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The Fate of the Furious

Magic tricks are based on misdirection through visual distraction and patter. This eighth installment of the F&F franchise is a beautiful magic trick. While it is better than the previous couple of releases, it isn’t a great movie. But thanks to the application of the tenants of magic, it is entertaining and holds together more than what has come before.

When the series took a left turn in the sixth release from racing films to caper films, it revitalized the storyline and introduced new characters to expand the viewpoints and chances for comedy. Then came Furious 7, which was huge in stunts, but thin in story to the point of frustration for me (even with the Paul Walker reality in the background).

Fate takes the series to a new level. Don’t misunderstand me, Chris Morgan’s (47 Ronin) script is still full of holes and over-simplicities. So many and so obvious I had to pause the film to point out aspects a few times because I just couldn’t contain myself. But, that is where the magic comment comes in. The action is huge. Every time you see a hole, suddenly there is some eye candy to distract you from thinking about it or some clever dialogue to engage you so you let it slip by. F. Gary Gray’s (Straight Outta Compton) direction is responsible for that pace and success, and it is no easy feat.

But it wasn’t just the pacing that mattered. Bringing the story back to Vin Diesel’s (xXx: Return of Xander Cage) Dom recentered the movie. The level of tension and the opportunity for reversals keeps the film tight. OK, some of Dom’s story is forced to heck, but he plays it well and, again, Gray’s pacing keeps it rolling along nicely.

Where, I think, the movie made its best choices, however, was in some of the non-core cast members. Charlize Theron (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) as the villain was a brilliant choice. She plays a wonderfully chilling and believable sociopath, never once giving in to cliche scene chewing, which kept the movie on an even keel. And the return of Kurt Russell (Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2.) also contributed to keeping the movie afloat, though in his case through dry, well-delivered humor. His protege, played by Scott Eastwood (Suicide Squad), however, was just a cutout, broad comedy character.

I don’t know where they go from here. Topping these latest stunts is going to be very hard. At some point, they are going to have to pull it all back to the simplicity of the first film or risk getting so absurd thta it crosses into comedy rather than staying exciting. The franchise has been managed very well, despite the weak scripts, so I’m sure they’re aware of the issue. Of course, when you make a $1B/film you kinda get to do whatever the heck you want. But I will admit, this movie was way better than I expected it to be…I’m almost sorry I didn’t see it sooner.

The Fate of the Furious

Going in Style

This is more Tower Heist than Hell or High Water, which is a bit of a shame as the talent in the film is pretty stand-up. Top lining are Morgan Freeman (Last Vegas), Alan Arkin (Love the Coopers), and Michael Caine (The Last Witch Hunter); three guys who have massive presence on screen and can still share it with others.

And this bouncy comedy, with a tinge of seriousness, has a great supporting cast as well. Ann-Margret, John Ortiz (Kong: Skull Island), Joey King (Independence Day: Resurgence), Matt Dillon (Wayward Pines), and some extra silliness by Christopher Lloyd fill out the lives of our main characters with some nice color.

The thing is, the story had more potential than that. Much like a ton of other options like Now You See Me, Stand Up Guys, Lavender Hill Mob, Topkapi, there were depths to be plumbed. It starts off more serious and on a note that will resonate with much of the audience out there. But that note, instead, is just a MacGuffin that has little bite and barely any threat.

A better script would have helped. Writer Melfi (St. Vincent), despite some good moments, really fell into cliche and obvious choices. Some of that blame, though, has to go to the director, Zach Braff (Scrubs), who has little sense of subtlety and who clearly played this for broad laughs rather than something, potentially, richer. It still could have been fun and funny, but it could also have had a bit more grounding to raise the stakes and involve the audience rather than solely using cheap tricks, like kids and hospitals, to win our affections.

I’m not saying don’t watch this movie. It is diverting. It is funny. It is relatively satisfying. But, much like eating a single Cheeto, once it dissolved I found I was still hungry.

Going in Style

The Lovers

So often, tales like this become overwrought or overplayed. But this film really tries to keep it all contained, much like the exhausted relationship of the main characters that has reached a failure (as opposed to a breaking) point. Debra Winger (The Ranch) and Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) turn in wonderfully understated and nuanced performances in what is really an odd and amusing farce about love.

