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Movie Reviews Archives for 2018-07

Movie Review Tully

Tully is a deeply moving and quite funny exploration of the life of a mother who is barely hanging in there with a third child on the way. Charlize Theron stars in Tully as Marlo, a mother of two, pregnant with a third child when we meet her and married to Drew (Ron Livingston) whose job keeps him away for periods of time. Marlo is struggling with her pregnancy and keeping up with her two young children, a kind of trouble that can only deepen with the arrival of the new child. 
 
On a visit to her brother Craig’s (Mark Duplass) house, Marlo is gifted a night nurse who will come spend the night at her home and watch the baby while Marlo gets sleep. At first, Marlo is opposed to the idea, believing that it would take away from valuable mother and child bonding time. About a month after giving birth however, Marlo is basically a barely functioning zombie and everyone in her life is suffering the consequences. 
 
Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a bubbly twenty-something who arrives late one evening and announces herself as the night nurse. Marlo believes that Craig simply arranged for Tully without her asking him to and she’s initially upset. However, Tully is so great with the baby that Marlo quickly begins to relax and eventually falls into the first night’s sleep she’s had in a long time. The more good sleep she gets, the better her life gets and the better her friendship with Tully gets. 
 
Naturally, there is a secret about Tully and it’s a controversial secret and one that I will not reveal here. This ‘twist,’ if you want to call it that, will turn off some audience members as it is a risky choice by writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman. For me however, I bought it all the way and was consistently fascinated with each shift in the story of Tully and Marlo and their unique bond. 
 
The trick being turned by Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman in this story is pretty remarkable. In the wrong hands, the choices the filmmakers make could ruin the movie. The wrong director could potentially ruin the whole enterprise by making the turn of the story too obvious. The wrong writer might fail to fill in enough detail in the story and fail to use the gimmick at the heart of the film as a way of amplifying the emotion and rather than using it simply as a storytelling device. 
 
Unquestionably, there is a device at the center of Tully but the way the film is written and directed minimizes the obvious manipulative quality. There is so much rich detail and Marlo and Tully are such vivid and engaging characters that they could have turned into space aliens half way through the 3rd act and I would have been happy to tag along back to their home planet. That’s how engaging and funny and meaningful the movie is, these great characters can get away with almost anything. 
 
Charlize Theron deserves an Oscar nomination for her work in Tully. Theron carries multitudes in her sad, tired eyes. When she begins to come to life thanks to Tully’s intervention, she begins to light up the room and the movie appears to become brighter and happier, turning on her increasingly good vibe. That’s a function of the storytelling of course, but Theron makes it feel organic and real in her remarkably touching performance. 
 
Newcomer Mackenzie Davis is also quite good as the peppy and vivacious Tully. At first she appears as if she were some manic pixie dream nanny here to solve all of Marlo’s problems, but that’s part of the fun. Tully offers wish fulfillment in a fun and funny package. The film is setting us up with how helpful and convenient Tully appears to be, it’s part of the trick being pulled and what a great and wonderful trick it is. 
 
Tully is a dazzling and funny piece of character study. The combination of Theron’s brilliant acting, Diablo Cody’s funny and insightful scripting and Jason Reitman’s skillful presentation is unbeatable. This remarkably talented trio, who also made the excellent and similarly funny and insightful Young Adult in 2011, work incredibly well together. They have a rhythm and cadence all their own, much the same that Reitman and Cody had when Reitman made his masterpiece, Juno, with Ellen Page. 
 
I really hope these three will work together again soon because with Young Adult and now Tully, which is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD, they’re two for two in making incredibly funny and deeply emotional movies. 

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Movie Review Three Identical Strangers

Nature or nurture is a question as old as when man began to question his very existence. This question speaks to the very soul of humanity: am I a product of how I was raised or is my existence a reaction to my environment. To me, the answer is rather simply, a mixture of both but that isn’t exactly a satisfying answer if you’re a social scientist. For years, the field of mental health would draw battle lines surrounding the nature vs nurture debate and it led to something rather monstrous in its coldly calculating science.

 

In 1961 a psychiatrist by the name of Peter Newbauer decided there was one way to settle nature vs nurture. With the help of a wealthy and well respected adoption agency, he would oversee the separation of sets of twins at birth, sending the siblings to different homes with different demographic make ups and track how they grow up via interviews mandated as part of the adoption agreement.

 

What? You’ve never heard of this monstrous experiment? There’s a reason for that, it was never published. The fact that this ever happened likely never would have came to light if Bobby Shafran hadn’t decided on attending community college, the same community college attended by Eddy Galland, his heretofore unknown twin brother. Even then, it seemed like a brief heartwarming accident, the kind of story that closes a local newscast.

 

But then it was revealed that Bobby and Eddy had another brother, David, and were, in fact, adopted triplets. The story became a media sensation in 1980 and carried on for a few years with the triplets parlaying off of their minor fame. That to, could have been the end if the triplets story hadn’t intrigued an award winning journalist into looking into how something so strange could have taken place. What he found turned this heartwarming story, into a heart-rending scandal.

 

Three Identical Strangers is an incredibly compelling documentary. Director Tim Wardle is new to feature length documentary, he’s worked for several years in television but Three Identical Strangers feels like the work of a veteran. The story unfolds with remarkable clarity and vision with a strong hand at the narrative. Wardle sets us up brilliantly and then employs brilliant twists that are never forced or overly dramatic, but rather perfectly calibrated to documentary storytelling.

 

Wardle has a cinematic eye as well as a documentarians eye. Notice a scene in which he describes the adoptive parents meeting with the adoption agency after the triplets have found each other. There is a moment here that is dramatized and it is apart from the rest of the doc which is more traditional, face to camera interviews. The father of one of the boys witnesses the adoption agency people toasting over having seemed to dodge a bullet in their meeting with the parents. Your first thought is that this is a throwaway scene and this will now turn into a legal battle, but you’re wrong. I was wrong while watching it as well.

 

The scene is urgently important for setting up the rest of the documentary narrative. The whole film turns on this dramatized moment and it is an ingenious way to shift the structure of the narrative. The heartwarming and curious portion of the story is now over and the murky and darker side of this story is fully begun and what an incredible story we’re being told in Three Identical Strangers.

 

The film even begins the debate of nature vs nurture by seeming to take one side before switching and pleading the case of the other side. Again, I find this shift to be incredibly smart and in keeping with the clever way Wardle shifts from heartwarming curiosity to mysterious and murky morality play. The nature vs nurture debate will not be decided here or likely in any kind of text, filmic or otherwise, but Three Identical Strangers offers something unique and fascinating to that debate.

 

Three Identical Stranger is one of the best movies of 2018 and were it not for my deeply emotional connection to the Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, I might call it the best documentary of the year. It’s a wildly fascinating and exceptionally well told story. Tim Wardle is a terrific new voice in feature documentary and I can’t wait to see what he does next after his remarkable triumph with Three Identical Strangers.

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Movie Review The Spy Who Dumped Me

The Spy Who Dumped Me stars Mila Kunis as Audrey, an underachiever working a menial job and celebrating her 30th birthday. Audrey is sad about the state of her life, not just the job but also her now ex-boyfriend, Drew (Justin Theroux), who dumped her via text message. Things aren’t all bad however as Audrey has a best friend, Morgan (Kate McKinnon) who is a constant source of support and great entertainment.

 

Audrey’s meaningless existence is changed forever when Audrey is thrown into the back of a truck with a pair of secret agents, Duffer (Hasan Minaj) and Sebastian (Sam Heughan), who inform her that Drew is a C.I,A Agent and he’s gone missing. When he pops up at her apartment he tells her that he has a mission she must help him with; she must travel to Vienna and deliver a package to another spy named Vern in order to save the world.

 

When Drew is left unconscious, Audrey and Morgan decide to actually go to Vienna and try to carry out his mission with the CIA hot on their tale. Once in Vienna, the two end up in gun battles, getting tortured, and facing off against some of the world’s greatest spies. The film travels to Prague and eventually to Paris as the globetrotting and gun toting get going the film gets really, quite funny.

 

Director Susanna Fogel does a great job of taking good advantage of her talented stars. The story of The Spy Who Dumped Me is a tad thin, so much of the film relies on the clever riffing of Kunis and McKinnon. Fogel smartly gives them room to roam within this goofball adventure to search for as many funny, and often quite dirty jokes. A lesser cast, actors without the ability to riff would unquestionably expose how thin this silly plot truly is.

 

Mila Kunis continues to grow into a reliable leading lady. Where it once seemed like she was destined to be outshined by funnier supporting players, like Kathryn Hahn in Bad Moms, here Kunis is able to hang in and be as funny as her co-star. Perhaps it’s her improv background, but Kate McKinnon comes off as quite a generous scene partner. It’s clear that McKinnon is capable of dominating a scene, and she certainly takes over a few scenes, but for the most part she is matched riff for riff by Kunis.

 

That said, McKinnon does star in my favorite sequence of The Spy Who Dumped Me. The scene is late in the movie and involves a Cirque Du Soleil style routine on a trapeze, McKinnon in a wacky costume and a icy contract killer played by Ivanna Sakhno. The scene is high level goofy and McKinnon earns big laughs throughout with some terrific physical comedy. Sakhno is pretty great to having to play completely straight opposite McKinnon’s clowning.

 

The Spy Who Dumped Me is terrifically funny if a tad uneven. The movie is mostly riffing rather than story but when the riffing is this good it’s hard not to appreciate it. Kunis and McKinnon have remarkable chemistry and the fun they’re having is infectious. I could complain about predictability and the stop start nature of the pacing of the film but The Spy Who Dumped Me is far too fun for such complaints.

 

The Spy Who Dumped Me opens nationwide on August 3rd.

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Movie Review Teen Titans Go to the Movies

I am only vaguely aware of the Teen Titans cartoon series. I know that I have flashed past it on cable television, alway pausing for a moment when I would see a recognizable superhero, like a Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman, before moving on with my life. I’m aware that it has a reputation of being irreverent and quite funny for the age group it is aimed at, and even some older audiences who appreciate its satiric, deconstructionist take on comic book characters, or so I’m told.

 

Teen Titans Go to the Movies attempts to bring the magic of the small screen satire to the big screen and it works, for the most part. Teen Titans Go to the Movies is a funny and strange concoction that finds a group of super teenagers fighting for the respect that people their age don’t often get from adults. That’s a story that any teenager or former teenager should easily be able to relate to.

 

The Teen Titans are Robin (Scott Menville) aka Batman’s sidekick, Beast Boy (Greg Cipes) who can turn into any animal, Cyborg (Khary Payton) a half-human half transformer robot, Raven (Tara Strong) a misanthropic witch, and Starfire (Hynden Walch) a sweetheart alien Princess. Together they fight crime when they aren’t bickering or coming up with coordinated song and dance routines to tout how great they are.

 

The rest of the superhero world view the Titans as a joke and the opening sequence illustrates why. While they goof around rapping about their powers in front of a giant balloon monster wrecking havoc over a city, Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern show up and do the actual fighting of the big bad before explaining to the Titans and to us that the Titans are a bunch of goofs who should stay out of the way of the real heroes.

 

The Titans brush off the lambasting and decide to follow the heroes to the premiere of Batman’s new movie, even though technically, they weren’t invited. After sneaking into the premiere they meet Jade Wilson (Kristen Bell) who explains to them why they will never have a movie of their own, they don’t have a good nemesis, a bad guy foil who could raise their profile, an arch-nemesis if you will.

 

When the call goes out for a crime in progress the Titans leap into action and, as luck would have it, they stumble into a crime being committed by the evil mastermind Slade (Will Arnett). Though Slade laughs off the Titans offer to be their arch-nemesis, he does beat the team up and leave with his criminal booty. Robin meanwhile, is determined to make Slade their arch-nemesis and ride that rivalry to his own movie.

 

Eventually, Slade does take the Teen Titans seriously which leads him to try to destroy the team using Robin’s desire to be a movie star to drive a wedge into the group. His very obvious accomplice is a rather clever and funny running gag in a movie that has plenty of clever and funny gags. And yet, the comedy doesn’t mean that co-directors Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida Michall and their team of 8 credited writers, don’t ground this in some minor melodrama.

 

Teen Titans Go to the Movies takes somewhat seriously the relationship between the team and that grounding makes the jokes funnier and the plot more familiar, easy to follow even if you’re not a Titans regular. The group dynamic is goofy but with a bloated self-seriousness on the part of Robin that is the funniest thing about the group. Robin can be a goof just like the rest of the group but it’s his pompous belief in himself as a hero that is repeatedly punctured to strong comic effect.

 

The rest of the characters are less well rounded with Cyborg and Raven barely making an impression while Beast Boy and Starfire get a few solid punchlines though not much depth. The character that arguably has the most well-rounded arc is Will Arnett’s Slade who may not change much from his arrogant, growling bad guy-ness but does slowly come to respect and fear the Titans as they slowly come to prove themselves as heroes, goofball heroes, but heroes nonetheless.

 

If you like obscure reference humor you will love the fact that Nicholas Cage is in Teen Titans Go to the Movies. The joke is that Cage once was set to play Superman in a Tim Burton directed Superman movie that went as far as having a script and a new super suit and a long-haired Superman. Footage of Cage testing out this new look Superman went online a few years ago and Cage has maintained he would still like to play Superman and it’s nice to hear him get the chance here.

 

Teen Titans Go to the Movie is not a memorable movie, it’s not a lasting animated classic. It’s a well-made and quite funny television adaptation that likely won’t spawn a film franchise. But, for what it is, with it’s mild ambition and big laughs it’s not bad. Given the state of the D.C movie universe at the moment, it’s arguably among the best of the D.C comics adaptations, but that’s not saying much when you consider Man of Steel and Suicide Squad are part of that universe.

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Movie Review Mission Impossible Fallout

The Mission Impossible series has been a rollercoaster of quality since its inception 22 years ago. The first film wasn’t great but it did begin the slow, upward crawl of the series. Then, the series picked up speed by embracing the slick, shallow style of director John Woo for Mission Impossible 2. Finally, in Mission Impossible 3, the series peaked with the J.J Abrams directed thriller that was brimming with suspense and bursting with action while telling the best story the series has told thus far.

 

It was back down the quality coaster after that with Ghost Protocol but Rogue Nation began the climb back upwards and now Mission Impossible Fallout has arrived to provide another, somewhat smaller peak for the franchise. Filled with smart twists and turns and a strong payoff, Mission Impossible Fallout is perhaps the best blend yet of Fast and Furious style goofy fun with with the stylish grit of the Bourne franchise, the true sweet spot of the Mission Impossible franchise.

 

Mission Impossible Fallout finds Ethan Hunt on the trail of nuclear warheads that are on the black market. The spy ring known as The Syndicate, is without its leader, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), whom Ethan and his team captured in Rogue Nation, and they’ve been making up for his absence with even more terror attacks around the globe. The nukes however, are their final big play and Ethan needs to get to them before The Syndicate does.

 

Unfortunately, after missing out on the nukes in Berlin, Ethan is forced to take along a C.I.A Agent to watch over him and his team. Agent Walker (Henry Cavill) is a hard-headed, cold-hearted, efficient spy who specializes in killing whoever needs to be killed to accomplish his mission. Naturally, Walker’s approach clashes with Ethan’s more nuanced take on spycraft, the kind that doesn’t get a whole lot of other people killed.

