Reel Opinions

Monday, December 31, 2018

The 13th Annual Reel Stinkers Awards

It's New Year's Eve.  And as the clock ticks down the final moments of 2018, and everybody gets to look to the year ahead, I get to go back in time, and look at the movies that stole my money and my time the past year.

Yes, it's time once again for the Reel Stinkers Awards.  A time when I get to "honor" the worst of the worst that I sat through.  As you all know, bad movies come in all forms.  We've got blockbuster bombs, comedies with no laughs, thrillers that couldn't startle a mouse, unnecessary sequels, star vanity projects that went horribly wrong, and so much more!  I try to pick through the garbage, and find the really big stinkers.  Sure, I could easily make an entire list of cheap exploitation and low budget horror films, but where would the fun in that be?  I want to look back on the films that were big, or at least supposed to be big, and featured big talent, but still managed to fail.

As always, my "Best of the Year" article will likely come around February or so, as there are some late year releases still stuck in limited release at the moment, and will go wider during January and February.  I want to see and review as many of them as I can, so I always hold off on my Best list until then.

So, with all that out of the way, it's time to carve some cinematic turkeys!  Here's hoping that you didn't waste your money and time on them, and let us also hope that everyone involved with them will get to work on a good movie in 2019!

And now, I'm proud to give you...


10. A WRINKLE IN TIME - I actually did not write a review for this film, as I was away on a week-long Caribbean Cruise with my girlfriend the weekend it came out.  I did see it when I got home, and it immediately earned a spot on my "Worst" list, from which it never left.  Based on the classic children's novel by Madeleine L'Engle, this is a confused and muddled fantasy about some children who go on a quest across multiple worlds and alternate dimensions in order to search for their scientist father (Chris Pine), who disappeared while doing research on time and space.  The kids are aided in their quest by three otherworldly women (played by Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling), who don't really do all that much in the film, other than speak in unhelpful inspirational dialogue like “You can do this!” and "You are a Warrior!".  This big budget adaptation disappointed the fans of the book by ignoring many of the subtleties and complexities of the story.  As for those who were not familiar with the novel, they were confused by the movie's time and space-bending plot, and how the movie just never really bothers to explain anything. (One of the main characters just literally walks into the movie and starts talking, even though we haven't been introduced to him up to that point.) The movie explains little, and makes even less sense.  And despite the big name acting talent, none of the characters or performances register.  This is simply a misguided movie all the way around.

09. JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM -  If 2015's Jurassic World was a soulless attempt to cash in on the nostalgia audiences held for the 1993 original film, then Fallen Kingdom is simply soulless.  This is a garden variety sequel that just throws non-stop action up on the screen, while making no attempt to engage the audience.  For all the rampaging dinos and narrow escapes that the film throws at us, the whole experience ends up being as thrilling as cardboard because there is nothing to care about here.  Yes, the movie has been expertly made, but so what if there is nothing here for those in the audience to grab onto?  This is a film that gives us nothing to think about, and nothing to discuss when it's two plus hours are up.  It's a cynical and mechanical device that gives us a lot of special effects, but creates no sense of wonder.  The dinosaurs are like targets in a video game, and the human characters either blunder their way through one close call after another, or in the case of the villains, make one bad decision after another.  The script reads as if it were written on a bunch of post-it notes, hitting the expected plot points, but not going any deeper than that.  There are movies out there that can make you feel, make you excited, and even thrill you.  Don't let Jurassic World steal your time with an experience that will make you feel nothing.  As popcorn entertainment goes, it's the cinematic equal to dumping all the popcorn out of the cardboard box it came in, and eating the box itself.

08. TAG -  This is a relentlessly mean-spirited comedy that turned me off early on, and was never able to win me over.  It has a premise that seems to suggest a good time at the movies, but when I left, I felt nothing but hatred for the characters at the center of it.  The movie (loosely based on a true story) is about five guys, all friends from childhood, who for over 30 years have spent the month of May playing the game of tag.  Why do they do this?  To feel young, they say.  And at one point, one of the guys even says, "It brings out the best in us".  I might have believed this if the movie didn't go so far in making the five guys such violent, aggressive, insufferable a-holes.  In the movie, the characters play the game not on friendly terms, but mostly to be jerks to one another.  They not only use the game to interrupt important events in their lives like the birth of a child, the funeral of a father, or a wedding, but they even go so far as to implement torture when they threaten to waterboard someone.  As the movie got meaner and dumber with each passing scene, I started to feel dirty watching it.  If Tag is dismal as a comedy, it becomes downright unwatchable when it tacks on a sentimental ending, which plays by the unwritten rule that most recent adult comedies must go mushy and soft in the last half after devoting a majority of the movie to jokes about masturbation and including every four letter word and obscene insult in the English language.  After 90 minutes of unfunny obscene humor, the movie suddenly throws in a terminal illness and weepy bedside hospital scenes.  Let me tell you, when the movie went in this direction, I was so moved I wanted to throw up.

07. THE PREDATOR -  Here is a movie that will please no one.  Say you're a fan of the long-running Sci-Fi franchise, and are anxious to see how it's been updated.  Well, you will be disappointed to learn that this is a slapdash effort to cash in on the recognizable name.  But, say you're not a fan, and you just want to be entertained.  Again, prepare to be disappointed, as there is nothing inspired, thrilling or original here. The movie is an assault on the senses - Overly loud, replacing CG blood and gore for genuine thrills, and downright incoherent in its editing, plotting and pacing.  This movie has all the markings of a project that got out of control, or perhaps never had a clear vision to start with.  The Predator is the kind of film that feels it doesn't have to tell a genuine narrative or give us character motivation.  All it has to do is crank up the gunfire and explosions really loud, splash a lot of blood around, and hope the audience doesn't catch on that nothing is happening.  This is such a shockingly inept movie, you're almost surprised to see seasoned professionals were behind it.  This is especially true of the plotting and writing, which frequently falls back on forced exposition dialogue to move the story along.  There is just this overall sense of laziness to the filmmaking on display.  Instead of revitalizing the franchise, this might bury it even deeper into obscurity.

