Review: Proud Mary

Proud Mary.

Here’s the thing. In the genre of “gun-fu,” we’ve had a few stellar entries lately (John Wick) and a few disappointing ones (Atomic Blonde). When the trailer came out for Proud Mary, showcasing Taraji P. Henson as a badass assassin, I wanted this movie to be stellar. Is it?

The gist.

Taraji P. Henson stars as Mary, a trained killer who finds herself in a sticky situation when she leaves a potential witness alive, a young boy (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) whose father was into some bad stuff. Well, the boy turns to a life of crime himself and Mary believes she’s somewhat to blame, triggering an adventure for her to defend the boy and eliminate any hostiles looking for him. We also have Mary’s former lover and also a deadly assassin, Tom (played by Billy Brown). Tom’s father (Danny Glover) runs the “business” they’re all a part of and has a stake in keeping this young boy quiet.

What works?

As the lead, Taraji P. Henson is convincing, though the script and fight choreography do her a disservice. She would have shone in a better movie, which is unfortunate. The young Jahi Di’Allo Winston also has a few great moments but is let down by the movie itself.

What didn’t work?

Yes, you read that right. There was only one paragraph for the good stuff, which unfortunately means that this movie is a huge letdown. Let me explain why.

Let’s start on the page. This movie has three credited writers and all of them are unknown and have no experience in this genre, which is obvious when you realize that this movie only has one decent action sequence and the rest is mild-mannered drama. The writers do have experience in soap operas, so I guess that makes sense.

The plot itself is formulaic and predictable, tied together with melodramatic scenes with little consequence. It’s slow and boring, for the most part. If you want Taraji’s version of John Wick, you’re going to be incredibly disappointed here. She spends more time wallowing in what she’s done, than actually doing it.

Okay, so let’s pretend that we’re shooting these fight sequences and we know that we have to make them amazing, since they’re rare in this movie. There are 48 stunt performers and I’m guessing they each got to do one action because this movie is calm and I have no idea why 48 people were needed. And the quality of these few action sequences? Not good. The cuts are quick, the fights look clumsy, and overall it’s completely unimpressive.

The editing is subpar in general, not just the fight scenes. Moments linger forever that should just be a quick shot. This movie feels long and slow because of editing that could’ve used a few extra eyes to actually trim and cut the fat.

And here’s a weird complaint that I’ve never brought up before but I know it’s an issue in other movies. It’s a special skill to properly capture a dark-skinned actor on camera and this movie did not do it at all. After seeing great examples in Moonlight and the HBO series Insecure, I’ve seen what it can do and here, we have Danny Glover against a bright open window and you can barely even make out his shape, nonetheless facial features. It happens throughout the entire movie, where overuse of natural light makes it near impossible to make out the actors, especially those with darker skin. I don’t know how they looked at those shots and thought, “Yes, that looks the way I intended.” Someone wasn’t paying attention and/or didn’t care about this movie at all.

Overall…

I wanted Proud Mary to be amazing. A woman of color in a badass action movie, I wanted this to set a new standard. However, Taraji is let down here by everyone around her. The script is predictable and bland and ultimately lacks the action necessary. The action they do have is lackluster and edited poorly. The lighting is subpar, the editing is lazy, and this movie ultimately fails on almost every front.

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Review: Molly’s Game

Molly’s Game.

This movie has a lot going for it, including Jessica Chastain with a very complicated role and giving screenwriter Aaron Sorkin his first directorial effort. If you don’t recognize Sorkin’s name, he’s responsible for writing films like The Social NetworkSteve Jobs, Moneyball, A Few Good Men, and almost the entire series The West Wing.

The gist.

Chastain stars as Molly Bloom, a former professional skier who is injured and ends up getting roped into running a high stakes poker game. This movie is the story of how she got to that place and how she ended up in a major criminal investigation involving the Russian mob. Her lawyer (Idris Elba) is the key source of exposition, asking Molly all the questions that we as an audience might have. We also have a few key poker players, played by Michael Cera, Chris O’Dowd, and Justin Kirk. Molly’s current day story is also paralleled by her youth and a complicated relationship with her father (Kevin Costner).

