Stuck (2017)


You never know when someone is going to break out into a song on the New York City subway.

(2017) Musical (VisionGiancarlo Esposito, Amy Madigan, Ashanti, Arden Cho, Omar Chaparro, Gerard Canonico, Timothy Young, Reyna de Courcy, Heather Hodder, Sienna Luna, Belle Smith, Shannon Lewis, Jennifer Knox, Dennis Launcella, Mel Johnson Jr. Phil Oddo, Anna Kuchma, Anita Welch, Natia Dune, Alisha Nagasheth, Rachael Ma, Sam Carrell. Directed by Michael Berry

 

It is no secret that for the most part, we have lost our ability to connect. We are so trapped in our cell phones and our social media, squatting in our little corner of the world that we’ve made for ourselves that we have forgotten that we’re actually living in that world with other people. Therefore, we go out into the world, our noses buried in our iPhones and scared to bejeebus to make eye contact with anybody less we be actually forced to have a conversation. As Paul McCartney observed more than 40 years ago, by playing it cool we’re making the world a little colder.

In this movie based on an off-Broadway musical, six New Yorkers find themselves on a subway car that abruptly comes to a stop. The harried conductor (Johnson) explains that there’s a police action on the platform ahead and they are waiting for the all-clear signal to continue on their way. He locks the doors to the car and continues on his way, never to be seen again in the film.

That leaves six strangers, nervously eyeing one another (without actually making eye contact) except for one guy – Lloyd (Esposito), an outgoing sort who carries with him all his worldlies in a trash can on wheels. He stands up and offers up a coffee cup for spare change as he delivers a brief Shakespearean soliloquy – or part of one anyway.

The others are a human resources department diversity poster of riders, all with their own problems; Caleb (Canonico) is an aspiring comic book artist who has been sketching dancer Alicia (Cho) who is none too pleased about having a dweeby stalker, and for good reason as we find out later. Ramon (Chaparro) is a hard-working immigrant working three jobs to give his beloved daughter (Luna) an opportunity at a better life – and he’s dang stressed because he’s sure that being late to the job that he’s on his way to will get him fired and as it is his family is right on the edge of not making it.

Then there’s Eve (Ashanti) who is wrestling with a very personal choice that has an odd connection to her own past, while Sue (Madigan) is a music professor who has recently been struck by an unthinkable tragedy that has left her struggling to find any good in the universe. As the subway riders actually begin to talk, they find themselves opening up about the things that are bothering them, while also discussing hot button topics like immigration, abortion, health care and sexual assault. This being a musical, the characters are apt to break into song at any given moment.

There is a certain amount of urban grit to the film, or at least what passes for it; we film reviewers in Orlando have little experience with true New York urban grit. It seems fairly genuine to me, but some critics who are actual New Yorkers say no. The music is decent enough; I enjoyed it while I was listening to it but now two days later I can’t for the life of me remember a single song. That could be because my mind was on Hurricane Dorian as it passes through the area today. We Floridians have our own kind of grit.

While none of the main performers are especially known for singing with the exception of Ashanti who is a bona fide pop star, the entire cast actually acquits themselves well in that department. Esposito in particular stands out; he really is a national treasure in the sense that he makes every film he’s a part of better and some of his performances are legendary. Madigan, a veteran actress who has been nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy, and won a Golden Globe for her work in the TV movie Roe vs. Wade. Few of her fans remember that back in the 70s she was in a band called Jelly (and modeled for Playboy wearing nothing but jelly to promote her band). Her song is one of the most haunting moments of the movie, largely due to Madigan’s performance.

There are some moments of comedy, some of them awkward but by and large things are fairly serious. Now, truth be told, I’m not a big fan of modern musicals; they all sound alike to me and feel like they were written by committee to please focus groups more than to make some sort of comment on the human condition. Like modern pop music, stage musicals feel over-produced and under-insightful but I actually enjoyed this, so take that for what it’s worth. I suspect those who love stage musicals will be more likely to seek this out but for those who are ambivalent I can tell you that I found myself enjoying it as flawed as it is. Keep in mind that both Esposito and Madigan are reliable performers in any milieu, even a musical.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures a gritty urban feel.
REASONS TO AVOID: The material tends to be a bit heavy-handed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some fairly adult themes and a depiction of a sexual assault.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Because New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) was reluctant to let the crew film in an actual subway car, a near-exact replica of a modern subway car was built in the Pfizer Building in Brooklyn and all the subway train sequences were shot there.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rent
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Always Be My Maybe

Okja


A girl and her genetically modified giant pig; such a sweet picture!

