Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Sure it's sweet, but much of it is uneven and even unfunny. Many of the characters are flat, under-developed and/or under-used. But somehow, when it all comes together toward the end, it seriously pulls at your heartstrings and you realize that this crazy family is one in which you enjoyed spending time with. Of course, I'm talking about the first My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a small little romantic comedy that shockingly took the world by storm when it became one of the highest grossing rom-coms of all-time, grossing over $350 million worldwide despite it's meager five million dollar budget. It even earned an Academy Award nomination for its star and screenwriter, Nia Vardalos, for Best Original Screenplay (it lost that year to Pedro Almodovar's Talk to Her). So inevitably in an era where nostalgia and re-makes reign supreme, here comes My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (opening today), and it's more of what we would expect from the franchise...and that's a good thing.
Let's pretend that the short-lived TV series "My Big Fat Greek Life" doesn't exist, because the movies side-step this failed attempt to cash in on the first film's success. At the end of the first film (spoiler alert!), Toula (Vardalos) has married her non-Greek husband Ian Miller (John Corbett), who has finally gained the love and approval from Toula's crazy, traditional Greek family. With family being the driving force in their life, they don't move far...in fact, they move in next store to Toula's parents Gus (Michael Constantine) and Maria (Lainie Kazan). We also see in the final scene of the first film, that Toula and Ian have a baby girl.
Flash-forward to My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, and that baby is now your typical, eye-rolling teenage girl who at age 17, is looking to distance herself from her uncool parents while trying to balance out her social life and future (the daughter, Paris, is played by Elena Kampouris). Her grandpa Gus - like he has with all of the Portokalos women - urges Paris to find and marry a nice Greek boy. Meanwhile, Toula and Ian have grown apart, and they look for ways to re-connect and rekindle their romance, now lost after nearly two decades of marriage.
With Paris trying to figure out her college plans - is she going to get the hell away from her crazy family or will she go to a local college? - the plot thickens when Gus and Maria discover that they are actually not married due to a marriage license technicality. Maria and Gus are both stubborn old Greeks, so when Gus refuses to re-propose to Maria in proper fashion, Maria refuses to marry him. Oh, movie-universe problems.
All of this is the normal fluff that rom-coms are made of. Of course, Gus and Maria eventually decide to move forward, so why not throw another big family wedding?
While it is not critical that you see the first movie in order to enjoy this one, it would help immensely. This sequel is a love-letter to the first film and its fans, and there are several references to scenes and moments from the prior movie...just remember this when the audience erupts in laughter when Gus sprays Windex down his trousers. If you haven't seen the first film, this may not make a whole lot of sense.
Flirting with blasphemy, dare I suggest that the first movie was never perfect, despite being beloved by millions. This movie follows suit. There are a lot of jokes and moments that fall flat, the framework is little more than sit-com, and there are several characters that once again serve no real purpose (John Stamos, what the hell are you doing in this movie?). You may find yourself scratching your head and asking: Did we really need a second Big Fat movie? By the time the credits roll though, you'll feel the same tug of the heartstrings that was familiar the first time.
The truth is, the zany antics of the Portokalos family are relatable to any of us with big families, of any ethnicity. And it's a credit to the ensemble that even as they are thinly drawn on the page, we are endeared to their characters. From Gus and Maria (in many ways, Michael Constantine alone makes both films work), to her domineering Aunt Voula (Andrea Martin), to the cooky grandmother (Bess Meisler), we see our own relatives. All of the bit players - brother Nick (Louis Mandylor), cousin Angelo (Joey Fatone), cousin Nikki (Gia Carides) and several more - add dynamics to the fun.
This would be an easy movie to pile on to and rag on, but in the end this is just a family that you will want to spend time around. People who go see this sequel already love these characters, presumably, and there is little chance that you won't still love them when this one ends.
Very slyly, Vardalos - who again wrote the script - has something to say about love, marriage and family, now from the perspective of a mother as opposed to a daughter. The parallels that are drawn between the daughter Paris, the aging couple and the middle-aged parents who find themselves in a stale marriage, really is done nicely. I can recall at the end of the first film, when Gus speaks at Toula's wedding and says something about the two family names meaning "apples" and "oranges" in Greek. He summarizes that "we're all fruits." His love overrides any of the ethnic pressure he was placing on his daughter to marry Greek. There is love and acceptance found in this film too, just in different ways. And for as little as it seems the first half of the movie is working in any way, it's a credit to Vardalos's script and the performances of the ensemble, that we end up caring at all.
Just like any family, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 is far from perfect. But it's enough. If you loved the first movie, you'll love the second. And if you didn't love the first movie...nah just kidding. Who didn't love the first movie?
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Run Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Nia Vardalos, John Corbett, Michael Constantine, Lainie Kazan, Andrea Martin, Gia Carides, Joey Fatone, Louis Mandylor Written by Nia Vardalos (What to Expect When You're Expecting, Everybody's Fine, Nanny McPhee, Waking Ned Devine)
Directed by Kirk Jones (The Captive, Devil's Knot, Chloe, Adoration, Where the Truth Lies, The Sweet Hereafter)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
A few recent films have attempted tackling the moral implications of using drones for military use, but none have done so as effectively as the taut, suspenseful new film Eye in the Sky (opening today).
