Reel Opinions


Friday, August 27, 2021

Candyman


1992's original Candyman film stood out at the time as a horror film that took itself seriously, and was genuinely scary.  When other long-standing horror icons like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees were getting campy send offs in "final" entries around the same time (1991's Freddy's Dead, and 93's Jason Goes to Hell, respectively), Bernard Rose's film, which was inspired by a Clive Barker short story, was an eerie and suspenseful tale that took a hard look at urban legends, racism, and had genuine ideas mixed in with the blood and gore audiences expected at the time.

Nearly 30 years later, producer and head writer Jordan Peele (Get Out and Us), along with talented young director Nia DaCosta and co-writer Win Rosenfeld, have resurrected the franchise with a film that forgets the inferior two sequels, and instead serves as a direct follow up to the original film.  And just like the original, this film manages to be artful, suspenseful, graphic, and truly memorable in a way that few mainstream horror films are these days.  Just last week, I reviewed The Night House, which a lot of my fellow critics loved, but I found to be cliched and uninteresting, despite a stellar cast and a strong visual look.  Here is a thriller that is truly alive, kinetic, and as thought provoking and startling as the original.  This is an update done right, and also finds some clever ways to cover exposition-heavy moments, such as implementing silhouetted puppets to reenact the backstory.  It continues to establish Peele as a true master of mixing social issues with horror traditions, and cements DaCosta as a visionary filmmaker with a keen eye for character and suspense.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film is how it builds upon the mythology of the monster originally dreamed up by Barker.  It pays tribute to the original in ways that will not be revealed here, while also adding a whole new level that has never been explored before.  And while there are plenty of callbacks and even some surprise cameos for fans of the first to look out for, this movie makes sure that anyone can sit down and watch it and be involved.  As before, the setting is built around the Cabrini Green housing projects of Chicago, which have gone through a massive change since we last saw them, thanks to gentrification.  However, the legend of the Candyman (an entity with a hook for a hand that can appear if you look in a mirror and say his name five times) still haunts this area, and as we learn, is much deeper than previously established.

Rising young artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II)) has recently moved into the gentrified Cabrini Green with his girlfriend Brianna (Toyonah Parris), and begins digging into his neighborhood's past, looking for inspiration.  Perhaps inevitably, he begins to dig up the legend of the Candyman, thanks mostly to William (Colman Domingo), a local who had his own encounter with the entity when he was a boy.  Anthony starts to become obsessed with the Candyman, and the idea behind it.  It affects not just his art, which becomes violent and graphic, but his personality, and eventually even his own body starts to show signs of bizarre rot and peeling.  It all leads up to a lot of secrets, and a dark connection to events in the original that, again, will not be revealed here.  And while it's not essential to watch the original movie before this, you may want to in order to get full enjoyment.

Unlike the update to Halloween a few years ago, which I felt played up the gore to such levels that it killed whatever suspense could have been created, Candyman manages to strike the balance between social commentary, fresh ideas, truly disturbing and frightening sequences, and even more disturbing scenes of violence.  The movie is not so much about the ghostly killer himself (although he seems to constantly be hanging over every scene in the film, even when he's not in physical form), but rather in Anthony, his obsession, and his downfall.  Abdul-Mateen II creates a character that is easy to follow into the darkest corners the film forces him into, and it's truly tragic when he realizes too late just what he has unleashed within himself and those around him.  When the grisly murders begin, and they seem to have a connection around his art, he actually is kind of thrilled to hear his name on the news, and excited for the publicity.  As things spiral out of his control, and he begins to learn the truth, he learns too late that perhaps his obsession was inevitable.  It's a very flawed and human protagonist we seldom see in a blood-soaked horror film, and he manages to earn our interest and our sympathy.

But again, I want to stress the wonderful direction of Nia DaCosta, who wrote the script with Peele and Rosenfeld, and shows a tremendous amount of style and visceral art with her debut Hollywood feature. (Her previous film, an indie called Little Woods, is unseen by me.) She creates such a sinister mood here, even though we seldom see the titular monster.  And when the film does require the gore to flow, she does so in a way that emphasizes the brutality of the sequence without rubbing our faces in it.  It's disquieting and haunting, particularly a scene involving some rather unfortunate high school girls in a bathroom, but it does not shy away from giving the fans who have came for this kind of stuff what she wants.  And rather than play up the jump scares, she creates a constantly tense atmosphere that I can seldom remember from a thriller of the past two years or so.  She's obviously a tremendous talent, and I hope Hollywood continues to use her well.  Her next film is for Marvel Studios, and while I look forward to what she can do, I hope the Mainstream Cinema Machine does not chew her up into just another blockbuster director.  This film proves she deserves much more.


