Jimmy's Mini-Reviews: What I've Been Watching

I’ve seen a lot of interesting stuff lately, but I don’t have time to give these movies/shows the write-ups they deserve, so here are some bite-size reviews to enjoy.

Coco

The Conjuring – someone here recommended this one in the comments (I can’t remember who), but I’m glad they did. Despite having almost no blood or violence (and no sex or nudity), this unnerving horror flick kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time, and did it with almost no cheap jump scares. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are outstanding as a husband-and-wife team of paranormal investigators working for the Catholic church to investigate possible demonic possessions, and in the film they help a middle-class family whose rural house is infested with some nasty spirits. The whole movie is very pro-Christian (horror is pretty much the only mainstream genre that can get away with that anymore), and director James Wan (Saw) builds up the tension like a master.

Coco – the fam and I caught Pixar’s latest in the theater, and we all loved it. Beautifully made, very touching and funny, and incredibly pro-family. The story, about a boy living in a small Mexican village who is transported to the Land of the Dead to meet his ancestors on Dia De Los Muertos, is really about what happens when men selfishly break up their families to achieve their own dreams, something that sadly happens far too often these days. The boy, Miguel, goes on a grand adventure through the spirit world and helps heal some old family wounds that eventually bring his family closer together. It’s not a musical, but there are two scenes in which the film’s signature song, “Remember Me” is played, that had the audience blinking back tears. It explores Mexican culture without any white characters (or needless white guilt), and is also not afraid to explore big themes like death, the afterlife, and what it means to live a meaningful life. In an age of CGI franchises and vulgar comedies, we really need more movies like this.

13 Hours – a brilliant war film and one of the best movies made about the War on Terror; hard to believe this is by the same Michael Bay that made the Transformers movies. (Even more hard to believe that this movie bombed while Transformers continue to make billions of dollars, but I digress.) It doesn’t point fingers at anyone specific for what happened in Benghazi, but it makes it pretty clear that the government knew what was going on for hours but didn’t send help, and the soldiers’ frustration at this is palpable. The first 30-40 minutes move a little slow, but once the big attack happens, it’s hard to take your eyes off the screen for the rest of the film. Very powerful stuff that humanizes our military contractors and shows them for the courageous heroes they are. John Krasinski grounds the film as Jack Silva, a soldier with a family at home to support who goes halfway around the world and gets a lot more than he bargained for.

Travels With My Father – twentysomething British comedian/TV star Jack Whitehall takes his uptight, conservative father on a tour of Southeast Asia that includes everything from riding elephants to exploring Cambodian killing fields to an unexpected encounter with Steven Seagal, while sniping at each other the whole way. I love travel shows, and this one is breezy, witty and fascinating, showing us a lot of interesting parts of the world we haven’t seen and giving us a funny look at the generation gap.

Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory – The original, accept no substitutes. Saw it for the umpteenth time and am convinced, now more than ever, that it’s a masterpiece. Jimmy Jr. saw it for the first time and loved it – he even liked the boat ride, which I thought would freak him out. One of the great family films, it’s really a movie of contrasts: it’s innocent, yet has a wicked sense of humor; it takes children to a fantasy world of limitless indulgence, yet is filled with moral lessons about moderation, humility and responsibility. It’s like a live-action cartoon, funny and delightful, and Gene Wilder is really what makes it all work. His sly, unpredictable Wonka keeps you on edge the whole time, wondering what he’s going to do next.

RED 2 – much better than the first one, which I didn’t much like. Bruce Willis’ retired spy is once again targeted by rogue forces within the American government, and must once again join up with John Malkovich’s paranoid Marvin and Helen Mirren’s badass assassin Victoria to save the day. Like in a lot of his roles lately, Willis looks bored, his bickering relationship with Mary-Louise Parker’s Sarah is cringeworthy, and the whole thing feels like a Bond ripoff. What makes it work is the fantastic supporting cast – Malkovich, Mirren, Neal McDonough and Byung-hun Lee as cold-blooded murderers, Anthony Hopkins as a nutso professor, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Brian Cox as Russians of varying loyalties, David Thewlis as a French arms dealer who cares a lot more about wine than about morality. All of them do scene-stealing work that makes the movie enjoyable, and it’s packed with action and humor the whole way through. Plus, unlike its predecessor, there’s no left-wing cheap shots. I wouldn’t mind a lot more RED sequels if they keep going in this direction.

