Reel Opinions

Sunday, March 27, 2016

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2

I watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 with general indifference.  But then, this movie was not made for me.  I know this.  It was made for the people who made the original 2002 movie a surprise runaway blockbuster, and have been waiting 14 years to catch up with these characters.  I think a lot of those people were at my screening, as the entire theater was roaring with laughter the whole way through. I'm honestly happy for them.  I love it when people have a great time at the movies.  I just found myself not caring much about the bubble-brained plot, and the equally bubble-brained characters.

Just like the first one, this movie is essentially a TV sitcom, only it lasts a little over 90 minutes, and the audience provides the laugh track.  It's harmless, kind of sweet, and more than a little dopey.  The big Greek family at the center of the movie are supposed to be charming in an embarrassing sort of way, and I guess I can see that.  But I also found them very shrill.  They're constantly mugging, and playing the jokes to the rafters.  If I had to be trapped on a bus sitting next to just about anyone in this movie, I would throw myself out the window.  I know these characters are supposed to be overbearing, but I think the movie takes it a little too far this time.  In one scene, the whole family shows up for a college fair at a school.  They bring Greek dishes, and all but bully the admissions representative to let the youngest member of their family be accepted to his school.  They're constantly talking over each other, and forcing people to take photos of them.  You know, after watching this sequence, I have to say that there's a fine line between charmingly embarrassing, and just flat out obnoxious. 

The plot: Lead heroine Toula (Nia Vardalos) has her hands full keeping her family under control, as well as dealing with her teenage daughter, Paris (Elena Kampouris), who is threatening to go to another state for college after she graduates high school.  Her relationship with her husband, Ian (John Corbett), just doesn't have the passion that it once did, and though they are trying to rekindle it, life problems keep on getting in the way.  Problems like the contrived situation that mostly drives the story, when Toula's father, Gus (Michael Constantine), finds out that he's actually never officially been married to his wife of 50 years, Maria (Lanie Kazan).  The priest back in Greece never officially signed their marriage license, so now the family has to come together to plan another big fat Greek wedding for the couple.

There are a lot of subplots in the film, much more than it probably needed.  You know your movie is overstuffed when there's a plot about someone in the family finding the courage to come out as being gay, and it barely registers.  Other plots include Paris finding a nice boy to go to prom with, some mean neighbors who talk behind Toula's back, and Gus being reunited with his brother, who he has been at odds with for years.  But the movie is not really interested in any of this.  They're all treated almost as a distraction from the Greek family, who take center stage whenever possible, and do their shrill comic shtick.  The various subplot are introduced, ignored for a while, and then resolved as quickly as possible.  I'm not asking for the movie to have some deep character moments, but it could at least slow down enough for these ideas to resonate.  But, this is the tone that director Kirk Jones strikes.  He wants to be silly and over the top, and every time the story has a chance for an emotion, he brings in the Greek family to be ridiculous and as over the top as possible.

If you were a fan of the original, than you have my permission to ignore this review.  The sequel will give you more of what you want, and you will likely enjoy it.  This movie was made for you, not me.  I will admit that I did smile from time to time, but on the whole, this movie just left me exhausted.

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Friday, March 25, 2016

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is simultaneously too much and not enough.  It is maddening and bombastic, while at the same time meandering and slow.  Yes, there is stuff to admire here, and the movie has been made with a great amount of care for the most part.  But what a turgid little enterprise this is.  During its two and a half hour running time, the movie starts out kind of smart and almost seems like it's going to be about something for a while.  Then it kind of slows itself to a crawl, and never really explores the ideas that the screenplay brings up.  Finally, it wraps up in an endless barrage of special effects and fight scenes that really just resembles the actors screaming as they fly at the camera, or smash into something, while explosions and fire rise up all around them.  This visual assault is accompanied by a screeching musical score provided by Hans Zimmer and "Junkie XL" that sounds like electric guitars crossed with a screaming choir.  I don't remember when I have disliked the final half hour of a movie more.

But let's take a look at the problem that lies at the root of this movie.  Though it has connections, this is not really intended as a sequel to 2013's Man of Steel.  Instead, this movie is supposed to usher in a series of films based around the D.C. Comics Universe.  Much like how Marvel kicked off their own Cinematic Universe with Iron Man back in 2008, with Samuel L. Jackson showing up at Robert Downey Jr's house, asking if he would like to join The Avengers, this movie is supposed to mark the beginning of a series of films, all connected by the different characters that make up the D.C. roster.  Yes, Batman v. Superman is only the tip of the iceberg, and this movie loves to remind us of that fact as much as possible.  Not only do we get to see these two comic book titans share the silver screen for the first time, but we are also introduced to Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who barely registers as a cameo, but is getting her own movie Summer 2017.  We also get brief glimpses of characters who no doubt will get their own movies in the future, such as The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg.  This is supposed to get us excited about the possibilities, but unless you read the comics or are familiar with these characters, I don't think these sequences are going to have the intended impact.

