Review – Get Out

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It’s always fun to see an established talent step out of their comfort zone.  That’s exactly what Jordan Peele – most closely associated with the comedy duo of Key and Peele, along with Keegan Michael Key – has done with Get Out.  Stepping far away from his comedic safe zone, Peele takes the reigns as both writer and director to dive head-first into a straight-up horror film.  But it’s not “just” horror; much like his comedy, it’s topical horror, confronting the theme of racial bias head on underneath the guise of suspense and entertainment.

For those unfamiliar with the premise of Get Out, a young interracial couple, Chris and Rose (Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams), take a road trip to visit Rose’s rich, white parents, the Armitages.  Chris is naturally nervous when he discovers that Rose has yet to inform them that he is black and, when they arrive, though all appears well on the surface, things feel off, just underneath.  I’ll leave it at that.  The marketing department did a great job of not giving anything away while also not misrepresenting the picture, and I’m not about to undo all of their tremendous work.  Great job, Get Out‘s marketing department!

If my screening is any indication, people are going to turn out for this one.  I’m glad that folks are willing to give Peele a chance to do something different.  Usually, modern audiences shut that kind of thing down, right at the start.  Can you imagine what the Internet reaction would be in 2017 if the director of a popular teen coming-of-age comedy was given full reign to bring his own personal space opera to life?  Well, Star Wars turned out okay, didn’t it?  The fact is that the people who do this for a living have all sorts of varied interests and ideas and it’s great when they get to flex their creative muscles, a bit, as Peele does, here.

That’s not to suggest that Get Out is utterly devoid of comedy.  There are laughs sprinkled throughout the picture, with most of them coming from LilRel Howery.  Howery plays Chris’s friend Rod, who stays in touch with Chris throughout the course of Chris’s trip.  Rod was probably my favorite character, thanks to Howery’s perfect delivery and the genuineness and sincerity of Rod’s dedication to his friend (and to his own career choice).

Outside of Rod, the film is almost strictly a suspense thriller.  And it works.  The tension builds gradually and organically over the course of the movie.  Events play out at a believable pace and the narrative never goes on hiatus or feels like it’s killing time.  Each scene and each interaction carries significance to the overall story, as well as serves the purpose of peeling back one more layer and providing insight into what exactly is going on at the Armitage Estate.

So, yes, the film is also a mystery.  This is the area where I feel the film could use a little strengthening.  The mystery isn’t poorly executed, but – even though he is smack in the middle of some overt weirdness and knows he’s in some sort of danger – Chris never takes a proactive role in trying to determine exactly what said danger is.  He’s obviously concerned for his own wellbeing, but he simultaneously seems content to sit back and continue to allow events to play out as they will, and then react to them.  That didn’t feel quite right to me and it also creates a bit of a disconnect from the mystery component of the film.  Had Chris began his own secret investigation and started trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together, not only would he have come across as being a bit stronger as a character, but audience engagement would likely be elevated, as well.  The film is engaging as it is.  But I would rate that level of engagement at about a 7.5, when I was hoping for a 9.

That’s my only gripe, though.  I already discussed Howery, but the rest of the cast deserves a mention, in addition.  Kaluuya and Williams are both excellent as the leads.  Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener are delightfully disturbing as Rose’s parents.  But Betty Gabriel is the scene stealer as Georgina. She really only gets one instance to shine, but she takes full advantage of it and delivers a knockout moment that serves as my choice for the most memorable in the entire film.

On top of all of that, Get Out obviously serves as a metaphor for the ongoing racial divide in our current American culture.  This film is essentially aimed at racist people who claim they aren’t racist or even, in some cases, don’t realize that they’re racist.  I’d like to think that many of those people will see this film and have some grand, life-changing epiphany about how white privilege continues to marginalize black people and their standing in society, but that sadly isn’t likely to happen.  I doubt many of those people will even see the film and, if they do, they’ll rationalize that they aren’t guilty of that sort of mindset or that white privilege doesn’t exist.  Either way, that extra layer to the film is there, but it’s not necessary to pick up on it to enjoy the movie.  But, if one doesn’t pick up on it, doesn’t that succinctly make the film’s point?

Get Out provides a fun, tension-filled filmgoing experience that projects a relevant message while also being entertaining.  The film is a good opportunity to get people who normally wouldn’t see the world from the perspective of the black experience to have that explained to them in a way that they might find unassuming . . . if they go to see the film, at all.  I do wish the movie had a different title, as “Get Out” doesn’t exactly scream for attention or stand out in any way, whatsoever.  But I don’t have any better suggestions, so I’ll shut up about that, now.  Instead, I’ll just say that the film is absolutely worth the time and money of anyone who likes thrillers, is invested in the message, or is interested to see a promising young talent in Jordan Peele continue to blossom and mature as a filmmaker.  Whatever you’re looking for, Get Out will provide it.

