Reel Opinions

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Drawing the Curtains on Reel Opinions

Today I make a big decision, and one I have considered for a while.  I am officially bringing Reel Opinions to a close after almost 18 years.

I officially began this blog with the help of the good people at the now defunct website, Stomp Tokyo, which was a site devoted to B-Movies.  I joined their message board to talk about and review movies starting back in the Summer of 2002.  The first movie review I ever wrote for their board was the M. Night Shyamalan thriller, Signs.  I never intended my reviews to be a regular thing.  I just wanted to detail my thoughts on the film I had seen with a friend that weekend.

I mark this as the beginning of my film review journey.  My review got a very good response from other people in the group, and so I started talking about more movies I had seen.  I had always been a regular film goer, usually going every weekend.  But getting to write my thoughts on the films I was seeing was an altogether new experience for me.  Even better, I was able to communicate with other people through the message group who loved films as much as I did, and loved talking about them.  It was a wonderful and supportive community, and I even made a friendship through it that remains strong today.

The opportunity to write about films and talk to others about them became addictive.  I started not just going to the movies every weekend, but also seeing just about everything that was playing, just so I could review them and talk about them with others.  I even went to films I normally would not usually go to see.  This became valuable to me, as it meant I was opening myself to new film experiences, not just the ones I truly wanted to see.  I discovered some great films this way, as well as some true stinkers along the way.  But, no matter how bad the movie was, I always enjoyed the experience of going to the movies, and I still do greatly.  I intend to still go to the movies as often as I can, as I have become fond of a lot of the people who work at my local theater, and see me as one of their regulars.

However, over the years, it has gotten harder for me to write these reviews.  This blog was created for me by one of the moderators of Stomp Tokyo as a place for my reviews, due to the attention they always got on their message board.  It was created in 2005, and while I was initially hesitant to post here, as I preferred the community on the message board, this soon became my home for my thoughts on film.  Over the past 18 years, I have posted a total of 2,274 reviews and articles where I posted my thoughts on the best and worst of each particular year.  It's been an incredible time, and while this blog was never very successful and I never made any money off of it, I simply did it out of sheer enjoyment and my love of talking about movies with those who did enjoy my work.

I was 28 when this blog began in the Fall of 2005.  I will be turning 46 in less than two months.  A lot has changed since then, and my life is starting to go in a different direction.  I have done my best to keep this blog running these past few years with a pandemic, and health issues that found me hospitalized twice in the past two years, as well as an outpatient surgery on my foot to help fix those issues.  Now that the issues are somewhat more under control, I want to start a new chapter in my life.  I have some new opportunities in my life, some of which I'm extremely excited about.


Most exciting of all for me is that I am writing fiction again, something that has been a passion of mine long before I got into reviewing movies.  Being mainly housebound since 2020 and getting laid off from my previous job inspired me to try again, along with the endless support of the amazing woman who is the love of my life.  Since August 2021, I have completed five screenplays, and I have begun to take some very early steps toward making that dream a reality.  Who knows?  One day, there may be people critiquing my work, the way I have critiqued others' work for over 20 years since I started on that message board.  I don't know what will happen, but I am hopeful for the first time in a very long time about making that dream a reality, as well as pursuing other goals in my life.


That's why I'm drawing the curtains on Reel Opinions.  While I still enjoy going to the movies, and will whenever I can, I can tell I am getting to the point where this blog will not be a big part of my life, and I want to stop before it is no longer enjoyable for me.  I do appreciate those of you who enjoyed and supported my work here.  Obviously, you may have not always agreed with me.  Hell, one person got so mad at me over my negative review of the 2006 stoner comedy, Grandma's Boy, that they left a comment saying that I should be shot and that I make America a bad country.  Another person once disagreed with me so strongly over one of my reviews that they said if they were driving their vehicle and saw me crossing the street, they would not slow down.  Luckily, aside from some "passionate" individuals, the response to my writing here has largely been positive, and I do appreciate the support I have gotten here.

