Friday, September 22, 2017

Movie Review: “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

**** out of 5
141 minutes
Rated R for sequences of strong violence, drug content, language throughout and some sexual material
20th Century Fox

Article first published at

Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service was a huge breath of fresh air for the spy genre. Which says a lot in a year that had a pretty good run for spy films. From Kingsman to Spy to Spectre, 2015 was a lot of fun. So, how does Vaughn’s sequel The Golden Circle stack up? While it may still be every bit as fun as the first, it does have a tendency to get caught up in some instances of sequelitis. With co-writer Jane Goldman returning — along with the main cast who didn’t die in the first one — The Golden Circle returns our beloved Kingsman to the big screen with gusto. Hopefully, with Vaughn’s announced trilogy — and spinoffs — we can let this one’s shortcomings slide as a case of middle-child syndrome.

Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is loving his life as a Kingsman. Saving the day suits him far better than trying to rue the day, even if he’s still trying to get over the death of his mentor Harry Hart (Colin Firth). After a run in with Kingsman-reject Charlie (Edward Holcroft) and his new robo-arm, Eggsy is trying to do the one thing Harry never could: have a relationship with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom). Soon enough, Poppy (Julianne Moore), a maniacal drug cartel entrepreneur — the titular “Golden Circle” — blows up Eggsy’s flat, along with the Kingsman compound.

Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) are all that’s left and initiate the Doomsday Protocol, taking them to Kentucky, where they meet their cousin affiliates, the Statesman. Now, Eggsy and Merlin must get over some heavy trust issues and join forces with their new partners — Tequila (Channing Tatum), Ginger (Halle Berry), Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), and their leader, Champ (Jeff Bridges) — to save the world again after Poppy uses her drug running to kidnap Elton John (hilariously playing himself) and prepares to unleash her “Blue Rash” toxin across the world. Something the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) plans to use in his own personal war on drugs to wipe out the “criminal” population of the world.

If there’s one thing Vaughn revels in, it’s aspiration. Poppy may sound like just another villain, but Moore relishes playing against type as the antagonist. She brings a glee to Poppy’s plotting that keeps her just this side of unhinged, making her a pretty scary foil. In an early scene, we find out that to enter Poppy’s golden circle of trust, she makes new recruit Angel (Tom Benedict Knight) kill another member and eat him as a big juicy burger.

If there’s one thing Vaughn needed, it’s an editor. Clocking in at whopping 141 minutes, the film can barely sustain the runtime. A few snips could have slimmed down the shenanigans — as fun as they are — to make the film even faster paced than it is. It also suffers from Lord of the Rings syndrome with plenty of false endings and too many climaxes. Just when you think the movie is reaching the end credits it takes off on another denouement. But it’s all in good fun mind you. The cast are all perfect, even if Tatum exercises his use as yet another episode of stunt casting. Hateful Eight anyone? And Berry never gets a chance to step up and earn her rightful place amongst her fellow Statesman. Something even more glaring considering poor Roxy (Sophie Cookson) gets taken out in the Kingsman estate explosion.

However, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a whole load of fun and offers glimpses of Vaughn unchained, for both better and worse. While I have loved every single film he’s made — Layer Cake, Stardust, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, and the first Kingsman — it feels as if 20th Century Fox is maybe granting him a little too much freedom. But I definitely don’t want to see him hand off the reins to anyone else. He knows what makes his Kingsman films work, and just because The Golden Circle may feel a little long in the tooth, it’s still a cool movie, and one of the most fun playing right now. With such a horrible summer behind us, it’s nice to be able to enjoy heading back to the theater.

Blu-ray Review: “The Mummy”

With cinematic universes all the rage in Hollywood, it was only a matter of time before Universal would come calling with their classic monsters. After sputtering out of the gate back in 2014 with Dracula Untold, they set to work on figuring out a way to make it happen. Unfortunately, they’re still trying to figure it out even though they already have a slew of A-list stars attached to unannounced projects. With Dracula behind them, they set their sights on another heavily branded property, cast Tom Cruise to lead the way, and The Mummy came flopping out of the gate.

Burdened with scathing reviews — not from this guy mind you — this Mummy is everything we liked about the Brendan Fraser/Stephen Sommers film: big, dumb, fun. I’m honestly not sure if Cruise will be returning, but he’s having every bit as much fun here as he is in any of the Mission: Impossible films. It’s a shame it didn’t find a larger audience because it really is a lot of fun if you turn your brain off for a couple hours. And sometimes that’s more than enough to make up for being a little below average on the story scale. With Russell Crowe and Atomic Blonde/Kingsman’s Sofia Boutella tagging along for the ride, The Mummy may be able to find a second coming on home video with Universal releasing it on Blu-ray in a BD/DVD/Digital combo pack September 12.

