THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (2018) – Not Such A Happy Time

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the happytime murders poster

The idea sounds funny enough: an R-rated raunchy Muppet comedy starring Melissa McCarthy.

I like Muppets, and I like Melissa McCarthy, and the notion of foul-mouthed Muppets sounds just refreshing enough to make this one something special.

Now, I realized this movie was getting dreadful reviews, but Melissa McCarthy’s previous film, LIFE OF THE PARTY (2018) also got poor reviews, but I actually thought it was pretty funny. So, I headed off to the theater to catch this adult puppet comedy.

And it is a puppet comedy.  I know I called it a Muppet comedy, but they’re referred to as puppets here, even though, yes, they look exactly like Muppets, and the film is directed by Brian Henson, the son of the late great Muppet creator Jim Henson, and director of two Muppet movies himself.

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS takes place in a world where puppets and humans co-exist, but not equally. In fact, humans treat puppets rather poorly. What a surprise!

Puppet private eye Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) finds himself at the center of a murder investigation when the former cast members of an 80s puppet TV show, including Phil’s brother and some of his friends, are murdered one by one. Phil is a former LAPD officer, and his former partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) is on the case.

Phil left the force under tragic circumstances when he failed to make a shot against a fellow puppet and his stray bullet shot and killed an innocent bystander. The notion became that puppets couldn’t be police officers because they couldn’t be trusted to shoot their own kind.

When Phil himself becomes a suspect in the Happytime murders, he and Connie work together to help Phil elude the police and find the real killer.

The biggest problem with THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is that the script doesn’t hold up. For starters, the story here is structured like a million other cliché private detective storylines with the Bogart-like private eye gloomily commenting on the proceedings with a film noir voice-over. For such an overused trope like this to work, the script would have to be incredibly good and creative, and sadly, it isn’t. So, the story becomes boring long before the film’s 90 minutes are up.

Admittedly, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS gets off to a pretty funny start. Watching crude vulgar puppets swear at each other and worse, is hilarious at first, but without enough jokes to sustain it, the novelty of the whole thing wears off fast. That being said, there are a couple of laugh out loud moments, one involving an octopus and a cow in one of the wackiest sexual images you’ll ever see, and another involving an obscene sex sequence that takes advantage of the fact that you’re watching puppets. It shows things you wouldn’t see outside a pornographic movie but since the figures on-screen are puppets, the filmmakers can get away with it.

The film definitely earns its R rating. The jokes are lewd and crude, and they’re funny.

At first.

But then strangely they disappear. The first half of THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is definitely the best half.  The second part of the movie simply isn’t as creative, and the laughs become pretty nonexistent.

It’s simply not a very strong script by Todd Berger. The jokes aren’t there, and neither really is the story. For the whole puppets in a human world storyline to work, there has to be some depth. We see humans being cruel to puppets, for instance, but only briefly and the whole thing comes off as incredibly superficial.  I didn’t believe anything about this puppet world at all.

The film only works when the jokes are funny, and this only happens early on. And the jokes are all of the vulgar variety, which I didn’t mind, but if you’re not into very raunchy humor, especially humor that is sexual in nature, you’ll want to avoid this one.

The cast doesn’t really help either.

The story is built around the main puppet character Phil, and he is a complete bore, which really drags the film down. Bill Barretta does an adequate job voicing Phil, and most of the time he comes off sounding like Robert De Niro, which only made me wish the real De Niro was playing the role.

Melissa McCarthy does her thing, but she’s simply not that funny here. She has a couple of okay scenes, but having seen a lot of her movies, this is one of her least comedic performances. I definitely enjoyed her more in LIFE OF THE PARTY (2018).

But I’m still a fan. She was hilarious in BRIDESMAIDS (2011), THE HEAT (2013), and SPY (2015), to name just a few of her movies, and she’ll be back again in top form I’m sure. Here in THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS she was simply okay and really didn’t have much of an impact in this movie.

Elizabeth Banks is stuck in a thankless role as Jenny, Phil’s former love interest and the one human star of the Happytime TV show.  Maya Rudolph, who has co-starred with McCarthy before, in LIFE OF THE PARTY (2018)  and BRIDESMAIDS (2011) admittedly does enjoy some humorous moments here as Phil’s secretary Bubbles.

The rest of the human cast is rather dull, and the puppets don’t add much either.

In spite of the potentially clever concept, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is pretty bad. In fact, it just might be the worst movie I’ve seen all year.

The film starts off funny, if you don’t mind your humor crude and rude, but then the jokes pretty much disappear, and the second half becomes a monumental bore.

In spite of its title, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS isn’t much of a happy time.

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CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) – Romantic Comedy More Interested in Wealth Than Asian Culture

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The “crazy” in CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) refers to just how “crazy rich” the main character’s family is in this movie. Aside from that, there’s not much “crazy” in this well-meaning romantic comedy which has more to say about wealth than Chinese traditions or falling in love.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not an enjoyable comedic love story.

It is.

It’s just— unless you’re planning to marry royalty— not all that relevant.

