Reel Opinions

Friday, October 26, 2018

Hunter Killer

Compared to some of Gerard Butler's recent attempts at thrillers (I'm looking at you, Geostorm!), Hunter Killer is at least watchable, and it contains some decent practical effects.  It's also bogged down in way too much plot, way too many characters that the movie doesn't bother to develop, and a ludicrous theme that oversimplifies the complex relations between the U.S. and Russia.   It wants so much to be a Tom Clancy-style thriller, and it would have succeeded if it had just trimmed away a lot of the excess that clogs up the narrative.

This is the kind of movie that introduces us to our hero, Joe Glass (Butler), as he is hunting in the Scotland woods.  He comes across a deer, and is about to kill it, when he notices it has a family following after it.  He puts down his bow, and lets the deer continue on its merry way.  Not only does this scene tell us that Joe has a heart of gold, but it's about the closest we get to character development for him in the film's two hour run time.  Joe is then called upon to take command of the USS Arkansas submarine, and to investigate a recent incident where a Russian sub sunk an American vessel after it was believed the Americans fired upon them.  Or did they?  Joe is put in charge of a team of faceless young extras who speak only in military movie cliches.  They have studied their jobs well, and can say lines like "Brace for impact!" and "Fire the torpedoes!" with total ease. 

They find the wrecked sub, but something is suspicious.  The hole in the side of the ship did not come from an outside torpedo, it was blown up from the inside.  Joe suspects sabotage.  At that same moment, over in Russia, we meet the Russian President Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko), who is betrayed by his scheming Defense Minister Dmitri Durov (Michael Gor, playing the role as if he were playing a Bond Villain).  Dimitri wants to ignite war between the U.S. and Russia, and is trying to stir up hostility and confusion on both sides.  As a matter of fact, at that same moment over in Washington D.C., we find Adm. Donnegan (Gary Oldman, in one of his paycheck cashing roles) trying to convince the President that they should strike at Russia.  However, the much cooler-headed Rear Adm. John Fisk (Common) and NSA senior analyst Jayne Norquist (an underused Linda Cardellini) think something doesn't smell right, and want to send some ground troops into Russia in order to investigate.

This leads us right into the third plot of the movie, where some Navy SEALS are dropped intro Russia, and tasked with the mission to rescue President Zakarin, who is being held captive by the evil Dimitri.  The SEALS do a lot of heroics, get in many shootouts, and try to get the President to Joe's sub, which is going to transport them to safety.  And while all this is going on, Joe discovers that there are actually some Russian survivors on that sunken sub, brings them aboard, and then gives the Russian Captain (the late Michael Nyqvist) full access to the sub and its systems.  Joe's crew is against this idea, but Joe knows in his gut that he is right, because he and the Russian Captain are both in charge of submarines, and are therefore "brothers".  You figure it out.  Actually, Joe seems to react almost entirely on hunches throughout the entire mission, and seems to get by largely on luck.

Hunter Killer is overloaded with too many military movie cliches, both on the sea and on the ground.  The scenes on the sub at least have some tension (there's a moment where the sub has to make its way through a sea of mines that is actually quite well done) and some very good effects.  The stuff concerning the SEALS and the rescue of the Russian President, however, are the kind of third rate stuff we've seen many times before, where the heroes never miss, and the villains only score a hit when the script says they can.  It also has a share of clunky, overly-scripted lines that the cast don't know how to make sound natural.  Ir ranges from the overly dramatic ("You've doomed us all!") to the just plane awkward. ("I'll see you court martialed for this!"  "Then it's my job to keep you alive so you can!")

This is a perfectly watchable and standard movie that is just overstuffed and filled with too much familiar dialogue spoken by characters we know next to nothing about.  We can admire the craft of the film, and a couple tense moments, but in the end, it never builds to anything all that special.  Like too many movies I've seen lately, it's okay for what it is, but I doubt I'll remember much of anything about it come the end of the year.


Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Hate U Give

It's easy to see why Angie Thomas' novel, The Hate U Give, has remained on the New York Times Bestseller List since it was published back in February 2017.  The story not only obviously resonates with young readers, but it touches on a very prominent social issue in police brutality.  And now, with this heartfelt and engaging film adaptation, it has a chance to resonate even more.  Director George Tillman, Jr. and screenwriter Audrey Wells (who sadly passed away right as this film was hitting theaters) have captured the raw emotional power of Thomas' book, and brought it to life in probably the best way possible, with a cast that simply can't be faulted.

