Author Archives: Neil Pond

Summer Means Sharks

‘This Is Us’ star Mandy Moore goes deep in underwater thriller

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47 Meters Down
Starring Mandy Moore, Claire Holt & Matthew Modine
Directed by Johannes Roberts

Ever since Jaws in 1975, it hasn’t really felt like summer without sharks.

That landmark movie officially introduced the ocean’s alpha predator to pop culture, and the shark has remained an entertainment staple ever since.

So come on in the water!

The Discovery Channel launched its hugely popular block of Shark Week programming in the 1980s. Since 2013, there have been five Sharknado movies, schlocky horror-comedy disaster TV flicks about tornados filled with sharks. Last summer, Blake Lively played a surfer menaced by a great white in The Shallows. (72)_rgb

Kate (Claire Holt) and Lisa (Mandy Moore) prepare to take the plunge.

Now, in 47 Meters Down, two sisters on a vacation getaway in Mexico find themselves trapped in a shark cage at the bottom of the ocean, running out of oxygen in their scuba tanks, cut off from communication with the excursion boat above them—and yes, surrounded by sharks.

How did they get there? Well, the spunky younger sister, Kate (Claire Holt, who played Rebekah Mikaelson on The Vampire Diaries and now on its spinoff, The Originals) convinced Lisa (Mandy Moore, from TV’s This Is Us) to do something brash and daring to help shake off the funk of a recent breakup with her boyfriend.

Watching sharks is perfectly safe, some locals tell them. “Like you go to the zoo, except you’re in the cage,” one says.

“Think of the photos!” says Kate excitedly, envisioning some awesome underwater Instagram and Snapchat posts.

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Taylor (Matthew Modine) prepares his customers for their dive in the shark cage.

So Kate and Lisa agree to hop aboard a rust bucket of a boat, the Sea Esta, for a shark excursion. Their captain and guide, Taylor (Matthew Modine), takes his vessel far out into open water, gives the sisters a crash course in their gear and assures them everything will be fine. Taylor’s assistant chums the water with a bucket of fish heads and blood. “Here fishy, fishy…” he calls out.

In just a moment, a 20-foot-long great white breaks the surface.

Taylor tells Kate and Lisa he’ll lower them in the cage to about five meters, or about 16 feet, below the surface, and they’ll be in constant radio contact through their scuba masks.

Almost as soon as Kate and Lisa go underwater in the tank, they drop their waterproof camera. It falls through the rusty metal bars of the cage and floats into the murky water below—where it’s immediately swallowed into the massive maw of a huge shark, who sweeps out of nowhere and comes so close that the girls can almost touch it.

Then the unthinkable happens. The wench unspooling the cable to the cage breaks loose from the boat, sending the whole setup plunging down, down, down to the bottom—47 meters down, more than 150 feet.

47MD_Still021_rgb (72)British director Johannes Roberts knows how to startle, spook and surprise. Even if you didn’t see any of his previous flicks, the titles alone—The Other Side of the Door, Forest of the Damned, Hellbreeder—should give you a pretty good indication that he loves poking around dark corners, keeping audiences guessing, and cranking up the suspense.

The underwater sequences were filmed in a tank and the sharks are computer-generated, but Kate and Lisa’s situation feels “real” enough that audiences will get several good, genuine jolts as their circumstances go from very bad to even worse and their resourcefulness—and desperate survival instincts—come into play.

Moore and Holt do commendable jobs, sealed up inside scuba suits, delivering their lines via radio transmitters in their masks and performing most of the movie submerged. Director Roberts and his two aqua-actors spin a tight, concise little water web of peril, tension and excitement—and build to something you totally won’t see coming, unless someone spoils it for you, at the end.

“The shark almost got me!” an alarmed Kate says at one point.

Ok, it’s not Shakespeare, but hey, it is summer—so come on in the water!

In theaters June 16, 2017

Mummy Nation

The Mummy Breathes New Life Into Ancient Tale

Film Title: The MummyThe Mummy
Starring Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Russell Crowe & Annabelle Wallis
Directed by Alex Kurtzman

She’s dark, sexy, mysterious and dangerous—and 5,000 years old.

She’s the freshly resurrected cadaver, the mummy, in Universal Studio’s big-budget, big-star reboot of one its classic horror franchise flicks.

Algerian actress Sofia Boutella (from Kingsmen: Secret Service and Star Trek Beyond) steps into the spotlight as Ahmanet, the former Egyptian princess awakened from her crypt with a serious chip on her mummified shoulder.

Film Title: The Mummy

Tom Cruise

Superstar Tom Cruise gets most of the movie’s screen time, however, as Nick Morton, a U.S. Army specialist on duty in Iraq whose sideline of treasure hunting leads to the discovery of Ahmanet’s tomb and the release of her malevolent powers.

Annabelle Wallis (from TV’s Peaky Blinders and the movies Annabelle and King Arthur) has a major costarring role as archeologist Jenny Halsey, who cautions Nick that he’s stumbled across “antiquity’s darkest secret.” Russell (Gladiator) Crowe has a hammy ball as London’s Dr. Henry Jekyll (yes, that Dr. Jekyll), constantly trying to rein in his explosively nasty id, Mr. Hyde.

