Reel Opinions


Friday, May 31, 2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Godzilla: King of the Monsters has the finest technical credits available, including genius sound design by Erik Aadahl (an Oscar nominee for A Quiet Place), and some top-flight special effects to bring Godzilla and his monster kin to vivid life.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the script, which is one of those jobs where it feels like the credited screenwriters got paid too much for their work.  Obviously, no one goes to one of these movies for the dialogue, we come for the monster fights.  Unfortunately, this is a movie that runs well over 2 hours, and it keeps the giant lizard off camera for a good majority of it.  It's like Godzilla is camera-shy about appearing in his own movie.

This is another movie where the production values look like they cost hundreds of millions, while the script was bought at the Dollar Store.  You know you're in trouble when the roars and screeches of the radioactive creatures who rampage throughout the movie are more entertaining than listening to what the humans are saying to each other.  Again, credit goes to the sound design, which is first rate.  You can feel every thudding footstep, and when Godzilla roars, you can feel it go right through you.  It's awesome.  But not awesome enough to salvage a movie that clearly needed a few more rewrites before it went before the cameras.  The filmmakers clearly knew how important sound was, as they literally built the plot around it.  There's a device in the movie called the Orca, which can communicate with the Titans, the towering monsters that pop up in major cities all throughout the movie.  The good guys want to use it to possibly calm Godzilla and his kin down a little, and maybe learn about them.  The bad guys (led by an eco-terrorist played by Charles Dance) want to use it to make them angrier, and save the planet by wiping out most of mankind.

The action picks up five years after 2014's Godzilla feature.  Society is still reeling from the destruction at the climax of that film.  Not that it matters, since the movie spends so little time on this aspect.  This is despite the fact that the main characters in the film are a family that has been broken up by a tragedy caused by that climactic destruction.  The family plot is centered on paleobotanist Emma (Vera Farmiga), and her teen daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), who get captured by the terrorists early on, as Emma has the Orca when the film opens.  Emma's ex-husband, Mark (Kyle Chandler), is still haunted by the loss of their young son in the initial Godzilla attack, but must put his feelings toward the Titans behind him in order to save his family.  Despite the family drama taking center stage for almost the entire film, we learn so little about them.  Even Kyle's hatred of Godzilla, blaming him for the death of his son, is mostly handled by dialogue that goes no deeper than having someone say, "Dude hates Titans".

Even the rivalry between the giant monsters doesn't feel as absorbing as it should.  Basically, an alien three-headed creature called Ghidorah has come to our world to challenge Godzilla's status as King of the Monsters.  In all fairness, the big showdown between the beasts (which makes up the last half hour or so of the film) is quite the spectacle, and is one of the few times where director Michael Dougherty seems confident in what he's doing.  He's giving us what we've come to see, and he delivers in wonderful fashion.  Unfortunately, we have to sit through way too much stuff that just doesn't work in order to get to this.  The brief monster action scenes that we do get throughout the film leading up to the big show at the end just are not that thrilling.  In one scene, we see a city being attacked, and the movie keeps on cutting to a mom and her young son trying to escape.  Why?  No reason.  They play no part.  The movie just wanted to add a human element to the action scene, while at the same time forgetting to actually develop it into something worthwhile.

And if you want us to be invested in these human characters, then why make their dialogue and the roles they play in the story so trite and unfocused?  Each character exists to fill a certain purpose, but never develop into anything resembling an interesting personality.  You have the exposition dump characters, who seem to somehow know what Godzilla is thinking at any one moment, you have the comic relief wiseguys, you have the stock idiot soldiers who stand in front of Ghidorah while it is clearly charging up to attack them, you have the war of words between the people who think Godzilla can help us, and those who want to see the giant lizard blasted with their latest military weapon...You get the idea.  Nobody says anything worthwhile, and nobody does anything that isn't carefully plotted out by the screenwriters.  We also get a lot of blabber about saving the environment, which sounds like it was added in to fool people into thinking the movie is actually about something other than the special effects.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a lot of money tossed to the winds of a screenplay that clearly wasn't ready.  Will it "win the weekend" at the box office?  Most definitely.  But I doubt it will have the staying power beyond opening hype.  It's a blockbuster that impresses you with how much it clearly cost to put together, while at the same time disappointing you that there's really not much to it.

