Reel Opinions

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Favourite

If there is one film genre that can turn me off when done wrong, it is the period costume drama.  Case in point: Just a few weeks ago, I watched Mary: Queen of Scotts.  And yet, I could not review it.  I tried, dear reader.  Oh, how I did try.  I had many false starts at a review.  However, the film was such a total bore and filled me with a feeling of such total indifference, I simply could not assemble my thoughts without repeating the phrase "this movie bored the crap out of me" over and over.  It was the only thought the turgid drama was able to inspire within me.

Now we have The Favourite, and director Yorgos Lanthimos (2015's The Lobster) has inspired not just a review, but one of the better films of 2018's list of Oscar nominees.  From its three leading lady performances, to the screenplay which perfectly balances tragedy with razor-sharp comedy, this was a delight for me to watch after my previous experience.  Olivia Colman has rightfully earned just about every award recognition in the book for her portrayal of Queen Anne, who ruled England during the 18th century, mostly from her bed.  Stricken with gout, and surrounding herself with 17 rabbits to replace the 17 children that she has birthed and lost by this point, Colman finds both the tragedy and the humor in her portrayal, and it is something to witness. 

Not to be outdone in the acting category is Rachel Weisz, who plays Lady Sarah Churchill.  She represents the Queen when she cannot leave her chambers, and also sleeps with her to ensure that Sarah's husband Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss) continues to get Anne's support as he is off commanding Britain's war with the French.  Early in the film, we are introduced to Abigail Hill (the always wonderful Emma Stone, who is sensational here).  She is Sarah's cousin, and a noble lady herself whose family has fallen on hard times due to the debts her gambler father has collected.  She has nowhere to go but to beg to her cousin for a position as a scullery maid at the palace.  She even has to approach Lady Sarah with her clothes tattered and covered with mud, as she is literally kicked out of the coach and into the mud when she first arrives.  However, it does not take long until Abigail is scheming her way to a better life within the castle.  She quickly finds herself in Anne's favor, and even her bed, after she tracks down a remedy for the Queen's gout.  This leads to jealousy between Sarah and Abigail, and eventual all out war, as a bizarre love triangle grows.

The Favourite has divided many viewers, and I can see why.  This is an extremely dark and vengeful story about these two women doing horrible things to one another in order to gain the Queen's trust.  And yet, the movie never loses its sense of humor, nor does it go into such levels of viciousness that I was turned off.  It is the performances of Colman, Weisz and Stone that completely carry the film.  Yes, there are men in the film, many of whom are trying to turn some of the women to their cause, and to use them to get information from the Queen about the war.  But, they hardly matter.  That doesn't mean they are bad performances, or underwritten characters.  On the contrary.  In particular, Nicholas Hoult gives a devilish and comic performance as Lord Harley, who is trying to turn Abigail to his way of thinking about the war effort.  It simply means that the screenplay knows to keep the focus on the war between Sarah and Abigail for the Queen's attention, and the film is better for it, in my opinion.

This is also not your conventional costume drama.  Director Lanthimos is not exactly known for being a conventional filmmaker, and while this is probably the closest he has ever come to doing a conventional movie that can be pigeonholed into a genre, he finds ways to throw in his trademark humor, and some other oddball choices.  I particularly liked how the film is divided into different chapters like a book, and how the chapters had titles such as "This Mud Stinks" and "I Dreamt I Stabbed You in the Eye".  But beyond these original choices, he has also made an absolutely gorgeous film, one of the better looking ones I've seen recently.  From the costume design by Sandy Powell, to the sets by Fiona Crombie, this is a movie that can grab your attention simply with its sumptuous design in just about every category.  Fortunately, there's a great script, some amazing performances, and an overall high energy within the visual trappings.  These are all things that the previously mentioned Queen of Scotts lacked, and why it could not inspire any thoughts within me while I was watching it, other than I felt my watch had stopped a few times.

Most of all, The Favourite makes you care about the three women at the center of all the backstabbing and vicious actions, and I became really involved with how it would all turn out.  This is a movie that manages to be shocking, hilarious, sad, thoughtful and heartfelt at various times throughout.  This is a movie that can go in multiple directions, but due to the steady direction and the incredible cast, I never felt lost.  This is a wonderfully structured film, and one of the best of 2018.


Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Kid Who Would Be King

I honestly wish I could be more enthusiastic than I am about The Kid Who Would Be King.  It has all the makings of a great youth adventure story, and it even manages to be smarter than you might expect, tackling some adult issues like the current world and political times.  But the movie is ultimately uneven, and never quite fires on all cylinders.  It's not bad by any means, and kids of the right age (I'd say around 10 or so) will love it.  It just never reached the point of inspiration where I found I could fully embrace it.

For our young hero, Alex Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of actor Andy Serkis), life is not easy.  His dad left home years ago, leaving him and his single mom (Denise Gough) to fend for themselves in a world that seems increasingly bleak.  The headlines on the newspapers that Alex sees every day on his way to school scream disaster for London, with scandals, political strife, and an overall sense that only dark days are ahead for the young generation.  If that's not bad enough, he has to spend each school day dealing with local bullies, Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), who torment Alex and his loyal best friend, Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), every chance they get.  Naturally, the adults just don't seem to understand.  His mom, while sweet and supportive, already seems to have the world on her shoulders, and when Alex tries to stand up to his bullies, he ends up with detention. 

Just when it seems like the bleakness of the world around Alex will consume him, he finds an old sword stuck in a concrete slab at a construction site.  Much like the story of King Arthur from a book his dad gave him before he left, Alex pulls the sword out, and quickly discovers that it is the legendary sword Excalibur, and that it has chosen him to save not just London, but the entire world.  It seems that Arthur's half-sister, the evil sorceress Morgana Le Fay (Rebecca Ferguson), has been waiting underground for a time when goodness and the will of men was weak enough for her to rise once again with her army of undead soldiers, and conquer the world.  Given the current political and social climate, the time is right for Morgana to return to the surface, and conquer and enslave the people.  She will rise during the next solar eclipse, which is only four days away, and Excalibur is the only weapon strong enough to defeat her.  Alex has been chosen to wield the legendary sword, and must now gather an army to hold back Morgana's forces.

Alex immediately enlists the help of his friend Bedders, but he also turns to Lance and Kaye, because they are the strongest kids he knows, and he remembers how King Arthur had the ability to make his enemies into allies who would fight alongside him.  Taking the legend to heart, Alex and his friends begin training for the battle to come.  I like what the movie tries to do here, having Alex's greatest strength be his ability to unite people, even those who initially do not like him.  Unfortunately, the idea is held back by the somewhat generic script.  We never quite get the sense of bonding between Alex, Bedders, Lance and Kaye, which I think makes up the heart of the film.  They are supposed to grow closer through the experiences and battles that they encounter, but writer-director Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) never quite creates a sense that these four kids are uniting.  They help each other, and fight alongside one another, but I kept on waiting for the scene where they truly open up to each other, and it never appears.  The performances of the kids are fine, but they're held back by the script never going deep into their characters and their relationship.

Of the young heroes at the center of the story, the only one who stands out is the wizard Merlin, who usually takes the form of a gangly and awkward teen played by Angus Imrie.  He also can turn into an owl, and sometimes appears as an aged old man portrayed by Patrick Stewart.  But it is Imrie's performance as the young Merlin who grabbed my attention, and pretty much stole the whole movie.  He enters the movie as a new student at Alex's school named "Mertin", and then pretty much guides the kids on their adventure, while also holding down a job as a cashier at a fried chicken joint.  The way Merlin has been written, as well as Imrie's performance, hint at a much more fun and spirited movie than what we get.  Instead of a rousing adventure filled with oddball characters, we mostly get Alex and his friends seeking out what became of his father.  And instead of memorable fantasy and adventure, we get fairly routine car chases against CG demons who don't look all that impressive or menacing.

I think that's ultimately what disappointed me about The Kid Who Would Be King.  You can see a great and old fashioned adventure movie waiting to come out, but Cornish never quite truly grabs hold and lets his imagination run wild.  Aside from Merlin, the characters are fairly underwritten and interchangeable.  Alex and his friends all have one-note personalities (the brave one, the loyal one, the selfish one who learns to respect others, and the one who acts mean, but is secretly kind of nice), and pretty much never get to evolve much beyond these basic traits.  The movie also never quite seems as funny as it should be.  Sure, the kids name drop some famous franchises like Star Wars, Harry Potter and even the Mario Kart video games, but the script never goes to the next level, and makes any satirical comment on these popular series or their cliches, some of which find their way into this film. 

