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Movie reviews from Bob Garver

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Thursday, February 11, 2021

Now on the Ohioan Podcast
I can now be heard weekly on the Ohioan podcast with Chris Pugh. This week we talk about Disney/Pixar's "Soul," which I will probably not be reviewing for my print publications. ‎The Ohioan on Apple Podcasts
11:01 pm est          Comments

Promising Young Woman

            I had particularly high hopes for “Promising Young Woman.” When I saw the first trailer in early 2020, my instincts told me that this was going to be one of the most exciting, unpredictable, maybe even terrifying films of the year. I made it a point to see the film on my 35th birthday because something told me it was going to be a monumental film and I wanted to connect it to a monumental day. The good news is that it is indeed one of the exciting, unpredictable, terrifying films of 2020. The bad news is that with 2020, anything halfway competent is going to be one of the most exciting, unpredictable, terrifying films of the year. It doesn’t mean that this film could hold its own against a proper holiday movie slate.

            Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie. Once a Promising Young Woman with a bright future ahead of her in medical school, Cassie dropped out along with her friend Nina when the latter was raped and later died. Now Cassie lives with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) and her meager career consists of working at a coffee shop run by Gail (Laverne Cox). Her one pleasure in life comes from going to high-end bars, pretending to be drunk, letting rich sleazebags take her home, revealing she’s really sober, and then… pretty much letting them off the hook. The trailers made it look like she was really going to punish these predators, but to my disappointment, she stops short of performing any truly radical acts.

            One guy in Cassie’s life that she doesn’t seduce at a bar is old classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham). He’s now a charmingly goofy pediatrician with a heart of gold and an eye for her. The two’s flirting is arguably the high point of the movie, capped off by a drugstore musical number set to an okay pop song by an atrocious pop star. Is Cassie open to a relationship given the depravity she associates with men? And is Ryan as wholesome as he pretends to be? After all, he was in medical school with both Nina and Nina’s attacker and they all got drunk at the same parties.

            An opportunity presents itself for Cassie to avenge Nina once and for all, and after that maybe she can settle down with Ryan. But first she has to get revenge on a complicit classmate (Alison Brie), the school’s unsympathetic dean (Connie Britton), and an amoral lawyer (Alfred Molina, in a scene with distracting overacting from both him and Mulligan). Then she can move onto the attacker (Chris Lowell) at his bachelor party. She has no intention of letting him off with a good talking-to, but her master plan involves so many things happening a certain way that it can’t be chalked up to anything more than dumb planning and dumber luck. The inexplicably accurate forethought is a huge flaw in the script by writer-director Emerald Fennell, along with the decision to have the Brie character turn over a piece of evidence that is way too convenient for a story this supposedly grounded.

            I’m writing this article a few days after the announcement of the year’s Golden Globe nominations. “Promising Young Woman” is nominated for Best Picture – Drama, Best Actress in a Drama, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. I haven’t seen many of the other nominees, so I can’t say where this film belongs in relation to them, but I hope that at least one of them is better so we don’t have to settle for this movie as the best of the year. I am by no means saying that this passionately-made movie isn’t among the best of the year. What I’m saying is that if it is, the year settled for very little. Which, given the year, is not surprising.

Grade: B-

10:57 pm est          Comments

The Little Things

            We all know that 2020 was a weird time for the movie business (as well as every other business), but the weirdness started back in January, before everything went haywire. “Bad Boys for Life” made $206 million at the domestic box office and wound up as the biggest theatrical release of the year. Obviously that achievement wouldn’t have held up to stronger competition had more blockbusters been allowed to open, but it still counts. And even if it didn’t sit atop the year-end list, it still would have made more money than any film to ever open in January by nearly $60 million (movies like “American Sniper” that technically opened in December and then went wide in January don’t count). The point is that January is traditionally not the time for juggernauts like “Bad Boys for Life.” It’s a time for certain flops to become lesser flops because they are able to be the big new release on weekends no other studio wanted – for good reason. In that way, 2021 is a return to tradition. We’ve only had two new movies this year: “The Marksman,” from last week, and “The Little Things” from this week. Both films’ biggest selling point is nothing more than a dearth of competition. The studios weren’t going to make much money with these movies anyway, might as well capitalize on that advantage.

            “The Little Things” is a detective movie starring Denzel Washington and Rami Malek. As with “The Marksman” and Liam Neeson, the studio just wants to sell you on its stars without doing much to sell the film’s style or story. Denzel plays Joe “Deke” Deacon, a veteran cop visiting his old haunt of Los Angeles in 1990. Malek is Jimmy Baxter, a young hotshot detective on the hunt for a serial killer. Deke can’t help but compare Jimmy’s current charge with an unsolved case he worked five years ago – a murderer with… let’s say two or three victims. Deke went crazy from the case, suffering a heart attack and alienating the rest of the department. He agrees to help Jimmy with the new case, but warns him not to become obsessed like he did. Jimmy acts like he’s too cool to behave like that, but secretly he’s falling into the same trap.

