Reel Opinions

Friday, September 30, 2016

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children must have been a fun movie to make.  The actors know how to play this material with a wink and a smile, letting the audience in on the joke.  Yes, it's a messy movie, and yes, it doesn't always make sense.  But I would be lying if I didn't say the movie didn't entertain me.  It's just so gloriously goofy, especially when Samuel L. Jackson shows up around the third act as the film's villain, wearing a fright wig and with bulging bug eyes.  He looks kind of like a Don King zombie, and throws out one liners as only Jackson can.

The movie is based on a series of Young Adult novels, and in a refreshing change of pace, it is not set in a dystopian future, and there is no evil regime trying to repress the youth.  But most refreshing of all, this movie marks somewhat of a return to form for director Tim Burton.  In recent years, the famously weird filmmaker has been making rather conventional films, such as the docudrama Big Eyes, or the epic fantasy Alice in Wonderland.  Here, there are moments that hint at his earlier, more daring work such as Beetlejuice.  There is a moment late in the film that is undeniably Burton, where an army of stop motion skeletons (done in a style that is an obvious nod to Ray Harryhausen's special effects work) do battle with massive CG monsters.  Yes, the entire sequence is overblown, but there is a sense of joy behind it.  It's not your standard soulless special effects climax, and there are little touches of humor thrown into the animation, such as the way the skeletons get their body parts knocked off, and they keep on finding awkward ways to continue the battle, despite their missing appendages. 

And yet, I already feel I may be in the minority when it comes to my support of the film.  I will admit up front, it is flawed.  It can be very exposition heavy, but then so are many films based on Young Adult book franchises, as the filmmakers have to cram an entire world the author created into a two hour running time.  It also frequently changes tone, from whimsy, to dark Gothic drama, and even a few elements of bizarre horror.  The story also seems to borrow different elements from mass media.  The titular Home for Peculiar Children, and its inhabitant kids who possess powers such as the ability to manipulate fire and be invisible at all times, is obviously inspired by the X-Men comics and films.  And the monsters that threaten the children late in the film look like they stepped out of a Resident Evil or Silent Hill video game.  But there is always some fun or unique angle that caught me by surprise that the movie throws in.  It's not enough to make the movie feel original, but it at least signals that the filmmakers were not entirely asleep at the wheel on this one, and threw in a couple sly moments.

I guess I should try to summarize the plot now, though I don't know how successful I will be.  Our hero is Jake (Asa Butterfield), a bored 16-year-old living in Florida.  Jake grew up listening to the stories his grandfather (Terence Stamp) used to tell, about a home and school for Peculiars (children gifted with unnatural paranormal abilities), and the headmistress Miss Peregrine who used to watch over them all.  When Jake's grandfather turns up dead after a violent break in and struggle in his house, his dying words lead Jake to Wales Island, where he accidentally stumbles upon a time loop, and learns that the Peculiars and Miss Peregrine herself (Eva Green) reside peacefully.  For Peregrine and her students, they are trapped eternally living one day in 1943 over and over.  It is the day before the building was bombed by German fighter planes.  As long as Peregrine uses her time magic to turn back time before the planes strike, the children will remain safe, and they will live eternal in the same 24 hours.  Jake can pass back and forth through his time, and the time the children are in, supposedly because he is a Peculiar as well, just as his grandfather was. 

The children who inhabit the home are simultaneously the most fascinating and frustrating part of the movie.  We want to know about them and their abilities, but save for a girl named Emma (Ella Purnell), who has the ability to float in the air and needs to wear lead shoes in order to keep herself on the ground, and whom Jake develops a romantic relationship with, we don't know much about them.  There's a boy who is invisible, a girl who can set things aflame just by touching them unless she is wearing special gloves, a boy who can reanimate the dead, and a girl with a second mouth on the back of her head, just to name a few.  The children largely act as a group, and we don't really get to see them use their abilities save for the climactic battle scene.  Should there be sequels (and the ending hints that there will be), I truly hope we get to spend more time with these children.  It is the job of Miss Peregrine to keep them safe in this time loop, so that they are not discovered by Baron (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Peculiar himself who was turned into a monster after an experiment went wrong, and he now hunts the children down so he can live immortal by feeding off of them, particularly their eyes.

