Reel Opinions


Friday, April 28, 2023

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret


Back in 2016, writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig gave us The Edge of Seventeen, one of the best teen comedy-dramas in recent memory.  Now she gets her name connected to the best preadolescent comedy drama in recent memory by adapting Judy Blume's seminal 1970 Young Adult novel, Are You There God?  It's Me, Margaret.  Supposedly Blume had resisted Hollywood adapting the story for over 40 years, but she was smart to entrust it in the hands of Craig and super-producer James L. Brooks.

Just as the novel, the movie is a frank, funny and frequently moving look at a preteen girl's experiences with puberty and religion.  Also like the novel, the movie pulls no punches in its subject matter.  In a day and age where the subject of what children should be exposed to is frequently discussed on cable news on a daily basis, here is a movie that proves to be an eye-opening experience on how these sensitive subjects should be treated.  The film never once talks down to its audience, and is refreshingly honest.  This never once feels like a Hollywood production, and feels more like a memory of an actual youth.  An equally smart decision was to not update the story, and instead make it a period piece of when the book was originally written.  It's setting and soundtrack choices seem organic, and never gimmicky, and gives the film a lived-in quality rather than that of a studio set.

Naturally, a film like this rises or falls based on who plays the titular Margaret, and the filmmakers have struck gold in casting relative newcomer Abby Ryder Fortson, who up to now was known for playing Paul Rudd's daughter in the first two Ant-Man films, but gets to make a huge impression in her first leading role.  She nails every single laugh and emotion as a girl on the cusp of puberty, right around the same time her parents make the surprise announcement that her dad (Benny Safdie) got a new job, and they are leaving New York City and moving to the suburbs in New Jersey.  This takes Margaret not just far from her familiar grounds and friends, but also from her beloved grandma Sylvia (a scene-stealing Kathy Bates) who is also not thrilled by the news of the move. (She likes to remind the family of a fact she read that states elderly people have shorter life expectancy when their loved ones aren't around.)

Margaret begins having regular private conversations with God, wanting some kind of guidance with the emotions she's feeling about having to move.  The thing is, she doesn't know what to think about God.  Her mother Barbara (a wonderful Rachel McAdams) came from a conservative Christian background, while her husband is Jewish.  Her parents want their daughter to make up her own mind about God and religion, but this is hard when Margaret learns that Barbara's parents disowned her when they found out the man she wanted to marry was not Christian.  She tries to understand religion by exploring different options on her own, but like for a lot of people, it's a complicated matter, and she never feels closer to God no matter what she tries.  

After the move, Margaret befriends a group of girls at her new school who are obsessed with the usual topics of 12-year-old girls such as boys, gossiping about that one girl in class who is abnormally tall and supposedly has been wearing a bra since the Fourth Grade, and of competing with each other over who can have their period first.  All of this is treated with the same frankness as the original novel, making the film somewhat of a small cinematic miracle.  Blume herself (who serves as one of the lead producers) has gone on to state that she feels the movie is even better than her own novel, and while this may sound controversial to its legions of fans, she may have a point.  The movie is joyous, hilarious, heartfelt, and beautiful in all the right ways, and simply is delightful to watch from beginning to end.

Are You There God?  It's Me, Margaret has been made with the utmost care, and nothing has been overlooked.  It hits all the right notes in its dialogue, direction and performances, and creates the perfect tone throughout.  When you sit through as many movies as I do, you start to realize just how rare that truly is.  It's also rare for a film aimed at family audiences to be as upfront about the issues of religion, puberty and sexual awakening as this.  Yes, the movie earns its PG-13 rating, but it is never really offensive in any way, except perhaps to those types who want to protect children from reality.  Having this movie come out in the political and social climate we currently find ourselves in makes it all the more important and necessary to watch.


Here is one of the great films of the year, one that lifted my spirits.  For parents with children of a certain age, it should almost be required viewing.  Unfortunately, it's bound to be swallowed up by the big Summer competition that will start hitting the first weekend of May, but just like the book that inspired it, it's sure to be beloved by those who discover it for years to come.

