Movie Reviews - 2017 postsMonday December 18, 2017
Movie Review: Coco (2017)
My mother suffered a stroke last year that left her weak on her right side, dependent on walkers and wheelchairs, and without the ability to speak. She could say a few coached words, or a string of enthusiastic nonsensical words, but that was about it. She couldn’t write, either, so all the history inside her was lost to us in an instant. I go back to Doctorow: “We should have talked; we should always have talked.”
But she could still sing. Apparently that function is in a different part of the brain. In the car, we’d sing old Sinatra and Ella songs, old show tunes (“Oklahoma!”), and Christmas carols. If you started out, and she knew the words, she’d pick up on it and sing along.
That’s probably why the scene that really got to me in Pixar’s “Coco” is near the end, when 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), back from the land of the dead, sings the song, “Remember Me” to his dying great grandmother, Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), and she, a mass of wrinkled flesh giving in to gravity and inevitability, slowly comes to life again. She smiles and sings and rises and remembers.
Of course, sap that I am, that scene probably would’ve gotten to me anyway.
That said, “Coco,” by Pixar standards, and despite its 97% Rotten Tomatoes rating, was a slight disappointment. It didn’t wow me like “Inside Out” or “Up” or the three “Toy Story”s.
Is it the familiarity of it all? Our hero goes out beyond his world, and has X amount of time to return or stay there forever?
Is it that Miguel doesn’t learn much on his journey beyond family history? In “Up,” Carl needed to learn that it’s the boring stuff that matters, and in “Inside Out,” Joy needed to learn to let others, such as Sadness, do their jobs. Miguel? Nothing like this. He's a smart kid, following his bliss, and he returns as ebullient as ever.
There’s no great sacrifice, either—the way Carl sacrificed his house for Russell and Bing Bong sacrificed his very existence (even the memory of his existence) for Riley. I think that's the key; you need sacrifice.
The set-up isn’t bad, I suppose. Miguel has music in his soul but his family is not only longtime shoemakers but against music, since Miguel’s great, great grandfather left his family to make his name in music and never returned. Miguel, though, wants to perform, like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a long dead, lantern-jawed star of his great, great grandmother’s era. Then he discovers that Ernesto might be his great, great grandfather. That makes Miguel so determined to perform in the “Day of the Dead” music competition in the local plaza that, even after his grandmother, Elena (Renee Victor), destroys his guitar, he takes de la Cruz’s guitar from the mausoleum, strums it, and, oops, winds up among the dead—with a 24-hour window in which to return.
I like the border crossing. If your descendants put out your photo on the Day of the Dead, then you get to cross and spend the day as a spectral figure among them. I like the layers of death. You finally, completely die, or at least disappear from the Land of the Dead, when no one living remembers who you are. That’s about to happen to Miguel’s hapless companion, Héctor (Gael Garcia Bernal), nicknamed “Chorizo,” for supposedly having choked to death on one.
Miguel could actually return to the living quickly. He just needs to receive a blessing from a family member, via an Aztec marigold petal. But his family being his family, they demand he never plays music again. So off he goes in pursuit of another family member, de la Cruz, who is as big a celebrity in the Land of the Dead as he was in the living. He lives in a mansion surrounded by security, gives annual concerts, and receives incredible bounty from the living.
Turns out he’s also a thief and a murderer. Nice. He stole the music, and then the life, of his former singing partner, who turns out to be Héctor, who turns out to be ... wait for it ... Miguel’s great, great grandfather! Which is why he never returned to his family. He didn't choke on a chorizo; he was poisoned.
Eventually, of course, Miguel’s family unites against de la Cruz, who is revealed (to both the dead and the living) to be a scoundrel/murderer, and Miguel makes it back in time to sing the song to Hector’s daughter, Coco, so she can remember him, and allow him to remain in the Land of the Dead, and allow me to, you know, tear up.
Although, at that point, wouldn’t Miguel count as someone alive who remembers Hector? And what did they do at the border crossing before photography—i.e., for 99 percent of human history? Was it portraits/paintings then? Meaning only the rich made it back?
So many questions, Pixar.
But, for the movie, this is the big one: What did Miguel learn on his adventure? He learned...
