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Movie reviews from Bob Garver

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

"Annabelle: Creation"

            We were first introduced to possessed doll Annabelle in 2013’s “The Conjuring,” where she was freaky, but inconsequential. She was spun off into her own prequel movie in 2014, which I didn’t see, but I’m told couldn’t scare a cockroach away from a spotlight. Now she’s getting another movie, a prequel to the 2014 one, which means the series is essentially going in reverse. We’re being told the story of how the doll first came to be possessed, as if it’s not obvious she’s evil based solely on her unsettling appearance.

            The doll was created by toymaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) right before his daughter Annabelle was killed in a car accident. Twelve years later, Mullins and his wife (Miranda Otto) welcome six orphan girls and their overseer Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) into their home. The clearly-sketchy couple are allowed the responsibility because they are apparently the only ones willing to take in a group that includes Janice (Talitha Bateman), a girl stricken with polio. Janice isn’t the only one with an affliction. Two of the “girls” must have some sort of rapid-aging condition where they’re somehow teenagers in need of adult supervision even though they look like they’re in their 20’s.

            Janice and her healthier friend Linda (Lulu Wilson) waste no time getting to snooping. There’s a door that Mr. Mullins says is off-limits. It might be a single-digit number of hours before Janice is lured into it by anonymous beckoning. The doll is in the room, creeping up the place. She tries to lock it away, but it doesn’t want to stay locked away. Maybe it’s an accident that the locked door keeps opening. Maybe it’s a prank by a jokester who thinks there’s nothing funnier than doors being opened. Or maybe there’s something more sinister at work. Yeah, it’s the third one.

            A conspiracy unravels involving shady deals with otherworldly beings, violent happenings in the past, and demonic possession. Gone is sweet little Mullins daughter Annabelle and in her place is a demonic force that surprisingly prefers to be called Annabelle. But that doesn’t mean that Annabelle is the only unfriendly spirit in play. Sister Charlotte may have come in contact with a certain ghastly nun who wants a piece of the action.

            If you’ve seen any of the “Conjuring” movies, you’ll know what to expect from this installment. Lots of stuff goes bump in the night; sometimes it’s a false alarm, other times it’s worth being scared. But honestly, the movie can’t come up with much that’s scarier than just the look of the doll. The violence is once again rather tame, these movies have to stretch to get an R rating. The only memorable scare involves a clichéd horror movie answer to an innocent question. At my screening, I jokingly called out the answer before the movie seriously went that route. I’ll admit I jumped even though I totally called it.

            Starting this week, I’m doing away with my five-star rating system and switching to letter grades. This is to finally put an end to complaints along the lines of “Two and a Half Stars is 50% of Five Stars, and most schools consider 50% a failing grade, so are you saying the movie gets an F?” No, contrary to popular belief, I am not out to flunk everything. “Annabelle: Creation” gets a C. If you’re in the mood for a haunted house movie, you’ll have fun jumping every two minutes. If you’re not in the mood for a haunted house movie, you’re not likely to be won over by this collection of cheap jump scares. For me, as much as jump-scare movies have a place in my heart as a guilty pleasure, I’ve seen the two “Conjuring” movies and “Annabelle: Creation” is mostly more of the same.

 

Grade: C

4:23 pm edt 

"The Dark Tower"

            My understanding is that this film is not a straight adaptation of Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” book series, but rather a sort of sequel that cherry-picks elements of the anthology. I’m convinced the film was conceived as a writing exercise by at least one of its four credited screenwriters who wanted to tell the story of how a cowboy with a revolver could defeat a demon with one of the greatest arsenals of powers ever created. Now we have to suffer the results of that fan fiction gone wrong. 

            Idris Elba stars as Roland Deschain, the last of an order known as Gunslingers. The Gunslingers’ job is to protect a universe called Mid-World from any demons or monsters that may want to invade. The rest of the Gunslingers have been effortlessly wiped out by a demon called Walter o’Dim (Matthew McConaughey). Walter’s motivation seems to go no deeper than a desire to kill absolutely everybody in existence. He can kill anyone he wants, anytime he wants, without consequence, just by hypnotizing them with commands like “Burn” or “Stop Breathing.” Roland is immune to the hypnosis, but he’s still vulnerable to Walter’s other powers like telekinesis, so he lives a life of shame in exile.

            Roland is brought out of retirement by Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a boy from Earth who has psychic powers that may give him an edge in a battle against Walter. The power is called “The Shine,” because if it was called “The Shining,” that would be lazy, almost as lazy as dropping the suffix and acting like that’s somehow better. Jake has to be careful, because if Walter captures him, he can harness the power of The Shine to destroy The Dark Tower, a structure that protects every universe. In other words, Walter finds it inefficient to kill everybody individually, so he’s looking for a way to kill everybody in every universe at once.

            The plot is filled with a cluster of elements that I assume are taken from the book, but never given time to develop. At one point, Jake is nearly eaten by a living house with floorboards for teeth. Why doesn’t the very existence of this creature turn Jake’s world upside down? He should want to know what these things are, why they exist, how to beat them, and probably suffer from a lifetime case of domatophobia in the process. But no, he escapes through a magical portal and it’s on to the next adventure in less than a minute. Dozens of potentially rich details like these are glossed over in an effort to hurry toward the showdown at the finale. It doesn’t help that the film clearly doesn’t have the budget to explore these elements. The special effects in the living house sequence are so bad I can only describe them as animation.

            But my biggest problem with the movie is the utter one-sidedness of the central conflict. Roland is bringing a gun to a telekinesis fight. Walter can travel between universes with ease, isn’t being kept at bay by anybody, and has a tracker on our heroes, not to mention a litany of deadly superpowers. Yet he keeps sending incompetent henchmen to do his work. Yes, his mind control won’t work on Roland and he needs Jake alive, but there’s no reason why those minor inconveniences should prevent him from ending things early. Except of course that it would mean we wouldn’t get a grand showdown at the end where he has only himself to blame if he loses.

            “The Dark Tower” isn’t the worst movie I’ve seen all year. Elba gives an earnest performance as always, and it’s fun to watch McConaughey chew the scenery. But there’s nothing special about this movie other than its especially poor storytelling. Fans of the books are sure to be outraged that so much is abridged, and I seriously doubt that any new fans are going to won over with this hacky adaptation.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
4:21 pm edt 

"The Emoji Movie"

            Last week I reviewed “Dunkirk” and I talked about how early reviews had set the bar impossibly high, which prevented me from appreciating the film more. This week brings us “The Emoji Movie,” and the scales are shifted the other way. This film has been a critical whipping boy since the day it was announced due to the faddish nature of its subject matter. And that prejudice seemed to be justified, with the film scoring a 0% on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes when I saw it Friday afternoon (that number has since beefed up to an 8%). A sort of contest emerged over who could trash the film the hardest, with many reviewers saying something to the effect of “This film is the end of civilization.” It’s a bad film, all right, but I can’t help but feel like maybe it doesn’t deserve to get flayed that badly.

            The film features a cast of characters defined by a single trait or emotion. Gene (T.J. Miller) is supposed to be an apathetic “Meh” emoji, but he feels a variety of emotions, usually exuberant, so he doesn’t fit in. His parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Steven Wright) let him go to work as a Meh on the phone of a teenage boy, but when it comes time for him to make the appropriate face, he screws up because he’s so confused about his identity. This puts all the emojis at risk, because the owner is now considering erasing the whole phone.