(2017) Fantasy (Netflix) Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Seohyun An, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jungeun Lee, Byun Heebong, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Steven Yeun, Daniel Henshaw, Lily Collins, Devon Bostick, José Carias, Colm Hill, Kathryn Kirkpatrick, Nancy Bell, Jaein Kim, Bongryun Lee, Woo Shik Choi, Moon Choi. Directed by Joon-ho Bong

 

Asian culture can be incomprehensible at times for the Western mind. There is an almost cultish worship of things that are ridiculously cute and a sense of humor that is wacky and broad, yet their comic books and animated features can be crazy violent and chock full of deviant sexual behavior. Some things are best left un-analyzed.

In the near future, food shortages have led the multinational Morando Corporation to develop a genetically enhanced pig. The CEO (Swinton), seeking to undo the damage to the corporate image her amoral sister (also Swinton) did, proclaims the pig to be a miracle; it eats and poops less, provides more meat on the hoof (it resembles a hippopotamus with dog eyes) and tastes delicious. She initiates a contest in which piglets are sent to a variety of farms around the world to see which one is most successful at raising one.

The South Korean entry is sent to the farm of Hee Bong (Heebong) whose granddaughter Mija (An) has developed a bond with her pig whom she has named Okja. When television personality Johnny Wilcox (Gyllenhaal) – a sort of Steve Irwin-like character if Steve Irwin had been a corporate shill – visits the remote mountain farm and proclaims Okja the winner. What nobody has told Mija however is that Okja is to be taken away from the farm, sent to New York for a promotional appearance and then butchered for snacks. When she finds this out, she is not at all pleased.

But she gets a break; the quirky Animal Liberation Front, led by the quirky Jay (Dano) – has kidnapped Okja (maybe pig-napped would be a better term) and hopes to use the creature for his own agenda. However operatives for Morando find Okja and bring her back to New York. Can Okja be saved? And even if she is, will she ever be able to live on the farm again once she’s seen New York?

Director Joon-ho Bong, who gave us the wonderful The Host and the not as wonderful but still interesting Snowpiercer, delivers a great-looking film which is infused with a good deal of unexpected satire on the nature of corporate politics, mass media, obsession, animal cruelty and a little bit of American imperialism (at least one line spoke in Korean is deliberately mistranslated in the subtitles, which is about as subversive as you’d think Netflix would ever get). The satire can be a bit broad but it at least has its heart in the right place.

Just as broad is the humor which can take some getting used to by Western and particularly American audiences. There’s an awful lot of jokes about pig shit and if you find that dopey or distasteful, well, you’re not alone. Fortunately nothing is overtly mean or tremendously gross, so most youngsters will be delighted by the mainly CGI Okja who looks startlingly realistic.

This isn’t bad at all, although again there is a bit of a curve of how much you’ll enjoy it depending on how open to different cultures you might be. While much of this is fairly universal, I found some of it to be bewildering. Still, the cinematography is incredible (particularly in the Korean scenes) and even if the usually reliable Gyllenhaal and Swinton overact shamelessly (Esposito as a debonair corporate flunky is an exception) the movie is a solid choice for a night at home with Netflix.

REASONS TO GO: It’s bizarre and weird but in a good way. There is a surprising amount of social satire in the mix.
REASONS TO STAY: The humor is a little broad for my Western tastes and the movie a bit too long for what it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some violence and plenty of rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Animal Liberation Front is an actual organization that is dedicated to freeing animals in captivity and causing economic chaos for corporations profiting from their captivity.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Babe: A Giant Pig in the City
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie

Maze Runner: The Death Cure


How can they be surprised at the bad reviews?

(2018) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, Kaya Scodelario, Dexter Darden, Will Poulter, Jacob Lofland, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Aidan Gillen, Patricia Clarkson, Barry Pepper, Nathalie Emmanuel, Katherine McNamara, Walton Goggins, Dylan Smith,  Jake Curran, Greg Kriek, Liza Scholtz. Directed by Wes Ball

 

There have been a number of dystopian sci-fi trilogies in the young adult book market as of late, several of which have been converted to the silver screen. Divergent, The Hunger Games and Maze Runner all feature young heroes who shoulder the responsibility of changing their society for the better. It makes me wonder if that hasn’t rubbed off on the current generation who recently took to the streets to protest a lack of movement on gun control.

However, while one applauds the passion of the Parkland pack, it’s hard to appreciate the cinematic skills displayed on this, the finale of the Maze Runner series. It’s stupefying in its length – two hours and twenty odd minutes – and seems to be repetitive in its action. We learn the horrifying truth about WCKD – that in a latch-ditch effort to find a cure for the disease that has overtaken 80% of he population they have taken to experimenting on young people who have shown immunity to the disease which turns people into ravening homicidal maniacs – zombiesque you might say – that has essentially wiped out civilization in all but the Last City.

The original group of maze runners has shown up on a variety of sides; Teresa (Scodelario) is a researcher for WCKD and her mother (Clarkson) is the head scientist for them. Minho (Lee) has been taken by WCKD and its head security guy Janson (Gillen); Newt (Sangster) has finally come down with the disease while Thomas (O’Brien) is leading the rescue efforts to pick up Minho before they sail to a deserted island to live away from the madness in peace and tranquility.

