Roman J. Israel, Esq.

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There are certain movies where the performance of the lead actor/actress is far greater than the film itself.  Many spring to mind immediately including Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences to name just a few.

Well, Denzel Washington has appeared in another movie where his performance is much better than the film itself.

Now, sometimes the great performance elevates the material and you start to see them as one and the same.  My three previous examples all received Oscar nominations for the films though none of them actually were Oscar worthy outside of individual performances.  I do not think that Washington’s new film, Roman J. Israel, Esq. will be nominated like these other films were, but it certainly falls into the same category.

The problem with the film is that there is not much more to it beside a strong and oddball performance from a great actor in Denzel Washington.

Roman J. Israel is a lawyer who has been working in a partnership with another lawyer for years.  Roman was the behind-the-scenes, legal expert and the partner was the “face” of the company.  Roman was an advocate for change within the system, carrying around a briefcase full of case action suit targeting the process of overcharging defendants to get plea bargains.

It was clear that Roman J. Israel had his priorities straight and that, despite being most likely somewhere upon the Autism Spectrum (though technically never stated), never lost track of who he was.  When his friend and partner died, Roman was thrown into situations that he had been shielded from for years and, suddenly, things like money and people’s opinions started to weigh heavy on the lawyer.

Denzel Washington does an amazing job creating this character and showing you how the situations really make him mortgage his personal ideals.  Washington engulfs himself in bad haircuts and misfitting suits, though you always see Denzel when watching.  He does not disappear into the role such as Jake Gyllenhaal’s in Nightcrawler, a film, like this one, also directed by Dan Gilroy.

Unfortunately, the story really wanders around too much, lacking focus for much of the film and eventually devolves into a dramatic thriller that stretches credibility too far.

Colin Farrell plays lawyer George Pierce, who hires Roman after the loss of Roman’s friend and colleague, but, unfortunately, the character of George is all over the place.  He seems to be a douche at first, and then suddenly appreciates Roman’s skills and then becomes angry with him for an error and then wants to be his friend.  I love Colin Farrell and he does a fine job as an actor in this film, but his character needed to be defined better.

Denzel Washington’s performance almost made this movie a movie that I would recommend, but I cannot quite get there.  The plot is just not there enough and the last third of the film becomes nonsensical.  However, it is clear that Denzel Washington is one of the top actors of our generation and his performance nearly pulled this film into respectability.  If you are someone who enjoys an amazing acting accomplishment, you might find Roman J. Israel, Esq. a meaningful watch.

2.9 stars

The Man Who Invented Christmas

The Man Who Invented Christmas Movie Poster

A Christmas Carol is one of the most famous and beloved pieces of fiction that had ever been written.  Charles Dickens wrote many amazing novels, but this is arguably his finest and greatest work.  The new film The Man Who Invented Christmas explored how a famous author like Charles Dickens creates such a classic work of fiction.

Playing like a biopic, the film adds an element of magic to the manner in which Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) created the characters of A Christmas Carol and eventually wrote the book.

Dickens had gone through a period of failure, having had three books flop after the massive success of Oliver Twist.  Seeing debt building up, Dickens set out to write a Christmas story with six weeks to go until Christmas.  These are true facts.

The film, however, takes the writing process to a different and remarkably original level.  Dickens would picture a characters, name a character and then they would appear to him.  When Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) showed up, he began to show what a rotten person he was, belittling Dickens as he struggled against the deadline, the writer’s blocks and the seemingly never ending interruptions from his family, staff and friends.

Each of these interruptions were involving some intriguing side characters in Charles Dickens’ life.  His father John (Jonathan Pryce) is a bit of a blowhard and huckster, but he is responsible for some serious baggage for Dickens.  The relationship between Dickens and his father is an important one in the creation of the character of Ebenezer Scrooge.

There is also a great relationship between Dickens and his friend Thackeray (Miles Jupp).  Thackeray was as loyal to Charles as anyone and his friendship and belief in the writer was a solid rock for Dickens.

The movie was remarkably charming. I was fully enthralled in the film as it continues, showing the “real-life’ inspirations Dickens took to create the characters and scenes of A Christmas Carol.  It was fun to hear certain well known lines from the story (ex. “if they are going to die then they should get on with it, and decrease the surplus population”) placed into the script in such a clever way.

Dan Stevens does a great job with his role, showing us a continuously nervous Charles Dickens, whose vivid imagination is amazing, but whose life threatens to drag him down and prevent him from finishing.  The flashbacks used help highlight the horrors of the young Charlie Dickens’ past were effective and brought us back around successfully to what the narrative was wanting us to understand.  Much like Scrooge, the key to Charles Dickens successful future lied in the past and the present and Dan Stevens is so likable that he makes a perfect protagonist here.

There were some secondary characters that are introduced that are not developed very much.  Charles’s wife Kate (Morfydd Clark) has a nice scene near the end of the film, but it seemed to come out of nowhere.  The inclusion of a character named Tara (Anna Murphy) seemed an odd choice and I was not sure why she was meant to be significant but she clearly was.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Man Who Invented Christmas (though that was an odd title, somewhat misleading) and I found it extremely charming.  If you are looking for a good Christmas movie this year, don’t waste your time on Daddy’s Home 2 and instead look this one up.  God bless us.  Everyone.

