Reviews


“Toy Story 4” Movie Review


TOY STORY 4

     Last summer, I was standing in line at Disney’s California Adventure, waiting to ride Toy Story Midway Mania, when I noticed something that appeared out of the norm. At least to me.  There was a family standing in front of us and the father was carrying his 2-3 year old son in a backpack that allowed the child to face forward and have full use of his arms.  In his hands was an iPhone he was using to play some sort of video game, an activity that had his undivided attention.  Imagine that for a second.  A young child who is literally in Disneyland, and yet still needs to be pacified with a game on an expensive device since apparently the sights, sounds, and smells of the Happiest Place On Earth aren’t enough nowadays to wrangle a kid’s attention.  Not to mention the cost of that device and the fact twenty years ago our parents would never have let a 2 year old come within ten yards of something that costs one thousand dollars.

     Movies that are actually about something, even if the issue is hidden deep within the core of its narrative, typically succeed as being much more than merely entertainment.  The filmmakers behind “Toy Story 4”, the fourth entry in Disney/Pixar’s flagship franchise, clearly set out to bring forth the fact that society has allowed children to skip what is perhaps the most important portion of their childhoods in favor of mindless technology that slowly poisons their impressionable brains.  Take the central human character in the film, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), a pint sized kindergartener who spends her first day in class creating her own toy, a spork decorated with pipe cleaners for arms and popsicle sticks for feet.  When she completes her project, she affectionately calls it Forky, and immediately treats it as her most prized possession.  She’s proud of it because she created it.

     Screenwriters Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom provide “Toy Story 4” with a story that takes place in modern times, but harks back to an era when kids used their own imaginations to create characters that would populate their own worlds.  If you didn’t have exactly what you needed, you would make it out of paper or use a prop of some kind.  And that’s exactly what Bonnie does, introducing her new pal, Forky, to the rest of her toys, which have been lovingly handed down to her from Andy in the earlier installments.  Of course, as we already know, when the human characters leave the room, the toys come alive and live within a world all their own, while also holding dear the fact they are at the service of a child.

     Forky, voiced by Tony Hale, initially believes he is meant to be trash and doesn’t understand the new found responsibility as Bonnie’s favorite toy.  Woody (Tom Hanks), along with the rest of the toys including Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), attempt to convince Forky of the importance of his newfound situation, but a road trip via an RV where Forky leaves the bunch, forces Woody to go after him, creating the adventure that ensues.  Along the way, the toys end up at a carnival.  Where they gain the help of two hilarious stuffed animals named Bunny (Jordan Peele) and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key), as the group attempts to rescue Forky from a near by antique / junk store.

     There they meet Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), an older doll who longs to be loved by a child and is willing to do whatever she has to in order for that to happen.  A stunt motorcycle riding action figure called Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) also joins in the fun as Woody races to get Forky back to Bonnie before her and her family move on from the carnival.  Even Woody’s flame, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), finds her way into the action as director Josh Cooley skillfully navigates the characters through a series of harrowing subplots and daring escapes.

     Most likely saw 2010’s “Toy Story 3” as the by design ending of the venerable series, leaving the narrative at a high point and the franchise with the status of being called a classic.  What “Toy Story 4” proves is with the right story and script, these characters can not only return a fourth time around, but also several more times in the future.  With the characters already a strong suit, the colorful worlds and crisp 3D animation created by the filmmakers bring forth a sense of awe and inspiration.  This is truly one of the best films of the year.  But the overall theme brings me right back to that day in the Toy Story Midway Mania line.

     There is a scene late in the film where a runaway RV is being chased by a caravan of police cars, as onlookers in the background are recording the incident with their smartphones.  Other than that, there isn’t a device to be scene.  Not in the hands of Bonnie’s parents, and certainly not in the hands of Bonnie.  Only the world created by a little girl and the toys that occupy it.  It is in fact Bonnie’s creativity that drives the narrative and brings forth the sense of excitement and adventure you feel in the theater.  All of that from a plastic utensil and a few arts and crafts supplies.  But the reality is, today’s kids wouldn’t give Forky the time of day.  All of this because parents have allowed children to become so entitled that a kid who hasn’t reached grade school age yet demands an iPhone.  What have we done?  GRADE: A

“Men in Black: International” Movie Review


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     You had to figure the creators behind “Men in Black: International” wouldn’t be able to help themselves as they formed the narrative around a preconceived outline based on the previous installments where certain scenes and plot devices had to be present in order for the film to feel like a “Men in Black” film.  The fact they recycle the agency introduction process for the new lead played by Tessa Thompson, that has her entering the building for the first time, seeing the same aliens walking around, and the “Alien Monitoring Cam” that indicates to the audience that many of the famous people we see in movies and television are indeed from another planet, seems unnecessary given the same visuals were used in all three films previously.  There’s also the decked out black car that just has to have a special button that gives it a little extra Vroom! Vroom!.  

     We’ve seen all of this before in 1997’s “Men in Black”, as well as it’s two sequels, 2002’s “Men in Black 2” and 2012’s “Men in Black 3”, where the filmmakers of the third installment at least tried to inject a time travel twist that allowed Josh Brolin to hilariously riff on a younger Tommy Lee Jones, but the goings on in what is now the fourth film of the franchise brings nothing new to the table for stars Thompson and Chris Hemsworth to do.  Leaving these two capable performers to exist within what feels like a canned franchise primer, rather than a fresh and original story.

