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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians

            For about a year now, I’ve been hearing about the impending release of “Crazy Rich Asians”. I tried to get into an advance screening last week, but it was sold out on two screens. I was almost shut out of a Wednesday screening this week, but I was able to get one of about a dozen remaining seats with over 90 minutes until showtime. Clearly this was going to be an event movie, and since I knew it was based on a series of books, I likened it to “The Hunger Games” or “Twilight”. The film’s national box office ultimately fell well short of those other franchises, but in a way it did remind me of them. Stay tuned to the end to find out how.

            The story follows humble, hardworking NYU professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) as she travels to Singapore to meet the family of her seemingly equally humble boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding). Surprise, surprise, it turns out that the Young family is one of the wealthiest families in all of Asia. Not only is Rachel going to spend the weekend in the lap of luxury, but Nick is in line to take over the family business, and it looks like a proposal is on the horizon. She may be on the verge of a lifetime of crazy richness.

            With the story needing some sort of conflict, it isn’t all about first-class flights and mansion parties. Rachel wants desperately to impress Nick’s family, especially his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) and grandmother (Lisa Lu). And why shouldn’t they like her? She’s armed with a fluency in Cantonese and an inspiring story about overcoming adversity to become a respected educator. But no, Eleanor subtly hints (and sometimes outright says) that she doesn’t approve of Rachel for various reasons: that she seems too driven by her career to want to raise a family, that she’s American and Western culture promotes selfishness, that she’s not rich and in fact from a highly questionable background. But it’s really about how no woman will ever be good enough for her baby.

            Rachel doesn’t just have to worry about Eleanor, she has to contend with a whole public perception that she’s only dating Nick for his money. She has to put up with accusations of gold-digging from Nick’s extended family and circle of “friends”, most of whom are moochers and gold-diggers themselves. But she does have a few people in her corner. Nick’s kindly cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) makes time for Rachel despite some drama in her own life. Nick’s less-respected cousin Oliver (Nico Santos) helps her find the right look for a friend’s wedding. Rachel’s best friend Goh (Awkwafina) advises her to stand up to Eleanor to earn her respect. And of course Rachel’s mother (Tan Kheng Hua) is always there for support.

            Characters like these make “Crazy Rich Asians” an enjoyable movie. And the spoiled, meaner characters are at least fun to detest. And the two leads are no slouches either. And even the often-chilly Eleanor is never portrayed as monstrous or unloving. What I’m saying is that there’s a long list of affable characters in this movie. I want to see what happens with them next, even if their adventures here aren’t really for me. It’s not “bad”, it’s just pretty by-the-numbers lighthearted romance stuff. But as with “The Hunger Games” and especially “Twilight”, the material was elevated by the infectious reaction of fans in the crowd. You try calling a movie middling when it’s garnering applause every other minute, it can’t be done. Both the movie and experience of watching it are just so much fun that it can be forgiven for not really covering any new ground.

 

Grade: B-

7:42 pm edt 

The Meg

            Early on in “The Meg”, it occurred to me that sharks just aren’t very scary. I don’t mean this movie’s shark (although some unconvincing CGI doesn’t help), but all sharks. Their teeth are always so small in proportion to the rest of their mouths that they don’t register the way they’re supposed to, and their eyes and faces perpetually have this expression that tells me they’re just minding their own business. Even definitive scary shark movie “Jaws” knew to keep actual shots of the creature to a minimum or else people would stop taking it seriously (and the legendary deficiency of the mechanical shark certainly didn’t help). So this movie is already hurt by being a monster movie with a nonthreatening monster.

            Jason Statham stars as Jonas Taylor, an underwater rescuer in need of redemption. We see his initial failure at the beginning of the movie, where he’s forced to leave two colleagues behind to die. The sequence is so choppy and poorly-edited that when another colleague rhetorically asks “What have you done?” I was actually wondering what exactly he had done. A few years later, a team of scientists is trapped at a point lower than any human has ever travelled before. Jonas is called upon to rescue them, but only agrees because one of the scientists is his ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee). The mission is partially successful, but the rescue allows a 70-foot, previously-thought-extinct Megalodon to escape from its icy tomb at the bottom of the sea. Now it’s up to Jonas and his ragtag team of unprepared scientists to save the world from the horror they’ve unleashed.

            The team includes Jonas’s old friend Mac (Cliff Curtis), his old detractor Heller (Robert Taylor), techie Jaxx (Ruby Rose), aquaphobic crewman DJ (Page Kennedy), unscrupulous billionaire Morris (Rainn Wilson), world-renowned oceanographer Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao), Zhang’s brilliant daughter Suyin (Bingbing Li), and Suyin’s adorable daughter Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai). Disappointingly, several of these characters are given very little to do. It’s easy to forget that Mac, Jaxx, and DJ are even in this movie until they get knocked into the water and become potential chum. The movie, rather predictably, throws in a romance between Jonas and Suyin, but the two have very little chemistry. I would have much rather seen Jonas rekindle his relationship with Lori, effectively repairing his life both below and above the surface.

            The action sequences are entirely what you’d expect from a movie like this. Jonas’s rescue of Lori and her team is supposed to be harrowing because there’s a bunch of lights and alarms warning of an impending breach, but the situation never looked that dire to me. The crew sets off on a few missions to destroy the Meg, but you know they’re not going to be successful because it’s early and we haven’t yet gotten to the much-hyped scene where the shark invades a crowded public beach. For that sequence and others, just pick out a minor character and see if they survive. For example, what do you think the odds are for that chubby kid on the raft who always has an ice cream bar in his hand? Will the movie protect him because he’s a child, or will it feel that one protected youngster in Meiying is enough for one film? My fear of being wrong is way more intense than any fear the stupid shark can drum up.

            “The Meg” knows that it’s not a good movie, so it’s trying to market itself as a self-aware bad-but-fun movie. The problem is that it lacks the creativity or charisma to pull of that kind of identity. It comes close a few times, in scenes where Statham, Wilson, or Cai are having fun with the movie’s blatant badness, but those moments are fleeting. I know August isn’t the best time for new releases, but you don’t need to waste your money on “lesser of several evils” movies like “The Meg” when there are actual good movies like “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” still playing.

 

Grade: D

7:40 pm edt 

Christopher Robin

            Sometimes it’s best just to stay in one’s comfort zone. Believe me, I know all the counterarguments: “Playing it safe is boring,” “You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t push yourself” and of course, “No risk, no reward.” “Christopher Robin” takes a risk by taking Winnie the Pooh and his friends out of their familiar setting of the Hundred-Acre Wood and transporting them to the real world. And the whole time I couldn’t stop thinking that the characters should have just stayed in the Wood. The real world would have been spared from their irritating presence and we would have been spared from this unnecessary movie.

            The story is that Christopher Robin, human ambassador to the Hundred-Acre Wood, eventually gets to an age where he has to go to boarding school and leave all his stuffed companions behind. He promises he’ll never forget his friends, but life takes its toll on him, first with school, then with the death of his father, then with a wife and daughter, then with a war, and now with a career at a struggling luggage company. Grown-up Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) is an unhappy pencil-pusher who doesn’t have time for something as important as family, let alone his glorified imaginary friends from childhood.

            But one day Pooh (Jim Cummings) finds himself in a situation he can’t handle and decides to take an unprecedented journey to London to seek out help from Christopher Robin, who himself is over his head dealing with a budget crisis. He’s none too thrilled to see the silly old bear, but resolves to return him to the entrance to the Hundred-Acre Wood in the country. When he gets there, he’s greeted by other old friends like Tigger (Cummings again), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Owl (Toby Jones), and my personal favorite, Eeyore (Brad Garrett, in what I cannot believe is his first turn at the famously morose character). After confirming that adult Christopher is not, in fact, a dreaded Heffalump, the critters resolve to help him with his adult problem, even if it means stepping outside their comfort zone…

            Probably the biggest problem with the movie is that I just couldn’t bring myself to cheer for things that I know are supposed to be cheered. For example, I know I’m supposed to sympathize with Pooh because he’s friendly and well-meaning, but I’m sorry, he has no business inserting himself into social situations where he’s well out of his depth. Having a play date with Pooh and having him as company when there’s urgent work to be done are two vastly different things. It seems like all he does for half the movie is whine about hunger and boredom and other trivial inconveniences while Christopher Robin has to worry for the both of them. And speaking of Christopher Robin, I’m not terribly invested in him saving his soul-crushing job. It’s a toxic work environment and he’d be better off without it, which is good because he’s probably going to be unemployed once they run the math on his “miraculous” last-minute plan to save the company. Another problem is that 2018 has already given us a far superior film about a clumsy stuffed bear in London with an addiction to a sticky substance (marmalade instead of “hunny”). “Paddington 2” is my favorite movie of the year thus far, and it’s hard not to see this film as a pale imitator. Seriously, this movie is quite pale, there’s no vibrancy to its color palate.

            The best I do for “Christopher Robin” is compliment the movie on what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t force the beloved “Winnie the Pooh” characters to be cynically “relevant” like you see in lesser kids’ movies. There’s no rapping or break dancing or pop culture references or crude jokes about Pooh’s name or his habit of not wearing pants. It really is trying to be a sweet movie, it’s just coming up short because the decision to take Pooh out of the Hundred Acre Wood is a risk that doesn’t pay off.

 

Grade: C-

7:39 pm edt 

Mission Impossible - Fallout

            Like any proper franchise, “Mission: Impossible” has to up the ante with each new installment. This concept means different things to different people. Maybe it means that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team are up against their most diabolical villain yet. Maybe it means their challenge is the hardest-to-crack yet. But “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” knows that what the majority of fans want is the best action yet. The film certainly gives us the “most” action yet – it’s the better part of three hours if you include trailers – but it’s also action of the highest quality, and the highest craziness.

            I won’t give myself a migraine trying to recap the plot, just know that the world is in danger and it’s up to Hunt and his team to do their secret agent thing and save it. Hunt is flanked by his longtime cohorts Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg), former enemy Hunley (Alec Baldwin) helps the team briefly, and eventually old MI6 ally Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) tenuously joins in. Also returning is Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the villain from the last movie, who needs to be kept alive for purposes of trading. New to the game are CIA director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett), top agent August Walker (Henry Cavill), and black market broker White Widow (Vanessa Kirby). The players bounce around in typical spy movie fashion, with some secretly having their own allegiances and agendas. This is the kind of movie where you know there will be a lot of twists, so the fact that there are a lot of twists is ironically predictable, even boring.

            Before I get into the action, let me say that the film succeeds on levels other than action. The dry humor with Cruise works, the broad humor with Pegg works. There’s some stirring material on the relationship between Hunt and his ex-wife (Michelle Monaghan). As this is a “Mission: Impossible” movie, there are a few twists where characters disguise themselves with latex masks of other people. These scenes have a tendency to be contrived, but at least one makes for an interesting cameo. The only area where the otherwise-tight script really misses the mark is in the writing of the Cavill character, who would work better without such a brawn-over-brains approach.

            And then of course there’s the action. Before the opening titles, we get a tense shootout and an interrogation that threatens to turn unusually ugly. Then there’s a harrowing skydiving sequence where it’s clear that megastar Cruise is really jumping. Also jumping is at least one camera operator, kudos to them for their dangerous work. After that, we get a bone-crunching fistfight and an air-swooshing knifefight (kudos to the sound people as well). The bulk of the film takes place in Europe, so we get some of those close-quarters car chases where the characters (and again, the camera operators) are consistently about an inch away from catastrophe. Hunt engages in a heart-pumping foot chase in the way that only Tom Cruise can. The climax of the film involves a death-defying climb onto a helicopter, some death-defying antics with two helicopters, and a death-defying showdown on a cliff where the two helicopters are still very much in play, all while two nuclear bombs are in countdown mode. Again, it’s really Cruise doing much of the death-defying, and I’m sure the tech people are in a precarious situation as well. I’m not saying they’re being reckless, but it’s hard to tell how they pulled it all off safely.

            It’s hard to imagine a movie packing in more action than “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”. It’s even harder to imagine what the next “Mission: Impossible” movie is going to have to do to up the ante from this one. If you’re looking for an exciting summer blockbuster, this is one “Mission” you should choose to accept.

 

Grade: B

7:37 pm edt 

The Equalizer 2

            Audiences were first introduced to Denzel Washington’s take on Robert “The Equalizer” McCall back in 2014. The film, based on an obscure 80’s TV series, was okay at best, a vehicle for Washington to play a charismatic hero against the backdrop of an otherwise-uninspired action movie. The movie just barely cracked $100 million at the box office, so even though Washington could be spending his time on any number of more challenging or rewarding projects, he’s returning to this disposable franchise.

            Most of McCall’s adventures don’t follow a straight path, he just rights wrongs where he sees them. The wall of his apartment building has been vandalized? He’ll repaint it. Neighbor kid is in danger of getting sucked into a street gang? He’ll give the kid an honest job, but only after he goes to school. Turkish gangster has kidnapped his own daughter and fled the country? McCall has the CIA training to sort that out. It’s no wonder the movie is based on a TV series, because the first half of the film plays as very episodic.

Eventually we settle into a plot involving an old CIA friend of McCall’s (Melissa Leo), one that also involves his former partner (Pedro Pascal). Thanks to the Pascal character and McCall’s look into the very human life he leads, the sequel is actually better than the original. It’s not too much better – it still has a lot of the same problems like a predictable story and an overlong running time, but there’s a noticeable bump-up. Washington turns in a dexterous performance as always, so if you need a Denzel fix, go ahead and watch him Equalize a few things.

 

Grade: C

7:36 pm edt 

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

            I’m not terribly familiar with the ABBA songbook. I know about “Dancing Queen” and of course the title song, but otherwise I just think of ABBA as that one band from Sweden that isn’t Europe (they of “The Final Countdown”). But apparently we didn’t get enough ABBA in 2008’s “Mamma Mia!” so we’re getting this sequel to meet… demand?

            We catch up with Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) as she’s set to re-open the Greek hotel she inherited from her late mother Donna (Meryl Streep). That’s right, Donna has died. The trailers for this film spoiled almost every twist and turn of the plot, but they neglected to mention this bombshell we get right at the beginning. Sophie still gets to pal around with her mother’s friends (Julie Walters and Christine Baranski) and her “three dads” (Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, Pierce Brosnan), but a storm threatens to destroy the festivities. The daughter’s current story is told alongside the past adventures of her mother (played as a younger woman by Lily James), making this film the “Godfather Part II” of ABBA movie musicals. Yes, we get Streep eventually, as well as the much-hyped appearance by Cher as Sophie’s grandmother, but the “performances” are little more than cameos.

            The movie is beyond corny. I’d compare it to something you’d see at an amusement park, but I’m afraid it would demean hardworking amusement park performers. If you enjoy people jumping into overproduced ABBA musical numbers, then I’m sure you’ll find something to like here, and real quick I’ll compliment the movie on its luscious scenery and more fleshed-out relationships. But “Mamma Mia!” was hardly my cup of tea, and “Here We Go Again” tries admirably, but fails, to win me over.

 

Grade: C-

7:35 pm edt 

Hotel Transylvania 3

            I did not care for the first two “Hotel Transylvania” movies. Basically I felt that Adam Sandler’s style of humor had run its course, and even doing something as unique as applying it to animated monster movies couldn’t make it interesting again. Both films got a One and a Half Star rating out of me (the equivalent of a C- now that I use letter grades) and I remember seriously considering giving One Star to the second film. So “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation” was one of the least-anticipated viewings on my summer watchlist. Maybe it was because I was in a good mood or because the movie did something right or the very fact that I came in with such low expectations, but I actually rather enjoyed this entry.

            The new film sees widower Dracula (Sandler) trying to reenter the dating scene. His daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) mistakes his loneliness for a need for a vacation from his hotel-running duties, so she books him on a family cruise along with his father Vlad (Mel Brooks), son-in-law Johnny (Andy Samberg), and grandson Dennis (Asher Blinkoff). No need to worry about running the hotel during the break, because it seems like everyone they know is on the cruise too. There’s Frankenstein (Kevin James) and his bride Eunice (Fran Drescher), Wayne and Wanda Werewolf (Steve Buscemi and Molly Shannon), Murray the Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key, trying for all the world to sound like original voice Cee-Lo Green), Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade), the mute Blobby the Blob, and a host of other familiar faces.

            But there are also some new players in the game. Cruise director Ericka (Kathryn Hahn) immediately catches Dracula’s eye with her beauty, charm, and similar life goal of providing hospitality to monsters. There’s just one problem: she’s the great-granddaughter of notorious monster-hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan) and she hates monsters every bit as much as he does. In fact, she’s steering everyone toward Atlantis, where the plan is to kill them all by taking control of a Kraken (Joe Jonas). Also worth mentioning is that almost every servant on the ship is an upright fish (Chris Parnell). Somehow the visual of the fish talking out of a mouth that points straight up in the air is consistently funny throughout the film.

            Dracula tries wooing Ericka, but he’s awkward at every turn, not that Ericka even notices his awkwardness since she’s constantly trying to murder him. The two eventually bond in a booby-trapped shrine where he absorbs every deadly weapon the chamber has to offer (none of the weapons are a stake to the heart, so the blades and arrows are only minimally inconvenient). Ericka develops feelings for Drac, can she allow Van Helsing to wipe out monsterkind now that she loves one? What I can tell you is that the Dracula/Ericka relationship is cute, funny, and touching. Maybe I’m just a sucker for animated sequels where the single father finds love – after all, I liked the second “Despicable Me” a lot more than the first.

            I’m not saying that “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation” completely turns the franchise around. Some of the gags are groaners, especially when Sandler breaks out his tired “baby talk” schtick. We also get the return of Tinkles, the unfunny dog from the painful short that played before “The Emoji Movie”. That movie won the Razzie for Worst Picture and the short was still worse than the feature. But there’s also a lot here that works, especially compared to the first two movies. The addition of Hahn and Gaffigan certainly helps, but really it seems like everyone is upping their game, with better jokes and visuals than ever before. If there’s a “Hotel Transylvania 4”, I won’t waste too much energy dreading it like I did with this, because there’s surprisingly little here to dread.

 

Grade: B-

7:33 pm edt 

Ant-Man and the Wasp

            We last saw Scott “Ant-Man” Lang (Paul Rudd) in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” where he fought on Cap’s side, lost, and went to prison. It was briefly mentioned in this year’s “Avengers: Infinity War” that he took a plea deal where he was released in exchange for promising not to do any more superhero work, making him one of the few MCU heroes not to appear in the film. Now we’re getting “Ant-Man and the Wasp”, where we find out what’s been going on in his neck of the woods. Like a response you’d expect from a laid-back casual friend, the answer is “not much.”

            We join Lang as he’s just three days away from the end of his mandated house arrest. It’s not so bad – he’s had time to transform his house into a most impressive playground for his daughter. But his plans to peacefully serve out his sentence are threatened when he’s abducted by his old friend Hope (Evangeline Lilly). She and her father, the brilliant scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), have created a device that will allow them to enter the quantum realm, previously thought to be basically a death sentence, to rescue her long-lost mother (Michelle Pfeiffer). They need Lang’s help because he’s survived the quantum realm himself and because he saw the mother in a vision and might be able to pinpoint her location.  

            Of course there are complications. For starters, Lang can’t be away from his house or he’ll go back to prison. Also, his relationship with Hope and Hank is pretty much shot because he absconded with the Ant-Man tech in “Civil War”. More importantly, other parties want the quantum tech for themselves. A black-market tech dealer (Walton Goggins) wants it to make money, and the molecularly unstable Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) wants it to continue living. A lab accident from when she was a child causes her to fade in and out of existence, making her simultaneously vulnerable and dangerous. An old colleague of Hank’s (Laurence Fishburne) can help her control her powers, but without energy from the quantum realm, she won’t survive much longer. It’s up to Lang, reunited with his Ant-Man suit, and Hope, donning the similar Wasp suit with very little fanfare, to keep the quantum tech from falling into the wrong hands.

