Reel Opinions


Friday, December 31, 2021

The 15th Annual Reel Stinkers Awards

After a short hiatus in 2020, the Reel Stinkers Awards are back to highlight the low lights of cinema in the past year!

It's New Year's Eve.  And as the clock ticks down the final moments of 2021, and everybody gets to look to the year ahead, I get to go back in time, and look at the movies that stole my money and my time the past year.

Yes, it's time once again for the Reel Stinkers Awards.  A time when I get to "honor" the worst of the worst that I sat through.  As you all know, bad movies come in all forms.  We've got blockbuster bombs, comedies with no laughs, thrillers that couldn't startle a mouse, unnecessary sequels, star vanity projects that went horribly wrong, and so much more!  I try to pick through the garbage, and find the really big stinkers.  Sure, I could easily make an entire list of cheap exploitation and low budget horror films, but where would the fun in that be?  I want to look back on the films that were big, or at least supposed to be big, and featured big talent, but still managed to fail.

As always, my "Best of the Year" article will likely come around February or so, as there are some late year releases still stuck in limited release at the moment, and will go wider during January and February.  I want to see and review as many of them as I can, so I always hold off on my Best list until then.

So, with all that out of the way, it's time to carve some cinematic turkeys!  Here's hoping that you didn't waste your money and time on them, and let us also hope that everyone involved with them will get to work on a good movie in 2022!

And now, I'm proud to give you...

 

THE 10 WORST FILMS OF 2021:

 


10. TOM & JERRY -
Though I highly doubt the demand for a live action/animated hybrid featuring the famous cat and mouse duo was very huge, it was apparently heard by someone at Warner Bros. who seemingly tracked down an old romantic comedy script they had lying around, and then awkwardly inserted some Tom and Jerry antics into it.   This movie ends up being a bizarre mix of bland cartoon-style slapstick that tries, and mostly fails, to recreate some of the classic gags as Tom the Cat and Jerry the Mouse chase one another through a luxury Manhattan hotel, and an even more bland story about a young woman trying to con her way into a job at said hotel, which requires her to pull off an elaborate wedding for a power couple.  Needless to say, these elements don't quite mix, and the movie never comes to life in the roughly 100 minutes that it runs.  I understand that you need a lot of human characters and plot to fill up an entire movie to go with the cartoon fights and gags.  But why make the human elements so aggressively forgettable?  Have anyone who watches this film take a quiz about what happened and who these people are 24 hours after watching it, and they're sure to flunk.  Tom & Jerry would be bizarre if it weren't so boring. 


09. COMING 2 AMERICA -
There are sequels that exist to continue a film's story, and there are also sequels that exist to repeat the same successful formula as before.  And then there are sequels like Coming 2 America, which largely play on the nostalgia audiences hold for the 1988 original, and repeat the same ideas and gags, only in a different setting.  You know a movie is lazy when it feels like roughly 40% of the jokes are taken directly from the original script, and they seem fresher than the new jokes that it attempts.  You know a movie is really lazy when it resorts to showing you clips from the first movie in different scenes.  And you know a movie has completely given up when you give two characters an entire conversation about Hollywood sequels, and how lame it is that they just repeat a successful formula from years ago.  All of this is at the service of a script that repeats the same "fish out of water" romantic comedy story as the first, only with no heart or inspiration.  All of this simply rams two points home.  1:) The writers were grasping at straws to play up on any nostalgia whatsoever, and 2:) The original probably didn't need a follow up in the first place.  It was a perfectly self-contained movie that left no lingering questions unanswered.  This is a sequel that never bothers to answer why it needed to be made in the first place, outside of corporate greed.


08. THE ADDAMS FAMILY 2 -
2019's animated take on The Addams Family was a huge disappointment for a lifelong fan of the characters such as myself, as the film was fairly generic and dull, and lacked any of the classic macabre humor from the previous attempts to bring Charles Addams' cartoons to life.  The Addams Family 2 does have a stronger mean spirit behind it, and most of the strong original cast is back for more.  But due to a meandering and unfocused plot, and a lot of lame gags, there's very little to recommend here, and even less worth watching.  There is just this overall aimless quality to the film that made its fairly brief 93 minute running time feel a lot longer.  Nearly every joke here doesn't work, there's a horribly blatant and nauseating product placement shot thrown into the movie for no reason other than corporate greed, and it once again misuses a phenomenal cast that includes the likes of Chloe Grace Moretz, Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Nick Kroll, Bette Midler, Bill Hader, and Wallace Shawn.  There is a hollowness to The Addams Family 2 that is simply inexcusable.  The line readings don't land, the jokes don't hit, and while I admire that the character designs seem to be somewhat inspired by the original cartoons, the animation is nothing to get excited about.  While I wasn't a fan of the 2019 film, it at least seemed to be going somewhere.  There have been attempts to bring these characters to life in the past that have failed, but due to the incredibly talented voice cast that this movie somehow managed to attract, this one feels more heinous than others.  This is a shallow and stupid experience that does a great discredit to the Addams name.


