Post Date May 13 — Money Monster

Money Monster Movie ReviewDrop Jim Cramer into “Network” and you have “Money Monster” — and yet the result never ends up being quite as thrilling or thought-provoking as that premise sounds. Jodie Foster’s direction is lean and efficient, though, and George Clooney and Julia Roberts have crackling chemistry as always. My mixed review.

Read the review here

Post Date May 11

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War Movie ReviewWalt Disney Pictures
Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of violence, action and mayhem.
Running time: 146 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.

With “Captain America: Civil War,” directors Anthony and Joe Russo have found the tricky balance that eluded the ordinarily reliable Joss Whedon with last year’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

They’ve made a movie that’s both self-referential and self-reverential, thrilling and heady, packed with giant set pieces and sly pop-culture quips in equal measure. Yes, there’s probably too much going on here: too many characters, too many subplots, too many gears keeping the behemoth Marvel Cinematic Universe grinding ever forward toward world domination. And at nearly two and a half hours, it’s a long sit — although Nicolas, at age 6 1/2, was thoroughly engaged the whole time. (Then again, he’s inordinately Marvel-savvy. Your mileage may differ.).

But “Civil War” remains entertaining throughout, even as it turns introspective. The Russos, who also directed Chris Evans & Co. in the excellent “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” from 2014, have reteamed with the writers of that movie, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Like “The Winter Soldier,” “Civil War” is relevant and resonant without becoming heavy-handed or self-serious the way, oh, say, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” did. It’s got some intelligent, important matters on its mind but also finds a way to deliver in terms of  summer thrills.

Now, I don’t want to divulge too much in terms of plot. I’d like to avoid spoilers for both of the people on the planet who haven’t seen “Civil War” yet. (For a spoiler-tastic review of the film, please enjoy our What the Flick?! discussion.) But I do want to touch on the main things the movie gets so right, as well as the few it gets not quite right.

An inadvertent deadly attack on an office building in Lagos, Nigeria — the result of the Avengers trying to do the right thing, as usual — prompts the U.S. government to question whether these superheroes should be allowed to continue functioning autonomously. A quick montage of the massive urban destruction that has occurred in the past few Marvel movies makes an awfully persuasive case: Yes, they’re using their powers for the greater good in all these instances, but the collateral damage is undeniable. The fact that a Marvel movie dares to question the big, shiny spectacle that is its bread and butter — and acknowledge that untold thousands die in the name of entertainment — seems rather novel. At the same time, “Civil War” approaches this topic in brisk, smart fashion rather than languishing in perpetually rainy, philosophical doldrums the way Zack Snyder’s “BvS” did earlier this year.

As the Avengers and their newfound allies take sides on the issue of whether to sign a treaty agreeing to international oversight or continue with their current strategy of world-saving, no matter the cost, it’s fascinating to see who falls where. It doesn’t shake out the way you might expect; there’s a bit of role reversal here. The typically brash, billionaire industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), better known as Iron Man, is surprisingly conservative when it comes to the group’s use of power. He’s seen some things and thinks General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) has a point in seeking oversight and accountability. Meanwhile, Evans’ Steve Rogers — the earnest do-gooder, Captain America — takes an if-not-now-when, if-not-us-who approach. He wants to maintain the status quo and refuses to sign.

As Steve’s old childhood friend-turned-enemy Bucky (Sebastian Stan) returns from obscurity to unleash his full potential as the reprogrammed killing machine The Winter Soldier, the Avengers must side with either Iron Man or Captain America as the latest and greatest threat to world peace looms ever larger. We’re talking about a lot of people here, folks — so many that you may lose track of who’s on which team in the midst of major battles. Maybe that’s the point, though — the futility of war and whatnot. All I know is, the next day, Nicolas and I had a hard time recalling who was Team Cap and who was Team Iron Man. (Luckily, the ubiquitous billboards throughout Los Angeles helped jog our memories.)

There’s also the revelation of a deep secret that provides a surprisingly emotional underpinning to the ideological feud between Iron Man and Captain America. It arrives during a moment of beautiful dramatic in snowy Siberia, and it’s the film’s most gorgeous, memorable image (the work of cinematographer Trent Opaloch, who also shot “The Winter Soldier”). And that’s about all I want to say about that.

