TORPEDO: U-235 (2020)

May 18, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Desperate times, desperate measures” is a phrase that dates back to ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (he of the Hippocratic Oath), and has been applied in many and varied situations since … war strategy being one of the most common. We hear the phrase a couple of times in the War Room during an early scene in the feature film directorial debut of writer-director Sven Huybrechts submarine movie. The term “submarine movie” is used with the utmost respect, as I’m a huge fan of the sub-genre.

Opening with a well-orchestrated attack on Nazi soldiers, we are soon in the midst of a group of resistance fighters – a rag tag bunch committed to wiping out as many Nazis as possible. In the War Room scene, this group is referred to as “The Bad Eggs”, and everyone from all sides seems to want them stopped. However, there is a problem – this group is made up of the only ones crazy enough to accept the current ‘suicide’ mission: delivering a Uranium filled submarine from the Belgian Congo to the United States, where the cargo will be used for the Manhattan Project.

The cast is excellent, led by the ongoing conflict between two outstanding and renowned leads: Belgian actor Koen De Bouw as Nazi-hater Stan, and German actor Thure Riefenstein as captured U-Boat Captain Franz Jager. Co-writers Huybrechts and Johan Horemans effectively use the dangers and claustrophobia of the submarine, and are truly expert in their pitting Stan against Jager. Stan’s beautiful (and sharpshooter) daughter Nadine (Ella-June Henrard) is also on the mission, but it’s Stan’s tragic backstory (which we see in tension-filled flashbacks) that have filled him with a lust for revenge and over-protectiveness.

Training for submarine crews typically lasts a year, and this group of misfits has only three weeks to prepare. Some of the early soundtrack reminds of the iconic Elmer Bernstein theme to THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, which comes across a bit misplaced, but that’s a minor quibble for a film that gets most everything else right – except for a too-good-to-be-true sequence near the end. Along the way, we see vivid images of the brutality and cruelty of Nazis, which helps us understand why all of these folks are so committed to the mission.

Working with a low budget, the film still manages to deliver the danger and tense situations we expect from a submarine during WWII. There is even a sub vs sub battle for some underwater action. The lineup of other worthy submarine movies over the years include: Jules Verne’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), THE ENEMY BELOW (1957) with Robert Mitchum, RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP (1958) with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster, ICE STATION ZEBRA (1968)  based on the Alistair MacLean novel, the nerve-rattling DAS BOOT (1981) from Werner Herzog, THE ABYSS (1989) from James Cameron, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990) from Tom Clancy’s novel starring Sean Connery, CRIMSON TIDE (1995) pitting Denzel Washington against Gene Hackman, U-571 (2000) with the great Thomas Kretschmann, and BLACK SEA (2014) with Jude Law. And let’s not forget the 1968 classic featuring The Beatles animated, YELLOW SUBMARIINE.

This latest begins in 1941 and the final scene takes place on August 6, 1945. Huybrechts’s film could be described as a cross between INGLORIOUS BASTERDS and DAS BOOT, and it includes plenty of material for conversation on race, religion, nationality, and duty.

Available VOD beginning May 19, 2020

watch the trailer:


EXTRACTION (2020)

April 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The description for this movie labels lead character Tyler Rake “a fearless black market mercenary.” Now I’ve personally never shopped for a mercenary, but my assumption is that every one of them is ‘black market’, and none would likely self-identify as anything other than ‘fearless.’ My Facebook account is inundated with unwanted advertisements, and I’ve yet to see one for any mercenary, much less one that lacks courage. Now you likely find this to be worthless meanderings, but that’s where the first feature length film from director Sam Hargrave took me. Mr. Hargrave is a veteran stunt coordinator and stunt performer (he’s been the stunt double for Chris Evans’ Captain America), and he’s working from a script by Joe Russo (director and producer of the last two Avengers movies and the last two Captain America movies).

Chris Hemsworth (THOR) stars as the aforementioned Tyler Rake. It’s a role that would have just as easily worked for Jason Statham or, in past years, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Rake is a live action hero, haunted by visions and dreams of better times. His fighting prowess, shooting skills, and willingness to play roulette with his own life, make him the perfect hire for imprisoned drug lords when their son is kidnapped by a rival drug lord. And that’s exactly what happens.

