Movie Reviews

Movie Review Angry Birds 2

Angry Birds 2 is a significant improvement over the original. The first Angry Birds in 2016 was not terrible but it was plagued by the notion that it was a mercenary effort that was solely capitalizing on the hit app game. That was an accurate assessment but the creative team and the actors did make some of Angry Birds palatable with some solid jokes and a reasonably logical narrative. 

 

Three years later the app game is pretty much a relic and the creative team behind Angry Birds 2 don’t have nearly as much of the burden of being mercenary or soulless. With distance from the game, we can focus on big jokes and these likable characters voiced by talented stars. It may still be a minor effort, but Angry Birds 2 justifies its own existence by garnering way more laughs than you expect. 

 

Angry Birds 2 picks up the story of the Angry Birds and their rival green pigs as both islands continue to prank each other via their oversized slingshots. Red (Jason Sudeikis) is basking in the glory of having rescued Bird Island from the pig onslaught of the last movie. Unfortunately, even as his heroic self esteem grew, his insecurity has grown as well. Red has a deep seated fear that the current esteem in which he is held could go away at any moment and the thought is keeping him from enjoying all of the positive attention. 

 

One night, after Red’s friends Bomb (Danny McBride) and Chuck (Josh Gad) drag him away from the beach where he stands watch daily, to go to a singles night for fun, a giant ice ball nearly hits the island. Another similar ice ball had just nearly crushed the pigs and their leader, King Leonard (Bill Hader) is having a fit. Leonard inadvertently triggers even more of Red’s insecurity by begging the Birds for a truce so that he can try to convince the Bird’s to team with the pigs to battle whatever is sending the ice balls. But all Red can think of is what he might lose if he isn’t defending Bird Island from the pigs. 

 

The ice balls are coming from an icy island somewhere in between the Pigs and Birds. The ice island is populated by Eagles and their leader, Zeta, wants off the island in the worst way. She wants to use the ice balls to run off the Birds and Pigs so she can take their islands for herself, her daughter, Courtney (Awkwafina), and all of Eagle kind. Zeta also has a long history with Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage), the fake hero of bird island. 

 

Will the pigs and birds be able to work together long enough to stop Zeta from destroying their islands or will her strange technology that captures lava inside of ice destroy both islands. If you think that is going to be a genuine question filled with any real tension then you are expecting too much of a silly, kids animated movie. The point isn’t plot in Angry Birds 2, it’s gags and the gags are, for the most part, quite funny. 

 

The creators of Angry Birds 2, director Thurop Van Orman and writers Peter Ackerman and Eyall Podell, have packed Angry Birds 2 with a lot of good natured laughs and big comic set pieces and most of those work. They are not reinventing the genre or anything but they do enough to get consistent laughs out of a property that for all intents should not be as winning and enjoyable it is. 

 

On top of the laughs, I became legitimately invested in Red’s identity crisis. No joke, Jason Sudeikis and the writers of Angry Birds 2 actually made me care about Red’s crisis, his deep insecurity. It is not something the movie lays on thick, but it is woven well into the story. Red doesn’t want to go back to being forgotten, bullied or looked down upon. The first film chronicled his unlikely hero status and Angry Birds 2 takes care to address how that story is playing out in the wake. 

 

Of course movie sequels should pick up story threads from their predecessors but given the episodic nature of so many franchises would anyone have noticed that Angry Birds, of all things, had let a few story threads fall away? It’s almost brave that anyone thought we cared enough about the first film to remember the plot, to have the nerve to make the repercussions of that plot central to the main character’s story in Angry Birds 2 is an impressive bit of continuity. 

 

As I said earlier, this isn’t rocket science and the makers of Angry Birds 2 are not reimagining the genre or anything. Instead, they’ve simply taken care to make a movie they can be proud of. It’s a movie that could have been given to many creative teams who might have slapped together some lowbrow, childish gags and market ready tie-ins for videogames or toys and called it a day. 

 

This team however, appeared to actually care about their work. They crafted this story. They took care in casting the voice cast, which also includes Angry Birds newcomers Rachel Bloom as Red’s love interest, This is Us superstar Sterling K Brown and Leslie Jones as a fantastically silly villain. The team behind Angry Birds 2 had every expectation that they would take the easy road to an easy paycheck and instead they made a genuinely funny and compelling sequel that surpasses the original. 

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Movie Review Dora and the Lost City of Gold

Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a strange movie. This adaptation of the famed cartoon series, Dora the Explorer, attempts to bridge the gap from the toddler-centric cartoon to a modern day adventure aimed at tweens and young teens. That this bridge turns out to be rather solid is quite a welcome surprise. Dora and the Lost City of Gold isn’t exactly a mind-blowing cinematic experience but it is modestly entertaining and inoffensively fun. 

 

Dora (Isabella Moner) grew up in the jungle with a monkey for a best friend and a backpack and a map as her toys. Fearless and curious, Dora from an early age explored every inch of jungle she could. Dora’s parents, Cole (Michael Pena) and Elena (Eva Longoria), are explorers who live to discover hidden places in the world. Distinctively however, Cole and Elena are explorers and not treasure hunters. 

 

Cole and Elena instill in Dora a deep respect for not disturbing the places they explore but experiencing them as they are. This is a rare attitude unfortunately, as most people in the business of being in the jungle, do so for profit and glory. Dora shares her parents’ love of history and learning and her curiosity drives her to take risks, risks that unfortunately lead mom and dad to worry for her safety.

 

Mom and Dad are on the verge of discovering the Lost City of Gold, the Incan legend about an unimaginable treasure. They are ready to go and explore this hidden treasure but when Dora nearly breaks herself in half trying to find one more clue for them, they decide that the trip is just too dangerous for her. Dora will have to go to America and stay with her aunt, uncle and her cousin, Diego (Jeff Wahlberg). 

 

Diego’s parents used to live and work and explore in the jungle just like Cole and Elena. This led to Dora and Diego growing up as best friends, going on imaginary adventure together with Boots The Monkey (voice of Dany Trejo), a talking Map and Dora’s animated backpack always filled with exactly the tool that they need. That was 10 years ago however, when Diego’s parents moved to California. 

 

Today, Diego is as much a city kid as anyone at his High School. He has memories of his cousin Dora, but High School has made him anxious, cynical and self-involved, the antithesis of the bright, cheerful and eager to please Dora. The best friends reunion that Dora hoped for doesn’t go as planned, nor does her first days in High School where she’s picked on, mocked and struggles to fit in. This doesn’t deter Dora from being her cheerful self, but it is troubling for her. 

 

Then, the plot truly kicks in. Dora’s parents go missing during their search for the Lost City of Gold and Dora is kidnapped along with Diego, and two classmates, Randy (Nicholas Coombe) and Sammie (Madeleine Madden), during a school field trip. The kidnappers want Dora to lead them to her parents and the trail to the Lost City of Gold. When they arrive back in the jungle however, a friend of Dora’s parents, Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez) is there for the rescue. He along with Dora and the gang will have to find Dora’s parents before the kidnappers do in order to survive this adventure.

 
Dora and the Lost City of Gold was written by Nicholas Stoller of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Neighbors fame and it is quite a departure for him. His wheelhouse is clearly raunchy comedy but, don’t forget, he was also producer on the most recent Muppet Movies, The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted so kids movies with an edge are not all that much of a stretch for Stoller. Not that there is much edge at all to Dora, but there is some experimentation. 

 

Dora and the Lost City of Gold was directed by James Bobin who worked with Stoller on Muppets Most Wanted. In that movie, Stoller and Bobin used irreverent references to classic movies to tell the story of The Muppets in a fashion that bridged the gap between the target kid audience and an audience of nostalgic adults. Here, they employ a similar style, if similar is the right word for the direct lifting of entire scenes from the Indiana Jones canon. 

 

The ending of Dora and the Lost City of Gold borders on being a shot for shot remake of the ending of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. It’s barely even heightened with the main difference being that the bad guy in Dora doesn’t die horrifically on screen. If you’re wondering why I haven’t issued a spoiler alert because I just talked about the ending, trust me when I say I haven’t spoiled anything. Dora and The Lost City of Gold is not a movie that gets its appeal from its plot.

 

So, did I enjoy Dora and the Lost City of Gold? Yes, for the most part. After I got over the fact that I was watching an adaptation of Dora the Explorer, I did legitimately find myself enjoying much of Lost City of Gold. Young Isabelle Moner is a fine young actress whose enthusiasm is rather infectious. She and the rest of the teenage cast are fun to watch, they appear to be having a great time making this movie and that feeling comes through the screen. 

 

That said, it’s not all great. For one thing, I would be very pleased to never see Eugenio Derbez on the big screen again. Derbez’s comic style is basically being as clueless and obnoxious as possible. It’s a style that is akin to fingernails on a chalkboard for me but I could see where kids might enjoy his clownish behavior. That’s the nicest thing I can say about Derbez, he’s a giant goof that children may laugh at because they don’t know any better. 

 

Derbez aside, it's rather improbable given its unique origin but, Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a movie I recommend. Dora is fun enough, it's exciting enough, it has just enough laughs and fourth wall breaking fun. I never would have expected it but I am actually recommending Dora and the Lost City of Gold. That's with the caveat that it is not for all audiences, this is a kids movie, but it is a solid, inoffensive, good natured kids movie that parents won't hate. 

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Movie Review Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw

Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw is as silly and nonsensical as a Fast and the Furious offshoot should be. The film is a blanket of utter nonsense from beginning to end. Little, if anything matters about this movie and that’s how it should be. Dwayne ‘The Rock'' Johnson doesn’t make movies that are deep or meaningful , he makes popcorn for a living and this is some tasty popcorn, soaked in fatty, bad for you real butter. 

 

The Hobbs and Shaw of the title, for those who don’t follow the Fast and Furious franchise,  are Luke Hobbs (Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). The two have been enemies and they’ve been reluctant allies alongside Vin Diesel’s Dominic Torretto. Now, they are partners in saving the world with Shaw’s equally capable and ass-kicking sister, Hattie (Vanessa Shaw) making sure the world saving gets done despite Hobbs and Shaw’s ego contest. 

 

The big bad world ender in Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw is Brixton aka ‘Black Superman,’ that’s an unofficial nickname. Brixton is played by Idris Elba, a man who looks legitimately like the one guy who could, with many cybernetic enhancements, fight both The Rock and Jason Statham. Elba is a heavyweight movie star presence in Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw and his presence is enough to make me forgive the fact that I have no memory of what his nefarious, world ending plan is. 

 

Legit, I cannot be forced to remember what it is that Brixton is fighting for other than the fact that most of the population of the planet has to die for Brixton to reach the goal set for him by an unseen presence whose voice gives Brixton vague directions. I sound critical but I am a major fan of the Fast and the Furious fan and I can’t remember the plot of any of the Fast and Furious movies either.

 

Plot and the mechanics of such are not remotely important as set pieces in a Fast and the Furious movie. The important thing about these movies and for director David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde) is to have big, banging, entertaining action set pieces and Hobbs and Shaw delivers with a series of well choreographed fights and well constructed, CG enhanced action scenes that combine silliness with ambition and subtracts brains. 

 

A London set chase scene is a standout with Statham’s Shaw racing, Fast and the Furious style, through the streets with Idris Elba’s baddie chasing him down on a massively modified motorcycle that defies space and time to do anything Elba demands of it. I am pretty sure it flattened to the size of a piece of paper ala a Looney Tunes cartoon physics vehicle at one point. That’s the level of silly we are playing here, legit Looney Tunes, cartoon physics. 

 

That’s only part of the fun of Hobbs and Shaw however as we also get really well choreographed fight sequences that feel real and practical. Vanessa Kirby gets into a fight with The Rock briefly that is quite fun. Kirby also gets to beat up a number of henchmen throughout and look cool doing it. Kirby has star presence and shines even amid the boys club of Rock and Statham. Rock and Statham are each quite generous in helping her get over with the audience but she’s doing the work. 


I also really enjoyed the sequence seen in most of the film’s trailers with Statham using his mad fighting skills against a series of karate henchmen while Rock beats up one big guy and then mocks Statham while waiting for him to finish off 12 guys. It’s a funny scene in the trailer and it works just as well in the movie. Rock and Statham have a terrific adversarial chemistry, as they’d shown in their previous Fast and the Furious showdowns. 

 

Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw does have some issues, it’s far from a perfect movie even as a big silly action movie. The biggest problem is a particular cameo from one Dwayne The Rock Johnson’s friends that lengthens the movie by a solid 15 minutes. This extra length might not be a problem if the endless riffing gags with this character were funny but they are not funny. The scenes featuring this cameo performance are deathly long, boring and unnecessary. 

 

That however, is my biggest criticism of this movie. Otherwise, Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw is just as silly, over the top and fun as any of the Fast and the Furious movies on their own. The cartoon physics, the unsubtle characters and unintended and intended humor is all there and it is all a great deal of fun. I greatly enjoyed Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw even as I recognize all of the many things wrong with it. The film succeeds on being ambitious nonsense and if you accept it on those terms, the film is so much fun. 

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Movie Review Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Quentin Tarentino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a masterpiece of mood, tone and directorial command. The film is at once a classically Quentin Tarentino style fetish film, a film that explores and lives within the things that Tarentino has long shown an obsession for and a much looser, more relaxed movie than what Tarentino has made before. Yes, the characters are still whip smart and the dialogue comes in bursts of wordy pop aphorisms, but the mood is much more subdued than we are used to with QT and it works really well for this story. 

