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Movie reviews from Bob Garver

Sunday, November 13, 2016

"Doctor Strange"

            Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the latest superhero to be added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Prior to becoming a superhero, he’s a lot like Tony Stark: an arrogant genius who coasts through life on incredible talent without really pushing himself beyond his comfort zone. Strange is a surgeon who gets in a car accident and loses use of his hands. He’s lucky that’s all he loses after his car went over a steep cliff, but as a surgeon, he’s still devastated. He plunges into a downward spiral where he goes broke and turns away his caring girlfriend (Rachel McAdams).

            No doctors in the Western Hemisphere will help Strange, so he travels to Nepal to be treated by a mysterious Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). She introduces him to a form of magic and subjects him to things he never thought possible, like separating his spirit from his body and sending him hurling through the multiverse. He becomes her student, with her training him for what he thinks is his own benefit, but is actually to make him a defender of the planet. A dangerous former student (Mads Mikkelsen) is trying to steal all of the Earth’s time and is planning to turn it over to an evil outer space cloud monster who will use it to achieve world domination.

            I might not have gotten that last part quite right, but that part of the movie doesn’t make a lot of sense. Actually, a great deal about this movie doesn’t make a lot of sense. This movie can’t turn around without introducing us to something incredible. In a very short span of time, Strange learns about out-of-body experiences, the outer reaches of the universe, the creation of matter with his mind, the culling of resources from parallel dimensions, a protective cloak with a mind of its own, a portable prison of sorts, all manner of manipulating time and space, and a librarian who has apparently never heard of Beyonce. Maybe a wunderkind like Strange can keep track of it all, but I couldn’t. And frankly the movie can’t either. These concepts are thrown around haphazardly so we can get about five minutes of cool visuals, but they don’t seem to have any long-term effects on our world.

            That’s not to say that there’s not a lot about to like about this movie. Cumberbatch has finally found a blockbuster leading role that suits him, and he has excellent chemistry with everybody. The humor mostly hits, outside of tired Mister/Doctor confusion. And the aforementioned cool visuals are extraordinarily cool. The movie has a somewhat dull color palate until that multiverse sequence and then wham! – you’re hit with the full spectrum. One of these parallel universes sees Strange’s hand grow new hands out of his fingers, and then those hands grow hands, and those hands grow hands. You might not think you’re freaked out by fingers, but trust me, you are. Then there’s a chase/fight scene where the gravity is altered, so the characters run and fight up, down, all around, side to side, and many other directions. I got nauseated by this disorienting sequence, but I appreciate the effort.

            With pun absolutely intended, “Doctor Strange” is one of Marvel’s stranger movies. The film’s ambition knows no bounds. Unfortunately, the film’s running time should have been a bound(ary). The film comes up with amazing ideas faster than it can handle them, maybe a few should have been cut. I hate to ask a film to ease up on the creativity, but taking more time to develop some of its higher concepts would have given this film some much-needed coherence. Still, when this movie works, it works beautifully. I loved this movie when I could wrap my head around it. Doctor Strange could probably use some kind of magic to literally wrap his head around it.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five

 

9:14 pm est 

"Boo! A Madea Halloween"

            Q: Why should you never perform for ghosts?

            A: Because they’re always saying “Boo!”

 

            This movie gets a bunch of boos out of me, and it’s not because I’m trying to scare it. Tyler Perry is back and he’s brought his alter ego Madea with him. Get ready for 103 minutes of crass old lady jokes with delusions of wisdom.

            The story is that Brian (Perry looking like himself) needs someone to look after his 17-year-old daughter Tiffany (Diamond White) on Halloween night. She expressed interest in going to a party at a nearby fraternity, and of course Brian doesn’t want her to go. But he also doesn’t want to rock the boat in their relationship, where he’s trying to be more of a friend than a parent. Apparently he’s being guided by the one book in the world that thinks this approach to parenting is a good idea. So he asks his Aunt Madea to babysit, and she brings along her brother Joe (Perry again, in horrible makeup but at least not drag), his wife Hattie (Patrice Lovely, in one of the worst portrayals of an old lady I’ve ever seen), and cousin Bam (Cassi Davis).

            Shenanigans follow. Tiffany sneaks out of the house and Madea and her crew have to go to the frat party to track her down. But the silly old people… they don’t know how to interact with the young people. And the flippant young people… they don’t respect their elders and need to be put in their place. And this needs to be done by Madea exposing herself for some reason. Elsewhere in the movie there are clown attacks, zombie attacks, murder scares, arrest scares, candy stealing, prescription pot jokes aplenty, and all manner of PG-13 bathroom humor.

            Aside from the jokes being plain unfunny and the characters’ actions being stupid, the movie suffers from pacing issues. Perry, a playwright, clearly wrote some of these scenes with the stage in mind. Scenes in Brian’s living room stretch on and on, because onstage you can have long conversations in a single setting because it’s necessary to keep set changes to a minimum. But onscreen it just makes the movie drag, especially since nothing interesting is being said. Other examples of the film’s staginess hurting it are the horrendous “they need to see it in the back” makeup and of course the broad acting, which in person might be praised for being “energetic,” but here is just obnoxious.

            If you’ve ever seen one of these movies, you know that they’re never entirely about Madea and her antics. I’d say “thankfully,” but the serious parts of this movie don’t fare any better. The supposed “heart” of this movie is Brian’s relationship with Tiffany and how he should handle matters of discipline. The idea is that Brian is too soft and Madea and Joe are advising him to be too harsh, and the best solution is somewhere in between. Of course it lies somewhere in between, both sides are ridiculous extremes. Brian’s approach clearly isn’t working and Madea and Joe cite examples that Hammurabi would consider abusive. So is it any wonder that none of this material comes off as insightful?

            I’m giving “Boo! A Madea Halloween” one star out of five. Please know that I don’t despise this movie the way I despise some of the other movies I’ve given one star to this year. It’s too lightweight to get me that angry. And at least I can take a little bit of solace in knowing that Perry had to be uncomfortable under all the makeup and prosthetics. I just can’t think of a single thing this movie does right.

 

One Star out of Five.

9:14 pm est 

"The Girl on the Train"

            “The Girl on the Train” is a mystery about a missing woman, based on a novel by Paula Hawkins. It was destined from day one to be compared to similar adaptations like “Gone Girl” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Those films were supposed to be in for a big awards push, but failed to secure Oscar nominations in any major category except Best Actress. Here too is a film where I could see the lead actress claiming the sole Oscar nomination, though the film around her is perhaps too weak to make her a true contender.

            The story often switches narrators, but it mainly follows Rachel (Emily Blunt). She’s a trainwreck of a person, a chaotic alcoholic who spends her days drinking and riding trains to a job she doesn’t have. She pauses only to obsess over two couples. The first is somewhat understandable: her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and his former mistress and now-wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). They live in wedded bliss with the daughter Rachel always wanted. The other couple is more inexplicable: Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans) are neighbors of Tom and Anna who seem to have life all figured out. Although Rachel only ever sees them through a train window, to her they represent stability and perfection.