Film Title: The Mummy

Russell Crowe

Emmy-winning Courtney B. Vance, who played attorney Johnnie Cochran on TV’s American Crime Story, appears briefly as Nick’s no-nonsense superior, a U.S. Army colonel.

The Mummy puts a new, energetic, action-packed spin on the age-old saga as Nick and Jenny spend most of the film fleeing from—or fighting with—Ahamanet and her resurrected mummy minions. (Think Mission: Impossible—Mummy Nation.) Nick soon figures out he’s been cursed, “chosen” by the princess to become her immortal partner. But he’s not at all interested, especially as it involves some unpleasant business with a big curved dagger and letting his human body become the vessel for the Egyptian god of death.

Following typical modern-blockbuster ratios and proportions, quips, comedic zingers and romantic conflict balance out the scares.

Alex Kurtzman, a former producer and writer whose only previous directorial feature was the 2012 Disney/Dreamworks comedy-drama People Like Us, steps up impressively into the big leagues. Boutella’s slinky, slithering mummy, wrapped in tattered strips of gauzy linen, her skin covered with tattoos of Egyptian hieroglyphs, is a bewitching villainess of terrifying, exotic beauty. But beware her kiss—it’ll literally suck the life right out of you.

Film Title: The MummyThere’s a spectacular escape from a military transport plane in a death-spiral nosedive, a sandstorm that sweeps through downtown London, and attacks by swarms of spiders and rats that will give almost anyone giddy goosebumps. An underwater chase by a horde of swimming mummies shows just how far everything has come from the lumbering, shuffling brutes in their earliest Hollywood incarnations at the dawn of the 1900s.

Speaking of which, hasn’t anyone in this movie ever seen a mummy movie before? Don’t they realize you can’t raid a creepy Egyptian tomb without likely running afoul of something awful? Why doesn’t anyone ever say, “Wow! It’s just like in the movies!”?

The mummy is one of our most enduring pop-cultural artifacts, featured on the big screen in more than 30 different titles for over a century, since the days of silent films. Horror fans hold Boris Karloff in high esteem for starring in the classic version in 1932, a year after he played “the monster” in Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Christopher Lee and dozens of other lesser actors have gone under wraps for the role. Though they weren’t mummies, Brendon Frasier and Rachel Weisz starred in a 1999 remake and its 2001 sequel.

Film Title: The MummyBut this Mummy is the biggest blowout yet, a $125 million spectacle of marquee stars, eye-popping special effects and flashy setup for Universal’s Dark Universe, a franchise-wide relaunch of its movie-monster properties of yore, including The Invisible Man, Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein.

As Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll says, “Welcome to a new world of gods and monsters.”

Indeed—and as The Mummy ends, it’s obvious something bigger is just beginning to get unwrapped.

In theaters June 9, 2017

Too Many Barnacles

Fifth Pirates flick is waterlogged, overstuffed & a-swirl with bustle and swill

nullPirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Starring Johnny Deep, Javiar Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario & Geoffrey Rush
Directed by Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg

“A pirate’s life,” muses captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), covered in mud, soaked in rum and being led away by British soldiers in the fifth movie sprung from Walt Disney’s theme park ride of the same name.

In Pirates 5, let’s just call it, Sparrow is searching for the Trident of Poseidon, a legendary staff said to hold “all the power of the sea.” Of course, it don’t come easy. A nasty new villain, Salazar (Javier Bardem), has risen from his watery tomb in the Devil’s Triangle, with a crew of murderous zombie not-so-jolly rogers, looking for the same mythical doodad—and he has a serious bone of revenge to pick with Jack Sparrow.

And Jack’s old nemesis, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), also gets drawn into the fray.


Kaya Scodelario & Brenton Thwaites

Two other new characters provide the movie’s fresh faces—and its spark of romance. Spunky, handsome Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites, who played Prince Phillip in the movie Maleficent) is on a lifelong quest to find Sparrow, the renowned captain who alone holds the key to breaking a curse that binds his father, William (Orlando Bloom), to Davy Jones’ sunken Flying Dutchman. And Carina (Kaya Scodelario from the Maze Runner franchise) is a fetching young astronomer whose love of the stars causes her to constantly be mistaken for a sorceress.

There are a lot of moving parts in Pirates 5: a lot of characters, a lot of elaborate effects, a lot of things meant to razzle and dazzle. The movie is part of a huge franchise, one that’s made nearly $1.3 billion since 2003.

Now, after sailing around for nearly 15 years, it feels like something that’s taken on too much water, too many passengers, too many back stories and too many barnacles. A new pair of directors, Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, bring a few new ideas to some of the swashbuckling spectacle and the slapstick—like Jack and Carina’s escape from their botched execution, a bank robbery that involves stealing an entire building, and a getaway from the ocean floor up a massive chain of a ship’s anchor.

But the whole enterprise feels overstuffed and waterlogged, all a-swirl with bustle, swill and bilge, despite its attempts at “deeper” messages about treasures of the non-material kind and navigating by maps don’t exist on paper. It probably reaches its lowest, most ludicrous point when Sparrow, Henry and Carina escape a group of ghost sharks. The phantom fish crunch their row boat, nip at them and leap (in slow motion) overhead before Capt. Jack hooks one to speed-tow his little vessel ashore.

I kept imagining how much better the scene would have been with music from Gilligan’s Island.


