Author Archives: Neil Pond

Kids Stuff

Kids make magic in sensitive, sad, moving, magnificent ‘Florida Project’

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Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Prince star in ‘The Florida Project’

 

The Florida Project
Starring Brooklynn Prince, Willem Dafoe & Bria Vinaite
Directed by Sean Baker
R

 

Purple, it’s said, is the color of royalty, so it suits the young pint-sized princess strutting around her lavender palace in this fractured fairy tale just a couple of wide miles, and a few aching dreams, away from Disney’s Magic Kingdom.

In director Sean Baker’s outstanding slice-of-life The Florida Project, six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her ragtag playmates seek fun, friendship, mischief and adventure from their extended-stay homes in low-rent Orlando motels on the strip leading tourists straight into the money-fied maws of Disney. Moonee lives with her mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), in a place called the Magic Castle—getting an unauthorized ride on Disney’s coattails—which the manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), has painted top-to-bottom purple.

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Willem Dafoe

Bobby’s motel, with its plum-colored walls and faux parapets, fits right in with the other garish attractions on the busy freeway, which include a souvenir shop topped with the giant head of a wizard and a citrus palace called Orange World.

Every day, from a field across the bog, a helicopter repeatedly takes off and lands, whisking tourists away for birds-eye-views of Disney World, Epcot and other wonderful sights.

Baker’s 2015 indie, Tangerine, about a transgender prostitute on the gritty streets of L.A., was shot entirely on iPhones. The Florida Project has a similar down-low, street-level, quasi-documentary feel, as if we’ve been dropped into a setting with a small group of characters to watch them live their lives, just off to the side of where most of mainstream America usually travels—or would ever want to go.

The young cast of newcomers is outstanding, especially Brooklynn Prince as Moonie, a zippy, zapping combination of sass, innocence, vulnerability and pluck. Valeria Cotto plays her friend Jancey, who lives at the motel next door, Future World. Christopher Rivera is Scooty, whose mom (Mela Murder) slips Moonie and Halley food from the diner where she works.

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Much of the movie is shown from the worldview of the kids, who revel in the simple delights of childhood—sharing a messy ice cream cone before it melts, spitting on a car from a balcony, burping, making fart noises, playing hide and seek. They also set fire to an abandoned apartment complex, turn off the power to the motel and sass grownups.

But you really come to care about these urchins, worry about them and empathize with their plights, especially when the movie heads into some inevitable danger zones—and it’s not just alligators lurking in the lagoon or a creepy old man nosing around the playground.

No one looks after the kids like Bobby, the beleaguered manager, who also serves as a surrogate father. Real dads are in short supply, and the young moms are floundering, too. Dafoe—whose lifetime of juicy roles has included playing Jesus of Nazareth and Spiderman’s nemesis, the Green Goblin—is already getting Oscar buzz for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. It’s one of his best parts, and best performances, in years.

And Bria Vinaite, as Moonee’s mother, also makes a remarkable debut. Halley is a mess, a scrawny, scrappy spitfire scrounging around for whatever she can find, do, scam or steal at the bottom of life’s scrap heap. She’s fiercely protective of her daughter and she’ll strike like a scorpion when provoked.

TFP_domestic_LP_20170823.01_10_55_16_Still004But mostly, The Florida Project is a tattered tale about kids growing up in the flotsam and jetsam of an American economy barely afloat offshore of Florida’s signature tourism mecca. Moonee and her friends use their imaginations, the way kids do, to make their own magic in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom.

At one point, Moonee and Jancey play in a downed cypress tree that’s been toppled, likely by a storm, or perhaps a hurricane. Moonee says it’s her favorite tree because “it fell down but it’s still growing.”

This saucy, sad, rousing, riveting drama gives you the same hope for Moonee and her friends—that life may knock them around, may knock them down, may topple them sideways. But you hope, somehow, they’ll keep going, and keep growing.

In theaters Oct. 8, 2017

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2017’s ‘2001’

Denis Villeneuve’s bold, beautiful, brainy return to ‘Blade Runner’

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Blade Runner 2049
Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford & Jared Leto
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
R

Last Christmas, Ryan Gosling was waltzing with Emma Stone in the stars over La La Land.

