Reel Opinions

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Rock Dog

Rock Dog is a somewhat disorganized, but genial and pleasant animated film that never offends.  It should delight kids of the 6 to 10 age group, and their accompanying parents will find it watchable.  There are some cute moments, and a very energetic voice cast.  However, I can't see very many kids choosing to see this over The Lego Batman Movie.  In fact, the studio would have been smart to launch this sometime in January, before that film hit.

Just like last weekend's The Great Wall, this is a joint effort between Hollywood and Chinese talent, and is also based on a graphic novel called Tibetan Rock Dog.  It tells the story of a peaceful village up in the snowy mountains which is mostly made up of largely mindless sheep (who do get a couple funny gags here), and the dogs that are supposed to protect them from the evil wolves that live nearby, and would love to snatch the sheep away.  The lead dog, Khampa (voice by J.K. Simmons), is so strict in his mission to protect the village that he has banned all music, as he feels its a distraction from his duty.  Khampa's young son, Bodi (Luke Wilson), is expected to follow in his father's footsteps, but Bodi is aimless in his life.  He knows he doesn't want to follow his father in protecting the village, but he also doesn't seem to have a path in life.  Then, one day, a plane flies by overhead, and happens to drop a radio on the ground directly in front of Bodi.  It's at this very moment that Bodi discovers his passion for playing rock and roll guitar.

With rock music now dominating the young dog's life, he knows it's his mission to go to the big city down below the mountains, and find his destiny as a musician.  Khampa is against the idea at first, but after some sagely advice from the village elder named (I kid you not) Fleetwood Yak (Sam Elliott), he decides to let Bodi go to the city to find his way in life.  Bodi heads for the city, determined to track down his music idol, a reclusive rock legend named Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard, very funny here).  Angus is supposed to be working on a new song that's due to be released any day now, but he is completely dry on ideas.  He meets up with the determined Bodi, sees the guy has talent, and decides there might be a way to use him to help boost his sagging album sales.  Meanwhile, in a completely separate and somewhat unnecessary subplot, the evil wolves led by Linnux (Lewis Black) learn that Bodi has left the village, and plot to kidnap him so that they can use him to get to his father. 

No, Rock Dog does not completely work.  Its plot is a messy jumble of ideas that almost seem to have been grabbed at random by the various writers and story people credited.  There's the fact that Bodi has to learn some kind of mystical martial art that will allow him to shoot bursts of energy from his hands.  There's the relationship between Bodi and his father.  There's Bodi going on a journey of self discovery.  There are some struggling musicians, led by the cute fox Darma (Mae Whitman), who befriend him.  There's the plot about Angus trying to write a new song.  There are the evil wolves trying to kidnap Bodi so that they can gain access to his village.  All of these plots, ideas and characters seem to have been stitched together somewhat haphazardly.  I have not read the graphic novel the film is based on, so I can't tell, but it seems to me like the writers were trying to cram too many ideas of the original story into a movie that runs under 90 minutes.

And yet, I can't write the movie off as a failure, because there are some moments I actually enjoyed.  The scenes involving Angus Scattergood do hold some genuine laughs, thanks largely to Eddie Izzard's line readings, which sound largely improvised.  The whole cast is actually giving this their all, and are not simply cashing a paycheck like you might expect.  There are some cute moments involving the stupid sheep that the dogs must watch over, and some spirited songs on the soundtrack.  I even found the look of the film pleasant, even if it isn't as nice to look at as some other recent CG films.  Really, this is just a small and basically sweet little film that I didn't really mind watching at all, despite its story problems.  It's not exactly a well thought out film, but it has a few laughs, and it goes down easy enough.

I imagine Rock Dog will find a majority of its audience on DVD, which is really where it belongs instead of up on the big screen.  I certainly didn't mind it, and even enjoyed parts of the film.  But with the big competition that's currently out there as well as what's coming later this year, the movie will be lucky if it makes more than a blip on anyone's radar. 



Even with a generic title like Collide, it's amazing how banal of an action film this is.  It not only lacks distinction, but it lacks any real motivation, or a reason to be drawn into the film.  It's competently made, but that's about the best that can be said about it.  With a talented cast that includes the likes of Nicholas Hoult, Felicity Jones, Anthony Hopkins and Ben Kingsley, you can only wonder what they did to entertain themselves while they were making this.

The plot kicks off by introducing us to a young couple in love living in Germany.  Casey (Nicholas Hoult) used to be a drug dealer, but the moment he saw Juliette (Felicity Jones), that life ended for him.  He's cleaned up his act, left his past behind, and now wants nothing more than to be a devoted boyfriend to the love of his life.  There is some chemistry between Hoult and Jones, and I liked them as a couple.  Then, potential tragedy strikes.  Turns out Juliette is very ill, and the only way to save her life is for her to undergo a very expensive kidney transplant that can only be done in the United States, and they don't have the money for it.  The way Casey sees it, the only way to get the money they need is to do one last job for his former boss, a loopy drug lord with a passion for 80s movies named Geran (Ben Kingsley, being very unhinged and occasionally funny).  The mission Casey has to fulfill is to steal some drugs from Geran's supplier, a business tycoon named Hagen Kahl (Anthony Hopkins), who is secretly one of the most powerful drug lords in the world.