Javier Bardem

As the maniacal undead Salazar, Bardem channels the bad-guy charisma that made his character of the psychopathic killer Anton Chagurh in No Country For Old Men so bone-chillingly memorable. He’s a wheezing, ghostly white wraith, dripping blood and literally falling apart in flecks of deep-sea, computer-generated ghoul dreck. And he’s the best-looking pirate in his motley, monstrous crew.

You’ll find out in Pirates 5 how and why a young Jack (a very strange looking, slenderized, un-accessorized, computer-enhanced Johnny Depp) and Salazar got off to such a bad start, how the lives of other central characters overlap and intersect, which British rock legend makes a cameo (hint: It’s not one of the Rolling Stones), and which of the franchise’s original stars pop back in for the finale.

“What be our headin’, cap’n?” crewman Gibbs (Kevin McNally, from TV’s Designated Survivor) asks Sparrow as they set sail in the movie’s final scene. “We shall follow the stars!” replies Jack.

Methinks it’s finally time the stars led Jack and his “pirate’s life” into port for good.

In theaters May 26, 2017

Rock-in’ The Beach

Movie spinoff of TV show is bawdy, brawny, spicy, sexy fun! 

Starring Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach & Jon Bass
Directed by Seth Gordon

The first day of summer is still officially a few weeks away, but why wait? Let’s get the party started with some fun, sun, sand, surf, a little bit of action, a load of laughs and some totally rockin’ beach bods!

In Baywatch, devoted lifeguard Mitch (Dwayne Johnson) leads an elite team in protecting his stretch of California beach, especially when he gets a whiff of something unusually fishy—a drug-smuggling operation that threatens the future of the bay.

Johnson, the former pro wrestler known as The Rock, has become one of Hollywood’s most versatile stars, a mountainous Atlas of an actor who can glide effortlessly between bawdy comedy and explosive action, often in the same scene. In the opener, he dives dramatically off a rocky shoreline into choppy waters to save an unconscious, downed parasailer—then emerges, beaming with a billion-dollar smile as dolphins dance in the background and the movie’s title appears on the horizon.

Mitch then jogs along the beachfront, basking in the glow of his many fans—people he’s rescued, people who know people he’s rescued, people making sand sculptures of the sea god Poseidon with Mitch’s face.


Dwayne Johnson & Zac Efron

Zac Efron plays Mitch’s new partner, Matt Brody, a former hotshot Olympic swimmer who comes aboard with muscles on his muscles—and a bit of a troubled past. Brody has to earn the respect of Mitch and the other lifeguards, Summer (Alexandra Daddario, who played Annabeth in the Percy Jackson movie series), C.J. (former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kelly Rohrbach) and Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera from TV’s Billions and Master of None).

Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra (Quantico‘s Alex Parrish) portrays a ravishing real-estate mogul with sinister plans to expand her empire, drawing a city councilman (Oscar Nuñez) and a tech-savvy computer geek (Hannibal Burress) into her dark, dangerous web. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (from the Netflix series The Get Down) is the local police sergeant, constantly butting heads with Mitch.


Ilfenesh Hadera, Kelly Rohrbach & Alexandra Daddario

Director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses, Identity Thief) concocts some absolutely hilarious setups that take full advantage of the movie’s R rating—like a morgue investigation with an uproariously raunchy riff on Johnson’s well-known, real-life status as a titan of social media; a shower scene involving an a cappella rendition of Katy Perry’s Roar and a discussion of lunch menus; and an unfortunate incident on the beach that starts with a bag of candy and ends with a wooden lounge chair, a circle of smartphones and a painfully lodged body part.


Jon Bass

Everyone gets lots of time to shine, but the movie’s main weapon in its comedy arsenal is Jon Bass, who plays Ronnie, the schlubby, tubby “outsider” chosen to be a lifeguard because of his spirit, spunk and heart. Bass, whose TV and movie roles include playing Del on the Comedy Central series Big Time in Hollywood, FL, definitely knows how to mainline the funny flow, and director Gordon gives him his own comedic subplot, a crush on fellow lifeguard C.J. And just wait until you see Ronnie’s surprising, bust-out moves on the dance floor!

The movie is wryly meta and self-aware of its TV roots. Baywatch was cancelled in 1989 after only one season on NBC, but went on to international fame in a decade of worldwide syndication, a slice of pure, exported American cheese as its characters dealt with problems ranging from beach bums to shark attacks, earthquakes and serial killers.

Late in the movie, a couple of all-stars from the TV show make cameo appearances.

“Why does she always look like she’s running in slo-mo?” Summer asks as the camera lingers (yes, in slow motion) on a jogging C.J. It’s a wink-wink reference to the television show’s frequent leering shots of its swimsuit-clad actresses as they ran on the beach, slowed to such a crawl that it looked like they were moving in molasses.

At one point, the seasoned lifeguards explain to Brody the variety of their work. They don’t just rescue drowning swimmers: They also chase away beach thieves, fend off schools of deadly manta rays, break up rings of offshore diamond smugglers…

“Sounds like a far-fetched TV show!” Brody says.

Hmmm, yes, it does—just one that’s quite bit more bawdy, brawny, spicy, sexy and fun!

In theaters May 25, 2017

Pure Love, Tainted World

YA saga ‘Everything, Everything’ missing a little something-something


Everything, Everything
Starring Amandla Stenberg & Nick Robinson
Directed by Stella Meghie
In theaters May 19, 2017

And you think you’ve led a sheltered life.

