Reviews


“Angel Has Fallen” Movie Review


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     With studios starving for franchises, it’s no surprise we are now at the point where films like “Angel Has Fallen” are being made.  Just look at the facts.  Aside from Universal’s Justin Peele thriller “Us”, and Sony’s Quentin Tarantino dramedy “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”, not a single original IP has crossed the $100 million mark at the box office so far this year.  Why? Because audiences are craving, consuming, and wanting more of these branded episodic film franchises where we follow established characters into new, yet familiar, scenarios designed each time to be even more preposterous then the previous installment.  Maybe it’s the “Die Hard” franchise we have to ultimately thank for this.  And there is no doubt the filmmakers here aspire to someday have Gerard Butler’s Mike Banning one day spoken in the same sentence as Bruce Willis’ John McClane, but the fact we have seen all of this before done much better, greatly detracts from the overall experience.

     Antoine Fuqua led off the now three film series with 2013’s “Olympus Has Fallen”,  which was followed by Babak Najafi’s 2016 sequel “London Has Fallen”.  Both films featured Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), thrusting him into situations where the President he is protecting comes under fire in a series of assassination attempts.  Whereas Fuqua’s film took advantage of a more claustrophobic setting, limiting the primary action to an underground bunker, the sequel looked to bring the proceedings to a global stage with a much less desirable result.  More of the same occurs in Ric Roman Waugh’s “Angel Has Fallen” where the former Speaker of the House and Vice President, Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), is now the President of the United States with Banning serving as the head of his security detail.  With all the character did in the first two films, fighting his way through North Korean and Middle Eastern terrorists, who would be better qualified for such a role right?  Particularly since this time around, the filmmakers have decided to take a page out of today’s headlines and insert a potential Russian connection to the obligatory assassination plot.

     It doesn’t take long for the latest attempt on a U.S. President’s life to occur on screen, as Banning and an army of Secret Service Agents and military personal accompanying Trumbull on a fishing trip are ambushed by a lethal drone attack.  Banning manages to save the President and himself, but his entire team is killed with surgical precision by hundreds of tiny drones that fly in like insects, identify their target with facial recognition, and destroy them with high level explosives.  Given Banning’s reputation, you would believe he again would receive the hero treatment after saving the life of the President under the most harrowing of circumstances.  But with Trumbull in a coma and evidence conveniently discovered showing the contrary, Banning wakes up handcuffed to a hospital bed with an audience of FBI Agents who officially charge him with the attempted murder of the President.

     What comes next is a storyline similar to “The Fugitive" combined with the one man against the world plot threads of the aforementioned “Die Hard” films that sees Banning run through a series of mostly basic action set pieces (car chases, gun battles, fight sequences) designed with a number of helpful conveniences to drive the story where it wants to go.  Take for a example a prisoner transport convoy where Banning is being taken from the hospital to a federal holding facility.  The group of vehicles appears to be escorted by local police and they choose to travel at night on a remote two lane highway lined with trees and no civilization in site.  Now this is a man who everyone believes is responsible for an assassination attempt on the President.  Why not fly him to his destination or bring him somewhere that doesn’t require leaving populated areas?  Obviously, this is so the real assassins can set up an ambush of the convoy in a place that it is tactically advantageous, thus leaving the convoy helpless and unable to defend themselves in the pitch black darkness.

     Of course, even in the most un-winnable situations, Banning finds a way to escape, making way for a hokey reunion with his estranged father, played by a crusty looking Nick Nolte, whom he apparently has kept tabs on for years but hasn’t seen since he was a child.  I guess it’s also convenient that his father, Clay, is well prepared for the obligatory assault on his remote middle of nowhere cabin when the bad guys figure out where Banning is likely hiding.  Lets just say in this case, the apple really doesn’t fall too far from the tree.  

     And while an ambitious FBI Agent, Agent Thompson (Jada Pinkett Smith), seems close to breaking the case wide open, the actual mastermind behind the assassination isn’t concealed from the audience, but rather put in place to function as an operative with every bit as much skill as Banning has in order to create a false sense of suspense when considering who will actually win in the end.  All of this leads to a predictable, yet crowd pleasing finale drawn mostly from the beats created by the many films before this one which used the exact same formula.

