Film Review: “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”

Starring: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth and Julianne Moore
Directed By: Matthew Vaughn
Rated: R
Running Time: 141 minutes
20th Century Fox

As if emboldened by an impressive box office receipt and growing fanfare, studio executives clearly handed over a blank check and unrestrained creative control to Matthew Vaughn. For better or for worse, his second time around with the “Kingsman” franchise has him embellishing every little detail to the point of nausea. Like some of James Bond’s sillier outings (“A View to a Kill” and “Die Another Day”), “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is pure insanity as we’re rushed through another absurd outing with Britain’s super-secret intelligence organization.

Within the first five minutes, the movie drips in excess action and CGI, immediately taking viewers out of anything resembling sanity. Eggsy (Egerton), the hoodlum turned hero from the first film, fights a former Kingsman recruit, also from the first film, who has a robotic arm with a mind of its own. That’s not even the craziest thing in this film. After disposing of him, we then go through the set-up motions as we meet Eggsy’s girlfriend, the sexually exploited Princess from the end of the first film, and catch-up with the other holdovers from the first flick. Anyone who hasn’t seen the first will unquestionably be confused and lost from the get-go.

The film squanders very little time getting to the villain of the film, Poppy (Moore). Poppy is the leader of a high-powered drug cartel. She wears a psychotic smirk on her face, forcing her underlings to undergo grotesque tests of allegiance. Her hideaway, Poppy Land, is a nostalgic step back into 1950’s Hill Valley with robotic murder dogs patrolling the compound. Her beef with the Kingsman is unknown other than she needs to eliminate any potential threats to her devious global plan. After missiles strike several targets in England (which is seemingly shrugged off by everyone else outside the plot), the remnants of the Kingsman activate their doomsday protocol and are forced to rely on their United States counterparts, the Statesman.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the biggest name in a film containing Halle Berry, Channing Tatum, Julianne Moore, Jeff Bridges and Elton John (yes, that Elton John). Very few are used to affect except for Elton John. He arrives as an unnecessarily needed and gratuitous cameo, but evolves into a delightfully needed and gratuitous cameo. However, my disappointment stems from a lack of Bridges, Tatum and Berry, who play different components of the Statesman organization. You could also make the argument for Moore’s character. “The Golden Circle” could have benefitted from as much Moore as possible, just like the previous film benefitted from a lisping Samuel L. Jackson.

The action isn’t entertaining in the traditional sense, but in a fun, manic Saturday morning cartoon kind of way. The laws of gravity, rudimentary physics, the limitations of the human body, and common sense are an afterthought for most the film’s runtime. Just like the first film, there are the over-the-top gadgets that serve one inane purpose. There’s even one gadget that’s too sexually explicit to even attempt to convey in a PG way.

“The Golden Circle” is delightfully bonkers, locking reality out of the writing room and barring believability from the set. The “Kingsman” universe has American citizens being locked up by their own government in cages, bad guys driving down the streets of London with .50 cal machine guns blasting away in full sight of civilians, and oddly placing a retirement home below an avalanche danger zone. To expect anything remotely logical would be a dishonor to the film’s status quo, but adding a little of intelligence certainly wouldn’t hurt it in the long run.

Film Review: “Home Again”

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Nat Wolff and Lake Bell
Directed By: Hallie Meyers-Shyer
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 97 minutes
Open Road Films

I imagine the pitch for “Home Again” was originally a sitcom. Hallie Meyers-Shyer probably pitched to a studio big wig that over a 24 episode season, the audience would be introduced to newly divorced and hard-working interior designer Alice Kinney. We’ll watch as she picks up her life, and her two kids, to move to her father’s old home in sunny L.A. She’s the daughter of a former film prodigy, whose greatest achievements weren’t the boxed up Oscars in his work room, but raising Alice. I also imagine the pitch ended with an executive saying, “Not enough content. Why not make it a movie?”

The only thing missing from “Home Again” is a canned laugh track, applause and other phony audience reactions. The 97-minute sitcom has Alice, after a drunken night at the bar, take in three young go-getters looking to make it big in Hollywood. They remind me a lot of “Entourage” and I kind of hated that show. George (Jon Rudnitsky) seems to believe he’s the next Stanley Kubrick or Walt Whitman, Harry (Pico Alexander) wants to move beyond being a bit-part actor, and Teddy (Wolff) is the “big picture” man of the group, who smooths talks people like a skeevy used car salesman.