 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton. Rick is a former television star, the star of the NBC series “Bounty Law” on which he played famed bounty hunter Jake Cahill. However, since the series went off the air several years before the story we are being told here, Rick has struggled to get parts, settling most often to play bad guys to a new generation of Jake Cahill’s eager to get a shine off of punching Jake Cahill in the face. 

 

This new reality for Rick is brought home in a conversation with an agent played by Al Pacino who does not mince words. The agent is trying to seduce Rick into using what is left of his star power to make several Italian spaghetti westerns, a move that would force Rick to move to Rome for six months. Rick doesn’t like the Italian westerns, he feels they are beneath him. The offer is an indication to Rick that his career has truly hit the skids. 

 

Keeping Rick from a full on meltdown is his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Cliff is a pragmatist who points out that spending six months in Rome making westerns is better than sitting at home doing nothing, something that he’s been forced to do more often of late since his stunt career hit the skids. There is a rumor about Cliff that has made the rounds in Hollywood and his work as Rick’s stunt double has come to halt. 

 

Now, Cliff works as Rick’s driver and Man Friday, someone who handles tasks that Rick has no time for. Being that Cliff doesn’t have much to do, and because he genuinely does like Rick, Cliff actually appears content to live on this way, running errands for his friend, driving him around and generally just hanging out at his modest trailer with his dog, drinking beer and watching Mannix. It’s not much of a life but it is Cliff’s life. 

 

Running parallel to the stories of Rick and Cliff is the story of Sharon Tate. History tells the tragic tale that Sharon Tate, the bright, young rising starlet, married to the hottest director on the planet, Roman Polanski, is best remembered for having been murdered. Sharon was one of the victims of The Manson Family, another thread moving through the background of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Margot Robbe plays Tate at her most breathtaking and youthful. Her beauty and effervescence underlines the tragedy of what is to come. 

 

The Manson Family provide one of the most unique and fascinating sequences of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a brief mini-movie within the movie. Cliff becomes enamored of a young Hollywood hippie hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley). After offering Pussycat a ride, Cliff finds himself at Spahn Ranch where he and Rick had filmed many episodes of Bounty Law some 8 years earlier. 


Arriving at the ranch, Cliff is surprised to see the former film lot is now the home of a large group of hippies. The place is a full on commune but with a palpable sense of cultishness. Cliff was once familiar with the much older owner of Spahn Ranch, George Spahn (Bruce Dern) and is curious to find out if the old man has truly allowed this mob of young people to live on his ranch. You will need to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to see how this plays out but the tension and the tight, well held mood of this sequence is riveting. Brad Pitt’s movie star charisma carries the scene and I could not take my eyes off of him. 

 

The Spahn Ranch sequence is part of the remarkable second act of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood which separates our three leads into their own mini-stories. For Sharon Tate, she is in downtown Hollywood and decides to go see herself on the big screen in her first major role, opposite Dean Martin in one of his Matt Helm adventures. Here Tarentino crafts a breathtaking sequence where his Sharon Tate is watching the real Sharon Tate on the big screen and it is magical. There is something so innocent and beautiful in the way Robbe’s Sharon delights in the antics and acting of the real life Sharon. 

 

As for DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, he’s on the set of yet another younger star’s television series. Timothy Olyphant plays James Stacy, a long time fan of Bounty Law who is excited for the chance to best Jake Cahill on his show, Lancer. Rick is anxious and struggling with deep angst about his place in Hollywood when he encounters Trudi (Julia Butters), an 8 year old who practices in Method Acting, insisting on being called by her character’s name, Marjabelle. 

 

Through his emotional encounter with Trudi, Rick will have a breakdown and breakthrough moment that is an absolute must see. DiCaprio is incredible in this sequence in ways that must be seen to be believed. DiCaprio has always been a terrific actor and movie star but here, in this series of scenes, we are watching some of the best work of DiCaprio’s career. DiCaprio has presented Rick as a star beset by anxiety and vainly concerned about his star status and DiCaprio makes him vulnerable and even likable in these moments even as he is also an arrogant, self-obsessed, over-privileged actor. 

 

I won’t talk about anything regarding the third act of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood other than to say it left me floored. It’s Tarentino in all the best ways and you need to see it for yourself. Mind you, it’s not for the squeamish, but it is incredible in the most unexpected and exciting ways. It must be experienced to be believed. The last act of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood brings the fairy tale of 60’s Hollywood to a close in remarkable fashion. 

 

I completely adore Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film is deeply compelling, remarkably cool and filled to the brim with those classically Tarentino moments. If you have loved Tarentino’s previous films, as I have, you are going to adore this one just as much. It’s a success of brilliant pace and unusual moments of ingenuity. The mini-story structure is perfection, each little story within the larger, overarching story works brilliantly into a whole movie that could not be more compelling or entertaining. 

 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is one of the best movies of 2019. 

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Movie Review The Lion King

The Lion King 2019 is an incredibly emotional and moving film. Putting aside the comparisons to the original, this version of the story is exceptionally well told. Director Jon Favreau has brilliantly captured this Shakespearean tale for the whole family with epic music and resonant themes and given it a modern flavor via a remarkable voice cast who elevate the material with their inventive riffing and gorgeous singing. 

 

You likely already know this story, Mufasa (James Earl Jones) is the King of The Pridelands. He and his beloved Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) have just had a son who will one day himself become the King. Simba, voiced as a cub by J.D McCrary, is a curious young lion who easily finds trouble but with the wisdom of his father, he will one day make a fine King. Unfortunately, Simba’s uncle,  Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has other plans. 

 

Scar seeks the throne and will use any nefarious means necessary to get there. Scar’s first attempt to get rid of young Simba sends the young lion and his friend, Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph), into an elephant graveyard where hyenas reign. Simba and Nala are rescued by Mufasa but Scar seizes the opportunity to convince the hyenas to become his very own army. It will be the hyenas who lead to the death of Mufasa while he tries to protect Simba. 

 

Mufasa dies and Scar runs off Simba by accusing him of causing his father’s death. Scar also sends hyenas to kill Simba but the young lion manages to escape into the desert. Here, Simba begins a new life. With the help of Timon (Billy Eicher) and Pumba (Seth Rogen), Simba is able to leave his grief and shame behind and grow into mature lion without the strictures of royalty and duty while nursing the scars of his past. 

 

Nala voiced by Beyonce as a mature lioness, eventually finds Simba is still alive and you know where the story is headed from there. The key to this telling of the story of The Lion King is how we get to the ending and in getting there we have a remarkably rich and fulfilling journey. The story of The Lion King 2019 is told with music and the music of this version of The Lion King is superb. I won’t be hyperbolic and declare the music here is superior to the original, I will only say that I preferred the ways in which Hans Zimmer and Beyonce, among others, have updated this score and the original songs. 

 

The changes are seemingly minimal but they make a huge difference in how you accept The Lion King 2019. For instance, the Can You Feel the Love Tonight segment. In the 1994 version of The Lion King the scene is suitably romantic and filled with heartfelt emotion though it is slightly shorter than the new version. The slightly longer version here takes full advantage of this new style of The Lion King with Caleb Deschanel's rich and glorious cinematography underlining the romance and deepening the impact of the moment. 

 

It also helps to have Beyonce and Donald Glover not just as the singing voices of Nala and Simba, but their speaking voices as well. The jarring shift from one vocal style to the other isn’t damning in the original, just notable. Here however, the seamless shift singing to speaking adds a little more verisimilitude. That and, of course, we are talking about Beyonce whose voice is transcendent. That’s not a dig at Sally Dworsky who is a Broadway veteran of immense talent, it’s merely that Beyonce is a global superstar whose voice connects to audiences in an epic fashion that fits the grandiosity of this CGI approximation of live action. 

 

Donald Glover is also incredible but in a unique and different way. Glover’s voice acting in the song is superior to the original because he is singing in character and accounting for the fear and angst of Simba in a way that perhaps Joseph Williams cannot because the character is not fully his. He’s more focused on singing the song,Glover is singing the character and I found the difference to be notable. 

 

Another notable improvement for me over the original was the performance of Hakuna Matata which benefits from the unique and recognizable voices and personas of Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen. Neither is well known for their singing but the way they perform this song feels as fresh and even more alive than the original. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella but they are notably stagebound in their energy, limited by the animation style. 

 

Eichner and Rogen meanwhile had the advantage of working in the CG realm and director Jon Favreau’s ability to allow them to explore a little and riff within the music. Eichner and Rogen have talked in interviews about how they were allowed to improvise their dialogue and even improvise in their songs and that playfulness is part of what makes this take on The Lion King so lively as opposed to the original. 

 

The best change however, from the original movie is the song Be Prepared. Performed here by Chiwetel Ejiofor, the song is transformed from a pop ditty talk sung through a thick English accent by Jeremy Irons, to an operatic dirge that is shortened to more specifically state Scar’s nefariousness. Where the original overstayed its welcome and tried to fit the pop nature of the rest of the soundtrack, this version of Be Prepared better serves the character of Scar while also cutting to the chase on Scar’s story. 

 

Is there a calculated cynicism driving Disney to remake their animated catalog? Yes, it's unquestionably a mercenary effort. That said, the artists who have contributed to this version of The Lion King have transcended how The Lion King 2019 came to exist by delivering a resonant and lovely take on this grand material. They have brought the music into a modern context and stayed true to the remarkable themes of the original story and delivered a compelling, humorous romantic and touching film. 

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Movie Review Stuber

Sometimes the appeal of a movie has nothing to do with what the movie is about but how the movie is about its subject. Stuber is a good example of this phenomenon. Judging Stuber by its cover the first thing you notice is a terrible title, a pun on the main character’s name and his part time profession as an Uber driver, and a rather generic, mismatched buddy comedy with fish out of water characters. 

 

That judgemental, surface perception of Stuber is pretty on the nose about what the movie is but thankfully, in execution, there is something slightly more to Stuber. In executing the same old cliches of the past, Stuber director Michael Dowse has upcycled those cliches via his two terrific stars. Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista may be enacting the familiar tropes of mismatched buddies past but they are having so much fun doing it that they make those tropes feel fresh again. 

 

Stuber stars Kumail Nanjiani as Stu, a part time sporting goods store employee who moonlights as an Uber driver. Stu’s routine, mundane life is about to be upended by his latest ride share customer, Vic (Dave Bautista). Vic is a police detective on the trail of the drug dealer who murdered his partner. On this particular day, Vic gets a tip from an informant that may lead to the killer but unfortunately, Vic has just gotten lasik surgery and cannot see to drive. 

 

Vic’s daughter, Nicole (Natalie Morales) happens to have just hooked her dad up with the Uber app, mostly so that she won’t have to haul him anywhere herself. Thus how Vic meets Stu and eventually takes him hostage and makes him his unlikely partner in a night filled with mayhem including gun fights, car chases and near death experiences. Along the way, naturally, Stu and Vic will become friends and that is the true heart of Stuber. 

 

The first act of Stuber plays on the cliches of the masculine, man’s man Vic and the consummate metrosexual millennial Stu, butting heads over their view of what makes a man a man. For Vic, manhood is having been left in a forest overnight by his father as a pre-teen child with only a pen knife to get him through the night. Stu clocks that story as a form of abuse while rejecting the notion that manhood has anything to do with physical trials. 

 

So yeah, the story of Stuber isn’t particularly special. Thankfully, Kumail Nanjiani is special as his dynamic with the burly and brusque Bautista. These two are clearly having a great deal of fun butting heads with each other and riffing great jokes off of what are otherwise well worn cliches of the action comedy genre. I could sit here for a while and describe the plot failings of Stuber but I was too busy laughing to catalogue the film’s issues. 

 

The jokes come fast and furious in Stuber with Nanjiani throwing everything at the wall and director Michael Dowse keeping up a breakneck comic pace that covers for the few jokes that don’t land. The jokes aren’t memorable or brilliant, more often I found myself laughing despite myself. The speed and timing of Stuber matter as much or more than the actual content of the joke. Kumail Nanjiani is one of the funniest people on the planet right now and Stuber takes full advantage of his remarkable talent, 


Stuber isn’t going to win any awards or be remembered long after it is in theaters but while you are there, it’s pretty entertaining. The makers of Stuber don’t try too hard to make the film memorable, they just want to make you laugh and for the most part, they succeed. Stuber is really funny even as the plot is so predictable that you could set your watch by the cliches on hand. Kumail Nanjiani is perhaps my favorite comic presence in movies today. Even his Men in Black International alien was entertaining and that movie was a steaming pile. 

 

I do hope that Kumail dedicates himself to better material in the future but for now, I am glad to see him having fun in a big, silly, action movie. Not every movie has to be a transcendent work of humanity, humor and art like Kumail’s The Big Sick. Sometimes, a movie is just a big piece of cake, a rich, not so good for you, sugary mess that tastes delicious, even as it isn’t exactly good for your. Stuber is a piece of cake.

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Movie Review Spider-Man Far from Home

Spider-Man Far From home is a delight. This is just the kind of palette cleansing crowd-pleaser that the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed in the aftermath of Avengers Endgame. Far From Home is filled with fun and excitement and a renewed sense of wonder in a world jaded by so many superhero adventures. As much as I appreciate the weightiness of Endgame, it’s just nice to relax into a superhero movie without the oppressive number of heroes and world saving excesses. 