The film opens with Tyler in a bad spot. He’s injured and trying to shoot his way out of a mess where he’s badly outnumbered. The film then flashes back a couple of days where we witness the kidnapping of Ovi Jr (Rudrhaksh Jaiswal) by Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli), the drug lord rival to Ovi Jr’s imprisoned father. We also see Tyler, after a few too many drinks, take a running leap off a 30 meter cliff into an Australian lake. Soon he’s visited by Nik (Golshifteh Farahani, Adam Driver’s wife in PATERSON). She acts as his handler for the dangerous jobs, and few are more risky than extracting Ovi Jr.

What follows are fast-paced car chases through the dusty streets of Dhaka, bone-crunching hand-to-hand combats, and more shootouts than we’ve seen in a while. Tyler’s job is to extract Ovi Jr and deliver him safely home. When things go sideways, the two end up on the run from an entire army, and take cover in a local sewer … with all the sights and smells you might imagine. Supporting roles are covered by David Harbor as Tyler’s old friend, and Randeep Hooda as Ovi Sr’s right-hand man.

As you might expect, there are double-crosses and plenty of opportunities for Tyler to show off his ‘fearless’ Samercenary skills. Ovi Jr is a bit of a nerd, but does offer up some life philosophy for his troubled protector: “You drown not by falling in the water, but by staying submerged in it.” The kill count here is extraordinarily high and literally thousands of rounds get fired. What’s most surprising, however, is that Tyler’s cell phone somehow survives his many falls, gunshots, sewage, and car collisions. It’s much more impressive than the old Timex commercials. Gifted cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (X-MEN movies, DRIVE, THREE KINGS, THE USUAL SUSPECTS) does an admirable job capturing the action sequences; it’s just that this is too similar to many movies we’ve seen before, though it serves as a chance for Hemsworth to be something other than Thor. For those in need of an action flick fix after all this social distancing, EXTRACTION should scratch the itch.

opens Netflix April 24, 2020

watch the trailer:


THE HUNT (2020)

March 12, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Let’s face it. It was a brilliant marketing strategy. In the wake of mass shootings, the release date of this film was delayed when its subject matter was deemed controversial, even scandalous The film’s new marketing slogan became, “The most talked about movie of the year is one that no one’s actually seen.” Of course, it wasn’t really true, as very few were actually talking about it. But that’s what made it genius marketing … they created interest amidst controversy that has since proven unnecessary. Director Craig Zobel (Z FOR ZACHARIAH, 2015) has delivered the least controversial, non-polarizing film of the year. It basically laughs at extremes on the left and right, and reminds us how laughing at something can often take away its power. And regardless of your “side”, you’ll find some laughs here.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that the premise has a group of liberal elites hunting a hand-selected group of social media-active MAGA deplorables. It’s a twist on Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game”, although the modern day rich aren’t hunting for sport, but rather for political affiliation – gun lovers and climate change deniers. That may sound politically charged, but in fact, it plays as more comedy than comeuppance. Sure, the violence is over-the-top and often quite graphic, but this is a skewering of both red and blue.

Preventing the project from falling into B-movie muck is a standout performance from Betty Gilpin (“Glow”) as Crystal. She’s a Rambo-type who speaks (with a southern drawl) only when necessary, and seems to have learned a lot while serving in Afghanistan. Most of the time she looks like she has “a pinch between her cheek and gum” (a tip of the Stetson to Walt Garrison), and she also hums to herself and tosses down some unusual facial expressions. This is a seriously oddball performance that is the film’s highlight.

One of the best sequences of the film comes quite early as the dozen or so ‘deplorables’ slowly wake-up and find themselves gagged in a field. A container of weapons leads to an early massacre that allows the filmmaker to tease us with numerous familiar faces taking turns as the heir-apparent lead. Some of the faces that pop up include Ike Barinholtz, Wayne Duvall, Ethan Suplee, Emma Roberts, Christopher Berry, Sturgill Simpson, Kate Nowlin, Amy Madigan, Reed Birney, Glenn Howerton, Hannah Alline (flight attendant), and Usman Ally.