     Some call it simple fan service, while I like to refer to this as a series of proverbial check boxes the filmmakers feel is necessary in order for the film to qualify as a true addition to a particular series.  All of this is surprising given the notable chops displayed by director F. Gary Gray during his two recent outings, “Straight Outta Compton” & “The Fate of the Furious” respectively, but he can’t seem to shake the predictable scenery here.  Everything from the Neuralyzer famous for erasing the memories of onlookers who weren’t supposed to see the latest MIB response to the various alien mischief that we are meant to believe happen right under the noses of our unsuspecting population, is retreaded with only the gloss of the latest CGI giving anything we see on screen a hint of imagination. 

     Screenwriters Matt Holloway and Art Marcum turn in a very by the numbers story that begins with a slight variation on Wil Smith’s arc in the first film, only to pair Thompson’s Agent M with the current senior guy, Hemsworth’s Agent H, who essentially functions in the same capacity as Tommy Lee Jones did in the first film, but does so with his trademark Thor-like personality.  To spice things up, a pint size creature named Pawny, voiced by Kumail Nanjiani, is along for the ride, functioning solely as the comic relief providing the necessary banter that both Thompson and Hemsworth use to play off of.  Without Pawny, the material left for these two is the equivalent of a bare pantry where the on screen chemistry never approaches that of Smith and Jones.  As is, there are a smattering of well earned funny moments.

     After Agent M manages to make her way over the standard hurdles we’ve seen before, her and H are paired up when a mysterious alien duo arrives on Earth looking for a hidden weapon.  Fortunately for us, M and H acquire the weapon and are able to temporarily stop the threat posed by the unknown adversaries, but soon it is found these operations may have been compromised.  After an investigation by M and H reveals they were set up, the lead agent of MIB, Agent High T (Liam Neeson), determines there is a mole within the agency and sends M and H on a mission they believe will force this traitor to come out into the open and reveal who they are working with outside of our planet.

     While some of this has entertainment value, at the end of the day, “Men in Black: International” utilizes the same chase sequences, fight scenes, and futuristic weaponry featured in just about ever other summer popcorn flick these days, while offering nothing notable about any of the characters or furthering the lore of what was once a successful and imaginative franchise.  It’s as if the elevation of technology never made its way to MIB, leaving the latest agents armed with mostly the same weapons as they battle very similar foes.  Yes, it appears the aliens in the film haven’t evolved either. Even the predictable set up with one of them at the beginning falls woefully flat when the payoff comes at a time when the stakes just don’t seem high enough.  At the end of the film, an MIB agent could indeed use a Neuralyzer on you, but I think both parties would find it a waste of time given there isn’t anything in the film worth remembering anyway.  GRADE: C-

“Dark Phoenix” Movie Review


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     Years before J.J. Abrams reinvigorated the “Star Trek” franchise in 2009, the cast of the “Next Generation” crew had a four film run on the big screen beginning with “Star Trek Generations in 1994, and all but crashed and burned in 2002 with “Star Trek: Nemesis” which grossed a paltry $42 million in the United States and officially ended the franchise with a starship sized thud.  I bring this up because the “X-Men" franchise, which has now spanned 12 films over 18 years, is also ending a four film series with what fans know as the “First Class” cast.  These younger versions of the characters featured in 2000’s “X-Men” and its two sequels, made their debut in 2011’s “X-Men: First Class”, and reprised their roles in 2014’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past”, and 2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse”.  And like the Next Generation “Star Trek” films, the first two installments were the high point, but what followed left plenty to be desired.

     “Dark Phoenix”, also the fourth film for this cast, is the official send off, and seeks to go out on a high note after the universally panned “Apocalypse”.  When you look deeper into what derailed the “Star Trek” films, an obvious factor is the tendency to utilize episodic storytelling in a sort of “adventures of” format.  This typically entails the creation of a new singular one off nemesis for our heroes to meet, fight, and defeat all within two hours.  Compare that to the recent completion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s 22 film story arc in which Thanos was teased and developed over a decade’s worth of films and finally revealed as the main threat to the universe in “Infinity War”.  What results is a multilayered story that feels epic.  Introducing a villain in the first act and killing him off in the third act makes these stories feel repetitive, and unfortunately because of this glaring issue, writer and first time director Simon Kinberg is unable to bring this series to a memorable climax.

     Fans will certainly recall the last time the “Phoenix” comic story line was explored in 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand”.  By all accounts, it was that film that motivated Fox to recast the roles with younger actors in the first place and basically start over.  Kinberg was a co-screenwriter on that film as well, and here he is 13 years later telling the story again, but that doesn’t mean he learned from the first outing’s myriad of problems.  “Dark Phoenix” suffers from countless issues ranging from that episodic one note plotting I’ve already mentioned, to an entire cast of talented actors finding themselves stuck in repetitive action sequences we’ve seen so many times before.  The powers each of these characters possess were at one time awe inspiring, but that is simply not the case anymore.

     Perhaps that’s because watching Storm (Alexandra Shipp) fire lightning from her hands, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) moving metal objects with his mind, and Professor X (James McAvoy) looking directly into people’s thoughts also happen to be the same skill set every Jedi happens to possess as well.  So seeing all of these special talents unfold again in the same ways they have in the last 18 years worth of films, just doesn’t bring forth the same sense of excitement.  Toss in a villain, who takes the form of Jessica Chastain and calls herself Vuk, who comes out of nowhere, but along with others from her alien race have apparently been living on Earth for quite sometime, while seeking a special power that will aid them in destroying our population or something along those lines.  Fact is, you won’t remember a whole lot about them because they only show up when the plot calls for it, which is minimal and uninspiring.  Otherwise, it’s a bunch of infighting between the core group as Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) once again becomes enhanced by a power she can’t control.

