Author Archives: Neil Pond

Southern Charms

All-star cast pulls off rollicking Dixie-fried hillbilly heist

LOGAN LUCKYLogan Lucky
Starring Channing Tatum, Adam Driver & Daniel Craig
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
PG-13

Director Steven Soderbergh’s high-spirited hillbilly-heist caper, about a couple of born-loser West Virginia brothers who scheme to tap into a multi-million-dollar NASCAR jackpot, sometimes feels like a rollicking, redneck riff on his Ocean’s Eleven franchise.

But Logan Lucky has its own pace and personality, a crackpot comedy yarn with a dynamite, all-star ensemble cast.

Channing Tatum stars as Jimmy Logan, a former high school football jock and divorced dad who’s just been let go from his hard-hat bulldozer job. Adam Driver is his gloomy younger brother, Clyde, who wears a prosthetic left hand as a reminder of his two tours of duty in Iraqi and now tends bar at the local watering hole.

In addition to losing his job, Jimmy has forfeited custody of his young daughter (Farrah Mackenzie, who played Dolly Parton’s sister, Stella, on the TV movie Coat of Many Colors) to his flinty ex-wife (Katie Holmes). Clyde has already served time in jail for a minor offense.

LOGAN LUCKY

Riley Keough

Both wonder if the Logan family “curse” they’ve heard about all their lives is true.

Jimmy’s former employment had him filling in dangerous sinkholes underneath the Charlotte Motor Speedway over the state line in North Carolina, and it gives him an idea. He knows the money—a torrent of bills—from the massive complex is routed underground directly to the bank during racing events. And he knows just how to get to it…

The sets in motion a crazy-quilt, cracker-barrel scheme that involves a prison break (out as well as back in), color-coded cockroaches and a bomb made out of bleach sticks, salt substitute and Gummi Bears.

LOGAN LUCKY

Daniel Craig

You’ll get a hoot out of seeing “James Bond” in pinstripes: Daniel Craig is a beefed-up, backwoods, buzz-cut rascal as Joe Bang, the jailbird whose expertise with explosives is key to the job. Riley Keough plays Mellie, the Logans’ firecracker little sister who works as a hairstylist. Country singer Dwight Yoakam gets a nifty role as the bully prison warden, who can’t admit his facility ever has any problems, big or small.

Seth (Family Guy) Macfarlane is almost unrecognizable as a detestably flamboyant British racing sponsor. Hillary Swank plays a dogged FBI agent determined to make her case. Sebastian Stan is a rock-star racer who treats his body as a clean machine. Katherine Waterson’s mobile health-care provider carries a long-burning torch for Jimmy. Joe Bang’s dim-bulb little brothers Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid) also sign on for the action, boasting of their savvy and their value to the team.

“I know all the twitters,” says Fish.

This collection of oddballs, misfits, lowlifes and small-town joes and janes clicks together into one hilarious groove, overflowing with twists, turns, screwball gimmicks and inevitable mishaps. Soderbergh certainly knows how to steer a sizeable cast through the in-and-out mechanics of a crazy caper, and he even weaves in a surprisingly sentimental subplot around a tiny-tot Little Miss West Virginia contest and John Denver’s song “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

Though it’s set in the South and it’s a comedy about Southerners and Southern culture, Logan Lucky never feels like it’s making sport of its characters, their way of living or their institutions. You laugh at them—but you also root for them.

When the heist is referred to in the movie as the “Ocean’s 7-11,” it’s a reference to the local convenience store central to some of the action as well as a meta nod by the screenplay to the movie’s pedigree in director Soderburgh’s hit trilogy of Oceans con-comedy movies.

But unlike the Oceans flicks, this Dixie-fried delight of a heist is dressed down, not spiffed up. And it’s happy to play in its own backyard instead of glitzy Las Vegas casinos or ritzy European hotels. A rowdy, fun-filled romp with an A-list cast having a summer blast, Logan Lucky will leave you feeling lucky you came along—and remind you that good fortune sometimes snaps open with a Southern drawl.

In theaters Aug. 18

Hello, Dolly

The terrifying devil doll that launched ‘The Conjuring’ is baaaaack! 

ABL202_080.tifAnnabelle: Creation
Starring Anthony LaPaglia, Talitha Bateman & Stephanie Sigman
Directed by David F. Sandberg
R

The demonic backstory to the evil plaything that inspired The Conjuring and later got its own spin-off, Annabelle: Creation effectively fulfills horror fans’ need to be scared—and reminds us of just how creepy dolls can be.

In the opening credits, we watch in the 1950s as a toymaker (Anthony LaPaglia, best known for playing Jack Malone on TV’s Without a Trace) carefully puts the finishing touches on the doll that will become Annabelle, a gift for his young daughter, Bee.

Bee is struck by a car in the very next scene and killed.

Then, 12 years later, the heartbroken toymaker and his mysteriously bedridden wife (Mirando Otto, Rebecca Ingram from 24: Legacy) open their home to a group of orphan girls and a young Catholic nun, Sister Catherine (Stephanie Sigman).

_T2A0373.dngThe girls are told they can freely go anywhere in the house, except for one place—Bee’s old bedroom, which is always locked.

