Film Review: “Atomic Blonde”

Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy and John Goodman
Directed By: David Leitch
Rated: R
Running Time: 115 minutes
Focus Features

David Leitch’s first solo directed movie comes after the success of his work on the “John Wick” franchise. While a lot of the “Wick” DNA is on display in many of its action sequences, “Atomic Blonde” suffers from a choppy narrative and lack of character intrigue outside of its two leads.

MI6 agent Lorraine (Theron) is first seen, covered in bruises and burning the memories of a former ally. She walks into a soundproof room to give her recorded recollection of her undercover week leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. She recounts her tale of infiltrating East Berlin, in search of an allusive watch containing information on every agent deployed during the Cold War. Failing to retrieve that token, may result in another 40 years of nuclear arms muscle flex by the U.S. and Soviet Union.

The premise is alluring as Theron’s character radiates macho gusto and calm precision. She speaks in short, biting simplistic sentences and delivers angered quips under her breath. She’s matched by a Berlin ally, David (McAvoy), who’s underground smuggling and cocky smirk covers his secretive intentions. The two, while relatively friendly, aren’t about to become buddies as they spy and record each other. “Atomic Blonde” should be an interesting blend of spy-thriller and action-survival, but is bogged down by its jumbly plot.

There’s plenty of exposition to munch on, but nothing clear or meaningful. There are dozens of characters brought in and out of the woodwork to offer their allegiances and services, but none bring a unique personality or influence to the script. The exquisite opening for “Atomic Blonde” quickly sinks into uninvolving plot progression that feels like an assigned household chore before the film’s real goodies, the action sequences.

Hand-to-hand combat is filmed tightly, but fully in frame to put the viewer right in the middle of fists, kicks, groans and gunshots. They’re some of the film’s most inspired moments, but they’re shoehorned in towards the end and sparse. The sagging middle cuts between uninteresting character interactions and posturing that only pays off in the final 10 minutes of the movie. It makes the entire storyline a lot clearer; however the bad taste of wasted talent meandering aimlessly doesn’t leave your mouth.

This graphic novel adaptation displays an attractive visual flair along with an 80’s best-of soundtrack that keeps your eyes from wandering to far from the screen although there’s no substance beneath its neon portrait. Despite her best efforts, Theron (who also helped produce the movie) can only carry the film so far. Her mix of femme fatale and impenetrable action star is humbled by a late emotional reveal towards the end, that’s more impactful than it should be. Her recent run of action films, like “Mad Max” and “Fate of the Furious” are commendable. But “Atomic Blonde” is more bark than bite.

Film Review: “War for the Planet of the Apes”

Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson and Steve Zahn
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 2 hrs 20 mins
20th Century Fox

If you’re my age (let’s just say over 50) maybe you share one of my fondest movie memories, which was to get up early on a Saturday morning and head to the local movie theatre for the all-day APE-A-THON. That’s right. Large soda, large popcorn and the original five “Planet of the Apes” films, shown back to back. Ah to be 15-years-old again. I bring up this happy thought because I’m here to tell you about another film that made me very happy, “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

As the story begin, the Apes, led by Caesar (Serkis, who NEEDS to win an Oscar soon for his amazing motion-capture performances) and his group have retreated into the jungles. They are living peacefully when suddenly, without warning, they are attacked by a human army led by the ruthless Colonel (Harrelson), whose sole mission in life is to destroy the apes. His tribe decimated by the attack, Caesar comes to the realization that if you can’t join them, beat them. He readies the remainder of his group for the ultimate battle, one that will decide the fate of the world as we know it.

As you can tell by my opening paragraph, I’m a huge fan of all things “Ape.” One of my first celebrity interviews was with Linda Harrison, who played Nova opposite Charlton Heston’s Taylor in the original film. I liked the Tim Burton remake (though I’m still puzzled by the ending) and the previous films in this series have been consistently well made. And so is this one, purportedly the final film in the series. Like the others, it is the performances of the cast, both simian and human, that give the film its emotional power. Some people think that motion capture is just a person wearing electrodes and waving their arms. But here the actors also invest their souls, making their characters sympathetic and believable. Except for Harrelson, whose character is neither. Whether he’s shaving his head with a large knife or spouting some long lost mantra, his Colonel has many things in common with another Colonel named Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now!” In fact, as I’m sure an inside joke, inside the human compound is a patch of graffiti that reads “APE-pocalyps Now!” Steve Zahn is the latest addition to the simian cast, giving some much needed humor to the film. In 1991 I saw Zahn play Hugo in a touring production of “Bye Bye Birdie.” Nice to see he’s made something of himself.

The action, as in the previous films, is intense and the pacing is brisk, which isn’t usually the case for a film almost 2 ½ hours long. That being said, if this is the final film in the series it’s going out on top. Hail Caesar!