Again, this is not a bad movie by any means.  It simply is not as exciting or as funny as I would have hoped it would be.  The opening moments hint at a movie that might be kind of topical and smart, which is why it's a shame to see the generic approach that it ultimately winds up taking with its adventure.  This is a movie that should be grand, amazing, and a little silly.  It kind of gets there sometimes, but nowhere near as much as it should.


Friday, January 25, 2019


Serenity has the look of an A-List thriller.  And with talent like Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, and Diane Lane, it has the cast of an A-List thriller.  But what are we to make of the script, which is filled with dialogue only a screenwriter could love. (At one point, Hathaway tells McConaughey that his son can hear him through his computer.  Huh?) It's a total mess of a movie that almost makes me want to take back some of the things I said about Replicas with Keanu Reeves a couple weeks ago.  Almost.

Much like John Travolta's Battlefield Earth, or the infamous adaptation of The Scarlet Letter that featured Demi Moore, this is one of those movies that gets laughs, even though it's not trying to be funny in the slightest.  It wants to be a noir drama about lost love, hidden secrets, murder plots, and suspicious characters, including a business man who seems to be stalking McConaughey everywhere he goes.  But that's not all.  It also wants to be a Moby-Dick like story of obsession, as McConaughey's character tries desperately to catch a tuna that has alluded him for years.  But that's still not all!  It also wants to be the worst episode of The Twilight Zone you've ever seen, with a massive third act twist that is supposed to make us question everything that's come before, but only makes us roar with laughter, or at least roll our eyes if we're more polite.  None of these plot pieces connect, and the way that writer-director Steven Knight (The Girl in the Spider's Web) weaves them together is borderline incompetent.  This is one of those movies where the audience gathers outside the cinema when it's done, and tries to sort together what they've just witnessed, like onlookers of a traffic accident.

I'm going to have to be careful in describing the plot, so as not to give any secrets away for those who want to see it, which I do not advise.  Matthew McConaughey is the wonderfully-named Baker Dill, a man with a past who is living on a tropical paradise called Plymouth Island.  He rents his boat out to tourists for fishing tours, but he's rude to his customers, and seems obsessed with catching an allusive tuna fish that he has named Justice.  There are some locals on the island.  They include Duke (Djimon Hounsou), who works on Baker's boat and seems to be at his wit's end with his boss' frequently drunk and surly behavior, and Constance (Diane Lane), who when she's not paying Baker to have sex with her, spends the rest of her time wondering where her cat is.  This is a weird island filled with people who are supposed to be shady and mysterious, but because of the unnatural and completely off performances of most of the cast, they just come across as borderline insane.  Believe it or not, there is actually a reason why everyone on this island acts so strange.  One that I cannot reveal.  Still, seeing these talented actors forced to act so intentionally stilted and bizarre just makes you wonder what better projects they passed up in order to do this one.

Dill's past catches up with him when the sexy Karen (Anne Hathaway) shows up on the island.  Hathaway has been decked out with fake blonde hair, and an even faker looking beauty mark on her face, and she struts through the whole film like she's Bombshell Barbie.  Baker and Karen used to be married, and have a teenage son together that Dill has not seen in some time.  After they divorced, Karen married a wealthy, drunken and abusive lout named Frank (Jason Clarke), who likes to beat on her every chance he gets.  Clarke plays his role with such over the top villainy, you wonder what she even saw in him.  But that's only because his character has been written that way.  Shortly after he arrives on the island to join his wife on vacation, he asks the front desk clerk at the hotel where he can pay to have sex with young girls.  Karen has had enough of the brute, and has arranged this vacation so that Baker can murder her current husband.  She wants him to take Frank out on his fishing boat, and feed him to the sharks.  She offers him $10 million if he will do the job.

That's all I can say, unfortunately.  I have already hinted that there's some kind of big secret about the inhabitants of Plymouth Island.  As Baker becomes increasingly confused about the situation unfolding around him, he starts talking to himself a lot, and giving rambling, drunken monologues to nobody in particular that had me stifling my laughter, so as not to disturb the rest of the audience. (It wasn't a big audience, mind you, but I still wanted to be considerate.) As the plot builds and quickly spirals into sheer insanity, you just have to ask yourself, did anyone read the script in advance?  Did this dialogue actually sound good on paper?  Did nobody take one look at it, and realize it was total claptrap?  Did the invaluable Diane Lane really say yes to a role where she's introduced by having rough sex with McConaughey, then spends a majority of the film looking out her bedroom window, wondering where her cat has gone off to?  Why does the dialogue sound so leaden in this movie?  What possessed anyone to think this movie was releasable?