     The opening sequence which features the X-Men on a rescue mission to save the space shuttle after it loses control when encountering a space based energy field, is the clear high point of the film.  It is here Kinberg creates a sequence where each and every member’s ability is needed to accomplish the mission, resulting in one of the few scenes where the stakes actually appear worthy of these characters in the first place.  This is also where much of the conflict between key members, particularly Professor X and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), begins, thus laying the foundation for the more dramatic bits to come later.  But there isn’t enough here to utilize the “Civil War” formula and simply pit the two sides against each other, and that’s where the film tries to lean on its lifeless carbon copy villain and ultimately falters.

     Fact is, and I think most people seeing this film will already know this, none of what occurs in “Dark Phoenix” really matters anyway.  With Disney having completed their purchase of Fox earlier this year, the Mouse House now owns the X-Men and will likely relaunch the characters down the road, integrating them with their comic book counterparts who already populate what  we know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  And given what we just experienced with “Endgame”, there is no reason not to believe these characters will flourish once again now that they are back in the hands of Marvel Studios. 

     And that’s what creates the majority of the disappointment.  If you’re a fan of the franchise, then you desperately want “Dark Phoenix” to deliver the kind of excitement and satisfaction these characters, and the actors who portray them, deserve.  But instead we’re left with something you’ll forget about in a week, and will only be reminded of when you catch a snippit of it on television a year or two down the road.  Not exaclty the proper send off we were led to believe it would be.

GRADE: D

“Rocketman” Movie Review


     Director Dexter Fletcher was given the daunting task of saving last year’s Queen biopic  “Bohemian Rhapsody” when he was brought in to replace Bryan Singer after the director’s  very public dismissal by the studio.  In most cases, this would mean, at minimum, a struggle with tonal issues as the final cut would be comprised of footage shot by two different directors.  Look no further than the issues surrounding “Justice League” and “Solo: A Star Wars Story” as evidence of the uphill climb both Joss Whedon and Ron Howard faced after taking the reigns for Zack Snyder and Phil Lord and Chris Miller respectively.  Neither film was well received in terms of comparable previous installments, but “Bohemian Rhapsody”, somehow, proved to be an exception, going on to win four Academy Awards and generating over $900 million in worldwide box office.  Audiences clearly loved it. 

     Fletcher is back, this time with a film he was hired to direct from the start, giving the life story of Elton John similar treatment, but injecting an altogether different creative vibe into the proceedings.  “Rocketman” exudes a completely different style and take on what is ironically very similar material, given John and Freddie Mercury began as British hit makers at virtually the same time, with both going to become musical icons known for their flamboyant lifestyles and toe tapping tunes that have transcended many generations.  And while the PG-13 “Rhapsody” glossed over Mercury’s alternative lifestyle, the R-rated “Rocketman” embraces John’s and the many struggles he had with his sexuality at a time when his fame catapulted him to becoming a huge star in America and all over the world.  

     Whereas “Rhapsody” chose to chronicle Mercury and Queen’s rise from a local British band to their eventual superstardom by following a strict timeline and injecting their music by way of  their performances and their experimentation with different sounds and styles, “Rocketman” takes a completely different path.  In similar fashion to musicals such as “Mamma Mia”, “Rocketman” meshes John’s music into the scene, beginning with lyrical dialogue that suddenly breaks out into a choreographed musical number.  Even when we see the legendary performer in concert, the sequence quickly becomes fantastical and dreamlike, with both John and the audience watching him float on air, as these scenes are enhanced with special effects to help communicate the feeling and emotion of the song and the performance.

     Playing John in what has to be considered a star making role is Taron Egerton, best known previously as Eggsy in the two “Kingsman” films.  And while he has certainly held his own as an action star, Egerton owns “Rocketman”, portraying John in a manner that doesn’t necessarily make you think you’re looking at the performer himself, but rather an actual character with heart and charisma all his own.  With all due respect to Rami Malek’s Oscar winning portrayal of Mercury, Egerton has truly embodied a character in a way that takes the musical biopic to the next level, even singing the songs himself without the digital backing of John’s voice.  It certainly helps that Lee Hall’s script makes a conscious effort to dig deeper into the whirlwind of emotion John consistently endured during his rise to the top, but Egerton, completely decked out in John’s larger than life costumes and accessories, brings those words to life in a way that for two hours really makes you believe he was born to play this role.

     That’s not say the film is without its flaws.  Beyond the musical numbers, there are a few moments that feel obligatory.  I mentioned “Solo: A Star Wars Story”, and you may recall  the checkboxes that were systematically filled where we learn the origins of his name, his association with Chewy, and how he came into possession of the Millennium Falcon.  “Rocketman”, at times, plays in much the same way as we also learn how he came up with his stage name (his real name is Reginald Dwight), how he met Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), the man responsible for the lyrics of John’s extensive library of hits, and his eventual breakdown at the hands of an overabundance of drugs and alcohol.  

     We know these things about John and that’s what makes them expected in a film like this, but a truly marvelous film will find a way to avoid playing out common knowledge on screen and treat the audience to the unexpected.  For the most part, that’s exactly what Fletcher accomplishes, particularly when things become less grounded in reality and more dreamy if you will.  The best bits are when we can almost see the fantasies swirling within John’s head mind and witnessing how he brings them to vivid and colorful life.

