Film Reviews Lists

I Saw a Lot Of Movies Over the Holidays. Some of Them Were Even Good.

Around these parts, any holiday break means sitting around and watching your relatives stare at their phones. Yes, our collective cyber addiction means we’ve long since been released from enduring the forced pleasantries of discussing the intricacies of the weather or other such banal business with those family members who only show up once or twice a year. But, I figure if we’re all going to just sit around staring at our screens why not go the movies where at least we’ll be staring at the same screen.

(Before you go thinking “Wow, his family just sounds sad,” please know I am clearly exaggerating for comedic effect. I mean, a little. For example, sometimes we still do talk about the weather, the cost of gas, or how that mean girl at work keeps stealing everyone’s snacks from the office fridge even though they’re clearly labeled!)

Every year me and mine take in as many movies as possible over the holidays, usually the broadly appealing things everyone could agree on wanting to see. Some of them are even good. The 2018 Holiday break seemed busier than normal, though. I don’t have the numbers to back me up here, but I’m pretty sure there were like 103 new movies in theaters and on streaming. That math checks out. Totally.

So, here’s a round-up of my opinions on everything I saw over the holidays, ranked according to which made-up award I would give to each one of them:

The “Most Pleasant Surprise” Award Goes To…

Dear Lord, help me. I have to say something, but I don’t know if I can. Please, give me the strength and bravery to declare unto the world the following:

I saw a Transformers movie, and I liked it.

(OK, Katy Perry. Can you get a little more serious with this?)

I have actually already posted a full review of Bumblebee. Short version: “Bumblebee is an absolute delight of family-friendly, blockbuster entertainment, repackaging elements of The Iron Giant, T2, Big Hero 6, and E.T. into a very simple story about a broken girl, her literally broken robot and how they fix each other.” That’s what Steven Spielberg was going for all those years ago when he produced the first Transformers movie, but this is the first one to tell that story with real heart while also looking like its Michael Bay filter has finally been turned off.

Bumblebee is now quite rightfully the best-reviewed film in Transformers history. It’s also going to be the lowest-grossing one. Working theory: Bumblebee is too big a departure from what came before to please longtime fans and the ship had already sailed on ever winning over franchise holdouts in a meaningful way. Plus, the well had been thoroughly poisoned by too many bad sequels syndrome. Also, have you seen how much money Aquaman is making while aiming for the same audience! Still, there’s plenty of time to check Bumblebee out in theaters and wake up to a world which actually contains a genuinely great live-action Transformers movie.

The “Perfectly Pleasant In Every Way” Award Goes To….

This, too, I already fully reviewed. Short version: “It’s a 2018 movie which wants to pretend like it’s still 1964, transporting us into a nostalgia machine and reveling in the way Disney musicals used to look. It’s charming enough, but Mary Poppins Returns needs to be more than just a glorified cover version of a classic. To truly match the heights of the original, it better have some damn good songs. It, sadly, does not.”

Still, the spoonful of sugar which helps this particular medicine go down is Emily Blunt’s winning performance and the obvious genius craftsmanship on display. They don’t have the Sherman Brothers in their prime penning classic songs, but director Rob Marshall and his team at least have enough talent to make a perfectly pleasant movie, one which the kiddos in my life actually liked more than me.

The “Just Because Your Mom Saw the Trailer Five Times Doesn’t Mean She Knows It’s About a Lesbian Love Triangle” Award Goes To…

There are just some Christmas season movies you know aren’t meant for the whole family. The Favourite, a capital O, capital M Oscar Movie which indulges historical rumor in imagining a lesbian love triangle involving the Queen of England in the early 1700s, is definitely one of them. Might not be the kind of thing my family will be into, yet my mom had seen the trailer multiple times thanks to AMC’s curious determination to always show the same 20 minutes of trailers before every movie. In The Favourite, I saw a trailer quite clearly promising a lesbian love triangle in old England; my mom just saw that actress from Broadchurch and decided that ought to be good.

