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Ready or Not (2019)
Grisly humor is the skeleton supporting this gaudy splatterfest
While panning 2018's abysmal stab at a horror thriller Truth or Dare, I warned that any box-office success might spawn other flicks based on games of childhood past. The bad news is that I was prophetic; the good news is that at least the first two have been much better. Tag was arguably an outlier, since it was a comedy based on a true story of a handful of dudes with arrested development (the trait, not the TV series) at the core of their lasting bond.
Now comes a splatterfest with a fair dose of humor that comes closer to Jordan Peele's excellent Get Out in its setup, with a far messier execution. Samara Weaving, lovely niece of Hugo, that much-replicated villain fighting Neo in the Matrix franchise, is a poor lass we find on the day she's marrying into one of the country's richest families, and meeting all but her intended for the first time. Though she truly loves scion Alex (Mark O'Brien), something seems amiss from the get-go. He's stayed away from the clan for years, and all the kinfolk are either warning her not to go through with the ceremony, or otherwise boding something wicked this way to come. Their type and level of dysfunction transcends all the caution signs she's given, or anyone else's Thanksgiving gathering.
The family lives by a set of traditional rules and rituals that get stranger as the story progresses throughout the massive mansion that is their ancestral home. What seems like a twisty horror tale grows more comedic as it hurtles to the end. And that's the best part of the production. Most of the cast ranges from over-the-top to campy in suitable discharging their duties. The more you're tuned in for the funny elements (including some of the background music), the more you'll enjoy the package.
Despite these upgrades from the first one, here are my specific dreaded possibilities from 18 months ago, that I still hope won't be made: Hokey Pokey Horror - Put your left foot in... or LOSE IT!; maybe Red Rover, Red Rover - Send Satan right over! That sets the stage for the likes of Musical Electric Chairs and Wring Around the Rosie.
More laughs than learning in this fictional spin on the events that gave shrinks a new diagnosis
Did you ever wonder about the origin of the psychological condition known as "Stockholm Syndrome"? The title of this rather comical account of a bank robbery turning into a hostage situation telegraphs the answer. Although the script is fictional, it is based on the actual 1973 events that added one term to our vernacular, and one section in pertinent psych texts. Good thing. As this ordeal plays out, it would have been too absurd to make up from whole cloth and successfully pitch to any studio.
Ethan Hawke is the solo robber at the beginning. But instead of grabbing the cash, he keeps a few hostages and demands the release of a prisoner (Mark Strong), among other terms. This goes on for a couple of days with more ups and downs and zany mishaps than one finds in any of Elmore Leonard's delightful comic caper novels or the movies they spawned. Not easy to do, unless you're the Marx Brothers. True to the premise, one of the hostages (Noomi Rapace, looking more prim and uptight than her norm) becomes the first to develop the symptoms. Another novelty is seeing the invariably-bald Strong sport a full head of lanky hair. Not his best look.
The film drags on a bit too long for the claustrophobic setting, as nearly every shot we see occurs within the bank. That cost it one of the potential stars, above. Hawke's edginess is amusing for a while, but grows tedious as he loses his cool over so many setbacks and complications. Even so, it's a generally amusing and entertaining diversion. Expect a fairly farcical variation on Dog Day Afternoon to watch it in the right frame of mind.
Kona fer í stríð (2018)
Quirky Icelandic dramedy scores points on message, character and style
One of the great joys of reviewing is finding the occasional "sleeper" that unfolds as much more of a gem than expected. This quirky dramedy, that's earned a number of festival nominations and awards here and in Europe, comes from Iceland. Their exports to the U.S. rarely include films, but this one could start more of a trend.
The heroine is a middle-aged chorus director in a small town who becomes a latter-day Zorro by sabotaging a local aluminum factory that's ruining the environment. Her methods are quite impressive, as she mostly acts alone to preserve anonymity. She has her own "particular set of skills" for wreaking havoc on machinery without harm to people, while otherwise seeming to be the last person anyone would suspect.
I'll save the rest of the plot and characters so you can watch with a slate nearly as blank as mine was. Put one in the plus column for the script's making its points about protecting one's environment without ever becoming preachy or melodramatic. Take note, Mr. Gore.
The unusual method of intertwining the score with plot movement is wonderfully clever, adding greatly to the droll comic tone that makes this work. The titular warrior plays her part with a perfectly understated performance, befitting the settings and premise. Iceland's barren landscapes might not inspire waves of tourists to flock there, but this film certainly raises curiosity about what else we have yet to savor from its version of Hollywood.
Shut Up and Dribble (2018)
Superb, timely, entertaining documentary
There are two situations in which LeBron James represents the best the NBA has to offer - when he's on the court, and when he isn't. This first of three parts bodes well for a series that masterfully combines archival footage and commentary, perfectly establishing a social and political context for the equivalent of a college-level study of American culture and racial studies from the 1950s to the present. This in-depth presentation of the history of Black athletes in college and professional basketball, documenting their struggles within the game and beyond, mirrors the broader conflicts over racism in all aspects of our economy and society.
This is no polemic; we get a neutral, factual account of the times, events and key figures among players and others. If this level of quality and clarity continues through the next two, LeBron's superstar status as a player and humanitarian will make room for his chops as a producer of infotainment, with this fine offering from his Springhill Entertainment Company. ...and this assessment is coming from a white guy old enough to have lived through the years covered in Part One.
