Wonder


Julia Roberts with her new leading man.

(2017) Dramedy (Lionsgate) Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson, Julia Roberts, Izabela Vidovic, Mandy Patinkin, Noah Jupe, Bryce Gheisar, Elle McKinnon, Daveed Diggs, Ty Consiglio, Kyle Breitkopf, James Hughes, J. Douglas Stewart, Millie Davis, Ali Liebert, Joseph Gordon, Cameron Roberts, Nadji Jeter, Danielle Rose Russell, Erika McKitrick, Sonia Braga, Nicole Oliver. Directed by Stephen Chbosky

 

Going to a new school can be traumatic even in the best of circumstances. Throw in that you know – without any doubt whatsoever – that you are for certain going to be bullied. How much more traumatic does that make things?

Auggie (Tremblay) is in that exact situation. He’s not being bullied because of sexual preference, religion or race; Auggie has a disfiguring disease known as Treacher Collins syndrome. The effects of 27 surgeries besides making it necessary for Auggie to be homeschooled have allowed him to breathe and essentially survive but nothing really can change the deformities of his face. They are so pronounced that he’d rather wear an astronaut’s helmet to school which would merely mark him as weird than go barefaced which marks him as a freak.

His loving parents – Nate (Wilson), the cool dad we all wanted and Isabel (Roberts), the über-protective Mama Bear – are worried for him. His big sister, teenaged Via (Vidovic) is protective of him but has troubles of her own; her best friend Miranda (Russell) has suddenly shut her out and is off with a much different clique of friends. Forlorn, she signs up for drama class and meets a cute guy Justin (Jeter) who she crushes on and eventually the two begin dating.

Auggie, with his upbeat attitude and intelligence begins to make friends despite the hardships. Jack Will (Jupe) becomes his best friend although Julian (Gheisar) continues to torment him. Still all the people in Auggie’s orbit are trying to make it the best they can but it isn’t easy.

This is based on a bestselling children’s book by RJ Palacio who was inspired to write it when her son whom she had taken out for ice cream was brought to tears by the sight of a kid with Treacher Collins syndrome. The book is very heartwarming and teaches the value of accepting people as they are and the movie follows it pretty closely from a stylistic perspective.

The acting is solid – one might say wonderful – with Tremblay getting particular kudos. Child actors tend to be stiff and hammy but Tremblay plays it with a degree of naturalism that is refreshing. Yeah from time to time he says and does thing that come from the perfect kid school of filmmaking but that’s not on Tremblay, the actor. Considering he has to emote under layers of make-up, something some adults have trouble with, one has to really give the kid kudos. Most of the other performances are strong as well, although I would have wished for more Roberts. It seems a shame to hire her on for a role like this one and not have her in the picture more.

My issue is that a lot of the book – and the movie – is a bit too nice, suffering from too-good-to-be-truism. They all have their weak moments but it’s like the entire movie is populated from characters in a children’s show and it doesn’t feel real or authentic. I needed a little more of both to make this work for me.

Movies that are this emotionally manipulative tend to irritate critics but for some reason critics embraced this one. It got strong scores on Rotten Tomatoes (see below) and while it’s pretty much out of the awards consideration picture, it nonetheless got favorable reviews from both critics and consumers alike. I wish I could join them but this felt a little bit too bland and predictable for me to do so.

REASONS TO GO: Tremblay gives a nice, nuanced performance.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a bit too vanilla and predictable for my tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of bullying and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The medical name for Auggie’s affliction is mandibulofacial dystosis.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mask
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Strawberry Flavored Plastic

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Jigsaw


Hannah Emily Anderson observes her motivation.

(2017) Horror (Lionsgate) Matt Passmore, Tobin Bell, Callum Keith Rennie, Hannah Emily Anderson, Clé Bennett, Laura Vandervoort, Paul Braunstein, Mandela Van Peebles, Brittany Allen, Josiah Black, Edward Ruttle, Michael Boisvert, Sam Koules, Troy Feldman, Shaquan Lewis, Esther Thibault, Lauren Beatty, Nadine Roden, Adam Waxman, Arabella Oz. Directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig

 

It doesn’t seem all that long ago (but in reality has been a decade) when every Halloween like clockwork a new Saw film would come out. The original film was gruesome and cruel but had a clever side to it and appealed not only to gorehounds but also to mainstream horror fans as well. Not everyone was fond of the series; after all, it did kick off the “torture porn” genre that made a lot of critics as well as sensitive sorts uncomfortable. After a seven year run, the franchise was shut down by Lionsgate who quite frankly became a fairly major player thanks to Jigsaw and his fiendish traps.

