Reel Opinions

Monday, June 27, 2022

The Black Phone

The Black Phone
is based on the short story by Joe Hill, which is actually the pen name of the son of Stephen King.  It's obvious that the author has picked up more than a few cues from his famous father, and they are on display here, such as children with psychic abilities, as well as a sense of nostalgia and innocence mixed in with the evil and supernatural trappings.  And while the movie is being marketed to the straight-up horror crowd, an audience expecting blood and gore might be disappointed that this movie is more interested in being subtle and creepy than in all out frights and jump scares.  

The movie also reunites the directing and writing duo of Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill with star, Ethan Hawke, who previously headlined their 2012 paranormal thriller, Sinister.  And while Hawke played the hero there, this time he is a child abductor and murderer known only as The Grabber.  He hides behind a devil mask most of the time, so we seldom see his actual face, but it's a great villain performance, and he throws himself into his deranged character completely.  The movie takes place in 1978, giving the sense of a more innocent time, mixed with the nostalgia that is currently in fashion with a lot of recent horror-related properties like Stranger Things or It.  As the Grabber terrorizes the community, abducting multiple children, a pair of police detectives (E. Roger Mitchell and Troy Rudeseal) are desperately trying to track down clues, yet strangely never seem to issue a curfew for the town, or enact any safety measures in the community during the course of the film.

The Grabber's most recent victim is Finney (Mason Thames), a boy who is the constant victim of bullies at school, and his drunken lout of a father (Jeremy Davies) at home.  Luckily, he has his younger sister Gwen (a scene-stealing Madeleine McGraw) on his side to help guide him through life.  Once he is in the clutches of the child killer, he finds himself in a locked basement room with only a soiled mattress, a few taunting visits from The Grabber, and a black rotary phone on the wall that his abductor says hasn't worked in years.  Oddly, the phone soon starts ringing when he is alone, and when Finney answers, he hears the voices of the former victims of The Grabber speaking to him from beyond the grave, and giving him advice on how to survive.  Meanwhile, Gwen is receiving psychic visions (a gift she inherited from her mother) that may lead to her brother's rescue, if she can convince the police and her father to listen.

The Black Phone has more than a few logic holes that audiences will have to mentally leap over in order to fully enjoy, and yet this is easy enough, thanks to the atmospheric and stylized tone of the film that creates a sense of mounting dread, rather than rapidly building frights or ghoulish visions leaping out of the shadows.  The movie raises more than enough goosebumps from Hawke's effective villain performance, as well as the chilling supernatural phone calls that Finney receives, that it doesn't need all these additional trappings common with the genre.  This is a low key film that is never all that scary and fast-paced, but still manages to get under your skin in much more subtle ways.  It also knows how to effectively add a sense of humor when appropriate, without lessening the inherent tension.

Outside of Hawke's role, there are also two standout child performances here from Thames and McGraw, who expertly sell the tension of the situation, as well as the innocence of these two young children at the center of the story.  The movie is smart to put their loving relationship up front, as it helps run the point home that these two are all they have in the world.  Outside of these stand-out roles, nobody gets to make much of an impression, as their father stays mostly in the background, and the two Detectives on the case disappear for long periods of the film, almost as if a good chunk of their subplot got edited from the final film.  Regardless, the important thing is that this is a highly effective low-key thriller with some strong leads, and an overall sense of dread that permeates throughout.

After previously working in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Doctor Strange (and walking away from the recent sequel over creative differences), The Black Phone feels like a chance for Derrickson and Cargill to get back to their low budget roots.  Even if it's not perfect, it's easily the strongest horror offering we've had this year so far.



is a sensory overload of a biofilm, but for once, it works in its favor because of the life it's telling.  Director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby) uses every cinematic flourish in the book, from special effects, to rapid-fire editing, to multiple montages playing on split screens, and even comic book-style animation.  And while I did find myself a bit exhausted, both by the excess and the over two and a half hour running time, it was of a good sort.  I was enjoying the excess for once, because it fit the life of the man, and was probably the only way "The King's" story could be told.

