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

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Oh Lucy!


Luuuuuuuucy, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do!

(2017) Dramedy (Film Movement) Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett, Kaho Minami, Köji Yakusho, Shioli Kutsuna, Megan Mullally, Reiko Ayelsworth, Nick Gracer, Liz Bolton, Miyoko Yamaguchi, Hajime Inoue, Hiroaki Miyagawa, Stephanie A, Leni Ito, Calvin Winbush, Eddie Hassell, Todd Giebenhain, Tre Hale, Noelani Dacascos, Kimie Tanaka. Directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi

 

We don’t always end up where we expect to in our lives – in fact we rarely do. The bright promise of youth often gives way to the dreary reality of middle age. Sometimes it just takes the smallest of changes for us to recapture some of that bright promise and make a go of changing that dreary reality.

Setsuko (Terajima) is in that place where she goes through life almost as an automaton. Shuffling through the streets of Tokyo with a white surgical mask obscuring her features, she trudges day after day to a job in a nondescript office as a fabled Office Lady, working for a boss (Inoue) who has no respect for her in an office of shallow lab rats who sneer at their colleagues (always behind their backs) and don’t quite see that they are no different than they. One day, Setsuko witnesses something horrible on the way to work but it doesn’t seem to faze her at all.

Setsuko dotes on her niece Mika (Kutsuna) who dressed up as a sexy maid for her waitressing job in one of those Tokyo themed restaurants and whose enthusiasm for life is like a tonic to Setsuko who lives in what could charitably be called a hole in the wall apartment that from its slovenly appearance seems to be the residence of someone who has given up. Perpetually dealing with money problems, Mika asks her aunt to take over payment on an English language lesson. Setsuko doesn’t really want to but Mika charms her into it by telling her about a free sample lesson.

The lesson is taught by John (Hartnett), an ex-pat American whose methods are to say the least unorthodox. He is a hugger, which is something that the stoic Japanese are not. He assigns Setsuko an identity of an American; he bestows on her a blonde wig and the name of Lucy. Surprisingly Setsuko enjoys the lesson and she decides to come back. Perhaps Tom (Yakusho), a widower who is also taking English lessons and turns out to be a kind and sweet fellow, is one big reason why but it might be more that John’s hug has awakened something in Setsuko.

But it all comes to a screeching halt when John resigns and goes back home to America. To make matters worse for Setsuko, he takes Mika with him – the two had been having a romance. Setsuko eventually gets a postcard from Mika inviting her to visit her niece in sunny Southern California. Following the awkward and dispiriting retirement party of a colleague who was a particular target of behind the back abuse, Setsuko determines to take her niece up on the offer.

Joining her is her bitchy sister Ayako (Minami) with whom Setsuko bickers incessantly. The two women despite their sibling ties don’t seem to like each other very much and we eventually find out why. Ayako seems to be bitter, demanding and rude. The two Japanese ladies greet a bewildered John who greets them with equally bewildering news that Mika broke up with him and took the car to drive down to San Diego. There’s only one thing to do – the two Japanese women and John set out on a road trip in which Setsuko will try on the Lucy persona for a test spin.

Hirayanagi developed this from a short film she created that made the festival rounds a couple of years ago, including SXSW and Toronto. However, this is substantially different from the short which was much more of a comedy than this is. That said, this is a very, very, VERY good film.

The humor is low-key and a bit quirky, giving the film an off-beat charm that keeps the more dramatic sequences from being overwhelming. Don’t be fooled by the charm however; this is a very human film with all that implies with highs and lows (and sometimes very low lows) that when pen is put to paper describing the plot, it makes this movie sound like it should be a downer but curiously, it isn’t.

Part of the reason for that is a terrific performance by Terajima. She imbues Setsuko with a near-impenetrable mask but the sadness that Setsuko carries in her is very close to the surface and becomes apparent from her body language and especially her eyes. Setsuko has spent her life just accepting the lot given her like the sweets given to her by her colleagues to help her over her smoker’s cough that go straight into a drawer in her desk and stay there. Now, she is ready to change her lot and change is never an easy process. It’s terrifying and dangerous.

One of the highlights of the movie is the way American and Japanese cultures are juxtaposed and how mystifying they are to one another. I suspect neither Setsuko nor Ayako are truly representative of Japanese culture any more than John is representative of American culture; John is not at all as he represents himself to be and the more time we spend with him, the more we realize his facade is a front. By the end of the movie, our appraisal of John changes a good deal.

