Reel Opinions

Sunday, January 28, 2018


Scott Cooper's Hostiles is relentlessly bleak.  It seems designed to make its audience uncomfortable and depressed.  To make matters worse, it's also deadly slow.  I really have no problem with most slow-burn movies, but this one at times tested me.  It's so deadly serious that it seems to have no room for any entertaining qualities.  It's well made and well acted, but it also lacks intensity to the point that it started to be a bit of a slog.

It's 1892, and we are introduced to Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale, wonderful here), who has been raging war against the Native Americans for years as an "Indian fighter".  He's been rounding up and locking them up, has lost a lot of good men on his side over the years, and basically sees them all as savages.  Now, the higher ups have ordered him, against his wishes, to escort a Cheyenne Tribe Chief (Wes Studi), who is dying of cancer, and his family back to their home so that the Chief can die peacefully.  Joseph is not thrilled about this idea, but the orders are from the President, and he has no choice but to comply.  With the Chief and his family in shackles, Joseph and his fellow soldiers begin a long and dangerous journey.

Along the way, they come across the frightened Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a grieving mother who witnessed her entire family, including her two young daughters and baby, get murdered by a Comanche raiding party.  We witness this act in the film's opening scene, and it's the one moment of the film that has real intensity and a raw sense of power.  Also strong is a later scene where we see Rosalie, overcome with grief, clawing at the land with her bare hands in order to dig graves for her family after the attack.  After these brief, but powerful, moments, the movie slows down to a near-crawl.  Joseph and his band make their journey, run into a lot of trouble along the way (there is another encounter with the raiding party, a run-in with some rapists, they are forced to transfer a former soldier of Blocker's who has gone psycho, and the usual racists who don't like seeing the Native Americans on their land), and eventually Joseph begins to respect the Chief and regret his former ways.

So, Hostiles wants to have a message about racism, and respecting those different from us.  Fair enough.  Joseph and the Chief learn that they have shared pain, and more in common than they initially thought.  This is all revealed very slowly, with dialogue that is self-important and slowly recited, so we don't miss a single important word that the movie is trying to tell us.  A lot of these scenes are also shot in darkness and flickering firelight, adding to the overall sense of gloom.  All of the actors are fine here, especially Bale, Pike and Studi, but the action moves at such a leisurely pace that it started to wear on me.  It's a movie made up almost solely of long, sad talks about hatred, loneliness, death and intolerance that probably read well on paper, but when you have actors reciting them (even actors as good as these), it sounds like prepared speeches, not dialogue.

I felt a certain coldness to these characters.  Even when Joseph is supposed to be reflecting on his past actions, I never really felt like his character was growing in any meaningful way.  I never felt the emotional connection that I think this story was supposed to provide me.  It simply seems to want to be downbeat and glum.  I have enjoyed many films that have given me sad or solemn feelings, but that's because I cared about the characters and their pain.  Here, the story just washes us over in misery, and sends us on our way.  It's a suffocating sensation on the viewer.  We feel pain and sadness, but we never exactly feel the desire for these characters to rise above it, because we're not invested enough in them.

Hostiles has all the makings of a profound and poignant movie, but it lacks the emotional current that would have gotten me truly involved.  It constantly kept me at a distance, content to just shove sadness and gloom in my face.  It's a depressing movie, yes, but the only response it got from me was a desire for it to end sooner than it did.  There is definite talent here, but it's all at the expense of an experience that I didn't really need.


Saturday, January 27, 2018

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

I have a hunch that Maze Runner: The Death Cure is not just the last hurrah for the franchise, but also for the numerous "teenagers trapped in a dystopian future based on Young Adult novels" movies that Hollywood has been churning out ever since The Hunger Games hit big.  These kind of films used to be flooding the market, but after declining interest and box office (Divergent, another franchise similar to this, didn't even get its final movie.), things seem to be drying up.  I'm happy for fans of this franchise that they at least get a climax to the story.  To be honest, the movie's really not that bad.  It just pretty much speaks solely to an audience that is already in love with the previous two entries.

It's actually somewhat of a miracle that this movie is even playing in theaters at all, after its lead star, Dylan O'Brien, was injured and hospitalized while performing a stunt, which pushed the film's release date back a full year.  The last movie was released in 2015, and since this one dives right into the plot with no recap or attempt to catch up, those who aren't up on the story might be confused.  It's not that it's hard to follow.  I actually had no problem, and I haven't exactly been keeping up on the series.  The problem is the movie gives us no clue into these people or their relationships with one another, so unless you're up on your Maze Runner lore, you're not going to know who these people are.  Not that it matters much.  This movie is essentially one large action scene, which is well done, but with a running time of nearly two and a half hours, does start to wear after a while.  There's nothing really bad here, it just will only mean something to a very select crowd.