07. HITMAN'S WIFE'S BODYGUARD - 
If 2017's The Hitman's Bodyguard was an affectionate and funny tribute to mismatched buddy action comedies of the 80s and early 90s, then the awkwardly-titled Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard (Yes, there's no "The" in the title.) is an all too modern day cash-in where the original made a lot of money, and the original director, writer, and main cast have returned for the encore, but are embarrassed to discover that they have nothing to say or do for their unexpected and obviously unplanned follow up.  The first movie mainly worked on the dynamic chemistry that Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson and Selma Hayek shared together.  Here they are once again, only they've been plugged into a generic plot that no one in the audience could ever care about, and the connection these actors had with each other and to their characters is now completely absent.  Antonio Banderas is here too in the villain role, as is Morgan Freeman in an extended cameo, but they're given little if anything to do as well.  So, what are we left with?  A bunch of over the top action that is hyper edited and too fast for the mind to sometimes comprehend what is going on, and jokes that simply don't land like before.  The movie throws in one endless and unmemorable action sequence after another, while it blasts old pop music on the soundtrack, but it's all a lot of sound and fury.  What the movie never does is give us a reason to be engaged or entertained.  This is a movie where you simply watch in silent puzzlement.  What did the filmmakers think they were making here?  Was this really the best script they could come up with?  Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard gives you a bad feeling from the title, and only gets worse from there.


06.  CRY MACHO -
  Clint Eastwood has directed and starred in some great movies.  This time, however, he has decided to direct and star in Cry Macho.  This is a movie that goes beyond merely being slow and plodding, and simply becomes lifeless, inert, and dead in the water as it goes on.  There are moments where the film resembles an experiment to see just how lethargic and uninteresting a movie can be before the audience gives up hope.  How could Eastwood, who is responsible for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, be behind this?  Cry Macho is a screenplay that's been floating around Hollywood since the 70s, and has almost been made numerous times with a variety of stars ranging from Roy Scheider, Burt Lancaster, to even Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead.  From the evidence of the film I watched, I have no idea why so many people were desperate to make this.  It has absolutely no impact, no dramatic angle, and what little amount of character building there is to be had is so shallow as to be non-existent.  I was never involved in any way, shape or form.  Every emotion and scene is spelled out as if the movie somehow thinks the audience can't figure it out.  The movie simply drags its feet for 105 minutes, supplying nothing to the audience.  It's like sitting on a long bus ride through uninteresting scenery, and you're stuck sitting next to a snoring old man, only this time, that man just happens to be Clint Eastwood.  The movie has the dry, lifeless tone of a barren desert with the sun beating down on you.  You just want to pack up and go home long before the experience is over.


05.  THE UNFORGIVABLE -
  I can understand why Sandra Bullock wanted to do a project that allowed her to play against type, but she should have kept on looking when the script for The Unforgivable came across her desk.  This is a heavy-handed sad sack of a melodrama that suffers from contrived storytelling, some confusing editing and casting decisions, and an overall indifference to some of the potentially challenging themes its story brings up, choosing instead to just wallow in misery.  The film is based on a British TV miniseries from 2009, and apparently Hollywood has been trying to get a cinematic remake off the ground for years.  I can see how the story here could work in a serialized format expanded over multiple episodes, but in a movie that runs just under two hours, it feels incredibly dense and unsatisfying.  The film touches on a lot of sensitive subjects, such as redemption, how former criminals are treated in society, how the desire for revenge can ruin us, and even a jealous love triangle.  But due to the unsatisfying and rushed narrative, the movie never really gets to explore these ideas in any depth, and simply tosses them in the script for cheap sentiment or plot convenience.  A movie that honestly shows the hardships those who have served lengthy prison sentences have in returning to society would be honestly compelling, but this doesn't want to be that movie.  It wants to be exploitative, and use its ideas for the purpose of cheap thrills.  Rather than truly explore the pain and anguish these various characters are feeling, it plugs them into a "feel bad" story where all we can do is watch them be miserable, and make terrible decisions that will potentially lead to tragedy for everyone involved.  You can easily see how with a different script and approach, The Unforgivable could have been a masterful and hard-hitting drama.  Unfortunately, the movie is way too simplistic to make much of an impression.  Instead of truly exploring its subject matter, it takes the easy and commercial route of manipulation, rather than genuine emotion.


04.  DEAR EVAN HANSEN -
It pains me to place this on this list, as I am a big fan of the original stage musical, which I've seen twice. (Once with the original Broadway cast, and again with a touring company in Chicago.)  The film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen is an example of something that works beautifully on the stage, but never quite connects on the big screen.  There's just something curiously flat about this film, and I think a lot of elements contribute to it.  The direction by Stephen Chbosky (Wonder) is lifeless, as are the musical sequences, which aside from a few select instances, are usually filmed by simply showing the actors just standing around not doing anything.  This is a powerful story that's been flatly told on the big screen by a cast that is sometimes giving it their all, and in other cases, seem a bit adrift.  This is despite the film's casting of the original Broadway star, Ben Platt, in the title role.  Platt, who turned 28 on the day the film was released, looks a bit awkward blown up on the big screen playing the 17-year-old Evan Hansen. His make up that tries to make him look younger and Platt's presence up on the screen is more awkward than how he came across on the stage nearly five years ago.  There is just something off about the film in general, and it's frustrating, especially for those who know the power that it holds on the stage.