What works?

Molly’s Game is a fantastic movie and absolutely fits in with other Sorkin films.

Jessica Chastain carries the movie and she’s perfect. You absolutely believe her struggles and her performances in different time eras are very illuminating to where she is in current time. It’s nuanced and complicated and she’s great here. She’s complemented well by Idris Elba, though he mostly serves to progress the plot and trigger flashback scenes. He does have one big moment at the end that gave me goosebumps and almost made me applaud in the theater.

I also want to commend casting some relative B-list talent that get a chance to shine here. Michael Cera hasn’t done much recently, but here he’s perfect. Chris O’Dowd and Justin Kirk (Weeds) also get little moments to steal the show.

Sorkin’s strength is (unsurprisingly) his dialogue and quick exposition. This movie cuts quickly and manages to keep you entertained for its entire runtime, finding time to explain poker mechanics in ways that non-poker players would understand. He also manages to make Chastain’s constant narration seem natural, which is hard to do.

This movie manages to balance a few different tones exceptionally well. It’s funny, a lot of the time. Molly is quick and witty. The movie also manages to become really somber at times, including some intense moments revolving around Molly and her father (Kevin Costner). Costner may only have a few meaty scenes but he delivers a top-notch performance here.

Molly’s Game also manages to intrigue you, which is sometimes tough for a “true story” film. I didn’t know how it was going to twist and turn and I was (luckily) pretty uninformed about the real life story, which I think is the best way to go into this. Go in knowing nothing, then do your research when you get home on how it really might’ve gone down.

What doesn’t work?

The only complaint I can think of is that the movie nears the 2.5 hour mark, though the speed of the movie never slows down, I never once wanted to check the time. So it’s lengthy but I don’t have a problem with the pacing, it all works.

Overall…

Molly’s Game is exciting, interesting, and educational. It had me laughing throughout most of it, but it also manages some hefty emotional moments as well. Jessica Chastain delivers an award-worthy performance, as does Kevin Costner in a supporting capacity. The trailers for this movie underwhelmed me but the actual film surprised me a lot, in all the right ways.

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Review: All the Money in the World

All the Money in the World.

This movie gained some attention for its last-minute removal of Kevin Spacey amidst sexual assault allegations. They replaced Spacey with Christopher Plummer, with just weeks to reshoot every scene and remove Spacey completely. So that’s the main reason most folks will see this: curiosity.

The gist.

J. Paul Getty (Plummer) is the richest man in history, amassing estates full of relics and art. His estranged son gets married (to Michelle Williams) and they have a son (Charlie Plummer, seemingly no relation to Christopher Plummer). A group of Italian kidnappers take the young Paul and hope to get ransom money, not realizing that the elderly billionaire isn’t interested in paying the ransom. Williams’ character is assisted by a former special agent (Mark Wahlberg) who can help to get the young Getty back, hopefully in one piece.

This is based on a real-life situation though embellished a bit for the dramatic.

What works?

As a historical event, this is fascinating. I’ve been to the Getty Villa in Malibu, so it’s interesting to see the background of what led to that stockpile of art. We’re used to the concept of billionaires now but looking at the first billionaire is really intriguing.

Christopher Plummer in this role is spectacular, so I think Spacey (in his old age makeup) would’ve been a step down, even distracting. Plummer manages to convey power and fear and greed without any gimmicky makeup. This last-minute switch was a benefit to the movie.

The other outstanding lead is Michelle Williams, who is really making a comeback with her other films like The Greatest Showman and last year’s Manchester by the Sea. Here, she’s a fierce mother fighting for her child and it’s totally believable. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a nomination for her and Plummer both.

What doesn’t work?

