Movie Review: THE BOOK OF HENRY – the headlines are spot on. This movie is MST3K-awful, thanks to one of the worst screenplays in recent memory.

If it somehow seems unfair that so many people are piling on The Book Of Henry, I’m unashamed to say that not only is it completely fair, but it’s almost a civic duty to do so: the movie is absolutely awful.  And I don’t say that with any glee.  Most of the time, I’m angry when I have to give a bad review, because I genuinely love cinema, and it gives me no pleasure to rip a movie.  Some other critics take great pains to explain how terrible certain movies can be, but they do it with a great deal of panache and irony that it strikes me that if they were not turning their poisoned pens on movies it would be – and probably is – something else.  Me, I just get angry.

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Movie Review: LION – the magnificent first half cast a long shadow across the second, but the overall result is deeply satisfying

I’ve described a couple of movies as being “of two halves” – Room, most recently.  The phrase goes back to something football (soccer, to my readers here in the colonies) pundits say when describing a game where the first half is dominated by one team, and the second half dominated by the other.  It happens in movies too, mostly when the second half of a movie is not as strong as the first.  These movies generally have much the same structure, usually a radical change at the midpoint.  In Room, it’s the escape of Joy and Jack, in Lion, it’s the jump in time from 1986 to 2006.  In the case of Room, while the narrative changes, the second half is still mostly engaging.  In Lion, the result is a lot less interesting.  Less interesting in comparison to what comes before, and I provide this caveat because the first half of the movie is rock solid – entertaining, compelling, and thoroughly engaging.

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Movie Review: SPOTLIGHT – Oscar-winning movie with great elements, but a screenplay that felt less dramatic than I expected.

Spotlight, a movie about The Boston Globe’s investigative journalist department, won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Original Screenplay of 2015.  As well as that, it boasts a high pedigree cast comprising the resurgent Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams, rounded out in supporting roles by Brian D’arcy James, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Billy Crudup (Alien:Covenant).  If there’s one thing I enjoy seeing it’s an ensemble of name actors – for me, that probably goes back to watching All Star movies like The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven, but I’m not alone.  I think most people probably get a kick out seeing movies like this, for whatever reason.  And Spotlight serves up an intelligent offering of adult entertainment that mostly pleased me.

For those of you who don’t know, Spotlight is the story of The Boston Globe’s investigation into the widespread child abuse committed by numerous Catholic priests in the Boston area, and how it was covered by the Boston Archdiocese, mostly through settling hush-hush deals with victims.  The months-long investigation, prompted by then-new editor Martin Baron (Schreiber), and temporarily placed on hiatus in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, yielded the ultimate prize in journalism, the Pulitzer, in 2003.  Today, the “pedophile priest” is simultaneously a cliché figure and a tragedy of epic proportion, and the work of the Spotlight team paved the way for the uncovering of child abuse on a global scale.  After the movie ends, but before the credit roll, there’s a staggering list of cities across the world where this vile epidemic has been revealed.  Child abuse is bad enough, but the fact that an organization such as the Catholic church actively hid the secret, indeed, allowed it to spread by reassigning pedophiles to other communities, is nothing short of monstrous.  I don’t have a religious bone in my body, and to me, these actions prove the evil of religion, and the terrible effect it has had on humanity.  But this is a movie review, not a soapbox, and I’ll quit it with the personal comments.

I watched Spotlight over two sittings.  I had just gotten back to my hotel room while visiting Miami at the weekend and could only get to the halfway point – not because I didn’t like it, but because I was fair cream-crackered (look it up).  I resumed the following evening from where I left off, and I don’t feel my viewing enjoyment or analysis was adversely affected.  Why bother telling you that?  Because while I enjoyed the movie just fine, I’m not convinced the screenplay was worthy of an Oscar.

