only to disappear.  The only original note that Dec strikes with his screenplay is that instead of a grizzled old Priest who comes forth to battle the evil demons, we get a young, pop culture-obsessed Priest (P.J. Byrne) who comes across as what would happen if your standard comic book and video game-obsessed nerd decided to join the Priesthood because it meant he could battle demons.

Maybe if he had hit on a few more ideas like this, the movie could have worked as a guilty pleasure.  Instead, we get an all-too familiar tread through ancient thriller cliches about young people making one bad decision after another.  Our lead heroine is Quinn (Elizabeth Lail), a young nurse who finds herself working under a smarmy and slimy doctor (Peter Facinelli) who attempts to rape her in the room of a comatose patient, and then later gets her fired when he accuses her of coming on to him.  And no, this subplot about this doctor has little bearing on the film itself, until the character is shoehorned in during the third act climax.  Of bigger concern to the film, Quinn has recently downloaded the Countdown app to her phone, which tells her she has only two days to live.  She is skeptical at first, but then a young patient who also downloaded the app and learned he only had hours to live dies in a mysterious accident in the hospital stairwell.

We eventually learn that the app is a tool of the Devil himself.  When it's your time to go, a dark demon shows up and drags you away to your death.  How can you avoid this fate?  You have to read the User Agreement, which explains in detail how to avoid or delay the death curse.  Of course!  If you were a supernatural evil trying to claim more souls, wouldn't you hide this valuable information in the part of the app that nobody pays attention to?  So eventually we get Quinn, her younger sister Jordan (Talitha Eliana Bateman) and handsome stranger Matt (Jordan Calloway) trying to cheat death by any means possible.  Naturally, in order for there to be a movie in the first place, they have to make every wrong decision possible.  This includes hiding under the bed when there is a demonic hellspawn at your door, and stepping outside of a protective circle that keeps the demons at bay, because you think you see the ghost of your little brother.

Countdown doesn't try to take itself too seriously.  It not only gives us a goofy young priest, but also a sarcastic cell phone salesman for comic relief.  I almost wished the movie had gone all the way, and just been a parody of thrillers.  But, I'm afraid that the filmmakers do intend this to be scary.  Aside from a snarky comment once in a while, we get a lot of scenes where characters step into dark hallways and bathrooms so that they can be menaced by personal ghosts from their troubled pasts.  Why the demonic app forces you to see ghosts of loved ones, the movie never explains.  It all comes across as lame and tired thriller tropes that we've seen one too many times.  This is also one of those movies where nobody can walk up to anyone without slamming on glass, or grabbing them forcefully, only to instantly say, "Oh, sorry, I didn't mean to scare you".

Due to its PG-13 rating, the movie is rather bloodless, which means it will be perfect for preteens who want something to watch over the Halloween weekend.  Will they fall for it?  The filmmakers certainly think so, as the ending hints at a sequel.  Unless it's a prequel where we get to see how the forces of evil came up with the idea for this app, I'm not interested.

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Friday, October 25, 2019

Black and Blue

Black and Blue is a timely movie, but not a successful one.  It mostly wants to be your standard B-Grade cop thriller with some performances that are better than the norm.  But it also wants to be "important" and "about something" at the same time.  So we get a run of the mill action film, mixed with some heavy-handed melodrama and social commentary.

It's message is certainly not a bad one.  It wants to take a critical look at the relationship between minorities and cops, and the tensions between them.  I can picture this creating a thriller of intense paranoia where you don't know who to trust.  My problem is how broadly this movie decides to paint its message.  There's no moment here that feels honest, lived in, or genuine.  I constantly felt like I was watching a "dramatic reenactment", due to how the film keeps on relying on various editing tricks (slow motion, rapid-fire editing), and a music score that plays almost non-stop throughout the movie, telling us how we're supposed to be feeling every second of every scene.  This is a movie that needed a more realistic and gritty approach.  Instead, it comes across as a gimmicky cat and mouse thriller that never raises the tension as high as it should.

