Reminiscence


Life is no carnival in the near future.

(2021) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, Thandiwe Newton, Cliff Curtis, Marina de Tavira, Daniel Wu, Mojean Aria, Brett Cullen, Natalie Martinez, Angela Sarafyan, Javier Molina, Sam Medina, Nono Nishimura, Roxton Garcia, Giovannie Cruz, Woon Young Park, Han Soto, Rey Hernandez, Gabrielle Echols, Andrew Hyatt Masset III, Nico Parker. Directed by Lisa Joy

 

I guess that it makes sense that when you have nothing to look forward to, one’s attention will turn to what came before. In a world where climate change has wreaked havoc, the citizens of a half-drowned Miami find solace in reliving their own memories.

This is the world that Nick Bannister (Jackman) finds himself. A former military man in the border wars that erupted when the oceans rose, he makes a living with a machine that was used to extract information from the memories of military prisoners but he now uses it on civilians who want to relive their favorite memories – a wedding day, playing with a beloved dog, a romantic evening and so on. He also has a side business using his machine to interrogate prisoners of the Miami DA (Martinez).

He has a pretty good life, all things considered – his partner Watts (Newton), although a high-functioning alcoholic, keeps him fairly honest. Until Mae (Ferguson) walks in. She’s lost her keys and needs help locating them. The Reminiscence machine might just be the trick she needs. While in her mind, Bannister discovers that she is a chanteuse, singing a song (“Where and When”) he has fond childhood memories of. He initiates a relationship with her, and for awhile it is summer in Miami.

But then she disappears, and he just can’t believe she up and ran out on him. Using his detective skills, he discovers a dark conspiracy with which Mae may or may not have been involved. At the heart of it is a wealthy developer (Cullen), his mentally ill wife (de Tavira), a corrupt cop (Curtis) and a New Orleans-based drug lord (Wu). Despite Watts’ skepticism, Bannister is convinced that Mae is an innocent caught in events beyond her control, and he will stop at nothing to find her – and the truth.

This is the motion picture debut of Lisa Joy, best known for being co-creator of HBO’s Westworld series with her husband Jonathan Nolan (yes, that makes her Christopher Nolan’s sister-in-law and there is no little of his influence felt here). The world that Joy has created here is melancholic and believable. The overall feel is very much like an old noir movie with a healthy dose of romance injected in, as well as some innovative production design and strong visuals. She definitely has a very cinematic eye, from the images of a partially submerged Miami, to a grand piano sinking into the waters during the climactic fight scene.

The noir elements become overbearing, particularly in the overly florid narration which is overused. Joy seems so taken with it that she utilizes the opening monologue twice which I suppose is meant to lend emphasis but instead lends repetition. I get that the elements of the story lend themselves to a noir retelling, but in a lot of ways it feels kind of gimmicky here.

That doesn’t extend to the script which has some pretty interesting ideas throughout, and the production design brings many of them to life. The overwhelming feeling is resignation; people are growing restive at being pushed into soggier and soggier environs while the ultra-wealthy stay largely dry, but the feeling is that we’re on a downward spiral and we might as well just accept that and live in the past because it’s so much better than what we have in store. Not the most heart-warming of messages.

But Joy does coax some strong performances, particularly out of the ever-expressive Jackman who generally does better when his characters are drowning in their own dark sides; while his chemistry with Ferguson (a strong actress in her own right) is oddly flat, it might be due to the somewhat incomprehensible accent she takes on from time to time. It’s jarring and sounds absolutely phony.

Critics have absolutely savaged this movie, and there is some reason for it – the film is definitely flawed, but the visuals are compelling and as I said there are some interesting ideas developed here. Sadly, the insistence on turning this into a Raymond Chandler adaptation instead of letting the story stand on its own really hurts the movie overall, although I will say if you hang in there, the final 30-45 minutes do pick up.

REASONS TO SEE: Lots of interesting ideas and visuals here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The noir element is heavy-handed, particularly the florid narration.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence and profanity, some sexual content and drug content throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jackman and Ferguson previously starred together in The Greatest Showman.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through 9/20)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews; Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inception
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Good


					

The Suicide Squad


When it rains, it pours.

(2021) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Idris Elba, Margot Robbie, John Cena, Viola Davis, Sylvester Stallone (voice), Viola Davis, Joel Kinnaman, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Peter Capaldi, Jai Courtney, Michael Rooker, Alice Braga, Pete Davidson, Joaquin Costa, Juan Diego Botto, Storm Reid, Nathan Fillion, Steve Agee, Sean Gunn, Mayling Ng. Directed by James Gunn

If ever there was a perfect choice to helm the sequel/reboot of the 2016 DC Extended Universe film Suicide Squad it’s James Gunn. Through his work in the Guardians of the Galaxy films he has shown that he can take minor characters from a comic book universe and elevate them to star status.

