The Current War Review

You can see a great movie hidden somewhere in The Current War, but it remains unilluminated in this release. This isn’t a bad movie, but it is a muddled mix of strong performances and unclear themes.

To start with, Michael Shannon is amazing. In this movie and also in every other movie I’ve seen him in. The rest of the cast is good as well; Cumberbatch holds up his end against Shannon pretty well, but his is the showier, yet somehow less memorable part. Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston, Nicholas Hoult, Mathew Macfayden all appear and are fine.

Where the movie seems to be muddled is in its very thesis. It contrasts Edison and Westinghouse, but the movie never really gives the viewer any reason to see Edison as anything other than a villain. The movie doesn’t treat him like a villain; it seems to think of him as a hero, but the movie never shows him do anything that isn’t at least a little bit contemptible. When he is forced out of his own company near the end, the movie frames it as tragic, but it seems pretty deserved. Westinghouse, using a conglomeration of patents and other people’s technology, builds an effective alternating current electric grid. His goal is to sell it to Edison and make them both a bunch of money while making electric power accessible to the masses. Edison won’t even meet with him. He refuses to consider anything but his own direct current system, claiming that ac is dangerous despite having no proof. When Westinghouse feels forced to go it alone, Edison pretty much immediately plays dirty. Westinghouse kind of does the same, but his dirty play is just to expose the truth about Edison.

The movie tries to soften Edison by showing him with his family; mostly of him ignoring them to do his work. It also has him harping on his refusal to build something designed to kill a man, which supposedly drives his refusal to work with high voltage ac. But he also goes against that building an electric chair in an effort to smear Westinghouse. Basically, the movie only shows Edison at his worst, but then expects the viewer to feel something when Holland’s character, who has been Edison’s right hand throughout the movie, says he is glad he worked for Edison over Westinghouse. I just can’t figure out why. The movie would have been better with a greater focus on Westinghouse. It is slanted towards Edison, but it doesn’t give enough of Westinghouse’s reaction.

Still, the movie absolutely sparkles at times. When Westinghouse and Edison finally meet at the Chicago World’s Fair, it is a great scene. They have a conversation about achieving greatness, with the defeated Edison already anticipating his next great success. Westinghouse is magnanimous in victory. Nicholas Hoult’s brief appearances as Nikola Tesla are solid as well. He doesn’t have enough time to do a whole lot; he mostly establishes himself as a brilliant inventor who is bad at business.

This is a great looking movie with some excellent performances, but the whole thing feels like less than the sum of its parts. It is far from a disaster, but it is clearly not as good as it could have been.

***

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

The first Maleficent movie was one of the better Disney live action adaptations because it was one of the few that did more than slavishly recreate the animated movie. I mean, a version of the story where the bad guy is actually the good guy is not the most original thing, but at least it’s something. (I know I didn’t like Dumbo which did the same, but it was bad for other reasons). This sequel had the potential to be something really good and at times its seems poised to realize that potential, only for it to be kind of muddled and distracted. Early on, the movie, when Maleficent is preparing to meet her daughters new in laws, practicing small talk with her raven companion, hints at a much better version of this. A movie that builds to the conflict between Maleficent and fey against the humans. A comedy of manners that spirals out of control. Instead, the movie jumps right to a brewing war.

The problem is the movie has so much to get to that it can’t let any of it land. There is the marriage plot, the people kidnapping fairies, the dark fey, like Maleficent, who are itching for a fight with the humans. Much of it needs to be explained. But in the midst of all the explaining, there is little time for anything else. It also renders the heroes alternately moronic and inert. The connection between Aurora and Maleficent was established in the first movie, it doesn’t make a lot of sense how quickly she believes the worst of her. Maleficent has to get all of the history of the dark fey and their current situation in a quick dump, with no time to process finding a whole world of people just like her. Phillip’s mother Queen Ingrith is plotting a war, and the movie has to walk the viewer through it.

All of these plots could be interesting, if the movie either handled them with a lighter touch or had a little more time to work through them. It almost feels like the last two parts of a trilogy smashed together. Maleficent’s journey doesn’t quite work. She goes from distant, but loving mother, to spurned and hated, to prophesied hero over the course of this movie, but none of it really lands. No one else really has much of an arc. Aurora learns something she already knew. Everyone else learns that racism is bad.

