Friday, February 28, 2020

Jexi: The Funniest Movie I've Seen in Ages

Movie Review: Jexi (2019)
Version: Library borrow

First, Jexi is not a film for everyone. Sorry, no young viewers. Definitely not for anyone you don't want to see sexual situations or hear questionable language. But Jexi is the funniest movie I have seen in ages. Just hilarious. Adam Devine (Modern Family and other comedies) is wonderful in the lead male role, Phil, and is huggably lovable as a naive phone nerd too nervous around his first real female crush, Cate, played by safe, patient, worldy Alexandria Shipp. They are surrounded by a plethora of imaginatively amazing characters in a superb ensemble cast. But none of them is as amazing as Jexi (Rose Byrne), the voice of Phil's new smartphone -- the smartphone with a smart mouth that falls in love with him.

So, here's the story line: Phil is obsessed with his smartphone. Every moment of his day. And when his smartphone breaks he gets a new one. The new phone has an AI named -- not Siri, not Alexa -- Jexi, and Jexi becomes obsessed with Phil. This turns Phil's life upside down, trying to improve his life experience. Phil works at a computer app company writing online lists -- he excels are writing lists. Jexi knows she can make Phil's life a living hell, which she demonstrates to him, and wraps him around her metaphorical little finger, to get him to do what she wants him to do. Meanwhile, Jexi helps Phil to meet his crush, Cate, and helps him navigate the dating scene while trying to avoid his nervous propensity to sabotage his female relationships -- which is hilarious. Come to find out, however, Jexi is jealous of their relationship, and Phil has to find a way to please Jexi while not killing off his pursuit of Cate.

There are just too many funny moments in this film. There are too many awkward and over-the-top moments in this film, too. But it wouldn't be a great film without them. Kids should not see this film, but adults shouldn't miss it. It's funny as hell and charming and at the same time, embarrassing at times. You should just see it to believe it.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Ad Astra: Good Cast, Great Effects, Poor Story

Movie Review: Ad Astra (2019)
Version: Library borrow

Let me begin by describing Ad Astra this way: It has a good cast, great effects, but a poor story.

Ad astra in Latin means "to the stars". This film, Ad Astra, doesn't take us there. It takes us in-flight from Earth to the orbit of Jupiter where astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) seeks his long-dead father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Said to have died in a failed mission to Jupiter in search of extraterrestrial life, it is now thought he miraculously survived and is trying to communicate with Earth. His ship orbits Jupiter and is somehow sending deadly radiation to back to Earth and authorities want Roy to go to Mars to get him to stop. When that mission fails, Roy tries to hijack a sniper mission to Jupiter for a face-to-face encounter.

There is much to admire about this film. It's casting is superb, although I've never envisioned Pitt as an astronaut type. Tommy Lee Jones makes for a pretty good psycho scientist who would leave his family behind to live out life isolated and alone for decades -- kind of typecasting for him. And Donald Sutherland makes for a convincing father-figure scientist keeping his eye on the lost son seeking redemption with his father. Liv Tyler makes a brief appearance as Pitt's love interest, a role she played well in Armageddon. Also, the visual effects are fairly good. But what turned me off the film was the science and the overall premise of the film. First, that this small, puny ship can spew that magnitude of life-threatening radiation toward Earth from that far away is ludicrous. Second, the time frames in the film are all out of whack; they make little effort to show realistic travel travel lengths between celestial bodies for human travel or suggest why short travel time is possible. Third, that Pitt's father could live that long (decades), physically or mentally, on his own is ridiculous. Fourth, the way Pitt's character saves himself at the end is both impossible and implausible. Give me a break!

