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Movie reviews from Bob Garver

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

"Annabelle: Creation"

            We were first introduced to possessed doll Annabelle in 2013’s “The Conjuring,” where she was freaky, but inconsequential. She was spun off into her own prequel movie in 2014, which I didn’t see, but I’m told couldn’t scare a cockroach away from a spotlight. Now she’s getting another movie, a prequel to the 2014 one, which means the series is essentially going in reverse. We’re being told the story of how the doll first came to be possessed, as if it’s not obvious she’s evil based solely on her unsettling appearance.

            The doll was created by toymaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) right before his daughter Annabelle was killed in a car accident. Twelve years later, Mullins and his wife (Miranda Otto) welcome six orphan girls and their overseer Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) into their home. The clearly-sketchy couple are allowed the responsibility because they are apparently the only ones willing to take in a group that includes Janice (Talitha Bateman), a girl stricken with polio. Janice isn’t the only one with an affliction. Two of the “girls” must have some sort of rapid-aging condition where they’re somehow teenagers in need of adult supervision even though they look like they’re in their 20’s.

            Janice and her healthier friend Linda (Lulu Wilson) waste no time getting to snooping. There’s a door that Mr. Mullins says is off-limits. It might be a single-digit number of hours before Janice is lured into it by anonymous beckoning. The doll is in the room, creeping up the place. She tries to lock it away, but it doesn’t want to stay locked away. Maybe it’s an accident that the locked door keeps opening. Maybe it’s a prank by a jokester who thinks there’s nothing funnier than doors being opened. Or maybe there’s something more sinister at work. Yeah, it’s the third one.

            A conspiracy unravels involving shady deals with otherworldly beings, violent happenings in the past, and demonic possession. Gone is sweet little Mullins daughter Annabelle and in her place is a demonic force that surprisingly prefers to be called Annabelle. But that doesn’t mean that Annabelle is the only unfriendly spirit in play. Sister Charlotte may have come in contact with a certain ghastly nun who wants a piece of the action.

            If you’ve seen any of the “Conjuring” movies, you’ll know what to expect from this installment. Lots of stuff goes bump in the night; sometimes it’s a false alarm, other times it’s worth being scared. But honestly, the movie can’t come up with much that’s scarier than just the look of the doll. The violence is once again rather tame, these movies have to stretch to get an R rating. The only memorable scare involves a clichéd horror movie answer to an innocent question. At my screening, I jokingly called out the answer before the movie seriously went that route. I’ll admit I jumped even though I totally called it.

            Starting this week, I’m doing away with my five-star rating system and switching to letter grades. This is to finally put an end to complaints along the lines of “Two and a Half Stars is 50% of Five Stars, and most schools consider 50% a failing grade, so are you saying the movie gets an F?” No, contrary to popular belief, I am not out to flunk everything. “Annabelle: Creation” gets a C. If you’re in the mood for a haunted house movie, you’ll have fun jumping every two minutes. If you’re not in the mood for a haunted house movie, you’re not likely to be won over by this collection of cheap jump scares. For me, as much as jump-scare movies have a place in my heart as a guilty pleasure, I’ve seen the two “Conjuring” movies and “Annabelle: Creation” is mostly more of the same.

 

Grade: C

4:23 pm edt 

"The Dark Tower"

            My understanding is that this film is not a straight adaptation of Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” book series, but rather a sort of sequel that cherry-picks elements of the anthology. I’m convinced the film was conceived as a writing exercise by at least one of its four credited screenwriters who wanted to tell the story of how a cowboy with a revolver could defeat a demon with one of the greatest arsenals of powers ever created. Now we have to suffer the results of that fan fiction gone wrong. 

            Idris Elba stars as Roland Deschain, the last of an order known as Gunslingers. The Gunslingers’ job is to protect a universe called Mid-World from any demons or monsters that may want to invade. The rest of the Gunslingers have been effortlessly wiped out by a demon called Walter o’Dim (Matthew McConaughey). Walter’s motivation seems to go no deeper than a desire to kill absolutely everybody in existence. He can kill anyone he wants, anytime he wants, without consequence, just by hypnotizing them with commands like “Burn” or “Stop Breathing.” Roland is immune to the hypnosis, but he’s still vulnerable to Walter’s other powers like telekinesis, so he lives a life of shame in exile.

