Reel Opinions

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Mechanic: Resurrection

Mechanic: Resurrection is the kind of low-energy thriller that a big action star like Jason Statham should be avoiding at this point of his career.  He's done better, and likely will do better after this.  This time he completely strikes out with a film that barely seems interested in itself.

The film is a follow up to 2011's The Mechanic, and while I do remember seeing the movie, I couldn't for the life of me tell you what it was about, or what happened in it.  That's not really a problem however, as you don't need previous knowledge to see this.  Statham plays Arthur Bishop, a former assassin for hire who faked his death, and now divides his time living a peaceful life between Rio and Thailand.  His past catches up with him when a former enemy named Crain (Sam Hazeldine) tracks him down.  Crain wants Arthur to kill three targets for him, and sends some thugs along to try to force him into doing the job.  When that doesn't work, Crain takes the new woman in Arthur's life, Gina (Jessica Alba), hostage.  Arthur must now take out all three targets in order to keep Gina alive, with the only condition being that the deaths must look like an accident.  This leads to situations where Arthur must pose as a prisoner in a Malaysian prison to get at one of his targets, or another where he has to stage an accident in a highrise penthouse in Sydney, Australia.

There's not really much more to the movie than what I have described above.  Mechanic: Resurrection is just as unimaginative as its title, and offers as little as possible for the audience, while still having something to display on the screen.  The hero is all grit and no personality, his love interest is a helpless screaming victim who exists solely to be held hostage, the villains are stock, and the action is standard.  The only person in this movie who is able to inject any kind of life is Tommy Lee Jones, who shows up in the third act as a billionaire arms dealer intended to be the third and final target that Crain wants taken out.  Jones seems to know what kind of movie he's in, and doesn't take it all that seriously.  The movie as a whole could have used more of his attitude.  Instead, it takes itself completely at face value, and pretends we're actually supposed to care about all this.

Again, I find myself asking a question I have found myself asking lately at the movies over this summer - Why did this need to be made?  The original movie did not exactly win anyone over at the box office, so I assume it did better than expected on DVD.  Still, why make a sequel to this, and why make one that required absolutely no thought or skill in the creative process?  This is a bankrupt enterprise, where everyone from the screenwriters to the producers to the actors were paid for giving a minimal effort.  Is this really the best they could have done?  Did the writers go home satisfied every night after a long day of plugging these cardboard characters into one forgettable situation after another, without giving them a single thought, or giving them anything interesting to do or say?  Was this really supposed to please what fans the first movie did have?

I don't know, and I will never know.  The movie is already fading from my mind less than an hour after my screening got out, and I'm sure with time Mechanic: Resurrection will be forgotten by me, just as the last one was.  It can't happen soon enough.

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Friday, August 26, 2016

Don't Breathe

Don't Breathe is a supremely crafted thriller built around a simple premise, and the notion that a seemingly ordinary house can turn into a maze of terror under the right circumstances.  This being a thriller, it's obviously no ordinary house.  There's a secret in the basement that I won't reveal, although sadly the trailers have hinted at.  There is also the house's sole inhabitant - A military veteran played by Stephen Lang, who was blinded during the Iraq War, and became a recluse after his only daughter was hit and killed by an inattentive driver.  One of the amazing things about this movie is how it can create sympathy for this character, only to turn it around, and make him something truly terrifying.

The film's director and co-writer is Fede Alvarez, who made the 2013 remake of Evil Dead.   I remember a lot of people enjoyed that movie, but I thought it reveled in over the top gore effects, while not focusing enough on the genuine suspense.  Here, Alvarez seems to have found the right mix.  Yes, Don't Breathe is violent, but it does not revel in it as his debut movie did.  He also is able to create such a constant sense of tension that this is one of the few thrillers I can remember actually being on the edge of my seat during certain moments.  It also manages to create sympathy for its three young leads, which is surprising, since the opening 15 minutes or so of the movie does not paint a very flattering portrait.  Early on, we see three young hoods breaking into a house, using security information that one of the guys obtained, because his father works for the security company that protects the house.  The hoods steal whatever valuables they can find, and sell it to a shady man who works out of the back of a van.  This left me a bit uneasy about how this movie was going to make me like these people.