Of course we know this is headed to a showdown between Crystal and Athena (2-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank), the ringleader of the hunting party. A fight scene reminiscent of the KILL BILL movies (sans Samurai swords) takes place at Athena’s “manor”, and it is stunningly staged and executed. Unfortunately this scene also highlights the mostly inadequate dialogue that exists throughout the film. Some of the quips click, but many fall flat – surprising since the co-writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof have previously collaborated on “Watchmen” and “The Leftovers.”

Blumhouse Productions keeps cranking out these offbeat genre films, and this one likely benefits from a misplaced scandal, and it strives for self-importance by comparing itself to George Orwell’s “Animal House” and with an obscure reference to TEARS OF THE SUN (2013). It’s not at the level of last year’s gem READY OR NOT, and it missed the opportunity to make some political points, but it’s a hoot to watch and as an added bonus, Hilary Swank teaches us the proper way to make a grilled cheese sandwich!

watch the trailer:


ONWARD (animated, 2020)

March 5, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. No studio has ever had a 25 year run like Pixar. This is their 22nd feature film over that span and every single one lands somewhere in the range of brilliant/instant classic to watchable/re-watchable. Though this latest may not reach instant classic level, it does stick to the Pixar standard template of highly entertaining while delivering a life lesson. This is the first time in the Pixar director’s chair for Dan Scanlon since MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (2013). It’s also the first original Pixar since COCO (2017) … and note, it’s rated PG.

The film opens with a “history” lesson detailing how the world was once populated by enchanted creatures like elves, unicorns, wizards, mermaids, fairies and sprites. Science and technology created shortcuts and soon the world’s “magic” had disappeared, relegating these creatures to life in the suburbs. We pick up the story on Ian Lightfoot’s 16th birthday. Ian is part of an elf family that includes his older brother Barley and their widowed mother Laurel. While Barley is a loud and rambunctious type who is obsessed with the Quest of Yore game and mythology (think Dungeons & Dragons), Ian is a more pensive type who still mourns the late father he never met. Both brothers are surprised when their mother presents a “gift” from their dad – one he left instructions to be held until Ian turned 16. The gift is a magical wizard staff that, with the included precious stone, can bring dad back to life for 24 hours.

Barley’s knowledge of the magical spells combined with Ian’s lack of self-confidence ends up botching things to the point that only half of dad is brought back – the bottom half. Under a tight deadline and in need of a replacement gem to bring dad back for a much desired final conversation, the brothers take off on an adventure that turns pretty wild. Their quest leads them to cross paths with many of the previously enchanted creatures, including the fabulous Manticore, and mom’s boyfriend, Officer Colt Bronco.

We have come to expect ‘magic’ from Pixar with every movie, and this one doesn’t disappoint. It may not be quite as awe-inspiring as some of their best work, but it’s still a terrific suburban fantasy adventure filled with comedy and life lessons … the most crucial of which is: being happy with what you have is more crucial to your inner-peace than getting what you hope for.

As always, the voice acting is top notch. Tom Holland (SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING) delivers the goods as Ian, and Chris Pratt (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) brings the necessary wonder and excitement to brother Barley. Julia Louis-Dreyfus never really gets to shine as their mother, but then this story is focused on the boys. Octavia Spencer has fun as Manticore (we needed more Manticore!), Mel Rodriguez is a hoot as Officer Colt Bronco, and yes of course, John Ratzenberger sneaks in – he’s now voiced a character in all 22 Pixar films.

