Friday, October 19, 2018

Movie Review: “Halloween”


***** out of 5
106 minutes
Rated R for horror violence and bloody images, language, brief drug use and nudity
Universal Pictures 

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As unkillable as Michael Myers is, so is the Halloween franchise. Launching with John Carpenter’s 1978 classic, the past 40 years have been hit-and-miss as Michael has lumbered his way through sequels and remakes. With the announcement of co-writer/director David Gordon Green getting the greenlight to make a new direct sequel to the first film — with both Carpenter’s and Jamie Lee Curtis’s blessings — producer Jason Blum has brought Michael back for another game of cat-and-mouse with our beloved Laurie Strode (Curtis) in Halloween.

Forty years after Laurie’s fateful night with Michael, true-crime podcasters Aaron Korey (Jefferson Hall) and Dana Haines (Rhian Rees) arrive at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium to interview Michael with hopes of recording a sit down between him and Laurie. Michael is about to be transferred to a new facility and just wouldn’t you know it, the bus wrecks and he’s back on the prowl for Laurie. Cutting another deadly path through Haddonfield, Laurie and Sheriff Frank Hawkins (Will Patton) — first responder in the original Myers case — are hot on his heels. Laurie is on a mission to kill Michael once and for all and keep her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) safe.

It’s been a long road to a new Halloween: nine years since Rob Zombie’s atrocious Halloween 2 and 16 years since Resurrection. Green and his co-writers (Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley) do a fabulous job of keeping this sequel from entering remake territory. It may be full of nods, reversals, and references to the entire franchise, yet manage to make a film that stands on its own. Curtis is fantastic in updating Laurie as an over-prepared badass and never slips into pity me lunacy. They could have easily lead Laurie down the troupe of secluded cat-lady, but instead took the empowered approach.

The rest of the cast perform admirably as well and all get a chance to shine. Matichak makes for a great Laurie for a new generation, Patton gets to fill in for Sheriff Brackett, while Greer manages to nearly steal the whole movie. The young Jibrail Nantambu as Julian — the youngster being babysat by Allyson’s best friend Vicky (Virginia Gardner) — gives her a run for her money. Green and McBride have huge respect for Carpenter’s film and it oozes from every frame. Having Carpenter co-write the score only adds to the nostalgia. Gory, intense, brutal, occasionally hilarious, and offering multigenerational appeal, this is the Halloween sequel we’ve been waiting for.

Movie Review: “First Man”

First Man

***** out of 5
141 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language
Universal Pictures

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While the geek in me loves movies which take place in space, even more so I love films about space. There’s just something more grandiose about them — maybe it’s the vast, terrifying, emptiness. So when I heard Damien Chazelle was making a biopic about Neil Armstrong, I got very excited. Chazelle may have blasted into spotlight with La La Land — although I prefer Whiplash — he’s one of the best new directors working today. Working with Ryan Gosling again — as Armstrong — I was hoping this would be more Whiplash-Chazelle than LLL, and it winds up being a mix of both. Taking a more emotional approach than some may appreciate, First Man is fantastic from start to finish.

Starting in 1961, we make our way through the years to 1969, as Armstrong goes from the Gemini project to Apollo 11 where Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon. Plunging us into the emotional core of the film, the beginning focuses on Armstrong mourning the death of his almost 3-year-old daughter, Karen (Lucy Stafford). Humble and determined, Neil makes his way through the space program while his wife Janet (Claire Foy) tries to make peace with the fact her husband may never get over Karen’s passing.

For those expecting First Man to be a glorious adventure into the unknown, it is. However, Chazelle — and screenwriter Josh Singer, adapting James R. Hansen’s book — takes a humanistic approach. Gosling is always fun as the snarky, charismatic charmer, but he’s incredible as Armstrong providing the internist turmoil only a parent could understand. With my own daughter’s birthday just a week ago, it’s a good thing the film didn’t the detail of Karen dying on Neil and Janet’s sixth wedding anniversary. It already made me tear up once, that would have just made it even worse. Let alone Chazelle suckerpunches you at the end again as Armstrong stands before the East Crater.