 

Fallout brings the return of Rebecca Ferguson in the role of Ilsa Faust. When last we saw Ilsa she was getting out of the spy business, leaving behind her career at London’s MI6. Sadly, the spy game is not so easy to walk away from. This time, Ilsa’s aims are in direct conflict with Ethan’s and the two will come close to killing each other on more than one occasion during Mission Impossible Fallout.

Fallout was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, the screenwriter who tried to save Ghost Protocol with some script doctoring before taking the full reins of the series for Rogue Nation.

 

McQuarrie may be just the right creative force for the series. His style combines the slick and stylish visuals that are a hallmark of the series but he’s also not blind to the details of good storytelling and doesn’t let the stunts get in the way of telling a good story. Stunts, are, of course, the bread and butter of the Mission Impossible franchise but, in throughout the series, the necessity of Tom Cruise to put his life on the line for some adrenaline rush and a good public relations have come at the expense of the story. Ghost Protocol for instance had a pair of big action set pieces set in stone before the film even had a script. The writers had to write to the stunt rather than coming up with stunts to go with the story.

 

Any screenwriter would likely admit that having to write to the action rather than forming an organic storyline is less than an ideal way to write a script. That problem plagued Ghost Protocol and to a lesser extent, Rogue Nation where McQuarrie merely had to write in Cruise hanging from the side of a plane as it took off. Fallout has some big action but none of it feels sewn on to the story, it all feels as if it proceeds from the story.

 

Perhaps the biggest stunt in the movie, if not the most talked about, is a helicopter battle where Cruise has to nearly fall off of the helicopter and save himself by the skin of his teeth. It’s a spectacular sequence and part of a kinetic closing act that is intense and rarely lets up on the excitement and suspense all the way to the end. The most talked about stunt in Fallout is a foot chase in which Cruise parkours his way across London rooftops in pursuit of the enemy.

 

Cruise was injured in the chase, breaking his ankle attempting to jump from one building to the next in a gnarly jump that rumor has it, is in the final cut of Fallout, though the scene proceeds at a pace where you may not notice it. Cruise’s injury shutdown production for eight weeks and ballooned the film’s budget to reportedly more than $250 million dollars. It probably was not worth it for this particular stunt but studios aren’t inclined to tell a star like Cruise not to do his own stunts.

 

Mission Impossible Fallout has the best traits of the lesser parts of the Mission Impossible franchise. Slick, stylish and occasionally shallow, the film could have been just another stunt-fest. Thankfully, the story picks up with a couple of great twists, especially a rare call back to the first film in the franchise, and by the end the story and the pace are feeding each other and the thrills coming at you at a frenetic pace.

 

I really enjoyed how Fallout combines the goofy thrills of a Fast and Furious movie with the gritty seriousness of the Bourne franchise. That’s right where this franchise should be, serious but not too serious, outlandish but not over the top. The first Mission Impossible showed what would happen if you took this material too seriously, the second film showed what happened if you didn’t take things seriously enough. MI3 nailed the formula with great story and great action and Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation and now Fallout have tried with varying success to match what Abrams did in MI3 to little avail.

 

Fallout is the closest the series has come to its creative peak and for that it is definitely worth checking out in theaters this weekend.

 

Ranking the Mission Impossible Movies

  1. Mission Impossible 3
  2. Mission Impossible Fallout
  3. Mission Impossible Rogue Nation
  4. Mission Impossible 2
  5. Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol
  6. Mission Impossible 1
     

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Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation

Mission Impossible 3 made an indelible mark in my mind as the most entertaining and accomplished take on the entire Mission Impossible franchise. After seeing both Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Mission Impossible Rogue Nation, I can now say with certainty that the series peaked with number 3. J.J Abrams kinetic direction was artful and exciting with an eye toward drama, action and suspense all in the same package.

 

That’s not to say that Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation are bad, they just lack the same clarity, focus and skill of MI3. Neither directors, Brad Bird or Christopher McQuarrie, appear capable of imposing their vision on the franchise, or at least, they didn’t impose it as well as Abrams did as each seems far more at the mercy of stunt coordinators and the daredevil antics of star Tom Cruise than Abrams was.

 

Ghost Protocol picks up the action of the MI story some five years after the action of MI3. Ethan Hunt is behind bars in a foreign country, accused of having murdered 6 Serbian nationals. We will eventually be told that his wife, Jules (Michelle Monaghan), a prominent part of the action in MI3, was killed, but death in a spy movie doesn’t always mean death. The big bad this time out is a man code named Cobalt (Michael Nykvist), an arms dealer with the aim of ending the world with a nuclear missile.

 

It will be up to Agent Hunt and his new IMF team, including now Field Agent Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton). Carter is still reeling from the murder of her partner, Agent Hanaway (Josh Holloway, Lost) who was murdered by a killer for hire employed by Cobalt. They are joined by Analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) who gets added to the team after his boss, the Secretary of the IMF (Tom Wilkinson) is murdered and the team is disavowed.

 

Brad Bird is a competent and highly capable director who keeps the pace up and the action well managed. Unfortunately, the film is little more than set-pieces strung together by a thin plot and a less than compelling villain. Ghost Protocol is remembered for the controversial CGI destruction of the Kremlin and a death-defying sequence in which Cruise appears to scale the outside of the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.

 

Both sequences are solid and well captured with the Burj Khalifa climb coming the closest to evoking the best of the franchise. That said, they appeared to have the stunts before they had a script and wound up tailoring the story to the stunts. This was seemingly confirmed when writer Christopher McQuarrie was brought on half way into production for an uncredited rewrite of the script by Andre Nemec and Josh Applebaum.

 

Does this make Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol bad? No, it means that it comes up short of the legacy crafted by Mission Impossible 3. That film had big stunts and a big story to tell along with it. Ghost Protocol has ambition stunts but lacks the story to lift it to what I had hoped the series would be after MI3. Still, the movie is good enough, it’s entertaining enough, it has just enough appeal that I don’t dislike it, but I don’t love it either.


Mission Impossible Rogue Nation, at the very least, improved upon Ghost Protocol. Here, Ethan Hunt opens the movie by being captured by the big bad, this time played by Sean Harris. Harris’ Solomon Lane has been eluding Ethan for two years since Ethan began to track him down. Lane has remained 2 steps ahead of Ethan while creating a series of tragedies intended to have a drastic effect on world markets.

 

Ethan is in so much hot water that the CIA, seen here in the form of a blustering Alec Baldwin, believes he is responsible for the terrorist acts caused by Lane’s outfit called, The Syndicate. In attempting to stop The Syndicate, Ethan recruits Benji to join him on the run from the CIA and they are joined by a British double agent named Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who has infiltrated The Syndicate and is the key to getting to Lane.

 

Director Christopher McQuarrie both wrote and directed Mission Impossible Rogue Nation and that fact does lend some clarity to the storytelling. The conspiracy in play is a wild one and rather clever and well executed. The film is still defined by one big stunt, in which Cruise legendarily clung to the side of a plane as it was taking off, but the stunt doesn’t completely overshadow the movie as Burj Khalifa sequence in Ghost Protocol certainly did.

 

McQuarrie marries the slick, shallow thrills of MI2 with a little of the grit of the original with the craftsmanship of MI3 and creates easily the second best of the then 5 film franchise. I especially enjoyed the use of Rebecca Ferguson whose lithe physicality matches that of co-star Tom Cruise. The way she floats about fluidly in major fight scenes is really cool and in keeping with the action style of most of the Mission movies. She’s a really solid addition.

 

Sadly, the villain of Rogue Nation is once again the weakest part of the film. Who’s Sean Harris? He’s not a bad actor but I have no reference point for who he is as an actor. He’s not remotely on the star level of the rest of the cast, even Ferguson who makes her debut in this film. Harris’s lack of a profile makes him forgettable and when compared to the best villain in the franchise, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s exceptional, Owen Davian, he comes up well short.

 

The character of Solomon Lane is not all that compelling. His aims are clear but the character is a shell wear a full-fledged villain should be. He has no life, no personality, he’s not tough and while he’s portrayed as super-smart, our first time seeing him, he immediately chooses not to kill Ethan Hunt even though he easily could. The sequence makes the character look silly, especially when the script gives him zero reason to keep alive the one man he’s aware could stop his agenda.

 

The lack of care in the details of the script of Rogue One is part of what keeps the film far from greatness. It’s still solid and has terrific stunt work and top-notch action scenes, but sadly I was hoping for more of a brain. Instead, we get yet another Tom Cruise running chase scene and another Tom Cruise motorcycle chase scene, obligatory action beats that likely existed before a script ever did.

 

McQuarrie is also the writer-director of Mission Impossible Fallout which hits theaters this weekend. I believe Fallout will be good but my expectations have dimmed for the franchise. I had hoped Ethan Hunt would usurp James Bond as the top movie spy of all time. Sadly, Bond’s legacy is kept safe by a star too eager for stunts and directors unable to make the stunts into a fully compelling story beyond the mere presentation of spectacle that just happens to be part of a story.
 

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Movie Review Mission Impossible 3

If Mission Impossible 2 was the height of slick and shallow, action fantasy, Mission Impossible 3 is the height of the series becoming something more than just slick fantasy. Mission Impossible 3 is completely awesome with more genuine suspense and thrills than either of the two previous Mission Impossible movies. Director J.J Abrams, before he manned the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, grabbed the reins of the Mission Impossible franchise and transformed it from thinly plotted, style over substance action into a full fledged movie that also happens to be a great action movie.

 

Mission Impossible 3 picks up the story of Impossible Mission Force Agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) five years after the action of MI2. Now, Hunt is in semi-retirement, busily training the next generation of IMF Agents. Hunt is also soon to be married to Jules (Michelle Monaghan), who has no idea what Ethan did or currently does for a living. Her appeal to him is that she is completely outside the espionage sphere.

 

That’s unfortunately about to change as Ethan is drawn back into the field and his new bride is soon to be drawn in as well. Ethan is brought out of retirement by a friend and agent named Musgrave (Billy Crudup) who wants Ethan to go to Germany and rescue one of the agents he trained. Agent Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell) had been tracking an arms dealer named Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) when she was captured.

 

The rescue sequence, featuring Hunt’s latest Impossible Mission team, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, in his third Mission appearance), Declan Gormley (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and Zhen Lei (Maggie Q), is an incredibly tense, fast paced and exceptionally well shot sequence. It’s a nail-biting series of scenes with Keri Russell getting a moment to shine next to Cruise and show the chops that would take her to Emmy leading lady status as another kind of spy on The Americans.

 

Here, Russell was not long from the fluffy television series Felicity but the gun battle here put any questions about her range as an action hero and actress to rest for good. Russell is every bit the badass Cruise is in this scene and J.J Abrams captures the scene brilliantly with remarkable camera work, editing and scene setting. The tension in this scene is almost unbearable as the perfectly timed events play out., I can’t praise this scene enough, and I haven’t even mentioned the gut-punch payoff to this sequence.

 

From there we move the plot on to Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s big bad, Owen Davian. The Academy Award nominated Hoffman is not playing around with the role of action movie bad guy, he’s deeply invested in this dangerous character. Davian is maniacal but it’s Hoffman’s measured tones and invective that make him scary and not the kind of blustering we get from so many other action movie bad guys.

 

A sequence in which Cruise and his team invade The Vatican to capture Davian is another stand out series of scenes filled with the kinds of things we’ve come to love about the series, the speculative technology, the expert timing and the thrilling last minute saves. Director Abrams could teach a master class in action movie suspense and just show people this sequence with its expert timing and clever twists and turns.

 

After the disappointment of the first Mission Impossible and the shallow but exceptionally fun Mission Impossible 2, I was once again surprised by the Mission Impossible franchise with Mission Impossible 3. Instead of adopting the shallow, thrill a minute style of the modern action movie, J.J Abrams set out and made an action movie with a brain, a careful thriller that uses strong cinematic technique to build suspense in a plot that is the perfect mix of action movie thrills and genuine, edge of your seat suspense.

 

Mission Impossible Fallout opens in theaters nationwide this Thursday.

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Movie Review Ready Player One

On first viewing I rather enjoyed Steven Speilberg’s Ready Player One. Seeing the film on the IMAX screen in 3D played up the film’s best features, the roller coaster ride of the visual style of Ready Player One and the fantastic special effects used to create the virtual world of Ready Player One. There is no denying how spectacular looking the movie is, Speilberg is a master director. Unfortunately, there is little to no depth in the story to go with the dazzling visuals.

 

Tye Sheridan stars in Ready Player One as a teenager named Wade but in the virtual world, known as The Oasis, he is Parzival, a renowned racer. Parzival is part of a large group of daredevils whose aim is to locate a series of Easter Eggs planted within The Oasis by the creator of The Oasis, played by Academy Award winner Mark Rylance. It’s believed that if one were to find all three Easter Eggs that, much like Willy Wonka and his Chocolate Factory, the Oasis as a whole would be there prize.

 

Parzival and his best friend Aech (Emmy Winner Lena Waithe) are working together to find the Easter Eggs, one of which is at the end of a nearly impossible to win race. Here, Parzival drives the legendary Back to the Future Delorean and continuously crashes before he can get to the finish line to find the egg. That is, until a little research teaches him how to beat the race, a cheat code put in by the creator himself that you can find if you know what you’re looking for.

 

Also hot on the trail of the Easter Eggs is Artemis/Samantha (Olivia Cook). Artemis is a badass who rides a motorcycle that is quite famous among fans of Anime and in real life is a vulnerable teenage girl who happens to be the same age as Wade, big surprise there. Artemis is not a bad character, especially in Cook’s capable hands. Unfortunately, the script by original novelist Ernest Cline and writer Zak Penn writer Artemis as if she were a prize to be won at the end of the game for Wade.

Even lazier is the villain of Ready Player One played by character actor Ben Mendelsohn.

 

Mendelsohn’s Nolan Sorrento is a boilerplate baddie, motivated by arrogance and greed. He’s every villain of every action movie ever made and Mendelsohn’s attempts to inject life and humor into the character come up short against the shallow character written for the role by Penn and Cline.

 

Is Ready Player One a bad movie? No, Steven Speilberg is far too talented to make a genuinley bad movie. Speilberg’s bad is merely a flawed film filled with the incredible artistry of a man who still cares deeply about each of his movies. Ready Player One just happens to be particularly riddled with flaws from the shallow characters to clunky dialogue to an Oasis with no imagination beyond the already created characters of recent pop memory.

 

The trailer for Ready Player One sold us nostalgia and the movie plays up the nostalgia to the hilt. The nostalgia, though lovely at times, especially when Aech takes on the persona of the Iron Giant, the nostalgia also exposes the laziness at the core of the script. The film relies on other pop creations for its impact while the film’s own characters barely make an impression against the glittery background.


The story is perfunctory and when the characters aren’t cosplaying pop culture’s greatest hits, the film is exposed as thinly conceived action movie it really is. There are still neat, giddy thrills to be had and nostalgia to enjoy but I expect a little more depth from a Steven Speilberg project. His popcorn movies may all be relatively breezy and thin but they’re rarely as brainless and forgettably cast as Ready Player One.

