Reel Opinions

Sunday, September 27, 2015


Like many man vs. nature films, Everest works spectacularly as a technical achievement, but comes up a little bit short in terms of characterization.  Director Baltasar Kormakur does a fantastic job of putting us in the perilous climb up the titular mountain, one which claimed the lives of five people during an expedition in 1996 that is covered in this film.  But the screenplay by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy has a slightly harder time drawing us in on a personal level.

This is definitely a movie that needs to be seen on the big screen, especially the select IMAX version, which I'm sure is absolutely stunning. (Unfortunately, I had to view the film at my local multiplex in 3D.) This is a movie that gives you the feeling that you are there with the characters, and deserves to be seen on the largest format possible.  As for the 3D, it sadly disappoints.  While the visuals and natural footage are beautiful, the 3D is never really utilized to full effect, and is really just there.  It's a shame that no 2D version exists, as that would be the real prime format to view this.  That being said, there is still a sense of majesty to the film.  And when the characters do face certain death during the later half of the film, it manages to thrill.  And if the characters were developed beyond the most basic level in order for us to tell them apart, the movie probably would have achieved the greatness it strives for.

The opening half of Everest is easily the hardest to sit through, as a large number of characters are introduced, but never grab our attention.  The expedition leader, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), leaves his pregnant wife (Kiera Knightley), promising that he will be back in time for their future daughter's birth.  After that, we're quickly introduced to the individual members of the team, which include a wealthy Texan named Beck (Josh Brolin) who also has a family waiting for him, a writer named Jon (Michael Kelly), a postman named Doug (John Hawkes) who had to save up a lot to afford this adventure, and a Japanese woman named Yasuko (Naoko Mori) who has conquered six of the world's seven summits.  The film spends a lot of time introducing these characters, and a rival team led by another leader (Jake Gyllenhaal), but does little to make us feel attached to them.

Once they leave the base camp and begin their climb, the movie kicks into gear and we become involved.  We are at first awed by the footage, which is a combination of real footage of the mountain, digital effects, and in-studio filming.  As the team begins their climb, a massive storm kicks in.  The film's strongest aspect is how it depicts the dangers of making the climb.  It is relentless in depicting the perils these people faced.  I understand that there is a documentary that covers this group's climb (which I have not seen), and I can only imagine that it is a much more harrowing and tragic film than this.  But, as a fictional recreation, it is first rate.  The actors never once look like they are safe, or on a set, which is the way it should be with a film like this.  Even if we are not attached to these personalities, we feel their suffering at the right moments, and this is what draws us into the story.

Everest boasts a huge cast of talented actors, but only a small handful make a real impression.  Jason Clarke gets the most screentime, and the radio conversations he has with the team back at the base camp and eventually with his wife can be truly heartbreaking.  He comes the closest to creating a genuine character, because the movie focuses on him the most.  Coming up close behind would be Josh Brolin, who gets the most amount of attention of the people who paid to take the climb with Clarke's team.  The third act of his story arc is quite remarkable, and I kind of wish the film had focused a little bit more on how he managed to pull through.  As for the cast, a lot of sadly shortchanged.  Gyllenhaal fails to make much of an impression, which is rare, and Knightley as Clarke's wife mainly gets to sit by the phone, wringing her hands a lot.  Everybody is giving it their all, but nobody's really being pushed to their acting limits here, considering the talent.

If this review sounds largely negative, I apologize.  Everest is quite the experience to watch, thanks to the stunning nature footage and effects, as well as how it places you right in the middle of the perilous situation.  It's only when you walk out of the theater that you realize that the stuff behind it was a bit dramatically thin.  If you must see this movie (and I recommend it for the spectacle that it is), please see it in the theater, and on the biggest screen possible.  You won't quite get the same effect watching this movie at home, or on a tablet.  In fact, the film's underwritten script may be more apparent on the small screen.

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Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Intern

There is a word for a movie like The Intern, and that one is charming.  You probably won't see a simpler or sweeter movie than this at your local multiplex anytime soon.  It also has some strong performances by reliable actors, and a lot of small laughs throughout.  It's the perfect movie to watch on the couch with a blanket over you and a fire in the fireplace.  In other words, the DVD sales of this one should be huge.

