Bohemian Rhapsody


Freddy Mercury in his element.

(2018) Musical Biography (20th Century FoxRami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker, Meneka Das, Ace Bhatti, Priya Blackburn, Dermot Murphy, Dickie Beau, Tim Plester, Jack Roth, Max Bennett, Felipe Bejarano, Neil Fox-Roberts, Michelle Duncan. Directed by Bryan Singer

 

For an outsider, Freddie Mercury became symbolic to a lot of people. To people of my generation, he was a peerless rock star, perhaps the very embodiment of one. To music historians, he brought grand opera into rock and roll, with all the silliness and grandeur that implies. To the LGBTQ community, he was one of their own who made it big on his own terms. He was the voice of his generation.

Of course, to play such a bigger-than-life performer, you’re going to need a bigger-than-life performance and fortunately, that is delivered here. Rami Malek, best-known at the time for the TV series Mr. Robot, won the Oscar for his portrayal of Mercury and justifiably so – it was one of the best performances of the decade. Malek inhabits the role completely and gets every little nuance right. It is as close to having Freddy back as we’re likely to get.

That said, the movie isn’t without its problems. Like a lot of music industry biopics, it tends to focus on the sensational – the parties, the lifestyle, the drugs and the sex – and while not ignoring the creative process completely, at least gives it less attention than it deserves. It’s easy to be caught up in the excesses, and yes, the band was known for them, but that wasn’t all they were.

They were (and are) also extraordinary musicians and incredibly creative, as the music attests. The film uses the music of Queen to great effect. The re-creation of their triumphant Live-Aid performance in 1985 after an absence of several years opens and closes the film. Many believe that it was one of the best rock and roll performances of all time and they’re not wrong.

Queen is remembered for merging rock and roll and opera, with all the silliness and high drama that it entails, so perhaps the movie was destined to have its share of drama – director Bryan Singer was fired and the film was finished by an uncredited Dexter Fletcher late in the process – but for those who loved Queen (like Da Queen, for example) this is absolutely required viewing. The real challenge for any musical biopic is that it have appeal not just to the main fan base of the act, but also to casual fans as well. I believe even those who weren’t necessarily Queen devotees will get something out of this film, if nothing else Malek’s incredible performance.

REASONS TO SEE: Malek gives the performance of a lifetime. Uses the music of Queen magnificently.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes, a little gossipy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, plenty of sexuality, adult thematic content and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Malek wore a prosthetic device to re-create Mercury’s famous overbite. After shooting concluded, he kept the prosthetic and eventually had it cast in gold.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rocketman
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Church and State

The Hate U Give


Driving while black can be fatal in 21st century America.

(2018) Drama (20th Century FoxAmandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Anthony Mackie, Issa Rae, Common, Algee Smith, Sabrina Carpenter, K.J. Apa, Dominique Fishback, Lamar Johnson, TJ Wright, Megan Lawless, Rhonda Johnson Dents, Tony Vaughn, Marcia Wright, Al Mitchell, Karan Kendrick, Jevon Johnson, Mike Stoudt, Tye Claybrook Jr., Andrene Ward-Hammond. Directed by George Tillman Jr.

 

In the latter years of the 20-teens, it was fashionable for those of white privilege to say that race relations had markedly improved. After all, blacks can vote now, can’t they? They can use the same bathrooms as white people, can’t they? They’re not in chains anymore, are they?

The chains that African-Americans wear in the 21st century are much more subtle than iron but just as binding and just as evil. We can see those shackles so clearly in this adaptation of a best-selling young adult novel.

Starr Carter (Stenberg) is a bright, vivacious 16-year-old African-American girl who lives in Garden Heights, a predominantly black working-class neighborhood. Her father Maverick (Hornsby) is a former activist who had a bad run a few years ago and ended up doing jail time as a gang member for local gang leader King (Mackie). He currently owns a corner grocery market in the Heights; Starr’s mother (King), however, wants her babies to escape the Hood and to that end she has sent Starr, her brother Seven (Johnson) and younger sister Sekani (TJ Wright) to Williamson Prep, an upper-crust private school which is mostly white.