 

Spider-Man Far from Home picks up the story of Peter Parker/Spider-Man in the wake of the The Snap and the miraculous return of those who had been snapped out of existence. Peter is back in school but 5 years have passed for him and most of his classmates as well who also suffered The Snap. No rest for the weary however as the school is sending Peter and his class to Europe to study for the summer. 

 

In a step toward renewed normalcy, Peter is back to pining for MJ (Zendaya) and he hopes that the trip to Europe will provide him the chance to tell her how he feels. Peter has an elaborate romantic plan in mind involving a gift he obtains for MJ in Italy that he plans on giving to her in Paris when the class visits the Eiffel Tower. Naturally, it won’t be that easy. Peter first has to overcome his own remarkable awkwardness around MJ. And, Peter has a new challenge from a fellow student who was one of the few not snapped out of existence. Brad (Remy Hii) was a five years younger afterthought before The Snap, and now Brad is a buff, handsome rival for MJ’s affections. 

 

Oh, and there is one more obstacle in Peter’s way. Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) has been trying to get in touch with Peter since before he left for Europe and he’s not a man who copes well with being ghosted. Fury is crashing Peter’s vacation from Spider-Man because he is tracking a global threat. Monsters called the Elementals are coming to Earth from some other dimension and with the Avengers in tatters, Fury needs Spider-Man to step up. 

 

There is one other hero on hand however and fans are calling him Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal). Mysterio’s real name is Quentin Beck and according to him, he comes from an alternate Earth where the Elementals rose up and destroyed the entire planet, including Beck’s wife. Beck narrowly escaped and now seeks revenge and hopes to keep the Elementals from destroying yet another multidimensional Earth. 

 

That Quentin Beck has ulterior motives is perhaps the worst kept secret in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whether you are a comic book fan who knows where the character of Mysterio is headed or you are just someone with a keen eye for Roger Ebert’s theory of the Economy of Characters, it’s inevitable that we will arrive at a point where Mysterio and Spider-Man will be at odds. The key then becomes, how does the movie get there. 

 

If you were to pull threads on the plot of Spider-Man Far from Home you might unravel this premise in a less than satisfying fashion. I won’t go into spoilers but I will warn you against asking yourself why character A is performing action B when he knows that the outcome is C. The plot mechanics here are faulty at best and lazy at worst. And that is coming from someone who is writing a positive review of Spider-Man Far from Home. 

 

So, why do I recommend a movie that even I must admit is deeply flawed? First and foremost, I am a Spider-Man fan. Spider-Man is perhaps my favorite superhero dating back to the mindblowing, Spiderman 2 with Tobey Maguire, a movie I feel is a legit masterwork of the superhero genre. I am also becoming a huge fan of Tom Holland who has a winning charisma and awkward charm that I find incredibly entertaining. Holland appears to have been born to play Spider-Man. 

 

I adore this cast and their wonderful comic chemistry. The teenagers in Far from Home are a super fun group with Zendaya bringing wit to MJ that has lacked in previous versions of this character and Jacob Batalon as Ned doing terrific work as Spider-Man’s wacky sidekick. Further down the cast list are the inspired duo of Martin Starr and J.B Smoove who play the teacher chaperones on the school trip. Too much of these characters would be irksome but director Jon Watts deploys them just enough in Far From Home. 

 

The action and effects of Spider-Man Far from Home are spectacular. The big action scenes have a scope and scale to them that splits the difference perfectly from the oppressive armageddon of Endgame and the lightness and adventure that made Tom Holland’s first turn as Spider-Man so much fun. Director Jon Watts pulled off a pretty great trick in closing out the first phase of Marvel movies with something fun that also has some weight to it to kick into the next phase. 

 

That weight comes from the stakes raised in the mid-credits scene of Far From Home. No spoilers but there is a big cameo here and he has some Earth shaking news for Peter Parker that throws his MCU arc for a loop. It’s an exceptionally smart choice for a cameo and a really effective set up for the next adventures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As many problems as I have with the narrative clumsiness of Far From Home, they absolutely nailed this mid-credit moment. 

 

Spider-Man Far From Home overcomes some serious plot issues by being so much fun that I did not care about the problems. Jake Gyllenhaal chewing the scenery as Quentin Beck is Gyllenhaal at his most lively and exciting. His character is weird and offbeat but it works for Spider-Man. The chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Tom Holland is really enjoyable, they have a natural rapport that makes the issues of the movie so much less important. 

 

Don’t think too much about it and you will find Spider-Man Far from Home as entertaining as I did. 

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Movie Review Yesterday

Yesterday is a complete delight. Directed by the ingenious Danny Boyle, Academy Award winner for Slumdog Millionaire, and Love, Actually writer-director Richard Curtis, Yesterday is charming, romantic, and quite funny. The acting is wonderful as well with a core duo of newcomer Hamish Patel and Lily James providing romantic and friendly chemistry that leaps off of the screen. All of that, and some of the greatest music of all time and Yesterday becomes irresistible. 

 

Jack Malik (Patel) has spent 10 years trying to make his music industry dreams come true with no success, but his trusted friend and manager Ellie (James) always at his side. Despite Ellie’s constant support, Jack finally appears ready to give up his dream and return to teaching when something dramatic happens. On his way home from his last gig, Jack gets in an accident just as all of the electricity on the planet goes out for 12 seconds. 

 

When Jack wakes up in the hospital the following day, minus his front teeth, he makes a reference to The Beatles that Ellie dismisses in unusual fashion. Later, after Ellie gives Jack a guitar to replace the one he lost in the accident, Jack goes to play “Yesterday” by The Beatles and his friends react as if they have never heard the song before. A confused Jack returns home in a rush and begins googling The Beatles only to find that they no longer exist in any way. 

 

Apparently being the only person on the planet who remembers The Beatles songs, Jack decides to start performing Beatles songs from memory, not without a serious struggle, as if he had written them. Jack finds success in a fashion not unlike the Fab Four, with a brief struggle and then a massive breakout, all while Jack wrestles with his conscience over the decision to capitalize off of someone else's art and his relationship with Ellie which he has misjudged for the past 20 years. 

 

Director Danny Boyle is a directorial chameleon, leaping from genre to genre, country to country and masterwork to mediocrity. Yesterday, thankfully, is in the masterwork category. While the movie is minor in social relevance, unlike his Steve Jobs or Slumdog Millionaire, it is masterful as a work of genre. Yesterday is gloriously, ridiculously, heart on its sleeve romantic in ways that modern Hollywood has struggled to be for decades. 

 

Much of the credit, of course, goes to screenwriter Richard Curtis, who has been at the forefront of the romance genre since the 90’s and the release of his Four Weddings and a Funeral. Curtis is a genius at giving a unique spin to the romantic cliches that are at the heart of the romance genre dating back to the early days of sound in film. What makes Yesterday even more unique is Curtis teaming with a visual master like Danny Boyle who places Curtis’s big romantic ideas into a wonderfully visual, eye-catching package. 

 

Of course, both Boyle and Curtis are helped by the fact that they have somehow secured the chance to use some of the greatest music of all time to tell their story. It’s famously not easy to get the rights to use the music of The Beatles in a project but the team of Boyle and Curtis were apparently enough to get this movie a break. Of course, I am sure, $10 million dollars in rights fees also helped their case. 

 

The music in Yesterday isn’t used as you might think. You might assume that Jack deploys the songs in a specific fashion related to his place within the story. Instead, the movie subverts expectations by having Jack simply record Beatles songs in an almost random order, just as he is able to remember them. It’s a clever approach that allows the story to exist outside of The Beatles. Was this done in case the producers could not get the rights to The Beatles and they acted accordingly in building the story? Perhaps, but the approach works nevertheless. 

 

The supporting cast of Yesterday is exceptionally well chosen. Kate McKinnon of Saturday Night Live fame plays Jack’s new, high powered manager who treats him like dirt even as she is giving him worldwide fame. McKinnon’s oddball dialogue which combines radical honesty with a sociopathic zeal, rarely fails to get a laugh in Yesterday. It’s a brilliant comic performance. McKinnon is backed up by pop star Ed Sheeran who sheds all pop star ego to play himself as a fan of Jack who is willing to compare himself to Salieri to Jack’s Amadeus in one particularly great scene. 

 

Yesterday, as I said at the start, is a complete delight. It’s a delight for any audience that gives it a chance but it is a special treat for fans of The Beatles. Yesterday is a love letter to The Beatles that balances idolatry and fandom without becoming overly precious. Yes, the film is entirely uncritical of The Beatles but it felt to me like a genuine appreciation and not overly worshipful. The Beatles are only part of this story and not the entirety of it. 

 

The heart of Yesterday is the romance between Jack and Ellie and the struggle to escape preconceived notions of romance and friendship. There is a warmth and complexity to Jack and Ellie’s relationship that I bought into simply because I loved these two actors so very much. Hamish Patel and Lily James are just wonderful together and I fully believed in their choices, from Jack being blind to Ellie’s feelings to her heartache and his revelation. It’s a simple but well portrayed arc and I think everyone who loves a good love story will appreciate it as much as I did. 

 

I was a little worried by the trailer for the film that Yesterday would simply be a movie with a clever premise and little more. What a wonderful thing to have all of my worries dashed in the first few scenes and then to grow more and more comfortably immersed in this movie as it unfolded. Yesterday invites you in and if you are open to it, especially if you love this music, and you simply fall in love with it. Yesterday is just so darn charming.

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A Return to the Spider-Verse

If you haven't heard of it by now, whether through your kids, your kids kids or just perusing through the internet, Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse has been one of the best superhero films to come out in the past few years. If your a fan of superheroes like I am, you would agree. And with the Oscar-winning film now on Netflix, I decided to have myself a rewatch last night. I gotta say, it does not lose its luster one bit. Let's get into it, shall we?

 

If you haven't seen it by now and want to avoid possible spoilers, turn back now, but if your curious about the soon to be animated classic, check out Sean's review by clicking here. Are you back from checking his review? Nice. One of the best aspects of this movie (there are many) is the art direction. The film's use of the classic comic-book dot art, known in the industry as the Ben Day process, named after Benjamin Henry Day Jr, is beautiful. It can throw you off at first but as the movie goes on, you get the feeling you are watching a comic book in motion. It feels even more like a comic when Miles' begins hearing the inner dialogue in his head.

 

Another great aspect is the character design. As the film deals with multiple dimensions with the base universe being dubbed the Ultimate Universe (confusing yes), classic villains like Green Goblin look totally different then what we are used to (Willem Dafoe anybody?) as he is just a giant flying beast. Heck, some villains are completely different from the original Earth-616 universe (the original Marvel universe) as Doctor Octopus is a woman in the film. Instead of Otto Octavius, we have Olivia Octavius. My favorite aspect of her design is the beehive haircut and robotic tentacles on her back. Not just the villains have great designs as the heroes sport some near perfect designs based on their comic book counterparts. But my favorite has to be the Miles' outfit he wears before saving the day. I'm not even mad it was spoiled in the trailer. The hoodie and basketball shorts he wears over the suit just shows he hasn't lost what defines him as Miles Morales.

 

Enough about the great character design. I would like to talk more about it, but you don't want to be here all day do you? This film has been loved and adored by so many comic book fans. It had so much heart put into it by Sony, Marvel, its producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller. It was a film comic nerds like myself needed at the time, as legend Stan Lee passed away a month prior. Seeing Stan in one of his final cameos made me cry in the theater with my friends from college and seeing the tribute to he and Steve Ditko (who also passed in 2018) made the film even more special to me. This film deserved its Oscar win for Best Animated Feature. Talks about a sequel being in the works gives me hope that more films like this are made. Thanks for coming along for this somewhat revisit to Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse. If you have a Netflix account go have a revisit of your own.

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Movie Review Toy Story 4

I keep imagining that at some point the team at Pixar is going to slow down, that the quality will begin to slip and that the high standard they’ve held for more than 25 years has to decline at some point. And yet, quite wonderfully, they never fail. The latest example of Pixar’s unfailing quality is an even greater testament to the company’s standard of excellence. For the fourth time, Pixar has made a Toy Story movie that manages to transcend expectations.

 

Sequels are never expected to improve upon the original. In general, Hollywood sequels are more often than not mercenary efforts intended solely to grab cash while taking advantage of the public appetite for something comfortingly familiar. The folks at Pixar however, are not ones to compromise on quality. Sure, few things are as comfortable and familiar as the chemistry between Woody and Buzz, but Pixar is not a company to rely only on that.

 

Toy Story 4 is as brilliant, emotionally complex and funny as any of the other Toy Story films. And to add to the degree of difficulty, the film is directed by a debuting director, Josh Cooley. Taking over for John Lasseter, who founded the franchise and carried it to a wonderful sequel and Lee Unkrich who pushed the concept of Toy Story to a place of remarkable poignance and humor in Toy Story 3, Cooley had a nearly impossible task in front of him. That Toy Story 4 equals the standard of the first three films is utterly remarkable.

 

Toy Story 4 picks up the story of our toy heroes, led by Woody (Tom Hanks) as they live life as Bonnie’s toys. Lately, Woody has fallen out of favor, often being left in the closet while the rest of the toys go to play. This however, has not dampened Woody’s dedication to Bonnie and when she is leaving for her first day of Kindergarten, Woody covertly tags along in her book bag. Woody then secretly helps Bonnie through her first day by getting her the art supplies she needs to create a new friend.

