The Matrix Resurrections


Love what they’ve done to the place.

(2021) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jonathan Groff, Jessica Henwick, Neil Patrick Harris, Jada Pinkett Smith, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Christina Ricci, Lambert Wilson, Andrew Lewis Caldwell, Toby Onwumere, Max Riemelt, Joshua Grothe, Brian J. Smith, Eréndira Ibarra, Michael X. Sommers, L. Trey Wilson, Mumbi Maina. Directed by Lana Wachowski

Back in 1999, The Matrix redefined action movies and took science fiction cinema in a decidedly cyberpunk direction. Two sequels were spawned in short order but although the trilogy was complete, still fans clamored for more. The Wachowski sisters, originators of the films, seemed little-disposed to returning to the Matrix, but Lana after more than twenty years of radio silence has returned to the franchise (her sister Lily chose not to “return to something I’ve already done,” as she put it).

Thomas Anderson (Reeves), whom we all know as the Messianic figure of Neo from the first trilogy, is working as a game designer whose masterwork is a game about an alternate reality called The Matrix which is a computer-generated panacea built by sentient machines to keep their human slaves docile while they harvested the bioelectricity to keep the machines running. Sound familiar? But Thomas continues to have odd dreams – or is it flashes of memory? – that have him talking to a shrink (Harris) who seems a bit unsympathetic as psychiatrists go. But something is not right. This all was supposed to have happened already, but it’s different. And why doesn’t Trinity (Moss) recognize Neo? Why is she married with two kids and going by the name of Tiffany? And why does Morpheus (Abdul-Mateen) look so much younger than he used to? And the same for Agent Smith (Groff), but Niobe (Pinkett Smith) looks so much older? Makes you want to take the blue pill this time.

The plot is convoluted and overbearing, and sitting through more than two hours of it is certainly a test of endurance. The visuals remain spectacular – Wachowski has always shown a flair for imagery – but the plot bounces all over the place and even the most focused viewers will have a hard time following it. And making the movie without Hugo Weaving (who apparently declined to participate) and Lawrence Fishburne (who wasn’t asked) was a serious misstep; the two of them constituted some of the most important elements of the earlier films. Abdul-Mateen is a fine actor, but he lacks the gravitas that Fishburne possesses, and Groff doesn’t have the slick and unctuous villainy that Weaving projected in the earlier films.

At the end of my review for The Matrix Revolutions I wrote “I’m more ambivalent about the idea of a fourth Matrix installment than I was about the second two,” and the thought of a fifth Matrix chapter is not something I’m particularly excited about – given the reception to the film, both commercially and critically, no decision has yet been announced about the series continuing and it seems at this point unlikely that it will – it feels like a movie that Wachowski didn’t quite have the passion for that she did for the first two films. It’s confusing, indecipherable and possesses an overabundance of nwhite noise from a plot point of view. Some critics are recommending that you simply turn off your brain and watch this for the plain ol’ fun of it, but that wasn’t anything like the first two movies of the sequel were like; they meant to get you thinking. The visuals continue to impress but at the end of the day, maybe it’s time for the rabbit hole to get filled in.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderful visuals throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Far too much style and not enough substance.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, Trinity’s alter-ego Tiffany is married to Chad, who is played by Chad Stahelski, who was Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, as well as his director in the John Wick trilogy.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until January 21)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews; Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pixels
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Last Words

The Invisible Man (2020)


Don’t look now…

(2020) Thriller (Universal) Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Harriet Dyer, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie, Renee Lim, Brian Meegan, Nick Kici, Vivienne Greer, Nicholas Hope, Cleave Williams, Cardwell Lynch, Sam Smith, Zara Michales, Serag Mohammed, Nash Edgerton, Anthony Brandon Wong, Xavier Fernandez, Amali Golden. Directed by Leigh Whannell

 

One of the unexpected side effects of #MeToo is that women are beginning to take back horror. Until recently, they were cast mostly as victims waiting to be slaughtered by a monster or a human monster. Yes, the final girl thing was a bit of a sop, but it was clearly understood that putting women in jeopardy had a sexual element to it. Horror films were often an allegory for how women were perceived in our culture; virtuous and plucky (final girls were almost never sexual) or sexy and not too bright, or at least prone to panicking when the chips were down, playing right into the killer’s hands – often literally.