Collide obviously wants to be a white-knuckle thriller, with Casey constantly being on the run, as he first tries to steal the drugs, then has to stay one step ahead of Hagen Kahl and his henchmen, and ultimately has to figure out a way to keep Juliette safe when she gets dragged into all of this.  The thing is, the action sequences are not grand enough to grab out attention.  I would like to use the recent John Wick: Chapter 2 as an example as to how a movie like this should be done.  In that movie, the action builds out of the situation its hero finds himself in, and it just grows so much to the point that it feels like the whole world is against him.  Here, we never get that sense of exhilaration that a movie like this needs to succeed.  The action is perfunctory and going through the motions, giving us the same old car chases and shootouts that we've seen far too often.  This is the rare action film where the early romantic moments between the hero and his girlfriend are more exciting than what happens during the actual plot. 

The only time the movie ever comes to life is when Kingsley is on the screen, as he brings a sense of manic humor to his role that maybe the movie needed more of.  He also seems to be the only one who was allowed to have fun while shooting this.  In the role of the main antagonist, Anthony Hopkins mostly is required to monologue, as well as occasionally pointing a gun at someone while monologueing.  He's not being used well here, and he seems to know it, which would explain the somewhat empty performance he gives here.  As I mentioned before, Hoult and Jones do have some chemistry in their early scenes, but once the action kicks in, that goes out the window.  Hoult is basically required to run from one set piece to another, while Jones disappears for large portions, only to return in the third act just so she can provide really nothing of substance.  I can only hope she was paid well for her little amount of work.

If there is an audience for this movie, I honestly can't think of it.  It's the kind of movie that does nothing really terrible, while at the same time never once attempting anything new or interesting.  It exists, it will likely be forgotten before too long, and that's really all that needs to be said.


Friday, February 24, 2017

Get Out

Get Out is currently sitting on 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is almost unheard of for any movie, let alone a horror film.  But then, this is not your traditional horror movie to begin with.  Writer-director Jordan Peele (of the Key & Peele comedy team) isn't really going to traditional shocks and boogeymen here.  Instead, he wants to make his audience uncomfortable and nervous, which he does a great job of with his slow burn style, where just about everything its hero experiences during the course of the film feels more than a little off.

We get this sense of unease right from the film's opening scene.  A young black man is walking down a suburban street at night, joking with a friend over a cell phone over how he is lost, and can't find his way down the confusing and similarly-named streets.  He ends the call, and continues to try to find his way, when he suddenly notices a car is following him.  The man instantly knows that something is not right, and tries to change his course in order to lose the mysterious car.  From there, the tension ratchets up, and the danger becomes known before we're brought into the main plot.  It's a great opening, setting up Peele's main theme of racial tension, and the fact that there's something sinister going on in the seemingly quiet wealthy neighborhoods. 

We then meet our heroes, a professional photographer named Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) , and his girlfriend of five months, Rose (Allison Williams).  They're getting ready to meet her parents in the upstate, wooded area outside of the city, where the private neighborhoods and mansions are plentiful.  Rose has not told her parents yet that her new boyfriend is black, which Chris says is no big deal, but he is obviously uncomfortable with.  They make the drive up to the home, and when Chris meets her father Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), they seem very nice.  Maybe a bit too much so.  They're all smiles, but a bit too eager to show Chris around the house, except for the basement, which had to be locked up due to a problem with "black mold".  Rose's mom, a therapist who specializes in hypnosis, even seems to jump at the chance to help Chris quit smoking with her technique.  Chris is polite to both of them, but can't seem to shake the feeling that something is just not quite right.

This is hammered home by the presence of two black people who live on the property, a groundskeeper named Walter (Marcus Henderson), and a housekeeper named Georgina (Betty Gabriel).  Their mannerisms are programmed and robotic, and they often come across like imitations of real people.  Again, Chris shrugs this off to nerves, or perhaps just not feeling comfortable in the situation and reading too much into it.  But, the more time he spends around the house, the more he begins to suspect that he's in over his head, and that something is not right.  When Rose's family throws a large get together for family and friends to meet Chris, everybody just seems a bit too mannered, overly friendly, and...suspicious.  Chris can't shake the feeling, and neither can we.  Again, Peele is making us as uncomfortable as possible, throwing his audience into one very polite yet strangely bizarre situation after another. 