            A break in the case revolves around Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a creepy repairman with a connection to one of the victims. He taunts Deke and Jimmy in the way that only the incredibly guilty can when they’re sure they can’t be caught. But he’s falsely confessed to a murder before, and if he wasn’t the killer then, it stands to reason that he’s not the killer now. Even if he’s not, he’s guilty of obstruction, and I think he deserves anything bad that happens to him, but the law says he has rights. Deke and Jimmy bend the rules collecting evidence and interrogating Sparma, who gets a sick pleasure out of seeing the two get flustered over him. Then one of them gets really sloppy, making a decision way too dumb for a professional detective, and things go south.

            The first three quarters of “The Little Things” are boring and the last act relies on staggering stupidity. The cast does what they can with this material, but not even three Oscar-winning actors can elevate this drivel beyond a C-. Then again, I didn’t see the film under the best of conditions. Due to a scheduling conflict, I had to settle for watching this at home on HBO Max. It certainly saved me time, but it’s just not the same as seeing a movie on the big screen, even one as disposable as this. If you can, try to see this movie in a theater, which sure could use your business right now. Or better yet, see a better movie like “News of the World” or “Promising Young Woman.”

Grade: C-

10:55 pm est          Comments

The Marksman

            “The Marksman” has the unfortunate timing to come out less than a month after “News of the World.” Although the two movies are set over 150 years apart, the plots are very similar: a crusty adult has to go on a long, dangerous journey with a child they don’t know, to the point where they don’t even speak the same language. But while “News of the World” was able to get a plum Christmas release date, thanks in no small part to the star power of Tom Hanks, “The Marksman” feels like it was always destined for the doldrums of January, even with Liam Neeson attached.

            Neeson plays Jim Hanson, a former Marine, recent widower, and current rancher on an Arizona farm on the U.S./Mexico border. He spends his days fretting how he’s going to pay back a bank loan and occasionally reporting illegal immigrants to his agent stepdaughter (Kathryn Winnick). One day he spots mother Rosa (Teresa Ruiz) and son Miguel (Joe Perez) making a feeble attempt to flee into the country. Not far behind them is a group of cartel assassins, hunting them down after Rosa’s brother betrayed their boss. In one of the film’s disappointingly few action sequences, Hanson engages the men in a shootout and kills the brother of the leader (Juan Pablo Raba). But Rosa is mortally wounded (not a spoiler, since this is established in the trailer), and she makes Hanson promise to take Miguel to relatives in Chicago before she dies.

            Hanson has to first rescue Miguel from Border Patrol, even though the ungrateful Miguel says that Hanson is indirectly responsible for his mother’s death. I say that without Hanson, the cartel guys would have caught up with them about ten seconds later and killed them both, but there’s hard feelings anyway. Hanson and Miguel go on the run with the cartel members not far behind them. The cartel guys are ruthless, burning down Hanson’s house and killing people who make even fleeting contact with them (one poor girl looks like she’s too young to drive, let alone work at a gas station).

            Hanson hates having to shepherd Miguel at first, but eventually the two bond. This movie plays the stupid angle where Miguel spends about half the movie pretending he doesn’t speak English, but then it turns out that he does, he just wanted to mess with Hanson. Hanson teaches Miguel how to shoot, having him practice on cans in a scene that will no doubt come into play during the climax. Miguel has a backpack full of cartel money, which briefly comes between the two… until it doesn’t. This scene elicited audible groans from everyone in the theater, which I’m proud to say I kicked off. The climax takes place in a barn, an odd choice of venue considering the movie has spent so much time building up Chicago that I was expecting something a little more urban. And the actual ending is ridiculous, with a fatal twist that could be undone by simply changing the order of certain events.

            The best thing I can say about “The Marksman” is that Neeson and Perez have pretty good chemistry. It’s not particularly memorable, but it’s cute how they share affection for Hanson’s dog (the dog, by the way, is memorable). But the movie is not done any favors by its script or action. It’s not even titled very well, Hanson’s marksmanship is barely mentioned and I kept having to remind myself what the movie was even called. I’d say this movie is a disappointment as a Liam Neeson action vehicle, but there’s so little action that it barely qualifies as one, it’s more of a road trip movie with action sequences at the beginning and end. By all means see this movie to support your local theater, but only after you’ve seen better movies like “News of the World.”

Grade: C-

10:54 pm est          Comments

The War with Grandpa

            Even though “The War with Grandpa” won a weekend at the box office last October, knocking “Tenet” out of the top spot after a five-week run, the timing just never worked out for me to see the film in theaters. I actually felt bad about it, like I was missing out on the opportunity to review something relevant. I was indeed missing out on the opportunity to see a film that was scraping together just enough money to warrant a review, but I was not missing out on a movie worth reviewing.

            The film stars Robert DeNiro as Ed, a senior citizen gradually falling behind in the modern world. After an incident involving one of those automatic checkout machines that infuriate everyone regardless of age, he’s pressured into moving in with his daughter Sally (Uma Thurman) and her family. Sally, her husband Arthur (Rob Riggle), their teenage daughter Mia (Laura Marano), and Christmas-obsessed youngest daughter Jenny (Poppy Gagnon) all know the new arrangement will be an adjustment, but it’s preteen son Peter (Oakes Fegley) who’s most unhappy. Ed will be moving into his bedroom, meaning that he’ll have to move up to the attic. I’ve heard other critics say that the attic in this movie doesn’t look too bad and Peter should quit whining, but it has vermin problems that I doubt Child Protective Services would let slide.