Going back a little bit in time to 1976, All The President’s Men told a similar tale of intrepid journalism, here uncovering the labyrinthine conspiracy that came to be known as Watergate, setting the table for this kind of movie.  But where Alan J Pakula’s multi-Oscar winning movie was densely layered and dripping with menace (it lost Best Picture to Rocky, if you’re wondering), Spotlight feels a little lightweight dramatically.  Like All The President’s Men, Spotlight features a conspiracy that goes “all the way to the top”; a story that could fall apart until key figures perform last minute U turns and agree to go on the record; passionate reporters; level headed reporters; editors who stand to lose their reputations if the story turns out wrong, or is scooped by rivals.  It even features an organization so powerful that …  at least, that’s what we’re told throughout the movie.  The Catholic Church has such a tight hold on the Boston area that District Attorneys, cops, politicians are under its wide-reaching influence.  Yet at the same time, the story in Spotlight doesn’t show this kind of power.  In fact, it mostly seems effortless for the Spotlight team to get what they need to get.  The strongest conflict to be found in the movie is when Mark Ruffalo’s Michael Rezendez (the outspoken journalist) encounters a city clerk who won’t let him into the archives at the end of the work day.  At no point do you feel that the journalists are in any danger whatsoever – either to their lives or jobs.  As powerful as the Boston Diocese is supposed to be, it doesn’t appear to take any great steps to protect its dark, shameful secret.  But of course, it has to seem difficult, and Howard Shore’s brooding, urgent score gives the movie an air of danger that is just not present anywhere in Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer’s screenplay.  Perhaps the subject matter is enough, and that the team were never really in any kind of professional or personal danger, but the constant hyping of the church’s power ends up a stale plot thread, having no payoff.  The story is turned in, it gets published, and that’s it.  So why should I complain about this?  Because a movie is not a true story.  It might resemble true events, and even purport to tell a story of what actually happened, but that’s why documentaries are for.  Neither McCarthy or Singer worked for the Globe during this time, and they made stuff up for the sake of plot conveniences.  The scene where Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) gets a priest to casually admit he molested boys was tweaked – Pfeiffer didn’t interview the priest, another Globe reporter did.  The movie also exalts the work of the Spotlight team, despite other Globe reporters writing earlier stories, and presents a scene showing a characters shame at burying those earlier stories, when if fact The Globe’s editorial edict was a lot more active than just being too blind to see the potential importance of the stories  – they simply didn’t want to print any more stories about pedophile priests.

These are issues I had with the movie, and they’re small – to ignore them is bad reviewing, but to expound further would be petty.  Whether the events are mostly accurate or not doesn’t matter to me in the context of a movie, which needs to do its own job first and foremost.  And to be fair, Spotlight delivers a good, interesting, well acted, and mostly well written movie that never once failed to engage me, but it won the Oscar for best screenplay and I don’t completely agree with that award.

One thing I really liked in this movie was the cinematography.  Unlike Gordon Willis’s work in All The President’s Men, Masanobu Takayanagi (True Story) is less imposing on the story, allowing the events to play out with an economy of style – not exactly in the style of a documentarian, but the visuals are clear and undistracting.  This isn’t to say I don’t love Willis’s job in the former – I absolutely do – but Takayanagi gave me a strong sense of the city of Boston, which is, from a high level viewpoint, one the things the movie is actually about.

Flawed, but very good viewing.

4.0/5.0

© Andrew Hope, 2017

 

Movie Review: ROOM – terrific performances from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, but I needed less of the first half of the movie and more of the second.

The human mind is a complex thing.  Where it resides is the great unfathomable mystery, and is as much a debate for philosophy as it is for science.  We will one day fundamentally change as a species once customizable DNA becomes commonplace, something which, as a transhumanist, I welcome.  But the body in comparison to the mind is simple.  A biological vehicle piloted by the human mind, the real “us”, it’s no more than a complex Lego set.  But the mind is subject to very subjective stimuli, from an astonishing array of sensory input to organic chemistry.  No two people are alike inside, behind the everyday screen we put up, showing people what we want to see.  It’s perhaps the most fragile part of us, easy to damage, hard to repair.

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Movie Review: THE MUMMY – a horrendous script could jeopardize Universal’s “Dark Universe” franchise before it even gets going.

