Reel Opinions

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Tick, Tick...Boom

Back in 1990, Jonathan Larson (portrayed here magnificently by Andrew Garfield) was your standard struggling composer living in a small New York apartment, and working a dead-end job at a diner to make whatever ends he could meet.  He was about to hit 30, and had been struggling for the past 8 years to get his idea for an ambitious Sci-Fi stage musical called Superbia off the ground and on Broadway.  As he was approaching his 30th birthday, he tortured himself by noting that his idol, Stephen Sondheim, had already had a production running on Broadway by the age of 27.

Tick, Tick...Boom originally started life as a solo stage musical piece that Larson would perform, which celebrated the creative process that he went through, trying to get his idea off the ground.  The film version, now playing on Netflix, not only tells Larson's story, but also finds a sad irony to his life.  He was a man who felt like he was running out of time as he left his 20s.  What he could not realize, obviously, is how little time he actually had.  As the film points out in its opening prologue, Larson would pass away from an aortic aneurysm at the age of 35 in 1995 on the day that his next musical work, Rent, would open Off-Broadway, and eventually go on to revolutionize Broadway musicals for the time period.  This fact makes the film not just a musical celebration of the creative process that Larson intended when he originally wrote the show for the stage, but also a poignant and touching reminder of how little time we actually have to follow our own dreams.

The film represents the directing debut of Lin Manuel-Miranda, who must feel a certain kinship with the late Larson.  He had his first musical, In the Heights, produced on Broadway when he was 28, and would later go on to write the musical phenomenon Hamilton.  It is impossible to think that he doesn't have a certain understanding of everything the film and the original stage production depicts of Larson's personal triumphs and defeats of trying to get his career off the ground.  Manuel-Miranda has turned Larson's small and deeply personal musical into a lavish biofilm that not only celebrates the creative process, but also the man at the center of it all.  Everything has been maintained, but also has been given new life.  After the recent crushing disappointment of the Dear Evan Hansen film, this single-handedly renews my faith in movie musicals.  

He has managed to retain elements of the original stage production, which was just Larson sitting at a piano on the stage, and open it up in order to tell his story, making it into a cinematic event.  This could not have been an easy task, and considering that this serves as Manuel-Miranda's directing debut, it shows an absolute confidence and skill behind the camera.  We get moments with Garfield as Larson performing the piece on the stage in front of an audience, along with two other singers (portrayed by Vanessa Hudgens and Joshua Henry).  But throughout, we are taken into a dramatization of Larson's life, his struggles with his show, as well as the personal relationships.  

What the screenplay credited to Steven Levenson gets right is that it both celebrates Larson's creativity, and shows its weaknesses.  There are moments throughout where Larson gets completely lost in his work, and it allows his relationships with his closest friends and the woman he loves (Alexandra Shipp) to suffer.  Also key to the film is Larson's relationship with his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús), who has been in the creative trenches with Larson from the beginning, but has recently decided to leave it all behind to take a high-paying job at an ad agency.  This puts Larson in a complicated position where he both feels somewhat betrayed by his friend, but envious at the same time that he doesn't have to worry about money anymore.  

Tick, Tick...Boom not only celebrates Larson and his creative struggles, but it looks at it at all angles.  The film's advance knowledge of how his story would end also adds a certain sadness to the piece that was never intended originally, but adds a great amount of power.  And yet, this is not a depressing film in the slightest.  It's full of life and some of the more vibrant musical numbers I've seen since the musical adaptation of Manuel-Miranda's own In the Heights from earlier this year.  The stand out sequence in the film would definitely be "Sunday", which was Larson's ode to his musical idol Stephen Sondheim, and features cameos by a large number of musical theater legends performing alongside Garfield.  It's the ultimate Easter Egg sequence for musical theater fanatics.  Speaking of Sondheim, Larson would eventually craft a relationship with the man, and he is portrayed here by Bradley Whitford.  However, when the man leaves a message on Larson's answering machine late in the film, that is Sondheim's voice we hear.  Given that the musical theater legend passed away at the age of 91 just two days before I wrote this review, this too adds an unintended bit of poignancy.  

