Friday, December 21, 2018

Movie Review: “Welcome to Marwen”

Welcome to Marwen

** 1/2 out of 5
116 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material and language
Universal Pictures

Article first published at

It’s been a rough comeback for Robert Zemeckis after his years in the uncanny valley of motion capture — The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol, and Beowulf. Within a mere span of six years, Zemeckis — the man behind the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, and Cast Away — insulted audiences with his three worst films.

When it was announced he would be making a live-action return with the Denzel Washington-starring Flight, I hoped the magic had returned. Boy was I wrong. Thankfully, The Walk showed a return to form, but he stumbled again with Allied. So when I saw he was behind the Mark Hogancamp biopic, Welcome to Marwen, it looked like maybe his bad days were behind him. Unfortunately, that’s only half true.

When focusing on the fictional, therapeutic “Village of Marwen,” the film excels. It’s action-packed, hilarious, authentic, and heart-wrenching. The same cannot be said of the real world theatrics of Mark dealing with PTSD after being assaulted by a group of men — Louis/Captain Topf (Falk Hentschel), Carl/Lieutenant Benz (Matt O’Leary), Rudy/Rudolph (Nikolai Witschl), Stevie/Stefan (Patrick Roccas), and Vern/Werner (Alexander Lowe).

The fictional world of Marwen is a fantastic combination of practical, CGI, and motion capture performances that make Zemeckis look like a kid in a candy store. It’s so realistic it almost makes me wish for a “live-action” version of Toy Story. Almost.

The biggest problem with Welcome to Marwen, is the screenplay. Zemeckis and co-writer Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands, The Addams Family, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, The Secret Garden, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride) are above this. There’s just no emotional impact as we watch Mark deal with the upcoming sentencing of the men who robbed him of his life. It’s the standard will he/won’t he go scenario, and we all know how it’s going to end before the credits role.

It’s sad to see the year end in such a fizzle. But with everything else in theaters it’s not a total bust. Welcome to Marwen isn’t even a way for adults to escape the razzle dazzle CGI extravaganza glutton we’re experiencing with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Aquaman, Bumblebee, Mortal Engines, even Mary Poppins Returns and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. But at least the CGI here serves more of a story aesthetic than simply being the story.

The Zemeckis brand may still be on the rise, but Welcome to Marwen is like drinking Shasta instead of Coca Cola. It’s pretty good; but only reminds you why the other is better and suffers from a disappointing aftertaste once it’s over. A documentary was made back in 2010 and you’re better off seeking out Marwencol instead.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Movie Review: “Bumblebee”


**** 1/2 out of 5
113 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence
Paramount Pictures

Article first published at

It only took six films to make clear exactly what was wrong with the Transformers films: Michael Bay. Not that anyone didn’t know this, but with new director Travis Knight in place for Bumblebee, sixth time’s the charm! The first Transformers was a decent start, but it hasn’t aged particularly well, and all four sequels have been nothing but an embarrassment. Yet audiences still turned out in droves. Fans have waited 11 years for a good sequel, and just wouldn’t you know it, Bumblebee isn’t only the best entry, period, it’s also a prequel! Hopefully this means the franchise is secretly starting over and they can continue to move forward with a new timeline full of the Transformers goodness we deserve.

A war is raging on Cybertron between the Autobots and Decepticons forcing Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) to order an evacuation, sending B-127/B (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) to Earth. His mission: to set up a base of operations for the Autobots to regroup in safety. B crashlands in the middle of a Sector 7 (a secret government group monitoring extraterrestrial activity) training exercise with the Decepticon Blitzwing — and lieutenant Jack Burns (John Cena) — hot on his tail. After Blitzwing destroys B’s voicebox and erases his memory core, B transforms into a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle and escapes.

Eventually, Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) finds B in a scrapyard and is given the Beetle as a present for her 18th birthday under the condition she can get it to start. Now, Charlie finally has a car — much to the chagrin of her hilariously overbearing mother Sally (Pamela Adlon) — and winds up getting more than she bargained for after she finds out her car is really a robot in disguise. Speaking only in hums and buzzes, Charlie names him Bumblebee and soon enough, the whole word is at stake after Charlie accidentally releases a homing signal sending Decepticons Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (voiced by Justin Theroux) on their own mission, posing as peacekeepers, to convince Sector 7 into helping them find Bumblebee and end the Autobots once and for all.

While it may sound like Bumblebee is a tad convoluted, it’s absolutely not. It’s a straightforward coming of age tale, Amblin-style, that happens to have Transformers in it rather than say, E.T. Steinfeld carries the weight of the film on her shoulders fantastically, helped out by a motley crew of hilarious side characters. Cena is perfectly cast as the only government employee who seems to see the reality of the situation. Jorge Lendeborg Jr. provides a pseudo-love interest/sidekick as Memo. Adlon proves she’s always hilarious and not just when starring in her own TV show. And even Jason Drucker and Stephen Schneider, as Charlie’s younger brother Otis and stepfather Ron, get plenty of their own laughs.

But this is all out the Charlie and Bumblebee show, and that’s exactly why Bumblebee succeeds so well. Christina Hodson’s screenplay is surprisingly witty, and even emotional. She knows we may be here for the action, but we also need to care about Charlie, and most of all, Bumblebee’s plight. Michael Bay was completely content with pummeling the audience with grossly filmed/edited action sequences to the point of nausea — Age of Extinction will always be remembered as the Transformers entry that made a colleague puke from it’s so-called camerawork — but Knight knows how to choreograph/film an action scene with the best of them. Enrique Chediak offers up some stellar cinematography. You’d never know this was Knight’s first live-action film, but being President & CEO of Laika Entertainment has paid off admirously.

