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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Do we really need a Hellboy reboot? No, no we do not. But, Hollywood does not appear to care for our opinion on this matter. Hellboy is a character that many people recognize and thus may pay money to see and regardless of the compromised state of the character and the story, his marketability is what truly matters. Hellboy has a Q-rating that rings a bell in marketing meetings among the right demographic of desirable young consumers. That’s why we have a new Hellboy.
Stranger Things breakout star, David Harbour, picks up the mantle of Hellboy, for this reboot. In this re-imaging of Hellboy, we join the story with our hero already a member of the Paranormal Bureau of Investigation and working for his father, Professor Bloom (Ian McShane). Hellboy is out on a personal errand as we join his story, he’s traveled to Mexico to locate a friend and fellow agent who has gone missing in the world of Lucha Libre wrestling.
This is a clever and colorful way to start the movie but, sadly, it’s all downhill from here. Hellboy finds his friend and is forced to kill him when he becomes a demon bat. Before he dies, the friend warns Hellboy that the end of the world is coming. In a prologue to the story, we meet the Blood Queen (Milla Jovavich). The Blood Queen intended to bring monsters and demons out of the shadows and destroy humanity thousands of years ago before she was stopped by King Arthur and Merlin.
Now, The Blood Queen is about to make a comeback. Despite having been beheaded and having her body carved into several pieces and locked inside boxes, The Blood Queen is set to return and only Hellboy and his friends can stop her from destroying humanity. Aiding Hellboy are his long time friend Alice (Sasha Lane), a psychic with ever changing and growing powers, and Major Ben Daimio, an English secret agent who claims to hate monsters like Hellboy while harboring a monstrous secret of his own.
Together, reluctantly, they will battle The Blood Queen and several other deathly threats put forward by director Neil Marshall, a man with a known knack for quality monsters. Neil Marshall was the director of one of my favorite monster movies of recent memory, 2005’s The Descent. Where that remarkable talent has gone since then is anyone’s guess. Marshall followed up The Descent with a mediocre Mad Max knock off called Doomsday and has never again looked like the director who crafted The Descent.
Hellboy demonstrates some of the craft that Marshall was once known for but it is also lacking in many of the same ways that Marshall’s post-The Descent features are lacking. Much like Doomsday, which cribbed heavily from the worst tropes of the Mad Max movies, Hellboy feels overly familiar with an arc that is indistinguishable from any number of fantasy adventure or superhero-comic book movies. There is little to no invention in this story.
David Harbour cuts a giant figure as Hellboy but the choice to direct him as a larger, slower, version of Deadpool is perhaps the films biggest failing. The R-Rating for Hellboy essentially gets second billing to Hellboy himself with the film using the freedom of the R-Rating to attempt to appeal to hardcore comic fans. Unfortunately, Hellboy lacks the skill and intelligence of the makers of Deadpool and there is simply no wit and not nearly enough style to the R-Rated violence in Hellboy as there was in Deadpool.
Hellboy doesn’t need an R-Rating. The violence that director Neil Marshall has employed that earns the film that rating never feels organic or necessary. The violence of Hellboy somehow fails to even induce shock and without that pinch of shock it comes of as merely gross. Hellboy comes off as childish and infantile in comparison to other R-Rated heroes such as Logan and Deadpool, and that’s saying something given the level of juvenile in Deadpool 2. In Deadpool, the hardcore violence is delivered with such style and humor that no matter what Deadpool the character does, the film feels mature. Hellboy never achieves anything similar.
Hellboy is a kid brother’s version of an R-Rated fantasy comic. It’s all flash and no style. It’s all blood and guts and no character or wit. Hellboy has all the pretension toward something edgy without ever actually becoming edgy or even controversial. Small kids might lose sleep over some of the gory images of Hellboy 2019, but anyone with fully developed sensibilities will find the film witless, charmless and infantile, especially when compared to other R-Rated comic book hero stories.
Jason Clarke, what happened man? I thought we were cool. I loved your work in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes but since then, you just keep letting me down. Winchester? Chappaquiddick? Serenity? Everest? The worst Terminator movie? What’s up man? What are you doing? You’re better than this. It’s clear your agent is a demon from the lower realms. Otherwise, I cannot explain the repeated terrible decisions that have culminated in Pet Cemetery. (Yes, I know the movie misspells ‘Cemetery’ with intent and I don’t care.)
Pet Cemetery is an adaptation of a rather weak Stephen King story about, wait for it, you won’t believe it when I tell you, a family in Maine. I know right? A Stephen King movie in Maine, that almost always happens in his stories. This family is made up of Louis (Clarke), a doctor, his stay at home wife and mother of his children, Rachel (Amy Siemetz), daughter Ellie (Jete Lawrence) and a 2 year old son, Gage (Hugo Lavoie).
This particular family in Maine has made the mistake of hiring the most sadistic realtor in history. How else to explain selling the family a cottage so close to a busy, semi-truck heavy, highway that its a hazard to be standing near, let alone attempting to cross. And in the backyard? Oh just a gate that leads to the realm of the dead and a creepy pet cemetery where local kids go to bury their pets while inexplicably wearing the kinds of Halloween masks that would give themselves nightmares for days. Seriously, are these kids supposed to be in a cult? No kid does this isn’t desperately mentally ill.
So, death highway on one side and the gate between the living and the dead on the other: let’s watch what happens next. John Lithgow, so far beneath his dignity and talent he appears to be attempting to cry for help using the crinkling wrinkles of his bad makeup job as some kind of funky visual code. Lithgow is the idiot who informs his new neighbor about the hell’s gate behind his home after hearing that Ellie’s cat, Church has been hit on the death highway.