This is the first Pixar film to be totally free of input from ousted President John Lasseter, and it’s one of the very few to be released outside of the summer or awards season. The likely reason is that the studio has a second original film being released this June. SOUL will be directed by Pete Docter and is viewed as a companion piece to the already classic INSIDE OUT (2015). Given the time of year, it could be easy to overlook ONWARD, but it nails the Pixar trademark emotional finale … delivering a sentimental scene likely to stick with you. I have praised Pixar many times over the years as their creative teams really seem to “get it”. Regardless of the month, ONWARD will cast a spell.

watch the trailer:


THE RHYTHM SECTION (2020)

January 30, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Kicking off a successful franchise that can sustain multiple sequels is the dream of most actors, writers, directors, and producers. When it clicks, a movie franchise can be a cash cow for many years. Unfortunately, it’s just not that easy to create characters that viewers will invest in, or story lines that will keep those viewers interested. Author Mark Burnell has already published four books in his Stephanie Patrick series, and director Reed Morano brings the first one to the big screen. By the time the end credits roll, we have little doubt that “franchise” was the goal.

An opening scene finds Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) pointing a gun at the head of a man who is unaware of her presence. A freeze frame shifts us to “8 months earlier.” Stephanie is a mess. She is supporting her heroin addiction through prostitution, all with the objective of numbing her pain. Three years earlier, her family was killed in a plane crash. It’s the kind of tragedy followed by a grief so devastating that Stephanie has basically given up on life.

Stephanie is jolted back to life when a journalist informs her that it was a bomb planted by a terrorist that brought down the plane her family was on. Now, Stephanie has a reason to exist … revenge. Clearly some suspension of disbelief is in order here. Actually everything about this story is a stretch from reality or even believability. Quick, name all of the heroin addicts who become world class assassins in 8 months. OK, that’s probably not a fair question since you likely don’t know many heroin addicts, and you hopefully don’t know many assassins. But you get the point.

The film plays like a brochure for a travel agent, as the story and Stephanie have stops in Tangier, England, Ireland, Madrid, New York, and Marseilles. Each stop is pretty brief – merely long enough for some killing. Of course most of the stops occur after former MI6 agent Ian Boyd (Jude Law) trains her on the finer points of being a contract killer. The training includes jogging uphill, a frigid lake swim, how to fight in the kitchen, how to get run off the road while driving, and the invaluable advice to shoot your victim twice (but your teacher only once). Oh yes, and she has to impersonate a presumed-dead assassin. Fortunately, Stephanie was top of her class at Oxford, so she is smart enough to make sense of all these things that make no sense to us.

And another thing … why do all these people have such perfect and complete files on their targets?  Photographs by Glamour Shots, map coordinates to hideouts, and an alphabetical list of known accomplices are all quite helpful when former MI6 and former CIA agents (Sterling K Brown) are trying to get a heroin addict to do their dirty work. Brown’s CIA agent turned ‘information broker’ is the oddest of many odd characters here. He lives in a stunning ultra-modern home and has no qualms about hitting on hot assassins that he knows only by reputation. Thanks to all those marvelously complete files, the only unknown here is the mysterious U17. Well, U17 seems to be mysterious to everyone except those watching the movie.

Blake Lively is a talented actress as evidenced by her work in THE TOWN, THE SHALLOWS, and A SIMPLE FAVOR. She is simply miscast here. Despite the “training” her Stephanie received from Ian, we never once believe she is ready to kill all the bad guys. This contributes heavily to the lack of believability presented by the film. It’s a serious story that is ultimately impossible to take seriously as a viewer.

There is a difference in believable and stylish, and director Reed Morano certainly serves up style. She is known mostly for her work as a cinematographer, though she did direct the first 3 episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Ms. Morano and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt hit us with some jarring camera work, and the musical inserts are just a tad too cutesy and obvious at their given time: “I’m Sorry”, “It’s Now or Never”, and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” (a cover by Sleigh Bells).