Starr exists in two different worlds which she is able to compartmentalize at first. However, while being driven home from a party by her childhood friend Khalil (Smith), they are pulled over by a white cop for no apparent reason. Although Starr begs Khalil to keep his hands on the dashboard and to obey every command given him by the obviously nervous patrolman, Khalil adopts a more confrontational attitude and when he reaches for a hairbrush inside the car, the panicked cop shoots him dead.

The shooting of another unarmed black youth puts the community into an uproar. Starr, the only eyewitness, is terrified if she comes forward to testify in front of the grand children that she and her family will be targeted by the police. Equally real is King’s desire that Starr not testify because it would come out that Khalil worked for King as a drug dealer. This is not information King is particularly eager to see go public.

Starr is caught in the center of a ticking time bomb. On the one hand, she wants to honor Khalil’s memory by standing up for him; on the other hand, she wants to protect her family. Doing the right thing never seemed so hard.

The movie captures the flavor of the African-American community in a way that makes it seem almost idyllic, from the ranks of the community to the warmth of family. It also doesn’t shy away from portraying the violence in the community; a party is interrupted by gunshots, and King in a particularly vicious move orders a store to be firebombed with children inside.

Still, the frustration of the black community is very palpable and very understandable from the very first scene, in which Maverick explains to his children how to survive an encounter with the police. This is not a talk white parents need to have with their kids but it is tragically all-too-common in African-American homes. The script makes no bones about the conditions that have created this situation.

The star here is Starr, or rather, Amandla Stenberg who is absolutely riveting. She gives Starr an inner strength that shows through even when she’s full of doubt. Starr has a playful side that Stenberg captures nicely, but also a vulnerable side. Starr is one of the most nuanced characters to come out of literature in the past decade, and she’s one of the most nuanced characters to come out of the movies as well, thanks largely to Stenberg. Hornsby also gets points for a strong performance as Maverick.

The movie stumbles a bit in its occasional strident tone; not that it’s unjustified, mind you, but it can be preachy in places. The ending is a little bit out there, and there are a few plot contrivances that felt a little forced. It also is a fairly long movie which might not sit well with its target audience. However, if you give this film a chance you will find it might just strike a powerful chord in you. That is, unless you’re one of those folks who think that African-Americans should be grateful for the strides they’ve made over the past sixty years. Then again, those folks are the least likely to want to see a movie like this.

REASONS TO SEE: Stenberg shows real strength in her performance. Captures the positives of African-American culture; the sense of community and family, for example.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes grows overly strident in its message (although that is somewhat understandable).
FAMILY VALUES: This is definitely adult, thematically speaking. There is also quite a bit of profanity, some violence and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Screenwriter Audrey Wells died of cancer the day before the film was released, 13 days before the national wide release.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews: Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monsters and Men
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Sisters Brothers

Bad Times at the El Royale


Evil can be sexy.

(2018) Thriller (20th Century FoxJeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan, Shea Whigham, Mark O’Brien, Charles Halford, Jim O’Heir, Gerry Nairn, Alvina August, London A. Morrison, Bethany Brown, Rebecca Toolan, Hannah Jane Zirke, Billy Wickman, William B. Davis, Tally Rodin. Directed by Drew Goddard

 

This was one of my favorite movies of 2018. Goddard hits it out of the park as a group of disparate characters gather at a rundown motel straddling the California-Nevada state line. It is 1969, and the El Royale lost its gaming license a year prior and has fallen on hard times ever since – once it was a playground for the rich and shameless.

Being checked in by whitebread clerk Miles Miller (Pullman) is Father Dan Flynn (Bridges), on the road to see his family; vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Hamm) who has the patter and the smile to sell an Eskimo an ice cube; singer Darlene Sweet (Erivo) who is on her way to a gig in Reno and needs a cheap place to stay for the night; and young Emily Summerspring (Johnson) who just wants everyone to stay the hell away from her.

As it turns out, all four of the guests have secrets. As it turns out, the hotel has secrets too – one of which is revealed in the prologue. The story is told non-sequentially but we eventually learn why each of them is there. Emily, for example, has kidnapped her kid sister Rose (Spaeny) from a charismatic cult leader named Billy Lee (Hemsworth), who doesn’t take kindly to others stealing his property. It all ends up in a confrontation in the lobby of the El Royale.