First Man is every bit deserving of the buzz it’s created already and will be up for some major awards come Oscar time. Chazelle has crafted a heart-wrenching tribute to an American hero that begs to be seen on the biggest screen possible. With a few sequences shot in IMAX — something tells me it’s at least the space scenes — this is one of the best biopics to have come out over the last few years, and it’s absolutely Chazelle’s best film yet. He continues to outdo himself and I will always be watching to see what he’s got up his sleeve next.

Movie Review: “Bad Times at the El Royale”

Bad Times at the El Royale

** 1/2 out of 5
141 minutes
Rated R for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity
20th Century Fox

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In Drew Goddard I trust — now with reservation. While I can’t hold Bad Times at the El Royale against the rest of his work — Cloverfield, Cabin in the Woods, The Martian, and his TV shows — he sure does seem to need a guiding hand. Regularly working under the tutelage of J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost) and Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel), Bad Times may feature some of the sharp writing we’ve come to love, but it’s an overkill in indulgence winding up as a neo-noir that’s neither as mysterious, nor exciting as it should be.

In 1959, Felix O’Kelly (Nick Offerman) has come to Lake Tahoe’s El Royale to bury a bag of money under the floorboards and is then shot dead. Ten years later, priest Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) shows up just as backup singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) pulls in for a room of her own.

They soon meet their fellow patrons in the lobby — fast-talking salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) and the mysterious Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), along with the El Royale’s sole employee, Miles Miller (Lewis “Son of Bill” Pullman). Soon enough, everyone has a story to tell, and a secret to hide, as fate comes calling in the form of Emily’s sister Rose (Cailee Spaeny), and Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), the leader of the cult Emily stole Rose back from.

Try as Goddard might, he manages to hold your attention for a good hour and a half. Problem is, the film runs 141 minutes. By the time the pieces start coming together you’re already super bored. And there’s still a whole hour to go! The film makes very little sense and the characters Goddard settles on as his protagonists gets in the way of caring about a resolution. Some may say the film is packed with twists and turns, but random events have no consequence, nor further the plot. There’s no rhyme or reason for anything happening at the El Royale.

The film has a fantastic soundtrack packed full of fun late ’60s/early ’70s tunes, and the hotel itself makes for a great set, it’s just too bad you never care what happens to anyone, let alone the script make a lick of sense anyway. Goddard may have been nominated for his fantastic adaptation of The Martian — and he gets far more mileage out of working alongside his better cohorts — so it pains to see him fail so wildly here. Skip the movie and download the soundtrack instead.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Movie Review: “A Star Is Born”

A Star Is Born

***** out of 5
135 minutes
Rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse
Warner Bros. Pictures

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I can’t help but think somewhere online there’s a war raging over whether Lady Gaga is underrated vs. overrated. Leave it to the most unlikely source – co-writer/director/producer/star Bradley Cooper – to put everyone in their place with A Star Is Born. Regardless of how you felt toward Lady Gaga before seeing the film, you’ll walk out with a whole new level of respect. She is the real deal, and you could say a star is reborn. Featuring outstanding performances, music, and the best on-screen romance in years, it’s going to take something big to take this one down come award season.

Jack (Cooper) is a southern-rock singer who keeps his pill and alcohol addiction a secret. Truth is, he’s got a bad case of tinnitus and uses it as a way to drown out the noise. One night, while driving around after a show, Jack winds up at a drag bar where he’s instantly smitten with Ally (Gaga) after a breathtaking rendition of “La Vie en Rose.” The two wind up icing Ally’s hand in the parking lot of a grocery store after she punches a cop in the face. Now, Jack is determined to make her the star she deserves to be. But the two are about to find out just how hard love can be while dealing with addiction and a heavy case of jealousy.

