Reel Opinions

Friday, April 02, 2021

Godzilla vs. Kong

I'm sure there are many people who will call Godzilla vs. Kong a smashing success, because it gives the audience exactly what the title promises, and does so with the finest special effects available.  Both titular Titans are animated and rendered beautifully, to the point that it's kind of astonishing just to watch the CG water running off of Kong's fur, or Godzilla's scaly backside.  And when they do go at each other, the battles are cleanly edited, and pretty involving for a fight that was done entirely on a computer.  It creates a sense of realism, which is saying something when you consider who the two combatants are.  

Of the two giant monsters, Kong is the star.  Godzilla has been placed in a supporting role here, and mostly shows up to battle the giant ape, or crush a couple cities. (Pensacola, Florida and Hong Kong both get to be under the lizard's feet.) Kong is treated as a sympathetic character, as he bonds and even begins to communicate with a little deaf girl via sign language.  This immediately brought to my mind the 1987 movie, Project X.  That was the film where Matthew Broderick bonded with a chimp through sign language, and the two helped to unravel a government plot involving using monkeys as test pilots.  Now that I think about it, Broderick was in that 1998 Godzilla movie also.  Maybe if he were here, he could figure out how the two could resolve their differences.  

He's nowhere to be found, however.  In his place are a large human cast that the movie spends way too much time on, when what we really want to see are the giant monsters duking it out.  I understand that a movie like this needs a human element as well, but why make the characters so forgettable, and the plot so hard to care about?  What it all boils down to is that the human characters are searching for a place within our planet called Hollow Earth, which is believed to be the birthplace of all the giant monsters that are now stomping around our major cities. (Why do you never see Kong or Godzilla threatening a tiny little farm community in Wisconsin?) Godzilla, who was thought to be peaceful before, has suddenly started attacking cities.  Some people believe that he is targeting the mysterious Apex Cybernetics Corporation.  The company is run by a guy played by  Demián Bichir, who spends all of his time in a dark control room downing whiskey like it were water, so you know he's up to something.
Meanwhile, a group of scientists want to help lead Kong back to his home in Hollow Earth.  They are led by Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) and Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), a woman who has studied Kong a lot, and is known as a "Kong Whisperer".  Little does she know, her adopted deaf daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle) has an even bigger bond with Kong, and has learned to communicate with him through sign language.  And in yet another plot, we have one of the few returning characters from the previous Godzilla movie, teenager Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown).  She's the one who thinks Godzilla is targeting the shadowy Apex Corporation, and so she teams up with her dorky friend Josh (Julian Dennison) and conspiracy theory podcast host Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry), to uncover what's really going on over at Apex.  

So, Godzilla vs. Kong is constantly cutting to the team of scientists making their way to Hollow Earth, and the group of young heroes solving a mystery like a bargain-basement Scooby Gang, when all we really want to see are the ape and lizard clobbering each other.  When the movie obliges, it works as escapist entertainment, and we do get some memorable moments, like the first encounter between the two monsters built around a convoy of ships that is transporting Kong.  Moments like this are few and far between, however.  Most of the movie's attention is on the multi-character plot that is constantly changing gears from being sentimental creature and kid bonding movie, conspiracy theory thriller, and bad comic relief.  I also get that a lot of people are going to think that the characters and humans don't matter, and that as long as the movie gets the effects right, the movie has done its job.

But is wanting to give a damn about the people inhabiting the story such a bad thing?  The characters in 1993's Jurassic Park were not exactly deep, but they were interesting, quirky, and played by actors who knew how to grab our attention along with the special effects.  The actors here come across as either stiff, or kind of annoying.  There's not a single believable trait or memorable line of dialogue between them, and that kind of kills what the movie is supposed to be.  We're supposed to have some kind of involvement here.  Otherwise, we're just watching two very well done special effects creation wander about a plot that hasn't really been thought through.  When all is said and done, even spectacle movies need something natural for the audience to grab onto.

You might think differently.  If you do, ignore this review, and enjoy Godzilla vs. Kong for what it is - A well made, intentionally dumb movie that is the most fun when it is at its silliest.  As it went on, I kind of wanted more silliness, and less of the stilted acting and plot.  Besides, the two CG monsters show more emotion than the actors do, so focusing on them can only help. 