The film is essentially a coming of age story, and follows 16-year-old Starr Carter (a wonderful Amanda Stenberg) as she introduces us to the two worlds she lives in during the film's opening moments.  Starr lives with her family in the largely black community of Garden Heights, where gangs and poverty are pretty much a fact of life to the people who live there.  Her parents send her and her two brothers not to the local schools, but clear across town to the mostly white and upper class school, where Starr will be safer and perhaps get a real education.  In narration, Starr tells us that there are two completely different versions of her.  The one she shows to her family and friends in Garden Heights is the real her.  At school, she feels she has to be non-threatening and act differently.  This, of course, puts Starr in a difficult situation where she does not really belong in either social circle, and that she has people eye her differently because she knows she does not belong no matter where she is.

In the film's opening scene, Starr is nine, and her stern father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) is teaching her what to do if a cop car ever pulls her over.  He tells her to put her hands on the dashboard, make no sudden movements, and do as the officer says without argument.  It is a key to survival for Starr, and in a way, she uses this in everyday life.  She does not offend, she does not speak out, and she does not argue.  Be pleasant, and the wealthy kids at her prominently white school will maybe respect her.  She has a boyfriend at school named Chris (K.J. Apa), but despite having friends and acceptance in both social circles she frequents, Starr never truly feels like she belongs anywhere.  Then, while attending a party in Garden Heights, she has a run-in with a childhood friend named Khalil (Algee Smith).  He was her first crush, and they talk and reminisce about the old days, and about Khalil's current life.  He lives with his grandmother who has cancer, and so he's been helping out a gang in order to make money for her hospital needs.  Their reunion is interrupted when a fight breaks out at the party, and he offers to drive her home.

On the way home, they have a run in with a cop car who pulls them over for an unknown reason.  Khalil gets defensive with the officer, while Starr tries to keep him in check, remembering her father's words on what to do in the situation.  At some point, Khalil reaches for a hairbrush, the cop mistakes it for a weapon, and fires upon him, killing him almost instantly.  The remainder of the film deals with Starr's complex feelings dealing with the PTSD of seeing her friend die in front of her, as well as her confusion about the media circus that quickly forms around the incident.  There are a lot of activists who want Starr to come forward, and speak openly about Khalil and the night in question.  There are just as many, including Starr's concerned mother (Regina King), who want her to be safe and stay quiet, not drawing attention to herself.  Naturally, this whole situation makes living in the two worlds she frequents even harder, especially when the students at her school stage a walk out in protest of Khalil's murder, but many of the kids seem to use it as an excuse to blow off school, not really caring about what happened.  There are threats of violence against her, and she will question some friendships, but the heart of the story is how Starr learns to handle the situation, and realize what is truly important to her.

The Hate U Give is never preachy, nor does it sermonize.  It's much too smart for that.  Instead, it looks at the issues from all angles, and gives every side ample time, and time for the audience to make their own decisions, and what they would do in Starr's position.  That is one of the many things that makes the film stand out.  We follow Starr as she becomes a young woman who is not afraid to speak out, and the transition of the character feels genuine.  There are no forced or contrived moments, no moments where the music swells and Starr feels a change coming within her.  Every achievement here is small and personal, and that is the way it should be with a film like this.  Starr grows and learns during the course of the film, and starts to become the woman that she will one day grow up to be.  And it is Stenberg's amazing performance that carries this through.  She must grow from a shy, somewhat awkward teen to a terrified potential victim, and ultimately into a strong young woman, and she is believable in every stage that her character must go through.  She is backed up by a strong supporting cast that never once strikes a wrong note, and is just as good as she is in just about every way.

What's also brilliant is how the film makes us feel what Starr is feeling in subtle ways.  When she feels awkward and a bit of an outcast at her school, the colors are kind of cold and metallic.  When she is with her family or friends, the colors are much warmer, and represent what she is feeling with the people around her.   Every emotion this movie puts us through feels earned.  Nothing is manipulated, and they are seldom pre-set.  If anything feels familiar, it's because it is happening to too many people all around us, and we have probably seen it before.  This is not a movie that is trying to blow the lid off of any topic of social issue.  It simply wants to show a young girl's reaction to a tragic and all-too-common occurrence.  Starr starts the film off as a relative innocent who has her life changed.  She holds onto certain people in her life, loses some others, and ultimately becomes a stronger and better person without any forced narrative convenience.