I will go no further in explaining the plot, other than saying I hope you can somehow avoid the trailer and ad campaign, which I feel gives away too much about what's actually going on.  Get Out expertly plays on racial tensions, throwing its hero into what is already an uncomfortable position to begin with, and then twisting it even further.    There is a tremendous sense of tension and just plain weirdness that builds throughout the film, only to have everything explode into all-out horror during the third act.  And yet, Peele also gets to show off his obvious skill with humor, through the addition of Chris' best friend (LilRel Howery), a comic relief TSA agent who doesn't like the idea of his best friend going to meet his girlfriend's parents, and gets even more suspicious as the film goes on.  He also finds some subtle dark satire in the main plot, showing that Peele not only has a gift for mixing tension with laughs, but often using both in the same scene.

Peele shows a strong visual sense as well, creating some subtle yet creepy moments, such as the small mannerisms that Walter and Georgina display or go through in their daily work around the house, which only adds to Chris' suspicions that something is not right in the house.  He even gets off some strong visuals, such as how he depicts Chris losing consciousness as if he is falling through a dark void, with the world slipping away before him.  Considering that this is his first time behind the camera, he shows a remarkable amount of skill, and it makes me interested in what else he can do in other genres.  He gets strong performances, has a sense of style, and shows certain ways of thinking outside of the box with his directing style.  He shows a lot of intelligence here.

Get Out is never exactly scary, as it's trying to be more weird and unsettling than flat out terrifying.  But, it does carry a lot of tension, and shows that Peele knows what he is doing, both with the genre and behind the camera.  In a season where horror films are usually recycled or sloppy seconds of ideas that worked before, this is actually pretty exciting.  Sure, it borrows some ideas from certain films, which I will not mention in order to avoid spoilers, but it still manages to be more intense and suspenseful than you might expect walking in.


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Best Films of 2016

Well, seeing as though everybody else has had their "best of the year" list out since December, I guess I should get off my lazy behind, and get one out also, shouldn't I?  As always, I have a good excuse.  As a regular paying filmgoer, I choose to hold off on this list until I can see as many of the year's films as I can.  And since many of the big end of the year films usually expand slowly (sometimes very slowly) into wide release around January-February, I choose to wait.

As usual, I will be naming my favorite film of the year, followed by what I felt were the great films of 2016.  The great films can be anything that truly grabbed my attention, so they can be dramas, comedies, kid's films, whatever.  Then I'll be listing the "honorable mentions" (the runner ups), followed by my 10 favorite actor and actress performances of the year.  Aside from Best Film, all of these choices will be listed in alphabetical order.

So, with that out of the way, let's get down to the important stuff - the movies.


LA LA LAND -  Here is easily the most effortlessly charming movie I have seen in years.  It's a dizzying, joyous, and vibrant musical that positively leaps off the screen with the kind of life few films possess.  This is writer-director Damien Chazelle's second major feature, after his breakthrough debut, 2014's Whiplash.  If his first film proved that he could make a powerful and intimate drama, then here he proves that he can create a truly unforgettable cinematic musical dream.  And even though this is a romantic and sometimes dream-like musical, the movie does have an undercurrent that you would not expect walking in.  Mia and Sebastian do get hit by hard times, have troubles, and yes, have a falling out or two.  But it is not played up with melodrama as you would expect from a modern day, or even a classic, musical.  We can feel and understand the pain of these characters and relate to them.  The use of music, as well as the performances from Gosling and Stone, adds so much it's hard to describe.  I don't remember the last time a movie musical has affected me so emotionally.  The movie can be joyous and filled with wonder, but it is also honest and rough at times.  The fact that it can pull off both aspects so effortlessly is not only rare, it's also just incredibly well done.  La La Land is a truly rare film, one that likely will not be forgotten once the Awards have been handed out.  It's a true cinematic event, and something that you just don't see at the movies all too often.  It not only leaves you on a natural high, it makes you want to turn around and see it again as soon as it's over.


APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD - This animated film from France has a lot of the things I go to the movies for.  It has an imaginative and well-designed world that is a marvel to look at, it's exciting, it's bright and fast-paced, and it has characters that immediately endear themselves to you.  I can easily see myself watching this many times, picking up on things I previously missed. There is so much fun, invention and humor behind the story that it makes some of the more dark and heavy recent Hollywood blockbusters seem even more archaic.  April and the Extraordinary World is at its core a hopeful and optimistic movie.  Even with some of the more gritty and dirty Steampunk images that make up the film, there is always a sense of invention and wonder, not despair.  And by the time we get to the beautiful and heartfelt final scene, we find ourselves walking out of the theater on a natural high that only a truly great film can achieve.  This movie simply made me happy.  It was showing me a world I had never seen before, while also telling an engaging story with characters I could get behind.  It made me think how rare it is we get all of these things in one movie these days.  Can you remember the last time a film left you feeling not only inspired, but just plain cheerful?  It's also a family film in the truest sense of the word, as it's appropriate for both kids and adults.  It's the kind of entertainment we don't see enough of, and deserves to be seen.

