Movie Reviews Archives for 2019-09

Movie Review Abominable

“For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy” Roger Ebert 


There is a moment in my experience of the movie Abominable that reminded me of that Roger Ebert quote and why Roger was always the best of us, always so prescient. Our young protagonist in Abominable has a violin that means the world to her, a gift from her late father and it appears to be broken and lost forever. 


Behind me, in the dark of the theater, a little girl, couldn’t have been older than 5 or 6 says to her mom, ‘oh no her guitar,’ with genuine concern and empathy. The poignancy of this moment cannot be overstated. Abominable inspires feelings like that and while it may not be perfect, if it inspires one child toward that kind of genuine empathy, it’s worth more than all of the greatest movies ever made. 


Abominable features the voice of Chloe Bennett as Yi, an industrious teenager who, since the death of her father, has barely stopped working long enough to grieve his loss. Her absence from her mother (Michelle Wong) and her Nai Nai (Tsai Chai) is deeply felt but mom fears interfering in her daughters coping mechanism, even if it means not being able to offer the comfort she desperately wishes to give. 


Yi’s multiple side hacks, including dog walking, babysitting, and emptying fish guts in the trash of a restaurant, are her way of avoidance and her way of raising money for a trip she and her father had planned and she’s determined to take. But all of that will have to wait when Yi finds a yeti on the roof of her apartment building. Yes, a yeti, a big, white furball of a yeti with more than a touch of magic and wonder to him. 


The yeti, which Yi nicknames Everest, after his home summit, has escaped from the laboratory of a big game hunter named Burnish (Eddie Izzard). Burnish encountered a Yeti as a young man when he climbed Mt Everest and he intends to prove to the world the yeti exists. With the help of his Zoologist sidekick, Dr Zara (Sarah Paulsen) and his bumbling team of security Burnish will do anything to bring Everest back to his lab to exploited. 


Helping Yi and Everest on their journey, as Yi has decided to return Everest to his home, are Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) and Jin’s young cousin, Peng (Albert Tsai). Jin had no intention of helping but when Peng ran off to join Yi and Everest on a departing ship, he leapt after him to protect him. Jin also provides a lucky cover story for the trio as well as he had a trip to Beijing planned for his college visits and he claims Yi and Peng are accompanying him. 


That’s all I will tell you about the plot of Abominable, an unfortunate title for this delightful movie. Truly, THIS movie deserves to be called Everest and it is a shame that the awful mountain climbing movie from earlier this young century claimed that title first. The two films are remarkably different in story but also in quality as Abominable is a wonderful adventure and Everest is a paean to the courage of people dying for no reason other than their ego. 


Stepping off my soapbox, Abominable was written and directed by Jill Culton who has greatly improved her work since the slight and forgettable animated animal flick, Open Season, in 2006. Abominable has the heartfelt care and craft of a Pixar movie without the lowbrow pandering of most non-Pixar animated fair. The animation is lovely, even as the character design choices are a little odd. Not so odd as to be notably bad, just a few unusual choices. That’s just critical nitpicking. 


The eagle eyed among you readers were likely struck by a name in the credits of Abominable, that of Tenzing Norgay Trainor. That’s not merely an homage to the man who joined Sir Edmund Hillary as the first men on the top of Mt Everest, Tenzing Norgay. Tenzing Norgay Trainor is the grandson of Tenzing Norgay making Abominable an apt tribute to his grandfather’s legacy. Trainor was an inspired choice for the role of Jin not just because of his heritage, but also because he’s a star on the Disney Channel and has a naturally expressive voice. 


The most important thing about Abominable is that the story is full of heart. It’s the kind of movie that overwhelms you with a big, lovable heart. These are wonderful characters inside a terrific story filled with adventure and laughs and a few well earned tears. Watching Abominable in a theater full of children and watching even the most attention span challenged child slowly become mesmerized by the sights and sounds is an utter delight. 


