Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Honey, I shrunk myself (but you didn't!)

The preview trailer of Matt Damon’s new movie, ‘Downsizing,’ is rather misleading.  We are led to believe that it’s an oddball comedy or dramedy, which is supported by its inclusion of SNL alumni Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis.  What indie auteur Alexander Payne’s (‘Election,’ ‘Sideways,’ ‘The Descendants’) new film turned out to be is quite different, as it segues into headier and more serious themes such as (gasp!) environmentalism and the true meaning of happiness.
Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, a middle-aged “average guy” and workplace therapist by profession who’s stuck in a bit of a financial rut, so he and his wife Audrey (Wiig) made the momentous and life-changing decision to “downsize” (an established medical procedure resulting from a Norwegian scientific breakthrough which reduces one’s physical size to roughly 5” tall) after seeing so many people living happily and comfortably as small people.  When the time came, Audrey backed out at the last minute (not a spoiler if you’ve seen the trailer), leaving him on a proverbial limb and on his own.  His life seemingly shattered and without purpose, Paul must now adapt to his new reality and find new meaning in his life “living small.”
At first, I was furious that ‘Downsizing’ turned my expectations on its head by transforming from a comedy to a “serious” polemic on conserving our environment (it’s no accident that the new and improved Paul has a smaller footprint) and being kind to those less fortunate.  But as Paul’s journey of redemption and self-discovery unfolds, I find myself engrossed in his story and the people he crossed paths with, be it the Eastern European playboy played by Christoph Waltz or the Vietnamese dissident forced into downsizing played by Hong Chau in a bold and eye-opening performance.  It ultimately won me over by daring to be different and playing with our expectations, something that’s all too rare in a Hollywood that prefers to play it safe.

Grade: A 

The Last Pitch

The a capella songbirds of the Barden Bellas reunite for one last hurrah in ‘Pitch Perfect 3,’ the third and thankfully final installment of a trilogy that’s been fresh out of ideas since the original surprise hit back in 2012.  That’s the thing with surprise “sleepers” that exceed expectations critically and commercially; we can expect sequel(s) that in the vast majority of cases fail to equal—much less surpass—the original.  PP3 is only the latest example of forced and unwanted trilogies, but we can hardly fault them for trying from a strictly business standpoint.
PP3 picks up sometime after PP2 and finds the Bellas out of their league in a competition against seasoned professional bands (with instruments) for the opportunity to perform as part of an overseas USO tour hosted by DJ Khaled.  Unlike PP1 and PP2, however, there isn’t much of a contest this time because all the singing and improv-ing took a backseat to an unexpected action-comedy script centered on “Fat Amy” (Rebel Wilson) and her estranged criminal dad (John Lithgow).  This ill-conceived diversion sucked away much of what made the original (and PP2 to a lesser degree) so charming and delightful because PP3 made for a poor action-comedy.
Like other unnecessary sequels, it is probably unavoidable that PP3 would have suffered from the “law of diminishing returns” no matter what, but it didn’t have to go out with such a depressing note.  The only notable musical performance in the entire film was an unimaginative cover of Britney Spears’s “Toxic.”  While I wasn’t expecting much out of PP3, at least I was hoping for some decent a capella singing.  Sadly even that was too much to ask.

Grade: C-


Never give up, never surrender

There is no greater embodiment of British steadfastness and defiance against Adolf Hitler than Winston Churchill, the rotund cigar-chomping prime minister responsible for steering England through her “darkest hour” in the early days of World War II, a time when Germany’s war machine and blitzkrieg through Europe seemed well-nigh unstoppable.  British director Joe Wright’s Churchill biopic ‘Darkest Hour,’ based on a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, sought to capture the essence of the man as well as the public and backroom politicking which took place at a time when negotiations (“appeasement”) and the pursuit of peace at the cost of British honor would appear to be the easy way out.
It is widely accepted in Hollywood that one role can often define a career, and this is surely the case for veteran actor Gary Oldman, who delivered the performance of his lifetime as Winston Churchill.  Oldman had always been a somewhat underappreciated method actor whose previous roles failed to fully do justice to his abilities, but ‘Darkest Hour’ gave him the perfect vehicle to showcase his talents, resulting in a bravura performance that will likely earn him an Oscar nod (if not outright win) in the Best Actor category next February.
While ‘Darkest Hour’ will no doubt appear stuffy and slow to younger viewers who regard history and biopics as a bit of a bore, I find it to be an excellent snapshot of World War II history and a fascinating character study of one of Britain’s greatest political figures.  Even as a WWII buff I found the movie to be enlightening, as I didn’t know just how close even Churchill was to giving in to the political pressures from Halifax and Chamberlain to make peace with Hitler during the Dunkirk disaster.

Grade: A

Monday, December 18, 2017

The First Order Strikes Back

‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi,’ the middle installment of the new Disney Star Wars trilogy and Episode VIII of the Star Wars saga started by George Lucas 40 years ago, is the best movie of the popular and beloved space opera franchise since ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ according to the critics who raved about it, giving it a “certified fresh” rating of 93 percent on the aggregate review website Rotten Tomatoes.  Audiences are divided and decidedly less enthused, as its current audience score closer to 50 percent would suggest.  Why the disconnect?  Inquiring minds want to know: The Great Star Wars Divide.
By any measure, TLJ seems to have checked off most—if not all—of the boxes one would expect in a Star Wars movie.  It is packed with thrilling action in space and on the surface, filled with individual acts of derring-do and noble sacrifice, spiced with a good dose of humor and topped off with the good-versus-evil melodrama that had become its trademark.  While there isn’t anything in TLJ that truly can be called surprising (such as—spoilers ahead!--Kylo Ren’s manipulation of Rey for his own ends, his betrayal of Snoke, or the twist in Luke’s final “appearance” on Crait) and the story is somewhat reminiscent of TESB, TLJ still managed to be a rollicking, entertaining and crowd-pleasing adventure yarn, porg or no porg (just don't eat them).