Bumblebee is one of the biggest surprises of the year and is non-stop fun for the biggest Transformers fans to the biggest skeptics. Full of breathtaking action sequences, huge laughs, and plenty of heart to spare, Bumblebee is another fantastic outing for audiences this season in a very crowded holiday marketplace. It’s too bad Aquaman will be hogging all the IMAX screens because Bumblebee also deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. That said, be sure your theater is projecting it in the right aspect ratio. The theater I saw it in projected it incorrectly and caused us to only see about half the film. Lots of headless dialogue ensued. A travesty considering how great it looked while not even seeing the whole screen.

Also worth noting, there is one extra scene at the beginning of the end credits, but nothing after.

Movie Review: “Aquaman”


**** out of 5
143 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at

After the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it was a sure bet DC Comics would try to  keep up. What DC forgot to do, was inject a sense of fun into their films. Gritty, brooding, and way too grounded for superhero films, audiences hungered for DC to get it right. With Wonder Woman, they came close. But the finale only reminded fans of everything wrong with the DC Extended Universe. Now, along comes director James Wan to go full-DC and embrace Aquaman’s outrageousness full tilt to deliver the best DC film since Man of Steel, and the best DCEU entry yet.

Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) introduces us to the backstory of his parents, Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman). Atlanna is on the run from an arranged marriage and winds up finding solace with Thomas, a simple lighthouse keeper in Maine. Atlanna eventually gives birth to Arthur, whom she wants to be the missing link to show there can be peace between the worlds above and below the ocean. Soon enough, Atlanna is found out and she is forced to return to Atlantis where she is executed for birthing a half-breed. In the present, Arthur is called up on by Mera (Amber Heard), after Arthur’s half-brother/King of Atlantis, Orm (Patrick Wilson), starts building an army to wage war on the surface. Meanwhile, David/Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is on the hunt for Aquaman after leaving his father do die.

Aquaman may still suffer from a case of being convoluted — a plague upon the DCEU from the get go — but it more than makes up for it with a huge sense of fun, style, and badassery. Wan has taken what should have been — and admittedly still is — the most ridiculous of the DC characters, and turned it into an amazing adventure. The screenplay — courtesy David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall — zooms along at a breakneck pace, as it globetrots its way to the end credits. Usually a pace like this could spell disaster, but the action is never boring, and it leaves you wanting more.

Speaking of the action, Wan directs some of the year’s best. Full of carefully choreographed fights — more than a few captured in what’s made to look like one take — and precision editing, no matter how high the stakes get, at least you always know what’s going on. Action films as of late, rely far too heavily on quick cuts to cover up either the actor’s inabilities, or the director’s inadequacies, but that’s never the case here.

While I previously had never been fully aboard the Momoa train, I do have to say he’s finally grown on me. Giving him his own feature was just what he needed to complete winning over the naysayers and you can tell he’s having the time of his life. I used to look at him as trying way too hard to be the new Dwayne Johnson, but my friend told me to consider him more as The Rock’s dorky brother and now I get the appeal.

Aquaman is everything we’ve been waiting for in the DCEU. It didn’t hurt for me to see it filled with sharks, dinosaurs, and kaiju, oh my! As for the upcoming entries, thankfully, Shazam! is going to be a full-blown comedy. But it’s gonna be interesting to see how Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn), Cyborg, Wonder Woman 1984, Green Lantern Corps, The Flash, and The Batman can measure up. A bar has been set, and all expectations are now Aquaman high.

Movie Review: “Mary Poppins Returns”

Mary Poppins Returns

***** out of 5
130 minutes
Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and brief action
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published at

It’s been 54 years since Mary Poppins graced the silver screen to the delight of audiences and the dismay of author P.L. Travers. With the release of Saving Mr. Banks, it was obvious Disney was in the midst of a Mary Poppins revival, and here at last is Mary Poppins Returns. While having never received the sequel treatment before now, director Rob Marshall still had a huge legacy to live up to. And Returns is a smashing success from start to finish.

Filled with all new original songs, a brilliant performance from Emily Blunt, and old school Disney sensibilities, Mary Poppins Returns arrives just in time for the holiday break. And just in time to save Disney’s live-action reputation after this year’s mediocre outings of A Wrinkle in Time, Christopher Robin, and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Audiences could use a spoonful of sugar and Returns is just what the doctor ordered.

Twenty-five years after Mary Poppins (Blunt) saved Mr. Banks and his children’s relationships, Michael (Ben Whishaw) is repeating history. With the recent passing of his wife, he’s becoming overworked and estranged from his own children — John (Nathanael Saleh), Anabel (Pixie Davies), and Georgie (Joel Dawson). To rub salt in the wound, the bank has come to inform Michael he’s about to lose their beloved family home of 17 Cherry Tree Lane.

Jane (Emily Mortimer) will do anything she can to help him find a missing shares certificate, but in the meantime, Mary Poppins has arrived to once again look after the Banks children — along with Michael’s too. Now, Michael is in a race against time after bank owner William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth) gives him a deadline to come up with the certificate or lose the house for good. Meanwhile, the children are whisked off on their own adventures with Mary and lamp lighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) to do what they can to help while trying to earn back their dad.

For interested parties, there are no repeats of the original classic songs. But fear not, there are nods to them sprinkled throughout Shaiman’s score. A heaping helping of new earworms abound for repeat ad nauseum. I have no idea how many times I’ve listened to “Trip the Light Fantastic.” When you see a film nearly three weeks early, you’re stuck with what you can get and only two songs have been released as of this writing. Once the full soundtrack drops, I cannot wait to be able to listen to Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s songs and score again.

