Author Archives: Neil Pond

Honey, I Shrunk the Superhero

Paul Rudd & Evangeline Lilly Couple Up For Big Fun  

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Ant-Man and The Wasp
Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas and Michael Peña
Directed by Peyton Reed
PG-13

It’s easy for a character to get lost in the superhero shuffle, especially one as small as, well, an ant.

It’s hard to compete with the cosmic roar of Thor, the monstrous bulk of the Hulk or the red-white-and-blue rah-rah of Captain America—especially when you’re the size of an insect.

But Ant-Man earned his place in the Marvel movie lineup back in 2015, with a unique, breezy mix of humor and heroics, as we were introduced to Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a petty thief mentored by a scientist (Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man and a former member of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel’s top-secret espionage agency). Pym developed technology that could shrink things on a molecular level to teeny-tiny, or balloon them to giant size.

He trained Lang to become the new Ant-Man.

Lighter, leaner, more brisk and so much brighter than many of its weighty superhero-blockbuster counterparts, the frisky Ant-Man and the Wasp—as its title suggests—significantly adds a new main character to the mix…sort of. The Wasp is Hank’s daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly, returning from the first film). Lilly, whom you’ll likely remember as the breakout castaway Kate on the TV series Lost, breaks out here as the first female character to ever get her name in the title of a Marvel movie.

nullBut Lilly’s Wasp wasn’t the first Wasp—that would be her mother, we’re reminded, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), who shrank down so small, 30 years ago, she was absorbed into the “quantum realm” and could not return. Pym (Michael Douglas, also reprising his role) thinks Janet could still be alive, somewhere in there…out there. The new movie hinges on a plan for Lang, Pym and Van Dyne to engineer a way to retrieve her.

Sounds easy enough—especially for scientists and superheroes, right?

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Walton Goggins

It would be a lot easier if Lang wasn’t confined to his home, under house arrest—wearing an ankle bracelet and serving out his sentence for Ant-Man’s violation of world peace treaties, as depicted in Captain America: Civil War. Things are also complicated by the slick slime ball Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a black-market tech trafficker who sees dollar signs in Pym’s gizmos. Hannah John-Kamen (she was Ornela on Game of Thrones) is Ghost, a mysterious “villainess” with fearsome powers to phase-shift matter to pass through solid objects, and her own reasons for desperately needing to know Pym’s secrets of the quantum realm.

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Hannah John-Kamen

Michael Peña returns as Luis, Lang’s former cellmate, now running a struggling security firm and longing for a superhero suit of his own. Laurence Fishburne plays Bill Foster, Pym’s former colleague—and rival. Randall Park is Jimmy Woo, the hapless S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in charge of trying to keep tabs on Lang. Abby Ryder Fortson is adorable, once again, as Lang’s young daughter. Judy Greer play’s his ex-wife, and Bobby Cannavale is her cop fiancé.

Naturally, there’s the obligatory cameo by Stan Lee. And stay for the credits to see how everything ties into the bigger Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, particularly how it links to Avengers: Infinity War.

It’s a lot—a lot of characters, a lot of plot, a lot going on. But the chemistry between Lilly and Rudd has real snap, crackle, pop, spark, sizzle and shine; it’s the bright dawn of a new superhero couple. And returning director Peyton Reed keeps the pathway clear for plenty of laughs as the action rips, zips and romps all over San Francisco—and all kinds of things keep shrinking, including automobiles and even an entire office building, which gets carted around like a rolling suitcase. There are some swell running jokes about closeup magic, a World’s Greatest Grandma trophy, undercarriage washes, truth serum and the fabled Slavic witch Baba Yaga.

nullEveryone will be able to relate to Lang’s comedic frustration when his Ant-suit goes on the fritz and he can’t control when it will zap him down to a speck or swell him up to a colossus. There’s a particularly funny scene when he gets shrunk down to kid-size in a school; in another, he’s a towering titan who uses a flatbed truck as a scooter.

Rudd, so adept at playing an everyman, is once again perfect for his part—a normal guy, a good guy who didn’t set out to be a hero, but who can’t imagine not doing the right thing. A guy constantly overwhelmed by all the gee-whiz science that allows him to do so many cool things, big and small—even if he doesn’t understand all the talk about quantum anomalies, quantum phasing, quantum spectrometers and quantum entanglement.

“Do you guys just put the word ‘quantum’ in front of everything?” he asks at one point.

No matter your size or your grasp of science or superheroes, Ant Man and the Wasp is pure quantum fun.

In theaters July 6, 2018

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Full Court Press

NBA All Stars Go Old School in Basketball Buddy Comedy

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Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Nate Robinson, Reggie Miller & Kyrie Irving play former basketball stars who reunite after three decades for a streetball tournament.

Uncle Drew
Starring Kyrie Irving, Lil Rel Howery & Shaquille O’Neal
Directed by Charles Stone III
PG-13

Uncle Drew is a basketball comedy with its roots in television spots for Pepsi Max featuring the NBA’s Kyrie Irving of the Boston Celtics, disguised as an elderly man who schools younger players—or “youngbloods”—in pickup games.

The film takes that concept and runs with it, expanding the plot, adding a half-court of NBA all-stars and some Hollywood live wires.

After a faux ESPN 30 For 30 documentary intro—in which we learn that Uncle Drew was an NBA legend who mysteriously disappeared from the scene three decades ago, at the height of his fame and glory—we begin to meet the players.