At least the movie looks good. The magical creatures don’t exactly look real, but they look appealing. The fey are really well done, with their wings looking and acting like real appendages most of the time. It also has some awe inspiring castles and vistas. The movie simply looks good.

Angelina Jolie is pretty great as Maleficent. And Michelle Pfeiffer seems to be having fun as the evil Queen Ingrith. Elle Fanning has precious little to do as Aurora, and Prince Phillip spends most of the movie being ineffectual. It is just short of being a waste of a great cast, only saved by how much the actors seem to be enjoying themselves.

As messy as it is, I still largely enjoyed Maleficent Mistress of Evil. I don’t think it’s good, but there are enough interesting things going on that I don’t regret seeing it.

**1/2

Addams Family

I feel like I shouldn’t like this version of The Addams Family. Sure the character designs for this adhere pretty closely to the look from the original single panel comics, but the movie does all the things that tend to sink bad modern animated movies. Gratuitous pop culture references, obnoxious needle drops, star-studded voice casts that aren’t really voice actors, cardboard stories. Somehow, though, I found myself very entertained by it anyway. That might just be my natural affection for the Addams family. This movie turns their satire of old money weirdness into a tale about immigrants, but it keeps the charm of this group of delightful weirdos. It isn’t the best movie you are likely to see this year, but it is a more than passable way to spend 90 minutes.

The plot is barely worth recounting. The Addamses, the consummate weirdos that they are, are driven out of their home country, due to racism that feels sadly timely. They settle in a New Jersey swamp and begin to raise a family. Some fifteen or so years later, someone builds a housing development in the swamp and suddenly the Addams have neighbors. This is happening when the extended family is coming into town for Pugsley’s Mazurka ceremony, where he becomes an Addams man. Wednesday wants to learn more of the outside world and go to the local middle school. The ‘normal’ people clash with the Addams. Everyone learns some sort of lesson.

There are plenty of good bits with the people reacting to the strangeness of the Addams. Whether it is Wednesday and Pugsley being caged schooled, or the constant murder attempts, or anything with Fester, they are fun. The Addams Family works because they combine the outwardly spooky traits of the Addams with their treating everything like normal. They are a happy family that just so happens to be filled with psychopaths. The movie goes overboard with the ‘normal’ people though. Does the town need to be named Assimilation? DO they need to sing a song about how great it is to be just like everyone else? There is a movie where that stuff would work, but this movie is either pushing it too far or not pushing it far enough. Go full brainwashed weirdness with that stuff, or dump entirely. Doing just a little bit of it muddles exactly whether these are normal people or cult members. Actually, the Addams family would likely love to be living next to a cult. There are good individual sequences and a good message in this movie but it only barely overcomes the junk that would sink a movie with lesser characters at the heart. (See The Angry Birds movie.)

One way this movie was never going to satisfy me is that it wasn’t going to replace the 90’s movies as my favorite versions of these characters. I won’t claim to be overly familiar with the comics, but I did watch quite a bit of the TV show on stuff like Nick at Night (a quick google search suggests that Nick at Night never aired the Addams Family; so while I watched it somewhere in the early 90’s, it wasn’t there). The movies, especially the sequel Addams Family Values, are what I really loved. This movie was never going to be that. But I am judging what it is, not what it is not. This movie stays true to the characters and the family, has some good jokes and is rarely actively obnoxious, but just as rarely actually truly outstanding. It is worth seeing.

***

Gemini Man

Gemini Man is a movie I wish I liked more than I do. It is this weird juxtaposition of a throwback to 90’s sci-fi thrillers and a movie that is pushing technological boundaries as far as possible. Ang Lee is more thoughtful with his approach than I believe most directors would be, but this movie still feels like it did not fully consider the ramifications of the events in the plot. Still, as unsatisfying as the story ends up being, it does feature a collection of largely excellent actions scenes to make it at least worthwhile.