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Saturday, May 25, 2019

Booksmart

Booksmart is wise about a lot of things, but one of its wisest traits is how it can surprise us.  There's a great scene early in the movie where a high school honors student, bound for Yale in the fall, decides to mouth off against the people who have been making fun of her for as far back as she can remember.  In her tirade, she verbally paints a bleak picture for the future of the three burnout teens who have spent all of their time partying, while she has devoted her life to studying.  It's a classic bit of a "Revenge of the Nerd" moment, where the girl who never fit in finally puts her tormentors in their place.

But then, the movie surprises us by not having the scene end with the honor student walking out victorious.  The response that the tormentors have is logical, and perhaps devastating, especially to the honors student who felt she had finally gotten the upper hand with these kids for the first time in her young life.  It's an early hint that Booksmart is going to be a lot better than your average coming of age teen comedy.  Fortunately, the rest of the movie never once betrays the promise set by this early scene, and continued to surprise me.  In her directorial debut, actress Olivia Wilde shows a lot of sharp humor and keen insight.  She has also brought along two wonderful young leads in Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, playing life-long best friends trying to cut loose for the first time.

In all honesty, there's not much in the structure of the script that you haven't seen in a dozen other teen comedies.  There's the out-of-control end of school party, there's the weird, awkward teens, there's the dumb jocks, the catty mean girl, the clueless parents, and the unobtainable crush that one of the main characters has.  But what this movie does is use these elements smartly, and with some blindingly funny observations.  For example, we know at some point during the night of partying, that the two lead girls will somehow take drugs without knowing.  It's pretty much a required pit stop in any and every teen party movie.  So, yes, it happens here, and we get ready for the hallucinogenic sequence to come.  And it does, but again, not in the way you would expect.  The movie throws in a wildly inventive and hilarious sequence that's too good to spoil here, though sadly, the film's trailer does include a very brief glimpse of it.  This is a movie that plays by the rules, but keeps on finding ways to reinvent them that are smart and funny.

The two friends at the center of it all are Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Dever).  Molly is extremely focused, confident, and in control.  Amy is just as much so, but in a less brash sort of way.  They have both spent the past four years achieving academic perfection, casting aside all distractions, such as partying and their social lives.  Their idea of a slumber party is watching a Ken Burns documentary together.  Now as high school is ending, Molly is headed for Yale in the fall, while Amy plans to spend the summer doing volunteer work in Africa, before heading off for Columbia University.  It's only on the last day of school that the girls realize that other kids who have spent their whole high school years partying and getting drunk have gotten into those same schools by doing much less work.

So, Molly figures, they need to fit four years worth of partying into one big night.  The structure of the film is rather loose, with the girls going from one comic situation after another, such as crashing a very sad yacht party, to a disastrous run in with a pizza delivery driver.  Again, I know this all sounds routine, but the script (credited to four different writers) is constantly throwing in moments and lines of dialogue that are truly funny, and Wilde throws in quite a few original stylistic choices.  She is confident in her direction, and wants to throw her hat into the ring to show that she has what it takes.  She shows wonderful pacing, and a talent for getting the best out of her actors.  The movie keeps on going one step further than we expect, especially when it comes to adding unexpected layers to characters we think we know, such as the obnoxious rich kid, or the mean girl.

Booksmart also never forgets that it is essentially a very silly and raucous movie, and it has a lot of fun with its jokes involving subjects like lesbian porn, and vomiting at the worst possible moment.  This is not a gross movie, mind you.  It simply embraces its inherently raunchy nature.  But, it also has a very big heart behind it.  The movie makes sure that we like these characters, even at their worse, and it gives many of the characters (not just the lead girls) some quiet and reflective moments when necessary.  It's a delicate balancing act for sure, juggling sleaze and heart, but the movie pulls it off.  The heart of the film is strong, thanks to the performances of Feldstein and Dever, who create a genuine chemistry that makes me want to see them play friends again in another movie.

Booksmart is the most honest teen film I have seen since Love, Simon.  It's hilariously funny, knows how to surprise its audience, and gives us a lot of moments that both teens and adults (who remember what it was like back then) can relate to.  I have a feeling it's going to get lost in the Memorial Day Weekend shuffle, but it's the kind of film that's bound to have a long life when it comes home.