4 stars

 

Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond-Featuring a Very Special Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton

Jim & Andy Movie Poster

In 1999, the movie Man on the Moon came out and told the story of comic Andy Kaufman, being played by Jim Carrey.  By all appearances, this was your standard biopic that we see all the time.

However, Jim Carrey had taken it to another level.

Famously reported during filming was the fact that Jim Carrey had completely encompassed the role of Andy Kaufman to an extent where he was actively, 24/7 being Andy Kaufman.

Jim Carrey took Method acting to a whole new level.

Now, 18 years later, a new documentary appeared on Netflix featuring behind the scenes footage shot for a documentary at the time showing just how lost Jim Carrey had become inside the role of Andy Kaufman… and the very special contractually obligated mention of Tony Clifton, too.  This footage is reportedly hidden away to protect Jim Carrey from himself.

These images of Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman were interspersed with a present day interview with a heavily bearded Jim Carrey, providing contradiction to the antics of the sprite that had apparently possessed the actor during the movie’s filming.

It was a tremendous documentary, with an almost unbelievable pretense.  The shocked expressions of cast mates like Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch down to Andy Kaufman’s real family members told the story of how Jim Carrey was no longer there.  He spoke in third person when referring to Jim Carrey.  He spoke like Andy Kaufman (or Tony Clifton)

Jim Carrey with the beard kept saying that, at the time, he kept asking himself, “how far would Andy go?”

I felt bad for Jerry “The King” Lawler, who seemed to take his share of grief from “Andy” and he reacted,at times, like the professional wrestler that he is.  Lawler spoke of how back when Kaufman and he were doing their wrestling shtick in Memphis how Andy would always be respectful behind the scenes and how they would plan out things together and that aspect seemed to have been pushed aside by Carrey for the sake of realism.  In pro wrestling, it is called kayfabe and Jim Carrey was all about that.

The documentary is well put together and really has a great hook with the missing footage from behind the scenes.  Just looking at the other cast members staring at Jim Carrey in disbelief is worth it, but we get more than just that.  We have a look inside the mind of two of the most fascinating comedic actors/performers of recent memory.

4.5 stars

Lady Bird

Lady Bird Movie Poster

This is not a film about LBJ’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson.

At first, I thought that this was a biopic, but, after seeing a recent trailer, I realized that I was wrong.  Instead, it is a coming of age story about a young girl and her struggles in school, in family and in life.

The film is very well done.  Honestly, there is not a huge plot involved here.  It is basically the senior year in high school for “Lady Bird” Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and the family struggles that she faced.  Her mother is played by Laurie Metcalf, who is remarkable here.  Metcalf, whether she is in sitcoms like Roseanne or the Big Bang Theory or movies like Toy Story or Meet the Robinsons, is always fantastic.  Here is just more of the same from her.  Great work.

I also enjoyed the work of the actor playing Lady Bird’s father, Tracy Letts.  I recognized him in the film, but I wasn’t able to place him.  He was very solid as the older man who had to struggle with depression and tried to avoid being overwhelmed by the more dominant Metcalf.  He was softer and quieter and very compelling.

There were plenty of typical scenes you would see in a coming of age story revolving around the final year of high school. Lady Bird wanted to escape from Sacramento to the east coast, but her mother was against that.  In fact, her mother found many passive aggressive ways to get a message across to Lady Bird that had the teen ready to get out of the house.  There was the first sexual encounter with the band member.  There is a school play and musical.  There is the friend who turns out gay.  There is a lot of dealing with the differing class structure of the school, with Lady Bird and her family certainly on the lower level of money.

While many of these topics are dealt with in other coming of age stories, they fit together very nicely with the strong performance of Ronan, which makes these topics fresh.  Ronan and Metcalf are excellent together and you can feel the connection between them.  It’s one of those things that make you think these two women are too much alike to really get along with one another.

There is something in this film that everyone will relate to and that is what makes Lady Bird special.  It has a great relationship, albeit negative many times, between Lady Bird and her mother  and the movie rides that relationship throughout.

3.5 stars

Coco

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I was able to keep myself from blubbering out loud and the 3D glasses hid the tears fairly well.

Coco is the newest emotional wallop released by Pixar Studios in the same vein as former films Inside Out and Toy Story 3.

In the new movie, we meet 12-year old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) as his family prepared for the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) by setting up the remembrance photos of family members who had since passed.  The family had been devastated decades ago when Miguel’s great great grandfather left to follow his dream to become a musician, leaving behind his wife and infant daughter.  Because of this betrayal, the family had rejected music in any forms and had become shoemakers.

The problem was that Miguel had music in his soul and would sneak away from his family to play his guitar, and watch movies and tapes of his hero, the late Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).  When Miguel discovered that his great, great grandfather was actually de la Cruz, he planned on entering a talent show on Día de los Muertos, despite the objects of his family.

When she found this out, Miguel’s grandmother Abuelita (Renée Victor) destroyed his guitar and insisted that Miguel give up his dreams of music and that Miguel help fix the pictures for his great grandmother Mamá Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), who had started to lose her memories and was slipping away from life.

Miguel would not give up his dream, reacting impulsively and running away from his family.  Sneaking in to steal the original guitar of the legendary de la Cruz, Miguel found himself magically transported to the Land of the Dead.  There he came across the skeleton corpses of his deceased family members who want to help Miguel cross back over to the land of the living before the sun came up and turned the boy into a skeleton, trapping him in the Land of the Dead forever.