Amanda Waller (Davis) pulls together another Task Force X team of lesser light villains residing in the notorious Bella Reve Prison, led by war hero Col. Rick Flagg (Kinnaman). They are sent to the Caribbean island of Corto Matese to find a Nazi-era high rise science installation where a top-secret experiment is being conducted by the U.S. Government; a new regime in the island nation is not friendly to the United States and is likely to turn our own weapon against us. Mayhem ensues, and plenty of it.

More about the plot I won’t reveal because frankly the less you know about it, the more you’re likely to enjoy it. Gunn, who evidently has as much reverence fo DC characters as he does for Marvel deliberately used really low-level villains from the DC pantheon, although Harley Quinn (Robbie) and Captain Boomerang (Courtney) along with Flagg return from the 2016 film. New characters include Bloodsport (Elba), the gruff marksman who is the ostensible team leder; Peacemaker (Cena), a genuinely whacko who wants peace in our time – and will kill as many people as he has to in order to get it. Then there’s Ratcatcher 2 (Melchior) who is the daughter of the original Ratcatcher, and who has the power to control rats. (“What a revoltin’ power that is” moans the phobic Bloodsport) and Polka Dot Man (Dastmalchian) whose dots are outgrowths of an alien spore that his own mother deliberately infected with him in hopes of turning him into a superhero and the CGI King Shark (voiced by Stallone), a human-shark hybrid who isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

The carnage here is visceral and occurs regularly. Heads will roll, explode and be crushed and/or perforated, while bodies will endure all manners of dreadful destruction. The body count here is impressive, and no character is safe from the coroner’s slab. The violence can be numbing after awhile and parents should be extremely cautious in deciding whether they want their younger children to see this. Mature teens should do okay. The other issue I had here was that there are so many characters in the movie (mostly serving as cannon fodder) that we get time to learn little about any of them. It gets overwhelming after a bit.

The humor here made me think that in a way that Gunn was channeling Quentin Tarantino; the movie has the same kind of vibe as his more violent pictures although less of the pop culture savvy. There is a mild reference to American meddling from a diplomatic standpoint here, but it isn’t pushed very hard. Otherwise, this is all about the mayhem.

Is this the DC film you’ve been waiting for? Maybe, but it’s certainly the DC film we deserve. It has the grim undertones of the rest of the collective works of the DCEU and while compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe this still remains on a different tier, quality-wise this might be the best DC film since The Dark Knight. That’s reason right there to celebrate.

REASONS TO SEE: Elba and Cena are outstanding. The humor adds to the carnage. The special effects are terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many characters to get involved with many of them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of profanity, strong bloody violence and gore, brief graphic nudity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elba was originally signed to replace Will Smith as Deadshot, but it was decided to give Elba a different character (Bloodsport) so that Smith could potentially return as Deadshot in the future.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 72/100.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until 9/6)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kill Bill
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The East

Mortal Kombat (2021)


Ready Player One….FIGHT!!!!

(2021) Martial Arts (Warner Brothers) Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Joe Taslim, Mehcad Brooks, Matilda Kimber, Laura Brent, Tadanobu Asano, Hiroyuki Sanada, Chin Han, Ludi Lin, Max Huang, Sisi Stringer, Mel Jarnson, Nathan Jones, Daniel Nelson, Ian Streetz, Yukiko Shinohara, Ren Miyagawa, Mia Hall, David Field, Kris McQuade. Directed by Simon McQuoid

Some movies just don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a good review. For many, it’s because the movie just isn’t very good but for some, they have two strikes (and sometimes three) going against them coming in. Movies based on videogames, for example.

Part of the problem with videogame-based movies is that most players of videogames would rather play them than watch them, and understandably so. Videogaming is an active participation activity; movie watching is not. You can say what you want about gamers (and there is a lot to be said about them, to be sure) but they are not into passive activities. They need to be involved, although the way movie watchers become involved is a bit more emotional and mental than videogaming.

There is a plot here but it is awfully convoluted. Essentially, the Earthrealm (where we live) has been involved in a series of fighting tournaments with the Outworld which is inhabited by all manner of monsters. We have, predictably, lost nine tournaments in a row. The tenth is coming soon, and should we lose it, we become slaves to the Outworlders who will take over. That would be a bad thing.

However, the Earth is protected by the thunder god Thor…I mean, Raiden (Asano) He has marked a group of champions with dragon-shaped birthmarks. One of these is down-on-his-luck MMA fighter Cole Young (Tan) – a completely original character for the movie, for those fans of the game looking to find him in one of the many iterations of the game franchise. He is skeptical when told by Special Forces member Jax (Brooks) about what’s going on but an attack by Subzero (Taslim) who has control over ice, which is an ability I generally wish I had during summers here in Florida, help to open his mind. Along with the beautiful Sonia Blade (McNamee) and wisecracking Aussie Kano (Lawson), Cole heads to Raiden’s temple to train for the upcoming bout. He, like the other champions of Earth, will have to learn to find their Arcana – their special powers. However, Outworld emperor Shang Tsung (Han) is eager to win the tournament without having to actually fight it, and has sent some of his own champions to wipe out the Earth champions before the tournament even starts. Boo, hiss.