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Beau is Afraid


I have no doubt in my mind that Beau is Afraid will attract a cult following, but it is a cult I will not be joining anytime soon.  Here is a movie to watch in stunned silence.  Oh, it has plenty of artistic merit to it, but what in the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks is the audience supposed to make of it?  This of course means that there will be plenty out there who deem it a masterpiece, and accuse me of missing the boat.  This time around, I'm glad I did.

While not entirely blameless till now, writer-director Ari Aster has shown genuine skill and sense with his previous two features, Hereditary and Midsommar, the later I actually found kind of brilliant until the movie started spinning its wheels and dragging its feet due to an extended two and a half hour running time.  This time, Aster keeps the skill but leaves the sense behind, starting by making this movie run even longer at a torturous three hours.  I don't remember when a movie has felt so long, or when I have been so eager for the end credits to begin to roll.  This film started life as a short film some ten years ago, and maybe it should have stayed that way.  Here is a movie where the filmmaker is definitely swinging for the fences, but he has absolutely no idea what he's swinging at as he combines elements of a dark comedy, a family drama, and a horror film.  This alone is intriguing, until you realize that not one of these elements is successful.

It's hero, Beau Wasserman (Joaquin Phoenix), is a middle aged man with a shopping list full of phobias.  This started at birth, as his mother (Patti LuPone) told him as a child that his father died while they were having sex and conceiving Beau.  Therefore, the guy is afraid to be intimate with any woman, as she tells him the condition he died from is hereditary.  Beau lives in a shady apartment building, and on a street where apparently every weirdo, psycho and serial killer lurks right outside the door, waiting to jump on poor Beau if he dares set foot outside the relative safety of his apartment.  As the film opens, he's planning to make a flight to his mom's home in order to celebrate the memory of his father on the anniversary of his death, but a strange series of events leads Beau trapped in his own apartment, and eventually even locked outside of it.

He tries to call his mother to explain everything, only to have a UPS delivery driver answer, and tell him his mother is dead and decapitated from a falling chandelier.  The driver found the woman that way while dropping off a package.  This is the kick off point for Beau to make what is supposed to be an incredible journey to return home, but really just turns into a series of run-ins with some bizarrely inane characters who never make an impression.  He is hit by a car while running naked down the street (long story), and finds himself in the care of a sunny married couple (Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan) who live with their disgruntled teenage daughter (Kylie Rogers), who is upset because Beau is using her bedroom while he recovers.  They're also taking care of a psychotic army veteran who fought with their fallen son in the war.  After that situation goes wrong, Beau finds himself lost in the woods and befriending a traveling theater group.

The less said about the plot developments that follow when Beau finds his way home, the better.  Not for the sake of spoilers, but they're simply too idiotic to reveal.  Again, there is no doubt going to be a great number of people who proclaim Beau is Afraid as a work of genius.  I also have no doubt that Aster knew how polarizing his movie was going to be, and just didn't care what people thought.  This is his vision, and early on, I kind of got behind it.  But as the movie started to drag oh so slowly and continued to leave all coherency and sense behind, I grew restless.  The movie exists solely to get an extreme reaction, but the most extreme reaction I got from it was sheer boredom.  I was never amused or entranced, and as the movie just lingered on one endless scene after another, I grew angry.

Aster lets so many of his scenes drag on to such ridiculous lengths that I was squirming during some of them.  There are a lot of filmmakers I admire who could use better editing, but never have I wanted to speed up a film quite like this.  Sitting through this was a lifeless experience, as I never felt much, despite the technical skill that was frequently on display.  That's because the characters that inhabit the story are just so bizarre, and not in a good way.  These are not people I wanted to spend an entire movie watching, especially not at this length.  Beau's emotional journey, and especially its destination, felt like a long, dry road to nowhere in particular, and though I can't quite claim I expected to see a lot of the things the film's final moments showed me, I don't think I wanted to see them in the first place.