Alas, when an event movie from as popular a pop culture phenomenon as Star Wars comes along, it is inevitable that there will be a high degree of anticipation and expectations from diehard and casual fans alike.  And if the movie falls short of said expectations, well, then the movie had failed to the individuals concerned.  It can be a subjective and highly personal experience.  With this in mind, I’ll jump off the fence and side with the critics on this one.

Grade: A

Japanese, not Chinese 

Monday, December 11, 2017

How to make a bad movie

In the annals of cinema’s long and storied history, one would be hard pressed to find a movie as bad as Tommy Wiseau’s ‘The Room.’  Released in the summer of 2003, this so-called “movie” still holds the dubious distinction of being the worst movie ever made, which makes its subsequent cult status as the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ of bad movies all the more baffling.  It’s so bad that it’s awesome?  I didn't get it.  But now I think I do, thanks to James Franco’s new mockumentary (or could it be homage?) ‘The Disaster Artist’ about the making of the notorious film and Wiseau himself.
In many ways, ‘The Disaster Artist’ is a charming, heart-felt and poignant portrait of friendship between the movie’s two main characters, Wiseau (James Franco) and Greg Sestero (his real-life brother Dave), two struggling wannabe actors who, like Mia in ‘La La Land,’ dream of making it big in Hollywood.  With ambitions far outstripping whatever acting skills they possess (none to speak of), they found it hard—big surprise—to break into show business, so Wiseau decided that the best way to overcome this obstacle is to produce, star in and direct his own movie.  Six months and six million dollars (bankrolled out of Wiseau’s own pocket because no sane person would even consider financing it) later, ‘The Room’ was the result and the world will never be the same because of it.

James Franco was simply Fabio-lous as the eccentric and pathological Wiseau, a big baby who refused to be type-cast as a villain just because he resembled Dracula with his long dark locks and faux Transylvanian accent (he’s a hero!).  Dave Franco was equally great as Sestero, the ying to Wiseau’s yang, as their (non-homo) bromance was put to the test by increasing difficulties and strains on and off the set.  In our age of MST3K and Rifftrax, there will always be room (excuse the pun) for horrendously bad movies like ‘The Room’ among cinephiles and film geeks alike, but unlike its subject, ‘The Disaster Artist’ is “tearing us apart” not because of how much it blows (which it doesn’t) but because it is so subversively funny at times that it drives us to tears.
Grade: A+

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Billboard Justice

Character-centered films spare in visual pizzazz yet rich in storytelling and character development are all too rare these days in a movie industry driven by blockbusters and spectacle-heavy extravaganzas.  It is therefore such a welcome breath of fresh air when a black dramedy like Martin McDonagh’s ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ comes along, a low-key affair relying on great storytelling and strong characterizations that leaves an imprint long after the final credits have rolled.
‘Three Billboards’ thrives on conflict and a good dose of trouble, which arose when grieving and angry mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand in what may be her best performance since ‘Fargo’) donned the hat of town hell raiser by renting three billboards outside the fictional, run-down town of Ebbing, Missouri to advertise her frustration at the failure of local law enforcement to apprehend the murderer and rapist of her rebellious teenage daughter.  An understandable grievance to be sure, but for the fact that her ire happened to be directed towards Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the beloved town sheriff and loving family man cast in the homespun mold of Andy Griffith and Carroll O’Connor.  Considering that justice was denied in this case not due to negligence, incompetence or a failure to conduct the investigation with due diligence but simply because the trail had gone cold and nothing else can be done, it’s little surprise that a majority of the townsfolk turned against Mildred, particularly in light of the fact that Chief Willoughby is dealing with a serious health issue of his own.  Nevertheless, on a mission with a single-mindedness bordering on sheer fanaticism, Mildred continued to wage her righteous crusade against the police like the scorned woman she is.
What’s great about ‘Three Billboards’ is that it defied our expectations with its ambiguous, shades-of-grey morality.  At times as cold as ice, McDormand made it hard for the audience to fully empathize with Mildred despite what she’s going through.  While most people would probably have found some kind of closure and tried to move on with their lives, Mildred adamantly refuses to let it go, come hell or high water.  And (speaking of which) like last year’s uniquely American neo-western/black comedy ‘Hell or High Water,’ she’s willing to let her destructive actions take her wherever they may lead, leaving the rest to the audience’s imagination and judgment.

Grade: A+


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Justice Denied

Pity DC.  Just when its cinematic universe, the so-called DC Extended Universe or DCEU, appears to be on the right track, finally putting its critical and box office troubles behind with the sensational success of the female-empowering ‘Wonder Woman’ this past summer, things came crashing back to harsh reality in ‘Justice League,’ DC/Warner Brothers’ highly anticipated super-powered team that’s supposed to be DC’s answer to Marvel’s ‘Avengers.’  Boasting such heavyweights as Wonder Woman, Batman, Aquaman, Flash, Cyborg and Superman (yes, he’s baaack!), you would think that JL should have little trouble crossing $100 million at the domestic box office on opening weekend with no major competition (‘Thor: Ragnarok’ is in its third weekend) in sight, but as the final tally came in, it appears that anything is possible.
To be fair, JL had what we might call “bad karma.”  One of its production companies is Ratpac Entertainment co-founded by Brett Ratner who, along with his mentor rap mogul Russell Simmons, finds himself accused of sexual misconduct in the current enlightened Hollywood climate. While women went in droves to see ‘Wonder Woman,’ most seem to have stayed away from JL despite Gal Gadot reprising her role in it.  Moreover, director Zack Snyder was forced to leave the set in May 2017 due to a family tragedy (his daughter’s suicide), leaving the unfinished tentpole in the more-than-capable hands of fan fave Joss Whedon (‘The Avengers,’ ‘Age of Ultron,’ ‘Agents of SHIELD, BTVS, Firefly, etc.).  In light of Snyder’s track record (‘Man of Steel,’ ‘BvS: Dawn of Justice') in the DCEU, this change may be taken as a blessing in disguise, but even Joss isn’t Superman and only re-shot some scenes (ballooning the movie’s budget well north of $300 million), having little creative input at this late stage of the film’s development.  As a result, JL is plagued by everything the critics have mentioned: inconsistent tone and pacing, a paper-thin plot, underdeveloped characters, subpar FX, and topping it all off is a weak ass villain named after a short-lived '70's Canadian rock group.  Quite disappointing.
DC/Warner Brothers really had to bring its "A game" to JL in order to try and catch up to Marvel, but instead of doing justice to ‘Justice League’ it laid an egg while second tier Marvel characters routinely perform better.   How?  Movie analysts and DC fanboys alike are still scratching their collective heads on this one.  Is it because there are simply too many superhero movies out there ("superhero fatigue"), or is it because mainstream audiences just don't find DC characters all that interesting, with the notable exceptions of Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman?  I guess we'll find out in due course when Aquaman and Shazam get their stand‑alone movies.