     We are meant to believe the burden of unsupportive divorced parents shrunk John’s self worth down to the point where all that was left was his additions to alcohol, drugs, sex, and shopping.  The film immediately tells us this by way of framing the entire story around his sudden appearance directly from the stage into an AA meeting where he lays out the demons which have nearly crumbled him, but he also announces he is there to get better.  And today, we know this is the case, if for no other reason he wrote the catchy tune “I’m Still Standing” to tell the world he conquered the bad and is finally living a life where he feels loved, but more importantly, also loves himself.  Perhaps no better song title evokes what this film seeks to accomplish. GRADE: B+

“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” Movie Review


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     One of the most difficult tasks in cinema is to mold a story that is centered around a voiceless creature and create meaningful character arcs for the human characters who will be featured in nearly every scene.  An obvious example of success within this realm is Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979) and James Cameron’s “Aliens” (1986), both of which succeeded in introducing us to human characters who were every bit as memorable as the xenomorph itself.  And that is essentially where “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” falters, as writer/director Michael Dougherty brings together a collection of mostly character actors, many of which you will recognize but may not remember where, who add up to nothing more than fodder for the main attraction.

     “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is part of the ongoing monster universe that Warner Bros. hopes will flourish into a successful franchise along the lines of what Marvel has done by creating a series of films that feature these various titans as they make their way to eventual showdowns.  What the humans in these films do seems to be inconsequential.  That much was obvious in the initial entry to the series, 2014’s “Godzilla”, as well as the follow up, 2017’s “Kong: Skull Island”, though that film benefitted greatly from Samuel L. Jackson riffing on his “Snakes on a Plane” persona, making the experience actually fun.  In “King of the Monsters”, we’re left with Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga trying to make sense of a “Twister” like backstory in which both of their characters study creatures like Godzilla, but their relationship has gone off the rails, leaving them separated with a child caught in the middle.  It’s all really a bore.  After all, you didn’t see any of this in the trailer did you?

     If there’s one reason Godzilla has been featured for decades in numerous films made around the globe, it’s because the big screen is the preferred medium for the depiction of giant monsters battling it out amongst the skyscrapers as millions of helpless people run for their lives.  And there is plenty of that to be seen in this entry, as fan favorites Mothra and Rodan are featured along with the three headed dragon, King Ghidorah, in an all out war centered around a theory they were put here to rid the world of the human population who to date has not been treating Mother Earth to kindly.  Environmentalists may be pleased, but much of this is thinly plotted and utilized only to create scenarios for the monsters to tear apart another city.  When a character dies, it doesn’t really register at all.

     Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) and his estranged wife, Emma (Vera Farmiga), are scientists who were pulled into the study of these mythical creatures by Monarch, the private agency tasked with learning about them.  As with all of these storylines, the government has stepped in and seeks to control the direction of these studies, while the scientists object.  Mark has removed himself completely, but Emma remains and solicits the services of a known terrorist, Jonah (Charles Dance), to ensure her agenda continues, though her own reasoning should certainly be questioned.  The Russell’s have a daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), who figures into all of this, but you could remove her character all together and still have the same film.  There’s nothing impactful any of the human characters accomplish which at any point changes the course of the story,  leaving actors like Sally Hawkins, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ken Watanabe, and Ziyi Zhang with nothing much to do but enjoy their paychecks.

     The army of CGI artists at Dougherty’s disposal deliver several impressive action sequences which serve as the foundation of the film.  Godzilla himself seems like old news when introductory sequences for King Ghidorah, Rodan, and Mothra are full of color and awe inspiring imagery, leaving the film’s namesake as appearing drab and boring.  And even though we’ve seen plenty of big city destructive monster mayhem in both the “Transformers” series and the recent pair of “Pacific Rim” films, not to mention the events in “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”,  Dougherty still manages a number of impressive wide shots that give the audience a harrowing look at the size of these monsters just as they charge each other and all hell inevitably breaks loose.

     The question the decision makers will ultimately need to ask themselves is does “King of the Monsters” create enough excitement to justify having a post credits scene teasing more to come?  For his part, Dougherty is again providing the screenplay to the upcoming “Godzilla vs. Kong” (March, 2020), giving way to horror film director Adam Wingard who takes over helming duties.  Somehow, the foundation of this universe has to be supported by human characters who have real stakes in the plot, rather than spending the majority of time running for their lives as buildings fall around them.  “King of the Monsters” establishes a true threat in these massive titans located all around the world, but what’s missing is a clear defining role as to the part  humans play in all of this?  Will there ever be a Ripley among the group? The longevity of the series likely depends on it.  GRADE: C-

“Booksmart” Movie Review


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     One could make the argument it was 1999’s “American Pie” that jumpstarted a wave of R-rated raunchy teen comedies utilizing high school aged kids in a setting more often associated with those attending college and slightly more prepared to handle the life changing decisions they may face when sex, drugs, and alcohol are the foundation of the party.  And in much the same way Jim, Oz, Kevin, and Finch made their memorable pact, the characters in first time feature director Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart” embark on a similar journey, while learning plenty about themselves along the way.