Will Smith plays Henry Brogan, a government assassin who feels the years catching up with him and decides to retire after nearly missing a shot on a job. He meets up with an old marine buddy, who uses his connections to look into the man Brogan just assassinated, and learned that he was not a terrorist like Brogan was told. Before they can go forward, the old friend his killed. Brogan realizes that he is next and teams with an agent sent to watch him, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, to escape and figure out what is going on. He is escaping from Clay Verris, who reveals that his top agent is a younger version of Brogan. After a few showdowns where neither agent can get the upper hand, Brogan gets to the bottom of things.

As I noted above, the action scenes are really good. There is an excellent motorcycle chase and a brutal fight in some catacombs. It is not quite John Wick, but they are good. It also is more worried about the inner lives of its characters, or at least with Brogan and Junior, than most action movies are. It is also just filled with terrible, obvious dialogue. Like early on when Brogan laments that he “hates looking in the mirror.” It was bad enough then, but later the movie calls back to that line to tie it directly to his struggle with his younger self. The movie is full of stuff like that. Its bad. The plot is wild, though mostly internally consistent. I’ve heard some people complain about dropped plots, but it holds together well enough if you just pay attention.

I know some people are really into the technical aspects of this movie, but I am at best neutral when it comes to what this movie does. I do not get the appeal of high frame rate. I understand what it is and why it is technically better, but my eyes have been trained to watch movies at the regular rate. The same goes for 3D, which even when done well is not really a positive. The high definition stuff is good, I guess. I have some appreciation for the movie pushing boundaries, but that can’t be the only justification for its existence. There is enough good otherwise here to make the movie worthwhile. I guess the HFR and 3D stuff did not do anything to make the script terrible.

Gemini Man falls just on the side of being worthwhile. Will Smith and Mary Elizabeth Winstead fun to watch and the action scenes are well executed. The movie, however, is dragged down by some terrible dialogue and convenient plotting. It ends up feeling like something of a missed opportunity.

**1/2

Yesterday Review

Yesterday mostly wastes an interesting premise telling a largely enjoyable little love story. Sure, it is just as much Boomer nostalgia bait as Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman, but Yesterday tries something slightly interesting. Yesterday plays with an alternate reality concept and a little with the nature of fame. It ends up being just slightly more on the side of a success than a failure.

The high concept premise is that after a worldwide blackout, everyone except struggling musician Jack Malick forgets about the Beatles. Armed with his memory of Beatles songs, he begins to sell their work as his own. There are a lot of fertile story telling ground to go from here, about separating the art from the artist, about the specific circumstances around the Beatles success, about the effect art can have on the world. Yesterday is not interested in any of that. Any other blackout difference are only there for jokes.

Instead, Yesterday focuses on the stillborn romance between Himesh Patel as Jack and Lily James’s Ellie. She has operated as his manager and roadie for him for years, but once he starts to be a success with the Beatles music, their paths diverge and he has to choose between being a rock star and her. He keeps choosing stardom, until the end. There is a lot to criticize about this development, but I found that the love story largely works. It is clear from the beginning that both of the characters love each other, but both are afraid to jeopardize the friendship they have for the romance they might have. It is not a new story. But I find that it works in the context of movie, if only because Lily James is adorable.

A lot of the movie’s humor lands, especially Kate McKinnon as Jack’s new manager/Svengali. She doesn’t have any illusions about being there for anything other than the money, outright telling Jack that she doesn’t care about him, he is a product to her. Also, his incredibly incompetent and drugged out roadie Rocky is a lot of fun as he bumbles though just about everything.

The way the movie deals with the music is also fraught. It just takes that someone showing up with about two thirds of the Beatles’ hits would immediately translate into musical stardom as assumed. It does not acknowledge the passage of time between when The Beatles were popular and now. People would love the music in this alternate reality because they love it now.

There are also some just plain strange turns. Like a late movie encounter with a couple of other people who remember The Beatles and a visit with a man who gives some insight.

I am being somewhat harsh on what is, for the most part, an enjoyable little trifle. Yesterday is an excuse to watch a little romance while hearing a lot of Beatles covers. It succeeds on those very limited terms. Any other implications or insights are completely beyond the scope of the movie, making it feel more disappointing that it is.

***

Rocketman

There has certainly been a little run of musician biopics lately, with the unaccountably successful Bohemian Rhapsody followed up by Netflix’s trashy, but probably better made despite the music not being as good The Dirt. Now comes Rocketman, a biopic about Elton John. Rocketman is the best of the bunch, but that is damning with faint praise.