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Review – Get Out

#ThrowbackThursday – Drive

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Original US release date: September 16, 2011
Production budget: $15,000,000
Worldwide gross: $76,175,166

It’s been a while since I watched Drive.  I remembered liking it pretty well, but not being in love with it, the way many others were.  More immediately in mind was my reaction to The Neon Demon, the most recent film by Nicolas Winding Refn, the director of Drive.  I loathed that film with a ferocity with which I rarely loathe films, and it was entirely due to Refn’s choice to prioritize himself and put his profile before his film, the stars in his film, and – worst of all – the audience.  That movie was about putting himself in the spotlight at the expense of all else.  I was curious to re-watch Drive and see if there were elements of the same thing back in 2011.

I can definitely see similarities between the two films.  To this day, Drive remains Refn’s highest-profile film and it’s no wonder, with this cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Christina Hendricks, Oscar Isaac, and Ron Perlman.  That’s the very definition of pedigree, right there.  At this point, Gosling was still being typecast as the Cool Hunk, thanks to The Notebook.  He’s great at it, but in the years since, we’ve seen that he’s great at so much more, as well.  Still, he does the deed, here, even if it’s not a challenge for him.  In fact, all of the cast appear to mostly ease through the film.  Perlman seems to be having fun, creeping up to the edge of being over-the-top, without ever quite getting there.  The others, like Gosling, earn their spot but don’t get to do anything particularly memorable.

For those who are unfamiliar with the film, Drive centers around a Hollywood stunt driver (Gosling) who moonlights as a getaway driver-for-hire.  This naturally leads to trouble after he gets involved in some business that becomes very personal.  Refn’s trademark touches are here – deep, vivid colors amidst darker environments; a quirky score featuring synthetic, eighties-style music – but it’s a fairly straightforward story.  David Lynch is clearly an influence, but, in tis film, it primarily shows through mood and atmospheric elements, rather than narrative techniques (outside of the ending).

Unlike The Neon Demon, there is a clear story, with believable characters who all have transparent motivations.  There is very little guesswork involved, here.  If there is any, it’s due to the dialogue.  Hossein Amini’s screenplay forgoes expositional dialogue, forcing the viewer to read between the lines in order to determine exactly what each character is discussing and the relevance of the conversation to the characters and the story, as a whole.  This isn’t a bad thing.  I actually think it’s refreshing.  It’s realistic.  People in the real world don’t speak in exposition, so people in movies shouldn’t, either.  Many audiences might gripe that they actually have to think, but so be it.  The film asks the viewer to rise up to its level, rather than choosing to dumb it down for the typical American audience.  I wish more films functioned that way.  Sometimes, it can be too much, such as with The Neon Demon, where the film explains nothing but also fails to provide any context, in which case the audience can’t realistically be expected to interpret the events in any sort of sensible manner.  Drive finds the perfect balance, eloquently straddling the fine line in-between those dueling ideals.

The film also moves along at a nice, crisp pace.  From the opening frame to the beginning of the credits, it clocks in at 96 minutes, never really having time to drag.  Nothing is wasted, from the dialogue to the action.  The characters are a little difficult to invest in, seeing that Carey Mulligan’s Irene is the only one who is truly likable (Gosling’s nameless Driver character has friends, but it’s never really clear how or why, since he never exhibits any true warmth or personality, aside from one quick scene with Irene’s young son), but the pacing is so fast that it fails to really matter.

All of this serves as a much-needed (for me, at least) reminder that Refn is capable of constructing a quality film.  The problems with The Neon Demon had nothing to do with a lack of talent and everything to do with a sudden lack of humility.  In 2011, that is thankfully nowhere to be seen.  Drive isn’t a flawless exhibition of filmmaking, but it’s a solid outing with a fantastic – if somewhat wasted – cast and some heart-pounding action scenes, along the way.  If and when Refn shows back up in cinemas (he currently appears to have nothing on the schedule), I hope he’s closer to his 2011 self than his 2016 persona.  So, while I suggest you skip his effort from last year, Drive is a worthwhile adrenaline rush that’s bound to star somebody of which you’re a fan.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Drive

The Movie March Oscar Preview!