 

When Bonnie returns home from school, she returns with not just Woody in tow. Woody introduces the rest of the toys to Forky (Tony Hale), Bonnie’s new favorite. Bonnie made Forky out of a spork, some sticks, glue and a pipe cleaner. Forky’s existence is a crisis, not for any of the toys, but for Forky himself. Forky does not see himself as a toy but as a disposable, trash item and he seeks to fulfill his trash destiny.

 

Woody takes it upon himself to keep Forky with Bonnie at all cost. When Bonnie’s family decides to take a road trip, Forky makes a break for it by jumping from the moving RV in the middle of the night. Being the dedicated toy hero that he is, Woody jumps after him and the main plot of Toy Story 4 kicks in. Woody must convince Forky to accept life as a toy and make it back to the RV before it leaves the following morning from a nearby RV park.

 

Before Woody and Forky return, Woody gets distracted by something in an antique shop. It appears to be the lamp of Bo Peep (Annie Potts), Woody’s long ago friend from his days as Andy’s favorite toy. Bo Peep was given away years earlier and was thought lost forever. Woody decides to see if she is in the antique shop but before he can find her, Woody and Forky are waylaid by the latest brilliant villain of the Toy Story universe, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a talking baby doll with a broken voice box.

 

Gabby Gabby and her dummy minions see that Woody has a voice box and they are eager to get it from him. Gabby takes Forky hostage when Woody escapes and it will be up to Woody to try and rescue his new friend while his old friends try to keep Bonnie’s family from leaving without Woody. You were probably wondering what role our old friends were playing, specifically Buzz (Tim Allen), Jesse (Joan Cusack), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark) and Ham (John Ratzenberger). They’re all back but they are mostly sidelined, used sparingly in the Bonnie’s family subplot.

 

Buzz does get his own story as he goes looking for Woody and explores his inner voice, which he mistakes for the literal voice that comes out when he presses the buttons on his chest. The cluelessness here feels a little off brand for Buzz who has grown in the previous three movies but Allen’s voice work sells it with wit and energy. Allen’s comfort level with the character and this universe could likely make any character trait work for Buzz Lightyear, short of becoming a serial killer.

 

The new cast members of Toy Story 4 are a rich group of comic possibilities. Christina Hendricks brings nuance and likability to Gabby Gabby who is not the straight ahead villain you expect. Gabby Gabby has the poignance of Ned Beatty’s Toy Story 3 teddy bear but not his tragedy. Gabby Gabby’s story has an unexpected outcome that I won’t spoil here other than saying it is quite satisfying.

 

In the smaller supporting roles, Keegan Michael Key, Jordan Peele and MVP of 2019, Keanu Reeves, each bring big laughs to Toy Story 4. These characters are a smart innovation for the franchise. While Woody is carrying a rather dramatic story, Key and Peele’s Ducky and Bunny and Keanu’s Duke Caboom, are purely comic inventions. I really loved the running bit that Key and Peele get that I won’t spoil here, it’s silly but it works.

 

Toy Story 4 is a really great movie. It’s not only because we already love these characters, it’s because the creative team at Pixar cares so deeply about giving these movies a reason to continue. Here, the story is about the growth of Woody. Tom Hanks’ voice has aged perfectly into where Woody is as a character. He’s a little hoarse, he’s a little tired but he’s still eager to please and brimming with dedication, empathy and care.

 

The relationship between Woody and Annie Potts’ Bo Peep is a wonderful story, truly the heart of the movie. The Woody and Bo Peep story would be enough on its own to make Toy Story 4 transcendent but Pixar is, as always, an embarrassment of riches when it comes to storytelling and Toy Story and because of that, there are numerous things to enjoy about Toy Story 4, perhaps the single most durable and enjoyable movie franchise of all time.

 

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Movie Review Men in Black International

Men in Black International stars Tessa Thompson as Molly. As a kid, Molly witnessed the mythic Men in Black neuralyzing her parents after their home was invaded by an alien. Molly avoided the mind erasing and developed a single-minded obsession with finding aliens and becoming part of the Men in Black. Cut to adult Molly and she is still seeking the Men in Black. She has dedicated her life to finding her way into the super-secret secret agency and her opportunity has finally arrived.

 

Molly uses her computer hacking skills to locate an alien that is returning to Earth, with a nod to the Weekly World News tabloid, a callback to the original 1997 movie which posited tabloid alien stories as real stories. Molly's investigation stumbles over the MIB HQ and she invites herself inside. Once inside, a chat with Emma Thompson’s MIB boss, a character introduced in MIB3, she gets Molly a probationary gig as an agent.

 

As Agent M, Molly is assigned a task in the London office where she will be partnered with long time agent, Agent H (Chris Hemsworth). Agent H is a bit of a washout. Something happened the last time that he saved the world and he’s never really recovered. Since then, he’s bounced around from case to case, narrowly avoiding being killed and generally being a pain in the backside for his boss and former partner, Agent T (Liam Neeson), cheekily referred to as High T.

 

Together, Agents M and H go on a worldwide whirlwind that takes the duo from London to Morocco, to the lair of a criminal dealing in Alien technology, Riza, played by Rebecca Ferguson, and to Paris where the Eiffel Tower serves as a bridge for the worst aliens in the world to attempt an invasion that is being coordinated by a rogue MIB agent. M and H must find the rogue Agent and prevent the alien invasion while overcoming M’s inexperience and H’s broken spirit.

 

The story I have described for Men in Black International sounds like a story that should work. The arcs are clear with M pursuing her dream and overcoming her inexperience and H seeking redemption while not being sure of what needs redeeming. It’s not a special story but if you build in good gags and solid action and effects, this is a good enough structure to support them. Sadly, director F Gary Gray brings absolutely nothing new or fresh or funny to his take on MIB.

 

Men in Black International differs from the original, 1997 Men in Black by not being particularly funny. Neither Thompson or Hemsworth appears interested in being funny, each appears to be waiting for the movie around them to be funny and it never happens. Kumail Nanjiani, playing an alien, nicknamed Pawny, is the closest thing to a character that is genuinely funny but the laughs remain few and far between.

 

The only innovation that the makers of Men In Black International bring to bear on the MIB franchise is moving the action from New York City to London and several other international locations. Beyond that, the aesthetic of Men in Black has not changed much in 22 years. The ending of the first Men in Black had more innovation than this modern sequel and all that did was update the suits to high fashion and put Will Smith in a more modern car.

 

If anything, Men in Black International is a step backward for the franchise. That’s odd since the MIB3 literally traveled into the past and felt more modern than International. Men in Black International looks like Men in Black in every way which is fine for a sequel but the movie doesn’t innovate on the franchise in any way. Without bringing something fresh to the franchise and without being funny, Men in Black International struggles to justify its very existence.

 

Men in Black International is a bizarre failure. We know that Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth are funny, we saw that in Thor Ragnorak. And yet, there is no evidence of their humor in Men in Black International. Thompson is remote and occasionally withdrawn, delivering a perfunctory approximation of the uninspired script. Hemsworth meanwhile, rehashes pretty boy cliches that weren’t all that funny in Ghostbusters or the Vacation reboot and certainly don’t feel fresh here.

 

Men in Black International is professionally made. The film looks as if it should be entertaining. There is nothing wrong from a cinematography or design perspective and yet the movie is lifeless. The cast is going through the motions of a story that isn’t anything special and without any big laughs, Men in Black International just lingers onscreen going through the motions of a very average action movie.

 

A good example of the failure and lack of inspiration in Men in Black International are the film's villains. Les Twins, Laurent and Larry Bourgeois play characters literally referred to as Alien Twin 1 and 2. The pair is known for their innovative dance videos on YouTube and yet we get barely a sample of what makes the twins special. A scene in a nightclub is intended to give them a showcase but the scene is clumsily shot and the dancing is blink and you will miss it. 

 

The twist is that a rogue MIB agent is the true big bad which explains why the Twins have no real characters to play but then why include them at all? The inclusion of Les Twins in Men in Black International is further evidence of the mercenrary, marketing driven motivation behind this lifeless, soulless rehash of a well known property. The makers of Men in Black International hired Les Twins for their high social media profile and not to actually use them to serve a story being told. 

 

Why was this movie made? If the makers of Men in Black International had nothing new to say with this inventive premise then why did they make this movie? It appears to have been a purely mercenary effort on all sides. Everyone in the cast and crew appears to have been on hand solely to pick up a paycheck and deliver the absolute minimum effort with the only goal being to capitalize on a well known intellectual property.

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Movie Review Late Night

Emma Thompson delivers the most nuanced, engaging and charismatic performance of 2019 thus far in the new comedy Late Night. Written by and co-starring Mindy Kaling, Late Night stars Emma Thompson as Kate Newburn, a staple of American late night television, despite her British roots. Now in her late 50’s Kate has grown complacent and while she remains sharp, her show has grown stale and a network busybody, played by Amy Ryan, wants to replace her with a young, foul-mouthed comic, played by Ike Barinholz. 

 

The simple notion of Late Night, sold by the film’s trailer, is that Kate fires her male staff and hires Molly, played by Kaling, and their opposing personalities lead the show to renewed greatness. Thankfully, Late Night is far more unique and demanding than such easy to swallow fluff. Sure, Molly does shake things up among the roomful of Harvard educated, male comedy writers, including Hugh Dancy. Reid Scott and Max Casella, but only a couple of the unnamed writers actually get fired. 

 

What actually happens in Late Night is not so simple to describe. As much as Late Night is a genuinely funny and very engaging movie, its story is about the search for an authentic voice, a nuanced and not easily captured idea. Emma Thompson may have elements of Meryl Streep’s nasty 'The Devil Wears Prada' persona but there is a great deal more depth here. Thompson plumbs the depths of Kate Newburn and seeks a truth that applies both to the male dominated landscape of late night television and into something human and true about relationships, business, aging and love. 

 

John Lithgow plays Walter Newbury, Kate’s exceedingly educated house husband. Walter doesn’t go out much since the diagnosis of his disease. This however, is by design for both he and Kate as they are exceptionally private and insular people. Part of the journey of Late Night is forcing Kate out of that insular comfort zone and out into a world that changed around her while she stood still in the midst of depression and a few bad decisions. 

 

Mental and physical health, gender, and bad decisions are each a big part of Late Night. Emma Thompson combats each of these but not in a way that is simple. She may be the main protagonist of Late Night but that doesn’t stop her from being exceedingly prickly or narcissistic. It’s a journey for her to become a better person but part of who Kate is remains a narcissistic, attention seeking know-it-all. She gets better at being kind but she’s not becoming a saint and that makes the journey of Late Night so very authentic. 

 

I have barely made mention of Mindy Kaling, the other side of this double headed movie. Kaling’s Molly is rather underwritten. We know she doesn’t come from a comedy background, that she’s young and unafraid to say what is on her mind but in terms of actual incident in Late Night, she’s mostly sidelined. Editing appears to have cut much of her romantic subplot opposite Dancy and Scott while her scenes with Kaling and Thompson are heavily charged, filled with back ad forth, they are exclusively about Thompson’s character and not Molly. 

 

Kaling does provide a solid foil for Kate, a wide-eyed innocent in a cutthroat comedy industry but don't expect to learn much about her struggles, it's not her movie in the end. Molly's earnestness is the counterpoint to Kate’s stultifying cynicism and while we know Molly will win her over eventually, I enjoyed the ways in which the movie subverts expectation in Molly and Kate’s relationship by focusing on Kate. The script, written by Kaling, has a contempt for earnestness that I really appreciated and Thompson is at her best puncturing Molly’s enthusiam. 

 

Late Night is funny because Emma Thompson makes Kate funny. She’s harsh and depressed and yet, razor sharp when she wants to be. Watching Molly see just how sharp she is off camera versus on camera is part of the plot of Late Night but, again, just making Kate speak her mind is too simple for this super-smart movie. Kate has to psychologically get out of her own way first before she can be authentic on her show and the pitfalls of that self-examination are at the heart of this brilliant little movie.

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Movie Review Dark Phoenix

Dark Phoenix sadly, isn’t very good. This latest adventure in the X-Men franchise has some good moments but the film fails to sustain the good in the face of the bad. Former X-Men screenwriter and producer Simon Kinberg nails a few of the emotional beats, especially the bits about family and in capturing the performance of Sophie Turner, but his lack of experience with special effects and the overly earnest to the point of cheesy, beats are cringeworthy.

 

Dark Phoenix picks up the story of the X-Men with the world in a form of detente between humanity and mutant-kind. The goals of Dr Charles Xavier (James MacAvoy) have seemingly been achieved and mutants are allowed to live freely and thrive within society. Charles himself, even has a direct line to the President of the United States. Things look quite rosy indeed, even if Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) remains uneasy about the current peace.

 

The story kicks in when the American space shuttle gets trapped in some sort of energy field in space and slowly begins to be torn apart. The X-Men are called upon to save the astronauts on board and while Mystique finds the mission to be far too big a risk, she goes along with it for the good of the team. Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), senses her friend’s unease but heeds the call of Dr X anyway as lives are on the line and time is short.

 

In space, the astronauts appear saved by the X-Men until they realize they had forgotten one of them. In returning to the space shuttle Jean Grey is able to provide the chance for the astronaut and her fellow X-Men to escape but finds herself engulfed by this bizarre and explosive energy form. Despite the power of this energy, Jean is able to absorb it and keep the rest of the X-Men from being harmed. That she emerges seemingly unscathed only serves to set up our real plot.