This is one of the great films of the year, and should be experienced by anyone with any kind of creative spark, as it's certain to hold a great amount of power for them.  It's not just a powerful work, but also emotional and joyous, and perfectly performed, and it marks Manuel-Miranda as a true filmmaking talent that I can't wait to see evolve with time.  Tick, Tick...Boom is dynamic in a way that few films are, and few can dream of being.


Saturday, November 27, 2021

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City

The long-running Resident Evil film franchise (itself based on the equally long-running video game franchise from Capcom) gets a reboot with Welcome to Raccoon City, which ditches the emphasis on high-tech special effects and film star, Milla Jovovich, from the previous six movies, and tries for a more pure B-horror experience that is more in line with the original games.  It's obvious that writer-director Johannes Roberts has a lot of love for the video games, and throws in plenty of Easter Eggs that fans who grew up playing them are sure to love.  But much like the recent Ghostbusters: Afterlife, references and call backs alone are not enough to make a successful movie.  

In this movie's case, Roberts seems so bent on recreating locations and throwing in characters from the games that he forgot he was supposed to be making a horror movie here.  Even a B-Movie such as this needs some attempts at suspense, and this movie just doesn't do enough to appease anyone who might be walking in cold, or those fans who are looking for some genuine suspense to go with the callbacks to the video games.  The movie borrows the plots of elements of Resident Evil 1 and 2, which were released for the PlayStation back in 1996 and 98, respectively.  Many of the characters from those games make appearances, though they have an awkward habit of calling each other by their full names, so that the fans will know just who from the games the actors are supposed to be.  This bit of clunky dialogue gives a bad notion early on that the movie is all about fan service and little else, and never recovers.

The movie takes place during the course of one night, and tells of how an evil corporation known as Umbrella places the titular Raccoon City into the Zombie Apocalypse.  At the center of all the slouching, groaning zombies are siblings Chris (Robbie Amell) and Claire (Kaya Scodelario), who are estranged after all these years, due to Claire leaving her brother behind years ago.  Claire hitches a ride back into Raccoon City due to the news that the Umbrella Corporation is up to some shady business, and are then separated in the chaos.  The film then takes on a dual plot structure, with Chris exploring a creepy mansion with ties to the Corporation with tactical police officers Jill (Hannah John-Kamen), Richard (Chris Rook) and Albert (Tom Hopper) to look for some missing comrades, while Claire is partnered with rookie cop Leon (Avan Jogia) and walking police movie cliche Chief Brian Irons (Donal Logue), who screams his lines to the point that he comes across as a parody of a Police Chief from an 80s action movie that's been awkwardly inserted into a horror movie.

Fans of the games know these characters and hold advance knowledge, and it's likely that writer-director Roberts does as well, which is why he never bothers to build these characters here into anything memorable or well-written.  I can picture him sitting at his computer as he wrote up the script, dreaming of an audience filled with fans watching his movie, and patting him on the back for including these characters and moments that are a big part of many gamer's nostalgia.  Even someone like me who has had a passing history with the series (I was more of a Silent Hill guy back in the day when it came to Survival Horror.) has some memories that came flooding back when I was watching this.  But, what's the point of being accurate if you're not going to bother to go anywhere interesting, or fail to build to any memorable or frightening images?  

It must be said that the original games, or the more recent remakes that have come out on more modern consoles, have more tension to them than any of the lame and easily telegraphed jump scares that this movie can throw at audiences.  There are some cameos by a few of the fan-favorite monsters here, but much like the human characters, they don't amount to much, and they are brought to life with questionable effects.  Even the plot doesn't strike as hard as it should, as certain important elements such as the T-Virus are not given the weight that they deserve.  This, and many other reasons, help make this Resident Evil out to be nothing more than a mediocre nostalgia trip that respects the source material, but never creates a reason to care beyond that.

I actually think a more accurate film adaptation of the games could be highly successful, but Welcome to Raccoon City misses the mark severely, and simply comes across as a throwback that checks off some fan expectations, but never builds to anything worthwhile.


House of Gucci

There's an excellent 120-minute long movie hidden within the 160-minute long House of Gucci.  Director Ridley Scott has given us an overstuffed movie that is filled with some wonderful performances and moments of brilliance.  With a few more edits, you could easily see this movie being great.  As it stands, it's a movie I can recommend for those performances and those moments, but it also suffers from some tonal shifts and a certain lack of focus.