Imagine being confined to your home day and night, forbidden to step outside, unable to interact with the world—and absolutely barred from seeing the cute new neighbor who just moved in next door.

No, you haven’t been kidnapped, you’re not under house arrest and you haven’t been permanently grounded. You’re just the lead character in the movie version of author Nicola Yoon’s 2015’s young adult novel Everything, Everything, which takes several time-honored, melodramatic girl-meets-boy themes and gives them a new, hormonal-yearning yank.

As she tells us in the opening scene’s voiceover, young Maddy (Amandla Stenberg, who played Halle Foster on TV’s Mr. Robinson and the little tribute Rue alongside Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games) suffers from a rare autoimmune disease that makes the world a serious threat outside her sealed, sterilized home.

“If I went outside, I would die,” she matter-of-factly narrates. So Maddy, who’s about to turn 18, hasn’t been anywhere, or done anything, since she was a baby. She fantasizes about swimming in the ocean, walking in the grass and breathing fresh air. She reads voraciously, absorbing life through the pages of classic novels like Stuart Little, Flowers For Algernon and The Invisible Man.


Anika Noni Rose

Her mother (Anika Noni Rose, who plays “Jukebox” on TV’s Power and Dr. Eva Fletcher on The Quad) tries to assure her she’s provided all Maddy needs inside their airtight, irradiated, disinfected, high-tech, art-deco mansion in their leafy suburb of L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. “You’re not missing out on anything,” she says.

“Just everything,” replies Maddy.

For her online classes, Maddy builds scale models of places she knows she’ll never go, like a library and a diner—and always puts a tiny model astronaut inside them. She has a thing for the little spaceman; he symbolizes much about Maddy.

Maddy’s never had a boyfriend. She’s never been kissed. She’s never felt the passion, or the pangs, of love. Like the astronaut, Maddy will soon go “out there” herself, all alone into the unknown, exploring.

That’s where cute boy-next-door Olly (Nick Robinson, who starred in the YA sci-fi adventure The Fifth Wave then Jurassic World after his 2013 breakout in the indie hit The Kings of Summer) comes in. Long-haired, dressed head to toe in black and gliding down the street on his skateboard, he radiates adventure and excitement. Olly just moved into the neighborhood with his family. Maddy is instantly smitten. At first they just wave hi through their bedroom windows, then exchange text messages and emails—and pretty soon figure out a way to meet face to face.

And guess what? Maddy doesn’t die. So they meet again, thanks to Maddy’s helpful and sympathetic daytime nurse, Carla (Ana de la Reguera).

Not surprisingly, Maddy’s fiercely protective mom blows a gasket when she finds out. She fires Carla and forbids Maddy from having any contact with Olly ever again.

“Love can’t kill me,” says a defiant Maddy.

“That’s not true,” counters her mom, somewhat ominously.

DSC08396.dngAnd mom doesn’t know Maddy’s gotten approved for a credit card, and airline tickets to Hawaii are a snap to book online.

Director Stella Meghie, whose only other feature was the 2016 comedy Jean of the Joneses, makes everything look posh and pretty, but really doesn’t break a lot of fresh ground when it comes to young-adult conventions, from Love Story to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Fault in Our Stars. Beautiful teen with a fatal disease—check. Forbidden love—yes. Oppressive parents who don’t understand—affirmative. Hokey dialogue (“I loved you before I knew you”)—in there!

DSC09791.dngStenberg and Robinson are adorably cute; their scenes together have an exhilarating, untethered, young-love, first-kiss rush and gush, scored to a hip, youthful soundtrack of tunes from Khalid, The Internet, Kehlani and Alabama Shakes, plus a track from Stenberg herself (“Let My Baby Stay”).

But there’s a bit of preposterousness to the whole setup, and the film presents it with even more of a fairy-tale gloss of impossible affluence, coincidence, perfection and only-in-the-movies happenstance. A major plot twist toward the end is a real soap-opera golly-whopper, and the thud of its scorched-earth aftershock rattles the simple charm of an otherwise sweet finale.

Teenagers, the audience for which the film is obviously intended, will probably be able to relate to this tale of young lovers determined to overcome their fate—and perhaps swoon more than once as the screen is filled with displays of their overflowing passion. More seasoned moviegoers, however, will probably find that Everything, Everything is missing a little something-something.


The ancient tale of Camelot gets a modern-movie, hipster twist

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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law & Astrid Bergès-Frisbey
Directed by Guy Richie

In the opening scene, the kingdom of Camelot of ravaged by a heathen horde and a rampage of gigantic, monstrous war elephants swinging black wrecking balls on their tree-like trunks.

Director Guy Richie’s wild-ride take on the legendary British folk tale is a bit like those jumbo Dumbos—it’s a huge, lumbering, dark fantasy that smashes and crashes into themes, events and characters that have been popularized in literature, lore, legend and popular culture for centuries.

Legend of the Sword gives Camelot a modern-movie, rock ’n’ roll makeover, with bombastic special effects, a pounding original contemporary soundtrack and a barrage of hipster Cockney slang.

“You’ve got some heat on you, Arthur,” young Arthur (Charlie Hunnam from TV’s Sons of Anarchy) is warned at one point—and he’s not being cautioned about standing too close to the fireplace.


