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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

"Avengers: Endgame"

            Here it is – the grand finale to the superhero franchise that defined a whole generation of blockbusters. We thought we were going to get a definitive end last year with “Avengers: Infinity War,” but then the evil Thanos (Josh Brolin) procured the powerful Infinity Gauntlet, snapped his fingers, and half the cast died. Never before had a superhero movie ended with a bad guy standing tall on that level. It was hard to believe that Marvel Studios would kill off so many popular characters, and even harder to believe that they’d let those characters stay dead. Now comes “Avengers: Endgame,” where those characters are probably going to be brought back to life, but how? And how long will the movie take to get there?

            I suppose I should start off with a roll call. Still alive are Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and last-minute contact Captain Marvel (Brie Larson). Marvel returns a stranded Iron Man and Nebula to Earth, where they join the others in formulating a plan to go after Thanos. The plan doesn’t work out. This is one problem that won’t be solved with a finger snap.

            Five years pass. The Avengers disassemble and go off to deal with the grief in their own ways. But then a speck of hope appears, no bigger than an ant. It’s Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), miraculously freed from the quantum realm, where he was trapped at the end of last summer’s “Ant-Man and The Wasp.” For him, the five years felt like five hours. If time works that weirdly in the quantum realm, maybe it is possible to use quantum physics to travel back in time and stop Thanos. It’s crazy, and confusing, and overly complicated, but it just might work.

            The reformed Avengers need to keep Thanos from getting his hands on the six Infinity Stones that control the gauntlet. To do this, they’ll have to travel back to three of their previous adventures: “The Avengers” (2012), “Thor: The Dark World” (2013), and “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014). They see old friends and enemies in these scenarios, and the movie keeps you guessing as to who will pop up in a cameo next (a certain late Marvel honcho does make an appearance). Needless to say, things don’t go as smoothly as our heroes would like, and they’re forced to make some hasty decisions with results ranging from humorous to tragic.

            Naturally, there are some laughs, tears, and excitement along the way. But nothing compares to the last half hour of the film, which effectively had the audience at my screening roaring, bawling, and screaming. Especially screaming. Then again, maybe “bawling” should have taken it because there are some majorly sad moments in the film. But they’re beautiful, well-earned, touching sad moments, unlike the cheap “things are not right with the world” shocker that was the ending to “Infinity War.”

            “Avengers: Endgame” is every bit the juggernaut it’s been made out to be. I’m perfectly fine with it making a record-shattering $350 million in its opening weekend. Do I have some problems with it? Sure, some of the time travel stuff doesn’t make sense, certain characters pose for a moment of fan service instead of helping where they’re needed, and I think one character could have replaced another in a climactic moment (email me if you want to know which one). But this movie is so much fun, so emotional, and just so big that it’s nearly impossible not to find several things you like about it.

 

Grade: B

12:37 pm edt 

"The Curse of La Llarona"

            Valek the demonic nun is the stuff of nightmares. Annabelle the possessed doll is a freaky sight. La Llorona is about two-thirds as scary as either of them. Her yellow eyes certainly aren’t inviting, nor is her constant stream of tears that could easily be mistaken for blood. But her face is reasonably well-proportioned and she has to open her mouth really wide to give you the full effect of her ghastliness.

            La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) is the latest supernatural entity from the “Conjuring” universe, arguably the most lucrative franchise in horror right now (assuming Jordan Peele doesn’t count as a “franchise”). With a name that translates to “The Weeping Woman,” La Llorona is the ghost of a Mexican woman who drowned her two children, killed herself out of guilt and sadness (hence the tears), and now roams the Earth looking for replacement children… that she can drown again. Nobody said she was one for sound logic.

            Anna (Linda Cardellini) is a single mom in 1973 Los Angeles. She’s a social worker, assigned to the case of fellow single mom Patricia (Patricia Velasquez). Anna is shocked to discover Patricia’s two children locked in a closet, and takes them into custody, despite Patricia’s pleas that they be returned to the closet. Later, at the child services center, the boys are abducted by La Llorona and drowned. Patricia blames Anna and prays that La Llorona go after her children next.

            Anna’s children Sam (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) and Chris (Roman Christou) are haunted by La Llarona, as is Anna herself. None of them want to admit to the others that they’re being haunted by a ghost for fear of disbelief and mistrust, so it takes a while for all of them to get on the same page. Once they do, they reach out to Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a former priest who knows how to deal with evil spirits. Can he save the family from La Llorona? Probably, but the real question is, given how many stupid mistakes they make, who’s going to save these people from themselves? Your dolly can stay on the other side of the sanctified doorway until morning, sweetie.

            If you’ve ever seen a “Conjuring” movie, you know the formula at work here. La Llorona spends half the movie with no greater aspiration than to give people a cheap jump scare. Characters investigate darkened rooms and ominous hallways (credit to the movie for making these hallways look really, really ominous), and you wonder where she’s going to come from, but a lot of times this movie cheats and she’s all of a sudden just in a shot, having apparently taken advantage of some inconsistent powers of invisibility.

            The characters get terrorized, but the R rating on this movie is a joke. The drownings are bloodless, a non-fatal shooting is bloodless, even an impaling of dubious fatality is bloodless. The only bit of violence that leaves any kind of mark is that people get burns from La Llorona’s tears. Don’t worry parents, the MPAA has seen fit to protect your children against scenes of injurious crying. Not that I’d recommend this movie to kids – or anyone else – even if it was PG-13.

            “The Curse of La Llorona” is just another entry into the “Conjuring” series. If this was ten years ago, I’d say it was designed to pad out a DVD box set. I’m annoyed that it got to dominate a holiday weekend at the box office, though I know the only reason it did so well is because all the decent movies were rightly scared away by “Avengers: Endgame” opening next weekend. And who knows, maybe this movie will get to capitalize on a surprisingly lucrative “Avengers is sold out, should we see something else?” market. But even then, this movie should be considered a low priority.

 

Grade: C-

12:36 pm edt 

"Little"

            The top two movies in the country right now have the exact opposite premise. “Shazam!” is about a young boy who is happy when he turns into an adult. “Little” is about a grown woman who is miserable when she turns into a child. I guess a good companion piece would be “The Hot Chick,” where overgrown teenager Rachel McAdams turns into man-child Rob Schneider. Eh, probably best just to stick to the two new films.

            “Little” stars Regina Hall as tech mogul Jordan Sanders. She’s a genius entrepreneuse, but also a demanding bully, having taken the wrong lesson from a “someday you’ll be the one in charge” speech when she was 13. Her staff fears and hates her, especially April (Issa Rae), her undervalued assistant who wants to pitch an app that would make her a star in the company. The latest victim of Jordan’s outrage is a nearby donut truck, whose driver’s daughter wishes Jordan would go back to a time before she was so mean. In other words, she wishes she was little.

            Jordan wakes up the next day as her 13-year-old self (Marsai Martin, the youngest executive producer in history thanks to this film). Suddenly all her power is gone: people don’t move out of her way, she can’t get coffee the way she wants it, and her building’s valet isn’t about to hand car keys over to a minor. She enlists April to cover for her at the office and try to track down the cursed donut truck, and April agrees on the condition that she gets to pitch her app.

            Complications arise when Child Protective Services learns that Jordan has an unauthorized minor living in her apartment. An agent (Rachel Dratch) insists that she be enlisted in school. For some reason, neither Jordan or April thinks to just enlist her in home school so she can run the company from her apartment all day. No, it’s much more fertile ground for comedy if Jordan is sent back to public school, where she’s haunted by memories of her unpopular past. And things haven’t gotten any easier now that technology has advanced and cyber-bullying is a thing.

            From here, the film goes through pretty predictable territory where April needs to learn a lesson about self-confidence and Jordan needs to learn a lesson about selflessness, which takes the form of helping the uncool kids perform in a talent show. There are detours where Jordan tries to get her hands on wine, an impromptu karaoke performance (which got some serious applause at my screening), and her libido being activated by her teacher (Justin Hartley) and boyfriend (Luke James). Cringey comedy about men being uncomfortable with a teenage girl hitting on them isn’t really my thing, but apparently some people like it.

            “Little” is a mixed bag. Martin and Rae have terrific chemistry, and it is funny to see Martin inflict Jordan’s overbearing personality on the world around her. But too many gags are just low hanging fruit, along the lines of the “my hair was out of control at this age” variety. At least it’s better than “What Men Want,” that other “black people do the opposite premise of a famous white-led comedy” movie from earlier this year. Mind you, it’s not better by much, maybe just a… “Little.”

 

Grade: C

12:35 pm edt 

"Shazam!"

            “Shazam!” tells the story of Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a wily teenager who has spent his life running away from foster homes so he can search for his long-lost mother. His latest home includes five other children, including handicapped superhero aficionado Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). He’s probably going to run away from them soon, but he notices Freddy getting bullied and performs a rare selfless act in standing up for him.

            Billy’s act of heroism earns him the attention of the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), a powerful being who has been waiting decades to find somebody pure of heart enough to inherit his powers before he dies. He has a weird system of testing mettle: he abducts a subject and says he can give them powers, but then allows for a counteroffer from the evil stone-encased demons he keeps prisoner. If the subject tries to take the evil powers, he decides they’re unworthy and sends them away with nothing. I have a hard time believing that decades’ worth of candidates wouldn’t side with the human, but apparently that’s the case. The opening scene shows a boy named Sivana (Ethan Pugiotto) fail the test and gleam the wrong lesson: that there are really cool evil powers out there. Normally Shazam would give Billy the same test, but he’s out of time, so he just gives him the good-guy powers and hopes for the best before dying.

            It’s unclear as to what powers Billy has been given exactly, the only thing he knows for sure is that he’s been given an adult body (Zachary Levi), designed to represent him at his physical peak. He gets in contact with Freddy, and together they experiment with sorting out his powers, which include super-strength, bullet immunity, and flying, though not to a degree that it won’t take some practice. Billy mostly uses the powers to screw around and achieve stupid teenager aspirations like buying beer, visiting strip clubs, and showing off. He’s in no way prepared to deal with a real threat, like that of Sivana (now played by Mark Strong), who has finally gotten his hands on the evil powers after all.

            The character of Sivana is perhaps the movie’s biggest weak point in that he sorely lacks motivation. Oh, he’s extremely motivated by the desire to gain superpowers, prove a point to his disapproving father and brother, and eliminate Billy because he’s a threat, but he seemingly hasn’t thought beyond that. Does he want to take over the world? If so, what kind of ruler does he want to be? Or does he just want to enjoy the powers on a selfish level like Billy? He does confront his father and brother, but it’s so quick that even to his warped mind I can’t imagine that he gets much out of it. The movie is based on a DC property, and between this and “Green Lantern,” wasting Mark Strong seems to be a hobby of theirs.

            “Shazam!” is at its best when it’s exploring the relationships between Billy and the people in his life. There’s Freddy, who is thrilled to have probably the best friend he’s ever had and doesn’t quite know how to handle that friendship, and the same can be said of Billy. There’s the rest of his foster family, my favorite of whom is the chatty and overly affectionate Darla (Faithe Herman), though the parents (Marta Milan and Cooper Andrews) are disappointingly shunted to the background for much of the movie. There’s even his mom, whose heartbreaking truth devastates Billy but also shows him where he needs to go with his life. The movie is at its worst when it’s just a superhero action movie because the straight-up battle scenes are unfunny and even worse, overlong. The movie is a mixed bag and I can’t say that I liked it overall, but I respect the things that it does right.

 

Grade: C

12:34 pm edt 

"Dumbo"

            I know I saw the 1941 animated version of “Dumbo” on multiple occasions back when I was little, but I don’t remember much about it. I remember that the main character was an elephant with overly big ears and that he had a mouse sidekick (who at one time I could have sworn was Jiminy Cricket) and there was a scene where the two of them got drunk and the mouse got his whole body encased in a bubble and floated upwards. But I don’t remember the notoriously nightmare-inducing Pink Elephants scene and I don’t remember the notoriously tear-inducing shackling of Dumbo’s mother and I don’t remember the notoriously outrage-inducing crows, probably for the best. My point is that I don’t have much of an attachment to the original, so I wasn’t really “missing” anything with the new remake, which seems to be working in the film’s favor as the consensus seems to be that it’s inferior.

            The film largely follows Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) as they travel with a circus in 1919. Holt is a trick rider who has just returned from war minus an arm. He can’t ride anymore, and even if he could, Max Medici (Danny DeVito), the circus’s owner and ringmaster, has sold all the horses. There’s only one way for Holt to earn a living in the circus now, and that’s by tending the elephants, one of whom has just given birth. The kids are immediately enamored with the baby elephant, even though the grownups grouse that its ears are too big (because elephants aren’t known for big ears, apparently). The baby ruins a performance, which earns it the moniker Dumbo (instead of Jumbo) and leads to its mother being sent away when she comes to rescue it from a hostile crowd.

            All seems lost for poor Dumbo, but then the kids discover that he has a unique ability, he can fly. His ears flap and lift him off the ground when he catches whiff of a feather. Dumbo becomes an overnight sensation, earning the attention of circus mogul V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) who wants to put him in an act with his trapeze artist girlfriend Colette (Eva Green). Vandevere buys the whole Medici circus and hires Holt and his kids as Dumbo’s handlers. The kids think that if they can train Dumbo to sell enough tickets, Vandevere will reunite him with his mother. And really he should, because he owns the mother and Dumbo is at his best when she’s around. But Vandevere has to overthink things and concoct an evil scheme that is sure to leave everyone miserable if it succeeds, probably including him.

