Sunday, July 28, 2019

La La Land: Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood” is an Exquisite Ode to Tinseltown

At one point in the classic 70s comedy “Annie Hall” the eternally neurotic Woody Allen character Alvy Singer notes that one of the reasons he hates Los Angeles is because of “ritual religious-cult murders.” Fifty years after the Manson “family” committed several horrific, notorious murders and other crimes, the country is still obsessed with those terrible crimes. And in a way, so is Quentin Tarantino. But he wasn't interested in making a traditional movie about the Manson murders. Tarantino has made a fairy tale set in 1969 Hollywood that’s an ode to changing times in America that fuses real life characters and events with fictional characters in a tribute to Hollywood that is truly the pinnacle of his decades-long career. “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood” is a fascinating mix of drama, comedy, crime, and nostalgia that is completely compelling and brims with tension for its thoroughly well-paced runtime. The film is truly a masterpiece which is saying something considering there aren't many duds in his filmography.



It seems that every time Quentin Tarantino releases a film it’s his new classic. “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is his new classic. There I said it. Tarantino is the ultimate film nerd. He could wipe the floor with anyone would try to challenge him. And he really proves it in his latest film which is a gorgeous ode to Hollywood and movies. It truly feels as if all the roads he’s traveled down has been leading up to this brilliant piece of work. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as an actor named Rick Dalton, who is famous for staring in a TV western but his stardom is quickly fading. His former stunt man and friend Cliff (Brad Pitt) works as his personal driver. The two are great friends and are actually very reliant on each other, more so than they truly realize. Rick lives next door to filmmaker Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate and he dreams of meeting them one day in the hopes of reigniting his career. 

The film follows Rick as he tries to jump-start his career by taking bit parts in shows while refusing to an offer to star in some Spaghetti Westerns in Italy from his agent Marvin Schwartz (Al Pacino). Meanwhile, we get to see Cliff’s rather mundane life as he drives around alone and spends time in his trailer with his well-trained pitbull Brandy. He picks up a hippie girl who’s hitchhiking and ends up at a deserted movie ranch where the Manson family lives. And as the film progresses we get to see what rising movie star Sharon Tate is up to. She spends an afternoon at a movie theater watching her own film completely compelled by the magic of watching herself onscreen.



The film not only functions as a character piece about the trials and tribulations of a fading TV actor and his best friend, but also as a document of the end of the 1960s and and the introduction of the harsh reality of the 1970s. At someone who wasn’t yet alive, the film feels pretty authentic; everything from the costumes, to the set design, to the cinematography (by longtime Tarantino collaborator Robert Richardson) everything here just looks right. And you can really see how much Tarantino has grown as a screenwriter, director and as a storyteller. Even if the narrative isn’t always “normal” it’s arguably his most sophisticated film. There’s no need for chapter titles or any of that gimmicky stuff, but all the other trademark Tarantinoisms are there. Lots of dialogue-driven scenes, fun twists in the narrative, mentions of obscure movies you’ve never heard of, a soundtrack filled with equally obscure and familiar tunes, humor in places you’re not expecting, and of course spouts of graphic violence that are…. well the less spoiled about that the better.



“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is a movie for people who love and appreciate movies. But it’s also so much more. Tarantino isn’t new to revising historical events in his films (ie Inglorious Basterds) so it may not take a genius to figure out that things don’t necessarily play out very historically accurate here and that’s all for the better. The film is a wild ride and a glorious genre-bending piece of celluloid that will be remembered for years to come; it features fantastic performances from its very famous and charming leads (not to mention a laundry list of celebrity bit parts and cameos) and one of the most memorable and whacked out final acts I’ve seen in quite some time. As the title suggests it’s really a Tarantino fairy tale and it just may be the most Tarantinoy film that ever Tarantinoed. GRADE: A

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Aristocats: “The Lion King” is Fine But It Whimpers When It Should Roar

About 2 minutes into the “live-action” version of “The Lion King” I muttered, “I feel like I’m watching the Psycho remake.” Ahh, the Psycho remake, Gus Van Sant’s $60 million ill-advised experiment that continues to fascinate me to this day. That movie was the result of “What if we shot Psycho in practically the exact same way but in color instead of black and white?” And twenty years later we got the same question, “What if we took the global phenomenon ‘The Lion King’ but instead of having lush, colorful animation we made it with photo-realistic CGI animal characters whose faces can’t fully emote because they’re supposed to be ‘realistic’ so it just looks like they’ve all had botched face-lifts?” And here we have “The Lion King,” a ‘live-action’ remake of a traditionally animated film that feels inferior in almost every possible way (with the possible exception of the depiction of Timon and Pumbaa). Here’s the deal: if you liked “The Lion King” you’ll probably like the new version because it’s essentially the same thing. But there are alterations that make you wonder why they even bothered in the first place. Like the “Psycho” remake, we’re left with what is essentially an expensive experiment that’s actually an inferior version of a film that didn’t need updating in the first place.



Generally speaking, remakes don’t really bother me the way they do some people. Making a photo-realistic version of “The Lion King” was something I saw coming years ago. “The Jungle Book” and its Oscar-winning effects made that pretty obvious. I don’t hold “The Lion King” up to some pinnacle of animation standards by any means, but there is something special about it. That something special feels a little harder to find in Jon Favreau’s CGI extravaganza. The opening sequence – with various animals traveling the African landscape to the tune of “Circle of Life” – is pretty much a shot-for-shot redo of the animated version. It’s impressive what the computer animation wizards have been able to accomplish here. And then the story follows the young lion cub Simba (voiced by JD McCrary) as he learns about the circle of life from his father King Mufasa (voiced yet again by James Earl Jones). Meanwhile, Mufasa’s jealous and evil brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) plots his death and plans on ruling the African Pride Lands himself.