06. LIFE OF THE PARTY -  I'm willing to admit that the problem lies with me.  I detested Life of the Party with such ferocity that I have to wonder if the movie really is as bad as I remember it being.  This is a film that rubbed me the wrong way from beginning to end.  It's not just that this is yet another comedy with no laughs.  It's toothless, pointless, and just obnoxious.  The movie is just a colossal miscalculation on every level.  The film stars Melissa McCarthy as Deanna, a 40-something woman who gets dumped by her husband, and decides to go back to college where her young daughter is currently attending.  If you want to see this exact same idea done with actual humor, go and watch Rodney Dangerfield's 1986 film, Back to SchoolLife of the Party just wants to be nice, and not ruffle any feathers.  It's so insistent on not letting its audience think, that it virtually has no plot.  It's simply 105 minutes of failed sketches that revolve around Deanna bonding with Maddie's sorority sisters None of these plots go anywhere, mean anything, or build to any substance.  Some don't even get resolved, the movie just seems to forget about them. I guess the filmmakers feared that things like plot elements and actual humor would take away time from more pivotal scenes where Deanna wears funny clothes, falls over things, and does goofy dances.  Life of the Party is so bad, it makes Billy Madison look like a thoughtful and quiet meditation on the education process.

05. HOLMES & WATSON -  The distinct smell of flop sweat permeates from the screen during Holmes & Watson, as actors who seem to know they're trapped in a bomb struggle to rise above.  Scene after desperate scene, they soldier on, performing through moments that the movie thinks is funny, but they know are not.  This is yet another movie where the studio knew the script was a stinker, and they hoped throwing some talent at it would save it.  The movie is being advertised as a comedy, but it has too strong of a hollow, aimless tone to it to generate any laughs.  It places Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in the roles of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, respectively, and then pretty much hopes that they can recapture the chemistry they shared in the previous films they did together.  The thing is, those movies had life to them.  They had a pulse.  Here, Ferrell and Reilly mug for the camera, pretending that they're enjoying themselves.  But both of them look like they can hardly contain their doubts about the project.  Talented as both are, you can't throw a dud script at them, and expect them to make gold just by playing off each other.  There has to be something in the material for them to work with.  Holmes & Watson is the kind of desperately unfunny comedy that will likely be swept under the rug, and never spoken of by the stars or their fans ever again.  

04. THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS -  A lot of bad movies get pushed out of Hollywood every year, but it's rare to get an inexplicably bad one like The Happytime Murders.  It exists solely to shock and offend, but it can't even do that.  This is a one-joke movie, and that joke is "puppets are dirty".  We see characters that resemble the sort of Muppets we see on Sesame Street or The Muppet Show chain smoking, snorting lines of sugar like cocaine, hanging out in porno stores, inhabiting strip clubs, acting like mobsters and prostitutes, and having rough sex with each other.  Put those images in your head, picture if you would like to watch that for 90 minutes, and you will know whether or not you are the audience for this film.  The screenplay by Todd Berger does some customary world building in the first 10 minutes or so, then forgets all about it, and just plops its puppet characters into a forgettable murder mystery story about an assailant who is knocking off the puppet cast of a popular 90s sitcom one-by-one.  Now all the puppets are junkies and sex addicts, and are turning up dead in brutal gangland-style murders.  Melissa McCarthy (pulling double duty on this year's list of Stinkers) plays a foul-mouthed human cop put on the case, and basically is giving the same performance she gave in The Heat a few years ago.  All it does is make us wish we were watching that movie instead.  The Happytime Murders never builds to anything worthwhile, and is simply lazy in its desire to shock audiences. 

03. LIFE ITSELF -  Life is messy and hard, but Dan Fogelman's Life Itself is messy, convoluted, disjointed, and just a real sad sack of a movie.  The movie is divided into four separate chapters, and takes a series of seemingly unconnected plotlines and characters, and shows how they are all connected to create that funny thing called life and death.  Despite the title, Fogelman seems especially fixated on the death part, as well as on the misery of life.  During the course of the film's two hours, we see and hear about suicide, a bus plowing into an innocent bystander numerous times, cancer, a little girl's father getting decapitated, and a young boy haunted by nightmares of a deadly accident that he inadvertently caused.  None of these plots add much of anything to the film.  They're just there to add to the misery of the characters as they cope with loss, depression and isolation in the most basic and dramatically unsatisfying ways imaginable.  The movie wallows in pain and misery, while never really finding a way to connect emotionally with the audience.  Everything has been oversimplified, from the dialogue, to the way the film constantly feels the need to feed us how we're supposed to be feeling through narration or obvious visual montages.  It doesn't take long for the movie to feel like it's stopping itself every few minutes to point out the obvious.  Life Itself so desperately wants to tug at the heartstrings, but it takes so much more than just piling death and misery into the narrative to do so.  We need to feel a connection with the people it's happening to, and we never do.  Instead of emotional, the movie feels cheap and exploitative.  Instead of tears, we feel used.  And instead of joy at the end, we feel anguish.  