Film Review: “Spider-Man: Homecoming”

Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton and Robert Downey Jr.
Directed by: Jon Watts
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 2 hrs 13 mins
Sony Pictures

Stop the presses…they got it right!

Even though I’ve enjoyed the past film adventures of everybody’s favorite web-slinger (both the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield versions) there was always something missing. This week I discovered that the missing ingredient was one Mr. Tom Holland. Like Sean Connery is to James Bond, Mr. Holland is the BEST Spider-man EVER!

We begin with a brief prologue, showing the aftermath of the destruction of STARK Tower. Handling the demolition and scrapping of the material is Adrian Toomes (Keaton), who has liquidated his savings to handle the job. Things get bad quickly when a mysterious government official (always great to see Tyne Daly) takes over the project, leaving Toomes and his men out of work. As they leave, the workers help themselves to some sure to be top-secret materials. More on this later.

Jump ahead eight years and we find ourselves in the middle of a video diary being kept by one Peter Parker, who has spent the summer “interning” for Tony Stark (Downey,Jr.) And by interning I mean he has been training to join Stark’s force of Avengers. We see footage from the last film, “Captain America: Civil War”. Remember “Hey, Underoos?”

The summer ends and Peter is back living with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and dealing with high school bullies. Which is funny because Peter attends a school for gifted students. Yes, in a school of Nerds he is the nerdiest. And, best of all, he’s a KID!

Yes, the one thing that always detracted me from the other films is that Peter Parker was always too mature…even if he was supposed to be in his late teens. Here he is a fumbling 14-year-old dealing with changes…his own and with those around him. He’s got the wit, certainly a defense mechanism, and a cool suit, courtesy of Stark. And while Peter wants to branch out to big things, he is counseled to just play things slow…instead of tacking the big things just be “your friendly neighborhood Spider-man.”

The film rides on Holland’s slender shoulders and, to use an often-dropped cliché’, this is the role he was born to play. He gets help from Keaton, who shows up here as a different kind of Birdman. And Downey, Jr. is pure smirk as Tony Stark. And extra credit to young Jacob Batalon, who plays Peter’s seemingly only friend, Ned. When Ned learns Peter’s secret, he promises to keep it, in the hopes that one day he will be Peter’s “guy in the chair,” the person you always see in movies whispering into the hero’s earpiece.

A fine addition to the Marvel Movie Universe, “Spider-man: Homecoming” is one of the best in the series.

Film Review: “The Big Sick”

Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan and Holly Hunter
Directed By: Michael Showalter
Rated: R
Running Time: 119 minutes
Lionsgate

“X-Files” fans, like me, will have surely listened to Kumail Nanjiani’s podcast, “The X-Files Files” at some point (and if you haven’t go listen to it). While most of the time, it’s dissecting the series, episode-by-episode, there are very introspective moments, letting viewers take a glimpse into Kumail’s home life. A few of those moments spoiled “The Big Sick” for me, but despite that, the movie is a refreshing and unique relationship romantic comedy that never relies on the genre’s established tropes.

Kumail, playing himself, comes from a traditional Pakistani Muslim family. He hasn’t yet told his parents that he no longer is practicing, but he’s somewhat upfront about his dreams to be a stand-up comedian. The other thing he’s neglected to tell them, is that he’s not game for an arranged marriage. That’s because the last person in the family to ignore the arranged marriage tradition was exiled from the family. That doesn’t stop him from dating who he wants in secret.

After a night of stand-up, Kumail meets Emily (Kazan), an aspiring therapist that immediately takes to Kumail’s awkward advances, meeting them with charms, smiles and tongue-in-cheek humor. The two quickly connect and begin a relationship, that’s secret for Kumail, but open for Emily. While Emily’s parents know of and can’t wait to meet him, Kumail’s parents bring a carousel of wife prospects over for family dinners to make uncomfortable conversations in Kumail’s various passions and hobbies.

Kumail, who’s known for his recurring role on “Silicon Valley” and various deadpan cameos in comedy films, plays himself sincerely as a 30-something who’s unsure in life and allows for that uncertainty to deteriorate his relationship into an inevitable break-up. But he’s brought back into Emily’s life when she’s taken to the hospital, suffering from a mysterious disease, and induced into a coma. This is when “The Big Sick” has cultures collide.

Emily’s parents, played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, are like the parents Kumail might wish he had. He learns that they’ve accepted their daughter’s individual quirks, dreams and goals, while his parents continue to force a wife on him. But it’s through those interactions that Kumail learns to be sincere about whom he is, along with being honest. “The Big Sick” spends a lot of time with Kumail during Emily’s coma, with him soul searching. It doesn’t take away from the overall relationship between the two and the power of forgiveness.