Swedish director David F. Sandberg, whose resume includes last year’s horror flick Lights Out, doesn’t really do anything flashy or new. But he certainly knows how to solidly ramp up the suspense, and once he turns on the jolt juice, it really starts to flow.

The setting of a big, rambling, Victorian-style farmhouse, on a desolate hilltop in the middle of nowhere (actually, Southern California) makes a great place for the spooky shenanigans. Sandberg keeps gore—and slaughter—to a minimum, especially for an R-rated flick, and gets maximum value out of things that are only glimpsed briefly, seen in the shadows or stirred in the darkness of the imagination.

That’s not to say you won’t see some things that will make you gasp, and if you come to see bodies torn apart, walls smeared with blood and eye sockets missing eyeballs, well, you won’t be disappointed.

The device of a houseful of young women, or girls, is a well-worn horror cliché. Here, the orphans, who range in age from kids to older teens, provide several creative opportunities for interaction with Annabelle and the house, from telling spooky stories underneath a bedsheet to exploring the grounds and outbuildings. A game of hide-and-seek holds quite a surprise, and that sinister-looking scarecrow in the barn—well, there’s a reason he looks so sinister.

This is definitely the kind of movie you need to see in a theater with other people. It certainly adds to the enjoyment to hear a whipped-up audience chiming in, shouting at the screen, offering characters advice: “Don’t open that door!” “Close that door!” “Get away from that!” “Don’t go in there!”

A woman in front of me could barely stay in her seat; several times, she literally leaned forward, arms extended, as if reaching into the screen to extend a helping hand.

One of those times was the dumbwaiter scene, when one of the smallest girls was trying to get away from one of the other little girls—who had turned into a demon—in the shaft of the house’s dumbwaiter, and the ropes were stuck. Yikes!!!

ABL202_007.tif

Talitha Bateman

Much of the focus is on little Janice, played by Talitha Bateman (her brother, Gabriel, starred in Lights Out). Janice is recovering from polio, hobbling around in leg braces, and Annabelle singles her out for particular attention.

The Annabelle and Conjuring movies walk a profane line between good and evil—and evil always seems to have the upper hand. No amount of prayers, holy water, priests, nuns, rosary beads or pages from the Bible plastered over a door can keep the malevolent spirt of Annabelle from raging across the decades. The doll, a priest says, is a conduit for evil. Mullins’ wife says it’s “the devil itself.”

Whatever it is, it’s on the way to being a lynchpin of one of the most successful horror franchises ever, a nearly $900 million part of director-producer James Wan’s creepshow empire, which includes Saw (six movies and counting), Insidious and now the ever-widening world of Annabelle. Next year we’ll see The Nun, of which Annabelle: Creation provides a peek—a dark, spectral presence in the corner of a picture frame.

Even if you don’t buy into believing that Annabelle is a conduit for evil, you have to agree: This devil doll has certainly tapped into the box office. And as long as people enjoy being spooked by creepy dolls, she’ll be around—somewhere, in the shadows, behind a door, inside that locked room.

“Don’t go in there!”

In theaters Aug. 11, 2017

Family Man

Hollywood buffs out rough edges of Jeannette Walls’ tough survivor’s tale

001_TGC_D02_00156_00157_COMP_R2 (4)_72The Glass Castle
Starring Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson & Naomi Watts
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
PG-13

Family, man.

That’s where it’s at. Hollywood loves family—think of the countless movie comedies and dramas you’ve seen with clueless parents, crazy relatives, squabbling spouses and precocious kids.

The Glass Castle has its own version of all that, all rolled together. It’s based on the best-selling memoir by Jeannette Walls, the former newspaper reporter, magazine writer New York City gossip columnist whose tale captivated readers with the wrenching details of her nomadic, poverty-stricken childhood.

Walls and her two young siblings were taken by their deeply dysfunctional parents across the country, from one dilapidated, often abandoned house to another, often just one step ahead of the law, creditors and child protective services. Their mother, Mary Rose, who fancied herself an artist, would rather paint than provide meals for her kids; father Rex was an alcohol-fueled, cigarette-puffing schemer and scammer who railed against the “system” and dreamed of one day building a solar-powered castle made of glass.

There was love, but there was also screaming, fighting and drinking and an apparent inability to hold down—or even seek—any kind of job.

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Brie Larson

Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts play the parents, and three different groups of actors portray Jeannette and her brother and sisters at different ages and stages, told in overlapping flashbacks. Brie Larson anchors the tale as grown-up Jeannette prepares in the late 1980s to marry a successful young Wall Street broker (Max Greenfield, who played Schmidt on TV’s New Girl) in a final defiant act to break free from her past.

But she can’t shake off the literal and psychological scars of her childhood.

You might recognize several of the younger performers. Shree Crooks, who plays Jeannette’s younger sister Maureen, was Scarlett Lowe in American Horror Story, and also one of the kids in the Oscar-nominated Captain Fantastic. Sister Lori is played by Sadie Sink, who you’ll recall as Max if you watch Stranger Things. Iain Armitage, who has a couple of scenes as little brother Brian, will star this fall in The Big Bang Theory spinoff series Young Sheldon.

But it’s young Ella Anderson, as young Jeannette, who steals the show—and your heart. Anderson starred on the Nickelodeon series Henry Danger and had roles in the movie comedies The Boss and Mother’s Day, and her expressive face shows just how Rex’s weakness and failures eventually crushed and scattered all his children.

