Mr. Holmes


Even the most beautiful garden path can be the road to Hell.

Even the most beautiful garden path can be the road to Hell.

(2015) Drama (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Roger Allam, Philip Davis, Frances de la Tour, Charles Maddox, Takako Akashi, Zak Shukor, John Sessions, Michael Culkin, David Foxxe, Oliver Devoti, Mike Burnside, Nicholas Rowe, Sam Coulson, Frances Barber. Directed by Bill Condon

The difference between reality and fiction can often be the mere stroke of a pen. Often we are presented with an image, one that in time becomes as reality. What happens to the real person then, when the fictional image becomes more powerful than the real person who inspired it?

In a sleepy seaside town on the east coast of England lives a cantankerous old man in an old cottage overlooking white chalk cliffs. He spends his days pottering around, caring for his bees and chatting with Roger (Parker), the son of his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Linney). It is nigh on impossible to believe that once upon a time, this old man was the most famous and honored detective in Great Britain, for he is Sherlock Holmes (McKellen), now 93 years old and living in retirement in post-war England.

It is 1947 and he has just returned from Japan on a visit with Umezaki (Sanada), with whom he has been corresponding about the nature of prickly ash, which is said to have restorative powers for those afflicted by senility. Holmes witnesses first-hand the horrors of Hiroshima only two years after it was annihilated by the Americans and their atomic bomb; for a man who has lived through two world wars, this visual representation of man’s inhumanity to man is almost more than he can take.

Holmes’ great mental facilities and his memory has become suspect and the 93-year-old man is trapped by his fading intellect. He is trying to recall his last case, one which caused him to retire to the seaside, but he can’t remember it, or what about it caused him to put down his magnifying glass for good. He feels like he needs to recall this; everyone he knows is dead save for the two living with him now who didn’t know him when these events transpired. All he knows is the case involved a distraught husband (Kennedy), a mysterious wife (Morahan) and a music teacher (de la Tour) who was also something of a spiritualist. As the case unravels, so does Holmes. Can he remember the details of the case and find peace, or will he join his colleagues in the Choir Invisible first?

This is the Bill Condon of Gods and Monsters, not the one who directed the two installments of the Twilight saga. Other reviewers have described this movie as elegiac and that’s nearly the perfect description; there is an air of melancholy, of lost lives and overwhelming regret and loneliness. Much of the movie is told through flashbacks as the elderly Holmes recalls shards of memory and starts to assemble them into a cohesive whole. There is an amazing scene where a middle-aged Holmes speaks to one of the main players in the mystery he is revisiting in his old age and describes that he has consciously made the choice to be lonely, but somewhat ironically follows up that having the great intellect is reward enough. As he nears the end of his life, Holmes no longer has the comfort of that intellect, although germs of it remain.

&We forget that McKellan is one of the great actors of our time; we tend to associate him with Gandalf and Magneto and need to remember that this man has a Shakespearean background and has some of the most honored performances in the history of the English stage,. His gruff exterior hides inner pain, as he for perhaps for the first time in his life feels fear; fear that the thing most of value to him is being slowly stripped away from him. For someone like Sherlock Holmes, dementia and senility are the absolute worst calamities that might befall him. We see the uncertainty of a man used to relying on the powers of his mind suddenly unable to trust those powers any longer. It’s a bravura performance that not only humanizes the great detective who is often seen these days as something of a caricature but also makes him relatable. In the past, Holmes always seemed above the rest of us; we could admire his skills while finding him cold and unapproachable. Befriending Sherlock Holmes would be something like befriending an iPad; it can be done but it wouldn’t be very satisfying if you did.

I haven’t read the novel this is based on but I’m going to make a point of finding it. There is a marvelous backstory as we discover that for the sake of making the chronicles of Sherlock Holmes’ career more enticing to the reading public his dear friend Dr. Watson has taken a few liberties with the truth. For example, Holmes tells us in a somewhat bemused tone, that he never wore a deerstalker cap (which was actually an invention of illustrators Sidney Paget and Frederic Dorr Steele, who assumed the deerstalker was the chapeau of choice due to Arthur Conan Doyle’s descriptions of his headgear, although the author never expressly stated that Holmes wore a deerstalker) nor did he smoke a pipe – he tended to prefer cigars. We get the sense that Holmes is somewhat amused by Watson’s inventions regarding his life but is to a large extent also trapped by them.