There is probably no one else who could possibly have stepped into the huge shoes Julie Andrews’ Oscar winning performance left to fill. Blunt is spectacular and even manages to put her own stamp on Mary. Considering it’s been 25 years since anyone has seen her, you might expect at least a tiny bit of personality change. But fear not, this is still the Poppins everyone knows and loves and she’s every bit straight-laced, mischievous, and cheeky as ever. The rest of the cast is superb as well with Miranda getting a chance to show off his Hamilton skills following a fantastic Blunt performance that feels right out of Marshall’s own Chicago.

Marshall hasn’t had the best streak since his Oscar nominated turn directing ChicagoMemoirs of a Geisha, Nine, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Into the Woods — none of these allowed him to live up to expectation, until now. The musical numbers are huge and expertly choreographed/staged/shot/edited. For grand musical numbers to fully work, everything has to work in tandem and every number here is a homerun. Even the requisite animated sequence is top notch. The combination of live-action/animation works beautifully and just makes me want a Roger Rabbit sequel even more — Disney, call me, I have your idea ready! There’s even an edge of danger abound, right out of Wind in the Willows.

It took a lot of work to come up with a worthy Mary Poppins sequel, and even with Travers’s book at their disposal, I don’t mind Disney waiting to make sure everything was practically perfect in every way. If you aren’t a huge Mary Poppins fan this may not be for you, but Marshall engages the audience from start to finish — some may shed a few tears along the way — and makes sure Mary Poppins’s return is everything we could want and more.

Sunday, December 16, 2018


Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse leads with three awards, including Best Picture
December 16, 2018

            In their annual meeting, the members of the Utah Film Critics Association recognized Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse with three awards, including Best Picture of 2018. The film was also honored as Best Animated Feature, and for the Adapted Screenplay by Phil Lord & Rodney Rothman.
            Roma also received three awards: Alfonso Cuarón for Directing and Cinematography, and for Best Non-English Language Feature.
            In performance categories, Elsie Fisher was named in the Lead Performance, Female category for Eighth Grade, which also received Original Screenplay honors for Bo Burnham. Ethan Hawke received Best Lead Performance, Male for First Reformed; while Oliva Colman received Best Supporting Performance, Female as Queen Anne in The Favourite. In Best Supporting Performance, Male, there was a tie between Russell Hornsby for The Hate U Give and Hugh Grant for Paddington 2.
            Other winners include Annihilation’s Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury for Best Original Score, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? for Best Documentary Feature.
            The Utah Film Critics Association is made up of Utah-based film journalists contributing to print, broadcast and online outlets. For membership and other information, visit


Best Picture: Spider-man: Intothe Spider-Verse. Runner-up: Roma

Best Achievement in Directing: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma. Runner-up: Ryan Coogler, Black Panther

Best Lead Performance, Male: Ethan Hawke, First Reformed. Runner-up: Christian Bale, Vice

Best Lead Performance, Female: Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade. Runner-up: Lady Gaga, A StarIs Born

Best Supporting Performance, Female: Olivia Colman, The Favourite. Runner-up: Elizabeth Debicki, Widows

Best Supporting Performance, Male: Russell Hornsby, The Hate U Give and Hugh Grant, Paddington 2 (tie)

Best Original Screenplay: Bo Burnham, Eighth Grade. Runner-up: Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara, The Favourite

Best Adapted Screenplay: Phil Lord & Rodney Rothman, Spider-man:Into the Spider-Verse. Runner-up: Audrey Wells, The Hate U Give

Best Cinematography: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma. Runner-up: Rob Hardy, Annihilation

Best Original Score: Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury, Annihilation. Runner-up: Nicholas Britell, If Beale Street Could Talk

Best Documentary Feature: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Runner-up: Minding the Gap

Best Animated Feature: Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse

Best Non-English Language Feature: Roma. Runner-up: Burning

Movie Review: “Once Upon a Deadpool”

Once Upon a Deadpool

*** out of 5
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, crude sexual content, language, thematic elements and brief drug material
116 minutes
20th Century Fox

Article first published at

*Click here for a full review of the original release of Deadpool 2

Deadpool does not work as PG-13. We knew that already, yet, here we are with Fox’s blatant cash grab Once Upon a Deadpool. Featuring absolutely nothing holiday related aside from its blistering marketing campaign, Deadpool 2.75 is simply a mashup of the original release, the “Super Duper $@%!#& Cut” included with the Blu-ray, new footage featuring Fred Savage, and edited versions of the original with all the cussing toned down and blood removed.

Everything new added in may be hysterical, but there’s nowhere near enough to warrant a quick theatrical re-release. And as projections indicate — it’s expected to bring in a mere $2.6 million this weekend — Fox’s plan to say there’s an audience for a PG-13 Deadpool universe have hopefully been squashed. This is, unsurprisingly, the most boring version of the film. At least the extended cut had new scenes help fill in some story gaps while adding more jokes along the way.

Here, you’re left yawning in between the new with huge stretches of nothing you haven’t seen before. And considering the film was originally released in May, your money is best spent elsewhere. Of course it’s going to be released on home video, same as the extended cut, and that’s exactly where it belongs. It may be fun for the fans to play a game of what’s new, but if you’ve seen the extended cut, only the Fred Savage stuff is new. And as hilarious as it may be, it’s nothing that couldn’t have been included as a third version for the video release.

