Spandex Superfriends

Better luck next time, Batman

Marquee_LeagueUp_72

Justice League
Starring Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Henry Cavill & Ray Fisher
Directed by Zack Snyder
PG-13

Picking up where Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice ended in 2016, Justice League begins on a somber note.

Superman is buried and in the ground, killed in a colossal battle at the end of the previous movie, and the world mourns its loss. A large “S” banner hangs in memorial from a bridge in Gotham City. Crusading reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) has lost her spunk for journalism. Clark Kent’s widowed mother (Diane Lane) has lost the family farm to the bank.

Evil has seeped into the Man of Steel’s absence. Terrorists try to blow up London. A street hoodlum kicks over a vendor’s cart of oranges! And a cosmic mega-threat has come to Earth—an ancient god called Steppenwolf with a major grudge against the planet.

What are the world’s good guys to do?

HARWOOD

Gal Gadot is Diana Prince/Wonder Woman

As DC Comics fans know, the Justice League is the union of spandex superfriends formed by some of the top stars of the franchise, including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Aquaman. The League made its first appearance in the comics in 1960 and has been popping up in pulp, on television and in videogames ever since. But this marks its official, big-screen debut.

As with everything in today’s interlinked comic-book franchise flicks, the seeds for Justice League were planted along the way. Batman (Ben Affleck), Superman (Henry Cavill), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the Flash (Ezra Miller) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) all appeared previously in in Batman v Superman, and Gadot starred in her own smash spinoff earlier this year. She’s clearly the franchise’s new superstar.

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Jason Momoa is Aquaman

Justice League is a creative hybrid. Director Zack Snyder, who also steered Cavill’s first Superman movie, Man of Steel, as well as Batman v Superman, had to exit the film (due to the suicide of his daughter) before it was completed. He handed over the reins to screenwriter Joss Whedon to finish. (Whedon is the director of The Avengers, the superhero-team franchise from Marvel Comics, DC’s competitor, featuring Thor, the Hulk, Captain America and Iron Man.) Snyder likes theatrical, lumbering, grandiose pomp, wham and wallop; Whedon prefers his booms seasoned with lighter, brighter shades of snarky, sharp-witted banter and color.

The mixture of darkness and light gives Justice League a certain sputter-y fizz that never quite builds into a full steam. Despite a script full of quips and Whedon’s extra juicing of wit, the movie remains a crowded bombast of effects that overwhelm and swamp the actors, especially in action scenes like the do-or-die horseback romp on Wonder Woman’s home island, a battle royale in a tunnel underneath the Hudson River, and segments when the air is filled with swarms of hissing, fanged, locust-like Parademons—imagine the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz with major weaponry upgrades.

We learn very little about the characters who make up the League other than what we might have known before. Aquaman is a burly, heavy-drinking, ocean-dwelling loner from the ancient kingdom of Atlantis who can do serious damage with his trident. (“You really talk to fishes?” Batman asks him.) Cyborg (Ray Fisher) is a former high school football star QB turned into a weaponized cybernetic mutant after an experiment went awry.

HAR_DM_FIRST LOOK RND F04And the Flash steals the show—runs away with it, you might say. He’s zippy and geeky and can’t believe he’s getting to hang with in the Bat Cave with Batman and Wonder Woman, and it’s only a matter of time before he gets his own flick. (2020, in fact.) Aquaman is getting his own movie, too, in 2018.

When a comic book hits the screen, there’s almost always another movie.

We get far too little of J.K. Simmons, stepping into the part of Gotham’s new Commissioner Gordon. He gets to fire up the Bat Signal, but that’s about it. Jeremy Irons returns for more wry commentary as butler Alfred. And while D.C. is handing out movies, why not just go ahead and give one to Wonder Woman’s kick-ass warrior-goddess mom, Amazonian Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen)?

As a villain, Steppenwolf (voiced by the Irish actor Ciaràn Hinds) provides ho-hum, run-of-the-mill CGI menace. With a horned helmet, booming voice and glowing red axe, he looks like something that stepped off a 1980s Molly Hatchet album cover. He wants to collect the three ancient “Mother Boxes” that will let him destroy the world, then rebuild it. Oh, really? Again? Armageddon is getting so yesterday.

If only the Man of Steel were around to help sweep up this mess. Anyone who saw Superman v Batman will recall how that movie ended, with Clark Kent’s coffin moving ever so slightly after all the mourners left the cemetery. Hmmm…

Justice League opens with a cell-phone video of Superman, taken by a couple of kids, in which he explains to them the logo on his chest. It’s not really an “S,” he says, but the symbol back on Krypton, his home planet, for hope. He says that hope is like a lost set of car keys; if you keep looking, you’ll find it.

DC geeks may feel like they’ll find in Justice League what they lost—what faded away in the dark, dismal and roundly drubbed Batman v Superman. But I’m going to keep looking, and keep hoping. Maybe another movie, maybe next time. Because there will be another movie, and there will be a next time.

In theaters Nov. 17, 2017

 

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Christmas Dad-o-Rama

Wahlberg & Farrell double down on the doofus dad jokes in sequel

DADDY'S HOME 2

Daddy’s Home 2
Starring Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson & John Lithgow
Directed by Sean Anders
PG-13

If two feuding fathers are funny, four’s gotta be even funnier…right?