            Roland is brought out of retirement by Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a boy from Earth who has psychic powers that may give him an edge in a battle against Walter. The power is called “The Shine,” because if it was called “The Shining,” that would be lazy, almost as lazy as dropping the suffix and acting like that’s somehow better. Jake has to be careful, because if Walter captures him, he can harness the power of The Shine to destroy The Dark Tower, a structure that protects every universe. In other words, Walter finds it inefficient to kill everybody individually, so he’s looking for a way to kill everybody in every universe at once.

            The plot is filled with a cluster of elements that I assume are taken from the book, but never given time to develop. At one point, Jake is nearly eaten by a living house with floorboards for teeth. Why doesn’t the very existence of this creature turn Jake’s world upside down? He should want to know what these things are, why they exist, how to beat them, and probably suffer from a lifetime case of domatophobia in the process. But no, he escapes through a magical portal and it’s on to the next adventure in less than a minute. Dozens of potentially rich details like these are glossed over in an effort to hurry toward the showdown at the finale. It doesn’t help that the film clearly doesn’t have the budget to explore these elements. The special effects in the living house sequence are so bad I can only describe them as animation.

            But my biggest problem with the movie is the utter one-sidedness of the central conflict. Roland is bringing a gun to a telekinesis fight. Walter can travel between universes with ease, isn’t being kept at bay by anybody, and has a tracker on our heroes, not to mention a litany of deadly superpowers. Yet he keeps sending incompetent henchmen to do his work. Yes, his mind control won’t work on Roland and he needs Jake alive, but there’s no reason why those minor inconveniences should prevent him from ending things early. Except of course that it would mean we wouldn’t get a grand showdown at the end where he has only himself to blame if he loses.

            “The Dark Tower” isn’t the worst movie I’ve seen all year. Elba gives an earnest performance as always, and it’s fun to watch McConaughey chew the scenery. But there’s nothing special about this movie other than its especially poor storytelling. Fans of the books are sure to be outraged that so much is abridged, and I seriously doubt that any new fans are going to won over with this hacky adaptation.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
4:21 pm edt 

"The Emoji Movie"

            Last week I reviewed “Dunkirk” and I talked about how early reviews had set the bar impossibly high, which prevented me from appreciating the film more. This week brings us “The Emoji Movie,” and the scales are shifted the other way. This film has been a critical whipping boy since the day it was announced due to the faddish nature of its subject matter. And that prejudice seemed to be justified, with the film scoring a 0% on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes when I saw it Friday afternoon (that number has since beefed up to an 8%). A sort of contest emerged over who could trash the film the hardest, with many reviewers saying something to the effect of “This film is the end of civilization.” It’s a bad film, all right, but I can’t help but feel like maybe it doesn’t deserve to get flayed that badly.

            The film features a cast of characters defined by a single trait or emotion. Gene (T.J. Miller) is supposed to be an apathetic “Meh” emoji, but he feels a variety of emotions, usually exuberant, so he doesn’t fit in. His parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Steven Wright) let him go to work as a Meh on the phone of a teenage boy, but when it comes time for him to make the appropriate face, he screws up because he’s so confused about his identity. This puts all the emojis at risk, because the owner is now considering erasing the whole phone.

Head emoji Smiler (Maya Rudolph) wants to have Gene deleted in the name of removing malfunctions, so he has to go on adventure throughout the phone to reach The Cloud, where he can be reprogrammed to conform to his role. Probably the biggest specific problem I have with the film is that it forgot to make Smiler actually evil. She has evil mannerisms, with her permanent smile becoming increasingly creepy as her fury heightens. But that’s not the same as evil motivation, which she lacks. She’s completely justified in thinking that Gene is a danger to the emojis’ whole world. In fact, Gene gets a number of characters deleted by the owner as a result of his journey of self-improvement; quite inconsiderate come to think of it.

            Gene is joined by a fledgling High Five emoji (James Corden) and a tough-cookie hacker (Anna Faris). Together they visit popular apps like “Candy Crush” and “Just Dance,” where we get plenty of candy and dancing jokes that are par for the course for low-aiming kids’ movies these days. That’s what this movie is, completely typical. Everything about it is ripped off from other, better movies. A digital world, a candy world, and a main character uncomfortable with his label? That’s “Wreck-it Ralph.” Characters representing a single emotion learning it’s healthy to have multiple emotions, to the benefit of a teenager? “Inside Out.” Blatant product placement and the film being defined by a pop culture entity that sounds like a really bad idea for a movie? “The LEGO Movie” pulled it off, but this one doesn’t.