02. WELCOME TO MARWEN -  Here is a movie of stunning awfulness, one that only truly talented filmmakers could achieve.  Welcome to Marwen is based on the life of New York artist Mark Hogancamp, who came into acclaim in the art world with his elaborate World War II photos using dolls and models.  It's a touching story, and it even inspired a documentary.  What director Robert Zemeckis does with his take is bury the heart and emotion with a lot of pointless CG fantasy sequences where the dolls come to life, and reenact war atrocities and bloody gun battles.  It's about as appealing as watching a CG Ken and Barbie reenact the Battle of Normandy.  It's a total mess of a film, and one that had me watching in silent disbelief.  When it was over, I actually had to question what I had just seen.  This is not only the worst movie Zemeckis has made, but it's also the worst that Steve Carell (who plays Mark in the film) has been involved with.  The movie wants to tell the inspirational journey of Mark's emotional recovery after he is attacked by some thugs at a bar, which led him to lose all of his memories, due to the head trauma he suffered.  But it keeps on getting distracted by the expensive and stilted "fantasy" animation scenes, so that we never learn all that much about Mark, or the people who supposedly inspired him to create his work.  That's because Zemeckis really has no personal stakes to the story.  He just wants to play with the technology of the CG fantasy sequences.  This is one of the most misguided dramas I have seen in a long time.

01. THE 15:17 TO PARIS - I have no doubt that Clint Eastwood had the best of intentions in making The 15:17 to Paris.  He clearly admires the three young men at the center of the story, and why shouldn't he?  On August 21st, 2015, Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler helped prevent what could have been a tragedy when they stopped a terrorist attack on a train bound for Paris, France.  Their actions on that day deserve to be celebrated, but I don't know if this movie was the right way to do it.  Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler portray themselves in the movie, and while it's a neat idea, they quickly prove their inexperience with acting before the camera, and the movie becomes awkward almost from the moment they open their mouths.  Thanks to the clunky script and the inexperienced actors at the center, The 15:17 to Paris quickly becomes a failed experiment.  What starts as a well-intentioned tribute to the men and their heroic deeds quickly dives right off the deep end of pointlessness when the movie literally becomes a home movie of their European vacation.  A good half hour or so of the film is devoted to the guys doing nothing but walking about Italy and Amsterdam, before they catch that fateful train to Paris.  Another annoying thing that Eastwood does throughout the film is that he flashes forward to the events on the train at random moments.  We see a flashback with the guys as little kids being yelled at by their gym teacher for talking back to him, and then we suddenly cut to the train to Paris for no reason, as the terrorist begins his attack on the first couple potential victims.  Then, the movie will suddenly cut back to the flashback of the three main characters as children.  I was practically dumbfounded by this movie.  Eastwood has made great movies, and likely will make another one soon, but he completely strikes out in just about every conceivable way here.  This is simply an overly padded movie that never finds a sense or purpose in the telling of the story, because it refuses to dig deep enough.

Well, that covers the Top 10, but I am far from finished.  It's time to cover the Dishonorable Mentions, the films that were bad, but not quite bad enough to break into the top spots.  Don't let that fool you into thinking these movies are somehow better than what's come before, however.  You should avoid any and all movies that appear on this list.  With that said, let's roll out the next batch of stinkers!


Winchester, Pacific Rim: Uprising, Sherlock Gnomes, Rampage, Truth or Dare, Super Troopers 2, Overboard, Breaking In, Show Dogs, Action Point, Unfriended: Dark Web, The Spy Who Dumped Me, Slender Man, Mile 22, A.X.L., Kin, Peppermint, Night School, Nobody's Fool, The Girl in the Spider's Web, The Possession of Hannah Grace


Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Sherlock Gnomes (a sequel to 2011's Gnomeo and Juliet)


Helen Mirren in Winchester

Three-way tie between Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler in The 15:17 to Paris. (These guys may be real life heroes, but actors they are not.)

The Happytime Murders

Melissa McCarthy in Life of the Party and The Happytime Murders
Maya Rudolph in Life of the Party and The Happytime Murders
Thomas Jane in A.X.L. and The Predator
Tiffany Haddish in Night School and Nobody's Fool

Melissa McCarthy and her equally foul-mouthed Muppet police partner in The Happytime Murders

Universal Studios for bringing us Pacific Rim: Uprising, Truth or Dare, Breaking In, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Night School and Welcome to Marwen


Well, that's the worst of 2018 in a nutshell.  Time to look ahead to 2019, and hope for the best.  Have a wonderful and safe new year, everybody!


Saturday, December 29, 2018


Back in 2015, writer-director Adam McKay stunned audiences with The Big Short, his cinematic take on the 2008 financial crisis.  Known primarily for his work on Saturday Night Live and assorted Hollywood comedies, McKay showed a side that was angrier and more satirical than we had previously known.  He was able to take his subject matter, and make it not just accessible and informative, but also entertaining.  He employed just about every trick in the book, from surprise celebrity cameos, down to flat-out fourth wall breaking, where the characters would turn and address the audience.  It was exciting, exhilarating, and unlike anything audiences had seen before.

His follow up, Vice, which tracks the life and political career of Dick Cheney, employs a similar "all bets are off" style of narrative.  He is not really making a conventional biopic here, but rather an off the rails satire that is constantly changing tones, using random TV clips to represent the messages he is conveying, and once again having the characters occasionally stop the action so that they can address the viewer, making you feel like you are part of the story while you are watching it.  It's very involving and entertaining, and if it never quite feels as daring as his last film, that's only because it's not meant to be.  McKay is using the same stylistic choices and tricks, and while they are effective, they are not as surprising, only because we are expecting it this time.  Yes, the movie could have been more hard-hitting in certain ways, but that does not mean it should be passed up.

