Post Date Apr 1

RogerEbert.com — Kill Your Friends

Kill Your Friends Movie Review“Kill Your Friends,” a dark satire of the late-’90s music industry, is amusingly slick and biting for a while. Nicholas Hoult stars as a successful and handsome but secretly homicidal A&R executive at a London record label. But comparisons to “American Psycho” are inevitable, and “Kill Your Friends” doesn’t measure up favorably. The soundtrack is pretty great, though. My RogerEbert.com review.

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Post Date Mar 25

RogerEbert.com — My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 Movie ReviewIt may sound impossible, but there is indeed another entire big, fat, Greek wedding. And it’s even bigger, fatter and Greeker than the first. Please enjoy my one-star RogerEbert.com review.

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Post Date Mar 20

The Divergent Series: Allegiant

Lionsgate Films
Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some partial nudity.
Running time: 120 minutes.
One star out of four.

The confused look on the faces of all the characters in the above photo pretty much tells you everything you need to know about “Allegiant” — I’m sorry, “The Divergent Series: Allegiant.” Because three films into the franchise, the title is now being elongated with extra punctuation and everything. It “matters” now.

Whereas the original “Divergent” from 2014 had the excitement of discovery working for it, this one’s bafflingly self-serious. They just keep getting worse. Following last year’s “Insurgent,” this one’s just a total slog. And unfortunately, it’s not over. As is always the case with movie series based on young adult novels, the third book in Veronica Roth’s trilogy is being broken into two films. The “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” franchises employed this tactic with greater success. With “Divergent,” it feels more like a threat than a promise: You thought we were done here? Think again.

“Allegiant” is one overlong, dour placeholder for the actual finale, due out next summer. In theory, though, the premise sounded exciting.

This time, plucky Tris (Shailene Woodley), her hunky boyfriend, Four (Theo James), and their ragtag band of buddies dare to climb the wall that surrounds Chicago in this dystopian near-future to see what’s on the other side. That’s been the mystery all along: What’s out there? How could it be more dangerous and soul-sucking than what’s in here? With the overly simplistic faction system having been dismantled — and Kate Winslet’s power-mad Jeanine out of the picture — they feel emboldened to be the best version of themselves they can be and explore the outside world.

What they find, though, are terrible special effects. Director Robert Schwentke, who also helmed last year’s “Insurgent,” has created a craggy, reddish-fuchsia world where toxic rain bleeds from the sky. It vaguely resembles Mars, but the quality of the visuals is more reminiscent of how crappy the green-screen effects looked in Robert Rodriguez’s “Spy Kids” movies (especially the later ones). A nightmarish landscape that’s meant to be frightening — or at least unsettling — ends up being hilariously cheesy instead.

But Tris and Four also find themselves in the midst of a weird Holocaust allegory. (And maybe this was how it went down in Roth’s book — honestly, I only read the first one.) Children are separated from their parents and rounded up in the name of scientifically achieving genetic purity. (One little boy watches as his father is shot to death right in front of him.) When Tris, Four and their pals are taken into custody by members of the Bureau of Genetic Welfare — er, rescued from this vast, post-apocalyptic wasteland — they’re told to throw their clothes into an incinerator before stepping into a shower for “decontamination.” (The gooey, golden pods that protect them from the elements as they’re carried to safety look especially stiff and strange.)

What are we meant to take from this, I wonder? Is it intended as a cautionary tale? A source of chills and thrills? I’m not sure the film itself even knows. Having a seasoned actor like Jeff Daniels playing the bureau’s creepy chief lends a bit of gravitas, but his character is so obviously evil that there’s no question or suspense as to his intentions. Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts (in a terrible brunette dye job) as warring Chicago leaders show glimmers of feistiness, but even strong, versatile actresses like these can only do so much with what they’re given on the page. (The script is credited to Noah Oppenheim, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage.)

And then, intermittently, “Allegiant” makes the mistake of trying to be funny. Mostly this comes in the form of Miles Teller as the slithery, opportunistic Peter, whose own allegiances flip-flop to suit his purposes. Basically, Teller has been tasked with showing up and being snarky on cue. Not only is this jarring, it’s an example of the entire supporting cast (including Ansel Elgort as Tris’ uptight brother and Zoe Kravitz as her confident friend) being reduced to one-note roles, which has been a problem throughout the series.

Anyway, Tris must decide between being special in the eyes of of a dastardly genetic purist and special in the eyes of the handsome young man who loves her. Being confused as she’s tugged in both directions is not Woodley’s strong suit; an accessible, abiding naturalism is. Here, she’s been rendered strangely inert, despite the innate physicality of the role. Perhaps next year’s “Ascendent” will allow her to be her own woman, once and for all. But I wouldn’t hold my breath, despite the contaminated air.

Post Date Mar 16

RogerEbert.com — Miracles From Heaven

Miracles from Heaven Movie ReviewIf you’ve read my reviews over the years, you probably know I’m not a big fan of faith-based films. That’s what makes “Miracles From Heaven” such a wonderful surprise. But regardless of your religious beliefs (or lack thereof), bring tissues. You’ll need them for this real-life story of a little girl’s miraculous healing. My unexpectedly positive RogerEbert.com review.

