Reel Opinions

Saturday, March 28, 2020

An Update on Myself and This Blog

Hello, everyone!

First of all, I hope everyone is staying safe and staying indoors during this time.  I am doing okay, and have been doing my best to get through.  Fortunately, the job I have requires me to work from home, so there really hasn't been any huge change in terms of my employment.

Well, as I'm sure you know, it's probably going to be a while until I can return to reviewing movies here.  However, I do plan to whenever the theaters do open again.  I have thought about reviewing some of the movies that have been released digitally, but I don't know if I will or not.  I also am considering maybe reviewing some older movies, if anyone here would be interested.

But, as someone who loves the theater experience, it's really not the same watching movies on my computer.  I crave the experience of seeing a movie with an engaged audience, and have many fond memories.  That's why I'm hoping that the theaters will once again be open, hopefully by the mid-summer. 

Until then, I hope you will all continue to support me, and visit this blog regularly once things pick up again.  Also, let me know if you would be interested in me reviewing older movies.  I would appreciate any feedback.

Until then, I hope everyone is well, and hopefully this whole situation will be a memory at some point.

Thank you all, and I hope to start reviewing again soon.


Friday, March 13, 2020

A Note to My Readers - No Reviews This Weekend

Hello, everyone!

I am writing to inform you that I will not be attending any movies this weekend, as I feel it is best to just take it easy this weekend.  I am under a lot of mental stress from work, a recent loss in my family, and obviously the virus situation going on in the news.  I am doing okay overall, but still, I need to take this weekend off for myself.

I hope you all understand.  With a lot of major releases being delayed due to the virus, everything is kind of up in the air anyway in terms of movie releases.  I am hoping that things will be more under control soon, and am trying to remain optimistic.  Overall, I am doing good, but I really don't think it's for the best that I just go out and pretend everything is normal right now.

I apologize if anyone is disappointed, and I thank all of you for your support. 

Stay safe, be careful what you read and hear, wash your hands thoroughly, and hopefully life can return to normal sooner rather than later.

I will return to reviewing movies as soon as I can.  Thank you again, everyone. 


Saturday, March 07, 2020


What I admire most about Onward is that it tries to tell a real story, rather than sell merchandise to kids like so many Hollywood animated features.  That being said, the film's story never quite grabbed me the way that I think it was supposed to.  Its heart is in the right place, but it's episodic and split up into a series of individual adventures that never created a completely whole journey for me.  This is not really a bad movie in any way, but it's not to the level of Pixar's best, and is probably their most forgettable film since The Good Dinosaur.

For me, the most disappointing aspect is the film's setting, which is wonderful in a lot of ways but is never truly exploited or explored by the filmmakers.  The setting is a fantasy world made up of mystical creatures that used to be filled with magic and wonder.  But, over time, the creatures and beings that inhabit this world became disenchanted with magic, because it was so complicated and hard to pull off.  They started to invent technology that could do the same things much easier and faster..  And so, the movie introduces us to a world that looks like ours, but is inhabited by the kind of creatures you usually see in fantasy literature.  We see mermaids with smart phones, a biker gang made up out of pixies, centaurs serving on the local police force, and a Manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer) who has given up on sending travelers off on noble quests, and instead is the head of a gimmicky family restaurant.

My mind always gets excited when a movie shows me a setting or a world that I have never seen before, and the opening moments of Onward got me very inspired.  However, it would seem that co-writer and director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) only saw potential for some throw away gags when it came to his world.  After showing off some imaginative visuals that mix our world with a made up one, the movie kind of forgets to explore it in any detail, and instead focuses on a standard plot that tries to be heartfelt, but simply didn't go deep enough for me.  The plot concerns two elf brothers, the timid and insecure Ian (Tom Holland) and the brash and boisterous Barley (Chris Pratt).  They live in a suburb with their widowed mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), whose husband died when Ian was very young.  Ian has no memories of his father, other than the pictures and assorted things he's been able to find about him, while Barley only has three (maybe four, he later admits) memories of him.