ARRIVAL -  This is a moving and quietly powerful film that depicts Earth's first encounter with Alien life.  Sure, many films have done this, but what this film does is narrow its focus. Yes, we do see glimpses of how the nations of the world are handling the situation (there's talk of U.N. meetings, lootings and possible military action in response to the massive ships that have arrived on Earth), but this is a very close and intimate story mostly about a single woman, and her interactions with this interplanetary life.  The woman is Louise, played by Amy Adams in a highly effective and complex performance.  The drama in Arrival is built around whether Louise can create a way of communicating with these visitors before the nations of the world get nervous, and start using their weapons against them.  But the emotion of the film is drawn not so much from mankind's first encounter with alien life, but rather the backstory that involves a personal tragedy in Louise's life.  But most of all, Arrival grabs your attention almost right from the beginning, and refuses to let go.  This is an amazingly deft and level screenplay provided by Eric Heisserer (adapted from the short story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang) that never once gets bogged down in exposition or useless information.  The movie flows perfectly, and Villeneuve's direction never once sags.  There's really no one element here that rises above the other.  Everything from the performances, to the cinematography, right down to the music score - Everything complements one another creating an experience we seldom get at the movies, where we feel like everything has come together.

EYE IN THE SKY - Gavin Hood's Eye in the Sky is a movie to be savored.  It is not only wonderfully acted and emotionally powerful, but it is almost forensic in its depiction of a drone strike seen from various points of view, and the various moral dilemmas these people face because of the situation.  Rather than take a standard three-act narrative, the movie instead almost seems to be done in real time, so we feel like we are right there with the characters.  And although it is technically a drama, it is generally and completely thrilling.  The film takes a complex situation, and manages to look at it from multiple points of view, never once playing favorites.  Combine that with a winning cast including Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman (in his final on-screen performance), and you have easily one of the most gripping, and sadly forgotten, dramas of last year.  This is an intelligent and thought provoking movie that never once manipulates.  It's an even-handed and powerful look at a very tense situation, and that tension carries right through to the very end, as the characters reflect on everything that has happened.  There is no reflection through dialogue, mind you.  Actually, the final moments are very quiet, as they should be.  We can see it on the faces of the actors, and how the outcome weighs on them in different ways, based on their views.  Eye in the Sky is an impeccable film.

FENCES -  Based on August Wilson's Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and featuring almost the entire cast from an acclaimed 2010 Broadway revival (all but one of the main Broadway cast reprise their roles here), Fences manages to be just as powerful and at times emotionally draining on the screen as it was on the stage.  The intelligent dialogue and raw emotion is all here, which is sure to make fans of the original work overjoyed.  The movie does seem to be a bit limited in scope, and sometimes it can feel like we're watching a stage play up on the screen.  But the drama here is so involving, I honestly did not care.  Denzel Washington not only leads the cast, as he did in the earlier stage play, but he also directs the film.  This is only the third time he has stepped behind the camera, and while he doesn't really show off any great directing or film tricks here, he doesn't need to.  He simply lets his cast brilliantly deliver the dialogue, and lets the drama of the situation grow from the performances.   Just as when I saw the production in New York back in the summer of 2010, the cast manages to capture every bit of power and essences from Wilson's words.  As for Washington himself, I feel that this stands as one of his truly great performances in his career, ranking alongside Malcolm X and Training Day.  It's a versatile performance that truly shows off his range.  Rich in emotion and power, Fences is easily one of the great films of the year, and hopefully will be met with numerous awards.  Since the 2010 Broadway production was never filmed for television, it's great to have this film to capture these unforgettable performances.  In my mind, this is the best acted film of 2016.

HELL OR HIGH WATER - Here 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.  Hell or High Water is really telling two stories. 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.  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.

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.  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.  Kubo's story does not shy away from the darker elements, but this is not a glum or morose film.  It's lively, full of imagination and wonder, and completely enthralling.  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.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA - Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan has only three films under his belt, with the other two being 2000's You Can Count on Me and 2011's criminally underappreciated Margaret.  All of his films are smart, honest looks at personal loss, and the effect it has on people, but Manchester by the Sea may be his best attempt yet.  Anchored by a sure-to-be-remembered performance by Casey Affleck, this is a film that works both as a devastating human drama, as well as a dry and often very droll comedy.  At its heart, the film is about forgiveness.  It covers both sides, dealing with forgiving yourself as well as others.  It's a movie about guarded characters, who keep to themselves in a tight-knit community where everyone pretty much knows everyone else's secrets.  It's also a movie about parenting and taking responsibility.  But Lonergan finds a way to not only make these ideas seem fresh again, but to also add his own personal spin.  He's a writer and filmmaker who can bring out incredible emotion, but can also make you laugh harder than at any over-hyped Hollywood comedy.  He knows how to balance the pain and joy in his films, and always gives his audience a memorable experience.  But his true secret weapon this time is Casey Affleck, delivering some of the best work of his career.  Manchester by the Sea is a movie that takes its time, and keeps certain things hidden from us.  Lonergan instead lets us grow to be involved with these people and their world, and the end result is a movie that truly makes us feel for everyone involved in the story.  After seeing this, you kind of want Lonergan to make movies more often, but at the same time, you don't want him to turn into an assembly line filmmaker, just pushing out one film after another.  At the rate he's going, he can take all the time he wants to.

