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The Book of Henry is a Tidal Wave of Lunacy

Jeremiah

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Content Warning: This review contains mentions of rape, as depicted in the film.

The Book of Henry is bad. It just is. It is a movie that understands nothing all the while pretending that it knows everything. The fact that it was made by successful and talented people who all made conscious decisions to make this is deeply troubling on a spiritual and evolutionary level.

It’s almost impossible to describe The Book of Henry to someone who hasn’t seen it. This is not because it’s so bad it’s traumatizing. This is because the movie is so bonkers and hilariously ignorant on what or how reality operates that it’s hard to know where to start.

Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is an eleven-year-old child prodigy. Of the many things the film gets wrong, this is merely one of them. It doesn’t understand how intelligence works. Henry isn’t just smart he’s ‘all knowing smart.’

This is a boy who plays the stock market on the pay phone outside his elementary school while waiting for his mother Susan (Naomi Watts) to pick up Henry and his brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay). (Side Note: Why is there a pay phone outside of an elementary school?) He builds rube Goldberg contraptions in his treehouse made of random junk parts while philosophizing with his brother.

The movie goes through great pains to show you how mature and grounded Henry is compared to his mother. Susan plays Gears of War while Henry does the finances. When her boss at the diner asks Susan if she wants to switch to direct deposit, she replies, “I’ll have to ask Henry.” One night after a few glasses of wine Susan confides in her best friend/co-worker Sheila (Sarah Silverman) that she wishes she could find a man as smart and mature as Henry. Sheila’s response is a simple “So would I!”

Sheila and Henry share an antagonistic sitcom relationship. She calls him Hank, he corrects her and then insults her. She then insults them back. The relationship then goes full creepy when Sheila visits Henry in the hospital. Henry’s been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, so she’s gone to make amends. Henry promptly diagnoses their relationship, using a term I had never heard of before, and then confesses he finds her attractive. He then admits that he knows she has feelings for him but that he’s only eleven.

Sheila then kisses Henry on the lips and leaves. Now at this point, you’re probably wondering when did Henry get a brain tumor? I don’t know. He got a headache one night, went to get some aspirin, got out of bed for some water, and saw the girl across the street get raped by her stepfather. Henry ignores later headaches so he could investigate the abuse he’s witnessed.

This movie is insane. This is only the first act. It never stops. I just sat there in open-mouthed wonderment as the film unfolded before me. Henry, who before he witnessed the incident, had already deduced that Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is being abused by her stepfather. One day during class he notices some new bruises and stalks out of the classroom. Henry storms into the principal’s office and says and I’m quoting, “Jesus, Janice, what’s it going to take?”

God help me if “Dammit Janet” didn’t start playing through my head. But I couldn’t sing it for too long because we find out that Christina’s father Glenn (Dean Norris) is the town’s police commissioner. If that wasn’t enough, the head of the local Child Advocates chapter is Glenn’s brother.

What’s a boy to do? Well, he can’t do much, as I said at the end of Act One he’s dying in a hospital bed of a brain tumor. The rest of the movie deals with Susan coping with her grief. She does this by making odd dessert concoctions and executing sweet murder combos in Gears of War.

But what about the title you may ask. If Henry dies so early in the movie what or how is there a book? The title is about the book Henry makes detailing in minute and reasoned detail regarding why the only thing anyone can possibly do to save Christina from next door is to kill Glenn. Oh and he also leaves an audiotape so he can verbally instruct Susan on where to buy the gun illegally, how to lure Glenn out into the woods so when his body drops from her sweet and just bullet to his skull, it can roll into the river never to be seen from again. Oh and also where and how to dispose of the gun. Dude, that kid thinks of everything.

Colin Trevorrow directed The Book of Henry in such a way that if one were to glance at it with the sound off, you would never guess at the demented madness that lies within. Trevorrow and his cameraman John Swartzman shoot the movie like it’s a Hallmark offering. There’s a brisk, sunny New England feel to the whole thing that only amplifies the lunacy of every damn thing that happens.