Purists of the Holmes canon will probably have a bit of a meltdown regarding some of this, but I personally think (not being a Sherlock Holmes expert in any sense) that the author and filmmakers do honor the spirit of the character here. We get a sense of what a real human being would be like if possessed of the same mental acuity as Sherlock Holmes. It would be a marvelous life indeed – and a lonely one as well.

In some ways this is likely to get lost amid the bombast of the summer’s louder and more well-heeled blockbusters, but this is as entertaining as any of them – and more than most of them, for that matter. I thoroughly enjoyed this visit to the great detective’s final years and found it believable and enjoyable, and that is all you can really ask of a summer movie indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous performance by McKellan. Terrific backstory.
REASONS TO STAY: Not for purists.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the concepts here are pretty adult; there are a couple of images that are disturbing as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor playing Holmes in the movie that the “real” Holmes goes to see is played by Nicholas Rowe, who starred in the title role of Young Sherlock Holmes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seven Per-Cent Solution
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Little Death

Shaun the Sheep Movie


Shaun the Sheep reads the early reviews.

Shaun the Sheep reads the early reviews.

(2015) Animated Feature (Lionsgate) Starring the voices of Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes,  Omid Djalili, Richard Webber, Kate Harbour, Tim Hands, Andy Nyman, Simon Greenall, Emma Tate, Jack Paulson, Sean Connolly, Henry Burton, Dhimant Vyas, Sophie Laughton, Nia Medi James, Stanley Unwin, Nick Park. Directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak

Variety asserts that Shaun the Sheep is comparable to the legendary French comedian Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot and while that is a bit of a stretch, I can at least see where the reviewer is coming from. Certainly Shaun is about as loquacious as the French comedian.

Shaun the Sheep (Fletcher) made his first appearance in a Wallace and Gromit short before getting a series of 7-minute shorts of his own, more than a hundred of them most of which have been broadcast on TV. This is the first full-length feature and it follows the storyline of most of the shorts, to wit Shaun and his fellow sheep try to get out of doing any farm work, having to outwit the dog Bitzer (Sparkes) and the unnamed balding Farmer (Sparkes). The shorts are clever and cute.

This time, however, things get a little out of hand when after lulling the Farmer to sleep by jumping over a fence until he nods off, they store him in what the Brits call a caravan and we call a trailer. When Bitzer gets wind of the deception, he goes to wake up his master, only to send the Caravan on a beeline for the city – London although not specifically named. Upon arrival the farmer is bonked on the head and loses all his memories. Having no ID on him, he wanders the streets, trying to find some sort of clue as to who he is and what he does for a living. He ends up mistakenly figuring out that he’s a hairdresser and uses the clippers to sheer the heads of his celebrity clients, recreating the same sorts of styles he used to give his sheep.

Shaun knows he needs to go retrieve the Farmer so he heads out to the City, only to be followed by the rest of the flock and Bitzer. A super-zealous animal control catcher named Trumper (Djalili) is on the prowl for Shaun and his friends and eventually captures Shaun and Bitzer, imprisoning them in a dog shelter which looks much more like death row. There they meet the world’s ugliest dog who has no hope of being adopted. Their new friend helps them escape and eventually hide out, where Shaun comes up with a last-ditch plan to get their Farmer back home to the farm – and put everything to right.

I have to admit that my hopes weren’t high for this, as it is the first Aardman animation feature in awhile to arrive with little or no fanfare and quite frankly, it may very well be one of the best things the studio has ever done. One thing I’d worried about is that there is absolutely no dialogue – the animals communicate with gesture, look and an occasional bleat or woof. Humans speak in an unintelligible gibberish that puts the “WAH WAH WAH” spoken by the adults in the Peanuts cartoons to shame.

There is obviously a great deal of affection for the rustic way of life; the farmhouse is one of those beautiful old stone farmhouses that dot the English countryside, the meadow is beautiful and even the “work” that is done doesn’t seem all that taxing. The bucolic setting and the obvious affection the sheep feel for the farmer and vice versa is kind of moving. You would think that a farmer who has grown to middle age without a human partner might get unutterably lonely but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

Like most of Aardman’s animations, this is clever as all get out. It certainly seems to be aimed at a very young audience, certainly toddlers on up but unlike a lot of American entertainment aimed at the very young, this is just as easily digested by adult viewers. It’s very short as you might expect (barely over an hour) and not for a moment did I ever feel bored or talked down to. The opening sequence, done as a Super 8 film of the Farmer as a young man with Shaun as a baby and Bitzer as a puppy establishes the mood; it’s a rather sweet sequence and while critics have praised it, some might find it too treacly. Those who don’t like cute movies for kids would be well-advised to move on.

