Film Review: “The Dead Don’t Die”

  • THE DEAD DON’T DIE
  • Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver
  • Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 44 mins
  • Focus Features 

Zombie movies have been a part of the cinema landscape since the 1930s with Victor Halperin’s “White Zombie” in 1932 among the first. George A. Romero’s 1968 “Night of the Living Dead” is regarded as a cult classic with its depiction of cannibalistic zombies. Since then there have been dozens and dozens of zombie flicks, often of low budget origins, featuring the undead scaring the life out of the living. Director Jim Jarmusch (“Paterson,” “Broken Flowers,” “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”) has thrown his hat into the zombie arena with his comical horror/fantasy “The Dead Don’t Die,” which features an all-star cast that’s sure to make anyone alive look twice. While it may have some clever laughs and some dry one-liners that only star Bill Murray can deliver, Jarmusch’s effort is about as mundane as watching Selena Gomez act.

 After responding to a complaint by racist Farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi) that his chickens are being killed by the disheveled eccentric Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), Centerville police Chief Cliff Robertson (Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) notice something odd is going on. Animals are disappearing, cell phones no longer work, and its daylight way into the night. All of this is blamed on polar fracking, which is denied in news reports by the companies who are doing the fracking. With the poles shifting their positions, it has altered Earth’s rotation, which of course means that the dead begin to rise from their graves.

 The town is littered with other recognizable faces including Danny Glover, Chloe Sevigny, Gomez, and Tilda Swinton as, you might guess it, an off-kilter character. I know it’s shocking, but who else could play a Scottish accented, samurai sword wielding, funeral home director? With so many different faces it only makes sense there are several little side stories as the townspeople struggle to avoid having their intestines eaten. They often fail as they are typically slower than the undead and even slower than the film’s pacing, which is often excruciating to sit through.

 Besides some great interaction between Murray and Driver, who talk in character about Jarmusch’s script and the repetitive-to-the-point-of-annoying theme song by Sturgill Simpson, the only bright spot of entertainment is Swinton’s performance. Otherwise, the plot is looser than someone who has drank a bottle of Metamucil in one setting. Characters vanish and unidentified objects appear for no reason. The acting is bland, punctuated by Gomez who seems to have no idea what she is doing and would have probably been better off just playing herself. Lastly, the nonsense becomes ridiculous when Jarmusch’s script turns political when he has Wait’s character go on socialist, metaphoric ramblings about consumerism, among other things. If I wanted that then I could have stayed at home and watched a documentary on PBS.

Film Review: “I Am Mother”

  • I AM MOTHER
  • Starring: Rose Byrne, Clara Rugaard
  • Directed by: Grant Sputore
  • Rated: PG-13
  • Running Time: 113 minutes
  • Netflix 

With the same gusto that Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark used to declare, “I am Iron Man,” I am hereby announcing that “I Am Mother,” currently on Netflix, is the best work of science fiction to grace the cinema universe since 2014’s bold “Ex Machina.” Brimming with a Stanley Kubrick vibe, “I Am Mother” holds your attention with ferocious vigor from beginning to end without ever skipping a beat. It captures the horrors of artificial intelligence gone wrong, something the late Stephen Hawking warned humanity about, with an engrossing cerebral script, solid acting, and a vision of the future that should make anyone shudder. This film should also make us question what is cinema?

 “I Am Mother,” which debuted at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, begins with dark, foreboding music as we are taken to an underground repopulation center. A red counter on the screen tells us that just one day has elapsed since an “extinction event;” that there are 65,000 human embryos being stored here; and that there are no human beings currently alive in the complex. The extinction event is kept a mystery to us, but in the meantime, we watch a solitary droid, known simply as Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne, “X-Men: Apocalypse”), begin the task of restarting humanity by incubating an embryo. When that child eventually asks why it’s the only one, the kind Mother cryptically says that she needs practice to become a good parent.

 Flash forward to 15,867 days after the extinction event to when a teenage girl, Daughter (Clara Rugaard, “Teen Spirit”), is prepping for a test involving moral and ethical conundrums. It’s at this point our suspicions of Mother grow deeper since Daughter is still the only child in the facility, and roughly 40 years have passed since the first embryo was grown into a walking, talking human being. The situation becomes complicated because of Daughter’s own curiosity and the arrival of Woman (Hilary Swank) at the front door. The appearance of Woman, who has been shot, further contradicts Mother who repeatedly warns Daughter that the outside world is unhabitable for humans. Woman, who is less than truthful herself, paints a picture of human annihilation by A.I.-controlled droids.

 A brilliant first feature-length directorial effort by Grant Sputore, “I Am Mother” has influences on it that range from “Terminator” to “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Ex Machina” itself. There is a great feeling of suspense that builds and builds until it reaches a crescendo that will leave you analyzing what you saw for hours after the final credits leave the TV screen. Rugaard is a joy to watch as she delivers a breakout performance that rivals Alicia Vikander’s in “Ex Machina.” Byrne gives us a new HAL 9000 and Swank is raw and powerful as a lone survivor.

 Despite its greatness, is “I Am Mother” not cinema in the truest sense of the word because it is a Netflix endeavor and did not have, for example, a 3,000-screen release across the United States with an international debut of even more? And if it is classified in the same way as say a new “Terminator” would be, without gracing a silver screen, does that mean it would hypothetically be eligible for an Oscar? “I Am Mother” and others like it are a sign of changing times and perhaps a redefinition of what cinema is.