            Peter “declares war” on Ed, promising to make his life miserable until he… decides to move out, I guess, even though he doesn’t exactly “want” to be there in the first place. A prank war ensues. Peter replaces Ed’s shaving cream with sealant. Ed sabotages Peter’s school report. Peter puts a snake in Ed’s bed. Ed destroys Peter’s elaborate virtual castle. In an effort to settle the rivalry once and for all, the two agree to face each other in a four-on-four winner-take-all (whatever that means) dodgeball game at a trampoline park. Why dodgeball? Why teams of four? Because this movie really wanted to film a scene at a dodgeball park and for no other reason. The game ends in a draw, and since there’s no way for two people to settle a dispute other than trampoline dodgeball, the feud seems destined to go on forever. Or at least until Jenny’s birthday party next week.

            Ed’s circle of friends, and dodgeball team, include Jerry (Christopher Walken), Danny (Cheech Marin), and Diane (Jane Seymore). I was intrigued by the comedic possibilities of the wily veterans, but they let me down tremendously. With Walken, for example, I was so excited to hear that he was in this movie that I immediately broke into my requisite bad Walken impression. Then I saw the movie and noticed that Walken himself was doing an even worse impression. Cheech brings nothing to the table, and Seymore is involved in one of the dumbest twist endings of the year. The blatantly obvious one from lousy horror movie “You Should Have Left” is still worse, but I didn’t even realize this was supposed to be a twist until it was treated like one.

            “The War with Grandpa” triggered some sort of chemical reaction in my brain. Watching this unfunny, unintelligent, oftentimes unnatural movie, I wanted to cry. Not because of the six dollars I spent on the rental fee or even the torturous nature of the movie’s humor, but because this was eating up 95 minutes of my valuable time. It’s a good thing I merely saw this movie at home, because schlepping to a theater in New Jersey from my home in NYC takes about an hour both ways, so at least I was able to roughly halve the time wasted. I’m temped to name this movie as the worst of 2020, but I saw even hackier stuff On Demand, so this movie will just have to settle for being the worst that got a major theatrical release.

Grade: D

10:53 pm est          Comments

Monster Hunter

            I should have reviewed this movie three weeks ago, when it was #1 in the country. But my weekend work schedule was just too tight, and I had to settle for reviewing On Demand release “Greenland” instead. I wrote at the time that “Greenland” should have been released in theaters, and now I can say that it should have gotten the theatrical release that wrongfully went to “Monster Hunter.” This film did well enough to justify a review from a commercial standpoint, but it does not come close to deserving my time and energy from a creative standpoint. I should consider it a blessing that I got to review the superior “Greenland” instead, even if I did have to see it on the small screen. This movie isn’t good enough for the big screen. Or my TV. Or my laptop. At best, it belongs on a phone. But not a nice smartphone, more like a low-end flip-phone from back when phones were just starting to have screens.

            After a prologue where an otherworldly character known as The Hunter (Tony Jaa) is separated from his group, led by The Admiral (Ron Perlman), the film is neatly divided into three acts. In the first act, a group of soldiers led by Artemis (Milla Jovovich) are sucked into another dimension and try to combat the monsters. I don’t know why the film went to the trouble of getting “name” actors like Meagan Good, Tip “T.I.” Harris, and Diego Boneta for these scenes. Let’s just say the monster fills up on appetizers.

In the second act, Artemis forms a shaky alliance with The Hunter and they team up to fight the monsters together. They bond over chocolate, which normally I’d say is dumb and maybe borderline insensitive to have someone of another culture won over so easily by a treat, but since this particular brand of chocolate happens to be my full-time employer, I’ll go ahead and say that this is further proof that we are the Great Unifier across all planes of existence. Speaking of culturally insensitive, this movie got in trouble in China for a joke where the punchline was “Chi-Knees.” It doesn’t surprise me that this movie would make a joke that dumb, but I am surprised that the idiotic screenplay was able to string that many words together from setup to punchline.

In the third act, Artemis and The Hunter meet up with The Admiral and his crew, and together they use some real firepower to take on the deadliest monster of them all. This monster breathes fire and has no weaknesses… except for a few seconds of vulnerability right before it breathes the fire, which is in fact a glaring weakness. It is in this portion of the film that we are introduced to a supporting character that completely steals the movie. This character is the cook on The Admiral’s ship, and I won’t say who – or what – plays them. Just know that when I give this movie a D rating, I’m referring to the scenes that don’t feature this character. The scenes with this character get an A.

“Monster Hunter” is practically nonstop shooting, swordplay, and other assorted fighting. This sounds like a promise of a good action movie, but I assure you it’s a promise of boredom. It’s quickly apparent that bullets don’t hurt these poorly-rendered monsters, so all the shooting is just noise for the sake of noise, and the same can be said for other methods of nicking the huge beasts. The characters and dialogue are not compelling. In fact, it seems like the film’s writers thought it was a chore to write characters and dialogue at all. This movie unsurprisingly is based on a video game, and the movie industry’s longstanding streak of never once coming up with a decent video game adaptation remains intact.