You know the story. It’s simple but effective and there’s a reason why it worked so well so many years ago and still does. Loosely based on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the film has a dramatic heft that a lot of other animated films have attempted to replicate. Watching “The Lion King” made today, it feels more of an allegory for the rise of the evil Trump Administration more than anything. Scar is a classic Disney villain and like all the good ones was perfectly evil and flamboyant. This newly rendered Scar is purely evil and sorely lacking in the not-so-subtle queerness that permeated the original character. Here, he doesn’t even really get a fully realized heinous villain musical number. Things improve greatly once Simba is exiled and meets up with the meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) who can easily be read as an outcast gay couple banished from the conservatism of Pride Rock. IT’S FREAKING CALLED PRIDE ROCK THOUGH. But I digress. The less said about the “photo-realistic” animals’ lack of genitalia the better. But back to Timon and Pumbaa. They are hilarious! Timon’s updated dialogue is fantastic and has that perfect Billy Eichner touch. I laughed out loud several times while the jokes mostly went over the rest of the audience’s heads. I’ll credit Jeff Nathanson’s script for that good stuff.



Odds are you know if you’re going to like “The Lion King” or not. Generally speaking. I enjoyed it actually; the songs are still good and the story still entertains decades on. Does this movie need to exist? Of course not. The CGI is pretty impressive but the character’s facial expressions are never quite as expressive as in the original film. The new iteration is almost practically devoid of bright colors which is why scenes like “Can’t Just Wait to Be King” sort of fall flat here. Overall this is actually one of the more successful remakes of the Disney animated classics. Bonus points for having actual people of color voice African characters and the fact that Pumbaa actually gets to say the word “farted.” This new “Lion King” is PG after all. GRADE: B-

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Chomp & Circumstance: “Crawl” is a Disaster Film Thriller With Bite

The utterly absurd “Crawl” is two great films in one: it’s an animal attack movie and it’s a disaster movie. In other words, it’s right up my alley. Set in one location, “Crawl” is an intimate, quick-paced thriller about a young woman who gets trapped in the crawl space under her dad’s house, during a hurricane with rising waters, with menacing alligators. If that doesn’t make you want to see “Crawl” nothing will. With a welcome return to form by horror director Alexandre Aja (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D), “Crawl” is a fun, efficient disaster film punctuated by graphic alligator attacks. But it’s also a character piece about an estranged father and daughter with just enough sappiness to make the entire endeavor (which is sort of “Cujo” in a crawl space with alligators) one of the more ridiculous – and flat out intense and entertaining – movies in this underwhelming summer.

The setup in “Crawl” is thankfully quite simple. Haley (Kaya Scodelario) is a college swimmer in Florida and an intense hurricane is quickly approaching. Her sister Beth hasn’t heard from their newly single father Dave (a grizzled Barry Pepper) and asks Haley to check on him as the storm approaches even though people are being told to evacuate. At first, as Haley’s search is futile, I began thinking, this guy obviously doesn’t want to be found. Who doesn’t answer their phone? Who abandons their dog during a storm? This guy is dead weight. And then she finds him in the crawl space of his house and he’s been ATTACKED BY A FRIGGIN’ ALLIGATOR. And that’s the premise: watching this father-daughter duo try to escape the crawl space of a house as the rain water rises as a disgruntled alligator wades around. They were likable that I rooted for them to live, but I prayed for their dog.

Alexander Aja who is known for some of his over-the-top gore moments in his horror films, piles on the vicious animal attacks in “Crawl.” He wisely focuses mostly on suspense – this is an intense ride – but the brutality really shows how powerful and scary alligators can be. Of course they’re just trying to survive; they’re not necessarily presented as horrible monsters but I’m no gator expert. The visual effects are convincing enough; I don’t imagine this is a hugely budgeted film but I think the final product ends up working remarkably well.

The fact that this film literally comes to us nearly 20 years to the day of another reptilian animal attack movie – the much maligned horror-comedy “Lake Placid” - is sort of beautiful cinematic kismet. I’ve never been shy about proclaiming my affinity for killer animal movies whether they’re good ones like “Jaws,” “The Birds,” or “Piranha” (both of them) or guilty pleasures like “Deep Blue Sea” and “Lake Placid.” “Crawl” isn’t particularly new or groundbreaking material but it’s a ridiculous premise that works and was fully funded by a major studio (good ol’ Paramount) and if that means more killer animal movies then I’m so ready.  GRADE: B+

Friday, July 05, 2019

Here Comes the Sun: The Disturbing and Gorgeous “Midsommar” is a Cult Above the Rest

Halfway through Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” I thought I’d never be able to watch it again. I found it that disturbing, troubling, and creepy. As it turns out, it’s a hell of a horror film and has tremendous replay value once you know its secrets. Featuring an Oscar-worthy Toni Collette, it marked one of the most auspicious horror film debuts in quite some time. And now we have “Midsommar,” Aster’s incredible followup. Folks, he’s two for two. This sun-drenched ode to folk horror films like “The Wicker Man” is a distressing piece of art that, even at a runtime of 147 minutes, flies by because it gets its hooks in you in the film’s shocking opening sequence and never lets go. Essentially a drama about the dissolution of a relationship, “Midsommar” offers gorgeous, colorful cinematography, strong performances, and a story that is creepy and gross because you know exactly where it’s going and it’s one scary trip.



The film begins with a terrible tragedy during the cold winter months which easily establishes director Ari Aster as a grief horror master. Our heroine Dani (Florence Pugh) is the one dealing with shocking events that involve some immediate family members which is not helping her already strained relationship with her emotionally distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). To help get her mind off things, he reluctantly invites her along with his male friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) to visit Sweden. They have plans to do one of worst-sounding things in horror movie history. They’re going with their Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to visit the Swedish commune his grew up on to witness a nine day long summer festival that only occurs every 90 days. If that doesn’t scream murderous cult I don’t know what does.



The rest of the film is a downward spiral of drug hallucinations (oh college kids!) and more and more disturbing behavior as these young people realize that the nice pale people even with their flowing white frocks and sunny, friendly dispositions are actually pretty darn insane. None of this is actually surprising, as the walls of the building in which our American heroes are bunking actually depict a lot of the crazy activities the audience will witness from these Swedish meatballs. Of course the less you know about the film going into it the more “fun” it’ll all be. But prepare yourself from some really shocking imagery whether it be graphic violence or graphic sexuality.



