Reel Opinions

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Possession of Hannah Grace

A better title for this would have been The Waiting Game, as it's one of those movies that makes the audience wait almost its entire running time for something to happen, and when it finally does, it feels like an afterthought.  The Possession of Hannah Grace lacks vision, a basic motive for its monster, characters, scope, and a reason to exist.  In other words, anything you might go to the movies for.

As the film opens, we witness the already-possessed Hannah (Kirby Johnson) tied to a bed and alternating between writhing about in pain and agony, and cackling wildly.  Two priests and the girl's father (Louis Herthum) stand over her bed, chanting verses, and occasionally splashing holy water in her face.  Hannah doesn't like this, so she levitates one of the priests with her demonic powers, and impales him upon a giant thorny crown of a Christ statue that happens to be in the room.  She's about to do the same to the other priest, when her father decides that enough is enough, and he smothers her with a pillow.  You know a movie is in trouble when the opening three minutes or so are a retread of every exorcism movie cliche in the book.  Originality is not what the filmmakers are going for here, but we hold out hope that at least some suspense could be in store.

Cut to three months later, and we're introduced to Megan (Shay Mitchell), a former cop who is trying to piece her life back together after she froze up during a situation, and her hesitation led to the death of her partner.  She got hooked on drugs and alcohol afterward, and lost her boyfriend (Grey Damon), but she's started going to support meetings, and is trying to start over.  A friend she made at the meetings (Stana Katic) happens to be a nurse at the local hospital, and helps Megan find a job when a position opens up on at the graveyard shift for the basement morgue area of the hospital.  Megan is shown the rounds of the basement, which looks more like a fortress, and is given the ins and outs of the job.  Of particular interest, all the lights in the basement are activated by motion sensors, which hints at what a majority of the scares in this movie will be built around.  I hope you like lights going on and off in your movies, because you will be seeing it.  A lot.

One night while on the job, Hannah's dead body is brought to the morgue, and a lot of weird stuff starts happening.  Those darn lights just won't stay on, there are weird noises, and when Megan puts Hannah in one of those lockers where they store the bodies, the door on her locker just won't stay shut.  Megan starts having creepy hallucinations (Or are they?), and even the people working the late shift around the hospital start disappearing.  Turns out Hannah's not as dead as advertised, and is now creeping around the hospital and lurking in the shadows for any unfortunate security guard or nurse who might be nearby.  The weird thing about this movie is that it never really seems to have a grasp on its own demon.  We're never told just exactly what or who is possessing Hannah Grace, or what it really wants.  At one point, someone asks the reasonable question of why hasn't the monster killed Megan, since she's the only one working down in the morgue, and the movie never supplies an answer.

Here's another thing.  We sometimes see the demonic Hannah entering elevators and using stairs to get around in some scenes, and in other scenes, it can seemingly teleport and pop up in front of its victims from out of nowhere.  She also seemingly can get around to any part of the hospital (the roof, the stairwells), and immediately return to the morgue where she pretends to be dead every time Megan checks on her.  But why, exactly?  If she can freely move about, why doesn't just she immediately kill Megan?  That way, she doesn't have to do the whole "play dead" act, and can just pick off everybody at her leisure.  Whenever the dead Hannah starts walking around under the control of the demon, we can hear her bones pop and snap with every move she makes.  This might have been creepy, if only it didn't sound like a Foley Artist was crushing up a bag of Doritos every time. 

Where all of this leads to is a climax so abrupt, it almost feels like the movie ran out of money, rather than a satisfying conclusion.  The Possession of Hannah Grace is the kind of junk that's usually reserved for January, but I guess Screen Gems/Sony Entertainment just couldn't wait to disappoint us.  If there's any complement I can pay this movie, it's that the music score by John Frizzell is surprisingly sparse and atmospheric.  Too bad the movie didn't follow his lead.


Saturday, November 24, 2018

Robin Hood

Much like King Arthur, Robin Hood seems to be the kind of high adventure story that Hollywood has lost its way with.  It doesn't know how to have fun with the story, or with the action sequences.  It's filmed in murky grays and blacks, with many scenes lit only by a stray wisp of firelight.  When I think of the story of Robin and his Merry Men, the images of Errol Flynn or the Walt Disney animated version immediately spring to mind.  But in recent years, it seems like filmmakers want to go out of their way to convince us that the story is not that much fun.