A MONSTER CALLS -  This is one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful family films I have ever seen.  And yes, even though it deals with some very dark and serious subject matter, it is a movie that I think will speak loud and clearly to children.  There are some critics who have complained that the movie is too dark and depressing for its target audience of young viewers. (The themeatic content is also why the movie has been given a PG-13 rating, although any child around the age of 10 should be able to handle it.) My answer to this complaint is that maybe it just seems that way to them because we so seldom get movies for children that are this mature and refuse to pull any punches.  Just like Kubo and the Two Strings, this is a movie that is not afraid to show the darker side of family and childhood.  The fact that the film is unflinching, honest and sad is perhaps the best aspect, and what drew me so much into the film.  But there's so much more to admire here outside of its brave stance on its subject matter.  The movie is masterful in its visuals, performances and special effects.  The Monster itself is a combination of CG and a motion capture performance by Neeson, and ranks as one of the more personable special effects creations to hit the screen.  Not only that, but the cinematography by Oscar Faura (The Imitation Game) does a splendid job of showing us both Conor's dreary real world, and the more fantastical dream-like images that the Monster shows us in his stories.  The film also makes wonderful use of its music score, and most importantly, silence.  There are many scenes that simply allow the emotion to come out of the expressions and motions of the actors, and it made me think how seldom we see that in film today.  Yes, the movie can be devastating emotionally.  If you reach the end of this film with dry eyes, you may want to check your pulse.  However, it's more than emotional.  It's fantastical, kind of magical, and yes, deeply touching in a way few films are.

MOONLIGHT - I sadly did not get to review this wonderful film, as I had too much going on.  I meant to do a micro review, but there just wasn't enough time.  And so, I just will have to honor it as one of the best films of 2016, which it truly is.  Barry Jenkins' unforgettable drama that looks at a young black man in the different stages of his life (from childhood, to teen, to adult), and the different events and people who influence him, is so captivating and poetic you almost can't believe the effortlessness that it is pulled off with up on the screen.  Every scene, every emotion and performance is one to be savored.  Were it not for Fences, this would probably get my pick for the best acted film of last year.  One of the amazing things Jenkins does with is direction is the camerawork, using long tracking shots, which create such a fantastic sense of place that we seldom see in movies.  There are also moments where the camera is so fluid and natural, it's like a character in the conversation, reacting to what is going on, but not in a distracting way.  This is one of the more unforgettable cinematic experiences of the year, and one that should have gotten a wider release.

ZOOTOPIA - This 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.  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.  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.  There's clever dialogue, and more than enough fast paced action to keep the youngest in the audience enthused . The movie was mainly advertised as breezy entertainment, but parents were surprised to find that the film follows a lot of themes that became dominant in the 2016 Presidential election year.  I can imagine that the movie did inspire some interesting conversation between adults and older children about what's going on in the world.  Whatever the case, this is a funny, entertaining and heartfelt film, and that's really the most important issue of all.


The Finest Hours, Kung Fu Panda 3, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Deadpool, The Witch, Race, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Midnight Special, Hello My Name is Doris, Barbershop: The Next Cut, Keanu, Captain America: Civil War, Money Monster, The Nice Guys, Me Before You, Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping, Love and Friendship, The Conjuring 2,  Central Intelligence, Finding Dory, The Shallows, The BFG, The Secret Life of Pets, The Infiltrator, Lights Out, Jason Bourne, Nerve, Bad Moms, Pete's Dragon, Florence Foster Jenkins, War Dogs, Don't Breathe, Sully, Bridget Jones's Baby, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, The Girl on the Train, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Doctor Strange, Hacksaw Ridge, Trolls, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, A Street Cat Named Bob, The Edge of Seventeen, Moana, Allied, Miss Sloane, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Sing, Lion, Patriot's Day


Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea
Mahershala Ali in Moonlight
John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane
Ryan Gosling in La La Land
Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea
Alex Hibbert in Moonlight
Lewis MacDougall in A Monster Calls
Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool
Ashton Sanders in Moonlight
Denzel Washington in Fences


Amy Adams in Arrival
Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train
Jessica Chastain in Miss Sloane
Viola Davis in Fences
Ellen Degeneres in Finding Dory
Sally Field in Hello, My Name is Doris
Naomie Harris in Moonlight
Felicity Jones in A Monster Calls
Emma Stone in La La Land
Michelle Williams in Manchester by the Sea

So, those are my favorites of 2016 in a nutshell!  Hopefully, as we go further into 2017, we will get many more bright moments to come in the cinema.