The trend of dividing the trilogy finale into two separate movies was not adopted here, likely because the filmmakers did enough padding (for example, the opening train sequence doesn’t appear in the book) and still couldn’t fill up two movies. As usual with young adult adventure stories, kids are heroic (mostly) and adults are evil (mostly) and the adults underestimate the kids and don’t understand them – yes, it’s a bit pedantic but I suppose you have to appeal to the sensitivities of the market you’re after.

Sangster is one of my favorite young actors out there but he doesn’t get much to do here until the end. O’Brien shows tremendous potential but he hasn’t really won me over yet – the character of Thomas is just too cliché which is hardly his fault and yes, he imbues the character with nobility but Thomas is so one-note it’s difficult to assess whether O’Brien can pull off a multi-layered performance yet so the jury’s still out in my case.

There are plenty of pyrotechnics and oceans of CGI images and for the most part it’s executed well and why wouldn’t it be? With production delays incurred due to an on-set accident which put out the lead performer for almost a year, the effects houses were given plenty of time to work on the images. Still the story is so weak, the characters so been there done that and the movie way overlong that recommending this film is simply not in the cards. I am not convinced that this is the death cure but it sure is a cure for insomnia.

REASONS TO GO: The pyrotechnics and special effects were nifty in places.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is interminably long, dumb and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is action and violence, some thematic concerns as well as a smattering of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: O’Brien was seriously injured during the opening train scene when he fell off the top of the train; it took nearly a year for him to recover from his injuries, delaying the release of the film from 2017 to January 2018..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Divergent Series: Insurgent
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Family

New Releases for the Week of January 26, 2018


MAZE RUNNER: THE DEATH CURE

(20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie Sangster, Will Poulter, Jacob Lofland, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen, Barry Pepper. Directed by Wes Ball

The final chapter in the Maze Runner trilogy sees the young hero Thomas desperately searching the post-apocalyptic Earth for the cure to the deadly plague known as The Flare. The project was delayed after star Dylan O’Brien was injured during filming.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, Dolby Atmos, IMAX, RPX, XD
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, and some thematic elements)

Hostiles

(Entertainment Studios) Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike, Timothée Chalamet. A legendary army officer is tasked at the close of the 19th century to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief from a New Mexico fort where he had been incarcerated to the grasslands of Montana where his tribe has been sent. It’s a perilous journey and the captain is none to pleased about having to make it but during the trip circumstances will force him to work with his mortal enemy in order to survive.

See the trailer and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Western
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong violence, and language)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

49 Pulses
Ang Dalawang Mrs. Reyes
Bhaagamathie
In the Fade
Padmaavat

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

The Ballad of Lefty Brown
Bhaagamathie
Humor Me
Kickboxer: Retaliation
The Neighbor
Padmaavat

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Aadu 2
Bhaagamathie
The Ballad of Lefty Brown
The Competition
The Neighbor
Padmaavat

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Ang Dalawang Mrs. Reyes
The Ballad of Lefty Brown
Bhaagamathie
The Divine Order
Padmaavat

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

The Ballad of Lefty Brown
Hostiles
In the Fade
Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Rabbit Hole


Even comic books won't cheer Miles Teller up.

Even comic books won’t cheer Miles Teller up.

(2010) Drama (Lionsgate) Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Miles Teller, Dianne Wiest, Tammy Blanchard, Sandra Oh, Giancarlo Esposito, Jon Tenney, Stephen Mailer, Mike Doyle, Roberta Wallach, Patricia Kalember, Ali Marsh, Yetta Gottesman, Colin Mitchell, Deidre Goodwin, Julie Lauren, Rob Campbell, Jennifer Roszell, Marylouse Burke. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell

In the initial throes of grief there is much screaming and sobbing. It’s what happens eight months after the initial shock of loss that is the concern here of playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and director John Cameron Mitchell. Becca (Kidman) and Howie (Eckhart) are still grieving the loss of their four-year-old son in a tragic traffic accident and the grief is less immediate but no less sharp and painful, so much so that their marriage is beginning to crumble. While Howie turns to a fellow member (Oh) in a grief counseling group for solace, the fragile and shrewish Becca has surprisingly found the teenager driver (Teller) of the car that killer her boy. So painful that it is at times nearly unwatchable, fine performances from the leads (Kidman particularly) overcome an occasionally contrived script.

WHY RENT THIS: Kidman’s performance is extremely strong. The relationship between Howie and Becky is surprisingly authentic.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally the dialogue and some of the plot points feel contrived.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are definitely mature; there is some brief drug use and some foul language as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Teller’s film debut.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.1M on a $5M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Collateral Beauty
FINAL RATING: 7/10

Money Monster


Clooney busts a move.

Clooney busts a move.