Perhaps this all started back in 1991, with the Kevin Costner blockbuster, Prince of Thieves.  It seems like ever since then, Hollywood has been trying to make the story darker and more dreary.  At least that film had Alan Rickman's Sheriff of Nottingham to liven things up whenever he was on screen.  What do we get here?  Well, the filmmakers do seem to be trying to give us a somewhat modern spin.  The dialogue is current, and Maid Marian (played here by Eve Hewson) gets to be more than just a damsel in distress, though the screenplay never quite carries this idea as far along as it should.  But outside of that, there's little that stands out.  And just like the last Robin Hood movie that we got (the 2010 film directed by Ridley Scott that starred Russell Crowe), this one makes the mistake of acting as an origin story for the outlaw.  When Robin has formed his band and made his way into Sherwood Forest, the movie is over.  Why do we need an entire movie devoted to the origin?  Just give us the adventure story we came to see!  All I can say is the next time someone tries to film this story, I want them to just skip the whole background story, and cut straight to Robin hanging out with Little John, Friar Tuck and the rest in Sherwood.

But, I digress.  Here, we get Robin of Locksley (Taron Egerton from Kingsman) enjoying the life of being a Lord, until he is drafted and called to fight in the Crusades.  When he witnesses the cruelty of his fellow soldiers first hand, he turns against them, and is sent back home, only to find out that the evil Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) is taxing the local people into the poorhouse in order to pay for the war effort.  Not long after returning home, he comes across Little John (Jamie Foxx), who convinces Robin that they need to band together to fight the Sheriff's tyranny, and trains Robin in combat and the art of thieving.  The heroes begin to steal from the Sheriff's goons, while at the same time, Robin uses his title of prestige to infiltrate the inner circle of the wealthy, and find out what the Sheriff is truly up to.  Along the way, they are joined up with by others who want to see the reign of the Sheriff end.  These include Marian, Will Scarlet (Jamie Dornan), and Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin), who acts as the closest thing this movie has to comic relief, as he gets to throw out a one liner once in a while.

Director Otto Bathurst tries to liven up the story with modern day trappings and dialogue.  Maid Marian seems to be quite a modern day beauty dropped into Merry Ol' England, Jamie Foxx's Little John has a cool 2018 edge to his performance, and all of the battles are littered with modern day editing techniques, such as slowing down and speeding up the action at different times.  He even throws in a Narrator who seems to be very cutting and edgy for today's audience.  When the movie seems to be wrapping up, he tells us that this is not the end of the story, and we get a couple more scenes that act as bait for a sequel that will probably never get made.  I can see how these modern day trappings could work with the right approach, but this isn't it.  And what's wrong with making an old-fashioned swashbuckle adventure, anyway?  Are they just out of style in this day of superheroes?  I really hope not, but given that this movie acts as one big origin story, I have the sinking hunch that I may be right about those kind of movies being out of style.

Also modern are the special effects, which come across as being out of place in the film.  There are certain action sequences, such as a wagon chase across the streets, where the actors don't even seem to be inhabiting the shots, using CG and obvious green screen edits to place them against backdrops that just don't quite look right.  It all feels safe and very sanitized, as if the filmmakers were afraid to try anything remotely different, except adding a few modern day touches.  It all leads to a movie that is not exactly unwatchable, but is just so paint-by-numbers, it kind of leaves your brain the second you walk out of the theater.  It never offends, but it also never engages on any real level, so you're left with a fast food cinematic product that does its purpose, and then leaves you unsatisfied when it's done.

Like a lot of blockbusters, Robin Hood seems more interested in world building and setting up a franchise than it is in telling an enthralling adventure story that we've come to expect.  I never quite got the logic to this.  Yes, it has worked in the past (most notably the Marvel Cinematic Universe), but it has just as often floundered right out of the gate.  Instead of setting up a series right out of the gate, just give us one great movie that we actually would want to see more of.  If you can give us that, the rest will sort itself out. 


Friday, November 23, 2018

Creed II

There are only two things wrong with Creed II, but they are massive problems that sink an otherwise well-made film.  The first is that the sequel is completely unnecessary.  While the 2015 original did leave some room open for continuation, it was not entirely needed.  It ended on a strong note, and the characters were where they needed to be.  The second is that the movie ignores what made the last one work so well.  It was a human story that took the characters of the Rocky film universe, and put the spotlight on them, rather than the boxing.  While the fight scenes were certainly beautifully shot, it was the characters and how poignant, smart and funny they were that drew the audience into their world.