Grade: C

Poetic Justice on the Orient Express

Kenneth Branagh stars and directs in the latest movie adaptation of Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ featuring Belgian detective extraordinaire Hercule (not Hercules) Poirot, perhaps fiction’s most famous detective not named Sherlock.  Which begs the question “Why???!!!” because all one has to do is to watch (or revisit) the superb 1974 original directed by Sidney Lumet starring Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery and Vanessa Redgrave.  The answer is simple and pretty much the same whenever a “classic” is shamelessly thus remade: Hollywood may be creatively bankrupt and has to recycle old material every now and then, but it is also doing us a service by updating these classics for later generations of moviegoers who – unless they’re classic film buffs – would not have seen them in the first place.  A valid reason or an excuse?  You decide.

Nonetheless, many critics declared this “unnecessary” remake utterly pointless and DOA (58 percent on the Tomatometer), but MOTOE2017 actually holds up on its own quite well.  You would think that finding a cast that would do justice to an ensemble including such screen legends as Bacall, Bergman and Redgrave is no mean feat (which it isn't), but MOTOE2017 came pretty darn close with a power-house cast of its own featuring Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe and Branagh himself as the eccentric and mustachioed detective.  Am I being too lenient?  You decide.

If you’ve read the AC novel or seen the 1974 movie (or even both), there is likely no suspense here as to “Whodunit.”  Even the play on words that formed the title of this review kind of gives it away.  But like the namesake of its mode of transportation, it’s the journey and not the destination that matters.  Then again, I may be predisposed towards MOTOE2017 because I’m just a sucker when it comes to a good old fashioned “dinner party murder mystery.” 

Grade: A-


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The default president

LBJ might be regarded by some to be one of the most underrated and least understood chief executives to ever occupy the Oval Office.  Perhaps this is understandable, as the former Senate majority leader and conservative southern Democrat will always be remembered as the reluctant vice president who became president after Golden Boy JFK was assassinated and for escalating the highly unpopular “police action” in ‘Nam.  LBJ’s legacy provides a perfect example of how posterity can highlight the negative over the positive.  Eclectic director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Joey Hartstone attempt to redress this in the latest presidential biopic, ‘LBJ.’
The “honor” of portraying Lyndon Baines Johnson on screen goes to Woody Harrelson, the 56-year old veteran actor whom some might consider to be a bit underrated himself in light of his major awards-to-filmography ratio (no Oscars out of two noms, and one Emmy out of five noms for ‘Cheers’ back in 1989).  As if the snubs only drove him harder, Harrelson delivered one of the most dramatic and nuanced performances in his career as the 36th President of these United States, convincingly putting himself “in character” and imparting the foul-mouthed Texas firebrand with a passion and fervor rarely seen before.
A snapshot of the period before he became president and shortly thereafter in the early 1960’s, ‘LBJ’ is limited in scope and only provides a 90-minute glimpse of its complicated and conflicted subject, but it is no less compelling as we observe him stubbornly cling to his old ways, butt heads with Bobby Kennedy, deal with the reality of succeeding JFK in the aftermath of a national tragedy and break with his own political bloc (southern Democrats) by championing the Civil Rights Act which his idealistic young predecessor started.  While ‘LBJ’ is flawed (much like the character it portrays) and isn’t quite as good or memorable as Natalie Portman’s ‘Jackie’ last year, it is worth watching nonetheless.

Grade: A-

Ragnarok & Roll

The ‘Thor’ trilogy goes out with a literal bang in ‘Thor: Ragnarok,’ director Taika Waititi’s rollicking and surprisingly fun (as in GOTG fun) take on the hammer-wielding Norse God of Thunder in the MCU.  So who is Taika Waititi anyway?  Isn’t he some famous Hawaiian or character from ‘The Lion King’ or something?  Well, no, the talented Kiwi (“New Zealander”) is the actor/screenwriter/director best known (before ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ that is) for the well-received indie vampire-comedy ‘What We Do in the Shadows.’  Look out, Peter Jackson.  Or not.
‘Ragnarok’ continues the tradition of sibling troubles we’ve seen in the dysfunctional royal family of Asgard.  With his Machiavellian adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) subdued after all the mischief (the Chitauri) he unleashed upon NYC, Thor only finds to his surprise and dismay that he also had a big sis whom his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) banished for being overly belligerent and ambitious in her warring ways.  Cate Blanchett is “Hela” good, and dare I say sexy in black, as the powerful, evil and antlered Goddess of Death who returns to Asgard with a vengeance to claim her rightful place and bring glory to her home world through the might of her army of conquest.  Can Thor, Loki, a fallen Valkyrie-turned-scrapper (Tessa Thompson) and a certain green berserker with anger management issues put a flower in the barrel of her rifle?

Aw, baby brother's trying to stop me with his little toy hammer.  Cute.
While ‘Ragnarok’ is a dazzling spectacle jam packed with action and epic battles of Homeric proportions, what’s great about the movie are its lighter moments.  Aussie Chris Hemsworth may be known as a hunky action hero, but he does possess some comedic chops, and Waititi (who’s no stranger to comedy in light of his work on WWDITS and ‘Flight of the Concords’) injected ‘Ragnarok’ with well-timed moments of levity, including an intentionally badly acted scene featuring the cameo of a well-known actor portraying a dying Loki in classical tragic fashion.