Problems arise when Teddy swoops in on Alice like a sexual predator of women going through a midlife crisis. George becomes upset because he believes he’s entitled to some nooky with Alice because he’s the “nice guy” and he seems frustrated that he’s been friend-zoned. As for Harry, he’s slight impartial, but ends up showing his true colors when he views himself as the shining armor brought in to protect Alice and her two children like a vicious Mother bird.

“Home Again” is barely kept alive by Witherspoon’s natural likability as well as her growth throughout the movie as a woman coping with the concept of becoming a single mom. Most movies would handle her shortcomings and struggles with grace and realism that creates a humanistic bond with the audience. Instead she makes a few speeches reminiscent of “Ally McBeal” and allows for the three-men living in her home to commit “Two and a Half Men” hijinks. “Home Again” is a boring copy and paste of common television dramedys.

Like any sitcom, the character’s emotions, feelings, and misunderstandings are hashed out in a brisk verbal manner. It seems all too easy for everyone to admit their flaws, apologize and hug it out like it’s a family night around on the television. Everyone just comes together like one big dysfunctional family and forgets all their squabbles. If you want to believe in a phony universe where four men pining for Alice’s emotional and sexual affection can break bread at a table in peace, that’s fine. But the unearned sappy mentality and rushed conflict resolution in “Home Again” is lazy.

Film Review: “Good Time”

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Ben Safdie
Directed By: Ben Safdie and Josh Safdie
Rated: R
Running Time: 100 minutes
A24

In 2011, if you had told me Robert Pattinson was an audacious talent that must be experienced; I would have called you a bold-faced liar. The “Twilight” saga tainted his image as he spent years as a twinkling in the sunlight vampire that makes constipated reactionary faces. 2017 may be the year he erases that moniker after a wonderfully low-key performance in “Lost City of Z” and now the subdued, yet enthralling performance in “Good Time.”

Constantine (Pattinson) is on the run after a botched bank robbery. His mentally challenged brother Nick (Safdie) was caught by police and isn’t handling prison life well. Morally corrupt, Constantine attempts to scrounge up bail money by duping his unaware girlfriend Corey (Leigh) into ponying up thousands of dollars with her mother’s credit card. When that doesn’t work, Constantine takes the next best route a petty thief can think of, busting his brother out himself.

“Good Time” works best without lengthy, wordy exposition because of how fast it moves. How the movie begins and ends is very telling of how Constantine should be viewed. Throughout “Good Time” Constantine looks nervous, his mind is racing through a thousand scenarios and exit plans at every turn. Midway through the film we watch him in a short amount of time work his way out of a jam with two different people, one with his words and one with his lips. His criminal odyssey doesn’t necessarily sprawl throughout the Bronx, but his manipulative impact is felt by those who encounter or get ensnared in his devious plans.

“Good Time” is very much a vehicle for Pattinson, who is a tour de force. He’s not likable, in fact you really hate him before all is said and done. But there’s this next-level intelligence at work that keeps you entertained. Much like watching Walter White weasel his way out of the grasp of fellow criminals and police through five seasons of “Breaking Bad,” watching Constantine squirm out of trouble and manipulate others through 100 minutes is much more unnerving, brisk and exhilarating.

Constantine is audaciously rotten, sometimes evil, when using others and tossing them aside when they no longer have any further use to him. There’s a moment when Constantine has to team up with another criminal, who’s much less intelligent and a lot cruder, and that when the film mixes in dark humor and entertainment. It blends well with Constantine’s self-preservation, as we watch him tout non-violence, as well as brutal violence, in the same scenario.

Lush neon light bathes the dark New York City night as the film soaks up a matching retro soundtrack from the 80’s. The visual aesthetics sometimes contradict Constantine’s depravity and corruption, but matches scenes of fleeing and fighting like any well-oiled crime-drama. “Good Time” is a gritty character piece because like most real-life criminals, Constantine is a scumbag. He’s a repulsive loser who’s gotten good at a few things, lying, cheating and scheming. We’re not supposed to root for him; we’re supposed to watch the devastation left behind in his wake.

Film Review: “The Glass Castle”

Starring: Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts
Directed By: Destin Daniel Cretton
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 127 minutes
Lionsgate

There’s an old adage that everyone has heard at some point about how we can’t pick our parents. I hate that truism. It’s rarely used in an earnest conversation and mainly glosses over a more deep-seeded conflict. In “The Glass Castle,” the conflict is multi-layered and a lot more complicated than its face value. Rex Walls (Harrelson) drags his wife and kids cross country to escape debt, police and his own parents, internalizing and allowing some of his more dark secrets to manifest into emotional manipulation and possible abuse.