The obvious comparison to Rocketman is Bohemian Rhapsody, a comparison that can only make Rocketman look good. Bohemian Rhapsody did a shoddy job telling a good story, but floated along on the good vibes of some truly excellent music. Rocketman attempts a similar trick. However, Rocketman incorporates music into the film fully, turning the biopic into a musical. Characters break out into song and songs replace dramatic moments. That helps hide the fact that otherwise this is a bog standard musical biopic.

I don’t mean to make light of the struggles that the real Elton John faced in his life, but if you were to list musical biopic cliches, this movie hits about all of them. Elton is a musical prodigy who struggles to connect with his parents. His dad seems to hate him, his mother is caught up in her own stuff. He meets up with a musical partner, starts to get famous and really gets into drugs.

Rocketman makes Bohemian Rhapsody’s success feel all the more underserved. This movie almost certainly will not be winning awards like Bohemian Rhapsody inexplicably did, even though it has a better star performance and is simply a better made movie. Bohemian Rhapsody is a pile of shoddy editing (I know it won best editing at the Oscars; inexplicable), inaccuracies, and biopic clichés that are soldered together with fortunately excellent music. I don’t know that Rocketman is accurate, because I don’t know Elton John’s history as well and I knew Queen’s and I didn’t know Queen’s all that well. But otherwise it is better than that previous movie.

Rocketman, at the very least, seems to know that what people came for was the music. So it turns a fairly standard biopic into a straight up music. Not as in that there are scenes of performances, which there are, or montages, also here, but it makes tells the story with music and actually has it characters sing outside of the performances. It works. The movie keeps throwing another Elton John hit at the viewer every 15 minutes or so, helping disguise the most standard musical biopic story since Dewey Cox.

I said up thread that this movie has a better star performance than Bohemian Rhapsody, and no offense to Rami Malek (whose win was less baffling, but no more correct), Taron Edgerton does a better job as John than his all affect turn as Mercury. Plus, Edgerton sings.

Rocketman isn’t a great movie. Again, but for some excellent music there isn’t much here to really recommend. But the music is the reason to make a movie about Elton John. As a delivery vehicle for nostalgia, there are worse ways to go about it.

**1/2

Tomb Raider Movie Review

Tomb Raider clears the very low bar of being the best live action video game movie adaptation. It is very close to being really good and maybe not any good at all. I enjoyed watching it, but even as I did I could see the glaring flaws. Tomb Raider does a good job of translating the game to the screen, pulling in even more from things that influenced the game, such as Indiana Jones.

Tomb Raider starts with Lara Croft living low in London, refusing to have her father, missing for seven years, declared dead and accept her inheritance. Then she stumbles on a clue as to where he father disappeared to and she sets out to find him. She stops in Hong Kong, where she meets the son of man who disappeared with her father and together they set out for an uninhabited island near Japan. There, the adventure kicks into high gear as Lara must solve the mysteries of the island before a group of mercenaries to prevent ancient relics falling into the wrong hands.

The movie is very much Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Lara as Indy and her buddy Lu Ren as Salah/Marian and Walton Goggins playing something of a Belloq. Though it takes a little longer to get going than that movie, since this is determined to be an origin story for Lara Croft. Once Lara is adventuring, it follows a lot of similar beats to Raiders. Not exactly, and as an adventure movie it is going to be similar, but there are several bits that stand out as clearly inspired by that seminal film.

Where this Tomb Raider fails in in is characters. Not the actors; Vikander, Goggins and Daniel Wu are all solid and do good work with the material available. Vikander is especially charming as Lara. The problem is Lara aside, the movie spends a little time sketching out the characters as they are introduced, but does nothing with them from after that. Lara gets the whole first half hour to set up who she is and what her motivations are; it works. Everyone else gets maybe two minutes. The movie seems to set up characters beats to come later, but does nothing to pay them off. It is frustrating. Wu’s Lu Ren joins with some clear unsettled business with his missing father, but once they reach the island he mostly disappears as a character. Walton Goggins does the most he can with the villainous Mathias. Again, in his introduction he is set up to be a interesting inverse of Lara; she headed to the island to find her missing father, Mathias is stuck on the island, wanting nothing more than to get home to his kids. But after giving him that motivation, the movie really does nothing with him or the parallels. That is where the movie really falls apart. The plot exists to string action scenes together and the characters exist only to the extent necessary to keep things movings.