Head emoji Smiler (Maya Rudolph) wants to have Gene deleted in the name of removing malfunctions, so he has to go on adventure throughout the phone to reach The Cloud, where he can be reprogrammed to conform to his role. Probably the biggest specific problem I have with the film is that it forgot to make Smiler actually evil. She has evil mannerisms, with her permanent smile becoming increasingly creepy as her fury heightens. But that’s not the same as evil motivation, which she lacks. She’s completely justified in thinking that Gene is a danger to the emojis’ whole world. In fact, Gene gets a number of characters deleted by the owner as a result of his journey of self-improvement; quite inconsiderate come to think of it.

            Gene is joined by a fledgling High Five emoji (James Corden) and a tough-cookie hacker (Anna Faris). Together they visit popular apps like “Candy Crush” and “Just Dance,” where we get plenty of candy and dancing jokes that are par for the course for low-aiming kids’ movies these days. That’s what this movie is, completely typical. Everything about it is ripped off from other, better movies. A digital world, a candy world, and a main character uncomfortable with his label? That’s “Wreck-it Ralph.” Characters representing a single emotion learning it’s healthy to have multiple emotions, to the benefit of a teenager? “Inside Out.” Blatant product placement and the film being defined by a pop culture entity that sounds like a really bad idea for a movie? “The LEGO Movie” pulled it off, but this one doesn’t.

            But it’s that typicality that somewhat saves “The Emoji Movie.” It doesn’t have many ideas of its own, so it doesn’t have many bad ones. This isn’t a movie where I’m screaming out “What were they thinking?” It was clearly overseen by people who watched every scene and said, “That will play well, I guess.” It’s a useless junk food movie, not a sign of the apocalypse. Out of every ten gags, maybe one is worth a chuckle, four are painful, and five sail away with no effect whatsoever. I found this movie to be pretty Meh, which is about the highest praise it’s going to get.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
4:19 pm edt 

"Dunkirk"

            Entertainment Weekly killed “Dunkirk” for me. Not because the review written by Chris Nashawaty was negative or turned me off in any way, but because it went too far toward the other extreme. On Tuesday afternoon, the headline on EW.com proclaimed the film to be “Easily the Best Movie of the Year So Far.” So I went into the film expecting nothing less than unquestionable excellence, something that would make me forget all about “Logan” and “John Wick: Chapter 2” and all my other favorites of 2017. I should have known that it was never going to pull that off, not with my expectations raised so high. What I got was a fine film whose minor cracks wouldn’t have been so noticeable if I wasn’t expecting perfection.

            The film concerns the evacuation of British soldiers from the small town of Dunkirk, France, during World War II. The story unfolds from three perspectives with three different timeframes: the Land portion takes place over a week, Sea over a day, and Air over an hour. As far as I could tell, the only time this gets confusing is when the Sea characters observe the fallout from some Air action that has already taken place and we can tell the movie is having to backtrack. The Land portion follows three British soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and a stripped-of-fame Harry Styles) as they try to stay alive as everything around them is getting shot and bombed. The Sea takes us on the small vessel of a civilian (Mark Rylance) as he volunteers for a rescue mission. He picks up a shell-shocked survivor (Cillian Murphy) who compromises his efforts. In the Air, two pilots (Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy) aim to shoot down German planes before they can pick off thousands of soldiers stranded on the beach.

            The film makes the curious, yet conscious decision of not letting us get to know any characters very well. This is not a movie where the soldiers have colorful personalities or share pictures of their loved ones. That’s because this isn’t a film about saving a few lives, this is a film about saving thousands of lives. It wants to buck the convention of having us care so much about our heroes that everyone else seems expendable. The unfortunate tradeoff is that the film sacrifices a lot of its humanity and heart treating its characters so impersonally.

            The film’s strength is not with its characters or its script, but with its action and its tension. As weary as I am of over-praising the film, it is not an exaggeration to say that it is almost certainly going to win an Oscar for its sound effects. The noise is absolutely brutal, in a way appropriate for a war film. Gunshots, explosions, zooming planes, and various form of crashing water practically provide the soundtrack to the film, that is aside from Hans Zimmer’s pulse-pounding score. There’s little humor to be found in this movie, but one of the few exceptions is that every now and then the score will slow down only to pick up again seconds later when the characters realize there’s no time to rest.

            “Dunkirk” is a superior film, for the most part. I did have a hard time accepting its lack of character development and surprisingly short running time (kind of hard to create an environment of utter despair when the film is rushing toward a conclusion one way or another), but I can see where those issues might not bother people. I don’t think EW.com should have declared this the best movie of the year so far in a headline like it’s an objective truth, but I also don’t fault Chris Nashawaty for having that opinion. The film is certainly a welcome break from the comic book movies and other franchise pieces that have dominated the release calendar this year. By all means see it for yourself and decide whether or not it deserves to be called the best.

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

4:16 pm edt 

"War for the Planet of the Apes"

            In this era of remakes and reboots and other words to describe digging up long-dormant franchises, the revival of “Planet of the Apes” has turned out to be one of the best surprises. It would have been so easy for things to go wrong with these movies: they could have been too silly, they could have taken themselves too seriously and become unintentionally silly, the special effects could have been unconvincing, the special effects could have been so convincing that they fell into the Uncanny Valley. And yet, the right balance has been found at every turn, first with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011) and then with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014). Now comes “War for the Planet of the Apes,” and it deserves a place of honor alongside the other two as an emotionally-investing film that happens to have a CGI ape as its main character.

            The key to the movie is, as always, the motion-capture performance of Andy Serkis as Caesar, the leader of the apes. Early scenes have Caesar as you would expect to see him: angry and brutal, but also wise and merciful. It’s fine, Serkis clearly hasn’t lost his touch. But then Caesar goes through some hardships and Serkis has to give the character all these touches where he’s blinded by rage but he still wants to be wise and he’s worried that he’s letting down his family and maybe he’s turning into a monster and he’s disgusted with himself. Things sure aren’t easy for Caesar, but Serkis is up to the challenge.

            Unlike “Dawn,” where I could never get into the Jason Clarke or Gary Oldman characters, this time Caesar is complemented by a formidable human character in Woody Harrelson’s Col. McCullough. McCullough shaves his head and is a military leader who needs to be dealt with by his own military, so comparisons to Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now” are inevitable. McCullough has made the ultimate sacrifice for what he considers the good of humanity, and his reward is that he now must go to war… with the rest of humanity. At one point, he says the opposing army is made up of “everybody” and I believe him.

            McCullough keeps the apes imprisoned at a camp where he needs them to build a wall for an upcoming siege. At least that’s the movie’s explanation for why he doesn’t just kill them. Frankly I don’t think it lines up with his motives, but this movie really wants to have a “Great Escape”-like prison camp atmosphere, and that’s its excuse. Actually, it wants to be a prisoner-of-war movie more than it wants to be a war movie. The “War for the Planet of the Apes” that we’re promised is a one-sided battle that mostly involves humans while the apes try to hide and avoid crossfire. The apes’ only contribution is that they try to end things early for the overdogs so they don’t get obliterated in the chaos.  

