Blast Off

Ryan Gosling personalizes Neil Armstrong in moving, masterful moon-mission movie

Film Title: First Man

First Man
Starring Ryan Gosling & Claire Foy
Directed by Damien Chazelle
PG-13
In theaters Oct. 12, 2018

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first person to step foot on the moon.

Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is the focus of First Man, director Damien Chazelle’s monumentally intimate portrait of the former U.S. Navy aviator and engineer who became famous forever for taking “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Everything in the movie leads toward that climactic moonwalk moment; as one of the most documented events in modern history, we know it happened and we know it’s coming. But wow, is it ever an emotional journey getting there.

As space movies go, First Man isn’t a rousing character romp like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 or Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, nor a far-out cosmic mind-bender like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s much more sobering, introspective, contemplative and calculated in its depiction of Armstrong and the nuts and bolts of getting men into the great beyond.

The movie (based on Armstrong’s official 2005 biography, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, by James R. Hansen) makes you understand just how difficult, dangerous—and sometimes deadly—it was.

Film Title: First Man

Which isn’t to say it’s not beautiful. It’s gorgeous, immersive and often rapturous, a technically brilliant and sometime sublime bit of moviemaking that puts the audience inside the space program, and alongside the astronaut who would become the commander of Apollo 11, the first NASA mission to land two people on the moon.

We’re inside cramped, claustrophobic cockpits with Armstrong and other space jocks, surrounded by analog dials, panels jammed with buttons, flip switches and read-out gauges of primitive 1960s computers. We hear the whoosh and hiss of rocket fuel through pipes, the rattle and racket of metal, the monstrous rush and roar of the combusting engines. We feel—or at least think we do—the nauseating, violent, skull-jarring shaking, spinning and rolling.

And the void of space is a majestic, unfathomable symphony of silence.

In the opening scene, we watch Armstrong—then a test pilot—guide an experimental X-15 rocket plane up, up, up, until he perches on the cusp of space. For one beautiful moment, he hovers there, savoring the awesome beauty, gazing at the spectacle of the thin, blue sliver of the atmosphere on the horizon against the vast, endless blackness of the cosmos.

But then he has a bit of trouble re-entering, of getting turned around and returning to Earth. For him, shooting into space is the easy part. Coming back down is hard.

Film Title: First Man

Claire Foy

Reuniting with director Chazelle from last year’s Oscar-winning La La Land, Gosling portrays Armstrong as silent, withdrawn, nearly expressionless and emotionally distant. He feels much more at ease in space than he does at home, with his wife Janet (an excellent Claire Foy, who starred as Queen Elizabeth II in TV’s The Crown) and their two young sons. Perhaps some of that stems from the tragic death of their young daughter, Karen, from a brain tumor, an event which haunts him—and also spurs him on.

First Man is about getting to the moon, but Armstrong’s “small step” required a sequence of many, many other steps ahead of it. We see some of the details, like the rigors of preparation (hang on for the “Multi-Axis Trainer,” a vomit-inducing beast that looks like cross between a giant gyroscope and a crazy carnival ride). We get an understanding of the prodigious engineering feats as well as on-the-fly, make-or-break decisions that go into missions—and the many things that can go wrong. We learn of the fatal setbacks, and the public opposition to such high-dollar, risky science.

Film Title: First Man

Jason Clarke

There’s a pack of other astronauts swirling around as NASA scrambles to gets its Gemini and Apollo programs off the ground (literally) ahead of the Soviets in the space race. Jason Clarke plays Ed White, the first American to walk in space. Corey Stoll is motor-mouthed Buzz Aldrin. Lukas Haas portrays Michael Collins, and Shea Whigham is Gus Grissom, one of the original Mercury 7, the first group of solo astronauts. Kyle Chandler is Deke Slayton, also a Mercury 7 alum, now promoted to head NASA’s astronaut program.

And all are there to shore up the story around Gosling, who internalizes everything and distills it into an epic hero’s journey. Chazelle’s stupendous space saga—about America’s most significant astral achievement of all time—is grounded in a down-to-earth, existential tale of a man struggling to connect with his wife, his family and their children and his earthly life, even as—especially as—he zooms off to the moon.

The spectacular recreation of the lunar landing sequence, and Armstrong’s historic moonwalk, is punctuated with an immensely moving personal touch you never saw on TV. And the poignant ending of First Man suggests that sometimes, even when your job takes you on a trip of 478,000 miles, the journey you face when you return may be even longer, and much harder.

Like Chazelle’s La La Land, the lingering overtones of First Man aren’t celebratory, but something much more somber, reflective and meditative. It may not be the rah-rah, American-pie, flag-waving, space-race victory lap everyone’s expecting, but Chazelle and Gosling’s masterful moon movie is an out-of-this-world blast in a class all its own.

In theaters Oct. 12, 2018

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Star Maker

Lady Gaga Shines in Bradley Cooper’s Sensational Directorial Debut 

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A Star is Born
Starring Bradley Cooper & Lady Gaga
Directed by Bradley Cooper
R

In theaters Oct. 5, 2018

What’s that sound?

It might be the early Oscar buzz for this film, which has already wowed audiences and critics at key film festivals that often point the way to the Academy Awards.

With A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper makes the leap to directing, as well as starring in the soaring, song-filled saga about a ragged superstar musician (Cooper) who falls for a younger, much greener singer-songwriter, played by Lady Gaga.

That “sound” might also be the tinnitus, the ringing in the ears of Jackson Maine, Cooper’s character. Combined with raging alcoholism and drug use, it’s put a serious drag on his once-thriving career—at the very moment he happens to meet Ally (Gaga), performing in an East Village drag bar, where Jackson has ducked in to get even more sloshed after a show.