In fact the only people who over-react in the film are the supporting characters: Aidan Gillen (Sing Street), Melora Walters (Big Love), and Tyler Ross (The Killing).  There is also a nicely balanced turn by Jessica Sula (Split).

Writer/director Azazel Jacobs (Doll & Em) really captured the age and sensibility of a long-term relationship that has drifted. More importantly, he did all of this without a syrupy sense of reality. He has a sense of the absurd, as does life, but he stays grounded in reality and honest to the story.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I started watching the film, which way it would go and whether or not I’d even like the characters. But every one of them manages to gain just a bit of your sympathy, though not a lot in some cases. And the structure of the story is in itself a fun piece of commentary. I suspect it makes more sense the older you are, but the performances alone are really worth your time.

The Lovers

The Boss Baby

The ideas behind this silly bit of fluff are wonderful: how does an older child deal with the arrival of new baby, particularly an older child with a rampant imagination. The execution, however, is mediocre. The issue is deep in the conceit of how the tale is told. What is fantasy and what is reality gets more than a little munged and, frankly, confusing.

The voice talent is solid, but nothing groundbreaking. It is a long comic stand-up routine that provides a lot of one-liners, but very little acting. For that purpose, they found the right talent. For emotion, it relies on cheap tricks, like singing Lennon and McCartney’s Blackbird to pull the heart strings and giant anime eyes on everyone to pull out a physiological response.  If I sound a bit cranky on these subjects, I am. I prefer movies to earn their moments rather than manipulating the audience. And, honestly, a good part of the movie left me nonplussed as it focused on absurd aspects. And we shall not even discuss the climactic scene and results. It may well have been intended as all fantasy, but that isn’t how it was presented as we see non-fantasy points of view of the action at least a few times which means it has to be actual events, not just Tim’s imagination.

Writer Michael McCullers (Peabody & Sherman) had a clear blast slipping in all manner of old references, from music cues, to visuals, to puns. There is plenty of private joking going on for the adults, if they’re paying attention.  And, of course, there is a lot of cheap baby humor. Director Tom McGrath (Megamind, Madagascar 3) tackled this script relatively well on the voice side, but didn’t manage to overcome the oddities of the story telling. He should have committed to it being complete fabrication or complete reality. The in-between state appears to entertain, but also manages to confuse and leave it all incomplete. 

What you end up with is an entertaining mess, from a pure movie point of view. However from an entertainment perspective, it will connect with anyone who has had or taken care of a baby. I’m not entirely sure it connects on the sibling level the way it was intended, but perhaps that is because it took almost half the movie to focus on that in earnest. If you approach this as just a way to see a bunch of short, funny moments, with a thin thread of plot, you’ll have enough fun to make it through the 90+ minutes. But a classic this most definitely is not. 

The Boss Baby

A Cure for Wellness

A Cure for Wellness has many layers and is definitely not for everyone. It isn’t a great movie, but it is worth seeing.

It is, at its core, a suspense/horror film very much in the vein of Frankenstein and Dracula, even a dash of Phantom of the Opera. But it isn’t a B-grade flick nor is it histrionic or intended to get you with cheap scares.

Balancing the classic influences, there are also nods to Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch and Kubrik’s Eyes Wide Shut. For the former, it is the thin veneer of reality and matter-of-fact absurdity of what is going on, as well as some of the sense of the imagery. From the latter, it is the use of a simple, repeating musical theme and, particularly near the end, a sequence that echos Eyes and a load of Argento and other films from the 70s including Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, and others.

Visually, the film is full of gorgeous cinematography by Bazelli. The composition and clarity of the shots will make you want to pause every few moments to really examine the detail and relationship of the various objects. It is painterly in its execution, but always in support of the story.

The story itself is somewhat obvious, but what is reality is somewhat not. There are clues, but it is ultimately contradictory, and the ending is nebulous at best. And yet, somehow this gorgeous, Gothic, mental trip to the Swiss Alps is mesmerizing, even with a 2.5 hour run. The whole is, somehow, more than its parts.

There are several nice, small performances, but are only three main roles that form the framework of the movie. Dean DeHaan (Valerian) as the lead isn’t any more likable than he is in other roles, but he has a bit more energy. Generally, I’m finding DeHaan to always have a cool distance; an odd disconnect between his voice and his physical movement that removes you from caring about him. It can be very effective when you aren’t intended to like him, but it makes it hard to even care about what happens to him.