When we first meet Cheney in the film (played at various ages by Christian Bale, in a remarkable performance), he's a 22-year-old alcoholic who dropped out of Yale, and who seems to be going nowhere.  His high school sweetheart and wife Lynn (Amy Adams) stands firm with an ultimatum to him.  Either he shapes up and improves his life, or she's gone.  Dick promises to be the best man he can be for her, and he can't be accused of not being true to his word, as by 1969, he is a congressional intern, and working in the White House under Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell).  In short time, he rises in power, and soon he is the White House Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford.

All of this is narrated to us by an unknown man (Jesse Plemons), who claims to be just an average man who loves his family, and enjoys watching SpongeBob Squarepants with his young boy.  How this man knows so much about Cheney, and what role he plays in the story is kept a secret until almost the end.  Still, the man tells us how Cheney rose to power by basically doing three things that Rumsfeld admired.  He was quiet, he was loyal, and he did what he was told.  The movie skims over the years where Cheney was Secretary of Defense, as well as his time serving as the CEO of the Halliburton oil company.  However, McKay never fails to drive home his main point in the film.  As Cheney rose to importance, and eventually became the running mate of George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), he became hungry for power.  The film suggests that he was an expert at reading people, and could manipulate them into giving him what he wanted, while at the same time making it look like he was giving the other person what they wanted.

For example, Cheney knew that his position as Vice President was essentially a "nothing" job.  In the movie's own words, his main job is to wait for the President to die.  However, Cheney uses his influence to manipulate and move things his way from behind the scenes.  He knows that the President he serves is basically seen as the "black sheep" of the Bush family, and uses that to manipulate him into invading Iraq, finishing the job that his father started.  We may already know the details of the story, but the way McKay tells it makes it seem fresh.  He uses cinematic tricks, such as setting up a false ending half-way through the movie, complete with end credits.  He shows us focus test groups that helped coin terms that were used frequently by Bush and his allies.  He even resorts to dramatic Shakespeare-style dialogue (complete with dramatic thunder claps outside) in one memorable sequence. 

Through it all, Vice never loses its focus, or its ultimate message of what happens when power goes out of control.  This is not a serious movie, nor is it a flat-out satire.  The end result is somewhere in the middle, kind of like The Big Short.  McKay is once again taking a complex issue, and helping us understand, without dumbing it down.  He also gets some incredible performances, especially from Bale and Carell.  Not only does everyone look like their real life counterparts, but they are giving genuinely great performances here.  Really, the only area where McKay does falter just a little is that his production is a bit too preoccupied with being slick, that he skims over a lot of the story.  Yes, this is still an informative film, but there are certain moments in the script that either gloss over key details, or seem kind of like an adaptation of a Wikipedia article.  We get the broad details, but not the smaller ones.

But we are still entertained, and I think that's really what McKay is going for here.  He wants us to be informed, and yes he also wants us to be angry, but he does so in such a way that we almost don't notice it.  He makes his point, he grabs your attention, and he makes us question what we know.  And he does all of this with a deft skill that comes from years of entertaining the masses with broad comedies.  Even if Vice is not as groundbreaking as what came before from the filmmaker, it is just as engaging.


Friday, December 28, 2018

Holmes & Watson

The distinct smell of flop sweat permeates from the screen during Holmes & Watson, as actors who seem to know they're trapped in a bomb struggle to rise above.  Scene after desperate scene, they soldier on, performing through moments that the movie thinks is funny, but they know are not.  This is yet another movie where the studio knew the script was a stinker, and they hoped throwing some talent at it would save it. 

The movie is being advertised as a comedy, but it has too strong of a hollow, aimless tone to it to generate any laughs.  It places Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in the roles of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, respectively, and then pretty much hopes that they can recapture the chemistry they shared in the previous films they did together.  The thing is, those movies had life to them.  They had a pulse.  You can say what you want about Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, but those were made by people who actually wanted to make them.  Nobody wanted to make this.  Writer-director Etan Cohen (who previously worked with Ferrell on 2015's Get Hard) never has a clear comedic goal.  He's not really poking fun at the characters of Holmes and Watson, nor their relationship, and he is also not poking fun at any of the numerous stories and countless films about them.  So, the obvious question becomes, just what was he doing in making this?

The film's plot is without sense or purpose.  It kicks off with Holmes as a young boy at boarding school (played by Hector Bateman-Harden), and how he learned to kill his emotions and increase his logical thinking in order to get every other student at school except for him expelled.  That way, all the professors focused on him alone, and he could benefit from all their time and attention.  Flash forward to Ferrell as Holmes, who is already established as London's greatest detective, although he frequently plays him as a befuddled buffoon.  Instead of going to the courthouse where his arch nemesis Professor Moriarity (Ralph Fiennes, doing as little as possible, and basically showing up for the paycheck) awaits trial, Holmes is in his office trying to decide what kind of hat he should wear.  One of his options is a red hat that reads "Make England Great Again".  And no, this is not the last time the movie will reference Trump.

There's a plot to murder the Queen (Pam Ferris) afoot, and Holmes and Watson are tasked with the case.  But rather than build a compelling and funny mystery, the movie instead focuses on a lot of dated parody elements, including a lot of callbacks to movies from the 90s for some reason.  Dr. Watson performs an autopsy with the aid of the lovely Dr. Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall), and it turns into a spoof of the pottery scene from Ghost.  One of the suspects that Holmes and Watson track down is a one-armed tattoo artist (Steve Coogan), which I think might be a reference to the one-armed man from The Fugitive.  And the climax of the film is set on the Titanic, and who just happens to be there but Billy Zane.  And it's not Zane playing a character, he's playing himself.  And yes, he's only there because he was in the movie. 