Serenity generates these questions, but gives no answers.  With these big stars attached, and a mysterious trailer that hints at big reveals, you might think that this is a dark adult thriller.  Don't be fooled.  It's nothing more than a dumb live action cartoon posing as an adult thriller.  The fact that this movie missed two release dates last year before being dumped in late January should tell you something.  Too bad it didn't miss more release dates.


Friday, January 18, 2019


M. Night Shyamalan has made Glass for a very specific audience, and I'm afraid I'm not part of it.  This is a low budget, low energy "realistic" deconstruction of the superhero movie.  What this means is that the characters are aware of the cliches and plot devices in comics, and have lengthy, drawn out monologues about them.  The characters are flat, and the whole enterprise just feels joyless while you're watching it.  This is not the filmmaker's worst film by a longshot, but it might be his most disappointing.

It should be said that if you have not seen 2000's Unbreakable, or 2017's Split, do not even attempt to watch Shyamalan's latest.  He has created a sort of trilogy, with this film serving as the big finale that ties the three films together.  The movie is also supposed to represent the director's return to the big time.  After hitting it big with early hits like The Sixth Sense and Signs, he suddenly was struck with a string of expensive and widely derided flops.  2015's "found footage" thriller The Visit found Shyamalan on firmer ground, and hinted at better things to come.  When Split arrived a couple years ago, it found a number of fans, although I was not one of them.  Still, I admired the ending moments that tied the film to Unbreakable, and seemed to be hinting at a continuation that would merge the two films together.  Now that the continuation is here, I kind of wish it was still a hint, rather than a reality.

Glass is a very dragged out film that is long on ideas, but short on results.  The execution is stilted and sluggish, and the overall goal of the film seems to have been to see how much energy the filmmaker could drain out of his own concept.  It's not that Shyamalan does not care or is not invested with his project.  In fact, he might be a bit too invested, and just enjoys pouring over every element to the point of frustration to those in the audience who are not as enraptured by his story as he seems to be.  He lingers on shots far too long, he has his characters speak mostly in endless monologues, and there's just not much to get excited about here, unless you really have fallen hard for these characters.  I'm sure there is an audience out there who will love pouring over the details this movie lays out, but are there really enough out there to support a movie like this?  Watching it, I often felt like an outsider who understood what was going on, but just couldn't get the appeal.

The plot picks up some weeks after the events of Split, and finds multiple personality serial killer Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy, giving an exhausting performance), and the 23 other personalities that exist within him, loose on the streets of Philadelphia, and holding some high school cheerleaders hostage in an abandoned factory.  Meanwhile, from Unbreakable, we have David Dunn (Bruce Willis) patrolling the streets as a superhero known as The Overseer.  You might remember from that movie that David learned he had superhuman strength, and that he could see people's past actions just by touching them.  By day, David sells home security equipment with his adult son (Spencer Treat Clark), and at night, he puts on a rain slicker and basically beats the life out of anyone who happens to cause trouble.  His son also helps him out with his superhero vigilante work, scoping out crimes from a home base, and feeding him information through a microphone.

David eventually manages to track Kevin down and free the hostages, which results in a fight that proves to be more anticlimactic than thrilling.  The battle is interrupted by the arrival of Dr. Ellie Staple (a lifeless and droning Sarah Paulson), who has the two guys locked up in a psych ward that serves as a setting for the remainder of the film.  Also locked up there is Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), aka "Mr. Glass", who has been there for the past 19 years ever since he took the lives of hundreds of innocent people all just to prove his belief that superheroes walk among us.  Elijah is sedated for a good portion of the picture, which means that Jackson is literally given nothing to do but stare at the walls until there's only about 45 minutes left in the film.  Dr. Staple wants to prove that the "powers" these three men seem to believe they hold are nothing more than mere delusions of grandeur.  This makes up a majority of the film's dramatic crux, as David begins to actually question his own abilities.