In CRAZY RICH ASIANS, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is a young economics professor at NYU, and she’s involved in a happy relationship with the handsome and easygoing Nick Young (Henry Golding). When he invites her to Singapore to meet his family at his best friend’s wedding, she happily accepts, and since she knows little about his family, she assumes they are very poor since Nick rarely talks about them. Boy, is she wrong.

It turns out, that not only is Nick’s family wealthy, they’re crazy wealthy!  As in near royalty! As in Nick being the most eligible bachelor in all of Southeast Asia!

At first, this poses little or no problems, because for Rachel, it’s almost as if she has entered a fairy tale realm of princes and princesses. But this euphoria is short-lived, as it becomes increasingly clear that Nick’s family, especially his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) does not see Rachel as the right fit for Nick. In Eleanor’s case, she sees her son as taking over the family business, something he will not be able to do properly if he marries “beneath his status.”

And thus the battle lines are drawn, as Rachel decides to fight for the man she some day hopes to marry, but can she stand up to the impossible wealth wielded by Eleanor and her dynasty?

This may sound serious, and this part of the story is, but on the whole CRAZY RICH ASIANS is light and fun, with a heavy emphasis on romance.  The film definitely plays more like a fanciful love story than a straight out comedy.

The most impressive thing about CRAZY RICH ASIANS is its all Asian cast, which for a Western-produced film is something that hasn’t happened since THE JOY LUCK CLUB (1993). Let’s hope it’s not twenty-five more years before it happens again.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS reminded me of another recent romantic comedy, THE BIG SICK (2017). That film was a love story between a Pakistan-born man and an American woman, and it both highlighted and poked fun at the differences between cultures. That story worked better than the one told here in CRAZY RICH ASIANS, as Rachel doesn’t face cultural differences— as in the difference between a Chinese American and a Chinese—as much as she faces monetary differences, and in this regard, the story simply doesn’t resonate as well. Understanding the very rich is less engrossing than understanding another culture.

The screenplay by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, based on the novel Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, works for the most part. The comedy is light and amiable, and the romance irresistible. It’s difficult not to get swept up in the opulence of the Singapore settings. And the two leads are certainly likable.

Constance Wu delivers a strong performance as Rachel, the young woman who at first goes along with the revelation about her boyfriend’s rich family until she finds herself on the receiving end of ugly words and innuendos. She remains likable throughout, so much so you’re almost wishing she’d just up and leave this annoying family behind her.

Henry Golding is sufficiently handsome as the dashing Nick Young, and he makes for a sincere and honorable boyfriend who believes he can shield Rachel from his family.

One of the better performances in the movie belongs to Michelle Yeoh as Nick’s powerful mother Eleanor. She has a way of being both dignified and icy cold, and as such, gets some of the best dramatic scenes in the movie.

Likewise, Gemma Chan is excellent as Nick’s sister Astrid, who Nick describes as having the biggest heart in the family.  Chan’s supporting storyline, about problems in her own marriage, is as interesting as the main plot.

In terms of comedy, Awkwafina delivers a scene-stealing performance as Peik Lin Goh, Rachel’s college roommate who lives in Singapore with her family.  She gets some of the best comedic scenes and lines in the movie. I enjoyed Awkwafina a lot here, more so than her recent role in OCEAN’S 8 (2018).

And Ken Jeong shows up as Peik Lin’s father, and he of course has some comedic bits as well, although they’re not quite on the same level as Awkwafina’s.

Nico Santos is also memorable as Oliver, a flamboyant member of Nick’s family who, unlike Nick’s mother, is always there for Nick and Rachel.

Director Jon M. Chu fills this one with eye-popping rich parties and weddings, and he takes full advantage of Singapore and its surrounding islands. The film is beautiful to look at, full of both beautiful locales and people. There are also plenty of mouth-watering foods. Don’t see this one on an empty stomach!

For the most part, the pacing is good, although the film is long, clocking in at two hours, and towards the end things do slow down a little bit. Chu previously directed the lowly G.I. JOE: RETALIATION (2013) and NOW YOU SEE ME 2 (2016). Needless to say, CRAZY RICH ASIANS is his best film yet.

I enjoyed CRAZY RICH ASIANS. It was fun to immerse myself in Asian culture and be part of the crazy rich wedding. I also liked Rachel and Nick and were rooting for them to be together, and better yet, I laughed a lot at the lighter parts of this movie.

That being said, it didn’t completely resonate with me because the incredible wealth of Nick’s family played more like a romantic fantasy than a true life story. It also just didn’t interest me all that much. Plus, I reached the point in the story where I felt Rachel would be better off without Nick and his family, which is I’m sure not what the writers had in mind. As such, the ending of the film didn’t completely work for me, as I could easily have imagined better fates for Rachel.

If you’re a fan of romantic comedies, especially those which emphasize romance over comedy, you’re sure to enjoy CRAZY RICH ASIANS. The film pushes all the right buttons with its rich boy meets poor girl storyline, with the possible exception of its ending, as it may have overplayed its mean rich family hand. But if you like stories about the girl going after her handsome prince, this is the movie for you.