The Book of Henry  aims to be a feel good warm story about small town America, while also trying to act as if it’s about how the universe is this wild and crazy thing and you never know where life is going to take you. But then it’s also about how a grown woman listens to her dead son, buys a gun from the town’s black market, and attempts to assassinate the town’s police commissioner for repeatedly abusing his stepdaughter. Trevorrow tries to blend the three movies, but they don’t belong within a country mile of each other.

Trevorrow makes bizarre decision after bizarre decision. The highlight of the movie is when Susan is preparing to shoot Glenn. Trevorrow edits the film so as to cut between Susan setting her sniper rifle up and the elementary talent show that her other, still-living son, Peter is at. When she has Glen in her crosshairs, literally, Trevorrow still cuts back to the elementary talent show only to see Christina perform a ballet dance number.

Bonkers movie! You are bonkers! I haven’t even told you about the part where Susan plays the ukulele and sings to her boys. It’s a full song. The murder mom vs. abusive stepfather movie stops so she can sing a bedtime song.

The script by Gregg Hurwitz is to blame, of course. But to be fair he only wrote it; everyone else decided to actually make it. The most offensive thing is how lazy the script is. Hurwitz would have us believe that an eleven-year-old boy while dying of a brain tumor, was capable of sneaking out of the hospital every night. That Henry walked home every night, barefoot, still in the hospital gown, and then snuck BACK into the hospital without anyone noticing. Also, remember Henry has a tumor in his skull crushing his brain, so he still has the mental capacity to intricately plot a murder, and it’s cover up, arrange for Christina to be adopted by Susan, write it all down AND record it on what must be several tapes.

I’m not going to lie I laughed my ass off. The Book of Henry is easily one of the worst movies of 2017. A year that is already shaping up to be a stacked year for bad movies.

If it feels like I’ve given everything away, know two things: 1.) I haven’t told you the outcome. 2.) Nor have I told you what Peter’s magic trick for the elementary talent show is. Hint: It’s a metaphor for his ashes.


Image courtesy of Focus Features

Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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‘First Man’ Struggles to Break Free From the Atmosphere

Jeremiah

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Damien Chazelle’s First Man is two movies; one impeccably crafted and breathtaking while the other is dull and repetitive. The result is for the two and a half hours we find ourselves in a roller coaster of emotion. I vacillated between being enraptured and on the edge of my seat to, while not bored necessarily, but definitely not caring.

First Man is based on the biography of Neil Armstrong, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. I haven’t read the book by James R. Hansen but I have to believe we learn more about Armstrong than anything Josh Singer, who wrote the script, seems interested in telling, To see Singer and Chazelle tell it, Neil Armstrong’s life consisted of grieving for his daughter,  Karen (Lucy Stafford) who died when she was four of a brain tumor; and getting to the Moon.

Ryan Gosling’s Armstrong is a taciturn, steely-eyed, stoic man who keeps his emotions to himself. In a way, it’s an act of incredible bravery to make the focus of a story about the first astronauts to the Moon about the least expressive one. If you’re looking for an actor to portray elusive, enigmatic, and unexpressive, then Gosling is your man. Though I wish he wasn’t.

First Man is essentially two movies. Armstrong, the man, is the first movie. Arguably it’s the least interesting. But the second movie is where the real show is at. Chazelle has spared no expense, which at a reported budget of just under sixty million dollars is paltry by modern Hollywood standards. First Man despite its faults is so well crafted from a production design standpoint it borders on wizardry.

We follow the space program, almost from its infancy; from Gemini 1 to Apollo 11. Chazelle and Linus Sandgren, the cinematographer, allow an intimacy in the cockpit. The claustrophobia is visceral and palpable. Rarely has a film made us empathize with a historic act of bravery and lunacy so completely. It helps to underline the amount of sheer fortitude to keep a level head while you are both making history and recording it all for science.

Tom Cross, the editor, pulls off a feat of making much of the two and half hours barely noticeable. Cross and Sandgren combine their talents, along with the composer Justin Hurwitz, to create a scene of stunning anticipatory wonder. I have seen my fair share of movies and documentaries about Apollo 11 but the blast off in First Man raises the bar for likely a whole generation of film-goers and filmmakers.

