Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Exit, Pursued By A Bear

Year: 2018
Director: Paul King
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Sally Hawkins
Run Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

So, yes. Against all odds, I really really liked the original Paddington. But now it's four years later, the world has fallen to pieces, and the track record for movie sequels - especially to kids' movies - has never been particularly strong. There's no way Paddington 2 could provide the same level of earnest, warm quality that its predecessor had in spades. Right? Right?!

Wrong. So, so wrong.

Paddington 2 sees our beloved, marmalade-devouring bear Paddington (Ben Whishaw) having settled into his new home with the Browns, who are all more or less the same, but nudged a slight bit forward in their arcs and dealing with the problems that come with being four years older than they once were. Henry (Hugh Bonnevile) is attempting to drown his midlife crisis in yoga and ignoring the fact that his work promoted a younger, fitter employee past his rank. Mary (Sally Hawkins) is longing for adventure and training to swim across the English Channel. Judy (Madeleine Harris) has rather given up on boys and taken up journalism, and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) is attempting to appear cool in spite of his intense love of steam trains.

Paddington's retired Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton) has her 100th birthday coming up, and he has decided to buy her an antique pop-up book of London landmarks, to help her feel close to the city she always wanted to visit but never got the chance to. He takes on a series of jobs at which he fails hilariously to save up for the book so he can send it to her home in Darkest Peru.

And a Paddington movie is nothing without a sublimely arch villain, so enter Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), a fading, self-absorbed actor - think a more foppish Gilderoy Lockhart - who steals the pop-up book, knowing that it contains clues as to the location of a hidden treasure. Paddington is wrongfully accused of the crime and sent to prison, where he must work to befriend his fellow inmates, including violent chef Knuckles (Brendan Gleeson), while the Browns attempt to suss out the identity of the real culprit.

Unfortunately, he has a tendency of just blending into the background, what with his drab outfits and so forth.

If I hadn't obliterated every doubt you had yet, Paddington 2 is a spectacular success both as a sequel continuing the look and feel of a consistent universe, and as an insular movie striking off in its own direction with separate, if thematically similar, ambitions. If anything, this movie doubles down on the original's emphasis on creating a humanizing - or rather, bear-izing - tale of immigration. The more diverse ensemble certainly helps in this regard (the original Paddington is still a masterpiece, but it's awfully white), but the way the film explores the character of Aunt Lucy this time around is a heartbreaking, bittersweet portrayal.

The moment that really drives that emotion home is also conveniently the moment that declares that Paddington 2 hasn't forgotten the visual inventiveness of its forebear.

Or fore-BEAR. Geddit?

As Paddington flips through the pop-up book, he imagines himself and Aunt Lucy running through the cut-paper world, exploring the sights of a city she'll only get to visit in her imagination. Not only is it a splendid effects showcase, blending the 3D animated bears with 2D paper animation in a lusciously gorgeous scene that completely eschews live action for a moment, it's a stirring and deeply felt sequence that will have you openly weeping ten minutes into the film.

But this isn't a movie that strives to make you sad. Oh it succeeds in spades at doing that, and your chest cavity will be sore from all the times your heart swells, but it's not cruel or punishing. It's just... life. It's a celebration of the good and the bad and the way that suffering has a tendency of giving way to radiant peace. It's certainly an anti-Brexit argument, but it's couched in such an undeniably warm, loving register that it never feels preachy or forced. It's just lovely and charming, just like every other part of this movie.

These elements peacefully coexist with everything else, from the broad slapstick that's played so earnestly you can't help but be drawn in to the little visual gags that never needed to be there, but prove just how much love went into the creation of this whole affair.

In any other kids' movie, this would easily be the worst, most pandering moment. I don't know who they sold their soul to, but it just freaking ISN'T.

Now, there is an element here where Paddington 2 is a bit of a step down from part one. The Brown family, although they get more solo scenes considering that Paddington is in prison for half the movie, are a bit less fleshed out than they once were, and they always were a little bit archetype-y. They're explored less enthusiastically, although the script is still tight enough to incorporate them all into the adventure with Swiss watch precision.

And there's no amount of sidelining that can take away from just how gosh darn good of a performance Sally Hawkins is delivering here. She is always a delight, but she takes the character she created in the first one and draws a sly, self-effacing humor from her overzealous commitment to every action she undertakes in this silly, off-kilter world she's been placed into. If she's not in the conversation for next year's Best Actress nominations (and she won't be, because the world is a cruel place and the Academy even crueler), the world will be robbed of the recognition of a true treasure.

The plotting also slips a bit with Hugh Grant's treasure hunt, which - to be fair - has way too many steps. He is supposed to find twelve clues scattered throughout the city, and although that is assuredly far too many for a simple little 100 minute film to handle, the way they skip through them feels like a gargantuan chunk has been carved out of the story. But again, this element is rescued by an actor at the top of their game. Hugh Grant is simply delightful, embracing the camp pomposity of his character with a lacerating, sarcastic portrayal of aging stardom.

It's hard not to be upstaged by the glorious pastel dandy outfits that came straight from the brain of some fevered fashion genius, but Hugh Grant pulls it off, providing the film with a villain that's just as stylistically bizarre and captivating as Nicole Kidman, but in a wholly different direction.

