Venom (2018)


A face only an alien symbiotic mother could love.

(2018) Superhero (Columbia) Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Jenny Slate, Melora Walters, Woody Harrelson, Peggy Lu, Malcolm C. Murray, Sope Aluko, Wayne Pére, Michelle Lee, Kurt Yue, Chris O’Hara, Emilio Rivera, Amelia Young, Ariadne Joseph, Deen Brooksher, David Jones, Roger Yuan, Vickie Eng, Scott Deckert, Nick Thune, Lauren Richards. Directed by Reuben Fleischer

 

The Marvel march to cinematic domination continues with this non-MCU entry into the Spider-Man universe which is separate, even though Spider-Man is ostensibly part of the MCU now (confused yet?) but Venom is decidedly not.

Eddie Brock (Hardy) is an investigative journalist who is all about getting the story, regardless of who it hurts in the process. It gets him fired from his job and bounced from his relationship with lawyer Anne Weyring (Williams). In short, Eddie is a bit of an insufferable prick. While investigating tech billionaire Carlton Drake’s (Ahmed) Life Foundation, Eddie gets infected with an alien symbiote that has destroyed everyone else it has infected.

However, Eddie turns out to be not rejected by the symbiote, which endows Eddie with enormous strength and tendrils/tentacles that stretch out from his gelatinous black skin to take all sorts of shapes and forms. It makes Eddie insatiably hungry and the preferred diet of choice for the symbiote is human flesh, although Eddie draws the line there. But Drake wants his alien back and has big, evil plans for it once he gets a symbiote of his own.

The movie follows the superhero origin story formula to a T, which might work for less discerning fans but for the rest of us is very noticeable. This lack of ingenuity and creativity sabotages the film throughout and despite a fine performance by Hardy and solid supporting performances by Williams, Ahmed and Slate, renders the movie as a disappointment.

There are some plus signs, of course. The interplay between the symbiote and Eddie is downright funny at times, and there’s a motorcycle chase scene that is absolutely off-the-chain. Even though the origin story is formulaic, Venom is nonetheless a different kind of superhero, a super-anti-hero if you will. With a little less playing it safe, this could have been a truly memorable film instead of just a mediocre one.

REASONS TO SEE: Tom Hardy is excellent.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie ended up being a bit underwhelming.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of violence (some of it bloody) and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The symbiote and Eddie Brock also appear in Spider-Man 3 in which Brock is played by Topher Grace.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On-Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mask
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Bad Times at the El Royale

White Boy Rick


Like father, like son.

(2018) True Crime Drama (ColumbiaMatthew McConaughey, Richie Merritt, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane, Bryan Tyree Henry, Bruce Dern, Bel Powley, RJ Cyler, Jonathan Majors, Eddie Marsan, Taylour Paige, Piper Laurie, Raekwon Haynes, Ishmael “Ishdarr” Ali, James Howard, YG, Danny Brown, Kyanna Simone Simpson, Heidi Sulzman, Lauren Ashley Berry. Directed by Yann Demange

 

The crack epidemic of the 80s that led to the “Just Say No” program was tragic in nearly every sense. There were no real winners – and the biggest losers were those in the poorest communities. Entire cities fell victim to the crime wave that followed the crack. Cities like Detroit, for example.

Young Rick Wershe Jr. (Merritt) has been caught up in a bad crowd. It’s not really a wonder; his dad (McConaughey) sells guns illegally, and you can bet those weapons are not being stored in a glass case. They’re finding use in the criminal underworld. Rick’s best friend Boo (Cyler) has connections with the Curry crime family. Rick, nicknamed White Boy because he is the sole Caucasian amongst the people he hangs with, ends up being recruited by a couple of unscrupulous FBI agents (Leigh, Cochrane) to be an informant – the youngest in FBI history at age 14. As it turns out, this doesn’t turn out so well for Rick or the rest of his family.

