Reel Opinions

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Victor Frankenstein

In some ways, Victor Frankenstein is a much better movie than I expected.  It looks absolutely gorgeous, there are some fun performances, and even some ideas that could have easily led to a strong movie.  But the confused screenplay by Max Landis (American Ultra) can't make up it's mind on what it wants to be.  It tries to reinvent the classic Mary Shelley story in so many different ways that it just can't seem to settle on a consistent tone.

The film's main revision is that it is told from the point of view of Igor, Frankenstein's assistant.  Yes, this is another one of those revisionist movies that tries to tell the story from a different character's point of view, such as last year's Maleficent.  While the idea does somewhat reek of studio desperation, the script does actually have a somewhat clever angle on this.  Igor (played here by Daniel Radcliffe, who is quite good, if not a bit subdued and proper for the kind of movie he's in) starts the movie off as an abused circus freak.  He is a hunchback frequently locked in a cage and disrespected by the entire circus company.  When he gets few precious moments by himself, he likes to study medical journals and the science of the human body.  He gets to use this knowledge when the lovely young performer Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay) suffers a possibly fatal fall during her trapeze act.  Thinking quickly, Igor is able to save her life.  This catches the eye of one of the spectators, a scientist by the name of Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy, hamming it up to the point that we can sometimes see the spittle flying from his mouth) who happened to be visiting the circus looking for dead animal parts that he could use in a future experiment.

Seeing Igor's medical knowledge first hand convinces Victor that the abused and disfigured young man has greater potential than anyone could possibly realize, and sets about helping him escape from the circus.  This leads to the first of many overblown action sequences that not only feel out of place, but are shot so haphazardly by director Paul McGuigan that we sometimes can't discern what is supposed to be happening.  After this, the movie slows down once again, and follows the growing friendship between Victor and Igor.  They start things off by having Victor help Igor with that "hump" problem, providing him a back brace that will allow him to walk upright (after some painful injections to help remove the fluids from his back).  From there, Victor leans to trust Igor with his experiments, and shows him how he is attempting to create life from dead tissue.  Their first attempt is with a patched together chimpanzee, but when that goes wrong (in yet another overblown action sequence), they begin to question whether they could create a genuine, thinking man.

Victor Frankenstein wants to be a lot of things, but can never settle on one specific direction. It mostly wants to be a buddy movie that explores the relationship between Victor and Igor, and how their medical genius brings them together.  The relationship between them is actually not all that different than the one between Robert Downey, Jr and Jude Law shared in Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes films, with McAvoy's Frankenstein being a sharp-tongued, sarcastic and egotistical genius, and Igor being the more quiet and cautious of the two, who is easily exasperated at times by his friend's behavior.  Despite playing at two very different extremes (McAvoy being very over the top, and Radcliffe taking his part seriously), they do work well together, and there are some nice moments between them that hint at the kind of movie this was trying to be.  The problem is that every time the film feels like it's settling into a comfortable groove, it flies off the rails.

This is a movie that at times tries to be an intentionally campy comedy (there are references to Young Frankenstein and Comic-Con), an over the top action thriller, a love story (there's a subplot with Igor and the circus performer Lorelei growing closer that never really goes anywhere), and a story of friendship and acceptance.  All of these elements are clumsily inserted into the basic Frankenstein narrative, and don't fit with the overall story.  There are also two villains added, one being a police inspector (Andrew Scott) who thinks that Frankenstein's experiments are going against the laws of nature, and the other being an aristocratic fop (Bronson Webb) who agrees to fund our heroes' experiments, but may have treacherous motives of his own.  Neither of these characters are fleshed out enough to be interesting, which is kind of the film's central problem.  Whenever it turns its attention away from Frankenstein and Igor, the movie doesn't seem to know what to do with itself.  Characters either seem thinly written, or feel like they had larger parts, but had most of their scenes edited out in the final cut of the film.

And what of the Monster?  Well, it doesn't appear until the very end of the film, and is treated in such a way that it is essentially just a walking special effect, rather than an essential element to the story.  The Monster merely serves as the set up to the film's final over the top action scene that manages to go on too long while simultaneously underwhelming us with how uninspired it ends up being.  This is a movie constantly selling itself short.  Just when you think it knows what it's doing and is going to work, it drops the ball by throwing in a cliched action or chase scene that feels like it doesn't belong.  I obviously have not read the script to the film, so i don't know if this is how it was written, or if Studio Executives demanded more action in the script, and it was rewritten to shoehorn them in.