If the movie references are dated and unfunny, then the actual jokes that Cohen gives us are even worse.  In an act of true desperation, he even throws in a full-on musical number late in the film.  It's not a funny song, mind you.  We're simply supposed to be laughing at the fact that the characters are suddenly singing.  They even got Broadway veteran Alan Menken to contribute to the song, and all I have to say is whatever they paid him to write it, it was too much.  Through it all, both Ferrell and Reilly mug for the camera, pretending that they're enjoying themselves.  But both of them look like they can hardly contain their doubts about the project.  Talented as both are, you can't throw a dud script at them, and expect them to make gold just by playing off each other.  There has to be something in the material for them to work with.

Holmes & Watson is the kind of desperately unfunny comedy that will likely be swept under the rug, and never spoken of by the stars or their fans ever again.  Everyone will go on to better projects.  The only ones who pay the price here is anyone who spent money to watch it.  Even at a cheaper matinee price, that's too big a cost to ask of anyone.


Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns is not a great movie.  Heck, it's hard to ignore its obvious flaws while you're watching it.  And yet, it's filled with so much joy, energy and enthusiasm that the movie is next to impossible to resist.  At least it was for me.  I can see how some may not get into this.  It's essentially an old fashioned Hollywood musical, and when you boil it down, not all that different from the original 1964 film.  But, it's well-crafted, and the performances are wonderful.

It's simply not as great as you might be expecting.  Yes, doing a sequel to Mary Poppins is pretty much an impossible order, and director Rob Marshall (Into the Woods) deserves much respect for what he does here.  He's managed to create a loving tribute and follow up to the original.  But at the same time, while the movie remains entertaining, it never quite lifts your spirits up like you keep on expecting it to.  The movie and the cast is giving it everything they've got up on the screen, but I never felt truly transported like a great musical usually does.  I never quite fell in love, though I did come pretty close when Dick Van Dyke showed up in a cameo late in the film. (This is not a spoiler, as the trailers and ad campaign have already revealed this.) This is a consistently entertaining film, but as mentioned right at the top, not a great one.

The film is set some 20 years after the original, during the time of London's "Great Slump" (i.e. The Depression).  The Banks children from the first movie are now adults, and are now facing their own troubles.  Michael (Ben Whishaw) is a recent widower with three children.  He has a job at the same bank his father once worked at, but it's a low-level job, and he's behind on the bills.  His sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) helps take care of Michael's kids (played by Nathaniel Saleh, Pixie Davies and Joel Dawson), along with the aid of his aging housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters), but it's obviously a burden for Michael to run his home without the help of his wife.  And now, the bank he works for is threatening to repossess his home due to an unpaid mortgage, unless he can find his father's missing stock certificates.

The time has come for Mary Poppins to return to aid the Banks family, and this time she's played by Emily Blunt.  Honestly, she's as fine of a modern day stand-in for Julie Andrews that audiences could wish for.  Descending from above with her magical umbrella and her seemingly-bottomless handbag, she is as sharp as we remember her being - Always willing to remind the children (and their parents) about proper manners, but also never forgetting to remind them that nothing is impossible.  This new adventure will seem very familiar to most audiences, as Marshall and screenwriter David Magee (Life of Pi) pretty much never miss an opportunity to pay tribute to some classic moments from the first, only with a slightly different spin, obviously.  And this time, Poppins and the Banks children are joined by Jack the lamplighter (Lin-Manual Miranda), who fills in for Bert in the first.

This familiarity carries right through to the musical score, and the new songs written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray).  Their songs are clearly fashioned after the ones in the original, so instead of the chimney sweeps performing "Step in Time", we get Jack and his fellow lamplighters singing "Trip a Little Light Fantastic", as they show the Banks children how to find their way home in a fog.  And yet, despite the familiarity, many of the musical numbers are given their own life and energy by Lin-Manual Miranda, who performs many of the numbers in the film, and shows himself once again as being one of the great musical showmen of our time.  Even if the Shaiman and Wittman tunes are nowhere near as memorable as I would have liked, the energy with which they are performed, as well as the choreography provided by Marshall, are so strong that I was still won over.

So, yes, Mary Poppins Returns feels very familiar.  There's the visit to the magical world where animated penguins and other cartoon animals entertain the live actors, there's the song where Mary explains how an everyday chore can be fun and full of imagination (this time, it's about the children having to take a bath, rather than clean up their room), and there's probably plenty of more instances that I could list, but would make this review far too long.  However, somehow, it all works.  I think it's because the filmmakers have respect for the material, and do add their own twist when they can.  This is not a case of the artists being lazy and recycling, rather they are being respectful.  Besides, the filmmakers were kind of stuck here.  If they did not bring these elements back, the diehard fans probably would have staged a riot at the box office.  So, they had to walk a fine line between tribute and rehash, and to me, they managed to stay afloat. 

I think the fact that the film still managed to win me over, despite the fact I knew how safe the material was being played, is the highest praise I can give it.  For all of its familiarity, there is a warmth and joy that is ever-present, and despite the PG-rating, this is as gentle and as tame a movie that you can find at the theater right now if you have young children.  Like I said, I'll get it if this movie is not for you.  There were a few moments here where I wasn't sure if I could recommend it or not.  But, the final scenes made me feel so happy, I just couldn't resist.


Sunday, December 23, 2018

Welcome to Marwen

Here is a movie of stunning awfulness, one that only truly talented filmmakers could achieve.  Lesser talent would be too afraid to go this far off the edge as director Robert Zemeckis does.  Welcome to Marwen is based on the life of New York artist Mark Hogancamp, who came into acclaim in the art world with his elaborate World War II photos using dolls and models.  It's a touching story, and it even inspired a documentary.  What Zemeckis does with his take is bury the heart and emotion with a lot of pointless CG fantasy sequences where the dolls come to life, and reenact war atrocities and bloody gun battles.  It's about as appealing as watching a CG Ken and Barbie reenact the Battle of Normandy.