The charm here is undeniable and quite frankly although it doesn’t have the lofty aspirations of Inside Out or the epic setting of Minions this certainly belongs with those two films as the very best family films of the summer. Some families might be unaware of the character or the movie, but this is one I’d highly recommend for an afternoon out at the movies with the kids.

REASONS TO GO: Super charming. Clever like all Aardman films. Good for adults and kids alike.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little over-sentimental in places. Those who don’t like kid movies that are cute will not like this.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Twenty animators worked on the film, each producing about two seconds of footage per day.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mr. Holmes

Pick of the Litter – August 2015


BLOCKBUSTER OF THE MONTH

Fantastic Four

Fantastic Four

(20th Century Fox) Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller, Jamie Bell. The Fantastic Four is one of Marvel’s signature properties, a superhero team that for many years was one of their go-to comic book franchises. It hasn’t translated well cinematically, with two movies whose light tone alienated a lot of fans. Fox is trying to reboot the franchise with Josh Trank (Chronicle) at the helm and a more modern take on a series that has taken criticism for being behind the times. Marvel recently canceled the comic book series and is refusing to promote the movie which doesn’t bode well for their relationship with Fox, who also owns the X-Men cinematic rights. Still, a good movie can cure a lot of ill will, and there are those who think that this might be the movie that establishes Reed Richards and company as a blockbuster film franchise. August 7

INDEPENDENT PICKS

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet

Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet

(GKIDS) Liam Neeson, Salma Hayek, John Krasinski, Quvenzhane Wallis. One of the great artists of the early 20th century was the Lebanese-born Gibran. A true Renaissance man, he was a philosopher, poet, writer, painter and counterculture icon. His best known work is The Prophet, in which the prophet Almustafa, on the way to the docks to board a boat that will take him home after 12 years of exile, stops to talk to nine different people about various facets of life. Taking the form of prose poetry, there are poems within the novel that have been animated by separate directors in the movie with a variety of styles. From the trailer, the movie looks visually stunning. This could be a masterpiece of animation if the rest of the movie is as good. August 7

Call Me Lucky

Call Me Lucky

(MPI) Barry Crimmins, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Marc Maron. Barry Crimmins is one of those comedians who was better known to stand-up comics than to the general public. His humor was topical and his style confrontational. He pulled no punches, he’d hold no bars. And yet beneath all that anger beat a compassionate heart, particularly for those who suffered the same childhood that he had – and there were many who did. When he discovered that sexual predators were using America Online to find children for pornography and sexual encounters, he knew he had to put a stop to it. He took his fight all the way to Congress. This stirring documentary is the work of friend and colleague Bobcat Goldthwaite. August 7

How to Smell a Rose-A Visit with Ricky Leacock on His Farm in Normandy

How to Smell a Rose: A Visit With Ricky Leacock on His Farm in Normandy

(Film Forum) Richard Leacock, Valérie Lalonde. Master documentarian Les Blank turns his cameras on a colleague, a cinematographer who helped pioneer the hand-held camera which paved the way for modern documentaries today. Leacock now lives a bucolic life on a farm in Normandy (hence the somewhat unnecessarily unwieldy title) but his recollections go back to the post-war era when he started creating compelling cinema. Indie cinema wouldn’t exist without him. August 12

People Places Things

People Places Things

(The Film Arcade) Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall, Jessica Williams, Stephanie Allyne. A Kiwi ex-pat living in New York City and working as a teacher, comes home one day to find his wife cheating on him. Already possessed of a kind of miserable life outlook, he completely falls apart but a new relationship with an African-American colleague gives him a hopeful outlook which he transfers to his twin daughters. Yes I know it sounds fairly typical, but anything with Jemaine Clement in it is bound to be extraordinary and the trailer for this indicates that this won’t be any exception. August 14

We Come as Friends

We Come as Friends

(FilmBuff) Hubert Sauper, David Gressley. Oscar-nominated documentarian Sauper followed up his Darwin’s Nightmare with a new film about the partitioning of Sudan with the new nation South Sudan breaking away in 2011. The complicated politics, the exploitation of her resources and the lingering colonialism and imperialism are all caught by Sauper’s unblinking eye. Using a plane he built himself to fly into remote areas, Sauper goes into remote parts of the South Sudan to talk to people who have no voice and less hope. August 14

Digging For Fire

Digging for Fire

(The Orchard) Orlando Bloom, Anna Kendrick, Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt. The latest from prolific director Joe Swanberg features his most star-studded ensemble cast yet. When a husband finds a gun and a bone on the hillside behind their home, it sends the two of them careening on separate adventures over the course of a weekend. With an impressive cast, mumblecore vet Swanberg looks to put together one of his quirkiest and yet most accessible films yet. Generally, his movies are always interesting even when they don’t always succeed. August 21

 

 

Ant-Man


Ant-Man on the wrong side of the tracks.

