Reel Opinions


Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The 14th Annual Reel Stinkers Awards

It's New Year's Eve.  And as the clock ticks down the final moments of 2019, and everybody gets to look to the year and decade ahead, I get to go back in time, and look at the movies that stole my money and my time the past year.

Yes, it's time once again for the Reel Stinkers Awards.  A time when I get to "honor" the worst of the worst that I sat through.  As you all know, bad movies come in all forms.  We've got blockbuster bombs, comedies with no laughs, thrillers that couldn't startle a mouse, unnecessary sequels, star vanity projects that went horribly wrong, and so much more!  I try to pick through the garbage, and find the really big stinkers.  Sure, I could easily make an entire list of cheap exploitation and low budget horror films, but where would the fun in that be?  I want to look back on the films that were big, or at least supposed to be big, and featured big talent, but still managed to fail.

As always, my "Best of the Year" article will likely come around February or so, as there are some late year releases still stuck in limited release at the moment, and will go wider during January and February.  I want to see and review as many of them as I can, so I always hold off on my Best list until then.

So, with all that out of the way, it's time to carve some cinematic turkeys!  Here's hoping that you didn't waste your money and time on them, and let us also hope that everyone involved with them will get to work on a good movie in 2020!

And now, I'm proud to give you...


THE 10 WORST FILMS OF 2019:

10. THE LION KING - With this supremely unnecessary remake, we get the story that we are all familiar with, only performed by expressionless CG puppets, rather than traditional Disney animation.  The end result is one of the strangest disconnects between form and function that I have ever seen on the big screen.  This is as soulless of a big budget production that I can imagine.  The entire cast is made up out of photo realistic computer animated animals that have been faithfully imagined to their real life counterparts, but are never once capable of showing emotion for some reason.  Of course, it would be strange to see realistic-looking animals laughing, crying, or showing human-like expressions.  That would not work here the same way it does in a hand-drawn animated feature.  But to give them constantly blank, expressionless faces is just as off-putting, if not more so.  If The Lion King is one thing, it is a story about emotion, exile and redemption.  To see it being told by a physical cast that is unable to express these, or actually any, feeling is more creepy than engaging.  This is special effects technical wizardry run amok.  The artists have obviously gone through great pains to make this movie look great, by giving us an all-animal cast and an African setting that looks real enough to touch.  But at the same time, nothing connects, because director Jon Favreau (2016's The Jungle Book remake) has decided to go far to the "Uncanny Valley" edge of realism.  The end result is pointless, and the far opposite of charming.

09. CATS - This is the closest Hollywood has ever come to replicating a hallucinatory fever dream on the big screen.  It's so odd and indescribable, it's almost worth seeing.  There's something so off about every decision director Tom Hooper (2012's Les Miserables) has made here, and yet, you can't take your eyes off of the screen.  We're probably never going to see a movie like this ever again.  At least, we should hope so.  In the original stage musical, the actors portraying the cats mostly wore elaborate costumes and spandex that emphasized flexibility for the dancing.  This being a big budget film being made in 2019, that certainly will not do.  We need "digital fur" turning the cats into some kind of mutant hybrid between human and feline.  The whole thing goes beyond the Uncanny Valley into some kind of unnatural realm where you sometimes find yourself wondering if you're really seeing what you're looking at.  For all of its weirdness, there's a certain lifelessness to Cats that I don't think is intended.  There is just no feeling or message to any of the big musical sequences.  I don't lay all the blame on the actors.  They're all talented, and doing what they can.  It's just the camera angles and the sporadic effects work sometimes make these musical numbers a curiosity more than a thrill.  We know we're supposed to be having fun watching this, but we're not.  And that right there pinpoints the film's main problem.  The people behind this were so fixated on technology and creating the illusion of cat-people that they forgot to give the music sequences and choreography the life they deserve.

08. AFTER -  After started out as a romantic fan-fiction story centered around an innocent college girl having a fling with one of the members of the music group, One Direction.  It then found a life of its own, as it was published into a series of books that I have never heard of, but the poster for this movie promises is a "best-selling worldwide phenomenon".  Now we have a movie, which is a dull and lifeless string of teen drama cliches joined together to create a loose narrative, and characters who are so flat, calling them cardboard would be an insult to perfectly good packing material.  What we have here is a story as old as the hills, where a nice young girl falls for the mysterious bad boy, and finds out he's much more sensitive and romantic than he first appears.  The "One Direction" angle has been dropped, and instead we have Tessa (Josephine Langford) as the good girl, and the wonderfully-named Hardin (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, nephew of Ralph Fiennes) in the role of the dreamy bad boy who speaks with a British accent, has tattoos, wears black all the time, and likes to quote and wax poetic about classic literature.  In other words, he's the kind of "bad boy" you would see on a Disney Channel drama.  The fact that the movie asks us to take him seriously is the first of its many severe miscalculations.  I would say that After goes through the motions, but that would require the movie to actually be going somewhere.  This movie is so desperate to create drama, it has to force it into its own storyline.  Characters act like total idiots at every opportunity, or the situations are written so broadly, they come across as farce.  And yet, I'm afraid the filmmakers think they're making a serious-minded drama about young forbidden love here.  So why did the filmmakers play it so bland and safe here?  Better to make a racy movie that young girls can talk about, rather than one that is so blatantly a lifeless attempt at paying tribute to other movies.  If you're not going to be original, at least be sexy.  This movie does neither.