It's no surprise that the movie works on this comforting level when you learn the film's writer-director is Nancy Meyers (It's Complicated, Something's Gotta Give).  She specializes in these kind of comedies that are never classics, but are just so warm and inviting you kind of wish the real world was more like the way it's depicted in her films.  She has mastered the art of sweet escapism, and The Intern only goes to show she has not lost her touch.  The movie features Robert De Niro, who is in total sweet old teddy bear mode here, but he knows how to sell it without laying on the schmaltz..  It also co-stars Anne Hathaway, who is supposed to be a hardened corporate woman.  If she is, she's the kindest and sunniest hardened corporate woman to walk God's green Earth.  In just about any other movie, I would sneer at this manipulation.  But this is a Nancy Meyers movie, and not only do we expect it, she knows how to make it so we welcome it.

The plot is simple enough to be written in full on the back of a napkin, but that is not the appeal here.  The appeal are the characters Meyers gives us, and the way they talk to each other.  That has always been her strong suit, anyway.  De Niro is Ben Whittaker, a 70-year-old widower and retiree who finds that living alone at home does not suit him.  He's tried traveling and other group activities, but nothing has clicked for him.  That's when he happens to see a flyer that an on line business dealing in selling fashion is starting a senior intern program for people 65 years or older.  Ben takes a chance, and winds up landing one of the intern positions.  He is assigned to work directly under the company's founder and boss, Jules Ostin (Hathaway).

Jules has a patient husband (Anders Holm), a cute as a button daughter (JoJo Kushner), and the kind of Manhattan home you want to move into seconds after seeing the inside of it.  But she doesn't have any time to enjoy any of this, because she devotes all her time to running the company.  And now she is being pressured to find an experienced CEO who could take over for her.  She strikes up a friendship with Ben when he becomes her personal driver, after he catches her regular driver drinking on the job one day.  As the two talk and share their lives and experiences, Ben and Jules help each other become better people and open up more to life's experiences.  If this all sounds manipulative and somewhat cornball, you're definitely right.  But again, Meyers' screenplay and the performances of De Niro and Hathaway are so likable, you really find yourself surrendering to it.

That's because the things these characters talk about to each other is so well-written, and it's a joy just to hear these characters talk.  Luckily, The Intern offers plenty of opportunities for the characters to do just that.  This is the reason to watch this movie.  The performances are immensely likable, and the dialogue has just enough intelligence behind it that we know that there is at least some thought going on at the screenplay level.  The movie's not just trying to pump us full of good feelings, we actually become interested in these people, and like seeing them together.  De Niro and Hathaway bring a very sweet screen presence to their characters, and they're a big part as to why I fell under this movie's spell.  They're quiet, intelligent people who don't need to show off in order to be heard.  They're simple and laid back, and that is a big part of the movie's charm.

Not that everything about the movie works.  There is a sequence where De Niro and some of his fellow younger interns have to break into the home of Hathaway's mom for reasons that are too complicated to summarize.  The sequence is very silly, over the top, and honestly seems out of place with the rest of the movie.  I also felt a missed opportunity in a romantic subplot concerning Ben opening up to a masseuse named Fiona (Rene Russo).  Their scenes together hint at a sweet and likable relationship that seems ready to build at any minute, but it never quite does.  It almost feels like a lot of their scenes together were left on the editing room floor.  There's enough up on the screen so that we can sense a connection between the characters, but it still feels like there should be more than there is. 

Even with the occasional misstep, The Intern is the kind of movie you just surrender to and eventually fall in love with.  You may not believe a single second of it, but you won't care.  I certainly didn't.  As the movie played out, I knew I was being manipulated every step of the way, but I was sold on it, and by the end, I was happy.  The movie had done its job on me.

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Friday, September 25, 2015

Hotel Transylvania 2

Thanks to director and veteran animator Genndy Tartakovski (best known for creating Cartoon Network shows like Dexter's Laboratory, Samurai Jack and Sym-Bionic Titan), Hotel Transylvania 2 is a joy to watch.  His artstyle is in the classic animation method of exaggeration, allowing his characters' bodies to bend and snap back at a moment's notice.  And instead of showing a character run from one side of the room to the next, they just zip over in a streaking blur.  This was a method Chuck Jones liked to employ in the old Looney Tunes shorts to keep the pacing of the cartoon faster.  Tartakovski has studied this classic style well, and it's quite fascinating to see this style represented in CG.  When so many studios are going for photo realistic artwork and settings, he is not afraid to embrace the old traditions of animation.