Then we see the home life of the female member of the three hoods, Rocky (Jane Levy), and we slowly but surely soften up to her in particular.  She lives in a ramshackle home with her verbally abusive mother, while also looking after her young sister, whom she protects as much as she can, and dreams of taking her away from all of this.  We learn that she is stealing in order to help her sister and her escape to California, where they can make a life for themselves.  Even if that doesn't make it right, we at least sympathize.  The other two people who help her pull off the heists are her friend Alex (Dylan Minnette), who is the one with the security information and often seems conflicted about what they're doing, and Rocky's boyfriend "Money" (Daniel Zovatto), who is a possessive lunkhead, and obviously doesn't care about her the same way Alex does, making us wonder why she's in love with the dope in the first place.  The movie forgets to address this.

No matter.  Money believes he has found a big score that could lead to so much cash they wouldn't have to pull these heists off anymore.  The blind man I mentioned earlier is apparently sitting on a large settlement fortune that he keeps locked in a safe.  They break in, take the money, and split it up among them.  That's the plan, anyway.  What happens when they're inside the house I will have to be careful when it comes to describing.  Although, again, the trailers sadly have given away much of the shock value.  Fortunately, it does not diminish the effectiveness of those shocks.  Even if you are able to see certain things coming, the movie manages to create an atmosphere of constant close calls, narrow escapes, and tense thrills as the three would-be burglars find themselves being hunted down within a house of horrors.  It helps that this is a fairly smart movie, and that these characters are truly trapped.  It's not one of those films where the obvious escape is staring them in the face, and they refuse to take it.  Yes, there are a couple moments where the characters don't make the best decisions, but this could be argued as a side effect of panic and fearing for their lives.

But what really makes Don't Breathe work so well is how the film is shot.  Cinematographer Pedro Luque intentionally shoots the film just a little off center, making the rooms the characters are trapped in seem smaller and more claustrophobic than they should be.  In one memorable sequence, the blind man turns off all the power in the basement, forcing our heroes to find their way in the dark.  The sequence is shot in gray and badly-defined colors, making it seem like the blind man's eyes are almost glowing with white intensity as he hunts them down.  The effect it achieves is chilling, and is one of the best uses of darkness I've seen at the movies this year.  In my review of Green Room just a few months ago, I commented on how a lot of current directors don't seem to know how to use darkness well in current movies, making things look muddy instead of suspenseful.  Here is a wonderful counterargument on how it should be done, and I hope some filmmakers take notice.

And then there is the performance by Stephen Lang, which is the key behind the movie's effectiveness.  Even when we feel some sympathy for him early on, there is something decidedly off.  It helps that the movie gives him so little dialogue for a majority of the film, it's hard to put a finger on him at times.  Is he hunting these kids down out of hatred for breaking into his house, or is there more to him?  The way that Lang is forced to rely on his other senses (he listens for creaks on the floorboards, and sniffs the air) makes him an almost animal or even alien-like hunter.  He is blind, but he knows the layout of the home obviously, and can use it against his prey.  What makes the character terrifying are not the third act revelations, but rather just the way he carries himself, and hunts down the lead characters with such ease and lack of human compassion.  Again, it was a brilliant move by not having him talk for most of the film.  Sometimes it can be more chilling when you don't know the motives of the villain.

What's most surprising is how Don't Breathe did manage to take my breath away a couple times.  I found myself holding my breath along with the characters during some of the scenes where they are trying to hide from the villain, and not clue him in that he is nearby.  You know you're watching a truly great thriller when you're holding your breath right along with the characters up on the screen.  And this is one of the better suspense thrillers I've seen in a while.

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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

In their past offerings, such as Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, the Oregon-based animation studio, Laika, have gained a reputation for thinking outside of the box when it comes to American animated features.  Not only do they freely use stop motion puppetry (an art form seldom used in traditional animation), but the stories they have told in their films have often been dark, wickedly funny, and certainly much more twisted than the stuff we see out of Pixar, while still making them acceptable for families.  Their latest film, Kubo and the Two Strings, goes one step further.  This is not just a spellbinding and beautiful animated film steeped in Japanese mythology, but it is also surprisingly mature and poetic.