Drone use - for attack and for reconnaissance - defines modern warfare, but as a result of being a less "personal" military strategy, many feel that it has removed the human element from our thoughts and minds. Without the risk of "boots on the ground," our leaders may be more willing to use force by way of drone, as a drone operator carries out the killings and bombings from behind the safety of a TV screen from thousands of miles away. Video game violence and real violence blurs to an unprecedented degree.
Aaron Paul (from Breaking Bad) plays one such drone operator, an American soldier working with a coalition led by British Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren). They have located a high-ranking terrorist in Kenya and they look to bomb the hell out of him, as the current circumstance presents them with a rare opportunity to take him out. A moral dilemma develops when a little girl enters the blast-zone.
With Colonel Powell urging her superiors to take action, we see the complexities of using such technology. On the highest levels of government, British Lt. General Frank Benson (the wonderful Alan Rickman, in his final on-screen role) is involved in the decision- making, as all parties weigh their options and try to minimize collateral damage.
Director Gavin Hood creates a tense, high-brow, effective thriller by focusing more on what could happen as opposed to what actually happens on screen. It's a wonder that I was on the edge of my seat throughout the film, despite many scenes just consisting of people staring worriedly at monitors or TV screens.
But the very first shot metaphorically speaks to the film's over-riding message: A camera in the sky focuses in on a child playing ball in their backyard in a small village...then the camera slowly pulls out and out and out, until we lose sight of the individuals and only see the big picture. Or in other not-so-subtle words, it suggests how drone use fails to take into account the individual lives at stake, since those using the drones are often only serving the grander scheme of things.
From a different perspective the "Eye in the Sky" has some religious undertones - if you believe in that sort of thing - as an unseen eye from above watches and judges our actions, and our choices. It slyly even shows the differences in cultural attitudes toward the subject: With the Brits all up-in-arms over the potential killing of innocents, the American government in the film seems much less bothered.
All of these issues are handled very well, so there are plenty of deep themes to chew on. But even on the surface, Eye in the Sky works as an escapist action thriller.
Not losing sight of the film's own message - about taking into account the individuals and not losing sight of that - there are a few human touches given to our characters that brings all of these things together. We are shown, for example, Alan Rickman's character on the phone as he tries to pick out a birthday gift for his daughter. At the film's end, when everything has now transpired, we see this gift brought up again. It illustrates the impossibility of these people's jobs, and the weight they carry. The point is driven home when Aaron Paul's character - after what he had just been through - leaves for the night, and in so many words says, "see you tomorrow." The hell of this one day in real life, is unfortunately not over when the credit's roll.
Eye In the Sky will be remembered as being Alan Rickman's last on-screen roll (his voice is still upcoming in a few animated features), but for the real-life issues it hits upon, it will be remembered for far more than that. In fact, it's a film not easily forgotten.
Genre: Drama, War, Thriller
Run Time: 1 hour, 42 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam
Directed by Gavin Hood (Ender's Game, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Rendition, Totsi, A Reasonable Man)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
There is no movie in history more primed to fail than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (opening Friday, this is an early review). This review contains mild spoilers, so you are invited to come back and read this after you've seen the film. If you haven't seen the film yet, you won't find any major spoilers here, as the film does contain a few shocking surprises. OK, you've been warned...proceeding to the review...
Batman v Superman - which is 100% a sequel to 2013's Man of Steel -was announced shortly after director Zack Snyder's Superman re-launch, and fans immediately grew skeptical of the franchise's future. The brooding, serious tone that Snyder went for in the first film was all wrong, being more appropriately suited for an inherently darker character like Batman. When we heard this sequel was going to be a mash-up of these two beloved comic book characters in one movie, fans everywhere collectively gasped. There were rumors that it was going to be more than just a heavy-weight show-down, but that it may also mark the beginnings of a Justice League movie franchise (think of the Justice League as DC's version of The Avengers). This worrisome premise included stuffing a single film with nearly the entirety of the DC Comic Universe, with hopes to spin-off several characters later into films of their own...a sort of reverse blueprint of Marvel's recent formula for success, where several stand-alone films build up to major cross-over movies (like The Avengers). When Ben Affleck was cast as Batman, the internet wept. When it was announced that Jesse Eisenberg (huh?) would be playing notorious Superman villain, Lex Luthor, there was serious panic that this highly-anticipated film was going to be a disaster.
Well you can stop bracing yourselves for the worst, my fellow Bat and Super-fans. With an army of haters out there just waiting to hear that Batman v Superman sucked, I'm relieved to report that it doesn't really. Well not totally. It's a loud, long, ambitiously fierce and furious film. It isn't a great film. For me though, it was much better than Man of Steel, and much better than I had expected going in with incredibly low expectations. And for about two-thirds of it, it's also, surprisingly, focused (a word that is typically Zack Snyder's kryptonite of film-making). In fact, the framework of this sequel very much matches that of its predecessor Man of Steel: Zack Snyder is able to bottle his ardor and reigns it in for a while, before not being able to help himself and exploding his enthusiasm all over the screen. With the last movie, there was a great deal of characterization that happened early on, before all of that was demolished and thrown to the side much like one of the buildings that were destroyed in that unnecessarily costly battle in the sky between Supes (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon). Here, we have an interesting - if thin - plot that sends two immovable forces directly at one another like two speeding trains...but in classic Zack Snyder-fashion, everything derails and violently smashes together by the time it's all over. And instead of leaving with your head filled with wonder, it'll most likely be spinning.