- His hero was a jerk
- His great, great grandfather wasn’t
That’s about it. It’s really his family that needs to learn a lesson. Sadly, that lesson is obvious: Music is good. Or: Let your loved ones pursue their passions.
I liked “Coco.” It just didn't exactly take me to the moon.
Movie Review: Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)
Why is the fifth “Transformers” movie subtitled “The Last Knight“? Besides the obvious attempt to cash in on the Batman franchise?
Glad you asked! You see, back in 484 A.D., King Arthur and his knights were about to lose an epic “Game of Thrones”-inspired battle against the Saxons when the man whom Arthur trusted implicitly, the wizard Merlin (Stanley Tucci), a comic-relief drunk, stumbles upon a crashed spaceship with a transformer inside. Wait, 12 transformers? That’s what Wiki tells me but god help me if I remember more than one in this scene. Anyway, Merlin’s innate ... comedy? ... somehow convinces the transformers to back his side in the war (no Prime Directive for these fuckers), so they transform themselves into a giant three-head “Game of Thrones”-inspired dragon, give Merlin an alien staff, and warn him that “a great evil” will come for it one day; then off they go to battle and win the thing for Arthur and England.
CUT TO: Present-day, post-Transformers-III-or-IV Chicago, where, in the ruins, four “Stranger Things”-inspired nerd boys are saved by a fierce, Eleven-inspired girl, Izabella (Isabella Moner), and her transformer pals, who are, in turn, saved by our hero from the previous film: failed Texas inventor and all-around good-guy dad Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg). Cutting loose the nerds, they go off to some safe-ish haven/junkyard to wait out the next step in the inane journey.
Did you spot it? Yes, Yeager is our “last knight.” He’s the guy who will save the day. How? Well, this odd little transformer will attached itself to him, mostly to his arm but also move around his body sometimes, which gives him the opportunity to reveal his tight abs to the Oxbridge-educated but standoffish hottie Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), a direct descendant of Merlin. (Wahlberg here is like, say, Margot Robbie in the airport dressing/undressing in “Suicide Squad”: naively unaware of the effect his sexy body has on others.) Then, at a crucial moment, after Yeager and Wembley take a transformer-sub to the bottom of the ocean, and run from/fight the 12 guardian transformers there, not to mention Optimus Prime, who, like a WWE wrestler, has turned from face (hero) to heel (villain), because...
Fuck it. Enough to know that they resurface, there’s a battle, Megatron steals the staff, Optimus realizes the error of his ways because Bumblebee speaks, but he’s about to be executed anyway by the 12 guardian transformers when Cade shouts “NO!” and the odd little transform becomes ... EXCALIBUR! Yes! Arthur’s sword! And Cade stops the mighty blade of the guaridan transformer! And he saves Optimus! And now he’s ready for battle.
And so Cade takes Excalibur and ...
Actually, that’s pretty much it. That’s all he does with it. It doesn’t come into play ever again.
Remember when you were like 9 or 10 and you’d play at “war,” or some kind of imaginary adventure game, and it was basically, “And then this happens, and then this happens,” and “No! Those guys are over there! No! That guy’s dead!” Remember that kind of thing? No logic, no sense of connecting the past with the now, just the hell-bent movement forward? That’s this. That's Michael Bay.
This movie is so bad I kept flashing to that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” season in which Larry David is cast in “The Producers” because Mel Brooks wants it to fail. He’s sick of his creation and wants to destroy it and move on. Is Bay doing the same? Is he sick of his creation and wants to end it? Or is he simply boundary-testing how stupid we are? “Can they take something this dumb? Cuz I’ve about reached my limit. I can't make it any dumber. I canna dumb it down any further, Captain.”
The plot is basically: Optimus and army men chase our heroes, who are on a hellbent journey to find a MacGuffin (alien staff) that could lead to the end of the world, and which only they can gather. Once they find the MacGuffin, and once the bad guys immediately steal it and try to use it to destroy the Earth, Optimus and the military guys join our heroes for the final battle, which takes place, with a nod toward the movie's King Arthur opening, over England’s moun-tains green. And the good guys win.
Plus Anthony Hopkins as Sir Edmund Burton, the one who knows the backstory.