That’s the movie math behind the holiday hijinks of this sequel to the 2015 comedy, which starred Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as a stepfather and a biological dad battling for the attention of their kids.

At the end of the first movie, sweet, sensitive Brad (Ferrell) had rubbed off some of the rough, raw edges of brusque, macho Dusty (Wahlberg) and they had made their peace with each other as “co-dads.” Daddy’s Home 2 opens with a warm, fuzzy scene of the two of them sharing carpooling duties, happily swapping off their kids at the park and chatting about the school’s upcoming Christmas pageant.

Ah, Christmas!

The kids, it seems, love all the presents they get from two sets of parents. But they’re not so happy about being so split apart, shuttled between homes and houses, at the one time of year when families are supposed to be together. So Brad and Rusty come up with an idea: one big “together Christmas” with all the kids and all the parents and stepparents in one house, at one time!

Brilliant! Then both Dusty’s dad and Brad’s dad (Mel Gibson and John Lithgow) show up for last-minute Christmas visits, which really makes it a together Christmas—and kick the movie into high comedy gear.

DADDY'S HOME 2

John Lithgow plays Don, the father of Brad (Will Ferrell).

Both old pros, Gibson—famed for starring in the original Mad Max franchise, three Lethal Weapon flicks, The Patriot and Braveheart, and for his directing as well—and Lithgow—whose 100-plus acting credits include the acclaimed current Netflix series The Crown, in which he stars as Winston Churchill—are hoots and almost steal the show from the top-billed franchise stars. Gibson’s character, Kurt, is an old-school, sarcastic, alpha-male-bulldog Lothario, a former astronaut who tries to warm up to his grandkids with a joke about dead hookers. And you can certainly see where Brad got all his warmth and thoughtfulness: Don (Lithgow) is yappy, ever-happy optimistic, super-sentimental, always ready with hugs, kisses, corny jokes and a pocket full of homemade cookies.

DADDY'S HOME 2

Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vacarro and Didi Costine

This holiday cocktail of a mismatched family—as dads, stepdads, granddads and step-granddads all learn to get along—also features kids from the first film. Young Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vacarro and Didi Costine have their own little step-sib subplot that involves young love, getting into forbidden eggnog and switching up traditional gender roles.

Writer-director Sean Anders also directed the first film (along with Horrible Bosses 2) and wrote screenplays for We’re The Millers, Hot Tub Time Machine, Dumb and Dumber To and Mr. Popper’s Penguins. He knows funny, and Daddy’s Home 2 has a lot of it. An inventive sequence with a snow blower and Christmas lights ends with a comedic thud that will have a familiar ring to anyone who saw the first movie. Appropriately enough for a comedy about dads jockeying for attention, position and pecking order, a scene with the whole “together” family in a live-nativity manager riffs on who’s going to play Joseph, and how he wasn’t Jesus’ real father.

DADDY'S HOME 2

John Cena

John Cena, who made a surprise appearance at the end of the original film, makes a reappearance as Randy, another stepdad—the uber-cool, muscle-bound, truck-driving hunk Randy. And stay until the very end for another surprise stepdad!

There’s also some commentary about learning to compromise, a surprising venture into gun control and a poignant scene—in a comedy club—in which we find out something heavy, and heartbreaking, about Brad’s dad. And there’s a running joke, with a funny flashback, to the 1984 Band Aid song “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and its all-star cast of international singers, each getting a line.

The wives/moms, Linda Cardellini (of TV’s Bloodline) and Brazilian-born former Victoria’s Secret model Alessandra Ambrosio, don’t really have much to do, except look pretty and deliver an occasional quip—and Ambrosio doesn’t even get many of those. The movie is just too crowded with guys and cute kids.

And in a bit of a Hollywood in-joke, everyone ends up snowstorm-stranded in a movie theater. The big holiday release is an action-family holiday hybrid about Liam Neeson and a bunch of adorable kids traveling with a nuclear warhead cross-country to keep it out of the hands of terrorists. It’s called Missile Tow.

After strings of edgier, R-rated fare for both Ferrell and Wahlberg, the Daddy’s Home flicks let both actors settle into a more-or-less family-friendly, PG-13 groove, and still find a very festive comedic mojo.

This cheery, comical, dads-travaganza of a Christmas carol won’t win any major holiday awards. But it will certainly keep Scrooge at bay—at least until those Christmas bills start to roll in! Then you’ll know it’s Christmas, for sure.

In theaters Nov. 10, 2017

More Humor, Less Hammer

Brimming with wit and comedic energy, the third Thor is an exuberant charm

nullThor: Ragnarok
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Kate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo & Tessa Thompson
Directed by Taika Waititi
PG-13

Less hammer, more humor.

That’s the formula for the third flick in the Marvel franchise about the Norse God of Thunder, played in all three by Aussie hunk Chris Hemsworth.

Marvel learned that laughter was golden in Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool, and Ragnarok forgoes gravitas for sheer, exuberant comic energy, even when the story’s stakes are apocalyptic.

The plot whirls around a doomsday event called Ragnarok, the end of days in the mythical kingdom of Asgard, Thor’s home. As Thor tries to prevent it, he comes into contact with a whole cosmos of colorful characters, including his trickster bro Loki (Tom Hiddleston), their dark-hearted sis (Cate Blanchett), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a dear old frenemy, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).