Suicide is a major theme in the movie which for some viewers might be difficult. Caution should be taken if you’re the sort who gets extremely bothered by onscreen suicide attempts. There are three in the movie and they aren’t done for laughs. At least two are pretty shocking so be aware of that. Nonetheless this is the first indie movie of 2018 to carry on last year’s parade of high quality indie films that made 2017 one of the best years for indie films in recent memory. If this is indication, 2018 may be as good or perhaps even better.

REASONS TO GO: This is an off-beat film but in a very good way. The humor is low-key and subtle for the most part. Terajima is an absolute gem. The movie makes great use of cultural differences.
REASONS TO STAY: Those who have issues with suicide may find this a hard film to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and nudity, disturbing images, drug use and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hirayanagi originally developed this as a short film; Will Ferrell and Adam McKay took it to the branch of their Gary Sanchez Productions headed by Ferrell’s former assistant Jessica Elbaum (called Gloria Sanchez Productions) which specializes on movies made by and/or about women.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lost in Translation
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Vanishing of Sidney White

Chapter & Verse


Just chillin' in Harlem.

Just chillin’ in Harlem.

(2016) Drama (Paladin) Daniel Beaty, Loretta Devine, Omari Hardwick, Selenis Leyva, Marc John Jefferies, Khadim Diop, Justin Martin, Muhammed Cunningham, Gabrielle Rembert, Gary Perez, Bryonn Bain, Steve Cannon, David D. Wright, Kapil Bawa, Joshua Alscher, Joyce Walker, Michael A. Walrond, Jindal Joseph, Kenny Chin, Robert Galinsky, Alex Tavis, Elise Link. Directed by Jamal Joseph

 

It’s a particularly mean world out there, especially if you’re a young African-American male. Opportunities are few and far between and if you are just paroled from prison, they are damn near non-existent.

Lance Ingram (Beaty) – the “S” stands for Sir as his daddy had wanted his son called Sir Lancelot before the cooler head of the mom prevailed – is finding that out the hard way. Incarcerated for the crime of “being stupid” as he puts it, Ingram is determined to tread the straight and narrow. With computer repair skills learned in prison, he hits the pavement trying to find meaningful work – and finding nothing. His tough parole officer (Perez) hooks him up with a food pantry delivering meals to residents of Harlem who are unable to feed themselves. When his boss (Leyva) discovers that he doesn’t have a driver’s license, Ingram is forced to hoof it and take the subway to get his meals delivered.

One of his clients is Miss Maddy (Devine) who in frustration throws food at Ingram when the ex-con gets the order wrong and gives her cabbage (which she’s allergic to) and salt (which is bad for her). However, he does manage to redeem himself and becomes close with the family, including Maddy’s 15-year-old grandson Ty (Diop) who seems to be headed down the same rotten path that Ingram took, hanging out with gang bangers and developing a healthy disrespect for the values that his grandmother has lived by.

One of Ingram’s best friends is Jomo (Hardwick) who has a successful hair styling/barbershop business in Harlem and who helps set up Ingram with a computer repair business. Things are starting to get complicated though – Ingram’s boss has developed an unhealthy not to mention inappropriate sexual attraction towards him, Ty is getting deeper and deeper into gang culture and the icing on the cake is that Maddy is facing a terrible issue of her own and when she turns to Ingram for help, he can’t bring himself to do what she asks.

I would like to say that this is a movie that captures the essence of Harlem but I don’t live in Harlem and never have so I can’t vouch for the accuracy but it certainly feels authentic and if this isn’t how Harlem really is, it is in many ways the way I would imagine it to be. Yeah, the streets are mean and often violent but there’s also a sense of connection that is largely absent from white neighborhoods these days.

Beaty is a find. He conveys the power and strength of a young De Niro only in a less explosive form. His strength is quiet; it is obvious he’s not a man to be messed with, even though he says or does nothing overt. Ingram you see was once upon a time known as Crazy L from 118th Street, a gang general known for his violence and temper. He’s not that guy anymore, but Beaty makes sure the audience knows that he could give that guy a call and bring him right back to do some major ass whooping if needed. And, as the film amply explains, it is very much needed.