Having author Mark Burnell adapt his own novel may have been a mistake, as there are far too many plot holes and ridiculous moments for this to work as any type of thriller. Here are three examples: we never know why Stephanie didn’t get on the flight with her family; it makes little sense that the journalist tracked her down; and is that supposed to be a twist or not? Given the inclusion of Bond producers (and half-siblings) Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson (stepson of Cubby Broccoli), we can safely assume that the vision was to turn Mr. Burnell’s books into a franchise along the lines of James Bond and Jason Bourne – right down to the fight scenes and international settings. This film certainly sets things up for round two, and if that happens, let’s hope more attention is paid to the script … a crucial element if viewers are expected to buy in.

watch the trailer:


BAD BOYS FOR LIFE (2020)

January 16, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?” In this third entry of the franchise, those song lyrics are what we are asking cocky and aging Miami detective Mike Lowery (Will Smith). An old case comes back to haunt him and a scorned lover comes back to hunt him, and he may or may not have his old reliable partner Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) by his side.

It’s been 25 years since director Michael Bay introduced us to ‘Bayhem’ with his first feature film, BAD BOYS. It took another 8 years for the sequel BAD BOYS II, and now 17 years later, we get this long-anticipated third film. Only instead of Michael Bay (who is listed as a producer and makes a cameo), Belgian directors (and former film school buddies) Adil El Arbi and Billal Fallah are directing. Fans of the franchise need not be worried, as the two expected and necessary elements are present: partner banter and Bayhem action.

Detective Mike Lowery (Smith) is an old school bull with a badge, and Detective Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) is simply ready to ride off into the sunset of retirement as Pop-Pop with family, including his new grandbaby. Also back for his third run with the bad boys is stressed out Captain Howard played by Joe Pantoliano and the ever-present Pepto Bismol.

Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo) is sprung from jail in Mexico by her son Armando (Jacob Scipio). Mother and son have two missions: take back their drug cartel, and take revenge on those responsible for her arrest and the death of Isabel’s husband. Oh yeah, Isabel is part-witch and a former lover of rookie cop Mike Lowery. What a tangled web … and that’s without including another surprise twist. Their revenge checklist includes many Miami dignitaries … and a vow to make Lowery the last to die.

There is another surprise near the beginning of the film, and that motivates Lowery to get involved to help solve the string of murders – not yet aware that he’s on the list. Of course Detective Burnett is drawn out of retirement and they are forced to work with a new Special Forces team called AMMO. Surprisingly, neither of the ‘Ms” stand for Millennial, and instead it’s Advanced Miami Metro Operations. The team is led by Rita (Paolo Nunez), another former Lowery lover, and includes badass Kelly (Vanessa Hudgens), hulky computer whiz Dom (Alexander Ludwig), and wise-cracking Rafe (Charles Melton) as a verbal sparring partner for Lowery.

What follows is car chases, shootouts, fancy weapons, drones, and helicopters. And lots of one-liners at stressful moments. Lawrence is especially effective with the banter, and fans will be happiest when he and Smith are jabbing back and forth. This time, much of their grief towards each other focuses on mortality and growing old. The partners are close, but their life philosophies vary greatly. Of course we do get the fiery finale, and this one involves a helicopter and a stunning hotel that’s been left in ruins.

Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan (originally slated to direct) wrote the script, and for the most part stays true to what the fans want – banter and action – while making note of the 17 years that have passed for these bad boys, “Ride together. Die together” always seemed like an absurd phrase for two cops, but the partner dynamics are in full force here, even though this movie (as well as the other two) are closer to live action cartoons than an actual police thriller. The end credits scene sets us up for BB4, and if they wait another 17 years, I calculate Will Smith will be 68 years old. Instead of a Porsche, he’ll be driving a Buick.

watch the trailer:


STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019)

December 18, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ending the final trilogy of trilogies that covers 42 years of storytelling, was never going to be easy. And, given the rabid fan base’s backlash from the penultimate episode, the ending was unlikely to appease all (or even most?).  Keeping respectful of the sensitivity associated with this franchise, no spoilers are included here, certainly nothing that hasn’t already been dissected and debated after the trailers were released.

As I approached the theatre, it was impossible not to chuckle at the irony of seeing the life-sized marketing prop for KNIVES OUT in the lobby. Of course, that current release is directed by Rian Johnson, who caused such an uproar with the aforementioned STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (Episode VIII), a franchise entry that happens to be one of my personal favorites. But we are here for Episode IX, the wrap-up of George Lucas’ masterful vision. JJ Abrams (STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS) is back in the director’s chair, and knowing what a fanboy he is, it’s not surprising to see the familiarity and tributes to the franchise interjected throughout.