To be fair, “Midsommar” is certainly not a film for everyone. If you could handle “Hereditary” you could easily handle this. Think of “Midsommar” as brighter-looking version of “Hereditary” but without all the supernatural stuff. All great horror films have a centered piece of drama in which to hang the horror elements on and both of these brilliant films are the epitome of that. Aster has created yet another beautiful, trippy film set in a place where it never gets dark which means there’s never anywhere to hid. The film will not shock you with jump scares, but will slowly try to make you go insane, and what is scarier or more fun than that?  GRADE: A

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Marvel’s European Vacation: “Spider-Man Far From Home” is a Humorous, Emotional Joy

“Spider-Man: Far From Home” is two movies in one. It's a sequel to “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” which was Spider-Man's first solo outing within the MCU. But it also functions as a sequel to “Avengers: Endgame.” And this is where it really shines. The film must deal with the borderline traumatic events that unfolded in the biggest and most consequential film in the MCU universe so far. Sure, coming off the heels of “Endgame” is a lot of heavy lifting, but the film and its makers are up for the challenge and they succeed admirably. "Spider-Man: Far From Home" is a funny and action-packed spectacle that also happens to be a fun trip around Europe. Offering a really fantastic sense of humor, a lot of heart, and charismatic performances from its stars, “Far From Home” is easily one of the best Spider-Man films of all time.

Perfectly timed for Independence Day in the United States, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” spends its time abroad and I can’t think of anything more opportune then getting out of this place. We learn a little more about life after the reverse snap, now referred to as “The Blip,” and how those who were erased from existence have not aged while five years has passed for everyone else. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is still reeling from the death of Tony Stark but it’s time for a school trip to Europe. And what could possibly go wrong? While there, these monsters that take the shape of the elements (ie, water, fire) begin wrecking havoc and a mysterious caped crusader shows up to stop the terror. This guy is dubbed by the Italian press as “Mysterio.” Oh look it’s Jake Gyllanhaal! Welcome to the MCU Jake. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) want to welcome this new hero to the world – as he’s actually from another of many multiverses, of which his version of Earth was destroyed. Though there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark, we’ll soon find out (and it's not their cheese).

“Spider-Man: Far From Home” continues the teen flick fun of “Homecoming” by focusing on a small group of Parker’s classmates thanks to Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers’ witty script. This includes his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and his new girlfriend Betty Brant (Angourie Rice) who spend their entire European vacation being that annoying couple with matching outfits and terms of endearment. And then there’s MJ (Zendaya) who Peter longs for and she may even have some feelings in return. All of the teen drama is set against this increasing global threat and has Peter in a pickle… I mean where’s Iron Man when you need him. Luckily, Tony Stark’s loyal assistant Happy (Jon Faverau) is there as a sort of reluctant mentor to Peter and their scenes are extremely touching and effective. Not to mention a possible romance with Peter’s Aunt May (Maris Tomei).

This latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is another pop art comic masterpiece. It’s truly amazing how much sheer fun the film is and how emotional invested one can get in a film series that has been going strong for over ten years. Jon Watts’ film is a visual treat with fantastic action set pieces, a great score from Michael Giacchino, and solid performances from everyone involved. No one really knows where the MCU is going from this point, but it’ll be hard to top everything up to this point. I can’t wait.  GRADE: A

Monday, July 01, 2019

Hello, Dolly! The Jump Scares are in Full Force in “Annabelle Comes Home”

Talking and/or killer toys are having a bumper crop at American theaters this summer huh? “Toy Story 4” and “Child’s Play” both opened on the same day (major props to the “Child’s Play” marketing people by the way) and now we get the third installment of the Annabelle series which itself is a spinoff of the far superior fright flick “The Conjuring.” I greatly admire Warner Brothers’ Conjuring universe not only because it’s arguably better handled than their DC universe but there hasn’t been such a fun group of shared horror films since the days of the Universal Studios monsters. That being said, the “Annabelle” films pale in comparison to the main Conjuring films but this third entry is certainly a noble effort (as was the superior second installment “Annabelle: Creation”). What is essentially a single setting haunted house flick with things that go bump in the night, the film is fine entertainment for those seeking fun jump scares, but hardened horror fans with iron constitutions will find most of “Annabelle Comes Home” to be little more than silly smoke and mirrors that add very little to the genre; except for a handful of other fun possible Conjuring universe spin-offs. At the end of the day, I’m okay with that because there’s nothing particularly horrible about this entry, it’s just not overly outstanding.



The Warrens show up in “Annabelle Comes Home” and is set mostly in their home and that is certainly a bold and wise choice from the filmmakers. The presence of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson easily elevates this otherwise generic haunted house movie. This is literally the fourth time that we’ve been made aware of the evil doll Annabelle and we finally get to see what happens when the Warrens place her in her permanent home in their creepy artifact room IN THEIR HOME. Of course during one weekend away from home, the Warrens’ hire a teenager to babysitt their young daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace). The sweet teen left in charge, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) hesitantly lets her friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) over and before they know it they’ve awoken Annabelle and all the other evil spirits locked away in the room in what is essentially a cabin in the woods storyline.



So basically what we have here is “The Conjuring” meets “The Evil Dead.” Which sounds fine on paper except that in this film I never really felt that these girls were in any real danger. I was pretty certain they would all end up fine. If you watch the first “Conjuring,” which is better written and features more fleshed out characterizations, film you never feel like that family is going to make it out alive. “Annabelle Comes Home” has a lot of boo/gotcha moments which is fine, but that’s really all it has. It has not real unique visual identity and I don’t even remember the music score. The young actors are fine but it was hard to get invested or care about them, especially Daniela who is the one who unwittingly unleashes the demons when all she could of done is just as Lorraine to contact her recently deceased close family member.