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It’s about that time!  The 2017 Academy Awards are almost upon us!  It’s the biggest night of the year in the industry, when the best of the art form from the previous year is celebrated, and it takes place this Sunday night, February 26!  It’s an opportunity to acknowledge those who have mastered their art and to encourage others to raise their game.

Here’s how this is going to work.  It will be more involved than my Golden Globes Preview, which I put together rather quickly.  In this particular preview, I will choose the ten highest-profile categories and score each nominee using my own personal scoring system.  The ratings reflect my own personal opinion.  After choosing my favorite, I will also choose the nominee that I expect to win, regardless of who I’m rooting for.

SCORING SYSTEM:
The scoring system will range from zero Emilia Clarkes (the lowest possible) to ten Emilia Clarkes (the highest possible).  Even one Emilia Clarke is fantastic, because any Emilia Clarke is better than no Emilia Clarke.  Finally, an “N/A” means I didn’t get a chance to see the film.  Away we go!

The 2017 Movie March Oscar Preview!

Animated Feature Film

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The Nominees:

  • Kubo and the Two Strings10-emilias

  • Moana

    8-emilias

  • My Life as a Zucchini

    N/A

  • The Red Turtle

    N/A

  • Zootopia

    7-emilias

Want to win: Kubo and the Two Strings

Analysis: Kubo was one of the absolute best movies of the year, but not enough people saw it.  That includes the voters in the Academy.  Had they seen it, they’d vote for it, but nobody is going to vote for something they haven’t seen.  With the current social climate, voters will reward the message of fair-mindedness and inclusion put forth by Zootopia.  I hope Pixar feels the sting of not being nominated and comes firing back on all cylinders, soon.

Prediction: Zootopia

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Visual Effects

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The Nominees:

  • Deepwater Horizon, Craig Hammack, Jason Snell, Jason Billington, and Burt Dalton –

    N/A

  • Doctor Strange, Stephane Ceretti, Richard Bluff, Vincent Cirelli, and Paul Corbould –

    7-emilias

  • The Jungle Book, Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones and Dan Lemmon –

    8-emilias

  • Kubo and the Two Strings, Steve Emerson, Oliver Jones, Brian McLean, and Brad Schiff –

    9-emilias

  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, John Knoll, Mohen Leo, Hal Hickel, and Neil Corbould –

    8-emilias

Want to win: Kubo and the Two Strings

Analysis: The special effects team for Kubo and the Two Strings went above and beyond with their stop-motion animation to the degree that I don’t even understand how they did much of what they did.  I’ve never been so awed, baffled, and astounded by what I was looking at.  But, again, the Academy didn’t see the film.  And they have a history of ignoring the actual visual effects in this category and simply voting for the most serious, least-fun film that’s nominated.  I would love to be wrong, here, but that leads me to one final conclusion.

Prediction: Deepwater Horizon

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Original Screenplay

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The Nominees:

  • Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan –
    8-emilias

  • Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan –
    9-emilias

  • La La Land, Damien Chazelle –
    10-emilias

  • 20th Century Women, Mike Mills –
    9-emilias

  • The Lobster, Efthymis Filippou and Yorgos Lanthimos –
    7-emilias

Want to win: La La Land

Analysis: This one is actually a little tough.  It’s a race between Manchester by the Sea and La La Land.  The latter is the better-written film, but the former has gotten a lot of praise and awards.  But Manchester has also gotten some negative publicity, lately, due to Casey Affleck’s past and, fair or not, the entire production’s chances may be affected – even in categories where Affleck isn’t specifically nominated.  Even without that, though, La La Land may be an unstoppable juggernaut.

Prediction: La La Land

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Adapted Screenplay

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The Nominees:

  • Lion, Luke Davis –
    10-emilias

  • Arrival, Eric Heisserer –
    10-emilias

  • Moonlight, Barry Jenkins –
    8-emilias

  • Hidden Figures, Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder –
    5-emilias

  • Fences, August Wilson –
    7-emilias

Want to win: Arrival

Analysis: For my personal pick, this is a close race between Lion and ArrivalLion was a moving and near-transformational experience whereas Arrival was a brilliant and thought-provoking mind-bender – the very epitome of thinking-person’s science-fiction.  The thought put into Arrival, complete with the trickiness of adapting that story, puts it on top of my personal list.  Hidden Figures was as paint-by-numbers as it possibly could have been and truly underserved that story.  Moonlight and Fences both offered powerful perspectives on varying relationships and the struggle of minorities to find their place in the world.  The darling of the bunch, however, is Moonlight.