Demange, a French director best known for ’71, has the perfect directorial temperament for the urban grit this story demands. He manages to get some strong performances out of McConaughey who plays a lowlife hustler whose life is a series of miscalculations, and Merritt, a fairly unknown actor whose broad Baltimore accent doesn’t distract (too much) from the film.

The movie has a fairly bleak outlook; Wershe spent more than 30 years behind bars for a non-violent drug offense while others with more violent offenses arrested near the same time were released earlier. Now, the film doesn’t mention that when he was arrested Wershe had eight kilos of cocaine in his possession, but even so the punishment seems a little excessive. He has since returned to jail for a separate offense.

This is definitely meant to be a cautionary tale and certainly Wershe was no angel and made some bad choices, although to be fair people who live in the kind of poverty and hopelessness that is part and parcel to living in neighborhoods like that generally have few alternatives. This movie is generally pretty well-made, but doesn’t illustrate that fact perhaps as clearly as it might have.

REASONS TO SEE: Demange sets a great sense of tension throughout. McConaughey gives another outstanding performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the bleak side.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a plethora of profanity, a ton of drug use and references, violence, sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film is set in Detroit, it was actually filmed in Cleveland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/20: Rotten Tomatoes:59% positive reviews: Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prince of the City
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Between Two Ferns: The Movie

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation


Don’t you want to take me on a sea cruise?

(2018) Animated Feature (Columbia) Starring the voices of Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kevin James, David Spade, Steve Buscemi, Mel Brooks, Fran Drescher, Molly Shannon, Keegan-Michael Key, Jim Gaffigan, Kathryn Hahn, Joe Jonas, Chrissy Teigen, Tara Strong, Chris Parnell, Asher Blinkoff, Genndy Tartakovsky, Aaron LaPlante, Michelle Murdocca. Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky

 

The Cartoon Network has done the world a disservice. Yes, some of the things that they have put out are actually pretty good, but the majority of their output is poorly animated and dumbed down, treating kids like easily distracted morons rather than actual people. Sadly, that tendency has begun to filter into major studio animated features as well as studios are looking for franchises that they can market and merchandise out the yin-yang.

Dracula (Sandler), proprietor of the monsters’ resort Hotel Transylvania is lonely and tired. His beloved daughter Mavis (Gomez) notices and decides to book a family vacation on a monster cruise ship. There Drac finds love with Ericka (Hahn), captain of the vessel but she is hiding a secret that might just destroy Dracula once and for all. Never mind that; at least the gang is all there with him for the fun.

The animation here is much improved over the first two films in the franchise; it is certainly the best of the series so far. Sadly, the script doesn’t keep pace; it is just as predictable and lowbrow as other kid flicks that have dominated the big screen of late. The sad fact is that Pixar and Illumination have shown that animated features can appeal to both adults and kids. Most adults will probably be better off finding something else to distract them while the kids are watching this.

There is an air of finality about this one; I think that it was initially intended to be the last in the series but Sony has scheduled a fourth installment for December 2021. I hope that the animation is as good or better as this one but that they put a little more effort into writing a script that has a bit more heart and a bit less fart jokes.

REASONS TO SEE: The animation is better-than-average.
REASONS TO AVOID: Kids will love this; parents, not so much.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the names of the ships in the Bermuda Triangle sequence are the names of ships that reportedly disappeared there in reality.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/31/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews: Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mad Monster Party
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Slender Man

The Equalizer 2


You never know what might be peering around the corner.

(2018) Action (ColumbiaDenzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Ashton Sanders, Orson Bean, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, Jonathan Scarfe, Sakina Jeffrey, Kazy Tauginas, Garrett A. Golden, Adam Karst, Alican Barias, Rhys Cote, Tamara Hickey, Ken Baltin, Colin Allen, Antoine de Lartigue, Abigail Marlowe, Jim Loutzenheiser, Rex Banning, Lance Williams, Caroline Day. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

 

Washington returns as Robert McCall, the retired CIA black ops assassin turned do-gooder in the movie franchise based on a popular 80s TV series. Here his- vengeance takes a more personal note; his former CIA handler (Leo) is brutally murdered in Brussels while investigating the deaths of informants and assets there. Naturally, Denzel doesn’t take kindly to this; she’s one of his only friends. So, it’s up to McCall to go medieval on a bunch of asses before finding the man behind it all – whose identity should surprise no-one.

