Reel Opinions

Sunday, October 29, 2017

No Review of Jigsaw This Weekend

I'm sorry if I am disappointing anyone, but I will not be reviewing Jigsaw this weekend.

Frankly, my job (the one that actually pays me) has been crazy lately with a ton of extra hours and overtime.  I've even been working weekends.  It's been tough enough keeping up with all the films being released, and frankly, I have little desire to sit through another Saw film, so I will skipping it.

Again, I'm sorry if anyone is disappointed.  I just won't be able to make it out to see it.

I will be back with reviews later this week of A Bad Moms Christmas and Thor: Ragnarok, so you can look forward to that.  Honestly, I've been sitting through some very dark, violent and heavy films lately like The Snowman, Thank You for Your Service and Suburbicon, so I'm hoping for some fun soon.

I hope everyone has a great week ahead!


Saturday, October 28, 2017


Were it not for The Snowman, I would label Suburbicon one of the biggest wastes of talent to hit the screen this year.  Here is a movie that is directed by George Clooney, dreamed up by Joel and Ethan Coen (they originally wrote the script back in the 80s, and Clooney and his writing partner Grant Heslov updated it), and stars the likes of Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac.  All of these tremendously talented people have teamed up to make a creepy and unpleasant experience that manages to be heavy handed and tone deaf at the same time.

As the movie opens, we're introduced to one of those picture-perfect 1950s suburbs that Hollywood just loves to poke fun at, and expose the darker side of.  Here we meet average man Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon, his face hidden behind some big, dark-rimmed glasses), who lives with his wife Rose (Julianne Moore) and their young son, Nicky (Noah Jupe).  One night, two strange men break into Gardner's house, take the family hostage, and wind up murdering Rose.  As soon as Mrs. Lodge is buried, her twin sister Margaret (also Moore) moves in, and seems to be quite content taking over.  Young Nicky is traumatized, having nightmares about the break-in.  But, why does his dad not seem all that concerned about what has happened?  The two men behind the break-in start turning up at Gardner's business, and there's a shady insurance man (Oscar Isaac) making threatening house calls, as if he knows that Gardner and Margaret are hiding some kind of secret, and he's not below resorting to blackmail.

Meanwhile, in a completely unnecessary and largely ignored subplot, a black family moves in across the street from the Lodges, and are immediately eyed with suspicion and eventually forced to face non-stop harassment and hate from their neighbors.  The wife (Karimah Westbrook) is stoic as she attempts to shop at the grocery store, only to be told by the manager that the price of milk just went up to $20.  This is about as deep as this racism plot (which seems to exist in a completely different movie) ever gets.  Her husband (Leith M. Burke) never says a single word in the entire movie, and her son (Tony Espinosa) starts a reluctant friendship with Nicky, but their scenes never amount to anything more than superficial.  So, we have two movies, one about a little boy who finds out that his parents are murderers and horrible people, and another about a black family that is tormented by their neighbors.  None of this material gels, and the whole thing feels labored and forced.

Who on Earth was Suburbicon made for?  I kept on watching, hoping that the next scene would provide an answer, but it never came.  The movie is filled with dark, bad feelings, often directed at children who seem to be no older than 9 or 10.  The little black boy looks out his window at the angry mob that constantly gathers outside his house and scream racial slurs at his mother while she tries to do the laundry.  This might mean something if the movie ever had anything to say about racism, but it never does.  It just repeats the same ugly images over and over.  Meanwhile, Nicky across the street becomes increasingly convinced that not only did his dad and Aunt Margaret murder his mom, but now they want to kill him too.  He barricades his bedroom door shut, terrified of what's going on just outside.  And in a later scene, professional killers break into his room and try to kill him while he cowers under the bed.

The movie is trying to be a very dark comedy about the seedy lives that dwell within a quaint little upscale neighborhood, but the movie is so tone deaf, it never builds to any real laughs.  We're simply watching horrible people kill each other and threaten innocent children, who can't seem to comprehend what's going on.  Matt Damon is supposed to be playing a perfectly reasonable man who has gone over the edge, and goes even further as he tries to clean up the mess he made.  But, the screenplay gives him so little to do, he never comes across as anything more than an underwritten stereotype.  As for Julianne Moore, this is the second time in just over a month I have seen her in the role of an over the top 1950s suburban mom-type with psychopathic tendencies, and she is just as bad at it here as she was in Kingsman: The Golden Circle.  If I were her, I would reject all projects that require her to play such a role on sight from now on.