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Brightburn

Brightburn is a clever and mostly effective take on the "killer kid" movie, a sub-genre of horror that I usually don't enjoy.  This movie does have an irresistible hook, basically taking the Superman origin, and twisting it into a dark horror story.  Basically, it asks what would happen if a young Clark Kent decided to use his powers for vengeance, instead of for defending Truth, Justice and the American Way.

The opening beats of the film mirror the story of the comics faithfully.  An alien spacecraft crash lands in the woods behind a farmhouse owned by a childless couple, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman).  Investigating the crash site, they find a baby boy within, and decide to adopt him, all the while hiding the remains of the ship he arrived in underneath a trap door in the barn.  The young boy, named Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn), grows up to be extremely bright and a genuinely good kid, who can also be awkward and have trouble making friends at school.  But around the time the boy turns 12, he starts acting strange.  His mother catches the boy walking in his sleep in the barn, around the area where the ship he arrived in is hidden.  He also begins to learn that he is not like others when he begins to realize that his strength and agility have started to grow to that above others.  He begins to test out his powers in secret, learning that he can fly, and is immune to almost any kind of pain.

You've probably seen a good number of superhero movies start out the same way, but Brightburn quickly starts going into areas that the Marvel or D.C. movies never intended.  Brandon begins exhibiting a violent and rebellious nature, and seeing himself as superior to everyone around him.  The rules of mere humans no longer apply to him, especially when he discovers that discarded ship hidden away, and figures out where he came from.  One of the touches of the screenplay that I appreciated is that we don't truly learn what planet Brandon came from, or why he was sent here.  However, it's pretty safe to assume that he was not sent for a friendly visit to Earth, as he is able to translate the words of his alien people that sent him here as "Take the World".  Brandon dons a homemade mask and cape, and decides to do just that, by taking on the bullies and people who he feels have wronged him.

Screenwriters Mark and Brian Gunn (both of them related to James Gunn of Guardians of the Galaxy fame, who produced this film) could have easily cast a lot of irony or winking humor to this situation, but they handle it with strict urgency.  Brandon has all the comic book abilities like super strength, flying, and heat-vision, and decides to use all of them to murder his enemies in a series of scenes that can be quite graphic and brutal.  He is cold and ruthless, but in a way I can believe a troubled kid discovering they have super powers being.  My problem with a lot of "evil kids" in horror movies is that they often come across as mini intellectual sadists.  They talk and think like adult psychopaths, and their manner is usually too manipulative and cunning.  Brandon is lashing out.  He doesn't know how to control himself, he just knows he has power, and he now has a means to strike back at people who he feels are against him.  I can believe a kid thinking this way in a certain situation.  The way he fools the authority figures, and writes down his twisted dreams and conquests in his journal is kind of chillingly real.

Another thing the script does that I appreciate is that it creates a drama for his adoptive parents.  As Brandon starts acting strange, and the mysterious deaths start popping up, both of them react differently.  Tori wants to defend and protect Brandon.  She can't believe that her son could have anything to do with the tragedies all around them.  Kyle, on the other hand, is much less trusting.  After all, he is not technically their son, and they have no idea where he came from or why he's here.  He wants to be there for his son, and it's obvious there is as much love as Tori has for him.  But, it's easier for Kyle to accept that their boy is capable of doing the horrible things that he suspects.  We can understand both sides, and the movie gives the characters enough of a chance for them to express their views in some quiet dialogue-driven scenes.

Brightburn is almost certain to make viewers wince with some of the graphic death scenes, but this is not just a gore show.  I like that the filmmakers made Brandon a troubled kid with his own set of morals for what he is doing.  He's not just another junior psychopath, and that his adopted human parents find themselves unprepared.  Could the movie have played this angle up a little more?  Probably, but at least what's here shows that the movie is not completely on autopilot. 

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Friday, May 24, 2019

Aladdin

I'm sure it will surprise no one when I say that Aladdin is a big, lavish corporate spectacle that exists solely to play on nostalgia of the people who grew up on the 1992 animated Disney film.  It's splashy and brightly colored, well-photographed, and when you really get down to it, has no point other than to make a lot of money.  But, it's also kind of energetic and fun.  Not so much that I can recommend anyone watch this over the original, but it's a lot more enjoyable than that strangely-somber Dumbo remake Tim Burton gave us a few months ago.