The experience of Abominable was nearly enough for me to recommend it. That Abominable is a genuinely wonderful movie, is icing on the cake. 


Movie Review Ad Astra

Ad Astra stars Brad Pitt as astronaut Roy McBride. We meet Roy as he is working on what appears to be the International Space Station or some approximation of such. The station is just above the atmosphere of the Earth, something that becomes urgently important when the station is struck by some sort of energy surge. As the station begins to explode, Roy is sent hurtling back to the Earth. 


By some miracle, Roy survives and upon his rather brief recuperation, he is brought into a secretive meeting of military brass. The men in this meeting inform Roy about a secret mission involving Roy’s father, Dr Clifford McBride, that sent him to what was believed to be his death on a space station near Neptune, the farthest that man has ever travelled in space. Roy was told that his father had died but here, he is told that his father may be alive and his survival is related to these energy surges that now endanger all mankind. 


The military men want Roy to leave everything behind and travel to Mars where he will, via an American-martian outpost, be able to send his father a message that they hope will help to stop these energy surges. It’s a lengthy journey and there are many things about his father and his mission that Roy is not yet aware of. One man who does know is Col Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland). Despite his advanced age, Pruitt is to escort Roy on his mission and carrying with him a secretive agenda. 


To say much more about the plot of Ad Astra would be to give away too much of this exceptional story. Directed and co-written by James Gray, the underrated auteur behind the brilliant Lost City of Z and The Immigrant, Ad Astra continues a remarkable hot streak for the director. Gray is a director who chooses challenging subjects and attacks them from unique angles. It’s been a hallmark of his work and it continues with the unusual journey of Ad Astra. 


Ad Astra carries influences as varied and fascinating as Apocalypse Now and 2001 A Space Odyssey. Ad Astra lacks the bold un-commerciality of 2001, but for being more straight-forward than it retains some of the artistic touches of Kubrick’s legendary adventure including a colorful visual palette, a deliberate pace and a deep respect for space travel and the challenges therein. I know that making such a comparison is big but aside from being a good deal more mainstream in ambition, the 2001 comparison is reasonable in terms of the remarkable artistry and care on display. 


The Apocalypse Now comparison is far more typical as a Marlon Brando delivered the definitive crazed man of authority in that Francis Ford Coppola masterwork. Tommy Lee Jones in Ad Astra however, earns that comparison. Jones is electric in the role of Brad Pitt’s father, a driven and desperate man on a mission. Jones has been great in any number of roles but I dare say this role exceeds even his greatest work in No Country for Old Men and his Academy Award winning performance in The Fugitive. 


Yes, you can infer that issues of fathers and sons permeate the story of Ad Astra The issues of loyalty, duty, love and resentment are sewn into this story. These issues underline the action throughout and bring depth and a compelling emotionality to a movie that from time to time can feel as remote as the space wherein it exists. Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones have a tremendous chemistry but it’s the ways in which writer-director James Gray weaves them together when they aren’t on screen together that make Ad Astra so remarkably compelling. 


Ad Astra is one of my favorite movies of 2019. The film ranks next to another ingenious and brilliantly artistic Brad Pitt movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as one of the best in an underrated 2019 at the movies. Brad Pitt went away for a little while, if you follow the tabloids you know he had some issues to overcome, and the time away from the spotlight has sharpened his gifts and helped to hone his eye for movies with great moments. 


Ad Astra is filled with incredible moments that culminate in a final act that is one of my favorites of the year. The final act of Ad Astra is exciting, unexpected and filled with dramatic energy. It’s a perfect ending for a strange often off-kilter movie with a very unique energy and suspense. I adore the third act of Ad Astra and would put it up against the third act of any movie of the last decade or indeed the movies I have compared it to already in this review. 


I am perhaps heaping too much praise on Ad Astra. I am risking hyping the movie to a degree that it may not be able to achieve for you, those who’ve not yet seen it. So be it, I think Ad Astra is deserving of my over-praise. The movie is exceptional and a must-see. 