07. RAMBO: LAST BLOOD - Here is an action movie that wallows in misery and human suffering.  When you consider what a great action movie can do, it seems all the more cheap.  This is a genre that can provide more than great thrills and stunt work.  Films like these can be fun, cathartic, and offer escapism.  You get the sense that all director Adrian Grunberg and Sylvester Stallone (who co-wrote the script) want to do is inflect pain upon the audience.  Rambo: Last Blood devotes the first hour or so to the suffering and violence being inflected upon Rambo and his adopted family.  It then spends its last half hour in a non-stop orgy of over the top blood and gore as the hero takes revenge.  Either way, it's not much fun.  I guess we're supposed to cheer as we watch these men who raped and drugged Rambo's daughter get slaughtered like cattle, decapitated, skewered, blown to bits, tortured, and dropped into pits lined with spikes.  Frankly, I found the entire movie heavy-handed, poorly made, and kind of repulsive.  Its sole purpose is to ram the point home that there is only pain and suffering in the world, and that you can never truly be happy.  As if to ram the point home that nobody cared, the movie is badly staged, and edited in such a way that we can sometimes barely see what is happening during a lot of the action.  Further, the direction by Grunberg is uninspired, and the script by Stallone and Matthew Cirulnick is simplistic to the point that the audience is given nothing to think about.  Everyone is either tortured and miserable, or broad and horrible.  This is a bloody and exploitative movie that is disgusting instead of thrilling.

06. THE KITCHEN - This movie 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).  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 wives 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.  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.

05. 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 Will Smith as 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, 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.  The only thing Gemini Man has going for it is that it's not the worst movie I've seen about cloning this year.  Still, that doesn't excuse this gimmicky and ultimately unnecessary film.  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.

04. THE INTRUDER - This is a flaccid thriller that tells the story of two of the dumbest people I have seen in the movies in a long time who buy a house from an obvious psychopath, and then seem surprised that the guy turns out to be, yes, a psychopath who has a an unhealthy obsession with his massive and secluded home.  This is a movie where it's almost essential that the audience scream at the characters up on the screen, because they keep on intentionally doing the wrong thing over and over.  The psycho in this movie is Charlie, and he's played by Dennis Quaid.  Now, Quaid is an immensely likable actor, and he is completely miscast.  He tries to unnerve us with his performance by narrowing his eyes, and wearing a phony, toothy grin.  He wears that forced grin on his face so much, it almost looks like he's auditioning to play The Joker.  He then proceeds to menace a young couple who buy his beloved home, and continuously miss his evil intentions.  Time and time again, the characters in The Intruder are forced to act like oblivious morons in order for there to even be a movie in the first place.  I would say a good idea for a parody of this film would be to have the answers staring the characters in the face, and they just keep on ignoring them.  However, that's exactly how this supposedly-serious thriller plays out.  Speaking of which, calling this a "thriller" is generous, as the movie in no way creates any tension in any way, shape or form.  From the first frame to the very last shot, The Intruder has been sloppily thrown together with little care.  Everyone who signed up to be a part of this needs to have a long, sad talk with their agent.

03. REPLICAS - This is the first film about human cloning that I can remember that does not take any real stance or view on the subject.  Not once does the movie slow down to examine the ethical and moral questions, and instead stumbles full-speed ahead into a boring chase movie where the scientist has to protect his clone family from government agents.  This is a movie that barely seems to be able to generate enough energy to exist.  The only moments where it comes to life are some unintentionally comical moments that are sprinkled throughout, though not enough to make this a "so bad it's good" guilty pleasure.  Keanu Reeves sleepwalks through the movie as Will Foster, a neuroscientist who clones his family in his underground lab after a tragic car accident.  I'm not sure if it's due to Reeves' barely there performance, or the cheap screenplay, but Will seems to take the death of his entire family with what can only be called casual indifference. Rarely has a movie treated the whole concept of cloning the dead with such passive indifference.  Will is playing with the laws of nature, but he treats it as if it's just another day at the office.  Replicas is an insultingly idiotic approach to an intriguing idea.  And just what is this movie trying to say about cloning in the first place?  As far as I can tell, nothing.  There are no consequences, no repercussions, and no moment where Will seems to be in doubt about what he is doing, and later what he has done.  According to this movie, cloning his dead wife and kids and keeping secrets from them is the best thing Will ever did, and it probably even saved his marriage.   It's rare to have a movie that is so infuriatingly stupid, and yet deadly dull at the same time.  Replicas somehow manages to pull off both feats, which I guess is kind of impressive, but for all the wrong reasons.

02. THE GOLDFINCH - John Crowley's The Goldfinch has an air of self-importance to it that it does not earn or deserve.  It's a pompous and ponderous slog through a plot that should be emotional, yet never is.  That's because all vitality and life seems to have been drained from every aspect of the production.  The performances, the confused out of sequence narrative, and especially the interminable two and a half hour running time all add up into an experience that is dead in the water from the word "go".  The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Donna Tartt, and while the narrative is more or less the same, nothing else from Tartt's original work has survived in the translation.  All nuance, character, and naturally the wording of the novel is missing.  What we have left is a lifeless and dreary reenactment of events from the book that hold almost no distinction or dramatic weight.  In telling the story of the main character's journey from a childhood tragedy to a haunted adult, nothing connects in the slightest, and anyone who has not read the original novel is likely to be confused, and also wonder why this story is so acclaimed in its original form.  All the complexities and nuances have been stripped away.  In the original novel, the main character narrated in the first-person and shared his inner thoughts.  Here, he comes across as an empty void of a character that we never get to know, and simply reacts to everything and everyone around him.  Because of this, The Goldfinch not only lacks any kind of emotion that an audience can connect with, it also doesn't make a damn bit of sense at times.  The time-jumping, out of sequence narrative has little rhyme or reason, and plays more like an act of confusion rather than a stylistic choice.  This is a failed prestige project that certainly looks beautiful and has attracted some strong talent, but to what end when you're not even going to bother to tell the story properly?