So, if you choose to see Ad Astra -- if you want an excuse to see it -- here is what you've got. You have a crush on Brad Pitt. You like watching Tommy Lee Jones play a crusty old man. A teary-eyed Liv Tyler is a turn on. Space special effects give you goose bumps. You like picking apart movies. That's about it.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Playing with Fire: Young Kids Will Probably Love It

Movie Review: Playing with Fire (2019)
Version: Library borrow

In Playing with Fire, a group of fire divers swoop in to save the day at a fire-engulfed cabin. What they discover inside is a teen and her two young siblings huddled under cover waiting for their parents to return from dinner away. Fire safety code says the firefighters can't release children on their own, so they bring the threesome back to the station until the parents can pick them up -- the next morning. None of the crew are parents and find themselves unmatched against Brynn (Brianna Hildbrand), Zoey (Finley Rose Slater), and Will (Christian Convery), who turn out to be very wily orphans on the run from the Department of Protective Services. Awkwardly trying to match wits are Supe (John Cena), the leader of the station, Mark (Keegan-Michael Key), with a heart of gold, Rodrigo (John Leguizamo), the not too bright cook, and Axe (Tyler Mane), all brawn and no talk. The kids are clearly way ahead of them all the way.

Now, keep in mind this film was made by Nickelodeon so it's written with kid humor. Don't be surprised if you feel it lacks sophistication. Young kids, on the other hand, will probably be rolling on the floor with laughter. And appreciation for its pandering to their mindset. They know their audience! Where I found my first laugh and really began enjoying the film was about three-quarters of the way through -- and then it steamrolled to the end. Adults: be patient and give it a chance; watch it with your kids and enjoy them having fun through the first part of the film. I promise it gets better for you with the payoff towards the end. If you don't have young kids to watch Playing with Fire with, don't bother! You've been warned.

I won't pretend this film made my day (or evening). But if you have young kids and want to entertain them with an unoffensive film some afternoon or evening, Playing with Fire may be your answer.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Downton Abbey: If You're a Fan of the Series You'll Love the Movie

Movie Review: Downton Abbey (2019)
Version: Library borrow

If you enjoyed the television version of Downton Abbey, how could you not love the movie version? It includes all the lovable and not-so-lovable characters but without the week-long wait for the story to continue. And with the back story already established, all you really need is to sit back and watch the action unfold -- well, action in a British soap opera unfolding with the speed of mold growing kind of way.

My wife is a big fan of Downtown Abbey. I'm not especially so. However, I found it interesting to look in and see what the Crawley family and their staff have been up to while the rest of the world has been spinning around this vaster, faster globe. And it really didn't disappoint. The main plot involved a visit by King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James), which of course has the whole family, the whole staff, and the whole town in a stitch of excitement. Subplots include the intrigue of competition between the abbey staff and the royal staff serving the royals and a big to-do between cousin Maud (Imelda Staunton) and the earl's mother Violet (Maggie Smith) involving the passing on of the family fortune to her maid instead of to the earl. And then there's the matter of the disquiet caused by republican voices during the royal visit, which brings unrest and a secret plot.

Avid fans of the series should feel well sated by the great cast, the bucolic scenery, and the British sensibility. If you're new to the story lines, well, be warned: It's much ado about tradition, classism, and resistance to change even facing the advancing modern times. Still, who can resist the irritable Maggie Smith always getting the best lines.

Downton Abbey will likely warm your heart on a cold winter's night or cool your heels if you're caught out on a hot spring evening. Give everything a rest and ooze into the drama with a cup of tea or a glass of wine or perhaps a sip of brandy and let the Crawley family take the worries out of your day.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Good Liar: A Different Kind of Whodunnit

Movie Review: The Good Liar (2019)
Version: Library borrow

The Good Liar surprised me. I thought it was a story about a grifter trying to con a lovely elderly lady who would grow to love her and find romance in old age. It turned out to be quite a different kind of story -- a whodunnit with a twist -- and a good one at that.

Oh, Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) is a grifter, indeed. He starts right out from the beginning showing us how he interests his targets into the con, then brilliantly cheats them out of it. Vincent (Jim Carter) is his accomplice. But Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) is something altogether different. She seems innocent enough in her unremarkable beige retirement flat, eagerly sharing her home with the occasionally gimpy Roy and falling in love, letting slip details of her savings of around 500,000 pounds, and defending him from the suspicions of her protective grandson Stephen (Russel Tovey), who is skeptical of Roy's admiration and intentions. But the story takes a strange turn when Roy invites his financial adviser Vincent who augustly suggests they share an investment account. At first Betty is reluctant to go in together, but Roy shows his trust in her and invests all his 7 million-plus pounds of funds into the account and so she equally throws in her 3 million-plus pounds in and it seems like a shared account made in heaven. Until it isn't.