By all accounts, Miss Peregrine's should not work, but it does, because it knows how to have fun with itself.  There's an off-kilter sense of humor to the screenplay, which is a good thing, because it would have been disastrous if it expected the audience to take this seriously.  No, it's not a great movie, but it is slickly made and a lot of fun.  Even when there are moments where it felt like the movie wasn't quite working, it still managed to keep me engaged.  It may be flawed, but it's not boring, and that's the key here.  There's a life to the cast and to Burton's directing that I think makes this work better than it has any right to.  Should the box office prove strong enough for a sequel, I hope they can bring back as much of the creative talent as they can, because I don't know if anyone else will be able to pull off the bizarre charms that this one has. 

Speaking of sequels, the movie is very smart in how it wraps things up enough, while still leaving possibilities for more adventures.  This is obviously a smarter choice than the standard cliffhanger that so many of these Young Adult adaptations go for.  I actually am rooting for this to become a film series.  I would love to see Burton go further with these characters, ideas and their world.  Yes, I spent most of my time watching this with a big, goofy grin on my face.  But, I was intrigued at the same time.


Saturday, September 24, 2016


Storks is a perfectly standard and somewhat forgettable animated feature that has a surprisingly touching and heartwarming final five minutes.  If the movie had fallen on this winning formula a lot sooner, we'd be looking at something truly special.  As it is, co-director and writer Nicholas Stoller (Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising) all too often confuses chaos for laughs.  This is the kind of movie where something is always happening, and the characters are constantly talking (often over each other), yet it never reaches any big laughs.

The premise is at least likable.  In this movie's world, the storks used to deliver babies to expecting couples until an incident 18 years ago, where a delivery stork fell in love with a baby it was supposed to fly to its waiting parents, and tried to keep it.  Ever since then, the current CEO of the storks, the bold and brash Hunter (voice by Kelsey Grammer), has had the birds delivering for an Amazon-style website called  The very idea of this could have led to some pointed satire on consumerism, all of which the movie avoids.  The baby that was never delivered, Tulip (veteran voice actress Katie Crown), has lived among the storks ever since, doing odd jobs around the factory.  Now that she is old enough to go out into the world on her own, Hunter plans to fire her, and lays the task at the feet of Junior (Andy Samberg), a bright young stork who is up for a big promotion within the company.

Junior doesn't have the heart to fire Tulip, however, and instead sends her to the mail department, which has been inactive ever since they stopped delivering babies.  However, one letter does suddenly show up from a young boy named Nate (Anton Starkman), who is tired of being ignored by his workaholic parents (Ty Burrell and Jennifer Aniston), and wants a baby brother to play with - one preferably with ninja skills, he stresses in his letter.  Tulip starts up the old factory equipment, and before Junior can stop it, the first baby in 18 years has been produced and is ready to be delivered. (Although it does create a girl instead of a little brother for some reason.) Wanting to keep it a secret from Hunter, Junior and Tulip team up to deliver the baby themselves.  This leads to various misadventures, as the duo try to keep the baby safe from a wolf pack who fall hard for the little bundle of joy and want to make it part of their group.  They will also have to stay ahead of Pigeon Toady (Stephen Kramer Glickman), a kind of spy for Hunter who catches on to the baby situation.

Storks is a movie that constantly seems to be on the verge of clicking, but it never quite does.  It's certainly fast and frantic, but it seems to think that this is enough.  It thinks that as long as the characters are moving and talking really fast, the kids in the audience will be entertained.  Maybe they will.  But it's never as smart as it could have been.  It's also not very inventive, save for the scenes involving the wolf pack, who have the ability to join together and create different forms, such as a suspension bridge, a submarine, and a mini van.  These moments create the best visuals in the film, but again, not as much is done with this funny idea as it should have been.  The script feels like it needed another draft or two to completely round out what it wanted to do.

I will admit that the destination the movie reaches is surprisingly warm and sweet.  There's a lot of heart, and the film seems to suddenly find it's footing, unfortunately far too late.  The whole movie, I was kind of wondering why it wasn't quite working, and I got my answer during its final moments.  It needed more of the heart and genuine emotion that's on display here, and to tone down on the chaotic gags that don't quite hit.  Storks is never outright bad, but it often feels busy and jumbled.  It was not until the last few minutes that things slowed down enough for me to realize what was missing.  I only wish the filmmakers had reached that discovery a lot sooner.  As it is, the movie is bright and colorful, and has obviously been made with the best of intentions.  It just never comes together until the resolution.

Since it's the only animated film out there right now, it will probably find an audience, and I can see it doing well on the home market.  I just can't shake the feeling that this movie could have been so much more.


