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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 

"Power Rangers"

            Last week I reviewed “Beauty and the Beast,” which was based on a beloved classic from my childhood. This week’s film is “Power Rangers,” which is also based on a property I was obsessed with as a kid. The difference is that while I’ve held a consistently high opinion of “Beauty and the Beast” throughout my life, it took me only a few years to see “Power Rangers” for the glorified toy commercial that it was. So I had a different set of standards going into each film: “Beauty and the Beast” had to live up to one of the greatest animated films of all time; and “Power Rangers” had to rise above one of the laziest cash grabs of my generation. It’s no wonder that I like the latter film slightly more.

            The film opens with a bit of backstory about how ancient warrior Zordon (Bryan Cranston) banished the evil Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks) to the middle of the Earth. We’re then introduced to our main characters. They’re more flawed than their goody-goody TV show equivalents. Three of them even meet in Saturday detention, and in case the “Breakfast Club” allusions weren’t obvious enough, one of them is there because an explosive went off in their locker. Jason (Dacre Montgomery) is a screw-up who ruined his future with a botched prank. Billy (RJ Cyler) suffers from a spectrum disorder which makes him a frequent target for bullies. Kimberly (Naomi Scott, who bears a striking resemblance to original actress Amy Jo Johnson) is a bully herself, having used social media to humiliate a classmate. Zack (Ludi Lin) is a sleazy voyeur with a heart of gold for his sick mother. Trini (Becky G) is a loner whose family moves around a lot, plus she feels burdened with an additional secret. The chemistry and development of the main characters is the movie at its best.

            The teens find some mysterious crystals in a quarry and develop superpowers. They return to the quarry and find themselves trapped in a high-tech command center. There they meet the robot Alpha 5 (Bill Hader) and a reanimated version of Zordon. For some reason, he chooses to project his essence onto one of those screens that’s made up of thousands of little pins that create an approximate version of whatever is pressing up against them. Good for him finding a Spencer Gifts that deep in the Earth’s crust. He tells them that they have the ability to morph into the Power Rangers and they can use an arsenal of weapons and robots to defeat Rita. There’s just one problem, they can’t morph. They have to learn a lesson first, and it’s frustrating that the film makes us wait so long for us to see the new line of action figures, I mean, for the heroes to reach their full potential.

            The action is exactly what you’d expect from a big-budget “Power Rangers” movie: sleek enough to not look cheap, but missing the heart that gave the TV series a sort of cheesy appeal. One of my favorite things about the show was the creativity that went into the monster du jour, and here that spot is wasted on goopy CGI version of Goldar. Curiously, the fight between him and the Rangers’ Megazord is over before we can really soak in either of them.

Once the special effects take over, “Power Rangers” is as brainless as ever. But there’s some decent human work being done here, at least when the script isn’t forcing the characters to spout one-liners or engage in tired team-building. It’s a step up from the TV show, which isn’t much of a compliment, but probably one the movie will be happy to take.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

1:45 am edt 

"Beauty and the Beast"

            “Beauty and the Beast,” the Disney animated classic from 1991, holds a special place in my heart. It was the first movie I saw in its original run in theaters. The film kicked off a lifelong love of movies, and in that time I’ve seen a scant few that were on its level. But I’ve also seen many worse movies, including the new live-action “Beauty and the Beast.”

            The script remains largely unchanged. Belle (Emma Watson) is a smart, sweet young woman who yearns to escape the simpletons of her village, especially the brutish Gaston (Luke Evans). Her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) gets lost on the way to the market and seeks shelter in a castle. The castle is home to the ferocious Beast (Dan Stevens), a handsome prince cursed to spend his life as a hideous monster until he can find true love. The Beast wants to keep Maurice as his prisoner, but allows Belle to take his place since it’s possible that she can break the spell. The Beast is coldhearted and Belle is upset about being his prisoner, so they’re unlikely to fall in love on their own. But they’re pushed along by the castle’s staff, who have been cursed to live as household objects until the Beast can find love. Ewan McGregor plays a candlestick, Ian McKellen is a clock, and Emma Thompson is a teapot, to name a few. Meanwhile, Maurice tries to enlist the village to rescue Belle, and Gaston schemes to take advantage of the situation to win Belle for himself.

            When I say that the script remains largely unchanged, I don’t just mean the basic storyline. I mean that entire stretches are copied word-for-word from the animated version. I was able to mouth along with this movie, but not in that fun singalong way, out of boredom with how little it’s willing to change. It does try to add a little bit: there’s a detour where Belle learns the truth about her long-lost mother, there’s a scene where Gaston tries to kill Maurice, there’s a mass death scene, a lot of dark stuff come to think of it. There’s also a new musical number for The Beast, a new character in a piano voiced by Stanley Tucci, and an expanded role for LeFou (Josh Gad), Gaston’s sidekick. You remember LeFou, right? He’s Gaston’s ever-present companion who throws together a song-and-dance number on the spot about how much he admires his manly captain. In this version, he’s gay.

            Among the things that don’t work about this movie is the way the characters look. There’s an effort to make the human characters resemble their animated counterparts, but there’s something about the makeup and musculature that doesn’t translate. They look like they’re on loan from one of those botched live-action Dr. Seuss movies from the early 2000’s. Then there are the characters that aren’t human, The Beast and the servants. The Beast is done well, with Stevens melding flawlessly with his CGI hair. But the servants are severely downgraded. They’re CGI, so technically they’re still animated, but they’re supposed to look more realistic, and the result is dead eyes on nearly-featureless faces. No doubt this will be a tremendous disappointment to those who remember the expressive little scamps from the animated version.

            The 2017 “Beauty and the Beast” spends the whole time trying to catch up to a classic that is way out of its league. When it’s trying to be that film, I’m thinking about how inferior it is, and in the rare instance that it’s trying to be original, I’m thinking about how this is its big chance and it how better not blow it and before I know it, the scene’s over. I suppose it’s nice to be reminded of how much I love the 1991 film, but I didn’t need to spend over two hours being reminded.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

1:43 am edt 

"Kong: Skull Island"

            I bet when most people hear the term “Viet Cong” for the first time, they snicker at a mental image of King Kong fighting in Vietnam. Almost everyone outgrows this joke in about a minute, but not the makers of “Kong: Skull Island.” They’ve spent $190 million and years of effort making the King Kong/Vietnam crossover that nobody was demanding, but nobody’s in a hurry to reject either.

            The film opens with a sequence of two WWII pilots, one American and one Japanese, ejecting from their planes and continuing to fight on the ground on a seemingly deserted island. They are interrupted by King Kong. This isn’t one of those slow-burn monster movies where the creature takes forever to show up or all we catch for a while is shadowy glimpses. Early and often, we get to behold Kong in all his glory.