In present day, Henry Jekyll (Crowe) has discovered an ancient tomb beneath the streets of London. In Iraq, soldier-of-fortune Nick Morton (Cruise) discovers an ancient Egyptian tomb housing Ahmanet (Boutella) — an Egyptian princess mummified after killing her father for birthing a son, forfeiting her heritage as ruler — after his sidekick Chris (Jake Johnson) calls in an airstrike. Meanwhile, Jekyll’s assistant Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) uses Nick to transport Ahmanet back to London where Jekyll has ulterior motives for her arrival. But just wouldn’t you know it, Ahmanet turns Chris into a cursed zombie only Nick can see, and now Nick and Jenny must find a way to stop Ahmanet from turning the world into her personal ancient sandbox.

Universal unwraps The Mummy on Blu-ray framed in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio housed on a 50GB disc. It’s becoming very interesting to see the difference between films shot on film versus digitally when upsampled from 1080p on a 75” 4K TV. 35mm has a more filmic texture to it, however, some of the sharpness takes a tiny hit. Detail isn’t quite as outstanding through most of the film as it probably is on the 4K disc, which is ironic considering that in HD, the film’s CGI looks better than it did in theaters. Blacks are slightly brighter than they should be, but considering the amount of scenes taking place at night or below the surface, it helps to make sure shadow detail is top notch. That being said, crush is never a problem. Aliasing and banding are absent, colors are natural if on the desaturated side a lot of the runtime. That is at least whenever they’re, again, either inside a building or down below. Whenever it’s daytime or a scorching desert scene, contrast runs on the hot side, but it’s supposed to. It’s hot!

The Dolby Atmos mix (downsampled to 7.1 Dolby TrueHD for those of us unequipped) is the typical blockbuster showcase of aural assault. That is, when characters aren’t chit chatting. But surrounds make sure to engage during the loud action scenes with the music and sound effects never drown out the dialogue. Directionality is spot on with bullets, flying glass, and blowing sand enveloping the room on cue. In a surprise move for Universal, the only two additional soundtracks are Spanish and French 5.1 DTS tracks. Subtitles are also limited to English SDH, French, and Spanish.

Universal tries to give audiences more bang for their buck in the special features department. Touting “Over an hour of behind-the-scenes action” on a sticker across the slipcover, it starts to feel like a bit of a chore to sit through. A few are more fun than others. An “Audio Commentary” kicks things off featuring Director/Producer Alex Kurtzman joined by Boutella, Wallis, and Johnson. This is your typical audio commentary if ever there was, but Johnson is always fun to just kick back and listen to talk about anything. The two best featurettes are “Life in Zero G: Creating the Plane Crash” (7:32) and “Cruise in Action” (6:09). “Zero G” takes us aboard the “Vomit Comet” and shows us how they pulled off yet another crazy Cruise stunt idea with “Action” elaborating on that and showing the cast doing a lot of their own stunts alongside Cruise.

Considering how long the rest of the special features are, it surprised me to find only four “Deleted and Extended Scenes.” Included are “Beautiful, Cunning, and Ruthless” (1:44), “Your Friend is Alive” (0:55), “Sand In My Mouth” (1:03), and “She’s Escaped” (1:14); needless to say, none of them add anything had they been included. “Cruise and Kurtzman: A Conversation” (21:15) is the director and star sitting around patting each other on the back while they wax nostalgic about their big plans to modernize the franchise while being a launchpad to an extended universe. “Rooted in Reality” (6:52) extends this conversation as the cast and crew, yet again, discuss how the film was modernized.

“Meet Ahmanet” (7:39) is a nice feature dedicated to Boutella, with special mention of her body double, contortionist Claudia Hughes. “Becoming Jekyll and Hyde” (7:10) could have been subtitled “Everyone Loves Russell Crowe” as everyone talks about how awesome it was to work with him and to watch him go up against Cruise. “Choreographed Chaos” (6:35) quickly glosses over the effects/stunt work of Ahmanet’s climatic glass/sandstorm and “Nick Morton: In Search of a Soul” (5:43) covers the never-ending internal battle of good versus evil as Nick finds a way to come to terms with the end of the film. “Ahmanet Reborn” (3:52) closes things out and is an animated graphic novel covering Ahmanet’s story.

