Author Archives: Neil Pond

Math Moppet

Chris Evans hangs up he superhero spandex for heartwarming tale 

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Gifted
Starring Chris Evans, McKenna Grace, Jenny Slate & Lindsay Duncan
Directed by Marc Bell
PG-13
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).

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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.

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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.

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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
PG-13
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

Ghost in the Shell
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Juliette Binoche, Pilou Asbaek & Michael Carmen Pitt
Directed by Rupert Sanders
PG-13
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.

Meet the New Beast

Beauty and the Beast fleshes out old Disney magic with modern extravagance 

Beauty and the Beast
Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad & Kevin Kline
Directed by Bill Condon
PG
In theaters March 17, 2017

It’s a tale as old as time, so goes the song.

At least as old as 1991, when Disney put an animated, song-filled spin on Beauty and the Beast, the 1700s French fairy tale about a cursed prince, the village maiden who becomes his prisoner and lessons about love, acceptance and belonging.

The former Beauty and the Beast, a hugely popular hit and critical success, was nominated for six Oscars and won two, becoming the first animated film to ever receive an Academy Award nod for Best Picture.

That’s a high bar to reach for, but Disney goes for it in its lavish new retooling, which combines sumptuous live action with extravagant special effects. Emma Watson is Belle, the headstrong hamlet bookworm longing for something “more than this provincial life.” Dan Stevens plays the haughty young prince doomed by a callous act to live forever as a shunned, outcast beast—unless he can find someone to love, and someone who’ll love him back.

The new movie follows its animated predecessor almost note for note; the storyline, characters and songs (“Belle,” “Be Our Guest,” “Gaston,” “Beauty and the Beast”) are just where they used to be. But there are also all-new versions of the signature tunes, some new musical snippets and two completely new songs—Celine Dion belts out “How Does a Moment Last Forever” and the Beast sings “Evermore,” a soaring, brokenhearted power ballad, after he releases Belle back to her father. And the new movie adds a couple of new sequences, like the magical trip Belle and Beast take for Belle to discover her childhood roots.

Luke Evans as Gaston (right) and Josh Gad as Lefou

It’s great fun watching the 1991 movie get “fleshed out” with people where cartoons used to be. Luke Evans (who played the wronged husband, Scott, in The Girl on the Train) has a hammy ol’ time as Belle’s comically vain, dunderheaded suitor, Gaston, whose jealousy and rage eventually bring the story to its calamitous climax on the parapets of the Beast’s castle. Josh Gad is Gaston’s fawning aide-de-camp, Lefou, whose performance leaves little doubt that the character is meant to be overtly gay, hopelessly pining for his clueless, macho friend.

“You can ask any Tom, Dick or Stanley, and they’ll tell you which team they prefer to be on!” Lefou sings in “Gaston,” which in the new Beast becomes a campy burlesque ode to the manly alpha-male object of his barely suppressed affection.

For the House of Mouse, Lefou is a Mickey milestone.

Kevin Kline has a significant role as Belle’s tinkerer father, Maurice, and there’s a host of all-stars as the Beast’s staff, who are collaterally hoodoo-ed into household items by his curse. Lumière the candelabra (Ewan McGregor) is a standout, but there’s also Mrs. Potts the teakettle (Emma Thompson) and her son, Chip the teacup (young Nathan Mack); Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellon); Maestro Cadenza the harpsichord (Stanley Tucci); Plumette, a bird-like feather duster (Gugu Mbatha-Raw); and Madame Garderobe, a warbling wardrobe (Tony Award-winning singer/actress Audra McDonald).

As Belle, Emma Watson sings, gallops on horseback, fends off a ferocious wolf pack and looks terrific in a big, billowy yellow dress that becomes the movie’s iconic garment. But she’s “no princess,” as she pointedly informs Madame Gardenrobe, who wants to adorn her in something girlish. And in one pivotal moment, Belle ditches the yellow gown, leaving it on the ground in a crumpled, discarded heap as she dashes off to defy the town mob, who’ve been stirred to a roiling “Kill the beast!” frenzy by Gaston.

You go, girl!

Dan Stevens is certainly capable as the Beast. But fans who know him as the star of the FX TV series Legion, or remember him as dashing Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey, might wish the handsome Brit didn’t spend most of the movie hidden inside the lumbering costuming and special-effect fur of the Beast, who resembles a hunky cross between a towering NFL lineman, a bipedal ox and Lon Chaney Jr.’s wolf man.