Johnny English Strikes Again (2018)
Forget the first two of these spy spoof; they finally got it right
Johnny English Strikes Again ***½ (out of 5) (PG) Although I've been a HUUUGE Rowan Atkinson fan for many years, his first two feature films as this eponymous bumbling British superspy did little for the level of his esteem. His Mr. Bean antics were superb. His various incarnations of Blackadder for BBC TV were not only terrific for him, but provided wonderful, career-advancing vehicles for the likes of Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and Miranda Richardson. His awkward vicar scenes in Four Weddings and a Funeral belong on anyone's highlight reel. Yet the previous spy spoofs in this character were disappointing. After seeing all the Inspector Clouseau farces and a raft of Mr. Magoo cartoons, there seemed to be little new ground for Agent English to explore.
Even so, I'm delighted to report that Atkinson achieved the rare feat of making a third installment that's better than the first two. One could call that a reverse Godfather. In fact, one just did. When MI 7's ranks are suddenly depleted by yet another archvillain, they have no choice but to bring English back from retirement to save the day. He does, or course. Eventually. After many hilariously counterproductive steps along the way. The script suits the star and subject well, and is briskly directed by David Kerr, who also spent most of his career working for small- screen productions. Well played, gents. You give us hope for more sequels that buck the dropoff norm.
Formulaic crime drama with sci-fi underpinnings ends up a yawner for either genre
The poster promises a sci-fi opus. While there's clearly an element of that in the so-called story, this one plays out more like a conventional crime drama, featuring a couple of half-brothers on what one thinks is a road trip, but the elder knows to be flight from bad guys with a grudge. That ain't all. Besides the crooks, they're being chased by a couple of undefined, high-tech soldiers trying to recover a weapon the younger one found in an abandoned warehouse. The lads even pick up a friendly stripper (Zoe Kravitz) along their path from Detroit to Tahoe.
James Franco plays the main evildoer as a one-note maniac. It's almost as painful to watch as his 2011 Oscar co-hosting gig of infamy. No one develops a persona worthy of enough empathy to engage us. The adrenaline rushes the premise should enable fall far short of reasonable expectations. Bad direction? Insufficient budget? Only a film school class would care.
This potentially exciting setup turns into sheer tedium, until an over-the-top climactic sequence. It's longer and duller that 102 minutes should allow. Maybe that's part of the sci-fi angle - bending the space-time continuum to make the movie seem like its twice as long, only to discover upon exiting that you still have more of the day/evening left for better activities. That relief will be the greatest satisfaction this experience can deliver. As one ponders the possible reasons for this weapon's existence during the ample dry stretches its lack of action generously provides, one may form several theories. Among them, the one chosen for this denouement will likely seem the least satisfying. One of the more missable films of the year.
The Happytime Murders (2018)
Surprisingly gross, hilarious alternate universe for a new batch of mobile Muppets
Let's be clear from the get-go. This is a comedy starring Melissa McCarthy and a bunch of Muppets with legs. It's directed by Jim Henson's son, Brian, who has spent many years producing and directing dad's sort of kiddie fare. All that wholesomeness apparently required suppression of adult humor tendencies which finally ruptured, resulting in this VERY RAUNCHY film that many will view as a breath of fresh air. Despite the pedigree and premise, this variation on Who Framed Roger Rabbit is closer to Andrew Dice Clay than to Sesame Street or any of the previous Muppet movies.
DON'T BRING THE KIDDIES!
Puppets live in L.A. along with humans, but only as second-class residents. A few bits slip in some racial satire with the overall broader comedy. The hero is a down-and-out private detective, salvaging a meager living after being booted from the police force for an unfortunate incident. He's a classic example of film noir dicks, complete with a dumpy office in a seedy area, and a devoted ditzy secretary (Maya Rudolph). When the puppets who starred in an old sitcom start getting bumped off, his efforts to solve the crimes first lead to reluctantly reuniting with his former partner (McCarthy) whose testimony caused his dismissal 20 years earlier. Before long, he becomes suspect Number One for the killing spree.
The dialog is clever, with scads of great throwaway lines - some of which I missed because of loud, frequent audience laughter. The mobility of the cloth-clad cast members allowed Henson to deliver some terrifically fresh and funny visuals, with slapstick and grossout gags that will make the unsuspecting blush. Or worse.
In my college days (eons ago), I bought a poster of all the Disney characters in a Hieronymus Bosch array of sexual and scatological extremes. It was hilarious. This movie delivers similar irreverence to generations who grew up with wholesome, kid-friendly Muppet antics and lessons, rarely tiptoeing beyond Miss Piggy's horniness for Kermit on the bawdiness scale.
This winds up being a treat for those who know what to expect, and particularly for McCarthy's fans. This is actually the best vehicle she's had for a while, which is good news for all comedy buffs. Even if Jim Henson might not approve of his son's choices here, those who enjoy South Park and the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming will feel right at home.
Again - DON'T BRING THE KIDDIES!
Mile 22 (2018)
Good concept for action flick sunk by stunningly inept execution. Huge disappointment
Mark Wahlberg has starred in many fine films. Peter Berg has directed many fine films. Occasionally, the two have overlapped. This action opus is not an example of either. It's a bigger dud than any unexploded bomb Wile E. Coyote ever bought from Acme.