03.  F9: THE FAST SAGA -
  I know the appeal of a movie like F9 is to just check your brain at the door, and escape into the over the top action and car-based mayhem.  But, there comes a point when a summer blockbuster asks me to check too much of my brain, and I start fighting back.  This happened early on in the film, and as it got intentionally dumber with each passing minute, I began to think that a total abandonment of any kind of coherent thought would be the only way I could take pleasure from it.  The Fast and the Furious franchise (which started out as a movie about illegal street racing back in 2001) has morphed into something that resembles James Bond if the super spy were dreamed up by a hyperactive idiot.  The increasingly convoluted plot now makes a regular habit out of bringing characters back from the dead, shocking revelations on a routine basis, forced flashbacks and backstories for the main characters that feel like they're crammed into the narrative, and stunts so preposterous that there's no way we can believe that they are actually happening.  Even judging this film as a live-action cartoon does not help, because I just did not believe a single second of this.  Not one frame is plausible, not one stunt (vehicle or human) looks like it was performed physically, and by the time the characters are literally launching themselves past Earth's orbit and firing automatic weapons at each other in broad daylight in public spaces without anyone noticing for the climax, I had long stopped caring, because I knew the movie simply didn't care either.  It just wants to throw a lot of big, stupid stuff at us.  Why is any of this thrilling?  That's a question the filmmakers never get to answering.  


02.  HOME SWEET HOME ALONE -
This is a confused, mean-spirited, sloppy, and downright idiotic Christmas comedy that not only tries and fails to combine the sentimentality and cartoon slapstick violence of the John Hughes-penned original, but it also tries to look at the story from both the point of view of the kid stuck home alone, and the adults trying to break into his house.  The twist that Director Dan Mazer (Dirty Grandpa) and his screenwriters throw in this time is that the burglars are really not bad people.  They're a married couple named Jeff (Rob Delaney) and Pam McKenzie (Ellie Kemper), who have been hit with hard times, and may be forced to sell their beloved home in order to make ends meet.  Home Sweet Home Alone bends over backwards to try to look at things from the point of view of the McKenzies, and emphasizes that they really are not bad people, but desperate.  Then it devotes a good 20 minutes or so to it's young hero setting them on fire, shooting them with pool balls, giving them multiple concussions, and slamming them with weight equipment.  The tonal misguidance here couldn't be more obvious.  You have a struggling couple being comically beaten by a self-entitled little brat from a wealthy background.  The fact that not once does the kid ever come across as likable or even sorry for his actions, even when things are eventually explained to him, is the least of the film's problems.  Despite having some talented actors in the cast, nobody gets to stand out, or create a believable emotion.  There are no laughs, and no real moments of heart or empathy.  Instead, the filmmakers have decided to throw a lot of "tributes" to the first movie.  Home Sweet Home Alone is one of the most misguided attempts at comedy of this year, and possibly previous years.


01.  SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY -
Here is a movie that starts out like it wants to be about something, until it eventually devolves into a shapeless and indistinguishable blob of special effects, and references to as many movies and TV show properties that the filmmakers could think of to squeeze into the background.  It may be a soulless corporate product, but hey, it has a father-son message, so that means it has a point.  Kind of.  Sort of.  Maybe.  And no, I am not forgetting that the original Space Jam from 1996 was just as much of a corporate monstrosity as the follow up.  This is as soulless a corporate cash grab that has ever been produced, and that's even before the sight gag where a Toon version of basketball star Lebron James crashes through the ground, and leaves a mark in the shape of the Nike symbol.  The plot makes no sense, and would be insane if the movie ever slowed down long enough for us to take it all in.  But it never stops for a single second, and just keeps on throwing nods, references, and special effects to the point that I almost want to take back some of the things I have said about other failed blockbusters in the past.  This Space Jam is a literal assault on the senses, and I felt like it was constantly hitting me over the head with post-production work that I'm sure was very expensive and took a lot of time for the artists to make, but is literally meaningless, because absolutely nothing gets to resonate here.  There are no characters, no real motivations, and nothing that resembles a coherent plot in the nearly two hours of the film.  I simply didn't know how the filmmakers expected me to respond to this.  It's a total bombardment that never comes close to establishing a tone or a goal.  

 

Well, that covers the Top 10, but I am far from finished.  It's time to cover the Dishonorable Mentions, the films that were bad, but not quite bad enough to break into the top spots.  Don't let that fool you into thinking these movies are somehow better than what's come before, however.  You should avoid any and all movies that appear on this list.  With that said, let's roll out the next batch of stinkers!

 

DISHONORABLE MENTIONS:

Mortal Kombat, Spiral, Spirit Untamed, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, Respect, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, A Journal for Jordan 

 

INDIVIDUAL REEL STINKERS AWARDS:


WORST SEQUEL:

Home Sweet Home Alone


MOST UNNECESSARY SEQUEL:

Space Jam: A New Legacy


WORST MOVIE TREND OF 2021:

Uninspired nostalgia trips like Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Home Sweet Home Alone, Space Jam: A New Legacy, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, and Mortal Kombat


WORST PERFORMANCE BY AN A-LIST ACTOR/ACTRESS:

Charlize Theron in F9: The Fast Saga


WORST OVERALL PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR/ACTRESS:

Lebron James in Space Jam: A New Legacy


WORST IDEA FOR A MOVIE THAT NEVER COULD HAVE WORKED:

Home Sweet Home Alone


REPEAT OFFENDERS (ACTORS WHO APPEARED IN MORE THAN ONE STINKER IN 2021):

Samuel L. Jackson in Spiral and Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard

Morgan Freeman in Coming 2 America and Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard

Chloe Grace Moretz in Tom & Jerry and The Addams Family 2

Charlize Theron in F9: The Fast Saga and The Addams Family 2

Rob Delaney in Tom & Jerry and Home Sweet Home Alone

 

WORST ON-SCREEN TEAM:

Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson in Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard

 

STUDIO THAT RELEASED THE MOST STINKERS IN 2021:

Warner Bros. for Tom & Jerry, Mortal Kombat, Space Jam: A New Legacy, and Cry Macho 

 

Well, that's the worst of 2021 in a nutshell.  Time to look ahead to 2022, and hope for the best.  Have a wonderful and safe new year, everybody!