I actually have to wonder if Zemeckis (who also co-wrote the screenplay) really wanted to tell this story, as he instead seems to largely be making a tribute to his past films here.  Just like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the movie mixes live action with animation.  Just like his 2015 film The Walk, it's a "true story" dramatization that was told much better in a documentary.  Just like the numerous motion capture films he made in the 2000s (like The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol), the animation on display here is kind of lifeless and creepy.  Heck, the guy even throws in a Back to the Future reference here.  It's a total mess of a film, and one that had me watching in silent disbelief.  When it was over, I actually had to question what I had just seen.  This is not only the worst movie Zemeckis has made, but it's also the worst that Steve Carell (who plays Mark in the film) has been involved with.

To be perfectly fair, Carell's performance is one of the few things that works here.  He plays Mark as a frightened introvert who lost all of his memories after he was attacked by some homophobic thugs.  Mark was drunk one night, and happened to admit that he occasionally likes to wear women's shoes.  Hearing this, the thugs beat him within an inch of his life.  He's recovered physically, but mentally, he's a blank slate.  He sees signs and photos that he was married once, and that he used to draw World War II pictures, but he does not recognize any of these elements of his own life.  He's lost the ability to draw, so he now stages elaborate War-themed photos made out of models that he builds himself and the vintage dolls that he collects.  He's created a fictional battle-weary Belgium town called Marwen in his own front yard in order to stage his photos.

We learn that the name "Marwen" comes from a combination of his first name, Mark, and the name of the woman who saved his life the night he was attacked, Wendy.  Oddly enough, Wendy does not actually play a role in the film, despite her having a big impact on Mark's life.  The town that he has created is populated by Captain Hoagie, who is modeled after Mark, and a team of women who are all based on women who have helped Mark along the way.  The movie frequently cuts to fantasy sequences where the dolls are brought to live with expensive, but somewhat creepy and stilted, animation.  We see Captain Hoagie and his girls blasting away Nazis, hanging out at the local tavern, and being strung up and tortured by the enemy troops who are constantly invading the town, and don't seem to ever die.  It's all supposed to be a metaphor for Mark being afraid to confront his own pain and the men who did this to him at their upcoming court hearing, but Zemeckis puts so much emphasis on these CG fantasy sequences that they become the focus of the film, rather than Mark's road to emotional recovery.

Welcome to Marwen goes wrong in many ways, but none more so than the fact that we never get a clear picture of just who these women in Mark's life are.  The movie constantly tells us that they have helped him since he was attacked, and we occasionally see a brief glimpse of one of them helping him, like the woman who taught Mark how to walk again.  But, we learn nothing about these women, and just how they impacted him.  We spend so much time with the CG dolls based on them that we never get to know the real women.  The one exception is Nicol (Leslie Mann), Mark's new neighbor who becomes intrigued by his fantasy world.  They start to build a friendship, but even this is stilted with the movie's confused narrative.  We don't really learn much about Nicol, other than she has an abusive ex who stalks her (and plays no part in the movie, not even getting a proper resolution), and that she likes to drink tea. 

That's because Zemeckis really has no personal stakes to the story.  He just wants to play with the technology of the CG fantasy sequences.  That's where his interest lies, and it shows when you realize just how unsatisfying the real world story is.  He never comes close to getting to the heart of the story, or to Mark for that matter.  He also doesn't want to tell the story of his recovery.  He just wants to stage these thrilling battle sequences, and show off what he can do with the animation.  There is not a second of this film that feels heartfelt or honest.  It's simply a misguided attempt to combine a true story with "thrill ride" spectacle filmmaking.  The end result is not just soulless, but kind of unwatchable.

This is one of the most misguided dramas I have seen in a long time.  I can only hope that Zemeckis returns to his senses soon, and recovers from whatever possessed him to make him think this was a workable idea for a film.  Welcome to Marwen is artificial in the extreme, and has no trace of heart or soul to be found.


Second Act

Second Act is one of those romantic comedies where everyone is generally pleasant, sunny or goofy, and nothing bad ever happens to anyone.  Sure, there might be some pain in the heroine's past, perhaps a break up, and maybe there's a jerk at work for the heroine to deal with.  But, we know almost from the first frame that the pain will be resolved, the former lover still loves them, and that the jerk will get what's coming to them.  Besides, the heroine always has her best friends behind her, who like to hatch crazy schemes to help her out, and start randomly dancing to hit songs from the 80s in her kitchen.

I can understand how some people can see these movies as escapism, but unless the screenplay offers
some genuinely funny dialogue or interesting characters, I usually lose interest quickly, as was the case here.  The movie stars Jennifer Lopez (no stranger to these kind of comedies) as Maya Vargas, a 40-year-old woman who gets passed up for a promotion at the big box store that she's worked at for the past 15 years.  She feels like life has passed her by, so her best friend (Leah Remini) has her computer genius kid make up a fake resume and social media account for Maya, giving her the college education and life experiences to fool everyone into thinking that she is a credentialed corporate consultant.  Almost immediately, she is scoped out by a big cosmetics company for an executive position.  This is one of those big cosmetics companies that hand out executive positions with no background checks whatsoever that you often come across.

Naturally, Maya fits right in, and has no trouble handling her new position.  It helps that her new boss (Treat Williams) is so sunny, kind and pleasant that he never once questions Maya, and never notices when she flounders at certain times.  She also finds herself in competition with the boss' daughter (Vanessa Hudgens), who starts out as her rival, but they quickly learn they have much more in common in more ways than one.  The relationship between the Lopez and Hudgens characters tries to add a dramatic, or at least sympathetic, spin to the movie.  This is constantly betrayed by the screenplay's desire to surround this serious subplot with a lot of goofy outside characters, like Maya's silly co-workers, and her over the top girlfriends.