Movie Review Hustlers

On the one hand, the strippers of the new movie Hustlers are criminals, unquestionably, they are criminals. However, it’s fair to also state that they are not the villains of this movie either. Hustlers operates in a most amazing gray area where we are able to sympathize with criminals and lustily boo the victims who are stand ins for the real criminals who tanked the American economy in 2007 amid the housing crisis. 


Hustlers capitalizes on some of the tastiest schadenfreude you can imagine by positing a story wherein: too rich for their own good Wall Street criminals get taken for thousands of dollars of the money they stole from others by those who would otherwise be on the other end of the economic spectrum, a diverse collection of women and specifically single mothers in J-Lo and Constance Wu’s characters. 


It’s hard not to take pleasure in watching these skeevy, criminal pigs get taken by the very people they intend to victimize with their ill-gotten gains. It’s not justice, that would be found in creating a just and fair economic system free from the kind of thumb on the scale manipulation that these men have championed, but it’s a tasty bit of minor karmic retribution that feels good, like a cookie for the soul. 


Constance Wu stars in Hustlers as Dorothy or, on stage, Destinee. Dorothy is struggling to get by as one of the new girls at a high roller strip club in New York City. Her commute is barely worth the pittance in tips she walks away with after management and the rest of the support staff take their cut. Then, Dorothy meets the club’s Queen Bee, Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez). Ramona has the place wired to the point where she merely has to point her prominent backside in any direction and the room rains with money. 


Dorothy dreams of being like Ramona and after introducing herself, the two become inseparable. Ramona takes Dorothy under her wing, they perform together, and they begin making incredible amounts of money together. Dorothy and Ramona start living an extravagant life off of the money tossed at their feet by Wall Street jerks for whom such money is meaningless compared to the horriific lies they tell to earn it. 


Then, the housing crisis hit in 2008 and the gravy train came to a screeching halt. The club, once wall to wall with Wall Street money, is now nearly empty. Dorothy leaves to have a baby and get married, only to find her baby daddy is nearly as worthless as the Wall Street bros she once danced for and both she and Ramona are on the streets trying to find jobs in a real world that doesn’t exactly fit their very specific skillset. 


Then, Ramona hits on a plan: what if there were a way to get what’s left of the high rollers back to the club? Her idea? High end, designer drugs that ease the inhibitions and open the high rollers to suggestions such as allowing a stripper to run your credit card unmonitored. Using her vast connections, Ramona, with Dorothy in tow, recruit two other struggling dancers, played by Lily Reinhart and Keke Palmer, to drug rich men, carry them to the club, take their credit cards to the limit and send them home with the bill. 


That’s the premise of Hustlers but the payoff you will have to see for yourself. It’s not the destination that really matters in Hustlers, it’s the execution and the execution of Hustlers is top notch. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria has just the right touch for this material, lightly comic at times, self-serious when necessary, with just the right mix of dark comedy, sex and drama. It’s not a perfect movie, but it gets a strong point across. 


Jennifer Lopez has not been this great in a movie in years. Playing the heavy support to Constance Wu’s more meaty lead role, Lopez’s mega-watt star power hasn’t been this notable since her pre-Gigli, pre-Jersey Girl, Jenny from the Block days. It’s refreshing to see Lopez so confident and relaxed on screen after suffering through years of her downplaying her remarkable beauty and presence in forgettable romantic comedies. 


Constance Wu, if she can get out from under her own ego,- note her tantrum over her TV show not being canceled and ugly demands on her place on the Hustlers promotional material- will be a big star one day. She has dramatic chops that can turn quickly and wittily comic. She’s a natural screen presence and quite a beauty when she gets out from under a bad wig. She’s overshadowed plenty by Lopez but few actresses would not be. That said, she doesn’t get lost in the glare of Lopez’s star power and proves herself as the dramatic lynchpin of this incredible and well told story. 