It reminded me of the scene in Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece, Woman In The Moon. Lang uses melodrama as an excuse to give us a spectacle. The likes of which, many at the time had never seen. Lang builds the launching of the rocket in a scene that seems to go on eternally, with each passing second more and more climactic. Until finally it lifts off, the music swells, and the crowd cheers.

Chazelle and company have no cheering crowds but they do just as good a job. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say I was enthralled by the sheer majesty and artistry as Hurwitz’s score dominated the theater while just under it Phill Barrie, the sound editor, uses the groans of wrenching steel, the flames from the exhaust, a cacophony of exhilarating sound demonstrating the euphoric power of sheer spectacle of the movies.

I feel as if I should simply sit and list the names of the countless men and women who brought First Man to life. The sound design is exquisite, the art and production design is pristine, the costume departments choices were vivid-everything. It’s a damn masterpiece.

Or at least it would be, if not for the characters. Again, I haven’t read the book and I have no doubt that the loss of Armstrong’s daughter haunted him throughout his life. But I couldn’t help but wonder how Janet, Armstrong’s first wife, felt about the loss of her daughter as well. 

In the beginning, First Man appears to be a daring departure. A big studio Hollywood docudrama that shelves the spectacle and instead explores grief. Chazelle opens with Armstrong in the cockpit of a jet as he flies above the clouds. It is exhilarating as Cross, Hurwitz, and Sandgren, give us a taste of what we can expect. But then Chazelle cuts to Armstrong’s home. We see he and Janet caring for their sick daughter.

We cut to a dimly lit sterile room where Karen is strapped to a gurney. A giant monolithic drill hovers above her. It seems like something from a science fiction pulp magazine. It isn’t. It’s modern medicine. Armstrong, an engineer, pours over his notes, not of his flight into the stratosphere, but the notes the doctors have given him. He solves problems and fixes things. But he can’t solve his daughter’s tumor.

The first thirty minutes or so are pure cinema. Chazelle is a talented and skilled craftsman and his abilities are on full display. But Gosling is wooden on a good day and here he seems like a robotic refugee trying to fit in amongst the Hu-Mans. His normally closed lipped and laser like intense stare usually elevate whatever role he’s in. Here though, Chazelle turns what is meant to be an enigmatic and haunted man into a boring one note jerk.

Foy has already turned in a marvelous performance in this year’s stellar Unsane. Whereas Steven Soderbergh gave Foy a seemingly impossible range of emotions which she captured perfectly and expertly; Chazelle and Singer have her as merely the wife. She has a couple of nice moments, such as when she all but demands Neil say goodbye to his sons before he goes to the Moon.

Kyle Chandler as Deke Skelton, one of the original Mercury Seven, and who is essentially the Chief of Astronauts, is reliable as always. Chandler is rapidly becoming this generation’s answer to Kevin Costner. Character actors are a dying breed. But actors like Chandler remind us why they are a gift to filmmakers. Why waste a line of pointless exposition or shoot a needless scene to illustrate who the character is? When all you need is the type. It’s a shortcut both for the filmmakers and the audience and it cuts down on the clutter. I can’t help but smile and relax a little whenever I see Chandler show up on screen.

First Man may be a technical and cinematic marvel but when it comes to Armstrong or any of the characters, no matter the talent involved, it stumbles. The effects may leave the likes of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 in the dust. But I can’t help but feel as if we underestimate the value of an actor who can express recognizable human emotion. Take a more recent example, Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures. Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer, and Taraji P. Henson contain more humanity in a press junket than the majority of the scenes between the Hu-Mans in First Man.

I admired Chazelle’s attempt to subvert audience expectations, my own included, and deeply loved the clear love and joy of space exploration. It takes a brave soul to lure people into a theater with a promise of a rousing historical reenactment of a great human achievement, and instead have it be a thesis on grief. But that’s just the thing, it’s a shallow exploration of grief.