Conspiracy – I first saw this HBO film back when it came out in 2001, and it’s stuck with me ever since. After seeing it again, I am convinced it’s one of the very best films of the early 2000s. The film details the Wannassee Conference, in which a group of Nazi higher-ups got together over lunch and hammered out a plan to implement Hitler’s Final Solution. The result is an extraordinary look at the nature of civilized evil. Kenneth Branagh plays General Heydrich, the man in charge of running the meeting, his serene, confident voice and boyish grin hiding a malevolent soul, and Stanley Tucci is equally great as Eichmann, who dutifully backs him up. Together they convince, coerce, and subtly threaten the others into going along with their plan (although many don’t need much convincing), and watching these well-educated men discuss committing genocide in such a calm, articulate, civilized way is both chilling and strangely fascinating to watch. Note the way the Heydrich dodges all morality at first and makes it an issue of efficiency (“we have a storage problem with these Jews”), and then when he’s challenged by others feeling pangs of conscience, is more than able to convince them to join him in committing mass murder. Colin Firth and Ian McNeice are both excellent in supporting roles, and a young Tom Hiddleston shows up in a small role.

Ash Vs. Evil Dead (seasons 1 and 2) – the Evil Dead trilogy is carried on and its universe expanded into a TV show, and the results are scary, gory, funny, and very entertaining. Bruce Campbell once again plays the one-handed, wisecracking idiot Ash Williams, who saved the world from demonic possession 25 years ago, but was accused of being a mad slasher and is now well into middle age, still working at hardware stores. Misusing the book of the dead, he accidentally summons demonic spirits yet again, and must strap on the chainsaw and shotgun yet again to save humanity, along with a couple of twentysomething sidekicks. If you liked the original trilogy, this is a must-watch, that continues the horror/comedy tone of the original films and utilizes their premise in endlessly inventive ways. It’s all a lot of fun, but after two seasons, the constant gore and death gets tiresome, as does Ash’s stupidity (it’s to Campbell’s eternal credit that he can make this selfish imbecile likeable). The show also has a bit of a misanthropic streak, constantly portraying regular people in a cartoonish way as aggressive buffoons, rednecks and/or fools, and then inviting us to enjoy them dying horribly. By the end of the second season, the whole thing was wearing thin for me.

Hateful8

The Hateful Eight – I skipped this one in theaters after Tarantino’s disgusting anti-police rant, and after his mediocre last few films, I was expecting to be underwhelmed by this one. But I was very pleasantly surprised; this is probably his best work since Pulp Fiction. The cast is fabulous, and after a slow start, it becomes very intense and watchable all the way through. It’s essentially a bloody remake of The Thing, set in the post-Civil War West, as an assorted group of lowlifes hole up in a Wyoming cabin to wait out a blizzard, including a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell doing his best John Wayne impression) transporting a murderer (a fantastic Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the hangman, and he eventually suspects that some of them are secretly part of her gang and are planning to ambush him and free her. Paranoia and old grudges from the War quickly take hold of the group, and soon bullets are flying and blood is splattering everywhere. It’s a nasty piece of work, but brilliantly made, and a huge improvement on the ugly Django Unchained. That movie’s message was that anyone involved in slavery should die, even women and unarmed men, but this movie’s central relationship ends up being between a former slave and Union soldier (Samuel L. Jackson) and a racist former Confederate loyalist (Walton Goggins) who are about equally hateful and bigoted towards each other, but end up working together and forming a grudging bond and even friendship with each other. If anything, this movie is about how we as a country need to forgive past racial injustices and come together to survive and seek justice against our enemies. Note: this one is VERY politically incorrect, and if the N-word bothers you, stay away.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – other than a pair of bookend scenes involving Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner, the latest Pirates of the Caribbean film feels weirdly like a carbon copy of the others, particularly the last one. Jack Sparrow finds himself in danger from a supernaturally enhanced villain (a very creepy Javier Bardem), teams up with a handsome young man and a pretty young woman, goes in search of a mystical object (in this case, Poseidon’s Trident) to save himself while being chased by British soldiers and sea monsters (undead sharks in this case, which are sadly more ridiculous than awesome). The whole thing feels very worn out and overdone, and other than Bardem, the many new cast members don’t add much to their roles. The film’s saving grace is Geoffrey Rush, who brings real depth and pathos to Hector Barbossa this time around, and even Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow is good for a few laughs, particularly in the early scenes. It’s an okay popcorn movie, but nothing special.

Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls – needed a few laughs, so I decided to rewatch this one for the first time in years. Seeing it again, I was struck by two things: (a) how unlike the original, which had a fairly coherent plot, this one felt like a series of random comedic skits strung together, and (b) how jerky Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura is to everyone. Not just slightly rude in a goofy way, but downright hostile. While the original was basically a spoof of private eye movies, this one transports Carrey’s character to Africa to find a missing bat, and basically just lets him go nuts. First he meets all the Brits that have hired him, and immediately starts insulting them and even beating them up (even though they want to find the missing animal as much as he does, and want to prevent a tribal war). Then he meets the African tribe, and spends all his time insulting and messing with them, too. Eventually, he gets his comeuppance from both the Africans and the Brits in the second half of the movie before finally solving the mystery. It’s got a light and enjoyably un-PC tone, and there are some laugh out loud scenes (like the famous rhino scene, and the one where he uses unorthodox means to interrogate a suspect for information), but it’s hard to watch it and not get the impression that Carrey had no desire to make the movie, and that translated into his character basically bullying everyone on-screen for most of the running time.

The Punisher (Season 1) – a huge letdown, especially considering that The Punisher is my favorite comic book character, and seeing him reduced to a Jason Bourne knockoff story filled with left-wing social justice sucker punches was more than I could stomach. The first episode dispenses with the whole “killing criminals” thing that is the very essence of the character, and instead focuses on him fighting the real enemy – other American soldiers (who are portrayed as either mindless thugs, crazed gun nuts, or PTSD-ridden psychos), and their corrupt CIA bosses. Other than Frank and his sidekick Micro, all of the villains are white males: American soldiers, intelligence agents, evil construction workers(!). And the sympathetic characters? A black fellow veteran, an angelic young Hispanic man, a housewife, and a female Muslim FBI agent who is better at everything than her wimpy male partner, and is being sexually harassed by her white male boss. Ugh. And the writing is schizophrenic – one minute we’re taking a nuanced look at how difficult it is for our veterans to be readjusting to civilian life, and the next we’re supposed to cheer as The Punisher blows them away. On the upside, Jon Bernthal absolutely owns the lead role, his relationship with Micro is pretty interesting, and the supporting cast is pretty good. Now they need to take these performances and plug them into a show that isn’t an absolutely terrible, pale shadow of what The Punisher is supposed to be.

Burnt – the umpteenth movie about a chef, but it’s not altogether bad. Bradley Cooper plays a disgraced former chef who returns to London to redeem himself and his reputation, while dodging some nasty debt collectors. The scenes in the kitchen are the best, with Cooper conducting his chefs like an orchestra, and his temper threatening to flare up and send him into full Gordon Ramsey mode at any imperfection. The other scenes are just okay, and the other characters have an irritating tendency to talk endlessly about how awesome Cooper is, violating the most important rule of screenwriting: show, don’t tell. There is one scene I loved, where he invites a fellow chef to lunch at Burger King, and when she looks down her nose at the food, he calls her out for her elitism.

The Bad Batch – indie director Ana Lily Amirpour’s attempt to make a female-centered post-apocalyptic movie that’s part b-movie and part arthouse film is certainly audacious, but unbelievably dull and unwatchably bad. Suki Waterhouse (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) plays a young woman who is released into the desert for being an “undesireable”, then spends the rest of the movie having a lot of weird, ugly stuff happen to her. First she is attacked by cannibals and loses two limbs, then she ends up in a weird rave town where everyone worships the cultlike leader who gives them acid parties. Then she has a couple of violent encounters with the cannibals who attacked her, kinda-sorta falls in love with one of them (Jason Momoa), and that’s pretty much it. Much of the movie is just people wandering around in the desert, spouting random philosophical jumble, and the few action scenes that punctuate the film are almost as boring. Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey, Giovanni Ribisi and Diego Luna all inexplicably show up in small roles – maybe Amirpour promised them all a fun party in the desert during filming or something? A dreary, meaningless, mind-numbingly slowly paced film.