All in all, Paddington 2 is just the bee's knees. It's more of the same, but different, just like a sequel should be. And when that same is this tremendous and that different is so inspired, it's hard not to want to sing the praises of this movie from the rooftops of any convenient towers or skyscrapers.

TL;DR: Paddington 2 is a tremendously worthy sequel that recaptures the spirit of the original.
Rating: 9/10
Word Count: 1187
Reviews In This Series
Paddington (King, 2014)
Paddington 2 (King, 2018)

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Bear In The Big Blue Coat

Year: 2014
Director: Paul King
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Back in 2014, when the original Paddington was released, it made hardly a blip on my radar. And why would it? I do have a boyfriend who takes me to a lot of kids movies, but that's because he's an animation buff, so this one didn't weigh heavily on his consciousness either. And the character of Paddington is certainly more of a UK phenomenon. Being American, I'd certainly heard of Paddington, but had no affection for him to match that of, say, Harry Potter, The Little Mermaid, or hell, even Amelia Bedelia (I would watch the crap out of an Amelia Bedelia movie, by the way).

So there are a lot of reasons I never sat down to watch Paddington, and now I know a lot of reasons why that was a terrible decision.

Not that Paddington doesn't also make his fair share of terrible decisions.

To my point, I had no idea that Paddington was an actual talking bear, and not a magical stuffed teddy bear á là Ted. I still don't honestly believe that. Someone report back to me and let me know. Anyway,  Paddington (Ben Whishaw) is a talking bear from Darkest Peru who has come to England after the death of his Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) and the retirement of his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton). These bears were taught about the English language and customs by the explorer Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie), who promised that the bears would always be welcome in his native land.

Now, many years later, Paddington finds that London is not the glittering gem of hospitality he was promised. The city is a cold, unforgiving place (as Babe could have told him), and it's going to be harder to find a family to take him in than he thought. Fortunately, he catches the eye of artist and author Mary Brown (Sally Hawkins), who allows him to spend the night with her family; protective fuddy-duddy husband Henry (Hugh Bonneville), hormonal tween daughter Judy (Madeleine Harris), and inventive young son Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), and matronly aunt Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters). Thus begins a sweet fish out of water comedy, where Paddington's misunderstanding of English culture, penchant for clumsiness, and absurd love of marmalade get him into quite a few scrapes, but eventually allow him to wiggle his way into the hearts of everyone in town.

That is, except for Natural History Museum taxidermist Millicent (Nicole Kidman), who enlists their anti-bear neighbor Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi) to help her capture Paddington, who she desparately wants to add to her collection.

She also seems to have acquired her hairstyle from a taxidermied meerkat.

Paddington is no ordinary children's film. Or rather, it is an ordinary children's film, just done extraordinarily well. There's not a single ingredient here that feels unfamiliar, and yet fresh life is breathed into a collection of well-worn tropes by a cast and crew that is utterly, wonderfully committed to making the movie the best possible version of itself it can be. 

The whole thing is just so earnest, in a way that only the British can be. Every character is quirky and fun in quiet, charming little ways (even two background characters - security guards who exist only to be knocked out by the villainess - have a fun little moment where they're playing a game involving guessing the amounts of certain nutrients in a little package of biscuits), and they play off the idea of a talking bear as if it's the most normal thing in the world. Everything in the universe of Paddington is just a little bit off-kilter, which helps to ground the fact that our protagonist is an anthropomorphic CGI cartoon.

And even though everything is twee and fluffy in the best possible way, Paddington - like all great children's films - has a thick vein of darkness running its way through the proceedings to take the edge off the sweetness. This is a movie that literally begins with a young bear's uncle dying in an earhquake, for one thing, but it's also at its core a Pig in the City-esque tale of an innocent trying to make his way through a cold, unforgiving metropolis. Does he teach people how to open their hearts and make their life's better through his unwavering optimism? Of course he ding-dang does! But on his way to that, he hears the tale of a Holocaust survivor and lives out an immigrant nightmare in an immediately pre-Brexit London.

Damn bears coming in here, stealing hats and marmalade from hard-working Brits.

Kidding aside, Paddington is literally a story about immigration and racism, any way you slice it. The fact that it has a brain in its head only makes it more delicious, especially because it deals with these topics on a  level any kid could understand, and as gently as possible. It encourages people to love one another in spite of their differences, and it's hard to argue with that message.

But oh, how could we have gotten so far without discussing the visual style? Paddington is a candy-colored delight, full of little details and fillips that turn the live action frame into a page ripped from a fantasy storybook. From the gloriously busy design of the pneumatic delivery tubes in a huge hall of exploration archives to the deliciously grim cutaway to an imaginary orphanage, the production design is top notch. Every surface is dripping with bold primary colors and lit with the warm glow of a long-remembered childhood dream.

Everything onscreen is perfectly precise, and yet feels homespun and inviting, like if Wes Anderson decorated a playroom. And of any movie this century, Paddington probably has the most facility with actually conveying emotion through imagery rather than dialogue. In one particularly low moment, a mural of a tree in the Browns' house has all its petals blown off, which is spectacular, but the film is full of these little moments. Everything is packed with creativity and wonder, even in little visual gags like the backs of all of Nicole Kidman's mounted, stuffed heads on the wall. I don't rightly know where director Paul King (who has mostly labored in TV comedy up to this point) got all this from, but he needs to direct every kids' movie from now on.

If this movie was a flavor of hard candy, I'd keep a dozen of them in my bag at all times.