Prediction: Moonlight

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Actress in a Supporting Role

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The Nominees:

  • Viola Davis, Fences
    10-emilias

  • Naomie Harris, Moonlight
    7-emilias

  • Nicole Kidman, Lion
    7-emilias

  • Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
    6-emilias

  • Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
    8-emilias

Want to win: Viola Davis

Analysis: This one seems like an easy pick, on the surface.  Octavia Spencer is the wrong nominee from Hidden Figures (it should have been Taraji P. Henson).  Nicole Kidman and Naomie Harris both gave strong performances but not strong enough to stand out amongst the rest of the brilliance of the films around them.  Michelle Williams was memorable.  But all of them were outperformed by the powerful Viola Davis in Fences.  I doubt this one is even close.  Stranger things have happened, but I feel comfortable saying . . .

Prediction: Viola Davis

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Actor in a Supporting Role

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The Nominees:

  • Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
    10-emilias

  • Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
    8-emilias

  • Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
    5-emilias

  • Dev Patel, Lion
    10-emilias

  • Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals
    6-emilias

Want to win: Dev Patel

Analysis:  As tough as it is for me to choose who I want to win this one, I think the choice of who will win is a little easier.  Lucas Hedges did fine, but his role essentially amounted to a lot of moping and whining.  Michael Shannon – much like Octavia Spencer in the previous category – was the wrong choice to be nominated, here.  It should have been Aaron Taylor-Johnson, instead.  Jeff Bridges was fantastic, as always, but that particular role did very little to push his abilities.  So, it comes down to Mahershala Ali and Dev Patel.  I had trouble picking a personal favorite between the two as Ali gave a subtle, commanding performance, but Patel really moved me during the conclusion of Lion.  Because of that, I personally would like to see Patel take it home, but I’m pretty sure the Academy will reward Ali for his efforts, which is fine with me.

Prediction: Mahershala Ali

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Actor in a Leading Role

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The Nominees:

  • Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
    7-emilias

  • Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
    8-emilias

  • Ryan Gosling, La La Land
    8-emilias

  • Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
    6-emilias

  • Denzel Washington, Fences
    10-emilias

Want to win: Denzel Washington

Analysis: This is a tough one.  It’s certainly tougher than it would have been, a month ago.  Mortensen was fine but not challenged.  Gosling and Garfield were tremendous but their roles weren’t quite as dynamic or subtle as others.  Washington absolutely blew me away with a very powerful and complex performance in Fences.  I thought Casey Affleck did a good job in Manchester by the Sea, but I found his part to be a rather restrictive showcase consisting mostly of sadness and melancholy .  Nonetheless, he’s been the favorite of other awards shows.  However, recently some allegations involving Affleck have gained a higher profile.  Regardless of anyone’s opinion regarding whether they’re true or, if so, whether the art should be separated from the artist, I’m going to go way out on a limb and predict (especially after the results of the Screen Actors Guild awards) that enough voters will be swayed away from Affleck to give Washington the much-deserved accolade.

Prediction: Denzel Washington

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Actress in a Leading Role

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The Nominees:

  • Emma Stone, La La Land
    8-emilias

  • Natalie Portman, Jackie
    8-emilias

  • Ruth Negga, Loving
    7-emilias

  • Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
    4-emilias

  • Isabelle Huppert, Elle – N/A

Want to win: Emma Stone

Analysis: This one is a little frustrating for me.  First of all, I failed at every turn to see Elle.  It’s the only film up for a major nomination that I could never manage to catch, and I hate that.  It sounds great and I’m anxious to eventually watch it.  Huppert might actually be a favorite in this category after winning the Golden Globe, but the fact that Elle is shockingly not nominated for Best Foreign Language Film makes me think that her chances are slim.  Secondly, Meryl Streep should absolutely not be nominated in this – or any other – category, this year.  Florence Foster Jenkins was a mediocre, mean-spirited movie and Streep’s character required very little of her.  She basically just acts silly throughout the whole thing and gets a free pass to an Oscar nomination because she’s Meryl Streep.  Meanwhile, truly deserving actresses such as Amy Adams for Arrival and Hailee Steinfeld for The Edge of Seventeen (which I just re-watched.  And, yes, it holds up.) are left sitting on the sidelines.  I would actually rate both of those performances above all four of the nominees that I’ve seen.  Regardless, we have three very solid performances, here.  Stone and Portman are neck-and-neck, but it seems to be the year of La La Land.