The plot once again throws us into a post-apocalyptic setting, where a plague has turned most of the world's population into zombies, except for a select few who seem to be immune.  Our hero, Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) is one of those immune, and may actually be the source for a cure.  But the means to extract that cure can kill the source, which include many young teens, including Thomas' friend Minho (Ki Hong Lee), who is being held captive in a science lab by the cold Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson), and fellow scientist Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), who used to be Thomas' love interest until she betrayed the heroes at the end of the last movie.  Thomas and his good friend Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) are determined to rescue Minho, and this sets into motion a grand battle that will hold all humanity's survivors in the balance.

As far as post-apocalyptic teen thrillers go, The Death Cure does have some pretty big stakes, and an overall sense that lives are in the balance if our hero does not succeed.  This is lessened somewhat by how extremely lucky our heroes often seem to be.  There are a lot of scenes where Thomas and his friends are backed into a corner with no escape, only to have help literally come flying in at the very last second.  Some of these escapes are quite absurd in theory (including a scene where a bus and a train car are literally airlifted), but on camera, are actually kind of impressive.   As long as you don't think too much about these sequences where a group of kids arrange these kind of elaborate escapes, it can be kind of fun.  Of course, it helps that all the bad guys are terrible shots.  This is one of those movies where the bullets have read the screenplay.

Honestly, I admired how a lot of the bigger stunt moments do have a sort of authenticity to them.  They don't look heavily CG'ed, and they are impressively mounted.  This too helps add to the overall intensity of the film.  And while the lead hero Thomas never quite becomes anything more than a bland but attractive hero, he at least is surrounded by characters more interesting than him, and who each get a moment to stand out.  Again, should you not be familiar with who these people are, don't expect to learn much here.  Everybody seems shocked when Gally (Will Poulter) shows up, who was believed to be dead at the end of the last movie, but they don't go into much detail about what exactly happened, so you're out of luck if you don't know.  I guess this will increase interest in the last two Maze Runner movies on DVD.

Is this a series that really needed to be concluded?  Not really, but I had some fun with it while it played out.  Like a lot of these movies, there are some good actors doing what they can with the material they've been given, and you admire their effort.  And while this isn't a great movie, there are some impressive action moments.  I wish I could give this a stronger recommendation, but I can't imagine anyone but the already converted getting a big thrill out of this.


Friday, January 26, 2018

A Note to My Readers - Missing Reviews

Hello, one and all!

Well, you may be wondering where my review of Den of Thieves was last weekend.  I saw that along with Phantom Thread last week, and unfortunately, due to my current work schedule, I was unable to review both of them in a timely fashion like usual.

To be honest, it's sometimes hard to keep this blog up with my current work schedule.  But, I continue to do so, because I love writing these reviews, and I love going to the movies each weekend.  I do my best to keep caught up, sometimes writing multiple reviews in the same day.  But, occasionally, I just fall behind, or I get exhausted.  So, I was never able to get around to those two films from last weekend.

I apologize if this disappoints anyone, but I probably will not review the films.  Instead, I will focus on the movies coming up this weekend.  I will be seeing The Maze Runner: The Death Cure and Hostiles this weekend, and I will do my best to get reviews for them out in a timely fashion.

I appreciate your patience.  I do not make any money off of this blog.  These reviews are simply a labor of love for me, and if I occasionally fall behind, I hope you will understand.

I hope everyone has a great weekend ahead.


Saturday, January 20, 2018

12 Strong

12 Strong is an effective telling of a true story that doesn't get bogged down in a lot of unnecessary detail.  It feels genuine, and the facts of the actual event are pretty much all there.  It helps that the story is not very well known, so there is genuine suspense here.  It also helps that the battle scenes are well shot, and that the soldiers, while not exactly deep or compellingly written, have good chemistry together thanks to the performances.

Based on Doug Stanton's 2009 bestseller, Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan, the movie tells how after September 11th, an elite Special Forces unit comprised of 12 Green Berets led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), were dropped into Afghanistan in response to the attack.  Their mission was to join up with the Northern Alliance, headed by General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), to take on the Taliban and its Al Qaeda followers.  Abdul was to lead the Americans to the bases where the Taliban were hiding, using his knowledge of the landscape to get them there safely.  From there, Nelson's group could order bomb strikes from the air, and assist in any ground fighting.