Ant-Man on the wrong side of the tracks.

(2015) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Michael Pena, Anthony Mackie, Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, Abby Ryder Fortson, David Dastmaichian, T.I, Hayley Atwell, Wood Harris, John Slattery, Martin Donovan, Garrett Morris, Gregg Turkington, Rod Hallett, Joe Chrest, Hayley Lovitt. Directed by Peyton Reed

Good things come in small packages. It’s a truism that was likely created by short people. Still, it can be true even for superheroes.

Scott Lang (Rudd) is not a thief. He’s a burglar. But not your ordinary burglar. He’s a man with a Masters in Electrical Engineering and plenty of skills with a computer. He saw that a software company had been ripping off its customers, so he decided just to return the funds they had been overcharging to their customers. Kind of a modern day Robin Hood.

But even though his good buddy Luis (Pena) puts him up, Scott is finding it hard to make it in the outside world. Even a job at Baskin-Robbins doesn’t pan out when they find out he’s an ex-con. Baskin-Robbins always finds out. Anyway, his ex-wife (Greer) doesn’t want him anywhere near their cute daughter Cassie (Fortson) and her new husband Paxton (Cannavale), a cop, is going to make sure he stays away.

Hank Pym (Douglas) is a brilliant inventor who came up with a particle that compresses molecules, enabling the wearer of the suit he invented to utilize them to shrink to the size of an insect. He left SHIELD after a disagreement with Howard Stark (Slattery) and more to the point, Mitchell Carson (Donovan) led him to resign.

He entered the private sector and took on a protégé named Darren Cross (Stoll). After the death of his wife, Janet van Dyne (Lovitt) led to an estrangement with his daughter Hope (Lilly) to the point where she now uses her mother’s maiden name as her own, he had largely left the company. He only came back in because Cross was on the verge of discovering the secret to his particles – and planned to use a weaponized version of the suit to sell to the highest bidder. He needs someone to steal the suit and erase all the data from the system pertaining to it. But who could pull it off?

Of course it’s Scott Lang. And he and Hope (who, finding out about Cross’ plans has teamed up with her father) have a very short time to train Scott in using the suit properly, to fight effectively in it and use all the properties (like controlling ants) to become a hero in his own right. But will it be enough to beat the villainous Yellowjacket – the alter ego of Cross?

One of the things I have admired most about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that the movies are not interchangeable. Each of them has their own style and Ant-Man continues that tradition. This is much more light in tone than the previous entries in the Marvel Universe, more like Guardians of the Galaxy than Avengers: Age of Ultron, the latter of which immediately preceded it in the Marvel timeline.

And maybe the MCU needed it; I think that other than the staunchest of Marvel fans were feeling a touch of burn-out after Age of Ultron. For whatever reason the powers-that-be at Disney decided that this would come out a mere two and a half months after the preceding movie which is a poor tactical decision and will likely cost this movie millions of box office dollars. Perhaps they just wanted a longer gap between the movie that ends Marvel’s Phase II (which this one does) and the one that begins Phase III (which Captain America: Civil War will on May 6, 2016). Still, with the Avengers still in a lot of theaters, it doesn’t make sense to release this one. I guess they’re getting ready to ratcheting up the film production to three a year rather than two which Marvel is planning on doing in 2017.

In any case, I suspect that the relatively low box office numbers (which would still be the envy of plenty of summer films) is largely due to the short turnaround. It may also be due to fan dissatisfaction over the change in director (see below) as fan favorite Edgar Wright left (or was forced out as many conspiracy-minded fanboys have opined) and Peyton Reed came aboard. I can’t say that Reed was a crackerjack replacement, but he does tend to keep things very simple in terms of framing shots and blocking action, but he also realizes this is necessarily effects-driven and allows the digital wizards to do their thing and do it they do.