Now seven years since the final entry in the series Lionsgate has seen fit to resurrect the franchise. Will it begin a new  and profitable run, or will it be destined to be a one and done?

Five people have been unwillingly gathered in a barn-like structure which is quite the house of horrors. In each room, the five are given a choice mainly to confess their crimes or make a blood sacrifice. In each room, the number of the survivors is reduced by one as those who are unable to confess or sacrifice something are offed in gruesome and inventive (sort of) ways.

In the meantime a pair of cops (Rennie, Bennett) is chasing down a number of bodies that have begun turning up that would seem to be the work of John Kramer (Bell) – who died more than a decade earlier. Aided by two coroners – one an Iraqi war veteran who was at one time captured and tortured (Passmore), the other a comely Goth punk-esque vixen (Anderson) who has a somewhat suspicious obsession with the killer known as Jigsaw – the cops chase down what could only be a copycat killer…or a ghost.

Jigsaw doesn’t show a whole lot of originality or imagination either for that matter. Some of the traps are taken from previous films in the franchise which doesn’t feel so much as an homage as it does a rip-off. Even the plot feels like it has been recycled from previous films, although I have to admit the end twist was pretty gnarly.

It’s not exactly a spoiler that Bell appears in the film as Jigsaw who died of cancer following Saw III. However, that hasn’t stopped him from appearing in all the succeeding films in the franchise including this one which is a good thing because he has been the best part of the series all along. He is one of the great horror villains of all time and yet he rarely does the “dirty work” himself; he simply captures people he feels need to prove themselves worthy of continued life and puts them in situations where their survival depends on their own strength of will and willingness to take responsibility for their actions and yes, the actions that the five in the barn have committed are pretty heinous indeed.

The gore is pretty intense here but veteran horror fans should have no problem with it. Those who are more dilettantes might be a little more squeamish in that regard. The traps are fairly Rube Goldberg-like although a couple were kind of lame. Those who have at least a passing familiarity with the basics of the film series should have no difficulties following the action but those coming in fresh without ever having seen any of the first seven films are going to be scratching their heads an awful lot.

The big problem here is that the movie feels rushed; the only time that the directors seem to take their time on anything is when the barn denizens are on the edge of getting mangled. Otherwise it feels like they’re impatient to get to the next gruesome murder. Maybe their core audience is too. The rest of us though may wish for a bit more exposition. Even given that, the movie doesn’t have a lot of energy; I did see it at a matinee screening that was mostly empty and maybe I would have felt differently in a crowd of horror fans enjoying the hell out of themselves. That’s probably the best way to see this.

In any case, this isn’t the worst film in the series nor is it the best. It falls pretty much solidly in the middle. I doubt that the hardcore fans of the series will be satisfied with this effort; and I don’t think that there’s a reason to continue the series from this point forward. Judging from the less than thrilling domestic box office, it appears that most American filmgoers agree. However, the global box office was enough that we might continue to see these showing up at Halloween (although at present there are no concrete plans to do so). If so, I hope they make some changes; I can’t see the next one being any better than this.

REASONS TO GO: The usage of Bell as John Kramer is a nice touch. There is some spectacular gore for those who like that kind of thing.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie felt oddly lifeless and rushed. Watching this movie really requires at least a basic knowledge of the Saw mythology in order to understand it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence that is both bloody and gruesome, scenes of torture and plenty of profanity which you’d expect if you were being tortured.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tobin Bell as John Kramer is the only actor and character to appear in all eight Saw films.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hostel
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The 101-Year-Old Man Who Skipped Out on His Bill and Disappeared

The Big Sick


Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani in happier times.

(2017) Romantic Dramedy (Amazon/Lionsgate) Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, Vella Lovell, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Jeremy Shamos, David Allen Grier, Ed Herbstman, Linda Emond, Shenaz Treasurywala, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Kuhoo Verma, Mitra Jourhari, Celeste Arias. Directed by Michael Showalter

 

The path to love is a rocky one. There is so much to overcome to make a relationship work. Sometimes there are situational things, other times cultural things and any other numbers of things that can conspire to keep two individual people from making that permanent connection.

Kumail (Nanjiani) is a standup comic struggling to make it. He drives for Uber to make ends meet. He was born in Pakistan and came to Chicago as a boy. His parents, both conservative traditionalists, wish to arrange a marriage for their son and his mother (Shroff) in particular manages to arrange for young single Pakistani women to “drop by” whenever Kumail visits their suburban home. But it is a white woman, Emily Gardner (Kazan) that Kumail falls in love with.