     The marketing behind “Booksmart” seems to have left many with the impression the story is essentially a female centric rehash of “Superbad”, but that notion could not be farther from the truth.  Working from a script written by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman, Wilde examines the complexities of teen life by dissecting the expectations we have of each other, as well as ourselves.  In doing so, the characters find out those perceptions of people we seem to believe as being reality are seldom the actual truth.  Adults regularly learn this each and every day, but to see this unfold through the eyes of Molly (Beanie Feldstein), the class Valedictorian who will be attending Yale in the fall, and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), equally as smart and attending Colombia, is a different kind of movie experience altogether.  Something that is greatly enhanced by Wilde’s creative direction.

     We catch up with Molly and Amy as they embark on what is the last day of their senior year.  The kids at this school are raucous to say the least, as the hallways are cluttered with hoards of unruly kids shooting fire extinguishes, throwing condom water bombs, and splashing confetti throughout the hallways.  All of this while Principal Brown (Jason Sudeikis) shuts his door.  Can you blame him?  You get the idea Wilde wants to paint a picture about today’s youth and the ways they have chosen to express themselves that may be adverse to the thinking of the adults in the room.  But this is a belief held by Molly as well, who has this idea that while her peers were out screwing around, thus ruining their chances at any kind of real future, she was outworking them by hitting the books as hard they were partying.

     An early scene in which Molly is in a bathroom stall unbeknownst to three of her classmates, only solidifies her stance when she overhears them talking about her lack of personality and shortcomings within the school’s ongoing popularity contest.  This leads to a confrontation where those perceptions are front and center.  The trio was discussing various sexual conquests while one of them was vandalizing the wall with a drawing of male genitals.  Molly confidently tells all of them they will amount to nothing in life, while she will go on to Yale and become rich and successful, thanks to her avoidance of the very social activities her adversaries thrive on.  But to her dismay, she finds out one of them is also going to Yale, while the other is going to Stanford.  In full panic mode, she dashes through the hallways asking people where they are going to school.  “Georgetown!” says one kid who she thought was an undedicated loser.  All of which leads to the film’s central plot.

     Molly and Amy realize they may have been missing out on something all along, and set out to find what ever that is in a night of hopping from grad party to grad party in an attempt to make up for their square behavior.  This, of course, proves to be no different than the boys in “American Pie”, as each has their own sexual urges to address in addition to the obligatory consumption of alcohol and drugs.  All of which is intended for the audience to see the characters come of age within a scenario where time is a factor.  There’s a sense these things need to happen in order for these girls to feel as though they have experienced high school the way that maybe they should have all along.

     Speaking for myself, I look at the work ethic and dedication displayed by Molly and Amy as being a strong suit that in no way detracts from who they are.  Others may disagree, but in today’s competitive landscape, the characters in the film who still managed to be accepted to a notable school, while drinking and partying on the weekends and feeding off their supposed popularity to feel good about themselves, will likely find they are shorthanded when the realities of life inevitably come their way.  In my mind, kids should be spending at least some of their weekends in high school working and learning the value of earning money, rather than it just being given to them so they can go whoop it up with their friends instead.

     Acting out in a manner that includes breaking the law and endangering others, which many of these characters do numerous times,  isn’t a necessary detour within the high school experience either.   But the fact we are talking about this subject means “Booksmart” is a strong enough film to foster discussion about how teens choose to navigate their way through the obstacles of high school life, while parents will undoubtably chime in as to just how much of a leash they really need.  GRADE: B

“Brightburn” Movie Review


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     How presumptuous were Jonathan & Martha Kent the day a young boy arrived via spacecraft near their Smallville home in assuming the alien child would grow up and stand for the greater good?  Director David Yarovesky essentially turns the tables on the beloved “Superman” storyline and imagines a different outcome in “Brightburn”, a nightmarish super villain origin story written by Brian & Mark Gunn.  The resulting film mixes together numerous call backs to the famous DC superhero with the blood splattering gore of an 80s horror B movie.  Put it this way, famed makeup effects artists and horror legends like Rob Bottin, Rick Baker, Tom Savini will certainly respect the creative ways the filmmakers depict the extreme violence and death Yarovesky and his collaborators stage as our young antagonist breaks very bad.

     Kyle (David Denman) and Tori Breyer (Elizabeth Banks) are a young couple living in a rural Kansas town called Brightburn, who long for a child of their own.  In the opening scene, they are startled as an object crashes in a field near their home at night.  When they investigate, a baby is found within the wreckage, leading them to believe their desperate plea to become parents has now become a reality.  Now if the story went through the standard timeline we as audiences are already accustomed to, then we would already know the path this young boy would eventually take, but when the film moves forward ten year later, it becomes evident there are serious problems on the horizon. 

     Yarovesky introduces Brandon Breyer (Jackson Dunn) as an awkward middle schooler who struggles to fit in with his classmates.  He’s really smart and has a tendency to display his encyclopedic knowledge in class, but socially it would appear many of his peers do not know what to make of him, which is typically demonstrated by jokes being made at his expense.  The situation at school only becomes more complicated when Brandon takes a liking to girl, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who shows empathy towards him that is mistaken for something more.

     At home, his mother and father start to notice things as well.  Lately, Brandon has been sleepwalking at night and ending up at the barn where the Breyer’s store the craft Brandon arrived in as a baby hidden behind closed doors.  The light which emanates from the ship is a bright red that can be seen through the walls of the structure and is a direct call back to a similar green light coming from the barn on the Kent’s farm in “Superman”.  But the similarities don’t stop there, as Brandon’s red blanket on his bed wraps around him like a red cape when he exits his window in a hypnotic state, or the line uttered by Tori to Brandon telling him  “You were brought here for a reason” echoing the same line Jonathan Kent once told a teenage Clark Kent.  