He does this despite being fully aware of the curse on the hell’s gate. He had a dog as a kid and discovered the terrible power of the woods to bring back the dead in physical form but not in a recognizably happy or emotionally well adjusted form. They don’t come back the same and that’s certainly the case with the once cuddly Church, who returns in a deeply dyspeptic mood. He’s mean and has claws at the ready for everyone in the family.
Despite this glaring evidence of awfulness, Louis the utter dimwit, chooses not to put Church back into the actual realm of the dead with humane syringe full of sleepy juice. Nope, he lets the cat go in the woods only to see it return and start the third act. I won’t spoil anything here, there are variations from both the book and the 1989 version of Pet Cemetery that I will allow misguided souls who wish to suffer this movie to discover for themselves.
I will say that not a single thing about the third act is nearly as scary as this overly insistent score claims it is. The twists and turns of the third act of Pet Cemetery are a procession of mediocre jump scares, poor decision making at the necessity of an idiot plot and unexplained weirdness. Mom has a plot in the movie that makes so little sense in the movie that I want to write a sonnet on just how ill-considered this subplot is. It’s really a wonder to watch the filmmakers introduce this plot and bail on giving it any kind of rationale.
If there is one thing in Pet Cemetery that is remotely effective, it’s the one thing that is all about me and nothing to do with how the movie works. I have a traumatic fear of seeing an Achilles Tendon sliced. It’s a fear that is entirely irrational and all my own. It started in childhood, perhaps with the original Pet Cemetery, and it has been an all consuming, gut-wrenching, personal nightmare ever since. I give the filmmakers here zero credit for tapping that particular well in my mind. They gave away this particular scare in the trailer which gave me ample time to leave the theater until the moment passed.
Pet Cemetery is a terrible, borderline unwatchable mediocrity. Honestly, I wish Pet Cemetery were a more conventionally bad movie. Instead, Pet Cemetery is bad in the least interesting ways. The acting is boring, the scares are bland, the direction is uninteresting. It’s all got an air of professional polish but nothing stands out as being very good. It’s bad but not in a bold or original way, it doesn’t take any chances.
I hate a number of movies for a number of reasons but I respect bad movies that take big bold swings and misses. That’s interesting, being way off the mark, really missing the boat takes vision and care. The Room is that kind of movie. A visionary bad movie with a singular perspective that happens to be the exact wrong singular perspective. To a lesser extent, Suicide Squad is an example of interesting bad. They had a terrible idea how to make that movie and they stuck to their guns and failed in a spectacular fashion that I can’t help but respect a little.
No one who made Pet Cemetery appears to care about what they are doing. There is a distinct workman-like approach to Pet Cemetery, as if everyone were working hard toward building something they had no personal investment in. They could all be building different parts of a couch to be assembled and delivered as much care and personal involvement. It would be a sturdy couch but lumpy and ill-suited to all other decor.
That’s a wordy, snarky, jerky, way of saying Pet Cemetery is bad and don’t waste your money on it. As for Jason Clarke, whom I addressed at the start of this review: come back to us man. It’s not too late. I still think you can act. I still see that awesome performance in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes somewhere behind those mostly dead eyes. It’s not too late man, you can pull out the skid. I see you’re moving to television, that’s a really good first step.
Berserk is available now for rent via your favorite streaming service. The film was written by-directed by and stars Rhys Wakefield, the menacing teen from The Purge, who has made a pretty good jump from horror movie meme to auteur. Here is my review from this morning's WKEI Morning Show...
Here's a very positive review of the movie from Geeks.Media:
Shazam stars Zachary Levy in the story of a boy named Billy Batson. Billy is 15 years old, young Billy is played by Asher Angel, and an orphan. Years earlier, Billy was separated from his mother at a carnival in Philadelphia. She disappeared and young Billy is convinced that he simply needs to find her again so they can be reunited as a family. The reality that his mother never looked for him after that day is something he is eager to overlook.
Since he was 4 years old, Billy has been shuttled from several foster homes that he has abandoned to hit the streets searching for his mother. The latest home is one filled with a diverse group of kids that are Billy’s age and younger and who seem open to welcoming him to the family. That can only happen however, once Billy opens himself to his new family and that is part of the plot journey of Shazam.
The plot of the movie kicks in when Billy saves his new brother, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) from some school bullies and winds up impressing the wizard known as “Shazam” (Djimon Hounsou) with his bravery. For years, Shazam has kept the spirits of the seven deadly sins locked away while he searched for someone pure of heart to take over his magical powers. He chooses Billy despite his misgivings about Billy’s selfishness in his search for his mother.
With the power of Shazam, Billy grows into a more than 6 foot tall, red-suited, white caped, gold-booted, superhero. It takes a while, but eventually, he realizes that he can switch between his superhero persona and his kid persona by saying the name Shazam. This leads to a legitimately charming sequence, overly familiar from just about every superhero debut movie, in which he and Freddy begin to test his superhero powers.
We should be put off by this sequence as we’ve seen the same thing in Iron Man, Captain America, Batman, each iteration of the Spider-Man movies, Ant-Man, et cetera. And yet, despite the cliche, these scenes do work in Shazam. I didn’t mind the cliche this time because Zachary Levy and Jack Dylan Grazer are having such a good time with these cliches. The fun they are having doing these scenes is palpable and I had fun because they were having so much fun.
It turns out, much to my surprise, that Zachary Levy was perfect for the role of a childlike superhero. My personal bias against Levy for his dimwitted performance on TV’s Chuck and his dreadful role in one of the more recent Chipmunk movies had blinded me to the legitimate talent he has for silliness. That talent for silliness is exactly what Shazam needed to separate it from the otherwise dour and glowering D.C movie universe.
D.C has a reputation for being grim, especially under the direction of Zach Snyder.This universe needed something like Shazam to force the universe into a more of a fun place to be. That vibe began with James Wan’s Aquaman, but Shazam is the first real exploration of a comedic place within the D.C universe. It’s a course correction for D.C where director-auteur Snyder seemed to believe that the only way to escape the shadow of Marvel was to go almost absurdly serious.