Jude Law

We find out how baby Arthur was raised by in a brothel after the death of his parents at the hands of his evil uncle, Vortigem (Jude Law), now the ruler of the kingdom. Bullied by the other kids, Arthur grew up tough, haunted by nightmares of his childhood and learning to despise the king.

Director Richie brings to the movie much of his fondness for streetwise, wisecracking British lads, as in his previous films Snatch, RocknRolla and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and two Sherlock Holmes flicks. As the plot thickens and Arthur and his miscreant “crew”—with names like Wet Stick, Mischief John, Brother Blackleg and Back Lack—prepare to make their move on Vortigem, Richie indulges his love of fast-flying quips, jerky, quick-cut edits and characters fast-forwarding, downshifting into super slo-mo and “rewinding.”

Naturally, Arthur pulls “the sword” from “the stone.” But for a movie called The Legend of the Sword, we really don’t learn anything about the legend, or the sword—why it’s so powerful, how it came to be or even its name. For some reason, it’s never referred to as Excalibur, or anything—other than “the sword.”


Those elephants! 

The movie is far too occupied throwing everything else on the screen: There are family murders, a slashed throat, a severed ear, human sacrifices and knights that burst into flame. Not to mention those gargantuan elephants… huge, hissing rats… sirens that morph into a slimy blob of slithering eels… and a snake the size of a subway train. Why? If a street bloke can pull a magical blade from a rock, why not?

And it turns out Arthur’s weapon might be the world’s first smartsword—it seems to know who’s a bad guy and who’s a good guy, at least based on Arthur’s first big brawl. What’s next—self-firing catapults?


Astrid Bergès-Frisbey

Law makes a juicy villain, and Hunnam brings a muscular, scrappy outsider’s heft and attitude to Arthur, not quite yet the nobleman he’s destined to become. Astrid Bergès-Frisbey (who played the mermaid Syrena in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) is runway-model cool as the mage, a mysterious rebel with magical powers who helps Arthur harness the awesomeness of the sword not called Excalibur.

And hey, isn’t that the guy from Gladiator, The Legend of Tarzan and TV’s Wayward Pines? Yes, it’s Djimon Hounsou, whose character will eventually be knighted as Bevidere. And isn’t that archer a dude from Game of Thrones? Yep, it’s Aidan Gillan (GOT’s Petyr Baelish) as Arthur’s go-to bow-and-arrow guy, Goose Fat Bill. Is that former world soccer star David Beckham? Sure is—as a not-so-chivalrous knight in not-so-shining armor. Who’s that Lady of the Lake? It’s the director’s wife, Jacqui Ainsley, who gets a bit of screen time as the ghostly aqua-lass. Wasn’t Maid Maggie in Peaky Blinders? Yes, actress Annabelle Wallis starred on the BBC crime drama from 2013 to 2016, and she’ll play archeologist Jenny Halsey in The Mummy, opening June 7.

There are characters afoot everywhere, but too often, everyone’s competing with the spewing fountain of CGI show-off excess, a patchwork of unfocused, all-over-the-place storytelling and dialogue so rich and ripe with authentic accents “from the Isles” that American ears may have trouble keeping up. (I think “Goshen me brath” was “Catchin’ my breath,” but I’m not sure.)

This is supposedly the lead-off in a franchise, the first of six—rather optimistically—planned movies about Camelot, the boy king and his magical weapon.

“Did you see everything you needed to see?” the mage asks Arthur after his venture into the Dark Lands. “I saw enough,” he tells her.

After watching Legend of the Sword, I think I did, too.

In theaters May 12, 2017

Saving the Galaxy…Awesome!

Family matters in ‘Guardians’ sequel, but mostly it’s a wild ride of bonkers space-rocket fun 

nullGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker & Kurt Russell
Directed by James Gunn
In theaters May 5, 2017

“We’re saving the galaxy again?” asks the rascally raccoon known as Rocket. “Awesome!”

Many fans will have the same giddy reaction at the return of Guardians of the Galaxy, the 2014 blockbuster about a ragtag, Robin Hood-ish crew of Marvel Comics space mercenaries. The gang from the original, which raked in more than $773 million at the box office, is also all aboard for the sequel, including writer/director James Gunn.

Leading the pack again is Chris Pratt as the cocky, roguish pilot Peter Quill, who still has an “unspoken thing” for the emerald-skinned she-assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Former professional wrestler Dave Bautista is a man-mountain of red-tattooed muscle as Drax (the Destroyer), whose hearty laugh sounds like it could rattle the rings around Saturn. Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), the mouthy raccoon genetically altered to become a master of weaponry and fighting, is given his own mini-story spinoff—which includes an especially zesty verbal spar with a dreadlocked baddie named Taserface (Chris Dowd, who plays Toby Damon on TV’s This is Us).

nullAnd even though you really can’t tell, that’s Vin Diesel once more providing the voice of Baby Groot, the new, little-sprout incarnation of the hulking tree creature that was part of the Guardians crew in the first film.

Baby Groot pretty much steals the show—and certainly every scene in which appears,  dancing, wiggling, running, grunting or simply saying the only thing he ever says: “I am Groot.”


Rocket & Baby Groot

This time around, the Guardians get into serious trouble when Rocket double-crosses some gold-skinned aliens, the Sovereigns, led by the imperialistic Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki).  That sets off an intergalactic bounty hunt by the Ravagers, a group of motley thieves, smugglers and space pirates.