Plain and simple, The Mummy never tries to break down walls or reinvent the wheel. It’s a standard Cruise vehicle filled with lots of action scenes and fun characters you don’t mind following around for a couple hours. It’s way more fun than it has any right to be — Johnson in particular is hilarious coupled alongside Cruise, hopefully a sequel can focus more on their relationship if we happen to get one — and is way better than its reputation. It arrived with critics hating it — myself not included — and wound up being a pretty big box office flop. However, for those willing to kick back and have some fun, The Mummy features pretty great video, fantastic audio, and enough special features to choke a camel. It may not be the best film of the year, or even the most fun, but The Mummy is far from a waste of time and there’s plenty to enjoy in the safety of your own home where no one can say they saw you at a showing and have to hide your shame from being seen at one of the year’s biggest flops.

Article first published on Blogcritics.

Blu-ray Review: “Bluebeard”

The best mind bending movies all have one thing in common, the twist was worth the trip. There is some allowance along the way if a few things don’t quite add up, but as long as the final twist manages to satisfy, most can be forgiven. Memento, Mulholland Drive, Seven, and The Usual Suspects are some of the greats. And there’s thankfully more than enough classics to make up for the rest of the blips on the radar. In the case of Well Go USA’s recent release, Bluebeard, it’s even a far cry from the likes of A Tale of Two Sisters or Mother. It starts to lead up to what could have been a fun denouement, but ultimately you just don’t care as it heaps one twist on top of another until it’s buried in repetition.

Dr. Seung-hoon (Jin-woong Jo) is a proctologist up to his elbows in patients. Among them are his landlord’s father (Goo Shin) who is being taken care of by his son and daughter-in-law Sung-geun (Dae-Myung Kim) and Mi-yeon (Chung-ah Lee). One day, Sung-geun brings in his father who confesses to murder while under sedation. While Seung-hoon knows patients say some pretty odd things, his suspicions turn to realization after a decapitated body is found in the river and Seung-hoon becomes convinced there’s a head in a plastic bag in Sung-geun’s butcher shop below his apartment. Now, Seung-hoon must figure out if his landlords are serial killers, something his neck of the woods used to be synonymous for.

Well Go USA chops Bluebeard onto a 25GB disc with no special features. That being said, it still leaves plenty of disc room for a less than two hour run-time and a DTS:X track to breathe. With a healthy digital shine, the film looks fantastic. Detail is razor sharp with no aliasing to speak of. With such a dreary and cold color palette, colors are still natural enough with blood and raw meat looking nice and red. Crush is never an issue with blacks solid leaving visible shadow detail. Banding appears in just a few blink-and-you’ll-miss them instances.

The DTS:X track — downsampled to 7.1 DTS-HD for those without the extra speakers — is also as subdued as the cinematography. Another case of overkill as the film is extremely dialogue heavy making the audio track excessive and unnecessary. Not even most big budget action films are getting DTS:X or Dolby Atmos mixes on Blu-ray so there’s absolutely no need for it with a slow-paced murder mystery. A 2.0 Korean Dolby Digital track is also included, along with English-only subtitles.

Bluebeard is not the kind of movie you’ll want to watch again the second it’s over to fill in the pieces. Everything makes enough sense — whether you like it or not — by the last frame.  Unfortunately, it’s really not even worth the first viewing. Plodding and overly plotted, writer/director Lee Soo-youn leaves nothing to the imagination by the time the credits roll so even if you decide to watch it once, you’ll never watch it again. If it shows up in your Netflix recommendations it could be worth considering. It fails miserably at trying to be the next great mind trip with an ending that leaves you thinking, that was it?

Article first published on Blogcritics.

Blu-ray Review: “Iron Protector”

It feels like every few years someone comes along trying to be the next Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, or even Donnie Yen. And try as they might, they usually cough up a few watchable titles before fading back into obscurity. While Stephen Chow is undoubtedly the best of the bunch, we’ve also tread through the likes of Tony Jaa. And now here comes the triple threat of Yue Song (writer/director/star) taking aim at modern audiences with Iron Protector (aka The Bodyguard in most markets), but Song has a long way to go. Even while trying something at least sorta new with a superhero/kung fu mixture, it never knows what tone it wants to settle on, leaving your interest behind in the dust.