At two hours and almost 10 minutes, this Beast feels overstuffed, especially since the 1991 version was 45 minutes shorter. The blowout musical numbers seem out of time, like something Old Hollywood would have made in a bygone era of elaborate, over-the-top soundstage productions—more Wizard of Oz than Oscar-snagging La La Land, and without any of the contemporary snap, crackle and pop of recent live TV musical events like Hairspray, The Wiz or Grease.

Director Bill Condon (whose resume also includes Dreamgirls and the final two installments of The Twilight Saga) seems over-eager to impress, especially inside the Beast’s castle, which is so “alive”—soaring saucers, prancing napkins, musical wall sconces—it feels ready-made as a ride-through Disney attraction. “Be Our Guest” in particular, when all the enchanted objects put on a dinner show for Belle, is a noisy, swirling, computer-generated spew that eventually becomes exhausting. (And I’m not even sure poor Belle actually gets anything to eat.)

But for anyone who fell under the enchanting spell of Beauty and the Beast more than 25 years ago, and later, there’s certainly a lot to love again—including encouraging signs that Disney continues to change with the times. You certainly didn’t see a gay sidekick, or two sets of interracial characters sharing a kiss, back in 1991.

So enjoy the walk down memory lane, the new movie’s fresh, real-people flourishes, its 2017 tweaks and its high-tech, special-effect shines on a familiar old story—this “tale as old as time.” And look closer and you’ll also find, indeed, as another song says, “something there that wasn’t there before.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Good To Be King

Hollywood’s mega monkey returns in a rip-roaring, monster-movie romp

Kong: Skull Island
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson & John C. Reilly
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
PG-13

It’s good to be king.

King Kong, the movie mega-monkey, has reigned since his debut in 1933, when he first scaled the Empire State Building, angrily batted biplanes out of the sky—and carefully cradled a beautiful young actress (Faye Wray) in his giant paw.

Over the decades, Kong’s tale would be retold in various remakes, sequels, spinoffs, parodies and even a Saturday morning cartoon. It became the basis for theme park thrill rides and a stage musical.

It’s probably safe to say that the legacy of the king has been watered down a bit by men in monkey suits, cartoonish buffoonery and other pop-cultural permutations of his pure, towering, primordial badass-ery. Which is why director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ exhilarating new version comes as such a jolt of super juiced-up, monster-movie energy, restoring some of the raw edges of wild, wooly excitement to the Kong saga while giving it a fresh new, retro-rollicking spin.

Thomas Mann, John Ortiz, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson and Corey Hawkins adjust to their new surroundings.

Its premise is familiar, basically: A team of explorers ventures to an uncharted, forbidding Pacific archipelago, but they encounter much more than they anticipated.

The original Kong story was set in the era of the Great Depression, but Skull Island unfolds in 1973, just after the end of America’s involvement in Viet Nam. That timetable is more than just a colorful detail, because the theme of war—and warfare—is vital to this version of the story.

A rocking soundtrack, with tunes by David Bowie, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Black Sabbath, the Hollies, Jefferson Airplane and Iggy Pop, deepens the groove of the era. If you’ve never seen a colossus ape on a helicopter-swatting rampage while the soundtrack is blaring Ozzy Osborne singing “Paranoid,” well, trust me: It out-apocalypses anything from Apocalypse Now.

(A snippet close to the end of the film of British singer Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again,” a famous WWII ballad, hints that we might not have seen the last of Kong, and some of his mega-monster ilk, a suggestion definitely reinforced if you stay through the closing credits.)

Samuel L. Jackson plays Preston Packard, a U.S. military commander itching for one final mission, still smarting from America’s humiliating retreat in Southeast Asia. He’s accompanied by crackpot conspiracy theorist Bill Randa (John Goodman), who has convinced a reluctant U.S. senator (Richard Jenkins) to bankroll the exploration of the island before the Russians can find it—in case there’s anything of value there.

But what is Randa really looking for in this place where “God didn’t finish creation… where myth and science meet”?

Brie Larson

Also aboard: a British tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and cool “anti-war photographer” Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). And a bunch of other scientists and soldiers (Toby Kibbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Marc Evan Jackson, Thomas Mann, Tian Jing).

