Post Date Mar 4 — The Other Side of the Door

The Other Side of the Door Movie ReviewThis Mumbai-set horror flick might be trying to make a point about American exceptionalism. Mostly, though, it’s pseudo-Hindu mumbo jumbo. It also wasn’t shown to critics before opening day, which is never exactly a sign of confidence. My review.

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Post Date Feb 26 — Eddie the Eagle

Eddie the Eagle Movie ReviewI realize I am probably a terrible human being for not liking this formulaic, feel-good family tale, based on the true story of unlikely British ski jumper Michael “Eddie” Edwards. But for a movie about a man with zero athletic ability who had the fearlessness to attempt a perilous 90-meter ski jump for the first time ever in front of a rapt Olympic audience, it takes no chances. My review.

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Post Date Feb 18

Hail, Caesar!

George Clooney plays movie actor Baird Whitlock in “Hail, Caesar!”Universal Pictures
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking.
Running time: 106 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

The Coen brothers — my favorite filmmakers, I should mention at the outset — have always been hit-and-miss when it comes to straight-up comedies. For every “Raising Arizona” or “The Big Lebowski,” there’s an “Intolerable Cruelty” or “The Ladykillers.” All their films have some element of comedy in them, of course, usually of the dark variety. Even their violent films (“Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men”) and dramas (“Inside Llewyn Davis,” “A Serious Man”) feature several moments that make you laugh for the sheer brilliance of their absurdity.

Their latest, “Hail, Caesar!”, is their giddiest comedy to date, but it’s also hit-and-miss within itself. And no, this review won’t merely serve as a celebration of Joel and Ethan Coen’s prodigious cinematic output, although that would be appropriate given what their new movie is about. “Hail, Caesar!” is an exuberant embrace of Golden-Age Hollywood, gliding smoothly through various classic genres over a day in the life of a harried studio executive. Working with their longtime cinematographer, the great Roger Deakins, the Coens richly recreate a series of fake films which you easily could imagine were real — and some of them, you’ll wish you actually could see.

Those are the thrilling, knowing, winking highlights of “Hail, Caesar!”, which takes place in 1951.  Here’s Channing Tatum, doing his best Gene Kelly impression as a lonely sailor in a beautifully choreographed, fluidly shot dance number (which takes a turn you might not expect — that’s the Coensy humor element at work). There’s Scarlett Johansson, brassy in an Esther Williams-style, bathing-beauty extravaganza (and here’s where Deakins gets to have an unusual amount of fun with Technicolor shades of red, yellow and blue). And then there’s Coens regular George Clooney as the venerable yet gullible star of the titular film, a sword-and-sandal epic that’s meant to be the fictional studio’s year-end prestige picture. (The whole thing is called: “Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ,” one of many examples of the brothers’ encyclopedic knowledge of and love for classic film. That was the full title of “Ben-Hur.”)

I actually wouldn’t have minded an entire film of “Merrily We Danced,” complete with behind-the-scenes turmoil. It’s a witty, British drawing-room comedy featuring the sweetly guileless Western actor Hobie Doyle (an enormously magnetic Alden Ehrenreich), who’s got a winning screen presence as long as he doesn’t have to open his mouth. Ralph Fiennes is the fastidious and precise director, Laurence Laurentz, who steadily loses his patience with the twangy actor who’s been thrust upon him. (Just watch the second trailer for “Hail, Caesar!” and tell me you don’t want more of this.) It would have been divine to see more of all these supporting players and more, including Jonah Hill in a small but intriguing role as a lawyer renowned for his trustworthiness (ha ha).

This is all a very long way of saying that the individual films within the film work like gangbusters. Vivid, distinct and lively, they were obviously made with great craft, affection and attention to detail. It’s the through-line tying them all together that tends to bog things down.