Of course, this world would be nothing without the humans populating it, and they're all incredibly well-suited to the job. The whole Brown family is a satisfying bundle of quirks and clipped Britishisms wrapped around stock character archetypes, but the obvious standout here, other than Ben Whishaw - who maintains a sense of wide-eyed wonder without becoming grating - is by far Nicole Kidman. Her performance is incredibly sharp, all tiny little mincing movements designed to make as much impact as possible with ruthless efficiency. She's an incredibly retrained, genuinely scary presence that generates a significant amount of tension all while indulging in constant moments of laugh-out-loud absurdity.

So, there you go. Don't judge a book by its cover, I guess. Or don't judge a movie by the cover of the book it's based on. Paddington has no right to be as thoroughly delightful as it is, but when it comes down to it, it's an actual cinema masterpiece that works on every single level it's asked to work on, as well as a couple dozen more it tacks on just for fun.

TL;DR: Paddington is a downright delightful children's movie, and I'm so glad we have the capacity to make something like it in this cold modern world.
Rating: 9/10
Word Count: 1301
Reviews In This Series
Paddington (King, 2014)
Paddington 2 (King, 2018)

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

I'm Sick And Tired Of These Conspiracy-Fighting Commuters On This Monday To Friday Train

Year: 2018
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson 
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Jaume Collet-Serra is best known - by those who are aware of him at all - for his inescapable work with Liam Neeson over the past decade (Non-Stop, Run All Night, Unknown), and yet I've seen basically every item in his filmography save for those. And from the angle I'm using, I enjoy him very much. House of Wax was a gleefully gory, surprisingly solid mid-2000's remake, Orphan was a fizzy and delightful B-picture, and The Shallows was a perfect summer movie that proves the killer shark genre still has some juice left in it. So I was excited to explore his newest film, now that I've really had the chance to get down and dirty with him.

Let's just say I'll gladly sign up for his next horror effort, but I'll need a LOT of convincing before I approach another one of these action projects.

In The Commuter, Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) is an Irish ex-pat who keeps a crummy job at an insurance agency to support his wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) and son Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman), who figure into the story exactly as little as you might expect. One day, after getting fired from his job, a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) approaches him on the train, offering him $100,000 if he can find the person on the train who does not belong, who is currently going under the alias Prynne. He isn't told what will happen to this person once he finds them, but one can assume they're not receiving a giant novelty check.

Wondering how ol' Neeson's gonna punchify his way through this one? Well, you see, it turns out the man is an ex-cop, so he relies on his skills, his ex-partner Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson), and his relationship with the local chief (Sam Neill) to find Prynne, evade capture by the increasingly suspicious train authorities, and fight his way through various goon-shaped obstacles as it turns out Vera is just one head of a massive hydra conspiracy that has eyes and ears everywhere. But once he finds his quarry, he will be faced with this moral quandary: should he save this person from harm or save his family, who at some point during this whole shebang have their lives vaguely threatened.

Look, this whole movie is basically just Liam Neeson Mad Libs; they pretty much expect you to be able to fill in the blanks as needed.

"I'm 60 years of age!" shouts Liam Neeson in an early scene, helpfully underscoring just how useless the script is going to be the entire time. It's almost quaint, the way the dialogue just plain fails to sound like anything a human being has said since the beginning of time. I'd perhaps even call it Agatha Christie-esque, if I was feeling at all charitable, which I am certainly not. 

Because Liam Neeson needs as much information as possible to further the twists and turns of the mystery of who Prynne is, each and every suspect immediately spouts a wealth of detail and insight into their motivations when even slightly prodded. Even if they have up to this point found Neeson to be a frightening and erratic presence that they want to avoid at all costs, they spill the beans on their darkest secrets like they're characters in a Nancy Drew video game and he handed them the right item to unlock their clues. 

Nobody here is an actual dimensional character, least of all this "conspiracy" that fuels the entire conflict. At no point do we get a sense of who they are or what they want, except in the sense that conspiracies are Bad. This vast city-wide crime ring is also completely forgotten by the time the plot tangles itself into such a tight knot the movie is forced to end so it doesn't strangle itself. But I shouldn't bother myself too hard about it, because they don't seem particularly competent anyway. The vague threats to his family that I mentioned earlier are exactly that: his family is mentioned in a phone call but never actually directly threatened. I guess Vera hoped the power of implication would override the fact that they have absolutely zero leverage over this guy, who literally never even remotely considers the possibility that he should stop being a hero to save his loved ones.

I mean, he's had his fair share of action movie families, so I guess it's easy to forget why you care about this particular one.

Jaume Collet-Serra as a visual artist does bring a little more pep and zazz to the proceedings than your average workaday Joe Blow, especially in an opening montage that zips through a week of commuting, showcasing the monotonous, yet subtly different patterns that a weekday warrior can fall into. But no matter how many times he Murder on the Orient Expresses his train by zooming through the entire length, or moves the frame through a tiny hole in a punched ticket, there's no avoiding the fact that this is a pretty run-of-the-mill experience through and through.

The Commuter never shakes that sense of fatigue, especially when it's running through the too-long list of options for Prynne. The characters aren't memorable enough to capture the attention (save for the obligatory asshole banker character who must appear in all movies starring a random scattering of people from all walks of life, who provides Liam Neeson the opportunity to make the most clunky defense of the American middle class that the world of cinema has ever seen), and there's just so many to get through that it just feels endless. 

