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Movie Review: Wilson

Based on a comic book (or graphic novel, if you prefer), Wilson purports to have, in the words of its title character (Woody Harrelson) the “courage to go your own way.”

With a cute dog and Harrelson—appearing with talented The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio co-star Laura Dern (Wild, The Founder, Jurassic Park) as his ex-wife—perfectly cast as a rambling type of angry white male that’s commonly ridiculed and rarely depicted with any depth, let alone with good humor, Wilson might have scored. Unfortunately, the movie based on the works of Daniel Clowes, who also wrote the movie’s screenplay, draws a blank.

As that guy, i.e., an unfiltered, unhinged and apparently unemployed man who’s a case of arrested development, Harrelson plays to type in what should be an outstanding role for him. He’s suited to this sort of quirky film character. As his junkie ex-spouse, Dern feeds him plenty of set-ups. They reunite after a long introduction in which Wilson appears to have no means of financial support, except perhaps for a dying father who doesn’t love him, though whether he leaves Wilson any money is unclear. In the sort of scene that could have been a springboard to thematic coherence and isn’t, Dern’s waitress and nomadic Wilson hide behind mannequins while stalking the kid she gave up for adoption.

Stand alone jokes earning a chuckle every 15 minutes and an eventually obvious reason for Wilson’s inappropriateness aside, Wilson putters along like a series of situational skits without a point, most of which are not funny. Actress Judy Greer (Ant-Man, TV’s Archer, Grandma) as the dogsitting love interest does add value but it’s not enough. All the wandering, stalking, joking and rambling adds up to an Apatow-style vulgarity message about procreation as the purpose of one’s life, with an emphasis on blood and carrying on your own DNA, not exactly a humanistic or interesting notion. Like the manic, raunchy movies in which the sleaze is rationalized because everyone decides to settle down, settle for less and just make more babies and conform, Wilson is purely an exercise in bland traditionalism in the final analysis, which makes Wilson a middling trip into one man’s damaged psyche.

At one point, Wilson watches icicles melt. It’s the kind of scene that might play well in a cartoon strip, as a wry, knowing look at middle-aged man’s lament. But, when one character deadpans that “this is gonna be fun,” you’re already in on the fact that it isn’t, which makes Wilson flatter than it already is.

Movie Review: Kong: Skull Island

A new adaptation of King Kong, a Warner Bros. picture titled Kong: Skull Island which debuts in theaters this week, is better than expected.

That’s not saying much. The 1933 original was spellbinding to me as a kid when I first saw it on TV, but I think it’s overestimated at the expense of other great adventure-themed classic movies, such as Wings, Red Dust and Gunga Din. The effects-heavy 1976 film is mediocre. The Peter Jackson version, which included characters running with dinosaurs (years before the godawful Jurassic World), is one of the worst movies I’ve seen. To be clear, Kong: Skull Island is a monster movie.

That is its best asset. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, working from a story by John Gatins (Coach Carter) with a script by a few writers including writers partly responsible for a Godzilla movie and that godawful Jurassic film, shrewdly downplays everything that Peter Jackson overplayed, such as the giant gorilla’s affection for the human female, in favor of a wider and deeper cultural framework. This keeps Kong from getting too campy, though camp comes with the package. Still, while it is not as clever as its makers apparently think, Kong works several angles—America’s slide toward military statism, hollowing out from the irrational Vietnam War, the fall of man—into its loss recovery theme that mind trumps muscle.

After a prelude in the South Pacific in 1944, the journey starts in Washington and Da Nang, South Vietnam in 1973, as Kong leads with exotic voyage pitchman John Goodman (The Artist) and his more rational right-hand man (Corey Hawkins) to sell a key politician on funding the trip to a “place where myth and science meet”. First, they tap a military leader played by Samuel L. Jackson (overacting and no stranger to fighting ferocious jungle apes as he recently did in The Legend of Tarzan). Jackson’s gung-ho type mulls over war medals with a Budweiser within reach.

Rain falls, things get slippery and, passing a sign that warns to “Think Safety”, it’s off to Saigon where Tom Hiddleston (outstanding in I Saw the Light and Thor‘s Loki no more) is hired as the rogue to lead the way. In Bangkok, Brie Larson (Room) comes on board for the modernized Fay Wray role, happily neither as a hyper-butch kickboxer like most female characters in action movies nor as a hyper-feminized vixen like many of today’s female characters—she’s a competent war or, as she puts it in one of the better exchanges, anti-war, photographer—and the cast is capable, notably leads Larson and Hiddleston but also actors in smaller roles such as John Ortiz (A Dog’s Purpose) as a quiet soldier and John C. Reilly (Chicago) as a lost soldier. Add period songs including a David Bowie ditty, crisp lines of dialogue and excellent graphics, sound and visual effects and clarity in exposition and Kong, sufficiently scored by Henry Jackman, keeps the plot moving.