In fact, this finale leans heavily on nostalgia and humor, while tying up most loose ends – as well as some that weren’t even all that loose. Writers Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow (originally slated to direct), Chris Terrio, and Abrams seemed intent on giving each beloved character their moment, as a sign of appreciation for their contributions to a legacy that covers a period longer than the lifespan of some of the biggest Star Wars fans. As one who stood in line in 1977, it’s an approach that I respect and have no problems with – knowing full well that some will.

Any attempt to tie up previous threads must focus on the odd, mystical relationship between Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). Both are still conflicted and attempting to come to grips with who they are. Rey especially is struggling with her identity and roots. One of my favorite elements from The Last Jedi was inner-head conversations blended with cross-dimensional physical interactions between Kylo and Rey, and it’s used beautifully here.

So, the biggest complaint from me is that despite its nearly two-and-a-half hour run time, there is simply too much crammed in. Too much story and too many characters and too many things that get a glimpse or mention, but no real development. This movie is jam-packed, and ‘convoluted’ would not be too strong of a word to describe. There are times we aren’t sure where the characters are or what they are doing or why they are doing it. We do know that everything good is dependent on ‘this mission’, a mission that seems to change direction about every 12 minutes. In fact, the “new” players – Rey, Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) – spend very little time together on screen. And really, Finn is given almost nothing to do except look worried most of the time. On the bright side for characters, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C3PO both get their own sub-plots. Anthony Daniels (as C3PO) becomes the only actor to appear in all 9 episodes, although R2D2 joins C3PO as characters appearing in all.

There are many old familiar faces, both good and evil. Some of these play key roles, while others are brief cameos. Much has been speculated about how Carrie Fisher’s role as Leia will be handled. Archival footage, combined with special effects and camera angles, allows her to be present throughout, and yes, she gets the send-off she deserves. There are even some new characters/creatures introduced, including a cute new droid (never underestimate or under-market a droid) that is already for sale in Disney stores.

No matter one’s feelings or expectations, an area that surely will not disappoint is the visual effects. Somehow, this one is even more impressive and awe-inspiring than the others. In particular, a couple of scenes filmed in and around an angry sea left me dumbfounded, mouth-agape. However, what’s most amazing is the consistency of the visuals throughout. It’s just a stunning film to look at.  Some of the story may be a bit confusing or cheesy, but some parts of the film are truly great. Cinematographer and Special Effects guru Dan Mindel deserves special mention, as do Production Designers Rick Carter and Kevin Jenkins. Of course the visual effects team is without peer – and take up about 5 minutes in the closing credits.

Lastly, composer John Williams gets to add his well-deserved personal stamp on this final chapter with new work added to the already iconic score. Very few moments compare to the opening notes blasting away on the theatre sound system as a Star Wars film begins. And as much as we’d like to treat this as the end, we all know Disney will find a way to keep us interested in a galaxy, far far away.

RIP: Peter Mayhew and Carrie Fisher

watch the trailer:

 


FROZEN II (2019)

November 21, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Let it go. Forget the sisterly issues of the Oscar winning original from 6 years ago. Arendelle is now doing just fine under “Ice” Queen Elsa and Princess Anna. Well, at least until Elsa is beckoned to the foggy, off-limits Enchanted Forest by an ethereal voice that only she can hear. We know this probably isn’t good since the movie kicks off with a flashback to when the sisters were very young and their parents (voiced by Alfred Molina and Evan Rachel Wood) told them a historically significant story of the forest – a story with a vital missing piece.

Joining Elsa (voiced again by the wonderful Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) on this journey to the forest and a discovery of the past are more familiar faces from the first movie: woodsman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff, who also plays Holden Ford in the excellent TV series “Mindhunter”), Kristoff’s loyal reindeer Sven, and everybody’s favorite huggable, philosophizing snowman, Olaf (Josh Gad back for an expanded role that provides more laughs).