Just like the 1992 film, Candyman goes beyond the current horror climate, and gives us something truly memorable.  It's a lean and well-thought through film that clearly has been designed to unnerve its audience, and it succeeds in so many ways.  It's also a rare example of a film not just paying tribute to a a classic, but taking it into exciting new directions.  

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Sunday, August 22, 2021

Reminiscence


Reminiscence
gives us a rich futuristic setting, and some lovely visuals, but the story it tells feels moldy and dusty.  For all of its visual splendor, and the talented cast that has been gathered to tell the story, this is a movie that never quite builds the momentum it should.  It has a curiously lifeless energy to it, and that starts with its leaden dialogue.

But before all that, we are introduced to a future Miami that is partially underwater, as is most of the world.  Only the incredibly wealthy can afford to live on land.  And due to the humidity in this future Earth, people have mainly become nocturnal, with all businesses and most activity going on after the sun goes down.  While the world does take quite a bit of inspiration from Blade Runner and some other influences, it is immediately striking, and sets us up for a lot of sights and ideas that we have never seen before.  The world has been well realized and designed, but sadly, writer-director Lisa Joy (the HBO TV series Westworld) uses this intriguing backdrop to tell an old fashioned detective noir story.  Rather than truly explore the world she has created, she gives us something we have seen many times before, as well as not being strong enough to want to see it again, only dressed up in a new way.

The detective at the center of the story is Nick Bannister (a brooding Hugh Jackman), who runs a business where he lets people enter an immersion tank that allows paying guests to relive their happy memories or moments.  Given the state that the world is currently in, nostalgia for how life used to be is an industry in itself.  Along with his partner Watts (Thandiwe Newton), Nick divides his time between helping people relive nostalgic memories, and aiding the police in crimes by using the same memory technology on suspects.  Again, all of this intriguing, and got me excited for where the film was going.  Sadly, despite Jackman's usually reliable screen presence, he's been saddled with a dud of a character here who delivers every thought he has in a drawn out voice-over narration that is supposed to bring to mind hard boiled detective stories, but only gets unintentional laughs from how heavy-handed and poorly written the dialogue is.

Of course, not every actor could deliver lines like, "memory is the boat that sails against time's current", or how, "memories are beads on the necklace of time" with a straight face.  Jackman just can't bring any life to his performance in order to make Nick a character worth following.  He drones on in endless narration that spells out everything to the point that it almost becomes self-parody.  This being an old fashioned detective story, a mysterious woman has to come walking into his office.  That would be Mae (Rebecca Ferguson).  She initially comes wanting to use his memory machine to find her missing keys.   Soon, she bewitches him, and they seem to be building a genuine relationship.  Then she goes missing one day, and Nick becomes obsessed with finding out just what happened to her, starts using his technology on himself, and gets pulled into what is supposed to be a twisting and winding mystery that leads him through the underbelly of this dystopian future, but never quite picks up the steam required to make the audience care much about anything

Reminiscence does have some brief moments of life, such as some strong action scenes that show up now and then.  And again, the world that has been created here is visually fascinating, and has obviously been thought through carefully.  But none of this holds much weight when put up against the largely dull mystery at the center of it all, and how very few of the characters seem to be all that interesting.  Of the main cast, only Newton as Watts manages to command some scenes, to the point that I kind of wished the movie was following her instead.  I usually love watching Jackman, but in this particular role, he seems a bit deflated.  It's not that he's not making an effort.  I simply think he just can't rise above some of the dialogue he's required to say.  He also just does not have the chemistry required with Ferguson, who previously co-starred with him in The Greatest Showman.  I just never sensed anything between them that could lead to his character's obsession to track her down after she just disappears without saying a word.