Director Guy Ritchie has not done a lot to shake things up here, as this is as similar to the cartoon that a live action remake can get.  What's strange is that there's a stage musical of Aladdin currently on Broadway that takes a lot more risks with updating the story, and adding new elements.  I have to wonder why Ritchie and fellow screenwriter John August didn't use that as their template.  The story is more or less what you remember, except for a few new elements that aren't really explored.  There's also a new character added in the form of a handmaiden for Princess Jasmine named Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), who honestly I wanted to see her role expanded on, as Pedrad brings a very likable comic sensibility to her performance that made me want to see her as the lead in a romantic comedy one day.  Speaking of the Princess Jasmine, she gets the film's one new musical number, a ballad called "Speechless", about how she feels despite her title and power, she doesn't have a voice in her kingdom.  It's essentially pleasant, but not at all memorable.

Outside of these small differences, all the pieces are in place.  Maybe some have been shuffled ever so slightly, but not enough that devotees of the 92 movie will cry foul.  Aladdin (a very likable Mena Massoud) is still a charismatic and cunning "street rat" thief who is struggling to get by with his monkey sidekick Abu (an unconvincing CG creation), until he happens to bump into the beautiful Princess Jasmine (a perfectly cast Naomi Scott, charming and lovely), who has escaped from the palace and is disguised as a peasant because her father the Sultan (Navid Negahban) is forcing her to marry out of necessity instead of love.  Lurking in the shadows is the scheming advisor, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who is seeking a mystical magic lamp that holds a Genie who can grant Jafar with infinite powers in order to take over the Sultan's kingdom.  But, Aladdin gets his hands on the lamp first, and winds up summoning a wise-cracking and shape-shifting being embodied here by Will Smith, who seems to be trying his hardest to revisit his Fresh Prince days in his performance, back when he was mostly known as a sitcom star when it came to acting.

The Genie is the biggest hurdle for this film, and while it doesn't exactly botch it, it also doesn't stick the landing.  Let's face it, the late Robin Williams will always be associated with the character.  Yes, it's iconic.  Yes, the Oscars probably should have given him some kind of special recognition for the performance, as it was unlike anything the animation industry had seen at the time.  And yes, anyone who attempts to fill his shoes is fighting an uphill battle pretty much from the word go.  Also yes, it is possible to escape the shadow of Williams, and create your own spin on the Genie.  I know, because I have seen it happen on stage when James Monroe Iglehart took on the role on Broadway, and pretty much made it entirely his own.  He created his own memorable turn that had none of Williams' mannerisms, and built an entirely new persona out of his own energy, showmanship and unique humor.  Iglehart rightfully won a Tony for his whirlwind performance, and again, created an iconic portrayal that leaves large shoes to fill in the minds of anyone who saw it.

So, here is Will Smith trying his hardest to do the same thing.  He wisely does not copy anything from Williams, and is desperately trying to put his own unique spin on the character.  His Genie is more of an Urban Wise Guy.  Again, think Fresh Prince reborn as a shape-shifting entity.  Via a combination of a physical performance and somewhat iffy motion capture (there is a bit of an Uncanny Valley vibe to the Genie when he is in his "magical" blue form), Smith is overflowing with energy.  But, to me at least, he never truly stuck in my mind.  When I saw Iglehart on stage, I was amazed by his energy and individual style that he brought.  Watching Smith, I felt like I was watching a valiant effort that never quite got off the ground.  I appreciated the performance, but never truly got behind it like I felt I should.  He's trying, oh, is he ever.  You can see it every time he's on screen.  But he just was never memorable to me. 

But it may not be entirely his fault.  At its core, Aladdin is a musical, and while all of the songs you know and love are in place and sung well, there is a curious lifelessness to a lot of them.  A lot of this has to do with Ritchie's inexperience staging musical or dance sequences, I believe.  He uses a lot of wide shots where there's just a lot of stuff happening.  He doesn't zoom in enough for us to admire all the details, or even the choreography.  He shoots wide, he uses a lot of colors and effects, and it all looks grand, but there's also an emptiness to it.  It's like Ritchie has the right idea, but doesn't quite know how to pull it off.  Every movie musical needs a really grand production number that really gets you excited or invested, and this just doesn't have one.  Maybe it's because the movie employs a lot of CG and animation effects, which oddly makes this live action version look more like a cartoon than the actual animated feature.