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Movie Review Mission Impossible 2

The second installment of the Mission Impossible franchise is really where the series found its feet. After the first film, though financially successful, failed by forcing director Brian DePalma to make a standard, mainstream action movie, the makers of MI2 picked the right director to deliver a slick, stylish, fast paced action movie that didn’t have to do anything other than just be cool looking to succeed.

 

Director John Woo, the inventor of the cinema of cool style of action adventure, was the absolute pitch perfect choice to direct Mission Impossible 2. Woo favors visual dynamism over story and that style over substance approach works for the mindless sort of fun that was missing from the first film which ached to be both taken seriously as a movie and be enjoyed as an action adventure movie, and nearly failed on both accounts.

 

We pick up the action of Mission Impossible 2 by introducing our ‘MacGuffin.’ For those that aren’t aware of classic movie tropes, the macguffin is a term coined by the legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock to describe a plot device that all the characters in the movie are seeking. It can be any kind of nebulous concept as long as everyone is chasing it, that’s what propels the story along. The Maltese Falcon is arguably the most famous example of a MacGuffin, a thing everyone in the movie wanted for whatever reason the plot decided.

 

The Macguffin in MI2 is a virus and a cure known as Chimera and Bellerophon. A doctor friend of our hero, IMF Agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has created both the worst virus in history and its cure and is attempting to escape with them both as the movie opens. Unfortunately, the doctor falls into the hands of a turncoat IMF Agent, Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), impersonating Ethan. Ambrose murders the doctor and absconds with the MacGuffin and the chase is on.

 

To find Ambrose, Ethan must enlist Ambrose’s former flame, a thief named Nyah (Thandie Newton). It will be her job to get back into Ambrose’s life and get Ethan and his team, including his old buddy Luther (Ving Rhames) and a newcomer Aussie pilot named Billy (Jon Polson), close enough to retrieve the virus and cure before Ambrose can sell them to the highest bidder or unleash them on the world out of spite for the IMF.

 

The plot of Mission Impossible 2 isn’t important, we’re here for the cinema of cool, the cinema of John Woo and the style over substance master does not disappoint. Slow-motion cameras capture spectacular chases and stylish cinematography brings out the sexy fight over the affections of Newton’s Nyah between Ethan and Ambrose. Sure, saving the world and all is important or whatever, but looking good is the point of MI2 and everyone and everything looks incredible.

 

Every Mission Impossible is known for the stunt that nearly got Tom Cruise crippled or killed and MI2 is no different. Our first glimpse of Ethan Hunt in MI2 is him free-climbing a craggy rock in the middle of the Utah desert with no one around for miles. Naturally, Cruise insisted on doing the stunt himself and watching him narrowly cling to the side of a nearly flat cliff face is honestly still as breathtaking today as it was in 2000 when the film was released.


Screenwriter Robert Towne, back from having over-written the first Mission Impossible film crafted the screenplay with a much leaner and clearer narrative. Towne claims that he had to fit a pair of stunts into the movie even before the plot of the film had been devised and had to write the scenes into the movie as he created the screenplay. This, naturally, includes Ethan’s introductory scene and a scene near the end involving a motorcycle fight.

 

The motorcycle ballet at the end of Mission Impossible 2 is wildly silly and implausible but wonderfully so. Director Woo delivers the scene in his classic, slick-slo-mo style and it works for the slick, empty spectacle of MI2. Also great is the closing fight scene between Cruise and Scott where Cruise’s lithe physicality is framed beautifully within Woo’s perfectly seamless and crisp scene-setting that, of course, includes his trademark fight-scene doves.

 

Tom Cruise appears a great deal more comfortable in this empty-headed sequel. The first film featured him being cocky yet calculated and when you could see Ethan’s wheels turning it often slowed the film to a halt with overwrought flashbacks and other such nonsense. Thankfully, MI2 does not burden the actor or character with too much to think about and just gets on with the business at hand, super cool fight and chase scenes.

 

Mission Impossible 2 is as shallow as a drying puddle but it looks and feels spectacular. It’s like a great looking car that gets no gas milage, completely impractical for use, but it looks amazing. Every frame of Mission Impossible 2 is a gorgeous fantasy of the action spy genre. The awesome locations, the world travelogue cinematography and the spectacular action makes the movie insanely watchable if not all that rewarding for your attention-span.

 

With Mission Impossible Fallout in theaters this Friday i will likely be doubling up the movie of the day column this week to get in as much of the Mission Impossible franchise before bringing you my Fallout review on Friday. 

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Movie Review The Equalizer 2

The Equalizer 2 stars Denzel Washington, once again in the role of McCaul, a former CIA Agent turned good guy vigilante. When we meet McCaul in this sequel he is on a train in Turkey with a fake beard. McCaul is attempting to retrieve the daughter of a woman he knows that has been illegally taken by her ex-husband and scuttled out of the country. The scene is a re-introduction to the unique set of skills McCaul has; which includes timing the way he beats up bad guys.

 

This scene has nothing to do with the plot of The Equalizer 2 other than as a way of contextualizing the character for those who may not have seen the first film in this budding franchise. Then again, the plot of The Equalizer 2 is so loose and threadbare it’s hard to say which scenes are plot necessary and which are indulgent, unnecessary scenes intended only to show what a god-like, benevolent being McCaul is.

 

The plot, such as it is, kicks in when McCaul’s friend, Susan (Melissa Leo) is murdered while investigating a murder in Belgium. McCaul immediately smells a rat and decides to come out of hiding in order to investigate. His first visit is to his former partner, Dave (Pedro Pascal). Dave was with Susan in Belgium when she was murdered, helping her investigate. Is Dave a friend or a suspect? You will have to see the movie to find out but if you’ve seen a movie, you likely already know.

 

Antoine Fuqua hasn’t made a movie this lazy and loosely structured since King Arthur, which is the last time it felt like he was making something even he didn’t care for. The Equalizer 2 ranges from boring action to boring scenes of unneeded exposition to equally boring establishing scenes of a character who is on hand only to be device later in the movie. I’m afraid that if I even begin to describe this character it might be a spoiler as the device is so nakedly predictable.

 

Denzel Washington has been on auto-pilot since his 2012’s Flight. That’s the last time I can recall seeing Denzel fully invested in fleshing out and living within a character. That may sound funny for those who point to his Academy Award nominated work in Fences and Roman J. Esquire and think I am crazy, but I am not a fan of either of those performances. Both of those movies are showy, over the top, capital P: Performances, not great acting.

 

In Fences, Washington is performing for the stage and not the screen. His bombastic performance is ill-suited for the movie screen. Roman J. Israel meanwhile, is a different kind of over the top, a performance that is all tics and mannerisms. These performances are, at least, not boring, they have a vitality that The Equalizer 2 does not have. Despite how much he shapes this character and seems to care about it, he comes off as rather bored.

 

Bored is probably an unfair, even inaccurate way of describing Denzel’s performance. I’m sure his intent is to be inscrutable or unflappable, but it comes off unaffected and uninvested. Part of that is Denzel’s fault but a bigger part is the fault of Fuqua who fails to give the movie around Denzel’s performance much life. The film aims for moody but arrives at tired, it aims for gritty and ends mildly irritated.


Even the action, which had been the best part of the original The Equalizer, is lifeless in comparison and that film wasn’t exactly lively. The first The Equalizer appeared invested in its action, if not in creating memorable characters or a believable story worth investing in. Denzel’s physicality is fully present in that performance and is less so here. I’m not going to speculate about Denzel aging, because he could easily take me in a fight, despite having 20 years on me age wise, but regardless he appears slowed.

 

Denzel being a little slower might have worked in the film’s favor if the movie had used it but instead, the movie appears slowed down so Denzel can keep up. Denzel is at all times quicker and smarter than everyone else in the movie, even people younger than him who he apparently taught and influenced when he was a member of the CIA. I’m nitpicking here but shouldn’t this character, at very least, feel a little bit of angst about this fight?

 

I won’t go into spoilers but the ending of The Equalizer is nonsense. It’s filmed in the midst of a
hurricane on an empty Martha’s Vineyard or some such town and it’s a shame to say, it’s not nearly as fun or exciting as a similar scene in Hurricane Heist earlier this year. Hurricane Heist is basically a parody of an actual movie. That movie, at the very least, knew how to have fun. The Equalizer 2 has the audacity to be dour on top of being predictable, lazy and sloppy.

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Movie Review Sorry to Bother You

Sorry to Bother You is among the most bracing and stupefying movies of this century. Directed by Boots Riley, no film aside from perhaps Get Out, has felt this alive in this moment of our shared American history. This absurdist masterpiece about identity politics, corporate greed, liberal guilt and moral licensing, works on so many unique levels of satire it can be hard to keep up with but it’s damn sure worth trying to keep up with.

 

Sorry to Bother You stars LaKeith Stanfield, a star of the aforementioned Get Out along with equally of the moment series Atlanta on FX. Stanfield plays Cassius Green a lean and hungry young man, quite literally hungry, he has almost no money, who we meet as he attempts to lie himself into a new job. Cassius is is applying to work at a telemarketing firm and once hired he finds himself struggling to make sales.

 

Then, an older telemarketer, Langston (Danny Glover), gives Cash some very important advice, use your white voice. Here’s where the transgressive kick of Sorry to Bother You kicks in. Immediately, Langston gets on the phone and the surreal voice of Steve Buscemi is coming out of the mouth of Danny Glover. Soon, Cash gives his white voice a shot and he’s a natural with the voice of David Cross laying over that of LaKeith Stanfield.

 

This is the first layer of the identity politics satire at play in Sorry to Bother You. It gets a great deal more intense after that, after Cash realizes how powerful he can be with his ultra-confident white voice. Soon, Cash is promoted to Power Caller and is working in a pampered office with a six figure salary while his friends, including Union organizer, Squeeze (Steven Yuen) and girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson) are left behind to try and fight for more pay without the power of Cash’s earning power to help their position.

 

Cash’s rise through the ranks is rapid and he soon catches the attention of the company’s biggest client, a slave labor corporation known as WorryFree. WorryFree CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) is a psychotic mashup of Martin Shkrelli and Elon Musk, with just a dash of Jeff Bezos’ union busting egotism. Whether intentional or not, the notion of Worryfree signing workers to lifetime contracts that offer them room and board in exchange for permanent employment feels like a shot at Bezos and the conditions he’s rumored to have created for Amazon warehouse workers.

 

Then again, the way it is framed, the corporate satire could play off of any number of modern, soul-less, labor busting CEO. Where this satire winds up is a stunner of transgressive ideas that are terrifyingly and yet hilariously staged. Sorry to Bother You is wildly unpredictable  and boldly weird, a refreshingly artful and funny mix. A scene featuring a party at Lift’s house features one of the most explosive and uncomfortably real scenes I have ever witnessed.

 

The scene is textbook moral licensing, a concept wherein people, or a group of people, excuse their worst behaviors by doing something they feel is moral or selfless. In this case, allowing Cash into their world gives the white people at Lift’s party, in their minds, the moral license to ask him demean himself and his race for their amusement and its okay because they claim he is now one of their peers.

 

We aren’t finished though with the multiple levels of transgressive satire in Sorry to Bother You. Boots Riley turns social science into a gorgeous work of art. With an incredible cast that also includes a stellar performance by Tessa Thompson and a horrifyingly pitch perfect villain turn from Armie Hammer who combines the worst qualities of the billionaire class and amps them with eye-bulging energy.

 

President Calvin Coolidge famously said of D.W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation that it was “History written with lightning.” I’m taking that statement away from Griffith’s racist screed and giving it here to Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. THIS is history written with lightning, just history that is in progress, as we speak. This film is a bolt of lightning to our collective soul, an electrifying and vital work of art.

 

The more we allow corporate greed to separate itself from moral guidance, the closer we get to Sorry to Bother You. The more we condone or fail to recognize moral licensing, the closer we get to the vision of Sorry to Bother You. We need to recognize these things and Sorry to Bother You is a clarion call to recognize these vital issues and it’s artfulness is a hilarious and horrifying guide to the kind of moral rot that could be our future if we fail to change.

 

Identity and politics and satire all in one package, Sorry to Bother You deserves Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Lakeith Stanfield, Best Supporting Actress for Tessa Thompson, Best Supporting Actor for Armie Hammer, Best Director for Boots Riley and Best Screenplay, among other awards. That’s how incredibly brilliant Sorry to Bother You is. I haven’t seen a movie this excitingly, scathingly, bravely, transgressive as this in my life and I am excited this exists.

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Movie Review Mamma Mia Here We Go Again

Low expectations and an upgrade in the director’s chair have combined to make a Mamma Mia sequel so unexpectedly good that I am still humming about it. Mamma Mia Here We Go Again has no right to be as fun and entertaining as it is, based off of the horror show that was the sloppy, 2008 original and yet here we are. Director Ol Parker has brought order to the chaos of the original Mamma Mia and delivered a prequel/sequel far superior to the dismal original.

 

Mamma Mia Here We Go Again picks up the story of Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) five years after the action of the original story. Now 25, Sophie is running her mom’s, Donna (Meryl Streep), hotel and is about to hold a gala grand opening. Unfortunately, mom won’t be there. Nor will two of her three adopted fathers, Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Harry (Colin Firth). Luckily, Sam (Pierce Brosnan) is at hand, along with Auntie Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Auntie Rosie (Julie Walter).

 

Worse yet though, Sky (Dominic Cooper), despite being Sophie’s one true love and business partner, will not be there either and is considering a job offer in New York. This leads Sophie to once again pick up her mom’s diary for some bolstering. The diary is the lead in for a flashback to that glorious Greek summer when Donna met Harry, Bill and Sam, and became pregnant with Sophie. Best of all, it brings us the vibrant Lily James as the young Donna.

 

Do you recall that time you first saw Julia Roberts’ megawatt smile in Pretty Woman? If you’re my age you likely do and you remember the electricity of seeing a movie star emerge before your eyes. That’s Lily James in Mamma Mia Here We Go Again, a star bursting to life before our eyes. Sure, she was great in Cinderella and has honed her craft in other films, but here, she bursts forth with charisma to spare in a one of a kind performance.

 

James is so great she overwhelms all three of her male co-stars, none of whom make a dent in your memory despite being young and handsome. I could list their names but I couldn’t pick them out of a lineup even after having just seen the movie. James’ vibrancy is such that her co-stars don’t really matter, they are but mirrors through which to bask in Collins’ star-making performance. Can she sing? Yeah, well enough, but like Streep in the first film, she can sell the singing with passion and performance and that’s what matters.

 

I kept getting annoyed with the present day Sophie storyline for getting in the way of the flashbacks which were far more compelling. Slowly but surely however, the main story begins to turn an emotional corner. The flashback story begins to underline the action of the modern story in lovely ways and what emerges is a story for mothers and daughters and one that isn’t about the absurd and nasty notion of turning into one’s mother. One would count themselves lucky to become Donna.

 

As for the music of Mamma Mia Here We Go Again, my favorite performance is Waterloo, though it is arguably the most superfluous in terms of the plot. Indeed, I can recognize that praising the one performance that violates the order and structure that I have praised as a remarkable improvement over the original, is slightly contradictory. That said, Lily James and Young Harry (Hugh Skinner) really steal the show in this performance.