 Grade: D

10:51 pm est          Comments

News of the World

            One of my favorite children’s books is “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster. There’s a scene where the main characters are driving through a lush green landscape. They comment on the view, saying that it’s beautiful, but then a new character chimes in and says, “If you happened to like deserts, you might not think this was beautiful at all,” and this leads to a whole conversation about perspective. “News of the World” is a movie for people who happen to like deserts. Ironically-named director Paul Greengrass makes sure we get plenty long, loving looks at the rocky, rugged greatness of rural Texas circa 1870. This is a world where if your carriage wheel breaks, you’re stranded a barren wasteland. I cannot imagine liking a world where such circumstances are possible, but whatever there is to like about this setting, Greengrass capitalizes on it.

            Tom Hanks stars as Captain Jefferson “Kyle” Kidd, a Civil War veteran who now ekes out a living going from town to town reading newspapers to paying audiences. He’s essentially a primitive newscaster, and he’s not very good at his job. Yes, he can read in an era when many can’t, but his readings are cold, with his face about two inches away from the page. Memorization, or at least a rehearsal, would do him well. But the work keeps him busy, and that’s what he needs.

            One day Kidd comes across a ransacked wagon with a scared little girl later named Johanna (Helena Zengel) as its sole survivor. Kidd learns through paperwork that Johanna is the child of German immigrants who were killed by Kiowa Indians, who raised the girl until they themselves were killed. Not wanting to leave the child abandoned, Kidd takes her to the nearest town where he learns that the official who can take her to her distant relatives won’t be back for three months. He’ll have to take Johanna to her relatives himself, even though he doesn’t know anything about looking after children, especially one that doesn’t speak English.

            Kidd and Johanna travel across Texas doing readings and having mini-adventures along the way. Three no-good ex-Confederates want to buy Johanna for her fair German skin. Kidd declines, and a shootout ensues. An evil town leader wants Kidd to read from his self-published newspaper, which is loaded with propaganda articles that are false, feigned, forged, fraudulent, etc. The aforementioned hunk of junk carriage breaks down with a dust storm imminent. Kidd finally reaches Johanna’s relatives, but leaving her with them doesn’t seem right.

            At the heart of the film are the Hanks and Zengel performances. Hanks is his usual excellent self, playing one of the more “broken” characters of his illustrious career. Zengel makes a memorable debut. The last time I can remember a teenage girl having a presence like this in a Western, it was Hailee Steinfeld in “True Grit,” and now she’s a big name in both movies and pop music. I could easily see Zengel finding similar success in her career, maybe more.

            I can’t say there’s much wrong with “News of the World,” other than maybe an air of predictability. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that this movie isn’t enthralling enough to win over people who aren’t in the mood for something so… rustic. I don’t “happen to like deserts,” I like bustling urban landscapes, and I was always relieved when the characters would reach a town, the busier the better. If this movie looks like your cup of tea, then you’ll probably enjoy it, and if it doesn’t, you’ll still probably find something to appreciate even if it mostly feels like a slog.

 

Grade: B-

10:50 pm est          Comments

Wonder Woman 1984

            “Wonder Woman 1984” is the closest thing we’ll get to a theatrical blockbuster this holiday season. After only one weekend, the film already has the fifth-highest domestic box office ($16.7 million) of any film released in the last nine months of 2020. I was initially shut out of getting a ticket for a Christmas Day screening before the one viable theater upped its number of showings for that day. Never mind the simultaneous HBO Max release, I want audiences (if able and comfortable, and of course following all safety protocols) to support theaters by seeing this movie on the big screen – even if the movie itself isn’t all that great.

            Set 66 years after the WWI-era original, the new film finds the unaging Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) trying to lead a quiet life. Diana spends most of her time working as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian and occasionally foiling crimes as her alter ego. She doesn’t have much of a social circle since friends will probably ask too many questions about her history and no lover could ever replace Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), her boyfriend who was killed in the first movie. It’s like pulling teeth for Diana to have lunch with her frumpy colleague Barbara (Kristen Wiig), who envies Diana’s intelligence, beauty, and suspiciously highly-developed athletic abilities.

            The Smithsonian comes into possession of an artifact – a Dreamstone that grants wishes. Diana jokingly wishes that she had Steve back and Barbara sincerely wishes she could be more like Diana. Fraudulent oil magnate Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) steals the Dreamstone and wishes to become imbued with its powers. Now he can grant any wish asked of him, and since the Dreamstone is essentially a monkey’s paw that always takes as much as it gives, he can take whatever he wants from wishers. There are a few rules, like any one person can only get one wish, but basically he has successfully wished for unlimited wishes in his obsessive quest for power.