But how is the movie itself?  Much to my surprise, I think I liked this one a little bit more than the original film from 2012.  It's faster, tighter paced, and I laughed more.  The first movie hit a nerve with kids by understanding that children are fascinated by monsters.  It was a cute, but not exactly memorable, animated film that went on to become a surprise hit.  This sequel opens things up a little bit more, by allowing the monsters to interact with the human world.  I liked this idea, and I also liked how the filmmakers expand on the world of the monsters in this sequel.  There's an extended sequence where the characters visit a summer camp for vampire children that's kind of inspired in its satire.  The camp has become so overly safe and sanitized, and the counselors are so driven to not have anyone get hurt, that it takes on an absurdist quality.  Heck, this scene alone could inspire its own movie, as I think there are a lot of comedic possibilities surrounding a summer camp for vampires.

The plot, as expected, is merely a hook for which to hang a lot of visual gags, but it works well enough here.  As we rejoin concerned parent and monster hotel manager, Count Dracula (voice by Adam Sandler), he has given his blessing for his vampire daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) to marry her human lover, Jonathan (Andy Samberg).  Just one year later, the young couple give birth to their first son, Dennis (Asher Binkoff).  Dracula is a proud grandparent, but as young Dennis approaches the age of five, he becomes concerned that the kid's fangs haven't grown in yet.  There is talk that Dennis may actually take after his dad and be a human, rather than a vampire.  Getting desperate, Dracula sends Mavis and Jonathan off to California in order to spend time with Jonathan's parents, who have never been comfortable with the idea of their son marrying a monster.  While they are gone, Dracula heads out with his friends the Frankenstein's Monster (Kevin James), Wayne the Wolfman (Steve Buscemi), Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade) and Murray the Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key, stepping in for CeeLo Green from the first film) in order to help Dennis become a monster.

At its core, Hotel Transylvania 2 is not far removed from many of Sandler's live action films.  It serves mostly as an excuse for him and a lot of his acting friends to be silly and have a good time.  The difference here is in the screenplay, which is credited to Sandler and Robert Smigel.  Unlike a lot of his recent live action output, the gags actually work most of the time, and the chemistry between the actors is genuine, and it doesn't feel like everyone's cashing a paycheck.  Just two months ago, in my review of Sandler's summer misfire, Pixels, I commented on how he looked deflated and lifeless up there on the screen.  But here as the cartoon Dracula, not only does he get laughs, he manages to build a fairly well-rounded performance as well.  This voice over performance may be some of his best work in years, and I mean that in the best way.

The supporting monsters get some good moments, too.  I liked the chemistry between Sandler, James, Buscemi, Spade and Key in the central roles.  They work well off of each other, and each get at least one funny individual moment.  I especially enjoyed the running gag where Spade's Invisible Man character kept on trying to convince his friends that he had an invisible girlfriend with him at certain times.  The movie is really at its best when its just cutting loose and letting these actors play off each other.  When it tries to become plot-oriented during the last 20 minutes or so, the movie slows down, but not enough that it hurts the film.  The movie manages to be fast-paced, often funny, and I'm sure it will be an instant hit with young kids.  Most importantly, accompanying adults will find themselves laughing along with them at certain times.  There's even a refreshingly small amount of bodily fluid humor, which is kind of different for a Sandler production.

Compared to animated films like Inside Out or When Marnie Was There, Hotel Transylvania 2 is still fairly minor, but it's entertaining enough to stand out.  There was no doubt walking in that this movie was going to prove to be a big hit with kids.  But, walking out, I realized I enjoyed it a lot more than I had anticipated.  I wouldn't even mind seeing these characters again, as long as Tartakovski again brings his animation skills along.

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Saturday, September 19, 2015

Black Mass

It's no secret that Johnny Depp physically transforms himself in Black Mass in order to play notorious criminal and murderer, James "Whitey" Bulger.  The trailers and ad campaign is enough to convince you that the actor is barely recognizable and disappears behind realistic make up.  What is surprising is just how intense the performance is.  Depp not only transforms himself, he embodies the character with his dead-eye stare, a featureless face and one of the most chilling cinematic laughs since Heath Ledger embodied the Joker.  He not only delivers his best performance in years, but the first that could be labeled as chilling and haunting.