Let's compare how the two companies handled kicking off their Cinematic Universes based on a history of comics that have stretched back for decades.  Marvel's first effort focused solely on Tony Stark, aka Iron Man.  It was his movie, and it gave the audience plenty of time to get to know him and get behind him.  The scene between Downey and Jackson didn't happen till after the end credits.  It was a small little tease at the end that got the fans immediately talking and excited, especially when the film ended up being a smash, and talk of more movies became a reality.  Marvel then spent the following years easing audiences into their world.  Each movie introduced a new character such as Captain America or Thor, and each worked as a stand alone movie.  Sure, there were hints at something bigger to come, or sometimes a character from another movie would pop up in someone else's.  But the movies were smart enough not to try to throw too much at us at once.  By the time The Avengers came along in 2012, which threw everything the movies had been building up to into one big event, it felt like it had been earned.  We knew these characters, we had grown to love them, and we wanted to see how they would interact with one another.  It could be embraced both by those who have read the comics, and those who came to know these characters solely from the movies.

With Batman v. Superman, D.C. seems to have taken an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach.  They throw everything at us all at once, instead of gradually introducing us to the world and the superheroes and villains who inhabit it.  We have no connection to these people, because the movie is too busy setting up a bunch of movies to come.   When Superman and Batman meet each other for the first time, it should be an awesome moment that sends chills through the audience who have been waiting for this team up for decades.  Instead, it can best be described as a throw away scene.  Despite the title, the two heroes actually spend very little time on screen together.  Most of their time spent is during the last 45 minutes of the film.  They spend the first 15 minutes fighting each other, because the evil Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) has manipulated things so that they think they are enemies.  Then they resolve their differences through means that will likely have audiences either laughing, or shaking their heads in disbelief.  They then spend the last half hour fighting an unimpressive CG monster named Doomsday, who often comes across as a pile of mud taking humanoid form.  He shows up right that moment, just so the heroes will have someone to fight.  Wonder Woman shows up suddenly almost out of the blue, and that's when we get the nonstop screaming, snarling, explosions and grating music that drills into your skull. 

Is this really the best match up that director Zack Snyder and his screenwriters can come up with?  Think of the shared histories these historic characters have with one another in the comics.  Think of the plots you could dream up, or the adventures they could share together.  Instead, you hold off on the fateful meeting and save it for an unimpressive showdown.  So, what is the movie actually about, if it's not about these characters interacting with each other?  Well, it turns out that after the events of Man of Steel, the world is not sure what to think of Superman (played once again by Henry Cavill).  His battle with General Zod created untold mass destruction and casualties.  In one of the film's best scenes, we witness this battle through the eyes of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who was trying to save a friend who perished in an accident caused by the battle.  This is enough to put Batman and Superman on opposing sides, as Bruce/Batman fears the power that Superman holds, while Superman is bothered by reports he hears of a vigilante dishing out harsh justice to criminals, and even goes so far as to brand their skin with a bat symbol.  A better script would have built upon this, had them argue and debate about the way to dispense justice, and create some really compelling scenes and ideas off of this.

Instead, we have Lex Luthor pulling the strings behind the scenes.  As portrayed by Eisenberg, Lex is no longer the brilliant, manipulative, egotistical and powerful madman that we have known in countless comics, cartoons and movies.  He now is a twitchy little sprite with nervous tics who seems to suffer from a mental disorder, as evidenced by his bizarre and sometimes erratic behavior.  Lex Luthor is a lot of things, but he is not insane, which is how this movie sees him.  He has more in common with Jim Carrey's portrayal of The Riddler in Batman Forever than he does with any previous interpretation of the character we have seen before.  Some may see this as an interesting take, but I couldn't stand him, and I kind of groaned each time the movie went back to him.  His plan mainly revolves around turning the two heroes against each other so that they will destroy each other, and he can take over the world, I guess.  The movie's kind of vague on what he plans to do once the heroes kill each other.  He also gets his hands on technology from Krypton, and creates the Doomsday monster that the heroes fight during the climax.  I want to be clear, I do not think that Eisenberg is a bad actor, or could not play a successful megalomaniac.  I simply think he was following the wishes of the director, and that the movie made the wrong choices with the character.

