Sunday, December 29, 2019

Movie Review: “Cats”


* out of 5
110 minutes
Rated PG for some rude and suggestive humor
Universal Pictures

Article first published at
The first trailer for Cats was a textbook example of nightmare fuel. A second trailer was released which didn’t look quite as bad and offered the hope of something possibly fun. Then the press screening came along and confirmed everyone’s fears: Cats is the worst film of the year. Filled to the brim with horribly staged, awkwardly shot/edited dance sequences, sketchy CGI, and absolutely no plot or characters. Try as co-writer/director Tom Hooper might, Cats is even worse than it looks.

The plot is surprisingly simple. Victoria (Francesca Hayward) has just been thrown out by her human and the surrounding Jellicle alley cats whisk her away on an adventure to find out who Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) will grant access to the Heviside Layer to come back to a new life as a Jellicle cat.

Seriously, that’s it. Oh sure, Hooper — who also directed the ill-conceived Les Miserables and allowed Russell Crowe to “sing” — tries to flesh things out a little. There’s a new subplot involving the “Sphinx Theater” where auditions for a new 10th(?) life is held. But the film is so head-scratching it’s amazing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical has been a thing for 40 years. Universal scrapped their intended Wicked adaptation for this?

I do love a good trainwreck, but to be so-bad-it’s-good has to be earned. This is just straight up bad from start to finish. Taylor Swift may show up to try and liven things up, but can’t keep her accent from line-to-line. Meanwhile, Rebel Wilson and James Corden are relegated to fat jokes, Idris Elba surprisingly can’t sing—despite his so-called rap career, and Ian McKellen simply mopes around when he’s not licking milk from a saucer. (And that’s not a euphemism for chewing scenery.)

It doesn’t help that Hooper can’t keep the film in perspective. What size are these cats? It seems to fluctuate from shot-to-shot and from set-to-set. There’s no scale whatsoever. Combined with the haphazard CGI — one characters face literally looks as if it’s floating — and frantic editing, you never get to grasp any sense of wonder into the feline world.

Universal has themselves a mighty huge cat-astrophe. It’s too boring to keep the target audience captivated and too unsightly for the uninitiated. The last musical number also comes off as condescending with Dench’s tone during “The Ad-dressing of Cats” and even Jennifer Hudson’s “Memory” is boring and by the numbers. The only sequence that passes for entertaining is “Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat,” but you’ll forget it even happened once you suffer through the mundane repetitiveness of “Mr. Mistofelees.”

If you really wanna do yourself some mental harm, load up on “catnip,” sit back, and revel in the year’s biggest dumpster fire. After all, that’s pretty much the only way to describe such a horrific curiosity. Hopefully it won’t kill your holiday season.

Movie Review: “They Shall Not Grow Old”

They Shall Not Grow Old

***** out of 5
99 minutes
Rated R for disturbing war images
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at

Typical documentaries have a tendency to come with their own agendas. In the case of Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, Jackson has set out to show us World War I as never before: in remastered, colorized, 3D. Never one to shy away from technical accomplishments, it’s an incredible sight to see. Adding in sound effects and enhancing the overlying interviews, Jackson skips the usual filmmaking narrative for an immersive experience about a war that still seems to have an air of mystery surrounding it.

Cutting down 100 hours of footage and 600 hours of interviews with 200 WWI vets — of which 120 made the cut — They Shall Not Grow Old feels like a behind-the-scenes exposé. Some of the footage looks so good you’d swear it was happening now. There are no dates, names, or locations throughout the entire film adding authenticity and anonymity. There’s also some surprising aspects when you hear how many lied about their age, at least one as young as 15.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a marvel of a technical achievement — Jackson didn’t even receive any payment for making the film. And it shows he put his heart and soul into shining a long overdue spotlight on the men of WWI and works as a loving tribute to his grandfather, Sgt. William Jackson, to whom the film is dedicated.

Movie Review: “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

**** out of 5
142 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published at
Most folks have all kinds of stories involving the Star Wars films. Mine is pretty simple. I was not the Star Wars fan I am now prior to my wife buying me the original trilogy on Blu-ray. She couldn’t believe I didn’t own them, and truth is, back then I didn’t love them. One one hand, these films are not as personal to me, but I at least came to realize what I’d been missing.

And while I may not be a fanboy — I know plenty — my life has become pretty steeped in its pop culture. As I write this, I’m wearing the fleece BB-8 jacket my mother-in-law made me. So as far as The Rise of Skywalker closing out a nine film story arc goes, it works extremely well at both providing some fun moments of fan service and trying to wrap  up a world that spans 42 years of Episodes and spin-offs, TV shows, holiday specials, video games, and comics.

A mysterious broadcast has been heard throughout the galaxy. The phantom Emperor — Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) — is scheming something big and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is tracking him down. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is trying to piece together her training while confronting her past. Meanwhile, the Final Order is on the rise under the tyranny of Supreme Leader Ren, in spite of a mole feeding information to the Jedi resistance. A definite end is nigh for both camps as the ultimate duel inches closer.

Considering the amount of backlash unleashed upon Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, insurmountable expectations were placed upon co-writer/director J.J. Abrams’s shoulders. Returning to the helm without missing a beat, fans get more of that nostalgic Star Wars tone he brought to The Force Awakens, while trying to tie up all the loose ends brought on by TLJ. How you feel about The Rise of Skywalker comes down to one thing: how you felt about The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

On one hand, it almost feels like TLJ barely exists. Skywalker continues to build upon both films, but at the same time, the tone is so much more Force Awakens, you would never be confused if you happened to skip TLJ. That’s no slight to Johnson, it just feels like Abrams — along with co-writer Chris Terrio and producer Kathleen Kennedy — took the high road and continued making the series their own. Whether some like it or not.