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Lil Rel Howrey, Nick Kroll & Tiffany Haddish

Dax (Lil Rel Howery, from Tag and Get Out) is a hapless Foot Locker employer who loves basketball. But traumatized by a childhood buzzer-beater block on the court, he hasn’t been able to play the game since. So now he manages a team from the sidelines and dreams of winning a big annual streetball tournament—and $100,000—at Rucker Park in Harlem.

His gum-smacking, wisecracking nemesis, Mookie (Nick Kroll), thwarts him at every move, however. At the last minute, Mookie steals Dax’s star player, Casper (Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic), the rest of his team and his gold-digging girlfriend, Jess (Tiffany Haddish).

Dax is understandably crushed, but things begin to start looking up when he finds the fabled Uncle Drew, mopping up with a cocky youngblood on a playground court. Drew (again played by Irving) agrees to play for Dax’s team, under one condition—if he can bring along his old teammates.

So Dax and Drew set out on a road trip in Drew’s orange, shag-carpeted conversion van to collect Preacher (Chris Webber, who retired from the Golden State Warriors in 2008); Lights (Reggie Miller, the three-point maestro whose entire 18-year career was spent with the Indiana Pacers); Boots (Nate Robinson, the NBA’s first three-time slam-dunk champion); Betty Lou (former WNBA Los Angeles Sparks star Lisa Leslie); and Big Fella (the towering, 7’1” Shaquille O’Neal).

Of course, rounding everyone up is not so easy—and the team certainly doesn’t appear as sharp and game-ready as they were 30 years ago. Preacher, now a bona fide man of the cloth, has to sneak away from his church, and his wife, to play ball. Lights is legally blind. Boots is in a wheelchair—and a psychiatric ward.

Shaquille O'Neal as "Big Fella" in UNCLE DREW. Photo by Quantrell Colbert.

Big Fella (O’Neal) is a martial arts instructor in the Zen zone.

And Big Fella is in the Zen zone as a children’s martial arts instructor—with a mountain-sized grudge on his gigantic shoulders. “Without a good defense,” he tells his class of young students, “your offense means nothing.”

Can Dax and Drew get them all back in shape, and on board?

The big appeal is seeing all these big basketball stars in decades-deep disguise as geezers, then finally breaking out their hidden mojo on the court to show younger hotshot players how it’s done, old-school style—like an NBA edition of Undercover Boss. There’s plenty of humor as Dax and the players jib and jab each other, and basketball fans in particular will appreciate the inside jokes and zingers—Shaq and free throws, Webber’s character inquiring about time-outs.

Howery, Kroll and Haddish are all comedy pros, and the needle on the laugh-o-meter jumps whenever they’re on screen. Director Charles Stone III, whose other films include Drumline and the Bernie Mac baseball comedy Mr. 3000, keeps things light, lively and generally predictable while weaving in some sentimental messages about family, forgiveness and what it means to play a “good game.”

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Watch for J.B. Smoove and Mike Epps in small roles, and Erica Ash (who stars as Gwen Sullivan on the BET series In Contempt) as Boots’ granddaughter, Maya, who takes a romantic shine to Dax.

As “non-actors,” the b-ball players roll loose and easy with their parts, especially since they are performing underneath layers of makeup and latex prosthetics, wigs and gobs of glued-on grey facial hair. If there’s ever an award for Best Buns in a Hospital Gown by a Former NBA All Star, well, Shaq’s a shoo-in for a nomination.

Uncle Drkew isn’t a cinematic slam dunk, but it’s a surprisingly solid basketball buddy flick that plays by the rules, shoots for laughs, and scores—especially for sports fans.

In theaters June 29, 2018

Rip Roaring

Dinosaurs Return in Frighteningly Fun ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’ 

Film Title: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard & Rafe Spall
Directed by J.A. Bayona
PG-13

Dinosaurs became extinct some 66 million years ago—just not in Hollywood.

Pop culture’s favorite prehistoric reptiles come rip-roaring back to life once again in this frighteningly fun fifth installment of the Jurassic Park movie series, the dino-mite franchise launched by director Steven Spielberg back in 1993.

Film Title: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Chris Pratt

Director J.A. Bayona reunites costars Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt from Jurassic World (2015) as the genetically engineered dinos on the isolated Pacific island of Isla Nublar face a cataclysmic extinction event. A heaving volcano is about to explode, killing off all the dinosaurs—unless they are somehow rescued.

Film Title: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Bryce Dallas Howard

Which is exactly what the dino park’s former manager, Claire (Howard), and animal behavior expert, Owen (Pratt), are asked to do—by the estate of Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), the ailing silent partner of John Hammond, who created Jurassic Park.

The plan: Claire and Owen will join an expedition to evacuate the creatures, load them onto a boat and resettle them on a new island haven, where they can roam free, undisturbed by people or volcanoes.

So off they go, and so do we—and that’s just the setup. There’s action, explosions, double crosses, chases, races, dirty tricks, bad guys, a big surprise, and lots and lots of dinos!

Little dinos, big dinos, sad dinos, scary dinos, angry dinos, rampaging dinos, even a crying dino. If you come for the creatures, you’ll definitely leave with a paleo pallet-full.