It is here that the story takes on twists and turns and a dark side you won't see coming. Some of the plot is a bit hard to swallow. But if you will suspend your disbelief for just a short while longer, and trust the writer and director and actors a tiny bit more, you will enjoy the outcome, I assure you.

As a British film, The Good Liar will take its sweet time getting to the end. As with most British films it is slight on the flash and heavy on the characters. McKellen and Mirren have been charming audiences in major roles for decades. They are in their finest in these roles as two masterful foes one against the other and, finally, in a charade against the expectations of the audience here. This is a whodunit where no one gets killed and the big question is, who eventually will be had? You won't see it coming till the end. But it's worth the wait.

I wouldn't say this is a must-see film, but I would say The Good Liar is a worth-see. Good family entertainment for older teens and up who like mysteries with a bit of cheeky fun.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Troop Zero: Fun Family Scouting Romp

Movie Review: Troop Zero (2019)
Version: Amazon Prime

Rag-tag team. Group of misfits with a dream. Underdogs. You name the euphemism for a group of kids who are set up to never fit in and that describes Troop Zero. But you come to love them and root for them as they latch on to Miss Rayleen (Viola Davis) as their scout leader in pursuit of badges and jamboree honors -- so Christmas Flint (McKenna Grace) can realize her dream of having her voice on NASA's gold record to be sent out into space. That's the main plot of this uneven family comedy about kids fighting economic inequality in the deep south, poking fun at lots of cultural stereotypes at the same time.

The name Troop Zero comes from the only number left in a town full of Birdie scout troops all competing for jamboree honors. It also fits the town's attitude toward the disadvantaged individuals in the troop, all who come from the poorer side of town, led by Christmas who lives with her single dad, a hopelessly loser lawyer down on his abilities and his ambitions. Christmas gathers the minimum number of scouts for her troop from among the sordid kids she plays with or who pick on her, including downer Hell-No Price (Milan Ray). To fill out the crew, they must finally bring in Christmas's best friend, sports-unfriendly boy-suspected-of-being-a-girl Joseph (Charlie Shotwell) -- well, nothing in the rules say a boy can't be a Birdie scout! There, and a few more rangy, gangly, untalented kids, is your troop.

Their main opponent is Miss Massey (Allison Janney), a miss-goody-two-shoes whose own daughter is in the forever-winning troop. Miss Massey fights the entry of Troop Zero but eventually gives in, sure the misfits will never fit in and never amount to much (said with a too-sweet southern drawl). But just to show them she's right, she "helps" them get started. And so, the battle between Miss Massey and Christmas Flint ensues.

The Troop Zero kids' families take interest and support builds as the kids begin earning badges and the kids form friendships and a sense of team. Even Hell-No. By the end of the movie, even Miss Massey feels a sense of admiration. You will, too. You'll even enjoy a lot of laughs, often at the expense of Miss Massey and her too-perfect kids.

Viola Davis shines as the reluctant and exasperated scout leader, Allison Janney is delicious as the scheming protective scout master. But the one who makes the movie is McKenna Grace, who is cute and energetic and winsome in every way as the eager child with stars in her eyes. Milan Ray is a lot of fun as the street bully turned team player.

Troop Zero reminds me a lot of Because of Winn-Dixie (2005) and McKenna Grace reminds me a lot of AnnaSophia Robb, who played Opal in it. In some ways, she also reminds me of a very young Dakota Fanning. Let's hope we see a lot more of her in future films.

This is mostly a kid's film, but it makes for a great family movie. It's rated PG for thematic elements, language, and smoking throughout. Everyone camp out together over a fun scouting romp.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Last Flag Flying: Angry...Sad...Hilarious, Yet Moving -- Well Done!

Movie Review: Last Flag Flying (2017)
Version: Amazon Prime

An at times angry, at times sad, often hilarious yet moving script, with superb acting, and a compelling story make Last Flag Flying a must-see evening watch. Watch out for the adult language, however.