Grade: A+

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A Good Day to Die Over..... and Over

It’s ‘Groundhog Day’ meets ‘Scream’ in ‘Happy Death Day,’ Blumhouse Production’s latest horror-comedy clearly aimed at the millennial set.  Blumhouse Productions, renowned for striking box office gold with such low-budget gems as ‘Paranormal Activity,’ ‘The Purge,’ ‘Split’ and ‘Get Out,’ has done it again with this $4.8 million slasher flick featuring an unknown actress but an intriguing concept, which already recouped its “meager” budget 10 times over after only two weekends of its release.
Imagine that you die at the hands of a stereotypical masked slasher drawn from such Hollywood classics as ‘Halloween,’ ‘Friday the 13th,’ ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ and ‘Scream,’ except that you would wake up the next morning “as good as new” and relive the day like Bill Murray did over and over again in that beloved 1993 cult comedy classic.  Of course, you vividly remember what happened the previous day (which also happens to be “today”), particularly the pivotal moment when you died gore-iously by the hands and deadly implements of an unknown masked killer.  Talk about re-living your nightmares!  This is exactly the inexplicable, surreal predicament in which the film’s sassy protagonist, a hot blonde college sorority gal (Jessica Rothe) with a rebellious and mean streak who doesn’t fit the vain and shallowly materialistic archetype of her peers, finds herself on her birthday.  Nothing says "I love you" quite like the gift of death for your birthday, I’d say.
For all its faults,’ ‘Happy Death Day’ is a fun and enjoyable movie this Halloween season (it was released on Friday the 13th).  Tree (Jessica Rothe’s character) is an engaging, self-deprecating and headstrong heroine whom we can easily root for as she tries and tries again (or should I say “dies and dies again”) to solve her own murder and unmask the killer with the help of her obligatory cute boy love interest, Carter Davis (Israel Broussard).  If only this is a video game.
Grade: B+

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Do replicants dream of electric sheep?

Ridley Scott’s 1982 cyberpunk neo-noir thriller ‘Blade Runner’ is considered to be one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time, a thought-provoking meditation on what it means to be human set in the rain-drenched neon-lit dystopia of 2019 Los Angeles.  As the film’s protagonist, Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard is a hard-boiled bounty hunter in the mold of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, an android-hunter who ended up falling for one.  As far as replicants go, he could do much worse than the femme fatale Rachael (Sean Young).
35 years later, acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve (‘Sicario,’ ‘Arrival’) continues the BR saga 30 years after the original with ‘Blade Runner 2049.’  While diehard BR geeks still debate to this day as to whether Rick Deckard is a replicant himself, there is no ambiguity in BR2049 that Ryan Gosling’s “K” (Unit KD9-3.7 to be exact) represents the latest in cutting-edge replicant technology, a model that’s fully obedient to his human masters and poses no danger of joining a replicant freedom movement like his rebellious Nexus-6 predecessors.  As an unrepentant blade runner himself, K’s journey of self discovery in BR2049 also (like Deckard) made him question authority and seek redemption as he slowly unravels the juicy mystery central to the movie’s plot.
Complex, visually stylish and deeply satisfying to genre fans, BR2049 is a worthy follow‑up to the 1982 original.  When you think that Philip K. Dick couldn’t have written the story any better, the screenwriters (in this case Hampton Fancher and Michael Green) must have done something right.  BR2049 sucks us in with its compelling and slowly unfolding plot, intricate world‑building and future tech (including flying cars and cool holograms) and never lets up, making the 163-minute movie seemingly not so long at all.

Grade: A

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Made in America

Shaking off his lackluster performance in the recent ‘The Mummy’ remake, Tom Cruise returns to form in ‘American Made,’ the “inspired by a true story” account of the life (and death) of Barry Seal, an airline pilot recruited by the CIA to conduct aerial reconnaissance on Central American Marxist revolutionaries who also moonlighted as a drug smuggler for the Medellin cartel during the 1980’s (my favorite decade).  Real life stories are often compelling and can be stranger than fiction, and ‘American Made’ certainly qualifies as one of them.
Set during the Reagan era, ‘American Made’ is a nostalgic trip down memory lane.  The US is recovering from the energy crisis but facing the spread of communism in its own backyard in the guise of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  With the specter of Vietnam still making direct military intervention impossible, the new president sought to fight a low-intensity shadow war by proxy against the Marxist insurrectionists.  If the movie is to be believed, Seal was instrumental in this effort, first conducting dangerous low altitude photo-reconnaissance missions in a twin-engine plane for the CIA before directly supplying AK-47’s to the Contra “freedom fighters” in their half-hearted fight against the Sandinistas.  There is simply nothing Seal couldn’t do; he was also a regular errand boy for the US government in its underhanded dealings (as in bribery) with a certain colonel at the time in Panama by the name of Manuel Noriega.
While Cruise may be deemed too handsome and lean compared to the man he portrayed in the film, his natural charisma and commanding performance carried the movie along with its snappy pacing and near constant sense of danger.  Seal was one of those “adventurous” people who loves to play with fire and court disaster, and his exploits in the movie consist of one tightrope walking act after another as he worked both sides of the law to his own advantage even if it ultimately proved to be his undoing.  Director Doug Liman demonstrated a flair for the dramatic in this riveting docudrama, portraying Seal as neither good nor evil but simply human, warts and all.

Grade: B+

Where hath all the Kingsmen gone?

Matthew Vaughn’s ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ was a mayhem-filled, rollicking (and very R-rated) joyride of a movie which went on to gross over $400 million globally.  Based on the comic book series created by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, ‘Kingsman’ is an over-the-top James Bond spoof with an unlikely former street punk in the role of the quintessential British “gentleman spy.”  With stylish action sequences ripped right out of ‘The Matrix’ trilogy and a cast of flamboyant and colorful heroes and villains, ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ was a pleasant surprise in 2014.  Therefore it isn't exactly a surprise that it caught a case of sequelitis in ‘Kingsman 2: The Golden Circle.’