On Ian's 16th birthday, Laurel gives both of the boys a gift left behind by their father - an ancient wizard's staff.  Turns out even though dad was an accountant, he was interested in the old ways of magic, and wanted to pass that knowledge down to his sons.  Included with the staff is a spell that can supposedly bring someone back to life for only 24 hours before the magic fades away.  The brothers perform the spell without their mother's knowledge, but their attempt to bring dad back goes wrong when the spell they cast is incomplete.  It only brings back the bottom part of their dad, so he appears as only a waist and a pair of legs that can walk around on their own.  Ian and Barley realize that they need to find a mystical stone to place in the staff so that they can complete the spell, and so they go off in search of the gem, taking their father with them, whom they lead around on a leash, and even give him a crudely made upper half made up out of sunglasses, a bulky coat and a lot of padding.  Watching their dad stumble and fumble around after his sons, I couldn't help but think that the visuals of his clumsy movement and being dragged around everywhere was inspired by Terry Kiser's performance as the deceased Bernie Lomax in Weekend at Bernie's.

According to director Scanlon, Onward was inspired by his own childhood, as his father passed away when he was very young, and he knew little about him.  You can definitely sense the attachment that he has to this material in some of the film's very best moments.  However, it's what's outside of these moments that are a bit disappointing.  The adventure elements of the story don't add up to a whole lot, and are usually comprised of car chases that are not very exciting, run-ins with forgettable characters (the biker gang comprised of pixies is a funny idea, but didn't work as well as it should with me) and a lot of wasted potential.  I kept on waiting for the movie to develop a satirical edge and really take a humorous look at our world and what it would be like if it were inhabited by dragons and snake people, but it never truly grabs on to the potential.  We don't get to see much of the world the filmmakers have created here, as a majority of the film takes place in Barley's broken down old van.

The main heart of the film obviously belongs to the bond that Ian and Barley share, and their desire to spend just one more day with their father.  Again, I found myself wanting to be swept up by the emotion of this angle, but it never quite happened.  It's not that there is no emotion at all, rather that it never came across as strong to me as I expected it to.  There is a lot of good things here, and both Holland and Pratt create a likable brotherly bond.  I liked the contrast of the two main characters, how Ian is insecure and always making personal lists of ways that he can improve himself, and how Barley is obsessed with magic, loves table top role playing adventures, and lives for classic rock music.  I simply was never as involved as I felt I should be.  I found the whole experience watching the film to be likable, but somewhat bland at the same time.  It never offends, and it has some scattered good moments, but to me, the whole thing seemed a bit muted.  Not enough that I can completely write the thing off, but also not enough for me to label it a success.

So, don't read this as a completely negative review.  Onward does have a lot to recommend, but it simply never grabbed me.  I was never bored, but also not as engaged as I wanted to be.  I guess I would label this as a near miss for me.  The movie definitely tells a heartfelt story, but at least to me, it never came to life like I wanted it to.


Friday, March 06, 2020

The Way Back

"I'm fine".

Gavin O'Connor's The Way Back is a highly emotional and effective drama that understands what those words mean to an alcoholic, or to anyone who might be suffering or recovering from any sort of addiction.  It's always the go-to answer.  It usually means the person does not want to talk about their situation, and wants to move on as quickly as possible from the subject.  Sometimes they say it with a smile, hoping they can fool you, and sometimes they say it with a look that tells you they don't want to talk about it.  But it always means the same thing.

These two words are spoken numerous times by Jack Cunningham, played by Ben Affleck in what is easily his most memorable performance in years.  During the early scenes, we see him as he runs into people he knows, or joins his family for Thanksgiving dinner.  His response is always the same.  He's fine, he's doing great.  But, we know the people around him don't believe him.  When he runs into an old friend at a convenience store, he puts up a cheery facade, and we can tell that the friend doesn't buy it by the way he glances back at him when Jack leaves the store.  At the family dinner, he does his best to smile, and goofs around with his nephews.  But his sister (Michaela Watkins) doesn't quite buy the act.  When Jack realizes this, he gets angry at her when they are alone. 