Josh Brolin stars as a studio fixer named Eddie Mannix — who’s actually not based on the real-life studio fixer, Eddie Mannix — a family man and devout Catholic. (The film begins and ends with Mannix making his daily confession of nothing terribly earth-shattering to a vaguely annoyed priest; the streaks of light splitting the booth’s darkness reveal Deakins at his visually dramatic best.) “Hail, Caesar!” follows Mannix as he tries to keep various simmering crises from boiling over. There’s the terrible casting of Doyle; the increasingly obvious pregnancy of Johansson’s starlet, DeeAnna Moran; and, most pressingly, the kidnapping of Clooney’s character, Baird Whitlock, by a shadowy group calling itself The Future.

Mannix must tend to all these troubles and more while simultaneously trying to hide them from a pair of inquisitive, identical-twin gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker. (Tilda Swinton does crisp and distinctive double duty as a Hedda Hopper figure, and she gets to wear twice the number of gorgeously tailored dresses and hats from the Coens’ longtime costume designer, Mary Zophres).

As is often the case in the Coen brothers’ films, religion comes into play, not only in Mannix’s Catholicism but also in the film-within-the-film, “Hail, Caesar!”, and in the notion that movies provide something to believe in — a sense of guidance, reliability and hope. This would serve as an excellent double feature with the Coens’ 2009 film “A Serious Man,” their semi-autobiographical tale of a Midwestern husband and father (the great Michael Stuhlbarg) struggling to keep his seemingly normal, suburban life from spiraling out of control. Both focus on men who trudge along, trying to do the right thing in a sea of corruption and selfishness, and who rely on their faith to steer them in the right direction when they’re feeling hopelessly lost.

Brolin’s story isn’t as flashy or fascinating as the fake films that bring “Hail, Caesar!” so vibrantly to life, meandering and tinged with melancholy as it is. And maybe the conclusion — which is abrupt and unsatisfying — is intended as such compared to the neatly packaged Hollywood endings that mark the made-up movies in “Hail, Caesar!” (They do this a lot, you know — the ambiguous ending. Often, it works and provokes thought and discussion. This time, it just kinda … ends.)

Then again, maybe this is one of the siblings’ movies that require repeated viewings to “get” what they intended, truly. Just to watch Channing Tatum tap-dance on a table top again, it’d be worth the time investment.

Post Date Feb 12

Kung Fu Panda 3

Kung Fu Panda 3 Movie ReviewDreamWorks Animation
Rated PG for martial arts action and some mild rude humor.
Running time: 95 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

So vividly immersive is “Kung Fu Panda 3” — so vibrant, so tactile — it will make you feel as if you’ve stepped into a fully realized world. And then once you’ve stepped out, you’ll be craving dumplings.

At least Nicolas and I were after attending a matinee screening of the latest DreamWorks Animation adventure. And the dumpling itself — the way it’s used and what it represents — is a perfect microcosm of the movie as a whole. Dumplings function in myriad ways here: as fuel, as incentive, in training and in battle as actual ammunition. They may look soft on the outside but they’re filled with delicious and perhaps unexpectedly powerful stuff on the inside. And they provide both a connection to the past as well as simple enjoyment in the present.

But this is not a restaurant review and I am not a food critic. So I should stick to what I know: “Kung Fu Panda 3” is stunningly beautiful to look at with images in both 3-D and 2-D animation. But it’s also a complete blast, and it manages to have a surprising amount of emotional heft without being heavy-handed. The film from co-directors Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh benefits from a wide array of styles and textures that create the look of specific worlds yet work seamlessly together, but it also features a lush color palette ranging from bold reds, greens and golds to delicate pastels. It also has great visual flair, including energetic use of split screens during training montages and battle sequences.

Visuals alone are not enough, though, as you know. “Kung Fu Panda 3” has a story to tell that’s inspiring without being mawkish. It’s the classic student-becomes-the-teacher scenario, a staple within the martial arts genre. It’s about learning to embrace who you are, being your best self and celebrating the powerful collaborative spirit that diverse talents can provide — all worthwhile messages for young viewers, which returning screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger manage to impart with great authenticity and balance of tone. No one is reinventing the wheel here, but the wheel that emerges provides a enjoyable ride.