Now he’s zipping around in a flying car in the cold, grey, grungy skies above a very different Los Angeles—a dystopian, disorienting future world where humans coexist and interact with nearly human, biologically engineered androids known as replicants.

Welcome to Blade Runner 2049, director Denis Villeneuve’s sprawling, hyper-stylish, long-awaited follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 neo-noir sci-fi classic. The original film famously starred Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a former police office working as a “blade runner” to track down and retire—kill—renegade replicants.

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Dave Bautista

Now, set 30 years later, Gosling’s character, an LAPD officer known as K, is also a blade runner. The movie opens when he pays a routine visit to an outdated replicant, a farmer (Dave Bautista) who’s passed his expiration date. Before K pulls the plug, the farmer has a cryptic message for him: “You’ve never seen a miracle,” he says.

Those words get into K’s head—already throbbing with troubling visions from something that happened in his past. Or did it?

When K makes a startling discovery—a seeming impossibility—that sets everything in motion, it threatens to bring down the fragile social order between humans and replicants. “This could break the world,” K’s police boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), tells him. She orders him to erase the evidence and keep the case under wraps. “What you saw didn’t happen.”

But the secret gets out, putting K on a dangerous course to solve the mystery—the one that seems so impossible, as well as the one inside his head.

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Sylvia Hoeks

Jared Leto is great-balls-of-fire creepy as Niander Wallace, the rich, blind, tech-guru industrialist with a god complex who plans to super-colonize the cosmos with trillions of replicant-slaves. His icy aide, the ruthless replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), is on the trail of the same thing as K, but for a vastly different reason.

K’s companion Joi—a life-size, lifelike, 3D “application,” like a sexy Siri—longs to know what it’s like to be real, to have flesh, to be able to feel K’s touch and to be felt in return. Whenever she goes into active mode, her programming sounds a few notes from “Peter and the Wolf,” the Prokofiev musical play about animals that come alive. Played by Cuban actress Ana de Armas, it’s one of the film’s most emotive, poignant performances.

Mackenzie Davis (Cameron Rendon on TV’s Halt and Catch Fire) makes the most of her supporting role as a mysterious prostitute named Mariette. If there’s a sequel, she definitely gets my vote for more screen time.

And of course, eventually K’s path leads him to Deckard (Harrison Ford), holed up in casino hotel in Las Vegas, now a radioactive wasteland.

Director Villeneuve—whose other films include Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival—has created a brilliant new sci-fi benchmark, an epic movie yardstick against which future science fiction flicks will be compared and measured. It’s the 2001 of 2017. Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, with 13 Oscar nominations, should certainly expect another. His spectacular view of this majestic, grotesquely beautiful futurama is a feast for the eyes.

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The score, by Oscar-winning Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, sometimes stretches the limits of what typically might be considered music, with booming, bowel-rattling bass-note rumbles that pile-drive the action and anchor the deep-dive philosophical musings—on memory, belief, faith, love, life, reality, what it means to be alive and what it means to be human.

When Deckard and K meet, Deckard quotes a line from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island—appropriately enough, since something that’s been unearthed, a buried treasure, brought the two of them together. Before they bond, they brawl, in a casino showroom where a flickering hologram of Elvis Presley performs onstage, a high-tech ghost of future past, flanked by holographic showgirls.

Later, a neon billboard promises, in gigantic, glowing letters, Anything You Want. In this future world, anything can indeed be purchased—companionship, pleasure, a thrill, a high, a lover, memories, a past.

For sci-fi fans, for movie lovers who want to see something truly spectacular, for cinephiles who’ve been waiting for the next big thing: Here it is. The bold, beautiful, brainy Blade Runner 2049 is anything you want, and quite likely much more.

In theaters Oct. 6, 2017

Fly Boy

Tom Cruise soars as real-life drug-smuggling, gun-running aviator 

Film Title: American Made

American Made
Starring Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson & Sarah Wright
Directed by Doug Liman
R

The sky… that smile… those sunglasses—Tom Cruise is flying again!

Three decades after playing swaggering Navy ace “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun, the actor once chosen as People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (1995) is back, climbing into the danger zone in this comedy-drama based on the real life of a former TWA pilot who became involved with a South American drug cartel in the 1980s.