Where the mystery ultimately ends up is also not worth the journey it takes to get there.  There's a lot of seedy and suspicious characters, such as a New Orleans crime boss, a crooked cop, and a wealthy "land baron", but they too fail to make much of an impression.  When Nick learns the truth about everything, and the connection it all has with Mae, it's not powerful or shocking.  And despite the interesting world and ideas the movie does create, it's disappointing to see it used only for old detective story cliches.  I was particularly intrigued by the idea of how people can become addicted to nostalgia and memories, almost like a drug.  Sure, this concept has been explored before, most notably in the underrated 1995 Sci-Fi thriller, Strange Days, but that doesn't mean it couldn't work again here if it had been put to better use, instead of just merely being touched on as Joy's script does.


You can see how a movie like Reminiscence could have easily worked, as all the right elements are there.  It's the script, and the curious lack of energy from the cast and the film itself that betrays any potential this might have had.  When a movie starts off by showing me a world I have never seen before, I always get excited.  Too bad the filmmakers had to fill it with such a dusty old story, and characters who are not worth inhabiting such a visual spectacle. 

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Saturday, August 21, 2021

The Protégé


Maggie Q has always struck me as an actress who deserves better in Hollywood.  Sure, she's had some success with TV, but when you consider her beauty and screen presence, as well as her skill with fight choreography (she was a student of Jackie Chan for a while), it's kind of surprising that the film world has not really capitalized on her.  The Protégé gives her the leading role and a potential action franchise, and while there's not much here that audiences haven't seen before, it has enough style and a surprising amount of wit to make it worth watching.

Director Martin Campbell is no stranger to franchise heroes, as he's worked with everyone from James Bond to Zorro, and even Green Lantern. (Yes, the movie Ryan Reynolds loves to remind us he regrets doing.) He not only gives Q an original character to play at least, but he also teams her up with two old pros here, Samuel L. Jackson and, most notably, Michael Keaton.  The wordplay between Keaton and Q is what makes this movie stand out.  Part flirty banter, and part veiled threat, their scenes play out as a bizarre mix of assassin thriller and screwball romantic comedy that not only oddly works, but is the key element that stands out in the film.  There's a scene about midway through where the two are trying to kill each other, but you can also feel the romantic tension.  Finally, Keaton says the best line in the film.  Sadly, it's something I can't print in a family-friendly review, but he basically says what I was thinking the whole time I was watching the scene, and it ends with the two of them under the sheets.

 

Maggie Q plays Anna, the titular protégé to an assassin named Moody (Jackson).  Moody has been in the business a long time, and judging by his frequent coughing fits, he probably should have left it a long time ago.  We see in an opening flashback that Moody found Anna as a child 30 years ago in Vietnam hiding in a closet, covered in blood, and holding a gun in an attempt to fend off the people who murdered her family.  Since then, he has trained her in the art of killing, and Anna has become just as proficient as he is.  Sure, she does her best to lead a normal life when she's not at her "real job".  She goes jogging every morning, dotes after her pet cat, and runs a rare book store in London.  But, murder has always been her business.  She makes sure she only goes after "bad people who deserve it", but as Moody likes to remind her, it doesn't really matter.

When Moody himself becomes the target of a hit, Anna must take on the role of the master for the first time and do her own investigation into not only the men responsible for it, but the one who issued it.  This will force her to return to her homeland of Vietnam, which holds nothing but pain for her, and where she vowed she would never return to after her childhood trauma.  But, she has to investigate who is pulling the strings behind the hitmen that seem to be following her every step of her investigation.  Chief among them is Michael Rembrandt (Keaton), who despite being on the opposite side of her mission, definitely feels a connection with her, as does she with him.  Their complex relationship, as well as their dialogue provided by Richard Weck (The Equalizer movies), is what makes this stand out amongst your typical revenge action thriller.

The Protégé is finely polished, and a bit slicker than you would expect from an action thriller being released so late in the summer.  The film is appropriately brutal and violent, but I appreciated the way that Campbell shoots the action, letting us admire the fights, and not using too many cuts and no rapid-fire editing.  This allows Q to show that she has more than enough physical prowess to carry an action movie such as this, but it also shows that Keaton (who is just a few weeks shy of hitting 70 as I write this) also still has what it takes to pull off an action-heavy role.  It's not just their dialogue and screen chemistry that drew me in, but it's also how they both handle themselves in the many action sequences and narrow escapes the movie throws them into.  And I appreciated how the film was letting me savor each moment of the stunt work.