Considering the wealth of fantastic family films in theaters this holiday season, it makes even less sense to be releasing this. Fox should ultimately be ashamed of themselves. Sorry Disney, fans don’t want their Deadpool watered down, and it would be a huge misstep to try and add him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Just let him be and continue milking the cash cow the way he was intended. Deadpool’s teets are far from dry, but only in the form of new material. With X-Force on its way, everyone is better off waiting it out for that and, of course, the eventual Deadpool 3. As for Once Upon a Deadpool, move along folks, there’s nothing to see here.

Movie Review: “Mortal Engines”

Mortal Engines

** out of 5
128 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of futuristic violence and action
Universal Pictures

Article first published at

Even the best writers and directors lay an egg once in awhile. For Peter Jackson, it’s Mortal Engines. A film that has no shame in being a blatant rip-off at its “best,” and revels in stupidity at its worst. Hollywood has placed a lot of trust in amateur directors with big budget features in the last few years, but this is by far the dumbest. Christian Rivers — directing the multitude of plotlines from Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens’s screenplay, based on Philip Reeve’s novels — may know a thing or two about crafting together some awesome visuals. (He worked on many of Jackson’s films, along with winning an Oscar for King Kong.) But he has no idea how to link the pieces together with plot, pace, or characterization.

We’re told that during the Sixty Minute War, all that remains of humanity are mobile “predator” cities. Under “Municipal Darwinism,” the larger cities consume the smaller and the chase is on between London and Salzhaken. After being consumed, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), is onboard, taking her one chance to try to assassinate Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). Thaddeus killed her mom when she was a child and she’s out for revenge. While her attempt it thwarted by Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), Tom finds himself kicked aside after he mentions to Thaddeus Hester’s claims. Now, Tom must join forces with Hester — and the Anti-Traction League agent, Anna Fang (Jihae) — to stay alive in the Great Hunting Grounds, and stop Thaddeus’s  war machine built to destroy the wall keeping the city of Shan Guo safe from the rest of the world.

For anyone wondering what it would look like to see a collection of mid-play video game scenes up on the big screen, here you go. Mortal Engines may start out on the right track — the opening city chase is quite the sight to behold — but it all goes downhill from there. Filled with characters who only speak in catchphrases, one-liners, and exposition, Rivers and his writers seem terrified audiences will never be able to keep up with the plot.

Maybe it wouldn’t be such a chore if they weren’t trying to squeeze in a million plot lines. It doesn’t help that the dialogue ranges from eye-rolling to cringe worthy, to laugh-out-loud hilarious. If there’s a silver lining, Mortal Engines is unintentionally funny from start-to-finish and the visuals can be quite spectacular. And they better be, considering it spends most of its time blatantly ripping off the entire Star Wars franchise. I doubt if even the most hardcore steampunks could find anything of interest here. Everyone else is best spending their time anywhere else this holiday season.

Mortal Engines crashes and burns. A statement that pains me to say about anything Peter Jackson related, but to use one of his own film titles as an example: you’d have to be completely Brain Dead to enjoy this one.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Movie Review: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

***** out of 5
117 minutes
Rated PG for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language
Columbia Pictures

Article first published at

There are three credited directors for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but a hunch tells me there may be five. Co-writer Phil Lord and producer Christopher Miller — of Lego Movie/Jump Street fame — probably had more input into the final product than anticipated. Don’t forget, the duo were dismissed from the Solo film clear back in June 2017. With extra time on their hands, why not get more involved?

Not to discredit the brilliant work of Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman (another Jump Street cohort and co-writer here), but it certainly didn’t hurt if they did. Not only is Into the Spider-Verse the first feature length animated Spider-Man film, it’s also the best animated film of the year, 2018’s best film, and the best Spider-Man movie ever.

Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is just your average teen. That is if the average teen deals with being bitten by a genetically altered spider and getting caught up in a game of saving the multiverse. Kingpin/Wilson Fisk (voiced by Liev Schreiber) uses a Super Collider causing multiple Spider-People — Peter B. Parker/Spider-Man (voiced by Jake Johnson), Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld), Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (voiced by John Mulaney), and Peter Parker/Spider-Man Noir (voiced by Nicolas Cage) — to be transplanted in Morales’s version of the Spider-Verse.

The trouble with reviewing a film as good as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is trying not to sound like a broken record. Everything works better than it has in any of the previous Spider-Man films. As fantastic as Homecoming was, this is even better. Kingpin makes a terrific villain with grounded reasons for what he’s trying to accomplish. He’s surrounded by plenty of henchmen who also have interesting — and in one case heartbreaking — motives.

The animation is a sight to behold. This is one gorgeous piece of art from start to finish. Walking in, there was a lot of hype and it completely blows it away. It’s a jawdropper that needs to be seen to be believed. Along with high swinging action, the screenplay is a boggling collection of jokes and references to all things Spider-Man, Marvel, and pop culture. Keep your eyes peeled for some outrageously hilarious sight gags.

If there’s one surprise, it’s how much heart the film has. Can Spider-Man make you cry? This one might. And not just due to the Stan Lee cameo. Into the Spider-Verse is a game changer of the highest order and cannot be missed. Also, make sure to stay through the end credits in true Marvel fashion.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Movie Review: “Ralph Breaks the Internet”

Ralph Breaks the Internet

**** 1/2 out of 5
112 minutes
Rated PG for some action and rude humor
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published at

It took me awhile to understand the title Ralph Breaks the Internet. Obviously a play on going viral — which is the film’s biggest plot mechanic — I just couldn’t believe it wasn’t Ralph Wrecks the Internet. Having seen the movie, it’s a brilliant title even if it also could have been Ralph 2.0 with it involving all things internet. Ralph Breaks the Internet continues Disney’s winning streak at 2-0 after this and Incredibles 2.