Friday, September 23, 2016

The Magnificent Seven

In The Magnificent Seven, the villain is a cruel capitalist by the name of Bartholomew Bogue, played by Peter Sarsgaard.  In the film's opening (and best) scene, he walks into a church, and offers those inside $20 per parcel of land.  Anyone who refuses his offer will have to answer to his army of men and outlaws, who uphold his tyranny.  He then sets about burning down the church, and shooting down many of the innocent people dead in the street.  It's a fantastic introduction, and sets our hopes high that Sarsgaard will get to play the kind of villain we love to hate.  But then, the movie keeps him off camera for almost the entirety of the movie, until he shows up again during the third act, where he proceeds to do as little as possible.

Okay, I really want to know something.  When did it become commonplace for the villain in action films to become the most forgettable part of the film?  It's a trend I've noticed with disturbing frequency.  Hollywood used to give us villains that were hateful, somewhat sympathetic, sometimes funny, and definitely interesting.  Even if we wanted to see them fall by the end of the film, we were intrigued by them.  These days, villains in action movies tend to maybe get one good scene if they're lucky, and then either do as little as possible, or disappear all together until it's time for the big showdown at the end.  This movie brought this to the forefront of my mind, and I couldn't stop thinking about it while I was watching this remake of the classic 1960 Western, which itself was a remake of the equally classic Akira Kurosawa film, The Seven Samurai

A big part of this has to do with the fact that The Magnificent Seven gave me little to think about, other than what a prepackaged Hollywood product it was.  Place charismatic actors like Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke and Vincent D'Onofrio together, and then have them attempt to play off each other in a setting that never once looks like a convincing Wild West region, and instead comes across as a really big Hollywood back lot.  This is the latest of the 2016 releases that seems to have been made solely off of the famous name, and not because anyone had any interesting ideas to add to the earlier interpretations.  These kind of movies have been flying out of the studios faster than usual this year, and it's only made things largely a bore at your local theater.  My only hope is that this movie meets the same fate as last month's remake of Ben-Hur (which I refused to spend money on to watch), and is quickly forgotten.

So, after the opening attack on the church, we follow one of the widows of the men who died, Emma Cullen (Hayley Bennett), who decides she wants justice for her husband's murder, and rides into town to seek the aid of bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Washington).  She gives him every piece of money she has to round up a group of men who can take on Bogue's forces.  The group quickly builds to include the likes of drunken sharpshooter Josh Faraday (Pratt), Mexican gangster Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a former Civil War soldier suffering from haunted memories of the battlefield named Goodnight Robicheaux (Hawke), his Asian knife-throwing friend Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), old time tracker Jack Horne (D'Onofrio), and the Comanche outcast Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).

Much of the film is supposed to hang on the chemistry of the actors, but the script does not allow them to have much to work with, so it often looks like we are watching highly paid actors trying to breathe life into what they know are underwritten characters.  All the while, the bombastic and none-too-subtle music score that is mostly provided by the late James Horner (with  Simon Franglen filling in the pieces of the unfinished score)  hammers away, trying to make it sound like this stuff is a lot more exciting than it really is.  Speaking of music, it's curious that the filmmakers wait until the end credits to give us Elmer Bernstein's timeless theme from the earlier movie.  But then, maybe it's because this remake doesn't deserve such memorable musical accompaniment.  This is a largely colorless affair with aimless characters, half-baked interactions and no real sense of tension and consequence for most of its running time.

Even the big shootout at the end is a letdown, and is basically a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.  We get no sense of Bogue's army - How big it is, or the people who are working for him.  They're just faceless extras who exist to be blown away in various, and strangely bloodless and heavily edited PG-13 ways.  That's another thing that bothered me - If ever there was a film that called out for an R-rating, it's this.  I'm not saying some added violence and blood would automatically make this a better movie, but it would at least help not make it seem like such a corporate product that's been market tested to an inch of its life.  The story of The Magnificent Seven is a simple one, and provides ample opportunities for character building, all of which this version ignores at every opportunity.

Nobody looked at this remake as a chance to add onto or perhaps pay tribute to the earlier versions.  My guess the reason it's now playing at your local theater is that decades have passed, and some executives at Sony thought they could make some money off of the name alone.  Not only should it not be seen, but it shouldn't be in theaters in the first place. 