The movie has been getting a lot of attention for its star turn from Lady Gaga (her first since A Star is Born), and rightly so.  She'll probably get more nominations for her portrayal of Patrizia Reggian, a woman who starts the film off as somewhat of a star-struck innocent, but quickly gets wrapped up in the lavish lifestyle, and turns into a venomous woman who is not below murder to hold onto her lifestyle and status.  Gaga is excellent and commands the screen in every moment, but I also think that not enough attention is being portrayed to some of her male co-stars, including an excellent Adam Driver as her husband, and Al Pacino, who is experiencing a bit of a comeback with The Irishman, and now this.  Oddly, the one performance besides Gaga that is getting notice is the one that seemed a bit off to me, which is Jared Leto, who is unrecognizable as the balding and incompetent Paolo, and gives a rather broad performance here.  It's not bad, and he actually provides some laughs throughout.  It just seems like it belongs in a different movie.

The movie has kind of the same problem.  It doesn't seem to know if it wants to be a camp dark comedy, or a serious look at the real life story of Patrizia's relationship and marriage to Maurizio Gucci (played by Driver).  With a tighter focus and running time, I could see this movie being fully engaging.  As it stands, it's engaging for a majority of it, which is why I recommend it, but it also meanders.  The first hour or so is when the film is its strongest, as it explores the early relationship of the two.  They meet at a party in 1978, and it's an instant attraction, where Patrizia starts following Maurizio, and setting up moments where she "accidentally" bumps into him.  At that time, she works for her father's trucking company, while he is studying to be a lawyer, and doesn't seem interested in following the family business of fashion.

Their romance hits a roadblock due to Maurizio's father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons, effective in a limited role) does not approve of their relationship, and views Patrizia as a gold digger.  However, Maurizio insists on marrying her, and winds up losing his inheritance.  We get some brief scenes where the couple seem truly happy living a fairly simple life together, but they are pulled back into the Gucci fashion empire by Maurizio's Uncle Adolfo (Pacino), who wants Maurizio to take over the business, since he does not trust his idiot son, Paolo (Leto).  This pulls the couple into the glamorous and globe-spanning world of high-end fashion, which Patrizia finds she has a knack for the lifestyle, as well as a ruthless head for business.  This will slowly pull the couple apart, leading to betrayal, a fractured marriage, and ultimately a murder plot.

A tighter focus might have also helped House of Gucci center more squarely on the relationship, since the movie seems to be taking too broad of a focus at times.  As it stands, there are a number of great scenes between Gaga and Driver, especially as we are seeing their relationship and love build.  What is slightly less strong is how the screenplay handles their downward spiral.  It seems like it covers the broad details (he got tired of her controlling and demanding ways, and started cheating on her), but it doesn't really get close enough for us to get involved with how things fell apart.  Instead of zeroing in on the couple's fractured love like it should, the script casts its net broadly, with details about a possible takeover of the company, having to deal with counterfeit Gucci goods being sold on street corners, and corporate backstabbing.  I can understand why these things were included, but it also distracts a little, and maybe could have been tightened so that it doesn't hijack the movie.

What we wind up getting is a movie that largely works, but also could have been a lot better if Scott wasn't trying to cover so much, and if he found a more consistent tone to work with.  There's probably a great dark comedy to be made from this material, and there are definitely moments that seem to be hinting at that.  But, the movie also seems to be confused whether it wants us to laugh at it, or to take it seriously, so it tries different approaches.  This is most notable whenever Jared Leto is on the screen, but there are other moments that don't quite fit.  This is also a movie that kind of drowns itself in details of the time period or the story it's trying to tell, leading to moments that drag now and then.  The movie is always able to correct itself and become engaging again, but with a leaner running time, it probably would not have been such a huge problem.

House of Gucci
tells a compelling true-crime story, but it gets sidetracked too much to be labeled as a great movie, or to be seen as one of Scott's stronger films.  And yet, it's filled with so many great performances and individual moments of brilliance that it really should be seen.  This is a movie that works, but constantly seems to be on the verge of truly breaking out and being great.