If you need a perfect example, look at two perfectly executed scenes that occur late in the film, one right after another.  In the first, he is seated around a table with some of his friends after joining them for a meal.  He asks the host of the dinner the secret behind his family recipe, and after some gentle coaxing, James gets the secret recipe out of him.  At that point, James' demeanor changes completely.  He sees how quickly his friend was willing to give up the secret, and now he begins to question if he can trust his friend with his own secrets.  The entire atmosphere in the room changes to one of complete dread.  Everyone is eyeing everyone else nervously, while Depp keeps the same sinister and stone-cold look on his face.  Then, he bursts out laughing.  It is not a laugh of amusement, as it seems to come from a much darker place.  James says he is just joking, but nobody at the table seems relieved.  The same goes for the audience, who is gripped with just as much tension and dread as the characters surrounding Bulgur up there on the screen.

The scene continues, with him heading upstairs and having a quiet but tense conversation with the wife of the man who has invited him to his home.  She is played by Julianne Nicholson, and she obviously does not trust Bulgur, and wants nothing to do with him.  And yet, here he is at her bedroom door, "checking on her", because she has lied and said she is ill.  The quiet confrontation that the two actors share is more tense than just about any action sequence you saw during the summer.  Black Mass is a movie filled with quiet power.  It never draws attention to itself, and never feels bombastic or melodramatic.  The characters in the film are mannered and sometimes ice-cold, until it is time to strike.  Then the movie displays shocking violence.  And it's not just shocking because of the brutality, but because it almost seems out of place in this movie that is normally quiet and calm.  But that was the danger of Bulgur.  You could never tell what he was thinking from his face until it was too late.  And Depp's performance captures this silent menace and hidden deadly force perfectly.

The filmmakers have wisely chosen not to make this a complete bio-film of Bulger, but mostly focus on one of the most important and shocking moments of his long criminal career, in which he was virtually untouchable by the police because he was helping them, all the while getting permission to pretty much do whatever he wanted.  How did this alliance come to be?  Bulgur had known FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) since childhood, as they had grown up in the same neighborhood.  It was Connolly who got Bulgur involved, hoping that his friend could get him some information on the Italian mob.  Bulgur was at war with the mob, and knew that this would be a great way to muscle in on their territory, which he naturally took advantage of.  The head of the FBI (Kevin Bacon) could not touch him, and Bulgur used his connections through law enforcement to keep his record clean.

As Connolly, Edgerton portrays a perfect sense of nervousness.  He is someone who is willing to take advantage of the perks and promotions he gets for helping to shut down the mob, but as Bulgur's stranglehold on him grows stronger, we can tell that he knows he is getting in too deep.  He knows this, but can't do anything about it.  He is the man who invites Bulgur over for dinner in that scene I was describing earlier, and the fear that he feels for this man he is bound to is palpable.  We can see it in his face, and even in his nervous mannerisms.  And when he tries to explain his actions to his much more ethical wife, we don't know if he is trying to convince her or himself.  The other major performance in the film belongs to Benedict Cumberbatch as Jame's brother, William, who holds power in the Senate and helps cover up his brother's action.  And while it's a less showy role than Depp or Edgerton, he still manages to create a sense of conflict while saying very little.

Black Mass is not exactly what I would call a subtle film.  It's very black and white, and there are few layers to the characters.  But, the performances and the dialogue are strong enough to make you son engrossed in what's going on up on the screen, you don't care.  Besides, it's not like the movie doesn't try to make us sympathize with Whitey Bulgur from time to time.  There is a wonderful moment when his young son falls ill and is hospitalized, and the devastation this causes him is evident.  We feel for him for these brief moments, and Depp delivers some of his best acting in years during these moments.  For once, he is playing a human character, albeit a largely terrible one.  After years of playing weirdos and oddballs, here is a role that allows him to not only hide behind a mask as he is prone to do, but also deliver a performance that can be both heartbreaking and terrifying.

This is not just a powerful film with gripping performances, but also a highly entertaining one.  I can only hope it leads to stronger roles for Depp, and some award recognition come next winter.  This is a movie that can be unflinching in its depiction of violence and cruelty, but it is all the better for that, because it allows us into the world these characters inhabit.  And for the roughly two hours the film runs, we are at its complete and total mercy.