I loved the complexity of the story, which Goddard tells non-sequentially, going from room to room to concentrate on each individual guest. There are some twists and turns – some of which are jaw-dropping – and plenty of sex and violence. Comparisons have been made to early Tarantino and the comparison isn’t out of line; in fact, at times, I think that this homage to the pop culture maestro is a little too strong but if one is going to imitate someone, Tarantino is a good one to emulate.

Goddard is aided by a tremendous cast, all of whom deliver strong performances. The real revelation is Tony award winner Erivo who absolutely kills it as Darlene Sweet (clearly based on Darlene Love), and she sings mighty nicely some soul classics from the early 60s. She also has a scene with Bridges that absolutely gave me the chills; I thought for sure she would have gotten a Best Supporting Actress nomination, but sadly she didn’t. She deserved it, though. Her strong work since then has shown that her performance here is no fluke; she is a talent who is going to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood in short order.

Bridges adds heart to the proceedings and Hamm gives a sly performance. I also loved Hemsworth, who plays Billy Lee as a combination of Charles Manson and Jim Morrison. Dakota Johnson has never been sexier than she is here, which includes her 50 Shades films.

realize that this isn’t going to be a film that appeals to everyone. Some might find it overly violent – and it is. Some might find it overly self-indulgent – which it is. Others might think it’s too Tarantino-esque – guilty as charged. However, I personally look at those as strong points in this film. It’s one that I have watched several times since and it hasn’t lost its appeal. That’s my definition of a great film.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely well-written and tied nicely together at the end. Strong performances throughout, particularly from Erivo. Places itself nicely in the era. Some of the twists are a bit unexpected.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels a little bit too much like a Tarantino film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly graphic violence, brief nudity and sexuality, some drug content and a copious amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The El Royale is based loosely on the CalNeva resort in Lake Tahoe. The hotel was once owned by Frank Sinatra.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin in the Woods
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Hate U Give

The Predator


There’s predators and then there’s prey.

(2018) Science Fiction (20th Century FoxBoyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Sterling K. Brown, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera, Jake Busey, Yvonne Strahovski, Brian Prince, Mike Dopud, Niall Matter, Javier Lacroix, Gabriel LaBelle, Nikolas Dukic, Lochlyn Munro, Alisson Amigo. Directed by Shane Black

 

A buddy of mine is a huge fan of Shane Black and with good reason. Black has written some of the best action films of the last few decades. Now, he tries his hand at a franchise that he has a history with – as an actor.

Sniper Quinn McKenna (Holbrook) has a run-in with a Predator in Mexico (why they seem attracted to Latin America I have no idea) and after a debriefing by the military, is locked away in a sanitarium to keep him quiet but not before he FedExes some alien tech to his ex-wife (Strahovski, sadly underused) and autistic savant son (Tremblay) who sets off a beacon that brings down a hunter after his family. Along with a group of misfits also in the military prison, Quinn must escape and save his family – and by extension, the rest of the human race – before it’s too late.

I will say this; the movie does have the courage of its convictions. It sets you up as being a gore-fest and that it remains from beginning to end. Nobody writes tough guy dialogue like Shane, and he outdoes himself here. However, this isn’t one of his finer works as the plot is exceedingly derivative – do we really need another brilliant but emotionally challenged kid to save the day – and by the end of the movie has become so ludicrous that your best bet is just go with it and don’t try to think too much about the logic behind what you’re seeing.

 

The cast is pretty star-studded and for the most part delivers satisfactory performances, or at least about what you would expect for a movie like this. Some of the CGI is a little grainy and likely won’t bear up under the next generation of UHD screens. Holbrook in the lead is no Arnold Schwarzenegger – I thought the movie might have been better served if he and Thomas Jane would have switched roles.

Still in all, this makes for some mighty decent popcorn entertainment. And that, my dear reader, is something we can all use more of in these stressful times.

REASONS TO SEE: Gleefully entertaining.
REASONS TO AVOID: Predictable plot points way up there on the ludicrous scale.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, a fair amount of gore and persistent profanity including crude sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Black wrote Thomas Jane’s character with Tourette’s syndrome because Black has Tourette’s in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Predator v. Alien
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Chichinette: The Accidental Spy

Deadpool 2


Deadpool: Superhero in training.