The premise had potential. After an opening SWAT-style raid on Russian infiltrators, Wahlberg and his team of CIA operatives head for Southeast Asia to try recovering stolen nuclear material that could fuel a batch of dirty bombs. When their tip from a local cop (Iko Uwais - Indonesia's Tony Jaa, who is Thailand's Jet Li, who is China's version of what Steven Seagal still THINKS HE IS) comes up empty, they wind up having to get him out of the country ASAP as his price for telling them where it is NOW. The title refers to the distance from the US Embassy to the evac airstrip which they must traverse against overwhelming opposition. The clock is running on that window, while local forces try to wrest Uwais from the Americans, and a big high-tech Russian plane flies above the action with its own mysterious agenda. That's a lot of plotlines for a hectic shoot- em-up flick. Too many.
On the plus side, the script does offer a couple of twists at the end, but one is to set up a sequel that should never be produced; or at least crafted by a new set of writers, editors and director. This one is swamped by dialog so bad that even a whiz like John Malkovich can't make his lines as the head honcho work. Most action sequences are so choppy and/or underlit that they're indecipherable. One should always be able to tell who is killing whom, to know whether each new corpse is a plus or a minus for our heroes. All told, this is one of the most missable films of the year.
Dwayne Does Die Hard...Disappointingly
As a lifelong sports fan I oughta understand jinxes by now. In my last review of a movie starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Rampage, I half-jokingly supported his rumored thoughts about running for President, due to his consistently sound judgment in choosing projects. JINX! I may have caused this family-friendly action flick to go off the rails by praising his picking power prematurely.
In this opus, The Rock is a former FBI crisis stud who lost his lower left leg in a hostage situation that ended with a bang. The wrong kind. Now he's a security consultant who flies to Hong Kong with his wife and two kids to double-check the systems for a 200+ story building that's about to open its upper floors of luxury condos. Bad guys have other plans that begin with hacking the controls and starting a fire about halfway up. Guess whose family just happens to be in one of the imperiled apartments?
Which demographic has the best chance of enjoying this attempt at a blockbuster? We start with the many millions of ardent fans of The Rock. But the focus must shift quickly to those who've never seen Die Hard, 'cause Bruce Willis gave us a lot more gore and guffaws than anyone will find in this descendant of the concept. I suspect the area of overlap on the Venn diagram of those two circles is rather tiny.
The eponymous building is amazingly, if not excessively, complex, making all the heroics therein hard to follow. Every bit of the budget and thought seemingly went to computer graphics, with nothing left for plot or character development. Or dialog. It all looks great, but more in the sci-fi realm than intended. The only upside from the Die Hard franchise is that Mrs. The Rock, Neve Campbell, contributes more actively to the rescue and villain foiling than Bonnie Bedelia's Holly McClane. Another win for Me Too, however Pyrrhic the package renders it.
Breaking In (2018)
Paint-by-numbers attempt at a thriller
Here's the deal. Mom (Gabrielle Union) takes her two kids to the country home of her recently-deceased father. He was some sort of criminal who gets whacked in the opening scene. The family has been estranged for many years. Their only reason for the visit is to prepare the place for sale. But four bad guys surprise them. They think the old man stashed $4 mil in a safe, and expected the house to be empty. That puts our protagonist trio in peril, with only mom's innate toughness offering hope for survival.
It's not really much of a spoiler for any reader who has ever seen one of endangered average woman, kid, family, etc. flicks to predict that this family will prevail. Never poke the momma bear, dudes. The outcome is always a matter of the How, not the If. Grandpa's super high-tech security system is as much of a character here as any of the humans. Union's efforts are par for this course, though director James McTeigue, who fared well at the helm of other action/suspense fare like V for Vendetta and The Raven, manages to make 88 minutes seem much longer. That makes the execution of the inevitable result more tedious than terrifying.
On the plus side, the home and its idyllic surroundings are terrific. Kudos to the location scouts. Casting Ajiona Alexus as the teen daughter was also a fine decision, since she not only looks like she could really be Union's daughter, but handles her role skillfully. Her future will surely include better roles in better films.
Compelling, understated drama from Hungary about the aftermath of the Holocaust in one small village
This subtitled Hungarian drama is highly reminiscent of one of Spencer Tracy's Oscar-nominated outings, Bad Day at Black Rock. When a stranger comes to a small town, people start assuming he's got a worrisome agenda, and they start scrambling to cover their guilty secrets. In this case, the small town is in post-war Hungary. Two Jewish men get off a train, carrying boxes, and trekking through the village. No one knows why they've come, and many have reasons to fear a return of the Jews who used to live there, before their properties were confiscated and redistributed when the Nazis sent them to the camps.
One man is guilt-ridden over his role in the incarceration of former friends. Others are hell-bent on keeping whatever they obtained, rather than having those former neighbors or their relatives recoup what was taken.
Like the Tracy film, this one is shot in black-and-white, and presented tersely, leaving room for viewers to fill in the spaces between the lines and actions. The absence of color, which I usually dislike, seems appropriate here, linking it to familiar newsreel and fictional depictions of the era. It also highlights the bleakness of life in the aftermath of all the horrors World War II wrought throughout Europe, on the battlefields and beyond. Living with one's inner demons can exact a toll on collaborators, as well as combatants.