Things go well for awhile until she realizes that he has avoided introducing her to his parents and in fact hasn’t even told them about her. He tries to explain to her that their relationship doesn’t have a future; if he did marry her, his parents would likely cut all ties to him. The two break up but shortly thereafter Emily gets very sick to such a degree that doctors put her into a medially induced coma in order to fight the infection that is ravaging her body.

Kumail calls her parents and they fly in to sit vigil on their comatose daughter; feisty Beth (Hunter) and low-key Terry (Romano). They are both aware that their daughter and Kumail have broken up and are frankly surprised when Kumail offers to stay with them, Beth downright hostile. Nonetheless Kumail comes every day to wait with them as the days stretch on and Emily comes no closer to being cured.  Kumail begins to bond with the parents as his own attitudes towards love and marriage begin to shift.

This is based on the actual courtship between Kumail and his wife Emily V. Gordon  who co-wrote the script with her husband. While some events are fictional (the real Emily and Kumail never broke up prior to her illness), the main points actually happened and thus there’s an air of authenticity to the relationship between the onscreen Kumail and Emily that is refreshing.

The movie strikes the perfect balance between pathos and humor without leaning overly much in either direction, so as the kids today put it, you get all the feels. The performances from Nanjiani, Hunter and Romano are all top notch; Kazan spends half of the movie in a coma (well, her character does anyway) but she lights up the screen in the time that she’s awake.

Some of the more interesting aspects of the movie are the cultural differences. When Nanjiani talks about arranged marriage, he quips “Or as we call it in Pakistan, marriage” and it’s truly hard for an American to wrap one’s head around the concept. The family dynamic in Kumail’s onscreen family is fascinating and I wish they’d spent a little more time with them, but as it was I think the movie was just beginning to edge into the “a bit too long” category.

This is everything you’d want a romantic comedy to be and more. It is easily one of the best movies of the year and one well worth seeking out to stream or even buy. This is a couple you can root for, a movie that avoids clichés or at worst turns them on their heads. It is a movie that reminds us that even the most ingrained of cultural ideas can be overcome for the sake of love and that’s a very powerful message in a time when it feels like we’re divided so much by cultural differences.

REASONS TO GO: It’s a perfect mix between comedy and pathos. The performances by Romano, Nanjiani and Hunter are outstanding. The film captures the hyper-competitive camaraderie between stand-up comics nicely. This is a perfect conversation starter for cultural issues.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses a little bit of steam near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nanjiani’s real life wife Emily Gordon (whom Emily Gardner is based on) can be seen in the final comedy club scene sitting near CJ and Mary.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: (500) Days of Summer
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Spider-Man: Homecoming

Power Rangers


Welcome to your childhood, revisited.

(2017) Science Fiction (Saban/Lionsgate) Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin, Becky G, Elizabeth Banks, Bryan Cranston, Bill Hader (voice), Matt Shively, Cody Kearsley, David Denman, Robert Moloney, Anjali Jay, Sarah Grey, Morgan Taylor Campbell, Caroline Cave, Kayden Magnuson, Lisa Berry, Wesley MacInnes, John Stewart, Fiona Fu. Directed by Dean Israelite

 

Never underestimate the value of nostalgia in selling a franchise movie. The toys and games of our youth become the $100 million franchise film of our present. Michael Bay turned a TV show meant to sell toys into a billion dollar film franchise which shows no sign of abating.

The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers were arguably a bigger kid’s show in their day. Certainly it paved the way for all sorts of shows that were arguably toy ads and included such shows as Pokémon and Animorphs.  There were a couple of movies made with the Rangers (the first one I was forced to endure since my son was a MMPR junkie at the time) but while the show has continued in a variety of forms over the years, it hasn’t quite had the same cache as it did back in the day. Now Saban, the American distributor of the original, has started a film arm and is pulling out what is arguably their most valuable property to help get it going.

Five misfit teenagers in the sleepy California town of Angel Grove have been drawn together. Jock Jason (Montgomery) has a bright athletic future ahead of him but throws it all away for the sake of an unfunny prank that ends up getting him arrested. Kimberly (Scott) is a cheerleader whose clique has turned against her. Billy (Cyler) is a brilliant but bullied young man who is on the autism spectrum. Jason, who hates bullies, stands up for Billy but not because he is bullied – Billy is able to disarm the ankle bracelet he’s forced to wear.