Cruise’s character, Barry Seal, works as covert operative for the CIA, runs guns to fighters in Nicaragua, smuggles cocaine for the Mendellín Cartel, trains Contras in Arkansas and eventually ferries home so many bags, satchels and suitcases bulging with cash that he literally runs out of places to hide them.

Seal was a bit player in a much bigger governmental shell game of collusion, intervention and South American involvement, spanning eight years and two administrations, that eventually culminated in the Iran-Contra Scandal.

“Is all this legal?” he asks his cryptic CIA contact, who goes the name of Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson).

Film Title: American Made

Domhnall Gleeson

“If you’re doing it for the good guys,” Schafer tells him with a shrug. “Just don’t get caught.”

It’s a wild and crazy tale, and Cruise is perfect for the role of Seal—brash, carefree, cocky, confident, “the youngest pilot in TWA history” when he’s plucked from the cramped cockpit of his commercial airliner and offered the opportunity to do something exciting, secretive, dangerous and potentially lucrative “for your country.”

Seal’s real-life saga isn’t necessary a funny one—he did, after all, create and maintain a major pipeline for cocaine into the United States and played a role in international political meddling that cost many lives. But American Made finds the dark humor in the absolute absurdity of his unique situation, as an individual who happened to be in the right place at the right time—and who embraced it for all it was worth.

As played by Cruise, Seal is like an impossibly handsome, incredibly lucky Forrest Gump, moving from scenario to scenario, intersecting with characters who’ll later show up in the news (Panamanin dictator Manual Noriega, U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar). He juggles home life with his wife (Sarah Wright) and two young daughters with his increasingly frenzied governmental skullduggery and his own lucrative sideline smuggling operations.

And he gets filthy rich doing it—until his luck eventually runs out.

Film Title: American Made“Hot damn!” he says. “If this ain’t the greatest country in the world!”

Director Doug Liman, whose previous films include The Edge of Tomorrow—also starring Cruise—and The Bourne Identity, keeps things crisp, concise and crackling. He uses a mixture of techniques, including cartoon animation and narration by Seal (Cruise), to tie the sprawling pieces of the story together. And he pays attention to details that remind you this tale came from the 1970s and ’80s. Seals does business with high stacks of quarters from banks of pay phones. When a character purchases a new used car, it’s a dinky Gremlin X. Soundtrack tunes (The Allman Brothers’ One Way Out, Walter Murphy’s A Fifth of Beethoven, Linda Ronstadt’s Blue Bayou, George Harrison’s Wah Wah) help set the retro mood, and the movie’s color pallet recalls the super-saturated yellows, greens and blues of Kodachrome.

Jesse Plemons plays a small-town sheriff who gets a whiff of Seals and his operation, but his part seems either underwritten, or greatly reduced in editing—to squeeze into the movie’s crammed second half, when several new characters are introduced. As Seals’ wife, Wright is given little to do, which matches the skimpy wardrobe (negligee and cut-off shorty-short jeans) she’s given to wear. If the film’s trying to make any kind of statement—about governmental collusion and corruption, amoral scoundrels on both sides of the border, greed or whatever—it doesn’t really leave that impression.

But Cruise sure does—a movie star soaring high and back in his element in this feverishly upbeat film frolic about a footnote figure in a shady chapter of American history.

In theaters Sept. 29, 2017

Brick Bait

New ninja-themed Lego movie follows formula for faithful fans

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The Lego Ninjago Movie
Starring the voices of Dave Franco, Fred Armisen, Abbi Jacobs, Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Peña, Zach Woods and Jackie Chan
Directed by Charlie Bean with Paul Fisher and Bob Logan
PG

In the opening live-action scene of this otherwise computer-animated movie, an adult shopkeeper asks a young boy—who’s wandered into his curio emporium—why he’s not playing outside with his friends.

It’s an odd question in a sequence serving to set up this third movie in the mega-franchise built on a toy brand that was always made for playing indoors—little interlocking plastic bricks and blocks, first introduced in 1949, that gradually took over the world, spilling out of the playroom and into pop culture, spawning a universe of toys, characters, models, games, books, magazines, TV shows and movies.