Devine and Hardwick are both fine actors and acquit themselves well here, although Devine’s character in many ways feels like a prototypical African-American stereotype of the take-no-guff grandma who will whip the ass of a young gang banger who dares to wear his pants down below his waist. Maddy, you speak for all of us on that one.

Some of the other performances aren’t up to that level. Joseph utilized a lot of neighborhood talent but some of them try a little bit too hard and the end result are some stilted, stiff performances in the supporting department. For the most part they can be overlooked though because the main characters seem to be in good hands.

Joseph clearly has a cinematic voice but needs to refine it. This is a promising effort that has a lot of good things going for it; I could have done without some of the clichés that show up in the third act, but generally speaking this is a work to be proud of. I think that Joseph has it in him to be a talent along the lines of Spike Lee or John Singleton or for that matter a Martin Scorsese if he wants to go that route. Me I think that he can take the poetry of the streets of Harlem and translate it into something visual, a noble endeavor indeed. I look forward to seeing more from him in the future.

REASONS TO GO: A movie with the scent of authenticity. It feels like you’re getting a little slice of Harlem.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the acting is a little bit stiff. It’s a bit heavy on the alpha male posturing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of profanity, a little bit of sensuality, some violence and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Writer-director Jamal Joseph, a former Black Panther, is now a community activist in Harlem. Beaty who co-wrote the script, actually did a stretch in Leavenworth.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Deadly Virtues: Love Honour Obey

Collateral Beauty


Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here...

Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here…

(2016) Drama (New Line) Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Jacob Lattimore, Naomie Harris, Ann Dowd, Lisa Colón-Zayas, Natalie Gold, Kylie Rogers, Shirley Rumierk, Alyssa Cheatham, Benjamin Snyder, Mary Beth Peil, Andy Taylor, Michael Cumpsty, Jonathan Rivera Morales, Joseph Castillo-Midyett, Ella Monte-Brown. Directed by David Frankel

 

We all deal with grief in different ways. Some of us pour ourselves into our work; others lose all focus. Some of us rage against the universe; others try to find something constructive to do, such as create or work for a charity. Sooner or later however all of us must deal with the loss of a loved one.

Howard (Smith) is doing just that. His beloved daughter has passed away and now, two years later, the successful advertising agency he built is floundering, losing clients left and right because Howard, their main creative force, just doesn’t care anymore. His best friends all work at the company; Whit (Norton), who co-founded the company with him, Claire (Winslet) who has given up marriage and children to give her full focus on the company and Simon (Peña), the numbers man.

There is an offer on the table to buy the company but Howard won’t even consider it. All of the principals stand to lose everything if they can’t salvage the situation and the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. Whit, Claire and Simon, desperate to understand what’s going on with Howard, hire a private detective (Dowd) to figure out what their friend is doing. Nothing much; mainly building domino constructions, biking back and forth from work and writing letters.

The latter is kind of the peculiar part; they’re not letters to people but to things; concepts, really. He’s been writing to Love, Death and Time. The three partners hit upon an idea that, well, never would have occurred to me; to hire three unemployed actors that Whit has found who can play the parts of Love, Death and Time who will personally answer Howard’s letters. They’re not really hoping that this performance will bring Howard back but the detective can film Howard talking to them (yelling at them really) and then digitally remove the three actors so that Howard can be proven incompetent and the sale go through without him.

The actors that Whit recruits – Brigitte (Mirren) who plays Death, Amy (Knightley) who plays Love (now, that I can believe) and Raffi (Lattimore) who plays Time each begin to spend time with one of the partners – Brigitte with Simon, Amy with Whit and Raffi with Claire – and end up helping them with their own problems. In the meantime, Howard has started attending a support group for grieving parents run by the lovely Madeleine (Harris) and looks like he might finally be emerging from his shell. But will it be in time to save everything he’s built, including his friendships?

If the plot summary sounded implausible that’s pretty much because it is. I can’t imagine “friends” doing something that awful to a friend, and the movie portrays them as genuinely concerned for Howard’s well-being. I can’t really reconcile the actions of concocting an elaborate scam to prove their friend incompetent (which has other ramifications beyond the sale of his company) with all the mea culpa chest-beating about what a great guy Howard is and how much they “miss” the old Howard. I mean, friends just don’t do that.