Just like there will be many who proclaim this a work of art, I also believe there will be many who view this as an overlong, insufferable self-indulgent piece of junk.  Maybe you'll see this on some Best of the Year lists come December.  You'll find it on a different list of mine at the same time.


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Saturday, April 22, 2023

Guy Ritchie's The Covenant


Were it not for the fact that his name is in the title, you would be hard pressed to guess that Guy Ritchie's The Covenant was even made by the man.  The filmmaker has long excelled at visually busy crime caper comedies overflowing with snarky wit, and while he has ventured out of his comfort zone before, this is still far removed from anything he has ever done.  It's also probably his best film in a while.

Rather than focus on visual flare and fast-paced action (though those elements do show up once in a while, proving he hasn't completely left his wheelhouse), this is a solemn human drama that is quietly effective.  Rather than suave criminals and spies, his topic this time around is the recent war in the Middle East and themes of sacrifice and brotherhood.  The film is a fictional story, but feels like it could have been lifted from the headlines, and most likely real events did play out similar to it.  The focus here is on Afghans who aided the American military, usually as interpreters, and despite being promised safety and Visas for their efforts, were often forgotten and left behind due to legal red tape.

Jake Gyllenhaal has one of the leads here as Sgt. John Kinley, who leads a small team of soldiers that seek out explosive devices.  It's 2018, and Kinley by this point knows that the war is likely to never truly be won, but he still gives it his all so that he can one day come home to California where his family is waiting for him.  After he loses his Afghan interpreter in a bomb blast, John needs to select a new one, and chooses a local mechanic by the name of Ahmed Abdullah (Dar Salim).  Ahmed has a family of his own, with a wife and a new baby, and is only helping the Americans because the Taliban killed his son.  He desperately needs the money, as well as safe passage for him and his family into the U.S., since helping the Americans automatically puts a target on his back in his home country.

While the idea of two men bonding despite their differences on the field of battle is nothing new, both Gyllenhaal and Salim deliver electrifying performances here, and are completely believable as men who are world-weary for different reasons, yet have more in common than they initially think.  They slowly learn to trust one another, and that trust is pushed to the extreme when Kinley's squad is ambushed, with only John and Ahmed surviving, and with John being mortally wounded in the process.  This is the most thrilling part of The Covenant, as we watch Ahmed try various means to carry his fallen ally across the desert to safety.  He is a wanted man, and has no idea who he can trust, but he is determined to get his friend to safety, even though he knows he likely will not be safe himself.

After the harrowing moments of survival and perseverance, the movie loses steam shortly when John is allowed to come home, and becomes enraged with the system that is buried with red tape.  He wants to get Ahmed and his family a Visa so that they can come to America, but the process is so complex that John becomes outraged.  He soon gets a chance to go on his own mission to return to Afghanistan and track Ahmed and his wife down, so that he can bring them back with him.  Here, the film finds itself again, and it concludes with some spectacular action sequences.  The moments depicting the man under fire and making brave journeys of survival are when the film is the most alive.  Luckily, Ritchie understands this, and emphasizes these moments at every turn.

This is the kind of film that makes you feel like you are experiencing the intensity, the anger, and the hardships that the two leads endure throughout, creating a film that is all at once engaging and raw.  While the two lead performances certainly do help sell the emotion, it's the script (co-written by Ritchie) and his direction that adds to the realism of the situation as it unfolds.  It is this style that he brings that makes this somewhat familiar material seem fresh once again.  There is also a wonderful supporting cast on display, though I do wish that the wives of both men had larger roles to play in the grand scheme of things, as they mainly exist to give support and worry about their husbands.  Still, the power of the film cannot be denied, and it's evident for almost its entire two hour run time.


Guy Ritchie's The Covenant
may not be what you expect from the filmmaker, but perhaps it's for the best that he left his usual tricks at home this time around, and he just focused on giving us an intense, straight-forward war drama that sticks with you long after it's over.