Thursday, November 25, 2021

8-Bit Christmas

Michael Dowse's 8-Bit Christmas borrows more than a little from Bob Clark's A Christmas Story from 1983, but it knows just what to borrow, and earns a few genuine big laughs to go with the nostalgia.  The nostalgia this time stems from the late 80s (1988, to be specific), and a young boy's quest to obtain what every red-blooded young boy at the time wanted, a Nintendo Entertainment System.

The screenplay by Kevin Jakubowski (adapting from his own novel) wisely mixes the throwbacks of the era his story is set in (roller rinks, G.I. Joe walkie talkies, and Cabbage Patch Kid mania) with genuine heart and humor, making for an experience that is easy to enjoy, even if it's not all that original.  It gets a few of the period details mixed up here and there, but I don't think those who were children at the time will object to much here.  Besides, it gets a lot of details right, such as driving with the family to the big city mall for the day for Christmas shopping, and the kids mostly get to act like genuine kids here.  They're not written as wise-cracking mini-adults, and they don't rely on vulgarity or shock humor so the film can be edgy.  Sure, we get a projectile vomit joke late in the film, but I was quite impressed with how much the film got right overall.  You can tell that the filmmakers lived through this time period, and have a genuine affection for it.

The hero of this story is 11-year-old Jake Doyle (Winslow Fegley), who dreams of owning his own Nintendo.  At the moment, the only person in his neighborhood who has one is the obnoxious rich kid, and Jake and his friends are stuck having to hope they will get the chance to watch him play it from afar.  With the holidays approaching, young Jake starts dropping hints to his overworked mom (June Diane Raphael) and hard-headed dad (Steve Zahn) that he wants one of his own.  Unfortunately, the world seems to be against Jake getting a Nintendo.  Due to a recent incident at the rich kid's house, the neighborhood parents are now convinced that video games lead to violent acts, and are now forbidding their kids from getting one.  A wreath-selling contest in Jake's Boy Scout group is offering a Nintendo as the top prize, which seems to be his best opportunity.  However, he will have to deal with bratty little sisters, a school bully who looks like the only kid in Elementary School who shaves, and other humiliations to obtain his goal.

This story is told through the eyes of the adult Jake (portrayed by Neil Patrick Harris), relating the tale to his preteen daughter.  His narration could have been lifted from out of A Christmas Story, which as noted is the obvious inspiration here.  Some of the situations and characters seem to be taken directly from that film, though not enough that it feels like a cut and paste job, only updating the time period.  Besides, 8-Bit Christmas adds enough to make it stand out, such as giving us a wide range of kids who are instantly recognizable.  There's the weird kid nobody really gets, the pathological liar who is always making stuff up to seem cooler than he really is, the brainy overachiever, and the kid whose parents let them watch R-rated films.  While I wouldn't call any of these kids fleshed out, they're still given qualities that I recognized from kids I grew up with.  They're not over the top caricatures, but seem to come from an honest place in the writer's memory.  Plus, the movie hits on some of the genuine fears of childhood at the time.  What kid who had a retainer in their mouth back in the day didn't dread of losing it?

Even if a lot of it is familiar, the film doesn't play up the nostalgia to the level that it feels like it's talking down to the audience.  And while some details might be off (Did any kid back in the day have a poster of the failed Mad Magazine movie, Up the Academy, on their wall?), a lot of the notes it does hit feel right.  The movie also adds some genuine heart to its final moments that I will not reveal here, but again, seem to come from a genuine place within the writer, rather than forced audience manipulation.  Ultimately, this is not just a movie selling itself on the past, as I initially feared.  It wants to tell a genuine story, and the characters here are honest enough that I was on board.  It's obvious that there were some limitations to the license the filmmakers could get here (only two actual Nintendo games from the era, Paperboy and Rampage, are depicted), but they work around it well enough.

For someone like me who actually collects vintage Nintendo, it's nice to have a movie representing the time period that's not the 1989 guilty pleasure The Wizard8-Bit Christmas is genuinely entertaining, heartfelt, and funny.  In other words, everything that the Fred Savage movie from over 30 years ago is not.


