Double Bill Will

Will Smith faces off against himself in double-trouble mess of sci-fi thrillerGEMINI MAN

Gemini Man
Starring Will Smith, Clive Owen & Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Directed by Ang Lee
PG-13

You get two Wills for the price of one in Gemini Man, a sci-fi action-thriller about a hitman who becomes stalked by a younger version of himself.

Will Smith stars as Henry Brogan, an elite assassin for a shady, CIA-like government-ops organization that deals in all sorts of underhanded global dirty tricks—kidnappings, torture, death-squad training. Whenever the “Defense Intelligence Agency” needs an undesirable taken “off-book,” removed from the record with one clean, untraceable shot, they call Henry.

But after 72 kills, Henry’s ready to call it quits and retire, trade his guns for a fishing pole and putter around in his motorboat. But not so fast—Henry knows too much.

So, of course, now it’s Henry’s turn to be taken “off-book.” And his diabolical DIA boss, Varris (a scenery-chewing Clive Owen), has just the man for the job—a younger, leaner, meaner version of Henry. The assassin Varris sends to kill Henry is, in fact, an exact duplicate of Henry himself, replicated years ago from his DNA by a secret cloning project.

The young assassin, code-named “Junior,” has been trained for one thing: to become a new breed of killer, a warrior without a conscience, remorse, emotion or a past.

The cloning project was called Gemini, as in the mythological twins.

Imagine Henry’s shock and surprise when he comes face-to-face with a younger version of himself. “I find myself avoiding mirrors lately,” Henry tells a fellow DIA defector (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). No kidding! Especially when the man in that mirror might be trying to murder you.

GEMINI MAN

Smith with Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Benedict Wong plays Baron, a wisecracking pilot with connections to get just about any kind of airplane, anytime, anywhere. Baron comes in handy for jet-setting to Belgium, Colombia and Hungary. Why? Something about someone named Yuri.

Will Junior complete his seek-and-destroy mission? Can Henry not only survive, but convince his younger self that Junior’s been programmed for a hollowed-out, toxic nowhere life? Do Henry’s allergy to bees, and his lifelong fear of drowning, come back later in the movie as plot points? If you don’t know the answers to all those questions without even seeing the movie, well, I humbly suggest you need to see a few more movies.

That’s the story of Gemini Man, but the real story here is the back story. This film has been knocking around in development for more than 20 years, and it’s cycled through various directors and numerous other leading men—Mel Gibson, Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger—who considered the starring role.

The challenge was the story’s central special effect: how to convincingly make one character interact with his much younger self. Finally technology caught up to the premise, and Oscar-winning director Ang Lee took up the gauntlet. (Lee, you may recall, made a very realistic, make-believe CGI tiger in The Life of Pi.)

Here, the two Wills talk, hug, fight, blast away at each other and have a gritty, dual-motorcycle duel. Junior is basically Smith’s computer-generated younger face—recreated from archives of his previous movies and TV show—digitally placed onto heads and torsos of body doubles. (So, yes, sometimes Henry is fighting the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.) Sometimes it looks pretty amazing, which is to say natural, but sometimes it looks pretty freaky and artificial, like something from a bargain-bin computer game.

Which is all the more surprising because the movie was made using super-sophisticated, high-tech camera gimmickry—a high-speed, high-definition innovation that renders images surgically crisp and super-sharp (but likely beyond the capacity of many theatre projectors to display). Ironically, it also shows the special-effect “seams” when trying to join things together, like the real Will and the fake Will.

GEMINI MANSmith, once a king of the box office with slam-bang, fan-boy blockbusters like Independence Day, the Men in Black franchise and I Am Legend, has in recent years marinated in more meditative fare (Seven Pounds, After Earth, Concussion, Collateral Beauty). Gemini Man might be seen as a combo platter, a bit of both—it’s got guns and explosions, but it also wants to explore ideas about the dogs of war, growing old, fatherhood, nature versus nurture and the ill-advised, age-old quest to play God.

But alas, the movie is a double-trouble mess with more than one problem. It’s a sub-par thriller with clunky dialog, an unwieldy, unoriginal plot, cheesy acting and special effects that don’t look so special. We’ve seen other—much better—movies about clones and cloning, and assassins who want to give up their guns, and there’ve been a bunch of Bonds, Bournes, John Wicks and even an Atomic Blonde to bring some real action-movie spark, spunk and sizzle to the screen while the idea for Gemini Man has been gathering dust on the shelf for more than two decades.

Two Wills for the price of one? “It’s not every day you get to see a guy get his ass kicked on two continents—by himself,” says Wong’s character, Barton, after Henry and Junior have beaten each other to a pulp in some catacombs underneath the streets of Budapest following a roustabout earlier in South America.

Gemini Man is something to see, all right—if you want to see Will Smith beating himself up in a movie, in perhaps more ways than one.

In theaters Oct. 11, 2019

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Send in the Clowns

Joaquin Phoenix makes his mark as maestro of madness in ferocious new backstory saga. 

Joker 6 (72)Joker
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro & Zazie Beets
Directed by Todd Phillips
R

One of the top villains in the kingdom of the comics finally gets his solo spot in this dark spin on the backstory of the character who will eventually become—as we all know—Batman’s mortal enemy.

Various other actors have memorably played the Joker, including Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson, Jared Leto and (on TV) Cesar Romero. But those were all supporting roles, and Joaquin Phoenix breaks new ground as the star of director Todd Phillips’ twistedly artful urban nightmare about the genesis story of Arthur Fleck, whose mangled past and tortured present combine, collide and combust into something ferocious, ghoulish and terrifying.

When we meet Fleck, he’s working as a rent-a-clown in the DC Comics hub of Gotham City in the early 1980s. The place is a cesspool, in more ways than one; a strike by garbage workers has left the streets strewn with trash and overrun by rats, and the widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots has created an even greater strain on the roiling, restless underclass.