The mission of course brought about many difficulties for Nelson and his team.  Not only were they unfamiliar with the land, but they were forced to ride on horseback, since it was the only way to make their way through the sand and mountains.  Since none of the men had any experience riding horses, this was easier said than done.  They also had to create a bond with the Northern Alliance against their common enemy, and some of the better scenes in the film involves Nelson and Abdul forging a bond that is shaky at first, but grows stronger as they spend time on the trail and in battle.  The screenplay by Peter Craig and Ted Tally never quite goes too deep into these men and their private lives, but the performances rise above this, and create some genuine emotional bonds.  Of particular note is the friendship between Nelson and his Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon).  There are also some individually good performances from Michael Pena and Trevante Rhodes (from Moonlight) as members of Nelson's team.

But it is the intensity of the battle scenes that really sets 12 Strong apart.  First-time director Nicolai Fuglsig, a Danish photojournalist, really gives the audience the sense of being in the midst of combat.  And while the battles are edited at a somewhat rapid pace, they are never confusing or hard to follow.  We may not have a deep personal connection with these men, but we feel everything they experience in battle, and we become involved.  As the men get closer to their destination, the battles appropriately become more intense, and by the end, I felt a little bit emotionally drained in a good way.  A good war movie can put you through the wringer in terms of emotion, and that is what this one does more than once.

The war sequences are so good, they made me forget some of the problems the film had early on.  The opening moments, depicting the U.S. soldiers with their families and wives feels a bit trite and cliched.  At the very least, the filmmakers waste very little time on these moments, and send us to the scenes that matter quite quickly.  Also unnecessary is a scene where a Taliban soldier kills a teacher for helping girls learn reading and math.  I understand why the scene is in the movie, but it does feel more than a little gratuitous and heavy-handed.  It's simply a moment where the audience is supposed to sneer and boo the villain.  It gets the reaction that is intended, but it still feels cheep and unsatisfying.

12 Strong is never quite as deep as it could have been, but for what it is, it's effective and does a good job of putting us in the middle of the chaos of the battlefield without sacrificing the narrative.   Even if the characters are not fleshed out that well, the movie still honors them by showing their bravery and the impossible odds that they faced, and that is enough.


The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro shows a supremely deft hand with The Shape of Water, a beautiful film that manages to be an adult fairy tale, mixing in elements of Beauty and the Beast, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Hollywood musicals, 1950s cinema, Shirley Temple movies, and a Cold War spy story.  It sounds ludicrous, and perhaps in the wrong hands, it would have been a bloated disaster.  But del Toro shows early on that he knows how to tell this story, and though there are a couple bumps along the way, he never loses his vision, which is to essentially make an unabashed love story.

The movie immediately grabs our attention with its heroine, Elisa, played with incredible grace by the wonderful Sally Hawkins.  She is easily one of the more unforgettable lead characters in recent cinema.  Thanks to an unexplained injury, which is represented by scars down the sides of her neck, Elisa is mute and speaks through sign language.  Elisa works the night shift as a janitor at a top secret government lab at some point in the early 1960s.  She leads a fairly uneventful life.  The highlight of her day seems to be when she steps into the bathtub and pleasures herself before going to work.  She's also fairly solitary, though she does have two good friends.  One of them is a co-worker named Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who spends most of the time complaining about her idiot husband.  The other is the man in the apartment next to hers, Giles (the always welcome Richard Jenkins), who keeps a lot of cats in his place, and introduces Elisa to classic films on television.

One day, there is a new arrival at the lab where Elisa works - "the most sensitive asset ever to be housed in this facility", we are told.  It turns out to be an amphibious fish-man that was captured in the Amazon, and was believed by the local natives to be a god.  There apparently was a race to capture this creature (the Russians want it also), so the scientists begin to experiment on it, often through cruel means.  The head of the operation, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, making the most of a fairly two-dimensional bully character), is particularly spiteful toward the creature, especially after it bites off two of his fingers during one of their encounters.  But Elisa begins to develop a certain kinship and even intimate relationship with the fish-man whenever she is sent to its holding room to clean.  Like her, it cannot speak, though it seems willing to communicate with her when she begins to teach it simple sign language during their time together.  She befriends it by sharing her hard-boiled eggs, and then begins introducing it to music.  Over time, a more sensual relationship begins to form, and Elisa not only develops feelings for the creature, but it seems it feels the same way toward her.

