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Movie reviews from Bob Garver

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

"Zootopia"

            “Zootopia” takes place in world very much like ours, except that it’s populated entirely by non-human mammals. They’ve been living in harmony for centuries, meaning that they’ve mostly moved past the whole “eating each other” thing. They talk like humans, they wear clothes like humans, and unfortunately they have prejudices like humans. These prejudices are based not so much on race or gender, but species.

Take our main character, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin). Characters insist that because she’s a rabbit, she’s cute and harmless (never mind that I’ve seen some downright vicious rabbits in our world). She doesn’t seem like a good fit for a police force headed by a buffalo (Idris Elba) and consisting of big meaty animals like rhinos, hippos, and elephants. But she perseveres, using her speed, hearing, and even her size to her advantage. All she gets to do is write parking tickets, but she could see real action any day now. Also worth considering is Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox thought by other characters to be sly and sneaky. In this case, they’re right. But does the fact that he fits the stereotype make it okay for others to judge him at first sight? The film raises lots of questions like that, and as in life, the answers aren’t always simple.

Story-wise, the film follows the determined Hopps and uncooperative witness Wilde as they investigate a string of disappearances involving predators. They don’t like each other at first because Hopps fell for a legal con by Wilde, but then he made the mistake of bragging about a crime he committed so she’s blackmailing him for assistance. They hit obstacles and overcome them, think they’ve solved the case and then find another layer, and develop a friendship that falls apart only to be rebuilt. The children of the film’s target audience are probably not sick of this formula, but adults may finding themselves gritting their teeth as the story goes through its predictable beats.

Then again, this movie isn’t really about the mystery or any specific character. The star of the show here is Zootopia itself. It’s a place where critters go about humanistic business in animalistic ways. Rodents, for example, wear suits and move between buildings in those plastic tubes that you always wanted to expand into a house-wide system. I know certain residents of Zootopia would hold it against me, but I’ll say it anyway, it’s all so adorable. And of course, animal jokes abound. I know there’s commentary going on about whether or not it’s okay to label the sloths working at the DMV as slow, but those jokes are just fine at face value.

“Zootopia” is from the same non-Pixar Disney division that brought us “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Big Hero 6,” and “Frozen.” In case there was any doubt about the “Frozen” connection, there are at least three references to it within this film (I found one to be clever, one to be a groaner, and one went by too quickly to absorb). Actually, there are a lot of Disney references in “Zootopia,” as the company is clearly welcoming it with open arms into its canon. In the short term, I’m expecting this film to sell a lot of tickets and merchandise. In the long term, I wouldn’t be surprised if this film has a significant impact on Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park. I could even see Zootopia as its own section within the park, “Frozen” set the bar very high for movies like “Zootopia,” but by being funny, thoughtful, and admittedly marketable, the film hops over that bar with the ease of a rabbit.

 

Three Stars out of Five

12:49 am edt 

"Gods of Egypt"

            “Gods of Egypt” cost $140 million. That money was well-spent so long as the studio’s only goal was to make an incredibly shiny movie. It is indeed very shiny. But if the goal was to make an interesting, coherent, or competent movie, then it is a failure. Actually, the goal was undoubtedly to make money, and on that level it’s even more of a failure. The film opened to $14 million this past weekend and is going to fall fast. It will be lucky if it “only” loses $100 million. This is certainly a movie that deserves to lose $100 million, except that it’s so cheap-looking that it doesn’t look like it cost $140 million. Unless of course, they paid $1 million per glint.

            According to this movie, the gods of Egypt lived among the mortals, but they were three feet taller and at any moment could turn into metallic fighters with superpowers. Good-but-arrogant Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau) is supposed to take over the Head God position from his father, but his coronation is interrupted by his evil uncle Set (Gerard Butler), God of Darkness, who fights him for control of Egypt. Set uses a shiny distraction to win the fight and rips out Horus’s eyes, stripping him of his god powers. He’d kill his nephew, but Horus’s girlfriend Hathor (Elodie Young) offers herself to him and he commutes the sentence to banishment.

            A year later, a mortal thief named Bek (Brendon Thwaites) sees that his enslaved girlfriend Zaya (Courtney Eaton) is unhappy that her hero Horus is gone, so he does what he can to save him. This despite the fact that doesn’t “believe” in the gods himself. He’s awfully atheistic for someone who lives in a world populated by gods who show off at every opportunity. He steals one of the eyes that Set was keeping in a vault, grabs Zaya, and goes off to see the exiled Horus. Little snag, Zaya gets killed as she and Bek are fleeing. Bek returns the eye to Horus, giving him some of his power back, and strikes a deal: he’ll do what he can to help Horus reclaim the throne from Set if Horus brings Zaya back from the dead once he’s regained full power. Horus takes a break from self-pity and condescension long enough to agree to the deal, and the unlikely duo set off on an adventure.

            Among the problems with this movie is that it’s a ripoff of better movies. Horus is a god stripped of his power who has to learn humility and complete a mission without the advantages he’s used to, just like Thor. Bek is a smart-aleck thief who wants to do nothing more than impress his girlfriend, just like the Disney version of Aladdin. Gerard Butler screams things in an ancient setting like in “300.” The scenery is about as ugly as that desolate planet in the Razzie Award-winning “Fantastic Four.” And the CGI special effects are garbage, like in… lots of movies, though most of them don’t have $140 million for a budget.

            “Gods of Egypt” brings nothing new to the mythical-adventure genre, nor is it fun as a routine outing. Horus and Bek don’t have chemistry and the scenes that are supposed to be funny fall flat. The script can’t keep its rules for the god characters straight; it can create conflict at will by saying “gods can’t do that” and get itself out of any corner by saying they can do whatever they want. But the worst thing about the movie is that it just looks like a cheap mess. The only special effects that are crafted with care are the shiny metallic super-suits, and they’re barely even featured. $140 million was wasted making this movie, and you’ll be wasting your nine bucks if you go to see it.

 

One Star out of Five

12:48 am edt 

"Risen"

            If nothing else, “Risen” is not like a lot of other Biblical movies. To be sure, it has the look of most Biblical movies; the scenery is covered in rocks and sand and the faces are all expectedly soot-y. But a lot of it plays like a detective movie, which is an unusual approach. For every memorable scene of preaching or a miracle, there is an equally impressive scene of an investigation or interrogation. There’s not much mystery as to where the movie is heading, but we’re not quite sure how it’s going to get there.

            Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, a Roman enforcer who works for Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth). Pilate has Clavius oversee the crucifixion of a man claiming to be king of the Jews. This man has gone by several names throughout history: Jesus, Yahweh, Elijah, but this movie calls him Yeshua (Cliff Curtis, and yes, I think it’s weird to have this character portrayed by a guy named Cliff). Rumor has it that Yeshua’s followers believe that their Messiah will rise from the dead after three days, so Pilate has Clavius secure the tomb so the followers can’t break in and steal the body, which would allow them to say that He broke out on His own. But then, and this is one of the predictable parts, the body does indeed go missing.