            The action isn’t so great in the latter half of “War for the Planet of the Apes,” and neither is any character that isn’t Caesar or McCullough. A cowardly comic relief ape played by Steve Zahn is exactly the kind of forced silliness that this movie didn’t need, and a sweet little mute girl played by Amiah Miller pales in comparison to her “Logan” and even “Transformers” counterparts. But this movie is capable of great things when the focus is on Caesar and McCullough, and fortunately it’s on them a lot, especially Caesar. The 2010’s version of the “Planet of the Apes” series has been consistently impressive, now let’s see it be impressive one more time and resist the temptation to force a fourth movie after this satisfying conclusion to an ambitious trilogy.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

4:14 pm edt 

"Spider-Man: Homecoming"

            For most of “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” I didn’t see why the movie was getting so much praise from critics. I didn’t like Tom Holland’s take on Peter Parker aka Spider-Man, I was underwhelmed by the villain Vulture (Michael Keaton), I was annoyed by almost all of Peter’s friends and classmates, and the action, development, and conflicts were completely standard for the superhero genre. In fact, they were overly familiar because we’ve had so many Spider-Man movies already and we have a good idea of how the character operates. Then something happened around the two-thirds mark that added another dimension to the Spider-Man/Vulture feud. It completely turned me around, and from that point on, the film could do practically no wrong. Unfortunately, I don’t feel comfortable going into this twist out of concern for spoilers, but please know that I’m higher on this film than what I let on in the rest of this review.

            My biggest problem with this movie is Tom Holland. He has a voice that sounds like he’s constantly whining, even when he’s happy. I know the justification is that kids his age tend to be whiny and he’s just making him “realistic,” but would it kill this movie to make its hero more tolerable so I wouldn’t wish his mouthless mask would impair his ability to speak? Though one compliment I will throw Holland is that he’s the one Peter Parker who can pass for a high school student. Sorry, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, I can tell you’re both past your college years.

            Yes, Peter Parker is a high school student again in this movie, even though there is plenty of source material where he’s an adult. We get the requisite gags where he has to juggle high school drama and his duties as Spider-Man. He’s not afraid to take on armed robbers, but he’s terrified of asking out his crush (Laura Harrier). He wants to impress Avengers leader Tony Stark, but he’s worried about letting down his Aunt May (Marissa Tomei). And the high school storyline means we get high school stock characters, like an awkward best friend (Jacob Batalon), a secretly-jealous bully (Tony Revolori), and a rebellious weirdo (Zendaya). The movie gives these characters more than enough screen time to steal the show, but they ultimately add very little. I say let’s have less of them and more of Oscar winner Tomei. She does in fact steal the movie with a two-and-a-half-word line at the end.

            Another problem with this movie is that Adrian Toomes aka Vulture is weak villain for such an important chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This movie should have a supervillain who wants to take over the world, or kill a mass of people, or at least settle a deeply personal dispute. Instead we get junk salvager who sells weapons because the Avengers’ antics kept him from making an honest living. Stark could have solved this problem by writing him a check. He’s greedy and foolish too, he has plenty of chances to quit while he’s ahead and he keeps pressing on even though his cover is blown. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not a bad character in terms of motivation or development, he’s just not ambitious or dangerous enough to be the primary antagonist.

            “Spider-Man: Homecoming” was on track for a one-and-a-half-star rating for roughly its first hour, but then Peter met up with his date for Homecoming and suddenly everything improved: the characters became more interesting, the atmosphere became more tense, even the jokes got funnier. This is a movie where patience pays off. And since this is a Marvel movie, you should also be patient enough to wait until the end of the credits. You’ll never laugh harder at a movie for ripping you off.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

4:13 pm edt 

"Despicable Me 3"

            “Despicable Me 3” barely contains any of the franchise’s trademark Minions, and the little we do get isn’t really related to the rest of the movie. It’s as if the people at Illumination Animation almost let a “Despicable Me” movie into theaters without any Minions – the horror! I personally can’t stand the Minions, mainly because of the way they talk, and was glad to see them kept to a minimum this time around. Just my luck, the movie in this series that uses them the least is the one that is most lifeless otherwise, which implies that they should have been used more to punch things up.

            The story is that former supervillain turned superspy Gru (Steve Carell) botches a mission to defeat former 80’s child star turned supervillain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker of “South Park,” in a rare family-friendly role). Gru and his wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) are fired from their spy agency and need to find a way to provide for their family, including adopted daughters Margot (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Nev Scharrel), plus I assume all those Minions to support. That last problem takes care of itself when the Minions quit because Gru has gone too long without being despicable.

The family is in need of a diversion, and one comes along when they’re invited to visit Gru’s long-lost twin Dru (also Carell). The brothers are instantly jealous of each other: Gru because Dru is rich and has hair, and Dru because Gru was a moderately-successful supervillain who made their supervillain father proud. Dru wants to team up, his resources with Gru’s know-how, to become an unstoppable team of rogues. Gru is resistant because he left villainy behind when he started his family, but it’s just too tempting to try and go after Bratt so he can get him and Lucy back in the spy agency’s good graces. He and Dru set off to steal a huge diamond from Bratt without his nitwitted brother knowing that what they’re doing isn’t actually that villainous.

That’s the main plotline, and it’s a slog because it means having to listen to Carell’s grating accent not once, but twice. But I did like some of the other storylines, like Lucy struggling in her new role as a mother. Sometimes she’s too generous, sometimes she’s too violent, oddly she gets “threatening” just right. Wiig fills every corner of the character with loving charm, as she did in the second movie to make it so much better than the first.  

Then there’s my favorite character, Agnes. She gets a subplot about looking for a unicorn. As always, everything she says is crushingly adorable and anyone who doesn’t like her doesn’t like anything that is good in the world (that’s probably how Minions fans feel about me). What’s weird about the storyline is that everyone worries about how she’ll deal with the eventual disappointment of unicorns not being real. But this is a world with Minions, weaponized bubblegum, and the laws of physics being treated as well-intended suggestions. Drawing the line between fantasy and reality at unicorns seems arbitrary.

There are enough sweet moments to keep “Despicable Me 3” amusing and tolerable, but the movie is a bit of a mess overall. Storylines compete for time in a way that makes them all seem rushed and incomplete, new characters besides Dru aren’t given time to develop (what is the point of having Steve Coogan’s spy agency director retire and be replaced by a hotheaded Jenny Slate if both characters are going to be essentially dropped after one scene?), and lest we forget, Minions are present. They get arrested, so you can look forward to toys of them in striped prison uniforms being shoved down your throat. This is a middling installment of a franchise that is happy to be middling as long as it sells toys.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

4:12 pm edt 

Thursday, June 29, 2017

"Transformers: The Last Knight"

            You’re probably expecting me to trash this movie. And make no mistake, it deserves to get trashed. Its script is horrendous, its editing is a joke, its jokes are painful, and all the metallic whooshing and clanging get old real quick. It’s the same collection of complaints I always have about the “Transformers” movies. But I can’t work up too much ire for this movie for the simple reason that at this point I’m just too numb.

            This is not some sort of submission to the “Transformers” franchise. I am not saying “We all know these movies are dumb, so just turn off your brain and enjoy the ride.” Nor am I saying “These movies are all terrible and people just keep seeing them anyway, so I guess they can just keep doing whatever they want until one of them bombs.” What I am saying is that relative to what I’ve been seeing lately, this movie isn’t that bad.

            It seems like every other week I see a movie with the same problems as this one, and those movies often do it worse. In a summer that has given us “Alien: Covenant,” “The Mummy,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” among others, the badness of “Transformers” just doesn’t stand out anymore. At least this movie doesn’t have a problem with, say, poor lighting. I can think of four movies in the past two months that irritated me with their murkiness. Everything about this movie is an eyesore, but I can’t say I didn’t get a good look at it. This movie is a $217 million debacle that looks like it cost $217 million. Compare that to “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” which cost $175 million and looked like it cost a no-frills party sub to be shared among the cast and crew. By the way, I didn’t get to review that movie because it lost to the opening weekend of “Snatched,” but I assure you that the review would have been a series of insults followed by a one-star rating.