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Evil Dead Rise


The characters in Evil Dead Rise are only as smart as they need to be, and considering they're in a horror movie, you don't need to be that smart.  This is the fifth film outing for the cult franchise, and the second one not to feature its original director, Sam Raimi, or lead star Bruce Campbell, though both are credited as producers here. You might remember there was a film back in 2013 that tried to do the same thing.  Like that entry, the filmmakers show a true understanding and love for the earlier films, but don't quite nail the perfect blend of gore and slapstick humor that Raimi perfected over his films.

The film was originally targeted for a streaming release, but after test audiences reacted well, it was bumped up to a large theatrical push.  That probably explains the film's low budget and small cast of characters, both of which writer-director Lee Cronin uses to good effect.  Besides, when Raimi was in charge of the series, he wasn't exactly working with big Hollywood money, either.  Cronin actually fakes out his audience by having the opening scene take place at a familiar cabin by the lake like the first two Evil Dead films, only to switch the action immediately afterward to a decaying apartment building in Los Angeles.  It's here that single mother Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) runs a hectic home with her three kids, including teens Danny (Morgan Davies) and Bridget (Gabrielle Echols) and her youngest daughter Kassie (Nell Fisher).  Right around the time that Ellie's estranged sister Beth (Lily Sullivan) moves in after being on tour with a rock group, there is a massive earthquake which cracks open the surface of the building's parking garage, revealing a hidden room beneath.

The curious kids unwisely decide to explore the unearthed chamber, with young Danny eventually finding the infamous Necronomicon (aka The Book of the Dead) and some dusty old records.  Those who are already familiar with this franchise already know these kids are in trouble, but Danny stupidly opens the cursed book, plays the records, and summons the demon that immediately goes about possessing their mother.  With Ellie now officially a "Deadite", it's up to Beth to protect the children.  Right when happens, the movie literally drowns itself in blood and over the top gore, with a helping of dark comedy, as is to be expected.  Cronin also throws in plenty of series staples, such as giving the hero a shotgun and a chainsaw to battle the increasing hoard of demonic evil, and pretty much having every inch of their body soaked in blood by the end.  This, as fans will tell you, is as it should be.

However, like the 2013 Evil Dead, this movie takes itself a lot more seriously than earlier sequels, and is more in line with Raimi's original.  Yes, Rise is plenty ridiculous, but it mainly seems to be trying to be an all-out horror film.  This leads to the biggest issue I had, which is that the film is never once actually scary.  It's bloody and over the top, but never generates any suspense or tension.  This is certainly a well-made movie.  Cronin shows a real directorial flare with the way he moves his camera and stages the action, and the cast is definitely capable, getting some emotional moments in between the scenes where they're getting hacked to pieces and sprayed with bodily fluids.  It just never generated any real excitement or scares for me.


By all accounts, Evil Dead Rise is the movie it should be, I just was wishing for a bit more tension to go with the impressive technical credits and homages to the original.  It's actually a much better film than the remake from 2013, but just like that one, the fun that Raimi and Campbell brought is sorely lacking, as is the suspense.

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Sunday, April 16, 2023

The Pope's Exorcist


The Pope's Exorcist
is an energetic ride through familiar material that's been made with enough craft and a sense of humor that I found myself smiling through a lot of it.  And even though it is based on the writings of a real person, I didn't believe a second of it was true, nor do I think I was supposed to.  Director Julius Avery boils the exorcism movie down to its bare essentials here, and still manages to grab our attention.

The film's secret weapon is its star, Russell Crowe, who after years of playing heavier action-filled roles gets to have a bit of fun here as Father Amorth, the Pope's personal exorcist who has a few basic rules when dealing with demons.  One of his key rules is to have a sense of humor, as demons hate humor.  The movie remembers this as well, and gets to display it, such as a scene when Amorth is confronting a demon-possessed little boy, who tells him that he is the Father's nightmare.  Amorth's response is, "France winning the World Cup"?  It's little moments like this that caught me off guard during the familiar mysterious knocking on the walls of a dark, secluded house, or the deep rumblings on the soundtrack that seem to come from the pits below.