It’s a motley, multi-ethnic crew, all right, and a perfect “movie mix” when they all end up scattered, spread and separated across the island. Don’t get too attached to anyone; the number of casualties gets pretty high, pretty fast, and keeps climbing.

The original King Kong, and its remakes in 1976 and 2005, had overtones of imperialism and outright racism—of American and British explorers going to “exotic” parts of the world in earlier ages of exploration, and taking away whatever they found of interest. This one has a not-so-subtle message, one that echoes down the ages through today, about swaggering American military might, unwanted and unwarranted interventionism and solving problems with bullets and bombs.

“Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist until you go looking for one,” one character notes.

Kong, understandably, doesn’t exactly meet his new guests—and their assault of shrapnel, napalm and machine-gun fire—warmly. And after it’s over, you know this is no Saturday-morning cartoon, or a joy ride of amusement-park thrills and chills. It’s full-on monster mayhem.

John C. Reilly

And for the survivors of that initial encounter, Kong isn’t the only unpleasant surprise the island has in store. There are gigantic octopuses, towering jungle spiders, screeching pterodactyls, massive lizard-like “skull crawlers” and other mutated hazards lurking around every cinematic corner. It’s a very, very dangerous place, and you never know what may pop out of the weeds, the water, the sky, the mist, the ground or the trees.

Eventually, you’ll meet Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a pilot who’d been living on the island—with its indigenous people—since his plane was shot down during a WWII dogfight with a Japanese Zero (depicted in the movie’s boffo opening scene). His character provides some well-calibrated comic relief, but he and his poignant story also become the beating human heart of the movie.

It all adds up to a fantastic, rip-roaring, tropical-island romp. You get to see plenty of Kong, and he’s a fine beast, indeed—a noble savage, a tragic hero, the fierce defender of his home, the “last of his kind.” He “speaks” only in grunts, growls and huffs, but his message is loud and clear: Why can’t everyone just leave him alone and let him do his thing—which, it turns out, might just be pretty dang important in the bigger, grander scheme.

One of the movie’s most interesting new angles is how it uses its central female character, Brie Larson’s photographer, as a revisionist homage to the other females who’ve played “opposite” Kong. Her gutsy, earthy Mason Weaver is no swooning Faye Wray. But she nonetheless is the only character to connect on an emotional level with the “beast.” And in the thrilling climatic scene, which takes place not on top of a skyscraper but in a river, Kong battles a monstrous skull crawler and Weaver is caught in the fray—and is eventually cradled, delicately, doll-like and unconscious, in Kong’s massive paw.

When you’re the king, some things never change.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

‘Get Out’ blends scathing social commentary with full-on creep show

Daniel Kaluula and Allison Williams star in 'Get Out.' sinister reason for invitation.

Daniel Kaluula and Allison Williams star in ‘Get Out.’

Get Out
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford & Catherine Keener
Directed by Jordan Peele
R
In theaters Feb. 24, 2017

On the surface, it starts off like a lot of other horror flicks: After driving a long way out of the city, a young couple, Rose (Allison Williams) and Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) ends up at a house in the woods in the middle of nowhere. The nearest neighbors are miles away, across a lake.

Things seem normal and welcoming enough at first, but soon begin to feel creepy—then very creepy, and then extremely creepy.

Oh—she’s white, he’s black, and five months into their relationship, they’ve gone for him to meet her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) for the first time.

on.

Bradley Whitford & Catherine Keener

Now, in this modern age, interracial dating isn’t even a thing anymore, right? Certainly not among upscale, enlightened, encultured white liberal lefties, folks who “would have voted for Obama a third time” if they could, who love golfer Tiger Woods and who “admire” the culture and the achievements of the black race, all the way back to Jesse Owens besting the Aryan Nazis at the 1936 Berlin Olympics… Right?

There’s definitely a weird vibe in the house. The two black “hired hands,” the groundskeeper and the maid (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel), sure do act strange. And things get even weirder when the neighbors, all white, arrive for a big shindig on the lawn. Everyone is nice—a bit too nice—and the sole black man in attendance (Lakeith Stanfield, Darius on TV’s Atlanta) seems, well, spaced out or something…until he suddenly snaps, stumbles toward Chris and warns him, “Get out!!!”