Ultimately this is kind of a boring movie. At 2 hours 12 minutes, there are a lot of long scenes and dialogue-heavy moments. There are also multiple conflicts that feel unnecessary to the story, where you feel like it might be resolved or the story might be wrapping up but it doesn’t. Some of the story beats were created for the movie, not based on reality, and they end up dragging the movie down. It’s a slow burn, with just a few suspenseful scenes.

There are also moments that you can tell Christopher Plummer was added to the scene. There are even a few where it looks like his face was superimposed onto Spacey’s body, with last-minute CGI effects looking not very polished.

The tricky thing about basing a movie on a real story is the restriction of what you can and can’t do. Or what you have to do. Here, we have a character played by Mark Wahlberg that is unnecessary, doing absolutely nothing of importance. I was expecting some badass action moments, but Wahlberg didn’t get anything like that. “Oh but maybe he chose this for the dramatic moments?” Nope, he doesn’t get anything to do with that either. He is purposeless.

Overall…

All the Money in the World is a mixed bag. It would’ve been worse off if they kept Kevin Spacey, as Christopher Plummer is the highlight of the film, though Michelle Williams holds her own too. The movie drags, featuring plenty of unnecessary scenes and characters, which makes the film too slow and too long.

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Review: Pitch Perfect 3

Pitch Perfect 3.

Here’s my track record with the Pitch Perfect films. The first one surprised me, with an incredibly catchy soundtrack and the right dose of heart. The second movie was funny, sure, and featured some nice songs, but didn’t live up to the first. And now it’s up to this movie to either end the trilogy on a high note or continue the downward spiral.

The gist.

Beca (Anna Kendrick) reunites with her college a capella group, the Barden Bellas. To do one last show together, they travel on a tour performing for the troops. It turns out this tour is actually a competition held by DJ Khaled to find a new opening act, so the Bellas now must sing their hearts out. Among the Bellas we have Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, Hailee Steinfeld, Cynthia Rose, Hana Mae Lee, Kelley Jakle, Shelley Regner, and Chrissie Fit.

A few cast members are absent, including both Beca and Fat Amy’s former romances. They’ve added a few new faces, including John Lithgow as Fat Amy’s father and Ruby Rose as the lead singer of a competing band.

What works?

This is movie is a comedy first and foremost, and luckily it works most of the time. You’ll laugh plenty here, though the absence of Adam Devine is a big hole to fill and I don’t think anyone really manages to replace his energy here.

The arc for Beca (Kendrick) was satisfying in that it built since the first film, though the other characters get much less to do. They try to give Fat Amy stuff to do but her plotline isn’t as successful.

What doesn’t work?

While the movie is funny, it’s not as funny as the previous movies. I am thankful though that they stopped going to a few places, like they toned down the ridiculous Lilly moments (the girl who whispers things) and the crazy things that Flo would say (the Latina member who joined in Pitch Perfect 2). These moments became grating already and are absent here. However nothing really fills the void, so the movie is funny but nothing really special.

Likewise the music is good, but it’s not as good. There isn’t a single track that you’ll likely remember as a standout number and it just feels a little more subdued.

The movie also makes an effort to illicit emotions towards the end, about this being the finale in the trilogy, but it didn’t really affect me at all. It felt hollow, especially considering some major changes like removing all of the romantic interests (both Adam Devine and Skylar Astin are absent). This feels like a spinoff, like an unnecessary stand alone adventure, not the culmination of a long journey. The emotional moments were flat and ultimately disappointing.

Overall…

Pitch Perfect 3 is a disappointing end to the series, removing a few key pieces and failing to fill the void. The music isn’t as good as past movies and it’s ultimately not as funny either. The movie attempts to give us a big emotional sendoff but it feels hollow, going out with a whimper rather than a bang.

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Review: Downsizing

Downsizing.

I love interesting science fiction “what if” stories and Downsizing fits the bill. Imagine if one weird scientific breakthrough happened, how would that affect our world? Usually these movies revolve around something more dramatic like time travel or teleportation or androids, but this one is a tad more subdued.

The gist.