Glass reunites us with these characters, but it gives them nowhere to go, and nothing new for us to discover about them.  We know they are gifted with extraordinary powers of strength and intellect.  The films that introduced these people already established this.  The idea of introducing doubt about their own abilities is an intriguing idea, but one that is not successfully explored.  There are so many dragged out scenes where Dr. Staple tries to convince these three men that they do not possess any remarkable abilities that the movie seems to be repeating itself, or hitting the same notes over and over with its dialogue.  Speaking of the dialogue, a lot of it is delivered in hushed, melodramatic tones.  This is nothing new for Shyamalan, who likes to draw out his words with random pauses and have his characters speak in a low whispers sometimes.  Often, he is able to create some tension or drama with his approach, but here, it just feels lifeless and needlessly drawn out.

I think the real problem is that he has given us a follow up with nowhere to go.  We know these characters, and although they seem like they should fit well together, they just never do.  All of the characters seem to be inhabiting their own movie, instead of working together to create a narrative.  McAvoy is having the time of his life playing the multiple personalities of his character, Willis is doing his best to look pained and reflective, but often seems to come across like he's barely invested, Jackson doesn't have a real part to play until the third act, and is barely in the movie until then, and Paulson (the sole new addition) plays her role with such a deflated air that she drags down any scene she's in.  These characters and performances simply don't connect - Not with each other, and not with the audience.  The screenplay never finds a way to create a bond between these characters, and so everyone's off doing their own thing.

For some viewers, it may be enough just to get to spend some more time with these characters, but I really felt like I was getting shortchanged here.  I was never involved with the plot, the people inhabiting it, and I felt no connection to them, or that they had much of a connection to each other.  It's a watchable, but ultimately underwhelming, experience that just never adds up to a lot when you think back on it.


Monday, January 14, 2019

The Upside

A Hollywood remake of the incredibly successful 2011 French film The Intouchables, The Upside gets most of its crowd-pleasing skills from its odd couple star pairing of Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart.  The movie is "inspired by a true story", but just like the earlier movie, it plays loose with the facts, and basically wants to be a genial and sweet entertainment that serves as two hours of escapism.  Thanks to the stars and some genuinely funny scenes, it succeeds.

Cranston plays Phil, a billionaire New York investor and author who became paralyzed from the neck down after a paragliding accident.  Ever since the loss of his wife to cancer, Phil sees little desire to go on, and basically wants to hole himself up in his penthouse, while he obsesses over what he has lost, and waits to die.  His assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman, making the most of a limited role) has begun searching for caregivers, and this is how Dell (Kevin Hart) enters the story.  Dell is a deadbeat dad and recently paroled ex-con who needs three signatures from businesses to show his parole officer that he is actually looking for employment.  He goes to Phil's apartment building, looking to apply for a janitor job, but due to a misunderstanding, he ends up in Phil's penthouse, interviewing for the caregiver position.  Dell is the least qualified man for the job, which is exactly what Phil likes about him.  If he is proved beyond help by a caregiver, maybe he can be left alone.

It's impossible not to think of the recent drama Green Book while you are watching The Upside, as both are about a black man and a white man from completely different worlds who manage to build a friendship, despite the differences.  And through their friendship, they realize that they both have a chance at life.  Phil is someone who once had it all, and feels he has nothing left to live for.  Dell, meanwhile, has never fully appreciated what he had, and now is trying his best to salvage what little he has left.  He is a decent man who was led down the wrong path in life.  Now that he is trying to change his ways, the people important to him don't trust him.  He has an estranged ex-wife and son that he is trying to reconnect with, but his past behavior have made them both distrusting of him.  These two men both fill a need for each other of emotional support, and help them realize that there is hope for both of them.

Director Neil Burger (Divergent) and screenwriter Jon Hartmere are not exactly doing anything bold or new here, although they do throw in the occasional nice moment, like when Dell takes Phil out to get some hot dogs, and chastises the food vendor for not asking Phil directly what he would like.  But we go along with it, because the performances of Cranston and Hart manage to pull us in, and they make a surprisingly good pairing.  Hart, in particular, has toned down his usual comedic motormouth routine here, and even gets to try his hand at some dramatic moments, which he shows some skill at.  It's nothing that will net him any award recognition or anything, but he believably sells the serious moments that he is handed.  And when he is asked to supply comedy to his performance, he wisely does not go quite so over the top as he sometimes does.  Even a somewhat slapstick-inspired sequence where he can't figure out how to use a high-tech voice operated shower in Phil's apartment manages to get laughs.