And when the third act finally kicks in, it makes such a bizarre hash out of police operating procedure and character motivations that it's almost like you slipped into an entirely different, substantially worse movie that goes on for even longer. At least the opening hour had a kind of manic energy thanks to Liam Neeson's natural gravitas, but that all drains directly into the dirt long before the credits roll.

The Commuter is a better January action choice than Proud Mary ever was, as you can potentially have a reasonably amount of fun by turning your brain off and taking the ride. But it would probably be more fun to just take an actual train trip somewhere. It would certainly be more stimulating.

TL;DR: The Commuter weaves a tangled web of plot that even Liam Neeson can't escape from.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1096

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Take Me Home, Country Roads

Year: 2018
Director: Bethany Ashton Wolf
Cast: Alex Roe, Jessica Rothe, John Benjamin Hickey
Run Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Well, I had to watch some movie this weekend, and it sure as hell wasn't going to be the 140 minute cops and robbers drama starring Gerard Butler, and it sure as f**k wasn't going to be the 130 minute movie about soldiers riding horses after 9/11, so here we are.

If you show me your ticket stub, I'll show you mine.

In Forever My Girl, country music star Liam Page (Alex Roe, who completely failed to make an impression in last year's forgotten horror sequel Rings) is living the life of his dreams... only he's haunted by regret, having left his fiancée and his hometown of St. Augustine, Louisiana behind in order to pursue stardom. After a PG-rated meltdown where the most scandalous thing he does is run down a sidewalk barefoot, he decides to return home for the first time in eight years to attend the funeral of his best friend, who we saw in exactly two shots in the prologue and is one of the only two black people with speaking roles in this movie.

This brings him back in contact with that very same ex-fiancée, Josie (Jessica Rothe, who starred in Happy Death Day not but three months ago and on the horror relationship scale could do much better than Rings Guy) and her ferociously precocious daughter Billy (Abby Ryder Fortson), who as it happens was born a scant eight years ago, give or take about nine months. Spoiler alert: She's his daughter.

So, he must face facts and try to stop screwing up his life, in the unlikely (read: inevitable) event that these women - and this town - will accept such a broken, sockless man back into their lives.

But the issue remains: which girl is forever his?

People come to my blog because I'm not afraid to ask the hard questions.

So essentially this is a Nicholas Sparks movie drenched in a heaping helping of syrupy Southern drawl and small town values. Now, that's not in-and-of itself a bad thing (minus the fact that this movie mostly ignores black people in Louisiana of all places, but that's really Hollywood's fault and if we're looking for social justice brownie points, this film was actually directed by a woman which is awesome), and while Forever My Girl makes little attempt to rise above the trappings of a very well-worn genre, it's never a slog.

I mean, it sure does trip over its own plot developments like loose cobblestones, forcing the talented Rothe into an unforgiving role where she must make the decision to take her beau back because it's the point in the third act where that is supposed to happen and not because there's any human woman who would actually do what she does. And the script treats her flower business as just a Band-Aid for the wound of her man leaving, not an actual vital part of her life and income. Oh, and of course she owns a flower shop, did I not mention that before?

But hey, an archetype's an archetype, and it's not like there are any real human beings to be found here. Liam Page is a hopelessly broken alcoholic who gets over his abuse of substances just cuz he kinda decides to, and his character arc is mainly portrayed by how sweaty he is in any given scene. Then there's Billy, who is a hideously annoying genius child - the clear result of a 40-year-old attempting to write for an 8-year-old, like any role played by Chloë Grace Moretz back in the day.

An actual line repeated multiple times in this probing character study: "I don't know why I did it."

But hey, the acting is pretty OK. Roe has to suffer through an unfavorable comparison to Brando when he has a "screaming in the rain" scene that could only go poorly, but nobody else really hits a snag. Jessica Rothe does not find a suitable outlet for her talents here, but she's still pretty great, and the ensemble of the town is pretty generally warm and charismatic. Then there's the most stereotypical characters in the movie, Liam's L.A.-caricature manager and publicist. These characters could be a disaster in this type of movie, but the manager Sam (Peter Cambor) manages to humanize his role despite a shockingly out-of-character 180 he ,akes late in the movie.

And then there's Doris the publicist, who's actually by a country mile the best thing in the entire movie. She is played by the enormously undervalued Gillian Vigman (who plays the wife that Bradley Cooper leaves behind at home in all the Hangover movies), who turns three scenes into an indelible character, all prickly barbs and sociopathic charisma. She's the type of character who sees every person in the room as a dollar amount, and the scene where she's thrilled at the ways she'll be able to spin Liam Page's best friend's death is a damn triumph.

And of course there are no publicity stills of Doris, because the world is a cold and cruel place.

The best thing about the movie is that Doris is somehow not the only amusing person around. There's a vein of easygoing, gentle humor that wraps through the entire movie and keeps the energy moving even when the plot is stalling between on-the-nose country music needle drops. I chuckled more than a few times, which is more than I can say for any of the Nicholas Sparks movies that this is a clone of.