The effects are for the most part well-executed, although the 2001-style sequence near the end of the movie as Scott enters the Microverse is a bit psychedelic, some might even say Dali-esque. The movie works best when they are in the world with ants as big as SUVs and where Thomas the Tank Engine becomes a runaway locomotive.

Rudd has always been a personable actor with a flair for the sarcastic and his winning personality is at full throttle here. He has bulked up his musculature to superheroic proportions and despite the fact that he is playing a convict (albeit a philanthropic one) the audience roots for him from beginning to end. There were those who might have rolled their eyes when he was cast but again, it turns out to be perfect casting as Marvel seems extremely adept at matching their superheroes with the right actors to play them.

I’ve always been a big Michael Douglas fan and for me, he is the best reason to go see this. Hank Pym is undeniably the best character he’s gotten in ages and this is his best performance in years. This is the Michael Douglas we remember from such films as Romancing the Stone, Wall Street and Fatal Attraction. He owns the screen every time he’s on it.

In the supporting realm, Evangeline Lilly is somewhat enigmatic in her pageboy haircut that reminded me of silent movie star Louise Brooks; ever since her breakout performance in Lost she hasn’t really gotten a part that takes advantage of her skills until now. Hopefully she’ll get plenty of good parts off of her performance here. Also Pena shows remarkable comic ability here; he has tended to play second banana roles for the most part – lots of cops on his filmography – but he steals the show here.

The light-hearted tone may be disappointing to fans who prefer their superheroes dark and undoubtedly we’ll get plenty of that in the next several Marvel films starting with Fantastic Four next month. Still, this is fine summer entertainment, better than the majority of the blockbusters that have appeared this summer to date and that’s saying something. This won’t stand up with the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but it won’t disappoint either. Marvel keeps on rolling and I for one continue to look forward to each new Marvel movie with anticipation.

REASONS TO GO: A little more light-hearted than most superhero films. Douglas gives his best performance in years.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too light for hardcore fans.
FAMILY VALUES: Superhero-style violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally developed by Edgar Wright who had brought the film to casting; however he dropped out at the 11th hour due to creative differences with Disney who had bought Marvel Studios in the intervening years; Reed stepped in, retaining the cast Wright had chosen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/26/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Incredible Shrinking Man
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Shaun the Sheep Movie

Minions


Scarlet Overkill attempts to kill the Minions with kindness.

Scarlet Overkill attempts to kill the Minions with kindness.

(2015) Animated Feature (Universal) Starring the voices of Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders, Geoffrey Rush, Steve Carell, Pierre Coffin, Katy Mixon, Michael Beattie, Hiroyuki Sanada, Dave Rosenbaum, Alex Dowding, Paul Thornley, Ava Acres, Carlos Alazraqui, Lori Alan, Laraine Newman, Mindy Sterling. Directed by Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin

We know the villains. They are often flamboyant, deliciously evil and unforgettable. But what of their henchmen? What of the cannon fodder they send to take on the hero, or to do whatever nefarious deed needs doing. What of them?

Master criminal Gru (Carell) has long been supported by his yellow pill-like Minions (all voiced by Coffin), odd creatures in denim overalls, usually with two eyes (occasionally with just one) who speak an odd high-pitched patois of every language on Earth as well as some gibberish that sounds like a 33 1/3 vinyl album played at 45 RPM (ask your parents or grandparents; they’ll understand the reference). But where do these non-human creatures come from?

It turns out from right here. An amusing opening sequence (much of which is seen in the trailer) shows them evolving from single-celled organisms who are determine that the best way for them to survive in a hostile world is to find the biggest, baddest villain they can, serve him and by doing so, come under his protection.

This goes badly for the Minions. It isn’t so much that their masters turn on them, as you might expect that evil villains might. It’s just that the Minions, in trying to serve, have an unnerving knack of killing their masters by accident. This causes the Minions to sink into a deep depression.

One of their number by the name of Kevin won’t sit idly by for this. He determines to leave their ice cave lair and find a new boss to serve. To accompany him will be Stuart, a would-be rock and roller, and Bob, the most adorable Minion and perhaps the most enthusiastic.

As the Minions have been in hiding for a number of years, the world has changed somewhat since last they had been seen. It is 1968 and it is New York City. You’d think that Minions would find plenty of villains there but they discover that, rather, Orlando is the place to be. That’s because a convention of evildoers is about to convene in The City Beautiful in the years Before Disney.