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Friday, September 18, 2015

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

I can only speak for myself, but I am becoming increasingly tired of movies depicting brave teenagers in a post-apocalyptic future fighting against all odds.  We have three film franchises based on Young Adult novels that are currently running and getting nearly annual sequels.  These include The Hunger Games (which wraps up in November), Divergent and now The Maze Runner.  All of these films deal with the same subject matter, and they're starting to blur together.

The world of Young Adult books is large and diverse.  Surely there must be some other ideas out there that filmmakers could make into a franchise.  In all of these stories, there is a young hero who is living in a controlled society in the distant future.  Usually, said society is oppressive and lorded over by a unique few.  Said young hero somehow begins to learn the truth that there is either something rotten going on within the society, or that there is some secret beyond the walls of the city that holds all the answers to how things came to be this way.  There is also usually always a small group of rebels who are fighting against the established order, and the hero or heroine gets wrapped up in the movement.  Sometimes said rebellion is just as bad as the dictators who make the rules in the society, and sometimes there is a betrayal within one of the hero's friends.  Either that, or the friend is forced to turn against them.

Do you see what I am getting at?  A lot of these basic plot points could be used to describe any of the three franchises I listed above.  Are there differences between these series?  Of course.  But not enough to make any of them stand out among each other in my eyes.  The Scorch Trials, the second installment of the Maze Runner story, is the same song and dance.  Maybe the lyrics are a little different, but they're not worth listening to.  While the first movie wasn't anything great, I sort of got into it.  I was intrigued by where the story was possibly going, and looking forward to the answers to the questions the film ended on.  I guess I'll have to wait even longer, as not much is answered in this entry.  The movie takes on a very episodic nature with its storytelling, having its small band of young heroes making their way from one set piece to another.  They battle zombies, explore ancient ruins, run around some dark tunnels, and in the end, all we get is a 20 minute build up for things that will happen in the next movie.

The argument for these movies is usually that they're designed for fans of the books.  However, in this case, returning screenwriter T.S. Nowlin has changed things so much from the source material that some fans on the film's message board over on the IMDB are upset.  I decided to read a synopsis of the book this film is based on, and I was surprised by how much things either got changed or were left out all together.  Instead of advancing the plot or the characters, this movie relies on non-stop action to grab our attention.  But, thanks to the fact that a lot of the major sequences take place at night or in dark rooms, it can be hard to tell exactly what is going on, or what is happening to whom.  The returning characters are not given much screen time, and the new ones who are introduced here don't grab our attention.  Instead of advancing its world or its inhabitants, all this movie does is lift images straight out of other movies, such as Mad Max or The Walking Dead.

I realize I haven't even touched on the film's plot yet.  That's because it won't make the slightest bit of difference to anyone who hasn't read the books or seen the earlier movie.  But, here's the quick version - Young hero Thomas (a very bland Dylan O'Brien) and his group of friends find themselves still under the control of the evil organization that was dominating them in the last film, even after they think they're safe.  They escape into a desert wasteland outside the walls of the militarized base that they're being held in, and have a lot of run ins with zombies and some unsavory characters as they try to track down a rebel movement that is supposedly located somewhere in the mountains.  That's all that really happens, save for the third act, where we get a lot of hasty set up and plot revelations for the third and final film due out in 2017.

My question is will anyone care in two years?  The fans are already voicing their disapproval over the changes made to the story, and I doubt anyone else will be dying to see what happens next.  There's just not enough here to grab out interest.  The villains who oppress the young heroes look and act exactly like the villains in other stories that are similar to it, and the young stars are not given enough of a chance to carry the film.  In this entry, most of the dialogue spoken by the heroes are simple phrases like "Look out!" or "Behind you!".  There's a hint at a romantic relationship for leading man Thomas, but no chemistry or romantic tension is generated by the actors.  Even the third act revelation that one of Thomas' friends has been cooperating with the evil organization seems to be dealt with a shrug rather than the shocking revelation it's intended to be.

With post apocalyptic Sci-Fi teen stories dominating the film landscape of Young Adult fiction, The Scorch Trials would have to really do something different in order to stand out, and it never does.  I'm hoping that once these franchises play out, Hollywood will move onto other stories to try to grab the youth audience.  It would be nice to see an adventure movie about teenagers that doesn't take place in  an oppressive and devastated world is all I'm saying.