That is what a coming of age story should be, and on that level, The Hate U Give works beautifully.  It's emotional and powerful without feeling like it is being manipulative.  Here is a movie that could have gone wrong in so many ways.  The fact that it finds so many ways to go right is sort of a small cinematic miracle. 


Halloween (2018)

The new Halloween movie pretends that all the sequels never happened.  There is no more sibling connection between heroine Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and silent killer, Michael Myers, and the entire backstory that has been built for Michael over the various entries is gone too.  Director and co-writer David Gordon Green wants to clear everything away, start fresh, and go back to the basics of the original John Carpenter film.  This is admirable in a lot of ways, but sometimes when you go back to basics, you end up with a movie that is, well, basic and an echo of the movie the filmmakers are trying to emulate.

For all of their efforts to bring back the tension of the seminal 1978 movie (which still has not been touched by just about any imitation or sequel that has come after it), Green and his fellow writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley seem to have missed the point just a little.  The original is a taut masterclass in building suspense.  It also is wonderfully atmospheric, creating a time and place that few horror films can, almost to the point that you can feel the crisp October weather whenever you watch it.  This new follow up is admirable in a lot of ways, but it just never truly transports you into the story.  I constantly felt like I was watching an emulation, instead of something truly terrifying.  There are some interesting themes here that the filmmakers attempt to add to the story, but they are also undernourished, as are the characters, some of whom simply disappear without any explanation, and some who are introduced, only to get killed seconds later, so there's absolutely no point to them other than to add to the film's body count.

That's another thing.  The original Halloween was largely built around suspense and atmosphere.  When you go back and watch it, the body count really is not all that high.  Here, the filmmakers seem to put a much more emphasis on overly brutal killings that definitely get a reaction from the audience, but simply are not that scary.  It's a quick jolt for sure, but it doesn't have a lasting impression, because the movie just moves right on for the next kill.  The plot involves Michael Myers escaping from a prison bus that was transporting him to a new sanitarium, and going on a rampage as he makes his way home to Haddonfield, Illinois to seek vengeance on Laurie.  Along the way, the movie throws a variety of victims in his path, many of whom as I already stated are introduced only so that they can be murdered in the exact same scene.  There are a pair who work on a podcast and attempt to interview Michael at his prison (he hasn't spoken in 40 years, and isn't about to for them), a whole slew of hapless cops, and an even bigger group of teenagers who are trying to have a fun time.  Each of them run into Michael, and he makes short work out of them by stabbing them repeatedly, bashing their brains in, or just simply crushing their heads with a single stomp.  These kills are staged well, but they quickly got repetitive to me.  They offered no genuine frights, just cheap thrills for the gore hounds in the audience, who reacted out loud whenever a new kill came up.

Of much more interest to me was how the movie handles the character of Laurie Strode.  While Jamie Lee Curtis has returned to her iconic role for a few sequels in the past, this one gives her an interesting new angle to play on the character.  She has more or less taken on the role of the late Dr. Loomis, in which she serves as the voice that says Michael is pure evil who cannot be reasoned with, and simply must be destroyed.  Laurie has more or less become a prisoner of her own hated of Michael, and preparing the inevitable day that he would come back for her.  At one point, she even tells an officer that she has been hoping he would escape so that she could kill him.  The best moments of the film are the ones that explore the impact that the events that happened on Halloween night in 1978 when Laurie was a 17-year-old babysitter trapped in a nightmare.  Not just on Laurie, but also on her daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), who has grown to resent her over time because of her obsession (the obsession over Michael dominated her childhood with her mother).  It has even created a rift between Karen and her own teenage daughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak).

There are some very good moments exploring the relationship between the Strode women, but the movie never quite explores it to the level that it could have.  Rather than explore the depths of this idea, it turns Allyson into a screaming victim who basically does nothing but run for what feels like a good 40% of the movie.  And when Laurie and Karen are forced to fight together against the evil that has ruled their lives, I never truly got the sense of the importance of the situation for the two.  There was never a moment that truly felt like mother and daughter were bonding, or forgiving each other for everything that has happened between them.  Again, the movie relies simply on cheap jolts and thrills, rather than getting to the heart of the matter.  I think it's the movie's reliance on jolts that really bothered me.  There's a great moment early on in Michael's rampage, where we are watching him go from house to house from outside, looking in on him through the windows.  It's quiet and calculated.  From that point on, the movie loses all subtlety, and simply becomes a string of violent set pieces.