Film Review: “Men In Black: International”

  • MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL
  • Starring:  Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson and Liam Neeson
  • Directed by:  F. Gary Gray
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  1 hr 54 mins
  • Columbia

Paris.  Present day.  As a young man prepares to propose to his lady on top of the Eifel Tower they are surprised by the sudden appearance of two mysterious men dressed in black.  They appear curious as to their presence but soon they won’t even remember they were there.  Cue the neurolizer.  FLASH!

An entertaining continuation of the “Men in Black” series, albeit minus Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, “Men In Black: International” introduces us to two new agents – H (Hemsworth) and M (Thompson).  They are assigned to protect a visiting alien dignitary by their superior, High T (Neeson).  However, when things go horribly wrong, they quickly deduce that there is a mole in MIB, one who must be stopped.

I’ve always enjoyed these films.  And I like how they have fun with the time lines.  This time the producers have cast two of the most popular young actors working today and both Hemsworth and Thompson handle their assignments well.  Thompson’s M has dreamed of “What’s out there?” since she was a little girl.  She impresses MIB chief O (Emma Thompson) by doing the impossible – infiltrating MIB headquarters.  This bold move gets her hired – probationary – and her exuberance is felt in the audience.  Hemsworth is the hot-shot H, dealing with emotional issues (his alien girlfriend just dumped him) and slacking off in his job.  They are joined by Pawnie, a six inch chess piece voiced hilariously by Kumall Nanjiani.  The trio team up to save the day, or at least destroy a lot of stuff trying.

Like the other films, the two best things going are the chemistry between the leads and the amazing creature effects.  Seven-time Academy Award winner Rick Baker designed the original trilogy’s creatures and the new group who worked on this film carry on the great tradition.  The direction, with Mr. Gray replacing trilogy director Barry Sonnenfeld, is brisk and keeps the story moving.  If you’ve even wondered “What’s out there?” this film may not have the answers.  But it will give you an enjoyable two hours to contemplate. 

Film Review: “GEORGIE”

  • GEORGIE
  • Starring:  Tony Dakota, Meredith Binder
  • Directed by:  Ryan Grulich
  • Not Rated

I’ll admit here that I was very late to the acclaimed and beloved 1990 horror mini-series “IT.”  About 27 years late.  That’s right, I didn’t see it until just before the feature film was released.  No reason really.  Actually there is.  I’m deathly afraid of clowns.  Not sure why.  I don’t have any bad “he touched me” stories to share.  Actually I’ve only had two “run-ins” with clowns, the first being when I was threatened with protests (and worse) should the theatre I was managing at the time show the film “Shakes the Clown,” which these clowns – and I’m not using slang, they WERE clowns – felt was disrespectful to the clown community.  Anyway, I watched it and I loved it.  Loved the film as well.  Hate Pennywise but you know what I’m saying.

Welcome to the town of Derry.  As darkness falls we find ourselves inside a modest house.  Inside a frail woman is finishing a sketch of a young boy.  The flights flicker, then go out.  As she begins lighting candles her hand shake.  To quiet her nerves, she begins to play “Fur Elise” on the piano, but the tune is slow and deliberate…almost like a dirge.  Though the room above her is empty, she hears footsteps.  Georgie?

A short film – about eight minutes in length – “Georgie” is that rare short film that gets its message across loud and clear.  Written by Producer John Campopiano and director Grulich, it is being promoted with the question “What if Georgie returned to Derry?”  For those of you not familiar with the story of “IT,” Georgie is the little boy whose paper boat has the misfortune of going into the storm drain occupied by Pennywise the clown.  Things don’t go well for the youngster.

With only music and atmosphere to propel the story, “Georgie” relies greatly on its two leads.  As the woman of the house, Binder is able to convey her fear in her eyes.  She is unsure of the noises we hear and so are we.  Dakota, who played the young Georgie in the 1990 mini-series, is a blank yet terrifying face, able to express his menace with a wink of an eye or a smile.  Grulich’s direction is top notch and the film is well paced.  Credit also the musical score, animated sequences and visual effects that help create and sustain the atmosphere. 

If you’re a fan of “IT,” horror films in general or just great filmmaking, I urge you to pay “Georgie” a visit.  To view the film, click HERE.

Film Review: “The Secret Life of Pets 2”

  • THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2
  • Starring the voices of: Kevin Hart, Patton Oswalt
  • Directed by:  Chris Renaud, Jonathan del Val
  • Rated:  PG
  • Running time:  1 hr 26 mins
  • Universal

If you are a pet owner, I’m pretty sure you’ve seen, and loved, “The Secret Life of Pets.”  It was uncanny how the creators captured the little idiosyncrasies that had many in the audience, myself including, thinking “that’s exactly what my dog/cat/bird/ferret, etc does.  And that insight carries over into the second chapter in the adventures of Max (Oswalt) and his furry and feathered friends.

Things are going well for Max.  His owner attends to his every need and all is right with the world.  Until the day she meets a gentleman.  Nothing wrong with that.  But as things progress, as they do in life, Max soon finds himself having to deal with a new person in his life…a baby.  At first he is wary of the new arrival, but as the boy grows, they form a bond that, anyone who had a dog as a child will know, can’t be broken.  Which makes Max frantic.  Where he used to enjoy going for walks, he now feels the streets, and the things encountered (steam grates, flocks of pigeons) are hazards for the boy.  This causes him to develop a nervous tic which sadly leads him to be encased in, what both my wife and I (and the film) call the cone of shame.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, Snowball the bunny (Hart) is also enjoying life.  His owner likes to dress him up as a superhero and he takes to the idea, proclaiming his prowess to his pet friends.  He is quick to jump – do you see what I did there – into action when he is asked by his Shih Tzu friend Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) to help save a tiger being held by a cruel circus worker.  What’s a bunny to do?

