Reel Opinions

Saturday, December 31, 2022

The 16th Annual Reel Stinkers Awards

It's New Year's Eve.  And as the clock ticks down the final moments of 2022, 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 2023!

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




I did not see this in the theater, as I had undergone foot surgery the weekend it came out.  I did however catch up with it later on at home, and found an outdated and bombastic comic book film that drowns the usually likable and charismatic Dwayne Johnson with a moody character, and equally bombastic action scenes.  With its cliched script and characters, dialogue only a screenwriter could love, and overload of mindless CG action, it's no wonder that it probably inspired the studio to go in a different direction with their DC Comics film property.


09. UNCHARTED -  Stuck in Development Hell for over 10 years, and based on the long-running Sony PlayStation franchise, Uncharted joins the long list of video game adaptations that should be home runs on the silver screen, but instead end up merely being mediocre.  The problem with adapting something like Uncharted is that in the original video game, the storytellers have hours to tell their story and develop their characters.  And because a player spends hours at the controls of the main character, they feel a connection with them and the supporting cast by the time it's done.  Trying to cram that experience into a narrative that runs just under two hours is not going to quite be the same to the fan base.  But there are deeper problems than inherent ones here.  There's the casting, the overly green-screened action set pieces that seem as artificial as anything seen in the past few Fast & Furious movies, and the weak adventure that is supposed to hold everything together.  Watching Uncharted, you get the sense that you are watching a product, not a movie with a soul.  It's lost all identity, and is now just a brand name to bring in an existing audience.  They will come to see their favorite characters brought to life, and will walk away with an empty shell of an experience.  


  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.  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.  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.


07. AMSTERDAM -  There are many who will say that Amsterdam is a bad movie, but I'm here to set the record straight.  The latest from writer-director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) is much too ambitious to be awful, and therefore, it must be labeled as a disappointment.  There's a big-name cast and a clear effort being made here, but it's all at the expense of a muddled story that is too complicated to be fun, and nowhere near the effort to figure out.   It's overstuffed with plot and character, yet meanders and crawls its way through its own labyrinth that it creates for itself, until the audience either succumbs to its weak charms, or simply drops off and stop paying attention.  Here is a movie with a cast that most directors would kill to work with.  Put Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Chris Rock, Robert De Niro, Zoe Saldana, Taylor Swift and Anya Taylor-Joy up on the screen, and you're sure to draw attention, and it does for a while.  The problem is Russell has given us all these great actors, and never got around to giving them interesting characters, or putting them in a plot worth giving a damn about.  Maybe all this star-power is supposed to distract us from how poorly put together the film itself is.  It's been a while since I found myself asking myself, "Just what is this movie trying to say, and where is it going"?  Sometimes that can be a fun experience if you're watching something truly amateur and wondering what the filmmakers thought they were doing when they made it.  But, I'm afraid Amsterdam was made with the best of intentions, and the movie is worse for that.


06. HALLOWEEN ENDS - This is as joyless, dull, and idiotic a film as I have seen this year.  Even worse, this is intended to be the end of a legendary franchise.  If true, all I have to ask is, what were they thinking?  Halloween Ends is a surprisingly junky conclusion to a trilogy that started out with some faint promise in 2018, and quickly devolved into total crap with each passing film.  Now, here we are, with what is reported to be the final film.  I'm not buying it, but if it's true, what a kick in the teeth.  While it's always great to see Jamie Lee Curtis again, she's given little to do here by stand around and fret over her granddaughter going out with a guy she doesn't approve of, because she senses evil within him.  Think of how many years she has invested into this role and this franchise.  Don't you think they could give her some real scenes to play, or an interesting character moment?  Apparently that was too much to ask.  It doesn't have the decency to ratchet up any tension or suspense.  It's just uninspired, and plays like everyone involved wanted to get this entry over with so they could move on with their lives.  I felt the same way watching this, so at least I was feeling something with the actors, even though I felt nothing for the characters they were playing.


05. DON'T WORRY DARLING -  I'm trying to remember the last time an ending felt so uneventful that it caused me to groan out loud in disbelief.  Going through my memories and reviews, I believe it was The Turning from 2020.  Don't Worry Darling is a thriller that offers little during its roughly two hour run time, and then reaches a climax that makes you realize it had even less to say than you thought.  Three years ago, actress Olivia Wilde made her directing debut with the smart and funny coming of age comedy, Booksmart.  Here, she reunites with that film's screenwriter, Katie Silberman, but the intelligence of their earlier movie is completely absent here.  Instead, we get a thriller that is supposed to be keeping us guessing, but is surprisingly easy to figure out.  Watching the film, I felt like I was witnessing a magic show where the magician thinks they're concealing the secret behind the act, but it's plainly visible for the audience to see.  Don't Worry Darling has been handsomely shot, and Olivia Wilde continues to show her strength as a filmmaker.  It's the script that's at fault here.  The behind the scenes problems with making the film and feuds between the talent made more headlines than the movie itself, which tells you a documentary on the making of it would be more interesting to watch than the actual movie.