Cut to 1973. Two controversial scientists (John Goodman and Corey Hawkins) con their way into getting government approval to visit an uncharted island in hopes of finding something that might help America win the Cold War. They need a military escort, and Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) all-too-happily volunteers his squad, who were a day away from coming home from Vietnam following Nixon’s announcement of a cease-fire. They also enlist a tracker (Tom Hiddleston), a photographer (Brie Larson), and a few other future bodies.

The crew travels to the island, unwisely sets off some bombs, and immediately get attacked by Kong (again, he’s not shy). The convoy gets split up. One team includes Packard, who wants to kill Kong. At first he seems to have good reasons; he thinks the ape is a danger to humanity or he wants to avenge his colleagues killed in the attack. But over time we realize that his motivation is that he just doesn’t want to accept another loss. The other team stumbles upon the American soldier from the beginning (John C. Reilly), who has spent the last 30 years on the island with Kong. He explains that Kong actually loves the island and its people and he’s needed to protect it from the vicious giant lizards that live beneath the surface (no, this does not mean a cameo from a specific giant lizard, much to my disappointment). The team realizes that it’s up to them to stop Packard and save Kong.

The film does action, special effects, and visuals very well. The opening fight scene gets things off to a frantic start and things only get more treacherous once Kong gets involved. Kong himself is everything you want in a skyscraper-sized primate, and the other animals on the island are impressively unlovely. And I like the whole Vietnam atmosphere, just because it’s an unusual approach for a King Kong movie in 2017. Sometimes the movie is a little too blatant in comparing the mission to the war (we get it, they’re going to a place they don’t belong and antagonizing an enemy they can’t handle) but at least we get some cool helicopter shots, a rockin’ soundtrack, and a parody of an iconic shot from a Vietnam movie where things go hilariously wrong.

But one thing keeps me from going ape over “Kong: Skull Island” and that’s the human characters. Jackson and Reilly are fine, but everybody else is painfully miscast or underwritten. The movie runs out of ideas for Goodman and Hawkins after the first act, Hiddleston isn’t pulling off the “rugged hero” routine, and it’s hard to buy the down-to-earth Larson as the object of Kong’s affections. The movie makes some weird decisions about who to kill and when to kill them and the result is some awkward pacing. I’m giving “Kong: Skull Island” Two Stars out of Five, but it has many effects-driven moments that are worth more than that. They just get watered down by inadequacy in other areas like the script.

 

Two Stars out of Five.
1:42 am edt 

"Logan"

            After 17 years, Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart are saying goodbye to the “X-Men” roles of Wolverine and Professor Charles Xavier, respectively. And I truly believe that this is it for them. At first I was skeptical. “Even if both characters die, they can do some hocus-pocus resurrection.” “The franchise is non-linear, so they can come back for some in-between films.” Those are both valid theories, but they don’t take into account that “Logan” is such a perfect end note that I don’t see the actors treating it as anything other than a grand finale.

            The film takes place a while after “Days of Future Past.” Apparently the happy ending of that one was short-lived. Logan (a moniker, though not the given name, of Wolverine) is the last survivor of the X-Men after an unspecified catastrophe caused by an unhinged Xavier years before. He and remaining mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant) take care of the aged professor at a discreet location in Mexico, while he makes a paltry living as a limo driver and spends his money on painkillers, as his Adamantium-based immortality is starting to wear off.

            Things are disrupted when Logan is tasked with taking a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) to a safe zone in Canada. Evil cyborg Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) wants to find the girl first; he works for villainous mutant-harnesser Dr. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant), who has a Wolverine clone in his arsenal. The villains are actually the weakest thing about this movie; Pierce is foiled at almost every turn, Rice is too non-threatening, and the Wolverine clone is the kind of “met his match” gimmick that’s been done to death in this franchise.

Pierce and his men lay siege to the compound containing Xavier, so Logan is forced to take him on the journey with Laura. It sounds crazy that the ending to “X-Men” as we know it is a Wolverine/Professor X/child road trip movie, but it’s pulled off magnificently. There’s a stop at a casino and a stop with a farming family, and along the way, the trio has great chemistry. The smaller scale really helps us understand these characters better than we ever have before (that is except for Laura, who we’re just meeting for the first time, but Keen more than holds her own with the veterans). This is the first time I’ve been able to fully appreciate them as human beings and not as live-action versions of toys and cartoons.

Speaking of the characters not seeming like toys and cartoons, this is not a movie for kids. It’s rated R, and not just because of one or two choice scenes like that idiotic “Killing Joke” movie. It’s much more akin to say, “Deadpool.” I was worried about that film kicking off an era of gratuitous violence and needless profanity in comic book movies going for lazy shock value, but this film isn’t lazy about anything. It’s no surprise by now that Logan uses salty language (remember his “First Class” cameo?) and Charles sounds like it’s been part of his vocabulary this whole time. As for the violence, the main character’s most notable attribute is that he has huge knives coming out of his knuckles. How was he anything but R-rated in the first place?

“Logan” falters a bit around the 75%-95% mark when we’re suddenly introduced to a bunch of undeveloped new characters and the film has to rely on its less-than-impressive conflict with the villains. But what led up to it was acting at its finest and what comes after it is… heartbreaking. Tears and X-Men shouldn’t go together, but it’ll come as no surprise, as the film has already defied what you can expect from a comic book movie. I was never really onboard with that 11th-hour Oscar campaign for “Deadpool,” but if the studio does that with “Logan,” it might be onto something.

 

Three and a Half Stars out of Five.

1:40 am edt 

"Get Out"

            “Get Out” is a horror movie opening on a non-holiday weekend in February. It’s rated R, so it can kiss a big chunk of the teen audience goodbye. It’s not part of an established franchise, so it can’t get by on a familiar character or concept. Its cast includes some reliable hands, but nobody with a lot of box office clout. It’s directed by Jordan Peele of “Key & Peele,” and he’s a familiar name, but not one known for either directing or horror. And yet the movie was a huge hit this past weekend. What made the film so popular? Was it intrigue over the trailers and TV spots? That was part of it, I’m sure. Was it the audience’s need to see something that wasn’t a Valentine’s Weekend leftover? That certainly didn’t hurt. But I’d like to think that the biggest factor was word of mouth. I’m a big follower of review compiler Rotten Tomatoes, and by the time I saw the film, it had racked up 120 positive reviews vs. zero negatives. Needless to say, that is outstanding. The film was apparently unanimously beloved. And my theory is that people wanted to see just what made it so widely appreciated.

The film stars Daniel Kaluuya as Chris, the black boyfriend of white Rose (Allison Williams). She takes him to upstate New York to meet her upper-crust white parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener). The family throws a party where almost all of the guests are white snobs. None of them are quite on-the-nose “racists,” but they commit some unintentional faux pas by using slang like “my man” and turning the conversation a little too quickly to Barack Obama and Tiger Woods. It’s nothing heinous, and Chris knows he can’t call them out on it because it would make him look overly sensitive, but it’s enough to make him feel uncomfortable.