            Clavius, already in hot water for letting the body go missing in the first place, is tasked with retrieving it and preferably arresting the followers in the process. He and his men, including rookie Lucius (Tom Felton), dive into the seedy underbelly of Jerusalem looking for answers, and work to separate fact from rumor. What they find is that the prime suspects are goodhearted goofballs and that their own men have the sketchy moral characters. Clavius attempts to both solve the problem and make the problem go away, but he’s never satisfied, as if there’s something missing from his life – maybe faith. And then in the blink of an eye the problem is solved, but a greater one emerges.

            From the discovery on is where the film is at its weakest. Clavius pretty much spends the rest of the time in a stupefied daze, his world suddenly and irreversibly turned upside down. Other than that, most of the third act is just Yeshua being Yeshua. Do you like seeing Him be wise and comforting? Healing a leper? Providing His followers with fish? Let’s hope so, because it accounts for an awful lot of screen time.

            Not that I want to complain too much about this movie, but I need to address the battle scene that opens the film. It is very obvious that this scene is supposed to be brutal, but it can’t do anything that would jeopardize its PG-13 rating. So there are a lot of unpleasant implications and squishy sound effects, but the violence is laughably bloodless. It’s a confused tone that tells us that the film can’t really decide whether or not it feels the need to use shocking violence to tell its story. The crucifixion scene comes soon after, and it treats violence similarly, but at least we’re expecting it.

            “Risen” is actually a pretty decent movie when it’s not doing action. The best scenes are the conversations Clavius has with Pilate, suspects, followers, and Yeshua. Clavius himself isn’t particularly interesting, but his is an interesting vantage point, facing in actuality what most people just read about in stories. The film may not be the epic masterpiece that some may demand of a film with this subject matter, but I think it’s acceptably watchable.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

12:47 am edt 

"Deadpool"

            Viewers were first introduced to Wade Wilson aka Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) back in 2009 with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” The movie was a critical flop and fans didn’t like its take on the Deadpool character. A spinoff movie seemed unlikely, especially once Reynolds jumped franchises to “Green Lantern” in 2011. Then “Green Lantern” opened and a standalone “Deadpool” movie seemed like a better career move. “Deadpool” opened to $135 million this past weekend, so the risky revisiting has paid off.

            Wade starts off as a “mercenary” who does dirty jobs for chump change. He leads such a miserable life that he and his friends pass the time trying to win a “dead pool,” a drawn-out bet over who will be the first to die. Things pick up when he meets Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), who makes him happy for once. The happiness turns back to misery when he finds out he has late-stage cancer. Against his better judgement, Wade undergoes a dicey treatment from the shadowy Francis (Ed Skrein), who knows how to unlock mutant powers that might be able to heal him. As he undergoes a brutal series of treatments, Wade learns that Francis has nefarious plans for him once he’s transformed.

            Wade finally gains mutant powers that include regeneration, but at a price: his face is permanently disfigured. He burns down the mutant-transformation clinic so Francis can’t continue his work, dons a superhero persona, and sets out to track down Francis. He wants to kill him, but he also needs him to fix his face so he can rekindle his relationship with Vanessa, who will never love him with his face the way it is. Oh, and although “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” has been all but forgotten, this movie still takes place in the “X-Men” universe. So the good news is that there are X-Men around to help or hinder his mission. The bad news is that we only get third-tier X-Men Colossus (Stefan Kapičić) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). Still, X-Men!

            The most prominent feature of this movie is its humor. From the goofy opening titles to a post-credit scene that pays homage to one of the most famous post-credit scenes of all time, this movie is stuffed with jokes. Entertainment Weekly recently ran an article called “10 ‘Deadpool’ Jokes That Didn’t Make the Movie.” I’m thinking, “There were ten jokes that didn’t make this movie?”

Most of the jokes are extremely crude, much more than one would expect from a movie spun off from a relatively family-friendly franchise like “X-Men.” Wade has quite the foul mouth, even though the Deadpool mask has no mouth. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying every superhero franchise could be improved just by adding vulgarity. But the vulgarity here is so well-written, creative (I cracked up at Wade and Vanessa’s celebration of International Women’s Day), and expertly delivered by Reynolds that anything less would make the movie feel like it’s being deprived of its natural tone.

“Deadpool” is at its best when it’s aiming to do nothing more than make its audience laugh. It’s at its worst when it’s trying to be a straight superhero movie (which it does minimally) or when Wade is whining about his appearance, which gets old fast. There are some effective tender moments between Wade and Vanessa, so I can’t say the movie only works when Wade is making wisecracks, but the wisecracks are what people are going to take away from this movie. The raunchy humor isn’t going to be for everybody. If you’re not sure that you can handle this movie, watch one of the many redband trailers available online and go by your reaction to that. If you’re appalled, stay away. But if you’re like me and you can embrace that type of humor, then see this movie and laugh yourself silly.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five

12:46 am edt 

"Hail, Caesar"

            “Hail, Caesar” is something of a critic’s dream: a movie about movies from an era of great movies. It’s directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, makers of some of the greatest movies of this era. It’s one of their comedies, which unfortunately means that the plot is a convoluted mess, but individual scenes are loaded with interesting characters and endearing quirkiness.

            Josh Brolin stars as 1950s movie studio executive Eddie Mannix. It’s unclear what his job is exactly, but he does a lot of damage control for movie stars. He has his hands full. Sweetheart DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant out of wedlock, cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) isn’t fitting in on the set of his eloquent new film, and integral leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has gone missing. He’s also being hounded by an irate director (Ralph Fiennes), a gossip columnist (Tilda Swinton), a gossip columnist who thinks she’s a serious reporter (also Swinton), and the Lockheed Corporation, who want to lure him away from the movie business. On top of all that, he’s trying to quit smoking.

            The film is a love letter to the 50’s, and in particular the films of that era. We see snippets of a western, a cowboy musical, a water musical, a dance musical, a sophisticated society piece, and of course the Cecil B. DeMille-like Biblical epic of the film’s title. I’ll also throw “detective movie” in there because that’s basically how Mannix conducts himself. Other artifacts of the era make it in as well, such as a truckload of cigarettes and the people who kidnapped Whitlock using the phrase “means of production” an awful lot.

            There’s a lot to like in this movie. The films within the film are all delightfully corny, especially the dancing sailor musical with tap-dancer extraordinaire Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum). I wish Tatum’s involvement in this project had been kept a secret, but I can certainly see why they would want him on the poster. Funny and memorable scenes include a summit of religious officials to discuss the suitability of the Biblical movie and Whitlock excitedly sharing his version of wisdom with a scholarly type. But my favorite scene has to be the one where Hobie, every bit the cowboy even when the cameras aren’t rolling, does his darndest to carry a film that is far outside where his talent lies. Alden Ehrenreich is probably the least known of the film’s billed cast, but he’s the one people are going to remember most.

            The Coen Brothers tend to have trouble ending their films, and sadly this one is no exception. Storylines and characters that needed development are either left hanging or end anticlimactically, and it feels like we’ve been robbed of a scene involving Fiennes’ director. One abrupt conclusion that works is the one to the Johansson storyline, which seems appropriately impulsive. Still, I wouldn’t have minded another half hour with these characters, partly to get necessary closure and partly because they’re just so fun to be around.