The film was directed by Deon Taylor, who just five months ago, gave us one of the most laughable thrillers of 2019, The Intruder.  That was the film where Dennis Quaid played an unconvincing psychopath who targeted a young couple who bought and moved into his former home.  At the very least, he shows improvement here, in that I wasn't constantly laughing at the staggering stupidity of his characters like last time.  But, he still shows no sign of subtlety, pacing or tension.  This is a movie that places its heroine, a rookie cop named Alicia West (Naomie Harris), into what should be a nightmare scenario.  She spends almost the whole movie running from her fellow officers when she finds out they're crooked, and witnesses them pull off a murder.  Not only are her former trusted friends after her to silence her, but she's trapped in a community that doesn't trust cops.  She grew up in the neighborhood, but her former friends pretend not to know her, because she now wears a uniform and a badge.  She's not "one of them" anymore.

There is no safe place for Alicia to go, and no one she can trust.  Not only are the cops trying to kill her, but they've turned some of the local drug dealers on to her trail, blaming her for the death of the dealers that they killed.  And because Alicia is wearing a uniform, none of the locals want to help her or get involved.  They simply judge her silently from afar, and push her away when she asks for help.  They don't even care that she's been injured.  This very premise should create palpable tension, more than enough to carry an entire film.  And yet, Peter A. Dowling's script never quite gains enough momentum to create the suspense that it wants to.  The movie throws the "Us vs. Them" card into its theme so many times, and without an ounce of subtlety, you kind of start to feel bludgeoned by the film while you're watching it.  It makes its point early, and then it keeps on making that same point over and over.  We get repetitive scenes of Alicia thinking she's found someone to trust or a way out of her situation, only to have it go wrong, and she has to keep on running.

But, a lot of the tension is killed by the fact that Alicia seems almost abnormally fast at times, and is so deft at hiding, the villains never are able to track her down until the movie wants them to.  She finds one person to trust, a shop owner named Milo (Tyrese Gibson), and this slowly builds into a relationship that feels tacked on and unconvincing, because it feels like the filmmakers thought there should be a romantic angle somewhere.  Yes, Milo and Alicia do have a past with each other we learn, but we don't hear much about it.  We just know that they used to know each other before Alicia joined the military in order to escape her lifestyle, and eventually became a cop.  It's just one of many elements within the film that feel false, because the movie relies on cliches of the cop thriller genre.  We even get the scene where one of the villains is making his way through a dark room, searching for Alicia, and he starts talking out loud about why he did what he did, mostly for the benefit of the audience, as we have not really had any real motivation behind his murderous actions, other than he's the bad guy.

Still, none of this is as bad as the last few minutes of Black and Blue, which seems to be desperately trying to give the movie an overly bright and happy ending.  This is a film that should have ended with some uncertainty toward the future.  Instead, the movie adds multiple scenes that show Alicia getting exactly what she's been fighting for the entire film.  It rings false, and smells of studio interference, who probably wanted to make sure the audience walked out calm and happy.  That right there spells out the problem with this film.  A movie about racial tension should make you uncomfortable, and leave you with more questions than answers.  This one tries to, but then it tacks on a couple final scenes that send the wrong mood to the audience.

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Saturday, October 19, 2019

Zombieland: Double Tap

Hollywood likes to give us different kinds of sequels.  Some sequels exist to continue a story, or perhaps give us closure.  Some others repeat the same formula as the original, only changing things up as necessary.  And then there are sequels like Zombieland: Double Tap, which repeats the formula, only much louder and dumber.  Some fans of the 2009 original might like this, but I found it to be overkill.

The success of Zombieland from 10 years ago is that it was unexpected, as well as a lot of fun.  I got behind the characters and the sense of humor that it had.  This time around, I just couldn't get behind anything.  The characters and the cast are the same, as is most of the creative team behind the camera.  But rather than change up anything, they've just cranked up the volume.  The zombies are nastier and messier than before, there is a lot more pop culture humor and movie references that range from The Terminator to Paul Blart and The Simpsons, and there is more fourth-wall breaking.  In the last film, Woody Harrelson was the grizzled and foul-mouthed survivor of the Zombie Apocalypse, Jesse Eisenberg was his young sidekick who acted as the film's narrator, and Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin were two young women they picked up along the way.  They repeat these roles here, only to much less effect.