The argument could be made that Emily’s character is sidelined, before we truly get to know her, however her parents shed some necessary light about her character. “The Big Sick” modernizes the rom-com genre while blending coming-of-age elements and cultural clashes. Despite knowing how it all plays out, “The Big Sick” kept my interest as it plays with its various themes, respectfully and wholeheartedly. It’s layered messages on love and life are good for the soul and good for the heart.

Film Review: “Despicable Me 3”

Starring the voices of: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig and Trey Parker
Directed by: Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin and Eric Guillion
Rated: PG
Running time: 1 hr 30 mins
Universal

When we last saw our familiar cast of characters, Gru (Carell) had given up villainy, married Lucy (Wiig) and settled down to raise the bookish Margo, Tom-boyish Edith and adorable Agnes, surrounded, of course, by the Minions. When we meet them, everything is pretty much the same. Gru and Lucy are now agents for the Anti-Villain League and their current assignment is trying to stop a diamond heist being planned by the notorious Balthazar Bratt (Parker), a one-time child-star turned TMZ-style bad guy. When Gru fails at the assignment he is summarily fired by the new boss. Down on his luck, Gru learns that he has a twin brother, Dru (also Carell) who not only has a beautiful head of blonde hair but has longed to be a villain. He and Gru team up to steal the diamond from Bratt, with Dru thinking he is part of a villainous operation not knowing that Gru intends to return the diamond to its rightful owner and get his job back. Oh, and the Minions are back as well!

One of the most entertaining animated film series ever, “Despicable Me 3” continues the Illumination Entertainment tradition of turning out top-notch films that the whole family can enjoy. The new characters breathe life into the series and it’s always a pleasure to hear the vocal skills of “South Park” co-creator Trey Parker, who even goes a little bit “Cartman” here. The level of comedy for the adults is high while the Minions are plenty to keep the kids entertained. While the popular Kevin, Stuart and Bob are missing, presumably off on whatever adventures will make up “Minions 2,” “Despicable Me 3” introduces us to Mel, soon to be, I’m sure, the next big Minion star, an honor well deserved.

Film Review: “Baby Driver”

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Lily James and Kevin Spacey
Directed By: Edgar Wright
Rated: R
Running Time: 113 minutes
TriStar Pictures

Disney may be kicking themselves in the head over letting Edgar Wright leave “Ant Man” back in 2014. The English director has demonstrated a unique, original vision for all of his projects, from “Shaun of the Dead” to “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” His latest film, “Baby Driver” demonstrates that same unflinching ability to seamlessly blend various genres and styles into a cohesive marvel that dances, shoots and speeds to its own infectious beat.

Baby (Elgort) is the centerpiece of Doc’s (Spacey) bank heist team. While he never has the same crew work twice, Baby is always the getaway driver. With earbuds always in, and a different Ipod on play for different moods and days, Baby maps out an escape route while flawlessly bolting from fleets of cops, improving a multitude of techniques. While the getaways are short, they’re some of the best filmed car chases in recent memory. Baby is handcuffed to Doc because of an incident years prior. Baby was stealing Doc’s car, with plenty of valuables in the trunk, and as Doc puts it, “I didn’t stop him because I couldn’t believe the balls on the kid.” So while getting the tiniest of cuts from the haul, Baby is slowing paying Doc back for his crimes.

Other heist crew members are weary of the silent Baby, with one even asking if he’s slow. But as Doc points out, he gets the job done and is tapped into every heist that Doc plots out despite being tuned out and thumping his foot to music. But the reason Baby is always listening to music, is to drown out permanent tinnitus. He was back seat, at a young age, to a fatal wreck that took the life of his mom and her abusive spouse. It not only elicits sympathy from the audience, but gives viewers an excuse to bask in one of the best movie soundtracks of the year.

Clocking in at nearly two hours, “Baby Driver” is never dull and rarely lets its foot off the gas, bringing audiences along for a thrilling experience that combines Grindhouse car chases and a stylistic genre mish mash. The selective soundtrack orchestrates the action, the passion and the emotions throughout, almost like a wall of sound that matches its relentless visuals. The “Fast and Furious” franchise could only wish to attain such high-octane action bliss.

“Baby Driver” almost risks becoming more style than substance, if it isn’t for Baby’s relatability and his heartthrob, Debora (James), a diner waitress looking for the right person to take her down the road trip called life. Her introduction also creates some third act stakes that more or less work when a heist goes awry and the established morals of our title character take control of the wheel. Even amongst the smashing and shooting, “Baby Driver” finds fleeting moments of youthful wanderlust and succinct punch lines and jokes.

“Baby Driver” is a must-see summer movie with its iPod shuffle on NOS and metal crunching adrenaline. It’d be hard to find a person who doesn’t want to sit in the driver’s seat of this movie and enjoy its exceptionable ride. Here’s to hoping Wright has a few more ideas in that head of his that are just as memorable and rewatchable as “Baby Driver.” He’s certainly solidified himself in the mainstream as a visionary director. Sorry Disney, I don’t think you can have him back.