Co-directors and co-writers Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee return for the sequel and their script, co-written with Marc Smith, features the familiarity that we’d expect from such a successful original, but it adds pieces that will likely be too confusing for younger viewers. Trying to recapture the magic of their Oscar winning song “Let it Go”, songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez seem to have a singing interlude approximately every 8 minutes or so. Olaf gets a cute song, and this time, even Kristoff has his musical moment with “Lost in the Woods” (Jonathan Groff is a Broadway veteran). Of course, it’s Elsa/Idina Menzel who provides two impressive power vocals. It appears “Into the Unknown” is getting the PR push, but personally I preferred “Show Yourself”.

Don’t think it’s all about the songs. There is an odd storyline that seems a bit preachy about making amends to past sins (politically and personally), and just how devastating it can be to discover that one’s family tree has some rotten branches. Whether kids “get” that nature’s balance must be restored, they will surely appreciate the two sisters: Anna’s inner-strength and determination matching Elsa’s magical powers. And all ages will enjoy Olaf’s comical fast-talking recap of the first movie – a scene itself worthy of admission.

While the songs might fall short this time around, and the story might be a bit more convoluted, there is no arguing that this sequel looks fantastic. The enhanced animation is quite stunning at times. As opposed to the blue and white color scheme of the first movie, this sequel features a palette that draws from Martha Stewart’s Thanksgiving table setting – the autumn colors are vibrant and gorgeous.

FROZEN II will have a bit more Oscar competition in the animated category than what its predecessor faced, as it will be going up against instant classic TOY STORY 4. The filmmakers are to be commended for bringing attention to natural elements of air, water, fire, and earth; however, a couple of the extended sequences will likely prove too intense for younger viewers. “Do the next right thing” may be the new Disney Golden Rule, but it’s difficult to imagine a non-talking gecko or terrifying Earth Giants will emerge as a new favorite toy. Parents should know going in that by the end, Elsa sports a new dress and hairdo, conflicting with an early song “Some Things Never Change”. And when parents realize a third “Frozen” movie is in the works, they should know that warm hugs help. Let’s just hope the next one isn’t called “Ice Cubed”.

watch the trailer:


GEMINI MAN (2019)

October 10, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Usually after watching a movie, I spend some time thinking about the story, the performances, the visual effects, the music, the sets, the costumes, and any other piece of the puzzle that makes up that particular movie going experience. However, Oscar winning director Ang Lee’s (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, LIFE OF PI) new film creates a challenge. In addition to those previously mentioned factors, the ground-breaking new technology must also be addressed – both separately and in conjunction with how it works in the movie.

If you’ve seen the trailer, or even the poster, you know that there is an “old” Will Smith and a “young” Will Smith. The basic story is that Henry Brogan (old Will Smith) is a retiring DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) assassin who is being hunted by his own government. The one doing the hunting is Junior, a “young” clone of Henry Brogan. What you may not know is that this is not accomplished through the typical de-aging process that has become so popular in Hollywood. Nope, this Junior is actually digital animation from Weta Digital in New Zealand. It’s not even really Will Smith – it’s a digital creation that looks almost identical to the Will Smith from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (1990-96), minus the wide grin and funky clothes. It’s very impressive technology, but not yet to the point where it can replace living, breathing, emoting actors. However, it’s pretty obvious that day is coming.

What’s also obvious is that this script is a mess, and despite the new generation of technology, this film seems dated … well at least the story seems that way. Darren Lemke (SHAZAM!) first published the screenplay in the mid-1990’s and it has “almost” made it to production on a few occasions. Writers David Benioff (THE KITE RUNNER) and Billy Ray (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS) are credited on this final, mostly disappointing version. The dialogue is lame and character development is non-existent. We are never provided a reason to give a hoot about old Henry. Junior is never more than a video game creation. And DIA Agent Danny Zakarweski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) seems to be an afterthought when someone realized the film needed a female presence. Clive Owen plays Clay Verris, the mastermind/mad scientist with little more than a scowl, though Benedict Wong brings a jolt of life to his Baron role as a pilot friend of Henry.