The cast is one of the best you’ll see gathered in a single movie with a couple of Oscar winners and four nominees. None of them will be adding to their nomination total here but the performances are nonetheless solid. Peña caught my attention for a very emotional performance as a family man facing a terrible crisis of his own, and Smith who is the main performance in what is essentially an ensemble cast gets to keep everything in until the last scene in which he unleashes some of his best acting of his career.

That ending however contains a twist so unbelievable that at that point most people are just going to throw their hands up in the air and give up on the movie, and I can’t blame them. However, if you do as I do and just enjoy the ride rather than try to make sense of things, you’ll be far happier.

Now as you can tell the critical response has been harsh. Keep in mind however that most professional critics don’t like being emotionally manipulated and films that do that tend to get harsh scores. In that sense, critics can’t be trusted with films like this. You really have to go and experience it on your own and judge for yourself. You, after all, may not mind being having your emotions manipulated. Maybe you need it. I do, sometimes. Sometimes I need the release of a good cry. Catharsis makes us all emotionally healthier after all.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances throughout, particularly by Peña and Smith. The premise is at least intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: Many of the plot twists are telegraphed. The ending is a bit preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity but mostly the themes are pretty adult in nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winslet, Mirren and Smith were all nominated for Oscars in 2007, although only Mirren was victorious.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Meet Joe Black
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The True Memoirs of an International Assassin

Suicide Squad


Wanna come out and play?

Wanna come out and play?

(2016) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Viola Davis, Joel Kinnaman, Cara Delevingne, Jay Hernandez, Jai Courtney, Ben Affleck, Ezra Miller, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Karen Fukuhara, Adam Beach, Kenneth Choi, Alain Chanoine, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Common, Jim Parrack, David Harbour, Shailyn Pierre-Dixon. Directed by David Ayer

 

There are those who maintain that a hero is nothing without a memorable villain to oppose him. That’s largely true; what would James Bond be without Blofeld, Holmes without Moriarty or Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader? We usually see things from the hero’s point of view but rarely do we get a glimpse into the world of the super villain.

Following the events of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the American government is extremely nervous. What would happen, posits Amanda Waller (Davis) who works for a shadowy intelligence agency, if Superman had instead of saving the world decided to destroy it? Who would stop him? Waller has an idea, one that is magnificent in its simplicity and alarming at its utter amorality.

She “recruits” (i.e. forces) several super villains locked up in the Belle Reve black ops prison in the swamps of Louisiana to form up a team to take on certain situations which are essentially hopeless. Situations in which the superheroes that are out in public (which are essentially Batman (Affleck) and the Flash (Miller) at this point) shouldn’t be risked as they aren’t exactly expendable. These guys are exactly that. Waller knows that and at the same time, she knows they have nothing to lose by running. She has a solution that recalls The Running Man to a certain extent but absolutely doesn’t say anything particularly nice about the woman.

And who are these guys? For one, there’s Deadshot (Smith), an assassin for hire who never misses with any firearm you give him. Then there’s Harley Quinn (Robbie), the deranged ex-psychiatrist who is now the Joker’s (Leto) girlfriend but who is a formidable opponent of her own. Then there’s Diablo (Hernandez), a gang banger who can shoot flames in any direction but when his powers caused the death of his wife and son, is attempting to reform and has vowed to never use his powers again.

=Add to that list Killer Croc (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a horribly mutated man who is half man, half crocodile and eats people when he gets the chance. Then there’s Enchantress, a demonic spirit that has possessed archaeologist June Moon (Delevingne) and possesses incredible magic powers, Captain Boomerang (Courtney), an Aussie thief whose weapon of choice is a boomerang that he is absolutely deadly accurate with. Finally there’s Slipknot (Beach), whose ability to climb any surface makes him a useful scout.

Overseeing these representatives of the lunatic fringe is Captain Rick Flagg (Kinnaman), a Navy SEAL who just happens to be Professor Moon’s boyfriend – and who is himself tough as nails. Having his back is Katana (Fukuhara), a Japanese martial artist with an enchanted sword that captures the souls of its victims – which include her husband among their number. Katana is able to communicate with the spirits in the blade, including her late hubby.