 

Director Ol Parker sets the scene in Paris where Harry and Donna met in 1979, the same summer she left for Greece. Though Donna is leaving, Harry nevertheless, throws himself at her feet and tells her he loves her and then they sing Waterloo at a French restaurant where waiters are dressed as Napoleon (Ho, Ho!). It sounds cheesy and it is, intentionally so. Director Parker directs the performance like an old school, early 80’s music video, ala Adam Ant’s Goody Two Shoes, with wacky set pieces and even slightly grainy cinematography to really sell the bit.

 

Waterloo is wildly funny and a wonderfully shorthand way to bring Donna and Harry together before taking them apart. The other standout is My Love, My Life which will leave many audience members, especially moms and daughters, a weepy mess. The trailer has spoiled that Sophie is pregnant and the correlation between her pregnancy and her mother’s pregnancy, is brought to bear on this wonderful performance with James and Seyfried singing in different time frames with the same meaning.

 

Ol Parker had an uphill battle to bring the unwieldy mess that was the Mamma Mia backstory into some semblance of order and he’s done an exceptional job. Sure, he takes the easy way out by mostly ignoring the problematic elements of the original backstory, but what he cobbles together works and the orderly plot helps strengthen our bond with these characters, something that was missing in the first film while we puzzled over how all of the pieces fit.

 

Thanks to director Parker, we can forget about the nonsense of figuring out when the film is set, it’s 1979 when Donna meets Sophie’s dad, by the way, and get on with enjoying some Abba. The disco backlash of the early 80’s robbed us of the joy of Abba’s pop silliness and soapy dramatics and I’m glad to have it back, even if it isn’t the most respectable comeback. Abba was a heck of a lot of fun if you give over to them and we’re able to do that here with far less work involved than in the original.

 

By the time we reach the credits climax with Super Troupers, a reprise from the original movie, featuring the full cast in full Abba regalia, the movie has won us over with its bubbly spirit and Lily James star-calibur, Awards calibur performance. James is a powerhouse movie star. I won’t go as far as to say she deserves an Academy Award, though I am not opposed to the idea, but wow, we don’t need to see anyone else when it comes Golden Globe time, this is your Best Actress in a Comedy or a Musical, hands down.

 

I went into Mamma Mia Here We Go Again with a sour attitude, assuming it was going to be as insufferable as the original. What a joyous surprise to find that the sequel makes logical sense, fixes the holes punched in the space time continuum in the original, and crafts a heartfelt and quite funny story out of a bunch of goofy, funny, melodramatic tunes from one of the most underrated groups of all time. This is what Mamma Mia should have been all along, a brassy, blowsy, ballsy, belt it to the back of the room Broadway comedy in execution as much as in idea.

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Movie Review Mamma Mia (2008)

I’m not ashamed to admit, I have a soft spot for the music of Abba. The music snob in me tries to hide this part of my fandom, much like my critic snob side tries to pretend I am not a fan of professional wrestling, Grey’s Anatomy and The Big Bang Theory. Then again, he’d rather people think I spend my time watching obscure European art films when I am not trashing the latest Hollywood flotsam but that’s just not the case.

 

Deep in my psyche are stored every lyric of Dancing Queen, always ready to be cued up and adored in my mental jukebox. For a time this wasn’t so shameful either. In 1999 Spike Lee threatened to make disco respectable again when he used it alongside punk rock to illustrate his gritty and remarkable New York City tableau, Summer of Sam. Then along came Mamma Mia the musical and a million cool Abba fans went back into hiding.

 

Mamma Mia, the 2008 jukebox musical starring Meryl Streep and directed by Broadway veteran Phyllida Lloyd could not possibly be more square. It’s a musical made for moms to drink wine to. It’s a sloppy, slapdash, mess that happens to look gorgeous at times while remaining maddeningly, deafeningly lame. Yes, moments of the film genuinely transcend the badness but they are but tiny bubbles in an sloppy cauldron.

 

Mamma Mia stars Meryl Streep as Donna, the iconoclastic owner of a broken down Greek Inn that thrives only because it is in the single most beautiful location in the world. Donna’s daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), is about to get married to Sky (Dominic Cooper) over Donna’s objection. Donna thinks her daughter should get out and see the world before tying herself down to one man for the rest of her life. And she should know something about that.

 

20 years earlier, when Donna arrived in Greece and discovered the tiny island where she would make a home, she had an adventure in which she met and fell in love three times. First came Sam (Pierce Brosnan), then came Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and finally Harry (Colin Firth) and all in a short amount of time. Short enough in fact that Donna isn’t quite sure which guy knocked her up and is in fact Sophie’s father.

 

Sophie, desiring to know her father, decides to steal Donna’s diary and when she finds out about all three men in one summer she decides to invite all three men to her wedding. Her hope is that fate, and perhaps facial similarities, will tell her which man is her dad and then he can perhaps walk her down the aisle. Naturally, Donna is not going to take kindly to her daughter’s plot and there you have your rather thin and forgettable conflict.

 

Mamma Mia is almost unendingly maddening. We have no idea when it what period of time the film is set, though it appears to be modern times, i.e 2008. If that’s the case however, then why does Donna remember being in a disco trio with her two oldest friends, Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski). If that’s the case, that the film is set when Donna could have been young enough to be a Dancing Queen then how come she remembers Brosnan and Skarsgard as hippies?

And how is it that Donna had an affair with Harry when she remembers him as a London punk?

 

These time frames make no sense. She’s disco, Sam and Bill are hippies, Harry was a punk, these time frames barely cross one another and never at the same time and certainly not in 1988 when, if the movie is set in modern 2008, the romance between these characters were to have taken place. Did she drop acid and meet all three men at a costume party?

 

Those who enjoy Mamma Mia are now accusing me of over-thinking it and perhaps they are right but perhaps if the movie as a whole were better, I might not care so much about the timeline. As it is however, Mamma Mia is a maddening, sloppy mess. Don’t get me wrong, the film looks fantastic. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukis takes the already gorgeous Greek shores and makes them look even more inviting. The film is spectacular as a travel brochure, if not a movie musical.

 

The musical, that’s the other problem with Mamma Mia. If you’re going to make a musical shouldn’t you take pains to hire actors who can sing? What are Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth doing here? Skarsgard, at least, has the decency to hide his singing voice, Brosnan is given, arguably the film’s romantic climax and his voice cannot handle it. Brosnan is cringe-inducing as he warbles the film’s closing ballad and even worse when he’s forced to swan through a painful version of one of Abba’s best, “S.O.S.”

 

The “S.O.S” sequence is perhaps the most painful and maddening in the movie. Played as a duet between Streep and Brosnan, the story of the song is at great odds with the characters’ backstory. From what we are told, and will be told in greater detail in the upcoming sequel, Brosnan’s Sam abandoned Donna to return to America to marry his fiancee. One can only scratch their head then when Brosnan sings the opening lines:

 

“Where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find
I tried to reach for you, but you have closed your mind
Whatever happened to our love?
I wish I understood
It used to be so nice, it used to be so good”

 

Hey dude, YOU LEFT HER! I realize the film attempts to retcon this later in the story in order to force a happy ending but not before muddying up the timeline even more. In a scene in which Donna and Sam are arguing over Sophie’s future, Sam offers up that he has two grown children and thus a little helpful perspective. That’s curious, because if he has two grown children, that would mean he had these children before he met and fell in love with Donna 20 years early and then left her to then get married to what we are to understand was the mother of these grown children.

 

I’m not trying to play the morality police here, Donna gets no judgment from me for her free-spirited sexuality, it was allegedly the Disco-Punk Rock-Hippy Free love era after all, but this pushes Brosnan’s character into nasty perspective doesn’t it? What kind of guy runs off with another woman with two small kids and a fiancee back home and then leaves his new woman behind, possibly pregnant, to go back home and presumably dump the fiancee and the kids to return to Greece? That’s a lot of inference and guessing based on the sloppiness of this plot, but it certainly takes what is meant to be fun and turns it sour.

 

I’ve complained plenty about what’s wrong with Mamma Mia but I should point out that there are moments where the idea of a good Hollywood musical transcends the abysmal plotting. First, there is Christine Baranski who takes a scene that should not even be in the movie, as it has nothing to do with the plot, and merely stops the movie dead from that perspective, but it’s so good I didn’t mind.

 

Baranski, a Broadway legend, is given a solo number and boy does she bite right into it. Her character, Tanya, is being pursued by a much younger man. So, she takes the 1979 Abba single “Does Your Mother Know” and turns it into a showstopper, as if the movie belonged to Tanya and not to Meryl’s Donna. Like I said, it doesn’t make much sense in relation to the plot, but Baranski is so brassy and sexy, it’s irresistible.

 

The other transcendent moment in the movie is Meryl Streep’s show-stopping, belt it to the back of the mountain performance of “The Winner Takes it All.” Streep takes the pop ballad and turns it into a Jennifer Hudson level triumph ala her nearly impossible Dreamgirls solo “And I’m Telling You, I’m Not Going.” No, of course, Meryl can’t sing like J-Hud but the performance is invested with a similar amount of passion and pathos.

 

Meryl performs the hell out of the song and the cathartic bitterness and the teary ending are what I wish the rest of the film had. She uses the song to bring context to Donna’s pain and Sam’s character that unfortunately is missing in the rest of the movie, especially in the tin-eared performances of S.O.S and the cheesy happy-ending use of I Do I Do I Do and When All is Said and Done. A better film would have followed the example of The Winner Takes It All and clarified the details and fleshed out the character relations so that the songs mattered.

 

Sadly, that is not the Mamma Mia musical we get. Instead, we get a sloppy, cringy, mishmash of ideas that never cohere into a story we can follow and invest in. The sequel is set to create even more holes in this ridiculous plot mess as we go back in time to when Donna met Sam, and Bill and Harry and likely forgets about their comical hippie and punk origin stories. Then there is also the ludicrous notion that Cher could play Meryl Streep’s mother but that’s something to complain about when I review the sequel on Friday.

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Movie Review You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here is an ugly masterpiece. Writer-director Lynne Ramsey takes us into the dark and twisted mind of an uncomfortably sympathetic killer. Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe is undoubtedly a bad man, a cold-blooded killer but who he kills here matters and makes him relatable in the most skin-crawling, discomfiting ways. The story is dark and mean and gritty as is the direction and design of the film and it all comes together to make one of the most engrossing and enervating movies of 2018. 
 
We meet Joe in the wake of his latest set of murders. Wielding a ball-pein hammer, Joe has murdered several men and is wrapping up his nasty work by erasing any trace of himself that may be at hand at the scene. Joe has been unleashed like a nasty pitbull upon a group of child pornographers and he’s done his nasty business put them out of their nasty business. Joe rescues children but he does so outside the law and he does so with severe brutality. 
 
Joe himself, we will come to find, was the victim of much abuse as a child. That abuse shaped Joe’s compassion and desperate need to protect the innocent via his almost mindless brutality. Yet it also formed him into a dutiful and loving son to his impaired mother (Judith Roberts). What happened to Joe’s mother has become part of his very being down to his choice of weapons of destruction but I will leave you to discover the connections. 
 
Joe’s latest job is set to pay him nearly half a million dollars. In any other movie this would create a desperate need for escape via financial freedom but if Joe cares about money he doesn’t let on. Joe’s job is to rescue the daughter of a State Senator who has gone missing and may have fallen victim to human traffickers. Joe does his brutal work but something goes wrong in the aftermath and now Joe is on a track for revenge. 
 
That last line of my plot description is deceptive. A track for revenge would be what happens in another, lesser movie. What Lynne Ramsey does with this aftermath and seeming notion of vengeance is something you will need to witness for yourself by seeing this remarkably bleak and fascinating movie. The film is dark and gritty and yet carries an ironic soundtrack filled with often bubbly forgotten pop songs that manage to underline how stark the story and characters of You Were Never Really Here are. 
 
You Were Never Really Here is not a movie for all audiences. The film is blood-soaked and grim with a dark irony that will turn off those with more mainstream sensibilities. Don’t go looking for typical thriller beats in this movie or well-worn suspense tropes, You Were Never Really Here is a grim character study turned Greek tragedy. If that notion is unappealing to you perhaps you should consider going to see The Equalizer 2 in theaters this weekend. I’ve heard it’s a corker but one with a familiar beat and a Denzel Washington performance you can dance to.
 
That’s just not the vibe of You Were Never Really Here. That doesn’t, in itself, make it superior to something more mainstream and conventional like The Equalizer, just more artful and experimental. Far less classically ‘entertaining’ to be sure but if you are on it’s intellectual wavelength and dig the dark and gritty, you are going to adore You Were Never Really Here for it’s bold, unconventional approach to the thriller genre. 
 
You Were Never Really Here is now available on Blu-Ray, DVD and On-Demand. 

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Movie Review Rampage

Rampage stars Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as Primatologist, Dr. Davis Okoye. A former military officer, Davis specialized in battling poachers in Africa. That’s where Davis met his best friend, George (Jason Liles, in full motion capture), a giant white ape. Davis brought George to America to keep him away from poachers who would pay a hefty price for such a rare creature. Over the years, George became a leader and he and Davis developed communication via sign language.
 
The plot kicks in when a plane carrying an experimental serum belonging to an evil corporation that specializes in… being evil, crashes, it exposes George and several other animals to the evil serum and causes them to grow out of control. Aside from George, the evil serum affects a wolf that develops the ability to fly and a crocodile that eventually swims across the country, even where there isn’t a large body of water, to enact destruction upon Chicago. 
 
The evil corporation, I assume, intends to weaponize the animals afflicted by the serum. When they turn on a beacon on top of their evil skyscraper it sends out a signal to the now monstrously over-sized animals that causes them to go crazy and make a mad dash for Chicago. Only Davis and a former scientist for the evil corporation, Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), can stop the animals from destroying Chicago… in a Rampage. Ha! 
 
Rampage sounds like a lot of fun, in description. Unfortunately, as directed by Brad Peyton, director of the equally forgettably competent, San Andreas, it’s merely a movie that exists. Rampage has no personality, no life, no charm. Everything in the movie is in frame, it looks professional and the CGI is a well-produced. Competency however, is only part of a good movie and Rampage is missing those other essential qualities. 
 
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is one of the most entertaining movie stars of recent times and yet even his charm can’t bring Rampage to life. Like his performance in the recent flop Skyscraper, The Rock’s performance is muted, he doesn’t go for the jokes and appears to be taking the silliness of Rampage far too seriously. There are too many scenes that appear to be going for action movie suspense when they should be going for the kind of goofball, comic thrills The Rock gets in his Fast and Furious franchise. 
 
Malin Akerman, Jake Lacy and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who plays a wacky CIA Agent, on the the other hand, as opposed to The Rock, appear to know what movie they are in. Though they don’t achieve much flying in the face of the overly serious direction and score, the three supporting players, try hard to bring laughs to their roles. These three get that a movie with giant animals on a ‘Rampage’ in a big city is not something to be taken too seriously. 
 
Morgan is unquestionably the best thing about Rampage, aside from the terrific creature effects. Morgan is grinning and giggling throughout Rampage and affects a bizarre drawl that is laughably over the top. Morgan’s looseness and giant grin are a clear port in a storm of boring exposition and tepid, acceptably well produced action. It’s a wonder Morgan isn’t a bigger star, he’s got personality to spare and as seen in Rampage, he can steal scenes from both The Rock and giant CGI animals. 
 