Maybe “playing outside” is a plug for one of the six Lego-themed amusement parks in Europe, North America, Asia and the Middle East.

A commercial plug in a Lego movie? A crazy thought, I know…

lnj_trlr1_njg210_scp_txt_e05c01_bt1886_012317.0000755Anyway, The Lego Ninjago Movie is based on characters and storylines from a Cartoon Network TV series that’s been cranking since 2011. Maybe you already knew teenage Lego ninjas were a thing. Maybe you already knew they were fighting an evil warlord bent on destroying their island city. Maybe you already purchased Lego’s Ninjago City playset, a behemoth with nearly 5,000 pieces and 20 minifigures, that retails for a whopping $299.99.

Maybe you’re a parent who’s stepped, barefoot, maybe more than once, on some of your kids’ Lego blocks that didn’t get put away.

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Garmadon

Lego Ninjago features the voices of Dave Franco, Fred Armisen, Abbi Jacobs, Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Peña and Zach Woods as the teenage ninjas, and Justin Theroux as the evil warlord, Garmadon. New director Charlie Bean, who comes aboard from the Disney XD TV series Tron: Uprising, assisted by animator-directors Paul Fisher and Bob Logan, follows the Lego movie formula—established in The Lego Movie (2014) and The Lego Batman Movie (2017)—of quick, campy quips, whimsical pop-culture riffs and vibrant, colorful action.

The computer animation continues to be amazing, with intricately detailed wizardry that turns pixels into digital Lego blocks, characters, attire, accessories, buildings and other objects. Surface textures look like they have real gloss, nicks and scuffs. Lego faces indicate joy, exasperation, sadness, surprise and shock with minimalist movements of digitized eyes and mouths that flicker on the surfaces of little Lego heads. Ninjago is an entire teeming, sprawling city that resembles a plasticized Hong Kong. The ninjas operate “mechs,” intricate mechanical robots, and Garmadon’s contraptions rise from the sea or fill the skies.

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The lead teen ninja, Lloyd (Franco), grapples with some weighty daddy issues: His father is the very evil warlord he and his buddies bust out of school to fend off every week. Lloyd’s dad abandoned him as an infant and never taught him how to do the things dads typically teach sons how to do, like throw a ball—even though Garmadon has two sets of arms.

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Master Wu

Lloyd’s now-single mom (Olivia Munn) remembers the charismatic chieftain who once won her heart on the battlefield leading his skeleton army. Martial-arts icon Jackie Chan, appropriately enough, provides the voice of Master Wu, who schools the youngsters in the arts of becoming real ninjas who rely on their own inner powers instead of weaponized mechs.

There’s also a “monstrous” cat, an Ultimate Weapon and hilarious Lego cameos from Michael Strahan and Robin Roberts, who cohost a morning TV show called Good Morning Ninjago, giving chipper a.m. updates about Garmadon’s latest rampages.

“As you can see,” reports Strahan, “our city is in the midst of total annihilation.”

The movie’s high sense of hip, flip whimsy extends to its music. Mark Mothersbaugh, the co-founder and lead singer of the seminal ’80s new wave band Devo, adds to his voluminous soundtrack resume with a slate of original pieces scored to various scenes. Flautist Greg Patillo provides the real musicianship when Master Wu rocks familiar tune-age (including “Welcome to the Jungle” and “It’s a Hard Knock Life”) on his plastic flute.

“Dope fluting, Master Wu,” one of the ninjas compliments him.

A snippet from “The Power,” a hooky 1990 dance song from the German pop group Snap!, gets used a couple of times, and it’s a deliberate, Easter-egg-y Lego nod to The Perfect Weapon, a 1991 cult-classic chopsocky action flick—which used the song extensively—about a young fighter who learns how to refashion his body into a natural weapon with Kenpo Karate.

After two previous movies, the whole Lego shtick doesn’t feel quite as fresh, feisty and lively as it did three years ago. But it still shows just how versatile the whole Lego world can be, and how Lego world-builders can take Legos and make pretty much dang near anything—Batman, Robin, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Joker, Catwoman, King Kong, Han Solo, Gandalf, and now ninjas. And Lego fans show no signs of giving up the blocks.