Billy takes his two new friends to an old mine his late father used to take him to. There they meet Zack (Lin), an outgoing Asian kid and Trini (G), a Latina loner. The five of them discover that they picked a mine that happened to be above a buried alien spacecraft where they discover five coins. The coins give them a variety of super powers but nothing like what they would have if they could manifest the Power Ranger suits.

At least, that’s what giant head Zordon (Cranston) tells them. With his snarky robot sidekick Alpha 5 (Hader), the five are meant to be the new Power Rangers who have to battle interstellar baddie Rita Repulsa (Banks) who has plans to nab the Zeo Crystal and destroy the planet – unless the bickering teens can get their act together and team up to beat her and her giant robot Goldar. We’re doomed.

It’s hard in some ways for someone like me to review this; I really didn’t follow the show and while my son was way into it for a certain part of his youth, it was his show, not mine. We didn’t watch it together but that was okay – it was something that could be his and his alone, which is important for a young boy. The connection I have to the show is tenuous and the Easter eggs and cameos that litter the film go straight over my head. Younger people who grew up with the show in the 90s will find more resonance here than I ever could so keep that in mind.

The special effects are fairly spectacular for the most part – the climactic battle is a little bit overwrought and difficult to follow. It takes a long time to get there however; the Rangers don’t appear in uniform until the movie is nearly done and the dinosaur-like vehicles they operate, the Zords don’t appear until even later.

The movie is chock full of terms and expressions that will only make sense to those who grew up with the show.  That’s okay, mind you, but just be warned that those of us who weren’t into the show will have less of an experience. The same thing can be said about the Marvel movies, Star Trek movies and so on and so forth. That’s kind of the point of going to see a movie like this.

The movie is a bit schizophrenic in that part of it seems to want to be a slam-bang action movie and the other more of a Freeform teen angst movie. Israelite is more successful at the latter than the former and quite frankly the integration of the two could have been better and I think that’s where the movie has its biggest issue. When the action sequences come, they are a bit on the cheesy side and don’t look terribly convincing. They’re also quite jarring when you put them together with teens who are sexting, experiencing sensuality for the first times in their lives, dealing with autism and bullying and alienation from not only the adults in their lives but from people in general. All the special effects in the world can’t help you with those.

If you loved the original series, chances are that you’ll enjoy this depending on how much a stickler you are for keeping things the way they were in the 90s. Chances are you’ll have seen this already as well. For those wondering if they should catch this at the local dollar theater, do. It should definitely be experienced on a big screen with big sound. However, keep in mind that this is essentially a mediocre movie that could have used less of an eye on the bottom line and more of an eye on writing a great story involving these characters instead of one drowning helplessly in liquid cheese.

REASONS TO GO: There is a nostalgia factor for those who grew up with the original TV show.
REASONS TO STAY: Tries to be both an action movie and a young adult drama and doesn’t really integrate the two disparate sides together very well.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find plenty of sci-fi violence, a smattering of mild profanity and a little bit of crude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third Power Ranger movie to make the big screen (although as a reboot it isn’t connected to the other two) and the first in 20 years to be released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chronicle
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Pandora

Rabbit Hole


Even comic books won't cheer Miles Teller up.

Even comic books won’t cheer Miles Teller up.

(2010) Drama (Lionsgate) Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Miles Teller, Dianne Wiest, Tammy Blanchard, Sandra Oh, Giancarlo Esposito, Jon Tenney, Stephen Mailer, Mike Doyle, Roberta Wallach, Patricia Kalember, Ali Marsh, Yetta Gottesman, Colin Mitchell, Deidre Goodwin, Julie Lauren, Rob Campbell, Jennifer Roszell, Marylouse Burke. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell

In the initial throes of grief there is much screaming and sobbing. It’s what happens eight months after the initial shock of loss that is the concern here of playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and director John Cameron Mitchell. Becca (Kidman) and Howie (Eckhart) are still grieving the loss of their four-year-old son in a tragic traffic accident and the grief is less immediate but no less sharp and painful, so much so that their marriage is beginning to crumble. While Howie turns to a fellow member (Oh) in a grief counseling group for solace, the fragile and shrewish Becca has surprisingly found the teenager driver (Teller) of the car that killer her boy. So painful that it is at times nearly unwatchable, fine performances from the leads (Kidman particularly) overcome an occasionally contrived script.

WHY RENT THIS: Kidman’s performance is extremely strong. The relationship between Howie and Becky is surprisingly authentic.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally the dialogue and some of the plot points feel contrived.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are definitely mature; there is some brief drug use and some foul language as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Teller’s film debut.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.1M on a $5M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Collateral Beauty
FINAL RATING: 7/10