They hitch a ride with Walter (Keaton) and Madge Nelson (Janney) who are driving down to Orlando with their kids. It turns out that they are villains as well, expert bank robbers. And there are a number of Villains who might be worthy of the Minions, like Professor Flux (Coogan) or Sumo (Sanada). However, the biggest baddest villain of them all is Scarlet Overkill (Bullock) who it so happens is hiring.

Kevin, Bob and Stuart get the gig and go to London in Scarlet’s private jet (apparently crime does pay after all) where they meet her mechanical genius of a husband Herb (Hamm). Scarlet’s already got a job in mind for the adorable yellow Minions; to steal the crown of Queen Elizabeth (Saunders). Easy peasy, right? Of course, the Minions make a hash of it and things go rapidly downhill from there.

There has been a tendency in the world of animated features of late to populate them with adorable supporting creatures, from the slugs of Flushed Away to the penguins of Madagascar. Sometimes these creatures are more interesting than the main characters (see Skrat, Ice Age). The Minions may be the best of these, entirely incompetent but always worth a giggle. They often upstage Gru in his own movies.

They actually do an adequate job of carrying their own movie as well, although not a spectacular one. While their Minion language gets a bit old in its indecipherable glory, it still gets the message across. Their simplicity appeals to children who tend to like their characters to be uncomplicated and the Minions are definitely that.

The entertainment factor is solid. There are plenty of sight gags that are clever although truth be told they occasionally are too clever for their own good (like the Minions emerging from a sewer on Abbey Road only to be stepped on by Four sets of Fabulous feet at the crosswalk. It’s a famous album cover – ask your parents or your grandparents, they’ll understand the reference.

But the problem here is that there really is no there there, as Gertrude Stein might say. It’s entertaining, but only that; the content is so light and airy that the slightest of breezes will blow the whole thing away like a dandelion in spring. The story, while disposable, grinds to a halt in a few places and unnecessarily so. There were some scenes the movie could well have done without.

I would have thought that the Minions could have survived on their own but it turns out that they need Gru more than he needs them, which comes as a bit of a shock. At the end of the day, they are supporting characters and because they are meant to be in the background, they don’t really make an impression in the foreground for the hour and a half running time. This really feels like a Saturday morning cartoon stretched out to feature length, and while that may be a bit harsh and perhaps unjustified, nonetheless that’s the impression I walked out with. It’s entertaining enough that if you take your kids to see it you won’t be unbelievably bored (as with several animated features from last year) but at the very least this movie will make you appreciate Gru all the more.

REASONS TO GO: Reasonably entertaining for both parents and children. Minions are adorable.
REASONS TO STAY: Disposable fluff.  Drags in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of slightly rude humor and animated action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Kevin, Bob and Stuart are watching Scarlet Overkill’s presentation at Villain-Con, Gargamel from the Smurfs can be seen sitting directly in front of them.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flushed Away
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Ant-Man

Leatherheads


Even in 1925, "hi, mom" was a thing.

Even in 1925, “hi, mom” was a thing.

(2008) Comedy (Universal) George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Root, Jack Thompson, Max Casella, Wayne Duvall, Keith Loneker, Malcolm Goodwin, Matt Bushell, Tommy Hinkley, Tim Griffin, Robert Baker, Nick Paonessa, Randy Newman, Grant Heslov, Mike O’Malley, Heather Goldenhersh. Directed by George Clooney

The NFL is the most powerful sports league in the United States. The championship game, the Super Bowl, is one of the most-watched sporting events on planet Earth. The league makes billions in advertising and sponsorship revenue, broadcasting rights fees, game attendance and merchandising. Millions follow their teams week after week during the fall. But it wasn’t always that way.

Carter Rutherford (Krasinski) is on the top of the world. The star football player for the Princeton Tigers football team, he is matinee idol handsome, a war hero, admired by millions and blessed with a bright future ahead of him. Pro football? C’mon, it’s 1925! Pro football is for miners, farmers and lumberjacks, the pay is ridiculously low, there are no rules to speak of and the crowds are ghastly.

Dodge Connelly (Clooney) is at rock bottom. The star player for the Duluth Bulldogs pro football team is trying to hold together his club by the skin of his teeth. They have to forfeit a football game because the game ball – the only one the team has – is stolen. As much as he loves the game, Connelly knows the future is bleak. He’s no longer a young man, he has almost no skills to speak of and football is all he knows. To make matters worse, the Bulldogs main sponsor is pulling out, and the team is about to fold.