Plus, there's the fact that Forever My Girl is kinda sorta maybe even a musical, insofar as a great deal of the plot relies on Liam Page writing and performing country music, although this element takes a backseat during the second act. The film features a good half a dozen original country tunes co-developed by director Bethany Ashton Wolf with music team Brett Boyett and Jackson Odell, and although the rhymes are pretty forced, there's nothing worse here than in The Greatest Showman, a musical that I kind of adore. These songs are the only things that make the film substantially different from, say, A Walk to Remember, and I definitely appreciate the work that went into making them seem like something that could actually play on modern country radio.

In short, I had a pretty OK time with Forever My Girl. It won't blow the roof off your impressions of what a movie can be, but it's a reasonably inoffensive wisp of a romance that'll occupy you just enough to help the time pass if you're, I don't know, waiting on hold with a customer service support line or something.

TL;DR: Forever My Girl is a pretty bland conservative values romance, but it's got its heart in the right place.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1152

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Left A Good Job In The City

Year: 2018
Director: Babak Najafi
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Billy Brown, Jahi Di'Allo Winston 
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I'm so happy that the world at large has now noticed Taraji P. Henson enough to allow her to star in a major action film. I'm so happy that, looking at the trailer package that played before Proud Mary, there seems to be a steadier and steadier trickle of movies starring women kicking ass, and that some of them are even not white. I'm also happy that the director the studio chose to helm this project is of Iranian descent. I'm glad millions of dollars are being spent on telling these stories with these people. I just wish Proud Mary didn't suck, on top of all that.

Baby steps, baby steps.

Proud Mary stars off promisingly enough. Mary (Taraji P. Henson) is a hit woman for a black crime family in what appears to be Boston, and when she pulls a hit on a bookie, she discovers that he has left behind a young son named Danny (Jahi Di'Allo Winston). Wracked with guilt (but not so wracked that she didn't wait a year to do this), she eventually houses Danny in her apartment after he falls in with Uncle (Xander Berkeley), a Russian mobster and her family's prime nemesis.

Thus begins a maudlin drama of wills as she tries to become the mother Danny desperately needs while he resists the cozy domesticity she offers, because the only life he knows is the streets, man. So she murders Uncle and a bunch of his goons, igniting a gang war the likes of which these streets have never seen (i.e. boring). She must navigate her jealous ex Tom (Billy Brown) and his crime lord father Benny (Danny Glover) to get out of the game for good and help Danny escape the life that she built for herself and trapped him in.

And occasionally she wears this wig she bought from the Atomic Blonde secondhand shop on the corner.

Proud Mary starts off promisingly, and by that I literally mean its opening credits. Using the same color scheme and stylistic patterning of the poster you see above, it promises an almost Tarantino-esque blaxploitation riff; a 70's throwback that combines modern sensibilities with a retro, guns-blazing flair. That's what all the marketing would have you believe, but this movie is less Pam Grier and more Judy Greer, in that Henson is wasted in a role that has no idea what to do with her.

I guess I should have seen it coming. Although those credits have energy and gusto, honestly they're kind of... bad. The concentric shapes emitting from each image obscure what we're actually supposed to be looking at, the editing is too choppy to bother keeping track of it anyway, and everything is lit into a uniform brown mush. And then the 70's scheme is instantly dropped through a trapdoor, never to be seen again until the inevitable "Proud Mary" needle drop, which this movie does not earn.

What we do get is a heaping helping of non-starter drama wherein Taraji P. Henson and a little boy grouse at each other in a variety of thrilling action setpieces such as Closet, Clothes Store, and Hot Dog Cart. You might have paid for your whole seat but you'll only need the edge, because you'll be so antsy to get the hell out of the theater. And when the few-and-far-between action sequences do stop hitting the snooze button and rear their ugly heads, they're pretty uniformly unimpressive.

Yeah, the lighting and the editing and the blocking and the stunts and the music are generally underwhelming, but most importantly, nobody seems to have taught Ms. Henson how to hold a gun. She brandishes them one-handed like the Tin Man pre-oil, and it's mighty distracting. I'm not usually a stickler about gun use in movies, because I couldn't possibly care less, but it's hard to take it seriously when she's play-acting an action sequence like a five-year-old who just watched The Expendables

And literally every production still involves her holding a gun like she's pointing the way to the restrooms. Whose idea was this entire thing?

What were they doing with this movie? They assembled a great cast (Margaret Avery also shows up for a scene to cut some cake and generally be totally useless to the plot, though she does deliver from on high a wig so incredible that its handler gets a credit) for an awesome concept (Foxy Brown meets The Godfather!) and they immediately threw it all down the garbage disposal. 

I don't blame Taraji for any of this. She did her best with the noodly mess we're being asked to call a screenplay. And Jahi Di'Allo Winston is a totally serviceable child actor, maybe the most consistent in the film other than Margaret Avery's wig. But Danny Glover is giving the laziest performance of his career, dishing out some of his finest chair acting and moving as little as possible, taking generous, luxurious pauses between almost every other word. The producers and director clearly asked nothing from him and he provides it in abundance.

It's a mess from square one, to the point that the potentially rousing and triumphant "Proud Mary" action sequence feels like an insult to the intelligence, a desperate, flop-sweating insistence that this movie is fun in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. I know January is the dumping ground for movies that give you a head start on your Worst Of list for the year, but usually there is a modicum of entertainment in these. I'd watch the hilarious disaster that was The Bye Bye Man again in a heartbeat, but I never want to think about, let alone see, the boring, plodding disaster that is Proud Mary ever again. What a missed opportunity.