And so, thank you from the bottom of my heart.  Thank you to the people of Stomp Tokyo, wherever they may be now, and thank you to those who have read this blog over the years.  This blog will remain here for a while, so I can keep a record of all the films I have watched these past 18 years.  The good and the bad ones had a definite impact on me, and movies will continue to play a vital part of my life.


Saturday, May 13, 2023

Fool's Paradise

My face lit up as the opening credits displayed the cast for Fool's Paradise.  Charlie Day (who also wrote and directed the film), Ken Jeong, the late Ray Liotta, Kate Beckinsale, Adrian Brody, Jason Sudeikis, Edie Falco, Jason Bateman, John Malkovich...I settled in my seat, and waited to have a good time.  97 minutes later, I was still waiting.  My only guess is that Day must have handed out some huge favors to get them to appear in this wannabe Hollywood satire.

Looking up the story behind the film, I learned that the movie was shot five years ago, and has gone through numerous reshoots and edits over the years, as well as a title change at the request of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro.  The title is the least of this film's problems, Mr. del Toro.  Day casts himself as a silent Charlie Chaplin-esque man with a simple IQ who finds himself on the streets of Hollywood after being kicked out of a mental hospital, because the state can't afford the treatment he needs.  He has a run-in with a frustrated producer (Liotta) who is dealing with a spoiled star (also Day) that won't come out of his trailer.  The producer realizes that the simple man on the street looks like the star, and before the poor guy knows it, he's being thrown into the crazy world of the Hollywood Studio System, and given the name Latte Pronto.  

Steve Martin mined similar material with his screenplay for the 1999 satire, Bowfinger, with Eddie Murphy in a dual role as a big name star and a dorky doppelganger who gets thrust into the limelight when the star has a nervous breakdown.  The difference between Martin's approach and Day's is that the earlier film was biting and savage, while Day is simply taking easy potshots at shallow starlets, and how the studio system can build you up and tear you down in an instant.  Tell us something we don't know.  We're supposed to be watching this simple, mute and total innocent react to the madness of the movie world all around him, and come to the conclusion that he is more "sane" than these big name people he's surrounded by and are worshiped by the film-going public.  And while some humor is mined, it doesn't dig deep enough, and it doesn't hit hard enough.

The central relationship in Fool's Paradise is between Day's character and Lenny (Ken Jeong), a struggling publicist who sees "Latte" as his ticket to the big time, and sticks with him even after everyone else turns against him. (Day gets the lead role in a big budget movie about a mosquito-themed superhero, it bombs, and instantly he becomes a Hollywood pariah.) Here the movie develops an overly sentimental tone as the two guys learn they're all they have in the world.  Not only is Day channeling Chaplin with his silent comedic performance, but also mixing humor with pathos.  Like the satirical material about the movie world, the movie doesn't dig deep enough into the characters to make the emotional material fly.  And the rest of that starry cast?  Most are relegated to walk ons or cameos, and overact to extremes.

Day can't seem to decide if he wants to be savage or sentimental with this movie, so he takes the middle ground, and winds up not succeeding at either approach.  After learning the story behind the film, my guess is that the movie was the victim of much meddling behind the scenes, eventually removing all the teeth of what could have been a biting comedy.


Friday, May 12, 2023

Book Club: The Next Chapter

When I reviewed 2018's Book Club, I said it was a movie that had been written with a predetermined path and destination, and was another one of those movies where you could walk out of the theater for a half hour, come back, and amaze your friends by accurately guessing what had happened while you were out.  Yet, I found the film had a few laughs, and I enjoyed the chemistry of the cast.  The Next Chapter holds onto that same cast and chemistry, but strands them in a nothing plot and a script that lacks the moments of joy I found in the first.

This is the second movie this year to misuse the invaluable talents of  Jane Fonda, after the dreadful 80 for Brady back in February.  She's joined here, just as she was last time, by Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen, who don't fare much better.  They are each given single character traits.  Fonda is the over-sexed Vivian, Keaton is giving the same dithering performance she gives in every comedy playing Diane, Bergen's Sharon is now retired and bored, and Steenburgen's Carol frets constantly over her beloved husband (Craig T. Nelson) after he had his first heart attack recently.  As the film opens, they're suffering through the pandemic and holding onto their friendship via Zoom calls. (Cue the jokes about not understanding technology and filters.) Once the travel ban is lifted, the ladies learn that Vivian is engaged to her lover (Don Johnson), and they decide to fly off to Italy together to celebrate.