“Kung Fu Panda 3” is a mostly playful exercise, as you can imagine any film will be in which Jack Black provides the voice of a roly-poly, man-child bear. But when you have a voice cast full of serious actors as you do here, they bring real craft to their performances and create moments of genuine poignancy. Besides Black, returning to star as the ever-enthusiastic Po, there are the new additions of Bryan Cranston as Po’s long-lost father and J.K. Simmons as a villainous yak from the spirit realm.

If that sounds silly, that’s because it is, and Simmons has a couple of amusing running gags to enjoy here — but he’s also, you know, truly evil. I’ve been talking a lot about the film’s emotional elements, but fundamentally, “Kung Fu Panda 3” is just flat-out funny. I vaguely recall the previous two films in the series from 2008 and 2011, but this latest installment was a real delight.

This time, Po’s mentor, the diminutive Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), tells Po it’s time for him to step into his destined role as the Dragon Warrior by serving as teacher to the members of his own team: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross). At the same time, Po’s father, Li, arrives looking for the son he lost many years ago — which makes Po’s adoptive father, the noodle-making goose Mr. Ping (James Hong), feel insecure and threatened.

But Po will need everyone’s help — including a clan of pandas who’ve long been living in a mystical, mountaintop land — to fight the power-hungry Kai (Simmons), who seeks to rule all by stealing the chi of kung fu masters across China. This may sounds more complicated than it actually is; basically, “Kung Fu Panda 3” is about teamwork, and about trusting that the power you need has been within you all along.

Not a bad message for kids to hear — and a solid topic to discuss over several orders of steaming dumplings afterward.

Post Date Feb 12 — How to Be Single

How to Be Single Movie ReviewThe ensemble rom-com “How to Be Single” manages the tricky feat of balancing bawdiness and sentimentality. It doesn’t do quite as good a job of connecting all its various story lines. But the cast is so winning, you may not mind, and there’s a moment toward the end that packs a surprising emotional wallop. My mixed review, at

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Post Date Feb 5 — Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Movie Review“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”: It’s “Pride and Prejudice” … with zombies. The “Pride and Prejudice” parts work fine. It’s the zombie bits that are a problem. My review.

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Post Date Jan 29 — Fifty Shades of Black

Fifty Shades of Black Movie ReviewI’m not saying it’s good. But this Marlon Wayans spoof of “Fifty Shades of Grey” isn’t quite as terrible as you might expect. And it may have something substantive to say, in between all the prosthetic penises and pop-culture references. My review.

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Post Date Jan 24

The 5th Wave

The 5th Wave Movie ReviewSony Pictures
Rated PG-13 for violence and destruction, some sci-fi thematic elements, language and brief teen partying.
Running time: 112 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.

“The 5th Wave” plays like a Wayans-brothers spoof of movies based on dystopian Young Adult novels. Seriously, it could have been called “YA Movie” the way it wallows in all the overly familiar tropes of the genre. Theaters could offer checklists at the door to allow us to play along and at least have a little fun with it.

Let’s see, we have:

— An apocalypse that decimates the planet (this time, aliens are to blame).

— A plucky teenage girl who dares to think for herself and defy the odds (Chloe Grace Moretz).

— Two hunky potential suitors competing for her affections (Nick Robinson and Alex Roe).

— Adults in control who are clearly untrustworthy, played by serious actors to give the film some semblance of heft (Liev Schreiber and Maria Bello).

— An intense training ritual in which kids learn how to become killers, complete with hand-to-hand combat and firing-range exercises.

— A maze. Seriously, there’s a maze of concrete corridors these kids must navigate in order to escape.