Prediction: Emma Stone

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Directing

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The Nominees:

  • Denis Villanueve, Arrival
    9-emilias

  • Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
    8-emilias

  • Damien Chazelle, La La Land
    10-emilias

  • Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
    8-emilias

  • Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
    8-emilias

Want to win: Damien Chazelle

Analysis: This category is stacked.  My personal favorites are Chazelle, for his ingenious presentation methods in La La Land – especially towards the end – and Villanueve for his sleight of hand and skillful misdirection in Arrival.  Villanueve won’t win, though, because his picture is science-fiction.  Gibson won’t win because . . . well, you know.  The other three will be a tight race, but Chazelle takes it home.

Prediction: Damien Chazelle

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Best Picture

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The Nominees:

  • Arrival
    10-emilias

  • Fences
    7-emilias

  • Hacksaw Ridge
    8-emilias

  • Hell or High Water
    9-emilias

  • Hidden Figures
    6-emilias

  • La La Land
    10-emilias

  • Lion
    10-emilias

  • Manchester by the Sea
    8-emilias

  • Moonlight
    8-emilias

Want to win: Lion

Analysis: Best Picture.  The nominees in this category each year are the films that push and challenge us.  They challenge our emotions.  They challenge our minds.  They challenge our perspectives.  They challenge our worldviews.  How to choose the best of these?  Methodically, that’s how.  If a film’s director isn’t nominated for Best Directing, then the film isn’t winning Best Picture.  So, we’re down to five.  Arrival is astounding, but it’s also sci-fi.  Down to four.  Hacksaw Ridge and Manchester by the Sea are plagued by potential political controversy.  Down to two.  And one of those two is a movie about Hollywood.  Sorry, Moonlight.  In any other year, you’d take home the trophy.  But this year, it’s all about . . .

Prediction: La La Land

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And that’s it!  Thank you for reading!  I hope you all enjoy the show and that all of my favorites win!   And if they don’t, then I hope my predictions win!  And if they don’t, I hope your favorites win, as long as you aren’t pulling for Meryl Streep.

And thank you to Emilia Clarke for her help, which she obviously totally knew about, you guys.  How could you even question.  How.  And, on that note, it’s once again time to say goodbye, for now.  Emilia, one more time?  Bye!

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The Movie March Oscar Preview!

Review – A Cure for Wellness

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A Cure for Wellness is one I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time.  It comes to us courtesy of Gore Verbinski, who most people associate with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.  I more readily think of him as being the man who gave us The Ring, which is my favorite horror movie of all-time.  In my book, this man has earned a look at all of his future films from me.  I wanted to see this one sooner, but my local theater made that difficult.  Nonetheless, here I am.

When I reviewed Fist Fight, I mentioned how I was waiting for a 2017 movie to outright disappoint me.  I shouldn’t have said anything.  Not only was the very next movie an unremarkable experience, but A Cure for Wellness is even more deflating, considering who’s behind it.

Telling the story of a selfish business executive (Dane DeHaan) who gets pulled into the mysterious machinations of an insane asylum, there is plenty of opportunity within the narrative to engage, thrill, and surprise audiences.  The film struggles to do any of the three.

Verbinski seems to be going for a bit of Crimson Peak, a helping of A Clockwork Orange, and even a touch of Captain America: The First Avenger.  It’s a non-period piece that feels like a period piece.  And, I must say that the film’s tone works well and it also looks amazing.  There are a handful of shots spread throughout the length of the movie that I would count among the most astonishingly beautiful shots I’ve ever seen in a film.  There is no question that Verbinski has an excellent eye and knows how to frame a shot.  If only that were enough.

The primary issue with the film is the story by Verbinski and Justin Haythe and then Haythe’s requisite screenplay.  I also recently mentioned how intellectual science-fiction and horror, such as Arrival and Ex Machina, are gaining in popularity.  A Cure for Wellness desperately wants to be more of that intellectual sci-fi/horror, but falls short in every area that truly matters.  Most importantly is that there is no underlying, thought-provoking subtext on which to feast.  Not that that’s necessary for a film of this kind to work, but in order to be considered “intellectual”, it actually is.  In addition to that, I’m not sure there’s an original idea in the entire film.  Everything that occurs has been done in other films, leaving this one with exactly zero surprises.  If you were hoping for a roller coaster ride of twists and turns, be prepared to instead settle for a straight-line drive through the Midwestern plains.

The pacing is also a chore.  Clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours, the film offers little to keep the viewer invested.  None of the characters are particularly likable.  And there’s an omnipresent absence of logic in most of the events that unfold, including the one that sets the entire film in motion.  (I don’t know about you, but on those rare and unfortunate occurrences when I hit a deer with my car, I stop immediately.  What I don’t do is continue to drive at top speed, swerving like a madman until I plunge over the side of a hill.)  So, in addition to subtext, what’s one more characteristic of an intellectual film?  Yep.  Intellect.  It’s nowhere to be found in A Cure for Wellness.