We have seen plenty of films about plucky young boys who face adversity, but nothing quite like this.  When we first meet young Kubo (voiced wonderfully by Art Parkinson from Game of Thrones), we immediately notice that he is missing an eye, which he hides behind a patch.  We soon learn that his own grandfather was responsible.  Yes, in Kubo's world, family can be terrifying, and it made me realize how seldom we see that in stories aimed at children.  So many current animated films stress the importance of family and friendship, it's nice to have a film to remind us to be cautious once in a while in whom we trust.  He is also forced to look after his ailing mother, who frequently seems in a vegetative state.  The only time she truly comes to life is when she shares stories with her son around the fire about his father, the great Samurai Honzo, who died protecting him from his treacherous grandfather.  Kubo is a great storyteller himself, only he chooses to tell stories with music through his guitar.  He goes into the nearby town, and spins stories for money about a great warrior and his quest to battle the Moon King.  Kubo's music possesses magical properties, as when he plays, the tiny paper figures that represent the characters in his story can come to life and act out what he tells.

The time Kubo spends in the local village is the only time he gets to be around others, as his mother and him live in hiding in a cave on the outskirts.  The only rule Kubo must obey is that he must be home by nightfall.  We soon learn why, as it turns out his mother was once a powerful witch who betrayed her kind, and those who once respected her now want them both dead.  Again, we don't see this kind of melancholy storytelling much in modern mainstream animation, and Kubo handles it beautifully so that it is compelling but not overbearing.  One day, naturally, Kubo gets distracted during his time in the village, and winds up staying out past dark.  Before he can get to safety, he is confronted by twin witches (both chillingly voiced by Rooney Mara), who have been searching for the boy.  His mother uses the last of her power to save her son, and when Kubo awakens, he has been transported to a far off place covered with snow, where a Monkey (a wonderfully deadpan Charlize Theron) informs him that she has been placed in care of him by his mother before she died.  Together, they must track down some mystical pieces of armor that once belonged to his father, so that Kubo can defeat his grandfather (Ralph Fiennes), a dark soul who still searches for his human grandson so that he can possess his other eye.  Along the way, our young hero is also joined by Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a human cursed in the form of an insect, who once fought alongside Kubo's father.

If the plot I am describing leaves you with many questions, that is the point.  This is the rare animated film that has a plot worth discovering, and may hold some surprises, so I am doing my best to be vague.  The movie itself likes to reveal information slowly, so that we are as spellbound by what is happening as much as by the visuals.  That's saying something, because artistically, this movie is gorgeous.  The artists at Laika have created some of the most unforgettable images of the year here, chief amongst them a grand fight with a massive skeleton that towers over our heroes.  A piece of advice - Sit through the end credits so you can see some behind the scenes footage of how this was pulled off.  The movie also has incredible atmosphere for an animated family film.  When the two evil sisters make their first appearance before Kubo, it is a sequence as tense and as powerful as some live action suspense films.  Some of the more emotional and mature scenes may be surprising to some, but in my mind, they're only surprising because more animated films don't trust that kids are strong or intelligent enough to handle them.

Kubo's story does not shy away from the darker elements.  A town is destroyed at one point, and there is personal loss.  But there is also plenty of humor (provided in the banter between Monkey and Beetle), and some absolutely rousing adventure scenes.  This is not a glum or morose film.  It's lively, full of imagination and wonder, and completely enthralling.  As I think back on it, this is probably my favorite movie of the summer.  We've had some good entertainment this season, but nothing that really wowed or transported me like a great film can.  This is the first movie in a while that truly transported me into the world it inhabits, and had me completely under its spell.  It's also the kind of movie you want to see again as soon as it's over, because you just know that additional viewings will add more to the film.

When you see as many movies as I do, this is the kind of film you dream of getting - One that mixes spellbinding images with a story that is not only fantastic, but emotional.  I have a strong feeling that Kubo may not just be my favorite movie of the summer, but possibly one of my favorites of the year as a whole.

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War Dogs

By all accounts, War Dogs should not work, but it does.  The movie heavily lifts style and filmmaking choices from other movies, particularly the works of Martin Scorsese.  It's also basically a movie with no likable characters, who are basically doing terrible things to each other.  And yet, director Todd Phillips (The Hangover films) finds a way to turn this "truth is stranger than fiction" story into fairly light and workable entertainment.