For the rest of us, it’s an amiable tale, helped by gorgeous locales and a very talented cast.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS is lighthearted entertainment.  I enjoyed watching it, even though its “crazy rich” lifestyle is far less interesting to me than the other parts of Singapore culture I wish the film had explored.

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MILE 22 (2018) – Action Film Mired By Confusing Direction, Weak Script

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Lauren Cohan in MILE 22 (2018).

Maggie! Maggie!

Maggie Greene is the character Lauren Cohan plays on TV’s THE WALKING DEAD, and she’s one of the main reasons that I keep watching the show, even though it’s dipped in quality the past couple of seasons.

So, with apologies to Mark Wahlberg, Cohan is also the reason I trekked out to the theater to see MILE 22 (2018), the latest film from director Peter Berg, which stars Wahlberg as an elite American intelligence agent, sort of a Jason Bourne if he hadn’t gone rogue.

MILE 22 has opened to dreadful reviews.  Is it as bad as all that? Let’s find out.

MILE 22 opens with James Silva (Mark Wahlberg) and his elite squad closing in on a Russian safe house where they proceed to kill everyone inside while they confiscate top-secret material. Afterwards, they discover the material they were seeking was in fact not there. What were they looking for? A highly explosive chemical weapon that has the potential for leveling a city with just a few specks of powder. Yikes!

The heat falls on agent Alice Kerr (Lauren Cohan) since it was her contact Li Noor (Iko Uwais) who provided them with false information. It turns out that Noor will give them the whereabouts of this deadly weapon but only if he receives political asylum in the United States. After failing to break the codes on Noor’s phone which would give them this information, Silva and his team agree to extract Noor out of the country and into the United States.

To do this, they have to travel a dangerous trek of 22 miles, hence the film’s title, dangerous because Noor is wanted by the government, as in wanted dead, and so there are brutal assassins waiting for them at every turn.

If this sounds stupid, that’s because it is.

One of the worst things about MILE 22 is the film has no sense of place and does a terrible job establishing its setting.  No mention is made of nations or cities, and so half the time the audience has no idea where the film is taking place. This is either sloppy filmmaking by director Berg or a deliberate attempt to capture the shadowy aspects of the plot by keeping everything nameless. Either way, it weakens the story. Without an established setting, things just don’t play out as real.

The film was shot in both Bogota, Colombia, and Atlanta, Georgia, but no mention of where the action is taking place is made in the film.

The actual gimmick of this movie, that the agents have to transport an informant on a 22 mile stretch to get him to safety, is a good one and has potential, but strangely the film fails to take advantage of this.

Director Peter Berg takes a circuitous route telling this story. The editing is all over the place. The thinking behind this movie seems to have been action first, story later. What should have been a straightforward and rather compelling narrative unfolds in a muddled and choppy way. For example, the film continually returns to a sequence where Wahlberg’s character is talking about the mission after it happened, but this doesn’t help the story at all other than reveal that Wahlberg’s character is going to survive.

The action scenes are actually pretty good, and I enjoyed most of them, so if you’re into action you certainly won’t be bored, and it’s not like the movie doesn’t have a story. It does. It just doesn’t do the best job telling it.

The screenplay by Lea Carpenter has it moments, but most of them are drowned out by Berg’s overbearing direction. I liked the basic premise of the story, and I actually enjoyed the two main characters, Wahlberg’s James Silva and Cohan’s Alice Kerr. I especially enjoyed their interactions. Cohan’s character is a strong female lead, and I thought she was one of the best written characters in the movie, even though she is stuck in a thankless subplot concerning a messy divorce.

But there’s no villain to speak of, and this certainly hurts the movie. Oh, there are bad guys here, but they’re not developed at all. Wahlberg and company might as well be combatting nameless shadows.

I usually enjoy Mark Wahlberg, and so it’s no surprise that he’s pretty darn good in MILE 22, although his James Silva character can be cocky and annoying. Silva is a savant, which is supposed to make his arrogance sympathetic, but the trouble is the flashback scenes which explain this are so laughably bad none of it seems real. In spite of this, Wahlberg manages to make the guy someone I didn’t mind rooting for.

On the other hand, he gets stuck with lots of bad dialogue, especially when he spouts off about real world dangers, the fallacies of diplomacy, and how the world is safe only because of people like him. While any of this could be true, as written, it comes off as ridiculous.

Lauren Cohan delivers the best performance in the movie as Alice Kerr. She’s so good she even makes the silly divorce scenes tolerable.

John Malkovich is on hand as the leader of the tech team housed in a top-secret location with his fellow computer geeks as they monitor everything from their agents’ vitals to controlling traffic lights to ordering jet missile strikes. Again, what could have been intriguing becomes laughable here.

Peter Berg previously directed Wahlberg in LONE SURVIVOR (2013), DEEPWATER HORIZON (2016) and PATRIOTS DAY (2016). MILE 22 might be the weakest of the lot. It’s certainly inferior to the far more compelling PATRIOTS DAY.