Plus Tony Hale (“Arrested Development,” “VEEP”) as the government scientist apparently in charge of everything who orders generals to use nukes against the Decepticons because ”magic isn’t real."
I kept wondering: In these movies, isn’t there always something that’s been left behind by centuries-ago transformers that today's transformers need to get a hold of to rule the world? Or save it? Shouldn’t someone do a study on this?
[Smaller voice] Oh no, I don’t have to do it, do I?
No, thank god. Or thank Rob Bricken at io9, a better man than I, who has already done it. Read his synopsis. He tears apart the movie, the series, and Michael Bay, with the necessary humor.
Final reminder: This is all about a toy robot that can turn into a car. Have we gone mad?
Movie Review: Snatched (2017)
Based on reviews (37% on Rotten Tomatoes), box office ($45.8 million, a 60% drop from Amy Schumer’s previous film), and word-of-mouth (crickets), not to mention the awful double entendre of the title, I expected “Snatched” to suuuuuuuuck.
It doesn’t. Mind you, it’s not good, but it’s not bottom-of-the-barrel.
It’s good enough, in fact, to make me wonder why it didn’t do better. And I hate myself for the answer I’m about to give: I think it has a little something to do with Goldie Hawn’s face.
It’s not that she looks old; that would be fine. She just looks like she’s had too much plastic surgery.
Murray not Murray
Schumer plays a classic Schumer character, a spoiled, solipsistic American girl named Emily Middleton. We first see her talking endlessly to a retailing clothing clerk about an upcoming trip to Ecuador with her boyfriend—who’s in a rock band. Except the clerk turns out to be the customer, Emily is the clerk, and a second later she’s fired for being, you know, awful. Then her boyfriend (Randall Park, “VEEP”) dumps her for pretty much the same reason. Schumer opens the movie like a classic Bill Murray character—losing everything in the first five minutes—except she’s less funny, and less endearing, doing it. It was always a neat trick how Murray managed it.
Anyway, the plane tickets are nonrefundable, nobody likes her, and that’s why she winds up traveling with her mom, Linda (Hawn), who is in her 60s, lives alone with cats, and assumes all strangers are potential criminals.
I have to admit: This seems like great casting. One era’s kookie blonde giving birth to the next. I just wish Goldie had let herself age as ungracefully as the rest of us. Instead, she went the Hollywood route, and her face has that stretched, vaguely platypus look. They also have her playing against type: instead of dingbatty, wide-eyed and inviting, she’s suspicious and closed off. (Or maybe that’s what happens to the wide-eyed and inviting over time?) Either way, she’s the straight person here.
In Quito, Ecuador’s capital, Emily just wants to drink and meet a cute guy, while Linda assumes the worst. Both get what they want. The cute guy takes them on an excursion and they’re rammed by a white van and kidnapped by Colombians. For ransom? Doesn't anyone know they have no money? But at least it answers the question: Why Ecuador? Initially I thought it was because they’d wind up in the Galapagos.
A few things I liked: In their various attempts to escape the clutches of Hector Morgado (Óscar Jaenada, who played Catinflas in a 2014 Mexican biopic), they accidently kill his henchmen ... who turn out to be 1) his nephew, and 2) his only son. The neophytes who—oops—cause the deepest cuts always makes me laugh. I also like the interplay between Linda’s frenetic, spoiled, stay-at-home son, Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz, “The Mindy Project”), and the laconic, career State Dept. official Morgan Russell (Bashir Salahuddin). Oh, and all the various saviors/rescuers that aren’t: Christopher Meloni’s jungle adventurer; the lesbian team-up of Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack, who make the leap but leave Emily hanging.
There are laughs in “Snatched.” I laughed. But not enough.
Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Afterwards, I asked Patricia if she could think of an actor who could play the lead besides Frances McDormand. Because I couldn’t. Allison Janney, maybe? Annette Bening? McDormand is perfect for the part. Chin up, working class, beyond world-weary but tough as nails, with an undercurrent of the maternal that might reveal itself at an odd moment—like when the cancer-ridden sheriff, in the midst of interrogating her, coughs blood into her face, and as she goes for help, she comforts him, calling him baby. It just slips out: that baby. That tenderness.