As for the performances — because yes, they do matter, even in a blockbuster about comic-book heroes — an enormous cast gets even bigger with the addition of characters from Marvel movies past and future. Everyone gets a brief moment to shine but it’s often tantalizing and perhaps not enough. Besides Evans and Downey — who seem to feel these characters in the very fiber of their being by now — there’s also Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Anthony Mackie as Falcon, Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch and Paul Bettany as Vision. The tremendously versatile Chadwick Boseman, who’s already played Jackie Robinson (“42”) and James Brown (“Get On Up”) in just the past few years, provides excitement both physically and emotionally as newcomer Black Panther — and he’ll get his own movie, directed by Ryan Coogler, in 2018.

But the best part of “Civil War” for me was the reintroduction of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. It is THE highlight of the movie. Tom Holland finds just the perfect tone as the webslinger, whom we’ve seen in countless other incarnations. Tobey Maguire was quippy and Andrew Garfield was angry and both played this iconic role with varying degrees of success. Holland gets the boyish giddiness of having superpowers; his joy is infectious, and his banter with Downey positively crackles.

And unlike the Black Panther movie, you only have to wait until next year for “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Because regardless of how good any of these movies are individually, they’re all just cogs in the massive Marvel machinery.


Post Date May 5 — A Bigger Splash

A Bigger Splash Movie Review“A Bigger Splash” is simultaneously sumptuous and startling — a true feast for the senses, featuring four superb performances from Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson and especially Ralph Fiennes. He absolutely tears up the screen as well as the film’s idyllic setting on an island off the coast of Sicily. Director Luca Guadagnino’s follow-up to 2009’s “I Am Love” isn’t quite as gorgeous or great, but then again, what could be? My review.

Read the review here


Post Date May 2

Mother’s Day

Mother's Day Movie ReviewOpen Road Films
Rated PG-13 for language and some suggestive material.
Running time: 118 minutes.
One half star out of four.

“Mother’s Day” is so terrible that it inspired me to start my list of the worst movies of 2016.

January and February are traditionally dumping-ground time, so a lot of truly awful movies usually have paraded past my eyes by this time each year. But “Mother’s Day” felt like a particular milestone, one that I wanted to commemorate with great alacrity — like, as soon as the credits started rolling and I could turn my phone back on again.

Garry Marshall just needs to stay away from holidays altogether. “Mother’s Day” is the veteran director’s third ensemble comedy based on a beloved event on the calendar following “Valentine’s Day” (2010) and “New Year’s Eve” (2011). I had vague hope that this one might actually be better, given that it didn’t come from the writer of those first two movies. But they just keep getting worse. The wacky antics and mawkish sentimentality of A-listers colliding into each other have given way to complete incoherence this time around.

There isn’t a single authentic moment in this entire movie which, mindbogglingly, runs all of two hours. As a mother myself in my early 40s, I am your target audience, and I did not witness anything that moved me in any emotional direction beyond extreme discomfort. There is exactly one scene that maybe kinda-sorta works briefly, and that’s just because Julia Roberts is really good at crying on cue.

Basically, Jennifer Aniston and Kate Hudson and Britt Robertson and Sarah Chalke and Margo Martindale are moms and Roberts might be a mom and Shay Mitchell is a stepmom and Jason Sudeikis is a dad. They all live in Atlanta, where their lives intertwine in ways that are both contrived and mundane and where it’s warm much of the time, giving Aniston and Hudson the opportunity to exercise outdoors quite a bit (in pieces from Hudson’s Fabletics line of workout gear, no doubt).

Aniston stars as Sandy, who’s amicably divorced from Timothy Olyphant’s Henry, with whom she has two young sons. (One of them has asthma, which will provide a crucial plot point later. It’s like Chekhov’s Inhaler.) But Henry recently has eloped with his much younger girlfriend, the bombshell Tina (Mitchell), which sends Sandy into a cliched, middle-aged panic of shrill, existential angst.