Wednesday, November 24, 2021


is a brilliantly drawn and heartwarming animated feature with memorable visual style, an appealing lead heroine, and a slew of new songs by Lin Manuel-Miranda who, considering this is his fourth film project to hit screens in less than six months, easily takes the title as the hardest working man in show business.   

This is a surprisingly meaningful family film that deals with overcoming personal tragedies and finding your place in your own family.  It's also fairly grounded, considering its central characters live in a magical house, and almost the entire family have been gifted with some kind of super human ability, which range from superior brute strength, controlling the weather, super hearing, or the ability to communicate with animals.  Despite the supernatural trappings, this is not a story about heroics, and there's not even a villain here.  It's also one of the few major animated features to not rely on star voice actors to draw in audiences.  It's simply a story about a very special family that, despite their unique abilities, I think a lot of audiences will be able to relate to.

Set in an isolated village in the mountains of Columbia, the movie introduces us to the Madrigal family, who were gifted with extraordinary powers through the discovery of a magic candle.  When a member of the family comes of age, he or she goes through a ceremony where they discover what their special gift is, and then they devote their lives to using that gift to help the locals live happily with whatever they might need.  It is the teenage Madrigal daughter Mirabel (voiced by an endearing Stephanie Beatriz) who introduces the audience to her many gifted siblings, parents, and grandparents in the film's opening number.  It is through this that we also learn that Mirabel is the only one in the family who has never grown into any powers, which obviously makes her feel like an outsider in her own home, though she does her best to try to hide her feelings.

Mirabel hides her feelings by trying to help out around the house as much as she can, but her usefulness can only go so far when everyone around her can shape-shift or bloom flowers on command.  Even the house she lives in is alive with magic, and seems to do a pretty good job of running itself.  It is the house that actually kicks off the plot of the film, as Mirabel happens to notice cracks appearing in its walls and floors.  She tries to tell the family matriarch, Abuela Alma (Maria Cecilia Botero), about her worries, but she is brushed off.  Regardless, Mirabel knows that her family and magical home are in danger, and when some of her siblings begin to lose their magical powers, Mirabel ends up being the only one who can take on a quest to track down family outcast Bruno (John Leguizamo), who had the ability to see the future, predicted a disaster was coming, and has gone into hiding since.

Directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard (Zootopia) really emphasize the family dynamic here, as it is what drives the entire film.  Mirabel goes out of her way for her family, because she doesn't want to be seen as inferior to any of them.  And yet, as the film goes on, we learn that some of the other Madrigal family have their own issues, despite how it seems like they have everything together with their powers.  In one of the film's more memorable musical numbers, her super strong older sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow) reveals that with everyone in the village so dependent on her strength and abilities, she often feels like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders.  It is something Mirabel has probably never thought about before, and it adds a new level to their relationship.  Through her quest to find out what is happening to her home and family, she learns that her family is not as perfect as it seems, and that they feel great weight and responsibility to everyone around them.

This is the strongest aspect of Encanto, as the actual search for answers to the mystery of why the magic is fading is never quite as engaging as the characters or the themes that it covers.  Luckily, the filmmakers seem to have realized this, so the emphasis here is on the family interaction, and bringing us into this film's world.  Even if the main plot is never quite as engaging as it should be, the movie is still tremendously entertaining with its look, and especially its main character.  With her huge glasses, wide smile, and beautiful spirit, Mirabel is an instantly likable young heroine that almost immediately gains the audience's support, and this is only helped by Beatriz's line readings.  Her emotional journey of learning her true importance within the Madrigal family is strong, and rightfully remains the core.

Here is a visually beautiful film that is able to dig deep into its themes of how the people around us who might seem to have everything figured out are really battling their own pain, and might need us more than we think.  It's a valuable lesson, and one that is expressed wonderfully.  Encanto ends up being the rare family film that respects the intelligence of both the kids and adults in the audience, and that is definitely something to celebrate.


Sunday, November 21, 2021

King Richard

King Richard
proves one of my strongest held beliefs when it comes to movies - That a film doesn't have to be overflowing with originality in order to work, it just needs the right combination of strong performances, characters we can feel for, and a script that is worthy of telling the story.  Director Reinaldo Marcus Green, working with a script provided by Zach Braylin, does very little to shake up the sports underdog formula here, but does so with genuine emotion, humor, and a transformative performance by Will Smith, as the father of future tennis pros, Venus and Serena Williams.