01. SERENITY - This  has the look of an A-List thriller.  And with talent like Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, and Diane Lane, it has the cast of an A-List thriller.  But what are we to make of the script, which is filled with dialogue only a screenwriter could love.  Much like John Travolta's Battlefield Earth, or the infamous adaptation of The Scarlet Letter that featured Demi Moore, this is one of those movies that gets laughs, even though it's not trying to be funny in the slightest.  It wants to be a noir drama about lost love, hidden secrets, murder plots, and suspicious characters, including a business man who seems to be stalking McConaughey everywhere he goes.  But that's not all.  It also wants to be a Moby-Dick like story of obsession, as McConaughey's character tries desperately to catch a tuna that has alluded him for years.  But that's still not all!  It also wants to be the worst episode of The Twilight Zone you've ever seen, with a massive third act twist that is supposed to make us question everything that's come before, but only makes us roar with laughter, or at least roll our eyes if we're more polite.  None of these plot pieces connect, and the way that writer-director Steven Knight weaves them together is borderline incompetent.  This is one of those movies where the audience gathers outside the cinema when it's done, and tries to sort together what they've just witnessed, like onlookers of a traffic accident.  As the plot builds and quickly spirals into sheer insanity, you just have to ask yourself, did anyone read the script in advance?  Did this dialogue actually sound good on paper?  Did nobody take one look at it, and realize it was total claptrap?  Did the invaluable Diane Lane really say yes to a role where she's introduced by having rough sex with McConaughey, then spends a majority of the film looking out her bedroom window, wondering where her cat has gone off to?  Why does the dialogue sound so leaden in this movie?  What possessed anyone to think this movie was releasable?  Serenity generates these questions, but gives no answers.  With these big stars attached, and a mysterious trailer that hints at big reveals, you might think that this is a dark adult thriller.  Don't be fooled.  It's nothing more than a dumb live action cartoon posing as an adult thriller.


Well, that covers the Top 10, but I am far from finished.  It's time to cover the Dishonorable Mentions, the films that were bad, but not quite bad enough to break into the top spots.  Don't let that fool you into thinking these movies are somehow better than what's come before, however.  You should avoid any and all movies that appear on this list.  With that said, let's roll out the next batch of stinkers!

DISHONORABLE MENTIONS:

Escape Room, The Prodigy, Hotel Mumbai, Hellboy, The Hustle, Dark Phoenix, Men in Black International, Anna, Stuber, The Art of Racing in the Rain, Angel Has Fallen, Zombieland: Double Tap, Countdown, Playing with Fire, Charlie's Angels, Jumanji: The Next Level, Black Christmas


INDIVIDUAL REEL STINKERS AWARDS:


WORST SEQUEL:
Rambo: Last Blood

MOST UNNECESSARY SEQUEL:
Men in Black International

WORST REMAKE:
The Lion King

WORST PERFORMANCE BY AN A-LIST ACTOR/ACTRESS:
A half-asleep James Earl Jones reprising his role in The Lion King

OVERALL WORST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR/ACTRESS:
Keanu Reeves in Replicas

WORST IDEA FOR A MOVIE THAT NEVER COULD HAVE WORKED:
Cats

REPEAT OFFENDERS (ACTORS WHO APPEARED IN MORE THAN ONE STINKER IN 2019):
Anne Hathaway in Serenity and The Hustle
Kumail Nanjiani in Men in Black: International and Stuber
Luke Wilson in The Goldfinch and Zombieland: Double Tap
Thomas Middleditch in Replicas and Zombieland: Double Tap
Rebel Wilson in The Hustle and Cats

WORST ON-SCREEN TEAM:
Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in Men in Black International

STUDIO THAT RELEASED THE MOST STINKERS IN 2019:
Sony Entertainment for bringing us Escape Room, The Intruder, Men in Black International, Zombieland: Double Tap, Charlie's Angels and Jumanji: The Next Level

Well, that's the worst of 2019 in a nutshell.  Time to look ahead to 2020, and hope for the best.  Have a wonderful and safe new year, everybody!

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Saturday, December 28, 2019

Spies in Disguise

Spies in Disguise is a bright and cheerful animated action comedy that gets some great use out of its two big name stars serving as the lead voice talents.  Will Smith is clearly having a lot of fun playing Lance, the cocky Number One Super Spy in the World.  Meanwhile, Tom Holland brings a lot of charm as Walter, the nerdy tech guy for Lance's spy organization who ends up turning the spy into a pigeon with the aid of a formula he's been developing.

To be perfectly fair, Walter's idea does have some merit.  After all, pigeons are everywhere and nobody ever notices them.  What better way for a spy to be covert than to disguise himself as one of the feathered creatures?  The idea is different to be sure, but then Walter thinks differently than the other tech guys at the spy agency.  While all the other scientists are working on Bond-inspired laser pens and heat rays, he's developing a glitter bomb that explodes in a shower of sparkly glitter that takes on the image of an adorable kitten in order to distract the villains.  He's a pacifist at heart, and doesn't want to hurt anyone, not even the bad guys.  "Good or bad, people are people", he argues.  Lance brushes him and his ideals off initially when they first meet, but will have to turn to him for help after a villain with a robotic arm (voice by Ben Mendelsohn) frames Lance for stealing a deadly new weapon, and threatens to expose the identities of the entire secret spy service, putting the entire agency in mortal danger.