     Considering the supposed rally cry against gun violence in movies (and the subsequent release cancellation of Universal’s “The Hunt” because of the issue), it’s surprising films like “Angel Has Fallen” seem to get a pass and are clearly still the betting favorite to top the box office each week.  Banning and the various characters within the story brutally dispatch any number of people including cops, U.S. Marshals, FBI Agents, SWAT Officers, Secret Service Agents, members of the military, and that’s in addition to the rogue military outfit that serve as the primary antagonists in the film.  There are head shots, exploding bodies, knifings, and all sorts of other graphic and violent depictions of death and yet it seems as long as the politics in the film remain neutral, no one cares.  I guess in truth, only some lives matter.  GRADE: C

“Good Boys” Movie Review


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     As a screenwriter, it was already apparent Gene Stupnitsky seemed to be enamored by having those in society we deem as being typically innocent break the stereotype and utilize a vernacular best left in the gutter.  His screenplay for 2011’s “Bad Teacher” had me wondering what exactly was supposed to be so funny about a high school educator’s recurrent use of the F-word.  Sure, seeing Cameron Diaz playing against type as a naughty school teacher had some comedic merit, but over the course of two hours, the joke loses its ability to make us laugh.  Now making his feature directorial debut with “Good Boys”, Stupnitsky essentially does the same thing, employing the innocent within a story that seeks to push the raunchy limits of an R-rating, but this time with 6th graders.  Adult teachers are one thing, but has he gone too far with this one?

     This isn’t to say we should be naive in believing kids at this age don’t cuss or think about things like sex and drugs. Of course they do.  But 90 minutes of F-bombs coming out of the mouths of these kids is almost certain to make any reasonable adult reach for a bar of soap.  But the foul language these kids seem to thrive on isn’t exactly what pushes the story to the once taboo boundaries reserved for films about high school kids.  Essentially what Stupnitsky has done is take the story told in “American Pie” and retrofitted it for kids who are at an age where they can’t open a child proofed medicine bottle.  If the guys in “American Pie” made a pact they would lose their virginity on Prom night, then what kind of conquest would a trio of 11 year olds embark on?

     Early on, we meet Max (Jacob Tremblay), Lucas (Keith L. Williams), and Thor (Brady Noon), three inseparable best buddies who refer to themselves as the Bean Bag Boys and long to simply fit in with the popular kids at school.  We see very little of the parents during the film, which isn’t surprising given what these three get into.  Max’s dad (Will Forte) is off on a business trip, telling his son before he leaves not to touch or play with his drone that is used for his work.  And, of course, you know the old saying “Because you told me to not to” means the very first thing Max does, along with Thor and Lucas, is take the thing for a neighborhood spin.

     When a popular peer in school calls Max over in the lunch room and invites him, and reluctantly his two partners in crime, to a party where there will be mandatory kissing, they immediately realize they are short in the experience department and must learn how quickly.  As we know, they are under the impression the popular kids they are trying to emulate have been in the kissing business for years.  It is known one of their neighbors, Hannah (Molly Gordon), has a boyfriend, so they figure a little drone spying over the backyard swimming pool is in order.  But Hannah and her girlfriend, Lily (Midori Francis), capture the drone when it gets too close, becoming the catalyst that drives the plot for the rest of the story as the two teens hunt the Bean Bag Boys who steal Hannah’s bag containing party drugs they obtained earlier.

     Eventually, the language the kids are using has a numbing effect, as you begin to wonder where their parents are and why they would allow these kids to run amok without any supervision.  We only see glimpses of their family life, though a subplot includes Lucas’ parents tiptoeing around telling him they are getting a divorce.  If there are laughs to be had, it is the many times these kids raid their parent’s bedrooms and find stashes of sex toys they innocently believe are weapons.  A recurring joke involving anal beads they believe to be nunchucks garners a few laughs, as does a very pretty CPR practice doll they also find in the closet.  Perhaps the filmmakers conjured this entire story up as a sort of cautionary tale for parents who would be better served paying more attention to what their kids are doing.

     The third act, after the constant barrage of dirty jokes, potty mouthed little kids, and notably raunchy site gags, bombards us with the kind of sentimental ending you would likely expect.  The entire thing is played as if it was a mere learning experience for all involved, as these kids, whose friend’s parents allow them to have a private spin the bottle party in the basement,  seem to come out all the wiser at their young age, even though Max (an 11 year old) has to sneak out of his home due to being grounded just to attend the party.  I’m sure in his mind it was worth it, particularly since the consequences these kids suffer are minimal.  