I don't expect much from a fluffy comedy such as this.  Maybe just a smart line of dialogue, or a hint of wit that is worthy of the intelligence of the women playing the lead roles.  What does this screenplay give us?  A scene of the ladies making dick jokes while staring at Roman statues.  There's not a single scene that is not predetermined, but some of these scenes are just dripping with such stupidity.  Vivian mistakes a sexy cop for a stripper, and lands the four ladies in prison.  Carol reunites with an old flame, and they share a wild and passionate night of rolling dough together.  And of course there are a large number of montages set to Italian remakes of American 80s pop songs to stretch out the run time to feature length and to hide the fact that the filmmakers are floundering to flesh out the plot.

I also get that this is intended to be an escapist fantasy where four elderly women get into a lot of mischief, while their handsome and faithful husbands seemingly do nothing but stay at home and think about them.  But even on this basic level of entertainment, the movie doesn't work, because it fails to give its cast anything of interest to do, other than to make PG-13 level sex innuendo.  Nobody gets to act like a normal person would in the situations these women find themselves in.  They're too busy reciting sitcom level dialogue like second-rate Golden Girls.  Look, the first movie was no masterpiece, but I was kind of charmed by the relationships these women built with the men in their lives.  This movie makes the mistake of taking them away from what worked, and just casting them to the winds of montages and travelogue scenes.

Some sequels exist to advance the story.  Some rehash the same plot and formula.  Book Club: The Next Chapter seems like it wanted to reunite the same cast as the first, and film them fooling around in Italy.  Personally, I'd rather watch a candid film about the actors behind the scenes.  I bet watching them having a few choice words with their agents off camera would be more entertaining than the actual movie.



Director Robert Rodriguez has made a name for himself with fast-paced action films (both adult and kid-friendly), so you have to wonder what he was thinking with the clunky mind-bending thriller Hypnotic.  Supposedly he's been sitting on the script for 20 years or so.  Too bad he didn't spend that time fine tuning the logic that makes the film's many (and I do mean many) twists and turns more head-scratching than exciting.

The film centers on Ben Affleck, giving a performance that tows a fine line between brooding and bored.  Yes, he's playing a tortured character here, but you can't help but feel some of the torture is the actor realizing that the project he's in is a turkey.  He plays police detective Brandon Rourke, who is haunted by the mysterious disappearance of his young daughter Millie (Hala Finley).  She was kidnapped while he was watching her in the park, and took his eyes off of her for just one second.  A suspect has been arrested, but he claims he has no memory of the incident in question, and has plead not guilty.  His therapist thinks Brandon needs to go back to work and claim some normalcy in his life.  As soon as he sets foot outside of her office, Brandon is dragged into an increasingly complex mystery, and so is the audience.

It all starts when Brandon and his partner are called in on a bizarre bank heist.  A mysterious man (William Fichter) immediately grabs our hero's attention, and it's soon discovered that this man can control other people's minds and even their perception of reality with just a few choice words.  The man's target is a safe deposit box within the bank, and when Brandon views the contents of said box, he only finds a picture of his missing daughter.  Could this mystery man be the key to Millie's disappearance?  Ah, if only things were so simple.  This is a plot that loves to peel back another layer...and another...and another...Until even the audience can't remember how this whole thing got started.  By the time the answers start coming in the third act, I was kind of wishing Rodriguez had tried to make a simple straight-forward thriller, instead of one that intentionally wants to throw us off at every possible opportunity.

I can admire that Hypnotic is ambitious in its plot, but the tone and pacing are so muted that we can never be engaged.  It's not just Affleck's lead performance that is brooding and slow, it's the entire energy that the film gives off.  This is obviously the wrong way you want to play this mind-bending material.  Stuff like this should be energized, not sad and muted.   Maybe Rodriguez was trying to get out of his comfort zone of manic and fast filmmaking, but it simply does not suit him or the story he's trying to tell him.  This is a movie that could have used a sense of humor, especially during some of the later reveals.  I chuckled when a character is describing how some people have the ability to control minds and reality, and Affleck's partner on the police force says, "Control minds?  Wipe out bank accounts?  Sounds like my ex-wife".  The movie could have used more of that kind of thinking.  