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Tessa Thompson

Jeff Goldblum is a supernova smash as a campy character called the Grandmaster, who runs clash-’n’-smash gladiator matches on the planet Sakaar. Tessa Thompson (from HBO’s Westworld) struts as a Valkyrie bounty hunter. Thor’s sage old father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), advises him his hammer “was never your source of power,” it was only a channel for his great strength.

That’s important for Thor to remember—since he loses his tool early in the movie.

Other familiar faces pop up too, including some surprise appearances in a hilarious play—The Tragedy of Loki—on Asgard, where Thor discovers his mischievous brother has deceived everyone into believing he’s a hero, even a savior. And be ready: Marvel Comics’ founder Stan Lee continues his tradition of making brief, memorable, cameos in every movie based on his pulpy properties. And this one, indeed, leaves a lasting impression.

The seriously fun script (by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher L. Yost) crackles with wit, and New Zealand director Taika Waititi (who also made the acclaimed indie hits Hunt For the Wilderpeople and What We Do In the Shadows) gives Thor’s traditional, comic-book core a fresh, zippy new spin. (Waititi also cameos as the voice of a rock-pile revolutionary named Korg, who becomes an important Thor ally.)

Hemsworth is a very funny guy, as he demonstrated in Ghostbusters, and he seems to greatly enjoy flexing his comedic muscles. He sets the cheeky, flip tone right off the bat, as the movie opens with our hero bound in chains, immobile, locked a dark, hellish dungeon.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he says. “Oh, no! Thor’s in a cage!”

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Kate Blanchett

There’s so much to see and do—interplanetary trash heaps; day-glo streets; a monstrous wolf dog; a Satyr demon made of fire; Idris Elba as the seer-warrior Hemdall; teeming planetary cities; clashing armies; thrilling aerial battles. As the evil sister Hela, the Goddess of Death, Blanchett is a total scene stealer. With her headdress of devilish black antlers, she’s a sexy, sinister siphon of pure evil, someone you’d never want to meet—but good luck prying your eyes off her.

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Mark Ruffalo (as the Hulk)

For a movie packed with so much, it does a great job of keeping everything giddily on track—when the characters zoom through a mean-looking space wormhole called the Devil’s Anus, when Thor and Loki take a business trip to New York City, when Thor and the Hulk face off for a smashing reunion.

There are thorny family and friendship issues to sort out, nonstop quips, explosions, fights scored to Led Zeppelin tunes and lots and lots of laughs.

At one point, Thor and Hela duke it out in the halls of Asgard. Thor is strong, but Hela—she is the Goddess of Death, after all—is stronger, at least momentarily. “To be honest,” she taunts him, “I expected more.”

You can’t expect much more from this. Thor: Ragnarok, the best Thor of the bunch, pretty much has it all.

In theaters Nov. 3, 2017

See Minus

Blake Lively doesn’t like what she sees in this artsy psycho-drama

Stills_All I See Is You

 

All I See Is You
Starring Blake Lively & Jason Clarke
Directed by Marc Forester
R
In Theaters Oct. 27, 2017

The last time we saw Blake Lively, she was battling a monster shark in The Shallows.

In her new movie, she’s fighting the undertow of a collapsing marriage as a blind woman who begins to see a lot of things differently when her sight is restored.

The former Gossip Girl actress plays Gina, who lost her sight in a car crash that claimed the lives her parents years ago. Now living in Bangkok with her husband, James (Jason Clarke), an international insurance businessman, she’s encouraged when a doctor (Danny Houston) tells her she’s a candidate for an experimental cornea transplant and reconstructive eye surgery.

When Gina begins to see again, and her vision becomes clearer day by day, what she sees at first delights her—a spectrum of colors, faces to put with familiar voices, and little mundane details that get easily taken for granted by people with sight.

“I’d forgotten what my name looked like,” she says, pausing to reflect on the letters G-I-N-A spelled out on a sign welcoming her home from the hospital.

Stills_All I See Is You

But her restored vision also reveals the cracks in her marriage. And those cracks are what director Marc Forester probes in this artsy psycho-drama about control, attraction, dependence, micro-aggression, jealousy, dominance, deviousness, secrets and sabotage.

James obviously loves Gina, but it’s clear he now feels threatened by her. He subtly criticizes the way she dresses, asking her to not show so much skin, especially around other guys. And the pressure’s on: They’ve been trying to get pregnant, unsuccessfully. The Spanish firebrand husband (Miquel Fernández) of Gina’s sister ribs James, asking if he’s worried that Gina might leave him for a better-looking, more virile man.

James doesn’t exactly warm to the idea when Gina brings home a friend’s dog to save it from being put down. When James berates it for pooping and peeing on the floor, Gina defends the poor pooch—because James forgot to take it outside for a walk.

And so it goes: The more Gina sees, the less she likes. And the less she likes James, especially—and the more James comes to resent her and miss the way “things used to be,” when Gina couldn’t see, when she depended on him, when he was her world, when she made him feel more like a man, an alpha male.