Jack has a lot of personal demons outside of his alcoholism, and as they slowly are revealed during the course of the film, they ring with truth and honesty, instead of the soap opera-style theatrics that we might expect.  It is the driving force behind the film and its emotional power, much more so than the traditional sports underdog story that makes up the rest of the film.  It's not that the sports story is bad in any way.  Heck, O'Connor has plenty of experience directing inspirational sports movies, and he shows his skill here by giving us cleanly edited game scenes, and a reason to want to see the team that Jack is eventually placed in charge of as coach succeed.  The movie even finds a few new angles for the formula.  This is the first time in a long time where an inspiration sports movie did not climax with a big game.  Oh, there's a big game at the end, but for once, it's not the central focus of the film's ending.

What also helps the athletic angle of the story is how Affleck seems to respond and play off of his young co-stars, who play a high school basketball team of Bishop Hayes High, where Jack himself attended and played back in his younger years.  There's a real chemistry with the performances between the Coach and his players, which helps a lot, as the kids who make up the team are not really fleshed out too well by the script.  There's the kid who doesn't believe in himself even though he has great potential, the one who's always trying to hook up with one of the cheerleaders, one who likes to dance on the court, and one who has a father that doesn't approve of the kid playing basketball and hoping to have a future beyond school, and has never showed up at the games to support him. (No prizes for guessing whether or not the father will turn up for the big game, and give his kid a supportive nod as he takes his seat in the stands.) It's the performances of Affleck and his young co-stars that hold our attention during these scenes.

The Way Back contains all the predictable stops and required plot points that date back to The Bad News Bears, and probably even further than that.  The team hasn't won in years, and don't know how to rely on each other in order to win.  A down on his luck coach comes in, slowly turns the players around, and the team begins to win.  We get the training and game montages, and the moments where the players begin to open up to the coach, showing that they are starting to trust him.  If this is all that there was to the movie, it would be a well made, but overly predictable work that would probably be forgotten by everyone who saw it weeks later.  The fact that this movie chooses to make Jack's personal life the focus, and not whether or not the team will make it to the big game, is a touch I greatly appreciated.  And as I mentioned, I appreciated the honesty with which it treats its dramatic subject matter.  This is not a movie about easy answers, nor does it have the obligatory happy ending.  It's a hopeful ending, though.

Affleck is clearly drawing upon some of how own personal and publicized experiences dealing with addiction in his performance here, and it's a very open and memorable one.  It's one of those roles that an actor takes in order to help them deal with some of the things that's been happening in their private lives.  Even if it's not entirely their own experience, they can bring a lot to the table, and that's exactly what he does here.  Jack is always believable, because we can sense the star understands where the character is coming from.  Jack was a star player on his team back in high school, and could have gone on to a future in the sport professionally, but personal issues with an alcoholic father held him back.  He self destructed, found his footing and got married, and then had another series of losses that I will not talk about here.  He's regressed back to his lowest point, and doesn't care.  Naturally, part of the film follows how the kids on the team help him regain some of his self confidence and a feeling of worth, but a bigger part falls on how Jack kind of doesn't want to change in a way, and has to find rock bottom before he can pull himself up again.

That's the power of the film.  It understands the path that many people just like Jack take.  The movie is about denial and anger as much as it is about recovery.  I appreciated that angle.  So many movies about addiction want to show the entire recovery process in two hours or less.  The Way Back is smart enough to know it can't fit everything in, and just shows us what it can.  It shows us more than enough, and ends on a note that lets us know Jack is only beginning with healing.  Either that, or he might slip all over again.  It's up to him.


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