And like too many modern day updates of classic film, the movie references the original in the dialogue or the camera shots without actually understanding what made the original so great.  It simply references without putting its own unique spin on the material, or without having anything to say.  Like I said before, the movie feels like an echo of what worked before.  Yes, it's admirable in a way, and Green has made a good-looking movie here.  But there's just nothing underneath it behind him wanting to recreate what Carpenter made 40 years ago.  It's a tribute, but it's a hollow one, and one that does not find its own identity.  I think if the bond between the Strodes had been strengthened, this could have been sufficient to add a new level.  But, because the movie doesn't go far enough with its own idea, we're left with what largely feels like a rehash.

Halloween is current sitting at 80% at Rotten Tomatoes as I am writing this, so I am clearly in the minority.  I've even heard a lot of people say it's the best sequel to the original yet.  But, when you stop and think about the franchise as a whole, is that really a huge achievement?  When all is said and done, I see this as a noble effort that missed the mark and the point just a little.  I didn't walk in expecting greatness, but I was at least hoping for a new angle, and I just did not see one here.


Sunday, October 14, 2018

First Man

First Man is not the rousing and inspirational Neil Armstrong biopic you might expect from Hollywood.  It's very intimate, solemn, and quiet.  It paints Armstrong (played in the film by Ryan Gosling) as a man haunted by the pain of losing his infant daughter to cancer, and in need of a fresh start.  He has a loving wife and family, and while he loves them, we get the sense that he may sometimes have a hard time reaching them.

Some audiences and critics may find this approach somewhat cold and distant.  Armstrong is not a warm presence in the film.  He is stoic, quiet, and usually keeps a lot of emotions to himself.  But I got the impression that director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) and screenwriter Josh Singer (The Post) are trying to unravel the folklore and legacy that has been built up over the decades, and make him into a man who is unsure sometimes, and can be distant or nervous.  The way Gosling plays him, without a hint of sentiment, can also be fascinating, as it allows us to read so much into his silent and at times almost stony performance.  This is not a case of a strong actor going through the motions.  This performance is intentional.  His Neil Armstrong is not a blank slate, as some I have heard accuse him of being.  He is a man who has trouble expressing his emotions, and buries himself in work in order to combat the pain in his life. 

That being said, there is something to be said about the criticisms of how Armstrong has been handled here.  When he is with his wife (Claire Foy) and two young sons, Gosling's performance can sometimes work against him, and make it seem as if he is a bit too detached from his family than maybe was intended.  One problem stems from a scene where his wife has to actually tell him to sit down and talk to his boys about the chance that he may not come home from his mission to the moon.  You would think that this would be something Armstrong would know to do on his own, and not just walk out the door without really saying anything, which is what he almost seems to want to do until his wife all but forces him to talk to his kids.  Scenes like this strike the wrong tone, but fortunately, they do not come up very often, and on the whole, the performance and the depiction of Armstrong as a quiet figure worked for me on a dramatic level.

If the movie's depiction of the man himself is somewhat emotionally distant, this is combated by the absolutely thrilling depiction of flight and space travel that is featured throughout the film.  If you have ever wondered how it feels to be in the cockpit as a space shuttle hurtles up into the atmosphere, then First Man will probably give you the closest thing to the actual experience.  The opening scene alone, where Armstrong is testing an X-15 aircraft, is astonishingly intense on its own, but as the film ups the stakes, sending its subject up into the stars, there is a sense of realism and authenticity the likes of which we probably haven't seen since Apollo 13 way back in 1995.  I imagine these sequences are even more impressive in IMAX, where it is playing on select screens.  If you have the chance, I have a hunch that this is the way to view the sequences depicting flight and space travel.

As I'm sure you're aware, the movie has drawn some controversy from certain viewers (many of whom have yet to see the film) about the fact that it does not depict Armstrong placing an American flag on the moon.  This is supposed to make the film unpatriotic somehow, never mind the fact that we see a whole crowd of people waving American flags as they watch the moon landing in a public arena, as well as a shot of one of Armstrong's boys raising an American flag outside of his home.  I believe this decision is also tied into the sort of film that Chazelle has chosen to make.  Rather then focus on the sentimental patriotism, the film chooses to make the moon landing a personal event for Armstrong, as he uses it to honor the memory of his daughter.  It's a beautiful and wordless moment, and in this particular movie, it works.