This is a case of the story that was being told fascinating me, even if I was put off by some of the distracting choices Phillips makes during the film, such as frequently pausing the film for an unnecessary narration, and using power point-style graphics.  I think a more straight forward approach would have helped sell this as a true story, rather than an overly stylized one.  Still, I cannot deny that the plot grabbed my attention early, and never let go.  It's the often strange story of how two twenty-something stoners from Miami Beach wound up with a government contract to supply arms for the U.S. military.   At the very least, it made me want to actually look into the actual event.  It also features two fine lead performances by Miles Teller and Jonah Hill, who know how to make these characters watchable, despite some of the terrible things they do during the course of the film.

Teller serves as our narrator, and also the closest thing the movie has to a moral compass.  He is David Packouz, a young man working in Miami as a massage therapist, and struggling to support his wife Iz (Ana de Armas), who becomes pregnant early in the film.  David wants to build a better life for his new family, so he at first tries to sell high quality blankets to nursing homes, which doesn't go anywhere.  Then he has a chance encounter with his former best friend from Middle School, Efraim Diveroll (Hill), who has a confident swagger, and is decked out in gold chains and slicked back hair.  He drives a big car, and seems to have found his way to financial success.  His secret?  He recently started to dip his toe into the highly profitable world of arms trading.  During their many meet ups and encounters, Efraim talks about the perks and ins and outs of the business.  Now he's ready to dive in and get some bigger arms contracts with the government, and he wants to take David along with him.

The journey these two friends take would be unbelievable if we didn't know it actually happened.  At one point, they actually travel to the Middle East in order to pick up some ammo they were selling to the US military, which gets stranded in Jordan, so they can personally deliver it to their buyer.  This leads to them making a name for themselves in the gun running business, even though they are not an actual company at this point, and it even leads to a multi-million dollar deal with the Pentagon.  How these two guys got to this point, and how they managed to lose it all, makes up a majority of the film, and it really is riveting.  What sells it are the two lead performances.  Teller is the guy who gets in over his head, even though he realizes it too late, while Hill is memorable as the charming sociopath who is not below manipulating his best friend as well as his clients to get what he wants.  As his character becomes increasingly hungry for money and power, Hill's performance becomes all the more fascinating.  We can see his character trying to hold onto his charming facade, but it is growing weaker by the minute, and his true nature shows through.  It's a surprisingly complicated performance.

I actually would have liked more details into the process these two guys used to run and sell the guns, but War Dogs is a slick Hollywood production with non-stop music cues, montages and stealing from other films such as The Big Short and The Wolf of Wall Street (which also starred Jonah Hill).  The movie also feels the need to constantly stop and explain what is happening with Teller's narration, as if we somehow can't figure it out on our own.  This is what holds the film back from being as good as it could have been.  It's still tremendously enjoyable, but Phillips doesn't seem to trust the intelligence of his audience.  It's like he wants to make a movie for adults, but for some reason, he still feels the need to dumb it down to a certain level.  Not to the point where it is insulting, but still dumber than it needs to be. 

And yet, despite its obvious failings, I was still entertained, and the story grabbed me.  With a different and smarter approach, this could have been really something great.  In a way, the movie is a lot like Hill's character.  It has a certain charm and confidence, but when you peel back the surface, it's not as smart as it thinks it is.  However, you still managed to get sucked in.

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Saturday, August 13, 2016

Pete's Dragon

The remake of Pete's Dragon is not quite what I expected.  It's quiet, thoughtful and intelligent.  These are qualities that the original 1977 film, which was a loud, silly and overly slapstick musical, lacked.  This new version is also as sentimental as a movie can get, though in a good way.  At times it seems like co-writer and director David Lowery was making an art film for children.  The movie uses muted colors, a gentle and unobtrusive soundtrack, and an overall sense of mysticism and wonder that not only captures the imagination, but helps flesh out the characters and makes them more interesting than they were before.

This is what a remake should be.  It takes the basic ideas of the original, expands upon them, and then goes off in its own new direction.  There are no distracting cameos or callbacks from the original.  It is its own creation, and stands on its own.  Will kids like it?  Well, audiences largely rejected the last thoughtful and intelligent family film we got this summer, Spielberg's The BFG, so I have my suspicions about its chances at the box office.  However, I have hope, as the kids at my screening seemed enthralled by the film.  So did the adults, and I was right there along with them.  This is not so much an exciting special effects spectacle (although the effects used to bring Elliot the dragon to life are impressive), as it is a simple fable that never once talks down to the audience, and asks them to choose mystery and wonder over logic.  I also love that Lowery has set his story in an unspecified time.  It seems modern, but there are no hi-tech devices anywhere.  Like the best stories, it could take place in any point of time.