Discomfort soon turns to fear. Rose’s brother (Caleb Landry Jones) wants to practice MMA moves on Chris, if you can call what he wants to do “practicing.” The family’s black servants (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel) are skittish and look like they’re about a second away from going crazy (especially Gabriel, whose smile is going to haunt me for a while). The mother is a hypnotist, and she wants Chris for a session where she can “get him to quit smoking.” And the one black guy at the party is a man who’s been missing for months. Chris’s best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) warned him before leaving that he should be suspicious of all the white people, and he was definitely onto something.

That “something” isn’t as scary as what led up to it. There comes a point where certain characters drop the charade and the film is just a standard thriller after that. It’s disappointing to see these characters (and the film along with them) give up the psychological advantage they had been enjoying in favor of timewasting, chasing, fighting, and a logistical gap involving a chair that I couldn’t get past. Only one character is an effective villain in the film’s third act, and their reign of terror is brief, though I will say that I’m glad the film did something with the character, who had been mostly useless up to that point.

The finale squanders a lot of opportunities, but “Get Out” gets in a good hour or so before it decides that it’s done toying with us. That’s when the movie is at its best, when it’s about social horror instead of actual horror. And this is where Peele’s comedic background comes in handy, when he creates these awkward situations where Chris realizes he can’t win and he can’t excuse himself gracefully. The movie isn’t great at invoking screams, but it’s great at invoking squirms.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

1:39 am edt 

"Fifty Shades Darker"

            The “Fifty Shades” franchise is commercially successful but critically despised. I’ve heard all manner of nasty things said about the books, and 2015’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” tied for Worst Picture at the Razzies. “Fifty Shades Darker” is no redeemer, I assure you. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the series likes the abuse it takes from people with good taste.

            Okay, that’s not fair. The franchise isn’t about people who like abuse. It’s about a woman who infatuates a man who likes to be abusive. And not even really abusive, just roleplay abusive and otherwise merely controlling. Actually, she’s the one who gets to decide when he gets to play abusive, and she does so as a rare treat, so in a way, she’s in control.

            Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) broke up with dominating billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) at the end of the first movie because of her disgust over his proclivities. She has since gotten a job with a book publisher (Eric Johnson, thankfully no relation to Dakota because that would be too gross even for this series) who clearly has eyes for her and is a harassment lawsuit waiting to happen. She goes to an art show for her friend Jose (Victor Rasuk), who we know from the first movie wants to be more than friends, and sees that all the pieces are of her. There she sees Christian for the first time since their breakup. He’s there because he’s been stalking her. We’re about ten minutes into this movie and the main character has three guys tripping over each other to be with her because they’re obsessed with her. Anastasia is plenty attractive and sweet, but I find it hard to believe that she has three guys revolving their lives around her like this.

            Anastasia agrees to go on a dinner date with Christian, and agrees to resume their relationship under the condition that she doesn’t have to agree to any rules or punishments this time. Christian agrees, though to him, taking away the rules and punishments is probably a rule and a punishment. Anastasia and Christian begin dating again, and their relationship is filled with “hardcore” sex scenes that are laughably softcore because of the limits of the R rating. There are also twists along the way, such as a former submissive of Christian’s who wants to know what Anastasia has done to deserve a “no punishments” relationship, and Christian’s former dominant (Kim Basinger) who wants to break up the couple because she thinks Anastasia just wants Christian for his money. I don’t blame her, because Christian is so devoid of charisma, charm, and consideration that money is about the only thing he has going for him. Then there’s a bit toward the end where Christian goes missing after a plane crash to force some suspense into this movie, but all it does to draw attention to how badly it needed some sort of danger.

            By now, everybody knows the kind of trashy movie they’re getting with “Fifty Shades Darker.” Not trashy because of its sexual content (don’t get me wrong, this movie is a hard R), but trashy because its characters and conflicts are so poorly written and the movie thinks it’s so much more erotic than it is. The only enjoyment you’re likely to get out of it is that it’s fun to giggle and heckle (I couldn’t help but shout out that a certain political leader would approve of a scene of inappropriate grabbing in an elevator). But this movie is awful on every legitimate level. We’re sure to get many more bad movies in 2017, but “Fifty Shades Darker” is an early frontrunner for next year’s Razzies.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

1:38 am edt 

"The LEGO Batman Movie"

            Last year, when I saw “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the biggest audience reaction came before the movie when we got the teaser trailer for “The LEGO Batman Movie.” It was already pretty well-known that the movie at hand was lousy, and the buzz for “Suicide Squad” was starting to turn bleak. We all wanted to see how the Caped Crusader was going to rebound, and it looked like we had our answer. The trick wasn’t to team him up with Superman, Wonder Woman, The Joker, or Harley Quinn. Of course! The trick was to team him up with Legos again. Or so it seemed. It turns out that this movie doesn’t quite do Batman right either.

            The plot sees Batman/Bruce Wayne (Will Arnett) saving Gotham City by night and having a lonely time at Wayne Manor by day. His faithful butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) is there, but the two don’t connect very much. Then one day his world is turned upside down when Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) takes over as Police Commissioner. She isn’t as eager as her father to just defer to Batman whenever the city needs saving. But she also acknowledges that he’s an asset and suggests that he and the police cooperate. Bruce is disgusted by the idea, but enamored by her. He’s so mesmerized, in fact, that he doesn’t even notice when he agrees to adopt orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera).

            That’s what happens on the good guy front, but what I was really looking forward to about this movie was the bad guys. The lead villain is once again The Joker (Zach Galifiankis), who leads dozens of members of Batman’s legendary rogues gallery. We get good, proven ones like The Penguin, The Riddler, Catwoman, and Two-Face (voiced by someone who has played the role before), as well as a few that I only know from lists of the lamest villains. The Joker fancies himself as a sort of head villain and Batman’s arch-nemesis, but Batman sees him as just another nuisance. The Joker feels snubbed and hatches his most diabolical plan yet, to ditch the traditional rogues and get help from villains outside the franchise. I don’t want to ruin any surprises (and there are some good ones), but I can’t help but wonder why they got Eddie Izzard to voice one of them when Ralph Fiennes is already in the cast.

            An army of Batman villains and an army of non-Batman villains are both great ideas on paper, but they don’t translate well to this movie. There is simply no time to develop the majority of them, and they end up looking like pushovers, getting in maybe one or two lines if they’re lucky, and doing even less as far as the action sequences. And speaking of the action sequences, they’re problematic too. The blocky (pun intended) animation makes it hard to keep up with what’s going on, and it seems like the fighting lacks imagination anyway.