(2018) Superhero (20th Century Fox/Marvel) Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Zazie Beetz, Morena Baccarin, Julian Dennison, T.J. Miller, Leslie Uggams, Karan Soni, Brianna Hildebrand, Jack Kesy, Eddie Marsan, Terry Crews, Bill Skarsgård, Brad Pitt, Lewis Tan, Rob Delany, Nikolai Witschl, Randal Reeder, Shioli Kutsuna, Stefan Kapicic, Matt Damon, Alan Tudyk. Directed by David Leitch

 

The Merc with a Mouth returns for a second go-round (third if you count the abortion that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine) in a movie that takes nothing seriously, least of all itself.

In this blockbuster sequel, a despondent Wade Wilson attempts to kill himself which turns out to be impossible. He finds a reason to live when he befriends a 14-year-old sexual abuse victim who calls himself Firefist (Dennison). The kid seeks revenge against the headmaster (Marsan) of an orphanage who has tortured and abused him. When you can shoot fireballs from your hands, revenge isn’t all that hard to come by.

Standing in the way is Cable (Brolin), a time-travelling cyborg who has come back in time to kill the boy. Apparently in the future, a grown up Firefist kills his family and scorches a whole lot of the Earth. To fight the nearly indestructible Cable, Deadpool recruits a superteam of his own although they turn out to be short-lived. Extremely although Domino (Beetz) whose superpower is crazy good luck survives – which is a good thing because she’s one of the best things about the movie.

Nonetheless, Deadpool hopes to reason with Firefist and get him not to turn to the dark side while Thanos…I mean Cable…thinks that the greater good will be served by ghosting a 14-year-old boy. I gotta admit, I was rooting for him to kill the boy at times.

Like the first film there are plenty of occasionally gruesome action sequences. Also like the first film there is an explosion of meta-based humor, poking fun of everything from comic book movies (duh) to Barbra Streisand (Brolin’s stepmother) to every action cliché ever to Les Miserables. There are plenty of brief cameos, some of them virtually unrecognizable.

In short, it’s a hoot and a half. The humor is hit and miss at times but hit more often than not. The movie feels a lot more cluttered than the first but it also has much more scope than the first. The action is an improvement and there’s even a little bit of pathos to mix things up a little bit. I don’t think those who loved the first one will feel any less love for the sequel and I’m pretty sure that most of us will be eager for the threequel. Maybe they can convince Hugh Jackman to show up for the third. That would give Reynolds a whole new opportunity to riff.

REASONS TO GO: Reynolds continues to make Wade/Deadpool a compelling character. There are lots of fun celebrity cameos and Easter eggs throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit more cluttered than the first.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence – some of it extreme, gore, profanity and a brief scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dennison, who was 15 when the movie was released, was legally unable to see it in his native New Zealand.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios/Verizon, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Blue Iguana

Red Sparrow


Misogyny? Wellllll….

(2018) Espionage Thriller (20th Century Fox) Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hinds, Jeremy Irons, Joely Richardson, Bill Camp, Thekla Reuten, Douglas Hodge, Sakina Jaffrey, Sergei Polunin, Sasha Frolova, Sebastian  Hulk, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Nicole O’Neill, Kristof Konrad, Hugh Quarshie, Kinscö Pethö. Directed by Francis Lawrence

While this is set in recent years, Red Sparrow could very easily be mistaken for a Cold War-era spy thriller by John Le Carré or those of his ilk. At the center is Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika, a former Russian ballerina who has had to move on to other career choices when her ballet career is cut brutally short. She is sent by a well-meaning but corrupt relative slash government official to a school for spies, which she disdainfully calls “whore school.” There she’s taught to use her sexuality as a weapon and the rest of her body as well. Her assignment is to make contact with American agent Nate Nash (Edgerton) but whether or not she is following orders remains to be seen.

This doesn’t particularly add anything to the espionage thriller genre but it doesn’t disgrace itself either. There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot, enough so that the studio sent an e-mail pleading with critics to reveal as little about the plot as possible which in this case is justified – the less you know about what actually happens, the better your enjoyment will be of the film.

The surprising thing about the movie is star Jennifer Lawrence. She has been for several years now one of the most reliable and talented actresses in Hollywood, but this one she falls quite a bit short. Her Russian accent is unbelievable and it slips throughout the movie. Lawrence is a lot of things but she is not a ballet dancer; she doesn’t move like one and any woman who has been through the kind of training that lands you a spot on the Bolshoi is going to have a certain elegance and grace in her every movement.