You know, sitting back and thinking over the film, I don't really know who this movie is supposed to appeal to.  Those who want to see a lot of action will most likely be bored by how the movie drags its feet for a majority of its running time.  We get a lot of potentially interesting plot points, such as Superman going before Congress in order to defend his actions, that either have poor resolutions or no resolution whatsoever.  On the less interesting side of things, the movie wastes its time with some vague dream sequences/visions (which exist solely to tease other movies or future events), or a labored and unnecessary scene where Superman has a conversation with the ghost of his adoptive father (Kevin Costner, making a thankless cameo return from the last movie) that adds nothing while also dragging the movie down.  It's also not a movie for kids, as the film is far too glum, dire, dark and gloomy for them to enjoy.  There's very little humor and next to no joy to be found, so kids are probably going to be bored.  So, who's left?  I guess the faithful fans who read the comics.  They'll be able to pick out the references to the D.C. Universe, and will probably have fun explaining a good part of the movie to their friends, who will no doubt walk out confused. 

Batman v. Superman is not really what I could call unwatchable.  It even kind of works from time to time.  But the whole thing is a mess that never comes together in any way.  It's also one of those movies that doesn't know when to end.  After the final battle is done, we get three or four different scenes that should have been the moment when the movie cuts to the end credits, yet the movie just keeps on going.  It starts to resemble a party guest who doesn't want to leave, and stalls as much as they can.  The jury is still out on how the D.C. Cinematic Universe will unfold, but when it comes to launches, Marvel had the right idea by taking its time and letting us love the characters before all hell broke loose.

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Friday, March 18, 2016

The Divergent Series: Allegiant

When this current decade ends in just four short years, will we look back on The Hunger Games as one of the more influential films?  After all, it's spawned numerous imitators, both in print and on the screen.  The past few years have seen numerous teen adventure stories set in post-apocalyptic worlds, such as The Maze Runner, The 5th Wave, and the series we're looking at today, Divergent.  The latest entry, Allegiant, is par for the course with a lot of these stories.  It's watered down Sci-Fi for teens built around a romance between two attractive but uninteresting leads.

I actually enjoyed the first Divergent movie from two years ago.  It had an interesting lead performance from its young star, Shailene Woodley, and its futuristic world was able to capture my imagination.  My interest faded with last year's sequel, Insurgent, which took everything that worked about the first movie and kind of diluted it.  The characters weren't as interesting, the performances felt off, and the plot felt overly familiar to the other teen Sci-Fi stories we have been getting lately.  In this latest entry, there seems to be even less to care about.  Woodley's character, the female heroine Tris, has gone from interesting to bland.  She's seldom allowed to emote or raise her voice above a dull monotone.  Likewise, her relationship with the handsome Four (Theo James) is shaping up to be about as dull as dish soap.  There is absolutely no passion or chemistry between the two actors when they're on the screen together, and they often seem bored when they talk to one another.  Funny, they seemed a lot more lively and likable in the first movie.  I don't know what happened.  All I do know is that with each passing film in this series, I'm finding I could care less.

The plot kicks off immediately after the events of the last film, with the post-apocalyptic city of Chicago in chaos.  The evil Jeanine (played in the last two films by Kate Winslet) has been defeated, and the citizens who were under her thumb are now screaming for justice, and asking that her followers be killed in mock trials.  Four's mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts), supports this decision, and wants to lead the city in a new direction.  However, there are some in Chicago who feel that Evelyn is just making the same mistakes Jeanine did during her cruel tyranny.  There is a war beginning to brew between Evelyn's supporters, and the supporters of Johanna (Octavia Spencer), who stand against her.  Tris can see the war brewing, and wants no part of it.  She simply wants to climb the walls that surrounds her city, and see what lies beyond in the world.  She gathers up her friends, including Four, her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), her close friends Christina (Zoe Kravitz) and Tori (Maggie Q), and the slimy and sarcastic Peter (Miles Teller), and manages to flee from Evelyn's forces, and scale the wall.

Tris makes it over the wall, but things don't seem much better on the other side.  It seems to be an endless and ravaged wasteland, where the earth is scorched and the water that falls from the sky is a rusty blood red.  Tris and her friends are soon rescued by a group of people who have built a society out in the ruins of the land outside of Chicago, and created a thriving community in the ruins of O'Hare International Airport.  Here, the people of this society watch what's going on in Chicago, and bring children from various dying cities to safety.  But is everything what it really seems?  Their leader is David (Jeff Daniels), and if his shifty and uneasy smile is enough to tip you off that he's the new villain in the plotline, then you're smarter than Tris, who trusts him wholeheartedly for a majority of the film.  There's a lot of talk of the characters slowly coming to the realization that David does not have their best interests in mind, combined with a lot of action sequences and special effects that never really thrill like they should.  When all is said and done, the movie is simply killing time for the final entry in the series, due to be released in June of next year.