The idea for The Shape of Water apparently grew from Guillermo del Toro's desire to do a remake of The Creature From the Black Lagoon, where the ending was going to be changed with the female lead ending up in love with the Creature.  When the studio rejected this idea, he decided to make his own film based around his idea.  The influence of the classic horror film is obvious, but he also uses a lot of other sources of inspiration and ideas that feel fresh, despite the fact that we can obviously see what he is borrowing from.  What makes everything is work is how del Toro takes these ideas, and sets them in a world that blends the ordinary with the fantastic.  Much like his 2006 film Pan's Labyrinth, he is creating a luscious fantasy world out of very real settings and a certain time and place.

The movie also works as a giant love letter to classic Hollywood.  Elisa and Giles live above a movie theater where double features are always shown.  And whenever the two get together in his apartment, they mimic the dance steps that they see in Shirley Temple and Carmen Miranda movies on TV.  This actually leads up to one of the film's more unforgettable moments - A fantasy sequence built around a lavish old Hollywood musical number, where Elisa and the Fish-Man express their desire through dance, set to the classic standard "You'll Never Know".  I feel I must stress again that I understand how bizarre this all sounds, but del Toro makes this work by creating a whimsical world where we can buy this stuff happening.  He is also aided by an exceptional cast who find the right balance of realism and fantastical charm in order to sell this material.  I would be remiss not to mention Doug Jones, who performs as the Fish-Man, and manages to bring about a wonderfully expressive performance while hidden under mounds of special effects make up and prostheses.

But it is the sentimental, strong and overall emotional performance by Sally Hawkins that not only grounds the fantastical story into some kind of reality, but is also whimsical enough that we are willing to follow where the movie goes.  She joins Meryl Streep and Frances McDormand as among the top female performances to come out of 2017. (You should also check out Hawkins' winning turn in last weekend's Paddington 2, as well.) She is what holds The Shape of Water together, and is a big part of what makes the film the magical and romantic experience that it is.


Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Post

Steven Spielberg just turned 71 last month, and if his new film The Post is any indication, he has a lot of great movies left in him.  There are directors over half his age who can't turn out a movie this tightly paced and ingeniously edited so that we get all the details we need, yet the pace seems to literally fly by.  There are still some big films from late last year that I have yet to see, but at the moment, this sits on the top of my personal list.

This is not the rough and shocking Spielberg of Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List.  This movie is a melodrama, and a soft one at that.  Where the greatness comes from is from the performances, and the way that Spielberg frames the story kind of like a great 1930s drama, filled with great actors in just about every role, and whip-smart writing that not only offers killer lines and monologues, but also fills in all the details we need, without giving us any unnecessary subplots or scenes.  Everything is connected beautifully, and though some cynics may complain about the light touch the film occasionally uses (there is a lot of Spielberg's stylistic soft lighting here), no one can deny what an effortlessly crowd-pleasing movie this is.  It's a great entertainment that manages to tell the story swiftly without losing any of the power of the story.

It is also probably one of the more timely movies I have seen lately.  Despite being set in 1971 (and there are a lot of great period details here), the movie could be set in any time period, and will likely join other great films about journalism such as All the President's Men and Spotlight.  This is a story about the Washington Post before it became the nationally respected paper it is known as today, and long before Watergate.  Lead editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks, getting his best role in a while) is forced to watch as the New York Times scoops the Post on just about every story.  The Post is mostly regarded as a second-tier newspaper, and is not taken very seriously within the industry.  And things do not look better for the paper now that Kay Graham (Meryl Streep, certain to get another nomination for this) is in charge of things.

Kay is not a confident woman at this point in time.  She is unsure of herself, as well as her ability to run the paper that has been left to her.  Not only that, but the all-male board of directors that she has to deal with do not make it much of a secret that they do not like the idea of taking orders from a woman, much less her.  It seems that the paper may collapse under her watch, but then something happens.  Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a former top aide to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), exposes the government’s decades-long history of lies about Vietnam when he sent dozens of volumes of government documents known as the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.  This would seem to be yet another automatic victory for the Times, until the White House issues a court order to stop the Times from printing any of the Pentagon Papers.