Their eyes meet, their hearts sync and pretty soon they’re making music together, in more ways than one.

The sound you’re hearing could also be the songs—elemental, essential building blocks of the movie. But Cooper’s A Star is Born isn’t a musical; it’s a character-driven drama about two people who live and breathe music. The songs—almost all of them written originally for the film, and some by Gaga herself—become passionate, purposeful swaths of the story.

A-Star-Is-Born-5-72And Gaga, in her knockout debut leading movie role, sings the heck out of them. Cooper gives much of the spotlight to her, and she shines in a spectacular, rags-to-riches performance. We watch Ally emerge (we see her in the opening scene, literally, strolling past trash dumpsters in an alley) from her lowly street life to a become a dazzling, media-sensation pop princess.

Gaga built a real-life entertainment career out of being a popster chameleon, and part of the bedazzlement of her portrayal of Ally here is seeing her “bare,” with all that artifice and masquerade stripped away—down to her talent, her voice.

In one early scene, Jackson, fascinated by her fake eyebrows, wants to peel them off to reveal the real her. She tells him she’s always been self-conscious of her looks, in particular her big nose. “Your nose is beautiful,” he says, delicately caressing it with his finger.

In the movie’s many gorgeous, sweeping close-ups of Jackson and Ally’s faces, you see plenty of that beautiful nose—plus their lovely eyes, and their tears, when it comes to that.

Because, of course, what good is any love story that doesn’t give a good ol’ yank to the heartstrings? And this one has at least one major yank some folks might know is coming, especially if they’re familiar with how it’s been told before. A Star is Born was originally a movie in 1937 (with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March), 1955 (Judy Garland and James Mason) and 1976 (Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson).

As Ally’s star rises and burns brighter and hotter, Jackson’s flickers and falters. Will her success eclipse his? Can their love survive? Is there a way she can save Jackson on his road of self-destruction?

A STAR IS BORN

The movie gets so many of the modern musical details right, from backstage scenes, limo rides and private airplanes to songwriting and recording sessions and live performances. It drills down into the business of music without ever losing the human touch around which the story evolves and revolves.

As an actor-director, Cooper shows particularly strong promise, with an eye for solid craftsmanship and visual detail and a willingness to let his co-stars shine. A scene at an awards show is a particular standout, when a drunken Jackson stumbles onto the stage to join Ally, accepting her trophy, in front of a giant, pixelated screen image of themselves.

We all knew Lady Gaga could sing; she’s sold more than 27 million albums, recorded and toured with Tony Bennett, performed at a Super Bowl halftime show and won six Grammys. She’s got some serious pipes. And if you saw her in her role as the Countess on the FX series American Horror Story: Hotel, you won’t be surprised to find out she can act. But A Star is Born is aptly titled—she has arrived. A movie star is born.

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Sam Elliott plays Billy, the brother of Cooper’s character, Jackson.

There are some outstanding supporting performances as well, including Andrew Dice Clay (as Ally’s father), Dave Chappelle (as Jackson’s buddy) and Sam Elliott, who provides a meaty layer of backstory family drama as Jackson’s older brother, Bobby, a former musician.

There are only 12 notes on the musical scale, Bobby says. Every song ever written uses those same tones, just arranged a different way. “It’s the same story told over and over, forever,” he tells Ally.

Watch A Star is Born and you’ll see a dynamic, dramatic spin on an old, forever love story, a sensational, stupendous, star-making performance by Lady Gaga, and a super-impressive directorial debut by Bradley Cooper—and you’ll hear what everyone else has been buzzing about.

In theaters Oct. 5, 2018

Moms, Martinis & a Missing Person

‘Gossip Girl,’ ‘Pitch Perfect’ Stars Plunge into Fun, Twisty Tale

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A Simple Favor
Starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively
Directed by Paul Feig
R

Something small and seemingly insignificant turns into something huge, tangled and terrifically complicated in this tale of a missing person…who may not be so missing at all.

Oh, sure, that sounds familiar. But you’ve never seen it played out quite like this—with a former Gossip Girl (Blake Lively) and the perky Pitch Perfect darling (Anna Kendrick) plunging deep into the murky, steamy noir.

Kendrick plays Stephanie, an over-achieving, work-from-home mommy blogger who develops an unlikely friendship with Emily (Lively), a glamorous, mysterious PR exec for a Manhattan designer.

Their young sons go to the same school, but they’re on totally opposite sides of the mommy spectrum; Emily wears stilettos to the playground, Stephanie shops for bargain socks by the bundle at Target. But they bond nonetheless over stiff martinis, French songs swirling on the stereo, saucy girl talk and spilled secrets in Emily’s bedazzling mansion.

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When Emily calls Stephanie one day and asks her for a “simple favor,” to pick up her son after school and keep him for the afternoon, it’s no big deal. But when Emily doesn’t come home that day, or the next, or even the next, Stephanie starts to worry that something may be wrong…

And boy, is she right!

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Henry Golding

Emily and Stephanie’s hunky writer-turned-professor husband, Sean (Henry Golding, hot off his other hit movie, Crazy Rich Asians), bond in their search for answers. But can she trust him—or resist his charms—especially after she catches him cozying up with one of his female students?

“Are you trying to Diabolique me?” Stephanie asks Sean at one point, a reference to the classic 1955 French film about a wife, a mistress and a murder—and a perfect alibi.