And that's a bit of a shame, because in more gentler hands, this could have really been...super. The film has some near-fatal flaws, but none bigger than the horribly miscast Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor (the internet was right about this one). But more on that in a bit.
Ben Affleck answers all of his critics by turning in a very worthy performance, although his Bruce Wayne is leagues better than his fat and clumsy-looking Batman. As the film begins, we see the massive battle in the sky from the last film, from the perspective of those human victims and heroes on the ground. One man - Bruce Wayne - races into the melee only to see one of his buildings obliterated and several of his friends and co-workers killed. Looking up, Wayne decides this is strike one on Superman, an alien being that Batman definitely plans to keep tabs on moving forward.
The world is reeling and America is divided following Superman's now famous battle over Metropolis. Many - like Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and the reporters at The Daily Planet - see him as a hero sent from heaven to save humanity. The other side see him as a devil and a threat to our species. Which is it? And wasn't this question asked the first time around?
Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), is not the bald billionaire we know from the comics, but is instead some punk brat who has inherited his fortune and standing as CEO of LexCorp. Gene Hackman - who portrayed the villain in the Christopher Reeve films - was infinitely better at capturing Lex Luthor's narcissistic spirit from the comics. Here, Eisenberg gives an instant Razzy-worthy performance, creating his Luthor as a nervous, twitchy and exaggerated heel. It comes across as a bad Heath Ledger impersonation from The Dark Knight, which is just sad and border-line offensive.
Despite Eisenberg ruining every scene he is in, his character gets involved in the plot when a large chunk of kryptonite is discovered from the wreck of the alien ship from the last film. Bruce Wayne and Lex both have an interest in getting their hands on this, as a means to control or defeat Superman.
And don't think too much harder about anything else in this movie. None of Lex's motivations have purpose, and even some decisions made by Batman and Superman down the stretch are laughably inconsistent. How or why Lois Lane ends up being involved in any of this is also a stretch, to say it politely, and Adams is once again given nothing more to do than play the damsel-in-distress. At least the film gives us Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), to even out the feminist equation. No, this film can be - dare I say - fun, if glossed over and digested more as a popcorn blockbuster rather than on any intellectual level...but come on, isn't that the point, and if not, what are you doing looking for depth and/or nuance in a movie called Batman v Superman?
As for being over-stuffed? There is a lot that is shoe-horned in, but frankly, not nearly as much as I was expecting given the pre-film hype. There is the aforementioned Wonder Woman, and she is definitely a bad-ass, although there is no real reason for her inclusion in the movie. And we also get brief teases of future Justice League members and foes, such as Cyborg, The Flash (not the TV version sadly) and Aquaman. And astute comic-book nerds will also get references to another infamous Super-villain, Darkseid (his omega symbol can be seen briefly in the sky, as can his winged parademons, during a Bruce Wayne nightmare sequence). Oh yeah, and there is more than one reference to The Joker, who doesn't appear, unless you count Eisenberg's horrid impersonation (Jared Leto will portray the famous clown in the upcoming Suicide Squad).
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice couldn't possibly live up to the hype...could it have? But that doesn't mean that it's all bad. There's a lot that people will latch on to and hate about it, but this time around there was enough cool action and visual stimulation to make it somewhat worth all of the missteps, and there are several let me be clear. The biggest issue I had with Man of Steel was the absolute abandonment of the comic book's optimistic tone, in favor for what worked in Nolan's Batman movies. It was too dark, too somber. But now that Superman is inhabiting a world shared by Batman, that didn't seem to bother me that much anymore. If they had only gotten Lex Luthor right, and could have clarified some of his purpose late in the film, this really could have been the Super-bout many were waiting for.
Speaking of the big battle, it does comes, and it's not over-whelming. But it actually hits upon a problematic topic that has existed in the comic books for years: Anybody, Batman included, can defeat Superman with kryptonite. Plus, what is interesting about a guy - Superman - who is totally infallible? This is not a spoiler for what happens when he shows-down with Batman, but just a fairly obvious truth if you know the characters. We get it: Batman is smarter than Superman, more crafty than Superman. But sorry bro, of course Superman can kick Batman's ass with his pinky-finger if kryptonite is not involved. And if kryptonite was involved, of course Batman would have the edge. Heck, my grandma would have the edge. Kryptonite is what it is. On the other hand though, the film defines a commonality between the two heroes that few have probably considered (both are orphans, with a world-view shaped by their experience with what it felt like to be orphaned).