But it is Cranston who is giving the most effective performance, especially since he is forced to use only his face and his eyes to play his character.  Despite this, he manages to be forceful and command the screen just about every time he is on camera.  Even without the use of his full body, he sells every emotion, and we even believe the somewhat forced plot about how his cold exterior slowly melts away as he becomes friends with Dell.  And the reason why this all works is that we buy the chemistry between Cranston and Hart.  We see their hesitation with each other slowly melt away, and both do a good job of making us believe that these two men could wear down their defenses and become friends.  And since the entire movie hinges on their chemistry, they are what make the film works.  Even if the movie isn't always successful, we are invested because of them.

The Upside, just like Green Book, is not a subtle film, but it has enough heartfelt moments and great chemistry between the two leads that I ended up going along with it.  It's a simple and obvious movie, and that's okay.  Not everything needs a deeper meaning.  Sometimes it's nice just to spend a couple hours with some likable characters, laugh, and despite some obvious plot manipulations, maybe get involved a little more than you expected.


Saturday, January 12, 2019


The poster for Replicas tells us "Some humans are unstoppable".  I have no idea what this has to do with the plot of this wonky Sci-Fi film, about a scientist who clones his family after they are killed in a car accident.  All I do know is that this is the first film about human cloning that I can remember that does not take any real stance or view on the subject.  Not once does the movie slow down to examine the ethical and moral questions, and instead stumbles full-speed ahead into a boring chase movie where the scientist has to protect his clone family from government agents.

This is a movie that barely seems to be able to generate enough energy to exist.  The only moments where it comes to life are some unintentionally comical moments that are sprinkled throughout, though not enough to make this a "so bad it's good" guilty pleasure.  Keanu Reeves sleepwalks through the movie as Will Foster, a neuroscientist who has been unsuccessfully trying to transfer a human brain and its memories into a robotic body.  After his most recently failure, he heads home where his loving wife and three children are waiting to take their family vacation.  They hit the road, but a severe storm sends their vehicle off the side of the road, with Will being the only survivor.  I'm not sure if it's due to Reeves' barely there performance, or the cheap screenplay credited to Chad St. John (Peppermint), but Will seems to take the death of his entire family with what can only be called casual indifference. 

Will does, however, have a plan.  Rather than call the police and bury his family, he will create new genetically cloned bodies of them with the help of a co-worker and fellow scientist played by Thomas Middleditch.  He can then implant their old memories into their new bodies, and it will be as if they never died. The catch?  There are only three pods available with which to clone his family of four, so one of his three kids is going to have to be left out of the experiment.  He chooses his youngest daughter Zoe to be the one to not be brought back (he decides this by drawing her name from a bowl), and then goes to work to bringing his wife (Alice Eve) and other two children back from the dead with most of their memories in tact.  I say most, as he deliberately decides to erase all memories of Zoe from the minds of his family.  According to this movie, cloning is a relatively simple, if not lengthy process that only takes 17 days.  Also, erasing the memories of your loved ones are a simple "click and delete" process of scientific nonsense that makes no sense whatsoever.

Rarely has a movie treated the whole concept of cloning the dead with such passive indifference.  Will and his fellow scientist friend are pretty much playing with the laws of nature, but they treat it as if it's just another day at the office.  Heck, when Will's partner in the project learns that they have managed to recreate human life, he departs with a casual "Well, see you at work tomorrow".  And for all the movie's talk about Will being a brilliant scientist, he sure does some stupid things throughout the movie.  He doesn't even stop to think that his family's friends might come snooping around when they haven't heard from them for the past few days while the cloning process is going on.  So, he decides to sign in on his daughter's social media account, and tries to send messages to her friends, assuring them that she's okay.  And don't you think if you were missing work so you could clone your dead family in your secret house lab, you would come up with a decent excuse as to why you haven't been at work lately?  Because Will doesn't, and he has to have his friend think of an excuse for him.

Replicas is an insultingly idiotic approach to an intriguing idea.  You would think your wife discovering that she died in a car crash and was brought back to life as a clone in experiment would be a bit upsetting, but Will's trusting wife seems to react to this news the same way a woman reacts when her husband forgets to take the trash out.  You also would think that her discovering that she had a third child that her husband was unable to clone would lead to some kind of anger or outburst, but it barely seems to disrupt the family meal.  And just what is this movie trying to say about cloning in the first place?  As far as I can tell, nothing.  There are no consequences, no repercussions, and no moment where Will seems to be in doubt about what he is doing, and later what he has done.  According to this movie, cloning his dead wife and kids and keeping secrets from them is the best thing Will ever did, and it probably even saved his marriage.