Sandy also happens to be friends with Hudson’s character, Jesse, who’s secretly married to a man of Indian descent (Aasif Mandvi) because her conservative, racist parents in Texas (Martindale and Robert Pine) wouldn’t approve. She also has a child with his man, which is also a secret. Across the street, Jesse’s sister (Sarah Chalke) is also secretly a wife and mother — with her longtime partner, a woman named Max (Cameron Esposito). When Mom and Dad pull up to Jesse’s house in their RV unannounced, madcap hilarity ensues. “Mother’s Day” might be trying to show how diverse and progressive it is in representing every kind of family, but it’s a laugh track away from “Three’s Company” levels of subterfuge. (The script, for the record, comes from Anya Kochoff Romano, Matt Walker and Tom Hines.)

Robertson, meanwhile, plays a cocktail waitress named Kristin. She’s the mother of an infant with her longtime boyfriend, Zack (Jack Whitehall), a Brit who also happens to be the least funny stand-up comedian in America. His lame sets are prime examples of the excruciatingly awkward editing strategy at work here, with repeated cutaways to audience members laughing hysterically at moments when Zack isn’t even telling an actual joke.

Finally, there’s Sudeikis as a recent widower named Bradley. His wife (Jennifer Garner, seen only in cheesy karaoke video footage during a moment of reminiscence) was a Marine lieutenant who died in battle in Afghanistan, leaving him to raise the couple’s two daughters alone. Ten bucks if you can figure out which single-mom character he’ll eventually end up with.

Roberts flits in and out of these storylines as Miranda Collins, a home-shopping style maven who peddles jewelry, including cheap-looking pendants that change color depending on your mood. She may be related to somebody else in “Mother’s Day”; her close-cropped orange bob, however, is related to no human being on the planet. (But Marshall, who directed Roberts to super-stardom a quarter century ago in “Pretty Woman,” does manage to wring the movie’s one fleeting, decent moment out of her here, too.)

Marshall veers wildly between hokey moments that are meant to be humorous and saccharine moments that are meant to be sentimental. Sudeikis’ painful rap routine to a sanitized version of “The Humpty Dance” is meant to be both simultaneously. The characters never feel like real people, even though they’re constantly explaining themselves to us. (“I have abandonment issues,” Kristin says while discussing why she won’t marry Zack.) And their antics are lighted in a flat, bright way that creates a distracting feeling of detachment.

If you love your mother — or even if you hate your mother — take her to see something else this Mother’s Day. A revival of “Mommie Dearest,” maybe.

Post Date Apr 21 — The Huntsman: Winter’s War

The Huntsman: Winter's War Movie Review“The Huntsman: Winter’s War” is for people who liked “Frozen” but thought it wasn’t angry enough. It’s a sorta-prequel, sorta-sequel to 2012’s “Snow White and the Huntsman” and it’s a total mess. The costumes are gorgeous, though. My 1 1/2-star review.

Read the review here

Post Date Apr 15 — Rio, I Love You

Rio, I Love You Movie ReviewThese “Cities of Love” movies — collections of shorts that pay homage to a specific place — keep getting worse. “Paris, Je T’aime” was hit-and-miss but had plenty of charm. “New York, I Love You” strangely failed to capture the essence of a city that’s been depicted on film countless times. The latest anthology, set in Rio de Janeiro, has the glossy emptiness of an tourism promotion video. My review.

Read the review here

Post Date Apr 11

Revisiting Ice Castles

If you were a little girl in the 1970s like I was, you probably loved “Ice Castles” and watched it a million times — whether or not you’d ever actually set foot on the ice yourself.

You know that aspiring figure-skating champion Lexie Winston (Lynn-Holly Johnson) is going to take a hard fall while landing a jump that leaves her nearly totally blind, just as she’s on the brink of superstardom, yet you’re gripped with suspense as it’s about to happen. You know she’ll trip on the congratulatory roses tossed from the crowd once she stages her hard-fought comeback, and that her hockey-player boyfriend, Nick (Robby Benson), will walk onto the ice to lead her to safety before stunned onlookers. (His closing line, “We forgot about the flowers,” has an understated poignancy.)