Of course, you can also assume that at some point, the two heroes are going to come together to battle a common enemy, and that enemy ends up being a much more powerful enemy than either of them could have planned for. The movie introduces us late in the film to Doomsday, completely undoing most of his comic book origins but staying true to his unbeatable nature. It's a colossal, epic fight scene. Remember when I said your head might spin? At about the time Doomsday comes on the scene, it'll be ready to explode.
In a world of Deadpool and the light, funny Marvel movies, I do think there is a place for dark super-hero movies. Surely there's a wealth of adult-aimed material to pull from in the comics, which could be the basis for several hundred movies to come. The tone doesn't fit with a wholesome character like Superman though, but what I realized in watching this film is that it isn't Superman who has changed...it's the world around him. It's become cynical. Pessimistic. Contaminated. Impure. Yeah I'd say in today's world, it's no surprise that Batman seems to be a more popular character than Superman. And with Zack Snyder at the helm for two upcoming Justice League movies, I think it's safe to say that we should get used to seeing our beloved characters in this murky realm...gone are the days of Super-Friends.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice starts off with a touch of humanity and by showing us that there were human victims from the mass carnage that was occurring in the sky...it loses sight of anything relatable along the way, and ends with even more mass violence and carnage. The same might be said of Zack Snyder and those behind this franchise: You can tell yourself that this is a story about morality, spirituality and humanity, but don't pretend for a second that it is anything more than a Boom! Bam! Pow!-comic book adventure. Nobody will be leaving the theater pondering life. Instead, the only question on people's minds will be: When does the next one come out?
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Run Time: 2 hours, 33 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Gal Gadot, Holly Hunter, Lauren Cohan
Directed by Zack Snyder (Man of Steel, Sucker Punch, Watchmen, 300, Dawn of the Dead)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Sometimes a movie can sneak up on you, and there is no better example of this than Hello, My Name is Doris (opening today), a rare gem of a romantic comedy that is being released smack-dab in the middle of the Winter...a time that is usually reserved for throw-away films that the studios are wanting to dump and quickly bury before the thaw that comes with Spring and Summer blockbusters. But don't judge it by its release date: Hello, My Name is Doris and its star, Sally Field, have set the bar quite high, and right now, I can't imagine this film and her performance not landing somewhere on the year-end radar.
When you see that a film is directed and co-written by Michael Showalter, your mind goes immediately to zany, ludicrous comedy:
Showalter is an alum of MTV's The State, and best-known as a writer/actor on similarly sophomoric (a compliment) shows like Childrens Hospital, and Wet Hot American Summer. You may be surprised then, like I was, to discover that Hello, My Name is Doris is not at all in the same comedic vein as these other efforts. It is a sweet, touching portrait of an aging woman aching to live her life, but who is afraid of letting go. I have been known to be a sucker for "coming-of-age" movies, but never have I seen one that focuses on a senior citizen. It's never too late, apparently. Showalter leans the film on the strengths of his lead actress, and she never lets him down.
Sally Field plays the title character, who at age 70, plays a character every bit of that age. Doris is the role that aging women in Hollywood always talk about not being available, the sort of role that they want to see more of. She is a nuanced, complex character the likes of which they have yearned for. If only there were more women in film like Doris Miller.
When we meet Doris, her mother has just died. We learn that Doris's entire life was dedicated to taking care of her mom, and she has sacrificed much along the way. Doris is an introvert and a hoarder, but she is also a bubbly-positive personality. She wears eccentric clothes and normally can be seen with a giant bow in her hair, along with two pairs of glasses. She's the crazy-cat lady, and even now after her mother is gone, she does not intend to allow this event to consume her.
But she may not be allowed to move on at her own pace. Doris's brother Todd (Stephen Root) and his bitchy wife (Wendi McLendon- Covey) are trying to prod Doris to move out of their mother's home, and to get rid of all of the stuff within it. Doris is reluctant to part ways with these material things. Root plays the character not as an evil sibling look to cash in on mom's inheritance, but as a concerned brother trying to look out for his family's best interests, despite the impatience of his wife.
Things at work are not much better for Doris. She has kept her desk job due to her longevity with the company, but pretty much everyone around her represents new blood. Doris's world is turned upside-down when she meets her hunky - much younger - new manager, John (Max Greenfield, from FOX's "The New Girl") and this gets her excited in more ways than one.
Inspired by her best friend Roz (Tyne Daly), Roz's granddaughter Vivian (Isabella Acres) and a self-help expert (Peter Gallagher), Doris decides to take life by the horns. Setting up a fake Facebook profile (with Vivian's help) and doing a bit of online stalking, she attempts to pursue John romantically...despite him being nearly 40-years younger. And why not? The word "impossible," depending on how you see it, can also mean "I'm possible."
To say that it's rare to see a movie where an older lady is romantically involved with a younger man, is more than an understatement. And to see it tackled in a real way is altogether refreshing.
This is not a laugh-out-loud comedy, and although it follows some very familiar beats, this is not your average rom-com either. From start to finish, Showalter creates a sugary-sweet, poignant energy that the film never loses all the way through its hopeful and realistic conclusion. Best of all, the subject is not treated as "weird," "taboo" or even funny the way that it probably would have in your average Hollywood comedy. Doris just refuses to be kept in a box, refuses definition, and I think the same can be said for this little film.