This is pretty much standard spy stuff, although granted with a surfeit of graphic mayhem, torture and yes, rape. I think some women, particularly those who are sensitive to how women are portrayed as sex objects, are going to have some serious problems with this. It’s not quite misogynistic but it’s close. This is one well worth skipping which is a first in J-Law’s otherwise glittering career. I guess she’s just due for a misstep.

REASONS TO GO: Fans of Cold War-era espionage thrillers will love this. Rampling and Irons deliver swell performances.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s too much rape and torture – there’s too much of everything (it’s too long). J-Law’s Russian accent keeps slipping.
FAMILY VALUES: There is severe violence, torture, rape, sexual content, profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Deer Tick was originally formed in Providence, Rhode Island. They are currently based in New York.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Atomic Blonde
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Tomb Raider

The Greatest Showman


Hugh Jackman knows this movie is a snow job.

(2017) Musical (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eric Anderson, Ellis Rubin, Skylar Dunn, Daniel Everidge, Radu Spinghel, Yusaku Komori, Daniel Son, Paul Sparks, Will Swenson, Linda Marie Larsen, Byron Jennings, Betsy Aidem. Directed by Michael Gracey

 

Phineas Taylor Barnum once famously said “There’s a sucker born every minute” and that “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American consumer.” The fact that this movie has done the kind of box office it has is proof of that.

Barnum (Jackman) is a penniless dreamer who has married a beautiful rich girl named Charity (Williams) whose family his father once worked for. Her father most assuredly does NOT approve of the match. Barnum has big plans to buy a specific mansion near where they grew up but no means to get there but after losing yet another low-paying job disappears on him, he decides to go into business for himself, using a little financial chicanery to secure a bank loan to open up his Museum of Oddities.

At first business is slow but his wife believes in him. It’s just when he begins to add human acts – bearded ladies, Siamese twins, General Tom Thumb a performing little person, trapeze artists and acrobats does his business begin to thrive. Upper class playwright Philip Carlyle (Efron) is taken by the show and by a trapeze artist name Anne (Zendaya) in particular but it still takes Barnum some fancy talking to get him to invest in the Museum as a partner.

While on an overseas trip he hears the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind (Ferguson),, then the most famous singer on Earth, perform at Buckingham Palace and is completely taken by her voice and her beauty. He offers to bankroll her tour of the United States as her manager for which she would get an unheard-of (at the time) guaranteed sum. The tour threatens to bankrupt P.T. but it also threatens his marriage as Lind tries to seduce him and leave his wife for her.

.A suspicious fire burns down the Museum and all of a sudden Barnum is left with nothing again; furthermore his family of unusual acts is no longer feeling the love, having seen him turn their backs on them and treat them like unwelcome guests. Can this dysfunctional family reunite and rebuild?

I had high hopes for this, particular given that Jackman is in the title role. It’s perfect casting and Jackman who cut his show biz teeth on musical theater in Australia is more than up to the task, being the big reason to see the movie. His natural charm and likability shine through and even when he’s acting like a jerk you still like the guy and like me were pretty sure he would come around to his senses.

Unfortunately after that it’s a very short list of reasons to see this. While I like the theme of inclusiveness (although they tend to bang the audience over the head with it), after that there are some key components to the film that simply aren’t up to snuff. First and most glaringly is the songs. They are absolutely dreadful; all of them sound pretty much the same and none of them really are the kind you’ll be humming after you leave the theater; as I write this I can’t remember the tune to a single one of them. That’s very bad news for a musical.

The writers for whatever reason seem to stick a song in even where one isn’t needed and in fact the musical number ends up disrupting the flow of the film. Personally I loved the idea of a musical about Barnum but it needed a capable songwriter to write the music and lyrics. This sounds like it was written by Broadway hacks which it certainly wasn’t; the folks involved wrote the music and lyrics to La La Land and did a much better job with that property. There is not one song here that is anywhere near as memorable as “City of Stars.”