This is a stunningly awful film in just about every way.  Even the direction by George Clooney feels curiously flat here, as he never gets off any particularly interesting shots, or he rubs his ideas in our faces like we are idiots.  In one particularly heavy-handed moment, we see the white and black boy walking down a sidewalk together, and the camera stays focused on some local bullies who eye them suspiciously.  The bullies have nothing to do with this scene, nor do they wind up doing anything.  Clooney just wants us to know that people don't like seeing the kids together, and wants to spell it out in the most basic way possible.  There is no rhythm to the film.  Nothing builds, nothing connects, and it really just amounts to a bunch of nasty and manipulative scenes that are loosely connected to a thin narrative.  It has nothing to say, except that the people who live in this particular community are horrible, violent people.  Good to know, I guess.

Suburbicon is so bad that only truly talented people could have made it.  Lesser filmmakers and actors wouldn't have the guts to dive this deep off the edge.  George Clooney has worked with the Coen Brothers a number of times, and maybe he thought he understood their work enough in order to mimic their blend of dark comedy and thriller elements.  For whatever reason, he lost his way, and the movie loses all sense of credibility for it.


Friday, October 27, 2017

Thank You for Your Service

Thank You for Your Service, the directorial debut of screenwriter Jason Hall (he wrote American Sniper), is a well-meaning film that often feels very familiar.  We seem to get a movie about war veterans coming home at least once a year, and by this point, a movie like this needs to really stand out from the crowd.  Despite some great performances and a few effective moments, this movie never seems quite as angry as it should be about some of the subjects it covers.

Based on David Finkel's nonfiction book of the same name, the movie follows Adam Schumann (Miles Teller), a military sergeant who returns home from the battlefields of the Middle East with a lot of emotional scars that he doesn't know how to cope with.  His concerned wife (Haley Bennett) and their two children do their best to try to make his return comfortable, but he's obviously hiding something.  He says he's fine.  But when he unwisely goes hunting in the woods one night with a friend, he thinks he can see enemy soldiers waiting behind the trees waiting to ambush him.  And when he takes an evaluation test to judge his mental stability since coming home, he openly admits that he sometimes thinks of taking his life in order to silence his nightmares.  When his wife discovers these results, she has to figure out how to help her husband get through this.

In parallel subplots, two of Adam's friends who came home from the war at the same time are also dealing with their own issues.  Tausolo Aieti, aka "Solo" (Beulah Koale) wants to reenlist, but he's suffered a severe brain injury which keeps him at home.  His mental instability leads to him lashing out violently at his pregnant wife (Keisha Castle-Hughes), and seeking out illegal drugs in order to keep himself under control.  His other friend, Will Waller (Joe Cole), was expecting to marry his fiance (Erin Drake) when he came home, but she's not there when the plane lands.  He heads for home, only to see that she has moved out, taken everything, and frozen most of his finances.  All three are forced to confront their inner demons upon returning home.  Adam is confronted by the wife of a fallen soldier (Amy Schumer, very good in a rare dramatic role), who wants to know how her husband died.  Adam has the answers, but he can't face her, or admit to what happened.  Solo hooks up with a drug gang in order to get his fix, and ends up in over his head.  As for Will, he may not have the strength to carry on.

Thank You for Your Service tackles a pretty broad range of subjects, from survivor's guilt, to having trouble adjusting to civilian life after being in combat, to how inadequate the system that is supposed to help these soldiers adjust to their regular lives and deal with their problems can really be.  I can imagine these subjects leading to a great documentary, but here in a Hollywood film that runs just short of two hours, the movie never seems quite blistering or strong enough.  Yes, there are effective moments.  The scenes where Adam visits a fellow soldier who has come to grips with his current place in life are some of the better acted in the film, and the moment where Will confronts his ex-fiance is chilling, but probably would have been more so if the film had not foreshadowed what was going to happen right before it occurs.  Other moments seem a bit more pat and manufactured.  The whole drug dealer subplot is right out of any B-Urban Drama movie, and a sequence involving a wounded pitbull is deeply manipulative. 

Writer-director Hall often seems at war with himself throughout the movie.  Does he want to make a somewhat hopeful film that can attract mass audiences, or does he want to show the reality of what thousands of veterans face?  He seems to be trying to split the difference between the two approaches, and that's ultimately why I think the movie strikes a somewhat effective, but largely uneven tone.  This is a similar problem with many films that try to cover the subject of soldiers coming home which have come out the past few years.  They have seldom succeeded at the box office, and it's largely because it's a tough tone to generate successfully in a mainstream Hollywood film.  Go too dark and realistic, and you drive people away.  Get too sentimental or manipulative, and you don't feel honest.  This movie falls somewhere in between.  There are moments of power here, and the cast is clearly giving it their all, but it never felt like it was fully working to me.