Rather than complain about what you want First Man to be, you just have to look at the film for what it is.  It is a quiet, sometimes sad and reflective look at a man who is depicted as a bit of an enigma, but still comes across as brave and knowing enough to demand respect.  It is beautifully shot and grand in scope at times, but it really is a deeply personal journey, and I enjoyed it on that level.


Saturday, October 13, 2018

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween has a similar structure to the original film from 2015, but lacks its wit and invention.  In that film, a bunch of monsters taken from the series of children horror novels by R.L. Stine (played by Jack Black, who makes a brief return here, and honestly this movie could have used more of him) came to life and attacked a town.  This time, a town gets attacked by Halloween decorations that come to life.  Not quite as fun, you have to admit.  The monsters here lack the personality and charm that the first one had, and basically come across as rampaging special effects, rather than genuine characters.

In all honesty, the effects are very good, and some are even clever.  I especially liked the giant spider made out of balloons that comes to life, and starts menacing screaming trick-or-treaters.  All the pieces seem to be in place here for a rollicking kid's adventure story set at Halloween.  But a key element that made the original Goosebumps movie so much fun is missing, and that element is Jack Black as Stine.  When he does show up, the movie manages to capture some of the humor from before.  The one moment in the film I truly laughed at is when Stine sees the Halloween monsters come to life from an unfinished manuscript he wrote over 30 years ago, and all he can say to himself at the sight of the various creatures is, "I can't believe how cliche my writing was back then!".  Stine was a main character in the last one, and here he's basically been reduced to a cameo.  It's a shame, because just from his brief screen time, you can tell he could have livened things up considerably.

Instead of Stine, our heroes this time are a pair of misfit teens who are best friends, Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor, who appeared in last year's horror blockbuster It) and Sam (Caleel Harris).  They uncover Stine's lost manuscript book in a secret hideaway room of an abandoned house, and when they open the book and read from it, they happen to summon the lead monster and main nemesis of the Goosebumps Universe, a living and malevolent ventriloquist’s dummy named Slappy (voice by Mick Wingert).  Slappy at first befriends the two kids, and tells them he just wants to be a part of their family.  He even helps the kids out with their encounters with the school bully and with Sonny's science experiment related to Nikola Tesla.  But the two friends and Sonny's sister Sarah (Madison Iseman) quickly catch on that the dummy has evil intentions when it turns out that the little guy wants a family of monsters, and uses his inherent magical powers to create an army of living Halloween costumes, lawn ornaments and even candy, as demonstrated in an inventive sequence where the two boys are attacked by a slew of gummy bears who can join together to grow to massive size. 

As the cast of monsters increased and started wreaking havoc on the townspeople, I found myself admiring the craft more than the actual content.  The various witches, ghosts, giant spiders and gremlins have been brought to life with some very good CG, and even a surprising amount of physical make up effects.  Every creature that seems to fill the screen have been made with a lot of care and attention to detail, but the screenplay by Rob Lieber (Peter Rabbit) can never seem to get a grasp on the playful mix of humor and kid-friendly horror that the original so expertly accomplished.  Even Slappy himself, who was the main villain of the last film as well, and sometimes comes across as a PG-rated take on the infamous Chucky doll, doesn't seem quite as menacing as he did before.  Again, this might be due to the lack of presence of Jack Black, who voiced the character in the earlier film, but did not return to the role for whatever reason.

In the end, Goosebumps 2 simply feels watered down.  It still has some fun moments, and I'm sure kids looking for a simple thrill will be happy with what they've been given.  But it can't help but feel like diminished returns.  It has the right idea, but not the confidence to pull it off.  The ending hints at a third movie, and I can only hope it finds the confidence that the franchise had before.


Friday, October 12, 2018

Bad Times at the El Royale

You have to hand it to writer-director, Drew Goddard - He refuses to be pigeonholed into a single genre.  Kicking off his screenwriting career with Cloverfield, he quickly moved on to The Cabin in the Woods, and then The Martian.  Now, he taps into his inner-Tarantino with Bad Times at the El Royale, a mystery thriller that embraces some good ideas, even more strange ones, and basically serves as an excuse for its star-studded cast to run crazy, their faces frequently bloodied, through a hotel that sits right on the California-Nevada border.