But Peter Quill’s long-lost father, Ego (Kurt Russell), zooms to the rescue. When he takes the Guardians to his fabulous celestial home, a world he created, he lays the news on them: He’s actually a cosmic deity, a “celestial.” That makes Peter, his spawn, a bona fide star child.

“You’re…a god?” asks the incredulous Peter.

“Small g, son,” says Ego. “At least on days I’m feeling humble.”

The matter of Peter’s mixed DNA—his mother was an Earthling who died of a brain tumor when Peter was a child—looms large. And as most everyone knows, family matters can be complicated.

There’s a difference and a distinction between fathers and daddies, Peter is reminded by Yondu (Michael Rooker), the blue-skinned bandit who raised him. And Gamora is reunited with her sister, the cybernetically enhanced Nebula (Karen Gillan, Dr. Who’s Amy Pond), who has some major childhood grudges she still wants to settle.



All of this zaps and zooms along, as did the first movie, to a witty stream of pop-cultural riffs and references. Peter compares his slow-burn relationship with Gamora to Sam and Diane from the iconic rom-com Cheers, and he tells her how much he longed for his dad to be like dashing Knight Rider star David Hasselhoff. A wild, warping ride through space zones, in which characters’ faces contort in crazy, eye-popping ways, is a meta-reference to the work of legendary Looney Tunes cartoon animator Tex Avery. There’s a visual joke about Pac Man, and another very clever running gag that takes drone weaponry to an alien-videogame-arcade extreme.

And there are VIP cameos, one by someone Marvel fans always expect to show up in Marvel movies, and another by Sylvester Stallone, who mumbles a few mushy lines and then disappears for most of the rest of the movie.

Just like the original Guardians rocked out to Peter Quill’s “Awesome Mixtape Vol. I” cassette on his beloved Walkman, this one has an equally cool overlay of classic-rock gems to set the tone. It starts out with the Looking Glass super-70s hit “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” and continues through “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac, George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” Jay and the American’s “Love a Little Bit Closer,” Silver’s “Wham Bam Shang-A-Lang” and several more.

And you’ve probably never thought of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” as the musical backdrop for the battle of a gigantic glop monster, or Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights” as the soundtrack for a moonlit evening of finely orchestrated defensive-perimeter mayhem. But you probably will now.

It’s noisy, colorful, jam-packed and it ends—like a lot of superhero flicks—with a big, boom-y, blowout bang before a much softer, sentimental coda, one orchestrated to the meditative strains of the Cat Stevens song “Fathers and Sons.” But it’s a practically nonstop cascade of fast-paced, bonkers, high-spirited fun, a far-out space-rocket ride with a cast of endearing characters that have definitely found their movie niche and intend to hang onto it.

As the teaser at the end indicates, they’ll definitely be back—to save the galaxy again.

To quote Rocket the raccoon, “Awesome!”

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Math Moppet

Chris Evans hangs up he superhero spandex for heartwarming tale 

image-9324200c-1463-4984-81a7-a34343d44ce5 (72)

Starring Chris Evans, McKenna Grace, Jenny Slate & Lindsay Duncan
Directed by Marc Bell
Wide release April 21

Best known as Captain America, actor Chris Evans puts aside the superhero tights for Gifted. But he’s still got a battle to fight.

He plays Frank, a Florida boat repairman who’s also been the guardian of his 7-year-old niece, Mary (McKenna Grace), since the suicide of her mother, Diane, when Mary was a baby. It’s clear that Mary is a phenomenon, if not an outright genius—while other students in her first-grade class are learning to add two plus two, Mary is calculating square roots in her head, much to the astonishment of her teacher, Miss Bonnie (Jenny Slate).


Mary’s first-grade teacher (Jenny Slate) is amazed at her mathematical skills. 

Bonnie and the principal (Elizabeth Marvel from TV’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Homeland) tell Frank that Mary is “gifted” and offer to place her in a special school that can raise her to “the level of scholarship that she deserves.” But Frank declines. He wants Mary to grow up like a “normal” kid, in a normal school, not in an place where she’s pegged as an oddity.

Cue the back story: Frank’s sister (Mary’s mother) was also a math genius, a number-crunching, headline-making superstar. And her suicide had something to do with the unbearable pressure she felt to solve an “unsolvable” mathematical enigma—and the pressure from her overbearing iceberg of a mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, who plays Lady Smallwood on TV’s Sherlock), a British-born Boston blueblood who now wants custody of little Mary.


Lindsay Duncan of TV’s ‘Sherlock’ plays Mary’s grandmother.

And guess what? Evelyn has a bit of math in her bones as well. Maybe that’s got something to do with why she’s now so interested in her granddaughter…

Director Marc Webb, whose previous films include 500 Days of Summer and two Spider-Man flicks, gets nuanced, naturalistic performances from his cast, especially young McKenna Grace. At her young age, she’s already a TV and movie veteran of nearly 40 roles, including playing Penny Kirkman on TV’s Designated Survivor and young Emma Swan on Once Upon a Time. Missing her two front teeth and with a bandage on her scuffed-up knee, spouting complex calculus one minute and watching Spongebob Squarepants the next, she’s very believable as a child who’s bestowed with unfathomable super smarts, but very much still a kid.