As a horror fan, and lifetime resident of Connecticut, I’m so thrilled that these films exist. These Conjuring universe films are fine – they’re all starting to feel and look the same – but I’m glad these films are around to scare the pants off of kids whose parents probably shouldn’t be bringing them to see them. Though these films aren’t loaded with profanity, violence, or sex which is extremely rare for an R rated horror film. It means the films care a stricter rating because they are just scary; of course your mileage may vary. As far as I’m concerned these films only exists to cleans the palate between the main Conjuring films and my appetite is certainly whetted. GRADE: B-

 

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Toy Gory: The “Child’s Play” Redo Proves to Be a Fun and Nasty Treat

The original “Child’s Play” from 1988 is a silly movie no doubt about it. In it, a serial killer passes his soul onto a doll as he lays dying. The doll ends up in the hands of a young boy, who insists his doll is actually alive and committing crimes – like murder. The film was a hit because a) dolls are creepy and b) ones that are alive are even creepier. A horror franchise was born as was a new boogeyman. But still, it was about a killer doll. At once a social commentary on the Cabbage Patch doll craze of the early 1980s and general commercialism, the original “Child’s Play” offered a silly premise that’s easy to buy into. The same can easily be said for its remake which satirizes our society’s obsession with the Internet of Things. Somehow, a killer Amazon Echo isn’t that visually interesting so a redesigned Chucky doll complete with WiFi and modern technology fits the bill. This time Chucky isn’t possessed by a killer, he’s a self-aware smart device that can learn and has no qualms about graphic violence. The doll becomes overly attached to his tween owner Andy so what we basically get is a weird horror hybrid of “Small Soldiers” and “Single White Female.” And I didn’t hate it.

A disgruntled employee in a toy factory in Vietnam is to blame for the events of the new “Child’s Play.” Buddi is an immensely popular line of high-tech smart dolls that can connect to various other devices made by a tech company called Kasdan. The guy disables one doll’s safety measures and other things that essentially make the toy capable of turning into a murderous psychopath. Chucky doesn’t have the actual personality of a real person which feels odd since that’s such a staple of the franchise (mostly due to Brad Dourif’s fantastically maniacal voice-work). For the first time Chucky is voiced - equally well - by Mark Hamill. Andy is portrayed as an older kid (Gabriel Bateman) who’s unique trait is that he has a hearing aid. His mom Karen is much less sympathetic in this version but Aubrey Plaza is fine in the role as a working class mom.

Karen works at a discount department store much like Walmart and is able to sneak home a slightly used Buddi doll for Andy, who isn’t initially all that impressed. But Andy and his mom are new to the area and he’s desperate for companionship – especially since Karen is dating an obnoxious loser who we can’t wait to see get killed. After the doll “imprints” on Andy – sort of like we see in Steven Spielberg’s “AI” – the kid takes a liking to his Buddi doll who can record audio, video, and connect to his phone, etc. After Chucky watches some “Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2” with Andy and his new [human] friends, the doll begins to see violence as something to laugh about. This is sort of where the fright factor of this new film begins to lose me. The fact that Chucky, even as a smart device, doesn’t actually know any better makes him instantly less scary. That isn’t to say the violent acts he does eventually commit aren’t fun to watch. Director Lars Klevberg certainly has a mean streak as he stages the death scenes with a sense of dread and grotesqueness.

The people Chucky goes after have wronged Andy in some way which makes the film feel a like a modern take on the psycho stalker thrillers of the early 90s. This is basically “Single White Female” with a robot doll. And I’ll take it. Tyler Burton Smith’s script is certainly wacky and the pacing and tone are a bit all over the place – at one point the movie strives to be like “It” with [less memorable] kids banding together to try and take down the monster but the idea is sort of lost and doesn’t really go anywhere. There’s even an entire sequence involving a severed head that’s been wrapped as a present that’s played entirely for laughs. The film is slick-looking and has decent practical effects, even if the Chucky doll design is pretty horrendous. And it’s not because it looks like a shell of the original design – it’s just an ugly freaking doll which makes it hard to believe people in this film would be obsessed with it. The last positive thing I’ll say is that composer Bear McCreary’s original score is completely dope as is an original song that will become an earworm if you let it.

In the end, this new “Child’s Play” sort of won me over. It’s not earth-shattering by any means but it’s not nearly as terrible as we all assumed it would be. The film is slick, nasty, and fun; and just as ridiculous as its 1988 counterpart. Does it need to exist? Not really. Especially since original screenwriter Don Mancini is still knees deep into continuing the original franchise. But those movies have taken some odd directions and it was about time someone steered the ship back into something more palatable.  GRADE: B

Sunday, June 02, 2019

The Bitch is Back: The Visually Stunning “Rocketman” Soars


“Rocketman” seems to be a bit of an anomaly in the music biopic movie genre. While the movie’s story follows the same beats of most movies in these genre from the recent “Bohemian Rhapsody” to “The Doors” to “Walk the Line” and “Ray,” “Rocketman” flips things around by turning the story of Elton John into a flashy musical in which characters break out into songs. Think “Across the Universe” if it was actually about The Beatles. The film features an uncannily good performance from its young star Taron Egerton who embodies the soul of Elton John (and even does his own singing). “Rocketman” has spectacular musical sequences even if it’s framed in a been-there-done that story of the price and dangers of fame and dealing with family members who don’t believe in you. But its message of tolerance and acceptance in a world that seems to be moving backwards and not forward is inspiring welcoming, and uplifting.

“Rocketman” begins where most music biopics end, the lead character winding up in rehab. Through flashbacks Elton John (Egerton) tell the story of his life. As a kid (born as Reggie Dwight) he was a young musical prodigy who had a natural talent for playing the piano. And no surprise his parents are assholes. His mother is played coldly by Bryce Dallas Howard and like most characters she plays you just wanna slap her across the face. But I digress. The childhood sequences in most films like this tend to be dull and boring. WE get it he or she was a musical genius at age 10. But at least this time we get flashy musical numbers set to the songs from the musician the movie is about. Who doesn’t love a musical sequence set on a suburban street with the song “The Bitch is Back?”