This is what leads to Lance drinking the experimental formula that turns him into a pigeon.  He will use his new form to gather clues about who is framing him, and how they can be stopped.  As a bird, Lance keeps his personality, but also develops some more pigeon-like habits, such as finding food lying on the ground irresistible.  There's some other gross bird facts that Lance discovers that are sure to have the kids in the audience screaming with laughter.  For the adults, there's some clever dialogue and word-play between Smith and Holland that is surprisingly sharp.  They develop a genuinely sweet odd couple relationship during the course of the film as well, as Lance learns to rely on someone else after years of "flying solo", and Walter learns that his odd ideas and way of thinking can be useful after a lifetime of humiliation and rejection.

Spies in Disguise hits a lot of familiar beats, such as the spy spoof and the mismatched buddy comedy, but it manages to stand out thanks to a script that's a bit smarter than you would expect.  I was surprised to learn the villain's motives have nothing to do with ruling the world, but rather due to a personal loss.  Any movie that teaches kids that actions can have unforeseen consequences is always okay with me.  There's also a very game cast who know how to sell the jokes.  Outside of Smith and Holland, there are some strong voice over performances here by Rashida Jones as an agent trying to track Lance down, thinking he's a traitor, Masi Oka as a Japanese crimelord, and country singer Reba McEntire as the head of the spy agency.  There is also a trio of pigeons who team up with Lance in his bird form, and end up stealing a lot of scenes, despite not having any dialogue.

With Frozen II being far enough in the rear-view mirror, this will more than make do for families looking for animated entertainment over the holiday break.  It's got more than enough slapstick and mildly gross humor for kids, and some funny dialogue and smart ideas for the parents.  My only wish?  The film is based on an animated short called Pigeon: Impossible, and I wish they had kept the original title.

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Friday, December 27, 2019

Little Women

After crafting her own marvelous coming of age story with 2017's Lady Bird, writer-director Greta Gerwig tackles Little Women, perhaps the most famous coming of age story of all time.  The 1868 novel has been adapted in various formats, from film and stage, and even a Japanese anime.  All of these have tackled Louisa May Alcott's story in different fashions.  What Gerwig does is combine the semi-autobiographical story with elements of the author's thoughts on the world at the time.

The end result is something quite joyous, and one of the better films of 2019.  In a bold move, the director has not made a straight up adaptation here.  Oh, it follows the original story closely enough.  But, it also tells the story out of sequence, and also adds a personal touch by framing the story around the efforts of lead heroine Jo (Saoirse Ronan) to sell her book to a hard-headed publisher (Tracy Letts), which likely mirror Alcott's own experiences in trying to sell the novel back in the day.  The ending has also been altered slightly.  How purists will feel about these changes might be up to debate, but I personally appreciated the gambles that Gerwig has taken with her adaptation, and think they have paid off flawlessly.  This is a beautiful film, filled with life and performances that add to the growing list of Award-worthy hopefuls.

As always, the story is focused on the four March sisters, and their growth from childhood into women.  The film is divided into two time periods in the girls' lives, with a seven year gap between them.  Again, this film takes things in a somewhat different direction, jumping back and forth between the two periods.  This can be confusing at first, but the audience catches on quick enough, as the movie uses visual cues to let us know what point in time the current scene is set in.  Jo, Amy (Florence Pugh), Meg (Emma Watson) and Beth (Eliza Scanlan) grow up under the care of their mother (Laura Dern), while their father (Bob Odenkirk) is off serving in the Civil War.  Through personal victories, romances, heartbreak, jealousies and tragedies, the sisters grow personally, and grow stronger together as a family.

It's the casting that helps Little Women succeed as much as it does.  As the independent-minded Jo, Ronan is extremely likable in her second time working with Gerwig.  She's not just a spirited heroine, but she brings layers of doubt and uncertainty to the role which helps flesh her out as a character.  As her sisters, Watson and Scanlan both bring a kind of gentle grace.  We can feel the warmth in their performances together, and it really helps sell the overall theme of them growing together.  But it is Pugh's turn as Amy that is the revelation here.  She creates new layers for a character who is often misunderstood by adding a layer of intelligence to her portrayal.  She adds more sympathy to the character than in some previous adaptations, and it helps add to the richness of this adaptation.

In fact, that's kind of what I loved about this film.  It allows certain characters such as the romantic Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), and even the fairly minor role of Mr. Laurence (a wonderful Chris Cooper) more depth than you might be expecting.  This is a movie that celebrates the imperfections of its characters, even Jo, who has a few more moments of weakness here than in some other film versions of the novel.  Gerwig is really diving into these characters, and letting us see some new angles here.  That's part of what gives this film the life that it has.  It's not just the performances that are on display, but the screenplay itself that is worthy of attention.  At only her third time behind the camera, Gerwig shows a real mastery of not just successfully telling a familiar story, but bringing new excitement into it.

Little Women succeeds not just as an adaptation, but also in celebrating the imperfections of the characters.  This is a bold film, but it's as warm and heartfelt as you could ever want it to be.  It's a wonderful entertainment, and one that you should make time for in this current crop of holiday releases.