That’s changing, as yesterday’s horror review illustrated, and it’s even more true of this film, inspired VERY loosely by the 1897 novel of H.G. Wells. Cecilia Kass (Moss) is trapped in an abusive relationship by a controlling billionaire who keeps her under 24/7 surveillance. Pushed to her absolute limit, she plots her escape, aided by her sister Emily (Dyer) who picks her up when she flees from the high-tech home she shares with her domestic partner Adrian Griffin (Jackson-Cohen), just barely getting away. Emily drives her into San Francisco where she bunks with her good friend James (Hodge), who happens to be a cop, and his teenage daughter Sydney (Reid).

Then word reaches her that her ex has committed suicide, and his creepy brother Tom (Dorman) gives her the news that he left her a sizable inheritance, enough to help Sydney with her college plans and to give her some financial relief. Too good to be true, right?

Right. Soon strange things begin to happen, merely annoying at first and growing exponentially more disturbing. Cecilia gets the feeling she’s being watched, and her paranoia only increases. Soon she seems to be coming unhinged, unglued, or at the very least, having a complete breakdown. But WE know that there is something else going on. After all, we saw that knife floating around by itself. We saw the footprints in the carpet. Is it Adrian’s ghost, or something more tangible – and ultimately more terrifying?

As horror films go, this one is long on tension but short on scares. In fact, I think it would be justifiably be considered more of a thriller than an out-and-out horror film, although there are definitely some horrific elements – they are just few and far between.

Whannell seems more intent on making a point than creating a legitimately scary movie. Fortunately, he has one of the best in the world at playing emotionally fragile characters in Elisabeth Moss (who will always be Zoey Bartlet to me) and she gets to exercise that particular skill to near-perfection here. She is certain that something sinister is going on and tells her circle of friends so, but nobody believes her. It’s no accident that her last name is Kass…could be short for “Cassandra.”

She gets some good support from Hodge (who will always be Alec Hardison to me) as the kindly but skeptical cop and Reid (who will always be Meg Murry to me) as the savvy teen. Dorman (who will always be John Tavner to me) lends sufficient creepiness as the late tech billionaire’s brother.

Part of the problem is that we don’t get much of a sense of who Adrian is. He’s essentially brilliant, vindictive and cruel, but we never really get to know much more than that. I tend to like a little more depth to my villains, even if they are ostensibly dead for most of the movie. Plus, there are few scares and that is a bit of a letdown, considering Whannell’s pedigree (he has been involved with two major horror franchises) and the fact that this is using the title of a classic horror movie. The audience can’t help but expect a horror movie when they sit down to watch.

Jilted expectations aside, the movie does a fair job of making its points about how women are portrayed, and although at times Moss can get a bit shrill she still makes a decent enough heroine, particularly in the mega-satisfying denouement. However, I can’t honestly say that the movie made a connection with me and thus I can’t in good conscience give it anything more than a very slight recommendation which is being damned by faint praise indeed.

REASONS TO SEE: Nobody is better than Moss than getting women on the edge of hysteria.
REASONS TO AVOID: The villain was not really developed properly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some pretty intense violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was originally intended to be part of the Dark Universe, Universal’s classic monster-oriented shared cinematic universe, but after the box office failure of The Mummy, the concept collapsed and Universal opted to go with individual stories rather than having a shared background.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Cinemax Go, DirecTV, Google Play, HBO Max, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hollow Man
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Continuing Adventures of Six Days of Darkness!

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings


A new hero rises.

(2021) Superhero (Disney) Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Yuen Wah, Andy Le, Paul He, Jayden Zhang, Elodie Fong, Arnold Sun, Stephanie Hsu, Kunal Dudheker, Tsai Chin, Jodi Long, Dallas Liu, Ronny Chieng, Stella Ye, Ben Kingsley, Michael-Anthony Taylor, Zach Cherry, Raymond Ma, Benedict Wong, Harmonie He. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton

 

There are a number of firsts going on in the latest entry into the MCU. The first Asian-American superhero. The first Marvel feature to introduce a new hero into the mix since Captain Marvel. The first MCU film with a director of Asian descent. The first villainous role for Chinese action legend Tony Leung (and also his first English-language film). The first to debut on Labor Day weekend. The first Disney film to resume production after the initial pandemic shutdown.

But is that all there is to a movie? Ground-breaking alone doesn’t make for a great, entertaining film. Thankfully, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings fits the bill and then some.