Given that Smith is one of the more notable and recognized stars working in Hollywood, it's very hard to make the audience forget that we are watching him up on the screen.  And yet, Smith is able to completely disappear into the role of Richard Williams, who serves not only as the girls' father, but also their mentor in the sport and in life in general.  According to reports, Smith was initially to go under heavy make up to make himself look closer to the real life figure, but the director decided against it, and it was a wise decision.  Instead, Smith disappears into the performance physically.  He walks gingerly, as if he is constantly dealing with aching feet, and he always seems a little hunched over.  Richard explains at various points that he's taken plenty of beatings in his life, both physically and emotionally, and Smith is able to sell this just by how he carries himself.

The story begins in the early 90s in Compton, when the two future tennis stars are still not yet into their teens, and Richard is trying to run a tightly knit house with his devoted wife Oracene “Brandy” Williams (Aunjanue Ellis), and three other daughters.  In Richard's house, there is always a lesson to be learned from just about any experience.  After showing his girls a video tape of the Disney animated film Cinderella, he stresses to them that the movie shows how the heroine was humble throughout, and that they should strive to be the same.  For young Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), life is all about schoolwork, and practicing the game that they both love.  Richard has constructed what he feels is an air-tight plan for their future, and he refuses to deviate from it.

Naturally, Richard is met with a large degree of skepticism outside of his home.  None of the major tennis coaches quite buy his claims that he has the "next two Michael Jordans of tennis" living under his roof.  Not only does he have to deal with the skeptical and largely white figures of the sport that he wants to break his daughters into, but he also has to deal with other challenges, such as the local street gangs that are always trying to lure his five daughters into their lifestyle, or a neighbor across the street who judges Richard from afar, and thinks that he is working his girls too hard, and is afraid for them to the point that she calls the police to investigate their home life.  Eventually, Richard is able to convince real life tennis coaches Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), and eventually Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), to take on his two daughters and lead them into the world of professional tennis.

One of the more interesting aspects of King Richard is how Richard's viewpoints and overall plan for Venus and Serena often clashes with those of the men who coach them at different points in the film.  His relationship with Macci, in particular, is one that seems to be built out of genuine friendship and at times madness.  Macci pays to bring the whole family to Orlando where they can live in a beautiful home near his coaching facility, and yet, Richard remains headstrong at times, and will not listen to what others say is best for his girls.  Only he knows what is best.  While the portrayal of Richard has been whitewashed somewhat (as is to be expected), the script still is able to show us that he can be stubborn and hard to deal with.  Richard feels he has to be in order to get what he wants for the girls, but is it really about them, or is it just what he wants?  There's a wonderfully acted scene where Oracene confronts Richard about just this, and that they are her girls as well as his.  

Even better is that even though we know how the story ends when we're walking in, it is still able to create a form of tension and genuine involvement in the audience.  We are instantly captivated by Smith's portrayal, but then the film digs deeper, and gives all the major characters a chance to stand out.  There are the big scenes I've already talked about that display Richard's complex relationship with his family and the girls' eventual coach, but there are also the small moments where Richard seems so close to giving up on everything and shows that even he is struggling.  There's a powerful moment where Richard almost makes a fatal mistake concerning a young gang member who is constantly harassing him and his daughters while they practice, and how he is snapped back to reality.  There is no dialogue in this scene, but Smith portrays every emotion beautifully.

King Richard
is a bit overlong at nearly two and a half hours, and there are a few heavy handed moments here and there, but for the most part, this is an excellent and uplifting film that captivates with its power, warmth and moments of humor throughout.  Despite the fact that it was made with the full cooperation of the Williams family, it never feels like it is glorifying the family.  It is an honest portrayal of the strength that Richard, Venus and Serena have that brought them to where they are today.


Friday, November 19, 2021

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Ghostbusters: Afterlife
has been made by people who don't just view the 1984 original movie as a classic, but apparently as Holy Scripture.  It has such a sense of reverence for the past, you can almost hear the filmmakers going "oooh" and "aaah" when the movie gives us its first glimpses of throwbacks such as the Ecto 1 car, the Proton Packs, or how the movie score heavily samples from the original by the late, great Elmer Bernstein.  This is a movie with its heart on its sleeve, and a respect for the original that borders on worship.  What it never gets close to achieving is creating a sense that we are watching anything new.

