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Sunday, March 1, 2020

Sonic the Hedgehog

            “I liked him better when he was worse.”

            That was my reaction to the second trailer for “Sonic the Hedgehog” last November. The film had been pulled from a November release after horrible reactions to its first trailer the previous April. There was no shortage of complaints about the first trailer, but most centered around the design of the title character, and the uncanny valley effect attributed to his “realistic” eyes, teeth, and limbs. The film was pulled so the character could be given a complete redesign. The version I saw in the trailer last November, as well as in the feature this past weekend, makes Sonic’s features more exaggerated and cartoon-like, which is what people want in a cartoon. It’s a good decision that makes the film’s appearance much more palatable. And to me, it completely ruins the appeal of the film.

            That first trailer gave me some of the heartiest laughs I had in all of 2019, cinematic or otherwise. To be clear, those laughs had absolutely nothing to do with the trailer’s jokes or anything that was supposed to be funny. No, I was taking joy in the monumental badness of the film, including the character design, yes, but also Jim Carrey coming off as miserable for having to give a throwback performance, the inappropriate choice of “Gangsta’s Paradise” as a theme song, and of course the utter lameness of every single gag. Correcting the design and removing the song are undeniably relative improvements, but it still leaves the film with an unfunny script and a lousy Carrey performance. This is a bad movie that couldn’t even retain its special flavor of bad.

            Sonic the Hedgehog is best known as the speedy hero of a video game that I could never play because I could never figure out how to get the character to curl up into a ball and roll. The film sees Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz, the sole animated character in an otherwise live-action movie) exiled from his home planet to Earth, which he likes, even though he has to live in secret. If he’s caught, he can only escape by fleeing to a mushroom planet that he hates (perhaps a dig at the rival “Super Mario” franchise?). One night while contemplating his loneliness, he causes a disaster that attracts the attention of the U.S. government, who employ the evil Dr. Robotnik (Carrey) to track him down. Sonic is about to use his magic rings to escape to the mushroom planet, but local police officer Tom (James Marsden) causes him to unwittingly transport the rings to San Francisco. Tom and Sonic have to travel from Washington to San Francisco to retrieve the rings, all while evading Robotnik, who’s evil in a pretty non-specific way. Seriously, I have no idea if his goal is to kill or capture Sonic, or what he’d do with him if he captured him. We just know he’s the bad guy because he’s doing leftover Riddler schtick from 1995.

            This movie is such a bland drag. The road trip aspect is completely forced as the movie has to keep coming up with reasons why Sonic can’t just run to San Francisco, from tranquilizers to injuries to not knowing the way (just look at a map as quickly as you do everything else!). The action is rarely engaging because Sonic is naturally so much more powerful than Robotnik. The verbal humor usually lands with a thud, save for one notable line from Robotnik about being an orphan, and the visual humor is largely ripped off from the Quicksilver sequences from the “X-Men” movies. And yet, the animation is pretty good, Schwartz gives life to the character, and there’s an adorable sequence with a turtle that I rather liked. I can’t give “Sonic the Hedgehog” the trashing I was prepared to give it last April, just an unmemorable, unenjoyable, unsatisfying trashing. 

Grade: C-

5:43 pm est          Comments

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

            I’m writing this review less than three hours removed from Joaquin Phoenix winning an Oscar for “Joker.” It is the second time an actor has won for playing the Clown Prince of Crime, after Heath Ledger’s posthumous win for 2008’s “The Dark Knight.” Other actors known for iconic takes on The Joker include Jack Nicholson in the 80’s, Cesar Romero in the 60’s, and my personal favorite, Mark Hamill in the 90’s animated series. About the only actor whose portrayal of the character was widely panned was Jared Leto in 2016’s “Suicide Squad.” This movie takes place in the Leto continuity.

            To be fair, Leto’s lousy Joker is nowhere to be seen in this movie. Instead we get to spend a whole movie with one of the high points of “Suicide Squad”: Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. Harley is usually inseparable from The Joker, tethered to him in an unhealthy relationship based on obsession and emotional dependence. But here the couple is broken up, to the point where Harley burns the bridge with her ex-lover by blowing up their favorite chemical plant. Her newfound freedom puts her on the bad side of the villainous Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), who in the past wouldn’t have harmed Harley because of her connection to The Joker, but now himself feels free… to do all the harming he wants.

            Things aren’t going well for Sionis on a number of fronts. Harley broke his driver’s legs, and he’s not 100% sure he can trust new driver Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) of the Gotham Police Department is building a case against him. A crossbow-wielding vigilante named Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is killing prominent criminals in Gotham. And young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basko) has stolen the diamond that he needs to seize control of the entire Gotham underworld. Sionis has the resources to eliminate all five enemies individually, but does he have the resources the eliminate them together? On one hand, it’s unlikely that five such disparate women will want to work together, on the other, the film’s title and everything about its advertising indicate a team-up.

            The problem with the movie in a nutshell is that it doesn’t have room for complex characters. Montoya is a principled cop, fine. Cain is a street urchin with unloving foster parents, fine (aside from Basko’s stiff acting). But Huntress and Black Canary’s stories seem rushed and I never connected with either character the way I was supposed to. Then there’s Harley herself, and while her backstory is more than fleshed out in an animated opening and references to her background as a psychiatrist, the movie forgets to have her really struggle with the very emancipation that’s right there in the title. She’s fiercely independent right off the bat, and until Sionis brings it up in the last act, I completely forgot about her previous dependence on The Joker, even though that is and has always been a major part of her character.

            Other complaints I have about “Birds of Prey” include Sionis’s villainous mannerisms seeming unnatural coming from McGregor (as if the character, not the actor, has studied comic book villains and is making a half-hearted attempt to emulate them) and a climactic action sequence in a funhouse being more at home in the chintzier Joel Schumacher Batman movies. Positives are mostly limited to the film’s dialogue taking full advantage of the R rating and the performances by Robbie and Perez. There’s a good Harley Quinn movie somewhere out there, but the DC Universe hasn’t hit it yet. Early numbers indicate that the film is underperforming at the box office. I hope it does well enough for us to get a sequel, but not so well that there isn’t pressure on the filmmakers to step up their game for the next movie. 

Grade: C-

5:41 pm est          Comments

Bad Boys for Life

            In preparation for “Bad Boys for Life,” I watched the previous two “Bad Boys” films from 1995 and 2003. This research coincided with the “Jeopardy!” Greatest of All Time tournament, which featured especially hard clues designed to challenge the brainiac players. It was an interesting balance of opposite ends of the IQ spectrum. When “Jeopardy!” had my brain short-circuiting, I turned on “Bad Boys” to cool it down. When “Bad Boys” had my brain flatlining, I turned on “Jeopardy!” to bring it back to life. By the end of the week two things were clear: that I should never get within 500 feet of the “Jeopardy!” set, and that the “Bad Boys” franchise was just as explosive and dumb as I expected from pre-“Transformers” Michael Bay. The new film isn’t directed by Bay, but new helmers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah are clearly following his blueprint very closely, for better or worse.

            Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are back as Miami detectives Mike Lowery and Marcus Burnett, respectively. Mike wants to keep chasing bad guys for all eternity, while Marcus wants to retire to spend time with his family, which now includes a grandchild. And of course their captain (Joe Pantoliano) just wants them both to stop giving him ulcers. Imprisoned cartel queen Isabel (Kate del Castillo) and her son Armando (Jacob Scipio) have plans to see that these people don’t get what they want. During Isabel’s inevitable escape, she comes across an overturned fruit cart. Doesn’t this movie know that it’s supposed to show the senseless destruction of the fruit cart during a chase scene?

            An assassination attempt on Mike leaves him unable to pursue Isabel and Armando himself. But he can consult with an upstart unit led by potential love interest Rita (Paola Nuñez). Mike clashes with the younger officers in the unit (Charles Melton, Vanessa Hudgens, and Alexander Ludwig), who mean well but aren’t proactive (i.e. ready to go into a situation with guns a-blazing) like him. What he really needs is Marcus back, but his old partner has committed himself to non-violence. This obstacle lasts for about a scene and a half before Mike has Marcus do some mental gymnastics to make him reckless and deadly again.

            The Mike/Marcus relationship is given a moderate amount of attention, though thankfully not so much that Martin Lawrence is allowed to really annoy me like in the first movie. The relationship between Mike and Rita and her team is given minimal attention, mostly limited to arguments over the team’s “observe, don’t get involved” position (Vanessa Hudgens is not in the movie nearly enough to justify her third-from-the-top billing). There’s a lot of development given toward the relationship between Mike and the villains at the end. The storyline culminates in a tease for another sequel, which makes me wonder if the studio’s marketing team regrets calling the third movie “Bad Boys for Life” when saving the title for the fourth movie and calling it “Bad Boys 4 Life” makes much more sense.

            Your opinion of “Bad Boys for Life” will depend heavily on how you feel about movies that pride themselves on being dumb, but fun. Here’s a test: there’s a scene where the characters go into a showdown at a Mexican church filled with stained glass windows. Are you rubbing your hands in anticipation of all the glass breaking? If so, this is the movie for you. If not, you probably won’t like the glass breaking or all the shooting and explosions that take place long after the movie has run out of glass to break. I’m of the opinion that the action should last only as long as there’s glass to break. 

Grade: C

5:39 pm est          Comments


            Back in 2014, my favorite movie of the year was “Birdman,” a chaotic comedy about a Broadway show gone wrong. The Academy agreed with me, awarding it the Oscar for Best Picture. The film took a unique approach to storytelling, making several weeks’ worth of action appear to take place in one unbroken shot. The idea was that the characters had no time to rest in preparation for their show, and consequently neither did we. Now comes Sam Mendes’ “1917,” a film with a similar one-shot no-rest approach. But the similarities to “Birdman” end there. Whereas that film was tight and funny, this film is expansive and merciless.

            The film takes place in the title year in the French countryside in the midst of World War I. Two British soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George McKay) are ordered by their general (Colin Firth) to deliver a message to the headstrong Col. Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) calling off an ill-informed maneuver that could cost the army 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother. Our heroes have to travel roughly 25 miles in 24 hours and the path is muddy. Yes, mud is one of about a thousand obstacles preventing the young men from completing their mission, and it’s one of the less dangerous ones.