JKR_DAY005_091818_0168787.dngWe can tell the deck is stacked against Fleck from the get-go; he’s a mentally unstable, basket-case loser and outsider who lives with his frail mother (Frances Conroy from Six Feet Under and American Horror Story) in a dingy apartment. He’s prone to outbursts of inappropriate laughter, uncontrollable spasms of jarring, hyena-like cackles. He carries a laminated card that explains, “I Have a Condition.” It doesn’t always help.

Arthur gets bullied, beat down and beat up. Then he finds out a budget slash is axing his social-services safety net, and he won’t receive any more medicine to keep the demons in his head at bay. He gets fired from his clowning job. Can things get any worse?

“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” he asks his social caseworker (Sharon Washington).

It definitely gets crazier in Joker, as Arthur gets a handgun, bullets fly, bodies in a subway car fall, and Gotham’s anonymous “Killer Clown” becomes a vigilante hero, an icon of a surging, stick-it-to-the-rich rebellion. Rioters in the streets begin wearing clown masks.

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Zazie Beetz

One of the richest is wealthy industrialist and mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen, who played Gerald Kindt on TV’s True Detective).He’s also the father of young Bruce, who’ll grow up to become you know Bat-who. Zazie Beetz (Emmy-nominated for her role as Van Keefer on the FX drama Atlanta) plays Fleck’s neighbor, Sophie, a single mom who seems to understand him—at least for a while.

But the whole of the movie revolves around a live TV show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a Johnny Carson-like late-night character who broadcasts every evening from downtown Gotham City. Fleck, who desperately wants to become a stand-up comedian, feeds his delusion by fantasizing of an appearance on the program.

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Robert De Niro plays the host of a popular late-night television show.

In a bizarre twist that sets up the movie’s explosively violent climax, his fantasy becomes a reality.

Director Phillips’ previous films include the comedies Road Trip, Old School and the Hangover trilogy, all of which plumbed the “hilarity” of grown men behaving badly as they try to recapture the frivolities and frolics of youth. Joker is a much darker, much more unsettling descent into the maelstrom of bad behavior. There aren’t any real laughs in this movie about a clown who would become one of pop culture’s all-time favorite bad guys. And mental illness, as we know, is no laughing matter.

But Joaquin Phoenix is no joke as the Joker. The actor has always immersed himself in his roles, whether he’s playing a toady Roman emperor (Gladiator), country superstar Johnny Cash (Walk the Line) or a lonely guy who falls in love with his computer’s operating system (Her). He reportedly lost some 50 pounds to play Arthur Fleck, and the extreme transformation adds to the scariness of his intense, grueling performance. His character is an emaciated time bomb that often looks like an angel of death seemingly living on cigarettes, fantasy and deprivation instead of food.

Cinema lovers will notice the movie’s nods to its inspirations, particularly Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, and there’s a pivotal scene in a theater showing a revival of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 classic Modern Times—in which Chaplin’s character, a factory worker struggling in the “modern” industrial society, is believed to go mad and gets committed to a mental hospital.

JJKR_DAY005_091818_0168483.dngoker brings up plenty of things to think about—not the least of which are the warnings that were issued before it was even released about the possible violence it might unleash. Its narrative is, after all, hauntingly similar to other, real-world episodes in which disenfranchised white men have gone on to tragic shooting sprees. And it reminds us how easily someone—anyone—can slip through the cracks of an overburdened system and become lost…or worse.

But mostly it reminds us how, sometimes, a great actor finds a great role and just, well, kills it. In Joker, Phoenix makes his mark as a severely damaged man who becomes an insane monster, a maestro of madness who sinks to the bottom of society but moves to the top tier of the DC Villains Hall of Fame. “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons them and treats them like trash?” he asks. “You get what you f—in’ deserve.”

And you get a movie like Joker. Send in the clowns—no, don’t bother, they’re here.

In theaters Friday, Oct. 4

Over the Rainbow

Zellwegger channels Garland on her last stretch of Yellow Brick Road

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Judy
Starring Renée Zellweger & Finn Wittrock
Directed by Rupert Goold
PG-13

Before Cher, before Madonna, before Gaga, Rihanna or Beyoncé—before any of those other female superstars so famous they only needed one name, there was Judy.

That’s Judy Garland, the actress and singer who starred in more than two dozen movies—including an Oscar-nominated performance in a 1954 version of A Star Is Born—and became the first female to receive a Grammy (in 1961) for Album of the Year.

And of course, she appeared at age 17 in the role that would make her famous forever, as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, performing the song that would become her signature, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

An entertainment icon of Hollywood’s golden age, Garland (who died 50 years ago this year at the age of 47) was famous—and sometimes infamous—for weathering a stormy personal life and turbulent, chaotic career, marked by soaring highs and rock-bottom lows. She bore the scars of emotional and psychological abuse dating back to her childhood.

Judy starts, briefly, at the beginning—on the set of The Wizard of Oz—but zooms ahead quickly three decades later as Garland pulls into what will be the final stretch of her Yellow Brick Road.

JUDY-first-image-HR-3If you only know her from The Wizard of Oz, prepare to see Judy in a totally different light and from a completely different perspective. And if you only know Renée Zellweger from Jerry Maguire, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Chicago or Cold Mountain (for which she won an Oscar)—well, prepare to be wowed.

In a bravura performance that includes doing her own singing, Zellweger morphs into late-stage Garland in the twilight of her career, at a time when the glow of the Hollywood spotlight had long ago faded on the one-time MGM Studios starlet.

Broke, without a place to call home, her personal life in shambles after four failed marriages, Judy’s body is a rail-thin bundle of frayed nerves from a lifetime of showbiz stress, drugs and alcohol. She takes an extended gig at a posh nightclub in London, hoping it will give her enough quick cash that she can return stateside and wrest back her two young kids from the temporary custody of ex-husband No. 3, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell, from TV’s The Man in the High Castle).