And it looks like Berg and Wahlberg will be working together again, as the ending to MILE 22 sets things up for an obvious sequel. In fact, rumor has it that Berg and Wahlberg have a trilogy planned. Oh joy.

I tend to like gritty action films, and so I certainly did not hate MILE 22. I’ve seen far worse movies. This one certainly isn’t very good, as it struggles with some confusing editing and a helter-skelter narrative.

But Mark Wahlberg makes for a sufficiently arrogant and annoying lead, not someone you like all that much but because of his good intentions someone you root for, and it would be very difficult for me to dislike a movie starring Lauren Cohan. As expected, she is also excellent here.

So, with Wahlberg and Cohan leading the way, MILE 22, in spite of its directing and story problems, isn’t quite as bad as folks are saying.

Its twenty-two mile trek won’t be the longest ride you’ve ever had to sit through, but it also won’t be the most satisfying.

Perhaps they should have gone with MILE 2.

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BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018) – Effective Essay on Race Relations in the U.S.

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Adam Driver and John David Washington in Spike Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018).

Believe it or not, BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018), Spike Lee’s latest movie which tells the tale of a black Colorado cop who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s, is based on a true story, chronicled in the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth in 2014.

But Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN is less a bio pic of Ron Stallworth and more an essay about race, and that’s what ultimately makes this all-too-often-over-the-top tale a success. From its opening shot from GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) to its closing news footage of the horrifying events in Charlottesville, Virginia, the film is structured as a treatise on race relations in the United States, and sadly shows that rather than progressing to a better place, we’ve largely stayed the same, or worse, as judging from the emboldened unmasked faces of the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, we may have gone backwards.

It’s 1972, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first black police officer in Colorado Springs. His dream is to become an undercover detective, and he sets out to do just that as he phones the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and pretends to be a racist white American male. When he’s invited to join the KKK, he arranges for a white officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to play him, and the ruse is on.

Together, and with the full support of their superiors, Ron and Flip infiltrate the KKK’s inner circle and move to take down its more prominent members. Their investigation even leads them to the KKK’s grand master, David Duke (Topher Grace).

This in a nutshell is the plot of BLACKKKLANSMAN, but as I said, what’s more important and impressive about this movie is what it has to say about race relations. On that note, there’s a lot to digest.

BLACKKKLANSMAN makes the case that we haven’t gotten anywhere with race relations, that we’ve actually gone backwards. At the height of Ron’s and Flip’s success, late in the movie, they are informed that their unit is being disbanded due to budget cuts, the symbolic meaning being that here was a moment in time when racism was being driven back, and we took our foot off the pedal and allowed it to return unchecked to the point where it is now, as chronicled in the film’s final few minutes with the footage from Charlottesville.

Early on, there’s a speech by a former Black Panther member to a college crowd where he speaks about his childhood love of Tarzan and how he used to root for Tarzan to beat the black Natives, until he realized those Natives were him. This, along with the footage from GONE WITH THE WIND, speaks to how ingrained racism has been in our culture, even in our movies.

Later, in one of the best sequences of the movie, the film jumps back and forth between two events. A speech by Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) who recounts in explicit and painful detail his eyewitness account of a brutal lynching of a black boy, watched by a crowd of white onlookers behaving as if they were at a sporting event, is intercut with David Duke and other KKK members watching THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). This is the closest the film comes to making its audience weep at the horrors of race relations in our country.

One of the things that doesn’t work in BLACKKKLANSMAN is Spike Lee’s lack of subtlety. Too often his in-your-face style backfires with the unintended result of giving credence to the opposite side. Some of the KKK members, for example, seem like walking clichés for what racist people should be like. The same with some of the police officers. The white racist officer, for example, seems to have walked off the set of last year’s THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) as if he’s Sam Rockwell’s Officer Dixon’s long-lost cousin, but with far less realistic results.

The screenplay by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee, based on the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth, gets an A for its race relations content but scores far less when it comes to its characterizations and plot points. The characters struggle to remain real and the story doesn’t hit all the right notes. There are times when it feels like an awkward “special” episode of Norman Lear’s ALL IN THE FAMILY (1971-79).

On the other hand, one thing Spike Lee does well is take advantage of our knowledge and feelings of present day issues.  There are several uncomfortable scenes of police brutality, for example, in this story which takes place in 1972, but by and large they pale in comparison to real events which have happened in the here and now, again showing how things are worse here in 2018.

John David Washington, the son of Denzel Washington, is solid as Ron Stallworth, but strangely the character isn’t developed as thoroughly as he should be. We know that he always wanted to be a cop, and that he likewise wanted to fight for his people, but we know this because he says this.  We don’t really see or experience his passion or his pain.