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Thursday, December 30, 2021

Don't Look Up


In assembling his apocalyptic comedy-drama, Don't Look Up, writer-director Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice) has put together the kind of cast that most films would kill for.  With a who's-who of talent including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Cate Blanchett, Mark Rylance, Timothee Chalomet, Ron Perlman, and Ariana Grande, it's no wonder that Netflix is mainly advertising the cast that's been included here.  

When watching a movie, the late, great Gene Siskel was famous for asking, "Is this movie better than a documentary of the same stars having lunch together?".  That was always his response as to whether or not a film was working, and it makes sense.  Are the characters up on the screen that these actors are playing more interesting than it would be to watch these actors as they truly are off the camera having lunch and normal conversations with each other?  In the case of Don't Look Up, I think the film fails that basic question for a simple reason.  The characters that McKay have given these actors in his script simply don't live up to the talent.  This is a an obvious and heavy-handed satire that misses the mark more than it hits, and seems to make the same point repeatedly, almost as if it thinks we don't understand the point the film is trying to make.  This seemingly can't miss prospect is brought down by a script that underlines every point and notion, when a more subtle and witty approach would have worked better.

It's not that I don't agree with the point McKay is making here, which is to basically say that the world is more obsessed with social media and celebrity culture than it is about its own well being, because it certainly is.  The movie has hit a nerve with the Climate Change community, who feel that this film represents their struggles to make people care about the plight they believe in.  I get that.  My problem is that the movie is never as funny or as smart as it seems to think it is.  He also wants to go after artificial celebrities, talking head news programs, and people in the highest offices of politics who don't have a clue about what they are doing, and only care about personal power and the polls.  Again, all valid points.  But the movie comes across as overly cynical and sneering.  It's not really having fun with any of its targets or subject matter.  It simply wants to point and mock, and doesn't go much deeper than that.

That's ultimately what makes Don't Look Up so frustrating.  It's a movie that I think many will agree with, but simply won't find all that enjoyable or funny.  A good comedy can be made off of this idea.  Heck, there have been a number of films the past 20 years or so that took a satirical look at the end of the world, such as This is the End (which featured a bunch of celebrities playing over the top caricatures of themselves dealing with an apocalyptic event), or Seeking a Friend for the End of the World with Steve Carell and Keira Knightley.  Both of these films are far funnier, meaningful, and in the case of Seeking a Friend... more heartfelt than anything McKay tries here.  In telling its story of the efforts of two scientists to convince the world to care that the world is about to end, it forgets to have fun with its own premise, and kind of hits the same repetitive notes.

Said scientists are Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence).  Kate is the first to discover a new comet that is getting close to Earth's orbit, and it's Randall who crunches the numbers and finds out that in only six months, the comet will strike Earth, and that due to its massive size, the impact will be powerful enough to wipe out all life on Earth.  After bringing their findings to NASA, they are given an audience with the President of the United States (Meryl Streep), who decides to take a "wait and see" approach, due to the fact that she's dealing with a potential sex scandal at the moment regarding one of her Supreme Court nominees.

With time ticking away, Mindy and Dibiasky go on a morning news show hosted by a plastic pair of bantering hosts (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) to plead their case, and hope to alert the world as to what's going on.  Unfortunately, Kate has a blow up on air, and becomes the subject of social media ridicule, while Randall is only admired for his good looks on the interview.  Eventually, plans are made to have a rocket fly up to destroy the comet before it hits Earth, but plans again change when a tech billionaire named Sir Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) discovers that the comet is made up of valuable resources, and sees it as a way to make America richer.  The President and her son (Jonah Hill) decide to listen to conspiracy theories instead of facts, and the world becomes divided on what should be done about the approaching comet, or if there even is a comet.  Even when the comet gets close enough to be seen in the night sky, the President spearheads a "Don't Look Up" campaign.

You can see the potential here, all of which McKay squanders on a script that takes obvious jabs, and some bad editing choices. (The first time the scientists have a meeting with the President, the camera keeps on cutting to photos around the place of her with different celebrities.  Why?) Again, I think a lot of the points he's making about how divided America is when faced with a crisis are sound.  He just never finds a way to make it entertaining.  He does hit on some good ideas, such as having DiCaprio go on a Sesame Street-like show trying to explain his ideas to Muppets and kids, but for every scene that does generate laughs, there are just as many that fail to hit, and probably would have worked better with a less heavy and obvious approach than the one he employs here.