With the Times stopped by the potential legal case, the Post sees its opportunity to print the Papers themselves.  This brings about an internal war within the post.  Should they print the information that they have, not only could both Ben and Kay wind up going to jail, but it might destroy the paper.  There is also the issue of Kay being close friends with McNamara and many other people who have positions of power.  If she has her paper print the information, it could destroy many dearly-held friendships.  Ben understands this, as he was close friends with the Kennedys, and often sacrificed his journalistic integrity when they were in the White House in order to protect his friendship with them.

It's this kind of internal drama that makes The Post so fascinating and compelling.  Hanks and Streep are not playing strong people here.  Yes, they know that they need to get ahead and that this could be their chance to make their paper something, but they are also held back by personal doubts.  Streep, in particular, seems the most tormented internally.  There's a wonderful scene where she recounts a memory to a family member, and the way that Streep delivers the monologue is truly something to remember.  Likewise, Hanks is playing an everyman here like usual, but he has a bit more edge than in some of his performances.  He wants to get ahead, and knows what it takes to do it.  Everybody in this film, including all the supporting players, are delivering memorable performances here.  This is probably the best acted film overall I've seen in 2017.

It's impossible not to think of the current war going on between the current Administration and the Press while you watch this, and no matter what your thoughts on that situation may be, The Post gives a lot of food for thought.  This is a film to be remembered, and I highly doubt anything will be able to diminish the power that it holds.


Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Commuter

If The Commuter feels a bit familiar, it's probably because Liam Neeson has made plenty of action films just like this one.  To make it all the more familiar, the film's director is Jaume Collet-Serra, who has helmed three previous Neeson action thrillers, very much like this.  Everybody has been here before, and they are obviously old pros at this stuff by now.  But it's not the familiarity that sinks the film this time around, it's how ludicrous and how much this movie stretches the realm of plausibility as it goes along.  I understand the value of a movie asking the audience to shut off their brains for a while, but sooner or later, I felt the urge to start fighting back against the film and turn my brain on.

Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, a former NY cop who has since become an insurance salesman in order to support his loving wife (an underused Elizabeth McGovern) and his college-bound son (Dean-Charles Chapman).  The film kicks off with Michael having a very bad day.  He is let go from his job because of corporate cutbacks, right as he is preparing to help pay for his kid to go to school.  He stops at a local bar to drown his sorrows, where he runs into two former friends from his days at the police force, who are played by Patrick Wilson and Sam Neill.  Given that these supposedly minor characters are both being played by well-known actors, expect them to have larger roles before the film is done.  To make Michael's day even worse, he has his cell phone stolen from him while he is waiting for the train to take him home.  All this, and he is still uncertain as to how he's going to tell his wife he lost his job today.

While on the train, Michael has a seemingly random encounter with a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) who offers him a hypothetical question that he quickly learns is all too real.  She tells him that there is someone on the train who "does not belong", and is going to get off the train on the very last stop.  Before that happens, he must find out who that person is, and tag them with a tracking device which will allow that person to be followed and killed due to information they are holding.  For Michael's actions, he will find $25,000 stashed away in a restroom on the train, with another $75,000 waiting for him if he pulls off the job successfully.  Michael is not sure what's going on, but he checks the restroom she mentioned, and sure enough, there's the money she promised she would be there.  Now Michael must make the decision on if he can really put someone's life he doesn't know in his hands.  Not only that, but whoever wants him to pull this job apparently has eyes everywhere, and can watch his every move.

The Commuter clearly wants to be a Hitchcock-style thriller with an ordinary man thrust into a life or death situation, as well as uncovering a conspiracy that reaches the government and law enforcement, and may just hold the lives of his family at stake.  But, Hitchcock at least understood how to play with his audience and keep them riveted.  This movie goes so implausible so quickly that it's impossible to get invested.  We can practically see the screenplay twisting and contorting itself to try to appear clever, when it really just needed to embrace its absurdity more in order to work.  To be fair, Neeson does a great job as usual about taking this stuff seriously and making it seem like this isn't beneath his acting talents.  But, this is definitely a case of him giving more effort than the material deserves.

The movie does throw in some lofty elements to its plot about shady government, the rich vs. poor mentality, and the economic crash of 2008, while the plot tries to keep us guessing with an element of paranoia, since Michael is not sure who on the train he can trust, especially since whoever is behind all of this is somehow watching his every move, and he constantly is getting threatening phone calls from the woman who started this whole mess, and tells him his own family will be killed if he does not pull off this job.  But honestly, despite all the plot, the movie is really just about Liam Neeson doing his action hero act, beating people up, and getting involved in elaborate fights and increasingly elaborate special effect set pieces.  If you've enjoyed similar movies he has done, you'll likely find something to like here.  But the movie never quite worked for me, and the sillier it got, the more I started to resist whatever goodwill it may have created early on.