     If anything, you have to applaud the inclusion of a scene in which the kids go into a frat house to buy drugs, giving them a glimpse of what will result if they remain on the path they are currently traveling.  And because all of this is played for laughs, it’s easy to forget it is actually the reality.  What was once reserved for high school aged characters has now been deemed appropriate for kids who just got out of elementary school.  Of course, in the screening I was in, there were plenty of young children sitting next to their giddy parents in a sort of clueless R-rated bliss.  So how surprised can we be?  GRADE: C

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” Movie Review


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     There’s a major issue that crops up immediately as you settle in to director Andre Ovredal’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”, one that brings forth a sense of having already been in this world recently.  And the fact is, we have.  No doubt produced to grab a slice of the lucrative pie currently being devoured by “Stranger Things” and “It”,  “Scary Stories” utilizes the Alvin Schwartz novel of the same name and marries it to the imaginative designs of writer and producer Guillermo del Toro, resulting in a younger skewing horror film that rehashes practically every genre trope found in horror lore during the past fifty years plus.  Creaky doors, spider webs, dark & foreboding old houses, and characters who don’t act the way anyone reasonably would in similar circumstances, make up a slow 111 minute runtime that leads us right where we predict it will.

     In the films opening scenes, we are introduced to Stella (Zoe Margaret Coletti) and her standard assortment of high school aged outcast friends, Auggie (Gabriel Rush), and Chuck (Austin Zajur), as they begin preparations for Halloween night circa 1968.  As the characters move about their homes, news programs indicating the horrors of the ongoing Vietnam war, and the subsequent politics behind it, play on television sets, as their parents, who are seen only briefly, apparently have better things to do than be around their kids.  Instead, our protagonists, while communicating via handheld radio just like the kids in the aforementioned Netflix show, are left to fend for themselves.  Stella, whose mother is not in the picture, is actually seen waiting on her father, Roy (Dean Norris), with the service of a delicious TV dinner, before going out for the night.

     As much as we want to believe in our kids, it is proven time and time again that many need supervision in order to avoid the kind of pitfalls they may not be able to come back from.  Perhaps “Scary Stories” was originally written as a sort of cautionary tale, though you could say that about any horror film really, given that the majority of characters do a lot of really dumb things and this film is certainly no exception.  Halloween, in fact, begins with a prank in which Chuck bags a pile of his own feces and uses it, along with a fire bomb, to get revenge on the local bully as he drives by them, while curiously making no real attempt to conceal himself.  Tommy (Austin Abrams), in other words, knows exactly who did it and intends to make Chuck and his friends pay.

     In a chance encounter at a drive in theater, and just as Tommy and his friends are hot on their trail, Stella, Auggie, and Chuck jump into a random vehicle to hide, which is occupied by a teen named Ramon (Michael Garza).  As luck would have it, Ramon is not only good with helping them, but he later agrees to drive the group to an old house on the outskirts of the small Pennsylvania town they reside in.  There, they find and take an old hand written story book said to be authored by young girl who had turned the horrific nature of her childhood into a series of terrifying stories.  Of course, this being a ghost story means the girl, Sarah Bellows, is still writing and is now using the fears of our main characters as the inspirations for her latest tales.

     As was mentioned earlier, this gives Guillermo Del Toro the opportunity to sketch a number of hideous creations who appear individually to torment Stella, Auggie, Chuck, and even Tommy.  Those close to them are not immune either, as the action sees our group moving from location to location as the stories are written right before their eyes, only to arrive just a bit too late in every circumstance.  And as expected, the creatures deliver the kind of creepy thrills only De Toro could possibly come with, but as all of this unfolds; however, you begin to wonder what exactly these kids would be able to do anyway since it doesn’t appear the ending of these stories is negotiable.

     Even though the film’s 1968 setting brings forth a number of notable aspects from the era, we are still just watching a group of kids riding their bikes, talking on radios,  and having meetings in which they attempt to work through their problems, all while their parents are off screen.  Thus creating a vibe too similar to current films and television shows looking to exploit the exact same thing.  And “Scary Stories”, for all of the visual zeal displayed by Ovredal and the clear influence from his producer, never tries to set itself apart from the competition and instead seems to revel in the similarities.  All that said, even if we saw this five years ago, it’s doubtful the impact would’ve been any different.  If you’ve watched any number of the classic horror films of the last several decades, then you’ve already heard these stories before. GRADE: C

“Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” Movie Review


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     You really can’t blame Universal for trying.  Particularly when they stare each day at their tinseltown rivals, Disney, and the massive stable of lucrative franchises booked well into the future with titles from Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar, and an endless string of remade animated classics ready for mass consumption with nothing but scraps left for competing studios.  The one non Disney franchisee to have a film (actually two) earn over $1 billion in the last several years happens to be under the Universal umbrella, and their latest offering is an indication they don’t plan on having the now 18 year old “Fast and Furious” franchise leave us anytime soon.  In viewing “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw”, that much is certain.