Rex repeatedly attempts to drown his sorrows in alcohol, but surprisingly reveals a softer side anytime he hits the bottle. That’s not to say he has his deplorable moments with whiskey heavy on his breath. His four children and wife, Rose (Watts), are generally at his mercy as he goes from dilapidated home to dilapidated home. They live without proper plumbing, heat or even food sometimes. They finally settle down in rural West Virginia where his children, on the cusp of puberty, begin to piece together that their father isn’t the kind, gentle soul they have believed him to be.

“The Glass Castle” is told from the point of view of Rex’s second oldest child, Jeanette. Brie Larson is wasted as grown-up Jeanette, but is played much better in flashbacks by Ella Anderson. The other three kids don’t have much of a personality in the flashbacks, but considering its Jeanette’s memoir, that’s perfectly fine. The audience’s perception of Rex unravels as Jeanette gets older and sees Rex as a flawed father figure. Besides being an alcoholic, he possibly abuses their mom, imprisons the children within their own home without proper education and prioritizes booze over buying essentials for the family.

Rex is a difficult character to root for, at all. His likeability is buoyed by Harrelson’s ability to flip from a shattered, paranoid man to a charming goofball. It’s difficult to fully comprehend Jeanette’s overall attitude because when Larson is brought back, she’s used to deliver icy stares and spout declarative disgust in the film’s present day. It’s not only until the end of the movie that she begins to warm up to her father’s habitual lies. “The Glass Castle” sloppily attempts to ever convey a direct, and even indirect, message about who Rex really is.

But because it continues to play with Rex as an anti-hero, “The Glass Castle” is rarely boring and is a sometimes interesting, if not derivative, soap opera. There are predictable beats, but the film throws a few curveballs and avoids several cliché moments, settling for a more genuine dramatic effect. Some viewers may even see their own family in the Walls, which is both heartbreaking and terrifying. Of course the modern day Walls most likely wouldn’t be able to handle life without a smartphone.

“The Glass Castle” is based on Jeanette’s memoirs, which I imagine is much more lengthy and in-depth. The book is a bestseller with a massive following because of its truthful slice of impoverished Americana. Despite taking place in the 70’s, there are parallels to the broken small towns that continue to dot America, which add another level of relatability to the film. However the entirely white cast may disarm and confound anyone outside the demographic depicted on-screen.

There is a level of understanding in “The Glass Castle” about how once one or both of your parents pass, you don’t necessarily reflect on the bad times. You seem to neglect how terrible they may have been, but instead focus on and cherish the moments where they showed their parental love and care for you. The things that bugged you and the moments of turmoil are reflected on through tears and laughter, as long as those memories weren’t too tumultuous. “The Glass Castle” is a peculiar film about hindsight forgiveness, more than blind acceptance.

Film Review: “Step”

Directed By: Amanda Lipitz
Rated: PG
Running Time: 83 minutes

A 100% percent high school graduation rate isn’t unheard of. However the average graduation rate, depending on your state, hovers anywhere from 66% to 94%, according to U.S. News and World Report. In Maryland though, out of 204 schools, there isn’t a 100% graduation rate at any high school. But you have to dig a little deeper to find the one that accomplished it back in 2016, the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.

The predominantly African-American middle-high public charter school was an experiment created in 2009. The hope was to help transform the young women in the urban core through strong education and empowerment. “Step” catches up with the first class ever to attend that school, as they get ready to graduate and look to get into college. Specifically we watch three women on the high-school step dance team.

That’s not to take away from the most fascinating part of this film, the public education experiment, which surely isn’t the only one in the country. When the cameras go home with the girls and we see a broken home life, impoverished circumstances, and single moms. We fully grasp that this is a city, at every multi-generational level, working to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Even behind closed doors at the school, where educators are reaming students over bad grades, we see this disheartening concern in their eyes that their students may not make it and they may never make anything of themselves.

In that regard, “Step” is a wonderfully engaging documentary about perseverance against insurmountable odds. The film’s backdrop is the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore riots which were broadcast for the world to see, and inner city decay. To see these teenage girls being forced to grow up in such harsh conditions and to strive for positivity in the face of hopelessness is one of the most inspiring things an American documentary has shown in years.