Kong looks as realistic as one can expect from a computerized depiction of a gigantic gorilla.

With references to John Wayne, Chicago’s Cubs and a classic Forties tune hinting (with an after-credits scene) at a series, the director seems to be striving for American cultural commentary. With noble savages in a habitat hailed as being free from “crime and personal property” (except apparently for treasured private property such as a camera, cigarette lighter and a soldier’s wartime letter to his faraway child) and an overly arranged multiracial cast, results are mixed. Certain parts are too broad or obvious, such as 1973 Vietnam War soldiers posing for pictures like they’re on Facebook in 2013, a dragonfly shot with a helicopter, a Nixon bobblehead, Apocalypse Now imagery and a killing field, all of which are exaggerated but not as poorly as a near-drowning which exceeds plausibility. But Kong, amid other plus-sized island monsters, convincingly beats his chest, saves the girl and reaches down like his is the hand of God, which makes his breaking of chains in favor of using his brains an interesting proposition and, in any case, entertaining enough for a matinee monster movie. Comparable to The Hunchback of Notre Dame this is not, but don’t be surprised if you notice who is more like a monster and who is more like a man.

Oscars So Blank

For years now, I’ve maintained that the Academy Awards are overdone, overplayed and overestimated as a commercial or cultural barometer. Last night, host Jimmy Kimmel summed up the fading luster in a single line after the show’s worst display of ineptitude in Oscar’s history. After the wrong winner was announced, Kimmel jokingly blamed the host of another TV awards telecast—known for announcing the wrong winner at a beauty pageant—as the Oscars ended in confusion, not exactly celebration. Despite gracious statements and commentary by various filmmakers and TV hosts, the fiasco capped the Oscars’ increasing irrelevance, which represents the growing American cultural disunity. First-time host Kimmel’s comment comparing the once grand and glamorous Academy Awards to a beauty pageant striving to retain an audience miniaturized an already minimized Academy Awards.

The bigger they’ve become in coverage—with a red carpet that’s wider than ever—the smaller the Oscars became. The culture is saturated with awards and chatter about awards and, while movies that get nominated and win Oscars see a spike in box office receipts, the Oscars barely have relevance to most people’s daily lives, even in the most superficial sense. This is unfortunate, as far as I’m concerned, because movies are getting deeper, more interesting and better in some respects and people need both glamorous, larger-than-life escapism and thought-provoking films more than ever, especially as the middle class is decimated and vanishes. Dropping candy and other tricks, such as duping tourists and taking so-called selfies, only underscores the smallness of the ceremonies.

The real cause of the Oscars blankout is its creeping egalitarianism. Audiences used to tune into masters of ceremonies Bob Hope, Johnny Carson or Billy Crystal in Santa Monica, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or Hollywood to see movie stars with elegance and ability at their best in a night of galas and celebration of the world’s finest movies. The Academy Awards were an unabashed toast to the best in motion pictures. But they were predicated on the idea that there could, in fact, be a best picture. Today’s Academy Awards are led by a president who instituted a discriminatory new system to impose a certain type of pre-ordained “diversity”, an idea based on multiculturalism, a notion that all cultures are equal. This egalitarian ideal sets the standard as the color of one’s skin, or sex or sexual orientation, as against the quality of the movie, performance or direction. So, no one should be surprised that the Cheryl Boone Isaacs “diversity” campaign against old and white Academy members has sparked an annual accounting of nominees and winners primarily on the basis of race, sex and sexual orientation.

This is not to say that irrational discrimination against blacks, women and gays does not exist in Hollywood. These are loaded, complicated and difficult problems to address. They are not solved by contests between works of art or manipulations of membership based on age, race, sex, sexuality or other factors. They are solved, as the inspiring Hidden Figures and the thoughtful and Oscar-ignored Sully, Loving and Snowden dramatize, through activism, discourse, challenging the status quo and, above all, as each of those movies demonstrates, by being one’s best.