Like most Coen Brothers comedies, “Hail, Caesar” is plenty enjoyable if you can look past the nonsensical plot and ending. In 2015, it took me until October to review a movie (“Bridge of Spies,” which was in fact written by the Coen Brothers) that I felt was worthy of Three Stars. In 2016, I had only to wait until February, and early February at that. If 2016 keeps this up, it’s going to be quite a year for movies.

 

Three Stars out of Five.

12:45 am edt 

"Kung Fu Panda 3"

            I wasn’t crazy about “Kung Fu Panda” in 2008, but I loved “Kung Fu Panda 2” in 2011. So I had high hopes for “Kung Fu Panda 3,” using the logic that maybe this franchise gets better as it progresses. Alas, it seems to have reached its creative peak with the second film, but the third is not without its charms.

            All your favorite good guys are back. Jack Black returns as Po, the clumsy panda who literally fell into a position as the Dragon Warrior, the fiercest Kung Fu master in all of China. He’s flanked by his friends The Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), Monkey (Jackie Chan), and Mantis (Seth Rogen). Also returning are his mentor Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and adoptive goose father Ping (James Hong). We even get the return of late Kung Fu master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), more at peace than ever in the afterlife. All of these characters are welcome, but some seem to have been wedged in only because they’d be conspicuous by their absence. The contributions of The Furious Five in particular amount to little more than a cameo.

            For this film, Po learns from Shifu that as Dragon Warrior, he is expected to take over as teacher to The Furious Five. As much as Po loves the idea of being the best, he hates the pressure of having to be a leader. Maybe he’s not meant to be the Dragon Warrior after all, which is not exactly a fresh conflict in this series. He snaps out of his distraught demeanor by the sudden appearance of his biological panda father Li (Bryan Cranston). The two bond, much to the dismay of Ping, who’s afraid Po has no more use for him.

            The family reunion is interrupted by villain du jour Kai (J.K. Simmons), a bull who specializes in collecting the chi of kung fu masters past and present, essentially turning them into robots that do his bidding. If he collects the chi of the Dragon Warrior, he’ll be unstoppable (or unstoppa-bull). The pandas in Li’s village are supposedly masters of chi, so Po goes with his father to learn the ways of his kind. Their methods turn out to have a lot more to do with laziness than they do with peace. It’s certainly a convenient life for Po, but it’s not getting him anywhere.

            The humor in the film is about what you’d expect, which isn’t a bad thing. Kung fu slapstick and eating jokes abound as always, and they usually land pretty well. It can get a little juvenile at times, but the movie is made with juveniles in mind. The film is right to think that if one panda is cute and funny, a whole village of pandas will multiply those qualities. It’s a ton of fun to see the pandas eat, dance, hug, fly, and tumble (this film had the good timing to come out around the same time as that video of Tian Tian the panda rolling around in the snow at the National Zoo).

            The problem with “Kung Fu Panda 3” is that we get the feeling that we’ve seen this all before. The interaction with other pandas may be new to this series, but the obstacles are the same as ever. Po is having an identity crisis, he doesn’t know if he deserves to be called Dragon Warrior, he ends up surprising everybody including himself. It’s not a bad journey, just an overly familiar one. And even the whole “main character discovers more of his own species” aspect has been done before in a lot of animated sequels. Still, this is an adequately enjoyable film in an era where “adequately enjoyable” is getting harder and harder to find.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

12:43 am edt 

"Ride Along 2"

            Back in 2014, Ice Cube and Kevin Hart made the idiotic comedy “Ride Along.” The film followed a familiar “hardboiled cop and pesky sidekick” formula that’s been done to death, with the only variation being that it starred the constantly-yapping Hart. Hart’s appeal was, and still is, lost on me, but the man’s fanbase turned out in droves, giving it the biggest opening weekend of any movie to officially open in January. A sequel was pretty much inevitable, and equally inevitable was that “Ride Along 2” would be just as useless as its predecessor.

            The new film opens with Ben (Hart), now officially a rookie cop, screwing up an undercover mission for his veteran cop mentor James (Cube). Ben should be kicked off the force for that alone, but instead James lets him tag along on an even bigger mission to Miami. There they meet up with local cop Maya (Olivia Munn) and panicking techie A.J. (Ken Jeong) and work to take down criminal kingpin Antonio Pope (Benjamin Bratt). By the way, Miami movie cops, if you’re wondering who in your area is probably a drug kingpin, start with the rich guy who’s always throwing parties at his mansion with a religious-sounding last name like Pope (Saint and Gabriel are other good examples) and is played by Benjamin Bratt.

            Ben fights hard to win James’s approval, but James doesn’t show him respect. James especially hates that Ben refers to the two of them as The Brothers in Law, as Ben is about to marry James’s sister. For the record, I actually think that’s a pretty funny name, and it even could have been incorporated into the title of the movie (“Ride Along 2: Brothers in Law” wouldn’t have been too bad). But I don’t blame James for disliking Ben. Ben is a grating person and a horrible cop, never knowing when to shut up and let James handle things. Sure he gets to play the unlikely hero a few times, but it’s usually in situations where he’s already endangered lives by botching an operation that didn’t call for an unlikely hero in the first place.

I’d say that Ben’s constant rambling ruins the movie, but there’s not much of a movie without it. I’ve seen comedic Miami crime movies before, and this one brings nothing new to the table. Munn is exactly what you’d expect from a tough female cop (the film tries way too hard and way too late to make her charmingly awkward so we’ll think she’s funny, but no dice). Bratt is exactly what you’d expect from one of those bragging villains who talks too much (though not as much as Ben). Jeong is surprisingly less annoying than usual, though Hart more than picks up the slack in that department. Probably the funniest thing about the movie is Ice Cube, who gets a few good dry lines (heh, Dry Ice Cube), especially at the end when he gives an unimpressive wedding toast and them makes a minimal effort to correct it.

There are only so many ways I can say it: Kevin Hart is annoying in “Ride Along 2”. He was annoying in the first “Ride Along”. He’s annoying in every movie outside of his standup concerts, where it makes sense for him to be constantly talking. If your idea of funny is Kevin Hart forcing himself down your throat for 102 minutes, this is the movie for you. Yes, a small handful of jokes connect, which is why I can’t bring myself to give it the dreaded One Star review. But there is no reason to see this movie unless you’ve seen all the good movies that we got at the end of last year and you need a break from quality.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

12:41 am edt 

"The Revenant"

            Last week I wrote that “The Hateful Eight” was “quite possibly the best film of 2015.” I made sure to say “quite possibly” because I considered it the best at the time, but there were still some major contenders left to see. This past week, I knocked out some of those major contenders, and while I’m not completely ready to call it a year (and even then I know I’ll never get to everything), I can say with a bit more confidence that “The Revenant” is quite possibly the best movie of 2015.

            The film is the latest labor of love from director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu. His last film, “Birdman,” was “quite possibly” the best film of 2014 and definitely the Best Picture Oscar winner. This film trades the relative comfort of the modern Broadway theater for the blistering wilderness of South Dakota in the early 1800s. Like “Birdman,” the film features a number of especially long takes that make the setting and situations seem inescapable. This style doesn’t make the film more “enjoyable” per se, but the obvious difficulty and dedication do not go unnoticed.

            Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass, guide for an ill-fated fur-trapping expedition. Within minutes of the film’s opening, the trapping party is attacked by Arikara Indians and its number is cut by more than half. Among the survivors are Glass, his half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), and embittered trapper Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Things go from bad to worse (to put it mildly) when Glass is mauled within an inch of his life by a grizzly bear. Fitzgerald agrees to stay with Glass and Hawk to keep Glass alive as long as possible and give him a proper burial if necessary. He botches the task horribly. He nearly kills Glass out of mere convenience, kills the previously-healthy Hawk out of panic, and brushes some dirt on Glass and calls it a proper burial. Glass pulls himself out of the poor excuse for a grave and vows revenge on the escaped Fitzgerald. Not every aspect of the revenge journey makes sense, but think of how confusing it must be for the disoriented Glass.

            The key word with the DiCaprio performance, which will probably win him an Oscar, is “pained.” Hugh Glass suffers in this movie, most of all during the bear attack. The brutal sequence was already one of legend before the film even opened, and while certain rumors about the scene are untrue, it remains both grizzly and grisly. Parts of Glass get exposed that are best left inside the body. Also, as in a lot of survival movies, Glass has to perform a crude, wince-inducing operation on himself. Glass has to try and talk, drink, and breathe with a severely torn-up throat, and making all those discordant noises couldn’t have been easy or pleasant for Leo, especially over multiple takes. And then of course there is the discomfort aspect, the pain that goes along with dragging himself around the unforgiving terrain and being affected by every inch of the journey. The only thing working in his favor is that the water and snow somehow always look clean enough to drink.

            “The Revenant” is an extremely violent movie, but it has a tasteful attitude about its violence. It feels like the characters are suffering a sort of natural consequence of living in this harsh environment, even when they’re performing acts of violence on each other. With “The Hateful Eight,” which approaches over-the-top violence with near-glee, I am willing to let some viewers off the hook. If it doesn’t seem like your kind of movie, it probably isn’t. Here I feel the need to push a little harder. I encourage adults, at their discretion, to breech their comfort zones and see this beautiful, harrowing, mesmerizing film.

 

Four Stars out of Five.

12:40 am edt 

"The Hateful Eight"

            The good news about “The Hateful Eight” is that I, a huge fan of director Quentin Tarantino, think he’s done it again. And everybody at my had-to-have-been-sold-out screening on Christmas Eve seemed to be in agreement. But many critics aren’t happy with the film and audiences overall aren’t responding as well as I’d like. It barely scraped together enough for a third place finish in its first weekend of nationwide release. People are missing out on this movie, and it’s a shame because it’s as good as any Tarantino project from the last decade and quite possibly the best film of 2015.

            The film takes place during a blizzard in post-Civil War Wyoming. The story opens with stranded bounty hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) hitching a ride in the stagecoach of fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell). Ruth is transporting gang member Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to be hanged, making him one of the few bounty hunters to opt for the “Alive” portion of “Dead or Alive.” Along the way they also pick up the stranded Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a Confederate holdout who doesn’t care much for Warren.

            The foursome and their hapless driver (James Parks) arrive at a lodge where they meet four more strangers. Bob (Demian Bichir) is a Mexican in temporary charge of the unflinchingly anti-Mexican establishment. Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) is the dapper local hangman who will likely be performing his duties on Daisy. Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) is a cowboy and… that’s about all he’ll tell about himself. General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) is a retired Confederate leader who doesn’t care much for Warren at first and cares for him even less after Warren tells him about an icy encounter he had with his missing son. There’s a lot of tension in the room: racial, political, territorial, legal, moral, monetary, and personal. It’s only a matter of time before things turn violent. And then it turns out that some of the violence might be occurring for yet another reason: loyalty.

            The plot, admittedly, is the film’s weakest point. Tarantino has a tendency to sabotage his movies by filling them with complicated schemes that are not only unnecessary, but foolish. A lot of blood could have gone unspilled in “Django Unchained” if Django and King Schultz had just offered to buy the slave they wanted instead of hatching a baffling plan to get her thrown in with a Mandingo fighter they weren’t serious about buying. And there’s no reason why the villain(s) in this movie couldn’t dispatch their enemies accurately and efficiently in under a minute, except that it wouldn’t allow time for mind games between the characters. But oh how those mind games more than redeem this movie.

            The best thing about “The Hateful Eight,” as with all Quentin Tarantino movies, is the dialogue. Man’s inhumanity to Man has never been so savory, not even when it’s happening to a woman (and it does, a lot). Also worthy of praise is the acting, again done best when the characters are being inhumane or better yet, hateful. Even with the film attracting detractors, Jennifer Jason Leigh is high in the running for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. I could also see Supporting Actor nominations for Samuel L. Jackson (which would be his first nomination since Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” over twenty years ago) and Walton Goggins (finally getting a decent movie role that complements his years of brilliant, unrecognized television work).

This is not a movie for everybody. Viewers who abhor gunplay, bloodshed, foul language, racial epithets, violence against women, and many other types of meanness are going to hate this movie. But if you’ve enjoyed Quentin Tarantino movies in the past, or are truly ready to throw yourself into one now, this is an excellent way to spend three hours.

 

Three and a Half Stars out of Five.

12:40 am edt 

"Daddy's Home"

            The latter half of 2015 brings us two new releases that easily have the potential to be the most annoying films of the year. They are “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip” and “Daddy’s Home.” After enduring Will Ferrell’s performance in “Daddy’s Home,” I think I might have been better off with the intentionally-annoying Chipmunks. This is yet another movie where Ferrell’s shtick basically consists of him screaming and being obnoxious. Ten years ago, I was a defender of this style, arguing that he was bringing energy to his roles. I’ve since grown weary of it, and I can only imagine how grating it must be for people who didn’t like it in the first place.

            Ferrell plays Brad, loving but unappreciated stepdad to Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) and Megan (Scarlett Estevez). Brad has been married to their mom (Linda Cardellini) for some time and they’re just now starting to show signs of warming up to him. But then out of the blue, the kids’ long-lost biological father Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) invites himself over for an extended stay. The kids are overjoyed at the idea of Dusty coming back and Brad feels pushed aside. If he doesn’t win their affections now, he might lose them forever.

            He’s not wrong to feel this way. Dusty is blatantly trying to win “his” family back, and he scores points effortlessly. Dusty, according to this film, is basically the coolest guy in the world. He rides a motorcycle, travels the world, is friends with celebrities, is in tip-top physical shape, and is more skilled than Brad in pretty much every area. Brad tries over and over to outdo Dusty, only to fail in increasingly spectacular fashion.

