Author Archives: Neil Pond

Down to Clown

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

IT: CHAPTER TWO

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

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

Depends on how you’re counting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jessica Chastain

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

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Bill Hader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In theaters Sept. 6, 2019

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Falling Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Morgan Freeman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In theaters Aug. 23, 2019

Naughty & Nice

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

Film Title: "Good Boys"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Title: "Good Boys"

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

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

Film Title: "Good Boys"

Spin the Bottle with Brixlee (Millie Davis)

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

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

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

In theaters Aug. 16, 2019

Married to the Mob

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

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Elisabeth Moss, Tiffany Haddish & Melissa McCarthy: gangsta gals

The Kitchen
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish & Elisabeth Moss

Directed by Andrea Berloff
R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Common

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In theaters Aug. 9, 2019

 

Diesel Fumes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Title: Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

Idris Elba is “black Superman.”

“I’m black Superman!” he decrees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In theaters Aug. 2, 2019

Hollywood Nights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Margo Robbie

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

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

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

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

In theaters July 26, 2019

Bad Trip

Florence Pugh Takes a Nightmare Trek to a Freak-Out Swedish Festival

DSCF8772.RAF

Midsommar
Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor & Will Poulter
Directed by Ari Aster
R

What a trip. And I mean that in more ways than one.

When a group of young Americans trek to Sweden to attend a midsummer folk festival at an isolated commune, they find a colorful pageant of quirks and oddities.

In the pastoral village of Hårga, miles and miles from any city, everybody’s smiling, dressed in white, dancing and prancing. The solar light shines 24/7; it’s never dark beneath Sweden’s “midnight sun.” There are hallucinogenic ‘shrooms and drinks to share. People are tooting on flutes, strumming on strings, drumming on drums. It’s hippy-dippy, like a Nordic Bonnaroo.

Skol!

But this is a film by director Ari Aster, who last year gave us the supremely unsettling Hereditary, the hellzapoppin’ horror flick about a family that discovers something terrible and toxic just beneath the surface of its gene pool. There’s something terrible and toxic going on underneath the pastoral surface in Midsommar, too, and it doesn’t take long before it starts to show.

Like Hereditary, this movie is a slow-burning trip into the swirling vortex of a living nightmare, with characters who gradually discover the hallucinatory horrors that have unhinged, and overtaken, their normal world.

MIDSOMMAR

Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor (right)

British actress Florence Pugh anchors the story as Dani, who accompanies her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) on the trip, along with his bros, horndog Mark (Will Poulter) and cultural anthropologist Josh (William Jackson Harper). They’ve been invited by their Swedish university friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who grew up as an orphan in the commune and considers it his family. “It’s lots of dressing up,” he says. “Like theater.”

Dani is recovering from an almost unfathomable family tragedy, and her four-year relationship with Christian is showing some troubling signs of wear and tear. In Hårga, Christian forgets her birthday, and he begins flirting with one of the young “locals.”

So guess where all Dani’s grief, loss, anxiety, dread, worry, resentment and anger break loose and come pouring out, in a terrifying torrent of outrage, empowerment and awakening?

On one level, Midsommar is about a couple going through a really bumpy spell—a really bumpy spell, surrounded by eerily eccentric people dressed in white smocks, in the middle of nowhere, where things get creepier, and creepier still, and then really creepier, with every passing minute.

Director Aster masterfully cranks up the tension and the dread with every scene, taking his sweet, suspenseful time. This is horror as high art; there aren’t monsters that jump out of the shadows—for one thing, with no nighttime, there aren’t any shadows. It’s an elegant, deeply unnerving disturbia that scorches dark recesses of the imagination with savage, searing grotesqueries that will linger long after the credits roll (to the tune of the 1960s hit “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”).