Fuqua is a skilled action director and Washington one of the most charismatic actors to ever appear onscreen. Even their considerable talents though can’t quite make you forget that the script is heavy with predictable plot points and leaden dialogue. There is also a subplot involving Bean as a nonagenarian Holocaust survivor trying to reunite with his sister which while sweet adds absolutely nothing to the story; we get plenty of other instances of McCall’s charitable nature to get the point.

This isn’t a bad movie by any means but with talents like Fuqua and Washington involved it should be a better movie. Action fans will love the sequence when a knife-wielding assassin tries to take out McCall in a moving car while Denzel fans will love the fact that the Oscar-winning actor is as good as ever in the movie. I still wish that some of the writers from the old TV show might have taken a crack at the script here. With a little bit more care and imagination this could be essential viewing. As it is, it makes for a mindless way to spend a couple of hours.

REASONS TO SEE: Denzel is, as usual, a force of nature.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is a tad too predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some occasional drug content and a lot of violence, some of it brutal
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first sequel for both Fuqua and Denzel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews: Metacritic:50/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Punisher
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Dark Matter 2019 short

Sicario: Day of the Soldado


Hispanics with guns: Donald Trump’s nightmare.

(2018) Action (Columbia) Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia-Ruffo, Catherine Keener, Matthew Modine, Shea Whigham, Elijah Rodriguez, Howard Ferguson Jr., David Castañeda, Jacqueline Torres, Raoul Trujillo, Bruno Bichir, Jake Picking, Tenzin Marco-Taylor, Alfredo Quinoz, Nick Shakoour, Lourdes del Rio Garcia. Directed by Stefano Sollima

 

Our Southern border has been a hot button item for those on the left and on the right. Blue staters tend to look at the issue as a humanitarian crisis born largely of our own policies in Latin America while red staters see it as an invasion of criminals, layabouts and terrorists.

Following the destruction of a Kansas City big box store by suicide bombers, the U.S. Government has had more than enough. They bring in “consultant” Matt Graver (Brolin) and his nearly indestructible assassin Alejandro (del Toro) to ferment war among the Mexican cartels who were responsible for smuggling the bombers across the border. To do that, Alejandro kidnaps the daughter (Moner) of a particularly vicious cartel boss. This predictably stirs up a hornet’s nest and while it gets the desired results, the conscience of Alejandro – whose family was wiped out by drug lords like the girl’s father – doesn’t go unscathed.

The movie sorely misses Denis Villaneuve who directed the first one; his sure hand could have made this a better film. Italian television director Sollima, best known for the ultra-violent Gomorrah series, does pretty well with the action series and keeps the pacing of the film up to snuff. He has more trouble with character development as other than the three characters mentioned above, nearly all the characters get lost in the shuffle, including a young Mexican-American boy in McAllen, Texas played by Rodriguez who falls into working for the cartels and ends up in a violent confrontation with Alejandro. A little more depth of character there might have given the film some oomph.

Del Toro and Brolin are both outstanding and are the real reason to see the film. I understand that this is meant to be the middle chapter in a proposed trilogy and although the box office numbers don’t really seem to point the way for a third installment, I nonetheless wouldn’t mind seeing one.

Emily Blunt, who starred in the first film, is also sorely missed and while the filmmakers assert her story had gone full circle, it still leaves the film without much of a moral center and I suppose that is merely appropriate. When one considers that in many ways this movie is making the case for the right’s take on the border, it’s hard to justify it in the face of children who continue to be separated from their parents at the border. But then, that’s just my own personal bias rearing its head. I guess it is fairer to say that Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a solid action film that has political elements that makes it very relevant to what’s going on at our border. If you leave the theater chanting “Build that wall” though, it’s on you.