A prologue tells us of Wenwu (Leung), a villain who found (or stole) ten magic arm rings that rendered him invincible as well as virtually immortal. Over a thousand years, he conquered everything there was to conquer, but he wanted more. The “more” was a village called Ta Lo, a hidden village that sits in a neighboring dimension where dwell legendary magical creatures and contains magical power of immense proportions. Wenwu – who would later be used as the blueprint to create the fictional terrorist known as the Mandarin – already led a criminal enterprise and commanded an army of ninjas, including killers Death Dealer (Le) and Razor Fist (Munteanu), but comes by a map that helps him arrive at the village, although the bamboo forest it is located in seemed to be a living guardian of the peaceful village. There is also a human guardian – the beautiful Li (Chen) who bests Wenwu in a fight. The criminal overlord promptly falls in love and, improbably, ends up marrying her.

Because of Wenwu’s criminal past, the couple is denied residence in Ta Lo so Macau is where they end up living. Li gives birth to a son and daughter before she dies, and Wenwu, who had softened into a family man, hardens right back up, training his young son, Shang-Chi, to be a killer while mostly ignoring his daughter, Xiang.

Shang-Chi (Liu) eventually runs away from his father, choosing not to become like him, and ends up in San Francisco, using the name Shaun. He has a bestie named Katy (Awkwafina) who, like him, parks cars at a swanky SF hotel. While Katy’s mom (Long) and grandma (Chin) wonder when the two are going to get married, but they’re just friends (without benefits – this is a PG-13 film after all). However, on a bus ride to work, Shaun is attacked by a group of thugs including Razor Fist and turns out that he has extraordinary martial arts abilities, much to the shock of Katy who is unaware of his past. He manages to beat the thugs, but they steal a pendant that his mother had given him, but let slip that they are going after his sister next. So Shang-Chi boards a plane for Macau, having received a cryptic postcard from his sister which apparently reveals her address and Katy insists on going with.

There they find a bitter Xiang (Zhang) who had resented her brother for leaving her behind with their father. She, too, had eventually run away from home and began an empire of her own with a high-tech fight club on top of a skyscraper. That’s when the goons arrive and so does dear old dad. You see, it seems he needs the pendants to reveal a map that will navigate a safe passage through the bamboo forest to Ta Lo. Wenwu has been hearing his wife’s voice, begging him to set her free from imprisonment in her former home. But he also intends to destroy that home, much to Shang-Chi’s horror. They must find a way to get there first if they are going to stop their dad, who is unwittingly going to release a horrible, Apocalypse-bringing monster onto the earth if he succeeds.

First of all, the good news: this is one of the best Marvel movies yet, right up there with Black Panther and Guardians of the Galaxy. It is beautifully shot, the fight sequences are phenomenal (particularly the first one on the bus) and the CGI without peer. Simu Liu, who was previously best known for the Canadian TV series Kim’s Convenience, is going to be a huge star, following the example of Chris Hemsworth who was a little-known actor before being cast as Thor. Add to that the lustrous Michelle Yeoh as Auntie Nan, Leung who gets to show American filmgoers what Asian audiences have known for decades, and Awkwafina who continues to become a major A-list star with her performance here.

weaves all the elements together pretty well. I will admit that during the middle the movie becomes necessarily exposition-heavy and drags somewhat, but other than that, he shows a sure hand on the big stage even though he comes from an indie background (Short Term 12) and this is really his first big budget major tentpole release. Undoubtedly he’ll get a lot more like this, in all likelihood including Shang-Chi 2 which is almost a certainty to make it onto Marvel’s schedule eventually.

There are two post-credit sequences, incidentally, and the first one is maybe the best one in the franchise with a couple of cameos by Marvel superheroes and hints at what Shang-Chi’s place in the larger MCU is going to be. Given what I’ve seen here, he’s not going to fade into the woodwork any time soon. This is the must-see movie of the season and by all means go out and see it in a theater if you can.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderfully weaves Chinese culture, myths and legends into the MCU. Simu Liu is going to be a star and Awkwafina further cements her own reputation. Incredible action sequences and effects. One of the best Marvel movies ever.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit long, dragging a bit in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of fantasy/superhero action and violence, as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stunt coordinator Bradley James Allen, who was the first (and only) non-Asian member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team, passed away on August 7 from an undisclosed illness. The film is dedicated to him.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hero
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Triaphilia

Together Together


A truly odd couple.