Wu-Lin (Song) has just been duped by a mugging of a man who is actually part of a cult of protectors, err, bodyguards. Working for Mr. Li is Jiang Li (Xing Yu, aka Shi Yanneng) who also happens to be Wu-Lin’s brother. Wu-Lin is the successor of the ancient “Iron Feet” clan so he is assigned to protect Fei-Fei (Li Yufei), daughter to the richest family in the city. Now, Wu-Lin and Jiang Li are pitted against each other when Fei-Fei is finally abducted and they must face their sibling rivalry head on.

Well Go USA offers up its typical fantastic video/audio presentations on yet another 25GB disc. It’s a good thing the film comes with scant extras and a simple — if not occasionally engaging — audio mix. Colors are bright with contrast running high, yet there’s no bleeding or blooming. Blacks are spot on with no crush. Aliasing is absent even if the dreaded banding rears its ugly in a few instances. Detail is as razor sharp as expected from a WGU release. The 5.1 Mandarin DTS-HD Master Audio leaves a lot to be desired throughout the first half of the film. Thankfully, as the action scenes ramp up the surrounds finally kick in. The first half is a rather front heavy affair. But at least it finally delivers when it needs to. A 2.0 Mandarin Stereo track is also available with English subtitles.

As for those scant special features, the film’s trailer (1:04) is included, along with three behind-the-scenes featurettes. “The Chase” (1:43) is a fun look at an elongated foot chase involving a van. This one was more interesting as they quickly talk about how they had no stunt drive and simply found someone daring enough to drive for them to pull it off. “The Final Battle” (3:11) is an interesting look at how the finale came together through practical effects, CGI, and lots of wire-work. There were plenty of accidents and injuries on set, something also shown off during “Training, Stunts, and Fighting Highlights” (3:26). This feature would have been better if we hadn’t already seen it play out during the end credits. However, it is a nice throwback to the Jackie Chan era when his films used to show on-set incidents for anyone daring enough to question his prowess.

Iron Protector comes from a long line of bodyguard sub-genre films and never really tries to push things more than what’s come before. But it does have a sense of humor running through it that helps keep the action moving along. It does start to feel rather long and I honestly thought it was almost over when the finale commences, but when I checked the run-time, there was still a whopping 30 minutes left. Song at least delivers where it counts and there’s a few action scenes that are pretty impressive for being such a new director. With time, Song may not be able to fill the shoes of those who came before, but at least we can see he’s having a good time trying to at least stand alongside the greats, even when falling short. Featuring great A/V while being lax on extras, Iron Protector may not be a new classic, but at least you won’t be mad at yourself for wasting 90 minutes on it either. At least a rental could be recommended, but with how fast WGU discs wind up on Netflix, you could always just wait and give it a whirl once that time comes.

Article first published on Blogcritics.

Movie Review: “The LEGO Ninjago Movie”

The LEGO Ninjago Movie

***** out of 5
101 minutes
Rated PG for some mild action and rude humor
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at

It appears as though the year belongs to Warner Bros. — so far. After knocking it out of the park with one of the year’s funniest, and still best, films with The LEGO Batman Movie, here they are again with The LEGO Ninjago Movie. I was worried that maybe it would be a case of too much too soon, but Ninjago is every bit as hilarious, whimsical, and heartfelt as both Batman and the original LEGO Movie that started it all. Keeping the action and hilarity moving at as brisk pace as possible. It’s filled with spectacular animation and instantly loveable characters. Just about the only film that could possibly better it may be November’s Coco from Pixar/Disney.

Starting with a tiny bit of live-action — hopefully not squandering its chances at a Best Animated Feature nomination — a Kid (Kaan Guldur) happens upon Mr. Liu’s (Jackie Chan) curiosity shop. Soon enough, Mr. Liu begins telling the Kid the story of Ninjago where the city is constantly under attack by the diabolical Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux). Unfortunately, for Garmadon, six Ninjas — Lloyd (voiced by Dave Franco), Cole (voiced by Fred Armisen), Jay (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), Kai (voiced by Michael Peña), Nya (voiced by Abbi Jacobson), and the cyborg Zane (voiced by Zach Woods), lead by Master Wu (voiced by Chan) — always manage to foil his evil plans. What Garmadon doesn’t know, is that Lloyd is his son, abandoned to his mother Koko (voiced by Olivia Munn), 16 years ago. Just when the group thinks they finally have everything under control, Lloyd manages to unleash Meowthra upon his beloved city. Now, everyone must find a way to save Ninjago by finding the “Ultimate Ultimate Weapon” on an age old journey of self discovery.