Sally Field, by the way, is a revelation, even considering her illustrious career. This may be her best work ever. She creates Doris as a vulnerable, goofy old lady, capable of real emotion and fascinating depths. Several daydream sequences give her a chance to show off her comedic skills, and at other times she is given juicy dramatic scenes that she bites right into, chews up and spits out. In- between, her subtle grace makes us fall in love with Doris and keeps us rooting for her at all times.
It's only March, but Sally Field deserves Oscar consideration for her role. She's that good. Scattered around the peripherals are talented comedians like Kyle Mooney, Kumail Nanjiani and Natasha Lyonne, none of which are given too much depth but who round things out nicely. No, this is purely Doris's film. It's also a true "branch-out" film for Michael Showalter, who shows he is much more capable as a writer/director than maybe he's been given credit in the past.
Hello, My Name is Doris is the first surprisingly great film of 2016. The material feels fresh and familiar all at once, and never does it treat its protagonist unkind. By the way, It is not surprising that Field was capable of portraying such a rich character...more so that she was given the opportunity in the first place given the limited amount of quality roles for older women in Hollywood. Let this be Exhibit A as to the sort of script the movie industry needs moving forward.
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Run Time: 1 hours, 35 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Beth Behrs, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Stephen Root, Natasha Lyonne Co-Written & Directed by Michael Showalter (The Baxter)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Fitting, that on a day where Sally Field releases a film in which she gives a career-performance (Hello, My Name is Doris) at age 70, veteran actor Christopher Plummer would do the same. There is no other film quite like Remember (opening today), or at least, none that I can recall, and Plummer is exceptional in this Jewish-fantasy, revenge thriller.
Don't be fooled by all of the old people that populate this film. It's a smart thriller with more than a few twists, reminiscent of Memento, perhaps better described as "Demento." Zev Gutman (Christopher Plummer) is an Auschwitz survivor living with severe dementia, spending his remaining days in an assisted living center. He is devastated each morning when he wakes, as he re-discovers over and over again that his wife Rose has passed away. In fact, nodding off and falling to sleep seems to be like a memory-wipe for him, despite his ability to remember the distant past.
He has a close friend at the hospital, Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau), a fellow Auschwitz survivor, who on this day slips Zev a note and tells him to read it and follow the instructions. Apparently Zev had promised Max that once Rose died, he would seek out the Nazi Commander who was responsible for the deaths of Zev and Max's families, and would kill him. Max leaves Zev with specific instructions on how to leave the hospital, where to go and where to stay.
Zev, not quite with the awareness of a man with sound mind, sets out on the journey, re-reading the note each morning as a refresher as to what his life's purpose is. With Max's instruction, he is able to buy a gun, and he reads in the letter that there are four men in existence with the same name of the German he is hunting. It becomes a matter of finding each and every one of these four Rudy Kurlanders, and determining which one of them is the real deal.
To give away any more of the plot would be to spoil the film, but Plummer's performance is haunting. There are some clever twists, and a few that left me scratching my head as I left the theater, trying to make sure if they added up (they did, mostly). And there is some real tension created by the situations that Zev finds himself in, none more so than a scene involving Breaking Bad's Dean Norris as a potentially dangerous Nazi sympathizer. Hanging over the head of the picture is Zev's forgetfulness brought on by dementia, as well as a sub-plot involved Zev's son (Henry Czerny), who is trying to find his ailing, missing father.
Remember has the framework of a classic revenge flick but just feels different, mainly because it is different. It's revenge served old. And because of Christopher Plummer's stellar performance, it's fully satisfying. Remember will be hard to forget.
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Run Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Dean Norris
Written by Benjamin August (screenplay debut)
Directed by Atom Egoyan (The Captive, Devil's Knot, Chloe, Adoration, Where the Truth Lies, The Sweet Hereafter)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
To discuss 10 Cloverfield Lane (opening today) at any real length, is to spoil it. Is it a sequel to the 2008 found-footage, monster-thriller Cloverfield? Are any of the threats facing our young heroine real? Is there anything that people won't go see that has J.J. Abrams' name attached to it?
Tip-toeing around any specifics (but beware: Minor spoilers to follow), 10 Cloverfield Lane centers on Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who when we meet her at the beginning of the movie, seems troubled. There is no dialogue from her in that early scene, just clues as to what might be going on in her life. It's a sort of training sequence for the audience, because much of the movie requires the viewer to look closely at each scene, and pick up on what may seem like the minute details.
Things quickly go wrong for Michelle when she is in a car accident. Unscathed (somehow), she wakes up in a barren room with her leg locked in shackles. Her captor, Howard (John Goodman), is a hard man to get a read on but clearly this is not good. She learns that there is another person staying (?) with Howard, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) and the two become friends.
The three appear to be living in some underground bunker designed by Howard, who keeps claiming that he "rescued" Michelle from the horrors of the outside world. She - nobody - is to go outside the bunker. It could be years, Howard says, before they can venture above ground. But making the most of live with Howard is its own horror film, despite whatever is lurking outside. Goodman is always up for juicy roles, and he infects Howard with a measured dose of madness, paranoia and charm, like he does with nearly all of his roles.