Betty Gabriel

Betty Gabriel

If Get Out doesn’t exactly sound like any horror movie you’ve ever seen before, that’s because it is, and it isn’t. It takes familiar horror conventions and runs them through a filter of caustic satire about what it’s like—and what it feels like—to be a black man in an America dominated by white culture.

And it comes out as one of the most original horror movies in years.

What’s it like to be a black man with a white woman on a lonely stretch of two-lane when a cop demands to see your ID? What’s it like to be walking alone on street at night in an all-white neighborhood when an automobile rolls up ominously…then stops alongside you? When white people make fawning comments about you and your “people” as if you were different, genetically, physically, culturally?

What’s it like, in a movie like this, when all those things are amplified through a creepshow channel that keeps turning up the volume, slowly but  surely, until everything finally explodes?

The director and writer is Jordan Peele, of the Emmy-winning Comedy Central duo Key & Peele, and he makes a very impressive debut behind the camera, indeed, mixing real chills with generous dollops of genuine laughter—many of them thanks to comedian Lil Rel Howery, who plays Chris’ best friend, a TSA agent who was wary all along of “his boy” venturing upstate to the all-white enclave of Rose’s world.

Peele (who is himself married to a white woman, comedian-actress Chelsea Peretti from TV’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine) is playing with dynamite, and he knows it—especially in a nation, at a time, of #blacklivesmatter, when tensions in communities across the country continue to roil and rumble. You can certainly enjoy Get Out for the pure, giddy goosebumps it brings, but you’d be missing the film’s masterful layering of timely social commentary as well as Jordan’s bold, eventually bloody, cathartic critique of black-and-white relations and stereotypes.

And Peele doesn’t stop there. He draws a subtle, scathing line that connects American imperialism all the way back to its colonial roots, when white men essentially took whatever—and whomever—they wanted.

I don’t want to give too much away, but imagine Meet The Parents plus Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner crossed with Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Stepford Wives and given a twist of Twilight Zone and maybe even a shot of M. Night Shyamalan.

All with a bracing, blistering message about race and skin color—one meant to get under everyone’s skin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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After School Special

Charlie Day, Ice Cube put new shine(r) on classic Hollywood grudge match

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Fist Fight
Starring Charlie Day & Ice Cube
Directed by Richie Keen
R
In theaters Feb. 17, 2017

Hollywood loves taking a good idea, dusting it off and giving it a new shine.

Or a new shiner, as the case may be with Fist Fight, in which a hapless high school teacher (Charlie Day) is challenged to a brawl by one of his fellow instructors (Ice Cube) at 3 p.m. on the last day of classes.

If you’re old enough to remember, you may recall a wonderful little 1987 movie called Three O’Clock High, which had essentially the same premise with two students. If you’ve got a really good memory, you may recall that Three O’Clock High offered a contemporary cinematic nod to High Noon, the 1952 Gary Cooper classic about a marshal forced to face a gang of killers alone—as a clock tick-tocks down the anxious minutes in real time.

The grudge match in Fist Fight is played for laughs, and there are plenty, beginning with the classroom incident that gets mild-mannered English instructor Andy Campbell (Day) crossways with hot-tempered history teacher Ron Strickland (Cube). Day is slight, white and whiney; Cube is thick, dark and growly. They’re so temperamentally and physically at odds, anything they do together is practically pre-set to be funny.

To add to the comedic recipe for disaster, the fight isn’t all that’s looming for Campbell. His wife is pregnant and about to pop any minute. Rumors of school cutbacks are swirling, and he’s got a meeting with the superintendent at 2 p.m. to find out if his job is among them. Right after that, his daughter has a recital at her middle school, and he’s promised he’ll be there to join her in a dance routine from the musical Annie.

And it’s senior prank day. There are paint bombs on trip wires, classroom TV sets hijacked to show porn, naughty anatomical patterns landscaped into the grass of the soccer field, a mariachi band following the principal everywhere he goes, and a horse galloping down the hallways.