            At least “The LEGO Batman Movie” is funny in places, which is more than I can say for the lousier Batman movies from 2016. Arnett as an arrogant Batman is as effortlessly funny here as he was in 2014’s “The Lego Movie,” and the movie likes to take shots at Batman’s uneven history and some of the more questionable projects he’s done over the years (though I wish they would acknowledge the low point that was 1997’s “Batman and Robin”). But the action sequences aren’t there in terms of creativity or animation and there’s not much of substance in the rest of the story (a loner hero has to learn the value of family and teamwork, how original). Compared to the Batman movies from last year, it’s a minor step up, but compared to “The Lego Movie,” it’s a big step down.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

1:37 am edt 

"Rings"

            “Rings” was supposed to be released last Halloween, but the studio pushed it back to February. And not just any weekend in February, Super Bowl Weekend. It’s a weekend you don’t want for your new movie, because you can kiss your Sunday audience goodbye (though to be fair, we did get the exceptional “Hail, Caesar” in the slot last year). So what made the studio decide not to release this franchise horror film in a plum Halloween slot? I’d like to think it’s because they saw the movie and knew it was awful, but I know better than that. Studios know that good or bad, people just want to scream at something on Halloween. No, it’s because of a timing issue that I’ll mention later. But the fact that it’s a uniformly miserable experience certainly didn’t help.  

            For those who don’t know, what happens to the victims in this series is that they watch a video of seemingly random images that ends with a shot of a glowing ring. Then they get a mysterious phone call in which a voice tells them that they have “seven days” to live. They spend the next seven days being haunted, and then on the seventh day, evil child Samara (whose death is alluded to in the video) crawls out of their television and kills them by scaring them to death, leaving twisted expressions on their dead faces. It was the face twisting that scared me back in 2002, but for some reason I was supposed to be scared of Samara and her greasy black hair. I just felt sorry for her, having to lug around that soaking wet mop on her scalp. It couldn't have been good for her spine.

            “Rings” gives us very few twisted faces, but a whole lot of Samara and her hair. In fact, sometimes it’s just the hair without Samara. Filmmakers, don’t try to scare me with your villain’s hair unless your villain is Medusa. The scares in this movie fall into two categories: entirely predictable Samara antics and cheap startle moments. One of the startle moments is so irrelevant that I wonder if it was left in the film by accident. And it’s probably the most effective one.

            The plot revolves around a pair of college students (Matilda Lutz and Alex Roe) who see the tape as part of an experiment devised by Professor Gabriel (Johnny Galecki). Gabriel foolishly watched the tape, but also learned that you can break the curse by copying the tape and getting someone else to watch it, at which point the clock resets with that person as the new victim. So he’s having a ring of students copy the tape and pass it amongst each other to see how long they can stave off a Samara attack. Our heroes see the video, but refuse to pass the curse along, so they go to Samara’s hometown to see if there’s something in her past that can break the curse altogether. They’re aided by a helpful blind caretaker (Vincent D’Onofrio). His blindness means that Samara can’t attack him, except that she can.

            The loophole for the blindness is lazy. The lack of personality in the main characters is lazy. The story, scares, and overall look of the film are all lazy (constant grayness does not automatically translate to “dark atmosphere”). I’d call the film lazy for having a third act that rips off a much better horror movie from last summer, but it’s been sitting on the shelf for so long that it was probably made first. “Rings” is so worthless that it doesn’t even make me mad, because making me mad would involve some sort of ambition or aggression that it just doesn’t have. It was made and released with the intention of having one huge weekend and then falling off due to inevitably poor word of mouth, and it couldn’t even do that right.

 

One Star out of Five.

1:36 am edt 

"Split"

            “Split” is a movie that could have easily gone very wrong. Thrillers about people with psychological conditions like amnesia, autism, or in this case multiple personalities tend to be clumsy, with the films rarely having any interesting ideas outside of the conditions. It’s also directed by M. Night Shyamalan, a filmmaker synonymous with awkward pauses, absurd dialogue, and ludicrous twist endings. Perhaps most worrisome is that it’s opening in January, which for a scary movie generally means that the studio didn’t think it could compete at Halloween. But the movie greatly benefits from these lowered expectations, because even though it has some noticeable flaws, the fact that it does anything right comes across like a major triumph.

            At the center of the movie is Kevin (James McAvoy), a man with 23 personalities and counting. He sees a counselor (Betty Buckley) once a week as Barry, a friendly fashion designer. But other personalities aren’t so friendly. Like Dennis, a perverted OCD germaphobe. Dennis kidnaps three girls (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Anya Taylor-Joy) and locks them in a room where they are to be used as “food” for a 24th personality. Does he mean literal food? The girls don’t want to stick around long enough to find out, but they can’t escape or overpower Dennis, so they have to manipulate the other personalities into either letting them go or making a mistake that allows them to escape.

            At least, that’s what they think they need to do. I personally think they take overpowering off the table way too easily. The girls would have a 3-on-1 advantage (yes, regardless of the personalities), they’d have the element of surprise, and they might not be fighting a strong personality like Dennis. And even if they do get one of the stronger ones, James McAvoy is not exactly an imposing physical specimen (outside of obviously computer-generated body chemistry alterations for the 24th personality). The girls could take him if they coordinate the attack. But no, the Taylor-Joy character convinces the other two that they need to play along and work with the personalities, not against them. And we’re supposed to side with her because she’s the “smart,” “patient,” “strategic” one and the other two are panicky and dumb. It’s a bad strategy, it’s doesn’t get them anywhere, and it’s just an excuse for the girls to interact with Kevin so McAvoy can chew some scenery as the various personalities.

            The good news is that it’s highly enjoyable to see the other personalities. McAvoy nails the performance(s), especially as mischievous 9-year-old Hedwig, who adds some much-needed highly-uncomfortable comedy to the film. He’s also fun as the prim-and-proper Patricia, whose idea of deviation is paprika in a sandwich. I could have done without bookworm Orwell (we get it, you’re smart, could you please go two seconds without an obscure historical reference), but he’s not in it for very long. This is a movie that revolves around one actor, and McAvoy was definitely the right man for the job.

            “Split” works when it’s an actor’s showcase for James McAvoy, but not so much as a kidnapping thriller. The psychologist character isn’t compelling, the decisions by the victims are inexplicable, and the difference-maker at the end has a weird bad-things-will-pay-off-later karma to it that’s like an even more rotten version of the infamous ending to “Signs” (not the water-aversion bit, thankfully). Then there’s the twist at the very end, which plays less like a Shyamalan twist and more like a something out of the MCU. It’s better than the average January movie and way better than the average post-“Signs” Shyamalan movie, just otherwise it’s just an average movie.