There is a little bit of choppiness in the film’s narrative, mainly because the film’s speed is hit on fast forward. It buzzes through people, faces and places in a dizzying whirlwind, instead of taking a breath here and there for reflection. But it also helps prevent the film from becoming too melodramatic and repetitive when detailing the young women’s lives and circumstances.

While the step dance team is certainly the least interesting part of this film, it does play an integral role of playing by subliminally layering in sports movie tropes about self-esteem and tenacity. It makes many of the film’s moments, like one girl getting a full ride scholarship to college and another girl making a last minute to even be considered for acceptance, that much more impactful. “Step” is an encouraging dose of reality that America’s future will be in capable hands.

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: “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: “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: “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: “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: “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Berges-Frisbey and Jude Law
Directed By: Guy Ritchie
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 126 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

Our Score: 2 out of 5 Stars

For those who’ve read, studied, or are even fans of Arthurian legend, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” isn’t for you. In fact, if you’re well versed in the British folklore, your confusion will quickly turn into anger a couple of minutes into the movie. While I’m not concerned about the mythology-to-book legitimacy of Guy Ritchie’s film, I’m more concerned about the emotional disconnect between its characters and the film’s unrepentant amount of murder.

Arthur (Hunnam), is born into royalty in Camelot, but not raised by his parents. His power hungry uncle, Vortigern (Law), murders his mom and dad, leaving Arthur orphaned and stranded in a boat. He’s picked up by some ladies of the night in Londinium, raised to become a compassionate and strong warrior. Arthur lives life ignorant to his royal and legendary bloodline, but he’s quickly thrust back into the bizarre world that he was born in. A sword in a stone has appeared and there are rumblings amongst the peasants about the return of England’s true king.

Anyone whose familiar with the works of authors like Geoffery of Monmouth and T.H. White, is surely wondering what the hell is going on with their beloved story. Guy Ritchie has pieced together one of the most disjointed and confounding action movies of the year. It’s really difficult to pinpoint blame on this one, but when he’s in the director’s chair and credited as one of the writers, the blame should fall at his feet.

Hunnam, is charming enough, but much of his allure feels forced. Maybe it’s because he’s much better suited as a tragic hero, which he played for six years on “Sons of Anarchy.” Law can’t suit up and play a compelling villain, and his character is inept and underdeveloped. Vortigern spends most of his time making empty threats and talking to an unnamed octopus woman in the dungeon of Camelot. By the way, the live-action Ursula gone-wrong, is just one of many unnamed and unexplained things, places, and people populating Ritchie’s vision.

Recognizable names, like Sir Lancelot or Sir Galahad, are on short supply as most run-of-the-mill fans will be struggling to remember or relate with characters like Back Lack or Mischief John. Merlin is mentioned, but the only mage Arthur ever comes into contact with is played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey. She’s never named in the movie, in the credits, or on the movie’s IMDB, yet she’s the only person of magic to interact with Arthur and help him tame his sword. You’d think an integral component of your plot would at least have a nickname.

There are inspired moments of “King Arthur,” but that’s only because of Ritchie’s visual flair and when his signature style is deployed, the use of narration over action sequences to condense exposition in an entertaining manner. The action is mostly digital; including a finale that feels like it was created with the video game engine from “Dark Souls.” It must be noted that this movie is excessively violent as we watch anonymous and unnamed civilians, usually helpless women, slaughtered. It makes the specific Arthur subplot that he lacks motivation to become king and save the day especially confounding.

If you were to take away the legend of King Arthur, as the film’s backdrop, it’s not an especially unique action film. It’s a mish mash of multi-national war dramas, “Lord of the Rings” and slow-motion CGI battles. While there’s rarely a dull moment, that void is filled with plenty of stupid moments. It may find an audience amongst connoisseurs and lovers of bad cinema; much like “Gods of Egypt” did last year.

“King Arthur” is certainly an attempt to kick start a franchise for Warner Bros., who’s still unwilling to admit their regret for hiring Zack Snyder to put together the DC universe. There was potential for “King Arthur” because Ritchie was in the pilot’s seat, but his talents are  overwhelmed by a messy script, bland characters, dimly lit settings, and an over indulgence in summer blockbuster movie tropes. If there’s a sequel, I’ll hope for the best, but expect the worst.