Adam Driver fares better than Washington, and his Flip Zimmerman character is actually better developed than Ron Stallworth. Zimmerman is a Jew who at first doesn’t mind hearing all the KKK’s insults, but later in another of the movie’s better scenes, he tells Ron that the reason he didn’t mind the slurs is that although he is Jewish he wasn’t raised Jewish, and so his heritage meant nothing to him. He just saw himself as an average white American, but after hearing all the KKK members’ derogatory remarks, he says now for the first time in his life he can’t stop thinking about his heritage.

He also has a key scene where he responds to Ron’s question of why he doesn’t do anything about the racist cop in their midst, as he tells Ron that although the cop in question is a bad cop, they won’t do anything about it because they are a family and they must look after their own, to which Ron says “that sounds like another group I know about.”

Two of the better performances belong to the supporting players. I loved Laura Harrier as Patrice Dumars, the college student who leads the black movement on campus and who Ron falls for. Harrier possesses a strength and energy that oddly is missing from both Washington’s and Driver’s characters. The movie picks up in intensity every time she’s on-screen. Harrier was similarly successful in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017).

And Topher Grace is excellent as David Duke. His matter of fact businesslike style showing how Duke tried to intellectualize the KKK and make it mainstream, doing everything in his power to make it more acceptable, is unlike the rest of the movie, subtle and chilling. And when we see the real David Duke in 2017 footage, you can see how well Grace nailed the role.

Some of BLACKKKLANSMAN works. Some of it doesn’t. For example, the conversation where it’s explained that the role of the KKK in the 1970s was to legitimize racism to the point where it’s accepted in U.S. politics in the hope that one day someone with similar views is elected U.S. President, works on the one hand because here in 2018 that appears to be the case, but on the other hand seems too convenient and trite, the perfect ammunition for those arguing the opposite point that such talk is “fake news.”

That being said, I liked BLACKKKLANSMAN a lot, but I didn’t love it. What it has to say about race is absolutely required viewing. We still have a race relations problem in the United States and right now it’s not even close to getting better. But in terms of how it tells its story, I liked it less so.  Its characters struggled to draw me in, its story often seemed too blatant, as if Lee’s emotions about this topic were so strong he couldn’t see to it to tell it through a more nuanced lens, and its comedy rarely struck a chord and drew nary a chuckle.

Strangely, I was more emotionally moved regarding race by Marvel’s BLACK PANTHER (2018) earlier this year.

However, I may be in the minority. The film received a hearty round of applause from its full audience as the end credits rolled.

I do agree, however, that it’s Lee’s best film in years. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a Spike Lee movie that I’ve really liked. You probably have to go all the way back to MALCOLM X (1992).

The strength of BLACKKKLANSMAN is not in its storytelling but in its unabashed openness to look at issues of race. As such, it makes for a highly successful and effective essay on the history of race relations in the United States.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: CLOVERFIELD (2008)

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CLOVERFIELD (2008) is the best giant monster movie from the last twenty years.

The recent Godzilla movies, including GODZILLA (2014) and SHIN GODZILLA (2016), the King Kong flicks, both Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005) and KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017), and the well-regarded MONSTERS (2010), none of these even come close to matching the thrills and chills found in CLOVERFIELD.

In fact, CLOVERFIELD is so good I’d argue it’s one of the best giant monster movies ever made. Period. It’s in the conversation with such classics as KING KONG (1933), GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS! (1956) and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953).

I’m still amazed that a film this good hasn’t spawned a direct sequel.  There have been two recent movies that have shared the same Cloverfield “universe” but they haven’t been direct sequels. We’ve had 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016), a decent movie, and THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018), a not-so-decent movie.

I suppose I shouldn’t be upset. I mean, most of the time, sequels don’t improve on the original, but for a movie that’s as good as CLOVERFIELD, it almost seems a shame that it may end up being a standalone one-and-done kinda deal.  Imagine if you will, if Christopher Lee had never played Dracula again? He almost didn’t. It took him eight years before he agreed to do a sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). It’s been ten years since CLOVERFIELD. Rumor has it that a direct sequel is in the works.  But I’ve heard that rumor before.

I hope it eventually happens, because sometimes you just need more.  On the other hand, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water—- yeah, we didn’t need JAWS 2,3 and 4.  JAWS (1975) should have been a standalone movie.

Anyway, back to CLOVERFIELD. This movie received so much hype before its initial release because of its incredibly intriguing and cryptic teaser trailer showing the severed head of the Statue of Liberty crashing onto a New York City street.  It also didn’t hurt that J.J. Abrams’ name was attached to the project as its producer. Abrams, at the time, was riding high from the success of TV’s LOST (2004-2010).

CLOVERFIELD tells the story of a giant monster attack on New York City. It’s a “found footage” tale as it uses the gimmick of a videotape found by the government after the attack to tell its story. And the tape is of a farewell party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David) who’s leaving the next day for his new job in Japan. While all his friends are gathered at his apartment to wish him well, the attack happens outside, and suddenly everyone there is caught in the crossfire as the military moves in to contain the situation—or to try to contain the situation, anyway.

At the party, Rob had a fight with his girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman), and so after the attack, when she calls him and tells him she is trapped in her apartment building, Rob decides to head back into the fray to save her, and his friends decide to go along with him.