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Thursday, December 26, 2019

Uncut Gems

I'm going to say something that I think a lot of people forget.  Adam Sandler is talented.  He obviously stood out during his time on Saturday Night Live back in the 90s, and even a handful of his films have managed to stand the test of time. (The Wedding Singer is my particular favorite.) But when you look at his larger body of film work as a whole, it's easy to forget that.  He has appeared in a lion's share of movies that can generously be labeled as bad, with some even going into unwatchable.  And yet, even when the film has been a clunker through and through, he does still manage to entertain at times, and show that spark of talent that I know he possesses.

On the rare occasions when he ventures into dramatic films like Punch Drunk Love, Funny People or Spanglish, he gets to show his talent on a much broader scale.  The secret to his success in these films is that he basically takes the traits of his comedic characters, and plays them straight.  Just like in his comedies, Sandler portrays people who are anti-social, nervous about the world, and insecure.  He really is playing the types that he knows, only dropping the broader aspects of his performance.  It's a smart move, and it's worked for him.  Uncut Gems is probably his first attempt at a truly dramatic performance.  His other attempts had touches of comedy to them, but here, Sandler is pure raw emotion.  His anger is volcanic, he's shifty, and he's probably the kind of person you would avoid in real life.  But, he is mesmerizing here, and brings a certain power and intensity to a script that at times feel familiar, but he makes it consistently worth watching.

This is saying something, because Sandler is on the screen for almost the film's entire two hour-plus run time.  He seems to be fueled by adrenaline here, talking a mile a minute, and his eyes constantly checking all corners of the room for people who might be out to hurt him.  Even when his character is chatting it up with a customer at the gem store that he runs, he seems to be running solely on nervous energy.  The film is set in New York's diamond district, a world filled with more than its share of con men and shady dealers, but it brings a colorful atmosphere to the film to the point that the streets the movie is set on becomes a character itself.  Sandler plays one of those dealers, a man by the name of Howard Ratner.  He is obsessed with making deals, gambling, and hunting down rare diamond scores that he knows will net him his fortune.  That's what drives him.  Whenever he finds something valuable, he almost has to immediately start planning his next big score. 

This has obviously put a damper on his personal life.  His wife (Idina Menzel, a long way from Frozen here) is on the brink of divorcing him, and is only waiting for the right time to let the kids know.  Speaking of his kids, they barely tolerate his existence.  He has a mistress (Julia Fox), but even that relationship seems to be on shaky ground at times due to his compulsive urges and often volcanic anger.  He's also deeply in debt to his brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian), who frequently sends his thugs out to Howard to rough him up.  This is why he is obsessively chasing after the next big score.  He knows that he can find some way to make a huge amount of money in order to tie up his many debts.  Of course, this will never happen, as Howard is the type to keep on making large wagers while he's in the process of paying off his existing ones.  It's an obsession, and he doesn't really care if it's ruining him or the lives of the people around him.  It simply is who he is.

Now Howard has come upon a rock from an Ethiopian mine filled with multi-colored opals that he claims could be worth millions of dollars at auction.  Before he can deliver it to the auction house, he makes the unwise decision to lend it to Basketball player Kevin Garnett (playing himself), who is interested in the stone, and thinks it will bring him good luck at his games.  When the time comes for Howard to get the stone back, Kevin suddenly becomes very hard to track down, and the remainder of the film becomes a race against time as Howard has to avoid his pursuers, get the stone back, and deliver it to the auction on time.  At its core, Uncut Gems is a movie driven by the same adrenaline that fuels its protagonist.  It's constantly moving, the characters are repeatedly talking over each other, and everyone seems to be in a race to get what they want.  It brings us inside Howard's world where deals are made and broken in a span of about a minute, and where he has to constantly be on the watch out for thugs who might be waiting to "persuade him" to pay off the debts he owes by any means necessary.

What the movie gets right is how it displays Howard's life as a constant balancing act.  He's a smart man, but he's also compulsive, and doesn't make the right decisions sometimes.  He knows the game of his trade, but he also overshoots his chances all too often.  We see how it impacts his personal life and the people around him, but it also clearly shows that Howard doesn't really care.  It's all about him, and all about placing the next bet and hopefully scoring big.  His life is a wreck, and it's one he's completely responsible for.  Again, this plays perfectly upon Sandler's usual on-screen persona, which is usually impulsive and childish.  Channeling these traits toward anger and obsession instead of laughs is what makes the performance work, and the decision to cast him so wonderful.  He is not playing for our sympathy here, like a lot of comic actors do when they turn to drama.  Robin Williams was especially famous for going for the heartstrings whenever he would be serious.  Sandler makes Howard into a character that we don't really like, but is fascinating to watch.

Uncut Gems is a slow-burn movie, but it is thrilling when it needs to be, and is constantly fascinating to watch as we witness the main character's life spiral out of control, with him just trying to stay one step ahead of everyone.  It reminds us just how strong Sandler can be as an actor when he is not playing to the lowest level of the audience, and when he has a great script and filmmakers that understand how to use his on-screen persona to the best of its ability.

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Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Bombshell

Much like Dark Waters, it's impossible to watch Bombshell, and not be enraged.  The film so astutely handles the downfall of predatory Fox News CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow, magnificent here), and lays down what happened that it only leaves you questioning why didn't the outcome happen a lot sooner.  People were afraid to speak out, yes, and we sadly live in a society where the accuser is often the accused in situations like this.  If the movie helps open some eyes about this unfortunate aspect of our culture, then all the anger it builds within the viewer is worth it.