The whole time I was watching this movie, I kept on thinking how I'd rather be watching a documentary about Adam Schumann, and the many others out there who are just like him.  What we ultimately have here is a movie that is very easy to admire for what it is trying to do, but a bit harder to embrace because of it's overall unevenness. 


Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Snowman

I was not planning on reviewing The Snowman.  It did not show up at my theater last weekend, and judging by the toxic buzz the movie received even before it came out, I considered myself lucky.  But, a strange thing happened.  The more I heard about how confused and inept the movie was, the more I became oddly fascinated by it.  It was the kind of bad movie I almost had to see for myself after a while.  And so, with Movie Pass in hand, I searched for the nearest theater that was showing the film, since I knew it would likely not be playing for long.  I mean, could it really be that bad?

If you want the short answer to that question, it's "yes".  The long answer is "Dear God, yes".  As advertised, The Snowman is one of the most inept major studio releases in recent memory.  Forget the fact that the script reads like it was fed through a pasta maker and then taped back together.  Forget the fact that the film's director has openly admitted that a good portion of the script was simply unfilmed due to time constraints.  You can even forget the inexplicable and out of the blue appearance by Val Kilmer in a throwaway role, where it sounds like his voice has been dubbed over for reasons unexplained.  The simple fact is, even if the movie made perfect sense, had been edited expertly and was not full of holes (the fact that a good number of scenes in the trailer don't appear in the final film suggest that this movie has been hacked to pieces), it still would be unwatchable due to the fact that it's one of the most dour and depressingly toned features I've sat through in many a moon.

It features one of those narratives that jumps around to different points in time, which at first makes you think it might be a stylistic choice on the part of the filmmakers, but you quickly pick up on the fact that the story doesn't even know where it's going, so it keeps on trying to go in different directions.  Characters literally fade in and out of existence, and whole scenes are clearly missing.  There are whole sections of the film that feel inexplicable and out of place.  And if you should try to follow the plot and solve the mystery, you will be rewarded with one of those endings where the villain shows up, points a gun at the hero's head, and spells out everything when they should just shut up and shoot the hero, thus ending the movie.  Even worse is how the villain is eventually removed from the picture.  I'm not going to spoil it, but it's been a long time that I've seen a villain done in by an accident, or what can only be explained as an act of God.

The movie is based on a best selling novel that I have not read, but I hear it has little in common with what has wound up on the screen.  In fact, the book's author has even requested to have his name taken off of the film.  From what I've gathered, the filmmakers more or less took the basic skeleton of his story, and then decided to make up their own story.  So, I guess there are a lot of people to blame here.  Those who have read the novel say that it's very cinematic, and could have been adapted into a film easily.  I guess director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) was given a blueprint, but chose not to follow it.   The film was originally going to be directed by Martin Scorsese, who walked away, but remains with an "in name only" Executive Producer credit.  This most be how Scorsese's frequent editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, got involved in this mess.  I can only guess the look on her face when she saw the unassembled raw footage, and realized what she had gotten herself into.

If you do manage to look past all the technical and editing problems on display, you can find a plot that at least reads like it belongs in a real movie.  Credit to this goes to the original novel, I'm guessing.  We follow Detective Henry Hole (Michael Fassbender, a talented actor who needs to be a bit choosier with his projects after Assassins Creed and now this) as he investigates a series of murders in Oslo where the only connection is that all of them have a snowman at the scene of the crime.  We see so many snowmen, I almost don't want to see another one in a movie for a good long time. (Sorry, Olaf from Frozen.) He and his partner Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson) follow the clues, chase down a lot of red herrings, and basically lead the audience on a plot that grows more confused and ludicrous as it goes on, simply because so little is explained or left simply to the imagination of the screenwriters.  We get tons of flashbacks, shady characters (J.K. Simmons shows up as a key suspect), and a subplot built around Henry's alcoholism and troubled family life that goes nowhere, and has no dramatic payoff whatsoever.

Much like Tulip Fever, The Snowman comes across as a prestige project that roped in a lot of talent and was expected to do great things for the studio, but due to either sheer ineptness or just the fact that the filmmakers did not understand the source material, it ends up becoming a cinematic junk heap.  There's little to anything left to salvage here, but at least the movie ends on a good laugh - It ends on a note that suggests a sequel. 