            The acting here is wildly uneven, and the movie probably takes it as a compliment that I said “wild.” Mark Wahlberg as the lead human has a clueless charm about him, which is a step up from previous lead Shia LaBeouf, who was clueless without the charm. Isabela Moner as his little-girl sidekick is less annoying than kids usually are in these movies, outside of one “Scrappy-Doo moment” where she antagonizes the villains without a plan and immediately needs saving. Josh Duhamel is back for the sole purpose of being a familiar face because there is nothing to his character. Most of the robots range from bland to insufferable, but John Goodman is always welcome, Jim Carter is a nice surprise as a servant-bot, and Peter Cullen and Frank Welker are still awesome after 33 years as Optimus Prime and Megatron, respectively. Then there’s Sir Anthony Hopkins. His shtick is sounding dignified, then sounding undignified. It is glorious every single time. I know I had a few compliments for some of the other actors, but he’s the main reason I’m tacking an extra half-star onto this half-witted movie.

            We’re at about the halfway point in 2017, and I’m seeing a few preliminary Best and Worst lists from critics who just can’t wait until January to have those fun discussions. I won’t be able to fill out a 10 Best list without making some major compromises, but I’ll have no trouble filling out a 10 Worst list outside of some tough choices about what to leave off. I hate to say it, but this movie might get left off. It certainly won’t be in the bottom five. Shame on 2017 for giving us at least five movies worse than the unapologetic garbage that is “Transformers: The Last Knight.”

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
2:02 am edt 

"Cars 3"

            “Cars” is probably the most unpopular arm of the Pixar universe. The first film was only moderately well-received, the sequel was the first eligible Pixar film not to be nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, and the two “Planes” spinoffs (which are from a non-Pixar branch of Disney) are direct-to-DVD-quality garbage. To be clear, I liked the first two “Cars” movies and I don’t think Pixar has ever made a “bad” movie, but I don’t know why they’re dead-set on expanding this franchise when they keep hitting a wall with anthropomorphic vehicles.

            The movie once again follows racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), who finds himself in possibly the twilight of his career. A flashy new racer (Armie Hammer) is winning races and forcing older cars into retirement. Lightning wrecks trying to keep up with him and spends months feeling broken, figuratively and literally. Determined to make a comeback, he takes on new sponsor Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who is very generous, but has him train under the annoying Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). He’s nearly forced to retire after a bad performance on a simulator he doesn’t understand (which is the equivalent of firing a football player for not immediately mastering one of those “Madden NFL” games), but he convinces Sterling to give him one more chance if he wins a race by going around the country and training his own way. Sterling agrees, but makes him take Cruz with him. Lightning gets frustrated because Cruz needs to be able to race to keep up with him, and she can’t, so he has to teach her. The two go on rustic adventures, including a demolition derby and seeking out Smokey (Chris Cooper), mentor to Lightning’s late mentor Doc Hudson.

            The problem that a lot of critics have with the “Cars” movies is that it’s not clear exactly how this world works. Questions are constantly being raised like “Were the cars built or were they born?” “Do they eat food or do they get by on gasoline?” “How did all the buildings and stadiums get built if nobody has hands?” and of course “Did humans ever exist in this world?” I’ve typically tried to ignore these questions under the umbrella of “suspension of disbelief,” but this movie makes it so hard. There’s a lot of material about the aging Lighting pushing his body to the limit, and it begs so many questions about how the cars’ bodies work that I can’t get lost in this world the way I’m supposed to.

            There are problems left and right in this movie. Like how the announcers never stop talking about Lightning despite his star supposedly fading. Or how returning characters like Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) are inserted awkwardly into the movie via video chat, which is a good way of sneaking in actors that you can’t get on set, but why do it in an animated movie? We’re supposed to feel sorry for Cruz because she’s a “trainer” and not a “racer,” but she’s a highly-respected trainer at the hottest facility in the country, so she’s obviously doing well for herself. She’d be more sympathetic if she were more repressed. Then there’s the ending, which is going to get a lot of complaints. In a movie about talking, living cars, the rule-bend in the climactic race is the most unbelievable thing about it.

            “Cars 3” has so much going against it, and yet it’s impossible for me to dislike this movie because the Pixar magic is out in full force. I like the performances, the jokes, the dialogue in winsome and serious moments, the detailed animation (did they slip some live-action backgrounds in there or are they just that good?). This is by no means one of Pixar’s best movies, and I would even say it’s valid to call it a disappointment. But Pixar’s streak of never making a bad movie is still intact. “Cars 3” passes inspection, but just barely.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

2:01 am edt 

"The Mummy"

            “The Mummy” is the first official entry in the “Dark Universe,” a franchise where Universal aims to revive its classic movie monsters and have them mingle. Think of it as a variation on the Marvel and DC Extended Universes. I have to wonder if The Mummy as a character is the best entry point for this series. Isn’t The Mummy kind of low-tier for this big of a role? Probably the only reason we’re getting The Mummy instead of power players like Dracula or Frankenstein’s Monster is that “Dracula Untold” and “Victor Frankenstein” flopped so badly. “The Mummy” is going to flop too, all the more devastating to Universal now that it “counts.”

            Tom Cruise stars as Nick Morton, a scavenger who steals ancient artifacts and sells them on the black market. The role was probably pitched to Cruise as Indiana Jones with Hans Solo’s values. He and his partner Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) follow a map stolen from scientist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) to Iraq, where they find the tomb of mummified princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). Just their luck, Ahmanet was the most evil princess in all of ancient Egypt, she was mummified and hidden for good reason, and now that she’s been freed she can unleash her evil upon the world.

            You can probably guess what the story is going to entail. Nick is cursed. Vail is enslaved and forced to do Ahmanet’s bidding. Everybody chases after magical artifacts that can break the curse. Nick and Jenny become romantically attached. All the hocus pocus is confusing and we’re disinterested by the time we get to the finale, where there’s loads of bad CGI. Oh, and there’s a detour involving a doctor (Russell Crowe) who is partially a monster himself. The non-monster part of him wants to kill Nick for good reasons, the monster wants to merely maim Nick for no good reason. So… human nature is a rich dichotomy?

            Action-wise, the only memorable sequences are a plane crash that plays with gravity, some fun kills on zombie minions, and a mean punch from Ahmanet (she’s evil, but the audience will still be cheering for the Girl Power). The humor is mostly terrible, this movie’s idea of comedy is Nick engaging in some clearly-rehearsed verbal hustling and a man running into a ladies’ restroom. I laughed maybe once or twice at characters frozen in shock at unbelievable situations.

            As for the performances, Cruise and Crowe are fun in some of their crazier moments, but this isn’t exactly a career high for either of them. I’m told I’m supposed to dislike Annabelle Wallis for being stiff, but I thought she was fine in her stock role. Sofia Boutella gets to do little more than snarl, sometimes maliciously, sometimes amorously. This is a shame because I think she could have a major presence if the role was better-written. Then there’s Jake Johnson. His might be the single most annoying performance of 2017. Everything out of his mouth is whiny, pessimistic, or unproductive. I’ve never been happier to see a “good” character get shot three times in a movie, and never more displeased with a resurrection.

The difference between the Dark Universe and the DC and Marvel Universes is that Batman, Iron Man, Superman, and Captain America are guaranteed to draw audiences even if they’re in a bad movie. The Universal monsters aren’t going to be afforded the same luxury. People aren’t going to get excited for yet another vampire, werewolf, or evil lab creation movie unless Universal can convince them that these movies are actually good. This movie is a perfect example of what they shouldn’t do: rely the monster to sell tickets and let the movie around it be an afterthought (put it on Cruise Control, if you will). “The Mummy” could cause the Dark Universe to unravel in a real hurry.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

2:00 am edt 

"Wonder Woman"

            It was a poorly-kept secret that Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) was going to be a part of last year’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” That didn’t stop her from getting a huge reaction when she finally appeared. It wasn’t even that the movie used her well, people just loved “that moment when Wonder Woman showed up.” Demand for Wonder Woman was high, as if people already knew she had more to offer than the current incarnations of Batman or Superman. That demand was well-founded, because Wonder Woman’s story is easily the best of the widely-disliked DC Extended Universe.