Evans proves he’s got chops beyond Captain America’s spandex—even though Gifted can’t resist playing off his buff, hunkish charms. “He’s the quiet, damaged, hot guy,” is how one of Bonnie’s female coworkers dreamily describes Frank. Not surprisingly, Bonnie and Frank find a charming romantic connection, which leads to a Kramer vs. Kramer-style morning-after interruption—and possibly the movie’s funniest one-liner.


Octavia Spencer

Octavia Spencer plays Frank’s warm-hearted next-door neighbor, Roberta, who provides the movie’s real conscience and backbone. She gets to shake it down with Mary in a fun karaoke rendition of “Shame, Shame, Shame,” and Spencer’s very presence in a child-genius math-themed movie gives things a sort of half-pint Hidden Figures vibe.

There’s a beautiful beach scene with a parable-like discussion of cats, sandpipers friends and idiots. Another lovely sunset moment has a conversation about God, Jesus and the afterlife, and ends with Frank telling Mary to “use your head, but don’t be afraid to believe in things, either.”

There’s a one-eyed cat named Fred, a contentious courtroom showdown, a tearful separation, an equally tearful reunion, and the running theme about just how much smart, talented “exceptional” kids should be pushed to excel at the expense of experiencing “real life.”

At one point, Mary’s grandmother tells her that immortality lies in the kind of mathematical accomplishments that her mother died trying to achieve. “If you succeed,” Evelyn tells her, “your name will live forever.”

Perhaps, but what good is “living forever” as a math megamind if you can’t snuggle with your one-eyed cat—or frolic on the playground—with your friends today?

Gifted likely won’t win any major awards, and it won’t live forever in anyone’s movie memory. But this heart-warming tale about a pint-size prodigy will leave you with a smile.



Brawny Bald Lads

No matter how fast & furious, they can’t outrun the fate of their follicles

Film Title: The Fate of the Furious

Vin Diesel stars as Dom.

The Fate of the Furious
Starring Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham & Charlize Theron
Directed by F. Gary Grey
In theaters April 14, 2017

Dodge a gigantic, swinging wrecking ball? Gear-jam a souped-up jalopy, on fire, in reverse, through the streets of Havana? Parachute—into an airplane?

No problem! For the Fast & Furious crew, it’s all in a day’s work.

The Fate of the Furious, the eighth movie in the F&F franchise, which began back in 2001, reunites the films’ core crew of Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Tyrese Gibson, and later additions Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham.

Director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) knows what fans want, and he serves it up: heaping helpings of heavy metal thunder, brawny brawls and ridiculously over-the-top vehicular mayhem, all wrapped around themes of brotherhood, loyalty and “family.”

Film Title: The Fate of the Furious

Dwayne Johnson

With Diesel, Johnson, Statham and Gibson’s characters, premature hair loss must run in this family. No matter how fast they drive, they can’t outrun the retreating follicles.

Anyway, Kurt Russell reprises his role, introduced in Furious 7, as government operative Mr. Nobody, now with a sidekick (Scott Eastwood). Kristofer Hivju, who plays Tormund Giantsbane on the HBO series Game of Thrones, makes for a nasty henchman—and makes up for some of his castmates’ absence of hair.

Oscar winning Charlize Theron is newly on board as an icy villainess known as Cipher, with a dastardly plan to hack into the international power grid, start World War III—and rope in ringleader Dom (Diesel) by blackmailing him, forcing him to betray his team. She runs her entire rig from a “ghost” airplane high above the Earth.

And another Oscar winner, Helen Mirren, makes a cameo.

Film Title: The Fate of the Furious

Charlize Theron plays the villainess Cipher.

As the F&F movies got bigger, boomier and more Furious-er, audiences came to expect ever more outlandish stunts and setups. So plots, plausibility and physics took backseats to more imaginative scenarios unbound by laws of gravity, continuity or even common sense—which is why, here, you can have a cascade of empty cars spilling onto a busy city street from a parking garage, apparently without a casualty or even injury to a single pedestrian below. Or how, as a matter of fact, with all the explosions, flying debris and high-velocity steel on the streets and elsewhere, very few people ever seem to be injured, or even get their wardrobe or hair mussed.

A lengthy climatic pursuit across a frozen lake, involving a prolonged hail of gunfire, tracer missiles and a series of massive explosions, ends with a shot of all of the F&F crew looking like the actors just stepped out of their trailers, beside vehicles fresh off a showroom floor.

And no one ever seems to die—at least for long. It would be a spoiler to say much more.

Speaking of that, the franchise is still feeling the loss of Paul Walker, who played Brian O’Connor. His death in 2013, in a real-world car crash, left a hole in the hearts of F&F fans that the movies continued to address, in various ways—although they pretended that his character simply drove off, into the sunset. Brian—and Walker—get another salute in The Fate of the Furious, but you’ll have to wait until the very end to find out how.

Film Title: The Fate of the Furious

Director Gray knows that the high octane needs to be balanced with humor, and he brings plenty of that, too. There’s a lot of levity in the script—by screenwriter Chris Morgan, who penned four previous outings—especially in the banter, chatter and riffing between characters. The movie really comes to life when it swivels over to the meaty love-hate bromance between Johnson and Statham’s characters. Bridges and Gibson get laughs when they rib each other or spar over the attention of the sexy computer hacker Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel, who plays Missandei on Game of Thrones).