Parents should be advised, however, that the first five minutes of Pete's Dragon may be rough for very young viewers.  As the film opens, five-year-old Pete (the wonderfully named Oakes Fegley) is riding in the car with his parents down a forest road, enjoying his favorite storybook.  But then a deer runs across the road, causing an accident.  Pete is the only survivor, and finds himself lost in the woods.  But he is not lost for long, as he quickly comes across Elliot, a moss-green dragon who can make himself invisible and who seems to be lost in this world himself. (It's hinted that there are others like him somewhere in the world.) Flash forward six years later, and Pete has been living alone in the forest all this time, with Elliot his constant companion and protector.  But when a logging crew led by a man named Gavin (Karl Urban) begins to make its way into the forest for a job, Pete is thrust into human society for the first time in years.

The first human that Pete happens to meet is fortunately the sweet natured forest ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who takes an immediate liking to the boy, as does her preteen daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence from the recent Bad Moms).  Grace is mystified that this child has survived in the forest for so long on his own, and when Pete begins to describe his dragon friend, she can't help but think of the stories her father (Robert Redford, giving a warm performance here) used to tell her when she was a child about the day he encountered a dragon while in the woods.  Pete takes his new friends out to meet Elliot, and soon the whole town knows of his presence, which leads to Pete having to protect the dragon from those who would wish to hurt or study him.  The basic structure of a boy having to keep his extraordinary friend safe from the world is not far removed from films like E.T. or The Iron Giant, but Lowery gives the film enough of its own tone and identity that it doesn't feel like he's lifting from popular material. 

Pete's Dragon is helped out tremendously by a cast that knows how to sell this sentimental material without going into silly and sappy territory, a warm music score by Daniel Hart which mixes folksy songs with a gentle underscore, and of course, the lovable dragon itself, who despite his size and impressive wings seems to have a lot of the same personality as a friendly dog.  I'm sure this will help the creature appeal to children and sell merchandise, but the dragon itself really is likable.  It has a personality of its own that immediately creates sympathy within us.  It's the kind of quiet and good natured movie where even the bad guys are sorry about what they've done by the end, and aren't really all that bad to begin with.  But it's also smart and knows what it's doing.  It never once seems like its forcing us to fall for its charms.  The appeal of the characters and the story are subtle, and by the final moments, the tears that will be in the eyes of certain audience members are well-earned instead of manipulated.

It would seem as if the Disney Studio has figured out a way to create not only remakes that audiences want to see, but are generally able to stand out on their own.  Even if I haven't been a fan of all of them (The Jungle Book from last Spring disappointed me), I still admire the effort put into them.  For the most part, they hire filmmakers who are right for the material, and find a way to not only expand on the original film, but also add their own style and cinematic vision.  And isn't that what a remake should be doing in the first place?  It's amazing how few studios realize that, and instead either give us an uninspired carbon copy of what worked before, or spend too much time throwing in references to the original, which only make audiences wish they were watching the original instead.  I believe the studio has stumbled upon a winning formula here, and hopefully future remakes will be made with the same amount of care.

This is the kind of movie that asks you to remove all cynicism and asks you to believe in the friendship of a boy and his dragon.  It is highly successful at that.  This is an uplifting little movie that hopefully will find an audience during the late summer, and taps into a certain innocence that we don't see very often from Hollywood.

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Friday, August 12, 2016

Sausage Party

In Sausage Party, Seth Rogen, his co-writers and his team of acting friends seem to be trying to one-up Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creative minds behind such adult animation as South Park and Team America: World Police.  They include many of the same elements, such as juvenile humor mixed with social commentary, with equal opportunities to offend just about any race and religion that may be sitting in the audience.  However, Rogen and Company are not the masters that Parker and Stone are, and few of the gags actually work.  They know the words but not the music.  This is a movie that starts out being dumb in kind of a smart way, but ends up being completely dumb by the time it's over.