Stephanie puts on her Nancy Drew sleuthing hat and goes on the hunt, and one clue leads to another—a $4 million insurance policy, a crazy woman (Jean Smart), a wrist tattoo, a dead body in a lake, a massive nude painting, a struggling artist (Linda Cardellini), an old T-shirt, an heirloom ring, a burning house, a fatal car crash.

And especially in a movie like this, things aren’t always as they seem and the truth can be a slippery subject. There are certainly shadings of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train and other films where a woman has “disappeared” and the story is presented to the audience by an “unreliable narrator” who doesn’t have all the information. Like those movies, this one is also based on a best-selling novel, in this case by Darcey Bell.

ASF_D02_PI_00245.CR2Those kind of movies are typically pretty heavy and dark, but this one is definitely not—thanks to the spark, sizzle and snap of Kendrick and Lively, and to director Paul Feig, who brushes everything with brisk, confident comedic stokes honed from his previous work on Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters, The Heat and Spy. There are numerous laugh-out-loud moments, particularly when Kendrick is given room to romp—like scenes when she encounters a robotic office receptionist, gets “stuck” in one of Emily’s slinky dresses, or rocks out to a rap song in her car. She’s the feisty firecracker that makes this film pop with wit as well as wile.

A SIMPLE FAVORLively has appeared in several movies (The Deep, The Age of Adeline, All I See is You, Café Society) after Gossip Girl went off the air in 2012, but this role is her juiciest yet. Emily is beguiling, manipulative, dangerous, damaged, sexy, sad and seductive—and Lively seems to relish every moment she gets to explore each luscious, plum angle of her character’s personality.

Andrew Rannells (Elijah on TV’s Girls) has a campy part as a dad in Emily’s school moms group, and Bashir Salahuddin (referee Keith Bang on GLOW) plays a detective who pops into a couple of scenes. “I’m just following breadcrumbs wherever they lead,” he says.

Follow these breadcrumbs to your local theater and see A Simple Favor—a deliciously, deliriously twisty tale of moms, martinis and a far-out gone girl that’s way more fun than you’d likely ever expect.

In theaters Sept. 14, 2018

Hard Candy

Jennifer Garner Delivers Mixed Messages in Pulpy Revenge Drama

PEPPERMINTPeppermint
Starring Jennifer Garner, John Gallagher Jr. and John Ortiz
Directed by Pierre Morel
R

“What’s in your wallet?” That’s what Jennifer Garner wants to know in TV commercials for a popular credit card.

In her latest movie, she’s wants something else, and raises some much harder questions.

The title may suggest a sugar-sweet, candy-coated treat. But this flick is a violent, hardcore action revenge fantasy about a woman who takes the law into her own hands when her husband and daughter are killed in a drive-by shooting by members of a Mexican drug cartel.

Her daughter was eating a cone of peppermint ice cream when she died.

PEPPERMINT

Juan Pablo Raba plays a ruthless cartel boss.

The cartel members, affiliated with a powerful drug czar (Juan Pablo Raba) with connections everywhere—including the LAPD and the courts—are rounded up and arrested, but walk free from the courtroom.

Garner plays Riley North, who is also seriously injured in the shooting, and ordered to a psychiatric hospital to recover. But she escapes and disappears, reemerging five years later to find the men who killed her family and become their judge, jury and executioner.

And while she’s taking out the trash, so to speak, she does the same to a lot of other guys, too.

“What do you want?” one of her victims-to-be asks her. “I want justice,” Riley answers.

PEPPERMINTWe know when we see her, in the back of her beat-up van, closing up a gaping wound with a staple gun and duct tape, she means business. A couple of LAPD detectives (John Gallagher Jr. and John Ortiz) are always one step behind her.

This theme—of the citizen vigilante—has certainly been explored in movies before. Most famously, Charles Bronson launched the whole Death Wish franchise back in the 1970s, and the Taken series made Liam Neeson an action star. (French director Pierre Morel, who directed the first Taken, is also the director of Peppermint.)

The twist here is that it’s a woman—not Bronson, not Neeson, and not Denzel Washington, Clint Eastwood, Jamie Foxx, Keanu Reeves, or any one from a long list of other macho male Hollywood stars—doling out the deadly damage. But Garner isn’t exactly an out-of-nowhere choice. Remember she was a lethal weapon in the action-packed TV espionage series Alias from 2001 to 2006, playing double agent Sydney Bristow, a globe-trotting killing machine?

And she certainly hasn’t lost any of her, ahem, skills. I lost count of just how many guys are dispatched in Peppermint, but it’s certainly upward of 40. How many places can a guy be shot? Well, as Riley demonstrates, with an arsenal of weaponry that looks like a PSA for the NRA, there’s the face, the foot, the leg, the chest. They can also be stabbed, especially in the throat. Or crushed by a falling desk. Or blown to smithereens (with “explosive cord”).

PEPPERMINTIt’s not just the body count that might make you wince. The sight of a white woman laying waste to just about every Hispanic and Latino character she encounters doesn’t exactly align with what a lot people might think of as racial sensitivity, especially at a moment in time when tensions are heightened about issues of immigration and cultural assimilation.

Early in the movie, in a flashback, Riley tells her young daughter that it’s not OK to be a bully, because “then you’re just as bad as they are.” The movie can’t keep its messages straight; when Riley goes on her wholesale slaughter spree of cartel members, and everyone associated with them, doesn’t it make her “as bad” as they are?