There's not much action, and no archival footage. This one's all about the residents, the choices they made, and the varied consequences therefrom. A serious film for serious viewers. Although the specifics of the plot are rooted in the Holocaust and its after-effects, the responsibility and accountability of individuals in the midst of such political tides is a timeless and vital theme.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Big budget, big cast, big bang for the buck - lives up to its hype
Since everyone likely to watch this has already seen plenty of Marvel Comics' superhero movies, let's keep this one simple, with a good news-bad news format:
Good - More superheroes appear in this one than you could shake Thor's hammer at. Bad - It's occasionally hard to keep track of who is using which power against which enemy or henchperson thereof.
Bad - It runs 2 ½ hours. Good - The action is so (dare I say?) fast and furious that it sure seems a lot shorter.
Bad - After all that time, the movie ends with a lousy situation, including some surprising deaths, just to set up a sequel. Good - Since the power to control time is one of the themes, maybe the sequel will undo some of the losses we witnessed in this one.
Good - Stan Lee's cameo comes early, allowing focus to remain on the main story. Bad - What could possibly be bad about a Stan Lee cameo? They're always nothing but degrees of good.
Good - Josh Brolin looks and sounds suitably menacing in the role of archvillain Thanos, while also showing more emotional layers than usual for the genre. Bad - The handsome Brolin, in full regalia, bears a shocking resemblance to Ron Perlman, which would be a serious loss of points on the old 1-10 scale if carried over to his real life.
Good - Wonderful comic touches from Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man/Tony Stark and the crew from Guardians of the Galaxy. Bad - Much of the action occurs in such dark, ominous settings, creating the impression of DC Comics having invaded this universe. Even Darth Vader would have wanted to redecorate Thanos' spacecraft and environs top cheer the place up.
Bad - Dave Bautista's endearingly dense Drax is getting even dumber. Good - At least his form of stupidity is funny, unlike the same trend in the US Congress.
Good - Thanos' evil plot is to save all the planets in the universe that have become overpopulated by wiping out half of their populations in a single stroke. Since he offs them randomly, he thinks it's fair, making him the ultimate eco-warrior. Bad - See previous comment about US Congress, whose collective thinking is no better.
Good - Scarlett Johansson appears as Black Widow. Bad - She doesn't get enough screen time to display her lithe and lethal skill set to full advantage. Actually, the same pairing applies to lovable tree-creature Groot, but for very different reasons
Bad - The credits are really, really long. Good - The standard teaser after they finally roll past is worth the wait.
Good - Franchise fans (who, unlike me at the time, already know this isn't a one-and-done story line) should be delighted by the script and the overall quality of the production, including all the CGI vistas and mayhem. Go to the biggest screen and most enveloping sound system in driving range, since there's plenty of action worthy of those enhancements. Bad - If you've not already seen a fair share of the zillion movies or read a bunch of the decades of comics featuring Thor, Spiderman, Iron Man and all the other characters converging to defeat this epic threat to the universe, don't start here. You'll be a stranger in a strange land.
In space, no one can hear you bond.
They dumped @Midnight for THIS????
Welcome to the comedy equivalent of a Colbert Report cover band, playing at a small-town Holiday Inn lounge. Klepper is no Colbert, though he's trying an overly similar shtick. His supporting cast of "reporters" is far below the talent level of Larry Wilmore's former cohorts who thrived in that time slot until another curious, lamentable cancellation by the network.
Besides the impossible task of matching Colbert's genius for spoofing conservatives by pretending to be one, this show suffers for another reason apart from talent and originality. When Colbert came up with "truthiness", it was a sharp lampoon of nascent cultural and political tendencies. But now we're fed a steady diet of blatant disregard for facts; claims of "fake news" for anything that conflicts with one's beliefs/agenda; and willful creation of propaganda, from home and abroad; from the highest levels of government and major media. In this climate, that vein of satire can't be as funny or pithy. Klepper's is another vain voice in the wind.
Admittedly, the show has improved since its awkward first week, but it still lacks punch and consistency. Nothing would please me more than continued tweaks that would allow me to raise its rating score. Well, that's not true. I'd be even happier if they brought back the two superior shows mentioned above, with or without this one. Even as a Midwestern white guy nearing 70 (about as far from Hardwick's and Wilmore's demographic as one can get), I never missed an episode of either. Even though I wasn't hip enough to understand all the references, what I got was gold.
C'mon, Comedy Central. As your excellent addition Jim Jefferies says at the close of his shows, "We can all do better." I hope your programmers are paying attention. You shrewdly revived Futurama; Do the same for these other worthy offerings that deserved longer runs.
Stunning f/x not enough to overcome script and casting shortfalls
If you can't tell by the title, this one's a sci-fi adventure, heavy on computer graphics. It's based on a series of French comics, and directed by action maven Luc Besson, whose credentials as a writer and director of high-octane and/or artistic action (from La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element to the Transporter series to the under- appreciated Angel-A). This one looks great, but is less filling than his norm.
After feeling disappointed by many recent 3-D offerings, at least Besson made the most of the medium, with dazzling visuals and full- blown depth depiction throughout the film, both in space and assorted interiors. For all the times I've advised readers to save the extra cost of a 3-D ticket, this time I heartily endorse it, so long as the rest of this review doesn't cause you to forget the whole thing.
Relatively obscure Dane DeHaan is about 30, but looks like a teenager, making him appear unfit for the role of Major Valerian, the go-to super-agent (and major stud) for the Good Guys in this futuristic universe. He appeared to be a Frankie Muniz, on his way to doing another Spy Kids flick, who wandered onto the wrong set, and ended up miscast as a barely pubescent James Bond wannabe. His partner and sought-after paramour (Cara Delevigne) seems more suitable, but only because less is expected of her Robin to his Batman.
The eponymous city is a massive cluster of ships and structures that started in Earth's orbit before being set adrift to gather residents of hundreds of planets and species over the next 400 years, all living, working and sharing their tech and cultures in harmony; or so it seems. Somebody did something bad, which we see in the opening sequence, that comes back to make more trouble for our heroic duo than they were led to expect on this mission.
The film runs over two hours, which might have been fine with more credible protagonists. But DeHaan looked too much like a casting choice imposed on the production for reasons other than the gravitas his character required. This one could rack up quite a few tech nominations in awards season, but don't expect any for acting or the adapted screenplay.
Anonymity of principal cast honors anonymous heroes
The story of this massive evacuation of British and French troops back across the English Channel in 1940 has been depicted several times before, but never so intriguingly or compellingly. Writer/director Christopher Nolan pulled off what seems to be oxymoronic in crafting a powerfully understated presentation of such a famous event. The preceding military action in France was a disaster, but rescuing most of the 400,000 soldiers pinned down by all branches of the German forces allowed England to keep Hitler on the Continent until the rest of the Allies would become fully armed and engaged.
Most war films focus on one or more heroes, played by stars and familiar character actors, with relatively predictable story arcs. The 1958 account of this historic achievement starred John Mills and Richard Attenborough; in 2004, Benedict Cumberbatch and Timothy Dalton headlined. This time, Kenneth Branagh is the biggest "name", but his role is marginal. Instead, we switch among several story lines of anonymous soldiers, sailors, pilots and civilians, with few of them even being given names. We also see their fears, moments of cowardice or selfishness along with their heroism. By not knowing who is who (and, typically, who we figure will either save the day, die tragically, or both, based on decades of cinematic convention) we feel the utter randomness of which imperiled character will live or die, and whether it will happen on shore or during evacuation.
British pride over the event comes largely from the way innumerable civilian boat owners, with vessels of all types and sizes, bravely responded to the call to help its over-matched Navy by crossing the channel to carry as many lads back as they could hold... if they survived the threats from enemy U-boats, bombers and fighter jets. For the troops, reaching one of the boats proved to be far from an assurance of safe passage.
Nolan delivers all the sound and fury of being among their ranks, sustaining nearly two hours of the intense fear, chaos and frustrations that the actual figures must have experienced. It's among the closest approximations I can recall of the masterful D-Day landing sequence at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. We see many fatalities from many causes, but without the explicit display of bloodshed that an R- rated production would have contained. We didn't need it to get the layers of emotional impact in that ordeal from all perspectives. The jumps from one mini-arena to another, and even repeating certain sequences from different character perspectives adds to that sense of no one in position to deduce what action or location will be safest for themselves or their comrades.
The experience is grueling for the audience, and honors the soldiers most by putting us in their actual, not idealized or glorified, boots. This Dunkirk marks quite an achievement for all its creators and cast.
The Little Hours (2017)
Great cast highlights near-miss on satirical period farce
The Little Hours is an indie comedy with an appealing cast and premise that unfortunately is likely to offend more people than it amuses. Allison Brie, Aubrey Plaza and Kate Micucci star as three young novitiates in the Middle Ages. The first two would vastly prefer life away from the isolated convent, and are champing at the bit in various ways. The third is a goody-two-shoes who eagerly tails and snitches on the others for the slightest no- nos. In fairness, she's just as hard on herself, wearing out the confessional priest (John C, Reilly) who must endure her detailed recitations of trivial trespasses.
When a roguish servant (Dave Franco) is caught boinking the wife of a nearby lord (Nick Offerman), he flees in justifiable fear of his life, running into the drunken priest, who was in the midst of his own self-inflicted distress. After helping him recover, they devise a plan. Franco will return to the convent with him, pretending to be a deaf-mute laborer, allowing sanctuary for one, and a relief from the foul-mouthed invectives the young ladies had regularly screamed at the last poor sap who held the job.
That sets up the main theme - sexual curiosity and silly seduction attempts for everyone under 25, and perhaps beyond. When the befuddled bishop (Fred Armisen) arrives for an inspection, he's overwhelmed by the shocking closeted capers in the cloisters.
The film is loosely based on a social and religious satire of that era, Boccaccio's Decameron, which pointed it barbs at hypocrisy and other ills of The Church and The Gentry.. Writer/director Jeff Baena seems to have grasped what he wanted to accomplish, but did far better at reeling in a talented cast and finding exceptional locations than in giving them a worthy script to cash in on those preparations. The farcical element of the nuns-to-be flailing about farcically to lose their sexual naivete could have been far more amusing and/or titillating. The shock value of young nuns from long ago cursing like 21st Century punks isn't enough to carry an entire feature.