Cleverly written and fast paced, “The Secret Life of Pets 2” is the ideal early summer film.  The characters and their traits are spot on and the voice actors do their best to inflect some of their own personalities into the characters.  Oswalt, replacing original Max voicer Louis C.K., is well cast.  Of course, he was outstanding as the voice of Renny in “Ratatouille,” so this should come as no surprise.  Hart once again is the frantic Snowball and I’m happy to see he is no longer homicidal (my one big problem with the first film).  Other actors lending their voice include Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Nick Kroll, Ellie Kemper and Pete Holmes.  Even Harrison Ford shows up, marking his animated film debut.  But as great as they all are, the vocal star here is Lake Bell, who seems to inhabit the character of Chloe, a cat like no other and yet like every cat we’ve ever encountered!

My only fault with the film is the same one I had with the first.  Though obviously geared for kids (and the parents that accompany them), there are some scary moments here, including one (thankfully off camera) of the tiger being disciplined with a whip.  There is also a pretty intense pack of wolves that made at least one child near me at the screening hide her face in her mother’s side.  So parents with very young children, be warned.

All in all, though, “The Secret Life of Pets 2” is a welcome treat to begin the early days of summer.

Film Review: “Dark Phoenix”

Starring: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender
Directed by: Simon Kinberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 113 minutes
20th Century Fox

As we all know by now, it only took Disney a measly 11 years to crank out 22 Marvel movies which culminated in the Infinity Stones saga. Fox hasn’t been so quick when it comes to the X-Men franchise, which began back in 2000. If you count the “Deadpool” movies, “Dark Phoenix” is the 12th entry and it feels like the end after a lot of outside and inside factor. The internal factors is that it comes after the R-rated ending to the Wolverine storyline, the jumbling of time in “Days of Future Past” and the peculiar decline in quality since “Days of Future Past.” The key outside factor is the Fox buyout. “Dark Phoenix” isn’t as bad as the attempt by “Last Stand” to tell the Dark Phoenix story, but it doesn’t quite live up to the highs of this beloved franchise.

“Dark Phoenix” begins in uncharted territories, with the X-Men actually being loved by the general public and the U.S. government. That’s because they’re on the President’s speed dial in case a national crisis arises. The latest event that requires the X-Men is NASA losing contact with a spaceship and its crew. The X-Men are called upon to save the astronauts, but it’s while in space that something bizarre happens to Jean Grey (Turner). Jean absorbs a mysterious, electric cosmic cloud during the rescue mission and comes back to Earth volatile, quick to anger and conflicted. The reason lies within Jean’s past, as well as what Professor X (McAvoy) has buried within her mind.

“Dark Phoenix” takes place nearly a decade after “Apocalypse” and makes the assumption that all of the relationships between the characters, established in the original “X-Men” movie and “X-2” will ring true, like Jean Grey’s relationship with Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). We’re also supposed to know what’s happened in the newer films with the fresh, young cast, like how Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Professor Xavier are friends and how Magneto (Fassbender) isn’t necessarily the prevailing bad guy anymore. If you’re only acquainted with one branch of the franchise, you’re likely to be confused. Of course if any of the above read like stereo instructions then just go ahead and skip this one.

The villains in this movie are a race of aliens that are so obscure; the comic book fans in attendance at the preview screening didn’t even know who they were. After a little bit of digging, I found that the aliens are called the Shi’ar. Their leader in this movie is played by Jessica Chastain, and the intergalactic race of no names frequently proves to be unreliable narrators, which hurts the overall story whenever they’re given exposition to deliver. Their goal is to channel the cloud energy thing that Jean Grey has absorbed and transfer it into one of their own, or manipulate Jean Grey’s emotions so that she can do their bidding. Their reasoning? You’d probably have a better guess than me, even if you haven’t seen the movie.

For a franchise that’s always had good villains, it’s odd that a powerful race of space aliens looking to destroy the Earth is so uninteresting and toothless. At least Jean Grey, when she’s Dark Phoenix, proves to be an interesting firecracker, made up of equal parts sympathetic and volatile. It’s great watching her shrug off the powers of the most iconic characters in this franchise, like Professor X and Magneto. Speaking of which, Professor X and Magneto continue to be the best superhero duo, whether opposed or working together, on the screen, no matter the pair of actors portraying the two. I actually enjoy what these newer X-Men movies have done with Magneto. Instead of being the fallback for villainy, he seems a lot more focused on a secluded life, away from the noise surrounding him, If anything, Professor X seems more or less to be the instigator of problems as of late.

“Dark Phoenix” suffers a lot from what plagued “Apocalypse,” a weak villain, character motivations that are beneath the actors and their strong performances, and a story that falls within the shadows of the franchise’s superior films. But unlike some of the weakest X-Men films, this one has a lot of great action sequences and sometimes the characters manage to elevate a flimsy scene just with their quips and actions. Quiksilver (Evan Peters) once again steals the scenes he’s in, but is used so sparingly, it makes you wonder why they ever introduced him. “Dark Phoenix” is a middle of the road entry that certainly could have been worse, but definitely deserves to be better, given the pieces that are in place.