Armstrong never discusses Karen’s life or death with anyone, including his wife Janet. What Chazelle is looking at isn’t grief so much as an obsession. Even that’s not true because when Armstrong is at NASA, Karen is the furthest thing from his mind. Some of you may be yelling, “That’s the point!” To which I say, “I know! It’s still dull in its single mindedness.”

Someone once asked Gene Siskel how he judged a movie was worth seeing. “Is this film more interesting than a documentary about the same actors having lunch?” First Man transports us to the sixties and revels in the attention to detail. Chazelle and company make it known the toe curling dangers these brave men and women were facing in their quest to push mankind forward; just sixty years after we had mastered flight.

But when it’s actually about the individual people I half hoped that Gosling would break character. Yes, I’ll say it. Seeing Ryan Gosling ordering a ham on rye with a side of pickles and a small coffee-two creams-no sugar; is preferable to the slice of life scenes in First Man. Still, I can’t in good conscious tell you not to see First Man. The artistry and craftsmanship is too great to not see it as it was meant to be seen: on the big screen. Just know that when First Man switches back to the Armstrong household, that’s a perfect time to use the bathroom. You’re welcome.

 

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First Look at Disney’s Live Action Aladdin is Here

Seher

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Aladdin reaching for the lamp

It’s here! It’s here! We finally after what feels like years of waiting have the first real teaser trailer for Disney’s live-action Aladdin coming next May! (The 24th to be exact.)

The teaser premiered during Thursday Night Football on FOX which was a great choice considering TNF has the best ratings on broadcast TV currently.

Since news broke of this film’s development, I’ve been watching closely. In July as casting news first came, I wrote how the movie was already behind considering the original’s racist and truly questionable choices. People were and are still feuding over whether or not all the cast should be South Asian or Middle Eastern with Mena Massoud’s Aladdin and Naomi Scott’s Jasmine.

September brought more news and a second article on the film. Now it’s exciting to finally see more than one behind the scenes filming photo! Here it is in its one minute and twenty-eight seconds of Disney giving us just enough to want more, glory.

I made a joke earlier to a friend about it needing to be more substantial than just sand. Well, we got the sand, and the cave, and the scary voice, and Aladdin himself!! For approximately 2.5 seconds!! For a teaser trailer, it did exactly that. Teased me and everyone who has been waiting for it all day, but I’m so excited. And the few moments we get to see Jasmine’s palace?!?!?!

The musical cues (Friend Like Me) evoking the original movie leading to a glimpse of Aladdin going to touch the lamp…amazing. I know folks will complain that there isn’t much else in the teaser, which is true. But it’s a teaser y’all and I can’t wait to see more promotional material in the months to come!


Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

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Great Expectations (Chill With the Trailer Overreactions)

Jeremiah

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I don’t mean to harp on an issue but can we all just take a step back? When did seeing one trailer grant us the definite knowledge of a film’s quality? It seems that before we’ve even put money down for a ticket we’ve already decided the film’s place in the cinematic canon. 

I’ll admit I went a little far when I’ve said trailers are lies told by liars who have never seen the movie. Most people who make trailers are not purposefully out to deceive you. Trailers by design, are meant to get you excited, to gin up audience anticipation. That is the extent of what a trailer is. No more or less.

To some degree, there is some inherent value to trailers. It allows us some idea of an approximation of what the film might look like. If the trailer is honest, it will give us a clue to as to what to expect. Personally, when it comes to trailers I remain a hard-bitten cynic. I don’t trust them, not a one. Which is not to say I don’t get excited or squeal with fanboy glee from time to time. But those moments are usually followed by a cold hard reality: it’s a toy commercial, not the movie.

It’s one thing to post or write about a reaction to a trailer. Or, depending on the trailer, trying to suss out little easter eggs and clues hidden in the corner of the frames. But by no means do trailers justify near the amount of oxygen and digital space we spend on discussing them. Though, much like old commercials, old trailers are interesting in a historical context.

I’m not one of those people who think trailers are art. I’ll admit there is an art to making trailers but I won’t go so far as to say they are art themselves. Trailers are commercials for a studio’s product. Somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten that and instead have pledged either our fealty or opposition to a film even before the reviews are out.