REASONS TO SEE: Brolin and del Toro make an excellent team.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little less focused and a little more cliché than the first film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a surfeit of violence and profanity as well as some fairly bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Denis Villaneuve, who directed Sicario, was unable to commit to the sequel due to scheduling conflicts.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miss Bala
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Tomorrow, Maybe?

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle


Going to the market is a little different in Jumanji.

(2017) Adventure (Columbia) Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Rhys Darby, Bobby Cannavale, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, Sean Buxton, Mason Guccione, Marin Hinkle, Tracy Bonner, Najah Jackson, Natasha Charles Parker, Kat Altman, Maribeth Monroe, Missi Pyle. Directed by Jake Kasdan

 

There’s no doubt about it; there are pitfalls involved when making a sequel to a beloved and iconic family film 22 years after the fact. The original 1996 film Jumanji starring the late and equally beloved Robin Williams was based on a Chris van Allsburg-penned children’s book about a board game that had a bit of magic to it, bringing the jungle world of Jumanji into a small town complete with mischievous monkeys, scary spiders, rampaging herds of animals and a sadistic hunter named Van Pelt.

The sequel is a little bit updated. It starts with a young teen in 1996 being sucked into a mysterious console video game much as Alan Parrish was back in the day. Somehow the console with the videogame still in it made its way to a high school audio-video room which a group of disparate teens on detention have been tasked with cleaning up. The game is discovered and videogame nut Spencer (Wolff) is keen on playing it. Fridge (Blain), the football star in trouble because he’d enlisted Spencer to write a term paper for him reluctantly accedes as does Martha (Turner), a shy nerd and Bethany (Iseman), a Queen Bee of the school.

Of course the four teens are sucked inside the game and re-materialize as the avatars they’ve chosen; Spencer becomes the muscular and heroic Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), Fridge the manic but diminutive zoologist Mouse Finbar (Hart), Martha the sultry martial artist Ruby Roundhouse (Gillan) and most amusing of all, Bethany the middle aged and out-of-shape cartographer Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Black). It is the star power of these four that truly makes the film work.

In any case, they are given unique and special powers as well as weaknesses, some of which are amusing – for example, eating cake will make Mouse Finbar explode. Each of the avatars have three lives available; when they use them all up, they are gone from the game permanently and maybe out of real life as well. They are given the mission of retrieving a magic emerald from villainous Van Pelt (Cannavale) – very different than the one in the original – and restoring it into a gigantic panther statue in order to restore balance to the land of Jumanji. Along the way they’ll battle poisonous snakes, voracious hippos, a herd of rampaging rhinos and not-too-bright but vicious henchmen.

One of the big criticisms of the original Jumanji – best articulated by the late, great Roger Ebert – was that the children in the film were often in realistic peril, perhaps much too much for a film aimed at children. Kasdan solves this dilemma by having the young teens morphed into adult avatars which although being in peril throughout can at least say they weren’t children in peril. Parents concerned about this aspect of the original can rest easy.

As I said, the four leads are really the reason to see the movie. Kasdan wisely plays to the strengths of the actors; the rapid-fire delivery of Hart, the easygoing charm of Johnson, Black’s ability to be absolutely uninhibited and Gillan’s lustrous physicality. Fans may recognize her as Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy but Doctor Who fans may not recognize anything of Amy Pond in Ruby Roundhouse.

The present-day sequences with the actors playing the teens (not all of whom are juveniles – Blain is thirty years old at the time of release – are less compelling but then again how would you expect even veteran young actors like Wolff to compete with some of the biggest stars in the business? I suppose it’s not really fair but then again it is noticeable that the charm drops precipitously during the bookending sequences of pre-game and post-game.