(2021) Comedy (Bleecker Street) Patti Harrison, Ed Helms, Rosalind Chao, Timm Sharp, Bianca Lopez, Nora Dunn, Fred Melamed, Vivian Gil, Tig Notaro, Julio Torres, Evan Jonigkeit, Sufe Bradshaw, Travis Coles, Jo Firestone, David Chattam, Heidi Méndez, Ellen Dubin (voice), May Calamawy, Greta Titelman, Tucker Smallwood, Terri Hoyos, Ithamar Enriquez, Gail Rastorfer. Directed by Nikole Beckwith

Our biological clocks tick inexorably. Our time is limited and if we want to have kids, there is a time where we’ve got to buckle down and get to parentin’ if we’re going to do it at all. Not having a partner at that point in life isn’t necessarily the obstacle it once was.

For middle-aged app designer Matt (Helms), he hasn’t had any sort of romantic relationship in eight years but he REALLY wants to be a dad. He decides to go the surrogacy route and that’s how he meets Anna (Harrison). She’s a barista in a coffee shop in San Francisco (where Matt also lives) who has been estranged from her family ever since a teenage pregnancy led to her dropping out of high school and giving up the baby for adoption. She wants to break out of the rut her life has settled into and knows that she needs to complete her education – complete with college degree. The money she makes from having a baby would essentially be able to pay for getting her life back on track. She considers it a fair trade-off.

For Matt, being in control of things has been the secret to his success and at first he can’t help but be a bit of a control freak when it comes to Anna’s pregnancy, giving the stink eye over dietary choices and pushing for her to get clogs (“pregnancy shoes,” as he calls them). At first, Anna is annoyed by his intrusion into her life, but she soon begins to see inside the surface and realizes that Matt is really a nice, kind man who is looking to fulfill a life goal and on his own terms. That’s something they have in common.

Gradually the two form a bond, whether it is Anna showing up at a decidedly uncomfortable baby shower, or binge watching episodes of Friends with Matt. As the big day looms on the horizon, the two are constantly attempting to define their relationship and the boundaries therein. It’s not always easy.

In lesser hands this would have been a sappy rom-com with Matt and Anna falling in love and having a happily-ever-after but these are not lesser hands. Beckwith shows a deft touch with comedy and as she also wrote the script, a good deal of insight into parental urges and the nature of inter-gender friendships. Unlike the main premise of When Harry Met Sally, Beckwith not only supports the idea that men can be friends with women without a sexual element involved in the relationship, but that the friendship can be as deep and as fulfilling as a romantic relationship (I happen to agree with her). That friendship is at the center of the film.

For that reason, the movie is remarkably schmaltz-free. The emotions that come up are generally earned and feel organic. The two squabble from time to time, but it’s ot the cute squabbling of rom-coms but the honest disagreement between two adults who see things differently. Harrison, who most people know from Shrill (if they know her at all), is brilliant. Her performance here is compared to Melissa McCarthy’s in Bridesmaids in the sense that it is a breakout of a gifted comedian who is ready to become a major star, and I think Harrison could have that kind of success.

Helms has become a steady performer, excelling at playing decent guys and so he does here. You can’t help but be drawn to him, even though at times he is a bit overbearing (Matt, not Ed Helms). Watching Ed Helms work has always given me the feeling that he’s the kind of guy you want to be friends with. That’s a good skill to have for an actor.

The movie has some terrific supporting performances, ranging from Notaro as a therapist that both Matt and Anna see, Melamed and Dunn as Matt’s parents, Torres as Anna’s gay co-worker, and especially Bradshaw as an ultrasound technician who gets to witness Matt and Anna’s squabbles.

Maybe the best thing about the film is its ending, which takes place appropriately enough in the delivery room. Cinematographer Frank Barrera keeps the camera tight on Harrison’s face and Harrison gives him good reason to. Her expressions are beautiful and bittersweet, and the ending is about as perfect as a movie ending can be, fitting the tone of the film perfectly and providing a graceful coda. This was a movie that was far better than I had a right to expect it to be, and I recommend it highly.