            Other obstacles include long walks the wrong way through trenches, patches of barbed wire, tripwires that trigger explosions, an underground cave-in, a perilous jump over a pit, blindness, dehydration, teased dissention, armed planes, crashing planes, stab-y enemy soldiers, shoot-y enemy soldiers, bomb-y enemy soldiers, and unfriendly soldiers on the main soldiers’ side. Everybody seems to have a mission that runs counter to the one at hand, and cooperation is impossible to find. The ending especially plays like one of those nightmares where you’re screaming critical information with all your might and nobody hears or acknowledges you.

            Nightmares are an apt comparison for much of this movie, actually. There’s tangible violence to be sure, but more than that there’s a consistently unnerving atmosphere of terror. Something could pop up and kill the main characters at any time, and nasty surprises are a common occurrence in this film. And at the same time, the characters have a mission to carry out, and stopping to process the horrors they’re seeing, or even breaking to strategize, just isn’t an option.

            Which leads me back to the one-long-shot presentation. It isn’t really one long shot, of course. Edits are hidden when the characters, say, walk behind a pole or through a shadow. The film does an admirable job trying to make these transitions as seamlessly as possible, but the problem with the film looking so incredible is that it’s hard to not look for tricks that indicate that what you’re watching is not a literal miracle of filmmaking. It’s also hard not to notice when the film is doing some computer trickery, like with the sky. Somehow this film has hacked into the very color of the sky, and while I know why it can’t show us what the sky actually looked like on the various days of filming, the effect is occasionally distracting.

            I may have been wrong earlier when I said that the one-shot presentation is the only thing “1917” has in common with “Birdman.” The latter film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and I have to say this film has a decent shot at it. It has already won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama, which makes it something of a frontrunner, plus its clout is increasing with its impressive box office performance. Even if the film doesn’t take home the top prize, it’s sure to clean up in the technical categories because the cinematography and special effects are amazing. I can’t say I would personally call this the best film of 2019 (I have, after all, seen the one-shot trick done before and know to look for the seams), but I can see where one would. 

Grade: B

5:37 pm est          Comments

The Grudge

            I never saw the 2004 version of “The Grudge” or the 2002 Japanese horror film that served as its basis. I didn’t even watch either film for research before seeing this new film. I figured that if this film was going the remake route, it might hurt to know when the scares were coming. Similar research tainted my enjoyment of last year’s remake of “Pet Sematary,” as I waited with waning interest for John Lithgow to descend that staircase. It turns out I was worried about nothing, for two reasons. The first is that this is a sequel, not a remake, so the scares as far as I can tell are not direct repeats. The second is that the scares in this movie would be ineffective regardless of spoilers.

            The film opens in 2004 with live-in nurse Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood) leaving a creepy house in Japan and returning home to her family in America. But it’s too late, she’s already infected with the Grudge curse, which apparently causes people to murder their loved ones, and things aren’t going to end well for her and her family. Cut to present day, where Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) and her son are starting over in a new town (the son’s line, “Daddy and I never finished [this art project]” tells you all you need to know). Muldoon’s first day on the job sees her and her partner Detective Goodman (Demian Bichir) investigate a mysterious death, which is linked to the Landers house. Goodman refuses to investigate anything having to do with the house, but Muldoon is suspicious and curious. She pries into the house’s history and doesn’t like what she finds.

            The film spends quality time filling us in on some incidents in the time since the Landers family. It’s just as well because these segments are actually quite compelling compared to the minimal Landers story and the hackneyed Muldoon one. John Cho and Betty Gilpin play a pair of married real estate agents tasked with selling the house. They’re about to have a baby, but the baby is predisposed to a disease, and they’re not sure if they should keep it. It’s a well-written, well-acted storyline, but this being the movie that it is, everything they’re discussing is probably going to be moot very soon. Frankie Faison and Lin Shaye play an elderly couple who move into the house specifically because it’s haunted, which the husband interprets as meaning life after death for the wife, who is sick in more ways than one. He tries to hire an assisted suicide specialist (Jacki Weaver) to expediate the process, but the wife is too wrapped up in talking to ghosts to be ruled mentally competent to kill herself, which isn’t to say she isn’t capable of killing. In addition to ghosts, the house is also haunted by Goodman’s ex-partner (William Sadler), who is obsessed with the curse, but not to the point where he tries to do anything useful like destroy it or warn people about it.

            The flashback storylines carry more dignity than “The Grudge” deserves, but at the end of the day this is just a silly horror movie where characters creep around houses investigating strange noises until a ghost jumps out and screams at them. These beings have mastered the ability to cross planes of existence, and they use this miraculous power to give well-meaning people jump scares. Come to think of it, there’s no reason for the ghosts to exist at all, it’s the regular people carrying the curse who are doing all the gratuitously violent work. I know the movie needs the ghosts to sell tickets, but would it kill them (again) to have more purpose? 

Grade: C-

5:35 pm est          Comments

Little Women

            The new big-screen version of the Louisa May Alcott literary classic “Little Women” pulled off something of an upset at the Christmas box office. No, it couldn’t overcome the juggernaut that is “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” in its second week or agreeable franchise piece “Jumanji: The Next Level” in its third. But it did manage to be the strongest new release of the weekend over the animated adventure “Spies in Disguise.” I’m glad it won, because I was not looking forward to stretching “the main character has to learn teamwork – how original” out to 600 words.

            The film is a quadruple coming-of-age story set in the late 1860’s focusing on the artistically-inclined March sisters: actress Meg (Emma Watson), writer Jo (Saoirse Ronan), musician Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and painter Amy (Florence Pugh). The sisters go through episodes of love, loss, career aspirations and compromises, all with the loving support of their mother (Laura Dern) and the typically-disapproving gaze of their aunt (Meryl Streep). The family goes through some money troubles due to the absence of its patriarch (a casting choice that took me off guard) because of the war effort, but some help is offered in the form of wealthy neighbor Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper, in a role yours truly played in a high school production). Laurence’s grandson Theodore (Timothee Chalamet), nicknamed “Laurie,” takes to spending time with the March family, especially Jo.

            The outspoken Jo is probably the most famous character of the story. She wants to go to New York and focus on her writing career and sees no value in the institution of marriage, driving away a love-stricken Laurie. Meg agrees rather quickly to marry Laurie’s tutor John (James Norton), but will choosing the poor-but-happy lifestyle ultimately make her unhappy? Amy goes to Europe, where she meets up with a self-pitying Laurie, who tries to pursue a relationship with her, but she suspects that he’s only doing so because he still pines for Jo. Beth contracts an illness that forces Jo to come home from New York, which is just as well since her writing career is floundering. She’s barely scraping by writing pieces that aren’t conducive to her voice, which draws criticism from her scholar housemate Friedrich (Louis Garrel). Spending time with Beth helps Jo rediscover her love of writing, to the point where she plans to show her chauvinistic publisher (Tracy Letts) a certain autobiographical work.

            New to this version of the story is that certain scenes are flat-out imagined while others are excerpts from Jo’s book. It’s a unique approach, through it does make continuity difficult to follow, a problem not helped by the fact that it’s told out of order. At one point toward the end, the publisher asks, “Wait, so who does [the Jo character in the book] marry?” I could ask the same of the Jo character in the movie. Unlike the publisher, I have no problem if it’s nobody, I just want a clear picture.

            Director Greta Gerwig fills her version of “Little Women” with her own creative voice, a risky move when adapting such a well-known property, but it pays off with a series of all-new empowering moments and messages. I wish the “own voice coming through” element also applied to the performances, with the actresses clearly struggling to make the century-and-a-half dialogue sound natural. They try to mask it with a talking-on-top-of-each-other style that would make Robert Altman proud, but they don’t quite pull it off. Still, this new take on a classic is a nice change of pace from the hoard of effects-driven blockbusters that otherwise dominate the big holiday weekends. 

Grade: B-

5:34 pm est          Comments

"Star Wars Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker

            So this is it, everybody. This is how “Star Wars” ends. At least, this is how “Star Wars” was supposed to end at one time. George Lucas conceived of the space saga as a nine-part series, with the “original” trilogy (Episodes IV-VI) coming out in the 70’s and 80’s, the prequel trilogy (Episodes I-III) coming out in the 90’s and 2000’s, and the final trilogy (Episodes VII-IX) coming out in the 2010’s. Since then, of course, the “Star Wars” world has expanded beyond the films, with books, TV shows, toys, theme park attractions, and… other films. With the universe growing at every opportunity, it’s hard to see “The Rise of Skywalker” as the culmination of a 40+ year journey that it’s supposed to be. Which is just fine, because if this really is the end of “Star Wars,” then the franchise is ending on a disappointing note.

            At the beginning of “The Rise of Skywalker,” the evil First Order is in shambles after the death of unpopular villain Supreme Leader Snoke in Episode VIII. New Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) tracks down a surprise returning villain, who agrees to help the First Order conquer the galaxy if Kylo can kill Jedi-in-training Rey (Daisy Ridley). Rey, a member of a Resistance group led by General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher), sets out to find and destroy the First Order’s new backer, aided by friends Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels, the only actor to “appear” in all nine “Star Wars” Episodes). The group is pursued from one planet to another by Kylo, who has a connection to Rey through the ever-mysterious Force and wants her to rule the galaxy by his side, though that’s going to be tricky with the whole “she’s not evil” thing.

            This movie was never able to inspire any really consistent feelings in me, just lots of little ones. Rey is still a likeable protagonist, though she’s so far along in her Jedi training that her near-perfection makes her nearly unrelatable. Kylo is so determined to bite every hand that feeds him that I simply could not see a future for him beyond this movie. Initially-interesting characters like Finn and Poe are barely developed, they just exist to be behind the controls of spaceships during chase scenes and battles. The Leia character is finally given satisfying closure (after Episode VIII blew its chance), I was surprised that such a full performance from Carrie Fisher was in reserve. The idiot villain spells out his evil plan so Rey knows exactly which pitfalls to avoid. Cameos and returns from the dead were once exciting in this series, now I just wearily tick them off as they come and go. This movie wants to remind viewers of “Harry Potter” with the relationship between Rey and the new/old villain, but it really wants to remind viewers of “Avengers: Endgame” with its climactic space battle and a certain exchange of dialogue.

            It all adds up to a bland, forgettable movie. I still remember C-3PO’s reintroduction in Episode VII as one of the funniest scenes of 2015. I still remember cheering loudly for the Luke Skywalker/Kylo Ren showdown in Episode VIII back in 2017. It’s been only two days since I saw Episode IX and I’m struggling to remember anything about the movie, including how I felt about it. This is “Star Wars,” so it’s going to make a lot of money through the end of 2019, but I’d expect its business to fall off soon after that because of its utter lack of remarkability. If George Lucas wants the series that is his legacy to end on a high note, he’s going to have to make another movie and round things out with an even Episode X. 