All of the actors from the last movie are here, and they are just as good as before.  But something is missing, and that something is a true reason for this movie to exist.  It does not further the characters or their storylines.  Rather, it plops them into a predictable formula plot, and puts them through the motions of a traditional three-act structure.  If the last movie seemed so fresh and vibrant, maybe it's because it was under the helm of Ryan Coogler, who managed to get to heart of the characters and the world that Sylvester Stallone created with the original Rocky back in 1976.  Coogler, naturally, was unavailable for the sequel, as he was busy with Marvel's Black Panther at the time.  In his place, Stallone was handed the chance to work on the script, alongside Juel Taylor, and he has returned to the traditional structure of the earlier movies in the franchise with this one.  The emotional depth and power we saw before is now replaced with a well-made but generic tone helmed by a relative newcomer director, Steven Caple Jr.

The film opens with Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) reaching the top of the boxing world and becoming the heavyweight champ under the guidance of Rocky Balboa (Stallone).  To celebrate, Adonis proposes to his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who was such a memorable character in the last movie, but here has been given the throwaway role of the dutiful wife and expecting mother after she learns she is pregnant.  Aside from a few encouraging words to her husband, she contributes little, which is a step down for her character.  Now that Adonis has the championship belt, he becomes the target of up and coming Russian boxer, Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of Rocky IV antagonist Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren).  Ivan famously killed Adonis' father, Apollo, in the ring, and now Viktor is calling Adonis out for a televised grudge match. 

Adonis naturally wants to fight Viktor in the ring in his father's memory.  He asks Rocky for his support, but Balboa has been through this once before, and will not go through it again.  Angry, Adonis takes Drago on his own, and naturally ends up unprepared when it's time for the big fight.  What follows is your standard movie formula of a hero having to pick up the pieces of his life, realize what is truly important, go back to his wise friend and mentor for advice and training, and the training montages begin as we lead up to the second big fight between Adonis and Viktor.  This is one of those movies where you can leave the theater for a half hour, come back, and not miss anything.  The one original scene that the movie does throw in is a sequence where Ivan Drago meets Rocky at the Italian restaurant that Balboa now owns, and talks about how his life fell apart after he lost to him over 30 years ago.  This is the kind of scene that the movie needed more of, and that the last one had in spades.

In Creed, it truly felt like Adonis' story.  We saw his struggle to rise to the top without riding on the famous name of his father, we saw a true relationship blossom between Bianca and him, and we saw how Rocky had since faded away after his fame had long left him, but that he had not given up the fight.  We get none of this emotion or complexity in Creed II.  It is simply a generically structured plotline, where the once fleshed out and fascinating characters are now assigned predetermined roles, and play them out as expected.  There is nothing to complain about here when it comes to the performances, or the technical credits of the film, all of which are as fine as before.  The trouble lies solely with the script, which has been simplified, and does not want to explore these people further, or make them as interesting as we remember them being.

I personally believe a big part of the problem lies in giving Stallone the reigns of the script this time around. (He had nothing to do with the script for the last movie, which was a first for the Rocky franchise.) He seems to struggle with who is supposed to be the main character here.  In the last film, Rocky was clearly a supporting character, but a memorable one, and one who still managed to play a key role in the story, even though it was not his movie for the first time.  Here, Adonis and Rocky seem to be almost fighting for control of the narrative, and it gets a bit awkward.  Also underdeveloped is the potentially fascinating father-son relationship that is hinted at between Ivan and Viktor.  The movie seems to be attempting to be making them more than just simple antagonists with their own issues to work through, but the film constantly holds back, and the potentially interesting subplot is never brought to focus like it should. 

Back in 2015, Creed was a total surprise, going on to box office success, critical acclaim, and even an Oscar nomination for Stallone. (A well-deserved one, at that.) I have a strong feeling that Creed II will be met with much more muted appreciation.  Much like the Rocky sequels that came before it, the film struggles to understand what made the original work so well, and replaces it with conventional and tired plotting.  This is a good-looking and well-acted movie, but this time around, there's nothing underneath to get excited about.


Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2

2012's Wreck-It Ralph was a clever family film that managed to mix old school video game nostalgia with vibrant comedy, a lot of heart, and some kinetic action.  If anything, Ralph Breaks the Internet is an even more clever film, and one of the few sequels to surpass the original in some ways.  It's also somewhat of a departure for the Disney Studio, as it goes against one of their most valued lessons that they have imparted on children over the years.  With so many Disney films emphasizing teamwork and coming together to solve your problems, here is a film that reminds kids that sometimes it's okay to be alone, and to let your friends do their own thing.

This is one of the few animated films I can think of that has taught the lesson of individualism, and that it's okay if your friends don't always agree with you, or don't want the same thing that you do.  It's just as valuable of a lesson for kids (and adults) as the message of "be happy with who you are" that seems to be behind nearly every animated film these days.  Not only is this lesson well-taught by the smart script credited to co-director Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon, but it also manages to be just as thrilling and funny as the previous entry.  It even manages to subvert the myth of the Disney Princesses in a memorable scene that brings together all of the famous ladies of Disney for one big get-together, where they actually discuss the impact and the somewhat dated lessons of their stories.  This sequence in particular makes the movie worth watching.  It doesn't just plop the characters in for an extended cameo like you would expect, but actually explores the impact that these characters have on kids.

Six years have passed since the events of the original movie, and the video game villain Wreck-It Ralph (voice by John C. Reilly), who is actually a nice guy in real life, is still best friends with video game kart racer character, Venellope (Sarah Silverman).  They're both enjoying a tranquil existence at Litwak's Arcade, where they spend their days acting out their roles in their individual video games by day, and hanging out together as soon as the arcade closes down for the night.  They particularly enjoy getting together for root beers at the Tapper arcade machine, or racing each other in the futuristic cars featured in the Tron video game.  However, by this point, Venellope has begun to tire of the routine.  She's memorized all the tracks in her racing game, and there are just no surprises or new experiences.  Things get even worse for her when the steering wheel on her game cabinet breaks, and her game is unplugged, which means she basically now has nothing at all.

Fortunately for our heroes, around the same time this happens, the owner of the arcade has just recently plugged in a new WiFi router, giving the video game characters access to explore the wide world of the Internet.  Ralph and Venellope hear of a mythical on line place called eBay where just about anything can be bought and sold, and discover that there is actually a replacement steering wheel for Venellope's game being auctioned off.  Desperate for a new experience and an adventure, Venellope races off into the world of the Internet, with Ralph close behind.  Unlike the first film, which followed the characters traveling across various games and meeting up with different classic game characters, this time around the emphasis is on exploring the on line world, with plenty of references, gags and Easter Eggs for both kids and adults to pick up on.  Since this is a Disney film, we obviously see only a small "family friendly" portion of the Net, although Ralph does make a brief detour into the Dark Web at one point.  We also get sites like Amazon, eBay, Youtube and Pinterest name-dropped, or have their logos displayed, which may upset those who are sensitive to product placement in their films.

But unlike the idiotic The Emoji Movie from last year, Ralph Breaks the Internet is not just a soulless cash-grab marketing adventure.  Another smart touch that the filmmakers throw in is that the movie actually explores the nature of the Internet, and talks about the impact that it can have on people.  It teaches in an intelligent way that the Internet can be a tool for good, as well as what can happen when negativity gets out of control in comments from people who do not realize the impact their negative comments can have on others.  There are actually a lot of smart themes here that the writers have thrown in with the usual comedy and exciting action that the audiences have obviously come for, which makes the movie stand out a bit from your usual holiday family entertainment.  If there is anything to complain about, it's just that the film goes on a bit long at nearly two hours, but that's definitely a forgivable offense, especially when the film is as largely entertaining as this.

Yes, this is a fun movie that will entertain families, but I was more enthralled by the chances that the movie seemed willing to take, both in its messages, and in the handling of the Disney Princesses, which must have made some executives at the studio a bit nervous when the filmmakers were discussing their ideas for Disney's main cash cow.  Not only is the movie about individualism and following your own path in life, but the team behind the film managed to kind of strike off on their own in some ways.  I kind of wish this would happen more often.


Sunday, November 18, 2018


Widows is a different kind of heist movie, in that it is gritty and angry.  So many recent movies about people banning together to pull a job (such as the recent Ocean's Eight, which was also about women teaming up to perform a crime) are filled with glitz, laughs, and white-knuckle excitement.  Director and co-writer Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), along with fellow screenwriter Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), has a lot to say about politics, the current state of Chicago, and how women and minorities are viewed by those with power and money.  The fact that they put in so much plot and involving characters in a film that runs just over two hours, and not make it feel overly crowded or rushed, is a sign that the audience is in good hands.