The movie is currently playing the Florida Film Festival and can be streamed (by Florida residents only, unfortunately) at the link below, but be of good cheer – it is getting a national release a week from today (as this is published). So no excuses…

REASONS TO SEE: Helms and Harrison have excellent chemistry together. There is surprising depth in the comedy. Looks at surrogacy from an unusual angle.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor might be too low-key for modern audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity including female reproductive references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harrison’s mother is Vietnamese and met her father, a U.S. soldier, during the War. They eventually got married and had seven children of which Patti is the youngest.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema (through April 25)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Baby Mama
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Mapplethorpe

Groomed


Gwen van de Pas listens to the point of view of a sexual predator.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Gwen van de Pas, Harriet Hofstode, Laurens, Oprah Winfrey, Andy Hudlak, Jim Tanner, Martijn Larsen, Raimondo, Nicole, Katy, Barbi, Asia, Keith, Dennis. Directed by Gwen van de Pas

 

When a sexual predator chooses a child to abuse, it isn’t a random choice. It is a matter of careful selection, picking someone who is vulnerable. He (for most sexual predators of children are male, although there are some women who follow the same pattern) will befriend them, buy them presents and make them feel special. He will win the trust of their family, who feel comfortable with the presence of an adult in their child’s life as a mentor or an authority figure or even a family member. When the selected child has been properly groomed, the attention grows physical.

For Gwen van de Pas, now a filmmaker living in San Francisco, her groomer was the assistant coach on the swim team that she participated. For the most part, her childhood in the Netherlands was idyllic; a loving family, a safe neighborhood, but she was bullied at school. She was unusually shy, making it hard for her to make friends. This set her up perfectly for her abuser.

She was eleven when she met her abuser and the abuse turned sexual not long after that, and lasted until she was fifteen. For the most part, because she felt the sex was consensual, she didn’t think twice about it. It was only when she and her boyfriend Laurens were discussing the possibility of having a family that she began to have nightmares about the abuse. She began to see a psychologist, Harriet Hofstode.

Deciding she needed to confront her past, she also wanted to tell her story through the medium she had studied and practiced; film. She assembled a team and talked to experts on psychology and sexual predators who taught her a word she wasn’t familiar with: grooming. She began to realize that this was exactly what happened to her.

She goes home to the Netherlands and discusses the event with her parents, with whom she had only talked about it once before. At the time, they had dissuaded her from going to the authorities; her mother explained by way of explanation that she was in a fragile emotional state and was talking about suicide. They were concerned that the process of investigation and trial might push her over the edge. In retrospect, her parents wondered if they had done the wrong thing, putting off dealing with the trauma and allowing their daughter’s suffering to last longer.

Gwen also speaks with other victims, both male and female, identified only with first names; one, abused by her own father. One, by a minister. One, by a priest. She also talked with a convicted but repentant sexual predator who gave her a predator’s eye-view. These interviews seem to be cathartic for all involved.

It is Gwen’s story that is the most personal and emotional. At times, we see Gwen, her father and her boyfriend break down as they relive the horrors of her past and the repercussions of those events. She also re-reads the letters sent by her abuser with an adult eye, getting physically sick as she realizes how she was taken in.

At first, she is sympathetic to the man who abused her as a “wounded soul,” and is loathe to ruin his life but as she discovers more about her abuse – and her abuser – her attitude changes and she realizes that these sorts of predators rarely stop at one victim.

This is a harrowing but important documentary that is raw emotionally and at times very difficult to watch – even if you haven’t been the victim of sexual abuse. Een in that case, you may want to have a hankie at the ready unless you are emotionally insulated to the point of being robotic. If you have a history of being abused, be aware that this might trigger something in you, and for those who have blotted out memories of childhood abuse this might bring them savagely back. You may want to have someone with you as a means of support if you choose to watch this.

I can’t help thinking/admiring the sheer bravery of Van de Pas. This certainly wasn’t easy for her and there are times when her raw emotion is overwhelming; at other times she is forced to comfort her father, who feels guilt at not having protected his baby girl. Those are moments that will stay with you forever, as well they should.

But you should watch this, particularly if you’re a parent or plan to be. Van de Pas is very methodical going through the warning signs and steps of grooming, and what you learn here might save your child, or someone near to you. Perhaps you might recognize the behavior of grooming in yourself, in which case you should seek help from a mental health professional immediately. Whatever your situation might be, this is an extraordinarily important documentary that just might save someone’s life and/or sanity down the road. That life might well be your own – or someone you love.

REASONS TO SEE: Emotionally powerful and wrenching. Important information for parents and teens alike. Van de Pas is unbelievably brave. Her confusion and anger are understandable and normal. Helps understand victim self-blaming.
REASONS TO AVOID: May trigger those who have been through childhood sexual abuse.
FAMILY VALUES: There are strong adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One in ten people have been sexually abused. 80% of them knew their attacker beforehand; nearly 100% of them went through the grooming process with their abuser.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunting Ground
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Godzilla vs. Kong

Bumblebee


A girl and her bug.