K2:TGC pulls no punches and starts off with some high speed heavy-metal fisticuff action inside a London cab between Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton) and Charlie Hesketh, a disgraced former Kingsman trainee who appeared in the previous film.  Soon afterwards (spoiler alert!) Kingsman HQ and various other stations in Her Majesty’s realm were destroyed by a well-coordinated missile strike, killing all Kingsman (and one Kingswoman, the spunky Roxy) in one fell swoop.  The villain, or villainess rather, this time is Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), a June Cleaver-like yet ruthless drug Queenpin with a thing for Elton John who rules over her own domain, a 1950’s-themed (think “Happy Days” or “Grease”) jungle paradise somewhere in Cambodia.  We also learn that “Kingsman” has a heretofore unknown sister organization in the United States aptly called “Statesman.”  I know, how silly right?
Being a sequel, the question now becomes: “Is K2:TGC as good as the original?”  The critics have answered that question with a resounding “Hell, no!” which is not unexpected of course, but in my humble opinion K2:TGC actually held its own quite well.  I try not to judge a sequel too harshly and found the movie to be an action-packed, over-the-top, entertaining and fun romp despite it not being quite as good as the original.  My suggestion to y’all is just to sit back and enjoy the ride as the unabashed popcorn flick that it is.

Grade: A-

Killer Klown from Underground

Following closely behind the box office disaster that was 'The Dark Tower,' the big screen adaptation of Stephen King's 1986 horror novel "It" proved to be a much bigger draw after four weeks of theatrical release, having raked in over $550 million worldwide on a budget of $35 million.  The first chapter in a two-part series, 'It' is one of the best and scariest movies in recent memory.

While I vaguely remember the TV mini-series back in 1990 starring Tim Curry, I was keen to revisit the quaint and homely (but fictitious) town of Derry, Maine.  As the sinister and malevolent “eldritch demonic entity of evil” in this unassuming small town, Pennywise the Dancing Clown ranks easily as one of the most terrifying movie monsters ever imagined, and you don’t have to have a case of jester-phobia for the “Clown with the Red Balloons” to haunt your worst nightmares.  ‘It’ Chapter One introduces the uninitiated to Pennywise as he stalks and terrorizes a group of misfit teenagers, who must overcome their greatest fears and band together in order to banish “It” in his own lair, the creepy haunted house on Neibolt Street.

What sets ‘It’ apart from other run-of-the-mill horror movies is that it is a coming-of-age tale with a lot of heart.  The seven kids in the film may be outcasts, but they are flesh-and-blood real people dealing with a myriad of issues.  And as bad as “It” may be, Pennywise isn’t their only problem; many of them also have to endure repeated bullying and parental abuse at home.  Fact is, you simply can’t experience this movie without getting attached to these kids.  I don’t know about you, but I’m already eagerly awaiting Chapter Two of this richly layered, immersive and utterly terrifying “American Horror Story.”
Grade: A


Friday, August 25, 2017

The Bodyguard's Hitman

Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson make quite the "Odd Couple" in director Patrick Hughes' high octane, no-holds-barred buddy action-comedy 'The Hitman's Bodyguard,' a movie in which a foul-mouthed Salma Hayek outshined (and possibly out-killed) both.  Part Quentin Tarantino and part Shane Black, THB is all fun and a reason why I love blood-soaked action comedies that don't take themselves too seriously.
Reynolds plays Michael Bryce, a former CIA agent-turned-private bodyguard, excuse me, "protection agent" who's the best in the business.  In fact, he's "Triple-A" certified and had never lost a client, until he did which caused his impeccable reputation and career to take a steep nose-dive.  When Interpol was compromised in its efforts to escort Samuel L's assassin, Darius Kincaid, to testify against Gary Oldman's notorious dictator of Belarus at the International Court of Justice for "Crimes Against Humanity" (massacring civilians), Bryce was given a second chance for redemption and to regain his lost standing by an ex who was the lone surviving Interpol agent.  Bryce must safely deliver Kincaid while hitmen galore working for Oldman declare open season on them.  Can they survive?
After 'Deadpool,' it's refreshing to see Reynolds take on a more serious, straight-laced role while Samuel L gets to have most of the fun.  The chemistry between them is great, as is Salma Hayek, whom believe me you do not want to mess with.  But THB is not just your typical mindless mayhem, oh no.  It's also a tender romance (between Darius and Hayek's Sonia) set to classic love songs.  So it's really the perfect date movie if you think about it.
Grade: A-

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Gunslinger & The Man in Black

Few writers had as much of their works mined for movie adaptation as Stephen King.  While the prolific novelist is considered to be the undisputed reigning “Master of Horror” and deservedly so, with most of his horror stories (novels and short stories alike) translated into films and mini-series, two out of three of my favorite adaptions of his extensive body of work are actually not in the horror genre, ‘Stand by Me’ and ‘The Shawshank Redemption,’ with ‘The Shining’ being the exception.  I admit I’m not the biggest Stephen King fan as far as his books are concerned (and I haven’t read most of them), but there are very few of his movies or TV mini-series I haven’t seen.  So despite the scathing reviews the critics have levied upon ‘The Dark Tower,’ I wasn’t about to break the streak.
Okay, so I haven’t read ‘The Dark Tower’ series either, but I figured that’s not necessarily a bad thing because I won’t be disappointed if the movie didn’t live up to the books.  TDT can be best characterized as a dark fantasy sci-fi western about Good versus Evil, a recurring theme of Stephen King’s.  In TDT we have multiple worlds and dimensions, a protagonist anti-hero in Roland Deschain (“The Gunslinger” played by Idris Elba) who’s sort of a knight in a western, and a soft-spoken evil wizard (“The Man in Black” portrayed by Matthew McConaughey) with the unpretentious name of Walter Padick.  There’s also the “boy with all the gifts,” 11-year old Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) who, as you might have surmised, holds the key to defeating “The Man in Black.”
TDT is a serviceable movie intended to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, but in light of its disappointing box office numbers over the weekend one can only conclude that it’s ill-conceived from the start.  By not being faithful to the book and in essentially making it into a YA movie, the vociferous TDT fans are not happy, but they’re not numerous enough to make TDT a financial success anyway.  OTOH mainstream moviegoers didn't exactly embrace it with open arms either.  While TDT was the number 1 movie last weekend, its $19 million in domestic ticket sales is the lowest of any “weekend box office winner” all summer.  “Serviceable” just isn’t good enough these days.