The British fans are passionate and welcoming, but the critics are ready to pounce, and there’s another husband-to-be waiting in the wings—Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock, from American Horror Story), a handsome schemer-dreamer who sweeps Judy off her feet, at least for a while.

Bella-Ramsey-and-Lewin-LloydHer grown daughter, Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux, who played Lady Fitzgerald in TV’s The Tudors), is wary of her Judy’s latest suitor, and her youngest, Lorna Luft (Bella Ramsey), has grown weary of her long absences—and erratic parenting.

You don’t have to know how it all ends to know it’s not all going to end well.

Judy is based on a Broadway and West End (London) stage play called End of the Rainbow, and British director Rupert Goold, whose background is mostly in theater, presses down hard on the play’s cautionary theme about the high price and the dark underside of fame, and specifically how it both created and destroyed one of the biggest, brightest stars of the 1940s and ’50s. Flashbacks show how young Judy (played by British newcomer Darci Shaw) was driven to exhaustion by her studio handlers, given diet pills, sleeping pills, uppers and downers, forbidden to eat when she was hungry, and constantly reminded of her shortcomings. We wince as we watch studio honcho Louis B. Mayer tell her she’s ugly and plain, that there are thousands of other young girls who could take her place, and that her mother doesn’t care anything about her—then he gropes her.

It’s no wonder Judy grew up to love the stage and the spotlight—applause from an audience was a sign that someone out there, at least, loved her. It’s no wonder she grew up with a gigantic, hollow emptiness inside that no amount of pills or booze—or husbands—could fill. And it’s no wonder, by the time we catch up with her in the winter of 1968, she’s a colossal train wreck headed off the tracks—again.

Zellweger owns the movie, top to bottom, start to finish, in a performance that’s already getting heavy—and deserved—Oscar buzz. Never campy or flashy or a caricature, it taps into the messy matrix of Garland’s spunk, sass, sadness, brokenness, desperation, defeat, pride, heartache, humor, hurt, hope, flair, fatigue and frailty at one of the lowest times of her life. It’s in the way she moves, the way she purses her lips into a twisted, forlorn smile, the way she squints her dark eyes—eyes that suggest they’ve already seen so much, too much.

It may be hard for younger audiences to understand, but Judy was a superstar whose fame spread around the world long before internet, before cable television. An “outcast” from Hollywood (who was eventually fired from MGM when she failed to report for work, almost ending her movie career), she found an unlikely, underground alliance with another group of outliers, the gay and queer community, to which the movie gives a nod in one of its warmest scenes. When Judy meets a pair of male superfans after one of her London shows, she ends up spending an evening with them at their home—and learns about their bittersweet story.

Later, at another show, those same two fans lead the audience in rising to their feet to join their voices in singing her most famous song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” when Judy’s own voice falters.

Life certainly wasn’t “happy little bluebirds,” as the song goes, for Garland, who died six months after her London concerts. But Judy shows us a falling star going down in one final blaze of semi-glory, far from home, surrounded by fans, warmed by the glow of the comforting words of a familiar song about a faraway fantasy place where “dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”

All of her dreams, alas, didn’t come true. But Judy and Renée take us over the rainbow in a compassionate, compelling 50th anniversary tribute to the final chapter of one of Hollywood’s most tragic figures of yesteryear, rekindling the nearly myth-sized memory of an entertainer whose life’s work will live forever.

In theaters Sept. 27, 2019

Dangerous Curves

J-Lo & Constance Wu Reign Supreme in Scrappy True-Crime Stripper Saga

HUSTLERS

Hustlers
Starring Jennifer Lopez & Constance Wu
Directed by Lorene Scafaria
R

Jenny from the block is J-Lo on the pole in Hustlers, the true-crime scrapper of a tale about strippers who turn the tables on their upscale clients.

Jennifer Lopez stars as Ramona, the queen showgirl in a group of dancers at a notorious New York strip club where Wall Street fat cats come to pop their corks. As the story begins in 2007, we watch as she shows the “new girl,” Destiny (Constance Wu), the ropes—and the pole.

The Carousel, Peter Pan, the Fairy, the Stag, the Tabletop, the Martini, the Fireman Down. If you didn’t know all those “moves” before, well, now you can thank J-Lo for the tutorial.

Adapting a story that originally appeared in New York magazine, director Lorene Scafaria (whose previous feature film was Susan Sarandon’s The Meddler) doesn’t shy from the realities about what it’s like for women who work in the degrading shadows of the sex industry. She likes long tracking shots that follow her actors as they move, through the club or down a street, taking us along, making us feel a part of them, aside them, along with them, giving us their perspectives. And as the words of Janet Jackson’s song remind us in the very opening scene, “This is a story about control,” and it certainly is.

Ramona, Destiny and their coworkers want to take control of their lives, their finances and their futures.

The women, feeling exploited by the men who come to their club—and who run their club—come upon a plan: They’ll drug their clients with memory-blotting cocktails, drain their credit cards and skim a little off the top to keep the club happy.

Hustlers

When the stock market crashes in 2009 and the bottom falls out of Wall Street, it presents a temporary setback for everyone. But survivors survive, and Ramona and Destiny are survivors, and soon they’re back, kicking things up a notch or two.

It’s fun, it’s feisty, it’s gaudy and glitzy and gritty and it feels good, even when you know it has to be wrong.

These are some dangerous curves, but Ramona is confident. “They would do this anyway,” she says about the guys who come in for private dances in the so-called “champagne” room. “We’re just helping them do it.” And the fact that they’re maxing out the bank accounts of drooling Wall Street wolves is even better, she says. “They stole from everybody. When they come into the clubs, [they’re spending] stolen money. Is that fair?”

Lopez, who got her start as a “Fly Girl” dancer on TV’s In Living Color back in the early 1990s, is galvanizing as take-charge Ramona; it’s easy to see why she’s already getting early Oscar buzz for playing this tough cookie with a big heart and all the right moves. Now her resume includes dozens of films, four No. 1 hit singles and sales of more than 80 million records, a stint as a judge on American Idol, producing and hosting her own TV competition (World of Dance) and starring in her own TV drama (Shades of Blue). She also has her own production company, clothing lines and fragrances. Hollywood’s most successful Latino actress by far, if she gets a Best Actress Academy Award for this role, she’d become the first Latina to do so.