At the center of it all is Charlize Theron, giving the most memorable female performance of the year outside of Renee Zellweger in Judy.  The decision as to which actress comes out on top is a tough call.  In playing former Fox News host, Megyn Kelly, Theron does nothing short of transforming herself into the actual person  Her appearance, her voice, her mannerisms are all simply perfection.  And yet, the performance is not just a simple imitation.  It has subtlety, range, and a lot of emotion as she struggles with both her image to the loyal viewers after she asks some tough questions of Presidential candidate Donald Trump, and later when she is forced to face some truths that she has been fighting to suppress concerning Ailes.  It's a complex performance, and simply one of the finest you will see in a while.

Even though Theron's Kelly grabs our attention, it is not entirely her story.  It is also the story of Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who more or less had to spend every day on TV as kind of a plastic Barbie-like news figure - All smiles, blonde hair, and long legs.  Behind that image, there was a simmering anger, and Kidman brings it out beautifully here.  When she walks off the set of her show in the middle of it after she's had enough of the jokes and behavior of her two male co-anchors, it is a small spark that is about to ignite a flame within the Cable News world.  After she was fired for reasons she was never truly told, Gretchen sued Roger Ailes.  It was something unprecedented at the time, as Ailes was one of those figures who seemed too powerful to bring down or remove.  But Gretchen knew his weakness, and knew how to fight back.

More or less, Ailes would take advantage of the young women who worked for his network and wanted to get ahead.  He would have women stand up and spin for him, so that he could admire their figures, all the while saying that he just wanted to know if they were right for TV.  "Television is a visual medium", he would tell them.  Sometimes he would go much further.  In one scene, while interviewing a woman named Kayla (Margot Robbie), he tells her to lift her skirt up a little, because he wants to see her legs.  She is nervous, but complies.  "Higher", he says.  Again, she obeys, but he still wants to see more.  This scene alone depicting Robbie's discomfort and humiliation, and Lithgow's silent leering is the single most tense moment of any film this year, and is more terrifying than any ghost story Hollywood can dream up.

Kayla is a composite of many different women whom Ailes promised would "help" advance their careers on his network, as long as they played along, and of course said nothing afterward.  Robbie does a wonderful job of playing the conflicted sides of her character.  On one hand, she supports Fox News and its mission, and she wants to do great things for the network.  But, she is also appalled, and doesn't even know who she can talk to or trust.  Bombshell shows us all angles of the network mentality.  We have the big name TV hosts who simply seem to ignore whatever happens to be going on.  We also have women like Jess Carr (Saturday Night Live's Kate McKinnon, wonderful in a rare dramatic role), who is lesbian but will never come out publicly, as she's afraid it would hurt her job on the network.  Even Theron's Kelly questions whether or not she should come forward, and tries her best to dodge the issue.  After all, she's already in hot water for the questions she asked Trump during the debate.  Would coming forward doom her career even more?

This is a movie that has been perfectly cast, as not only do the actors look like who they are representing, but they capture their personas.  Maybe not quite to the complete transformation level that Theron pulls off, but still impressive.  It also makes sure that the movie tackles the personal lives of these individual women, so that we see them beyond the TV cameras.  From Kelly and her husband (Mark Duplass) disagreeing over how she is handling her career decisions (he is especially angered when he sees her give an interview with Trump that is comprised of softball questions), to Gretchen trying to put a brave face on for her children while dealing with the impending lawsuit, the movie creates some wonderful drama, and chances for all three leading lady performances to stand out. 

Bombshell is full of hard truths, moments of sharp wit, and an overall sense that it's a story that needed to be told.  It is likely to inspire anger, but most importantly, I hope that it inspires action in just about any area of the work place where these sort of things are happening.  It's a terrific, eye-opening piece of entertainment, and one that is not soon forgotten after watching it.

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Saturday, December 21, 2019

Cats

Cats is the closest Hollywood has ever come to replicating a hallucinatory fever dream on the big screen.  It's so odd and indescribable, it's almost worth seeing.  There's something so off about every decision director Tom Hooper (2012's Les Miserables) has made here, and yet, you can't take your eyes off of the screen.  We're probably never going to see a movie like this ever again.  At least, we should hope so.

But then, perhaps his desire to bring Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage musical to cinematic life was doomed from the start.  The original show, adapted from T.S. Eliot's poetry collection Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, is famous for largely being a fairly plotless spectacle.  It was the outlandish costumes and stage effects that turned the 1982 Broadway production into the stage sensation of its day, and the fourth longest running musical in New York history.  It's lack of plot and emphasis on music and theatrical wizardry meant that just about any audience member could be entertained on some level, even those who did not speak English, but wanted to enjoy a show while they were visiting the city.  The original show is more or less a revue where a large group of street cats introduce themselves to us in song, and compete for the chance to go up to the "Heaviside Layer", a kind of cat-heaven where they can be reborn into a new life.

To be fair, Hooper and his co-writer Lee Hall do try to tell a little bit more of a story here.  It kicks off when a cat named Victoria (ballet dancer Francesca Hayward) is abandoned on the street by her human owner, and finds herself in the world of the "Jellicle Cats", who hang out on the streets of London out of the sight of humans.  Victoria acts as our eyes into this strange world, which is made even stranger by some of the visual choices on display here.  In trying to make his actors appear cat-like in size, the filmmakers use oversized sets and props whenever the cats are supposed to be singing and dancing in human environments like abandoned homes and milk diners.  But the movie kind of overshoots, making its actors appear much smaller than they should.  It at times looks like we're watching a Broadway musical performed by a cast of fantastical little people from another world.  And other times, the cats appear much larger than they should, creating an overall air of imbalance.