And yet, there are plenty of moments where the film does work.  I loved the chemistry between Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott, who easily slip into their iconic roles of Aladdin and Jasmine, and create their own unique take.  Massoud is every bit as witty and charming as we hope he would be.  As for Scott, she seems to be carving out a niche for herself with reboots, as she played one of the Power Rangers in the 2017 film, and will be appearing as one of the leads in the upcoming Charlie's Angels update due in the Fall.  She's lovely and talented, and I truly hope she can get her own unique role one day that is truly her own, and not based on an existing property.  The whole cast is giving it their all, and there's a lot to admire here.  The sets and costumes are also grand, as you would expect.  There's a lot of color and life on display, but it is often betrayed by Guy Ritchie's somewhat bland and conventional direction. 

Aladdin is amusing, but ultimately unnecessary.  It's kind of like a bright, shiny toy that spins around with a lot of colors, but doesn't really do anything.  It's been made with a certain amount of skill to the performances, but you ultimately have to ask if you really need it.  It's a noble effort, sure, and I don't regret watching it.  But, come a few years, I can't help but feel that this will be yet another curiosity that people will remember made a lot of money at the box office, but won't be quite sure why.

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Saturday, May 18, 2019

A Dog's Journey

A Dog's Journey is basically pure audience manipulation, and it never once apologizes for it.  But you know what?  Sometimes I can enjoy that.  I am not made of stone.  Yes, this movie can easily be derided for being sappy and cornball.  But, it must be said that it is effective.  I smiled a number of times, I was touched during certain moments, and even though I knew the movie was bending over backwards to make me fall in love with it, I found myself unable to resist. 

The movie is a follow up to 2017's A Dog's Purpose, and should not be confused with A Dog's Way Home from back in January.  All of these films (including this one) are based on novels by W. Bruce Cameron.  The difference is that Purpose and this one are directly connected, whereas Way Home was an unrelated spin off.  What the stories do have in common is that they are told from the point of view of a dog.  In a book, I can see this working, but in a movie, this means we get an unnecessary and unwanted voice over narration, where a celebrity reads their lines in a cheerful and somewhat cloying voice whenever the dog is on the camera.  Just like in A Dog's Purpose, Josh Gad provides the dog's voice over, and he relentlessly comments on everything from a dog's perspective, saying things like, "I don't like cats" or "I wish this bed was made of bacon".  His narration is often obtrusive, and the movie would be better off without it.

Regardless, here is Gad back once more as the voice of Bailey, a dog who has lived many lives as many different kinds of canines.  Every time he dies, he is reborn as a puppy in a completely different life.  In the first movie, Bailey went through various lives trying to find his purpose, which he eventually learned was to be by the side and look after his original human owner, Ethan (Dennis Quaid, back to playing a nice guy, after an unwise detour into playing an over the top psycho in The Intruder).  As A Dog's Journey opens, Bailey is content living on Ethan's farm, hanging out with his favorite human, and eating freshly dropped food from the table.  However, these is tension in the family home.  Ethan's depressed and hard-drinking daughter-in-law Gloria (Betty Gilpin) decides to take her toddler daughter C.J. away from the child's grandparents after an argument.  Not long after, Bailey grows ill and has to be put to sleep.  Before he dies, Ethan tells the dog to find C.J. and look after her, just like he has been looking after him all this time.

Bailey is once again reborn as a playful beagle named Molly (Gad still provides the voice over for the female dog), and sure enough, a now 11-year-old C.J. (Abby Ryder Fortson) finds and adopts her.  By this point in her life, C.J. is a kind and wise for her years kid who has had to pretty much take care of herself, as mom Gloria is never seen without an alcoholic drink in hand, and is staying out all night with different men.  The remainder of the film follows Bailey through various lives, each one spent tracking down and spending time with C.J., as she eventually grows into a young woman (Kathryn Prescott) who walks dogs for a living, but dreams of performing her own music.  We follow C.J.'s hardships, struggles and successes, all the while Josh Gad keeps on chiming in unnecessarily on the soundtrack, while I kept on wishing that the filmmakers had enough faith in the audience to just let the story play out.

By all accounts, A Dog's Journey is a very odd movie.  It's primarily a cute dog movie, built around jokes about sniffing butts and eating messes left on the carpet.  But, it also is a surprisingly sad and kind of downbeat movie, with its various plots centered on child neglect/abandonment, psycho ex-boyfriends, and even cancer.  All of these serious subjects are seen through the child-like eyes of Bailey, and it really shouldn't work.  And yet, somehow it kind of does.  Director Gail Mancuso, a veteran of TV sitcoms making her feature debut, is surprisingly adept at handling the emotional whiplash the screenplay is constantly forcing upon the audience.  Not so adept that I didn't notice it, but enough that I found myself still able to enjoy it.  I guess the movie is kind of skillful that way.  It's clearly messy and manipulative, but it also works in a weird way.