            I’ve used the word “win” now twice to describe what Brad and Dusty are trying to do with the kids, and that’s appropriate. Both are being selfish and not really doing what they do with the kids in mind. Dusty wants to have a family to call his own, but doesn’t seem to have long-term plans to contribute to the household, as illustrated by his aversion to mundane activities like dropping the kids off at school. Brad is happy to do these things, and we’re supposed to root for him because he’s willing to work harder (as opposed to Dusty’s grand-but-easy gestures), but I kept getting the feeling that he’s doing all of this so he can feel better about himself without caring much about the kids. Sure, he’s been doing this since before Dusty showed up and he had an opponent, but he’s a little too quick to proclaim himself a great dad with suspiciously little mention of his actual impact on the kids’ development.

            The humor is mostly based on Brad embarrassing himself and Dusty putting himself over. Thomas Haden Church plays Brad’s boss who’s always telling inappropriate stories about himself. Bobby Cannivale plays a fertility doctor who’s quick to inappropriately compliment to Dusty’s body over Brad’s. Hannibal Buress plays a handyman friend of Dusty’s whose mere presence is inappropriate. Seriously, the main gag with the character is that he’s just… always there.

            If you’ve ever seen a comedy about a klutz desperately trying to impress people and things always going wrong, you’ve seen “Daddy’s Home.” The only halfway decent gag is the concept of conflict resolution through dancing, and even then, Ferrell screaming dance terminology like “served” detracts from those scenes. Did you like the humor in the two-minute trailer for this movie? If you didn’t, I doubt you’ll like this movie because it’s 94 more minutes of the same thing. If you did, I still doubt you’ll like this movie, because the humor has 94 more minutes to get old.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

12:38 am edt 

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

            George Lucas always intended “Star Wars” to be nine-part series. Episodes IV-VI came out in the 70’s and 80’s. The poorly-received Episodes I-III are a decade old. Now we’re kicking off the final trilogy with the J.J. Abrams-directed Episode VII, “The Force Awakens.”

            We spend the first hour or so getting to know our new characters. Star pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) gets a map to find a high-ranking member of the noble Resistance, who may be the key to winning the war against the evil First Order. He stuffs the map inside an adorable robot called BB-8 and immediately gets captured. A First Order Stormtrooper (John Boyega) sees his colleagues kill civilians in the capture and decides that he’s had enough of working for the bad guys. He helps Poe escape (Poe rewards his human gesture by rechristening him “Finn” to replace his soulless alpha-numeric label) and the two go looking for the BB-8 unit. Finn soon finds himself searching alone.

            BB-8 finds itself aligning with Rey (Daisy Ridley), a beaten-down harvester of wrecked ships. She’s had a rough life, but at some point she picked up everything she needs to be an excellent action movie heroine. The two then form a shaky bond with Finn and the three of them escape Rey’s pathetic planet in a pathetic wrecked ship. The ship gets captured by a freighter, and herein starts the real spoilers so I have to stop.

            The new good guys are pretty much covered, but there’s also the matter of the new bad guy. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is a high-ranking member of the First Order. He wants to reach the heights of Darth Vader, though he’s merely mostly sure that he wants to embrace the Dark Side. Like Vader, he wears black and talks with a deep voice from behind a helmet (I’d describe the voice as Vader mixed with Javier Bardem from “No Country for Old Men”), but unlike Vader, he does so as a stylistic choice. He even chooses to take off the helmet on occasion.

            Because their names appear in the film’s advertising, I suppose it’s not much of a spoiler to say that six popular characters from Episodes IV-VI are back. Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), General (formerly Princess) Leia (Carrie Fisher), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2 (with input from Kenny Baker), and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) are all back in some capacity. I won’t say how exactly, but I will say that C-3PO’s reintroduction is my favorite moment in the movie.

            The best thing about this film is the way it seamlessly blends the old and new characters. Several (not all, but several) of the old ones are back for more than just a cameo or a teaser of a role in Episode VIII. But the film also makes it clear that the new characters are here to stay, and they’re so charming, funny, and interesting that you’ll have no problem with that. I can’t imagine any future critics saying that the franchise was doing fine until one of these characters came along.

            The worst thing about the film is actually very similar to the best thing, and that’s how much the plot mimics Episodes IV-VI. It’s expected that there are going to be light saber battles and shots of alien lifeforms, cities, and ships. But specific details like crucial information stored in a droid, a cantina scene, and that classic twist rearing its head again (and possibly again in the next two movies) suggests that the film was afraid to go anywhere original outside of the new characters.

            Still, this is a fun, fun movie. The “Star Wars” franchise is in good hands with J.J. Abrams. If you’re willing to consume hearty portions of fan service, then “The Force Awakens” is a real holiday feast (by which I mean Christmas, not the infamous Life Day).

 

Three Stars out of Five.

12:37 am edt 

"In the Heart of the Sea"

            “In the Heart of the Sea” tells the story of the 19th-century whaling expedition that served as the inspiration for Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” It isn’t exactly a movie version of “Moby Dick,” hence the bland title. Straightforward adaptation or not, I say this film still should have used the “Moby Dick” name. There isn’t a lot of demand for whaling movies, so it should have at least afforded itself the advantage of name recognition.

            What we’re actually seeing is a story being told by Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last living survivor of the expedition forty years later, to Herman Melville himself (Ben Whishaw). In the story, Thomas (Tom Holland) is a deckhand on the whaling ship Essex under the command of Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Pollard is an inexperienced captain, having gained the position through a family connection. Chase is one of the best sailors in Massachusetts, furious that he wasn’t chosen to be captain himself. The two don’t like each other, and the tension makes for a morale issue that is the first of many problems for the expedition.

            Of course, more problems come from the sea itself. The ship is badly damaged in a squall, months go by without a whale sighting, and then there’s a setback involving a certain massive whale (which is not white, but has big white patches, much like a cow). And by “setback,” I mean the whale wrecks the ship. The remaining crew spends the rest of the movie in fishing boats trying to stay alive, sometimes resorting to unsavory tactics.

            This film was originally scheduled for release in March, but was pushed back nine months. Supposedly this was done to place its release in the heart of Oscar Season. If the move really was an attempt at awards-baiting (awards-harpooning?), then it was an unsuccessful one, as critics aren’t taking to it. There are other theories about the move, such as unreported production delays or the studio not thinking they had a hit on their hands. My theory is that they didn’t want to release another “stranded at sea” movie less than three months after last year’s “Unbroken.” The move did little good, watching this I still got the feeling I had already seen the superior lifeboat movie.  

            The biggest crime that the movie commits is that it isn’t very exciting. I didn’t find myself drawn into the squabbling between Pollard and Chase or the inconveniences of daily sea life, before or after the wreck (though I did squirm for the right reasons at a scene where young Thomas had to extract oil from a whale carcass). Even the feud with the whale isn’t that interesting from a psychological perspective. Captain Ahab of “Moby Dick” is synonymous with tragic ceaseless obsession. Here I just wanted to say “Guys, don’t take it personally” a few times. This is not to say that the movie is not exciting when it wants to be. The battles with the whales are everything you want from man vs. monster action sequences and the latter, desperate parts of the lifeboat portion are appropriately compelling (though the makeup on Chris Hemsworth is consuming him more than his character’s hatred of the whale).