Film Title: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

And you’ll likely end up rooting for the reptiles—especially Blue, the hyper-intelligent, super-sensitive Velociraptor that Owen raised and trained from infancy in Jurassic World. As in a lot of monster movies, this one creates a huge amount of sympathy for its beleaguered beasties, the Stygimoloch and Triceratops and Pteranodon and Brachiosaurus and even the ferocious T. rex. After all, they never chose their fates—created, mutated and now chained, caged, carted, tased, sedated and shipped off.

Film Title: Jurassic World: Fallen KingdomThe movie takes an even darker, more ominous turn once the dino boat hits the mainland, and it becomes clear that human greed can be as much of a threat as hot lava.

When a bad guy gets gobbled, you’ll want to clap or cheer.

There are plenty of candidates you hope might become dinosaur chum. Ted Levine (he plays Thomas Byrne on TV’s The Alienist—but everyone remembers him as serial killer Jame Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs) is a sleazy animal trafficker (boo!). Prolific British actor Toby Jones (Marvel fans will recognize him as Dr. Zola from the Captain America franchise) plays a rogue capitalist who wants to pocket a cool billion or two on black-market dinos (hiss!).

And watch out for Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), Benjamin Lockwood’s slick young associate. He spends a lot of time on hushed phone calls and slinking around in the lab, yelling at paleo-geneticist Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong).

Claire and Owen’s dino rescue squad is rounded out by spunky paleo vet Zia (Daniella Pineda, who plays Vanessa on TV’s The Detour, and she was Sophie on The Vampire Diaries and its spinoff, The Originals); and Franklin (Justice Smith, Ezekiel on TV’s The Get Down), a high-strung computer nerd who provides much of the comic relief.

Jeff Goldblum, who appeared in the original Jurassic Park, briefly reprises his role as Dr. Ian Malcolm, who sagely cautions—again—that man was never meant to monkey with nature.

Film Title: Jurassic World: Fallen KingdomBut much of the plot hinges on young Maisie (Isabella Sermon, making her movie debut),  Sherwood’s granddaughter, who becomes a key and a bridge to the story in more ways than one. Director Bayona loves putting kids in the thick of trouble and trauma, like he did in the horror thriller The Orphanage (2007), the true-story tsunami drama The Impossible (2012) and the nightmarish fairy tale A Monster Calls (2016). As the escalating action moves off dino island to Sherwood’s sprawling Gothic manor, the movie builds to a haunted-house-worthy finale—thunder and lightning and rain and a shadowy bedroom with Maisie cowering underneath her covers, her big bay window open and a huge dinosaur claw slowly, slowly, slowly creeping toward her trembling, terrified face.

“Do you remember the first time you saw a dinosaur?” Claire asks at one point. For most moviegoers, that’s a hard question to answer. Do we count Barney? Dino from The Flintstones? Godzilla? But one thing’s for sure: We haven’t seen the last. Fallen Kingdom ends with a setup for its sequel, and a coda promising an even wider, wilder Jurassic World out there, waiting—in summer 2021.

Dinosaurs extinct? Don’t be roar-diculous!

In theaters June 22, 2018

You’re It

A Crazy, Preposterously True Tale of Fun & Friendship

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Tag
Starring Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Jake Johnson & Hannibal Buress
Directed by Jeff Tomsic
R
In theaters June 15, 2018

If you sometimes feel like Hollywood just makes the same movie over and over, well, here’s one for you.

Tag is so unusual, so unique, so stupidly crazy, it’s practically a guarantee that you’ve never seen anything like it.

Unless, perhaps, you’re one of the people it’s about—or you remember the newspaper piece, a few years ago, that inspired it.

As wild and nutty and preposterous as it seems, Tag is based on a group of friends from Washington state who bonded over the childhood chase game in the 1980s and kept playing it, three decades after they graduated high school.

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Jon Hamm

The movie takes shape around a business interview by a Wall Street Journal reporter (British actress Annabelle Wallis) of Fortune 500 CEO Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm), just before he gets “tagged” by Hogan “Hoagie” Malloy (Ed Helms). The reporter becomes so intrigued, she scraps her original piece and decides to do her story instead on these grown men and their all-consuming obsession with the game, which kicks into “play” every year during the month of May.

(The movie is based on the actual story in the Wall Street Journal, “It Takes Planning, Caution to Avoid Being It,” by Russell Adams, published in 2013. Stick around for the credits to meet the real people and see just how closely the movie captures their experiences.)

Callahan and Hoagie assemble their fellow players, the doper “Chilli” Cilliano (Jake Johnson, from TV’s New Girl) and laid-back Sable (comedian-actor Hannibal Buress), to go after the elusive Jerry (Jeremy Renner), a master of the game who has never been tagged “it.”

Jerry is getting married, and rumor has it he’s retiring from the game after this “season,” going out in a blaze of glory. His fellow players can’t let that happen—not without tagging him at least once.

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Hannibal Buress, Jake Johnson, Ed Helms, Jon Hamm & Isla Fisher

They have a plan: ambush Jerry at his wedding. But first they have to locate him…

Director Jeff Tomsic, a TV veteran whose resume includes several stand-up comedy specials and episodes of Broad City, Idiotsitter and The Detour, keeps things lively with frisky banter and comedic-action scenes that show the extremes to which the characters go to get the jump on each other—costumes and disguises; breaking and entering; interrupting business sessions, funerals, medical procedures and AA meetings.