On the other hand, Jason Isaacs (The OA) is wonderfully creepy. He rides the line between care and conspiring beautifully. And Mia Goth (Everest) is practically ephemeral, going through her inevitable changes in a controlled and believable progression. You can see why DeHaan is drawn to her, why anyone would be. And yet she also manages to have a layer of both innocence and poisonousness lurking beneath her surface, like a toxic flower.

As I suggested, the end feels like it could be read in many ways. It is a strong choice, but not a clear one. And I say this despite one of the characters providing an explicit meaning to the title and their philosophy…I just don’t think it covered all that was going on nor the last image. Honestly, I’m still not sure what I think the entire intent was, and that’s somewhat OK because I’ve plenty to chew on.

Director Gore Verbinski and writer Justin Haythe reteamed for this production after their somewhat confused and misfire of The Lone Ranger. Bazelli returned behind the camera again as well. Seeing their efforts in an unfettered venue, absent any expectations, gives me a much better sense of their creative scope. While the end-result is a little baffling, it is a ride I willingly took and continue to think about. Make time for this when you’re in a mood for something darkly beautiful but very different.

A Cure for Wellness

The Calling

Navigating a dark world of pain and murder in the Great White North, Susan Sarandon (3 Generations) leads a solid suspense story (if a bit flawed in the police procedure). Of course, I am partial to good serial killer tales, if you hadn’t noticed, so I’m in the target audience for this one.

Sarandon is supported by a surprisingly well-heeled cast: Gil Bellows (Ascension), Topher Grace (The Big Wedding), Ellen Burstyn (The Age of Adaline), Donald Sutherland (Hunger Games), and Christopher Heyerdahl (Hell on Wheels). Their abilities and experience keep it all fresh and intriguing. 

What makes this particular story a bit different is the efforts by director, Jason Stone and writer, Scott Abramovitch; both having their first time at bat for a feature. In the script and the direction, the characters all act just a bit different than you expect. The plot, even when obvious, still has some very nice reveals. I will admit that the final moment, probably from the original material, is a tad eye-rolling, but not unanticipated, and it doesn’t diminish all that came before. It simply is a bit too, for lack of a better word, cutesy. 

If you like good suspense tales (and this is more suspense than mystery), it is worth your time investment. The driving purpose and the path to the resolution are really very clever. It would have made a great mini-series, but it manages not to feel too rushed, even in a two hour format.

The Calling

Paterson

Paterson is a quiet musing of the mundane, a perusal of poetry in the present. It is simple and absurd, much like life, and without a real plot, unless you consider the plot the exposure of how one man sees the world and how he copes with being in it.

Adam Driver’s (Silence) performance is compelling and quietly intense. He is an observer of life who is infrequently drawn into it to act. Mostly, he just captures it all in his notebook while the world happens around him. Opposite him, Golshifteh Farahani (The Patience Stone) is a loving cyclone of energy and unfocused ideas who gets a lot done, but accomplishes little. The two make a perfect yin-yang pairing, much like the black & white production design.

Jim Jarmusch (Gimme Danger) has very consciously created the visual equivalent of a bastard child between William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. It has the beauty in the small aspects of life, but from the perspective of a person without much of one and who is howling inside, quietly. His point is probably pounded home a bit too painfully in the final few scenes with Masatoshi Nagase, but it remains lyrical and thought provoking till the credits. 

As a poem of life and love, Paterson is about the city, the people, the person, and life, as well as a reminder to live it and appreciate it. It is more art than movie, but it manages to pull you along if you let it. Honestly, I’m still more partial to Only Lovers Left Alive, but they each have their charms, and each effectively obsess on the concept of “meaning.”

Paterson

 

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

It is going to kill me to write this review. Of all the movies this summer, this is the one I was really waiting for; the first big Luc Besson (Léon: The Professional) film in years. I still think you should go see it, but I’ll get to why later. First the painful part.

The source material for Valerian predates and influenced a good part of the ‘classic’ scifi movie cannon, but it is coming to market long after they got to establish themselves. So what we see appears to be part Fifth Element and part Avatar, with healthy doses of Star Wars and Babylon 5 thrown in for good measure. It is visually stunning, no question. It also has some of the best depictions of AR done yet on film. But for all its inventiveness it feels a bit like a pastiche of what you already know even if the comic influenced them first. But that isn’t where the move is weakest.