Director Morel doesn’t do anything terribly original here; he’s working from a paint-by-numbers script and using stock characters that look and sound like they came straight from central casting. But he doesn’t have to do much; this is a red-meat movie for people who are fed up, like Riley. She’s lost her family, but a lot of other people are just fed up, and pent up, period, about, well…whatever. And maybe this will be like a big stress valve, a relief and release, like a vicarious shooting gallery. Watch Riley mess up the bad guys—bam, bam, bang, bang, stab, stab—and maybe you’ll feel a little better.

Or maybe not.

Peppermint won’t be for everybody. It’s pulpy, gritty, trashy and down-low, and its racial overtones are difficult to dismiss. But Jennifer Garner is a dead-serious “avenging angel,” action-flick fans will likely lap it up, and it’s a welcome, you-go-girl gender-twist on the format.

So…what’s in your wallet?

In theaters Sept. 7, 2018

Puppets Behaving Badly

Melissa McCarthy Stars in Raunchy Novelty Comedy 

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The Happytime Murders
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Elizabeth Banks & Bill Barretta
Directed by Brian Henson
R

Hey kids, wanna see a puppet show?

Well, stay away from this one—a crude, lewd comedy for grown-ups in which puppets smoke, drink, curse, snort drugs, visit porno shops and have sex.

Just like real people!

In The Happytime Murders, puppets and people coexist; but puppets are regarded as second-class citizens, and the “socks” are mostly segregated from the “meat bags.” The movie follows puppet P.I. Phil Phillips (voiced and animated by puppeteer Bill Barretta) as he investigates the mounting homicides among the former cast members of a 1980s puppet TV series, The Happytime Gang.

Melissa McCarthy stars in The Happytime MurdersPhil’s work brings him back in contact with his former LAPD partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). Several years ago, during their time together on the force, they were L.A.’s first human/cop team—and then an unfortunate on-the-job incident made them the last, and cost Phil his badge.

This all sounds like rather serious stuff, and it is—the movie’s basic framework follows traditional, familiar buddy-cop, film-noir formulas, and that’s its comedic setup. Then it puts puppets into it—puppets doing, and saying, the kind of raw, raunchy things “people” would say in R-rated, buddy-cop comedy-action movies.

As Phillips and Edwards weave their way into the city’s seedy puppet underbelly in search of a serial killer, they find a trail of puppet violence—puppets torn apart by dogs, or blasted into fluff by shotgun blasts—and encounter a spectrum of colorfully coarse characters. In the porno shop, Phil sees an octopus pleasuring a cow, and a dominatrix Dalmatian with a guy dressed as a fireman. Druggie puppets addicted to sugar snort pure sucrose in a “smack house.” A sexual tryst between two puppets ends in a…well, let’s just say you may never look at Silly String the same way again.

Elizabeth Banks stars in The Happytime Murders

Elizabeth Banks

Joel McHale plays an uptight FBI agent. Elizabeth Banks is an exotic dancer, and the only non-puppet former member of the Happytime TV cast. Maya Rudolph is Phil’s longtime assistant. Leslie David Baker (Stanley from TV’s The Office) is continually flustered as Edwards’ police lieutenant. Watch for McCarthy’s husband, Ben Falcone, in a quick cameo.

It’s grim and grimy…but it’s also twistedly funny, full of quips, a parade of puppet oddities, crisp one-liners and some caustic comedic sight gags. (Despite the talents of its capable cast, not every joke works, and a couple land with deadening thuds.) Director Brian Henson, the son of late puppeteering pioneer Jim Henson, certainly knows his stuff; he came out of Muppet land and directed the G-rated Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island flicks.

The Happytime MurdersThe movie comes from an “adult” offshoot of the Henson production company, Henson Alternative. The film’s production company was sued, unsuccessfully, earlier this year, by the producers of Sesame Street, to stop The Happytime Murders from using the tagline “No Sesame. All Street.”

No one should worry about anyone being confused about that; the freakish, four-letter funk of Happytime is a long way from the sunshine and smiles of Sesame Street. But the puppeteering expertise is certainly there, as you’ll see in the end-credits montage, which reveals some of the behind-the-scenes moviemaking magic. And many of the film’s richly experienced puppeteers—including the director and Barretta—have pedigrees that extend, in fact, all the way back through The Muppets and Sesame Street.

There are several words you might use to describe what you see. Shocking, tasteless and disgusting could be among them. On the other hand, you might think it’s hilarious, wickedly original and crazily quirky. Comedy is like that, especially when it dares to push toward the edges; some people are going to get pushed off.

But I’m hanging on. I dug the dirty jokes, off-kilter humor and subversive spin on a crazy world with puppets and humans trying to make their way together. It may not be for everybody now, but give it time, and I predict this nasty, naughty novelty will eventually keep adding to its crowd of dig-it devotees.

In theaters Aug. 24, 2018

Asian Invasion

Constance Wu Headlines All-Asian Cast in Can’t-Miss Summer Rom-Com

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Crazy Rich Asians
Starring Constance Wu, Henry Golding & Michelle Yeoh
Directed by Jon M. Chu
PG-13

This splendid, wildly sumptuous wedding-themed romantic comedy is, as the saying goes, something old, something new.

It’s as old as a fairy tale and as new as the history it’s making, as the first major Hollywood movie in more than 25 years with an all-Asian cast. And it’s got all the ingredients to be the big date-movie comedy of the summer—waves upon waves of humor and heart, gorgeous characters, a fabulous setting and a story that resonates across time and place.

Director Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s best-selling 2013 novel centers around Rachel (Constance Wu, fresh off TV’s Fresh Off the Boat), an economics professor at NYU. Her history-teacher boyfriend, Nick (Henry Golding), wants her to return with him to Singapore to attend the wedding of his best friend.