            Ant-Man and Wasp are of course known as small superheroes, so perhaps it’s appropriate that this is a film of small aspirations. There’s no fate-of-the-universe stakes here, it’s just a squabble over who gets to use the unproven quantum tech to save, at most, one life. That’s not the say that the characters won’t engage in fights, chases, or other action set pieces to achieve those ends, but everybody is unofficially okay with not letting the action get too far out of hand (relatively speaking, there’s still a skyscraper-sized ant suit and an actual skyscraper that can pop up at will in play). I can sort of understand the MCU wanting to go low-key with “Ant-Man and the Wasp” to balance out the enormousness of “Infinity War”, but in the process we’re losing significance. Aside from getting Ghost and the Pfeiffer and Fishburne characters into the equation, what reason does this movie really have to exist?

Part of my problem with “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is that Ant-Man is a silly superhero and we’re not far enough removed from the aggressive silliness of “Deadpool 2” (which is still in the top ten at the box office), not to mention the character’s more consequential MCU brethren in “Infinity War” (still in the top 15) for the film to feel like a breath of fresh air. This movie should have waited until, say, November, where it would have been more effective as a bridge between “Infinity War” from April and “Captain Marvel” next March. As it is, we’re getting an occasionally fun, but ultimately flimsy superhero movie that falls noticeably short of its contemporaries.

 

Grade: C-

7:33 pm edt 

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

            I never saw 2015’s “Sicario” in theaters, I only knew it by its reputation as a movie that was unfairly overlooked at the Oscars that year. I watched the film in preparation for its sequel “Day of the Soldado”, and maybe it was because the version I saw was edited for television or maybe it was because I watched it from my comfy bedroom instead of the edge of my seat in a theater, but I have to say I was not impressed. It was entirely predictable that the Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro characters would turn out to not be upstanding government agents and that the Emily Blunt character would go through a by-the-numbers disillusionment storyline. It probably didn’t help that I knew Brolin and del Toro would make it out of the movie alive since they’re in “Day of the Soldado” (Blunt’s fate was up in the air as she’s not in the sequel), so some of the suspense was unfairly killed there, but I don’t think it would have affected my enjoyment much if I didn’t know. The “Sicario” series had already wasted two hours of my time before I even saw “Day of the Soldado”, and then the new film wasted two more.

            The film sees shady operative Matt Graver (Brolin) tasked by the U.S. government to pit two Mexican drug cartels against each other in hopes that they’ll wipe each other out. Graver recruits his old friend Alejandro Gillick (del Toro) to help. Gillick, the titular Sicario (hitman), helped on the original mission because he got to get revenge on the man who killed his family. This movie needs a reason to bring Gillick back, so we get a shoddy explanation about how the original villain killed his family on orders from an unseen cartel boss from this movie.

            The plan is to kidnap Isabel (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a cartel boss, who gets the most memorable scene in the movie where she bullies her principal who’s trying to discipline her for fighting. There’s also a follow-up plan to pose as the Mexican government in a phony rescue operation so Isabel is returned to her father thinking that the other cartel is responsible. The plan goes awry when Graver and his team are betrayed by the actual Mexican government, which makes things worse for U.S.-Mexico relations. Graver is ordered by his boss (Catherine Keener) to clean up the entire operation, including eliminating Gillick and Isabel. Gillick wants to protect the child, so he hatches a plan to smuggle her into the U.S. where she can disappear. But that plan is threatened by Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), a teenager who’s an up-and-comer in the smuggling operation and knows Gillick isn’t the insignificant peasant he’s pretending to be.

            The movie goes through all the twists and turns you’d expect from a U.S. vs. Mexican cartel thriller, minus capitalizing on opportunities to develop its characters. Wait, there is one twist I didn’t expect. A character gets shot in the head and survives. The last ten minutes of the movie is that person trying to get to safety while in an unconceivable amount of pain like a cut-rate version of “The Revenant” (the 2015 film that deservedly did well at the Oscars).

There’s a lot of violence in “Sicario: Day of the Soldado”, but that doesn’t make it exciting or interesting. It just makes it hard to watch, or at least it would if the perpetrators, victims, heck, even the violence itself weren’t so bland. I can’t remember the last time I left a movie so miserable. The hacky comedies “Overboard” and “Life of the Party” back in May made me leave infuriated, but that’s not the same thing (and to be clear, this movie is not as bad as those, thanks to competence on technical levels like cinematography and editing). This movie is a two-hour joyless slog that doesn’t have the heart or personality to pull off its “uncompromising” dreariness.

 

Grade: C-

7:31 pm edt 

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

            Back in 2015, “Jurassic World” briefly set the box office record for biggest opening weekend of all time with $208 million before climbing to #3 on the overall domestic chart. It seemed as though people couldn’t get enough of dinosaurs chowing down on some arrogant human victims. Now comes “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”, which opened this past weekend to a relatively tame $150 million. People still want to see the dinos, but it’s a little less special this time. It’s a serviceable metaphor for the movie itself – the dinosaurs aren’t exactly “boring,” but we have a pretty good idea of what we can expect from their antics. The humans, on the other hand, may qualify as boring.

            Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard are back as raptor wrangler Owen Grady and dino lover Claire Dearing, respectively. Jeff Goldblum also returns as Dr. Ian Malcolm, but don’t get too excited, he only cameos to get in some soundbites for the film’s advertising. At the start of the film, the island that hosted the Jurassic World theme park is in danger from a previously-unknown active volcano. Claire desperately tries to get the government to rescue the endangered species, but they refuse to do so because the dinosaurs are owned by a corporation. At least that’s the official reason, it’s probably more because the creatures tend to show their gratitude by eating registered voters.

Salvation comes in the form of mysterious billionaire Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) and his assistant Eli Mills (Rafe Spall). They’re willing to bankroll a mission to rescue the dinosaurs from the precarious island and give them a new home in a nature preserve. Okay, everybody who believes that they’re not up to something more sinister, please do a backflip now. Still, it might be the last chance for the dinos, so Claire recruits old flame Owen as well as tough-cookie veterinarian Zia (Daniella Pineda) and whiny techie Franklin (Justice Smith) for the mission. They get to the island and Owen tries to use peaceful methods to get his old raptor friend Blue to come quietly with them, but the goons on Mills’ payroll just shoot everything with tranquilizers and stuff them in inhumane cages, leaving our heroes for dead. The dinos’ destination is not a lush preserve, but Lockwood’s estate, where they’ll be sold to the highest bidder, likely someone who will use their DNA for nefarious purposes.

The climax of the film is our heroes running around the Lockwood estate, working to protect the dinosaurs worth protecting and saving the humans worth saving. One of those humans is Lockwood’s “granddaughter” (Isabella Sermon), who was the reason why Lockwood was considered too crazy and immoral to share the company of original dino-breeder John Hammond. A lot about this portion of the movie is silly, but at this point, silliness is this movie’s friend. It wasn’t really getting anywhere taking itself seriously.

The latter half of “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”, where the carnivorous dinosaurs treat the Lockwood estate like their personal buffet (one teases a particularly heelish captor with its tail, bring new meaning to the phrase “playing with your food”) somewhat makes up for the lackluster first half. We know the reluctant Grady is going to go on the mission, we can guess who’s going to turn out to be a bad guy, and we dread everything about the annoying Franklin, yet these elements are stretched out for way too long. But the part where the dinosaurs are captured, which seems like the setup for some exciting adventures, is done almost entirely offscreen. Oh well, at least we can look forward to the inevitable devouring of a snooty auctioneer played by Toby Jones. If you’re dying for some dino action, you’ll find it here, but there’s not much that hasn’t been covered by other “Jurassic” movies.

 

Grade: C

7:30 pm edt 

Indredibles 2

            Although Pixar has never made anything I’d call a “bad” movie, they’ve had mixed results with their sequels. The second and third “Toy Story” movies are just as beloved as the original, and “Finding Dory” is the highest-grossing animated film of all time. But “Monsters University” was an addendum that seemingly nobody wanted, and the two “Cars” sequels are considered the black sheep of the studio. Still, fans were clamoring for a follow-up to “The Incredibles”, the 2004 family-of-superheroes adventure that opened the door to a world that clearly needed more exploring. It’s been a 14-year wait, but yes, this is every bit the sequel that fans have been craving.

            We join the Parr family right where we left them – ready to do battle with The Underminer (Pixar fave John Ratzenberger). Some heroic hijinks and damage to the city’s infrastructure later, and the Parrs are in trouble again for unauthorized crime-fighting. Things look dire for the family, but salvation comes in the form of a pair of tycoon siblings (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener) who want to bankroll a public comeback for Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), his wife Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), and family friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson). The catch is that they want to bring back the supers one at a time, starting with Elastigirl, which means Mr. Incredible will have to be benched for the time being. The deal is too good to pass up, so Mr. Incredible reluctantly agrees to stay home and watch the kids while Elastigirl does the hero- no, heroine work.

            Watching over three children turns out to be a more daunting task than Mr. Incredible anticipated. Teenage daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) is distraught over a crush who knows her secret identity (the situation is rectified, but the correction makes things worse on the social front). Oldest son Dash (Huck Milner) needs help with his homework, but it’s 60’s-style New Math that even his father can’t understand. And baby Jack-Jack is just starting to learn he has a plethora of superpowers, including invisibility, laser-eyes, and self-multiplication. The situation with Jack-Jack is too much for even Mr. Incredible to handle, so he “allows” costume designer Edna Mode (Brad Bird, the director of the film) to watch the baby for a bit and help him channel his powers. Elastigirl, for her part, tangles with a hypnotizing villain called The Screenslaver and meets some fellow underground supers, my favorite of which is Voyd (Sophia Bush), who can create wormholes out of thin air.

            The superhero stuff is mostly just fine, save for a few outstanding sequences like a motorcycle chase, hand-to-hand combat with strobe lighting, and especially baby Jack-Jack tussling with a masked adversary. But otherwise even the magic of Pixar can’t make up for the fact that we’ve been seeing a lot of superheroes lately, and their action-filled set pieces - monumental though they are – are beginning to become commonplace. Also, the identity of the villain is supposed to be a secret, but I found it way too easy to figure out. I guessed correctly based character descriptions that were released a few months ago.

            The strengths of “Incredibles 2” lie not with its action (though don’t get me wrong, impressive action is there if you want it), but with its family dynamic. Nelson and Hunter deserve Oscar nominations for the life and chemistry they give to their characters. I swear I heard applause after a scene of them simply having a conversation. A family dinner over Chinese takeout is equally laudable, with the kids holding their own in a debate over the ethics of illegally using their superpowers to do good. Again, the film isn’t lacking for excitement or visual gags, but some of its best moments are some of its simplest. “Incredibles 2” is everything you want from a Pixar movie – smart, funny, adorable, inspiring, painstakingly animated with excellent results, and best of all, heartfelt.

 

Grade: A-

 

7:29 pm edt 

Ocean's 8

            I think it was a mistake to call this movie “Ocean’s 8”. The modern-era “Ocean’s” series began in 2001 with “Ocean’s Eleven”, then went to “Ocean’s Twelve” in 2004, and then to “Ocean’s Thirteen” in 2007. Now the franchise is being relaunched with a female-led cast and a problematic title. 8 is about 73% of 11, and it just makes me think of the gender pay gap, which is usually reported to be around 75%. Without giving too much away, this team has enough unofficial members that “Ocean’s Fourteen” would not have been an unreasonable title. But this film’s advertising only wants to push eight actresses, so we’re stuck with a film that tells you right in its title that it’s an insufficient version of the movie you want.  

            Sandra Bullock stars as Debbie Ocean, sister to George Clooney’s master criminal Danny Ocean. Danny has supposedly passed since “Ocean’s Thirteen”, but he was totally the kind of guy who would fake his own death, so only time will tell to see if it sticks. Debbie gets paroled after five years in prison for a scam she pulled with her no-good artist boyfriend (Richard Armitage) and immediately goes back to being a drain on society: stealing makeup, conning her way into posh hotel rooms, and planning an elaborate jewelry heist. It’ll have to be a team job, requiring at least six other people.

            First up is Debbie’s longtime partner Lou (Cate Blanchett). Lou has been conning people for so long that she’s bored with it. I got the impression that the character only exists because Debbie needs to be talking to somebody during her “just got out of prison” phase. Debbie and Lou recruit suburbanite fence Tammy (Sarah Paulson), blunt hacker Nine-Ball (Rihanna), harried jeweler Amita (Mindy Kaling), lightfingered larcenist Constance (Awkwafina), and washed-up fashion designer Rose (Helena Bonham Carter). Of those five, Rose is the most interesting. She has the most backstory and we can sympathize with her as she pursues one last moment in the sun.

Together, the team plots to steal an exorbitant necklace to be worn by actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) at the annual Met Gala. Hathaway is one of the eight actresses advertised as “Ocean’s 8”, but her character seems more like a mark than an actual member of the team (think Andy Garcia in “Ocean’s Eleven”). Has the advertising made a mistake? Is there a secret eighth member of the team that the advertising doesn’t want to give away? Maybe she counts as a team member because she’s so crucial to the plan, unwitting though she may be. The answer may surprise you. It will almost definitely confuse you, but it “may” surprise you. It’s been rumored that Hathaway gives a rare villainous performance in this movie, but that’s an exaggeration, she’s no worse than Debbie and her cohorts.

            As you would expect, the heist is intricate, nail-biting, and multilayered.  Of course, if you’ve ever seen an “Ocean’s” movie (or any movie with a heist or con job), you know there’s a twist coming that means nothing is as it seems. The twist, or should I say twists, come during a sloppy sequence involving an insurance investigator (James Corden) who tries to recover the necklace. The sequence is unclear about how much time has elapsed since certain events, but given what I think is the correct interpretation, entire characters are rendered moot by the involvement of others. It also raises the question of why there is one investigation taking place when there should be two. The logistics of “Ocean’s 8” are nonsensical, too many characters are idiots, and it never quite lives up to the fun of the better Clooney installments. It’s not devoid of chemistry and cleverness, but there’s not enough. Come to think of it, I’d estimate that there’s about 8/11ths as much as there would need to be for me to recommend this movie.

 

Grade: C-

7:29 pm edt 

Adrift

            “Adrift” is two movies in one – a mushy romance and a harrowing high-seas adventure tale. I guess it’s like “Titanic” minus the large scale, $165 million from the budget, and about $550 million from its domestic gross (a generous projection based on its $11 million opening weekend). The film is opening on the weekend following “Solo”, and even though that film is performing far below expectations, it’s easy to see why many films wanted to avoid the slot. This is a movie for people who either have no interest in blockbusters or have seen too many of them lately and need a break. Oh, and people who like nautical movies I’m sure will find something to like here.

            The film stars Shailene Woodley as Tami Oldham, a drifter who hops from one gorgeous locale to the other, never truly finding meaning or happiness. Things change in Tahiti when she meets Richard (Sam Claflin), a charming sailing enthusiast. Richard loves the open sea and the exhilaration that more than makes up for the sickness, dehydration, and hallucinations that come with lengthy voyages. He loves the sea so much, in fact, that he somewhat chooses it over Tami, opting for an extensive yachting assignment to San Diego rather than taking her to Japan like she wants. The loyal Tami agrees to accompany him, and he proposes to her a few days into their trip.

            The couple’s happiness is short-lived, as they soon find themselves trapped in a hurricane. Tami goes below deck, where she’s tossed around the cabin and knocked out for over 24 hours. When she awakens, there’s no sign of Richard. Tami fears the worst, but her fiancé soon appears clinging to an overturned dinghy. With very little understanding of how to steer the damaged vessel, Tami manages to make it over to Richard and pull him onboard. His ribs are cracked and his leg is shattered, but he’s alive, sort of. Unfortunately, he can’t be of much help. It’s up to Tami to get both of them out of this situation, despite being the less knowledgeable of the two when it comes to seafaring. Through determination and a resolve she didn’t know she had, Tami eventually manages to save 100% of the people on the boat.

            The film bounces between Tami and Richard’s relationship and the peril following the hurricane. It’s a nice balance – rough scene, sweet scene, rough scene, sweet scene. It’s a good idea to structure the movie this way because neither the romance nor the stranded-at-sea storyline is anything we haven’t seen a hundred times before, so at least this movie is doing something slightly different with its presentation. The relationship is of course tested when it comes to the desperate situation, but love prevails as one might expect, or at least it lasts longer than it should.

            My grade for “Adrift” is a B-. I’m giving it that high of a grade because it’s a competent film. The filmmakers have paid a lot of attention to detail in the name of accuracy, especially when it comes to the storm and its effects. The two leads turn in decent performances too, or at least as decent as can be expected with such sappy romantic dialogue (the characters themselves draw attention to how sappy it can be at times). But I’m sorry, this just isn’t that interesting of a film. Its target audience is people like me who have to see a movie every week and will settle for this medium-sized fish in a teensy pond of new releases. It will be forgotten in a week when proper competition sends it to the depths of the box office charts.

 

Grade: B-

7:27 pm edt 

Solo: A Star Wars Story

            Too few people saw the Coen Brothers comedy “Hail, Caesar” back in 2016, but those who did witnessed a terrific breakthrough performance by actor Alden Ehrenreich. Somebody saw how well he played a cowboy from 1950’s Hollywood and decided that he’d make a great cowboy from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. And thus he was cast as a young Han Solo for a film that takes place between Episodes III and IV of the “Star Wars” series. I really liked Ehrenreich in this movie. I never felt like he was doing a Harrison Ford impression, nor did I feel like he was giving “his take” on the character. Instead, I simply saw a young Han Solo. Good on Ehrenreich for slipping so seamlessly into one of the most famous roles in movie history.

            We follow a young Han as he escapes a life of forced servitude, trying and failing to bring his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) with him. He joins the Imperial Army, but ditches them when he begins to realize that they may not be the good guys. As punishment for his desertion, he’s dropped into a pit to be fed to the hungry beast Chewbacca, but he instead curries the favor of the Wookie, the two escape together, and a lifelong friendship is born. The two team up with a crew of bandits (Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, and a creature voiced by Jon Favreau) to rob a train, but the robbery goes sideways and Solo finds himself indebted to crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), whose top lieutenant happens to be Qi’ra. Han offers to square things with Vos with another robbery and Vos agrees, provided Qi’ra comes along to supervise. Fine by Han, as this means he gets to spend time with his old friend, though he could probably do without the life-or-death ramifications.

            The movie is perfectly average by “Star Wars” standards up to this point, but things pick up when Han tries to procure a ship. He tries unsuccessfully to win the prized vessel of celebrity smuggler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) in a card game, but Lando lets him and his team borrow the Millennium Falcon anyway in exchange for a cut. It is here that we meet L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Lando’s confrontational droid navigator. The advertising for this movie has played up Han, Lando, and even Woody Harrelson’s character, but it’s the activist L3 who steals the show. She’s funny, she’s spunky, and she wants to lead a robot uprising. She can liberate my appliances any day. As for the rest of the movie: adventure, moral conflicts, betrayal, and showdowns ensue. It’s standard “Star Wars” stuff, minus unpredictability since we know that at least three characters are going to make it to canonically later installments.

            It’s hard to talk about “Solo: A Star Wars Story” at this stage without discussing its disappointing box office performance. The film has made “only” $83 million in its first three days, which by “Star Wars” standards practically makes it a flop. It doesn’t deserve to be. Ehrenreich and Glover make excellent younger versions of their iconic characters, and the newer players are much more interesting than say, “Rogue One’s” disposable ensemble. I think it comes down to the fact that this is the fourth “Star Wars” film in two and a half years and the second in less than six months. Even the most dedicated fans are starting to feel a bit burned out. Some day, when fans can watch these movies at their own pace without having to worry about the demanding nature of the release calendar, they’ll decide that this was an underrated installment. Until that time, give this movie a shot and try to find something to like among the expected chases and shady dealings.