From there the film follows Reggie as he joins a band, begins collaborating on songs with a songwriter named Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), changes his name to Elton John, and discovers that he’s attracted to men. One of the film’s strongest elements is the lifelong friendship that forms between Elton and Bernie. Bernie accepts Elton’s homosexuality and they make beautiful music together. Eventually Elton begins a physical relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden). The film is frank in its depiction of their relationship which is certainly new territory for a big budget music biopic released by a major studio. Of course, “Bohemian Rhapsody” did mostly the same stuff last year but was unfortunately much maligned.

Speaking of which, “Rocketman” is helmed by director Dexter Fletcher who helped steer “Bohemian Rhapsody’s” successful post-production process (which led to 4 Oscar wins) and certainly does wonders here too. On paper “Rocketman” is really a snooze of a script in regards to the story but screenwriter Lee Hall and Fletcher take something that’s rote and cliched and turn everything upside down by making it a flashy musical. The musical sequences are fantastic and make the film come alive. The music is really what makes you care about everything that’s going on in the film.

“Rocketman” feels like a really well done Broadway-to-film adaptation. There’s nothing particuarly groundbreaking or shocking about Elton John’s life as far as music biopics are concerned but Egerton is a revelation and uncanny as Elton, the musical sequences are exceptionally fun and high energy, and the film’s progressive messages will hopefully not fall on deaf ears. Fans of Elton’s music or musicals in general will certainly be in gay heaven and anyone else who stumbles into the theater by accident.  GRADE: A-

Maternal Sunshine of the Insane Mind: Octavia Spencer Makes “Ma” Worth Your Time


“Ma” is directed by the same guy who directed Octavia Spencer to an Oscar win for “The Help.” That would be Tate Taylor and he’s certainly not the most visually exciting filmmaker working today but he knows how to get great performances out of actors. The brilliant Ms. Spencer needs no help however and she finally marks her first real lead role with a perfect balance of weirdness and psychotic glee as the murderous Ma of the film’s title. “Ma” is an exploitation film that is elevated by the presence of great actors letting loose and realizing that doing trashy genre work is where the most fun roles are. It’s the teenage characters who don’t get to have nearly as much fun. The film feels like one of those creepy early 90s thrillers where a seemingly nice character turns out to be a wacko. Sign me up.

Produced by outstanding horror production company Blumhouse – who specializes in low budget films with smart scripts made by talented filmmakers - “Ma” is the type of film that could either be utter garbage or something special. I’d say it falls somewhere in-between. The film follows a teenage girl who moves with her mom from California to the Midwest. She befriends a small group of kids who enjoy spending their time trying to get booze and drugs. The straitlaced Maggie (Diana Silvers) isn’t about give up the chance to make friends so she plays along. The kids hang out in their friend Andy’s dad’s van outside a liquor store and try to get adults to buy them alcohol. There they come across a nice woman who’s walking a three legged dog. She initially says she’s not interested in buying them beer, but then figures why not be the cool adult for once? This seemingly sweet woman is Sue Anne (Spencer) and she just so happens to be batshit crazy. Of course the kids don’t know this yet. Sue Anne lets the kids come to her house and party in her basement since she’d rather them drink there rather than driving drunk. They even nickname her ‘Ma.’ The fact that Ma may have ulterior motives is another story...

It’s no surprise that Octavia is essentially doing her best Annie Wilkes. No one plays crazy quite like Kathy Bates, but Spencer is certainly up to the task. The character actress has basically been typecast as the mom or best friend - usually in a 1960s setting. Here she gets to be fully unleashed and it’s magical to watch. Nothing in Scotty Landes’ script is particularly original or groundbreaking; it’s essentially the groundwork for a plump, juicy role for a woman nearing middle age. And since Spencer is so great in a role that she’s never quite done before, it’s the teenagers who are somewhat bland and forgettable. They don’t really get to do much besides party and act like fools and eventually complain about how creepy and weird Ma is getting.

“Ma” takes its time building suspense, Spencer is fantastic, and the score from composer Gregory Tripi is great. This is essentially low budget trash that has found its way to the mainstream and I'm totally fine with that because Spencer has finally gotten a great lead role. I don’t think it transcends the genre and it’s not quite up the level of what Kathy Bates was able to accomplish in “Misery” but it’s schlocky, goofy fun with a delightful wicked streak – especially in the final act, though things don’t quite go as far as I expected but I sure enjoyed my time at Ma’s and witnessing her slowly become unhinged.  GRADE: B


Friday, May 24, 2019

Supergood: The Hilarious “Booksmart” Passes With Flying Colors


“Booksmart” is raunchy, progressive, and funny. What more could you want in a comedy? Olivia Wilde, making her feature film directorial debut, imbues the film with equal parts heart and weirdness that makes it standout among raunchy teen sex comedies. The movie follows two straight-laced best friends on the eve of their high school graduation. When they realize that even their wild troublemaker classmates also got into ivy league schools they figure it’s time to let loose a little. A chaotic night of debauchery coalesces into a series of wacky misadventures as they attempt to locate the wild party being thrown by a classmate. “Booksmart” doesn’t necessarily reinvent the genre but certainly takes a fresh approach with equal doses of heart and hilarity.

“Booksmart” is not unlike the 2007 teen comedy “Superbad” in which three teen boys attempt to fit in by attending a wild house party. They certainly share the same DNA: Jonah Hill’s younger sister Beanie Feldstein stars here as the straitlaced Molly. And her equally prudish best friend Amy is played by Kaitlyn Dever. Molly is headed to Yale in the fall, and Amy is heading to Botswana for the summer for volunteer work. Amy had previously come out as a lesbian and has a crush on a skater girl named Ryan. After being teasing in the bathroom, Molly confronts her tormentors and tells them she’s going places because she got into a good college. But they inform her that they’re also going to good schools. And suddenly Molly has a revelation. Those kids partied in high school but also got into college. She makes it her mission to spend the night before graduation making up for all the fun stuff she missed out on while in high school. Amy is reluctant but goes along with it. Hilarity ensues.