The strength of the movie lies in the gloriously bloody fight sequences which bring the gore that the original game was notorious for to the big screen – the big knock on the two feature films that were made based on the franchise back in the 90s was that they sanitized the violence which was, like it or not, one of the biggest reasons the game was so loved back in the day.

The movie also suffers from an excess of characters. The MK videogame franchise has developed over the years a pretty lengthy list of champions and villains whom fans of the franchise are familiar with and perhaps not wishing to alienate the core group of fans, many of them make at least a token appearance in this film. This is where they could have learned something from the Marvel and DC franchises, both of which have an enormous amount of characters to draw on. However, you see only a handful of them in the movies to date. Marvel did it best; start with one character and then introduce new ones as the series goes on. The movie is nearly two hours long and it didn’t need to be; save some of these characters for future movies. I guarantee that it will keep fan interest going longer as they wait for the long-awaited appearances of Goro, Mileena and Reiko.

Also, the training sequence takes up much of the middle of the film and is way too long. As RogerEbert.com reviewer Brian Tallerico astutely pointed out, nobody wants to watch an hour-long tutorial in the middle of the game. This is where they introduce a lot of the beloved characters from the game that could have waited for introductions later in the series.

And it is going to be a franchise. No doubt about it. The movie has done well enough in the pandemic-weakened box office to warrant it, and the movie seems to have been set up to jumpstart the franchise once again after Mortal Kombat: Annihilation killed it dead. And make no mistake, there is some potential for a long-running franchise here, but those in charge of it need to be patient and develop it slowly without forcing appearances of characters just to keep fanboys allegedly happy; for one thing, that disrespects the fans who would rather have a good movie made about their characters than a bad one. There is a lot to praise about Mortal Kombat – paramount among those the innovative fighting sequences, the marvelously violent and gory ends to some of the fighters (many built on the ends that these characters suffer in the game itself) and the CGI which is more than adequate. This is a decent kick-off for a franchise but if they want to sustain it they will have to do a better job in the movies that are sure to follow.

REASONS TO SEE: Snazzy special effects and fighting sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is almost an afterthought.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a crapload of violence (much of it gory and violent), plenty of profanity and some crude references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third live-action film based on the best-selling videogame franchise; it is also the first of the three in which Raiden is played by an Asian actor.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until May 23rd)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews; Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Street Fighter
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
There Is No Evil

Godzilla vs. Kong


Battle of the behemoths.

(2021) Sci-Fi Action (Warner Brothers) Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Shun Oguri, Elza Gonzales, Julian Dennison, Lance Reddick, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir, Kaylee Hottle, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Ronny Chieng, John Pirruccello, Chris Chalk, Conlan Casal, Brad McMurray, Benjamin Rigby, Nick Turello, Daniel Nelson, Priscilla Doueihy. Directed by Adam Wingard

 

In 2021, after everything we’ve been through, after everything we’ve suffered, I think that what we need the most now more than platitudes and pep talks is just a good old-fashioned slugfest between two giant iconic monsters. Who’s with me? A whole lot of you, as it turns out.

Podcaster Bernie Hayes (Henry) is investigating Apex Cybernetics and their shifty CEO Walter Simmons (Bichir), thinking that there’s some vast world-threatening conspiracy going on; when you’re right, you’re right. Plucky Madison Russell (Brown), whose mom was a scientist turned eco-terrorist who died as a result of a battle of Titans (as did her baby brother) and whose Dad (Chandler) is a scientist working for the Monarch Project, a shadowy organization involved with both Godzilla and Kong, thinks Bernie is on the right track and decides to seek him out, aided by her nerdy friend Josh (Denison).

Skull Island was destroyed in a storm, but Kong was rescued by Monarch and put into a dome that is much like the Island, minus the deadly giant creatures. Kong is being studied by biologist Dr. Ilene Andrews (Hall) whose adopted daughter Jia (Hottle) – the last survivor of the tribe that lived on Skull Island and deaf – can communicate with the giant ape via sign language.

Simmons has hired geologist Nathan Lind (Skarsgård) to lead an expedition to the Hollow Earth, the inner part of our planet that his brother had died trying to reach. However, Nathan will be equipped with a modern flying vehicle that can handle the pressure of the gravitational forces. Simmons believes Kong can guide him through to the center, so Dr. Andrews and Jia will be going with them, as will be his daughter Maya (Gonzalez) who has ulterior motives. However, they are interrupted by an inexplicable attack on Apex’s Pensacola facility, but why would Godzilla, who up to now has been a protector of mankind, suddenly turn against them? And how will he react to the presence of Kong, a King in his own right? I think the title of the film gives that one away.