The movie has a simple yet ingenious concept, and one that I'm surprised we don't see very often, if at all.  It covers and unites the women who are left behind when their husbands all die in a botched robbery, try to pick up the pieces of their lives, and pull off a heist of their own when they become threatened.  At the center of it all is Veronica (a powerful Viola Davis), who is left struggling to understand the death of her husband, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson).  Throughout the film, we see flashes of their lives together, and how Veronica knew about her husband's dealings, but was never involved.  We are also introduced to two other women, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), whose husbands were involved with Harry's crimes.  Linda is left with two kids to raise on her own, and Alice takes to selling her body for private sexual encounters with a man less than a month after her husband's death.

In the film's beautifully edited opening sequence, we cut back and forth between the three men performing the heist and how it went wrong, cross-cut with scenes of the morning before the crime, and the last time these women saw their husbands alive.  It does not play out how you might expect.  Harry and his men were professional criminals after all, and not exactly moral men.  We witness this with Alice, and how she has a black eye, clearly given to her by her husband the night before during an argument.  While all this is happening, we are also introduced to a political battle for the control of the future of Chicago between a candidate with a family history in politics, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), and his opponent, newcomer Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry).  It turns out that Manning had millions of illegal political funds to help his campaign stolen by Harry and his cohorts that night, and when the criminals went up in flames during a firefight, so did the money.

Manning sends out his violent cousin, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya from Get Out) to get the money back, no matter what the cost.  He starts following and threatening Veronica, giving her only one month to get the money that her husband stole from his family during the heist.  Veronica needs to get money, not just to save her own life, but to also get out of the shadow of her criminal husband, and so she teams up with Linda and Alice, along with a fourth woman who gets involved (Cynthia Erivo) to pull off a job that Harry had planned to do after stealing the Manning money, and could be worth $5 million.  With the money, the women can all be financially free to create their own lives and destinies.  This automatically raises the stakes, as unlike in most crime movies, the women involved are not doing it for fun, or to prove that they can (although that last part does play a small part).  It is about financial independence, and stepping away from their husbands who still haunt them after death.

What makes Widows excel is not just its gritty take on the heist movie formula, but also on how richly drawn the characters within it are.  The women at the center of the film always get to be unique identities.  They never once become a faceless group, and the screenplay and performances by Davis, Rodriguez and Debicki all make them stand out in different ways.  Even the side characters are developed strongly, especially Kaluuya as the film's lead heavy, who gets a memorable scene where he tortures someone in a bowling alley for information that is absolutely chilling to watch.  There is also a great supporting role for Robert Duvall as Mulligan's father, a long-time political figure and racist who yells at his son behind the scenes about letting a black person beat him in the polls.  He believes that his family should hold onto power in the city, and views his son as letting their name down when he struggles in the campaign.

But outside of the performances and the writing, this is just a technically winning film.  The editing is rock-solid, able to juggle these multiple characters and plotlines with the kind of ease we seldom see from Hollywood, and the subtle music score by Hans Zimmer underscores the action, rather than overpowers it.  It's brilliant how a lot of the movie doesn't even use a music score, and just lets many of the scenes play out, creating their own mood and atmosphere.  And as the tension increases with the heist getting closer, the movie knows how to increase the pressure, so that we are fully along for the ride that the filmmakers are providing the audience.  All of the revelations and ultimate outcomes feel earned, not manipulated by the screenplay.

Ordinarily, Widows would stand out just on its tone alone, and how it plays out so differently than you would expect a modern day heist film out of Hollywood.  But when you throw in everything else, it becomes a very special film, and one that hopefully will not get lost in the shuffle of big Holiday movies that have been released, and are about to.  This is really something to get excited about.


Saturday, November 17, 2018

Instant Family

The trailers for Instant Family made it look like the movie was going to be a goofy and heartwarming look at the serious issue of adopting children.  And in many ways, it is.  But it's also not afraid to look at some of the harder aspects of the situation, while avoiding massive tonal shifts.  Yes, the movie can resemble a sitcom at times, but it's also smart enough to avoid some obvious pitfalls.  I think the highest praise I can give the film is that I walked out smiling, and genuinely feeling good.