This claustrophobic "thriller" is very reminiscent of a J.J. Abrams work (although he did not write or direct this, he is listed as a producer on the film), and thus, can be very frustrating. Like the TV show Lost, the movie finds much more fascination in the questions rather than the answers. It's a bit slow through about the first hour or so, and isn't clever enough to really elevate itself out of the usual genre constraints. There is a hint of Stephen King's Misery, mixed in with the recent (far better) thriller, Room. Michelle uses MacGyver-like skills she didn't even know she had in order to try to thwart her captor, and usually we see what's coming a mile ahead.
Of course though, you must give the fans what they expect at some point (says these filmmakers, anyways). The last half-hour ramps up in very unexpected ways and actually becomes...thrilling (imagine that, for a thriller and all). It also borders on ridiculous, but at least there was life flowing through its veins, when earlier on I was afraid it was flat-lining. The last 30 minutes is the film that the entire movie should have been.
10 Cloverfield Lane isn't necessarily a bad film, it just doesn't live up to the hype. Nor does it ascend to the levels associated with the names it has attached to it: J.J. Abrams or the way-more compelling Cloverfield. It's a film that didn't have to be associated with any previous film and it would have stood on its own at least. After watching Star Wars: Episode VII and now 10 Cloverfield Lane, it's pretty clear to me that J.J. Abrams can no longer be considered a filmmaker...he is more accurately a franchise-builder. He doesn't produce or direct a movie, he clears a path towards more movies.
The sad part about 10 Cloverfield Lane is that the last half-hour only exists, seemingly, to open up a larger world ripe for sequels, a world where self-contained stories are pushed aside to make room for the bigger, ongoing and never-ending picture. To that affect, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a horror movie in the truest sense.
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Science Fiction
Run Time: 1 hours, 45 minutes, Rated
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr., Mat Vairo
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg (feature-film debut)
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
To say that writer/director Terrence Malick is an acquired taste doesn't quite cover it. He's a famous auteur who doesn't play by any of Hollywood's rules, or any rules in general, including the accepted idea that most theatrically-released films will at least come with plot, purpose and reason. I imagine that if Malick was told that his film must have a story, or a defined character, that he may just lose interest, take all his toys and go home. He is much more interested in creating transcendent experiences...film's like To the Wonder, The Tree of Life, The New World and the The Thin Red Line are hit-and-miss examples of his poetic style. These four previously mentioned films precede his latest work, Knight of Cups (opening today), his third film in the past five years (after directing Badlands and Days of Heaven in the 70s, Malick's next film didn't drop until the late 90s). He clearly has something to say lately, something worth expressing. And good luck finding whatever that is in Knight of Cups. It's his most pretentious, off-the-mark effort of his career.
I'd provide plot points if there were any. The film - told mostly in voice-over and dream-like, sweeping tracking shots - follows Rick (Christian Bale), a disenfranchised screenwriter in LA. It's not clear if Bale even knew he was in the movie. We see him wander around, walk here and there, and have sex with several different partners over the course of a few years (big name actresses like Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto and Teresa Palmer appear). Nothing really happens, nothing is all that consequential. The voice-over, from Bale mostly, feels like the inner-workings of a man deep in thought, pondering his existence. Surely that is what Malick is doing. But here, there is a major disconnect between what is being said and what is on-screen. Almost every shot ends with the camera turning upward to the sky, uninterested with the mortals below. We too, are uninterested in them because we are given nothing to sink our teeth into.
And this is not a critique of Malick's entire filmography, by the way. To the Wonder - his last film before this one - was high on my list of films in 2012. That movie was also dreamy, drifty and transcendent, but it connected to a refined, restrained story here on planet Earth. With Knight of Cups, he is simply bored with human emotion, human connection, or anything human at all. Should we be worried about Mr. Malick?
Go do some reading about the actors who appeared in this film, like comedians Thomas Lennon, Joe Lo Truglio and Nick Kroll. They appear in a sequence shot at a swank Hollywood party, and none of them had the slightest idea what the hell they were doing in this movie. No direction was given by Malick. Bale - the star of the film - had no script and was left frustrated as to who he was supposed to be. When he asked for guidance from Malick, he was told to "feel" certain scenes, and just let them film it. If this all sounds like a giant drug-induced clusterf**k, you wouldn't be far off.
Need I say more? Knight of Cups is for nobody at all except for the most dedicated Terrence Malick fans. It's one of the least effective, hollow films I've seen in recent years. It may have deeper meaning to Malick, but he does little to connect whatever it is he is attempting to convey, to the rest of us.
Genre: Drama, Romance
Run Time: 1 hour, 58 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Wes Bentley, Isabel Lucas, Cherry Jones
Written and Directed by Terrence Malick (To the Wonder, The Tree of Life, The New World, The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven, Badlands)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
There's probably some pretty good reasons why there aren't too many "war comedies." Of course, the genre does exist, usually played more in the zone of "laughs" than for any political purpose or grand-standing. The difficulty with mashing genres (see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as a more recent example) is that way too often, the film isn't strong in either of them. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (opening today, and for you perceptive ones, this is military-speak for "WTF") is a film that falls with a loud thud in that purgatory between genres: It is not all that funny, and it is not a very effective war movie.