Film Review: “47 Meters Down”

Starring: Mandy Moore, Claire Holt and Matthew Modine
Directed by: Johannes Roberts
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 1 hr 29 mins
Entertainment Studios

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

If you’ve EVER read any of my work over a short period of time you probably know that my favorite film of all time, bar none, is “Jaws.” A great film with so many different layers that people often look past everything but the shark. So when I see in a television commercial that a film critic has called “47 Meters Down” “…the best shark movie since JAWS,” I have to shake my head. First off, if all “Jaws” is to you is a SHARK movie…you shouldn’t be reviewing films. The shark is only part of the film. That would be like me calling the last “Pirates of the Caribbean” film, “…the best movie about people on a boat since JAWS.” That being said, “47 Meters Down” is not too bad.

We meet Lisa (Moore) and her sister, Kate (Holt) as they arrive in beautiful, sunny Mexico for a planned vacation. While Kate is bubbly and ready for adventure, Lisa is just the opposite. She finally confesses that her boyfriend has left her and she’s unsure how to handle the rejection. Unfazed, Kate convinces Lisa to head out to the clubs, where they meet two young men. Soon the foursome agree to meet up at the local dock to go out in the ocean and observe sharks while protected by a steel cage. Though she has never scuba dived before, Lisa fakes her way past the boat’s captain (Modine) and soon the two find themselves dangling over the side. As they are lowered into the water they find themselves surrounded by a couple of good sized Great White Sharks. Luckily the cable holding the cage has been checked and inspected for quality and strength. Right?

A Nyctophobian Thriller (let’s see them use THAT in an ad…it means “fear of the dark”), “47 Meters Down is blessed with mostly solid performances and very impressive CGI effects that gives the viewer a pretty good idea what it must be like to be 150 feet underwater surrounded by sharks. Big ones, though, sadly, not the 21 to 28 footers that Skipper Modine swears he constantly sees on his adventures. Which is pretty damn good, considering the largest one ever on record has been right along 20 feet long. By comparison, the shark in JAWS was 25 feet long.

The performances are pretty strong, especially from the two actresses. They help build the tension long after the audience should have been bored. One complaint is with New England-born actor Chris Johnson, who plays Modine’s assistant, Javier. Mr. Johnson must have watched a lot of “Chico and the Man” growing up because, like the late, great Freddie Prinze, he pronounces certain words with a hard CH sound, i.e. “Here comes a CHark!”

Shark wise the film is well done. The computer sharks move smoothly and there is no “super-shark” that shows up like in last summer’s disappointing “The Shallows.” Credit director Roberts for keeping the action going, making up for an almost disappointing ending.

Film Review: “It Comes at Night”

Starring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott and Carmen Ejogo
Directed By: Trey Edward Shults
Rated: R
Running Time: 97 minutes
A24

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

There are a few things that always seem to get lost in the shuffle when an apocalyptic end of the world movie is created; paranoia, hopelessness and brutally honest human emotion. Most of the time in this genre, we’re meant to jump in our seats, watch a subtle reflection of the current political climate or enjoy watching Earth devolve into a sadist’s playground. “It Comes at Night” appears to start out with one of those intentions, but as it unwinds; the movie captures the very essence of humanity’s last gasp and struggling with death.

Paul (Edgerton) keeps his at his side, having them abide by a strict set of rules. The home, deeply entrenched in the woods, is boarded up and only has one entrance/exit, two locked doors, which Paul has the only key to. Paul struggles in silence to understand his son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison), who has just witnessed his grandfather succumb to the disease that is infesting the world around them. It takes effect within 24 hours, causing the body to develop talon like boils, its host to puke ink-like blood and turn eyeballs into tar pits.

“It Comes at Night” actually begins with the arduous task of putting grandpa out of his misery. Paul has Travis come along, despite his mom questioning whether or not Travis would be ready to watch the tragic deed. As Paul takes grandpa out into the woods, digs a shallow grave, and shoots him, Travis watches in confused silence. Certainly, going through puberty is compounded by watching a loved one slowly morph into some zombie movie monster.

They don’t have long to sulk because a strange man breaks into the home, scrounging for food and water. After an extensive interrogation process by Paul, the family learns that the man, Will (Abbott), is in desperate need of assistance. His wife and child are in a different home, waiting for him to return with any signs of hope. Paul agrees to help and welcomes the family into the home, and while things may be peaceful at first, things slowly unravel.

There isn’t a lot of small-talk or meaningful conversation between characters in “It Comes at Night.” On one hand, it makes sense because there’s no reason that the people in this scenario would be regurgitating the tragic details of what they already know. So very little is learned about the actual happenings outside the world and what kind of pandemic is eating away at the Earth. On the other hand, we don’t get a sense of what characters are truly thinking since they appear to be more obsessed about what the other is plotting or contemplating. The only inner workings we get a glimpse of our Travis’ adolescent mind.