The El Royale Hotel, which serves as the film's sole setting aside from a few random flashback scenes, looks as if it is past its prime.  It once was a popular destination for gamblers and thrill seekers, but after it lost its gambling license, it now sits virtually empty, and only has one employee on hand.  This is the mild-mannered Miles (Lewis Pullman), who despite his youthful and calm exterior, seems quite jumpy and haunted by a lot of personal demons that will be revealed during the course of the night the film is set.  A group of guests show up all at once, and just like Miles, they all seem to be haunted by their own personal demons, and may not be who they say they are.  The first three guests arrive at the same time, and include a traveling salesman (Jon Hamm), a singer (stage actress Cynthia Erivo, who makes quite the impression here), and a Catholic priest (Jeff Bridges) who claims his memory isn't what it used to be, and he often forgets things.  They are soon joined by a young woman (Dakota Johnson), who signs the hotel register book with an obscenity instead of her name.

The guests check into their rooms, and almost immediately start undertaking some mysterious acts or behavior when they think no one is watching them.  The priest starts tearing up his room to get at the floorboards underneath the carpet, the young woman reveals that she's brought a female hostage with her in her car and ties her to a chair in the room, and the salesman starts an investigation, as he is secretly working for the FBI.  This is a movie that builds itself around secrets, and people not being honest with others or themselves.  Even the hotel itself has secrets, as there are hidden corridors that allow people to look into each individual room through a set of one-way mirrors.  The singer seems to be the only one who is what she says she is, but she'll be dragged into her own mystery soon enough.  As all of these characters come together, and a storm intensifies outside trapping everyone into the confines of the El Royale, we start to anticipate learning the truth.

And Goddard keeps us guessing for quite a while, due to the fact that he shoots the film out of sequence.  We're introduced to these characters, see what seems to be strange behavior from them, and then we learn more about them, either through flashbacks, or by the movie backtracking and filling us in on information through a different character's point of view.  This is a movie that is constantly switching viewpoints.  Each guest has his or her own unique storyline, and as the different characters and plots intersect, the pieces of the story start to fall into place and make more sense mostly.  I say "mostly", because Goddard seems to love how clever his script is, and he delights in pulling the rug out from under us.  Just when we think we have these characters figured out, he reveals something else.  And just when we think we know how the film is going to end up, Chris Hemsworth shows up in the third act as a crazed cult leader with ties to one of the guests, and he spends a majority of the last half of the film torturing everybody with insane glee.

It's during this third act that Bad Times at the El Royale starts to flounder.  Up to then, the movie had been kind of an exhilarating little mystery, and I enjoyed learning about these people as the truth was revealed layer by layer.  But then Hemsworth shows up, and while his performance is fine, his whole character and sequence kind of drags things down.  The movie loses a bit of its kinetic energy, and bogs things down for a very long final stretch of a nearly two and a half hour long film.  Still, the movie can be very sharp.  Maybe not as sharp as Tarantino's best writing, which this movie clearly wishes to emulate, and not as funny either, but it gets the dialogue, the music, and the characters right for the most part.  It's also kind of a laid back film, up until the last half hour.  The thrill comes in figuring out these people, and their connections with one another.  Once we get our answers, they're satisfying enough, but still feel a bit cheapened by the introduction of Hemsworth and the direction he takes the film.

This is one of those movies you're amazed even got backed by a major studio.  It's a quirky, bloody film drowning in dialogue and shady characters who will team up, betray and murder each other at some point - sometimes all in the same scene, it seems.  The movie is at its best when we are playing along with it, and trying to figure it all out.  Once the answers come, it can be a bit of a let down, but you still had fun getting there.


Sunday, October 07, 2018

A Star is Born

The latest take on A Star is Born (this is the fourth time Hollywood has made this movie, since the original in 1937) reminds us of a simple lesson in filmmaking - Sometimes it's not the story being told, but rather the way it's being told.  This movie keeps most of the familiar story beats that has been with the tale since the beginning, as well as taking place in the world of music, just like the 1976 version starring Barbara Streisand.  However, it's been updated enough, and shows that in his directorial debut, that Bradley Cooper can helm a film with a sure and steady hand.

For such a rehashed property, it's amazing how nothing here feels unnecessary.  Cooper not only directs, but also stars, and the chemistry that he shares with his co-star Lady Gaga (who is headlining a film for the first time here) is palpable, and stands for much of the film's success.  There is a dramatic and romantic connection between the two leads that feels absolutely genuine.  While the story is a melodrama at heart, the movie does not go out of its way to place its central lovers in contrived situations.  Instead, it allows us to see these two characters fall in love with each other, and then they have to face each other's personal demons, which is the way it is for every couple.  That's the beauty of the story, and why it is so loved by Hollywood.  It's a simple story with relatable themes, and when done well (as it has been here), it can not only be incredibly moving, but also an automatic crowd pleaser.

