The Front Runner


Hugh Jackman can’t believe he went from being Wolverine to being Gary Hart.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Columbia) Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Mark O’Brien, Molly Ephraim, Chris Coy, Alex Karpovsky, Josh Brener, Steve Zissis, Tommy Dewey, Kaitlyn Dever, Oliver Cooper, Jenna Kanell, RJ Brown, Alfred Molina, Ari Graynor, John Bedford Lloyd, Steve Coulter, Kevin Pollack, Sara Paxton, Joe Chrest, Courtney Ford, Rachel Walters.  Directed by Jason Reitman

 

The story of Senator Gary Hart’s (D-Co.) 1988 Presidential campaign is either a comedy of errors, or a tragedy of monumental proportions – likely depending on your political point of view. The facts are fairly simple. Hart (Jackman) was considered the front runner for the Democratic nomination until the press – mainly in the person of Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler (Zissis) chased down rumor that Hart was having an extramarital affair with a model by the name of Donna Rice (Paxton). The scandal – which was all innuendo and is denied to this day by both Hart and Rice – was enough to sink Hart’s ship and wipe out his political career.

Reitman tends to lean towards the quixotic. It is clear that the Hart scandal signaled the end of a tacit understanding between the press and politicians that personal affairs were off-limits; the press smiled and looked the other way while John Kennedy had several affairs, most famously with Marilyn Monroe – so they say. Hart’s own stubborn refusal to see the coming storm and ignore the scandal that was brewing is seen as a tragic flaw in his character – he wanted to focus on the issues. In today’s political reality, that concept seems as quaint as the horse and buggy.

The movie is based on a book by journalist Mike Bai with the script co-written by Bai, Reitman and former political campaign staffer Jay Carson and thus has a ring of authenticity of it. Reitman seems to be going for a West Wing-like vibe in which idealists who want to make the world a better place are stymied by political realities, but the movie is oddly low energy, something that the West Wing could never have been accused of.

A dynamite cast including some outstanding performances by Farmiga as Hart’s long-suffering wife, Simmons as his campaign manager and Molina as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee are a highlight. Reitman also treats Rice with much compassion, showing her as a victim and not as a golddigger which is how the contemporary press portrayed her. She was assuredly not that.

Still, I would have liked a bit more attention to period detail and maybe a less low-key performance by Jackman who would seem to be perfectly cast as Hart, but never really gets the politician’s personal charisma right. Hart was a front runner for a reason, but you wouldn’t know it by watching this film.

REASONS TO SEE: A stark reminder that we elect the leaders we deserve.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too low-key for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: ever and Ephraim play two of the Baxter sisters on Last Man Standing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Primary Colors
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Sorry We Missed You

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween


Trick or treat!!

(2018) Family (Columbia) Wendi McLendon-Covey, Madison Iseman, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Caleel Harris, Ken Jeong, Jack Black, Chris Parnell, Bryce Cass, Peyton Wich, Shari Headley, Christian Finlayson, Matthew Jose Vasquez, Courtney Cummings, Jessi Goel, Drew Scheid, Taylor Siva, Sydney Bullock, Jason Looney, Kendrick Cross, Deja Dee. Directed by Ari Sandel

 

I always look askance at a young adult author whose book series is described as a “phenomenon.” The only audience more fickle than adults are kids. Phenomenons come and go with the regularity of Trump tweets.

In this sequel set in the universe of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, two young would-be entrepreneurs (and middle school students) Sonny (Taylor) and Sam (Harris) unexpectedly find an unfinished Stine manuscript in a creepy old house and free Slappy, the malevolent ventriloquist dummy (voiced by Mick Wingert) is brought to life. At first, all he wants is a family of his own, which makes Sonny’s big sister Sarah (Iseman) suspicious although their single mom Kathy (McLendon-Covey) is blissfully unaware that the dummy is sentient. When Slappy is ultimately refused, he decides to get himself some revenge – by using his magic to bring to life Stine-influenced Halloween decorations and turn the sleepy upstate New York own into perpetual Halloween.

The movie doesn’t compare favorably with the first one; although Black (as author R.L. Stine) is in the film, he doesn’t show up until the very end in what is a glorified cameo, although he does set up a Goosebumps 3 should Columbia elect to make one. A little more Black would have gone a long way, but to be fair he was busy making a competing film and was unable to participate fully in this one.

That leaves us with the kids to carry the film and quite frankly that’s not something they’re capable of quite yet. Their performances are inconsistent and frequently wooden. Still, the movie does okay thanks to some fairly nifty special effects and the character of Slappy who makes a delightful villain for the younger set.

REASONS TO SEE: Slappy makes an outstanding kidflick villain.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too much like the first.
FAMILY VALUES: There are mildly scary sequences, rude humor, some light profanity, and images of monsters and creatures.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jack Black and Madison Iseman were both in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle but unlike here, they didn’t share any screen time together.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere,  Netflix, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The House With a Clock In Its Walls
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Afterward

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?