I should have asked her more questions. Costume dramas, after all, aren’t normally her thing. The film’s director, Yorgos Lanthimos, is as about as art-house as it gets, and I knew better than to show his everybody-talks-like-a-robot-for-dramatic-effect The Killing of a Sacred Deer to anyone in my family. I should have similarly stepped in here.

I did not. The results, then, were predictable. What usually happens when you take a mainstream movie fan to an arthouse Oscar Movie in a genre they don’t normally like? If you’re lucky, you’ll have opened their eyes to a whole new world. Normally in my experience, though, you’re met with a sigh followed by something like, “That was a weird movie.” That’s what happened here.

“Look at it this way: if this wins Best Picture at the Oscars at least you’ll be able to know what they’re talking about,” I reasoned with my mom afterward. She was having none of that, though. “It better NOT win Best Picture!” Really, she’s more A Star is Born, Green Book kind of person when it comes to the Oscars this year. The Favourite was not her – wait for it – cup of tea (you thought I was going to say “favorite,” didn’t you?).

Personally, however, I was totally swept up in The Favourite’s acid tongue and delectable tale of palatial intrigue and shifting power dynamics. It’s the first Yorgos Lanthimos movie I’ve genuinely loved instead of merely admired. But, yeah, I shouldn’t have taken my mom to it.

The “Most Disappointing” Award Goes To…

Every Christmas Day, Hollywood gives the world the gift of a wide release for a brand new movie that’s only ever been seen by critics – not even film festival audiences have glimpsed it yet – and might just win Best Picture. In 2017, it was All the Money in the World. The year before that, Hidden Figures. Going even further back reveals Christmas Day releases like Joy, Concussion, Into the Woods, Unbroken, Big Eyes, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Hold on. I’m writing about this like it’s some kind of magical event, every cinephile’s Christmas tradition and every awards strategist’s nuclear option for totally disrupting the Oscars race. Yet, apart from Hidden Figures didn’t every one of those movies I just mentioned disappoint in some way, either failing as an Oscar contender or failing as a movie, period?

Yeah, when I put it that way I suddenly don’t know why I ever expected more from Vice, Annapurna’s big Christmas Day release which looks like a masterpiece, talks like a masterpiece, but, lemme tell you something Mean Gene (RIP), it ain’t no masterpiece.

Instead, it’s a wildly all-over-the-place anti-biopic that tries to make politics palatable through comedy but ends up either oversimplifying or perhaps accidentally lionizing its subject, depending on your interpretation. I didn’t have the violent, white-hot rage reaction against the movie as some on #FilmTwitter have. Vice is actually kind of a fascinating exercise in watching a proudly liberal filmmaker making a movie about a conservative icon he clearly detests. However, after The Big Short, I expected Adam McKay to somehow top himself. He did not. Cramming 50+ years of American politics into a 132-minute movie is a reach too far.

Cool transformation by Christian Bale, though. Hilarious to me that, according to a Variety interview, while Bale was gaining the weight to play the part he called up Gary Oldman to ask for tips on how his fellow thespian packed on the pounds to portray Churchill to Oscar-winning effect in The Darkest Hour. “I didn’t add a single pound,” was Oldman’s simple response. See, apparently, Christian Bale didn’t realize fat suits, prosthetics, and makeup have come a long way these days, so much so that a svelte man can play an obese person without having to gain any weight whatsoever. “Now you tell him,” cries Bale’s surely over-stressed heart.

The “What Do You Mean Sandra Bullock Has a New Netflix Movie? Why Haven’t We Watched It Yet?!?” Award Goes To…

I’d like to tell you that my family got together to watch Bird Box on Netflix and then decided afterward to put on blindfolds and film each other trying to walk around the house without getting hurt. At least that would explain why the Christmas tree ended up on the ground, the gifts caught on fire, and my grandma had to be rushed to the emergency room.

But I can’t tell you that because we’re not idiots desperate for social media notoriety. (Also, of course, the gifts didn’t catch on fire nor did the Christmas tree take a tumble. My grandma? Long since dead.) Instead, we watched what we thought to be a serviceable little thriller about monsters who only kill when you look at them, hence the blindfolds. Just generalized enough to be metaphorically about whatever you want it to be (social media is one popular “what’s it really about?” theory, motherhood is another) and perfectly competent in the “scariest thing is what you don’t see” department.