While in the Land of the Dead,Miguel meets a trickster named Hector (Gael García Bernal) who is afraid of being forgotten in the Land of the Living and agrees to help Miguel find his great great grandfather de la Cruz in exchange for Miguel to return to the Land of the Living with a photo of Hector, to keep him from fading away into forgetfulness.

Coco is a beautiful, heart-warming, heart-wrenching story of family and love and what it means to honor those who have died.  It provides us with amazing culture insights into the Mexican culture and creates a spectacular world of color and joy.

The animation is astounding once again.  Pixar has never had issues with the visual imagery of the animation and Coco is no exception.  It is full of colors, breathtakingly gorgeous and as imaginative as any world you could ever think of.

The story of Miguel is wonderful as well, full of emotion and characterization.  I will state that there is a twist in the film that I picked out, but this did not affect my enjoyment of the film.   There was an audible gasp in my theater when it was revealed so it obviously caught some people off guard.

The music was amazing, with the song “Remember Me” probably going to be remembered again during Oscar time.

The character designs of these skeletons were tremendous, taking what could have been a frightening concept and turning it into a funny, warm, almost-magical appearance.

You become so engaged with these characters, especially Miguel and Hector, that the strife affecting them really hits home hard.  The last 25-30 minutes of Coco is about as emotionally powerful as any Pixar movie had ever been.  Richness of story and theme drove home the impactful message of Coco in a sequence that, simply put, reduced me to tears.  Such a lovely and beautiful segment.

The film was emotional, extremely funny, filled with Mexican culture and enthralling music.  As if there were any doubt about Pixar after this summer’s weaker Cars 3, Coco shows the world that the studio is still capable of creating original movies with powerhouse poignant moments for the whole family.  Unlike many animated movies, Coco is for both the children and the parents.  Young and old.  Everyone can enjoy this film.

Coco is a brilliant film and one of the best films of the year.

5 stars

Wonder

Wonder Movie Poster

Hm.

Wonder was okay.  I did not love it as much as I thought I would.  I am usually a sucker for stories about kids and their lives.  Wonder just did not connect with me the way I anticipated.

Now, I did enjoy the film.  It is good.  I am going to give it a positive review, but I really expected to come out of the film with more enthusiasm.

After being home schooled by his mom Isabel (Julia Roberts), Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) is set to start 5th grade at a real school.  However, Auggie knew that he would be facing major obstacles since he was born with facial differences that had required multiple plastic surgeries.  Auggie struggled with bullies and other children who could not see past his deformity.

We got several other characters in the film that received some focus along the way.  Auggie’s sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) felt overlooked by her parents constant attention to Auggie, and she, for some unknown reason, had her best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) stop being her friend after returning from summer camp.  Another fifth grader  Jack Will (Noah Jupe) befriended Auggie only to say something cruel within earshot of his friend.  Another student, adult suck up Julian (Bryce Gheisar) became the bully who targeted Auggie, calling him a freak.

What I liked.  Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson (who played Auggie’s dad, Nate) had a great relationship and were wonderful with their son.  I thought Owen Wilson was awesome here and I found him to the most real of all the characters in the film.  The relationship with Via was not as solid as they seemed to take for granted their daughter.  That story was particularly strong and I appreciated how Via never went full crazed teenager.  She always showed a sweetness to her brother.

There were some very sweet scenes in Wonder.  In fact, some of the scenes may have been too sweet.  I do like how the movie shines a light on a major problem we have at schools today.  The bullying problem is terrible and very few people can be as cruel as kids can be, some times without even meaning to.

I thought Noah Jupe, who had just recently been one few good things in the movie Suburbicon, was very strong as Auggie’s friend with two first names, Jack Will.  Noah carried himself very well and showed quite a range of emotion as he struggled to understand why Auggie had ended their friendship.

I think the problem I had with Wonder was that I just did not buy a lot of what happened.  I work at a school and the thought that the principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) would send a kid like Julian, along with Jack Will and Charlotte (Elle McKinnon with a really odd character), to take Auggie on a tour of the school.  There is no way that someone like Julian, who was so cruel to Auggie, would have fooled everyone as much as he did.  Kids would have ratted this guy out by now.  The whole set up felt forced and manipulated.

There were too many situations like this in Wonder that felt like it was trying to manipulate the emotions of the audience, dealing way too much in melodrama than in real life experiences.

I am also going to say something unpopular here, but I feel as if this was not the greatest of performances from Jacob Tremblay.  I love the young actor and he made me cry with his work in Room and in Book of Henry, but here I found Auggie to be a bit of a screaming brat at times.  I understand why, but I would have liked a little more subtlety in his performance.  Perhaps the prosthetics made it difficult to bring the typically amazing work for the young actor.  I’m sure he did his best, but there was just something that did not work for me.

Yes the movie has a great message of acceptance and kindness in the face of hatred and cruelty, and the film has a definite uplifting feel to it, covered with a gloss of sugar like some kind of breakfast cereal.  I just was waiting for something more impactful than what I got.  I am sure that many people will go to Wonder and enjoy it fully, most likely requiring some tissues (That’s you, Ambarlee).  It is a sweet family film, but you should not expect too much.

3.2 stars

Justice League

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I’ll start with this.  Justice League is good.  Not great, but good.