The film is inspired by the experiences that co-writer and director Sean Anders (who is better known for raunchy comedy fare like We're the Millers and Hot Tub Time Machine) had when his wife and him adopted three children some seven years ago.  He brings a lot of obvious personal experience about what it can be like to bring children into your home who already have fully-formed personalities, and come from troubled backgrounds.  I wouldn't exactly call this an honest or hard-hitting movie, but it has little moments of realism mixed in with the scenes that are clearly sentimental.  Even the sentimental stuff didn't bother me that much, thanks to a game cast headed by Mark Wahlberg (giving one of his better comic performances in a while) and the always likable Rose Byrne.  There's a lot here that might be conventional, but it has plenty of genuine warmth, humor and humanity to make it work.

Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Byrne) are a married couple who buy homes that they renovate and flip for a living, and have more or less come to grips with the fact that they will never have children of their own.  Then Ellie becomes curious about adopting, and starts checking out websites about adoptable children in the area.  Pete resists the idea at first, but when he happens to glance at the photos on one of the websites his wife has visited, he can't help but be intrigued by the idea.  The scenes at the adoption agency, where the couple must go through a process to get approval for being foster parents, are some of the best in the film, as we are introduced to the various other parent hopefuls (who run a wide range of funny yet honest personalities), and the two women who run the place, played by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro, who make a great comic team together whenever they're on camera. 

Through it all, Pete and Ellie remain optimistic, and it is this hopeless optimism that leads to their decision to adopt not just one, but three children.  They first meet Lizzie (Isabela Moner from Sicario: Day of the Soldado), a 16-year-old who seems to have things figured out but is secretly troubled, at an adoption fair.  After they express interest in her, they learn that she has two younger siblings that they will have to take on as well.  These are the overly sensitive Juan (Gustavo Quiroz), who has a habit of rolling himself almost into a ball and sobbing whenever something goes wrong, and the adorable but brash Lita (Julianna Gamiz), who has her own unique food interests and has a hard time adapting to the food at her new home.  The film naturally covers how Pete and Ellie stumble and try to learn from mistakes during the early weeks and months, and how they all ultimately come through as a family.  There's a medical emergency at one point, a lot of moments where the kids act out rashly or violently, and a music montage or two that shows the family bonding.

Instant Family manages to simultaneously both be the movie you expect to be, and be better than expected.  The movie is filled with goofy side characters, like the two different grandmas (played by Julie Hagerty and Margo Martindale) who like to spoil the kids, but it helps that the screenplay by Anders and John Morris actually does give them some funny lines.  There are the scenes where Pete and Ellie's lives are turned upside down by the presence of the children in their homes, but they are not played too broadly, and always have a sense of realism to them.  When the kids act out or misbehave, sometimes there is no resolution, and the parents wonder if they are cut out for this.  When Lizzie rejects a simple gift that Ellie gives her, it is not out of the spite that we expect, as we later learn.  These moments speak of experience.  That's not to say there are no bumps in the road along the way.  The film's climactic emotional moment is somewhat marred by the appearance of Joan Cusack as a previously unseen nosy neighbor, who suddenly shows up to offer a comedic commentary on what's going on that seems a bit forced.

But any small stumbles the movie may take are smoothed out by the cast, who are great here.  Wahlberg is appealing as a dad who has to learn how to take charge, and seems quite confused by modern day kids at times.  And Byrne's Ellie is very funny as an eager mom who dives in head first, learns the hard way that parenthood is not what she expected, and learns to adapt.  And when the movie's tone shifts to the dramatic, and we learn more about the kids' background, they are more than capable of stepping up to the challenge.  There's a great scene they both have where they visit another adopting couple who they think have all the answers, only to figure out their life is not quite as together as initially thought.  Not only do Wahlberg and Byrne create a warm on screen relationship with each other and the kids, but they get great individual moments on their own.  Plus, the way the movie views being called "mommy" or "daddy" by the kids as a personal victory that is equal to winning the Super Bowl is sweet and honest.

Instant Family is a feel-good movie, but one that is a bit smarter than others.  I particularly admired how the movie portrays Lizzie as a smart girl who can be a handful at times, but is no worse than most teenagers.  The wonderful performance by Isabela Moner makes her an emotional character that a lot of young teens will probably relate to.  And that's really what this movie does best.  For all of its occasional sitcom trappings and mild moments of slapstick humor, this is a movie that understand what its characters are going through, and relates to them.  We relate to them also in individual moments, and it makes the film all the more rewarding in its final and well-earned happy moments.