(2016) Thriller (Tri-Star) George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, Lenny Venito, Chris Bauer, Dennis Boutsikaris, Emily Meade, Condola Rashad, Aaron Yoo, Carsey Walker Jr., Grant Rosenmeyer, Jim Warden, Joseph D. Reitman, Olivia Luccardi. Directed by Jodie Foster

The American Experience

There are a lot of ways to get a person under your thumb. Economically is usually the best method and involves the least bloodshed. However, it must be said that people can only be pushed so far before bloodshed becomes inevitable.

Lee Gates (Clooney) is a financial expert who has a popular financial advice program on a cable network. It is somewhat wild and crazy like Lee himself; Lee has a tendency, much to the exasperation of his producer Patty Fenn (Roberts), to go off the reservation. So when a flustered young delivery man, carrying a couple of packages wanders onto the set, Lee is sure it’s his crew playing a practical joke on him while Patty thinks that it’s one of Lee’s improvisations.

It’s neither. It’s Kyle Budwell (O’Connell), a working class schmoe who was crazy enough to follow Lee’s investment advice – except that advice turned out to be tragically wrong. IBIS, the software company that Kyle invested in, had seen $800 million of its assets vanish overnight and its charismatic CEO Walt Camby (West) is nowhere to be seen. He was supposed to be a guest on Lee’s program but instead they were sending Diane Lester (Balfe), a publicity flack (whom Camby is  apparently sleeping with).

Kyle has loaded guns which he demonstrates by firing into the ceiling, getting everyone’s attention. He slaps on a bomb vest that he hid in one of the packages onto Lee and proceeds to demand to talk to the absent CEO. Patty manages to clear the studio, but it seems only a matter of time before Kyle loses complete control of the situation. What neither Patty nor Lee count on is that they too would be swept up in Kyle’s saga and want to find out the answers for their own peace of mind as well.

Given the somewhat negative view most people have regarding the shenanigans on Wall Street over the past few years, this movie plays into those feelings pretty much perfectly – almost to the point of cliché. The villain of this piece is too easily spotted and becomes almost laughable. We don’t get a real sense of depth to that person; it’s just greed, greed, greed and a sense that people deserve to get their life savings defrauded from them because they don’t have the kind of fortune that the villain has. It’s a bit of a cop-out in my opinion.

That said, this is the kind of movie that is going to give you a good idea of why people are angry at Wall Street. The Lee Gates character – who is clearly modeled on Jim Cramer and the show clearly Mad Money on steroids – is a bit buffoonish and certainly a paean to poor investment strategies which is something Cramer is sometimes accused of peddling in real life. Clooney gives the character a bit more depth than we might have otherwise. Would the film have worked better if Lee was the kind of insensitive douchebag that he appears to be at the beginning of the movie? I don’t think so, but at least one critic accused the filmmakers of “star saving” Clooney (i.e. making him appear nicer than he appears to be in order to maintain his likability) which is not something Clooney has indulged in over the years.

Roberts is seen far less frequently onscreen than I would like, but continues to be every inch the star she’s been for the past *mumble, mumble* years – has it really been that long? She has deepened into more of a solid actress over the past decade, not needing to rely quite as much on the wattage of her amazing smile and the glow of her incandescent personality that over the years has made her the ultimate girl next door. Here, she’s a working stiff trying to labor for the unappreciative and has been a little bit beaten down by her star’s lack of empathy. Still, she prides herself on her professionalism and when the rubber hits the road, responds with calm and decisive leadership. This is one of those roles that is slightly subversive without being obvious about it; perhaps Foster, certainly one of the strongest women in Hollywood, has something to do with it as well. To my mind, Patty is the real hero of this piece but not many will get that.

O’Connell is best known for his role in Unbroken but to my mind finally really shows what he’s capable of going back to small but memorable roles in films like Harry Brown. His performance as Kyle shows a man beaten down to the bone by a system that chews up and spits out people like Kyle. With nothing else to lose, he demands answers from those who aren’t willing to give them and this leads him to an act of desperation – and yes, stupidity – that becomes the crux of the film’s emotional center.

Foster has been the kind of director who makes magic even when the scripts she’s given to work with don’t necessarily have a lot of it in it. There’s a good deal that’s way too familiar here but Foster works with it well and gives us a credible film despite the predictability of the plot. There’s some sly satire here about America’s penchant for greed and making money without wanting to put in the work. It is counter to our Puritan heritage in which hard work is valued and indeed, rewarded. In this modern era, we seem to be more inclined to value cutting corners – and rewarding those who do inordinately. And maybe that’s at the center of why Main Street is so pissed off at Wall Street. Perhaps some of the captains of industry need to be reminded of those ethics that made this country great in the first place.

REASONS TO GO: Foster is a masterful director. Clooney and Roberts are always eye-catching. Dials in to the anger that a lot of people are feeling about Wall Street.
REASONS TO STAY: Pretty cliché storyline. The villain of the piece is a little too obvious.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of profanity, some sexuality and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth time Clooney and Roberts have appeared in a film together.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Short
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Conjuring 2

The Jungle Book (2016)


Audiences are going ape for The Jungle Book.

