Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

2016 Film Roundup, Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful)

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, The Top Four and Noteworthy Films.)

Zootopia: Although I thought Zootopia was significantly overhyped, it's still a very good animated feature. Judy Hops (Ginnifer Goodwin) grows up on her family carrot farm, but she's bright, plucky and full of derring-do, so despite her small size, she seeks to become the first rabbit cop in the big city of Zootopia, where herbivores and predators live together peacefully. She's treated as a PR gimmick by her fellow officers, but naïve and eager, she makes the best of lousy assignments like… parking duty/meter maid. Her trusting nature is tested after encountering a worldly, cynical fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman); it doesn't help that Judy had a traumatic encounter with a fox as a kid. Judy makes a big collar, though, and the mayor's office likes her, so soon she's reassigned to help track down a rash of missing citizens… some of whom reappear, but savagely violent. (She blackmails Nick Wilde to help her, and they make a pretty effective team, both as detectives and a comedic pair.)

I found the world and characters quite interesting, but the main plot much less so. The Shakira-fueled sequence when an enthralled Judy Hops enters Zootopia via train and takes in all the different environments is one of the strongest in the movie. Likewise, the many scenes showing how different animals live and in some cases share spaces (and public transportation) are funny and fascinating. A trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles staffed entirely by slow-moving sloths is hilarious and was used as a standalone trailer. A chase through "Little Rodentia" plays like a comical monster movie. Zootopia manages to create a world that inherently celebrates diversity and disability and promotes tolerance without ever being too preachy or on-the-nose about it. There's plenty to like, and this is a solid addition to any kid-friendly movie collection, but I'd rate other animated features higher. (The plot of Zootopia massively changed in development, when Nick Wilde was the main character and the story was much darker. I think the filmmakers made the right decisions, but it's interesting to go through the disc extras for the storyboards and descriptions of the earlier ideas. Side note: on a visit to my local DMV, one of the workers had a stuffed animal sloth from the movie.)

TheNiceGuys: Writer-director Shane Black is known for writing buddy action flicks, and his second outing as a director is a fun tale of two dueling and later partnered detectives working in 1970s Los Angeles. Both Russell Crowe (as Jackson Healy) and Ryan Gosling (as Holland March) are primarily known as serious actors, but they're both legitimately funny here, with Crowe more of the straight man/tough guy and Gosling as the buffoon. Black throws in a precocious, wisecracking kid as usual (Angourie Rice as Holly March, Holland's daughter), but in a welcome change from some other Hollywood outings, she gets in way over her head and reacts more like a kid than a studio construct. The ostensible plot is finding a missing young woman, Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley), who's gotten involved with a porn film company (among other things), and is the daughter of a Justice Department official (Kim Basinger). But mostly, the plot is an excuse to have Crowe and Gosling play off each other, mostly for laughs, but with a fair amount of action and also some serious dramatic moments. Basinger's disappointingly weak – her character needs to be far steelier in at least one scene – but the rest of the cast is solid and the leads are great.

Anthropoid: This film chronicles the real-life WWII mission (code name: Anthropoid) of Czechs in the resistance to assassinate SS head Reinhard Heydrich, who may be temporarily vulnerable while stationed in Prague. The key personnel, Jozef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan) have snuck back into their home country with orders from resistance headquarters. They know the mission is dangerous, that they might not survive and that retaliation by the Nazis against the Czech population is likely to be brutal. Nonetheless, they try to proceed, but the local Czech resistance is less enthused, and it takes some doing to convince Dr. Eduard (Sean Mahon) and Jan Zelenka-Hajský (Toby Jones) to help them. More cooperative are two young women, Marie Kovárníková (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka Fafková (Anna Geislerová), who bravely take risks for the cause and perhaps also because they take a fancy to the young men. The most compelling aspect of Anthropoid is its unforgiving accuracy and lack of sentimentality; this is not a world where the virtuous necessarily prosper or even survive. Our main characters desperately want to live, and fight to do so, but they know the odds are against them. Director Sean Ellis shows a nice feel for when to let real sound drop out and does a good job of focusing the story on the hopes and panic of the characters. (Apparently, Anthropoid was a British-German production, and director Ellis and many of the actors are Brits, but the two leads are both Irish, and the cast does include some Czechs, Germans and other nationalities.)