I certainly enjoyed this more than I did Batman v. Superman or Suicide Squad.  However, this still has some serious problems as a film.  It is a step in the right direction, though.  Should we be using that line?  “A step in the right direction” meaning that it is not as bad as you thought so it is good.  I’m not sure that is fair.

Either way, there are things I liked about Justice League.  In fact, most anything that directly involve the League members is pretty good.  I would go as far as to say that the interactions between the characters is the best part of this movie.

Diana (Gal Gadot) is still one of the best characters here, despite being less than she was in her own movie.  The scene near the beginning of the film where she saves a group of people from terrorists intent on blowing up several blocks of a city was tremendous.  I love seeing super heroes being super heroic and Wonder Woman is a perfect example of that.

Ezra Miller, though I doubted that I would like him, was really good as well.  He was the comic relief and most everything humorous about him worked.  I have heard that Flash is a divisive character- that you either love him or hate him.  Put me in the love him category.  This Flash is different enough from Barry Allen from TV to make it worthwhile.  Ray Fisher  as Victor Stone aka Cyborg was someone I did not think I would like either, but I thought his character was really awesome… maybe even the best of the characters in the film.  I did not like the look of Cyborg at all though.  I though his CGI was terrible on him and did not improve until the very end of the movie.

They had some good secondary characters.  Jeremy Irons as Alfred and JK Simmons as Commissioner Gordon were solid and I enjoyed the use of Lois Lane (Amy Adams) as well.  Diane Lane was back as Martha and she had some nice scenes.

This next section is a spoiler….. so SPOILER

The return of Superman(Henry Cavill) is perhaps my favorite part of the film. I would have liked it if there was more of an arc to the story involving Superman, but this was the Superman that should have been here the whole time.  When the newly alive, but not quite right Superman fights the other Justice League members, I was engaged.  Unfortunately, the movie brushes over Clark’s return and makes his comeback less emotional than it should have been.  However, I was really afraid that we were going to get another “Martha” moment, and the film avoided that, so there is that.  In the end, I really liked the Superman we got here.  END OF SPOILERS.

The film had a more fun feel than the other DC movies of late. You can tell that there was some kind of edict that Warner Brothers had given to make their super heroes less dark and gritty.  I am not saying that it is on the level of tone of Marvel, but it is distinctively different than previous DC movies.  Honestly, if they continue this tone, which still had some darkness to it, they might have more success.

Now, there are still lots of issues here.  The story is very thin, and actually seems very much like The Avengers.  There is a disposable feeling to this film.  It is not an epic film that one would think of when they think of a Justice League film.

One of the biggest problems with the Justice League has to do with Superman.  The film wants you to believe that the world is mourning Superman and that they really miss the beacon of hope that he was. The problem?  We had never seen this Superman in the DC Cinematic Universe.  In Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, we saw a dower and depressed Superman because the world looked upon him as an alien that was a problem, and a danger.  Not the heroic super hero that inspired a generation.  This, I think , is another example of why they needed a Man of Steel 2 before this film so they could have transitioned Superman from the emo Superman into the person beloved by the world.

I did not like the way the character Aquaman (Jason Momoa) was shown here.  I had some high hopes for Aquaman, but I just did not enjoy his character.  I had little reason to cheer for him. The whole section with Mera (Amber Heard) felt like a scene that was wasted.

I thought they went too far to the other side with the character of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck).  They tried to make him quippy, but most of his quips did not work.  This was a solid portrayal of Batman, but I did not like his Bruce Wayne.

However, easily the worst part of this film was Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds).  I hated every moment that character was on the screen.  He was nothing more than a giant CGI character… and a bad looking CGI character.  It was Green Lantern Paradox bad.  He had no characterization, no motive, no traits.  Anyone complaining about Marvel villains should never make that point gain.  Steppenwolf was one step above the Enchantress from Suicide Squad.  As much as I was enjoying the interaction with the Justice League members, the Steppenwolf moments were as bad as anything that we had seen.

I don’t know why DC movies feel the need to have the “everything is red” background in their final CGI fights.  It looks terrible.  B v S did it.  Suicide Squad did it.  Even a good movie like Wonder Woman did it too.  It is like the world has to be an apocalyptic flavor to it for DC to end a movie.  Admittedly, I liked the final act of this movie, but the look of the film was just so reminiscent to the other films.

The story of Justice League has gone through many twists.  Zack Snyder, who is still listed as the director on this, had to leave the project because of a family tragedy, and Joss Whedon, comes in to finish it.  He oversaw many reshoots and rewrites.  They had to cut a chunk of the movie when WB mandated that the film come in under 2 hours and it was reportedly 2 hours and 45 minutes. Every other day there is a story about Ben Affleck wanting to get out of the Batman role.  For the amount of melodrama involved with this film, it is impressive that there are positives to it at all.

And there are many positives to Justice League.  In fact, it is a fun movie that is mostly entertaining.  The missteps do not ruin the movie and the iconic heroes are well done, if not simplified.

3.65 stars

The Babysitter

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I finally got around to watching this on Netflix tonight.  The Babysitter has been available on the streaming service since October 13th, and it had been on my queue to watch for several weeks now, but the time just never seemed to work out.  Until now.

And hey… I enjoyed it.