The Red Pill – I don’t watch many political documentaries, as they’re mainly just cheerleading for their respective sides, but this one was quite good. A chronicle of the Men’s Rights Movement, a semi-conservative backlash against radical feminism. Much of its success as a compelling film is due to its director, former Hollywood actress Cassie Jaye. An avowed feminist and leftist (she previously made documentaries about LGBT activism), Jaye displays genuine intellectual curiosity in trying to understand the Red Pill movement and what it stands for, and is shocked to find herself questioning some of her most deeply held beliefs as a feminist. While much of the film involves her discussions with Men’s Rights leaders and members, she regularly goes to other feminists to get their point of view on the issues being raised, and as the film goes on, she finds that the feminist retorts she gets are more and more facile and intellectually vacuous, and she admits to the camera that she just plain got it wrong in many cases. She’s not afraid to point out that there is some misogyny on the fringes of the movement, but that much of what she expected to encounter was being manufactured by the media. An excellent documentary by a talented filmmaker, and some good food for thought.

Bone Tomahawk – another fine Western with Kurt Russell, this time playing a gruff Sheriff who must lead a posse to rescue hostages after his town is attacked by cannibalistic, cave-dwelling savages. The other posse members include Richard Jenkins as his aging deputy, Patrick Wilson as a tenderfoot determined to rescue his wife, and a very good Matthew Fox as a stone-cold dandy gunslinger. The film’s middle section drags, as it’s mostly men walking and exchanging banter, but the climactic scenes, which play out like half Western and half horror show, are extraordinarily well-done and make the film worth watching. A very unique film, and one that doesn’t mess around.

Room – a really well-done drama about a young boy and his mother (Brie Larson) who escape their captor, the boy’s biological father, who kidnapped the mother and has been keeping her locked up for years. The story is told from the boy’s point of view, which gives the film a strangely innocent, almost dreamlike approach to its rough premise. It’s ultimately the story of the mother’s reunion with her family and the outside world after many years separated from them, and the boy’s wide-eyed discovery of a world he never knew existed. It’s a film that is able to explore a lot of difficult emotional territory without sinking into melodrama or any of the usual Hollywood clichés. Larson is quite good here, as are supporting players like Joan Allen and William H. Macy (as well as child actor Jacob Tremblay in the lead), but the real star is director Lenny Abrahamson, who manages to tell this story in a way that is truly unlike what I have seen before.

13 comments to Jimmy’s Mini-Reviews: What I’ve Been Watching

  • I thought 13 Hours was very good as well. It’s a shame it didn’t do better in the theaters.

    I’m shocked you made it through 2 seasons of Ash vs. The Evil Dead. I was worn out after about 5 or 6 episodes. Maybe if I were 15 I’d be able to watch it all. You are right, Campbell does an awesome job making an a-hole likeable.

    Regarding Willy Wonka, I never saw it when I was a child so I don’t know about a kid’s reaction the the end where Wonka makes his pivot and turns into an apparent jerk…but even as an adult that entire sequence and the way it ended was actually very touching.

  • Glad you dug Bone Tomahawk. My only complaint, one to be expected of an unabashed super-fan of Eddie and the Cruisers, The Philadelphia Experiment and Streets of Fire, was not enough Michael Paré.

    13 Hours another one which wowed me. Though not surprising from the left, still pisses me off this movie doesn’t get the love thrown Black Hawk Down or Zero Dark Thirty’s directions.

    • Michael Bay gets a deserved bad rap, but he did a remarkable job on 13 Hours. His name may be partially responsible for this film not getting much love…along with left wing angst.

      • Also does a great job as exec producer on “The Last Ship.” The uniforms probably aren’t up to snuff, but my squid dad likes it, plus it’s pro-USA patriotic as all get-out. 😉

    • All movies would be improved with more Michael Pare. #fact

      It’s funny, Michael Bay is practically synonymous with mindless action flicks, but here’s the thing. He’s now made three good movies that are not mindless action flicks: 13 Hours, Pain & Gain, and The Island. All of them are very well-made, but they all bombed. Whereas the Transformers and Bad Boys movies made insane amounts of money. Then they turn around and blame the guy for making dumb movies, when apparently that’s all the public wants him to make. You can’t blame a guy for going along with the laws of supply and demand.