Sunday, March 21, 2021

Zack Snyder's Justice League

By all accounts, Zack Snyder's Justice League sounds like an impossibility.  It's a four hour long director's cut of a film that back in 2017 rolled over and died with critics and at the box office  When reviewing the version that played in theaters four years ago (which I have not watched since then), I called it a "big, dumb lumbering dinosaur of a movie that is as soulless as a blockbuster can get", and further described it as "a lifeless, dreary experience designed to trick bored teenagers into thinking they're watching something worthwhile".  I stand by these comments.  I also now stand by my belief that this new take on the material is a superior film in every way imaginable.  

By now, the backstory behind this movie is as famous as the origin stories of the individual superheroes who appear in it.  While filming Justice League, director Zack Snyder found himself frequently butting heads with the higher ups at Warner Bros.  The studio heads had been disappointed by the overall box office take that Snyder's Batman v. Superman had brought in, as well as by the largely muted response by the fans.  Snyder wanted to complete his complex cinematic vision that he had set up in previous films, while the studio wanted something lighter and more marketable.  When Snyder's daughter tragically died in early 2017, he left the production, and filmmaker Joss Whedon (who was responsible for the first two Avengers movies) was brought in to not only finish the film, but take it in the completely different direction that the studio wanted.  

The film that wound up playing on screens was a literal Frankenstein's Monster of two conflicting visions.  Only a small portion of Snyder's original film was in the final cut.  The rest were the results of massive reshoots under Whedon's studio-mandated watch, which included a lot more action, a lot of out of place and inappropriate humor, and rushed special effects that led to the dreary, ugly and downright incoherent experience that audiences rejected.  After the disappointment of the theatrical cut, word quickly began to spread on the Internet that a rough cut of Snyder's true vision did exist.  Passionate fans, and even some of the stars of the film who were disappointed with the end theatrical result, started a massive campaign to finish the original film and release it.  Like I said, going back to finish and put together a director's cut of a 300 million dollar box office bomb sounds like absolute insanity.  And yet, thanks to the HBOMax streaming service, here it is at last.  A 4-hour vision of the movie we were originally supposed to get. 

Zack Snyder's Justice League tells basically the same story that the theatrical version did, only much better.  The narrative has been tightened with much better character development.  These famous heroes like Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Superman (Henry Cavill), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) are now given room to breathe and be memorable characters, instead of engaging in non-stop and uninteresting CG battles, while exchanging weak one-liners with each other like they did before.  It's especially notable in the case of Cyborg, whose tragic storyline was but a mere afterthought in the original cut, but here is greatly expanded on to the point that he is now one of the more memorable characters of the film.  The scope of the film has also been expanded, giving us a much better glimpse at just what Snyder was trying to do not just with this film, but with his Cinematic Universe based on the D.C. Comics.  

Even the villain, an alien by the name of Steppenwolf (voice by Ciaran Hinds), is better used here, as his plot and motivations for searching out the three Mother Boxes have been greatly expanded on and make much more sense.  What once came across as a generic "I will rule the world" villain is now fleshed out, as we finally get to learn more about his intentions and backstory.  It's not anything deep or powerful, mind you, but it makes a world of difference when you actually see where the villain is coming from.  He still hangs around with those ParaDemons, who like before, are CG bug people who look and act like targets in a video game.  It's true, this director's cut does not correct all of the original film's problems.  But this is such a more tightly focused, cleanly edited, and better told story that any imperfections seem small in comparison.  It also helps that the film is better to look at, as the special effects artists had adequate time to bring their vision to life, unlike the theatrical version where they were under a gun to get the newly shot Whedon footage done in just a few months.

It's not just the plot that has been cleared up and changed.  Many of the hokey jokes that were demanded to be added by the studio are now gone.  Batman no longer cracks wise, and the embarrassing scene where The Flash wound up face-planting into Wonder Woman's breasts is gone too.  There still is time for the occasional joke here, but the movie takes itself much more seriously than before, and carries an overall somber and heavy tone that seems fitting for the stakes that are being placed on these heroes.  The film is also now R-rated, and while it includes more violence and a couple scattered F-Bombs work their way into the dialogue, this is nowhere near the level of say Deadpool, and it probably could have squeaked on by with a PG-13 if the filmmakers wanted to.  Regardless, it really is impressive just how this version fixes most of the problems, while still telling essentially the same story.  It's basically an example of it's not the story, but rather who is telling it.