If this sounds familiar to you  — if you’ve seen any or all of the movies in the “Hunger Games,” “Divergent” or “Maze Runner” series — then you know exactly what you’re in for with “The 5th Wave.” There’s even an ending to suggest hopes for a franchise of its own. Rick Yancey, who wrote the book “The 5th Wave,” also wrote a sequel, “The Infinite Sea.” The third installment in the trilogy, “The Last Star,” is due out later this year. Because they all come in trilogies. That’s something you should be familiar with by now, too.

Having said that, Moretz is game for all the physical and psychological mayhem that come her character’s way, and she clearly aims to add depth to this person which might not have existed on the page. Director J Blakeson, working from a script credited to some heavy-hitting veteran writers (Akiva Goldsman, Susannah Grant and Jeff Pinkner), quickly establishes that Moretz’s Cassie used to be a pretty average teenage girl in an idyllic Ohio town: soccer practice, keggers, a wisecracking best friend, an adorable younger brother (Zackary Arthur) and loving parents (Ron Livingston and Maggie Siff).

But then … the aliens come. Who are they? What do they want? Doesn’t matter, although context might provide some actual tension and fear. Just know that they arrive, hover and wreak havoc in a series of waves: a devastating electromagnetic pulse, followed by earthquakes and tsunamis (with tidal wave effects that look pretty cheesy), then an avian flu, then snipers, I think …? People get shot.

(My 6-year-old son, who’s sitting next to me as I write this, just asked: “Why are there five waves? Why don’t the aliens just do it all in one?” It’s a legitimate question.)

Anyway, the fifth wave is coming. And the military (which suspiciously has working vehicles and dramatic overhead lighting out of “Dr. Strangelove”) needs children to help fight the battle. The cute football player Cassie had a crush on before the arrival of The Others, as the aliens become known, is among their most promising soldiers: Robinson’s Ben Parish, whose code name is Zombie. The group’s other bad-ass is a fierce young woman known as Ringer (Maika Monroe from the great “It Follows”), who somehow finds time each day to apply thick, black eyeliner, even though the world could end at any moment.

Cassie’s story runs parallel as she struggles to find her brother, Sam, whom the military has taken to an air force base for tiny soldier training. For a regular and rather sheltered girl, she figures out how to use a high-powered rifle and hide in the wilderness pretty quickly. (And her hair always looks amazing.) She also happens to get rescued by the handsomest farm boy imaginable: Roe’s Evan Walker. There are many moments in “The 5th Wave” that made me and my fellow critics giggle from the back row of the theater, but the one that made us cackle hysterically occurred when Cassie stumbled upon Evan enjoying an early-morning bath in the river. As she surreptitiously spies on him from behind a tree, he turns around to reveal ridiculously sculpted pecs and abs. Amid all the alien-hiding and girl-rescuing, Evan clearly found time to hit the gym.

The true enemy here isn’t too difficult to discern. The massively versatile Schreiber, who improves every film in which he appears, can’t do much with his under-written role as the commanding colonel calling the shots. But perhaps we’ll learn more about him — and come to truly fear him — in the inevitable sequel.

Post Date Jan 22 — The Boy

The Boy Movie ReviewJanuary continues unabated with “The Boy,” a horror movie which was not shown to critics before opening day. It’s about a young woman who takes a job as a nanny for an 8-year-old boy at a towering, Gothic estate in the English countryside, only to find out that the boy isn’t really a boy at all, but rather a doll whom the parents treat like an actual boy. Sounds super creepy, right? It’s actually pretty silly. My review.

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Post Date Jan 15 — In the Shadow of Women

In the Shadow of Women Movie ReviewMy first review of 2016 is of “In the Shadow of Women,” the latest from French New Wave veteran Philippe Garrel. Given that it’s January, I’d say I lucked out big-time. Garrel may not be saying anything terribly new about infidelity, but he’s saying it in lush black and white and with strong performances. Enjoy.

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