Young Cole (Judah Lewis) is a twelve-year old boy who is apparently afraid of everything.  Bullied and attacked at school, Cole has few people that he cares for.  One of those few people was his babysitter, Bee (Samara Weaving).  Cole’s growing attraction to the beautiful babysitter leads him to wonder what she would do when he went to sleep, so Cole decided to stay up one night to see exactly what happened past hours.  Little did he know about the horrors he was about to discover.

The Babysitter is a horror/dark comedy/coming of age movie mash up, and all three of the genres shine through.  There are some really funny moments mixed in with some very bloody and shocking moments and all the while you are rooting for the young protagonist who finds himself stuck in the middle.

Admittedly, the film never officially gives you any answers about exactly what was going on, but it was clear that Bee and her clan of hench-people were up to no good.  These others with Bee included the more well known actors Bella Thorne and Robbie Amell.  It was fun to see these two running around, trying to take care of the Cole problem the group suddenly encountered.

There was some funny lines.  Robbie Amell’s character was running around without a shirt on for most of the film, and when Cole asked why he did not have a shirt, Bella Thorne’s character made a reference to his physique.  It was like a soap opera, trying to get the shirt off their hot male leads.

There was actually a real relationship between Cole and Bee, and that made her betrayal all the worse.  The film took some time to show this relationship and that helped us develop both of those characters before all hell broke loose.

One of the strengths of the movie is the fact that it really feels as if it knows exactly what it is and that the film itself is on on the joke.  It is certainly campy, and makes one think of some of those cheesy 1980s slasher films, but with more heart.  There was definitely lots of blood splatter around, but it feels so cartoony with its representation of the gore that it would not be a bother to anyone worried about blood.

Judah Lewis carries this film on his youthful shoulders and he just adds to a list of solid performances by child actors this year.  His relationship with Samara Weaving, who also is excellent in her role, is the center of the movie.  The Babysitter was a good time and would make for an enjoyable weekend night at home.

3.7 stars

 

Daddy’s Home 2

Daddy's Home 2 Movie Poster

When I went to see Daddy’s Home, I hated the first part of the movie.  Maybe even the first two acts.  I sat in my seat thinking to myself not just whether this would make my worst movies of the year list, but exactly what number it would be.  Then, something strange and unexpected happened.  The third act got better, caught my interest and saved the movie.  I still did not give it a great score, but my opinion changed and it avoided the worst movie of the year list.

Cue the trailers for the sequel, Daddy’s Home 2.  I actually found them entertaining.  I laughed several times at them and I, surprisingly, was looking forward to this film.

Brad (Will Farrell) and Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) had gotten the co-parenting thing down pat and were preparing to have an all-family Christmas together when it happened.  Dusty’s obnoxious father Kurt (Mel Gibson) decided to invite himself into the mix.  Throw in Brad’s over-emotional father Don (John Lithgow) and you suddenly have a severely combustible situation.

Making it even more uncomfortable, Kurt was continually trying to undermine the fragile relationship between Brad and Dusty, playing the two off each other with snarky comments and sabotage.

I have never liked Will Farrell much.  Every once in a while he does something that I think is good, but the good certainly does not out weigh the bad in my opinion.  This is his typical dumb comedy where, in place of intelligent or well-written dialogue or funny situations, Farrell does a pratfall or slams himself into the ground.  Once you’ve seen that, it really isn’t funny again.  Unfortunately, much of the best comedic parts of Daddy’s Home 2 is found in the trailers.

I do think that Farrell and John Lithgow are interesting together and this relationship could have been something that the film grabbed onto more, but it is really a side note. The storyline with the kids of the families was simply atrocious and promoted the worst examples for kids.  At one point, Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) was asking about advice for girls, and Dusty told him to go shove mistletoe above her, plant his “spaghetti slurpers” on her and then slap her on the butt.  In today’s world of sexual abuse and misconduct in Hollywood, a time where people like Harvey Weinstein, Andy Signore, Kevin Spacey are being brought down because of their inappropriate sexual advances toward others, to encourage that sort of behavior as something that can be funny is at best irresponsible and at worst criminal.

The comedy in this film might appeal to some.  There were people in the theater I saw this film in that seemed to think this was all funny.  I understand humor is subjective, but I found myself wondering exactly why these people find this obnoxious, borderline offense humor funny.  Daddy’s Home 2 takes the lowest level of comedy, mean-spirited and low bow, and presents it as funny.  I might have giggled a couple of times.

Mel Gibson was not funny.  He was too close to real life to be funny.  Plus, the character of Kurt does not earn his ending in the movie.  He never gets his learning moment and the film expects you to just accept that he now wants to improve his relationship with Dusty.  It came out of nowhere after making this guy the most obnoxious and cruel character in the film.

The film tried another third act come from behind here as well with a somewhat funny use of the song by Band Aid, “Do They Know It’s Christmas.”  However, the entire situation is soooooooooooo over the top that it stretches credibility and lost me.  The song itself was enjoyable to listen to and this was as close as I came to caring about anything in the movie.  I wonder how many people actually know that song and does it deserve the main third act focus?

Another problem with the film is that John Cena’s character Roger shows up late in the film.  The John Cena cameo was one of the best parts of the original film, but this one felt like the same old thing.  Then, with the ending segment, it felt as if the film was trying to bring together Dusty and Roger, as if that was the main relationship needing to be fixed.  It made no sense and it really undercut the finale.  Perhaps if this was the main conflict int he whole movie, like the original kind of set up in the closing minutes, but it was not.  It was tacked on to get John Cena into the film.