Given the troubled history behind the film, and the recent allegations being raised about Joss Whedon reportedly being abusive on the set, it's especially amazing just how well this four hour director's cut has come together.  Like I said, it's still not without its problems, as most of the fight scenes still feature way too much CG to be believable.  But still, the way that Zack Snyder's Justice League has gone back and fixed many of the narrative problems and plot holes that plagued the original deserves praise.  It also leaves fans with a lot of questions as to just where this Cinematic Universe was supposed to go next, as the film's epilogue hints at a lot of possibilities.  Who knows, maybe the studio will be inspired to go back and finish what was supposed to be.  People used to think it was crazy to dream we would ever see this movie the way it was intended finished after all.


Sunday, March 07, 2021

Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon
gives us some beautiful animation, wonderfully realized action sequences, and a lavish fantasy world called Kumandra, which is inspired by and largely steeped in Southeast Asian influences.  I'm always intrigued when movies create an entirely new world that I haven't seen before in films, and this one certainly grabbed my attention.  If the plot and the characters seem to sway a bit too closely to the familiar Disney formula, at least there is still plenty new here in terms of visuals to hold the audience's attention.

Disney's newest heroine is Raya (voice by Kelly Marie Tran), a girl who can disable temple booby traps like Indiana Jones, is skilled with a sword and in martial arts, and is a self-described "dragon nerd".  Her world of Kumandra was once united and peaceful, and the people lived among powerful dragons who watched over them.  But one day, an evil force known as the Druun appeared.  The Druun are dark, rolling cloud-like forms of matter that turn anyone they touch into stone instantly, and have slowly transformed Kumandra into a dying wasteland over time.  The united nations of the world have now separated, and eye each other suspiciously.  The dragons have also disappeared over time.  All that remains of the dragons is an ancient gem that sits in Raya's kingdom, and is guarded over by her father, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim).  Said gem is the only thing that can seemingly hold back the Druun, and all the other kingdoms wish to possess it.

However, Benja believes that the time has come for the divided kingdoms to unite once again and take the world back to what it was before.  He invites his warring neighbors into his palace, hoping to bring about a new era.  Raya goes along with her father's plan for peace, and even befriends the daughter of one rival ruler, Namaari (Gemma Chan).  However, it turns out that Namaari's friendship is all a ruse in order to get access to the powerful dragon stone.  Her actions, and the events that follow, cause the mystical gem to be separated into multiple pieces, and for Raya to lose both her kingdom and her father to the Druun on the same day.  Flash forward six years later, and Raya is now a hardened warrior princess with trust issues, who rides across the wastelands of her world on top of her giant animal friend Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), who resembles a cross between a pill-bug and an armadillo.  She is searching for the location of the last remaining dragon, who she believes is sealed away in a cave somewhere, and to get its help in restoring the shattered gem in order to save her world.

Raya and the Last Dragon is filled with sights we have never seen before.  The world of Kumandra itself is consistently fascinating, and I especially love how each of the separate kingdoms seem to have their own motif and theme.  There's a marketplace city, there's one that was once populated by battle-hardened soldiers before the Druun turned it into an abandoned husk of its former glory, and their are kingdoms that are praised for their beauty and culture.  It helps with the overall theme of a divided world how each of the separate nations seem to have their own culture and beliefs.  As I already mentioned, the movie's world and structure is heavily based on Southeast Asian culture, which has never really been represented in a mainstream Hollywood film before, let alone a Disney animated one.  This not only gives us some awe-inspiring settings like forest shrines and snow-topped mountains with visible fog, but it allows audiences to experience an entirely new culture.

For all of its wondrous settings and imaginative spin on Asian folklore, the story sticks a bit too close to Disney traditions.  It's a bit disappointing, but probably not surprising.  During her quest, Raya does meet the legendary and titular last surviving dragon, Sisu (Awkawfina), and it is a comic relief sidekick in the style of Mushu from Mulan, or the Genie in Aladdin.  It's not that the character or Awkawfina's voice over performance are bad, as she actually does get off some good one-liners.  It's just you can instantly see the familiar Disney influence being plugged into what was up to now a fairly daring animated adventure film.  Raya also gathers a small band of followers who join her in her quest, who don't seem quite as developed as they should be.  They seem to join up with her mere minutes after she encounters them, and with not much motivation.  With the movie's world-hopping narrative in search for pieces of a shattered gem, and a plucky group of comical ragtag characters coming along for the ride, it doesn't take long for the movie to feel a bit overly familiar, despite the amazing sights.