The raunchy coming-of-age teen comedy is nothing new, but “Booksmart” feels special. The two female leads are, first of all, extremely likable and funny. I’m sure we can thank divine intervention for getting these two actresses onscreen together. You sense the lifelong friendship these characters have and you root for them. The fact one of them is gay and doesn’t necessarily conform to stereotypes is a pretty wild concept for a mainstream film about teenagers. The entire film is filled with diverse types of people. And everyone has a moment to shine including a scene-stealing Billie Lourd as Amy and Molly’s bizarre classmate Gigi who happens to pop up throughout the entire film.

The film is also refreshing because for once, it’s a movie about teenage girls whose plot isn’t driven by their need to be with a boy. There are love interests involved, yes, but that’s not what drives these characters. The film’s script comes from the minds of four genius women: Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman. Their script is zany, emotional, funny, and most of all relatable. Wilde’s direction is gorgeous. One sequence set underwater in a pool is beautifully shot (as is the rest of the film) and it’s when I had an epiphany: that in a perfect world a film like “Booksmart” would be getting serious Oscar attention come the fall.

There’s always one great indie comedy that comes out every summer as perfect counter-programming to the loud, CGI spectacles that usually fill the multiplex. This is that movie. “Booksmart” is fresh and fun and has set a new standard for coming-of-age teen comedies.  GRADE: A

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Snap Out of It: Is There Any Film More Satisfying Than “Avengers: Endgame?”


There has been nothing quite like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and there has never been anything quite like “Avengers: Endgame.” It’s no easy task weaving elements and characters from a series of 21 feature films that connect, overlap, and converge into a three hour mega-finale that is everything you want it to be and more. It’s – dare I say it – a perfect closing saga. Emotionally wrought with elements that have real consequences for whatever comes next. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll have the time of your life. “Avengers: Endgame” is a shockingly compelling finale and has everything to offer those of us who have spent the last ten years getting to know and love these characters.

Is there anything more daunting than reviewing a movie like “Endgame” without talking about what happens in it? I promise not to give anything important away but the best advice I can give you – even at this point in time with the film being in five days of release – that the best thing you can do is go see the film and not read ANYTHING about it. Nada. Zip. The less you know going in the more fun it will all be. To be fair, that’s true for any film but especially for this particularly exciting endeavor. I shall do my best with giving you a bit of set up without really telling you much.

First off, it goes without saying that seeing “Avengers: Infinity War” is a must before seeing “Endgame.” So spoilers for THAT film begin here. You’ll recall that at the end of the previous film evil tyrant Thanos (Josh Brolin) got his huge hands on all six infinity stones, snapped his fingers, and half of the universe’s population turned to dust including several important characters like, oh, Peter Parker, Dr. Strange, Black Panther, etc. It was a shocking and eerie ending and one doozie of a cliffhanger. The remaining Avengers – Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), among others- are left with their grief along with the rest of the world. It’s certainly a dour way to open a big budget blockbuster but this thing has certainly has enough emotion to spare. Tony and Nebula (Karen Gillan) are stuck in space. Of course they’re no better off than Scott Lang who we recall from the end of “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is stuck in the Quantum Realm. So the question is… will the rest of these melancholy heroes be able to find Thanos and somehow reverse the damage he has caused? Isn’t that the question of the day…

Oh you wanna know more? Fat chance. Technical merits are outstanding in the usual Marvel way. The visual effects are top notch. Thanos, as in the previous film, is one of the most impressive CGI characters ever put on screen and Brolin is fantastic as a character who could have easily been one note and boring. All of the performances from this mindbogglingly impressive cast are outstanding. Downey Jr. is particularly moving here. We’ve seen this actor play this role countless times, to the point where you’re almost sick of him. Almost. He is utterly fantastic here. And that’s probably because the writing from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who have written all the “Captain America” films and “Infinity War”) is exceptionally strong for this genre. Sure this is a “comic book movie” but it offers so much more. They are somehow able to juggle dozens and dozens of characters and not shortchange anyone. Alan Silvestri provides another powerful and moving score.

Does anyone really need to read a review of “Avengers: Endgame?” You know whether you’re going to see it. And you probably know whether you’re going to like it. It’s killing me that I can’t mention what 80s film this movie borrows heavily from and is even referenced a few times. But like I said the less you know… This movie was easily one of the most moving, sad, fun, action-packed, anxiety-inducing, cathartic times I’ve ever had at the movies. Big budget entertainment doesn’t get much better than this and this three hour epic goes by in a snap. It comes close to topping “The Winter Soldier.” Almost.  GRADE: A


Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Yawn of Justice: The Forgettable “Shazam!” is a ‘Big’ Disappointment


With so many great superhero movies out there (some might say too many, which is probably right) it seems like there’s room for a stinker here and there. And that would be “Shazam!” Which is a serious disappointment because “Shazam!” is unlike many of the other popular comic book films that have overcrowded the marketplace. It goes against type. I get it. It does its own thing. I get it. It’s about “the hero in all of us.” I get it. It just didn’t work for me. And here’s why.

The film lost me at wizard. My brain can’t compute the notion of wizards. They’re a bit too… magical. Now other comic book films have had fantastical elements and while my eyes and brain tend to glaze over when it comes to that fantasy stuff my brain couldn’t take any of it in “Shazam!” The film starts in the 1970s when a kid riding in the back of his dad’s car is strangely transported to a magical place where an ancient wizard is looking for a new chosen one who is pure of heart. Apparently this kid isn’t it. The film then jumps to present day Philadelphia where a troubled foster kid named Billy (Asher Angel) is looking for his birth mother. He’s place in a new group home with several other kids of varying age and race. He befriends another boy in the home named Freddy (Jack Dylan Glazer from “It”) who is disabled and a superhero enthusiast.

For some reason Billy gets zapped to the ancient realm where that wizard is still looking for the chose one. It’s this kid, and so now when he shouts “Shazam!” he turns into a jacked Zachery Levi with superpowers. At first the film’s colorful, playful tone suggests the story will be a take on “Big” but the “body switch” fun is quickly dropped in favor of superhero antics and a tedious plot about the grown up boy from the film’s opening (now played by Mark Strong) who has been obsessed with figuring out why he wasn’t the chosen one. A bunch of demons, all representing the seven deadly sins figure into his evilness and doesn’t make a lick of sense but here we are. Is it over yet?