04. THE KING'S DAUGHTER - Shot back in 2014, and disowned by its original studio (Paramount), The King's Daughter is a star-studded mess of a fantasy film that should have remained hidden longer than it was.  Featuring a cheesy look, special effects that would have looked dated back in 2015 when it was originally planned to come out, choppy editing that has scenes suddenly starting and stopping on a whim, wooden performances, and questionable direction, this is a dead in the water fantasy film that was hardly worth dragging out long after most probably stopped caring.  The King's Daughter has an overall cheap look that features questionable CGI, and some truly ugly sets throughout.  Scenes that are supposed to fill the audience with wonder fail to create the slightest emotion, which is probably its biggest crime.  And what are we to make of the editing, which seems incredibly choppy, and with out of place music montages?  Simply glancing at a random ten minutes of the film is enough to tell you that this was a troubled production, and why Paramount lost so much faith in it.  Like Don't Worry Darling, perhaps one day The King's Daughter will inspire a fascinating documentary about the making of it, but it has not inspired a watchable movie.


03. THE MUNSTERS - Rob Zombie is probably not the first name you would think to direct a family-friendly update film of a beloved sitcom, but apparently he's a massive fan, and reveled in the chance to bring the characters back to life.  He's the only one who got any happiness out of this, and only showed why his expertise is not with comedy.   The movie features next to no plot as it jumps from one pointless scene to the next, a low budget look that makes your local small town spookhouse look like a multi-million dollar extravaganza, and performances that are more grating than funny.  Throw in a running time that edges close to two hours, and you have an endless and dreary experience.  You can see what Zombie is going for, but every attempt at fun is mishandled at best, and off putting at worst.  Zombie shows no sense of plotting or pacing with his take of The Munsters, as he is constantly being sidetracked or distracted with other things.  Yes, he faithfully recreates the show's look (though with garish colors, when black and white like the original would have been preferred) and corny humor, but nothing really lands.  He seems to be trying to make the most of the limited budget he was given here, but at the same time, he can't escape the fact that he has no story to tell, and a comedic and acting tone that came across like nails on a chalkboard to me. 

02. MORBIUS - In a time when movies based on comic books are routinely some of the better blockbusters to come out of Hollywood, Morbius is a sad throwback to an earlier time, when the studios didn't know what to do with all these costumed weirdos.  It's an aggressively bland film, littered with characters who have no motivation or consequence, and endless special effects sequences that are so overly digital they become numbing.  I've grown increasingly weary of movies that simply throw non-stop digital effects up on the screen.  Why hire actors if everything's just going to turn into a cartoon once the fists start flying?  Why not just make it animated to begin with?  Why pay the big bucks for Jared Leto to be your leading man, when you're not going to have him perform any stunts whatsoever?  Do action movies like this even need to hire stunt people?  I find myself asking these questions more often as blockbusters go on.  I'm not proud of that fact.  I want to be swept away by the images, and the illusion that the impossible is happening in front of me.  Instead, every time the action started to heat up, all I could think of was some effects guy sitting in a chair with his laptop, cranking out the next sequence.  Morbius offers no window into these characters, and no plot threads to grasp onto, until it eventually dissolves into a shapeless mass of special effects that are being thrown up on the screen endlessly.  This movie bored me to tears, as it has no desire to show us anything we haven't seen before, or give us some unique characters or lines of dialogue that could generate interest.


01. DISNEY'S PINOCCHIO (2022) - 
Nobody sets out to make a bad movie.  I'm sure that this high tech remake of the 1940 animated classic, Pinocchio, was made with the best of intentions.  And while it follows the expected story beats of the Disney film, it still ends up being hollow, charmless, and about as unnecessary of a remake as that one time Vince Vaughn tried to step into Anthony Perkins' shoes and play Norman Bates.  This remake of the Disney film has been helmed by Robert Zemeckis, a director who has been famous for pushing the boundaries of special effects and animation, sometimes to brilliant effect (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), and sometimes to creepy, lifeless effect (The Polar Express, Welcome to Marwen).  His Pinocchio falls somewhere in the middle.  While the effects work here is impressive from time to time, it never quite seems convincing when the CG puppet, cat, fish, or whatever are interacting with human star Tom Hanks.  Despite the similarities to the film so many grew up with, this Pinocchio just feels as unnecessary as a remake has ever been.  The few things that have been added don't improve the story in any way, and everything just has this obnoxiously whimsical quality to it that feels forced instead of earned.  There is an emptiness here.  You know how you're supposed to be reacting to what the movie is showing you, but you don't, because it all feels so manipulative somehow.  It's ironic that a film about a wooden puppet who longs to be real and learns to love ends up being so dead inside.  Here is a movie that wants to warm our hearts, but is so mechanical in its manipulations, it ends up being artificial and completely unnecessary.  