Ahna O’Reilly (from The Help and TV’s Kingdom) plays Gina’s sister, Carla. Yvonne Strahovski (who stars in the Emmy-winning The Handmaid’s Tale) pops in for a couple of scenes, suggesting that an initially bigger role was edited down to practically nothing. Wes Chatum (Castor from The Hunger Games franchise) plays a hunky, hot, kind-hearted dog owner who… well, he’s not James.

For director Foster, who’s done the zombie apocalypse with Brad Pitt (World War Z) and globetrotted with James Bond (Quantum of Solace), this movie seems like a downshift into indie-arthouse, domestic-drama territory. A dead bird, the rotting cow and repeated shots of fish in the tank—we get it, Gina’s eyes have been opened, but she’s feeling more contained, constrained, stifled and lifeless than ever.

There are explosively beautiful visuals, too, as Gina sees the world again, anew, soaking it all in. At one point, James asks her what she wants to do next, what she wants to see. “More colors,” she says.

The story is a slow-burn simmer that never feels in a rush. It has an almost Hitchcock-ian rhythm as it unfolds, especially as things get twisted and toxic. Foster’s collaborator on the screenplay, Sean Conway, was a writer/director for the gritty Showtime crime drama Ray Donovan.

“You look different than what I had in my head,” Gina tells James when she first comes out of surgery, regaining the sight she had been without for over a decade.

How would the world—specifically your world—look different if your long-impaired vision was suddenly improved? Is our imagination sometimes better than what we see? All I See Is You makes you think about that.

Throughout the movie, Gina works on a song with a guitar. She’ll eventually perform it in full, where its lyrics—about jumping rope, swimming, seeing, loving and living—take on extra emotional heft and give added pang to the ending.

Perhaps Blake Lively was thinking, when she sang, about her last movie, about swimming with—and away from—that great white shark that wanted her for its next meal.

There’s no shark in All You See Is Me, but this fierce little marital fable still draws blood.

In theaters Oct. 27, 2017

Icy Reception

This pulpy winter  tale is a sloggy, sadistic Scandinavian mess 

Film Title: The Snowman

The Snowman
Starring Michael Fassbender & Rebecca Ferguson
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
R

“The great Harry Hole.”

That’s how a colleague refers to the driven, dour detective at the dark heart of this lurid tale based on the central character in the popular pulpy crime novels by Norwegian author Jo Nesbø. In The Snowman, actually the seventh of Nesbø’s 11 Harry Hole adventures but the first to make the big screen, the glum gumshoe is on the trail of a winter wacko who’s carving up women all around Oslo—always leaving a sad-faced snowman as a calling card.

Hole (Michael Fassbender) is supposed to be a brilliant detective; we’re informed that police cadets study his case files in their classes. He’s supposedly a genius at finding clues that everyone else misses. Hmmm… So how did Norway’s most celebrated criminologist end up in such a misguided, muddled, murder-y mess of a movie?

Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) has spoken about the movie’s troubled production—a rushed on-location shoot that only allowed for part of the script to be filmed. That certainly accounts for some of the movie’s choppy, patchy feel, the sense that characters are only partially formed and the feeling that what’s on screen often just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

That’s all the more disappointing given the project’s promising pedigree: an Oscar-nominated director, an all-star, international cast and an executive producer (Martin Scorsese) who certainly knows a thing or two about making a solid movie.

Film Title: The Snowman

Rebecca Ferguson

You might expect a flick called The Snowman to be set in the dead of winter, and “dead” pretty much describes it. Everything is grey, everything looks cold and everything looks lifeless. And many of the people you see—especially the women—will eventually be set free of their mortal coil, and dismembered as well. Heads, fingers, arms and legs get sliced off, blown to pieces and eaten by animals. The Snowman ain’t no jolly, happy Frosty, and this is hardly a holly-jolly corncob-pipe romp around the town square.

Harry and his colleague Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson) collaborate—more or less—to track down the serial killer. They’re led to a kinky industrialist (J.K. Simmons) in charge of the city’s Winter Olympics bid; and the uncooperative, secretive husband (James D’Arcy) of a woman whose disappearance may be linked to the most recent murders; and a cold case from several years ago involving another detective (Val Kilmer).

Film Title: The Snowman

J.K. Simmons

There’s also Chloë Sevigny as twins, veteran British actor Toby Jones as another detective, and Charlotte Gainsbourg—who would be better known for starring in the 2013 Lars von Trier movies Nymphomanic: Vol. I and Vol. 2 if anyone had gone to see them—as Hole’s old flame, Rakel.

Rakel is dating Mathias (Jonas Karsson), a physician, and has a teenage son, Oleg (newcomer Michael Yates).

The movie is a Nordic swirl of suspects, victims, red herrings, clunky plotting and confusing editing. It certainly doesn’t help that every scene is the same shade of barren, wintry grey—it’s almost impossible to tell today from yesterday, or know when flashbacks return to the present. Harry and Katrine chase a thread about the killer targeting women of whom he disapproves, and there’s a subplot built on “bad parenting.” This movie’s mommy and daddy issues could easily fill up a fjord.

And the killer must be an evil spirit, a ninja, or both, the way he slips into places noiselessly and invisibly, lurks undetected and appears out of nowhere with his lethal bag of tricks. He’s a gamboling grim reaper, all right, until he steps right into a gaping (literal) plot hole.