Grade: B

"The Man in Black"?  Isn't it the Men in Black?

Lethal Beauty

Simply put, I love women who kick ass and look good while doing it.  It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about an angsty teen who slays vampires and monsters (Buffy), wet work-specializing femmes fatales who kill with their looks as much as their “very particular set of skills” (Sydney Bristow and Nikita), or comic book superheroines like the recent Wonder Woman played by Gal Gadot.  It should come as no surprise, then, that Charlize Theron’s noirish Cold War spy actioner, ‘Atomic Blonde,’ is a “can’t miss” in my book.
Based on the obscure 2012 graphic novel ‘The Coldest City,’ ‘Atomic Blonde’ (the name itself sounds badass, doesn’t it?) is set in 1989 Berlin during the last days of the Cold War.  Even though the Berlin Wall is about to come down and a sense of chaotic euphoria is sweeping across the land, the spy game between the East and West still rages on.   After a British intelligence agent was killed and a list of names of every western spy (the Holy Grail in spy movies) falls into the hands of the KGB, veteran MI6 trouble-shooter Lorraine Broughton (the Atomic Blonde) is sent to Berlin to recover it and uncover a suspected double agent in MI6.  Yeah, the powers-that-be pretty much dropped her into a Hornets' Nest with no safety net.
If ‘Atomic Blonde’ reminds you a bit of John Wick, it’s probably because they’re both directed by David Leitch, whose camerawork and continuous-shot action sequences virtually set a new standard in action movies with his brutal and hyper-kinetic style.  Like JW, AB is an unstoppable maelstrom of poetic violence when unleashed, bloody and utterly uncompromising in a world of “kill or be killed.”  Punch-stab-kick and repeat.  It’s gritty yet also a thing of sheer beauty.  While there is a semblance of a plot filled with double-crosses and belief-defying twists, it merely provides a vehicle for Theron to wield her deadly arts and to satiate our thirst for visceral violence (and a good dose of gratuitous girl-on-girl action too).  Move over, Evelyn Salt.

Grade: A


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

2701: A Space Oddity

Prolific French filmmaker Luc Besson brings to the big screen the French sci-fi/action comic "Valerian and Laureline" by replacing Laureline with a gigantic space station hosting “thousands” of alien races in ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.'  V&TCO1000P is easily Besson’s most ambitious, sprawling, visually stylish and expensive gamble, I mean project, since ‘The Fifth Element’ starring Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich some 20 years ago.  Being a fan of T5E I marked this movie on my “to see” list ever since I initially saw its colorful and swashbuckling trailer packed to the gills with unique aliens and gee-whiz futurama, but in the deep recess of my mind lurked the nagging fear that it would turn out to be another ‘Jupiter Ascending.’  Therefore, I took care not to dial my expectations up too high.
Aside from the fact that I never read the comic which inspired it, that is perhaps why I enjoyed V&TCO1000P so much.  Major Valerian (Dane DeHann) and his comely and sassy blonde sidekick Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are elite agents of a special Space Police unit operating out of a giant space station named “Alpha” which hosts innumerable alien races (think Babylon 5 but much, much bigger) living in peaceful harmony.  A seemingly routine mission to recover a valuable device (a power converter) on a desert planet thrusts Valerian and Laureline into a web of deceit and intrigue involving a race of lithe, androgynous and translucent-skinned aliens.

Critics have faulted V&TCO1000P mostly for its weak and contrived story but come on, this is a Luc Besson movie we’re talking about.  While the plot isn’t exactly awesome or original for that matter, it is much more conventional and straightforward than, say, Besson’s ‘Lucy.’  With its campy humor, wild-eyed fantasy and high-tech Avatar-esque visuals, V&TCO1000P is a rollicking space opera that’s fun for the whole family.  I’ve learned long ago that Luc Besson movies are visceral experiences; don’t overthink them and just sit back and enjoy the ride.  Oh, and don’t forget the popcorn.

Grade: A 

No Small Miracle

The 1940 “Miracle at Dunkirk” is the subject of Christopher Nolan’s latest big budget feature, a vast sweeping WWII epic and passion project from the acclaimed British director best known for the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy and a couple of FX-heavy sci-fi mindbenders that start with an “I,” ‘Inception’ and ‘Interstellar.’  In turning an ignominious and unmitigated military disaster resulting from German “shock and awe” (aka Blitzkrieg) lightning warfare that brought France to her knees in a little more than two weeks into a symbol of British defiance, individual heroism and selfless sacrifice, the story of Dunkirk just begs to be re-told (there was a 1958 version apparently which I haven’t seen) to a modern audience who sadly know too little about world history.
The narrative of ‘Dunkirk’ is divided into three distinct but related parts.  “The Mole” follows a lowly British PBI (poor bloody infantryman) named Tommy (aren’t they all?) as he attempts to survive repeated Luftwaffe air attacks and reach “Home Sweet Home.”  “The Sea” is mostly told from the POV of a British naval officer (Kenneth Branagh) overseeing the evacuation effort and a yachtsman (Mark Rylance) who answered the call to join the hastily assembled fleet of private fishing vessels, yachts and ferry boats sailing toward Dunkirk.  Lastly, “The Air” is seen through the eyes of a RAF Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) who risks running out of fuel before he can return to base in order to provide air cover for the helpless (“where is the bloody air force?!”) Tommies who can only anxiously peer into the sky at the sound of approaching German bombers.
While the non-linear storytelling and down-in-the-dirt POV are effective in conveying the realism, chaos, fear, heroism and, yes, even cowardice one would expect in the unforgiving crucible of war and make for a harrowing viewing experience, the juxtaposition of the three subplots and the rapidly shifting perspectives achieved through cut scenes in editing prevented the movie from reaching greatness.  Even though the three parts did come together at the end (and two of them intersected at another point earlier in the film), it lacked the dramatic impact and emotional resonance of more linear war movies.  Nolan shouldn't have given 'Dunkirk' the ‘Memento’ treatment, but do go see it anyway because films such as this should really be watched on the big screen (unless you have a state-of-the-art home theatre system and don't mind the wait) so you can hear and feel the rumbles and reverberations of every explosion deep down in your very bones.