Nearly 18 years after the first film, it appears that one of the first superhero franchises is about to disappear or be rebooted. Granted, no one has officially said anything and “Dark Phoenix,” by no means, hints that this is indeed the finale, but some writing is on the wall. Ever since the government gave the thumbs up to Disney absorbing Fox for billions, with Hugh Jackman hanging up the adamantium claws, and the box office receipts coming back smaller and smaller, it appears that the X-Men franchise is starting to run on fumes, creatively and financially. I’m hoping “Dark Phoenix” isn’t the last of these films or the last time we’ll see the dynamic duo of McAvoy and Fassbender, but if this is the last time, they deserved a hell of a lot better.

Film Review: “Rocketman”

ROCKETMAN
Starring: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell and Richard Madden
Directed by: Dexter Fletcher
Rated: R
Running time: 2 hrs 1 min
Paramount

Not sure if it’s a coincidence or not, but Paramount has chosen to release the new Elton John bio-pic, “Rocketman” the same week that, 47 years ago, the song “Rocket Man” made it’s debut in America on the Billboard Top 40 Chart. That song was so popular that I can remember my 7th grade teacher bringing in the lyrics for everyone in class to read and discuss their meaning. Heady stuff. As is the film.

We first meet Elton John (played in an award-worthy performance by Egerton) as he walks into a group therapy session. He obviously sticks out. But not because he’s Elton John. It’s because he is wearing one of the flamboyant outfits – complete with oversize glasses – he has become famous for. After he introduces himself and rattles off his many issues – alcoholic, drug user, sex addict – he begins to reflect on his life and the journey that took him from a shy English boy named Reginald Dwight (something to remember if you play trivia) to the gregarious superstar named Elton.

Full of great music and fantastical spectacle, “Rocketman” appears to be what everyone who found “Bohemian Rhapsody” lacking (I didn’t – I thought it was one of the best films of the year) – wanted it to be. Rather than a straight – no pun intended – bio-pic, “Rocketman” is more of a look at the life of a superstar through his increasingly large and rose colored glasses (the film’s director – Dexter Fletcher – took over “Bohemian Rhapsody” after original director Bryan Singer was let go). We learn that Elton’s father (Steven Mackintosh), who was a music lover, had no time or even interest in the young man, usually only speaking to him when scolding him. His mother, played by an almost unrecognizable Bryce Dallas Howard, obviously loves her son but has other interests. It’s left up to his grandmother (Gemma Jones) to recognize his brilliance – he can hear a piece of music once and then play it flawlessly on the piano. She’s the one who takes him to the Royal Academy each Saturday (he studied there for four years).

Reg is recruited to play in a backing band for visiting American groups and, when answering an ad looking for musicians, is handed a random envelope of lyrics and told to “do something with this.” The lyrics were written by Bernie Taupin (Bell) and, after the two are introduced, they would go on to be perhaps the greatest songwriting duo after John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

Egerton does a great job inhabiting the role. Besides physically resembling the singer, Egerton also sings the songs here. And while
he doesn’t sound a lot like Elton John, he does a fine job in his phrasing and in capturing the emotional moments of the music. Bell is equally good as Taupin while Richard Madden is both smoothly suave and cruelly businesslike as John’s manager (and lover) John Reid.

Don’t go into the film looking for facts. There are many “errors” (including John playing a song in the late 60s that he and Taupin actually wrote in the early 80s) in the story that are used to keep the story moving, which didn’t really bother me. My problem with the film was the occasional “over the top” production numbers that took away from the drama and emotion of the scenes. And there are some emotional moments. Most heartbreaking is when John gets up the courage to tell his mother he is gay. She tells him she has known this, but also tells him that, because he is gay, he will never be loved properly.

If you are even a slight fan of Elton John, you will find the film, and it’s music, enjoyable. And if you’re lucky enough to catch Elton John on his farewell tour, I urge you to go. That experience is even more enjoyable

Film Review: “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”

Starring: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobby Brown
Directed by: Michael Dougherty
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 131 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

On a scale of Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla” to the classic 1956 “Godzilla,” where does “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” stand? It’s difficult to say because I haven’t seen all of the kaiju films, so I can’t properly gauge where this one lies. Even if I had watched half of the movies in the Godzilla franchise, I think it’d be inappropriate to rank this one on a fan scale because at the end of the day, I just like watching monsters punch each other. However, I do know this; it’s a definite step down from the 2014 film that rejuvenated the franchise for Americans.

Just like in real-life, “King of the Monsters” begins five years after the events of the first film. The Monarch group, which tracks Godzilla and other titans, continues to track and monitor all the skyscraper sized creatures around our world. The U.S. government, in a throwaway plotline, wants to eradicate the kaiju so that humans can comfortably go about their day without the fear of another city destroying battle. The true human aspect of this story involves divorced couple, Dr. Mark Russell (Chandler) and Dr. Emma Russell (Farmiga), and their teenage daughter, Madison (Brown). The key to the fractured marriage and parental distrust lies within a family death and a device called Orca, which can potentially control the titans.

While only about 10 minutes longer than its predecessor, “King of Monsters” feels longer. That’s because the film jams in so much plot and monsters into the beginning, that when it’s finally time to have those ideas pay off, it jumbles the one-two punch. It also suffers from over explaining what we already know, while barely explaining things that we don’t. It’s actually a bit of an understatement to say there’s a lot going on. The caveat is that none of it is interesting for several reasons that are spoilers that I don’t want to spoil, but also because the film has all these subsidiary characters that it just expects us to remember or already be familiar with. The assumption that we already know everyone’s history is a mistake on the movie’s end, especially since it’s been half a decade since we were acquainted with any of these people, while introducing a dozen new characters. It sometimes even expects us to know the nuances of the monsters.