It’s been six years since Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman) saved Sugar Rush from the tyranny of King Candy/Turbo. The two are still best friends, but Vanellope is starting to want more with the predictability of her game causing some growing pains. When Ralph decides to surprise her with a new track, Vanellope goes against the controlling player in the real world, causing the steering wheel to break. Mr. Litwak (voiced by Ed O’Neill) can’t afford to replace the part. Now, Ralph and Vanellope are off to the internet via Litwak’s mysterious new Wifi router, to save Sugar Rush from being unplugged for good.

Director Rich Moore returns — with co-writer Phil Johnston joining as co-director — wringing every last laugh out of internet related jokes, with the same audacity as they did video games in Wreck-It Ralph. No stone goes unturned as they mine everything from Disney’s own monopoly — Marvel, Pixar, The Muppets, Lucasfilm, and themselves, of course — with the Disney Princesses getting the biggest laughs. They steal the film right out from under the big strong man. It’s a brilliant segment and could have made for a short all on its own. It’s also refreshing Ralph’s own insecure masculinity winds up being the villain.

A possible Best Song nominee is firmly in place with “A Place Called Slaughter Race” — Slaughter Race being the name of the way more violent online racing game, think PG-rated Grand Theft Auto — that hilariously skewers Disney Princess songs with the help of Disney’s own alum, Alan Menken.

The voice cast return with ample glee, clearly loving their characters. There’s even new characters here to steal the spotlight. Alan Tudyk gets to play polar opposite of King Candy as Knowsmore, the film’s version of Google; Alfred Molina wrings every laugh possible against Reilly as Double Dan; and Bill Hader gets to show a little seedier side as JP Spamley who introduces Ralph to the dark web. Gal Gadot is also great as Shank, the ringleader of the way more violent racing game.

Gorgeously animated, hilariously scripted, and its message of friendship and self esteem carry a different story from Wreck-It Ralph. Ralph Breaks the Internet honestly may fare better in the joke department with parents, but it’s still the perfect holiday treat offering something for everyone as families head out to theaters this weekend. Also be sure to stick through the end credits for two extra payoff scenes.

Movie Review: “Creed II”

Creed II

*** 1/2 out of 5
Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality
130 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at

Looking back on my review of the first Creed — aka Rocky 7 — it makes me more aware of why Creed II didn’t sit as well this time around. Previously I said, “It helps that (Sylvester) Stallone took the backseat and didn’t even touch the screenplay, giving him the chance to loosen up for the camera.” While Stallone himself is still great in the film, he did co-write it with Juel Taylor, but at least he didn’t direct. Not that director Steven Caple Jr. can’t resist falling on hard and true sports film clichés by the finale, making this the type of Rocky movie I was hoping the Creed series wouldn’t become.

The synopsis for Creed II is super simple considering it runs more than two hours: Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), has just claimed the Heavyweight title, catching the eye of promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby). Buddy has flown Rocky’s (Stallone) arch nemesis Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) to the U.S. to challenge Adonis. Now, Adonis and Rocky must come face-to-face with the man who killed Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) — Adonis’s father and Rocky’s best friend — to settle old scores and heal reopened wounds.

Considering my lack of background with the franchise — the only Rocky I’ve seen all the way through is Creed — it also doesn’t help Stallone has turned this outing into a direct sequel of Rocky IV, a film my guest advised is the worst Rocky. Not exactly terms of endearment, although, he did also state with Creed II, they’ve managed to make a fantastic sequel to a horrible ’80s movie. So I suppose at least it comes with his blessing as a franchise devotee.

The cast all perform admirably. Stallone continues to work better as a real character than he does when he’s trying to be the action hero. Those days are long gone. Jordan also carries the film on his shoulders granting Creed the humanity necessary to want audiences see him succeed. Let alone carry the franchise in his own character’s name. This is clearly Rocky’s swan song judging by the last 10 minutes of the film.

Tessa Thompson makes up for an underwritten role after being given way more fat to chew on last time. And Lundgren manages to keep himself from becoming comically Russian even if he’s reduced to mumbling with a thick accent and glaring menacing looks. Creed II falls on predictable sports film melodrama where the first film aimed for a more realistic character study approach. I also said about the first Creed that at times it felt more like a Rocky documentary with how alive the boxer’s world felt. Here, director Caple lays on the cliches fast and furious by the end. From the hoots, hollers, and clapping though, it’s super engaging for Rocky fans and that’s really all that counts.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Movie Review: “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald 

*** out of 5
134 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some sequences of fantasy action
Warner Bros. Pictures

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It's not a good sign when my wife — a diehard Harry Potter fan — doesn’t care about J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts series. After And Where to Find Them kicked things off to a lackluster start, director David Yates seems to have come out of his post-Tarzan autopilot. It’s too bad Rowling still can’t conjure enough of the old Potter magic she weaved so well. Thankfully, the cast fare better this time around even if the plot still barely makes a lick a sense — as it plows through some challenging franchise growing pains.

London, 1927, Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is imprisoned by the American Ministry of Magic. Grindelwald is being transported back to London and is freed by one of his followers. Also in the UK, the British Ministry of Magic calls upon Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), offering him a deal to earn back his travel rights: work for the Ministry as an Auror. Newt rejects, placing him on special duty to locate Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) who has surfaced in Europe. Meanwhile, Grindelwald is rising to power and it turns out Newt may be the only one who can stop him as Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) has made a blood pact with Grindelwald to not fight each other.