The story in CLOVERFIELD is just okay, but it’s everything else that makes it such a superior movie.

First of all, it’s intense and flat-out scary. It’s one of the scariest giant monster movies ever made. It’s also one of the best “shaky cam” movies ever as well.  The credit here goes to director Matt Reeves, who’s one of my favorite horror movie directors working today. Reeves also directed LET ME IN (2010), a film that a lot of folks don’t like, as they prefer LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) better, but I actually prefer Reeves’ film, as well as DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014) and WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017).

In CLOVERFIELD, Reeves creates some really intense scenes, from the aforementioned Statue of Liberty scene, to the sequence in the darkened subway, to the thrilling rescue of Beth. There are just so many edge-of-your-seat moments, which is not something one usually says about a giant monster movie.

Speaking of giant monsters, the “Cloverfield monster” itself is pretty cool looking.  It’s definitely an original, as it’s unlike most anything else that ever set foot in and trampled a large city. And to keep things consistent, it’s also pretty darn frightening!

CLOVERFIELD also has a phenomenal script by Drew Goddard. The dialogue is first-rate and it does a really good job developing its characters, which isn’t easy to do in a found footage movie.  These characters are so very real. He also gets the humor right, as there are lots of moments of welcomed comic relief. Goddard would go on to work on the scripts for THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012), WORLD WAR Z (2013), and THE MARTIAN (2015).

It also has a superb cast.

T.J. Miller steals the show as Hud, the man holding the camera and doing the filming. It’s amazing that he’s as good as he is in this movie, since most of the time he’s holding the camera and so we only hear his voice. He gets some of the best lines in the movie.

Lizzy Caplan is also memorable as Marlena, a friend who barely knows Rob, but who Hud is definitely interested in.  She has some key moments in the film. Likewise, Michael Stahl-David is very good as Rob, and Odette Yustman is equally as good as the frightened Beth.

The film is chock full of memorable lines, like when a military officer responds that they don’t know what’s out there, but that “whatever it is, it’s winning.”

In the same way that Godzilla’s devastating attack on Tokyo in the original GODZILLA hearkened back to the dropping of the atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the monster’s pummeling of New York City in CLOVERFIELD hearkens back to the events of 9/11. As such, the chaotic scenes in the city really resonate.

CLOVERFIELD is also a very short movie, clocking in at only 85 minutes.  This short length only adds to the intensity.

There’s also no music score, which adds to the realism. However, there is music during the end credits, by Michael Giacchino, a piece entitled “Roar!” It’s a powerful piece of music and seems to have been inspired by the various Godzilla themes.

CLOVERFIELD is one of the best giant monster movies ever made. It’s also one of my favorite horror movies.

If you haven’t seen it, you definitely want to check it out. And if you have seen it, maybe it’s time for you to check it out again.

You’ll have a monstrously good time.

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THE MEG (2018) – Giant Shark Tale Ridiculous But Fun

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THE MEG (2018) is often ridiculous and about as scary as a Scooby-Doo cartoon, but this mega shark adventure is also something else: fun.

THE MEG opens with a deep-sea rescue mission gone wrong.  Rescuer Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) is in the midst of leading a rescue team to save folks trapped in a damaged nuclear submarine, but when something seems to attack the sub, Jonas makes the executive decision to leave some of his team behind in order to rescue the few lives he has with him. It’s a decision that does not bode well with others on his team, as later no proof of a powerful sea creature which Jonas said was attacking the sub is ever found.

In terms of opening sequences, it’s not all that memorable and sounds more exciting than it actually is.

The action picks up five years later at a deep-sea station off the coast of China where a scientist named Zhang (Winston Chao) is leading an expedition to travel to the very depths of the ocean, and beyond.  See, Zhang believes that at the bottom of what is considered to be one of the deepest parts of the ocean floor, lies a gaseous barrier rather than a solid bottom, and he believes beneath that barrier is another world. And faster than you can say Jules Verne, a mini sub is launched from the station to prove just that.

The sub breaks through the barrier, but before anyone can celebrate, it’s attacked by a mysterious unseen creature. And of course, Zhang and company turn to the one man who has ever attempted a rescue that deep in the ocean, Jonas Taylor. Jonas, of course, says he’s done with all that, wants no part of it, and nothing they can say will change his mind. His resolve lasts all of two seconds before he learns that the woman commanding the sub and one of the people trapped inside is his ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee).

And so Jonas packs his bags and is off to the rescue, where of course he will come face to face with a massive prehistoric shark which may or may be the same creature which he encountered five years before. The film doesn’t really make that clear.

And this is only the beginning, because once the rescue is done, the mammoth shark decides he’s had enough of living so far below the ocean and comes up for a visit.

One of the main reasons THE MEG is so much fun is its story keeps evolving. It’s not just one long rescue mission tale.  Things continually change. As a result, the movie remains exciting throughout, and with some brisk pacing, there are very few slow parts here.