One especially funny sequence, with Thomas Middleditch (from TV’s Silicon Valley) as an employee of Jerry’s, reveals a line they won’t cross, however. “We’re not doing that,” says Callahan. “That’s a war crime.”

The group, we learn, even has a customized, handwritten book of rules and bylaws. (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the book we see in the movie is the real book from the real-life group.)

A sly bit of meta-casting features the venerable Brian Dennehy, whose resume includes more than 175 roles, including his recent stints on TV’s The Blacklist and in the film The Seagull with Saoirse Ronan. In Tag, he has a brief scene as Chili’s pot-smoking, philosophizing father. It may seem like a lark, a throwaway role—until you realize that the actor shares his name with one of the real characters on which the film is based.

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Rashida Jones

Isla Fisher plays Hoagie’s excitable wife, Anna, itching to get in on the action, but prohibited by the game’s boys-only rule. Rashida Jones is Cheryl Deakins, a childhood crush who reappears as a grownup, wowing Chilli and Callahan—and questioning why in the world they’re still playing a silly game from adolescence.

Jones’ character is eventually charmed by their antics. And you probably will be, too, especially as the movie races to a heartwarming finale, wrapped up in a bigger theme of friendship, comradery and fun without an expiration date. “We don’t stop playing because we grow old,” says Hoagie. “We grow old because we stop playing.”

It’s a cheery message we all need to hear: Long may we run—and oh, by the way, you’re it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Super Fam

Everyone’s Favorite Superhero Family Returns, as Incredible as Ever 

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The Incredibles 2
Starring the voices of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell & Huck Miner
Directed by Brad Bird
PG

As family reunions go, this one took a while—14 years!

It was worth the wait—and the Incredibles haven’t aged a bit. The superhero family we first met back in 2004, in the original double-Oscar-winning, Disney-Pixar smash, returns for another animated adventure, picking up exactly where they left off.

In the opening sequence, they scramble to deal with threat—a subterranean supervillain called the Underminer—who surfaced at the cliffhanger end of the previous film. It’s a setup that might seem like it could easily have come from any one of dozens of other superhero flicks. But right off the bat, the movie finds its unique, family-centric mojo: You’d never see the Avengers or the Justice League bickering about who’s going to mind the baby while the others sprint into the fray.

RGB(The rodent-like Underminer is voiced by John Ratzenberger, the former TV Cheers star who’s been a character in every movie to come off the Disney-Pixar assembly line, beginning with Toy Story in 1995.)

It’s great to hear the familiar sounds again of Craig T. Nelson (Mr. Incredible, gifted with super strength); Holly Hunter (his wife, the super-stretchy Elastigirl); and Sarah Vowell (teenage daughter Violet, who can project force fields and make herself invisible). Newcomer Huck Miner is the voice of Violet’s younger, rascally brother Dash, who has speed to match his name.

But hang on for baby Jack-Jack (voiced by Eli Fucile, also returning from the first film, and the son of Pixar animator Tony Fucile). The family’s little bundle of joy steals the show as his surprise superhero powers come poppin’ out all over.

Samuel L. Jackson returns as Incredibles’ pal Frozone, whose supercool power is zapping things into to ice.

Things really click into gear when the plug gets pulled on the local undercover superhero program, largely due to the high levels of collateral damage whenever the Incredibles swing into action. The public, fed up with buildings getting smashed and bad guys slipping through the cracks, finally make superheroes illegal. The family’s contact, government agent Dicker (Jonathan Banks), wearily informs them it’s time to pack up the spandex.

But a global telecom tycoon and fan, Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk of TV’s Better Call Saul) and his inventor sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener), offer them a lifeline: They want to use the Incredibles as the cornerstone of an ambitious media campaign to “rebrand” all superheroes and make them superstars again. But Winston only wants Elastigirl, not all the Incredibles.

RGBThat means it’s off to work—on her zippy new Elasticycle—for Mrs. E, while Mr. Incredible heads to the sidelines as a stay-at-home dad.

Returning writer-director Brad Bird (who also voices Edna Mode, the Incredibles’ quirky fashion designer) once again creates a deliciously detailed, multilayered, multitextured, multigenerational tale brimming with espionage satire, cinema savvy and pop-culture wit, while digging into some broader themes that resonate deep, wide and true—family, marriage, gender roles, kids.

But the movie doesn’t shortchange the super-charged, superhero action. (Bird also directed Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, the fourth film in the Tom Cruise spy-flick franchise, and his kinetic knack for action shows.) There’s plenty of drive as the plot takes a diabolical turn you might (or might not) see coming, with a motley, colorful host of supporting-cast superheroes (my favorite was Reflux, who belches up fiery streams of yuck) and a devious ploy involving mass-media mass hypnosis.

RGBThere’s a depth, a richness and a pathos to the story and characters that make Incredibles 2 one of the most superior superhero movies of the year, animated or otherwise. It’s that good. The movie’s mod, retro-hipster look—futuristic ’50s settings spiced up and spliced with slick, contemporary gadgetry and gizmos—is enriched by the jazzy, snazzy, cool-cat musical overlays of Michael Giacchino (who also scored the first movie, as well as dozens of other TV shows and films). The whole thing glides, grooves and makes you grin from start to finish.

“I just wanted to be a good dad,” says Mr. Incredible to Violet one night, after a particularly exasperating day—one in which he admits he made a parenting glitch, one that ultimately brings him closer to his daughter. “You’re not good,” she assures him. “You’re super.”