But it’s Wu, the star of TV’s Fresh Off the Boat, and who made such a movie splash in Crazy Rich Asians, who provides the story’s true heartbeat as Destiny. A single mom trying to care for her young daughter and her immigrant grandmother, she’s eventually troubled by the ethics of the plan she and Ramona have masterminded.

Hustlers

Lilli Reinhart, Lopez, Keke Palmer & Wu celebrate in ‘Hustlers’

The rest of the cast is particularly solid as well, with Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart, Madeline Brewer from The Handmaid’s Tale, Scream QueensKeke Palmer and rappers Cardi B and Lizzo in colorful supporting roles that shore up—and stir up—this story about sisterhood, family, ferocious femininity and how the line between right and wrong can sometimes get pretty blurry.

Julia Stiles plays a journalist through which everything unfolds in back-and-forth flashbacks.

So there’s a lot of “representation” in Hustlers, both onscreen and offscreen—women taking charge, minority actors moving to the fore, men who commodify women getting taken down, and taken to the cleaners. As a lot of people have been saying for some time, it’s about time.

“Everybody’s hustlin’,” says Ramona, who notes that we’re all either doing our dance, or throwing down our money. Let’s all do the Hustle. And all hail queen J-Lo.

In theaters Sept. 13, 2019

Down to Clown

It’s the end of the line for Stephen King’s supremely creepy clown

IT: CHAPTER TWO

It Chapter Two
Starring Bill Hader, Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Sophia Lillis & Finn Wolfhard
R
Directed by Andy Muschietti

Cinema’s creepiest clown is back—and it only took him two years. Or was it 27?

Depends on how you’re counting.

It Chapter Two, the sequel to the 2017 horror-hit blockbuster, is based again on Stephen King’s novel from 1986. The new movie is set 27 years after the events depicted in the first film, when a group of small-town Pennsylvania kids first confronted Pennywise, the deadly, dancing, drooling clown.

Chapter two, 27, 1986, 2017… Keeping up? The only numbers that matter are at the box office, which is likely going to be huge for this mega-budget scare-fest that pulls out all the stops with special effects, star power and a combo cast of kids from the first film, plus new actors now playing them as adults. Fans are going to flock to it, just as they did to the first one, a $700 million box-office behemoth that’s become the highest-grossing horror movie of all time, and the most successful King movie adaptation by far.

Bill Hader, Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Andy Bean, Isaiah Mustafa and Jay Ryan play the “grown-up” Losers.

The movie reunites the kids (Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jaeden Martell, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Jeremy Ray Taylor and Wyatt Oleff), a group of misfits and outcasts who called themselves the Losers when they banded together to confront Pennywise the first time. Now, as adults spread out across the country, they regroup—as they vowed to do all those years ago—when they hear that an evil tide is once more on the rise in their hometown of Derry.

The movie flips in flashbacks between the younger Losers and the grownups they’ve become (Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Jay Ryan, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, James Ransone and Andy Bean), and sometimes even pairs them together in the same scenes.

Bill Skarsgård returns as Pennywise, the super-nasty sewer dweller who definitely throws the nightmare needle into the red. He can shape-shift into just about anything, and his mouth is a maw of teeth just waiting to pounce—especially on cherubic children. Wanting to hire entertainment for your kid’s birthday party? Pennywise has ruined that gig for clowns. Get a bounce house and fill it with snakes, or hire a drunken knife thrower instead. You’ll feel so much safer.

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Jessica Chastain

King’s book was a cumbersome 1,400 pages, and it’s already been one movie. Now get ready for Chapter Two, which clocks in at nearly three hours long. Just threading all the younger and older characters (and actors) into the tapestry of the plot requires a lot of stitching. Director Andy Muschietti, also returning from the first It, fleshes out everyone’s backstory as we learn about their initial encounters with Pennywise—and the individual childhood insecurities, weaknesses, tragedies, secrets, failures and fears that the clown comes to represent, exploit and feed upon.

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Bill Hader

Even though Chastain, as grown-up Beverly Marsh, is a two-time Oscar nominee, it’s Hader, as the bespectacled, trash-mouthed Richie Tozier, who becomes the movie’s clear standout and audience favorite. McAvoy has some major moments as older Bill Denbrough, still haunted by how his little brother was taken and killed by Pennywise at the beginning of the first film. (Now a writer whose books are made into big Hollywood movies, Denbrough is perhaps the movie’s “projection” of King himself.)

There are also a couple of big-name cameos and a nod to another iconic King movie adaptation, The Shining.

The movie earns its R rating with some truly gruesome, gory incidents, including a brutal bashing of a gay character (but to give credit where it’s due, it was taken straight from the book, and in turn inspired by a real-life 1984 hate crime in Bangor, Maine) and a couple of particularly unpleasant attacks by Pennywise. But it mixes its phantasmagoric horror with dark humor, as the Losers quip and quibble.

All the Losers, past and present, are winners—the younger actors slip right back into their roles, and the “oldsters” pick up the character nuances and personality tics of their younger counterparts. The movie blends traditional horror with the psychological terrors of adults confronting the demons of traumas long ago forgotten, suppressed, or buried by time.

Not everything works. The movie’s too long, it feels a bit overstuffed, and sometimes the bombastic effects (especially in the finale) swallow up the story and the characters. A few too many details just seem to hang loose. Somehow, no one else in the whole town of Derry, other than the Losers, realizes that the World’s Deadliest Clown is living underneath them, preying on their children—and he’s been doing it for centuries.

IC2_4And speaking of everyone else in Derry, where are they? The streets are always deserted. Maybe Pennywise ate everyone. I think the movie must not have had much budget for hiring extras after spending so much for CGI, including “de-aging” the young actors, shaving off a few crucial growth years to get them back to looking like the fresh-faced early teens they were when making the first movie in 2016.