     I’m thinking the “Fast & Furious Presents” portion of the title was deemed necessary given the fact neither Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), nor Shaw (Jason Statham) are central characters in the long running series and the studio needed consumers to make the connection.  Luke Hobbs, a sort of government agent who specializes in tracking criminals around the world, first appeared in 2011’s “Fast Five” as an adversary for Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto.  They would later join forces in 2013’s “Fast & Furious 6”, and again in 2015’s “Furious 7”, where we were introduced to Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw as the primary villain.  Chemistry between those two in 2017’s “The Fate of the Furious” obviously had executives at Universal wondering if a spin off with these two side characters could work.  “Hobbs & Shaw” would be a good indication of the viability of this franchise outside of the regular installments.

     Considering these films started in 2001 with “The Fast and the Furious”, a sort of remake of “Point Break” replacing the surfers with street racers, the series has come a long way.  At this point, Ethan Hunt and his crew would fit right into this world of international espionage that launched with the sixth film and hasn’t looked back since.  And I’ve thought highly of most of these films in the series mainly because the hours of screen time has allowed the characters to develop properly.  But that can only be said for the core group that includes Diesel’s Dom, Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty, Tyrese Gibson’s Roman, Ludacris’ Tej, and the late Paul Walker’s Brian O’Connor.  Hobbs has spent every film since the fifth one being utilized as a glorified cameo, and Shaw, though an effective villain in the seventh installment, had a small role with big moments in the eighth film, leaving the larger impact to be had by the main players.

     “Atomic Blonde” and “Deadpool 2” director David Leitch, working from a script by franchise vet Chris Morgan, has created what plays like a 137 minute non stop action sequence that has “Hobbs & Shaw” reluctantly team up to as they often put it “save the world” from an enhanced being called Brixton (Idris Elba).  Brixton is in possession of an engineered virus that can threaten large swaths of the population and intends on using it.  But an MI6 squad, led by Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), raids the location where the virus is being kept and is nearly wiped out, as Hattie is able to escape by injecting the capsules that contain the virus into her body.  The CIA, apparently short on resources summons Hobbs and Shaw, convincing them to work together and track down Hattie before Broxton finds her and re-obtains the virus.

     That’s really all there is.  Leitch stages car chases, fight scenes, gun battles, and physics defying stunts that fill in the time where our two leads aren’t verbally assaulting each other.  It was a stretch they would work together briefly in “The Fate of the Furious” after the events of “Furious 7”, but when a franchise has made nearly $5 billion to date, it seems the consensus is to churn these things out if for no other reason than to stay relevant within a competitive marketplace.

     What results here is the kind of mind numbing noise normally akin to one of the “Transformers” films, where the action is so fast paced and often times unintelligible that the audience leaves with only a headache to show for their time spent in the theater.  What “Hobbs & Shaw” fails to do is add to the lore of the franchise in a meaningful way.  The story and everything within it quickly devolves into a nonstop series of one liners and cartoonish action set pieces that lack the inventiveness of the best of the series.  

     Though the genetically enhanced Brixton and the science fiction aspect of the group he works for certainly lends credibility to the rumor we may see the regular crew end up in space in either the ninth installment, scheduled for April, 2020, or the tenth installment which Diesel has said will be the final film, the uptick in tech doesn’t create the kind of excitement that made this series so appealing in the first place.  The one attempt at a connection with the franchise installments sees the filmmakers attempt to ape the family first mantra from Toretto by creating a lame scenario that has Hobbs returning to his home in Samoa after 25 years away.  Soliciting the help of his long lost brother and the rest of his family in order to make a last stand against Brixton and his crew, the entire sequence seems manufactured where similar circumstances in the franchise films have a more authentic feel.  This results in an experience that plays like a “Fast & Furious” film in name only.  Thus the reminder in the title.  GRADE: C-  

“Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood” Movie Review


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     It’s only fair I give full disclosure when presenting my thoughts on a Quentin Tarantino film.  I’m a big fan.  Always have been.  And with his 9th film, “Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood”, the excitement and anticipation of its arrival could not be understated in my household.  Something that also comes with an astonishing level of expectation, given how high the bar has been raised with every one of his eight previous films considered influential pop culture classics.  With this notoriety comes the comparisons to his prior work, as the debate typically centers on whether or not his latest film is his “masterpiece”.  