All that I can say is that while Victor Frankenstein doesn't quite work, it does have some very good moments within it, and you can easily see what the movie could have been with the right approach.  Even if the script itself is a bit of a mess, there are some absolutely lovely images and set designs to see here, especially if you like Victorian settings.  As the film started to play out, I was rooting for this movie to surprise me, and certain that I would end up enjoying it, despite the negative word of mouth.  It couldn't quite sustain that enthusiasm within me, but I don't completely regret watching it.

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Saturday, November 28, 2015


It's sad to think that there will be a time very soon when Spotlight will be considered a capsule of a specific time period.  I'm not talking about the era the film is set in (2001/2002), I'm talking about the period of investigative journalism.  Social media has more or less taken over, and just about anyone can break a story with their camera phone.  True investigative journalism is on the brink of becoming extinct, and this movie is an intimate and powerful love letter to that way of writing.

What surprised me the most about the film is that this is not so much about the investigation into the sexual abuse scandal surrounding the Massachusetts Roman Catholic Church, as it is about the process of that investigation, and the process of journalism in general.  The real threat here that the characters face are deadlines and roadblocks that stand in the way of these characters uncovering more of the truth.  What I appreciated is the small, realistic touches that the movie puts throughout.  The main characters in the film seem like regular people doing their jobs.  They are not glorified, or seen as being bigger than they are.  They work long hours, they sift through piles of information, sometimes their pens don't work when they want to write something down...These are the kind of things I love in a movie.  I love seeing what really goes on in a job being depicted in the story.  Yes, the story itself is captivating enough, but the little touches of realism were just as engaging to me.

The plot covers the efforts of the investigative "Spotlight" team at the Boston Globe to uncover allegations of cover ups of sexual abuse surrounding the Catholic Church.  The team includes editor Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), as well as reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James).  As they begin their investigation and start questioning people either tied to past investigation attempts (which went nowhere) or former victims who claim they had sexual experiences with priests as young boys, they start to notice a massive cover up.  The priests responsible were usually shuffled to another city to continue their work if they were caught, and those that were caught were usually described as leaving their position because of "sick leave" or some other vague reason.  The initial number of possible cases starts around 4 to 13, but as the investigation deepens, that number rises to a shocking 90.  The cover up of the church's actions goes much deeper than anyone initially realized, and when the story finally broke in the Boston Globe in 2002, it began a worldwide investigation.

This is a story that easily could have led to a lot of melodrama and courtroom scenes in the Hollywood telling, but co-writer and director Tom McCarthy plays things much simpler and honest.  The movie hardly ever leaves the newspaper building, except for when one of the reporters has to interview a former victim or a lawyer.  While the abuse scandal is constantly the subject of conversation, it is not the focus of the film itself.  This movie deals more with the frustrations these reporters faced during the investigation.  At one point, there is a brief blow up between Walter and Mike about whether they should go forward with the story with the information that they currently have.  Mike wants to go full speed ahead, while Walter warns that the church could easily cover it up, and that they need to do more investigating.  The interest and drama that Spotlight creates is about the process of getting the story, and the interviews.

You would think that the limited scope of the film would make it feel small, but it only makes the movie feel focused.  Rather than attempt to cover the entire scandal story and how wide it spreads, it focuses simply on the early beginnings, and that is really the best approach here.  There are a number of small, powerful moments throughout the film, such as when Sacha briefly interviews a former accused priest, and he almost seems to be justifying his actions.  What I also loved about the approach the film takes is that there is no one lead character.  Even with big acting names like Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo in the cast, nobody really ever gets to take more of the attention from anyone else.  This is an ensemble picture through and through, and each member of the investigative team gets a number of individual moments.  It's a fantastic cast, though, and definitely one of the best acted films of the year.