 

Two Stars out of Five

1:34 am edt 

"La La Land

            I’m writing this a little over a week before the Oscar nominations are announced, and there are three movies that I can safely say are a lock for Best Picture: “Moonlight,” “Manchester by the Sea,” and “La La Land.” And of these three, “La La Land” is by far the most likely to win. Simply put, it’s the biggest spectacle. It’s the flashiest, with gimmicky goodies around every corner; goodies like bright colors and trick camera work and of course, musical numbers.

            Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star as a couple of starry-eyed kids struggling to make it in Hollywood. Mia (Stone) is an actress, and while there are thousands of jobs every day for actresses in Hollywood, there are zillions of actresses. She needs a way to separate herself from the pack. Sebastian (Gosling) has something of the opposite problem. He’s a jazz pianist and there doesn’t seem to be any demand for jazz pianists. But he’s happy to suffer for his art. In fact, everybody is happy to suffer. This is a movie where a freeway traffic jam leads to the sunniest opening musical number you can imagine. It’s called, appropriately, “Another Day of Sun” and it will make you forget about the very concept of sadness.

            As you would expect, after some initial animosity Mia and Sebastian fall in love. The two fill each other with passion, and that passion spills over into their careers. Soon they’re aiming higher than ever as they enjoy a state of near-euphoria (you could say they’re in La La Land). But it’s the aiming itself that makes them so elated, not the follow-through. The reality of their rising stars leads to more responsibilities, scheduling conflicts, extended absences, artistic compromises, miscommunications, accusations, and heartbreak. Can the relationship hold together, or will it crumble like Hollywood romances are known to do?

            The movie can do no wrong with its musical numbers. Notes from a song called “City of Stars” are heard throughout the film and will be heard in your head long after the movie is over. Stone belts out an epic called “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” that might be the most surefire Oscar-clincher since Anne Hathaway dreamed a dream in “Les Miserables.” Even the “bad” song, a commercially-successful crowd pleaser called “Start a Fire,” sung by a sellout played by John Legend, has more effort and energy than pretty much anything I’ve heard in the last year.

            The movie can, however, do a little bit of wrong in following the lives of the artists. Specifically, it’s hard to buy Gosling and Stone as struggling performers. They’ve been movie stars for so long that it’s hard to picture a Hollywood without them. It’s not their fault, really. Stone even noticeably holds back during most of her audition scenes so you can see why she wouldn’t get those specific roles. But these two can’t help but be so gorgeous and charming that to reject them seems unrealistic. If “Moonlight” and “Manchester by the Sea” want to beat this movie out for Best Picture, it would be wise to campaign as the more “flawed” and “human” choice, not that those movies wouldn’t do that anyway.

            Then again, if my biggest complaint about “La La Land” is that its two leads are too perfect, the movie must be doing something right. Most of the time it’s incredibly bouncy and fun, and its more serious and emotional moments are effective too. I can’t imagine anybody disliking this movie unless they just categorically despise musicals. If the Oscars go the way they’re expected to go, this is going to make a fine Best Picture winner.

 

Three and a Half Stars out of Five.

1:33 am edt 

"Hidden Figures"

            A lot of people were unhappy with my review of “Sing” a few weeks ago. Many wondered how I could have so much disdain for a movie with positive messages about perseverance and following your dreams. There are two main reasons: 1) That movie is considerably less positive with its messages about stealing and avoiding responsibility, and 2) There are plenty of better movies with messages about perseverance and following your dreams. One such movie is “Hidden Figures.”

            The film follows three African-American women who work at NASA in 1961. Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) is a mathematician and physicist. Mary (Janelle Monae) is a mathematician and engineer. Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) is a mathematician and essentially a supervisor, though she hasn’t gotten the appropriate promotion yet. The three work out of Langley, Virginia, during a tense time in the segregation era. They persevere and follow their dreams in order to help John Glenn (Glen Powell) make his legendary orbit around the Earth.

            The three face obstacles typical of women and African-Americans in that era. Katherine needs to make crucial calculations, but the lead engineer (Jim Parsons) won’t admit that his own work might be flawed and redacts key information. Also, the nearest colored bathroom is fifteen minutes away, so she’s forced to take forty-minute breaks that cut down on productivity. Mary needs clearance to make necessary contributions, but can only do so if she gets permission from a judge to take a course at an all-white school. Dorothy’s contributions as supervisor are marginalized by her boss (Kirsten Dunst), plus she needs to get off-limits books from a segregated library so she can learn how to program the monstrosity of an IBM computer that itself is threatening to put all the mathematicians out of jobs. On top of all that, they’re trying to put an astronaut into orbit, which is hard enough without all the added obstacles.

            The film is typical of the “inspirational” genre, which unfortunately makes it very predictable. Not predictable as in “You know John Glenn is going to complete his orbit” or “You know these women aren’t going to be kept down,” but predictable in that the story hits all the expected beats like clockwork. It’s easy to tell exactly when the characters are going to face obstacles, when they’ll get around those obstacles, when they’ll achieve minor victories, when they’ll face new obstacles, when things will look hopeless, when they’ll have those “aha” moments that set them on the path to a solution, when they’ll change the world, etc.

            Another distracting thing about the movie is that its version of sexism and especially racism in the South in 1961 is perhaps a little over-sanitized. This is the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and things never get any more derogatory than a few pejorative uses of “you.” I know the movie needs to go light on the hatred and epithets to bring in family crowds, but it feels inauthentic that it’s not more disquieting.

            “Hidden Figures” plays things a bit safe for my taste, but that’s to broaden its appeal, and it’s very appealing indeed. Whose heart isn’t going to turn to butter when Katherine schools her colleagues in quantum mathematics or when Mary makes an impassioned plea to a judge or when the program’s director (Kevin Costner) takes a sledgehammer to a restrictive bathroom sign, not to mention all the celebrating at the accomplishments of the landmark space program? If you see this movie with kids, all their cheering will make you forgive the film for being middling by adult standards.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five

1:31 am edt 

"Sing!"

            “Sing” is an animated kids’ movie for kids who are tired of “Moana.” At least, I hope its audience is kids who are tired of “Moana.” Otherwise, it’s getting business that “Moana” should be getting. Parents, if your kids want to see “Sing” and they haven’t seen “Moana” at least twice already, try to steer them to that.

            Matthew McConaughey stars as Buster Moon, a koala who owns a huge theater that has fallen on hard times. He plans to save the theater by holding a singing competition. The contest is a huge hit with a line of hopefuls stretching around the block, but only because they think the prize is $100,000 instead of the measly $1,000 that Moon can actually offer.