            But it’s that typicality that somewhat saves “The Emoji Movie.” It doesn’t have many ideas of its own, so it doesn’t have many bad ones. This isn’t a movie where I’m screaming out “What were they thinking?” It was clearly overseen by people who watched every scene and said, “That will play well, I guess.” It’s a useless junk food movie, not a sign of the apocalypse. Out of every ten gags, maybe one is worth a chuckle, four are painful, and five sail away with no effect whatsoever. I found this movie to be pretty Meh, which is about the highest praise it’s going to get.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
4:19 pm edt 

"Dunkirk"

            Entertainment Weekly killed “Dunkirk” for me. Not because the review written by Chris Nashawaty was negative or turned me off in any way, but because it went too far toward the other extreme. On Tuesday afternoon, the headline on EW.com proclaimed the film to be “Easily the Best Movie of the Year So Far.” So I went into the film expecting nothing less than unquestionable excellence, something that would make me forget all about “Logan” and “John Wick: Chapter 2” and all my other favorites of 2017. I should have known that it was never going to pull that off, not with my expectations raised so high. What I got was a fine film whose minor cracks wouldn’t have been so noticeable if I wasn’t expecting perfection.

            The film concerns the evacuation of British soldiers from the small town of Dunkirk, France, during World War II. The story unfolds from three perspectives with three different timeframes: the Land portion takes place over a week, Sea over a day, and Air over an hour. As far as I could tell, the only time this gets confusing is when the Sea characters observe the fallout from some Air action that has already taken place and we can tell the movie is having to backtrack. The Land portion follows three British soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and a stripped-of-fame Harry Styles) as they try to stay alive as everything around them is getting shot and bombed. The Sea takes us on the small vessel of a civilian (Mark Rylance) as he volunteers for a rescue mission. He picks up a shell-shocked survivor (Cillian Murphy) who compromises his efforts. In the Air, two pilots (Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy) aim to shoot down German planes before they can pick off thousands of soldiers stranded on the beach.

            The film makes the curious, yet conscious decision of not letting us get to know any characters very well. This is not a movie where the soldiers have colorful personalities or share pictures of their loved ones. That’s because this isn’t a film about saving a few lives, this is a film about saving thousands of lives. It wants to buck the convention of having us care so much about our heroes that everyone else seems expendable. The unfortunate tradeoff is that the film sacrifices a lot of its humanity and heart treating its characters so impersonally.

            The film’s strength is not with its characters or its script, but with its action and its tension. As weary as I am of over-praising the film, it is not an exaggeration to say that it is almost certainly going to win an Oscar for its sound effects. The noise is absolutely brutal, in a way appropriate for a war film. Gunshots, explosions, zooming planes, and various form of crashing water practically provide the soundtrack to the film, that is aside from Hans Zimmer’s pulse-pounding score. There’s little humor to be found in this movie, but one of the few exceptions is that every now and then the score will slow down only to pick up again seconds later when the characters realize there’s no time to rest.

            “Dunkirk” is a superior film, for the most part. I did have a hard time accepting its lack of character development and surprisingly short running time (kind of hard to create an environment of utter despair when the film is rushing toward a conclusion one way or another), but I can see where those issues might not bother people. I don’t think EW.com should have declared this the best movie of the year so far in a headline like it’s an objective truth, but I also don’t fault Chris Nashawaty for having that opinion. The film is certainly a welcome break from the comic book movies and other franchise pieces that have dominated the release calendar this year. By all means see it for yourself and decide whether or not it deserves to be called the best.

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

4:16 pm edt 

"War for the Planet of the Apes"

            In this era of remakes and reboots and other words to describe digging up long-dormant franchises, the revival of “Planet of the Apes” has turned out to be one of the best surprises. It would have been so easy for things to go wrong with these movies: they could have been too silly, they could have taken themselves too seriously and become unintentionally silly, the special effects could have been unconvincing, the special effects could have been so convincing that they fell into the Uncanny Valley. And yet, the right balance has been found at every turn, first with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011) and then with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014). Now comes “War for the Planet of the Apes,” and it deserves a place of honor alongside the other two as an emotionally-investing film that happens to have a CGI ape as its main character.

