Tag Archives | Scott Holleran’s movie reviews

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.

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.

Movie Review: The Founder

An interesting if unsatisfying character drama contains an original if unfulfilled theme in The Founder with Michael Keaton (Birdman) as McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc.

What makes Kroc the founder, a debatable assertion by this account, is the movie’s focus. What leaves the meaning unclear is the way director John Lee Hancock (The Alamo) dodges and hedges. This is utimately why The Founder, which could have been a powerhouse 2016 movie, peters out. Yet what a promising start, with sunny skies and nothing but an ambitiously idealistic adult driven to make money—and a movie about an ‘overnight’ success who’s over the age of 50 (like Col. Sanders or Judi Dench) is long overdue. This is the blank canvas of The Founder, sketching an open market in which demand for fast, simple and delicious food meets the grit of a seasoned salesman from suburban Chicago. The insights in the first two-thirds of the film—about the exhaustive work of thinking about, finding, studying, funding and cultivating a good idea with steely, feisty enthusiasm—are penetrating. The Founder in these stretches is a near-complete depiction of the money-making man in action, from enduring the vacancy and sameness of a carhop joint in Chesterfield, Missouri, to tapping the vitality and excitement of an enterprise out West.

The film’s regionalism and realism are its finest attributes.

As with La La Land, Hancock and screenwriter Robert Siegel, powered by Keaton’s performance, let this business-themed movie capture the Southern California (and, broadly, Western) ethos of self-made Americanism matched by Midwestern work ethic. You’ll never think of San Bernardino, a poor area of metropolitan LA recently known for an Islamic terrorist attack by jihadists known to the FBI, the same way again. Depending on which competing version you believe in this back and forth dramatization of a business partnership gone bad, the story of McDonald’s and its rise to fast food success is at once sobering and invigorating. Saddled with a wife (Laura Dern, pointed as always) whose support is tepid, important and strictly secondhand, Keaton’s Kroc contemplates and extrapolates the McDonald brothers’ trial and error tale of tennis court choreography, which took them from New Hampshire through Columbia Pictures, the crash of 1929 and the San Gabriel Valley to a perfect process. The brothers see the San Bernardino hamburger stand as the end of the road.

Through the burgeoning positive thinking self-improvement movement stressing persistence and endless shots of Canadian Club whisky, milkshake machine vendor Kroc sees dollar signs in McDonald’s. Kroc pushes and pushes the homespun brothers McDonald all the way to Des Plaines, Illinois (incidentally, where I first tasted and occasionally ate at Kroc’s first McDonald’s). Kroc investigates, shapes and defines a business partnership they can’t refuse. When the contract goes to signatures, like the hustler in this week’s other take on capitalism, Gold, no one but Kroc thinks the fast food process can be properly balanced and scaled. And it’s important to note that they have legitimate gripes, concerns and grievances. Later, one person does see potential with equal vigor (Linda Cardellini as Joan) but Kroc’s own country club wife in Arlington Heights asks: “When’s enough going to be enough?”

Rather than respond with religious verses, slogans and bromides about charity and humility, Kroc thinks, pauses and replies: “Probably never.” Up go the golden arches and wide go Kroc’s tired, hardworking eyes when he sets his sights upon his sacred temple for the first time, looking upward through a windshield in the movie’s best scene—it is his vision by any honest account of what that means—and, with symbols such as covered wagons and Kroc drawing spiritual strength from Kazan’s On the Waterfront, big business McDonald’s is finally born. How it’s done, how it’s earned, how it’s built on whisky and ruthlessness, from Kroc’s cheerful “Let’s get to work, boys” to inclusive recruitment of blacks, Jews and women, is inspiring. The brothers may denounce what they call Kroc’s “crass commercialism”, and The Founder goes limp on Kroc’s character, portraying him as dishonest in spite of contradictions. Whatever his flaws, if name and title can be earned, and they can, Ray Kroc deserves the movie’s title. To a certain extent, The Founder, thanks to Michael Keaton, driving the movie with a spot-on portrayal of an unpretentiously self-made man, shows the businessman who made McDonald’s. Decide for yourself whether Kroc stole, seized or started this amazing enterprise, which revolutionized the business of food, up from scratch.