            Moon winnows the field down to six acts, which at five minutes apiece is going to give him a thirty-minute show instead of the epic he needs, unless he’s planning 90+ minutes of ads. Seriously, there’s no reason Moon couldn’t narrow it down to something in the double digits and then contrivances of the film could see all but five drop out. The five main singers are…

 

-Johnny (Taron Egerton) is a big tough gorilla with a sensitive side who wants to be a singer instead of a career criminal like his father. He shies away from the criminal lifestyle because singing is attractive and not because of moral objections. Or at least the movie forgets to give him moral objections, which would be better for his character.

 

-Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is a pig housewife with 25 kids who needs some passion back in her life. She’s paired with the overly-passionate Gunter (Nick Kroll), who loves to wiggle around in skintight outfits for PG laughs. She puts her family life on hold for the competition, leading to the creation of a wacky breakfast contraption. As routine as this movie is, I’m always up for a wacky breakfast contraption.

 

-Ash (Scarlett Johansson) is a teenage porcupine who’s out of her element performing as a solo act instead of in a duo with her loser boyfriend. She has a “punk rock” gimmick, which I scoffed at until she started spraying quills out into the crowd. Shooting hazardous projectiles at fans is admittedly a pretty punk move.

 

-Mike (Seth MacFarlane) is a mouse who takes after Sinatra. He’s a little animal, but he’s got big dreams and an even bigger chip on his shoulder. Of all the main characters, he’s probably been used the least in the film’s advertising, which is a shame because the fast-talking hustler is the most consistently funny outside of Moon’s dotty lizard assistant (Garth Jennings, the film’s director).

 

-Meena (Tori Kelly) is an elephant who is the most physically imposing and the most shy to perform (which is awfully similar to Johnny’s persona, come to think of it). She’s so shy, in fact, that she runs out of her audition without singing a single note of Sia’s “Chandelier,” which is my favorite song of this decade and made me spend the rest of the movie wondering if she was going to come back to it (she doesn’t). It’s a bad idea to spend so much of the movie not letting Meena sing because she’s arguably the most talented and there’s no point in keeping us in suspense about Grammy nominee Kelly’s voice. The kids at my screening went crazy for her, giving her a well-deserved ovation for her version of the late Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

 

            “Sing” is only 108 minutes long, but it felt like forever because the story is so predictable that I was waiting impatiently for it to hit the necessary plot points. Most of the jokes and songs are okay, but they’re not enough to save the movie from being uninspired overall. Kids who don’t recognize the formula will probably like it, but there are better options out there, like “Moana” in theaters and “Zootopia” at home.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

1:27 am edt 

"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story"

            “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” takes place between Episodes III and IV of the official “Star Wars” series. It answers the question of how Princess Leia came to be in possession of the plans for the Death Star at the beginning of Episode IV. It also answers the question of why the Death Star was built with a convenient “Destroy Entire Death Star” feature. So it serves to fill in a few blanks. And yet “Rogue One” feels like an entirely useless movie. Not only is it hard to get invested in aspects of the story that we know won’t continue, but it quickly becomes apparent that those aspects aren’t worth continuing anyway.

            Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso, the daughter of engineer Gelen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who is being forced to work on the Death Star by the evil Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) of the Empire. She’s recruited by the Rebels to go on a mission to track down her father, who they plan to assassinate. She’s accompanied by Rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his wisecracking robot K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). First she has to track down old family friend Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker) and while on his planet, the team adds blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donny Yen), short-tempered warrior Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), and turncoat pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). After some twists and turns and betrayal and heartbreak, the team finds themselves on a mission to steal the plans for the Death Star out from under Krennic’s nose.

            This movie does special effects right, I’ll give it that. Especially commendable is the way CGI is used to recreate some classic characters, one of whom was played by an actor who’s been dead for over twenty years. These type of effects can become creepy and laughable very easily, but as far as I could tell the movie does it seamlessly. I actually thought they were somehow using old footage before I learned that it was new actors with CGI makeup. Elsewhere, everything from aliens to spaceships to entire action sequences would be right at home in the series proper. From this standpoint, I can see why the filmmakers thought they had a hit here.

            But then the movie hits a brick wall when it comes to its script, and in particular its new characters. I could not bring myself to care one iota about Jyn, Andor, Gerrera, or Krennic. This despite Forrest Whitaker having an Oscar, Ben Mendelsohn having an Emmy, and Felicity Jones frankly being better than her Oscar-winning costar Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything.” Lower-tier cast members like Tudyk and Ahmed fare better, stealing scenes as expected, but the film doesn’t have memorable characters or performances where it needs them. Instead it relies too much on lazy fan service. One cameo proves to be a powerful presence, but all the others are there just for the sake of being there. It really makes you appreciate “The Force Awakens” and how it came up with interesting and meaningful roles for all of its returning characters.

            “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” was clearly made with a “don’t get too attached to them” attitude toward its original characters and it backfires badly. I was cheering at the end, not because of an emotional connection, but because I was glad to be done with this insufferable offshoot forever. It’s a shame too, because the technical aspects of this movie are excellent and deserve a story worthy of them. I think that about 90% of the people who worked on this movie were happy and honored to be working on a “Star Wars” project, but the writers and cast were secretly resentful that they weren’t working on an installment of the main series, so like Erso, they sabotaged their own work.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

1:25 am edt 

"Office Christmas Party"

            For years, I thought that Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, and Courtney B. Vance all seemed like nice people. I know nobody’s perfect, but I didn’t have any problems with them. Now having seen them in “Office Christmas Party,” I have to assume that they are in fact horrible people. They’re not necessarily horrible because they did this movie, but they’re horrible because of something they did before this movie. They did something horrible and now have to do this movie as part of a blackmail.

The setup is that computer company CEO Carol (Aniston) is ready to shut down the branch run by her emptyheaded brother Clay (T.J. Miller) unless he can land major client Walter Davis (Vance). Davis is reluctant to do business with the company because he correctly senses that they have a morale problem. Clay decides to impress Davis by inviting him to a huge Christmas party so he can see that everyone is happy. He enlists CTO Josh (Bateman, giving a particularly disinterested performance) and tech head Tracey (Olivia Munn) to help him. Tracey is game, but Josh would rather just wallow in self-pity over his recent divorce and pine after Tracey. Josh isn’t exactly sold on the idea, and frankly I didn’t get the impression that Clay really thinks it’s going to work. It’s just an excuse for him (and the movie) to throw a wild party and maybe write it off as a business expense.

The party scenes are exactly what you would expect from an R-rated comedy about office workers cutting loose. There’s drinking and drugs and hookups and people going to the bathroom in inappropriate places. This is the kind of movie that banks really hard on you laughing at awkward dancing, lewd misuse of office copiers, and people using loads of profanity when they’re people who shouldn’t be using profanity. And yes, we get the obvious gag where an illegal substance is treated like snow. Such is the kind of cheap joke this movie relies on.