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Fist Fight

Fist Fight doesn't always work, but it works enough that I am giving it a marginal recommendation.  There are moments where I laughed, and even when I wasn't, I appreciated the energy in which the cast was approaching the material.  The movie can be a bit sour, and doesn't really seem concerned with having us like its characters.  But at the same time, that's kind of what appealed to me about it.

As anyone who reads my reviews regularly knows, if there's one Hollywood trend I can't stand, it's raunchy hard-R comedies aimed at adults that go soft and sentimental near the end.  I refer to this trend as "feel good smut", and it's been infecting pretty much every major comedy aimed at adults these days.  The characters in these movies start out as foulmouthed jerks who seem to have no idea of social morals, but then the movie will usually spend its third act bending over backwards trying to make us love these people, and convincing us that they're really just misunderstood, and have big hearts.  It often feels like the filmmakers are apologizing to the audience for the movie they were trying to make.  Fist Fight is the first major adult comedy I can think of in a while that doesn't fall into this trap.  These people are not good at heart, nor do they find redemption, and I actually found that refreshing and honest.

There's actually a moment near the end of the movie that tricks you into thinking it's going to go the sentimental route.  It concerns the hero (Charlie Day) trying to make it to an elementary school talent show that his young daughter (Alexa Nisenson) is performing in.  The show is important to her, and he doesn't want to let her down.  So, he races to make it to the talent show, heads backstage, and gives her a pep talk.  His daughter takes the stage and...Well, I won't ruin the pay off.  All I will say is that I was surprised, and any movie that manages to surprise me gets my respect in some way.  Is this a great movie?  Heck, no.  But, I honestly found myself laughing at many moments.  I wasn't always proud of the fact that I was laughing at some of the things I was seeing, but the fact that I was means that the movie was working for me.  The cast also seem to know what kind of movie they're in, and they act appropriately.

The plot is set at Roosevelt High School, which is apparently mostly staffed by a faculty who just doesn't care anymore.  It's the last day of school, and the entire student body is participating in "prank day", a tradition that has apparently ballooned not just in popularity over the years, but also in the level of how elaborate the pranks the students pull have become.  It's gotten to the point where a racehorse high on meth galloping down the halls of the school no longer surprises the staff.  In the middle of this anarchy is the mild mannered English teacher, Andy Campbell (Day).  He's the quiet type who seems like he was born to be pushed around by everyone else.  His students don't respect him, and frequently leave crude drawings on his white board, but he lets it all go.  This is partly because he's a wimp, and also partly because a lot of his fellow teachers are being let go.  Andy's wife is pregnant with their second child, and he doesn't want to stir any waves for the sake of job security.

On the other end of the spectrum is the history teacher, Ron Strickland (Ice Cube).  He's the permanently scowling sort that nobody wants to mess with.  He has his own legend in the halls of the school, complete with a shady past that ranges from stories of him being a former cop on the edge who murdered drug dealers, to him assassinating America's enemies on the battlefield of war.  He is one of the few teachers who does not take any crap from his students, and frequently uses intimidation to keep them in line.  Through a complex series of events, Andy ends up snitching on Ron to the Principal after an event concerning Ron taking a fire axe to a misbehaving student's desk.  This leads to Ron losing his job, and immediately challenging the milquetoast Andy to a fight in the school parking lot at the end of the day. 

This spirals into a series of events with Andy desperately trying to avoid or completely call off the fight to save his skin.  Some of his actions do call his character into question, such as when he tries to plant drugs in Strickland's bag and call the police.  However, we never lose our interest in the character, thanks to Day's performance, which expertly uses slapstick as he manically runs down halls, stuffs himself in lockers, and hiding in bathrooms.  It plays well against Ice Cube's comically snarling performance, which he pretty much perfected with the two Jump Street movies, but still manages to make entertaining here.  The two leads play off of each other well with their different comic approaches, and the movie itself does a good job of mixing their different styles together.

When the titular fist fight between the two does eventually come about, I was surprised by how well it was executed.  It's actually quite brutal, with biting, choking, body-slamming, head-stomping, and fire extinguishers to the noggin.  But, it never gets so violent that we stop laughing.  There is a manic energy that carries throughout the movie, so that even if it does get quite mean spirited and violent at times, there's also a certain comic energy to it that I really enjoyed.  Like I said, it was nice to finally have a movie for adults go all the way.  It doesn't try to make these characters into likable goofballs.  They're violent, they can be depraved in a funny way, and they can be driven to do horrible things.  But because of the energy of the film, as well as the strong performances by the leads and their co-stars, I was able to follow along and generally had a good time.