It’s all good, gear-jamming, blast-’em, blow-it-up fun, mainly for fans who’ve been faithful to the franchise all along. Everyone else might feel a bit lost, especially with the cameo appearances by folks who pop in from previous films.

In TV terms, “jumping the shark” is when a series does something so ridiculous, so attention-grabbing and gimmicky, it marks a low point—a desperate attempt to keep viewers’ interest. It’s rooted in a 1977 episode of Happy Days, when Fonzie went waterskiing in Hawaii and—literally—jumped over a shark.

In The Fate of the Furious, Dom doesn’t jump a shark, but a nuclear submarine—then it explodes, and he gets up and kisses his wife.

All in a day’s work.

ScarJo the Robo



Ghost in the Shell
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Juliette Binoche, Pilou Asbaek & Michael Carmen Pitt
Directed by Rupert Sanders
In theaters March 31, 2017

News flash: The robots are coming!

Well, they’re already here. Actually, they’ve been here for a long time—at least in the movies, where they date back more than 100 years. But they always come back again and again, especially as special effects improve—and Hollywood recycles ideas.

The big “news” about Ghost in the Shell, though, is that it’s the long-awaited live-action remake—recycle—of a groundbreaking, classic 1995 Japanese animated film, or anime, of the same name. The original Ghost in the Shell, based on a series of popular Japanese “manga” comics, spawned a television series, several video spinoffs and a 2004 sequel that became the first animated film ever to compete for the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

But very few mainstream, shopping-mall moviegoers in America saw the original Ghost in the Shell.

That likely won’t be the case with the new Ghost, with Scarlett Johansson starring as Major, a sexy, futuristic fembot who’s basically a human brain with cyber body parts. She’s been salvaged from a horrific incident and recommissioned by a robotics corporation in cahoots with the government and the military.

New Port City, the punk-goth future world in which the movie is set, has all sorts of people walking around with all sorts of no-big-deal cyber enhancements. But ScarJo the ro-bo is touted as the first of her kind, a successfully transplanted human brain inside a 100 percent robotic casing—her “ghost” identity in a humanoid, high-tech, super-duper “shell” of hydraulics, wires, circuitry, gridwork and tubing.

Her motherly surgeon (French actress Juliette Binoche) is thrilled, but the head of the robotics program (Peter Ferdinando) is a bit more pragmatic and bottom-line: “She’s a weapon, and the future of my company.”

So Major is assigned to a team of cyber-warfare operatives (including Danish rising star Pilou Asbaek, who plays Eruon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones), and you can guess what happens next—a lot of run, run, bang, bang, boom, boom. Major’s mission is a bit murky—there’s someone out there named Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt) who’s got to be stopped before he…oh, whatever.

But man, everything sure does look amazing.

GHOST IN THE SHELLSome of the sequences are eye-popping, even gorgeous—like the geisha robot assassin that turns into a wall-crawling “spider,” and the stunning backgrounds that seem almost alive. New Port City is a spectacular, sky-high, computer-animated neon playground teeming with gargantuan, 3-D holograms of people, fish and bubbles—it looks like Manhattan, Tokyo and Las Vegas all went out, got drunk, dreamed of being at the bottom of a big aquarium and woke up inside a videogame arcade.

The movie brings up issues of consciousness, artificial intelligence, memory, mutations and just how far corporations (or governments) could, should or would go into the lives of people who can’t stop them. If it seems kind of familiar, it’s because we’ve been there before in Blade Runner, The Matrix, RobocopEx Machina, A.I. and Minority Report. Remember TV’s The Six Billion Dollar Man? And more recently, even HBO’s Westworld beat this remake, and a lot of its ideas, to the draw.

Johansson—or her voice—played a disembodied computer operating system in Her (2013). In the haunting art-film Under the Skin (2013) she portrayed a space-alien succubus stalking Scotland for men to kill. She was a super-powered warrior, juiced up by an accidental overdose of drugs, in Lucy (2014). In Marvel’s Avengers franchise, her character of the Black Widow has a backstory that includes biotechnological and psycho-technological enhancement.

So she’s got some experience with characters who are modified, amplified, not all here or not all there. She’s suitably “blank” and super-charged as Major, haunted by blips and glitches of memories from her mostly erased past. But I suspect most fanboys who flock to Ghost will be far more interested in her shell—the slinky-dinky, sculpted, almost nude-looking bodysuit that passes for fashionable female cyber-wear in New Port City.

GHOST IN THE SHELLGhost in the Shell gets in some nice, more subtle touches, however. In a movie full of far-out sights and explosive action, a quiet, subdued scene when Major goes to the apartment of a grieving mother is filled with understated sorrow—and loaded with deeper clues. Veteran Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano gets a laugh when he scolds a would-be attacker, “Don’t send a rabbit to kill a fox.” A scene where Major gently engages a prostitute just to remember the feel of human flesh is heartbreaking—and makes you wonder what was perhaps cut for the movie to get a PG-13 rating.

But overall, this Ghost seems a bit late in the game—after all, it’s a movie based on a movie based on a comic book that came out more than 25 years ago. It’s got a shiny, great-looking shell, to be sure, but the ghost inside isn’t really anything new.

Sorry, ScarJo—cool bodysuit, though.