Sure, you can argue that the movie is pretty lockstep with a lot of other similar movies, save for the relationship that the two leads share.  You could also argue that the movie relies on the fact that no matter how many goons the villain seems to send after her, none of them seem to be able to come close to hitting their target, while she seems able to wipe them out in a matter of minutes.  You would not be wrong.  But, the movie has an energy and a life to it that helps lift it up.  These are professionals in this kind of stuff, and it's a joy to watch them work together.  And sure, Samuel L. Jackson could play his type of character in his sleep by now, but even he is still a lot of fun in his supporting role.  He's certainly put to better use here than he was just a couple months ago in Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard, and he was one of the leads in that one.  


I'm not sure if I would want to see this morph into a series of films, but I would love for The Protégé to be successful enough that it leads to the film career that Maggie Q deserves.  I also would love to see her star alongside Keaton again.  They're so much fun together here, it would be a shame to just limit them to these characters. 

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Friday, August 20, 2021

The Night House


"Everybody has secrets".  -  Dialogue from The Night House.


This is very true, but not everybody has the kind of secrets that Beth (Rebecca Hall) discovers about her late husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) after his recent suicide.  The Night House is a slow-burn paranormal thriller that burns a bit too slowly for my liking, and too frequently seems to be spinning its wheels, or repeating old spook-house cliches of banging on the walls, and secrets of the past coming to light.  Oh, it's beautifully made and well-acted, I will grant it that.  But it's never thrilling or exciting.

I also found poor Beth's situation a bit hard to swallow.  She's all alone in the house her husband built for her, surrounded by a dense forest and a lake.  We already know she's in trouble, because the only reason a forest and a lake exist in a thriller is so that ghostly images or a dead body can show up later on.  Sure enough, both do.  That comes with the territory.  What I did not believe is that the only people in Beth's life seem to be the kindly old neighbor (Vondie Curtis-Hall) who might know more about what's going on than he appears, and a friend from work named Claire (Sarah Goldberg), who pays her a visit once in a while.  Does she really have no friends, or other family she could be turning to in order to help with her grief over her husband's suicide?  Apparently, Owen had absolutely no family or friends either, as none ever show up.  We see someone delivering some food to Beth in the film's opening scene, but they are never seen again, and it's the only time someone outside of Claire seems to be willing to check in to see if she's doing okay.

She's not, obviously.  After obsessively watching old wedding videos and scrolling through photos on his phone, she starts seeing pictures of women she does not recognize, but strangely look similar to her.  This is enough to arouse her suspicions that maybe her husband was not who she thought he was.  Then the paranormal activity kicks in around the house, with the knocking  on the walls, music on the stereo turning on at odd hours of the night, and ghostly images that she starts seeing around the lake and the boat where Owen took his own life not long ago.  Are these ghostly visions trying to tell her something?  Is Owen himself now haunting the home, or is it something else?  To say anymore would be spoiling, but I do want to ask this question to anyone who sees the movie.  If you discovered a certain secret about a loved one that Beth learns, I think most sane people would call the authorities.  Instead, she decides to go home, leave a cryptic voicemail on Claire's phone, and take a shower.  Not once does calling the police ever seem to cross her mind.

I felt plenty of goodwill toward The Night House as it started to unfold.  Rebecca Hall delivers a strong performance as a woman who seems to have her reality shattered by the things she learns, and is clinging to whatever feelings she used to have.  And director David Bruckner gives the film a handsome look, along with the help of cinematographer Elisha Christian.  But the script and the plot never truly came to life to me.  There are some individually good scenes throughout, but the story as a whole never clicked.  After a while, the movie starts to repeat itself.  Beth wanders the house, learns something, has a vision, wanders, learns, vision...I kept on waiting for it to surprise me, and it never did.  As for the final revelation, it somehow all leads up to a final scene that manages both to fly off the rails, and be anticlimactic at the same time.  


As I'm writing this, the movie is sitting at a solid 85% over on Rotten Tomatoes, so this might be one of those times when I'm in the minority.  All I know is that to me, the film felt like a long drive to nowhere in particular. 