Trying to figure out what’s the problem here is what’s bugging me. There’s nothing all that technically wrong with the film. It has decent effects but you can tell it’s a lower budged affair than the usual Marvel or DC fare. The film is certainly more of a comedy but none of the humor really works. The fact that most of the main characters are children makes the film feel slightly kiddie and yet the film has some extremely dark elements including a sequence in which the staff an entire office boardroom is brutally murdered. It’s easy to appreciate the generally lighter tone compared to DC and Warner Bros’ previous efforts. “Aquaman” lightened things up considerably and worked even if it functioned in a standard way. It was colorful, fun, and humorous. It never got bogged down in a serious tone set by “Man of Steel.” “Shazam!” takes place in the same world of those films but feels oddly out of place. If you’re bored you can even count the endless references to Batman and Superman.

Boring. That’s a good word to describe “Shazam!” I never got invested in Billy’s quest to find his mother. I didn’t care about his foster siblings or his foster parents. Maybe the film was poorly cast? The writing isn’t all that amazing either with a pretty dull script from Henry Gayden. Director David F. Sandberg who comes from the horror world with solid efforts “Lights Out” and “Annabelle: Creation” under his belt is sort of out of his element. The humor never congeals with the film’s darker elements and the film just doesn’t look glossy and pretty.

There are a few bits here and there that sort of work – there is something fun that happens in the final act – but the film mostly left my dumbfounded. It just doesn’t work. The jokes weren’t funny, the characters were uninteresting, and the effects weren’t all that impressive. Zachary Levi spends most of the movie just mugging for the camera and it’s awkward and silly. There are comedic superhero movies starring young actors that work - “Spider-Man: Homecoming” comes to mind- and there are lower budgeted irreverent superhero movies that work – let’s say “Kick-Ass” - but “Shazam!” breaks the fundamental rule of cinema – it’s forgettable.  GRADE: C-


Saturday, April 06, 2019

The Secret Afterlife of Pets: Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” Still Works 30 Years Later

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Sometimes it makes bad things seem good. Take, for instance, the 1989 horror flick “Pet Sematary.” It was a modest success at the time when the horror genre was in a bit of turmoil. Slashers were slowly on their way out and no one knew what to do with the genre. Why not visit the Stephen King well again for what the author has described as his scariest book? “Pet Sematary” as a film is fine but it’s not very good.

It certainly doesn’t hold up that much today. Even if the two year old playing Gage is pretty decent considering he’s essentially a baby, the daughter is pretty terrible. The film gets bogged down in boring side plots – who the hell cares about Rachel’s sick sister? The only reason the character scared kids is because she’s played onscreen by a man in horrible makeup. The story of “Pet Sematary” is great, but the final product, for all intents and purposes, is sort of a mess. And it’s not scary – disturbing perhaps – you certainly won’t see a studio film made today with a two year old coming back from the dead killing people with a scalpel. The film was essentially a horror film about grief another recent movie to tackle the difficult subject matter was last year’s Hereditary. And now we get another version of “Pet Sematary” that fixes everything that was slightly wonky about the 1989 version and has a few fun twists up its sleeves.

The new iteration of “Pet Sematary” is pretty similar to the original film for a majority of the time. A couple moves from the busy city to the rural comforts of Maine. There’s Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their young daughter Ellie and baby Gage (Hugo & Lucas Lavoie). Ellie also has a cat named Church. They meet a weird but nice neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) who sort of becomes a father figure to the family.

Things seem to be going ok until Louis begins having weird visions of a college student who was recently hit by a car and killed on the campus he works at. Oh and there happens to be a pet “sematary” in the woods behind the Creed’s house where all the kids in the town bury their dead pets. And there seems to be something slightly evil just beyond the pet sematary. In fact its an ancient burial ground that brings dead things back to life! So when Ellie’s cat gets hit by one of the many speeding tractor trailers that whip down their road, Jud recommends that Louis bury the cat in the place beyond the pet sematary. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you zombie Church. The cat in the original film looked evil before he was killed and zombified. The Church in the new film is precious looking and then is all mangey.

At this point we all know where the story is going but the film plays with your expectations to the film’s – and our- benefit. Screenwriters Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler have fun playing with an audience who they know is seeing the film because they know the original movie. Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer know that too. But they also know how to make this story scarier and fix things that didn’t work in the first film. Rachel’s sister Zelda still figures into the story but is handled in a much better way as are the overall themes of death, grief, and the afterlife. Stephen King has essentially given us a zombie story but told through the point of view of a family dealing with tragedy. That’s why this story still resonates today.

The new Pet Sematary is scary, atmospheric, and not at all the cornball of a movie that the original 1989 film is. Of course that movie was certainly a product of its time and I admire its weirdness. This new film is a bit more straightforward but its a tad less campy and overall better paced. I enjoyed the performances – even if no one can replace Fred Gwynne – and the film’s third act was creepy and extremely fun. Sometimes remakes are better.  GRADE: B


Saturday, March 23, 2019

This is “Us:” Jordan Peele’s Bonkers New Nightmare is an Instant Horror Classic


One this is most definitely true of Jordan Peele’s “Us:” it demands that you see it a second time. And I’m ok with that because it’s completely outstanding; it’s creepy, scary, intense, funny, and, best of all, flat-out insane. The preview for “Us” tells us all we need to know to get us to want to see this bizarre new follow up to his Oscar-winning hit “Get Out:” a family on vacation in their summer home begin to be terrorized by another family who look exactly like them. Sold. And yet there is so much more to “Us” as a film that I almost feel like I underpaid for the fantastic experience of it all. The film is a smart and funny horror flick that has a much bigger scope, fun twists and turns, perfect performances, and has a lot to say about society once you begin to discuss the film afterwards. In fact, I just can’t stop thinking about it. Jordan Peele is a genius.

