reviews

Looking back, it wasn’t the military might, economic power, or moral right that won the Cold War for the United States and its Western European allies, but onetime underdog turned world heavyweight champion and Reagan-era propagandist Rocky Balboa (writer-director-actor Sylvester Stallone) who entered the ring against symbolic incarnation of the Russian Soviet Empire, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), and knocked him down flat. America won, but it took another four years before the Soviet Empire dissolved into Russian and former Eastern and Southern satellite countries. Thirty years later, the Soviet Empire might be a half-forgotten memory, but for Rocky and Drago, the Cold War never really ended. It just went into a deep Artic freeze, waiting for the perfect opportunity – a stealthy, unexpected, ultimately rousing combo of carefully calculated nostalgia and the one-two punch of filmmaker Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan – to thaw and get the sequel Stallone apparently always wanted. (more…)

You don’t have to be a verbal anti-Disney critic or an all-around cynic to recognize that Ralph Breaks the Internet, the six-years-in-the-making sequel to Wreck-It Ralph, the incredibly inventive videogame-inspired animated film and modest box-office hit (by Disney standards), functions as keen, insightful storytelling, and a cautionary tale about our social media- and Internet-obsessed culture, and maybe most importantly of all to Disney’s shareholders, as a two-hour commercial for Disney’s wealth of pop-culture products. Ralph Breaks the Internet never breaks stride during its nearly two-hour running time – a compliment in and of itself – when the story segues into a branded exercise in modernizing Disney’s princesses or throws tangential asides for Disney’s other, more recently purchased studios – and cinematic universes of their own, Star Wars and, of course, Marvel’s stable of superheroes. (more…)

Less an artistic leap forward than a strictly commercial one, Widows, director Steve McQueen’s (12 Years A Slave, Shame, Hunger) six-year-in-the-making follow-up to the 2012 Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, tries to strike a path between The Wire-influenced social and political commentary and a conventional heist thriller with a semi-subversive gender twist. It almost succeeds, largely due to McQueen’s keen eye for visual composition, intuitive sense of pacing, and an incredibly strong, talented cast that begins, but doesn’t end, with Academy-Award Winner Viola Davis (Fences), Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager, The Great Gatsby), Michelle Rodriguez (the never-ending Fast & Furious series), and Tony winner Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale). And that’s just the top-line cast. Several paragraphs can be devoted to every perfectly cast, note-perfect performance in Widows. (more…)

When Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them went all Scooby Doo on moviegoers two years ago, swapping out a Colin Farrell mask for a Johnny Depp, a hundred million Harry Potter fans cried out in agony and disappointment. Whatever his personal failings (many, by tabloid accounts), Depp had long lost his luster as a genre leading man, devolving into one of the highest paid cosplay performers in Hollywood. It’s not that Depp, once considered a talented, if eccentric, performer, can no longer act. It’s that Depp has lost interest in acting ages ago, exchanging goofy accents, over-broad physical acting in exchange for one lucrative paycheck after another. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, but Depp and his steady descent into a caricature of himself mirrors the diminishing returns of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, a prequel/spin-off series set in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter cinematic universe. (more…)

What the world didn’t need – and quite possibly, didn’t want – was another adaptation of Dr. Seuss 1957 stone-cold, illustrated classic, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” After all, we already had the perfect expansion of Dr. Seuss’ story more than 50 years ago, a 26-minute TV special directed by Chuck Jones and narrated by horror icon Boris Karloff. But as we’ve learned over and over again, where there’s IP (intellectual property), there’s a major studio eager to bring another adaptation (remake, reboot, reimagining) to the big screen and separate nostalgic parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren, from their bank and debit cards. And with the Illumination Entertainment, the fine people who brought the Minions to vivid, if annoying, life in the Despicable Me series and their own spin-off, a class act like Dr. Seuss and the Grinch seemed like a no-brain, surefire excuse to print (digital) money. Unfortunately, the aggressively mediocre, ultimately forgettable results match the obvious lack of ambition on the part of Illumination’s executive board. (more…)