            “In the Heart of the Sea” doesn’t do much to offend, but it doesn’t do much to appeal either. It’s a forgettable movie, which is sometimes worse than being a bad movie, though it does have a certain competency that keeps it afloat thanks to practiced direction from Ron Howard. It’s not the Oscar contender it allegedly wanted to be, and I can see why it’s having trouble finding an audience, but it has its moments.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

12:36 am edt 

"Creed"

            “Creed” tells the story of Adonis “Donny” Creed (Michael B. Jordan), son of legendary boxer Apollo Creed. And who was Apollo Creed’s most famous opponent? That’s right, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). Some say that this should be considered a seventh “Rocky” movie, I say that it’s perfectly fine simply being the first “Creed.”

Although young Donny doesn’t want to use the Creed name to help his career, he does use his family history to convince the aged Rocky to be his trainer. Rocky uses his influence to get Donny a major fight against a local standout (Gabe Rosato), and this leads to Donny getting a shot at the title against the undefeated world champion (Tony Bellew). Donny is suddenly in over his head, being given a title shot that no one thinks he’s earned. Sound familiar?

In fact the biggest problem with “Creed” is that it progresses so similarly to the first “Rocky.” There’s the completely expected conflict, romance, training (this movie has Donny do the classic “Rocky” exercise with the moving meat, but not the one with the hanging meat, much to my disappointment), and of course, the spectacle of the final fight. He spends most of it at a disadvantage, what a shocker.

But the predictable story shouldn’t take away from what “Creed” does right. These elements include award-worthy acting, well-written characters, and harrowing fight sequences (including one done in an unbroken shot). Plus it’s hard not to get pumped up suckered into cheering just as much as with any “Rocky” movie. It’s everything you expect, but it’s also everything you want.

I suppose that “Creed” not wanting to use the “Rocky” title for name recognition is similar to Donny not wanting to use the Creed name to help his career. And as with Adonis Creed, this movie fights to earn respect and I believe it succeeds. It is admirable in its own right.

 

Three Stars out of Five.

12:35 am edt 

"Krampus"

            There are many bad words I can use to describe “Krampus.” Ugly and Unfunny spring to mind, but I’m going to wait until the end to let you know the one that I think best describes it.

            The plot sees young Max (Emjay Anthony) miserable at Christmas. His parents (Adam Scott and Toni Collette) aren’t happy, his aunt and uncle (Allison Tolman and David Koechner) and their whole side of the family are jerks, everybody’s mad at everybody, and nobody believes in Santa. Max curses the holiday and unleashes the Christmas demon Krampus, who terrorizes the neighborhood and starts abducting the family one by one.

            This movie is Ugly, but not in a good way. Which is to say that it’s not scary. Krampus and his minions have cheap faces that I wanted to rip apart, but only because they look like they need to be scrapped, not because they seem like a threat.

            The movie is Unfunny because it thinks it’s being original by letting us know that people can be mean around Christmas, in contrast to the harmonious image of the season. I’ve been hearing cynical Christmas jokes all my life, and this movie brings nothing new to the table (there are barely, and I mean barely, enough funny lines to earn this movie a half star from me).

            “Krampus” bills itself as a Horror Comedy, and it fails at both genres. It’s a movie about people you won’t like, but who don’t deserve their fate just enough that you can’t relish in bad things happening to them. Nobody should be happy with anything that happen in this move. The bad word that sums up this movie best is Unhappy.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

12:34 am edt 

"The Good Dinosaur"

            In reading reviews of Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur,” I’ve noticed a lot of critics making fun of the film’s title. Some are calling it “The Bad Dinosaur.” Most recognize that it deserves better and call it “The Mediocre Dinosaur” or something middling like that. I think that “The Good Dinosaur” is accurate enough, though given the heights reached by other films in the Pixar canon, it’s a little disappointing that I can’t bring myself to call it “The Great Dinosaur.”

            The stretch of a premise is that the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs missed the Earth, so dinosaurs are still thriving here at the dawn of Man. Along the way, dinosaurs taught themselves how to develop tools, farm, and speak English. Young Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) is an adorable Apatosaurus who wants to help out and “make his mark” on his family’s farm. The problem is that he’s afraid of creatures not a hundredth of his size, like chickens and human children. But his stern father (Jeffrey Wright) insists that he contribute by dealing with these pesky critters. A human hunt turns into a family tragedy (this is still a Disney/Pixar film, after all) and Arlo swears revenge on the tyke indirectly responsible. He aggressively yet fearfully chases the child into the wilderness and ends up in danger. Wouldn’t you know it, the kid rescues him. Arlo needs to survive for a while and ultimately get home, and he needs the help of his friendly mortal enemy to do it.

            The film is a “mismatched pair on a journey” story, with the twist being that the pair is a talking dinosaur and a non-talking human. The human is at a very early stage in his evolution, so much that he basically acts like a dog. He’s even given the name “Spot” by Arlo. Arlo and Spot have all the typical wilderness adventures, from finding food to bonding over lost family (an impressive scene sees them illustrating their families with sticks) to fighting off predators. Along the way, they meet some colorful characters, including a horned beast with an ineffective team of small woodland creatures at his disposal (the character is interesting, but it’s clear that the script has no use for him), a team of villainous pterodactyls (the otherwise-heroic Arlo frankly loses some of my respect over something he does to their leader), and a family of T-Rex cowboys. Yes, cowboys. This has not been marketed as a cowboy movie, but for a while it really turns into one.

            The cowboy stuff is something of an awkward fit, though Sam Elliot as the family’s patriarch is one of the film’s highlights, and it’s one of the few times the film actually tries something unique. Otherwise it’s a pretty standard adventure movie where the main character has to overcome fear and prejudice in order to survive. It’s like the writers thought that if they made their main character a talking dinosaur with a pet human, we wouldn’t notice that this is a story that’s been done many times before. Then again, the target audience for this movie is kids, so maybe they haven’t seen this story enough times to be sick of it. Still, this is not one of those Pixar movies with a lot of multigenerational appeal.

            I wish the best for “The Good Dinosaur,” I really do. The animation, especially the scenery, is beautiful; and there are enough funny and touching moments that it certainly qualifies as a “good” movie. I’ve seen trailers for the other kids’ movies that are coming up this holiday season, and I feel pretty safe saying that this will be by far the least painful. This isn’t one of Pixar’s better movies, but Pixar has never made a bad movie, and this one does not break its streak of overall competence.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

12:33 am edt 

"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2"

            “The Hunger Games” is coming to an end. The blockbuster franchise based on a trilogy of Young Adult novels has come out with its fourth and final film. “Mockingjay – Part 2” has already opened to over $100 million, as have all the films in the series. And as with all the films in the series, I don’t understand its widespread appeal.

            In this final installment, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is on a mission to The Capitol of Panem to assassinate series antagonist President Snow (Donald Sutherland). She is told to stay behind by Resistance leader President Coin (Julianne Moore), but she’s just so passionate about killing Snow after he oversaw years of Hunger Games, killed hundreds, oppressed millions, and brainwashed her friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) into turning against her. She makes her way through the booby-trapped streets of The Capitol accompanied by a not-quite-reprogrammed Peeta, her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), fellow Hunger Games winner Finnick (Sam Claflin), and a bunch of others who we sense are going to get picked off along the way. Familiar faces are back, including Katniss’s healer sister Prim (Willow Shields), fighting mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), style mentor Effie (Elizabeth Banks), and even former Snow aide Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who passed away nearly two years ago).