Have you ever actually built a snowman? You know it takes the right kind of snow, not too dry, and you can’t just throw one together zippity zap. You’ve got to find something for at least the eyes and mouth—the killer apparently likes coffee beans, and skinny little sticks for arms. He never seems to have any trouble making a snowman anytime, anyplace, anywhere, and he still has time to murder and maim. But how come the killer’s snowmen—intended to strike fear, terror and dread—look like sad practical jokes made by a prop department?

“You can’t force the pieces to fit,” Harry tells a frustrated Katrine as she struggles over the tangle of clues, false leads and dead-end hunches. The same is true of The Snowman, a misfit pileup of talent and material that turns into one soggy, sadistic Scandinavian-flavored slay-belle ride.

In theaters Oct. 20, 2017

Forged in Fire

Hollywood loves heroes, and this film offers up a real-life pantheon

Josh Brolin;James Badge Dale

Only the Brave
Starring Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly & Taylor Kitsch
Directed by Joseph Kosinski
PG-13

When I was a tyke, I had a Little Golden Book and a record about Smokey the Bear, the forest-fire-prevention mascot who could “find a fire before it starts to flame.”

There’s a bear at the very beginning of Only the Brave, but it’s certainly not Smokey—it’s a blazing, charging beast made out of fire itself, barreling through a hellish nightmare of burning trees.

That bear of fire haunts the dreams of Eric Marsh (James Brolin), the grizzled supervisor of a group of elite firefighters in Prescott, Ariz., known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Marsh calls the burning bear “the most beautiful and the most terrible thing I’ve ever seen.”

The beautiful, terrible specter of fire hangs heavy over this rousing true tale, which recounts the heroic exploits of the Prescott firefighters, which lost 19 of its 20-member crew while battling a 2013 wildfire northwest of Phoenix, near the town of Yarnell. It became one of the deadliest wildfires in American history.

Hollywood loves heroes, and Only the Brave—based on a magazine article in GQ—offers up a real-life pantheon, one made even more timely and resonant by the wildfires currently ravaging California. Director Joseph Kosinski spends most of his movie building the story of the men who made up the Hotshots, how they became a tight-knit team and the matter-of-fact business of fighting fire. We know the tragic event, which defined the Hotshots’ legacy, is coming—but before it does, there are other fires to put out, in the mountains and at home.

Josh Brolin;Jennifer Connelly

Josh Brolin & Jennifer Connelly

We get to know the firefighters mainly through a handful of central characters in its larger ensemble cast. Brolin has seasoned into a fine actor in almost any role, and he plays supervisor Marsh with a mix of toughness and weariness that reflects the years he’s put into a dangerous, taxing, extremely physical job. The toll it continues to take on his relationship with his wife, Andrea (an outstanding Jennifer Connelly), is obvious.

“Do your John Wayne thing,” she tells him before he packs up once again to head into the hills and face down the fire he calls “the bitch.”

Miles Teller is Brendan McDonough, a pot-puffing stoner screw-up who enlists with the Hotshots in a last-ditch effort to get his life in gear after he finds out he got a girl pregnant (Natalie Hall—she was young Colby Chandler on All My Children 2009-2011) and he’s about to become a father. The others playfully haze him as the rookie, calling him “Puke” and “Donut,” but he eventually earns their acceptance and their respect.

Taylor Kitsch;Miles Teller

Miles Teller & Taylor Kitsch

Taylor Kitsch plays Christopher McKenzie, whose hapless search for a girlfriend becomes a running joke. As the Prescott fire chief, Jeff Bridges gets to flex his musical mojo in a nightclub scene by singing the classic cowboy chestnut “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”

Director Kosinski, who demonstrated his expansive visual flair in the sci-fi flicks Tron Legacy (also with Jeff Bridges) and Oblivion (with Tom Cruise), also finds the spellbinding imagery throughout this emotional, character-driven story. Fire races across a mountainside, like an invading army. Blazing trees tumble off a cliff, then explode in flashes of sparks and cinders. A lone deer runs alongside a wall of flame, looking for an escape route. A helicopter hovers in super slo-mo above a swimming pool, siphoning out water. Firefighters in gear move through the trees with military-like precision, looking like a centipede inching its way along.

And the movie shows the hard, dirty work and tools of the trade that go into firefighting—it’s a lot of digging, chopping, cutting and clearing. And much of it is “fighting fire with fire,” setting smaller fires to rob a bigger fire of fuel. But all of it involves putting lives on the line and working in the danger zone, a place where a shift of the wind or a change in temperature can mean destruction—or death.

“There are lots of other things you could do that aren’t so dangerous,” Brendan’s mom tells him.

Indeed there are.

Hollywood loves heroes, and we’re told they’re made, not born. And as this moving, heart-tugging movie about the Granite Mountain Hotshots reminds us, sometimes they’re forged by fire.

In theaters Oct. 20, 2017

Courting Justice

Chadwick Boseman plays a young Supreme Court Justice-to-be

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Josh Gad, Chadwick Boseman and Sterling K. Brown in ‘Marshall’

Marshall
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Dan Stevens & Kate Hudson
Directed by Reginald Hudlin
PG-13

For black history, Chadwick Boseman is becoming Hollywood’s go-to guy.