The biggest problem with Rampage is an approach that takes the material way too seriously. I get that giant animals attacking a large city would be something we would have to take seriously were it to ever happen but let’s be real here. This is a silly premise that needs to be treated as such for the movie to work. The supporting players get that and act accordingly comic, with Akerman twirling an absent mustache and Lacy being slimy and weaselly and Morgan making a joke of the whole thing. 
 
Sadly, The Rock, the most charismatic star in the world today, fails to get the joke of Rampage and in the star missing the joke, the movie fails. Director Brad Peyton especially needed to get the joke of Rampage and he completely misses the boat by going for genuine action movie suspense rather than amping up the goofiness ala The Fast and Furious franchise or the recent Jurassic World movies. That kind of approach could have made Rampage a classic. As it is, I don’t even recommend it as a time wasting rental. 
 

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Movie Review I Feel Pretty

I Feel Pretty stars Amy Schumer as Renee Bennett an attractive and funny woman who doesn’t find herself attractive. Renee’s low self esteem has hindered both her personal and professional life where she works for a famed makeup company but works in the I.T department in a basement office, well away from the glamour and fashion that the company is known for. Though she longs to be in the big office, she lacks the confidence to go for what she wants.

 

Things change when Renee takes a spin class and proceeds to tumble off of her bike. Having hit her head hard, Renee’s concussion changes her life and personality. Suddenly, post head injury, Renee is super-confident and believes she is the best looking woman in any room she’s in. This causes a rift with her friends, Aidy Bryant and Busy Phillips, but it does help her climb the corporate ladder as she lands a gig working in the big building at the makeup company owned by Avery LeClaire (Michelle Williams) and her grandmother Lily (Lauren Hutton).

 

Renee’s personal life also takes a positive turn as her confidence attracts a boyfriend, Ethan (Rory Scovell) and the attentions of Avery’s stunningly handsome, playboy brother Grant (Tom Hopper). Ethan is a perfectly down to earth guy while Grant is a dreamboat and when Renee finds herself the object of both of their affections, even her newfound confidence can’t contain her nervous excitement.

 

I Feel Pretty requires a bit of unpacking in your emotional response to it. For me, I’ve always found Amy Schumer attractive, dating back to before her popular Comedy Central series, Inside Amy Schumer, to her time as a stand-up comic on the rise. It was hard to accept the gags that intended to show Renee as being unattractive as I did find her attractive. The key however, is to remember that this is Renee’s perspective of herself and not an objective take.

 

Here, the inexperience of the writing and directing team of Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein shines through. A more experienced filmmaker would have found a way to let audiences in on the idea that we are seeing the movie not from our objective position but completely from Renee’s subjective perspective, how she sees the world and assumes the world sees her. From that perspective the story of I Feel Pretty makes more sense.

 

It’s not that the direction failed to communicate the perspective, it’s rather that it was clumsy in communicating that idea and thus it’s easy to misunderstand the story as an objective idea of how the world sees Renee. If taken the wrong way, it can seem as if Renee is the butt of all of the jokes, as if the movie is making fun of her for seeing herself as attractive. Once you look at it subjectively and recognize that the film is entirely Renee’s unreliable, biased perspective, it makes the film easier to understand and enjoy.

 

Rory Scovell, in his first leading man role is quite good at reacting to Schumer’s bawdy antics. A scene, well-featured in the film’s trailer, has the two of them visit a bar that happens to be hosting a wet t-shirt contest. Watching Scovell’s shocked reactions to Schumer first wanting to go on stage and then what happens when she actually is on stage is very funny, and the scene immediately after that has a nice romantic undercurrent that I wish the film had been better at presenting in other scenes.

 

It's odd to call Michelle Williams a scene-stealer as she is well known, Academy Award nominated actress but indeed, scene-stealer is her role her. As Renee's boss and idol, Williams plays Averyaas confident, assured and comically disconnected with the world beyond her bubble of rich excess. The baby voice that Williams affects in the movie is a terrific device to show how everyone has something they are insecure about no matter how rich or confident they appear. In another, lesser comedy with a lesser actress that voice would be the extent of the character. 

 

Amy Schumer is a terrific comedian with a great sense of timing and the jokes in the movie are terrific. Yes, some of the gags are a little forced and Schumer is put in the position of using broad physicality to sell some of the lesser material but there are plenty of well-timed and quite funny moments in I Feel Pretty. At the very least, there are enough good jokes for me to recommend the movie on Blu-Ray, DVD and On Demand on Tuesday, July 17th.
 

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Movie Review A Fish Called Wanda Turns 30

It’s so strange, sometimes movies get a reputation for genius and you hear about it and hear about it and then you see it for yourself and you wind up wondering what all of the fuss was about. That’s the case for me with A Fish Called Wanda. Yes, I had seen the movie before, back when it was on HBO in the 90’s and I think that I tried very hard to like it as much as the critics of the time seemed to like it. I liked it so I could seem smart.

 

A Fish Called Wanda turns 30 years old this weekend and once again I watched with the aim of wanting to like it so I could seem smart. Only this time, I am mature and confident enough to say I simply didn’t care for it. A Fish Called Wanda just doesn’t work on me. I disliked the characters, I was barely amused by the gags and Kevin Kline’s Academy Award winning supporting performance, for me, came off as forced and shrill.

 

A Fish Called Wanda is a comic heist movie which stars Jamie Lee Curtis as Wanda, a woman who is dating a thief named Georges Thomas, played by Tom Georgeson, a gag funnier than most in the movie. Wanda is only setting Georges up so that she and her lover, Otto (Kevin Kline) can double cross him and their other partner, Ken (Michael Palin). Georges isn’t stupid however and to insure his cut, he hides the loot until he knows he’s clear, an idea that pays off when Otto secretly turns him, unaware of where the loot actually went.

 

To figure out where the loot is hidden, Wanda and Otto begin a convoluted plan surrounding Georges’ barrister, Archie Leach (John Cleese). The hope is that Otto will give Archie the location of the loot as a way to reduce his sentence after he is caught. The plan is for Wanda to seduce Archie to get him to reveal the location of the loot so that they can steal it back and leave the country. Things take a turn when Wanda develops a soft spot for Archie.

 

A Fish Called Wanda was directed by Charles Crichton, sort of. Though John Cleese claimed to have put his name on the co-director credit in order to allay studio fears about the fact that Crichton hadn’t worked in 23 years and was in his mid-80’s, it appears from on-set stories from Curtis and Kline that Cleese was the creative force. It was Cleese who came up with the memorable running gags about Wanda’s fetish for foreign languages and Otto’s insecurity about being called stupid.

 

There are other Cleese-ian touches as well such as Archie having a wife and the two of them having separate beds ala his character on the famed British television series Fawlty Towers. Regardless of who is responsible however, not much of anything in A Fish Called Wanda got a laugh out of me. Whether it’s the door slamming, Noises-Off style gags of people running in and out of rooms and weaving elaborate lies when caught in the wrong place at the wrong time or the almost nihilistic approach to right and wrong, I found nothing appealing about A Fish Called Wanda.

 

The characters in A Fish Called Wanda are all terrible people, and that includes Palin’s Ken who, though he may feel guilty about a few of his evil deeds, is nevertheless as terrible as anyone else and has arguably the most notable body count in the movie, if you count dogs. The gags involving the elaborate ways in which Ken accidentally murders an old ladies three dogs is some of the ugliest humor I can recall in a supposed comedy.

 

We are supposed to like Ken because Palin plays him as a simpleton, a dupe who thinks he's helping his friend but is blundering his way into crime. We are supposed to either sympathize with or find funny his stuttering but it only engenders a sad sort of pity that is far from funny. A scene where Palin and Cleese finally share the screen comes late in the film, as we've anticipated seeing the Python guys together, and the scene is a wretchedly excessive scene of Palin struggling with his stutter and Cleese becoming more and more explosively irritated while trying to stay calm. There is no gag here other than Palin's stutter and it's never funny, merely insensitive. 

 

A Fish Called Wanda presumes its own sophistication. The filmmakers and stars appear as if they should be erudite, sophisticated players in a farce but somehow the film never earns a laugh. I shouldn’t say never, I was amused a few times, such as when Cleese dances about spouting Russian phrases while Jamie Lee Curtis writhes in ecstasy but the amusement was tempered and rare.

 

In his 1988 review of A Fish Called Wanda, Roger Ebert says “One of its strengths is its mean-spiritedness” and I could not disagree more. I don’t find the mean-spiritedness of A Fish Called Wanda to be a strength. It’s my least favorite thing about the movie. I don’t enjoy these odious characters and their greed and I especially don’t care for the ending that rewards each of them in some strange way.

 

I revere Roger Ebert which explains why, nearly 30 years ago, I watched A Fish Called Wanda and desperately attempted to like it. I wanted to seem cool to a man I would never meet. I wanted to impress this idol who didn’t know I existed via some transference of psychic energy; as if the universe might inform my hero that I was no ordinary teenage movie fan, I was a teenage movie fan who liked A Fish Called Wanda.

 

I still revere Roger Ebert, his writing will influence me for my lifetime but as an older man I find myself able to politely disagree. While Roger enjoyed this movie, I loathed it. I didn’t enjoy the mean-spiritedness because the characters weren’t pleasant or entertaining enough to earn it. I don’t mind a mean character winning in the end if they are charming or interesting enough and they are perhaps thumbing their nose at some societal ill. But when characters are just terrible because being terrible gets them what they want, I lose interest.

 

The characters of A Fish Called Wanda aren’t charming, their ugly. I don’t mind that they are criminals, I mind that they aren’t interesting or funny criminals. I don’t mind that they are killers or thieves, I mind that they aren’t charming or silly or funny killers and thieves. The characters appear as if they and what they are doing should be funny and yet I don’t laugh. I dislike these characters and thus they never become funny.

 

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Hotel Transylvania 3 Summer Vacation

Hotel Transylvania Summer Vacation is the third and least offensive of this trilogy of Adam Sandler starring animated comedies. I wasn’t a fan of the first two Hotel Transylvania movies which felt, to me, too scatological, like a sanitized version of what Sandler does in his live action work. This time, however, with the franchise leaving the titular hotel there is something of a different feel to everything and for the first time, I laughed out loud more than once watching a Hotel Transylvania movie.

 

Hotel Transylvania Summer Vacation finds our hero Drac (Sandler) lonely. Sure, he has a loving family and great friends but he wants a companion and at the same time feels guilty for wanting one for the first time since the death of his wife. Drac’s daughter Mavis meanwhile, mistakes his loneliness for stress and comes up with a solution, a dream cruise to the Bermuda Triangle. The whole family is going including Frank (Kevin James), Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade), Murray the Mummy (Keegan Michael Key) and Wayne the Wolf and his wife Wanda and ALL of their kids.

 

While Drac appreciates his daughter’s effort a cruise for a hotel owner feels rather redundant but things pick up when he Drac meets the Captain of the Cruise ship, Ericka (Kathryn Hahn). Drac is immediately smitten and I must say, the scenes with Drac overcome with feelings on meeting Ericka is very cute and it made me smile. The follow up scene in which an over-confident Drac struts around the ship to Bruno Mars’ “24 Karat Magic” is delightful with a funny if not all that original payoff.

 

So, we have a love story on our hands and that means we need obstacles and this movie has a pretty good one. Ericka has a secret, the cruise is a sham and she has set it up so she can get revenge on Drac. You see, Ericka is Ericka Van Helsing, of the vampire-killing Van Helsings. She’s trained her whole life to kill Drac. Her great-grandfather Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan) has stayed alive long past a normal lifespan, just to see his granddaughter vanquish Drac as he had failed to.

 

That’s a pretty clever conflict, I gotta admit, I really liked that. The first film played a similar conflict with Andy Samberg’s human falling for Selena Gomez’ vampire but that was somehow far less fun than this. This film seems to delight a little more in the conflict as Drac is the one who is unaware of the danger he’s in. I really enjoyed the romantic sequence of Drac repeatedly saving Ericka while she’s attempting to recover a weapon she intends to kill him with. She begins to fall for him and yet she’s torn. It’s just clever enough to be amusing.

 

My favorite gag in Hotel Transylvania could not be more simple. It’s a flashback to Van Helsing attempting to capture Drac and his friends on a train. We see Van Helsing enter, we know the monsters are hidden at the front of the car. We see Van Helsing pull out a box of matches, the tension builds because we know what’s coming, we know from the other movies how Frank reacts to fire. When Van Helsing lights the match, Frank freaks out and the scene and the movie are off and running. There’s nothing special here, but the simplicity made me laugh.

 

Hotel Transylvania 3 Summer Vacation is nothing special, it’s certainly not a Pixar quality work. This isn’t art but for a shallow kiddie flick, it’s pretty good. It made me laugh at these monster characters for the first time in the entire franchise so that’s something. Having low expectations certainly helped matters. But there is something more genuine and winning about this outing in the Hotel Transylvania franchise. Something slightly more clever and less lowest common denominator. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed it enough to say this one is worth seeing.

 

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Movie Review Skyscraper

Releasing Skyscraper on the same weekend time frame when Die Hard was released 30 years earlier was a bad idea. Tributes abound this weekend to the staying power and quality of Die Hard and those who revisit the Bruce Willis classic will not look favorably upon the similarly plotted but far less accomplished Skyscraper. Just how bad is Skyscraper? Not even Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and his megawatt smile can save it.

 

Skyscraper stars The Rock as Will Sawyer a former Army Ranger turned FBI Agent and now family man and entrepreneur. After retiring from the FBI following a mission that ended tragically, Will started a family with his wife Sarah, who happened to save his life after he nearly died in that failed raid I just mentioned, and he’s just launched his own security firm. Will’s pal Ben (Pablo Schreiber) has even gone to great lengths to get him his first client and what a client he is.

 

Zhao (Chin Han) has just opened the world’s largest building; he calls it ‘The Pearl’ for the giant pearl design that sits above the 200th floor. Before he can open the residential section of ‘The Pearl’ however, Zhao needs to get insured and that means a full security systems check and that leads him to Will. Unfortunately, for both Zhao and Will, a group of terrorists want something that Zhao has locked away inside ‘The Pearl’ and they will go to extreme measures to get it.

 

Director Rawson Marshall Thurber is best known for the Ben Stiller comedy “Dodgeball.” He could have used some of that film’s sense of humor and good nature as Skyscraper is a dry, joyless exercise in simple minded, plot-heavy idiocy. The script, also by Thurber, is bursting at the scenes with clumsy, forced, exposition to the point where characters communicate plot points by speaking out loud to no one but the movie watching audience.

 

I’m not kidding, at one point, the main baddie of Skyscraper, played by Roland Moller, talks to no one in particular and makes mention of something important to the plot of the movie. Later, The Rock is also alone and also expositing plot points to no one but us and the scene is so forced and clumsy that even Rock’s billion dollar charisma can’t sell the line. The Rock could sell ice cubes in the arctic but the awful dialogue of Skyscraper fully defeats him.

 

I’m a huge fan of Dwayne Johnson and I have been since his early days in the WWE. He’s always had an air about him, a swagger, a star presence that, even in subpar efforts, still shined through. Until now, I thought The Rock was invincible, the kind of actor who unfailingly elevated the movies he chose to star in. Here, however, with Skyscraper even The Rock’s magnetism is defeated by a terrible script and subpar direction.