I’ve really minimized the plot here. It gets super confusing — something Rowling had a huge problem with in the last outing. After reading through my review of the first film, they have definitely improved upon a few things. The action may still be chaotic, but the effects are way better and more believable. Newt learned how to enunciate between films and they’ve put Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) in the background. However, Dan Fogler is still trying way too hard as he does in everything. At least Alison Sudol’s Queenie is nowhere near as annoying. Ezra Miller will make a formidable foe in upcoming entries, and Zoe Kravitz brings some levity stuck heartbroken in a brother/brother love triangle.

And then there’s Depp. While many people are outright furious over his casting, this is the least annoying he’s been in a long time. Even in the grand finale he never chews the scenery the way we’ve come to expect. Love him or hate him, he’s not horrible, but he’s also never great. And Law actually makes for a wonderful young Dumbledore. All things said, it seems like hardcore Potter fans are eating it up and that’s great. The movie is strictly made for them and they can have it!

Just because I’m obligated to sit through it so I can throw in my two cents, doesn’t mean I need to raise the pitchforks and wish Rowling throw in the towel. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald does exactly what you expect it to do: get audiences from point A to B while leaving them wanting more. Whether more is better is something we’ll have to wait to find out. In the meantime, at least Potterheads have something new to keep their appetites whet.

Movie Review: “Instant Family”

Instant Family

**** out of 5
119 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual material, language and some drug references
Paramount Pictures

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Editor’s note: This is a guest review by David Blackmer.

Full disclosure up front: I’m a foster dad. I went into seeing Instant Family expecting to get emotional, but also knowing any elements that were remotely unrealistic were really going to bother me.

I was pleasantly surprised on both accounts. I didn’t cry non-stop, and I didn’t find glaring differences between the film and reality (although for cinematic purposes, small gaps were present, of course).

Writer/director Sean Anders made this film based on events from his own life, and his familiarity with the foster care system manifests itself throughout. Whether illustrating parental struggles (both foster and biological), unique marital issues, challenges with extended family, or the devastations the innocent children themselves face, this feature focuses on accuracy first, humor second. There are even some nods to the more complex situations in the foster world: complications with courts, LGBTQ parents, etc.

Instant Family follows Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) as they journey to the decision to adopt children through foster care, then attempt to actually be decent foster parents. They’re sometimes elated, sometimes nervous, sometimes terrified, and rarely unified — just like real parents. They welcome three children (siblings) into their lives, the rebellious teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner), the no-looking-before-leaping middle child Juan (Gustavo Quiroz), and the temperamental toddler Lita (Julianna Gamiz). Lizzy’s story and interactions with the would-be parents becomes the focus, although the other children are certainly instrumental characters.

The movie also hosts amazing supporting performances from Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer as the social workers who represent the foster care system in all its disjointed glory. In the real world, their roles would be played by a dozen different people, but their diverse personalities (and dialogue) perfectly embody the confusing, oppositional, yet somehow functioning, world of foster care.

When I first got involved in foster care, I felt like Harry Potter discovering a reality, hidden in plain sight, but that I’d never known was there. Instant Family offers a healthy glimpse inside this reality, with a lot of laughs and — maybe — a few tears along the way.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Movie Review: “The Grinch”

The Grinch

** 1/2 out of 5
90 minutes
Rated PG for brief rude humor
Universal Pictures

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What may be more surprising about the new adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s beloved The Grinch, is it comes from co-director Scott Mosier. That’s right, Kevin Smith’s long-time producer has made a big budget family christmas film. Does that mean Illumination allowed him to fill it with adult humor? Oh the places they could’ve gone. Instead, our beloved mean one, Mr. Grinch, is stuck in a movie that’s the same size as his heart: two sizes too small.

The story remains exactly the same. So much so it makes me question the film’s purpose.

It’s December 20 and The Grinch (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) has just awoken to find he’s run out of winter supplies. Now, he has to head out to Whoville to find sustenance so he can return to his house on the hill with loyal Max. Along the way he discovers Mayor McGerkle (voiced by Angela Lansbury) wants to see Christmas be three times bigger this year. Meanwhile, little Cindy-Lou Who (voiced by Cameron Seely) wants to meet the real Santa Claus and hatches a plan. A plan which may blow The Grinch’s own who is dressing up as Santa to steal all the presents from Whoville.

For those looking to spend money on a brighter, shinier, version of The Grinch, this film’s for you. For the rest of us, the original 1966 classic will certainly do. At least it’s better than Ron Howard’s 2000 disaster. It’s visually appealing and Cumberbatch seems born to voice The Grinch, it’s just too bad the character is surrounded by the exact same story. A giant Christmas tree in town square is hardly enough to warrant a new remake. But Illumination knows how to keep things light enough to bring in the bucks, and on that note alone, they’re going to have good luck.

If you have to go see The Grinch I suppose you could do worse, considering the alternative is The Nutcracker, maybe families are cursed.

Movie Review: “Overlord”


**** 1/2 out of 5
109 minutes
Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing images, language, and brief sexual content
Paramount Pictures

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A funny thing happened on the way to the release of Overlord. When Netflix surprised everyone with their Super Bowl spot for The Cloverfield Paradox with the full film live as soon as the game was over, producer J.J. Abrams had previously announced that a fourth Cloverfield was in the can and called Overlord.

When we finally started getting trailers and TV spots, the film was still called Overlord, and Abrams reversed course saying it was not part of the Cloverfield world. As excited as I was, I couldn’t help but play Abrams’s mystery box game. I was perfectly willing to accept Overlord on its own terms — even if it was not a Cloverfield entry. And it’s a good thing, because spoiler: Overlord is not.