The plot: Our four heroes are still fighting their way across zombie-infested America, until they decide to make their home in the abandoned White House.  The men seem happy there, but the women get restless quickly, and decide to run off on their own.  Young Columbus (Eisenberg) is naturally heartbroken that Wichita (Stone) has run out on him, as he was hoping they could get married.  Meanwhile, Tallahassee (Harrelson) seems to think they're better off without Wichita and Little Rock (Breslin) weighing them down.  The men are not alone for long, as they are quickly joined by a bubble-headed blonde named Madison (Zoey Deutch), who often comes across as less like a character, and more like a one-joke gag. (She's blonde, so naturally, she's incredibly dumb and clueless about everything.)

This is a recurring problem that I had with this sequel.  The movie would build characters around a single gag, and then drag it out to the point that I just wanted the movie to move on already.  A perfect example would be when Tallahassee and Columbus meet their almost exact doppelgangers at one point, a pair by the name of Albuquerque (Luke Wilson) and Flagstaff (Thomas Middleditch).  As expected, the pair act and think almost exactly the same as our heroes, only with slight differences.  That's as far as the joke goes, but the movie drags this joke out for a good ten or twelve minutes.  It never builds to anything worthwhile, and the characters exit not long after they enter, which left me questioning why they were introduced in the first place, as they contribute nothing other than a failed gag that doesn't work.

The movie does introduce some new characters, such as an Elvis-obsessed woman whom Tallahassee develops a relationship with (Rosario Dawson), and a commune of hippies that Little Rock runs off with who don't believe in violence.  But again, very little is attempted with these new elements.  The movie instead decides to throw in a lot more meta humor, including Columbus' narration, which frequently reminds the audience that they are watching a movie.  We get some weak running gags involving a mini van that the heroes constantly find themselves in, and a lot of callbacks to the first movie.  What we don't get, and what I kept on waiting for, is a reason as to why the movie needed to be made, other than some studio executive wanted to play on the nostalgia that people hold for the first. 

To be fair, Zombieland: Double Tap does have one inspired scene that comes during the end credits, so don't get out of your seat when the credits start up.  It doesn't redeem what comes before it, but it's the one moment that this sequel got right for me.  I almost would like to see a spin off film built around what happened next.  To explain anymore would ruin the gag, so I will say no more.

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Friday, October 18, 2019

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

At the very least, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is not yet another Disney remake.  Instead, it is an unnecessary sequel to the 2014 film that successfully placed Angelina Jolie into the role of the villain from the animated Sleeping Beauty, and reinvented her into the role of a misunderstood antihero, much like Gregory Maguire did with the Wicked Witch of the West in his novel (and the subsequent Broadway Musical loosely adapted from it), Wicked

I think it's safe to say that earlier movie did everything a film could do with the idea of telling the story of the Disney cartoon from the villain's point of view.  For the encore, Jolie has returned, but she seems to be at a loss here.  Oh, she still perfectly embodies the character, and she obviously still looks the part.  But, she is given less to do here.  Despite getting her name in the title, Maleficent almost comes across as a supporting player, and even disappears for large sections of the story.  Instead, this movie seems to focus on the icy and scheming Queen Ingrith for most of its entertainment value.  As played by Michelle Pfeiffer, she often chews the scenery in the style of a villainess from a TV soap opera or a Lifetime Movie.  She is great to watch, but she's not enough to lift this material up on her own.

She also brings about one of the film's key problems, which is her ultimate evil plan.  Ingrid wants to bring all the mystical creatures and fairies who inhabit an enchanted forest on the outskirts of her kingdom into one place, and essentially murder them all so that she can claim their land as her own.  Yes, this is a Disney movie with a plot built around mass genocide.  This brings about a third act that is surprisingly violent for a movie aimed at families, where the evil Queen begins to carry out her plan, and we witness hundreds of creatures getting killed, or watching in fear as their friends and loved ones are wiped out by Ingrid's forces.  We also get a massive battle between the kingdom's forces and some ancient winged beings who have a connection to Maleficent's roots, and answers as to where she came from.  Again, the battle is surprisingly brutal, despite the filmmakers going out of their way to ensure that not a drop of blood is spilled.  We're watching hundreds of extras engage in a bloodless massacre where dozens die on screen, yet simply fade into nothingness.