But the relationship between a parent and a child can be a paradoxical and complicated thing, and Jeannette later confesses that her father is the smartest man she’s ever known.

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Ella Anderson & Woody Harrelson

It’s one thing to watch Swiss Family Robinson and be entertained by Walt Disney’s fanciful account of how a shipwrecked father, his wife and their kids built a life on an island with bamboo, coconuts and palm fronds. It’s another to know The Glass Castle is based on a true account grounded in issues of mental illness and addiction, of irresponsible parents who willfully let their kids live in rundown shacks with no electricity, go without food or medical attention, and do nothing when they were physically abused—and how, at least in the movie, everything comes out in the feel-good, all-is-forgiven wash.

Instead of the gritty, spunky survivor’s tale of triumph in the book, the movie is essentially a Hollywood melodrama about quirky, wayward, happy-go-lucky bohemian parenting. Harrelson and Watts give it their best, and so does Larson, who won an Oscar for Room, particularly since she’s basically little more than a recurring supporting player. But the documentary footage over the credits suggests that the real story of the real people they’re playing would likely be far more interesting than this glossed-over dramatization, which seems to buff out some rougher, tougher edges, including an attempted rape and childhood sexual assault.

At one point, the children have gone for days eating only butter because there’s no other food in the house. Then they apparently go for several days more after Rex spends all the household money on an all-night booze bender. The movie never picks up the no-food, we’re-starving idea again—and neither do the children. Did the kids get anything else to eat? What? How? When?

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There are laughs, there are tears—in one scene, they actually drip off Brie Larson’s quivering chin. But mostly, there’s a sense that everything that happens brings Jeannette closer to her family—to her siblings, her mom and even to her dad.

At a dinner—with more tears—at the end of the movie, Jeannette says simply, “I feel lucky.” And everyone gives a glowing toast to Rex, the dreamer, schemer and drunkard, ne’er-do-well father who kept them together until he finally drove everyone apart.

Wow. Score one for extremely well-adjusted kids. At least in the movies.

Family, man.

In theaters Aug. 11, 2017

Hot & Bothered

Racially charged drama about 1967 riots rings chillingly true today

UDP_04534.CR2Detroit
Starring Algee Smith, John Boyega, Will Poulter & Anthony Mackie
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
R

The sweltering summer is about to get even hotter.

In Detroit, director Katheryn Bigelow turns up the heat on the 50th anniversary of one of the most deadly and destructive racially charged riots in our nation’s history.

Bigelow, who won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker (2008) and also directed the acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty (2012), recreates events that occurred in June 1967 with an ensemble cast and a wrenching sense of timeliness.

The movie points out the toxic recipe of white suburban flight, economic plight and tensions between black neighborhoods and police that were already in play, in Detroit and elsewhere, when the Motor City riots began with a police raid on an unlicensed bar in one of the city’s segregated, all-black neighborhoods.

The officers had a legal right to shut the place down, but did they have to “make an example” of everyone who was there? Herd them like cattle onto the street and into paddy wagons to take them jail? Feel up a female or two as they were “helping” them into the vehicles?

“What’d they do?! What’d they do?!” an onlooker cries out from the crowd—before a bottle flies through the air, then a Molotov cocktail. In seconds, looting has begun, and before morning, the entire neighborhood is on fire.

UDP_03647FD.psdBy day three, the Michigan governor has called in the national guard, and soldiers in jeeps and tanks patrol the streets. Neighborhood by neighborhood, the city becomes a war zone as African-American hopelessness, helplessness and rage erupt in widening spasms of destruction—and the police and the military strike back with sometimes lethal force.

In this simmering, scalding, suffocating cauldron of racial tension, we meet our central characters, whose lives soon intersect in an excruciating crux of circumstance.

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John Boyega

Larry Reed (Algee Smith) is the lead singer of an up-and-coming, unsigned local vocal group, the Dramatics, who’s crushed when their big breakout gig at the Fox Theater is cancelled due to the riots. John Boyega (Finn from Star Wars: The Force Awakens) plays Melvin Dismukes, a straight-thinking overnight security guard. Will Poulter (from The Revenant, We’re The Millers and The Maze Runner) portrays Krauss, the overzealous patrolman who becomes a bully, a racist thug and a murderer.

Julie and Karen, two young women visiting from Ohio, are played by Hannah Murrah (Gilly from TV’s Game of Thrones) and Kaitlyn Dever (Eve on the sitcom Last Man Standing). Anthony Mackie is a U.S. Army veteran recently home from Viet Nam, now finding himself at the wrong place at the wrong time.

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Kaitlyn Dever

The singer, the security guard, the patrolman and the vet, along with Julie and Karen and several other characters, all end up at a bustling motel, where the movie takes a turn toward the horrific after police believe there’s a sniper hiding inside. What follows is a protracted, nightmarish sequence of brutality and intimidation as raw racism flexes its ugly muscle behind the authority of a badge.

Before the night is over, the bodies of three innocent victims lie dead in pools of their blood.

The movie does a tremendous job of recreating scorched, seared late-’60s Detroit. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, using handheld cameras much of the time, makes you feel like “you are there” in the sweat, smoke and the shaken, smashed and shattered lives.