            Then one day Rachel sees Megan in the arms of another man, her psychiatrist (Edgar Ramirez). Rachel is so infuriated by this betrayal that she sets out to confront Anna over Tom’s betrayal. She follows “Anna” into a tunnel, but it turns out she’s actually meeting Megan for the first time. Then she blacks out for several hours. Then she wakes up covered in blood. Then she finds out that Megan, who it turns out was a nanny for Tom and Anna, is missing. Who is responsible for Megan’s disappearance? Could it really have been Rachel, who is prone to erratic behavior and alcohol-induced blackouts and who can’t remember what happened in that tunnel?

            From there, the film goes through all the paces that disappearance-based mysteries go through. Everybody has secrets, everybody takes a turn being the most likely suspect. There’s a handful of twists, and then weirdly no twist when you’d think there’s be one. I’m okay with the “perfect” characters turning out to be not so perfect, it comes with the territory. But I was disappointed that the “interesting” characters weren’t so interesting. The men are all drooling oafs in one form or another, The women are all annoyingly self-absorbed, but they fare a little better. Anna tries to maintain a relationship with a man she knows she can’t trust because it started with him lying to his wife. Megan is trying to make sense of the many mistakes she’s made in her life, including the worst mistake a mother can make. And Rachel is just trying to make it through her pathetic life. Her semblance of sanity depends on the happiness of others, and even that is quickly falling apart.

            All of the performances are good in “The Girl on the Train,” better than the material deserves. The men manage to breathe life into thankless roles and the women all garner sympathy for inconsiderate characters who seem to like to fall back on the catchall justification of being “flawed.” Blunt in particular is compelling in every tearful moment with a character who is unable to survive in polite society. It’s a shame that the mystery aspect of this movie is so poorly done. I formed a theory about a third of the way through that turned out to be the solution; a twist that predictable should have another layer or two on top of it. This movie is a step down from, say, “Gone Girl,” but I wouldn’t label it an entirely useless knockoff.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

9:12 pm est 

"Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children"

            Hey kids, do you love “X-Men” but were massively let down by “X-Men: Apocalypse”? Are you sick of knockoffs of “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight” and yearn for the good old days of “Harry Potter” knockoffs? Do you hate wasting eight hours of your day on pesky sleep and want to see imagery that will keep you up for weeks? “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” might be the movie for you. Then again, if you like movies that are original and coherent, this might not be the movie for you.

            American teenager Jake (Asa Butterfield) witnesses his globehopping grandfather (Terrence Stamp) suffer a bizarre death that’s can’t be explained by standard forensics. He thinks that answers may lie at the Welsh children’s home where his grandfather grew up. His psychologist (Allison Janney) encourages him to go there for closure if nothing else, and his clueless father (Chris O’Dowd) reluctantly takes him. When he gets there, he’s stupefied to discover that the home was bombed in 1943. But then he meets some of the children that lived with his grandfather. Not adult versions of these children, but the actual children.

            The children show him that the home is in fact still standing, provided he travels back in time to 1943. There he meets prim and proper headmistress Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) who explains that the home is protected by a “time loop” where everyone inside lives the same day over and over for their own protection. They need to be protected because the children are “peculiars” who have special abilities that the world wouldn’t understand and would put them in danger, the usual relationship superhumans have with regular humans in these movies. The powers are typical of this genre: one can turn invisible, one can shoot fire, one is an Airbender, etc. The only one I found interesting was a kid with a collection of hearts that he can insert into inanimate objects and make them come to life. Ironically, he mostly uses this incredible life-giving ability to make things kill each other, the sick little freak.

            The heart kid isn’t even the bad guy. That honor belongs to Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), an evil scientist who discovers how to become immortal without having to live in a time loop. He just has to kill peculiar children and eat their eyeballs. We see lots of eyeball-eating and empty eye sockets. Mr. Barron kidnaps Miss Peregrine and Jake has to lead the Peculiar Children in an adventure to get her back. Turns out Mr. Barron isn’t that difficult of a villain because he’s always wasting time boasting about how certain he is of victory. I’ve come to expect a degree of this trope in movies, but this guy does it like 90% of the time.

            The bad news is that “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is a dull, confusing movie in most respects. The business with the time loops gets really nonsensical after a while and the movie doesn’t do anything with its action or characters that you wouldn’t completely expect from this genre. The good news is that I actually dug the freaky, disturbing visuals. This is a movie with characters that can scare people to death with their faces, and unlike alleged horror movie “Blair Witch,” it actually has enough confidence to give us those faces. This movie was directed by Tim Burton, and he’s a master of being scary and depraved in that fun way. But not every scene can rely on being horrifying, and the movie lags in scenes where it can’t revel in style over substance.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

9:11 pm est 

"The Magnificent Seven"

            The new version of “The Magnificent Seven” (a remake of a 1960 Western that I have not seen, itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai,” which I have) is one of those movies that starts off looking award-worthy, but gradually loses steam until it’s nearly unwatchable by the end. There’s no one point where it really drops the ball, it just consistently fails to capitalize on its impressive early scenes.

            Those early scenes involve evil mining tycoon Bartholomew Brogue storming into the quaint town of Rose Creek and making everyone an offer they can’t refuse: sign over their property for a measly $20 or be wiped off the face of the Earth. He murders a few outspoken townspeople to prove his point. One woman (Haley Bennett), the widow of one of the victims, decides that the town doesn’t need to placate Bogue, they need to eliminate him. She hires passing bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) to assemble a team to go to war with Bogue.

            Chisolm rustles together a ragtag posse. There’s talented slacker Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), war hero Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), knife-favorer Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), persuadable criminal Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Comanche outcast Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), and legendary tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio). Together, the Seven of them can do Magnificent things, like wipe out the Bogue henchmen keeping an eye on Rose Creek. They let one go tell Bogue, so in a few days he and an army of underlings can lay siege to the town.

I have to question this strategy. Why let Bogue know that the town is going to fight back? Why not wait for him to come on his own with minimal security? Or attack him at his house or somewhere en route? One Bogue henchman suggests that the Seven only did so well initially because they had the element of surprise. Why not save that element of surprise for Bogue? Because it wouldn’t allow for an appetite-whetting action sequence in the middle of the movie, that’s why.

Actually, the mid-movie action sequence is better than the grand finale. It’s the first time we get to see the Seven in action as a unit, we don’t know quite what to expect, and the surprises and spontaneity do make it more exciting. The Seven have good chemistry, whether they’re fighting, preparing, or just sitting around eating dinner. All of these characters have to potential to be interesting, but the movie reduces most of them to interchangeable honorable fighters who are good with occasional wisecracks. The only two who get any real development are Washington and Hawke, and their arcs are entirely predictable.

Eventually we do get to that big final action sequence and it’s a total mess. It’s impossible to tell Bogue’s men and armed townspeople apart, so I constantly found myself asking “That guy who just got shot, good guy or bad guy?” Bogue has a “secret weapon” that he should be using much earlier in the battle if not straight-up from the outset. Bad guys in the middle of a shootout decide to gloat instead of getting the job done, which of course leads to the good guys making a comeback. At least one death scene is ridiculously dragged out so the actor can ham it up. Worst of all is that faceless, uninteresting characters spend so much time shooting at each other that it just gets boring.