There are so many dumb scenes strung together ( a hunting scene, a bowling scene, the Nativity scene, a tree shopping scene) and none of the scenes had a through-line.  They were all patched together for the sake of that scene’s bad joke.

There is also a post credit scene that fits perfectly with this film.  It was mean and sad and made you feel depressed for poor John Lithgow.  I love John Lithgow, but this was an insult to him.

Daddy’s Home 2 took all of the worst parts of the first two acts of Daddy’s Home (including, literally some of the same jokes) and crammed them into the full three act structure of this movie.  The writing should have been so tighter and funnier, but there was simply nothing much here to enjoy.  One more film for the bad Will Farrell list.

1.3 stars

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

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I had never read the Agatha Christie book, nor had I seen any of the other movie versions that preceded this new film version of Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Kenneth Branagh, so I was entering this film with brand new eyes and an excitement to match.  I also avoided reviews for this film, after a quick, early glance at Rotten Tomatoes.  Decent early score, so I was hopeful.

In the end, I liked the film, but it was not near as great as I had hoped it would be.

The world famous detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) had some free time on his hands, but there was no rest for the little grey cells.  He was called for another case and had to get on a train, the Orient Express.  Suddenly, there was a dead body on the train and a cabin full of suspects.  Could the masterful Poirot solve the murder?

I hope so, because I figured it out pretty early.

There are some really great things about the film, starting with Kenneth Branagh.  His take as Hercule Poirot is wonderful and he does a fantastic job giving life to one of Agatha Christie’s most famous characters.  Poirot is well developed, we have a connection to him and Branagh fills him with some great, subtle character traits that really humanizes the detective.

The film also looks tremendous.  The cinematography is top notch and the surroundings of the Orient Express are breath-taking.  There are great shots inside the train as well, showing that Branagh has quite the grip on the understanding of how to shoot in the tight spaces as well as the snowy exteriors.

There is a wonderfully talented cast in the film.  Unfortunately, it feels as if the film does not do a suitable job of allowing this amazing cast to show what they can do.  With the exception of Branagh (who was tremendous), Josh Gad, who played MacQueen, and Michelle Pfeiffer as Caroline Hubbard, the cast was wasted on background characters who seem to be nothing more than window dressing.  Honestly, I did not care for most of these characters.

The murder mystery was pretty disappointing as well.  That was mainly because it was too filled with exposition and it kept bringing new characters and pieces to the puzzle that the audience could not possibly have known.  Part of the fun of the murder mystery is being able to play along with the detective.  That was not done here.  I still guessed the eventual reveal so the film lacked in an enjoyable pay off.

Because of the last few problems, the film did feel as if it dragged on.  It was certainly a slow burn of the film, which I liked at first, but quickly found it turning dull.  Then Poirot seemed to solve the case from out of nowhere and the film took a strange path.

Still, I think the film was a decent watch and there is no doubt that Kenneth Branagh was special as Hercule Poirot.  It is a beautiful film to watch, but the fact is that the story lets the film down and the great cast is wasted.  Still, if you like murder mysteries, or an Agatha Christie story, then this might be a decent time at the theater.

3.3 stars

 

Killing Gunther

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The mockumentary style of film has been around for several years now and we have seen areas from heavy metal music to dog shows.  You can now add hitmen to the list of topics covered with the new Taran Killam film, Killing Gunther.

Blake (Taran Killam) assembled a crew of young, up-and-coming hired assassins to help him kill the “white whale” of contract killers, Gunther.  Problem was that no one knew who Gunther was or what he looked like.  So, kidnapping a camera crew, Blake insists that they film everything as they attempt to take the place at the top of the heap by killing Gunther.

There are some definitely fun things going on in this mockumentary.  A very strong cast helps to give the film its needed gravitas as this group of assassins find themselves one step behind Gunther at every turn.

In the most intriguing casting of the film, Arnold Schwarzenegger played the role of Gunther, and, though we do not get much in way of screen time from Arnold, he is clearly having a great time hamming it up and chewing every last bit of scenery in the scenes that he does find himself in.

There are also some good side characters, especially Donnie (Bobby Moynihan of SNL fame), who is an explosion expert and Aaron Yoo as poison expert Yong.  Cobie Smulders appears as one of Blake’s former flames, Lisa.

Though there is fun to be had, it does feel like the concept is stretched a little thin.  It is as if it would have been a great short film or perhaps a great sketch on SNL, but for a whole 90+ movie, it did feel a tad dragged out.

The ending is a cop out and I wished they would have stuck with what appeared to be the original ending.  Still, there are good enough moments of humor and satire to recommend this film.  Seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger in the role makes everything worthwhile.  Just know that Arnold does not arrive until later in the film so you are not disappointed.

3.4 stars

A Bad Moms Christmas

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I had gone to Bad Moms last year and found it to be a surprise. It was way funnier than I ever thought it would be and it was an enjoyable comedy.

Then, the very next year, they turn around and make the sequel, basing it at Christmas time.

This one… not near as good.  In fact, I found this one tedious and annoying.