MidSomIMDB_5 (72)

Will Poulter

What are those oversize mallets for? You’ll find out. What’s the deal with that big brown bear in the cage? You’ll find out about that, too. Why can’t anyone go into the triangular-shaped building at the end of the field? The weird drawings, glyphs and pictographs—on the walls, on the ceilings, everywhere? They all tell a tale, one that will play out for our characters, eventually. And that thing sticking up in the garden…is that a—

At the festival, visitors quickly learn a few basics—or at least they should: Don’t pee on the sacred tree. Stay out of the henhouse. No pix of the holy book! Beware the love runes. And go easy on the strained tea, the meat pies and the mushrooms. These villagers have some pretty strict rules, they take their traditions seriously and they believe in a rather rigorous, unforgiving system of punishment.

Who becomes the festival’s new May Queen, after a grueling maypole dance competition? I’ll give you one guess. What happens when old-timers age out of the “circle of life”? Apparently, Hårga doesn’t have retirement communities. And when girls are old enough to have sex, it’s a real community affair—making for one of the most queasy, bizarre, unerotic sex scenes of any film in a long time.

Pugh is on a roll playing strong women. Having previously rocked Lady Macbeth (2016) and Fighting With My Family (2019), in December she’ll star as “little sister” Amy March in Little Women, alongside Meryl Streep, Emma Watson and Laura Dern. Here, as Dani, she transforms tragedy and hurt into something fierce, ferocious and twistedly triumphant.

MIDSOMMAR

Midsommar shows you sights you never thought you might see. It’s a demon’s view of an outer circle of hell, a perverse celebration of darkness in full daylight, and a wickedly warped travelogue that makes good ol’ home sweet home look sweeter than ever.

What a trip, indeed. At a time when people are worried about going to the Dominican Republic, travel agents should be steering people away from places like Hårga. Midsommar takes you on a crazy, what-did-I-just-watch journey into a finely calibrated, macabre mind-scrambler of movie madness. You’ll be thankful you’re only visiting a fictional festival in a fictional place, in a film. But believe me, it will almost certainly revisit you—when the sun finally goes down, in your deepest, darkest nightmares.

In theaters July 3, 2019

Worldwide Web

Spidey finds action, adventure & romance—and learns superheroes don’t take summers off

Zendaya (Finalized)

Zendaya gets a lift from her friendly neighborhood Spider-Man

Spider-Man: Far From Home
Starring Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jon Favreau & Samuel L. Jackson
PG-13

The combative, catastrophic events of Avengers: Endgame, earlier this year, were hard on superheroes. The Marvel casualty count was high, most notably Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Everybody needed a break after that cosmic battle royale, which marked the official finale of the Avengers franchise.

So you can’t blame anyone involved for wanting to chill out. Like Peter Parker (Tom Holland), the teenager who moonlights as Spider-Man, who’s really looking forward to his senior summer trip to Europe. A trek Over There is going to be a nice getaway with his friends, a chance to leave behind his super-suit—and his superhero responsibilities—and hopefully an opportunity, finally, to make a play on his crush, his oddball classmate MJ (Zendaya).

But not so fast. Trouble follows Peter to Vienna, where a massive, roaring water monster rises up out of the canals to wreak havoc—and a strange new character swoops in to defend the ancient city. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the eye patch-wearing former director of the superhero agency S.H.I.E.L.D, gives Peter the lowdown: That flying, fishbowl-helmet-wearing, caped Mysterio is an ally from another dimension who’s arrived to fight the Elementals, cosmic monsters who’ve arrived on our planet to take their powers from air, water, fire and earth.

And since Peter’s already in Europe, and none of the other Avengers are available, Fury recruits Spider-Man for Mysterio’s cause.

Tom Holland (Finalized);Jake Gyllenhaal (Finalized)

Jake Gyllenhaal is Mysterio

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Mysterio, in his first comic-book-movie role, and you can add this to his long list of “interesting” characters—the gay cowboy of Brokeback Mountain (for which he was Oscar-nominated), the creepy news photographer in Nightcrawler, the obsessive, driven detective of Prisoners, the deeply disturbed novelist in Nocturnal Animals. He brings something special, compelling and sometimes unnerving to every movie in which he appears, and you can rest assured that his Mysterio—a shady character who’s been in the rogue’s gallery of Spider-Man comics for ages—lives up to his name.