As much as the movie is successful at throwing us off course with each and every turn, the humorless and solemn tone kill any hope at grabbing the audience's attention.  By the time Affleck is screaming how nothing that is going on around him makes any sense, the audience can only share his frustration.


Saturday, May 06, 2023

Love Again

The makers of Love Again believe that it is an uplifting romantic tale of two lonely people in Manhattan who learn to love again after each have faced tragedy and heartbreak in their individual lives.  I personally saw the film as a tragic and cautionary tale of what can happen to a talented indie filmmaker when he is chewed up by the studio system, and forced to work below his usual level of intelligence.

In 2007, writer-director James C. Strouse made Grace is Gone, an underrated and honest drama about a grieving father struggling to inform his two young daughters that their mother has been killed while serving in combat.  It was a little film that not many saw and did not get a big push from the studio, but it certainly left an impact on anyone who saw it.  Compare that to this movie, in wide release, which also covers the subject of grieving and loss, but is mechanical, forced and stupid beyond belief.  It's the kind of contrived romantic comedy drama that is built around plot manipulations as old as the hills, and can't breathe any life into them to make them seem fresh.  This is partly because the two lead actors have zero chemistry whenever they share the screen, and partly because the movie is actually an advertisement for singer Celine Dion, who not only contributes multiple songs to the soundtrack, but has a supporting role as herself.

Dion is supposed to be this force that brings the young lovers together, but she plays her role as if she often doesn't want to be there.  Each time she's on camera, she looks like she lost a bet.  And yet, were it not for her presence, this movie probably wouldn't be playing on the big screen, as Strouse's script often sounds like a rejected Hallmark Channel Movie.  It focuses on two different lonely people who have given up on love.  Mira Ray (Priyanka Chopra Jones) is a children's book author and illustrator who has been having a hard time moving on after she witnessed the love of her life get run down by a drunk driver.  The film opens with this moment, and honestly, the way it's staged is the only moment in this "comedy" that actually got a laugh from me, due to how clumsily it's executed.  We also have Rob Burns (Sam Heughan), a jaded reporter for a Manhattan newspaper who no longer believes in love or fate after the woman he loved broke things off a week before their wedding.

Rob is given a new work phone which, would you believe it, just happens to have the same phone number that Mira's departed love used to have.  And wouldn't you know it, the same time he gets that phone, she starts texting the number as a therapy exercise, leaving personal messages to her beloved that Rob starts receiving.  Rob becomes determined to track down this mystery woman who is texting him, which coincides with him having to interview Ms. Dion for the paper.  She gets involved, trying to convince Rob that he can find love again and advises him on what to do with these mysterious text messages he's getting.  He soon learns through the messages that Mira is a fan of a certain opera that is playing in town.  He attends, hoping to meet her, and as soon as he lays eyes on her, he somehow knows that this is the woman sending the texts.

Turns out they have a lot in common.  They both like to wear casual and comfortable shoes to formal occasions, they both appreciate putting fries on top of burgers, and he even doesn't mind her various "would you rather..." questions that she likes to ask.  It's obviously love, despite the fact that the two actors have all the appeal of soggy bread when they're together.  Naturally, he doesn't tell her he's been receiving the texts meant for her old boyfriend, so the third act can be built around her finding out and walking out of his life.  Will they get to reunite in the middle of a fake looking New York City snowfall while a Dion ballad plays?  I wouldn't dream of giving away the ending.  The entire movie is as fake as that snow, as there's not a single scene or character that rings true.  Not the lovers, and certainly not the guy's gay best friend and heroine's sister who both act as comic relief.