            Diana (she’s never actually called Wonder Woman in the movie) is a mighty Amazon, raised in a bubble far from civilization, and also far from any men. Her tribe spends all day preparing for battle in case Ares, the god of war, ever decides to attack the world. Diana’s mother (Connie Nielsen) is opposed to her daughter becoming a warrior, but her aunt (Robin Wright) is greatly in favor of it. As a result, Diana grows up to be a talented fighter, but lacking the confidence that would come with her mother’s approval.

            One day, American WWI spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane and washes up on the island, followed by a horde of pursuing Germans. The Amazons fight the Germans off, but someone close to Diana is killed. Steve is taken prisoner and interrogated with the tribal artifact known as the Lasso of Truth. He explains the war, and Diana decides that it must be the work of Ares, poisoning men’s minds. Steve knows that it’s more complicated than a simple supervillain, but he agrees to help Diana find Ares if she helps him get off the island. She does so, leaving behind everything she’s ever known, as the unlikely pair set off to find the evil German Ludendorff (Danny Huston). If anybody’s going to turn out to be Ares in disguise, it’s him. But there’s probably no Ares.

            What this movie does best is create a likeable, sympathetic heroine. That should be a given for a superhero movie, yet so many have failed at it lately. I won’t go too deep into this, but the DC movies tend to be filled with violent, self-righteous heroes; and there’s wall-to-wall arrogance over at Marvel. It’s nice to be able to see one of these movies and not have to ask if protagonist really counts as a “good guy” (assuming, of course, that Diana counts as a “guy”). And as easy as it is, I do get a kick out of all those moments where Diana saves the day and proves all of her stuffy male colleagues wrong in the process. Yay, Girl Power and all that.

            What the movie doesn’t do well is humor, especially when it comes to the male-female dynamic between Diana and Steve. Ha-Ha – Diana’s never seen male anatomy before. Ho-Ho – she’s too literal in her interpretation of the phrase “sleeping together.” Hee-Hee – she doesn’t know how a lady is supposed to act in prim-and-proper London. And so on. I can accept that this movie is going to have to go for some of these gags, but could they at least be funnier? The only time I laughed was at one where the punchline was “All twelve volumes?”

            “Wonder Woman” becomes an ugly mess at the end, where we get a confusing CGI battle against a villain with nonsensical motivations. But what leads up to it is fine. Diana’s training and family conflict are compelling (and the island itself is gorgeous) and it’s hard not to get invested in her “I want to help the whole world” naïveté. The action sequences provide some powerful moments; one involving a piece of sheet metal got a reaction on par with that first “Batman v Superman” appearance. Overall, this is an average superhero movie that benefits from being surrounded by worse superhero movies that make it look better by comparison.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

1:59 am edt 

"Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales"

            I’ve found that the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies benefit from low expectations. Take the original, “Curse of the Black Pearl” from 2003. At first, it seemed like a bad idea to invest so heavily in a pirate movie (two words: “Cutthroat Island”) based on a Disney theme park ride (three words: “The Country Bears”). But the movie pulled a huge upset and proved the naysayers wrong: it was funny, it was exciting, Johnny Depp got an Oscar nomination for playing the mischievous Captain Jack Sparrow, and it made a ton of money. Then came three sequels that were maybe good for a handful of chuckles and one or two decent action sequences apiece. The franchise got old and wore out its welcome. Early word on “Dead Men Tell No Tales” was that it was a pathetic, desperate attempt to extend the series. It’s not that bad. It’s on the same level as the first three sequels. It’s nowhere near as good as the first film, but it’s better than what I expected.

            The plot is convoluted and messy, but basically everybody is racing to acquire the Trident of Poseidon, a mythical wish-granting device. It can be used to collect treasure, destroy enemies, or in the case of Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), get his father (Orlando Bloom) out of the commitment to the Flying Dutchman that’s kept him away from his family for the past twenty years. Out of desperation, Henry enlists the help of Sparrow and amateur astronomer Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) who’s been sentenced to death because she’s a woman who practices science, and therefore a witch. Also in pursuit of the trident is Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), an old enemy of Sparrow who’s been stuck as a decomposing ghost for decades. He wants to rid the sea of all pirates, but is supposedly willing to spare Captain Hector Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) if he helps him reach the trident first. Sparrow, Henry, Carina, Salazar, and Barbosa all bounce off each other as they use various strategies to manipulate and outmaneuver the others.

            The film has all the failings of the later “Pirates” movies. The second and third acts are overstuffed with poor lighting, confusing action, magical mumbo-jumbo, and bad CGI. I thought based on the trailers that I wouldn’t be able to get over the unworkable dead-skinned face on Bardem, but what’s even worse is the way the effects team can’t render simple things like water, metal chains, and wooden planks. As for characters, Henry and Carina have nowhere near the charisma as original “Pirates” power couple Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley. Speaking of Carina, maybe the fifth movie in the series is not the time to introduce a science-minded character who is shocked to learn that pirate magic exists - we’ve been through this before. As for the humor, this movie hopes you like snickering at the word “horologist,” because that joke keeps coming up as if it never gets old.

            So what saves “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”? There’s a nice little subplot for Barbosa; Geoffrey Rush steals the ending of this movie the way Michael Rooker steals the latest “Guardians of the Galaxy.” But I’m mostly referring to two imaginative action sequences at the beginning. One sees Jack and his crew steal a bank (the omission of the word “from” is no accident) and the other is a botched double execution. It’s nice to see Jack Sparrow back to his old tricks, simultaneously experiencing the best and worst luck a pirate can have. The film can’t keep up the energy of these early scenes, but it’s nice to know the franchise isn’t entirely creatively bankrupt. This movie is by no means redemption for “Pirates of the Caribbean,” but it’s not dead in the water either.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

1:58 am edt 

"Alien: Covenant"

            I’ve never been the biggest fan of the “Alien” franchise, including the original film from 1979. Maybe it’s because I’ve been raised on movies that rip it off, or maybe it’s because that big surprise scare was spoiled for me long before I saw it, but I see it as little more than characters skulking around a spaceship waiting to be picked off like in any number of unimaginative horror movies. So I’m probably not the best candidate for “Alien: Covenant,” which, after the misguided highbrow affair that was 2012’s “Prometheus,” gets the franchise back to its glorified-slasher-movie roots. And while I can at least say that the original is a just-average outer space haunted house movie, the new film is so far below average that it borders on incompetent.

            The story sees a massive spaceship carrying over a thousand stagnant bodies to a new planet run into problems. The ship gets hit by some space debris, which the ship’s android caretaker Walter (Michael Fassbender) can’t handle on his own. The incident kills several crew members, including the ship’s captain, and others have to awaken from their cryo-sleep to make manual repairs. New captain Oram (Billy Crudup) notices that they’re near a potentially-habitable planet, and wants to take a look at it in case it’s better than their destination. Despite the objections of Dany (Katherine Waterston), the wife of the old captain, the crew sets down to go exploring.