(2018) Science Fiction (ParamountHailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Landeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, Pamela Adlon, Jason Drucker, Megyn Price, Rachel Crowther, Grey Griffin, Gracie Dzienny, Peter Cullen (voice), Len Cariou, Marcella Bragio, Steve Blum, Vanessa Ross, Glynn Turman, Kirk Bailey, Jon Bailey, Kevin Kent, Michael Masini, Fred Dryer, Mika Kubo. Directed by Travis Knight

 

After a decade of Michael Bay’s sturm und drang Transformers movies comes a different take in the franchise’s first spin-off…or is it prequel? I guess either appellation works.

With the Decepticons having overrun the Autobots in their ongoing war (if you don’t know what that sentence signifies, you should probably go no further and look for something else to rent), Bumblebee is sent by Optimus Prime (Cullen) to Earth to protect the human race. Unfortunately, he’s tailed by a couple of Decepticon warriors who basically kick the gears out of him, disabling his vocal functions and leaving him nearly dead. He makes like a VW Bug to hide from the evil robots, who are looking hard for him so they can find out where the Autobots are hiding and destroy them once and for all.

But teen Charlie (Steinfeld), mourning her late father, takes a liking to the Bug when she spies him in a scrapyard and decides to rebuild him. You can imagine her surprise when he rebuilds himself. The trouble is that those evil Decepticons have managed to convince the American government that Bumblebee is a threat and the gov’mint sends out iron-jawed Agent Burns (Cena) to locate the wayward Autobot and take him down. All that stands between the human race and total annihilation is a badly damaged robot and a plucky teenage girl. How much more 1987 could you get?

Quite a bit, judging from the wonderful soundtrack here. Still, this is a refreshing tonal change for the series which had fallen into self-parody with the last movie, Transformers: The Last Knight. While the movie starts out with a Bay-esque scene of mayhem and massive robot carnage, the movie abruptly shifts gears and becomes something of a buddy movie. Steinfeld is a very talented actress and not many could pull off doing a buddy movie with a car, but she does it pretty well, playing the 80s tomboy despite not having been born until the following decade.

But it’s the mayhem that most people buy tickets to these movies for, and there’s plenty of that. Knight, who has mostly worked with stop-motion animation with Laika, has a good sense of how to stage an action set piece but also has a good sense of balance with character development and plot. He even manages to inject a little pathos and humor into the mix, something Bay wasn’t known for.

REASONS TO SEE: Excellent action sequences. Steinfeld gives an affecting performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: A fair number of clichés are present.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sci-fi action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steinfeld was born nine years after the movie was set, so she had to be taught how to use some of the props such as the Walkman.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Sling TV, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Hero 6
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Union Bridge

Beautiful Boy (2018)


A father and child reunion.

(2018) Biographical Drama (AmazonSteve Carrell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Amy Aquino, Timothy Hutton, Kaitlyn Dever, Andre Royo, LisaGay Hamilton, Jack Dylan Grazer, Oakley Bull, Christian Convery, Carlton Wilborn, Stefanie Scott, Marypat Ferrell, Amy Forsyth, Kue Lawrence, Brandon Cienfuegos, Cheska Corona, Mandeiya Flory, Martha T. Newman. Directed by Felix van Groeningen

 

Drug addiction remains a problem for humankind; as a species we seem driven to do things we know are bad for us because they feel good. Nic Sheff (Chalamet) is a white, upper middle-class teen who seems to have everything; a loving family, particularly his father and two half-siblings he adores. He’s super-bright, having been accepted at every college he has applied to. His future looks exceedingly bright.

But for whatever reason Nic turns to drugs; what drives him there is never really explored in the film. Perhaps it was the divorce of his dad David (Carrell) – a respected journalist who was one of the last to interview John Lennon before his untimely death – from his mom (Ryan) who lives in L.A. David is remarried to Karen (Tierney) who struggles to understand her stepson.

Nic’s addiction takes the family on a roller coaster ride of disappearances, binge drug use, periods of sobriety, then repeating the cycle again. David grows more desperate, trying to figure out what is driving his son; the two fight a lot but David is fiercely protective of his son, refusing to give up on him. This puts strain on his marriage as his wife begins to feel that he’s neglecting his current family for his ailing son. At last, with Nic fast approaching rock bottom, David is forced to make a terrible choice.