Imagine a world where it’s possible to shrink down to about 5 inches and live in small communities where your money is worth 1000x as much. Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig star as a married couple who want to live in luxury but are broke and hopeless, so they go in for this “downsizing” process. However when Damon’s character wakes up, he’s alone and his wife has ditched him. The real story starts here, as he tries to find out more about himself. He befriends his wild neighbor (Christoph Waltz) and meets a Vietnamese woman who was shrunk by her government for her insolence (Hong Chau).

What works?

As a concept, this is a cool idea and the movie does a great job of showing you all sorts of facets about this world. Plot-wise, it’s really minimal, but we get to see a lot of examples of how downsizing would affect the world and the people in it.

Matt Damon does a great job here too, as the man looking for a purpose. The cast around him does a great job, though Hong Chau might be a divisive choice. She has heart and provides a lot of the charm of the movie but she delivers a very strong Vietnamese accent that had the audience laughing, though I don’t think it was supposed to be comedy. I liked her though, I just wonder if other audiences will appreciate it.

I also thought Christoph Waltz stole most scenes that he was in, he was a riot here. It was a nice turn since he’s usually the stoic villain.

What doesn’t work?

The biggest complaint I have is how the movie ends. It’s surprising how many movies can fall apart in the final moments, in the very way that they cut to credits. Here, a movie that was very literal in how it told its story suddenly decides to become vague with an ending that left the entire theater speechless and confused. I could’ve seen many different endings coming and any of those predictable endings would have been better than what we got.

This movie’s plotline also zigzagged all over the place. It was surprising, since the entire second half of the film wasn’t featured in the trailers, but it felt like plotlines were just left behind or ignored. We meet characters (like a former friend played by Jason Sudeikis) and they immediately disappear. It’s not a satisfying journey, even though the world is interesting.

Like I said, if you find Hong Chau to be a comedic element, she might become grating to you. Again, I liked her, but I worry it’s going to be a divisive opinion.

Overall…

Downsizing is an interesting movie but not necessarily a good movie. This is like a short story that features a scientific “what if” but it’s stretched into a two hour movie that doesn’t quite pay off, especially with an ending that doesn’t suit the movie it belongs to. Damon is great as the lead, and I liked Hong Chau, but half the audience mistook her heartfelt moments for comedy. Worth renting, wait for the small screen (pun intended).

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Review: The Greatest Showman

The Greatest Showman.

I’m a sucker for musicals, let me just put that out there first. So this whole review is coming from someone that doesn’t mind spontaneous singing and choreographed routines. I don’t mind metaphorical locations and drastic leaps in logic, as long as it services the music. So, knowing that The Greatest Showman dives head-on into this genre, does it manage to succeed?

The gist.

This is the story of how P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) created the concept of a traveling circus. It’s also a love story of how he fell for his wife Charity (Michelle Williams), all while building a successful business. He recruits a young rich kid Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to help pay for these endeavors and Carlyle eventually falls for one of the trapeze artists named Anne (Zendaya). We also have a few stars of the circus, including the bearded woman Lettie (Keala Settle), a short performer named Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), and Zendaya’s trapeze partner W.D. (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).

This is Mark Gracey’s directorial debut, but this movie is cemented by the songs written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who both won Oscars for the songs from La La Land.

What works?

This isn’t the best movie of the year but it just may be my favorite. From start to finish, I was smiling and tapping my toe. It manages to hook your heartstrings and it doesn’t let go, with an incredible mixture of comedy, conflict, and inspiration. This is a movie that most of you, if you have a tendency to enjoy musicals at all, should absolutely adore.

The music is the star of the show here and almost every song features a hook that you’ll want to listen to over and over again. We listened to the music driving home and I anticipate keeping this soundtrack in the rotation for a good while. The vocal talent on display here is incredible.

There’s an abundance of heart here as well, giving us a spectrum of stories and emotions that all work perfectly. I teared up quite a few times, usually from an overflowing happiness. Hugh Jackman carries the movie but I also want to shout out the love story between Zac Efron and Zendaya, who both deliver solid performances as well. I also got goosebumps multiple times, which is super rare.