There are good things about “That Magnificent Seven.” The settings are beautiful, with majestic sun-scorched mountains everywhere. The banter and jokes are funny and the characters seem rich and riveting when we first meet them. But the film does hardly anything to flesh them out once they’re introduced, and we care about them less and less as it goes along. These Seven heroes may be “Magnificent,” but their movie sure isn’t.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

9:10 pm est 

"Blair Witch"

            For better or worse, 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” pretty much invented the “found footage” style of filmmaking that we see so often these days, usually in horror movies. The film made $140 million on a budget of $60,000 thanks to its unprecedented style and a wily internet marketing campaign. This success led to a plethora of knockoffs, sometimes as fruitful as the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, but often as useless as, say, “As Above/So Below.” Even though it’s obviously a sequel (and not just a sequel in name only like 2000’s “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2”), I still consider the new film “Blair Witch” to be one of those useless knockoffs.

            The film follows James (James Allen McCune), the younger brother of the female filmmaker from the original film, as he goes into the woods of Maryland to try and find out what happened to his sister all those years ago. He brings along his girlfriend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) and friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid). Another couple invites themselves along, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), who clearly have an ulterior motive. James is being more careful than his sister. He has twice the crew, better cameras, GPS, and a nifty drone. Surely this means he won’t fall into the same centuries-old trap his sister fell into, right?

            Yeah, things go wrong. Equipment falters. Trees fall. The group gets lost and when they try to go home, they keep coming upon the same landmarks. The sun refuses to come up. Lane and Talia go off on their own and when they return a few hours later, they say they’ve been gone for days. Ashley gets a cut and it turns out to be *woo* a haunted cut *woo*. Those stick figures from the first movie that we got sick of seeing all over pop culture in 1999 are back. This time they’re made of impressively gnarled sticks, so they’re about as scary as sticks can be, but how much is that saying, really? And of course the whole thing ends with the remaining characters trekking through a familiar house as we wonder if we’ll finally get to see the Blair Witch.

            90% of this movie can’t be scary to save its life. Yes, being lost in the woods at night is scary, and the original film did an excellent job of capturing that disoriented feeling. It was what made that film work, more so than any of the witch stuff. But that’s exactly why it doesn’t work in this movie, because we’ve seen it before, there’s less of it, and this film doesn’t do anything new with it. Instead the movie relies on cheap jump scares like characters entering the frame without warning and glitch-y static sounds from the camera. The film is content to cruise on the promise that the Blair Witch’s face will scare you to death in and of itself. I’m not above being scared by faces (I’m the only person I know who loses sleep over Bagul from “Sinister”), but I can assure you what we get in this film is disappointing.

            “Blair Witch” is saved from a one-star rating by its ending, where the characters search the house. I’m not sure if it’s the light from the camera or a botched paint job, but there’s a patchy white color throughout that makes everything seem extra sharp and sudden. It’s a good setting for something scary to happen, too bad we don’t get anything worthy of it. There is also a scene in the bowels of the house that makes for the only time it is acceptable to be freaked out by this film. Nothing “happens” here either, but nothing has to, the setting does all the work. Settings aside, this is nothing more than a dull found footage movie that proves that the magic of “The Blair Witch Project” can never be duplicated.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

9:09 pm est 

"Sully"

            “Sully” tells the story of eponymous pilot Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), who on January 15 2009, after a dual engine failure in midair, landed a large passenger aircraft in the middle of the Hudson River. The landing was rough, unconventional, and controversial, but it saved the lives of all 155 passengers and crew on board. Though there were many heroes that day, including First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), Sully was proclaimed the biggest hero of all.

            The film officially takes place a few days after the incident, as Sully is being hailed a hero, but is also facing an investigation from an inquiry board that seems unfairly antagonistic. He’s forced to relive the events of that day several times, and we are shown the incident three times in flashbacks. The first is interrupted by a cut to air traffic control, so we miss the most interesting parts. The second time is from the point of view of the passengers as they frightfully went through the near-death experience. And the third time is from Sully and Skiles’ point of view in the cockpit. I would have switched the second and third versions. Sully and Skiles are experts at keeping cool, which is certainly comforting, but it doesn’t make for the best movie climax.

            It’s that version where we see the passengers surviving and being rescued that makes for the most exciting sequence in the movie. You are guaranteed to share in their fear and confusion. Knowing that everyone will be safe eventually doesn’t so much detract from the suspense as it makes it more bearable. Actually, the impact is one of the less scary parts of this sequence; maybe because it’s so quick, maybe because you’re probably over-prepared for its intensity. But the really nerve-wracking part is what comes next, the passengers actually being rescued from the plane. They have to go out onto the wings and a few inflatable surfaces that aren’t going to hold up for long, plus a few make the poor decision to just swim for it. Oh, and the whole thing takes place in January, so hypothermia is also a factor.

            Sadly, someone made the mistake of thinking that this sequence alone doesn’t fill the film with enough danger. We are therefore subjected to a number of dream sequences in which Sully loses control of the plane and it crashes into the buildings of New York City. This is a cheap way of getting a reaction out of the audience, plus it makes this film’s release so close to 9/11 even more inappropriate. By the way, there is one line of dialogue that compares the incident to 9/11, and I found it to be in poor taste.

            Watching “Sully,” memories of other Tom Hanks movies are bound to come up. His plane goes down, like in “Cast Away.” He guides his crew through a crisis, like in “Captain Phillips.” He’s inserted awkwardly into historical footage, like in “Forrest Gump.” That last one is an unwelcome distraction. We see the Hanks version of Sully being interviewed by the 2009 version of David Letterman and boy is it clear that the scenes were filmed seven years apart. You wouldn’t think it would be that hard to smoothly add him to such recent footage, but the task was apparently beyond this film’s capabilities.

            I’ve been doing a lot of complaining about “Sully,” but it’s actually quite a good movie. The parts that need to be done well are done well, and Hanks is a workhorse as always. He’s able to find the right balance of calmness and urgency; a lesser actor would likely overdo the former at the expense of the latter. This movie makes a few inexplicable, at times unforgiveable mistakes, but overall it’s competent. Maybe focusing on its competence is boring, but like Sully himself, it needs to be given credit for what it does right.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

9:08 pm est 

"Kubo and the Two Strings"

            Here is the opening line for “Kubo and the Two Strings”: “If you must blink, do it now.” That’s quite a claim that the forthcoming movie will have a hard time backing up. But yeah, that statement describes this movie pretty well, for better or worse.

            Kubo (Art Parkinson) lives in a small Japanese village where he makes a living telling elaborate stories with even more elaborate origami puppets. He’s attacked by his evil aunts (both Rooney Mara) and his magical mother (Charlize Theron) uses her last bit of strength to send him on a quest to find his late father’s missing armor, which will help protect him from his evil grandfather (Ralph Fiennes). Kubo is aided by a dour monkey (Theron) and a meatheaded beetle (Matthew McConaughey) who seem to have the hots for each other. This movie is so crazy that a monkey falling in love with a beetle falls perfectly in line with everything else.

            When this movie works, it really works. The animation is beautiful, the painstaking stop-motion work by plucky studio Laika (“ParaNorman”) paying off yet again. It ratchets up the intensity and darkness to a level not usually seen in a kids’ film, but is certainly welcome. But that’s not to say it doesn’t also have its lighter, fun moments, and those work pretty well too.