Love Again is contrived and manipulative in every possible way.  Compare that to the director's earlier work, the previously mentioned Grace is Gone.  In that movie, John Cusack sold each emotion as a father suddenly struck with the news of the loss of his wife.  He doesn't want his young kids to know right away, so he springs a surprise cross country trip to a theme park on them while he figures out how to break the news.  During the journey, he periodically calls home so he can hear his wife's voice on the answering machine, and "talk" to her by leaving messages about what he's dealing with.  I believed in those characters and what I was watching.  This film often comes across as if it were made by aliens who were trying to understand our emotions of love, loss, and grieving, but haven't quite grasped the concept.

They often say the best way to criticize a bad movie is with a good one.  Writer-director James C. Strouse has managed to criticize this one with his own earlier work.  Both movies deal with similar subject matter, but this is the plastic and marketable approach.  I can only hope he regains his senses soon after he made this..


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

In what is intended to be the final installment of the Guardians of the Galaxy film franchise (although some of the characters will likely return in other Marvel properties), writer-director James Gunn gives us a fitting farewell.  He shows a real love for these comic book misfits he has brought to life over the past ten years or so, and understands them.  He also understands his audience, and gives them exactly the close out film they need before Gunn moves on as being one of the heads of the DC Cinematic Universe.

As in the previous films, the movie mixes a strong sense of humor with Sci-Fi action (which is a bit too frantic this time around) and a genuine amount of heart.  The thing that Gunn understands is that these characters are weirdos, even in a world of superpowered Avengers.  The Guardians have always been kind of the misfit outliers in the Marvel Universe.  They're a ragtag group of space jockeys, aliens, and creatures that have bonded to create a family of sorts over the course of the series.  He understand what makes them unique, and their individual quirks.  He also loves to throw these characters into increasingly bizarre worlds and situations, and see how things play out.  That's what makes these movies so much fun to watch.  By taking these minor comic book characters that most filmmakers wouldn't have a clue how to handle in a live action film, and fleshing them out and creating a genuine bond between them and with the audience, he's kind of writing a love letter to any lonely misfit or weirdo who might be watching, and letting them know that there are others out there just like them.

The plot this time around centers on Guardians member Rocket Raccoon (voice by Bradley Cooper), whose backstory gets substantially developed.  We learn that he was part of an experiment led by the cruel High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), who is obsessed with creating a perfect world and society created solely out of anthropomorphic animals, which are created through twisted scientific experiments.  Rocket was one of the early test cases who showed a high level of intelligence, and even inadvertently helped the process of creating peaceful humanoid creatures.  Unfortunately, the High Evolutionary soon displayed his true nature, as his idea of a perfect society was built upon warped ethics.  When Rocket watched some of his fellow animals get killed in the experiments, he escaped and vowed never to return.  Now his former tormentor has tracked him down, and wants to use Rocket's brilliant mind to his twisted advantage.

Rocket becomes mortally wounded in the film's opening action sequence, so the remaining Guardians must track down his creators to find out how to save him.  Again, the strength here is the bond that Gunn creates within his team.  Team leader Star Lord (Chris Pratt) is forced to confront a variant of his former love, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who has no memory of him or their time together.  Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) is as powerful as ever, yet still possesses the intellect and personality of a selfish child at times.  Gamora's sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) has evolved over the films, and is now showing different and softer sides to her character.  Groot (voice by Vin Diesel) is still a creature of few words.  And the alien Mantis (Pom Klementieff) gets to act as a supportive figure for Drax when others do not understand him.  The script finds ample opportunity for these characters to play off each other, which is the film's greatest strength.  These are not only interesting characters, but the way that the actors have grown into these roles and play off each other is as wonderful to watch as ever.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is consistent with the quality of the previous entries, which is sometimes all you can ask for in a Summer Event movie.  It knows what it's doing, and does so with so much expertise that it leaves you in awe at times.  Yes, the movie does run a bit long at two and a half hours, but at least we're spending that time with characters we have grown to love.  It's only when the action heated up that I started to feel the extended running time, as the action is frantic in typical Marvel Movie fashion, but not exactly stimulating in any real way.  When the Guardians start fighting and performing impossible feats of combat, they start to look like special effects and not characters.  These moments took me out of the film, but not enough that it hurts it.  It knows that its strength lies in the interaction and the personalities of these characters, and it's wise to exploit it.