The movie is also quite deadly serious.  I kept on waiting for the film to develop a sense of humor.  And while there are a couple funny lines, they actually don't show up until it's almost all over, which is far too late.  It's strange.  The Commuter is a movie that seems afraid to fly off the rails, when it literally does long before the third act comes around.


Proud Mary

Given its early January release and quiet marketing (the movie wasn't even screened in advance for critics), I expected much worse from Proud Mary.  The movie is being advertised as a throwback to 70s blaxploitation action flicks, but director Babak Najafi seems less interested in having the bullets fly, and more interested in the melodrama that slowly builds between the characters.  Maybe this will disappoint those who are looking for some quick action, but I found some of it kind of captivating at times, and there is a strong lead performance from Taraji P. Henson. 

Henson's Mary is a hit woman for a Boston mob family run by the aging crime boss Benny (Danny Glover).  We witness her pull off one of her hits in the film's opening scene, where she murders a man she was sent to kill.  But then, something happens that she didn't expect.  She finds the man's young son in the next room, headphones on and engrossed in a video game, completely oblivious to what has just happened right outside his bedroom door.  This moment sticks with Mary, and we find her one year later stealthily keeping an eye on the kid, Danny (an effective Jahi Di’Allo Winston), who after losing his father fell on hard times, and is now doing errands for a rival crime family.  When the boy passes out from hunger right there on the street after the boss he works for refuses to feed him and beats him for stealing money from him, Mary takes the kid under her wing, and brings him to her apartment.

Proud Mary definitely echoes 1994's The Professional, with its story of a violent killer who comes to protect and eventually care for an orphaned child.  In Mary's case, she makes the bad decision to get involved and kill the boss Danny used to work for after she finds out how he mistreated him.  This could potentially spark a mob war between the two crime families, who are already at a shaky agreement over territory that seems to be on the verge of crumbling.  Mary seems conflicted by her actions.  She knows that if she speaks up, she puts both her own life and Danny's in danger.  She also doesn't know how to tell the kid that she was the one responsible for his father's death.  She does her best to shield the kid from the truth, but it's inevitable that it will eventually come out, and Mary will find herself being targeted by and fighting against the "family" that raised her to be what she is.

One thing that does set the movie apart from dozens of crime thrillers just like it is that the movie does not depict Mary as a hardened killer.  Yes, she obviously is good at her job, but she also seems to feel every kill she makes in the film, and it affects her on some level.  Henson is giving an emotional and effective performance here, as she tries to deal with the consequences her actions will bring, while at the same time doing her best to stay confident and strong in front of the people around her.  Mary is tough, but she is human.  She takes Danny under her wing at first out of guilt from what happened one year ago, but she then begins to genuinely care about the kid, and wants to get out of the crime family for his safety, as well as her own.  This drama, along with the individual relationships she shares with her boss Benny and his son Tom (Billy Brown), whom she used to be in love with, is what makes up a majority of the running time.  This is a much more quiet and dialogue-driven crime thriller than you might expect.

It's not until well past the hour mark of this roughly 90 minute movie that we get our first major action sequence, and while it is appropriately intense in all the right ways, the movie could have used a bit more of it, especially given the genre and films that the director was using as inspiration.  Don't get me wrong, it's kind of a nice surprise that Proud Mary is more interested in character interaction and not just violent shootouts, but it does seem to keep us waiting for the inevitable action a bit too long for its own good.  I can see certain audience members getting restless.  It never quite ratchets up the tension to the level that we expect walking in.

I am recommending Proud Mary on the strength of the performances, and some of the on-screen relationships, which come across as being fairly strong.  As long as you don't expect this movie to be an action thrill ride, there's plenty to admire here.  It's certainly nothing original or earth shattering, but for what it is, it's easy enough to enjoy.


Friday, January 12, 2018

Paddington 2

2015's Paddington movie was the rare instance of Hollywood taking a beloved children's character, and paying it with the utmost respect.  It was sweet and old fashioned, yet still felt relevant without having to resort to gross out gags and out of place adult humor.  And thanks to its quaintly beautiful storybook visuals, which often brought to mind the work of Wes Anderson, it was a beautiful film to boot.  Three years later, Paddington 2 has arrived, and none of the charm and warmth has been lost.  This is a smart and frequently funny film headlined by a game cast.  And yes, that includes the CG bear at the center of it all.