But this is it, supposedly, for It. At least that’s what the poster and the movie promos say. And It goes out with a bang—full of strangeness and suspense, a jack-in-the-box of jolts and jumps, oozing and clattering and shrieking with freak-show, gross-out, goose-bump weirdness, giving the ol’ heartstrings a sentimental tug while it cranks out hair-raising, FX terrors.

And all in all, two hours and 49 minutes, 27 years and a bunch of scares later, it’s a good ending for a bad—a very, very, very bad—clown.

In theaters Sept. 6, 2019

Falling Again

Gerard Butler returns to his post in bullet-riddled franchise sequel 

Angel Has Fallen_4 (72)Angel Has Fallen
Starring Gerard Butler & Morgan Freeman
R
Directed by Ric Roman Waugh

If your toilet’s clogged, you call a plumber. When your shingles are shot, it’s time for a roofer. Need a new transmission? See a mechanic.

But if your government is under attack, the only name you need in your little black book is Mike Banning, Secret Service agent, former U.S. Army Ranger, protector of presidents and other heads of state.

Banning—as portrayed by Scottish actor Gerard Butler—has dodged many a bullet (both physically and figuratively) in two previous movies, not to mention a number of other, much more combustive close calls.

Banning, the character, and Butler, the actor, both return to their posts in Angel Has Fallen, which continues in the tradition of Olympus Has Fallen (2013) and London Has Fallen (2016). It’s a red-meat grinder of gunfire and pyro built atop a gonzo storyline of implausible political implosion, an astonishing amount of carnage and, at this particular moment in time, a tone-deaf disregard for the mood of much of the nation for seeing dozens of people mowed down by all kinds of military-grade weaponry, often at point-blank range.

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Morgan Freeman

In Angel Has Fallen, Banning is framed for an assassination attempt on U.S. President Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman). In previous films, Trumbull was speaker of the house, then vice president. Who better than Morgan Freeman to work his way up into the Oval Office? The versatile Oscar winner, whose all-star movie resume includes Million Dollar Baby, Driving Miss Daisy, Glory, the Batman/Dark Knight franchise, Se7en, The Shawshank Redemption and Now You See Me, certainly gets my vote! (But wait—after being God, in Bruce Almighty, isn’t president a bit of, um, a demotion?)

Anyway, of course, Banning—loyal as a collie, smart as a sheltie, protective as a pit bull—didn’t do it. But who did? And why? That’s what you’ll spend half the movie wondering, until the movie conveniently lays it all in your lap (make sure you’re finished with your popcorn). Then you’ll wonder how Banning—by then a fugitive, on the lam—clears his name, where it’s all headed and how it’ll get there, when the prez will pop out of his coma, and where Banning acquired all the tools in his amazing, secret-service skill set. How did he learn how to pick open a set of handcuffs (in the dark!) with a scavenged, paper-clip-sized part from an assault rifle? How does he know (just know!) the geo-satellite coordinates of a tiny, remote, rural spot of nowhere? How does he walk through a thicket of woods right up to what has to be the only remaining roadside pay phone in all of West Virginia?

In a clunky, overtly obvious attempt to appear timely, the script drops in pointed references to Russian collusion, election tampering, hackers, the dark web and press leaks. One timely thing never noted, however—mass shootings in schools, places of worship or shopping centers. That probably wouldn’t do, in a movie with a plot dependent on more gunfire than lines of dialogue, more bullets flying than anyone could conceivably count, and an entire hospital (with people presumably inside) turned into one big bomb and a pile of smoldering rubble.

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Jada Pinkett Smith plays an FBI agent…who doesn’t like what she sees.

Danny Huston has a significant role as Banning’s old Army buddy, Wade Jennings, who now runs a private paramilitary contracting enterprise and training facility. “War is deception,” he tells Banning. Those words ring true, in a couple of ways, before the movie is over.

Piper Perabo plays Banning’s wife, Leah, now a mother to their toddler daughter (who appears to be genuinely traumatized by one truly traumatizing scene). Tim Blake Nelson (best known for his role as Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) is the VP, who takes over when Trumbull becomes incapacitated. You may recognize Lance Reddick (he was Cedric Daniels on The Wire, and he plays Charon in the John Wick movie franchise) as David Gentry, the head of the White House Secret Service.

But you’ll have to wait a little while for the main supporting-actor attraction. It’s Nick Nolte, who plays Banning’s long-estranged father, Clay. Looking a bit like a nicotine-stained, hermit-hillbilly Santa Claus, Clay’s a crusty Vietnam vet now living way off-the-grid, but still with a few jungle-warfare tricks up his sleeve. He hasn’t forgotten how to light up the night, and Nolte certainly brightens the movie. A former A-list leading man with a trio of Oscar nominations and more than 100 roles on his resume, he’s a tasty bit of old-salt and vinegar seasoning, especially in a sentimental scene when Clay connects for the first time with the daughter-in-law (and granddaughter) he’s never met.

And be sure to stay after the credits begin for a whimsical scene with Nolte and Butler. After the punishing bombardment of shooting, stabbing, scuffling, sky-high explosions and the ridiculously high body count that’s preceded it, its comical coda is a soft landing that at least ends this rough ride on a bit of a cushion.

At one point, Bannon leaves the president in a safe spot but assures him he’ll return, after he’s checked to make sure everything is secure. “I’ll be back before you know it,” he tells him.

Banning’s a man of his word. And given the regularity with which these Fallen movies seem to set ’em up and knock ’em down again and again, he could very well be back.

This is lowbrow entertainment for an audience that likes good guys to win, bad guys to lose, and doesn’t mind too much if everything around them becomes collateral damage in the process.

Somehow, it all gets reset before the next movie. Just wait—oh, about three years—and you might get to see who, or what, “falls” next.