And indeed, if you are looking eagerly for that titular battle, you will not be disappointed. Wingard and company pull off the larger than life spectacle amidst the neon skyscrapers of Hong Kong, in the primitive landscape of Hollow Earth and in the cool futuristic corridors of Apex, whose name should be a hint as to what they are up to – and it’s no spoiler to inform you that they are indeed, up to something.

Reading the plot summation will probably make your head explode if you think about it too much, but then again, if you take this too seriously you’ve probably spent too much of the pandemic reading about politics. It’s daffy and lightweight and essentially an excuse for Kong or Godzilla (or both) to battle lizards, monkeys, insects, robots, dragons, aliens, dinosaurs, or whatever else the evil geniuses at Legendary can come up with. It’s all in good fun.

Henry actually proves to be the most memorable performer here, which is surprising since he’s more or less comic relief – think the Woody Harrelson role in 2012. The heroic characters- Hall, Skarsgård, Brown – do adequate jobs, but the movie really isn’t about them. And it really isn’t about the comic relief, either, when you get right down to it. No, it’s about giant things beating up on other giant things while people scream and run and buildings collapse. Just good clean fun, in other words.

The pandemic has been kind of a petri dish for important, thought-provoking movies because those sorts, let’s face it, don’t suffer much from being seen at home, whereas the big dumb mindless eye candy movies like this one benefit more from having theaters. Now that we’re starting to see theaters reopening all around the globe, the time is right for the movies that the studios have been holding onto until the right time. Well, the time is now and we shall soon be seeing a parade of big, dumb, mindless eye candy films that we’ve been missing other than in reruns on our streaming services. And I’m glad they’re back. I didn’t know how much I missed them until now. And yes, critics have been embracing this movie with uncharacteristic glee which should be taken with a grain of salt; most critics would have excoriated this film had it come out in 2019, and certainly come 2022 they will be back to eviscerating films like this while praising the grim, thought-provoking movies that in the midst of a pandemic seem to be almost anti-climactic. So enjoy the Bizarro-world reversal while it lasts, kiddies. And try to see this movie in a theater if you can; these kinds of movies really are better-served in that environment. But, if you haven’t gotten vaccinated and you have HBO Max and you have a reasonably good home entertainment system, you should be all set in that regard as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Eye candy as far as the eye can see.
REASONS TO AVOID: Character development? Pshaw!
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of creature violence and destruction, some brief profanity and a few terrifying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film earned $122 million over its opening weekend, the largest opening of a film since the pandemic began.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until April 30)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews; Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Godzilla: King of Monsters
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Believer

Judas and the Black Messiah


Fred Hampton preaches to the choir.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Warner BrothersDaniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemmons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen, Amari Cheatom, Khris Davis, Ian Duff, Caleb Everhardt, Robert Longstreet, Amber Chardae Robinson, Ikechukwu Ufomadu, James Udom, Nick Fink, Alysia Joy Powell.  Directed by Shaka King

 

When discussing the civil rights struggles of the late Fifties and into the Sixties and Seventies, a pantheon of names stand out, from Rosa Parks to Medgar Evers to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Malcom X. One of the names much less known is Fred Hampton, but his contribution bears repeating.

In the late 1960s, the Black Panther party has risen as both a community organization and a political organization. Dedicated to the idea of revolution, the party was eyed with suspicion and terror by white America; the press demonized them (often at the behest of the FBI, whose openly racist director had tentacles throughout the civil rights movement) to the point that even today, they are much misunderstood and often looked upon as little more than terrorists by the white community.

Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) was a young star of the Illinois chapter of the Panthers. Intellectually gifted and a skilled orator, he had a wealth of compassion for the black community, helping to organize meals for hungry children and emphasizing education to them. However, he also was dedicated to the systematic dismantling of the society that had enslaved his people, and now even a century later was keeping them down through means both legal and otherwise. He espoused a turn to communism, which also earned the ire of J. Edgar Hoover (Sheen), who was not only racist but a fervent anti-communist to the point of hysteria.

William O’Neal (Stanfield) was a petty crook who attempted to swindle by impersonating an FBI agent. His lies seen through, he was caught and remanded to the actual FBI. Agent Roy Mitchell (Plemmons) gives O’Neal a choice; a long stint in prison for car theft and impersonating a federal agent, or have his record expunged and get paid for infiltrating the Black Panthers. O’Neal took the second route.

Rising through the ranks even as Hampton does, he sees Hampton become chairman of the party while he himself becomes a security operative. As 1969 comes to a close, he is asked by the FBI to give a detailed layout of Hampton’s apartment that he shares with his girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Fishback), a speechwriter for the Panthers who is also pregnant with his child. O’Neal slips some phenobarbital into Hampton’s drink, insuring that the Black Panther leader will be groggy and unable to defend himself with what was to come. On December 4, 1969, the Chicago Police carried out a raid on the apartment and in the process, both Hampton and one other member of the Panthers was killed. It was nothing less than an execution, an assassination carried out by our own government.