Monday, October 23, 2017


It's clear that Breathe was made with the best of intentions, but as a docudrama, it's rather flat and uninformed.  The movie tells the true story of Robin Cavendish, who after being paralyzed with Polio, spent the rest of his life improving the lives of patients stricken with the same disease, and giving them a chance to live a life outside of the hospital.  The movie lets us know how important his efforts were, but the man himself remains a total enigma for the film's entirety.

When we first see Robin (played by Andrew Garfield), he's a strapping young man who falls in love at first sight with the lovely young Diana (Claire Foy).  He's told he doesn't stand a chance with her by a friend.  Cut to the next scene, and Robin and Diana are enjoying their first date and deeply in love.  One scene later, the pair are married, and exploring Africa together.  That's the kind of movie it is.  It gives us some cold hard facts about the man at the center of the film, but it never truly opens him up so we know who he is or what he thinks about.  A few scenes later, Robin starts showing the very early stages of the disease, and later collapses.  He's taken to the hospital where a glum-faced doctor informs Diana that he is going to be paralyzed and likely bedridden for the rest of his life.  She is told that patients with his condition are not expected to live full or meaningful lives.  Hearing this, Robin begins to wish for death.  But Diana will not let him give up.  She is pregnant, and wants him to live to see their son.

This leads you to think that the bond that Robin will build with his future son will likely play a key role in the film, but you would be wrong.  He spends very little onscreen time with the boy, and I think they only have two conversations in the entire movie, one of which takes place in the last 10 minutes.  By that point, the son looks to be in his late teens.  The boy, named Jonathan, spends most of the movie running about the corners of the screen, or playing with the family dog.  As for Robin, his wife and him fight to get him out of the hospital, so he can receive the care at home.  There's a stingy old doctor (Jonathan Hyde), who naturally is dressed all in black, and plays his role as if his sole direction was to scowl at the camera as much as possible.  He does not like the idea of Robin receiving care outside of the hospital.  But, the rest of the staff are much more understanding and nice.  You know this, because they don't wear black.  They help Robin escape from the hospital, and set up a system so that the artificial breathing device that keeps him alive can be hooked up in his own home.

Once at home, Robin is surrounded by friends and loved ones, has some parties in the garden, and begins to become inspired with ways that he can live better.  First, he has a friend build a wheelchair that has a portable breathing device so that he can go outside.  Then he figures out ways how he can change the car so that his chair will fit inside, and he can go for Sunday drives with his wife and son.  He figures out how he can travel with his chair, and takes a vacation to Spain with his family.  He gets to speak in front of a group of doctors about the importance of the research he's doing, and how people suffering from Polio just like him can benefit from it.  I have no doubt that all of these things happened.  But the movie never gives any of these events the dramatic weight that they need, so the movie frequently feels flat instead of uplifting.  And at the center of it all is the film's main issue, in that we have no idea who Robin is, or who he was before he was stricken with the disease.

Andrew Garfield does a great job with his performance, and does an effective job as coming across as paralyzed.  He has all the makings of a protagonist we can get behind, and there are even certain moments where his acting rises above the underwritten role and grabs our sympathies.  But in the back of my mind, I couldn't shake the fact that I had no idea who he really was.  What does he miss about his old life before he became ill?  Does he get frustrated with his current existence sometimes?  Does the constant care he requires at home ever take its toll on Diana, who is more or less depicted as a Saint who never once wavers or loses hope in her husband.  These are all the kind of things you would expect the movie would at least look at, but it chooses instead to have a lot of shots of sun-swept vistas while piano music twinkles away in the background, spelling out every good emotion.

I have no doubt that the Cavendishes experienced a lot more setbacks and hardships than this movie lets on.  If you were to believe this screenplay, life for the family was quite jovial.  Except for the inevitable third act crisis that naturally leads to some tear-jerking scenes, the worst thing that happens here is that Robin's son accidentally unplugs the machine that keeps Robin alive at one point while he's chasing after the dog.  There is also a scene where the machine blows a fuse, but everyone manages to keep his spirit up while it's being fixed, and even throw a party around him.  There's no sense of drama here.  It simply recaps his accomplishments, and lets us know that he was a really good guy, then sends us on our way.  When you realize the conversations and thoughts that the real life Robin and Diana must have had during their experiences, there's so much wasted potential here that it gets to be a bit staggering.