In theaters Aug. 23, 2019

Naughty & Nice

Childhood innocence clashes with R-rated raunch in randy coming-of-age comedy

Film Title: "Good Boys"

Keith L. Williams, Jacob Tremblay and Brady Noon are ‘Good Boys.’

Good Boys
Starring Jacob Tremblay, Brady Noon & Keith L. Williams
Directed by Gene Stupnitsky
R

The little boys in Good Boys aren’t bad boys—but boy, do they ever get into some wickedly funny stuff!

But be prepared—this is no TV after-school special. Co-produced by Seth Rogen, and with a writer-producer pedigree that includes Superbad, Neighbors and Sausage Party, this R-rated romp is a randy coming-of-age comedy about a trio of 12-year-old best friends who find their first couple of weeks of sixth grade a wild ride of f-bombs, sex toys and illegal drugs.

And no, I never thought I’d be writing a sentence that strings together “comedy,” “12-year-old,” “f-bombs,” “sex toys,” and “illegal drugs.”

It all revolves around Max (Jacob Tremblay, from Room and Wonder), who has a crush on a fellow student, Brixlee (Millie Davis, who played Gemma on TV’s Orphan Black, and now appears on the PBS kids’ series Odd Squad). When one of the coolest kids in Max’s class, Soren (Izaac Wang), invites him to a “kissing party” at his house, Max knows he has to be there—especially when he finds out Brixlee will be there, too.

Film Title: "Good Boys"But first he and his friends, Thor (Brady Noon) and Lucas (Keith L. Williams), have to learn how to kiss. This sets them off on a frantic suburban scavenger hunt that involves internet porn; a drone; spying on two older neighbor girls (Molly Gordon and Midori Francis); accidentally coming into possession of someone else’s stash of the drug molly; an escape from a frat house; a mad dash across a busy freeway; and a close call with a cop.

Much of the scabrous humor involves the comedic clash of the kids’ basic decency and naiveté with the craziness and debauchery of things they encounter. Their young lives are too sheltered to know the difference between nymphomaniac and pyromaniac, or what, exactly, Thor’s parents’ extensive stash of “marital aids” are supposed to be. They think a sex doll is a (very lifelike!) CPR dummy. And why not use an, ahem, erotic stimulation aid as weapon, or another as a necklace? It sure looks like one!

At some point, the novelty and the shock of watching kids fumble around in a grownup—sometimes smutty—world, proving they can be just as potty-mouthed as anyone else, wears a little thin. No one will be surprised, after all, that 12-year-olds can curse, swill beer or discover their parents have sex. But the witty script by writers Lee Eisenberg and first-time director Gene Stupnitsky, who also teamed up for the movies Bad Teacher and Year One, does make their young characters feel genuine. (How ironic that none of them are old enough to see their own movie without their parents.)

Film Title: "Good Boys"

Busted! Tremblay with Midori Francis (left) and Molly Gordon

The three friends, who call themselves the Beanbag Boys, have been inseparable since kindergarten. The movie shows how adolescence is a time of shifting sand, when even the strongest of childhood bonds can be tested as interests begin to change, hormones start to boil and bubble and peer pressures push and pull. Thor, an impressive singer and budding theater geek, puts his plans to audition for the school musical on hold after a group of other kids make fun of him. The super-sensitive Lucas, who wears his feelings painfully close to the surface, is having trouble dealing with the divorce of his parents (Lil Rel Howery and Retta). And Max has to break it to his besties that he’s moved on to more “grownup” things, like girls, while they’re still into role-playing games and kid stuff.

Film Title: "Good Boys"

Spin the Bottle with Brixlee (Millie Davis)

Good Boys is a movie where childhood innocence—a game of Spin the Bottle, bike rides through a sprinkler, the camaraderie of young friendship—intersects with a profane punch of wild, rollicking, ribald comedy, purified with the sunshine of genuine sweetness. These Good Boys really are good boys.

After one tiff threatens to pull the Beanbag Boys apart, Lucas’ mom tells him about a hermit crab he once owned, and how crabs outgrow their shells and have to find new ones. The Beanbag Boys, she tells Lucas, are growing up, and are going to have to find new, bigger shells.

Is your shell big enough for a comedy about tweens, f-bombs, molly and sex toys? If so, Good Boys is a good one.

In theaters Aug. 16, 2019

Married to the Mob

Gender-flipped gangster saga ‘The Kitchen’ is like a gal-centric ‘Goodfellas’

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Elisabeth Moss, Tiffany Haddish & Melissa McCarthy: gangsta gals

The Kitchen
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish & Elisabeth Moss

Directed by Andrea Berloff
R

Three women who are married to the mob take over their husband’s work in this gritty gangster drama set in the late 1970s in the New York City borough known as Hell’s Kitchen.

Based on a DC Comics series of the same name, The Kitchen follows the story of Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire (Elisabeth Moss) after their mobster men are sent to prison. Other members of the local Irish gang of thugs offer them little in terms of support or protection; they’re outsiders, they’re women, and they’re on their own.

“They’ve been tellin’ us forever that we’re never gonna be good for nothin’ except havin’ babies,” says Ruby, indignantly.

So Ruby, Kathy and Claire decide to take matters into their own hands, muscling in on the gang’s rackets and skimming off their neighborhood protection money. Soon enough, they’re known around the Kitchen as “the Irish Girls,” they’ve got connections with labor unions and cops, they’re comfortable using guns and knives—and they’ve attracted the attention of a big-cheese Italian mob boss (Bill Camp) across town, in Brooklyn.

As you may have guessed, this isn’t a comedy—even though there are moments of dark, grim, gallows humor. McCarthy and Haddish both certainly know how to find the funny and shake out the silly. But just not in this movie.