Not only that, it's possibly the very best of the year.  Spotlight is a pitch-perfect drama in just about every way you can think of.  This movie is one of those small cinematic miracles where everything truly comes together to create a satisfying film.  It's always a wonder to see it happen, and you find yourself wondering why it doesn't happen more often when it's over.  Whatever the case, this is a movie that demands attention and deserves to be seen.

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Thursday, November 26, 2015


It's funny how few people actually remember the original Rocky film.  It's hardly surprising, as its legacy has been tarnished by the over the top sequels that followed.  The original 1976 movie was a somber and poignant film about a lowlife hood from Philadelphia who had a crush on the girl who worked at the local pet store.  This relationship, not the boxing, is what made up a majority of the film.  That movie was human, quietly funny, and uplifting enough to become a feel good hit that went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars that year.

It wouldn't be until 2006's Rocky Balboa that we got a return to this approach to the character.  Sylvester Stallone showed us Rocky as an aging titan who had lost just about everyone close to him to the passing of time.  He was a broken man, but he wasn't defeated, and he still had some fight left in him.  This new movie, Creed, places Rocky in a supporting role for the first time, but handles it beautifully.  Rocky is even further faded from the last time we saw him almost 10 years ago.  He's now virtually alone, and spends half his time running the Italian restaurant named after his late wife, and the other half of his time at the cemetery, reading the newspaper to the tombstones of Adrian and her brother, Paulie.  Stallone is pitch perfect, and is quite possibly giving the performance of his career.  We can see what time has done to him, but we can also still see the spark of life, humor and heart that made audiences fall in love with him 40 years ago.  This is the most human Rocky has seemed since the series began, and I don't know if I should credit Stallone, or the new director behind the film.

Creed is actually a lot of firsts for the Rocky franchise, as not only is it the first time that Rocky himself is not the main character, but it's also the first movie that was not written or directed by Stallone.  He actually had no involvement with the story or script.  Instead, 29-year-old filmmaker, Ryan Coogler (Fruitville Station), co-writes and directs this film, and manages to get to the heart of the character and the world he lives in better than perhaps Stallone could have.  You have to admire Stallone for allowing new people to handle his iconic character, but at least he's managed to find filmmakers who not only respect his creation, but have given us a truly powerful and emotional film that stands on its own.  Even removed from the rest of the series, this is a film that can win over both the converted and the newcomers alike.  My main problem with Rocky Balboa was that while it was an admirable film, it seemed to play mostly to those who had grown up on the character.  This movie strikes a perfect balance between honoring traditions, and creating new aspects that fit perfectly into the world of the series.

Instead of Balboa, the central focus of this film is newcomer Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan, who previously worked with Coogler on Fruitville Station), whom we learn early on is the illegitimate son of Rocky's rival-turned-friend, Apollo Creed.  Apollo famously died in the ring in Rocky IV before his son was even born, and Adonis has spent most of his young life not knowing who his real family was.  In a prologue set in 1998, Apollo's widow (Phylicia Rashad) meets the boy for the first time in a juvenile prison, and offers to take him under her wing and raise him.  Adonis grows to be a young man with a good job, but he longs to be a professional fighter, and often sneaks off to Mexico to participate in illegal bouts.  Wanting to pursue his dream full time, and knowing his adoptive mother will never accept it, Adonis leaves everything behind, and heads to Philadelphia to track down Rocky Balboa in the hopes that he will train him.

Rocky naturally turns the kid down at first, but he is soon talked into giving Adonis some pointers on how to fight, and not long after that, is training him.  From that point on, Creed takes a fairly predictable approach to its plot, but that's not really the focus of the film.  What draws us in are the performances by Jordan and Stallone, who seem like a natural fit for each other.  If Stallone is playing the aging champ whose glory days are long behind him, then Jordan is the brash young upstart with the haunted past who has to learn to accept who he is.  The title of the film doesn't so much reflect the main character, as it represents his struggle in the film.  He doesn't want anyone to know that his last name is Creed, partially because he wants to make a name for himself in the boxing world without riding on his father's reputation, and partially because he doesn't want to come to terms with his own past, and refuses to accept it.  How these characters bond both in and outside of the ring is what gives the movie its emotional weight.  And when Rocky must face a personal struggle of his own, it is Adonis who must step in and keep him strong.

