Reel Opinions


Friday, January 31, 2020

The Rhythm Section

In The Rhythm Section, Blake Lively becomes the latest actress to deglamorize herself in order to play the role of a hardened killer and action heroine.  Lively is clearly giving it her all, and apparently suffered an injury during the shoot that delayed the production.  She even pulls off a strong British accent here.  But when you look at the film itself, you have to wonder if it was all worth it.  For all of Lively's efforts, this ends up being a passionless and deadly dull attempt at a thriller.

Outside of the lead performance, there is absolutely nothing that stands out here, so the movie quickly becomes about an interesting portrayal of a potentially interesting character in search of a narrative that's worthy of it.  Lively plays Stephanie Patrick, who has already appeared in four bestselling books by author Mark Burnell.  In adapting the first of the books to the screen, Burnell seems to have no idea of how a film should be paced.  His screenplay lingers too long on moments where not a whole lot happens, and he doesn't create any strong relationships between his characters.  He also doesn't dig nearly far enough when it comes to making Stephanie a screen character we can latch ourselves to.  We are supposed to be watching her transformation from an Oxford student, to a depressed junkie who has given up on life, and ultimately into a deadly assassin.  But the way it is written here, it's all perfunctory.  We know we're supposed to feel something, but we never do.

We witness in flashbacks how Stephanie lost her entire family in a plane crash a few years ago.  This caused her to fall into a depression, give up on her dreams, and start prostituting herself so that she could pay her drug habit.  On the brink of total self-annihilation, Stephanie meets a reporter (Raza Jeffrey) who tells her he's been investigating the plane crash, and has come to believe that it was not an accident.  There was a bomb on board, and he thinks he knows who planted it.  Now, all Stephanie wants is revenge, but she's clearly in no shape or position to fight back like she wants.  And when the reporter turns up dead after Stephanie starts snooping around on her own, she knows she's not safe, so she decides to track down a former MI6 agent named Iain Boyd (Jude Law) to train her how to kill.

Any hopes that The Rhythm Section might dig deep into Stephanie's psyche and perhaps explore her complex feelings about everything going on flies right out the window, as the movie quickly takes on a rather generic and overly sluggish tone and pace.  I found myself admiring the portrayal Lively was giving, as well as her physical appearance, which is appropriately weathered and worn.  But I didn't find myself invested in the character she was playing, because the movie keeps her at such a distance.  We don't get a sense of who she is, what she thinks of anything, or her thoughts on what is happening to her.  What does she feel about leaving her old life behind?  Does she find it hard to take lives, even if these people are tied with terrorists?  We do get to see how she struggles with her training and trying to get herself into fighting shape, but we never really understand what she really thinks about all of this.  The movie just pushes through the training, goes right to the killing, and then pretty much stops once all the targets are dead.

It's also not in any hurry to get to where it's going.  It takes well past an hour of screen time before she's ready to go after her first target.  I wasn't exactly wishing that the movie would race through its narrative, but at the same time, it's not substantial enough in characters or emotion to justify its leisurely pacing.  We also never get a real sense of these characters or their relationships.  Aside from giving Stephanie some advice on controlling her heart rate and breathing when she's aiming a gun, Law's character never really shares any significant moments with her, which makes their working relationship kind of a mystery.  He's brash and sarcastic with her, especially early on, but we never get the sense from him that he sees much potential.  If that's true, then why does he invest so much time into her?

The Rhythm Section was produced by some of the same people behind the James Bond franchise, who clearly hoped that they could have another series on their hands, with sequels to come.  Unfortunately, the movie stumbles right out of the gate by giving the audience nothing to be invested in.  I support what Lively is trying to do with her performance, but the movie has done her no favors.

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Saturday, January 25, 2020

The Gentlemen

The Gentlemen exists for two reasons.  One is to try to surprise us.  The movie is filled with so many twists, turns and double-crosses that it seems like it wants us to smack our foreheads with astonishment over and over again.  "The movie has fooled us once again!", it hopes we will say.  Of course, once you figure out the sole purpose of a film is to deceive the audience, then you start waiting for it to happen.  It's more fun if a movie plays fair, and trots out the surprises over time, instead of going out of its way to surprise us in multiple scenes.

The other reason is for writer-director Guy Ritchie to return to the tough British crime comic thriller that made him famous back in 1999 with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.  That film stood out among the flood of Quentin Tarantino-inspired imitators that we got during that decade thanks to its energy, and unique setting.  Ritchie has dabbled in the genre since then, but he's also tried to expand his scope with big budget franchise films (the Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey Jr), and live action remakes of Disney animated hits (last summer's Aladdin).  There's nothing wrong with a filmmaker going back to their roots.  Lots of directors do it.  But it helps if the return to the genre that made you famous gets to stand out for its own reasons, rather than feel like an uninspired throwback to something that worked before.  There's a game and talented cast on display here, but the movie never grabbed me in a way so that I cared about any of them.

The plot follows an American crime boss living in England named Michael Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), who got into the business of dealing in drugs back in college, and now runs an entire empire with a loyal wife (Michelle Dockery from Downton Abbey) by his side.  He's got a vast network of underground bases to grow his product, a lot of people who are proud to serve him, and multiple other crime bosses who would love to kill him so they can take what he has, or blackmail him.  He's got people trying to buy his empire, including the shady Matthew (Jeremy Strong), while others basically want to muscle him out of what he has, like the Asian criminal Dry Eye (Henry Golding).  There's also a plot concerning Michael's right-hand man (Charlie Hunnam) being blackmailed by a sleazy reporter (Hugh Grant, having a blast), who wants a huge pay day in return for not releasing some incriminating evidence that he managed to snap photos of.  The reporter's even written everything down into a screenplay, which he hopes to sell to a studio for more money.

There are young hooligans, the Russian mob, a doped-up girl, and a tabloid editor who gets drugged and makes love with a pig.  I'll leave it up to you to figure out how all these elements fit into the colossal plot that Ritchie and his story people have thrown together.  Regardless, The Gentlemen sometimes seems too busy  Almost everybody has an ulterior motive, somebody's always plotting something, and when we think someone is dead, the movie rewinds itself, and shows us that the person isn't nearly as dead as it lead us to believe.  This movie loves to misdirect us at every turn, as well as show us how "cool" it is with its film editing that uses fast forward, pointing out certain characters with humorous captions handwritten onto the screen, characters speaking about movie trivia, and so much more that the film is constantly in danger of being overstuffed.

None of this amused or invested me in the story.  It felt like pointless flash.  Ritchie doesn't just want to pull the rug out from under us at every opportunity, but he also wants to throw in a lot of ironic humor and have the characters talk about the works of Francis Ford Coppola while they're in the middle of blackmailing and extorting money from each other.  Nobody gets to talk like a real person here.  They're too busy name-dropping, and being sly with their dialogue.  One of Michael Pearson's favorite things to talk about is the "law of the jungle", where he compares himself to a lion who must eat the competition in order to stay alive.  Again, whenever he brings this up, it sounds like a screenplay feeding him lines.  It's too clever, and too structured.  If you were in a life or death situation like him, you wouldn't be thinking about witty ways to describe your situation.

The Gentlemen mostly gets by on the star power of its cast, all of whom are selling this material  They do make it fun from time to time.  But I didn't enjoy this enough, and I ultimately just didn't care about who was blackmailing or, or trying to kill so-and-so, while backstabbing such-and-such.  I don't ask that all movies be simple.  I just ask that I give a damn about the people who are driving the complex plot forward.

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Friday, January 24, 2020

The Turning

Henry James' 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw has been adapted numerous times, most famously in 1961 as The Innocents.  Now here is The Turning, which updates the story to 1994 for no particular reason, buries the plot in musty old spook house cliches, and caps things off with an ending that cannot be deciphered.  As a conclusion, the ending that the filmmakers reach here is barely coherent, and is likely to leave audiences groaning with bewilderment and disappointment.

Like a lot of releases we've had this month so far, The Turning has taken a longer than planned journey to the screen.  Shot back in 2018, the film was originally set to hit theaters early last year, but had its release pulled without any real information given.  Most likely, much like last weekend's Dolittle, Universal Studios knew they had a turkey on their hands.  The movie is not unwatchable in any way, and never raised any anger within me except for the awful final few minutes.  It's just that for most of its roughly 95 minutes, the movie is all atmosphere and build up that never goes anywhere.  Director Floria Sigismondi (a veteran music video director) gives us a sprawling Gothic mansion equipped with multiple rooms that, for reasons unexplained, are loaded almost top to bottom with broken dolls and creepy mannequins.  I kept on waiting for the movie to actually do something with these props, but aside from an unsuccessful jump scare regarding one of the doll's heads suddenly moving, it never does.  They're just there to look creepy, almost as if they think they're scarier than they actually are.

The plot focuses on Kate (Mackenzie Davis), a teacher who decides to take on a live-in nanny and teacher job for two kids who live alone in an isolated manor home with only their shady and elderly housekeeper (Barbara Marten) for company after their parents were killed in a car accident.  This house seems to have had a lot of accidents happen around it, as Kate discovers after she takes on the job.  At first, she thinks she's only going to have to look after the young daughter, Flora (Brooklyn Prince, giving the best performance in the film), as the teenage son Miles (Finn Wolfhard) is away at boarding school.  But then, Miles is expelled and forced to come home after he violently beat up one of the other kids at school.

This Miles is a real piece of work as horror movie "bad seed" kids go.  He's rude, acts entitled, is always playing his music too loud, and likes to play mean-spirited pranks on Kate.  But is there something more sinister than the kid merely being a brat at hand?  Whenever he's alone with her, he starts acting inappropriately, almost like a cold and calculating adult who is stalking Kate.  Not only that, but she starts seeing what appears to be phantom faces in the mirrors and windows, as well as the usual unexplained midnight sounds and doors opening by themselves that come with the haunted house territory.  There are other questions that the movie raises.  Is this all in Kate's head, due to her deteriorating sanity being stuck in this spooky old house?  Does it have anything to do with her mother (the talented Joely Richardson, given nothing to do) being locked away in an asylum?  And why does little Flora seem so afraid to venture beyond the gates that lead out of the property?

If you want answers, you're going to have to look very deep in the narrative or possibly make your own explanations, as The Turning answers little.  If you've read the original story or seen any of the many previous adaptations, you'll have a better idea, but still will find this to be a very confused telling of the story.  I get that we're supposed to wonder if the hauntings are real, or if Kate is imagining it all as she slowly slips into a state that resembles madness.  But even if the movie expects us to come to our own conclusion, it needs to throw us a bone.  And when the answers do seem to be coming, it suddenly swerves hard into incoherence in the final moments.  What are we supposed to think?  Did the screenwriters even have a clue as to how to end this?  Was the movie even finished in the first place?  Given the nature of the conclusion and how abrupt it is, I almost have to wonder.

This is a movie that plays out as a standard ghost story for the most part, with some potentially spooky settings and atmosphere that become repetitive when you realize the film's not really going to exploit most of it.  But all the shadowy hallways lined with broken dolls won't save you when the film fails to explain the point it was trying to make.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Best Films of 2019

Well, seeing as though everybody else has had their "best of the year" list out since December, I guess I should get off my lazy behind, and get one out also, shouldn't I?  As always, I have a good excuse.  As a regular paying filmgoer, I choose to hold off on this list until I can see as many of the year's films as I can.  And since many of the big end of the year films usually expand slowly (sometimes very slowly) into wide release around January-February, I choose to wait.  I did get to see most of the major end of the year releases, so I feel the time is ready to make the list.

As usual, I will be naming my favorite film of the year, followed by what I felt were the great films of 2019.  The great films can be anything that truly grabbed my attention, so they can be dramas, comedies, kid's films, whatever.  Then I'll be listing the "honorable mentions" (the runner ups), followed by my 10 favorite actor and actress performances of the year.  Aside from Best Film, all of these choices will be listed in alphabetical order.

So, with that out of the way, let's get down to the important stuff - the movies.


THE BEST FILM OF 2019

1917 -  Here is my pick for not only the best film of 2019, but also one of the most amazing technical achievements I have seen on the screen all year.  1917 is a revolutionary film, as it gives off the seamless impression of having been filmed in a single take.  Aside from one five second period of darkness after one of the soldiers has been knocked out, director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins trail the actors, constantly keeping the camera in motion, and making the audience feel like we are walking alongside the lead characters on their mission during World War I.  Set over two days in April 1917, the film never once loses sight of the two young men who barely seem to be in their 20s as they undertake their mission.  Mendes, already a strongly established director of the stage and screen, has truly challenged himself here by creating a film that appears to have no edits, stops or cuts.  Obviously, this is impossible, but the way the film has been mounted creates such a credible illusion that we just stop looking for the seams.  I certainly didn't see any.  Aside from that previously mentioned five second period of a blank screen, the actors and camera never stops, creating a sense of engulfing realism and tension that I have never experienced while watching a film before.  This is not just technical wizardry, either.  1917 creates such an intimate and complete sense of being there that it adds to the emotional power of the film itself.  Editor Lee Smith has created such a convincing illusion of a nearly two hour unbroken shot that I just wanted to savor what I was watching.  The story it tells is enthralling as well.  Inspired by real life stories told by his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, the director has crafted a story that is driven by both thrills and complex emotions.  1917 is a true achievement in cinema.  It's the kind of film you wish you could experience for the first time again almost as soon as it's done.  It's also the rare kind of film where I would have liked to have turned right around and bought a ticket for the next showing.  From beginning to end, this film is simply unforgettable.


THE GREAT FILMS OF 2019 (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT -  I feel that in recent years, the term "fan" has been misused or sullied.  Most people view it negatively.  It creates the image of someone in a dark basement, sitting in front of a computer, and complaining endlessly or leaving ugly posts on various message boards and chat groups.  These posts can either be for or against a certain celebrity.  The mass social media culture has turned everyone into an online critic.  Everyone has an opinion, and due to the anonymous nature of the Internet, nobody has to be careful with what they say.  Everyone can be "off the cuff" and honest about a celebrity, and how they feel about them.  And they feel it is their right, because they are a "fan".  Blinded by the Light is a movie about true fandom, and I say that, because it is about the joy of discovering someone's work that speaks to you.  In the case of this movie, it is about a 16-year-old Pakistani Muslim living in a small England town in the middle of a recession in 1987.  He discovers the music of Bruce Springsteen, and for the first time, an artist's work truly speaks to him.  He can relate to the anger and passion that Springsteen speaks and sings with.  It is an experience everyone has, whether it be music like it is here, or art, film, professional sports and live theater.  We all have that moment where we make a connection with an artist of some sort, and we feel like they are speaking directly to us, or that they have lived through the same frustration or situations that we have.  Director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) has made a wonderful little film about that moment, and how important it is.  There is an energy to the film and, even though it is not technically a musical, the Springsteen songs are so integral to the story and used to such great effect, it comes pretty close, especially during joyous scenes where the characters simply become lost in the music.  It is also a drama that avoids big moments and confrontations.  Most of all, Blinded by the Light is a truthful film, not just on what it truly means to be a fan, but also of the cultural and societal rifts that can form within immigrant families living outside of their home.  It understands the desire of youth to create their own life and engage in their culture, but it also understands how the older generations want to keep traditions and family customs alive.  This is a very smart, joyous, and just plain wonderful film that I hope you will make a point to see, because movies of this level of understanding and happiness are very rare.

BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON -  Paul Downs Colaizzo's Brittany Runs a Marathon allows us to see something I've wanted to see for a very long time - Jillian Bell in a leading role.  She's been appearing in supporting roles for years in movies like 22 Jump Street, Goosebumps and Rough Night, and she has always been a stand out.  I've wanted to see a movie give her an opportunity to take on the lead for a very long time, and now that she has, the only question I have is why did it take so long?  As I have expected, Bell is wonderful here, but the movie is kind of wonderful also.  It's also very brave.  I say this because the movie allows Bell to create a complex and fully dimensional character.  Her Brittany Forglar is not always a nice person.  She can be rude, sharply critical of others (especially the one who remind her of herself and her own flaws), and can also be nasty to people who only want to help her.  She's also a slob, an alcoholic, and prone to taking bad advice from her roommate.  And yet, we like her, because this is a complex script by Colaizzo, as well as a complex performance from Bell.   Brittany Runs a Marathon obviously works as a comedic crowd pleaser.  The script is very funny and sharp, and Bell is not-surprisingly up to the challenge, and gives us one of the funnier performances of the year so far.  But, the movie also has so much more on its mind.  It truly explores all angles of the character, both the good and the bad.  The movie is also an effective drama that talks honestly about self image, and how other people see those who are overweight or obese.  We don't just learn a lot of hard truths about Brittany herself, but also society, and perhaps a little about ourselves and how we perceive others.  Brittany Runs a Marathon is as funny and as strong as I hoped a movie featuring a lead performance by Jillian Bell would be, but it surprised me a lot with its hard-edged honesty.  This is a great little movie that opens up about something a lot of people are afraid to talk about.  That's part of what movies are for.  They put things on the screen about ourselves that we're afraid to talk about, and help us understand it better.  This is not just a great comedy, it's a quietly powerful movie too.

THE IRISHMAN -  Throughout his career, Martin Scorsese has been accused of glamorizing the mob lifestyle in his films.  Perhaps The Irishman is his answer to those criticisms.  At particular moments in the film, when certain real-life mobsters are introduced, the movie will pause, and tell us when this particular person we're looking at died, and more precisely how.  The cause of death listed is always gruesome, usually multiple bullets to the head.  These people who are happy and enjoying life on camera will meet a grisly end in a short time.  But the most poignant response the movie takes to these criticisms is the first time we see Robert De Niro as Frank Sheehan.  He's in a retirement home, well past his prime, and an aging relic.  He no longer holds any power or influence, and all of his old mob friends are dead.  His family have also disowned him largely due to his criminal past.  He begins to talk to an unseen interviewer about his days in crime, and as his story unravels, it is sad, perhaps a bit nostalgic, and ultimately about how he ended up the broken and lonely old man that we see him as now.  With a running time of three and a half hours, it's a sprawling story to be sure.  Scorsese has swung for the fences with this one, making perhaps his most personal mob epic of his career.  The Irishman is also just a marvelously constructed film.  With fluid editing by Scorsese regular, Thelma Schoonmaker, the pace is constantly moving.  It also recreates the era its story is set in perfectly, though precise settings that feel lived in rather than staged, and a vast number of perfectly matched music from the time on the soundtrack.  But most of all, we have the central leads.  De Niro hasn't delivered a performance this memorable in a while, giving Frank a kind of quiet and steely power, while Joe Pesci and Al Pacino in the other key roles are both wonderful.  By the time the film winds to its inevitable end, we get a very quiet and reflective final act, where Frank slowly loses the power he has enjoyed for so long.  The good times cannot last, and he will be left with nothing but regret.  That is what sets The Irishman apart from a lot of crime films, including some that Scorsese has done in the past.  The final hour or so built around betrayal and eventual quiet isolation are what make the film stand out.  This is an undeniably well-made film through and through, but it is the more reflective moments that give the film its ultimate power.  Despite its extended length, this is a film that deserves to be seen.  Neflix deserves credit for supporting Scorsese's vision here, and seemingly not tampering with it in any way.

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.  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.  Joker forces us to watch its main character fall apart mentally and emotionally.  It is a credit to Joaquin Phoenix's performance that we fully believe in him.  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.  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.  Joker 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.

JOJO RABBIT -  Back when Mel Brooks made his debut feature The Producers, he stated that one of his missions was to make the world laugh at Hitler in an act of revenge.  With JoJo Rabbit, writer-director Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) must have had the same mission.  All at once hilarious, passionate and a little sad, this is a wonderful coming of age story where Adolf (played by Waititi himself) is portrayed as a Nazi Youth's imaginary best friend, frequently compulsive, bratty and childish.  Watching 10-year-old JoJo (a marvelous Roman Griffin Davis, giving the best child performance in a while) romping about with an imaginary child-like Hitler is sure to raise some eyebrows in the audience, especially since the movie throws the image into our face in the film's opening moments.  Yet, Waititi gives the scenes an appropriate sense of comic whimsy so that we are immediately set at ease.  JoJo Rabbit creates a tricky balancing act for itself by combining soft whimsy, broad humor, and eventual heartfelt emotion into a single narrative.  The amazing thing is how naturally these tones flow together in the story.  Waititi never once give the audience the impression that he is swerving from one tone to the next with a screenplay that is well thought out, and executed just as beautifully with confident direction, and beautiful cinematography.  At its heart, this is a boy's journey as he learns to think for himself and become his own man.  It may be a predictable journey, but the power of it is immeasurable, thanks to Davis' confident performance, and the way the script handles the relationships that JoJo shares with the people in his life.  This is a film that starts out as broad and whimsical satire, but eventually it finds a lot of things to say.  JoJo Rabbit simply is alive, vibrant, and wonderful in a lot of ways.  It manages to be funny, painful, endearing, and deeply moving, sometimes in the same scene.  When so many movies can't get one tone quite right, here is a masterfully done film that draws so many emotions from its audience, and does so in a skillful way that never once feels forced.

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.  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.  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.  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.

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.  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.

MARRIAGE STORY -  Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story is that rare kind of movie that seems to come from a completely honest place.  There's not an ounce of contrivance, and no moment that doesn't feel natural.  It feels real and lived in from beginning to end, and it is easily the filmmaker's more assured movie to date.  This film about love lost, divorce, and the struggle to hold the family together afterward has more emotion in one scene than some movies have in their entirety.  He has made a simple film, one without plot twists or revelations.  It is simply a story of a couple that have drifted apart, and try to hold onto what little they have left for each other for the sake of their young son.  Baumbach has tackled the subject of divorce before with his 2005 film The Squid and the Whale, which was based on his memories of his parents splitting up.  He goes much deeper into the subject this time, showing not just the struggles, but exploring the aftermath on everyone in the family.  The couple at the center of it all are played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, both of them giving career peak performances.  Marriage Story is an emotional roller coaster of a film that shows us the anger and resentment that can build due to the difficult process of finalizing a divorce.  This is a movie that will cut deep to just about anyone who has experienced the pain of a separation, and that plays a big part of the film's ultimate success.  There are no false crises, and not a contrived subplot to be found.  It's simply about two people trying to make their way through the legal process, and the emotional toll that it takes on them and their son who is caught in the middle.  It's no surprise that Marriage Story is a film of raw power, but it goes beyond that, and becomes something completely honest and fierce.  There are absolutely no compromises here.  Baumbach has made a film of biting hard truths, pain and sadness, and one that deserves to be celebrated for many years to come.  This not only represents an ultimate high mark for the filmmaker, but also for the relationship drama genre as well.

PARASITE -  Bong Joon-Ho's Parasite is that rare kind of movie.  One that can constantly surprise you from beginning to end.  It's a movie that veers wildly in multiple directions, but for once it feels natural, instead of the result of a convoluted screenplay that doesn't know which way to go.  It's a social satire, a broad dark comedy, and a thriller.  A movie like this that has so many twists and turns, and goes in so many multiple directions, needs an air-tight script, and the one provided by director Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-wan is one of the best to hit the screen all year.  It's not just how meticulously crafted the plot is and how it keeps its multiple tonal shifts in line, but it's also how natural the dialogue sounds.  Nobody talks in exposition, and nobody says something in order to move the plot along.  In other words, it often sounds like people actually having a conversation more often than not.  But more than that, it's how expertly the script changes tone when needed.  It can be light and funny, it can be intense, and it can also be tremendously brutal.  This is a movie that is constructed of scenes that probably should not fit together, and yet they do, because the screenwriters have thought this thing out, and it shows when it plays out on the screen.  That's the kind of movie this is.  It's not only surprising and supremely entertaining, but it makes you look at certain people who are around you every day differently.  Parasite is chaotic, savage and sort of sad, but it can also be tremendously funny and bright.  It's the kind of movie you really don't expect, but when it's done, you kind of wish there were more like it - The kind of film that pulls you in effortlessly, stays with you long after it's done, and is not forgotten.

UNCUT GEMS - Whenever Adam Sandler takes on a rare dramatic role as here, 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.  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 the main character'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.  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.


HONORABLE MENTIONS
 A Dog's Way Home, The Upside, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, Cold Pursuit, Alita: Battle Angel, Happy Death Day 2 U, Isn't It Romantic, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, Fighting with My Family, Captain Marvel, Captive State, Us, Shazam!, Missing Link, Teen Spirit, Avengers: Endgame, Long Shot, John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, The Sun is Also a Star, A Dog's Journey, Brightburn, Booksmart, Rocketman, Ma, Late Night, Toy Story 4, Yesterday, Annabelle Comes Home, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Midsommar, Crawl, Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Dora and the Lost City of Gold, Good Boys, The Peanut Butter Falcon, Hustlers, Ad Astra, Downton Abbey, Motherless Brooklyn, Doctor Sleep, Last Christmas, Ford v. Ferrari, The Good Liar, Frozen II, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Knives Out, Dark Waters, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Bombshell, Spies in Disguise, Just Mercy


MY TOP 10 PERFORMANCES BY AN ACTOR (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)
Roman Griffin Davis in JoJo Rabbit
Robert De Niro in The Irishman
Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Adam Driver in Marriage Story
Taron Egerton in Rocketman
Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker
Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Sam Rockwell in JoJo Rabbit
Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems
 
 
MY TOP 10 PERFORMANCES BY AN ACTRESS (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)

Ana de Armas in Knives Out
Jillian Bell in Brittany Runs a Marathon
Laura Dern in Marriage Story
Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story
Scarlett Johansson in JoJo Rabbit
Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers
Saoirse Ronan in Little Women
Park So Dam in Parasite
Charlize Theron in Bombshell
Renee Zellweger in Judy
 
 
So, those are my favorites of 2019 in a nutshell!  Hopefully, as we go further into 2020, we will get many more bright moments to come in the cinema.
 

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Sunday, January 19, 2020

Bad Boys For Life

25 years after the original Bad Boys introduced us to the star power of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, and 17 years after the unnecessary Bad Boys II buried that star power in an avalanche of special effects and explosions, here is the long-delayed Bad Boys For Life.  In all honesty, this third installment is probably the best in the series.  Oh, it's still ridiculous as all get out, and a third act plot revelation is one of the goofier ones to appear in an action film in a while.  But, there's an undeniable energy here, and Smith and Lawrence still play off each other beautifully. 

Could the removal of Michael Bay (who directed the previous two entries) have anything to do with it?  I'm going to go out on a limb, and say yes.  This seems like much less an assault on the senses that the last film was, and more like a throwback to what made the original a hit.  The new directors, Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, seem to share the same passion Bay does for explosions, violence, and photographing the Miami scenery with as many bright colors and neon as possible.  But, this doesn't feel like the largely impersonal assembly line product that so many of Bay's films do.  They give Smith and Lawrence plenty of opportunities to interact with each other and the rest of the cast, so they're not just blasting their way through this while throwing off racist jokes and dick humor.  I wouldn't go so far as to call this a smart movie, but for what it is, it knows what it's doing.

In the nearly 20 years since we saw Smith's Mike and Lawrence's Marcus on the screen, not much has changed, except for the usual passing of time and age.  Mike is still the '"bulletproof" super cop who lives and drives recklessly, while Marcus is still the more level-headed family man of the duo.  Now that Marcus has become a grandfather, he's ready to retire.  This is something that Mike simply cannot fathom, and doesn't want to break up the team.  But then, Mike is gunned down by a mystery assailant on a motorcycle.  He survives the attack, and wants nothing more than to track down his assassin, especially since many other former cops and judges tied to Mike's past cases are also getting gunned down by the same killer.  Marcus, however, appears to have had enough, and just can't be a "Bad Boy" cop anymore.

With his partner out of action for the moment, Mike has to turn to a special tactical police squad known as AMMO, which is headed up by his ex Rita (Paola Núñez) to find out who is behind the murders.  Cue the scenes where Mike has to deal with a lot of cops who are much younger than him, and use technology that he is unfamiliar with.  Naturally, Mike isn't made for a world of surveillance drones and rubber bullets, so he coaxes Marcus out of retirement, and the two decide to tackle things the way they always do.  One of the surprising aspects is that the young cops whom Mike and Marcus are forced to work with are actually smart and respectful.  One of them calls Mike "grandpa" at one point, but the movie is smart not to make the younger generation cocky twits who don't know a thing.  They are resourceful, know what they're doing, and actually get a few good scenes with Mike and Marcus. 

Bad Boys For Life is paced well, and keeps a steady stream of action and comedy going, so we don't mind too much about things like the occasionally clunky dialogue, or the fact that the villains are completely forgettable, and make little to no impression, despite the fact that they ultimately play a pretty big role.  Speaking of which, the revelation that ties the villains to Mike's past is pretty hard to swallow, and Will Smith deserves an award of some kind for being a good sport, and delivering the scene where he talks about the connection with a straight face.  Credit the skillful filmmaking of the directing team and the performances of Smith and Lawrence that we don't give up on the film from that point.  In a lesser movie, it might have sunk the film, but this one manages to stay afloat.

Given that this long-awaited return to the franchise is hitting so early in the year, it's easy to fear that this might be a disaster.  But it does manage to be fun, it's well made, and you can sense the enthusiasm that went into making this one.  This is one of those movies where you can tell the actors are barely hiding the smiles on their faces while they were making it. 

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Saturday, January 18, 2020

Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story is that rare kind of movie that seems to come from a completely honest place.  There's not an ounce of contrivance, and no moment that doesn't feel natural.  It feels real and lived in from beginning to end, and it is easily the filmmaker's more assured movie to date.  This film about love lost, divorce, and the struggle to hold the family together afterward has more emotion in one scene than some movies have in their entirety. 

Because of this, it was not surprising to learn that Baumbach based his screenplay not only on his own relationship and eventual divorce from his former wife, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, but also on his close friends and their own experiences.  He has made a simple film, one without plot twists or revelations.  It is simply a story of a couple that have drifted apart, and try to hold onto what little they have left for each other for the sake of their young son.  Baumbach has tackled the subject of divorce before with his 2005 film The Squid and the Whale, which was based on his memories of his parents splitting up.  He goes much deeper into the subject this time, showing not just the struggles, but exploring the aftermath on everyone in the family.

The couple at the center of it all are played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, both of them giving career peak performances.  He's Charlie, an acclaimed Off-Broadway director whose career has been on the rise, and now has reached new heights due to him recently winning the MacArthur Genius Grant, and the opportunity to have his latest production transfer to Broadway.  She is Nicole, who has been his wife for 10 years, and is the mother to their eight-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson).  Nicole started out as a film actress in L.A., and is best known for appearing in a teen sex comedy in her early 20s where she famously showed off her breasts.  She left the Hollywood scene for New York, met Charlie, and has spent the past ten-plus years helping to support him, and appearing in all of his plays.

But now they want different things.  Nicole has the opportunity to go back to L.A., as she's been offered a lead role in a TV pilot that may be picked up for a series.  Charlie has no interest in going to California, as his career is really starting to hit its stride.  There's also some talk of infidelity on Charlie's part.  All of this is what causes the split between the couple.  In the film's opening scene, we hear both Charlie and Nicole talk about what they admire about each other.  This is part of a marriage counseling exercise.  However, when they are in the actual counseling session, Nicole finds that she does not want to read what she's written out loud to her soon-to-be ex-husband.  They obviously still respect one another in some way, but they cannot communicate with one another  The actors in Charlie's production gossip about them.  They've been together both personally and professionally for so long, they can't believe they're splitting up.

Marriage Story is an emotional roller coaster of a film that shows us the anger and resentment that can build due to the difficult process of finalizing a divorce.  Nicole heads to L.A. to live with her mother (Julie Hagerty) and sister (Merritt Weaver), and Charlie thinks the plan is that he'll stay in New York, and they'll figure out a way for them to share custody of Henry.  But then the lawyers get involved, and things become a lot more complicated.  Charlie will have to get a residence in California if he wants any hope of some kind of custody with his son.  Both hire hard-edged lawyers who guide them through the legal waters.  Nicole gets Nora (a wonderful Laura Dern), who has a sunny and sometimes funny disposition, but it hides a ruthless streak.  As for Charlie, he finds it harder to get a lawyer, as Nicole interviewed so many, and he finds out he can't use a lawyer that his ex-wife considered  He at first tries a kindly old man lawyer (Alan Alda) who tries to keep him out of the courts, but Charlie quickly figures out this isn't going to work, so he goes for the aggressive Jay (Ray Liotta) to represent him instead.

This is a movie that will cut deep to just about anyone who has experienced the pain of a separation, and that plays a big part of the film's ultimate success.  There are no false crises, and not a contrived subplot to be found.  It's simply about two people trying to make their way through the legal process, and the emotional toll that it takes on them and their son who is caught in the middle.  Both of them want to be there for their son, but in order to share him, they have to compromise.  On Halloween, both want to take Henry Trick-or-Treating, and find they have to divide their time, with Charlie being stuck taking him later in the night when most of the homes are no longer handing out candy.  Complications arise from the simple matter of everyone trying to live their lives while sharing a son, and the drama of the film builds from these honest complications, not misunderstandings.

But it is the lead performances that truly sell Marriage Story, and make it the emotional punch to the gut that it is.  With this and JoJo Rabbit, Johansson has perhaps not been better than recently, and reminds us of the early promise that she held.  She is more than worthy of both of the Oscar nominations she has received for her work in these films, but she stands out especially here, no more so than her initial conversation with her lawyer, and a scene late in the film where all of the pent-up anger between Charlie and her come out while they are alone together.  As for Driver, he proves once again that he is one of the finest actors working today, and gives some of his best work here.  We can see the frustration as something he thought would be an amicable process turns into something much more emotionally draining and devastating.

It's no surprise that Marriage Story is a film of raw power, but it goes beyond that, and becomes something completely honest and fierce.  There are absolutely no compromises here.  Baumbach has made a film of biting hard truths, pain and sadness, and one that deserves to be celebrated for many years to come.  This not only represents an ultimate high mark for the filmmaker, but also for the relationship drama genre as well.

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Friday, January 17, 2020

Dolittle

The month of January can be a confusing time at the movies.  On one end, it's a time when movies like 1917 and JoJo Rabbit are either given wide releases, or a second chance at the box office due to Award recognition.  On the other end of the spectrum, we have movies like Dolittle, a bloated and confused blockbuster that never realizes its full potential, and instead simply sinks into the quagmire of an out of control budget, and an uncertain notion on just where the film was supposed to go in the first place.

The title refers to Dr. John Dolittle, the famed literary creation of Hugh Lofting, who can talk to the animals as easily as he can other people.  The history of bringing the character and his stories to the big screen has been shaky at best.  Most famously, there was the 1967 musical film with Rex Harrison, which was an overproduced flop, but the studio still managed to pay for some Oscar nominations for it.  There was also a modern day take with Eddie Murphy in 1998, which spawned a sequel in 2001, and then pretty much went straight to video after that, where all ill-realized franchises go to die.  Now there is this effort from co-writer and director Stephen Gaghan, who is best known for writing heavy adult-oriented fare like Traffic and Syriana.  I don't know what convinced Gaghan that he could handle a big budget, special effects heavy children's film like this, but if the final product is any indication, he was in over his head with this one.

But there may be a lot of people to blame for this film's failure.  This was apparently a very troubled production that was originally slated to be released last summer, until disastrous early test screenings convinced the studio to force the film to undergo massive reshoots and rewrites of the script.  Not only that, but director Jonathan Liebesman (2014's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) was also called in to take over, although he is uncredited.  All the studio interference and behind the scenes efforts to save the film have led up to a movie that is surprisingly hard to follow, and at times makes little sense.  At the middle of it all is a sheepish looking Robert Downey Jr as Dolittle, with unkempt hair and a voice that largely sounds dubbed over, as if his words don't always match up to his lips.  Combine this with an accent that is next to impossible to pin down, and it comes across as a possible career low point for Downey. 

The film opens with a warmly animated prologue that tells us the Doctor's backstory.  We learn that Dolittle was once in love with an adventurer named Lily (Kasia Smutniak), and they traveled the world together helping animals in need.  But after Lily died in a storm at sea, Dolittle shut down emotionally, and now hides himself away in his sprawling home with only his dozens of animals for company.  The film switches to live action at this point, and something looks immediately off, as most of the CG animals that Dolittle interacts with don't quite seem to be sharing the same space as Downey.  There are lots of moments where he is supposed to be looking directly at a parrot or a polar bear, but their eyes just don't quite line up.  Actors like Emma Thompson, John Cena, Ralph Fiennes, Octavia Spencer, Kumail Nanjiani and Tom Holland provide voices for the animals that appear in the film, with only Thompson doing anything substantial, as her parrot character gets to narrate the film.  However, her narration seems to have been added in late in the film to help clear up some of the plot.  Too bad they didn't give her a running commentary throughout the entire running time.  It might have helped even more.

Dolittle is brought out of isolation when two young visitors show up at his home seeking his help at the same time, which comes across as sloppy and contrived.  One is Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado), who has come to report that Queen Victoria is very ill, and that she wants Dolittle to go on a journey to find the one thing that can save her, a mystical fruit from the Eden Tree.  What is this magical healing fruit, and what exactly is the Eden Tree?  I honestly couldn't tell you.  All the movie tells us is that John's beloved Lily was searching for it when she died, and now Dolittle has to find it.  At the same time, a young boy named Stubbins (Harry Collett) comes with an injured squirrel that he accidentally shot that he wants Dolittle to help.  Stubbins quickly becomes John's new apprentice, and learns that he can talk to the animals as well.  How, exactly?  Again, I honestly couldn't tell you.  We get a few scenes where Dolittle appears to be teaching the boy, but these don't add up to much of anything.

So, our heroes set out to find the Eden Tree, all the while being pursued by the evil villains led by Jim Broadbent and Michael Sheen, who want the Queen to die from her illness so that they can apparently take over and rule.  I say "apparently" as once again, the movie is not exactly clear on the details.  The journey will take them to a distant kingdom ruled over by an angry King whom John has a past with (Antonio Banderas), as well as a lost cave guarded by a dragon who has an intestinal gas problem from all the soldiers she's eaten over the years.  All of this plot and information is simply tossed to the winds in a script that never slows down long enough to explain what most of this means, or even how it connects.  And why do some of the animals look sort of realistic, and some of them look like they stepped out of a CG cartoon?  And speaking of the animals, why do they all talk in modern day slang when the movie appears to be set in early 20th Century England? 

Dolittle provides no answers, and seems to have been made on the fly, with no real sense of purpose.  It almost comes across as a series of random scenes and ideas that have been pasted together.  You can see bits of the movie that Gaghan perhaps was trying to make here and there, but they are overshadowed by the chaotic over-editing and nonsensical plotting.  There's simply no excuse for how loose and amateurish this film feels when you consider the talent that it attracted, as well as the reported $175 million budget.  There are moments here that simply felt like cash was being thrown at the movie in the hopes that maybe something good would come out of it.  As I'm sure you know, all the money in the world can't help a movie if there's no vision behind it.

That's what it all boils down to here - a lack of vision, and gobs of money tossed at a doomed project that nobody had any faith in.  Maybe Dolittle never stood much of a chance, but it seems like once various people started to step in in order to save it, the film lost all sense of identity, and became a jumbled multi-million dollar mess.

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