Like me, you were probably wondering WHY?! When you heard Universal was going to make The Mummy, with Tom Cruise, even.  I remember hearing the news two years ago, and I didn’t believe it at first.  Other than the original Karloff classic, and Christopher Lee playing the title role in the 60s, the most memorable version is the Stephen Sommers trilogy headed by Brendan Fraser – and when I say memorable, I don’t mean in a good way.  I didn’t like these lame PG-13 CGI fests whatsoever.  The first one is the best of the series, and the others are not worth talking about, but I really objected to the content.  To take a recognized, classic horror property and beef it up into a plot-driven, faintly Indiana Jonesesque action movie was an awful idea.  This latest version is no better.

By now, almost everyone knows that this is Universal’s first movie in their prospective Dark Universe franchise, an attempt to muscle in on the action currently being carved up by Marvel and DC,  to varying degrees of success.  To me, the idea is utterly stupid – but not just because I’m a huge fan of the classic era of Karloff, Lugosi, and Lon Chaney Jr.  The first thing that came to mind was: in the last few years we’ve seen multiple versions of Frankenstein (I, Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein, the miserable bastard of TV’s Penny Dreadful) and a Dracula movie as recently as 2014 (Dracula Untold) – I’m even writing one myself!  My point being these characters are filmed so frequently, what can Universal bring to the table to prevent the public from yawning at the concept?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I know that the right thing to do is not to turn the stable of classic monsters into would-be action movie villains, and I know that because I watched Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy just the other day.  If you read my review of A Cure For Wellness, you’ll know I complained a lot about overplotting in movies, and with the involvement of Kurtzman on the story side, I knew going in it would be an overstuffed piece of fluff.  Along with fellow hacks like Robert Orci, Damon Lindelof and Simon Kinberg, he has somehow been able to turn a stupendous lack of writing talent into bank balances with lots of zeroes.  What they all have in common is an inability to create meaningful characters to populate their formula works, with the end result being forgettable, generic garbage propped up by tens millions of dollars spent on CGI.  Their characters don’t so much have dialogue, they speak sentences that are cobbled together from other people’s action movies, and as plot-driven as they are, many of the plot points are uninspired and serviceable at best.  Kurtzman and Orci co-wrote The Amazing Spider Man 2 – nuff said, True Believer.

In this latest version of The Mummy, Tom Cruise stars as Nick Morton, who is picked by the villainous Mummy, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) as the guy who will help her rule the world, or something.  In order to do this, she has to complete the process that was interrupted back in ancient Egypt, which involved allowing Set, the Egyptian god of death to walk the Earth via a human sacrifice, mostly for no reason to the story other than it would be pretty bad.  After a series of mostly inane scenes chronicling the conveniently quick and easy discovery and extraction of Ahmanet’s sarcophagus, The Mummy then shifts location to England, via a decent plane crash scene.  The movie isn’t completely terrible up to that point, but then it gets there quickly.  Cruise wakes up in a morgue, toe tagged in a zippered-up body bag even, but when he’s discovered as being alive (presumably the toe tag and body bag meant he had already been declared dead) by three people, the next scene suddenly switches to Cruise and bland costar Jennifer Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) taking off in search of the action.  See, this is what I mean by shitty, plot-driven writing.  There isn’t a real human emotion anywhere to be found in the movie.  It’s all about getting from one action scene to the other with minimal fuss, something that this group of writers are experts at.  By default, of course.

After that, there are numerous scenes of Cruise whacking Ahmanet’s undead slaves that all feel the same.  While the plot points come thick and fast, there’s no real sense of the stakes being raised.  Sure, we’re told how bad things are getting, but visually, and in terms of plot, the feeling of escalation just isn’t there.  In fact, the plot actually halts a couple of times in order to gratuitously seed the movie with elements of future “Dark Universe” entries, mostly revolving around the character of Russell Crowe’s Henry Jekyll and his secret organization that feels like a completely Xeroxed version of the BPRD from Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy movies, only much less interesting.  This isn’t really a spoiler, but when Jekyll eventually turns in to Hyde, it is completely underwhelming.  From an earlier scene you might be expecting something dramatic, or visually impressive (given the nature of the movie), but what you get is Russell Crowe with what looks like a dirty face and a Cockney accent.  I would have hated a retreaded version of the character from The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, but this version is rubbish too, for different reasons.