            The problem I have with “Kubo and the Two Strings” is the same problem I had with “Inside Out” in that sometimes it’s so ambitious that it can’t seem to keep up with the skewed rules of its own distorted world. Or maybe it does and I just blinked and missed something. At any rate, this is still one of the most exciting and delightful films of the year.
9:07 pm est 

"Pete's Dragon"

“Pete’s Dragon”

 

            Disney has had a lot of success lately with live-action versions of animated classics like “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book.” Now they’re trying to have success with a live-action version of a 1977 film that was half animated and half live action. Actually, the dragon this time is computer generated, so it’s still a mix of live action and animation.

            The good news is that they get Elliot the dragon right. He’s flawlessly rendered, super funny and adorable, and capable of a wide variety of emotions. How I wish the movie was complex enough to justify more of these emotions.

            Instead, it’s a standard tale of Pete (Oakes Fegley), a boy who has grown up with Elliot, meeting other humans for the first time in years and having to prove the dragon is real. Then of course there’s the matter of what people will do with Elliot once they find out he’s real. There’s also an expected subplot about Pete maybe having to leave the life he knows with Elliot to live with a human family.

            “Pete’s Dragon” feels incomplete; like Elliot has at least one more adventure in him than what we get. What we do get isn’t “bad” exactly, apart from a villain (Karl Urban) who makes a bunch of stupid decisions just because he’s the villain. I just wish this movie had more ambition befitting its awesome dragon.

 

Two Stars out of Five.
9:06 pm est 

"Don't Breathe"

            “Don’t Breathe” is what I like to call an “Is That So Hard?” movie. I ask that question not of the film, but of other films. In many ways, this film is simple. 90% of it takes place in one setting. The number of cast members with more than one scene can be counted on one hand. It doesn’t do anything groundbreaking with its story or storytelling. The technical aspects, while I’m sure extremely difficult for a layman to perfect, can probably be accomplished by numerous industry professionals. In other words, this isn’t a particularly “hard” movie to make. And yet, it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen all year. Other movies surely have competent people working on them, why can’t they be as good as this one? Is that so hard?

            For plot, you’ve got three burglars breaking into the house of an unnamed blind man played by Stephen Lang. Lang is one of those great underused veteran actors whose mere casting makes the movie all the more promising. The burglars are Rocky (Jane Levy), the one who only steals to support her family; Alex (Dylan Minnette), the nerdy naysayer who always wants to back out for fear of getting caught; and Money (Daniel Zovatto), the dumb violent one. It’s Money who brings a gun along on the job, and he is the first to find out the hard way that they’ve messed with the wrong blind guy.

            The best part of the film is the middle, where the blind man and the burglars cat-and-mouse each other. The burglars want to get the blind man’s stockpile of money and escape the house, though they might have to settle for just escaping. The burglars have a numbers advantage and sight, while the blind man has heightened senses, a military background, a knowledge of the house, and one of the scariest dogs in movie history. He can also turn off the lights and disorient the burglars, which raises the question of why he has functioning light bulbs in the first place.

The breathless (aha!) intensity of these scenes is excellent, but what I really like is how the movie makes it hard to decide who to root for. In a lesser movie, this would be a bad thing, like the movie forgot to make its heroes likeable or its villains that bad. But here it makes for twisted psychological warfare. It’s heartless and wrong to steal from a blind veteran, and it’s easy to see why he’s reacting violently out of fear. But perhaps the breaking and entering warrants a less severe punishment than what the blind man seems to have in store for the burglars. There’s a debate to be had until the blind man turns into an unquestionable villain.

Thanks to a convoluted twist, the third act of the movie becomes more violent and torturous. It’s here where Lang gets the majority of his dialogue (it’s mostly of the strictly-functional “Who’s there?” variety up to that point) and he nails it as expected. It’s also here where we get a moment destined to go down as an all-time cinematic gross-out champion. It’s horrifying in a way not typically associated with horror films. But the trade-off is that the mystery and ambiguity are gone, and with it a lot of the film’s intrigue and appeal.

Good for “Don’t Breathe” for being a horror movie that earns its scares with a tense atmosphere and doesn’t rely too much on cheap tactics like jump scares, freaky imagery, or sick violence. These horror staples are not absent, but they’re at least minimal. And while it runs out of steam toward the end (especially after that gross-out scene, because you’ll be dwelling on it the rest of the movie), that middle part makes it all worthwhile. If you’re up for an R-rated horror movie, breathe this one in.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five

9:05 pm est 

"War Dogs"

            “War Dogs” tells the story of two guys who use underhanded tactics to achieve the American Dream, live large, and destroy themselves. It is based on a real-life incident that has not been brought to screen before, but still seems awfully familiar. The characters themselves love “Scarface” and compare their story to it at every opportunity. It also has a lot in common with those narration-heavy Scorsese mob movies like “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” Speaking of Scorsese, it’s hard not to compare this film to “The Wolf of Wall Street” due to the subject matter and the fact that both movies star Jonah Hill. I also see a lot of recent Best Picture nominee “The Big Short” in this movie because both were directed by filmmakers known primarily for comedic work (frequent Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay did “The Big Short, here it’s “The Hangover’s” Todd Phillips), and both are very funny, but both go into darker, more serious, and more challenging territory than we’re used to seeing.

            The film takes place in the mid-2000’s, when the U.S. government was spending trillions on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. David Packouz (Miles Teller) has floundered around from one dead-end job to another, and he just learned he has a baby coming. But then opportunity knocks in the form of his childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Hill). Efraim runs a small business where he scoops up government contracts to sell things to the U.S. military. Sometimes it’s armor or surveillance equipment, but mostly it’s guns and ammo. David joins and soon the two are making tens of thousands of dollars. Then it’s hundreds of thousands. By the finale, they’re dealing with millions.

            Of course, the path to wealth is not without its obstacles. The two twentysomethings don’t have the resources to manufacture the merchandise, which means they have to get it from other people, often taking shortcuts and dealing with shady characters. Sometimes this means putting their business and their lives in the hands of people they’ve never even met, sometimes this means trusting people they know are bad news, like suspected terrorist Henry (Bradley Cooper).  Trade embargoes come up a number of times, forcing them to find ways of circumventing international law. And by “circumventing” I mean “breaking.” But perhaps the biggest obstacle is the volatile personality of Efraim.

            David spends the movie in awe of his partner. At first, he’s in awe of what a genius he is. Then he’s in awe of how he always manages to succeed despite how crazy and greedy he is. By the end, even though the two hate each other, he’s still sort of impressed at what a magnificent scumbag he is. And it’s not just David, the movie itself is in awe of Efraim, making him the scenery-chewing wildman who always dominates the scene. Critics are saying that Hill single-handedly carries the movie, and while Teller as the spottily sympathetic narrator isn’t quite the weak link he’s being made out to be (the best scenes in the movie involve the two characters playing off each other, and it takes both of them to do that), there’s not going to be much debate over which character is more memorable.