The film is bookended by two clips; first, one of Stanfield as O’Neal, being interviewed for a 1990 PBS documentary, then the actual documentary footage of O’Neal, talking about his role in the death of Hampton. It is one of those mesmerizing cinematic moments in which the reel turns to the real. The movie has a few moments like this, most notably when Johnson talks to Hampton about how their impending parenthood must change the nature of their political activity. It is a haunting moment, given that Johnson would give birth to Hampton’s son twenty-five days after his murder.

The movie is blessed with some masterful performances, particularly from Kaluuya who is turning into one of the finest actors of this generation (he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his efforts) and Stanfield, who makes somewhat sympathetic the role of O’Neal, who finds himself way over his head. Fishback has that amazing scene referred to earlier and serves notice that she, too, will be a force to be reckoned with, and Plemmons does some of the best work of his career as the manipulative (and manipulated) Mitchell.

The last half of the movie is absolutely riveting, and even if you know the story – which many Americans do not – the tension is palpable. It’s the first half of the movie where I have the harder time. It’s a bit disjointed and confusing, and takes a little too long in setting the stage. At times, King (who also co-wrote the script) seems to be more concerned about editorializing rather than telling the story, which doesn’t need it. Any good American should be outraged at the FBI’s clear abuse of their power, and the fact that all those involved essentially got away with the crime is all the more galling (a civil suit brought by Johnson and her son was settled after 12 years, one of the longest civil trials in U.S. history.

Hampton was by all accounts a superb organizer and coalition builder which was why he was so threatening to the white establishment. Had he survived (he was only 21 years old when he died), he might well have turned the Black Panthers into a political force; the rainbow coalition that Jesse Jackson would later extol was something Hampton actually came up with. At the time of his death, he had created alliances with Hispanic political organizations, white leftists and African-American street gangs. His oratory ability was not unlike Martin Luther King’s and Kaluuya gives us a hint of his fiery delivery (if you want to see the real thing, there are several of his speches on YouTube). You may not necessarily agree with his political beliefs (he was a fervent communist) but it is clear that his loss was incalculable to the African-American community. One wonders that had he lived that maybe – just maybe – some of the racial issues that continue to divide this nation might not have been laid to rest. Or maybe, given his tendency to promote violence as a solution, they might actually be worse. We will never know.

REASONS TO SEE: The second half of the film is extremely compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: The first half of the film is absolutely forgettable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity, some sexuality and disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kaluuya, Stanfield and Howery all worked together previously on Get Out.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until March 11)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Malcolm X
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Dead Air

The Little Things


The darkness and the dimly lit.

(2021) Crime (Warner Brothers) Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Chris Bauer, Michael Hyatt, Terry Kinney, Natalie Morales, Isabel Arraiza, Joris Jarsky, Glenn Morshower, Sofia Vassilieva, Jason James Richter, John Harlan Kim, Frederick Koehler, Judith Scott, Maya Kazan, Tiffany Gonzalez, Anna McKitrick, Sheila Houlahan, Ebony M. Mayo. Directed by John Lee Hancock

 

Any good homicide detective will tell you that the secret to catching a killer isn’t rocket science. It’s good hard work and paying particular attention to the little things. The devil is, after all, in the details.

This crime thriller, set in the 1990s (director John Lee Hancock wrote it back in 1993 but was unable to get it made until recently) and features no less than three Oscar-winning actors. You’d think that would bring the quality level up a notch, but keep in mind that Warners chose to release this in January – never a good sign.

A serial killer is targeting women in the Los Angeles area (what else is new?) and detective Jim Baxter (Malek) is stumped. One of Los Angeles’ most successful police detectives, he utters platitudes at press conferences but is no closer to solving the crimes than when he came on the case. Meanwhile, over in Kern County to the northeast of the City of Angels, former L.A. police detective (and current Kern County deputy sheriff) Joe “Deke” Deacon (Washington) has been assigned by his boss to collect some evidence held in Los Angeles critical to a case in Bakersfield. Deacon, who left  L.A. under less-than-ideal circumstances, eventually gets sucked into Baxter’s case (to be honest, Deacon doesn’t resist very hard) which may have a link to a case that Deacon worked on years before that was never solved.

With Deacon on board as an unofficial advisor, the two at-first reluctant partners zero in on a suspect – Albert Sparma (Leto) – a serial killer’s name if I ever heard one – who seems to be a slam dunk at first. He taunts the detectives and is creepy enough to set off any cop’s radar. But is he the killer? And can the two mismatched detectives stop him before he kills again?

Considering the calibre of talent both behind and in front of the camera, it’s a bit surprising that the end result of this movie is less than stirring. Certainly it’s no fault of Washington or Leto, both of whom deliver scintillating performances. For Washington, this kind of role is old hat yet still he manages to bring a certain amount of freshness to the part. Leto may be one of the best actors at playing creepy, brings a braggadocio to his role that is refreshing.