Thursday, September 22, 2016

Bridget Jones's Baby Mini Review

Due to overtime at work and other commitments, I was unable to review Bridget Jones's Baby when it came out last weekend.  So, I thought I would write up a mini review in order to express my thoughts.

The third film in the series finds Bridget (Renee Zellweger, in her first big screen role since 2010's Case 39) hitting 43, and generally happy in life, despite her relationship with Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) having ended years ago.  She is now a top TV producer on a morning news show, has many close friends, and generally has things where she wants them to be.  Then she becomes pregnant, with the added factor that she doesn't know who the father is, having had two sexual encounters in recent months.  The first is with nice guy American millionaire, Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey), who runs an on line dating site, and whom she had a one-night fling with during a music festival.  The other, and perhaps more complicated possibility, is her former lover Mark, who has recently divorced his wife, and had admitted he still has feelings for Bridget. 

For a romantic comedy, the material can be a bit worn, and sadly teeters into "Idiot Plot" territory, where Bridget intentionally keeps information from the two men simply for the sake of plot contrivance, when if she just spoke up, everything would be solved much faster.  And with a running time of just over two hours, the movie does feel padded at times, and longer than it needs to be.  That being said, it's wonderful seeing Zellweger back on the big screen in probably her most famous role, as well as Colin Firth as her somewhat emotionally cold, but still genuinely caring former lover.  Dempsey is also a wonderful addition to the cast as well, and fits right in.  It's these performances and these likable characters that wind up making the film worth watching.  They are able to breathe life into the somewhat tired material, and make us care about them.  There are also a handful of genuine laugh out loud moments throughout the movie.  Even the tired old "race to the hospital with a pregnant woman" scene that always turns up in these movies gets some big laughs.

Bridget Jones's Baby is filled with on screen chemistry and genuine charm, which is why I am recommending it, even if it's not the freshest of comedies.  You probably already know if you're going to like this movie or not walking in, but it definitely helps that the cast is giving it their all, and this is not just a lazy cash-in sequel.  The movie's not perfect, and you can pretty much predict who the real father is from the word go, but the movie is just so likable, you'll probably still have fun with this.


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Mr. Church

The promotional ads and opening titles for Mr. Church tell us the film is "inspired by a true friendship".  My guess as to what this means is that the screenwriter, Susan McMartin (a veteran television writer, making her feature film debut), grew up with someone similar to the titular Mr. Church most of her life, and wrote a screenplay based on her memories.  In this case, she seems to have confused her private memories with well worn movie cliches.  This is a cloyingly sweet and overly sentimental story that only stands out because it features the first appearance on the big screen for Eddie Murphy in four years.

The plot kicks off in 1971, when single mother Marie (Natascha McElhone) is given the services of Henry Church (a stoic and subdued Eddie Murphy) as a personal chef as a gift from a former lover who recently died.  Marie's daughter, 10-year-old Charlotte (Natalie Coughlin) doesn't like this arrangement one little bit.   She's happy living alone with her mother, and thinks they don't need him. When Henry prepares a gorgeous home cooked breakfast for her mother and her, bratty Charlotte demands she would rather have Apple Jacks.  What Charlotte doesn't know is that her mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer, and only has six months to live, so Henry has been brought to cook and generally look after the home.  Marie winds up living much longer than the doctors say, and as the years pass and Charlotte grows into a teenager and an adult (now played by Britt Robertson), she eventually grows attached to Henry, who imparts many wisdoms and life lessons, as well as teaches her the joys of reading.

Mr. Church is ultimately a melodramatic tear jerker, so you can pretty much check off the plot points before they even happen.  Will Charlotte's mother ultimately succumb to the disease, and have a meaningful last conversation with her daughter?  Will Henry stay by Charlotte's side through thick and thin?  Will there be a misunderstanding that tears them apart for a short while?  Will they reconcile and will Henry welcome Charlotte back into his life when she needs him the most?  Does Henry have a mysterious and painful past that has to do with family issues?  Will Henry eventually be faced with his own tearful medical diagnosis?  The answer to all these questions can be answered with another question - Does a bear do its business in the woods?