 

Grade: B-

7:26 pm edt 

Deadpool 2

            It has been two years since “Deadpool” turned the superhero movie genre on its head with its excessively crude fourth-wall-breaking humor. There had been R-rated comic book movies before, but none had achieved its level of success. Not only was it a huge hit financially (it is the second biggest R-rated movie of all time at the domestic box office and technically the biggest worldwide), but it scored major points in its acclaim, earning a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture – Comedy or Musical, where it lost to “La La Land” in a ceremony where both that movie and “Moonlight” could win Best Picture in harmony. There was no way that kind of success would go unexploited, so here we have the first of what is sure to be many sequels in “Deadpool 2”.

            Ryan Reynolds is back as Wade “Deadpool” Wilson, the mercenary-turned-mutant with regenerative powers. At the start of the film, he and his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) are extremely happy and thinking about having children. Since superheroes are never allowed to be happy for long in these movies, she is quickly eliminated from the story. Wade turns suicidal and blows himself to smithereens, but succeeds only in blowing off his body and having to regrow it in the X-Men mansion under the disapproving eye of Colossus (Stefan Kapicic). By the way, that’s another box office record “Deadpool” holds – it’s the biggest of all the “X-Men” movies, and it barely counts as one.

            Wade soon finds a new reason to live in the form of troubled teenage mutant Russell (Julian Dennison). Russell’s fiery temper, along with actual fire powers, have set him on a path of vengeance against his school’s abusive headmaster (Eddie Marsan), and a public outburst gets both him and Wade thrown in a mutant prison, where collars conveniently exist that deactivate all powers. The prison is attacked by Cable (Josh Brolin), a coldhearted killer intent on assassinating Russell. Wade doesn’t know why Cable is targeting a child, but his instinct is to protect the young mutant, which makes him an enemy of Cable as well. The two get into a fight and are flung from the prison, which protects Russell for the time being, but he’s scheduled to be transferred the next day.

            Wade knows that he can’t defeat Cable and rescue Russell all by himself, so he gets help from other superheroes. He manages to mismanage the team so badly that only the lucky Domino (Zazie Beetz) remains. The two stave off Cable long enough for Russell to escape with a huge mystery mutant. It is only after the special guest star breaks Wade in half that Cable comes forward to explain himself. He’s a time-traveler from a future where Russell has turned into a mass murderer. He needs to kill the kid now for the sake of humanity. Wade sees Cable’s dilemma, but he thinks he can stop Russell from becoming a murderer without killing him, which is better for everybody. Cable isn’t so sure, but he promises to give Wade a chance to convince Russell to turn his life around.

            As with is predecessor, “Deadpool 2” is an entertaining mix of an emotional story, interesting characters, creative action, and irreverent humor. Deadpool as a character is still as engaging as ever thanks to Reynolds’ charismatic performance. My only real problem with the film is that it drags in a few places and there’s an inevitability that certain things are going to be undone. The good news is that while that other Marvel franchise with Josh Brolin is going to make us wait a whole year to set things right, this one fixes everything (plus a few bonus things, one of which I really can’t wrap my head around) in a glorious mid-credits sequence. “Deadpool 2” deserves to be just as successful as the first one and it’s going to be a real shame when its box office gets pulverized by “Solo” next weekend.

 

Grade: B

7:25 pm edt 

Life of the Party

            For those of you who think I spent too much time last week whining about “Overboard” not being funny, just a heads up that “Life of the Party” this week is going to be more of the same. It’s no surprise that neither movie is any good, their studios sent them out to die against “Avengers: Infinity War”. Both comedy bombs lucked out because that movie got moved up a week at the last minute, so they got to open on weekends when people had already seen the superior blockbuster. They still got crushed, just not as badly. Anyway, at least this movie doesn’t have the incredibly uncomfortable bits about exploiting a character with amnesia, so it’s got that in its favor.

            Melissa McCarthy stars as Deanna, a doting wife and mother who gets dumped by her contemptable husband (Matt Walsh) for a snooty real estate agent (Julie Bowen) as soon as they drop their daughter (Molly Gordon) off at college. When I say “as soon as they drop their daughter off,” I mean while they’re still in the car so she can have a public meltdown. The film clearly didn’t want to pay for another set, so it rushes this scene. I suppose I should be grateful that this scene is rushed, because others go on forever, but two wrongs don’t make a right.

Deanna decides that the best way to cope with the divorce is to go back to college and get the year of credits she needs to finally get her Archeology degree. She at least has the good sense not to move into the sorority house where her daughter lives, opting instead to room in a dorm with a brooding introvert (Heidi Gardner). But she’s still an embarrassing presence around campus and visiting at the sorority house, living up to all sorts of “mom trying to fit in with young people” stereotypes like misusing slang, cracking lame jokes, wearing inappropriate clothing, and generally sticking out like a sore thumb. And when she makes a faux pas, she never just says “Excuse me” and moves on, she has to compound her folly with endless rambling as she tries in vain to turn the situation around.

Deanna goes through various adventures, few of which are funny and most of which are painful. She makes friends with her daughter’s friends, one of whom is played by Gillian Jacobs, cast because someone thought putting her in a college movie would automatically bring in fans of “Community”. She attends a mediation session where she and Bowen take personal swipes at each other through the mediator while her best friend (Maya Rudolph) squawks out-of-context legal terms. She has to give an oral presentation in class and freaks out from stage fright, to the point where her innocuous professor (Chris Parnell) comes off as mean for not just pulling the plug on the traumatic experience. And as one would expect, she goes to a number of parties, one of which sees her hook up with a younger student (Luke Benward) who pursues a relationship. As off-putting as that storyline can be, it is responsible for the very few laughs I got out of this movie, especially during a scene in a restaurant.

            “Life of the Party” is directed by Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s real-life husband. The two previously worked together on the critical flops “Tammy” and “The Boss”, and this movie doesn’t have Kathy Bates and Tyler Labine to save it. Watching the film, I had the snarky thought that scenes go on too long because Falcone was too afraid to say “Cut!” to his wife. But upon further reflection, I’ve decided to go with the more optimistic approach that Falcone is so in love with McCarthy that he honestly finds everything she says funny and thus never wants to say “Cut!” That’s sweet, but both McCarthy and the movie could have used some tough love from a director with higher standards, because what we’re getting just isn’t working.

 

Grade: D

7:24 pm edt 

Overboard

            “Overboard” is a remake of a reprehensible 1987 film starring Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn. In that film, poor slob Russell takes advantage of the amnesia suffered by the snobby Hawn by convincing her that she’s his wife and mother to his four children. She struggles with household chores, which is mildly amusing, and the two wind up in bed together, which is disgusting. It makes no difference that she has fallen for him at this point in the film, he is taking advantage of a woman with brain damage, and his actions constitute rape. Now the film is being remade with Anna Faris as the poor slob and Eugenio Derbez as the spoiled jerk whose amnesia is being exploited. This film could have at least corrected the most glaring flaw in the 1987 version, but it doesn’t, and it’s horribly unfunny elsewhere to boot.

            Kate (Faris) has to work two jobs to support her and her three daughters, leaving her little time to pursue her dream career as a nurse. She does some carpet-cleaning on the private yacht of wealthy construction heir Leo (Derbez), but he stiffs her on payment, pushes her into the ocean, and destroys her equipment, putting her in a worse financial situation than ever. That night, he drunkenly falls overboard, miraculously makes it to shore, and winds up in the hospital with amnesia. Kate seizes the opportunity to pretend he’s her husband so she can take him home and put him to work, taking care of things around the house and working a construction job so she can pocket his paychecks and have time to study for a nursing exam. Leo’s a flop at first because he has no skills (he’s forgotten his name and that he doesn’t have a wife and kids, but he’ll never forget to act like an entitled cretin), but eventually he takes to his newfound family and they like having him around. But of course, Kate can’t hide the truth forever.

            Everywhere you look, there’s something to dislike about this movie. Kate’s nurse studying mainly focuses on scatological material mined for cheap humor. She’s somehow the first person to “identify” Leo at the hospital despite him being one of the richest people in the world, with both his disappearance and the story of the mysterious amnesiac being covered on the news. Leo works a construction job that he can’t handle, which is a detriment to the rest of his crew, but they just laugh and put up with him. Kate and Leo get in a fight about disciplining one of the daughters for disobeying Kate, and the idea is supposed to be that they’re both making good points, but no, she’s 100% right. Leo’s family eventually shows up at Kate’s house with hardly any explanation of how they pieced the events of the film together. And on top of all of that, the whole thing is an incredibly predictable story where most of the gags simply fall flat.

            It also bears mentioning that as in the original, the amnesiac and the person taking advantage of them end up in bed together. Honestly, I couldn’t work up the outrage that I had toward the original film. Maybe it’s because this version makes it clear that former playboy Leo really wants to bed Kate, which I know doesn’t make it right, but softens it on an unofficial level. More likely it’s because I’ve seen the original so I know to anticipate that development, which makes it less shocking. But I think the biggest reason of all is that this is such a bland, worthless movie that nothing about it is worth an emotion as strong as outrage. The people behind this movie surely had better things to do with their time and money than remake “Overboard” and you surely have better things to do with your time and money than see this garbage.

 

Grade: D-

 

7:23 pm edt 

Avengers: Infinity War

            As long as there have been The Avengers, there has been the threat of Thanos (Josh Brolin). The villain’s visage first appeared midway through the credits of the superteam’s first adventure back in 2012. Once 99% of the audience looked up who he was, they got excited to see him in an upcoming sequel. The most we’ve seen of him since then was in 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”, which ironically was not an Avengers movie, though still an important part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We know that he’s after six Infinity Stones, which he can plug into his handy gauntlet to give him power over… the universe, basically. The six-year wait is finally over and Thanos is ready to make his move.

            Standing in Thanos’s way is almost the entirety of the MCU. The roster includes, but is not limited to: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Vision (Paul Bettany), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Rocket Raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper), Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) whose eponymous film is still in the top ten at the box office after beating out the 2012 “Avengers” to become the biggest superhero movie of all time. Some of these characters are allies, some are enemies, and some have never met, but they all recognize that they’ve never come up against a threat like Thanos.

            The heroes splinter off to go on various missions. The Infinity Stones are widely spread out on multiple planets, and of course Thanos and his minions need to be dealt with. Thanos, for his part, wants the Infinity Stones so he can kill exactly half the universe, leaving the other half to live off its finite resources. He fancies himself a misunderstood savior who’s not as heartless as he seems. This “sensitivity” is on display in a scene where he must make a sacrifice to retrieve a stone. He does what everybody knows he’s going to do (and what people at my screening were yelling at him to hurry up and do to move the movie along), but he feels bad about it. Funny that he cares so much about population control in the most overcrowded superhero movie in history.

            The humor and action are exactly on par with what you’d expect from one of these movies. Egos clash over whose powers and plans are superior to others, and there’s much teasing among the new teammates. As with most Marvel villains, Thanos has an army of indistinguishable creeps at his disposal so the heroes can take turns showing off their powers fighting them, though he himself can fight them all off rather easily. This movie really hopes you like the gag where a stooge is seconds away from a kill only to be suddenly stabbed from behind and then fall away to reveal an unlikely rescuer, because it’s done multiple times here.

            “Avengers: Infinity War” moves along a predictable path until it gets to an ending I didn’t predict. I knew the franchise had been sauntering toward a showdown with Thanos, I just didn’t know how many movies that showdown would encompass. Turns out it’s more than one, which means the conclusion to this installment is unsatisfying. I don’t necessarily disapprove of the unsatisfying conclusion, not every superhero movie needs to end with things wrapped up in a neat little package with just a hint of an upcoming conflict. There’s another Avengers movie scheduled for 2019, so I’ll have to wait until then to see if the MCU is willing to let things be right in the world again.

 

Grade: B-

7:22 pm edt 

Rampage

            “Rampage” stars Dwayne Johnson as a primatologist who has to save Chicago from the triple terror of an enormous genetically-mutated gorilla, an enormous genetically-mutated wolf, and an enormous genetically-mutated crocodile. Right off the bat you should know whether or not this is a movie you want to see. But if you still haven’t made up your mind, consider this: there are no fewer than three scenes where Johnson steals an empty helicopter. Is that a movie you want to see, one where The Rock steals three empty helicopters? It’s perfectly fine to say yes and it’s perfectly fine to say no, but I seriously doubt you’re anywhere in the middle.

            Johnson’s gorilla caretaker is in charge of George, a rare albino specimen that can be ferocious when he wants to be, but usually just goofs off using sign language (Johnson taught him two obscene gestures for some reason). An exploding space station brings to Earth three canisters of genetic-modification gas. One affects a wolf in Wyoming, one affects a croc in Florida, and one affects George. Johnson tries to control his friend (his repeated calling of the name “George” can only bring to mind George of the Jungle), but the ape is growing, his temperament is worsening, and he’s smashing everything in sight. Some government tranq-ing takes care of him temporarily, but it’s… not to last.

            Other characters include Naomie Harris as a scientist who serves as a companion for Johnson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a smug government agent with a drawling cowboy persona (he refers to one of the stolen helicopters as a “whirly-bird” in a moment that summarizes his character perfectly), Joe Manganiello as a mercenary put in charge of hunting the wolf, and Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy as a pair of billionaire siblings whose corporation is behind the out-of-control experiments. Akerman has the bright idea to use a powerful radio signal to draw the three creatures to the middle of Chicago. I’m sure she explains why she thinks this is a good idea, but her reasoning is lost on me because it’s easy to see that it’s a really, really bad idea.

            The climax of the film is a whole lot of destruction. The animals all zero in on the radio signal coming from the top of a skyscraper that also houses an antidote, which is why our heroes have to be there too. Yes, the gorilla is climbing the skyscraper, and yes, the film knows what that brings to mind. The military and populace are no match for any one of the creatures, but maybe if Johnson can tap into the goodness of his old buddy George, he can get the gorilla to fight the wolf and croc and maybe the animals will take each other out. I see the problem being that the military will totally destroy George even if he wins, but the movie ends before that inevitable consequence. It does not, however, end before the city as a whole takes an incredible extended thrashing.

            “Rampage” is by no means a “good” movie in the traditional sense. The acting is miles over the top, the script is a mess, and the special effects leave a lot to be desired. Not to mention that if you want anything resembling realistic action, you’re out of luck to say the least. Really though, if you want realistic action, what are you doing watching a movie like “Rampage”? This is the epitome of a movie that can be a lot of fun if you turn off your brain. Johnson brings his oversized action hero charm as always, Morgan is having a blast, the bad guys are deliciously fun to hate, and the film never runs out of creative ways for the animals to wreak havoc. I can’t bring myself to actually recommend the film, but I recommend it as much as I can recommend a film that I can’t recommend.

 

Grade: C

7:21 pm edt 

A Quiet Place

            I really liked “Don’t Breathe,” the horror movie from 2016 with the blind antagonist and potential victims who had to be careful to not make a sound. That movie had interesting characters, a unique setting, and some great scares. “A Quiet Place” keeps the silence, but forgoes the other elements.

            The film takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where a family struggles to stay alive amidst an invasion by blind creatures who want to eat everything they hear. It’s a rural area, but three local creatures can turn the family into an instant banquet if one of them makes a sound that gives away their location. While the credits assign names to the family members, you’ll just know them as the father (John Krasinski, who directed and co-wrote the film), the mother (Emily Blunt, Krasinski’s real-life wife), the daughter (Millicent Simmonds), and the son (Noah Jupe). There’s another, younger son (Cade Woodward), but he decides to put batteries into a noisemaking toy and is picked off quickly. The other characters take turns blaming themselves for his death, but he had so little common sense that it’s hard to imagine he would have lasted much longer anyway.

            Not that the other characters make great decisions either. Fifteen months into the invasion, the mother is expecting a baby. Way to go Mom and Dad, you’re bringing a child into this bleak world with no discernable quality of life and an excellent chance that its crying will get it killed. The father spends his days soundproofing the family compound, trying unsuccessfully to radio for help, and researching the creatures and how to evade or defeat them. His research is pretty pathetic, it includes a dry-erase board with the word “Weakness?” on it. This tells the audience that he’s trying to find a weakness, but why did he need to write it down? Would he have forgotten to try to find a weakness otherwise?

            The film has been eager to advertise its gimmick of containing almost no dialogue, so how does it fare in that department? Completely average. The family communicates using sign language, which they knew even before the invasion because the daughter is deaf. They have that going for them, but they’re otherwise not as good at concealing sounds as the movie wants us to think they are. If the aliens really are that good at picking up on sounds, they’d see right through (uh, hear right through?) cheat tactics like the family walking everywhere barefoot and distracting them with substitute sounds. I know that this is a movie that wants to draw us into its “tense atmosphere,” but having to stay quiet to avoid detection is nothing new for the horror or action genre. This movie just has more of those scenes than usual. That doesn’t make the film groundbreaking, it just means that there’s not a lot of variety to its scares.

            I know a lot of critics have fallen for “A Quiet Place.” My last check of the Rotten Tomatoes review site saw the film with a 97% Fresh rating. I must confess that I have no idea what so many people see in this film. To me, this is a movie about halfwitted people outwitting dimwitted creatures. The creatures, by the way, have absolutely no personality and I couldn’t take them seriously as antagonists after a few temporary foilings from the family. The family members thankfully have a pretty good chemistry with each other, but it’s not enough to make me think that they shouldn’t get eaten as a family. The film relies on tiresome silent tension and cheap jump scares, the most effective of which is a fake-out. The real “Quiet Place” should be any theater showing this movie. Yes, you’re supposed to refrain from making noise during most movies shown in theaters, but you know what I mean.

 

Grade: C-

7:20 pm edt 

Ready Player One

            It’s no accident that “Ready Player One” opened on Easter weekend, as this movie is obsessed with Easter Eggs. Not the kind one paints and puts in a basket, but little bonuses hidden in various forms of media. The characters in the film are on the hunt for an Easter Egg that gives them control over a virtual reality empire, but more importantly the film itself is full of Easter Eggs designed to delight those nostalgic for pop culture from the late 70’s through 90’s.

            The film takes place in a future where the real world is bleak, but a virtual world called The Oasis is thriving. The Oasis allows users to do whatever they want as whoever they want. You can be a better version of yourself or take on the persona of an existing character. Wade Watts aka Parzival (Tye Sheridan) spends most of his time on a quest to collect the ultimate Easter Egg, one hidden by The Oasis’s late designer (Mark Rylance) and attainable by gathering three keys. Nobody has ever gotten even one key, but Parzival has studied the life and the interests of the designer well enough that he knows he’s on the cusp of solving the riddles protecting the keys.

            Of course, not everyone is as pure of heart as Parzival. A corporation led by the greedy Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) wants to take the keys and The Oasis by force. The corporation employs a few nerds to try the riddle-solving route, but also a number of soldiers and assassins tasked with stopping Parzival and anyone else who’s not in their pocket. Luckily, Parzival has help. His hulking friend Aech (whose actor I will not spoil) is one of the biggest, toughest beings in The Oasis. His buddies Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki) are also among its most skilled users. Then there’s Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), whose prowess is legendary. You’re not supposed to fall in love in The Oasis, but Parzival forgets this rule the second he lays eyes on her.