Breathe marks the directorial debut of Andy Serkis, who in recent years has revolutionized motion capture acting by creating characters as diverse as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings to Caesar in the recent Planet of the Apes films.  I've often found his performances fascinating, and have strongly supported the notion that he deserves a special Oscar of some kind to credit the work he has done.  Given this, I was excited to see what kind of movie he would make.  I must admit, a cut and dry by the numbers biofilm was the last thing that came to mind.  I know he has a great movie inside of him, and I look forward to his next turn behind the camera, where I'm sure we'll see much more of his unique talent. 


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Only the Brave

Only the Brave is a sincere and technically sound telling of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an Arizona firefighting crew who struggled to become a certified team, banded together as a group, and ultimately faced a tragic incident that led to the most number of losses among firefighters since September 11th.  The movie is a bit shaky early on, as it tries to introduce a large number of characters and goes through a long string of forced exposition.  But it does not take long for it to find its footing, and become the emotional experience it longs to be.

We learn that Hotshots are forest firefighters who are specially trained and certified to go into on-fire areas and establish a controlled fire line that the approaching inferno cannot cross.  The Granite Mountain Hotshots are a group of 20 or so men, but the two that the movie focuses on are the team leader Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), and rookie recruit Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), who is a former drug addict who joins the group in order to turn his life around when his ex-girlfriend becomes pregnant with his baby.  As the film opens, they are not a certified team, and basically have to look on and watch the other teams do all the work.  Eric and his crew know the terrain, and know they have what it takes to be Hotshots.  They eventually get a chance for an evaluation when the local wildland division chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges, giving his best performance he's given in a while here) signs them up for the chance to be Hotshots.  They almost blow their chance when Marsh makes a risky decision while fighting a fire, but it pays off, and the group is certified.

From this point, we see the group bonding as they are called in to tackle a series of forest fires, their most famous moment being when they help save a famous tree, which makes them heroes to the locals.  All of these fire scenes are appropriate intense, and give you the sensation of how these men (and others like them) risk their lives every day.  But we also get a more human side of the story when we get to see how their work effects their personal lives.  In particular, Brendan begins to grow closer to his former girlfriend and child, and wants to be a part of their lives.  When he realizes that his own child does not recognize him after the long periods he is away, he begins to question his path in life, and if he wants to continue with the group.  As for Eric, his job is taking a toll on his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), who would like to settle down and start a family, but Eric seems to live for his job.  The friction this creates between them creates some powerful dramatic moments, and strong performances from both Brolin and Connelly.

Only the Brave is not so much about the firefighting, as it is about the bond these men create with one another, and how the job changes their lives, both good and bad.  Of course, the problem arises that only Marsh and McDonough get any real attention or screentime.  I understand that there is no possible way that the movie could have told everyone's story on the team, since they are a large group.  But it would have helped raise the emotional impact a little when we see actual photos of the men at the end if we knew just a little bit more about them.  There had to be a better way to handle such a large group, other than having them spout out some incidental information about themselves once in a while (one has a rock group, another had his girlfriend leave him), and have them sit on hilltops making dramatic poses.  The movie is very good with generating drama for the two characters id does focus on, but everybody else kind of gets short-sided. 

But what does work here works beautifully, and that would be all of the firefighting scenes, which have been created with some of the best effects available.  And when the movie does want to create an emotional impact in its third act, it packs a surprisingly strong wallop.  Even though we learn little about other than the two characters the movie centralizes, the film does a wonderful job of showcasing the sacrifices these men made in the film's final moments, and is certain to leave all but the most stone-hearted of viewers walking out of the theater fighting back tears.  The performances work wonderfully as well, with Brolin and Teller creating a bond that never seems forced.  We understand why Brolin's Marsh would want to take a chance on a "screw up" like Teller's McDonough, and the bond that they build is genuine.  And if I must applaud the filmmakers for anything, it's for getting them to allow Jeff Bridges to actually act again, instead of just slurring his words.  The way he handles the third act developments is genuinely heartbreaking, and the best acting he's done in a while.

Only the Brave manages to be an effects movie without glorifying the experience, or making it feel like we're just watching a technical demo.  It also manages to be a highly emotional experience without being manipulative or feel like strings are being pulled.  Despite a rocky start, I was eventually genuinely involved.  This is a rare harrowing and moving film that is certain to move just about anyone who watches it.


Saturday, October 21, 2017

Victoria & Abdul

In the opening moments of Victoria & Abdul, we see the words "Based on real events - mostly".  This is more or less director Stephen Frears' effort to let us know right off the bat that what we are about to watch is a sentimentalized and somewhat whimsical look at a true story.  It's a smart move, as it gets the audience ready for what is to come.  I'm sure that historical fans will nitpick the details of the movie to death, and yes, some of it can be quite broad and heavy handed.  But I also found it completely charming, and it works on a level of escapism.