Baena's best previous script was the wryly comic I Heart Huckabees, which also tried to include intellect-oriented humor. Baena didn't direct that one. He also shared the writing with the more accomplished David Russell, whose credits include wearing both hats for American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook. Baena still needs more time on the ascending side of the learning curve, but he's only 40, and seems to be heading in a worthy direction. After all, any guy with a relatively small list of credits who can sign so many gifted comic actors (Paul Reiser, Adam Pally and Molly Shannon, too) must have something on the ball to reward their faith, even if this wasn't necessarily it. Stay tuned...
The Mummy (2017)
Mummy mostly missing from muddled, mediocre movie
SPOILER ALERT - This review contains plenty, but the film makers deserve them! Reasons not to watch this turkey: 1- Sofia Boutella, who was mesmerizing as the springblade-legged assassin in Kingsman: The Secret Service, is completely wasted in this drab role, despite playing the title character. 2- Tom Cruise, as the reanimated Mummy's new love interest and/or destiny fulfiller, gets far more screen time than Boutella, making it a supernatural Mission Improbable flick. 3- The plot, such as it is, involves a foxy, ambitious princess, poised to become the next pharaoh until daddy sires a son, who jumps ahead in the line of succession the moment the midwife spanks his princely bottom. That leads her to strike a deal with Set, the God of the Dead. She fillets the rest of her family before anyone can breed again. Then she would kill a lover, whose body Set would inhabit for a long and happy reign of torturing everyone else...together. That failed; she was mummified alive and buried in Iraq for a few millennia, until a couple of US soldiers of dubious character (Cruise and Jake Johnson)accidentally un-bury her with an airstrike during our national misadventures over there. By amazing coincidence, a comely British archaeologist (Annabelle Wallis) Cruise had just boinked to snatch an ancient map from her, arrives on the scene to schlep the crypt to England, where other artifacts essential to the old plot were also unearthed. 4- Her boss (Russell Crowe) is Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. Literally. That one. No explanation for how he's still alive in the present, or not fictional, or not living under a pseudonym.In Australia. 5- After reading such a dreadful script, Cruise must have signed on because he thought this spin on an ancient religion made Scientology seem relatively palatable. 6- The drivel factor includes repetitive exposition (even repeating scenes of the backstory), making its 110 minutes seem even longer. 7- The CG action sequences are mostly shot with so little lighting that it's hard to get the adrenaline boost most viewers seek when choosing such fare. 8- The only character who deserves our empathy dies early in the going...lucky stiff. 9- The movie's lame ending actually sets up a sequel!!!! Hubris, thy name is Hollywood. 10 - If they try to make one, suitable working titles could be Bill and Ted's Excrement Adventure, Dawn of the Dud, or Raiders of the Lost Art.
Note: This may be my harshest review since Bill Cosby's Ghost Dad, and that was in 1990 when I was still one of his fans.
Kaboul Kitchen (2012)
French TV dramedy series thrives in unlikely setting
It's hard to imagine anyone having the audacity to pitch a TV series, not only set in 2005 Kabul, Afghanistan, but a sitcom, rather than a drama in a city torn by war and culture clashes. Thankfully, someone sold the concept to French TV a few years ago, leading to two 12-episode seasons. The first is now available here on DVD, and it's quite a treat.
Jacky (Gilbert Melki) has been running his restaurant there since before the post-9/11 turmoil. He sees himself as a contemporary version of Humphrey Bogart's Rick from Casablanca, coping with the Taliban, rather than Nazis. His clientèle is fellow expatriates from all nations, since he's about the only game in town serving otherwise-forbidden booze and pork dishes, with seating around a pool where women can swim or sunbathe as they would in the West. As fundamentalist backlash and fervor is ramping up, his gorgeous, estranged daughter (Stephanie Pasterkamp) suddenly arrives to work for a local charity. When his liquor supply is endangered, he's forced into partnership with a rather sociopathic army colonel (Simon Abkarian), whose friendship is as embarrassing and menacing as it is essential to keeping his doors open, and his customers safe from escalating religious threats.
The characters and situations have been finely honed, with valuable contributions from many minor players. These episodes respect the host country's diverse factions and pressures, replicate the uncertainties and fluidity of life there for outsiders, while delivering plenty of laughs, broad and otherwise.
One oft-cited axiom is that Comedy = Tragedy + Time. Hogan's Heroes, both incarnations of M*A*S*H and Good Morning, Vietnam debuted more than a decade after their respective wars had ended. Afghanistan is still a volatile quagmire not only for our troops, but those of many other countries, with no end in sight. That adds a level of unease to these 30-minute episodes, not only about what will happen on- screen, but how they may affect viewers elsewhere, and what real- life consequences may follow?
Perhaps this series' success was a factor in the decision to green- light HBO's new sitcom, The Brink, with Jack Black as an idiotic State Department underling in Pakistan, bumbling his way through Islamabad while our Secretary of State (Tim Robbins) desperately globe-trots to keep the Hawks in the Cabinet from triggering a likely Armageddon. Since that one stars the manic Black and airs on HBO, it's considerably more frenzied and hyperbolic. But the nuance with which Kaboul Kitchen's stories unfold and characters evolve makes one salivate over the arrival of Season Two, perhaps with hopes for more.
Looks Great, Less Filling
I'm a big fan of both writer/director Luc Besson (The Transporter and Taken series, among the lengthy action credentials he's racked up since La Femme Nikita) and his star, Scarlett Johansson. Alas, the two have collaborated on a movie that's truly cool and exciting until it descends into stupidity. Besson's directing significantly out-paces his writing in this one.