Grade: A- 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Ape-pocalypse Now

The rebooted ‘Planet of the Apes’ trilogy comes to a fitting if somewhat sad conclusion in director Matt Reeves’s ‘War for the Planet of the Apes,’ the follow-up to ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ (2011) and ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ (2014) which tell the story of how a human-engineered “simian virus” decimated humanity and made monkeys and apes the dominant species on earth.  A modern take on the POTA franchise of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s with prosthetic made-up apes featuring Roddy McDowall (few remember the 2001 Tim Burton remake starring Mark Wahlberg and Helena Bonham Carter), this new trilogy combined cutting-edge computer animation with facial mapping (notably Andy Serkis’s) to give the various apes in the films a hyper-realistic yet all-too-human quality.
So the (ape) shit finally hits the fan  in WFTPOTA and the war is on.  Going by its action-packed preview trailer one could easily come away with the impression that the conflict between homo sapiens and apes comes to a head and all hell breaks loose, but it’s actually quite a bit more complicated and nuanced than that.  Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice it to say that Woody Harrelson’s character (simply referred to as "The Colonel"), inspired by Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in ‘Apocalypse Now’ and Caesar’s key nemesis in the film, didn’t have the luxury of solely focusing on wiping out ape-kind.  There’s a bigger picture at work here.
Even more so than the previous ROTPOTA, Caesar carries the weight of his people’s deliverance on his tired shoulders while Woody Harrelson’s “Alpha-Omega” paramilitary faction seeks to enslave and ultimately destroy them.  This Caesar isn't one to cross the Rubicon and challenge the humans in a war of annihilation where only the strongest survive.  Like Jesus, Caesar is more likely to extend an olive branch to his enemies with turn-the-other-cheek humility and grace, even if they shove it right back in his face.  Is peaceful coexistence between humans and apes even possible?  Not if "The Colonel" still draws his last dying breath.

Grade: A


The Wishing Box

Teenagers love scary movies, even the bad ones.  It’s hard to go to a horror movie nowadays without noticing that a majority of the audience seems to be 20 or under, and a good portion of that even much younger.  Now that I think of it, I was probably one of them back in the day, since I’ve been a horror aficionado/gore-hound for as long as I can remember.  It’s no surprise, then, that the folks behind the ill-fated teen-centered horror flick ‘Wish Upon’ believe they had a built-in audience for their movie.  Well, they were dead (excuse the pun) wrong.
‘Wish Upon’ recycles the well-worn tropes of the “101 ways to die” ‘Final Destination’ franchise, providing it with a new twist by replacing the Grim Reaper with an evil octagonal Chinese demon box.  This weird and somewhat creepy music box, as the movie’s young protagonist Clare (Joey King) discovers, can fulfill all her adolescent dreams, such as literally causing the mean girl tormenting her in high school to rot and making the boy whom she secretly crushes on dump his hotter girlfriend and fall for her.  However, every wish has a price and Clare comes to the belated realization that her shallow and selfish desires are better left unfulfilled as they could very well consign her soul to damnation.
‘Wish Upon’ is a dumbed-down ‘The Box’ without the moral dilemma or surreal artsy trappings, a horror-lite clearly aimed at the 25-and-under demographic.  It’s a rather vacuous and gimmicky movie, but hardly an unexpected one considering such films’ relatively low budget.  I’m sure its disappointment at the BO will not discourage producers from making similar movies in the future, but I will have to try a bit harder steering clear of them though I fear I may not be able to resist ‘Happy Death Day.’  I’m so easy.

Grade: C


Requiescat in Pace

In so many ways they never truly die....



Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Diary of a Teenage Superhero

Our friendly neighborhood web-slinger returns to the big screen once again in ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming,’ the second reboot and third Spidey film franchise in the last 15 years.  The first trilogy from ‘Evil Dead’ writer/producer/director Sam Raimi starring Tobey Maguire was an unqualified success even if the last film fizzled out, but the reboot with Andrew Garfield as the wise-cracking superhero disappointed both critically and commercially and was canceled after just two installments.  This prompted Sony Pictures, which owns the rights to the title as long as they keep rebooting it every 10 years or so, to collaborate with Marvel Studios and properly integrate Spider-Man into the rich and highly successful MCU.  It turned out to be one of the best decisions Sony ever made (are you listening, ‘Fantastic Four’ rights owner 20th Century Fox?).
After his well-received debut in ‘Captain America: Civil War,’ Tom Holland takes over the mantle in the brand spanking new franchise as the youngest Spider-Man to date.  Holland’s Peter Parker is only a geeky 15-year old navigating through the minefields of adolescence and high school like any other teenager, except he’s not your typical high school sophomore.  After his brief stint as a probationary Avenger on “Team Iron Man” in ‘Captain America: Civil War,’ Peter Parker is eager to further develop his crime-fighting skills on the not-so-mean streets of Queens, New York, but his mentor Iron Man just told him to “settle down and get back to school, kid.”  It’s like giving a kid his first taste of ice-cream and then taking it away.  Not to be discouraged, Spider-Man keeps patrolling the neighborhood and is finally rewarded for his perseverance when he stumbles upon the arms-dealing schemes of the Vulture (Michael Keaton) and his henchmen, who came across some cool Chitauri tech while pulling clean-up duty after the Battle of New York in the first Avengers movie until Tony Stark’s Department of Damage Control rudely stepped in and took over jurisdiction.
The verdict is in.  ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ is a refreshing take on my favorite Marvel superhero.  It is entertaining, fun and a highly promising start to a Spider-Man franchise that had gone stale for so long.  Tom Holland (who first opened my eyes in this moving film: The Impossible) is great and bestows Peter Parker version 3.0 with a wide-eyed wonder and youthful exuberance we haven’t seen to this extent before.  He’s also terrible at keeping his identity a secret, as you’ll see throughout the movie (and the last line in the movie is classic).  But let’s cut the kid some slack shall we?  He’s new at this superhero gig.