In the modern era of cell phones and dashboard and body cams, with social media and television highlighting incidents of overreach and outrage—and #BlackLivesMatter rallying to spotlight America’s miserably ingrained culture of racial violence—the film’s themes of tragedy and injustice resonate with chilling contemporary relevance.

The film ends on a note of spiritual uplift about love overcoming hate, a message of hope and the hope of healing, one that rings across the distance of the ages.

And the message certainly rings across the 50 years since the events of Detroit, which painfully reminds us of how close to home this harrowing history lesson hits today.

In theaters Aug. 4, 2017

Make way, James

Charlize Theron is super-sexy, kick-ass spy who’s not afraid to rumble 

Film Title: Atomic BlondeAtomic Blonde
Starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy & Sofia Boutella
Directed by David Leitch
R

James Bond made it look so easy. As moviedom’s coolest, suavest, most iconic superspy, he rarely mussed his hair, wrinkled his shirt or even appeared to get so much as a scratch or a scuff.

The espionage business is a bit rougher on Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), a MI-6 agent in the late 1980s. When we first meet her, soaking in a bathtub of ice cubes, we see her blonde-haired, battered body is covered in bruises, the black and blue souvenirs of her most recent mission.

Atomic Blonde, based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, unspools in flashback as we learn Broughton’s story in debriefings with her superior (Toby Jones from Bridge of Spies) and an American C.I.A. operative (John Goodman).

Film Title: Atomic Blonde

John Goodman

Her assignment had been to slip into Berlin, on the politically charged eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and retrieve a micro-list with names and details about British and American spies before it finds its way into enemy hands.

The list is so hot, she’s told, it’s an “atomic bomb of information.”

Ice-cold Broughton was well-suited for this hot job. She’s top-ranked in “escape and evasion, intelligence collection and hand-to-hand combat,” notes the head of MI-6, “C” (James Faulkner, Randyll Tarly on Game of Thrones).

That’s an understatement, as we quickly learn. Broughton kicks, punches, shoots and stabs her way across Berlin, brutally dispatching pursuing German and Russian agents in a series of hyper-violent, show-stopping action sequences. She uses her fists, her legs, her stilettos, a refrigerator door, a set of car keys and a corkscrew, among other more conventional weapons.

Film Title: Atomic BlondeDirector David Leitch, a former stuntman who directed Keanu Reeves in John Wick, certainly knows how stage boffo fight scenes, and he sets up a few doozies here. One in particular, which occurs toward the end of the movie, is nearly five minutes long, shot in a single unbroken take into a building, up an elevator, down a stairwell, through an apartment and finally into the streets for a slam-bang car chase.

That one scene alone is worth the price of admission. It’s an amazing piece of filmmaking, and Theron does it all (apparently) without any stunt doubling. I’ve never seen any lead actress do this kind of extreme, rough-and-tumble, knockabout, faux fighting onscreen, and certainly not for these kinds of extended scenes. She takes some very real-looking (and very real) falls, slams, slaps, throws, tumble and thwacks.

I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of those bruises on Theron’s character weren’t real, too.

Film Title: Atomic Blonde

Theron & Boutella

Sofia Boutella (the mummy in this summer’s The Mummy) plays Delphine, a sexy French spy who becomes Broughton’s lover—their same-sex nude and makeout scenes make a first for any mainstream spy movie. (Hey, there could have been something going on between Inspector Clouseau and Cato, but they kept it off-camera and on the down-low.)

James McAvoy (Split) is Percival, MI-6’s man in Berlin, whose debauched enthusiasm for the city’s thriving black-market enticements often get in the way of his job. Eddie Marsan (Terry Donovan from TV’s Ray Donovan) plays an East German agent who has memorized some priceless information and wants to defect with it.

The plot meanders and loops and convolutes in a twisty, tangled knot of double agents, double crosses, triple crosses and traitors—I lost count and I lost track. But so what? It looks great, cool and sleek and stylish and sexy, awash in splashes of neon reds and greens on chilly monochrome greys and blues, set to a soundtrack of pumping, pulsating ’80s tunes including David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure,” Til Tuesday’s “Voice’s Carry,” Nena’s “99 Luftballons,” Re-Flex’s “The Politics of Dancing” and A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran.”

And gliding through it all is Charlize Theron, who’s now officially earned her rank—and her bruises—in Hollywood’s spy club.

In theaters July 28, 2017

Beach Boys

Christopher Nolan’s newest epic puts Dunkirk on the cinematic map

DUNKIRK

Dunkirk
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy & Mark Rylance
Directed by Christopher Nolan
PG-13

D-Day, Iwo Jima, Pearl Harbor, the Bulge—you’ve probably heard about these pivotal World War II battles. They were decisive, dramatic events where the tide of history was turned. And Hollywood has helped keep their memory alive.

Now Christopher Nolan, the director of the blockbuster Dark Knight Batman trilogy and the mind-bending sci-fi epics Inception and Intersteller, wants you to remember another decisive WWII event.

But unlike D-Day, Iwo Jima, Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Bulge, what happened on the beaches of Dunkirk occurred in 1940, more than a year before the United States entered the war. And it was more a miracle than a military success. It involved the rescue of some 333,000 British, Belgium and French troops after they’d been routed and surrounded by the German army after fighting in Nazi-occupied France.