We’ll never get to see how George Lucas would have ended his own franchise, but that’s what he gets for selling out to Disney. Granted, we might have never seen any more Star Wars films had it not been for the media conglomerate.  At the end of the day, the cast and crew give it their all and that’s about all we can expect. I encourage everyone to head out to see it so they can make up their own minds.

The cast and crew swing for the fences. They know they’ll never be able to make everyone happy, but damn if they don’t try. From here on, there are no more Skywalker movies in the pipeline and we all should just be ecstatic that a finale even exists. The Rise of Skywalker is the culmination of most people’s entire cinematic lives so far. This is it, folks, it’s really over. You won’t find any spoilers here. I would never do that and neither should anyone else.

The Rise of Skywalker is probably the epitome of “critic proof.” So the best advice is to gather up your friends, head on out to the theater, buckle in tight, and bid farewell to one of the biggest franchises on the planet.

Movie Review: “Jumanji: The Next Level”

Jumanji: The Next Level

**** out of 5
123 minutes
Rated PG-13 for adventure action, suggestive content and some language
Columbia Pictures

Article first published at

Let’s be honest, no one was clamoring for a Jumanji reboot. Then, with its hilarious cast and director, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle became a huge hit in 2017. So it should come as no surprise that now we have Jumanji: The Next Level. Thankfully, almost everyone has returned — a couple of the first film’s writers have been replaced by director Jake Kasdan — to deliver a sequel that follows the two most important comedy adventure rules: bigger and funnier.

It’s Christmas break and the gang — Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Bethany (Madison Iseman), and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) — are headed home from college and other excursions. While they make plans to meet, Spencer regresses to his reclusive ways and takes another trip inside Jumanji to deal with his insecurities. Everyone bands together to head into the game to find Spencer, but little do they know that Jumanji has its own plans and the rules, and players, have changed. Now — along with Spencer’s grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito), and Eddie’s lifelong friend Milo (Danny Glover) — they’ll have to relearn everything from their first adventure if they want to get out alive.

No one should ever walk into a film like Jumanji expecting to find much meaning. It’s pure escapism from start to finish, just like the first one. As for characters, it doesn’t really do much in the way of deepening relationships, but it does offer some of the cast the opportunity to play new characters. Kasdan is having just as much fun with a few bigger set pieces — one feels like Jurassic Park meets Mad Max — and the screenplay moves things along at a clip. It definitely earns its two-hour runtime which sounded excessive. But with the cast’s rapport and ability to play off each other, Jumanji: The Next Level makes for a super fun two hours. And right now, that’s exactly the kind of entertainment we need most.

Movie Review: “Knives Out”

Knives Out

*** out of 5
130 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material

Article first published at

With as much shade was thrown at The Phantom Menace, at least it wasn’t released in the age of social media. Poor Rian Johnson was sent through the ringer over The Last Jedi, and while that may not be the best Star Wars, it’s far from the worst. The man deserved a break and what better way than to make a safe, fluffy film that’s as far removed from a galaxy far far away as he could get.

Knives Out is not Johnson’s best film. He’s never made a horrible film, but to make it clear, this is The Brothers Bloom Johnson, not Brick/Looper Johnson. It’s simply Agatha-Christie via Wes Anderson-lite, playing fast and loose with a decent story with no warmth, heart, surprises, or laughs. While it’s an interesting endeavor to be sure, it’s far from the masterpiece it’s being heralded as.

Crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is dead. The day after his 85th birthday no less. With his wealth up for grabs, of course everyone is suspect. Could it be his embezzling daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette)? Or Walt (Michael Shannon), his resentful son in charge of his publishing?

Maybe Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), his daughter who doesn’t know that her husband, Richard (Don Johnson), is having an affair? Possibly a grandson or two: the alt-right extremist Jacob (Jaeden Martell) or estranged Ransom (Chris Evans)? Or maybe, just maybe, his beloved caretaker, Marta (Ana de Armas)? Fear not, viewers, detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is here to crack the case by credits end!

With a seemingly never-ending list of stars, you’d expect Knives Out to be a lot more fun. Or at least as much as Lionsgate’s marketing team is trying to prove. While I’m never afraid to be arbitrary, unfortunately, Knives Out is all quirk with no bite. Johnson ensures every cast member — aside from a small few — chews scenery to their heart’s content. At least they’re having fun, maybe for someone else it will be more infectious. With a two hour plus runtime, the shenanigans start to wear very thin by the 90-minute mark.

At least Plummer, Craig, and de Armas are consistently watchable. And the big twist isn’t saved for the end. So it turns the whole whodunnit aspect in a new direction and becomes more of a will-they-get-away-with-it? For anyone who enjoys a good battle of the classes with a heavy dose of entitlement run amok, Knives Out features a dysfunctional family who are at least more enjoyable than your own may be.

Just check expectations going in and you’ll probably enjoy it a lot more than I did. Maybe I’m getting a case of the year-end screening bah humbugs, but it takes a lot more to make me laugh than just Captain America cussing and an overlong film filled with just two hours worth of smirks.