Just as before, this is a story of two star-crossed lovers at opposite ends of their respective careers.  Country-rock singer Jackson Maine (Cooper) is on a downward spiral after years of fame.  While he can still fill stadiums, his addiction to alcohol and drugs is starting to take its toll on his mental state, and he is also losing his hearing.  On the opposite end is Ally (Gaga), whom he discovers singing "La Vie en Rose" in a drag bar.  He is immediately taken by her, not just by her talent, but also by her personality and beauty.  They spend the night together, he takes her home the next morning, and neither one can forget the other.  Before long, Jackson is helping to launch Ally's career, and she becomes an Internet sensation after he invites her on stage to sing during his concert.  Soon, her career is booming, and powerful people in the music industry are wanting to sign with her.  Jackson, meanwhile, slips deeper into his addictions, as well as jealousy over how Ally's career is beginning to eclipse his.  And yet, there is always love between them.  Ally knows of his problems, but she loves him and wants to help him.  The question, as it always is with addiction, is does he want help in the first place, or does he simply want to self-destruct?

What makes this particular take on the story succeed is not just the believable romance between the two leads, but also how believably the film handles addiction.  The movie never once over-dramatizes, or uses addiction for a cheap plot gimmick.  We get to see the bleak realities of what it can do to a person, as well as to a relationship, in stark detail.  Addiction has always been a key element to the story of A Star is Born since the first time it was told, but what Cooper does is give a hard-edged look at it.  We never feel like the movie is going to cop out, or look for unrealistic answers, and the screenplay written by Cooper, Eric Roth and Will Fetters never once disappoints us.  This leads to us not only being fully invested in the relationship between Jackson and Ally, but also in the frustration and struggles to hold on when Jackson's life starts to fall apart, and it influences both of them.

But there are two aspects on which this movie can either succeed or fail, and that is the lead performances and the music.  Both are obviously crucial to this story, and both I am glad to say, have been given the best treatment possible.  Cooper expertly uses his movie star charisma to play a man who can still charm, but is obviously falling apart on the inside.  He's likable and heartbreaking, sometimes in the same scene, and he deserves all the attention his performance likely will get.  But, I'm also afraid that he will get outshined by Lady Gaga, who is also excellent, and provides one of the best leading performances given by a recording artist I have seen in a long time.  The shy, awkward nature that she gives her performance during her early scenes immediately draws us to her.  Just like Jackson, we can see a star waiting to come out.  She has a number of great scenes throughout the film, one of which sounds autobiographical, where she talks about her struggles to break into the music industry, and how people loved her songs, but were not fond of her appearance.  She handles every single scene extremely well, and she's bound to get some well-deserved award recognition early next year for this.  As for the music, featuring a combination of classic songs and original ones, it plays a key element in the film, and fortunately it is incredibly strong, both in the selection of songs, and the way Cooper and Gaga perform them.

A Star is Born is certainly familiar, even if you haven't seen the earlier incarnations of it, but when the film contains these performances and this level of emotion, that tends to be the last thing on your mind.  The success of this movie is not just making old material feel fresh, but in the way it takes such a stark and hard look at its own issues.  Yes, Lady Gaga's breakout performance is sure to get most of the attention, but there's a wonderful film here that I hope won't go ignored.


Friday, October 05, 2018


Venom is an R-rated action thriller trapped in the confines of a PG-13 rating that was mandated by the studio.  It's also incredibly goofy beyond belief.  It's about a guy who loses everything, and then slowly starts to get it back when a slimy black alien substance called a Symbiote decides to make him its host body.  The alien is aggressive and violent, and basically wants to use the guy's body to cause as much mayhem as possible.  But, it grows to like the guy after a while, and it starts trying to help him out, and even give him relationship advice.  The Symbiote also has a taste for biting the heads off of humans, but it will settle for microwave Tater Tots in a pinch.