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!




The 355, Redeeming Love, Moonfall, Blacklight, Infinite Storm, Ambulance, Firestarter, Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank, Mack & Rita, Lyle Lyle Crocodile, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody





Halloween Ends


Jurassic World: Dominion


Tom Hanks in Disney's Pinocchio


Diane Keaton in Mack & Rita


Taking a classic raunchy adult comedy like Blazing Saddles, and turning it into the uninspired animated kiddie film Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank.


Fan Bingbing in The 355 and The King's Daughter

Pierce Brosnan in The King's Daughter and Black Adam


Jeff Daniel Phillips and Sheri Moon Zombie in The Munsters


Universal Studios for The 355, Redeeming Love, Firestarter, Jurassic World: Dominion, The Munsters, and Halloween Ends

Well, that's the worst of 2022 in a nutshell.  Time to look ahead to 2023, and hope for the best.  Have a wonderful and safe new year, everybody!


Monday, December 26, 2022


is what happens when a young filmmaker's previous movie is a critical, commercial and award-winning success, and he gets to do a follow up feature with little restrictions or reigning in.  Damien Chazelle's follow up to his crowd-pleasing La La Land is the total opposite of his previous film, both in style and in story.  If his last picture was a romantic love letter to classic Hollywood musicals, then this is a self-indulgent three hour-plus look at the debauchery of classic Hollywood excess that ends up a bloated and flat-footed mess.

Just what happened here?  Was there no one present to tell him that his scenes go on far too long, and hit the same stylistic and dramatic notes over and over?  Watching the film is akin to watching a talented cast giving the material their all, while millions of dollars in sets, costumes, and recreating a bygone age are burned before our eyes.  The movie wants to lift the curtain on classic Hollywood by following a set of fictional stars as they turn to drugs, alcohol, and elaborate parties to dull the pain of the change that happened in the industry when movies changed from silent to "Talkies".  We're supposed to be shocked, but we never are, because Chazelle is too focused on his wildly out of control budget and production to squeeze any emotion out of his characters.

And yet, there are moments and individual performances that stand out here.  There's one subplot of the film that I think could have been successfully dissected from the overwhelming bloat of this film, and make a nice, small little movie.  That concerns a character named Sidney Palmer (played by Jovan Adepo), a black jazz trumpet player who gets his big break, gets to appear on screen, and live the lavish lifestyle that few could have dreamed.  Reality quickly hits when he finds himself attending parties where no one is truly interested in him, and when he is asked to darken his skin color on the set so that it won't appear he's lighter skinned than the rest of the orchestra he's playing with in a film scene.  

I thought his character arc stripped away of the movie surrounding it could have really been something.  What does his family and friends think of his success?  What's it like being a black celebrity in the 1920s and 30s?  Did he enjoy his success before the reality hit him?  A decent writer could mine a lot out of this material, and make something compelling.  Instead, Babylon is focused on three main characters mostly.  There's primarily Manny (Diego Calva), a Mexican American who is supposed to act as our eyes into the film's world.  He starts out assisting a wild Hollywood party by having to transport an elephant who's supposed to be part of the elaborate set up.  He has dreams of working in the industry, and we follow his journey from a wide-eyed innocent on the outside, to having a chance encounter with one of the biggest silent movie stars of the time, becoming his personal assistant, to helping out on film sets, to getting a position of power at a studio.

The star that Manny begins his career in Hollywood assisting is Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), who during the course of the film goes through many turbulent marriages, and finds his status fade as the industry begins to change.  Another person Manny meets at the party is Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a starlet who becomes an overnight sensation after a bit part leads to a sought after career in film, and then crumbles due to her addiction to drugs and gambling.  We follow these three characters as they rise, fall, get involved with organized crime, face personal tragedy, and deal with Hollywood's leading gossip columnist (Jean Smart), who gets a great scene late in the film when she talks to Jack about how his career is over, but that he should just be happy that he will live forever in some way on film.