Tracy Morgan & Jillian Bell

Tracy Morgan & Jillian Bell

Director Richie Keen, a TV trouper making his first feature film, worked with Day on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and he packs the screen with familiar faces from other television shows. Saturday Night Live veteran Tracy Morgan, making his first movie appearance since his near-fatal 2014 auto accident, gets laughs as a wacky coach. Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) plays a freaky French teacher. Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris is the exasperated principal. Kumail Naujiani (Portlandia, Silicon Valley) plays the school’s by-the-books security officer. Young & Hungry’s Kym Whitley has a cameo as a 911 call center dispatcher—who gets a good laugh at Campbell’s unusual predicament.

Stephnie Weir from Crazy Ex-Girfriend has a moment as a school official. JoAnna Garcia Dahl, who plays Ariel in Once Upon a Time, is Campbell’s wife. Young Alexa Nisenson, 11, who made her movie debut last year in Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, plays Campbell’s daughter, who ditches Annie at the last minute for an explosively raw rap song by Big Sean that makes the talent show scene from Little Miss Sunshine look as quaint and sedate as something from Lawrence Welk.

Jillian Bell, whom you’ll probably recognize from several other R-rated movies (22 Jump Street, The Night Before, Bridesmaids) and numerous TV roles (Workaholics, Idiotsitter, Supermansion), brings her comedy-gold blend of deadpan delivery, raunchy spunk and fearless improv to Holly, the school’s hilariously misguided guidance counselor.

FIST FIGHT

This is Day’s show, and he does a nice job, channeling a comedic mojo that feels like a strain of easygoing, Steve Carell-ish everyman hot-wired with Casey Affleck’s unpredictable intensity. Cube doesn’t get near as much to do, but he does get to shine in very funny scene where the rumors about his fearsome teacher come colorfully to life as students tell of what they’ve heard about him and his past—soldier assassin, violent drug lord, renegade cop, crazy jazz pianist.

The jokes fly, but there’s some serious, timely messaging here, too—mainly about “the depths to which the school system has fallen,” as noted on one of the news channels covering (by helicopter!) the “#teacherfight,” which becomes a worldwide viral sensation driven and promoted by memes, Twitter, YouTube and other social media. Pick an education topic—inclusiveness, bureaucracy, job insecurity, funding, resources, bullying, drugs, vandalism, student behavior issues—and it’s there, in between the laughter.

Campbell has three scenes in front of his English classes, throughout the day, in which we see him unravel a bit more each time, becoming progressively more rattled as his appointment in the parking lot looms. Can he rally and rise to the challenge?

See you in the parking lot at 3 o’clock to find out!

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Even Wick-ier

Keanu Reeves returns to his ultraviolent past 

Keanu Reeves stars as 'John Wick' in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2.

John Wick: Chapter 2
Starring Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Common & Ruby Rose
Directed by Chad Stahelski
R
In theaters Feb. 10

You know John Wick, right?

“The man, the myth, the legend,” as one character refers to him admiringly. The nattily attired hitman of few words who lets his lethal skills do the talking—who once dispatched three assailants in a barroom with only a pencil. The brooding one-man-army known in underworld circles as a ghost, the Boogeyman and mors ipsa emissarium, “death’s very emissary.”

The character of Wick marked a comeback for Keanu Reeves in 2014, when he blasted his way onto the screen in the original pulpy, action-packed tale of a former killer-for-hire grieving the death of his wife, seeking vengeance for the murder of his adorable puppy and hell-bent on getting back his stolen, high-performance 1969 Mustang.

But you know how it is with former hitmen: They never can really, truly get out of the life—at least not alive.

John Wick: Chapter 2 does exactly what its title suggests, picking up where the first movie left off and moving the story along even further down the road, even deeper into a world teeming with Russian gangsters, international racketeers and murderous multicultural muckety-mucks. Wick is pulled back into his violent past when a former connection (Riccardo Scamarcio) calls in a “blood marker” requiring his assassination services.

Then Wick gets double-crossed with a $7 million contract on his own head that sends every other hitman scurrying to collect.

JW2_D25_7230.cr2Directed once again by Chad Stahelski, a former top Hollywood stuntman who handled all Reeve’s action sequences on his Matrix films, it’s a blast of stylishly orchestrated physical mayhem and ballet-like ultraviolence as Wick dispatches what must be nearly 100 adversaries with knives, handguns, rifles, machine guns, his car and even another pencil.