Of the three main cast members, only Malek feels out of place. His sunken-eyed thousand-yard stare bespeaks someone with PTSD, not the well-adjusted family man his character is made out to be. The murky cinematography doesn’t do him any favors other than to highlight his ghoulish pallor. We know he’s capable of great performances, but his character is so underwritten that it’s almost criminal. If you’re going to cast someone like Malek in your film, you should better utilize him.

The plot feels like a pastiche of a fair number of era-specific crime thrillers; back in the Nineties, these sorts of movies were commonplace and often boasted A-list actors. As those types of films have largely fallen out of favor, we don’t see this kind of turbocharged cast in a thriller these days. I just wish they had a better film to work with.

REASONS TO SEE: Denzel is riveting (as usual) and Leto turns in a marvelous performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little on the sitcom-y side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, disturbing images and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leto was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance here.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through 2/2821)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seven
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Go-Gos
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Wonder Woman 1984


Did video kill the movie star?

(2020) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Lilly Aspell, Amr Waked, Kristoffer Palaha, Natasha Rothwell, Ravi Patel, Oliver Cotton, Lucian Perez, Gabriella Wilde, Kelvin Yu, Stuart Milligan, Shane Attwooll, David Al-Fahmi,Kevin Wallace, Wai Wong, Doutzen Kroes . Directed by Patty Jenkins

 

It is somewhat ironic that the first Wonder Woman took place during the waning days of World War I which saw the world (although not depicted in the film) struggling with a global pandemic of the Spanish flu. The sequel has finally made it to theaters (and to streaming platform HBO Max until January 26th) after being delayed more than a year, argely due to the current global pandemic.

It is 1984 – morning in America, right? – and Diana Prince (Gadot) – the alter ego of Wonder Woman – still mourns the death of her love Steve Trevor (Pine) in an explosion at the conclusion of the Great War. She has managed to lie low for the intervening years, occasionally showing up in costume to foil a mall robbery. She works in the antiquities department of the Smithsonian, along with a new colleague, the confidence-challenged and somewhat clumsy Barbara Minerva (Wiig). The two become friends, and work on identifying a strange artifact – it turns out to be the Dreamstone, a magic relic that grants wishes to the bearer.

Before they realize it though, the two women each make a wish – Minerva to be more like her new friend Diana, and Diana to regain her dead boyfriend. Each woman receives exactly what they wish for – and in Minerva’s case, she also inherits Wonder Woman’s powers. Steve returns, his consciousness inhabiting the body of a handsome man (Palaha). At first, the two are happy.

Television huckster Maxwell Lord (Pascal), a cross between Gordon Gekko, Tony Robbins and Donald Trump, gets wind of the stone and decides to use it to become the dreamstone himself – with the power to grant wishes to whomever touches him. With a steady income of well-wishers, his failing business is turned around and Lord becomes a wealthy man in fact instead of just an illusion.

However, the Dreamstone was actually the creation of the God of Lies and it has a terrible downside – it takes from the user as much as it gives. When the President of the United States (ostemsibly Reagan) wishes for more nukes, the world is brought to the brink of destruction, unless Diana can find a way to stop it.

In many ways, this is a worthy successor to the first Wonder Woman and in others, it is disappointing. Gadot has proven herself perfectly cast as the Amazonian superheroine; beautiful and exotic, graceful in her action sequences, and possessed of a strength and confidence that makes her a tremendous role model for sure, but also not incidentally, a budding A-list movie star. She is quite frankly the reason to see this film; she’s spectacular in the part.

 

Pine is second banana here, and he seems comfortable in the role. He serves mainly as fish-out-of-water comic relief, evincing awe at period technology (the space shuttle, computers and cheese in a can. He kind of gets lost in the shuffle here; Wiig shows some real dramatic skill as Minerva, going from a put-upon, mousy nobody to a self-confident supervillain. The transition is not as jarring as you might think. Pascal as the huckster Maxwell Lord, is surprisingly bland; the part certainly shows some Trumpian overtones, but in the end Lord seems to have more of a heart than Trump, or at least so it seems. Still, I would have expected more spice out of Pascal.

There are some really great moments here – like a flight through fireworks – and some truly head-scratching moments as well. The opening prologue, set when Diana was a girl (Aspell) in a competition with fully grown women, nearly lost me at the get-go, while the shoot-out at the mall really made me wonder if I wasn’t about to watch Jenkins bomb after doing so well with her last film. Not to worry though; it does get much better as it goes along.

There has been a lot of chatter on the Internet about a sex scene with the resurrected Steve Trevor and Diana. As Steve was inhabiting another man’s body, some people complained that this was essentially rape as the man whose body Steve was inhabiting couldn’t give consent. Far be it for me to besmirch sexual assault in any form, but could it be we’re getting oversensitive? I don’t think bodies driven by foreign consciouses are a big problem, or ever likely to be. Can we save our outrage for real world rape culture?