I again want to bring up Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.  That was a movie from 2012 that not many saw, but it stuck with me, because it actually made me think how I would react in a situation that those characters were in during their final days.  It was advertised as a comedy, and while it had its humorous moments, it was a deeply powerful film that deserved more praise than it got.  In comparison, Don't Look Up leaves no impression other than the filmmaker's desire to sneer at his audience for over two hours.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2021

A Journal for Jordan


I'm certain that Dana Canedy and Charles Monroe King, the real-life couple depicted in A Journal for Jordan, had dreams, aspirations and even thoughts, but all of these qualities have been scrubbed clean for this cinematic take on their relationship.  If this movie is to be believed, they fell in love, gave birth to a son, and then he wrote some inspiring words in a journal for their son before he was tragically killed while he was serving his country in Iraq.

I'm also sure there's a lot more to this story than what screenwriter Virgil Williams and director Denzel Washington are telling us.  These characters are after all based on real people, and I'm sure they had their share of issues, insecurities, and arguments.  But we never get to see it, because they have been fashioned here as an attractive but bland couple who think only about how much they love each other every second of every day.  This is what your current or most recent relationship would be like if it were written by Nicholas Sparks.  If real life were depicted as here, we'd all have time to improve ourselves, work out more, and write heartfelt poetry to our loved ones, because it would be all we would have time for, without pesky things like jobs, other relationships, or bills getting in the way.

Granted, Dana (played by Chanté Adams) is a respected journalist at the New York Times, just as the real life Dana was at the time the story happened.  We see her sitting at her desk sometimes, or walking the halls of the building, but we never actually see her working, and the only time she writes is when she's jotting down her late husband's thoughts on her home computer that will become a best-selling book, and eventually this film.  We see that she has a small circle of friends, which include two women and a guy.  They exist to share drinks with her once in a while, or babysit her son when needed.  We're introduced to her family in the opening scenes, but they disappear shortly after, not to be seen again until the end.  As far as this movie knows, all Dana ever did was try to build a life with Charles (Michael B. Jordan), and give birth to his son, Jordan.

Charles is a military man.  They meet at a cook out her father is holding (her father was his drill sergeant), and there is an instant attraction, since both Adams and Jordan are attractive people.  He's soft spoken, enjoys art, and likes to paint and draw on the side.  He starts visiting her at her upscale apartment in Manhattan so he can see New York, but he gets to see very little of it, as most of the time they're at her apartment making PG-13-rated love.  Their relationship blossoms, with hardly a bump in the road.  The only disagreement they have is when he fails to meet up with her because another soldier's wife was having a baby, and he forgot to tell her he was at the hospital.  They break up because of this, but they're back together literally two minutes later, since he shows up at the apartment to apologize.  Charles talks about his family, but I don't think we ever see them.  His life is all about serving the country, and when he's not doing that, he's making sweet love to her, or waxing poetic about how beautiful she is.

I'm not denying that this stuff actually happened.  I just have a hard time believing it happened as clean cut and as perfectly as it does in A Journal for Jordan.  This is a movie that has been scrubbed of all sincerity and imperfections, and instead drowns itself in Hallmark sentiment.  It's the kind of film where you're happy for the central couple, but you kind of wish they were more interesting and had more to talk about other than how perfect the other one is.  The least the movie could do is maybe throw in some interesting or funny side characters, but the film is so focused on their unfailing love that there's no time for anything else.  So, we wait for the inevitable tragedy, and we wait for little Jordan to be old enough to ask his mom about his father, so she can write the book.  Not that I was anxious to see it get published, more it would mean the movie would almost be over at that point.


In 2016, Denzel Washington proved he could direct a fantastic and gripping drama with his film of the August Wilson play, Fences, so maybe he felt he needed a holiday after making such a hard-hitting film by doing a simple romantic story.  I don't blame him.  I do question his judgement for attaching himself to something this artificial and cloying, however.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The King's Man


Coming after 2015's manically inspired Kingsman: The Secret Service, and its bloated and incredibly dumb 2017 sequel, The Golden Circle, The King's Man is at least better than the last film that director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn brought us, but still can't match the fun of the first.  This time, he takes us back in time to the early 20th Century to explore the secret organization's beginnings.  Due to a confused tone that can't decide on what kind of film it wants to be, however, the movie feels like its spinning its wheels most of the time.

It would seem that this time, Vaughn wanted his irreverent action comedy franchise about some dapper British spies who save the world from evil while preaching good manners and proper etiquette to have a more historical bent.  He sets the story around a real world event (World War I), and fills it with historical figures to interact with his fictional ones, such as King George, Rasputin (played here by Rhys Ifans as an over the top cartoon), Herbert Kitchener, and even a brief cameo by Adolf Hitler in a scene that plays during the credits.  At the same time, the approach that Vaughn is going for frequently seems confused.  Sometimes, he seems to be making a traditional Kingsman movie, and throwing in a lot of vulgar, over the top, and lurid action, violence and inappropriate comedy.  And during other moments, he wants us to be taking this stuff seriously, and show us the horrors of war.

Say what you want about the previous two movies (especially the last one), but at least they were consistent with their over the top tone.  This one doesn't seem to know if it wants us to be laughing and shocked, or engaged and horrified.  It leads to a sense that the filmmakers were never quite sure as to what kind of movie they were trying to make.  And yet, there are things that stand out here, particularly the lead role by Ralph Fiennes, who carries himself wonderfully throughout this film's manic action and even more manic mood and tonal shifts.  I'm all for the chance for getting to see Fiennes play a man of charm and elegance who happens to be very adept at kicking all kind of ass.  I just wish he could have held out for a more confident project than this, as his performance here deserves better.