Mind you, all of that stuff that comes with the exorcism movie territory has been done well here.  It might not be new, but it's at least not lazy, and the cast is selling the material the right way.  Outside of Crowe, the film's focus is a dysfunctional family with a mother trying to keep it together (Alex Essoe), a rebellious teenage daughter (Laurel Marsden) and a frightened little boy (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) who has been rendered mute ever since he witnessed his father die in a car accident.  They're renovating a house, which happens to awaken a demon buried deep within, and soon the youngest child is the primary target of the evil force.  Amorth is sent to Spain to investigate the case, and is partnered with a young priest (Daniel Zovatto) with a troubled past.

The reason behind the demonic haunting and what the two discover underneath the house is too incredible to be believed, but it works in the moment, because The Pope's Exorcist is the kind of fast-paced thriller that captures your attention at the moment, and leaves you shaking your head as you walk out the door.  At least it seems to know that its ludicrous, with not just its sense of humor, but also with how over the top it is in its violence and intensity..  This is a movie that plays to the rafters, and can probably be heard two cinemas over as it plays out, but isn't that what you expect from a movie like this?  The movie has enough technical merit and Crowe's lead performance were enough to keep me invested, even when I wasn't really buying what was on the screen.  It's a movie that knows what it's selling, and how to sell it.


Maybe it's because I saw this immediately following the lifeless Mafia Mamma, and was ready for something overblown with life and goofy such as this.  You can call The Pope's Exorcist a lot of things, but you can't accuse it of being boring. 

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Mafia Mamma


Toni Collette stars in and produces Mafia Mamma, a movie that wants to be a female empowerment comedy, but lacks the energy and the knowledge to hit the marks it wants to.  Collette's character is supposed to go through a metamorphosis from a meek housewife who is walked on all over by her unfaithful man-child husband (Tim Daish) and her sexist bosses at work, to a take-charge woman who doesn't need a man in her life to make her happy after she takes charge of her estranged grandfather's criminal empire in Italy.

The problem is that there is a lifelessness here that not even an actress as immensely talented as Collette can overcome.  This is a lame, underwritten satire that is trying to say something, but it gets lost in a mess of characters we care little about, and share such little chemistry that it never generates any excitement.  The fact that the movie can't even film Italy or its food in an interesting way is the least of its problems.  Maybe at some point this had potential as a fish-out-of-water comedy with a violent streak and a message, but it got withered away by a production that doesn't capture the slightest bit of life.  We watch the movie play out, failing to deliver on the slightest laugh, and I started to wonder what Collette was even doing here, other than she wanted a few months holiday in a faraway place.

The movie opens with the death of mafia Don Guiseppe Balbano (Alessandro Bressanello), who is gunned down by a rival family.  To the surprise of everyone in his family, he leaves everything to his American granddaughter Kristin (Collette), who has never met her grandfather or what he did for a living.  Kristin sees this as a chance to get away from her unfaithful husband, and to help combat the feelings of sadness she's experiencing over her teenage son (Tommy Rodger) going off to college, so she leaps at the chance to go to Italy to attend the funeral.  It is Don Balbano‚Äôs trusted advisor, Bianca (Monica Bellucci), who fills Kristin in on what her grandfather did, and what she is expected to now fill in his absence.  

Naturally, there is skepticism within the family about Kristin taking charge, especially with her cousin, Fabrizio (Eduardo Scarpetta), who thinks he should be in charge of the family.  But with time, Kristin is able to arrange a peace agreement with the rival family, starts a wine making business, and even falls in love with a local man (Giulio Corso).  We're supposed to be watching Kristin evolve and take charge for the first time in her life, but the movie has such a lazy air to it that I never felt the sense of liberation that was supposed to be coming off the screen.  It's not just the fact that the characters are largely broad stereotypes who speak only in cliches of the movie genre they represent.  It's the fact that the movie has just been directed by Catherine Hardwicke with such an impersonal touch.