Allegiant seems to be built around two kinds of moments - Those where very little happens, and those where too much seems to be happening.  In their effort to split the final book into two films (which is the norm for these kind of movies), the filmmakers are forced to simply tread water and fill out the running time with a lot of scenes that go nowhere.  Given how dull and lifeless these characters have become over the course of these movies, there's very little to get invested in here.  Seriously, the people in this movie need hobbies or something, because everybody either speaks in a straight monotone, or with sarcastic detachment.  Maybe the actors (and there are some talented ones here) just don't know how to make this dialogue work.  I can't blame them.  The lines they get to read is often straight and dull, or sometimes unintentionally hilarious.  Even Miles Teller, who is supposed to come across as the sarcastic comic relief in the film, seems embarrassed by some of the one liners he's forced to utter in this one.  Nobody in this movie gets to display a personality, because everybody is simply a mechanism in a much bigger machine, which is the plot itself.

That's not to say there's no entertainment value at all here, though I wonder how much of it is intentional.  The climax is absurd in a 1950s horror kind of way, with a cloud of red mist threatening the characters that acts like no cloud of mist I have ever seen before.  There were also a few lines that caused me to chuckle, though again, whether this is intentional is up for debate.  Even the technology in this futuristic society seems kind of hokey.  Tris and her friends are carried from the savage wastelands to the safety of the new society in these very silly looking bubble suits that allow them float around like, yes, bubbles.  Maybe it came across as being more impressive in the original source novel, but the special effects artists obviously did not have the budget or the imagination to make this seem real or even plausible.

Allegiant feels like a shell of a movie.  It's set in a Sci-Fi world that never captivates, filled with people with no personality, and built around technology that fails to impress.  You have to wonder if the people involved even have their hearts in this anymore.  Much like the last movie, it's just going through the motions and cliches of the genre.  When it was over, I wasn't asking myself questions that the ending set up.  I was asking if the fans were still going to care when the last movie comes out 15 months from now.

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Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Brothers Grimsby

The Brothers Grimsby is the latest 2016 comedy that proves when it comes to vulgarity and stupidity, there is no such thing as too much.  It started off with Dirty Grandpa, which was a failed comedy that built itself around Robert DeNiro telling lame off-color jokes, and insulting everyone's manhood.  Next, we had Zoolander 2, where the usually smart and likable Ben Stiller was forced to play so dumb that he got no laughs whatsoever.  Now we have this movie, which features a scene where the two main characters are forced to climb up into an elephant's rear end in order to escape some bad guys who are chasing them.  When the villains leave and our heroes are ready to get out of their unfortunate hiding place, a horny male elephant comes along, and inserts its massive sexual organ into the space where the main characters are hiding, leading to graphic close up shots of the film's stars being slapped in the face by the intruding organ.

You just never know what you're going to see when you're at the movies!  Believe it or not, this is not just a gross out gag, but becomes integral to the plot near the end.  The two stars in question who find themselves in this predicament are Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Strong.  Both are fine actors, but are cast to the winds here by a mostly witless screenplay, which was co-written by Cohen.   It's intended to be a spy spoof, but it doesn't try to find any humor in the genre.  Instead, it takes aim at the poor and uneducated of England, the handicapped, AIDS, and celebrities like Daniel Radcliffe, Bill Cosby and Donald Trump.  Oh, and it also is obsessed with gags concerning anal cavities.  Besides the one involving the elephant, it also has a running gag about how Cohen finds himself in situations with a lighted firework stuck up his nether regions.  Again, believe it or not, but this also is not just a gross out gag, and becomes important to the plot near the end.

The two play brothers who were close as children, but then they became orphans and were forced to be separated.  Cohen is Nobby, an alcoholic and uneducated working class family man with an obese wife (Rebel Wilson) and 11 children, who are all named after what Nobby was watching on TV at the time the child was conceived, so they have names like "Skeletor" and "Django Unchained".  Strong plays Sebastian, who grew up to be a secret agent, and is on the trail of a criminal organization that is plotting to wipe out most of the world's population during a soccer match with a deadly virus.  Nobby has been searching for his missing brother for nearly 30 years, and finally finds him at a fundraiser where Sebastian is just about to foil an assassination attempt.  Unfortunately, Nobby gets in the way, the assassination goes off, and Sebastian is now blamed for the murder.  The two reunited brothers must now work together to not only clear Sebastian's name, but also save the world.

I'm making the movie sound like it's actually about something, but honestly, the plot is merely a hook for a series of sexual and anal gags.  But there is a laziness to it that seems to indicate the writers threw in shock value in order to spice up what they knew was a lousy script.  For example, in one scene, Sebastian has been shot in the groin (naturally) with a poison tip dart.  Now Nobby must suck the poison out of his brother's massive and bloated testicle, or else Sebastian will die.  Naturally, while this is going on, some of Nobby's bar friends come walking in, and see what they're doing.  The thing is, the movie is so incompetent, it forgets to have the friends react or do anything.  They kind of stop, and one of them takes out a phone in order to snap a photo, but that's it.  It simply stops at having the friends walk in, but it doesn't bother to carry on and possibly give Nobby and Sebastian a funny way to try to explain to the guys what they were doing.  It feels like a good chunk of the scene is missing.