And that's too bad, because Tina Fey seems - surprisingly - fit for dramatic duty. She plays real-life journalist Kim Baker, who is assigned to Afghanistan and Pakistan a few years after 9/11. There she embeds with a Marine unit led by pursed-lipped Col. Hollanek
(Billy Bob Thornton), along with her TV film crew, and is tasked with showing the hellish nature of Operation Enduring Freedom for the world to see.
A true fish-out-of-water, she leaves behind her boyfriend (Josh Charles) and befriends fellow journalist Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) who has already scored some acclaim for her up-close war coverage. She is pursued romantically by another journalist, the greasy womanizer Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman) as well as a local well-to-do politician, the greasy womanizer Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfed Molina). How is the self-deprecating Tina Fey the object of so much affection? As she is told, in Afghanistan, she is more like a 9 or a 9.5 whereas in New York, she's more like a 4 or a 5.
Although Kim is not very comfortable, she shows early on a real-knack for journalism and lots of courage and tenacity to boot. When her unit comes under fire from enemy attackers, she rushes head-first into the action, camera-rolling. Now the real-life Kim Baker might have done the same, but on film, Kim is safe not because of luck or smarts, but because this is the sort of war film in which nobody dies or is really harmed in any way.
And herein lies the problem with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Not only is there no sense of real danger throughout Kim's time abroad, her barracks where she lives is portrayed as some sort of Club Med (Club Mediterranean?), where there is a party going on seemingly all day and all night. The war is not treated in any real way and the film has nothing to say in regards to it. This might be acceptable if the film was funny, but those entering the theater thinking that this is Liz Lemon on assignment, will be sorely disappointed. There are a few chuckles and light moments, but overall it would be a stretch to call this film a comedy, despite how it has been promoted.
To Fey's credit, she falls into the role quite nicely, but it's as if the script didn't trust in her...or perhaps it did not trust in the audience to buy her as anything less than a wry comic. Her early dialogue in the film is full of one-liners and smarmy, Fey-like responses, but as we dig in, she becomes more of a well-rounded human. In those later scenes, she definitely shows some cross-over potential. But WTF Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? Why not go all-in and make her believable from the beginning? To say it another way, the movie begins with us well-aware that Tina Fey is in it, and it ends with us forgetting that Kim Baker was portrayed by Tina Fey.
It's also worthy to note that there is a great, grounded performance in this film by Christopher Abbott, who was an absolutely delightful find when he broke-through in 2015 with his performance in the little-seen James White. In this film, he plays an interpreter that befriends Fey and exposes her to some of the more human sides of the Afghan culture. Nearly unrecognizable as I watched the movie, it was no surprise that his performance stuck out to me once I realized who it was.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is not all bad, it's just content with playing it safe. But is it a comedy? Is it a war film? And if it's neither, then just what the heck is it?
Genre: Comedy, War
Run Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton, Nicholas Braun, Josh Charles, Cherry Jones
Based on the book "The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan" by Kim Barker Written by Robert Carlock (first feature screenplay)
Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love, I Love You Phillip Morris, Focus)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Disney has always been at the forefront of imagination, especially when it comes to the animated genre. Pixar Studios also deserves major credit, but Zootopia (opening today) is not a Pixar film, but a straight Disney release. Usually we chuckle (or in some cases, marvel) at how they conceptualize whole universes working in the craziest of places: The under-the-sea utopia of The Little Mermaid, the circle-of-life societal structure of The Lion King, the intricate detail of A Bug's Life, what goes on when we're not around with The Toy Story movies, or even more recently, how video game characters live and interact in Wreck-It Ralph. But very rarely is Disney's imagination matched with an even deeper metaphoric - or dare I say, adult - meaning. Zootopia is one of the more insightful and sharp films to come out of Disney in a long time, and perhaps maybe their most daring social commentary ever.
Oh and by the way, it's also laugh-out-loud funny. Most animated films are judged on how they can keep the interest of both children and their parents, and Zootopia will not disappoint either age group. It is a story taking place in and around a thriving metropolis known as "Zootopia," where humanoid animals of all shapes, sizes and species co-exist in harmony. But underneath the surface of this perfect world, Zootopia faces the same sort of challenges and issues that us humans do. Certain species are judged and have to overcome the preconceived notions of others. Some are separated - segregated - based on their status. There is corporate greed, and corrupt politicians. And more recently, there is strange phenomenon occurring where certain animals - for no know reason - are reverting back to their rabid, natural state...or in other words, they are turning back into "animals."
Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) is a young bunny from a small rural community. Her parents - carrot farmers - avoid the big city of Zootopia like the plague, and are made very uncomfortable by the motto "anything is possible" there. Judy wants to become a police officer in the big city, but no bunny has ever been made a cop. Her loving, but small-minded parents urge her to be content with the carrot farm that is her birth-right. Part of what makes Judy want to go into criminal justice? She is bullied by some locals, and in one altercation is swatted across the face by a male antagonist. Scratches are visible on her face.
That's not territory we usually see an animated film go into, let alone Disney.