I think that's because there's enough human drama to carry the film through all of its odd tonal shifts.  I found myself liking and caring about C.J., mostly through the effective performance of Abby Ryder Fortson.  And even if I was not keen on Gad's voice over, the various dogs who portray Bailey in different lives are appropriately cute, and steal more than a few scenes.  As already stated, I am not made of stone.  You go to a movie like this expecting to see a sweet or funny dog, and it provides.  It also gives you some manipulative melodrama to go with it.  The movie is a blatant tearjerker, but it knows what it's doing.  If you don't want your emotions twisted in knots, don't see this movie.  But, I admit, sometimes it's fun to go to the movies for such a purpose.  It's not exactly expertly done, but it's skilled enough that you can still enjoy the experience.

Maybe this is one of those cases where a movie caught me in a good mood, but I honestly enjoyed A Dog's Journey more than I expected.  The movie is heavy-handed, sure, but I was able to go along with it.  Its the kind of movie where its flaws and manipulations are clearly evident, but you don't care, because the movie is still able to cast a certain kind of spell over its audience.

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The Sun is Also a Star

After the dreadful After, and the mediocre Five Feet Apart, it was kind of nice to have a teen romance film built around two likable leads who just enjoy each other's company, and spend the day together.  The Sun is Also a Star is not built around characters trying to keep the young lovers apart, or forced misunderstandings.  It's simply about two people, and sometimes that's enough.

Like all romance stories, this movie rises or falls solely on whether or not we want to see the couple at the center together by the end.  This film gives us two likable young actors, Yara Shahidi and Charles Melton, who I have not seen in many films, but wouldn't mind seeing again and soon.  They have a lot of warmth during their scenes together, and they individually give strong performances.  They play two Manhattan adolescents who fall in love during the course of a single day.  Natasha (Shahidi) is practical and science-minded.  Daniel (Melton) is the dreamer.  Both are immigrants, and are dealing with their own family situation.  His traditional South Korean family wants him to become a doctor, even though he would rather be a poet.  Her Jamaican family is set to be deported the very next day, after living in the U.S. for the past nine years, and she is fighting to keep her family in New York.

They meet by chance.  Actually, Daniel notices Natasha in a crowd of people at Grand Central Station, and becomes smitten by her.  He runs into her again, and happens to save her life when he prevents her from being hit by a reckless driver.  They spend the rest of the day (and the film itself) talking, which isn't so bad when you think about it.  Isn't that what young couples do in real life when they meet?  They don't get involved in idiotic subplots where jealous friends and ex-lovers try to break them up, nor do they walk away from each other after a simple misunderstanding, vowing never to see each other again.  Natasha and Daniel don't do these things either, thank goodness.  Instead, Daniel asks a simple question, "What if I told you I could make you fall in love with me by the end of the day".  Natasha is skeptical but intrigued.  She knows she doesn't have much time, and has to meet with her immigration lawyer (John Leguizamo) later that day.  But she agrees to spend at least one hour with him.

That hour turns into many more.  The more time they spend together, Natasha's defenses are torn down.  She doesn't forget what's going on in her life, though.  She knows there's a strong probability that she will have to leave the U.S. the very next day with her family.  But, he kind of helps her take her mind off of her worries.  There is a sweet chemistry between the lovers, and to the film itself, which is kind of wistful and romantic in a way that few modern day movies are.  It's sweet, but not sticky.  It's not exactly smart, but it's also not dumb.  Is can be a bit implausible at times, however, especially when the movie asks us to believe that Daniel and Natasha spent all night sleeping on the grass in a park, and wake up the next morning with their hair and faces clean and perfectly styled.  Regardless, it works as light, breezy entertainment for young teens, and director Ry Russo-Young manages to keep the film moving along at a brisk pace.