It's been some time since the events of the last film, and the little bear Paddington (once again wonderfully voiced by Ben Whishaw) has settled into his life in London, and has found himself at home not just with his human family, the Browns, but also with his many neighbors, who all regard Paddington with the utmost respect.  Speaking of the Browns, they are each having their own individual challenges, which Paddington seeks to help them out with whenever possible.  Father Henry (Hugh Bonneville) is going through a mid-life crisis after he was passed over for a promotion at work, mother Mary (Sally Hawkins) craves adventure after working on illustrations for children's adventure stories, teenage daughter Judy (Madeline Harris) has started up her own newspaper after finding an old printing press, and son Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) is going through a bit of an identity crisis as he tries to fit in at his new school.  Fortunately, now only do the Browns have Paddington to keep things in order, but they still have their housekeeper Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters) to help out.

Back home in Paddington's homeland of Peru, his beloved Aunt Lucy (voice by Imelda Staunton) is nearing her 100th birthday, and the little bear is desperate to find the perfect gift to give her.  While exploring an antique shop run by the kindly Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent), he comes upon an intricate pop up book of London's landmarks that is seen by many as a rare collector's item.  Knowing that his Aunt would love to see where he is currently living, Paddington becomes determined to make the money to buy the book for her, and begins taking on various odd jobs around the neighborhood as a window washer.  Little does he realize, he's not the only one with his eye on the book, although for much more nefarious reasons.  It seems that the old book holds secrets in its illustrations that can lead to a location of a fabled treasure that once belonged to a wealthy circus performer.  A washed up West End theater actor named Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant, wonderfully hamming it up) sees this as his way out of doing dog food commercials, and back to respectable theater work.  He dons a disguise to steal the book, and when Paddington catches him in the act, the thief manages to escape, while the bear is found at the scene of the crime by the police and wrongly assumed guilty.  From that point on, the movie goes into two separate plots, as Paddington seeks to make the best out of being imprisoned by making friends with the other prisoners, while the Brown family tries to clear his name.

Paddington 2 manages to up the stakes and scope of the original film, while at the same time not sacrificing any of the charms that made it a success.  In some ways, this movie might be even more charming.  The cast is certainly delightful, with many acclaimed British actors giving this their all and delivering winning performances.  Hugh Grant, in particular, seems to be having the time in his life in his villain role, playing a character who is outwardly charming, but on the inside a bit of a cad, as well as a buffoon who is never quite as clever as he seems to think he is.  Another standout is Brendan Gleeson as "Knuckles", a prisoner whom Paddington befriends while in jail by introducing him to his favorite cuisine - marmalade sandwiches.  There are cute visual gags, such as when Paddington is put in charge of the prison laundry, and turns all the prisoners' garbs pink, as well as some clever puns and word play humor.  Returning director and co-writer Paul King has wisely not tried to shake things up too much, and instead plays on the strengths of the first movie, without repeating himself or making this out to be a complete retread.

Also like before, the movie is a wonder to look at.  King uses a lot of storybook-style visual tricks in certain scenes, and even relies on traditional hand-drawn and stop motion animation in certain moments, such as when Paddington is looking through the rare pop-up book for the first time, and visual effects bring the images to life.  There are some inventive set pieces to look out for, and just like before, he is able to make London appear charming and quaint, while not ignoring the more dangerous or adventurous elements of the city.  And of course, there is Paddington himself, who has been brought to life with some of the best CG effects out there.  He never once looks out of place with the human actors, and every piece of fur on his body right down to his expressive face have been realized masterfully.  The effects work is so good that his animated response to some of the more emotional climactic moments makes these scenes all the more effective.

Paddington 2 doesn't have the surprise of the original, but that's because we know what to expect, and the movie doesn't let us down in the slightest.  This is as warm, funny and as smart a children's film as you are likely to find in cinemas right now, and it's entertaining enough that adults can watch this on their own, as well they should.  Nobody could possibly be too old to enjoy filmmaking this clever.


Sunday, January 07, 2018

Molly's Game

For years, Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Moneyball) has been famous for not just his airtight dialogue, but also for the way it's delivered.  He seems to be able to put out more information and more character development in a single scene than some screenwriters can fit into half a movie at times.  His directorial debut, Molly's Game, is pretty much a showcase for his rapid-fire dialogue, as well as the kinetic energy that frequently accompany it.  At nearly two and a half hours, it does go on a bit long, but there is no denying the skill and enthusiasm of his writing.