The original Maleficent was a lot of fun.  It had a sort of darkness to it, but it also had a sense of humor, and Jolie pretty much carrying the entire film with her presence and performance.  It also managed to create an effective fantasy world for its characters to inhabit.  Here, we get to return to that world, but we don't get to see much new.  We also get to learn about the origins of Maleficent and her people, but this is not as interesting as you would hope.  It's your basic "people of different races and backgrounds need to learn to live together" storyline, with Jolie leading her people against Pfeiffer, who wishes to exterminate every last one of them.  In the middle of it all is Aurora (Elle Fanning), whose wedding to Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) serves as the backdrop to the evil Queen's scheme. 

I think placing Aurora in the middle of the situation and forcing her to choose which side she will be on is a good idea, and could have created some genuine drama.  But the script drops the ball by keeping her separated from Maleficent for a good portion of the two hour running time.  She mostly figures things out on her own by spending time around Ingrid, and realizing she's not what she seems.  Jolie and Fanning were able to create likable chemistry last time, and when they are together here, they do it again.  But, the movie doesn't seem to take advantage of their relationship.  Instead, they're forced to inhabit different movies, where Aurora sneaks around the castle, learning of the Queen's deception, while Maleficent is forced to listen to a lot of exposition about her origins, and not really say or do all that much.

Maybe the key problem lies with the fact that the 2014 movie did not need a sequel, and this movie exists only because it made about $758 million at the worldwide box office.  While you can't really accuse Mistress of Evil of repeating the original film's formula, it also doesn't do enough to expand upon it, or make a strong case for its being.  I have no doubt that the families will turn out this opening weekend, but what will they think of the film's climactic moments centered on the senseless killing of an entire people?  It seems like a misguided attempt for the film to go bigger, as all sequels feel the need to do.  Sure, we do eventually get the expected happy ending, but the kids will have to sit through some surprisingly violent images before that.

The violence gives the film a kind of gloomy vibe that I don't think was intended.  I wanted to delight in the film's nastiness, but instead ended up feeling kind of put off by it.  But the big question here is, why construct a sequel that forces Jolie to simply react to the plot going on around her, instead of having her drive it?  That's part of what made the original work.  She was reveling in playing her character.  Here, she looks like she's all dressed up in her horns and black garments with no place to go.

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Sunday, October 13, 2019

Judy

It's very rare that you get to see an actor perform above abilities previously seen by them when giving a performance, but that's just what Renee Zellweger does in Judy.  She's not just acting here, she is going above and beyond your expectations, as well as any performance from her performance history that you could care to name.  She's bearing her very heart and soul up there on the screen, and it is beautiful to watch. 

The movie itself plays it somewhat safe when it comes to telling the story of Judy Garland, but that's to be expected.  At least it's not so safe that the movie comes across as completely toothless.  It also can be emotionally devastating at times, though I'm not sure how much is due to the movie itself.  That's just how powerful Zellweger is here.  She is not only up to the challenge of being Garland in all aspects, but she rises above the material, which was already pretty strong to begin with.  This is a case of a movie that probably was always good, but thanks to the lead performance, it becomes absolutely wonderful.  Some movies are lifted up or saved by its performances.  This is a rare case where the lead performance raises everything to such a level that it's kind of stunning.

Judy Garland died at the age of 47 in 1969 due to an accidental drug overdose.  In a way, her entire life was leading up to that moment, as we witness flashbacks that show a younger Garland (Darci Shaw, also fantastic) being put through the Hollywood system.  She was given drugs to lose weight, drugs to sleep, and the rest of the time she gave every bit of energy she had to studio chief Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery).  Louis kept an obsessive eye on his young star during the filming of The Wizard of Oz, and manipulated her pretty much every chance he got.  He would pull her aside to have "private talks", where he basically tried to break down any strength or resistance that she might have.  However, Judy does not portray its subject as a total victim.  She has a fight and a spirit to her, and that is one aspect that Zellweger embodies.

In her final year that the movie focuses on, Garland was broke after a string of failed marriages and poor investments.  She can't even afford to make a home for her two youngest children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd).  With her eldest daughter, Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux), already building a career of her own, Judy is focused on giving the best life she can for her youngest.  That's why she accepts an offer to perform for five weeks at a London nightclub called The Talk of the Town.  It's clearly hard for Judy to be away from her kids, but she has to do this so that she has a chance to be with them.  The film's main focus is tracking this point in Judy's life, where she could give performances that were electric and commanding, or a total mess, where Garland would take the stage drunk and insult the hecklers in her audience.