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Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Perfect Guy

If I may be upfront, The Perfect Guy is slickly made, and features performances that are much better than it probably deserves.  If only the script by Tyger Williams (whose last credited screenplay was 1993's Menace II Society) was able to up its game.  This is a movie where all the characters know they're in a domestic thriller, and act according to the rules of the genre.  Nobody's rocking the boat here, and so while the movie is better made than we expect, it simply doesn't excite.

If you want an example of a domestic thriller that not only knows how to play by the rules but also shakes them up, may I suggest The Gift, a little movie that came out a month ago, and is much better than this in just about every category you can think of.  Both of the movies are revenge thrillers where a person is let into someone else's life, and becomes overcome with obsession.  But The Gift has some brilliant twists that not only throw us off, but changes the rules of the game halfway through the film, and even changes how we view certain characters.  This movie follows the cliches of the genre right to the letter, so you could feasibly walk out of the theater for a half hour at any point in the film, walk back in, and amaze other audience members by being able to guess just about everything that happened in the film while you were out.  The Perfect Guy slavishly follows our expectations, which just doesn't cut it when another recent movie did such a great job surpassing them.  The actors and the direction by David M. Rosenthal deserve to be in a better movie.

The plot involves Leah (played by a very likable Sanaa Lathan), a successful career woman who has been dating the handsome Dave (Morris Chestnut) for the past two years.  They have an argument early in the film - She's 36-years-old, and is ready for marriage and kids before she's too old to truly enjoy it.  He knows he loves her, but doesn't want to make that kind of commitment yet, because there's a lot of divorce and heartbreak in his family.  They break up, and two months later, Leah has a run-in with the charming and polite Carter (Michael Ealy) at a bar.  They instantly hit it off, and as they spend more time together, Leah is clearly falling head over heels for the guy.  She introduces him to her best friends and even her parents, whom he is able to charm with equal ease.  This is the best part of the movie, as Lathan and Ealy have an easy screen chemistry together, and the movie even manages to have a sense of humor about itself during these scenes.  But, we know walking in that this is a thriller, and this can't last.

Indeed, immediately after the weekend at Leah's parents, they make a stop at a gas station, and when a random stranger walks up to Leah to ask her an innocent question (he's interested in her car, and wants to know more about it), Carter suddenly flips out and nearly beats the guy to a bloody pulp just for talking to her.  Carter the charming and sensitive young man makes an instant switch to Carter the psychotic and abusive melodramatic bully.  Leah talks about the change in his behavior to one of her friends, and says it was "like a switch that went off".  I say Carter knows that he's the heavy in a domestic thriller, and acts according to the rules of his character type.  At least Leah is smart enough to break things off with the creep, instead of giving him numerous chances like some heroines in these movies do.  But, the guy just won't take the hint.  He stalks her, he leaves ominous notes on her car door ("If I can't have you, no one will..."), he breaks into her house and installs hidden cameras so that he can watch her from his hi-tech computer set up at home, and the dirty cad even goes so far as to steal her cat.

Leah gets a restraining order, but it doesn't seem to do much good.  She turns to a police detective (Holt McCallany), who is sympathetic, but can do little without evidence.  Around this time, Leah and Dave start patching things up and want to try again with their relationship.  This does not bode well for Dave when Carter finds out about their relationship.  After all, we see what Carter does to the sweet old lady who lives across the street from Leah when she starts snooping around.  From there, the movie follows in lockstep with the dozens of others just like it.  Yes, the actors are enjoyable and give their characters more personality than they probably had in the script.  And yes, the movie is handsomely shot.  But what does any of that matter when the material is so generic?  It doesn't even allow Carter to have a slow descent into obsessive madness.  He just suddenly turns into a creepy and murderous stalker at the drop of a hat.  Are there guys who obsess over women this way in real life?  Of course.  But I highly doubt they spend every second of every day lurking in the shadows, and suddenly popping up behind their victims like the villain in a mad slasher movie.

The Perfect Guy is easy enough to watch, but while I was watching it, I couldn't help but wonder what it could have been if it dared to break away from what we anticipated.  The potential is there, but it never takes it.  Instead we get scenes and dialogue that seem lifted from other films, right down to the climax, which feels like a cheap and quick solution to the problem the main character is facing.  Even the film's final shot is a predictable cliche, and the movie should have cut to the end credits before it popped up.  At least that would have been something different.