While the training and fight scenes in the film are beautifully shot and cleanly photographed, they are not what stands out the most about it.  What stood out to me is how surprisingly poignant, gripping and even occasionally tear-jerking the film can be.  It's powerful, emotional at all the right times, and funny when it needs to be.  It's also a little unexpected in some ways.  We know that Adonis will fall for the young girl who lives in the apartment downstairs from him (the lovely Tessa Thompson), but their relationship isn't the cookie cutter one that we expect.  She's a musician who suffers from a disease that is slowly taking away her hearing.  It's a problem that will get worse over time, and should this film spawn a sequel, I can imagine some very touching and sad scenes depicting her going completely deaf.  Besides this inevitable tragedy that the couple will have to face at some point, there is a lot of tenderness in their scenes together, Their relationship, combined with the love Rocky still feels for the wife that was taken away from him by cancer, creates a wonderful contrast of life beginning, and life slowly ending that the film handles in a mature and sensible way.

In a year that has seen its share of sequels (pretty much all of them disappointing), Creed easily leaps to the head of the pack as the best sequel to hit screens this year.  While I don't exactly want the talented filmmaker Ryan Coogler to focus entirely on this franchise, I do hope that he gets to continue this story, and treats it with the same respect and nuance that he does here.

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The Good Dinosaur

The Good Dinosaur is a perfectly acceptable animated film that has the misfortune of coming out less than six months after the masterful and emotional Inside Out.  That's not to say it doesn't stand out in any way.  This is probably the most beautiful movie Pixar has ever done, with a large array of photo-realistic backgrounds and settings.  It also has its share of heart-tugging moments.  But, if I must be honest, the movie just didn't captivate me.  I actually don't think it was supposed to.  This movie seems to have been made with the youngest animation fans in mind, not adults.  I still was able to enjoy the movie, but it never engaged me fully like the better films to come out of the studio.

In the world of this movie, the event that was supposed to wipe out the dinosaurs never happened.  Instead, the creatures have evolved somewhat and created a civilized society where there are farmers, ranchers, and even outlaws.  Try to picture dinosaurs acting out a John Ford Western, and you wouldn't be too far off.  I understand that the idea sounds silly on paper, but it kind of works in this movie, and I'll take it over yet another Jurassic World, where dinosaurs do nothing but act like threats in a video game.  In the film's early moments, we witness life on a farm for a family of Apatosauruses.  We see how they grow and store crops, plow the fields, and feed some of the livestock they keep on the farm.  These scenes hold the most imagination within the film, and honestly, I would have liked to see more.  On this family farm, we meet Poppa (voice by Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand), as well as their three children.  The smallest of the three children, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), serves as the hero of the story.  He will set out on a quest to battle his own fears, and learn to be the dinosaur that his proud Poppa knows he can be.

The story (credited to five different writers) is strictly by the book as far as Disney goes, with little Arlo facing a personal tragedy, and then being separated from the rest of the family when he is washed away by raging waters.  The timid little dinosaur must face the world alone for the first time if he wants to find his way home.  He's joined on his journey by a little cave boy that he names Spot.  The boy essentially acts like a dog throughout the film, panting happily when he wants to play, and snarling when predators are near.  It's a cute role reversal on the "boy and his dog" idea, having the dinosaur being the intelligent master of the two.  Arlo and Spot encounter a few threats along the way, such as a pack of pterodactyls and some violent storms.  But since this movie is mainly targeted at kids, it doesn't get too scary.  Most of the time the heroes are together is spent playing or bonding with each other.

I can imagine very young children (I'd say under 10) getting the most out of The Good Dinosaur.  Accompanying adults will have the gorgeous visuals to keep them entertained.  While the character designs are cute but certainly nothing new, the backdrops are some of the most stunningly realized ever seen in an animated film.  With its American West-inspired settings, we get to see lovely mountains against a vast sky, realistic water effects (both in rain, and rapid rivers and streams), and painstakingly realized grass and foliage that must have taken days to render and animate.  If it weren't for these visuals, I may have grown restless a few times, as the dialogue isn't as snappy as say Finding Nemo.  Arlo has the mind of a young child, and Spot doesn't talk at all, so there's not much in the way of conversation between the two.  The most interesting character to show up in the movie is a rugged and tough cowboy T-Rex voiced perfectly by Sam Elliott.  When he sits by the campfire and tells stories of his past battles and experiences, you almost wish the movie was about him.