All of this is told with dull predictability, with scenes that seem to go on much longer than they should.  One such example is when we get to see Nellie film her first scene for a "Talkie", and the difficulty she has hitting her mark, as well as the crew using sound equipment for the first time.  I understand that Chazelle is supposed to be showing us the frustration and repetitive nature of filmmaking, but when the scene seems to drag on close to 15 minutes, I was just ready for it to end.  The whole movie is kind of like that.  It occasionally hits on a good scene or performance, but largely, the movie is just too stretched out and obvious to be of much interest.  It's a mix of madcap excess, tragedy and personal drama, and it often comes across as scattered, bloated, and kind of sloppy.

tells us that the old days of Hollywood were full of scandal, pain, depression, and isolation.  I don't think anyone needs to spend 189 minutes hearing that.  Obviously, the over blown nature of the film is intentional, but unless you're someone like Baz Luhrmann, who is an expert on making excess in film work, you run the risk of alienating your audience, and that's exactly what Chazelle did with me here.


Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

When Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery got a very brief theatrical run over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, it drew large crowds, and many wondered if it should have gotten a full theatrical release, rather than going to streaming on Netflix.  I feel the need to join this crowd, as watching it at home, I could only imagine how fun this was to watch with an invested audience.  Regardless, even watching at home, the joy, fun and humor of this clever murder story shines through, and creates one of the most enjoyable films of the year.

Returning writer-director Rian Johnson reunites us with his lead detective character, Benoit Blanc, played once again by Daniel Craig.  And while Craig is most famous recently for his current run as James Bond, my wish is that Detective Blanc becomes his most prized character, because he truly deserves to be.  Just as in 2019's Knives Out, Craig is clearly having the time of his life playing this character who is a mix of Southern charm and oddball comedy.  He is dropped into another mystery with an isolated group of bizarre suspects, this time surrounding a tech billionaire named Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who has invited a small group of friends to his private island mansion home for a murder mystery game weekend that naturally escalates quickly into something else entirely.

All of the people summoned to the island play some part in Bron's tech company, and naturally, all have some reason to hate him.  They include a Connecticut governor (Kathryn Hahn), a lead scientist for Miles' company (Leslie Odom Jr.), a flighty supermodel turned fashion designer (Kate Hudson), and a thick headed men's rights activist (Dave Bautista).  They all knew Miles before he became the giant among men that he is today, and helped launch him to fame.  There is also an unexpected guest, Miles' former business partner Andi (Janelle Monáe), who is quite standoffish with the entire group for reasons that will not be revealed here  It's also revealed that Benoit is also an unexpected guest, as even he doesn't know why he's been invited to this island weekend.

When an actual dead body does show up during the course of the first night, we get to truly appreciate how Johnson has carefully thought through every aspect of his mystery.  He uses a combination of humor, misdirection, and jumping about the story's timeline to fill in gaps in order to tell the story, but it's never overly complicated, and tremendously enjoyable to follow along with.  As I said in my review of Johnson's original film, it's all too easy in this genre to pile on the red herrings and pull the rug out from under the audience, but with his clever script, Johnson proves his expertise with the genre.  He's not out just to fool us (though he certainly does that from time to time), but sets up the pieces so that we can put the pieces along with the film's detective hero.

Glass Onion is also aided by a highly energetic cast who seem to be having just as much fun with this material as Craig, and play out their characters beautifully.  They're an assortment of oddballs who can be suspicious, threatening, or funny whenever the script needs them to be.  Similar to before, Johnson shows a real expertise of taking a large cast filled with recognizable faces, and not only successfully have them play off each other, but create memorable individual characters.  There's even some cameos to look out for.  All of this adds up to an experience that is some of the most fun you can have currently watching a movie.  It never tries to be anything more than a puzzling murder mystery, and shows nothing but mastery at what it's trying to achieve. 

Again, my only wish is that I got to see this with a room full of fans.  I know that Netflix is planning one more film with Benoit Blanc, and I hope the character gets the chance to return to the big screen in a full-on theatrical release where he belongs.  He's just too memorable and fun to be stuck only on streaming.


Saturday, December 24, 2022

Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody

I feel like I've watched this movie many times, and indeed I have.  Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is yet another musical biofilm that takes the fascinating and troubled life of a celebrity, and molds it into a safe and sanitary Hollywood feature that's been toned down to achieve a PG-13 rating.  Just last year, Aretha Franklin got the treatment with the underwhelming film, Respect.  Now it's Houston's turn, and the end result is as generic and uninspiring as Franklin's film.