            Diana and Barbara’s wishes took place before Lord took over the Dreamstone, so he doesn’t have power over them, but their wishes still count. Diana is soon joined by a resurrected Steve, and the two rekindle their love. Barbara is soon popular and admired and curiously strong. The two realize that it’s dangerous for any one person to have control of the Dreamstone and Diana, as Wonder Woman, will have to stop Lord. This is easier said than done because the Dreamstone is gradually taking away her powers. She can still yank a padlock clean off a door, but it’s momentarily difficult. Barbara’s price for becoming more like Diana is that she loses her humanity, becoming an antagonist who doesn’t want Diana to take the Dreamstone from Lord. Since she unintentionally got some of Diana’s Wonder Woman powers in the deal, she’s now especially dangerous.

            The good news about “Wonder Woman 1984” is that Lord is a pathetic, yet compelling villain. You’ll be wondering how he’ll abuse his power next as things spin further and further out of control. The bad news is that I can’t say the same for Diana and Barbara. Barbara is basically doing Michelle Pfeiffer’s schtick from “Batman Returns,” right down to eventually becoming a cat-themed villain. Diana is disappointingly flat. There will be stretches where you’ll forget that she’s supposed to be the main character, and there are only about five scenes where she’s even in Wonder Woman mode. There’s an arc about how she has to learn to reject lies, starting with an exciting athletic competition, but concluding with her taking way too long to make an obvious decision and then rousing the world with a speech that wouldn’t be very convincing if there weren’t already plentiful evidence that she’s right. This movie has the release date and the franchise appeal to justify a great box office performance, just not the story or dialogue or overall charisma.

 

Grade: C
10:49 pm est          Comments

Greenland

            “Greenland” was supposed to get a big theatrical release as recently as August. I remember seeing trailers for the film before “Unhinged,” the first movie I’d seen in theaters since March. Come to think of it, it may have been the first theatrical trailer I’d seen in months. I remember robotically thinking, “I’ll see that. I’ll see anything in a theater.” But this being 2020, the film was pushed back and pushed back until finally it was released On Demand. Several movies this year have been denied theatrical releases and dumped On Demand, and most of them turned out to be undeserving of theatrical releases in the first place (looking at you, “Antebellum”), but I think the studio got it wrong with this one. This movie’s high stakes and visual spectacle make it appropriate for the big screen, and it could have held its own at the box office on a weekend without strong competition. Maybe even with strong competition.

            Gerard Butler stars as John Garrity, a structural engineer from Atlanta. He, his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin), and his son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) are selected to fly to Greenland to live in an elaborate survival bunker in the highly likely event that an incoming comet proves apocalyptic. Pieces of the comet are already leaving devastation in their wake, from fiery skies to miles-long shockwaves to craters where people used to be. And that’s not counting the danger from other humans. Stores are being looted, friends and neighbors are turning on each other, and everybody wants to be on the very few planes that can get to the bunker. The family has less than 48 hours to make it to Greenland, and they’re going to need every second of it.

            Tropes of the disaster movie formula are instantly recognizable. The parents are estranged, but will reconnect through this shared peril. Nathan has diabetes, so a race for insulin will require detours at inconvenient times. Military personnel will be well-meaning, but unwilling to deviate from orders for the benefit of our heroes. And there will be traffic jams that force our heroes to abandon their vehicles and pursue safety on foot. Seriously, there are a lot of traffic jams. The middle of the movie could be described as the characters going from one traffic jam to another.

            But the movie is fine with understandable obstacles. The actors, especially Baccarin, a good at selling tension and desperation during scenes where they have to deal with separation and danger and a general lack of sympathy toward their urgency. It’s when the movie creates unusual obstacles that it gets a little goofy. Somebody really wanted a far-fetched Gerard Butler hammerfight as an action beat, and a kidnapping subplot uproots the groundedness of the movie until that point (although Nathan managed to elicit a big cheer out of me at a key moment).

            Even with the occasional misstep, “Greenland” features relatable characters reacting intensely, yet understandably, to an extraordinary situation. It is a worthy entry into the pantheon of disaster movies, and I’ll go so far as to say that it’s better than both “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon,” the dueling comet movies from 1998. The large-scale destruction scenes aren’t exactly convincing enough to be heartbreaking, but you’ll get the point. The emphasis is more on human drama anyway.

This movie should have been released in theaters. The only halfway decent reason I can see for deciding otherwise is that maybe the studio thought it would be too depressing. With daily victims of COVID-19 numbering in the thousands, maybe they decided it was a bad idea to release a movie where the deaths number in the millions. I would have recommended another pushback of its theatrical release instead of an On Demand blowoff, and it saddens me that the studio has botched its handling of a potential blockbuster.

 

Grade: B-
10:47 pm est          Comments

The Croods: A New Age

            Going into “The Croods: A New Age,” I barely remembered anything from “The Croods” from 2013. I remembered that Emma Stone, Nicolas Cage, Catherine Keener, and Cloris Leachman voiced cave people, but that was about it. I had even forgotten that Ryan Reynolds was in it, mainly because I had written Reynolds off as a box office draw prior to his 2016 resurgence in “Deadpool.” Speaking of 2016, that was the year of “La La Land,” which won Emma Stone an Oscar for Best Actress (the highest-profile announced win for that movie to stick). Two of the cast members have moved on to bigger and better things, but they were able to return and do this sequel. That’s a win for the movie in and of itself. And aside from some pathetic box office domination during weekends where nothing else wanted to open, that’s the only win this movie gets.