Also, kind of ridiculous and overly predictable, a lesser version of a bunch of other movies, like A Quiet Place meets The Mist. Solid Sandra Bullock performance, though. I rated it as 2.5 stars out of 5 on Letterboxd, which I now realize seems a bit low. It’s easily a 3-star movie, maybe 3 and a half.

Yeah. 45 million people watched at least an hour of this thing. The Netflix algorithm clearly works. At least this time Bird Box is better than Bright.

The “I’ve Already Seen It, But, Yeah, I’ll Go With You If You Want” Award Goes To…

I know that’s not the real poster, but the actual characters in the movie are so flimsy they might as well be Lego figurines.

I took in Aquaman a week early as part of WB’s special nationwide preview screening event. So, when family inevitably wanted to see it over the holidays I was asked to tag along as the resident nerd even though I’d already seen it. Translation: If there’s any part of the plot or comic book lore they don’t understand, I’m here to explain.

I was overwhelmed by Aquaman’s let’s-be-five-films-at-once storytelling strategy and truly dazzling visuals the first time I saw it. It’s a crazy, fun trip of a movie, I thought. The second time around, the visuals dazzled a little less and the plot’s bathroom break moments seemed all the more obvious. Jason Momoa and Amber Heard heading to the desert, for example, caused a mass exodus toward the doors for popcorn refills and bathroom visits. Ditto for just about any time Patrick Wilson met with yet another tribe of Atlanteans to strongarm into calling him Ocean Master (without also laughing while saying it).

Point: Aquaman drags. Sometimes interminably so. There’s absolutely no reason it needs to be over 2 hours and 20 minutes long. But when you’re there to again see Julie Andrews voice a Kraken or the ocean seemingly fight itself you’ll sit through a lot and ultimately have a good time. Still, the boredom with the plot will sometimes lead you to start wondering how in the world WB could spend so much to get the underwater special effects so right and somehow still not know what to do with Amber Heard’s various wigs.

Post-movie, there was one question I could not answer: Spoiler, when or how exactly does Aquaman learn that fancy trident-twirling move Willem Dafoe showed him earlier? Dafoe promises to teach him how to do it only when he’s ready, yet that never actually happens on screen. So, when Aquaman uses that as his finishing move on Patrick Wilson was he just winging it?

The “It Capably Passed the Time” Award Goes To…

Second Act, which sees Jennifer Lopez going from grocery store assistant manager to well-paid corporate consultant all thanks to some deep faked social media and completely fictional resume starts out passably formulaic. It’s about a woman caught in a web of lies and her struggle to keep both her initially supportive, but eventually disapproving man (Milo Ventimiglia) and friends (chiefly Leah Remini). You know exactly how it’s going to end.

But, then there’s a mid-movie twist that swerves hard into serious drama. Spoiler, the boss’s daughter (Vanessa Hudgens) at the new job turns out to be the daughter Lopez gave up for adoption decades ago, and their blissful reunion throws yet another complication to the web of lies. It feels like some producer had an old rom-com script sitting around gathering dust and when Lopez came on board they rewrote it to make it more interesting for her. The result is a tonal mish-mash despite obvious good intentions from everyone involved.

For example, when Remini and Ventimiglia pull a Devil Wears Prada and turn on Lopez for apparently getting so lost in her new life and job that she’s no longer the person they loved, you kind of laugh because it’s like, oh, the rest of the movie didn’t get the message – we’re not doing that shit anymore. No, we’re doing an adoption drama now. Except Second Chance actually wants to do both. Doesn’t really work.

The film does, however, have a well-meaning message of empowerment for anyone old enough to want a second act in life, but considering the way I overheard some men joking in the theater bathroom afterward “Kind of predictable. I just stared at [Lopez and Remini]’s cleavage the entire time” I feel like that message might have been lost on some of the guys dragged to the movie by significant others. Men, we’re just the worst.