Friday, November 16, 2018

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

I have a feeling that Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald will divide all but the most hardcore of Harry Potter fanatics.  I also have a feeling that this was the intention of author and screenwriter, J.K. Rowling.  In the past with her stories, she has shown a deft hand at mixing fantastic spectacle, warm and witty humor, and serious subject matter into grand stories.  But this time around, she's so fixated on world building and diving head-first into her increasingly convoluted narrative of her prequel story, that she kind of forgets about everything else.

There is obviously an audience out there who want to know everything about Rowling's fantasy world, and they will no doubt devour and analyze every story thread this movie throws at them.  But for me, as a somewhat casual fan (a somewhat casual fan who spent way too much money to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 and 2 on Broadway next month, mind you), it got to be a bit much.  The plot, which often plays out like fantasy soap opera, is so dense that it pretty much eclipses everything else in the movie.  There is little time for spectacle, joy, wonder, or even for the titular Fantastic Beasts, who seem to be making mere cameos in their own namesake movie.  Instead, too much time is devoted to having the actors stand around, trying to explain what's going on.  Like I said, there is an audience for this, and you already know what you think.  There are some moments that work here, but they are surrounded by lengthy segments where Rowling seems to be trying to cram too much into her own narrative.

Like a lot of prequels, the movie revels in connecting this story to the earlier films.  We go to Hogwarts to meet a young Albus Dumbledore (played here by Jude Law), we see a few familiar creatures and hear some famous names, and there are callbacks a plenty.  When watching a prequel, I often wonder why filmmakers bend over backwards to connect these stories set earlier in the timeline to the original franchise.  Not everything and everyone needs a backstory.  What's wrong with just creating a new stand-alone story in the same world?  Regardless, just like before, our guide through this world (set in the late 1920s) is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, more mannered and low key than ever before), a wizard who does not want to choose sides in an upcoming war, but would rather travel the world, collecting and studying the magical beasts that inhabit it.  The scenes where Newt is with his creatures are some of the best in the film, but they are not the focus this time.  Rather, the central focus is on villain Gellert Grindelwald, who was introduced near the end of the last movie, and pretty much drives the plot this time around.

Played by Johnny Depp with ice-white hair and a menacing soft-spoken manner, the film opens with Gellert's daring prison escape, which is one of the few sequences in the movie that is truly thrilling and full of spectacle.  Now free, he wants to gather up all the pureblood wizards from all over the world, and start a war with the non-magics.  His ultimate goal is to conquer both the world of magic and the everyday world.  Newt is tasked by Dumbledore to track Grindelwald down before he can gather an army of followers and begin his conquest.  Unfortunately, it's not that simple.  During his mission, Newt must deal with the fact that he has been banned from traveling due to events that happened in New York in the last film, so he has to find a way to travel undetected.  He also reunites with Tina (Katherine Waterston), also from the last movie, and tries to rekindle a romance with her.

Speaking of romance, there's a lot of subplots concerning couples this time around.  We have Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), Newt's classmate from Hogwarts, who is involved with Newt's brother Theseus (Callum Turner).  It turns out Theseus is on the Ministry of Magic, and is one of those people who wants Newt to choose a side when it comes to the upcoming war.  There is also Tina's ditzy sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), who is still involved with Muggle Jacob (Dan Fogler).  Queenie and Jacob pretty much exist for rare moments of comic relief when needed, and honestly, the movie could have used a bit more, as the tone of the film is very grim, dour, and lovelorn.  All this, and I have not mentioned Credence Barebone (Erza Miller), who is seeking his identity, and who is being tracked down by Grindlewald, because he is supposedly a key element to his plans for conquests. 

Again, I'm sure all of this will be thrilling to certain people, but as The Crimes of Grindelwald bounced these various plots, characters, relationships, and multiple settings (usually London and Paris), I found it harder to care much about what was going on, and who wanted to hook up with whom, and who was doing what or looking for what or who.  This is simply an overstuffed movie that could have benefited from some simplicity, and a lot more spectacle that would help us feel transported into the film's world.  It's surprising, because it's not like the people behind these films are stranger to the franchise or the world.  The film's director is David Yates, and this is his sixth time working with the Harry Potter universe.  He's shown a deft hand at mixing plot and adventure before, but there's just a very slow atmosphere here that makes this more of a slog than an adventure.  And yet, there are some moments here that capture the greatness and fun of earlier films, my favorite being a sequence where a circus packs itself up when it's time to move onto another city.  And when the Fantastic Beasts do show up, they're as much fun as they were before.  They just are given less importance and less to do.

