REVIEW: A Monster Calls

7 01 2017

A generation raised post-Spielberg’s “E.T.” has come to expect a certain amount of catharsis or salvation from stories in which an unhappy child is visited by a fantastic creature. J.A. Bayona’s “A Monster Calls,” to its credit, resists a lot of the sentimentality and focuses largely on the pain that cannot be diminished or wiped away by some kind of paranormal visitation. If the film makes you cry, Bayona is certainly not there waiting a hug, tissue and reassurance.

Patrick Ness’ screenplay, adapted from his own novel, takes a deceptively familiar premise and finds creative ways to subvert our expectations. The young protagonist, Lewis MacDougall’s Conor, is “too old to be a kid, too young to be a man” yet forced to grapple with the rapidly progressing cancer of his mother (Felicity Jones). At the same time, he receives visitations from a giant talking tree (voice of Liam Neeson) who reads him what appears to be an instructive fairy tale.

But as the story progresses, unfolding before our eyes in creative animation, the true purpose is revealed. It’s a tragedy, not an inspirational fable, and the tree is preparing him for an inevitable loss. Conor’s resistance to the message illustrates the human capacity for deluding ourselves into comforting lies and delusions to shield ourselves from the pain of reality.

His worldview shifts from black and white to gray as well as from sensical to paradoxical over the course of the film, two journeys we commonly associate with the coming-of-age genre. But “A Monster Calls” dwells in the messiness, hurt and loss rather than glossing over it – often times at the cost of being traditionally satisfying or crowd-pleasing. The maturity suggests a film perhaps more aimed at adults looking with retrospection rather than children viewing with a forward glance. B+3stars

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REVIEW: Finding Dory

21 06 2016

I was pretty much the target audience for “Finding Nemo” as an impressionable 10-year-old cinephile when Pixar debuted the film in 2003. It was back in the time when movies could stay in theaters for months, not just weeks, and I think I saw it five times that summer before fifth grade. I was rapt by the wit, creativity and storytelling sophistication.

But, as my mom was quick to point out, the film might frustrate or confuse viewers slightly younger. With its frequent cross-cutting between the split storylines of Marlin/Dory and Nemo, the delicate back and forth is a far cry from most children’s entertainment with a singularly focus and strict linear plot.

I can only imagine how some of them reacted to the sequel, “Finding Dory,” which is so frenzied and frenetic in its storytelling that I often wondered if the Pixar brain trust was attempting to replicate the scattered mind of its memory-troubled protagonist. The film moves quite jarringly about, cramming every scene full of joke lines, plot points and sentimental reflections. It is frequently fun and enjoyable, but the tagline of the movie should have been Dory’s oft-repeated mantra, “Just keep swimming.” The film requires constant motion to keep up and stay afloat.

Still, this is a Pixar product, so it still manages to provide all the typical stirring and sweet moments that define the studio. (Even “Cars 2” had these.) As Ellen DeGeneres’ Dory fights her way through a labyrinthine aquarium unit – as well as her own mind – to find her parents, she has many an opportunity to reflect on the importance of family. This means not only where they are, but who they are; always a step or two behind are Marlin and Nemo swimming to keep up with her.

“Finding Dory” celebrates these improvised families and impromptu units, proclaiming what makes them different is what makes them beautiful. This message might ring a little more profoundly were it not cheapened by silly shenanigans like an octopus driving a truck, but I’m willing to let that one slide given that there are more clever running jokes. For example, frequently throughout “Finding Dory,” a male and female pairing will appear on screen to provide directions or information. Each offers slightly different information; they bicker; the woman wins out. In many ways, these duos provide a mirror of Marlin and Dory’s character dynamics offered up in hilarious microcosm. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Exodus: Gods and Kings

20 12 2014

Usually, when writers proclaim a story has biblical connotations, implications, or overtones, they suggest a certain primordial grandiosity of themes and conflicts.  Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is quite literally biblical, however, and does not even come close to achieving that standard.  It takes far more cues from an interminable “Hobbit” film than it does from its source material that inspires billions.

The action on screen plays out like a final walk-through for a real movie.  The blocking of actors looks clumsy and without purpose.  Lines come across as recited rather than deeply felt.  And when the whole film plays out against a CGI-heavy background that can never overcome an overwhelming sensation of artificiality, “Exodus” feels like it could be capable of inspiring its own exodus of audiences fleeing the film itself.

The job of writing a compelling movie about the conflict between Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) seems simple enough.  The clash of a pharaoh with a legitimate threat to his empire from a powerful deity is gripping in concept alone.  Then add in that the revolution is being spearheaded by his estranged stepbrother, and it becomes the kind of drama that ought to have writers drooling over their keyboards.

Yet most of the film’s problems seem to originate at the level of the script, which likely underwent quite a few drafts given that four writers are given credit.  The film certainly does not deserve to bear the name of great scripter Steven Zaillian (screenwriter of stellar work from “Schindler’s List” to “Moneyball“).  “Exodus” feels skeletal, the sketch of what a true screenplay should resemble.  The general progression of events is in place, but no one has affixed any supplemental scenes to give it depth of character or emotion.

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REVIEW: Paul

10 08 2013

2011 saw one movie, J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8.” corner public interest on the influence of Steven Spielberg’s filmmaking on modern moviegoing.  I’m a little upset that “Paul” couldn’t bask in a little of that light.  It’s a fun, spirited send-up of science-fiction tropes featuring a hilarious self-aware alien, Paul (the voice of Seth Rogen).