Audiences are going ape for The Jungle Book.

(2016) Family (Disney) Neel Sethi, Bill Murray (voice), Ben Kingsley (voice), Idris Elba (voice), Lupita Nyong’o (voice), Scarlett Johansson (voice), Giancarlo Esposito (voice), Christopher Walken (voice), Garry Shandling (voice), Brighton Rose (voice), Emjay Anthony (voice), Jon Favreau (voice), Russell Peters (voice), Sam Raimi (voice), Ritesh Rajan, Sara Arrington (voice). Directed by Jon Favreau

 

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is rightly considered a children’s classic. The Disney animated version, while not near the top of their list, is at least considered one of the better animated films of its era, complete with a passel of Sherman brothers tunes that continue to be quoted by Disney in their theme parks and commercials.

A live action version continues Disney’s string of live action features based on their animated films and in many ways this is the most challenging project yet. Director Favreau, who is best known for the first two Iron Man films, was an inspired choice to direct this, having done family films as well as big special effects extravaganzas as well.

Mowgli (Sethi) is a young human child raised by wolves after the death of his father (Rajan). Alpha male Akela (Esposito) and his noble wife Raksha (Nyong’o) take on the responsibility of raising the boy as a wolf. Try as he might to fit in, Mowgli has just two legs and no claws to speak of. However he is a cheerful boy and an inventive thinker. Panther Bagheera (Kingsley) is also nearby, making sure that Mowgli is raised right.

Also nearby, unfortunately, is Shere Khan (Elba), a disfigured tiger whose burns had been received at the hands of Mowgli’s dad before the big cat sent him on his way to meet his maker. When Shere Khan finds out that Mowgli is about, he blows a gasket. No human will live safely in his forest while he lives, and Shere Khan sets out to eliminate Mowgli from the board.

Akela and Bagheera agree that Mowgli must leave the pack, despite the laws of the pack that seem to indicate that the pack is stronger together rather than splitting up. Bagheera tries to escort Mowgli to the safety of the human village but Shere Khan finds out and Mowgli and Bagheera are separated. Mowgli is found by Baloo ((Murray), a happy-go-lucky bear who finds a stroke of good luck when Mowgli, ever-inventive, figures out a way for Baloo to get the honeycombs that are high on the top of a mountain that Baloo is unable to reach. Even in this idyllic interlude, the jungle isn’t safe; not only is the tiger after Mowgli but so is King Louie (Walken), the clever but crazed leader of the apes who has an eye on the secret of fire which only Mowgli can unravel as well as Kaa (Johansson), a seductive serpent whose only concern is making Mowgli her lunch.

Sethi is the only onscreen actor who gets any significant time; all the other animal characters and indeed the jungle setting itself is all digitally created. It’s an impressive technical achievement, achieving a photorealistic jungle as well as the animals within it. The computer animators achieve actual personalities in the anthropomorphic subjects, with Baloo’s happy-go-lucky bear augmented by Murray’s acerbic wit; Bagheera’s sleek black form is bolstered with his expressions of annoyance and occasional contentment. It is somewhat ironic that only Mowgli himself is poorly drawn as a character.

It’s not that Sethi is a bad actor – far from it. He shows some real athleticism in his role, but the dialogue for him is a little one-note and Sethi doesn’t vary much in his line reading. Like some child actors, he comes off as a little too sure of himself and perhaps Mowgli’s wolf upbringing might explain this, but Mowgli comes off as almost arrogant to the point of Trumpness.

The voice actors all do wonderful work, particularly Murray and Kingsley, but Johansson, Nyong’o and Walken also distinguish themselves. Favreau is inventive in the way he uses tracking shots and flashbacks, and the movie is never visually boring.

The animated edition is where most of the cues for this movie arise, but there are also other elements from other movies, some surprising. There are nods to Apocalypse Now, for example, when King Louie reveals himself. The appearance of three songs from the original movie is all welcome and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Christopher Walken warbling “Wanna Be Like You.”

This is some of the best family entertainment you’re going to find in a year that’s shaping up to offer some truly interesting family films that this critic is eager to check out. That’s good news as there has been a bit of a dry spell when it’s come to high quality family entertainment. This one is going to make it into the video library for a lot of kids who will be demanding it from parents who won’t mind giving in. Definitely one of the best family films in years.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing animal effects look completely real. A classic honored with a terrific rendition. Nice little shout-outs to the animated version.
REASONS TO STAY: While Sethi is less annoying then he might have been, he was occasionally a bit overly smug for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence here as well as a child in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Disney version of The Jungle Book in which Bagheera and Shere Khan fight.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tarzan
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Honeyglue

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials


Maze Runner The Scorch Trials

You’ve got to learn how to crawl before you learn how to run mazes.