The movie is directed by Bruce Beresford, who back in 1989 made the Academy Award-winning Driving Miss Daisy, which was another movie that chronicled the relationship between a white woman and a stoic black man over the decades.  That movie was sentimental, sure, but it had the great performances by Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman, who both knew how to sell the material without making it come across as utter cornball.  This time around, he lays the syrup on so thick, I don't know if any actor would be able to sell it.  Murphy has shown he can play a dramatic role in the past, but the role of Henry Church pretty much requires him to do nothing but look thoughtful and a little sad and distant.  There's just not enough for Murphy to do with this character.  Meanwhile, Britt Robertson is also given little to do, other than provide a stilted narration that explains most of what her character is thinking and feeling, because the movie forgets to give her character an actual personality other than to be nice most of the time, and moody the rest of the time.

I am only guessing that Mr. Church is loosely based on the personal memories of its writer, but it certainly comes across that way.  The movie has the hazy feel of nostalgia, where we feel like we are watching personal vignettes that have been made all the more sweeter and poignant than they actually were with the passing of time.  Aside from a few of the characters landing in a hospital, nothing all that bad ever happens, and everybody generally winds up okay in the end, or at peace when they're forced to leave this world.  Even the town drunk not only winds up saving somebody's life, but completely turning his life around and finding true love off camera within the span of a couple years.  The town dreamboat grows up to be a doctor as well as an all around great guy and possible love interest for Charlotte.  Even Charlotte's best friend from school, who briefly grows up to be a materialistic and shallow person, ends up okay and a little bit wiser in the end.

I'm not at all opposed to movies that are sentimental and a little cornball.  After all, I'm the guy who liked Me Before You last summer.  But there has to be a trace of a real heart behind it all.  The heart behind Mr. Church is cloying and calculated, and feels like it's the end result of a storyteller who has seen one too many movies just like this one.


Blair Witch

1999's The Blair Witch Project was such a product of its time that any attempt to recreate it would prove to be a folly for any studio or filmmaker.  Unfortunately, someone forgot to pass that information along to director Adam Wingard (2013's home invasion thriller, You're Next), as he has decided to do just that.  His sequel, Blair Witch, wisely decides to pretend that 2000's embarrassing follow up to the original movie, Book of Shadows, never happened.  However, he makes his own mistake by sticking too close to the original, and basically giving us the exact same movie we saw 17 years ago.

Again a group of college students decide to venture into the Black Hills Forest to make a movie.  Again, they get lost.  Again, terrible things start happening, and they start to turn on each other a little.  Again, spooky sounds are heard during the night.  And once again, everything ends in a confusing climax in that eerie little shack in the woods.  The major difference is that while the first movie was creepy and appealing, this movie feels like an interminable slog at times, despite only running roughly 85 minutes.  We've seen it all before, and Wingard and his screenwriter Simon Barrett don't add enough to make us want to see it all over again.  They also make the unwise decision to go bigger with the scares this time around.  In the first movie, the frightening moments were subtle, with strange, inexplicable noises coming from just outside the tent flap while the filmmakers were sleeping.  This time around, there are booming noises out in the woods, which sounds like Godzilla is stomping about out there, accompanied by falling trees, tents being torn clear off the ground, and a massive light show that makes it look like the LAPD helicopters are buzzing overhead with searchlights.

In the film's set up, we learn that one of the victims in the original Blair Witch movie, Heather Donahue, has a younger brother named James (James Allen McCune) who is obsessed with finding out what happened to his sister over 20 years ago.  He comes across a Youtube video where he thinks he catches a glimpse of his sister somewhere in the woods.  This inspires him to take a trip to the infamous forest, along with his filmmaker friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez), as well as tag along couple Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid).  They track down the pair who found and uploaded the video, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), who are locals obsessed with stories of the Blair Witch, and agree to take them into the woods to show them where they found it.  From there, you can probably guess what happens.  The kids get lost, there's some in-fighting and betrayal within the group, those creepy stick figures start showing up on the trees of their campsites, and the characters learn too late that it's not smart to go off on your own in the dark woods.

Blair Witch does have an interesting time-bending element to its plot, where it's constantly dark out even when it's supposed to be daylight.  There is also an effective gross out moment concerning an injured foot of one of the group.  Beyond that, however, there really is nothing to note here.  The characters are not the slightest bit interesting, and do little to grab our attention.  And when the scares do start to show up, they are of the garden variety "jump scare" sort, where an innocent person suddenly pops up, and says "Hey, sorry, didn't mean to scare you", or something along those lines.  The sad thing is the movie goes down this route a good five or six times, to the point that you not only anticipate it, but start getting sick of it.  There is just not enough here to fill even a meager running time, so the filmmakers rely on endless footage of the characters wandering lost and calling out each others names, or a dragged out climax that is not only confusing, but resolves absolutely nothing.  We know about as much when the movie ends that we do when it's just starting.