Hustlers is better than I expected from a movie that, in the wrong hands, could have been merely titillating. Instead, Hustlers is weighty, satirical, dramatic and quite funny, often within the range of a single scene. Don’t believe me? See Hustlers and watch the Usher Raymond cameo and you will get what I am saying about the remarkable range of this diverse and exciting movie. Hustlers is the great surprise at the movies in 2019.


Movie Review It Chapter 2

It Chapter 1 overcame my skepticism about Stephen King adaptations to become one of my favorite horror movies of recent memory. I went from dreading the idea of two movies based on a 1000-plus page Stephen King monstrosity to being excited to see which big name stars would be chosen to play the adult versions of these wonderful child characters. With the same creative team involved it seemed like everything was on track for another surprisingly great King adaptation. 


I should know better than to get my hopes up regarding Stephen King and the movies. Movies based on Stephen King novels tend to succeed despite the author and the book. The Shining, for instance, is a classic horror movie not because of the brilliance of Stephen King but because Stanley Kubrick is masterful auteur and Jack Nicholson is an iconic performer. Other King adaptations that have attempted to remain true to King’s… unique… vision, have ranged from not bad to unwatchable. 


It Chapter 2 falls squarely into the ‘not bad’ category. Not band, but also, not very good. There are some really good things about It Chapter 2. The characters are easy to invest in and Pennywise is a well conceived villain and as played by Bill Skarsgard he resonates as a figure of menace even when he’s not on the screen. Bill Hader plays Richie Tozier and as every other critic on the planet has told you, Hader is terrific, he delivers the best performance in the film, among the protagonists known as The Losers. 


It’s 27 years after the action of It Chapter 1. Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) has never left Derry. Maine. Mike made it his mission to remember everything that happened in the summer of 1989 having discovered that if you leave Derry, such memories slip away. As the unofficial conscience of Derry, Mike has waited for the evil clown Pennywise to return and when he does, Mike will be ready to call the rest of the so-called ‘Loser’s Club’ to carry out their blood oath to kill Pennywise. 


At a carnival in Derry a young, handsome, gay couple is lovingly enjoying each other’s company when they are menaced by a group of young thugs. The more outspoken of the couple is beaten severely and then tossed off a bridge into a raging river. As the thugs make their getaway, never to be heard from again in the movie, the young man’s boyfriend runs to the river bank to try to save his lover. On the opposite river bank he spots Pennywise who lifts the injured man from the water and... bad things happen. The living half of this couple is also never heard from in the movie again. 


Mike hears of the grisly murder and while an adult victim is not typical of Pennywise, he tends to prey upon children, Mike's curiosity is piqued. The brutality of the murder, as described by careless exposition cop over a police band radio, tips Mike off, this is the return of the evil clown. Mike goes to the scene where a red balloon confirms his fears and he begins to call the Losers back to Derry where they will confront their past, regain their memories, and battle the evil clown once again. 


Bill Denbrough (James MacAvoy) has grown out of his childhood stutter and narrow shoulders to become a handsome and henpecked author, screenwriter and husband. When Bill receives a call from Mike Hanlon he jumps at the idea of getting out of Hollywood, away from his demanding actress wife, and demandingly blunt director, Peter Bogdanovich, to head back to his childhood hometown, even as his memory of Derry has deteriorated.  


Stanley Uris is a little more reluctant than Bill to jump back into the Derry fray. So reluctant is Stanley in fact that when he receives Mike’s call, he forgoes his vacation with his loving wife to take his own life so as not to have to go back to Derry and battle Pennywise. Richie (Bill Hader), Ben (Jay Ryan) and Beverly (Jessica Chastain) are only slightly more amenable. Richie is eager to see his childhood friends again even though returning to Derry makes him violently ill. 