The film is directed and co-written by Jason Reitman, son of Ivan Reitman, who directed the first two Ghostbusters movies in 84 and 89, respectively.  Heck, Jason even has some personal history with the earlier films, as he appeared briefly as one of the kids in the birthday party scene at the beginning of the second one.  Apparently, Ivan Reitman has wanted to do a "passing of the torch" film to a new generation of heroes since the 90s, but various things (the lack of a script everyone could agree with, studio politics, and Bill Murray wanting nothing to do with it for the longest time) kept the idea at bay.  Then there was the reboot back in 2016 which, despite practically burning down the Internet with the controversy it created, no one really remembers today.  So now, the job has fallen into the hands of Jason Reitman to give the return to the original franchise that fans have seemingly spent decades asking for, and he apparently saw this not just as a job, but a Higher Calling of sorts.

The director has gone on the record saying that this is the ultimate Easter Egg movie, and fans can expect to see a large number of references and call backs to the original.  Oddly enough, the movie seems to be pretending that Ghostbusters II never even happened, aside from a scene set in a bookstore that fans will recognize from that one.  Regardless, you can't blame the guy for false advertising, as this is essentially a visual love letter to the universe his father helped create over 35 years ago  The movie has a warm, retro feel, but in some strange way, it sort of seems to be the wrong kind of retro feel.  Rather than emulating the tone of the original movie, he seems to be drawing most of his inspiration here from Steven Spielberg films of the same era.   The movie follows a group of kids, two of whom have a personal connection to the past, who get roped into having to save their town, and eventually the world, from the return Gozer the Gozerian, whom the original Ghostbusters seemingly defeated back in 1984.

This is fine, save for the kids have been given no personality whatsoever, and basically contain a single character trait to set them apart.  Phoebe (McKenna Grace), the unofficial leader of the junior heroes, is a nerdy outcast with a love for physics, science and bad jokes.  Her brother, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), is mechanically skilled, and fixes the beat up old Ghostbuster car when he uncovers it.  Lucky (Celeste O'Connor) is a pretty girl who works at the local diner, and is the daughter of the local Sheriff.  She seems to be Trevor's love interest, but the screenplay forgets to give them any meaningful dialogue or scenes together.  Finally, there is Phoebe's classmate Podcast (Logan Kim), who yes, hosts a podcast about the paranormal and the unexplained.  It's bad enough for a script to name one of its main characters after their sole character trait, but to give them no other defining feature or quality borders on a kind of laziness unheard of, even in blockbuster event movies.

Rather than flesh out its new heroes into characters we would love to see in continuing adventures, Ghostbusters: Afterlife instead drops them into the exact same plot from 1984.  Gozer is coming, there's an appearance by the Marshmallow Man, who now appears as tiny little replicas who talk and act like the touring road show version of the Minions from the Despicable Me movies, nobody believes the kids talking about ghosts and they wind up in jail, the Gatekeeper and Keymaster must find human hosts so that Gozer may return, and find them in the form of Phoebe and Trevor's mom (Carrie Coon) and Phoebe's dorky science teacher (Paul Rudd), and there's a big apocalyptic showdown.  The movie recycles the exact same ideas, images, and themes as before, and if that fails to dig up the nostalgia, the characters will sometimes watch clips of the original movie on YouTube.  

Maybe this wouldn't matter so much if what little new here was interesting, but much like the kids, the adults basically have been written as simply as possible, so as not to get in the way of adding more callbacks to the first one.  The two main adults, the mom and the teacher, are given such simplistic characteristics as to be laughable.  The mom is so uninvolved in the lives of her two kids that she may as well not be there for most of the movie, save to sarcastically flirt with the teacher from time to time.  As for the teacher, he is revealed to be a huge buff of the original Ghostbusters team, and recognizes their equipment when Phoebe initially digs it up from the hidden room under the house they have moved in.  The movie seems to be building him up to be a mentor of sorts to Phoebe, until he too disappears, until it's time for him to fill the exact same role Rick Moranis did in 1984.  He also doesn't actually teach his class, and instead shows them old horror movies from the 80s like Cujo and Child's Play.  Why?   Just more nostalgia, I guess.