The film's plot finds a Scottish mastermind (who is kept in shadows until the film's big reveal near the end, though by using the law of averages, it's fairly easy for the audience to figure out their identity) that is trying to manipulate world leaders as World War I begins to break out.  Fiennes has the lead role of Orlando, the Duke of Oxford, who wishes only to protect his adult son (Harris Dickinson) as War breaks out, and his son wants to fight on the front lines.  The Duke would much rather have his son join his little spy group, which is made up of himself, and two of his personal servants; Polly (Gemma Arterton) and Shola (Djimon Hounsou).  They hope to fight the war from behind the scenes, inspiring world leaders to join their cause.

From here, The King's Man begins its severe tonal shifts that can shift from the absurd and the crude (the scene that plays out between Fiennes and Ifans as Rasputin almost has to be seen to be believed), to the real life horrors of war, and the two halves just never connect in a satisfying way.  It becomes a battle between a madcap violent live action cartoon, and a gritty and realistic one.  It gets to the point that the audience starts feeling confused about how to react.  The movie shifts gears and focus so frequently and with such wild abandon, it's bound to lead to whiplash in certain viewers.  If this prequel is supposed to lead to more movies (which the ending hints at), then it just simply doesn't instill a lot of confidence that anyone behind it knew what they were doing.


Yes, the movie has been made professionally, and all of the performances on display are sound, but what does that matter if you're never able to put a finger on just how you're supposed to react to it.  It wants to be over the top, which it certainly is.  But it also ends up being lost as it goes on, and never quite finds the sturdy footing that the original had.

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Sunday, December 26, 2021

Sing 2


I have a feeling audience's reactions to Sing 2 will be exactly the same as their thoughts on the 2016 surprise hit animated film.  The original was thin on plot and originality, but had a lot of heart, a large likeable cast, and a massive collection of hit songs spanning multiple decades and genre.  The sequel does little to mix up that winning formula, and even if the characters don't seem to take center stage as much as before, the film has charm to spare.

Energetic koala theater producer Buster Moon (once again voiced by an unrecognizable Matthew McConaughey) has found great success with his productions headed by his talented cast of animals in his little town, but he knows that he is destined for bigger things.  He makes the risky decision to head to the big city of Redshore (a Vegas-inspired metropolis) in the hope of impressing the tough-as-nails media mogul, Jimmy Crystal (Bobby Cannavale), and bringing his theatrical magic to a larger audience.  The only way he can get Jimmy's interest is with the promise that he will track down reclusive rock star Clay Calloway (voice by Bono), who has not performed or been seen in public since the death of his wife.  It is now up to rock star porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson) to try to reach him.

As the search for Clay and preparations for Buster's latest musical extravaganza gets under way, a variety of subplots concerning his cast begin to form.  Rosita the Pig (Reese Witherspoon) has the lead role for the first time, but finds she is afraid of heights during her key musical number, and is in danger of being replaced by Jimmy's talented yet ditzy teenage daughter, Porsha (recording artist Halsey).  Golden-voiced gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton) is having trouble learning to dance, thanks to a strict teacher, and learns guidance from a local street performer (Letitia Wright).  And gentle teenage elephant Meena (Tori Kelly) is having trouble performing a romantic scene for the show, until she finds love for real with a friendly ice cream vendor (Pharrell Williams).

Sing 2 is a simple crowd pleaser that gets a lot of mileage from its cast and song selection, with over 40 songs placed within a film that runs a little under two hours.  It's gentle, inoffensive, and should delight its young audience, while keeping adults engaged.  What its slightly less successful at is juggling its multiple plots and characters.  Many of the likable cast get moments to stand out, but still seem short-changed by the crowded script.  The previous film had a strong underdog angle, with the film focusing on the various struggles the everyday characters had about reaching their dreams of fame.  This time around, the characters are already established stars, and are plugged into formulaic plots about romance and moving on.  These are still the characters we fell in love with, and the returning actors bring the same spirit, but they never seem as relatable as before, as the script isn't quite as focused on them.

Despite this, the movie stands out, thanks to its imaginative world that dreams of a human-like society occupied by animals (there are some clever ads and billboards when the cast hits the big city of Redshore).  There are also obviously a number of strong musical sequences, the most memorable being the chance to hear Johansson pair up with Bono on a cover of a U2 song.  It's obvious that returning writer-director, Garth Jennings, had no intentions of shaking up the successful formula from last time here, and even if the sequel seems a bit less character-driven than before, he manages to maintain the same energetic style, and gets a few good laughs in his script.  That's obviously what was expected of him, and he stays afloat here.


Sing 2
feels a bit workmanlike, but it still has enough charm to work.  Should there be another sequel, I hope Jennings and his crew can get a bit closer to the heart of these characters, and have them drive the plot a bit more.  Regardless, this is ideal entertainment for kids who have already had multiple viewings of Spider-Man.

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West Side Story


Steven Spielberg's energetic remake of West Side Story lacks the emotional punch of the original film, but for once, I think the problem is with me.  I am so familiar with the original source material, having seen both the earlier film and various stage productions, that the story has become somewhat overly familiar to me.  That matters little when everything else about the film is so sensational.  While I personally would rather have Tick, Tick...Boom over this, Spielberg's effort is still filled with moments of brilliance.  