Judy does leave to pursue her dreams and becomes a cop, facing prejudices along the way. Her boss, the ox Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) doesn't want to give her a real chance, but she inserts herself into a case of a missing otter that has gone rabid. While on the job she runs into a fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who is a con-man just trying to make a buck on the streets. Foxes in Zootopia can be thought of as any number of minorities, who have been cast aside and held down for centuries. Needless to say, Nick and Judy form a very unlikely friendship as their investigation leads them closer and further into the crooked politics of Zootopia.
In addition to the deep significance found in the story, this is a bright, funny, smart, sly movie, rounded out by a cast of amazing voice- talent and animators. JK Simmons, Bonnie Hunt, Octavia Spencer and Jenny Slate are among the lent voices, with a few stand-out performances like Nate Torrence (Wade from the under-rated HBO series Hello Ladies) as the Police HQ receptionist Clawhouser, and Tommy Chong (of Cheech & Chong) as a - what else? - free-spirited hippy yak, named Yax.
But not so fast....literally: The funniest and most memorable sequence in the movie deals with a bank ran by a bunch of slow-moving sloths. The comedic timing in this scene, and the animation, make it hands-down the funniest sequence in an animated film, maybe ever.
You don't go to see an animated film - especially one released during the hellish winter months - and expect so much. Zootopia is already on the short list of best films of the year, animated or otherwise, and deserves to be seen by everyone, regardless of species.
Genre: Animation, Comedy, Adventure
Run Time: 1 hour, 48 minutes, Rated PG
Starring (voices of): Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Tommy Chong, JK Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Bonnie Hunt, Shakira, Maurice LaMarche
Directed by Byron Howard (Bolt, Tangled), Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph), and Jared Bush (first-time feature film director)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Stop me if you've heard this one: A reluctant hero, on the verge of retirement and with a baby on the way, is sucked into a major, catastrophic revenge plot by a Middle-Eastern villain, who had been thought to be dead. This hero is bullet-proof and invincible: Smarter, faster, stronger than any other man on the planet. This man might as well be America, or more accurately, he embodies what Americans think of themselves when in the global arena. Yes, London Has Fallen (opening today) is every action movie that ever was, and that ever will be. Is it any good? Does that even matter, if it serves to remind us just how bad-ass we are?
In name and spirit, this is a sequel to the modest-surprise-2013-hit, Olympus Has Fallen, which was one of two movies that year (the other being White House Down) dealing with a terrorist invasion of the White House. To the first film's credit, it began by making us care about these characters and took time that few other action movies do to get us invested in them. There was President Asher (Aaron Eckhart, where have you been?) and his trusted friend and Secret Service soldier Mike Banning (Gerard Butler). Vice President Trumball (Morgan Freeman) and Secret Service Director Lynn Jacobs (Angela Bassett) were also involved in the plot against America that nearly overthrew our government. Of course Mike Banning is cut from a very specific red, white and blue cloth, channeling heroes of movies past like Dirty Harry, James Bond, John McClane or anybody else that John Wayne ever played. He saved the day the first time around. So what could possibly go wrong when all of the world leaders assemble in London for the funeral of the English Prime Minister?
Olympus Has Fallen had enough funny one-liners to consider itself an action-comedy, and Banning hasn't lost his touch for comedic timing this time around either. The major improvement over the first film is that there are actually some really great action sequences in London Has Fallen, where as last time it felt very redundant on that front. But as for the plot? Sweet Lord, kill me now.
When #6 on the Most Wanted List, Aamir Barkawi (Alon Aboutboul) launches an attack on all of the world's leaders, only President Asher escapes, with help of course from Banning. Barkawi's plot involves so many guns, rocket launchers, and man-power, it leads one character to claim, "They must have been plotting this for months!" If only the script had been given such attention. Part of the attack feeds our current-day fears of "the enemy being among us", as several of the terrorists in the film pose as law enforcement officers. There are COUNTLESS bad guys that just continue to pop up as target practice for Banning. Of course, the film never explains how all of this could have happened, other than to go to the action-cliche grab-bag one more time, telling us that well of course!! It's because there was a mole in the British government!
Well even a mole couldn't pull off what is shown in London Has Fallen. For every impressive action sequence - like a helicopter chase sequence - there is a totally lame, unbelievable occurrence - like when the President and Banning survive said helicopter crash. It's one thing to suspend disbelief, but London Has Fallen suspends, chokes and breaks the neck of disbelief.
Sadly misused is Morgan Freeman and pretty much everybody else besides Eckhart and Butler. What the heck is Jackie Earle Haley, Melissa Leo and Robert Forster doing in this movie? But critiques aside, this could be the movie America wants right now: It has a brash, blow-hard calling the shots, doing things his way, and saying what needs to be said with a confident bluntness...living in a fictitious world where he is impervious to the consequences of his actions and always knows best. Sound familiar? The difference is that it's only funny when you know it's fictitious.
Genre: Action, Thriller
Run Time: 1 hour, 39 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Alon Aboutboul, Waleed Zuaiter
Directed by Babak Najafi (Easy Money II: Hard to Kill, Sebbe)
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