            The battle for The Oasis is entertaining enough, but it’s the Easter Eggs that are bringing people to this film. I don’t want to give away too much, but the film has been heavily pushing an appearance by The Iron Giant, no doubt to let the cult hero appear in a film that people actually see. There’s also an extended sequence where the characters go inside a world created by the dysfunctional duo of Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick. One Easter Egg I found disappointing was a certain weapon used during a battle scene. How dare this film use this weapon without counting when the need to count has been famously overexplained. Other appearances and references are mostly left to the most momentary of glimpses. There are sequences in this movie that you’ll need to watch frame by frame if you want to catch everything.

            That’s the problem with “Ready Player One,” it moves too fast. I’m not necessarily talking about all the Easter Eggs because I’m sure their brevity is deliberate so as not to distract from the story. What I mean is that the rules and history of this world go by so quickly that I felt lost at several points. I found myself repeatedly saying “I’m sure they explained this” without remembering what that explanation was. This movie is 140 minutes long, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much more fleshed-out it would have been at 200. The fact that I want more of this movie speaks to how much it does right, because this is indeed an exciting thrill ride from blockbuster extraordinaire Steven Spielberg. It’s a highly enjoyable movie, but it requires your full attention.

 

Grade: B

7:19 pm edt 

Pacific Rim: Uprising

            2013’s “Pacific Rim” was a movie about giant robots called Jaegers that fought giant city-leveling monsters called Kaiju. Yes, the story was officially about the human pilots of the Jaegers and their quest to save the world, but the appeal of these movies has always been giant robots at war with giant monsters. Now comes “Pacific Rim: Uprising,” a sequel where the Jaegers fight both Kaiju and other Jaegers, so… its existence is justified?

            John Boyega stars as Jake Pentecost, the son of Idris Elba’s character from the original. He’s an incredibly gifted Jaeger pilot (a Jaeger master, if you will), but he had a falling out with his father and the military, and now he no longer applies himself, using his advanced Jaeger knowledge only to steal old parts to sell on the black market. A botched heist leads to him and an aspiring Jaeger pilot named Amara (Cailee Spaeny) fending off authorities for a short time in a makeshift Jaeger before getting arrested. Luckily Jake’s adopted sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi, returning from the first film) can get them off the hook if they join the military, with Jake as an instructor and Amara as a cadet.

            Jake resents the military because everyone expects him to live up to his father’s legacy, and because he has to work alongside former partner Nate (Scott Eastwood) after the two had a falling out over a girlfriend (Adria Arjona). The upside is that he might not have to be there very long. A corporation run by the shadowy Shao (Jing Tian) is building an army of drone Jaegers that could make human-operated machines a thing of the past. It seems as though Shao has finally figured out that robots so huge that they have to be operated by two pilots simultaneously might not be the most dependable defense system. Comic relief scientist Dr. Geiszler (Charlie Day) now works for Shao while former partner Dr. Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) works for the military. The two are shaken up following a mind-meld with Kaiju in the original movie, though Geiszler is coping much better than Gottlieb. The drones turn on humanity, leading Jake to lead the cadets in saving the world from both the drones and the returning Kaiju.

            The film at least makes the right decision in having Boyega be the lead. He’s funny, inspiring, and charming with a great accent. The rest of the cast is not so great. Eastwood continues his streak of being a bland bohunk, Arjona has no character besides giving Jake and Nate a reason to fight, and Spaeny pales in comparison to similar recent characters in “Logan”, “War for the Planet of the Apes,” and even “Transformers: The Last Knight”. This is a franchise that wants to be a better version of “Transformers”, so it can’t afford to fall behind its reviled rival in any respect. Day and especially Gorman pull their weight as the scientists, though the film wastes what could have been a great third act for Day’s character.

            Watching “Pacific Rim: Uprising”, I saw very little reason for the movie to exist. We have plenty of giant robot movies already, and having jaegers fight other jaegers doesn’t exactly do much to up the ante. Only three characters from the first movie are back, were people really clamoring to see the continuation of their stories? The only thing that makes the movie somewhat relevant is that the original was directed by Guillermo del Toro, who here serves as a producer. Del Toro just won an Oscar for “The Shape of Water”, so he’s a hot commodity right now. Very little of his imagination is on display here, though I did come up with some “Shape of Water”-inspired off-color jokes about a character and their kaiju roommate. I can’t say that I recommend this movie for del Toro fans, action movie fans, or even original “Pacific Rim” fans. The best I can say is that I recommend it for John Boyega fans.

 

Grade: C-

7:18 pm edt 

Tomb Raider

            There’s a rule among movie buffs that there has never been a decent live-action adaptation of a video game. Not a single one. A scant few detractors will defend the original “Resident Evil” or “Mortal Kombat” movies, but even then the arguments are rarely more passionate than “it works as a guilty pleasure.” The Angelina Jolie-led “Tomb Raider” movies from the early 2000’s are certainly no exception to this rule, though the 2001 original is the highest-grossing video game movie of all time. This commercial success from nearly two decades ago has led Hollywood to excavate the character of Lara Croft and let her take another shot at representing the medium.

            Croft, now played by Alicia Vikander (a recent Oscar winner, as was Jolie), starts the movie by getting beaten up. It’s not an unconscionable beating, she’s forced to tap out in an MMA fight fair and square, but it establishes that she can’t yet overcome certain obstacles. It’s a good decision, it shows she has room for growth. When Lara’s not getting beaten up in fights, she’s getting beaten down by life, unable to make ends meet with a meager courier job. She could claim a huge inheritance from her father (Dominic West) if she wanted, save for the tiny detail that she refuses to accept that her father is dead. He disappeared in the Pacific Ocean seven years ago, and while Lara is well within her legal rights to declare him dead, something about it doesn’t feel right. Just before she can sign her father’s life away, Lara discovers some hidden research that leads her discover his double life as a sort of paranormal treasure-hunter. She also discovers evidence as to exactly which island he was on when he disappeared. She decides to use the last of her money to travel to this island herself and see if she can find some answers.

            Lara travels to Hong Kong to enlist a guide (Daniel Wu), who’s battling similar demons over his own missing father, and the two take on the ocean together. A storm wrecks their unsteady vessel, and they wind up prisoners of the island’s miserable leader Vogel (Walton Goggins). Vogel needs Lara’s father’s research to find an ancient tomb that will give him and his evil organization power over life and death. Lara escapes from Vogel and nearly succumbs to the dangers of the island, being saved only by a mysterious figure who’s been away from civilization for a long time. To sum up the rest of the movie: Lara, Vogel, and some other characters go a-tomb-raidin’.

            It’s not Vikander’s fault, but I didn’t care for this version of Lara Croft. I found her too selfish. The character gets off on the wrong foot with me by being one of those psycho bike couriers who yells at pedestrians to get out of her way while she plows through areas where bikes have no business going. She behaves similarly during a foot chase in Hong Kong. Then she draws gunfire in a slave labor camp where she claims she’s freeing the workers, but without a suitable endgame. I know I saw at least one person take a bullet in that scene that never should have been fired. There’s also the little matter of her endangering the entire world by ignoring a steadfast instruction from her father and endangering the world again by not allowing the bad guys to foolishly get themselves killed.

            The world still has yet to see a “good” live-action video game movie, but relatively speaking, “Tomb Raider” might very well be the greatest one ever made. I laughed at a joke or two, I was captivated by a sensitive scene or two. This movie with an unlikeable protagonist and a nonsensical system of booby traps may actually be the best at something. It’s a shallow, dubious honor, but I have a feeling this movie will take it.

 

Grade: C-

7:17 pm edt 

A Wrinkle in Time

            Last week I reviewed “Red Sparrow,” a spy movie with a typical spy movie plot. All of the characters had their own agenda, loyalties kept flip-flopping around, and there was a lot of confusion over who could and couldn’t be trusted. The plot of that movie was way easier to follow than that of “A Wrinkle in Time,” the new kids’ movie from Disney. The film is absolutely nonsensical, and not in the fun “they’re wearing socks on their hands and mittens on their feet” kind of way, but the annoying “I know there’s an explanation for this, but the film forgot to include it” kind of way.

            Storm Reid stars as Meg Murry, a teenage girl whose scientist father (Chris Pine) has been missing for four years. She spends her days getting bullied over her absent father and looking after her genius-but-awkward little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). Charles Wallace keeps reaching out to the universe for some sign that their father is still alive. The universe answers in the form of three mysterious women: Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). The women offer to take Meg, her friend Calvin (Levi Miller), and Charles Wallace on a journey across the universe to find their father. Of course, the siblings’ mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) can’t come, and the kids can’t even leave a note for her because of… urgency I think was the unacceptable reason given.

            The three women whisk the kids away to a distant planet. It’s a colorful, beautiful world marred by Mrs. Whatsit transforming herself into a shoddy CGI leaf-creature. Thankfully there’s little time to frolic with the creature because an evil presence makes itself known. “The It” is responsible for all the negative energy in the world, though it usually only poisons people’s minds a little bit at a time, just enough to turn them into jerks. The group learns through the vision of a grumpy Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis) that the father had discovered a tesseract that allowed for instantaneous universal travel, but on his maiden voyage he got swallowed up and imprisoned by The It. The kids go on a quest to rescue the father from The It, but the women can’t come with them because their energy is so low. The movie is so bad at defining the scope of the women’s powers that we had no idea they had a finite amount of energy. It’s pretty transparent that the film just wanted an excuse to write the women out of the third act so the kids could have to rescue the father unsupervised.

            The movie wasn’t doing great up until the third act, but it’s there that it really falls apart. A character turns evil, and they make a terrible villain. I’m willing to say that the script, direction, and performer are all equally at fault for the terrible climactic sequence. Also, it’s not clear whether the character has just recently been poisoned by The It, or if they’ve been evil all along. Just like it’s not clear why the people on The It’s home planet act in happy, creepy synchronicity or why The It travels the way it does, or why any number of things in the movie happen the way they do.

            “A Wrinkle in Time” means well. It wants to give kids an inspiring adventure movie featuring a multicultural cast with women at the forefront and a message about how love and resilience can conquer the toughest obstacles. The kids at my screening applauded at the end, and I’m glad they got something out of it. I honestly expected them to be as bored and confused as I was. I saw the film as little more than a narrative mess with a few decent emotional scenes. This is by no means a movie that panders to kids while adults roll their eyes, but I also can’t say that I think it qualifies as fun for the whole family.

 

Grade: C-

7:16 pm edt 

Red Sparrow

            “Red Sparrow” is a movie that never stays the same quality for very long. It’ll seem clever and intricate for a few scenes and then do something stupid. It’ll be bland and meandering for a bit and then pull out something tender or well-thought-out. I suppose that such an inconsistent film is better than a consistently bad one, but I’ll admit there were times where it would have been more convenient to write this off as a bad film and just check out. The one thing that is consistent is that this is the kind of spy thriller where Nothing Is As It Seems, so it doesn’t really pay to get invested anyway.

            Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a prima ballerina in the Bolshoi Ballet whose career is cut short due to injury. She’s worried about how she’s going to be able to pay her bills, including medical costs for her sick mother (Joely Richardson), without the use of her body. Opportunity knocks in the form of her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), who’s the deputy director of a Russian spy agency. He tells her that she can earn a life-sustaining income by using to body in a different way – by seducing a rich person of interest who has a thing for injured ballerinas. Without much choice, Dominika takes the mission, which doesn’t exactly go as planned. She now knows too much to be allowed to simply walk away, so she’s forced to train to be a Sparrow, a seduction-based Russian spy.

            Sparrow training is ugly. If the montage we get is to be believed, it consists of 90% seduction lessons and maybe 10% everything else that goes into being a spy. The seduction training is humiliating, but Dominika is so dead inside that she progresses magnificently. She slips up when she doesn’t allow a fellow cadet to rape her, but fortunately she’s perfect for an urgent mission, so her uncle and his boss (Jeremy Irons) let it slide and send her out into the field.

            Dominika’s job is to seduce American spy Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who knows the identity of a mole inside the Russian government. She knows that Nash is smart enough to figure out that she has an uncle in Russian intelligence so she’s probably a spy, so she has to find a way to turn that to her advantage. What follows is the usual menagerie of double agents, double crosses, twists, turns, torture, and battles of wits. Dominika uses her seduction skills to get men (including her uncle, the guy isn’t as subtle a skeez as he thinks he is) to do what she wants without having sex all that often. The one sex scene she does get is with Nash, and… remember how I said that this movie will be doing okay for a while and then it will do something stupid? The terrible sex scene is astoundingly stupid. I’ll go so far as to say I may owe the “Fifty Shades” movies an apology, because it turns out sex scenes can be a lot worse than what those movies have to offer.

            My advice for a movie like “Red Sparrow” is to pick a minor character and have fun speculating as to whether or not that person will live. My choice was Dominika’s roommate (Thekla Reuten), but you could easily choose her mother, an American turncoat (Mary-Louise Parker), or Jeremy Irons, who somehow manages to make his voice sound more evil than usual by adding a Russian accent. The movie does boast some good performances and a detailed, well-considered storyline, but its inherent untrustworthiness and sexually exploitative first act are troubling. Jennifer Lawrence is determined, and she ultimately saves “Red Sparrow” from being a “bad” movie, but you’re still probably better off having another go at that other movie with a color and an animal in the title: “Black Panther.”

 

Grade: C

7:15 pm edt 

Game Night

            “Game Night” sees its characters playing one of those elaborate role-playing games that’s spread out over several miles and involves a full company of actors. I’m weary of movies with this kind of premise because of the inevitable twist: at some point, we’re going to learn that everything that’s been happening is all part of the game. It’s the same thing with movies about con artists, magicians, or people who meddle in dreams. It’s not that I necessarily mind being played for a fool, I can enjoy some well-planned manipulation, but it just seems like a waste of time when the movie practically announces its intentions so early the way this one does.

            Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams star as Max and Annie, a couple who loves to play games. They meet during pub trivia, court each other through a series of competitive dates, and now live for their weekly game night with their friends. That circle is slowly getting smaller, as more and more of their friends are starting to have kids. Max and Annie are trying to have a child of their own, but Max isn’t sure he wants to leave Game Night behind, and seems to be subconsciously sabotaging conception efforts.

            One day, Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) comes to town and invites Max, Annie, and their friends to Game Night. Max is so envious of his more-successful brother that his jealousy and anxiety are cited as reasons for his impotence. Also invited are Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Burbury), a couple whose relationship is tested when he finds out she slept with an unidentified celebrity, and Ryan and Sarah (Billy Magnussen and Sharon Horgan) who barely know each other but have come to Game Night together because he needs a partner. Not invited is Gary (Jesse Plemmons), Max and Annie’s divorced cop neighbor who desperately wants to do things with the group, but is shunned because he is the creepiest human being on the planet. Think of the human equivalent of a ventriloquist dummy, then have fun trying to sleep ever again.

            Brooks arranges for a kidnapping-mystery game where the grand prize is Max’s dream car, then he gets kidnapped. Max and Annie are into the game, given the prize and how it’s fun to see Brooks get roughed up during the kidnapping portion. Except the kidnapping might not have been part of the game. Brooks is mixed up in some shady business dealings, and the lines between the game and an actual kidnapping overlap. A madcap adventure ensues that includes guns, blood, gangsters, an underground fight club, a Fabergé egg, a WITSEC list, a different set of gangsters, death, and having to spend time with Gary. In other words, they might not make it through the night.

            “Game Night” provides an entertaining ride as it saunters toward a somewhat predictable ending (it’s evident early on that it’s going to be more than just “it was all part of the game,” but the film can’t resist working that in at least a little). Bateman and McAdams have good chemistry, especially during a scene where he gets shot in the arm and she has to treat the wound. Both are very scared and they’re trying to calm each other down and it really speaks to their loving relationship that they’re so concerned not just for the other’s well-being, but for their feelings as well. There’s also a neat sequence where the characters duck and dodge their way through a mansion playing Keep Away with a Fabergé egg that appears to be one unbroken shot. And on top of all of that, you’ll be checking under your bed at night for Jesse Plemmons. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “Game Night” is a “winning” movie, but it puts in a good showing.

 

Grade: B-

7:14 pm edt 

Black Panther

            We were first introduced to T’challa aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) two years ago in “Captain America: Civil War.” A prince from the fictional African country of Wakanda, T’challa ascended to the throne when father the king was killed during a peace conference. His thirst for revenge led to the apparent creation of the Black Panther persona, and though he was certainly gifted athletically, it looked as though his “powers” were mostly royalty-based, similar to how his MCU colleague Tony Stark’s “powers” are mostly money-based.

            It turns out there’s much more to Black Panther’s arsenal than money and power. For starters, T’challa is not the first Black Panther. Whoever is king of Wakanda wears a ring that gives them enhanced athletic abilities, and kings have used these abilities throughout history to defend Wakanda. It’s just that Wakanda hasn’t needed much defending because it keeps itself hidden from the rest of the world. Behind the smokescreen of a third-world African nation lies a bustling metropolis more technologically advanced than any country on Earth. It is home to a literal mountain of an element called Vibranium, which is extremely valuable and has tons of scientific applications (read: superhero gadgets). Some Wakandans believe that the Vibranium should be shared with the rest of the world to make it a better place, while others believe that revealing the Vibranium to the rest of the world will make Wakanda vulnerable to conquest and enslavement. It’s a thorny issue, and T’challa himself doesn’t know exactly how to feel about it.

            Less conflicted are bad guys Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Klaue is a rare non-Wakandan who knows about the Vibranium and wants to use it to get rich. He stole a half-ton of the element thirty years ago in a deadly heist orchestrated by the king’s turncoat brother (Sterling K. Brown), but now wants control of the mother lode. Killmonger is a little less selfish, as he wants to use the Vibranium to help the entire Wakandan culture take over the world. Okay, he’s actually really selfish, because he has a claim to the Wakandan throne and he wants Wakanda to take over the world with him at its head, but he mentions briefly that he’s doing it on behalf of oppressed people, so he has delusions of selflessness.

            More than anything that actually happens in the story, I just liked spending time in Wakanda. The “Thor” movies kept pushing Asgard as a sort of utopia, but I never saw the general population as more than servants and soldiers who didn’t seem particularly happy with their lot in life. Here, the community is thriving. Scientific advancements are being made, people look happy in their daily lives, and demeanors are friendly. I got more laughs out of the mere banter among T’challa, his sister (Letitia Wright), his girlfriend (Lupita Nyong’o), his bodyguard (Danai Gurina), his best friend (Daniel Kaluuya), a guest from America (Martin Freeman), and even an enemy (Winston Duke) than I did from the many forced gags in “Thor: Ragnarok.”

            But speaking of “Thor: Ragnarok,” did “Black Panther” have to follow its story so closely? The hero learns that his father wasn’t the flawless figure he idolized, and a long-lost relative shows up to usurp the throne, forcing him to spend the rest of the movie getting it back. Did Marvel not realize that these movies were too similar to release just three months apart? Add to that some unconvincing green-screening and Killmonger’s torso clearly being made out of foam (he scars himself whenever he kills someone, to the point where he has more dimples than a golf ball), and you’ve got a noticeably flawed superhero movie. Fortunately, it makes up for its faults in other areas, like a strong, likeable ensemble, a compelling central debate, and a better arc for its villain. I don’t see “Black Panther” as the game-changer that some critics are proclaiming it to be, but it’s a fine, serviceable MCU entry.

 

Grade: B-

7:13 pm edt 

Fifty Shades Freed

            I don’t blame the birds for chirping or the fish for swimming. I don’t blame February for being cold or a romantic restaurant for being booked up on Valentine’s Day. So I can’t say I blame the third and final “Fifty Shades” movie for being awful. Of course it’s awful. That’s what these movies do, they spend two hours being awful. There’s no pleasant surprise here, but there’s not really an unpleasant surprise either. The best thing I can say about this movie is that it isn’t like “Boo! A Madea Halloween 2” or “Daddy’s Home 2” where I’m astonished by how it manages to be worse than my meager expectations. It’s exactly as bad as it’s expected to be.

            Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are back as mild-mannered everywoman Anastasia Steele and mysterious perverted billionaire Christian Grey, respectively. Long story short, he likes her because she’s confident enough to say no to him now and then, and she likes him because he asks her really nicely to join him in all the kinky sex stuff he’s into. The film opens with them getting married in a wedding that will make everyone in the audience jealous, then they go on a honeymoon that will make everyone in the audience jealous, then they buy a home that will make everyone in the audience jealous. The movie can’t give us a tantalizing sex scene to save its life, but it is somewhat successful as wealth porn.

            The honeymoon comes to an end in the form of Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), Ana’s former boss who made an unwelcome advance on her and got removed from his position by Christian. He’s out for revenge, and Ana can’t figure out why. Conventional wisdom would say that it’s because Christian ruined his career, but the movie throws in a convoluted motivation involving Christian being adopted instead of him as a child. The storyline sees the justice system having its hands tied despite Hyde clearly being a threat, a kidnapping plot that Hyde is never going to be able to pull off, and a car chase that is clearly meant to serve as an advertisement for Ana’s car, except I don’t know what kind of car it was. I got a good look at the logo, but I don’t have a name to go with it.

            And of course, there are a bunch of those trademark “Fifty Shades” sex scenes, which means there’s ridiculously tame S&M and they aren’t sexy at all. A particularly embarrassing session sees Ana and Christian lick ice cream off each other, which is sticky and gross the second it touches your skin. If these movies were really committed to being erotic, maybe they should have tried to break new ground with the NC-17 rating instead of settling for an R, where most of the nudity has to be obscured. If any franchise could have pulled it off commercially, it’s this one. Anyway, all the sex leads to Ana becoming pregnant, which Christian takes unforgivably poorly. He thinks he’s too screwed up to make a good father. Obviously I’m disgusted at his behavior toward his pregnant wife, but I can’t help but think that maybe he has a point in that he’s a person who shouldn’t be breeding.  

            Hooray for the “Fifty Shades” saga finally being over with this movie. We got the charming Dakota Johnson out of it (don’t let her “success” at the Razzies fool you, her presence is one of the most tolerable things about these movies), plus the addictive Ellie Goulding song “Love Me Like You Do.” Unfortunately we also got poor storytelling, forced chemistry and conflict, and plenty of off-putting sex scenes that never even came close to capturing the depravity they wanted. I’m tempted to bump up the grade to a C- just because I’m so grateful that I’ll never have to sit through one of these again. Nah.

 

Grade: D

7:12 pm edt 

Winchester

                “Winchester” opened on a bad weekend, and I mean that on two fronts. The first is that it’s the weekend of the Super Bowl, so the movie can kiss its Sunday evening audience goodbye. The second is that we’re only four weeks removed from “Insidious: The Last Key,” and the movies are awfully similar. For starters, they share an actor – Angus Sampson plays a blowhard ghost chaser in the “Insidious” movies, here he plays a construction worker. And there’s no denying the similarities between the fair-haired authoritative older women, played in “Insidious” by Lin Shaye and here by Helen Mirren. But the most unforgiveable similarity is that both films are bump-in-the-night PG-13 horror movies that are good for little more than a few cheap jump scares.

            The movie takes place in 1906 and stars Jason Clarke stars as Eric Price, a psychologist who lost his wife in a botched murder-suicide. Deeply in debt, he’s hired to perform a psychological evalution on reclusive widow Sarah Winchester (Mirren), majority shareholder of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. This requires him to take up temporary residence in Winchester Mansion in San Jose, a sprawling seven-story architectural monstrosity consisting of dozens of randomly-appointed rooms and undergoing constant renovations. The movie was filmed at the actual Winchester Mystery House, and I wish the movie would have spent more time just exploring the oddities of the house than getting bogged down in a by-the-numbers horror storyline.

The people paying Price clearly want him to declare Sarah mentally unfit to run the company, and at first it looks like they won’t have to twist his arm too hard to get that diagnosis. Sarah believes the house is haunted by the ghosts of people who have been killed by Winchester rifles. She adds rooms as often as she does because recreating the people’s final resting places allows them to manifest themselves so she can help them find closure. Price thinks this is all madness, of course, but he wonders how Sarah knows about his wife’s garden room. He’s creeped out by the house, sometimes by servants who appear out of nowhere and sometimes by blood that oozes out of the wall. But he figures there’s a rational explanation for everything, and that he’s just hallucinating because Sarah won’t let him have his “medication” in the house. The fact that Sarah is a woman in 1906 who won’t let a man drink whatever questionable substance he wants (the bottle is actually labelled “Poison”) isn’t going to do her any favors on the evaluation.  

You can probably guess where this is all going. Strange things keep happening until even Price can’t deny that the house is haunted. Most of the spirits don’t want to harm the living, but one wants to bring down the whole Winchester family. The key to resolving the situation lies with Price and his ability to confront his past. He carries around a bullet that played a part in the death of his wife, perhaps it can play a part in saving lives instead of taking them. And when I say “perhaps,” I mean of course it will.

“Winchester” isn’t without its minor charms. The Winchester House is an interesting setting, the costumes are top-notch, and Clarke and Mirren turn in better performances than the material deserves. But there’s still an unshakeable feeling that we got this movie last month, and it wasn’t terribly original then either. A ghost wants to show up in the background of a quiet scene? We’re expecting the ghost, it would be rude of it not to put in an appearance. “Winchester” is a forgettable, ineffectual film. It didn’t even open to more money than the seventh week of “Jumanji,” so I have a feeling it’s going to become a ghost real soon.  

 

Grade: C-

7:11 pm edt 

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

            “Maze Runner: The Death Cure” really missed out on the “YA book series set in a dystopian future” bandwagon. That trend essentially ended when “The Hunger Games” went out with a relative whimper in 2015. Or maybe it was when the third “Divergent” movie bombed so horribly in 2016 that the fourth movie was postponed indefinitely. This movie would have been considered a pathetic straggler if it had opened in 2016 or 2017 like it was supposed to, and then star Dylan O’Brien suffered an injury that severely delayed production. I didn’t see a lot of love for the “Maze Runner” franchise at that point, and it’s not like it was ever on the level of “Hunger Games” or even “Divergent” anyway, so I thought I’d never have to see this movie. But it seems as though a persisting love for the genre, paired with a shrewd January opening (something has to take down “Jumanji” after a month on top) has led to this film being a bigger hit than I expected. And you know what, that’s not a bad thing.

            The movie sees Thomas (O’Brien) and his band of fellow survivors trying to rescue a friend (Ki Hong Lee) who had been kidnapped by the WCKD Corporation. WCKD is trying to eradicate a disease that’s wiping out humanity, but is doing so by torturing their subjects and killing those who oppose their methods, leading to an ethical dilemma. The corporation is headed by Dr. Paige (Patricia Clarkson), who has the fiendish Janson (Aiden Gillen) as her head of security. Also working for WCKD is scientist Theresa (Kaya Scodelario), Thomas’s former love interest, who betrayed her friends in the last movie for what she considered the greater good. To be honest, I had forgotten all about Teresa’s betrayal in the three years since the last movie, just like I had forgotten about half the characters in this series. The overlong break did this movie no favors in the “who stands where with who” department.

            Thomas forms a shaky alliance with a resistance movement led by a noseless disease-sufferer (Walton Goggins), which includes a former enemy long thought dead. Thomas thinks the group opposes WCKD, but they actually oppose everyone who lives inside a cushy quarantine zone. This leads to an impressive city destruction sequence. Actually, most of the sequences in this movie are pretty impressive, more so than in previous installments. My theory is that the extra time gave the filmmakers more of a chance to polish the film. It looks less rushed than if its team had been in a hurry to spit out the film before the YA craze died out.

            That extra layer of professionalism makes “Maze Runner: The Death Cure” the best of the “Maze Runner” movies. Unfortunately, that’s not saying much. I still can’t bring myself to care about most of these characters, especially Thomas. Dr. Paige is right when she says that he needs to see the bigger picture beyond just saving his friends. WCKD could develop a cure based on his immunities in about a minute if he’d just cooperate. Even the vile Janson turns into a softie for a moment when he thinks a treatment has been developed that can stave off the disease in children. Imagine the hope and peace it could bring to the nicer characters. I think the problem was naming the company WCKD, it makes them look more evil than they really are. Maybe the disease wiped out the PR division that would have pointed that out. The franchise at least avoids the pitfall of splitting its final installment into two half-baked movies, but the trade-off is that this movie takes forever at 142 minutes. We’re currently in the midst of awards season and “Paddington 2” is still in theaters, so this movie shouldn’t be your highest priority, but it does bring the inferior “Maze Runner” series to a surprisingly competent conclusion.

 

Grade: C

7:10 pm edt 

12 Strong

“12 Strong” is one of those January movies that wants people to think that it’s in awards contention even though it isn’t. We’re at the point in the year when movies that opened in limited release in December are starting to go wide because of awards season. “The Post” from last week followed that template; it’s technically a 2017 movie and it wants recognition as one of the best films of 2017, but it’s content to do most of its business in 2018. “12 Strong” is a war movie that can pass itself off as awards bait, so it wants audiences to think that maybe its January release is because it’s a terrific 2017 movie rather than the mediocre 2018 movie that it is. I’m not saying that the film’s advertising has made any false claims or actively been deceitful, all I’m saying is that the film doesn’t mind being mistaken for something better.

The film follows the first group of American soldiers to fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan following 9/11. It’s a 12-man unit, but there’s really only emphasis on four of them. Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) is the leader, an inexperienced operative who gets the mission because he understands that someone more experienced is going to be lost in such uncharted territory. Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon) is a veteran who turns down the chance to retire to serve on the mission. Sam Diller (Michael Peña) is one of the more likeable members of the team, a good-humored family man played by Peña with his usual charm. Ben Milo (Travante Rhodes) has a subplot where he bonds with a child assigned to protect him. Other U.S. military figures include Col. John Mulholland (William Fichtner), there to provide Nelson with inspiration, and Lt. Col. Max Bowers, played by soldier-turned-actor Rob Riggle, who actually served under Bowers.

Those are the faces you’ll recognize, anyway. The truth is that the most interesting character in this movie is one who’s barely been emphasized in the film’s advertising. Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) is a resource-rich local warlord that Nelson needs to befriend if he wants to complete the mission. Dostum is the kind of guy who won’t let you know he speaks English unless he decides you’re worthy of knowing that he speaks English. As expected, he’s very hesitant to work with Americans, but fortunately he’s determined to wipe out the Taliban at all costs. He’s got a grudge against the local Taliban leader and taunts him personally a few times. It’s very important to Dostum that he be the one to sack the city at the heart of the mission, and he’s conflicted when it looks like the mission might be a success without the spoils going to him.

Dostum is able to provide Nelson and his men with transportation in the form of horses, which they don’t know how to ride. There’s been a lot of emphasis on the horses in the film’s advertising, and in fact its original title was “Horse Soldiers.” I was expecting some cowboy antics in the action sequences, but the horses are just used to get from Point A to Point B, a symbol of how the Americans are out of their element in Afghanistan.

“12 Strong” is a completely average based-on-a-true-story war movie. The movie does a great job of making its subjects look like heroes and a lousy job of making them look like interesting people. Even great actors like Shannon and Peña struggle to make their characters halfway memorable, to say nothing of the ones played by lesser-known actors. Hemsworth as the lead may have an all-American look, but his Australian accent pokes through enough for him to lack an all-American voice. The action is perfectly competent, and of course you’ll be rooting for the real-life heroes every step of the way, but there’s nothing outstanding about this movie that would say, win it a major award.

 

Grade: C

7:09 pm edt 

The Post

            It’s hard to talk about “The Post” without talking about how the film is clearly trying to dominate awards season. A good place to start is with the Oscar pedigree among its cast and crew. Tom Hanks is a five-time Best Actor nominee, famously winning two years in a row in the mid-90’s. Meryl Streep is a 20-time nominee, winning three times. Producer and Director Steven Spielberg is a 16-time nominee, winning three times and also receiving the special Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. Composer John Williams is a 50-time nominee, winning five times, twice being nominated three times in the same year. These are just the most well-known among the film’s multi-time winners, the takeaway being that Oscar history is very much on this film’s side.

            Speaking of history, the film takes place in 1971 when women weren’t fully respected in the business world, many media outlets were at odds with the President, and phones were clunky and grounded. Things are different with phones now. A man named Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) steals a government report on U.S./Vietnam relations, strips it of its Top Secret classification, and leaks it to the press. The New York Times is first to publish the salacious details, but Nixon gets an injunction temporarily preventing them from publishing any further. Can The Washington Post pick up the story and run with it without getting destroyed in the process?

            Two major players in the drama are Post owner Katharine Graham (Streep) and editor in chief Ben Bradlee (Hanks). Both believe they have a responsibility to run the story, but naturally there are obstacles, especially with Graham. She recently inherited the paper from her late husband, who inherited it from her father, making it her family’s legacy. She’s trying to take the company public, but investors are skittish about her gender and inexperience, mostly her gender. She’s also friends with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who doesn’t want the unflattering report published, but Bradlee insists that journalistic integrity supersedes the friendship. Then there’s a thorny legal issue involving running a story with the same source as The Times, which could result in Graham and Bradlee going to prison. Those nervous investors (can’t forget about them) would surely pull out if that happened.

            “The Post” is an intense, loving tribute to the hardworking men and women of the newspaper business. It is reminiscent of “Spotlight,” the Best Picture winner from two years ago, not to mention “All the President’s Men.” Speaking of which, the film ends with the beginnings of that other time the Nixon White House clashed with The Post. It’s not often that historical dramas end in sequel-baiting. It should come as no surprise that I think the film is deftly handled. It’s Spielberg, Hanks, and Streep in a film where I didn’t pick up on any major missteps, so of course I’m going to love it. You’ll probably love it too. Even if you don’t find business and politics particularly interesting, it’s hard not to get swept up in the action, dialogue, and performances. Yes, the film hits all those beats that movies that are blatantly trying to win Oscars are known to hit, with conflict and hardship and inspiration and overcoming adversity at just the right moments. Some will say that the film just follows a formula, but it’s a winning formula, and the team behind “The Post” are masters of the formula.

 

Grade: A-

7:08 pm edt 

Insidious: The Last Key

            “Insidious” is one of those horror franchises that likes to jump around a lot in its timeline. “The Last Key” takes place second out of the four films. The story follows paranormal problem-solver Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) and her techies Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) as they investigate yet another haunting… but this time, it’s personal! Okay, we never get that cheesy line, but it is personal, and I wish we did.

            The haunting is happening in Elise’s childhood home in Five Keys, New Mexico. We get flashbacks to a fateful night in which Elise’s father punished her for her paranormal visions by locking her under the floor. Young Elise was tricked into freeing a spirit from The Further that promised to help her escape. But the spirit turned out to be evil and it killed her mother. Elise and her innocent brother Christian were raised by their abusive father until Elise ran away because they didn’t understand her gift. Now the current owner of the house (Kirk Acevedo) is having haunting problems and Elise and her team need to tell the spirits to pipe down so he can get a good night’s sleep. Maybe Elise can use this opportunity to rid the world of whatever killed her mother.

            Horror prequels like this present the challenge of predictability. We know that the three main characters are going to make it to later “Insidious” films, so there’s zero chance of them getting killed here. For this film to work, there needs to be someone to worry about. The house’s new owner isn’t particularly likeable, he won’t do. Enter salvation from the grown Christian (Bruce Davison) and his daughters Imogen (Caitlin Gerard) and Melissa (Spencer Locke). These characters have never appeared in an “Insidious” film before, and their fates are up in the air.

            If you’ve ever seen an “Insidious” film, or even a trailer for one, you know that the horror is mostly jump-scare-based. Demons and spirits have transcended planes of existence just to pop out and scream a word or two and then vanish. The good entities are even worse about this than the bad entities. The bad entities at least try to be soothing to lure victims into a false sense of security. The good entities can’t be bothered to say “Don’t be alarmed, I’m a good guy!” They have to scare the characters and risk giving them a heart attack that would defeat the objective of having a living person complete the mission.

            The film is disappointingly lacking in humor. I remember getting some hearty laughs out of “Insidious 3”, but this film doesn’t measure up. Specs and Tucker are comic relief as always, but their shtick is getting old. Specs is meek and awkward, Tucker is macho and dumb, and they run the act into the ground. There is a brief reprieve when Specs has to deal with a danger of this world, but otherwise their antics feel forced. They’re creepy too, in a non-horror way, as they’re constantly hitting on Christian’s daughters. The movie should have had a scene where tough old bird Elise threatens them with violence if they don’t leave her nieces alone, but somehow it misses the opportunity.

            “Insidious: The Last Key” is a completely standard installment of a franchise, and really a whole genre, that is lucky if its films qualify as “standard.” Lin Shaye puts her back into her performance as always, and I think the demon du jour is well-designed, but this movie is nothing special. I hope The Last Key opens the door to a theater that’s showing a better movie.

 

Grade: C-

7:07 pm edt 

Pitch Perfect 3

            When we last saw the a cappella group The Bellas in “Pitch Perfect 2,” most of them were graduating college and the sky was the limit for their futures. But, as we see in clips of a documentary being made by the franchise’s oddly Bella-obsessed commentary team (John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks), things aren’t so sunshiny out in the real world. For example, Beca (Anna Kendrick) can’t stand her job as a music producer because the artists don’t like being told that they’re not talented enough to produce their tracks themselves. Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) isn’t doing so hot as an Amy Winehouse impersonator for all the reasons one would think that isn’t a stable vocation. And everyone else’s life is similarly off-key.

The members think they’re going to reunite for a one-night-only performance, but they’re really just being invited to a set by the current incarnation of The Bellas, led by the still-enrolled Emily (Hailee Steinfeld). The group laments that they’ll never perform again, until one of them suggests that they use her convenient military connections to go on a USO tour. Almost all of them have too much time on their hands, so it’s off they go on a crazy adventure among European bases.

The Bellas need to be at their best, because the most impressive act on the tour gets a spot opening for DJ Khaled, which apparently is a ticket to superstardom. Their main competition is another female group called Evermoist. That name alone should disqualify them from performing on so much as a street corner, but according to this movie, they’re a force to be reckoned with. It turns out that DJ Khaled only wants one person, and there’s a whirlpool of tedious drama over whether or not they’ll take the offer.

Because this movie is in desperate need of excitement, Fat Amy reunites with her estranged criminal father (John Lithgow, doing a pitiful Australian accent). This leads to The Bellas being taken hostage on a yacht, and the movie turns into a little action thriller for a while. I suppose I should be grateful for the break in the lame competition storyline, but the movie is out of its depth with the sudden genre shift. To be fair, we do get sausage links used as nunchucks, and that’s always good for a few seconds of amusement.

The musical performances are at least competent. The movie opens on a desperate, daring take on Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and closes on an infectiously joyous version of George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90.” In between we get another of those bouncy riff-off sequences where The Bellas supposedly get humiliated by the other acts, but I think they hold their own. There’s a nice long performance of “Cheap Thrills,” which I mention because I’m a huge fan of Sia so of course I felt swept up. And those are just the standouts. The playlist does rely a little too much on hits from the past couple of years, which haven’t been great for pop music, but it never gets too bothersome. Arranging a cappella performances like these seems like an impossible task, so even when it’s a song I don’t like, I at least respect the effort.

“Pitch Perfect 3” is about 20% proficient performances and about 80% dumb antics that I suspect are mostly there to stretch the running time out to the 90-minute mark. The movie goes for enough gags that some of them are bound to land (Hana Mae Lee as the group’s quietest member is the movie’s secret weapon as always), but it’s not at a ratio that makes the film particularly watchable. Come for the performances, stay for the performances, try not to get too bored with the rest of the movie.