It’ll be a great way for Rachel to meet his family and see his home turf, Nick says.

Rachel has no idea that Nick’s family is practically royalty in Singapore, where they’re a real-estate dynasty that owns much of the island republic. They are insanely wealthy, crazy-rich.

Raised by a single mother, Rachel is stunned to find out that Nick is basically “the Prince William of Asia.” The movie unfolds as she (and the audience) gets to know her Prince Charming’s relatives and friends—and gets her bearings among the ultrarich and famous.

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Yeoh, Golding & Wu

But she’s not exactly welcomed with open arms. Nick’s mother, Eleanor (the great Michelle Yeoh, best remembered from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and as the “Bond girl” in Tomorrow Never Dies) not only puts the chill on Rachel, she openly disapproves. American-born Rachel is Chinese-American, not fully Chinese—and Eleanor tells her she’ll never be good enough for her son. And Nick’s scheming ex-girlfriends and jealous wannabes all want to send the “commoner” packing.

Do Nick and Rachel stand a chance, with the odds—and the force of his family—stacked against them? Don’t count the commoner out.

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Awkwafina & Wu

Thank goodness Rachel can turn for support to an old college friend, Peik Lin, who’s played with spritely glee by rapper-actress Awkwafina (from Ocean’s 8), who becomes her comedic sidekick, consultant and advisor.

The movie is a swirl of supporting characters, and it’s sometimes hard to keep up. Gemma Chan (from AMC’s TV series Humans) is Astrid, Nick’s beautiful, big-hearted cousin, whose mega-money can’t cover the cracks in her own crumbling marriage. Ken Jeong (from the Hangover movies and TV’s Dr. Ken) plays Peik Lin’s father, whose family’s “newer” affluence is a crass comedic clash with the older, much more established wealth of Nick’s family. Jimmy O. Yang (from Silicon Valley), plays one of Nick’s old classmates, throwing a randy bachelor party that defines toxic male excess.

But at this core of any Cinderella story is, of course, Cinderella. And Wu is terrific in her first leading movie role, bringing the audience along for every magical moment of feisty Rachel’s emotional journey. She’s now officially a movie star.

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The movie is a sensory feast, a buffet of couture, customs, cuisine and mind-boggling over-the-top opulence. Wanna see a $40 million wedding? Hear a Madonna song sung in Cantonese? Sit in on a dumpling-making session? Go on a wild island shopping spree? It’s like being suddenly transported to the other side of the world in a frothy, fizzy explosion—and exploration—of culture, history and impossibly high-rolling lifestyle. There are themes of family, friendship and tradition woven into a heartwarming love story about belonging, assimilating and accepting.

A celebratory tale of two cultures coming together, it’s a fresh twist on a familiar rom-com format, set in an exotic place that few Americans have ever been, featuring a cast that signals a major milestone for Asians and Asian-Americans—who rarely see themselves depicted on screen in such a positive, diverse, non-stereotypical way.

In the movie, we’re told that Nick’s wedding, whenever it happens, would be the “event of the century.” Crazy Rich Asians is a major movie event of the summer. You’d be crazy to miss it.

In theaters Aug. 15, 2018

Up From the Depths

Jason Statham wrangles a mega-chunk of summer-movie shark cheese

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The Meg
Starring Jason Statham, Rainn Wilson, Bingbing Li & Ruby Rose
Directed by John Turteltaub
PG-13

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” said stunned Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) when he got his first glimpse of the shark in Jaws back in 1975.

A much bigger boat, indeed, is what’s needed in The Meg, about a much, much, much bigger shark—a prehistoric behemoth, nearly 100 feet long, that could swallow up the great white from Jaws like a sliver of sushi.

Based on Steve Alten’s 1997 science-fiction novel about the discovery of a “living fossil” in the Pacific’s Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans, the movie is built around British action star Jason Statham as rugged rescue diver Jonas Taylor, called back into duty when the Megaladon—long believed to be extinct—rises from the depths to terrorize the seas.

Turns out Taylor has met Megaladon before—and it made him vow to never go in the water again…

Director Jon Turteltaub came up through the Disney system, most notably with National Treasure and its sequel, Book of Secrets. He’s got a light, breezy touch—golly-whopping action and effects; easy on the violence; a wholesome sprinkle of romance and flirtation; B-movie quips and banter; and laughs to go along with the gasps. The Meg is nothing that will make anyone’s year-end awards list, but it’s certainly a mega-chunk of summer-movie shark cheese.

In addition to Statham, the movie features a cast of international players from all over the globe. A co-production between American and Chinese companies, it was obviously made with plans to extend its box-office “bite” far beyond the territorial waters of the United States.

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Bingbing Li

Chinese actress Bingbing Li plays an oceanic researcher with a precocious young daughter (the scene-stealing newcomer Shuya Sophia Cai) and a supportive scientist father (Taiwanese actor Winston Chao). Australian Robert Taylor (star of TV’s Longmire) plays a doctor. There are two other Aussies, model-turned-actress Ruby Rose and Jessica McNamee (she was tennis player Margaret Court in the 2017 movie Battle of the Sexes), Japan’s Masi Oka (Max on Hawaii Five-0), and New Zealand’s Cliff Curtis (Travis on Fear the Walking Dead). You might recognize Page Kennedy (Gerald from TV’s Rush Hour). Rainn Wilson, best known as Dwight from TV’s The Office, plays an American billionaire who doesn’t want the Meg jeopardizing his research investment.