 

This Skyscraper should be condemned! Is what I would say if I were a terrible critic looking to score a cheap giggle. Instead, I will say that Skyscraper is one of the worst movies of 2018, a flat, dull-witted bit of action nonsense that can’t hold a candle to its undoubted influencer, Die Hard which, even 30 years later, feels fresh, fun and exciting and more so when compared to the dreck of Skyscraper.

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Movie Review Die Hard Turns 30

Is Die Hard a perfect movie? Well, it’s a perfect Christmas movie. As for an action movie, it’s as close to perfect as the genre is likely to ever come. John McClane is the quintessential everyman action hero. He’s the guy next to you on a subway who happens to know how to fire a gun and is trained to be a little more observant than others, but he’s not some muscled-up beef-head. He’s just a capable guy in a complicated situation, the right hero for the right moment.

 

It’s Christmas 1988 and John McClane (Bruce Willis), though he hates to fly, is headed to Los Angeles from New York to spend the holidays with his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and their two kids. Holly has recently accepted a high paying position with a west coast conglomerate of some unknown but expensive nature and the move has put a deep strain on the McClane’s marriage, so much so that in Los Angeles, it’s Holly Gennero and not Holly McClane at the office.

 

The Christmas visit is supposed to change things but when the couple reunites, the old tensions are still there and they fight. They don’t get a chance to make up because soon after Holly leaves the room angry, the office, on a high floor of the Nakatomi Plaza, is overrun by terrorists with machine guns. A highly capable leader and killer named Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) has taken over the building with his thugs and is aiming to pull of a complex heist.

 

John manages to escape while Holly is taken hostage and soon John uses his New York cop skills to throw a wrench into Hans’ plans. Can John, with no shoes and only a pistol slow down the terrorist scheme in time for the cops to arrive or will Hans pull of his heist and kill everyone, including Holly, to make his escape? That’s the basic tension of Die Hard but the story is much richer in detail and lively performance.

 

Die Hard was directed by John McTiernan though it’s difficult to give him much credit for the films’ success. McTiernan hasn’t directed anything nearly as well as he directs here but his contribution is mostly in his competence. McTiernan knows how to provide basic structure and how to shoot action in interesting, even witty fashion such as his homage to the Ride of the Valkyries scene from Apocalypse Now that ends with a bang.

 

No, the credit for Die Hard appears to solely belong to the casting of Bruce Willis. Willis was famously not the first choice for John McClane. His biggest credit prior to Die Hard was the romantic comedy TV series Moonlighting. Sneakily, that show turns out to have been just the training that Willis needed for this role. Willis smartly scales down what undoubtedly was a role intended for a muscled up stud.

 

Having the smaller in stature Willis in the role makes John McClane relatable in a way that the Stallone’s, Schwarzenegger’s and Van Damme’s could never be. Unable to simply punch his way out, Willis’ McClane has to be crafty, witty, and street smart. These are qualities far more relatable than rippling physiques and mumbled macho posturing nonsense. Willis uses his comic instincts in concert with his action instincts and makes John’s wit as strong a weapon as any.


With Willis in the role, Die Hard becomes something of a critique of other action movies that rely on heavy testosterone and screaming to force audiences to pay attention. Watch the scene where the cops first arrive and Paul Gleason’s Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson comes swaggering into the scene. Immediately, he’s all macho posturing and immediately he screws up, even as McClane is doing everything to help him.

 

The same goes for the big swinging… guns from the FBI show up, oozing even more testosterone than Robinson. They too ignore our smart, resourceful hero in favor of the most macho answer, helicopters blaring Ride of the Valkyries, and wind up getting themselves killed. These characters aren’t explicitly critiques of the muscle head action stars of the late 80’s but they do function as a commentary on the shoot first mentality of too many other boring action movies.

 

John McClane doesn’t shoot first, he doesn’t have to. His wits and instincts are just sharp enough to even the odds with anyone he’s up against. He’s an action hero breath of fresh air, charming and tough, smart and savvy. He’s everything the muscle guys wish they could be but aren’t smart enough to pull off. Sure, Willis would eventually dumb himself down to the level of the muscle guys, but his first effort as John McClane is the indelible mark of the character, the antithesis of the typical action hero, not the exemplar.

 

Of course, Willis’ McClane is elevated greatly by getting to face off against arguably the greatest action movie villain of all time. Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is an icon of fashionable, bad guy charm. He’s smarmy enough for us to know he’s evil but charming enough for us not to write him off. We want John McClane to get him in the end but we also can’t help but get a visceral thrill out of his witty capering.

 

Rickman’s best scene in the film comes to down to the most precise and ingenious facial expression and tone of voice. As Hans is talking with Hart Bockner’s weaselly 80’s guy, Ellis, Rickman’s barely concealed contempt is a masterclass of comic acting. Listen to the way he drips with contempt for Ellis, he sees right through him and yet knows he has a useful idiot in his hands. He’s decided to kill Ellis from the moment he enters the room but dangles him on a string to get just enough information to be useful in his battle of wits with McClane.

 

That may be my favorite scene in the film. I am definitely not rooting for Hans to shoot the innocent Ellis but I can’t say I am all that sympathetic when he goes. In fact, as guilty as I feel about it, I can’t resist giggling with delight as Rickman toys with Ellis and that seething scorn he’s just barely holding back as the yuppie arrogantly blathers on about negotiating with him to bring in John McClane.

 

I asked at the beginning of this review if Die Hard is a perfect movie. It’s not, there is no such thing. But, as action movies go, there may not be one better. Die Hard is a brilliant action movie with high tension, suspense, charm and thrills to spare. It’s the best of Bruce Willis before he gave up  acting in favor of gathering paychecks. It’s an everyman’s action movie, a down to earth adventure that happens to have multi-million dollar explosions.

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Movie Review Universal Soldier 92

Why write about something as silly and seemingly random as Universal Soldier? It goes back to being a teenager who fell in love with the movies while on an adventure with friends. When I was 16 years old on a June day in 1992, myself and three friends decided to see a movie. We intended only to see Batman Returns, the sequel to 1989’s blockbuster Batman starring Michael Keaton. Once we saw that film however, we hatched a sneaky idea.

 

The theater was extremely busy. Batman was selling tickets fast and the staff was harried and distracted. When we finished Batman we noticed that the baseball movie A League of Their Own starring Tom Hanks was about to start. We decided, we were going to sneak in and see another movie. This sneaky teenage capering (which I am aware is akin to stealing, forgive my aimless, amoral youth) led us to try and make it three movies in a day. We chose the Eddie Murphy comedy Boomerang which had the extra benefit of being R-Rated.

 

Once that film ended and night was beginning to fall we made one more rash decision. We decided to sneak into a 4th movie. This one would not be easy. Universal Soldier was R-Rated and by this time in its release, it was not well attended. This meant, we’d be rather visible in a slightly empty theater, in an R-Rated movie. We’d be in a situation where a vigilant staff member might notice us. We went ahead with our scheme anyway and here we are with Universal Soldier.

 

Regardless of how remarkably bad Universal Soldier is in terms the art of cinema, it’s general silliness is irresistible. The film stars Jean Claude Van Damme as Luc and Dolph Lundgren, Ivan Drago from Rocky IV, as a pair of Vietnam vets. I say vets, but when we meet them first they are in Vietnam fighting the war and fighting each other. Scott has lost his mind and wants Luc to help him execute a pair of innocent villagers. When Luc refuses, the two get into a gun battle and end up killing each other.

 

It’s a curious start but that brings us to present day 1992. Luc and Scott are suddenly alive again although they don’t remember their past selves, yet. Now, the two are elite super soldiers in the Universal Soldier program, a secret sect of American Intelligence. The UniSols are called on when no other soldiers can solve the problem. They are so deep cover that no one has seen their faces, that’s probably also out of fear that someone will recognize the supposedly dead soldiers.

 

After a particularly difficult mission, Luc begins to recover his memory. Scott as well is regaining some of his psychotic tendencies and when he tries to execute a journalist, played by Ally Walker from TV’s The Profiler, who gets to close to the UniSols, Luc flashes back to Vietnam and tries to save her as he tried to save the Vietnamese villagers. This leads Luc and Ally to go on the run with psycho Scott and the rest of the UniSols on their tale.

 

Universal Soldier was directed by schlockbuster director Roland Emmerich who would go on to direct Independence Day and Godzilla before the 90’s big dumb action movie trend began to die off. Emmerich is not a director who does subtle. His every scene is a bombastic, shouty, sloppy mess that occasionally coalesces around a plot point or a sight gag. Universal Soldier is Emmerich at his most Emmerich-y.

 

The film is the apotheosis of the Emmerich style of action movie. In the span of about 20 minutes, Van Damme and Walker manage three consecutive narrow escapes and three straight sight gags, two involving Van Damme’s well-toned backside. Each scene ends with a hail of bullets or a glass busting fists and kicks fight scene each played with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the head.

 

Universal Soldier is big, dumb and loud and not particularly well crafted but it has a knowing sense of its own limitations. For all his flaws as a filmmaker, I can’t argue that Roland Emmerich doesn’t have a sense of humor, no matter how disjointed or forced the gags may be. The pair of sight gags featuring Van Damme’s backside are legitimately funny and a scene of Van Damme battling a diner full of rednecks has some unintended wit from Van Damme’s placid silence.

 

There is an almost endless stream of unintentionally laugh out loud moments in Universal Soldier. The film is a gold mine for fans who love to riff jokes during a movie. The incompetent direction and the honestly, intentionally funny moments, collide to make the film a modest pleasure. The film is pure camp, a muscled up, frothing testosterone-fueled kind of camp, but camp nonetheless.

 

I can see where 16 year old Sean probably earnestly enjoyed the silliness in the same way that the adult me appreciates the camp quality of the movie. As a less discerning teenage filmgoer it makes sense that I would be attracted to this nonsense. As an adult and a critic I am equally drawn to the movie but for more nostalgic and unintentionally hilarious reasons. That doesn’t make Universal Soldier any kind of classic but it’s certainly a movie I won’t ever forget and a surprising part of why I love the movies. 

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Movie Review A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place stars John Krasinski as Lee Abbott a father and husband trying to protect his family in a post-apocalyptic future. It’s 89 days since monsters of unknown origin began attacking the world and Lee and his wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt) have gone to extremes to keep their three children, oldest daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), middle son Marcus (Noah Jupe), youngest son Beau (Cade Woodward), safe from these unique monsters.

 

The monsters in question are a strange breed, they’re blind and they hunt by sound. Any sound above a low whisper can attract the monsters which strike quickly and brutally and once they attack they are relentless in devouring their victims. The Abbott family was lucky to have daughter Millicent whose deafness inspired Lee and Evelyn to learn and teach sign language to each of their kids. Their ability to communicate in silence is what has helped keep them alive after much of society has been destroyed.

 

The tension of A Quiet Place is established early on with a disturbing and shocking death early in the film. The opening sequence is shocking and sets a tone of tension and suspense that will have you clinging to your chair from beginning to end. The use of sounds, seemingly mundane, everyday kinds of sounds is brilliant as are the seeds planted about dangers that could lead to sound, especially Evelyn’s pregnancy, raise the tension as you wonder how the family will handle such a potentially noisy situation.

 

A Quiet Place was directed by star John Krasinski and it is his third feature after the well reviewed pair of 2009’s Brief Interviews of Hideous Men and 2016’s The Hollars. I have not seen those two films but Krasinski’s highly skillful work in A Quiet Place makes me want to see his other films. This is an exceptional piece of direction that smartly uses pace and sound, and especially the lack of sound as filmic devices.

 

Scene after scene is built with tension surrounding the potential for members of this family to make a sound that could be the end for them all and the tension builds throughout the film to almost unbearable degrees. The birth scene especially is a nail-biter as the carefully laid plans of Lee and Evelyn to create a space where she can safely give birth go awry in unpredictable fashion. This is a very smart movie and much of that comes from the tight control that Krasinski has over what he presents the audience visually and audibly.

 

My only complaint about A Quiet Place is that the creatures at the heart of the tension of the film aren’t all that impressive. Various inspirations appear to have influenced the creature designs from Alien to Cloverfield and the derivative nature of the design and the at times clumsy special effects that give the monsters life threaten to ruin some otherwise great work. Thankfully, the monsters are only glimpsed as needed with the anticipation of the monsters doing the work that the special effects can’t in creating fear and dread in the audience.

 

A Quiet Place was one of my favorite moviegoing experiences of the year thus far. Not only was it a terrific movie it was fun to watch with a big audience, eager to jump and yelp and squirm throughout the movie. The audience for A Quiet Place was nearly as much fun as the movie itself. Will the film lose anything in the home theater experience? Maybe a little of the energy of a theater audience but if you watch for the first time with someone who didn’t see it in theaters then perhaps the experience will be similar to the experience I had.

 

A Quiet Place is available today on Blu-Ray, DVD and for rent on various streaming services.

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Movie Review Criterion Collection Bull Durham

Bull Durham is the best baseball movie ever made, bar none. You can have your Field of Dreams or your A League of their Own or The Babe Ruth Story, for those of you with terrible taste, but for me, there is no contest, Bull Durham is THE BEST. Funny, smart, romantic, sexy and quotable, Bull Durham goes even beyond baseball and into the realm of simply being a great movie.

 

Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) is playing out the string of a long career in minor league baseball. He’s been everywhere in baseball, dozens of teams, endless bus trips, and innumerable cities, he’s recently just woke up in Durham, North Carolina with the Durham Bulls. An unnamed major league team has picked up Crash to come to Durham to help work out the kinks in a strange young pitcher with a million dollar arm and five cent head.

 

Eppy Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh (Tim Robbins) is rangy and throws hard but he has little control of his gift. It’s obvious if someone can get Nuke to throw straight he could be a major league starter with the talent to be an all-star. Crash wants nothing to do with saving the kid’s career, he’s more interested in Annie, Durham’s biggest fan and a baseball guru in her own right. Annie seems to have interest in Crash but she’s also attracted to Nuke’s talent and untapped potential.

 

Each year, Annie choose a Bulls player to take under her wing. She has a track record of helping guys improve their game and Nuke appears to be just the kind of project, in both baseball and life, who could benefit from her help. Naturally, this rubs Crash the wrong way leading to conflict between he and Nuke. In a conventional movie, the plot would turn gears to bring these characters into familiar conflicts before a pat, predictable conclusion. But that’s not what Bull Durham is.

 

That’s not to say that Bull Durham is an art picture with no plot and a series of unconnected scenes, the film is unconventional but not oblique. Bull Durham is a movie about pace and style and personality. The film proceeds like a great game of baseball, a patient, at times exciting, at time meandering but consistently entertaining. The film has the ebb and flow of a game and a wonderful conclusion as when your team wins in the end.

 

You don’t have to be a sports fans to love Bull Durham. The film is about baseball and the script and characters rhapsodize about the game but these characters remain fascinating in a way that goes well beyond genre niche. The characters speak in a unique fashion, they relate to each other in the homey fashion of people who live in a small town, who live on top of each other, always in each others business. If you can relate to that, you can relate to Bull Durham, baseball or no baseball.