Mafia Mamma is filled with moments that simply don't land, because the energy isn't there.  We can tell that Collette is trying to sell this somewhat goofy and sunny character who finds herself dragged into the criminal underworld, and doesn't quite know how to act. (She bakes muffins for a mafia family meeting.) But, she shares absolutely no chemistry with anybody else on the screen.  Monica Bellucci is supposed to play her best friend within the crime family, but she disappears for such long periods of time, they never get to build the close relationship that the movie wants them to.  Likewise, her relationship with the handsome man she meets during her time there never takes off or creates any passion, it makes her final declaration of independence near the end of the film meaningless, because I never bought their love in the first place.


This is the kind of movie that wants to make you laugh and feel empowered, but the audience watches in stone-cold silence, because it achieves nothing it sets out to do.  It's been flatly directed, sloppily edited, and just a sad experience all around, because you know the people involved are capable of making the movie they wanted to, and you just have to wonder what went wrong.

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Saturday, April 15, 2023

Suzume


The latest animated film from acclaimed Japanese writer-director, Makoto Shinkai, Suzume includes a lot of elements of his previous two hits (2016's Your Name and 2019's Weathering With You), mixing high fantasy with teen romance drama and a sense of sadness.  His latest also adds touches of the flat-out bizarre to great humorous effect.  The end result is an endearing film that should not be ignored by adult animation fans.

The movie's emotional core is centered around a very real event in Japan, where in 2011, a tsunami-earthquake took the lives of 20,000 people, and caused the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster.  The titular heroine, Suzume Iwato (voiced by Nanoka Hara), lost her mother in that disaster when she was young, and her dreams are still haunted by the memories of it, as well as the mysterious woman she encountered who comforted her.  Now in her Junior year of high school, Suzume lives with her overly protective aunt (Eri Fukatsu), her mother's sister, who works long hours and has given up a lot in her life in order to provide for her niece.  One day while riding her bike to school, Suzume comes upon a mysterious man named Souta (Hokuto Matsumura) who tells her that he is looking for ruins.  She directs him to an abandoned part of town, and he seemingly walks out of her life.

However, Suzume cannot get the man out of her mind for some reason.  It gets even stranger for her when at school, she sees a billowing cloud of smoke rising from the ruins she guided him to, but seemingly none of her friends can see it.  She races to those ruins out of concern, and at first finds no sign of the man, but rather a mysterious door that is standing in the middle of a pool of shallow water.  When she opens the door, she impossibly finds another world of sweeping fields and star-lit skies beyond it.  However, when she tries to enter it, she just passes right through it, as if the door is not there.  She also finds a mysterious stone statue that, when she holds it in her hands, turns into a white cat and runs away.

She has inadvertently stumbled into a world that few know about, and which the mysterious and handsome Souta must explain to her now that she is a part of it.  Turns out the door leads to the Ever After, another world that is separate from ours.  That stone statue that Suzume picked up was a "keystone" that is supposed to guard the door and prevent the two worlds from merging, which would cause a horrific earthquake that could kill countless innocent lives.  Now that Suzume has awakened the keystone, they have to travel Japan to track it down, as well as close any other doors to the Ever After that are now open in order to prevent calamity.  The problem is, the keystone is enjoying its freedom, and doesn't want to return to its job of guarding the door.  As an adorable yet troublesome cat, it races all across Japan, becomes a social media obsession as people start clicking and sharing photos of the strange cat, and even uses its powers to turn Souta into a wooden child's chair with three legs when he tries to capture it.

Suzume is now forced to travel the land, carrying Souta around in his chair form so that people don't freak out over the fact that she has a chair that can talk and move on its own.  Naturally, she can't tell her protective Aunt what is going on, so the Aunt gets suspicious, and goes on her own journey to track the teen down.  It all builds to a fairy tale-like adventure that has elements of romantic drama, high fantasy, and laugh out loud comedy. (Seriously, the sight of Souta walking around awkwardly in his chair form is one of the funnier physical comedy images in a while.) The two travelers visit ruins all over Japan such as an abandoned amusement park, where they must close the various doors to the Ever After.  All the while, a massive worm-like beast is trying to escape, and will cause great calamity if all the doors are not sealed.  