The “I Swear I Laughed A Couple of Times. Maybe. I Think. Or Did I Just Dream That? Oh, God. Did I Fall Asleep During the Movie and Dream Up Something Funnier?!?” Award Goes To…

Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly are inherently funny guys. Sometimes that means even in the worst movies or most regrettable projects, like Homes & Watson, they can still get a laugh or two by virtue of their ability to sell a punchline.

That’s the only way Holmes & Watson ever made me laugh. Despite my better judgement, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the way Ferrell, playing an arrogant version of Sherlock Holmes whose massive celebrity seems to mask how dumb he clearly is (sound familiar, Anchorman fans?), spin a line like “Enjoy your voyage on the Titanic, the safest ship in the world” with his signature absurdist glee. Nor could I resist Reilly, playing a sycophantic version of John Watson who eventually realizes Sherlock doesn’t appreciate him, always offering people heroin or cocaine in his duties as a doctor, the joke being “look at what they used to think of as medicine.”

Other than little moments like that sprinkled throughout, Holmes & Watson is an astonishingly joyless affair, an unholy marriage of wrong cast, wrong premise, and even wronger (that’s a word, right?) execution.

Strange, though. So much press out there about how terrible this film and how it’s one of the biggest bombs of the holiday movie season, yet we had to delay going to see it multiple times due it to being sold out. File away under local box office is not always indicative of national box office. Also file away under people in my town really, really wanted a good comedy and just settled for any comedy, period.

The “Oh, What Fresh Hell is This” Award Goes To…

Nobody reads anymore.

Well, not literally. After all, you’re reading this right now. What I mean is nobody in Hollywood reads anymore (not that they ever really did in the first place). As The Kid Stays in the Picture argued, once upon a time in Hollywood the best way for an outsider to crack Tinseltown was to buy up the rights to a hit novel, but that was back in the days before podcasts, a seemingly endless supply of documentaries, and reduced attention spans. Now, Hollywood is just as if not more likely to option the rights to a New York Times article, podcast, or documentary than an actual novel. The Mule and The Old Man and the Gun, for example, were each adapted from articles.

The problem is sometimes an article is just a good article, not a movie, and sometimes a killer documentary would have no real wide audience if adapted into a narrative feature. The trick is to tell the good from the adaptable. Robert Zemeckis made that mistake with his last movie, the entirely needless The Walk following the entirely superior documentary Man on Wire. He’s sadly done it again with Welcome to Marwen.

This is Zemeckis’ narrative adaptation of Marwencol, a 2010 documentary about an artist named Mark Hogancamp who was horrifically beaten within an inch of his life outside a bar after boasting about loving to wear women’s shoes. The experience left him so brain-damaged he could no longer paint or draw again. He could, however, still take photographs. So, he poured himself into photographing/creating a ⅙ scale of a fictional WWII town in his own backyard equipped with figurines, each of them based on someone in his life.

It’s a lovely story about a man healing himself through art, but if you’ve seen the documentary you know Mark Hogancamp is not a character cut out to be the face of a heartwarming, Christmas season Oscar Movie, not unless Steve Carell thinks his path to an Academy Award means walking down an old city street while wearing a sad WWII hat and hauling a toy truck full of dolls behind him.

The look of a man who fell into the Oscar formula trap. See also: Cuba Gooding, Jr. in Radio.

If discount store George Lucas Robert Zemeckis had the ability to discern human emotion anymore he would have seen that, too. Instead, all he saw was yet another excuse for a technical experiment.

“Everyone won’t shut up about the damn uncanny valley in The Polar Express,” you can practically see him thinking. “But if I make mo-capped, CGI dolls with plastic bodies and unblinking faces they can’t complain about the uncanny valley because dolls are already made to look real, but not real at the same time. It’s baked into the premise!”

Yeah, I wish I was “baked” while watching this movie. It’s just about the only thing that would have made it a more pleasant experience, other than simply getting up and leaving halfway through once Carell’s Hogancamp almost has the doll version of him fuck the doll version of Leslie Mann, as the well-meaning neighbor who has no idea the level of kink she’s indulged.