This is a movie that should please just about anyone who has been following these characters since 2014.  It's the kind of lightweight, fun and fast-paced entertainment that Marvel excels at when they are at their best.  It doesn't hold any real significance in their overall Universe, and it does not set up any major stakes on the whole.  It's just one last fun ride with these great characters told by a filmmaker who clearly has a passion for them.  I can only hope that passion continues to show through with the new roster of comic book heroes he's being placed in charge of.


Friday, April 28, 2023

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret

Back in 2016, writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig gave us The Edge of Seventeen, one of the best teen comedy-dramas in recent memory.  Now she gets her name connected to the best preadolescent comedy drama in recent memory by adapting Judy Blume's seminal 1970 Young Adult novel, Are You There God?  It's Me, Margaret.  Supposedly Blume had resisted Hollywood adapting the story for over 40 years, but she was smart to entrust it in the hands of Craig and super-producer James L. Brooks.

Just as the novel, the movie is a frank, funny and frequently moving look at a preteen girl's experiences with puberty and religion.  Also like the novel, the movie pulls no punches in its subject matter.  In a day and age where the subject of what children should be exposed to is frequently discussed on cable news on a daily basis, here is a movie that proves to be an eye-opening experience on how these sensitive subjects should be treated.  The film never once talks down to its audience, and is refreshingly honest.  This never once feels like a Hollywood production, and feels more like a memory of an actual youth.  An equally smart decision was to not update the story, and instead make it a period piece of when the book was originally written.  It's setting and soundtrack choices seem organic, and never gimmicky, and gives the film a lived-in quality rather than that of a studio set.

Naturally, a film like this rises or falls based on who plays the titular Margaret, and the filmmakers have struck gold in casting relative newcomer Abby Ryder Fortson, who up to now was known for playing Paul Rudd's daughter in the first two Ant-Man films, but gets to make a huge impression in her first leading role.  She nails every single laugh and emotion as a girl on the cusp of puberty, right around the same time her parents make the surprise announcement that her dad (Benny Safdie) got a new job, and they are leaving New York City and moving to the suburbs in New Jersey.  This takes Margaret not just far from her familiar grounds and friends, but also from her beloved grandma Sylvia (a scene-stealing Kathy Bates) who is also not thrilled by the news of the move. (She likes to remind the family of a fact she read that states elderly people have shorter life expectancy when their loved ones aren't around.)

Margaret begins having regular private conversations with God, wanting some kind of guidance with the emotions she's feeling about having to move.  The thing is, she doesn't know what to think about God.  Her mother Barbara (a wonderful Rachel McAdams) came from a conservative Christian background, while her husband is Jewish.  Her parents want their daughter to make up her own mind about God and religion, but this is hard when Margaret learns that Barbara's parents disowned her when they found out the man she wanted to marry was not Christian.  She tries to understand religion by exploring different options on her own, but like for a lot of people, it's a complicated matter, and she never feels closer to God no matter what she tries.  

After the move, Margaret befriends a group of girls at her new school who are obsessed with the usual topics of 12-year-old girls such as boys, gossiping about that one girl in class who is abnormally tall and supposedly has been wearing a bra since the Fourth Grade, and of competing with each other over who can have their period first.  All of this is treated with the same frankness as the original novel, making the film somewhat of a small cinematic miracle.  Blume herself (who serves as one of the lead producers) has gone on to state that she feels the movie is even better than her own novel, and while this may sound controversial to its legions of fans, she may have a point.  The movie is joyous, hilarious, heartfelt, and beautiful in all the right ways, and simply is delightful to watch from beginning to end.

Are You There God?  It's Me, Margaret has been made with the utmost care, and nothing has been overlooked.  It hits all the right notes in its dialogue, direction and performances, and creates the perfect tone throughout.  When you sit through as many movies as I do, you start to realize just how rare that truly is.  It's also rare for a film aimed at family audiences to be as upfront about the issues of religion, puberty and sexual awakening as this.  Yes, the movie earns its PG-13 rating, but it is never really offensive in any way, except perhaps to those types who want to protect children from reality.  Having this movie come out in the political and social climate we currently find ourselves in makes it all the more important and necessary to watch.