With some 26 miles of shallow English Channel separating them from safety, the stranded troops waited in mounting desperation for small boats to load them up and ferry them to Britain—before they could be picked off by snipers or blown to pieces by German Messerschmitt airplanes.

But even boats weren’t safe. A torpedo or a strafe of airplane bombs could sink a ship in an instant.

Nolan’s intense, immersive historical spectacle breaks the story down into three separate parts—the beach, the sea and the air—overlapping them and their timelines and only bringing them all together at the very end of the movie.

Bodega Bay

Fionn Whitehead

On the beach, we meet a young soldier, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), whose struggle to leave becomes a nearly Homeric odyssey, a gauntlet of combat-survival horrors. In the air, we follow the derring-do exploits of an RAF Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy), who makes the most of his 40 minutes of fuel to shoot down German planes.

And in the water, we’re introduced to a father, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), one of many civilians from the British mainland who’ve launched their leisure vessels to cross the channel and retrieve soldiers. Dawson sets out with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and another boy (Barry Keoghan). Halfway there, they pick up a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) who’s been stranded in the water after a German U-boat attack.

mark-rylance-in-dunkirk-2017-large-picture

Mark Rylance

The unnamed soldier, horrified at the thought of going back to Dunkirk, begs Dawson to return to England, telling him he has no business taking his motorboat into a war zone. “You should be at home!” he says.

“There won’t be any ‘home’ if we allow a slaughter across the channel,” Dawson replies.

The “miracle” of Dunkirk, as the movie makes clear, was the civilian effort of Dawson and many others like him. As Great Britain contemplated the specter of Nazi Germany and Adolph Hitler a sliver of water away, the nation—and Prime Minister Winston Churchill—knew they had to get their boys home.

The Dunkirk rescue galvanized Britain for other, bigger battles to come.

The movie tells this tale of steely British resolve exclusively from a British perspective—and rightly so. There are no German characters, and certainly no Americans. It has very little dialogue. It’s visual, visceral, gut-level storytelling.

Harry Styles, the singer from the pop group One Direction, makes an admirable acting debut as another soldier, and veteran British actor Kenneth Branagh plays the highest ranking officer on the beach.

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Tom Hardy

Nolan has crafted a powerful, moving, harrowingly magnificent film experience that puts the viewer in the middle of the action. You feel the clang, rattle and vibration of Tom Hardy’s Spitfire, the terrifying panic as sinking ships fill with rushing water, the sense of doom as thousands of troops watch helplessly while another German plane swoops low for another bombing run.

There’s a bare minimum of computer effects. Those are real ships, real airplanes. The movie looks and feels authentic—because so much of it is.

The innovative soundtrack by Hans Zimmer—Nolan’s frequent collaborator—is an ambient, mostly electronic soundscape that reminds you just how important sound can be to a movie, and how “music” can be many different things.

And you understand that heroism, especially in wartime, comes in many shapes and forms, and it doesn’t always wear a uniform.

A contemporary war movie that echoes classic combat films but eclipses them at the same time, Nolan’s new epic puts Dunkirk on the cinematic map.

In theaters July 21, 2017

Haunted House

The slow-moving, meditative, existential charms of ‘A Ghost Story’

AGS_field4_copy_rgbA Ghost Story
Starring Casey Affleck & Rooney Mara
Directed by David Lowery
R

Don’t be scared.

Despite the spooky title, there’s nothing to be frightened of in A Ghost Story. It’s not that kind of movie. But there is a ghost, and this is his story.

As the movie opens, we meet a young couple (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara), presumably husband and wife, whose sleeping is disturbed by a discordant twang on the keys of an old piano in their living room. Getting up to investigate, they find nothing suspicious or out of the ordinary, and they go back to bed.

The camera then holds an overhead, close-up shot of the couple for several long minutes, lingering as they embrace, motionless, in the silence. Nothing more happens, but it makes you feel like a voyeur—or maybe like someone else, or something else, is also watching.

In the very next scene, the husband is dead, killed in an automobile accident. At the hospital, after the wife has viewed his lifeless body, he sits up from the slab in the morgue. Still covered in a white sheet, now with two mournful-looking eye holes, he slowly makes his way out of the hospital and heads back to the house that was his home.

This certainly could have been played for yuks, but writer-director David Lowery (who also directed Disney’s 2016 live-action remake of Pete’s Dragon) has something else in mind—a meditative, existential reflection on memory, life, loss, longing, loneliness and legacy.

Ghost-15_rgb_cropBack at his home, the ghost silently watches his wife come and go. He tries—unsuccessfully—to “reach out” and touch her. But she is unaware of his presence. When she comes home from a date with another man, the ghost has a jealous poltergeist moment—light bulbs burst and books fly off the shelf. (One of the books opens to a page of the Virginia Woolf short story “A Haunted House,” quoted at the beginning of the film.)

One day the ghost looks out and sees another ghost, through a window in the house next door. They wave to each other, then communicate via subtitled ghost telepathy. “I’m waiting for someone,” says the other ghost. “Who?” asks the Casey Affleck ghost. “I don’t remember,” says the next-door ghost.

If you stay through the end credits, you’ll find out the next-door ghost (who has a floral-pattern bedsheet) is played by certain singing pop star (credited as “Spirit Girl”). Watch closely and you’ll catch a glimpse of her, without the bedsheet, in a party scene later.