     My thought on that has always been to allow these films (and this would apply to any film really) to marinate within both the film community and the mainstream for a fews years before jumping to a knee jerk conclusion.  For now, lets say that film is “Pulp Fiction” and see what happens in about ten years.  That said, I am convinced there is literally no one on this Earth, other than Tarantino, who could have made “Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood.”  Simply because there isn’t a filmmaker today who possesses the right combination of cinematic historical knowledge and writing chops to pull it off.  Tarantino was already amongst the greatest filmmakers of all time.  This latest effort just cements his status even further.

     Known to have one of the largest collections of film on celluloid in the world, Tarantino has spent the majority of his life living and breathing the Hollywood scene in a way a film school could never teach.  This is a guy who worked in a video store and spent all of his time watching movies, taking in every word and the manner in which it is spoken, every camera angle and the importance of what is and what isn’t in the frame, and understanding the narrative structure and how it creates tension, suspense, and even comedy.   When you watch “OUATIH”, you begin to understand just how immersed the auteur was in everything from Hollywood culture to Spaghetti Westerns.  More than anything; however, the dialogue comes off as authentic.  As if Tarantino himself had participated in conversations with the studio darlings of the 60s and 70s.

     The story follows a famous film and television actor named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his best friend and stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they negotiate the harsh waters of  Hollywood business and studio filmmaking circa 1969.  For the first two acts, we get a complex character study that sees Dalton learning his star is fading, leaving him to wonder if he has peaked and will no longer enjoy the status that comes with being an A-lister.  It’s an interesting theme to explore, given anyone who has succeeded in their respective profession can at some point realize their best days are behind them, often leaving future prospects to appear bleak.  For a boozing Hollywood has been, this means being cast as a one off bad guy in the kinds of television shows he used to get the lead part in.  

     A meeting with a producer with international film ties, Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), brings these issues to startling life for Rick, which leaves him to mull an offer to relocate to Italy and make feature Westerns.  Meanwhile, his buddy Cliff, who bends over backwards for Rick while functioning as his personal driver, seems to be on the outs in the stuntman community after a successful run in all of Rick’s biggest shows.  It’s a time when neither of them knows what the future holds, and yet Tarantino, along with cinematographer Robert Richardson, production designer Barbara Ling, and costume designer Arianne Phillips bring forth a colorful and groovy rendition of the era, complete with vintage cars, go go boots, and the familiar brands and culture of the time.  

     It’s doubtful you will recall another film that has recreated the details of a time long since past with this kind of accuracy and realism.  All of this is surrounded by an endless array of faux films, television shows, commercials, music, and movie posters that immerse us into a world where Rick Dalton once ruled the airways, just as everyone in the Hollywood industry had begun to lose their innocence.  

     Wouldn’t you know Rick’s neighbor just happens to be none other than Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) with the third act in the film occurring on, yep you guessed it, August 8th, 1969.  While Rick is busy playing the “heavy” on a new television show, Cliff finds himself running into the same hippy hitchhiking girl on Ventura Blvd for the third time and decides to give her a lift.  A ride that has him drive her to the famed Spahn Movie Ranch, a one time live movie and television set that is now blighted and occupied by a strange group of hippies who immediately raise Cliff’s suspicions.  When he forces a meeting with the one time owner, George (Bruce Dern), the group of strange scantily clad dwellers seemingly want a confrontation, but not before Cliff is able to leave unscathed, but also unsatisfied.

     If you’re familiar with the story of Charles Manson, and more specifically the grisly murder of Sharon Tate in her home while her husband was in Europe filming a movie, then you’ll have an idea where “OUATIH” is going, but then again, if you’re also familiar with the director’s work, then I’d advise you to ease up on your self congratulatory ability to predict what is going to happen at the end of a movie.  There’s plenty of build up throughout, creating a sort of slow burn as you take in a number of interesting conversations between a never ending supply of fascinating characters.  All the while, a grim feeling blankets each scene as the inevitable approaches and these characters you have now spent a considerable amount of time with may fall victim to Manson and his followers.  Or will they?