I can understand how Fist Fight will turn off some audiences.  Heck, I suspect I might be in the minority with this one.  But, I have to be truthful and say that I did laugh more than once, and I was taken in by its energy.  This is not a deep movie, and it doesn't have a lot to say, not even about the failing public education system.  It just wants to be a goofy and incredibly crude movie, and I kind of admired it for that.


Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Great Wall

The Great Wall is a simple movie hiding behind grand ambitions.  It's directed by the acclaimed Chinese filmmaker, Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, House of Flying Daggers, and Hero), making his English language debut.  It's a joint production between Hollywood and China, with its $150 million budget making it the most expensive movie to be made in Chinese history.  It has scenes awash of color and a cast of literal hundreds.  But strip away all the prestige, and what you have is a simple monster movie, and not a very interesting one at that.

Oh, you can see every dollar that went into this project right there on the screen.  It's there in the gobs of special effects, massive sets, lavish costumes, and of course, Matt Damon in the lead role.  He's here mostly because he's a bankable star in just about any territory the movie will play in.  It certainly can't be because of the role he's playing, because the movie gives him little to do for large chunks.  He plays William Garin, a mercenary from the West who has come to China seeking the elusive "black powder" (that's gun powder to you and me) that he's heard could help change the course of all wars.  William is accompanied by Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal), who mostly acts as comic relief.  There is a lot of banter between the two, but it's weak and not very convincing.  It almost sounds like "Comic Banter 101"-level writing.  They're constantly acting like they're in a buddy comedy, while everyone around them acts like they're in a serious Chinese epic.  Mind you, a "serious" Chinese epic that involves the Great Wall being placed under attack by mystical monsters that look like dinosaurs.

Our two heroes arrive at the Great Wall, and are captured by the border guards.  They're the Nameless Order, who are led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian).  Before long, William is forging a relationship with the strong but beautiful Lin Mae, learning about her ways, and discovering that there is more to life than making a profit.  Pero, meanwhile, seems to be siding with the one other Westener who is living within the Nameless Order's fortress.  That would be Ballard (Willem Dafoe), who is also there for the "black powder", and thinks he knows a way how they can take all they want and escape.  Supposedly, much of Dafoe's performance wound up on the cutting room floor, so he doesn't make much of an impression.  Instead, we get a lot of scenes of William and Lin Mae giving each other "meaningful glances", and talking about things like trust and loyalty.

If only William and Pero had picked a better time to visit.  You see, it turns out the Great Wall is under attack by some monsters called the Tao Tei, who appear every 60 years to feast upon humans in order to feed their Queen.  William's arrival comes at the same time as the latest wave of attacks, so we get a lot of scenes of hundreds of CG lizard-like creatures swarming the land and the Wall itself like bugs.  Fortunately, it turns out William is pretty handy with a bow and arrow, and helps the army out with a lot of CG-assisted stunt work and fighting.  To be fair, many of the big battle scenes are beautifully shot and staged, as is to be expected from Yimou.  But unlike his more famous films, there is nothing behind the images.  This is a soulless Hollywood effects machine, created with little care for coherence or character.

The Great Wall is a movie that should be more fun than it is, and obviously wants to be.  I mean, it tries to have a sense of humor to itself at times, and it certainly tries to be a spectacle.  But outside of a few memorable images (my favorites coming near the end when the Nameless Order fly to a major city on hot air balloons), there is just not enough here that stands out.  This was designed to be a cross-cultural blockbuster, and it shows in just about every way.  It's a total commercial product, made entirely out of elements that would appeal to wide audiences on both sides of the ocean.  And yet, when the movie came out in China a couple months ago, it received mixed to negative reviews (many of which were denounced by the Chinese government).  I'm not sure of the film's box office prospects on this side of the world, but I can't see many people flocking to this.

For all of its crowd pleasing ambitions, the movie simply doesn't deliver.  Fans of Matt Damon will be disappointed that his performance is somewhat lifeless here.  He's not terrible, but he's certainly not as charismatic as he has been in the past.  His large cast of Chinese co-stars come off a bit better, but again, they're not really given very deep characters to play here.  Jing Tian as his main co-star is beautiful and has a strong screen presence, but gets no real notable scenes during the entire film.  Those looking of a beautiful Chinese epic will be let down by how much it ignores the history of the Wall itself (despite the title), and how it focuses almost entirely on battles with fantastic monsters.  So, let's say you come to the movie for the fantastic monsters.  Again, don't get your hopes up.  They're kind of fun to watch at first, but they ultimately come across as a faceless horde that act like targets in a video game.