Here is a film that truly shows off what animation can do when it is partnered with amazing artists and animation.  The attention to detail here in the various settings and places that the traveling heroes visit is stunning, and seem photo accurate at times.  Its mixing of everyday environments with fantastical elements like a sentient chair and magical cats works, because it adheres to the knowledge that animation can be liberating and show us things that would be impossible in a live action film.  The movie is also emotionally resonant, as Suzume herself goes on her own emotional journey and learns about that mysterious woman who helped her that day she lost her mother before her aunt found her.  There's also a likable cast of various supporting characters that our heroes encounter during their journey, such as a friendly teen girl whose family runs a small inn, or a group of ladies who work as hostesses in a karaoke bar.  


Like Shinkai's earlier films, Suzume is filled with emotion, wonder, life and sadness, and will make you stop and realize that Hollywood really does shortchange the animated medium by relegating it to just family entertainment.  This movie (which is rated PG, and holds nothing offensive) is actually appropriate for most kids, and should prove to be an eye-opening experience.  Of course, it might be hard to pull them away from the Super Mario Movie currently in theaters, but it's worth the chance.

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Friday, April 14, 2023

Renfield


Watching Renfield, there was a lot I enjoyed.  I loved the script's mix of understated humor with graphic, over the top gory physical humor, I absolutely loved that the movie gave Nicolas Cage free reign to camp it up to excellent heights as Count Dracula, and I greatly enjoyed Nicholas Hoult as the film's titular straight man, Dracula's long-suffering and immortal slave who has been doing the bidding of his master for centuries, and it's beginning to get old.

The first time we see Hoult, he's at a support meeting for people in abusive relationships.  That itself is a funny idea, and the movie has a lot of fun with it, especially with Brandon Scott Jones as the group's sunny leader, who gets off some excellent one-liners.  This is is a script that's full of good ideas, and it's smart enough to act on them and deliver some big laughs, such as when Renfield realizes he doesn't have to dress like a gothic slave anymore, and buys a new wardrobe of colorful sweaters at Macy's.  Whenever the movie is focused on Hoult or Cage, the movie is frequently a riot.  It's the outside subplots that seem underwritten and uninspired, and unfortunately the enormously talented and funny Awkwafina gets tethered to this, and doesn't get to stand out as much as I hoped she would.

Oh, she definitely gives the role her all, and she even has some great chemistry with Hoult.  The problem lies not with her, but with how thin her plot seems.  She plays a New Orleans cop who is haunted by the death of her cop father at the hands of a local criminal empire, and has been trying to bust its leader (Shohreh Aghdashloo, barely given a role to play here) ever since, only to find that most of the others on the force are corrupt.  She has a run-in with Renfield, and he is immediately so smitten with her that he starts to feel that maybe he can change his life around, and not be under the thumb of the tyrannical vampire who is plotting to enslave all of humanity once he returns to full power.  Her quest for justice and her relationship with her equally grieving sister (Camille Chen) just didn't hold my interest like the material involving Hoult and Cage.

Because of this, Renfield ends up being a movie made up of shining highs and stretches of slightly less engaging lows.  It's a movie that held my attention, but I couldn't help but realize how much more fun I was having with one plot over the other.  The movie started to become something that I sat politely through, waiting for it to come to life again.  At least I could tell when it was going to, and it never let me down.  But the uneven nature of the script can't help but make the thing feel a bit stretched thin, even with a brief running time of just 93 minutes.  You can tell that the fun twist on the gothic horror elements were what the writers were truly interested in.  The material with the cops and the drug gang feels like filler to pad things out.


I do think the movie is worth watching at least once, because the stuff that does work can be hilarious.  I had a good time watching most of the film, and I could never deprive anyone of having a good time.  I just wish it wasn't so obvious watching the film which half of the plot got the most attention from the writers, and which felt like material to bridge the stuff that works together.