It certainly helps that Frears has found the right actors to tell the story, or at least his version of it.  Judi Dench has played Queen Victoria previously in 1997's Mrs. Brown.  Returning to the role 20 years later to play a much older version of Victoria fits her perfectly, and is probably one of the smarter casting choices in recent years.  In a lot of ways, this film could almost be seen as a sequel to the earlier one. (I'll explain why soon.) As for Abdul, we have charming Hollywood newcomer Ali Fazal.  As the two begin a respectful friendship and eventual platonic love with one another, we believe every emotion.  Fazal shows a certain openness and sweetness that we can truly believe that an aging monarch would find endearing.  He was there when she needed human friendship and kindness, and the film portrays their growing relationship beautifully.

At the start, Abdul is a clerk at a jail in Agra, writing names down in a book.  He is picked by some British government officials to deliver a gold trinket to the Queen, simply because they were asked to bring back a tall Indian man to serve as its deliverer, and Abdul just happens to be tall enough.  He travels from India to England with another man plucked from obscurity named Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar).  After months at sea, they find themselves in Buckingham Palace under strict orders over how to act in front of the Queen when they present the trinket to her during a grand palace dinner.  Abdul is not to make eye contact with her, but when he presents the gift to her, he cannot help but glance.  To the surprise of everyone in the room, Victoria seems smitten by the "terribly handsome" Indian man.

Dench plays Victoria as a woman who has long grown tired with the life she's led.  She falls asleep during the royal dinner, and cannot stand the constant scheming and whispered backtalk of her servants and family members.  She is also incredibly lonely, longing for her long-lost loves Prince Albert, and her manservant John Brown, of whom her relationship was depicted in the previously mentioned Mrs. Brown.  The affair that was depicted in that film was scandalous enough, but as the Queen nears the end of her life and now seems completely captivated by Abdul, it seems to turn almost the entire palace against her.  Nobody in the palace, especially her eldest son Bertie (Eddie Izzard) seems to care much that Abdul's presence seems to have made Victoria the happiest she has been in years.  They simply don't want the brown-skinned man to be amongst them, and seem threatened when the Queen starts taking advice from him, and even talks of Knighthood.

Victoria & Abdul moves at a brisk pace, but not so brisk that we do not buy Abdul's quick ascent in importance in the eyes of the Queen.  The movie is wise to focus on the central relationship between the two, as this is definitely the strongest aspect here.  Dench and Fazal share so much chemistry and warmth, I just loved watching them up on the screen together.  They are what won me over.  What the film was less successful at was handling the racial undertones of the picture, and how much of the palace staff and family scheme to get rid of Abdul.  These aspects come close to being a bit too simplistic in their depiction, and rather than really explore the topic or these characters, the filmmakers instead choose to make almost everyone who surround the two central characters buffoons.  There had to be a little more even-handed way to portray the outside characters and their reluctance to accept Abdul without making everybody into pompous and at times comical boobs.

This may sound like a criticism that could bring the whole movie down, but fortunately, the performances of the central characters constantly left me captivated.  I also never felt like the flaws took so much away that I was no longer enjoying the film.  I knew that my emotions were probably being manipulated every step of the way, but because the two leads are so effortlessly charming, I was able to go along with it.  I believe that a film such as this succeeds or fails on how you feel at the end of the journey the two central characters take.  For me, I was deeply moved by the film's final moments.  By that point, it was clear that I may not have believed everything the movie had been trying to sell me, but I still bought it.

I don't know if Victoria & Abdul will be remembered much come Award Time, but that should not matter.  This is a charming and sweet film that ultimately made me happy, and that's all it's really trying to do.  It's the kind of movie where you can lose yourself in its characters, and the relationship that builds between them.  It may not be an important film, but it's a joyful one.


Friday, October 20, 2017


Geostorm is the worst kind of action thriller.  It's the kind where something is constantly happening, and yet the whole enterprise feels dead inside.  Nobody looks like they had any fun making this one.  And for a movie that promises the spectacle of seeing major cities being attacked by extreme weather, we see very little of it here.  What we get instead is a mystery as to who is behind a plot to sabotage a weather control computer and control the world.  It should be easy for the audience to figure out the culprit.  Just look for the big name actor who has nothing to do for a majority of the movie.