But the biggest star, so to speak, is the shark. The Meg is a real beast, a computer-generated colossus the size of a battleship, and the movie has some serious fun when it finally goes on the loose. If you think seeing a shark fin in the water is scary, wait until you see one as tall as a house slicing through the chop. If you gasped when the shark in Jaws leapt out of the water, just wait until…well, just wait.

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The legacy of Jaws looms large over any shark flick, and The Meg certainly gives Steven Spielberg’s 1975 opus a big tip of its enormous fin. That’s particularly true for a big—there’s that word again—beach scene, when the Meg cruises China’s Sanya Bay packed with hundreds of frolickers enjoying the surf, sand and sun. Who’ll become chum? The tubby kid with the popsicle? The little dog that fell overboard? The doofus running in the water ball? Those horndog boys wooing the raft of bikini-clad girls?

Oh, the dread! The horror! The shark show!

And what a shark show it is, with high-tech underwater gizmos meeting elemental, old-school vendettas and legends and lore from the bowels of the Earth and, well, practically the beginning of time. When Statham’s character, Jonas—it’s hard to miss how close that name is to Jonah, who, you know, got famously swallowed by a whale—goes mano-a-mano with his nemesis, he’s going full Moby Dick, harpoon and Ahab and all.

Meg 5

Shuya Sophia Cal and Statham

The plot can barely stay afloat, logic flies all over the place and character development is as shallow as the ocean is deep. And the movie seems kind of stuck in a PG-13 limbo, between what could have been a gutsier, bloodier, gonzo R rating, and a more Disney-fied, hokier, jokier, family-friendly adventure. (There’s even a subtle Finding Nemo reference.) It ends up feeling rather neutered, like something awesome, powerful and truly terrifying has been throttled back, tamped down and packaged as mass entertainment for wide consumption.

Which, of course, is exactly what it is.

“That thing is the devil!” one character says, watching anxiously as the Meg trails his watercraft. Hardly. But The Meg is one hellishly huge fish fix for pop-culture shark fans. TV’s “Shark Week” is over. Summer’s coming to a close. So c’mon in—the water’s not exactly fin-tastic, but it sure does make a massive movie splash.

In theaters Aug. 10, 2018

Black Dynamite

Incendiary history lesson exposes ugly truths about racism in America

BlacKkKlansmanBlacKkKlansman
Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver & Laura Harrier
Directed by Spike Lee
R
In theaters Aug. 10, 2018

That’s not a typo—there’s an extra “k” in there, between “Black” and “Klansman.”

Director Spike Lee’s new movie, his 30th feature film, is the wildly true tale of a black Colorado cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, the KKK, in the 1970s.

Lee has never pulled punches with his films, like Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, She’s Gotta Have It, Mo’ Better Blues, School Daze and the Oscar-nominated Do the Right Thing. You never leave one of his movies wondering where he’s coming from, what he means, or what you’re supposed to think.

BlacKkKlansman is a straight-up, fire-breathing story about the long, painful scar of racism in America.

John David Washington (he’s the son of actor Denzel Washington) plays Ron Stallworth, who becomes the first police detective “of color” in Colorado Springs in 1972.

Working his way out of the file room, rookie Stallworth soon lands a much more interesting assignment. Cold-calling a recruitment ad in back of the local newspaper for the Klan, he impersonates a white racist on the phone and sets up a meeting to learn more about how he can join.

Of course, this presents a problem—since Stallworth is black. So the police chief (Robert John Burke, from TV’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) pairs him with another, more seasoned—white—detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), and the two of them become “one.” Flip will be the fake Ron that actually meets the Klan in person; the real Ron will continue to cultivate sources over the phone, take photos and gather intel.

So, if you’re keeping score: Stallworth is black, Zimmerman is Jewish, and they “doubly disguise” themselves to dupe the most dangerously racist organization in America—from the inside.

BlacKkKlansman

John David Washington and Laura Harrier

It sounds crazy and absurd, but it all really happened—as told in Stallworth’s 2014 memoir (Black Klansman) on which the movie is based. Lee sets everything up with juicy, funky, ’70s retro detail, and there are touches of humor and sweetness and light to leaven the toxic bigotry at the dark heart of the story, especially in scenes between Ron and Patrice (Laura Harrier, who played high-schooler Liz in Spider-Man: Homecoming), the passionate local soul sister and civil rights organizer who has no idea he’s really an undercover cop.

The movie really kicks into gear when Flip meets the Klan—or “The Organization,” as they prefer to call it. Walter (Ryan Eggold, Tom Keen on TV’s The Blacklist) is the local leader, reminding attendees at a weekly meeting that, for the next cross burnings, “the highest hills get the most eyes.” As the sloth-like Ivanhoe, Paul Walter Hauser lets it slip that he actually likes Sammy Davis Jr., because he can dance. Nicholas Turturro plays an explosives expert, brought in covertly for a special occasion. Felix (Finnish actor Jasper Pååkkönen, who plays Hafdan the Black on Vikings) smells a rat—or more specifically, a Jew.

BlacKkKlansman

Topher Grace

There are some tense moments when Felix tries to hook Flip up to a “Jew” detector polygraph, and when Flip and Ron risk exposure by bumbling facts of their fabricated story. Everything builds to an explosive climax, an event with a young Klan Grand Wizard-to-be David Duke (Topher Grace) at which both the real Ron and the fake Ron/Flip are present.

Alec Baldwin opens the film as a racist “intellectual” raging about the “mongrel race” of “black beasts” and “Jewish-controlled puppets” on the Supreme Court. Toward the end of the movie, musical legend Harry Belafonte plays a speaker addressing a rapt civil rights rally crowd, telling the true story of Jesse Washington, a young black man who was horrifically lynched in Texas in 1916 after being accused of raping a white woman.