Nocturnal Animals: I thought fashion designer Tom Ford's first outing as director, 2009's A Single Man (the second film reviewed here) was a bit self-indulgent, with many overdrawn moments, but still quite good overall, with a strong performance by lead actor Colin Firth. Nocturnal Animals also features some good performances – most of all from Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson – but is an overhyped disappointment overall. Based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, it tells two stories. In real life, Susan Morrow (Adams) runs a trendy art gallery and is married to Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer), who is outwardly successful and handsome, but also emotionally distant (and possibly unfaithful). Susan used to be married to Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal), who was a struggling novelist at the time and has recently sent her his soon-to-be-published manuscript. (We see glimpse of their relationship in flashbacks.) The novel is the second story – the male lead, Tony Hastings, is also played by Gyllenhaal, while his wife, Laura, is played by another redheaded actress, Isla Fisher. The novel involves harassment and kidnapping of Tony, his wife and teenaged daughter by a gang of Texas rednecks lead by the Ray (Taylor-Johnson, who's pretty chilling). Tony seeks justice with the help of quirky and intense police detective Bobby Andes (Shannon, who's superb as usual).

The novel has a fairly predictable plot – although it's not always easy viewing – but the key element is that it's a tale of anguish and loss. As we discover more about Susan and Tony's past relationship, and why they broke up, it becomes more apparent how the novel emotionally but not factually recaps parts of their own story. Susan is disturbed and moved by the novel; many of Amy Adams' scenes involve her reading intently. The thing is, Adams isn't given that much to do in the film, and although her character does have an arc of sorts, there's not much there. The opening sequence involves obese, mostly naked women dancing in slo-mo, some joyful, some steely eyed, and sporting accessories such as sparklers and drum majorette hats. We next move to Susan's gallery, where the dancing videos play on the walls and some of the dancers are splayed out unmoving on benches while patrons mill about with their wine and hors d'oeuvres. Is Ford mocking the obese women? Our obsession with appearance? Or making fun of the patrons who treat this as high art? (I'm guessing the latter two.) Susan is an attractive woman but heavily made up and with a very prepared, artificial look; it's nice to see Adams' extremely expressive face without all the gallery-battle-armor makeup when she's alone reading in bed or the bath (and the contrast is surely intentional). Adams and Gyllenhaal play pretty well off each other as a couple in the flashback scenes. Laura Linney, as Susan's disapproving mother, though, plays the part grandly to the point of camp and is thanklessly given dialogue that's far too on-the-nose. Gyllenhaal and Shannon have good chemistry, and this is some of the best work Gyllenhaal's done (but check out Nightcrawler if you haven't). In theory, this is a story about people focused on appearances and the ugly, raw emotions underneath, but it's not just the characters who feel somewhat hollow – it's the film itself. The finale makes some sense intellectually but is not satisfying, even in an intentionally unsatisfying, open-ending kind of way. Give Nocturnal Animals credit for some memorable images and scenes, but especially given this cast, I wanted to like it and was disappointed overall. Amy Adams was given a far meatier role and delivered a far more substantial performance in Arrival, but genre films don't always get the respect they deserve.