 

Grade: C-

7:05 pm edt 

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

            “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” bears very little resemblance to its 1995 predecessor. That film was about a jungle-themed board game that invaded our world. This movie is about a jungle-themed video game that sucks players into its world. It’s probably better that this film goes in a different direction. All the inevitable jokes about the displaced animals invading suburbia and becoming Internet sensations would get old real quick.

            After a teenager in the 90’s is whisked into the game Alan Parrish-style, we flash forward to present day and meet our new cast of teenagers. Bethany (Madison Iseman) spends all her time on her phone and gets detention for Facetiming during a quiz. Martha (Morgan Turner) is a loner who gets detention for refusing to participate in team sports in gym. Spencer (Alex Wolff) is a nerd who gets detention for writing a term paper for his jock acquaintance Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), who, you guessed it, also gets detention. The kids are forced to do chores together, so naturally the first thing they do is start playing the “Jumanji” video game. They haphazardly choose their characters and then get magically transported into the game, where adventure awaits.

            The scrawny Spencer suddenly finds himself in the body of the brawny Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). The enormous Fridge is now stunted sidekick Mouse (Kevin Hart). Unflashy Martha is now the flash-tastic Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, the only adult actor who seems like they communicated with their teenage counterpart about their character’s mannerisms). And the female Bethany is now the very male Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). Eventually they meet up with missing-teenager-turned-game-mainstay Seaplane McDonough (Nick Jonas). If the group ever wants to get back to the real world, they have to finish the game without getting killed. That is, if they don’t kill each other first, because they’re still teenagers and they have drama. Seriously, two of them do kill each other, but they all have three lives, so the murders don’t take.

            The action is what you’d expect from a jungle adventure movie. The group has to contend with hippos, elephants, a cobra, jaguars, a surprisingly dangerous squirrel, and more snakes. I’m a big-time ophidiophobe, so during the snake scenes I was glad that this movie’s special effects were all unconvincing CGI. For the non-snake scenes, I wasn’t so glad. There’s also a villain played by Bobby Cannavale, who’s so bland that when Cannavale’s name appeared in the end credits, I wondered where he had been in the movie. Process of elimination should have told me he was the villain, but I thought he was incapable of being that boring.

            The emphasis is actually much more on humor than action, and the movie really hopes you like adult stars acting like teenagers whose personalities don’t match their bodies. Johnson is insecure, Hart acts tough even though he doesn’t have the body to back it up, Gillan doesn’t know how to flirt, Black is a female in a male’s body, those kinds of gags. Black is especially painful because he doesn’t sound like a teenage girl, he sounds like what a hack male writer from 2015 thinks a teenage girl sounds like. Also, the movie doesn’t seem to know whether it wants a PG or PG-13 rating (it’s PG-13), so the humor is mostly tame save for a few lowbrow jokes that are supposed to be edgy. It’s the worst of both worlds.

            “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” isn’t an offensively bad movie, just an annoying one. It’s pretty easy to tell what beats the story is going to hit, and we wait as the movie slogs through each one. Plus the whole “three lives” bit essentially means that the climax won’t come until each character has lost two. Things are kept lively, but it’s not an interesting liveliness. After two hours, I was more than ready to say goodbye to the jungle.

 

Grade C-

7:04 pm edt 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

            2015’s “The Force Awakens” breathed new life into the “Star Wars” saga. For years the franchise had slowly been undone by ill-received prequels, retouchings, and add-ons that made the once-great property look like a money-grubbing joke. “The Force Awakens” restored heart to the series, balance to the Force, if you will. Fans were excited about the new direction of the franchise and wondered where it would take them next. “Next” might not actually be the right word since last year we got the glorified space-filler “Rogue One,” but the direct follow-up to “The Force Awakens” has arrived in the form of “The Last Jedi.”

            The film once again sees a mix of new characters and old. Strong-willed junk salvager Rey (Daisy Ridley) trains to be a Jedi warrior under last surviving member Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). High-ranking villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has to rebuild his reputation after coming out worse for wear in a lightsaber battle with the untrained Rey. The war between the evil First Order and heroic Resistance intensifies, as the First Order now has the ability to track Resistance ships through hyperspace. General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) is incapacitated in an attack and the seemingly incompetent Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) is put in charge. Hotshot pilot Poe leads an uprising on Holdo’s ship, while former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) teams up with a starry-eyed maintenance worker (Kelly Marie Tran) to lead a sabotage mission on an enemy ship.

            Like the MCU and other cinematic “universes,” the world of “Star Wars” is getting a bit too crowded. I barely have time to mention droids C-3PO, R2-D2 and BB-8. Nor can I give much space to Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) of the First Order or his underlings, the bumbling General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), and masked commander Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). I can’t even think of a way to categorize Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), underworld figure Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), or untrustworthy hacker DJ (Benicio Del Toro), but I can’t ignore them either. Oh, and a former Jedi leader returns to advise Luke in the form of weirdly-constructed sentences.

            As if all those characters weren’t enough, there are new creatures and aliens at every turn. I could enjoy them more if I wasn’t so sure they were just created to sell toys. I’m sorry, but there’s a gratuitousness to these characters that I can’t ignore. For example, the marketing department has heavily pushed a creature called the Porg, a sort of big-eyed space gerbil. It’s disgustingly cute, but I can’t think of a single thing it does to contribute to the story. Its only job is to sit around and look pretty, and other creatures are even more useless. They’ll just slink around in front of the camera for a few seconds so the toy-hawkers can say that they were technically in the movie. “The Force Awakens” perfected the marketable character with BB-8, who was as fun as it was important. As cuddly as it is, The Porg fails to recapture that magic.

            The Porg’s inferiority to BB-8 is the perfect symbol for “The Last Jedi” and its place in the “Star Wars” universe. “The Force Awakens” simply served the franchise better. This film tries its hardest to catch up, but falls short. There are a handful of memorable moments, like Rey’s Jedi training, a Luke/Kylo confrontation, two lightsaber battles, and the death of at least one major character (not Leia though; I will say that if you’re looking for closure to the character due to Fisher’s death, you won’t find it here). I probably wouldn’t be so hard on the film if I didn’t have such high standards for “Star Wars,” but “The Last Jedi” will probably be the biggest film of the year, and with that in mind, I have to say I expected more.

 

Grade: C

7:03 pm edt 

The Disaster Artist

            “The Disaster Artist” tells the story of actor and filmmaker Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), a man who overcame adversity to achieve his dream of sharing his gift with the world. That adversity included a poor grasp of the English language, an unsightly appearance, atrocious social skills, a complete lack of knowledge or talent, and an additional layer of insanity. The “gift” that he shared with the world was “The Room,” a 2003 film that has gained cult status as one of the worst movies of all time.

            We first meet Tommy in an acting class in San Francisco, along with Greg Sestero (Dave Franco, James’s brother). Greg stumbles aimlessly through a scene from “Waiting for Gadot,” and the teacher rightly tells him he has no passion. Then Tommy takes the stage, repeatedly screaming something that can eventually be identified as “Stella!” from “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Passion is clearly not a problem for Tommy. Coherence is, but not passion. Greg sees a potential for greatness in Tommy, which according to the movie makes him a sort of visionary. My takeaway was that he’s simply a more subtle kind of crazy.

            Greg and Tommy strike up a friendship and agree to help with each other’s careers. They move to L.A. together, where they don’t have much luck finding roles; Greg because he’s just another pretty face and Tommy because he’s not at all a pretty face. It dawns on Tommy that if he can’t land the right role, he should just create one. He sets out to make his own movie with Greg as his co-star. He writes a role for himself where he gets to play an all-American everyman even though he’s from… Europe, probably (outer space also wouldn’t surprise me). The movie is “The Room” and it’s going to win the Oscar, as long as long as a nuclear blast takes out everything except the film, The Academy, and the statue.

As far as money, Tommy uses well-studied business savvy to navigate the perilous waters of securing financing and deftly stays within a tight budget. Just kidding, he draws from an immense personal fortune and thinks the solution to every problem is to throw money at it. He hires a cast and crew (played by Seth Rogen, Jacki Weaver, Paul Scheer, and Ari Graynor, among others) who are competent enough to scoff at his decisions, but not competent enough to convince him to make better decisions.

We follow Tommy and Greg through the nightmare of a shoot. We see Tommy’s approach to the film’s most infamous moments, like the sex scene, the conversation between the leading lady and her mother, Tommy’s character laughing at a mention of domestic abuse, and possibly the worst-delivered line in movie history. Greg and Tommy predictably have a falling out, and it looks like Greg won’t even go to the film’s premiere. He should have to go, if only to take responsibility for his role in the production. Sure it was Tommy’s project, but Greg gave him encouragement, which I believe is what psychologists refer to as “enabling.”

“The Disaster Artist” does an excellent job of recreating Tommy Wiseau and “The Room,” though perhaps it’s a little too impressed with itself, judging by the self-congratulatory side-by-side comparisons we get at the film’s end. James Franco’s voice sound like a bad Tommy Wiseau impression, which actually makes it a great Wiseau impression. The film never goes too far beyond mere recreation, giving up much too easily on asking why Wiseau and Sestero made such weird decisions. The film ultimately serves as a counterpoint to the classic Hollywood moral of “Believe in yourself, and you can achieve anything!” Tommy Wiseau believed in himself, and he ended making “The Room,” so maybe don’t overreach.

 

Grade: B-

6:58 pm edt 

Wonder

            2015’s “Room” never reached a wide enough audience to justify a review from me, but if it had, I would have absolutely gushed over the performance of then-7-year-old actor Jacob Tremblay. It was the kind of breakout performance that instantly guarantees an actor a lifetime of work in Hollywood. Brie Larson, who played Tremblay’s mother in the film, won the Academy Award for Best Actress, and I’d argue that he acted circles around her. Not only should he have been nominated for an Oscar, but it should have been for Best Actor and not Best Supporting Actor, for which he was unfairly pushed even though he was definitely the main character and Larson spent a significant amount of time offscreen. “Wonder” is Tremblay’s first big mainstream follow-up movie, and I’m pleased to say it’s worthy of his talents.

            Tremblay stars (he’s relegated to third billing, but to me he’s the star) as Auggie Pullman, a boy with a litany of health problems, including facial disfigurement. He’s so different-looking that he usually wears a mask when he goes out in public, his favorite being an astronaut helmet. His mother (Julia Roberts) and father (Owen Wilson) decide that this is the year for Auggie to finally go to school with other children. He’s going to have to learn to navigate the social waters of fifth grade, which is hard enough without a genetic disorder that greatly affects his appearance.

            Auggie initially faces ostracism and bullying. The film sadly includes some clichéd examples of both, like nobody sitting with Auggie in the lunchroom and him being singled out for peltings in dodgeball. In my experience, lunchrooms are too crowded for anyone to be able to sit by themselves, and gym teachers monitor activities way too closely for kids to gang up on “weak” players. The film does however get it right that kids will turn on their friends in a second if it makes them look cool in front of the popular kids. It’s also right about the way kids initially handle people that they don’t understand, but I think it’s off about how long it takes them to accept those people. I can see the other kids being uneasy around Auggie on Day 1, but realistically I see them warming up to him on Day 2, not a month later as seen here. Auggie is of course daunted at first and hurt throughout the film, but he has such a big heart and quick wit that eventually he wins everybody over and becomes one of the most popular kids in school.

            Even though the film is primarily Auggie’s story, it also takes time to make it clear that he’s not the center of the world. Time is given to develop his sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) and how she handles being marginalized by her parents in favor of her high-maintenance brother. The film even takes a step beyond Via to take a look at her friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) and how she feels so guilty about exploiting Auggie that she can’t bring herself to enjoy Via’s friendship anymore. Elsewhere the film takes a break from Auggie to follow initially-reluctant and eventually-fickle friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe) and bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar).

            For adults, “Wonder” is pretty much the uplifting weepie you’d expect it to be. For kids, hopefully it teaches them that everyone is special and everyone deserves love and respect and all the other lessons they’re supposed to learn from a movie like this. In either case, Jacob Tremblay gives a heart-wrenching, outstanding performance, proving that he’s more than just a one-hit “Wonder.”

 

Grade: B-

6:56 pm edt 

Coco

            I cannot overemphasize how badly 2017 needed “Coco.” After 2016 saw no fewer than four animated films end up on my year-end Top 10 list, this year has been one of the worst in recent memory for animation. I barely have anything nice to say about “The Boss Baby,” “Despicable Me 3,” “The Lego Batman Movie,” or “Smurfs: The Lost Village.” Critics treated “The Emoji Movie” like a sign of the apocalypse and “Leap!” was even shoddier. Even Pixar, usually the shining example of consistent greatness, had a relative misfire with “Cars 3.” But not to worry, Pixar wasn’t content to let that cash-grab sequel be their sole offering this year. Enter “Coco,” a spectacle that’s worthy of the studio’s talents and should have no trouble winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

            12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) loves music even though his family is strongly opposed to it. His great-great grandfather walked out on his wife and daughter Coco to pursue a music career, and since then music has been strictly forbidden in the family. But Miguel has a burning passion for the art form, idolizing a singer from the 1940’s named Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Looking at an old family photo, Miguel spots de la Cruz’s signature guitar and deduces that he must be his long-lost relative. He’s got music in his blood, even if it skipped three generations. Against the orders of his family, who want him to be at home honoring late relatives on the Day of the Dead, Miguel runs off to enter a talent show. He runs into a problem when he needs a guitar and there isn’t one handy. De la Cruz was buried with his guitar, and his mausoleum is nearby, so Miguel figures it’s his birthright. Upon his act of grave robbery, Miguel finds himself whisked away to the Land of the Dead.

            The Land of the Dead is a beautiful place, and Miguel is glad to learn that his dead relatives are happy there, but he needs to get back to the Land of the Living by sunrise or he’ll be stuck there permanently as a skeleton. His great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alana Ubach) can send him back with a single blessing, but will only do so on the condition that he stay away from music forever. Miguel isn’t going to take that deal, so he sets out to get a blessing from de la Cruz. He teams up with a shady character named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) who claims to be an old friend of the singer, though that might just be something he says to get out of police custody after trying to sneak into the Land of the Living without a proper memorial in the form of a plate on his family’s ofrenda. Adventure, bonding, fallouts, reconciliations, twists, and music ensue.

            I believe this film features the largest family of any Disney movie ever, with five generations spread over two planes of existence. The film is at its strongest when it’s exploring the dynamic among family members. Inter-family conflict is so present onscreen that you won’t even notice how long the film goes without a proper villain. And yet the film never lets you forget that this is a loving family and everybody just wants what’s best for everybody else. It’s touching stuff.

            “Coco” is a delightful movie, another triumph from Pixar. The gags are funny (skeleton characters = guilt-free dismemberments!), but as always, the key to the film is its heartfelt moments. If the Academy wants to give an unprecedented Oscar nomination to a voiceover performance, Gael Garcia Bernal would be an excellent choice. Ironically the film is lacking in its music; it keeps pushing a song called “Remember Me” that isn’t nearly as catchy as the movie thinks it is. But overall the movie is terrific. With less than six weeks left to lose its lead, “Coco” is currently the best family movie of 2017.

 

Grade: A-

6:55 pm edt 

Justice League

            What can I say about “Justice League” other than that the DC Universe is way too late to the party on this? The film is of course trying to capture the magic of “The Avengers,” the unprecedented superhero team-up movie from the Marvel Comics Universe in 2012. DC has wanted to hone in on the “expanded universe” market ever since. The DC people didn’t want to look like they were copying Marvel exactly, so they beat them to the punch on the “superheroes falling out” movie (“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”) and came out with an unanswered “supervillains teaming up” movie (“Suicide Squad”). But now it’s time to do the regular superhero team-up movie, and unfortunately “regular” is indeed the right word, because this movie does so little to deviate from what is now a standard formula. 

            The death of Superman in “Batman v Superman” brought about the return of an ancient villain named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). Steppenwolf almost destroyed Earth once before, it took six ancient tribes comprising almost all of humanity to exile him for millennia. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) knows about Steppenwolf because of lore she learned as a child, while Batman (Ben Affleck) knows about him because he’s spent the past few months fighting off his insectoid minions in the shadows of Gotham. Both agree that for Steppenwolf to be handled, a whole team of heroes will have to be formed. Or they could challenge him to a personality contest, which they’re sure to win because the guy is dull as a dishrag.

            The forming of the Justice League brings us three new characters. The Flash (Ezra Miller) has powers that are a little more complicated than being fast. He’s socially awkward, probably from autism, and usually serves as comic relief. Cyborg (Ray Fisher) has powers that are a little more complicated than being a human/robot hybrid. He’s afraid to appear in public because he believes the world won’t accept him. I think he’d be welcomed with open arms as the coolest-looking guy ever, at least until people got tired of his moody personality. Aquaman (Jason Momoa) has powers that are a little more complicated than talking to fish. I say Momoa was a good choice to play Aquaman, as the character is often seen as silly, so casting an actor who looks like he could actually win in a fight balances things out. Even united, the five heroes don’t stand a chance against Steppenwolf. Should they consider an experimental procedure to try and resurrect Superman (Henry Cavill)? We all know they’re going to, but did the movie have to give it away by listing Cavill second in the opening credits?  

            I spent the film thinking about how badly it wanted to be “The Avengers.” I thought about parallels between the main characters. Batman is a billionaire with an arsenal of expensive gadgets, like Iron Man. Superman is an All-American goody-two-shoes, like Captain America. Cyborg’s powers are more of a curse than a blessing (at least according to him, again, I don’t really see a downside), like Hulk. Flash is basically an awkward teenager, like Spider-Man (bit of a cheat, I know). Aquaman is the subject of jokes about uselessness, like Hawkeye. And Wonder Woman has roots in mythology, like Thor. Yup, Thor. Okay, fine, and she’s the one female on the team like Black Widow.

            “Justice League” had heavy creative input from Joss Whedon, best known for directing both “Avengers” movies, so of course there are going to be similarities. Even if you loathe director Zack Snyder (and I’m one of his biggest detractors), he wasn’t directly responsible for the apex of the competition. I actually didn’t have a lot of specific problems with this movie other than a lame villain and tedious suspense over whether certain members will join the team (come on guys, Earth getting destroyed means you too, so muck in), it’s just familiar and underwhelming overall.

 

Grade: C-

6:54 pm edt 

Daddy's Home 2

            “Daddy’s Home” was one of the worst movies of 2015. I took two hours out of my Christmas Day to cringe through an obnoxious feud between a doting stepdad (Will Ferrell) and an underactive biological father (Mark Wahlberg) over the love of their shared kids. Because that movie had a cushy holiday opening, it made enough money to warrant a sequel. “Daddy’s Home 2” is somehow even worse, making me appreciate the few things the original did right that this one lacks. As it stands, this movie is a Madea Halloween away from being the worst movie of 2017.

            Just a quick recap on the families: Brad (Ferrell) and Sarah (Linda Cardellini) have one son of their own, and Brad is stepdad to Sarah’s son and daughter that she had with Dusty (Wahlberg). Dusty is stepdad to a girl that his new wife Karen (Alessandra Ambrosio) had with Roger (John Cena). Four kids, five parents, and for this movie we’re adding two grandparents. John Lithgow is Brad’s dorky dad Don and Mel Gibson is Dusty’s estranged father Kurt. Since the movie promises to be about daddies, the majority of the screen time goes to Brad, Dusty, Don, and Kurt.