Even from the start, with Elvis' notorious manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks, great at being oily and unlikable for once) practically on his deathbed and wandering the empty halls of a Vegas casino, the movie lets us know that it won't exactly be going for subtlety.  He will serve as the Narrator, as well as the Ringmaster of the three-ring circus that was Elvis' celebrity life.  He tells us up front that he is not the villain of the story, though there are many who would say so.  He also denies that he was responsible for overworking the celebrity to death.  Instead, he blames the masses, who wanted more of Elvis than the man could give.  And yet, despite saying this, he is haunted by the memories of his star late in life, barely able to function, being pumped full of drugs so that he can perform that night, with the Colonel's only concern being that Elvis be up on stage.

The story of Elvis (Austin Butler, giving an Oscar-worthy performance), and his rise and fall, is also the story of Colonel Parker, and how all that mattered was to keep the money rolling in no matter what.  The health and well-being of his superstar mattered little.  As long as the crowd was going wild, that's what was important.  A six-week stint at a casino turned into years, because it meant more money for Parker.  If Elvis was run down and unable to perform, just pump him full of fluids until he could.  He emphasized the merchandise (he even sold items that were meant to sell to people who hated the singing star), and the countless movies.  As long as the money was coming in, everything else came second, particularly the personal needs of the man he represented.  

This is not exactly an imaginative telling of the singer's story, like 2019's Rocketman, which told Elton John's story as a lavish and fantasy-rich musical, using his songs to tell the story.  Elvis hits all the expected beats of most music biopics, with the singer coming from a rough childhood, finding some early fame, and then having his career take off, and the eventual excess, crash, and failed relationships that come with fame.  But what helps it stand out is the fact that Luhrmann has made the story into such a cinematic spectacle, which really does fit in telling Elvis' story.  There's a certain honesty and realness to how the story is being told, yet the visual style and direction that is brought to the film makes it seem grander than life at times.  The film is not going for fantasy per se, rather it is kind of blending the facts of Elvis' life with the spectacle and trickery of a carnival act, which was Colonel Parker's background before he got into music.  No matter how much of an assault on the senses the movie can be at times, it never seems inappropriate or hollow.  This is a director in love with cinematic excess, yet is skilled with it, and isn't doing it just because he can.

For all of the technical wizardry on display, the film's greatest feat is how it humanizes Elvis, who has largely become a parody or a live action cartoon character in the eyes of many over the years.  I said it before, but Butler is truly giving one of the great performances of the year here.  He is sensational as a man who grows from a wide-eyed innocent who kind of wants to be the hero of his own story, like the ones he used to read about in comic books when he was growing up, to a true superstar the likes of which the world had never seen at the time.  He becomes a controversial figure on TV, and the Colonel's attempts to control his image and how Elvis wants to be portrayed takes center for most of the film.  Even though it is Parker who is telling the story, the film does an excellent job of lifting the curtain, and seeing the Elvis behind the superstar image who was haunted by the death of his beloved mother, constantly conflicted about how he wanted to be seen by others, and feeling like he had no control over his own life.

This is why the movie works, and what gives Elvis such tremendous power.  The trademark over abundance of style that Luhrmann always brings to this film is present, but behind it all, there is a real story that is digging deep into the subject matter.  Those who dismiss this as style over substance are missing the real emotional success of this movie, which is to show us the tragedy behind the man.  If the movie often resembles a three-ring circus, then Elvis himself is constantly in the middle, a sad clown who is watching the world flying apart all around him, and he feels powerless.  As he dives into substance abuse, he becomes even more powerless, and it all leads up to that scene where we first saw him, where he is barely able to move or function, and Parker is barking at his crew to do what it takes to get him out on the stage before the fans.

The real tragedy is that Elvis did not matter to many of the people around him, save a select few.  To a lot of the people who knew or worked alongside him, he was an image and a source of income.  This movie reminds of who the man truly was, and so while I felt exhausted by the end, I did not feel beaten down.  I was a bit sad, a bit reflective, and I had a lot to think about after it was over.