Eventually the wife moves out and moves away. Other people move in. But the ghost stays. Time flows, forward and backward. The past, present and future begin to swirl and spin, like the planets around the stars—but the ghost remains in one place, the spot where his home was…or someday will be.

2016_Ghost_Day_12-377_rgbAffleck and Mara’s characters are never named, but in the credits they are identified as “C” and “M.” Of course, C is for Casey and M is for Mara. But coincidentally, C is also the Roman numeral for 100 and M is for 1,000—and in this movie, those quantities could easily signify years.

M says in the very first scene that she’s moved around a lot in her life, and she always wrote little notes wherever she lived and stashed them away in the nooks and crannies of her houses. “If I ever wanted to go back,” she says, “there’d be a piece of me waiting.”

Those little notes play a big part of the story. So does the idea of going back, especially in a metaphysical sense, and what kind of “little pieces” we leave behind—whether it’s Beethoven writing a symphony or a pioneer driving a stake for a homestead cabin.

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Casey Affleck

There’s a lot to think about in this mesmerizing, slow-go, low-budget minimalist movie with very little dialogue—although the slam-bang Transformers multiplex crowd might find its lack of action and pyrotechnics downright maddening. As unique and hypnotic as it is, a nine-minute sequence of Rooney Mara sitting on the kitchen floor binge-eating an entire pie isn’t exactly Mark Wahlberg fighting a giant robot—I certainly can’t argue with that.

But with Oscar-winner Casey Affleck underneath a form-fitting sheet, and mute, for almost 90 minutes, A Ghost Story is unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. A beautiful, haunting ode to the impermanence of everything—and the precious, mundane, sometimes mysterious moments that make up the music of life—it reminds us that we’re all just watching it go by, one way or another, and that it will continue, in some shape, form or fashion, long after we’re gone.

Wide release July 14, 2017

‘Homecoming’ King

New Spider-Man returns Marvel’s web star to his high school roots

Photographer select; Tom HollandSpider-Man: Homecoming
Starring Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Marissa Tomei & Robert Downey Jr.
Directed by Jon Watts
PG-13

Of all the comic-book superheroes, Spider-Man was always the one that always connected most directly to me as a kid.

Mainly because he was a kid, too—unlike Superman, Batman, Daredevil, Thor, the Hulk and just about everyone else. They were all bona fide adults with day jobs, or at least grown-up lives and responsibilities.

Spider-Man’s alter ego, Peter Parker, was an insecure, misunderstood high school student, a teenager who juggled classes, crime-fighting and mad crushes on Mary Jane Watson and Gwen Stacy.

I could dig that.

More than 50 years after his first appearance in a Marvel Comic, and now after three big-screen movies starring Tobey McGuire and two with Andrew Garfield, Spider-Man: Homecoming returns the character to the hormones and high-school hallways of his roots.

And it marks the full-blown debut of a new Spider-Man, Tom Holland, and he crushes it. The young British actor, 21, has appeared in several other films, including In The Heart of the Sea and The Lost City of Z, and he was one of the kids swept away by the tsunami with Naomi Watts in The Impossible. But he rocks Spider-Man as if this was the role he’s been waiting in the wings to play all along.

Tom HollandHe gave a teaser cameo appearance as Spidey in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, and the movie creatively begins with Peter’s “home video” leading up to his experience in that film’s “clash of the Avengers” tarmac scene.

Do we need yet another Spider-Man movie? Heck yeah—if it’s this one, a rollicking, soaring glide of a ride that puts a bright new, fun, feisty, re-energized spin on pop culture’s top web star.

Although it’s officially a franchise reboot, Spider-Man: Homecoming dispenses (thankfully) with much of the backstory—how Peter Parker became an orphan, how he became Spider-Man—and gets right down to business. In the opening scene, we meet the character who’ll become Spidey’s next nemesis: Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), the owner of a New York salvage company who exacts revenge on the circumstances—and bureaucrats—that screwed him out a big job, spurring him to a life of crime as the Vulture.

Using a high-tech winged harness that allows him to fly, Toomes uses giz-mology stolen from superhero smack-down sites to create guns that can obliterate people and buildings. That’s bad news for just about everyone, except bad guys who’ll pay him big bucks for the black-market bang.

There are several delightful surprises, and one huge one, so the less said about certain things, the better.

Jon Favreau;Robert Downey Jr;Tom Holland

Robert Downey Jr. & Tom Holland

Yes, Stan Lee makes a cameo. Robert Downey Jr. pops in and out as Tony Stark, who provides Peter Parker with his righteously upgraded Spidey suit. The scene in which Peter discovers, and activates, the suit’s Siri-like personal-assistant is simply terrific.

Marissa Tomei returns as Peter’s Aunt May, and there’s Jon Favreau as Stark’s right-hand man, Happy Hogan. Donald Glover (from TV’s Atlanta) has a couple of scenes as a chill, not-so-good guy. Laura Harrier (who played Liz on the soap One Life to Live) plays the gorgeous senior for whom young Peter pines. Singer-actress Zendaya (from the Disney TV series K.C. Undercover) provides some coy comic relief as quirky Michelle, another student, a budding artist who might—or might not—be drawn to Peter.