Sometimes musical biofilms can be thrilling and match the imagination and artistry of the singer they're supposed to be celebrating, such as Elvis from this past summer, or Elton John's Rocketman from a few years ago.  But all too often, these movies take a "filmed Wikipedia" approach, sprinkling a few facts about the singer's life between recreations of some of their more famous performances or music videos.  Given that the film was written by Anthony McCarten, maybe I shouldn't be surprised that this movie takes that traditional and tired approach.  After all, he's the guy who brought us Bohemian Rhapsody, which turned the life of Freddie Mercury into such a bore.  Just like that one, this movie takes snippets of Whitney's life, but never gives us a connecting strand to string these moments together to create a compelling narrative.  

British actress Naomi Ackie takes on the role of Houston here, and while she has the moves and mannerisms of the famed singer, and she lip syncs to the original music well, it often comes across as an imitation rather than a genuine performance.  She's not entirely at fault, as I think that's what director Kasi Lemmons (2019's Harriet) was going for.  The movie doesn't want to truly probe the life of its subject matter, or dig into the troubled personal life she led.  Oh, sure, we get snippets of it, but I think that the main goal of the film was to not offend anyone who might have known her, and gloss over as much as possible her addictions to drugs which led to her tragic passing in 2012, or her problematic marriage to Bobby Brown (played here by Ashton Sanders).  So, the obvious question becomes if you're going to make a softball movie that doesn't actually dig into the story of what happened, what's the point of the film itself?

If it's to simply celebrate Whitney Houston's career, there's lots of ways to do it without pretending to be a hard-hitting docudrama that you don't want to be in the first place.  Most of the people in Houston's life who appear in the film are genuinely scrubbed clean here.  Her record producer Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) is more or less a big softie who only wants the best for her.  Her best friend and former girlfriend, Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), is not given as much attention as she should, especially the romantic relationship she shared with Whitney early in her life.  Only Whitney's father, John (Clarke Peters), gets to be portrayed as the heavy in this movie.  Good thing John Houston is gone in real life, so he can't complain about how he's been depicted here.  Everybody has been molded into a role that fits the predetermined "rise and fall" narrative of the film.

The movie actually manages to get worse as it goes on, as the last half becomes a depressing depiction of Whitney losing the battle to her various personal demons.  It'd be one thing if the film was actually digging into the subject matter and allowing us to feel something, but like the material covering the rest of her life and career, it treats this subject matter with a kind of passive indifference.  Rather than being emotional and tragic, it comes across as kind of exploitative and ghoulish.  The movie hasn't earned the kind of emotions it wants to inspire in its final moments, and not even trying to get inside the singer's mind in her final moments, having her tearfully sing at her reflection in the mirror, is enough to lift this material.  

Fans who want to celebrate Whitney Houston can do so much better than I Wanna Dance with Somebody.  It's yet another film that lacks the basic understanding of what made the singer so complex.  By focusing solely on her biggest hits and flashes of her life that have been poorly edited with characters simply entering and exiting the story at random, the movie winds up doing a great disservice.


Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Even if Puss in Boots: The Last Wish doesn't rank among the very best animated films of the year, it's still a bright and sparkling entertainment that is miles above Disney's most recent effort, Strange World.  Its secret weapon is Antonio Banderas, who has never been better at portraying the dashing cat who is a hero, an outlaw, and all-around ladies man than he is here.  The movie successfully gives new layers to his classic portrayal, while also giving Banderas plenty of opportunities to show his humor.

This is a lively and joyful film that finds Puss facing his own mortality.  After a rousing battle with a massive rock giant (a sequence that is thrilling in how it is animated), the cat learns that he has used up almost all of his nine lives.  With a wolf-like grim reaper (voice by Wagner Moura) hunting him down, Puss is forced to go into isolation and prepares to live his remaining years the pet of a crazy cat lady (Da'Vine Joy Rudolph).  Fate has other plans, as it turns out that Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the Three Bears Crime Family are seeking Puss to do a job for them.  Having Goldilocks and her Bear henchmen (who are voiced by Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone and Samson Kayo) act like British mobsters from a Guy Ritchie caper film is just one of the brilliant ideas the screenplay has.

The mobsters are allied with the notorious Jack Horner (John Mulaney), who holds a secret grudge against fairy tale characters, and has been capturing and collecting magical artifacts over the years to make him powerful.  Now he's come across a map that can lead to the legendary Wishing Star.  Realizing that the Star can grant Puss more lives, the cat swipes the map, and goes on his own quest, reuniting with his ally from the last Puss film Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), and newcomer Perrito (Harvey Guillén), a wannabe therapy dog who just wants a friend.  The adventure that the three unlikely friends embark on is not exactly original, but it's filled with some truly laugh out loud moments, and a fast-paced animation style that draws on both traditional CG animation and Japanese anime during the battle sequences.