            As you can probably guess, the crew finds unpleasant aliens on the new planet. Eggs make their way into the ears of less attentive crew members and then aliens burst through their torsos. One such instance occurs in the excursion ship, which leads to the entire ship blowing up and the team being stranded on a planet with the now-hatched aliens. They’re saved by David (Fassbender again), the android from “Prometheus” who’s been stranded on the planet for years. David invites them to wait for rescue in his “safe” dwelling, safe except for the fact that he wants to kill all humans so perfect androids can rule the world. He’s harnessing the aliens, so they aren’t so much the villains of this movie as they are David’s henchmen.

            Where to start with what’s wrong with this movie? I guess with the CGI aliens, which wouldn’t be scary even if they were convincing. They’re so fatty and bloblike, I feel like I could kill one with a butter knife. The human characters are useless. I understand the situation making people panicky, but half the dialogue consists of screaming and cursing when I would expect these people to make a little more effort to communicate. The only human character worth remembering is one played by Danny McBride, and that’s only because his identity is tied up in his cowboy hat. There’s a dumb gag where characters slip and fall on blood twice in quick succession. There’s a dumber, more tasteless gag where David is unsure of how to commit an unspeakable act. A shower scene is poorly edited to give us the impression of naked bodies without any nudity. Anything approaching a twist toward the end is insulting, especially since we already know the aliens’ attack methods.

            The only favor that “Alien: Covenant” does for the “Alien” franchise is that it makes the original look better by comparison. I can at least root for Ellen Ripley in that movie, here I was just rooting for the movie to be over. The only reason I don’t relegate the movie to a one-star rating is that after I saw the movie I had a coughing fit and the movie had been scary enough that for a second I thought I might hack up an alien. “Hack,” by the way, is a good way to describe the job that was done making this movie.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

1:56 am edt 

"Snatched"

            “Snatched” has a script credited to Katie Dippold, but she clearly didn’t write much of her characters’ dialogue. This is one of those comedies where the actors are told to ad lib ad nauseam. There are a few cases where this strategy works, when the actors have good chemistry and the director doesn’t settle for just any old take. There are many more cases where this strategy doesn’t work because the actors don’t know what to do and it throws off the pacing of the movie. This movie falls into sort of an in-between category, one where all the ad libbing is problematic, but it can’t help but be an improvement over what we would have gotten otherwise.

            Emily (Amy Schumer) is a self-absorbed hothead who loses her dead-end job and uninterested boyfriend within minutes of each other. To make matters worse, she bought non-refundable tickets for a vacation in Ecuador and now she has no one to go with. She goes to see her mother Linda (Goldie Hawn) and agoraphobic brother (Ike Barinholtz) for a few days to get her life sorted out and maybe find someone to take the spare ticket. She settles on Linda, whose current idea of “fun” is making abominable cat sculptures in pottery class (that she’s proud of one of these crimes against nature is one of the few deliberate gags that works).

            Emily and Linda go to Ecuador, where Emily wants to party, but Linda is a stick in the mud. Despite warnings from a pair of former CIA agents (Wanda Sykes and a mute Joan Cusack), Emily makes fast friends with a local (Tom Bateman) who treats the pair to a scenic day trip. But the trip is just a front for a kidnapping scheme. Emily and Linda soon find themselves running for their lives, gradually getting into more and more trouble as they try to reach an embassy in Bogota. They’re able to reach Jeffrey by phone, but all he’s able to do is call the U.S. State Department, where he repeatedly annoys an agent (Bashir Salahuddin, who is able to bring out the best in Barinholtz as the two trade threats). Emily and Linda fight with each other, eventually bond, and somehow stay alive, mostly because the villains are so inept they couldn’t kidnap Princess Peach. .

            Everything related to the story and script in this movie is brainless. Huge chunks of the characters’ journey are missing because Dippold doesn’t know how to transition between key scenes. Traits and objects are established clumsily in the first act so they can be forced into the final showdown, which the movie thinks is clever. Urgency is forfeited in the name of letting the actors riff, which hurts the movie’s pacing, but at least results in a few small laughs that the script isn’t capable of delivering. When the script comes up with a gag, we get something like Emily’s PIN being 1234. But with the emphasis on ad libbing, Schumer and Hawn are allowed take control of their characters, and because they’re using their own voices, they’re more relatable than they would be if they were being influenced by someone else.

            “Snatched” has been positioned as a Mother’s Day release, and because this is an Amy Schumer movie, I was all ready to go with jokes about how it’s too crude for that crowd (“my mother taught me to have better taste than this”). But this movie is so unambitious that it doesn’t even reach the level of crudeness that it wants. The R rating is deserved, and it’s not exactly devoid of tacky sex jokes, but a lot of it has to do with exclamatory profanity, not the thorough raunchiness of “Trainwreck.” Still, a better Mother’s Day present would be to go see something else.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

1:55 am edt 

"Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2"

            In amongst the jokes and the cheesy 80’s soundtrack, a theme of redemption ran throughout 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The team was comprised of various lowlifes who finally got a chance to do something decent and found out that they actually liked it because they’re all big softies at heart. Now comes the sequel that figures that since the five main characters found their redemption in the first movie, it’s someone else’s turn to be redeemed.

            The five Guardians of the Galaxy are back: smart-aleck human Quill (Chris Pratt), no-nonsense enforcer Gamora (Zoe Saldana), graceless beast Drax (Dave Bautista), hair-trigger raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and infantile tree Baby Groot (Vin Diesel). The characters go through all the paces you’d expect, bickering and getting into trouble and having their friendship tested but of course they’ll be a family again by the end, that sort of thing.

            The Guardians complete a mission for an alien race called the Sovereign, and as a reward they get to take custody of Gamora’s captured sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). But Rocket double-crosses the Sovereign, and soon the team is on the run from an imperial fleet. They’re saved by the mysterious Ego (Kurt Russell), who reveals himself to be Quill’s father. The ravager Yondu (Michael Rooker) was supposed to take Quill to him decades ago, but for reasons unknown decided to keep him and raise him as his own. Speaking of Yondu, he’s slowly losing his position of power. His crew is on the edge of a mutiny and he’s been blacklisted by fellow ravagers led by Staker (Sylvester Stallone). But a contract put on the Guardians by the Sovereign may be his ticket back to glory.

            It’s Yondu who needs redemption the most in this movie. He’s a space pirate who kidnapped a child and was a less-than-doting father figure. Nebula needs redemption too, she was little more than a glowering villain in the first movie. And of course Ego needs to make up for being absent for Quill’s whole life. Ego is redeemed with the most ease, he’s a god who passed along godlike powers to Quill, so Quill is basically able to summon any toy he wants at will. Quill summons a ball, and father and son play catch for the first time – aww.

            There’s curiously little for the Guardians to do until the end, so the movie pairs them off with non-Guardians. Quill hangs out with Ego, Gamora combats adversity with Nebula, Rocket has a heart-to-heart with Yondu aboard the latter’s ship, and Drax bonds with Ego’s assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff). You know how an embarrassed child will say that a love interest is ugly so they won’t be accused of having feelings for them, which they obviously do? That’s 90% of Drax’s schtick in this movie.

            “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is disappointingly dull except for one element, and that’s Yondu. I knew Rooker was a scene-stealer, but I had no idea the character would turn out to be so complex. Good for the movie using him to his full potential. But otherwise there’s nothing here to write home about. The action is okay, if typical for a comic book movie. The humor, which seemed so crisp and spontaneous in the first movie, now feels scripted and forced. You know the movie is doing something wrong when even Baby Groot grows tiresome. The villain is just flat-out awful. The character is reasonably interesting until they’re officially the villain, but once they turn, it’s just one clichéd mistake after another, one of which is so stupid it loses the character all respectability as a purveyor of evil. There are enough gags that land that the movie isn’t a total waste, but overall I’m hoping that the inevitable “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” will redeem “Vol. 2.”