Clever, comedic, all but alive with masterful animation and bursting with brisk, frisky creativity, Incredibles 2 is a rollicking romp that reunites us with our favorite superhero family—and reminds us why they were so super all along.

In theaters June 15, 2018

Jeepers Creepers

Masterfully disturbing horror flick gets under your skin and into your head

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Hereditary
Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Gabrielle Bryne & Anne Dowd
Directed by Ari Aster
R

Lots of things can get passed on, generation to generation—homesteads, hairlines, heirlooms.

In Hereditary, first-time feature filmmaker Ari Aster makes a stunning big-screen debut with this terrifying tale of a family haunted—possibly—by something awful and unholy wrapped around the roots of a family tree. Maybe It’s something sinister and supernatural that won’t let go, as years go by.

And maybe it’s something else… something scarier still.

The movie begins with an ending—a funeral. The mother of Annie Graham (Toni Collette) has just died, and soon troubling clues begin to pile up, for Annie and for us, that somehow things just aren’t right.

Annie notices strange words scrawled on the walls of her home, and unusual patterns woven into welcome mats. She finds old scrapbooks, about spiritualism and the occult, that belonged to her mother, and cryptic notes. (“Our sacrifice will pale next to the rewards,” reads one of them.) Annie knew her mom—who lived with Annie and her family during her final years—was stubborn, secretive and given to “private rituals.” But this starts to really unnerve her.

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Milly Shapiro

Annie’s withdrawn youngest child, her oddball tomboy daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro, who received a Tony Honor for her role in Matilda the Musical on Broadway), begins acting even stranger. Annie’s husband (Gabrielle Byrne) becomes even more concerned. Teenage slacker son Peter (Alex Wolff), already alarmed by his mom’s bizarre sleepwalking episodes, escapes even further into the smoke and bubbles of his bong.

Anne lies about her whereabouts to sneak off to support-group grief therapy sessions, where she pours out her poisoned feelings about her mother and her family. In her confessions of grief, guilt and a lifetime built on brokenness, it becomes clear that her psychological scars are raw, deep—and possibly dangerous.

Then a horrific incident—an accident?—sends things spinning further out of control, into even darker, more deeply disturbing places.

There’s a lot going on in Hereditary, a lot to absorb and unpack as the movie slowly tightens its screws and masterfully layers on the creepiness. The Grahams are surely super-troubled, headed off the rails and hyper-dysfunctional. But is Annie haunted, cursed or crazy? The film wants to keep us, and her family, off-balance and guessing. Director Aster, who also wrote the screenplay, fills every scene with an atmosphere of almost suffocating dread and creates some truly unsettling sights that get under your skin, into your head and stay there, festering, long after they’ve left the screen.

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Alex Wolff

Charlie decapitates a bird. Prompted by a new friend (Anne Dowd, who plays Aunt Lydia on the hit Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale), Anne conducts a living-room séance, which goes badly. Peter, seized by a grotesque contortion in class, bashes his head bloody on his desk, to the shock of his classmates and teacher.

Toni Collette, the prolific Australian actress whose resume includes more than 75 roles, is still best known for her movie appearances in the comedy Little Miss Sunshine and the mystery-drama The Sixth Sense. She’s amazing here, going full gonzo as a woman who becomes the vessel of malevolent forces she can’t understand or contain.

RAC_6922.NEFIt’s fitting that her character, Annie, works as a gallery artist creating intricate miniature models of people, rooms and scenes. Her art becomes a direct reflection of her reality, in ominous detail. The tiny, delicate figures of her dioramas—shaped by her tools and hands—come to represent the frail, feeble, vulnerable characters of the film, manipulated, placed and positioned (and sometimes destroyed) by powers beyond their control or comprehension.

Director Aster borrows from other horror movies, but at least he borrows from some of the best, including Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. And as it barrels into the wild, crazy-train, freak-out finale, Hereditary—with its rotting core of ancestry gone to hell and family dysfunction terribly, horrifically twisted, toxic, wicked, warped and wrong—ultimately finds a horror path all its own.

Can families be haunted? Hereditary suggests they certainly, surely can, in more ways than one—and that evil may be lurking, watching and waiting, in our house, our neighborhood and just beneath the surface of our gene pool.

In theaters June 8, 2018

Sail Away

Shailene Woodley sails into trouble in seafaring survival tale

Shailene Woodley stars in ADRIFT
Courtesy of STXfilms

Adrift
Starring Shailene Woodley & Sam Claflin
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur
PG-13

Why would anyone launch a two-person sailboat, head into the ocean and embark on a journey of more than 6,000 miles?

I wouldn’t, and perhaps you wouldn’t, but the young couple in this movie do exactly that, and their voyage leads them smack into the maw of a monstrous hurricane.

Maybe you remember the true story on which Adrift is based. It’s a pretty incredible survival tale, from 1983, and Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur brings it to dramatic life with a bracing blast of salty sea spray and a deep-dive, committed performance from his female star, who was also one of the film’s producers.

Adrift_poster (72)Shailene Woodley plays Tami Oldham, a 24-year-old California dreamer blown by the winds of wanderlust to Tahiti, where she meets the dashing English sailor Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin). He’s slightly older, he’s built his own boat from scrap, and he wants to sail around the world.