This is a common practice in The Brothers Grimsby, as numerous scenes are either cut short or have no pay off at all.  The plot also jumps around with little rhyme or reason, and the editing is spotty and sporadic.  It's obvious that this movie was much longer at one point, but out of desperation, it was trimmed down to a very brief 83 minutes.  It's not that I wanted to see more of the movie, mind you.  In fact, the short running time is the most merciful thing about it.  It's just plain to see that the filmmakers knew they had a dud on their hands, and hacked it to pieces before it went into wide release.  In its final form, the movie resembles a jumbled series of scenes and jokes that barely connect, and leave the audience confused.  Just what did they think they were doing when they made this?  I understand that Sacha Baron Cohen enjoys using shock humor, and has used it to good effect in some of his past comedies.  But those movies also had elements of satire to go with it.  This is simply a limp farce that never builds any comedic energy. 

There are a lot of good and likable actors in this, like Penelope Cruz, Isla Fisher, Gabourey Sidibe and Ian McShane.  Unfortunately, most of these are walk on roles at best, or they're forced to just stand around and not contribute much.  If you have the money to hire talent like this, shouldn't you give them something to do?  This is a mystifying movie.  It feels unfinished and rushed, but most of all, it just kind of made me feel angry and restless.

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Friday, March 11, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane

For a majority of its running time, 10 Cloverfield Lane is one of the more effective psychological thrillers to come out in a long time.  A lot of its success comes from its mysterious tone, in which we're never quite sure what to believe or what the truth really is.  It's when those answers finally start to come in the third act that the movie fumbles quite a bit.  Well, the third act still might have worked, just not in the way it's presented here, which is far too rushed and not very satisfying.  Still, this does little to take away from the fact that everything that comes before the final fifteen minutes is excellent in just about every way.

The setup could almost serve as a masterclass of keeping the audience invested with as little information as possible.  A young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is seen leaving her home, and leaving her engagement ring on the table.  As she drives, her boyfriend (whose voice is provided by Bradley Cooper) calls her on her cell phone.  There's talk of a fight of some kind, and that he's sorry.  Just then, Michelle's car is struck by something (we don't see what it is yet), and her car spins out and goes off the road.  When she comes to, she finds herself in some kind of underground bunker room.  She's been treated for injuries from the accident, and is hooked up to an IV machine.  She's also chained to the wall.  She is soon introduced to her captor and/or possible savior.  He introduces himself as Howard (John Goodman), and he informs her that he has brought her down to this underground room for her own good.  Something terrible has happened up above on the surface, an attack of some kind.  We don't truly know what happened for most of the film, but there is talk of possibly Russians or North Korea being behind it all.  All Howard will say is that the world has become toxic and contaminated after a mass attack wiped out most of humanity, and that he saved her when he found her in her wrecked vehicle on the side of the road while he was headed to his doomsday bunker.

The only other occupant in the underground room is a handyman who used to work for Howard named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.).  He backs up Howard's story that something apocalyptic is going on up on the surface, but his arm is in a cast, which hints that perhaps Howard has injured him.  However, this is a movie that's designed to lead us in multiple directions.  Did something really happen up there?  Is Howard truly who he says he is?  There are hints throughout the film that seem to suggest something more sinister is at work here.  We're constantly left guessing if Howard is telling the truth.  Did he rescue Michelle as a good Samaritan, or did he kidnap her?  Why doesn't certain information he tells her about his past match up with some of the things she finds around the bunker?  The screenplay is designed to misdirect us, and leave us wondering at just about every angle, and this is what makes the film such an effective thriller.

If there is a single performance to be singled out here, it is Goodman.  He makes Howard into such a believably complex character.  He can be charming, threatening, scary, and sometimes almost dangerous.  We can never quite get a real hold on the character, and that's the whole point.  Howard is supposed to be someone we can't put our finger on.  Is he helping these people, or holding them prisoner?  There's evidence enough to support both theories, and the movie takes on an almost Hitchcock-like vibe with having us figure out the true motives of the character.  It is a credit to Goodman that he plays the role with almost a straight poker face, so that we cannot read his true intentions.  As an actor, he can be one of the most likable personalities in the movies today, but he's also equally good in darker and more terrifying roles.  This performance shows off both of these strengths.  He can be weird and offputting with his behavior one minute, and the next truly convince us that he is only trying to keep this young woman safe from whatever is going on up above.