Funny? Check. Action? Check. Heart? Check. Daddy issues? Triple check. Yes, as with The LEGO/Batman movies, Lloyd is forced to come to terms with who his father is and find a way to balance his resentment so the two can work together. Lucky for us, directors/co-writers Charlie Bean and Paul Fisher — along with their four additional screenwriters William Wheeler, Tom Wheeler, Jared Stern, and John Whittington — and co-director Bob Logan, present a giant sandbox for themselves to play in. Being based on a TV show was also a hurdle it needed to overcome and boy does it deliver. Filled to the brim with enough jokes and classic kung fu film references to choke a dragon, Ninjago will have audiences drying their eyes from laughing one minute while stifling tears the next.

The cast clearly loves being part of this movie and Ninjago deserves to be every bit as big a hit as both of the other two LEGO movies. Warner Bros. has their pulse firmly on what makes these films work and completely trust their writers/directors with each project. It’s a tough call to decide whether Ninjago or Batman is the better movie, but Ninjago gets a slight edge on Batman for managing to be the year’s best family/comedy/action/animated films so far. Checkmate, Pixar.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Movie Review: “It”


***** out of 5
135 minutes
Rated R for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language
Warner Bros. Pictures

If anyone’s suffered a hit-and-miss collaboration with Hollywood, it’s Stephen King. They can’t all be The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Stand By Me, or even Misery or The Mist. But at least they’re not all cases of The Lawnmower Man. And it’s been a busy year for the man. Unfortunately, The Dark Tower and The Mist TV show didn’t leave their intended mark — The Dark Tower the lesser of the two evils — so at least we have Mr. Mercedes and director Andy Muschietti’s It. After losing director Cary Fukunaga, Muschietti was brought in to replace him and I’m not sure they could have possibly found anyone better to fill our favorite clown shoes. If one’s things for sure, Pennywise is back to terrorize a whole new generation.

With a time shift from the ’50s to 1988, it’s October in Derry, Maine and raining cats and dogs. Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is stuck inside sick, but his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) demands a paper boat be made to go outside and play. Things take a turn for the worse when Georgie loses his boat down a sewer grate and comes face to face with Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård). Cut to June 1989 and it’s the last day of school and Bill is trying to find a way to balance holding out hope that Georgie is still alive and enjoying the summer with his best friends Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff).

Soon enough, the friends find out that history has a way of repeating itself every 27 years and an ancient evil has come stalking. Now, the newly formed “Losers Club” — joined by tomboy Beverly (Sophia Lillis), new kid on the block Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and outsider Mike (Chosen Jacobs) — must find a way to put a stop to the disappearing children of Maine before they fall prey next.

Boy, oh boy, did Warner Bros. do right by granting It a hard R rating. Looking back on the beloved 1990 mini-series, it doesn’t hold up the way nostalgia would hope. I would have loved to have seen an epic full-length adaptation of the whole 1,000+ page novel, but it was a smart move to split the story in two. This is the Losers Club’s story and we’ll just have to be patient while we wait for chapter two with the adults. In the meantime, Muschietti has delivered a knockout King adaptation. Full of scares, hilarity, and heart, this is what we expect when we pick up a new King novel. The same is rarely said when sitting down for one of his movies. It can be characterized as as “Stephen King’s Goonies.”

Granted, they are condensing half of an epic book into a just over two hour film so corners were still cut. Mike and Stanley more than anyone, but everything else we could possibly want is here. There’s no holding back on the violence. Skarsgård is fabulous as Pennywise and gives it his all to creep us out every time he’s on screen. The Losers Club are all outstanding with more rapport than most teen movies over the last 10 years combined. Netflix’s Stranger Things borrows very heavily from It in the friends department, but they’re every bit as lovable here as they are on that show.

I may have found Annabelle: Creation (which shares screenwriter Gary Dauberman) to be more on the scary end of the spectrum. But I’m more connected to It’s source material. I adore the novel and, of course, own the mini-series on Blu-ray — and have read just about every King novel connected to The Dark Tower — so I knew exactly what to expect. But It is one of the year’s best horror films and works even better when it’s focused on the Losers Club. And it also happens to be one of the year’s biggest joyrides as well. It has returned to find a new generation to sink its teeth into so come on down and buy a ticket and you’ll float too!

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