If D.C ever brings the Justice League together again, Shazam will provide a strong leavening force, a lightheartedness that may be the key to bringing this to a place where the Marvel movies have been from the beginning, an entertaining and fun and exciting place. The all or nothing, apocalyptic vibe of the D.C Universe was the worst part of the Superman movies and while Wonder Woman made that tolerable, we needed a movie like Shazam to bring a little light into that darkness.
This is rather ironic coming from Swedish born director David F Sandberg whose previous features were the horror movies Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation. He’s not exactly the guy you would expect to bring lighthearted fun to the DCEU but that is exactly what he’s done. Shazam has a lot of laughs, a lot of big laughs. Laughs in which we are more often than not laughing with the movie and not at the movie.
That was a major concern for me based off of the trailer for Shazam. I was concerned that I would find the movie pathetic and laugh at things that perhaps were not intended while not laughing in places where laughs were sought. I didn’t laugh much at the film’s trailer which wasn’t embarrassingly bad but was definitely awkward and leaned far too heavily on the immaturity of the character of Shazam.
The movie leans heavily on that same immaturity but given a little more room to breathe, Zachary Levy makes it work. And when it is time for the movie take on a modest amount of seriousness in the final act, Levy makes that work as well, he earns enough of the needed weight for us to genuinely care about him and his newfound family and the peril posed by the film’s big bad, played by Mark Strong.
Here, unfortunately, is where I must talk about the flaws of Shazam. Mark Strong is unquestionably the weakest part of this movie. His Dr Sivana is remarkably unremarkable. Strong is a fine actor but I didn’t buy into his charisma free, whiny villain. We spend far too much time on his uninteresting backstory and he’s further undone by the underwhelming special effects that make up both the Seven Deadly Sins and the rubbery CGI Strong in the flying scenes.
Sivana’s backstory is part of why Shazam’s runtime is way too long. As enjoyable as the movie is, it is terribly bloated at more than 130 minutes. The film repeats a little too much of Billy and Shazam being frightened and incompetent and while the idea of a learning curve for a kid superhero makes sense, the film could have used a device to speed things up so that the middle didn’t sag so much. Losing a few minutes from Sivana’s dull backstory would have been a good first step.
Nevertheless, even a bloated runtime and underwhelming villain didn’t prevent me from enjoying Shazam. The film has way too many good laughs and way too much fun for me to dislike it. Shazam is joyously silly and yet still a movie that can fit nicely into the overall DCEU. The dour franchise needed a lighthearted shot in the arm ala Ant-Man in the Marvel Universe, and Shazam is a terrific comedic fit.
Dumbo is a good movie that I feel good recommending to you. The film is solid, well-made, sturdy, family entertainment with just enough laughs and good nature to make it work. I find myself in an odd position with this statement however as I have received some backlash from my radio review of Dumbo. On the radio, I said that I liked the movie, that it was ‘good enough.’ This led to more than one listener asking me why I ‘don't like’ Dumbo. I’m here to tell you, I do like Dumbo despite its many notable flaws.
Dumbo is the story of a little elephant born with giant ears who learns to fly with the help of a pair of ingenious siblings. This is a live action take on the 1941 Disney animated movie that, at 65 minutes in length, barely qualified to be called a ‘feature’ film. This version, crafted by daft auteur Tim Burton, is more than two hours long and feels about that long. Gone are the talking animals in favor of some well crafted human characters. Best of all, no problematic bird characters.
Newcomers, Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins star in Dumbo as sister and brother, Milly and Joe Farrier. Milly and Joe recently lost their mother but are lucky to have their war hero father, Holt (Colin Farrell), back home from World War 1 and ready to resume life on the road with the Medici Brothers Circus, under the leadership of Max Medici (Danny Devito). Unfortunately, Holt lost an arm in the war and without his beloved wife, he’s lost his once vaunted horse show.
With nothing else available with the circus, Max puts Holt in charge of the elephants and specifically, a new baby elephant that Max hopes will be the savior of the circus. Then, Max meets Dumbo and sees his giant, ungainly, ears. Max doesn’t believe that Dumbo will be an asset to the circus and when Dumbo is mistreated by the circus roustabouts, Dumbo’s mom, Jumbo leaps to her son’s defense and a man is killed.
Jumbo is deemed a dangerous animal and is sold to another circus. With his mother gone, Dumbo is left in the care of Milly and Joe who care for him and teach him a game. They begin blowing a feather back and forth only to find that when Dumbo sniffs the feather and sneezes, he flies up in the air with his giant ears as wings. Eventually, with prodding from Milly and Joe, Dumbo learns to fly and becomes the star of the circus.
Naturally, the flying baby elephant gains nationwide notoriety and the attention of circus entrepreneur, V.A Vandervere (Michael Keaton). Vandervere makes Max his partner in a massive money venture that lands the entire Medici Circus in the big city where Dumbo will star alongside Collete (Eva Green), an acrobat, in a brand new, outlandish show. Vandervere means to exploit Dumbo for all he’s worth, even if that means making sure Dumbo never sees his mom again.
There are no spoilers in that description. There are far more characters and more action than what I have described in this review of Dumbo. Tim Burton does well to craft a large, entertaining and colorful canvas. Despite that, this is not typical of Tim Burton’s style. There is an impersonal, mercenary quality to Dumbo that is unusual for Burton’s work. Burton directs like a director for hire rather than a director with a dedicated vision for telling this story.
Dumbo has a perfunctory quality that makes the film far more average and standard than truly great entertainment. There is nothing really, terribly wrong with Dumbo, but it is not transcendent or memorable in the way Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella was or even as elaborate and fantastical as the live action Beauty and the Beast. The scale feels smaller and the story lacks the kind of stakes that those films established.