It’s clear through many of Travis’ nightmares, that the death of his grandpa, sexual frustration brought on by puberty and paranoia are creating a lethal mental cocktail. Anytime a problem arises with Will and his clan, Travis is reminded by his parents about how family comes before everyone else. Since the movie spends so much time with Travis, it creates disconnect from nearly everyone else, which can be frustrating at first, but sets up for an intense final act.

There’s no traditional resolution to “It Comes at Night,” which is both a blessing and a curse. It gives the viewer a lot to ponder and discuss, but it also leaves you with no profound message to chew on. It’s unique in its pragmatic presentation of what happens when human beings are left to their own isolationism and the overwhelming distrust that will certainly envelop society during end times. But the biggest takeaway is that we’re all afraid of dying and losing those closest to us. There’s no political or social commentary away to take from that, it’s just a universal truth.

Film Review: “Wonder Woman”

Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine and Robin Wright
Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 2 hrs 21 min’s
Warner Bros.

Our Score: 3 out of 5 Stars

Superman. Batman. Out of the literally hundreds of super heroes in the DC Comics Universe (and please, let’s not get into the “Batman isn’t a Superhero” discussion), these two are the only ones that have sustained success on the silver screen. This week, a third hero rises to give Warner Bro’s a trifocal of enjoyable and, for the studio, hopefully profitable film subjects. Say hello to “Wonder Woman.”

Present day. A package is delivered to Diana Prince (Gadot) at Wayne Enterprises. Inside she finds a photo, taken almost a century ago, with a very familiar face starting back at her. Her own.

Journey back now to the time of World War I. On the fog-hidden island of Hems, young Diana (Lilly Aspell) watches with wonder as the woman around here constantly train for a battle they pray to the gods will never come. Diana’s mother, Rhyolite (Connie Nielsen) allows her sister, Antiope (Wright) to train Diana. Cue nice montage scenes of Diana, gradually getting older and soon being able to fight off her attackers. Which reminds me…they always show a knife or sword barely missing its target. Surely there must be some unfortunate people who do NOT narrowly miss death. One day Diana observes a plane crash into the ocean. She finds the wreckage and saves the pilot, Steve Trevor, who luckily looks like Chris Pine. Something tells me if Josh Gad had been playing Trevor the film would have ended much earlier. Steve informs Diana and her friends that there’s a war going on out in the real world and soon they two find themselves in the middle of it.

A little over-padded at an almost two and a half-hour running time, “Wonder Woman” may finally be the Warner Bro’s/DC Comics film that is both fun to watch and full of some exciting action. Gadot, who almost stole last years “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice,” is outstanding here as the Amazon goddess who not only learns about her destiny but that of her people. Pine is equally strong as a true “man’s man” who must learn to not only trust women but finally recognize them as equal. The battle scenes are exciting, though, again, there is a lot of “talking sounds,” scenes that almost seem to be there to ensure a longer running time,– that sometimes takes you out of the moment. But when the moments are right, “Wonder Woman” truly delivers.

Film Review: “Chuck”

Starring: Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss and Jim Gaffigan
Directed by: Philippe Falardeau
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 36 mins
IFC Films

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

A couple of weeks ago I came across a scrapbook I put together when I was 14 and living in Cleveland. The big news, apparently, was the opening of the Coliseum in Richfield, Ohio. Elton John was there. Many windows were broken when a riot broke out during Led Zeppelin. And, on March 24, 1975, little-known club fighter Chuck Wepner fought the great Muhammad Ali for the Heavyweight Championship of the World.

“Who cared about me a month ago? Nobody!”

This quote, from the film “Rocky,” opens the new film about Chuck Wepner (Schreiber, absolutely losing himself in the role). Known as the “Bayonne Bleeder,” a nickname the New Jersey native dislikes, Wepner is popular in the ring because he can take a punch. He is so popular that he has been told her will receive a shot at the title once Champion George Foreman defeats Ali in Zaire at the famed “Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali won his belt back in Africa but he decides to give a “white” guy a shot at the title. And that white guy is Chuck Wepner.

If you’ve ever seen Chuck Wepner on a talk show, you know the man is always “on.” Here he is no different. Schreiber plays him with a confidence that’s off the charts. Yet he still manages to exude the sadness inside, which Wepner feels whenever his wife (Moss) or others are disappointed by him. Things begin to look up after the film “Rocky” is released, with Wepner being hailed by the press as “the real Rocky.” He begins to associate himself so much with the film that, the night after “Rocky” took home the Academy Award for Best Picture, he is telling people that “We” won the Oscar. However, things begin to slowly unravel, both in his marriage and his life, giving Wepner one more fight to win.