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Sunday, August 15, 2021

Respect


For every one movie like Rocketman, the biopic about Elton John that told his story through his music and elaborate imagination sequences, while at the same time being honest and open about his personal struggles, we seem to get 10 or so films just like Respect, which takes a noted performer (in this case, Aretha Franklin), and then molds her life story into a flat and lifeless filmed Wikipedia article.  Franklin's life has been stripped of all complexity here, and instead becomes a cliched "Behind the Music" story.

Jennifer Hudson has been tasked with playing Aretha Franklin, and she is definitely more than up to the challenge.  She naturally excels at recreating her hit songs in the recording studio and the concert scenes.  Everything else about the movie, however, doesn't work, because it feels like we've seen it all before.  Like Ray Charles (Ray), Freddie Mercury (Bohemian Rhapsody), and Tupac Shakur (All Eyez on Me) before her, the movie hits all the obvious and predictable pit stops that come with the Hollywood biopic story.  There is the stern parental figure, there is the abusive spouse, and of course, there is the subject of the film's subject matter falling into addictions, nearly destroying their life and their career as their friends and family look on with great concern.  The famed entertainer hits rock bottom, manages to pull themselves up, and then records an inspiring number which closes the film.  You've seen this film before, and Respect offers no reasons as to why to sit through it again.  Yes, Hudson is great here, but not great enough to watch a movie where she's the only thing that stands out.  

We first meet Aretha at the age of 9 (played by Skye Dakota Turner), already gifted with a great singing voice, and performing at a church where her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), preaches.  The movie touches on the fact that her father was highly respected, and had many famous friends, such as Dinah Washington (Mary J. Blige) and even Martin Luther King, Jr. (Gilbert Glenn Brown), but this comes across as more of an afterthought throughout the film.  It will occasionally bring up that through most of her life, Aretha was an activist who was very interested in civil rights, but these feel like pit stops instead of actual character building, and her relationship with Dr. King is never really explored in any detail, which might have made for a more interesting movie.  What the film is interested in, however, is making Aretha's father into another heavy-handed authority figure who seems to always appear in these movies.  In case you don't pick up on where the movie is headed, one of the first times we see him in the movie, it actually cuts to a close up to the alcoholic drink in his hand.  I'm sure it took a real superhuman effort on the part of the filmmakers not to add a dramatic music cue to this shot as well.

Respect also frequently seems held back by its PG-13 rating, especially during an early scene where it is implied that Aretha was raped when she was 12-years-old by a family friend, and became pregnant.  Again, this is never given the emotional weight it should have, as the film cannot really go into much depth without bumping up the rating.  We do get a powerful and disturbing image of a young Aretha with a full-term pregnant belly, but the film kind of glosses over it afterward.  Instead, the movie is more interested in following the "demons" that haunted Aretha her entire life, starting with the death of her mother (Broadway veteran Audra MacDonald, woefully underused here) right before her 10th birthday.  These personal demons are further aided by her physically abusive first husband, Ted White (Marlon Wayans),family disputes, and her eventual dive into substance abuse and alcohol.

The movie clearly wants to tell the story of how Aretha found her voice, and became the acclaimed performer that she was.  We see how she was signed early on to a deal with Columbia Record's John Hammond (Tate Donovan), and while she put out multiple albums for the label, they were not successful, because she was only singing the music that he wanted her to.  She eventually signs onto another label, gets to create her own music, and rises to superstar status.  Again, this is handled in the most superficial and obvious of ways, complete with overused montages with different album covers flash across the screen.  By the time she's deep into drinking and falls off the stage in a stupor while giving a concert, the movie feels like it's just hitting the perfunctory notes.

No matter how good Hudson is as Aretha Franklin (and she's quite good here), the movie simply never rises to her level.  It never truly comes to life, and simply seems like an assembly of cliches from other movies about famous singers.  This is a movie that wants to tell us how Aretha survived her personal struggles, when it should be about how her voice inspired people, and the part she played in the civil rights movement.  There are brief moments throughout that hint at this approach, but it is never acted upon.  The film's director is Liesl Tommy, a Tony-nominted stage director making her filmmaking debut.  She seems to want to play it safe here, giving us a garden-variety biopic that wants to be uplifting, but is simply uninspired.