            “Dumbo” makes a mistake focusing so much on humans, partly because we could spend all day fawning over adorable little Dumbo and partly because the human characters aren’t that interesting. The kids in particular are annoyingly wooden, though DeVito as the shyster carnie steals the movie. The plot is a mess, filled with problems that could easily be solved by humans simply realizing that elephants have to power to crush them so they shouldn’t antagonize them. And there’s an ill-advised cameo that took me right out of the movie when a modern catchphrase was invoked in 1919. But I couldn’t stay mad at this movie. Maybe it was because it opens on a visually spectacular note with a well-designed circus train, a piece of magical eye candy courtesy of director Tim Burton. Maybe it was because I liked the little world of circus life contained within the film. But the reason I’ll choose above all is that Dumbo himself has such an infectious presence, infectious enough that it just barely saves this film.

 

Grade: B-

12:33 pm edt 

"Us"

            Jordan Peele’s “Us” is a film whose reputation precedes it. Almost every conversation about the film over the past month has included talk about its inevitable place among the greatest horror movies of all time, the same with Peele among the greatest writers and directors. Peele already made history in 2017 when his horror film “Get Out” made him the first African-American to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Could this film make him the first African-American to win for Best Director? If you believe the buzz, it might. If you believe me… it’s probably somebody else’s year.

            This is a film that loves its twists, but I’ll try not to get too far into spoiler territory. The film opens in 1986 where young Adelaide (Madison Curry) is looking forward to Hands Across America. Her parents take her to an amusement park, where she wanders into a house of mirrors and suffers a traumatic experience when one of her reflections doesn’t move along with her. Peele fills the carnival with so much foreboding atmosphere that Adelaide should count herself lucky that she made it as far as the house of mirrors. Credit to composer Michael Abels for giving this film a bone-chilling score that will make you check under your bed at night for mere noises.

            We then cut to present day. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) are vacationing with their kids Zora (Shahadi Wright) and Jason (Evan Alex). Adelaide is dismayed that Gabe is dragging the family to the same beach where her childhood was forever altered. She’s also not thrilled with the company of the shallow Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elizabeth Moss), but that’s more about annoyance than ominousness. She loses track of Jason, who is seduced by the sight of a man holding hands with nobody, and the day ends badly. But the night is even worse.

            The family finds themselves accosted in their vacation home by a group of four strangers: a man, a woman, a teenage girl, and a boy, the same lineup as them. Upon further examination, it is them. Or to their point of view, “Us.” The family of doppelgangers looks like our heroes (they’re all the same actors), think like our heroes, even occasionally involuntarily move like our heroes, but they also want to kill our heroes, preferably with some handy-dandy perfectly-symmetrical scissors that are just part of this film’s ever-dichotomic imagery. The group, known as The Tethered (invoking the bondage of slavery) would do well to just kill everybody and move on to their larger plan, but Peele isn’t above the horror movie trope of having his villains relish in toying with their victims so much that they give up the element of surprise, which just sets the heroes up for a daring escape.

            There’s a lot that can be done with a horror movie that sees people face-to-face with murderous versions of themselves and their loved ones. There’s a lot that can be said too, about how we as Americans have a tendency to spoil ourselves and not think about others, or in this case, The Other. But then the film itself gets surprisingly greedy with its concept, escalating the scope of the attack to a point where it’s no longer believable, relatable, or impactful. The movie seems overstuffed, both in apparent action and underlying social commentary. Perhaps it should have been split into two movies, one about the family being stalked and another about the grander scheme (the title “Us Too” is right there). Still, I’d much rather see a movie that’s overly ambitious than a movie whose ambitiousness is lacking, and Peele fills practically every frame of this movie with pure ambition. Peele has put a lot of thought into “Us,” and in return we’re expected to do a lot of thinking ourselves, maybe about too much at once.

 

Grade: B-

12:32 pm edt 

"Wonder Park"

            “Wonder Park” seems like it was conceived as a writing exercise: come up with the most agreeable premise in the world and then screw it up. This is a movie that dares you – dares you – to dislike it. Go ahead and dislike an animated film largely set in a giant amusement park of the main character’s creation where all the rides are fun and unique. Go ahead and get mad at the supporting cast of cute furry mascots. Go ahead and get mad at the film’s promotion of creativity and its message to cherish the best parts of a relationship with someone who may be gone. All of these elements should make for an excellent family adventure, or at least a passable diversion for the kids. Instead we get a film that squanders one opportunity after another to do so much as entertain.

            The film opens with our young protagonist June (Sofia Mali) planning out an amusement park with her mom (Jennifer Garner). June wants the park to be real, so she sets up an extremely dangerous roller coaster in her yard. The experiment causes rampant destruction, and June is only allowed to continue building her park using unrideable models. A few years pass, June comes to be voiced by Brianna Denski, and the mom gets sick, so sick that she has to move to a faraway treatment center full time. With her park-designing partner gone, June decides to leave behind childish things and devote herself to making sure nothing bad happens to her father (Matthew Broderick). He insists that he can take care of himself and sends her off to camp, but she can’t bear to leave him alone and ditches the bus when it has to make a stop. I found it incredibly bothersome that not only does June not consider how running away will affect the people at the camp, but nobody even thinks to give them a call once she finds her way back to civilization.

            In the middle of the woods, June stumbles upon a car on a track. It looks like the car to a roller coaster. She gets in, and the car whisks her off to the very amusement park that she and her mother designed. Could it be that the fantastical land is real? Not really, but apparently June is stuck in a hallucination until she learns a lesson. The park is in danger from an army of stuffed souvenirs run amok. The only beings capable of saving the land are June and the park’s mascots, who, like June, have lost their sense of wonder. Boomer the Bear (Ken Hudson Campbell) has grown lazy, Greta the Boar (Mila Kunis) is hardened and cynical, Steve the Porcupine (John Oliver) is cowardly, beavers Gus (Kenan Thompson) and Cooper (Ken Jeong) are always fighting with each other, and leader Peanut the Chimp (Norbert Leo Butz) has disappeared entirely. If the team wants to save the park, they’ll have to get creative, think positively, and of course, work together.

            The biggest problem with “Wonder Park,” aside from its many loose ends and unfunny jokes, is that the storyline with June losing her sense of wonder is at once underdone and overdone. It’s a heavy, crucial part of the story, and some members of the creative team clearly wanted to give the subject matter the respect it commands, but the rest of the team just wanted to work on designing the park itself. The result is a tonally-inconsistent mess that needed better decisions in leadership, which can be explained by the film’s director being fired by the studio for inappropriate conduct and not replaced. The film was dumped out on a weekend where it was sure to lose to “Captain Marvel,” and I suggest you follow the studio’s lead and treat “Wonder Park” as an also-ran. I do want to go in that bounce house, though.

 

Grade: C-

12:30 pm edt 

"Captain Marvel"

            There’s a weird structure to “Captain Marvel,” the latest entry in the all-powerful Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) sent out a distress call to Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) at the end of “Avengers: Infinity War.” It is no secret that this movie is an origin story set in 1995 (Marvel Studios does not want us to get our hopes up and expect the business with Thanos to be resolved here), so in a way, we already know how this movie ends: Captain Marvel will be alive and reachable by some sort of super-pager, but at the same time be so far removed from relevant action that she hasn’t been a part of the Avengers’ adventures until now. Has she been retired? In hiding? On another planet? Another fair question: who exactly is Captain Marvel?

            We first meet the character, known as Vers, as she fights on behalf of an outer space race called Kree against another outer space race called the Skrulls. The Skrulls are ugly and have a leader played by Ben “Hollywood’s Go-To Villain Actor” Mendelsohn, so no need to question that they’re bad guys. Vers likes being a Kree soldier, though she isn’t crazy about the amnesia that has wiped out memories of all but the past two years of her life. Or having to answer to a mysterious Supreme Intelligence that takes the form of someone she respects, in this case a scientist (Annette Benning) whose significance she can’t recall, but apparently has a special place in her subconscious. Or that her mentor (Jude Law) counsels her mostly through punches to the face and is constantly nagging her to keep her emotions in check. But she can fight Skrulls with the power of a lost energy-core, so that’s pretty cool.

            A battle with the Skrulls sees Vers crash-land on Earth, where she is first pursued by, and then joins forces with, a not-yet-cycloptic Fury. She begins to find out clues about her past, like that she was formerly an Earth-based Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers who was on a mission to protect Dr. Wendy Lawson (Benning) who had created an energy-core powerful enough to win the war between the Kree and the Skrulls. She meets up with some old friends, like fellow pilot and single mother Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), and a cat named Goose. As soon as I saw that cat I knew how Fury was going to lose his eye. Cats are… let’s say “jerks” like that. Truths are uncovered, battles are fought, and Carol discovers that she’s stronger than she ever knew, in more ways than anybody thought.

            “Captain Marvel” is a perfectly agreeable superhero origin movie. Larson is an extremely likeable lead, has great chemistry with Jackson and Lynch, and adds a much-needed female chapter to the MCU (still no Black Widow movie, though). Girls can look up to the way the character has spent her life overcoming obstacles in a recognizable version of society, unlike Wonder Woman, who spent her whole life in the bubble of Themyscira. Still, there’s something played-out about the whole “superhero origin” template at this point, and this movie feels like it could be interchangeable with any number of similar movies from the past decade. The MCU claims that it’s going to go on a break after this year, and that might be a good thing if it means we get a break from well-meaning but ultimately middling efforts like this.

 

Grade: B-

 

NOTE: The moment in the film that caused the biggest reaction at my screening occurred not at the climax, or at a meaningful early victory, or even during the MCU’s trademark mid- or post-credits sequences. It occurred at the very beginning, in the first thirty seconds or so. Be prepared for a huge ovation right off the bat.

12:29 pm edt 

"Tyler Perry's A Madea Family Funeral"

            When we last saw curmudgeonly crime against cinema Mabel “Madea” Simmons (creator/writer/director/star Tyler Perry), “she” was starring in “Boo! 2: A Madea Halloween,” a film so bad I doled out my first D- grade in nearly five years. Now she’s back with “A Madea Family Funeral,” and I’m sorry to say that the funeral isn’t for Madea. In fact, not only does death not make for less Perry obnoxiousness, it makes for more. Perry has inexplicably chosen this occasion to debut yet another character, a legless throat-talker named Heathrow who serves no purpose to the story, but does drag out the film’s run time with unfunny antics.

            The story sees Madea and her crew travel to an anniversary party for a heretofore unmentioned relation, a brother named Anthony (Derek Morgan) and his wife Vianne (Jen Harper). Madea’s entourage consists of her brother Joe (also Perry), nephew Brian (Perry again), and friends Bam (Cassi Davis) and Hattie (Patrice Lovely). The group checks into a hotel and hear a commotion in a nearby room. It’s Anthony, dying of a heart attack. And why was Anthony at the hotel? To have an afternoon fling a with a woman who is not his wife. To make things even more complicated, Anthony’s son A.J. (Courtney Burrell) was also in a nearby room, cheating on his wife Carol (K.J. Smith) with Gia (Aeriel Miranda), the fiancé of his brother Jesse (Rome Flynn). The anniversary celebration turns to funeral planning for Anthony’s family, and Madea and company have to keep the various secrets from coming out, though to be honest they aren’t very well hidden in the first place.

            The problem with this movie, as it is with all Tyler Perry movies, is that Madea and her crew (minus straight-man Brian but plus Heathrow) are completely insufferable. They’re ugly to look at (that’s not me being shallow, they’re wearing garish makeup for comedic effect) and unpleasant to listen to, both in terms of their grating, incomprehensible-at-times voices and the vile content of what they have to say. There isn’t an occasion too reverent for these characters to bring up sex references, bathroom references, drug references, racial references, and in this case, inappropriate death talk. And it’s all done without any sense of comedic timing, the characters just ramble on until Brian says “okay guys we’ve got to go.” Actually, sometimes it’s Madea who has to reign in the others. These other characters have gotten away from Perry so much that his screaming drag character has to be the voice of reason.

            It’s actually relieving when the movie takes a break from Madea to focus on the drama with Anthony’s family, where the characters are only deplorable for their lying and cheating instead of everything else about them. Though I don’t want to downplay my belief that several of these characters are reprehensible and deserve worse than their partners simply leaving them. There are some passionate words toward the end of the movie about strength and sacrifice, but it’s too little too late in a movie that doesn’t deserve them.

            At least “A Madea Family Funeral” makes an attempt at profound seriousness, as opposed to “Boo! 2,” which unwaveringly went for Perry’s unpalatable brand of silliness. Perry has said that this will be the last Madea movie, which I highly doubt because this film contains no closure for the character and made $27 million in its opening weekend. And make no mistake, Madea has legions of fans. The crowd at my screening roared with laughter while I was burying my face in my hands (as if that would stop the mortifying dialogue). I am dumfounded by Madea’s popularity, but I’ll be even more dumbfounded if Perry actually chooses to retire her while she can still make her creator millions of dollars in a movie this bad.

 

Grade: D.