 

Director Ron Shelton somehow never reached the heights of Bull Durham ever again. His obsession with sports narratives drove him to try and recreate the magic of Bull Durham with the basketball movie White Men Can’t Jump, the boxing movie Play it to the Bone, and Shelton’s last good effort and the one that comes remotely close to capturing the same sphere as Bull Durham, the golf movie, Tin Cup.


It’s not unfair to wonder if Costner is more of the secret ingredient of Bull Durham than writer-director Shelton. That’s not to take anything away from Shelton’s smart script and stylish direction, but it would not be the same without Costner’s explosive charisma. Costner is a movie star and an actor, both out of this world handsome and serious about his craft. He makes the rest of the cast better just sharing the screen with him and his chemistry with Susan Surandon is downright molten lava levels of hot.

 

The supporting cast, headed up by comic Robert Wuhl, and Jennie Robertson adorable Millie, round out the near perfect universe of Bull Durham. These supporting players are remarkably well used, they lend personality and comedy to the movie in just the right places and create that homey, warm, comic atmosphere that makes the film so remarkably relatable. Wuhl even gets, arguably, the best comic moment of the movie when he plays arbiter of the teams many, many, strange issues in a visit to the mound mid-game. A curse, Nuke’s eyelids, and a wedding gift equal comic gold in Wuhl’s rapid, energetic hands.

 

I love Bull Durham so much. This movie is spectacularly brilliant. And now, thankfully, in time for its 30th Anniversary, Bull Durham is receiving the Criterion Collection treatment. The film is receiving a brand new 4K transfer to improve the original print, overseen by director Ron Shelton. There will also be a pair of commentary tracks, one with Shelton and the other with Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins and several other features. The movie itself would be enough for me but I appreciate the Criterion Collection’s hard work.

 

The Criterion Collection Edition of Bull Durham goes on sale July 11th.
 

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Movie Review Mission Impossible 96

Mission Impossible doesn’t really hold up. I hate to say it because I really enjoy most of the franchise but the 1996 movie doesn’t hold up 22 years later. Watching Mission Impossible with modern eyes, the flaws stand out from Cruise’s desperate performance, Jon Voight’s lazy performance and the underwritten female characters stand apart from the lesser good things about the movie.

 

Ethan Hunt is an agent of the Impossible Mission Force, a branch of the CIA that specializes in the kind of espionage of the most impossible nature. Hunt works under veteran agent Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) alongside a team that includes Jack (Emilio Estevez), Sarah (Kristen Scott Thomas), and Claire (Emmanuelle Beart). Claire is Jim’s wife though quickly see that she and Ethan appear to have eyes for each other.

 

A digression, the chemistry between Cruise and Beart has heat from time to time but the great disappointment of the movie is how little is done to exploit that chemistry. Brian DePalma is one of the great sleaze directors of all time and for him to allow the Ethan-Claire relationship to be so innocent to the point of being cookie-cutter, ala dozens of similar movie relationships, indicates how little this is really a Brian DePalma movie.

 

On a mission in Prague attempting to prevent a Russian spy from stealing a list of the real identities of IMF agents worldwide, everyone on Hunt’s team is murdered and he is framed for their deaths. On the run, Ethan is surprised and notably suspicious, to find Claire had survived despite having been in a car that later exploded. Nevertheless, he trusts her to be part of his mission to find the person who framed him.

 

Mission Impossible was directed by Brian DePalma who appears to have been hired for his name value and not his style. Mission Impossible contains almost none of the classic DePalma style of sexy, weird, chaos. Sure, some of DePalma’s output is deeply problematic through the lens of history but you can’t argue that he was boring except when he directed Mission Impossible.

 

Compared to movies like Snake Eyes or Carrie, the action tropes of Mission Impossible or dull.

It’s hard not to assume that Mission Impossible is boring because of Tom Cruise. I say this as a fan of Tom Cruise. I am genuinely someone who believes Cruise is a fine actor. However, the deep, almost fetishistic control Cruise has over his onscreen persona can keep him from being fun. The actor assiduously avoids anything controversial, he plays it safe especially here in the wake of his first real failure, his much mocked performance in Interview with the Vampire.

 

Mission Impossible is such a rigidly paced action movie that even that classic Tom Cruise twinkle in the eye and million dollar smile are toned down and held back in favor of a stoic, dare I say, charisma dimmed performance. I get that Ethan Hunt is supposed to be a rigid, by the book hero but we go to the movies to see stars and big personalities and while his willingness to let the action do the talking is nice, I’d rather he have some personality while he’s action-ing.

 

It’s especially egregious because I expect so much more from both Cruise and Brian DePalma. DePalma has an eye for idiosyncrasy and had he been allowed to find the idiosyncrasies of Ethan Hunt and exploit them and had there been anything even remotely controversial about the character, perhaps the movie would hold up over time. Instead, looking back at the original, it’s a wonder this franchise is still around.

 

Thankfully, the franchise picks up the personality in the other movies, especially when they allow John Woo to make the film franchise his own. Here however, Brian DePalma is wasted and the film is shockingly by the numbers. Cruise is sweaty and desperate throughout, rarely allowing Ethan to have a personality beyond his remarkable competence and impressive physicality. Kristen Scott Thomas and Emilio Estevez are killed off and Emmanuelle Beart is left with far too much of the dramatic heavy lifting.

 

The one thing that stands out as genuinely inspired in Mission Impossible ‘96 is the casting Vanessa Redgrave as the big bad. The veteran actress is the one person in the film who is genuinely having fun. Redgrave sinks her teeth into the role and in her brief screen time the film is as fun as she is. The rest of the movie however, is just dour. Jon Voight especially is miscast as Jim Phelps.

 

Oddly the only even remotely controversial thing about Mission Impossible, and mind you I am not asking for the film to be outre in a violent or transgressive way, just have some personality. The only controversy the film courted was in the portrayal of Jim Phelps. Phelps was one of the main characters of the beloved TV series Mission Impossible and the twists and turns of his plot angered fans who held a love for Peter Graves’ stoic, reliable performance.

 

Even the famed train sequence that closes Mission Impossible appears less impressive though the frame of history. In wrestling terms, Mission Impossible is what is called a Spot Fest, a match centered on the biggest moves the competitors are capable of. The series focuses heavily on topping one big action spot after another and what’s happened in the more modern sequels has rendered the helicopter spot from the original film not unlike the Hulk Hogan leg-drop, a move that was once iconic and now seems rather silly next to a 5 Star Frog Splash.

 

If only Mission Impossible had half the personality of a wrestling match, perhaps it wouldn’t be so unremarkable.

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Movie Review Won't You Be My Neighbor

What is missing from the world in this day and age? Kindness. Kindness appears to be missing in this day and age. While everyone is yelling at each other and becoming tribal via social media, kindness is becoming more and more rare. Kindness exemplifies the work of Fred Rogers, the remarkable host of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. The life and work of Fred Rogers is now being celebrated in a new documentary called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?).”

 

In the 1951, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Fred Rogers was on his way to become a Presbytarian Minister when he first saw a television. The remarkable invention inspired him with its seemingly endless possibilities. Mr. Rogers would become a Minister eventually as well as a music scholar with a degree in music composition from Rollins College in Florida before settling into the world of television at WQED in Pittsburgh.

 

Rogers determination from the beginning was to work in children’s television and by 1963, the seeds of what would become Mr. Rogers Neighborhood were sewn. You likely know about Mr. Rogers and his sweaters and his songs and puppets but did you know he studied child development with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh alongside? That’s just one of the fascinating notes that make Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?) so unique and interesting.

 

"Won’t You be My Neighbor(?)" was directed by Morgan Neville, a documentarian who specializes in music documentaries. His “20 Feet from Stardom” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary feature at the 2013 Academy Awards. Neville is a smart, thoughtful and curious director who comes at the material of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?)” with an eye toward a conventional documentary narrative, a linear, life story, approach.

 

However, the unusual part of the “Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?)” is in the weight Neville gives not just to telling Mr. Rogers’ life story but explaining the impact he had on the lives of his viewers. Rogers was a quiet revolutionary, a Republican who fought for the funding of PBS in front of Congress and won. In 1968, in the wake of the death of Robert F. Kennedy, Rogers engaged his child audience in a conversation about death.

 

That same year, as controversy raged over civil rights and black people were being kicked out of public pools, Rogers enlisted his friend, Francois Clemmons as Officer Clemmons in the Neighborhood, to share a soak in his pool. The conversation had nothing to do with race or the raging controversies, it was just pleasant small talk about the weather but the visual of two people, black and white, sharing a kindly conversation, said what the conversation did not.

 

Clemmons is among the very emotional interviews that are featured in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?), alongside Rogers’ sons and his wife, Joanne. Naturally, everyone has lovely things to say about Rogers but the stories aren’t saccharine hagiography, but rather an earnest, emotional, fond remembrance. The film humanizes Rogers, especially near the end of the film when we get a glimpse of Rogers’ own insecurities, the kinds of things he helped children get passed.

 

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?)” is a remarkable documentary without being showy or over-dramatic. Like its subject, the documentary is quietly revolutionary, playing to our emotional attachment to Mr. Rogers while genuinely educating us about this remarkable man and his impact on the world. For me, his kindness is a model. Rogers’ kindness is a superpower better than most superhero powers. Kindness is at the heart of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?) and that kindness, remembering that kind of kindness, makes this the best documentary of 2018 thus far.
 

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Movie Review Borg Vs McEnroe

Usually when a movie bombs in spectacular fashion there is a very good reason why. Whether it was production delays, a star who finds trouble in the media, or a general lack of quality, there is usually an obvious reason to point to why something failed. Thus far however, it’s hard to say exactly why Borg Vs McEnroe is one of 2018’s biggest losers. Despite an 83% positive rating from critics at RottenTomatoes and an audience score nearly as good, the film barely broke the surface in terms of attention and with a $65 million dollar budget, there is not excuse for the movie tanking so badly.

 

Borg vs McEnroe takes audiences behind the scenes of one of the most epic battles in tennis history, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe’s spectacular fight over the 1980 Wimbledon Championship. With Borg chasing his 5th straight Wimbledon and McEnroe the cocky upstart, making consistent headlines with his consistently bad on-court behavior, the match up was instantly iconic and more than lived up to its legendary expectations.

 

Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnasson) wasn’t always a Swiss Cyborg with laser focus and no emotion on the court. As we learn from Borg vs McEnroe, Borg had more in common with the young John McEnroe than we ever imagined. Borg was cocky and filled with rage as a teenager and nearly found himself kicked out of tennis before he could ever become a champion. Borg nearly chose hockey as a more apt outlet for his rage filled tennis game.

 

Then, Borg met Swedish tennis legend Lennert Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard). It was Bergelin who rescued Borg’s career when he was nearly kicked out of the game as rage fueled teen. It was Bergelin who taught Borg to slow down and take one point at a time and, most importantly, not to let his opponent see his emotions. Despite Borg’s cyborg behavior on the court we learn from the movie that he had perhaps a form of OCD, or at least a deeply held superstition, that drove him mad and could at times hamper his on court abilities.

 

John McEnroe is at once more and less complicated that Borg. As played by Shia LeBeouf, McEnroe is quick to rage on the court and stand-offish off the court. McEnroe was friendlier than Borg and actually made friends on the tennis tour, while Borg practiced in private and rarely left his highly appointed hotel room with his ritualistic layout of tennis gear and his fetishistic approach to sleep temperature.

 

There are more interesting details about Borg and McEnroe in Borg vs McEnroe but I won’t spoil them here. Director Janus Metz does terrific job of setting the stage for Borg and McEnroe’s epic match. We get a great sense of the character’s histories and how they form the men they are on the court and the more volatile behind the scenes moments have a riveting quality in the context of the final act of the movie, the Wimbledon final of 1980.

 

Sverrir Gudnason is a real life tennis pro, once Sweden’s number 1 player though not someone who broke out into worldwide fame. His credible impression of Borg on the court is a highlight even as the film appears to be hiding Lebeouf behind quick cuts. Lebeouf does well to look credible but it’s hard to imagine he would be good enough to recreate the actual style of Borg vs McEnroe as even the real life Borg and McEnroe struggled to find the magic in real life.

 

Borg vs McEnroe is a terrific sports movie. It’s conventional but still compelling. Gudnason is strong for a guy who plays professional tennis for a living. He’s genuinely compelling as Borg even if it never seems like we get a glimpse into what he’s really thinking. LeBeouf gets the showier part and it works as Lebeouf’s own youthful troubles seem to somewhat mirror McEnroe’s.

 

Why did Borg vs McEnroe fail so spectacularly? The film made only $7 million dollars worldwide on a budget of $65 million dollars. It’s hard to say why it happened but it wasn’t the fault of the movie. The film is solid, well made and well acted. The characters are compelling, the tennis is exciting. What happened to make fans reject the film so hard by not buying a ticket? It’s baffling but there it is. $65 million dollars down the drain all because audiences decided to skip on seeing a pretty good sports movie to the point that it didn’t even make it to nationwide release.

 

Borg vs McEnroe is available now on Blu-Ray, DVD and On-Demand Streaming.
 

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Movie Review Ant-Man and The Wasp

Ant-Man and the Wasp is an absolute blast. The latest movie to shine in the Marvel Universe, this fast-paced, funny action flick more than lives up the super-hero hype with a pair of delightful lead performances from Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly, as the titular duo, and an exceptional colorful supporting cast including Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Pena.

 

Ant-Man and The Wasp picks up the story of Scott Lang (Rudd) 2 years after the events of Captain America Civil War wherein Scott, as Ant-Man, took sides with Captain America (Chris Evans) and in doing so violated the Sokovia Accords. This led to a year in jail and another year in house arrest where, at the very least, he gets to spend time with his daughter when he isn’t learning sleight of hand magic or playing drums, in a video game.

 

The story really kicks in when Hope Van Dyne (Lilly) and her father, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), open a portal to the Quantum Realm where Scott was nearly lost forever in the last film and where Hope’s mother, Hank’s wife, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) has been lost for decades. Opening the Quantum Realm reveals that Janet has created a way, via Scott, for her to communicate and perhaps escape her decades long exile.

 

Meanwhile, a baddie calling herself The Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) is trying to steal Hank’s lab to try and save her life. The less revealed about Ghost the better, the character has a fun secret that is revealed throughout the movie. The Ghost isn’t the only baddie however, as a shady arms dealer, played by Walton Goggins decides that he wants to steal Hank’s technology in order to sell it to the highest bidder.

 

That’s the set up for a  whole bunch of terrifically funny gags. Ant-Man and The Wasp is so much fun! Director Peyton Reed, much maligned for taking over the first Ant-Man after fan favorite Edgar Wright was dropped from the project, shows growth as a visual artist and in the confidence of a man with a vision. Reed appears to want Ant-Man to be the comic conscience of the Marvel Universe and two features in, he’s lived up to that title.

 

So how does Ant-Man and The Wasp fit into the narrative of the wider MCU? Well, I am not going to spoil that, you need to see this movie for that fun. I will say that the mid-credits scene is where the ongoing narrative is addressed and that there is no need to stay for the end credits scene which is merely the end of a running gag in Ant-Man and The Wasp and one of the few things in the movie that isn’t particularly funny.