With A Star Is Born, Cooper has delivered a true musical masterpiece from start to finish. The real star of the film is the music. Cooper and Gaga reached out to Lukas (son of Willie) Nelson to help write the songs and they’re all as phenomenal as the performances. Using live performances, Cooper and Gaga light the screen up. Never taking a wrong turn, you love these characters through-and-through. This may be the fourth film version, but it loses none of its power. Raw, real, and emotional, this is the kind of film a thesaurus lives for. If Gaga, Cooper, and the film itself aren’t nominated come Oscar time, it’ll be a travesty. Even Sam Elliott — as Jack’s older brother/manager — is fantastic. This is don’t miss entertainment of the first order, and even though the soundtrack is available to tide me over, this is one I am dying to see again!

Movie Review: “Venom”


** out of 5
112 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for language
Sony Pictures

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When it comes to Marvel movies, there’s the MCU, Fox’s X-Men, and then Sony’s Spider-Man universes. Venom has been a long time coming, and no matter how much Tom Hardy and Sony want to kick off a Sinister Six spinoff, they need to stick to what they’re good at. And it’s not villains. There hasn’t been a single great Spider-Man villain since Doc Ock in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.

Antiheroes can be a lot of fun when you have a character you can root for. But when your film feels like it was written by a group of 5 year olds, and the visual effects get worse as the film lurches to the finish line, audiences’ spidey senses will be tingling within 10 minutes that director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less, Gangster Squad) has officially derailed all hope.

Eddie Brock (Hardy) is a street journalist searching for all things true. His fiancĂ©e Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) hopes he can contain himself when he sets his sights on Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). Anne is a lawyer whose firm is representing Drake’s Life Foundation and sets up an interview with Drake for Eddie. And just wouldn’t you know it, Drake doesn’t like Eddie nosing about, especially with rumors revolving around numerous deaths linked to his organization.

Turns out, four symbiotic lifeforms were brought back from outer space where Drake is searching for new habitable worlds, but one goes missing — “Venom” — and winds up attaching itself to Eddie. Now, Eddie must find out the truth behind the Life Foundation and stop Drake’s plans to host an attack on Earth after bonding with another symbiote named “Riot.”

If you’ve ever wondered what it would look like if you asked your kid to adapt a comic book into a movie, look no further. Full of some of the most atrocious dialogue of the year — and the most boring action scenes — Venom is cinematic poison. Barely making a lick of sense, it’s a wonder the film is as long as it is. The scary part is that there’s an unrated version on the horizon. No amount of blood and guts could save Venom from what screenwriters Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel have wrought.

Hardy is completely wasted and never looks like he’s having any amount of fun as he gets to pummel bad guys and crash through trees with superhuman strength in slow motion. Williams is relegated to the token love interest role, the only saving grace being at least Anne is never used as the ol’ damsel in distress. Ahmed barely registers as a regular character, let alone a villain.

The required Stan Lee cameo comes attached, along with an end credits stinger. There are technically two, but the second one is literally an action sequence from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse which looks a million times more fun than any second of Venom. Fleischer has made his worst film yet and Sony has let the opportunity for spin-offs crash and burn with a single film.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Movie Review: “The House with a Clock in Its Walls”

The House with a Clock in Its Walls

** 1/2 out of 5
104 minutes
Rated PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and language
Universal Pictures

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Amblin and doomsday clocks and warlocks, oh my. The House with a Clock in Its Walls sounds like a perfect fit for Amblin Entertainment on paper. After reading through the Wikipedia synopsis of John Bellairs’s 1973 children’s book, you can’t fault screenwriter Eric Kripke. It seems to follow the first book in the Lewis Barnavelt series to a T.  While all the boxes are ticked, there’s something that doesn’t quite tock.

It’s 1955 in New Zebedee, Michigan. Ten year old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vacarro) has been orphaned and sent to live with his estranged warlock uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black). Quickly, Lewis senses there’s something off within Jonathan’s house. Turns out, the original owner, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) and his wife Selena (Renee Elise Goldsberry) died in the house. But not before Isaac hid a doomsday clock within its walls and now, only Lewis, Jonathan, and their eccentric witch neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) must beat the clock with Isaac hot on their tails after Lewis brings him back from the dead using a spell to impress his friend Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic).