  • Rufus

    Regarding “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” like you, the more I ponder it the more impressed I am. It made a big impression on me when I saw it in the theater as a wee Rufus. (I just deleted a few additional paragraphs I wrote on what the movie has meant in my life. They were too personal. Even for me.)

    It was always one of my favorites as a kid, if not the favorite, but I never thought about it much as a story or work of art until I got older. It’s all incredibly well done. The script, the songs, the sets, the acting, but most of all; the story. There is a lot that is uniquely good about it, but I think the single best thing it gets right above almost all other children’s movies is it includes real evil.

    Most all children’s movies sugarcoat the characters or make the potential for harm remote, or unlikely. This is a recent occurrence. All cultures I am aware of sent their children to bed with tales of real, primal fear. As the kids in that film are drawn inexorably further and further into the factory with no escape, worse and worse things happen to them. It’s quite possible some of them are dying and the film never gives us an image of one of the “bad” children recuperating comfortably with oompah-loompah nurses in the bowels of the factory. Even Charlie and Grandpa Joe are very nearly killed by huge, rotating, slicing blades. And, as Outlaw pointed out, Wilder is extraordinarily cruel to Charlie at the end. Kids are completely capable of understanding these real themes, but few films trust them enough to tell them truthful messages. And it’s all even more disconcerting due to the intermixed scenes of fun, bright colors, happy music and humor. In other words, it’s a lot like life. Your boss gives you a raise and on your way to the bank to cash the check you slip on a banana peel, incurring medical bills twice the amount of the check in your hand.

    Regarding truthful messages; many have made comparisons to Christian religious themes, and I won’t pretend to know the mind of Jesus (I believe He would find it a fitting parable for how to live one’s life) or Roald Dahl (he almost certainly did not intend his work, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” as an apologetic). I also think I have read interviews with the screenwriters where they deny conscious attempts to work Christian themes into their script. Yet they are there. I read a few of Lewis’ Lion, Witch and Wardrobe books when I was a kid and found them flat. Oddly, Lewis, a brilliant writer who intended those works as Christian parables, doesn’t get it as right as Dahl and the Wonka screenwriters. There is no real fear in Lewis’ work. Without real fear there cannot be true redemption.

  • Rufus

    Two comments about “Coco.”

    1: Did you catch the depiction of the “Toy Story” characters?
    II: The character Coco is so wrinkled it approaches absurdity. One of the critiques of “Toy Story” was the toys looked real, because toys are relatively smooth, but computer animation wasn’t able to make lifelike human features, like wrinkles, and so the humans in Toy Story looked like the moving crew in Dire Straight’s “Money for Nothin'” video. I have a theory Coco’s wrinkled face was an inside joke among the animators. “So, they say computers can’t depict human wrinkles, eh? We’ll show them!”
    C) Did you notice the number of crucifixes in the film?

    • 1. I missed that, but I read about it later and kicked myself for not catching it. Pixar’s easter eggs are unbelievable. They will often hide references in their movies to future movies that are years away from getting made.

      2. I’ve seen some pictures of folks over 100 years old, and they looked as though they had wrinkles on top of wrinkles, so I didn’t think Coco was THAT absurd. It is a cartoon, though, and Pixar tends to stylistically overexaggerate its characters (remember the short insurance boss in The Incredibles)?

      3. I did, and while the film was obviously not intending to be an overt endorsement of Christianity, given that it’s a film about spirits in the afterlife, it’s not hard to read between the lines. Christianity is to thoroughly ingrained in Hispanic culture, just like the tight-knit family, music and bright colors in the film, it’s very much an essential part of what the filmmakers are celebrating. I’m not sure why it’s okay to acknowledge Christianity as part of Mexican culture but not for American culture, but whatever. Hollywood’s gotta Hollywood.

      • Rufus

        My impression of 3. was the same. It was realism. If they were not animated, but real Mexicans in a real Mexican village that’s simply how rooms would be decorated. Few people would have noticed if they were missing, but kudos to the animators for getting it right.

  • kishke

    13 Hours: Terrific.
    Burnt: Good. Sienna Miller was sharp.
    Room: I read a couple of chapters in the book, and it repelled me, so skipped the movie.