No surprise that writer-director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) wrote Mildred for her. The punchline? She had to be convinced by husband Joel Coen:
“At the time he gave it to me I was 58 ... I was concerned that women from this socioeconomic strata did not wait until 38 to have their first child. So we went back and forth and we debated that for quite a while, and then finally my husband said, ‘Just shut up and do it.’”
One more thing to thank him for.
Mildred is less Marge Gunderson in “Fargo” than Elaine Miller in “Almost Famous”—berating Russell Hammond, then counseling him, then reminding him of his responsibilities. She’s Olive Kitteridge. She’s McDormand herself winning the Oscar for “Fargo”: that tough stride she took on her way across the stage.
I expected “Three Billboards” to be good but an eat-your-vegetables movie: the kind of dull indie that sacrifices plot for local Midwest detail. It’s not that kind of movie at all.
Burn after reading
No time is wasted getting to the billboards. Opening credits, they’re there in the morning fog, run down and dilapidated, their original messages a checkerboard of illegibility. So: a movie about a small Midwest town struggling to survive in the digital age?
Nope. A freeway was put in, not many drive this two-lane highway anymore, but Mildred, who lives nearby, has an idea. She contracts the local company for all three billboards and puts up this message in the manner of the old Burma Shave ads:
RAPED WHILE DYING
AND STILL NO ARRESTS?
HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?
So: a movie about small-town police corruption and one woman’s battle to bring the truth to light?
That’s how it seems, particularly when we meet Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dim, small-town bully known for racial profiling. But then Mildred has a tete-a-tete with Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), he asks her advice, and after each of her suggestions he tells her of the civil rights violations involved. The further the scene progresses, the more you can feel your sympathies shifting away from her and toward him.
The movie keeps doing this; it keeps shifting on us. Willoughby is dying of cancer, Mildred knows and doesn’t care. Or she doesn’t let caring get in the way of her quest. Her teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges, “Manchester By the Sea”), is embarrassed; she doesn’t care. And there’s Willoughby revisiting the scene of the crime, looking for clues. At the same time, the cops use what power they have. Mildred is hauled in, while her friend and coworker, Denise (Amanda Warren), is arrested to put pressure on her. Don’t forget how good Woody Harrelson is here. The scene after he coughs up blood, when he’s in the hospital room joshing with his wife (Abbie Cornish), and then alone, and the myriad of emotions that cross his face? The fear, mostly, and bone-deep sadness? Damn.
The crowning achievement in the battle with Mildred is his: He commits suicide. He has a perfect day with his wife and kids, and he wants them to hold onto that memory of him—not the one of him slowly wasting away—so out by the stable he puts a bag over his head and shoots himself. Watching, you know everyone will blame Mildred, and he knows it, too. He tells her so in a farewell letter. Plus the mysterious donor who paid for the billboards for another month? Him. So people will continue to blame her. The beauty of this is it’s not really malicious. His tone is amused, and she laughs, reading it. You can tell she already misses him. So do we.
Maybe too much. In the wake of his suicide, either the characters become unmoored or the movie does. The one-upmanship goes a bit over-the-top:
- Dixon throws Red, the local billboard owner (Caleb Landry Jones, “Get Out”), out his second-story window. In full view of everyone.
- Dixon is then fired by the new police chief (Clarke Peters of “The Wire”).
- The billboards are burned down—and Dixon is suspected.
- In retaliation, Mildred throws Molotov cocktails into the police station, but unbeknownst to her Dixon is inside.
Dixon winds up with third-degree burns on his body and face, and in the same hospital room as Red—the man he put there. He doesn’t get away with his crime; Mildred does. As does the murderer/rapist who set everything in motion.
If the second act seems like excess, and it did a bit to me, the movie rights itself. The third act is basically redemption. Dixon’s is the Colin Farrell/“In Bruges” role: the dim man who’s done bad things but whose moral compass is, or becomes, true.