Grade: C

5:32 pm est          Comments

Jumanji: The Next Level

            “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” was one of the more successful reboots in recent memory. The 2017 film managed to make over $400 million at the domestic box office despite opening in the shadow of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” The appeal was apparently a combination of nostalgia for the 1995 Robin Williams original and the bankability of stars Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Jack Black. The formula was such a winner that it would have been crazy if we didn’t get a sequel. “Jumanji: The Next Level” recaptures what “worked” about the 2017 film (even if it didn’t always work for me) while adding a twist that makes it unique in its own right.

            Like the 2017 film, the sequel sees young adults Spencer (Alex Wolff), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), Martha (Morgan Turner), and Bethany (Madison Iseman) sucked into the “Jumanji” video game. Spencer goes in on his own volition because he wants to feel like a hero again and his friends have to go in and rescue him. But the game is broken and not only doesn’t let the players choose their characters, it also sucks in Spencer’s nearby grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and his visiting former business partner Milo (Danny Glover).

            Martha once again gets to play as Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan) but everyone else is mixed up. Fridge now has to play as mostly-useless map reader Shelly Oberon (Black). Eddie is ready-made hero Smolder Bravestone (Johnson) and Milo is the brainy Moose Finbar (Hart). Spencer and Bethany are initially nowhere to be seen; Bethany shows up later as a horse named Cyclone after persuading former player Alex (Colin Hanks) to reenter the game as his player Seaplane McDonough (Nick Jonas) and Spencer is a new character whose casting is a secret.

            Eddie and Milo have a tough time adjusting to the adventurous and tech-heavy setting. It’s understandable that they’d be confused at first, but after a while I have to insist that they at least know that there is such a thing as a video game. Johnson and Hart have fun taking on old-man affectations, which is a lot more enjoyable than the cringing I did while watching Black take on African-American affectations from Fridge. Eventually the two get the hang of their characters and see it as something of a new lease on life, with Eddie beating up scores of bystanders (I felt sorry for those “people” until I remembered that they’re just video game characters) and Milo dedicating himself to those who can’t defend themselves (noble, but again, not real people). Actually, the Eddie/Milo storyline is much more engaging than any of the tired action or comedy sequences. It’s easy to make fun of how many movies Johnson and Hart do together, but the upside is that the two have developed a chemistry that carries them through any kind of scene, including the dramatic, serious ones we get in the latter half of this film.

            “Jumanji: The Next Level” succeeds in what it does differently from the 2017 film, but falls flat on its face any time things seem familiar. Eddie and Milo have a mature discussion about an old grudge? Fine. We get not one, but two animal-attack sequences? Boring. Cyclone the horse shows personality? Funny. Jokes are made at the expense of Kevin Hart’s height? Way, way, way played out. I actually think there’s more to like about this movie than there was in the 2017 film, but the pitfalls are as grating as ever. 

Grade: B-

5:30 pm est          Comments

Queen & Slim

            “Queen & Slim” came in fourth place at the weekend box office. It’s not hard to see why the film finished so low; it’s playing on fewer than half the screens of higher-ranking holdovers “Frozen II,” “Knives Out,” and “Ford v Ferrari.” But I can also see why it finished so high despite playing on fewer screens than the fifth- through ninth-place finishers. Most of those movies are lousy also-rans that couldn’t find an audience over the lucrative Thanksgiving weekend, let alone the non-holiday follow-up. It’s just the kind of opening that a small-but-solid performer like this needs to find relative success. Another reason why this film is doing so well: it’s actually pretty good.

            I could swear that the main characters are not assigned the titular nicknames at any point in the movie, but my research tells me I’m wrong. Affluent African-American Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and everyman African-American Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) meet up for a date arranged online and discover that they have nothing in common. She eats veggies, he eats diner junk. He believes in God, she doesn’t. And don’t even get them started in their different tastes in music.

The evening looks to be a bust, and then things go from bad to worse when Slim is driving Queen home and he gets pulled over by a white cop looking for any excuse to arrest them. The confrontation escalates, Queen is shot and wounded, and the cop is shot and killed. Dashcam footage shows the altercation, and lawyer Queen knows that the other cops will see the footage and only look to see who shot their colleague and not the self-defense circumstances surrounding the death. If the cops catch the pair, they’ll murder them before they can bring the truth to light. Now is not the time to try and resolve the situation. Now is the time to run.

The duo-but-not-couple flee, traveling from Ohio to Florida in hopes of making it to Cuba. They meet up with colorful characters along the way, like a gas station clerk, who, in the middle of a robbery, asks to hold Slim’s gun. Perhaps most memorable is Queen’s PTSD-afflicted uncle (Bokeem Woodbine), who owes Queen because she did him an unthinkable favor in the past. Most of the African-Americans they meet are sympathetic to their plight, with many comparing them to a modern-day Bonnie & Clyde. The comparison is both unfair (Bonnie & Clyde knew they were committing crimes, whereas Queen & Slim made a rash decision that some would argue isn’t even a crime, at least not initially) and ominous, as Queen & Slim might be heading toward the same fate (death, not messing up at the Oscars). That is, of course, if the squabbling set don’t kill each other first, though with a movie like this, it’s much more likely that they’ll fall in love.

“Queen & Slim” gets the big moments right, like the early confrontation with the cop and the finale. These moments got strong emotional reactions from the audience at my screening, and even I was biting my thumb over some of the injustices (be warned – this movie deals with some very upsetting subject matter). But the movie isn’t so great in its smaller moments. Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are excellent actors, but the dialogue is stiff, the characters keep making decisions that I don’t believe these characters would make, and the plot is little more than a series of excuses to meet up with mostly-uninteresting supporting characters. Still, this is a good choice of movie to tide you over between Thanksgiving blockbusters and Christmas blockbusters. 

Grade: B-

5:28 pm est          Comments

"Knives Out"

            “Knives Out” bills itself as a whodunit mystery, and to a degree it is, but the “it” in question isn’t what it appears to be. The advertising has let it be known that the film revolves around the death of wealthy mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) from an apparent suicide. This being a mystery movie, I went in ready to ask who killed Harlan and staged it to look like a suicide. But it turned out that I had fallen for just one of the movie’s many misdirections. The mystery of the film isn’t so much about who was responsible for Harlan’s death, but more about who hired renowned private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate the death, who is interfering in Blanc’s investigation, and of course the why of it all.

            The suspects are primarily in Harlan’s family since they were all at Harlan’s mansion for his 85th birthday party. Daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a real estate mogul with a cheating husband (Don Johnson) and an obnoxious, spoiled son named Ransom (Chris Evans). Son Walt (Michael Shannon) is the soon-to-be-ousted CEO of his dad’s publishing company. He and his wife Donna (Riki Lindhome, whose underuse is one of the film’s biggest blemishes) have a son named Jacob (Jaeden Martell) who heard Harlan arguing with Ransom at the party over the elder’s will. Conniving daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) was caught embezzling money meant for her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) and both were about to be cut off. Even Harlan’s mother (K Callan, who is six years younger than Christopher Plummer) may be a factor.

            There is one more major player, one who’s not in the family. Marta (Ana de Armas) was Harlan’s kindhearted caretaker. Harlan had a natural love for his family, but he respected Marta more than all of them. It’s easy for the police and Blanc to question her because she’s physically incapable of lying, reacting with violent illness if she does. She’s allowed to tag along in the investigation since she’s an insider who knows the family. Although the little-known de Armas is rather shunted to the side in much of the film’s advertising, Marta is so important that it’s not a stretch to call her the main character of the movie.

            One expects a mystery movie to be filled with twists and turns, but I must reiterate what a sharp turn this movie takes around the one-third mark. It basically eliminates the “whodunit” aspect that I was eagerly anticipating, which negatively affected my enjoyment of the middle of the movie, only for the ending to reveal that there was a whodunit element all along. I can’t believe I watched that earlier scene and thought that everything was as it seemed, though I was right to think that something about Harlan’s health seemed… wrong.

            If you see “Knives Out” strictly for the mystery, you’ll probably be disappointed, though that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll leave disappointed. Instead, just enjoy the ride with the affable de Armas, the crazy, dramatic family (though they aren’t in the movie as much as the advertising makes it look), and especially Craig as the eloquent sleuth who’s maybe read a few too many of Harlan’s detective novels. I thought the movie sometimes went too long between laughs, but when it delivers, they’re some of the biggest of the year. The death and the events surrounding it are a bit nonsensical and definitely convoluted, and I can think of a better solution to a key problem that would have saved everyone a huge headache and maybe a life or two (email me at rrg251@nyu.edu if you want to hear my idea, though my response will definitely contain spoilers), but overall this is a fun movie because of the things that work. 

Grade: B-

5:26 pm est          Comments

Frozen II

            There were things about 2013’s “Frozen” that instantly made it a Disney classic: the spectacular ice-and-snow animation, the engaging princesses Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel), and of course, the rightfully iconic Oscar-winning musical number “Let It Go.” And yet, the film only got Two and a Half Stars out of Five, the equivalent of a B-, from me. I certainly wasn’t missing what other people were seeing in the film, but I did feel that I was seeing what other people were overlooking. Elsa’s powers were poorly defined and at the mercy of the whims of the screenplay, one villain was introduced in about the laziest manner I’d ever seen and another seemingly turned heel just for the sake of turning heel, and the Rock Trolls… should have stayed rocks.

            But over time, those detractions melted away. These days I have no problem mentioning the film alongside contemporaries like “Moana” and “Coco” that I felt nailed it from the very beginning. And it’s with future hindsight in mind that I think I should see “Frozen II.” Sure the movie still has a loose grasp on Elsa’s powers, the third act is mostly magical hooey, several new characters have no need to exist, and a laughable cover of one of the standout songs by Panic! At The Disco plays over the credits. That doesn’t mean that my takeaway isn’t going to be the better-than-ever animation, the chemistry between the characters, the funny jokes, and the addictive songs that form the ice-ing on the cake.