The movie wants to be a throwback to those big budget disaster films that were so popular in the mid to late 90s.  The co-writer and director of this movie is Dean Devlin, who has some experience with this genre, having been partly responsible for Independence Day back in 1996.  Given the lifeless effort on display, he has either been to the genre well one time too many, or his heart is just no longer in it.  This is the kind of movie where we can see every cent that went into the expensive production, but none of it registers with us, simply because there is nothing to care about.  The plot, characters, suspense and one-liners are all old hat.  If you're going to fill your script with such bargain basement elements, you need to at least throw in some decent action to distract us from all of this.  In this case, the filmmakers forgot this necessary ingredient, so the film collapses in on itself.

As the film opens, a little girl narrator informs us that in 2019, global warming finally peaked with a string of extreme weather that wiped out most major cities.  The U.S. joined up with a variety of other countries to combat the threat with a massive satellite system called Dutch Boy.  Its purpose is to track extreme weather and destroy it before it can cause damage.  The Dutch Boy system was created by a hard-drinking scientist named Jake Lawson (a charmless and uncharismatic Gerard Butler), who originally ran the system from up in space, until he angered some Senate buffoons during a hearing, and he was fired from his own creation.  He was replaced by his younger brother Max (Jim Sturgess), with whom he has had a long-standing feud with.

Jump forward three years later, and Dutch Boy seems to be going through a series of malfunctions that is causing catastrophic weather down on Earth.  In one instance, a village in Afghanistan becomes covered in snow and ice, with all of the inhabitants frozen solid.  The President of the United States (Andy Garcia) wants Max to send someone up to the Dutch Boy satellite, and find out what happened.  Since Jake invented the thing, he seems to be the most logical choice to investigate.  Up on the satellite, Jake and a fellow scientist (Alexandra Maria Lara) figure out within minutes that the system has been sabotaged, and they begin a private investigation, since they fear someone on board the Dutch Boy is responsible for slipping a virus into the program.  Down on Earth, Max and his Secret Service agent fiance (Abbie Cornish) discover that someone high in the government is killing anyone who gets too close to uncovering the truth that the incidents of extreme weather (which includes hail the size of boulders in Tokyo and flash-freezing cold in Rio) is an act of someone involved with the project.

Geostorm is built around a world-wide threat that never resonates, frankly because the movie doesn't make the effort to get us involved.  Aside from a scene set in Hong Kong where the streets explode in fire, and a wild lightning storm that strikes Orlando, we get to see very little of the extreme weather's effect on the world.  In fact, most of the sequences of special effects destruction are so brief, they seem like snippets from the trailer.  We see people running from massive dust clouds and tornadoes, a little boy cowering in fear and clinging to his dog for support, a bikini-clad woman manage to outrun the cold, cars being flipped over by massive hunks of ice falling from the sky, and people getting roasted by the extreme heat, but it never stays on the screen long enough for it to make an impression.  It often feels overly edited, like the movie has been hacked to pieces, but the filmmakers wanted at least the tiniest portion of these effects shots to appear in the movie.  When you learn that the film has gone under massive reshoots and has missed several release dates, it all starts to make sense.

But more important than the fact that we don't care about the spectacle on display is that we also don't care about these people.  As the protagonist, Gerard Butler largely comes across someone you wouldn't want to sit next to during a bus trip, let alone watch a movie about him having to save the world.  He comes across as a loudmouth and a jerk, and no matter how many subplots the movie throws at him, such as his relationship with his daughter and his ex-wife as well as his estranged relationship with his brother, nothing gets us in his corner.  And let's face it, a movie like this is hard to take seriously to begin with, so it helps if the film can have some fun with itself.  This movie does try to have a sense of humor, but it's of the very lame one-liner variety.  When you consider that most of these jokes and gags occur while the main characters are staring death straight in the face, it seems all the more lame and forced.

There is simply nothing to Geostorm, even if you are a fan of big dumb special effects movies.  It's a lifeless, drab and dead in the water experience that looks like it had gobs of cash thrown at it in a vain attempt to liven it up.  When you consider how dead the movie is, it almost seems sad how much money (reportedly around $120 million) was spent on it.  That money could have gone to movies much more clever, exciting or funny than this.  This is as cynical a studio film as there has ever been.


Saturday, October 14, 2017

Happy Death Day

Happy Death Day is the second movie this year to employ the Groundhog Day formula of a teenage girl who has to live the same day over and over until she gets it right, and becomes a better person in the process.  The other film, Before I Fall, treated the plot seriously, and was largely successful.  This movie, on the other hand, is an unapologetically goofy thriller that never manages to take itself seriously, and has a great amount of fun in offing its lead heroine over and over again, just like Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow.  If I have to be honest about which of the two films I preferred, I'd have to go with the one where the lead heroine gets stabbed in the neck with a broken bong by a killer wearing a Halloween mask that resembles Baby Herman from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. (Spoiler alert: This doesn't happen in Before I Fall.)