Here is one of the great films of the year, one that lifted my spirits.  For parents with children of a certain age, it should almost be required viewing.  Unfortunately, it's bound to be swallowed up by the big Summer competition that will start hitting the first weekend of May, but just like the book that inspired it, it's sure to be beloved by those who discover it for years to come.


Beau is Afraid

I have no doubt in my mind that Beau is Afraid will attract a cult following, but it is a cult I will not be joining anytime soon.  Here is a movie to watch in stunned silence.  Oh, it has plenty of artistic merit to it, but what in the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks is the audience supposed to make of it?  This of course means that there will be plenty out there who deem it a masterpiece, and accuse me of missing the boat.  This time around, I'm glad I did.

While not entirely blameless till now, writer-director Ari Aster has shown genuine skill and sense with his previous two features, Hereditary and Midsommar, the later I actually found kind of brilliant until the movie started spinning its wheels and dragging its feet due to an extended two and a half hour running time.  This time, Aster keeps the skill but leaves the sense behind, starting by making this movie run even longer at a torturous three hours.  I don't remember when a movie has felt so long, or when I have been so eager for the end credits to begin to roll.  This film started life as a short film some ten years ago, and maybe it should have stayed that way.  Here is a movie where the filmmaker is definitely swinging for the fences, but he has absolutely no idea what he's swinging at as he combines elements of a dark comedy, a family drama, and a horror film.  This alone is intriguing, until you realize that not one of these elements is successful.

It's hero, Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix), is a middle aged man with a shopping list full of phobias.  This started at birth, as his mother (Patti LuPone) told him as a child that his father died while they were having sex and conceiving Beau.  Therefore, the guy is afraid to be intimate with any woman, as she tells him the condition he died from is hereditary.  Beau lives in a shady apartment building, and on a street where apparently every weirdo, psycho and serial killer lurks right outside the door, waiting to jump on poor Beau if he dares set foot outside the relative safety of his apartment.  As the film opens, he's planning to make a flight to his mom's home in order to celebrate the memory of his father on the anniversary of his death, but a strange series of events leads Beau trapped in his own apartment, and eventually even locked outside of it.

He tries to call his mother to explain everything, only to have a UPS delivery driver answer, and tell him his mother is dead and decapitated from a falling chandelier.  The driver found the woman that way while dropping off a package.  This is the kick off point for Beau to make what is supposed to be an incredible journey to return home, but really just turns into a series of run-ins with some bizarrely inane characters who never make an impression.  He is hit by a car while running naked down the street (long story), and finds himself in the care of a sunny married couple (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan) who live with their disgruntled teenage daughter (Kylie Rogers), who is upset because Beau is using her bedroom while he recovers.  They're also taking care of a psychotic army veteran who fought with their fallen son in the war.  After that situation goes wrong, Beau finds himself lost in the woods and befriending a traveling theater group.

The less said about the plot developments that follow when Beau finds his way home, the better.  Not for the sake of spoilers, but they're simply too idiotic to reveal.  Again, there is no doubt going to be a great number of people who proclaim Beau is Afraid as a work of genius.  I also have no doubt that Aster knew how polarizing his movie was going to be, and just didn't care what people thought.  This is his vision, and early on, I kind of got behind it.  But as the movie started to drag oh so slowly and continued to leave all coherency and sense behind, I grew restless.  The movie exists solely to get an extreme reaction, but the most extreme reaction I got from it was sheer boredom.  I was never amused or entranced, and as the movie just lingered on one endless scene after another, I grew angry.

Aster lets so many of his scenes drag on to such ridiculous lengths that I was squirming during some of them.  There are a lot of filmmakers I admire who could use better editing, but never have I wanted to speed up a film quite like this.  Sitting through this was a lifeless experience, as I never felt much, despite the technical skill that was frequently on display.  That's because the characters that inhabit the story are just so bizarre, and not in a good way.  These are not people I wanted to spend an entire movie watching, especially not at this length.  Beau's emotional journey, and especially its destination, felt like a long, dry road to nowhere in particular, and though I can't quite claim I expected to see a lot of the things the film's final moments showed me, I don't think I wanted to see them in the first place.