Those action scenes are largely pretty good. Sometimes they feel a little too mindful of being in a movie based on a game, but for the most part they are pretty entertaining. There is a really good, if somewhat pointless, bike chase early on that looks good and most of the the stuff on the island is pretty exhilarating. They do feel lacking somehow, like there is some cohesion that would really make them sing that isn’t there, but they are the movie’s main draw and they hold up their end of the bargain.

The biggest problem with Tomb Raider is how fixable its flaws seem. It isn’t like the movie fails in some obvious, unfixable way. It just feels like some of the stuff that ties everything together ended up on the cutting room floor. The biggest problem is that whole movie feels like it should be better than it is, even though the movie isn’t bad. If this is the start of a Tomb Raider movie franchise, it is a good start. They have laid a good foundation here. Tomb Raider is a good adaptation of a game that turns into a fun, but flawed movie.

***

Game Night

At first glance, Game Night looks like any number of middling comedies that have come out over the last decade. It takes a good high concept and throws together a group entertaining performers in hopes of making something resembling a movie. Game Night, though, actually is really good. It isn’t perfect, but it has some really great performers, a twisty, funny script and it is shot with more care than is usual for comedies.

Game Night stars Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, who are both a lot of fun, as married couple Max and Annie. Bateman excels at playing the put upon voice of reason and that is mostly where he is here. Here he is competent, but also over competitive. McAdams as great as his similar wife. They play off of each other well. There are joined on their game night by their dimwitted buddy Ryan, his intelligent date, married childhood sweethearts Kevin and Michelle. Those four have their moments, feeling like at least conceivable friends. They are joined by Max’s successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who tries to spice things up. Left out of game night is Max and Annie’s neighbor, the recently divorced Gary, played by Jesse Plemons. Brook’s invites the group to his house, where he has hired actors for a fake kidnapping mystery game. Unbeknownst to the group, that is interrupted by an actual kidnapping. The couples go their separate ways to solve things.

It works surprisingly well. At first they all think it is a game, but eventually they start to realize that things are more real than they thought. The movie does a great job of keeping the viewer in their toes as well, as what seems real might not be as real as they seem or make fake parts aren’t as fake as they seem. All the players do their part, though Bateman’s deadpan and McAdams enthusiasm do a lot of the work in getting jokes across. The best part is Jesse Plemons, who underplays everything as Gary. He come across as genuinely creepy. It is hard to tell if he is just depressed because of his divorce or planning something sinister. It all pays off in the best way.

I’m not an expert on shooting movies, but even I can tell the difference between the usual comedy and what is seen in Game Night. Maybe it’s bad that the movie has shots that stand out, but they stood out to me in a good way, enhancing my enjoyment of the movie. There are a handful of distant establishing shots that almost look like models, like they are all pieces on a gameboard, before the camera zooms in on the action. There is also a chase scene through a mansion that at least looks like an impressive long take as the various characters run up and down stairways. The movie really looks good.

I wouldn’t call Game Night great. There is a decent chance I won’t remember I saw it come the end of the year. But it is better than even my somewhat high hopes had expected. It it definitely worth hitting a matinee for or grabbing from the Redbox in few months.

***1/2

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the first movie from Studio Ponoc, a successor to Studio Ghibli.  A few years ago, Studio Ghibli made some announcements that suggested that, with Hayao Miyazaki’s latest retirement, they would cease producing feature films, prompting some of its members to go their own way. This film is their first release and it shows that they are mostly carrying on the spirit of the previous studio.

Hiromasa Yonebayashi, director of Ghibli releases The Secret World of Arietty and When Marnie was There, directed Mary and the Witch’s Flower. It follows in that line of adaptations of children’s books that includes Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Arietty. It ends up feeling a bit like a Studio Ghibli greatest hits. That makes it sound worse than it is, this is frequently a touching and enthralling movie, but it never quite reaches the heights of its inspirations.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower follows Mary, a girl who feels like she is bad at everything, who moves in with her aunt in the country. She fights with a young boy her age and befriends a few stray cats before finding a mysterious flower in the woods. The flower gives her the ability to do magic. She finds a magic broom that whisks her away to a magic school in the sky, where things aren’t exactly what they seem.