Corey Hawkins (Eric Carter on TV’s 24: Legacy) galvanizes an audience as black activist Stokely Carmichael, nè Kwame Ture, forcefully reminding them that Uncle Sam wants to send young black men to fight and die in Viet Nam, while cops are shooting them (“in the back!”) in the streets.

The movie is set in the early 1970s, but make no mistake—director Lee draws a scalding, shameful timeline from America’s past to its present. He uses clips from director D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915)—a seminal but controversial and wildly racist film, one that glorified the origin of the Klan and demonized blacks—and Gone With the Wind, which hyper-romanticized the downfall of South and slavery, all to the wistful tune of Dixie.

Lee incorporates footage of the deadly 2017 white nationalists rally in Charlottesburg, Va. (“Jews will not replace us!”), and a clip of modern-day David Duke aligning himself with President Trump, who proclaimed that there were “good people” on both sides of the event.

And when Duke rallies his faithful with the phrase “America first,” it rings as a harrowing reminder of where audiences have heard it most recently elsewhere—used by the current Commander in Chief as his mantra in his inaugural address, and repeated as his diplomatic policy.

One of the movie’s producers is Jordan Peele. You might recall that he was the director of last year’s Get Out, in which a young black man finds himself trapped in a racist nightmare. BlacKkKlansman is about a nightmare of another kind, an ugly national one, in which America has been mired, one way or another, since its beginning.

BlacKkKlansmanIn one scene, Flip and Ron discuss their differences about their assignment. “For you, it’s a crusade—for me, it’s a job,” Flip tells him. Ron counters by pressing Flip about his Jewish background, about why what he’s seeing and hearing, in the actual physical presence of such hateful spew from such noxious characters, doesn’t bug him.

“Why you actin’,” Ron asks him, “like you ain’t got no skin in the game?”

That’s a question Lee’s powerful, potent gut-punch of a movie asks us all, no matter what color our skin might be.

Hot Rock

Dewayne Johnson Rocks Classic Disaster-Flick Mojo

Film Title: Skyscraper

Skyscraper
Starring Dwayne Johnson & Neve Campbell
Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber
PG-13

 

After leaving the wrestling ring for the silver screen more than a decade ago, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has confronted a battalion of beasties, bad guys and boogiemen on his way to becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest, most dependable box-office draws.

In his latest action-thriller, he channels the mojo of classic 1970s and ’80s big-screen disaster-epic, danger dramas, fighting to rescue his wife and kids from inside the world’s tallest hotel that’s been set on fire by terrorists.

In Skyscraper, Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a former U.S. Marine and FBI hostage negotiator now working as a security consultant—the movie’s opening sequence shows us the tragedy, 10 years ago, that cost him half of a leg and made him vow to “lay down his sword.” Sawyer has just landed a plum assignment, overseeing all the security and safety systems for the Pearl, a new, high-tech, 240-story Hong Kong skyscraper that’s three times taller than the Empire State Building.

Film Title: Skyscraper

Chin Han

A news reporter breathlessly aligns the Pearl and its billionaire builder, Zhao Long (Chin Han), to humankind’s ancient “quest to reach the sky” and the construction of the biblical Tower of Babel. Hmmm—and that story didn’t turn out so well, did it?

Film Title: Skyscraper

Neve Campbell

Naturally, there’s a villain—a nest of them. Of course: They want something, and they’re willing to kill to get it. Of course: Sawyer’s wife (Neve Campbell, whose role becomes much more than just a spousal second banana) and two young kids are caught in the middle of it all. And, yes: Sawyer’s on the outside of the skyscraper, his family is inside, and everything’s on fire.

And Sawyer’s been framed for starting it!

Then things really get cooking.

“A 6.5-billion-dollar chimney,” proudly proclaims one of the terrorists as he disables the Pearl’s fire-safety systems, allowing the roaring blaze to spread throughout the tower.

All of this is just so much smoke, sizzle and setup, however, for what audiences really came to see: The Rock springing into action, flinging his wall of movie muscle against an obstacle as formidable as the tallest structure on the planet. Just to make things interesting—don’t forget—he’s only got one “good” leg.

And he’s on the wanted list of the entire Chinese police force, especially a couple of top cops (Bryon Mann and Elfina Luk) who are suspicious about why anyone would want to try to break in to a burning building.

Film Title: Skyscraper

But don’t ever bet against the Rock. And don’t overthink things or you’ll get caught up in the impossible physics of how a guy with a prosthetic leg can climb up the outside of a giant construction crane, smash a hole in the hotel—then leap into the air, pulling himself into the building by his fingertips…of one hand!

And I knew duct tape was pretty amazing stuff—but I never knew that, turned inside-out, it could help me cling to the outside of a building. (Not that I’ll be trying it, though!)

Film Title: Skyscraper

Roland Moller

Can Sawyer rescue his family, clear himself, turn the tables on the terrorists, especially their coldly vicious leader (Danish actor Roland M⦰ller, who also played bad-guy roles in The Commuter and Atomic Blonde)—and figure out why everyone is so nuts about a little bitty computer drive?

Neither a sequel nor a superhero saga—two of the most common big-screen options these days—this is the kind of gonzo, go-for-it standalone action movie that Hollywood typically doesn’t make anymore. Decades ago, it might have been a Bruce Willis movie, an Arnold Schwarzenegger romper-stomper or a Jean-Claude Van Damme flick. Skyscraper tips its tall, towering hat to those macho-movie icons of yesteryear, and to classic disaster-danger epics like The Towering Inferno, Die Hard and Cliffhanger.