Consider this example: The movie is set entirely within the confines of a supermarket, where the various ethnic food items are usually at each others throats.  The German food products are depicted as goose stepping Nazis who want to exterminate the "juice" products the next aisle over.  Offensive?  Sure.  But it's not funny, because the movie doesn't go a step further, and actually have something to say about this.  It stops simply at shock value.  Another example: Two of the supporting characters in the film are a Jewish bagel (voiced by Edward Norton, doing a pretty good Woody Allen impression) and a Middle Eastern flatbread (David Krumholtz) who act as adversaries for most of the film, and have to learn to put aside their differences.  However, the movie forgets to give them any real dialogue or things to talk about.  It just relies on stereotypes.  Parker and Stone would know how to dig deep into an idea such as this, and really break it down to its core, making it hilarious.  Here, they trot the characters out and think that's bold enough. 

The movie wants to offend, I get that.  But it's not enough just to have cute CG food characters dropping four letter words every few seconds, and talking about sexual acts.  Sausage Party seems to think that is enough, and I think that's why it disappointed me so much.  Here was a chance to do something really daring, and blow the lid off of adult animation in Hollywood.  Instead, this is a movie that gives us a lesbian food character (a "hard shell" taco voiced by Salma Hayek), and expects us to laugh simply at the idea behind it, instead of giving her anything funny to do or say.  Why not give her something to talk about, or maybe have her dish about her past girlfriends?  Give her some wildly dirty and funny sexual escapades to reflect on.  Just do something!

The heroes of the story are a hot dog named Frank (Rogen) and a bun named Brenda (Kristen Wiig).  They basically dream of "coming together" by having Frank inserting himself inside Brenda.  In the supermarket where the characters reside, all the food products dream of being picked by the "gods" (aka, shoppers) to go to the Great Beyond, which lies just outside the doors of the store.  No one really knows what the Great Beyond is, other than it's supposed to be a paradise for food.  When a jar of Honey Mustard (Danny McBride) is returned to the store after experiencing life outside, he returns with terrible stories of the "gods" slaughtering and eating the food that they take home.  No one believes him at first, but Frank is curious enough to do some investigating of his own, and eventually learns the terrifying truth of what humans really do to food.  He becomes determined to bring all his fellow food together and fight back against the humans.

Given that a lot of recent animated films like to look at the secret lives of everyday objects and animals, Sausage Party could have worked as a savage satire of the Pixar/Dreamworks/Illumination formula.  Instead, the plot simply spins its wheels, never really going anywhere, and getting sidetracked by a pointless subplot concerning a vengeful Douche (Nick Kroll) showing up once in a while to try to kill our heroes.  When it's not doing that, it's wallowing in ethnic stereotypes that it forgets to have anything meaningful to say about.  The movie almost seems smug with itself.  It seems to think its getting away with murder by having its cartoon food items drop the "F-Bomb" 30 times in a minute.  But other than some rather surprising moments during the climax, the film never musters much in the realm of true shock value.  And even then, it just kind of stops when it seems to be getting good.

This is a movie that not only comes across as tedious and tired, but it frequently feels like a missed opportunity.  Seth Rogen and his friends had the chance to really do something great here, but they seem content with merely taking the dumb and rude route, and not really building to anything that resonates.  This may be one of the biggest disappointments of the summer for me, and that's really saying something.

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Saturday, August 06, 2016

Nine Lives

Barry Sonnenfeld's Nine Lives is a profoundly stupid movie.  It's about a billionaire New York businessman who is egotistical, full of himself and likes to put his name on every building he owns (Sound like anyone who's been in the headlines a lot this past year?), and how he learns to be a better father to his adult son and young daughter, and a better husband to his wife, while having his soul trapped in his daughter's cat.

Sometimes my mind boggles when certain movies get made.  This is one of those times.  Did anyone involved really think this was a good idea?  What scripts did the actors turn down in order to make this?  The movie stars Kevin Spacey.  Yes, Kevin Spacey, that most gifted and treasured of actors.  The man has won numerous awards, including the Oscar and the Tony.  Now he can probably expect a Razzie early next year.  To be fair, he's not sleepwalking through this movie, though you kind of wish he was.  He gives the material more effort than it deserves.  The movie also stars Jennifer Garner (Who with Mother's Day and now this, has the distinction of appearing in two of the worst movies I've seen so far this year.) as his wife, and Cheryl Hines as his ex-wife, who shows up to be humiliated once in a while.  When Hines shows up at his penthouse apartment, Kevin Spacey (in cat form) decides to use her expensive purse as a litter box.  Ho, ho.