That said, this isn’t the home run that Wonder Woman was, but it’s not a strikeout either. It’s definitely a solid base hit, if we’re going to continue the baseball metaphor. Is it worth going to theaters for? I’m sharply divided on this. I think that it should be seen on the big screen in a big theater, but at the same time I can’t really justify the risk for those who might be concerned about picking up COVID and passing it along to loved ones. I think it was the right call for Warner Brothers to make it available at home and that’s probably where you should see it. However, once you feel comfortable going back to the multiplex, hopefully some theaters will show it as a re-release so we all get a chance to see it as it was meant to be seen.

REASONS TO SEE: Gadot continues her ascent as a major star and Wiig delivers a bang-up performance. Gets better as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: Extremely uneven. Pascal is surprisingly bland.
FAMILY VALUES: There is superhero action/violence as well as a scene of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Wiig was Jenkins’ first choice to play Barbara Minerva, the role was initially offered to Emma Stone, who declined. Wiig was then offered the role.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now, HBO Max
CRITICAL MASS: As of 168/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Green Lantern
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Soul

The Witches (2020)


Someone itches to find some witches.

(2019) Family Horror Comedy (Warner BrothersAnne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Chris Rock (voice), Jahzir Bruno, Brian Bovell, Kristen Chenoweth (voice), Stanley Tucci, Charles Edwards, Morgana Robinson, Eugenia Caruso, Ashanti Prince-Asafo, Eurydice El-Etr, Orla O’Rourke, Codie-Lei Eastwick, Josette Simon, Joseph Zinyemba, Ana-Maria Maskell. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Most people remember author Roald Dahl for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach, but he also wrote a book called The Witches which back in 1990 was turned into a movie by director Nicholas Roeg. Thirty years later, a different Oscar-winning director takes a crack at it.

A young boy (Bruno) – whose name we never know but is referred to in the credits as “Hero Boy” – is orphaned in a car crash and sent to live with his down-to-earth Grandma (Spencer) in Alabama. She is loving and hipper than most grandmas, dancing to the strains of the Four Tops’ “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” which sets the tone as definitely the late Sixties in a place where it wasn’t especially pleasant to be African-American.

Grandma as a young girl had discovered that witches are real – demonic creatures that masquerade as women but are actually completely bald, so they wear wigs that give them nasty rashes on their scalps; they also wear gloves because their hands possess only three fingers that end in razor-sharp claws. Their feet are square with a single toe, and their mouths are extra-wide and full of wickedly sharp teeth. When the grandson has an encounter with one in a store, Grandma realizes she can’t protect him and decides to take him on a vacation to a swanky hotel, where the witches can’t find him, right?

You see, witches also hate children with a passion, complaining that they are noisy (true), selfish (true) and smell like dog poo (wellllll…some do, some don’t). The Grand High Witch (Hathaway) who turned Grandma’s closest friend (Prince-Asafo) into a chicken, has a plan to rid the world of kids once and for all. She’s going to reveal her evil plan to her colleagues at a witches convention (disguised as a do-gooder organization dedicated to the welfare of children) – which as bad luck would have it, is taking place at the very hotel where Grandma and her charge have fled to.

More I will not reveal about the plot; if you’ve read the book, suffice to say that this version of it follows the plot of the literature pretty closely, certainly more so than the 1990 film. If you’re not familiar with it, then it’s best not to reveal too much because that will spoil the fun, and above all, that’s what this movie is – fun.

Hathaway chews the scenery with grand gusto, deliciously, delightful evil with a mock-Eastern European accent that makes her somehow even creepier. Much of her facial features and body has been redesigned digitally, giving her the look of a witch while remaining still recognizably Anne Hathaway. She camps it up quite a bit, but the role definitely calls for it, and Hathaway delivers. We sometimes forget that the woman is a fabulous actress who is capable of doing just about anything she wants to in front of the camera. Another reviewer posited that she was acting as a kind of surrogate Betsy DeVos, proclaiming she’s doing everything for the good of children while in reality she was out to cause harm to them, particularly those who are poor or members of minorities. That reviewer for Consequences of Sound wasn’t wrong, I think.

Spencer is a diametric opposite; she’s the loving, warm embrace that we need watching the boy suffer the loss of his parents, withdrawing into an uncaring shell; not eating, not engaging, not smiling ever. She gradually wins him over and brings him back to life, and those scenes early on in the film are among the best in the movie.

Zemeckis is a big believer in CGI and true to form, he employs a whole lot of it here. Some works, but there’s some that doesn’t. There are some talking mice in the movie that look awfully cartoonish, like they stepped out of a Looney Toon, and that doesn’t do the movie any favors.

The big question here is how appropriate is this movie for kids. Yes, it’s based on what is ostensibly a children’s book, but there are some scenes that are going to absolutely terrify the more impressionable wee ones in the house. Parents might want to give the movie a bit of a preview before determining if their kids have the maturity to handle it. Also, the first part of the movie concerns how the grandson deals with the death of his parents in a fairly realistic manner, which might also upset kids who are sensitive. Older kids, say into double digits on the age scale, or particularly mature young ‘uns should be able to handle this.