“King of Monsters” starts off strong, but peters out before the finale. The beginning provides us with a basis for conflict amongst the human players, but instead of delivering on all these interesting promises, it instead treats audience members like unintelligent toddlers. That’s because it throws out all this nonsensical “we’ll explain later” exposition while also bashing viewers across the face with monologues on how destructive humanity is. We get it, we’re terrible people and we’re destroying the planet.

Hopefully 2020’s “Godzilla vs. Kong” is more fun because honestly, no one showed up for a “Godzilla” movie for such an elementary and overbearing eco-message. We showed up to watch monsters beat up other monsters and destroy cities, and at least the film delivers on that end. So is this a good movie? No. Is it a passable, yet forgettable monster battle royale? Yes. The film tries to be too serious when it shouldn’t, and doesn’t lean into the schlock when it should. It’s popcorn fun that’ll leave you with a tummy ache.

Film Review: “Aladdin”

ALADDIN
Starring: Will Smith, Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Rated: PG 13
Running time: 2 hrs 8 mins
Walt Disney Pictures

Will Smith has fought many a cinematic battle.  He’s taken on drug dealers, aliens (many times), a mechanical spider and George Foreman and beaten them all.  This week he takes on his biggest challenge, the memory of Robin Williams.  And I’m happy to report he succeeds.

We open with a family at sea.  The children remark at the opulence of the boats around them, causing their father to remind them that bigger isn’t always better.  He then begins to tell them the story of Aladdin and his Magic Lamp.  We meet Aladdin (Massoud) as he and his monkey companion, Abu, work their trade through the marketplace.  Their trade is theft, and they are very good at what they do.  However, when Aladdin sees a beautiful young woman (Scott) ahead of him, his thoughts go from larceny to love.  He introduces himself and offers to show her the town.  However, she suddenly rushes off, explaining that she is a handmaiden to the daughter of the Sultan.  Like Cinderella, she is off with Aladdin seeking to find her.  However, unlike Cinderella, SHE is the Sultan’s daughter, which puts her a little out of Aladdin’s league.  If only he had a way of becoming a prince.

The least “Guy Ritchiest” of any Guy Ritchie film, “Aladdin” is actually an entertaining bit of filmmaking.  All of the characters from the beloved 1992 animated film are here.  Aladdin.  Princess Jasmine.  Jafar (a very evil Marwan Kenzari).  His parrot, Iago.  Abu.  Rajah the tiger. And, of course, the Genie.  Robin William’s performance as the Genie in the animated feature was so amazing that the Golden Globes created a special award for him.  It was really the first time I thought that an actor would get an Oscar nomination for voicing an animated character.  I give Will Smith a lot of credit for even accepting the role.  And he does well.  He isn’t Robin Williams, but he isn’t trying to be.  This is vintage early Will Smith.  Think the Fresh Prince or Mike Lowery from “Bad Boys.”  A lot of fun and a lot of attitude. 

The musical numbers are immaculately staged, like you just wandered into a “Bollywood” production.  And while this film is about 40-minutes longer than it’s animated predecessor, it doesn’t suffer under the crush of added time like the recent “Dumbo,” which was almost twice as long as the 64-minute animated original.  The cast is excellent, and I’ve read where Disney made sure to cast actors whose heritage is from the actual parts in the world the film depicts.

My one disappointment, and this was echoed by many of the people around me in the screening that sat through the entire closing credits, was that there was no dedication to the memory of Robin Williams.  For generations to come, whenever the animated “Aladdin” is mentioned, his name will be the first thing brought up.  A very simple “FOR ROBIN” would have been a fine and quiet tribute.

Film Review “Tolkien”

 
TOLKIEN
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins
Directed by: Dome Karukoski
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hr 52 mins
Fox Searchlight
 
He was arguably the greatest fantasy writer of all time and certainly the godfather of modern fantasy literature. British author J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (1937) and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (1954-55) have endured the test of time while inspiring countless other works of the same genre, not to mention a modern-day film franchise that grossed nearly two billion dollars domestically. What many may not know is who Tolkien was during his formative years and what inspired him to create such a diverse world. Finnish director Dome Karukoski (“Tom of Finland”) helms a modestly successful attempt to shed light on the complicated young life of the writer, poet, philologist, academic and World War I veteran.
 
When we first meet John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973), he is being forced, along with his younger brother, to move from their family cottage in the English countryside, which is painted as grossly idyllic, to the overly dark and sinister heart of an industrial city by his widowed mother. (The family patriarch died in South Africa when Ronald was three years old.) Thanks to the efforts of the stern, yet caring Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney, “Layer Cake”), the Tolkiens avoid complete destitution, but things go from bad to worse in 1904 when Ronald’s mother suddenly dies. Father Francis does not abandon them, though, and helps the lads find a home at a boarding house, and ensures their continued education based upon the family’s reputation.
 
Although brilliant and already well-educated, Ronald initially does not fit in well with his fellow classmates, preferring the company of books over people. However, thanks to a scuffle on the rugby field, Ronald develops a close fellowship with three other lads as they form their own, semi-secret society. Even into their teens, Ronald (Nicholas Hoult, “Mad Max: Fury Road”), Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle, “The Lost City of Z”), Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney, “Dunkirk”) and Robert Q. Gilson (Patrick Gibson, “The OA” tv series) continue their pledge to change the world through artistic endeavors. Their most difficult challenge, though, arrives when they all volunteer to serve in the war to end all wars.
 