And while this may be Banderas' show (and rightly so), the supporting voice cast is just as wonderful, getting off some wonderful and often hilarious line readings.  Puss in Boots has the same satirical quality to it as the Shrek films that inspired it, and uses it in such a way that will appeal to both kids and adults.  The movie is surprisingly action-heavy, and not afraid to kill off the henchmen that Jack Horner employs in his quest for power (in bloodless and fantasy-based ways, obviously), and remains constantly thrilling with how fast paced and exciting it gets at times.  It at least manages to create some real stakes for its lead hero, as the villain is truly playing for keeps here, and doesn't care who or what gets in his way.  But beyond that, the movie has a genuine heart as Puss is forced to truly evaluate the life he has led, and what is truly important to him.  

All of these elements took me by surprise, and added to my enjoyment.  It manages to be thrilling, truly funny and thoughtful in different ways, creating an entertainment that is rewarding and thought provoking.  It doesn't pretend to be anything beyond an animated blockbuster, but it also has more on its mind than you expect walking in.  Director Joel Crawford also gets off some stunning individual moments throughout that truly grab the eye.  There is a life here that I just did not detect in Disney's latest animated offering just a month ago.  Strange World had some great images, but a story, script and characters that were about as bland as cardboard.  This grabbed my attention early, and refused to let go.

My wish for The Last Wish is that families will turn out for this in the presence of the Avatar juggernaut currently choking theaters. (Walking through the halls of my cinema, I counted that one movie playing on some six different screens.) At least with this, you don't have to kill almost an entire afternoon to watch it.


Saturday, December 17, 2022

The Fabelmans

Steven Spielberg has said that all of his films are personal in some way, and contain a part of him or his beliefs.  His 34th feature, The Fabelmans, is a semi-autobiographical love letter to cinema in general, and is based not just on his own childhood and experiences, but on the growth and pain that his entire family endured.

Unlike a lot of projects in which the filmmaker or writer reflects on their own past, this is not a self-centered piece, seen through the eyes of the young hero meant to represent the artist telling the story.  It is a sweeping drama that covers a number of subjects, and winds up not just being a coming of age story, but also a drama of a family struggling to hold itself together through change.  Such changes include the brilliant engineer father of the family Burt (Paul Dano), whose growing success forces the family to move on more than one occasion, which creates tension within the family in more ways than one.  It also covers a change within the young hero's mother, Mitzi (a wonderful Michelle Williams), who despite never losing her love for her husband and children, finds herself pulled in a different direction than the man she is married to.

All of this is seen through the eyes of a boy named Sammy (played as a child by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) , who is supposed to represent Spielberg as a child.  When we first see him, his parents take him to his first movie at the theater, which ends up being Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth.  Sammy is instantly engrossed, and perhaps a bit terrified, by the entire experience.  A scene within the film depicting a train wreck is of particular fascination to him, and it begins a life-long obsession.  He starts with attempting to recreate the sequence with a toy train set he receives for Hanukkah.  And while his father forbids him to wreck his toy train, his mother secretly allows him to film it with the family's movie camera, so that he can revisit and watch it whenever he desires.  This creates an early contrast between how his parents both view his love of film.  While Burt is supportive of Sammy's desire to make movies, he calls it a "hobby".  Mitzi, meanwhile, knows something about artistic passion, being a skilled pianist who could have been great if given the chance.

As Sammy grows to a teen (now played by Gabriel LaBelle), he begins enlisting his sisters and his friends into making short, homemade movies, and creating clever effects, such as punching small holes in the film at the right moments during editing in order to create a "spark" effect to represent guns firing when he makes a Western.  And while the film is mainly focused on Sammy's coming of age story of dealing with his burgeoning dreams of filmmaking and prejudice due to his Jewish family background, this is ultimately the family's story, and that's what sets it apart.  The Fabelmans is a movie with the right title, as each member of the family plays a key role in the story, from his sisters who usually end up playing roles in his homemade movies (he wraps them up in toilet paper to play mummies in a horror film), to close family friend "Uncle" Bennie (Seth Rogen), who creates a lasting impact in Sammy's life in more ways than one.

These are characters who come across as having actual lives and interests outside of the main story centered on Sammy's film pursuits.  Part of why this is such a rewarding drama is that it's not a personal glimpse at the filmmaker as a young man, but because everyone who surrounds him is such a well developed and fleshed out personality.  Even the local bully who harasses Sammy at school ends up being so much more than he initially appears in a crucial and powerful scene late in the film.  This is ultimately a story about both finding your place in the world, as well as how finding that place can sometimes mean the people closest to you have to go their separate ways.  It's a mature film, with a sensational screenplay provided by Spielberg and frequent collaborator Tony Kushner that gives ample attention to both the triumphs and the failings of these individual characters.