If this review seems to be slanting a bit negative, it's not my intention.  This is a perfectly fine film, wonderful for kids, and pleasant for adults.  There is no complexity to it, and there's nothing wrong with that.  You just can't help but feel that this is not quite what it could have been when you look up the behind the scenes stories of the movie.  This was a very troubled production, with the original director being replaced, a large majority of the cast removed, and the script almost entirely rewritten multiple times.  Apparently, this was the movie that gave the studio the hardest time to put together.  I would say the final product that's up on the screen is admirable enough, but you can definitely see the signs of a a movie that's not quite the original vision of the filmmakers.  The opening moments in particular feel rushed, introducing characters whom we never see again for a majority of the film.  This is the kind of movie that leaves you wondering what got left out.

Still, The Good Dinosaur is a wonderful technical achievement, and is worth seeing on the big screen simply on that level if you are an adult animation fan.  You can chalk this up as a fine, but flawed effort from Pixar.  They will do a great movie again, very soon I am guessing.  As long as you don't walk into this one expecting the complexity and maturity of Inside Out, you'll have a fun time.  If you have kids, I'm sure seeing their reaction to this will be the best part of the movie.

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Monday, November 23, 2015

Secret in Their Eyes

Here is a messy but energetic remake of a 2009 Oscar-winning thriller from Argentina.  Secret in Their Eyes is an imperfect film, but the performances and some genuinely tense moments lift it up and make it worth watching.  Of course, the simple logic is that you seek out the original film.  While it is easily superior, this movie feels a little quicker and condensed than the original, and it doesn't really do anything to insult the memory of that film.

The performance that will obviously get the most attention is from Julia Roberts, who has gone through a complete transformation.  Every bit of Hollywood glamour has been stripped from her face to make her look like a woman whose life has fallen apart.  She plays Jess, an LA cop on a counter terrorism team back in 2002, who is looking for evidence of possible attacks in California less than a year after September 11th.  She becomes violently and emotionally shattered when the body of her teenage daughter is discovered raped and murdered in a dumpster near a Mosque. (This is not a spoiler, as it is revealed in the ad campaign of the film.) From there, the action jumps back and forth between 2002, during the initial investigation of the murder, and 2015, when new information that could possibly reopen the case surfaces.

This is the film's biggest flaw, as the fragmented storytelling that jumps back and forth between two different time periods can be hard to follow.  At times, it can be hard to tell if the current scene is supposed to be set in 2002 or 2015.  There are subtle clues in the aging or physical characteristics of the characters (one character walks with a cane in 2015 after an accident, while he walks normally in 2002), but this still could have been handled a lot better.  Even though Jess' shattered emotions over the death of her daughter drives the plot, the main focus of the film is actually her partner from back in the day, Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor from 12 Years a Slave).  He has made it his life's mission to track down the killer, even after he left California at one point to take a job in New York.  Now he's back, with what he thinks is new information on the cold case.  Ray is reunited with Jess, as well as Claire (Nicole Kidman), an attorney whom he shared feelings for at one point, even though she was engaged to be married back then, and is happily married now in 2015.

Both Ejiofor and Kidman are fine in their somewhat limited roles, and do the best that they can with them.  But it is Roberts that clearly carries the film, and gives it all of its emotional weight.  Her performance as a haunted mother is easily the best work she's done in a long time, and it's impressive that she was willing to make herself look so plain, hidden behind pale skin, muddy eyes and a featureless face.  Writer-director Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) unravels information slowly, but at a pace that is still engaging.  The story deals with corruption within the department and the highest levels of government, and even if you have seen the original and know the basic story, there are still some very effectively acted scenes that manage to build suspense.  This is the film's strongest suit, and while the movie fails some uninspired action sequences near the end, the actual investigation into the murder is enough to hold our attention.