The writers also play fast and loose with history (for example, there is no evidence whatsoever that the relationship between Barnum and Lind was anything but a business one) which isn’t an original Hollywood sin but there are so many characters here that were invented out of whole cloth – certainly Barnum had plenty of interesting people in his life that could have made appearances here. Poor Michelle Williams has so little to do that her smile begins to look awfully strained by the end of the movie. Even CGI couldn’t save it – except that the CGI that the movie does utilize is uniformly terrible.

I could go on and on. Barnum’s children here are essentially perfect movie kids whose presence is superfluous and disruptive. There are too many anachronisms in the dialogue to shake a stick at – but why kick a horse when it’s already down, except not only is this horse down it’s also been lit on fire, stabbed through the heart, shot, beaten with a crowbar and drowned in a vat of acid before being miraculously resurrected and buried alive. Actually, the horse has it better than those who must watch this movie. See it for Jackman if you must but see it at home so you can turn it off when you start to feel yourself beginning to need to do whatever it takes to stop the torture.

REASONS TO GO: Hugh Jackman is charismatic and charming. The “different is okay” theme still resonates.
REASONS TO STAY: The songs are generic and awful. There are too many historical liberties taken and the children are an unnecessary distraction. It feels like the writers were flailing around a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the costumes used in the film are the property of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus and have been actually worn by performers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/518: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chicago
FINAL RATING: 4/10 (all Jackman)
NEXT:
Off the Menu

Kingsman: The Golden Circle


Being a superspy can go right to your head.

(2017) Spy Action (20th Century Fox) Taron Egerton, Julianne Moore, Mark Strong, Channing Tatum, Colin Firth, Michael Gambon, Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, Thomas Turgoose, Sophie Cookson, Elton John, Pedro Pascal, Poppy Delevingne, Bruce Greenwood, Emily Watson, Hanna Alström, Edward Holcroft, Keith Allen, Tom Benedict Knight, Samantha Coughlan. Directed by Mathew Vaughn

 

The first film in this nascent franchise, Kingsman: The Secret Service was a thinly veiled satire on spy film tropes and class warfare that included some fairly spectacular action set pieces and a notorious denouement in which a beautiful Swedish princess rewards the hero for saving her life by consenting to butt sex.

Critics of course took great umbrage to the latter and labeled it crass (which it was) and sexist (which it clearly wasn’t; women should be allowed to enjoy sex – even in the posterior – without it being some sort of political statement). There were some issues  revolving around an overabundance of gadgets and gimmicks but it was a solidly entertaining film that left the viewer anticipating a sequel.

So here it is; now that Vaughn has gone to the trouble of setting up his world of gentlemen spies, he decides to tear it all down by having the Kingsmen wiped out in the first act, leaving surviving hero Eggsy (Egerton) and gadget guru Merlin (Strong) asking the American counterpart – the Statesmen – for help (read into that what you want, politically inclined viewer). The agency works out of a Kentucky bourbon distillery and has agents with names like Whiskey (Pascal) who has a way with a whip, Champagne (Bridges) who is the agency head, and Tequila (Tatum) who has suspicions about the Brits. There’s also Merlin’s counterpart Ginger Ale (Berry) who suspects not all is morning in America.

They are up against a vicious, ruthless drug lord with a lavish jungle base. Now, you might have a vision in your head of a Latin hacienda but what Vaughn came up with is Poppy (Moore) who has a fixation on Happy Days-era America and has a bit of an inferiority complex. Lonely and bored in her jungle Main Street lair, she fills her days with vicious robotic dogs and Elton John (playing himself) whom she kidnapped to put on nightly concerts exclusively for her.

Vaughn has always excelled at action set pieces and he does so again here, but the camera work is highly kinetic and as a result many of the sequences are vertigo inducing and may work better for viewers susceptible to such things on the small screen. Still, he has no compunction about going way over the top and so he does here.

In my review of The Secret Service I maintained that the journey was out on Egerton who was lost among the gadgets a bit and here that is not so much the case. He comes off as smarmy and a bit superficial, a change from his cockney street kid turned gentleman spy in the first. It is not, I should say, a welcome change. Here Eggsy is trying to balance his relationship with the Swedish princess with his job as suave superspy. We rarely get a glimpse of his good heart that made him more palatable in the first film. This is what I would call a mistake in direction.