Ben is now a bored, super-rich architect who still pines for Beverly so of course he’s in. As for Beverly, she uses the trip to Derry as a good excuse to abandon her abusive husband. What about Eddie (James Ransone) you’re wondering? Honestly, I forgot about him. Eddie’s ‘arc’ in It Chapter is so forgettable that, well, I forgot to include him as I was setting the table in this plot description that has gone on far too long, not unlike the movie It Chapter 2 which also goes on far too long. 


It Chapter 2 is an unnecessary 2 hours and 50 minutes long. The film is fat with scenes that could be cut from the movie to create a pace and story more amenable to the kind of pulse quickening, chest tightening horror that the movie is intended to inspire. The opening of the movie is a good example. I described the scene of the couple that is attacked and one of them is murdered by Pennywise, this scene does not need to exist. 


None of the characters in this opening have any bearing on the rest of the story. I guess you could argue that what happens to them informs a part of another character’s arc but It’s a long way to go for a point that could be made any number of more efficient ways. The opening scene becomes doubly inessential when the movie includes the murder of a small child that serves the exact same purpose of underlining and highlighting the return of Pennywise. 


The deathly inessential length of It Chapter 2 isn’t the film’s only problem. The performance of James McAvoy is a surprising and unexpected issue for the movie. From the moment he opens his mouth in It Chapter 2, something is off about McAvoy. The attempt that he is making at an American accent is one thing but the main issue appears to be an attempt on his part to evoke Jordan Lieberher’s characterization of young Bill. It’s genuinely cringe-inducing listening to McAvoy struggle to add an authentic stutter and slightly higher register to his voice and the strain is evident in his stilted performance. 


Then there are issues with the special effects in It Chapter 2. A scene in the trailer for It Chapter 2 featuring Jessica Chastain’s Beverly being menaced by an elderly woman, plays, in the trailer, as terrifying and filled with creepy suspense. In the film, that same scene ends with an unintended laugh as the old woman morphs into a comically terrible special effect reminiscent of a low budget 80’s horror movie or the limits of special effects in the 80's as seen in, say, Ghostbusters, impressive in the 80's, silly looking in a modern movie. 


Later, in a scene dedicated to how incredibly bland the Eddie character is, even when he’s being menaced by Pennywise’s terrors, we get another comically bad effect of a CGI zombie-leper character. I believe this monster was also featured in It Chapter 1 and I recall that visual being more effective than what we get here but I don’t recall completely. Anything featuring Eddie tended to leave my mind almost as soon as it arrived. 


Eddie features prominently in yet another unnecessary bit of padding in It Chapter 2. Fans of the first movie recall the character of the bully, Henry Bowers. Henry is back here in a completely

inconsequential fashion. Forget the book, if you can, and consider Henry Bowers. His arc really finished when he was defeated in Chapter 1. Bringing him back for Chapter 2 is a choice that is made only as a sop to fans of the book. Bowers does not matter in this story at all as far as far as the narrative of the movie is concerned. The movie plays out exactly the same whether he has a subplot or not. 


The fealty to the lengthy Stephen King novel appears to be a burden here that wasn’t part of It Chapter 1. That film relied heavily on the performance of Bill Sarsgard and the uniquely creepy images he helped create as Pennywise. Sarsgard is a wonder in the role. His vocal performance alone induces nightmares but it was his odd physicality that stood out in It Chapter 1 and is slightly lacking in Chapter 2. Pennywise is sidelined far too often in It Chapter 2 in favor of characters like Bowers or old lady CGI or Eddie’s leper-zombie thing. Sarsgard remains brilliant and effective but the movie could have used more of him. 


I don’t hate It Chapter 2. The movie does have moments of genuinely chest tightening, heart jumping suspense. Unfortunately, the bad of It Chapter 2 outweighs the good. It Chapter 2 is overlong, overwrought and far too precious about mythology from a book that really should not matter in the making of the movie. The book is an inspiration, a jumping off point, but films and movies are different, they serve different masters and remaining faithful to what works on the page comes at the detriment to what works on the screen as demonstrated in It Chapter 2 and its many failings.