            The key to the movie is, as always, the motion-capture performance of Andy Serkis as Caesar, the leader of the apes. Early scenes have Caesar as you would expect to see him: angry and brutal, but also wise and merciful. It’s fine, Serkis clearly hasn’t lost his touch. But then Caesar goes through some hardships and Serkis has to give the character all these touches where he’s blinded by rage but he still wants to be wise and he’s worried that he’s letting down his family and maybe he’s turning into a monster and he’s disgusted with himself. Things sure aren’t easy for Caesar, but Serkis is up to the challenge.

            Unlike “Dawn,” where I could never get into the Jason Clarke or Gary Oldman characters, this time Caesar is complemented by a formidable human character in Woody Harrelson’s Col. McCullough. McCullough shaves his head and is a military leader who needs to be dealt with by his own military, so comparisons to Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now” are inevitable. McCullough has made the ultimate sacrifice for what he considers the good of humanity, and his reward is that he now must go to war… with the rest of humanity. At one point, he says the opposing army is made up of “everybody” and I believe him.

            McCullough keeps the apes imprisoned at a camp where he needs them to build a wall for an upcoming siege. At least that’s the movie’s explanation for why he doesn’t just kill them. Frankly I don’t think it lines up with his motives, but this movie really wants to have a “Great Escape”-like prison camp atmosphere, and that’s its excuse. Actually, it wants to be a prisoner-of-war movie more than it wants to be a war movie. The “War for the Planet of the Apes” that we’re promised is a one-sided battle that mostly involves humans while the apes try to hide and avoid crossfire. The apes’ only contribution is that they try to end things early for the overdogs so they don’t get obliterated in the chaos.  

            The action isn’t so great in the latter half of “War for the Planet of the Apes,” and neither is any character that isn’t Caesar or McCullough. A cowardly comic relief ape played by Steve Zahn is exactly the kind of forced silliness that this movie didn’t need, and a sweet little mute girl played by Amiah Miller pales in comparison to her “Logan” and even “Transformers” counterparts. But this movie is capable of great things when the focus is on Caesar and McCullough, and fortunately it’s on them a lot, especially Caesar. The 2010’s version of the “Planet of the Apes” series has been consistently impressive, now let’s see it be impressive one more time and resist the temptation to force a fourth movie after this satisfying conclusion to an ambitious trilogy.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

4:14 pm edt 

"Spider-Man: Homecoming"

            For most of “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” I didn’t see why the movie was getting so much praise from critics. I didn’t like Tom Holland’s take on Peter Parker aka Spider-Man, I was underwhelmed by the villain Vulture (Michael Keaton), I was annoyed by almost all of Peter’s friends and classmates, and the action, development, and conflicts were completely standard for the superhero genre. In fact, they were overly familiar because we’ve had so many Spider-Man movies already and we have a good idea of how the character operates. Then something happened around the two-thirds mark that added another dimension to the Spider-Man/Vulture feud. It completely turned me around, and from that point on, the film could do practically no wrong. Unfortunately, I don’t feel comfortable going into this twist out of concern for spoilers, but please know that I’m higher on this film than what I let on in the rest of this review.

            My biggest problem with this movie is Tom Holland. He has a voice that sounds like he’s constantly whining, even when he’s happy. I know the justification is that kids his age tend to be whiny and he’s just making him “realistic,” but would it kill this movie to make its hero more tolerable so I wouldn’t wish his mouthless mask would impair his ability to speak? Though one compliment I will throw Holland is that he’s the one Peter Parker who can pass for a high school student. Sorry, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, I can tell you’re both past your college years.

            Yes, Peter Parker is a high school student again in this movie, even though there is plenty of source material where he’s an adult. We get the requisite gags where he has to juggle high school drama and his duties as Spider-Man. He’s not afraid to take on armed robbers, but he’s terrified of asking out his crush (Laura Harrier). He wants to impress Avengers leader Tony Stark, but he’s worried about letting down his Aunt May (Marissa Tomei). And the high school storyline means we get high school stock characters, like an awkward best friend (Jacob Batalon), a secretly-jealous bully (Tony Revolori), and a rebellious weirdo (Zendaya). The movie gives these characters more than enough screen time to steal the show, but they ultimately add very little. I say let’s have less of them and more of Oscar winner Tomei. She does in fact steal the movie with a two-and-a-half-word line at the end.