I have to admit that despite the star power of the cast that I didn’t hold very high hopes for this one. I knew that inevitably it would be compared to the 1996 original and I was pretty sure that it would come out getting the short end of the stick but actually that wasn’t the case. In some ways, the more recent version is better than the original – certainly in the CGI and while Williams delivered a terrific performance along with Bonnie Hunt, the fab four of Johnson, Hart, Black and Gillan all were just as good if not better. I was pleasantly surprised by this and it might just end up in our permanent video collection when the time comes. The fact that the film did some marvelous box office numbers and has already had a sequel greenlit just confirms that the movie-going public agrees.

REASONS TO GO: The adult actors are smashing. This is much better than I expected it to be.
REASONS TO STAY: The actors playing the juveniles are pretty meh.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action violence, some suggestive content and brief mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Johnson and Hart previously starred together in Central Intelligence.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Casting JonBenet

The Dark Tower (2017)


Good vs evil goes nose to nose.

(2017) Fantasy (Columbia) Matthew McConaughey, Idris Elba, Tom Taylor, Dennis Haysbert, Ben Gavin, Claudia Kim, Jackie Earle Haley, Fran Kranz, Abbey Lee, Katheryn Winnick, Nicholas Pauling, Michael Barbieri, José Zuñiga, Nicholas Hamilton, Inge Beckmann, Alfredo Narciso, Eva Kaminsky, Robbie McLean, Mark Elderkin, Matthew Thomson, Karl Thaning, Charlize Churcher. Directed by Nicolaj Arcel

 

There are few who will accuse Stephen King of being a brilliant writer but it is true that when it comes to telling a story he is without peer. His most ambitious story is the eight-book Dark Tower saga featuring Roland Deschain (Elba) as the last of an honorable caste of warriors known as the Gunslingers. He is tasked to protect The Dark Tower, a structure at the intersection of all reality that keeps chaos at bay. It is in the process of failing thanks to an evil wizard named Walter O’Dim (McConaughey) a.k.a. The Man in Black and we’re not talking Johnny Cash. Walter wants the tower to fall and all worlds to fall apart in the process.

Jake Chambers (Taylor) is a powerful psychic who has visions of Roland and the Man in Black, the latter of whom wants to harness Jake’s power in order to bring the Dark Tower down. Jake lives on our Earth, the so-called Keystone which is the last holdout, the last world that has yet to “move on,” as the Gunslinger terms it. Jake escapes the minions of Walter and finds a portal into Mid-World, the Earth of Roland. Although Roland is disinterested in saving the universe, he is very much interested in taking down Walter who has killed everything that Roland loves. There is going to be some gunslinging you can be sure.

Elba and McConaughey are both terrific performers. Elba in particular excels; he seems literally born to roles like this one. He gives the role gravitas and a certain stoic nobility that made the role so compelling in the books. It’s the kind of character that was much more prevalent in the past than it is now; these days we like our heroes to be pure but Roland is riddled with impurities.

Sadly, these two performances are all there really is to recommend the movie. Opinion on the books is sharply divided; some believe that they are a case of King’s reach exceeding his grasp while others consider it a terrific read. Count me among the latter believers. However, trying to boil down eight books into a 90 minute movie is like trying to figure out a way to condense the Manhattan phone book into two names. You might get the gist of the series but you won’t get the flavor. There are some dynamic creature effects but they are so dimly lit that you can’t really make out the details. The pacing is all over the map; sometimes it seems rushed; other times it’s painfully slow. This has all the earmarks of a studio putting its grubby hands all over a project.

So the consensus is that this is a mess and not even a hot one. The books deserve better attention than this gives it; a full series would have done it more justice. I can’t imagine King himself is satisfied with what was done to a work he put so much time and effort into. I know that I, as a fan of the books, certainly am not.

REASONS TO GO: Idris Elba is perfectly cast for this role.
REASONS TO STAY: This film is a disappointment on nearly every level.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence particularly using guns and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The eight-book Dark Tower series by Stephen King was inspired at least in part by Robert Browning’s epic poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Sony, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Stand
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Sunset Park