Tami is charmed by Richard, and though she’s been on lots of vessels, she admits she’s no sailor. What’s it like, she asks him, to be out there, on the ocean, all alone? “It’s intense,” he tells her. “After a few days, I feel reborn.” But Richard also shoots straight: It’s no paradise. “You’re either sunburned, sleep-deprived or seasick.” And there’s always hallucinations, dehydration and other potential hazards.

But soon enough, Tami and Richard have fallen in love in the tropical island paradise, and they’re making plans to sail away—taking a British couple’s luxury vessel on a one-way trip from the South Pacific to San Diego, Tami’s hometown.

They expect a month of romantic sea travel. But they certainly don’t expect a tropical storm to turn into Hurricane Raymond, which nearly destroys their craft and pushes them irrevocably off-course, with a broken mainmast, busted engine and other debilitating damages.

Shailene Woodley stars in ADRIFT
Courtesy of STXfilmsRather than a “linear” approach, director Kormákur lays out the story by toggling back and forth after the hurricane and before it happened. The movie opens, for instance, with a bravo sequence (the cinematographer is three-time Oscar-winner Robert Richardson) that begins underneath the water, then inside the hull of the capsized boat, with the camera following Tami in what must be the aftermath of an enormous, devastating wave. She sloshes and splashes in waist-deep muck and debris, looking for Richard, before finally emerging topside—at which point the camera pulls away high into the air, revealing her, and the boat, all alone in the vast, empty ocean.

Then the title of the movie comes up, we meet our characters and begin learning about them. Knowing and seeing “in advance” what is going to happen, and checking in at various times later, adds depth to more tranquil scenes as Tami and Richard discuss their dreams, their future and the decisions and choices they’re making.

Shailene Woodley stars in ADRIFT
Courtesy of STXfilmsWoodley, who found fame in The Spectacular Now, the Divergent franchise and now HBO’s Big Little Lies, anchors the movie with resourcefulness and resolve, especially as her character is baked to a crisp and worn down by 41 days of exposure to the elements.

Through Tami’s plight, the movie poses the practical question: What would you do, if you suddenly found yourself in such dire straits? Could you catch and gut a fish? Figure out how to use a sextant? Repair a hole in a leaky boat? Stitch up a gash on your forehead with a fishhook and line? Keep from going crazy?

Claflin, who starred in The Hunger Games and its sequels, has a bit less to do. Richard is seriously injured in the storm, and he spends the rest of the film on the sidelines, which spurs the much-less-experienced Tami into full stay-alive mode.

Director Kormákur seems to like it when things go horribly wrong. His 2015 disaster flick Everest depicted climbers of the world’s tallest mountain peak when engulfed by a massive blizzard. In the end, not everyone makes it off the mountain alive.

Who makes it to the end of Adrift is a bit more certain, especially if you happen to know the true events that inspired the film. But if you don’t (there’s a pretty big surprise close to the end), I suggest you just go see the movie and ride out the waves. This sea-saga blend of love story, fem-strong survival tale and ocean-yarn adventure makes a decent young-adult, date-night flick.

It still doesn’t, however, make me want to get on a sailboat.

In theaters June 1, 2018

Going Solo

Give him a mo’: Young Han will grow on you in new Star Wars saga

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Solo: A Star Wars Story
Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover & Woody Harrelson
Directed by Ron Howard
PG-13

Meet the man who’d grow up to be the most famous space cowboy of all time.

In Solo: A Star Wars Story, Alden Ehrenreich stars as the younger version of the iconic character Han Solo, who—as we know!—will eventually evolve into Harrison Ford and align with Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia in a cosmic crusade for the fate of the universe.

But that’s not this flick.

Solo introduces us to Han and shows us how he got his smirk, his strut and his swagger, from his inauspicious beginnings as a “scrumrat” on a dismal, dingy mining planet where he and his rebel girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke from HBO’s Game of Thrones) plot their getaway.

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Emilia Clarke

But Imperial goons, mutant dogs and fate intervene, and only Han is able to escape. He vows to return for his lady love, no matter what, and that sets the course of a wild, wide-ranging adventure that explains how young Solo meets the Wookie Chewbacca (Finnish actor Joonas Suotamo, back inside the costume again after Star Wars: The Last Jedi), and the suave intergalactic gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, star of TV’s Atlanta). And we learn how he comes into possession of his prized starship, the Millennium Falcon.

One of the best parts of the movie is learning more about Chewie, from his age (he’s old!) to his strength (yikes!) and his backstory—and watching the bond form between the shaggy, towering Wookie and the cocky wannabe pilot.

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Donald Glover

Maybe you already knew that veteran director Ron Howard was brought in by Disney at the eleventh hour to take over the reins from the original team of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord—who piloted The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street to riotously comedic heights—after they were dismissed for “creative differences.” The movie reportedly underwent weeks of rushed reshoots and loads of retweaks, and it’s tempting to wonder about what was so off-course, so creatively different, about the version that didn’t get made.

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Woody Harrelson

But the one that hits the screen is solid, sound and sure to please Star Wars fans—Howard finds both freshness and familiarity in this exhilarating, rip-roaring yarn that zooms into hyperspace, stomps across muddy battlefields, flits around snowy mountaintops and introduces a palette of colorful new characters.