(2015) Young Adult Sci-Fi (20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Ki Hong Lee, Rosa Salazar, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores, Jacob Lofland, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen, Terry Dale Parks, Kathryn Smith-McGlynn, Lili Taylor, Barry Pepper, J. Nathan Simmons, Alan Tudyk, Lora Martinez-Cunningham. Directed by Wes Ball

It seems that whenever you’re in the middle segment of a cinematic trilogy, there’s always a bit of a letdown; there’s usually more exposition that action and it lacks the kind of energy that marks the first installment, nor the emotional punch of the third. Would that happen to this sequel to the successful young adult science fiction adaptation The Maze Runner?

Following the conclusion of that film, the survivors of the Glade are brought into an underground facility, a way station before being taken to their final destination. No, that doesn’t sound sinister at all, right? In any case, Thomas (O’Brien) hooks up with Aris (Lofland), a survivor of a different Maze (there are apparently many of them) and discovers the truth about the facility – it is wholly owned by WCKD (pronounced “wicked,” possibly the most unsubtle acronym ever), the corporate blackhearts who created the Mazes and they’re conducting medical experiments on the kids who have made it this far.

Naturally, this doesn’t appeal much to Thomas and he takes the rest of his crew – Teresa (Scodelario), Newt (Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Lee), Frypan (Darden) and Winston (Flores) out of the frying pan and into the Scorch. The Scorch is the world above ground, an arid desert with unpredictable weather patterns, terrifying storms and creatures that roam the wasteland by night. A trip to the local mall leads to the discovery that they are victims of the Flare, a virus that turns the victims homicidal and utterly insane.

Thomas and the gang are looking for The Right Arm, an underground resistance group who may be able to shelter them from WCKD who clearly want them back badly; the chief scientist for WCKD, Dr. Ava Paige (Clarkson) has sent her assassin Janson (Gillen) to go fetch Thomas and his tank engine…er, crew.

After being captured by Jorge (Esposito) and his daughter Brenda (Salazar), they get away from WCKD and head out to find Marques, the man who might be able to find the Right Arm. Once again, it’s back into the fire as a happening party turns into a 90s rave and turns into a real bad trip. Once the kids find the Right Arm, however, they are going to find out that there are worse beasts in the wasteland than madmen, and that courage may not be enough to get them all through. Making it out alive may not be in the cards for all of them, but there may be worse things ahead for all of them.

No need to keep you in suspense; this isn’t as good as the first movie. That movie had a kinetic energy that is severely lacking here. Not that there aren’t some superior action scenes; there are, but while Maze Runner felt like a sprint, this is more of a distance run. Most of the same folks that didn’t get snuffed in the first film are back with a passel of new characters as well as the bulk of the same talent behind the camera. The problem with middle films in trilogies is that they are often connectors, linking point A and point B. The middle of a story is never as interesting as the beginning or the end.

O’Brien is a little bit more animated here but the same problem that plagued the first movie plagues this one; Thomas isn’t a very interesting lead character. They try to make him that way with references to his unremembered past but the real issue is that Thomas acts like every teen hero in every cinematic adaptation of a young adult novel ever, and it really is kind of tiresome. There’s nothing here to distinguish it from its competition and even given that the audience this is playing too is a lot less discriminating, they aren’t dummies; they know lazy writing when they see it.

Most of the rest of the cast is adequate to decent; the most promising performer in the first film doesn’t appear here. It’s just that they’re not given a lot to work with; the characters are mostly bland, recycled from other stories and films. None of them really grab your attention much. That’s the problem with having characters who can’t remember their past; there isn’t a lot for the audience to hold onto other than their actions and when you’re talking about actions that are pretty much standard young adult fantasy fare that’s only worse. Even the zombie-like Flare victims don’t measure up to the monsters of The Walking Dead and the special effects here are pretty much standard.

This is bargain basement sci-fi that doesn’t really generate enough enthusiasm in me to really give it much of a recommendation which is a shame because I thought the first film had some potential. Maybe we’ll have to wait until the final installation in the trilogy to see that potential fulfilled but at this point I’m not especially waiting on the edge of my seat for February 17, 2017 to come around – the date that Maze Runner: The Death Cure is set to wrap up the series. Sad to say, I’d be just fine with them wrapping it up here unless they can do a whole lot better next time.