As things move across Europe, from Venice to Prague and finally to London, the story builds on two parallel tracks—Spider-Man, Mysterio and the Elementals, and how all that complicates Peter’s plans to hook up with MJ, especially without revealing to her, or anyone else, his secret identity.

Samuel L Jackson (Finalized);Jon Favreau (Finalized)

Samuel L. Jackson and Jon Favreau

Fury has a new suit (all-black) made to help Peter do his Euro web-slinging without anyone knowing he’s really America’s Spider-Man (the locals start calling him the Night Monkey). Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) with Stark Industries strongly implies to Peter that the late Tony Stark/Iron Man had high hopes for the young man—and his potential not only as an Avenger, but as a leader. He gives Parker a set of high-tech, multi-billion-dollar “smart” eyeglasses, called EDITH (you’ll laugh when hear what the letters stand for), that make Alexa look like a Tinkertoy.

Marisa Tomei returns as Peter’s Aunt May, with a new romantic interest of her own. J.B. Smoove and Silicon’s Valley’s Martin Starr get chuckles as hapless class chaperons. Ned (Jacob Batalon), Betty (Angourie Rice) and Flash (Tony Revolori) reappear as Peter’s classmates and also help keep the humorous high-school vibe flowing.

There’s action and laughs, danger and derring-do, comedy and close calls—and surprises and shockers and one real golly-whopper of a game-changer, and if I say much more about the movie, readers will hate me.

It may not be quite as polished and punchy and near-perfect as director Jon Watts’ first Spider-Man outing with Holland, Homecoming (2017). But it’s still a fine entry in the post-Avengers MCU (Marvel Comics Universe) franchise, which now looks to other superheroes to carry the torch—and drive the formidable box office. Even though he’s now 23, Holland still manages to convey the youthful angst of one of Marvel’s most popular characters as he grows into the responsibilities that go with his sticky superpowers.

“I didn’t think I was gonna have to save the world this summer,” Peter laments.

Superheroes, Spider-Man learns, don’t get summers off—even when they’re Far From Home.

In theaters July 2, 2019

 

Get Back

Lily James & Himesh Patel Imagine There’s No Beatles

Film Title:  YesterdayYesterday
Starring Himesh Patel & Lily James
Directed by Danny Boyle
PG-13

A struggling musician gets his big break when a freak accident bestows him with a cache of musical gold in this magical mystery tour from the director of Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting and 127 Hours.

In Yesterday, Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a young Indian-British singer-songwriter who’s been slogging it out for years, singing his tunes on street corners, in coffeehouses and hotel bars. With his dreams of success quietly fading away, he finally tells his faithful manager, Ellie (Lily James), his schoolmate chum who’s now a schoolteacher, that he’s had enough.

Film Title:  Yesterday

Himesh Patel with Lily James

“It’ll take a miracle” to make his career happen now, Jack says. “We’re at the end of our long and winding road.”

That very night, Jack gets his miracle. He collides with a bus while riding his bicycle home—at the very moment of a mysterious, 12-second worldwide blackout, a glitch in the global power grid. When he wakes up in the hospital, he’s mostly OK, but the world is a bit askew: Nobody except him remembers a group called the Beatles, or any of their songs.

Can you imagine? A world that never knew “I Want to Hold Your Hand”? That never swooned to “Something”? Or grooved to “I Saw Her Standing There”?

The blackout has somehow given the entire planet a very specific, very weird musical amnesia—and Jack apparently dodged the Beatles bullet because he was conked out by the collision. It’s as if all those songs by John, Paul, George and Ringo never existed. (There are a few other quirks, too, which Jack will eventually discover, involving a certain globally popular soft drink, the tobacco industry and at least one character in one blockbuster book-to-movie franchise.)