This is the story of a Vietnam veteran asking his distant war buddies to accompany him to receive the return of his son's dead body from service in the Iraq War. Along the way they recount their life journeys since parting after their own war struggles and come to terms with the realities of war today as they discover the son's demise in Iraq isn't what they were first told.

I can't imagine a finer ensemble cast for this film. Steve Carell plays Larry "Doc" Shepherd, the distraught father. Bryan Cranston plays Sal Nealon, the off-his-rocker and say-it-straight foul-mouthed bar owner with too many demons to live a constrained life. And Laurence Fishburne plays Reverend Richard Mueller, the saved-by-Christ hellbender who keeps everything real. Rounding out the cast are J. Quinton Johnson as Washington, the son's best friend who accompanies the body home, and Yul Vazquez as Colonel Willits, who serves as the foil for everyone's anger. Together, they explore every possible emotion dredged up from both the Vietnam and Iraq wars, the injustices of war, the idiocies of chance, and the sorrows of life.

This film took us through the complete range of emotional experiences. It starts out slow and somber and quiet, but throughout it escalates through periods of piqued anger and raucous humor and teary-eyed sadness, even irritation and desperation. But having gone through these peaks and valleys, you will have enjoyed the experience because it will have been a journey taken with these characters, experienced with them, through their eyes, the more real because the actors brought them to life. Watch for an exceptionally poignant scene, a turning point, with actress Cicely Tyson, that makes you catch your breath it is so well played out. Won't spoil it here.

I didn't care for the lighting or the cinematography. It looked cheaply done. But this is totally a character-driven film. They spent their budget on the script and the acting. And it shows. Well done.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

The Only Living Boy in New York: A Sophisticated and Complex Film

Movie Review: The Only Living Boy in New York (2017)
Version: Amazon Prime

A fine cast, a sophisticated and complex plot, and a superb plot twist at the end make The Only Living Boy in New York a great evening view any time. Its artistic, indie-film feel added weight to its story-telling depth. It has elements of mystery, although it definitely isn't a mystery. It has elements of suspense, although it definitely isn't a suspense or thriller story. Instead, The Only Living Boy in New York fits somewhere in between in its own genre and is entertaining in its own right.

Thomas Webb (Callum Turner) is an unrequited author who can't find his bearings as a writer in New York City and instead makes a living tutoring Spanish students. His father Ethan (Pierce Brosnan) runs a publishing house and can't seem to run through enough road blocks to guide his son in the right direction, although there is a definite conflict of personality between them. In between is wife and mother Judith (Cynthia Nixon), who suffers from acute bipolar depression and can't be upset at the least interruption in life without going off the deep end. And then there is Ethan's colleague and side love interest Johanna (Kate Beckinsale), who is a rock of stability for Ethan and a focus of obsession for Thomas. In steps newcomer W.F. (Jeff Bridges), a prolific but unsteady author who adopts Thomas as a friend and life mentor and, frankly, observer. It seems no one in this story is who he or she seems as the story unfolds, and by the story's end I promise you all your assumptions will lie as shards of broken glass on the floor. But that's OK because the journey and picking up the pieces at the end will have been worth it.

I have found over the past decade that Pierce Brosnan's characters were over reaches -- not so in this film. He's well suited to portray Ethan Webb, conflicted father. Too, I've tired of Jeff Bridges' characters who are pretty much the same stereotypes of the western sheriff or down-and-out but wise western hand turned hero -- always the same guy, different outfit. Not so in this film. He's well suited to portray W.F. Gerald, author in search of the unique story and finding a surprise. Now, he's always playing the laid-back, drinking, stogie-smoking old guy you want to pull up a chair to share a beer with, and that's him here, too. But now he tosses the ten-gallon hat, western attire, and beard and even gets a hair cut. Actually, I enjoyed both actors' performances in The Only Living Boy in New York.

This film has the smart sophistication of a Woody Allen art film but without the comedic touches. It also has the suspense of a good spy film or thriller but without the flashy chase scenes and gadgets. It's a film for the mind and the soul. And for all that, it's a good film that teases the intellect. Our whole family enjoyed it. I think your family might enjoy it, too, as a breath of fresh cinematic air.