Because of this, Second Act never settles on a tone or what it wants to be.  The plot goes in so many directions, and each scene takes on a different tone, that we eventually feel like director Peter Segal (a veteran comedy director dating back to 1995's Tommy Boy) doesn't have a handle on what kind of movie he thinks he's making.  There are some good scenes throughout, most of them concerning the previously mentioned relationship between Lopez and Hudgens.  In particular, Hudgens seems to be giving this material much more than it deserves with her performance.  But then, the movie will change tones, and suddenly switch to slapstick like Lopez tripping over herself as she walks away from her old job, or the corporate jerk being knocked into a Christmas tree, and having it fall on top of him.  There are also Maya's two oddball co-workers (played by Charlyne Yi and Alan Aisenberg), who seem to have wandered in from a completely different movie, and never quite fit in this one.

This is a nice enough movie, but it is not a funny or interesting one.  Jennifer Lopez can be an interesting actress to watch, and has proven so in films like Out of Sight or Selena.  But here, she's basically required to smile, be kind, and maybe have a tender moment, all the while never really coming close to building a real character.  She's simply playing to expectations here, when anyone could tell you going beyond what the audience expects is always more interesting and fun.


Saturday, December 22, 2018


It was kind of down to the wire, but here it is, folks.  Aquaman is the single goofiest movie of 2018.  And no, I am not forgetting the 112 minutes of Venom we got back in October.  Director James Wan (The Conjuring films) has given us many ludicrous sights to behold, such as Willem Dafoe riding a seahorse, an army of sharks that roar, a giant octopus who plays the bongos, and Dolph Lundgren trying to keep a straight face with a bright red beard and flowing locks.  With just a tiny nudge, the movie could have veered into the realm of parody, or perhaps become a live action SpongeBob Squarepants movie.

That may also explain why the movie suffers from such an identity crisis.  It's impossible to take seriously, and a lot of the time, the movie seems to be in on the joke.  But at others, it asks us to get involved in the plight of the underwater Atlantians, and whether they should go to war with the surface dwellers up on land.  The only one who can save both the dry land and the underwater realm is Aquaman, played by Jason Momoa as kind of a male fashion model with the vocabulary and mindset of a 12-year-old.  The hero (whose real name is Arthur) was born when a lighthouse keeper fell in love with the exiled Queen of the sea kingdom, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman, putting on a game face, considering some of the dialogue she's forced to deliver here).  He has grown up to possess remarkable strength, superior swimming ability, and the ability to communicate with underwater life.  Useful when you want to tell a squid what to do, but I don't see it coming in handy much.

The first time we see Arthur, he saves a sub full of Russian sailors from some evil pirates.  He climbs on board, throws his hair back in slow motion, then immediately starts tossing bad guys all over the room and slamming them into walls.  The fighting here looks sped up and aided with a lot of CG, which kind of kills the excitement of the fight, because we're not actually watching Momoa or his stunt double.  This is apparently how Arthur makes his living.  He waits for some kind of water-related crime to happen, and then he springs into action like a badass.  The rest of the time he spends with his father at the local bar, downing beers.  It's a living, I guess.  After one of his drinking binges with dear ol' dad, the Atlantian Princess Mera (Amber Heard, wearing a bright flame red wig that makes her look kind of like Ronald McDonald's dream girl) comes up to land to tell Arthur that things are bad down below, and he must come to the undersea kingdom to claim his rightful throne as the king.

The plot (or at least the closest thing this movie gets to a plot) centers on Arthur's brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson) trying to strong-arm the other undersea kingdoms into joining him in a battle against the humans who live up on land.  His vast army includes high tech sea vessels that look like something out of a 1950s Sci-Fi novel cover, which are a lot of fun to look at, and soldiers who ride on the back of seahorses, which is an intriguing image that the movie sadly does not exploit or explore as much as it should.  The only way to stop Orm's war plans is to find an ancient trident that once belonged to an old king of Atlantis, and is now hidden away somewhere.  Arthur and Mera venture forth, encountering a lot of dangers, like the evil pirate Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who gets his hands on Atlantian technology, and builds a battle suit for himself to combat Aquaman.  The movie sets Manta up to be a major villain, then pretty much forgets about him after one major battle.  We'll see more of him in the sequel.

So yes, Aquaman is extremely goofy, and I wanted to embrace it, but I couldn't.  I just didn't find it all that fun, despite the silliness.  A lot of the problems stem from Aquaman/Arthur himself.  Sure, he's fast with a quip, as is required of all superheroes these days, but he doesn't have any personality to back it up.  We don't know what he thinks, what he feels, and he often comes across as a blank slate who just so happens to have good hair, a great body, and likes to punch stuff.  He also doesn't seem to have much on his mind, and usually refers to everything in a pre-adolescent way, describing things as "badass" or "awesome".  Of all the superheroes you could be stuck on a long bus ride with, you would not want to be seated next to Aquaman.  I imagine the smell he would give off would probably be enough to repel, but that's a completely different matter.  Momoa is obviously trying to give this guy a fun personality, but he can only do so much with this material.