By replacing the Oscars as a selection by members of the best works in movies with the most diverse works in movies, the Isaacs-era Academy and its orthodoxy make the Academy Awards less enjoyable. It’s not just that heavy-handed speeches by millionaires to the masses amid perpetual insider jokes and self-centered congratulations wear thin at a time of post-2008 discord, economic hardship and disunity over complex, confusing flashpoints such as unisex toilets, denunciations of police and whether health care is a right and everyone should be forced by the government to “buy” health insurance at rates and terms dictated by the state. For a moviegoing public beleaguered by nonstop Islamic terrorist attacks—in Tennessee, Texas, Florida, California, Massachusetts—and a radically restructured government now controlling the people with mass, indiscriminate surveillance and mandatory health plans and travel restrictions, the fixation on race and sex during the Oscars telecast—whether scrutiny on those grounds is warranted or not—takes some of the fun out of the Academy Awards. This fatigue, in turn, may lead to vulgar Oscar shows fixated on women’s breasts and other displays of political incorrectness.

So, I think it’s a cycle that spirals downward; the worse the culture, the more churchy the Oscars become and the reverse is true, too. Fatigue sets in for everyone and, I suspect, what almost everyone loves about the Oscars—the glamor and grandeur in toasting the best in movies—slowly, sadly whimpers to an end. Though last night’s show featured outstanding moments, including an eloquent and passionate argument for art by Oscar winner Viola Davis (Fences) and Sara Bareilles’ flawless and moving rendition of “Both Sides Now” in memoriam for those who’ve died, the Oscar fiasco exemplifies the cycle and fatigue. Whichever movie you wanted to win—the romantic, realistic homage to making your life a work of art La La Land or the bleak, stylized warning that life grants one brief moment under Moonlight—announcing the wrong Best Picture winner (Moonlight is the winner, according to the Academy) brought the cycle, fatigue and self-congrats to an abrupt and muddled conclusion. Through no fault of Moonlight‘s or La La Lands or presenters Warren Beatty or Faye Dunaway, last night’s awards show ended in apology, confusion and comparison to a beauty contest. That the Academy left the question of whose picture is best to its presenter, host and false and true winners to figure out is an example of what happens when being the best—and getting who’s best right—matters less than which favored collective gets more power in reaching that outcome.

Movie Review: Get Out

The eerie Get Out piles up questions in a fast, steady and fragmented way that keeps an audience guessing what will happen to the black man at the center of this racially themed movie. Centered upon a young, interracial urban couple (Allison Williams and Daniel Kaluuya) going to meet her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), the script by Jordan Peele, who directs his first feature film here, combines dark and violent themes with humor and comes up with a mildly entertaining movie. Get Out is so broad, derivative and cartoonish at times that it’s difficult to discern what to take seriously. The theme—intentionally or not—is segregationist, though very vaguely and in a way that the “bruh” generation might not notice.

Opening with black and white pictures of narrowly focused urban scenes such as a ferocious looking dog with his muzzle taken off, the bloodshed to come gets plenty of forewarning and this thriller earns most of the jump and jerk moments. Two black pals, one of whom is a photographer dating a white woman (the other’s a TSA worker), banter about the excursion, setting up the couple’s trip to the country to spend time with the white people. If you think about the premise, it is not realistic. But there’s enough truth in what the black characters fear to give Get Out the juice to sustain plausibility. The country home is creepy with clues to raise alarm. The conflict to come is not hard to guess.

An overbearing score and a mismatched, scrawny sibling character who appears to have stepped in out of a front porch scene in Deliverance doesn’t help and Get Out goes slap happier as it heads for a violent climax. Catatonic states of other black people on the family estate deepen the cause for concern, so much so that it’s hard to accept that anyone would stick around for more than an hour without taking the movie’s title at face value. The caricatured if romanticized TSA agent and Get Out‘s stereotyping black people as bumping fists and whites as shallow, condescending and worse pose problems. As the plot progresses—with nods to Marathon Man, The Stepford Wives and Motel Hell—it’s easier to spot what’s going to happen. Peele and company stoke suspense with bits of what comes off as dark humor, such as a line that “we keep a piece of her in here” and a bowl of Froot Loops, but the anti-interracial theme leaves buy-in remorse. An interesting policeman scene could have been developed to add depth and end on a note of racial harmony. But Get Out is a horror movie touched by satire and the cast, especially Keener, is fine in getting the audience to chuckle and feel scared. I don’t know whether audiences will take to the film’s big twist—I didn’t—but, either way, the disturbingly regressive Get Out gets in the head.

 

Movie Review: A Dog’s Purpose

A Dog’s Purpose is a wonderfully rendered fairy tale from Hollywood’s most magical filmmaker. I laughed, I cried, and I thought about “the meaning of life” as the opening line of the movie asks the audience to do. This is such a rare combination in movies—and people, especially show business people, go on about how Hollywood used to make light and intelligent pictures and bemoan that they’re not like that anymore—that this Universal film, made with Amblin, Walden and others and based on a book by W. Bruce Cameron, deserves 100 percent support.