We do get to see some of the world. The initial sequence takes us on Henry’s final mission. It’s his 72nd kill, and it occurs from a grassy knoll in Belgium through a window on a bullet train going 228 mph. Henry heads back to his isolated lake cabin in Buttermilk Sound, Georgia where his peaceful retirement lasts about 3 scenes. Soon, we are headed to Columbia for a crazy motorcycle chase, and then on to the catacombs in Budapest – an idea that provides a welcome dose of inspiration.

High-speed parkour, blurry close-up fight scenes, rooftop shootouts, and a hyper motorcycle chase through town all have an air of familiarity, which is something this type of film should strive to avoid. Rian Johnson’s LOOPER toyed with us using a young and old version of the same character, and though that was time travel and not cloning, the ideas are too similar for this one to come across as unique. Oscar winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (MEMORIES OF A GEISHA) delivers the shots – down to the crystal clear logos on beer and soda – but we never really experience the thrill that new technology should deliver. It should also be noted that no theatre in America is equipped to show this in the way Ang Lee filmed it: 4K 3D 120fps HFR format … leaving us wondering, what’s the point?

watch the trailer:


STUBER (2019)

July 11, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. A wild and over-the-top chase-fight-shootout at the Staples Center is the action-packed opening sequence, leading us to believe we are about to spend 90 minutes watching a mountain-sized rogue-cop out for vengeance. And then, as soon as that He-Man cop squeezes into the front seat of an electric car Uber, everything changes. The seismic shift in tone transitions our movie into a throwback to the 1980’s buddy action-comedies, only with a few contemporary twists. Whether that’s an improvement will depend on your preferences.

As intense as that opening sequence is, we can’t help but chuckle as we see Dave Bautista and Karen Gillan, co-stars of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, reuniting on screen as police partners Vic Manning and Sara Morris. Their attempts to apprehend drug dealer Teijo (Iko Uwais, THE RAID: REDEMPTION) goes horribly wrong and sets Vic on his mission to track down Teijo as he strives to avenge the death of his partner. It’s this personal vendetta that has Vic prioritizing the job and his need for revenge over his relationship with his daughter Nicole (Nathalie Morales, BATTLE OF THE SEXES).

Vic inadvertently schedules his LASIK surgery on the same day as Nicole’s gallery showcase of her sculptures, and this decision leads to his being crunched up in the front seat of Stu’s UBER (“Stuber”, get it?). Kumail Nanjani (THE BIG SICK) stars as Stu, the timid, peace-loving guy who also has a lousy job at a retail sporting goods store, and makes bad financial decisions based on his WHEN HARRY MET SALLY situation with Becca (Betty Gilpin). Stuck in the friendzone, Stu’s unrequited love has him in the role of good guy to call whenever Becca gets dumped or needs money.

Director Michael Dowse and writer Tripper Clancy turn the film into a road trip around the L.A. area, with each new destination punctuated with another comedic exchange between the intimidating Vic and the ‘I just wanna be with Becca’ Stu. In supporting roles, we get Mira Sorvino as Vic’s police Captain McHenry, and Jimmy Tatro as Stu’s entitled and clueless store manager Richie.

Other than the frenetic opening sequence, most of the action scenes play second fiddle to the comedic interactions between opposites Vic and Stu. Unlike FREE FIRE where the comedy and action complemented each other, this film oddly allows some of the violent moments to double as punchlines … these end up failing as both action and comedy. The film is certainly at its best when Vic and Stu are riffing off of each other, especially in the cozy front seat. The eyesight gag is overplayed and gets old pretty fast, but Kumail again proves he’s a master of deadpan one-liners. The hulking Bautista more than holds his own (despite the incessant squinting), and the film touches on today’s man vs the traditional idea of a man’s man. It’s a bit of a throwback to such buddy films as 48 HOURS, MIDNIGHT RUN, and TANGO & CASH, but it also provides a contemporary take on rogue cops, romance and masculinity. It’s no LETHAL WEAPON, but the banter between Kumail and Bautista provide quite a few entertaining moments.

watch the trailer: