Reel Opinions


Saturday, February 29, 2020

The Invisible Man

Leigh Whannell's The Invisible Man starts off as such a perfectly tuned and thought out thriller that it's kind of disheartening when it devotes its second hour to more standard "mad slasher" thriller tropes.  If I do knock the film (and knock it I must, as there are just too many plot holes for me to ignore), it's only because this movie starts out so beautifully, and slowly but surely loses confidence in its initial vision, until we're stuck with a fairly routine horror movie, when we could have had a brilliant one.

And yet, I have so much respect for what Whannell wants to do, and succeeds at for the first half of the film.  He's basically doing a Sci-Fi horror take on the domestic abuse thriller.  It's an intriguing idea, and the way that he generates the fear and tension around his female lead Cecilia (strongly played by Elizabeth Moss) throughout the first hour is nothing short of masterful.  He generates tension simply by having Cecilia being alone in a room, and secretly knowing that somehow she is not alone.  Her physically abusive husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is dead, but somehow she knows he's still around.  She can sense him perhaps, and there are some truly unnerving moments the film pulls off, such as when Cecilia tries to pick up some bed sheets that have fallen to the floor, and finds that she can't move them, as someone seems to be standing on top of them, even though no one is there.

What I love about the film's initial vision is how it creates tension out of the simplest things.  There's a moment where Cecilia is celebrating with her good friend James (Aldis Hodge), who has been letting her live with him after she fled from her previous life with Adrian, and his teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid).  At first the scene is warm and celebratory, as intended, but then the camera suddenly cuts to a further away shot, where we are watching the same moment from afar, and it instantly gives it a creepier and almost voyeuristic vibe.  We are suddenly watching it from the outside, and seemingly through the eyes of an intruder who should not be present.  This is almost Hitchcock in the way it's pulled off, and how it creates a completely different vibe for the audience just by using a further away shot, watching the scene from a distance in a dark hallway nearby.  The scene that was joyous just seconds ago is now unsettling. 

There are plenty of moments like that early on, and the movie gives off a consistently confident vibe.  I thought to myself, "this is a movie that knows exactly what it's doing, and it's paying off".  I especially love how it handles Cecilia being a broken woman who, in the early scenes, is afraid to just step outside James' house to check the mailbox.  It creates sympathy and tension by having all the natural outdoor sounds fade away as soon as she sets foot outside the door.  There are no birds or usual outdoor sounds, or even a music track in the background.  The total silence somehow captures the heightened sense of fear that she is feeling.  She walks down the driveway, and the silence is almost deafening.  Credit also has to go to Moss' performance, as she convincingly creates a sense of panic.  In a normal film, we would get the story of how Cecilia grows stronger and more confident, and learns to live a normal life.  But, in another brilliant move, the movie is really about how the cruelty and control of an abusive relationship can linger, and that sometimes there is very little comfort, even after the domestic nightmare is over.

In the film's opening moments, we see how Cecilia escaped from Adrian with the help of her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer).  Even though she's far away from her husband's control, she's still a slave to him in a way, as she's constantly in fear of him.  Then she receives word that Adrian has taken his own life, supposedly over her running away.  Somehow, not even this comforts her completely  Yes, Cecilia tries to go on with her life, and applies for a job, which is something her husband never let her do.  She even receives word that that Adrian has left her a total sum of $5 million in his will.  Her husband, we learn, was a leading scientist in the field of optics, and led a life of luxury.  But what he really wanted was someone to control completely.  And now, even in death, he seems to be still controlling her.  Cecilia begins to sense that someone is in the house with her when she is alone.  She knows she's not crazy, and she knows that Adrian is somehow behind it all, as he once promised her that she could never escape from him, and that he would find her no matter where she was.

I could continue to describe this portion of the film, and how wonderfully The Invisible Man creates tremendous tension with its premise of a battered woman who cannot live her life because her abuser is somehow still haunting her, but I will stop here.  I don't want to give anything else away about the first half, because it holds some wonderful and powerful surprises.  It's after the first hour or so that the movie stops being a successful blend of a human drama mixed with elements of a paranormal thriller, and slowly but surely turns into a much more schlocky affair.  I don't know if writer-director Leigh Whannell just lost interest in the idea, or if studio interference is somehow involved, but the first hour and the second almost feel like completely different movies.  If the first is chilling and subtle, then the second is bloody, over the top, and a basic "girl in peril" movie where Cecilia stops being a human being, and is asked to do a lot of action stunts and scream cliched lines. 

The movie also becomes surprisingly sloppy during this section, and starts creating and ignoring massive plot holes that really needed to be covered.  I'm afraid I can't talk about a lot of them, as it would lead to massive spoilers, but I have a hunch a lot of audiences are going to be confused about the role certain characters played in the ending revelations.  The filmmakers also stop trying to go for genuine suspense, and instead rely on incredibly cheap shocks, such as a scene in a restaurant that is all the more a blatant set up for an extremely cheap shock image the more I think back on it.  Instead of the movie playing mind games with us and creating tension, it wants to have its villain being a mindless stalker and killer.  Characters who were warm and human before suddenly start to be manipulated by the plot, and act in accordance to unwritten rule of Hollywood screenplays.  In general, the movie stops being human, and turns into a body count film focused only on gore.

My heart sunk when I realized that this is all the film was leading up to.  Why go this predictable route?  Why not genuinely surprise us by having the confidence to actually see your initial vision all the way through?  Why tantalize us with genuine suspense, and then throw it all to the winds so you can splash some bloody special effects up on the screen?  Not only that, but the movie also develops a desire to constantly fool us by throwing one plot twist on top of another.  The problem is, few of these twists actually make sense, and some only create massive questions which the movie never bothers to answer.  Again, I can't go into much detail, sadly.  However, I know I'm not alone, as I heard some of my fellow audience members asking the same questions I had as they were leaving the theater. 

So, the ultimate question becomes do I recommend this?  I really want to, as there is a lot here that is good.  But, there is also so much that goes wrong, and I find myself of two minds when it comes to The Invisible Man.  I guess I would tell people to watch it for the vastly superior first half, but just be prepared for some let downs in the second, and some aspects that just don't make sense when you think back on them.  I really want to give this the highest praise, but the movie loses its nerve after a while.  I hate when that happens.

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Friday, February 21, 2020

The Call of the Wild

This latest in a long line of film adaptations of Jack London's 1903 adventure novel, The Call of the Wild, tries to be a mix of the old and the new.  With the old, we get a true, rugged action melodrama complete with people being trapped under icy rivers, burning cabins, and a mustache-twirling villain with a lust for gold.  Sure, you've seen that kind of stuff tons of times, but there's something quaint and charming about seeing them in a modern day family movie.  This is an appropriately old fashioned adventure story that can be a lot of fun.

It's the "new" elements that the movie throws at us that got in the way of my total enjoyment.  Its lead canine character, a St. Bernard/Scottish Collie mix named Buck, is entirely digital and has been created by special effects that look expensive, but are not 100% convincing.  Whenever we see the CG dog interacting with its human co-star, Harrison Ford playing the gruff and hard-drinking John Thornton, something looks just a little bit off.  In the long history of dog movies, they have never failed to convince me of the bond that can grow between canine and human.  But this movie comes up short, because the dog was never there on the set in the first place.  Oh, Ford does the best he can with the conditions he's been given.  He's clearly acting his heart out.  It's just kind of bizarre to see him acting his heart out to a dog who's not really there.

To be fair, I can understand why a CG dog was needed for some of the more difficult scenes in the movie.  But, why did he have to be completely digital for the entire film?  At the very least, the dog does not talk or narrate the events with a celebrity voice over.  Thank goodness for small favors.  Still, it seems like kind of a cop out that they give us a dog who sometimes doesn't seem to occupy the same space as his human co-stars.  It took me out of the movie more than once, and hinders what would otherwise be a perfectly serviceable adventure for kids.  In making his live action feature directing debut, former animator Chris Sanders (He made Disney's Lilo and Stitch, and How to Train Your Dragon for Dreamworks.) just seems to have a hard time with mixing the old fashioned elements to the new technology heavy moments.

The film chronicles Buck's journey from a pampered and spoiled pet, all the way to a dog who discovers his true roots and returns to nature.  He begins the story as the beloved dog of a wealthy judge (Bradley Whitford), but this happy existence does not last long, as he is promptly stolen by a shady individual when he is left outside the house at night.  He is sold and shipped off to Alaska, where he discovers snow for the first time (he doesn't know what to make of it), and eventually joins a sled dog team that delivers mail across the Yukon.  He quickly becomes a pro at the job thanks to the guidance of a human couple played by Omar Sy and Cara Gee.  But just when he's getting the hang of things and becomes the head of the sled dog pack, the postal service shuts down the dog sled delivery service.

Buck once again finds himself without a home, but not for long, as he is picked up by the greedy and pompous Hal (Dan Stevens), who wants to use the dog to lead him to an area where gold has been discovered.  Hal is an abusive and cruel master, but fortunately, old John Thornton comes along and saves Buck from having to serve the despicable man.  John has had a couple run-ins with Buck off and on during the story, and can tell that the dog needs a second chance.  He takes Buck back to his cabin in the woods, where he spends the days drinking a lot and mourning over the son he lost years ago.  Somehow, Buck is able to sense that his master has a drinking problem, and starts stealing his bottles and hiding them.  That's some dog.  Buck can even join in a little when John is playing the harmonica late at night, and seems to understand English.  I got the sense that if the movie had gone on any longer, we'd get a scene where Buck would help John do his taxes.