Please don't see this as me brushing off the film, as I do think it's worth watching simply for the visuals alone.  And Raya herself makes for a strong, likable heroine who has to overcome her issues with trusting others if she wants to fulfill her father's wishes for a united and peaceful world.  These elements are enough to lift the film above any disappointment that the familiarity of the Disney formula brings.  There are also no musical numbers here, the film instead deciding to take the tone of a straightforward fantasy-adventure film.  Rather than elaborate music sequences like in the Frozen films, the emphasis here is on involving action sequences and sword fights, all of which are choreographed beautifully.  There's a lot to get excited about here, just expect some familiar elements that come with the Disney territory to go along with it.

The ultimate question surrounding Raya and the Last Dragon is if it is worth the extra charge to watch.  While it is playing in what few theaters are currently open, most will have to settle for the Disney+ streaming service, which is hiding the film behind a "Premiere Access" fee of an extra $30, even if you are a subscriber.  It will eventually become free to all subscribers in a few months, and I say wait if you can.  It's a fine film, but nowhere near great enough to warrant the extra price to the viewer.


Saturday, March 06, 2021

Coming 2 America

There are sequels that exist to continue a film's story, and there are also sequels that exist to repeat the same successful formula as before.  And then there are sequels like Coming 2 America, which largely play on the nostalgia audiences hold for the original, and repeat the same ideas and gags, only in a different setting.  I'm sure these kind of movies are fun for the actors to make.  They get to reunite with their characters and co-stars after a long time has passed (in this case, 33 years), and the set probably has the vibe of a reunion.  Too bad all the audience gets to do is watched the diminished returns of the movie itself.

You know a movie is lazy when it feels like roughly 40% of the jokes are taken directly from the original script, and they seem fresher than the new jokes that it attempts.  You know a movie is really lazy when it resorts to showing you clips from the first movie in different scenes.  And you know a movie has completely given up when you give two characters an entire conversation about Hollywood sequels, and how lame it is that they just repeat a successful formula from years ago.  Just like 1988's Coming to America, this film combines a fish out of water story with a sweet, old fashioned romantic comedy.  At the time, it marked Eddie Murphy's first attempt at a romantic lead, and it genuinely worked.  This time, the romantic plot is centered on a young couple new to this sequel, and the sparks are just not there.  The original couple of Murphy and Shari Headley are here too, but are mostly relegated to forgettable subplots, and don't get to share the chemistry that we remember.

As the film opens, we are reunited with Prince Akeem (Murphy) of Zamunda, who is about to become the ruler of his African Kingdom, as his father King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) is on his deathbed.  The King is not hopeful about his son's chances at being a ruler, and believes that Akeem will be assassinated within a week after taking his throne.  After a lavish and celebrity cameo-filled funeral for the former King, Akeem finds himself facing a dire situation for his kingdom.  The neighboring nation of Nextdooria (ho, ho) is threatening to invade Zamunda, and its insane war lord ruler General Izzi (Wesley Snipes) says the only way to prevent the attack is if the two countries are united by an arranged marriage.  Izzi has a daughter who is ready to wed someone from the Zamunda Royal Family, but the only problem is that Akeem only has three daughters, and it is law that a male heir must sit on the throne.  

Luckily, there might be a solution.  When Akeem visited Queens, New York in order to find his true love some 30 years ago in the original film, we learn that he encountered two women during a night of bar-hopping, and that one of them drugged him and forced herself on him.  Yes, that's right, the screenwriters have decided to dilute the memories fans have of the original by adding an element of date rape that was conveniently never mentioned before.  If that's not a horrific way to add a plot element, I don't know what is.  Turns out the woman from long ago, Mary (Leslie Jones), has a son named Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), and that he is Akeem's long-lost son.  Now King Akeem and his faithful friend Semmi (Arsenio Hall) must return to America in order to track down Lavelle, and convince him to marry the General's daughter in order to save Zamunda.  