Respect
had the potential to be so much more, but instead it follows the path that a lot of other mediocre to failed biopics have followed, and simply ends up joining them.  Hudson might get another Oscar nomination out of this, but I doubt this film will leave much of an impression except on the most hardcore of the real life singer's fans.

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Saturday, August 14, 2021

Free Guy


Free Guy
starts out awfully derivative, borrowing bits and pieces from other films such as Wreck-It Ralph, The Truman Show, The Lego Movie, Ready Player One and maybe a bit of Groundhog Day.  But, little by little, the movie starts to find its own voice, establishes a heart, and it began to work for me.  This is the kind of movie that sneaks up on you.

But the movie it reminded me the most of was 2019's Serenity, which not many people saw, and I wish I hadn't seen, as it ended up on the top spot of my picks for the worst films of that year.  That was the movie where Matthew McConaughey was a fishing boat captain who used to be married to Anne Hathaway, and then she approached him in order to ask if he would murder her current abusive husband.  The big reveal at the end (Spoiler Alert!) was that McConaughey was actually an on line avatar in a video game being played by a kid in his bedroom plotting to kill his abusive stepfather.  In a supposedly-serious drama that earned a lot of bad laughs, that ending reveal got the biggest from me.  I remember the people at my screening gathered outside after it was over, trying to figure out what they had just seen, like onlookers of a terrible traffic accident.  At least with this movie, director Shawn Levy (the Night at the Museum movies) and his writers have the good sense to apply a similar idea to a comedy, so we don't feel bad when we do laugh.

Like McConaughey in that film, our main hero Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is just a character in a massive multi-player online game called Free City.  More specifically, he's a Non-Playable Character, or an NPC.  He exists only in the background, and since the game he's in seems to be largely inspired by Grand Theft Auto, most of the playable characters beat him up, rob him, or murder him when they see him.  If he does die, he just wakes up in his bed, ready to start another day of abuse.  Guy's program is to greet his pet goldfish, eat breakfast, grab a coffee at the local coffee shop, and go to his job as a teller at the bank, which gets robbed by the playable characters every day.  But one day, Guy has a fateful encounter with "Molotov Girl" (Jodie Comer), a playable character that he seems oddly attracted to, and causes him to go off his pre-programmed route to work in order to follow her.

With her help, and a pair of special glasses that reveal the true video game nature of Guy's world, he begins to learn his place within the game, and becomes self-aware.  He starts instinctively going against the program, and doing his own thing, becoming a hero and "leveling up" by helping his fellow NPCs when they are being harassed by the players.  Meanwhile, in the real world, the idea of an NPC going rogue and doing his own thing in a game gets worldwide media attention.  This does not sit well with the game's credited creator, Antwan (Taika Waititi), who is planning to launch Free City 2 in a matter of days, and doesn't want people focused on the old game.  Also, "Molotov Girl's" player is actually Millie in real life (also Comer), who is trying to find evidence that Antwan stole the game's code from her and a fellow programmer named Keys (Joe Keery).  As she spends time with Guy within the game, she begins to realize that he is a free-thinking artificial intelligence, and if Antwan's plans are carried out, Guy, his world, and all the other NPCs who inhabit it will be destroyed.

When Free Guy is focused on the video game world, the movie seems to spin its wheels just a little, hitting on the same visual gags and characters over and over.  I know that Guy and his friends, like the security guard at the bank he works at (Lil Rey Howery) are programmed to live a certain way, so it makes sense within the script.  Still, for what seems to be a massive world of endless possibilities, we see very little of it.  Little by little, however, the movie started to work for me as Guy became self-aware, and started taking his life into his own hands, and the relationship he gradually builds with Molotov Girl.  I liked the idea of video game characters learning they don't have to be victims of the players.  Imagine if a Goomba in Super Mario Bros. suddenly decided to go against its programming to not be crushed under the Italian plumber's boot.  It's a fun idea, especially when Guy convinces his fellow NPCs to go on strike within the game.