     But unlike the good behind Superman’s past, the energy drawing Brandon to his ship is clearly utilizing him for an entirely different purpose.  And when people begin to notice his strange behavior and act on it, the evil power within him unleashes in a manner that transforms “Brightburn” into an all out horror film.   Unfortunately, this is where Yarovesky abandons the creative plotting he had established in earlier scenes and instead stages a series of jump scare infused scenarios where really dumb people find themselves alone and at the mercy of Brandon’s latest revenge killing.  Even when the murders begin to add up, the small town law enforcement officer, Sheriff Deever (Gregory Alan Williams), is slow to react, particularly when mounting evidence points directly at Brandon.  And the clincher is when both Kyle and Tori realize at exactly the same time that raising an alien baby may not have been the brightest of ideas.

     This is where the parents and two close relatives try to handle the situation, but as you may guess, given the brutal nature of this story, things don’t work out well for any of them.  With each grizzly murder, Brandon begins to realize the extent of of his super powers, leading to a standard horror film climax featuring copious amounts of blood and fury unleashed.  But what we never learn is why he was sent to Earth or where he comes from.  In fact, other than a few odd drawings his mother finds under his bed, the story doesn’t delve into his motives or what is driving him specifically.  If he was brought here for a reason, then what is that?

     Yarovesky paces the film in frantic fashion, clocking in what should have been a complex character study into a brisk 90 minutes.  Because of this, many of the scenes in the first act feel choppy and incomplete.  As if the relationships needed to be fleshed out and the characters more developed in order to give their eventual death real meaning within the story.  But instead, the filmmakers seemed to be more interested in having fun with the death scenes and giving the audience a squirm inducing look at what would happen if a super being arrived on Earth to use his considerable power for evil purposes. It’s certainly an interesting take on the story, even if it suffers from being a bit misguided at times.  GRADE: C+

“John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum” Movie Review


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     Up until the ending of “John Wick: Chapter 2”, I looked at both that film, as well as the first, as being capable of providing high level martial arts action, led by a game performance from Keanu Reeves, but also held back by a recycled narrative trope utilized many times over in lesser films.  But then director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad made a significant change in the overall narrative.  Something significantly more ambitious.  It was the moment where John Wick (Reeves) had just been given an hour before every hitman in the world would be attempting to kill him after he had broken the rules of his organization’s sacred code.  And there, as he walked amongst a crowd in New York, everyone froze and looked directly at him, letting the audience know the world building these filmmakers had been creating all along had finally become a cinematic reality.  That’s when I knew the “John Wick” franchise would be more than just a guy killing people because they shot his dog.  There was entire culture about to be revealed.

     Stahelski, a noted stunt performer who among his credits includes taking over for the late Brandon Lee after his tragic death on the set of “The Crow”, now sits confidently in the director’s chair, having upped the ante significantly in the last installment with a superior blend of brutal martial arts action and stunt work combined with the kind of Gun Ballet made famous by John Woo’s late 80s and early 90s films like “The Killer” and “Hard Boiled”.  Of course Stahelski has at his disposal superior technology in the way of CGI, plus a game stunt team that includes notable martial artists Tiger Chen (“Triple Threat”) and “The Raid 2” vets Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian.  To say these guys are pros would be an understatement, but the fact Keanu Reeves performs these fight sequences in camera without the help of a quick cut editing style means the 54 year old star can more than hold his own when appearing next to the very best.

     “John Wick 3: Parabellum” (Latin for Prepare for War) picks up immediately following the events of the second installment where Wick has one hour before becoming Excommunicado for killing his nemesis Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) on the grounds of the Continental Hotel.  The lore here says the Continental is a safe haven for the hitmen organization and it is a crime punishable by death to conduct business on its premise.  And with Wick knowing he has minutes before the $14 million contract on his life goes live, he looks to call in a few favors from people indebted to him in order to survive and potentially be reinstated.

     The filmmakers begin the film by staging a series of jaw dropping fight sequences and action set pieces that serve as a clear indication to the audience that this third chapter seeks to outdo anything the previous films accomplished.  This isn’t to say these scenes are as farfetched as something you would see in a “Fast and Furious” film, but the sheer brutality and violence on display is sure to make you gasp as knives are slowly forced through people’s eyes, heads are blown off with potent armor piecing shotgun blasts, and everyday items like hard cover books are utilized as leverage to snap someone’s neck.  I’ll put it this way.  In the world of the John Wick films, no lives matter.

     The homage factor is strong throughout “Parabellum”, where Stahelski pays tribute to some of the most memorable fight sequences and action scenes of the past 40 plus years.  It’s a method that may seem unoriginal, but when the filmmakers are able to inject modern techniques (both from a production and martial arts standpoint), the results can make a positive impact on the overall reception of the film by people who will recognize where the inspirations for these scenes came from.  The instant Boban Marjanovic, a seven footer who is currently a reserve center for the Philadelphia 76ers, appears on screen with cruel intentions, I was immediately reminded of Bruce Lee’s one on one battle with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1978’s “Game of Death” where the ramifications of the extreme height and strength difference had to be dealt with by fighting dirty.  Later, fans of James Cameron’s “True Lies” will appreciate John Wick’s method of transportation while attempting to elude a gang of motorcycle assassins.