The film is a reunion of sorts for “Black Panther” supporting actors Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke who play the Tylers, a middle class couple who set out to their vacation lake house with their two kids. We learn through flashbacks that Adaelaide (Nyong’o), as a child, had a traumatic experience in a carnival fun house. She seems to generally gotten over it though she’s a bit overprotective of her daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and especially her younger son Jason (Evan Alex). Her husband Gabe (Duke) is your typical goofy, funny dad who likes to tease and slightly embarrass his kids. Seems like a normal family to me. But all is not what it appears to be on this supposed idyllic summer vacation. There’s definitely something wrong. And later that night a family of four shows up in the driveway – all wearing red jumpsuits and clutching menacing golden scissors – who seem to want one thing: to get in their house. Oh and they literally look just like them (they’re even played by the same actors).

It would criminal to say much more as the fun of it all is determined by how little you actually know going into the film. Peele has crafted a really fun and scary film that’s part home invasion thriller and part – well he mixes lots of genres and inspirations. Essentially a full length bonkers “Twilight Zone” episode, “Get Out” was a modern take on “The Stepford Wives” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” but “Us” doesn’t feel quite as definitive. I felt the influences of lots of films. Everything from “Funny Games” to “Jaws” to “The Birds” and “The People Under the Stairs.” Throw in a bit of zombie movie, David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock, and - once again - a “Twilight Zone” and you get somewhat of what to expect in “Us.” Peele always has a message – his choices in his script and direction are never just coincidence. It was obvious what he had to say in “Get Out.” But with “Us” it’s slightly more challenging and vague and open to interpretation (and, for the record, arguably much scarier). In fact “Us” isn’t just the simple home invasion film that the trailer sets up – this movie will facilitate a post-viewing discussion that could take weeks to unravel. I can’t remember a mainstream film doing that since the controversial “mother!” but that film was far less digestible.

Peele is a master filmmaker, even at only two feature films into his career. His movie is so well crafted you’d think it was a veteran filmmaker 30 years into his career. Technical merits are solid. The film’s visuals are beautiful and telling – an overheard shot of the family as they make their way across the sandy beach with the sunlight casting large black shadows is one of the most seemingly innocuous but menacing shots of foreshadowing in quite some time. The music score from composer Michael Abels is just as menacing and simply outstanding. The film’s third act is simply bonkers and a complete showcase for the wonderful and Oscar-worthy Nyong’o who kills it in two terrific performances. Also great in a supporting role is Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss as the Tyler’s friend also on vacation with her family

Do me a favor? Go see the film, laugh and scream, and then talk about with those you saw it with. Talk to the woman sitting in front of you who seems confused. Facilitate discussion. I don’t think there’s exactly a wrong or right way to interpret Peele’s film. He has a lot to say about class, race, and American society in general. The movie’s trailer insists we are our own worst enemy and I think that’s a great jumping off point. God I can’t wait to see this again.  GRADE: A

Friday, March 08, 2019

The Marvelous Ms. Danvers: “Captain Marvel” is a Solid and Overdue Addition to the MCU


There’s been plenty of great female characters in the twenty Marvel films that have preceded “Captain Marvel.” But none of them have headlined their own film. There’s no reason twenty films in, there has not been a Marvel film centered around a female protagonist. Why is this such a big deal? Well it wouldn’t be if they had made a female centered superhero film years ago. Audiences have waited a long time for Captain Marvel to show up and she’s in glorious form. “Captain Marvel” is definitely one of the most flat-out fun films in the MCU; sure it may not carry the emotional weight of the years preceding “Infinity War” but it stands fine on its own two feet, featuring fantastic visuals, an interesting story, a fun nostalgia streak, and likable characters. This is definitely solid mid-tier Marvel. And it even features one of cinema’s cutest cats.

“Captain Marvel” is sort of “Guardians of the Galaxy” lite. The film is set in the same general universe as that film and even has some crossover characters and races of people. We’re introduced to Brie Larson’s character as Vers who is a Kree and suffers from weird visions that feature Annette Bening. Who wouldn’t want to have weird visions of Annette Bening?? After a mission involving infiltrating the evil shape-shifting Krulls goes awry Vers crash lands on Earth. In Los Angeles. In a Blockbuster. Did I mention the film takes place in 1995? There she meets young versions of SHIELD agents Samuel L. Jackon’s Nicky Fury and Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson. There, she must help fight off some invading Skrulls and figure out what’s the deal with her bizarre memories and the fact that she may in fact be a former US Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers.

The film could have easily gone down the “fish out of water” plot hole but that was done in “Thor” and even DC’s “Wonder Woman.” The film instead centers around a mystery involving our fantastic lead with welcomed bits of comedy. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck – who come from the indie world of films like “Half Nelson” – imbue the film with a wonderful intimacy and also 90s nostalgia much in the way “Guardians” was an ode to the 80s. Conceiving the film as a prequel to the other Marvel films also gives the filmmakers the freedom to do their own thing while also eventually connecting the film to the rest of the MCU, much in the same way “Captain America: The First Avenger” was essentially all a setup for “The Avengers.”

Technical merits are top-notch. The visual effects are fantastic. The music score from composer Pinar Toprak is solid if not particularly memorable like most of the Marvel films (she’s also the first female composer in the MCU). Nothing has really come close to the “Ant-Man” theme and Black Panther’s Oscar-winning music. All of the performances are great. Brie is likable in the title role and she really kicks ass even if her performance is a tad understated. Her mysterious story works pretty well and thankfully doesn’t need to include a love interest. Jude Law is good as Vers’ commander/mentor, even if he does too much mansplaning. And how fun is it to see someone like Bening in this? At this point it feels like if you haven’t done a Marvel film are you really even an actor? I previously mentioned the film introduces a cute kitty and that darned cat pretty much steals the movie.

There’s not much to complain about in “Captain Marvel.” Maybe it a take a little time to really get going but the film is just as exciting, the action is just as well-done (including a great sequence on an elevated train), and the characters as just as well drawn as any other solid Marvel film. Is it the best? Of course not. The film isn’t nearly as unique at some of the other entries but Marvel’s overdue take on a feminist storyline is quite good and I can’t wait to see what Brie has up her sleeve in the next Avengers film.  GRADE: B+