“I haven’t felt this good in a long time!” Lloyd effuses at one point.

Many Lego lovers will likely feel the same way, out the theater door and all the way to the Lego store.

In theaters Sept. 22, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not Clowning Around

Stephen King’s creepy clown is back for another round of nightmares

IT

It
Starring Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard & Sophia Lillis
Directed by Andy Muschietti
Rated R

The creepy clown is back.

Clowns have been giving some people the willies for a long, long time. But Stephen King put a fine line on the phobia in 1986 with his masterful horror opus novel about a group of kids terrorized by a supernatural, shape-shifting predator particularly fond of taking the form of Pennywise, a dancing circus clown.

King’s novel, set in the 1950s, was made into a popular ABC miniseries in 1990.

The new movie, which resets the story in the late 1980s, hews true to the dark, twisted soul of King’s source material with a bright cast of youngsters who portray a group of outlier friends who call themselves “the Losers” as a show of solidarity.

It_09162016_Day 57_16310.dngStuttering Bill (Jaeden Lieberher from St. Vincent, The Book of Henry and Midnight Special) reels from guilt over the gruesome death of his younger brother a year earlier. Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) is having trouble mastering his Torah—and haunted by a painting in his rabbi father’s study. Frail germaphobe Eddie (Jack Dylan Glazier, making his movie debut) carries his inhaler and other meds in a fanny pack.

Mike (Chosen Jacobs, who played Will Grover on TV’s Hawaii Five-O) was orphaned when his parents died trying to save him in a tragic house fire. Finn Wolfhard (Mike Wheeler on Stranger Things) is wisecracking Richie, who provides many of the movie’s raunchy gag lines and much of its comic relief. Ben (Ray Taylor) is the new kid in school, who’s obsessed with the history of the community—and the singing group New Kids on the Block.

Sophia Lillis gives a particularly nuanced performance as Beverly, the only girl in the group, who harbors a deep, troubling secret at home.

All the Losers are bullied by a gaggle of older kids led by the psychotic Henry (Nicholas Hamilton). The grownups in their lives are either not around, hostile, indifferent or worse—much worse.

It_03192017_Day 61_18998.dngAs Pennywise, Bill Skarsgård (son of actor Stellan Skarsgård) is a cackling, drooling nightmare, aided by CGI when his mouth becomes an abyss of hundreds of tiny pointed teeth, or he morphs and mangles into something even more monstrous.

Pennywise knows what each of the Losers are afraid of, and he becomes horrific manifestations of those fears.

The Losers call the evil entity “It” and eventually figure out it’s been reappearing in the town every 27 years to feed on a new crop of kids. (The movie comes 27 years after the TV miniseries, a nice creative touch.)

“It knows what scares us most,” says Stanley, “and that’s what we see.”

The Losers band together to find It when Beverly is taken away into its subterranean sewer lair. That sets the stage for an epic clown showdown.

It_0812016_Day 33_8165.dngIt has a vintage retro, throwback feel that recalls several other touchstone movies of its 1980s era, notably Stand By Me (adapted from another Stephen King story) and The Goonies. And of course, there’s also Netflix’s Stranger Things, also set in the ’80s, also starring young Finn Wolfhard, and also about a group of kids battling the supernatural—and searching for a boy who’s disappeared.

A bloody bathroom scene looks like a salute to Carrie by way of The Shining (two other King movie adaptations), and it’s hard to see any movie with kids racing along on bicycles and not think of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Director Andy Muschietti (Mama) creates some truly bold, creative sequences. The opening—when Bill’s younger brother meets Pennywise in a storm-water grate—is a stylish, gory shocker, and when Pennywise emerges from the flicking images of a garage slideshow, watch out!

Although the movie is built around kids, it’s definitely not a kids movie. It earns its R rating in many ways. Body parts are severed, blood spews and splatters and f-bombs fly. Kids talk about…well, things that kids would have talked about in the late 1980s.

And unlike the book and the miniseries, this It clearly sets itself up for a sequel, when the kids vow to come back, in 27 years, if It does.

“I’m not afraid of you,” Beverly tells Pennywise.

“You will be,” Pennywise tells her.

If you’re not already creeped out by clowns, It will definitely scare you over the line.