Jack realizes the Fab Four’s vast catalog of already-hits could be a surefire way to reignite his sputtering career. So he starts performing Beatles’ tunes, passing them off as his own, and becomes a megastar.

And no one’s the wiser…at least for a while.

British director Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which won eight Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Directing) in 2009, was about another young man—from the slums of Mumbai, India—with an improbable, life-changing, rags-to-riches story. In Yesterday, Boyle sets up a fanciful, almost fairytale-like scenario, inventively digs into one of richest musical treasure troves of all time, and shapes it around a crowd-pleasing story fashioned by screenwriter Richard Curtis, the maestro of British rom-coms (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Love Actually, About Time).

Film Title:  Yesterday

Ed Sheeran plays himself.

As Jack’s fame increases to mind-boggling proportions, performing Beatles songs like “Let It Be,” “Yesterday,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “All You Need is Love” and passing them off as his own, so does his guilt as a fraud and an imposter. He gets a major-label recording deal, relocates from Liverpool to L.A., tours with Ed Sheeran (who plays himself) and gets a steely manager (Kate McKinnon) who promises him the “great and glorious poisoned chalice of money and fame.”

Will Jack come clean about the songs that have made him a superstar? Will he change “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude,” at Ed Sheeran’s suggestion? Will he finally realize that there’s someone back in England who’s loved him all these years—and that he’s loved her, too?

The “rom” in this rom-com is in good hands with Patel (a former star of the long-running BBC soap EastEnders, here making his movie debut) and James, whose numerous credits include TV’s Downton Abbey and the movies Cinderella, Baby Driver and Mama Mia! Here We Go Again. They make a great, believable couple, and you yearn for the “long and winding road” to lead their characters into a happy intersection.

The “com” is in ample supply as well. Joel Fry provides a lot of chuckles as Rocky, Jack’s unkempt but enthusiastic roadie. McKinnon brings her precision, chameleon-like Saturday Night Live satirical chops to her role as an icily efficient music-biz insider whose words both soothe and slice. A mega-marketing meeting finds Jack’s ideas for album titles and designs, based on actual Beatles releases, somewhat lacking—the “White Album” has “diversity issues,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is “a lot of words” and Abbey Road is “just a road.”

Film Title:  Yesterday

But Himesh can really sing, putting his capable voice to some 15 Beatles classics, and the movie versions of these familiar tunes—and the way the film shows modern-day audiences going gaga over them—are testaments to the timelessness of the iconic music. The words of “In My Life,” from 1965, reach deep into Ellie’s heart, no matter that they’re more than half a century old. Kids in Russia rock out to “Back in the U.S.S.R.” like it was written just for them. When Jack belts out a punk-rock version of “Help!” from a rooftop stage, the pulsating audience below doesn’t know he’s miserable and singing it as a plea for help—just like John Lennon was when he wrote it.

It’s hard to imagine a world that didn’t grow up with the Beatles, but Yesterday lovingly, respectfully resets the stage of pop culture and does just that, giving us something sweet and charming and fun in exchange—this adorable Brit-centric romantic fantasy romp set in a rock ’n’ roll alt-reality where their music lives anew, life goes on—ob-la-di, ob-la-da—and maybe all you need is love, after all.

In theaters June 28, 2019

Fork in the Road

The toys are back, looking for love, meaning and life beyond the bedroom closet

nullToy Story 4
Starring the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Tony Hale, Annie Potts, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Keegan-Michael Key & Jordan Peele
Directed by Josh Cooley
G

The Toy Story movies, you know, were always about more than toys.

They drilled deep into emotions that resonated on multiple levels with parents as well as kids—about friendship and loyalty, the importance of imagination and play, and the deep, long-lasting bonds that children can (and do) have with playthings that moms and dads don’t always fathom.

And now, nearly 25 years after the original Toy Story in 1995, the toys have come to a fork in the road.

 

Make that a spork, actually—a brand-new character, Forky, around which this new installment of the celebrated Disney-Pixar franchise crafts its fabulous, fanciful kaleidoscope of a tale.

TOY STORY 4At the beginning of Toy Story 4, things aren’t looking so good for Woody, the original plastic cowboy (voiced as always by Tom Hanks). You might remember that, at the end of the previous film, he and his fellow playthings were given by their previous owner, the college-bound Andy, to a new kid, a little girl named Bonnie.

But now Woody is gathering dust bunnies in Bonnie’s closet. She rarely plays with him anymore, and his sheriff’s star has been pinned on cowgirl Jesse (Joan Cusack). And Bonnie’s new favorite toy is a crude craft project—Forky—she’s made using bits and pieces of classroom flotsam and jetsam from her kindergarten wastebasket. He’s a plastic spork with gangly pipe-cleaner arms, glued-on googly eyes, broken-off popsicle-stick feet and a mouth made with a dab of modeling clay.

Bonnie adores Forky (voiced by Veep’s Tony Hale), but Forky is oblivious,; he doesn’t even know he’s a toy. He doesn’t know much of anything—he’s only been around for one day, and the only word, or concept, he knows at first is “trash.” Forky thinks he is trash, and he keeps trying to return to his roots, flinging himself into any nearby garbage bin or trash can. Trash is his world.

And all of that is before the movie really kicks into gear—when Bonnie and her family, and her toys, go on a road trip. That’s when Forky eventually makes his break for freedom, Woody sets off to find him, and the setting expands to a carnival, an antique store, colorful new characters and a rousing, rollicking adventure.

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Bo Peep introduces Woody to Boom Caboom.

Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) is a cherubic (but creepy) 1950s doll missing more than one thing that Woody has—and she’ll do almost anything to get it, with the help of her crew of silent-sentinel ventriloquist dummies. Woody reunites with the shepherd Bo Peep (Annie Potts), now a “Lost Doll” whose porcelain shell has been hardened even more by life on the “outside.” (“You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve seen,” she tells Woody. “Some kids play rougher than others.”). Peep introduces Woody to Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), an angst-riddled motorcycle daredevil. A pair of carnival-prize plushies (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), Ducky and Bunny, become essential to the plot, and audience favorites.

Gung-ho astronaut Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) gets in on the action, but the rest of the old Toy Story crew—Rex the timid dinosaur (Wallace Shawn), Mrs. Potato Head (Estelle Harris), Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton)—is pretty much on the sidelines; a line here, a scene there. The real story in Toy Story 4 spins around Forky, and the journey of maturity and self-discovery for Woody to which it leads.

Just as the original Toy Story was never just about toys, Toy Story 4 isn’t just about the new toy made from a spork. First-time feature director Josh Cooley (whose previous experience was mainly with Pixar shorts) steps up to the plate and absolutely delivers (from a script with some 10 sets of handprints on it)—this is another franchise triumph of meta, existential cleverness, pop-culture Easter eggs, high-spirited humor, swelling, sweeping emotions and Disney-Pixar’s typical stratospheric standards of animation excellence. It’s about lost toys that find their purpose, bittersweet partings, happy reunions, and how—as the old saying goes—one person’s trash can, indeed, become someone else’s treasure. It’s about how toys need love, not just batteries.

Toy Story 4 is everything you want in a Toy Story movie, and more—rich with detail, full of fun and adventure, spiced with excitement, peril and bits of darkness, comfortingly familiar and yet—once again—pushing its story into a new direction and expanding its characters and its scope.

It’s about growth, closure, choices, endings and beginnings, friends old and new, family, empathy and understanding, all wrapped up in the eternal mystery of nothing less than life and existence itself.

If a spork, made from bits and pieces from a waste basket, can become a beloved toy…if an inanimate object can be loved, maybe even come to life, just because someone gives it a name, and loves it… Well, anything is possible—maybe even a Toy Story 5.

Where next? To infinity and beyond, of course!

In theaters June 21, 2019