Speaking of Guy, Reynolds gives him the likable, laid back attitude with a touch of snark that he has been mining to great success for a while now, but the real find here is Jodie Comer, a British actress whose most notable Hollywood role before this was a brief cameo in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.  She shows real star potential here, not only able to share the screen with Reynolds, but at times even steal some scenes away from him in her dual role.  The movie actually has a great cast, with a large number of surprise cameos from actors who have worked with Levy in the past, as well as actual YouTube gamers and streamers commentating on the action from time to time.  The movie manages to show a lot of love to the gaming community, and it's bound to make those within it happy.


Free Guy
may owe a lot of inspiration to its visuals and ideas from a variety of sources, but it does have an identifiable heart that won me over.  The movie is eager to please, and gets better as it goes along and starts to find its own voice.  At the very least, it's a big budget studio blockbuster centered around video games that celebrates individuality, and I kind of like that.

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Friday, August 13, 2021

Don't Breathe 2


While not a great movie, Don't Breathe 2 is a sequel that manages to stand out in a year that has seen a lot of uninspired and rehashed follow ups, and does so by turning the premise of the original on its head just a little.  Whereas last time, the mysterious blind man Norman Nordstrom (once again played by Stephen Lang) was portrayed as a villain and a mystery, this movie is told from his perspective, putting us in the corner of someone who created dread and tension last time.

And yet, returning screenwriters Fede Álvarez and Rodo Sayagues (who has directing duties this time) are smart in how they tackle this tricky angle.  They do not try to humanize Norman too much, nor do they make him misunderstood.  He openly admits to doing horrible things in the past, and even calls himself a "monster" late in the film.  The movie does not forget the things we saw him do last time when he menaced three young hoods who tried to break into his house, or how he had an innocent woman being held against her will in his basement in that movie.  Lang's performance is surprisingly complex, creating a character who can be sympathetic, violent, and mournful.  It's kind of a fascinating character too, and I'm glad this movie goes deeper into him, rather than just placing him in the same role we saw him in before.

Norman was once a decorated Navy SEAL who lost his sight during the Gulf War.  As we learned previously, he is still more than capable of defending himself, and uses his military fighting techniques and knowledge on anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path.  As the film opens, Norman has been raising a young girl named Phoenix (Madelyn Grace), whom he found abandoned outside of a burning house eight years ago.  He's kept the girl under his constant care and protection, seldom letting her leave the house.  Now that Phoenix is reaching her teens, she is becoming more curious about the world and other kids.  He has taught her survival skills, and tries to assure her she has everything she needs, but even Norman seems to be able to feel that he can't keep her close forever.

During one of her rare outdoor adventures with Norman's trusted friend, Hernandez (Stephanie Arcila), Phoenix happens to come upon some punks who seem strangely interested in her, and follow her back to her home, where they try to stage a siege on the house in order to kidnap her.  To say what their motivation and their interest in Phoenix is would be spoiling the plot, so I will have to tread carefully here.  However, the movie pulls off the neat trick of creating a similar scenario from the first movie, except whereas last time the film was told from the view of the intruders who were trapped in the house, this time we follow Norman as events unfold.  Again, it handles this well, as it suddenly doesn't make his character "the good guy".  We learn that he still has plenty of secrets, and he is just as prone to bloody acts of violence as before.

Don't Breathe 2 is a B-Movie that is better made than you might expect.  It used to be that you could tell a low budget film from its cheesy look, but not so here.  The movie has an attractive look and a certain style, even though a majority of the scenes are shot at night or in dark rooms.  Despite the stylish images, the script is about what you would expect.  The villains are as dumb as a bag of rocks here, as they have numerous opportunities for which they could easily kill Norman, but they either don't take their chance, or suddenly decide they can't do it for one reason or another, giving him time to turn the tables on them.  This is also a much more brutal and violent film than before, but it never comes across as excessive, and knows when to pull back.

I think what just barely nudges this movie to a recommendation from me is that I appreciated its stance on all the characters inhabiting the film.  Aside from little Phoenix, everyone here is a killer, or has done horrible things in their pasts.  The script constantly walks a fine line.  When we do learn just why the leader of the punks is interested in the girl, it's actually kind of understandable, and it throws the girl and everything she thinks she knows in a different light.  Of course, the film kind of kills this complexity with later plot revelations that are kind of unnecessary, and are supposed to make the character a complete villain, rather than the more interesting and challenging character he potentially could have been.  The movie does make some wrong turns, but I was never bored by it, and I think it finds an interesting and oddly heartfelt note to end on.