            The biggest problem with the film is, in a word, pacing. The opening settles us in just fine, but once Katniss sets out, things start to get grating. There aren’t enough booby traps to justify the amount of time spent on the journey, and there are too many scenes of squad members bickering about what to do with Peeta. Then there’s a major development that’s over in a flash, followed by a long explanation. I know we’re supposed to be shocked by how quickly things can change and how fleeting life can be, but the film practically puts a “Scene Missing” card onscreen. There’s some genuine suspense as we gear up for the big finale, and we get it (the blocking in a crucial scene makes the “twist” completely predictable), and then we get a smaller finale, and then a smaller one. The film doesn’t know how to efficiently let us go, though the stopping point they choose is admittedly a nice one.

            It’s disappointing that the film squanders the concept of booby traps designed by people who can create pretty much whatever they want with computers and what I guess are large-scale 3-D printers. Giant blowtorches and machine guns are effectively cool, but what’s with the laughable CGI oil? Or the clumsy zombie creatures? There’s a stretch where this movie is no better than a typical “Resident Evil” installment, complete with insufficient lighting and hard-to-follow action. I don’t care if this movie has Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence, it’s an apt comparison.

            And so, we say goodbye to “The Hunger Games.” I’m glad to be done with this franchise. Its action was rarely crisp, its non-Katniss characters were rarely compelling. “Mockingjay – Part 2” is as weak as any of them. A few shimmering moments (mostly emotional ones from Katniss) stand out among the plodding muck of the movie as a whole, just like all the others. If you’ve seen the rest of “The Hunger Games,” you might as well see this one to see how it all ends, but by no means should you get into the franchise at this point. As far as “Mockingjay – Part 2” going down as anyone’s favorite of the already-sloggy “Hunger Games” series, the odds are never in its favor.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

12:32 am edt 

"The Peanuts Movie"

            “Peanuts,” the comic-and-cartoon franchise created by Charles M. Schultz about perpetual loser Charlie Brown and his beagle Snoopy, is getting its first big-screen treatment of the modern era. I have three compliments right off the bat. First, even though it’s a 3-D animated version of 2-D animated characters, there is nothing distractingly cheap or uncanny about the characters’ looks (plus I like the wispy backgrounds). Second, the child characters are all voiced by perfectly-cast actual children. I’ve seen a few recent “Peanuts” cartoons that either use clearly-adult actors, or children who are too much “of their time” to voice the characters who are basically timeless. Fortunately, this film does not fall into the same trap. Third, this is the first major film in over a year to sport an all-ages-appropriate G rating. Even traditionally family-friendly Disney animated movies rarely get that rating anymore. Good for “Peanuts,” boldly playing it squeaky-clean in this day and age.

            The plot is made up of multiple mini-stories threaded by Charlie Brown’s desire to woo the Little Red-Haired Girl throughout the school year. Charlie Brown will see an opportunity, try to make the most of it, botch it horribly, and repeat. Escapades include a school dance, a book report on “War and Peace,” and becoming the most popular kid in school following a perfect score on a standardized test (only in the “Peanuts” universe could popularity be correlated to standardized test scores). It all leads up to him chasing after the Little Red-Haired Girl so he can talk to her before she leaves town for the summer. The  storyline is based on a “Peanuts” cartoon I saw when I was younger, and I was worried that it would have a similar small-consolation of an ending, but it goes for a more fleshed-out one, and honestly I like it better.

            The storylines aren’t all Charlie Brown-centric. There is, naturally, a subplot about Snoopy as a WWI flying ace (complete with a doghouse-plane) at war with the Red Baron. Snoopy, his bird friend Woodstock, his girlfriend Fifi, and all the other animals communicate exclusively with a super-cute series of squeaks and squeals. It’s fun to see Snoopy create all sorts of mischief as the plays out this story amongst Charlie Brown’s friends. It’s fun too to see Snoopy create mischief as he helps Charlie Brown with his own issues. It’s fun to see Snoopy do anything, really.

            The only major complaint I have about the movie is the way it tries to wedge in “Peanuts” references that don’t belong. For example, the characters hear that a new kid is moving into town, and sidekick Linus immediately wonders if they have an open mind toward unpopular Halloween icon The Great Pumpkin. There’s no reason for The Great Pumpkin to factor into this scene (or this movie) in any way, but The Great Pumpkin is an important part of “Peanuts” lore, so the movie had to work it in somewhere. This film is filled with awkward little moments like that, getting things in for the sake of getting them in.

            “The Peanuts Movie” really only has that one thing going against it, but that isn’t to say that it has a whole lot going for it, either. There are a number of gags that work (pretty much anything with Snoopy, pretty much anything with dancing), but also a lot that land with indifference. The humor is mostly aimed at little kids, the appeal to adults is mostly nostalgia-based, and that has a way of backfiring. If you have young children who you can take to this movie, by all means take them to it, but I don’t see this being one of those one of those movies that adults love just as much as their kids.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

 

12:30 am edt 

"Spectre"

            “Spectre” is the fourth and supposedly final turn for Daniel Craig as James Bond. Previous Craig installments have included 2005’s “Casino Royale” and 2012’s “Skyfall,” two of the best-reviewed films in the entire 007 franchise. The new film isn’t as good as either of those as it lacks a certain punch in its second half, but it’s not without its charms.

            Speaking of charms, we get the film’s best sequence right out of the gate. Bond pursues an assassin in Mexico City during a Day of the Dead festival. First of all, the sequence gives the film an excuse to dress everyone up in cool skeleton costumes, which can only be a good thing. Second, much of it takes place in an unbroken shot, and it’s hard not to appreciate the filmmakers undertaking such a challenge. Third, there are some impressive (and scary) stunts involving a helicopter. And lastly, there’s some decent humor in the sequence, especially a bit where Bond surprisingly lands comfortably after a perilous fall. There’s a great look on his face that tells us that he won’t be telling anyone how lucky he was in this portion of the mission.

            We then go through the expected preliminaries. Bond gets suspended by M (Ralph Fiennes), who’s about to have the whole Double-0 program shut down in favor of an elaborate surveillance program run by C (Andrew Scott). He steals some gadgets from techie Q (Ben Whishaw) and gets Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) to do some illegal research for him and he’s off to Italy to try and shut down world-threatening evil organization Spectre, run by a villain named Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Of course, fans of the Bond franchise know who really runs Spectre, and Waltz’s character keeps the name Oberhauser like Benedict Cumberbatch’s character in the last “Star Trek” movie kept the name Harrison.

            The scene where we first meet “Oberhauser” is another good one, complete with an array of intimidating shadows and a henchman (Dave Bautista) causing one of the more brutal deaths of the Craig era. The film is doing great at this point and it looks like it’s going to be able to live up to the bar set by “Skyfall.” But around the time we’re introduced to Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux), the romantic interest du jour, the film starts to lose steam. She’s not that interesting, the film goes for long stretches without action, the action we do get is standard, and Waltz is surprisingly boring as the villain (whatever he’s called).