“Paul” also puts science-fiction, comic-book culture under the microscope to be sent up.  And for that task, there’s probably no one better than Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, two men whose humor seems to play particularly well to that crowd.  Pegg and Frost both wrote the film, and they also star in it as Graeme and Clive, two Brits who come across the pond for comic-book Mecca … Comic-Con.

Traveling the United States in an RV, they encounter crude, crass extraterrestrial Paul.  He’s the masterstroke of the movie, perhaps the best manifestation of Pegg and Frost’s comedic brilliance to date.  He’s got ties to all sorts of conspiracy theories and is incredibly connected to the entertainment industry.  The problem is, the rest of the movie just falls short of the character’s shrewd construction.  Though it is a satire of the human-meets-alien movies of the past two decades, “Paul” often allows itself to lazily slip into the trappings of the subgenre.

And, lest I forget to mention it, “Paul” has Kristen Wiig as one-eyed fundamentalist trailer trash taught to sin by Paul.  Sure, her character’s a little juvenile, just like the rest of the movie when it isn’t cleverly harkening back to ’80s sci-fi classics.  But Wiig, and “Paul” as a whole, somehow make the stupidity seem more fun than they probably are.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Rampart

2 05 2013

The slogan for “Rampart,” though not on the poster I’ve embedded in this review, is “the most corrupt cop you’ve ever seen on screen.”  To that, I merely laugh.

So I guess they assume we haven’t seen “Training Day.”  Or “Crash.”  Or “The Departed.”  Heck, I’d even say “Pineapple Express” and “Date Night” had more crooked cops than “Rampart.”

Sure, Woody Harrelson’s Dave Brown is working outside the law.  He’s a foul racist who uses excessive force on the regular.  By no means am I saying that I didn’t deplore his actions and conduct.  But for whatever reason, I just didn’t feel hatred welling up inside me for him.

Harrelson brought nothing new to the character that he hasn’t shown us in everything from “The People vs. Larry Flynt” to “The Messenger” to Haymitch in “The Hunger Games.”  He’s great at playing total jerks, and Brown is in a league of his own.  But there’s nothing special about this character, nothing that stands out in his repertoire.

Add that to direction from Oren Moverman that lacks any compelling action or camerawork and you’ve got one heck of a bore.  As much as I wanted to feel repulsion or loathing, all I could feel was apathy.  C2stars





REVIEW: Abduction

28 02 2013

A lot of people were looking to “Abduction” as a test of whether Taylor Lautner could carry a movie on his own.  Away from the comforts of the “Twilight” saga where Lautner could just rip off his shirt and no one seemed to mind, would he be a viable action star?  Or is Lautner nothing more than a set of good-looking abs, destined to have girls drooling on Tumblr for all of eternity?

The quick answer to that is no, and “Abduction” is an abysmal movie that struggles to be so bad that it’s good at times.  The ridiculous romance, the half-baked plot, and the characteristic Lautner sporadic shirtlessness definitely provide some fun moments of unintended laughter.

And most people pinned the failure of “Abduction” on Lautner.  That’s not fair.  Everyone else in this movie was just as bad.

Looking at you, Lily Collins.  My goodness gracious, she grated on my last nerve.  Maybe with enough training in an acting studio and not in a gym, Lautner could be a half-decent actor one day in the way that Channing Tatum surprised us all in “21 Jump Street.”  I don’t know that I have the same hope for Collins.

I’ll hold back on some extremely harsh words for her, but know that she tried really hard to put on her big girl panties.  However, Collins just falls face first into the pavement, and no one bothered to tell her that her face is busted up and she’s bleeding everywhere (in a strictly hypothetical sense, I mean).

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 15, 2011)

15 07 2011

With the final installment of “Harry Potter” now in theaters, millions of Americans will see Snape’s finest hour, which wouldn’t be nearly as compelling without the incredible talent of Alan Rickman behind Rowling’s well-crafted character.  His creepiness and eeriness for the past decade in the role has introduced him to a whole new audience, few of whom know him as the nefarious Hans Gruber for “Die Hard.”  However, the role that even fewer recognize him for – and everyone should – is his hilarious turn in “Galaxy Quest,” a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek satire on the “Star Trek” show and fan base.  It’s been a favorite of mine since I was seven, and now is the perfect time to feature it as my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Rickman plays Alexander Dane, a peeved British supporting actor in the “Galaxy Quest” television series whose character happens to have some unfortunate gills on his skull.  He and the rest of the cast, which includes the hilarious Sigourney Weaver as the show’s sex appeal, are at the mercy of their drunk leading man, Tim Allen’s Jason Nesmith, when it comes to maintaining their show’s cult appeal.  Doing a great Shatner rip-off, Allen so nails the fame-crazed has-been that we so love to lampoon – and thankfully, Rickman and Weaver are there every step of the way to give him a light slap when necessary.

But one fateful day, the cast of “Galaxy Quest” gets drawn into the universe that they only knew on studio lots.  The actors find themselves totally hopeless in the face of actual peril but must exude some aura of control to keep the Thermian aliens under the impression that they know what they’re doing.  Their quest through strange worlds in space gives a new meaning to science-fiction and acting for all aboard.

It doesn’t matter if you are a Trekkie or not, whether you are a crazily obsessed fan of something or just know someone who is, you will totally be able to laugh along with “Galaxy Quest.”  It sends up obsession and taking anything too seriously to hilarious effect.  Not to mention it holds up exceptionally well on repeat viewings!