Even if Don't Breathe 2 is nowhere near as good as the first (it's definitely much less suspenseful), it still finds an intriguing angle for the character of Norman that kept me engaged.  It may be cheesy, but it never hides or denies it, and manages to get a few unique ideas in.

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Saturday, August 07, 2021

Vivo


Over the past few years, Sony Pictures Animation Studio has made a name for themselves by creating some visually striking and intelligent animated features such as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and this year's The Mitchells vs. the Machines.  Their latest film, Vivo, is more conventional than those were, but it still has an attractive look, plenty of heart, and a slew of memorable songs.  

That's because the songs were written and largely performed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also provides the voice of the title character.  Vivo is a kinkajou, a rare rainforest mammal, who has spent his life living with and making music alongside his elderly human companion Andrés Hernández (voice by Juan de Marcos González) in Cuba.  The two don't understand one another, as even though when the audience hears Vivo speak, we hear Miranda's voice, all Andrés hears are little chirps coming from him.  However, they have bonded over music over the years, and now perform together every day in the local plaza for tourists.  This leads to the first of many tuneful and energetic musical numbers that, while not as strong as the stuff Miranda provided for In the Heights or Hamilton, are still worthy to listen to more than once.  They're probably some of the more memorable to be featured in an animated film in a while.  

After a performance that makes up the film's opening number, Andrés receives a letter from a lost love, the singing superstar Marta Sandoval (Gloria Estefan), whom he used to perform with in his younger years.  He wanted to tell her how he felt about her, but she became a global star before he got the chance, and he did not want to hold back her success, and could only express his love for her in a song he wrote after she left.  Now Marta is giving a farewell concert before she retires, and she wants Andrés to perform with her in Miami, Florida.  Vivo is initially against making the trip, as he has never left Cuba before.  But when his dear friend tragically passes away in his sleep, the little kinkajou becomes determined to make the journey to Miami and deliver the love song to Marta.

His only means of travel, as well as the only one who believes in his mission, ends up being Gabi (newcomer Ynairaly Simo), Andrés' tween grandniece from Key West, who is quite unconventional and "dances to the beat of her own drum".  While Gabi's mom (Zoe Saldana) would love for her daughter to be happy selling cookies with her friends in a Girl Scout troop, Gabi is more interested in doing her own thing, and right now that thing is helping Vivo get to Miami in order to deliver the song.  They try to get there by bus, but when that falls through, they end up taking a makeshift raft through the Everglades, where the two encounter a variety of other animals, such as a pair of lovesick spoonbill birds, and a deadly python (Michael Rooker), whose coils are cleverly animated.

Vivo is the sort of film that doesn't really do anything new, but it does so with plenty of energy and warmth so that both kids and adults can be wrapped up in its simple story.  There are some occasional big laughs here, such as how the Girl Scout troop who constantly harass Gabi to join them are depicted as an over the top parody of social justice warriors.  I also greatly admired the film's visual style, which features a clever mix of clean, well done CG animation for most of the film, but will switch to fluid 2D animation for the fantasy and dream-like sequences.  The variety of real world environments are also represented well here, while the human characters are given cartoon-like exaggerated features that are pleasant, yet identifiable.  

More than that, the screenplay provided by director Kirk DeMicco (The Croods) and Quiara Alegría Hudes (In the Heights) is quite emotional and handles some difficult themes (such as Andrés' passing, and Gabi's loneliness since the death of her father) in a way that younger viewers can identify with, and adults will find appropriately touching.  Even when the film switches to the format of a buddy road trip adventure for the middle portion of the film, the characters never lose their unique attributes and remain likable.  It provides plenty of humor for the kids without getting too silly, and it also maintains the heart and grace that I was enjoying during the first half.  And despite containing 11 songs (a large number for an animated feature), they never slow down or stop the action.


In all honestly, I enjoyed Vivo more than the recent Pixar effort, Luca, simply because I was more involved with the characters here.  It may not be the most daring animated feature out here, but there's more than enough to grab adult fans of animation, and is bound to be hard for most kids to resist. 

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