 

Two Stars out of Five.

1:54 am edt 

"How to be a Latin Lover"

            For the second week in a row, I’m surprised by which movie I’m reviewing. The social media thriller “The Circle” was supposed to be the biggest hit among new releases at the weekend box office. That film boasted big stars in Emma Watson and Tom Hanks and a release on over 3,000 screens. But not only did the film lose the weekend to “How to Be a Latin Lover” on just over 1,000 screens, it lost to the Indian epic “Baahubali 2” on less than 500. The former film did the best out of the three with an estimated $12 million, so it gets the review.

            The film stars Eugenio Derbez as Maximo, a man who could be considered a professional Latin Lover if he weren’t so determined to not be a “professional” anything. His father worked himself to death and his goal in life is to never have to work at all. Maximo enjoys the spoils of being the husband of a rich old bag until she decides she wants somebody younger. He’s expelled from his life of luxury and is forced to move in with his estranged sister Sara (Salma Hayek) and her son Hugo (Raphael Alejandro). Sara doesn’t share Maximo’s anti-work ethic and strives to prevent him from being a bad influence on Hugo. Hugo strives to get the attention of a classmate (Mckenna Grace). And Maximo strives to find another rich old bat to take care of him.

            The three goals intersect when Maximo notices that Hugo’s crush has a rich grandmother (Raquel Welch) who would make the perfect conquest. He decides that the best way to get her attention would be for Hugo to get the attention of her granddaughter. And with that, he teaches Hugo all of his tricks for seducing women, all of which are sexist and most of which depend on the women being lustful. Along the way there’s the requisite storyline about Maximo initially just using his sister and nephew for his own sleazy gain, but over time coming to love them.

            The humor in the movie is uneven. Maximo goes through a number of embarrassing episodes intended to make you laugh at him getting comeuppance for being such a jerk. Most of these gags fall flat, but oddly the movie is much funnier when bad things happen to less deserving targets. I should be mad at the movie for being so mean-spirited at times, but it knows how to draw laughs from the most horrific events. There’s not much that’s funny or memorable about the scripted dialogue (rambling from a pair of villains played by Rob Riggle and Rob Huebel is especially painful), but there’s a lot to like about the way the main characters play off each other in simpler moments. The strength of the movie is in the flat-out charm of Hayek, Alejandro, Kristen Bell (as a fro-yo server with a houseful of cats), and Derbez as the unsympathetic louse of a hero who of course turns out to have a heart of gold.

            “How to Be a Latin Lover” is the kind of breakout hit that can send its star soaring through the power rankings in Hollywood. Eugenio Derbez was already somewhat on that level thanks to the success in 2013’s “Instructions Not Included,” but this movie is officially in English and even more accessible. He is going to get many more projects based on this movie. On one hand, it’s always refreshing to see a new star on the rise. On the other, I’m not too eager to see a string of films as mediocre (or worse) as this one. “How to Be a Latin Lover” at least shows me that there’s potential in Derbez as a leading man and I hope he knocks it out of the park with his next project.

 

Two stars out of Five.

1:53 am edt 

"Going in Style"

This past weekend was not fun for new releases. No studio wanted to compete with “The Fate of the Furious” in its second weekend, so the slate was kept free of potential blockbusters. The top three movies at the box office were holdovers, nature documentary “Born In China” came in 4th (which did well on a small number of screens, but its appeal and availability are limited), then third-weekend holdover “Going In Style” in 5th. I did see the new thriller “Unforgettable,” but it deservedly bombed in 7th place (it would have been a one-star review). I’m settling on “Going in Style” as the movie to review this week because it’s playing locally and “Born in China” isn’t.

As for “Going in Style,” remember a few weeks ago when I said I was in a bad mood when I saw “Smurfs: The Lost Village” and the Smurfs actually cheered me up even though I knew it wasn’t a good movie? I was in a bad mood because I had just seen “Going in Style.” This movie is so bad that it turned “Smurfs: The Lost Village” into a saving grace.

Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin star as three aging laborers who fall upon hard times when their mortgages spin out of control and they lose their pensions. The same bank is responsible for the mortgages and the pensions, and it has a smug, unconscionable staff. Caine goes in to one of the branches try to make sense of the matter and he’s met with rudeness from the staff, but surprising politeness from a bank robber. The robbery goes smoothly, the criminals get their money, and the bank doesn’t suffer too much because it’s the insurance company who loses money, not them. Caine decides to get together with Freeman and Arkin and rob the bank, partly to get the money they’re owed, and partly to get revenge.

Adorable old-men-robbing-the-big-mean-bank antics ensue. The trio start off as bumbling fools who can’t even shoplift from a grocery store, but they get more serious once they hire a criminal consultant (John Ortiz). They fight to overcome their lack of experience and waning physicality to stage a flawless robbery in which no one gets hurt. Except the traumatized people who are threatened with guns (filled with blanks, but they don’t know that). And the people at the bank who will probably lose their jobs once the bank decides to recoup the money with downsizing, with or without insurance.

But we’re not supposed to think about that. We’re supposed to think about our heroes and how they’re using an unconventional method to stand up for themselves. The problem is that they’re doing so anonymously, so the bank doesn’t know why it’s being punished or even that it’s being punished at all. The main characters are no help, they just want to take the money, scare some of the more disagreeable employees, and live the rest of their lives like fat cats, all while humiliating the police who have a community to protect. The film goes so far out of its way to convince us that these characters are somehow righteous, but the pleas for sympathy for their criminal behavior get old quick.

All the attempts to justify the robbery in “Going in Style” make my skin crawl, and the film doesn’t bring anything new to the heist genre. Fortunately the whole movie isn’t about the robbery. Sometimes it’s just about Caine, Freeman, and Arkin hanging out. There’s some funny banter, with Arkin having the highest rate of joke success. Gene Siskel once said that a movie needs to be more interesting than a documentary about the actors eating lunch. This movie knows it can’t be more interesting, but at least it’s smart enough to set a bunch of scenes in a diner so there’s plenty of footage of the actors eating lunch.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.
1:52 am edt 

"The Fate of the Furious"

           For over a decade, you knew exactly what you were getting with a “Fast & Furious” movie. You went to see one of these movies, you got fast cars, gratuitous shots of women, dumb one-liners, ruminations on family during the slow parts, and completely implausible action sequences. The movies were fun if you were in the right mood and grating if you weren’t, but they never aspired to be anything more.

            Then things changed with “Furious 7” in 2015. Star Paul Walker died unexpectedly in a car crash, and although he had already filmed most of his scenes, the film needed to be handled with the utmost care and sensitivity. And it delivered perfectly. The final moments of that film were so beautiful that they took the franchise to a level never before thought possible. Now comes “The Fate of the Furious” to put it right back on the level it was before. Maybe even a little lower.

            Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is on his honeymoon with wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) when he’s recruited for a black ops mission by his old-enemy-turned-friend Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). He gathers his family, which also includes Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel). The family pulls off a heist with relative smoothness, but then Dom does the unthinkable and turns on his family. He puts the deadly device du jour in the hands of cyberterrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), who has another member of his family in danger. He works for her now, and stealing the device was just the first job of many.

            It’s up to the rest of the family to stop Cipher without knowing why Dom is standing in their way. They get help from old friend Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his young protégé (Scott Eastwood), who I have to assume is Mr. Nobody’s son because unconditional love is the only reason I can think of for Mr. Nobody putting up with the unlikeable little dunce. That team still isn’t big enough, so they have to call in Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), sworn enemy of the family. Like Hobbs, he goes from an enemy to a friend in the course of this movie. It’s hard to buy that he’s earning a place in the family considering he killed one of its members a few movies back. On the other hand, we get to root for Jason Statham!