More than being unfunny, this movie is just lazy. Most of the antics and dialogue look like they were invented on the day of filming. There are funny people in this movie, not just the ones I already mentioned, but also Kate McKinnon; Vanessa Bayer; Rob Corddry; Randall Park; Karan Soni; Jillian Bell; Fortune Feimster; and others. But no matter how funny these people are with decent material, they can’t save the lame situations they’ve been given. And that’s when they’ve even been told what to do and not just told that they’re so funny that whatever pops into their head on the first take will be fine. It’s no surprise that there is a reel of outtakes over the credits of this movie. The cast was clearly filmed going through hundreds of poorly-considered jokes and then the editors chose the “best” ones without concerning themselves with getting the “right” ones.

The good news about “Office Christmas Party” is that it goes for such a high quantity of jokes that a few of them have to work. The big names, especially Bateman, know they’re above this material, but many of the lower-tier players are hungry enough that they give energetic performances and compete with each other over who gets to “steal” the movie (my pick is Bell as a pimp who’s out to prove that she’s capable of both kindness and cruelty). But this movie brings nothing new to the “party spirals out of control” genre and it certainly isn’t going to fill you with holiday cheer. Give yourself an early Christmas present and go see something else.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

1:24 am edt 

"Arrival"

            “Arrival” opened three weeks ago to some of the best reviews of the year and Best Actress Oscar talk for Amy Adams. The problem was that the film was weirdly limited in its release, playing on only 2,300 screens in the country when most new wide releases play on over 3,000. I didn’t see it then because it opened with less money than the second weekend of “Trolls.” I didn’t see it the last two weeks because it got creamed by the opening weekends of “Moana” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” And now that I have seen it (as it has expanded to 2,900 screens), I have to say that I don’t see why it’s getting so much praise.

            The film sees Earth visited by aliens that don’t behave like typical movie aliens. For starters, they never leave their ships because they can’t handle the planet’s air and gravity. Humans have to come aboard their ships once every 18 hours, go through a nauseating gravitational shift, use a cruel old-fashioned method of determining if the air is breathable, and talk to the aliens from behind glass. The aliens also don’t touch down at national landmarks, with the one American vessel of their 12-vessel fleet hovering a few feet above rural Montana. Perhaps most importantly, they haven’t yet invented one of those universal translator devices that lets us hear them in English. We’re going to have trouble communicating with them, and it’s going to lead to some misunderstandings.

            Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) is called in to help with that last part. She’s a linguistics professor enlisted by the military to interact with the aliens and try to understand their language, which takes the form of entire sentences written as circles with no definite beginning or end. She and her partner Dr. Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) spend months teaching and learning basic concepts like “Hello” and “Human.” Experts working with aliens who settled over China believe that the aliens told them to use a weapon, which might mean that they plan to use a weapon on humans or that they want humans to use weapons on each other. Louise thinks that the more malicious interpretations are too much of a stretch given the aliens’ apparent peacefulness. She thinks that by “weapon,” the aliens mean “tool” or maybe “gift.”

            The film has been praised for its complexity, how it doesn’t give viewers all the answers, forcing them to think for themselves. I’m pretty sure that this doesn’t refer to the leap in logic of how the Chinese apparently taught the aliens the concept of “weapon” without also teaching them “tool” so that they’d know the difference. More likely it refers to a subplot about Louise having visions of raising a daughter who dies of an illness. Did this happen in the past? The future? A possible future? A separate timeline? Does it hold the key to the aliens’ purpose now? Those are the deep questions posed by the movie, which challenges the characters’ (and the audience’s) conception of time.

            I don’t mind that chunks of “Arrival” are missing or non-linear. I do mind that the film is so in love with a twist at the end that the characters are practically winking to each other over how clever it is. But that’s not my biggest problem with the movie, my biggest problem is that it’s slow. I know I’m supposed to admire Louise for being patient when the rest of the world is ready to lose its head, but this movie desperately needs to put a spring in its step. It’s not bad by any stretch; it does play with some interesting concepts, it is successful with its dry humor, and the performances and special effects are all respectable (love those spaceships shaped like Go stones), though perhaps not as award-worthy as I was led to believe. Maybe my expectations were unrealistic after three weeks of constant critical commendation.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

1:22 am edt 

"Moana"

            Much has been made of Disney’s hot streak in 2016. They’ve already had hits with “Zootopia;” “The Jungle Book;” “Captain America: Civil War;” “Finding Dory;” and “Doctor Strange,” plus “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is set to dominate Christmas. Now here comes “Moana,” and it’s the best one yet.

What puts the film over the top is its incredible main character. I could compliment Moana all day for being “strong,” “smart,” “brave,” “independent” and so on. But honestly, this isn’t anything new for Disney. They realized a long time ago that they were synonymous with vapid princesses, and for decades they’ve been writing female characters with the intention of bucking that stereotype. In fact, I dare say they’ve been overcompensating, going so far as to name an entire movie after one of those basic admirable qualities (“Brave”).

Don’t get me wrong, Moana is strong and independent and all of those things. But there’s another word that perfectly describes Moana: Moana. Voice actress Auli’i Cravalho, in conjunction with the film’s writers and animators, genuinely conveys that the character’s thoughts, opinions, words, and actions are all her own. There’s a scene in this movie where she gets mad at the ocean and yells “Hey! What?” This rhetorical cry could have easily been filler, but she brings such attitude to the line, you’ll think the ocean owes her an answer.  

Moana goes on an adventure to save her family’s island in the Pacific when its resources start to dwindle. The island has been cursed as a result of some confusing mythology. She needs to find the deposed demigod Maui, help him recover his magical hook, and help him restore a lost treasure to its rightful place. She finds Maui only to discover that he’s not too keen on the mission. He’s quick to brag about all the favors he’s done for humanity in the past, but he thinks he’s done everything he needs to do. Maui is voiced by Dwayne Johnson, and yes, the movie gives us the Dwayne Johnson musical number you didn’t know you needed.

Speaking of musical numbers, this movie has one of those soundtracks that is going to endure for years. There’s “You’re Welcome,” the catchy Dwayne Johnson boast piece. “Shiny” is a decent villain song from a greedy giant hermit crab (Jemaine Clement). “We Know the Way” is a breezy ode to voyaging, sung non-diegetically by Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton.” Then there’s a song sung by Moana called “How Far I’ll Go.” If you’re a parent, the good news is that this song will make your kids forget all about that other Disney song with the word “Go” in the title. The other good news is that it’s an excellent song, rousing and empowering and making you appreciate Cravalho as Moana even more. But the bad news is that by the thousandth time, you’ll be wishing it was forgettable

Other scene-stealing elements that warrant a quick mention include Moana’s dotty grandmother (Rachel House) who’s secretly the smartest person on the island, her dimwitted pet chicken who gets a laugh every time he shows up on screen, Maui’s sentient body tattoos, the ocean itself being a character, and adorable coconut pirates who might be Disney’s attempt to hone in on the Minions market. There’s awesome stuff everywhere you look in this movie. My quibbles are minor: the film goes a little too heavy on the mythology; Moana and Maui’s “odd couple forced to travel together” act seems a tad tired; and I could have done without a lame pandering joke when we first meet Maui. But all those things are easily forgiven within the first few notes of “How Far I’ll Go.” I’d like to thank the team behind “Moana” for putting out another Disney animated classic, and although Moana is the best character in this movie, something tells me Maui will be the first to say “You’re Welcome.”