Even though Murphy is the top-billed star in Coming 2 America, the real story revolves around Lavelle and him learning that he is of a Royal bloodline.  We follow him as he learns about Zamunda and its culture, as well as how he slowly begins to fall in love with his groomer Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha), rather than with the woman that he is being arranged to marry.  Not only is the whole "follow your heart" storyline recycled from the original, but the character of Lavelle and the performance by Fowler just simply are not able to hold the attention of the audience.  He lacks the innocent comedic charm that Murphy had in spades back in 88, and his relationship with the lovely Mirembe has no real passion.  They fall in love simply as a plot convenience, not because they share any real chemistry or personality.  Lavelle and his crude, obnoxious family (who often act like they stepped out of a Tyler Perry comedy) are the main focus here, while Murphy and his returning co-stars mainly get to react to their antics.  Something tells me that's not what fans were expecting from this sequel.

To combat this, we get a lot of throwbacks and repeats of the same jokes from the first movie.  The old men at the barber shop (who are once again all portrayed by Murphy and Hall) are still arguing about boxing, there's a return performance from the band Sexual Chocolate, we learn that McDowell's restaurant is still around and just barely avoiding lawsuits from a more famous fast food chain, and when all else fails, the movie will simply resort to clips from the original movie in order to stir up memories.  All of this simply rams two points home.  1:) The writers were grasping at straws to play up on any nostalgia whatsoever, and 2:) The original probably didn't need a follow up in the first place.  It was a perfectly self-sustained movie that left no lingering questions unanswered.  This is a sequel that never bothers to answer why it needed to be made in the first place, outside of corporate greed.

The only reason to watch Coming 2 America is for the costumes, which are admittedly beautiful, and this is also a lovely film to look at most of the time.  It's been beautifully helmed by director Craig Brewer, who worked with Murphy on his last film, Dolemite is My Name.  Maybe the studio thought reteaming the two would cause lightning to strike twice.  The difference is that previous movie had a real script that had been carefully thought out.  This script is simply soulless, shameless, and unnecessary. 


Friday, February 26, 2021

Tom & Jerry

The makers of 2021's live action/animation hybrid Tom & Jerry movie avoid the key mistake that 1993's fully animated Tom & Jerry: The Movie made.  Namely, the previous film had the famous cartoon cat and mouse able to talk throughout almost the entire movie.  And no, giving the characters the gift of constant speech did not improve or add anything.  They remain mostly silent here, save for a few screams and yelps that seem to be sampled from the old cartoons from the 40s and 50s.  For this, fans will no doubt be grateful.

That being said, director Tim Story (2019's Shaft) and screenwriter Kevin Costello have made a lot of new mistakes here.  So many that the film will probably only be enjoyed by the smallest of children, or those with the least discriminating of tastes.  This movie ends up being a bizarre mix of bland cartoon-style slapstick that tries, and mostly fails, to recreate some of the classic gags as Tom the Cat and Jerry the Mouse chase one another through a luxury Manhattan hotel, and an even more bland story about a young woman trying to con her way into a job, which requires her to pull off an elaborate wedding for a power couple.  There are a lot of times when the movie feels like the Studio just took an old romantic comedy script that they had lying around somewhere, and then threw in some Tom and Jerry antics into it.  Needless to say, these elements don't quite mix, and the movie never comes to life in the roughly 100 minutes that it runs.

I understand that you need a lot of human characters and plot to fill up an entire movie to go with the cartoon fights and gags.  But why make the human elements so aggressively forgettable?  Have anyone who watches this film take a quiz about what happened and who these people are 24 hours after watching it, and they're sure to flunk.  That's because, despite a talented and game human cast, they're given nothing to work with.  20-something Kayla (Chloe Grace Moretz) lives in a New York City where all the animals are cartoon characters. (Something the movie never has as much fun with as it should.) She's out of work, so she manages to talk her way into a job at a ritzy hotel that is gearing up to hold a wedding for a couple that are on all the magazine covers, Ben (Colin Jost) and Preeta (Pallavi Sharda).  She has no experience, but manages to swipe someone else's resume that impresses the hotel manager (Rob Delaney), who hires her on the spot.  The hotel's lead event planner Terence (Michael Peña) is suspicious of her skills, and aims to get rid of her.