I think the problem here is that Rowling is treating this film series like a novel, and is trying to cram so much plot and information that it simply overwhelms.  It doesn't help that Redmayne is not exactly a hero driven by personality, and he frequently mumbles his lines here.  There's still things to enjoy here, but this entry felt like a little bit more of a chore to sit through than previous films.  I can only hope any future films employ a bit more of a lighter touch when it comes to plotting and fitting everything together, though I have my doubts.


Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Girl in the Spider's Web

A long seven years after David Fincher and star Rooney Mara made their Hollywood adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we get the follow up that I don't think audiences were exactly clamoring for.  If they were, they probably won't be hungry for more after they see The Girl in the Spider's Web, a thriller so devoid of feeling, the tone is ice-cold.  That's not to say the film is brutal or hard to watch.  It's just that it leaves absolutely no impression whatsoever, and the stars have zero chemistry up on the screen.

This film, based on the novel by David Lagercrantz (who took over the series of books after the original author, Stieg Larsson, died in 2004), features stock action, a plot that is almost impossible to care about, and a weak interpretation of the series heroine, Lizbeth Salander.  Played in other films by Mara and Noomi Rapace (in the original Swedish language films), this time around we have Claire Foy, who puts on a shaky accent, and just never quite captures the hard edge and sexuality of the character like previous performers.  She simply never grabs your attention whenever she's on the screen.  Sure, she looks the part with her spiky black hair and pitch black leather attire, but she fails to command the screen with her performance, nor does she ever generate any connection with any of her co-stars.  We don't feel for her, because her performance gives us nothing to feel about.

Lizbeth now pretty much comes across as your generic angry butt-kicking woman, who is all attitude and no personality.  As the film opens, she has become a vigilante, striking out against men who hurt women.  The first time we see her, she breaks into the apartment of a powerful businessman who has just beaten his wife, strings him up, tasers him, and then transfers all of his money to his battered wife, who runs off with their kid.  This might have been powerful if Foy had been allowed any sort of emotion during the scene, even anger or perhaps a sense of satisfaction about what she was doing.  When she's not righting the wrongs of evil men, she's hacking the Internet.  She is approached by a recently-fired employee of the National Security Agency (Stephen Merchant), who developed a computer program called FireFall, which can access the world's nuclear weapon codes.  He's now having second thoughts about having developed such a program, and he wants Lizbeth to steal it.

What follows is a pretty standard plot, about a bunch of people who want the program for different reasons, and Lizbeth has to stay ahead of everybody, not knowing who she can trust.  There's a NSA Agent (Lakeith Stanfield from Sorry to Bother You) who is trying to track down who stole the program, as well as some Russian thugs, one of whom has a spider tattoo on his face that turns out to have a personal connection to Lizbeth's past.  There's a mysterious woman (Sylvia Hoeks) dressed all in red who keeps on turning up, and she wants the program too.  Also worked into the story is Mikhail Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), a reporter who has been Lizbeth's long time friend and partner in her adventures.  This time, he mostly stays on the sidelines, which is probably for the best, as Foy and Gudnason have all the chemistry of a hunk of wood during their scenes together.

The Girl in the Spider's Web simply seems to lack any reason for existing.  Gone is the visual style and the harsh brutality of David Fincher's vision from back in 2011.  Instead, director Fede Alvarez (who made the infinitely better thriller, Don't Breathe, a few years ago) gives us a visually drab winter landscape of grays, blacks and blues that fails to leave any impression on the viewer.  There are no moments of action where the audience catches their breath, no surprises in the narrative itself, and simply no reason for us to care about anything that's going on up on the screen.  The plot is so standard and convoluted, it could have come from any half-baked espionage thriller.  There's simply no identity to be found here.  Combine all of this with the strangely indifferent performances, and you have a movie that simply did not need to be made.

I can only picture the most devoted fan of the series getting something out of this, and even then, I doubt they will get much of anything at all.  If you are someone who has been waiting all this time for Lizbeth Salander to return to the big screen, I apologize.  You deserve better than this.  And judging by what's on display here, you probably won't be seeing her in another movie for quite a long time.


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