You can easily see how Judy could quickly devolve into a sad-sack of a movie about self-destruction, but British filmmaker Rupert Goold keeps everything moving at a quick pace.  We can clearly see that Garland is a pawn to her addictions, and a near-lifetime of hard living and drinking has taken its toll.  However, we do not pity her, and that is thanks in big part to Zellweger.  She plays her as a performer on the ropes, but is not ready to quit.  She knows she is not at her best, and her performances can be erratic.  This is part of what makes the performance work so well.  She's not doing a flat-out imitation of Garland, but rather is portraying her as a shadow of who she used to be.  She still has pride and even a sense of humor.  When someone asks how she handled her depression, she responds with "Four husbands...Obviously that didn't work".

There is also not as much of the padding that we usually expect from a biopic film, since this movie is focused on just a specific moment in her life and career.  What the movie captures is how Garland essentially performed with little preparation, as if she were working without a net.  The movie kind of takes the same approach, which is a smart decision.  Here is Garland, here is where she was in her life, and there is little time for contrivances and forced melodrama.  One scene where the movie steps away from her career is incredibly good, and that is when she spends an evening with two fans.  It's a tender and heartfelt scene where Judy is having a rare moment not on stage and in the spotlight, and gets to be with regular people that she is comfortable with.

This is one of many small and deeply powerful moments that make up Judy.  It's also why it's not just a great performance, but a great movie as well.  It's a tight, focused film, and that focus is wisely centered on Zellweger.  She makes the film, and in her final moments, she almost transcends it.  This is a movie that can be shattering emotionally, but it also has a lot of spark, a lot of life, and one unforgettable portrayal.

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Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Addams Family

The new animated take on The Addams Family marks the first time in their long history that the creations of cartoonist Charles Addams failed to make me truly laugh.  I smiled a few times, and I even chuckled a little once at a scene built around the song "Everybody Hurts".  But, I never got the big laughs that I was expecting.

This disheartened me, being a lifetime fan of the characters in their various incarnations from the original TV series, to the live action feature films from the 90s, and even the Broadway musical.  I was actually highly anticipating this film, as the trailers seemed to promise an artstyle that was fairly faithful to the original comic drawings.  And then you have an amazing voice cast, which includes such talents as Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloe Grace Moretz, Nick Kroll, Bette Midler, Allison Janney, and Elsie Fisher (the breakout star of Eighth Grade).  And to be fair, the cast is not at fault here.  They are doing the best they can with the material.  That sentence right there signals the problem.  The script is not up to the talent that it somehow managed to attract, nor is it up to the challenge of truly capturing the macabre Addams world.  The movie is safe, kind of bland, and forces its message down the throat of the audience of respecting people for their differences. 

And yet, the movie does hold promise early on in its opening prologue, which shows Gomez (voice by Oscar Isaac) and Morticia (Charlize Theron) getting married, until their big day is interrupted by angry locals carrying pitchforks and torches, aiming to drive the newlyweds out of their town.  They decide to head for a place "where no one in their right mind would be caught dead in" (New Jersey), and make their home in an abandoned and haunted asylum for the criminally insane.  The one inmate who was apparently left behind when the asylum closed becomes their butler Lurch (Conrad Vernon), and they make the place their new home.  Flash forward 13 years later, and the family has expanded to include two children, Wednesday (Chloe Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard).  It is the kids who kick off the plot proper, as Wednesday longs to see the world outside of the Addams Family home that she's lived in her whole life, while Pugsley is about to participate in a coming of age ceremony, and is worried that he will let everyone down when the time comes for him to perform a ritualistic dance.

There is actually quite a lot of plot here for a movie that runs just under 90 minutes.  The main plot centers on the villain, Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), a deceptively sunny woman who hosts a home makeover show, and is trying to build a "perfect" community where all the homes and people look and act the same.  When she discovers the Addams mansion on a hilltop overlooking their town, she makes it her mission to either remake the home how she desires, or to get the Addams to move out.  There is also a plot concerning the Addams having their first family reunion since the wedding 13 years ago, which brings Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll), Grandmama Addams (Bette Midler) and Cousin It (Snoop Dogg...Yes, Snoop Dogg...) into the mix.  We also get little Wednesday attending public school for the first time, making friends with Margaux's outcast daughter (Elsie Fisher), and taking on some mean girls. 