Indeed, for a moment, you think he’s going to be the hero: the one to solve the crime through extreme sacrifice—getting beat up to get DNA. Thankfully, things aren’t so clean in McDonagh’s world. But the act unites Dixon and Mildred, who set out on their own quest. For justice? For further injustice? Who knows? They don’t even know. It’s a beautifully ambiguous ending. The world is rotten, but amidst all that there’s forgiveness. The movie feints toward giving us what we want (justice) only to give us what we need. What we truly, desperately need.
Movie Review: Baywatch (2017)
Is Seth Gordon the worst comedy director in Hollywood? Here are his four feature films with their Rotten Tomatoes scores:
- Four Christmases (2008): 24%
- Horrible Bosses (2011): 69%
- Identity Thief (2013): 19%
- Baywatch (2017): 19%
I actually asked that question back in 2013 when “Identity Thief” topped my list of worst movies of the year. Since then, Seth has been directing TV shows I’ve never seen (“Marry Me,” “The Jim Gaffigan Show,” “Sneaky Pete,” and “The Goldbergs”), but now he’s back in the theater, with this monstrosity, so it's time to ask it again.
We get one good running gag. Mitch (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is the can-do lead lifeguard at a vacation resort in Broward County, Fla., who’s saved the life of practically everyone’s mother/aunt/son in the community, and who realizes, as the movie opens, that there’s a drug problem on the beach. Flaca is washing up on shores. Eventually dead bodies, too. So he and his team investigate. The gag is pointing this out.
“Am I the only one who thinks this is clearly a job for the police?” asks Matt Brody (Zac Efron), the two-time Olympic gold-medalist swimming champion.
Oddly, a minute or two later, Matt says virtually the same thing, but the line lands with a thud: “This is the real world, Mitch. Lifeguards can’t do shit.”
Someone needs to send Seth off to study why the first line is funny and the second isn’t.
Too many recent comedy-satires spend their first half mocking the idiotic tropes of the genre and the second half buying into those tropes. (See: “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” “21/22 Jump Street.”) How an ordinary guy fits into the Hollywood fantasy is usually funny, because it points out the absuridty of the Hollywood fantasy. But apparently Hollywood can only see a way out by having the ordinary guy suddenly become the Hollywood fantasy. He proves he’s brave, stops the bad guy, gets the girl. We mock our cake and eat it, too.
“Baywatch” is worse because it does this at the same fucking time. Brody is right—drugs and dead bodies washing up on shore isn’t a job for lifeguards. But Mitch is right, too: He’s the one best equipped to save the day. The movie really needs to see Mitch as a self-important douche, but it doesn’t. It sees him as the hero. Right from the beginning.
Maybe that could’ve been the joke? Mitch running along the beach, thinking he’s a hero, saving and helping everyone, while in his wake, everyone complains about what a nosey fucker he is and how his beach is the most dangerous in the country.
The idiot plot: The evil Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) is importing drugs to drive down real estate prices in order to buy out everyone. Then she plans to make the beach private.
The idiot relationship subplots:
- The selfish Brody has to learn to become a team player. (He does.)
- He has eyes for another newbie lifeguard, Summer (Alexandra Daddario). Will they get together? (They do.)
- Meanwhile, a third newbie lifeguard, Ronnie (Jon Bass), a schlubby Jewish tech guy, who gets on the team because "he has heart,” suffers a series of embarrassing moments with his not-so-secret crush C.J. (S.I. swimsuit model Kelly Rohrbach). These include getting an erection after she performs the Heimlich maneuver on him, then getting that erection caught in the slats of a wood raft he falls on to avoid detection. But will he and C.J. get together in the end? (They will.)
The whole Ronnie thing is just the worst. It’s never commented upon—the absurdity of his being where he is with who he is simply to placate all the schlubby guys in the audience. He’s comic relief, but not comic. I don’t know if Bass is the unfunniest Jewish guy in Hollywood or if Seth Gordon simply drains the funny out of everything he touches, but it's brutal to watch.
Of course we get cameos from the TV stars, including David Hasselhoff as Mitch, Mitch’s mentor, who gives him the “Get back in the game” pep talk; and Pam Anderson, the original C.J., as “Casey Jean,” who’s now a suit-wearing executive, and whose face, 20 years after her heyday, has become a horror show of the work that’s been done on it. Imagine if they'd commented upon that. Instead, they have to pretend she's beautiful. That's brutal, too.