            Another problem with this movie is that Adrian Toomes aka Vulture is weak villain for such an important chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This movie should have a supervillain who wants to take over the world, or kill a mass of people, or at least settle a deeply personal dispute. Instead we get junk salvager who sells weapons because the Avengers’ antics kept him from making an honest living. Stark could have solved this problem by writing him a check. He’s greedy and foolish too, he has plenty of chances to quit while he’s ahead and he keeps pressing on even though his cover is blown. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not a bad character in terms of motivation or development, he’s just not ambitious or dangerous enough to be the primary antagonist.

            “Spider-Man: Homecoming” was on track for a one-and-a-half-star rating for roughly its first hour, but then Peter met up with his date for Homecoming and suddenly everything improved: the characters became more interesting, the atmosphere became more tense, even the jokes got funnier. This is a movie where patience pays off. And since this is a Marvel movie, you should also be patient enough to wait until the end of the credits. You’ll never laugh harder at a movie for ripping you off.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

4:13 pm edt 

"Despicable Me 3"

            “Despicable Me 3” barely contains any of the franchise’s trademark Minions, and the little we do get isn’t really related to the rest of the movie. It’s as if the people at Illumination Animation almost let a “Despicable Me” movie into theaters without any Minions – the horror! I personally can’t stand the Minions, mainly because of the way they talk, and was glad to see them kept to a minimum this time around. Just my luck, the movie in this series that uses them the least is the one that is most lifeless otherwise, which implies that they should have been used more to punch things up.

            The story is that former supervillain turned superspy Gru (Steve Carell) botches a mission to defeat former 80’s child star turned supervillain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker of “South Park,” in a rare family-friendly role). Gru and his wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) are fired from their spy agency and need to find a way to provide for their family, including adopted daughters Margot (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Nev Scharrel), plus I assume all those Minions to support. That last problem takes care of itself when the Minions quit because Gru has gone too long without being despicable.

The family is in need of a diversion, and one comes along when they’re invited to visit Gru’s long-lost twin Dru (also Carell). The brothers are instantly jealous of each other: Gru because Dru is rich and has hair, and Dru because Gru was a moderately-successful supervillain who made their supervillain father proud. Dru wants to team up, his resources with Gru’s know-how, to become an unstoppable team of rogues. Gru is resistant because he left villainy behind when he started his family, but it’s just too tempting to try and go after Bratt so he can get him and Lucy back in the spy agency’s good graces. He and Dru set off to steal a huge diamond from Bratt without his nitwitted brother knowing that what they’re doing isn’t actually that villainous.

That’s the main plotline, and it’s a slog because it means having to listen to Carell’s grating accent not once, but twice. But I did like some of the other storylines, like Lucy struggling in her new role as a mother. Sometimes she’s too generous, sometimes she’s too violent, oddly she gets “threatening” just right. Wiig fills every corner of the character with loving charm, as she did in the second movie to make it so much better than the first.  

Then there’s my favorite character, Agnes. She gets a subplot about looking for a unicorn. As always, everything she says is crushingly adorable and anyone who doesn’t like her doesn’t like anything that is good in the world (that’s probably how Minions fans feel about me). What’s weird about the storyline is that everyone worries about how she’ll deal with the eventual disappointment of unicorns not being real. But this is a world with Minions, weaponized bubblegum, and the laws of physics being treated as well-intended suggestions. Drawing the line between fantasy and reality at unicorns seems arbitrary.

There are enough sweet moments to keep “Despicable Me 3” amusing and tolerable, but the movie is a bit of a mess overall. Storylines compete for time in a way that makes them all seem rushed and incomplete, new characters besides Dru aren’t given time to develop (what is the point of having Steve Coogan’s spy agency director retire and be replaced by a hotheaded Jenny Slate if both characters are going to be essentially dropped after one scene?), and lest we forget, Minions are present. They get arrested, so you can look forward to toys of them in striped prison uniforms being shoved down your throat. This is a middling installment of a franchise that is happy to be middling as long as it sells toys.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

4:12 pm edt 


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