On stage, the actors portraying the cats mostly wore elaborate costumes and spandex that emphasized flexibility for the dancing.  This being a big budget film being made in 2019, that certainly will not do.  We need "digital fur" turning the cats into some kind of mutant hybrid between human and feline.  The creatures all have human faces with CG touch ups, like cat ears that move, or whiskers that twitch from time to time.  Their bodies are covered head to foot in fur and a cat-like tail, though they have human-like feet.  A few cats even wear clothes for some reason, such as the evil Macavity the Mystery Cat (Idris Elba), who spends most of his screentime watching the action from afar, and kidnapping the various cats who hope to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, plotting to take their place instead.  There's also Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), who is covered with fur, yet inexplicably wears a fur coat.

The whole thing goes beyond the Uncanny Valley into some kind of unnatural realm where you sometimes find yourself wondering if you're really seeing what you're looking at.  In one of the more bizarre sequences, we have Rebel Wilson portraying an overweight cat who prances around an oversized set with even smaller actors, who are supposed to be portraying the mice and cockroaches that dance with her. (It gets even stranger when she starts picking random cockroaches out of the dancing line, and swallowing them whole.) Other unforgettable sights the movie treats us to is the invaluable Ian McKellen (as Gus the Old Theater Cat) lapping up milk from a dish, to Taylor Swift as a cat named Bombalurina sprinkling pixie dust-like catnip down on the crowd during her musical number.  While all this is happening, Grizabella the Glamour Cat (Jennifer Hudson) watches, and gets to sing the show's most popular song "Memory", in the hopes that she will be picked to go to Heaven and live her life over.  She sings the song well, but the way the camera focuses so close on her face that we can see the tears from her eyes mixing with the fluids coming from her nose is kind of off-putting.

For all of its weirdness, there's a certain lifelessness to Cats that I don't think is intended.  There is just no feeling or message to any of the big musical sequences.  When the mischief-making cats Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer trash a home during their big number, there's just no sense of fun or joy.  When the magical cat Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) shows off his mastery of the impossible during his song, it lacks energy.  And when the flamboyant "ladies cat" Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo) struts his stuff, he just doesn't sell it like we expect.  I don't lay all the blame on the actors.  They're all talented, and doing what they can.  It's just the camera angles and the sporadic effects work sometimes make these musical numbers a curiosity more than a thrill.  We know we're supposed to be having fun watching this, but we're not.  And that right there pinpoints the film's main problem.  The people behind this were so fixated on technology and creating the illusion of cat-people that they forgot to give the music sequences and choreography the life they deserve.

It's funny that I noticed a few people walk out early during the middle of the film.  Did they not see the trailers?  Did they somehow not know about the show itself?  Cats is downright bizarre, and I walked in expecting that.  What I did not expect is how lifeless and forgettable the movie would be as a whole.  It's certainly weird, but it only goes so far before you start looking for some genuine entertainment value, and aside from a few fleeting moments, there's little on display here.

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Friday, December 20, 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

After Rian Johnson largely underwhelmed audiences with 2017's The Last Jedi, Star Wars Episode IX has returned to the hands of J.J. Abrams, who initially kicked off this new trilogy with 2015's The Force Awakens.  You can tell that he is wildly trying to steer things back in the direction he wanted, which leads to a lot of chaos up on the screen.  If there is one fault to be found with this new trilogy of films, it's that they never quite found a stable voice or direction to guide the entire plot.

Still, among the chaos, you can still see the original universe that George Lucas created 42 years ago.  This supposedly final film installment (we shall see...) arrives in theaters with a lot of pressure.  Fans are demanding answers, demanding that the movie fulfills their every want and desire, and maybe even an appearance from Baby Yoda. (Sorry, doesn't happen.) Of course, there will never be a film to truly please every fan.  Each installment will be nitpicked for all time by those who have devoted huge parts of their lives to the universe.  So it goes with just about every fan culture, and its attempt to return it to proper form after a long absence, or a troubled history.  In all honestly, perhaps Abrams was a little mad to attempt to bring an end to the entire Skywalker Family saga.  There's honestly no way he could have nailed a landing so huge, and it's clear that he's floundering more than just a little as he fills his movie with nostalgia, call backs, and more than a few convoluted plot elements that you can see coming from miles away.

And yet, the movie does work on a basic level.  It's got lots of thrills, some laughs, and enough heart to help you look past its flaws, and probably enjoy it.  How much you enjoy it probably depends on how much time you have invested in the film's universe.  I'm sure the diehard followers will be rewriting the script to their specifications in their heads while they're in the theater.  Others will find it a fitting tribute and ending.  I think I'll place myself somewhere in the middle.  The film is far from perfect, but there are some very graceful elements here, like the way Abrams has handled Carrie Fisher as Leia after her death in 2016.  There are cameos to watch out for, which are handled well here.  There's also just a sense that the movie wants to please its audience, and I think The Rise of Skywalker succeeds enough that I am recommending it.  It's worth watching at least once.

If you want answers about the saga between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) that's been building for the past four years, you'll get them.  He's still trying to lure her over to his side, and she's still training to be a Jedi, and wanting to know more about her parents and her mysterious past.  Kylo is now taking orders from Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who apparently is not as dead as we were led to believe after 1983's Return of the Jedi.  Palpatine wants Rey brought before him for reasons that will be unexplained here.  As for Rey, she's struggling with trying to figure out who she is.  Do the dark premonitions that haunt her hint at an inevitable future?  Is her destiny fighting alongside Kylo?  Does she even have a choice in where her life will go?