This is a movie without a single thought in its head.  Oh, it has ideas all right, but it doesn't know what to do with them.  Either that, or it ignores them, and hopes the audience doesn't notice.  It's rare to have a movie that is so infuriatingly stupid, and yet deadly dull at the same time.  Replicas somehow manages to pull off both feats, which I guess is kind of impressive, but for all the wrong reasons.


A Dog's Way Home

A Dog's Way Home is somewhat of a spin off of the 2017 film, A Dog's Purpose (which is getting its own direct sequel, A Dog's Journey, in May).  I don't know if anyone needed this many "Dog" movies in such a short amount of time, but at least in this case, it's mostly harmless and kind of effective.  It's not a great movie by any means, but it's warm and cheerful, and is smart enough not to humanize its canine star too much.

This is despite the film providing Bella the dog with an off-camera voice performed by Bryce Dallas Howard.  As I have stated numerous times, I am not a fan of when live action movies about animals put a celebrity voice on the soundtrack to tell us what the creature is supposed to be thinking.  It's even worse when they use CG to make it look like a live dog is supposed to be talking, as in last year's dismal Show Dogs.  Fortunately, we are only hearing Bella's thoughts here.  The surprising thing is that while I don't think the movie needed the voice over, the writers at least managed to get a dog's personality right with the dialogue.  I enjoyed how Bella lives in the moment, thinks about cheese and chicken often, and sees everything as a game.  Even if Bella has been given a voice, at least the filmmakers were smart enough not to have her think like a human, making smart wise cracks.

As the film opens, Bella is a puppy living with her mom and family underneath an abandoned building with a variety of stray cats.  Bella's family is taken away by animal control, never to be seen again, but she is fortunately rescued and raised by one of the cats (whom she calls "Mother Cat") who takes care of Bella.  Before long, Bella is found by Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King), a med school student who volunteers to rescue animals.  It's instant love when the two meet, and Lucas brings her to his home, where he lives with his war veteran mother Terri (Ashley Judd).  Bella loves life at her new home, and even becomes an emotional support animal at Terri's veteran group meetings.  The problem is, Bella is a pit bull, and an animal control officer (John Cassini) is looking for any excuse to take her away and put her to sleep because he thinks her breed is dangerous.  And so, Bella is sent to live at a temporary home in New Mexico until Lucas and Terri can find a home where pit bulls are accepted.  It doesn't take long for Bella to miss Lucas and her home, and so the dog runs away and begins a perilous journey home as she travels cross country to Denver, Colorado, where she knows her people are waiting for her.

During her adventures, Bella joins a pack of dogs for a short time, crosses snowy forests and hilly valleys, is threatened by some wolves and befriends a young cougar cub that Bella calls "Big Kitten".  The cougar is done entirely with CG, and it's some of the least convincing CG you're likely to see in 2019.  Still, there are plenty of sweet and heartwarming moments to be found to make up for any of the obvious shortcomings.  Bella also occasionally finds herself in the company of other humans, such as a kindly old homeless man and a nice gay couple.  She also learns how to hunt for food to survive.  All the while, Bella's mind remains on Lucas and finding her way home.  It's the kind of fantasy every dog-lover dreams of, that if they were somehow to be separated, that the dog would travel thousands of miles to find them.  The idea was heartwarming and likable back in 1993 with Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, and it's just as much so now.

A Dog's Way Home is pretty thin narratively, even as talking dog movies go.  It doesn't go out of its way to place Bella in any serious peril, probably so as not to upset the children in the audience too much.  Whenever Bella grows hungry or lonely, there is always someone right around the corner to help lift her spirits or fill her belly.  But it does have a lot of heart, and it's impossible not to fall for its four-legged star, who doesn't need Howard's voice to aid its performance.  It's a cute, likable and determined dog, as is required for a movie like this.  The human actors are likable too, except of course for that nasty old animal control officer who doesn't like Bella.  I don't think it's any surprise to say he will get what's coming to him eventually, and everything works out.