The filmmakers don't even bother to add to the mythos of the Blair Witch itself, instead recycling the same backstory that we were fed in the first movie.  They could have chosen to dig deeper, or perhaps add to the overall story, but have chosen to stick to what they know.  That really sums up what makes this such a boring experience.  We know exactly what's going to happen, and it takes way too long to get to where it's going.  The kids do enter the woods with some high-tech technology, such as a GPS device and a camera drone that can fly over the forest.  But again, absolutely nothing interesting is done with these additions.  These aren't even smart kids.  They make the same bad decisions that the characters in the first movie did, so all we're allowed to do is just sit and wait for them to die, or be carried off by some kind of supernatural force or entity. 

Blair Witch is the latest in the long line of 2016 sequels that were just completely unnecessary, and a total cash grab.  It does little to nothing to back up its reason for existing, and simply goes through the motions.  When you get right down to it, the movie probably shouldn't have been made.  But hey, it still winds up being better than The Disappointments Room.  Faint praise, but in a movie like this, you've gotta take what you can get.



Last weekend, we had Sully, a docudrama that wisely did not play up the character of Chesley Sullenberger, and rightly made him out to be an ordinary man who made the right decision at the right time.  This weekend, we get Snowden, a docudrama that does the complete opposite on its subject, Edward Snowden.  The movie's sole purpose is to tell us how co-writer and director Oliver Stone feels about the guy, and how the filmmaker sees him as a misunderstood American hero who is being hunted down by his own government. It lionizes its subject matter, and doesn't let us make up our own minds.

Rather than give us a hard hitting film that covers the facts, Stone has chosen to mount his movie as a fawning cinematic love letter to Snowden, complete with a manipulative music score that sounds like something out of an Underdog Sports Team movie.  Whatever personal views you have on the man and whether you view him as a hero or a traitor to his country, you're not going to learn much here.  In fact, you're better off watching the Oscar-winning documentary, Citizenfour.  Stone apparently thinks so also, as he decides to use the making of that film as a framing device.  And even though the movie is completely in its corner, it never seems completely angry about what is happening to him.  It's too busy being your standard and conventional docudrama that breezes over the facts of the situation, and instead focuses an unnecessary amount of time on a love story subplot that has little to do with what we have come to see.  We've come to see Stone, one of the most famously angry filmmakers out there, get riled up.  What he gives us is your average Hollywood fluff piece that's about as deep as a Wikipedia article.

As the film opens, Edward Snowden (Jason Gordon-Levitt) has isolated himself in a hotel room in Hong Kong, as he prepares to tell his story to Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Guardian newspaper reporter Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo).  He's arranged the meeting to give them information on the United States government's PRISM program, which allows them to hack private and personal conversations through telephone and the internet.  The movie then takes us back through his career, spanning from 2004 to around 2013.  Snowden is portrayed here as a mild mannered man who just happened to be a hacking genius, and quickly rose up the ranks in the CIA under the guide of a mentor (Rhys Ifans) and a somewhat odd code cracking genius within the CIA (Nicolas Cage, given very little to do here).  We are supposed to be watching how Snowden went from being a loyal patriot, to a paranoid wreck who distrusted his own government the deeper he got into working for them.  But again, the movie is not angry and nowhere near suspenseful enough to stir the sorts of feelings it wants to from its audience.

We learn little about what led him to leak all the information, take it public, and the events that led him to be exiled to Moscow, where he currently resides today.  Instead, the movie devotes over half of its running time to his relationship to his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), and the effect his job and him being forced to keep secrets had on their relationship.  However, their love story has no passion, and it's not just because of the fact that Gordon-Levitt and Woodley don't have that strong of chemistry up on the screen, though they certainly try.  Stone seems to have thrown their scenes together in so that Snowden will have something to do in the movie outside of work.  It pads out the movie, but it never really adds up to much.  It's almost as if Stone thinks there's not enough material to work with in the main story, so he tries to kill time with a romantic subplot where Lindsay generally acts as the all-supportive female figure, who only occasionally gets irritated with Snowden's secretive nature.  