The three “Bad Moms” return for this film, but this time, each of their own moms come to visit for the holidays.  Amy (Mila Kunis) and her mother Ruth (Christine Baranski) have a complicated relationship where Ruth s always trying to push Amy for more, and Amy feels under appreciated.  Kiki (Kristen Bell) and her mother Sandy (Cheryl Hines) are suffering from Sandy being too close to her daughter.  Finally Carla (Kathryn Hahn) and her mother Isis (Susan Sarandon) rarely see one another,only when Isis needs money for her gambling problem.

I bet you can figure out what happens in this movie.  Just like a television sitcom, the groups go through over-the-top moments that are meant to be funny and by the end of the movie, they all learn lessons and become better people.

So, since the story is so familiar, if not downright repetitive, this movie depends on the comedic aspects of the film to carry it through.  Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, none of the gags of the movie hit and it is distinctly unfunny.  Sure there are a few moments (mostly involving Kathryn Hahn) that are funny, but they are few and far between those moments that we have seen in any number of comedies like this.

Sure the cast is likable, but there is just nothing original here at all and the story is lazy.  The ending sequence simple put feels like the wash and rinse writing that we have seen a million times.  Christine Baranski, while a great actress, is basically playing a version of the character she plays on the Big Bang Theory.

It really feels as if the quick turnaround from original hit movie to sequel hurt this film. It feels rushed and the humor suffers from it.  Where as the original film had a distinct flare to it, this one lacks anything that will stand out, with an exception of Kathryn Hahn and one of the Santa strippers.  Many times comedies have a difficult with sequels and, to me, this one is no exception.

2.1 stars

 

LBJ

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The new biopic from Rob Reiner focuses on the events that led to Texas born Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson (Woody Harrelson) to ascend to the Presidency of the United States after the assassination of John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan).

I had seen another movie (Selma) about the same situation, detailing the 1964 Civil Rights Law, and that movie had some differences int he character of LBJ.  It is hard to say which was the real image of LBJ, but both showed him as a brusque, gruff and profane.  Both films, however, made LBJ look like a good man.

Reiner’s LBJ is told both in current day (the day of the assassination) and in flashbacks to the 1959-60 Presidential race between Kennedy and Johnson, prior to LBJ being offered the Vice-President slot.  The film is weaved together well until the election is completed. Then the story picks up from current day, seeing how LBJ was sworn in as President and began to push JFK’s agenda.

Woody Harrelson is very good in this film the heavy facial prosthetics that he had to wear.  Honestly, there were a lot of times when I found myself staring at his face, trying to determine what parts were actually Woody’s face.  Despite the distracting makeup, Harrelson displayed a very strong leader who, while perhaps not couth, was desperate for people to connect to him, love him.

It was intriguing to watch Johnson work, a politician at this core, straining to find ways to compromise and to get bills through Congress.  Too bad we don’t have anyone like LBJ today, because we certainly need someone like him.

The film was pretty short, so it did not get a chance to really dive deeply into the successes LBJ had.  It would have been interesting to see the moments in his life that led to his decision to not run for a second term in 1968 or to go into more specifics about the Vietnam War that was dragging the country into the muck at the time, however, these historic moments were delegated to the boxed text at the end of the film.

Overall, the film delivered an interesting lead character who did some amazing things, but who may not have always done the right thing.

3 stars

 

 

Thor: Ragnarok

Most everyone is using one extremely fitting word to describe Thor:Ragnarok: fun.  From start to finish, the third film in the Thor series is just a tremendously enjoyable ride full f humor, action, wonderfully weird characters and fun.

Taika Waititi, director of What We Do in the Shadows and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, brings so much of his own directorial style into Thor: Ragnarok that it is amazing that Marvel Studios, a studio that has had some directors have had issues with in the past, apparently allowed his such free reign to create a Thor movie unlike any other Thor movie before it, while still honoring what had come prior.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard to find his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) ruling in the place of Odin (Anthony Hopkins).  Thor forces Loki to show him what he had done to Odin, and this winds up releasing the Goddess of Death Hela (Cate Blanchett), who has returned to claim Asgard as her own.  Thor gets banished and winds up on Sakaar, a planet run by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), and ends up in Grandmaster’s Contest of Champions vs. the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)

There are so many wonderful parts to Thor: Ragnarok that it is difficult to hit them all.  Chris Hemsworth is remarkable as Thor and he is allowed to show what an exceptional comedic actor that he is in this film.  He delivers his lines with the perfect timing and stands out.  The relationship with Thor and Loki, perhaps the most complicated relationship in the MCU, continues to be at the center of this movie, and each scene between Hensworth and Hiddleston shows how much chemistry they have with one another and how important they are to one another.

Mark Ruffalo is fantastic as Hulk/Bruce Banner.  He brings believable differences between the two characters (the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde combo).  This is the first time we can really see his work in the Hulk too, since we get a Hulk that can talk and communicate, even if that communication is like a 2-year old.  The Hulk is brilliantly portrayed as the monstrous rage beast, but also as someone who is lonely and wants a friend.  And Banner shows his heroic side despite his own continuing fears of being lost within the Hulk persona.  Plus, the Hulk/Thor hoss fight was brutally awesome.

There are a ton of great new characters here as well.    Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie is kick ass and brings as much to this role as you could possibly bring.  The flashbacks of the Valkyries battle with Hela, which looked as if it were a painting- a work of art, brought this character an importance that was unexpected.  Jeff Goldblum was doing his very best Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster. I sat in the theater waiting for the film to start thinking about the world I live in– where I was about to see a major motion picture that was going to feature the Grandmaster.  Amazing, and Goldblum was a riot.  Taika Waititi himself had a great knew role as the rock creature Korg, who was continually funny.  Karl Urban as Skurge the Executioner had an unexpectedly strong character arc as well, playing Hela’s right hand man.