I don’t want to spoil much of the movie, but it hits a lot of Ghibli notes. There is a young girl flying on a broom, like Kiki’s Delivery Service; there is a castle in the sky, like Castle in Sky. The movie also has echoes of films from Princess Mononoke to Ponyo.

The only real problem with the movie is that it doesn’t really have a resolution for its villains. They aren’t redeemed at all, but neither are they punished. They kind of learn the error of their ways, but it more that they just sort of fail. It is a real problem, the movie largely lack narrative stakes. It all just sort of happens.

Still, there is a lot to like in Mary and the Witch’s Flower. It ends up feeling much like Arietty; a little slight but otherwise enjoyable. It is a pleasant, enjoyable movie that doesn’t really have anything push it from being good to great.

****

Top 10 Movies of 2017

Making a top 10 list this year has proved pretty difficult. There were a lot of movies I liked, but few movies that I really, absolutely loved. I don’t think anything I saw this year was as good as last year’s The Nice Guys or Love and Friendship, let alone Mad Mad: Fury Road from the year before. But there were a lot of movies that I liked enough to consider for the back half of the list. Also, this year I watched a lot more movies than I have in years past, so I had a lot more to choose from. There are also several that I think I would like that I haven’t had the chance to see, like I, Tonya, Coco, or The Darkest Hour. But I didn’t manage to see them before I made the list, so they aren’t on it. It also might be noted that my review scores don’t match up exactly with how I ranked the movies on the list; I don’t care this is how much I like the movies compared to each other right now.

Honorable Mentions: Okja and Murder on the Orient Express. Both a lot of fun, but neither quite as good as the rest of the list. Still, I liked them well enough that I had a hard time not putting them on the list at all. Also, Dunkirk, which got bumped off the list just the other day when I saw my #1.

10. Logan Lucky I went into this with little in the way of expectations and I liked it. The further I get away from it, the more and more I like it. It is just a thoroughly enjoyable film.

9. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 It is like the first one, but more. Just more. It also held up better to a rewatch than I expected it to, though it does get pretty shaggy in the middle and I kind of hate the CGI-fest that is large parts of the finale.

8. Thor: Ragnarok A full on delight that I expect will play well on rewatches. I wish it would have pulled back on the humor just a bit so the more epic moments could hit a little harder, but I liked it anyway. It was frequently legitimately funny and had just enough the cosmic stuff to feel worth it.

7. John Wick 2 – The first John Wick movie was about a perfect distillation of everything great about action movies, the sequel is not quite as pure, but it is deeper and had just as great of action scenes. Keanu Reeves has more than cemented his place on the action movie Mt Rushmore, and this is just another feather in his cap.

6. Wonder Woman – This is one of the finest examples of just a straight up superhero movie to come out in long time. And the ending, which I had some problems with in the theater, played really good watching it over the holiday.

5. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri – A fascinating, difficult look at not entirely good people in tough circumstances. It is funny and sad and full of great performances.

4. Star Wars The Last Jedi – It moved the new Star Wars movies from being just retreads of the original series and on to being their own thing. It did it while pushing a lot of the themes that the series has been known for.

3. Blade Runner 2049 I’ve honestly never been the biggest fan of the original Blade Runner; it is a mood piece that just never quite connected with me. This sequel, though, is exactly what I wanted to see. It is a thoughtful, intelligent, gorgeous, sci-fi thriller.

2. Baby Driver The Kevin Spacey stuff hangs over this like a pall. I don’t know that I’ll be able to rewatch this anytime soon and not think about that stuff. That doesn’t change the fact that for most of the year this is the best movie I saw in 2017. It isn’t Edgar Wright’s best movie, but it is perfectly fun.

1. The Shape of Water – I caught this a few days after New Years and I immediately fell in love with it. Del Toro spins another phenomenal fairy tale that really gets across his love of the monster in the monster movie. Del Toro makes movies just for me and I am glad of it.