Merely clicking on the link to this story probably has put the “Ice Castles” theme song, “Through the Eyes of Love,” in your head, and it’ll probably stay there for the rest of the week. (You’re welcome.) Like so much about the film, the soaring ballad is so completely of its time: a Marvin Hamlisch/Carole Bayer Sager collaboration, sung by Melissa Manchester, which earned an Oscar nomination for best original song.

Clearly, I have a ton of fond memories of this movie, but I hadn’t seen it in a really long time and I hadn’t seen it since my son and I started figure skating ourselves a year ago. (Not that we skate together — although that could make for some awesomely awkward, “Arrested Development”-style creepiness.) And so when I saw that the New Beverly Cinema was showing “Ice Castles” last night on a double bill with the Richard Dreyfuss-Amy Irving piano romance “The Competition” (which I’d never seen), I knew I had to go, even if it meant sitting by myself and crying alone like a loser. (Thankfully, my fellow critic and dear friend Amy Nicholson joined me.)

I was curious to see whether it still held the same emotional impact that it did when I was a romantic little girl in 1979 — whether nostalgia would win out over my more critical instincts, or whether it would hold up despite seeming so dated. Looking back, my fellow critics were not terribly kind to “Ice Castles.” It’s at 44 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, with my dear, departed friend, Roger Ebert, giving it two stars out of four and saying: “One of the melancholy aspects of `Ice Castles’ is the quality of talent that’s been brought to such an unhappy enterprise.”

What I discovered in revisiting “Ice Castles” is that it’s pure sports-movie formula about a gifted athlete who rises and falls and rises again, but it’s got such strong performances and a vivid sense of place that it makes you want to root for this underdog to succeed. Despite the inherent melodrama of the story, director and co-writer Donald Wrye stages and shoots it all in a lean, unfussy way. (Wrye also directed a 2010, direct-to-DVD remake of “Ice Castles,” which I’ve never seen and wish I didn’t even know about.) His low-angle camerawork during Lexie’s performances and Nick’s hockey games gives those scenes a natural, propulsive energy. And he doesn’t rely too heavily on blurry images to give us the sensation of Lexie’s muted perspective, but does so just enough to indicate her disorientation and fear.

The fact that an actual figure skater plays the lead role — not an actress pretending to skate — lends a great deal of authenticity. Johnson had skated competitively and performed with the Ice Capades before making her film debut here. Her character experiences a massive arc, requiring her to show a great deal of range, and Johnson rises to the challenge admirably. She’s vibrant and appealing, which goes a long way.

It helps a great deal that Johnson’s got such strong support around her, including Benson as her playful but supportive boyfriend, Tom Skerritt as her overprotective, widower father and the great Colleen Dewhurst as a cantankerous former skating champion who now runs the bowling alley/ice rink in small-town Waverly, Iowa, and serves as Lexie’s coach. (Please tell me that such places actually exist in real life.) Jennifer Warren brings sophistication and smarts to the role of the big-time coach who plucks Lexie from obscurity and places her on a path to stardom.

But the one element that really clanged for me this time was Lexie’s fling with the sports reporter (David Huffman) who’s tracking her meteoric rise: a) She’s only 16 and he’s got to be in his 30s, and b) he’s doing a series of pieces on her and then squiring her around to high-profile events. Just icky all around.

And in retrospect, the choreography and costumes all look so quaint. Lexie’s big move is a double axel and she tries to prove she belongs with the big-city girls by landing a triple; these days, triple-triple jump combinations are standard for elite skaters like Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold. Lexie’s signature blue dress with the prim, white collar is meant to be old-fashioned and set her apart as a farm girl, but even the fancy, bedazzled dresses the top skaters wear look hilariously cheesy today.

But the chance at greatness — the aspiration toward being the absolute best at something — still resonates, regardless of aesthetic trappings. And that’s why “Ice Castles” still soars today.

Post Date Apr 9

Hardcore Henry

Hardcore Henry Movie ReviewSTX Entertainment
Rated R for for non-stop bloody brutal violence and mayhem, language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug use.
Running time: 95 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.

Bring Dramamine if you’re planning on seeing “Hardcore Henry.” And do NOT meet up with friends for drinks beforehand.