I lost count of how body parts he broke with his bare hands.  If you like this kind of thing, it’s an action junkie’s all-you-can-eat buffet, and it’s certainly well done. Once again, director Stahelski draws on his own rough-and-tumble on-camera experience, as well as the obvious inspirations of Japanese action, kung-fu and martial-arts cinema and good ‘ol splatter-y spaghetti Westerns. The explosive gunfire has real kick, bam and boom. You “feel” the thuds, thumps, whacks, whams and cracks of the bruising body blows.

And some of the fight scenes are truly spectacular extended sequences of choreography—you’ll wonder how no one was actually injured in the knockdown, drag-out melees. One standout, in particular, extends from the catacombs underneath Rome into the streets above and down a looooong stone stairwell, before finally crashing into the lobby of a hotel.

Ruby Rose

Ruby Rose

The rapper-turned-actor Common plays a former associate who’s now one of Wick’s most formidable foes. Veteran actor Ian McShane is Winston, the underworld kingpin in charge of The Continental, a posh “safe zone” for warring hitmen. Ruby Rose, from TV’s Orange is the New Black, is silent but deadly as a mute assassin with Wicks in her sexy, savage, silent sights.  Peter Serafinowicz has a dryly humorous scene as the proprietor of a secret boutique weaponry shop where Wick selects instruments for his evening’s assignment as if he were choosing wine. “I need something robust and precise,” Wicks says. “Could you recommend something for the end of the night—something big and bold?”

“Big and bold” certain describes John Wick: Chapter 2, especially if you like your action with a capital A. It’s fitting that its climatic showdown takes place in an art museum, because there’s certainly an artistry to its over-the-top violence, its extreme body count and the blood that spews from heads and torsos onto walls and other surfaces—in the art gallery, the crimson splatters, sprays and smears blend in with other exhibits like pieces of morbid, minimalist modern art.  But of course, it won’t be for everyone—and probably not for much of anyone who’s not a hardcore action aficionado, or a diehard fan from the fist John Wick flick. This one’s just as Wick-y, and in many ways Wick-ier.

So it’s hard to be subjective. I can’t really give it stars in the traditional sense. I can, however, rate it four snapped necks, three pencils in the head, two slashed forearm arteries in a big Roman thermae and one dagger to the aorta, if that helps.

This Bat’s Where It’s At

Caped Crusader gets spotlight in zipping, zany ‘Lego Batman Movie’

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The Lego Batman Movie
Starring the voices of Will Arnett, Rosario Dawson & Michael Cera
Directed by Chris McKay
PG
In theaters Feb. 10, 2017

The fun begins even before the film does.

“All important movies start with a black screen,” intones Lego Batman, kicking off his riffing, running commentary on the movie’s pre-show parade of corporate logos and opening credits.

This movie, Batman is letting you know, is an important one—because it’s all about him.

When the movie starts, seconds later, it’s another geyser of fast-paced inside jokes, meta commentary and rapid-fire satire, just like its Lego Movie predecessor, such a wildly popular, multi-generational smash in 2014. Batman (voiced once again by Will Arnett), who made an indelible impression in that explosion of plasticized pop culture with his Master Builder skills and gruff, heavy-metal rapping, now gets his own full stage to strut.

lgb-trl3-0469And, once again, it looks terrific, and often bedazzling—a crazy, colorful, teeming Lego world, brought alive through the marvels and magic of computer-animated wizardry to make characters, cityscapes, interiors and more look like textured, 3-D creations composed entirely of millions of interlocking Lego blocks and accessories.

This time, the iconic Caped Crusader faces off against his longtime nemesis the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) while dealing with his own existential crisis: How long can the shadowy, egotistical, ridiculously self-absorbed, adamantly go-it-alone crime fighter—who is also, of course, Gotham City’s most eligible bachelor, Bruce Wayne—wall out the rest of the world?

How long can he go home to microwaved Lobster Thermidor dinners for one in stately Wayne Manor, figuratively and literally cut off from everything and everyone—including his loyal butler, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes)—on Wayne Island? How many nights can he spend cackling derisively, all by himself, mocking the most romantic scene in Jerry Maguire on his mega-den’s mega-mega big-screen TV?

Barbara Gordon & Batman

Batman eventually takes aboard—by mistake—the young orphan who becomes his sidekick, Robin (Michael Cera), and gets gobsmacked by his first look at lovely Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), the daughter of retiring police commissioner James Gordon (Hector Elizondo). Barbara takes her father’s role at the top of Gotham City’s official law-and-order pyramid seriously, and—unlike Batman—sees crime-fighting as a collaborative, it-takes-a-village effort.