 

Ant-Man and The Wasp is another triumph for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a film that combines the best traits of the Marvel Universe from big laughs to big action to genuine drama. Michael Douglas adds genuine gravitas to Ant-Man and The Wasp and when he and Michelle Pfeiffer finally share the screen the scene is legitimately moving thanks to the wide-ranging talents of both actors and this super smart, funny script.

 

Ant-Man and The Wasp is one of my favorite movies of 2018.
 

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Movie Review The First Purge

The First Purge stars Lex Scott Davis as Nya, an activist opposed to a new social experiment in crime. The New Founding Fathers of America, a right wing political party, has come to power, replacing Republicans and Democrats in the American power structure and they believe they have a solution for America’s crime problem. The idea comes from a scientist named Dr. Updale, Marisa Tomei, who isn’t convinced her idea is a cure-all.

 

The experiment which will come to be called ‘The Purge’ entails allowing people the opportunity to get out their pent up aggression with a night of legalized violence. For the experiment, the NFFA will cordon off Staten Island, New York and pay residents and visitors $5000.00 to stay on the Island and take part in 12 hours of legalized debauchery of all types. For her part, Nya believes The Purge is an attack on the poor and oh, how right she is, even if she doesn’t know it yet.

 

As the experiment of The Purge unfolds in this already crime riddled area, things begin with a strange peace. Few, if any, residents are actually engaging in criminal behavior. The NFFA has a lot riding on the night being an example of the effectiveness of their new rule and when things appear to be working in favor of the better angels of our nature, aside from a murderous crackhead named Skeletor, the NFFA decide to tip the scales a little with some outside help.

 

Soon, the streets of Staten Island are littered with bodies as the world watches on news networks supplied a ringside seat via drones that capture the action from on high. There is also the added attraction of first person perspective on the most gruesome crimes as some Island residents have been fitted with special contact lens cameras to capture the mayhem. The contacts are also a neat visual to help differentiate the truly dangerous from the endangered.

 

The First Purge is the fourth film in The Purge franchise, though the first in the continuity of the story which began being told in 2014 with Ethan Hawke and Lena Headley. The original The Purge posited an almost lackadaisical air surrounding the nationwide mayhem known as The Purge. Families discuss The Purge with the urgency of going to the supermarket or the video store. By the time of that film, The Purge is just another part of life.

 

The First Purge enlivens the franchise by taking it back to the beginning. Director Gerald MacMurray, taking the directorial reigns from franchise creator James Demonaco, who did stick around to write the script for this outing, embraces the social satire of the original conceit more blatantly than the first three films in the franchise. Indeed, MacMurray’s take on The Purge concept is straight ahead satirical polemic with the visual style of blaxsploitation movies of the early to mid-seventies.

 

There is no hiding the politics at play here, the NRA gets name-checked as the financial backers of the New Founding Fathers of America and a scene where Nya is assaulted by a sewer dwelling, masked stranger contains a reference to President Trump that is sharply pointed. All of the New Founding Fathers of America seen on screen are doughy white guys reminiscent of a current White House casting call.

The First Purge pull no punches in its social commentary with scenes ripped from recent American history from the streets of smoky streets of Ferguson circa 2014 to the unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, just last last year. Though tiki torches are surprisingly circumspect, there are men in Klan robes and men in uniforms reminiscent of the German S. S that are as striking as ever and similarly worn by hate groups at the Charlottesville riots in real life.

 

If the characters and storytelling had been as pointed and forthright as the social satire, we’d be talking about a much better movie. Unfortunately, the characters in The First Purge wind up underwritten in favor of the atmosphere of dread and, as mentioned, the high level of social satire. That’s not to say that Lex Scott Davis or Joivan Wade, who plays her brother in the movie or Mugga, who plays a Nya’s neighbor, are bad actors. Rather, they’re just pawns of the plot rather than people whose action drives the plot.

 

The editing of The First Purge is also a tad suspect, contributing to a choppy style that can be a tad hard to follow and not all that pleasant to look at. The Cinematography and production design appear to be areas where the filmmakers were attempting to save money as the film’s visual style rarely stands out, aside from one scene that appears to be a full-on homage to the low budget aesthetic of a Gordon Parks or Melvin Van Peebles.

 

Newcomer Y’Lan Noel plays drug dealer turned leader Dmitri and gets all of the best visuals in the movie. Late in the film, as Dmitri and his crew are traveling the streets battling the mercenaries of the Klan, the Alt-Right and the NFFA, Dmitri turns full on action hero and MacMurray films him like a combination of Shaft, Bruce Lee and Killmonger. He even gets to be John McClain for a little while as he makes his way through an apartment building picking off bad guys one floor at a time.

 

The homages and the social satire are the best and boldest part of The First Purge which is an otherwise middling affair. The characters are thin, the dialogue is often stilted and awkward, especially the supposedly ‘Street’ dialogue which plays the hits of all the worst cliches of gang speak. I want to embrace big parts of The First Purge but too much of the movie is too subpar for me to fully celebrate what works.
 

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Movie Review Blockers

When their daughters make a sex pact on Prom Night, three parents set out stop them in the new comedy Blockers. Lisa (Leslie Mann), Mitchell (John Cena), and Hunter (Ike Barinholz) entered each other’s lives when their daughters met and became lifelong friends in Kindergarten. Now, with college on the horizon and Prom Night at hand, the three parents are adjusting poorly to their daughters growing up.

 

For Lisa and her daughter, Julie (Kathryn Newton) separation anxiety is setting in. Having been so close for so many years, with Lisa as a single mom, the idea that Julie will be leaving for UCLA from their home in Chicago is fraught. It’s fraught to the point where Julie is afraid to actually tell her mother that she is considering moving hundreds of miles away to the same school that her boyfriend, Austin (Graham Phillips), happens to also be attending.

 

For Mitchell, the angst is similar except that he and his wife Marcie (Saraya Blue) have raised their daughter, Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) as a tomboy in hopes of delaying her from getting involved with boys. No such luck on prom night, however, as Kayla has a date with Connor (Miles Robbins) who doesn’t seem capable of hiding the fact that he’s a stoner with a unique reputation.

 

Hunter’s distant relationship with his daughter Sam (Gideon Adlon) is best left for you to discover when seeing Blockers. The thing to know for the plot is that Hunter is distanced from not just his daughter, but also his former friends, Lisa and Mitchell. Despite this, he will be joining them for the raunchy hi-jinks as they chase after their daughters after finding out the girls have made a pact to lose their virginity on Prom Night.

 

Blockers is the first feature film behind the camera for director Kay Cannon. Cannon’s previous experience was as the writer of each of the Pitch Perfect movies which, much like Blockers, were hit and miss but mostly hits. None of the Pitch Perfect movies rank as great comedy but each was good enough and that is where Blockers lands. It's good enough. For a silly, raunchy, R-Rated comedy, Blockers delivers enough laughs to get a pass from me.

 

The biggest issue with Blockers is the film’s trailer, which contains many of the biggest gags in the movie. What should be the loudest punchlines in Blockers have much of their power taken away by the fact that most audiences have heard the jokes before. The one big, too raunchy for the ad campaign gag involves Office Space standout Gary Cole and sexpot Gina Gershon. I will leave you to discover that gag on your own. I will just say it pays off in a brief post-credits scene that John Cena fans will not want to miss.

 

Read the full review at Geeks.Media

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Classic Movie Review Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

With Sicario Day of the Soldado opening this past weekend starring Benicio Del Toro, I was called to think of my favorite Benicio Del Toro performance. And while I enjoyed his work in Traffic, his Academy Award nominated performance, for me, his performance as Dr. Gonzo is an all time classic in Del Toro’s canon. Del Toro is the wild, raging, drug fueled id of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a film itself that appears like a raging fire.

 

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas stars Johnny Depp as Doctor of Journalism Raoul Duke, an alias of one Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson is famed for his gonzo journalism, a drug fueled style that earned him a loyal readership in Rolling Stone Magazine over three decades from the 60’s to the 80’s. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is taken from Thompson’s book of the same name about a drug fueled trip to Las Vegas that Thompson, as Duke, took to supposedly cover a motorcycle race for his magazine.

 

Of course, Duke has little interest in motorcycle racing. No, he’s in this for the road trip with his best friend and attorney, known here as Dr. Gonzo (Del Toro). Whether Dr. Gonzo was a real person or a Thompson creation cobbled together from several friends and fellow drug users is part of Thompson’s legend. The road trip debauchery is the focus of the movie and it starts right away with a red cadillac procured with Rolling Stone funds and a suitcase bursting with every kind of mind altering drug imaginable.

 

Eventually, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas shifts gears from motorcycles to district attorneys as Gonzo has procured them a suite to attend the national district attorneys convention. Unfortunately, that is not all that Gonzo has procured as he is now in the company of a potentially underage girl, Lucy (Christina Ricci). Having just met, Gonzo has given the young girl her first taste of acid and the trip is going bad.

 

There isn’t much of a story in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it’s a film of feel rather than substance. Director Terry Gilliam wants you to feel like your with Hunter S. Thompson on one of his famed drug trips and see the world through Duke’s eyes. This means fisheye lens and a queasy making visuals to illustrate the mind on various different types of hallucinogens from ether to acid to marijuana.

 

The film is remarkable at making you feel like you’re tripping right along with the characters, even if, like me, you’ve never used an illegal drug. I recall seeing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on the big screen and walking out into a world that didn’t look real after words. It took a little while before my eyes could adjust to the real world again and I recall liking the feeling. The film’s trippy visual is less effective on the small screen but no less artful.

 

Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro have a terrifically weird chemistry. I am not going to speculate as to the on-set drug use behind the scenes of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas but it’s hard not to imagine that both actors don’t have some personal experiences driving their performances. Del Toro especially seems familiar with the wild emotions of mind-altering drugs with his wild eyes and bizarrely perfect sloppy speech pattern. It has the practiced, polished feel of someone trying not to let on that they are on drugs.

 

For his part, Depp radiates endless charisma. Even playing a bald man in bizarre 70’s costume, he still comes off as handsome and engaging. It’s a star performance and yet one pitched perfectly for this strange and unique role. Depp and Hunter S. Thompson became friends in real life during the making of the movie. So close were the two that after Thompson took his own life, Depp was part of a celebration that shot the author’s ashes out of a cannon.

 

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a true cult classic. A strange, trippy, bizarre comic creation with wit and star power. Great performances combine with inventive visuals to create arguably THE best drug trip movie of all time. It’s a film that remains a go to for revival theaters across the country that roll the film out on a yearly basis, with the blessing and backing of its parent studio, Universal Pictures which has benefited greatly from the continuing popularity of the movie which barely eked out a profit on its theatrical release.

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Classic Movie Review Coming to America

This weekend the Eddie Murphy flick Coming to America turns 30 years old. Released on June 29th, 1988, the film was the latest in a string of blockbusters for the former Saturday Night Live comic turned superstar and the beginning of the end of his run of unmatched 80’s hits. Murphy was, at the time of the release of Coming to America, perhaps the most famous and popular actor in Hollywood.

 

That’s what makes Coming to America so fascinating, it’s such an outlier to the Eddie Murphy persona we’d come to know. Coming to America casts Murphy not as a fast talking, Bug Bunny-esque schemer but as an innocent, good-hearted romantic seeking his one true love. Yes, Coming to America is chock-a-block with R-rated humor and some uncomfortable, stereotype based comedy, but what stands out 30 years later is how genuine and sweet Murphy is in the role of Prince Akeem.

 

In Coming to America, Murphy’s Prince Akeem is a pampered Prince, the heir to the thrown of the fictional country of Zamunda, think Wakanda minus Vibranium but with serious oil wealth. Akeem’s every whim have been attended to throughout his life and he finds the treatment lacking. Akeem longs to be challenged, especially by a woman of intellect as well as attractiveness. Unfortunately for Akeem, his birthday is also his arranged wedding day.

 

After meeting his bride and finding that she’s been bred to serve his every whim, just like everyone else in his life, Akeem asks his father, the King (James Earl Jones) for the chance to travel and see the world, a plea that his father believes is about ‘sowing his wild oats.’ With his friend and faithful servant Semmi (Arsenio Hall) at his side, Akeem decides to go to America to seek the girl of his dreams and chooses the aptly named borough of Queens as his destination.

 

Here’s where the film squanders its premise. Director John Landis, rather than sew the film with magic and romance to go with Murphy’s talent for getting laughs, he instead chooses crudity and sitcomic slapstick of the slamming doors variety. While Akeem is all sweetness and charming naivete, the rest of the movie is crude and the script by veterans Barry Blaustein and David Shefflied chases the easiest possible fish out of water laughs.

 

Don’t misunderstand, Coming to America is funny but it could have been something more. Eddie Murphy delivers a genuine and romantic performance as Prince Akeem. It’s an outlier in Murphy’s career, playing a character who is earnest and genuine and not hiding behind quips or a gun. Murphy is still charming and as wildly charismatic as ever with that big, goofy grin of his but, for once, we believe the character is happy not at the expense of others.

 

Murphy elevates the material which is deeply lacking in originality. His chemistry with everyone from Jones as his father, to Hall as his best friend, and even bland leading lady Lisa, played by Shari Headley, is typically off the charts. It’s a star performance of the highest order and that’s what makes me wish the film had more ambition. There is a rich idea in play here and yet everyone except for Murphy appears content to take the easy way out.

 

That is not to say that Coming to America is completely bereft of invention. Costume designer Deborah Nadoolman earned an Academy Award nomination for her elegant and lively costumes including the African wedding party decked out in such an elaborate display that the two scenes depicting the wedding may well have been all that was needed to secure her nomination. It’s not just the elaborate costumes though as Murphy and Hall, Jones and Headley all carry a modern, moneyed style that is striking in a GQ fashion.

 

The set design is also a great deal more ambitious than the script for Coming to America. Production Designer Richard MacDonald created brilliant sets for the African portion of the film with opulence to spare. The King’s castle in Zamunda is elaborate and beautifully designed while the Queens portion more or less designed itself with it’s trashy, earthy grit, though MacDonald deserves credit for Akeem and Semmi’s briefly stylish apartment and the design of the home of Lisa’s father, played with abundant charisma by John Amos.

 

There is also invention in the makeup department of Coming to America as director John Landis indulged Murphy’s love of playing multiple characters by having him play four separate characters aside from Akeem. Murphy is especially good at playing loudmouthed no-it-alls and his barbershop character Clarence is right in his comic wheelhouse. Even more impressive however, is Saul, an old Jewish denizen of the barbershop who seamlessly fits the aesthetic of 80’s Queens even as he embodies a very particular stereotype.

 

There are also clever running gags in Coming to America that elevate the otherwise moribund and derivative script. Eriq LaSalle plays Lisa’s boyfriend, Darrly, the son of a jheri-curl magnate. Jokes about Darryl and his family’s chosen hairstyle pop up throughout Coming to America and while the jokes are desperately dated now, I still laughed when they popped up 30 years later. Younger audiences might get the joke in a different way, tittering in disbelief that such a hairstyle was indeed a popular 70’s and 80’s trend.

 

Coming to America is a mixed bag. It’s far from a bad movie, thanks to Murphy, but it is lacking in ambition. The script is too simple and John Landis’ direction takes the easy way out on the jokes while almost overdoing the production design and costumes. I love the production design and the costumes but they are a sign of a movie of a great deal more ambition than that of Coming to America which wants to deliver sitcom laughs at feature film prices.
 

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