The hallmark of a good movie is how long does it stay in your train of thought. Some are gone so fast that you might as well file an insurance claim for amnesia. A few manage to linger on forever like the taste of apple pie that grandma made for you twenty years ago. While “Tolkien’s” romantic elements are full of innocent sweetness and the four lads’ friendship is nice, none of it is all that remarkable. The only exception might be how Ronald’s imagination, even at a young age, began to create the fundamental building blocks that would become Middle Earth. What does stay with you are the horrific battle sequences. War is hell, as Sherman once said, and it’s depicted as such in “Tolkien.” Karukoski doesn’t shy away from also delving into what’s nothing less than PTSD for the survivors of the Great War. Hoult is at his best when he portrays the evolution of the author from naïve linguist to a leader of men suffering from trench fever to a grown man struggling with his inner demons. Karukoski does a marvelous job throughout with the use of symbolic imagery to put us into the head of Ronald as he continues to put together Middle Earth. It greatly helps to overcome some of the sluggishness that exists during the more mundane aspects of Ronald’s life, which is left a little vague in a spiritual sense as Tolkien was a devout Catholic, something that’s barely alluded to in the story.

Overall, “Tolkien” should satisfy all but probably the most die-hard Middle Earth enthusiasts who may strive to pick apart every, last embellishment. It’s a fairly satisfying film that should wet your appetite for a “Hobbit”/”Lord of the Rings” movie marathon.
 

Film Review: “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum”

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry and Laurence Fishburne
Directed by: Chad Stahelski
Rated: R
Running Time: 130 minutes
Summit Entertainment

Lionsgate probably began 2019 with the hopes of their own superhero franchise. Well, at this point in the year, we know that “Hellboy” was a massive flop, critically and financially. At least they can hang their hats on the future of another franchise, one that was unexpected back in 2014, John Wick (Reeves).

Just like the prior film, “John Wick: Chapter 3- Parabellum” rapidly continues the saga of the assassin known as “The Boogeyman,” although no one refers to him by his nickname this time around. If you haven’t seen the previous films, then this film review is going to read like gobbledygook. When we last left Wick, he had just got done putting a bullet between the eyes of a powerful crime lord, he had been declared excommunicado from the Continental for those actions and the High Table had slapped a $14 million bounty on his head. With every assassin hungry to become a multi-millionaire, “Parabellum” wastes no time as the game is quickly afoot.

At this current time, if I was to rank the Wick films, I would put “Parabellum” last. That’s not to say this is a bad movie because it’s still a solid entry, but it doesn’t quite match the highs of the two previous films. Thankfully, my knocks against the film aren’t in the action department. This movie is tight, quick and exciting when the guns are drawn. The humor from the prior films remains intact as characters treat every scene seriously, despite the absurd circumstances and weapons at their disposal. When he has a gun in his hand, Wick remains a dead shot, but it’s during fist fights and other hand-to-hand combat moments that the movie shines as a violent tour de force. Not only does Wick get to utilize knives and swords a lot more this time around, but he manages to use various inanimate objects as instruments of death. It’s like a watching a symphony play to most stylized and brutal balet. This might actually be the goriest Wick film so far as Wick disposes of people in several gruesome ways. I could ramble on a bit more about the film’s glorious savagery, but it’s once the action subsides that the movie begins to falter.

The movie pumps the brakes towards the middle. While the first two films built upon the world during the lulls, this one seems to sputter. The filmmakers seem hesitant about building upon the rich tapestry because it seems unsure of how to proceed or grow. We get dashes of Wick’s past, but there’s not enough for audiences to grasp and understand Wick or the world around him. We get the feeling that the Continental and High Table have their tentacles around the globe yet the film doesn’t necessarily follow those tentacles down any fascinating wormholes. Instead we’re left with a throwaway character, played by Halle Berry, some trash bin villains and a mysterious figurehead that seems to be the “God” of this criminal underbelly.

It’s safe to say that because these film sequels are “chapters,” more Wick films are down the pipeline. So those lingering questions and thirst for more information will hopefully be fulfilled in later films. For now though, this may be viewed as a minor hiccup in an otherwise impressive film franchise. “Parabellum” reminds us why Wick is such a likable killer while offering up another glorious knockdown, beat down, visual smorgasbord of unblinking gun porn and fist throwing viciousness that remains unmatched by other contemporary action blockbusters. Compelling storytelling problems aside, Wick is still just as strong as trigger finger.

Film Review: “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu”

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith and Kathryn Newton
Directed By: Rob Letterman
Rated: PG
Running Time: 104 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

“Are you Pokémon savvy?” That’s a question I was asked after the screening of “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu,” since I’m one of a handful of Millennials who shows up to screenings to review a film in the Kansas City area. I told them, “Yes. And the movie still bad.”

The film begins with a lot of heavy-handed fan service that’ll put a smile on fans faces. I know this because during the Pokémon craze of the late 90s, I watched the animated show, collected the battle cards, and played the various Gameboy games that were increasingly cranked out during its peak in America. But I’m not a die-hard. My interest waned and I inevitably moved on to the next pop-culture video game fad, although I did download Pokémon Go when that was a thing. So for those who aren’t “Pokémon savvy” or have any kind of knowledge, you’ll want to avoid this movie at all costs or else you’ll be demanding your money back at the ticket counter after five minutes. So as a casual fan and critic, where do I think it all go wrong as a movie?

I give credit, “Detective Pikachu” sets up an interesting world where humans and Pokémon live together and interact in various ways. It’s not quite on the intricate levels of a movie like “Zootopia” where every scene is littered with clever sight gags and visuals, in the foreground and background, of how this world, while like ours, is incredibly different. The scenes of underground Pokémon battles and the hustling, bustling marketplace are an interesting mix of futuristic noir and cutesy animals. But the filmmakers seemed to be more focused on making the sidekick, Detective Pikachu, voiced by Ryan Reynolds, the focus of nearly every scene after his introduction. His dialogue is either expositional or quips that are more miss than hit.