     “Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood” is easily the best film thus far in 2019, as it boasts Oscar worthy performances by both DiCaprio and Pitt, supported by one of the finest ensembles ever assembled.  There are actors who merely appear in a single scene, and yet they command the screen and squeeze every once out of the dialogue given to them in a way that ensures performers such as Al Pacino, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Damian Lewis, Margaret Qualley, Luke Perry, and more make a lasting impact.  And in one of the more crowd pleasing scenes, Mike Moh brings Bruce Lee to life in a memorable exchange with Cliff that pits the martial artist against a skeptical stuntman.  There are just too many fantastic scenes and performances to mention, which practically begs for repeat viewings in order to absorb the details you may have missed.

     I don’t know if this is Tarantino’s “masterpiece” so to speak, but it is clear we are looking at something that deserves to be amongst the nominees when awards season begins early next year.  Given the star power and the likely worldwide box office, “Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood” may very well be the Oscar darling we’ve all been waiting for from the “Pulp Fiction” director.  GRADE: A 

“The Lion King” (2019) Movie Review


     Given the considerable box office success of 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland” and 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast”, it should surprise no one Disney has continued to morph their animated classics into live action spectacles tailor made for consumption by today’s demanding Generation Z audiences.  The classic versions just don’t cut it anymore, apparently.  You get the feeling 2016’s “The Jungle Book” was a sort of test run for director Jon Favreau, where it had to be determined whether or not technology was far enough along to do the unimaginable.  Transform 1994’s “The Lion King”, the last of Disney’s great hand drawn animated features, into a photorealistic CGI extravaganza packing enough modern cinematic punch to perhaps make us all forget about the original.

     And so here we are.  The unthinkable is a reality.  Now clearly armed with the knowledge and experience which resulted from having an entire cast of animals realistically converse with a human character in the aforementioned “The Jungle Book”, Favreau was primed to tackle the challenge of an entire film where those conversations now take place solely between talking animal characters with no human interaction whatsoever.  And the result is certainly a marvel in the technological advancements the filmmaking industry now has at its disposal.

     There will inevitably be a lot of talk as to whether or not a classic film like “The Lion King” should ever be remade, but after viewing the latest version, I have to believe that if this one was first, and the 1994 animated film had never existed, we would be hailing Favreau’s creation as an instant classic.  But that’s also the problem as well.  Watching this new version leaves you with little emotion and zero anticipation.  The story has already been told and spawned multiple animated sequels, as well as one of the longest running and most successful Broadway show adaptations ever.  The events in the film are so ingrained into our culture, that the key points of every scene simply do not carry the emotional weight or impact that its predecessor had while benefitting from the fact we were seeing all of this for the first time. 

     When we first meet young Simba (JD McCrary), he’s a playful cub enjoying his standing as the heir to his father’s throne as the King of a sprawling African animal refuge where a colorful collection of various species share a common bond and live to support one another.  As the only returning member of the original voice cast, the great James Earl Jones again commands the screen as Mufasa and provides a steady, but firm hand as both the leader of these animals, and also as a proud father.  He wants Simba to learn the importance of hard work and earning the respect of those who will follow him someday.  But rage and jealousy haunt their immediate family when we learn Mufasa’s brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has his own nefarious ambitions for the throne and sees Simba as an obstacle he must overcome.

     Eliciting the assistance of a pack of hyenas, Scar orchestrates a stampede in a near by gorge where Simba is trapped and certain to be killed should he not be rescued.  When Mufasa arrives, he successfully gets Simba out of danger, but eventually falls to his death at the hands of Scar.  As the only witness, Scar blames Simba for his father’s death, permanently exiling him from the kingdom and returning to falsely assume the throne.  Just as we saw in Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot for shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, all of these key scenes appear just as they did in the 1994 animated version, resulting in significantly less heft when these events happen because we already know the outcome.

     What’s left is the spectacle I spoke of earlier.  Each and every shot is beautiful to the point of absolute magnificence.  The way the animals move, their skin and fur, and the settings, all zeros and ones, are an indication of such a high level of feature filmmaking that you have no choice but to revel in this substantial achievement by all involved.  And the voice cast is outstanding as expected and compare well to the original voice actors.  As Simba becomes fully grown, Donald Glover takes over the reigns as his voice, backed up capably by Beyonce as Nala, John Oliver as Zazu, Seth Rogen as Pumbaa, and Billy Eichner as Timon.  Familiar tunes such as “Circle of Life” and “Hakuna Matata” are rearranged a bit for this version by Hans Zimmer, also a vet of the original film.