            “War Dogs” is being marketed as a comedy, and it’s hard to argue with that. Hill and Teller have impeccable chemistry in their banter, and Hill’s madness is always enthralling. But don’t underestimate this movie as a straight-up crime story. In that regard it’s a movie we’ve seen done before and done better with more well-developed characters. Teller’s blank-canvas narrator seems hollow at times, there isn’t much to the supporting cast, and even Hill’s instability gets predictable after a while. Still, this movie holds its own. Like the characters as businessmen, the movie can’t really compete with the big boys that are classics, but it has enough pluck to pull out some noticeable minor victories.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

9:04 pm est 

"Sausage Party"

            If nothing else, there aren’t a lot of movies like “Sausage Party.” I mean this both in terms of subject matter (grocery items decide they don’t want to be eaten) and tone. It’s basically an R-rated kids’ movie. So much of it is cute and chipper and it’s presented in a silly-looking animation style that screams “kid friendly.” But make no mistake, this is one of the most vulgar animated movies of all time. If you can enjoy that vulgarity, great. If you don’t want to be subjected to vulgarity, or have kids that you don’t want to be subjected to vulgarity, you’d best shop elsewhere.

            The plot sees Frank the Sausage (Seth Rogen) longing to be “chosen” by a customer along with his girlfriend Brenda Bun (Kristen Wiig). Almost every product in the store equates being chosen with going to heaven. If Frank and Brenda get chosen together, it’s the equivalent of getting married as they enter eternity. Needless to say, the film is not above making countless sausage-and-bun jokes. Frank and Brenda get separated from their packages and go on an adventure to get into new ones. Along the way, Frank learns the horrifying truth about what happens to food once it leaves the store and makes it his mission to save his friends, even though they don’t want to believe that the faith they’ve always kept is a lie designed to keep them from panicking over their inevitable fates.

            It turns out that the film is a scathing critique of religion, about how people will believe what they want to believe, even when confronted with evidence to the contrary, with the catchall justification of “faith.” But here’s where the film’s logic breaks down: we don’t know what happens to the food after it’s violently prepared or eaten. The characters believe in eternal life, but they’re unaware that it includes Earthly death. Every religion has prominent figures who, at some point, had to leave their bodies, often violently. Death by itself is not evidence against any respectable religion. Now if the characters were looking forward to being eaten, and then discovered that nothing was waiting for them, then the film might be clearer on its point. …And I’ve just criticized the theology of a talking sausage movie.  

            The main attraction of the film is of course its humor. Just about every off-color joke that can be made about sausages, buns, and a taco voiced by Salma Hayek is done here, though the sex jokes certainly aren’t limited to them. Swearing invades almost every line of dialogue, and while the words are usually spoken with grace, there were a few times where I got the impression that they were just added to remind us that these characters know swear words. There are ethnic jokes and stereotypes aplenty, from a Jewish bagel (Edward Norton) to a Muslim flatbread (David Krumholtz) to a Native American whisky (Bill Hader) to a black box of grits (Craig Robinson) to the taco again, to many others. Nick Kroll voices a villain, and I’m not comfortable revealing what kind of product he is, but it was the nickname of his character on “Parks and Recreation.” This being a Seth Rogen movie, you can probably imagine that there are a few pot jokes. There’s a celebration toward the end that is frightfully raunchy

            I recommend “Sausage Party” to the right audience - people who like boundary-pushing humor. If you don’t think you’re the right audience for this movie, you probably aren’t. Me, I’m always up for a crude cartoon. I loved the opening musical number and the shameless finale. The script is sharp and the cast has excellent chemistry and timing. The jokes almost always land, and the ones that don’t are bad enough that you can laugh at how bad they are. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to eat a breakfast sausage.

 

Three Stars out of Five.

9:02 pm est 

"Suicide Squad"

            Simply put, “Suicide Squad” was my most anticipated movie of 2016. I’m a big fan of Batman, but I’m a bigger fan of his rogues gallery – his collection of colorful recurring villains. “Suicide Squad” brings us not one, not two, but three of those characters. We’ve got The Joker, one of the most iconic villains in all of pop culture, played by Academy Award winner Jared Leto. We’ve got Harley Quinn, The Joker’s lover and complement, played by Margot Robbie, possibly my favorite actress of her generation. We’ve also got reptile-themed strongman Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a lower-tier threat who has nonetheless given Batman a few memorable outings. As if that wasn’t enough, the cast features box office champion Will Smith and the incapable-of-doing-wrong Viola Davis. This movie would get five stars for its casting alone were it not for the presence of “Robocop” washout Joel Kinnaman and notorious franchise-poisoner Jai Courtney.

            The setup is that shady government operative Amanda Waller (Davis) wants to set up a task force of extraordinary humans to combat extraordinary threats. After all, this is the DC Expanded Universe, where General Zod and Doomsday have already run amok in two hugely disappointing films. She wrangles together Croc, the psychopathic Quinn, expert marksman Deadshot (Smith), double-crossing stick-tosser Boomerang (Courtney), human flamethrower Diablo (Jay Hernandez), slash-happy Katana (Karen Fukuhara), and alleged escapist Slipknot (Adam Beach). All have done bad things, some want to be better people, most are interested in saving the world if it includes them, and all want time off their prison sentences. That’s why they band together under Captain Rick Flag (Kinnaman) to battle Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), an ancient South American goddess possessing the body of Flag’s archeologist girlfriend and trying to enslave the world.

            Surprisingly (or perhaps not, given how much weight I’ve put on their shoulders), my biggest problems with the movie have to do with Harley and The Joker. First of all, why is Harley on the team? The Suicide Squad specializes in straightforward attacks where they can take out evil armies en masse. It makes sense to have members who can shoot, torch, and pummel a lot of enemies at once. Harley is good at one-on-one fighting and her strange mindset might make her a good choice for specialized missions that require her to get into enemies’ heads. But I don’t see why Waller would think she fits in with this glorified assault team. As for The Joker, he needs to be the embodiment of craziness and chaos. There are hints of that in scenes where he interacts with Harley, but too often he just seems like a standard gang leader with a clown theme. He also has little relevance to the story outside of flashbacks. He makes a play to abduct Harley from the Squad, it fails, but we know he’s not really gone. Batman villains simply do not die by disappearing in explosions.

            My other complaints about “Suicide Squad” are complaints I have too often about action movies. The action scenes are muddied, the editing unconvincingly conceals weaknesses in the filmmakers’ abilities, the dialogue gets flat at times (they couldn’t come up with something more creative for a key scene than “You hurt my friends!”?), the characters’ backstories are rushed and their motivations are inconsistent. I am not going to complain about the presence of Jai Courtney and Joel Kinnaman, they’re about as interesting as anyone else in this movie. Every now and then there’ll be a decent one-liner (the usually-dense Croc gets some good ones) and I like that the movie wants to look like a cheesy carnival ride with neon everywhere, but this movie blows nearly every opportunity, and it’s presented with so many. The sad thing is that despite its pretty thorough awfulness, relatively speaking it’s actually the best movie from the joke that is the DC Extended Universe.

One and a Half Stars out of Five 

9:00 pm est 

"Jason Bourne"

            “Jason Bourne” gets off on the wrong foot by having a lame title. I guess the idea was to recover from the flop that was “The Bourne Legacy” by promising viewers that Jason Bourne would actually be involved in this one. But what it’s unofficially promising to do is break from the hot streak of the first three “Bourne” movies. Fans of the franchise expect the movies to be titled “The Bourne (something vaguely exciting)” Who cares if people like to make fun of these titles (“The Bourne Colonoscopy”), they’re essential to the way people identify the franchise.