            In short, Kurt gets the feud between Brad and Dusty going again. He thinks that the best way to solve any conflict is to fight, so he serves as an instigator at every opportunity. He likes to get the two arguing, and then saying “Are you going to take that?” He also thinks they’re too soft in their approach to parenting, and that Dusty especially needs to be more hard-nosed. He wants his grandkids hunting turkeys, bowling without bumpers, and approaching crushes in a way that constitutes sexual harassment. Brad and Dusty think he needs to start living in the 21st century, but they also feel a need to impress him. Another round of one-upsmanship ensues, with Kurt’s respect on the line as well as the kids’. Eventually a lesson is learned about how they’re all being stupid and the important thing is that they function as a cohesive family unit.

            The movie is consistently painful, especially when Ferrell’s brand of comedy is involved. Brad can’t do anything right, both in terms of being a klutz and being a bad parent. The klutz part hasn’t changed much from the first movie, this time sees him get whacked in the face by a tetherball, violently crash a snow tube, get Christmas lights caught in a snowblower, chop down a “Christmas tree” so that it crushes Dusty’s car, and other tired pratfalls every other minute. The bad parenting is one of those things that’s worse here than in the first movie. Brad previously had a responsibility to him that somewhat balanced out Dusty’s style-without-substance. Here, everything he does is wrong, from dating advice to fighting in public to cheaply dragging Roger into the family conflict so Dusty will be unnerved. Actually, none of the father figures in this movie are very good at parenting, maybe the idea is that the five need to work together to bring out the one good parent they have between them? If that is the case, then the math is off, because with these characters, there’s maybe a third of a good parent between them.

            “Daddy’s Home 2” is an ugly movie about people who need a serious lesson in maturity. Even more than the characters, the film itself needs to grow up, given the reliance on lowbrow humor. This is a movie that loves its “family members kissing on the mouth” gags, not to mention the characters’ overall inability to behave like they’ve been trained to function in polite society. I was prepared for an annoying experience, and this movie managed to sink even lower than my expectations. Be a good Daddy or Mommy and take the family to see something better.

 

Grade: D

6:53 pm edt 

Thor: Ragnarok

            It’s been over two years since we’ve seen Thor (Chris Hemsworth), which seems like forever in Marvel Cinematic Universe time. He missed the dissolution of The Avengers in “Captain America: Civil War” and the rise of several new superheroes. We missed a lot with him as well. He broke up with his girlfriend and got himself imprisoned by a fire demon. The demon wants to bring about Ragnarok, or the destruction of Thor’s home planet of Asgard, which essentially means the end of everything Thor holds dear.

Thor kills the demon in about a minute and returns to Asgard expecting a hero’s welcome, only to learn that he’s missed a lot there too. His wise father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has exiled himself to Earth and his troublesome brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is now posing as the king. The brothers travel to Earth to bring Odin back, only to discover that they have a long-lost sister named Hela (Cate Blanchett) who is bent on taking over Asgard and conquering the universe, not to be confused with the flat-out destruction of Asgard that is Ragnarok. To give herself an unfair advantage, she traps the brothers on the waste-disposal planet of Sakaar.

Loki wastes no time selfishly endearing himself to the planet’s Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), while Thor searches for a way to get off the planet. He’s captured by drunken bounty hunter Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson) who sells him to the Grandmaster as a gladiator. He’ll win his freedom if he can defeat the Grandmaster’s Grand Champion… The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Hulk’s been gone from the MCU for as long as Thor, and his story has apparently consisted of getting stuck on Sakaar, becoming Grand Champion, and not being able to turn back into Bruce Banner. Thor wants to recruit Hulk to help him save Asgard, but without Banner’s goodness, Hulk no help, Hulk Smash!

For better or worse, this is a “fun” film. I love the bright color scheme with greens and oranges standing out, especially on Sakaar. This movie would be right at home on 90’s Nickelodeon. The film prides itself on its sense of humor, and the results are mixed. Superhero movies that take themselves too seriously do make for a miserable experience (a few from the rival DC Universe come to mind), but this one may take a few steps too far toward the other extreme. Almost every scene is permeated with something going wrong and making our stoic characters look silly. They’ll mistime crucial moments, they’ll stumble and fall, they’ll be clumsy around newfangled equipment and obstacles, and they’ll otherwise be embarrassed when they’re trying to look cool. These gags happen so frequently that they quickly lose the element of surprise. I found myself hoping that things would go right just so the movie could stop wasting time on characters recovering from minor missteps. Come to think of it, the whole MCU has been taking this approach lately, and it’s getting stale. The film isn’t exactly ruined by its silliness, and indeed there are several gags that work (everything involving Rachel House as the Grandmaster’s scene-stealing assistant is gold), but the franchise would do well to ease up on humiliating its heroes going forward.

“Thor: Ragnarok” is ultimately an average MCU offering from a character who’s never quite reached the heights as his colleagues in The Avengers. For such a lighthearted entry, this film sees Thor lose an awful lot, which leads me to theorize that he’s not going to survive his next go-around. I know the character is worth a ton of money to the MCU, but they’re going to want to shock fans by killing off an Avenger eventually, and by the end of this movie there’s an unmistakable impression that he’s run his course. I could be way off, but I say you should enjoy Thor’s meatheaded antics while you can.

 

Grade: C

6:52 pm edt 

Jigsaw

            I had never seen any of the “Saw” movies prior to “Jigsaw.” The first seven films all came out before I was doing this column regularly, and I had no desire to pump money into a franchise that promoted unapologetic gore. That isn’t to say I didn’t do my research in preparation for this film. I knew that the action would be based on elaborate traps devised by John “Jigsaw” Kramer (Tobin Bell). I knew that his motivation is to make people who have disregarded human life in the past find new respect for it… if they survive. I also knew that Jigsaw himself died in the third movie and his plots are usually carried out by some sort of disciple. Oh, and the puppets, I knew about the little red-eyed puppets that ride tricycles. I still don’t know why I’m supposed to be scared of them, maybe that’s explained in an earlier installment, but I knew about them.

            The movie features five “players” trying to survive Jigsaw’s traps. Whoops, make that four. One poor chap gets pulled into a moving buzzsaw in the first minute. C’mon Jigsaw (or mastermind du jour), the guy was barely conscious, you can’t possibly think that’s fair. The remaining players are Anna (Laura Vandervoort), Ryan (Paul Braunstein), Mitch (Mandela Van Peebles), and Carly (Brittany Allen). Anna helps another player survive the buzzsaw, and Ryan shoves one down, so there are your hero and villain, respectively. They’ll probably be the last two left - Mitch and Carly, thanks for playing. And I’m not so sure about you, Anna. You were chosen as a player for a reason, chances are you’re the worst one of all.

            Outside the “game,” four characters are trying to stop the killings: Detective Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie), Detective Hunt (Clé Bennett), coroner Logan (Matt Passmore), and assistant coroner Eleanor (Hannah Emily Anderson). Officially, their job is made more complicated by the fact that Jigsaw has been dead for ten years. Unofficially, their job is made more complicated by the fact that one of them is probably the one behind the game. It’s either one of them, someone who has helped Jigsaw in the past, or Jigsaw himself, though that would mean that he’s both alive and doing all the heavy lifting for once.

            The bad news is that there’s something wrong with just about every trap in this movie. The players aren’t given enough time to properly respond to the buzzsaw trap. A decision by the wrong player messes up a syringe trap. A trap inside a grain silo can be easily conquered (just climb on top of the grain) and involves random perils that betray Jigsaw’s supposed precision. I couldn’t even follow a trap that I think took place in a big blender. A shotgun trap is hopeless. A laser trap doesn’t even attack the right part of the body (at least at first). The point of these traps is that the players are supposed to be learning a lesson about doing the right thing morally, and that point is lost at almost every turn.

            But there are two pieces of good news when it comes to “Jigsaw.” The first is that there’s a twist that helps the movie make a little bit more sense. What seem at first to be continuity errors actually have some clever explanations. There are still a lot of things that don’t make sense (like how Jigsaw knows about certain players’ guilt), but the script isn’t always as lazy as it seems. The second is that the film is opening the week after the horrid “Boo 2! A Madea Halloween,” which makes even this tackiness look better by comparison. I certainly wouldn’t recommend “Jigsaw” to anyone who would be put off by its violence, but if you’re looking for a scary movie this Halloween and you’ve already seen “It”… then see “It” again. See this movie only if “It” is really off the table.

 

Grade: C-

6:51 pm edt 

Boo 2! A Madea Halloween

            Tyler Perry has been writing, directing, producing, and starring in movies about his Madea character for over ten years now. So how is it that this movie is so incompetently made? If this were a first-time filmmaker, I could maybe chalk the film’s painfulness up to inexperience or a lack of resources. But as this is Perry’s 17th directorial effort, and these movies do well enough that he can easily arrange financing, I don’t feel unreasonable in saying that “Boo 2! A Madea Halloween” is simply the work of a hack.

            As with the first “Boo!” the story sees spoiled teenager Tiffany (Diamond White) defying her father Brian (Perry) and sneaking off to a frat party on Halloween. The party is taking place at a remote lake where young people were killed a few decades earlier, so Tiffany might be in danger. Brian’s Aunt Madea (also Perry) feels the need to come to the rescue, and she drags along her brother Joe (Perry again) and friends Hattie (Patrice Lovely) and Bam (Cassi Davis). Trouble is indeed afoot, because partygoers are being picked off by a pair of masked figures. Could the murderers from all those years ago be back to finish what they started?

            I’ll get the obvious complaint out of the way first: the movie isn’t funny. As always, it’s crass humor supposedly made funnier by the grossest jokes being delivered by old people, one in drag. Jokes have their punchlines explained and repeated to diminishing returns, as if Perry thinks the reason we didn’t laugh is that we didn’t understand them. Actually, odds are that they weren’t very well-enunciated, but coherence would not greatly improve this material.

            Even worse than Madea and her comedic antics is the dysfunctional relationship between Tiffany, Brian, and his ex-wife Debrah (Taja V. Simpson). The idea is that Brian is too strict and Debrah is too lenient and they need to learn to cooperate. The problem is that the movie keeps making Brian 100% right on every issue, turning Debrah into an unfit and worthless parent. Example: a big point of contention is that Debrah buys Tiffany a car for her birthday, and Brian is peeved that Tiffany hasn’t done anything to earn the car or prove that she’s a responsible driver. Forget the whole “earn vs. gift” debate, it’s rendered entirely moot by Tiffany’s irresponsible driving. She doesn’t have a license, she drives like a maniac, and she’s going to get somebody killed, possibly herself. She flat-out should not have her own car and there is no room for compromise on the matter. It’s the same thing with letting high-schooler Tiffany go to the frat party. Zero good can come of it, Debrah is wholly wrong in letting her go, and the message of parental cooperation is lost because one side must be completely discounted for Tiffany’s own good.

            Here’s a speed round of other problems I have with “Boo 2! A Madea Halloween”: Debrah’s new husband has a petty tendency to not acknowledge Brian when he’s around him, as if any adult would respect such childishness. Tiffany and the frat boys clearly learned nothing from the traumatizing ending of the last movie. Perry’s idea of a Christian message is for this movie to have a minor character with a “holier than thou” attitude. Profanity is distractingly dubbed-over as if you’re watching a TV edit. There are a ton of inconstancies and impossibilities regarding what’s going on with the disappearing college kids at the lake. And too many more to mention. I laughed exactly once at Joe’s cowardice and otherwise found this movie to be consistently unpleasant and infuriating. It gets the lowest grade I’ve given in nearly five years.

 

Grade: D-

6:50 pm edt 

Happy Death Day

            Tree (Jessica Rothe) is having an unhappy birthday. She wakes up in the bed of a stranger named Carter (Israel Broussard). Carter’s roommate says something disrespectful. She gets hassled by an environmentalist. She’s being stalked by an ex. She lives in a sorority house run by a judgmental bully. She’s annoyed by her own roommate (Ruby Modine) and throws the special cupcake she made into the trash. She’s late for class, but she’s off the hook because she’s having an affair with the married professor. She shares a birthday with her late mother, and her estranged father nags her to remember that fact when all she wants to do is forget. As if all that weren’t enough, at the end of the day, she gets stabbed to death.

            Tree once again wakes up in Carter’s bed. The same roommate bursts in with the same inappropriate remark. She gets hassled by the same environmentalist and ex. She’s getting a weird sense of déjà vu, but since she got killed in the day she remembers, she’s not too beaten up about it. She avoids taking the path that brought her to the killer and makes it to her surprise birthday party. At the party, she gets stabbed to death. She wakes up in Carter’s bed again, with the obnoxious roommate coming in right on cue. She’s in a time loop, and it seems the only way to get out of it is to avoid being killed, and the way to do that is find out who keeps killing her.

Tree’s killer has to be someone who hates her, so the list of suspects is narrowed down to everyone she knows. There’s even one she doesn’t know: an escaped serial killer (Rob Mello). Her killer knows the nuances of her schedule and this guy wouldn’t, but he’s still a suspect because… you know, serial killer. She investigates the suspects’ whereabouts one by one, usually getting killed as soon as she eliminates that person as a suspect. The repeated murders take a toll on her well-being, so there is a sense of urgency, because each time she gets killed she’s increasingly unlikely to spryly wake up again.

The movie is a mess, and a lot of it has to do with the main character. Simply put, Tree is incredibly unlikeable. I get that the movie is doing a whole “redemption” arc where she’s mean at first and ends up learning a lesson, but even “nice” Tree has no respect for other people’s schedules and resolves a conflict by pouring “chocolate milk” (brown sludge) onto an offender’s head. She makes for a lousy horror movie protagonist, as she keeps making the same major mistakes again and again. She gets killed a good half-dozen times and never thinks to rip the killer’s mask off. She waits until the last minute to perform life-saving actions that she could have done at any point in the day. Perhaps most infuriating is that there’s nothing to stop her from fleeing campus, yet she only tries escaping once and it’s a half-hearted attempt that she has no reason not to revisit with her subsequent chances.

My theory about “Happy Death Day” is that somebody wanted to make a movie about the least-frightening killer with the least-threatening weapon imaginable. The killer wears the mask of a cartoon baby, which I guess is supposed to tie into the birth/birthday theme, but those dots are never connected. I won’t get into the silly weapon because of potential spoilers. The mask and weapon were conceived first, and the movie written around them as an excuse to get away with the supposedly funny concept. This movie doesn’t even have the spine to go for an R rating. It’s filled with crude college humor and constant murder, but heaven forbid it’s off-limits to the kids in the PG-13 crowd. Give yourself a happy random day and go see something else.

 

Grade: C-

6:49 pm edt 

Blade Runner 2049

            If I could describe 1982’s “Blade Runner” in one word, it would be “hypnotic.” Director Ridley Scott crafted a world of eerie calm, one where flying cars and public shootouts were so casual that they blended in perfectly with their environment. A “blade runner” detective named Deckard (Harrison Ford) was assigned a case where he was to kill four disgruntled androids called Replicants. Surely he was in danger, and the case would go on to greatly affect his existence, but his only distress initially was over his inability to enjoy a bowl of noodles. Occasional bursts of violence and emotion barely affected the world’s harmonious state.

            “Blade Runner 2049” takes place thirty years after the original, and this time the stakes are more disruptive. It seems as though about thirty years ago, Deckard and his Replicant wife had a baby, and the potential for human/Replicant hybrids could shift the balance of power on a universal level. For example, industrialist Wallace (Jared Leto) could harness the biology and increase his company’s line of A.I. servants tenfold. Or outdated Replicants could use it as evidence that they deserve freedom in human society. Or the general population could be thrown into panic, which cannot be tolerated by L.A.’s Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright). She assigns K (Ryan Gosling), her best Replicant officer, to identify the now-grown baby and “retire” it, “retire” meaning “kill” in this world because humans like to delude themselves.

            Replicants like K are now acceptable on Earth, provided they’re newer, more obedient models than the originals, who still need to be retired. K lives a moderately comfortable life with his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas). He’s labelled a sellout because he hunts his own kind, but he’s wired (perhaps literally) to not let that bother him. K’s investigation stirs up emotions he’s never felt, especially since he’s not supposed to feel emotions and it’s actually a major problem that he does. He’s compelled to ask questions about his past, including whether he himself is the human/Replicant hybrid that’s causing all the fuss. His quest eventually leads him to an aged Deckard, whom he immediately sees as a father figure.

            The best thing about the movie is the relationship between K and Joi, which is at once sad, sick, and beautiful. Neither of these characters are technically humans (and one doesn’t have a body), yet somehow they have more heart than characters with actual hearts. The film invites viewers to make weird speculations about the couple’s intimate life, and provides a few offbeat answers. Joi indulges K in the popular fantasy of being with two women at once, though in fantasies the women are usually separate.

            The worst thing about the movie is Leto as the villain. I’ve never seen a character whose dialogue could be more accurately described as “mumbo-jumbo.” He wants to be a god and he’s despondent that he has to settle for being a billionaire. But that doesn’t stop him from spouting what he considers godlike wisdom at every opportunity. He leaves most of his dirty work to his assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), and she does pick-up some much-needed villainous slack, but it’s not the same as if the film had created a viable lead antagonist.

            Director Denis Villeneuve certainly nails the atmosphere he wants for “Blade Runner 2049.” It’s not exactly post-apocalyptic, but thirty years have taken a toll on the world Scott created, and we get the impression that it’s just a few years away from collapse. There’s more action and urgency this time around, but you can still get lost in this world and its hypnotic qualities. At 163 minutes at a contemplative pace, you might find yourself getting very sleepy for the wrong reasons.

 

Note: It pays to see the original “Blade Runner” before seeing this movie, if only for a frame of reference for when an old buddy of Deckard’s shows up, still rocking the bowtie.

 

Grade: B-

6:47 pm edt 

American Made

            “American Made” is the story of a street-smart everyman who does some shady dealings and finds himself rich beyond his wildest dreams, but at the cost of his soul. He engages in fleeting fun and excitement that he finds increasingly unfulfilling. He can’t enjoy the life he’s built for himself because he’s always on the verge of being brought down by good guys and bad guys alike. His family, who served as the reason for him to strive for that life in the first place, hates him. He wants nothing more than to put an end to his racket, but he’s in so deep that it’s impossible for him to do so without losing his freedom or his life.

Tom Cruise stars as Barry Seal, a bored airline pilot in late 1970’s Louisiana. He loves his wife (Sarah Wright) and children very much, but he’s not happy in his career. The only things that give him excitement in his job are turbulence he causes himself and occasionally smuggling cigars. He’s recruited by a CIA agent whose name may or may not be Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to take overhead reconnaissance pictures of hostile groups in Central America. Barry likes the work, but he’s not happy with the money. He soon finds a way to make some extra cash on the side: smuggling cocaine for the Medellin cartel.

Barry gets caught and the CIA agrees to move him and his family, but he has to take on extra responsibilities, namely delivering supplies to Contras in Nicaragua. This is fine with Barry because it turns out the cartel has some business in Nicaragua and they’re still willing to pay him. Barry soon finds himself running a multi-product, multi-agency, multi-national shipping operation that happens to be as dangerous as it is illegal. He rakes in the rewards; his family is happy as long as they don’t ask questions, and there’s a montage where he talks having so much money that he’s running out of places to keep it. But there’s a series of downsides: orders pile up, conflicts arise, family drama involving his brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) causes problems, several law enforcement agencies at once want him arrested, and for obvious reasons he can’t afford to get on the bad side of the Contras or cartel. Things are going to fall apart for Barry, it’s just a matter of how long he can last and how much money he can make before his empire crumbles.

The key to this movie is the highly agreeable performances by the three leads. Gleeson brings a bouncy charm to what should be a no-nonsense, shadow-cloaked character. Wright is loveably spunky in what a lesser movie might have considered a throwaway role. Then there’s Tom Cruise, every bit as capable of carrying a movie as he’s ever been. Everything he says is funny, or at least convincing if that’s what the scene calls for. Cruise has been in a lot of uninspired action/franchise pictures lately, but here in a one-time historical role, he proves once again that he can handle projects of importance, not that he doesn’t have fun with it.