It’s a sky-high stack of cheese, sure, but it’s pretty good cheese, especially for a lite summer snack. Director Rawson Marshall Thurber—whose resume includes Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and We’re The Millers, plus working with Johnson in the comedy Central Intelligence—keeps things moving briskly enough that there’s not really much time to dwell on the preposterous plot and sometimes stilted dialogue that pad the spaces between the Rock doing what everyone really comes to see the Rock do.

“This is stupid,” says Sawyer nervously as he heads out a smashed window of the Pearl, into the night and the wind, thousands of feet above the streets of Hong Kong, on one wild part of his crazy, life-risking mission. What sane person would, under any circumstance, ever do a thing like that? Sawyer knows it’s stupid. We know it’s stupid.

And the Rock knows it’s stupid—and exactly what we want to see, what we came to see, what has made him Hollywood’s $3.3 billion man.

So go on out that window, DJ, leap from that crane, dangle from that ledge with your fingertips—and Rock on!

In theaters July 13, 2018

Honey, I Shrunk the Superhero

Paul Rudd & Evangeline Lilly Couple Up For Big Fun  

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Ant-Man and The Wasp
Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas and Michael Peña
Directed by Peyton Reed
PG-13

It’s easy for a character to get lost in the superhero shuffle, especially one as small as, well, an ant.

It’s hard to compete with the cosmic roar of Thor, the monstrous bulk of the Hulk or the red-white-and-blue rah-rah of Captain America—especially when you’re the size of an insect.

But Ant-Man earned his place in the Marvel movie lineup back in 2015, with a unique, breezy mix of humor and heroics, as we were introduced to Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a petty thief mentored by a scientist (Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man and a former member of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel’s top-secret espionage agency). Pym developed technology that could shrink things on a molecular level to teeny-tiny, or balloon them to giant size.

He trained Lang to become the new Ant-Man.

Lighter, leaner, more brisk and so much brighter than many of its weighty superhero-blockbuster counterparts, the frisky Ant-Man and the Wasp—as its title suggests—significantly adds a new main character to the mix…sort of. The Wasp is Hank’s daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly, returning from the first film). Lilly, whom you’ll likely remember as the breakout castaway Kate on the TV series Lost, breaks out here as the first female character to ever get her name in the title of a Marvel movie.

nullBut Lilly’s Wasp wasn’t the first Wasp—that would be her mother, we’re reminded, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), who shrank down so small, 30 years ago, she was absorbed into the “quantum realm” and could not return. Pym (Michael Douglas, also reprising his role) thinks Janet could still be alive, somewhere in there…out there. The new movie hinges on a plan for Lang, Pym and Van Dyne to engineer a way to retrieve her.

Sounds easy enough—especially for scientists and superheroes, right?

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Walton Goggins

It would be a lot easier if Lang wasn’t confined to his home, under house arrest—wearing an ankle bracelet and serving out his sentence for Ant-Man’s violation of world peace treaties, as depicted in Captain America: Civil War. Things are also complicated by the slick slime ball Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a black-market tech trafficker who sees dollar signs in Pym’s gizmos. Hannah John-Kamen (she was Ornela on Game of Thrones) is Ghost, a mysterious “villainess” with fearsome powers to phase-shift matter to pass through solid objects, and her own reasons for desperately needing to know Pym’s secrets of the quantum realm.

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Hannah John-Kamen

Michael Peña returns as Luis, Lang’s former cellmate, now running a struggling security firm and longing for a superhero suit of his own. Laurence Fishburne plays Bill Foster, Pym’s former colleague—and rival. Randall Park is Jimmy Woo, the hapless S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in charge of trying to keep tabs on Lang. Abby Ryder Fortson is adorable, once again, as Lang’s young daughter. Judy Greer play’s his ex-wife, and Bobby Cannavale is her cop fiancé.

Naturally, there’s the obligatory cameo by Stan Lee. And stay for the credits to see how everything ties into the bigger Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, particularly how it links to Avengers: Infinity War.

It’s a lot—a lot of characters, a lot of plot, a lot going on. But the chemistry between Lilly and Rudd has real snap, crackle, pop, spark, sizzle and shine; it’s the bright dawn of a new superhero couple. And returning director Peyton Reed keeps the pathway clear for plenty of laughs as the action rips, zips and romps all over San Francisco—and all kinds of things keep shrinking, including automobiles and even an entire office building, which gets carted around like a rolling suitcase. There are some swell running jokes about closeup magic, a World’s Greatest Grandma trophy, undercarriage washes, truth serum and the fabled Slavic witch Baba Yaga.

nullEveryone will be able to relate to Lang’s comedic frustration when his Ant-suit goes on the fritz and he can’t control when it will zap him down to a speck or swell him up to a colossus. There’s a particularly funny scene when he gets shrunk down to kid-size in a school; in another, he’s a towering titan who uses a flatbed truck as a scooter.

Rudd, so adept at playing an everyman, is once again perfect for his part—a normal guy, a good guy who didn’t set out to be a hero, but who can’t imagine not doing the right thing. A guy constantly overwhelmed by all the gee-whiz science that allows him to do so many cool things, big and small—even if he doesn’t understand all the talk about quantum anomalies, quantum phasing, quantum spectrometers and quantum entanglement.

“Do you guys just put the word ‘quantum’ in front of everything?” he asks at one point.

No matter your size or your grasp of science or superheroes, Ant Man and the Wasp is pure quantum fun.

In theaters July 6, 2018