180524_Owens_Pub_Gabrielle_Kathy_Ruby_Gang_00328.dngThe Kitchen is a character-driven crime drama, a period-piece that rocks its time and place with serious attention to detail. The streets look appropriately grungy and grimy, down to random bits of trash and puddles of mystery goop. The fashion is right-on, even when it’s basic or frumpy. Music from Heart, the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., Montrose and other acts from the era help set the scenes—as does a well-chosen cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” by the new country-rockin’ act The Highwomen (Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires).

180615_Liquor_Store_42nd_ST_Sidewalk_00061.dngThe three main characters are fully fleshed out; they’re complicated women, each in a different, difficult situation. McCarthy’s Kathy is a loving mom, raising two children with a husband (Brian D’Arcy James) who’s resentful of anything she tries to do outside the home. Haddish plays it tough and sassy as Ruby, a double outsider—she’s black and female, even though she’s the wife of the son (James Badge Dale) of the mob’s maleficent mol, Ma (Margo Martindale). Claire’s toxic relationship with the abusive Rob (Jeremy Bobb) melts away when he goes away to prison—and Gabriel, the intense Vietnam vet-next-door (Domhnall Gleeson), moves in. Moss, the Emmy-winning star of The Handmaid’s Tale, gets perhaps the movie’s sweetest—and grisliest—subplot as Claire and Gabriel bond.

We watch all three women break out of their shells. “I’m not gonna get knocked around ever again,” vows Claire. She certainly doesn’t use her bathtub for bathing ever again, either, at least not very often—well, you’ll find out when you see the movie.

_MMG9665.dng

Common

Rapper-turned-actor Common plays the FBI agent assigned to surveille the Irish mob. He spends a lot of time in a cramped cargo van.

Bullets fly, blood spills, splats and spatters, bones crunch. This is a different kind of ladies’ night, for sure. It’s a mobster movie with a gender flip. But that’s glossing over something even bigger—The Kitchen has a top-down message about female empowerment. (The movie opens with Etta James singing her version of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s World,” which continues with the line, “…but it wouldn’t be nothin’ without a woman, or a girl.”)

It’s the first feature film from director Andrea Berloff, who was nominated for an Oscar for her screenwriting (Straight Outta Compton). Award-winning French cinematographer Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler) gives everything a washy, time-capsule, Kodachrome-like sheen that recalls vintage 35mm flicks from the 1970s.

It’s not an epic piece of filmmaking; it’s a little too loose and too uneven. And there are a few too many goombah meatballs in the thick Irish stew, mostly unnecessary palookas that sop up time that could have been spent on colorful, much more interesting characters like Gleeson’s Gabriel—clearly haunted by terrible things he hints he’s seen and done—and Martindale’s Ma, the Bible-quoting mob matriarch who’s ascended to the top of her neighborhood’s otherwise male-dominated criminal cartel. But the movie is solidly grounded by its trio of outstanding lead actresses, and it’s a treat to watch them dig into roles that let them blast away at 1970s notions of what women could, should—and shouldn’t—do.

There are twists, turns, gotchas and spoilers that I wouldn’t dare divulge. There’s murder, muck and messes to mop up, and the movie brings up issues about power, control and the cold, hard costs of doing business when you decide to play big and get down and dirty.

“You go to war,” Brooklyn mob boss Alfonso Coretti tells them, “there’s no coming back.”

In other words, if you can’t stand the heat…stay out of The Kitchen.

In theaters Aug. 9, 2019

 

Diesel Fumes

Buckle up for a fuel-injected mix of banter, ballistics and beefy, bone-crunching beatdowns

Film Title: Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & ShawFast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw
Starring Dwayne Johnson & Jason Statham
Directed by David Leitch
PG-13

Buckle up—Hollywood’s high-octane franchise peels out in a super-charged spinoff featuring two tough guys teamed up to save the planet from a cyber-enhanced mega-villain.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is federal agent Luke Hobbs, and Jason Statham plays Deckard Shaw, a rogue British Special Forces assassin, both reprising their roles from previous Fast & Furious flicks. In case you’ve lost count, there’ve been eight, starting with The Fast and the Furious back in 2001.

The F&F films—now Universal Pictures’ highest-grossing franchise of all time, with a total box-office draw of some $5 billion—came to be known for over-the-top action, spectacular  vehicular stunts, bombastic fights and a colorful core of misfit, muscle-bound motorheads. The movies weren’t high art, but they became the go-to for bountiful cinematic buffets of shoot-’em-up, blow-’em-up, beat-’em-up guilty pleasures, built upon the fuel-injected, chop-shop charisma of leading-man Vin Diesel and his late co-star, Paul Walker (who died in 2013) and a cadre of supporting actors. I’ll always have fond memories of the times they dueled with tanks, raced submarines and parachuted cars out of an airplane.

Film Title: Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & ShawHobbs and Shaw weren’t always teammates, as F&F fans well know. They started out on opposite sides of the playing field—with Shaw as an outright baddie—but became begrudging colleagues, and fan favorites, after an heroic act of redemption by Shaw (see The Fate of the Furious, 2017).

Now they’re called back into action to track down a virtually indestructible criminal, Brixton (Idris Elba, the star of TV’s Luther), who’s been reverse-engineered with cyber technology to become the vanguard of a shadowy movement that purports to become the “future of mankind.” Brixton will do anything to get his hands on a deadly proto-virus—a programmable apocalypse—with the power to wipe out all humanity and start over again.

Film Title: Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

Idris Elba is “black Superman.”

“I’m black Superman!” he decrees.

Hobbs and Shaw need to get to the virus first, and fast—not only to save the world, but also for an extremely personal reason.

Fast cars? Explosions? Fights? Yes, yes and yes! This is a Fast & Furious property, after all. There’s a rip-roaring chase through downtown London with a supercool convertible McLaren 720S Spider and Brixton’s “smart” motorcycle, and another through the collapsing, exploding ruins of a decrepit Ukrainian factory—and bonus points for a clash-of-the-titans, three-way smackdown that continues onto the back of a moving flatbed truck.

And that’s all before the action moves to Samoa, where the fighting takes a “traditional” twist as Hobbs reconnects with his family there—and he and Decker lasso Brixton’s helicopter with a giant chain from a wrecker.