 

Three and a Half Stars out of Five.

1:20 am edt 

"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them"

            “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” should have been a book first. Yes, I know it was, sort of. A fake “Harry Potter”-themed textbook about magical creatures came out in 2001, written by “Newt Scamander” (actually J.K. Rowling). Now we’re getting a five-part movie series about Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and how he came to write the book, and all five movies are to be written by Rowling. Of course, the “Harry Potter” series found worldwide success as books turned into movies. With “Fantastic Beasts,” she’s skipping right to the movie stage, and the franchise is worse for it.

            The film takes place in the 1920s when British wizard Scamander visits New York City. The brilliant-but-clumsy researcher lugs around a broken suitcase that is clearly filled with animals. A few creatures escape, and he has to adventure through the city to get them back. Goofy misunderstandings force him to partner up with local non-wizard or “Nomaj” Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and disgraced former magical police officer or “Auror” Tina (Katherine Waterston) who simultaneously wants to help Scamander and arrest him to restore her credibility with the Magical Congress of the United States. Scamander is going to be in hot water when high-ranking Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) finds out that he’s been so negligent. Then again, the Congress may not have time to deal with Scamander. They have to deal with a series of attacks from a destructive black cloud called an Obscurus, an anti-magic movement led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), and the possibility that the dark wizard Grindelwald is somewhere in the city.

            We are, mostly through Kowalski’s perspective, introduced to the wizarding world of this place and time. We also get to meet some exciting new magical creatures, some able to walk around in everyday society, but most contained in Scamander’s magical suitcase, which it turns out is spacious enough to house an entire ecosystem. It’s enough to make you wonder why Scamander doesn’t secure the latches better. It’s definitely enough to make me wonder why I’m supposed to be rooting for someone who’s so careless with well-meaning-but-dangerous animals. I am not won over by Scamander’s “charming bumbler” act. He needs to get a hold on his Fantastic Beasts and then Find Them a place where they can’t bother anyone.

            What makes me say that this movie should have been a book first? In a word, detail. The “Harry Potter” world was so successful because there was a new detail around every corner, from characters to settings all manner of magical objects. But Rowling had more than 3,000 pages in which to explain and develop these details. Here too the world is filled with details, but it’s all limited to 133 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, a lot is covered in those 133 minutes, but it still feels rushed and underdone. Perhaps releasing a book first would mean that we could watch this movie and instinctively think “oh, that’s such and such, I know how it fits into this world, so I’m not going to ask too many questions” instead of wanting to know the backstory of a new detail every thirty seconds.

            I have to be honest, I don’t see “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” earning the same following as “Harry Potter.” Granted, that’s a tall if not impossible order, and a lukewarm performance might be tolerable were we not locked in for four more movies. But as it is I don’t like Newt Scamander, the special effects aren’t where they need to be (the beasts are creatively designed and decently animated, but at no point do they look like they’re sharing the same space as the live-action actors), and the world falls short of being immersive. I’m not exactly dreading the next four movies, but I’m hoping that this is the only disappointing one out of the five.

 

Two Stars out of Five

1:19 am edt 

"Trolls"

            Of all the surefire blockbusters of 2016, “Trolls” was probably the one I was dreading the most. If you’re a parent whose kids are this film’s target audience, you’ve probably been dreading it too. This is a film designed to revive an annoyingly cute toy line that we all thought we had left in the past. And the early trailers didn’t help: nauseatingly colorful little goofs with their trademark wispy hair dancing up a storm. Every adult knows that the most sickening part of animated kids’ movies, even the good ones, is the inevitable dance party at the end. The bad news is that “Trolls” is every bit the buffet of cinematic junk food you think it is. The good news is that you go numb to it pretty quickly, and then you can appreciate the things the movie does right.

            Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) throws a big obnoxious party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her father (Jeffrey Tambor) saving the entire troll race from being eaten by their mortal enemy, the hideous Bergens. An unhappy troll named Branch (Justin Timberlake) warns her that if the party is too bright and loud, it will lead the remaining Bergens right to them. Poppy brushes him off, throws the party, and watches as her friends are carried off by the Bergens’ royal chef (Christine Baranski), who was banished for letting the trolls escape 20 years ago and is now bent on redemption and revenge.

            The airheaded Poppy has at least inherited her father’s determination to never leave a troll behind, so she sets out on a mission to save her friends. But she can’t do it alone, so she drags survivalist Branch along to help her. The two don’t get along at first, because she’s an optimist and he’s a pessimist. Also, she loves to sing and he hates it. Everybody who actually thinks that the character voiced by Justin Timberlake won’t love singing by the movie’s end, please do a backflip now.

Poppy and Branch hatch a plan to save the captured trolls by helping a lowly Bergen kitchen maid named Bridget (Zooey Deschanel) woo her crush, the miserable King Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who is perpetually unhappy because he’s never gotten to eat a troll. Maybe if Poppy and Branch can help Bridget and Gristle fall in love, they won’t need to eat trolls to be happy and then everybody can be happy without anybody getting eaten. Everybody, that is, except the poor chef who was just as troll-hungry as everyone else in the kingdom and had to be homeless for 20 years. The movie can’t think of an outcome where she can be happy, so it just treats her as a villain unworthy of happiness.

            The story is entirely predictable, from the celebrations to the hardships to the supposed twists to the gradual relationship between Poppy and Branch. Along the way there are musical numbers and hair gags aplenty. Some of the songs are fun (I laughed heartily when Poppy took a request literally), but this movie can’t come up with nearly as many interesting things to do with hair as say, “Tangled.” Much more imaginative is the danger that Poppy and Branch face on their way to the Bergen kingdom. A wide variety of creatures want to eat the trolls, but they’re so greedy that they end up eating each other. This leads to some delightfully dark humor, as the filmmakers probably wanted to reward themselves for putting up with so much cutesiness in other scenes.

            “Trolls” is mostly kiddie stuff, though adults will be able to appreciate a handful of scenes. I’m not saying it ever gets to that next level where adults can watch it by themselves and find value in it, but it shows occasional flashes of brilliance. And I’m not above saying that a tiny bit of the constant happiness is infectious.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

1:17 am edt 


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