     Beyond the impeccably choreographed stunt work and gun play, “Parabellum” seeks to build on the universe of which the first two films only scratched the surface.  We learn there is a hierarchy that operates world wide when the overseeing body, known as the High Table, sends a person known only as The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) to punish those who helped John Wick escape.  This includes his buddy and Continental Hotel manager Winston (Ian McShane) and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), but also a character known as The Director (Angelica Huston) whose underground organization gives us a glimpse of Wick’s origins and the manner in which he may have developed his lethal skill set.

     All of this leads Wick to Morocco where he seeks out Sofia (Halle Berry), another one of those people in his past who owe him big, and an eventual trek to find the High Table and beg for his crime to be forgiven.  With all of these characters being introduced and the film ending in a manner which guarantees a fourth installment, there is no question Stahelski and his screenwriters feel as though the story is only beginning.  There is endless territory to explore in this world.  

     As for “Parabellum”, the third act results in a predictable showdown between Wick and a series of adversaries led by a hitman called Zero (Mark Dacascos), though the stage where it takes place high within the Continental Hotel is one of the most creative and colorful movie sets I have seen.  The dialogue between these two is hilarious given the constant ribbing as to who is the best, even after a fight has been won.  But the film remains clever throughout and even more so in the last few minutes when you believe the story will go one direction, but then zigzags to another.  And with most of the main players still with a heart beat, the mayhem that will define the next chapter in this series is practically unimaginable.  GRADE: B+    

“Long Shot” Movie Review


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     With Hollywood stars more than willing to use their platform to discuss political issues, one shouldn’t be surprised when those views occasionally make their way into a starring vehicle as a means to push an agenda.  Director Jonathan Levine’s “Long Shot” is without question one of these films, but the appeal of its cast is an undeniable factor in luring audiences regardless of what side of the aisle they are on.  When you consider range as a key ingredient in the longevity of an actor’s career, one need not look any further than Charlize Theron, who has done everything from portraying prostitute turned serial killer, Aileen Wuornos, in 2003’s “Monster” to kicking serious butt in George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” in 2015.  Sprinkle in lighter dramatic fare such as Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult” (2011) and “Tully” (2018), and you have the recipe for an actress more than capable of carrying a romantic comedy. 

     The credentials of Theron speak for themselves, but then you see Seth Rogen next to her name and the instant thought of a mismatched pairing immediately comes to mind.  But of course, that’s the idea.  Rogen plays Fred Flarsky, a mishmash of several of the actor’s recent characters where his undeniable big lug charm is crossed with that of a weed smoking man child.  Fred works for a weekly news magazine in New York City, writing columns that are apparently left unscrutinized by an editor which typically present left leaning thoughts for his dedicated readers to consume.  The guy will do anything to get a story he is passionate about, as is clearly demonstrated by the opening scene in the film that has him infiltrating a group of white supremacists and his life clearly in danger.

     But it appears Fred’s gig is up when a media conglomerate buys the magazine and he realizes his words are about to be involuntarily restrained.  So, in true millennial fashion, he quits and goes on a drug and drinking binge with his best buddy, Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr.).  Lance, by the way, is a successful and wealthy business man who takes his severely underdressed friend to a swanky black tie benefit to get drunk.  And also attending the benefit?  Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), who also happens to be Fred’s former babysitter, boyhood crush, and the guardian of an embarrassing episode between the two that happened in his early teen years.  

     Charlotte has also had a recent change in her life.  The President, played by a hilariously self centered Bob Odenkirk, has informed Charlotte he will not be running for re-election.  Turns out he was a popular television star and now wants to pursue a transition to film, rather than continue his foray into politics.  Could screenwriters Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah be more obvious as to who and what they are attempting to channel here?  With the President’s endorsement in hand, Charlotte embarks on a world tour to gain support for an ambitious climate change initiative that she plans on using as a launch pad for her White House bid.  But her polling numbers in certain areas indicate a public perception that needs vast improvement.  In other words, exactly the same issues Selina Meyer and her bumbling advisors make light of each week on “Veep”.

     The obvious route the narrative takes here is to have Charlotte, who had a nice conversation with Fred at the party, hire him to punch up her speeches to help work on her appeal to younger voters.  Of course, Fred has a crush, which means he will likely seek to discover if the attraction is mutual.  In doing so, the filmmakers utilize an unending supply of pop culture references to film and television shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Pretty Woman” in order to ensure the audience can relate to the characters as being, well, just like us.  Tarantino kind of created the known method of injecting these references into dialogue (aside from his own work, he famously punched up the script for “Crimson Tide” by having Denzel Washington use a Silver Surfer reference in a conversation with a crew member just as the world was on the brink of nuclear war), and with last week’s “Avengers: End Game” making note of practically every time travel film ever made, “Long Shot” follows suit in much the same way, while mixing in that signature blend of raunchy comedy Rogen, in particular, is famous for.