Spacey is Tom Brand, who enjoys skydiving into press conferences via unconvincing green screen effects, and wants to build the world's tallest skyscraper.  When it's revealed that a building in Chicago is going to be taller, he has a fit, and threatens to miss his 11-year-old daughter's birthday party.  Still, he's determined to impress her, so he races around Manhattan for a pet cat that she wants.  This leads him to a tiny little pet shop run by a mysterious shopkeeper, played by Christopher Walken.  The performance Walken gives is sadly subdued.  A little bit of his strange humor would have done wonders.  Tom picks out a cat named Mr. Fuzzypants, and then decides to head back to his corporate building, so that he can go to the roof in the middle of a thunderstorm and yell at his corporate lackey Ian (Mark Consuelos), who he thinks is trying to sabotage the business deal.  To make a long story short, a stray thunderbolt knocks Tom off the roof,  placing him in a coma.

When Tom wakes up, his soul has been transported into the body of Mr. Fuzzypants, and he finds himself in the hospital where his wife and daughter are fretting over his unconscious human body.  Fortunately, Christopher Walken is there to explain what has happened, and tells him he has to learn to appreciate his family in the cat's body before the doctors pull the plug on his human body.  It's at this point that Tom asks a very good question that the movie fails to answer.  If his soul is inside the cat's body, what happened to the cat's soul?  Is it floating somewhere in limbo?  Tom's wife and daughter (who don't seem nearly as distressed as they should be that he is clinging to life) bring Mr. Fuzzypants home, not knowing that Tom is inhabiting the feline.  He tries to get their attention, but nothing seems to work.  It's not until he starts bonding with his daughter that he starts to realize how important his family is.

Nine Lives is credited to five different screenwriters, who must have gone home weary after a long day of dreaming up scenes like the one where Mr. Fuzzypants tries to open a bottle of scotch with his tiny paws.  The cat itself is played by a combination of a real cat, and a blatantly CG one for when it has to leap off a windowsill and bounce off an awning, or when it starts doing amazing dancing and backflip moves.  I'm not blaming the filmmakers for using special effects in order to display things that a real cat simply can't do.  I just wish they made more of an effort, so the effects would look slightly more convincing than Gumby and Pokey.  There's next to no plot here.  Yeah, it's revealed that the slimy Ian is trying to take over the company while Tom is comatose, and it's hinted that his current wife is thinking of leaving him.  But none of this matters.  This movie is far too bland for anything to make an impact.

This is a perfect movie for very little kids, or adults who don't care what they're watching, just as long as it's fairly inoffensive and nothing bad happens.  It's 90 minutes of pure mindless fluff with no nutritional value whatsoever.  And no, I am not exactly condemning all fluff.  I have enjoyed films that most have dismissed as such in the past.  This is simply bad fluff.  It's cheaply made, poorly written, and has absolutely nothing to offer other than those with the simplest of tastes.  This is yet another movie that feels like nobody really wanted to make it, and just showed up every day.  Again, I feel the need to ask, is this truly the best script these talented actors could find at the time?  Even if they were in the mood to do a light kid's movie, there had to be better options than this.

I will probably never know what drew Kevin Spacey to Nine Lives.  All I can say is I hope he got more out of it than I did.  At least he got paid.  I got to sit in the dark, and wonder what I was doing with my life for 90 minutes.

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Friday, August 05, 2016

Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad is not so much a movie, as it is an explosion at the screenplay factory.  We can see bits and pieces of workable ideas, and maybe an interesting character or two, but they've been pieced together by writer-director David Ayer (Fury) in such a way that the final result is a jumbled, sloppy mess of symbols and plot elements that never get going.

It does, at least, have a million dollar idea at its core.  Take a group of villains from the DC Comics Universe, and turn them into a ragtag team that are forced to work for the government with the promise of getting some time removed from their prison sentences.  If they refuse or try to cause trouble, they have been implanted with a tiny explosive device in their head that can be activated by remote, killing them instantly.  The "Suicide Squad" is brought together by a government agent named Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who sees the need for such a team when "Meta Humans" (people who possess magic) start popping up, possibly threatening regular people.  And with Superman gone, and Batman (Ben Affleck) off gathering up the Justice League, Amanda feels the best course of action is to round up this team of supervillains, and use their abilities to battle the growing threat, which comes in the form of The Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), an ancient evil possessing the body of poor archeologist, June Moone, so now she has two souls fighting for control of her body within her.