Releasing sixty years after the Oscar-winning original film, this is a film that emphasizes what works about the source material without straying too far from tradition.  It actually has the feeling and is shot similar to an older Hollywood Musical, while at the same time, not relying on the earlier movie.  This feels like a new film from a different era of movie making.  And yet, you can see some of Spielberg's signature directing style throughout.  In a bold move, the film does not feature any big name stars, and few recognizable faces.  The draw is the familiar story and the director's name.  Judging by the film's take on the box office, that wasn't quite enough to draw in audiences, which is sad.  Even if the story is overly familiar to most audiences by now, it is still intimate and heartfelt in its own way, and its themes of racial bigotry still hit.

As always, the story is set in the late 1950s New York City, with a turf war brewing between two street gangs.  The white Jets gang are feuding with the Puerto Rican Sharks over territory, and the sense that the Jets feel the home they were born and raised in is being taken over by immigrants.  As the feud begins to quickly escalate toward violence, the story finds one of the Jets, a former juvenile delinquent named Tony (Ansel Elgort) who is trying to improve his life after serving a short prison sentence, falling in love with Maria (YouTube star Rachel Zegler, making a luminous screen debut), the sister of Sharks member Bernardo (David Alvarez).  The love that grows between Tony and Maria is looked down upon by both sides of the turf war, and inevitably in true Romeo and Juliet fashion, will lead to tragedy.

West Side Story has always been powered by its immortal musical score written by the legendary Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.  Sondheim sadly passed mere weeks before the film came out, but he gave his full support to the film while it was in production, and Spielberg has done pretty much nothing here that could be considered a major alteration to the 1957 Broadway smash.  Working with playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner (who has worked with Spielberg in the past on the films Munich and Lincoln), the film expands on some of the original text's ideas, or emphasizes certain character's backstories.  In another intriguing move, the film features a certain amount of dialogue in Spanish without subtitles, which makes sense during the scenes when we are within Maria's home, and she is among her family.  The emotion and the power of these scenes is still able to come through, even in a different language, and it only adds to the honesty of the picture.  

Spielberg has also cast his film with an amazing amount of talent who, again, are largely not well known to film audiences, but get to show what they can do in the film's numerous musical sequences.  Considering that the original film largely featured actors having their voices dubbed over for their singing, it again adds honesty and authenticity that everything up on the screen is coming directly from these talented young singers, actors, and dancers.  Spielberg's known love for sentimental storytelling works beautifully with the film's melodramatic love story, and while he lets the innocent love of his two star-crossed leads come through, he also does not shy away from the violence and hard-edged elements that are inherent in the original story.  He also handles the film's most famous musical numbers and sequences with expert skill, and in a wonderful touch, gives one of the film's original stars (Rita Moreno) a warm and memorable role as an elderly mentor to Tony.  


I think the familiar tone of West Side Story is intentional.  Spielberg was not trying to create a new vision of the story, but create his own vision on a classic.  He has succeeded so much so, this is one of the few times I hope that a film remake will be held up to the original in the years to come.  He trusts the material he's been given, and simply gives it to his audience straight, while adding his own style and subtext in subtle ways.  For a purist, that's probably the highest complement anyone could give.

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Thursday, December 23, 2021

Nightmare Alley


Nightmare Alley
finds the wonderful filmmaker Guillermo del Toro in his element, telling a tragic Noir story about a carnival con man who gets conned in a psychological game.  So, why does the movie feel so dragged out and empty emotionally?  The movie is mesmerizing in its visuals and shady 1930s carnival atmosphere for the first hour or so, but all of its thrills are on the surface.  Del Toro never allows his audience to connect fully with his material, and for all of its intriguing visual trappings, there's little to discover here.  At least not enough to warrant the film's slow burn pace, and two and a half hour run time.

The film is based on a 1946 novel, which was adapted into a film already back in 47, which told the story with less style, but with a quicker and less dragged out pace.  It took the earlier movie an hour for del Toro to cover similar territory in two hours.  The film follows a wandering man named Stan Carlisle (played here by Bradley Cooper).  We know from the opening scene that Stan is running from his past, though the truth behind why he is running is not fully known to us until later.  His journey leads him to a traveling carnival run by the shady Clem (Willem Dafoe).  It is through Clem that Stan learns some of the tricks of the trade, most notably how Clem finds his "geek" who bites the heads off of chickens.  The story behind the geek and how a person is manipulated into performing such an act lends an aura of tragedy to the film that will lay heavily over the story.  We get ready for sadness, but what I was not ready for was how hollow the whole film would feel.

That sadness continues as we are introduced to some of the other performers in Clem's carnival, who are usually past their prime.  Such examples are the married couple of Pete (David Strathairn) and Zeena (Toni Collette), who run a psychic act that is barely hanging on, thanks to Pete's alcoholism.  The moments with Stan exploring the carnival and learning its secrets are where the film is at its best, as it lends a kind of mystery and tone that we don't see very often in modern thrillers.  I would have loved to have seen del Toro truly dive into this material, but it's not meant to be.  Instead, at some point, Stan leaves the carnival life behind when he falls for the "electric girl" Molly (Rooney Mara), and they build a life together doing a psychic act of their own using some of the tricks Stan picked up from Pete and Zeena.  Their act becomes a hit, allowing them to play in fancy hotels to appreciative audiences.