     It’s hard to say what will be the preferred version of “The Lion King” decades from now, but you can’t deny the manner in which the story is lessened by the fact it is being retold in the same medium when the original is already a noted classic.  The question we must ask ourselves is do these films need to be remade in order to appeal to a generation that has had an iPhone in their hand since they were in a crib?  Or is this just a case of technological advancements having the capability to provide something so astounding, that the material deserves a glossy new coat of CGI paint?  I’ll lean towards the later in recognition of the stunning result Favreau and his army of digital artists have achieved in what is clearly one of the best films of the year.  GRADE: A

“Crawl” Movie Review


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     Who knew this summer’s best reptile film wouldn’t be “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”, but instead the thrill ride “Crawl” made for less than ten percent of the cost, while being significantly more effective as pure entertainment.  Directed by Alexandre Aja, “Crawl” combines the tropes of your standard Roland Emmerich disaster tale, think “2012” or “The Day After Tomorrow”, with the pulse pounding suspense of ‘Jaws”, swapping the shark for a hungry band of crocodiles.  Given the low budget, the entire story takes place on a less epic scale, but that doesn’t stop Aja and his screenwriters, Michael & Shawn Rasmussen from delivering the kind of film that fits nicely with similar fare such as 2016’s “The Shallows”.  Proving yet again substance trumps budget.

     “Crawl” serves as an excellent vehicle for Kaya Scodelario, known primarily for her role in “The Maze Runner” trilogy, and allows the up and coming actress to bite into a lead role in which her performance carries the film.  She’s backed capably by veteran actor Barry Pepper, as the two find themselves in a dire situation of survival against both mother nature and the aforementioned crocs who have decided to join the party.  With the action confined primarily to the inside of a house, the filmmakers effectively create a claustrophobic horror film feel where the characters are trapped and have no ideal means of escape.  Safety means going through the obstacles in front of them.  There is no avoiding the danger.

     Haley (Kaya Scodelario) is a member of the Florida Gators swim team, having achieved her success through the constant coaching her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), provided from an early age.  Her family has recently endured the trauma of divorce, with her mother moving on with someone else and her father left to grieve, wondering how everything went wrong.  As a Category 5 hurricane approaches the southern Florida town her father resides in, Haley is notified by her sister that she cannot reach their father and worries he may not be leaving in spite of the warnings of the coming storm.  If “Crawl” has an underlying subtext, it’s a cautionary tale about heeding the order to evacuate when a major hurricane is on your doorstep.  If this isn’t an effective warning, I don’t know what else would be.

     Haley goes looking for her father and ultimately finds him in the home he was supposed to sell, the home she grew up in.  But the hurricane has already begun to flood the area, as winds begin to knock down trees, and water steadily rises, submerging vehicles and forcing everyone in the area to desperately flee for safety.  When Haley discovers her father in the basement of their former home, he is unconscious and severely injured.  Something has attacked him, but what?  Haley finds out quickly they are not alone in the basement as two crocodiles have taken up residence and do not seem to have plans for leaving anytime soon.

     The next hour is a simple fight for survival.  The water level continues to rise as it pours into the basement and turns the immediate area into a makeshift reptile tank where a multitude of these creatures seem to be lurking around every corner.  They have no way to communicate their situation to anyone who could help them and they can’t simply hide and wait the storm out.  It’s a classic case of man and woman versus beast with only each other to depend on, as there are no weapons or resources available to assist them.  And that’s where the film succeeds, since the obvious solutions are never in play, forcing the characters to use ingenuity that is not easily predicted by the audience.  What does that translate into?  Legitimate white knuckle suspense that has allowed people to use “Crawl” in the same sentence as “Jaws”.