            That brings me to the action sequences. Dom drag-races a junker car backwards while on fire (the car, not him). Hobbs and Shaw fight off prison guards and inmates to get their hands on each other. The family has to contend with a zombie attack, my personal favorite. Shaw dispatches some henchmen on an airplane. And there’s a pursuit through the Russian tundra where there’s no shortage of bad guys to absorb every weapon that hasn’t been used yet (I thought the entire convoy got blown up like five times, but they keep coming back for more punishment).

           “The Fate of the Furious” has exactly what you’d expect in terms of comedy and action from a “Fast & Furious” movie, but it also has flaws in character motivation and development, which I’m sorry to say is also what one would expect from a boneheaded action movie. Shaw is forgiven too easily, the Eastwood character is accepted too easily, Dom uncharacteristically lets Cipher yank him around for too long, the movie doesn’t know what it wants to do with the family outside of Dom, and everyone was so happy to get Theron as the villain that they forgot to give her anything interesting to say or do. Add to that an unwise follow-up line about the Walker character that undermines the final scene of both this movie and the last one, and you’ve got a disappointing “Fast & Furious” movie. I expected so much more after “Furious 7.”

Two Stars out of Five.


1:50 am edt 

"Smurfs: The Lost Village"

            I make it a point not to put out year-end Worst lists because there are so many bad movies that I can’t be bothered to see. I have better things to do with my time and money than waste them on bombs that couldn’t find an audience. But rest assured that if I did put out Worst lists, both “The Smurfs” and “The Smurfs 2” would have featured very prominently on the 2011 and 2013 lists, respectively. Those hideous live-action/CGI hybrids were an ill-advised attempt to modernize the Smurfs, which meant lots of breakdancing and crude humor. It was obvious after the second movie that there was no future for the franchise such as it was, so the decision was made to scrap the format and start anew. The result is “Smurfs: The Lost Village,” which replaces the entire voice cast, features no live-action, and dials it way back on the really painful jokes. I’m glad to say that the changes are an improvement, though there wasn’t exactly a need for a new “Smurfs” movie in the first place.

            The story centers around Smurfette (Demi Lovato) and her struggle to find her place in the Smurf community. All of the other Smurfs have distinctive roles or traits that are reflected in their names. Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin) is fatherly, Hefty Smurf (Joe Manganiello) is strong, Clumsy Smurf (Jack McBrayer) is a klutz, Brainy Smurf (Danny Pudi) at least thinks he’s smart, and so on. But Smurfette’s name doesn’t tell the world anything about her, so she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do. She doesn’t even know if she’s really a Smurf, since she wasn’t born into the Smurf community, but rather created by the evil wizard Gargamel (Rainn Wilson) to go undercover for nefarious purposes. She later decided to become a Smurf full-time, but is being a Smurf something one can “decide” to do?

            One day Smurfette discovers that there might be another village of Smurfs living somewhere in the forest. She’s immediately captured by Gargamel, who finds out about the lost Smurf village for himself. He plans to ransack the village first thing in the morning, so it’s up to Smurfette, Hefty, Brainy, and Clumsy to find the village first and warn the new Smurfs about the attack. Papa disapproves of the mission, but Smurfette believes it’s her purpose to help the new Smurfs, who all turn out to be girls like her.

            There’s something awfully familiar about the new Smurf village. The environment stays largely on the left side of the color wheel, with lots of greens, blues, and purples. There are all manner of exciting new plants and animals. The new Smurfs emphasize a love of nature and one of them is voiced by Michelle Rodriguez. Add that to Smurfette’s “going native” backstory and I’d say this movie is trying to invoke “Avatar.” I guess the filmmakers wanted to take that “Dances With Smurfs” joke from “South Park” to the next level.

            “Smurfs: The Lost Village” at least seems like a proper Smurfs movie, instead of the Smurfs trying to be something they’re not. Whether or not you like this movie depends on how much you (or more likely, your kids) want to see a movie about the Smurfs, who have always been cutesy characters without much depth. I was in a bad mood when I saw this movie, and I have to admit that it picked me up a little. I laughed at a few of the gags, especially one about a Smurf defined by a nonsensical trait. It turns out I’m okay with the Smurfs just being Smurfs. I can’t say that this film should be a priority if you’re looking for the best in family entertainment, but if you’ve already worked your way through your top choices, this is a decent middle-of-the-road option.

 

Two Stars out of Five

1:47 am edt 

"The Boss Baby"

            Good news, everyone: “The Boss Baby” isn’t as bad as the advertising makes it seem. Frankly it would be hard to be that bad. I was expecting 97 minutes of painful, lowbrow baby jokes mixed with tired corporate stereotypes left over from the 80’s. Some people thought the movie might be redeemed with political satire, since Alec Baldwin voices the Boss Baby and he has recently taken to playing America’s most iconic boss, but this movie was completed long before any Trump jokes could be worked in. No, the movie has to rely on other ideas to redeem itself, and a few of them actually succeed. A few.

            Seven-year-old Tim Templeton (Miles Bakshi) lives an idyllic life with his parents (Lisa Kudrow and Jimmy Kimmel), but his world gets turned upside down with the arrival of his little brother, the otherwise-unnamed Boss Baby. Immediately something seems off about the newborn. Some of it is just baby stuff that Tim has to learn to accept, but some of it is strange even by baby standards. He arrives unaccompanied in a taxi, he keeps the family awake all night, he wears a suit (fortunately the necktie is just a fabrication, more on that later), he takes the parents’ attention away from Tim, and he’s a spy from a corporation that supplies all the babies in the world.

            There’s a surprisingly intricate plot to this movie, but basically the Boss Baby is an adult with the body of a baby who was sent to Earth to stop evil puppy manufacturer Francis Francis (Steve Buscemi) from unleashing the world’s cutest puppy to the masses. Supposedly adults will love the puppy more than babies, and this will lead to the depletion of the human race. Boss Baby doesn’t have much luck recruiting other babies for the mission, but Tim is willing, provided Boss Baby goes back to BabyCorp afterwards and lets him have his parents all to himself again. Adventure, hijinks, bonding, and life lessons ensue.

            Almost everything that happens in the movie is ridiculous, and the reason is that it’s a story being told by an adult version of Tim (Tobey Maguire). It’s established that Tim has an overactive imagination, hence the obvious embellishment. But the movie makes you think that it’s taking one approach to the narrative when it’s actually taking another, and I liked the first one more. The “real” version negates the whole story and it basically means that all the growing and learning that Tim does throughout the movie doesn’t count. But at least it means that the parents didn’t do frightfully irresponsible things like give the baby a necktie (I never could get past that detail).

            I was really dreading the humor of “The Boss Baby,” and make no mistake, there are a lot of dumb gross-out gags. But about five minutes in, I laughed at something. And then again at ten minutes. And then maybe at a creative action sequence around the 15-20 minute mark. The movie’s strength is that it goes for so many types of gags and at such frequency that something is bound to work. If you can enjoy the baby humor, that’s great, but there’s also wordplay, pratfalls, deadpan, jokes for adults that will go over kids’ heads, and when all else fails, Elvis.

            There’s a little something for everybody in “The Boss Baby,” but I have to emphasize “a little.” This movie probably isn’t worth seeking out if you have no interest in it. But if you feel obligated to see it, say, if your kids want to go, then go with them. There’s more to this movie than you think, though much of it is exactly what you expect.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

1:46 am edt 

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