Vanessa Kirby (she played Princess Margaret in The Crown on Netflix) is a total badass as Shaw’s sister, Hattie, an MI6 field agent with a secret—and a combustive, combative skill set that puts her right alongside other formidable females in in the F&F lineage, including Michelle Rodriguez, Gal Gadot and Charlize Theron. There’s the great Helen Mirren, reprising her previous role from The Fate of the Furious as Shaw’s mother, Queenie, now in prison—and adapting quite well, thank you. And a couple of surprise comedic cameos (I won’t spoil it by giving them away) add to the tasty flow of quick-fire quips and humor.

Johnson and Statham, both alpha-male movie stars, fall easily into the movie’s heady, diesel-fuel mix of banter, ballistics and beefy, bone-crunching, balls-to-the-wall beatdowns. Director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) has a good grip on combining outrageous action with good ol’ buddy comedy, and he understands that the supercharged engine of the Fast & Furious movies has always purred with the warm, steady hum of another f-word, family.

At one point in Hobbs & Shaw, a multi-vehicle pursuit seems to lead into a dead end. Oh, no! Was it in London? Or the Ukraine? Or that narrow mountain road in Samoa, with four or five cars and trucks daisy-chained to a helicopter, about to pull them all over a cliff, and Hobbs holding them all together, like Hercules?

“We’re running out of road!” shouts Hattie.

Not to worry. With two more Fast & Furious movies already in the pipeline, an animated Netflix series this fall, and maybe even another spinoff coming down the pike, there’s still plenty of room for the F&F franchise to roam, a lot more road to ride. It’s a big, wide world, there’s always somewhere else to go, and just look around—there are so many places that haven’t been destroyed yet!

In theaters Aug. 2, 2019

Hollywood Nights

Worlds Collide in Quentin Tarantino’s Wild Ride Thru the Summer of ’69

2488029 - ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio & Brad Pitt
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
R

An aging movie actor and his faithful stuntman find themselves on a collision course with fate in Quentin Tarantino’s sprawling, deliciously detailed ode to Hollywood’s faded glories.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the director’s 10th film, is set in the sweltering summer of 1969—a major moment in time in which the world was churning and turning, if not burning, in several ways. The Beatles were breaking up in England, men were walking on the moon, the war in Vietnam was raging, Woodstock was grooving in upstate New York.

In Hollywood, there’s Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose box-office star once shone bright in action-packed movies, and as the lead of his own Western TV series. But now Rick is relegated to guest roles, often as a villain, on other people’s prime-time hits—like The F.B.I, Mannix and The Green Hornet—and he soaks his faltering acting career in booze.

2488029 - ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton guest-stars as a “heavy” on the 1960s hit TV show “The F.B.I.”

Since Rick lost his license to the bottle, he’s driven around by his longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

Cliff lives in a dingy trailer behind the Van Nuys Drive-In, with his rust-colored pit bull, Brandy. On Rick’s cul-de-sac at the end of Cielo Drive, in Benedict Canyon, just north of Beverly Hills, he’s jazzed to discover that his new next-door neighbors are Polish director Roman Polanski and his wife, aspiring actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).

On one of their jaunts around town, Rick and Cliff see a bunch of young hippie chicks, dumpster diving in shorty-short cut-off jeans and halter tops. Rick is disgusted, but Cliff is intrigued. Later, he’ll give one of them a ride. Turns out she lives in a commune with a guy named Charlie—as in Charlie Manson.

You probably already know, or can guess, where all this is headed—to a fateful intersection with the horrific events of Aug. 8, 1969, when Manson’s followers went on a killing spree and slaughtered Sharon Tate and four others in her home. But Tarantino’s never felt strictly beholden to facts. Remember, this is the director who blew up Hitler in Inglourious Basterds. Don’t hold him to historical record.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, with a title that begins like a fairy tale, a fable or a children’s bedtime story, is an ode to a golden, gilded age of Hollywood that Tarantino clearly cherishes—a time and a place that shaped his sensibilities as a filmmaker and a savant of pop culture. Meticulously crafted, masterfully curated and obsessively detailed, it’s like a cinematic sandbox of Tarantino touchstones. Hamlet coexists on the same pop-cultural plane with I Love Lucy, and the soundtrack blares tunes from Deep Purple, Paul Revere & The Raiders, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Diamond, cheesy commercials and snippets of the era’s movie tunes. There are Nazis, cowboys, jocks, jive talk, G.I.s, and a bloody reckoning.

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Margo Robbie

And what a cast. DiCaprio—making his first film in four years, since The Revenant—and Pitt are both Tarantino veterans. They’re both great here once again, leathery leading men who have no trouble at all hitting a confident stride through the movie’s inventive interplay of reality, fiction, fantasy, revisionist history and buddy comedy. Al Pacino plays a Hollywood producer who tries to convince Rick that his future lies in making spaghetti Westerns in Italy. There’s Damian Lewis as actor Steve McQueen at a party at the Playboy Mansion; Bruce Dern appears in a scene as George Spahn, the elderly man who allowed Manson and his followers to use his ranch.

Watch closely and you’ll also see Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Clifton Collins Jr., Scoot McNairy, Lena Dunham and Rumer Willis.

But the centerpiece, and the heart, of the whole thing is Robbie, the Australian actress who previously appeared with DiCaprio The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). As Sharon Tate, she has barely a dozen lines in the whole film, but she’s one of the first characters to appear, she’s threaded into it throughout, and she’s vitally important to its overall theme. She floats and glides, all sunshine and smiles, the embodiment of the innocence and beauty and paradise “lost” as the peace and love of the 1960s busted up and came crashing down in a tumultuous end.

Not all stories that begin “Once upon a time…” end happily after ever, as we know. Sometimes they end…well, like Quentin Tarantino wishes they had, especially when he’s in charge of the storytelling.

In theaters July 26, 2019

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