12:28 pm edt 

"How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World"

            It’s a shame that I never got to review the first two “How to Train Your Dragon” movies from 2010 and 2014, respectively. The beautiful animation, engaging characters, and complex relationships made for some enjoyable family entertainment that I would have highly recommended. But the first film opened on a weekend where I thought “Hot Tub Time Machine” was more review-worthy (no, I don’t know what I was thinking) and the second got beaten at the box office in its opening weekend by “22 Jump Street” (that one was more worthy, though it is worth mentioning that HTTYD2 is in the all-time top ten for non-#1 opening weekends). But the third film isn’t having any problems with its box office. With an estimated debut of $55 million, it’s the strongest opener of 2019 thus far.

            Jay Baruchel returns as Hiccup, now chief of the kingdom of Berk following the death of his father. As always, his ambition is to provide a safe haven for the world’s dragons, hunted and hated until very recently. This means a series of missions to rescue dragons from poachers, where he is aided by his friends Snoutlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs, (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), Tuffnut (Justin Rupple), and girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera), and receives moral support from his mother (Cate Blanchett) and old friend Gobber (Craig Ferguson). The humans aren’t terribly competent in their rescue efforts, but their fleet of dragons, led by original domesticate Toothless the Night Fury, makes them unbeatable. Their raids make them enemies of assorted warlords, who hire famed dragon hunter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) to take out Toothless for them. He’s only too happy to destroy the last remaining Night Fury, even if it means destroying all of Berk in the process.

            Grimmel’s plan involves using a female dragon known as a Light Fury as bait. As predicted, Toothless falls in love with his female counterpart, which makes him susceptible to Grimmel’s traps and also means that there’s no stopping until she’s rescued too. And if she is to be rescued, then what? Will she be added to the already-overcrowded roster at Berk? Or will the two leave the humans behind for a new life among their own kind in the newly-discovered Hidden World? The Hidden World, by the way, is a dragons-only habitat, not to be confused with the long-lost mother’s dragon sanctuary from the second movie, the fact that the label could apply to both worlds is a minor quibble I have with the franchise.  

            The film is a delight, just like the previous two. Few sights are as adorable as Toothless trying to woo the Light Fury, especially when he’s practicing a mating dance while staring at his shadow on the wall like it’s a mirror (or possibly a partner). And it is also compelling to see Hiccup on the tail end of his journey from boy to man (the franchise has done an excellent job with continuity there). He still has some learning and maturing to do, and he’s feeling pressure to marry Astrid even though he doesn’t think he’s ready, but it’s all the more rewarding to see just how he grows.

            Unfortunately, I have to say that this is the weakest of the “How to Train Your Dragon” films, just by a smidge, mind you. Hiccup’s friends, usually a welcome source of comedic relief in the previous films, are here just dumb and annoying, especially Snoutlout, who’s harboring a crush on Hiccup’s widowed mother. Even more unforgiveable is that the screenplay never really knows what it wants to do with Cate Blanchett, an Oscar-winning talent who must never be allowed to go to waste. Overall though, “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” is a fine family film that brings one of the more consistently entertaining franchises of this era to a satisfying conclusion.

 

Grade: B-

12:27 pm edt 

"Alita: Battle Angel"

            The first trailer “Alita: Battle Angel” appeared over a year ago for a release in July, during the hot summer movie season. But apparently some edits needed to be made, and the film was pushed back to December, where it could take advantage of the Christmas season. Then got yanked away from that too, finally landing this past weekend, where there was a lot of money up for grabs with Valentine’s Day and Presidents’ Day falling only four days apart. It did claw its way to #1 at the box office despite not exactly fitting the bill of a date movie (there is a romance, but also a ton of violence). Still, there was an unmistakable air of studio nervousness surrounding the film, and if they didn’t have confidence in their own movie, then why should we? I will say that if any of the delays caused the film to be as passable as it is, then the wait was worth it.

            Rosa Salazar stars as Alita, a teenage cyborg living in what else, a dystopian future. Her human head was found in a scrapyard by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who took her home and gave her a robotic body that he had left over from his late daughter, much to the annoyance of his ex-wife Chiren (Jennifer Connelly). Ido wants Alita to have a “normal” life, but even without her mechanizations, she’s too headstrong for that. She wants to become a star player in a popular sport called Motorball, an interest she shares with her best friend Hugo (Keean Johnson). The champion of Motorball gets to go live in the sky city of Zalem and leave all the chumps on Earth behind. It is also possible to earn one’s way into Zalem through the discretion of Vector (Mahershala Ali), a Motorball honcho who deals in an illegal robotic limbs trade.

            You could fill a whole movie with the Motorball business, but this movie also finds room for a bounty hunter storyline. Alita learn that Ido is a “Hunter Warrior” and she’s drawn to that life as well. She makes quick enemies of Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), a hulking assassin who works for evil Zalem scientist Nova, who knows some key information about Alita’s human life. Alita thinks that maybe she can collect enough bounties to buy her and Hugo’s way into Zalem, but she’ll have to do so at the expense of both criminals and fellow bounty hunters like cyborg Zapan (Ed Skrein). And she also she wants to stop Grewishka and Nova just because they need stopping.

            There is a lot of plot and world-building to unpack in this movie, and it’s easy to get lost. The Motorball and Hunter Warrior storylines do intersect at various points, and on one hand it’s nice that we don’t have to memorize two distinct sets of characters, but on the other it’s hard to keep track of who fits in where. And come to think of it, it’s hard to figure out just why the bad guys hate Alita so much. She’d probably leave them alone if they’d just quit escalating things and trying to kill her.

            The charm of “Alita: Battle Angel” lies in its ambitiousness. There’s a complex world at work here, filled with complex characters with complex looks. Seriously, a lot of time went into designing the cyborgs on display, especially Alita herself, with her two robotic bodies and manga-inspired facial features (some people will find her enlarged eyes off-putting, I think they’re pretty). Also complex are the action sequences, which contain violence not usually seen in a PG-13 movie (I assume the rating was saved because the violence is mostly happening to cyborgs), but are some of the most creative in recent memory. The story of “Alita: Battle Angel” is a mess, but there’s enough good for me to give the film a mild recommendation.

 

Grade: B-

12:25 pm edt 

"The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part"

            “The Lego Movie” was one of my favorite movies of 2014. It should have won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature that year, its snub in the category only explainable by a sort of unofficial disqualification due to its live-action climax. The finale was the icing on an already-delicious cake, a touching sequence where we learned that the mostly-silly computer-animated adventure that had preceded it was actually a mask for a strained father/son relationship. The father (Will Ferrell) realized that by spending all his free time building elaborate Lego sculptures alone, he was cutting his family out of his life. He decided to allow his son to play with his vast collection of Legos, as well as his daughter with her Duplo blocks. The son wasn’t 100% okay with this, as the Duplos were sure to interfere with his Lego adventures.

Five years later, the Duplos have indeed taken their toll on the animated Lego landscape. Gone is the happy, bustling city of Bricksburg, replaced with a post-apocalyptic desert. Most of the residents spend their days brooding, but heroic construction worker Emmet (Chris Pratt) is as optimistic as ever. His hardened girlfriend Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) warns him that if he doesn’t adapt to the changing world, he could fall victim to a Duplo invasion, or worse, bring about the dreaded Our-Mom-Ageddon.

Emmet’s insistence on positivity and goodness leads to Lucy getting captured, along with Unikitty (Allison Brie), Metalbeard (Nick Offerman), Spaceman Benny (Charlie Day), and Batman (Will Arnett), back from his standalone adventure. Their captor is General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) who works for Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish), the shapeshifting leader of the Systar System. Wa-Nabi had the group kidnapped so she could marry Batman and peacefully unite the two worlds. But Lucy isn’t convinced that she’s on the up-and-up, even after the Queen tries to reassure her with a song about how totally not evil she is. Emmet, meanwhile, goes on a mission to save the group, getting some help from the rugged Rex Dangervest (also Pratt), a time-travelling outer-space explorer desperately in need of companionship after several years trapped underneath a clothes dryer and more time spent with only a crew of “Jurassic World” raptors to keep him company.

The good news is that the movie is pretty much as funny and heart-touching as ever, its crispness and wit retained from the first movie. It still amazes me that a movie with such block-y animation can have such impeccable comedic timing, though I could have done without the gags where the characters mispronounce words that they don’t understand (“Sis-tarr” and “Wash-arr” don’t exactly bring level of charm as the Kragle from the first movie). Beatriz and Haddish are excellent additions to the cast, especially Haddish with her movie-stealing musical number. There are some sad parts, but they’re appropriately sad, and they make it feel earned when the characters won’t settle for an unhappy ending like a certain recent installment of the biggest franchise in the world.

But there is an unavoidable downside to “The Lego Movie 2,” and it’s that we know there’s a twist coming in the form of the animated action being symbolic of a conflict in the “real” world. The live-action sequence, involving the human siblings and their mother (Maya Rudolph) is handled well, but the fact that we’re expecting it puts a damper on the rest of the movie, like seeing a magic trick again after it’s been explained. The film is still awesome on every level except that one, even to the point where I’d say that it’s the best film of 2019 so far (not that there’s much competition), but there is noticeably less magic and mystery this time around.

 

Grade: B

12:24 pm edt 

"Miss Bala"

            “Miss Bala” found a modicum of success this past weekend purely because it was a medium-sized fish in a small pond. Namely, it was the only new wide release on Super Bowl weekend. Opening on Super Bowl weekend means you can kiss your Sunday ticket sales goodbye, so most studios stay away from it. But the people behind “Miss Bala” must have seen that there was nothing else scheduled for the slot, and said “We may not be the biggest, and we may not be the best, but we can be the only game in town. Okay, except for a few pesky holdovers.” Two of those pesky holdovers did beat out “Miss Bala”: “Glass” in its third weekend and “The Upside” in its fourth, but it did beat out the twelfth weekend of “Green Book,” so I’m stuck having to pretend that it matters.

            Gina Rodriguez stars as Gloria, an American makeup artist visiting Tijuana so she can help her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) win a beauty pageant. A nightclub shooting sees the two separated, and Gloria’s search to reconnect lands her under the thumb of the gang responsible for the shooting. The gang’s leader Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova) is willing to both let Gloria live and help her find Suzu, she just has to do a little extremely deadly favor for him first. She does the favor, which lands her in hot water with a DEA agent (Brian Reich), who’s willing to drop charges and provide her with safety, she just has to do a little extremely dangerous favor for him first. And so it goes, with Gloria falling ever deeper into a world of gangs, cartels, corrupt cops, human trafficking, fixed beauty pageants, and cell phone tracking. For some reason, the film is big on plot threads that involve cell phone tracking.

            Probably the biggest specific problem with the film is that it doesn’t know quite what to do with Lino. He starts out as the most intelligent member of the gang, the one who knows that Gloria will respond to a stern-but-calm demeanor rather than blatant hostility. Then he does something cowardly and sadistic. Then the film gives him a “humanization” arc, where we get an insight into his life and a determination to stay true to his roots. Then he’s practically heroic during a feud with the DEA where we’re supposed to be asking which side are the true villains (sorry, but still the gang). Then he commits an unforgiveable act of violence (one that’s makes Gloria a tad unforgiveable as well). Then he’s the straight-up villain for the rest of the movie, concluding with a twist where he’s even more of a villain. Is it really a twist if the movie has already made its sale on this character being the villain? To be clear, I don’t blame the charismatic Cordova, it’s just that the script keeps changing what it wants the character to be.

            “Miss Bala” is no more or less ambitious than any number of similar “everyday person gets dragged into criminal underworld” movies. Maybe it’s a little less ambitious because it just has to water its material down for a PG-13 rating (do we really need a film whose catchphrase is “In the end, the bullet solves everything” to be PG-13?). Then again, maybe it’s a little more ambitious because of Gina Rodriguez, who elevates the material from “blatant bomb” to just “bomb.” I’m patiently awaiting her being allowed to carry a better movie. I’ll say that the good performances and non-grittiness cancel each other out to form one bland, forgettable movie.

 

Grade: C-

12:21 pm edt 

"The Kid Who Would Be King"

            Unless they’re part of a huge franchise like “Harry Potter,” live-action kids’ movies are a tough sell. True, Steven Spielberg had good fortune with some family-friendly hits, and “Home Alone” and its various knockoffs did some decent business in the 90’s, but the general rule is that if you want to bring in kids and you don’t have a character they can recognize in the first ten seconds of the trailer, you’d better be animated. This rule leaves films like “The Kid Who Would Be King” coughing in the dust. The film opened on over 3,500 screens and made a dismal estimated $7.25 million, a record low for that big a release. The film is obviously a disaster commercially and I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t fare much better creatively.

            The story sees British 12-year-old Alexander (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) and his buddy Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) spending their days getting tortured by bullies (Tom Taylor and Rhianna Dorris). Alexander just wants to stay out of trouble, but Bedders is so annoying and punchable that he has to be rescued by his friend at least once per day. Alexander is rewarded when, during a routine fleeing, he happens upon a construction site and is able to draw a sword out of a stone because he’s noble and worthy. The sword is of course Excalibur, and this means that Alex is now tasked with saving the world from the evil sorceress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson). He’s told all of this by a teenaged Merlin (Angus Imrie), who shows up at school insisting on his attention, causing his social status to plummet even further.