            The story sees Queen Elsa forced to evacuate the kingdom of Arendelle due to a disruption that has something to do with a sound that only she can hear. She gathers her sister Anna, Anna’s ready-to-propose boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Kristoff’s reindeer Sven, and eager snowman Olaf (Josh Gad, once again tiptoeing as close as he can to the precipice of Annoying without losing his footing), and the team investigates a long-forgotten forest that hosts a dam capable of wiping out Arendelle if it bursts. The forest also hosted a peace celebration gone wrong a few decades ago. The good news is that the incident was not as deadly as initially thought. The bad news is that the sisters don’t have the whole story about how it started.

            So many things are excellent about this movie. The animation is, if anything, improved from the original. The scenery is as beautiful as ever, but what really struck me this time around was the facial movements of the characters. There must have been some new form of motion capture going on, because Anna doesn’t just have Kristen Bell’s voice, she’s Kristen Bell. I don’t know if the same thing goes for the other characters because I don’t watch those actors from week to week like I do with Bell and “The Good Place,” but Anna’s body language matches her mannerisms exactly. And the movie gives us not one, but two Idina Menzel spotlight songs that I’d say have a good chance of competing against each other at the Oscars. Disney is pushing the first, called “Into the Unknown,” but I preferred the second, “Show Yourself.” Whichever one “wins,” the real winners are Menzel and her fans.

            To be sure, there are just as many things that don’t work about “Frozen II.” I’ve already listed a few, but there’s also Olaf taking on a new philosophy that doesn’t quite fit his character, new human characters not being particularly interesting, and a third-act heart-wrencher that comes off as manipulative and unearned. A love ballad that heavily involves Sven I’ll call a draw. The point is that even though I couldn’t ignore those issues, my gut tells me that all I’ll remember six years from now is that this is the movie that gave us “Show Yourself” and Elsa testing her powers against the mighty sea. Oh, and the Rock Trolls are barely in this one.

Grade: B

5:24 pm est          Comments

Ford v Ferrari

            You won’t find many adults on the planet who are less of a gearhead than yours truly. I live in New York specifically because I don’t drive. I gave up on learning after five lessons, one of which saw a cop car behind me (I can’t say I got “pulled over” because what I did was slam on the breaks in the middle of the road and just remain petrified). Also, I crashed a Power Wheel when I was three and a go-cart when I was fifteen. Though I must say that I am pretty good at not crashing bumper cars. The point is that the subject matter of “Ford v Ferrari” is very foreign to me. You may feel differently if you can sympathize with the adrenaline rush of pushing a racecar to its limit in a battle for automotive world dominance. Me, I can sympathize with driver Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) seemingly losing confidence in his racing ability because the track is wet.

            The year is 1963 and both the Ford Motor Company and Ferrari are facing financial hardships. I would point out to Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) that angrily shutting down his factory’s famed assembly lines and chewing out blameless employees is not a step toward improvement. Ford VP Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) convinces Ford to try to buy Ferrari, but Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) rejects the deal, complete with personal insults toward Ford. Ford decides he wants to crush Ferrari by having a Ford car win the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race.

At the top of the list to construct the car is former Le Mans winner Shelby, but way down the list of preferred drivers is Shelby’s friend Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Miles and his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) are in financial trouble of their own, and Ken may have to quit racing, which is his passion but doesn’t pay the bills. It’s not that Miles isn’t a talented driver – he’s arguably the best in the world – but he’s an outspoken hothead who butts heads with just about every Ford executive, especially Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas). Other drivers are sent to Le Mans instead, but Ford performs dismally. Finally, in 1966, Ford agrees to send Miles to Le Mans, but only after Shelby puts his entire manufacturing company on the line if Miles doesn’t win that year’s 24 Hours at Daytona.

The movie of course climaxes at Le Mans, and when Ford is actually racing against Ferrari, the spectacle lives up to the hype. There’s a real sense of danger and consequence for any mistakes. Crashes are hair-raising and the movie is at least going to be in the conversation for sounds effects Oscars. But Ferrari turns out to not quite be the opponent it’s been made out to be. Ford’s toughest opponent in this movie turns out to be… Ford itself. For some reason, Henry Ford II keeps trusting himself and the boneheaded Beebe to make decisions that consummate professionals Shelby and Miles should be making. A certain last-minute decision is the very antithesis of sports competition, and heck, capitalism.

The human drama in “Ford v Ferrari” is compelling thanks to some fine performances by the stacked cast, but the storyline is completely typical of a sports movie that involves an underdog and/or a comeback. The race scenes are exciting enough during broad strokes like overtaking, finishing, crashes and fires, though I will confess that I was lost on many of the finer points of both mechanics and driving. I certainly won’t say that this is a “bad” movie, but I think it’s a failure on some level that I didn’t care about auto racing going in and I didn’t care about it coming out. 

Grade: B-

5:21 pm est          Comments


            Veterans Day is not a holiday one typically associates with new movies, either in terms of box office or subject matter. With box office, there’s a clamor over which movie gets to dominate Christmas weekend, Thanksgiving, Easter, even the similarly military-themed Memorial Day, but ironically there’s not much of a battle over Veterans Day. In terms of subject matter, every year is going to bring a few war movies, but barely any of them choose to capitalize on Veterans Day, usually opting to open as a summer blockbuster or December awards-season darling. This year is different, however. This year, Veterans Day weekend was won by “Midway,” a war movie whose business strategy included conquering Veterans Day and not much beyond that. It beat out the too-late-for-Halloween “Shining” sequel “Doctor Sleep” by an estimated $3 million and the too-early-for-Christmas “Last Christmas” by an estimated $6 million. I guess the lesson is to open at the appropriate holiday.

            Speaking of patriotic holidays, “Midway” is directed by Roland Emmerich, helmer of all-time holiday cash-grab champion “Independence Day.” He’s known for movies like that, “Stargate,” the 1998 “Godzilla,” and other critically-derided, special effects-driven blockbusters. It reminds me of another filmmaker with a similar reputation. In 2001, Michael Bay was known for overblown popcorn flicks like “The Rock” and “Armageddon.” He turned his attention to WWII and put out “Pearl Harbor,” which… immediately earned a reputation as one of his worst overblown popcorn flicks. Emmerich is taking some very familiar steps here, and yeah, the results are pretty much the same.

            The film follows real-life WWII officers and personalities from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the Battle of Midway, a naval battle that gave the United States a crucial victory. Hotshot pilot Dick Best (Ed Skrein) becomes commander of his squadron and loses his trademark confidence when charging others with risking their lives the way he’s willing to risk his own. Intelligence Officer Edwin T. Layton (Patrick Wilson) was relatively sure that the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor, and lives were lost because of his ineffectiveness. He and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) are determined to not let that happen at Midway… unless he’s wrong this time. Other key pilots include characters played by Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, and surprise movie MVP Nick Jonas. We get a glimpse of the Japanese officers as well, as they let their pride in their superior resources lead them into a fatal trap.

            As with many war movies, after the initial action sequence (Pearl Harbor), much of the first half is spent getting to know the characters and much of the second half is spent in battle. The first half doesn’t work because the focus bounces around too much and the characters are mostly unlikeable anyway. Skrein especially is grating to watch. Didn’t Hollywood learn after he struck out as “The Transporter” that this guy shouldn’t be a leading man? As for the second half, it’s just a lot of incoherent flying, shooting, and exploding, complete with not-quite-convincing CGI fireballs. I’ll take the movie’s word for it that the Americans win (sorry if that’s a spoiler), but I wouldn’t have been able to tell from the action as opposed to the epilogue.

            The heroes of Midway, among many other veterans, deserve to be celebrated, but with a better movie than this. Celebrate Veterans Day by seeking out a veteran and shaking their hand, not by seeing this well-intentioned but uninteresting misfire. And sorry, but I have to make the obvious joke that “Midway” is a fitting title for such a mediocre movie, if it even achieves that.   

Grade: C

5:19 pm est          Comments

Terminator: Dark Fate

            It has been four years since we’ve had a Terminator movie with 2015’s “Terminator: Genisys.” But it has been 28 years since we’ve had a good Terminator movie with 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” The series’ third, fourth, and fifth installments dragged down the franchise so much that I expected to leave “Terminator: Dark Fate” complaining about a 4:2 bad-to-good ratio with these movies. Instead, I liked the movie, which gives this franchise an even 3:3 ratio, so it’s exactly halfway decent. Given the losing streak it’s been on for nearly three decades, I’m sure it’ll be happy to take “halfway decent.”

            The world of the Terminators is filled with multiple timelines, this one throws out all that came since the second movie, undoubtedly for the best. In this timeline, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) was able to save her future-resistance-leader son John in 1995, but not from a robotic T-800 assassin (franchise face Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent to kill him in 1998. Still, the fateful 1997 robot uprising has been prevented, but another unrelated one might be on its way because humans are just determined to invent robots that will destroy us all.

            In 2020, Dani (Natalia Reyes) is having a typically crummy day when she’s targeted for termination by the Rev-9 (Diego Boneta), a robotic assassin from the future that can change its appearance with a simple physical contact, yet always reverts back to looking like Diego Boneta for dramatic effect. Dani is rescued by Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a time-traveling “augmented” human with robotic parts. She has about ten seconds to explain her complicated, implausible mission to Dani. Fortunately, Dani has just learned that robot assassins from the future disguised as members of her family are a thing, so plausibility has never been less of an issue with her. It turns out that the Rev-9 can split himself into two distinct killing machines, and Grace and Dani can’t fight them both off at once, so in steps the returning Sarah Conner for the save. Following the battle, the two and a half humans go on the run together, until they pick up a fourth member that keeps the count at two and a half humans.

            What makes this movie work is that the five leads are just a lot of fun to watch. If (and I mean “if”) Dani is going to give birth to the future leader of the human uprising, it won’t be hard to see where the kid gets their (non-robotic) iron will. Grace’s real attributes are her fearlessness and loyalty, which she’d have even without all her parts and circuits. Sarah is making her third proper appearance in a “Terminator” movie, and this is the third proper “Terminator” movie, which can’t be a coincidence. The Rev-9, with his enhanced social interaction feature, makes for a surprisingly charming villainous killer robot. And the T-800 gets to steal a few scenes with some expectedly crowd-popping one-liners and an unexpectedly emotional storyline, including a heart-wrenching turn on a very familiar phrase.

            I can’t say that the movie surrounding these characters is all that great. There’s nothing in the story that “Terminator” fans won’t see coming, though the upside is that there’s no ridiculous swerve for the sake of a swerve like in “Genisys.” There’s some heavy-handed support of feminism, criticism of border security, and as always, commentary on how we’re already slaves to technology. Even the action is largely forgettable, with lots of obstructive shooting and explosions that are hard to follow and are pretty pointless anyway since the robots can always just fix themselves after getting blown to smithereens. It’s the characters on the other ends of all that artillery that make “Terminator: Dark Fate” worth watching. 