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Saturday, April 08, 2023

Air


Walking in, I was not sure how director and co-star Ben Affleck was going to make Air compelling.  After all, the film covers the story of the Nike shoe company and the deal it made with a then-rookie Michael Jordan, leading to one of the most popular and well known shoe brands worldwide.  I wasn't exactly sure how a compelling narrative could be formed with an outcome that is known to everyone.

Apparently Affleck understood this as well, and so he makes the movie compelling by telling the behind the scenes corporate story.  Similar to Moneyball, this takes a close and fascinating look at the wheeling and dealing that goes on behind the scenes of the sports world.  In all honesty, I find this kind of material more interesting than your usual sports underdog story that we so commonly get.  It probably helps that the film had the full cooperation of the people involved in the story, including Jordan himself, although he does not actually appear in the film. (We just see the back of an actor's head representing him in a few key scenes.) This is a boardroom drama that proves to be just as exciting as the action many fans expect on the court.

The film is set in 1984, a time period when Nike was falling behind in the athletic shoe world behind its rivals like Adidas and Converse.  They needed a sponsor for their line, and the attempt to get Jordan on their side was headed by Sonny Vacarro (Matt Damon), who had an eye for picking young talent for sponsorship, but had fallen short with some of his recent picks.  Sonny was famous for his out of the box thinking, and the minute he sees Jordan play (the #3 pick of the Chicago Bulls that year), he knows that the young upstart player is destined for great things, and can help turn the company's fortunes around.  However, not only does he have to convince Jordan and his family to sign with Nike to begin with, he also has to deal with those within the company who think his pick is too much of a longshot for them.

Fellow employees Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and Howard White (Chris Tucker) remind him that Jordan is not interested in a deal with Nike, and has even said so.  Even the CEO of the company, Phil Knight (Affleck), thinks it can't be done.  But, Sonny shows his true outside the box thinking by going against the advice of Jordan's agent, David Falk (Chris Messina), and flies out to meet with Jordan's mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), to try to persuade her to convince her son to visit Nike and hear their pitch.  When the meeting is set up, Vacarro and his team then have to create a shoe unlike any other, one that not only went against the coloring of athletic shoes in basketball at the time, but creates an insanely lucrative offer for Jordan that was unheard of at the time when it came to athletic celebrity sponsorship.

Air almost solely takes place within the boardrooms and corporate offices within Nike and the rival shoe companies vying for Jordan to sign with them, but the movie makes up for its lack of setting with some brilliant dialogue, and scenes that take advantage of its strong cast, all of whom get a chance to stand out.  The dialogue not only sounds genuine, but what they talk about sounds authentic.  I never once felt like I was watching a dramatization, and often felt like I was right in the corporate trenches with these figures as they wheel and deal, design, and try to top the competition.  The movie mixes facts, humor, and a ton of nostalgia both with its 80s soundtrack choices and references to create the first truly riveting fact-based drama of the year.

Credit goes to first-time writer, Alex Convery, who knows how to juggle fast-paced corporate dialogue, and more intimate moments that show how Sonny is pretty much putting everything on the line, and if things don't work out, he could very well be sunk.  Convery shows a mastery of different kinds of dialogue.  He can be profane and funny, such as the scene where Jordan's agent goes on a profanity-laden tirade at Sonny when he learns he flew out to meet Jordan's parents, he can be tender and honest, such as a scene where Bateman's Strasser reveals why he works at Nike, and he can also get the audience excited as the plans behind the design of the shoe fall into place.  He knows how to sell this material, and there's little wonder as to why his script was a sought after one on the "Black List" of unproduced scripts a few years ago, and managed to get the attention of such top talent.


The end result makes Air much more entertaining and engaging than you might expect walking in, as it mixes fascinating corporate politics with the nostalgia of the time period.  This is a fast-paced drama that should be studied by those wanting to write dialogue that sounds like actual conversations, rather than words upchucked by an Automatic Screenplay Machine. 

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