On the eve of D-Day, a group of paratroopers wind up stranded on their way to destroy a German radio tower suspiciously located on top of a church. Now, Cpl. Ford (Wyatt Russell), Pvt. Boyce (Jovan Adepo), Tibbet (John Magaro), Dawson (Jacob Anderson), Chase (Iain De Caestecker), and French villager Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), are up to their elbows in Nazis and super soldiers with sinister experiments taking place below “The Church” by doctors Wafner (Pilou Asbaek) and Schmidt (Erich Redman).

For those looking for a badass Nazi zombie movie look no further. Those looking for a rollicking war-set action flick, director Julius Avery — along with screenwriters Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith — deliver on all fronts as well. There’s been a lot of hype surrounding the film since its premiere at Fantastic Fest in September, and it holds up. Overlord is the best kind of horror film genre fans love — full of exploding heads, severed limbs, and top notch action to boot!

The cast provide characters we can root for instead of just waiting for them to get picked off one by one. Cinematographers Laurie Rose and Fabian Wagner make sure the action is expertly staged and captured including an amazing version of a halo jump that feels right out of Paramount’s last big action feast, Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Jed Kurzel provides an effectively creepy score, and the special effects crew pour on the gore without it becoming too over the top.

Halloween may have been last week, but let’s face it, anytime is a great time for a fantastic horror/action hybrid. Overlord lives up to its own hype, and keeps the Abrams train chugging along. With Overlord, Get Out, and A Quiet Place, it’s a good time to be a horror fan and it’s nice to see new directors bringing a breath of fresh air to a genre that relies on dead bodies.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Movie Review: “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Bohemian Rhapsody

**** out of 5
134 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language
20th Century Fox

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Not every film can manage to escape the clutches of its troubled production history. Lucky for Bohemian Rhapsody, it has the power of Queen behind it. By now, everyone knows director Bryan Singer was fired by Fox after on-set squabbles with star Rami Malek over the Freddie Mercury/Queen biopic, for constant tardiness, and deserting the production at one point. But the saving grace of Dexter Fletcher — director of the delightful Eddie the Eagle and whose own Elton John biopic, Rocketman, hits theaters next year — keeps Bohemian Rhapsody from floundering and rises to show Queen still has the power to rock us.

In 1970, Farrokh Bulsara — Freddie Mercury (Malek) to you and me — is a college student working as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport, dealing with at home daddy issues, and stalking the local band Smile. We see the collaboration get off to a rocky start when Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) need a new singer. Freddie shows off his range and joins the band with the addition of John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) cementing them as Queen. A 10-year whirlwind including their contract with EMI, feuding with Ray Foster (Mike Myers), their U.S. tour, and Freddie’s burgeoning sexuality, all leads up to Freddie delivering the news of having AIDS, and their triumphant 1985 Live Aid performance.

There’s been a lot of complaints Bohemian Rhapsody tries to downplay Freddie’s homosexuality, but that makes me wonder if they even saw the movie. It’s addressed extremely early in the movie and is never glossed over. It may be downplayed in a sense to keep the film PG-13, but with Singer, Fletcher, Malek, and screenwriter Anthony McCarten focusing on the band every bit as much as Freddie himself it makes sense. They want to show the solidarity of the group as a family and that’s where the film shines brightest. Even if it also means the film turns into exactly what Walk Hard was spoofing so well.

The entire cast bring to life one of the best ensembles and it probably helps they had both May and Taylor hired on as creative consultants. There was a lot of fun to be had through their years of stardom and it shows on screen. Even if you have issues with the film, the final 20 minutes — which is nothing but Live Aid — you should still walk out happy. They also use the music to add extra subtext to some of Queen’s most popular songs. Malek proves he’s much more than Mr. Robot and gives a stunning performance. He is reason enough to see the film.

There’s no telling how much of a difference the film would be if Singer hadn’t gone AWOL and dismissed, but Fletcher keeps the film moving at a brisk pace. And it was probably not the worst idea to bring in a fellow Brit as he infused a cheeky sense of humor. There’s quite a few moments of inside jokes — the funniest being a Wayne’s World reference — which could have felt out of place. When you’re making film about one of the world’s biggest bands, they fit right in. This may not wind up being a Best Picture contender, but with Malek as Freddie Mercury and the Queen anthems, Bohemian Rhapsody should still rock you.

Movie Review: “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms”

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

** 1/2 out of 5
99 minutes
Rated PG for some mild peril
Walt Disney Pictures

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It’s been a rough year for Disney’s live-action films. First there was the disappointing mess A Wrinkle in Time, to the less-than-enchanting Christopher Robin. Now the holiday season sees The Nutcracker and the Four Realms released to try and infuse some Christmas magic. Unfortunately, this adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story, doesn’t have enough Disney magic to become an annual favorite. With two directors (Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston) visions’ clearly at odds, it’s a good showcase for Mackenzie Foy. But never feels as overindulgent as it thinks it is and falls flat in the finale when it should be kicking into high gear.

It’s Christmas Even and Clara (Foy) is mourning the loss of her mother. Her father presents Clara and her siblings with their mother’s final gifts leaving Clara bewildered by a locked, egg-shaped box. The box was crafted by her godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), who helps lead her to a parallel world to find the key. Here, she meets the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley), Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), and Shiver (Richard E. Grant) — the rulers of the Land of Sweets, Flowers, and Snowflakes — who task Clara with saving their realms from Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), the ruler of the Land of Amusement, who wants to conquer them all.