Grade: B-

5:16 pm est          Comments

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

            As promised, “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” delivers the most vile, repugnant, terrifying creatures known to man. I’m speaking of course, about the three fairy godmothers (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple) who have watched over Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) since she was a baby. The actresses’ faces on CGI fairy bodies is the stuff of nightmares. You may have heard of the Uncanny Valley, this is the Uncanny Bottomless Crevasse.

Also Angelina Jolie is back as Maleficent, the imposing fairy who served as the villain for the 1959 animated film “Sleeping Beauty.” Maleficent got an origin movie back in 2014 that didn’t so much recontextualize the animated film as it did completely change the narrative so that Maleficent was the protagonist who saved Princess Aurora from her evil father and the incompetent fairies. Reviews for the film were lukewarm at best, with the only compliments being directed at Jolie’s glowering performance. Still, the movie did enough business to warrant a sequel, but since the familiar “Sleeping Beauty” material is all used up, Maleficent is going to have to have an original adventure this time.

The film opens with Aurora agreeing to marry her beloved Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). The kids are happy, Maleficent isn’t. Phillip is from a notoriously fairy-hating kingdom led officially by the tolerant King John (Robert Lindsay), but really by the evil Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer). Ingrith is so drawling and suspicious in her cadences that quite frankly the other characters look stupid for not picking up on her wickedness immediately. She wants to wipe out the fairy kingdom because… the given reason is something tacked-on about a son who went missing in the fairies’ forest, but really I think she just saw those fairy godmothers and wants to scrub them from the earth.

During a not-so-passive aggressive dinner argument, Maleficent is framed for an attack on the king. While fleeing, she discovers more fairies of her own race, known as Dark Feys. The leader Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor, here used well in a small role, as opposed to “The Lion King,” where he was used poorly in a major role) wants to make peace with the humans, but the uppity Borra (Ed Skrein) wants to go to war before the humans can attack first. Maleficent is conflicted, since she knows the human race contains both Aurora and Ingrith.

The climactic action sequence is more “Game of Thrones” than Disney. There is a body count in these scenes, especially a segment where Ingrith’s servant Gerda (Jenn Murray, the film’s biggest scene-stealer) passionately attacks fairies with a poisoned organ, giving the scene a haunting soundtrack reminiscent of the climactic massacre in “The Godfather.” She even gets some uncharacteristically bold action out of the fairy godmothers in this scene, making them tolerable for the first time in this franchise.

The film tries to give some development to Aurora and Phillip in an attempt to compensate for the characters’ staggering blandness in the 1959 film. The problem is that it overcompensates and Aurora and Phillip are pretty much the leads in the second half of the film, with Maleficent hardly appearing at all. Fanning and Dickinson do an admirable job, but there’s got to be a healthy middle ground between “uninspired” and “forgetting which character is selling the tickets.”

As a whole, “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” doesn’t work. The CGI effects aren’t as impressive as the film thinks they are, decisions and motivations exist simply to move the plot along, quick cuts and pacing mean that nothing really gets the chance to sink in, and the ending is laughably rushed and forced. But honestly, I halfway want to recommend the movie based on the over-the-top dinner and organ scenes alone. Sorry, the answer is no. It comes close, but too much of this movie is the wrong kind of silly.  

Grade: C

5:12 pm est          Comments

The Addams Family

            The Addams Family have been a part of American culture since their one-panel cartoons appeared in The New Yorker in 1938. Their history includes a TV series in the 60’s (that of course gave us that snap-happy theme song), two live-action films in the 90’s, countless animated adaptations, and a dearly-departed Broadway musical, important to me because actress Rachel Potter, who played Wednesday in the show, let me buy her a drink in a bar during a Tony Awards party. The new animated film has to live up to a rich legacy, and although it will probably make a decent amount of money between now and Halloween, it is a major creative letdown.

            All the classic characters are here: twisted traditionalist father Gomez (Oscar Isaac), macabre mother Morticia (Charlize Theron), moody-even-for-a-teenager daughter Wednesday (Chloe Grace Moretz), brilliant son Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard), weirdo Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll), outspoken Grandmama (Bette Midler), lurch-y butler Lurch (Conrad Vernon), walking pile of hair Cousin Itt (Snoop Dogg, apparently, though the character only communicates in squeaks), and disembodied hand Thing (nobody, probably because he has no body). The movie also throws in a bunch of other odd relatives, teasing that we’ll get to know their stories later, perhaps hinting at an animated series to come. If that series is anything like this movie, I’ll be content to let it wither and die, appropriate given the subject matter.

            There are scraps of plot about Gomez and Morticia fleeing a world that rejects them, the kids growing up in isolation, Wednesday wanting to go to public school just to annoy her parents, Pugsley training for a reunion-worthy swordplay ritual that he hates, and a neighbor (Allison Janney) who wants to destroy the family’s converted-asylum home because it’s an eyesore and has no business overlooking her town with the way-too-on-the-nose name of Assimilation. None of it really matters, the movie knows you’re just here to see the Addams Family be the Addams Family. Yeah, if nothing else, everybody pretty much stays in character.

            There’s no getting around it, the Addams Family likes some unusual things. Their house is decorated with cobwebs and dust. Their favorite pastimes involve torturing each other with medieval implements. They keep bats, a hungry lion, and a sentient tree as pets. As a matter of fact, they seem to like everything bad. If they wish to bid you welcome, they’ll say “It’s horrible to see you.” That type of wordplay gets old in this movie before Wednesday and Pugsley are even born.

            The family’s redeeming quality is that they’re really sweet and loving in spite of their unorthodox ways. The parents want what’s best for the kids, even if that means unwisely shunning social interaction. They at least make an effort to be nice to their neighbors, which naturally is more than can be said of the insecure neighbors themselves. And there is much emphasis on defending the family from the many, many people who wish to do it harm. The shared value seems to be “Nobody hurts my family… but me.”

            But having watched “The Addams Family” in various iterations, I already knew all of this, and the movie adds little to the family dynamic. Maybe a few jokes about smartphones and home renovation shows, but that’s it. Speaking of jokes, a lot of the humor in this movie falls flat. I was able to guess the vast majority of punchlines before they were uttered, and the physical humor is equally uninspired, not to mention some annoying smutty jokes snuck in to theoretically entertain understandably bored adults. I hate to disparage a property I love as much as “The Addams Family,” but it’s being poorly handled here. I wasn’t the biggest fan of “Abominable” a few weeks back, but it’s a much better choice for family viewing than this unwelcome reboot. 

Grade: C-

5:10 pm est          Comments


            “Joker” is a film whose reputation precedes it. It has a good reputation because it won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival and Joaquin Phoenix is generating Oscar buzz for his performance as the title character. But it also has a bad reputation because it’s a dark, violent, adult take on a popular comic book character that seems to celebrate irresponsible social upheaval. This in and of itself might not be so bad, except that the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises” was connected to a mass shooting in 2012, and some believe that the subject matter in this origin film for Batman’s arch nemesis is inviting a similar incident. With such strong opinions pulling in opposite directions, I suppose it should come as no surprise that the film is… middling. It will ultimately be remembered for its controversy more than anything.

            Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a man not incapable of niceness, but who lives in a world that gives him little reason to be nice. He’s a social misfit because he has a condition that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, his psychologist won’t up his meds, his mentally ill mother (Frances Conroy) keeps waiting on a check from Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) that’s never going to come, a garbage strike is making everybody in Gotham City miserable, and people just generally don’t respect him because of his job as a clown. But he has a few solaces in his life, like comedic talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), and a neighbor (Zazie Beetz) who’s at least willing to smile at him.

            Following a senseless beating, Arthur obtains a gun, which he handles carelessly, firing in his apartment and letting fall out of his pocket in a children’s hospital, which gets him fired. He does have cause to use it on a trio of Wayne Enterprise employees who attack him on a train, but his retaliation escalates from self-defense to sadism. Thomas Wayne makes some ill-advised comments about the killings that fan the flames of class warfare in Gotham. Arthur’s clown visage becomes the symbol of an inevitable uprising as Arthur himself becomes more and more comfortable with violence.

            As to that violence, its role in the film has perhaps been overstated. Yes, this movie deserves an R rating and is not appropriate for kids. But it’s not filled with nonstop savagery that pushes the boundaries of the R rating. It mostly consists of shooting, and not to downplay the horrific consequences of gun violence, but I’ve seen the Joker shoot people before. I’ve also seen him electrocute people into skeletons and impale a guy through the eyeball (admittedly just offscreen, but still…). I can’t say that the shootings (and one even softer method) are as shocking as those. I can confirm, however, that one scene with a knife is the single most disgusting ever in a Joker or Batman movie.

            Aside from the fact that it involves an iconic character, “Joker” is a pretty standard revenge-on-society flick. It borrows so heavily from Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” not to mention previous Joker movies and comics, that it barely has any ideas of its own. Believe me, I already knew that the Joker thinks that society and the expectation to adhere to its rules are “a joke.” The only thing really memorable about the movie is Pheonix’s performance, which he nails. I’m sure there will be many who try to imitate his bizarre mixture of laughing and crying, but none of them will be able to convey inner torture the way he does. He makes the character interesting, even if the movie surrounding him isn’t. 

Grade: B-

5:08 pm est          Comments


            When I first heard that I’d be reviewing an animated movie called “Abominable” this weekend, I was excited. I couldn’t wait to see a movie about a bovine that swallows an incendiary device. Sadly, this movie is about a yeti and not, as I had hoped, a bomb in a bull. Between this movie, this year’s “Missing Link,” and last year’s “Smallfoot,” all the yeti and Sasquatch jokes in existence have been made, so the bull joke is all that’s left.

            The yeti escapes from the clutches of greedy industrialist Burnish (Eddie Izzard) and makes fast friends with a girl named Yi (Chloe Bennet), who gives him the unimaginative name of Everest. Yi is a girl who secretly works multiple jobs and plays the violin. All she needs to do is secretly eat vegetables and she’ll secretly be the perfect child. She’s squirrelling money away to go on a multi-stop tour of China. How much do you want to bet that she’ll go on that trip without even realizing it throughout the course of this film?