As mentioned above, Schreiber is outstanding as the title character, but he also has a great supporting cast, including Ron Perlman as trainer Al Braverman, Michael Rappaport as his brother, John, and Pooch Hall as Ali. Wepner even has some interaction with Sylvester Stallone himself, played by Morgan Spector, auditioning for a role in “Rocky II.”

As a final note, I’ll add that Stallone has never said he based Rocky on Wepner. He has said that he saw the Ali/Wepner fight and alluded to it when “Rocky” was released. However, as he continued to make more Rocky films, he distanced himself from the Wepner-inspired story. In 2003, Wepner sued Stallone for basically using his story for financial gain. The case was settled in 2006.

Film Review: “Baywatch”

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron and Alexandra Daddario
Directed by: Seth Gordon
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 56 mins
Paramount

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Before I begin I want to tell you a story. I’ve only seen one episode of the “Baywatch” television show. It was at my friend Marty Kircher’s house and I couldn’t believe how someone of his age (late 30’s) could find the show interesting. The part I remember most was a scene with David Hasselhoff climbing on board a boat which had a man tied up in the middle of it. “What the hell is he doing,” I asked, “he’s a damn LIFEGUARD!” As if on cue, the Hoff looks into the camera and says, “I haven’t seen this much C-4 since my time in the Navy Seals.” Marty turns to me and says, “See! He was a NAVY SEAL!” Thankfully the makers of the new “Baywatch” film don’t take their movie as seriously as Marty would.

Mitch Buchannon (Johnson) is the main man on the beach. With summer starting it’s time for Mitch and his fellow lifeguards to pick three young wannabes to learn the ropes. He is surprised when former Olympic swimmer Matt Brody (Efron) shows up and announces he’s now a “part of the team.” Stuck with Matt, Mitch also chooses Summer Quinn (Daddario) and Ronnie Greenbaum (Jon Bass) to complete his trio of newbies. Summer seems to have the skills necessary to save lives. Ronnie…well, Ronnie has heart! And that’s all you need to be a part of “Baywatch!”

Consistently funny with a few slow spots, “Baywatch” thankfully follows the formula that other television-shows-to-movies like “21 Jump Street” have in that it doesn’t take itself TOO seriously. Leading this charge is Johnson, who seems to want to let us know that it’s OK to laugh at things we find funny. And Johnson has fun as well, making fun of the new guard. Brody, who is surely inspired by American Olympian Ryan Locte, has rubbed Mitch wrong and Mitch confirms this by calling Brody pretty much everything BUT his name. One Direction. Bieber. High School Musical. Brody answers to all three and more. Completing the team are Kelly Rohrbach as C.J. and Ilfenish Hadera as Stephanie. Together they must investigate the recent growing of a new drug kingpin without attracting the wrath of the local police, who look upon the lifesaving gang with spite.

Both Johnson and Efron are well cast. I don’t know why but every time Johnson came on screen I began thinking about his character, Maui, from “Moana.” Efron, who reportedly exercised himself down to 5% body fat, plays up the “swimming Bad Boy” character for laughs, though as the film progresses you do begin to feel a little affinity for him. The supporting cast is also funny but I would be remiss if I didn’t give a special shout out to Jon Bass, who steals the film as Ronnie. And if you fans of the television series keep your eyes peeled, you may spot a familiar face or two.

All in all, a fun film you should wait 15 minutes after eating to see!

Film Review: “Alien: Covenant”

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston and Billy Crudup
Directed By: Ridley Scott
Rated: R
Running Time: 122 minutes
20th Century Fox

Our Score: 2 out of 5 Stars

For the first time in well over a decade, there’s a decent amount of hype and high level of expectation surrounding an “Alien” film. There’s genuine public interest and hope that “Alien: Covenant” would add another rich layer of backstory to the close-quarters terror that audiences experienced back in 1979. But at the expense of bridging the gap between “Prometheus” and “Alien,” Ridley Scott has answered a question nobody asked and poorly answered a question that’s been left lingering since 2012.

The crew of the intergalactic colony ship, Covenant, is awoken mid-cryogenic sleep after a deep space electric charge frazzles their vessel. In the ensuing chaos, the crew’s captain (for some reason played by James Franco) is killed, the ship suffers extensive damage and the crew is alerted to a distress signal. What makes the distress signal curious is that it comes from a planet that’s more livable than the one they’re currently taking 2,000 colonists and thousands of human embryos to.

Acting Captain, Christopher (Crudup), wants to show strength by making a command decision to halt their current path and investigate the planet’s habitability as well as the distress signal. Christopher shrugs off logical concerns by crew members, like why an extensive search of the universe by precise computer programs would have missed this unheard of planet. While he lends an ear to Daniels’ (Waterston) unease, Christopher barrels towards the unknown. I’m sure you know this won’t end well.