The biggest issues with Dumbo are more taste issues. For instance, I didn’t care for the way that Tim Burton directed Michael Keaton to be Johnny Depp-lite. Keaton’s Vandervere has all of the quirk and cadence of Johnny Depp at his most affected. The same could be said of Eva Green who is directed by Burton to play Colette exactly as Burton’s wife Helena Bonham Carter would have played her, with the same lilting affectations.
This, aside from a few scenes reminiscent of the lovely watercolors of Alice in Wonderland, though far better than those dreadful movies, are the only Tim Burton signatures in Dumbo. As I mentioned earlier, he doesn’t appear invested in this story or this production in the way he has in his previous movies, specifically the movies he wrote and directed on his own. Burton appears comfortable having delivered screenwriter Ehren Kruger’s simplistic story to the screen with little innovation.
Nevertheless, Dumbo is not a bad movie. Dumbo the character is quite engaging for a CGI creation and the flying scenes capture the wonder of the circus and a world where magic still seemed possible. The period setting has a dreamlike, magical quality and though the milquetoast heroes don’t standout all that much, they do enough to be rousing and charming enough to keep audiences engaged and in a pleasant mood.
Dumbo is a good movie. It’s at the lower end of the modern Disney live action adaptations, above Alice in Wonderland and The Jungle Book but well below the transcendent masterpiece that was Cinderella and the lovely Beauty and the Beast. It will be interesting to rank Dumbo when Aladdin and The Lion King finally arrive in theaters this summer and next summer respectively. For now though, I do recommend taking the family to see Dumbo.
Us is a horror movie event. Jordan Peele has turned his every work into something everyone needs to see. Following up the break out success of his Academy Award winning Get Out, Peele has busted through some very high expectations and created another masterful horror movie. Us is a chilling, gripping, watch-it-through-your-fingers, entertaining creepfest. That it is also masterfully acted and directed is an example of how too many filmmakers allow genre to hold them back.
Us stars Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson, suburban mother of two. Adelaide is happily married to Gabe and the two of them have a daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright), and a son, Jason (Evan Alex). As we meet them, the family is on their way to Adelaide’s mother’s former home where they will spend the weekend and go to the nearby beach to spend time with their friends, party boy, Josh (Tim Heidecker) and wine-mom Kitty (Elizabeth Moss).
Adelaide is putting on a strong face but as she tells Gabe, she really doesn’t want to be here. The beach holds a very specific and terrifying memory for Adelaide. When she was 12 years old, she was separated from her parents and wound up in a creepy hall of mirrors. There, she encountered a 12 year old girl who looked exactly like here in every way. This was no mere reflection, it was a flesh and blood twin with an otherworldly, dangerous look in her eyes.
Adelaide was changed forever that day and it took years for her to begin speaking and acting as herself again. Now, returning to the beach, Adelaide has begun seeing signs of things to come and old fears begin to re-emerge. Is her doppelganger still out there? What about the terrible menace in that young twins’ cold, laughing eyes? While Gabe remains oblivious, Adelaide has a distinct feeling of dread.
I won’t go any further discussing the plot. The title and the trailer gives you a strong enough indication of what you are in for. That said, there is plenty of elements of Us that you will not see coming. Writer-Director Jordan Peele has once again tapped a thicket of social commentary and metaphor for audiences either to disentangle or simple bare witness to. Peele’s direction is sharply focused and his story and characters have depth, drama and humor.
Lupita Nyong’o is an Academy Award contender in anything she chooses to do but Us especially calls forth our appreciation for her talent. Nyong’o deserves Academy consideration for her dense and provocative performance as two halves of a whole person, the dark and the light, demon and the suburban mother of two. Nyong’o switches seemingly effortlessly between the stressed mom on the edge and a psychopath with a severe, sharp edged intensity and manner.
Winston Duke, who rose to fame as the massive M’Baku, Black Panther’s rival turned ally in Black Panther and Avengers, plays the comic relief of Us. While Nyong’o is the standout dramatist, holding us the palm of her hand throughout, Duke plays the comedy heavy, using his 6 plus foot 275 pound frame to give comic framework to a living, breathing, walking, dad joke. Duke also gets moments to be menacing and intense, but his comic work is what I loved about Us.
Us is one of the best horror movies of this young century. It ranks next to Peele’s Get Out as one of the landmarks of the genre in recent memory. I’m perhaps over-hyping it but I legitimately believe every word of this, Jordan Peele is hitting home runs each time he steps to the plate thus far. I watched Us through my fingers while I squirmed in my laid back, feet-up, movie theater easy chair. I wasn’t still for more than a few moments before my pulse raced again over a new development.
The ending is one of those great, gut-punch endings that even if you are able to predict it, it will still have a strong impact. Peele is just that damned talented. Us just works that well from a horror construction standpoint. The tension and suspense along with some surprisingly loud laughs and gasps, make for an insanely good time at the movies. Whether you are a fan of horror movies or not, I urge to see Us in theaters.
Rupert Wyatt is a pretty terrific director. His Rise of the Planet of the Apes was an exceptional sequel in a series that was pretty heavy with greatness. Wyatt’s talent for colorful characters and kinetic action set-pieces served him well on Rise of the Planet of the Apes and he brings a similar talent to the new sci-fi action flick Captive State. Unfortunately, for all the good that Wyatt brings to Captive State, the film lacks an essential something, a star quality that could have raised it above the nature of television drama fare.
Captive State stars Ashton Sanders as Gabriel. As a child, Gabriel lost his father and sister to a group of attacking aliens that will come to be referred to as ‘Roaches’ for their bug like appearance. Gabriel’s brother, Rafe (Jonathan Majors), grew up to be a freedom fighter. While most of the rest of the world gave up hope and began serving the roaches, Gabriel and a small cabal of activists began fighting back.