When McDonald’s advertises a new sandwich, no one sits down and examines the commercial for clues for what the sandwich might taste like. We understand what McDonald’s is trying to do. They want us to buy their sandwich. Whether or not we do will depend on how hungry we are and how much money we have.

Movies are a mass art. But they are also a product made by companies that desperately want your money. I’m not saying trailers can’t be fun or that I don’t find myself forming an opinion based off one trailer. It’s human nature. But I also don’t go into a movie hoping the movie is going to be the best or the worst movie of the year.

I go in hoping for a good movie. That’s it. I just want the movie to be good. If it leans one way or the other then so be it. But you have to let the movie be what it wants to be and not what you were promised. People who get mad at a movie because a trailer lied to them seem to misunderstand the purpose of an advertisement. It’s not meant to be truthful, it’s meant to get you to give studios your money.

Venom is a movie that I held out very little hope for. I saw the teaser when it first dropped and frankly it took me an embarrassing amount of time to realize it wasn’t just a Funny Or Die skit. Those who listen to my podcast or follow me, know that I spent a large amount of time trash talking Justice League before it came out. Both movies turned out to be wildly enjoyable.

It’s natural to have expectations. But we can’t be a slave to those expectations. A co-worker of mine was talking about the Aquaman trailer. He seemed disappointed. I asked him why. “It looks like it’s just Black Panther underwater.” Nevermind that said co-worker loved Black Panther, but isn’t it odd that based off one trailer he’s already surmised what the movie is about and even its tone. Granted, on the surface, the purpose of the trailer is to tell you those things.

Except, it’s not really. Again, on the surface, a trailer’s job is to tell you the basics. What is the movie is about? What will the tone of the movie be? Who’s in it? Who made it? Yet, in actuality, the purpose of a trailer is none of those things. The purpose, much like Sam Elliot narrating commercials for beef, is to merely let you know what’s for dinner. You don’t get to go around bragging about how much you know about a movie nobody has even seen yet and get to call yourself credible.

“But Jeremiah,” you may ask, “how do I know if a movie is good? How do I know what’s playing? Aren’t trailers necessary?” Well, you could, if I may be so bold, read your local critic. Sites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB have coming soon lists.

As to are trailers necessary? Not to court controversy, but no, they’re not. Do you know what I do when I go to the movies during the trailers? I take a light nap. Few things beat going into a movie cold.

Remember when I said expectations are only natural? Well, a good way to counter those expectations is to not have any. Not to sound too zen but too often we hate movies for being something they were never going to be. The idea of what we were told as opposed to what we watched. It’s not fair to us and it’s unbearably unfair to the movie.

Trailers do a fantastically effective job of brainwashing us. I’ve heard people complain that one trailer gave away too much while another trailer too little. Adam Mckay’s Anchorman had a trailer made up entirely of scenes not in the movie. Their reasoning was simple, “People always complain that the best scenes were in the trailer. So what if we save the best scenes for the movie? What if we film scenes just for the trailer?” Believe it or not, people were furious.

Movies aren’t the truth; trailers even less so. Like poetry, the truth lies in the spaces between the lines. If you come out of a movie angry that the movie didn’t have any scenes from the trailer, perhaps it’s time you explore other ways to spend your time.

Roger Ebert once said, “Trailers are advertisements for the movie the studio wants you to see.” With any movie, you have a myriad of versions that could be edited and released to a mass audience. The trailer is merely the one the studio thinks is the easiest one to sell. The movie itself, oftentimes, gets the short shrift.

It’s hard enough to get a movie made without audiences already passing judgment on something they haven’t seen or read about. Oh, sure countless YouTube channels have people reacting to trailers followed by what they hope the movie does. Yet, I can’t help but notice people don’t watch commercials for the new Maxi-Pads with bated breath.

In case I wasn’t clear, yes, I’m comparing movie trailers to commercials about menstrual pads. They both serve the same purpose, to let you know the product is either out or coming out. In fact, I would argue, there’s more truth in the Maxi-Pad commercial.


Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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