Friday, June 17, 2022


At the start of Lightyear, an opening crawl informs us that what we're about to see is the movie that little Andy from the Toy Story movies saw in 1995 that led to him getting a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday.  Ordinarily, such thinking would probably be discarded as Hollywood marketing run amok, and it's true, we probably didn't need this film.  And yet, if Pixar has taught me anything, it's that even most of their "B-Projects" that didn't need to be made still have something of value, and this film ends up having plenty of value.

This is also the studio's first theatrical release in two years, and it's fitting that the scope is appropriately epic and fun, while still taking time for character moments that might get adults choked up a little.  This is a different Buzz than what we're familiar with.  According to director Angus MacLane (Finding Dory), he wanted to make him less the comic relief that he is in the main franchise, and a bit smarter and braver, while still giving him the arrogance and headstrong attitude that audiences are familiar with.  This also is his explanation as to why Tim Allen is not returning to the role this time, but has been replaced with Chris Evans.  I'm sure Evans' current box office status probably helped this decision as well, but I digress.  The key thing that matters is that it's easy to accept Evans' portrayal.

All commercial and behind the scenes wranglings aside, what we have here is a rip-roaring space opera that is visually stunning at times, funny, and fast-paced.  It helps expand Buzz's universe, giving him characters from his own unique franchise to interact with.  Yes, there was an animated Buzz TV series in the early 2000s that did the same thing, and which this film ignores.  Buzz (voiced by Evans) is a Space Ranger who, with his best friend Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), is exploring a habitable planet that ends up being populated mainly by sentient vines that want to kill them.  Their escape from the planet is foiled when Buzz's arrogance and wanting to handle the mission on his own ends up in them crashing, and the inhabitants of the ship having to create a new home on this dangerous planet.

Buzz volunteers to test a hyperspace fuel that could be powerful enough to send them all home, but each test ends up being a failure, and due to the effects of time dilation, each time Buzz tries to travel at great speeds, he winds up four years in the future each time he lands, even though he's only been gone for a few minutes.  In a scene reminiscent of the opening of Pixar's Up, we get a montage where Buzz keeps on trying and advancing time around him, which ends up forcing him to watch his fellow Space Rangers age and eventually pass on, while he remains the same each time he lands.  By this point, the descendants of the original team have become comfortable living on the planet, and don't want to leave, much to Buzz's annoyance.

With the help of his robotic cat companion Sox (who is the movie's best creation, and is voiced by animator Peter Sohn), Buzz does figure out the successful formula for a hyperspace flight, and goes against orders to test it.  However, the test winds up flinging him further into the future than before, where the planet is now under the cruel control of the alien overlord Emperor Zurg (James Brolin).  With no one else to turn to, he will have to rely on a ragtag team of rookie Space Rangers which include Alisha's granddaughter Izzy (a likable Keke Palmer), the clumsy and accident-prone Mo (Taika Waititi), and the elderly prison convict Darby (Dale Soules), who is only a Space Ranger rookie in order to get time off her sentence, and has a passion for explosives.  

Lightyear manages to work, despite its obvious commercial reasons for existing, because I found myself strangely drawn into the movie's world, and the characters that inhabit it.  Even if this is not a top tier effort for the studio, it still shows a lot of effort, and has more than enough effective action sequences and humor that got me involved.  The cast are doing great line readings, there's more than enough heart to the story given Buzz's situation of being forced to watch those around him age because of his hyperspeed test flights, and the film's message of learning to trust others and accept help is expertly inserted without being preachy.  I liked all of the new characters that the filmmakers introduce here, with Sox the Robo Cat easily being the MVP.  Yes, he's an obvious merchandising ploy, but Sohn's line readings are so pitch perfect, it's hard not to fall for it.