Del Toro has always had a passion for the paranormal, but here, the paranormal elements are all a ruse Stan uses to con wealthy people.  From here, the movie dives head-first into Noir thriller territory, where Stan hooks up with a femme fatale psychiatrist named Lilith (Cate Blanchett).  The seductive and dangerous relationship that is supposed to grow between Stan and Lilith simply isn't as strong.  When the movie becomes focused on their psychological con game on the wealthy elite and, eventually on each other, I didn't buy it because frankly, Cooper doesn't seem sinister enough, and Blanchett is giving a rare uninspired performance that's simply one-dimensional vamping.  She's all seduction and shadows with little going on underneath.  And when we do learn about her game, it's not worth the waiting we had to go through in order for the truth to be revealed as to what is really going on.

Nightmare Alley is easy to pick up on where the film is going, but it takes so long to get there that I started to lose interest.  I was captivated by the images, the costumes, the sets, and the usual visual style that the director always brings, but I also found myself gradually becoming frustrated.  We know that Stan is going to get in over his head with his psychic con, that Lilith is plotting something the entire time, and that Molly is going to feel betrayed by the time everything is over, and we're proven right.  But, the movie takes so long getting to that point that it's kind of maddening.  There are scenes here that go on way too long, and probably would have been great if they had been trimmed.  And there are great scenes as well that hint at what the movie could have been with a tighter focus and run time.


I can only recommend this as a visual experience, and I almost want to recommend the film on that level, but I simply cannot.  This is not a bad movie in the slightest.  It's simply a movie that needed deeper characterization and a quicker pace to truly work.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2021

The Matrix Resurrections


Co-writer and Director, Lana Wachowski, hits upon a great idea early on in The Matrix Resurrections, giving the film a meta approach.  Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a burned out video game designer who is famous for creating a trilogy of video games called The Matrix.  He is informed by the powers that be at Warner Bros. Studio that they want a fourth Matrix game from him, and we get some brief moments that have humorous and smart jabs at having to revive a long dormant franchise that has a nostalgic fandom behind it.

At this point of the film, I was kind of getting the same vibes that Joe Dante gave with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, which was essentially a parody of sequels in general, as well as the first movie.  Would Wachowski (working without her sister Lilly this time) really have the guts to dive as far as Dante did with her own meta idea, and give us a satirical breakdown on reviving a long-dormant property?  Turns out to be a bait and switch, as what follows is a fairly mediocre follow up to the two previous mediocre follow ups to the groundbreaking 1999 original film.  Just like before, Thomas starts to question his reality, despite the reassurance from his therapist (Neil Patrick Harris) that these feelings are brought on by stress of having to return to his video game franchise.  He has numerous encounters with a woman at a coffee shop named Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss) with a husband and kids that he seems oddly attracted to, as if he knows her from somewhere.  Then, he has a run-in with a familiar face, who is now being played by a new face.  That would be Morpheus, who is now played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, stepping in for Laurence Fishburne.  Thanks to him, Thomas is pulled back into the world of the Matrix itself, and audiences are pulled into disappointment.

The Matrix Resurrections, despite its early promise, ends up repeating a lot of ideas and images of stuff we've seen before.  And what little new there is here, such as certain machines now helping the human rebels who are fighting for freedom, is not explored as much as it could be.  This is a surprisingly wordy movie, where the characters wax in pseudo philosophical speak, while occasionally engaging in world-bending martial arts battles that don't seem as special as before because, again, we've seen it all before.  With a bloated two and a half hour running time, and an overall indifference to add much new here to draw in viewers who aren't already in the rabid fanbase, there's just not a lot here to warrant this kind of uninspired return.  There's a new butt-kicking woman named Bugs joining the cast (Jessica Henwick), some new bad guys to beat up, and a lot of regurgitated ideas and clips from the past movies designed to either instill nostalgia, or to help catch up the audience on what happened almost 20 years ago when the original trilogy ended.  

I can understand that Wachowski and her fellow writers are trying to add tension by having Thomas/Neo trying to reawaken Tiffany/Trinity's memories so that they can fight alongside each other again, but it doesn't work here, because the movie keeps them apart for almost the entire film until its final moments.  So, fans who are anxious to see Reeves and Moss kicking butt together again are in for a long wait, and will probably have to wait for the inevitable sequel to get any real mileage out of the reunion.  Even the special effects and battles that have always been a hallmark of the franchise are strangely unmemorable here.  They're appropriately epic in scope, but they lack any memorable moments, or a reason to care.  Oddly enough, the action sequences here come across as one of the countless movies from the early 2000s that tried to copy the original Matrix, rather than innovate.  Unlike the recent Spider-Man: No Way Home, this movie cannot build upon its past legacy, but rather seems held back by it, and a curious lack of understanding as to what wowed audiences about it in the first place.


I'm not sure if a fully meta take on The Matrix would have worked, but at least it wouldn't seem like the movie was eventually going on autopilot, as this sequel gradually does.  Sure, it gives us what we expect, but it does so in such a way that feels less in the end.  I'm sure I'll be in the minority, the film will make its money, and the next installment will be hitting in a couple years.  You know what?  I'm okay with all of that.  I'm comfortable being in the minority when it comes to this, and I'm comfortable with the filmmakers getting a chance to hopefully build upon what could be.

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