 

Aliens. Yes, aliens are the real plot of Dark Phoenix. Why aliens? Only director Simon Kinberg and a few comic book fans know for sure. All I can say is, this is one of the many missteps of Dark Phoenix. There is zero need for aliens in this plot. Not one bit of the alien baddie played by multiple time Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain, is necessary to the plot of Dark Phoenix. The aliens are perfunctory and dull villains that even Jessica Chastain cannot render intriguing.

 

The problem here is that Dark Phoenix already had a really great villain: Jean Grey. The desire to not allow Jean to be the big bad of Dark Phoenix is a huge failure. There is no need for aliens, Jean has all of the conflict, all of the power-mad vengeance, all of the deeply personal demons to explore. Make Jean Grey become consumed by Phoenix, let her wreak havoc and divide the X-Men into factions of Jean needs to be stopped for the good of the world and Jean is not really bad and can be reasoned with and rescued from herself.

 

That plot has all of the complex emotions necessary for a strong dramatic arc. Have Nicholas Hoult’s Beast join forces with Michael Fassbender’s Magneto in the kill Jean side of the argument and have Charles and Cyclops on the ‘there is still good in Jean’ sde of the argument and see where this plot goes from there. Chastain and her alien buddies merely muddy the water and get in the way. The plot does not need them and the superfluous nature of these unneeded villains drags down Dark Phoenix.

 

The other thing that prevents Dark Phoenix from soaring are some seriously silly looking special effects. The effects in Dark Phoenix are rubbery and exist on the wrong side of the uncanny valley. The effect that allows Lawrence’s Mystique and Hoult’s Beast, to morph endlessly from human to mutant and back, comes off as cheesy in Dark Phoenix. The effect looks like something Windows Paint might have produced in the early part of this decade.

 

I realize that Dark Phoenix is set in 1992 but that doesn’t mean the special effects have to look like 1992. Our eyes and our expectations for CGI and practical effects have become more keen, jaded, and desirous of things that make a movie appear seamless. Dark Phoenix is far from seamless. The rubbery texture of the effects of Dark Phoenix make the movie look low rent and, at times, make the movie look like a parody of itself.

 

I’ve been awfully hard on Dark Phoenix thus far, so let’s wrap up by talking about a few of the good things about Dark Phoenix. I really enjoyed the backstory and the developing traumas of Jean Grey. Sophie Turner has come a long way from her rough and uneven performance in X-Men Apocalypse. Given a meaty role to chew on in Dark Phoenix, Turner is impressive. The fierceness of her charisma sells the agony at the heart of Jean Grey.

 

I also enjoyed the psychology of Dark Phoenix, the ways in which the film depicts trauma in Jean are raw and complicated and quite moving at times. When Dark Phoenix forgets about the aliens and focuses the attention on Jean and the growing tensions among the X-family, Dark Phoenix begins to get good. What a shame then when the lame effects and those darn aliens swing back into the plot and mess things up.

 

I don’t have a strong dislike for Dark Phoenix, Sophie Turner is far too compelling for me to completely dismiss the movie. Sadly, I can’t recommend Dark Phoenix however, because too much of the rest of the movie is laughably unnecessary, especially those cheesy aliens. We already have mutants, why do the producers of Dark Phoenix insist upon aliens? The story is Jean Grey, not Jessica Chastain acting well below her remarkable talent and stature.

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Movie Review Rocketman

Rocketman is one of my favorite experiences at the movies in some time. This dream of the life of Elton John won me over from the first moment and held me in rapt attention throughout the two hour plus runtime. I am a fan of Elton John’s music but I would not call myself a super fan, I wasn’t predisposed to love Rocketman in the ways that some Elton fans undoubtedly were and yet, this review will likely come off as that of an Elton fanboy because I adored every moment of Rocketman. 

 

The first important thing to know about Rocketman is that it is not a straight forward, entirely linear biopic. On top of being a musical, Rocketman plays like Elton John recalling a dream of his own life. Elton acted as Executive Producer of Rocketman and I like to imagine the script as Elton attempting to remember his life through a haze of drugs and resentment and decades of removal. Those musings are then given to Bernie Taupin who picked out choice collaborations to accompany Elton’s fond and not so fond remembrances. 

 

The film is slightly linear, it does work somewhat chronologically through the life of Elton John from when he was 5 years old through the mid-1980’s and his first days after overcoming a debilitating and almost deadly abuse of drugs. But don’t think you will be able to figure out exactly when the incidents of Elton’s life are actually taking place, as I said earlier, this is a dream we’re talking about and the movie is filled with dreamlike images and logic that extend beyond the necessity for chronology. 

 

Taron Egerton portrays Elton John from his late teenage years through his middle age and that approach makes complete sense within the dream structure of Rocketman. Egerton neither looks much or sounds much like Elton John but as the representative of a dream that Elton has of himself, he makes perfect sense. Of course Elton remembers himself as better looking and less talented than he actually is, a mixture of narcissism and self loathing is a rather common trait in all humans. 

 

Egerton proves himself in Rocketman to be a remarkable talent worthy of the hype that came from his starring roles, opposite Elton cameos, in the Kingsman franchise. I am buying in hard on the Taron Egerton movie star idea. Egerton oozes charisma and complexity in equal measure in Rocketman. He can sing well enough, he sells the songs with remarkable confidence and that proves to be more than enough in the structure of Rocketman. 

 

Jamie Bell portrays Elton’s longtime best friend and writer Bernie Taupin and you can be forgiven for not realizing the two are just friends. For years, many people have held the mistaken notion that Elton and Bernie were a couple, how else to explain such a perfect marriage of singer and songwriter. Rocketman does a wonderful job of capturing the complicated emotions that led to their partnership and friendship and the ways Bernie completes the story of Elton. Bell also can belt out a song as needed and it’s beautiful. 

 

Bell is rounding into an amazing character actor despite how his hunkiness is making being just a side man, a supporting player, harder and harder to buy into. Bell appears to be one starring role away from becoming a permanent leading man with perhaps his heavy accent the only thing keeping him away from massive stardom. None of those observations are particularly necessary, the point is that the child star of Billy Elliott has proven remarkably resilient and increasing in talent. 

 

Rocketman is rich with wonderfully detailed supporting performances. I mentioned Jamie Bell and now we can turn the spotlight on Richard Madden. The now former Game of Thrones star portrays Elton John’s villainous former lover and manager John Reid. Less kind reviewers have called Madden the weakest part of the film as he is nearly a mustache twirling baddie, broad enough to be a silent film outlaw. 

 

What those reviewers are missing, again, is that this is Elton John’s outsized memory of Reid. Rocketman is a burlesque of John Reid the real life former everything in Elton’s life. Of course Elton recalls the worst of Reid as well as the best. No one remembers the average moments of their time with a former lover. You remember the moments of passion, the extremes, the big love, the big loss, the great sex and the ugliest rows. 

 

Richard Madden is playing the man that Elton John has despised for decades since their partnership ended in ugly, tabloid fashion. Of course Madden plays the character with a broad sense of nastiness and savage wit, that’s how Elton would choose to remember him in his less charitable moments. The film also depicts the obvious passion the men shared as well, in a fashion that is likely more broad than reality. That’s how a dream or a memory tends to go. 

 

Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh round out the cast as Elton’s parents and once again, many critics are missing the point. Howard portrays Elton’s mother as a blowsy broad from 50’s Middlesex and an aging, angry, homophobic harridan and while this is certainly not capturing the complexity of the real Mrs. Dwight, it captures Elton’s reasonably resentful idea of this woman who failed to be as supportive and loving as one would hope for in a mother. 

 

Elton’s father is also not particularly complex. Mackintosh, like Howard, is playing a broad burlesque of an absent, cold, English father. Both parents are Freudian approximations of Elton’s most basic psychological shortcomings and well they should be. Again, that’s how many people view their parents when those parents are absent, or they associate those parents with specific or non-specific trauma. 

 

Director Dexter Fletcher and his incredible cast bring these wonderfully broad ideas to brilliant life all the while jukeboxing Elton’s amazing catalogue and using Bernie Taupin’s remarkable lyrics as a storytelling catalyst rather than a device. Bernie Taupin was a poet and while you can try to literalize some of his words, Rocketman is not interested in anything particularly literal. The music adds to the dream like state of the entire movie and in that way it deepens and enriches the film. 

 

I completely adore Rocketman and I would not be surprised to find it at or near the top of my list of my favorite movies of 2019 when this year comes to an end. 

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Movie Review Godzilla King of the Monsters

Godzilla King of the Monsters is a miserable moviegoing experience. The movie is loud and bleak and chaotic and it’s populated by characters who are impossible to invest in, aside from Millie Bobby Brown; and that’s more about her as an actress than her character. Even if you think you are going just for the big monster fights between Godzilla and a coterie of big bads, you will find yourself miserably making your way through the muck of waste of space human characters only to find loud, unimpressive fights on par with the robot fights of Transformers. 

 

(That Transformers comparison is not a good thing, if you enjoy Transformers fight scenes, this is not the review for you.)

 

Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobby Brown make up the Russell family, Dr’s Mark and Emma Russell and their precocious daughter, Madison. The Russell family suffered a tragedy the last time that Godzilla was seen in 2014. Mark and Emma's son was killed amidst the battle against Godzilla in San Francisco. Since then, Mark has dropped out of society, and only recently gave up drinking, while Emma has secretly continued working for Monarch. 

 

Monarch is a private firm operated by Dr Serizowa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) and its mission is to study what they refer to as ‘The Titans.’ The Titans are the many monsters living below the surface of the Earth, some of which are in some form of stasis, others of whom have been captured and held sedate. Dr Serizawa believes the Titans are necessary to the world to maintain balance between good Titans and bad Titans. He’s convinced that humans won’t be able to control or fight some of the Titans and thus having an ‘alpha Titan’ on the side of humanity is the only way to survive. 

 

Opposing Dr Serizawa, though their philosophies are similar, is Col Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), a former military man turned Eco-Terrorist. Some kind of personal trauma has convinced the Colonel that unleashing the Titans on an unsuspecting humanity is the only way forward. Jonah wants everyone dead for whatever reason, the movie is intentionally vague on this point because the movie isn’t very good. 

 

Jonah takes Emma and Madison hostage with the intent of using a device Emma created to control the Titans to set them free. Dr Serizawa recruits Mark to help locate Emma and try to recreate her device to stop the monsters and Godzilla is apparently on the side of the humans against the new alpha Titan, King Ghidora, a three headed Dragon that may also be an alien(?) and is controlling a dozen other Titans, I believe. 

 

Convoluted barely describes the nonsense plot of Godzilla King of Monsters and that is surprising considering that the film was directed by upstart director Michael Dougherty. Dougherty is the director of cult horror anthology Trick R Treat and the equally culty Krampus. Dougherty is beloved among a small crew of hardcore horror fans who will find themselves desperately disappointed by his beyond mediocre monsters here.


Godzilla King of the Monsters has none of the anarchic spirit or invention that Dougherty’s low budget horror movies thrived on. Rather, it plays like a movie where the director was noted to death by studio executives who didn’t get the memo that monster movies are supposed to fun and not weighed down by too much explanation or pushed aside by human actors and needless melodrama. Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra are the stars, the movie needed to get out their way. 

 

I honestly cannot tell if the little monster on monster action we get in Godzilla King of the Monsters was intended to look low rent, like a modern take on the classic man in a rubber suit style of the classic Godzilla movies, or if the effects were botched. The effects are too dark and poorly rendered, they’re especially poorly edited, and almost unbearably loud. I was reminded of the clattering cacophony of chaos of Transformers which repeatedly assaulted our eyes with quick cuts and so little verisimilitude that you can hardly understand what monster is fighting what other monsters. 

 

Godzilla King of the Monsters isn’t as miserable as Transformers, Millie Bobby Brown elevates the movie with the kind of likability that no one in a Transformers movie ever came close to. Unfortunately, she can’t fix the whole movie which is more than 2 hours of complete and utter nonsense. 

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Movie Review Booksmart

Booksmart stars Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, a long way from her role on Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing, as Molly and Amy, High School best friends who believe they have the whole school thing locked down. Molly and Amy have done little but focus on getting into the best colleges and owning student government in order to make sure their college resumes were strong. The pair's plan appears to have worked as both are off to amazing schools. 

 

I say the plan appears to have worked but appearances can be deceiving. On the final day of the school year, Molly overhears some classmates making fun of her high achieving ways but when she tries to show them up by talking about getting into Yale, she finds that her fellow classmates have also gotten into good schools. This includes a girl Molly had dismissed as a tramp, Triple A (Molly Gordon), the name gets explained, trust me, who has also gotten into Yale. 

 

As Molly begins to confront other students about their school plans in the fall she finds that even her nemesis/crush, the jock football goof, Nick (Mason Gooding, Cuba Gooding’s son, FYI), has landed a scholarship to Georgetown in the fall. All of the time and effort that Molly and Amy put in to getting into a good school wasn’t in vain, per se, but the realization is that they could have both achieved and still found time to enjoy themselves and party. 

 

Thus, with one night remaining before graduation, and Nick the jock throwing a raging party at his aunt’s house, Molly convinces Amy that they deserve one night of classic High School debauchery with drugs, drinking and bad choices. But first, they will need to find out where the party is actually taking place and find some way of getting there. This leads to a series of bizarre encounters on the way to the party. 