The team that Amanda dreams up consists of Deadshot (Will Smith), a skilled assassin and marksman who only wants to see his sweet 11-year-old daughter again, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who was once a brilliant criminal psychologist until the notorious Joker (Jared Leto) got inside her head and made her his sidekick/girlfriend, Boomerang (Jai Courtney) who is skilled with his namesake weapon, Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a human-like mutant with reptilian skin, and Diablo (an unrecognizable Jay Hernandez), who can control and manipulate fire.  Leading the team and keeping them in check is military soldier, Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), who has fallen in love with the woman The Enchantress is currently occupying, and wants to save her.  He is aided by Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a Japanese warrior woman who hides behind a mask, and possesses a sword that is not only inhabited by the spirit of her dead husband (whom she can talk to), but also the souls of the various criminals she has struck down with it.  This is an interesting idea, and I wish the movie had gone into more detail.  Can she talk to the various criminals trapped inside the sword like she can to her husband?  Do they have not very nice things to say about her?

I realize that I've spent the past two paragraphs almost doing nothing but describing the cast, and their individual abilities and/or backstories.  Suicide Squad feels like that stretched to two hours.  It's all set up, demonstration and introductions, but it never builds to anything worth caring about.  Just imagine how fascinating a movie made up entirely of supervillains could have been.  How do they feel about being sent on what is basically a suicide mission for the government?  Do they crave vengeance?  Are they happy to be out on the streets again?  How do they feel about working together?  Ayer's screenplay doesn't come close to even breaking the surface of any of these questions.  Instead, he throws the characters headlong into one fight after another with The Enchantress' minions, who are CG creatures that are not very interesting to look at and are about as bright as the aliens from this summer's Independence Day: Resurgence

And much like the last DC movie, Batman v. Superman, the movie probably will not be very much fun for anyone who doesn't already hold advance knowledge about these characters in the comics pages.  I can only assume that the filmmakers believe we are familiar with these characters, which is why they forget to give any personality to Boomerang and Killer Croc, and kind of keep Diablo an enigma for most of the movie.  Deadshot and Harley are the two characters with the most screen time, but they fail to have much chemistry together, which is surprising given Smith and Robbie had good chemistry together in last year's Focus.  I'm not sure whether to blame the screenplay (which seems simplistic and basic), or the awful editing, which comes across as if entire chunks of the film are missing.  Considering that a number of scenes from the trailers did not make it into the final film, I can only guess that this movie was hacked to pieces before being unleashed on audiences.  I can only imagine the look on the face of John Gilroy (he edited the film) as he watched the raw footage, and tried to make sense of it all. 

With the severe edits this movie went through on its way to the big screen, it at times struggles to resemble a coherent narrative.  There are random flashbacks, a subplot concerning the Joker that goes nowhere and seems completely out of place, ideas that seem like they used to be fleshed out a lot better before they ended up on the cutting room floor, and characters or plot elements that the film just doesn't bother to explain.  I again want to focus on Katana, who seems like someone worthy of her own movie, instead of being crammed into a supporting role here.  Where did her spiritual sword come from?  How did she get it?  Did it belong to her husband at one time?  Why was her husband killed with the sword, which allowed his soul to enter it?  Who killed him?  Why did she briefly give up her quest for vengeance so that she could help a bunch of criminals fight a witch?  You could make an entire movie just out of these questions alone.  Instead, this movie treats her and everyone else with indifference.  At one point, everyone sees her talking to her sword.  Someone explains that it possesses the soul of her dead husband.  How do the others react?  They don't.  You think learning that information would at least warrant a "well, that's interesting".

That's the kind of movie Suicide Squad ultimately is.  It rushes out information, then doesn't bother to explain or to focus on anything.  Instead, we get to watch a lot of mindless action, when we really just want to know who these people are.  This movie doesn't reward curiosity of interest.  It merely tramples it to the ground and goes screaming forward, creating an ugly, loud and forgettable experience.

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