As mentioned in the Trivial Pursuit entry, this was supposed to be one of the fall tentpoles for Warner Brothers this year, but obviously COVID made the studio revert to Plan B. The movie recently debuted on HBO Max here in the States but in other countries that have handled the pandemic somewhat better than we have will be able to see it in theaters as soon as this weekend. Enjoy.

REASONS TO SEE: Outstanding performances by Hathaway and Spencer.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally too cute for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some mild profanity, some scary images and difficult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally set for theatrical release in October, the release date was moved out due to the pandemic, until Warner Brothers decided to send it direct to streaming on its HBO Max service.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews, Metacritic: 46/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hocus Pocus
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness continues!

Isn’t It Romantic


Three’s a crowd.

(2019) Romantic Comedy (Warner Brothers Rebel Wilson, Liam Hemsworth, Adam Devine, Priyanka Chopra, Betty Gilpin, Brandon Scott-Jones, Jennifer Saunders, Alexandra Kis, Jay Oakerson, Rao Rampilla, Marcus Choi, Hugh Sheridan, Luciano Acuna Jr., Ray Anthony Thomas, Zach Cherry, Sandy Honig, Rosemary Howard, Ron Nakahar, Tom Ellis, Michelle Buteau. Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson

 

I have never been a huge Rebel Wilson fan, but even I can see that the girl’s got skills. Part of my problem with Wilson is that she seems to be cast in very similar roles that after a while, get monotonous. The good news here is that she is the lead for the first time In her career, and she has been given a part that is unlike anything she’s ever played before.

The bad news is that it isn’t a part like anything we haven’t seen before. She’s Natalie, a junior architect at a New York City firm in which she is ignored and marginalized – the billionaire client (Hemsworth) whose project she’s working on, continually asks her to fetch coffee for him. As with many people in the Big Apple, she is alone. Cynically rejecting the tropes of romance and of romantic comedies in particular, she sees herself as a realist – until a bonk on the head during a subway mugging knocks her unconscious, leading her to wake up in a world that IS a romantic comedy.

This is a nightmare for a cynic. All the clichés are here, from the gay best friend to the PG-13 coupling, to the way it always seems to rain when she kisses someone romantically. Most satires tend to be pretty hit and miss and that’s very true about Isn’t It Romantic but it does get some laughs – just not as many as I would have preferred. The ending is a bit sappy but pleasant in a surprising way and is geared to lift even the most grumpy soul out of the doldrums, which is something all of us can use lately.

REASONS TO SEE: Pleasantly surprising, particularly the ending.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too much of the humor doesn’t work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some sexual references and brief drug material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Strauss-Schulson watched over 90 rom-coms in just over two weeks in order to note similarities in visual styles so he could apply them to this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews, Metacritic: 60/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Enchanted
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Sunlit Night

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part


Everything is still awesome…isn’t it?

(2019) Animated Feature (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Charlie Day, Maya Rudolph, Will Ferrell, Jadon Sand, Brooklynn Prince, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade, Jason Momoa, Cobie Smulders, Ralph Fiennes, Bruce Willis, Gary Payton, Sheryl Swoopes. Directed by Mike Mitchell

 

The 2014 hit The Lego Movie was a breath of fresh air in the animated feature universe, chock full of pop culture references but with enough whimsy and creativity to satisfy children and adults alike. After two spinoffs hit with a bang (The Lego Batman Movie) and a thud (The Lego Ninjago Movie), will the sequel recapture the magic of the original?

Well, no. In the new film, Emmet (Pratt) is building the dream home for himself and Lucy/Wyldstyle (Banks), complete with double decker porch swing. But all is not well in Bricksburg; Finn (Sand), the little boy whose imagination powered the first movie, is forced to play with his little sister (Prince) and her Duplos with catastrophic results. The town is a barren wasteland, populated by Duplo-built monsters. Everything is decidedly not awesome.

To make matters worse, Emmet’s friends have been kidnapped by General Mayhem (Beatriz) to attend the wedding of Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Haddish) and Batman (Arnett) is busy “on a standalone adventure” so it is up to Emmet to save the day, although Emmet who still retains his optimism despite the devastation, may not be up to the task.

The pop culture references are still plentiful, the oddball humor is still there, but it all feels really stale. There’s a feeling that this is geared towards even younger kids than the first, which isn’t necessarily good news for the parents roped into watching this alongside them. While Pratt, Arnett (who arrives late in the third act) and Haddish do their level best, they can’t overcome the sense that we’ve seen this before. I really enjoyed the closing credits, though; it is not a good sign when the best thing about a movie are the credits at the very end.

REASONS TO SEE: Pratt, Haddish and Arnett get the job done.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not an improvement from the first film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some peril and rude humor, as well as mild profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After the disappointing box office results for the film, Warner Brothers let the rights lapse; future Lego movies will be coming out on Universal, who snatched them up.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Max,  Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews, Metacritic: 65/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
No Small Matter