Grade: A

Gru & the Gang Part III

In the genre of family-friendly CGI animated movies, the ‘Despicable Me’ franchise is easily among the most beloved and successful. The four films released to date (including the ‘Minions’ spin-off) have already garnered over $3 billion worldwide, making it one of the most lucrative animated franchises of all time.  So what gives DM its widespread appeal?  The legion of unintelligible but lovable Twinkie-like minions, surely, but let’s not give the other characters short shrift because DM is a family affair with Gru, Lucy and the three girls who give the franchise its heart.
DM3 sees villain-turned-agent Gru (Steve Carell, voiced by that is) foil the pink diamond-thieving ‘80s supervillain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), only to be fired by the new head of the Anti-Villain League for failing to apprehend him.  Along with Lucy (Kristen Wiig), who resigned A-VL in protest as a show of solidarity, and his three adopted girls, Gru visits his long-lost twin brother in the kingdom of Freedonia and is tempted to return to the life of supervillainy he thought he left behind until Bratt re-enters the picture and successfully steals the pink diamond to power his giant robot for the purpose of destroying Hollywood in revenge for canceling his ‘80’s TV show.  And that, my dear readers, is the story of DM3 in a rather compact nutshell.
I won't lie to you.  The “laws of diminishing returns” is at work in DM3 here.  The story isn’t all that great and the series is suffering a bit of fatigue.  But that’s to be expected and perhaps unavoidable in the final analysis.  What’s important is that DM3 should give fans of the DM franchise what they wanted and keep them happy, and it did that admirably well considering the fact that it made nearly $450 million worldwide after only its second weekend.  As for me personally, what I particularly liked about DM3 are its throwback ‘80s soundtrack and Japanese-inspired Giant Robot mayhem.

Grade: B 


Monday, July 3, 2017

License to Drive

Like many of you, I've been a big fan of British director Edgar Wright ever since his breakthrough zomedy hit ‘Shaun of the Dead’ back in 2004.  His two follow-ups in the so-called “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy,” the buddy-cop shoot-em’-up action-comedy ‘Hot Fuzz’ (2007) and end-of-the-world bodysnatcher apocalyptic comedy ‘The World’s End’ (2013) were also great, even if SOTD is still considered to be the best among them.  Likewise, his movie adaptation of the graphic novel ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World' (2010) was brilliant if underappreciated.  I was therefore disappointed when he was attached to direct the ‘Ant-Man’ movie, then abruptly left due to “creative differences.”  No matter, because as his latest film ‘Baby Driver’ has shown, the 43-year old Wright is better off writing original material than having his quirky genius crimped by a major studio like Marvel anyway.
Set in Atlanta (like last year’s ‘Triple 9’ reviewed here: 999), BD dispensed with Wright’s long-time British partners-in-crime Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in favor of a much more American cast boasting some major league talent in the forms of Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and a couple of Jon’s (Hamm and Bernthal).  The film also features two young newcomers in baby-faced Ansel Elgort and the hot-to-trot Eiza Gonz├ílez and gave them a chance to shine, the former as a reluctant getaway driver with the mad skills and cool nerves of a NASCAR driver and the latter as the saucy and spicy Latin “Bonnie” to Jon Hamm’s Clyde.
While BD’s plot isn’t exactly new being a variation of the “decent fellow who wants to leave his life of crime behind but finds it easier said than done” theme, Wright managed to give it a fresh spin with its unique protagonist and colorful cast of criminals.  In many ways this movie is also Wright's homage to heist movies, rom-coms and funky soul music from the 60's and 70's.  Not only does BD work as an entertaining cops-and-robbers flick but also a romance with plenty of heart and soul (music), as Wright proves once again that he has a singular talent for blending comedy with humanity and a healthy dose of gratuitous R-rated violence.  I love it.

Grade: A


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

How to Survive a Shark Attack

Despite its obvious flaws I quite enjoyed last year’s ‘The Shallows,’ a movie about a cat-and-mouse game between a Great White Predator and Blake Lively’s hapless surfer-in-peril (reviewed here: Blake Lively kicks Shark Butt), so when the new Jaws-inspired movie ’47 Meters Down’ came under my radar I just knew I had to see it.  One blurb even called it “the best shark film since Jaws,” so you’ll have to forgive me for jumping the shark, I mean into my local mega-plex to see it the first change I got.
The basic plot of 47MD is bloodily simple.  Easy-on-the-eyes siblings Kate and Lisa (Aussie actress Claire Holt and singer/actress Mandy Moore) go on vacay in Mexico to help the latter get over her recent separation with her boyfriend, who had the gall to break up with her because he considered her “boring.”  Needing to send her ex-BF a “FU, you don’t know what you’re missing” and reasoning that “I’ll be enclosed in a sturdy steel cage and people did it all the time, so what could possibly go wrong?", Lisa (who does seem to be a tame and risk-averse gal in the movie) threw caution into the wind and reluctantly allowed her wilder and more spontaneous little sis Kate to talk her into going on a cage dive in shark-infested waters after a couple of local young eligible bachelors they met at a bar the previous night suggested it.  What could possibly go wrong?  The law of “Murphy” of course.
I was disappointed.  After sitting through a third of the movie following the sisters around with all their girl-talk and issues before they become shark bait, the big payoff I expected never materialized.  Unlike ‘The Shallows,’ the tension and suspense failed to build-up to a level that kept me at the edge of my seat, and the sense of danger and peril were sorely lacking in this film.  47MD may be more realistic in its depiction of real-life shark encounters wherein a survivor lived to tell the Shark tale, but sometimes movies have to ratchet it up a few notches and over-dramatize things to keep us interested even if every marine biologist tells us that sharks aren’t the aggressive, human-chomping monsters pop culture made them out to be.  Even the original ‘Jaws’ went pretty far, right?  And I was shaking my head in utter disbelief when I saw the (spoiler ahead) faux ending sequence in which Lisa fought off tooth-and-nail the shark that had her firmly in its grips by ripping one of its eyes out, but then I read this hard-to-believe story: How to Survive a Shark Attack.  Regardless, I still liked the badass, don’t mess with Blake Lively ending of ‘The Shallows’ much better.  Sorry, reality is just soooo boring.

Grade: C+