They are battling a mystical opponent who wants to essentially open a rift in the dimension that will end civilization as we know it. The problem is that the Suicide Squad as they have come to be known as don’t really give a rat’s tush about civilization. If they can stop fighting amongst themselves, though, they might just come through of it alive. The odds are not good for either however.

Let’s be blunt to start out; the DC Extended Universe (what they call their cinematic division) has not had the kind of success that Marvel has and the critics have absolutely excoriated this movie. Now, I will be the first to say that DC’s cinematic path hasn’t caught on for a reason; in trying to duplicate the tone of the very successful Dark Knight trilogy of Christopher Nolan. You’ll notice that the Marvel cinematic universe is anything but.

But is this movie really that bad? I don’t think so…for one thing it’s entertaining as all get out. Ayers is a director who has a very fine eye and a well-developed story-telling sense. He also knows how important it is for there to be fun in the equation, and there’s lots of great by-play between the characters and a lot of humor injected into the script.

He also has a helluva cast. Smith, one of the biggest stars in the world, has rarely been better than he is here. Yes, his Deadshot is one of the more developed characters in the film, but Smith gets to play a villain who has some human qualities as well (he’s absolutely devoted to his daughter, played by Pierre-Dixon for one). He also shows the kind of leadership skills shown by Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers in the Marvel Universe. The DC Universe sorely needs that.

Robbie has almost as much time in the movie as Smith and her Harley Quinn took a different path to the silver screen; Harley Quinn didn’t initially come from the comic books but from the television animated shows. She went from there to the comic books which she became something of an icon, particularly to female comic book fangirls. Robbie fills the role well; while some have groused that the character has been overly sexualized here (including Robbie herself), she turns in an intense performance, particularly since she has to go up against Oscar winner Jared Leto as her boyfriend/abuser the Joker.

Leto has been very vocal in his disappointment about what the role turned out to be, and in all fairness the Joker was never supposed to be a central character here. However, it stands to reason that you can’t really have Harley Quinn with Mr. J; it doesn’t work. His take on the Joker is a lot different than that of Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger or even Cesar Romero. Not better, not worse, just different. I liked Leto’s Joker just fine; he’s supposed to be unpredictable and Leto certainly makes him that. He isn’t nearly as menacing as Ledger’s Joker, nor as twisted as Nicholson’s. However, this Joker is wilder, more untamed than either. It is a good interpretation.

There are a lot of special effects, particularly involving the mystical vortex thingy that the Big Bads are creating. There are an awful lot of trans-dimensional vortices in superhero movies as of late and as those sorts of things go, this one is no worse nor any better than most. It just isn’t all that impressive; neither are most of the practical effects. Also, there are moments when the plot gets a little bit, ahh, thick. I found it a touch confusing at times and perhaps more casual comic book fans might feel the same.

Otherwise, I enjoyed the heck out of the movie. These really aren’t the A-list of DC villains (although the Joker is present) but some of the mid-level guys. Quinn and Deadshot both look like slam-dunks coming back for more cinematic superhero goodness. And all things considered, this didn’t do the DC Extended Universe better; it might well be the best of the three that have appeared so far, at least in my book. However, it still isn’t slam dunk enough to really elevate the franchise into a place where I’m actually excited about it. Maybe Wonder Woman will bring that to the game.

REASONS TO GO: There is excellent interaction between an excellent cast. Smith is at his very best here. Brings some of DC’s lesser villains to light.
REASONS TO STAY: The special effects are unimpressive. The story is occasionally confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: As you’d expect, plenty of violence and superhero action, some sexually suggestive material and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harley Quinn’s baseball bat was given to Kevin Smith to thank him for hosting the TV special Dawn of the Justice League shortly before this film came out.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deadpool
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Gleason

Men in Black II


Johnny Knoxville's best day ever.

Johnny Knoxville’s best day ever.

(2002) Science Fiction (Columbia) Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Lara Flynn Boyle, Rip Torn, Johnny Knoxville, Rosario Dawson, Tony Shalhoub, Patrick Warburton, David Cross, Jack Kehler, Colombe Jacobsen, Peter Spellos, Michael Rivkin, Tim Blaney (voice), Lenny Venito, Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart, Nick Cannon, Peter Graves, Doug Jones, Mary Stein  Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

Sequels are by and large, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, either a continuation of the original story or a repetition of it and on that score as he was on so many others, Ebert was dead on. Sequels are at once the bane of Hollywood’s existence and the revenue machine that makes other, less sure-thing hit movies possible.