This extra-violent extravaganza of first-person action filmmaking is not for the faint of heart, and it surely is not for anyone under age 17. (Your tweens and teens may think it looks fun, or dope, or whatever the kids say these days with their rock ‘n’ roll music. Say no. This is a very hard R.) At the same time, it’s probably also not for grown-ass people like yours truly. It is pummeling. It is punishing. It is nauseating and headache-inducing. I was seriously discombobulated walking back to my car afterward and was in a pissed-off mood the rest of the night. Maybe that’s the point.

But if you’re in the sweet spot of its target viewing audience — video game enthusiasts in their 20s and 30s, and more than likely male — then “Hardcore Henry” is for you. Now get off my lawn.

Writer-director Ilya Naishuller, a 29-year-old Russian who’s also the lead singer of the punk band Biting Elbows, has come up with an inventive premise and an intriguing mystery that grab your attention — at least for the first 20 minutes or so. But the film’s relentless, repetitive violence quickly grows numbing and even boring — which, theoretically, is not what you’re looking to achieve in a high-octane action flick.

“Hardcore Henry” is predicated on a gimmick — albeit, a clever gimmick — but there’s not much more to the movie than that. Naishuller attached GoPro cameras to a bunch of stuntmen to create the sensation that we are experiencing everything our protagonist, Henry, experiences: all the running, jumping, climbing, chasing, crashing, fighting, shooting and killing. We never see his face and we don’t even hear his voice because he doesn’t have one. We are learning everything right alongside him. We are essentially watching someone play a first-person shooter video game on a giant movie screen.

The film begins with Henry waking up in a lab with no memory of who he is or how he got there. A beautiful, blonde scientist, Estelle (Haley Bennett), is attaching high-tech prosthetic limbs to his battered, tatted body — and she says she’s his wife. But he quickly realizes he’s in danger and must go on the run throughout Moscow from the various bad guys who are after him, including a diabolical albino with telekinetic powers (Danila Kozlovsky) and his army of cyborg henchmen. Luckily for Henry, though, he’s a killing machine — part man, part science experiment — which makes the vast majority of “Hardcore Henry” a non-stop bloodbath.

The curiosity of who he is, how he got in this condition and what the crazy bad guy wants is compelling for a little while. But — spoiler! — the movie never answers these questions in a way that’s even vaguely satisfying. The story is totally subordinate to the spectacle. It is the McGuffin. The dizzying visuals are all that matter — but they’re not enough to make us care.

Henry also visits a Russian brothel where dozens of women are dressed (or, rather, undressed) identically in nothing but black panties and platinum blonde wigs. It screams of misogyny, but it’s probably also yet another intentional element in recreating the video game sensation. Various characters do massive amounts of drugs, which I guess is supposed to be edgy. Oh yes, and there’s a ton of language, but that seems almost quaint compared to the other hardcore activities going on here.

One bright spot is Sharlto Copley’s performance as an odd dude named Jimmy, who shows up along the way in various disguises and voices to give Henry clues as to where he needs to go and what he needs to do. Copley gets to play it broadly, mix it up and have a little fun as an “Easy Rider”-style hippie, a punker, a coke fiend in a leopard-print banana hammock and more. He is a welcome source of lightness and humor.

I admire the ambition, the vision and the level of planning it took to pull off such massive, intricately choreographed set pieces, but I can’t exactly say I enjoyed “Hardcore Henry.” By the end, when Henry is fighting off an endless onslaught of white-suited cyborgs on a Moscow rooftop, it’s just impossible to look directly at the screen anymore, and only partly because of the motion sickness that results in doing so.

Post Date Apr 1 — Meet the Blacks

Meet the Blacks Movie Review“Meet the Blacks” is, fundamentally, a spoof of “The Purge” in which a black family moves from a violent section of Chicago to a wealthy enclave in Beverly Hills and finds it’s even more dangerous for them there. But if this is going to be your premise — whites killing blacks out of snobbery or intolerance — your humor better be pretty sharp and sophisticated. Instead, “Meet the Blacks” gives us fart jokes and tired pop-culture references. My one-star review.

Read the review here

Post Date Apr 1 — 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 review.

Read the review here