But most of all, the film has a sense of wonder and adventure to it, which is something I missed in the recent Jurassic World sequel.  It's not all narrow escapes and daring rescues, and the movie is smart enough to balance out the action with character building.  It adds so much to an action film when we actually give a hoot about these people, and it's surprising how little Hollywood seems to understand that.  It doesn't simply rely on the nostalgia we have for the main character, but gives us a new view of him that seems a bit different, but still fitting.  This movie's Buzz is different from the toy Buzz, and that kind of makes sense the more I think about it, since both characters have had different experiences.

Not every Pixar movie needs to tackle tricky issues in a family-friendly way.  Lightyear just wants to be a stirring adventure, and it succeeds.  I came in with lowered expectations, but walked out thinking to myself that I wouldn't mind seeing another film from this movie's world.  Bring Sox back, and I'll be first in line.


Friday, June 10, 2022

Jurassic World: Dominion

Any child with a decent imagination could see what is wrong with the Jurassic World franchise as a whole, and Dominion in particular.  You don't take a wondrous idea, and turn it into a thriller.  You let the audience be awed from time to time.  Here we have a screenplay written on autopilot built up of one dino attack and forced crisis after another.

The very idea behind this franchise makes the mind run wild with possibilities.  Creatures extinct for millions of years are now living among us in our modern day society.  Think of what you could dream up, think of how the world would react to this news.  But director and co-writer Colin Trevorrow chooses to throw all mystique and imagination to the wayside, and give us a two and a half hour thrill ride picture.  I understand that a movie like this wants to be a thrill a minute, but you also have to give your audience a chance to breathe.  There needs to be moments where our heroes are not in some sort of peril, whether it be from a dinosaur, greedy humans who traditionally make up the true villains of these films, or nature run amok.  By the time the heroes were on the run from a swarm of prehistoric genetically engineered locusts that were on fire, I knew that the filmmakers were just really stretching for a crisis.

Jurassic World: Dominion is a shabby piece of goods dressed up with the best special effects money can buy, and a soundtrack that is constantly blasting away at your senses until you just submit, and watch the movie with weary indifference.  It treats the dinosaurs like special effects or targets in a video game, simply running about the screen, and interacting with the human actors as little as possible.  We do get a few fleeting shots of the possibility of dinosaurs existing among us, but you get the sense that Trevorrow is not interested in truly exploring such majestic images, because they're mainly used in shots designed for the trailer, and not the actual plot itself.  This movie gives us so many dinosaur attacks with such regular frequency that I actually started to get sick of them.  That's something my inner 10-year-old would never say, and it pains me to write that, but it's true.

Like a lot of recent nostalgic properties being reinvented for modern audiences, the movie allows us to reunite with some of the legacy heroes, such as Sam Neill and Laura Dern coming back as Dr. Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler for the first time since 2001's Jurassic Park III, as well as the return of Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcolm, who had a cameo in the last film, and has been upgraded to a supporting role here.  It's great to see them sharing the screen as these characters, but if I must be honest, it would have the same effect watching a reunion interview on YouTube.  The movie does little to advance these iconic characters, and instead slips them into the continuing adventures of the younger heroes, Owen (Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), who with each passing film have lost any resemblance of humanity they might have had, and are now reserved simply for running and gunning their way through one action scene and narrow escape after another.

Their job is to keep a cloned child named Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon) safe from some villains who want to experiment on her, and the dinosaurs as well, who are now part of a black market and underground fighting ring.  Again, intriguing ways that dinosaurs could be implemented into our modern society that are simply touched on by the screenplay.  Our heroes are attacked on the ground, in the air, in underground caverns, a forest, an icy lake, and a science lab one after another to the point that I started to wonder if the screenplay was literally all action scene directions split up by brief spurts of dialogue like "Look out!".  This is a movie that wants to trample on the memories anyone might have of the 1993 original, and deaden the imagination of kids, who could probably dream up a better movie about dinosaurs and humans sharing the same modern world in a heartbeat.

What we're left with are some fleeting feelings of nostalgia, a bit of wonder now and then, and a whole lot of expensive stunt work and effects that don't add up to anything.  Jurassic World: Dominion promises us wonder and spectacle, but its center is dead, cynical and mechanical.


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