Johnston is best known for providing mostly entertaining action: The Rocketeer, Jumanji, Jurassic Park III, The Wolfman, Captain America: The First Avenger. Hallstrom for manipulative adult dramas: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, The Shipping News, a couple of Nicholas Sparks adaptations, The Hundred-Foot Journey, and A Dog’s Purpose. Whomever thought these two would be a good fit together, needs a career reassignment.

Having already been adapted numerous times, it would take something truly magical for The Nutcracker and the Four Realms to stand out — something not even the Mouse House can do apparently. The cast do what they can with Ashleigh Powell’s screenplay — Foy and Jayden Fowora-Knight as Phillip, a guard she befriends along the way, make an enjoyable pair — but the rest are left to act like they’ve walked out of a cartoon. And not in the enjoyable Amy Adams as Giselle in Enchanted kind of way.

Crammed with with bloated CGI and an ending that comes out of nowhere, this Nutcracker will please only the youngest audience members. Considering that’s who it’s clearly made for, I guess we shouldn’t be asking for too much more. As for the rest of us — and wiser parents — they should skip this altogether and head out to catch a live performance to see why the stage production of Nutcracker continues to be the holiday tradition it is.

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 fiancée 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

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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.

Movie Review: “The Predator”

The Predator

*** out of 5
107 minutes
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, and crude sexual references
20th Century Fox

Article first published at

If there’s any reason I was excited for The Predator, it’s co-writer/director Shane Black. The man has been making a resurgence since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang put him back on the map. After the triple play of KKBB, Iron Man 3, and The Nice Guys, there should have been no way for Black to fail at continuing on with a franchise he starred in 31 years ago. Rumor had it that he also provided uncredited rewrites to the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic, but The Predator winds up as an oddball mix of big dumb fun and just plain super dumb.

In the present day, a Predator has crash landed on Earth. After making bloody first contact with sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), McKenna quickly mails off some alien hardware back to his house. There, his son Rory (Jacob Tremblay) manages to turn it on and a new Predator comes hunting. Meanwhile, McKenna is thrown on a bus with a gang of prison misfits — Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), Baxley (Thomas Jane), Lynch (Alfie Allen), and Nettles (Augusto Aguilera). With a new Predator hot on Rory’s heels, McKenna joins forces with his newfound frenemies — and an evolutionary biology professor (Olivia Munn) — to keep the Predator, and agent Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), away from his son and figure out exactly why the Predators are back.

With Black at the helm, The Predator should have been a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am action extravaganza. Instead Black — along with co-writer Fred Dekker — merely cobble together a coherent enough story to barely push the Predator series into new territory. This is the fourth official entry aside from two excursions battling Xenomorphs. So at least they tried taking it in a new direction?

Black and Dekker have provided us action/horror/sci-fi classics such as House, Night of the Creeps, Lethal Weapon, The Monster Squad, Last Action Hero, and some of the better episodes of Tales from the Crypt. Unfortunately, The Predator is the kind of film that veers from wow, that was really cool, to okay that was super dumb in the same scene. At least it is peppered with some classic Black moments of hilarity and bloodshed. And the camaraderie amongst the cast is infectious. Even if Brown seems hellbent on chewing every inch of scenery he can.

The Predator never lives up to the original while never trying to stand on its own either. At least there are some over-the-top action scenes and plenty of blood for interested viewers. It’s never horrible, but never truly awesome either. In a summer filled with Mission: Impossible – Fallout’s jaw-dropping stunts and the “snapture” of Thanos, The Predator barely registers. It may not be a complete bust, but it should have been way better than this considering everyone in front of and behind the camera.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Movie Review: “The Happytime Murders”

Happytime Murders

**** out of 5
91 minutes
Rated R for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material
STX Entertainment

Article first published at
Those shocked Brian Henson, son of Jim Henson, directed The Happytime Murders seem to forget the Muppets have always had an adult edge. Growing up in the ’80s I always preferred the Muppets — or Looney Tunes — to anything on the Disney channel. But here we are with a hard R rating and enough language to make a sailor blush. While it may rely heavily on shock and awe, it’s exactly the kind of film I am happy to watch. After 10 years in development, Happytime is finally here! Just keep your expectations in check.

In a world where puppets coexist with humans, Phil Phillips (puppeteered and voiced by Bill Barretta) is a disgraced ex-cop working as a gumshoe in Los Angeles. His newest client, Sandra (puppeteered and voiced by Dorien Davies), has come calling asking for Phil to find out who is trying to blackmail her. Meanwhile, cast members of an ’80s television show, The Happytime Gang, are being picked off one-by-one and Phil must join forces with his ex-partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to solve the case.

The best way to know if you’re going to enjoy The Happytime Murders is to watch the red band trailer. Full of gross-out humor, hilarious one-liners, and did-I-just-see-that sight gags, Henson never pulls his punches. He also treats his puppet characters as just that, characters. He gives them the same respect his father always did. You believe you’re watching actual characters and not just a bunch of felt sewn together with a hand up its rear. Just about the only thing that could have helped might have been some consulting from Jason Segel. The man does have two Muppets films under his belt and I’m still waiting for him to make a fill film-adaptation of his Forgetting Sarah Marshall Dracula musical.

The Happytime Murders is obviously not for everyone. And it’s absolutely not for kids! There were even times where it felt like I was the only one laughing —  I tlove all things Muppets. Except The Dark Crystal, but I’m willing to try! As for The Happytime Murders, just expect a gloriously filthy combination of Muppets, Raymond Chandler, and The Naked Gun and you’ll have plenty of fun.