Director Christopher Landon (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) lets the audience know what they're in for right off the bat by playfully having the Universal Studios logo play out and then rewind itself and start over three times in a row right as the movie kicks off.  Not only does this tie into the idea of its heroine having to relive the same day over and over, but it gets the audience ready for the silly tone that the movie will embrace.  After that, we're introduced to Tree (Jessica Rothe), a vain and mean Sorority Girl who wakes up from a hangover in a strange student's dorm room.  We get the sense that this is not the first time she has woken up somewhere with no memories, but at least she had the good fortune to wind up in the room of Carter (Israel Broussard), a nice but geeky kid who just wants to help.  She naturally brushes off his attempts, and staggers drunkenly across campus back to her Sorority House, where her fellow Sisters are all too happy to point out that she is sneaking back in during the middle of the day once again.

Tree's routine includes ignoring phone calls from her father, pushing away her well-meaning roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), who was nice enough to make a homemade cupcake for Tree's birthday, and sneaking off to have sex with one of her college professors who naturally happens to be married.  That night, while walking to a party, Tree has a creepy encounter with a mysterious figure who hides their face behind a mask of the college's baby-faced mascot.  The figure quickly turns aggressive, and brutally murders Tree.  However, instead of heading off to the afterlife, Tree finds herself waking up in the same place she did that morning.  She's once again in Carter's room, she's hungover, she staggers drunkenly across campus back home, etc, etc.  After Tree is murdered again by the same mysterious figure that night (though under different circumstances), she wakes up again in the same place and realizes that she is somehow living the same day over and over.  Fortunately, Carter happens to believe her, and is willing to help.  After all, he admits he's seen Groundhog Day.

Thanks to Carter, Tree realizes that she has "unlimited lives", and thus has the chance to try to figure out who her killer is, and if there is a way she can prevent it.  Unfortunately, the list of people who would like to see her dead is quite long, so she has to narrow down the suspects just a little.  This lead to some genuinely funny moments, as Tree spies on her friends (or people who pretend to be her friends), and learns secrets about them.  She also takes advantage of this living the same day over thing by doing some bold actions, such as walking across campus naked.  Happy Death Day is completely self aware of how stupid it is, and has a blast with it.  Screenwriter Scott Lobdell (a comic book writer) unfortunately doesn't exploit the possibilities quite as much as he probably should have.  The murders and deaths that Tree encounters over and over are fairly basic. (I'm sure the film's PG-13 rating contributed to this.) However, he does pull off the neat trick of not only getting off a lot of successful jokes out of the premise, but also making us eventually care about its heroine as the film goes on.

This is something I did not expect, as the movie successfully creates Tree into such a hateful character during the first half hour.  But, even when we're not supposed to like her, the performance by Jessica Rothe (who played one of Emma Stone's roommates in La La Land) shows off her comedic and star potential.  She's fantastic here, showing a broad range of comic and also dramatic potential.  There's a scene late in the film when Tree is trying to make amends with someone important that she has hurt in the past that is genuinely touching in a way.  Based on her performance here, I truly hope she gets some great roles in the future.  I also liked her scenes with Broussard as Carter, her potential love interest.  They share great chemistry, and as they get closer, we actually start to hope that Tree will survive this ordeal so that she can have a normal life with him.  While the movie certainly never gets deep, it does eventually show a real heart to go along with the murders.

When you stop and think about it, Happy Death Day is quite clever.  After all, most slasher movies increase the death count by having the lead hero have a lot of friends who wander off and get killed.  This time, we have the hero get killed over and over, desperately trying to learn from her mistakes.   Sure, the movie doesn't play it as smart as it could have, but if it has to be stupid, at least it figures out how to not only have fun with itself but also make fun of itself at the same time.  Yes, you get the sense that there are some wasted potential here, and another rewrite or two probably would have made it even stronger.  But for what we have, I doubt the teenage horror crowd will complain too much.  Heck, I even ended up liking this a lot more than I expected.

So what if the movie doesn't make much sense, and so what if it's kind of stupid?  At least it has fun with how stupid it is.  Now if it was stupid and was not aware, that would be a reason to pan the film.  But more than that, it's highly entertaining and has a bright sense of humor.  Hmm...Having said that, maybe the movie's smarter than I thought.


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