REASONS TO GO: Some fairly well-done action sequences. Attractive leads.
REASONS TO STAY: Really been there-done that. Lacks energy.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence, some thematic elements, a scene of substance use and some mild language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The studio greenlit the sequel two weeks before the first film opened after early reviews and audience scores proved to be overwhelmingly positive.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunger Games
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Intern

New Releases for the Week of September 18, 2015


Maze Runner The Scorch TrialsMAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS

(20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Ki Hong Lee, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Patricia Clarkson, Jacob Lofland, Giancarlo Esposito, Aidan Gillen. Directed by Wes Ball

In the sequel to the 2014 hit adaptation of a young adult sci-fi novel, the sequel takes the survivors of the Glade into a new environment; an underground post-apocalyptic world in which humanity has left the surface of the Earth which has become too dangerous to support life. However, what they thought was safety proves to be far more sinister as the WCKD corporation seems to have plans for them – plans that might be hazardous to their health. Before long, they are fleeing to the outside world, the Scorch where they discover that the truth isn’t what they thought it was.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard  (Opens Thursday)
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of violence and action, some thematic elements, substance use and language)

Black Mass

(Warner Brothers) Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson. Irish mobster James “Whitey” Bulger held Boston in an iron grip during the 70s and 80s. One of the great crime bosses of modern times, he played both sides against the middle, reputedly an informer for the FBI – certainly he manipulated the bureau to his own advantage, while running amuck on the streets. The Jack Nicholson character in The Departed is based on him.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (Opens Thursday)
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R  (for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use)

Captive

(Paramount) Kate Mara, Mimi Rogers, Michael K. Williams, David Oyelowo. A young mother struggling with drug addiction is taken hostage in her own apartment by a desperate escaped convict, who murdered the judge assigned to his case. Using an inspirational self-help book as a guide, she helps find purpose not only for her own life, but also a more peaceful resolution for the convict. Based on the true story of Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols.

See the trailer, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Faith-Based True Life Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic elements involving violence and substance abuse)

Everest

(Universal) Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Jason Clarke, Keira Knightley. Mt. Everest has become a commercial goldmine as companies have sprung up offering to shepherd climbers to the summit. It’s no laughing matter as it is a dangerous venture to say the least, and on one day in 1996 two expeditions taking their clients to the top are hit with a massive storm, resulting in one of the deadliest days in the mountain’s history. For those who don’t live near a large format screen (i.e. IMAX etc.), don’t fret; the movie will hit  general release next week in both 3D and standard formats.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and B-Roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: True Life Thriller
Now Playing: Large Format Theaters
Rating: R (for language, violence and brief drug use)

Grandma

(Sony Classics) Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer. While recovering from the breakup with her girlfriend, Elle receives an unexpected visit from her granddaughter who needs $600 for an abortion. Unfortunately, Elle is temporarily broke so the two go to find the money among old friends, family and acquaintances, dislodging quite a few skeletons from quite a few closets in the process. Word is that Tomlin is an early favorite for this year’s Best Actress Oscar for this role.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, Amstar Lake Mary, Enzian Theater, Epic Theaters of Clermont, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Pointe Orlando
Rating: R (for language and some drug use)

Katti Batti

(UTV) Imran Khan, Kangana Ranaut. One is an architect, who is stable and secure. The other, a free spirit who lives life to its fullest. Each one loves the other for those very same qualities. This Bollywood film follows their five year live-in relationship which isn’t all dancing and rose petals.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Bollywood
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Touchstar Southchase
Rating: NR

Florida Film Festival 2014


Florida Film Festival 2014Last night, the Florida Film Festival announced their line-up for 2014 and it is another impressive one. The Festival will run from April 4 through April 13 this year and 170 feature films and shorts are on this year’s menu. While we won’t be previewing all of them, this is just a taste of some of the films you can expect to see.

Last year’s opening night film, 20 Feet From Stardom, went on to win an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and opening night guests were wowed by one of the film’s stars, Merry Clayton (the female voice on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”) crooning a sensual and amazing version of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You.” While that set an awfully high bar, this year’s opening film has plenty of quality of its own. A Trip to Italy is the sequel to 2010’s The Trip and returns stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as well as director Michael Winterbottom. Once again Coogan and Brydon play versions of themselves, sent to write restaurant reviews but this time not in the North of England but in Italy. They kept audiences in stitches with their impressions and comedic routines but deep down there was a story that kept the interest of the readers. I can’t wait to see what they do in the sequel.

Ernest and Celestine netted an Oscar nomination of its own for Best Animated Feature at the recent Academy Awards and while it lost to Frozen this story about the unlikely friendship between a bear and a mouse is sure to delight children of every age. The British crime comedy Dom Hemingway stars Jude Law as a safe cracker newly released from prison who wants to reconnect with his daughter and settle his debts but that proves to be a proposition far less easy than it sounds. For No Good Reason documents artist Ralph Steadman’s remarkable career, his collaborations with writers Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs and of course his unsettling and iconic drawings. Johnny Depp hosts this passion project. 

Joe is the latest from director David Gordon Green and stars Nicolas Cage as a rough and tumble ex-con with a hair-trigger temper who falls in with a young boy whose life has been at least as hard luck as his own. The ex-con takes a liking to the boy who finds in Joe a father figure which doesn’t sit too well with the boy’s actual father. This is said to be one of Cage’s best performances in years and might just elevate him out of the poor reputation he’s had in recent years. The Double is a stylish modernization of the Dostoevsky novella in which a shy and abused young worker, played by Jesse Eisenberg, has his life taken over by a brash and manipulative doppelganger, also played by Eisenberg. 