Doctor Strange: Marvel chose to wait for Benedict Cumberbatch to become available to play Doctor Strange, and it was a wise choice. Stephen Strange is a brilliant and arrogant surgeon whose hands are badly injured in an accident; when conventional medicine fails him, he seeks increasingly unorthodox cures, eventually pursuing a mystical one in Nepal and coming in contact with the Ancient One, played by the odd and ethereal Tilda Swinton. She explains that her order of mystics protects the Earth (and universe) from foes from other dimensions, including the dread demon or powerful extradimensional entity, Dormammu. Strange has to let go of many of his previous conceptions of reality, but proves to be a quick study, and has to be, because one of the Ancient One's best former pupils, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, who makes a good villain) is attacking all the mystic sanctums of the order and acquiring magical items, all with the aim of summoning Dormammu to this dimension, which would mean an eternity of servitude and torment for everyone on Earth. (Now those are some stakes!) The filmmakers do a nice job of capturing some of the trippy visual style of the old comic books; you'll probably be most reminded of Inception, The Matrix, and M.C. Escher. (I was glad this film won the Oscar for visual effects, because the shifting-landscapes-with-uncertain-gravity battle scenes were much more innovative and striking than the effects in most films.) Marvel got some flack for casting a white person versus an Asian as the Ancient One, and that's somewhat deserved, but the film also establishes this is but the Ancient One's latest body, it's hard to outweird Swinton, and on her own terms she's excellent. Rachel McAdams is quite good as Christine Palmer, Strange's colleague and former lover; I was pleasantly surprised that the film gave her some good lines and scenes. Chiwetel Ejiofor is memorable as Karl Mordo, a mystical warrior ostensibly allied with Strange but conflicted over what he sees as corruption within the order to which he's devoted his life. The one major problem with the film is requiring Strange to evolve from novice to absolute master in the course of the roughly two-hour running time, and to some degree in the course of just a few montages and scenes; I felt it was too much and artificially accelerated the character's development and power because of the impending Infinity Gauntlet films. That said, the filmmakers do throw in several scenes where Strange is not fully in control and winging it as he goes, which help considerably (and are played well by Cumberbatch). Meanwhile, the final showdown with Dormammu presents some clever ideas but also really good character writing; there are several reasons why Stephen Strange becomes the perfect choice of flawed but legitimate hero to confront this particular, intimidating, cruel and much more powerful foe. Doctor Strange has been a relatively minor character in the Marvel pantheon, but I've always had a soft spot for him, and I enjoyed this movie.

X-Men: Apocalypse: Apocalypse isn't horrible, but after two excellent entries with First Class (the 15th film reviewed here) and Days of Future Past, (reviewed here), it feels like a letdown. Apocalypse simply isn't as tight a film. It features some entertaining sequences and good character moments, but the biggest problem is its villain, the ancient mutant (perhaps the first), Apocalypse, whose powers are huge but ill-defined and seemingly inconsistent. (To be fair, this is true of the original comic book character, too.) Because of this, when Apocalypse embarks on his quest for world domination (what else?), the terms of battle are unclear and it's harder to get invested. Even when the heroes seemingly have a brief advantage or promising lead – forcing Apocalypse to fight in highly unfamiliar territory, for example – he tends to casually and quickly assert dominance. It makes the fights rather one-sided and less interesting. That said, James McAvoy as Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto continue to be standouts. Evan Peters returns as Quicksilver with some new fun scenes. Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult are good as Mystique and Hank McCoy/the Beast, respectively. Oscar Isaac is unrecognizable but suitably glowering as Apocalypse. As Moira McTaggert, Rose Byrne is a welcome return and provides some of the film's better scenes. The newcomers, Sophie Tucker as Jean Grey and Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, are pretty good, all the more so because despite their feuding they're attracted to each other, but are far from smooth about it. Some notable cameos also spice up the proceedings. If you're a fan of the X-Men, you'll probably want to see this one, but I hope the next film is stronger.

Star Trek Beyond: Beyond isn't as good as the first rebooted Star Trek (the 11th film reviewed here) but is markedly better than the second installment, Into Darkness (reviewed here). The biggest improvement is the number and quality of the Spock-McCoy interactions, which capture the bickering competition and camaraderie of the two characters. (Credit Simon Pegg, who was one of the screenwriters and also plays Scotty, of course.) The best newcomer is Sofia Boutella as alien Jaylah (although Idris Elba always improves a movie). Chris Pine gets some good moments ask Kirk. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) gets to use her elite linguistic skills, but does wind up cowering for a fair amount. I was disappointed by much of the cinematography and visual approach to the story, though. Many of the action scenes are dimly lit and without any backlight, so we wind up seeing, for example, dark, indistinct figures tumbling over a dark background. Even what should be featured fights with featured characters are unnecessarily visually muddy. (Yeah, it's a style choice by director Justin Lin, but it's a bad one.) Positive exceptions include a great roundhouse shot involved Jaylah fighting, and Kirk's motorcycle teleporting. (You'll see.) If you're a Trek fan, you'll want to see this one, but I thought it got overly hyped due to lowered expectations from Into Darkness.