It’s been five years, as we join the story of Captive State, since Gabriel last saw his brother. He assumes the worst but holds a flicker of hope. In his own little way, Gabriel is rebelling against the system. He and a friend have a plan to get out of their Chicago neighborhood and hopefully out from under the ‘Legislators’ as some have come to call the roaches and the humans who work for them and benefit from their betrayal with wealth and privilege.
The plan involves playing courier to a message, a phone number that he must sneak out of his job where he searches and destroys cell phone memory cards. The phone number is a lovely little creative device as it is written inside a rolled cigarette and we watch it sit precariously behind Gabriel’s ear as he witnesses someone in a similar situation get nabbed and taken away by the police. This sequence is a testament to the talent of director Wyatt and his editor, Andrew Groves, who build a strong, gradual tension even as we know its too early for our hero to falter.
The phone number bit almost coincidentally leads Gabriel to his brother. Rafe has been hiding out in their former apartment in a part of Chicago that had been almost completely decimated years earlier when the roaches sent hunters in to level the place while searching for Rafe and his crew of terrorists. This only hardened Rafe’s desire to battle back and try to light the match that he hopes will spark a revolution.
You may be wondering where John Goodman figures into all of this. He does, of course, feature prominently in the marketing of Captive State as the only recognizable actor in the movie, aside from a bit part played by Vera Farmiga. Goodman plays a police detective who believes that Gabriel may be the key to preventing another attack by Rafe and his freedom fighters. Goodman’s Detective Mulligan is a super smart character whose motives are well shrouded. I especially loved his brief interactions with Farmiga which carry both a ruefulness and mistrust and a genuine tenderness that informs all that eventually happens in the third act.
Again, Rupert Wyatt is a smart director and because of his clever choices and solid artistry, I kind of enjoy Captive State. Unfortunately, the rest of the film’s cast is where the movie struggles to the point that I struggle to recommend it to you, dear reader. Let me preface this that I believe Ashton Sanders is a fine actor. He does the best that he can but as a relative newcomer he is limited and what he lacks is the heft of recognition. You don’t know who Ashton Sanders is and by extension, Gabriel remains something of an unknown.
This problem extends to Jonathan Majors as Rafe. For a time, we are taken from Gabriel who becomes trapped by some alien force for a time and sidelined from the plot. With Majors are four other actors whose names I struggle to even identify on IMDB. None of these people are bad actors but they are about as recognizable as strangers in a crowd. We are supposed to invest in these characters as they plot a major attack on the legislators but I struggled to keep an eye on them and remember who they were.
I know this won’t be popular to say, but these roles needed more than merely competent actors. If these characters are going to be this important to the plot, they need to be played by people who carry some form of recognition with the audience. They need to be played by, for lack of a better descriptor: stars. These actors are competent but not one of them has the charisma of a star. I don’t mean box office attractions, I mean that ineffable quality, that charisma that sets some actors apart from others.
Actor Ben Mendelsohn s a frequent topic of discussion between myself and my friends. I have made fun of the fact that he is not a household name. I’m not wrong about that. But, what Mendelsohn has in spades is that ineffable quality; he stands out in a crowd. The camera doesn’t search for him, it’s attracted to him. Mendelsohn like great character actors before him such as J.T Walsh or the great Harry Dean Stanton or Ned Beatty, has a charisma that helps him stand apart from any crowd they are in.
Sadly, Jonathan Majors, Madeline Brewer, Marc Grapey, even the slightly more recognizable Kevin J. O’Connor, lack that charisma. This is not to say they won’t ever develop that recognition level, they are already quite capable performers. Unfortunately, a movie that relies so heavily on us being able to keep track of these characters needs actors who draw our eye and our sympathy based almost entirely on our innate attraction to them.
There are simply so many characters to track through Captive State that when things begin to happen at a breakneck pace it’s very easy to get lost in the crowd and our emotional connection to these faces we only barely remember is limited. If one of these characters were played by a Walton Goggins or a Margo Martindale or a Kal Penn, we might find it easier to get and stay invested in them and their fate.
I know some are saying that either this should not matter or that the actors in this movie aren’t good enough but I don’t think that is the case. I think these actors are fine, and even the direction is quite good at trying to help us stay with these actors but we don’t have that deeper recognition that comes from an actor or actress we remember. This plot would resonate more if we had a deeper connection to these minor yet important characters. Movie stars matter when you are trying to connect your audience to your characters.
This isn’t the only thing that holds back Captive State but it is the most trying element for me. The film grows a tad convoluted in the final act and the ending has a particular predictability to it but I could have got behind it if I were more invested in the supporting cast. That extends to our ostensible star, Ashton Sanders. As handsome and capable as he is, he’s not yet a movie star. He’s not ready to carry the burden of being the central figure in a major movie.
Some movies do benefit from a less than showy cast. Steven Soderbergh loves working with amateur casts and has made amazing movies with first time actors in unusual roles. His film Bubble is a minor classic that has no movie stars. Captive State however, is basically a big budget sci-fi movie on a shoestring budget. With a plot this big and a story this expansive, we need the grounding of a recognizable face. In this way, Captive State comes up just a little short of something I can fully recommend.
In January of 2018 Paramount Pictures fired director Dylan Brown from the animated movie Amusement Park over allegations of inappropriate behavior. Exactly what that behavior was we do not know. What we do know is that, more than one year later, Amusement Park, now titled Wonder Park, has arrived in theaters and it plays like a movie that was lacking a director. Now, that’s easy to say under the circumstances, but I genuinely feel that the movie lacks a rudder, a steady hand guiding the ship. Wonder Park is a sloppy amalgam of cartoon tropes without a strong throughline.
Wonder Park stars the voice of Brianna Denski as June, an imaginative young girl who spends her time dreaming up elaborate theme park rides that her mother, voiced by Jennifer Garner, whispers into the ear of her stuffed monkey named Peanut, voiced by Norbert Leo Butz, who creates them with his magic marker. Hours and days are dedicated to the elaborate design of Wonder Park which mom and dad, voiced by Matthew Broderick, allow to take over the entire home.