In this follow-up to a 1997 hit, things have changed a lot for the MiB since the first movie. Agent K (Jones), the agency’s best, has been neuralized – you know, had his memory erased by a device that looks something like a laser pointer – and Agent J (Smith), his former partner, is the new Top Dawg. Like K, J has been going through partners like the Kardashian girls go through husbands.

When Serleena (Boyle), the baddest bad girl in the universe comes to Earth in search of something called the Lights of Zathar and the MiB have only 24 hours to stop her from finding it or once again the Earth will be blown up, the only one who knows what or where the Lights of Zathar are is K. J is going to have to go to Massachusetts and find K, who now works in a post office (where half the workforce are aliens in one of the movie’s best jokes) and bring him back to New York to deneuralize him, which becomes problematic when Serleena takes over MiB headquarters along with her two-headed friend Scrad (Knoxville) whose smaller head may well have more control on his actions than his bigger one.

The key to everything may be the lovely Laura (Dawson), a pizza waitress who witnessed some of Serleena’s homicidal chicanery, but J is developing feelings for her – and she for him. The kind of feelings that make doing the job of protecting planet Earth from destruction a mite harder.

As important as bringing Smith, Jones and Torn (who reprises his role as the curmudgeonly Zed here) back on board, perhaps the most important return is make-up legend Rick Baker who created most of the grotesque alien looks. That retro-futuristic vibe of the first movie remains, albeit a little less obvious.

The good news is that even though five years had passed since the first film, the chemistry between Smith and Jones hasn’t decreased one iota in the intervening years. The two work together as well as any duo in the movies, now and ever. Once K’s memories are retrieved, the two resume their relationship from the first film and thankfully, Sonnenfeld doesn’t waste any time getting that relationship back on track.

He doesn’t have any time to waste quite frankly since the movie is only 88 minutes long,  almost a short by Hollywood franchise standards. Sonnenfeld does make every moment count quite frankly; a lot of modern filmmakers should take a few cues from him. Therefore the movie never feels like it’s dragging, even during lulls in the action. While the energy is different than that of the first movie, it is at least a kinetic energy here. Those that really loved the first film though may find this one somewhat flatter than the original.

The problem here is that the movie doesn’t really add anything new to the franchise. Other than a brief reversal of roles with J the mentor to the neuralized K for a brief time, it’s the same basic story as the first. Boyle is less a memorable baddie than Vincent D’Onofrio was in the first film; while she has plenty of tentacles, her performance is a bit strained, as if she isn’t sure what kind of role she’s playing. I don’t know if her late casting had anything to do with it because I’ve always found Boyle to be a capable actress but here she is strangely flat.

Also back from the first movie are Frank the Pug (voiced by Blaney) in a greatly expanded role and the Worms, all of whom provide much comic relief even though when you have Will Smith around you really don’t need much more. Still, this is a pretty decent sequel as sequels go, and while critics tended to grouse about the story overly much, the movie still stands out as top notch entertainment. Anytime you get a duo like Smith and Jones together it’s a good day.

WHY RENT THIS: Smith and Jones are a formidable team. Sonnenfeld’s trademark offbeat humor still in full force. Frank the Pug and the Worms deliver plenty of comic relief.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Story seems way too similar to the first film. Boyle is a bit stiff and wooden.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild violence and provocative humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Initially, Famke Jansen was cast as Serleena and several scenes were shot with her, but due to a death in her family she had to drop out of the production and Boyle was added at the last minute.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The animated short The Chubb Chubbs which preceded MiB2 in some theaters, is included here. Also, there’s a blooper reel, an alternate ending, a music video starring Smith, and a plethora of featurettes. The DVD-ROM also includes an interactive game and screensaver. The DVD-ROM features, it should be noted, aren’t available on the Blu-Ray edition.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $441.8M on a $140M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental and streaming), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stargate
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Paper Towns

The Italian Job (2003)


The Italian Job

That Mini-Cooper could probably fit inside that helicopter with room to spare.