The movie gives this premise one hilarious, deliciously deep dig after another, drilling into the rich veins of Bat-mythology from DC Comics and its many offshoots on television and the movies, especially the broody Dark Knight films. You don’t have to be a big Bat fan to get on board the masterful joke-mobile, but the more you know, the more you’ll laugh.

“Words describing the impact will spontaneously materialize,” Batman explains to Robin as he introduces him to his first big bad-guy fracas—just before “Bap!” “Bam!” and “Pow!” appear above the action. There’s another gag about shark spray repellent that will be a lot funnier if you remember the cheese-tastic, cult-favorite scene from the 1960s TV series in which Adam West’s Batman actually used it—or have come across some of the memes and postings online that it has since spawned.

LEGO BATMANChris McKay, the animation director of The Lego Movie now making his official directorial debut as he takes over the reins from creators Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who remain on board as producers), never lets the bar drop or the cleverness droop. You certainly feel some of his former experience as a director and editor of the Cartoon Network’s stop-motion, pop-culture-skewering series Robot Chicken.

The movie parodies Batman’s long pop-cultural legacy with genius as well as genuine affection, particularly in his relationship to the Joker. These guys have been arch-“frenemies” for such a long, long time—finally, here’s a portrayal that explores how much they really, truly need each other.

To widen the playing field a bit beyond Batman, the tempest-in-a-toy-box storyline brings in a host of pop culture’s most villainous villains—the Eye of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings films, the Wicked Witch and flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, King Kong, Godzilla, gremlins from Gremlins and Harry Potter’s Voldemort.

And in between all the zipping, zany fun, there’s a message about what makes a “family,” working together, the importance of good abs, and why “Fly, Robin, Fly” or “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” just don’t cut it as superhero theme songs.

lgb-trl-bc-0024-72The vocal cast is outstanding, particular Arnett, the hub around which all the other zingers fly. And he’s got a chorus of great support, including Jenny Archer (Harley Quinn), Zoe Kravitz (Catwoman), Channing Tatum (Superman), Ellie Kemper (Phyllis, the keeper of the Phantom Zone) and Mariah Carey (Mayor McCaskill). Pay attention and see if you can match up Seth Green, Billy Dee Williams, Eddie Izzard, Adam Devine and Doug Benson to their Lego counterparts.

But this is definitely Batman’s show. There’ll be other superhero movies to come ripping and roaring down the pike this spring and summer, as always. But they won’t be any smarter, funnier or any more fun than this. Trust me, the Lego Bat is where it’s at.

 

Lost in ‘Space’

‘The Space Between Us’ is a cheesy constellation of movie junk food

THE SPACE BETWEEN US

Britt Robertson and Asa Butterfield star in ‘The Space Between Us.’

The Space Between Us
Starring Asa Butterfield, Britt Robertson, Gary Oldman & Carla Gugino
Directed by Peter Chelsom
PG-13

Men are from Mars, as the saying goes, women are from…Colorado?

Well, that’s the case in this futuristic, young-adult sci-fi romance, in which a teenage boy born and raised on the red planet strikes up a (really, really) long-distance relationship with a high-school girl in the Rocky Mountains.

Gardner Elliott was just a little ultrasound blip—unbeknownst to NASA—when his mom, the team leader of a group of astronaut pioneers, blasted off to join a space colony on Mars. But Gardner’s mother died during his childbirth, and it’s decided to keep the reason for her death—and thereby Gardner’s entire existence—a secret by the eccentric space-privateer mastermind of the project, Dr. Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman).

THE SPACE BETWEEN US

Dr. Sheppard (Gary Oldman) introduces his astronaut pioneers.

So Gardner (Asa Butterfield) grows up 249 million miles away, in the “bubble” of the space settlement with a surrogate mom (Carla Gugino), older scientist buddies and a babbling robot companion. To let off steam, he goes outside and cuts angry, red-dust donuts in the Mars rover.

And like most teenagers, he spends a lot of time online. He’s transfixed by photos and video of his mom and a man he presumes is his father. And somehow, he connects with a girl named Tulsa (Britt Robertson) in Colorado.