At that same moment, both Tom and Jerry end up in Manhattan at the same time for reasons the movie doesn't clue us in on.  Tom wants to make it as a street performer, while Jerry is looking for a new home, and ends up moving into the hotel.  When it's learned that there is a very clever mouse disturbing the peace of the place, Kayla is placed in charge of getting rid of it.  She hires Tom to help her, and we're off and running on what should be some lively classic slapstick from the cat and mouse duo, but feels rather flat.  It's not just the fact that the human actors and cartoon characters never quite look right together.  So much so that the special effects sometimes looks like a demo of what a live action and cartoon hybrid could be.  It's also that the timing and the pacing of the gags are low energy.  They recreate some of the classic cartoon gags, and throw in small roles for some of the old supporting toon characters like Spike the Bulldog (voiced here by Bobby Cannavale).  But it never adds up to anything worthwhile.

Tom & Jerry would be bizarre if it weren't so boring.  There are a flock of cartoon pigeons who show up once in a while to provide a hip hop soundtrack for absolutely no reason, and play no part in the story.  There's a woman who works at the hotel named Joy (Patsy Ferran) whose sole character trait is that she likes to pop up out of nowhere and startle people.  Why?  Never explained.  She's not a weird or bad employee.  The movie just wanted to give her a quirky running gag, and it falls on its face.  There are also some oddly dated movie references thrown throughout the film, including 1989's Batman, The Silence of the Lambs and The Warriors.  But the most bizarre aspect is how the movie gradually seems to focus less on the cartoon stars, and more on the human relationships.  The soon to be wed couple are having problems, because he wants a big, lavish wedding with elephants and tigers, and she feels he doesn't listen to her.  Kayla also strikes a possible relationship with the hotel bartender who teaches her to be proud of herself and who she is.  That's great and all, but who watches a Tom and Jerry movie for this stuff?

Watching the film, I was reminded of 2010's largely forgotten and equally boring live action/animated take on Yogi Bear.  That was the movie that decided to put the cartoon bears, Yogi and Boo-Boo, increasingly in the background so that it could focus on the love life of Ranger Smith.  Both films make the exact same mistakes.  Neither fully understand what made the original cartoons enjoyable, both get largely distracted with unnecessary outside elements, and both are bad ideas that probably should have been rejected scripts.


Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Our Friend

Our Friend
is an imperfect film that also manages to be one of the most honest looks at cancer, and the effect it can have on the family, not just the patient.  All too often, the disease is used as a plot device, or as a reliable tearjerker method. (See just about any movie adapted from a Nicholas Sparks novel.) Here, we get a vision more grounded in reality.  There are no lengthy bedside farewells, there are no moments where the survivors learn life lessons from the experience, and there is no deep meaning.  It's simply an honest look at what happens when a loved one is going to be taken away well before their time.  It's frustrating, angering and brutal, and that's what this movie gets.

It's not surprising the film is so honest, as its source of inspiration is an essay written by Matthew Teague about the death of his wife, and the friend who helped both him and his daughters cope with the process of the illness.  Here, Matt is portrayed by Casey Affleck, as a man who clearly loves his wife Nicole (Dakota Johnson) and two little girls, but sometimes has a hard time showing it.  He's a journalist who is usually sent away covering stories, and it's obviously taken a toll on his family.  Nicole tells him at one point she feels like a single mother sometimes, and when his oldest daughter finds out her mother is going to die, she bluntly tells him her biggest fear is that he is going to be raising her from now on, as he's never really been there for her.  Still, they're a relatively happy family, and a realistic one.  The daughters don't know how to react to the news that their mom only has six months or so to live, and neither does Matt.  As for Nicole, she's trying her best to appear normal to friends and family, but it's obviously taking a toll.

During the final year of Nicole's life, a mutual friend named Dane (Jason Segel) decides to move in to offer his services around the house, help raise the girls, and genuinely assist with any grieving or venting that needs to be done.  Dane is the sort of guy who is smart and always means well, but has never gotten ahead in life.  He works at a sporting goods store, and sometimes talks about becoming a stand up comedian, but doesn't really seem to know which way to go in order to get his life started.  He can't help but feel like life has passed him by as he sees his friends married with families.  He also hears them talking about how he hasn't changed much since his college days, and probably never will.  He does have a relationship with a young woman, but when he sees how overwhelmed Matt and Nicole are with their situation, he can't turn his back on them.  His plan to stay and help them out for a few weeks turns into many months, putting his own life and his relationship on hold.