In 42, he starred as Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play pro baseball. He was the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, in Get on Up. In February, he’ll step into the spotlight as Marvel’s Black Panther, the first black superhero to get his own movie.

And he puts the Marshall in Marshall as Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice of the United States Supreme Court, in one of the early defining cases of his career.

We meet Thurgood in the early 1940s as a young attorney for the N.A.A.C.P. in Hugo, Okla., dispatched to Bridgeport, Conn., to represent a black man, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown from TV’s This Is Us), accused of raping and attempting to murder a wealthy white woman (Kate Hudson).

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Kate Hudson

As an out-of-state attorney, Marshall must enlist the aid of a local lawyer—a legal technicality—in order to work the case. He partners with Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a whiz at insurance and accident cases but zero experience in criminal law.

This being the 1940s, and the case being a “negro” accused of “ravishing” a white woman, the climate in Bridgeport isn’t exactly welcoming to Thurgood. The crusty judge (James Cromwell) begrudgingly allows Marshall to accompany Friedman in the courtroom, but bans him from speaking, arguing or examining witnesses.

After early years of forgettable movie comedies (unless you count Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang or Tim Meadows’ The Ladies Man as milestones—and I’m guessing you won’t) and later TV, director Reginald Hudlin makes his first big-screen drama in a fairly old-school, traditional mode. Marshall is essentially a courtroom showdown, with the story spinning around the odd-couple pairing of Boseman and Gad’s characters, the difficult circumstances in which they have to work and the high-pitched racial tensions and prejudice of the times.

And of course, the question: Did Joseph Spell do it?

There are flashbacks and recreations, from various characters’ points of view. Both Thurgood and Friedman—who is Jewish—are harassed by local thugs. Marshall gathers evidence and, as Friedman’s “silent partner,” gives him a crash course in the basics of criminal law and courtroom procedure.

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Dan Stevens

Legion TV star Dan Stevens, who played the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, plays a real-life “beast,” a smarmy defense attorney. Keesha Sharp (Trisha Murtaugh on TV’s Lethal Weapon) is Marshall’s supportive wife, Buster. And fans of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, as well as the Chicago P.D./Med/Justice franchise, will recognize Sophia Bush, who plays police detective Erin Lindsay in all those shows. She has one scene as a woman in a bar who provides Thurgood with an observation that becomes a case breakthrough.

The movie looks handsome and polished, but the production values are just a little too tidy. The automobiles all appear to be restoration-shiny, and everyone is dressed to the nines, like they just came…well, from the wardrobe department. Nothing about Marshall really looks or feels lived-in.

And modern audiences, with appetites primed by violent, graphic, gory TV crime procedurals, might not have the patience for the more stately, dignified pace of Marshall. It’s closer to Perry Mason than How to Get Away With Murder.

Brown gives a powerful standout performance as Spell, a character who becomes the heart and soul of what the movie is truly about—a black man seeking justice in a white man’s world, in the grinding gears of a white man’s system, and fearing for his life, no matter what he says. The film’s resonance today with themes of racial division and ugly displays of hate and bigotry are impossible to miss.

Can a black man get a fair trial with an all-white jury in Bridgeport, a gaggle of white reporters asks Marshall. Can blacks expect to treated fairly at all? “The Constitution was not written for us,” Marshall tells them. “But we’re gonna make it work for us.”

In one scene, Marshall counsels Spell about a plea deal he’s been offered, in a conversation couched in a discussion about the slavery in both their family’s pasts. Spell recounts a moving story about his grandfather fighting for his freedom, and Thurgood spurs him to never stop fighting himself.

“We’ve got weapons we didn’t have before,” Marshall tells him. “We’ve got the law.”

During Marshall’s 24-year tenure at the U.S. Supreme Court, beginning in 1967, he would argue more than 30 cases, prevailing in all but three. This feel-good biopic reminds us of a formative chapter in the life of a lifelong crusader—for civil rights and justice, for African Americans and all—who never gave up the fight.

In theaters Oct. 13, 2017

 

Kids Stuff

Kids make magic in sensitive, sad, moving, magnificent ‘Florida Project’

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Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Prince star in ‘The Florida Project’

 

The Florida Project
Starring Brooklynn Prince, Willem Dafoe & Bria Vinaite
Directed by Sean Baker
R

 

Purple, it’s said, is the color of royalty, so it suits the young pint-sized princess strutting around her lavender palace in this fractured fairy tale just a couple of wide miles, and a few aching dreams, away from Disney’s Magic Kingdom.

In director Sean Baker’s outstanding slice-of-life The Florida Project, six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her ragtag playmates seek fun, friendship, mischief and adventure from their extended-stay homes in low-rent Orlando motels on the strip leading tourists straight into the money-fied maws of Disney. Moonee lives with her mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), in a place called the Magic Castle—getting an unauthorized ride on Disney’s coattails—which the manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), has painted top-to-bottom purple.

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Willem Dafoe

Bobby’s motel, with its plum-colored walls and faux parapets, fits right in with the other garish attractions on the busy freeway, which include a souvenir shop topped with the giant head of a wizard and a citrus palace called Orange World.