TL;DR: Proud Mary is a boring action movie, and more importantly a waste of its gargantuan potential.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 1002

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Popcorn Kernels: That'll Do, Pig

In which we review the movies in the Babe duology, which the blogger was forced to watch by the maniac he's dating, but found to be quite a treat.


Year: 1995
Director: Chris Noonan
Cast: James Cromwell, Magda Szubanski, Christine Cavanaugh
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

A young pig is taken to a bucolic farm, where he longs to be a sheepdog instead of just a fancy dinner.

I don't usually respond to movies with animal protagonists, but I do respond to movies with effects brought to life by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, so I guess I was as neutral as Switzerland coming into Babe, which I'm certain I saw as a young child but remembered literally nothing about. And let me tell you what, I loved it. 

Babe is not only an adaptation of a children's novel, it is a storybook come to blissful, bucolic life. The farm set feels stagebound in a way that doesn't limit belief but rather creates a homey, insulated fairy tale atmosphere, and yet the world of the film spins an unlimited amount of potential from its glorious creature designs. This might just be the best work the Henson company has ever done, delicately switching between excellent trained animal actors and lifelike animatronics to create the impression of talking animals in a way that still holds up even two decades later.

The only effects liability is the sheep (which, incidentally, were the only creatures designed by a different company), who have a rather stiff range of expression and dead glassy eyes when it comes down to it, but other than that Babe is quite frankly a technical masterwork. There's something to be said about the fact that in the 23 years separating then and now, no Racing Stripes or Beverly Hills Chihuahua or Marmaduke has come even close to achieving the look and feel of these lifelike animals. To create something like this requires a great deal of craftsmanship, skill, and love, and that's something that the incredibly patient producer George Miller has proven himself to have in spades.

But a technically perfect children's film is nothing without heart, and Babe has enough of that for a whole pod of blue whales. Pure, blissful, painful heart bursts from every pore of this film, starting and ending with its two core performances. Christine Cavanaugh is irresistibly tender and innocent as Babe, a pig who doesn't know enough about the world not to believe he can do anything. And James Cromwell has a brilliant interiority to his outwardly hardened farmer character, letting the pig crack his gruff, masculine exterior in a variety of brilliantly small, subtle ways.

The screenplay is also tight as all get out, letting Babe wander through a variety of domestic, picaresque adventures that establish the world of the farm and the personalities of the animals within it, before slowly introducing the naïve pig to the harsh risks and realities of what it means to be a farm animal. Terror, death, and isolation form a constant presence over the film, but it doesn't shy away from darkness, allowing the sweetness to seem even more pure and scrumptious. It never gets pushed into saccharine, cheesy territory exactly because of that dash of reality taking the edge off.

In short, Babe is one of the best kids' films ever made. It's a beautiful combination of everything that makes it both a perfect motion picture (technical prowess and storytelling spirit) and a perfect storybook tale (heart with a dash of edgy reality). It's impossible not to be invested in Babe's journey, however big or small the plot developments are. If you have a child, this should be the only movie they watch until they're old enough to start seeing Scream movies.

Rating: 10/10

Babe: Pig in the City

Year: 1998
Director: George Miller
Cast: Magda Szubanski, Elizabeth Daily, Mickey Rooney 
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: G

Babe leaves the farm in an attempt to raise money to save it, and ends up getting stuck in The City with a gaggle of assorted outcast animals.

When I told my mother I was going to watch Babe: Pig in the City, she said, "oh, the bad one?" Mind you, she'd never seen the film, but let's just say that that it doesn't enjoy the most sterling reputation in the world at large. And it's not hard to imagine why. It takes the sweet, gentle bliss of the original Babe and runs it through a meat grinder. While it's pretty interesting and unique on its own merits, those merits are not that of a Babe movie, or really that of a movie intended for minors to any degree.

It's not fair to say that this tonal shift is George Miller's fault, considering that he shepherded the original film into the world as producer, but this one is very George Miller. His Mad Max sensibilities burst through every pore of Pig in the City, and while those instincts are as sharp as ever, they're just not... cute. Take, for instance, one of the most disgusting characters to ever grace the silver screen: Mickey Rooney's mute clown Uncle Fugly, who is the scariest character the man has ever played, and this is a guy who starred in Silent Night, Deadly Night 5.

I don't normally post photos in mini-reviews, but look at this sh*t.

And that's not the only place where the man indulges in his more bizarre, manic instincts. I'm talking exuberant slapstick involving elaborate pulley systems, multiple disgusting side characters with pig noses, and a general daredevil attitude with the fragile psyches of the children that are supposedly in the  film's core audience. I think it says a lot that you could read this film as a prequel to either Hotel for Dogs or The Godfather.

That's not to say this is a bad thing. It's just not what people were asking for, and that's fair. But approaching this film as an adult, there's a lot to appreciate here. First of all, there's a wide variety of subtextual material to plumb. I won't go into great detail, but Pig in the City offers perspectives on gentrification, homelessness, and class disparity all sprinkled with ample Holocaust and slavery imagery. I've never seen a kids' movie with so much grim reality on its mind, even as it tells a simplistic fable within that framework.

Unfortunately, none of this carries the emotional heft of the original Babe, which faces the reality of being an animal on a farm in a simple, clear, and thus brutally precise way. It flings its ideas this way and that, and they only coalesce into something satisfyingly probing in the character of the orangutan Thelonius, a great ape whose only wish is to maintain his dignity in an increasingly cruel, unforgiving world.