Planet Comicon remains the best in the Midwest

Rough weather in the Midwest didn’t stop tens of thousands of people from packing into Bartle Hall in Kansas City over the weekend for Planet Comicon. For three days, folks braved monsoon-like rains to meet their favorite stars, socialize and geek out. Nearly every inch of the convention center was brimming with fans, excited to see, meet and hear from celebrities, creators and cosplayers.

Like previous years, the 2017 edition of Planet Comicon featured all-stars across the entertainment spectrum. Everyone from Ron Perlman (“Sons of Anarchy” and “Hellboy) and Felicia Day (“The Guild” and “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”) to Jason Aaron (Writer for “Doctor Strange and “Thor”) and Kevin Eastman (Co-creator of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”) brightened the otherwise gloomy days. Our very own Mike Smith even hosted an informative panel on “Jaws 2” and Hollywood sequels. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who was disappointed by this year’s line-up and activities.

Saturday, one of the busiest days of the three-day extravaganza, could have been disastrous if it wasn’t for the quick work and social media tools at the disposal of Planet Comicon organizers. A backdrop collapse during John Barrowman, early on in the day, could have thrown a wrench in the organizer’s plans. But a quick reshuffling, along with constant updates on Facebook, Twitter, and Planet Comicon’s new phone app, notified fans about the up-to-the-minute changes. It’s just one of many signs that Planet Comicon is always evolving to become bigger and better. It’s truly a leader of cons in the Midwest and shows the perseverance to become one of the best cons in the U.S.

MediaMikes would be remiss if we didn’t thank Planet Comicon organizers for not only their hard work, but for the opportunity for some of our readers to win three-day passes to the event. We’re already planning to attend and cover next year’s Planet Comicon.

Photo by Dan Lybarger

“Hellboy” himself, Ron Perlman Pikachu on the dance floor at an after party Felicia Day with balloon versions of the “MST3K” robots No-Face from “Spirited Away”

 

Emma Caulfield and Clare Kramer reflect on their roles on “Buffy” Batman’s true weakness Jason Isaacs talks Harry Potter and DC A near-perfect Bob and Linda Belcher The one-man show, John Barrowman No shortage of creativity Tara Reid talks about how she wound up in the “Sharknado” series Ariel delighting children Shannon Elizabeth has been busy since “American Pie” An unlikely duo, the Mad Hatter and Jack Frost

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: “The Void”

Starring: Aaron Poole, Kathleen Munroe and Kenneth Welsh
Directed By: Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski
Rated: R
Running Time: 90 minutes
Screen Media Films

Our Score: 3 out of 5 Stars

If John Carpenter’s creatures, Clive Barker’s perversions and the 80’s Satanic panic bent the laws of nature and had an unholy baby, it’d be “The Void.” For horror aficionados and special effects gore hounds, “The Void” is a visual buffet. But for those wanting a little bit more in terms of storytelling, they’ll find “The Void” to be full of empty calories. As someone who can appreciate both, I feel that “The Void” is a scene setter for an idea bigger than what the directors could envision.

Officer Daniel (Poole) is awoken from a casual nap in his police cruiser by an injured man stumbling out of the woods. He rushes the blood-soaked stranger to an area hospital where the night shift is more focused on a different, new hospital they’ll soon be operating in. The old hospital is on the cusp of closing down after a mysterious fire. The barebones staff can’t wait to pack everything up and move.

The key players is Daniel’s emotionally distant wife, Alison (Munroe), whose sought comfort in Dr. Powell’s (Welsh) sage advice and comforting demeanor. There’s also a pregnant teenager, a clumsy CNA, a vengeful father and a decent handful disposable side characters. They hunker down as trouble arrives in the form of cloaked cult members armed with knives. They gather ominously outside the hospital, attacking anyone who dares attempt to leave, but that’s not the worst of their problems. That comes in the form of a monstrous blood-soaked blob made up of various limbs, body parts and tentacles stalking the hospital halls.

The storytelling is suspect. It’s a Frankenstein of nearly all body horror films from the 80’s, like “Hellraiser,” “The Thing,” “Re-Animator,” and “Night of the Demons.” Most other times I’d be frustrated that a movie would so blatantly steal page after page out of different movies scripts, but it’s clear that there’s a level of reverence and homage to these movies. Everything from the special effects to the tropes is out of respect and admiration, not parody or theft.