Lexie Littleton (Zellweger) is on the ladder to success. A brassy dame hustling, scratching and clawing to make her way as a reporter in a man’s world, she’s given a plum assignment by her editor (Thompson); a lieutenant (Casella) in Rutherford’s unit has stepped forward, claiming that his war record is false. Littleton is to get the confidence of Rutherford, build him up with a series of puff pieces and then when she gets the dirt, print the exclusive. If she does it, there’s an editorial position for her.

Connelly hits upon the bright idea of enticing Rutherford into pro football. In order to do it, he’s going to have to fast talk Rutherford’s agent/publicist CC Frazier (Pryce) into even considering pro football. When Dodge brashly guarantees ten grand per game, Frazier and Rutherford (mostly Rutherford who loves the game and wants to play past his college years) agree to join the Bulldogs. Littleton, smelling a fish story, decides to tag along.

At first, it looks like the most brilliant idea ever. Huge crowds show up to see the college star – even at Bulldog practices. The players begin to work harder to get into shape and Rutherford suggests some “effective” plays he used at Princeton. Of course, being a natural athlete better than most of the people playing the game doesn’t hurt and the Bulldogs begin to win. Connelly does his part by playing up the new guy and making sure he’s the one to score the touchdowns and that Rutherford gets all the glory. Dodge is far more interested in getting the girl, but when she discovers the truth, everything is at risk.

A nice period piece that captures the very early days of professional football nicely although I’m sure the NFL would take issue with some of the more, ahem, sordid aspects of the Duluth Bulldogs. Krasinski does some fine work as the ultra-preppy Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford. He was still best known for his work in The Office at the time (which was still on the air) and launches his film career with a completely different character than his Office work and does a great job in the process.

Clooney does his usual solid job; he seems to have an affinity for period pieces (O Brother Where Art Thou, Goodnight and Good Luck) and he plays a wise-cracking, hard-nosed Leatherhead well. Zellweger seems born to play the brassy, sassy dame with more than a little moxie. She looks right for the flapper era, and gets the cadences right.

Clooney captures the period nicely, with speakeasies and swell hotels. While the football sequences are mostly played for laughs rather than for any kind of authenticity, they are at least staged in an entertaining manner. Randy Newman’s score is reminiscent of his work in Ragtime and Parenthood; look for his cameo in one of the bar scenes.

I’m not sure whether Clooney intended an homage to screwball comedies or to actually make one; either way, it’s a bit light on jokes to match up to the better examples of the genre. The chemistry between Zellweger and Clooney isn’t as convincing as it could be.

Leatherheads is flawed, but generally entertaining. They try for the kind of screwball comedy that made things like His Girl Friday, Sullivan’s Travels and Adam’s Rib, but don’t quite get there. With a better script and better chemistry between the leads, this could have been a memorable movie, but it’s still worthwhile on several fronts – just not really anything you’d want to sing the praises of too loudly. Definitely worth the rental at least if you don’t have anything particularly pressing that you’d like to see. It’s not a complete waste of your time and money at least.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice era re-creation. Clooney and Krasinski do fine jobs.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fails at being a true screwball comedy. Chemistry between Clooney and Zellweger not quite there.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a smattering of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Due to a dispute with the Writer’s Guild of America over credit on the script, George Clooney removed himself as a voting member of the Guild.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Infamous prankster Clooney is shown playing some memorable pranks on his unsuspecting cast and crew.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $41.3M on a $58M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eight Men Out
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Minions

The Killer (1989) (Dip huet seung hung)


A Hong Kong standoff.

A Hong Kong standoff.

(1989) Crime Drama (Circle) Chow Yun Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh, Kong Chu, Kenneth Tsang, Fui-On Shing, Wing-Cho Yip, Fan Wei Yee, Barry Wong, Parkman Wong, Siu-Hung Ng, Yamson Domingo, Siu Hung Ngan, Kwong Leung Wong, Simon Broad (voice), Dion Lam, Chung Lin, Hung Lu, Pierre Tremblay (voice), Hsiang Lin Yin  Directed by John Woo

There are those who are big fans of Hong Kong cinema of the 80s and 90s who will tell you that maybe the seminal film of that era and that place is John Woo’s The Killer. At the time it was hailed by the Western press as a masterpiece even though it surprisingly didn’t do well at the box office at the time as it was released shortly after the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Since then it has taken its rightful place as one of the finest films ever to be produced in Hong Kong.