     And a raunch fest it is.  F-Bombs galore and sight gags that would make the Farrelly Brothers proud are laced with Saturday Night Live level political humor where the characters stake their claim for what they believe in while navigating this often ugly world where a candidate’s viability is irrationally measured by the perceptions of who is at his or her side.  Charlotte’s advisors, Maggie (June Diane Raphael) and Tom (Ravi Patel), feed her the numbers, but her gut seems to sway towards Fred’s belief that she must remain strong on her positions, regardless of what people think.  Following that storyline leads to plenty of surprises, though Levine doesn’t delve to far off the standard romantic comedy playbook.  Instead he seems to relish in it.  As if this is the kind of film we’ve been missing, but didn’t realize it.  I think he might be on to something.  GRADE: B

“Avengers: Endgame” Movie Review


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WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS

    If “Avengers: Endgame” accomplishes one thing, it gives the audience exactly what they want.  I learned as much simply by sitting in my theater seat during preview night with hundreds of rabid fans clapping and cheering nonstop for over 3 hours.  Every character entrance and every call to action was met with the kind of enthusiasm one might see during a high leverage situation in a championship football or basketball game.  It’s not often an atmosphere like that is created by a film inside a packed theater, but then again, “Endgame” isn’t your ordinary night out at the movies.  For over eleven years, producer Kevin Feige has overseen each and every one of the now 22 films that comprise what is known within the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the Infinity Saga.  A story that is brought to a thrilling conclusion with Anthony and Joe Russo’s fourth time in the director’s chair, having already helmed last year’s “Avengers: Infinity War”, as well as “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Captain America: Civil War”.  To say the least, Marvel fans will be more than pleased with their effort.

     With over 76 speaking roles, “Infinity War” was often criticized for trying to cram in too much, leaving many of the most popular characters underserved.  Of course, given the ending of that film, the cast has been simplified with only the original core members of the Avengers remaining.  All of which was obviously done by design since the MCU was built primarily on the star power of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark / Iron Man, Chris Evan’s Steve Rogers / Captain America, and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor.  With the core group surviving the snap heard throughout the universe that instantly turned trillions of lifeforms to dust, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely began the task of penning this grand finale knowing it would be up to the three characters who started it all to ultimately save those who perished.

     But how will they do it?  With Scott Lang / Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) serving as the MacGuffin, the answer lies within the complicated science behind the Quantum Realm, but there is no need to go into that here.  It’s best to just accept what the characters say and roll with it.  Applying any sort of logic to a plot so convoluted it makes “Inception” look like grade school material will only take away from the experience the filmmakers want you to have.  We know what the ultimate goal is and we know exactly what these events will lead to.  Thanos (Josh Brolin) won’t exactly be thrilled when he finds out what the Avengers are up to, so another conflict with him and his minions is all but certain.  The question is, where, when, and how?

     The first two hours of “Endgame” spends a great deal of time with both our main characters, as well as the secondary ones who survived the snap and now must learn to cope with life after losing many of their loved ones.  Essentially, this is the Avengers version of HBO’s “The Leftovers”, and if you were lucky enough to have watched the three outstanding seasons of that show, then you know exactly how crazy people would become if all of the sudden half of all life on Earth disappeared without warning.  Clint Barton / Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) was not part of “Infinity War” after choosing to leave the Avengers in favor of reuniting with his family, but it becomes immediately clear he is the Nora Durst of this film having lost all of them and now spending his days as a globetrotting vigilante.  But he isn’t the only one whose mental state took a substantial hit.

     Perhaps my only criticism of “Endgame” is the consistently goofy nature of the middle hour where a plan is formulated, but the need to reunite the entire team means trekking to their current locations and convincing them to once again take on Thanos.  And while it’s expected Steve Rogers and Tony Stark still must mend fences after the rocky events of “Civil War”, Thor has retreated to a beach side town he and his former Asgardians refer to as New Asgard, where he has drowned in sorrow and, shall we say, not kept track of his calories?  This lesser version of Thor spends most of the film drunk and unable to perform many of the tasks expected of him by the team.  This, of course, is milked for every ounce of comic relief the filmmakers can muster to a point where it just isn’t funny anymore.  For the seriousness of the situation, the comic banter, particularly in the film’s second act, presents a constant tonal change that doesn’t exactly work with the material.  This, after all, is not a story with the amusing tone of “Guardians of the Galaxy” or even “Thor: Ragnarok”.  Thanos killed half of all life, including several notable and beloved characters who otherwise would be a part of this story, and yet Thor is made to function as a Dude lookalike whose main concern is what brand of beer do they have on the Avengers campus.  

     That’s not to say the Russos fail to deliver the goods.  Everything you expect from “Endgame”, plus quite a bit that will surprise you as well, is waiting in the film’s final hour where  the Avengers are laser focused on both the task at hand, as well as the inevitable showdown that has become boiler plate for virtually every comic book based film with the MCU being no exception.  This is fan service at its very finest and most effective form.  And the fact the MCU is more akin to episodic television, with over 50 hours of screen time across 22 films, than it is a film franchise, means each and every main character arc is fully realized in a way only the small screen can regularly accomplish.  This means the relationships between the main characters, but also Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner / Hulk, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow, and Don Cheadle’s James Rhodes / War Machine have now come full circle while recently introduced characters like Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers / Captain Marvel set the stage for the next MCU saga.  

     By now, the performances by Downey Jr., Evans, Hemsworth, and the rest of the main cast are so thoroughly nuanced that these actors exude their characters in ways that bridge reality.  When given the opportunity in a scene that seeks to inject the sentimental side of the MCU, each and every one of these actors bring forth the kind of emotion that indicates just how high the stakes in this story really are.  And that includes Josh Brolin as well, who has helped bring to life one of the most notorious, yet conflicted villains even seen on screen.  A crucial and vital element that ensures our heroes ultimately become larger than life when they are thrust into circumstances that require facing seemingly insurmountable odds.  

     For some, the story ends, but for the many other characters within the MCU, it is just beginning.  The accomplishment in bringing this universe to life is one of the greatest cinematic feats in history.  And what’s even more amazing is the fact there is clearly so much more life within it.  GRADE: A-