The main character, and human counterpart to Pikachu, is Tim Goodman (Smith). He encounters Pikachu while rummaging through his father’s apartment in Ryme City, the epicenter of this world. Goodman believes his father to be dead, but Pikachu believes that Goodman’s father is missing, since they were partners on the Ryme City Police Force. But Pikachu doesn’t quite remember the circumstances behind what caused Goodman’s father to go missing and can’t quite fully confirm that he’s even still alive. The one element to all this, which is heavily shown in the film’s trailers, is that Goodman can understand Pikachu. For those who don’t know, a Pokémon’s language is their name. So while everyone else hears Pikachu saying “Pika Pika Pikachu,” Goodman hears Pikachu’s bad “Deadpool” jokes.

For the majority of its runtime, “Detective Pikachu” bumbles and stumbles around looking for any kind of meaning or purpose. The special effects artists have built this visual feast, but the film never seems to stop and take it all in, nor does it seem interested in the nuances of this universe, instead opting for big, loud, obnoxious action sequences that have no reason to exist. In fact, when the movie does decide to expand upon the story, it over explains, over shows, and does a bad job at disguising the bad guy of the film who clearly shows up 10 minutes into the film.

Not to be a dead horse, or in this case, a dead Ponyta, I can understand how none of this film makes any sense to anyone outside the fanbase because of how poorly the ideas are conveyed. It takes it another step further though, by dumbing down everything so much; it forgets to actually explain what’s happening to our characters while over explaining minor details that spoils the twists of the final act of the film. The four screenplay writers tangled up an otherwise simple buddy-cop film that might have been enjoyable to the fanbase, and those idling on the outside of it. Because even if you remove the Pokémon and replace them with any kind of bizarre creatures or popular franchise, the movie is still an utter mess.

The film moves at such a frenetic pace, it’s sometimes easy to lose yourself in it and forget that you’re bored. But that’s just it. It’s boring. After the movie you realize what transpired could have been told in a singular episode of television and that you have no exciting set pieces or gags to take home with you. Reynolds is charming, but it’s hard to stretch that smug, likeable voice over what is inherently a lengthy advertisement for the Pokémon brand. When you scrape off the gunk that builds up over time in this film, there’s something genuinely interesting. The animated “Pokémon” show is set in an era before phones, social media and the 21st century. Bringing Pokémon into the future could have been a novel idea, where Pokémon actually help humans solve crimes. Instead, the film tosses in the laziest villain and the most nonsensical sinister plot he could concoct, and slaps it on the big screen for the fans that will devour it.

Film Review: “Long Shot”

Starring: Seth Rogen, Charlize Theron and O’Shea Jackson Jr.
Directed by: Jonathan Levine
Rated: R
Running Time: 125 minutes
Lionsgate

I’ll give a smidgen of credit to Hollywood for attempting to change up the tired trope of the average guy getting a woman who is way out of his league. The “Long Shot” follows in line with other movies before it, like “Knocked Up,” “Superbad,” etc. So it’s no surprise that Seth Rogen, the go-to as of late for the down on his luck schmuck, gets paired with Charlize Theron for “Long Shot,” a movie that’s better than it’s supposed to be, but not as good as it thinks it is.

Fred Flarsky (Rogen) is a journalist, who has decided to quit instead of being let-go or continuing to work after his small time paper is bought by a media conglomerate. Through the most bizarre and unlikely of circumstances, Fred becomes reacquainted with Charlotte Field (Theron, his first crush, when she used to babysit him. Charlotte is now one of the most powerful people on the planet, the U.S. Secretary of State. But she has higher aspirations, especially after the President, played briefly, yet incredibly well by Bob Odenkirk, relays to her that he has no plans of seeking re-election. Sparks and complications arise when Charlotte hires Fred on to punch up her speeches as she gets ready to hit the campaign trail.

Whether you like “Long Shot” or not is based solely on the chemistry between Rogen and Theron. The odd couple matching work surprisingly well because Rogen tones down his frat boy antics and Theron demonstrates the comedic timing she’s shown flashes of previously on “Arrested Development” and in “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” Outside of the pull and tug of their contrasting personalities, they manage to have their characters do a bit of soul searching and learning along the way, which elevates the humdrum plot. The comedy is hit or miss, with the hits being crude and the misses being the stereotypical “fat man fall down go boom.”

There’s an underlying smugness to “Long Shot,” but luckily it stops itself from reveling in liberalism for too long in the film’s third act. Granted, I agree with a lot of the film’s political and social insights, but I and others don’t need it being delivered to us in such a ham-fisted fashion. It’s about as politically ferocious as a middle school class president election debate. Although I’d gladly watch a TV show of Rogen and Theron on the campaign trail, munching on the political landscape because it once again plays into the character’s complimentary personas.

“Long Shot” is an average rom-com, where the performances elevate the mundane story. A handful of riotous moments keep the film from dragging during its two-hour runtime, although those with an easily upsettable nature may find the film too crass. It’s hard to ignore the charm of the on-screen duo, even if you find yourself rolling your eyes when the film falls back on rom-com clichés.  