            Alex reluctantly agrees to the quest, even enlisting the help of the bullies once they find out that Merlin, magic, and the danger are real. The pack ditches Alex’s well-meaning mother (Denise Gough) and treks north to the small village where his father reportedly battled demons. Adults, you’ve got about an hour of teeth-gritting to get through before he realizes that they aren’t talking about literal demons. The kids learn lessons about chivalry and loyalty and empathy, there’s a dumb fake-out battle with Morgana, and then for roughly half an hour there’s a slightly better battle, but not one that justifies all the time you’re wasting.

            My list of complaints about this movie is long, from the bad lighting in certain scenes to the script forgetting to give Dorris’s character anything to do for long stretches of time to the way the characters in this kids’ movie pull weapons on each other way too casually. But perhaps my biggest complaint is with the acting. Serkis gives one of the stiffest lead performances I’ve ever seen and Chaumoo and Ferguson seem to have been coached to wheeze as much as possible while delivering their lines. It doesn’t help that they’re working with bland, unnatural dialogue, but they could give it more life than they do.

            “The Kid Who Would Be King” currently holds an 86% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I suspect because of its climactic battle, a “Home Alone”-style sequence where schoolchildren battle flaming skeletons, which sounds cool until you realize that Morgana has chosen to use henchman with almost zero structural integrity. The movie has its heart in the right place with messages of courage and perseverance, and I laughed at some of the bits with Merlin (Imrie has an impressive little ritual he does when casting spells), but is it ever a slog. If you want a better live-action kids’ movie, go see “A Dog’s Way Home,” now in its third weekend. It’s by no means great, but the families at my screening clearly enjoyed it, whereas there weren’t any families at “The Kid Who Would Be King,” I suppose because everybody could tell it would be a bomb.

 

Grade: C-

12:19 pm edt 

"Glass"

            Director M. Night Shyamalan is known for his twist endings, and 2017’s “Split” ended on a doozie. It turned out that the movie, which featured an antagonist named Kevin (James McAvoy) with 24 distinct personalities, one of which was a kill-happy Beast, took place in the same world as 2000’s “Unbreakable,” wherein David Dunn (Bruce Willis) discovered he was a superhero destined to one day battle supervillain Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a mass murderer with a brittle bone disorder that earned him the nickname “Mr. Glass.” Now the highly-anticipated crossover film has arrived, and while nobody excepts it to be a spectacle on par with the Marvel or DC superhero movies, is it too much to ask that it not be so super-dull?

            The film opens with David foiling a pair of petty thugs, and immediately something seems off. Not only do the two boneheads talk about posting a video of their crime online in dialogue that sounds like it was written by somebody who has just now heard of the concept of posting videos online, but they get their comeuppance in an unsatisfying way off-screen. And don’t give me that “power of suggestion” excuse, Shyamalan was just too cheap to give us a proper exhibition of David’s powers. David goes on to battle Kevin in Beast mode, and this fight we actually do get, but it’s underwhelming. The sequence ends with both David and Kevin getting thrown in a mental institution, along with a third individual who also believes he has superpowers. Who could this mysterious person with Samuel L. Jackson’s voice in this movie called “Glass” possibly be?

            The trio are under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who wants them to confront their delusions of grandeur about having superpowers before being lobotomized. To her, everything they’ve done has a rational explanation, usually along the lines of “the steel was old, that’s why you were able to bend it.” Mr. Glass has the opposite goal, to show the world that superheroes exist, even in the case of his sworn enemy David. He and Kevin hatch a plan to escape and launch a public attack on a fancy new skyscraper, and David is invited to show up and stop them, provided he can use his powers to escape. The problem is that this movie doesn’t have showdown-at-a-skyscraper money, so we have to settle for a brawl in the hospital parking lot.

            Glass, David, and Kevin each have a supporter who think Dr. Staple is wrong. Glass has his mother (Charlayne Woodard), David has his son (Spencer Treat Clark), and Kevin has a would-be victim (Anya Taylor-Joy) who wants to preserve the friendlier personalities, though I’d say it’s probably for the best that he be put down entirely, along with Glass. These characters (and David, to an extent), know that Dr. Staple means well, but trying to make sense of the extraordinary can only lead to bad things from the characters’ extraordinary abilities, which they definitely possess.

            The twist(s) at the end of “Glass” are predictable and lame, though I would have been disappointed by anything that didn’t involve bringing more Shyamalan movies into the equation (does the ability to See Dead People count as a superpower?). It’s a letdown, just like the rest of the movie. Willis and Jackson are sleepwalking through their roles, McAvoy is too silly to stir up the emotions he wants, and Shyamalan can’t direct a compelling action sequence to save his life. “Glass” is the first big franchise release of 2019, and if this is an indication of what’s to come, then I have a bad feeling that this year isn’t going to shatter any records.

 

Grade: C-

12:17 pm edt 

"The Upside"

            “The Upside” pulled off quite the upset at the box office this past weekend. Many pundits predicted that “Aquaman” would be #1 again by a significant margin, and the interesting battle among new releases would be for #2, with “A Dog’s Way Home” being the overdog in the fight. But I couldn’t help but notice that my Thursday night screening of “The Upside” was more crowded than usual, and it came as no surprise that the film not only beat out “A Dog’s Way Home,” it dethroned “Aquaman” as well.

It really shouldn’t be so shocking, star Kevin Hart opened the shabby “Night School” to $27 million last September, he can certainly open a better movie to $19 million now. Hart’s career has been rocked by scandal lately, with some inappropriate tweets from his past coming to light and forcing him to step down as host of the Oscars. Many said that the controversy would hurt the new film’s business, and who knows, maybe it could have done significantly better without it. But it didn’t take a big enough bite out of Hart’s audience for the film to lose in its opening weekend, meaning that Hart is still a viable box office draw.

Hart stars as Dell Scott, an ex-con in need of a job. He sneaks into an interview to be a “life auxiliary” (basically a live-in nurse) for quadriplegic billionaire Philip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston). For reasons that are never made completely clear, the grouchy Philip agrees to hire Dell, much to the chagrin of his assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman). Dell wasn’t taking the application seriously, and soon finds himself over his head in a world of wheelchairs, spoon-feeding, breathing machines, and catheters. The job is definitely not his cup of tea, but he needs the money to support his estranged family.

Dell and Philip are forced to work together, and they butt heads at first. Dell knows he doesn’t belong in Philip’s slice of high society, but he takes Philip and Yvonne to task for their subtly condescending attitudes. Eventually Dell and Philip form a bond, with Dell coming to appreciate opera and a strong work ethic, and Philip liking some modifications Dell makes to his wheelchair and medication regimen (hint: after taking the new treatment for the first time, Philip orders fifteen hot dogs to scarf down). The two are getting along swimmingly when Philip’s pen pal (Julianna Margulies) enters the picture and causes a rift from which neither man may ever recover.

The film is a remake of a French film called “The Intouchables,” and it’s probably for the best that I haven’t seen it. Apparently the original is far superior and makes this American version look hollow and manipulative by comparison. I didn’t feel that way about this movie, at least not to the point where I wouldn’t recommend it. I found the Hart and Cranston characters to be engaging enough, though perhaps not as much as the mismatched pair in “Green Book,” the other culture-clash dramedy that’s out right now. If you haven’t seen that film yet, consider it a higher priority than this.

It’s true that “The Upside” doesn’t break any new ground in any of its genres – Unlikely Friendship, Fish Out of Water, Disabled Person in Need of Love, etc. But it has two good performances at its center; from Cranston, who we all know is capable of great work, and from Hart, showing a more mature side that I’d like to encourage in the future (though a scene where he freaks out over a catheter shows us that he hasn’t completely moved on from being an obnoxious albatross). The downside is that this is subject matter you’ve probably seen before, the upside is that it’s a decent treading of that subject matter.

 

Grade: B-

12:16 pm edt 

"Escape Room"

            The start of a new year is always promising, but when it comes to new movie releases, the year rarely gets off to a promising start. The January box office notoriously sustains itself on holiday leftovers and awards-season darlings expanding into wider release. I suppose it’s understandable that nothing wants to open at a time when the kids are going back to school, adults are getting back to work, and people don’t want to leave their houses because it’s so darn cold. Studios tend to use this time to unload movies that they want to release at some point, but not against any serious competition. “Escape Room” fits the bill nicely. It’s a tame PG-13 horror movie that isn’t going to give anybody the thrill of a lifetime, but can at least be counted on to do well among the “Eh, I like puzzles” set.

            The setup is that six strangers get mysterious invitations to the world’s most challenging Escape Room – an elaborate interactive game that involves solving a series of puzzles to get out of a supposed prison. At least it’s supposed to be a “supposed” prison. The characters are in fact very much trapped. And they’re in danger too. Attempts to forfeit at the venue’s waiting room go unrecognized as the room heats up to 451 degrees. If our heroes don’t figure a way out soon, they’ll be burnt to a crisp. Or will they? No responsible Escape Room operator would really cook people, think of all the lawsuits, charges, and messes. Then again, who said this particular Escape Room was being run by someone responsible? At any rate, the engulfed-in-flame room is at least uncomfortable, so it’s best to press on.

            The hot room leads to a cold room, which leads to a high-up room, which leads to a room with poison gas, which leads to a room with a poisoned salve, which leads to a room that’s collapsing on itself, which hopefully leads to some answers and/or freedom. The rooms are navigated by nervous student Zoey (Taylor Russell), cocky stock trader Jason (Jay Ellis), traumatized soldier Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), folksy miner Mike (Tyler Labine), experienced escape roomer Danny (Nik Dodani), and lifetime washout Ben (Logan Miller). The opening of the film shows a lone Ben trying to escape the sixth, collapsing room (the film forces him to narrate his thought process, which even to a soliloquist like myself looks weird and unnatural) and we spend most of the time catching up to how he got there and learning why it’s only him. Then we get an ending straight off the Wheel of Lame Horror Movie Twists. The wheel ticks past Aliens, Split Personalities, Characters Were Dead The Whole Time, and lands on… I won’t spoil it, but it’s not worth getting your hopes up.

            The clues and puzzles range from too easy to too hard to downright impossible because they require information that the characters uncover at the last minute. I’ll give you of an example of one that’s too easy: The characters need to come up with a seven-letter word. The room filled with deer antlers. A clue is the phrase “You’ll go down in history.” I told my mother about this scene and how five of the characters didn’t know the answer and she replied, “They were obviously deprived as children.” And I was deprived of two hours of my time watching a movie that thinks this clue is challenging.

            At best, “Escape Room” is silly pseudo-fun. At worst, it’s an unscary, unexciting slog that rips off movies like “Cube” and “Saw” (without either’s gore, for better or worse). It’s the quintessential January release, if not one that’s actually toward the higher end of the spectrum when compared to all the garbage we’ve gotten in Januarys past. See this, the first wide release of 2019, only if you are truly ready to leave the better releases of 2018 behind.

 

Grade: C-

12:15 pm edt 

"Mary Poppins Returns"

            It has been 54 years since Julie Andrews first graced movie screens as nanny extraordinaire Mary Poppins. The stern-but-kind governess used a combination of magic and mental trickery to help the Banks family restore order to their chaotic lives. Now children Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) have grown up, and Michael has children of his own: Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson). The family has once again hit a rough patch, with Michael’s wife having passed, his house in danger of foreclosure, and his well-intentioned children always getting into trouble. From out of the sky comes Mary Poppins (now played by Emily Blunt) to save the day again.

            Poppins sees the family through a series of adventures, mostly involving them trying to save their home. Michael took out a predatory loan from his own employer Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth), who would rather take the house than get his money back. The adults want to pay back the loan with some long-lost stock shares, but the children want to raise money by selling a “priceless” bowl of their late mother’s. Some in-fighting leads to the bowl getting broken, which leads to both the best and worst sequences of the film, the former when the characters enter the cartoon world depicted on their bowl, and the latter when they seek repairs from Poppins’ confused cousin (Meryl Streep), a stereotype of an unspecified ethnicity.

            The family is accompanied on most of their adventures by Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a lamplighter with eyes for Jane who essentially fills the role of Dick Van Dyke’s Bert from the first movie. It’s mentioned that Bert is still alive, but surprisingly Van Dyke pops up for a cameo elsewhere. I was thrilled to hear that “Hamilton” mastermind Miranda was jumping to the big screen for this movie, but his contribution is a bit of a let-down. He’s often either struggling with his cockney accent (not that Van Dyke exactly nailed it in the original either) or getting swallowed alive by the overproduction of his center-stage number “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.” Only momentarily, as he tells a convoluted story during a portion of the Blunt duet “A Cover is Not the Book,” is he the Lin-Manuel Miranda we know and love.

            The movie comes in just under the mark on a number of occasions. Maybe it’s the direction of Rob Marshall, whose stagey musicals I’ve never much cared for, including the Oscar-winning “Chicago” (I’m only referring to live-action sequences here, not the superior animated ones, even one that does in fact involve a stage) Maybe it’s the weird inconsistency of the “saving the house” plot, with Firth’s villain giving the family every opportunity to best him despite it going against his better interests. But I think the film is mostly mediocre because of the inevitable comparisons to the original. When you’re going up against an all-time classic, flawed-yet-agreeable just doesn’t cut it.