In all honesty, I can see this stuff working, but that would require a screenplay with some actual wit and sharp bite.  The script credited to Matt Lieberman and Pamela Pettler relies too much on groan-worthy puns for its laughs, and never quite explores the idea of the Addams mixing with the outside world like it should.  It also lacks the morbid humor of the 1991 Addams Family film, and especially its 1993 sequel, Addams Family Values.  I guess this is to be expected, but did they have to water down these characters and the humor as much as they've done here?  I kept on waiting for the movie to develop a devilish sense of humor, and instead I got even more subplots built around Morticia moping about how Wednesday is more interested in her new friend at school than in her.  And when the movie does try to wrap up all of its plot threads in a hurried and ineffective climax, it comes across as preachy, repeating its lesson over and over, as if the movie thinks the audience didn't get it the first time.

The Addams Family is certainly not unwatchable, but knowing these characters and the past successful adaptations to bring them to the screen, this is the first time I can say I've been truly disappointed in them.  It's always sad when a movie fails to live up to your expectations.  But making the Addams this uninteresting and safe seems borderline criminal.

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Friday, October 11, 2019

Gemini Man

Ang Lee's Gemini Man has been a script Hollywood has been trying to make for over 20 years.  The movie is built around an aging assassin being forced to fight against a younger clone of himself that is intended to replace him.  Supposedly the reason why it took so long for this film to go before the cameras is that the technology was not there.  If the final movie is any indication, the script wasn't quite ready to go before the cameras either.

So, we get Will Smith playing the 51-year-old hitman, Henry Brogan.  He's the "best of the best" at what he does.  In the film's opening scene, Henry sets up his high-powered rifle on a hillside, takes aim, and manages to shoot and assassinate a Russian bad guy on a train right as it speeds by.  He even manages to narrowly miss a little girl who was trying to talk to the Russian moments before Henry shot him through the window of the train.  In my mind, I imagine an alternate movie where that little girl is put through years of therapy by this ordeal.  But, I digress.  Henry wants to retire from the murder game.  He meant to shoot the target in the head, but hit him in the neck instead.  He's off his game.  Henry just wants to lay low in his isolated home, and fight the nightmares that plague his sleep each night.

Not long after he calls it quits, he visits an old friend on a yacht who happens to tell him a deep, dark secret about the agency he used to work for.  Obviously, this means that Henry's friend will be dead the next time we see him, and some agents are going to start coming after Henry as well.  He kills a dozen or so wannabe assassins, then goes on the run with another agent named Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who was initially supposed to track Henry, but gains his trust over drinks before the assassination attempt takes place.  Speaking of drinks, there is a heck of a lot of drinking in this movie, to the point that it's almost a running gag.  Product placements for Coke and a variety of beers abound, as Henry stops for a drink seemingly every other scene.  This could be the first movie to inspire a drinking game built around drinking.

Back to the plot: Henry, Danny, and a comic relief sidekick who joins them on the adventure (Benedict Wong) find themselves on the run from a teeth-gnashing villain called Clay Verris (Clive Owen, giving as little enthusiasm to his performance as possible here).  Naturally, Clay and Henry have a history, and for the past few decades, the evil Clay has been the head of a top secret cloning program where they clone their best soldiers, and train the clones to be fearless super soldiers.  Naturally, one of those clones is a younger version of Henry, whom Clay has been raising as a son, and calls "Junior".  So, it's Will Smith vs. a digitally de-aged Will Smith acting as the central gimmick of what is otherwise an overly routine and uninspired spy thriller.

If you're going to build your entire movie around a special effect as Gemini Man does, you'd better do it right, and this movie does not.  It's jarring when we look at the "younger" Will Smith, who often resembles a CG Uncanny Valley version of Smith back in his Fresh Prince days.  It's something you can't take your eyes off of, and not because of how well done it is.  It looks awkward whenever Will Smith has to share the screen with "himself", and it gets even worse when the two have to fight each other, as the action is often so frantic and dimly shot, we can barely make out what's happening.  It's a lot of CG-assisted parkour, flipping around and motorcycle stunts that look about as authentic as a video game cutscene.  The clone is a personality-free killing machine, which would be kind of creepy, if Henry often didn't come across the same way.  So, we get two lifeless Will Smith performances.  I think I liked it better when movies like After Earth only gave us one.

Clearly, nothing in this movie matters.  We don't care about the characters, because they're not allowed to build real relationships, and only talk in exposition dialogue or quips and one liners that fall flat on their face.  We don't care about the plot, because aside from the whole cloning gimmick, it's completely uninspired.  And we don't care about the cloning gimmick itself, because the movie can't think of anything to do with it.  After the initial shock of seeing how terrible the de-aged Will Smith looks, we're left with a lot of banal dialogue between the two Smiths, where the older one tries to lead the younger one down a different path than taking lives.  If the movie had a shred of personality or life, this might have led to some interesting scenes.  But every time it tries to be about something, it flounders, thanks to the forced dialogue.

The only thing Gemini Man has going for it is that it's not the worst movie I've seen about cloning this year.  That "honor" still goes to the Keanu Reeves bomb, Replicas, from back in January.  Still, that doesn't excuse this gimmicky and ultimately unnecessary film from cluttering up valuable theater space.  Given how long this movie was in development, you'd think someone would bring up that the technology wasn't the problem, it was the lousy script. 

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Friday, October 04, 2019

Joker

I don't remember the last time a thriller had the effect on me while I was watching it to the extent that I felt like a tightly wound coiled spring ready to snap.  Joker is not a movie that you enjoy, but it is a movie that pulls you into its world and its lead character.  You feel things you probably don't want to feel, but the fact that the movie is doing such a wonderful job of drawing you in is reason enough to recommend.  Nobody will have fun watching this, but they will still have an unforgettable movie experience.

I feel it's appropriate to say this, because Joker is an unpleasant film to watch, but it is also completely absorbing.  It feels lived in.  For the two hours or so that it runs, I was mesmerized.  I go to the movies for a lot of reasons, and I enjoy them for a lot of reasons.  Sometimes I go to escape, and sometimes I just want to see the world in a different way.  What director and co-writer Todd Phillips has done is create a film that pulls you into very dark corners of the mind that you probably don't want to go.  You almost want to resist.  There are moments where I knew where the film was going, and I wanted to stop it.  This is a relentlessly cruel and sad movie.  But, it is not a sad sack, nor is it whiny.  It's alive, it has a kind of energy to it.  That's what sets it apart, and that's what makes it one of the more challenging films I have seen in a while.

You may recall that just a couple weeks ago, I reviewed Rambo: Last Blood, and criticized it harshly for "wallowing in human pain and misery", and splashing it up on the screen.  So does this movie in a way.  So, why am I calling this film great, while I lambasted Stallone's effort?  It's quite simple - Rambo is artless junk.  It doesn't have anything to say.  It just wants to spread depression, anger and violence onto its audience without leaving any impression whatsoever.  It wants to be exploitative.  This movie made me feel things almost from the first frame.  They are not good feelings for the most part, but the movie takes us there and fully explores them.  It is a satisfying drama about a tortured man, and not just a "Geek Show" that forces us to watch horrible things.  It is expertly paced, and draws us slowly into its most severe and darkest aspects.

When we first see the main character, Arthur Fleck, he is applying clown made up on his face as he looks in the mirror.  He then stops, and begins to stretch the corners of his lips, forcing an enormous grin that does not look happy in the slightest.  It looks painful.  Arthur is the man who will eventually become the Joker of the title, and yes, that refers to the villain from the Batman comic books.  But this is not a superhero movie, or even a supervillain film.  At no point does Arthur hatch any schemes against the people of Gotham City, which in this movie resembles New York City in the late 70s and early 80s.  There are porno theaters everywhere, and garbage lines the streets due to a sanitation strike that is going on.  It's gotten so bad that even the rats seem to be evolving into some kind of "super rat" according to news reports.  Everyone complains about the state of the city, but nobody really wants to do anything.  They've resigned themselves that crime, filth and violence are just a way of life.

Arthur is a meek man, but not a mild one.  Even in his early scenes where he is performing as a clown to entertain children at a hospital, there is a sense of anger within him.  As played by Joaquin Phoenix, he is a man of intense rage and hatred.  He looks like he is wired and energized by what he feels for the people who constantly look down on him, which include many of the people in his life.  He spends his days being disrespected by co-workers and random people on the streets, and his nights in a dingy apartment where he looks after his ailing mother who has been mentally unstable most of her life (Frances Conroy).  He has his fantasies.  His childhood dream has been to be a stand up comic, and he is making some effort to make it a reality.  But, we get the sense that even he knows he is fooling himself.  When he dreams of meeting one of his idols, a talk show host named Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), we witness that fantasy and in it, Murray doesn't take a liking toward Arthur because he is funny, but because of the person he is.

Maybe this means Arthur knows he's not that funny.  Maybe he just wants someone to actually respect him.  The thing is, and one of the details this movie gets right is, there's not a lot to respect about Arthur.  He is not a good man who has been dealt a bad hand most of his life.  He is not someone who would blossom if someone just gave him a chance.  He is self-obsessed.  He almost seems to think people should like him because so few do.  He doesn't do a lot to get people to notice him.  What most people do notice is the fact that he has a condition where he starts laughing uncontrollably when he is uncomfortable.  This obviously gives others a bad impression of him.  They see a nervous man seemingly laughing at nothing, and they hate or fear him.  This particular condition leads to an incident on a subway that serves as the tipping point for Arthur to go from buried rage, to having that rage begin to show on the surface.  It's not even subtle, and is almost unmissable.

Joker forces us to watch Arthur fall apart mentally and emotionally.  And when his mother tells him a family secret, his quest for answers only forces him to spiral even further.  We know no good can come from anything.  The more pain and sorrow that is inflicted upon him, the more Arthur becomes obsessed with fighting back the only way he thinks he knows how.  It is a credit to Phoenix's performance that we fully believe in Arthur.  It doesn't seem like an actor who is pretending to be losing his grip.  He looks like he's been fighting a losing battle all his life, even physically.  The first time he takes off his shirt, and we see his gaunt body where it seems as if every bone within him is sticking through his skin, it is an amazing sight.  He encompasses every fiber of this character, and it's kind of startling.  He brings this life to the performance that feels like maybe Arthur has been a part of him his whole life, waiting to come out in this performance.  He reaches some incredible depths here, and it is electrifying to watch every second he's on screen.

The movie has the same effect.  This is a period film set in a specific time and place, and it feels that way in every scene.  Not one aspect has been overlooked here.  The settings look real and lived in.  The theater marquees and advertisements that we see on the street are appropriate to the early 80s urban vibe.  The song choices on the soundtrack also seem perfectly planned and placed.  Speaking of the music, the score by Hildur Guonadottir also stands out.  Using mostly violins, it creates an atmosphere that can be subtle yet imposing.  It matches the rage that is constantly just under the surface of Arthur.  The music matches the tightly wound intensity of the film itself.  It's probably not the kind of stuff you would want to listen to at home at the end of a stressful day, but as accompaniment to this film, it matches flawlessly.

So, yes, I think Joker is a great movie, but it is not an enjoyable one.  In fact, I don't know if I could sit through it again in a theater setting.  Perhaps at home, when I would have the ability to pause and pick it up again at my choosing.  That being said, the fact that the film had such a hold over me is really saying something.  This movie has so much intensity and power that I was kind of unprepared for it.  And yet, I loved how the movie was working as it was playing out.  It had me completely enraptured the way that few films can.  This is not a movie that wallows in bad feelings.  It is alive, and in its own dark way, it is vibrant.  It is also not a movie that celebrates hatred and violence, like some people have suggested in the weeks leading up to the film's release.  Movies can offer us a glimpse into all corners of life, and this movie forces us to watch aspects we probably rather would not.  It is not playing up the tragedy, nor is it throwing its support behind people like Arthur.  It is simply throwing us head-first into his world and his mind.

And that's why I think this is a film worth celebrating.  It is bold, kind of daring, and truly energetic.  So what if I can't recommend it for everyone?  A lot of movies are not for everyone, and this is a movie that certainly will not appeal to the wide masses.  But, I loved what it set out to do, and ultimately achieved.  You may see it differently.  Debate is another wonderful thing that movies can create.  I have a feeling this one will create a lot.

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