Molly's Game is pretty much all information and dialogue, and the way that it is delivered by its first-rate cast can sometimes feel like it's being delivered at a mile a minute.  There were even a couple times when I wanted the movie to slow down a little, as Sorkin seems to be throwing out one detail after another.  The movie's narrative also jumps around to different time points, so it can be a little hard to follow at certain moments.  Despite all this, there is enough stuff that works here to keep you ensnared by the true story (with names changed, except for the main character) of Molly Bloom, the infamous "Poker Princess" who made a fortune holding illegal gambling games with the rich and powerful, and Hollywood celebrities.  With a strong performance by Jessica Chastain as Molly, as well as an equally noteworthy supporting turn from Idris Elba (who gets to end 2017 on a good note after appearing in back-to-back disappointments The Dark Tower and The Mountain Between Us), as well as Sorkin's trademark style and humor, Molly's Game may be flawed, but it's still well worth watching.

As the movie opens, we learn that Molly Bloom was at one time on the path to the Winter Olympics, performing on the ski team, and being driven by her demanding and perfectionist father, Larry (Kevin Costner, very good in a small role).  A mishap on the ski slope during the qualifying run ended that dream, and Molly headed to California a year later in order to get away from her family and to just figure out what she wanted to do with her life. (She had been building a path to law school, but Molly was burned out on that as well.) Molly has no money when she comes to L.A., and is sleeping on a friend's couch, when she happens to get involved in the world of underground high stakes poker due to a man she met while working as a waitress at a cocktail bar.  The poker games are filled with media moguls and celebrities playing for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even though Molly doesn't understand the game at first, she is a quick learner as she watches the game being played, and keeps track of everyone's money while they play, recording their amounts into a spreadsheet. 

Molly quickly learns how to set up her own game in a posh hotel suite, and before long, the biggest and brightest names in Hollywood are playing at her table.  Again, all the names except for Molly's has been changed, so we never find out who these people actually were.  One player at Molly's table is a young actor described only as "Player X" (Michael Cera, in a rare dramatic turn), who apparently was one of the biggest young actors at the time, but he ended up destroying Molly's reputation after she turns him down when he asks for preferential treatment.  Losing all her players because of Player X, Molly is forced to start up a new game in New York City, where instead of the Hollywood elite, her players are some of the wealthiest people in the world.  Over time, Molly becomes addicted to drugs in order to keep up with her lifestyle, and when the Russian and American mob start to get involved, the FBI start tracking her and eventually show up outside her apartment.

This storyline is interwoven with one that takes place two years later, where Molly is broke and facing indictment, and must turn to attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her in court.  He is fascinated by her story, and even though she can't afford his services, he takes her on as a client and is willing to look beyond the tabloid headlines.  All the while, Molly herself narrates the story with the kind of speed and precision we have come to expect from an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.  When she explains how she ran her games with great detail, it can sometimes feel like information overload.  And to be honest, the legal scenes were not as interesting to me as the scenes depicting Molly running her games.  But what keeps our interest throughout are the performances by Chastain and Elba.  Michael Cera is great as well as the mysterious Player X, and it can be fun to speculate his real identity afterward. (It is rumored to be Tobey Maguire.)

Molly's Game touches on themes such as addiction in various forms (gambling, drugs, alcohol), and getting in too deep when crime syndicates start to get involved.  But it really is the personality and fierce determination of Molly Bloom, and the performance Chastain gives here, that kept me involved.  There are a couple moments that do feel a bit false, such as a scene late in the film where Molly and her father sit on a park bench.  It's well-acted and all, but it feels like a quick way to get a lot of exposition and character relationship out of the way.  We also pretty much know how the story is going to end up from the start of the film, an approach I am not a fan of when I am not initially familiar with the story, having not read the real life Molly Bloom's tell-all book, on which the film is based.  It's pretty much up to Sorkin's dialogue and the performances to carry the film, and at least they do an excellent job here.  I just felt like there could have been more surprises if the movie did not use the flashback approach.

Molly's Game is being groomed as an Oscar contender, and while I think the screenplay and lead performance by Chastain are likely to get nominated, I can't really see this being one of the big winners.  It's a very good movie, yes, but there's going to be a lot of competition going into wide release throughout January and February.  At the very least, Sorkin has proven that he can direct as well as he writes.  Having been a fan of his work for years, that's hardly a surprise.


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