Every day, from a field across the bog, a helicopter repeatedly takes off and lands, whisking tourists away for birds-eye-views of Disney World, Epcot and other wonderful sights.

Baker’s 2015 indie, Tangerine, about a transgender prostitute on the gritty streets of L.A., was shot entirely on iPhones. The Florida Project has a similar down-low, street-level, quasi-documentary feel, as if we’ve been dropped into a setting with a small group of characters to watch them live their lives, just off to the side of where most of mainstream America usually travels—or would ever want to go.

The young cast of newcomers is outstanding, especially Brooklynn Prince as Moonie, a zippy, zapping combination of sass, innocence, vulnerability and pluck. Valeria Cotto plays her friend Jancey, who lives at the motel next door, Future World. Christopher Rivera is Scooty, whose mom (Mela Murder) slips Moonie and Halley food from the diner where she works.

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Much of the movie is shown from the worldview of the kids, who revel in the simple delights of childhood—sharing a messy ice cream cone before it melts, spitting on a car from a balcony, burping, making fart noises, playing hide and seek. They also set fire to an abandoned apartment complex, turn off the power to the motel and sass grownups.

But you really come to care about these urchins, worry about them and empathize with their plights, especially when the movie heads into some inevitable danger zones—and it’s not just alligators lurking in the lagoon or a creepy old man nosing around the playground.

No one looks after the kids like Bobby, the beleaguered manager, who also serves as a surrogate father. Real dads are in short supply, and the young moms are floundering, too. Dafoe—whose lifetime of juicy roles has included playing Jesus of Nazareth and Spiderman’s nemesis, the Green Goblin—is already getting Oscar buzz for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. It’s one of his best parts, and best performances, in years.

And Bria Vinaite, as Moonee’s mother, also makes a remarkable debut. Halley is a mess, a scrawny, scrappy spitfire scrounging around for whatever she can find, do, scam or steal at the bottom of life’s scrap heap. She’s fiercely protective of her daughter and she’ll strike like a scorpion when provoked.

TFP_domestic_LP_20170823.01_10_55_16_Still004But mostly, The Florida Project is a tattered tale about kids growing up in the flotsam and jetsam of an American economy barely afloat offshore of Florida’s signature tourism mecca. Moonee and her friends use their imaginations, the way kids do, to make their own magic in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom.

At one point, Moonee and Jancey play in a downed cypress tree that’s been toppled, likely by a storm, or perhaps a hurricane. Moonee says it’s her favorite tree because “it fell down but it’s still growing.”

This saucy, sad, rousing, riveting drama gives you the same hope for Moonee and her friends—that life may knock them around, may knock them down, may topple them sideways. But you hope, somehow, they’ll keep going, and keep growing.

In theaters Oct. 8, 2017

2017’s ‘2001’

Denis Villeneuve’s bold, beautiful, brainy return to ‘Blade Runner’

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Blade Runner 2049
Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford & Jared Leto
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
R

Last Christmas, Ryan Gosling was waltzing with Emma Stone in the stars over La La Land.

Now he’s zipping around in a flying car in the cold, grey, grungy skies above a very different Los Angeles—a dystopian, disorienting future world where humans coexist and interact with nearly human, biologically engineered androids known as replicants.

Welcome to Blade Runner 2049, director Denis Villeneuve’s sprawling, hyper-stylish, long-awaited follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 neo-noir sci-fi classic. The original film famously starred Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a former police office working as a “blade runner” to track down and retire—kill—renegade replicants.

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Dave Bautista

Now, set 30 years later, Gosling’s character, an LAPD officer known as K, is also a blade runner. The movie opens when he pays a routine visit to an outdated replicant, a farmer (Dave Bautista) who’s passed his expiration date. Before K pulls the plug, the farmer has a cryptic message for him: “You’ve never seen a miracle,” he says.

Those words get into K’s head—already throbbing with troubling visions from something that happened in his past. Or did it?

When K makes a startling discovery—a seeming impossibility—that sets everything in motion, it threatens to bring down the fragile social order between humans and replicants. “This could break the world,” K’s police boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), tells him. She orders him to erase the evidence and keep the case under wraps. “What you saw didn’t happen.”

But the secret gets out, putting K on a dangerous course to solve the mystery—the one that seems so impossible, as well as the one inside his head.

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Sylvia Hoeks

Jared Leto is great-balls-of-fire creepy as Niander Wallace, the rich, blind, tech-guru industrialist with a god complex who plans to super-colonize the cosmos with trillions of replicant-slaves. His icy aide, the ruthless replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), is on the trail of the same thing as K, but for a vastly different reason.

K’s companion Joi—a life-size, lifelike, 3D “application,” like a sexy Siri—longs to know what it’s like to be real, to have flesh, to be able to feel K’s touch and to be felt in return. Whenever she goes into active mode, her programming sounds a few notes from “Peter and the Wolf,” the Prokofiev musical play about animals that come alive. Played by Cuban actress Ana de Armas, it’s one of the film’s most emotive, poignant performances.

Mackenzie Davis (Cameron Rendon on TV’s Halt and Catch Fire) makes the most of her supporting role as a mysterious prostitute named Mariette. If there’s a sequel, she definitely gets my vote for more screen time.

And of course, eventually K’s path leads him to Deckard (Harrison Ford), holed up in casino hotel in Las Vegas, now a radioactive wasteland.