 

My absolute, unquestionable, favorite part of Booksmart is Billie Lourde, Carrie Fisher’s remarkably brilliant daughter. Lourd plays Gigi, a debauched rich girl who pals around with Jared (Skyler Gisondo), a sweet, misguided rich kid with a crush on Molly. Gigi pops up at random moments throughout Booksmart and gets a big laugh every single time. Lourd is boiling with charisma and charm and comic timing and I wanted more of her even as I recognize that any more of Gigi would ruin the magic of the character. 

 

A close second in the race for best supporting player in Booksmart is former Daily Show correspondent and co-host of the podcast ‘2 Dope Queens,’ Jessica Williams. Williams plays Ms. Fine, Molly and Amy’s favorite teacher. Such big fans of each other, the girls actually get their teacher’s phone number in class so they can stay in touch. Williams will re-enter the story later at the party and has a funny running gag about a student with a crush on her. Williams is brilliantly funny, never going for the easiest laugh and finding ways to twist a good joke. 

 

The whole of Booksmart falls under the direction of actress turned first time feature film director Olivia Wilde and what a remarkable job she has done. Taking a screenplay with four credited writers, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskin, and Katie Silberman, who has the ‘written by’ credit on IMDB, and shapes it with strong direction into a movie with memorable characters and big laughs. For a first time director, Wilde directs Booksmart with the confidence and competence of a veteran director. 

 

This is a wonderfully strong outing for someone with only a few short films on her directorial resume. Olivia Wilde has come out of the gates with a movie that demonstrates a director with a strong authorial voice. Wilde appears generous with her cast, giving them the time to find the jokes while shaping the scenes to the overall narrative. The film is notably raunchy, as the trailer indicates, but Booksmart also has a strong emotional component that plays into the ending I won’t spoil. It’s a lovely coda and one you should see and enjoy. 

 

I can’t believe I have gone this far without talking about the young stars of Booksmart, but here we are. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever are, no surprise if you’ve read this far, wonderful in Booksmart. Feldstein consistently subverts expectations and gets laughs and pathos in equal measure. Dever, playing an out of the closet teenager in authentic and achingly real fashion, has an emotional arc that is also exceptionally funny because she is naturally talented and draws the laughs out of the real. The chemistry between Feldstein and Dever is off the charts and you can’t help but adore their dynamic. 

 

Booksmart is one of my favorite movies of 2019. Wildly funny, smart and emotional, it’s an exceptionally strong debut feature for director Olivia Wilde. I can only imagine incredible things for Wilde’s directorial future. The raunchy humor and comparisons to Superbad may be what gets audiences in the door, but they will remember Booksmart for a terrific cast and Olivia Wilde’s smart, funny directorial choices. 

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Movie Review Aladdin

As Disney continues their mercenary, commerce over art, traipse through bringing their animated classics to CGI life, we find ourselves at Aladdin, the movie Robin Williams made famous, now without Robin Williams. Now, in fairness, Will Smith is taking on the role of the Genie that Williams made into an animated classic and Will Smith is a movie God, but he’s still not Robin Williams in terms of his style of performance. 

 

What set Aladdin the cartoon apart was the manic, over the top, non-stop energy of Robin Williams. Williams’ remarkably fast paced riffing and pop references may appear a tad dated, Jack Nicholson impressions aren’t exactly in vogue anymore, but his manic energy and lovable, charming innocence, made that character and that movie more than the sum of its rather average parts. For a moment, imagine Aladdin without Robin Williams: Sappy love songs and bland romance with no flavor and a great deal less fun. 

 

Will Smith is not that kind of performer. Smith is charming and charismatic and he can be goofy when it’s called for, but the Will Smith brand hasn’t been goofy and charming in some time now. When Will Smith grew up and left behind childish performances as in the original Men in Black and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, he developed a more serious and stolid persona. He didn’t become completely un-fun but movies like 7 Pounds, I Am Legend and Suicide Squad are not exactly laugh riots. Not since Men in Black 3 in 2012 has Will sought to make audiences laugh and he hasn’t played straight comedy since 2005’s Hitch. 

 

That raises the question: Is Will Smith funny in Aladdin? Yes and no. Yes, in that in a couple scenes, in the strong second act of Aladdin, Will Smith gets a couple of chuckles. Is Smith the laugh riot that Williams was in the animated Aladdin? Not by a long shot. Smith’s introductory gags, immediately following meeting Aladdin and introducing himself as The Genie, are a little cringe-inducing, rather of the Dad Joke variety. He’s certainly amused with himself but we in the audience are, for the most part, politely smiling while waiting for something to be funny. That said, Smith is the best thing about the new Aladdin. 

 

It occurs to me now that I am 5 paragraphs into a review of Aladdin and all I have done is talk about Will Smith and the faltering comparison to Robin Williams. The reason for that is, if Will Smith is, as I mentioned earlier, the best thing about Aladdin, you can imagine, there isn’t much more to say about the rest of Aladdin. Weak songs, a bland leading man performance from Mena Massoud, and some odd direction from Guy Ritchie are all that’s left and I don’t dislike Aladdin enough to linger on those flaws. 

 

If you are somehow not aware of the plot of Aladdin, the story goes that Aladdin is plucked off the streets by the evil Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) to enter the cave of wonders. Because Aladdin has a true heart he is allowed to enter, along with his monkey, Abu, and he retrieves the lamp which he proceeds to rub. Out of the lamp pops Genie Will Smith, wishes are made, the heart of Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) is won and all is well with the world. 

 

The plot is the same as the animated feature only flattened out to a too long 2 hours and 6 minutes. The extra time is dedicated to extra musical numbers, including one brand new original song from composer Alan Menken, "Speechless," sung by Naomi Scott. Speechless is a fine song in and of itself, a power pop ballad about female empowerment. That said, the placement within the film is wonky and off-putting. The song is shoehorned in as a fantasy sequence with all the finesse of a sledgehammer. 

 

I’m being unkind again, let’s talk positives. Once Aladdin makes his wish to be a Prince and becomes Prince Ali of Ababwa, the movie manages to find a new gear. Smith switches from the buff, big, blue genie to his more familiar persona and digs into a belter of a reimagining of the centerpiece tune “Prince Ali.” Smith isn’t much of a singer but the song is smartly paced and it slows to give Smith the chance to rap rather than being forced to try and sing. 

 

From there is a charming party scene where even Mena Massoud’s Aladdin finds a little life, thanks to a little bit of Bollywood musical magic, and for a time you think that Aladdin might just work out. That momentum dies as we turn to the third act and the films flavorless villain, Jafar, takes far too much of the center stage. Marwan Kenzari isn’t bad but this is not a great, memorable villain. The plot pushes hard but Jafar is more wet blanket than super-villain. His defeat isn’t nearly as satisfying here as it was in the animated feature which is surprising considering they are virtually identical. 

 

I’m coming off like I really dislike Aladdin and I don’t. It’s… it’s… fine. It’s okay. I don’t mind Aladdin. I am resigned to the notion that Disney is going to, without a care for art or originality, continue to pump out mediocre live action rehashes of their animated classics because well known I.P is more important than art. The marketing department at Disney may as well start getting producer credits these days as they seem to be the ones making the decisions. 

 

But that is the cry of the artist in a medium of capitalists. It’s not fair to condemn a business for attempting to make money. That said, I don’t have to enjoy it or endorse it, I just have to tolerate it and hope for the best. The best, in the case of Aladdin, is a genuinely charming second act and a not terrible performance by Will Smith. It’s not much but we have to find our pleasures where we can in the mercenary world of Disney remakes. 

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Movie Review John Wick Chapter 3 Parabellum

The John Wick franchise is the best thing Keanu Reeves has done in his career. I realize that won’t be a popular statement with the fandoms of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure or The Matrix, but it's true. The role of supreme assassin John Wick fits Keanu Reeves like a perfectly tailored bulletproof suit. Reeves’ very physical being seems to have been crafted to act out John Wick’s incredibly choreographed violence. It’s a joy to behold for fans of action cinema.

 

John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum (Prepare for War) picks up in the immediate aftermath of John Wick Chapter 2. John now has a $14 million dollar bounty on his head and is considered Excommunicado by the community of assassins amongst whom he’d been considered the greatest of all. Now, thanks to his old friend, Winston (Ian McShane), John has one hour to get his affairs in order before his own contract goes live and he becomes a target.

 

Writer Derek Kolstad and Director Chad Stehelski, who’ve each been with this franchise from the start, have a remarkable talent for world building, as they’ve demonstrated in each of the first two Chapters of the John Wick story. The layer upon layer of dynamic mythology that Stahelski and Kolstad have crafted within this John Wick universe kicks right back in with John Wick Chapter 3 and draws you right back into this unique world in mere minutes.

 

The odds are well stacked against John Wick and yet, the screenplay does a remarkable amount of work to sell you the idea that an army the size of a small country won’t be enough to slow down our hero. The same mythologizing that gave us such compelling details as The Continental, a hotel for assassins only, a service that caters to killers by removing large numbers of dead bodies, and so on, also gives us a John Wick personal mythology that makes Wick both the Devil incarnate and Death in human form.

 

John Wick carries this remarkable air of menace and invulnerability, it’s like rooting for a horror movie villain. John Wick could come up on Jason Voorhees and you would fairly assume John Wick is the more fearsome of the two. That comes from Derek Klolstad’s exceptional script which takes care to include dialogue that never lets up in putting over the idea of John Wick as the most remarkable killer since the plague.

 

The fight choreography in John Wick Chapter 3 is insanely awesome. A fight scene inside what appears to be a weapons museum is gloriously staged with gut wrenching violence that also happens to be incredibly witty. The audience I was with watching John Wick Chapter 3 groaned and hollered and giggled with delight at the various unique ways John Wick murdered potential assassins. Knife throwing, neck cracking, close quarters combat, all of it at a breakneck pace that never feels too fast. It’s damned brilliant and director Chad Stahelski and stunt coordinator Jonathan Eusebio deserve all the praise imaginable for this remarkable work.

 

Keanu Reeves, as I mentioned, has never been better than when he’s in John Wick’s black, bulletproof suit. His blank slate face is a perfect mask for the baddest killer on the planet. The character calls for an actor who masks his emotions and never betrays his thoughts to his opponents and Reeves is remarkably great at not letting anyone in on his inner thoughts. In the past, that might be me calling Reeves boring, or dim, but in John Wick, it comes off as the perfect choice for how to play this character.

 

John Wick doesn’t show weakness, he rarely appears to register pain, he’s never cocky or flashy and he doesn’t smile. All of those qualities are exactly the kinds of things that have held Keanu Reeves back in other movies and yet, with John Wick, it’s as if the character were tailored for Reeves’ unique acting talent. Reeves’ wiry physicality, and powerhouse use of angles and leverage, it could be a stunt person or CGI, whatever, it looks awesome. He doesn’t just play John Wick, his body appears to have been built specifically for the balletic violence of this character.

 

I completely adore John Wick Chapters 1,2 and 3. This is a great franchise with a remarkable pace, incredible style and a performance by Keanu Reeves that is relentlessly entertaining. John Wick is incredibly violent and that should be noted here for those who think they want to see what is likely going to be the number 1 movie in America on opening weekend. John Wick Chapter 3 is filled with bloody, gory, brutal violence, of the hard R-Rated variety. If violence is a turn off for you, John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum is not the movie for you.

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Movie Review The Hustle

The Hustle is a remake of 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine. Scoundrels itself was a remake of 1964’s Bedtime Story starring Marlon Brando and David Niven. So yeah, this material has been traversed on multiple occasions and that’s not even accounting for the numerous movies that Bedtime Story was heavily influenced by. Con artists have long been figures of fascination at the movies as they provide a rich playing field for actors and screenwriters alike. 

 

The Hustle stars Rebel Wilson, Pitch Perfect’s Amy, as Penny, a boorish Australian con artist who uses a scam involving a sick sister, and a little bit of catfishing, to get men to give her the little amounts of money she needs to get by. It’s small potatoes and when she’s seemingly run low on gullible Tinder dates, she decides to give Europe a shot. Penny is headed to the French Riviera in hopes of finding bigger game for her cons. 

 

On a train to a place called Beaumont Del Sur, Penny meets Josephine (Anne Hathaway), a fellow con-artist, though Penny doesn’t know that yet. Josephine has set up shop in Beaumont Del Sur for years, using its lavish, expensive hotels as her hunting ground for rich husbands looking for a good time on the sly from unwitting elderly wives. Josephine isn’t worried that Penny will provide competition, she’s worried that her clumsiness will scare away the bigger fish marks. 

 

When Penny proves herself to be a little more formidable than expected, Josephine takes her in and begins to teach Penny about higher level cons. A con-job, codenamed Lord of the Rings, is the centerpiece of this early portion of the second act and I really enjoyed it. All three movies, Bedtime Story, Scoundrels and The Hustle, feature this sequence and it proves to be a durable comic sequence, earning some unexpectedly big laughs. 

 

Unexpected laughs are a hallmark of The Hustle. The disjointed narrative of The Hustle, a series of setups and payoffs with a bare minimum of connective story tissue, works in spite of the structure. The laughs are so big and so often that I actually didn’t mind the obvious flaws in the structure. I somehow didn’t mind that The Hustle isn’t much of a traditional movie and is rather a series of gags, skillfully performed by the talented duo of Wilson and Hathaway. 

 

On most occasions a movie as faltering in structure as The Hustle would not work for me but I have a notable soft spot for Rebel Wilson. Few people in Hollywood make me laugh as hard as Wilson, who has become one of the most remarkably ingenious comediennes on the planet in recent years. Her Isn’t it Romantic from back in February of this year remains one of the highlights of 2019 at the movies and Wilson makes it impossible for me to dislike The Hustle or dismiss it over some very noticeable flaws. 