            Matt Damon is back as Bourne, brought out of hiding after nearly a decade when his hacker friend Nicky (Julia Stiles) digs up some information about the CIA program that turned him into a super-assassin only to erase his memory later. This leads him on a global quest to find more answers, all while evading CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), rising CIA star Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), and an unnamed rival “Asset” (Vincent Cassel). Bourne learns more secrets about his past, including some disturbing family history that makes his feud with The Asset even more personal.

            For a movie whose title is simply the name of the main character, Bourne himself has a surprisingly limited presence. I’ve been told he has somewhere between twenty and forty lines of dialogue, and most of them aren’t terribly lengthy. At first I thought the movie was trying to go for something impressively minimal with the character, but as it went along, I realized that it just forgot to give him a personality. When the character was first robbed of his memories, it made sense. He didn’t know who he was or how to feel. But by now he’s been cognizant of the last fourteen years. Even if he doesn’t have a grasp on the man he was, there needs to be something relatable about the man he is.

            The film is largely made up of the three CIA agents conducting operations and undermining each other as they squabble over what’s to be done with Bourne. As usual for this series, the crusty older male agent (Jones) is the hard-headed bad guy while the younger female agent (Vikander) is in more of a gray area where she’s open to betraying her superiors in the name of helping Bourne. Cassel is just another boring assassin. You know he’s a bad guy because he kills anybody in his way as opposed to Bourne, who just delivers those swift no-lasting-effects knockout blows.

            And yet, for all this film does wrong with its dull characters and overly familiar plot, it does action sequences, very, very right. The film is bookended with two chase scenes that make the film worth seeing all by themselves. The first takes place during a revolt in Greece. The characters go to a riot and a fight breaks out. The atmosphere is so violent that Bourne is able to just grab a guy’s Molotov cocktail and the guy doesn’t care that much. Nobody thinks it’s unusual that the main characters are crashing cars and starting fires. In fact, they’d look out of place if they weren’t. The second sequence is a car chase that turns into a gutter brawl. The movie really hopes you like the sound of broken glass, crunching cars, punches, and whips. Luckily, I can appreciate the nastiness of all those things.

            I can see why a lot of people don’t like “Jason Bourne.” The characters are uninteresting, the twists are typical of the franchise, and it seems like 90% of the movie is people getting into position for operations as opposed to the operations themselves. But those cutting, inventive action sequences make it all worthwhile. Counting a quick gravitational spot in the middle, I’d say there are two and a half great things about this movie.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

8:58 pm est 

"Star Trek Beyond"

            The “Star Trek” franchise turns 50 this year and is celebrating with a new film. “Star Trek Beyond” is a mediocre outing that is memorable for two reasons: it says a heartfelt goodbye to the iconic character of Spock following the 2015 death of Leonard Nimoy; and it is the final “Trek” film to feature Anton Yelchin as Pavel Chekov following the 27-year-old actor’s death last month. Spock will live on, played by Zachary Quinto, as both the Quinto version and Nimoy version were alive concurrently thanks to some timeline-jumping, though Quinto’s version knows exactly how much time he has left. Chekov will still be alive in future installments, because he grows up to be the Walter Koenig version of the character, but my understanding is that the role will not be recast. To review: Spock dies and will continue, Chekov lives and will not continue.

            For now at least, the main crew of the starship “Enterprise” is fully assembled: the Quinto version of Spock, Chekov, Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and of course Captain Kirk (Chris Pine). Both Kirk and Spock are considering leaving the “Enterprise,” Kirk because he’s not happy with diplomatic work, and Spock because he wants to do something more centered in Vulcan affairs. They lead the “Enterprise” in a rescue mission that sees them attacked by the evil Krall (Idris Elba). Everybody is able to eject themselves to safety on Krall’s planet before the ship is destroyed. They’re alive; but stranded, scattered, and being hunted.

            Four “teams” emerge in the aftermath. McCoy tries to treat Spock following an injury. Kirk, Chekov, and a fellow survivor named Kalara (Lydia Wilson) look through the wreckage for a weapon Krall wants. Scotty meets a local scavenger named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) and they work to repair another crashed ship. Uhura, Sulu, and the rest of the crew are taken prisoner by Krall. Krall spends most of the time as another boring, makeup-caked villain spouting cliché dialogue about the uselessness of peace and unity. I was thinking about how Idris Elba was being wasted in the role the same way Oscar Isaac was wasted as Apocalypse in the latest “X-Men” movie, but at least Elba is allowed to stretch a little toward the end. It’s not enough to “save” the character for me, but he’s kept from being truly awful.

            The film does well with its performance-based scenes. All the actors have good chemistry and there’s a decent success rate with humor. The film can also boast excellent special effects and the makeup on everyone except the villains (whose facial features are a bit helmet-y) is outstanding. But the plot and action could be a lot smoother; I had a hard time following the story and characters on a number of occasions. Also, I didn’t feel the characters were going through many interesting arcs. There’s no point in wondering if Kirk and Spock are going to remain with Starfleet; Bones is just there to banter with Kirk and Spock (though the banter is never bad); Scotty provides expected comic relief; and Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov serve little more than a strictly functional purpose. I did like the new character of Jaylah, but even she is a pretty blatant hybrid of Rey from “Star Wars” and Neytiri from “Avatar” (and yes, I’ll make the obvious joke that it should be Uhura who reminds me of Neytiri).

            “Star Trek Beyond” doesn’t do it for me. It has some funny moments, some visually impressive moments, and even some good song choices, but overall it’s too choppy and predictable. There have been worse action movies this year, but it’s not a must-see unless you’re a big fan of “Star Trek.” Then the film serves as an indispensable time capsule for the immediate post-Nimoy, post-Yelchin era.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

8:56 pm est 

"Ghostbusters"

            The hoopla surrounding the remake of “Ghostbusters” will be remembered more than the movie itself. Many fans were opposed to the idea of touching the 1984 comedy classic. A small-but-unnerving section of these fans were opposed to the idea of remaking the film with female leads. These idiots got so vocal that they seemed to speak for all detractors of the remake. This didn’t sit well with other detractors, who wanted to bash the remake without seeming like sexist simpletons. Hating the movie became a thorny issue, but so did praising it, because detractors on both sides believed that good reviews were just the critics’ way of sidestepping the controversy.

I’d like to say that I respect everybody’s honest opinion in the matter, but the truth is I don’t. Oh, I can respect opinions all over the spectrum for people who see the movie and give it a chance. If you think this movie is great, I can’t say I share your enthusiasm, but I respect that opinion. If you think this movie fails, I think you’re discounting a few good laughs, but I respect that opinion. But if you think that this movie is already a failure simply because it exists or because it has four female comedic powerhouses as its leads, then I resent your opinion.

Okay, onto the movie itself. Our team this time played by Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones. The first three are college professors who get fired over their controversial paranormal beliefs, the latter is a subway attendant who joins them when she’s confronted with undeniable evidence that ghosts exist. The team dons an arsenal of ghost-fighting gizmos and set out to contain spirits set free by a creepy guy named Rowan (Neil Casey). Rowan is supposed to be an outcast loser, but he’s no weirder than most people you’ll see walking down the street in NYC, myself included. The character gets juicier once he starts inhabiting the body of the Ghostbusters’ idiot receptionist played by Chris Hemsworth, which is a good thing because Hemsworth was not faring well with the dumb hunk jokes he was being given up to that point. By the way, I think Rowan should at least consider ending his plan once he’s in Hemsworth’s body. Forget destroying the city pal, you have the body of 2014’s Sexiest Man Alive, call it a day.