The premise is familiar axiomatic science. Humans only use about 10% of our brain capacity, leaving zillions of neural pathways, with all their unknown potential capabilities, in storage. What if we could use more, or even all of it? What information and collective memories might we access? What physical and mental powers might emerge - perhaps ranging somewhere between superhero and deity? Those prospects are particularly relevant, since Johansson has played the former, and co-star Morgan Freeman the latter in better movies.
Johansson's character is a college student dating the wrong guy in Taipei. Gangsters force her into serving as a mule for a new designer drug they'll sell in Europe. When the package they plant in her belly bursts, it expands her mind to the max. Payback and other deployments of these enhancements before the drug overwhelms her drive the plot and its hectic pace. Several sequences show Besson at his best, including one in which Johansson drives through Paris like another Jason Statham.
As to the rest, there are two possibilities. Either Besson didn't know how to get his cast out of the situation he created, settling for a jumble of splashy, acid-trip array of computer effects that fail to sync with his title character. Or the upper limit of my 10% is so far below his that I've missed the point and should have given this a higher rating. If you go, the call is yours.
And So It Goes (2014)
Kurt Vonnegut introduced the last three words of this title into our culture in his classic satiric novel Slaughterhouse Five; newswoman Linda Ellerbee's version with the "and" made it even more famous as her sign-off for insightful news and commentary segments. Both would grieve over its deployment in this tired attempt at a sentimental romantic comedy. Or maybe the producers used it ironically, admitting how this was merely the inevitable application of old convention (bitter old dude rediscovers life and joy from new connections with others), directed by what's left of Rob Reiner, and starring the remnants of Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton. She'd already steered a better course through these murky waters opposite Jack Nicholson in Something's Gotta Give.
Douglas' character is a surly widower who is rich enough to be a curmudgeon, rather than just a regular jerk. His estranged son, while on his way to prison, suddenly sticks the old grouch with the care of a 10-year-old granddaughter he'd never even known existed. Kindly neighbor Keaton - a widow who sings oldies in a local lounge until her own grief causes show-stopping crying jags - provides the path to Douglas' re-humanization. That's not a spoiler. Everyone knows where this plot absolutely positively must come to rest before the thing even starts. It's the Law of the Land in Tinseltown.
The sets are lovely. The comedy content is slim. Douglas' path from loutish to loving grows tiresome. As a cinematic crooner, Keaton delivers a tossup with Kiera Knightley's recent gig in Begin Again. Or by another measure, the film's eminent music director Marc Shaiman (five Oscars and a slew of other awards) has written or collaborated on dozens of acclaimed movie scores and memorable songs... none of which he has Keaton perform. The net result is a paint-by-numbers production of the second time around for its geriatric principals that will satisfy relatively few of their fans.
Particle Fever (2013)
Short on the science; long on the human factors
Although this is a documentary about the world's greatest scientific undertaking, there's no need for those who've abandoned hope of understanding physics or other advanced sciences to roll their eyes and move on. This one is less about the abstract principles and obscure questions motivating thousands of scientists and dozens of governments to collaborate on the massive European nuclear facility CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) than about the personal and human factors behind it.
The script offers some degree of Physics for Dummies (present company included), in trying to explain the basics of what we know about subatomic particles, and what proving there's such a thing as the Higgs boson could mean about the nature of existence. The so-called "God Particle" was posited as the reason atoms collect to form all matter, including life as we know it, in the universe. Supposedly, learning not only that it exists, but what it weighs could either support arguments for some sort of intelligent or symmetrical design, or a cosmic randomness that might pervade through innumerable parallel universes.
But before you doze off, remember this is mainly about the people behind the curtain. We learn about their dreams and motives. We even share in many of their lighter moments, along with the suspense of whether this massive undertaking would even work, what it would help us understand, and where any results might lead academic endeavors in multiple disciplines for generations to come. It's less scientifically informative, or slickly produced, than the new incarnation of Cosmos that's been running on several TV networks. But it's more intimate in showing relatable emotions among the brainiacs who've devoted years of their lives to this highly speculative venture.
Perhaps the best feature of the film is its clarity about the underlying difference between science and other human pursuits like religion or politics. Everyone at CERN was seeking objective, provable answers, even if they unraveled their own beliefs. And all were dedicated to the mission with absolutely no idea of what commercial uses, if any, their outcomes might engender. It's the purity of human curiosity at its finest. Learning for its own sake. No one at NASA expected the space race to leave us with Tang and other related products. Time will tell on the practical applications and cultural developments we'll receive from the labors of these scholars. For now, it's reassuring to know they've got a place to find the answers.
Antigone 34 (2012)
solid crime stories; fine protagonists
We certainly have no shortage to crime dramas among domestic TV fare, but this French series is uniquely compelling in several respects. The city of Montpellier in southern France provides an attractive backdrop. As tough, troubled police detective Lea Hippolyte, Anne Le Nen brings a low-key intensity and mystique to the role one usually finds in male protagonists - almost a throwback to the hard-boiled dicks of pulps and film noir. Her hard shell is balanced somewhat by the warmer department shrink, Helene de Soyere's Dr. Claire Borota, who plays key roles in the series' six episodes. Together, they're Rizzoli & Iles without the levity and degree of bonding.