Spielberg has stated that The Fabelmans is not completely based on his own family, but everything here has a ring of truth, and the honesty of closely examining where you came from.  It's a highly entertaining and enriching film, and stands among the best of the year, and easily one of the most powerful films the director has worked on lately.


Friday, December 16, 2022

Avatar: The Way of Water

The last time James Cameron did a sequel, we got 1991's Terminator 2: Judgement Day, which is arguably one of the greatest action films ever, and easily the best Schwarzenegger movie ever.  Given this, his long-awaited return to his 2009 smash, Avatar, has huge expectations by many.  To those who fell in love with the world of Pandora and its inhabitants, you will be pleased to know that this is basically the first movie kicked to 11, and is quite the visual feast.  Look beyond the visuals, and Avatar: The Way of Water is on less stable ground.

To the many who made the first film the most successful movie of all time (second most successful in terms of inflation), this probably will not matter, as this sequel is pretty much everything you loved about the first.  Apparently, Cameron's approach with this was to revisit everything that worked last time, only with the eye candy kicked up.  With the right screening conditions (IMAX, 3D, superior surround sound), I'm sure this is quite the experience that only the theater can provide.  But, just like before, I walked away mixed and a bit cold.  To those who fell in love last time, don't listen to this old Grump.  Go, enjoy, and get lost in the fantasy.  I just didn't find the first one all that fun, and despite the improved effects, I didn't find much to get excited about here.

Just like before, Cameron has emphasized creating an immersive theatrical experience, while relegating aspects like plot, character development, and story to the wayside.  When you get right down to it, The Way of Water is (no pun intended) shallow.  The movie repeats many of the same story beats, characters, and mistakes as before.  Again, those who embraced the experience and didn't care about such shortcomings before will feel the same here.  I guess I should have been tipped off when every single article hyping this film has emphasized the cost and expense of putting this sequel (and more to come) together, rather than emphasizing the script and writing process.  This movie is all about making money, and it's sure to make a lot.

The sequel kicks off over a decade after the events of the first, and finds Jake Sully (a motion captured Sam Worthington) living peacefully on Pandora after having his mind and soul fully transferred into his alien Na'vi body.  He now has a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), including children, some of whom are adopted, such as the human boy who lives with the Na'vi nicknamed Spider (Jake Champion) and sports a Tarzan-style loincloth throughout the film.  As the film opens, the "sky people" (aka humans) have returned, this time wishing to colonize Pandora by force.  Led by the ruthless General Ardmore (Edie Falco), they are intent on making the planet their home, as Earth is no longer habitable, and they will force any of the local inhabitants to bend to their will.

Part of the General's plan is to place the minds and memories of fallen military soldiers into the bodies of Na'vi Avatars, which leads to the previous film's villain, Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), coming back and looking for revenge on Jake and Nevtiri for killing him last time.  Realizing that his presence in the forest tribe will endanger the people, Jake and his family decide to flee, while the vicious Colonel begins a violent search across Pandora for his enemies.  Jake's search for sanctuary finds him and his family taking refuge with the water-based Metkayina clan, where they must learn the ways of the clan, and the secrets of inhabiting with the vast sea and all of its life.  

The Way of Water packs all of this information within the first half hour or so through forced exposition and a dull voice-over narrative from Sam Worthington, who never seems as invested as he should telling us this story.  After this, the center part of the film mainly deals with Jake and Nevtiri's kids interacting with the Metkavina children.  Again, it's all masterfully shot and looks gorgeous, but there is next to no character development on display.  The kids are all one-note personalities (one's cute and inquisitive, one is strong and brave, the other wants to be strong and brave like the older brother, but takes risks), while the returning Jake and Nevtiri are mainly pushed to the background until the third act, and given absolutely nothing to do while their kids frolic with undersea life and play pranks on each other.  We don't even learn much about the water clan, who seem exactly like Nevtiri's forest clan, only they base their society around water.

Combine all of this with dialogue that sounds like middle age people trying to sound "hip" and "young" (the kids say "bro" and "dude" so much, it could inspire a drinking game), and the fact that the human villains are so one-note in their evil that they make Skeletor from the 1980s He-Man cartoon look like a complex creation of villainy, and you have an experience that is beautiful to look at, but awful in just about every regard of storytelling, dialogue, character building, and the notion of advancing this world or its characters beyond anything we saw last time.  It's an awkward experience.  I wanted to be swept away, but the juvenile level of the screenplay kept me firmly grounded the entire time.  Here is a movie that gives its audience remarkable images, but the story and everything else seems to have been given no care.