I also really enjoyed the circus performers that they brought in, who offered a lot of charm and personality. The bearded woman (Keala Settle) stole the show with “This is Me” and Sam Humphrey as Tom Thumb was a reliable and consistent source of inspiration and comedy. All of the big group numbers were incredibly enjoyable.

What didn’t work?

My only complaint here is that some of the CGI work wasn’t great, usually when they’d try to incorporate animals, such as lions and elephants. Not great.

Also, you need to really be down for a musical to appreciate this. It’s outlandish and songs come out of nowhere, so if you’re a skeptic about this genre, you’ll be turned off in the first few seconds of the movie. Ask yourself if this is your style before committing to buy a ticket.

Overall…

The Greatest Showman is fantastic. The cast all deliver incredible performances, the music is astounding, and the amount of heart in this film is overwhelming. This has everything, it checks every box for me. If you enjoy huge dance numbers but you also want a story that is suitable for all ages and manages to illicit every emotion on the spectrum, this movie does it. This is one of my favorite films of the year and one that you shouldn’t miss it on the big screen.

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Review: The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water.

Guillermo Del Toro has an up and down record with me. Some of his stuff is amazing, like Pan’s Labyrith or the Hellboy films. Other movies like Crimson Peak and even Pacific Rim were lackluster to me. Will this film manage to fall on the positive side?

The gist.

It’s the 1960s. There’s a hidden government lab, where our lead heroine Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works as a janitor, alongside her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). One day, things get turned upside down when a new creature arrives to the lab, a dangerous amphibian creature (played by Doug Jones). This creature is escorted by a security detail (led by Michael Shannon) and has a dedicated doctor to examine him (Michael Stuhlbarg). We also have Elisa’s neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), who might just be her closest friend.

What works?

This movie is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, which isn’t surprising considering Del Toro’s history and willingness to break the mold. Although the story is alienating and sometimes disturbing, it’s humanized and anchored by Sally Hawkins, who might snag a nomination for this. Although her character is mute, she has immense personality and is able to emote volumes with just her face.

Everyone around Hawkins pulls their weight as well. Michael Shannon as the villain of the story is perfect but he’s not stretching any new muscles here. We have an interesting storyline that allows Michael Stuhlbarg to really shine, as the scientist and doctor assigned to examining the creature. Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s neighbor is also given a lot to do, including a side arc of him trying to flirt with the waiter at a local diner.

Why most folks will see this movie is for the creature, this Creature from the Black Lagoon. He’s played perfectly by Doug Jones, who has done nearly every Del Toro film before this, including playing the very similar Abe Sapian from the Hellboy films. He nails it, complemented by some incredible prosthetics and digital effects.

This movie will be divisive, so it’s incredibly hard to score. It is a romance. Sally Hawkins manages to convince us that her character can fall in love with this creature and it’s a roller coaster of emotions. Some folks will balk immediately at this notion. If that concept alone makes you feel uncomfortable, this might be a tough go for you. I found it interesting and thought-provoking, as it brings up questions of what makes a person a person.

What doesn’t work?

The movie is a slow go, highlighted by just a few action sequences, so if you’re looking for a sci fi adventure, this isn’t it. It’s a romance, a drama, so expect that level of pacing.

Also, like I said above, you need to be comfortable with the idea of a love story where one half of that love is not human. If you’re interested in what that could look like, check this out, but if you feel hesitant or uncomfortable, I warned you.

Overall…

The Shape of Water is fantastic, among one of Del Toro’s best. The two lovers are both incredible, with both Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones carrying more than their weight here. This movie will confront you with questions about humanity and love and compassion and it does it all perfectly, though the drama nature of the film may seem a tad slow to some of you. For me, I found it intriguing and when the credits rolled, I was still fascinated by it. If you think this topic is interesting, find this movie showing near you.

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