            The film also tries to tie the Waltz character into the other films from the Craig line, but it feels forced and nonsensical. This is curious because I actually believe that the other films really were trying to build to this villain for the grand finale, yet the pieces still don’t fit together. Waltz constantly says things like “it was me the whole time,” but we never know what his role was, and some of the events he cites came at times where I seriously doubt there was anyone else in the scene, so how was it “all him” exactly?

            Whatever happens in the second half of “Spectre,” there’s no taking away from the Day of the Dead sequence and the first meeting of Spectre. There are a handful of other good moments, some involving action, most involving humor (my favorite is Bond trying to interrogate a mouse and actually succeeding). But again, so much of the second half feels like a missed opportunity for this film to reach the upper echelon of Bond movies. I wouldn’t even say that the overall product is disappointing for a Bond film, but it is disappointing for a Daniel Craig Bond film.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five

12:29 am edt 

"Bridge of Spies"

            Steven Spielberg makes two types of movies: movies that are designed to make a lot of money and movies that are designed to win a lot of awards. “Bridge of Spies” falls into the latter category. The film is loaded with scenes of meticulously-dressed characters moving about meticulously-dressed sets, doing and saying noble things while important-sounding music by Thomas Newman swells. It’s clearly Oscar bait, and this may alienate some viewers who write these kinds of films off as manipulative and formulaic. I can’t deny that there’s a certain amount of pandering going on, but there’s no point in getting mad at Spielberg for using a winning formula if the formula is earning him yet another win.

            Tom Hanks stars as James Donovan, an American attorney brought on to defend “suspected” Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in 1957 in the early stages of the Cold War. Donovan is reluctant to take on the controversial client, but is encouraged to do so by his boss (Alan Alda) because America needs to prove that it gives everyone a fair trial. In other words, America is supposed to appear morally superior to its enemies, even though Abel’s guilt has already unofficially been determined. Donovan takes the case and discovers that no search warrant was ever issued for Abel’s apartment, meaning that he should not be convicted. Abel is convicted anyway and Donovan looks bad for poking holes in the case against an enemy of his country. He wasn’t supposed to actually make sense in the case for Abel. Even his boss, who told him to take the case in the first place, shuns him for defending Abel with passion.

            Donovan’s career looks like it’s in ruins, but then another Abel-related opportunity presents itself. An American pilot (Austin Stowell) has been captured by the Soviets. America wants him back and is willing to trade Abel to get him. Because of his rapport with Abel, Donovan is chosen to go to Berlin and negotiate the terms of the trade. It’s an unenviable task because conditions in Berlin are miserable, from the weather to the amenities to the roving street gangs to the fact that Americans are hated there. In fact, an American student (Will Rogers) has been taken prisoner for basically no reason, and ends up being a factor in the trade. Donovan once again refuses to go through the motions, and negotiates ferociously for the release of both prisoners, even though he has only one prisoner to offer in return.

            The film does almost everything right. It’s tense in the right parts, touching in the right parts, and funny in the right parts, though the funny parts are understandably sparse. One decision I wish it didn’t make is that it portrays Abel as an unmistakable spy. There’s an early scene where he goes to retrieve secret information that he later destroys and nobody knows about. It’s certainly a well-shot sequence and gets the film off to a great start, but I don’t think the movie needs to show him as a spy. Donovan doesn’t know for certain that his client is a spy, why should we?

            Like Donovan, “Bridge of Spies” could have gone through the motions and done an okay job. It could have loaded itself with the charming elements I mentioned earlier, called it a day, and been perfectly passable. But the film strives to be even more, a character-driven chess game with a rarely-seen, yet ever-present urgency that the characters dare not show lest they seem desperate in the eyes of their enemies. Yes, it’s Oscar bait, but it’s so well-made that there’s no shame in including it in the Oscar discussion.

 

Three Stars out of Five.

12:28 am edt 

"The Last Witch Hunter"

            Sometimes it pays to be pessimistic. Based on the murky-looking trailers, “The Last Witch Hunter” looked absolutely unwatchable. It looked like the kind of movie that even the studio realizes is a bomb, so they push it back for several months and then dump it in January (“The Seventh Son” is the epitome of this tactic, except that it was pushed back for years rather than months). To be sure, it is almost that bad. But with expectations so low, it’s hard not to notice the few things that the movie does right.

            Vin Diesel stars as Kaulder, a 13th-century witch hunter who opens the movie by going after the witch who started the Black Plague (Julie Engelbrecht). He’s not planning to survive the mission, which is fine by him because his death will mean that he gets to rejoin his wife and daughter, who he lost to the plague. But the witch throws a curve at him; right before he kills her, she curses him with immortality. It seems she didn’t think this curse through. Kaulder hunts more of her kind throughout history, though at some point he goes from killing all of them to only killing some and imprisoning most.

            Cut to present day. You’d think Kaulder would be mopey, but he seems to be okay with the arrangement. He’s got a lucrative deal with a church-based witch-hunting group called The Axe and Cross, he’s up on modern technology, and he gets to enjoy a number of torrid affairs. His handler and friend Dolan (Michael Caine) just died, but such is life for the deathless Kaulder. He gets a new Dolan (Elijah Wood), who seems eager to help. A threat emerges from Belial (Olafur Darri Olafsson), who may just have the antidote to Kaulder’s immortality, harkening back to the day he was cursed. Kaulder needs the help of Chloe (Rose Leslie), a witch who specializes in memories, to know what Belial knows. Can Kaulder save the world, possibly without immortality?

            The movie does do a very few things right. I liked the chemistry between Diesel and his co-stars, especially Caine. When the script goes for jokes, they usually land (my favorite is one from Caine about a swarm of insects, followed by one from Wood after taking a cheap shot at a bad guy, then one from Diesel about a city block that used to be a cornfield). I also liked the design of the Black Plague witch. She’s basically camouflaged to look like a tree, but in a yucky way.

            Enough with the mushy stuff, this movie does a lot wrong too. I described the movie as “murky-looking” earlier, and nowhere is that more true than in the film’s opening moments. The scene is so poorly-lit that I had no idea what was going on or who was being killed. The special effects are phony-looking (I seem to be making that complaint a lot lately, but trust me, it’s always true). A twist toward the end is awkward, and I seriously doubt that it was always the plan for that character. And it wouldn’t be a bad movie about magic if the movie wasn’t making up its own rules as it went along. Every time the characters get in trouble, there’s a device, power, or contact that we didn’t know about until that point that can be used to save them.

            “The Last Witch Hunter” is clearly a bomb, but it has a more endearing cast than it deserves in Diesel, Caine, and Wood. It’s also getting better box office than it deserves, thanks to some of its stiffest competition getting dropped by thousands of theaters at the last minute, making it the default occult movie for the Halloween season (at least for adults, kids still have “Goosebumps” and “Hotel Transylvania 2”). Hunt this down only if you really want to see something Halloween weekend.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

12:27 am edt 

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