The Siege of Jadotville: This historical war film was picked up by Netflix for distribution and makes a good sleeper pick for viewers who want a little action and drama. A very green, inexperienced Irish army unit is assigned a United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Congo in 1961, which is experiencing a civil war. They wind up assigned near the town of Jadotville at small compound that's not easily defensible. That's a problem, because mercenaries working for one of the warring factions wants control of the area and are moving in with both superior firepower and numbers. The Irish have mostly light weaponry and don't have much ammunition… plus the United Nations is either not sending help or can't get through. Trapped and facing steep odds makes for good drama, and it plays out well here, anchored by a good lead performance by Jamie Dornan as Commandant Pat Quinlan, who lacks combat experience but is smart, practical, resourceful and dogged. Viewers might recognize Jason O'Mara as one of the other soldiers ( Sergeant Jack Prendergast). Mark Strong plays UN official Conor Cruise O'Brien (who later became a politician in Ireland) as a cold intellectual whose focus on the 'big picture' makes him see human lives as expendable pawns in a chess game. I can’t speak definitely to the accuracy of all this; from what I've read, O'Brien's role and other details of the depicted events remain contentious, including the truth behind the plane crash that killed United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold. Taken on its own terms, though, The Siege of Jadotville is a decent film.

Bad Moms: This is a fun summer comedy with a fairly simple premise and good casting. Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunus) is a struggling supermom, shuttling her two kids to school, rehearsals and practices (and doing their homework, although parents really shouldn't do that) while also working full-time at what's supposed to be a part-time job. Her husband, Mike (David Walton), is lazy and of little help, and then Amy catches him having an online affair with a video chat sex worker. She kicks him out and everything snowballs from there. Exhausted, Amy publicly refuses an order from PTA head and suburban bully extraordinaire, Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate). Amy winds up inadvertently creating a kind of "bad moms" club, including a genuinely bad mom (by most people's standards) in Carla (Kathryn Hahn) and goody two-shoes, overtaxed, wannabe rebel mother-of-four, Kiki (Kristen Bell). They start breaking the rules and having a blast, which works for a while, but when Gwendolyn decides to punish Amy's daughter in retaliation, the stakes increase and Amy plots dethroning Gwendolyn as PTA head. Bad Moms is pretty predictable and doesn't break any new ground, but it still makes for enjoyable light viewing. Mila Kunis comes off naturally on screen and has a good comic feel (perhaps most of all in a montage where she keeps slipping into mom mode when trying to pick up men in a bar). Kristen Bell gets to show off her physical comedy chops but also has some hilarious lines, most of all when she's describing sex with her husband. The rest of the cast is solid and clearly having fun, as is Martha Stewart in a cameo. The ending credits feature clips of the actresses chatting with their real-life moms (several of whom are dead ringers), adding to the feel-good vibe.

Warcraft: There hasn't been a good film based on a video game to date, and Warcraft fails spectacularly to break that trend. The popular video game franchise, which began as a campaign and battle game and then later became a MMORPG, started as a conflict between human and orc armies. You'd think that would lend itself to some good fights and battles, but apart from a pretty good climatic duel, the fights just aren't well-staged or that interesting, despite a reported $160 million budget. Director Duncan Jones has delivered some fine films before (2009's Moon, the eight film reviewed here and 2011's Source Code, the ninth film reviewed here), but perhaps big action scenes just aren't his thing or the project got away from him. Meanwhile, Warcraft's lore doesn't give him that much to work with, because it tends to be rather childish and repetitive; almost every story involves a good guy seeking power for noble reasons and then becoming corrupted and/or insane. It's hard to feel much for the orcs because they look cartoonish and comically disproportioned, with the exception of half-orc Garona Halforcen, played by Paula Patton, who has recognizable facial expressions and can play actual scenes with Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel). I didn't expect this to be great, but it was still a disappointment; it's just not a good film. Hardcore fans of the game might rate it higher.

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