I’m also going to be upfront about something else: I’m not a fan of Dane DeHaan.  I’ve never enjoyed a single one of his performances.  I don’t know if it’s because he’s actively doing a poor job or if there’s just something about him that he can’t even help that hits me the wrong way.  I tried to be objective about his lead performance in this film.  I never caught him doing anything badly (except for the final shot of the film, in which he sports one of the most forced, insincere, unnatural facial expressions I’ve ever seen) but there’s nothing special or memorable going on, either.  That’s true of the entire cast, really.  Nobody does an awful job.  But they also have no material that they can sink their teeth into and use to deliver an attention-demanding performance, either.

Though the script is as the heart of the film’s issues, when a film fails to work, it ultimately has to come down to the director.  Verbinski helped to craft the story and could (should) have taken more care into assuring that it was a gripping, mind-blowing experience.  Instead, this is the opposite, as I was dying for it to be over by the time the two-hour mark rolled around.  It’s quite possible that Verbinski is a great director (again, the look of the film is truly magnificent) but a subpar writer and that he should stick to directing and let others come up with the ideas.  A Cure for Wellness is the biggest disappointment of the year, so far, for me.  I was expecting so much more – even in the face of mostly-negative reviews.  Ah, well.  At least I’ll always have The Ring.

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Review – A Cure for Wellness

Review – The Great Wall

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The Great Wall is the latest film from acclaimed Chinese director Yimou Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers).  The movie doesn’t arrive free of controversy, though – as with most quote/unquote “controversy” – it’s of the ignorantly manufactured type.  People everywhere took to their keyboards to accuse Universal Studios of whitewashing a film about the Great Wall in China, blissfully unaware (or uncaring) of the fact that the film is helmed by a Chinese director who outright stated that there’s a storyline reason for the presence of Damon’s character.  But, far be it for most people these days to sit back and let others actually do their job after years and years of earning their spot and the trust of the audience.  This is the kind of thing, much like the fake news regarding animal abuse on the set of A Dog’s Purpose, that unfairly damages the reputation and performance of movies and hurts the careers of the people who make them.

What really matters is the quality of the film, itself.  And that can only be fairly gauged by those who watch the movie and do so with an open mind.  And that’s what I did, today.  The concept is a simple one: monsters are attacking the Great Wall of China.  There you go.  Matt Damon plays William, a European mercenary coming to China to learn their secrets of war.  He has done much travelling and has his own secrets to share.  And the Chinese can use any new ideas they can get, because the aforementioned monsters are waging battle against them and the monsters are winning.

Surely another complaint much of the public (many of whom won’t even bother to see the film) will have is that it’s the white guy who comes in and saves the day for the Chinese.  It’s possible to see it that way.  But only if you don’t actually follow the movie or put any legitimate thought into it.  Yes, Matt Damon is a white guy.  But he’s carrying techniques with him that he’s learned from other, non-white countries.  He’s able to travel and learn.  The Chinese aren’t.  They’re a little busy staying home and protecting their country from the ravenous beasts just outside of their wall.  So, if people don’t have intelligent insights into and criticisms of the film, they should just not talk about it.

So, aside from all of that, the film is . . . fine, I guess?  I have no real problems with it.  But, at the same time, it didn’t particularly blow me away.  Fifteen years ago, The Great Wall would have been a barn-burning blockbuster that the whole world would have gone crazy over.  Now, it’s just part of the pack.  The good news is that it’s already raked in well over $200 million overseas, largely thanks to (naturally) China.  Still, it has about $150 million more to go before it can be considered to be even a moderate hit.  It’s not going to make that in North America (but it will do better in February than it would have done in the crowded summer months), but it might keep chugging in China.

It just fails to stand out in any way.  It’s not so much that this particular idea has been done, before.  It hasn’t, per se.  But I was reminded – in terms of the monsters and action set pieces – of a mix between Aliens and The Avengers.  However, even though I didn’t dislike this film, it’s not anywhere near the quality of either of those films.  The dialogue was uninteresting, the characters were a little flat, and the action was competent, but largely uninspired.  Also, the majesty, poetry, and magnificence of Yimou’s earlier films is almost entirely absent.  So, as I said, it feels like More Of The Same.