            Still, I recommend seeing this film. What, you think I’m going to tell you to stay away from something as sweet as a “Mary Poppins” movie? The cast and crew are clearly putting their best foot forward, sensitive song “The Place Where Lost Things Go” is likely to get an Oscar nomination, and characters float under the sea in bubbles and up in the sky in balloons. Take the family to see “Mary Poppins Returns” and you’ll have a perfectly fine time. You won’t be getting a Disney classic, but you’ll get a movie that everybody can at least enjoy.

 

Grade: B-

12:13 pm edt 

"Aquaman"

            Arthur “Aquaman” Curry (Jason Momoa) is one of the few superheroes who is seemingly more formidable as his alter ego than in his superhero form. Everything about the guy screams “tough,” from his muscular physique to his tapestry of tattoos to his battle-scarred face. His Justice League colleagues Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, and Diana Prince are nowhere near as intimidating. An early scene in “Aquaman” sees a gang of biker types approach Arthur, apparently looking for a fight. In a normal superhero movie, this would be the scene where the mild-mannered hero demonstrates that their appearance is deceiving as they dispatch their underestimating adversaries with an early glimpse of their powers. But these goons can tell just by looking at Arthur that they’re outmatched, and the scene proceeds peacefully.

            I bring up Arthur’s appearance because it’s the one interesting thing about him. Everything else is completely by-the-numbers. His origin is that he’s the son of underwater queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and surface-based lighthouse keeper Tom (Temuera Morrison). Atlanna was allegedly executed by her people for having Arthur, and now as an adult he’s wracked with guilt, which he tempers with superhero work. As a half-Atlantean, he has water-based powers like the ability to breathe underwater and communicate with sea life. He already put these powers to use in “Justice League,” and early scenes of him as an adult in this movie see him take his anger out on a fleet of pirates led by Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). He uses his powers to get onto a submarine that’s being hijacked. But once he’s onboard, he mostly just relies on regular fighting. He causes Manta to suffer a personal loss, and a lifetime grudge is born.

            But Arthur has bigger Atlanteans to fry. He’s informed by his princess love interest Mera (Amber Heard) that his power-hungry half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) is about to launch an attack on the surface world in his quest to rid the planet of the people who have poisoned its oceans (even the good guys can’t deny that he has a point). To defeat Orm, Arthur will have to either gain control of the Trident of Atlan and defeat his brother’s army in battle, or challenge and defeat his brother in one-on-one combat. The one-on-one combat sounds easier, but the problem is that Arthur doesn’t know how to fight underwater, no matter how much help he’s secretly received from his brother’s vizier Vulko (Willem Dafoe). So it looks like it’s going to be a quest to retrieve the trident and then lead an army of sea creatures in an epic battle. I must stress that putting Arthur underwater is the only conceivable way this movie can convincingly have Jason Momoa at a disadvantage against Patrick Wilson. Even when Wilson was a Watchman, he was the wimpy one.

            In a movie landscape highly populated (some would say overpopulated) by superhero movies, “Aquaman” is definitely… one of them. Momoa makes for a unique presence, but all the other actors are just playing archetypes. Atlantis and the undersea world are nice enough to look at, but the action scenes are weak and forgettable. The film is part of the DC Cinematic Universe, and that needs to be taken into consideration. If this were an MCU movie, its blandness would make it notably disappointing, but relative to other DCU entries, it actually comes off okay. It’s not as good as the groundbreaking “Wonder Woman,” but it’s not as irritating as all those dark-but-not-edgy critical flops that we’re used to getting from this franchise. There’s a much better superhero movie out right now with “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse,” but if you’ve seen that and you still need a superhero fix, I suppose this one couldn’t hurt.

 

Grade: C

12:12 pm edt 

"The Mule"

            Clint Eastwood needed to redeem himself for “The 15:17 to Paris,” his disastrous directorial effort from earlier this year where he cast real-life thwarters of a terrorist attack instead of professional actors to tell their story. I’m usually patronizing bad actors when I say that maybe their talents lie elsewhere, but in the case of that movie, I know for a fact that its leads excel in other, more important areas, so I don’t feel too bad saying that they should have stuck to being heroes and saving lives. The good news is that Eastwood has indeed achieved that much-needed redemption with “The Mule.”

            Eastwood stars as Earl Stone, a horticulturist who has fallen on hard times. His business is eaten alive by the internet, he’s living out of his truck, and his wife (Dianne Wiest) and daughter (Alison Eastwood) hate him. After Earl gets kicked out of his granddaughter’s bridal shower, one of the guests offers him work shipping items across the country. Shocker of shockers, he’s being enlisted to work as a drug mule. He’s initially hesitant to break the law and get into business with shady cartel types, but the money is enough to risk prison or worse. He makes a number of runs, getting better and better at the job every time. Soon he’s good friends with his new colleagues and gets invited to the mansion of the big boss (Andy Garcia).

            Meanwhile, DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) wants to make a big splash so that his boss (Laurence Fishburne) will promote him out of his miserable Chicago office. He and his partner (Michael Peña) set out to recover some major product and make a bunch of arrests. They choose to focus on the shipping aspects of the drug trade, which of course puts him on a collision course with Earl. But he doesn’t know that Earl is the person he’s pursuing, and a 90-year-old who follows all traffic laws is not exactly a prime suspect, which is why the cartel likes using him so much. Earl is more wily and alert than he appears, and he is not only to give Bates the slip, but is actually able to carry on a conversation with the agent without him knowing that he’s talking to his target.

            Much of the movie just concerns the little adventures Earl has on his drug runs. He makes a friend here, he eats a sandwich there. The movie is actually a lot more pleasant than the tense trailers make it look. Yes, there is some escalation as Earl gets in deeper with the cartel, which is undergoing a deadly restructuring, but the first two thirds of the film is mostly about Earl having a dangerous sort of fun that he never know he had in him. There are tears too, as Earl makes a long-overdue effort to reconnect with his family, especially his wife, who is in her final days. Have your hankies ready for when she falls seriously ill.

            “The Mule” is a movie that operates in the “perfectly good” zone. Everything is well-written and well-acted, save for perhaps some scenes where Earl’s wife and daughter forcedly jump down his throat with an unrealistic disregard for how they look to their immediate company. At the same time, it’s missing a certain grandness that would make it an awards contender even though it’s opening in the midst of awards season. But I recommend seeing this movie anyway, as it’s an engaging watch and a worthy entry into Eastwood’s filmography.

 

Grade: B

12:10 pm edt 

"Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"

            This past Thursday, I was all set to type up a B- review of the fourth weekend of “Instant Family” (a little gaggy at times, otherwise fine) when I stumbled across tickets to a next-day screening of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which officially opens next Friday. I think the idea was that AMC wanted to get a head start on that “Spider-Man” money since nothing new was opening this weekend. I grabbed a ticket and the next night went to the sold-out show. It turned out that the unusual showtime was just one of many things this movie does differently that makes it amazing.

            For starters, the movie features upwards of seven Spider-Men. Actually, they aren’t all men, Spider-People. Actually, they aren’t all people, Spider-…Beings. Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is a teenager from a New York patrolled by a familiar version of Spider-Man (Chris Pine). Miles is unhappy with his current lot, going to a boarding school that he hates and having his stern cop father (Brian Tyree Henry) always breathing down his neck. He blows off steam with some mischievous activity with his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), and it’s here that he’s bitten by a radioactive spider. Soon he’s able to jump high, stick to things, and other Spider-stuff.

            One night Miles stumbles upon an evil plot by The Kingpin (Live Schreiber) to tear the universe open with an interdimensional collider. A test brings to New York a shlubbier version of Spider-Man (Jake Johnson), who can hopefully help Miles develop his new powers, because he can’t quite figure them out on his own. Clearly, this was not the first test of the collider, because other Spider-Whatsits are already in wait. As a matter of fact, Gwen “Spider-Gwen” Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) has been posing as a classmate of Miles for a week now. There’s also the hardboiled Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage), futuristic robot pilot Sp//dr (Kimiko Glenn), and cartoon pig Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). This is an animated film, but even in its world, Spider-Ham is a cartoon. The use of anvils should help keep things straight.

            Speaking of the animation, this movie has a visual style that I’ve never seen before. It’s all CGI, but then altered to look like cartoons and comics. I’ve seen expensive movies go out of their way to look like comic books before, but it’s never been done as effectively as it is here. The style allows the characters to move and emote realistically while still performing completely off-the-walls action, all with a dazzling throwback color scheme. You know a movie is going to be awesome when you’re hooked from the studio logo, and this movie gives you a Columbia logo glitching into several different styles in the span of about three seconds. Instantly you know this is going to be like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

            As if the visual style weren’t great enough, the film boasts a strong script with endearing characters, excellent voice acting (I think this is the first Jake Johnson movie where I haven’t detested him every minute he’s onscreen), and some of the best humor of a genre that has given more and more of itself to humor in recent years. The only real complaint I have is the same one I have about a lot of overly ambitious movies, and that is that it moves so fast that I’m not sure if some of the characters’ actions really fit into this world. But that’s easily countered by the amount of excitement, detail, and joy that the film exudes at any given moment. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse” is one of the best films of 2018 and the best Spider-Man movie ever.

 

Grade: A-

12:08 pm edt 

"Creed 2"

            “Creed II” continues the story of Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed, opponent-turned-friend of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) from the “Rocky” movies. In 2015’s “Creed,” Rocky coached Donnie to a loss on points after fighting to the time limit with the world heavyweight champion, which mirrored the finish of the first “Rocky” movie, where Rocky lost on points after going the distance with Apollo. Viewers knew that if the mirroring was to continue, Donnie would win the title in the next movie as Rocky did in “Rocky II.” Donnie does win the title in this movie, but it’s not at the climax like in “Rocky II,” it’s about five minutes in. Let it not be said that this franchise can’t still throw in a surprise now and then.

            Donnie’s win catches the attention of former fighting phenom Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his son, the active Viktor (Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu), since exiled from Russia to Ukraine because of Ivan’s loss to Rocky in “Rocky IV.” Viktor would never be taken seriously on the world boxing stage merely as the son of a forgotten legend, but he can make a name for himself playing up his family’s history with the Creed family. Ivan beat Apollo to death in “Rocky IV,” and a promoter (Russell Hornsby) wants to sell the next generation of the feud. The Dragos antagonize Donnie until he agrees to a title match to defend his family’s honor. Rocky knows that Donnie isn’t thinking clearly, and knowing that he himself failed to save Apollo, refuses to have any part of the training or fight, which Donnie thinks is cowardly.

            But the movie isn’t all about the fights and the surrounding politics. It’s also about Donnie and his growth as a man. He gets engaged to his girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and the two have a child. He’s scared about how he’ll fare as a father since he didn’t grow up with one. He’s also got injuries piling up, to the point where there’s a question of whether he’ll be able to be there physically for his daughter if he continues his boxing career, especially against the powerhouse Drago. Is his need for revenge worth risking his family’s future?

            The film has everything you’d want in a Creed (or Rocky) movie: the dramatic fights, the tender little moments where we see that the big tough guys are softies at heart, the excellent chemistry between actors (Jordan/Stallone, Jordan/Thompson, Jordan/Phylicia Rashad as his adoptive mother), and the training montages where you don’t know what half the exercises do, but they look amazing. Poor Michael B. Jordan looks like he’s getting tenderized like a hung steak throughout this movie, the punishment once again paying off with a performance worthy of the “Rocky” legacy.

            The only downside of this movie is that Jordan, Stallone, et al already proved that they can make an exceptional return to the “Rocky” franchise in the 2010’s with the first “Creed” movie three years ago. The novelty has worn off a bit, and the fact that this one isn’t immediately garnering Oscar talk makes it a relative disappointment. Also, I did come away with a nitpick about the film’s climax, which depends on a character being in mortal danger, where I didn’t feel that the film did a strong enough job of conveying that they were within an inch of their life. Still, “Creed II” is one of the best wide releases we’ve had in some time, and it’s definitely worthy of your business in this downtime between now and the frantic Christmas season.

 

Grade: B

12:06 pm edt 

"Ralph Breaks the Internet"

            “Wreck-It Ralph” was one of my favorite movies of 2012. The look inside the lives of video game characters should have won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature that year instead of “Brave.” Six years later, we’re getting a sequel that finds the oafish, well-meaning villain (John C. Reilly) going on another adventure with spunky, childish racer Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). Maybe it’s because I’ve put the original on such a high pedestal, but I don’t think the follow-up quite measures up.

            Ralph has what he thinks is the perfect life, doing the same perfect things every day. But Vanellope wants a break from the sameness, even if it means risking imperfection. Ralph tries to cheer her up by building a new track for her “Sugar Rush” game, but he’s always been better at wrecking things than fixing them, and soon “Sugar Rush” is broken and in danger of being permanently scrapped. Ralph and Vanellope believe that the answer may lie in the arcade’s newest feature – a WiFi connection. They journey to the unknown world of The Internet in search of answers.

            The good news is that they find the part to fix “Sugar Rush” pretty quickly. They even win a bidding war on Ebay, so the part can be shipped to the arcade as soon as it’s paid off. Small problem: Ralph and Vanellope have no money and no idea of how to make it. They try to steal a valuable car from a violent online game called “Slaughter Race” with no luck, but the game’s main character Shank (Gal Gadot) gives them the idea to make funny videos to earn money. Ralph teams up with the head of a video site (Taraji P. Henson) for a series of humiliating videos that become a sensation. He’s eager to return to the arcade with Vanellope, but she actually prefers “Slaughter Race” to “Sugar Rush.” In Ralph’s mind, this threatens the friendship, but is it really such a threat if it offers Vanellope a better life?