The screenplay by Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, and Erich Hoeber, based on the novel Meg by Steve Alten, also contains lots of lively dialogue which is sure to be a crowd pleaser. It also does a really good job developing its characters, which for a movie like this, is a pleasant surprise. In fact, that was one of my favorite parts of this movie, that its characters were all so likable.

But the story is not without flaws. A lot of things aren’t explained all that well. For instance, once the giant shark makes its presence known, everyone who doubted Jonas apologizes to him. Yet, at one point in the story, Jonas says the creature outside the sub in his doomed mission was destroyed in the subsequent explosion, so, just how the appearance of this prehistoric shark acquits Jonas is unclear to me. Just because there’s a huge shark around now doesn’t mean there was one that day Jonas left those people behind to die.

For such a deep-sea expedition, it seems to take only seconds for everyone to get down to the ocean floor and then back up again. And some of the later shark scenes are flat-out ludicrous but somehow don’t deteriorate into laughable material.

And while the story scores high on the adventure meter, it scores less so when it comes to conflict.  Nearly every plan our heroes suggest works.

Director Jon Turteltaub plays things safe. THE MEG is rated PG-13, so there’s not a drop of blood to be found. Yet, somehow, the movie doesn’t suffer for it.

The shark itself is okay.  CGI sharks just don’t cut it for me.  This one works best when we see it only partially, like shots from above where we see its massive form swimming beneath the waves. Those scenes are ominous, but seen up close, it’s nothing more than a frightening cartoon.

One of the strongest parts of THE MEG is its cast. Pretty much everyone in the movie is very good, and so that goes a long way towards making this film as enjoyable as it is.

Director Jon  Turtelbaub deserves some credit here for getting so much out of his actors in this one.

We’ll start at the top with Jason Statham, who’s been one of my favorite action movie stars over the past ten years or so. As he almost always is, he’s excellent here. He’s extremely believable in the part, except of course when he dives into the water for a hand to hand combat session with the supersized shark. Perhaps he should apply to become a Marvel superhero?

Even so, Statham does a good job making the ludicrous situations he finds himself in believable. His scenes with the little girl at the station, Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cal) are precious, and Shuya Sophia Cal is adorable and entertaining in the role.

Li Bingbing plays Suyin, Zhang’s daughter and Meiying’s mother.  She’s pretty much the lead scientist on the expedition, and she is definitely not a heroine in need of saving. She pretty much goes toe to toe with Statham’s Jonas Taylor, and the two of them lead the charge against the shark. She’s also very sexy.

Rainn Wilson, who played Dwight on THE OFFICE (2005-2013) plays the wealthy businessman who finances the expedition. He’s the guy you love to hate.

Cliff Curtis, who played Travis on FEAR THE WALKING DEAD (2015-17), is very good here as Jonas’ friend Mac. Likewise, Winston Chao is convincing as Zhang, as is Ruby Rose as the sexy engineer Jaxx who designed the deep-sea station.

Robert Taylor stands out as Heller, the doctor at the station who was there that fateful day when Jonas failed to rescue everyone from the nuclear sub, and for the past five years he had blamed Jonas for their deaths, claiming he had become unhinged. When the mega shark appears, Heller is quick to apologize to Jonas. Taylor, who plays Sheriff Walt Longmire on the TV show LONGMIRE (2012-2017), probably gives the best performance in the movie.

Olafur Darri Olafsson and Masi Oka are also very good as a couple of scientists, and likewise Jessica McNamee is memorable as Jonas’ ex-wife Lori.

Only Page Kennedy doesn’t  fare as well, as scientist DJ. He’s the one black character on the crew, and he’s also supposed to be the film’s comic relief, but a lot of the jokes I thought were cliché, and I think the one person of color in the movie deserved a better written role.

As shark movies go, THE MEG is one of the better ones. It’s a much stronger film than the recent 47 METERS DOWN (2017), and more fun than  THE SHALLOWS (2016).

That being said, it still pales in comparison to the Holy Grail of shark movies, JAWS (1975). It’s not intense like JAWS, and it’s certainly not realistic like JAWS. However, during the film’s third act, there are several nods to the 1975 Steven Spielberg classic.

THE MEG is a lot of fun, and as such, for a summer time popcorn movie, it comes highly recommended.

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CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018) – Mild, Underwhelming Children’s Fare

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Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) talks with Pooh in CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018).

As a kid, I thoroughly enjoyed the Disney cartoons featuring Winnie the Pooh. My favorite was the short WINNIE THE POOH AND THE HONEY TREE (1966). So, I was eager to trek off to the theater to see CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018), a live action tale featuring a now adult Christopher Robin having one more adventure with his stuffed animal friends from the Hundred Acre Wood.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN opens nicely, with a montage chronicling the relationship between a young Christopher Robin and his “friends” Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Rabbit, Eeyore, Owl, Kanga and Roo. The opening sequence ends with Christopher Robin telling his playmates that it’s time for him to leave, that he needs to go off to school and grow up, and while Christopher seems perfectly at ease about this, Pooh and company are a little less so and are very sad to see the boy leave them, not fully understanding why he has to go.