What is missing from the original that made it so highly regarded is that this seems like less of a human story.  The romantic subplot between Ray and Claire seems very underpowered.  We can sense some form of chemistry, but it's simply not there as much as it should be.  The original also did a better job of dealing with the topic of grief and depression.  While Roberts gets some incredibly moving moments, and we completely sympathize with her character, it still doesn't resonate as strongly as in the original.  The movie is so focused on the process of the investigation that some of the dramatic power from the 2009 film gets lost.  It's still there, it's just not as front and center.  At times, the movie comes across as an extended Law and Order episode.  Still entertaining, it just simply can't top the impact.  Still, the film's conclusion has been kept the same, and it's just as much of an emotional gut punch as it was before.

Secret in Their Eyes has been made well enough that I am recommending it.  Hopefully it will create more of an interest in the original, but at the same time, there is Roberts' powerful performance to also admire.  The question that faces any remake is why did this need to be made in the first place?  Here, I think her performance at least deserves to be seen.

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Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Night Before

The Night Before is a textbook definition of a scattershot movie.  It looks like it was largely made up on the spot, and basically looks like an excuse for a bunch of friends to get together and have fun while making a movie.  This is nothing new for star Seth Rogen, who has used this approach to great success in the past, most notably This is the End.  But this stoner holiday comedy doesn't feel quite as fresh as that accomplishment, even if it does have its moments.

Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) are best friends who traditionally get together every Christmas Eve, goof around in and around New York City, and generally attempt to get invited to a top secret dance party that's held every Christmas.  They've been getting together every year since 2001, when Ethan's parents died right before the holidays, and his friends came to be by his side to cheer him up.  But now that the guys are in their 30s, things are starting to change.  Isaac has a wife (Jillian Bell, funny in a small role) and a baby on the way, and Chris is now a professional athlete with celebrity endorsements coming left and right.  As for Ethan, he's still hurting after his latest relationship with the lovely Diane (Lizzy Caplan) came to an abrupt end.  Ethan knows that this is probably going to be his last Christmas with his friends, as they are starting to drift apart, and so he wants to make this one night count.

The guys do manage to snag tickets to the legendary Christmas party this year, but they are sidetracked by a series of misadventures.  Isaac decides to get high, and spends a majority of the night freaked out and talking to inanimate objects.  Chris tries to buy some weed for a celebrity friend from a philosophical drug dealer (Michael Shannon), and ends up having it stolen by a real live Grinch.  Meanwhile, Ethan is hoping he can patch things up with Diane.  There are a lot of celebrity cameos, most of which I will leave you to discover.  There's no real order to any of this.  It's occasionally clever, but usually very hit or miss.  The entire cast is game, and obviously having a great time.  This was clearly a lot of fun to make.  But in order for a movie like this to work, it has to reach a certain level of inspired insanity, and this movie is a little too low key to be entirely successful.

The Night Before could have benefited from a more unhinged tone.  As it plays out, it's a strange mixture of a stoner buddy comedy, and a sentimental holiday movie about discovering what's truly important.  There are few if any big comedic set pieces, and most of the jokes seem improvised by the actors as they're standing in front of the cameras.  There are also a number of movie references (Home Alone, Three Men and a Baby, Big) that don't so much parody these movies, as simply recall famous scenes from them.  The movie could have used more moments like the one where Isaac is trapped in a midnight mass church service, and starts tripping out during the middle of it.  That sequence has the wild and raucous atmosphere I was looking for in the rest of the movie.  Instead, a majority of the film seems to be focused so much on us liking these guys and feeling for them that it forgets we're supposed to be laughing also at times.

This is a movie that simply feels safe, from the adequate direction by Jonathan Levine, to the punch lines, which frequently don't hit as hard as they should.  It's not bad in any real way, but it also feels like a missed opportunity.  I was ready for a Christmas movie that wasn't afraid to be naughty.  What I got was a fairly standard one with just more lighted joints and alcoholic beverages than normal.

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Friday, November 20, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

For the converted and faithful readers and viewers of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, this review will probably mean very little.  There are plenty of reviews out there that will tell you how faithful this film is the final book in the series, and whether or not it's a satisfying adaptation.  I recommend you search them out.  This is a review for the unconverted, or those who have followed the films only. 