Ah Jong (Fat) is a hitman for the Hong Kong triads. However, he is getting out of the business, having lost the taste for it and plans to retire after one last job. It goes off pretty well but during the fracas, a pretty nightclub singer named Jenny (Yeh) is injured by the muzzle flash from Ah Jong’s gun when his gun goes off next to her eyes. She will need an expensive corneal transplant or will eventually lose her sight completely.

Ah Jong feels a certain amount of guilt over the incident and begins hanging out at the nightclub to hear the singer, whose sight has become so poor that she doesn’t recognize him. He witnesses an attempted mugging on the singer and drives off the bandits. Afterwards, he escorts her home and eventually the two begin to fall in love. Ah Jong resolves to get her the transplant to save her sight and in order to do so, he contacts his Triad handler Fung Sei (Kong Chu) to set up one last hit, the proceeds for which should be more than enough to pay for Jenny’s operation.

At the Hong Kong dragon boat celebration he assassinates an industrialist. However, he is observed by maverick Hong Kong police detective Li Ying (Lee), who along with his partner Tsang Yeh (Tsang) begin closing in on the assassin. The Triad boss, the ruthless Hay Wong Hoi (Shing) refuses to pay Ah Jong what he owes him and puts out a hit on his former employee. Not a smart idea. Ah Jong isn’t about to go down quietly and together with Fung Sei determine to take what is his. Li becomes intrigued with the assassin when he rushed a child, hit by incidental gunfire during the shootout, to a hospital but by doing so gets caught in the middle of the war between Ah Jong and the Triad. One thing is certain; bullets are going to fly.

The violence here is stylish, influenced by such American auteurs as Scorsese and Peckinpah. The final shootout takes place in a church that is in the process of being renovated; noted cinematographer Peter Pau and his co-cinematographer Wing-Hang Wong use doves, a Woo trademark (although this was the first film he would use them in) with a gauzy focus to make the setting somewhat ethereal; a purgatory in which the protagonists will go either to heaven or to hell.

Chow Yun Fat is one of the most charismatic and able actors to ever come out of Asia. although as of late he hasn’t appeared in many films that have made it to the States he has continued to be one of the most in-demand actors in the East. He demonstrates his screen presence here, using his athleticism to good advantage particularly in the gun battles.

The relationship between Ah Jong and Detective Li is crucial to the film’s success and the relationship goes from antagonists to grudging respect to close friends in a short time. That might seem laughable to Western audiences but it feels organic. I will admit that seeing the film a second time 25 years after originally seeing it during its first American theatrical run that the film doesn’t hold up as well as I thought it might; some of the dialogue comes off as clunky and there is a cheesy factor that I don’t remember from my first viewing, when I was extremely impressed and became a lifelong devotee to Hong Kong-produced films ever since. Woo himself had to make some compromises due to run-ins with his producer, the legendary Tsui Hark. Like Woo, Hark is a man of strong opinions and the two butted heads over things like the soundtrack. Woo wanted Jenny to be a singer of sultry jazz songs but Hark didn’t think Asian audiences would like that and insisted that she sing Chinese pop songs. For the record, Woo was right.

The Killer has been a tremendous influence on action films in general; echoes of various scenes can be seen in just about every action film made since, influencing directors like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, the Wachowski’s, Luc Besson and Antoine Fuqua. Sure, there are some cultural aspects that may seem foreign to American audiences but the action sequences by themselves are worthy of study, particularly for the serious aficionado of action movies. While I left my more recent viewing less impressed than I had been after my first, I had to remind myself that many of the sequences have been so imitated that they seem less incredible now than when I first saw it, when I have to say without reservation that I hadn’t seen anything like this before. In many ways, it still can be said about this movie – it is an amazing piece of filmmaking and anyone who seriously loves movies should make the effort to see this film at some point; it is required viewing for any understanding of action movies and non-American cinema.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully choreographed action. Fine performance by Chow Yun Fat. Beautiful cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat dated. Some of the dialogue is a bit bombastic.
FAMILY VALUES: An incredible amount of violence, mostly bloodless although there are a couple of disturbing images. There’s also a little bit of foul language and a whole lot of smoking going on.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The subtitles were so badly translated during the first American theatrical run that the film was mistakenly promoted as a comedy..
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Dragon Dynasty DVD/Blu-Ray version includes a location guide. Surprisingly, the now out-of-print Criterion Collection edition contained no notable extras.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.4M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental and streaming)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Departed
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Leatherheads