But one thing that's unequivocally great is the design of the titular city itself and its inhabitants. Although Babe spends most of his time in a single hotel, every time he visits the broader environment of The City, it's a breathtaking amalgam of the greatest urban landscapes this wide world has to offer. It quite blatantly refuses to take place in any single city, lumping together landmarks and visual signifiers from a dozen different famous metropolises.

There we go with another picture, and if the fact that I can't resist including these doesn't prove Pig in the City has something stunning and visual to offer, I don't know what will.

This production design is perhaps the only thing that consistently maintains the dreamy storybook quality of the original film, and it's glorious, from the Venice canals that border Babe's hotel to the angular roads that drift across its downtown area to the Day-Glo muscle beach at its outskirts. And the costuming of the characters that inhabit this world is glorious, ranging from Medieval powdered faces with Cindy Lou Who hair to leather punks on roller blades to this angular work of art who runs the hotel.

She's like an Ellen Greene character made her way into the Capital from The Hunger Games, and oh boy there I go with the pictures again.

It's a boisterous good time visually speaking, and the animal actors are just as top notch this time around. Unfortunately, it's still just not as good as Babe, but really there aren't many things that are. Changing the actress playing Babe robs the character of some of its all-important heart, and the movie is a little too obsessed with effects setpieces and big, broad humor to focus on well-rounded characters. It's still fun, but it feels like a well-made trifle rather than a work of genius. But if that's the biggest complaint I can make about it, we're still in pretty good hands.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1470

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Pitches Be Crazy

Year: 2017
Director: Trish Sie
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

The Pitch Perfect franchise has a pretty personal connection to me. The first one arrived when I was a freshman in college, the same as the characters in the movie. And just like how I grew up at roughly the same rate as Harry Potter, I grew along with the Garden Bellas, through college and into the vaguely defined post-graduation future. These movies have followed every beat of my life since 2012, arriving every couple of years to remind me of the pop songs I tried to ignore while the years were passing. So I knew I had to check out the third and ostensibly final entry in the franchise, despite the fact that I borderline hated the previous entry. Let's see how it went!

Ah, I see they're traveling to Europe! That's always a good sign, right?

Pitch Perfect 3 cuts the fat of the franchise's cast, slicing off pretty much every male character and even one of the Barden Bellas (sorry Stacie, I don't know if you were actually pregnant or just busy, but at least you get a scene over FaceTime - Skylar Astin is stuck prepping for the Trolls TV series and he got squat) as the now graduated Bellas return for one final adventure. They are all struggling with finding their place in the larger world, so they're throwing their all into a USO tour, hoping that they can get noticed over the other bands and picked to open for a cameo-ing DJ Khaled on his big televised show at the end of the week.

The plot is mostly just DJ Khaled straining for laughs, shooting his bizarre personality in every direction possible, but let's break it down a little more. Beca (Anna Kendrick) just quit her job as a corporate music producer, but when she meets Khaled's manager Theo (Guy Burnet) she realizes she might not have lost her interest in that lifestyle. Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) encounters her mafioso father (John Lithgow sporting a terrible Aussie accent), who tries to charm her back into his life for potentially nefarious reasons. And, um... Chloe (Brittany Snow) flirts with hot Army dude Chicago (Matt Lanter). I guess there's other girls too (Anna Camp, Ester Dean, Hailee Steinfeld, Hana Mae Lee, and poor Chrissie Fit - who was saddled with the worst character in PP2 and as a reward for her patience gets absolutely nothing to do here).

The biggest issue is that the bands they're competing with use actual instruments and claim not to perform covers (that's a big part of the way they judge the Bellas, but if there's a original song in the lineup we eventually see, I'll eat my f**king hat).

Nice try, Josie and the Pussycats.

Now, it's not entirely Pitch Perfect 3's fault that its songs are boring as hell. Sia is very popular at the moment (plus, she has a tie with the first film's use of the song "Titanium"), so it makes sense that they chose to perform "Cheap Thrills." Unfortunately, that song has the tempo of a funeral dirge and does not befit itself to a high energy comedy sequel. It feels like the movie has been thrust into slow motion, and the other songs don't do much to bring the pace back up. 

Among the artists selected to be brought to tedious life without instrumentation are Flo Rida, George Michael, some unbearably hip songbird called Daya, and oh... that's about it. It just all seems hopelessly random and listless, and only Britney Spears' "Toxic" does anything to pique the interest (they clearly know this because the performance is repeated twice, in the opening and about an hour later). There's not even any mash-upping happening here, which is the only trick the Bellas have in their bag! The only thing that got me through the second movie was the a cappella performances, and this film lacks a major lifeline.

At least they didn't force us to listen to any more Hailee Steinfeld-penned original song catastrophes.

I've never liked the recurring Pitch Perfect joke of slapping the prefix "aca-" in front of random words. It's not really a joke, and it's one of the writers' favorite things to shove in there when a scene is flagging. Of course, this entry is more than ready to double down on all the gags people purportedly respond to from the franchise, so I don't get off easy in the comedy department either.

Luckily, the cast is still charming (and quite comfortable in their characters' skins at this point) and manages to deliver some fun, punchy material from the midst of this messy, scattered plot. They're clearly having fun together, and that does spice up some of the potentially leaden moments. But there's no doubting that the whole affair is being held together with bubblegum and twine.