            There’s a good message in this movie about how friends can go down different paths and still be friends. In the real world this can apply to friends who move away, take on new interests, or even make new friends. It’s not as strong as the “what you think is a weakness might actually be your strength” message of the first film, but it’s perfectly practical.

            It’s in other areas that the film irks me. My main complaint is that the film can’t decide what the rules are for Ralph and Vanellope when it comes to the internet and how they can affect change in the real world. It just seems like a betrayal of “Wreck-It Ralph” lore that Ralph can enter a real bid for a real item, pay for it in real money, and have it really shipped to the arcade. It’s the same problem I had with “Inside Out” and “Frozen” where the filmmakers just seem to be making up this world as they go along and solutions to predicaments can be pulled out of thin air instead of earned. Speaking of “Frozen,” there’s a much-anticipated scene where Vanellope meets up with Anna, Elsa, other princesses, and the rest of the Disney empire. I’m sorry to say I was disappointed. The film seems so impressed with the mere act of getting these iconic characters onscreen together that it forgets to have them do anything funny or meaningful other than make tired jokes about Disney tropes. They do serve a purpose later in the movie, but it’s too little too late.

            Ah, but “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is never anything worse than harmless fun. Like just about every Disney animated feature, it’s often creative and enjoyable and aspires to be so much more than cinematic junk food. Grumpy me is coming in and saying it needs more rules, but if you and your family just want to appreciate the film for what it does right, that’s perfectly fine.

 

Grade: B-
12:05 pm edt 

"Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald"

            The “Fantastic Beasts” series exists as a way for J.K. Rowling to build on the extremely lucrative Wizarding World franchise without continuing to shove Harry Potter down our throats. Taking place in the 1920’s, the prequel series follows magical animal expert Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he tries to go about caring for the wondrous creatures without getting sucked into a major conflict in the wizarding community. But no matter how hard he tries, trouble always seems to find him. In 2016’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” he accidentally stumbled upon a plot to infiltrate the U.S. wizard government by evil European wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). Grindelwald was arrested at the end of that film, but the opening moments of “The Crimes of Grindelwald” see him escape back to Europe so he can… commit crimes.

            Everybody wants a piece of Newt Scamander. The British Ministry of Magic, where his brother Theseus (Callum Turner) works, wants him to take on a position with them, dangling badly-needed travel papers as bait. His old friends Jacob (Dan Fogler) and Queenie (Alison Sudol) play the role of intrusive houseguests. And Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) wants him to go to Paris to make a move against Grindelwald without the Ministry’s consent. Newt initially refuses until he learns that his American love interest Tina (Katherine Waterston) is also in Paris, and he desperately wants to reconnect with her ever since she cut off communication after a newspaper article mistakenly identified him as the fiancé of Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), who is in fact engaged to Theseus, but is also his former girlfriend.

            Grindelwald, for his part, is rebuilding his empire. He still has the loyalty of about half the wizards in Europe, and he’s still in the ear of the extremely powerful, yet internally tormented Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller). Credence survived his apparent death in the first movie, and has since fled to Europe where he’s been working at a sideshow with his cursed friend Nagini (Claudia Kim) while he looks for answers about his family history. Grindelwald wants to use Credence to kill Dumbledore and Dumbledore needs people like Newt to stop Grindelwald because they are unable to personally harm each other due to a bond in their shared past (officially it’s a spell, but there’s an unspoken emotional component as well). Thus they need to find loopholes in order to move against one another.

            The film is really heavy on plot, with little room for fun along the way. I miss the sections of these movies where the characters just babbled about, say, wizard candy for several minutes. We don’t even get much of the Fantastic Beasts this time around, outside of a scene where Newt goes home for a minute or two before being interrupted. I guess my favorite creature in the movie is a sort of lion/dragon hybrid, but they’re all so irrelevant that it’s hard to get excited about any of them, as the film has to throw more characters and exposition at us that I’ll have forgotten by the time the next movie rolls around. That’s this movie’s lot, it wants to set up things that will be exciting and clever in future installments, but at the expense of being bloated and overwritten itself, thus decreasing interest in those future installments and the franchise as a whole.

            There’s magic to be found in “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.” The sets, costumes, special effects, and actors are all up to the standards of the Wizarding World. But it’s the overstuffed script by J.K. Rowling herself that makes this an ultimately bland entry. I’ll see the future films, of course, but this franchise needs to turn itself around on the next film or else the whole series is going to get written off as a creative misfire.

 

Grade: C

12:02 pm edt 

"Dr. Seuss' The Grinch"

            I am of the boring opinion that the 1966 animated holiday classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” is a work of genius and the 2000 live-action take on the same story is an ugly, mean-spirited abomination. Is it any surprise that the new animated film “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” falls somewhere in between? I suppose it might be a mild surprise that it’s not as bad as the 2000 version, given the painful, obnoxious ad campaign for the film (The Grinch threw a sarcastic compliment at “The Emoji Movie,” ha… ha?). But Illumination Animation films are rarely as bad as their Minion-filled ad campaigns, and this film itself doesn’t do much to tarnish The Grinch’s legacy. And the little tarnishing it does do, it makes up for with a few welcome additions.

            The plot is well-known, but here it is real quick: The Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a hideous green creature who lives on a mountain high above the joyous town of Whoville. Every year he’s annoyed by the way the town celebrates Christmas, from the noisy gifts to the disgusting feast to the sing-a-long in the center of town. One year he decides that he simply can’t take another Christmas, so he hatches a plan to disguise himself as Santa and break into all the Whos’ houses and steal their gifts, decorations, and food. But eventually he learns that stealing all these things is not the same as stealing Christmas, as the Whos teach him that Christmas is about more than just things.

            That’s enough plot for a half-hour TV special, but not enough for an 86-minute movie, so a few new elements are added. The Grinch makes a grocery run to Whoville, where he can be freaked out by pre-holiday celebrating up close and personal. He has a neighbor on the edge of town (Kenan Thompson) who wants to be friends even before the Christmas caper. And little Cindy-Lou Who (Cameron Seely) has a plan to trap Santa Claus so she can ask him in person to give her overworked single mother (Rashida Jones) a break. Of the new stuff, the Thompson character is probably my favorite. True, he’s not developed much beyond insufferable positivity, but all is forgiven because Thompson has about the jolliest voice in the whole wide world.

            Then again, some of the movie does feel padded. The movie feels compelled to give us a glimpse of The Grinch’s childhood, where he grew up alone in an orphanage, but even in this silly world, orphanages have some kind of adult supervision, don’t they? “Grinch” lore specifies that he is accompanied only by his faithful dog Max (adorable and funny in every version), but here he tries to rope in an out-of-shape reindeer whose presence is unnecessary. Speaking of out-of-shape and unnecessary, there are a number of lowbrow jokes about The Grinch’s physique (he looks bad in yoga pants!) that I could have done without.

            Ultimately, though, the things the movie does right more than balance out the things it does wrong. The film’s animation allows for a naturally Seussian look that doesn’t come off as a distorted version of what people and buildings are supposed to look like (looking at you, 2000 version). Even better is that all the Whos are on the same page as to what truly matters when it comes to Christmas. There’s disappointment over the missing presents, sure, but as long as The Grinch isn’t stealing their loved ones, he can never really steal Christmas. True, the 1966 version will always be the definitive version of this story (unless you prefer the true original, by which I mean the book), but “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” comes respectfully close to matching its spirit, and for that I recommend it.

 

Grade: B-

12:01 pm edt 

"Bohemian Rhapsody"

            As far as biopic subjects go, Freddie Mercury has got to be one of the all-time hardest. The Queen frontman was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, complete with a powerful voice (thanks in part to extra teeth that made his mouth more spacious), a sixth sense for songwriting and production, and a persona that was at once both macho and glamorous. The role is a tall order, and portrayer Rami Malek can be forgiven for not getting Mercury’s essence just right. Less forgivable is the movie that surrounds Malek’s performance, which is a sloggy “rise, fall, and redemption” retrospective of an artist who deserves a movie as spectacular as he was.

            We follow Mercury as he gets his start in the music industry, having the good timing to instantly land a job as the lead singer of a band whose frontman has just quit. He helps the band, now called Queen for reasons Freddie won’t expound upon, produce an experimental album, which lands them a record deal, which leads to them becoming one of the biggest musical acts in the world. Yes, it’s just that easy. I know that certain artists have the ability to make their success look easy, but this movie genuinely makes it look like all it took was a few sparks of genius and incredible luck.

As the story of Freddie’s rise to fame rushes by, the film takes an equally bullet-pointed view of his relationship with girlfriend-turned-fiancée Mary (Lucy Boynton) and how the relationship fell apart due to Freddie’s proclivity for males.  Freddie’s sexual confusion causes his life to spin out of control, and he makes increasingly poor decisions like pushing away his bandmates in favor of a solo career and a relationship with his shyster manager (the aptly-named Allen Leech). Eventually Freddie contracts AIDS, and knowing he hasn’t got long to live, reconciles with Queen to play Live Aid in the film’s climax.

The music of Queen of course has a presence in the movie, but the film never gave me as much as I would have liked. We get snippets of “We Will Rock You,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” and the title track (Mike Myers has a cameo as a record executive who doesn’t like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and the joke is that it’s ironic because Myers loved the song in “Wayne’s World,” but the movie beats the joke into the ground until it’s way too on-the-nose and painful), among others, but the film never holds on them for very long until Live Aid at the very end. I suspect this is because Rami Malek’s voice couldn’t handle so many songs. The real Mercury sings “Don’t Stop Me Now” over the film’s credits and it’s the highlight of the movie, blowing everything Malek did before it out of the water.

Most of the reviews I’ve seen for “Bohemian Rhapsody” praise Malek and disparage the way the story is handled, and while the story is worth disparaging, I think Malek is being let off the hook a little too easily. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that he isn’t trying with every fiber of his being to channel Mercury. I’m saying that as hard as he’s trying, he’s just not pulling it off. His British accent sounds phony, he’s clearly straining himself vocally (it’s here where the film could use some of that effortlessness that it overdoes in other scenes) and he can’t match Mercury’s swagger or charisma. He perhaps plays Mercury as well as can be expected of any actor, but maybe it’s not reasonable to ask any actor to play Mercury. Maybe Mercury was so untouchably talented that the creative team that could pull off a convincing two-hour biopic of him simply doesn’t exist. It’s not the team from this movie, I can tell you that.

 

Grade: C-

11:59 am edt 

"Hunter Killer"

            Soldiers who serve on submarines in real life are heroes. They brave claustrophobia, water pressure, and enemy combatants all while in an incredibly vulnerable environment. Movies like “Hunter Killer” show soldiers on a spacious set nowhere near water while the stars bark orders from consoles. I’m weary of submarine movies from the get-go, let alone ones as bad as “Hunter Killer.”

            For a brainless piece of action trash, the film is awfully heavy on plot. Basically a thrown-together submarine crew led by Joe Glass (Gerard Butler) has to save the world from an evil Russian defense minister who wants to start World War III. Also at work is a land-based team of Navy SEALS led by Bill Beaman (Toby Stephens) who do all the heavy lifting because even the filmmakers knew that the submarine stuff wasn’t that interesting. There’s also some squabbling in a war room in D.C. between most of the film’s billed cast (Gary Oldman, Common, Linda Cardellini) that is barely consequential except as an excuse to justify the actors’ presence.

            The film wants to succeed as a turn-off-your-brain action movie, which is annoying enough, but it doesn’t even do that well because the submarine lends itself so poorly to action. The only action movie trope it does somewhat right is the laughs it gets from its dialogue, which is more laughably bad than it is legitimately funny. This movie will thankfully be gone from theaters soon with no real harm done, but there was no reason to make such a non-entity of a movie in the first place.

 

Grade: C-
11:57 am edt 

"Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween"

            I was not a fan of the original “Goosebumps” from 2015. The humor was painful and the film threw monsters at the screen with little regard for the development the characters had been given in the popular series of books by R.L. Stine. It is perhaps because the first film dropped the ball so badly that I found the second film actually quite watchable by comparison.

            The protagonists, a pair of aspiring inventors (Jeremy Ray Taylor and Caleel Harris) are more likeable this time around, probably they actually look like kids and not adults trying to come off as teenagers. Villain Slappy the Dummy is more focused and menacing, and the gags about Halloween decorations coming to life are darker and sharper.

            The film is by no means a masterpiece, with the humor still lowbrow in places and CGI monsters existing for no other reason than to be eye candy (there’s just no way to make giant gummy bears threatening, as their fangs are no match for my ability to just eat them). But at least this installment is acceptable as a form of innocuous Halloween entertainment.

 

Grade: B-

11:56 am edt 

"Halloween"

            The soulless white mask of Michael Myers might be the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It was in 1997 that I read an article on slasher movies accompanied by a picture of Myers holding a huge knife. This happened to be right before I spent a week at my grandparents’ eerily quiet farmhouse, and I spent four sleepless nights expecting The Shape to show up at any moment. It was only later that I came to respect John Carpenter and his 1978 horror classic “Halloween” for managing to scare me so effectively. Of course, Carpenter’s original was followed by several less-terrifying sequels and the forgettable Rob Zombie reboot, so Michael and his mask have since lost their edge, but my hope was that resurrecting Myers for a new “Halloween” film in 2018 would make me scared all over again. For better or worse, I am now less scared of Michael Myers than ever.