In theaters Sept. 8, 2017

Fly Girl

Spunky ballerina tale takes wing but has trouble with landing

leap (72)

Leap!
Starring the voices of Elle Fanning, Nat Wolff, Carly Rae Jepsen & Kate McKinnon
Directed by Eric Summer & Éric Warin
PG-13

Go ahead, jump!

That was the advice of Van Halen in the 1980s. And it’s the advice of this spirited animated yarn about a spunky orphan girl who takes a leap of faith to follow her dream of becoming a ballerina.

Felicie (voiced by Elle Fanning) lives in rural Brittany, France, in the early 1880s. She escapes from the secluded orphanage with her best friend, Victor (Nat Wolff), headed for the City of Lights, nearly 400 kilometers away, and the Ballet de Paris.

Leap! 
Courtesy of The Weinstein CompanyAgainst a gorgeous backdrop of a partially constructed Eiffel Tower and other luminous Paris sights, Felicie manages to weasel her way into auditions for the Ballet’s big production of The Nutcracker. She’s mentored by a former star dancer, Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), who’s now a despondent cleaning lady.

But another young dancer, the snooty rich-girl Camille (Maddie Ziegler), also has her eyes on a coveted ballerina spot. And her ice-cold, Cruella de Ville-ish dance mom (Kate McKinnon) will do whatever it takes to ensure she gets it.

Meanwhile, Victor has found a job apprenticing in the shop of an eccentric inventor who’s working on both the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. (The movie isn’t much of a stickler for historical accuracy.) He’s making “leap” plans of his own, crafting a set of mechanical wings that will factor into the movie’s final moments, not to mention its overall theme of positivity, pluck and determination.

Felice recalls the long-ago words of her mother: “If you don’t leap, you’ll never know what it’s like to fly.”

Young tween girls, in particular, will probably love Leap!, especially those who might—like Felice—pine for tutus, tights and pointe work. The ballet sequences, animated from actual movements of star dancers from the Paris Opera, are lovely, graceful and majestic, even when they push well beyond the boundaries of real-life physics and gravity.

Leap! 
Courtesy of The Weinstein CompanyThis French-Canadian production, originally called Ballerina and released last year in France and the United Kingdom, was retitled for its American release, and retooled. Saturday Night Live’s McKinnon and comedy icon Mel Brooks were added to the vocal cast, and Wolff replaced Dane DeHaan, the original voice of Victor.

The filmmakers also must have felt the movie’s Old World setting needed a little freshening up, so they added some contemporary touches. They don’t quite fit, like pieces of American bubble gum tossed onto platters of French pastry. Boppin’ pop songs from Jepsen, Sia and Demi Levato bump abruptly up against Swan Lake and Sugar Plum Fairies. Much of the humor is sitcom 101. There are fart jokes, a barf joke, a pee joke and a nutcracker gag that doesn’t have anything to do with Tchaikovsky’s ballet.

Characters speak with a movie lingo that mixes American teen slang, fake French English and quasi-Euro-whatever, and their animated designs often make them look several years “older” than the tender ages they’re supposed to be.

Leap! 
Courtesy of The Weinstein CompanyFelice is (supposedly) only 11, which makes a scene where she dances on the tables of a Paris tavern, Coyote Ugly style, all the more unsettling—especially when the inebriated, leering men in the place excitedly cheer her on. “Anybody check her ID at the door?” someone shouts. Indeed.

Did tween ballerinas in Paris in the early 1880s really wear hip-hugger shorty shorts, leggings, little vests and booties? Did they train Karate Kid style? Or have epic snippy dance-offs that begin on the stage, continue through the seats of the theater and end up in the lobby—or high in the air of the lobby?

This sweet-natured, well-intentioned movie shows that there are other players in the animation field beyond Pixar and Disney, doing commendable work with a fraction of those company’s blockbuster budgets. Leap! boldly takes the plunge, even if it doesn’t quite nail the landing. But if you’ve got a little one who wants to someday be the swan in Swan Lake, well, as Van Halen says, you might as well jump.

In theaters Aug. 25, 2017

Hit List

Reynolds, Jackson blast away in retro-flavored, buddy-cop road-trip action comedy

051_HB_00415_CThe Hitman’s Bodyguard
Starring Ryan Reynolds & Samuel L. Jackson
Directed by Patrick Hughes
R

“Boring is always best.”