The film reunites Wiig and McCarthy with “Bridesmaids” director Paul Feig. It has a lot of the same pluses and minuses as that movie. The pluses mostly involve the chemistry among the leads in early scenes. Wiig and McCarthy are proven, and McKinnon seems right at home. I was worried that Jones would rely too much on the hostile, excitable persona that she’s created for herself on “SNL,” but she’s actually quite pleasant (perhaps unrealistically pleasant compared with some of the people I’ve seen in her line of work). The minuses are largely a series of pacing issues. Time spent on gratuitous ad-libbing could have been better spent developing minor characters or exploring the exciting supernatural world that’s been created. Unique to this movie is a collection of cameos from the original film, conventional to the point that I was able to predict exactly when one of them would show up.

Was it a wise idea to remake “Ghostbusters?” Not really. A lot of controversy was stirred up over a movie that is funny in places, but is vastly inferior to the original. Of course, a lot of that controversy was stupid so it shouldn’t matter, but it was a chore to endure for a movie this middling. I’m glad that in 2016 we have a decent female-centric comedy where every other joke isn’t about how hard it is to get a man (which is what some thought this movie would be), but this film needed another round of editing to be truly worthy of the iconic franchise.

 

Two Stars out of Five

8:55 pm est 

"The Secret Life of Pets"

            “The Secret Life of Pets” is an animated kids’ movie where two dogs don’t like each other, but they find themselves stranded and in danger, so they have to work together if they ever want to get home. Just like in “Toy Story.” And “Inside Out.” And “The Good Dinosaur.” And “Finding Nemo.” And “Finding Dory.” But this one is also about what non-humans do when humans aren’t around. Just like in “Toy Story.” And “The Lego Movie.” And “The Brave Little Toaster.” And “Finding Nemo.” And “Finding Dory.” Yeah, there’s not a lot of originality in this movie. But some of it is delivered well, I’ll give it that.

            The plot sees terrier Max (Louis C.K.) living a comfortable life with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). His world is turned upside down when she brings home a rescued beast of a dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Each dog feels threatened by the other, neither is good at sharing, they end up stranded together. Max’s neighbors try to save the two. There’s his Pomeranian wannabe girlfriend Gidget (Jenny Slate), wisecracking cat Chloe (Lake Bell), barking bulldog Mel (Bobby Moynihan), elongated wiener dog Buddy (Hannibal Buress), reformed predator hawk Tiberius (Albert Brooks), and veteran Basset Hound Pops (Dana Carvey). Max and Duke, for their part, get themselves in even more trouble by getting on the bad side of crazed hairless cat Ozone (Steve Coogan) and human-hating bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart).

            The biggest problem with this movie is that the two leads are badly miscast. Stonestreet is too obviously likeable to play the hardened, just-got-out-of-prison Duke. But at least with him I can somewhat understand that his range is not limited to the genial character he plays on “Modern Family.” Louis C.K, on the other hand, has spent decades crafting a specific persona that is recognized across several mediums. He has made sure that we always think of him as a cynical schlub. So it’s jarring when he tries to play the happy-go-lucky Max in early scenes. I can’t help but feel like his more well-known persona is always poking through, even if he’s genuinely trying. It seems like there’s an episode of his show being taped off-camera where the joke is that he’s been cast in this role that’s completely wrong for him and there’s an annoying director telling him to be happier, without much success.

            That’s not to say that the whole cast is wrong. I like Lake Bell as the smart-aleck cat. She perfectly captures typical cat apathy (cat-pathy, if you will) along with cats’ tendency to freak out over the tiniest things. Albert Brooks continues to impress in his string of dark roles as the initially-villainous Tiberius. Dana Carvey makes the most of his juiciest role in years as Pops. And I can’t believe I’m about to type the following sentence: Kevin Hart is the best thing about this movie. His broad, manic style that annoys me 95% of the time is a perfect fit for playing an animated villain. And speaking of animation, there seems to be some extra effort put into his character’s facial expressions. He has this way of trying to be vicious, but subconsciously he always reverts back to being human-pleasingly cute. It’s a delightful, adorable, and surprisingly subtle creative choice.

            There’s actually a lot to like about “The Secret Life of Pets,” but unfortunately there’s even more to dislike. The miscast main characters weigh the movie down, the story and adventure are uninspired, and lazy humor abounds. This is a movie that loves its bathroom gags, obvious pratfalls, and overeating jokes ripped off from “Garfield” (though one overeating scene is funny on an unintended level if you know about an upcoming animated feature). As animated animal movies go, this is inferior to “Finding Dory” and “Zootopia.” But as movies in this disappointing summer season go, it’s not that bad.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

8:54 pm est 

"The Legend of Tarzan"

            One of my biggest problems with “The Legend of Tarzan” is that it plays like a sequel to a movie that was never made. Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware that we’ve had plenty of Tarzan movies before and that many of them cover his origin. But we’ve never had a Tarzan movie in this continuity before, a Tarzan movie with Alexander Skarsgard as the ape-man and Margot Robbie as his beloved Jane. This movie takes place after the couple has been married for a few years, after Tarzan has left the jungle to settle down as a British aristocrat, and after he has begun to let his roots slip away from him. I would be much more inclined to buy this movie as the kickstart to a franchise if it started with an impressionable Tarzan rather than a rusty Tarzan.

            The plot is that Tarzan is lured back to the Congo by an American envoy (Samuel L. Jackson) who needs someone with his jungle prowess to help investigate rumors of illegal slave-taking. Also needing Tarzan in Africa is Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a Belgian envoy who wants to deliver Tarzan to a bloodthirsty local chief (Djimon Hounsou) who will give him diamonds to save the fledgling Belgian government. Rom follows the typical villain plan of kidnapping the hero’s wife, and Tarzan follows the typical hero journey of going on an adventure to get her back, getting some help from his old animal friends along the way.

            Skarsgard is disappointingly dull as the latest Tarzan. I’m guessing he was cast because of some vaguely ape-like facial features, because it certainly wasn’t charm. Waltz and Hounsou play the same villains they always play, a sophisticated sociopath and a growling brute, respectively. Ho hum. Jackson breathes some life into the sidekick, which is ironic because the movie thinks it’s funny to repeatedly have him breathlessly catch up to the action because the 67-year-old isn’t in peak physical condition. My favorite is Margot Robbie, who imbues Jane with an attitude that is maybe unfitting for a 19th century diplomat, but is welcome among this otherwise uninspired cast. Some will say she’s playing little more than a glorified damsel in distress (despite a specific claim to the contrary), though there were a few times where I felt like the bad guys were trapped on a riverboat with her instead of her with them.

            The storytelling, dialogue, editing, and special effects in this movie are all a mess. Much-needed scenes that establish the characters are relegated to unhelpful flashbacks. It feels like we’re missing a scene where Tarzan gives the slip to his British escorts, ditto some kind of setup for a line about hugging from the movie’s climax. Crude jokes are thrown about in an ill-advised attempt to give this movie an edge. The action is choppy and hard to follow in the name of bloodlessness. And once again I have to complain that the animals and set pieces are unconvincing CGI wisps.