            The new film is a follow-up to the first “Halloween”, but erases all franchise lore that came after, including the twist of protagonist Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) turning out to be Michael’s sister. She was just some teenager who survived Michael’s killing spree and was subsequently traumatized. Laurie’s life has completely fallen apart since that fateful night, as she’s lost two husbands, custody of her daughter (played here as an adult by Judy Greer), and her mind in general. Michael, for his part, has been locked away in an asylum where was studied at first by the iconic Dr. Loomis, and now by the oddly-obsessed Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer).

A pair of journalists (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) visit Michael right before he’s scheduled to be transferred to a new facility and basically taunt him with his old mask. Michael breaks free during the transfer (shocking, I know) and sets out on another killing spree, though he has to get his mask back first… He eventually makes his way back to his hometown of Haddonfield, IL, where he picks off some lonely homeowners, incompetent police officers, and his personal favorite, hedonistic teens. He eventually comes to target Allyson (Andi Matichak), Laurie’s granddaughter. This gives Laurie all the more reason to lure Michael to her home in the woods, where the two can have a final showdown to attain closure after 40 years.

The film is at its best when it plays as a comedy. It has fun referencing the original film and there are some laughs from minor characters who make stupid horror movie mistakes. There’s also an extended bit from Allyson’s babysitter friend (Virginia Gardner) and her young charge (Jibrail Nantambu). I can see where some viewers could be annoyed that the film just lets these two seemingly riff for several minutes, but it’s a really funny riff that justifies its existence.

Of course the bulk of the film is straight horror, and I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t pull it off too well. Michael is completely expected every time he shows up, and his victims are rarely likeable enough to curry interest in their survival. Even the mask is less scary this time around, its disturbing pure whiteness replaced with a sort of flawed silver. The climax in Laurie’s house is especially frustrating because it has been established that Laurie has been preparing for this moment for 40 years and you’d think she’d have a more polished defense in store for the stalker. One tactic is a particularly underwhelming slow burn, you can email me at rrg251@nyu.edu if you want to know what realistic alternative I would have used instead. Although I enjoyed some early parts of the new “Halloween”, I can’t bring myself to recommend the film because in the end, it just isn’t that scary.

 

Grade: C

11:55 am edt 

"A Star is Born"

            How is this movie losing to “Venom” at the box office? It barely made half the money of the subpar superhero movie last weekend, and early estimates for its second weekend have it trailing by $7 million. I’m not even talking about how “Venom” is creatively inferior to this film, because creatively inferior films beat out critical darlings all the time. I’m talking about how I saw “Venom” on opening day in a theater that was maybe a third full, while I tried on three separate occasions to see an early screening of this film, only to have it sold out on me every time. I did finally get into an opening-day showing, but less than 10% of the theater’s seats were still available, and I have little doubt that it eventually sold out. And it bears repeating that “A Star is Born” is a creatively superior film, so it should be doing better anyway.

            The story follows country-rock superstar Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper, who also directed the film) and his relationship with incredibly talented unknown Ally (Lady Gaga). Boy first meets girl when he’s so desperate for a drink that he stumbles into a drag bar, just in time to catch the one actual female performer. He falls in love with her voice, her version of “La Vie En Rose”, and her in general. The two spend some time together, where they banter, play with her fake eyebrows, and Ally reveals that she’s a talented songwriter, but doesn’t have the look to make it in the industry. Jack has the power to help someone make it in the industry no matter what they look like, so the next night he invites her up on stage where they perform her song “Shallow” and she becomes an overnight sensation.

            And thus, A Star is Born, and it quickly rises, as Ally records more songs, performs at more elaborate venues, and gets nominated for awards. Jack’s star, meanwhile, begins to fall, as his lifetime of living the rock star lifestyle begins to catch up with him. The two get married, and this makes them deliriously happy for a while, but soon their bantering turns to bickering and their bickering turns to downright nasty fighting. Ally is constantly furious with Jack for his substance abuse, while Jack takes umbrage with Ally slowly losing her creative voice and becoming a pop-star sellout. The two are headed for an ugly public meltdown, but can their love survive the dark side of fame?

            Save for when the singers are belting, this is a pretty quiet film, with much of it being carried by the charm of the two leads. This is just fine, as the two are incredibly charismatic. Their chemistry conquers all obstacles like Gaga’s weak acting in her opening scene and Cooper’s inability to get any power behind swear words. You’ll want them to find happiness through thick and thin, and the ending will make you wish you’d been able to spend more time with them and they with each other. On top of all that, the music and performances are stellar, with “Shallow” very likely to win the Oscar for Best Original Song. The film will probably do even better at the Golden Globes, where it can dominate the Musical/Comedy categories.

            Watching “A Star is Born” in a packed theater, it came as no surprise when the film garnered applause. The crowd went crazy for “La Vie En Rose”, “Shallow”, and the ending. I’d say Stars are being Born here, but it’s more like they’re being re-Born. Cooper was already a Star as an actor, but here he makes himself a Star as a director as well. Gaga was already a Star as a singer, but here she makes herself a Star as an actress as well. See this movie to witness two already-talented Stars succeed in both their synonymous fields and new ones.

 

Grade: B

11:53 am edt 

"Venom"

            “Venom” is based on a character from Marvel comics (best known as an enemy of Spider-Man), but his standalone film is not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s akin to that “Catwoman” movie from 2004 that had nothing to do with Batman. It’s all part of a complicated rights issue between Disney (owners of the MCU), Marvel, and Sony (owners of this film). My guess is that the people at Disney could have gotten their hands on this movie if they really wanted to, but they decided that this was simply not a battle worth choosing. Given the shoddiness of the film, I can’t say I blame them.

            Tom Hardy stars as Eddie Brock, a San Francisco-based human interest reporter known for exposing problems, though he never seems to follow through with solutions. He’s ordered to do a piece on billionaire science mogul Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), who wants to prove that his company has no problems to expose. Except that there are problems – Drake’s company has been conducting illegal human trials involving symbiotic lifeforms found in outer space. Eddie found out the confidential information by snooping on the laptop of his lawyer fiancé Amy (Michelle Willaims), and the displeased Drake costs them both their jobs in an instant. Amy dumps Eddie, but he’s compelled to continue investigating Drake. He breaks into one of Drake’s labs and discovers the symbiotes. One of them attaches itself to him and he’s able to escape the heavily-guarded facility with unprecedented physical prowess.

            Eddie goes home and tries to compose himself, but that darn symbiote that now lives inside of him keeps causing trouble. The thing, called Venom (also Hardy), talks to him, causes his body temperature to fluctuate wildly, and instills a craving for heads. Not the heads of any creature in particular, just heads. Drake, meanwhile, is leeched by another, more evil symbiote called Riot who promises him that if he lets him travel back to his home world on the company spaceship, he can bring more symbiotes to Earth in order to save humanity, making Drake the savior he’s always wanted to be. Venom knows that Riot’s real plan is to tell the other symbiotes that Earth will be easy to conquer, and letting him off the planet will spell doom for humanity. He and Eddie will have to work together if they want to save the world.

            The latter half of the film is filled with action sequences involving Eddie and Venom, Drake and Riot, and Drake’s goons. This is problematic because the film doesn’t do action well. Almost all of it takes place at night, so already things are murky, and then both Venom and Riot are an inky black color, which makes it even harder to see their movements in the dark. But as difficult as they are to see, it is very clear that they are made up of bad CGI. All these factors plus bad editing make for a finale where you can’t tell who’s doing what, who’s winning, or even who’s still alive.

            “Venom” might be the single dullest superhero movie of this era. You can tell where the writers were just dispassionately plugging story elements into their required roles. Hero in need of redemption? Check. Love interest who tells them they need to grow up and stop being so selfish? Check. Villain who runs a big science-y corporation? Check. Another villain, this one from outer space, who wants to turn Earth into just another planet they conquer? Check on that too. The only time the movie is halfway interesting is when Eddie is arguing with the lowbrow Venom, and even that is kept to a minimum (supposedly around 45 minutes were cut from this movie, and the speculation is that it was R-rated banter that would have made the film less accessible to teenagers, but a lot more watchable for adults). “Venom” may not be a disaster, but that’s only because it doesn’t have the ambition to try anything potentially disastrous.

 

Grade: C-

11:52 am edt 

"Night School"

            “Night School” is the latest vehicle for Kevin Hart, who stars alongside red-hot comedic actress Tiffany Haddish. Haddish hasn’t yet worn out her welcome with me, but Hart certainly has. I can’t remember the last time I saw him in a live-action role where he wasn’t insufferable. Part of the problem is that he’s one of those actors who’s constantly allowed to improvise his own dialogue, which means he gets to riff and ramble until he decides the scene is over. The result is usually a plodding, painful, unfunny film. But the result this time is a plodding, painful, actually-kind-of-funny film, no thanks to Hart.

            Hart stars as Teddy, a barbeque huckster who dropped out of high school as a teenager when he decided he didn’t need book smarts to get through life. Cut to present day and he’s actually very successful. He drives a Porshe, he’s in line to inherit his place of business, and he’s about to marry the woman of his dreams (Megyn Echikunwoke). But then an accident with a champagne cork and an open gas line derails his plans. He needs a new job fast, and if he wants to get anything decent, he’ll have to get his GED. And to do that he’ll have to go to, you guessed it, Night School. 

            Night School is a nightmare for Teddy. He has to take classes at his old high school, where a disgruntled former classmate (Taran Killam) is now the principal. The class is full of weirdos, one of whom (Al Madrigal) is a waiter he got fired in a scheme to get out of paying a pricey restaurant bill. And the teacher (Haddish) actually expects him to learn the material instead of letting him cruise through the course like he wants. On top of all that, he suffers from a number of learning disabilities that prevent him getting anywhere academically. Teddy’s going to have to use his street smarts to full effect if he wants to get out of doing things the honest way. As you can probably guess, he does eventually learn the value of doing things the honest way.

            Hart is his usual annoying self in this movie, and Haddish is mostly dragged down to his level, especially in scenes where the two interact with each other (many of which are exchanges where the two were clearly filmed separately). But there is some decent humor in this movie, even in that improvised rambling style that Hart does so badly. That’s because there are laughs to be mined from Teddy’s classmates, including Madrigal as an immigrant dreamer, Rob Riggle as a dumb wannabe jock, Mary-Lynn Rajskub as a harried mom, and my personal favorite, Romany Malco as a robot-hating conspiracy theorist. These supporting players come up with quirky, interesting characters for themselves, and the movie is actually able to build up some steam when it plays as an ensemble comedy. Hart is usually right there to drain that steam, but it’s fun while it lasts.

            “Night School” gets my recommendation by the skin of its teeth. The movie is littered with problems, like Haddish not being that good of a teacher (if literally none of the people in your class understand the material, the problem is with you), entire scenes and subplots that could be cut (Teddy has to get a part time job wearing a chicken suit – ha ha?), and Kevin Hart basically being Kevin Hart. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that this is a flat-out bad movie. But it’s a bad movie that I liked, and therefore I have no choice but to say that you might like it too.

 

Grade: B-

11:51 am edt 

"The House With a Clock in Its Walls"

            Kids need a movie right now. The last month or so has been dominated by adult fare, or at least PG-13 movies that target teens, but don’t promise fun for the whole family. “Disney’s Christopher Robin” is still playing on over 1,000 screens, but it’s clearly on its way out. The release calendar has made it so that kids have to take what they can get, and what they’re getting is “The House with a Clock in Its Walls”. Fortunately this movie isn’t a terrible thing to get, but it’s not all that great either.

            The story follows the newly-orphaned Lewis (12-year-old Owen Vaccaro) as he moves in with his mysterious uncle Jonathan (Jack Black). It’s hard to get a read on Jonathan: he shows up to meet his nephew for the first time wearing a kimono, he plays his saxophone into the wee hours of the morning, he lets Lewis eat cookies for dinner and not after dinner, he’s rumored to be an axe murderer, and he lives in a house full of ticking clocks, one of which is coming from an unknown location and really freaking him out. A frequent houseguest is Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), Jonathan’s prim next door neighbor who is so often in the house that we’re not sure until halfway through the movie that she actually has a place of her own.

            Lewis eventually learns that his uncle and Mrs. Zimmerman are a warlock and witch, respectively, and if he studies hard enough, he too can live a magical existence. Soon he’s using his newfound powers to humiliate bullies at school and make his daily routine easier. He learns that his uncle possesses a forbidden Necronomicon, and conceivably he could use it to bring his dead parents back to life. Or he could use it to accidentally raise the villainous Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), a late warlock who may have killed his wife (Renee Elise Goldsberry) and planted the ominous mystery clock in the house as part of a plan to wipe out all of humanity. Since there wouldn’t be much of a movie otherwise, you can probably guess that it’s the latter.