That’s the motto of Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds), the crack bodyguard whose Triple A Protection Service is at the top of everyone’s list for smooth, safe efficiency. He’s “very good at keeping people alive” when other people want them dead.

Until one day, when something goes terribly wrong with a big-ticket job, sending his “ratings” plummeting. Soon Bryce has dropped to the bottom of the bodyguard business.

VLADISLAV DUKHOVICH (Gary Oldman) in THE HITMAN'S BODYGUARD.

Gary Oldman

But he gets a shot at rebuilding and restoring his reputation with an assignment to escort a dangerous hit man, Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s being released from prison to testify in Amsterdam at the trail of a notorious war criminal (Gary Oldman) from the former Soviet Union.

A lot of folks want to make sure Kincaid never makes it to the courtroom.

It doesn’t sound like a comedy, does it? But it is. Keep reminding yourself of that, especially in the opening minutes, when you see a bullet punch a bloody hole in a man’s forehead and a young child is executed in front of her father.

The highly contrived plot combines two well-worn Hollywood formulas, the buddy-cop comedy and the road trip, as Reynolds and Jackson embark on an action-packed, 27-hour race to the courthouse in Hague, blasting their way through waves of murderous Euro-assassins, trailing a wake of destruction and spewing a fountain of profanity-laced banter.

Jackson, in particular, is a maestro of expletives. He gives f-bombs syntax, if not musicality, like a Bach of bad words, and The Hitman’s Bodyguard is another of his movie mini-symphonies, like Snakes on a Plane, Pulp Fiction and The Hateful Eight.

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Elodie Yung

Reynolds mixes the mad splatter with droll chatter as Bryce, who’s pining for Amelia (Elodie Yung, Elektra on TV’s The Defenders), the French Interpol agent from his past. Salma Hayek plays Kincaid’s wife, Sonya, a hilariously foul-mouthed Spanish spitfire. If Kincaid testifies, Interpol has agreed that Sonya, who’s being held in an Amsterdam prison for some unspecified crime, will go free.

The movie has a rollickingly retro throwback feel, with warmed-over Cold War baddies, big-rock anthem ballads from the ’80s and nearly nonstop, on-the-move action—armored vehicles, motorcycles, cars, a helicopter, an 18-wheeler with a bomb inside. Almost everything explodes at some point. I halfway expected to see Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris walk out of the flames.

Two of the best sequences involve a speedboat chase on the canals of Amsterdam, and a hyper-kinetic, drag-out fight that begins in a restaurant kitchen and ends up in a hardware store. If you drop your pistol, just slam someone’s head on the sizzling grill or grab a skillet, a nail gun, a hammer or a chain!

DARIUS KINCAID (Samuel L. Jackson)  in THE HITMAN'S BODYGUARD.

For laughs, it’s hard to top Bryce and Kincaid each trying to annoy the other in the car by singing. Or the flashback sequence where we learn how Bryce met Amelia at a funeral, making out to Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” as slow-mo mayhem erupts all around them. Or that Kincaid and Sophie met in Mexico after he watched her, gobsmacked, handle a bunch of troublemakers in a bar to the tune of Lionel Richie’s “Hello.”

At times it made me think of what Midnight Run might have been if Quentin Tarantino had directed it about 15 years later. (Interestingly, one brief little musical snippet, as Bryce and Kincaid roar out of a parking garage, echoes Danny Elfman’s theme music to that 1988 comedy.)

And having a character named Kurosawa—well, that’s either a wild coincidence, or a deliberate nod to the iconic Japanese filmmaker, considered a world cinema icon. The Hit Man’s Bodyguard isn’t exactly world cinema, but hey, at least it apparently knows what that is.

It’s funny, it’s violent and it feels like bits and pieces of a lot of other movies over the years, all held together by a couple of solid, prolific actors riffing off each other and knowing they’re really just marking time between other, better, bigger projects—like Reynolds’ Deadpool 2, coming summer of 2018.

But whatever else it is, it’s rarely ever boring.

In theaters Aug. 18, 2017 

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.

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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