Woody Harrelson is pitch-perfect as Tobias Beckett, the scoundrel who gives Han his start in the smuggling business. Westworld’s Thandie Newton plays Beckett’s loyal partner, Val. Phoebe Waller-Bridge provides the voice of L3-37, Lando Calrissian’s droid navigator. Jon Favreau is the voice of Rio Durant, the four-armed, simian-like Ardennian pilot of Beckett’s crew. Paul Bettany (Vision in The Avengers) plays the ruthless, scar-faced cosmic crime lord Dryden Voss.

Ehrenreich, who had critically acclaimed appearances in Blue Jasmine and the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, doesn’t really resemble Harrison Ford, the actor who branded the classic character of Han Solo in the original Star Wars (1977) and then three later movie appearances. Those are some big space shoes to fill. But hey, give the new Han some room to grow—to become Solo—and he grows on you. You see the character begin to take shape in the quips, the mannerisms and the awareness—if not the full embrace, not just yet—of a cause much bigger than himself.

Solo has a lot going on—rollicking, sprawling adventure; sock-o surprises; sweeping romance; double crosses and dastardly twists. Even though it’s meant to be a “standalone” movie (like Rogue One), without needing other films before or after it to continue the story, it’s got plenty of connectivity to the bigger Star Wars canon. (And you can easily see how it could stretch to another movie, if anyone wanted to take it there.)

nullHoward, the Oscar-winning Hollywood insider whose resume includes Splash, Apollo 13, the Da Vinci Code franchise and Frost/Nixon, certainly knows how build a blockbuster, and the movie is often a feast for the eyes. Film buffs will love its references to other movies and themes, particularly Westerns, World War I films like Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, and samurai flicks.

And when the movie opens with Han revving up his getaway “hot rod” on the mean, junky streets of the grimy, dead-end planet Coreillia, it’s cool to remember how the director appeared—before his directing career—as an actor in American Graffiti, a movie about kids in cars peeling out and dreaming of getting out. Maybe that’s why the scenes that really seem strongest in Solo are the ones that are “close to the ground”—not epic space battles, but times when characters talk, interact and feel the true “gravity” of their situation.

At one critical moment, Beckett and Solo find themselves a bit short of manpower. “C’mon, Chewie,” says Tobias. “Gonna need a little bit of that Wookie oomph.”

With excitement, tension, drama, style, emotion and a sure sense of its footing in one of the most fruitful franchises in pop culture history, Solo will delight Star Wars fans with plenty of that good ol’ Wookie oomph.

In theaters May 25, 2018

Over-50 Shades

Female Friends Rediscover Romance in Sweet, Saucy, Grown-Up Comedy

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Book Club
Starring Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton & Mary Steenburgen
Directed by Bill Holderman
PG-13

In a fight between a motor-mouthed superhero and four female friends “of a certain age,” who do think will win?

That’s not really hypothetical, as this past weekend, Marvel’s highly anticipated Deadpool 2 hit screens at the same time as this chick flick, about a group of women whose lives are comedically disrupted when their book club decides to read E.L. James’ steamy Fifty Shades of Grey. The novel, about a spicy, S&M-flavored relationship, puts them all in the mood to rediscover romance anew, reignite old flames or strike out on bold new sexual adventures.

Of course, the intended audiences for the two movies are quite different. The box-office battle is real, but the other issue is whether moviegoers will flock to this star-packed, character-rich comedy that’s clearly being served up as a customized, over-50, and fem-centric multi-plex counteroffer to Hollywood’s typical fare, usually aimed at male targets and much younger.

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Diane Keaton

Vivian (Jane Fonda), Sharon (Candice Bergen), Diane (Diane Keaton) and Carol (Mary Steenburgen) play bestie girlfriends in Los Angeles who’ve been meeting monthly for 40 years to discuss books, sip wine and catch up with each other.

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Mary Steenburgen

Vivian, never married, is a successful hotel magnate. Sharon’s a federal judge whose ex-husband (Ed Begley Jr.) has just hooked up with a much younger woman. Recent widower Diane is being pestered by her two adult children (Katie Aselton, from TV’s Legion, and Alicia Silverstone), who want to relocate her to live with them in Arizona. The passion has gone from the longtime marriage of Carol and her husband, Bruce (Craig T. Nelson).

When Vivian plops down Fifty Shades of Grey as her monthly selection at the book club, it’s a game changer. At first, her three friends are surprised, even a bit shocked.

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Candice Bergen

“To even be holding this book is embarrassing,” says Bergen’s buttoned-up magistrate.

But soon enough, the women are shopping for sexy evening wear, looking for love online and finding their own shades of excitement with partners old and new.

The four lead actresses make for an iconic lineup; between them, they’ve got a stack of five Emmys and four Oscars, and a line of classic movies that includes Barberella, Klute, Coming Home, Carnal Knowledge, The Godfather, Anne Hall, Manhattan and Melvin and Howard.

Here, all that star power folds into an easygoing groove and a casual comedic chemistry; you feel like these four golden gals really are the old friends they’re pretending to be, and you laugh along with them as they gleefully discover things about themselves, reawaken old passions and forge ahead into new chapters of their love lives.

The movie is rated PG-13, but there’s plenty of tee-hee, sitcom-level humor as the women make cracks about the book, sex and their life situations. Sharon refers the long-neglected nether region of her body as “the cave of forgotten dreams.” Carol, totally engrossed in Fifty Shades, overwaters a houseplant; we watch the monitoring gauge in the soil move from “Moist” to “Wet.” Bruce has an unexpected encounter with Viagra—and a policewoman.