All you have to do to know if this movie is for you is to look at the poster image.  If it's enough to warm your heart, I say go and enjoy.  The movie may be a big heavy on the cornball at times, but I was eventually won over.  At the very least, I was happy that the movie did not take a bad view on cats.  It was kind of nice to see a movie about a dog who is not only raised by cats, but enjoys their company.


Friday, January 11, 2019

On the Basis of Sex

Considering how many recent biopics have disappointed, it's a nice change of pace that On the Basis of Sex actually succeeds at telling the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  The movie succeeds where recent attempts at telling the stories of famous people have failed by focusing on a central issue, rather than trying to fit their whole life into two hours.  We learn just enough about the subject matter to admire her, and the movie manages to create a compelling narrative, rather than cherry picking different facts or moments from Ginsburg's life.  From its narrative flow, to the strong lead performance by Felicity Jones, the movie just works.

The movie basically focuses on two key moments in Ginsburg's life.  It kicks off in the late 1950s to early 60s, where we find her as a student at Harvard Law, along with her husband Martin (Armie Hammer).  As the couple, both Jones and Hammer create an instant warm and occasionally funny chemistry, which immediately draws us into their relationship, which is important, since their family dynamic and relationship plays a big role in the overall story to come.  Martin is a supportive and devoted husband, but when he develops testicular cancer, Ruth must pull double duty.  She handles both her husband's classes, as well as her own, and helps take care of her husband at home, while also taking care of their one-year-old daughter.  Despite all of this, she manages to graduate at the top of her class, despite the heavy load she took on, as well as facing inherent sexism on the campus, being one of the first women enrolled at Harvard.  After graduating, and after her husband has recovered, she goes out into the world, only to find that no law firm will hire a woman lawyer.  She is forced to accept a teaching position, where she helps young women learn about law, all the while thinking she gave up her chance make a real difference herself.

This first hour of the film does a great job of setting up Ginsburg's beliefs and strong personality, but it is the second half of the film where she truly gets to stand out, and makes up the most effective part of the story.  Here, Ruth gets the chance to join her lawyer husband to represent Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) in a suit against the IRS.  The case revolves around the unequal provisions between men and women.  With the help of fellow lawyer and childhood friend Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), Ruth and Martin take their case to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, and this begins Ruth's career built around gender equality.  The movie wisely puts all of its attention on the beginning of her career, rather than try to tackle too much of her life and legacy, which have already been explored in a wonderful and recent documentary.  This is the story of how her career began, and how she began to develop the drive that would shape the rest of her career.

On the Basis of Sex splits its running time between the engaging court case and career of Ginsburg, and the domestic aspects of her life, mostly dealing with her strong-willed 15-year-old daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), who is being drawn into the woman's movement of the early 1970s.  This allows the audience to see Ruth both as a professional, and as a mother, who shares her daughter's attitude and will, but is also afraid that Jane will get hurt at some of the rallies she attends.  There are certainly some contrived family scenes that definitely seem to have been thrown in by screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman, but these are offset by the family dynamic that the actors are able to create during some of the film's quieter and less dramatic moments.  There is also more than enough momentum created by the scenes surrounding the Moritz case that creates enough energy and intrigue to carry the audience through some of the more obviously "dramatized" moments. 

But it is the performance of Felicity Jones that holds our attention throughout.  From her mannerisms, to her effective Brooklyn accent, she does a wonderful job of portraying Ruth's journey from a wide-eyed hopeful student, to the beginnings of the confident woman she eventually became.  A smart move that the film makes is that it shows us how she struggled early in her career.  She could be easily led or manipulated in the courtroom, as evidenced by a mock trial that some friends set up in her home, trying to prepare her for what to expect.  She could be brash, and open herself to obvious attacks in the courtroom, and the film shows us how she honed her skills and eventually learned to control herself.  With so many biofilms treating their subject matter like saints or talented individuals right out of the gate, I appreciate it when one actually shows us the process and learning that the figure at the center of the story had to go through.

The film's director, Mimi Leder, has worked largely in television with a few feature film credits here and there.  This may lead you to think that On the Basis of Sex will be a fairly safe and cut and dry take.  And while there's certainly nothing inventive here, the performances and the way the script wraps us into the court case that kick-started Bader's career do more than enough to grab your attention.  If anything, the movie can only make the audience want to look up the documentary, RBG, which goes much deeper into her life and story.  I see nothing wrong with that.


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