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The Visit

This is what happens when a filmmaker truly lets go of the reigns, and just has fun when making a movie.  The Visit is one of the more joyful mainstream thrillers I have seen in quite a while.  It's exciting, creepy and weird, and you can picture in your mind the grin that writer-director M. Night Shyamalan had on his face while he was dreaming this stuff up.  It's also often hilarious, as at its heart, the film is a comedy.

This must have been a very liberating film for Shyamalan, whose last few films have been plodding, overly serious and gotten bad laughs from the audience.  This time he has let go of all pretensions and just wants his audience to have a great time.  And we do, because not only is the filmmaker in on the joke, so is the cast.  This is the kind of movie that demands to be seen with the right audience who is there for a good time, and laugh and clap at the appropriate moments.  It's exuberant in a way few thrillers these days are.  Even when it's creating suspense, there is a sense of devilish glee behind it.  And even though the movie is a "found footage" thriller, it's been filmed in such a way as to avoid motion sickness, and doesn't turn into a blurry mess whenever something scary happens.  It's actually one of the better shot and better looking examples of the genre I have seen.

The premise is simplicity itself - A single mother raising two kids (Kathryn Hahn) is going through a bad divorce with her ex-husband who cheated on her, and is now starting to regret how she ended her relationship with her parents.  When she was 19, she ran off with the guy she eventually married, which created a rift with her parents, whom she has not seen since then.  But now, her parents have reached out to her on Facebook, and want to see their grandchildren, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould).  And so, mom puts the kids on a train, and sends them to the isolated old farmhouse where she grew up as a kid.  Young Becca is an aspiring filmmaker, and she decides to make a documentary about their first visit to their grandparents.  She hopes to interview them and get their honest thoughts about their mother, so that she can help bridge the gap that has grown over the years between them.

The kids meet their grandparents, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), and at first everything seems like something out of a fairy tale.  Nana is a sweet natured old woman who basically lives in the kitchen, baking treats seemingly 24-7.  Pop Pop does most of the work on the farm, and tells the kids that he hasn't seen old Nana so happy in years ever since they came for their week-long visit.  But then, little by little, Nana and Pop Pop start acting very strange.  Becca initially chalks their behavior up to old age, but Tyler thinks there is something off about this seemingly sweet old couple.  Why does Pop Pop act so secretive when he goes to the shed outside?  Why won't they allow the kids to go in the basement?  And what is that strange scratching sound the kids hear outside their door every night?  The kids start leaving video equipment in certain rooms, hoping to capture what's going on.  What they discover is so gleefully disturbing, it will have audiences laughing and screaming at the same time.

The Visit gets a lot of mileage out of its cast, who nails the proper tone.  The kids are hilarious most of the time, but also smart and resilient.  Ed Oxenbould as younger brother Tyler gets some of the biggest laughs in the film, especially concerning a hilarious running gag where he tries to stop swearing so much by replacing obscenities with the names of female pop singers. (When he trips and falls, he screams out "Sarah McLachlan!".) And as the bizarre Nana and Pop Pop, Dunagan and McRobbie strike the perfect balance of innocence and malice.  There is a memorable sequence concerning Nana under the floorboards of the house which manages to be terrifying, but ends on a playful note, and even a big laugh.  In his past few films, Shyamalan has usually gotten wooden or uninspired performances from his actors, but here, the cast strikes a natural tone.  For all the weirdness that happens in the film, his characters and the performances are grounded in some kind of reality.

I also admired the way that Shyamalan leaves some subtle hints that may or may not lead to the answer behind the strange behavior of Nana and Pop Pop.  It sparks the mind, and creates a lot of possible answers for the audience to toy themselves with.  There is talk of aliens and other strange creatures, including werewolves.  The fact that there are a lot of shots of the full moon in the night sky in this film leads some credibility to that theory.  Naturally, I'm not going to say what the real answer is, but it is a pretty good one that had some audience members gasping when it was revealed.  This is one time where the director's love of twist endings works in his favor.  It makes sense, and does not leave the audience feeling cheated.