The fact that I just mentioned that Stone has to pad out the story because there's not enough to work with tells you more than you need to know about why Snowden does not work.  It's not so much the fact that the movie was completely one-sided that irritated me, as I expected that. (Stone went on CNN a few days ago, expressing his views that President Obama should pardon Snowden and allow him to return to the U.S. without being arrested.) It's the fact that the movie itself is largely completely pedestrian and doesn't stir up any emotion about its subject.  Stone was once known for making movies that were defiant and unlike anything out there.  Now, he's just making garden variety Hollywood pieces, and it really is something you never could have seen coming given his earlier films like Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July and JFK.  Instead of the fire and passion we got from those films, here we get a Hollywood-style romance and a lot of thriller cliches that would be right at home in your typical B-Movie espionage tale.

Snowden is an oddly cold and impersonal movie about a story that maybe should be more interesting than it is.  Or, maybe I'm right, and there's not not enough here.  Whatever the case, Stone has lost whatever once drove him to make movies, and is now just selling pre-packaged cinematic goods.  This isn't even one of the worst movies of the year, but it could easily be one of the most disappointing.


Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Disappointments Room

The Disappointments Room is a thriller in name only.  In reality, it's one of the more boring movies to hit in a while.  It has a suitably creepy haunted house setting, and seems to be building to an intriguing mystery early on.  But long before it's done, the mystery has been dropped for total confusion, tasteless scenes of children in peril, and an overall sense of indifference.  The only scary thing about it is that someone thought it was ready to be released, despite sitting on the studio shelf for well over a year.

To be fair, its release delay is not entirely the movie's fault.  The film's original distributor, Relativity, filed for bankruptcy last year, preventing it from being released in a timely fashion.  Still, that doesn't excuse how mind numbingly slow this film is.  Kate Beckinsale heads up the cast as Dana, a mother and architect from Brooklyn who is moving with her family to a large, broken down old mansion in the middle of nowhere to get a fresh start after a personal tragedy concerning their baby girl that we see brief flashes of throughout the film.  It's never really explained why her husband (Mel Raido, sporting one of the worst fake Brooklyn accents in recent memory) thinks that moving his wife and 5-year-old son (Duncan Joiner) to a creepy house that looks like it was designed to star in a horror movie will cheer his wife up.  It's in desperate need of repair, with leaky roofs and faulty electricity.  Maybe he thinks that if his wife gets caught up in fixing up the place, she'll forget her problems.

As soon as they move in, Dana decides to explore every nook and cranny of the house.  Should you be unwise enough to pay to watch this movie, get ready to see this a lot.  I'd wager at least 65% of the movie contains nothing but Kate Beckinsale slowly walking through halls and rooms while absolutely nothing happens.  In the attic, she comes across a door leading to a tiny closed off room that doesn't appear in the blueprints of the house.  Talking to a local historian, Dana finds out that it's a Disappointments Room - a place where people of high society would usually hide their children away if they were born with physical abnormalities.  She starts to have scary visions concerning that room, most of them revolving around the previous tenant of the house, the ominous Judge Blacker (Gerald McRaney), whose spirit likes to walk the grounds with a vicious attack dog, and apparently murdered a little girl who once inhabited the room.  At first these visions make Dana question her own sanity.  But when the vengeful spirit starts coming after her own son, she knows that the visions are real.

A movie like this needs a smart approach to work, as it deals with such heavy issues as personal loss, grieving, child murder and endangerment and how a personal tragedy can affect an entire family.  But director and co-writer D.J. Caruso (I Am Number Four) has no sense of suspense or atmosphere, so he instead resorts to B-grade tricks such as jump scares accompanied by loud noises on the soundtrack, or ghostly little girls who stare morosely at our heroine, but don't really do much else.  There is a mystery at the heart of the story that could be fun to solve if handled in the right way, but again, Caruso settles for confusion over answers.  There are certain moments that left me scratching my head.  At one point, Dana has a nightmarish vision of her young son being attacked by Blacker's vicious dog.  She races outside to save the boy, only to find him completely unharmed.  So, it was just a vision or a nightmare, right?  Yet, moments later, she stumbles upon Rascal the family cat's mutilated carcass in the woods surrounding the home.  So, was it the dog, or some other creature that killed it?  The movie's kind of vague on the details.

The Disappointments Room is filled with moments like that.  At one point, we see a character get killed by the evil spirit, their body left hanging from a tree, but it is never brought up again after that.  This is a movie filled with set ups without pay offs, and causes without effects.  It's a mess of ideas looking for structure, of which the plot offers none.  Equally messy are the performances, which range from the bland to the embarrassing.  Of particular note, a dinner party scene where Beckinsale finally loses it in front of her husband and two of her friends is one of the most badly acted single scenes of any movie this year.  I don't know if they play clips of the performances at the Razzie Awards, but should she be nominated, just a few seconds of the clip would have the audience howling.  It really needs to be seen to be believed.  Not that I recommend you do so.