10 Cloverfield Lane is built almost entirely around red herrings and misdirection, and in the wrong hands, this could have been deadly for the film.  There's nothing more annoying than a movie that thinks it's smarter than its own audience, and is constantly throwing the rug out from under us.  But here, we don't feel like we're being jerked around.  The movie is playing with the audience, feeding us information a little at a time.  Is it trustworthy information?  That's for us to make up our own minds on.  In fact, the movie is so good at creating an atmosphere of suspense and wondering what is really going on that perhaps any answer would have been a disappointment on some level.  But the answer we do get, while not entirely unexpected if you saw the original Cloverfield movie, seems a little undercooked.  Here is a movie that, for most of its running time, has been slow and deliberate in the way it has played with us.  And then, during the third act, it looks like its racing to get the answers out to us, and rushes everything by in a fairly unsatisfying matter.  We want the movie to go back to playing with us.  We want to go back to not knowing what's really going on.

Still, this is only the last few minutes of the movie.  What comes before is so expertly put together and performed and tense that it would be insane of me not to recommend this.  10 Cloverfield Lane is 90% of a great movie, and 10% of a let down.  That counts as a recommendation.  The stuff that works is so great, you do wish that the movie could have held onto it all the way through.  Still, when you get right down to it, this is an incredibly intense and effective movie for almost all the way through, and it does work brilliantly when it is working.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Double Mini Reviews: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and The Other Side of the Door

Well, last weekend was a busy one in terms of movies.  I've already reviewed the first two that I watched, but haven't gotten around to two other films I saw over the weekend, due to the fact that I've been dealing with a lot of overtime at work lately.

And so, I am combining both reviews into one double mini review entry, so I can at least get my thoughts out on these two films that I saw last weekend.


Based on Chicago Tribune journalist Kim Barker's 2011 memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot offers Tina Fey the best role she's probably ever had on the big screen, allowing her to show off not just her comedic skills, but some surprisingly strong dramatic ones as well. 

The film's ad campaign is basically making this out to be a fish-out-of-water comedy as Fey plays Kim who, back in 2003, is chosen by her newsroom to travel to Afghanistan and deliver some live reports.  The early moments are when the film is at its wobbliest, as Fey seems to switch back and forth between dry, sarcastic humor, and genuine emotion.  But soon, both her performance and the movie itself settles into a more comfortable tone, when Kim starts to become comfortable in her place and position, and begins to realize that her bosses back home view Afghanistan as a "second class" war, that is not worth covering as much.  There are a lot of nice moments throughout the film, such as the relationship she develops with a fellow journalist from Scotland (Martin Freeman), and with a fellow female journalist (Margot Robbie), who shows her the ropes of working in Afghanistan early on.

The only thing that took me out of the film is the filmmakers' decision to cast white actors in the roles of two leading Afghan characters.  It's not enough to drag the film down, but it does seem out of place. 

This is a movie that takes a little while to find its feet, but once it does, it is highly rewarding.  Fey is wonderful here, and the movie contains enough genuine laughs and successful drama to earn this a watch.  You just wish that the script maybe had a chance to have just one more rewrite before it went before the camera.

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Here is a horror film that starts out with a lot of promise, but quickly degrades into all out silliness.  It's certainly nothing unwatchable, and it's not so bad that you wonder why the 20th Century Fox studio is basically burying it. (It was originally intended for a wide release, but got cut down to just over 500 screens at the last minute.) Still, given the set up and the potential, you can't help but feel let down.

Sarah Wayne Callies plays a grieving mother named Maria living in India with her husband (Jeremy Sisto) and adorable daughter (Sofia Rosinsky).  Despite their ideal lifestyle, their life is marked with tragedy, as a car accident with Maria at the wheel caused the death of their young son, Oliver (Logan Creran).  After a failed suicide attempt to end her grief, the family's local housekeeper informs Maria of an old abandoned temple that is said to exist as the doorway between the world of the dead and the living.  It is said that if you scatter the ashes of a dead loved one in the temple, and wait by the door within, you will be able to hear the voice of that loved one, and say your final goodbyes to them.  The only condition?  The door must not be opened.

Naturally, Maria goes through the the ritual inside the temple, and when she hears her son's voice on the other side of the door, she flings it open.  Now that she has opened the door, she has torn open the rift that separates the dead from the living.  Supernatural stuff starts happening around the family home that seems to suggest that Oliver has come back.  But, is he the same that he was when he was alive, and has Maria somehow doomed her family to a ghastly fate?