When I reviewed the original in 2009, I said that I couldn't recommend it as a movie, but still suggested it should be seen at the theater and in the right circumstances at least once.  I'm of the same mind here, and I have a feeling that those who loved the first will be of the same mind.  If you can get lost in the beauty and forget the fact that nothing here is new, original or deep, I envy you.  I really wanted to shut my brain off and enjoy this, but the leaden dialogue, thin characters and non-existent plot kept my critical brain wide awake.  I understand that we need blockbusters that are not based on comic books, and Avatar: The Way of Water provides.  But when Top Gun: Maverick proved how to do such a blockbuster so beautifully, this makes Cameron's effort seem more bland.


Friday, December 09, 2022

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

To state that Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio (currently streaming on Netflix) is better than the live action remake of the 1940 animated film currently streaming on Disney+ goes without saying.  This is one of the rare instances where the same story has inspired both one of the best and worst films of the same year.  What del Toro does is add layers of satire and social commentary, as well as adding his love of supernatural elements, all without losing the innocence and charm of the original story.

Using some of the best stop motion animation I have seen recently, del Toro and fellow screenwriter Patrick McHale (the Cartoon Network miniseries Over the Garden Wall) take the story everyone is familiar with, and add enough emotion, passion, humor and sadness to make it stand out on its own.  It draws from a time period when family entertainment was not afraid to "push boundaries", be scary, or even be tragic in their telling.  The movie is fine for children, but will likely hit adults on an entirely different level.  It's a joyous retelling, and considering that this has been the filmmaker's passion project for a number of decade, I am proud to say that it not only is distinctively the work of del Toro in both its visuals and storytelling, but that the passion for the story comes through in every conceivable way.

Set in Italy during the early days of World War II, we meet up with the sad puppet maker Gepetto (voice by David Bradley) as he mourns the recent loss of his 10-year-old son (Gregory Mann) in an accident.  In a fit of drunken sadness, he fashions a puppet in the form of his son, which is brought to life through the magic of a passing Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton), who takes pity on the old woodcarver, and grants his wish.  The little puppet (also voiced by Mann) is boisterous, curious, and not always willing to follow the rules, which makes Gepetto second guess his love at times, creating a unique angle where the creator is disappointed that his puppet does not match the ideal vision of his beloved son.

To help Pinocchio become a true boy, he is guided by the somewhat pompous Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor), who made a home in the tree that eventually became Pinocchio, and has now been charged with guiding him through life.  In his journey, Pinocchio becomes torn by different figures who wish to guide him.  Aside from Gepetto and Sebastian, there is also the crooked carnival showman (Christophe Waltz) who wishes to make him his star attraction, as well as a fascist military man (Ron Perlman) who sees the little wooden boy as the ultimate soldier, since he technically cannot be killed.  It is this struggle for control over the boy's future, as well as Gepetto's eventual acceptance of him, that creates the heart of the film.

It is the way that del Toro takes these elements, and combines it with the story we know that makes this telling of Pinocchio so memorable.  He also adds some of his own distinct style, such as the depiction of the afterlife that the puppet is sent to each time he "dies", and the magical creatures that inhabit our world, yet rarely interact with humans.  All of this creates a wondrous entertainment, which is aided by the beautiful and unearthly stop motion animation.  Add an incredible level of detail to the backgrounds and the character designs (especially the more mystical creatures that Pinocchio encounters in his journey), and you have what is easily one of the best visual experiences of the year.  More than that, the screenplay knows how to juggle humor, mature themes, and childhood whimsy in a way as to be effortless.

And like the best family films, it can be enjoyed on different levels by anyone who watches it.  Kids will relate to the young hero's carefree personality, and how he looks at the world, as well as the comic relief supplied by the Cricket, who mainly exists to be humorously crushed or flattened. (Like a Looney Tunes character, he always bounces back, no matter what.) Adults, on the other hand, will appreciate the maturity at which the film tackles such subjects as war, family, and finding your place in the world.  Its blend of childhood wonder and social commentary is never forced or heavy handed, and the wonderful voice cast (which also includes the likes of Cate Blanchett, Finn Wolfhard, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) perfectly tell the story at hand.

Guillermo del Toro has created a truly magnificent telling here, and one that hopefully will be celebrated for many years to come.  It's truly one of the greats of the year, not just in the field of animation, but in terms of overall filmmaking. 


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