When it’s not absorbing rival movie companies (20th Century Fox, LucasFilm, Marvel) or expanding its TV empire (ESPN), Disney’s trawling the public domain archives for exploitable intellectual property (IP), like, for example, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, a loose adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s classic 19th-century short story-turned-perennial ballet that probably should have skipped multiplexes and premiered on the Disney Channel on a long holiday weekend. A mid-production switch from one veteran filmmaker, Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules, My Life as a Dog), to another veteran director, Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger, Jurassic Park III, The Rocketeer), should have given Disney execs a clue that they should have shelved their Nutcracker adaptation at worst or skipped a theatrical release altogether at best, but apparently common sense went missing on whatever day the decision was made to release The Nutcracker and the Four Realms a few weeks before the long Thanksgiving weekend. (more…)

One-time Spartan king and opera phantom Gerard “Gerry” Butler continues his descent into B-movie mediocrity and – eventually – straight-to-VOD obscurity with Hunter Killer, a lazily scripted, short-on-logic, long-on-absurdity submarine “thriller” (mostly minus the thrills) released during the end of a month known for Halloween-themed horror. Maybe the studio behind Hunter Killer decided to risk a late October release as a bit of counter programming. Or maybe they thought Butler’s name – combined with recent Academy Award winner Gary “Paycheck” Oldman and rapper-turned-actor Common – would be enough to recoup their investment in or even make a modest profit from Hunter Killer before it inevitably sinks into the deepest of ocean depths, never to be seen or heard from again (except on late-night basic cable as a perfect antidote for lifetime members of the insomnia club).

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The last time we came across Eddie Brock/Venom on the big screen, he was playing third or fourth lead in Sam Raimi’s last go at the Spider-Man franchise (since rebooted twice). Raimi famously didn’t want Brock or Venom (same difference) playing supervillains in an already overcrowded, overstuffed Spider-Man 3. Raimi wanted to tell a different and at least to Raimi, a more personal story pitting Spider-Man against Sandman and the Hobgoblin (i.e., Baby Green Goblin), but Sony executives intervened, forcing Raimi to add Venom to an already overstuffed superhero movie. Both Spider-Man 3 and the Venom were all the worse for Raimi’s deliberately shoddy mishandling of a character who deserved better. But where there’s IP (intellectual property), there’s always a way, even if that way involves an eleven-year wait and the conspicuous absence of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) Spider-Man. They probably should have waited another eleven years. Or maybe jumped into a time machine and released this version of Venom eleven years ago instead to less discerning pre-MCU moviegoers. (more…)

Eli Roth” and “family film” are probably the last four words anyone, especially fans of Roth’s hard-R, exploitation genre efforts, would expect to read in a sentence, but Roth (Green Inferno, Knock Knock, Hostel, Cabin Fever) has done the near impossible: He’s semi-successfully reinvented himself as the family-friendly, kindler, gentler Spielberg-inspired filmmaker he apparently always wanted to be. An Amblin produced adaptation of John Bellairs’ 1973 novel for young readers (a nameless marketing executive hadn’t coined “Young Adult” yet) – with Goth-inspired illustrations from Edward Gorey – The House with a Clock in Its Walls delivers CGI-aided, kid-friendly, blood- and gore-free shocks and scares mixed in with the usual supply of stock story elements, an eccentric, but not too eccentric, adventurous lead character, and familiar, if not exactly unwelcome, comfort-zone performances from Jack Black and Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett. (more…)

In Hollywood, there is no try. There’s do (and fail), fail (and do) until something, anything inevitably sticks with moviegoers, breathing new life into a thirty-year-old series in desperate need of reinvention, The Predator, co-written and directed by Shane Black (The Nice Guys, Iron Man 3, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), proves what 20th Century Fox executives should have known – or maybe they’ve known all along – the Predator series should never have been a series. It should have stopped at one. The Predator was – and continues to be – near impossible to beat, let alone match, the combo of peak Arnold, ace action-director John McTiernan (Die Hard), and a dreadlocked, crab-faced, spine-ripping alien hunter caught up in jungle-set, deadly game of hide-and-seek. Bigger, faster, and armed with super-advanced tech, the Predator bloodily dispatched well-armed (in every sense) mercs, but proved no match for the former Mr. Universe (a/k/a, the Austrian Oak). Arnold, however, smartly stayed away from every sequel or spin-off greenlit by Fox in the misguided hope they could capture the magic of the original. They couldn’t and they haven’t. (more…)