Okay, so you need a large suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy The Call of the Wild.  I was okay with that for the most part, as the movie does have some enjoyable moments.  We have the usual great, gruff performance from Harrison Ford, who is able to convincingly sell that he's sharing the screen with a faithful dog, even though we know he isn't.  We also have an appropriately epic cinematic scope provided by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, which is completely convincing, and much more convincing than the CG work done to create the various dogs, wolves, bears and rabbits that populate the film.  When it's just Ford and the CG dog, there are some good moments.  But when we get a lot of animals in a single scene, or Buck interacting with a digital wolf who serves as his Spirit Animal, it kind of looks like the same kind of technical wizardry run amok that sunk last summer's pointless remake of The Lion King

It goes without saying that this is a much better film than that was.  Despite the distracting special effects, this movie does manage to have a sense of excitement and warmth to it.  I just couldn't help but think that using real animals for a number of scenes where digital ones weren't needed would have made this an even better movie.  I am recommending The Call of the Wild, because it does work on a basic level, and the kids are sure to find it thrilling.  There are just some heartfelt moments that a computer can't replace, no matter how photo realistic the illusions it creatures can appear.

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Brahms: The Boy II

WRITER'S NOTE: The following review will contain ending spoilers to the film The Boy, as it's impossible to talk about this sequel without diving into spoiler territory about the first.

The awkwardly-titled Brahms: The Boy II is the follow up no one was asking for to the early January 2016 horror film original.  Maybe it's because they knew that nobody had much expectation for this that director William Brent Bell and screenwriter Stacey Menear (both of whom worked on the original) have decided to pretty much forego the revelations during the ending of the last movie, and go in a different direction.  Despite this shake up, the sequel ends up being just as mediocre and forgettable as the first.

If you don't remember or never saw the events that came before, it was about an elderly couple who lived alone in a sprawling mansion with a porcelain doll of a little boy that they called Brahms, and acted as if it were their son, who had died years prior.  They hired a young woman to look after their "son" when they had to go away, and that movie tried to build tension with the woman slowly coming to believe that the doll was somehow alive, as it seemed to be moving about on its own, and taking things that she would leave behind.  It all turned out to be a red herring, as the truth was the son of the elderly couple was still alive, was living in the walls and crawlspaces of the house, and had been messing with her the entire time.  The doll was smashed to pieces during the climax, and we got a standard slasher movie ending where the adult Brahms went mad, and tried to murder the young woman and her love interest.

The sequel makes a reference or two to these events, but other than that, pretty much decides to go in its own direction.  This time around, the doll (which we saw was being rebuilt in the final scene of the first movie) is very much alive, and is the source of evil and problems for an unfortunate family who move into a house that happens to be next door to the house where the previous movie happened.  If the last film went to great lengths to fool us into thinking the doll was moving about the house on its own, this time, it pretty much throws the fact in our faces that the doll's head and eyes are moving and following its new human family.  Turns out the little figure is under the control of an evil spirit, and can make people commit horrendous murders at its will.  You would think that this new supernatural angle could lead to some interesting ideas, but the film moves at a glacial pace, and nothing largely happens for a majority of its 86 minutes.

The human characters this time are a family who have been reeling and trying to put the pieces together after a home invasion robbery, which is clumsily shot and edited during the film's opening moments.  Since then, the wife and mother Liza (Katie Holmes) has been plagued with nightmares of the attack, while their young son Jude (Christopher Convery) has been rendered mute from fear, and can only communicate by writing on a notepad.  Husband and father Sean (Owain Yeoman) feels the family needs a change of scenery, so they move out to a house in the middle of the woods that, as I mentioned, happens to be right next door to the abandoned mansion where the action was set last time.  Little Jude finds the Brahms doll buried in the dirt while out on a nature walk, and immediately becomes obsessed with the toy.  He carries it wherever he goes, seems to have secret conversations with it, and keeps on referring to a list of rules that the family must abide by in order to keep Brahms happy.

The problems arise almost as soon as they invite the creepy doll into their home.  The son becomes even more withdrawn, and starts drawing violent images in his notebook, claiming that Brahms told him to do it.  He even starts dressing up like his new porcelain friend.  As for Liza, she's still suffering from paranoia after the home invasion incident, and now is even more spooked when she thinks she sees Brahms' head following her.  I can see this being creepy, but the events unfold so slowly and with such little urgency that it feels like we spend a majority of the time waiting for something to happen.  There's a suspicious shotgun-toting neighbor named Joseph (Ralph Ineson) and a dog who seems to know that something is not right about Brahms, but they don't add much. We're able to pick up early on that this movie is going for an evil doll angle this time around, but it does next to nothing with this idea, so we're only left wondering why it bothered to introduce this change in the first place.

Brahms: The Boy II obviously owes a huge debt to 1988's original Child's Play film, as both movies deal with a child who shares a lot of secrets with his creepy new toy that is clearly evil from the beginning, and the boy's mother slowly piecing the truth together.  But whereas that earlier movie had a lot of fun with its premise and gave us a truly memorable villain who would carry on for over 30 years, this one simply seems stalled.  Most of the frights are of the "it's only a dream" variety, to the point that we just start to wait for the moment when Katie Holmes will suddenly find herself sitting up in bed with a gasp.  Either that, or we get shots of Brahms just barely moving, which aren't enough to raise any tension.  We simply wait for the inevitable, and when it finally comes, it wasn't worth the time it took to arrive.

The only praise I can give this is that it's not quite as terrible as some of the other horror films I've seen so far this year, though I don't know if claiming you're better than Fantasy Island, The Turning, or The Grudge is something to shout about.  When it comes to movies about spooky dolls, Brahms just doesn't try hard enough to leave any sort of impression.

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Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Photograph

Stella Meghie's The Photograph is an effective romantic drama, and I am recommending it, but at the same time, I have to question her decision to fill her screenplay with so much plot.  This is a movie about lovers both in the past and the present, and how they connect with each other.  It's also about heartbreak, regrets, a child born from passionate love, and a couple who wonder if they can stay together if their careers take them to different parts of the world. 

Did the movie really need all of this, when the main couple at the center of the plot, Michael (LaKeith Stanfield) and Mae (Issa Rae), are charismatic enough to carry a movie without so many soap opera-like situations surrounding their enormous chemistry?  They are what make this film work, and there were times when I had to question why they were being buried under such a massive amount of story.  Why not just make a simple love story about them coming together?  There's a reason why some of my favorite romantic films have been Richard Linklater's Before Trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight), which is simply about a couple in different stages of their lives and relationship, and actually follows them as they have conversations.  We get to focus on just them, and not the story piling itself upon them. 

That being said, I am still recommending this, because there is a lot of heart and great performances to it.  Things kick off when Michael, a New York reporter, travels to Louisiana to interview Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan), who used to know a photographer named Christina (Chanté Adams) before she was famous.  Michael's been assigned to write an article on her, and wants to know about her past.  Turns out Isaac used to be in deeply in love with her back in 1984 as a young man (Y'lan Noel), but she left him in order to pursue her career in photography in New York.  He never forgot her, and her pictures from their time together still line the walls of his home.  When Michael returns to New York, he decides to dig further, and tracks down Christina's adult daughter, Mae, who works at a museum in Queens that will be hosting a gallery of her mom's work after she recently passed away from a battle with cancer.  There's an instant connection between the two, and when they have dinner together during their second meeting, we can tell that Michael is interested in much more than finding out about her mother when it comes to Mae.

This sets about the film's main plot, as we follow the early stages of Michael and Mae's relationship.  There is a lot of hesitation.  He recently got his heart broken by his previous girlfriend, and she is career-minded.  There's also the issue of Michael possibly moving on to work at a different publication in London, and all the difficulties that a long-distance relationship provides.  The movie also periodically cuts to a parallel plot that shows Isaac and Christina's relationship nearly 40 years ago, the trials that they faced, and ultimately how and why Christina decided to choose her career over love.  Naturally, both plots will eventually intersect in a very soap opera manner, mostly due to letters that Christina left for her daughter to read after she died.  I never exactly felt lost by the film's continuous time jumping narrative, but it does seem incredibly busy for what is essentially a simple romantic story.

To its credit, The Photograph does handle the multiple plots and characters pretty well.  Like I said, I never felt confused.  I just was enjoying the scenes between Stanfield and Rae as the modern day lovers so much, I wanted to get lost more in their scenes together, instead of having the movie distracting me with so many revelations.  What is here does work quite well.  Both of the main couples the film focuses on in the different timelines are likable, and there is obvious romantic and personal chemistry between the actors.  And despite the film's PG-13 rating, this still feels like an adult love story that hasn't been watered down in order to draw in younger viewers.  It never feels like the film has been compromised in any way.

So, there is a lot to like here, and I can definitely see it finding an audience.  I wish it all the best.  I just wanted to spend a little more time with the lovers, and a little less being pulled across time and the script adding more complications.  Stella Meghie shows a real talent for writing adult characters here, and I can hope that with her next project she trusts in her characters enough to just let them be themselves, instead of throwing so much plot at us.

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Saturday, February 15, 2020

Fantasy Island

Producer Jason Blum has made a name for himself by churning out low budget films that generally can turn a huge profit in a single weekend.  He mostly sticks to the horror and thriller genre, such as The Purge and Paranormal Activity movies, but he does occasionally venture outside his comfort zone. (He was behind that unspeakable Jem and the Holograms movie we got a few years ago.) He's not exactly keen on quality, but he does occasionally strike gold, such as when he backed the Oscar-winning Get Out.  And then there are the times when he comes up completely short, and I can't remember a time that can possibly compare to this big screen take on Fantasy Island.

The idea behind this film is to reboot the old TV show that ran during the 70s and early 80s as a schlocky horror film filled with zombies and people who have black ooze pouring out of their eyes.  As I type that sentence, I have to wonder, how did this project even sound appealing in the first place?  The original series featured Ricardo Montalban as the mysterious Mr. Roarke, who would welcome guests to his island (the guests were usually played by celebrities at the end of their careers), and would offer their wildest dreams to become reality.  The whole premise of the show was a "be careful what you wish for" concept, and was usually as corny as you might expect.  In updating the material, director Jeff Wadlow (2018's Truth or Dare, another Jason Blum-produced misfire) tries to give it the edge of a supernatural thriller, only he forgets to give it any thrills, frights, or reason for the audience to be involved in the first place.

The role of Mr. Roarke is filled here by Michael Peña, who seems as lost and confused here as he did the last time he appeared in a horrible movie reboot of an old TV show, 2017's miserable CHIPs.  If I were him, I would just start rejecting any and all scripts that cross my desk that are inspired by television.  As the film opens, he welcomes five new guests who have won a trip to his luxury resort of forbidden fantasies via a contest, and all arrive at once.  All the guests have some kind of secret desire, which they will get the chance to experience due to a mysterious supernatural force that runs throughout Roarke's island.  The guests include the timid Elena (Maggie Q), who rejected a marriage proposal from the man she loved years ago because she felt she didn't deserve happiness, a pair of "bros" named Bradley (Ryan Hansen) and Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) who want "the good life" of wealth and non-stop parties, a cop named Patrick (Austin Stowell) who longs to be a soldier so he can fight alongside his military father who died when he was young, and a young woman named Melanie (Lucy Hale) who can't get over her past of being bullied in high school, and wants revenge on the mean girl Sloane (Portia Doubleday) who tormented her.

Before they know it, all of them find themselves living their fantasies.  Elena gets to say yes to the proposal, and see how her life would turn out, Bradley and Brax get a mansion home filled with party models, Patrick finds himself in the jungle fighting alongside his father, and Melanie is issued a torture porn dungeon with Sloane strapped to a chair, along with an array of tools for which to extract her revenge.  Naturally, these fantasies all have to go wrong in some way, and lessons must be learned.  However, the way this movie handles everything is borderline inept.  Not only is this movie not the slightest bit scary at any moment, but it also just comes across as being very convoluted and crass, especially when we get the obligatory third act twist.  If the movie is horrible as a thriller, it's even worse when it tries to be a comedy and poke fun at itself, as not a single joke lands.  It doesn't help that not one character in this movie is likable or even interesting.

Fantasy Island is lazy and incoherent for most of its running time, and then just becomes a flat-out mess when it tries to tie the stories of the different guests together.  The whole thing reads like a first draft that was pushed before the cameras in order to meet a rushed deadline, which it probably was.  I understand that Blum's production company likes to make films on the cheap, but there's simply no excuse for what's on display here.  Even a low budget production company must have known that this script was not ready to shoot, and that it barely made a lick of sense.  There is just such a total lack of effort here that it seems almost criminal that a major studio like Columbia Pictures is asking audiences to pay money to watch it.

After the most recent remake of Black Christmas from a couple months ago and now this, I have to wonder if Jason Blum even stops and looks at the projects he greenlights.  His studio's take on The Invisible Man is due in a couple weeks.  I'm trying my best to remain optimistic, but when a production company puts out an effort like this, it's hard not to be skeptical.

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Downhill

If you have seen 2014's devilish black comedy from Sweden, Force Majeure, then there is not really a reason to see the new Hollywood remake, Downhill.  Sure, this new film gives us some fine performances from Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but the whole thing has been watered down to an almost American sitcom level.  It's not offensive or bad in any way, but it's also not very memorable.  It simply feels limp, when you know that the two stars in front of the camera, as well as the directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (they wrote The Descendants), are capable of so much more than this.

If you haven't seen the earlier movie that this is inspired by, you probably won't get what the big deal is, or why the original is so lauded.  All the better reason to stay home and track down the other film, I'd say.  There's just an air of emptiness here.  It's trying to tell an emotional story, and you can see how it can be one.  That's why the 2014 film worked so well.  It fully embraced its premise in ways that this one does not.  Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus play married couple Pete and Billie, respectively.  They've brought their two young boys (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford) along on an Austrian ski vacation that is supposed to bring about a lot of family bonding, though it's clear from the outset that things between the couple are hanging by a thread.  Pete barely seems there for his family, choosing to constantly check his phone for messages from a co-worker.  Billie also has to wonder why her husband chose to stay at a luxury resort that does not really cater to, or have any activities for the kids to do, other than stay in their room and watch movies on their tablet most of the day.

On the second day of their vacation, as the family sits on an outdoor terrace to enjoy lunch, an incident occurs when a controlled avalanche that does not look like it's very well-controlled suddenly barrels down toward them.  Billie protects her frightened children, while Pete grabs his phone, and makes a run for it, leaving everyone else behind.  When the snow clears and everyone is unharmed, Pete comes casually walking back, acting like nothing happened.  But Billie has been shaken by it, not just physically (her hands shake uncontrollably as she puts them over her mouth to catch her breath), but also emotionally over how her husband just up and left them behind.  What if it had been a real avalanche, and not a controlled one created by the resort?  The two don't speak about the incident for a while, but when it finally does all come out while they are entertaining two of Pete's friends, Billie cannot hold back her disgust over his actions.

One of the best scenes in Downhill is the one where Billie finally opens up and lets her husband have a piece of her mind.  Not only is it some of the best acting that I've seen Julia Louis-Dreyfus give, but it matches the bite and the passion of the source material.  One of the key mistakes this remake makes I think is in the casting of Ferrell as the husband, and it's not because he's bad here, or has no chemistry with his co-star.  It's that he plays the character kind of soft.  He's more or less coming across as the lovable doofus that he's played in so many films.  This is the wrong approach, as the character comes across as kind of a wimp.  When he goes out and gets drunk out of anger, it comes across like one of his goofier performances.  We don't sense the anger that we're supposed to from the scene, or from the performance.  Ferrell is simply too likable here, and plays it too safe.

However, I have a hunch that this is what the filmmakers were going for.  They wanted to lighten the material, and not make it quite so heavy as it was before.  This creates a conflicting tone.  This is supposed to be a movie about a couple who face some hard truths about each other, and it never quite builds to the level of anger that we want it to.  Even those who have never seen the earlier film will sense a kind of deflated air here.  It doesn't exactly feel lifeless, as like I said, the lead actors are giving it their all here.  It just feels like they're being held back.  There are moments here where the movie comes to life, but then it will go back to the safe and somewhat bland approach.  It also doesn't help that the movie is only 85 minutes, and feels like it ends when it should be continuing to build steam.

Downhill is not unwatchable, and there are a couple laughs, but it really can't help but feel like a pale shadow in comparison to the much bolder vision of the original.  That film was filled with passion and really made you feel something.  This, despite everything, feels like a tiny little spat that never amounts to much, and leaves you wondering if the couple at the center of it all had much life in their relationship to start with.

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Friday, February 14, 2020

Sonic the Hedgehog

It will probably come as no surprise when I tell you that Sonic the Hedgehog is not a great movie, but what may be surprising is that it's better than you are probably expecting.  It's bright, has some decent laughs, and is honestly a lot of fun.  First-time director Jeff Fowler, and screenwriters Patrick Casey and Josh Miller, have given us probably the best movie based on the video games we could have asked for.

I don't see anything here that should be upsetting to long-time fans of the character, though if I must be honest, I haven't followed Sonic since his days on the Sega Genesis back in the 90s, so I'm not exactly up on my lore.  That being said, the movie more or less serves as an origin story for the little blue guy, who is brought to life with CG animation (which is pretty good, and much better than the early designs that were featured in the first trailer that created such a fan backlash, the movie had to be delayed in order to redesign him) and is voiced by Ben Schwartz.  We learn that Sonic originally hails from an alien world, where evil forces are trying to kidnap him in order to obtain and corrupt the power of speed that he holds.  His wise mentor, an owl by the name of Longclaw (voice by Donna Jay Fulks), warps Sonic to another world where he will hopefully be safe with the aid of a magic ring.  Naturally, the planet he ends up on is Earth.

On our world, Sonic takes to a small town in Montana called Green Hills, where he stays out of sight of people, and spends most of his time soaking up youth culture like Little League Baseball, action movies and comic books. (His superhero of choice is The Flash, of course.) He also learns about human ways by quietly observing different people at a distance.  His favorite humans are a local cop named Tom (James Marsden) and his veterinarian wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter), who come across as a warm and likable couple.  Tom is eager to leave small town life behind, and become a street cop in San Francisco so that he can have some excitement in his life.  He soon gets all the excitement he could ask for when the little alien hedgehog is forced to reveal himself to Tom, and the two will have to embark on a road trip/buddy comedy adventure together.

This happens because Sonic's latent powers went out of control one night, and caused a massive power outage across part of the nation.  This alerts the government, and fearing that it might be the work of terrorists, they send the eccentric robotics scientist, Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Jim Carrey), to find the source of the mysterious energy wave that caused the mass blackout.  As the evil Robotnik discovers the existence of Sonic and becomes obsessed with capturing and dissecting him, it's not hard to conclude that the antagonistic relationship between the Hedgehog and the mad scientist is inspired by that of the Coyote and the Road Runner from the old cartoons.  Marsden's Tom gets caught in the middle of it all, trying to help Sonic retrieve his warp rings so that he can send himself to a different, safer planet.  There's nothing really new here, but what is here is done with wit and a little more heart than you might anticipate.

A movie like Sonic the Hedgehog passes or fails almost solely on the special effects, and whether or not we believe them, and are convinced that the human actors are interacting with the CG character.  In my eyes at least, it passes.  Marsden has to spend probably 90% of his screentime talking to something that wasn't there on the set, and he sells it.  He manages to create a bond of sorts with his animal co-star.  Credit also has to go to voice actor Ben Schwartz, who makes Sonic into a fast-talking wise guy, but not to the point that he grows tiresome.  There's an innocence and sweetness that he brings to the character, especially when he begins to realize how lonely he is on Earth, and creates a Bucket List of things he would like to do before he leaves our planet. (They include "Get in a bar fight", and "Make a friend".) Thanks to the performances of both actors, and the effects work used to bring the titular star to life, it creates a convincing illusion.

Meanwhile, as the villain Robotnik, Carrey is more or less off doing his own thing, and basically trying to give the kind of manic comedic performance that made him one of the biggest stars in Hollywood some 30 years ago.  With his bizarre mannerisms and twirly mustache, he's off-kilter enough to be seen as a threat, but still goofy enough that he won't scare the youngest kids in the audience.  It's obvious that the filmmakers basically let him rewrite his scenes however he saw fit, and while it doesn't quite live up to his classic comic performances, it is probably the strongest work he's done in a while.  I say if it gets the attention of kids, and has them seek out some of his earlier films, it's worth it.

Let's face it, expectations were not exactly high here, especially given Hollywood's track record of bringing video games to the big screen.  But, I was actually surprised by how much I found myself enjoying this.  It does everything a Sonic the Hedgehog movie should do, and because it does, I'm sure we'll be getting the sequel that the ending hints at.  As long as it's as pleasantly surprising as this, I'm all in.

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Friday, February 07, 2020

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

As I sit here writing this, Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is sitting on a critical score of 83% over at Rotten Tomatoes.  The audience score is even higher at 87.  This completely boggles my mind.  Did my fellow critics and audiences watch the same movie I did?  But, as I look closer at the reviews that are labeled as being positive, I see a lack of enthusiasm.  One positive review even cites it as being "Aggressively OK".  Not exactly a ringing endorsement that.

I'm willing to admit that this movie was not for me.  In fact, I'm very proud of that fact.  This movie got under my skin pretty much from the word "go", and only burrowed itself further as it went on to the point that I just wanted the thing to end.  As a film, it tries to be a cross between a manic comedy, a sensory overload, and a female empowerment story that tries to tell us that women can be psychotic killers too.  Um...Yay?  Your enjoyment of this will pretty much hinge entirely on the lead performance of Margot Robbie, who dominates nearly every second of this movie.  She plays Harley Quinn, a villain and sometimes antihero who has been popular with fans in the D.C. Comics for almost 30 years.  I will be blunt here, and say that her performance had the effect of nails on a chalkboard to me.  She plays the character as kind of a cross between a manic pixie fangirl, and a bad impression of a Looney Tune character.  Toss in an unspeakable attempt at a New York accent, and you have a portrayal that I wanted to scrape right off the screen, and replace with another actress in about five minutes.

This is not Robbie's first attempt at playing the character, as she previously played her in 2016's Suicide Squad film.  Surprisingly, I don't remember her bothering me that much in that one, but maybe it's because that movie didn't constantly throw her in my face and try to force me to love her and all her psychotic quirkiness like this movie does.  A little Harley goes a long way, and at least to me, this movie felt like overkill.  This also is not really a follow up to that earlier movie.  It's all about how Harley got her heart broken by her former boyfriend and partner in crime, the Joker, or "Mr. J" as she affectionately calls him.  And no, we don't get to see the Joker in this movie, though he's talked about an awful lot.  On her own for the first time, Harley is trying to make a name for herself in the crime world.  This doesn't work out very well for her, as it seems every criminal in Gotham City now wants her dead, because she doesn't have the Joker to protect her anymore.  She's pissed off a lot of her fellow killers and crime bosses over the years, and it seems everyone has a grudge against her.

This is a potentially funny idea, but the film never takes advantage of it, and instead uses it for a lot of scenes where faceless goons are introduced to us, and then beaten up or killed by Harley.  There's a scene where Harley is walking down the street, and everywhere she turns, someone is trying to kill her.  Again, funny idea, but it doesn't work.  It's not for lack of energy.  Energy is certainly not this movie's problem.  If anything, this movie is so overproduced that it feels like the story is roaring by in a blur.  Not that there's much plot to latch onto.  It concerns one of the major Gotham City crime bosses named Roman Sionis (Ewen McGregor), who sometimes goes by the name of Black Mask.  As far as I can tell, he only calls himself this because he happens to wear a Black Mask over his face for no apparent reason during the film's climax.  Roman essentially wants to kill Harley like everybody else, but first, he needs her help in retrieving a valuable diamond that was stolen from him.

If you want to know how Birds of Prey frequently emphasizes style over any kind of substance, then the scene where McGregor gives her this mission is a prime example.  He tells Harley that he wants the diamond back, and suddenly and for no reason I can decipher, the movie abruptly cuts to a fantasy musical sequence where Harley is done up like Marilyn Monroe, and singing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend".  This goes on for about two minutes, then it jaringly stops, and we're back at the scene we were just in.  Why, exactly?  Obviously because the filmmakers thought it would be funny to slip in a musical sequence.  Not a funny musical sequence exactly, just a musical number.  We're supposed to laugh because Harley is suddenly singing.  This is one of those movies where people frequently act quirky and silly, and we're supposed to laugh.  A real movie would actually give these characters funny things to say or do.

Turns out the theft of the diamond was performed by a teenage pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (likable newcomer Ella Jay Basco).  Harley tracks the kid down, and creates a kind of friendship with her.  At least that's what the movie tells us.  It often feels like most of the substantial screen time the two actresses shared in this movie was left on the cutting room floor.  So, Harley wants to protect the kid from Roman's goons.  To do this, she teams up with the titular Birds of Prey, a trio of female heroes who include Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a tough cop who talks in 80s cop show cliches (this is not a critical observation, by the way, the movie flat out tells us this), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a woman skilled in martial arts and has a singing voice that can actually shoot out sound waves that can knock bad guys over, and The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a vigilante who is bumping off some of Gotham City's worst criminals with her deadly crossbow.  If you've come to see these characters, you will be disappointed.  They appear only sporadically throughout the movie, and don't actually team up until the final 15 minutes.  They don't get to interact much, and we only get to see them as an actual superhero team for about five seconds in the film's final moments

Again, this movie is all about Harley Quinn, and just how kooky and crazy she is.  She keeps a hyena in her apartment for a pet, she has a gun that shoots beanbags and glitter bombs, and she likes to dress in flashy and loud clothes that would only be acceptable to wear at a comic fan convention.  The problem is, the movie constantly slams the character and her offbeat traits in our face.  I felt like the movie was constantly screaming at me to laugh.  "Isn't she weird?  Isn't she goofy?  Don't you just love her nonconformist ways?"  Now Robbie is an incredibly talented actress who I have greatly admired in many films.  But here, she's not really given much of a character to play.  She's just all energy and all zaniness with nothing to latch onto.  Like I said, the relationship that she's supposed to build with young Cassandra feels truncated and incomplete, and she barely gets to create any chemistry with the Birds of Prey, because they're unsuccessfully shoehorned into the climax.  This movie basically asks Robbie's Harley to carry the entire movie from start to finish, and given how quickly the performance and the character itself grated on my every last nerve, you can guess how this became an endurance test for me to sit through.

I will be honest, reader, there were moments where I wanted to bolt for the door.  Birds of Prey is not so much a movie as it is an excuse for fans of the Harley Quinn character to gather and get together.  If this is you, go and enjoy.  I won't stop you.  If you enjoyed this movie, more power to you.  I'm glad you had fun, because that's what most movies are for.  You and I don't see eye-to-eye, and that's okay.  But if I must be honest, this was one of the more torturous films I've come across in a while.  I would sit down and listen to an entire duet album put out by Gilbert Gottfried and Bobcat Goldthwait before I would sit through this again.

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