Sometimes the movie plies the sex jokes, puns and metaphors on a little too thick; it’s like writer/director Bill Holderman wanted to squeeze in every possible idea, somewhere, somehow. Yes, we get it: Bruce’s prized motorcycle is meant to represent his misplaced affections for his wife. We don’t need a stream of “lube,” “grease” and “crankshaft” jokes, spread over four different scenes.

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Don Johnson & Jane Fonda

But the real tale of Book Club, however, is the multi-tiered love story that it unfolds as all the characters explore and expand their romantic vistas. Don Johnson will be an audience favorite as Arthur, Vivian’s dashing beau from the past. But it’s Andy Garcia who practically steals the show, as the smooth-talking airplane seatmate who takes wing with Diane’s heart.

Richard Dreyfuss has a laugh-out-loud scene as a Bumble blind date, and Wallace Shawn gets several chuckles out of his quick moment as a surgeon suitor.

Sweet, funny, feisty, romantic and aglow with the playful, sentimental warmth of friendships nurtured over time, Book Club is a charming, grown-up feel-good movie, with just the right amount of saucy seasoning, for mature audiences—especially if they’re not in the mood for a sassy superhero.

In theaters May 18, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down to Clown

Melissa McCarthy Goes Back to School

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Life of the Party
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Molly Gordon, Maya Rudolph & Luke Benward
Directed by Ben Falcone
PG-13

Ah, college.

Even if you don’t remember it fondly, Hollywood does—which is why movies keep returning to it.

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Molly Gordon

Melissa McCarthy goes back to school in Life of the Party as Deanna Miles, a newly divorced mom who’s sorry she never completed her university education. Facing an uncertain future, she enrolls at the same college as her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon, who appeared on TV’s Animal Kingdom and provides the voice of Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Showtime’s Our Cartoon President).

Deanna’s enthusiastic plunge anew into college life lights the movie’s comedic fuse as the “fresh-mom” charms Maddie’s sorority sisters, meets her new Goth dorm mate (Saturday Night Live’s Heidi Gardner), clashes with mean girls (including former Disney star Debby Ryan) and discovers the limited beverage selection (no woodsy wines!) of noisy frat-house parties.

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Matt Walsh & Julie Bowen

After the bitter sting of divorce from her cad of a husband (Matt Walsh from TV’s Veep)—who left Deanna for a “wife upgrade” to the local realtor (Julie Bowen, the Emmy-winning star of Modern Family)—university life is a fresh start for Deanna in more ways than one. She hooks up with a hot college hunk (Luke Benward, who appeared as Lloy Danderson on the CMT series Still the King), begins “chipping away” at the archeology degree she never finished the first time, and becomes even closer to her daughter and her friends.

As the once buttoned-up Deanna learns to cut loose, she tells Maddie, “I’m down to clown!”

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Luke Benward & Jimmy O. Yang

There’s nothing really groundbreaking in Life of the Party. It’s a fairly conventional comedy, and it draws on themes that will feel a bit familiar to other movies, especially ones that have gone back to college for laughs. Imagine Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School (1986) with a gender twist and boob and vagina jokes. Will Ferrell couldn’t forget his college fraternity days in Old School (2003), and neither can we. There’s also a sly, wink-wink nod to a John Belushi scene from Animal House.

But McCarthy: She’s a force of nature, a humor hurricane. She’s got impeccable comic timing, gonzo enthusiasm and a sense of empathy to balance the hilarity of her characters. Viewers will relate to Deanna on several levels—as a wronged, wounded ex-wife, as a mom, as a woman basking in her second chance at life—and McCarthy finds the right emotional buttons, at just the right moments, to push for them all.

At her best, she creates a core of honesty that digs deeper than the laughter; we chuckle, because she makes us understand. One scene, in particular, when Deanna struggles to overcome her fear of public speaking to give a class presentation, is like watching a mini-disaster unfold; it made me think of the physical gifts of the great Carol Burnett or Lucille Ball.

McCarthy wrote the script with her husband, Ben Falcone, and Life of the Party marks the third McCarthy movie Falcone has directed. (Watch for him in a cameo, early in the film, driving Deana to her mother’s home.) They obviously click.

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Maya Rudolph plays Deanna’s best friend, Christine.

And in this case, they rounded up a great cast of other funny people to round things out. Stephen Root and Jacki Weaver are hoots as Deanna’s parents. There’s Jimmy O. Yang (from TV’s Silicon Valley) as Maddie’s boyfriend. Maya Rudolph is hilarious as Deanna’s best friend, Christine. Maddie’s sorority sisters include Gillian Jacobs (from TV’s Community) as Helen, whose former oddball fame as a the “coma girl” comes in handy; Adria Arjona (she played Dorothy Gale on Emerald City); and Jessie Ennis (from TV’s Better Call Saul). SNL alum Chris Parnell (he plays Dean Parker on TV’s Grown-ish) gets in some pun-ny lines as Deanna’s professor.

And I won’t spoil it, but there’s a big superstar cameo at the end to bring it all home, wrap it up and put a tassel on its message of positive female bonding and empowerment.

This feel-good, back-to-school comedy won’t get many extra credits, but it shows just how dependably, reliably funny Melissa McCarthy continues to be when she’s “down to clown.”

In theaters May 11, 2018