The main weakness isn’t even in the plot. The plot is relatively obvious by design. There is no pretense about who is good and who is evil in this tale. Clive Owen (Words and Pictures) is about as subtle as a nuke in his role. And are you really unclear that the species experiencing genocide is probably on the side of right? The story, at its bones, is interesting and has captivated audiences for years in comic form as a classic good and evil struggle. Besson could have softened that a bit, grayed out Owen’s role, in particular, to help raise the emotion and tension of the decisions, but it could have worked either way.

No, the weakness of the film is squarely on the acting of the two main characters.

Because there are few character surprises, the strength of the film has to rely on the chemistry between Dean DeHaan’s (Life After Beth) and Cara Delevingne‘s (Suicide Squad) characters. Much like the Bruce Willis/Mila Jovovich interchanges in Fifth Element, it isn’t so much what is happening around the main characters as much as what is happening between them. And, sadly, there is bloody nothing happening in that space for DeHaan and Delevingne. Zip. A gallon jug of liquid nitrogen couldn’t cool their romance any more than it already is. They don’t even seem to react at the carnage they leave in their path during their normal day-to-day assignments. It may be, in part, the directing, but, frankly, neither of these actors has impressed me much in their previous roles. So let’s say it is as much a casting as an acting problem, which still is at Besson’s feet.

All that said, you do have to see this film for a couple reasons. First, it is a big screen experience, no question. The level of detail and artistry on the screen has rarely, if ever, been matched. Second, it is one of the few original ideas out there in the tentpole space. Everything we’re being fed this year is spin-off, sequel, prequel, or remake. Besson is giving us something new. That is a gift in these days of recycling properties and studios too scared to try something new. They need a reason to gamble and that means showing them “new” can sell. Go in knowing you’re there for a visual ride and you’re fine.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

You’ve probably already seen this (I hadn’t) and nothing I’m going to say here will change your mind.

So, if you loved this film, power to you and move along, you’ll probably think I’m being sour and unromantic, but I’m not. I love this story, and am particularly fond of the Grimm’s version and the Cocteau film, which leans heavily on that source. I even like the TV version (but, hey, that gave us Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton, not to mention George RR Martin). But this Disney version is simplified and just not as engaging.

Like all fairy tales, there is a base truth Beauty wishes to convey, to teach. There are many ways to get there if you want to do variations of the story, but to really get there, in all cases, you have to truly care for the characters and their situations. You need to feel their fear and see their changes. Disney’s offering is all distraction and almost no emotion. That doesn’t make it un-entertaining, it just makes it empty entertainment, however pretty. And, to be fair,  the production design (real and digital) is truly a thing of beauty and imagination. Also, the nods to Sound of Music and Esther Williams, among others, are a riot.

But the story itself is rushed and almost utterly without tension or sense of time. It all seems to happen over the course of, at most, five days. I certainly believe in immediate connections between people, but they don’t usually involve kidnap, threats, and imprisonment. That takes time to overcome. In this case, everyone walked in knowing what would happen and didn’t even try to pretend it wouldn’t…the closest feint was the faked, depressing ending which the Enchantress (whom we’ve been spotting hanging out all along) deals with silently and completely without comment.

Does it still work? In its way, yes, but not because it is on the screen, but because it is in your mind. That is not only a cheat, but ultimately unsatisfying. It didn’t really do anything new for us. Frankly, there was too much other stuff to allow there to be characters and acting so that we actually cared about Belle, the Beast, her father, etc., and not just about the “story.”

There were other annoyances as well. The forced amount of diversity in the cast, seemingly without purpose, meaning, or basis. The continuity gaffs with the horse who magically appears at either end of the journey as needed, with or without tack. Peasants that suddenly have fancy dress. And then there was the great “controversy,” which was over so fast I actually almost missed it. Man people are screwed up if that was what flipped them out.

Ultimately, this is an OK piece of distraction, but not a great or classic film; it is simply big and flashy. Sure, it’s worth a single watch, but there isn’t a single performance worthy of mention, nor specific results calling out.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)