            At the beginning of the film, the teenaged Eep (Stone) and Guy (Reynolds) are two crazy kids in love, which Eep’s father Grug (Cage) reluctantly tolerates. Guy is enamored with Eep, but he hates having to sleep in a big clump with the rest of her family, which also includes Eep’s mother Ugga (Keener), grandmother Gran (Leachman), brother Thunk (Clark Duke), younger sister Sandy (Kailey Crawford), and at least two animals. He wants to find a paradise called Tomorrow, where he and Eep can live in privacy. Grug, hard-headed as he is, wants Eep to stay with her pack and spend her days hunting, foraging, and barely surviving. Eep is torn between the two ideas, but it doesn’t matter because there’s no Tomorrow to tempt her, and there probably never will be.

            The next morning, the family finds Tomorrow. It’s a lush oasis filled with food, inhabited by an “advanced” family called the Bettermans, who knew Guy before he met the Croods. Father Phil (Peter Dinklage) and mother Hope (Leslie Mann) are eager to get Guy reacquainted with their daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran) even though he already has a girlfriend in Eep. It turns out that it’s Eep who is more excited to hang around with Dawn, since she’s never been around a girl her own age. Eep takes Dawn on an adventure outside the walled compound, which Dawn loves as a contrast to her sheltered existence, but this does not sit well with the Bettermans. Actually, nothing about the primitive Croods sits well with the snobby Bettermans. Cultures are clashing, everyone’s fighting, and Grug is eating the bananas that are supposed to be sacrificed to an army of Punch Monkeys (monkeys that punch everything). The monkeys decide to make sacrifices of the humans instead, setting in motion the action portion of the film.

            The conflicts in this movie pan out so predictably. Is there any chance that the Croods and Bettermans won’t be friends by the end of the movie? Or that Guy and Eep won’t make up once their relationship is tested? Or that they won’t ultimately make long-term decisions that manage to please everyone? No, all the movie’s creativity went into the eye-candy action sequences and hybrid animals like Kangadillos and Piranhakeets. I’m sure these creatures were fun to invent, but clearly a disproportional amount of effort went into creating them for a series of two-second gags.

            That’s not to say that I don’t like the action sequences and the crazy animals and some of the gags (never underestimate the power of a good eye-gouge). But there needs to be a better movie surrounding them, and this story is dull, dull, dull. I should be rooting for this movie to bomb against stronger competition, not begging for it to succeed so that something – anything – can keep the theaters in business. As it is, I’ll recommend going to see “The Croods: A New Age” in theaters (following all safety protocols, of course) and checking your opinion against mine to see if you too think this movie is a piece of well-animated junk.

Grade: C-

10:45 pm est          Comments

Fatman

            In “Fatman,” Mel Gibson plays Santa Claus on steroids. He actually does say that he’s on steroids at one point, but I mean it as more of an attitude thing. This Santa spends the better part of his days drinking, smoking cigars, and working out – chopping firewood and beating the stuffing out of punching bags. It’s not that he doesn’t have a nice-guy side: he has a loving relationship with his wife Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, in probably the best-ever portrayal of Mrs. Claus), he cares deeply about the elves in his employ, and he recognizes his role as an inspiration to millions of children. But he’s not so jolly. The world is turning naughtier and the U.S. government is threatening to cut back on his subsidies if he doesn’t have the elves build things like fighter jets. Without ever saying it, he’s on the verge of a violent outburst. Violence comes a-calling, and although he wants to end things efficiently for the protection of his loved ones, you get the sense that he’s been looking forward to this excuse to let out some hostility out of his system.

            That violence comes in the form of Jonathan (Walton Goggins), a hitman hired by the spoiled Billy (Chance Hurstfield). Billy is a little psychopath, stealing money from his sick grandmother and having a student who beats him in a science fair kidnapped and tortured. These misdeeds earn him a box of coal for Christmas, and he swears a vendetta against Santa. Jonathan also has a vendetta against Santa for never giving him what he wanted as a child. For decades he’s considered his Santa-hatred a mere hobby, but now that he’s being assigned to track him down, he can do so with all his heart. Jonathan is both a great and a lousy hitman. He can sneak into a house and kill people while they’re sleeping without waking them up, but he can’t locate someone that gets million of letters from the post office every year. Just mail the guy a tracking device, don’t waste your time with a blood-soaked series of interrogations.

            The key to a movie like this is its sense of humor, but things are mostly played straight. Playing a situation like Santa Claus facing off against a hitman straight can itself be funny because the premise is so ridiculous that the seriousness works in contrast, but I say the movie relies a little too much on humor derived from the setup and the setup alone. But at least the movie doesn’t rely on lazy drunken/lustful/mean Santa jokes that lowbrow comedies love to exploit, despite scenes of Santa drinking, making love, and getting angry. Those seem so true to the character that they aren’t ironic.

            I was disappointed with the action in the film, which mostly involves shooting, much of it long-distance. Santa has such a unique set of skills and resources, can’t we see him in an axe fight or throwing boiling cocoa in somebody’s face? I’m not exactly saying I want more violence in this Santa Claus movie, just more creativity.