            There’s not much that “The Legend of Tarzan” does right outside of Margot Robbie, and even then I can see the argument that her modern-sounding delivery is out of place. Every now and then there will be a funny line and I suppose it’s hard not to root for African nature to get its deserved revenge on European colonizers. But it’s hard to root for the movie itself. There’s no pressing need to reboot Tarzan right now and this movie adds nothing to the classic character. With the update of “The Jungle Book” already being one of the biggest hits of the year, I simply feel that I’ve had my fill of jungle men for a while.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
8:53 pm est 

"Independance Day: Resurgence"

            A sequel to the 1996 alien invasion flick “Independence Day” has been batted around for years. It certainly made sense, the original climbed to #6 at the all-time domestic box office during its release. All that was needed for a sequel was a decent script and for Will Smith to agree to step back into the role of Captain Steven Hiller. Who am I kidding? “Independence Day: Resurgence” would have settled for a flimsy script as long as it got Will Smith. It ended up settling for a flimsy script and no Will Smith.

            Returning characters include Jeff Goldblum as scientist David Levinson, Judd Hirsh as his comic relief father, Bill Pullman as now-former President Thomas Whitmore, Vivica A. Fox as Hiller’s widow, and Brent Spiner as comic relief scientist Brakish Okun. Okun is the most surprising return since he appeared to be killed in the original. Returning-but-recast characters include Jessie Usher as Hiller’s fighter-pilot stepson and Maika Monroe as Whitmore’s fighter-pilot daughter. New characters include Liam Hemsworth, Travis Tope, and Angelbaby as more fighter pilots; Sela Ward as the new President; William Fichtner as an over-pressured general; Charlotte Gainsbourg as a scientist and love interest for David; and my personal favorite, Deobia Oparei as an alien-obsessed Congolese warlord. I love it when otherwise villainous characters step up in the name of saving humanity.

            The plot follows the expected format. The aliens from the first movie called for reinforcements, and they’re just now arriving. Earth takes the new aliens lightly and pays a steep price. Minor battles are fought where we achieve minor victories, but we also suffer heavy losses (outside of our heroes, of course). There are also a few times where we think we’ve won, the aliens come out with a bigger advantage than ever. It all leads up to a doomsday scenario and a clock counting down to the end of the world that’s going to get really close to zero.

            Character interactions also go as expected. The fighter pilots rib each other and spout one-liners. A few made me laugh, but none are as good as the best ones from the original. Colleagues (especially couples) bicker at first, then learn to work together. The Hemsworth character doesn’t follow orders and he gets in trouble for it, but he saves the day because he knows in his heart what to do. Loved ones are lost and their surviving family members need inspiration to continue. The script seems like it was written to have a joke at this point, and an inspirational moment at that point without thought being given ahead of time to what those lines and moments should actually be.

            But the plot and dialogue aren’t the problem with the movie, relatively speaking. The real weakness is with the action sequences. Remember the cool, impactful explosions from the first movie? Get ready to have those replaced with vague, wispy fireballs. We see London getting ripped apart by “explosions,” but I feel like I could wave my hand and they would dissipate. Elsewhere, dogfights are hard to follow because I couldn’t tell which characters (or even which sides) where in which planes and key moments are so poorly-edited that I didn’t even realize characters were dead because those moments were so underwhelming (only two deaths got any kind of reaction at my screening).

            The original “Independence Day” is by no means a creative classic, but it’s better than the uninspired mess that is “Independence Day: Resurgence.” This movie cannot make its characters or action interesting to save its life. It was only made to hop on the bandwagon of reviving decades-old franchises, which has led to some impressive successes lately. In fact, this movie lost in its opening weekend to another long-delayed follow-up in “Finding Dory,” which beat it by $30 million in its second weekend. This “Resurgence” should have never taken place.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

8:51 pm est 

"Finding Dory"

            Pixar has an excellent track record when it comes to sequels, but for a minute there it looked like “Finding Dory” wasn’t going to work. The aquatic adventure “Finding Nemo” came out all the way back in 2003; kids who grew up with it aren’t kids anymore. Maybe they had… forgotten about it? Aside from that, blue tang Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) made a good sidekick in the original, but was she really up for carrying a whole film by herself? No need for worrying, it doesn’t take long to see that the film is a success on every level. You just have to look at the $9.2 million it made on Thursday night (on its way to a record $136 million weekend) to know that the film is a commercial success, and you just have to watch Dory in the first few minutes to know that it’s a creative one.

            We first see Dory as a child in this movie, and whatever defenses you have against cuteness, she swims right past them. Her eyes take up half of her body, and her words and actions are fittingly precious. She and her parents (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) struggle together with her short-term memory loss, and they’re as admirable as can be. But Dory soon gets separated and can’t find her way back. She grows up among strangers, fish with varying degrees of tolerance about her disability. Eventually she aligns herself with clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks), and together they go looking for his son Nemo, with Dory forgetting that she’s supposed to be looking for her own family.

            Now it’s a year later and Dory is a member is Marlin’s family. Nemo (Hayden Rolence) is still in school and Dory helps out as a teacher’s assistant. A lesson in migration teaches the class that animals have instincts that lead them back to their families. Dory realizes that she must have a family, and slowly she starts regaining childhood memories. She sets off to find them, and Marlin and Nemo tag along, forever indebted to their forgetful friend, but sure enough they soon find themselves separated, trapped, and in danger.

            The adventure leads them to a marine theme park, which at times resembles The Seas with Nemo and Friends at Disney’s Epcot park. There they meet a colorful cast of supporting characters, including Hank the Octopus (Ed O’Neil), whose secret shame is that he’s a septopus, and who wants nothing more than to be shipped to a facility in Cleveland. Then there are whales Destiny (Kaitlin Olson) and Bailey (Ty Burrell). She has vision problems and he allegedly has hearing problems. They have to work together and push each other. A pair of sea lions (Idris Elba and Dominic West) are also scene-stealers, especially when they’re fighting off a third sea lion who’s trying to usurp their favorite rock.

            Pixar movies are known for working some serious subject matter into their zaniness. This entry doesn’t contain as much loss as some other Pixar films (including “Finding Nemo”), but it deals a lot with frustration. Characters often feel frustrated when dealing with Dory, and Dory of course has to deal with the brunt of her memory loss. The frustration is captured in a sympathetic way, but the characters’ determination to overcome their unique obstacles teaches kids a good lesson about having patience with people who have disabilities, whether it be friends, family, strangers, or themselves.

            The action and humor are exactly what you’d expect from a Pixar movie. Compared to most kids’ movies, they’re excellent. Compared to other Pixar movies, they’re fine. I have a few nitpicks like how the gilled characters always find a container of water handy and some gags that I think are inferior versions of gags from the first movie (the teacher couldn’t come up with a more elaborate migration song?), but there’s a healthy amount of fun and creativity on display. More than anything, “Finding Dory” is a heartfelt movie with some heartpumping moments and some hearty laughs.

 

Three Stars out of Five

8:50 pm est 

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