Just like there will be many who proclaim this a work of art, I also believe there will be many who view this as an overlong, insufferable self-indulgent piece of junk.  Maybe you'll see this on some Best of the Year lists come December.  You'll find it on a different list of mine at the same time.


Saturday, April 22, 2023

Guy Ritchie's The Covenant

Were it not for the fact that his name is in the title, you would be hard pressed to guess that Guy Ritchie's The Covenant was even made by the man.  The filmmaker has long excelled at visually busy crime caper comedies overflowing with snarky wit, and while he has ventured out of his comfort zone before, this is still far removed from anything he has ever done.  It's also probably his best film in a while.

Rather than focus on visual flare and fast-paced action (though those elements do show up once in a while, proving he hasn't completely left his wheelhouse), this is a solemn human drama that is quietly effective.  Rather than suave criminals and spies, his topic this time around is the recent war in the Middle East and themes of sacrifice and brotherhood.  The film is a fictional story, but feels like it could have been lifted from the headlines, and most likely real events did play out similar to it.  The focus here is on Afghans who aided the American military, usually as interpreters, and despite being promised safety and Visas for their efforts, were often forgotten and left behind due to legal red tape.

Jake Gyllenhaal has one of the leads here as Sgt. John Kinley, who leads a small team of soldiers that seek out explosive devices.  It's 2018, and Kinley by this point knows that the war is likely to never truly be won, but he still gives it his all so that he can one day come home to California where his family is waiting for him.  After he loses his Afghan interpreter in a bomb blast, John needs to select a new one, and chooses a local mechanic by the name of Ahmed Abdullah (Dar Salim).  Ahmed has a family of his own, with a wife and a new baby, and is only helping the Americans because the Taliban killed his son.  He desperately needs the money, as well as safe passage for him and his family into the U.S., since helping the Americans automatically puts a target on his back in his home country.

While the idea of two men bonding despite their differences on the field of battle is nothing new, both Gyllenhaal and Salim deliver electrifying performances here, and are completely believable as men who are world-weary for different reasons, yet have more in common than they initially think.  They slowly learn to trust one another, and that trust is pushed to the extreme when Kinley's squad is ambushed, with only John and Ahmed surviving, and with John being mortally wounded in the process.  This is the most thrilling part of The Covenant, as we watch Ahmed try various means to carry his fallen ally across the desert to safety.  He is a wanted man, and has no idea who he can trust, but he is determined to get his friend to safety, even though he knows he likely will not be safe himself.

After the harrowing moments of survival and perseverance, the movie loses steam shortly when John is allowed to come home, and becomes enraged with the system that is buried with red tape.  He wants to get Ahmed and his family a Visa so that they can come to America, but the process is so complex that John becomes outraged.  He soon gets a chance to go on his own mission to return to Afghanistan and track Ahmed and his wife down, so that he can bring them back with him.  Here, the film finds itself again, and it concludes with some spectacular action sequences.  The moments depicting the man under fire and making brave journeys of survival are when the film is the most alive.  Luckily, Ritchie understands this, and emphasizes these moments at every turn.

This is the kind of film that makes you feel like you are experiencing the intensity, the anger, and the hardships that the two leads endure throughout, creating a film that is all at once engaging and raw.  While the two lead performances certainly do help sell the emotion, it's the script (co-written by Ritchie) and his direction that adds to the realism of the situation as it unfolds.  It is this style that he brings that makes this somewhat familiar material seem fresh once again.  There is also a wonderful supporting cast on display, though I do wish that the wives of both men had larger roles to play in the grand scheme of things, as they mainly exist to give support and worry about their husbands.  Still, the power of the film cannot be denied, and it's evident for almost its entire two hour run time.

Guy Ritchie's The Covenant
may not be what you expect from the filmmaker, but perhaps it's for the best that he left his usual tricks at home this time around, and he just focused on giving us an intense, straight-forward war drama that sticks with you long after it's over.


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