After a very effective opening half hour that creates a lot of sympathy for the main heroine, the movie quickly devolves into a lot of generic jump scares and cliches that we have seen in a dozen other movies just like it.  Even worse, a lot of the movie's scares have no explanation whatsoever.  At one point, Maria sees a dead person lying on the street after being hit by a car.  When she looks at the body, it suddenly turns its head and looks back at her.  There is no reason for this, nor no explanation as to what this has to do with anything.  The movie also keeps on coming up with convoluted reasons for the husband to be gone (he has to work late a lot), so that Maria and her daughter can be menaced by spirits.  Not that her husband ever comes across as the sharpest tool in the shed.  The return of Oliver from the dead causes all the plants and fish in the house to die or wither, yet he never seems to notice.

This is a movie that builds up some good will early on, making you think it will be the rare horror movie that makes you care about the main characters.  But then, it simply falls apart as it continues to go along.  I wouldn't call it a total lost cause, as there is some stuff to like here.  It just feels like a missed opportunity.

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Saturday, March 05, 2016


Zootopia, the new animated film from Disney, is not just a fine piece of entertainment, but it also has something important to say that's been in the news a lot.  There‚Äôs a lesson in the film about the relation between fear and prejudice, and some surprisingly strong scenes that tackle this theme head on.  Before you think that this film might frighten young children or that it may go over their heads, don't worry.  The film is first and foremost a lot of fun, and often very exciting and funny.  It just may bring up some conversation with your kids when you see people on TV screaming and ranting about how people of a certain religion should be kicked out of the country, or that there should be a wall in Mexico.

The film is set in a bustling and beautifully designed metropolis called Zootopia, where animals of all kinds, both predator and prey, have learned to live alongside one another.  That's not to say everything's perfect, as some of the smaller herbivores still eye the bigger animals suspiciously.  Still, it's a marvel of design, filled with lots of visual animal-based gags, and just a brilliant overall look.  When the film's heroine, a tiny little bunny named Judy Hopps (voiced with wonderful enthusiasm by Ginnifer Goodwin), arrives in the city for the first time by train, and is looking around at all the possibilities around her, we can sense her excitement and even share it, because of the clever and beautiful imagery on display that introduces the audience to this world.  Judy has come to the big city to become the first rabbit police officer.  All of her fellow cops are much larger animals, such as elephants and bison.  She's managed to graduate at the top of her class at the police academy, now she needs to overcome the more daunting task of being taken seriously as an officer.

On her first day, while everyone else is assigned to investigate a rash of mysterious disappearances of different mammals (14 have gone missing seemingly all at once), Judy is placed on traffic duty, and is basically a glorified meter maid.  While on the traffic beat, Judy's cop instincts allow her to become suspicious of a red fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who is running a popsicle hustling scam on the streets.  The two start off as adversaries, but when it turns out that Nick may have a small connection to the missing mammal case, they are forced to work together when the police chief (Idris Elba) gives Judy just 48 hours to prove her worth and solve the mystery.  What the two unravel is a surprisingly complex mystery dealing with corrupt government, and certain predatory animals that are somehow being reverted back to their former dangerous and meat-eating ways.  This leads to some images that may be frightening to very small children, but it also leads to a lot of big ideas and things to talk about, when Judy and Nick are forced to face their own prejudices against each other, and realize that even though animals of all kind co-exist in Zootopia, fear and suspicion is still powerful enough to destroy the city's ideals.

Zootopia is filled with a vast and imaginative world, as we not only get to see the bustling namesake city, but also deserts, tundras, and rain forests that make up the world.  We also get to see all sides of the world these animals inhabit, from the halls of government and law, to the criminal underworld represented by a Godfather-esque little creature who supplies some of the film's biggest laughs.  Directors Byron Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) keeps the narrative constantly moving, and successfully juggle the film's diverse tone, which ranges from pop culture and visual humor, to some surprisingly tense and serious moments, such as a flashback when Nick Wilde talks about the moment he realized people were never going to trust him.  There are even some clever nods to other Disney animated films, such as when a street criminal weasel is seen hawking bootleg DVDs that are animal-themed versions of past and future movies from the studio.  There's clever dialogue (Nick asks about a sheep, "I wonder if she counts herself to fall asleep..."), and more than enough fast paced action to keep the youngest in the audience enthused .

But the movie has its serious side too, and it's not just all about the political and racial situation that's going on within this seemingly peaceful city.  Both Judy and Nick get plenty of character building moments, and become some of the more endearing lead characters in a Disney animated film in recent memory.  Judy starts out optimistic and truly believing Zootopia's motto of "if you can dream it, you can be it".  But, she is forced to face some hard realities not just about the world around her, but also about herself.  There's a misunderstanding that brews between the two friends that seems to be wrapped up a bit too quickly, but it doesn't make the characters any less effective or likable.  The movie is mainly being advertised as breezy entertainment, but parents may be surprised to find that the film follows a lot of themes that have become dominant in the 2016 Presidential election year.  I can imagine that the movie can inspire some interesting conversation between adults and older children about what's going on in the world.