These days, gigantic, special-effects driven films are the norm.  There needs to be more to capture the imagination than just the action.  The Great Wall offers decent (if sometimes poorly-thought-out, from the perspective of the characters) action, pretty cool-looking creatures, a solid but mostly wasted cast, and a bunch of crossed fingers that that’s going to be enough.  If you want to see it, go see it.  I didn’t hate it.  You might not, either.  But my expectations have been raised by total packages like the Marvel Studios films, high-brow think-pieces like Ex Machina and Arrival, and much more memorable and spectacular action experiences like Jurassic World.  And The Great Wall doesn’t meet any of those expectations.  What would have been considered must-see, a decade-and-a-half ago, isn’t going to be viewed as much more than a time-killer on an easygoing weekend, in 2017.  If you weren’t dying to see it, I’d wait until Logan and Kong: Skull Island.

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Review – The Great Wall

Review – Fist Fight

fist-fight

Fist Fight (previously titled – up until very recently – Teacher Fight, which I like better), wasn’t the first movie I wanted to see, this weekend, but that’s how it worked out due to the timing of them at my local theater.  The premise is silly and simple: one teacher (Ice Cube’s Mr. Strickland) gets mad at another teacher (Charlie Day’s Mr. Campbell, and I won’t say why) and then challenges him to a fist fight in the parking lot after school in a show of bravado that is more typical for their supposedly-less-mature students.  It’s not a premise that is very believable but it’s really not supposed to be.  This is a screwball comedy that makes promises and then follows through on them.

Much like last week’s The LEGO Batman Movie, Fist Fight is a film that’s marketed as a pure comedy and is also actually funny.  Those are few and far between (usually the dramedies deliver more sincere laughs than the supposed comedies), but to have two already in 2017 is hopefully a good sign for the year to come!  Everyone involved in the film really comes together to make it all work.  Of course, this movie isn’t a transformative experience for the soul, like many of the films that are up for awards at next weekend’s Oscars.  But it’s a fun, entertaining time at the movies for anyone (17 and older – in mind as well as in body) who might need to forget the reality of their lives for about 90 minutes.

Charlie Day and Ice Cube share top billing, but Day’s Mr. Campbell is unquestionably the film’s lead and protagonist.  Mr. Campbell is a sad little man, always the doormat for anyone else who exudes any confidence in life.  But he takes it all in stride, just getting through his days and heading home to his pregnant wife and daughter.  Mr. Strickland is the opposite.  He’s the school’s Scary Teacher.  Everyone fears him, including the other employees.

In reality, neither of these men would likely have their jobs.  Campbell is walked all over by the students and Strickland is constantly one hair away from hurting someone.  And this is the problem; cuts are being made and it’s the worst time for problems between the two to arise.

Day and Cube are honestly typecast in their roles, but so what?  They’re each made for these kind of parts and they play them perfectly.  Day’s comic timing is impeccable and Cube does “mean” as well as anyone.  They’re supported by a sharp script and a game director in Richie Keen, making his feature film debut.  Keen honed his skills on such television shows as “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, “Angie Tribeca”, and “The Goldbergs”, so he has credible experience and it shows.

I was probably most impressed by the film’s script.  Yes, there is some surprising character growth at play, here, but – as appreciated as it is – that’s neither necessary nor unheard of.  It does add a level of investment for Mr. Campbell that helps the film’s ultimate payoff, but that isn’t the script’s high point.

The most surprising element of the script is what I said, earlier: it’s actually funny.  And it’s both written and delivered in such expert fashion that I was finding myself laughing at types of humor that usually do nothing for me.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of wit and intelligence in the one-liners and dialogue, but there’s more to the movie than that.  There’s obviously some slapstick, but it’s slapstick that makes sense within the framework of the story.  And it’s funny because of when, why, and how it happens, not just because it’s happening.  And there’s shock humor, but the shock is coupled with other elements that make it work on additional levels besides it’s-funny-because-they’re-saying-a-bunch-of-inappropriate-things-that-people-don’t-usually-say.  A lot of this humor centers around a colleague of our leads, Jillian Bell’s Holly.  And she’s great.  But my absolute favorite scene is also technically founded upon shock humor, and doesn’t involve Holly.  But the context of it, who it comes from, and how it’s presented and portrayed puts it over the top and it’s my favorite scene in any film, so far in 2017.  I won’t give you any clues regarding the content or placement of said scene, because the element of surprise is paramount to its effectiveness.  But even if I had hated the rest of the film (which I obviously didn’t), this one scene would have been worth the cost of my ticket.