This is necessary as when June tried to bring Wonder Park to life outside the house, she nearly destroyed the neighborhood. June created a monstrous loop de loop roller coaster out of any pieces of free wood she and her friends could muster together. Naturally, things fly off the rails quickly and June and her friend Banky, voiced by Oev Michael Urbas, are nearly run down by a truck before crashing through every fence in the neighborhood.
Mom is upset but not too much and the two set about making Wonderland into their in-home project. This goes on until mom contracts plot cancer. Mom has to go away for a while to undergo treatment and without mom around, June doesn’t feel right continuing Wonderland without her. June takes down all of the dozens upon dozens of models she’d built and takes the many stuffed animals that featured in her fantasy and puts them all in a box in a closet.
So distraught is June that she begins to slavishly dedicate herself to her father’s health and wellbeing. She fawns over him and questions his ability to care for himself until he finally decides that she should get out of the house. June is to be whisked off to math camp for the summer but believing that dad cannot possibly get by without her, June ditches the math camp bus and ventures into the forest intent on getting back home.
June is soon distracted when she finds a small piece of her Wonderland blueprint moving magically through the air. She chases after the scrap of paper and it leads her deep into the woods where she stumbles over the entrance to Wonderland. It turns out, her imagination had manifested in a real form and was thriving until recently. Suddenly, a black cloud appears to be sucking up all of Wonderland and appears ready to consume the last of her stuffed animal friends when June arrives.
Manning the park are Greta (Mila Kunis), a wild boar and de facto leader, Steve (John Oliver), a cowardly porcupine, Boomer (Ken Hudson Campbell), a narcoleptic bear, and Gus and Cooper (Kenan Thompson and Ken Jeong), a pair of woodchuck brothers always bounding into trouble teeth first. Together, they have been battling zombie stuffed monkeys in a war to keep what little of the park is left.
Where is Peanut? That’s a little touch of mystery that the film wastes little time giving away. I won’t spoil it here but the little weight given to Peanut’s apparent disappearance is pretty weak. It should mean something that the biggest avatar for June’s mom in this story is missing but instead, the movie trips over itself getting Peanut back into the story and undermines what I would assume would be the deeper meaning of his absence.
Wonder Park wants to be something on par with Inside Out, Pixar’s ingenious and emotional trip into the emotional and intellectual world of a young girl. Unfortunately, Wonder Park lacks any of that films substance and nuance. The characters aren’t nearly as memorable and Wonder Park is not nearly as funny as Inside Out. Indeed, Wonder Park pales in every comparison to Inside Out, even the animation which is arguably the best thing about Wonder Park, can’t hold a candle to anything Pixar has ever created, let alone the masterpiece that is Inside Out.
Weak narrative structure, meaningless metaphors and a shambling pace are the kinds of things that a good director might be able to work out. Unfortunately, Wonder Park didn’t have a director to help iron out those problems or to even patch them over well. Without that guiding hand you can sense just how much not having a director affected the failed final product that is Wonder Park. This lack of a guiding hand even extends to something as simple as the title. Despite the fact that everyone in the movie refers to Wonder Park as Wonderland, no one bothered to change the title. The words Wonder Park never appear in the movie and stand out as a symbol of the lack of focus that plagues the entirety of this animated adventure.
Five Feet Apart stars the utterly brilliant Haley Lu Richardson in a story that is beneath her talent. Richardson stars as Stella Grant, a teenager coping with Cystic Fibrosis or CF. As we meet Stella, she is returning to the hospital with a new recurrence in her lifelong battle with CF. Stella is exceptionally familiar with this hospital, to the point that it appears as if they hold this room for her with her stuff already laid out. That could just be bad editing, but that’s how it plays.
Also back in the hospital is Poe (Moises Arias), a fellow CF patient. The two of them have been going through CF treatments together for their whole lives and I did like some of their chemistry, even if Poe’s homosexuality is awkwardly jammed into the story via some truly terrible dialogue. The movie needs us to not worry about Poe being heartbroken when we are introduced to Stella’s actual love interest, the dreamy, Will Newman (Cole Sprouse).
Will is a newcomer at this hospital having recently moved nearby with his single mother to take advantage of a drug trial that is Will’s last hope. While Stella can hope for new lungs that can buy her a few years of life, Will has a version of CF, called B-Cepacia, that is thus far incurable and means that he is not a candidate for new lungs. This has, quite reasonably, made Will an uncooperative patient who is simply waiting to die until he meets Stella.
Yes, this is one of THOSE movies, where pretty teens die amid their quirky attempts at creating romance in the face of death. What makes 5 Feet Apart borderline irresponsible is the central gimmick which the film rather carelessly flogs for forced drama. You see, CF patients are kept at a strict, 6 feet apart distance. CF patients are so vulnerable to each others strains of virus that incidental contact could inflame brand new infections.
This is especially dangerous because, as I mentioned, Will’s particular strain is even more deadly than those of Poe and Stella. Does this stop him from attempting to make contact and be around Stella? Of course not. Now, to be fair, the film does well to establish why Stella takes a particular interest in Will, beyond him being dreamy. The same sense that drives her to want to spend time in the NICU fawning over babies through a glass partition, draws her to the equally helpless hunk.
There is also a well established trope of teenagers with no control over their lives via disease or abuse or something in that vein who take chances at whatever might make their life a little normal. It’s normal for pretty teenagers to want to be desired by other pretty teenagers. It’s normal for them to want things that they cannot really have and take a few risks in order to steal what little of the thing they can of what they can’t have. I am on board with that aspect, but it’s handled rather clumsily here.