Mockingjay Part 2 marks the end of the saga of Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), who started the series out as a simple girl who was forced to participate in a cruel and deadly game to save her sister's life, and has now become a propaganda tool for a rebel army, and a symbol of hope for millions.  Much like Mockingjay Part 1 from exactly one year ago, this is a fascinating idea, and one which this film series never seems to truly face and confront head on.  We never truly get a sense of how Katniss feels being used by these people as a symbol.  We get some glimpses that she is uncomfortable with it, yes, but I can imagine so much more emotion and turmoil being wrung from the idea than these films give us.  And that's really the problem that I have had with this entire film series.  I simply don't have that much investment in these people.  This series wants to be a powerful and tragic story where a lot of innocent young lives are lost.  But it's not enough just to show some young people getting killed while fighting for what to believe in.  They have to have personality and weight if the filmmakers want us to feel for them.

Let's start with Katniss herself, since she is the main character.  Even now as the story has reached its conclusion, I still feel like I know about as much about her as when these movies started.  She doesn't have the strong personality and spirit to carry an entire story.  Maybe she does in the books, and something got lost on the way to the big screen.  I find this surprising, because Jennifer Lawrence is an absolutely amazing actress, and I have loved her in just about everything I've seen her in...except in these movies.  She seems to be going for stoic, but comes across as wooden, at least to me.  It often seems like she shows the same look on her face when she's looking at her conflicted lover Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), as she does when she is witnessing the atrocities of war.  I get that she is handy with a bow and arrow (a bit too much at times), and that she is seen by many as a positive female heroine in a genre dominated by men.  I just think I would be more impress if this movie gave her more interesting things to say or think about.

And just like I said in my review of The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials just a couple months ago, a lot of these post apocalyptic teen stories like this and Divergent are just starting to look the same to me.  I'm willing to admit the problem may be with me.  I just can't get excited about another movie where young actors walk around city ruins and fight back against a tyrannical dictator, while a love triangle plot brews.  The Hunger Games has always delivered a better cast than the others in this genre, with names like Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman.  But much like Jennifer Lawrence, nobody seems to be giving their best here.  Nobody's bad necessarily, it's just that these movies never allow these great actors to truly stand out.  It's sad to think that this is the last time we will get to see Hoffman up on the screen, and a majority of his role requires him to stand around and stare at what's going on.  To be fair, the filmmakers could only work with the footage they had shot with him, but it still feels like he deserved a better exit from the screen than what's here.

Of course, none of this will matter to the fanbase this franchise attracts.  They have made the previous films (which I all thought were kind of mediocre on some level, with the second film being the closest to a success) all major blockbusters, and I expect no different here.  The movie should bring in big numbers, at least until Star Wars hits next month.  But I still find myself asking the same questions that I asked walking out of the earlier films.  The first question is usually, "Is that all there is?"  For a major event film, this movie feels curiously small.  The closest thing to an action sequence involves the heroic rebels battling these mutant sewer creatures that seem more than a little inspired by the monsters from the Alien movies.  There's a lot of padding here.  There's also a lot of talking in hushed whispers, and self-important tones.  Again, I'm willing to admit the problem may be with me, but I just have a hard time taking this franchise seriously.  It obviously wants to be very heavy and dark, but I just never felt anything.

There is just something stilted and muted to me about these movies.  The characters, the way they talk...Nothing comes across as being natural.  Now, obviously, I don't expect total honesty from my Sci-Fi stories.  Heck, I don't even require it.  But it helps if it feels like there's some genuine emotion, or if I can feel a palpable heart behind it all.  Everything feels kind of shortchanged.  The main villain, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) again never quite feels like the dangerous tyrant that he should, and actually seems kind of weak and pathetic here.  There's a moment late in the film that is obviously supposed to have huge meaning to Katniss, but it doesn't have the dramatic impact that it should.  For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I must be vague, but it kind of revolves around the whole reason Katniss got involved in this whole mess in the first place.  A lot of the big events that are supposed to happen in this movie just seem to lack impact, which really surprised me.  Even if I haven't been the biggest fan of these movies, I was at least somewhat invested in how this was all going to end.  The last half hour or so of this film feels like an extended anticlimax.