 

Those specific flaws are embodied in the character of Thomas played by newcomer Alex Sharp. Sharp is central to the film’s third act and he’s completely overmatched in attempting to keep up with Wilson’s brilliant comic chops and Hathaway’s skillfully light touch comedy. I get that this part requires a performer who appears at a loss consistently opposite the brilliant cons on either side of them, but Sharp is an almost non-existent presence. Those who’ve seen Dirty Rotten Scoundrels know where his character arc is headed and I will tell you, Glenn Headly struggled to pull it off in Scoundrels and Sharp doesn’t even compare to her. 

 

The Hustle was directed by Veep veteran, Chris Addison. Addison has demonstrated a strong talent for gags on Veep and he shows that same flare for setup and punchline in The Hustle. The Hustle unfortunately doesn't have the advantage of being a weekly television series that can more simply perform setup and punchline and pick up narrative strands as needed. Characters have time to grow and for us to get to know them on television. The Hustle doesn’t have time to develop these characters or a deeper narrative, which necessitates the reliance on big gags over what makes movies great.

 

That said, the laughs in The Hustle are often so big that I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy it. I can levy a number of complaints about the film, but what matters is that I laughed and laughed loudly and quite often at The Hustle. I can’t say my fellow critics who don’t care for The Hustle are wrong about the movie, they are right in many instances and complaints. I just happen to be in a position to be a great deal more kind about The Hustle due to my adoration for Rebel Wilson. 

 

Lower your expectations of an actual movie and get set for some funny set pieces and you can enjoy The Hustle as much as I did. 

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Movie Review Pokemon Detective Pikachu

Pokemon Detective Pikachu is some hardcore fan service. In fact, if you are not immersed in the universe of Pokemon, you aren’t likely to find much to enjoy beyond the occasional Ryan Reynolds quip. Reynolds himself is a kind of Pokemon fan service as giving this franchise the voice of one of the world’s most popular and charismatic actors is akin to one of the cool kids passing up the cool kid table in the cafeteria so he can sit with the A.V Club and they can absorb some of his aura. 

 

Pokemon Detective Pikachu opens in pure, visual chaos. A car is escaping from a mysterious lab facility while being chased by a powerful Pokemon called a Mewtoo. The Mewtoo appears to blow up the car, knocking the vehicle over the side of a bridge. The driver appears to have been killed but the swirling vortex of CG chaos makes it impossible to know what happens and since this is our introduction to the story, we are at a loss to care much for what is happening. 

 

The film slam cuts from the car crash to a field in a small, vaguely Asian town. Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) is one of the few people in his small town who doesn’t have his own Pokemon, a tiny, animal like creature, who people capture using a special ball that opens up to capture the Pokemon, but only if the Pokemon likes and trusts its new owner or master or trainer? I’m not familiar with the terms and the movie is less than forthcoming for newcomers. 

 

Tim’s lack of interest in Pokemon is a reaction to his father’s dedication to Pokemon, as a law enforcement officer with his own Pokemon partner named Pikachu. Work took his father away and Tim resents Pokemon for his dad not being around when his mom died. Tim is soon to be thrust back into his father’s world however when he receives a message that his father was in a deadly car accident. 

 

Tim must travel to his father’s home in Ryme City, the rare place where Pokemon and humans live in harmony together. Everyone has their own Pokemon and peace reigns as the two species live in harmony under the watchful leadership of Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy). Howard created Ryme City as a utopia for Pokemon and human alike. Naturally, however, there are snakes in this Eden and Pikachu is on the look out. 

 

Pikachu was believed to have died in the crash that killed Tim’s father so when the two come face to face in Tim’s father’s apartment, they nearly kill each other. In what we are told is a completely unfathomable anomaly, Tim has the ability to hear Pikachu speaking English. No one else on the planet has the ability to communicate with a Pokemon directly and this will not be used in any useful way beyond quips, lots of quips, mildly amusing, inoffensive, only occasionally funny, quips. 

 

Together, Tim and Pikachu will team with ace, junior reporter Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) to find the source of some strange Pokemon behavior. This strange behavior harkens back to the days before humans and Pokemon became friends and it is the key to finding out who is behind Harry’s disappearance, the dangerous Mew-Too and the apparent intention to create a rift between Pokemon and humanity. 

 

Rob Letterman directed Pokemon Detective Pikachu and he has packed it full of stuff that Pokemon fans will adore. There are easter eggs on top of easter eggs with appearances by fan favorite Pokemon doing fan favorite Pokemon things. Characters from the longtime Pokemon cartoons make cameos, I am assuming, special attention is paid, ever so briefly, to a character even I recognized from years of cultural osmosis. Fans will be excited and the inclusion could hint at a wider Detective Pikachu-Pokemon cinematic universe. 

 

Or so I assume, only Pokemon fans will be able to tell me if I am right or wrong about that. The bottom line issue that I have with Pokemon Detective Pikachu is with the remarkable amount of fan service. The movie is very bland and basic in its general storytelling and so the only thing left in terms of making Detective Pikachu special would either come from making it funny, which it really isn’t or in making it so packed with Pokemon stuff as to render story unnecessary for the hardcore devotees. The makers of this movie went with the second option and leave non-Pokemon fans scratching our collective heads waiting for Ryan Reynolds to get funny.

 

The story takes elements of the mystery genre and mushes them up into a highly predictable story arc. The opening scene is meant to provide a mystery that will play out over the course of the movie but the story cheats this opening repeatedly throughout the movie to fit the narrative. This particular narrative feels as if it was altered numerous times, something strongly indicated by 6 credited writers for Pokemon Detective Pikachu. 

 

If you can’t tell who the bad guy is from the cast list you aren’t really trying. It’s glaringly obvious throughout where the movie is headed, albeit the actual endgame of the story is a tad bizarre, but by then it was hard to care. In fact, a lot of fans might really have liked what the movie plays as an evil scheme, but that’s an odd digression for another, spoiler filled time. Weird ending aside, there isn’t a story beat in Detective Pikachu that will surprise you from the mismatched partners, the convenient bouts of amnesia, to a third act separation that is so perfunctory the screenwriters should step on screen to introduce it while thanking and giving credit to every screenplay guide ever written. 

 

But, as I stated earlier, I am not the audience for this movie. I am not a Pokemon fan. I have nothing against Pokemon, I know plenty of people who find Pokemon delightful. I am just not into it, it doesn’t do anything for me and since the movie isn’t very funny, even Ryan Reynolds is missing that classically Ryan Reynolds wit, there isn’t much for me to invest in. Fans of Pokemon will likely flip for all of the neato Pokemon stuff in Detective Pikachu but if you are not part of the cult of Pokemon, you’re better off sitting this one out. 

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Movie Review Ugly Dolls

The mindless simplicity of Uglydolls is almost charming. The guilelessness, the complete, earnest, lack of edge, approaches something genuinely appealing. I can’t sit here and tell you that I, a 43 year old, single, male, film critic, enjoyed anything about Uglydolls but there is a limit to the amount of disdain I can set aside for something so legitimately harmless. There is nothing remotely offensive about Uglydolls, even as there is nothing particularly interesting about it either. 

 

Uglydolls features the voice of pop-reality star Kelly Clarkson as Moxy, an uglydoll who is not aware that ‘ugly’ is meant as an insult. She, along with the rest of the denizens of Uglyville, have no notion that they are not simply, acceptably, who they are. The people of Uglyville have no pretension, they have no capacity to judge the others who have judged them as lesser. That many of them are not aware that a world beyond the walls of the city exist probably helps matters. 

 

Moxy however, is obsessed with the notion of an outside world where she can fulfill her destiny as a beloved stuffed animal to a child in need. In order to get to the outside where, she recruits her dog, Uglydog (Rapper Pitbull), Luckybat (Leehom Wong), Wage (Wanda Sykes) and Babo (Gabriel Iglesias) to climb to a giant hole in Ugly mountain that she believes must lead to the outside world and to kids and homes and love. 

 

For the most part, Moxy is right. The real world exists but to get there, the Uglydolls will have to cross through, Perfection. Perfection is where perfect dolls are built and judged on whether or not they are perfect enough to go through the portal to the real world. Even among the perfect there are those who aren’t quite perfect enough, a fact we learn in song from the dreamiest man in Perfection, Lou (Nick Jonas). 

 

Lou acts as a gatekeeper who only allows perfect dolls to go through and become a cherished friend to a child in need. Lou uses his handsome looks and big, beautiful singing voice as a cudgel against anything deemed imperfect. Though he welcomes the Uglydolls initially, it only takes singing a few bars for Lou to unleash his evil toward the newcomers. Lou’s desire to appear benevolent toward Moxy and friends kicks the story into a perfunctory third act teaming with simplistic metaphors. 

 

Getting annoyed at the predictability or over-familiarity of Uglydolls is a fool's errand. This is barely a movie and what is there is of an actual movie isn’t all that much. Uglydolls features a cast of well known and charming singers and actors who bring a good deal of energy and good cheer to their otherwise unmemorable performances. Strangely, the villain, voiced by Nick Jonas does most of the singing during the movie. Lou has multiple songs and a reprise of one of the songs during what is only an 87 minute movie. 

 

Uglydolls is a musical though none of the songs in the movie are particularly memorable. Each of the songs are either mindless child self-esteem boosters or plot heavy exposition by Jonas’s villain. None of the songs are likely to have a life outside of the movie on pop radio, spotify or YouTube. Kelly Clarkson, Jonas and Blake Shelton have name recognition and huge fanbases but even devotees of their work are unlikely to even be aware of Uglydolls and its bland soundtrack. 

 

There aren’t many laughs in Uglydolls. For the most part, the film is mildly amusing at best. The kindest thing I can say, from my admittedly not all that valuable perspective of this genre, is that the film is not offensive. Uglydolls is harmless, brainless, minor entertainment that kids 8 years old and under can safely consume and forget about, aside from maybe wanting to buy their own Moxy doll or one of Moxy’s fellow Uglydolls.

 

There is perhaps more money in merchandising Uglydolls than there is in making this movie. The sales of stuffed Uglydolls will likely go well beyond the box office of Uglydolls and there’s nothing wrong with that. Uglydolls is one of those rare, utterly inconsequential movies that doesn’t need to exist but doesn’t change anything by existing. The world will not remember Uglydolls in a fews after release and I can feel it already leaving my mind even faster. 

 

I do recommend Uglydolls however, for parents in desperate need of a TV nanny, something for little, little kids to enjoy for bright colors, a forgettably safe empowerment message and something so ridiculously safe for their developing minds, it might as well be a nap in the form of a movie. 

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Movie Review Long Shot

Long Shot stars Seth Rogen as the unattractively named Fred Flarsky. Fred is a journalist who just quit his job working as a liberal activist journalist after his newspaper was bought by a right wing media conglomerate. Looking to drown his sorrows, Fred meets up with his pal, Lance (O’Shea Jackson), a rich investor type, who promises to take him for a fancy night out. This night out, with drugs and booze of all sorts, culminates with a fancy party where Boyz II Men is performing.

 

While Fred is excited to see his favorite 90’s R & B group, his night gets even more exciting when he spots Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), in the crowd. Charlotte and Fred knew each other in middle school when Charlotte babysat for the three years younger Fred. Fred relays a remarkably embarrassing story about humiliating himself with a kiss attempt on Charlotte before she actually has him summoned for a chat. Seems she remembers him and the two strike up their old friendship.

 

Against the better judgment of her staff, headed up by Maggie (June Diane Raphael) and Tom (Ravi Patel), Charlotte decides to hire Fred as a speech writer. You see, Charlotte is about to leave the job of Secretary of State behind and make a run for the Presidency and one of her weaknesses, according to polling data, is her sense of humor. She hopes that Fred’s writing can make her funny. She also just simply finds his oafishness charming.

 

Charlotte has secured the endorsement of President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk), a Hollywood actor who once played the President on TV who somehow became the real President. Odenkirk is a scene stealer on par with the all time greats and he makes this cameo performance a spiky delight, indicting the audience and American politics for being attracted to flashy politicians. Yes, it’s a transparent dig at our current President, but Odenkirk make it more singular and very funny. Watch for the scene where he describes why he’s decided to leave office. It’s a classic.

 

Charlotte is embarking on a world tour and she is bringing Fred along to write her speeches and while that happens, the two develop a genuine bond. The chemistry between Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen is really strong. She’s an incredible actress who really sells why she is attracted to Fred and Rogen is charming enough in a rather far-fetched role to make us buy into why a woman as ungodly gorgeous and smart and unattainable as Charlotte would go for him.

 

That’s really the conceit of Long Shot. Sure, there are more than a few political jokes, the film has a particularly left wing view, but the central gag that the film’s plot turns on is convincing us that a goofball like Fred Flarsky could be someone who a Charlotte Field could fall in love with. This is a romantic comedy so these aren’t spoilers. The journey of Long Shot is in how you get there and not where the movie is going.

 

The ending is especially hard to swallow but, once again, the winning combination of Rogen and Theron makes it work. I accepted that what happens is possible because these two terrific superstars convinced me that under these remarkably heightened and outrageous circumstances, this story is plausible. The incredible chemistry and the really big laughs of Long Shot easily defeated my skepticism about the plot and the R-rated convolutions needed to make it work.