Did I mention the movie is incredibly goofy beyond belief?  Director Ruben Fleischer (Gangster Squad) and his writers seem to be working without a net, and often veer between different tones from scene to scene.  Sometimes the movie is an action Sci-Fi thriller with a high body count (though tremendously watered down with obvious editing in order to achieve the "golden" PG-13), sometimes it's a body horror film where innocent people are subjected to horrific experiments, and sometimes it's a comical Jekyll and Hyde story about an ordinary guy who has to live with a flesh-eating alien inside of him, and only he can hear its voice as it speaks directly into his head.  Unfortunately, the alien just won't shut up sometimes, and the poor guy has to argue with or shout the thing down, and everyone around him thinks he's crazy.  The movie is a mess of ideas and pieces that just don't fit, and yet, it's never boring.  This is the kind of movie that fascinates you in its bizarreness, and constantly leaves you wondering what's going to happen next.  Not because you're invested in it, but because you're genuinely curious about what the filmmakers will throw in next.

If the movie does work in any way, it's through the efforts of its star, Tom Hardy, who throws himself head-first into this goofiness, and comes out okay because he embraces everything this movie is.  He plays Eddie Brock, a TV investigative journalist who finds his entire life shot to pieces after he tries and fails to expose a powerful scientist and mogul named Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), who claims he wants to help the planet, but is secretly conducting weird and dangerous experiments in an underground lab that goes unnoticed by the media.  It is Carlton's scientific experiments that brings the Symbiote named Venom down to Earth.  After Eddie fails to expose Carlton's dirty dealings, he loses his job, as well as his girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams).  Eddie becomes a hopeless drunk and layabout after that, until he is approached by a whistle blower working for Drake (Jenny Slate), who wants to expose her boss after he begins experimenting on human test subjects with the alien lifeform.  This leads to Eddie coming in contact with the Symbiote, and Venom slowly begins taking over his body, and trying to improve his life.  The alien can see that Eddie is a "loser", but he likes the guy and wants to help him out.

Venom is the first effort by Sony's film division to make a Film Universe built around supporting characters in the Spider-Man comics.  Even having seen this movie, I'm not sure how this plan is going to work.  The character of Venom is a central villain and sometimes antihero in the world of the famous Web-Slinger, and it's kind of interesting how this movie gets around the legal issue of not actually being able to use the character of Spider-Man.  After all, the superhero is directly tied into the origins of Venom and how Eddie Brock came in contact with the Symbiote in the comic books, so this movie has to jump through a few hoops in order to make it work in a movie that can't directly be tied into the Spidey franchise.  It's odd for sure, and I don't know if the idea can span a series of films, let alone an entire Universe.  But, Sony gets points for optimism. 

You may have heard some of my fellow critics call this movie awful, with some even comparing it to the infamous Catwoman film starring Halle Berry.  I have to disagree.  It's goofy, disjointed and messy, but it is not ambitious enough to be a total failure.  There are even some moments I enjoyed, most of them centered around Tom Hardy's performance.  You have to admire the guy for doing some of the things the screenplay asks him to do.  In one scene, he storms into a fancy restaurant while under control of the alien Symbiote, and acting out of ravenous hunger, he sits down in the live lobster tank and starts eating the heads off of the things, while his ex-girlfriend looks on horrified.  Silly?  Yes.  Dumb?  Possibly.  But like I said before, it's never boring.  Silly, dumb and boring would be a reason to completely write this movie off.  This movie had me under a kind of crazy spell at times, and even though I knew the movie wasn't working, I kind of admired it for going so far off the rails as it occasionally does.

In fact, the only times my eyes did glaze over a little from boredom were during some the action sequences, which are of the variety where the film just cranks up the volume, and throws a lot of screams, roars and gunfire on the soundtrack.  I also couldn't exactly get into the plot of the film.  I found Carlton Drake to be a bore as far as villains in these kind of movies go.  He too falls under the control of a different Symbiote (this one called Riot), but the movie never really has as much fun with this idea as it should, and it basically exists to lead up to an uninspired climax where two CG black alien creatures duke it out with one another in a spectacle battle that neither dazzles or excites.  This really shouldn't be an action film to begin with.  I mean, you build your plot around a guy who has a brain-eating alien living inside of him, and you don't make it a Buddy Comedy? 

So yeah, Venom will get torn apart by critics and possibly by the die-hard fans, and maybe they have a point.  But, it's just too silly and out there for me to completely hate.  I can't recommend it, but I also can't say I'm sorry I watched it.  It's not something I'll go out of my way to see again, but if I ever do think back on it, I might smile a little.


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