That being said, all the loose ends are tied up, and there's even an epilogue that I kind of liked, and felt had more emotion than a majority of the film.  There is no doubt that the fans will be pleased, and I'm sure they'll pick up on little things that the books emphasized more, but the movie simply glosses over, so I probably missed it.  If you fall under this category, I give you permission to ignore this review, and go have a good time.  Pay no mind to me this time.  It's okay, I'll understand.  I'm willing to admit I missed the boat on this whole Hunger Games thing, and just never got behind it.  If you did, I'm not going to stop you from seeing this.

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

The 33

The story behind The 33, of the Chilean miners who became trapped for over 60 days when the mine they were working in collapsed back in August 2010 probably would have been better suited for a TV mini series.  This approach would have given the characters more room for focus and identity.  Still, given what's up on the screen and the just over two hour time constraint to tell the story, the movie does an admirable job, and is surprisingly intense at times, especially considering we already know walking in how the story turned out.

The main hurdle that most audiences will probably have to cross in watching this film is not how accurate it is to the real story, but rather the casting.  The movie features a rather internationally diverse cast playing these characters, including Antonio Banderas, Lou Diamond Phillips, French actress Juliette Binoche, and Irish actor Gabriel Byrne.  Seeing actors like Binoche and Byrne playing Chileans at first is a bit bizarre, and yet, my mind was able to get over it rather quickly, and I just focused on the performances.  If this kind of ethnic casting offends you, it may be harder for you to get into or get behind the film.  Would it have been nice if director Patricia Riggen had cast those roles who actors who share the same ethnic background of the people they're playing?  Of course.  But, the movie never really draws attention to it, and the actors are strong enough in their performances that it did not bother me as much as I thought it would.

What did bother me just a little bit is how the movie simplifies these characters by putting them into cliched categories.  The film opens with a backyard cookout scene, where all the miners are introduced, and placed into convenient character types.  There's the elderly miner who is (say it with me)...two weeks away from retirement.  There's the young miner whose wife is about to have their first child, so he is considering leaving the mining business.  There's the miner who hopes he can pick up an extra shift because he could use the money, and ends up going down with the others right before it collapses, and they become trapped by a rock which is described as being two times the mass of the Empire State Building.  While they are trapped, they learn that they only have three days worth of food and rations to split among each other.  Tensions obviously run high through the group trapped below, and there are a couple intense moments (one miner contemplates ending his life at one point) but the movie does play it fairly safe, and never seems to place them in too much danger.

The stuff that I found more interesting are the scenes that depict what is happening outside of the mine, as families and friends of the trapped miners start demanding answers, and don't even know if their loved ones are alive down there.  This part of the film portrays the efforts of the government, represented mostly by a young minister (Rodrigo Santoro) who is charged by the President to get the men out of there.  He teams up with an experienced mining engineer (Gabriel Byrne), who starts off explaining to the minster and the audience the difficulties that those trapped miners faced, and the very real chance that they could be dead while they figure out a way to get to them down there.  Not only do Santoro and Byrne have good chemistry together up on the screen, but it was fascinating to learn about the methods they used in the rescue, and the difficulties that they faced.  These moments proved to be the most dramatically fascinating moments of the film to me.

And yet, there is plenty up on the screen to keep us engaged in the story.  Not only are the performances strong, making the characters stand out more than their thinly written personalities allow, but director Riggen does try a few interesting and unexpected elements in the film.  Chief among them is a fantasy sequence where the starving miners begin to dream about a hallucinatory feast, which ends up being touching and very funny at the same time.  There's also a fine music score by the late composer James Horner, which complements the action well, without playing up the drama of the situation.  Like the best background scores, it doesn't force emotion on us, or tell us how we're supposed to feel during a scene.  It's subtle, and always seems fitting for whatever happens to be up on the screen. 

The 33 is not exactly a hard-hitting movie.  It's a big, heartfelt crowd pleaser, and very much a Hollywood production.  That alone can probably tell you if this movie is for you or not.  Yes, the movie is very manipulative at times, and doesn't go very deep into the story.  But I admired how it was made, and the dual plotlines both inside and outside the mine held my attention.  With so many characters behind it, this would be a difficult story for any filmmaker to tell.  And while it's not perfect, it does its job well enough.

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