(2003) Action (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Edward Norton, Jason Statham, Mos Def, Seth Green, Donald Sutherland, Boris Lee Krutonog, Julie Costello, Gawtti, Franky G, Aaron Speiser, Olek Krupa, Thomas Alexander. Directed by F. Gary Gray

 

It started out as a perfect heist. The brazen pilfering of Venetian gold, misdirection to lead pursuit away, and the recovery of the ill-gotten gains. Better still, this wasn’t the work of mastermind John Bridger (Sutherland), who is looking to get out of the game for good, but of his protégé, Charlie Croker (Wahlberg), who is taking over the crew.

Unexpectedly, they are betrayed by Steve (Norton) one of their own, who wants all the gold for himself. Knowing that Bridger has an aversion to carrying guns, Steve brings a few of his own and uses them. Most of the crew gets away, but John Bridger does not.

Fast forward a few years. The crew has managed to track down the elusive Steve back to Los Angeles, and are just itching for a little payback – not to mention the gold they stole. Left Ear (Mos Def), computer expert Napster (Green) and driver Handsome Rob (Statham) have reunited with Charlie, but they need an expert safecracker to take John’s old role. It so happens that John’s daughter Stella (Theron) has become an excellent safecracker, after a fashion; she is a security consultant who tests the vulnerability of safes for large corporations. She’s not really interested in ill-gotten gains, but it turns out she is very interested in getting revenge on the man who killed her father.

As with most caper movies, there are twists, turns and suspense a-plenty. Some wonderful car chases, some terrific action sequences and a nice bit of poetic justice near the end, although I couldn’t really call it an unexpected twist. Director F. Gary Gray is a bit too heavy-handed for that. He also has too many extraneous characters in the movie. I’m not sure if he’s trying to do some misdirection of his own, but it doesn’t work.

We could have done without the Russian mobsters and the informant, Skinny Pete (Gawtti). Frankly, some of the gang could have used a little more screen time. Gray, however, cast this movie to near-perfection. Green is fast becoming the Steve Buscemi for a new generation; he is nervous, quirky and always entertaining when he is riffing on his own. Statham is perfectly cast as Handsome Rob, the driver. He is absolutely riveting when he is on screen, and while he hasn’t gotten the huge screen star career I thought he was going to when I first saw this, he has managed to carve out a pretty satisfying niche in the action genre and has made some fairly nice films, although there is a lot of b-movie drekk in there as well. Wahlberg is settling into an action-hero niche nicely, although I’ve found him to be one-dimensional at times here but he nicely fills the role of the resourceful mastermind for the purposes of this film.

It is Theron who really caught my notice. Up until this point I’d never been very fond of her – she’sd always seemed kind of prissy in most of the movies I’ve seen her in up until this film, but she really held her own, and quite frankly, she looks better than she ever has at least until Snow White and the Huntsman (I know, I know, I’m a shallow, shallow man). Edward Norton gets to be a smarmy bad guy, a role in which he excels and pretty much perfects here.

The psychology of the movie is a little predictable; father-figure gets gunned down in front of the impressionable eyes of the hero, who seeks justice and gets it without getting his hands dirty. You know that the trigger-happy Norton is going to get his at the end of the movie, but you can’t have the hero getting blood on his hands; Hollywood might be going retro, but the anti-hero is a bit too retro for the tastes of most studios. I think it’s a bit hypocritical to line up Wahlberg as a criminal, but then he’s not a murderer, so he’s not too bad a guy. Of course, I could just be getting too grumpy in my old age.

Some movies should never be remade. Others can benefit from an updating. The 1969 Michael Caine caper movie on which this one is based is not what you would call a classic, but it is a movie of its time. That said, The Italian Job does what another remake, 2001`s Oceans 11 set out to do; take a movie of its time and make it timeless. Oceans 11 succeeded in its attempt, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. The Italian Job doesn’t quite become timeless, but it is an entertaining movie, and as the years have passed it has remained that way. I guess it is timeless after all.

WHY RENT THIS: Great action sequences. Theron emerges as a major star. Fun summer entertainment. Great ensemble.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wahlberg lacks the charisma I would have liked to have seen here. A little bit predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence and a lot of action.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Lyle’s girlfriend at the end of the film is played by Kelly Brook, who was Jason Statham’s actual girlfriend at the time.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a featurette on Mini-Coopers (which are used extensively in the chase sequence) and on the actors two weeks in drivers school (they did a lot of their own driving stunts).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $176.1M on a $60M production budget; the film was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oceans 11

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: A Beautiful Life