So, who is The Great Wall made for?  Despite this being an overly calculated production that's been designed to be a crowd pleaser in every sense of the word, I honestly can't say.  The movie's not unwatchable by any means, and it has some lovely sights, but there's just so little under the surface.  But, given the talent and the money involved, you might be expecting more.  And you should.


Friday, February 17, 2017

A Cure for Wellness

Gore Verbinski's A Cure for Wellness is one of the best looking bad movies I've seen in a long time.  The design of the individual rooms and seemingly endless corridors that make up the film's sanitarium setting are appropriately off-putting, and create a certain sense of dread.  But that's all the movie can muster in terms of thrills.  It's all atmosphere, attached to a story that's not worth the journey it takes to get to the end.

And what an interminable journey this movie puts us through.  At a length of two and a half hours, A Cure for Wellness not only long overstays its welcome, it seems to struggle to fill that time to begin with, which just makes you wonder why this movie wasn't shortened to a more manageable length.  To be fair, the movie is intriguing for the first hour or so.  We're drawn in by the beautiful images, and the early stages of the mystery.  Then the middle portion hits, and the screenplay by Justin Haythe (who worked on the script for Verbinski's equally bloated Lone Ranger film from 2013) just spins its wheels, almost like it's killing time.  When the third act comes, all credibility is thrown out the window by a final reveal that is not only easy to guess from the information that we're given, but also is so bombastic and over the top that it earns bad laughs from the audience.  I'm sure the movie will have its defenders.  Most do.  They'll say at least the movie isn't rehashing the same tired old Hollywood thriller formula, and are attempting something new.  I agree.  But in this case, new does not equal good.

The story opens with a young and ambitious Wall Street type named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), who is given a mission by his board of directors to travel to an exclusive health spa for the wealthy in the Swiss Alps, and bring home a CEO named Pembroke (Harry Groener), who left to vacation there two weeks ago, and now refuses to leave.  He has sent his former company a long and rambling letter about "mankind's sickness", and the company board need him back in New York in order to finalize a deal.  Lockhart comes across as a troubled young man, pale-skinned, drained of energy, and haunted by nightmares of a childhood trauma.  When he arrives at the spa, he finds it headed by the mysterious Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), who is not the type to give out information on his guests and patients.  The entire staff seems to simply give Lockhart the run around.  When he finally does track down Pembroke, just like in his letter, he refuses to follow the young man home to New York.

Lockhart gets in his car to head to a nearby hotel to try to figure out his next move, only to get in a car accident.  When he comes to, it's been three days, his leg is in a cast, and he is now a patient of Dr. Volmer, who promises him the best care possible.  But right from the start, there's something just not right about this place where the wealthy go to have "toxins removed from their bodies".  The staff are tight lipped and downright aggressive whenever Lockhart starts asking questions, or wandering around certain areas of the building.  There's also the issue of certain patients disappearing rather suddenly, and never returning.  Sometimes late at night, he can see a shadowy figure taking bodies on stretches through a door in a separate building that is locked at all times.  There's also the mysterious and waif-like girl Hannah (Mia Goth), who apparently has spent her entire life at Volmer's clinic, but oddly can't provide any real answers.

And so the movie lurches slowly forward, deliberately laying out tiny pieces of information.  There's a little town at the foot of the mountain where the clinic rests that seems to be filled with some rather unfriendly people, and there are mysterious rooms within the walls of the spa that seem to hint at something much more sinister and possibly murderous going on.  Oh, and there are eels.  Lots and lots of eels.  Lockhart starts to have hallucinations (Or are they actually real?) concerning eels in isolation tanks, in bathtubs, and even in the toilet.  Do we get an explanation for all of this?  Yeah, we actually do, but trust me, when it does come you'll want to go right back to wondering what it all means.  Like so many other promising thrillers, A Cure for Wellness doesn't know how or even when to wrap itself up.  And the longer it goes, the patience of the audience grows shorter.

I can admire that the film is wonderfully made on a technical level, and features some stunning images.  But when it comes to the plot and the pacing, everything kind of falls apart.  I can even admire what Verbinski was trying to pull off here.  He obviously wanted to make a very cerebral and psychological thriller.  But then he betrays his own ambitions in the last half with a climax so over the top, it's like something out of a bad slasher movie from the 80s.  The only thing missing is for the villain to start throwing out corny one liners, ala Freddy Krueger.  It's always sad to see a potentially smart movie go dumb in the homeward stretch, but I should have seen it coming, given the movie seemed to be delaying the inevitable for most of the middle portion.

Aside from some atmospheric settings and a couple scenes built around phobias, there's nothing really all that exciting to find here.  A jolt of black humor could have really livened this movie up.  As it is, we have about an hour or so of intrigue, followed by over an hour where the film goes limp, and a final 15 minutes that just goes dumb.  This is the kind of movie that could send audiences silently slinking for the theater exit long before it's over.


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