Moore is a talented actress but even she can’t elevate this role above the cookie cutter villain that Poppy turns out to be; all gimmick and no growl. She has her own plan for taking over the world and it’s a fairly clever one but it’s been done before both in Bond and in other imitations. While she has some fun interactions with the most venal President (Greenwood) ever, at the end of the day she lacks the spice to make her a truly interesting villain.

Most of the fun here comes from the supporting performances; Strong makes Merlin the heart of the Kingsmen and he gives the role more nuances than it probably deserves. Berry also shines as Merlin’s counterpart. I loved Elton John here as a kind of venomous caricature of himself, turning out to have some surprising ninja skills in the climactic fight. Never underestimate a gay pop star who has spent a career fighting for the lives of his fellow gay men during the AIDS crisis.

This simply isn’t as good as the first movie. While there are plans for a third film in the franchise and possibly a Statesmen spin-off film, I’m not looking forward to them as eagerly as I did this one. Once bitten twice shy when it comes to movie franchises and I suspect a lot of you out there feel the same way.

REASONS TO GO: Elton John is terrific in an extended cameo and Strong is equally so as Merlin. The fight scenes are hyperkinetic.
REASONS TO STAY: This is really not as good as the first movie. Egerton is too smarmy and Moore too generic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of violence, some drug use, a bit of sexuality and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are five Oscar winners in front of the camera: Moore, Firth, Bridges, Berry and Elton John, who won for Best Song.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers in Goldmember
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Blade Runner 2049

War for the Planet of the Apes


Caesar can be a little grumpy sometimes.

(2017) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karen Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbell, Gabriel Chavarria, Judy Greer, Sara Canning, Devyn Dalton, Aleks Paunovic, Alessandro Juliani, Max Lloyd-Jones, Timothy Webber, Lauro Chartrand, Shaun Omaid, Roger Cross, Mercedes de la Zerda. Directed by Matt Reeves

 

This past summer was largely disappointing when it came to quality blockbusters. Sure, there were the usual suspects; loud sci-fi action, crude comedies, big superhero epics and so on. Mostly all of the high expectations for some of these wannabe billion dollar franchises fizzled out of the gate with only a few exceptions.

War for the Planet of the Apes however was one of the best-reviewed films of the entire summer. That rarely translates to big box office bucks – it didn’t recoup its $150 million production budget at the domestic box office and it finished with under $500 million at the worldwide box office, a decent enough number but surely not to the expectations of the suits at Fox.

The movie was curiously light on action despite the title; what it turned out to be was an ape character study of Caesar (Serkis), leader of the intelligent apes and the Colonel (Harrelson), the militaristic dictator of the remnants of humankind. You see the virus that made the apes smart is making humans dumb as rocks. Few thinking, rational human beings remain. The Colonel thinks all of the apes should be wiped off the face of the Earth so that humans can survive; in his mind, Homo sapiens won’t go gently into that good night.

Serkis delivers the best performance of his diverse career. Caesar is extremely conflicted; he wants peace but there is no reasoning with a fanatic. When struck by a personal tragedy, Caesar feels despair and fury but he is still tempered by the basically decent simian that he is. Of course, he’s an inspiring leader of his tribe who look to him as their savior while to the Colonel he’s a different kind of symbol. Zahn provides comic relief (and pathos) as Bad Ape.

There is a subplot involving a mute human child that ties into the ape movies of the 60s and 70s which aficionados of those films will appreciate; I surely did. There aren’t a ton of action sequences but the ones there are Reeves pretty much nails.

The CGI is surprisingly substandard for a film of this importance; there are some sequences in which it is painfully obviously computer-generated. Good CGI is seamless and fits into “reality” like a glove. That doesn’t happen here and it takes the viewer right out of the film from time to time.

I wasn’t among the critics singing the praises of this film. To my eye, it isn’t as good as the first two films in the series. I’m not sure the studio initially had faith in it either as  the movie could easily end the franchise right here; however with a fourth film already approved by Fox and a strong overseas box office chances are the franchise will continue, hopefully with films better than this one. However it is still a better than average summer movie and despite its flaws one of the best to come out this past summer which isn’t saying much.