But the non-existence of originality in “The Void” hurts it a lot. The lack of personal ingenuity on the director’s end makes the movie forgettable. It’s a great throwaway, midnight creature feature, but the story and its characters yearn for to have their own novelty. The relationship between Officer Daniel and Alison should feel more exclusive, rather than a side note on a lengthy journey through religious evil and hell on Earth.

There are moments that hint towards a grander scheme at work as well as a few simple aesthetics to create an exclusive experience for fans of horror. For 90 minutes, it’s a wonderful sensory experience in terror, but there’s nothing narratively juicy enough for me to sink my teeth into and chew on. “The Void” is an ambitious project, deserving of praise for what it does right, but it’s difficult to overlook its failure to satisfy the tastes of those who crave more.

Film Review: “Power Rangers”

Starring: Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott and RJ Cyler
Directed By: Dean Israelite
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 124 minutes
Lionsgate

Our Score: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

As a Millennial, I watched the “Power Rangers,” but I was not old enough or smart enough yet to do it ironically. Every day after school I’d plop my butt in front of the TV and watch a mindless repackaged Japanese TV show and enjoyed it like it was high art. My mom even suffered through the “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie” in theaters so I could get my fix. But here’s the thing, I couldn’t tell you a single Ranger’s name, villain or plot from the shows or movie. So it wasn’t memorable for me, but I’m sure the agony of having to endure it still lingers with my parents. Well, they’ll be happy to know what goes around has come around.

A prologue, millions of years in the past on Earth, sets the stage. We see that circular crystal discs are what give powers to the Rangers, an elite class of protectors. Cut to the future where we meet the next batch of Rangers, but they don’t know it yet. This is the movie’s first mistake as it spends an awful lot of time setting up Jason (Montgomery), a directionless high school football superstar who plans a juvenile prank that ruins his life. He ends him flipping his truck, damaging his knee and being relegated to detention, seemingly forever.

In detention he meets Kimberly (Scott), a former cheerleader who’s betrayed her friend’s trust, and Billy (Cyler), a brainy, yet slightly autistic student who we’ll eventually come to find out is the only originally pure of heart teenager in this movie. “Power Rangers” eventually introduces Trini (Becky G) and Zack (Ludi Lin), but never cares enough to give us any background information on them until right before the third act. But by that point it feels unnecessarily crammed in, like most of the film’s character development.

The movie sometimes chooses to be subtle with its character’s traits, yet at other times slaps audiences across the face with thick intelligence insulting exposition. But this is one of many problems plaguing “Power Rangers.” The movie never seems to settle on if it’s for a new generation of young “Power Ranger” fans or nauseous nostalgia for those who grew up in the 90’s. It’s a mix of both, but the direction choices clash so much, it makes for a jarring cinematic experience.

At times we get that TV safe Saturday morning feel from our future Rangers, like cutesy physical humor montages and a “Kingpin” joke about “milking” a cow, but other times we get blasts of teenage reality like the fallout of revenge porn and drowning your sorrows in beer. I’ll admit that the latter makes the characters a lot more human and relatable, but none of it feels natural. The happenstance of how they all meet and become friends is about as logical as a Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Banks playing intergalactic warriors who’ve been comatose for millions of years, simply waiting for the right moment to awake.

Cranston, as Zordon, is mildly wasted here, as his only on-screen performance is on a green-screen set covered in thick make-up. He shows up throughout the rest of the movie as a disembodied voice attached to a CGI grid screen, dispensing plot points and ridiculing the teenagers for not being able to come together as a team. Cranston’s delivery is too serious, never taking on the role as mentor. However, he’s complimented by the jokey robot, Alpha 5 (Bill Hader), who seems to fluctuate between hammy and cynical.

Banks plays the movie’s main villain, Rita. She’s the only one in the movie who chews on the green screen scenery. There are moments where Rita is truly delightful to watch because of how cheeky Banks’ delivers her dialogue, but there are certain elements to Rita that are unnecessarily included like when she commits cold-blooded murder or when she crawls across the screen like Regan spider walking in “The Exorcist.”

“Power Rangers” is glum and tonally frustrating, relying on concepts found in the recent trend of gritty reboots while attempting to be a self-serious homage to the original TV show. There are obvious editing flaws that even the average moviegoer should notice. It’s either bad storytelling and pacing or a baby playing with the buttons in the editing studios. Compounding these frustrations is a blatant product placement that would make NASCAR cringe. Was a “Power Rangers” movie ever supposed to be good? No. But it’s not supposed to be this bad.