            The movie is very entertaining in places, especially when it comes to the house itself. Director Eli Roth (of several non-kid-friendly horror movies) fills the setting with all sorts of twisted goodies like creepy carnival games and deranged cuckoo clocks (one of which got a decent jump out of me – rare for a kids’ movie). Then again, there are also some bad CGI pumpkins and a topiary lion that keeps forgetting to use its litter box. Certain aspects of the story are intriguing, like the structured Lewis having to adapt to his uncle’s life of spontaneity, free-spirited bachelor Jonathan taking on the responsibilities of parenthood, and a kinship Izard feels with fellow orphan Lewis. Sadly, none of these plots are explored as thoroughly or authentically as I would have liked, but the movie is onto something with what we get.

            “Onto something”, that’s a good way to describe “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” as a whole. I can’t say that the film is particularly high-quality or memorable, but there’s a lot of potential here. Now that Roth has directed his first kids’ movie and made some mistakes with the humor and pacing, he can go on to direct a second one having learned from those mistakes. It can even be a sequel to this movie, I’d be fine with seeing these characters again (though maybe with some better coaching for young Owen Vaccaro, as he’s truly painful in scenes that require him to ramp up his emotions). If your kids want to see this movie, let them, and then challenge them to think of their own adventures for these characters in this house. Chances are they’ll come up with something more interesting than what they actually get.

 

Grade: B-

11:50 am edt 

"The Predator"

            I never really got into the original “Predator” from 1987. I rented it to see future governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura together, and essentially tuned out once Ventura was eliminated after very little communication with Schwarzenegger (see “The Running Man”, also from 1987, if you want to see the two interact in a meaningful way i.e., fight to the death). But I did retain that the Predator is a space alien that hunts humans for sport and has dreadlocks for some reason. Thirty years, a couple battles with the “Alien”, and a few reboots later, and we’re getting “The Predator”, an attempt to revive a “legendary” movie monster that I never found all that interesting.

            Boyd Holbrook stars as Quinn McKenna, an Army Ranger who attempts a daring rescue mission in Mexico that goes awry when a Predator ship coincidentally arrives and kills everybody but him. McKenna knocks out the Predator on board, steals some of its equipment, and mails it to his autistic son Rory (Jacob Trembley). The prone Predator is captured by government agents led by extraterrestrial enthusiast Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), who takes it to a facility to be studied by renowned scientist Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn, in one of those roles where it’s hard to buy the eye candy actress as a nerd). Traeger also brings in McKenna to find out what he knows, and then has him committed to a mental hospital because he knows too much. It would probably be easier to just kill McKenna, but then the movie wouldn’t have an excuse to put the soldier on a bus with other loonies.

            Yes, McKenna is interred on an asylum-bound bus with an array of colorful characters. There’s suicidal leader Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), British sniper Lynch (Alfie Allen), vulgar wisecracker Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), Tourette’s sufferer Baxley (Thomas Jane), and Jesus disciple Nettles (Augusto Aguilera). Once the group determines that McKenna is not, in fact, the craziest one of all for his claims of tangling with a space alien, they break out together and try to save the world from the Predator, who naturally has also escaped. As if the stakes weren’t high enough, the Predator wants its armor back, which means that its primary target is Rory.

            There’s a stretch around the middle of the film where it looks like the unsolicited update is actually pulling things off. The jokes are funny, the actors have good chemistry, the action is exciting and creative. It’s nothing terribly intelligent or memorable, but it’s enjoyable enough on a lowbrow level. Then we get into the latter part of the movie and it’s just another unexceptional action movie – kind of like how I feel about the original “Predator” once it’s only Arnold left. The action at this point is just a cluster of gunfire, explosions, metal whooshing, and slurping sounds, all while it’s so dark and choppy (in more ways than one) that I have to take the movie’s word for it that two characters got killed because I completely missed their exits. There’s potential at the very end with a fight on the head Predator’s ship (not “in” the ship, “on” the ship), but this sequence is done in by its quickness and an unconvincing CGI force field.

            “The Predator” was never meant to be a creative or commercial juggernaut. Its box office strategy was to open on a nothing weekend in September, spend a week or two making a moderate amount of money, and then fade away. It had similar middling goals in terms of respectability: get original writer Shane Black to come up with some snappy dialogue to get people to laugh and keep it off the year’s Worst lists, but with no need to really invigorate the property. We learn in this film that the Predator has come to Earth because humanity doesn’t have much time left. If you really want to see “The Predator”, see it soon, because it’s a forgettable movie and it doesn’t have much time left.

 

Grade: C

11:48 am edt 

"The Nun"

            My last two roommates have complained about me having an annoying habit: walking around our apartment in my socks, not making a sound, and scaring the… let’s say “daylights” out of them when I enter a shared room like the kitchen. There’s no good reason for them to be scared – it’s just little ol’ me - and I’m in no way trying to time my entrance so that it scares them, but it’s just human nature to jump a mile in their air when something pops up unexpectedly. Horror movies love to feed off this kind of fear, and some do it very well, shocking the system with nightmarish images, immediate violence or danger, or even something silly that makes the audience laugh at themselves a second later once they realize they’ve been fooled. “The Nun” never attempts a silly scare, yet all of its supposedly nightmarish images and immediate dangers are ultimately silly, so it has to rely on scaring the audience by making stuff pop out, which is so easy that even a shlub going about his business in his apartment can do it without even trying.

            The film takes place in the increasingly-popular “Conjuring” cinematic universe, where its villain, the demon Valak, served as the antagonist for “The Conjuring 2” in 2016. It should be pointed out that Valak is not a nun, former nun, or even a possessed nun, it’s a demon that wears a habit. There are three reasons for the habit: 1) It’s unsettling to pervert something as pure and holy as a nun, 2) The film wants to occasionally obstruct the face so Valak can startle the audience just by looking up, and 3) The special effects team can’t come up with a scary hairline, so they have to find a way to work around it. We got our first glimpse of Valak in a truly frightening painting, one that can’t possibly be matched with ghoulish makeup. Live-action Valak looks like Jared Leto’s Joker, a character that was also criticized for looking stupid.

            We follow priest Father Burke (Demian Bichir) and unavowed nun Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) as they investigate the apparent suicide of a nun in Romania. As if the solution to the mystery weren’t easy enough to guess (the nun killed herself to stop Valak from possessing her, making it a sacrifice, not a suicide), every detail is given to us in the opening scene, meaning that we’re spending most of the film watching Burke and Irene catch up to the rest of us. They spend most of the time perusing the nun’s abbey, which to the film’s credit is really creepy. It’s all dark and shadowy and creaky and cobwebby and there’s always a cross around for stabbing and bludgeoning. And that’s just the inside, the graveyard out front is even more hair-raising. The setting is ripe for something truly terrifying to happen, too bad all we get is Valak.

            The biggest problem with “The Nun” is that Valak isn’t very effective or scary. We keep hearing about how the demon can’t be allowed to spread its evil, but what little evil it does spread is unimpressive. Like most of the other “Conjuring” movies, there’s not as much violence as the R rating implies, if only because Valak is so rarely successful at perpetrating violence. Valak is just another “spiritual” horror movie villain that has travelled across multiple planes of existence to pull clichéd haunted house antics like moving things when people aren’t looking and driving people to look into rooms where there’s nothing there and then sometimes popping out somewhere unexpected and disappearing just as quickly. The “disappearing quickly” part is key because Valak’s look gets less threatening with prolonged exposure. If you have to see this movie, see it to laugh. You probably won’t laugh at its jokes or its scares, but you might laugh at the idea that what you’re being shown is supposed to be scary.

 

Grade: C-

11:46 am edt 

"Operation Finale"

            Oof, Labor Day weekend is notoriously bad for the box office. Not just bad in relation to other holiday weekends, but bad in relation to other weekends, period. Here were the top four movies this past weekend, in order: the third weekend of “Crazy Rich Asians”, the fourth weekend of “The Meg”, the sixth weekend of “Mission Impossible – Fallout”, and then and only then did we get a new release in fourth place with “Operation Finale”. And I can see why the film’s box office is so small, it’s only playing on about 1,800 screens and involves some heavy subject matter, but isn’t getting the kind of reviews or buzz that would make it an awards contender. But even though it’s not going to be a blockbuster or an Oscar winner, there’s an effort being made here that I can definitely appreciate.

            Oscar Isaac stars as Peter Malkin, an Israeli spy disgraced after a botched mission where he and his team killed the wrong Nazi. Some members are happy that they at least killed a Nazi, but Malkin shoulders the blame for failing to bring down Adolf Eichmann, the “Architect” of the Final Solution. Years later, a new lead emerges. Eichmann may be living in Argentina. Malkin assembles a team and they get themselves a nice little Argentinean setup with a safehouse and secret identities and so forth. They abduct the suspect (Ben Kingsley) outside his home and get to work trying to confirm that he is indeed Eichmann. The interrogation lasts about half a minute after Eichmann falls for the old “Questioner gets a detail wrong and suspect corrects them, giving themselves away” trap. If we’re supposed to take Eichmann seriously as an evil genius, he can’t be falling for elementary tricks like that.

            Some members of the team want to kill Eichmann, but officially the mission is to drag him to Israel where he’ll get a fair trial and then be killed. A problem with their plane means that the team will have to watch Eichmann for ten days in the safehouse. They’ll also have to get him to sign a form agreeing to travel to Israel, not something the Nazi is exactly keen on doing. Not only is it an impossible task, but it seems like an unnecessary one, given that they’re planning to fudge his identity for the local authorities anyway. It’s a flimsy excuse for Malkin to want something from Eichmann, which sets them up for a series of head games.

            Malkin and Eichmann banter, and the agent learns how the Nazi lives with himself, by using justifications like how his role mostly consisted of paperwork and of course, that he was just following orders. Eichmann also learns about Malkin, coaxing personal information out of him just to set him up for an act of extraordinary pettiness later. Eichmann is under no delusion that the team is going to get his signature one way or another, but he’s going to have his version of fun making them work for it.

            “Operation Finale” can boast two first-rate performances from Isaac and Kingsley. It’s also tight and exciting in parts, as it really has the 60’s spy stuff (the most stylish era for spy stuff) down pat. But the plot rarely flows the way it’s supposed to, as early storylines are forgotten midway through, the identification scene seems rushed, the obstacle with the signature seems contrived, and the ending is reminiscent of the imperfect climax to “Argo” (though this film does it better). Still, this is a decent movie opening at a time that traditionally represents a low point for studio output. It’s worth watching, even though few others will choose to do so.

 

Grade: B-

11:44 am edt 

"The Happytime Murders"

            There’s a pop culture entity that can be seen right now that features foulmouthed puppets doing risqué things and is an absolute blast for anyone mature enough to handle it. I’m speaking, of course, about “Avenue Q”, the Tony-winning musical of consistent popularity that has been playing in New York since 2003. There’s also a new movie called “The Happytime Murders” that features foulmouthed puppets doing risqué things. It’s an absolute bore for both the mature and the immature; mature people will think it isn’t funny, and even immature people who initially think it’s funny are sure to notice that the film is completely out of steam by the end.

            The film takes place in an alternate version of L.A. where human live alongside puppets, but puppets are treated like second-class citizens. Nowhere are puppets more poorly represented than in the LAPD, who have only ever hired (and fired) one puppet officer. Phil Philips (Bill Berretta) was a pioneering police puppet until a botched gunshot left an innocent father dead and his partner Connie (Melissa McCarthy) in need of an urgent liver transplant… which she got from a drug-addicted puppet, making her an addict herself. Now Phil lives the life of a seedy private detective, and not even his beautiful human secretary Bubbles (Maya Rudolph) or new femme fatale client Sandra (Dorien Davies) can cheer him up.

            While investigating the case for Sandra, Phil stumbles across the murder of a former cast member of the beloved puppet sitcom “The Happytime Gang”. This piques Phil’s interest because his brother Larry (Victor Yerrid) was a cast member on the same show, as was his human ex-girlfriend Jenny (Elizabeth Banks). Soon another cast member from the show is dead, and then another. Someone is going after The Happytime Gang, and they won’t stop until either the whole gang is dead or, if they’re a member themselves, they’re the last one left standing. Connie is the detective assigned to investigate the murders, and Phil is temporarily brought on as her partner. The two don’t get along, but together they navigate a plot of sex, drugs, violence, and stuffing in the name of justice.

            Among the movie’s mistakes is that it focuses too much on Phil and Connie. Phil is your standard jaded ex-cop and Connie is yet another rambling Melissa McCarthy performance in desperate need of trimming. There’s a whisper of potential with supporting characters like Larry, who has maintained his celebrity by assimilating into human culture, going so far as to get plastic surgery to make certain puppet-y body parts appear more human-like. I wouldn’t mind spending more time learning what makes the puppet sellout tick. Also, since it seems that the murders are coming from inside the Happytime Gang (due to a splitting of syndication royalties), it would be appropriate to make the various members look like suspects instead of inevitable victims.

            There’s not much I can say about “The Happytime Murders” other than that it’s just not funny. The movie relies to the very presence of crude puppets for laughs, never minding that their shock value wears off quickly, especially if you’ve seen the uncensored online advertisements. Occasionally the film will get a laugh with some physical humor (my favorite gag involves a drowning victim), but then it will go right back to having little to offer besides swearing and drug talk. The film ends with behind-the-scenes footage of the cast and crew laughing as they play with the puppets, which tells me that the whole project was just an excuse for them to get paid to screw around instead of telling a story that was worth telling. Too bad the fun they’re having doesn’t translate to infectious laughter in this dismal waste of a movie. The whole thing makes for an unhappy time.

 

Grade: D

11:42 am edt 


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