It’s good that “American Made” can boast some strong performances, because it’s actually quite standard otherwise. We get a serviceable “rags-to-riches-to-ruin” movie about charismatic criminals at least once per year. Recent examples include “War Dogs” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” with the classic examples being gangster movies like “Goodfellas” and “Scarface.” This movie is by no means out of place being mentioned alongside those films, but it does have to follow in their footsteps and doesn’t do a lot to tweak the formula. Defenders will point to this film’s shrewd humor, sharp editing, and sun-baked cinematography. All of these are indeed assets, but they’re featured in the other films too. This genre is filled with so many praiseworthy films that an entry as solid as “American Made” ends up looking relatively mediocre.

 

Grade: B-

6:46 pm edt 

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

            When we last left Eggsy (Taron Egerton), he had completed his transformation into a Kingsman; going from aimless slacker to dashing British secret agent. He had saved the world, avenged his murdered mentor Harry (Colin Firth), and even gotten a girl, granted not his likeable fellow agent Roxy (Sophie Cookson) but the Swedish princess Tilde (Hanna Alström). He’s still dating Tilde in “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” which is funny in and of itself considering the controversial hookup from the first film did not seem like it would lend itself to long-term happiness. This franchise is all too happy to admit that it’s a James Bond ripoff, but the hero believing in lasting relationships is a major and welcome difference.

            Eggsy and senior Kingsman Merlin (Mark Strong) soon find themselves having to team up with liquor-themed U.S. equivalent agency Statesman to take down the sweetest, perkiest, most ruthless drug lord in all of Cambodia. Her name is Poppy (Julianne Moore) and she’s going to get a lot of comparisons to Martha Stewart, but I can’t help but see her more as my boss, candy magnate Dylan Lauren. Like many supervillains, Poppy kills a hapless henchman in an early scene, and it’s maybe the sickest version of this type of scene ever done. So why would anyone want to work for her? For once we get an answer. In addition to what I’m sure is good money, there’s another perk in the form of Sir Elton John. He’s at Poppy’s disposal to perform private concerts for her and her men. She scooped him up in the midst of the mass celebrity kidnapping from the first movie. This means that original villain Valentine wanted Iggy Azalea but not Sir Elton, good riddance to him.

            Eggsy and Merlin mingle with the Statesmen, including leader Champaign (Jeff Bridges), analyst Ginger Ale (Halle Berry), cocky agent Tequila (Channing Tatum), sharper agent Whisky (Pedro Pascal), and Harry. Yes, Eggsy’s supposedly-dead mentor. The Statesmen have been keeping an amnesia-afflicted Harry at their facility, as they’ve discovered a cure for getting shot in the head. The bad news is that we have to go through a frustrating recovering-from-amnesia storyline, the good news is that we have Colin Firth back. On a side note, I think this movie has a few too many characters get blown up, could Statesman maybe find a cure for that for the next movie?

            So much about this movie is fun: the action, the banter, Elton John in fight with robot dogs. But there a few rough edges that prevent the movie from being as enjoyable as it could be. The first is that Eggsy, like Bond, has a tendency to get minor characters killed and not care about them. I know he can’t go to pieces over everyone who dies on his mission, but there’s an instance where he signs someone’s death warrant just to fleetingly satisfy his own ego. I found it hard to root for him after that. There’s also an issue with Poppy’s master plan to poison the world’s illegal drug consumers. Never mind that these people are her customer base and she’s out of business if they die, but the movie gets weirdly serious as characters consider the ramifications of both action and inaction. We do get a delicious evil-President performance from Bruce Greenwood out of it, but it’s the wrong tone for a movie that features hot dog vendors with bazookas.

            Overall though, I had a blast at “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” The action is delightfully over-the-top and I laughed at just about everything the movie threw at me. I’m sorry to see that so many critics dislike this movie, and I’ll admit that it’s not quite as heartfelt as the first one, but I feel the need to go against the apparent consensus here. I say “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” makes for a royally good time.

 

Grade: B

6:45 pm edt 

American Assassin

            “American Assassin” stars Dylan O’Brien as CIA asset Mitch Rapp. The paperback-based Rapp is an action hero akin to Jack Ryan, Jack Reacher, Jason Bourne, and I’ll even throw James Bond in there. O’Brien is best known for the “Maze Runner” series, a teenagers-in-a-dystopian-future franchise akin to “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” and “The Host.” All he needs now is an unimaginative superhero film and he’ll be the king of late-to-the-party knockoffs.

            Rapp is so typical of heroes of this genre. He suffers a trauma, feels haunted, trains to be a killer, lives without direction except for a need for revenge, the government shows interest in him, he’s shaped by a tough-love mentor (Michael Keaton), he doesn’t follow rules or orders but he gets results, etc. Of the similar heroes I mentioned earlier, his personality most closely resembles Reacher’s – smug and rude. People say that Tom Cruise has enough of a presence to get away with that style, and I don’t even agree with that assessment, so suffice to say that I don’t think novice pretty-boy O’Brien can pull it off either.

            The theme of taking things personally runs throughout the movie. Rapp’s fiancé is gunned down in a supposedly impersonal terrorist attack by a gunman who seems to delight in targeting her just to antagonize Rapp (shooting her a second time when she’s mortally wounded is just bad manners, then again so is shooting her in the first place). Rapp is so blinded in his need for revenge on the gunman that when the CIA takes out the terror cell, he just has to get in a pointless cheap shot. Keaton tries to teach him not to let personal anger get the best of him, but he can’t help but kill some despicable targets who could have provided useful intel. It turns out that the villain (Taylor Kitsch) is also ignoring Keaton’s advice, because he’s carrying out an attack that is very, very personal. He even takes some nerve-touching swipes at Rapp to gain a psychological advantage.

            The film teases a romantic subplot between Rapp and a Turkish agent named Annika (Shiva Negar). Thankfully the relationship doesn’t go as predictably as I expected, but the direction it does take isn’t very inspired either. And it climaxes in an astoundingly stupid decision on Annika’s part.

            The film does do one thing to separate itself from its spy-game brethren. Whereas most of these films are satisfied with a PG-13 rating, this one goes for an R with coarse language and bloody violence. Neither is exactly out of place given how tensions are high and a lot of people are getting killed, but they don’t make the movie more interesting. Having copious amounts of blood is not the same as having a heart. The film is dull with or without the language and violence, all the R rating does is close it off to a wider audience.

            Not even Michael Keaton can save “American Assassin.” Here is an actor who helped guide two movies in a row (2014’s “Birdman” and 2015’s “Spotlight”) to Best Picture Academy Awards and he has little to do here besides spout hardened mentor clichés and rip off Mel Gibson from the torture scene in “Lethal Weapon.” An even bigger problem is Dylan O’Brien. I’m certainly glad to see he’s recovered from his highly-publicized head injury, but maybe he should take some low-key roles for a while because right now being an action hero is not for him. In this role he lacks charisma and credibility, not that any actor could do much with this heavily-recycled material. About the only positive thing I can say about “American Assassin” is that it moves along at a brisk pace, so it’s never long before the next underwhelming attempt at a thrill.

 

Grade: C-

6:45 pm edt 

It

            “It” tells the story of a group of kids in small-town Maine who are hunted by a terrifying psychopath. That psychopath is a bully named Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and he’s sadistic. He doesn’t roughhouse, he commits felony assaults. As if that weren’t bad enough, there’s an evil clown who feeds on fear called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) on the loose. I think Bowers is a better villain, but of course the creepy clown with the sharp teeth and supernatural powers gets all the credit. 

            Unfortunate Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is taken by Pennywise in the film’s opening sequence and his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) feels guilty about it. Bill hangs out with a group of misfits called the Losers’ Club. Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a germaphobe who’s allergic to almost everything. Stan (Wyatt Oleff) is an underachieving rabbi’s son who’s creeped out by a painting in his dad’s office. Richie (Finn Wolfhard) is a smart-aleck who just wants to spend his time goofing around and saying one inappropriate thing after another. Mike (Chosen Jacobs) is a local farm hand who’s targeted by bullies because he’s “homeschooled” (but it’s pretty obvious that it’s because he’s black). Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is a bookworm who pines after Bev (Sophia Lillis). And Bev is a victim of salacious rumors around school and heavily-implied abuse at home. 

            This is a world where adults hardly exist because they’re all inattentive, dishonest, abusive, lustful, judgmental, or otherwise jerks. The upside of all the untrustworthiness is that the kids basically have run of this world. All of them have terrific chemistry and banter. I know there’s a horror movie to get to, but the movie is perfectly fine when the kids are just hanging out, riding bikes, swimming, and dodging bullies. They’re even great at swearing. I know on many levels it’s wrong to compliment kids swearing, but I can’t deny that they have great comedic timing with blue humor. The movie is based on a novel by Stephen King, and “Stand by Me” is pretty much the gold standard of profane kids movies, so I can’t say I’m surprised. 

            Speaking of Stephen King, I guess I need to get into the horror aspects. If you’re scared of clowns and teeth, then yeah, this movie is plenty scary. Personally, I understand where clowns can be creepy, but I don’t find them terrifying as long as their eyes are intact. As such, I find most of the Pennywise scenes to be silly rather than scary. I laughed my way all the way through the interaction with Georgie and later scenes where he haunts a slide projector and attacks Bev through a bathroom sink. These scenes, among others, are so over-the-top that I can’t take them seriously, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find them highly enjoyable. “It” – where the jokes are funny and the scares are funnier. 

            “It” loses steam in the final act where it starts taking itself seriously and the kids learn a profound lesson about conquering fear. Of course they’ve conquered their fears, Pennywise has already made them face their fears without killing them so they’ve already taken what he can dish out. But there’s still a lot unknown about how this world works. Why is Pennywise haunting this one town? How does he choose his victims and why is he so set on this particular group? Since he needs fear to survive, is it more productive to grab victims right away or toy with them for a while? Presumably we’ll find out more about Pennywise in an inevitable sequel, which I know we’ll get because the film promises one at the end. And because I know the book follows the characters into adulthood. And because the film made $117 million in its opening weekend and there’s no way Hollywood isn’t going to milk the property further.

Grade: B-


6:43 pm edt 

Wind River

            The box office has been in a bad place lately. Last week didn’t bring much in the way of new wide releases other than the pathetic “Leap!” This week there were no new wide releases at all. Nada. Nothing wanted to open on Labor Day weekend. This lack of competition allowed the slowly-growing “Wind River” to mosey its way into the Top 3 at the weekend box office. The movie isn’t some skyrocketing small-time gem, but it’s one of the better options from the doldrums of August.

            Jeremy Renner plays Corey Lambert, a professional animal tracker and hunter for an Indian reservation in Wyoming who gets drawn into a murder investigation. The problem is that it’s not officially a murder. The victim, a teenage girl, ran barefoot into the unforgiving wilderness following a sexual assault and succumbed to the elements. Someone is responsible for the girl’s death, but the technicality means that all the FBI is willing to do is send rookie agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). Banner is the very definition of “out of her element.” She’s not dressed for extreme cold, she’s never been on a snowmobile before, she’s tactless when talking to the victim’s family, and she doesn’t understand the local emphasis on self-reliance. She needs help from Lambert, whose own teenage daughter was killed a few years ago. He agrees to help, putting him on a rare hunt for a human.

            The real star of the movie isn’t Renner or Olsen, but the setting. This is a place that will eat you alive if you let it, and I’m not just saying that because of the wolves and coyotes, though you have to watch out for them too. The terrain downright deadly, certainly beautiful as a portrait of unspoiled nature, but terrifying to someone who pines for the comfort of civilization. It’s the wrong place to be in need of a hospital or police station. As for the people, the average ones aren’t exactly kill-happy, but compassion is not a given with them. Why should they help you when they spend their days getting beaten down by the very land they call home?

            The movie is about a hunt for a killer, but there’s surprisingly little mystery here. Lambert and Banner figure that the victim’s boyfriend must be involved, and the investigation turns into a search for him. Lambert and Banner have to turn over the reservation just to get the guy’s name, first questioning the victim’s distraught father (Gil Birmingham), then her drug-addict brother (Martin Sensmeier) who gets them into a shootout. Eventually they go on a seemingly harmless visit to confirm information that gets them into another shootout because someone panics. The idea is that we’re supposed to focus on the characters and what they learn about each other while pursuing the murderer rather than the actual identity of the murderer. But this is a pretty compact movie and I say there should have been time to both develop the characters and throw some twists and turns and more than one suspect into the investigation.

            “Wind River” has the makings of an exciting thriller, but it doesn’t quite pull it off. Most of the performances are engaging, from Renner to Birmingham to Graham Greene as a wry local police chief to Jon Bernthal as… let’s call it a mystery role. But Olsen is troublesome. I get that the character is inexperienced, but she’s so incompetent that I wonder how she ever got to be an FBI agent. I was actually rooting for her to not solve the mystery because that would mean her incompetence paid off. Then there’s the matter of the investigation concluding abruptly with characters we meet at the last minute. But we do get a nice climactic scene on a mountaintop with Renner and person of interest. “Wind River” is a good movie that could have been better, but it’s worthy of its minor box office success.

 

Grade: B-

6:41 pm edt 

Leap!

            “Leap!” is an animated kids’ movie that teaches the lesson that if you work hard and practice every day for years… you’re a sucker. Just be a natural and cut to the front of the line. Elle Fanning voices Félicie, an aspiring ballerina in 19th-century France. She and her inventor best friend Victor (Nat Wolff) escape their rural orphanage and its surly supervisor (Mel Brooks) and run off to Paris so they can follow their dreams. Victor bumbles through an offscreen subplot where he becomes an apprentice to Gustave Eiffel, but the movie mostly focuses on Félicie, and it’s worse off for it.

            Félicie is taken in by Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), a former dance prodigy whose career was cut short due to injury. Odette now holds down two jobs as a cleaning woman, one for the Paris Ballet Academy and the other for Madame Le Hout (Kate McKinnon). Le Hout’s daughter Camille (Maddie Ziegler, best known for voicelessly dancing in Sia’s music videos, here proving less adept at dancelessly voicing) has been invited to audition for a role in “The Nutcracker” for the Academy even though she’s not a student. The arrogant Camille damages Félicie’s prized music box and Félicie steals her invitation. Suddenly the plucky orphan is in contention for the role of a lifetime. Two problems: 1) The director (Terrence Scammell) is prejudiced against Félicie because she’s not a student and vows to cut her from the multi-day audition the first chance he gets, and 2) she’s a terrible dancer. She had a few nice moves while goofing around the orphanage, but she’s in no way prepared for actual ballet.

            Félicie overcomes these obstacles through hard work. And by “hard work,” I mean Odette trains her a few hours each day with homespun methods and somehow she’s able to avoid elimination. Keep in mind, she’s up against students from the Academy. How poorly are they preparing their dancers if even their own employees can’t bring themselves to cut someone with so little training? The other dancers must see Félicie as something of a Mozart to their Salieri, someone who achieves greatness with almost no effort while their own painstaking efforts go unappreciated because they lead to underwhelming results.

            This movie is undone by the complete unlikeability of every character except Odette. Victor is the embodiment of every awkward teenage boy stereotype. The orphanage supervisor is a one-joke troll until a change of heart from out of nowhere. The ballet director seemingly lives to insult teenage girls. Camille and her mother have to be especially obnoxious to make Félicie look good by comparison. And of course there’s Félicie herself, who doesn’t deserve any of the success she finds. She hasn’t gone through the proper channels, she doesn’t have a strong work ethic, she doesn’t bring anything different to the Academy, and she’s not even particularly nice. She throws away not one but two friends to go on a date with a good-looking boy with a horrible personality. On top of all that, something is very wrong with the animation in this movie. The backgrounds and buildings are actually quite nice, but the movements are unnatural and the characters’ faces often don’t match up with the dialogue.

            On my way out of the theater for “Leap!” I saw a little girl doing amateur ballet moves because the movie had inspired her. For a second I thought maybe I was being too grouchy about the film. After all, if she could find something of value in this movie, who was I to say it was bad? But then I realized that the reason she liked dancing so much was that the movie had made it look easy. Any skill looks enticing if it’s made to look like it can be mastered in a week. If Félicie had gone through a real struggle and still come out with her passion for dance intact, then that little girl’s reaction might have meant something.

 

Grade: D

6:39 pm edt 

"The Hitman's Bodyguard"

            This movie didn’t need to work very hard to gain my favor. It’s an R-rated movie starring three actors who are really good at swearing. Ryan Reynolds brought crude humor to new heights last year in “Deadpool.” Salma Hayek always sounds exquisite and exotic when she goes on profanity-laced tirades in English or Spanish. Then there’s Samuel L. Jackson, who is widely considered one of the best cussers in cinematic history, particularly when it comes to a certain word that starts with M and eventually contains an F. If you were one of the people who was disappointed that Jackson’s one use of the MF word got bleeped out in the needlessly PG-13 remake of “Robocop,” fear not, he more than makes up for it here.

            To be clear, I am not impressed by naughty words alone. Often I think of people who use these words as deviants because they can’t express themselves without jumping to words they know to be taboo. And of course the words are inappropriate for most occasions. But an R-rated movie about snarky adults who constantly find themselves amidst gunfire and explosions is definitely the right occasion, so I don’t feel guilty about laughing at the swearing in this movie.

            Notorious hitman Darius Kincaid (Jackson) is set to deliver testimony that can take down a ruthless dictator (Gary Oldman). The problem is that he needs to be transported across Europe in order to testify, and the dictator has assassins everywhere. Interpol insists he’s in good hands, but of course there’s a leak, and the convoy transporting him is immediately attacked. The agent in charge (Elodie Yung) can’t call her Interpol colleagues for help, so she has to reach out to her ex-boyfriend, bodyguard Michael Bryce (Reynolds), who is furious at her over the death of one of his clients. It’s supposed to be a secret who killed the client, but which hitman do you think it was?

Bryce takes the job, but almost quits straight away when he finds out the client is Kincaid. The two don’t like each other and have tried to kill one another on numerous occasions (which means they’ve failed on numerous occasions, odd given Kincaid’s knack for job completion). The two go on a road trip, bickering and bantering as they try to outdo one another when it comes to escaping, stealing, and killing. Kincaid gives Bryce advice on winning back his ex-girlfriend, using his own relationship with his imprisoned wife (Hayek) as a shining example. Bryce, in turn, kills about one in ten of the people trying to kill Kincaid.

The action scenes are uneven. Sometimes you get a sequence as crisp as Reynolds’ fight with a goon inside some kind of workshop with lots of dangerous goodies lying around. They transition so easily between weapons that there are hardly any edits. For one brief shining moment, the Reynolds of “Deadpool” is on display, as opposed to the rest of the movie, where he comes off as a petty child (he actually has to be told by Jackson not to deliver an unsolicited “I forgive you” to his unrepentant ex). Other times you get terrible green screen and unconvincing fireballs. But even when the action is bad, the actors can be counted on to punctuate it with gleefully salacious one-liners.

I know constant swearing is a cheap way to get a laugh, but it doesn’t sound cheap when it’s in the hands of experts like Reynolds, Hayek, and Jackson. There’s an art to swearing that requires timing and presence. Reynolds knows it well, Hayek is even better, and Jackson is a virtuoso. The performances are a credit to “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” which is good because the plot and action usually aren’t. It’s a pretty unremarkable odd-couple action movie otherwise. I know I said this movie doesn’t have to work hard to gain my favor, but I wish it wouldn’t stop at “doesn’t have to work hard.”

 

Grade: B-

6:37 pm edt 


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