Burnish and his top scientist Zara (Sarah Paulson) are trying to hunt down Everest, so Yi spontaneously makes the decision to return Everest to his namesake mountain. She and Everest hop on a barge, prompting her impressionable young neighbor Peng (Albert Tsai) to hop aboard as well. Peng’s older cousin Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) is responsible for him, so he has to come along too. The unlikely trio navigate China trying to get their new friend home, bonding and learning about themselves along the way.

Yi and Peng are exactly what you’d expect from these types of characters. She’s strong, smart, and resourceful (oh, and independent, can’t forget independent), even under the emotional duress of having recently lost her father. He’s loyal, fun-loving, and always getting into trouble. Jin is well below what I’d expect from this type of character. I know it’s typical of movies like these to include a relatable fish-out-of-water character who isn’t happy about the inconvenience, but this kid’s voice is set unwaveringly to “whine” for at least the first two thirds of the movie. Maybe it’s because these characters are so cookie-cutter/unlikeable that I never got invested in their scenes of character development. I know I’m supposed to respect these scenes, but I couldn’t help but want to see the film kick back over to action and jokes.

What the film lacks in interesting heroes, it makes up for in interesting villains. Burnish has a weird love/hate relationship with nature, having deprived himself of it for several years following a falling-out that he took personally. He’s the same way around people, come to think of it. Zara’s loyalty to Burnish is never on solid footing, but it gets even less reliable as the film goes on. Burnish’s unnamed head of security gets to steal a few scenes. And while by no means a villain, a near-extinct creature called a Whooping Snake exists in Burnish’s camp solely to rattle the antagonist and tempt him into reconsidering that “near-” part.

“Abominable” is fine outside of Jin weighing it down. It doesn’t do as much wrong as the trailers suggest (at no point does Yi introduce Everest to the music of Taylor Swift or play Fleetwood Mac on her violin), but it isn’t terribly inspired either. There are gags and moments that work, but they’re exceptions, not the rule. If the kids really want to go to a movie, this is as good a choice as you’re going to find right now, but otherwise I’d say stay home and watch the sadly-overlooked “Missing Link,” one of the best films of the year. 

Grade: C

5:06 pm est          Comments

Downton Abbey

            I am writing this review during the 2019 Emmy Awards, which is appropriate since the “Downton Abbey” TV series won quite a few Emmys back in the day. But I never watched an episode of the show, so this review is not coming from a place of nostalgia. In fact, I came into the film with a decided disadvantage, because the world of “Downton Abbey” is clearly lush with characters with highly-developed backstories, and while the movie isn’t exactly devoid of a convenient entry point, it doesn’t waste a lot of time with introductions either. I must confess that I spent much of this movie lost, not knowing who the characters were, where they stood with one another, or even if similar-looking people from different scenes were the same person or not. If you’re a longtime follower and don’t have time for someone left in the dust to play catch-up, I completely understand. I’m sure you’ll like this movie, I can’t imagine it betrays the integrity of the franchise in any way, go see it. I can only provide a novice’s perspective.

            The film centers around the Downton Abbey estate, circa 1927, getting a visit from the King and Queen of England. I suppose if ever there was an occasion to give these people a movie, this would be it. The royal visit calls for a reunion of the aristocratic Crawley family, including father Robert (Hugh Bonneville), mother Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), oldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery), middle daughter Edith (Laura Carmichael), Edith’s husband Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton), son-in-law Tom (Allen Leech), and grandmother Violet (Maggie Smith). Storylines include Mary considering moving away from the estate, Edith worrying that the King will send Bertie to Africa, where he will miss the birth of their child, Tom being privy to a plot to assassinate the King, and Violet wanting to resolve an inheritance dispute with her cousin (Imelda Staunton), the lady-in-waiting of the Queen.

            But it’s not all about stuffy aristocrats. There are stuffy servants with stories of their own. The occasion calls for the return of retired former butler Carson (Jim Carter), much to the dismay of current butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier), who skulks off to contend with injustices of the day. The King and Queen are bringing their own servants, which upsets the Downton staff, as serving royals would be a high point of their lives. They’re ordered to stay out of the way, but some sleeping pills and locked doors may say otherwise.

            Apologies to the seemingly dozens of characters and storylines that I’ve left out, but this is a very crowded movie. Fortunately, the dialogue is snappy and concise, with the stories mostly progressing at a pleasing pace. That is, until the final act of the film, where the setting changes from Downton Abbey itself to a royal ball at another location. The film becomes awkward and inefficient during this sequence, as if the unfamiliar venue is somehow affecting its creative process.

            To be sure, this movie is everything one could want in a big-screen version of “Downton Abbey.” The costumes, hair, sets, and music are all impeccable. The performances are engaging, the dialogue is witty, and the atmosphere, though necessarily dramatic in parts, is generally so pleasant that it’s hard to not find the film incredibly agreeable. That said, I never achieved the familiarity with the characters that I suspect I was supposed to. I definitely came out with a better understanding of the world of “Downton Abbey” than when I came in, but I can’t imagine getting more than mild enjoyment out of this film without doing time-consuming research first. 

Grade: B-

5:04 pm est          Comments


            We get a movie like “Hustlers” about once a year. It’s a story, told through narration from the main character, about their role in a criminal operation, from its humble beginnings to its dizzying heights to its tragic downfall. Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” is the king of this genre, with the director’s “Casino” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” also prominent examples, along with recent entries like “War Dogs,” “American Made,” and to an extent, “The Mule.” The difference between those movies and “Hustlers” is that those movies generally use strippers as symbols of excess with barely any character. Here the strippers are the main characters, but there’s still plenty of excess.

            Constance Wu stars as Dorothy aka Destiny and about a hundred other nicknames. She talks to a journalist (Julia Stiles) about joining the NYC strip club circuit in 2007, where she is taken under the wing of successful mainstay Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). Together they earn big tips from wealthy Wall Street types and go on shopping sprees where they pay for everything in singles. There’s a bit of a moral and legal gray area when it comes to pushing for intoxicated patrons to spend more money, but guys don’t want to go to the police to contest the bill at a strip club, so the women can fleece the men with relative impunity.

Then comes the financial crisis of 2008, which really hurts an industry dependent on the generosity of Wall Street scumbags. Dorothy and Ramona’s income dwindles until they’re having trouble making ends meet. Ramona hatches a plan: she, Dorothy, and two other dancers (Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart), rather than wait for men to come to the club, will go to bars and seduce them into coming to the club and spending money. At first, this seduction takes the form of traditional wiles like sweet talk and sex appeal. But as the well of marks dries up, the women have to resort to more drastic measures, specifically drugging. The operation gradually gets sloppier, with complications like unreliable cohorts, injured marks, personal drama, dissention, and some guys actually minding that strippers are stealing thousands of dollars from them. Like the housing market, a collapse is inevitable.

Basically the biggest problem with the film is that it’s overly familiar. Even though I came in with no knowledge of the real-life story that serves as the basis for this movie, I had a pretty good idea of what beats the story would hit – how long the good times would last, when things would start going south, when the characters would turn on each other, etc. The only thing that really surprised me was how long the good times lasted, but that just means that the movie goes too long without much-needed obstacles. Also, the stakes seem rather low for this kind of movie. I thought the women would be stealing tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time, but it’s ones of thousands done many times. The legal consequences are pretty miniscule as well, and the one violent sequence is not as dire as it first appears.

But the appeal of “Hustlers” lies not in its overall story structure or key plot points, but in its small moments, where we see the women bond and support one another. These are complex, flawed, well-written characters, with the term “fleshed-out” never seeming more appropriate. Simply spending time with these women and observing their chemistry is enough to make this a compelling film. And yes, the scenes with Jennifer Lopez stripping only make the film more enjoyable.

Grade: B-

5:02 pm est          Comments

It: Chapter 2

            Back in 2017, the big-screen version of Stephen King’s “It” became the biggest horror movie of all time with a domestic gross of over $327 million. The film probably would have gotten a sequel based on its box office alone, but it helped that King’s book takes places in two different time periods, making a follow-up practically a necessity. So now we have “It: Chapter Two,” a film that has some big floppy clown shoes to fill. The horror movie certainly isn’t afraid to deliver in quantity, with a 170-minute runtime. I think the logic is that you can afford to spend more time with the film because it’s so scary that you won’t be able to sleep after it’s over. I barely made it through the film without falling asleep.

            It has been 27 years since the events of the first movie, and The Losers’ Club of Derry, Maine is reuniting to stop the evil It from going on another killing spree. Bill (James McAvoy) has grown up to be a horror writer not unlike Stephen King. Beverly (Jessica Chastain) fled from her abusive creep of a father just to marry an abusive creep of a husband. Eddie (James Ransome) is still a hypochondriac, but a professional one as a risk analyst. Foul-mouthed Richie (Bill Hader) is a wildly successful hack standup comedian. Ben (Jay Ryan) got in shape and is now unrecognizable as a hunky architect who still pines for Beverly. Stan (Andy Bean) doesn’t make it back to Derry. And Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) has stayed in Derry this whole time studying the entity and learning about a ritual that can kill it.

            Mike is confident that The Losers’ Club can perform the ritual and defeat It, but first they need to go on individual adventures around town retrieving artifacts from their troubled pasts. About here is where the film becomes noticeably repetitive and overlong. Every member has to have their own subplot where they’re haunted, both by their own past and It in the present. The trailers have made a big deal out of Beverly’s portion, where she visits her old apartment and finds a subtly unnerving old woman living there. The scene itself is fine, but every other member goes through something similar, to diminishing returns. These scenes and scares get so formulaic that I found myself silently-yet-actually counting off on my fingers “beat-beat-JUMPSCARE!”

It, by the way, usually manifests itself in the form of Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard). It doesn’t have to, it just thinks that the creepy, fang-y clown is a good default setting for spreading fear. I know there are many people who are going to say, “He’s not wrong!” but clowns just aren’t that scary to me. I was much more freaked out by that stretched-out painting lady in the first movie. Plus there are a number of scenes where Pennywise’s face is exaggerated with phony CGI, which makes him even less scary. By the end of this movie, I was bored of Pennywise. I was bored of a horror movie villain who was supposed to scare me based on appearance alone.

At least “It: Chapter Two” does well when the characters are together. There’s a funny reunion scene in a Chinese restaurant where everybody has excellent chemistry with one another, and they aren’t bad in serious scenes either. Funny, non-scary bonding scenes were a strong point of the first movie too, and while they obviously can’t last, they offer the movie a heart not usually associated with the horror genre. As for the scary scenes, I think you’ll agree that whatever you find scary gets less scary with repetition, and what this movie thinks you’ll find scary is repeated far too much for far too long. 