 

Long Shot was directed by Jonathan Levine whose unique career includes the Amy Schumer Goldie Hawn flop Snatched, the underwhelming zombie romance Warm Bodies, and the brilliant comic drama 50/50. That last one, 50/50 gave Seth Rogen a really terrific comic dramatic performance opposite an equally brilliant Joseph Gordon Levitt. Levine indeed tries hard to bring some genuine dramatic beats to his comedies with rather mixed results.

 

The dramatic beats of 50/50 work solely because of the brilliant and sharp cast. The few dramatic beats of Long Shot also work because of a brilliant cast that make you forget that there is genuine drama taking place. Long Shot is a great deal more broad and jokey than 50/50 but each film shows a director who knows how to trust his actors to deliver a mix of the real and the broadly comic. Levine is blessed to have the Oscar winning Theron who has proven she can convince audiences of just about anything.

 

Long Shot is mostly delightful, even when it is remarkably raunchy and R-Rated. Be prepared, this movie is not for the easily offended. Long Shot goes for some big bawdy, R-Rated laughs regarding sex and drugs and you definitely need to leave the kids at home for this one. The film’s biggest flaw however, is not raunchy humor, it’s length. At more than 2 hours and 15 minutes, the film struggles at times to maintain pace and drags in a few spots.

 

Oh, I was wrapping up there, but I cannot end this review without praising O’Shea Jackson. Ice Cube’s son is a brilliant scene stealer. This man is a star in the making. Lance is a wonderful character who is full of life and unexpected comic invention. Even when he is given a questionable bit of forced back story late in the movie, Jackson makes it work and is very funny while doing it. I adore this performance, one of my favorites of the year thus far.

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Movie Review Avengers Endgame

We’ve reached the Endgame, if not the finale of the Marvel Universe, the definitive ending of a chapter at the very least. One of the great tricks pulled off in Avengers Endgame by directors Joe and Anthony Russo is how they have crafted a story that is both a definitive ending and a new beginning that doesn’t leave you exhausted and dreading the future. When it was first announced that Avengers Endgame would balloon to just over three hours in length, I was among those who worried that the MCU was overstaying its welcome. That feeling is completely allayed after Endgame. 

 

Avengers Endgame picks up the story with Earth’s greatest heroes still reeling from ‘The Snap,’ Thanos’s victory and the wholesale destruction of half the people in the universe. Those left behind, including Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) along with disparate members of the MCU, the remaining heroes of Wakanda, the missing Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are still spoiling for a fight. 

 

But first, Tony Stark needs to be retrieved from somewhere in deep space where food has run out and air will soon follow. Tony and Nebula (Karen Gillen) were the only survivors of The Snap in a group that included Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and The Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Mantis (Klemm Pomentieff), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Drax (Dave Bautista). Near death, Tony spots a light in the sky that proves to be a savior. I won’t spoil the fun, you can see for yourself who has the honor. 

 

Nebula knows where Thanos has gone and with her information the Avengers are able to locate him and make a play to regain the Infinity Gauntlet and those incredibly powerful stones. The Russo Brothers are smart to have this scene take place very early in the movie as it raises the stakes to infinity when you find out that the Gauntlet won’t be so easy to wield and that time may not be so easy to manipulate. 

 

I will stop there in my plot description as I don’t want to spoil anything for you. Just know that Avengers Endgame goes to some wonderfully unexpected places and gives you solid reasoning how we end up where we end up. This is quite a smart movie with many unexpected twists and turns. The writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely wonderfully lay out the story with roadblocks and detours that force the story into unexpected yet logical places. 

 

The issues I had with Avengers Infinity War are pretty much made up for in Avengers Endgame. I was annoyed that Infinity War ended on a few highly predictable and cynical notes. There was no real tension or suspense in the ending of Infinity War as it was easy to predict that Endgame would simply undo all that happened in Infinity War rendering that film a 2 hour and 45 minute anti-climax. I also did not care for the careless fashion in which certain characters were treated by the screenplay that had little room for the many characters. 

 

Somehow, those problems are relatively minor in Endgame. The more than 3 hour runtime has left plenty of room for our main characters and the many side characters whose fates we’ve come to care about over 22 Marvel movies. The best compliment I can give to Avengers Endgame is that even at 3 hours long, the movie never drags, it never feels like 3 hours. I did not check my phone during the entire run of Avengers Endgame because I was engrossed by this movie. 

 

It is remarkable that the Russo Brothers have crafted a story that is satisfying as an end point for the story they’ve helped to tell over 22 movies and a beginning for new stories to be told. We have new Spider-Man, Black Panther and Captain Marvel adventures to look forward to. We have more Guardians of the Galaxy in our future with a whole new look and new Captain America adventures and that is not a spoiler, you will have to see Avengers Endgame to see how that is not a spoiler. 

 

The new Marvel Universe is perhaps even more exciting than what we have seen before. The stars that this franchise has booked are the best of the best and even the heroes who won’t be returning will have a lasting impact via the actions of Avengers Endgame. The trick of Avengers Endgame is intricate and well detailed and its based on a strong and brave approach to storytelling and a group of characters who are irresistibly charming and compelling. 

 

See Avengers Endgame in theaters this weekend. The movie opens at the Wanee Cinemas in downtown Kewanee at 7 Pm on Thursday night.

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Movie Review The Curse of La Llorona

The Curse of La Llorona is another movie under the banner of The Conjuring movie universe. The film was produced by James Wan but not directed by the man who has made this the most underestimated movie franchise going today. I may not be a fan of any of these movies, not even The Conjuring, but there is no denying that The Conjuring Movie Universe is a legit phenomenon. The Nun, The Annabelle movies and now The Curse of La Llorona, go to show the enduring power of ghost stories.

 

The Curse of La Llorona stars Linda Cardellini of Freaks & Geeks fame as Anna, a DCFS worker and recent widow, living in the early 1970’s Los Angeles with her two kids. Anna has been struggling at work and having cases taken from her but when a long term case comes back up for a review, she insists on being the investigator assigned. This will be a fateful decision as she will attempt to save two boys from a manic mother only to have tragedy prove to be unavoidable due to circumstances beyond her control.

 

The mother in question was attempting to save her two sons from the Curse of La Llorona, aka The Curse of the Weeping Woman. In a prologue set in 16th Century Mexico we see a woman in a wedding gown caring for her two sons until something mysterious and strange happens. Soon, one of the boys is alone and wanders until he finds his mother crying while murdering his brother by drowning him in a lake. How this curse lingers from Mexico in the 1600’s to 1970’s Los Angeles is not something the movie cares to explain.

 

After failing to save the two boys from the supposed curse, Anna finds her and her two kids, Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), the subject of the curse and in desperate need of help. In a cameo, Tony Amendolo portrays Father Perez who was first introduced in Annabelle. Father Perez is the first to step in and offer help but when church protocol slows things down, he offers up a former clergyman, Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz), a man who battles demons in a fashion that even the church finds extreme.

 

That’s the set up for the rest of the plot, such as that plot is. If you aren’t a fan of movies that are merely a series of loud noises leading to creepy people in makeup popping into frame at random moments, The Curse of La Llorona is not the movie for you. There is nothing more to The Curse of La Llorona than a series of jump scares. You could get the same thrills watching a cat run into a room and back out again without warning.

 

The Curse of La Llorona is yet another silly ghost movie where the ghost in question has unlimited powers and yet never bothers to actually complete its goal of killing the people it came to kill. Weirder still is how powerless anyone is to stop La Llorona and how ineffective she is. Her targets are children whom she is easily able to corner, one of them she even has twice, trapped under water, and she is still foiled. How is she foiled? Good question, I was watching the movie and I don’t have that answer.

 

La Llorona throws over chairs and slams doors and throws children into swimming pools and down flights of stairs and yet she never appears able to actually finish what she starts and we have no idea why. The makers of The Curse of La Llorona have so little respect for our wits as audience members that they don’t bother to create a rational set of rules for the character to follow. Sometimes she can be foiled by Anna yelling at her, other times she’s foiled by dirt from sacred ground or holy water. It’s whatever arbitrary device the movie needs to sustain more than 100 minutes of run time.

 

This lack of logic, this lack of care for character motivation sinks pretty much every movie in The Conjuring Movie Universe for me. Never once are we introduced to a demon or ghost character with any motivation for their malevolence. The ghost/demon is evil and that is all the motivation the filmmakers feel is necessary. But from a structural, plot standpoint that is simply wrong. It sets up a scenario where you know that the main characters A, B and C will be fine at least until the end because the runtime dictates it and the supposedly terrifying scenes of the first two acts of the movie are just creepy for the sake of creepy because the payoff can’t come until the end.

 

I will never understand why so many people enjoy a jump scare machine movie like The Curse of La Llorona. It’s almost the same movie every time. The same jump scares, the same lingering camera on windblown curtains, the same slamming doors and overturned chairs and the same creeptastic makeup design for the creatures who pop into frame to pop goes the weasel you into dumping your popcorn.

 

Why does this continue to be fun for you?

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Movie Review Little

Little is a complete mess! This comedic reversal of the dynamic from the seminal 80’s comedy Big, is so undercooked I became more than a little nauseous while watching it. Little is a remarkably sloppy movie that repeatedly muddies what should be a simple notion of a plot. Take protagonist and put them in a strange, fish out of water scenario, in order to learn an important lesson about being a better person through being kinder and more open hearted, realize the error of their ways and all is well in the world. This isn’t rocket science, so why did the makers of Little screw it up so bad?

 

Little stars Regina Hall as Jordan, a tech mogul… I think. Jordan’s business doesn’t make sense. She develops apps but then she has a client for whom she develops apps or games or… this is a good example of the sloppiness I mentioned earlier. Jordan is the boss from hell to her assistant April (Issa Rae) as we learn when April wakes up in the morning to Jordan screaming on the phone about how her slippers are more than 53 inches from her bed forcing her to stretch to reach them. Solid establishment of Jordan’s crazy and part of the lesson the character should learn or would learn if Little were a good movie.

 

The film goes hard after girl power-girlboss puffery and then badly subverts it. Jordan is all about how she did everything on her own and is an independent mogul. And then the script assigns her a client character, an overgrown man-child, who bosses Jordan around and controls her company with his whims. When he decides he may leave for another firm… again this company makes apps, they’re not a marketing firm(?), she is forced to grovel to keep him. The movie spends time establishing Jordan’s independent cred and then immediately upends that persona because the plot needs a pseudo-villain. Why wasn’t Jordan villain enough on her own?

 

Quick question? How is Jordan a great businesswoman and developer if her entire company rides on the whim of one dopey white guy? Where is the empowerment and girlbossery in that? Worse yet, and to really underline the point, the movie doesn’t even need this plot. When we reach the end of the movie, this plot does not matter in any way. This adds nothing to the movie as the whole plot could easily exist without the d-bag white guy character.

 

So, with the company on the line in a dreadful plot twist, we watch Jordan emotionally and physically abuse her staff in a meeting. After the meeting, as the shellshocked subordinates slink away, Jordan is confronted by someone who doesn’t work for her, a little girl with a magic wand. The little girl points her wand at Jordan and wishes for her to be little so the girl could stand up to her on behalf of her put upon staff.

 

The following morning, Jordan once again cannot reach her slippers. She’s been shrunk back to her 12 year old self, an afro-puff wearing, bespectacled, waif, played by Blackish star Marsei Martin. She’s still Jordan, she’s still bullying and arrogant but now in the body of a 12 year old girl. She manages to convince April of what is going on and the convoluted plot then magically introduces Rachel Dratch in a cameo as a DCFS worker who orders that Jordan go to school.

 

The plot is just sort of forced around into Jordan going to her old Junior High School where she was once bullied terribly. The journey is supposedly now about Jordan overcoming the trauma that turned her into an unfeeling monster but the comic driving force of the movie is Martin as mini-Jordan being as bitchy and extreme as adult Jordan, but as a child so where does the lesson come in?

 

It gets worse when Jordan befriends a group of unpopular kids and turns them into status obsessed, instagram addicts and urges them not to be themselves. Now the plot for a time becomes a slobs versus snobs comedy with Jordan eager to turn her ragtag nerd friends into a hot new clique and showing up the school bully, a fellow status obsessed pre-teen, cheerleader. The lesson of this plot is the way to beat a bully is to be a better looking, more popular form of bully.

 

Eventually, we are to assume that Jordan has learned a lesson because she allows herself to have fun with her new friends. She’s still bratty and status obsessed but because the plot wills it, she now cares for and respects April. Issa Rae meanwhile, has all the comic charm in the world and is relegated to the sidelines while the kids plot plays out from a seemingly separate movie. April’s self confidence arc, wanting to move from assistant to exec by creating her own app, is more throwaway nonsense that further muddles whatever business Jordan is running.

 

There is a thoughtlessness that reigns throughout Little. There is no care for any detail. There is no interest in making simple changes to the plot to make it make sense. Instead, the film barrels forward, detouring into simpleminded aspects of overly familiar plots before tumbling back somewhere near the original point of the movie. Little is irksome in how ridiculously clumsy every turn of plot is.

 

Regina Hall and Issa Rae deserve better than this mess of a rehash of Big. These are two exceptionally talented people who could be making incredible things and instead dedicated their time to a movie that completely let them down. It’s not their fault, they did what they could with this nonsense. I blame the filmmakers whose lack of care with the details of plot and their simpleminded dedication to familiar tropes that led them to make an absolute ugly mess of something should have worked.

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