Five Feet Apart was directed by Justin Baldoni who counts on his resume a documentary in which he followed closely the life of a teenager with CF, among a group of patients with terminal disease. You can sense that he cares about getting the disease right, to a point. Baldoni appears to respect what goes into trying to survive CF for as long as one can. Sadly, the conventions of the modern medical drama crossed with the star-crossed teen romance doesn’t allow for the kind of care and nuance that Baldoni might want to bring to it.
What we get instead is a series of cliched romantic bits that double as unintentional thriller setpieces as we watch in horror as the failed blocking of the characters fail to keep them at the safe distance that the disease plot requires. Sure, they keep saying that they are five feet apart but often it doesn’t look that way. Take the bit they do with a pool cue. Stella claims that the pool cue is five feet long and they use it in a way that allows them to mimic holding hands. However, in more than one scene they are clearly holding the cue wrong and drawing each other too close.
This becomes a moot concern when they both leap into that swimming pool that all hospitals have. Why not just have them spit in each others mouths for pete’s sake. Just because the pool is chlorinated doesn’t mean it’s safe. Then they start splashing each other with water. Are you kidding me? Perhaps my germaphobe tendencies are coming to the fore but this seems more than a little irresponsible. Nevermind that these are two people who already struggle to breath now just jumping into a swimming pool and exerting themselves in a manner that would deeply stress their lungs.
I’m probably just being overly picky, but details matter and Five Feet Apart gets far to many details wrong. That, combined with the fact of the film’s treacly and contrived set pieces, such as a late in the game escape from the hospital that coincides with an important turn of the plot, turns this serviceable teen weepie into something rather insufferable by the end. Five Feet Apart pushes the wrong buttons far too often for my taste, even as star Haley Lu Richardson does so many things right.
Richardson is an exceptional young actress and proves herself to be far more interesting and intelligent than the movie she is stranded within. If you want to see Richardson at her best seek out 2017’s Columbus with her and John Cho. That film is exceptional in every way. I even wrote a loving tribute to the film’s remarkable use of the language of film that you can read if you click here. There is also her remarkably charming and hilarious performance in last year’s criminal underseen, Support the Girls, for even more great Haley Lu Richardson. My review of that movie is linked here.
Captain Marvel more than beats the hype of being the latest in the Marvel franchise. Brie Larson comes into full movie star form playing Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel. Larson’s chemistry with this cast is off the charts, the direction is kinetic and exciting and as a puzzle piece in the long term planning in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s an incredibly satisfying fit. On top of all of that, this is one heck of a great action movie.
Brie Larson stars as Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers, aka Vers to her fellow Kree Warriors. When we meet Carol she has been training as a Kree Warrior with a mysterious and forgotten past for several years. Flashes of memory keep popping up in her dreams but the pieces don’t fit. WIth the aid of her mentor and commander, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Vers attempts to keep her memories at bay while focusing on her training and managing her remarkable abilities.
After meeting for the first time with the Kree ‘Great Intelligence,’ Vers gets her very first mission. Under the command of Yon-Rogg, Vers will go to an alien planet and rescue a Kree spy in the midst of a Skrull controlled planet. The Skrulls are a race of dangerous aliens, the greatest foes of the Kree, who have the disturbing ability to morph their features into those of anyone they see down to a DNA level of mimicry.
In her first mission, Vers is captured and her memories are accessed and she is forced to confront her past. When she eventually makes her escape, her only way out is a Skrull escape pod programmed to go to Earth. Here, Carol will be forced to confront her true identity as she battles the Skrull leader Thalos to keep him from retrieving technology created by a figure from Carol’s past, Dr Lawson (Annette Bening), tech that could change the course of the war between Kree and Skrull forever.
Along for the ride, and discovering aliens for the first time in his career is Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson. Captain Marvel may be the origin story for Carol Danvers but it also provides the most important, and less important, origins of the future leader of Shield and the man behind the Avengers’ initiative. Captain Marvel is set in 1996 and the picture we get of a young-ish Nick Fury is pretty great. Baby-faced rookie Agent Phil Coulson is another standout treat.
The chemistry between Brie Larson as Carol and Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury is off the charts fantastic. These two actors have a comfort, familiarity and ease that would be more expected of actors who had worked together for years rather than having never met before. Larson and Jackson have a comic connection that never fails to charm and when it comes time to fight that same natural chemistry increases the fun and excitement in that arena as well.
Captain Marvel is the first major big screen release for the indie darling director duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck and they prove themselves more than ready for the spotlight. The action is exceptionally captured and excited, the special effects are flawless, the script is tight and focused and the character work is some of the best in the MCU. Much of this can be traced to the the steady creative hands of Boden and Fleck.
As I mentioned earlier in this review, Brie Larson is in full on movie star mode in Captain Marvel. Larson’s acting chops have never been in question, especially after her exceptional dramatic work in Short Term 12 and Room but this is the first time she’s truly looked and acted the part of a movie star and she absolutely nails it. Larson’s Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers is a role model more than on par with Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and equal to Gadot’s star-power in every way.
The supporting cast matches Larson beat for beat with performances that underline her exceptional work. I already praised the work of Samuel L Jackson and Clark Gregg but there is room still to offer them even more praise for their wonderfully lived in performances. Also exceptional in Captain Marvel is Ben Mendelsohn as the nuanced villainous, Thalos, Jude Law as the leader of the Kree warriors and newcomer Lashana Lynch who plays a pivotal role in the past of Carol Danvers.
The major set pieces are a feast for the eyes, the action pumps up your adrenalin and the cherry on top is the humor. Captain Marvel is legit funny without forcing it. The relationship between Captain Marvel and Nick Fury is pure charm and Samuel L Jackson’s relaxed, confident portrayal of 90’s Nick Fury is an unexpected comic delight. Fury isn’t the butt of any jokes but Jackson plays the scenes smart and lets the humor of the moment arrive organically and earns laughs with his pitch perfect timing and flawless facial reactions.