            “Fatman” spends more time than it should on the government contract storyline, which isn’t that interesting and is rendered moot by the end of the movie anyway. More interesting (thanks largely to the Jean-Baptiste performance) is the arc of Santa losing and regaining his passion for his work, but that isn’t the selling point of the movie. We’re here for the crusty Santa in a battle to the death with the hitman, and while I can’t say that the movie fails to deliver in this area, the confrontation leaves something to be desired. I will say that a later confrontation with evil employer Billy is handled much better. If you want a “different” take on Santa, “Fatman” is a good choice, but it never quite lives up to its potential as a “Santa takes care of business” movie.

 

Grade: C
10:43 pm est          Comments

Kajillionaire

            The characters at the heart of writer/director Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire” are not as interesting as July thinks they are, but they do raise an interesting question: how have these people managed to survive for so long when they are complete idiots? There are parallels between the downtrodden “Kajillionaire” family and the one from Bong Joon-ho’s Best Picture Oscar-winning “Parasite,” but those were smart, resourceful people who were going to capitalize on an opportunity eventually, it was just a matter of when and how. With “Kajillionaire,” it’s hard to believe that a lifetime of proudly doing the bare minimum in life is just now catching up to these characters.

            Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood) is a petty scam artist, along with her parents Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger). They do things like steal uneaten food and get refunds on improperly-obtained store merchandise. They’re three months behind on rent for their home, an office space attached to a leaky soap factory. The trio operate more as a partnership than a family, and lately the older members are feeling like the awkward Old Dolio (July is in love with that name, allegedly based on a lottery-winning hobo) isn’t pulling her weight. Really none of them are pulling their weight, but that’s just the power the parents wield. Old Dolio needs to come up with the ultimate con job, one that will net them an unprecedented $1,500. That’s a rather low bar to clear, but these people aren’t aspiring to be kajillionaires or anything.

            The plan involves the three of them flying to New York from Los Angles and back again. Upon returning, the parents will walk off with Old Dolio’s checked luggage, netting her $1,575 from travel insurance. On the return flight, the parents meet the talkative Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) and take an instant liking to her. She agrees to get in on the scam, as she loves the “Ocean’s Eleven” movies. There’s a hold-up on the check, and the parents scold Old Dolio for her lousy planning, but there’s new hope in Melanie, whom the parents seem to prefer to Old Dolio. She’s an optician’s assistant who makes house calls, so they can pose as her family and steal from her elderly clients. One affords them the opportunity to pose as rich people, in a scene where comparisons to “Parasite” are unavoidable. But then the airline check does come through, made out to Old Dolio, and she’s in a rare position of power over her parents. This comes at the same time as the parents alienate Melanie, who is willing to side with Old Dolio, leading to a series of head games between the old folks and the young women.

            The best thing I can say about “Kajillionaire” is that the actors are trying. I have no problem believing that these characters have behaved like this for decades, only that society has allowed them to get away with it. Everybody is committed to delivering the most fleshed-out versions of these characters that they can, whether it’s Jenkins freaking out over earthquakes and airplane turbulence, Winger sharing with her daughter seemingly the only piece of relationship advice she knows, Rodriguez oversharing details about her family, or Wood turning her effortless camera-aversion techniques into her first-ever attempt at dancing.

But I’m sorry, I just can’t get excited over a movie where the stakes are so low, and that prides itself on those low stakes. Worst case scenario: these people who should have been thrown out on the street years ago get thrown out on the street. Actually, the worst-case scenario is that Old Dolio gets rejected by her parents, but being separated from these losers is probably in her best interest. At a time when two movies about con-artist families are available On Demand, “Kajillionaire” is the inferior choice.

 

NOTE: Surprisingly, my computer’s spell-check has no problem with the word “Kajillionaire.” It sounds made-up, but apparently it’s recognized.

 

Grade: C-
10:42 pm est          Comments

The Broken Hearts Gallery

            Without access to a theater this weekend, I resigned myself to watching “The Broken Hearts Gallery” On Demand. This is a movie I would have reviewed back in September had the theaters in NYC been open. It turns out that the movie is a better fit for On Demand than it ever was for theaters. The theater experience usually promises to force you to the edge of your seat, this movie lends itself better to sprawled-out bed and couch viewing. It’s a romantic comedy without any (as yet) huge names attached, so it was never going to make much of an impact at the box office, but if the goal is lighthearted, inoffensive home viewing, then this makes a better choice than the many failed action movies that clog up most On Demand menus.

            Most romantic comedies (most movies, really) start off with the main character either in a rut or thinking they have things figured out and then they find themselves in a rut. This one falls into the latter category. Lucy (Geraldine Viswanathan) is an up-and-coming gallery assistant with a great boyfriend in Max (Utkarsh Ambudkar). She’s unexpectedly tapped by her boss Eva (Bernadette Peters) to serve as emcee for an important gallery opening. Nervous, she gets drunk. Then she sees Max reconnect with an old flame. She makes a scene, officially losing both her boyfriend and her job in the process. She ends the miserable night by going home via ride share, but she mistakenly gets into the non-share vehicle of Nick (Dacre Montgomery). He feels sorry for her, so he drives her home anyway, where she sulks for several days surrounded by her roommates Amanda (Molly Gordon) and Nadine (Phillipa Soo) and her massive collection of trinkets leftover from all her failed relationships.