The movie is based on two books – one written by David, the other by Nic – and uses both to get the viewpoints of both characters. Van Groeningen seems pretty even-handed here; he doesn’t make amy judgements but presents the behaviors for the audience to come to their own conclusions. It’s hard at times not to get angry with Nic, who at times seems to blame everyone but himself for his predicament. There is a wrenching scene in a diner when Nic, who is showing signs of relapsing, asks his father for money so he can move to New York. David begs him to stay in Northern California but Nic doesn’t like the vibe. Things escalate and it ends badly for both men. There is also a scene very late in the movie where David, following a phone call from Nic, finally accepts that he can’t help his son. After giving Nic some tough love, David breaks down and slowly starts taking the pictures of his son down from his office. It’s a heart-wrenching moment that families of addicts may well identify with.

I can’t say enough about the performances of both Carrell and Chalamet. Carrell, like Robin Williams and Tom Hanks before him, has morphed from a zany comic actor to an outstanding dramatic actor. I think he’s a role or two away from being a regular part of the Oscar conversation. As for Chalamet, after an unforgettable performance in Call Me By Your Name, he’s established himself as one of the brightest young actors in Hollywood. He may well be the best young actor since Pacino.

The movie also benefits by one of the most fascinating and most diverse soundtracks I’ve ever seen. It has everything from opera to punk to ambient pop to jazz to classic rock to folk to easy listening. On the negative side, the movie from time to time (albeit rarely) descends into maudlin territory. Van Groeningen also likes to employ flashbacks to help explain the actions going on.

This can be very hard to watch at times; nearly unbearable. There are also some moments that are incredibly tender. Father-son relationships often get the shaft when it comes to Hollywood; dads are often portrayed as lovable but befuddled buffoons who have no clue what’s going on. This is a very real and very touching portrayal of a close father-son relationship that is put to the most torturous test imaginable.

REASONS TO SEE: Compelling performances by Carrell and Chalamet. A fascinating and diverse soundtrack enhances the movie.
REASONS TO AVOID: The flashbacks are sometimes intrusive and hard to follow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly straightforward drug content, plenty of profanity and some sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Royo, who plays Nic’s AA sponsor, also played a drug addict himself on The wire.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon,
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews, Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ben is Back
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Camp Cold Brook

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

Bathroom Stalls & Parking Lots


Club life isn’t necessarily real life.

(2019) Dramedy (Breaking GlassThales Corrėa, Izzy Palazzini, Oscar Mansky, Malakani Severson, Guilherne Zaiden, Nick Ryan Jurewicz, David Joseph Hernandez, Lucas Pagac, Patrick Bohan, Dominic Olivo, Travis Maider, Jacob Ritts, Mark Alfenito, Ryan Hill, Jace Moon, Felix Olmedo, Joshua Barry, Michael J. Gwynn, Matthew Mello, Mark Bowen, Marisa Lopes. Directed by Thales Corrėa

 

Life, love, romance, sex. These are things that we seek and sometimes find us even when we’re not looking for them, yet we go out chasing them particularly when we are single, hanging out in bars, clubs and at parties. A lot can happen in the course of an evening.

Leo (Corrėa) is a Brazilian ex-pat living in Los Angeles who has been maintaining an online relationship with a man in San Francisco. His friends Donnie (Palazzini) and Hunter (Mansky) urge Leo to come up to the City by the Bay to find the object of his affection so that he can at last take the relationship into the real world. The trouble is, he’s not really sure where to find him. No problem, though: everyone in the gay community in the Bay Area knows where the action is – in the Castro district.

The three men couldn’t be more different; Leo is affable, easy-going who isn’t looking for a quick hook-up but rather for something meaningful and long-term. Donnie is all about the moment and if the moment includes sex, so much the better. Hunter is bi-sexual but has found love with a woman who’s a nurse and insists loudly to everyone – particularly Donnie who obviously has the hots for him – that he’s straight now, although his protestations ring hollow.

Over the course of the night the three men will find sex without really trying too hard; finding love is a much more difficult proposition and all the bathroom stall and parking lot encounters in the world aren’t necessarily going to help them find it. Leo gets all sorts of advice about how to snare the man of his dreams – most of it bad – but he doesn’t give up on his dream, even if it seems more out of reach than ever.

In many ways, this is about love in the age of Grinder. Corrėa – who directed this and co-wrote it with Palazzini – has an immense amount of screen presence. Facially, he resembles a cross between Edward Norton and John Cusack and comes across as extremely likable. Part of the film’s dramatic tension stems from Leo’s growth as he realizes that Donnie’s hedonism and general lack of responsibility is not the life he wants to pursue anymore. Leo’s growth during the course of the night is the crux of the movie and Corrėa pulls it off nicely. He has to my mind the potential to become a mainstream star if he chooses to go that route.