Newcomer Jacob Batalon is introduced as Peter’s super-nerdy best friend, Ned, who’s thrilled when he accidentally discovers Peter’s secret identity and is allowed to become his Spidey confidant.

Michael Keaton

Michael Keaton

And Keaton… Well, his menacing, metallic Vulture is like Birdman by way of Boeing, and he brings a pathos and dimensionality to his villainy that makes his character more than the typical comic-book baddie. Based on the end-credits scene tag, it’s good to know he might be back for more in the next Spidey installment, coming in 2018.

Director Jon Watts, whose Cop Car (2015) with Kevin Bacon was an underappreciated gem, brings a fresh, fly perspective to everything, from Peter’s anxious relationships to the movie’s big action scenes. And unlike his predecessors, this Spider-Man, still a greenhorn to what he can do, keeps “close to the ground,” not high in the Big Apple sky. A major chase sequence takes place in a suburban neighborhood, across grassy lawns, over low-slung rooftops and through leafy backyards—not between the concrete canyons of Manhattan skyscrapers.

When Spider-Man hesitates at the top of a the Washington Monument, during a boffo rescue scene a bit later, the personal assistant in his suit asks him why he’s pausing, some 550 feet off the plaza below.

His response: “I’ve never been this high before.”

Spider-Man: Homecoming have leave giddy Spidey fans feeling the same way.

In theaters July 7, 2017

Triple-Down Theory

Despicable Me 3 offers more of successful family-fun formula

Film Title: Despicable Me 3Despicable Me 3
Starring the voices of Steve Carrell, Kristen Wiig & Trey Parker
Directed by Eric Guillon, Kyle Galda and Pierre Coffin
PG
In theaters June 30, 2017

The Despicable Me franchise, launched in 2010, became a massive, worldwide smash with nearly a billion-dollar box-office tally for two movies and its 2015 Minions spinoff.

Small wonder that the third spy-shenanigans flick triples down with more of everything that worked the first two times. There’s more cartoonish tomfoolery, more Minions and more snappy, rockin’ soundtrack tunes (seven of them!) by Pharrell, who wrote the Oscar-nominated “Happy” for Despicable Me 2. And there’s more Gru (voiced by Steve Carrell), the formerly despicable villain who’s now a villain-fighting family man.

Film Title: Despicable Me 3

Steve Carrell provides the voices of both Gru (left) and his long-lost twin, Dru.

In fact, there are two Grus, sort of. In DM3, Gru discovers he has a long-lost twin brother, Dru, who’s lives in the vaguely Slavic nation of Freedonia, which is overrun with pigs. Dru is more charming than Gru, more successful than Gru, and has much, much more hair than Gru.

Dru tempts Gru by drawing him back into his flamboyant criminal past.

Oh, gno!

There’s some business about a big, colorful diamond that everyone wants to get their hands on, for different reasons.

Carell also takes on the voice of Dru, and seems to be having a terrific time in his new dual roles.

Film Title: Despicable Me 3Kristin Wiig returns to her DM2 role as Lucy, Gru’s feisty secret-agent wife. Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier and Nev Scharrel provide the voices of Gru and Lucy’s three young adopted daughters, whose heartwarming subplot becomes a warm center to all the movie’s madcap swirl of sight gags.

Be listening for Julie Andrews in her one scene as Gru and Dru’s mom, and Jenny Slate as the new head of the Anti-Villain League.

Film Title: Despicable Me 3

Balthazar Bratt

The movie’s main new addition is a character called Balthazar Bratt, voiced by Trey Parker, the co-creator of TV’s South Park and the writer/director of Broadway’s Book of Mormon. Bratt, a star of an ’80s TV show about an abhorrent kid who was always getting into trouble, didn’t adjust to puberty very well and turned to villainy as an adult. Still stuck in the era of his childhood fame, he sports a ridiculous mullet (with a bald spot) and a jumpsuit with oversized shoulder pads, strutting around with a Walkman as he shoots wads of pink bubblegum to immobilize his opponents, toting a key-tar that stuns to the opening power chords of Van Halen’s “Jump” and Dire Strait’s “Money For Nothing,” and hiding his weaponry in a Rubik’s Cube.

“I’ve been a baaaaad boy!” Bratt used to say on his show. He never grew out of his catchphrase—he just grew into it.

And then there’s the Minions, those little jibbering, jabbering, quasi-lingual thingies that look like oversized yellow Jujubes with bad hair transplants, goggles and tiny coveralls. They giggle, sing and make lots of rude noises. Before the title of the movie even appears, they release two honks from their “fart blaster,” which does exactly what it sounds like it would do.

Film Title: Despicable Me 3In this movie, the Minions crash an America’s Got Talent-style TV competition, get sent to prison and escape by making an elaborate flying machine—out of stitched-together prison uniforms, toilets and other jailhouse odds and ends.

The three directors juggle all the jokery with craft, cleverness and a finger on the pulse of spry spy satire, lightly spoofing James Bond, Pink Panther movies, Mission Impossible flicks, Mad magazine’s Spy vs. Spy strip and other familiar tropes. The movie even spoofs itself: Watch closely and you’ll see a billboard for a movie called Onions, which looks a lot like Minions.