            Lucy and Nick meet again, and they bond and flirt. He takes her to the old hotel he’s restoring, and she jokingly hangs one of Max’s ties on a wall. She discovers the next day that someone else has similarly posted an item from an ex – a road map – on the wall as well. This gives Lucy the idea to invite more people to bring in keepsakes from old relationships in the name of commiseration. Soon she’s trending on social media and setting up a gallery of her own. Nick is reluctantly supportive, but cautions her that the space may not be available for very long, since he needs a big loan to keep the project going. Can these two smart-and-determined-but-awkward twentysomethings find a way to succeed both professionally and romantically? I didn’t say this movie could be watched in bed because a wrecking ball plows in, destroying both the hotel and the gallery and sending debris crashing down on our leads.

            A road map is the catalyst for the gallery in this movie, and this movie follows the romantic comedy road map annoyingly closely. Heartbreak is on cue, fun is on cue, inspiration is on cue, the old boyfriend trying to take Lucy back is on cue, a secret of Nick’s getting exposed and causing turmoil is on cue, physicality is at least admirably delayed, but it’s there. Enough about the predictable destination, how’s the journey? It’s fine. Lucy and Nick have good chemistry, though the chemistry between Lucy and the roommates is even better. Viswanathan’s star is on the rise, and she has more challenging roles on her horizon, so enjoy her in these agreeable fluff pieces while you can. There’s not much to actively dislike about “The Broken Hearts Gallery,” but this is an unambitious movie, and even with entertainment options limited, there are still plenty of more ambitious things you can do with your time.

Grade: C- (maybe a C if you have a date)

10:40 pm est          Comments

Freaky

            I wish this movie had been called “Freaky Friday the 13th.” The film is a cross between “Freaky Friday” and “Friday the 13th.” It also takes place on Friday the 13th and annoyingly insisted on opening on a Friday the 13th, causing it to miss a Halloween release during a season that really could have used a better horror movie than “Come Play.” But I say that about the title because it would have been such a nice tribute to late “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek to have it fit the format of the show’s “Before & After” category. We don’t get that, but we get a pretty good slasher movie, assuming you think there is such a thing as a “good” slasher movie.

            “Freaky” initially stars 50-year-old Vince Vaughn as an unnamed serial killer known as The Blissfield Butcher (horror movies love ironically idyllic names like “Blissfield”) and Kathryn Newton as Millie, a bullied high school girl in line to be The Butcher’s next victim. Following an opening killing spree filled with over-the-top gore, The Butcher steals an ancient dagger that turns out to be cursed. The Butcher attacks Millie with the weapon, both get nicked but both survive, and abra-ca-dagger, the characters wake up the next morning in each other’s bodies. NOTE: In my description of the rest of the film, I will refer to the characters by the personality inside their bodies, but actors by their bodies.

            The Butcher is happier with the arrangement than Millie. He gets to eat a nice breakfast courtesy of Millie’s clingy widowed mother (Katie Finneran), he gets to play around with his new female anatomy, and he can continue his killing spree as someone that nobody would suspect. The downside is a smaller frame that takes away his ability to overpower his victims, but he makes up for it with viciousness and the element of surprise.

            Millie, meanwhile, is in a lot of trouble. A police sketch, courtesy of her cop sister Char (Dana Drori) has been posted around town, making everyone aware that her new face is that of The Butcher. After a long chase and fight scene, she manages to convince her friends (Celeste O’Connor and Misha Osherovich) that she’s really Millie and that they need to help her retrieve the dagger and stop The Butcher before midnight or she’ll never get her body back. Adding to Millie’s woes is that the group has to bring her crush (Uriah Shelton) on board, and she finally gets to spend some quality time with him, but he’s not likely to fall in love with her new body.

            The best thing about the movie is the Vince Vaughn performance, especially as Millie. Not only does he do an excellent job of imitating a teenage girl, but there are scenes where Millie has to act like an adult to gain certain advantages, and she doesn’t quite pull it off, and he nails those too. To reiterate: Vaughn, an adult male, is convincing in scenes where the teenage girl inhabiting his body struggles to sound like an adult male. I wish I could say that Newton is equally memorable in scenes where she’s The Butcher, but the script just lets her get in a few grunting words at a time. Shame, because Newton seems like she’s capable of much more. She was doing fine as Millie, who is a likeable and well-written character with an engaging family struggle no matter her body. 

            “Freaky” is a lot of fun, with body-switch, high school drama, and slasher movie jokes filling almost every minute of screen time. I can’t say they all land, but the tone is always humorous, save for a few scenes where it’s an effective straight-up horror movie. It’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea with its excessive death and gore, but if you can giggle at “this character is so dead” tropes, you’ll have a good time.

 

Grade: B-

10:38 pm est          Comments


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