The Sun is Also a Star is kind of charming in its simplicity.  It's not a melodrama, nor does it drown itself in excess plot.  Its premise is pretty much set up in the first 15 minutes, and the remainder of the film is just letting us see that premise play out without any distractions.  I kind of admired how the movie was simply about these two people spending a day together, and talking about their lives.  Of course, none of this could have worked if the casting was just a little bit off.  Fortunately, both young actors are up to the challenge of creating people that we would actually want to see a movie about them walking around the city and talking.  Not only are they attractive, but they are able to create genuine chemistry, and make us feel for them.  They are both sincere, and make the material their own.

They also made me want to see a happy ending for them, so that alone is worth noting.  This isn't a particularly deep movie, and most of the stuff Natasha and Daniel talk about isn't innovative.  But, I enjoyed spending time with them, and when it was all over, I was happy with where their story had ended up.

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Friday, May 17, 2019

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum

With John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, the action franchise is starting to settle into a bit of a routine.  There are a lot of brutal and well choreographed fight scenes, there's a cute dog somewhere, and in the middle of it all, there's Keanu Reeves, who is oddly charismatic in an underplayed role as a hitman who kills probably around 200 faceless goons during the film's two hour-plus running time, but still seems to have a certain kind of humanity to him that makes him worth following throughout the series so far.

At this point, the series is starting to include standard elements, with the major difference being how the film itself is being executed compared to the previous entries.  For this installment, I would say that this is just as good as the earlier two films, but it just doesn't really do anything new.  It does build upon the film's world, which exists in kind of a comic book noir take on New York City.  It seems to be raining 90% of the time, and killers and assassins can have battles and brutal executions in the middle of Grand Central Station with no one blinking an eye.  You buy it here, because the movie draws you into its bizarre reality.  This is a series that has grown in scope and complexity over time, while still retaining the crucial elements that have been set since the beginning.  The first film had an almost comically genius premise of a retired assassin who goes out to kill the punks who murdered his dog when they broke into his home.  Since Chapter 2, however, the series has been adding more characters, more backstory, expanding the world, and creating a bizarre crime epic that is equal parts bonkers and brilliant.

Picking up where the last film left off, we have the titular contract killer (Keanu Reeves) having been made a marked man, and is now on the run from pretty much every assassin and killer in Manhattan, who seem to be crawling out of the woodwork to nab the $14 million bounty that's been placed on his head.  Along the way, he encounters as fellow assassin named Sofia (Halle Berry) whom he has a history with, and a mysterious figure known only as The Director (Anjelica Huston).  There are some old faces from the previous films as well, such as a crime boss known as the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), and hotel owner Winston (Ian McShane).  Really, the plot exists to set up the action scenes, which as per tradition with the series, are clean, well-edited, and incredibly graphic at times.  There were certain death scenes in the film that made my audience gasp and groan with discomfort at some of the violence on display. 

Still, the film should be commended.  These are some of the most brutal and elaborate fight scenes I have seen in a long time in a Hollywood film, and they definitely create tension and excitement.  Even though we know that John Wick will be okay in the end, the movie does definitely put him through the wringer.  Even though the goons he fights are clearly no match for him, they don't go down without a fight.  And I admire the filmmakers for letting their hero get so brutalized, instead of simply having him blow through mobs of bad guys effortlessly like so many recent action films do.  John Wick's life is incredibly painful, and the movie never lets us forget it for one second.  The action set pieces in this movie are not as elaborate as the ones seen in the recent Mission: Impossible films, but they carry a sense of danger and urgency that we just don't get in a lot of modern day action thrillers. 

John Wick: Chapter 3 carries on all the best traditions of its predecessors, so it's likely that if you found anything to enjoy about the earlier movies (as I did), you'll feel the same way about this (again, as I did).  However, there is some small cause for worry this time around.  I somewhat fear that the series might be going a bit too far out there as it carries on.  What started as a simple revenge story has grown into a massive and bizarre crime world that has an increasingly large cast of characters that have titles like the High Table, The Director, The Adjudicator, and so on.  I can imagine a future film in this series that goes too far over the edge, and loses the simplicity that has made things work.  I really hope they can try to keep this grounded in some kind of reality, even if it's a tiny bit, because I fear that in the future, this will just become an over the top kill-fest with none of the personality that I have come to enjoy.

For now, though, I am optimistic.  The movie carries on the well-worn tradition, and does so with a style and occasional humor that I found enjoyable.  Does the movie run a bit too long?  Probably.  But I am still invested in John and his world, and the action scenes probably are some of the best we will see this year.  My concerns lie solely with a vision that I can see the series going with time, and I hope it never comes to that.  Chapter 3 is more over the top than before, but it still knows what makes this series work, and it's largely a success.