Without going into spoilers, the ending sequence in Asgard was as surprising and original of an ending we have seen in the MCU.  It ranks up there with “I have come to bargain” of Dr. Strange fame in subversive finales in the super hero genre.

Speaking of Dr. Strange, it is known that Benedict Cumberbatch is in the film, and Ragnarok actually took the post credit scene from Dr. Strange where Thor is enjoying a beer and wove it into Ragnarok’s narrative seamlessly.  Cumberbatch’s role is basically a cameo, but it is an amazing one and worth a mention.

There are also a few cameos on Asgard that I won’t spoil that are perfect.

Some people have claimed that this movie is without stakes, but I disagree.  We have major Thor characters in this film die as well as the unbelievable ending that completely shakes up Thor’s corner of the MCU.  Plus, with the Tesseract making its presence known once again, it beautifully sets up this film’s connection to Avengers: Infinity War and Thanos’s ultimate arrival.

The film flows beautifully and the pacing is great.  You never feel bored during the film because you have something new to laugh at.  The colors are something different for Thor than any past Thor movies.  The color scheme is more like the Guardians of the Galaxy than Thor.  Perhaps this is the color palate that the MCU Cosmic films are all going to adapt.  If that is the case, I am all for it.

There may have been a couple of scenes where the green screen stood out too much (particularly with the Thor/Loki/Odin scene), but that was a minor quip.  Most of this film is wonderfully put together and the CGI was well done.

I still think this is one step behind Logan as the best comic movie of the year, but it is in the discussion.  Thor: Ragnarok is laugh out loud funny while taking the character of Thor is a different direction and installing in him a freshness that the character truly needed.  Plus, a new haircut.

4.9 stars

 

The Mountain Between Us

The Mountain Between Us Movie Poster

I wanted no part of this one.

I did not like any of the trailers for The Mountain Between Us and the story just did not appeal to me.  Nothing against Idris Elba and Kate Winslet, whom I enjoy, but I just did not want to see it.  Then, when the reviews came out and they were basically panning the film, it reaffirmed my choice.

However, I have gone to other movies that I did not want to see, so my lack of seeing this movie also was about scheduling.  There were times when it was showing that I just was unavailable for or going to something else.  It felt like the perfect storm.

However, I found a gap in my schedule and it happened to be playing so I decided to go ahead and see the film, with full knowledge that my expectations were very low.  And. much like other times when you go with expectations very low, the movie doesn’t seem to be as bad as you expected.

Again, let me stress this, The Mountain Between Us is not a good movie, by any stretch.  I just did not hate it as much as I anticipated.

Kate Winslet played Alex Martin, who is desperately trying to get home for her wedding, but her flight is cancelled because of incoming bad weather.  Idris Elba’s Dr. Ben Bass was in the same boat, trying to get to a patient.  The twosome got together and decided to try to head around the airport by renting a two seat plane, piloted by Beau Bridges.

I bet you see where this is heading.

Bridges has some kind of stroke (or something) while flying and the plane crashes in the mountains, leaving Ben and Alex (and Bridge’s dog, named Dog) to try to survive the snowy mountaintop and the dangers of Mother Nature.

If this would have just settled on being a survival movie, then it might have been passable, although, honestly, some of the worst parts of this movie dealt with the survival aspects.  We’ll come back to that.  The problem was this movie decided to turn itself into a love story as well between Elba and Winslet, and it devolved into so much melodrama that you can hardly stand it.

Not only that, but Elba and Winslet did not have much, if any, chemistry on screen.  I mean, both actors did what they could, but the script just did not give them anything.  The performances by the two lead actors are reasonable, but these characters just were not worthy of the acting chops these two stellar actors possess.

Now, back to the survival parts.  I did not believe that they were ever in real jeopardy, nor did I believe that either character felt as if they were in any danger.  Even though they talked about dying and the dangers around them, I never bought the feeling of stakes between the characters.  We see only the minimal amount of effects of the surroundings on Ben and Alex.  At one point, Alex falls through the ice into the water, and she is in there for several seconds until Ben can pull her free.  He rushed her off to the cabin that he had just conveniently found to warm her up and give her a makeshift IV.  No consequences for Alex for spending that time in the water.  Neither character lost any toes or fingers, despite the hours they spent walking through knee deep snow.

They also always seemed to be finding supplies or shelter or whatever they needed just in the nick of time.  I was sure that they would be eating that dog before too long, but they never got to that point in desperation.

The passage of time was also out of whack here.  There is no way to gauge how long they were out there until Alex specifically says it.

Then, the ending, without spoiling it, it barf-tacular.  The film is pretty predictable so just think about how a melodramatic movie where the two heroes survive the outdoors might end up and you would probably be able to guess how this one ended up.

Positives.  Well, Idris Elba and Kate Winslet are very likable actors and you want to root for them.  They give good performances for what they were given.  The film has beautiful shots of the snow covered mountains and the outdoors.  Plus, the film was not as terrible as I thought it was going to be.

This felt much like a Lifetime movie with big name stars.  Had I not gone to this, I would not have missed much. But I did, and so I would rate this…

2.4 stars