The same could be said for everybody else.  They're all making a valiant effort here, but the exposition-heavy script lets them down.  You have old pros like Kidman and Dafoe trying to act like this nonsense is serious business, and then you have Amber Heard trying to act like she serves a purpose, when she doesn't even get to create any real chemistry with Momoa, despite the movie hinting that a romance is blooming between the two during their adventure.  There's just not much to get excited about here, even with the non-stop special effects and the frantic action scenes that often go on too long.  For all of its underwater visuals and occasionally wonderfully weird ideas, I was just never wowed by anything that happened.  This movie doesn't have the confidence to truly take flight as a spectacle, or as a self-aware comedy.  It felt to me like the movie was holding itself back.

This is not a terrible superhero film, but it falls far short of the best recent effort coming out of Marvel Studios, or the just-released Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  Those movies know how to make us care about what's going on, and the people inhabiting the story.  With Aquaman, the strongest reaction I ever got was wanting to see more of the giant octopus that plays the bongos.  I've heard of stranger ideas for a spin-off movie.


Friday, December 21, 2018


Bumblebee is the live action Transformers movie I have been waiting to see since 2007.  After the five previous Michael Bay-directed entries emphasized sex, racism and low brow jokes, here is a movie that goes right to the heart of the story, has a gentle sense of humor, and likable characters.  Bay gave us preposterous world-shaking stakes, as well as clunky and jerky giant robot battles that never seemed to end.  This latest film is quieter and gentler, but still able to deliver on action and thrills.  In other words, this is the direction these films should have been going in since the beginning.

Michael Bay is still attached as a producer, but director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) and screenwriter Christina Hodson (Unforgettable) have wisely pretty much tossed the entire saga up to now aside, and started fresh.  This is essentially a prequel film, allowing the filmmakers to strike out on their own.  And rather than focus on a wide variety of giant robots, and their eternal struggle, the movie decides to focus on just one little alien robot outcast, and his relationship with a human teenage girl who feels like an outcast in her own society.  Yes, we've seen this plot before in movies like E.T. and The Iron Giant, but it works within the universe of these characters.  This is a more personal and intimate movie, or at least as personal and as intimate as you can get when one of your main characters is a towering robot who changes into a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle.   It's also leaner and much more tightly edited, running at just under two hours.  Considering the last few movies were pushing three hours, this is almost like a gift from the Heavens.

The movie kicks off in a familiar fashion for these movies, with a massive battle being raged between the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons for control of the planet Cybertron.  The Autubots are being forced to pull back, and their noble leader Optimus Prime (voice by Peter Cullen) orders his troops to escape and regroup at a later time.  One of Prime's soldiers, a little yellow robot named B-127, is sent to Earth to scout the planet, and contact his fellow Autobots once he feels it is safe for them.  The robot lands on our world, and has the extreme misfortune of running into some military soldiers led by the suspicious Agent Burns (John Cena), who immediately sees the alien visitor as a threat.  His troubles continue when two Decepticons, Shatter (voice by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (voice by Justin Theroux), follow him to Earth and try to destroy him before he can complete his mission, and wind up destroying his electronic voice box, so he can no longer speak.

The frightened robot is forced to go into hiding, passing himself off as a junked car, until he is discovered by the tomboyish Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), who has a passion for fixing cars, and doesn't fit in with the teenage crowd at her school.  Charlie finds the robot in the form of a Volkswagen Beetle, fixes him up, and quickly learns his secret when he is forced to reveal his identity in front of her.  She names him Bumblebee, and the two bond over the fact that they are both outcasts.  She teaches him how to use radio signals and music to express what he's feeling, since he can't talk, and he in turn teaches her how to overcome the pain of losing her beloved father a few years ago, and to move on with her life.  If this all sounds cheesy (or possibly insane), it is, but the way the movie handles the material is kind of sweet, and it ropes you in with a knowing sense of humor and a surprising amount of heart.

Bumblebee is set in 1987, and it constantly likes to remind you of that fact.  There is of course the soundtrack, made up of popular hits from the era, as well as the numerous references to The Breakfast Club, ALF, and Mr. T cereal.   This is all pretty stock, as is the plot itself, which asks the question of can a machine designed for war learn to love and respect life?  I assume anyone who has seen the aforementioned The Iron Giant already knows the answer to this question, but the movie gets a lot of support from the lead performance by Hailee Steinfeld, and the relationship that she builds with the CG robot.  Steinfeld has long been one of our most talented young actresses, since she came into the spotlight with 2010's True Grit.  But here, she shows an uncanny ability to create a realistic and heartfelt performance when a majority of her scenes are spent talking to something that wasn't there on the set.  She is constantly believable, likable, and creates a much more genuine human lead than we usually see in Transformers.

Even the lead robot is much more sympathetic than we expect.  Bumblebee is a funny and adorable reluctant hero, and the movie seems to share his view that it would be much better to play on the beach or explore a forest than to engage in explosive Sci-Fi battles.  As I mentioned, this is a much quieter film that wants to explore the building relationship between this unlikely pair.  But, when it's time for the special effects to completely take over, the movie is equally strong, featuring cleanly edited battles that are easy to follow.  And because this movie actually bothers to create emotional stakes for these battles (a first for the franchise), we find ourselves actually caring about Bumblebee as he blasts at Decepticons and tries to keep Charlie safe.  Am I saying that this is a deep or powerful movie?  Certainly not.  But, when Bumblebee snatches Charlie up into his arms, and runs away from danger to protect her, it actually manages to have an impact on the viewer.

Bumblebee has a lot of inspirations, and it's easy to spot them, as the movie does little to hide the fact that this is essentially one big nostalgic 80s movie.  But the filmmakers know better than just to fall back on familiar names or references, and gives the film an actual heart and knowing sense of humor.  My only wish is that future films in the series use this as their template, and that jaded fans who felt bilked by the earlier movies will give this one a chance.  I understand if you're suspicious.  So was I.  But I walked out pleasantly surprised.


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