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Sunday, May 12, 2019

Poms

Poms is the kind of gentle and innocuous entertainment that we have come to expect from Diane Keaton in recent years.  There's nothing wrong with that, and I have even admired some of her later work.  Plus, I'm sure it's hard to find really good scripts for an actress her age.  But this movie is a bit too gentle and innocuous for its own good.  It raises no stakes for the characters, offers little to nothing to get behind, and barely allows us to know the characters at the middle of it all.  I'm sure the movie was a lot of fun to make, but it's too bland to be much fun to watch.

Keaton plays Martha, a cancer patient who has decided to stop her treatments as the film opens, and live out her final years at a Georgia retirement community called Sun Springs.  Martha is not shy to admit her reasons for being there.  "I've come here to die", she flat out tells the welcoming committee when she arrives at Sun Springs.  She never married, never had kids, and has few friends in her life, so Martha sells off most of her possessions in an estate sale, and settles into a life of what she is certain will be quiet isolation.  That's until she meets her wacky and free-spirited new neighbor at the retirement community named Sheryl (Jacki Weaver).  She's the sort who likes to hold all night poker parties while playing loud music, and enjoys crashing funerals for the free food.  The two strike up an unlikely friendship quite quickly, and Sheryl eventually learns that at one point Martha was going to be on the high school cheerleader squad in her youth, but never got to perform, because her mom got sick and she had to devote all of her time to taking care of her.

Hanging around with Sheryl ignites a spark of life within Martha, who comes up with the idea of creating a cheerleader squad at the retirement community.  Apparently, this is a real life thing, as director Zara Hayes (a documentary filmmaker making her Hollywood debut) was inspired to make this film when she started coming across photos of retirees doing cheerleading routines.  Martha and Sheryl round up a diverse group of eight women from around the community to form their squad, and from there, the movie kind of loses all sense of storytelling, and turns into a bunch of scenes where the ladies work on their routine.  They're supposed to be bonding, but the movie tells us little to nothing about these ladies that make up the cheerleader team.  One of the ladies has a disapproving husband who won't let her try out for the team, but he immediately falls over and dies, so she joins.  That's all we learn about her.  Another lady has an overly protective and rude adult son who is worried that his mom will hurt herself, so he mostly keeps her locked up like a prisoner in her home.  But, since she never gets any real dialogue (either with her son, or the other ladies), we never really get to know her.

I'm afraid that this is the way Poms wants it.  It just wants to entertain us with the images of these old ladies performing these cheerleader routines, and slowly gaining confidence in themselves.  But the movie also has a confused tone.  It doesn't know if it wants the audience to laugh with these ladies when they're performing, or at them.  The elderly women are largely depicted as cartoon caricatures of retirement home citizens, so we can never see them as real people  That's a shame, because there's some big talent here as the women, including Rhea Perlman, Pam Grier and Phyllis Somerville.  None of them get a chance to stand out, and the cast of old ladies who are supposed to be rising above and proving they still have life in them kind of become one big faceless mob.  Only Keaton and Weaver are allowed to get some personal scenes, and they both are very good, obviously.  But the movie doesn't care enough about them for us to truly care.

There are also really no challenges for the ladies to face.  Sure, there are some people who stand in their way once in a while, like the crusty old senior citizens who don't like the fact that some of the members of the retirement community are trying to feel young again.  There's also some mean high school cheerleader girls who ridicule the old lades.  But, the teenage girls turn out not to be so bad at all.  Heck, one of them (a likable Alisha Boe) quits her team to help coach the old ladies.  The main struggle in the film has to do with the fact that Martha is slowly dying.  That storyline is treated more with sweet whimsy than sadness, and it kind of clashes with the broad and cartoon-like tone of the old ladies picking up cheerleading.  It creates a tonal problem that the film never quite overcomes, nor does it successfully resolve with its rather mawkish ending.

Poms is a wish fulfillment fantasy for the elderly that encourages them to go after their bucket list fantasies, no matter how out there they might seem.  That's kind of admirable, but the movie just never goes anywhere that's worth following.  It's harmless, and a few scenes are kind of sweet, but it's bound to be forgotten sooner rather than later.

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