The beginning of “Covenant” is ripe with tension, as we breathlessly wait for the best laid plans to fall apart. But once we’ve settled into the mysterious planet and we catch our first glimpse of some prototype xenomorphs, the pressure alleviates and is never reapplied. “Covenant” is covered in thick foreshadowing, that gives away its final act, even to someone who might be new to the “Alien” franchise.

However, fans of the franchise will be wondering what Ridley Scott has done. He’s stripped the dread and action, leaving behind something new, yet unpleasant. “Covenant” is a visually Gothic movie that’s more fixated with body horror than actual scares. It’s more fascinated with Frankenstein rather than the monster. While it is a slightly refreshing change of pace, the human element is nonexistent and the character’s intelligence is subpar.

Fassbender has double duty as the androids, Walter and David. David, if you remember, is the android from “Prometheus” who rides off into the proverbial sunset with Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) to find humanity’s creators. While most “Alien” franchise purists didn’t like “Prometheus,” I enjoyed it on the merits of a standalone film that plays a lot like a futuristic “Chariots of the Gods.” The thesis that all life is created by another living entity, and not a God, isn’t lost in “Covenant.”

Scott flirts a lot with man’s infatuation with creating life, discovering meaning, and tapping into what it metaphorically means to be immortal. It’s interesting to ponder, but it never evolves into anything meaningful and it’s buried under a lot of heavy exposition, robotic dialogue, and horror movie tropes. The most obnoxious of clichés is painting these astronauts and scientists like incompetent, horny teenagers stuck at Camp Crystal Lake.

I really wanted to like “Covenant,” especially since Fassbender’s performance was captivating and haunting at times, but I found myself worn out by its formulaic plot and how its human characters lacked human qualities. “Covenant” adds nothing new to the “Alien” franchise. It’s a bloated connector between two of Scott’s most ambitious films. But it’s interesting to note one scene in particular; it’s a narrated flashback that feels like Ridley Scott taking an eraser to “Prometheus.” Maybe he’ll eventually do that with “Covenant.”

Film Review: “Sorcerer” – 40th Anniversary Restored Version

Starring: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cramer, Francisco Rabal and Amidou
Directed by: William Friedkin
Rated: PG
Running time: 2 hrs 1 min
Paramount/Universal

Our score: 5 out of 5 Stars

Pop quiz: In 1977, 20th Century Fox announced plans to release one of the most anticipated films of the past few years. What was it?

Four men. Each of them running from something that will consume them. There’s Jackie Scanlon (Scheider). A small time gangster, he and some of his pals have just made the mistake of robbing a New Jersey church whose priest happens to be the brother of a BIG time gangster. Victor (Cramer) is a Frenchman running away from a certain prison sentence in his native country. Kassem (Amidou) is running from his past as a wanted terrorist in Jerusalem, whlle Nilo (Rabal) is a mystery man. They find themselves deep in the South American jungles where they are recruited to drive trucks loaded down with highly volatile explosives. Their reward: freedom at best. At worse: BOOM!

William Friedkin’s follow-up to “The Exorcist,” “Sorcerer” is a loose remake of the French film “The Wages of Fear.” For various reasons, none that I couldn’t understand as a 16 year old boy, it was not greeted well by the public or film critics. Was it the symbolism? The fact that the first 15 minutes of the film are mostly in a foreign language? Heck, was it the “Exorcist” curse? I have no idea but I can tell you today what I thought 40 years ago: “Sorcerer” is a masterpiece of filmmaking.

Friedkin took his cameras on-location to various locales across the world and captured the colors and emotions of each one brilliantly. In the South American jungles, the beauty of the trees and wildlife contrasts against the dreary, constantly rain-filled skies. As the trucks begin on their journey, you are white knuckled with the drivers, as each roadside cliff, rock-strewn road and badly dis-repaired bridge constantly puts the men one bad bump away from death. As the road gets more treacherous, the men learn that, if they can’t trust each other, there will be no one left to complete their mission.

The cast is top notch, with Scheider coming across as a modern day Fred C. Dobbs. The rest of the cast are equally strong. Even when there are no words being spoken, the four men communicate plenty. Visually the film is stunning. The restoration makes the film look brand new. And the score, by German band Tangerine Dream, is outstanding. If I have one quibble, it is that I remember seeing the film opening night with a short four-minute overture while the screen stayed black. The creepy music and black screen really helped prepare you for what you were about to see.

OK, do you know the answer to my question? If you said “Star Wars” you are…WRONG! No, the big movie from Fox that year was supposed to be “The Other Side of Midnight,” based on the steamy novel by Sidney Sheldon. Very few theatre owners had even heard of “Star Wars.” That film’s prospects were so low that Fox mandated that any theatre that wanted to play “The Other Side of Midnight” had to agree to play “Star Wars,” which was bad news for “Sorcerer,” which opened in many cities the week after “Star Wars.” Mann’s Chinese Theatre, which had played “Star Wars,” dropped it after a week to play “Sorcerer.” This was May 1977. Soon, “Star Wars” returned, where it played through June 1978. Not bad for a movie nobody wanted.