Of course, this movie has been in the works for the past few years, so there's no way Disney could have known about what the headlines would be saying at the time their film was released.  Nonetheless, it does help Zootopia stand out a bit more than it probably would if it came out at a different time.  Whatever the case, this is a funny, entertaining and heartfelt film, and that's really the most important issue of all when it comes to parents.

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Friday, March 04, 2016

London Has Fallen

I was reminded of an old gag on The Simpsons while I was watching London Has Fallen.  They used to do a series of skits on the cartoon about a hyper-violent action character named McBane.  He was played by an Arnold Schwarzenegger type, and his movies would always revolve around him killing hundreds of people callously and without remorse, all the while throwing out deadpan one liners.  This movie is a 100 minute long variation on those cartoon shorts.  It's non-stop violence that means absolutely nothing, while the heroes crack jokes back and forth to each other, not caring about the untold number of people (sometimes innocent) who are dying all around them.

I wouldn't be so offended by the level of violence if the movie had treated it with any weight or consequence.  Here is a movie where we get to see a bus full of tourists get crushed by falling debris, dozens of people plunge to their deaths when a bridge explodes, a woman being offered a flower by a little girl, only to have the woman get blasted moments later (complete with close up of the blood-splattered flower for effect), the President of the United States being threatened with decapitation by a massive blade, and a woman get impaled after a helicopter crash. (Despite the fact that she is impaled through the chest and near death, someone optimistically suggests that they try to "hold back the bleeding".) The movie uses strong images of gore and terrorism, and if the movie had an opinion about those acts of violence, that would be something.  But, I'm afraid the filmmakers intend these images to be used for entertainment only.  This is the kind of film that introduces a character for the sole purpose of having them die horribly just a few moments later.

London Has Fallen is the unnecessary sequel to 2013's Olympus Has Fallen.  That was the movie where Gerard Butler played a Secret Service Agent who had to save the President (played back then and here again by Aaron Eckhart) from terrorists who overthrew the White House.  This time, Butler's character, Mike Banning, is tasked with keeping the President safe when he arrives in London for a funeral where all the world's leaders are attending.  Turns out the entire thing was a trap set up by the notorious terrorist, Aamir Barkawi (Alon Aboutboul), who wants to kill hundreds of people and blow up nearly every major landmark in London in order to get to the President, so that he can kill him in a live video that will be posted on social media.  Funny thing about Mr. Barkawi.  We are told at one point that he has "killed more people than the Plague".  Despite this, he is only Number 6 on the Ten Most Wanted List.  This brings about the question as to how many people the Number 5 person has killed, and just how many dead people does it take to even crack the Top 10?

So Mike and the President are forced to make their way across London, not sure who to trust, since it seems that a large part of the police force are in ties with the terrorists.  Turns out there's a Mole within Scotland Yard who is feeding Barkawi info, and if you can't figure out who the Mole is the second they walk on the screen, then you're just the audience this movie is looking for.  There are a lot of tedious firefights, more than a few explosions, and while all this is going on, Mike and the President of the United States exchange glib one liners and jokes.  They never once seem to care much about the damage that has been done all around them, nor of the hundreds of innocent lives that have been lost.  They're trapped in a Hollywood action film, and act as such.  The movie tries to give the heroes some motivation by giving Mike a pregnant wife (Radha Mitchell) who is waiting for him back home, and due to give birth any day now.  Will Mike manage to make it home in time to see his baby born?  I wouldn't dream of spoiling the ending.

If the movie wants to be escapism, why does it show such graphic images of terrorism violence that will have audiences squirming in their seats?  And if it wants to be realistic and harsh, then why does the movie make the characters such smart alecks and jokers in the face of horrific violence?  It tries to have it both ways, and ends up not satisfying either category.  And then there are the numerous big names in the movie like Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett and Melissa Leo, who were all in the original film, and seem to have come back for this sequel due to contract obligation only.  The script gives them little to do, and almost shoehorns them in.  In fact, it almost feels like this script was originally just a random action movie, but after Olympus Has Fallen become a surprise hit, the filmmakers were desperate for a sequel, and just decided to take a script they had lying around, and plug characters from the first movie into it.  That would explain why so many of these talented actors are tossed aside for most of the film.

London Has Fallen is an awkward and ill-fitting sequel that didn't need to be made.  It's bad enough that it exists simply due to corporate greed, since there was no need to continue the story from the first.  But then it sinks even lower by reveling in such gratuitous violence.  I get the sense that the filmmakers just wanted this movie to be mindless fun.  They got the mindless part right, at least.

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