Film Review: “The Chaperone”

THE CHAPERONE

Starring: Haley Lu Richardson, Elizabeth McGovern

Directed by: Michael Engler

Rated: Not Rated

Running Time: 1 hr 43 mins

PBS Distribution 

Period drama “The Chaperone” is a delightful little film that’s as much about a married woman seeking out who she is as it is a study about the early life of iconic dancer/actress/writer Louise Brooks (1906-85). A native of Cherryvale, Kansas, Brooks moved to Wichita in 1919 where she began a dance career that would lead her to the legendary Denishawn School in New York City. It’s during that transitionary period that we meet her as well as the older woman who chaperones the then 16-year-old on her journey.

Based upon the 2012 novel of the same name by American author Laura Moriarty, “The Chaperone” takes us back to a time when modern dance was still establishing itself. This newfangled artform is alien to the folks of Wichita who have difficulty appreciating its artistry. That is except for Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern), the clearly unhappy wife of prominent lawyer Alan Carlisle (Campbell Scott) and the adopted daughter of a Kansas farm family who claimed her when she arrived aboard an orphan train from New York City.

Norma may be straight-laced, but she is more cosmopolitan in 1922 than her neighbors, some of whom casually talk about joining the KKK at dance recital to maintain purity. Revolted by such sentiment and looking for an adventure, Norma jumps at the chance to chaperone Louise (Haley Lu Richardson, “Five Feet Apart,” “Split”) to New York City, where Norma hopes to learn who her birth mother was. Her traditional values and quiet nature are a stark contrast to Louise who struts around like she is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Louise becomes a fast-rising star at Denishawn, which only feeds her free-spirited, sometimes petulant attitude, played with unmistakable charm by Richardson. Director Michael Engler, who has helmed episodes of “Empire” and “Downton Abbey,” insures Louise doesn’t become too unlikable by harnessing the tangible chemistry between McGovern and Richardson to reveal to us just how damaged the young dancer was. McGovern’s infuses her character with subtle bravery and humility, making Norma that much more admirable as she becomes a source of encouragement for Louise, not to mention an inspiration as she tracks down her past and finds new love. Famous for her bob haircut, Brooks, whose actual first name was Mary, is resurrected on the silver screen with wonderful flair as Richardson not only captures the look of the famous Kansan, but also her sexual complexities even at such an early age.

Although filled with marvelous period costumes, “The Chaperone” does fail to go into real depth about the social conditions and inequalities of the era, and is therefore a missed opportunity by the filmmaker. Still, “The Chaperone” provides a nice change of pace from commercial epics involving caped heroes and purple-skinned villains.

TFF Film Review: “Ask Dr. Ruth”

ASK DR. RUTH
Starring: Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer
Directed by: Ryan White
Running time: 100 mins.
Hulu/Magnolia Pictures

Dr. Ruth Westheimer–or as the world knows her simply “Dr.Ruth”–is an icon of modern pop culture both for broadening the discussion of sexuality in the mainstream as well as her larger than life personality. At just 4’7″, the diminutive German radiates a warmth and sense of humor that easily draws people to share their deepest personal concerns with her. Dr. Ruth has been on the world’s radar since her debut radio show “Sexually Speaking” in 1980 but at ninety years old, there is so much more of her story to be told. Fortunately for film goers, director Ryan White has chosen to take a thorough look into this extraordinary woman’s history. This internationally loved figure survived the Holocaust and time as a sniper in war-torn Jerusalem all before she reached Ellis Island to begin life in America as a single mother at a time when that was far from the norm. And then she took the media by storm. The documentary itself is as accessible and often light-hearted as its titular sex therapist while not shying away from her tragic beginnings.

Dr. Ruth was born in 1928 as Karola Ruth Siegel to Orthodox Jewish parents in Germany. As WWII was brewing, Karola saw her father arrested and she was sent away by her grandmother as part of the Kindertransport to an orphanage in Switzerland. The small Karola did not know she would not see her parents again but she kept up writing letters with them as long as they could in addition to her detailed journals. Dr. Ruth’s own records are a boon to this doc and her diligence in conserving them is rewarded with some lovely animation work that White introduces to bridge the time before she came to the public eye (though White’s choice of an unaccented young American woman reading her diaries is at times jarring). The film also has a nice blend of her home movies chronicling her life as she finally reached America.

There’s no doubt that the strength of this documentary is owed to its magnetic subject. Watching Dr. Ruth query an Amazon Alexa in her uber-thick accent (and it takes a few tries for the electronic helper!) is a pure delight. Fortunately for White, Dr. Ruth also surrounds herself with equally well-spoken company. Her two grown children, her quartet of grandkids and even her first “boyfriend”, a fellow Holocaust survivor, are welcome additions to rounding out her life off-camera. Finally and naturally, White doesn’t skimp on emphasizing her media impact. There’s highlights from the times she embraced a certain kitsch take on her pop persona–I am guilty of first being aware of her as a kid due to that cheesy ‘sex-noises’ Herbal Essences ad from the 90s–as well as the more critical role she played in the conversation during the AIDs crisis. There is so much of the human experience packed into Dr. Ruth’s tiny frame that this documentary is an embarrassment of riches.

Ask Dr. Ruth has its New York premiere tonight as part of the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. Fest screenings will be followed by a limited theatrical release on May 3rd and will debut on Hulu on June 1st.

Copyright: MediaMikes.com © 2019 · Powered by: nGeneYes, Inc. · Login

All logos and images used on this website are registered trademarks of their respective companies. All Rights Reserved. Some of the content presented on our sites has been provided by contributors, other unofficial websites or online news sources, and is the sole responsibility of the source from which it was obtained. MediaMikes.com is not liable for inaccuracies, errors, or omissions found herein. For removal of copyrighted images, trademarks, or other issues, Contact Us.