     The melding of genres here serves as a consistent and effective one-two punch, giving the audience exactly the kind of thrills many of this summer’s franchise entries failed to do.  There’s a freshness within “Crawl” that can’t be denied when you have not one, but two looming threats to the survival of just two main characters and there doesn’t seem to be an obvious solution to their disintegrating situation.  In other words, you will never presume either of these characters will be breathing five minutes from now.  And that’s a trick not often pulled off in these times where many people’s criticism consistently devolves into vitriol when a filmmaker doesn’t tell the story they would’ve told.  “Crawl” avoids that by defying what is expected and moving the story along in what ever way our toothy antagonists determine, as the full force of a hurricane turns what was once a quiet neighborhood into their own private hunting aquarium.  It’s as plausible as it is frightening.  GRADE: B

“Spider-Man: Far from Home” Movie Review


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     “Spider-Man: Far from Home” concludes what has been billed as Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and inevitably functions as a sort of epilogue to “Avengers: Endgame”, as the fallout from the events of that film drive the action and shape the continuing lives of the lead characters.  Back in the director’s chair is “Spider-Man: Homecoming” helmer Jon Watts with screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers also returning.  Marking the 23rd feature film in the MCU, the latest Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man adventure sees the web slinger at a sort of crossroads as he deals with the loss of his mentor and father figure Tony Stark, and the frightening expectations that come with the possibility of becoming a full fledged superhero at the young age of just sixteen years old.

     The initial scenes in the film bring forth the details of a world recovering from the “Snap” as they also cope with the loss of a beloved hero.  And while Ironman has become both a symbol of unity and an icon after his death, people continue to deal with the ramifications of half the world’s population being gone for five years, but then suddenly returning.  In truth, the current state of the world appears fairly normal all things considered.  The filmmakers obviously chose not to go the route of say HBO’s “The Leftovers” and portray the masses as having gone completely wacko.  Instead, the students at Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) New York high school appear well adjusted to what happened with very little sign of anguish and instead seem to make a joke out of every reminder as perhaps their way of coping.  Though I doubt anything in this film is meant to be that deep. 

     In an opening segment, two students hosting the high school’s in house news cast refer to students who had once disappeared as being part of the “Blip”.  It is also mentioned that they came back 5 years later the same age, meaning high school has continued for those where they left off, as well as the ones who remained and aged but occupied a world where everything had been ravaged.  All that said, the school and students seem quite normal as Peter’s fellow science students embark on a class trip to Europe.  The perfect setting for the usual chaos to ensue.

     Peter, as we know, has a crush on his classmate, MJ (Zendaya), and sees this trip as a way to create the right scenario to tell her how he feels.  In his mind, there’s no time for superhero and Avengers stuff, which is likely why he continues to ignore calls from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who needs his help on another matter.  When witnesses in Mexico claim a devastating cyclone had what was described as a face on it, Fury and Agent Hill (Cobie Smulders) respond and encounter a hero from another dimension called Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal).  Mysterio warns of an extraterrestrial being who can draw power from the Earth’s core and transform into a massive tornado or giant fire that will leave the planet in ruin.  With all of the other Avengers unavailable, Fury calls in Spider-Man to assist Mysterio in stopping the threat.

     But that’s where Peter begins to wonder if he is ready for the assignment, or if he still wants to be a superhero at all.  When asked, he says he wants to be with his friends and get closer to MJ, and perhaps considers ignoring his alter ego Spider-Man all together in hopes of having a more normal childhood.  There is also the Tony Stark factor, where Fury gives Peter a pair of glasses that allow him to utilize the considerable technologies behind E.D.I.T.H., Stark’s artificial intelligence assistant.  All of which begs the question.  Is Peter intended to be the next Iron Man?

     The “Avengers level threat” as the antagonist calls it in the film, brings forth the standard high octane action sequences involving Spider-Man’s considerable, yet limited, bad guy fighting arsenal as the filmmakers unleash the full power of CGI at various European locations.  There isn’t anything here you haven’t already seen before, and yet the sheer storytelling power of the last 22 films still seems to support the material and give it the necessary emotional heft needed to make “Spider-Man: Far from Home” more than just a basic superhero premise.  

     There are answers here  you will actually find you wanted all along, but couldn’t be stuffed into the 3 hour plus running time of “Avengers: Endgame”.  And the two post credit scenes (one is mid credit and one is at the end) are both important enough to stick around for given their ramifications on this film, as well as the upcoming Phase 4 and where it may be heading.  As time goes by, “Far from Home” may end up being the least remembered of the MCU “Spider-Man” films since it lacks the freshness of “Homecoming” and the high stakes of the character’s appearances in “Civil War”, “Infinity War”, and “Endgame”, but it still manages to satisfy as a lighthearted excursion into the immediate aftermath of the Infinity Saga.  GRADE: B

“Toy Story 4” Movie Review


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     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-