REASONS TO GO: Serkis does some of his best work ever here. The Nova subplot is truly captivating.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is sadly uneven and isn’t up to the high standards of the franchise. Some of the CGI looked too much like CGI.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images, plenty of sci-fi violence and battle scenes as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Serkis in interviews promoting the film indicated that this won’t be the conclusion of the series which may come in the fourth or fifth film of the series; in fact, Fox has already greenlit a fourth film in the franchise.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starship Troopers
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mother, I Love You

Alien: Covenant


Speaking of illegal aliens….

(2017) Sci-Fi Horror (20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Uli Latukefu, Tess Haubrich, Lorelei King (voice), Goran D. Kleut, Andrew Crawford, Javier Botet, James Franco, Guy Pearce, Noomi Rapace. Directed by Ridley Scott

 

Back in 1979, movie posters and trailers proclaimed that “In space no-one can hear you scream” and a classic of science fiction was born, one that changed the entire genre. Alien still reverberates as one of the most influential sci-fi movies of all time.

In this sequel to Prometheus a colony ship called the Covenant suffers a fire that sweeps through the colonist sleep chambers killing the captain (Franco). Taking over is Orem (Crudup), a religious sort who is a bit on the indecisive side. Despite the objections of the Captain’s widow and second officer Daniels (Waterston), the new captain decides to take the crippled Covenant to a planet from which a distress signal is coming – one that incongruously takes the form of John Denver’s “Country Roads.”

Orem takes a team including their android Walter (Fassbender) who is of a similar model to David from Prometheus and Tennessee (McBride), Lope (Bichir) and Karine (Ejogo). They find a beautiful paradise with a disturbing apparent lack of animal and insect life but there are strange alien spores that once they get into a human system hatch nasty little alien neomorphs – a colony of which soon makes their presence known. The neomorphs seem to be not unlike velociraptors only angrier.

Taking refuge in an abandoned city, they discover to their surprise David, the last survivor of the Prometheus incident and David has plans – plans that aren’t going to be so good for the surviving members of the reconnaissance mission.

The big knock against the movie has been that the plot is too close to the first movie but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. If you’re going to take your plot from a movie, you could do a lot worse. There are some other things that I have issues with but more on that later.

Fassbender has the dual role of the innocent Walter and the devious David and he plays both quite well. Through the magic of CGI the two Fassbenders interact and even kiss – a homoerotic moment that nobody had ever even conceived before although it may well have been simply irresistible to an actor’s ego to seduce himself.

McBride, not one of my favorite actors to date, delivers his best performance ever and shows some real screen charisma that I hadn’t seen in him before but now that I think about it, I think he always had but just hadn’t found the right cinematic vehicle for it. I hope this leads to some new sorts of roles for McBride in the near future.

Scott, now pushing 80, still can direct an action sequence like few others in cinematic history. There’s a battle between Daniels and a xenomorph on a loader ship that really ranks up there among the best in the franchise history and certainly one of the best this year. Waterston is not really known as an action actress but she definitely channels Sigourney Weaver in that sequence and others throughout the film.

Some of the CGI looked unfinished as if the effects houses ran out of time before the deadline and the producers just plugged in what they had. That was a little distressing particularly since Scott has shown comfort with CGI going back to Gladiator and used it well in Prometheus and The Martian as well.

My main issue here is the script. It’s a bit convoluted and at times long-winded. There are also way too many characters here, most of which exist to get picked off by the alien. That gives the movie a bit of a slasher mentality despite the trappings of a fairly intellectual science fiction epic. They may as well have named all of the characters save Fassbender and Waterston “Lieutenant Deadmeat” although I will say not all of them meet a grisly end at the hand of the creature.

Scott has hinted that there will be another prequel (and possibly two) that will tie directly to the first film. At one time that would be exciting news but frankly the franchise feels a little tired here. It could be that the director has wisely figured out that the xenomorph has essentially run its course (his original idea was to steer the series off in a different direction but the studio wouldn’t allow it) but it also could be that Scott needs to pass the torch to someone who could revitalize the series much like James Cameron did with Aliens. I certainly wouldn’t object.

REASONS TO GO: The loader fight sequence is spectacular and the action sequences are well-done overall. Fassbender delivers a fine dual performance and McBride is impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is convoluted and overpopulated with unnecessary characters. Some of the CGI wasn’t up to the standards of the other films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence and gore, profanity and some sexuality and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Alien film to be released after the death of H.R. Giger who designed the original alien xenomorph.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alien3
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Logan Lucky