The best pictures often don’t get what they deserve and A Dog’s Purpose, with a target on it from a group opposed to almost any relationship between pets and humans from the start, is one of them, which I know firsthand. In fact, when the smear campaign against the movie was launched, courtesy of a selectively edited video released for distribution through a trashy website, its own stakeholders were effectively shamed into submission, burying heads in the sand, dodging questions and queries for clarification and cancelling the movie’s premiere. Those who spoke out in defense of the movie, including one of each of its writers, actors and producers and the director, Lasse Hallström (The Hundred-Foot Journey, My Life as a Dog, An Unfinished Life, Chocolat, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), either came off as defensive or as if they were almost apologizing for the movie in advance. Josh Gad (TV’s The Comedians and Frozen), who does the voice of the dogs, took the bait and denounced purported footage in a controversial video rather than back the movie. Almost no one—not Universal, Amblin or Walden, or Mr. Hallström—chose to condemn the smear campaign, which sanctioned the flawed premise of the attack (that a picture, or pictures that are edited and arranged, is an argument) and passively legitimized a disturbing and potentially dangerous trend against the exercise of free speech. Going to see a movie should not require an act of bravery.

This time, I bought my own ticket on principle. I was joined by another guest when he found out I was going to see A Dog’s Purpose and I was asked again by two friends if they could come, too. The audience at Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinemas was lively and diverse. They were mostly families with young children, single men and single women, seated separately and alone, and couples or groups of friends like us.

Like most of his movies, which are some of the most life-affirming movies ever made, director Lasse Hallström’s A Dog’s Purpose plays to everyone capable of kindness, love and rationality. With a sharp and searching narration, as in An Unfinished Life and his seminal adaptation of John Irving’s novel, The Cider House Rules, intersecting plot lines and multiple characters converge into one poignant point about the whole of one’s life. The action starts, however, with themes of ownership, tagging and naming and what a dog uniquely means to a boy. The particular boy (Bryce Gheisar) to whom this dog first belongs reads comics and books about characters such as Captain America and Tom Sawyer and he grows into a fine teen-ager (K.J. Apa, TV’s Riverdale).

The wholesome, unspoiled quality of the boy’s character adds to the film’s conflict and grounds the movie’s other characters and subplots, building on subtle and gently delivered themes about dog people as peculiar, sad and lonely, and out of step with others, introverted and perhaps deferential to others, too. It’s a keen insight which is easily overlooked amid the dog tales, pathos and humor.

But it’s this type of skillfully woven idea that stirs one’s thoughts and moves one’s emotions in A Dog’s Purpose. So many of these tender truths dot the trail with wisdom, warmth and depth, such as a girl (Britt Robertson, Dan in Real Life, Tomorrowland) winning a prize for herself at a shooting gallery, a hardworking Midwestern father who slowly yet understandably lets himself go or a kid who’s jealous of the star quarterback. Then, there are the short but intelligent, clever or hilarious takes on the rivalry with cats, the sights and aromas of farms, or the irony of overindulging in hot dogs. That’s not to include how a dog’s hard work liberates a stoic policeman. Or that a dog’s companionship aligns in love and life with a college student. Along the multiple incarnations of a dog’s life, imaginatively depicted as foraging for a dog’s purpose, cultural points pop up—a Dynasty smackdown in the 1980s, guns in the 1970s, folk music in the 1960s—and A Dog’s Purpose comes in stunning pictures of a morning fog at the farm, a depressed home with an impoverised dog chained to a post, a happy dog bounding through the field to greet his master. It’s as sentimental as life and I suppose that if A Dog’s Purpose comes off as overly sentimental—a common complaint about Lasse Hallström’s moviesit’s in direct proportion to one’s own cynicism, as usual. This movie is treasure in every scene even when you see the scene coming.

With a cast including The Mod Squad‘s Peggy Lipton and Truth‘s Dennis Quaid in his finest performance since Far From Heaven—and a nice companion role to his quarterback Mike in Breaking AwayA Dog’s Purpose leaps from the screen with wonder, twists and an unequivocal answer to the meaning of life. In what may be his best movie since Chocolat, Lasse Hallström’s A Dog’s Purpose routes life’s loneliness into the chilling, wrenching and marvelous experience of owning and having a dog and with the reward you would almost certainly come to expect.