That’s just one of many creative mistakes made in this movie.  Cruise’s dialogue is horrendous at times – especially when he verbalizes events that we have already seen happening, and things that we can see ARE happening.  It might be how regular people might talk, but movie dialogue is not how real people talk, and when Morton and Halsey find themselves unintentionally returning to a location, we don’t need Morton saying words to the effect of “I can’t believe I drove back to this location”, we need him to yell “WHAT THE HELL?!” in complete astonishment, something to let us understand just how much Ahmanet is messing with his mind.  It’s also a misstep when Cruise’s arc comes to an end, especially in the way things are concealed visually.  It’s the moment that is likely going to be the thread that ties the Dark Universe together, but after all that’s come before to get to this point, there’s no payoff.

There’s also an element to this movie that’s maybe the worst of the lot – throughout, there are a number of scenes that are meant to play as humourous, but to say they fall flat is a disservice to that particular cliché.  Jake Johnson (from TV’s New Girl) is given the plum role of Jack Goodman, who pops up after death to mess with best friend David Kessler’s mind now and – oh wait, sorry, that’s from An American Werewolf In London.  The barely-disguised plagiarism momentarily confused me.  There’s a scene where Ahmanet’s hands crawl over Morton’s torso.  It’s a fairly dramatic scene … but he laughs because it’s ticklish.  Scenes like this – badly written scenes like this – imbue the movie with a schizophrenic quality to its lasting detriment.  There’s no rule that says horror movies can’t have humour – there absolutely should be, but it should come from character, not situation to have effect.  Though as noted, there’s almost nothing about this movie that makes it horror, but it doesn’t mitigate “funny” scenes that are not funny whatsoever.

So yeah, the movie is pretty awful, and with mediocre box office, it could do for Universal’s Dark Universe what Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur flop did for that would-be six-movie franchise.  I also question Cruise’s choice to topline it too.  I won’t deny that for a guy his age, he makes other men in their 30s look bad, and he’s in fine form in this movie too … but how long is he going to be able to look the way he looks and act the way he acts over the course of a franchise, especially when there doesn’t appear to be any other movies actually being filmed right now.  As of me writing this, only Bride of Frankenstein has been given a release date of February, 2019, and that gives cause for concern.  Marvel got it right by releasing their movies close together, and Warners/DC look to be finally using the same business model, but it already looks like Universal’s concept doesn’t have the power of faith behind it, and that could ultimately prove deadly to it’s chances.  One last thing – don’t bother sitting through the end credit roll hoping to see a lead-in scene, because there’s none.  Sure, Marvel have turned this into an art form, but it works tremendously well with audiences, especially for this kind of shared universe concept.  By not having one for The Mummy, it’s just more proof that Universal is just not committed to their own concept.

1.0/5.0

© Andrew Hope, 2017

Movie Review: A CURE FOR WELLNESS – what starts as an intriguing, Shutter Island type mystery, ends up a sloppy, overplotted mess.

I saw two movies this weekend, both undone by serious overplotting.  I’m reviewing A Cure For Wellness here, but I’ll get to The Mummy all in good time.  The difference between these movies is that The Mummy is mostly bad throughout, and for a number of reasons.  A Cure For Wellness doesn’t become bad overall, but the plotting ruins what starts as a good movie.

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Movie Review: WONDER WOMAN – Gal Gadot’s fine turn as the titular heroine prevents the movie from complete mediocrity, but only just.

I don’t want to say that Wonder Woman is a politicized movie, but for some odd reason, it’s become a lightning rod for people on both sides of the gender divide.  I suppose it’s inevitable in this sociopolitical climate that any genre movie with a lead female character is going to become this year’s feminist icon – I remember the massively overblown praise for Mad Max: Fury Road, as an “important” feminist action movie (I saw a movie with that title, but I don’t recall that version), and even the mostly awful Ghostbusters remake was hailed for pretty much the same thing.  Well, now it’s Wonder Woman’s turn, and when Marvel eventually get around to toplining Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, the same plaudits will be flung around then too.

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