Each 50-minute installment works as a stand-alone tale, with some overlapping story elements as running threads. The series ran in 2012. One hopes the producers are working on further deployment of this appealing cast and setup. There should be plenty more to entertainment value to mine from these characters.
Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
Looks Great, Less Filling
This overlong prequel to the classic Wizard of Oz offers much to admire, but more to regret. Its new screenplay gives us the backstory on how the Wizard wound up there before Dorothy blew into town for her famous adventure. With the resources of the Disney empire and Sam Raimi at the helm, one might expect another fantasy for the ages. One would be severely disappointed.
James Franco stars as Oz, a cheesy magician in a seedy little traveling carnival in 1905 Kansas. He has no scruples about conning the rubes, or trying to seduce the local lovelies. While fleeing from an irate husband in a hot air balloon, a tornado swoops him up to the not-so-merry old land of Oz, where he's believed to be the wizard of prophesy to free the kingdom from the clutches of an evil witch. As in the original, the Kansas setup is filmed in black & white, creating a stunning contrast when he reaches the colorful splendor of the main action.
The place is up for grabs among three witchy sisters (Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams) who are variably good or wicked. One kilt their pa, the kindly king who is mourned by the nice folk of the land. This "wizard" is actually more cowardly than Bert Lahr's lion; and whatever heart he may have beyond Jack Haley's Tin Man is dwarfed by his avarice.
The visuals are truly spectacular - especially in the climactic confrontation sequence. 3-D is highly advisable. But there's not enough meat in the script for well over two hours of running time. Besides that, Franco mugs his way through the worst performance of his career, other than last year's dreadful job of co-hosting The Oscars.
Raimi has deftly combined mayhem - large-scale and small - with sharp humor in a slew of films, from his early horror flicks, to The Quick and the Dead (slightly surreal western) to at least two of his three Spiderman blockbusters. His Evil Dead II includes my all-time favorite cinematic sight gag. Other than a quick in-joke with his pal Bruce Campbell, there's little of Raimi's wit in evidence. One might assume the Disney honchos kept him on a short leash. Much of the film gives the impression of setting up the framework for a theme park attraction, rather than making the best film their available assets could yield.
Parents should be aware that this is a darker, scarier adventure than Judy Garland's journey, with less offsetting cuteness and music. It could easily have been rated PG-13. Keep that in mind, along with relative attention-spans, when deciding which kids to bring or (perhaps better) send to this movie.
Where were Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter when they were needed?
Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)
Fee Fi Ho Hum
Here's yet another fairy tale stretched into a somewhat more adult action-adventure flick following what Hollywood has done lately to Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Hansel & Gretel, and perhaps a couple of others. These stem from a couple of irresistible temptations - the ease of creating fanciful worlds and creatures with today's computer graphics, and the perceived box-office advantage of offering something based on the familiar. The latter also explains the proliferation of sequels in horror, action, sci-fi, animation and comedies. The former unfortunately has led to spending too much of the budget on the sizzle, at the expense of the steak...meaning the script.
So we get a rather tedious tale of intrepid Jack (Nicholas Hoult, who looks like Richard Thomas' John Boy in the early years of The Waltons) and a spunky princess (Eleanor Tomlinson, who looks like every post-feminist, not-just-pretty-but-smart-and-brave heiress to a mythical throne) climbing that beanstalk to encounter a whole ragtag army of nasty giants who ravaged the earthlings below many generations ago, who've been seething about their prison-in-the-sky existence ever since. Don't even try to make sense of the premise. The producers didn't.
Admittedly, the f/x make for some exciting moments, including a spectacular climactic battle. If you're curious enough to attend, look for the biggest 3-D screen within range, because you'll likely need to maximize the visual adrenalin stimuli to stay engaged.
If these revisionist sagas continue to be profitable, how long will it be before Mother Hubbard's poor doggie goes all Cujo for want of a bone, or Little Miss Muffet replaces John Goodman's hilarious exterminator in a retooled remake of Arachnophobia?
Bad timing for this plot and protagonist
This Wall Street-based drama is either one of the most pointless or poorly-timed releases in recent memory. Richard Gere plays a hedge-fund zillionaire scrambling to sell his company quickly. We soon learn he borrowed over $400M to cover some losses on bad market guesses, and has to seal the deal before his house of cards collapses. He's also got a poster-perfect family he's ignoring to boink a hot young mistress. Early in the going, a moment of tragedy adds another huge layer of pressures and urgency to his existence.
Before the financial crisis of 2008, Gere's character may have seemed a relatively sympathetic figure - a product of his environment, trying to save his business and family from the kind of mistakes anyone could make. He might have been painted as a victim of circumstance. Even the affair would have been minimized as par for that course among his class of empire builders. But four years after the wheeling and dealing of such mega-rich manipulators destroyed so many lives and national economies, with virtually no losses or consequences - certainly no criminal convictions - to any of them, he's just another dirtbag, both professionally and personally.
Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki fleshes out the cast with a number of characters who could have served as avatars for various subsets of those who suffered at the hands of the Geres, or tried to do the right thing in the wake of their abuses. Yet only one character emerges unscathed - you'll know who I mean by the end, but further explanation would undermine whatever enjoyment you might derive from this film.