I keep waiting for a 2017 film to really disappoint me.  Many of them have been poorly-reviewed, including this one.  And the aforementioned The LEGO Batman Movie is the only one I’ve seen, so far, that is likely to stand a shot at making my year-end list of favorites.  But Fist Fight was far better than I expected and also far better than it has any right to be.  My biggest complaint is the name change.  All throughout the film, the impending “Teacher Fight” is referred to.  Why change the film’s title from that to “Fist Fight”?  The branding was in place and it presents a much more accurate picture of what the film actually is.  Don’t second guess yourselves, Hollywood, and don’t fix something that isn’t broken!  I’m a teacher!  I wasn’t offended!  You should have stuck with Teacher Fight!

Other than that, if you need a laugh, you’ll find it in Fist Fight.  It’s a comedy that’s confident enough to be crude without using its crassness as a crutch.  The film refuses to be a one-trick pony and offers multiple styles of humor with each of them being delivered with expertise.  If you saw the trailers or TV spots and thought you might like it, you almost certainly will.  You might even love it.

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Review – Fist Fight

#ThrowbackThursday – Bambi

bambi

Original US release date: August 21, 1942
Production budget: $858,000
Worldwide gross: $267,447.150

It was only four weeks ago that I did a #ThrowbackThursday on the third animated feature film to come from Disney, Fantasia.  Now, I’m taking a look at the film that followed that one, Disney’s fourth – BambiFantasia was unique in the sense that – outside of the introductions to each short by the conductor – there was no dialogue in the film.  What is easy to forget is that Bambi is much the same.  There are approximately 1,000 words of dialogue throughout this entire film.  Based on the Austrian novel Bambi, a Life in the Woods by Felix Salten, the film tells the simple story of the coming of age of Bambi, a deer who relies upon the support of his friends to help him grow and learn about the triumphs and tragedies of life.

The film is very much a product of its time.  As I mentioned, there is very little dialogue and the lack of a hook prevents it from being especially engaging.  There is no single, driving narrative to propel the film along towards a long-building climax, as we’re used to seeing in modern filmmaking.  Instead, Bambi is more of a sequence of learning experiences for the title character in which he becomes more exposed to the realities of the forest and the mysterious world outside of it.  A movie like this would likely not capture the imagination of today’s audiences.  Attention spans in kids (and adults, let’s be honest) are not what they were 75 years ago.  I can just imagine viewers seeing this movie today and then jumping on their favorite message board to type in all caps, “WHAT’S THE POINT?!”  Truth be told, it does drag a bit, and that’s even with coming in at a brisk 70 minutes in length.

At the same time, there’s no rulebook for this sort of thing and experimenting with narrative structure is an admirable risk to take.  It actually wasn’t uncommon for these early Disney films to struggle with filling time.  Remember, feature-length animation was brand new.  Nobody had a template from which to work.  Disney created this art form and they took the responsibility for inventing those rules and thrust it all upon themselves.  Filling time with musical numbers was one of their early go-tos.  And there’s a little bit of that in Bambi, but this film is one of the less-musically-inclined of the Disney animated features.  Rather, time is mostly killed with Bambi’s playful adventures that are character-building, but irrelevant to the overarching plot and message of the film.

Where Bambi takes its biggest risk and truly steps outside its comfort zone is with the dramatic events that unfold around Bambi, himself.  There are lighter moments and there are some truly dark moments, as well, with which you are likely familiar.  The film’s goal seems to be to serve as an ice-breaker for parents and their children to talk about the different aspects of life and the challenges that come along with growing up.  Potentially touchy and difficult subjects are given full attention – especially death, first loves, and the idea of romantic rivals.  Despite the traditional storytelling methods being thrown out the proverbial window, there are numerous powerful and poignant moments that could absolutely lead to some important parent/child discussions.  These are very sophisticated topics and including them in a film that was marketed primarily towards children shows just how ahead of its time Disney has practically always been.

Of course, having those important conversations with your children would hinge entirely upon reaching that far into the movie.  Whether or not that happens will vary on a case-by-case basis.  It would be nice to think that more people of all ages could stay off of their phones long enough to share a movie at home together, but that sadly just doesn’t seem to be the reality in most cases, these days.  So, generally speaking, with contemporary audiences, mileage will vary when it comes to Bambi.  It’s not among my very favorite Disney films, but I can still appreciate all it brought to the table – especially in 1942, decades before Disney and Pixar were doing this sort of thing on a regular basis.  The art style and characters definitely found their place in the mainstream consciousness and have managed to remain recognizable by most people to this day.  Even if someone hasn’t seen the movie, they can probably still name Bambi, Thumper, Flower, and Owl when they see them.  So, even if this isn’t the ideal film for a new-millennium moviegoer, there’s no question that Disney did something right, here, and crafted a film that left an impression on generations of families.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Bambi