Corrėa makes wonderful use of the Castro which as an ex-Bay Area resident I can tell you is one of the more dynamic and beautiful neighborhoods in the City which is chock full of them. There’s also the historic element to it; the Castro is at least as culturally significant to the LGBTQ+ movement as the Stonewall neighborhood; it was where Harvey Milk had his business and eventually represented on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It was also one of the first openly gay-friendly neighborhoods in the entire country. Although the historic element isn’t emphasized in the movie which tends to stay in the nightclubs and bars of the district, it’s good to see that it gets its due as an epicenter to American gay life.

Cinematographer Cassie Hunter makes good use of the natural lighting in the outdoor scenes as well as the neon and colored lights of the bars, discos and clubs of the Castro. Russian DJ Same-K provides the pulsating electronic score.

If I have a complaint about the movie, it does move fairly slowly even given its short run time of 80 minutes. It does look at the romantic expectations of not just young gay men, although they are certainly at the forefront here; the themes are indeed universal, as we all sooner or later grow out of the lust-driven encounters of our youth and begin looking for something more. While this isn’t the apex of LGBTQ+ cinema, it does serve as a reminder to me that there are an awful lot of really good movies with gay themes that give us a different point of view that all of us can use to find insight into the same questions we all face as we try to muddle our way through life.

REASONS TO SEE: Corrėa has a ton of screen presence and likability.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat slow moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, sexual content, nudity and a couple of sex scenes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed on location in San Francisco’s Castro district.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love or Lust
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Corporate Animals

Ant-Man and the Wasp


The well-prepared superheroes scan the room to determine who cut the cheese.

(2018) Superhero (Disney/MarvelPaul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peňa, Michael Douglas, Laurence Fishburne, Hannah John-Kamen, Bobby Cannavale, Walton Goggins, Judy Greer, Tip “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Abby Ryder Fortson, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tim Heidecker, Divian Ladwa, Goran Kostic, Rob Archer, Sean Thompson Kleier, Riann Steele. Directed by Peyton Reed

 

Following up Avengers: Infinity War as a Marvel superhero is like being the guy who bats after Babe Ruth; anything you do is going to be anti-climactic.

Scott Lang (Rudd) has hung up his Ant-Man mantle and placed under house arrest following the events of Captain America: Civil War and is just days away from getting his freedom back. He’s far more interested in being a better dad to his daughter Cassie (Fortson) and starting up a corporate security firm with his buddies Luis (Peňa), Dave (Harris) and Kurt (Dastmalchian) than resuming his superhero career with the tech he was awarded by crusty Dr. Hank Pym (Douglas).

But Pym and his daughter Hope (Lilly) believe they are on the verge of being able to rescue Hank’s wife and Hope’s mom Janet van Dyne (Pfeiffer) – who is also the original Wasp – from the Quantum Realm where she has been trapped for decades. Lang’s successful escape from the Realm makes him Hank’s best friend from a scientific standpoint. However, Hank’s tech is in high demand and after it are corporate espionage maven Sonny Burch (Goggins) and the insubstantial super-villain Ghost (John-Kamen). With a friendly but suspicious federal agent (Park) watching Scott’s every move and with his freedom on the line, can Scott rescue Janet and stay ahead of both the feds and the bad guys?

This, like the first Ant-Man film the tone is light and irreverent – not to the same degree as Thor: Ragnarok but more like a 90s sitcom; not a bad thing at all There are some genuinely funny lines and bits and if you don’t think about the physics of the Pym particles too much the plot moves along at a nice clip. The stakes here aren’t very high, compared to other recent Marvel films, but who says every superhero movie has to be about The End of the World As We Know It?

Rudd continues to be intensely likable and thankfully they integrate Lilly into the action much more; I wouldn’t mind seeing a Wasp solo movie down the line someday (from my pen to Kevin Feige’s ears). The effects are solid and the cast is awfully strong This isn’t the kind of grand-slam that Marvel has been hitting regularly lately but it certainly is a solid base hit that most Marvel fans should enjoy.

REASONS TO SEE: Lilly as the Wasp is integrated better into the story.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit watered down from the first film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some comic book violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The younger version of Bill Foster in the flashback sequences is played by Langston Fishburne, son of Laurence who plays the older Bill Foster.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews: Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fantastic Voyage
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bathroom Stalls and Parking Lots