I have nothing against how Ghostbusters: Afterlife pays immense respect to the original, but you also have to give the audience a sense that you're giving them something new, and I never got that feeling here.  This gives the movie an odd tone that feels warm and nostalgic, yet strangely mechanical at the exact same time.  Jason Reitman has clearly honored the work of his father, but he has given us nothing to grasp or look forward to.  Reitman seems to be chasing his own personal ghosts, and while he digs up some nice memories, he forgets to give us a reason to care about the now.


Saturday, November 13, 2021

Clifford the Big Red Dog

The most amazing sight in Clifford the Big Red Dog is not Clifford himself, who is brought to life by high-tech CG, and mixes surprisingly well with his human co-stars.  Rather, it's the fact that John Cleese, Monty Python member and one of the original bad boys of British comedy, has reached the point in his career where he can play Mr. Bridwell, the magical and grandfatherly man with a constant twinkle in his eye and a tender spirit.  Years of associating him with his material on Fawlty Towers did not prepare me for that, but he makes the transition to whimsical old man without missing a step.

The movie, based on the beloved children's book series by Norman Bridwell (whom Cleese's character is named after), is a sweet and effective movie that kids are bound to love, and adults will smile a lot at.  It makes the wise decision of not giving Clifford the ability to speak, and to act like a normal dog, despite the fact that he's as red as a fire truck, and about the size of one as well.  It's the kind of sweet and pleasant movie where we never really question why Clifford seemingly grows from a puppy no bigger than a little girl's house slippers, to his massive size overnight.  The movie is also wise enough not to explain this.  The only answer we get is the size of the dog is determined by how much you love him.  That's good enough for me.

The story, as expected, is a simple fable that's told in a simple fashion.  A lonely 12-year-old girl named Emily (Darby Camp) is stuck living with her slobbish Uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall) while her mother (Sienna Guillory) is away on a business trip.  The movie races through introducing us to the people in Emily's life, such as the mean girls at school who tease her, and the colorful inhabitants of her apartment building, who of course will all play a part in the madcap adventures to come.  One day, Emily visits an animal rescue tent, where she meets the previously mentioned Mr. Bridwell, who entices her with a strange red puppy that she instantly falls in love with.  She has to leave the dog behind to go to school, but the pup sneaks away in her backpack.  She names him Clifford, and while lying in bed that night, she makes a "magical wish" that the scrawny puppy could be big and strong.

The next morning, Clifford is now big enough to fill almost her entire room, something that she comes to accept quite quickly under the circumstances.  Emily and Uncle Casey make some vain efforts to hide Clifford's presence, but the dog naturally gets out in public, and becomes a viral sensation, which catches the eye of the evil Zack (Tony Hale), the head of a genetics lab who wants to experiment on Clifford.  Of course, a movie like this does not need a villain, and he exists only so there can be some chase scenes where little Emily rides on the back of the massive dog through New York City.  Once again, the movie plays it smart by not playing up the villain or the action too much, and it never strays from the heart of the story too often.  Yes, we do get the unavoidable sights of Clifford drinking from a toilet or lifting his leg on a tree, but those come with the kid's movie territory.

Clifford the Big Red Dog is largely not about the crude humor, nor does it try to be modern or edgy.  It's a sweet storybook of a film that believes that a friendship between a little girl and a massive puppy can bring people together and even create miracles.  Either you buy it, or you don't.  I was able to surprisingly easily.  A lot of this has to do with Clifford himself, and how the special effects artists have managed to bring him to life without making him terrifying or too real looking to be creepy.  The only time the effects don't work is when one of the human actors is riding on top of him, but this doesn't happen very often.  The rest of the time, he works, and because he works, so does the movie.  It's really that simple.  I think that director Walt Becker found the right angle here, and emphasizes the wonder of the story.

Cynics will likely love to hate this, but sometimes we need movies about magical old men who help lonely little girls find the friend they need with a magic dog.  When you think of how many ways this movie could have gone wrong, it's kind of surprising how many the filmmakers found to make it work.


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