(The movie doesn’t show us what happens when Gugino gets the monthly bill for the wireless data package—but you can only imagine.)

Anyway, Gardner convinces Tulsa that he’s really iChatting with her from a penthouse on Park Avenue in New York City, and that he’s suffering from a rare illness.

The “illness” part is partly true. Since he “gestated,” was born and grew up in the low gravity of Mars, his body and its organs are different from any Earthling. His bones are more brittle, his blood is thinner, his heart is larger and weaker. On Earth, now, he would have a hard time.

So, yes, you know what’s going to happen.

Gardner sets off on a shuttle for the far, far faraway place he’s only seen in movies and on his computer screen. Let the adventure begin!

There are some moments of sweetness, loveliness and humor. Gardner is overwhelmed with Earth—its vibrant colors, food, people, people everywhere and endless varieties of everything. He’s so much heavier in Earth’s stronger gravity; he has trouble walking. He thinks that Tulsa, when he meets her, is the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen.

Soon he and Tulsa are on the lam, on a cross-country road trip, to find Gardner’s father. And of course, Gardner is falling in love.

But trouble looms: Gardner’s weakened heart is a ticking time bomb, and Dr. Shepherd is racing to find the young man from Mars and send him back.

And there’s a twist, one you may see coming like a gigantic meteor long before it hits you.

THE SPACE BETWEEN USIf you’re a young teenager, you may be transfixed by this YA space goop, a cheesy constellation that feels like something Nicholas Sparks might have strung together on a sugar rush after eating too much freeze-dried astronaut ice cream and washing it down with gulps of lukewarm Tang.

The plot is a jumbled rush of events, a pileup of preposterousness and a clichéd cascade of Hollywood happenstance.

Gardner comes all the way from Mars, doesn’t know Tulsa’s last name or much anything else, but he walks right into her school, and right into her. (School security must not be of much concern in the future.) Things seem carelessly, jarringly, out of time. In the movie, we can live on another planet, nap in driverless cars and zip around in private space shuttles. But when Tulsa and Gardner need to make a getaway, they hop into a 1920s-era biplane (!), which she knows how to fly, and she’s equally at home on her vintage 1950s motorcycle.

More “refined” viewers might embrace moments when the movie seems to aspire to something deeper and richer, like its repeated references to the 1987 German romantic fantasy film Wings of Desire, about invisible, immortal guardian angels, Gardner’s inspiration; or how Oldman’s character’s last name shrewdly echoes that of NASA’s first Mercury astronaut, Alan Shepard.

At 19, Butterfield, a child star in the wonderful Hugo (2011), and more recently Jake in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, channels cinematic bits of Rain Man, Jeff Bridges’ Starman (1984) and even some of Peter Sellers’ Being There (1979), in which Seller’s character was also called Gardner.

But Britt Robertson may have finally aged out of playing a teenager. The star of Tomorrowland and The Longest Ride (both 2015), now 26, has pluck and poise, but surely there were other young(er) actresses who at least looked a bit more like they’d belong next to a row of high school lockers?

Director Peter Chelsom, whose resume includes Hannah Montana: The Movie (2009) and Funny Bones (1995), an obscure Jerry Lewis comedy that only played in a handful of theaters before closing, simply doesn’t seem to know how to put all the pieces of this Space puzzle together. Screenwriter Allan Loeb isn’t much help—there must not have been much to draw from in his experience as the writer of Adam Sandler’s raunchy Just Go With It, the dud movie musical Rock of Ages and the box-office flops The Switch, The Dilemma and Here Comes the Boom.

At one point, Gardner grabs an Earth snack, a Mars candy bar. It’s meant as a fleeting in-joke, but it’s a pretty good shorthand for The Space Between Us as a whole—movie junk food, empty calories, a satisfying yummy for a certain non-discriminating viewer with a sweet tooth for something soft, sugary, forgettable and disposable.

In one scene, Tulsa and Gardner stop off in Las Vegas, where she wants to give him a crash course in world geography. “Paris, Venice, Cairo—it’s like a big toy box!” she chirps. So many places, all their landmarks reproduced as casino cathedrals. But Gardner doesn’t have the reaction she hopes. It’s too much for him, a bombardment of sensory overload.

“It’s hurting my head,” he says.

Yes, too much candy can do that.

 

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