Roth keeps touting that his one piece of advice from Steven Spielberg was to make it scary, but it never is. He’s clearly working way outside his comfort zone. This is the man who created the Hostel franchise after all. It’s also never as funny as it thinks it is either. Black does what he can, but he’s always just playing himself, something that’s been wearing thin for years. Vaccaro tries to be the next Jacob Tremblay, but has a long way to go. One minute he’s charming, the next he’s whiney. And he could really use some coaching on his cry face.

The best part of the movie — which should be the house itself — is Blanchett. She commands the screen and keeps Black on his toes as a pair of bickering neighbors whose platonic friendship revels in verbal sparring.  Unfortunately, for a movie filled with magic, that’s what it’s missing the most. Roth tries to keep the film chugging along, but it never awakens your inner child. Considering I still watch old school Amblin films on a regular basis, there’s a lot to live up to when your Universal logo is out of the ’80s followed by Elliot and E.T. flying onscreen, and it rarely does.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls does what it can and ticks along to the finish line — thankfully, MacLachlan makes for a decent enough villain. But it never manages to find its footing and go full steam ahead. Kids will get a bigger kick out of it than their parents — which is the whole point of course — but that’s what makes all the difference. There are kids films, and there are family films. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is the former. Kids may enjoy it, but the adults will be left saying, “well at least it didn’t suck.”

Friday, September 14, 2018

Movie Review: “A Simple Favor”

A Simple Favor

***** out of 5
117 minutes
Rated R for sexual content and language throughout, some graphic nude images, drug use and violence

Article first published at
Spoiler ahead.

Try as they might, I wasn’t buying Lionsgate’s marketing for A Simple Favor. Advertised as “from the dark side of Paul Feig,” something just didn’t add up. From the way it’s filmed — combined with being from the director of Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy, and Ghostbusters — I wasn’t buying it as a straight thriller. And it absolutely is not.

Feig — and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer — give Darcey Bell’s novel the Spy treatment and all for the better. While masquerading as a thriller, it’s a comedy through-and-through. After the box office/Academy Award-nominated success of Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train killed the subgenre a swift death. But Feig has dug it up and hilariously turned it on its bloated, cold-hearted head.

Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is a widowed mommy vlogger who has just become BFFs with the most mysterious mom at her son Miles’s (Joshua Satine) school: Emily (Blake Lively). Stephanie quickly learns there may be more to Emily than it seems. Stephanie always gets stuck watching Emily’s son Nicky (Ian Ho) and working late in spite of Emily’s steamy marriage to Sean (Henry Golding).

It isn’t long before Emily winds up dead, Stephanie and Sean become the prime suspects, and Nicky starts seeing his mom around the playground. Is Stephanie going crazy? Did Sean kill Emily over a $4 million life insurance policy? How do you make the perfect martini? All this and more are answered as love, loyalty, and revenge are put to the ultimate test.

When you look at Feig’s last four films, this is his most polished yet. Feig knows funny better than anyone, but he also knows when to slow down and take some time to get serious — something most comedies fail to remember. For the mystery, twists, and laughs to work, you have to be rooting for someone. Stephanie is a pitch perfect Nancy Drew.

The best way to describe the humor is to think of how Feig made Spy as a pretty straight spy movie with a slathering of jokes. And A Simple Favor is no different. I’ve heard it’s pretty different from Bell’s novel, and all for the better. The heightened sense of reality plays like the funniest big budget Lifetime version of Gone Girl you could hope for. Lively has come a long way from her Gossip Girl days and it’s clear she’s learned a thing or two from her hubby (Ryan Reynolds) when it comes to spewing hilariously filthy one-liners.

Marketing aside, do yourself a favor and make A Simple Favor your only plans this weekend.