Just like the Ghostbusters remake before it, the end credits reveal just how many scenes were cut to shreds, shoving in outtakes left and right that are very clearly entire scenes that wound up on the cutting room floor. And the film is so uninvested in actual character growth, some of these scenes actually provide vital exposition that should have actually been doled out to us 80 minutes before.

I will say this: Pitch Perfect 3 does know how preposterous it is, and it does lean in with some semi-charming meta jokes and an actually enjoyable sense of total reckless abandon. This is best exemplified in this film's Riff-Off, in which people who clearly have no right knowing how a cappella works conspicuously burst into song, to the chagrin of the Bellas. That doesn't make it a good film, but sometimes it's a sort of enjoyable one.

Better than Part 2? That's a low bar to clear, but I honestly don't think it can claim that title. These sequels have indulged in the worst impulses of the original, which was an incredible comedy in spite of certain flaws. Now these films have buffed out everything but the flaws, and this is a well I hope they don't return to until they've had a long time to think about what they did.

TL;DR: Pitch Perfect 3 is a scattered, tedious sequel that doesn't do right by its characters, its story, or - most importantly - its music.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1072
Reviews In This Series
Pitch Perfect 2 (Banks, 2015)
Pitch Perfect 3 (Sie, 2017)

Friday, January 12, 2018

Blumhouse Is Dead, Long Live Blumhouse!

Hey everybody!

As you probably know, I have spent the first seven months of 2017 writing for the horror blog over at, a job which I was very dedicated to (which is why you only got one or two reviews a week on this end, at best). Unfortunately, due to corporate decrees made far above my station, the web site was shut down back in summer and has now officially been dissolved.

The takeaway is twofold:

1) I need a job, so hit me up.

2) I have salvaged all my old Blumhouse content, which is now posted on my blog and backdated so it doesn't swamp anybody's RSS feed. Be warned: they're in no particular order and the formatting will be a little wonky, because I had to bail them out of a sinking web site with no time to spare. But here it all is! Please feel free to check out any ones you might have missed!

10 Rules for Surviving a Horror Film Not Mentioned in SCREAM
Horror's Most Effective (And Underused) Weapon: The Fire Extinguisher
5 Non-Horror Directors That Need to Direct a Horror Film
5 Popular Horror Films You Might Not Realize Were Directed by Women
Gizmo was an Alien? Five Bizarre Revelations from Horror Movie Novelizations
The Top 10 Dean Koontz Novels
Five Slasher Villains You Can Take Home to Mom
A Definitive Ranking of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3's Dream Warriors
The Strange and Infamous History of Britain's Holloway Sanitarium
Five Unlikely Couples Found in Horror Fan Fiction
The REAL LIFE Story of Four Portland Students Locked in a Haunted House
10 Obscure Slasher Films You Need to See
10 Lesser-Known Adolescent Horror Books
10 Great Horror Posters from the 2010's
5 Movies So Extreme They Sent Viewers to the Emergency Room
Five Hilarious Horror Movie Blooper Reels
Why SEED OF CHUCKY is the Radically Queer Film We All Need Right Now
5 of the Goriest Kills in Non-Horror Movies
An Interview With Chris Alexander And HELLRAISER II’s Barbie Wilde On BLUE EYES!
A Readthrough of the SIXTH SENSE Children’s Book Series
Was Thomas Edison a Murderer? The Mysterious Disappearance of a Film Pioneer
Five Non-Horror Directors Who DID Make a Horror Movie
6 Great Road Trip Horror Movies
Ten ’80s Slasher Posters That Are Better Than the Actual Movies
Enter the White Void with Poppy, YouTube’s Most Ethereal and Disturbing Personality
Five Horror Movie Diseases You Wouldn’t Want to Catch
Seven Great Songs That Were Ruined by Horror Movies
Five Minor Injuries That Are Actually the Grossest Moments In Gory Movies
Ten Obscure Horror Flicks Streaming Right Now on Amazon Prime
Interview with DAWN OF THE DEAD’s Ken Foree About his New Film THE MIDNIGHT MAN!
How Wes Craven’s Porno Predicted His Entire Filmography
Meet the Newest Big Horror Icons: The Minions
Wes Craven's Top 10 Nightmare Scenes
Nine Lesser-Known Horror Titles Currently Streaming on Hulu
The Haunted Save Mart of Chowchilla, California
Ten Horror Franchises You've Probably Never Heard Of
Eight Movies with Horribly Misleading Titles (And What to Watch Instead)
Five Obscure Horror Titles on the National Film Registry
Happy Fourth Of July! Here Are The Six Best Flag-Based Horror Movie Deaths
8 Essential Books About Horror Movies
6 Genre Movies Produced by the Last Person You’d Expect
Enjoying THE HANDMAID’S TALE? Check Out These 9 Other Allegorical Horror Titles!
Listen to These Nine Horror Podcasts Made by Fans of SHOCK WAVES!
Eight Truly Terrifying Modern Movie Masks
Harry Potter Was in TROLL? Exploring Weird Horror Movie Name Doppelgängers
Five Slasher Movies That Roger Ebert Actually Liked
The Political Timeliness of SEOUL STATION — Animated Prequel to TRAIN TO BUSAN

Word Count: 611