What are you still doing here? The article is over. Go on. Find something else to read. Or, and I really hope you pick this option, you could stick around and leave a comment down below. Even if the comment is as simple as “this is a thing that I read” or confrontational as “you’re a total film snob.” I’d take either of those.

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8 comments

  1. All I can say is “Ya for Bumblebee!” It is nice to know that robots in disguise can redeem themselves. Now if only the Ninja Turtles could too.

    1. Anything’s possible. Just 18 months ago I would have told the Transformers franchise was dead and buried, going to its grave having only ever made one passable movie (the first one). Now, while Bumblebee is off to a modest start it’s not outright bombing and could get a sequel if it has legs at the box office. You know someone at Paramount is already looking at Michael Bay’s other franchises and asking, “What else can we revive without him?” TMNT’s top of the list.

  2. “discount store George Lucas” – yikes.
    Looking forward to seeing Vice.
    Great post Mr. Konda, always great fun reading your work. Have you considered starting a podcast? I’d be an instant follower.
    I once asked you for advice regarding writing film reviews, and your input really helped me in the development of my own criticism. So thank you for that. Your work continues to be an inspiration. 🙂

    1. ““discount store George Lucas” – yikes.”

      Allow me to explain that one a little bit. Zemeckis is probably a better director than George Lucas and he’s certainly had a more varied career in terms of the types of movies he’s been drawn to. However, like Lucas he’s had this weird thing where he got in on the ground floor on the new art of using CGI to aid storytelling (Forrest Gump being the prime example) but then eventually let it consume him entirely, seemingly relating more to the 1’s and 0’s than the actual humans.

      “Looking forward to seeing Vice.”

      It’s a really divisive film. I feel like maybe I just don’t have enough intellectual bandwith right now to totally get or engage with why exactly the film’s critics hate it so thoroughly because it’s not just liberals love it, conservatives hate it kind of thing. Plenty of critics who despite Cheney despite the film. However, like I said in the piece I think it’s at least kind of fascinating, especially in a simple film 101 education on how to and maybe how not to use comedy to explain politics.

      “Great post Mr. Konda, always great fun reading your work. Have you considered starting a podcast? I’d be an instant follower.”

      I should have started a podcast years ago, honestly. The trick has been trying to find the right angle. It can’t just be Juli and me shooting the shit about new movies and TV shows every week. There are countless other examples of that. But finding that angle and starting a podcast in 2019 is one of my New Year’s resolutions.

      “I once asked you for advice regarding writing film reviews, and your input really helped me in the development of my own criticism. So thank you for that. Your work continues to be an inspiration”

      I’m glad I could help and inspire you. Thanks for the support. Also, I don’t think I ever did get back to you on which specific textbooks I read in my college film 101 classes:

      They are: A Short Guide to Writing About Film, The Art of Watching Films, and then a very helpful grammar book called Everything’s An Argument. William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade is also an invaluable resource for understanding screenwriting AND the business of Hollywood.

      These days, however, there are various excellent YouTube channels which advance film literacy quite brilliantly, like NerdWriter (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCJkMlOu7faDgqh4PfzbpLdg) and if you have some money any of the Master Class sessions where classic directors like Martin Scorsese teach classes about filmmaking are excellent (https://www.masterclass.com/classes/martin-scorsese-teaches-filmmaking).

  3. I saw “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and “Bumblebee”.

    I enjoyed “RBtI” until the final act. Also, eBay doesn’t work that way ie There aren’t multiple reminders within the day to pay up lest you forfeit your bid.

    Yeah “Bumblebee” is the best Transformers movie since the animated 80s Transformers film. That also featured Stan Bush.

    1. “RBtL”‘s final act does seem a bit tacked on, although I do enjoy the return of the Disney princesses and their “Look, a big, strong man in need of saving” bit. I’ve had minimal experience with eBay, but as you argue I don’t really recall the multiple reminders being, um, so multiple.

      Bumblebee steals from the beast, but it does in an entertaining way. I keep trying to make sure to clarify “live-action” when I praise it as being easily among the best Transformers movies because I know the actual hand-drawn animated one from the 80s is a revered cultural touchstone for a lot of people.

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