This is a movie completely devoid of thrills and tension.  It's a lifeless, dreary, dead in the water experience that doesn't bother to raise the slightest amount of interest in the viewer.  In a season with Don't Breathe playing, there's no need to see this.  Even if that movie wasn't around, there still would be no need to see this.

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Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water is that rare movie that hits every right note.  There's not a single scene that drags, a performance that seems off, or a moment that seems convoluted.  It intrigues us with its characters and scenarios, explaining just enough, but also leaving much a mystery.  As the story unravels, we are even more intrigued, and surprised to find that the movie knows what it's doing every step of the way.  This is a supremely well thought out movie that lends comparison to some of the best films of the Coen Brothers, and shares their love for crime stories mixed with local color humor.

Set in a desolate part of West Texas that seems like it has seen better days, we are introduced to two brothers - Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), who are early in the stages of a bank robbing spree as the film opens.  They only rob regional branches of the same bank and only make off with small non-traceable bills.  We soon discover the reason behind the spree.  Toby wants to pay off the money he owes on his ranch home, which he discovers has oil underground on the land, before the bank can seize it.  Toby is divorced, and wants to give the land to his sons, so that they can live comfortably the rest of their lives without having to worry about the poverty that has gripped much of the local area.  Toby has never been in trouble with the law, so he needs the help of his brother, who recently served a 10 year prison sentence, and seems to be the more compulsive of the two.

Using Tanner's criminal knowledge, the two successfully pull off enough jobs to get the attention of Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement, and his deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham).  The relationship between Marcus and Alberto is one of the better "buddy" relationships I've seen on the screen this year.  Alberto is from a Native American-Mexican background, and constantly receives ridicule and teasing from Marcus, which Alberto is only too happy to return.  Their relationship is a combination of comedic competitiveness, and mutual respect, and you really grow to care about both men.  Their constant barbs and one-liners sound natural, not scripted, and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) gives their relationship and dialogue a flow that truly feels like these men have known and worked aside each other for years.

But it's not just the dialogue that works here, it's the way the film's message is conveyed.  As brothers Toby and Tanner make their way down the road to their next heist, they pass by numerous signs advertising loans, and homes that have gone into foreclosure.  It's obvious that the banks themselves are the true villains of the piece, and that everyone has been affected in some way.  Marcus even has trouble getting people to cooperate when it comes to identifying the robbers, as some of the locals seem to feel the banks have had it coming to them for years.  One local in a diner tells Marcus that the bank has been robbing him for 30 years, so he obviously doesn't care about what has happened.  The movie never gets preachy or heavy handed, and it knows how to deliver its message in such a way that we're not being talked down to.  Also, the movie does not portray the two brothers pulling off the robberies as heroes.  They're in it for themselves (and possibly an adrenaline rush from the loose cannon Tanner), and not trying to help people or make a statement.

Hell or High Water is really telling two stories.  In one, we have the brothers, and their volatile relationship.  Toby knows that Tanner is out of control, but he loves him, and maybe hopes he can reign him in a little, and tries to at times during their heists.  In the other, we have Marcus and Alberto tracking the path and moves of the brothers.  Yes, the two stories do eventually come together, but that's not the ultimate goal I think.  We see the story from both sides, and it's fascinating on both ends.  The cast is note-perfect in almost every regard, although Jeff Bridges does do his mumbling drawl again here that can make him hard to understand at some points.  Still, it didn't bother me as much as it has in the past, and he demands your attention every time he's on the screen.  Same goes for Pine and Foster, who create a likable bond that seems to be on the verge of tearing apart at any minute.  The movie is even beautiful to look at, thanks to the cinematography by Giles Nuttgens, who paints the West as kind of a proud entity that has been hit by hard times, and refuses to go quietly.  Kind of like the character of Marcus himself, as he faces retirement.

This is not an inventive movie, but it's been crafted and written so well, you almost feel like you are experiencing it for the first time.  It's the kind of movie that grabs you almost instantly, and stays with you long after it's gone.   After a summer movie season that was largely disposable save for some exceptions, that in itself is praise enough.  This is simply one of the finest films of the year.

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