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Post Date Mar 14

London Has Fallen

London Has Fallen Movie ReviewGramercy Pictures
Rated R for strong violence and language throughout.
Running time: 99 minutes.
One star out of four.

“London Has Fallen” is Donald Trump in film form.

And not even in the funny, Funny-or-Die film form, which knowingly luxuriates in the ludicrousness of his bombastic persona. “London Has Fallen” is a shot of Trump’s jingoistic viciousness straight to the veins.

In this numbingly violent, over-the-top sequel to 2013’s “Olympus Has Fallen,” all Westerners are innocent targets of terrorism. All Muslims are single-minded extremists. And only one man — Gerard Butler, once again swallowing his Scottish accent to play the nation’s most indestructible Secret Service agent — can stop them.

It’s: “America, Fuck Yeah!” with zero irony.

But let’s try to set aside the fear-based philosophical and political underpinnings for a moment and just focus on “London Has Fallen” for its entertainment value as an action flick: It’s actually kind of dull in its monotony. Director Babak Najafi whips up a couple of cool sequences that stand out amid the relentless gunfire and cacophonous destruction. One takes place inside a spinning helicopter as it’s under attack; the camera spins, too, from inside the chopper and then outside as it slams into the side of a building before crashing to the ground. In the other, he creates the sensation of a lengthy, unbroken take as Butler’s outnumbered but undaunted Mike Banning tries to hold off a barrage of enemy gunfire down a long, narrow street in the black of night.

And that’ll just about do it for the complimentary portion of this review.

Najafi, by the way, was born in Iran and makes his English-language directing debut with “London Has Fallen.” Helming a massive action picture with a cast featuring Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Jackie Earle Haley, Melissa Leo and Robert Forster probably sounded like an attractive challenge, but I can’t help but wonder what he thought of the film’s ideology. (The screenplay is credited to four people, including the husband-and-wife team of Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, who also wrote “Olympus Has Fallen.”)

The premise this time is that the British prime minister has died suddenly, which means all the world’s leaders must convene in London for his funeral. That includes Eckhart’s president of the United States, Benjamin Asher, with the ever-reliable and wisecracking head of his detail, Banning, as well as Bassett’s Lynne Jacobs, the Secret Service chief. Also arriving to pay their respects are the leaders of Germany, Italy, France, Japan and Canada.

Despite insistence from the local authorities that security is super tight, Banning has a bad feeling about this — and as it turns out, he’s right. Plus, at the film’s start, he’s about to quit his job to spend more time with his pregnant wife (Radha Mitchell), who’s on the verge of giving birth at any moment. Of course something terrible was going to happen.

Middle Eastern Evil Guy Amir Barkawi (Alon Aboutboul), an internationally wanted arms dealer, takes the opportunity not only to assassinate all these heads of state but decimate London’s centuries-old landmarks in the process. He does this to avenge the killing of his daughter two years earlier on her wedding day in a drone strike that was meant for him. And he does it by infiltrating the police force and through general high-tech omnipotence.

From there, Banning’s main assignment is to get the president out of London, but first he must stop the evildoers who’ve taken over the city, making movement and communication nearly impossible. Back home, the vice president (Freeman) and various cabinet members and security chiefs wait and worry as they watch the devastating images from London and receive threats from Barkawi, who promises he’ll kill President Asher at 8 p.m. Gunfire, gunfire and more gunfire ensue. But sometimes, Banning also gets to stab someone as he protects the president, and he literally twists the knife with glee as he does it.

Superficially, their adrenalized adventures are meant to be thrilling. But fundamental to the duo’s quest to survive is an us-vs.-them mentality that’s offensive in the overly simplistic way it panders to fears of terrorism in general and Muslims in particular. They can’t stand us and our way of life, the film seems to be saying. These villains don’t even get the benefit of characterization beyond hatred and mastery of high-tech weaponry. They will kill as many people as they must to get to the leader of the free world. And when they do get their hands on him, they will beat and torture him cruelly.

Nearly as obnoxious is the flippant way Banning and Asher share a jovial quip each time they get out of a jam. At one point, Banning makes a joke about Asher coming out of the closet after Asher literally has stepped out of a closet. This is the level of repartee you can expect from “London Has Fallen.” Ostensibly, this brand of humor is meant to provide comic relief; instead, it’s cringe-inducing.

I hated “London Has Fallen” so much that as soon as I got out of the screening, I changed the Waze voice on my phone from the smooth, comforting tones of Freeman back to Thomas, the British guy who mispronounces major Los Angeles streets like La Cienega and Sepulveda. Hopefully, no more cities have to fall.

Post Date Mar 11

RogerEbert.com — The Young Messiah

The Young Messiah Movie Review“The Young Messiah” is essentially an origin story for the archetypal superhero: Jesus Christ. Exploring what life might have been like for the messiah at age 7 is an intriguing idea, but the execution is rather earnest and dull. Still, it has better production values than most faith-based films. Hallelujah! My RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here

Post Date Mar 4

RogerEbert.com — 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 RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here

Post Date Feb 26

RogerEbert.com — 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 RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here

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.