I completely adore Captain Marvel. I won’t sit here and try to tell you it is a perfect movie but as the latest entry in the beloved Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s a joyous occasion. Captain Marvel is exciting, exceptionally crafted and naturally funny. Brie Larson is a commanding and compelling movie star and directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are more than just steady hands, they are legit auteurs with a vision for this massive franchise movie that nevertheless lays in brilliantly to the wider Marvel Universe.
Tyler Perry’s Madea Family Funeral is yet another example of Tyler Perry’s bizarre approach to making movies. Evidence suggests that Tyler Perry acquires a script for a simple, dramatic movie and then, for reasons that only make sense to him, he inserts himself dressed as a woman and that woman’s brethren doing incredibly unfunny schtick that undermines the drama of the actual story taking place.
With that in mind, I am going to review this movie in two pieces. I am going to review the movie that Family Funeral would be without Madea and the movie that Perry is making with Madea and her cast of wacky characters. This will demonstrate to you the tonal whiplash of attempting to follow a Tyler Perry movie. It’s honestly, exhausting for someone who watches movies for a living to watch what is essentially two movies playing at the same time.
Family Funeral features an ensemble cast that includes Ciera Payton, Rome Flynn and Courtney Burrell, as siblings, Silivia, Jesse and AJ, who have returned home to Georgia to throw their parents, Viane and Anthony (Jen Harper and Derek Morgan) an anniversary party. Along with them are their spouses including David Otunga as Silvia’s husband, Will, Gia (Aeriel Miranda), Jesse’s fiancee, and Carol (KJ Davis), AJ’s wife.
AJ however is sleeping with Gia behind his brother’s back and this is how AJ happens to be on hand when his dad is found dead in a hotel room having suffered a massive heart attack while cheating on Viane with a family friend, Renee (Quin Walters). Now, what was planned as a happy occasion is now going to a funeral at which family secrets will be exposed and lives will be altered forever.
In the other movie inside Madea’s Family Funeral, Madea (Tyler Perry) has been invited to the Anniversary party for Viane and Anthony. What relationship does Madea have to this family? Who knows, but her brother Heathrow (Tyler Perry) has invited her and her other brother Joe (Tyler Perry) and Madea’s pals Hattie (Patrice Lovely) and Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis) to come to this party and they’ve tapped Joe’s son Brian (Tyler Perry) to drive them to Atlanta.
It’s anyone’s guess how Madea is connected to this family in Atlanta. This family has not been mentioned before in previous movies, specifically Madea’s Family Reunion, but that only matters if you are likely me and demand that a movie proceed with some sort of internal logic. Tyler Perry is not like me. Tyler Perry has no need of internal logic, plot, even characters are really only a suggestion of a series of broad traits.
The entirety of the Madea portion of Madea’s Family Reunion could be removed from this film and it would not affect the plot whatsoever. Sure, Madea and her gang are also on hand when Anthony’s body is found, in S & M gear, in a hotel. We assume he’s in S & M gear, based on what we see, that was likely an on-set improv that Perry liked and left in the movie despite the lack of visual evidence at hand.
The discovery of the fact that a father and, allegedly, a family friend has been found to be cheating on his wife and has been found dead by his eldest son in a hotel room with a family friend, in S & M gear, is so jarring that neither the comedy nor the extremes of dramatic emotions are allowed to land in any way. A man has just died but that doesn’t mean that wacky characters can’t do awkward, unfunny schtick like attempt to perform oral sex on the corpse in place of CPR. That’s a pleasant gag that exists in this movie.
Tyler Perry, by the way, does not care for CPR. CPR makes Tyler Perry profoundly uncomfortable as he equates blowing air into a dying person’s chest with kissing and when the dying person is a man then it becomes a gay panic situation. Yes, CPR on a man is an occasion for gay panic jokes because being gay needs just a little more unnecessary stigma attached. Performing CPR means your sexuality is questionable somehow. Are we sure that this movie was made in this century?
I get that Madea’s ‘political incorrectness’ is supposedly part of her charm but that charm is lost on me. Once, this character was a bizarre moral center of a movie universe. Then, Perry decided to change her backstory from a scolding southern grandma/avenging angel to that of a former gangster, prostitute, drug addict stripper who is also a wise old sage dispensing moral judgments from an unearned high horse.
Whiplash is the lasting effect of a Tyler Perry movie. On one side is a serious family drama about lies and infidelity and the other side is a broad burlesque of elderly former criminals and drug addicts doing unfunny schtick. I thought it was bad when Madea wielded a chainsaw in the midst of the super tense drama about spousal abuse in Diary of a Mad Black Woman but at least at that point Madea was just a weird side note.
Now that Madea is the center of the universe in Perry’s movies she’s become a monster lording her unfunny references to gang life, pimps and ho’s over the top of otherwise half baked but serious dramas. It’s the worst kind of mash up, as if an elderly version of rapper Lil Kim were dropped into the middle of a reboot of Parenthood. These two things don’t go together. The drama is half baked at best and the comedy is so broad and schticky it’s like the worst episode of Def Comedy Jam in history.
I can see where the Madea character worked on a stage where the improv might feel organic and the setting might encourage such broad swings of tone but in a movie where editing and camera work and acting are necessary to the medium, this brand is ill-fitting. Perry’s style doesn’t mesh with the movies the way it, I assume, meshed with live audiences in the early 2000s when Perry developed the character of Madea on stages in church basements.
Tyler Perry has allegedly stated that this will be the final movie in the Madea franchise and if that is the case, good riddance. I genuinely have nothing nice to say about the character or the movies. I don't understand the appeal and I never will. That said, I don't buy that he's done with this character. Perry has proven to be a mercenary filmmaker throughout his career and while he has plenty of money, I will need some convincing to believe he is walking away from his cash cow.