Gabrielle is a French-Canadian romance about a developmentally challenged woman’s quest to assert her independence. Obvious Child tackles the controversial subject of abortion as a young stand-up comedian finds her life turned upside down by an unexpected pregnancy. Before I Disappear chronicles a despondent young man’s attempts to commit suicide marred by his responsibility to babysit his niece. In Words and Pictures stars Clive Owens and Juliette Binoche play teachers of English and Art who in an effort to inspire students who couldn’t care less declare a war between words and images. Cheatin’ is the newest animated feature by Oscar winning animator Bill Plympton – ’nuff said. 

Crimes Against Humanity pairs a woman whose pet rabbit has died and who has been hospitalized with frequent nosebleeds with a pompous boyfriend whose investigation of sexual escapades at the university he works at becomes an obsession. In I Believe in Unicorns a woman with a vivid imagination falls for a skateboarding punk and chooses to run away with him, leaving her disabled mother behind. Doomsdays covers two slackers who convinced the apocalypse is just around the corner take to squatting in vacant Catskills vacations homes until the food runs out or they are chased off. The addition of two other would-be squatters changes the dynamic irrevocably. This year’s Audience Award winner at Slamdance was Copenhagen, a voyage of discovery of a young man who journeys to the Danish capital to discover his last living relative and finds love instead. Last I Heard stars Paul Sorvino as a mob boss who returns from prison to find that his gang has become inconsequential and the world a far different place than he left it. 

No No: A Dockumentary follows the fabled career of Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Dock Ellis who famously pitched a no-hitter while tripping on LSD in 1970. How he overcame his addictions and reached out to help others in similar straits is one of baseball’s great untold stories. Levitated Mass is a fascinating look at artist Michael Heizer’s monumental task of transporting a 340 ton boulder from a Southern California quarry to the L.A. County Museum of Art and creating a media and social sensation in the process. American Jesus examines the pervasive Christianity in all it’s different forms and effects on American culture as seen through the eyes of a Spaniard. 

Mail order brides is the subject of Love Me as the documentary filmmaker follows several relationships that were established in that manner and discovers that they aren’t all you might think. Mission Congo details the abuses of an American televangelist in the Congo following the Rwandan genocide under the guise of humanitarian aid. The Sacrament is the latest from horror auteur Ti West and covers a filmmaking crew’s descent into the hellish secret of a Utopian religious cult during a documentary shoot. The Babadook was one of the films at this year’s Sundance that got a great deal of attention; in it a single mom reads to her son from a mysterious storybook which prompts strange and frightening occurrences in their home.

Chu and Blossom stars Ryan O’Nan, Mercedes Ruehl and Melanie Lynskey in a story about  a unique Korean exchange student adjusting to life in the United States. After Winter, Spring is a loving tribute to a way of life that is rapidly disappearing – the French family farm. Led Zeppelin Played Here looks into a mythic concert that may or may not have taken place. 

In addition to new movies, there are some classics that will be available at the Festival this year including the Oscar-winning murder mystery Murder on the Orient Express with an all-star cast, The Big Lebowski which is one of the Coen Brothers’ classics, the Italian thriller Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and the James Bond classic Goldfinger

There are usually celebrities involved at Film Festivals and the FFF has had their share. Not all of the celebrity attendees have been confirmed at press time but two who are on the list for 2014 include Paul Sorvino who will be in attendance on Friday April 11 for the screening of his new film Last I Heard and Giancarlo Esposito for a screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in celebration of the film’s 25th anniversary.

That’s just a rundown of some of the films that will be on the docket for this year’s Festival. There are also panel discussions and of course the legendary parties that the Festival throws every year.Ticket packages and passes are on sale now at the website (just click on the logo above to go directly there) and individual film tickets will be on sale Saturday, March 15th. 

This promises to be another memorable Festival and if you’ve never been, you owe it to yourself to go and experience it firsthand. Words can’t describe the experience but it is fun, engaging and unforgettable. Filmmakers and celebrities rub elbows with film fans at the Festival and you never know who you will run into while grabbing a drink at the Eden Bar at the Enzian. It might even be me.

As always, movies from the festival will have the Festival logo above attached to the review to mark it as a proud participant in the 2014 Festival. Cinema365 will cover the Festival from beginning to end and beyond – last year we posted over 50 reviews of Festival films and related events and we should be in the same neighborhood this year. This is one event that I look forward to all year long and as we get closer to opening night, the excitement is building exponentially. This truly is one of the great Film Festivals in the country – it has been ranked as one of the 50 best in the entire world by IndieWire and the top 25 coolest in the country by MovieMaker magazine. That isn’t by accident; while I do tend to gush about the Festival it is really a unique event. If you love movies – and even if you don’t love ’em but just love to socialize – this is your event. Get your tickets now – you’ll thank me for it later.