The character of Dane, as well as Segel's performance (the best he's ever given), are what makes Our Friend much more than your standard "disease" movie.  The film never forgets the sacrifice that he is making, but at the same time, it doesn't make him into a Saint.  Dane is a mess, bluntly speaking.  He has little direction in his life, but he's still willing to step up for others.  He's also good with the girls, and genuinely wants to be there for the entire family.  He is believable, and so is the friendship that he shares with both Matt and Nicole.  This is crucial, as if we don't believe this friendship, the movie falls apart.  These are also not perfect people.  Dane sometimes gets lost in self-pity about whether he will ever amount to anything.  Matt usually holds his anger and emotions in, but he can also explode at certain times.  As for Nicole, she's frustrated for what she's going through, and what it's obviously doing for everyone around her.  

All of these aspects of the characters are handled beautifully by Brad Ingelsby's screenplay.  The movie also gets a lot of details right about the response from Nicole's friends to her disease.  When she is first diagnosed, there is an outpouring of support, with tons of well-wishers dropping off food and offering help "any time she needs it".  But, as the disease worsens, those friends stop dropping by and calling.  They don't want to be around her in the later stages, and start finding excuses not to be around her.  There are a lot of truths in this movie that really surprised me.  What I was less impressed with is how the film decides to tell its story out of sequence.  The movie jumps about to different time periods, with subtitles informing us that it's 13 years ago, 4 years ago, a year since the diagnosis, and such.  It's not so much confusing, as it is unnecessary.  A straightforward narrative would have worked just fine here, and probably could have made it an even better film, since the time-hopping storytelling never really pays off.

This poor storytelling decision still does little to diminish the power of Our Friend.  It does not sermonize, nor does it ever try to make its story into anything more than what it is.  These are flawed people with real emotions, so maybe it's fitting that the film itself is the same way.  What it gets right above all else is making these people come across as real.  I found myself identifying with them, and with what they were feeling.  That's such a simple thing, and yet it's something Hollywood struggles with.


Thursday, December 31, 2020

A Year-End Update

Usually on New Year's Eve, I would be posting my Reel Stinkers list of the worst films of the year.  Obviously, given the fact that my movie watching took a huge hit this year, that will not be happening.  I also will not be posting my picks for the best films in a couple months, because I don't think I've seen enough to make a full list of truly great films.

I apologize if this disappoints anyone.  The truth of the matter is that I don't really enjoy streaming movies that much.  I prefer the social interaction of the theater, and so whenever I stream something to watch on TV or on my laptop by myself, the experience just feels like it is missing something.  I know I am in the minority.  I have spoken to a lot of people who do not miss theaters at all, and love being able to watch whatever they want on multiple streaming services.  But to me, it's simply not the same, and I truly hope theaters will be able to survive whenever the time does come that we can return to some sort of normalcy in our world.

As for myself, I have managed to remain healthy the entire year, luckily.  Even though it has been a rough year overall with me losing my job of 15 years due to the company not being able to sustain a full work force, and having to give up travel plans, and my plans for my girlfriend to move closer to me, I know that I am lucky all things considered.  When I think about what so many other people have lost this past year, I know that I have little to complain about.  I'm in a good place financially, and my at-home job training that I have been doing for almost six months is going well at the moment.  So, please don't worry about me, and I hope that all of you have managed to stay safe in these times.

My output for reviews in the year ahead will depend greatly on what will be offered.  Like I said, I'm not a huge fan of streaming in general, so unless it's a film I'm truly interested in, I will not seek it out.  I promise I will try to review when I can.  I want to keep this blog alive, and I appreciate those of you who have given me support all these years.  I will update whenever I can, so please continue to follow this blog.

Thank you all again for your support, and here's to hoping for better times ahead.  It's going to be a while, and there's a lot of mess to clean up before we can get to where we were before March of 2020 hit, but I know it will happen.  Until then, stay safe all of you. 


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