For guidance, she turns to Leia, who helps her with her training.  These are some of the best moments in the film, as by using film footage Fisher recorded for The Last Jedi that was never used, Abrams is able to create a surprisingly warm and compelling performance that never once feels like technical wizardry.  It feels like an honest performance, and we never once question the effects work used to bring the two actresses together.  It's touching in a way, and a more than fitting way to pay tribute to Fisher's invaluable contributions to the story.  As Rey struggles to find her place and her past, she is joined by her friends and comrades from the previous entries, like Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega), as well as old favorites like Chewie, C3PO, and R2D2.  Speaking of old favorites, Billy Dee Williams returns as Lando for the first time since Return of the Jedi, and he hasn't lost any of his charm of screen presence in 36 years, though it would be nice if he had more to do.

But then, not many of the characters outside of Rey and Kylo get to stand out here.  That's because Abrams is mostly using The Rise of Skywalker as an opportunity to indulge in his fanboy side, and throw in as many lightsaber duels, space dogfights, and throwbacks to the past as possible.  A lot of this is fun for a while, but like a lot of recent blockbusters, this movie could have benefited from another trip to the editing room.  After about 90 minutes, when you realize there's still almost an hour to go, you might start to wish that the plot was a bit tighter, like I did.  There are a few too many visits to too many planets, too many plot surprises that really are not that surprising, and just an overall sense that Abrams and his story people just did not really know when to stop adding to the narrative.  This is a movie that's been packed to the gills, and while it manages to work, it might have worked even better with just a little less.

It's undeniable that there are large portions of the film that work, and where I felt that child-like excitement that the best Star Wars entries have always given me.  This is not a perfect film, but it has been made with a lot of joy and spirit.  That's kind of all I was looking for out of this, and it provided.  So, let the fans nitpick.  I'll admit it has its flaws, but it's still a lot of fun.

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Sunday, December 15, 2019

Black Christmas

It's obvious that director and co-writer Sophia Takal intended her take on Black Christmas to do for sexism what Jordan Peele's Get Out did for racism.  Both films take a serious and timely subject matter, and pace them into a conventional horror story, hoping to add some nuance.  There's one huge difference at how both films approach their subject, however.  While Peele's script was smart, suspenseful and witty, this movie's script simply uses buzzwords built around the "MeToo" era, without really digging beneath the surface. 

The movie shares the same title as the 1974 slasher film, and maybe a couple ideas are similar, but other than that, it has little to do with the earlier movie it's supposed to be emulating.  There was already a Black Christmas remake back in 2006, and as bad as that was, it at least knew to keep a few things from the original that worked.  Basically, this is a cheap and rushed little thriller that was probably made simply because this year happened to have a Friday the 13th fall in December.  The movie was announced in June, shot quickly over the summer, and is already playing on thousands of screens.  Obviously the filmmakers were not exactly aiming for quality here.  But they do want to get a message across, and that is to rally against evil white men who abuse their power, and take advantage of the women in their lives.  Unfortunately, the movie takes such an overly simplistic "black and white" approach to its message, it might make audience members (even the women) cringe, instead of cheer.  It also gets so behind its message that at times it forgets it's supposed to be a horror movie, and forgoes suspense for simply ramming its ideals down our throats over and over.

This is not a fun movie, nor is it creepy in any way.  And thanks to a bizarre PG-13 rating, people who go to these movies for the violence and kill scenes will be disappointed that most of the killer's attacks are implied, rather than on camera.  The kills we do get to see are edited into a jumbled mess, rendering them pointless.  It also has no real sense of humor or satire, and takes itself deadly seriously.  Any laughs the movie gets will be unintentional.  Much like the Charlie's Angels reboot we got last month, the movie is so laser-focused on its message about empowering women that it forgets about everything else.  Rather than opening people's eyes, this movie is likely to make people angry about the lack of entertainment that it delivers.

As for the movie itself, the plot centers on a college student named Riley (Imogen Poots), a survivor of a sexual assault attack by another student who is still traumatized by the event.  Nobody believed her back when it happened aside from a few of her Sorority Sisters, and her attacker is still walking around the campus freely and confidently.  Riley prefers to stay in the shadows and not draw attention to herself, unlike her politically-minded friends, who are always rallying against something or other.  If the movie had decided to thoughtfully and realistically explore Riley's situation, we might have had something here.  Unfortunately, the tone of the film gives off a bad vibe almost from the start as we get to meet the characters.  All the women are portrayed as screaming activists while all the men (even some of the professors and local police) are portrayed as sneering, lustful and sarcastic.

However, there is a killer stalking the campus and targeting the women.  As the bodies start to pile up, and the killer starts leaving private messages for Riley and her friends that are supposed to be creepy but fail to have any impact, Riley finds herself in a life-or-death struggle at the hands of a mysterious man who walks around in a cloak, hood and a mask.  The problem is, the movie makes it pretty darn obvious who is behind the killings early on.  But let me tell you, nothing, and I mean nothing, can prepare you for the third act twist, when the movie suddenly and violently jerks itself into the realm of paranormal horror.  The explanation and motivation behind the murders is so downright insane, you have to wonder how writers Takal and April Wolfe ever expected anyone to take it seriously.  The whole climax is supposed to celebrate the bonds of sisterhood, but it's so messy and ineptly handled that it simply brings the entire film down in its idiocy.

I do think a feminist take on Black Christmas could work, but that would require an intelligence and subtle touch that this movie completely lacks.  It's aggressively dumb, and delivers its agenda with all the grace of a dump truck slamming into a brick wall.  It's intentions may be noble, but its total lack of entertainment value is something quite insidious. 

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