Director Villeneuve—whose other films include Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival—has created a brilliant new sci-fi benchmark, an epic movie yardstick against which future science fiction flicks will be compared and measured. It’s the 2001 of 2017. Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, with 13 Oscar nominations, should certainly expect another. His spectacular view of this majestic, grotesquely beautiful futurama is a feast for the eyes.

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The score, by Oscar-winning Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, sometimes stretches the limits of what typically might be considered music, with booming, bowel-rattling bass-note rumbles that pile-drive the action and anchor the deep-dive philosophical musings—on memory, belief, faith, love, life, reality, what it means to be alive and what it means to be human.

When Deckard and K meet, Deckard quotes a line from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island—appropriately enough, since something that’s been unearthed, a buried treasure, brought the two of them together. Before they bond, they brawl, in a casino showroom where a flickering hologram of Elvis Presley performs onstage, a high-tech ghost of future past, flanked by holographic showgirls.

Later, a neon billboard promises, in gigantic, glowing letters, Anything You Want. In this future world, anything can indeed be purchased—companionship, pleasure, a thrill, a high, a lover, memories, a past.

For sci-fi fans, for movie lovers who want to see something truly spectacular, for cinephiles who’ve been waiting for the next big thing: Here it is. The bold, beautiful, brainy Blade Runner 2049 is anything you want, and quite likely much more.

In theaters Oct. 6, 2017

Fly Boy

Tom Cruise soars as real-life drug-smuggling, gun-running aviator 

Film Title: American Made

American Made
Starring Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson & Sarah Wright
Directed by Doug Liman
R

The sky… that smile… those sunglasses—Tom Cruise is flying again!

Three decades after playing swaggering Navy ace “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun, the actor once chosen as People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (1995) is back, climbing into the danger zone in this comedy-drama based on the real life of a former TWA pilot who became involved with a South American drug cartel in the 1980s.

Cruise’s character, Barry Seal, works as covert operative for the CIA, runs guns to fighters in Nicaragua, smuggles cocaine for the Mendellín Cartel, trains Contras in Arkansas and eventually ferries home so many bags, satchels and suitcases bulging with cash that he literally runs out of places to hide them.

Seal was a bit player in a much bigger governmental shell game of collusion, intervention and South American involvement, spanning eight years and two administrations, that eventually culminated in the Iran-Contra Scandal.

“Is all this legal?” he asks his cryptic CIA contact, who goes the name of Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson).

Film Title: American Made

Domhnall Gleeson

“If you’re doing it for the good guys,” Schafer tells him with a shrug. “Just don’t get caught.”

It’s a wild and crazy tale, and Cruise is perfect for the role of Seal—brash, carefree, cocky, confident, “the youngest pilot in TWA history” when he’s plucked from the cramped cockpit of his commercial airliner and offered the opportunity to do something exciting, secretive, dangerous and potentially lucrative “for your country.”

Seal’s real-life saga isn’t necessary a funny one—he did, after all, create and maintain a major pipeline for cocaine into the United States and played a role in international political meddling that cost many lives. But American Made finds the dark humor in the absolute absurdity of his unique situation, as an individual who happened to be in the right place at the right time—and who embraced it for all it was worth.

As played by Cruise, Seal is like an impossibly handsome, incredibly lucky Forrest Gump, moving from scenario to scenario, intersecting with characters who’ll later show up in the news (Panamanin dictator Manual Noriega, U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar). He juggles home life with his wife (Sarah Wright) and two young daughters with his increasingly frenzied governmental skullduggery and his own lucrative sideline smuggling operations.

And he gets filthy rich doing it—until his luck eventually runs out.

Film Title: American Made“Hot damn!” he says. “If this ain’t the greatest country in the world!”

Director Doug Liman, whose previous films include The Edge of Tomorrow—also starring Cruise—and The Bourne Identity, keeps things crisp, concise and crackling. He uses a mixture of techniques, including cartoon animation and narration by Seal (Cruise), to tie the sprawling pieces of the story together. And he pays attention to details that remind you this tale came from the 1970s and ’80s. Seals does business with high stacks of quarters from banks of pay phones. When a character purchases a new used car, it’s a dinky Gremlin X. Soundtrack tunes (The Allman Brothers’ One Way Out, Walter Murphy’s A Fifth of Beethoven, Linda Ronstadt’s Blue Bayou, George Harrison’s Wah Wah) help set the retro mood, and the movie’s color pallet recalls the super-saturated yellows, greens and blues of Kodachrome.

Jesse Plemons plays a small-town sheriff who gets a whiff of Seals and his operation, but his part seems either underwritten, or greatly reduced in editing—to squeeze into the movie’s crammed second half, when several new characters are introduced. As Seals’ wife, Wright is given little to do, which matches the skimpy wardrobe (negligee and cut-off shorty-short jeans) she’s given to wear. If the film’s trying to make any kind of statement—about governmental collusion and corruption, amoral scoundrels on both sides of the border, greed or whatever—it doesn’t really leave that impression.

But Cruise sure does—a movie star soaring high and back in his element in this feverishly upbeat film frolic about a footnote figure in a shady chapter of American history.

In theaters Sept. 29, 2017