Grade: C

5:00 pm est          Comments

Angel Has Fallen

            The “Fallen” series is one that’s hard to track in an alphabetical listing because it’s the first word that keeps changing with each new installment. That’s just one way in which this series is an inconvenience. Another is that 2013’s “Olympus Has Fallen” detracted from the superior White-House-in-turmoil actioner “White House Down,” which unjustly bombed presumably because it had the gall to come out three months later. And I’ll throw in another: these movies always feature initial attack scenes so violent that I can’t help but feel that no matter how many terrorists Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) kills in turn, the war is already lost.

I wasted two hours of a perfectly good day off last week watching “Olympus Has Fallen” for research when all I really needed to do was discern that Banning is a stand-in for John McClane or Jack Bauer or any other impossibly competent action hero. After watching that film (and highlights of 2016’s “London Has Fallen,” which was not available to me in full), I was dreading having to see third installment “Angel Has Fallen.” Fortunately those low expectations worked to the film’s benefit, because I didn’t detest it as much as I thought I would.

The plot sees Banning’s body gradually failing him following years of President-saving. He may have to settle for a dreaded desk job (as the director of the Secret Service, so cry me a river), even though his reason for being is to protect President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman). An attempt is made on Trumbull’s life that leaves the President in a coma and 18 Secret Service agents dead, with Banning as the lone survivor. Evidence has been planted that makes it look like Banning is behind the attack, so the second act of the movie is more of a “Fugitive” knockoff than a “Die Hard” knockoff. Who framed Banning? Could it possibly be defense contractor Wade Jennings (Danny Huston), the only suspect? Someone powerful is helping the person behind the attack, could it possibly be Vice President Kirby (Tim Blake Nelson), again the only suspect?

And then, just when the movie seems to be at its most uninspired, along comes Nick Nolte as Banning’s estranged father. Someone forgot to tell Nolte that this film is disposable garbage, because he puts all he has into this role. I was hanging on his every word, no easy feat considering his snoring-while-awake voice. The man is funny and emotional enough to elevate the material to where, for a few minutes, I was ready to give this movie an overall positive review. It didn’t last, and I would probably would have thought better of it anyway because so much about this movie is painfully by-the-numbers, but in those scenes it makes an admirable effort to earn my approval.

If you’ve ever seen a “Fallen” movie before, you can probably predict the pattern of the action: big violent initial attack by the bad guys, then some stealthy intimate attacks by Banning as he fights to undercut the bad guys without drawing attention to himself, then an escalating series of body counts as the bad guys learn they have to take out one last threat, and finally a big shootout at the end where the bad guys have a seemingly endless army of henchman who are willing to betray their country and not one of them can take out the tired, wounded Banning. You can probably predict the pattern of non-violent behavior too: where one-liners will come in, how the cat-and-mousing between Banning and the bad guys will go, how the reconciliation between Banning and his father will play out. The passion from Nolte is a nice surprise that lends the movie some much-needed respectability, but otherwise “Angel Has Fallen” is exactly the movie I expected it to be, and I expected a tiresome thriller. 

Grade: C

4:58 pm est          Comments

Good Boys

            R-rated coming-of-age comedies like “Good Boys” have tapered off in the past decade, at least in the mainstream. There have been a number of small-scale successes like “Lady Bird,” “Eighth Grade,” and this summer’s “Booksmart,” but those films fared better critically than commercially. I think it goes back to 2007’s “Superbad” and how that film nailed the formula so perfectly that for a decade most filmmakers wanted to stay away from the genre for fear of unfavorable comparisons. Or maybe it’s because the teen subgenre du jour shifted naturally from raunchy comedies to supernatural entities to dystopian futures to romances complicated by diseases. Or maybe it’s because the past decade has seen a rise in sensitivity toward topics that were once fodder for these types of comedies; things like bullying, sexual identity, and the objectification of women can’t be played for laughs in this era the way they could in the past. But I primarily subscribe to the “Superbad” theory, which explains why, while watching “Good Boys,” I couldn’t help but think the film exemplified a redundancy that it could never shake.

            The much-hyped angle of this film is that the main characters are not “teens,” but rather “tweens,” or sixth-graders. As such, they have much less understanding of sex, drugs, love, and life than the high-schoolers who usually populate these movies. Those characters have a lot to learn themselves, but these kids are much further back toward square one. Often this naivete will work to the film’s detriment, as it can be inconsistent as to what the kids do and don’t know. I came out of the film with a long list of complaints to the effect of “How can they know about X and not know about Y?” I’m hesitant to get specific, but I found it odd that they had an arsenal of jokes ready to go about the appearance of child predators. Forget high school, I don’t think I learned about that stereotype until college.

            The story follows three friends (Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon) as they anticipate their first kissing party. They want to go in knowing how to kiss, and the internet isn’t much help for some reason (for the record, typing “How to Kiss Tutorial” into Google Videos yields over 89,000 results), so they convince Tremblay to steal his father’s drone and use it to spy on a pair of teenaged, allegedly sexually active neighbors (Molly Gordon and Midori Francis). The girls get wise and steal the drone, refusing to give it back, which could get Tremblay grounded and cost him the party. The boys steal the girls’ drugs to use as leverage, leading to an escalating series of shenanigans as they try to negotiate the drone’s return. Along the way, the friends’ bond is tested in a way they never thought possible. Are they the friends they think they are or will this escapade prove to be their undoing?

            In and of itself, “Good Boys” is a fine film. There’s a reason why the relatively dormant “dirty t(w)een comedy” genre is being revived here, and it’s because the film possesses cleverness and heart. The boys’ personalities and chemistry are affable, and I’d say the jokes hit at an acceptable rate. I laughed out loud a few times (my favorite was a joke whose punchline was “What’d you do?”), but more often I found myself making the circular “move it along” gesture with my hand. The ending does drag, but the bigger issue is that twelve years since the peak of the genre is not a long enough absence to make my heart grow fonder. 

Grade: B-

4:55 pm est          Comments

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

            The last few “Fast & Furious” movies have gotten a little heavy on the number of characters. The franchise isn’t as crowded as, say, the MCU, but it’s becoming increasingly reasonable to say that “anybody who’s anybody” has been in one of these movies. So it makes sense that the cast has to be splintered off into two factions: one presumably including Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his “family,” and the one featured in this movie, which includes Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), and their respective families.

            Hobbs has been a “Fast & Furious” mainstay since the fifth movie. A DSS agent initially tasked with capturing Dom and his team, Hobbs eventually saw that they weren’t the true enemy and learned to work with them, not against them. Shaw’s role is a little more complicated. The brother of sixth-movie villain Owen Shaw, Deckard declared war on Dom and his family when they critically injured his brother. He even went so far as to kill Dom’s friend Han. However, in the eighth movie, he somewhat redeemed himself by working to defeat terrorist Cipher (for personal reasons, not the greater good) and save Dom’s baby. This was enough to make him a “good guy” in the eyes of the script, but it wasn’t enough to make him a good guy in the eyes of the fans (who famously were not ready to forgive him for the death of Han), or in the eyes of Hobbs, apparently.

            The new movie sees Hobbs and Shaw forced to team up by the CIA, Hobbs because a former colleague recommends him, and Shaw because his sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) is a person of interest in the mission. Hattie has injected herself with a virus that is capable of killing millions, and the theory is that she wants to weaponize it for nefarious purposes, but really she’s trying to keep it out of the hands of the evil Brixton (Idris Elba). Shaw isn’t willing to let Hattie die to destroy the virus, but keeping her alive for potential extraction means she’s susceptible to capture by Brixton and his terrorist organization. During a rare moment where all three main characters are on the same page, they flee to Samoa, where Hobbs must seek help from his estranged family.

            This being a “Fast & Furious” movie, even one without Vin Diesel, you can probably guess what kinds of shenanigans will transpire over the course of the film. There will be fighting, car chases, broken glass, fireballs, and all manner of affronts to the laws of physics. The dialogue too is entirely typical of this kind of blockbuster, with the one-liners coming… quickly and with figurative malice. The title characters do a lot of bickering, but Hobbs only seems to not want to work with Shaw because they’ve been opponents in the past and not because, say, he terrorized a hospital in the seventh movie. There are plenty of good reasons to not want to work with Deckard Shaw, can’t the movie give Hobbs one that isn’t petty?

            “Hobbs & Shaw” is every bit a middle-of-the-road action movie. It doesn’t reach the heartfelt highs of “Furious 7,” but it doesn’t detract from the series’ apex like “The Fate of the Furious.” I spent much of the too-long runtime debating which side of the recommendation median was for me, and then I learned that a moviegoer seated near me had fallen asleep. I’ve seen (well, heard, because of snoring) this happen many times over the years, but it has almost always been in films that were either boring or had soothing properties. But this is a “Fast & Furious” movie. It’s synonymous with zooming, crashing, ineffective shooting, and explosions. If it’s putting people to sleep, it’s simply not doing its job.  

Grade: C

4:52 pm est          Comments

The Lion King

            It’s time for the latest entry into the trend of Disney live-action remakes, and this week we have a doozie. 1994’s “The Lion King” is one of the most beloved and successful 2D animated movies of all time. I was 8 years old when that movie came out – right in the target demographic, not that I feel you’re ever too old to love it. And love it I did, watching the film and listening to its soundtrack to my heart’s content and my mom’s insanity. It is a film with a special place in my heart, and now Disney wants to add to that legacy by complementing the classic with a remake using new “realistic” CGI technology. At least, that’s what the goal of the remake is supposed to be. In actuality, the film is so creatively unambitious that I doubt living up to any sort of expectation was ever seriously considered.

            I’ll give a short recap of the story, though most people know it: Young lion prince Simba (JD McCrary) looks forward to inheriting the animal kingdom from his wise father Mufasa (James Earl Jones, once again voicing the imposing patriarch). His jealous uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) kills Mufasa and convinces Simba that he’s responsible, sending him into exile where he lives a carefree life with meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen). Years later, Simba (now voiced by Donald Glover) is discovered by childhood friend Nala (Beyonce Knowles-Carter), who wants him to return and reclaim the throne from the tyrannical Scar. The problem is that this would mean admitting to his role in his father’s death, which would devastate his mother Sarabi (Alfre Woodard). It takes an encounter with mystic monkey Rafiki (John Kani) to convince Simba to go back and fight for the kingdom, even if it means taking responsibility for his past.