Does The Visit mark a turnaround for the troubled filmmaker, whose career seems to have been in free fall for the past 10 years?  It's too soon to say, but I am optimistic.  This is the most energetic and entertaining film I have seen from him.  This is not a complex movie, but it's been joyfully made and is just a lot of fun to watch. 

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Saturday, September 05, 2015

The Transporter Refueled

As an action thriller, The Transporter Refueled is strictly middle of the road (no pun intended).  It's uninspired, curiously flat, and has not one single action sequence that is able to raise the adrenaline of its audience.  No, not even the scene where the hero drives his car through the interior of an airport.  If I must be honest, it is a better movie than the recent Hitman: Agent 47.  Faint praise, indeed.

For those of you who are not familiar with The Transporter films (this is the fourth entry), here's a brief rundown.  The Transporter is Frank Martin, an ex-Special Forces soldier who now makes his living generally as a getaway driver for hire.  Naturally, this job gets him into a lot of car chases, martial arts fights, and thrilling stunts.  The plots in the films are more or less interchangeable, but the formula more or less remains the same.  In the earlier films, Jason Statham played Frank.  But, he's been busy playing the villain in Furious 7, as well as giving one of the best comedic performances of the year in the hilarious Melissa McCarthy comedy Spy.  So, he couldn't make it for this sequel.  Instead, we get Ed Skrein as Frank Martin this time around.  Skrein is obviously trying his hardest to emulate Statham's icy steel stare, and low gravelly voice.  But, he's just not that interesting to watch, and doesn't have the same level of intimidation that Statham can give with a single look.  He's making the effort, but we just don't buy it.

As the film opens, Frank is reunited with his recently-retired father (Ray Stevenson), and is looking forward to some quality time, until he is called in for another job.  A sexy and mysterious woman named Anna (Loan Chabanol) wants Frank to meet her outside of a bank later that day to pick up some "packages", and deliver them for her.  The packages turn our to be her equally sexy and mysterious cohorts, who have just helped Anna pull off a bank heist in order to rob a local crime boss (Radivoje Bukvic).  It turns out the women are high-end call girls who work for the Russian mobster, and they are planning to bring down his empire in order to get back at him for stealing their youths and lives.  They want Frank to drive them about town to his various operations, and steal money from him in a variety of wild and impractical scenarios.  In order to make sure he cooperates, they take his father hostage.  But don't worry about the guy too much.  If anything, Frank's dad seems to be enjoying being held captive by prostitutes, and even strikes up a relationship with one of them.

The Transporter Refueled is as silly and nonsensical as the earlier movies, so that's not really the problem.  What is a problem is how low energy the movie is.  Action thrillers are supposed to have us either on the edge of our seats, or make us pump our fists into the air whenever some great stunt or action sequence plays out.  This movie is completely tepid, and fails to raise a reaction from its audience.  Take the recent movie No Escape, which has been panned by most critics, but I kind of admired.  That was a movie full of tension, and it kept me involved almost from beginning to end.  Not only were the main characters likable, but when they found themselves in a dangerous situation, the movie knew how to build excitement by putting the characters in one increasingly tense or thrilling scene after another.  The movie was implausible, but it worked for me because I was invested in what was happening.

Here, all we get are some slick, overly edited fight and chase scenes that look like they were staged and overly choreographed.  Nothing flows, nothing is natural, and everything feels like it's been rehearsed way too many times.  This creates no excitement in the audience, because the actors look like they've been programmed to do these stunts.  The fight scenes also lack tension because this is another one of those movies where the bad guys are polite enough to usually attack Frank one at a time, instead of taking him on all at once and possibly overpowering him.  When you see the villains standing around, waiting for Frank to take out the current thug he's fighting, it looks like they're waiting for the cue.  The movie even has one of those nonsensical sequences, where the villain climbs up a rock formation for absolutely no reason, other than the filmmakers thought it would be a good locale for a fight scene, and so that he can fall off of it when it's done.  There is absolutely no reason why he would climb up there, other than the script tells him to.

This is not an unwatchable movie by any means, but it just doesn't try harder than it has to.  It's the kind of sterile, over-produced action film that we get probably a dozen times a year, and nobody remembers after its opening weekend.  Should the franchise continue, not only do I suggest getting Statham back in the driver's seat, but also amping the thrills up to a level where the audience has a great time, instead of watching things unfold passively.

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