“Sorcerer” is now back on the big screen at many Alamo Drafthouse Theatres. To see if it’s playing in your city, head here.

Film Review: “Free Fire”

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson and Armie Hammer
Directed By: Ben Wheatley
Rated: R
Running Time: 90 minutes
A24

Our Score: 3 out of 5 Stars

Guns, swearing and an ensemble cast. Sometimes that’s all you need. At least that might have been the idea behind “Free Fire,” a 90-minute dark comedy meant to entertain and amuse those sick enough to sift through its violence to unearth the humor and enjoy the over-the-top gunplay. “Free Fire” is heavy on style and short enough to justify the full-fledged warehouse shootout, but its lack of storytelling substance and handful of one-dimensional characters risks shooting it down entirely.

Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are representatives with IRA, in Boston to purchase weapons from gun runner, Vernon (Copley). Mediating for the gun runner is Ord (Hammer) and Justine (Larson) for the IRA. Each side has their own underlings to schlep the merchandise around and nothing seemingly goes right during the late night meet-up. Things come to a head when underlings from both sides know one another and before you know it, the bullets start flying.

There are enough off-the-cuff remarks to understand that a few people in the overall group are a part of an underlying double cross, even before things go South. However, there’s just not enough information to fully understand the backstabbing that was about to take place before all Hell broke loose. The secondary plot at work seems inconsequential when everyone’s ready to kill each other off until the bitter end. It’s a story full of bullet holes, but I doubt “Free Fire” was concerned about that.

The movie is written and directed by Bill Wheatley, who certainly has a unique and perceptive style. “Free Fire” is so tightly filmed; it truly feels like a never ending gun battle without a dull moment in sight, unless of course you loathe brainless violence. Wheatley’s no stranger to content that will certain hook some while completely turning off others. “High-Rise” is a movie that’s intentionally repugnant, rewarding those that dig through the putrid humanity for the meaning and infuriating for those that prefer a much cleaner, deeper message.

“Free Fire” doesn’t serve a purpose other than to entertain and pay homage to late-night action movies of the 70’s and 80’s. It’s certainly a movie that Quentin Tarantino would have watched at the video store he was employed at if “Free Fire” had come out about four decades ago. Of course that would have influenced Tarantino to make a better movie. I would have preferred a story to “Free Fire” and much meatier characters so that their sass had more of a bite and their deaths were more consequential.

If “Free Fire” fails at the box office, it’ll surely become a cult classic, but if it succeeds, it’ll be shuffled to the side as a retro tribute to bygone action films. Regardless, “Free Fire” is crass escapism with some of the best filmed gunplay in recent memory. If you’re hoping for a little oomph to the plot and characters, outside of witty one-liners, you’ll be disappointed. If I could make a recommendation with what should accompany this movie, it would be alcoholic beverages and friends who bring out the immaturity in you.

Film Review: “Gifted”

Starring: Chris Evans, McKenna Grace and Jenny Slate
Directed by: Marc Webb
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 1 hr 41 mins
Fox Searchlight

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

Here’s one for you: What do you get when you pair up the star of the Captain America films with the director of a couple Spider-man movies? I have no idea what your answer is but mine is you get one hell of a fine film.

Frank Adler (Evans) seems like your normal single dad. He lives with his daughter, Mary (Grace) outside St. Petersburg and repairs boats. But this is not your typical family and, as the formerly home-schooled Mary prepares to head off to public school, you can sense the fear, and anticipation, in both of them. You begin to understand the worry when, after challenging her teacher (Slate) after being asked to add one plus two, Mary herself is challenged, dropping jaws all around when, using only her brain, she quickly computes 53 x 127. Now do you see why the film is called “Gifted?”

A perfect gift just in time for Easter, “Gifted” could have easily been a two-hankie made-for-television Lifetime movie. However it rises thanks to the work of the cast, especially soon to be 11-year-old McKenna Grace. You may recognize her as the President’s daughter on television’s “Designated Survivor,” but her limited work on the series will not prepare you for the tour-de-force performance she delivers her. Whether interacting with Frank (who we soon learn is actually her uncle), her kindly neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer) or her overbearing Grandmother (Lindsay Duncan), Mary is the emotional heart and soul of the film. Evans is equally strong here. If the only time you’ve seen him is when he’s wearing Spandex, you may be surprised by the emotional depths he reaches here. As the film progresses, and we learn more about the lives on-screen, the deeper our own emotional depths are reached. You find yourself struggling to understand the decisions made, sensing how each one will affect the other.

If you have no desire to watch Vin Diesel drive a car this weekend (guilty!), I recommend you give “Gifted” a try. You won’t be disappointed.