            At first it looks like this movie might go well, with a lively recreation of the iconic “Circle of Life” opening admittedly nailed with the new technology. Then the characters start talking and the problems begin. To be clear, my problem is not with the talking itself, I do not share the popular opinion that the animals’ talking in this movie looks phony or creepy, I actually do think the technology is “there.” No, my problem is with the way the characters talk, with almost every line being a regurgitation of the 1994 script, except with less feeling. Scar, in particular seems neutered. The animated version is one of the most terrifying, charismatic presences in Disney history and this version just seems…lazy. If the plot didn’t require it, I’d say he didn’t want the throne that badly.

            And so it goes, beat for inferior beat. About the only thing this movie does differently from a storytelling perspective is slightly expanded parts for Sarabi and Nala, with a new Beyonce song thrown in. I can appreciate this movie not wanting to waste the talents of Mrs. Carter, though the downside is that I can’t help but wonder why the strong, independent Nala needs wimpy Simba to take care of wimpy Scar.

            Simply put, this new “Lion King” is a movie that never should have been made. When the dialogue and action aren’t being boringly repetitive, they’re falling short of the original. The more “realistic” characters can’t move or express themselves in the way they need to, and the voice acting isn’t doing the film any favors (save for holdover Jones, Beyonce, and surprisingly, the piping youngsters). Also, there’s a lot of unfunny fourth-wall breaking with Timon and Pumbaa. There’s a point in the “Hakuna Matata” musical number where I think Eichner botched a cue and they just left it in the movie. Even if it was intentional, it isn’t funny. I hold Disney to a higher standard than making me wonder if what I’m watching is incompetence or just a bad decision.

Grade: C-


4:46 pm est          Comments


            “Crawl” is a horror movie with a simple enough premise: Haley (Kaya Scodelario) has to rescue her father (Barry Pepper) from the basement of their Florida home during a hurricane. Obstacles include steadily rising flood waters, the impending threat of a surge of water if a levee breaks, the father’s injury from an alligator attack, and of course the alligators themselves. It’s mostly about the gators, with the hurricane not helping. 

This is definitely a “creature feature,” where the villain is an animal or group of animals that wants to chow down on our heroes. The king is the genre is “Jaws,” which like this movie primarily takes place in water. Humans may rule the land, but predatory animals rule the two-thirds of the planet that is covered in water, so who’s really in charge? The shark in “Jaws” can be easily avoided as long as people stay out of the water (“but it’s tourist season and that’s not an option!”), but the hurricane in this movie helpfully brings the water to our heroes, and the setting becomes less and less their domain as the movie progresses. 

As creature feature antagonists go, the alligators in this movie are… average, maybe a notch or two below. The CGI isn’t terribly convincing, these particular gators are dumb and clumsy (grown-woman Haley and her father are safe behind a pipe that the gators can’t circumvent), and just on a personal level, alligators don’t scare me that much. I figure they can be fought off with a good stomp or two, though this movie wisely traps its heroes in the title type of space where they have to maneuver using the title type of motion, restricting their movements and putting them in prime position for alligator attacks, which makes my skin do the title action. 

The movie needs to establish that the gators are deadly, but the main cast is just two people (and a dog whose chances are not what I would call “great”). The solution is to throw in three people looting a gas station across from the house and a pair of cops who have to go looking for Haley and her father after she violates a roadblock. I felt bad for the cops, as they arguably never should have been put in danger, but I’m fine with rooting for the gators against the looters. The film’s preferred method of killing is to have people dragged under the water, followed by blood bubbling to the surface. The exception is one poor chap who very clearly gets torn limb from limb, with “from limb” being needed about six more times. 

Weirdly, this movie seems like it only decided at the last minute that it wanted an R rating. It could have gotten a PG-13 relatively easily by dialing back the red food coloring and cutting some gratuitous swearing out of a single scene. As it is, it’s more deserving of an R than “Annabelle Comes Home” (where the most violent thing is a second-long look at a car crash victim), but I have to wonder if appealing to adults who want a more visceral experience is worth sacrificing the teen audience that could have turned out in larger numbers. 

“Crawl” is successful in playing into fears about claustrophobia, pressure, failure, murky waters, slimy surfaces, and maybe alligators if that flips your trigger. It doesn’t pack too much of a punch, but I can at least say that it’s the best horror movie in theaters right now. “Annabelle Comes Home” is just the “Conjuring” franchise’s bland leftovers, and don’t buy into the hype surrounding the well-shot but undaunting “Midsommar.” But there’s no reason to go out of your way to see this movie unless you need to fill the gap between obligatory viewings of “Spider-Man: Far from Home” last week and “The Lion King” next week. 

Grade: C



4:37 pm est          Comments

"Spider-Man: Far From Home"


            Following “Avengers: Endgame,” the MCU needs someone new at its head. Iron Man and Captain America will not be returning, Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy are off in space somewhere, Ant-Man and Captain Marvel just had movies in the past year, and Black Panther has a country to run. But Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is still around, the character has a great track record at the box office, and no doubt some of his mentor Tony Stark’s leadership qualities rubbed off on him. Pinning the MCU on him going forward makes a lot of sense on paper, but judging by “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” it might not be such a hot idea in practice. 

            The film opens smartly by explaining what happened to the people who were lost for five years between Thanos’s finger snap in “Infinity War” and the undoing of the snap in “Endgame,” which apparently include all the main characters in this film. It’s been an adjustment: grades have to be repeated and apartments have been sold, but things are slowly getting back on track. Peter’s class is going on a field trip to Europe, and he wants to confess his love to MJ (Zendaya), he just needs Spider-Man to not be needed for a while. But wouldn’t you know it, Earth is under attack from element-based monsters (Fire, Water, etc.) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) needs Spider-Man to step in and save the day. Can Peter heed his hero’s calling and still get the most out of his vacation? 

            At least he’s not alone in battling the Elementals. Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a superhero from a parallel universe where the Elementals have destroyed the planet. He claims to need Peter’s help in ridding this version of Earth from the monsters, but he seems perfectly capable of handling them by himself. Maybe he’s the new top-dog superhero the MCU needs. Followers of Spider-Man lore know that Mysterio is a pretty high-profile member of his rogues gallery, but then again Batman got through a whole movie in 1989 without Harvey Dent turning into Two-Face, so maybe Mysterio won’t be a bad guy here. 

            The eventual central villain is problematic. For starters, the character reveals their true colors in a big speech to a roomful of henchmen, giving the scene a strong tinge of “As you know…” redundancy. Also, the scene comes at a time when the film is conspicuously lacking a charismatic villain, because the film practically goes out of its way to make it clear that the Elementals aren’t cutting it. Perhaps worst of all is that the character is yet another MCU villain whose motivation is that they’re mad at Tony Stark for not giving them their due. How many of these chapters could have been avoided by Tony just writing a check? 

            With all its “American teenagers in Europe” antics, “Spider-Man: Far from Home” wants to be one of those “fun” MCU movies, like “Ant-Man” or the “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Thor: Ragnarok.” That’s fine if the movie can pull it off, but for me, this movie doesn’t. It’s by no means terrible, but I’ve seen other, better movies about teenagers with superpowers (including last year’s far superior “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”) and there’s a whiff of staleness that this movie never manages to shake. The film is getting excellent reviews, so feel free to see it for yourself and say I’m wrong, but after the grand finale of sorts that was “Avengers: Endgame,” this movie doesn’t make me confident that the future of the MCU is in the best hands. 

 Grade: C

 NOTE: Stay tuned all the way through the credits on this one. A mid-credit sequence features one of the most laudable casting decisions of the whole MCU and a bonus at the very end recontextualizes a number of events throughout the film.

4:25 pm est          Comments

"Annabelle Comes Home"


            Annabelle, the creepy doll mascot of the “Conjuring” universe, is indeed coming home. Specifically, she is coming into the home of demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) in the early 70’s. To be clear, the doll itself is not as evil or dangerous as its reputation implies, but it can be used and controlled by evil, dangerous demons. So if the doll starts popping up where it doesn’t belong, a demon isn’t far behind. A lot of scares in this movie involve the doll popping up where it doesn’t belong. 

            The Warrens leave town for the weekend (you didn’t think actors the caliber of Wilson and Farmiga were going to stick around for the whole movie, did you?), leaving their daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) in the care of babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman). Judy is having a hard time at school because the other kids tease her for having parents in a questionable profession. One person who isn’t so quick to tease is Mary Ellen’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife). In fact, she’s so far in the opposite direction that she invites herself over to the Warren house to learn more about what they do – and maybe get some closure on a personal matter in the process. 

            Daniela weasels her way into the room where the Warrens keep their demonic paraphernalia and then sets about disobeying both their rules about not touching anything and the audience’s audible orders not to do anything stupid. She comes across a case made of demon-proof glass (because of course demon-proof glass is a thing in this world) that houses Annabelle. The case is labelled “Positively Do Not Open,” but Daniela didn’t trespass into this room just to not open a forbidden doll case. She opens it and unleashes all kinds of evil. Something bad happens to Daniela later in the film, and I found myself yelling “Good! This is overdue!” 

            The rest of the movie follows the three girls (and a neighbor with a crude nickname) as they get terrorized by the residents of the room. There’s a specific demon attached to Annabelle, sure, but apparently releasing him from the case means that he can let all his otherworldly friends out to play. Most effective is The Ferryman, a serial killer who is considerate enough to put coins over his victims’ eyes in accordance with Greek myth. Raising him somehow means raising all his victims, so get ready to see a lot of coins where eyeballs should be. Also good for a few scares is a wedding dress that drives anyone who wears it to murder, and may also be capable of murder by itself. A samurai suit of armor at least looks capable of harm. An organ-grinding monkey toy is exactly as scary as all organ-grinding monkey toys. A board game grows arms, but frankly isn’t much of a threat without a complete body behind it. A hellhound is comprised of some of the worst CGI I’ve ever seen. It has the ability to turn into mist, which is the movie’s excuse for why it doesn’t look for a second like it’s made of anything solid.  

            “Annabelle Comes Home” is a showcase for the leftovers of the Warren house, with the movie knowing it has no high-quality villains and trying to compensate with quantity. It wants you to think that you’re getting, say, six horror movies for the price of one. But I’d say that on average each of its demons is about a twelfth as scary and substantial as they should be. So what you’re getting is six twelfths of a horror movie, or half of one. See this movie and you’ll come home disappointed.

Grade: C-


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