The action then switches to years later where an adult Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) lives in London with his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Things should be wonderful, but they’re not.  Christopher has a very demanding job which keeps him away from his family, and both his wife and daughter are letting him know about it.

Meanwhile, back in the Hundred Acre Wood, Pooh has had enough of missing Christopher Robin and decides to go looking for him in the outside world. When the two meet, it’s just in time for Pooh and his friends to help Christopher see the light and realize that his family  comes first.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN looks wonderful, with its late 1940s costumes and set design, and the CGI effects on Pooh and company are flawless.  The talking stuffed animals here are sufficiently cute and cuddly.

But the plot point of a father being too busy to spend time with his family is hardly original, and since this story adds little that is new to the concept, it really works against this movie.

Plus, the story itself doesn’t hold up.

For starters, Christopher Robin is shown as a man who does love his family but unfortunately is stuck in a demanding job. It’s not as if he has the option of spending time with his family and chooses not to. He doesn’t.  If anyone needs a change of heart in this story, it’s his employer, not him.

Second, Pooh and friends don’t exactly rush to the rescue. They try to help by attempting to return to Christopher Robin the “important papers” he left behind, and when they meet Madeline they end up working together, but it’s a not a direct “rescue mission.” They do help Christopher Robin “see the light” but in a roundabout inadvertent way.

I was largely underwhelmed by CHRISTOPHER ROBIN. While I enjoyed its charm and the nostalgia of seeing Pooh and company back on-screen again, it simply wasn’t all that lively or memorable.

Director Marc Foster keeps the pace deliberate and slow, making for a rather dull movie. I’m also not quite sure who the film is marketed for. The family drama which takes up most of the movie is definitely geared more for adults, while Pooh’s story is seemingly aimed at the very young.  It’s not the kind of lively script that’s going to hold the interest of older children.

Foster also directed QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008), the second Daniel Craig James Bond film, a movie a lot of people didn’t like, but it’s one of my favorite Craig Bonds, as well as the horror movie WORLD WAR Z (2013). CHRISTOPHER ROBIN is a far cry from these two movies, and I can’t say that I enjoyed it as much as I did SOLACE and Z.

The screenplay by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, and Allison Schroeder is pleasant but uninspiring. Pooh and his buddies enjoy plenty of little moments but few if any big ones. The family tale of Christopher Robin trying to make time for his family largely falls flat. The result is a mixed bag of a script which tends to gravitate to the mundane, even with the majority of the characters being CGI created fluffy stuffed animals that can talk.

Tom McCarthy was one of the writers who wrote SPOTLIGHT (2015), while Allison Schroeder was one of the writers who worked on HIDDEN FIGURES (2016), two phenomenal movies. CHRISTOPHER ROBIN is not on the level of either one of these. Not even close.

Ewan McGregor is okay in the lead role as the adult Christopher Robin, but he certainly didn’t wow me. In fact, the character rather bored me, and so if Christopher Robin is guilty of anything in this movie, it’s that he’s become a dull unimaginative adult rather than an overworked one, yet the script doesn’t really play up this angle.

Likewise, Hayley Atwell is just okay as Evelyn, the wife who is clearly frustrated with her busy husband and can’t seem to get through to him. Atwell is known these days as Agent Peggy Carter in some of the Marvel superhero movies and the short-lived AGENT CARTER TV series (2015-16).

In the important role of young Madeline Robin, Bronte Carmichael acquits herself well, but the character struggles to rise above the cliché.

The voice actors don’t fare all that better, except for Jim Cummings, who provides the voices of both Pooh and Tigger. Cummings has been voicing these characters for quite a while now, since the 1980s, and he does a fine job here. Pooh and Tigger were probably my two favorite characters in the movie.

Brad Garrett voiced Eeyore, Nick Mohammed provided the voice for Piglet, Peter Capaldi lent his voice for Rabbit, Sophie Okonedo for Kanga, Sara Sheen voiced Roo, and veteran character actor Toby Jones provided the voice for Owl. All of these folks were okay but no one knocked it out of the park.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN taken as a whole was largely underwhelming. The adults in the story were dull, the main child a cliché, and the talking stuffed animals were oddly reserved and rather passive. Worse, its main story of a father who’s “lost his way” and needs to reconnect with his family doesn’t really resonate or have the desired impact. That’s because the adult Christopher Robin in this movie is not a man who now shuns his childhood imagination and replaces it with a love of work, but rather, he’s a man who’s simply too busy to recall the imagination he once had. And the realization that “hey, maybe I can be a bit less busy,” really isn’t all that dramatic or compelling.

As a result, CHRISTOPHER ROBIN is a mildly entertaining movie, best reserved for folks who enjoyed Pooh as a kid and are curious to see him on the big screen again. It should serve as a fair reunion.

I seriously doubt many new fans will emerge after watching this movie.

For me though, CHRISTOPHER ROBIN didn’t come close to satisfying my appetite for a new Pooh adventure.

Yep, there’s still a rumbly in my tumbly.

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