As he plots his comeuppance on the Hollywood that shunned him with an attack by a gigantic robot, Balthazar Bratt watches a Betamax tape of one of his old shows. “Does no one value true art anymore?” he laments. It’s a meta joke, a swipe at a crappy TV series within a joke about a former star who doesn’t know it’s all over—wrapped in an irony about the short shelf life of pop culture and the fleeting nature of fame.

With farting Minions, herds of pigs and dance-fights to throwback ’80s tunes, it’s not exactly high art. But as part of a soon-to-be billion-dollar family-fun franchise, hey, DM3 is hardly despicable.

What a Ride

Hop In, Hang On & Rock Out With ‘Baby Driver’

Ansel ElgortBaby Driver
Starring Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx & Eiza Gonzalez
Directed by Edgar Wright
R

If you need a ride, get an Uber, use Lyft or hail a taxi. But if you really want to get there in a jif, book Baby.

Baby (Ansel Elgort from The Fault in Our Stars and the Divergent film series) is the best in the biz, especially if the business is robbery. Nobody drives a getaway car like him. In the movie’s stupefying opening sequence, after his trio of heist passengers (Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez and Jon Bernthal) knock over a bank, Baby cuts, drifts, skids and slides in a souped-up red Subaru through the streets of downtown Atlanta, always just ahead of a column of pursuing cops.

Ansel Elgort;Jon Hamm;Eiza Gonzalez;Jamie Foxx

Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez and Jon Hamm

Unflappably cool behind his shades, Baby is the quiet type—extremely quiet. He rarely speaks, and he’s always got his earbuds in, listening to music on one of his several iPods. “You know why they call him Baby?” says Hamm’s character, Buddy. “They’re still waiting for his first words.” Baby drives for Doc (Kevin Spacey), the icy kingpin of a motley, murderer’s row crew of thieves.

We learn Baby’s backstory, about the childhood tragedy that left him with tinnitus—the “hum in the drum”—that he tries to constantly drown out with his tunes, and about the incident that left him so deeply in debt to Doc that he’s still digging out with his servitude.

Baby is the driver in Baby Driver, but it’s music—a bountiful, supercharged spectrum of R&B, classic rock, nu-metal, funk and soul—that drives the movie. And we hear everything just as Baby does; his personal playlist is the soundtrack. And in a twist on how music is typically used, the scenes in Baby Driver were structured, filmed and “choreographed” to the music, not vice versa, where music is added to a scene after it’s shot and edited.

Kevin Spacey;Ansel Elgort

Kevin Spacey

Music pervades the film. A shot of a spinning washing machine fades into a spinning record on a turntable. Baby pauses after hot-wiring a stolen getaway car on a freeway ramp to find just the right jam on the vehicle’s radio. When he’s not behind the wheel, he makes his own homemade beats from snippets of conversation he captures on a portable recorder.

Baby Driver is almost like a radical movie musical, as if La La Land collided with Mad Max by way of Quentin Tarantino. When Baby walks to get coffee, everything he does and encounters—car horns, sirens, street musicians, door openings—punctuates the song he’s hearing, “Harlem Shuffle.” Later, the explosive blasts of a shootout match the tune in Baby’s ears, “Tequila.” Car chases become grand theft rock ’n’ roll operas, all done without special effects or CGI, just plain, old-fashioned, fantastically planned-out, high-octane stunt driving, scored to Queen, The Damned, Young MC and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

The movie has many, many more songs, from Martha and the Vandellas, Sam and Dave, Barry White and The Commodores, to Focus, T. Rex, Golden Earring and a cascade of more arcane acts. And there’s the 1969 Simon & Garfunkel track from which the movie takes its title.

A heartbreaking backstory explains how Baby got to be such an obsessive music lover.

Not everyone understands his need for tuneage, especially when driving a speeding car during a dangerous job with mega-money on the line. “You don’t need a score for a score,” says Bats (Jamie Foxx), Doc’s thuggish go-to for high-stakes holdups, gesturing to his own head. “I got enough demons right here, playing all the time.”

Ansel Elgort;Lily JamesBaby meets a beautiful waitress, Debora (Lily James, from Downton Abbey and Disney’s Cinderella), who has a dream of wanting “to head west…in a car I can’t afford with a plan I don’t have.” Debora tells Baby she has an older sister, Mary, who got all the good songs, like “Proud Mary,” “Hello Mary Lou” and The Monkees’ “Mary, Mary.” She tells Baby, admiringly, that “Every song is about you.”

When Doc and his plans come between Baby and Debra, and Bats and Buddy start stomping on Baby’s tender heartstrings, watch out.

British writer-director Edgar Wright, best known for his cheeky, comedic-parody trilogy of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End, has made an absolute knockout popcorn flick, destined to become a cult classic. It’s a wildly inventive, sleek, stylish mashup of car chases, pedal-to-the-medal action, dreamy young love, obsessive passions, rockin’ tunes, street-level action and bang-bang, shoot-’em-up thrills that makes The Fast and The Furious franchise look fat, bloated and blown-out by comparison. And it’s clever and funny; some confusion about disguises—Mike Myers from Austin Powers or Michael Myers from Halloween?—is hilarious.

CJ Jones, who really is deaf, plays Baby’s deaf father figure, Joe. Diminutive actor-songwriter Paul Williams shows up briefly, as does Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea.

So hop in, hang on and rock out—and let Baby to the driving!

In theaters June 28, 2017