Author Archives: Neil Pond

Bad Boys to Men

Will Smith & Martin Lawrence reunite and reignite buddy-cop action franchise 

Martin Lawrence, Will Smith,

Bad Boys for Life
Starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence

Directed by Adil El Arbi & Bilali Fallah
R
In theaters Jan. 17, 2020

Will Smith, you’re making us feel old.

First, in last year’s Gemini Man, his previous movie, he confronted a younger version of himself, a clone who outruns him, outguns him, outthinks him and generally reminds him just how many less miles than him he’s got on the odometer.

Now, in this sequel to a sequel—for which Smith also serves as one of the producers—the specter of advancing years again comes into play.

The Fresh Prince, after all, is now 51 years old.

In Bad Boys for Life, which comes 25 years after the original Bad Boys (1995) and 17 years after its follow-up, Bad Boys II, Smith reteams with Martin Lawrence as an inseparable Miami buddy-cop duo whose glory days—as well as their teamwork—may finally be at an end. Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) is a new grandfather, counting the days to his retirement with his family. Lone-wolf Mike Lowrey (Smith) has been reassigned to a new high-tech AMMO division, a “young guns” group of millennials with whom he has little in common.

Over drinks celebrating his imminent retirement, Burnett asks Lowrey why he doesn’t think about settling down, falling in love and getting out of police work. “Mike, we’ve got more time behind us than in front,” Burnett says.

But settling down, falling in love and getting out of police work wouldn’t make for much of a movie, would it?

What would make for a movie is a ruthless young Mexican cartel mob boss (Jacob Scipio) suddenly springing into action with a bloody revenge plan that leads back to something Lowrey did years ago. Frenetic car chases, a sniper who never seems to miss, a south-of-the-border sorceress, a long-ago secret, and enough ballistic, bombastic boom-boom to shake the salt off your popcorn—now that makes a movie. Just let yourself go and let the bullets flow.

Photographer Select, Will Smith,

At least it makes this movie, a high-spirited, action-packed blowout reunion that plays to the comedic strengths of its two marquee stars while giving them plenty of room to roam, lots of things to blast or blow up and a flowing stream of bickering-buddy humor. Michael Bay, the big-budget, blockbuster director (Armageddon, the Transformers series) who steered the first two Bad Boys flicks, did not return for this one, and Belgian filmmaking collaborators Adil El Arbi and Bilali Fallah try hard to please.

But their technique often feels all over the place; they love both super slo-mo and frenetic, high-speed time-lapses. The story unfolds in a herky-jerky mix of melodrama and mirth; it’s a movie melding sitcom silliness, overwrought Spanish telenovela excess and prime-time TV-procedural connect-the-dots. And the way the camera never seems to stop moving, even in extreme closeups, made me feel like I was always free-floating through every scene, like a teeny observer in a miniature Bad Boys hot-air balloon.

Charles Melton, Photographer Select, Vanessa Hudgens, Will Smith,

Smith with Charles Melton & Vanessa Hudgens

Veteran actor Joe Pantoliano reprises his role from previous Bad Boys as harried Capt. Howard, and younger audiences will enjoy seeing a couple of familiar faces (Vanessa Hudgens, and Charles Melton, who stars as Reggie on TV’s Riverdale) in the mix. Hulking Alexander Ludwing, from Vikings, seems to have fun, playing a decidedly non-Viking role as a mild-mannered hacker.

Let’s be real, though. Nothing else really matters about this movie other than the comeback of its two stars—who, in their two previous Bad Boys pairings, helped push its franchise past the $400-million mark. Smith, once one of Hollywood’s top box-office draws, and Lawrence, a standup comedian who—like Smith—successfully made the leap to TV and then movies, have undeniable chemistry and for-real movie mojo. Their banter is loose, lively and juicy with quippy, R-rated digs, disses and jive that audiences will love.

Everything tends to loosen when they’re apart, but it tightens and brightens whenever they’re together, especially when they’re roaring down streets, careening around curves or ripping up the asphalt in Lowrey’s 992-Generation Porshe, a motorcycle and sidecar or any other vehicle that’s handy. One particularly funny conversation happens in an airplane.

Martin Lawrence, Will Smith, Photographer Select,And this movie has heart, especially as Lowrey and Burnett reaffirm their bond of Bad Boys brotherhood, the movie’s larger theme of family expands to something wider than you might at first imagine, and Burnett grapples—in a way that’s ultimately played for laughs—with a spiritual issue.

“Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?” That’s the tag to the song by the Jamaican reggae band Inner Circle, which became the theme to the movie franchise. You’ll hear it several times in this film.

And you’ll probably hear it in the next movie, Bad Boys 4, currently in the planning stages.

The “boys” of Bad Boys may be full-grown men now, but whatcha gonna do? You’re gonna want to see what high-octane hijinks Smith and Lawrence are up to this time, and probably the next time, too.

Cosmetic Comedy

Tiffany Haddish & Rose Bryne find the funny in off-color makeup romp

LIKE A BOSS

Like a Boss 
Starring Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne & Salma Hayek
Directed by Miguel Artela
R
In theaters Jan. 10, 2020

Two lifelong-bestie business partners find their friendship as well as their enterprise tested in the ribald and rollicking chick-flick comedy Like a Boss.

Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne star as Mia and Mel, two friends since kindergarten who’ve grown up to take their love of makeup from a hobby to a business. But now their storefront cosmetics shop is in major financial trouble, almost half a million dollars in the hole. Good thing a local beauty mogul, Claire Luna (Salma Hayek), wants to come to their rescue, pay off their debt and buy controlling interest in their company, right?

Hold on to your eyeliner—not so fast.

Not so fast, because this movie has to get where it’s going—and it has to touch all the bases, including stopovers for scenes of sisterhood solidarity; a steady, raunchy river of R-rated zingers; a cast of buffoonish supporting characters; and comedic interludes about an infant child inhaling smoke from a doobie, men being repeatedly stuck in their privates and a product inspired by copulating dogs.

That’s not to say it’s not sometimes very funny. Haddish is a live wire who’s quickly proving there’s almost nothing she can’t do—TV spots for Groupon, yukkin’ it up with youngsters hosting ABC’s Kids Say the Darndest Things, spewing raw hilarity on her Netflix comedy specials, and commanding just about whatever role she gets whenever she steps in front of a movie camera.

And Byrne, the Aussie actress from Bridesmaids, Spy and Neighbors, is more refined, but just as valuable in finding the funny. Often seen in second-banana roles, it’s great to watch her here, playing a character who gets to expand beyond the sidelines.

Director Miguel Artela is no slouch. His filmmaking resume dates back to the 1990s, and includes The Good Girl with Jennifer Aniston and Jake Gyllenhaal, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day and Cedar Rapids, an underrated 2011 gem starring Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Sigourney Weaver. Like a Boss has a certain sass, spark and spunky, feisty, grrrl-power vibe, but never quite rises out of a predictable, formulaic comedy zone and feels like it might have been written with the broad strokes of a mascara brush and highlighted in lipstick.

LIKE A BOSS

Billy Porter

It’s definitely meant for a girls’-night-out kind of audience; the testosterone content can be measured by the teaspoon. Broadway performer/singer/actor Billy Porter (from TV’s Pose and American Horror Story) hams it up as Mel and Mia’s gay assistant; Jimmy O. Yang (from Silicon Valley) and Ryan Hansen (he was Dick Casablancas on Veronica Mars, and Andy on 2 Broke Girls) play a duo of snarky cosmetics developers also hoping for Claire Luna’s sponsorship.

LIKE A BOSS

Salma Hayek

Hayek, the Mexican-American actress who became known in Hollywood in such movies as From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado and Frida (for which she was nominated for an Oscar), plays Luna as a walking, talking cartoon, a florescent gust of orange hair, gravity-defying breasts and blindingly white teeth.

Brandishing a golden golf club as a further power affectation, she tells Mia and Mel that they need to be “fiercst,” adding a “t” sound to the word in a nonsensical mangling that becomes a running joke.

Will Haddish’s Mia, who wants to earn some big bucks and live large, get the big payoff? Will Byrne’s Mel, who has for years so carefully watched the company’s bottom line, figure out a way to still come out on top? Will that bunch of hot peppers Mia accidentally eats become a barf bit—and then a diarrhea gag? Is there a surprise appearance by an instantly recognizable actress from an iconic ’90s sitcom? Will a rockin’ version of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” bring it all home?

No spoilers from me.

Like a Boss isn’t great, and sometimes isn’t even very good, but like a lot of movies in January, it suffers by comparison—to all the big, Oscar-bait films that just got unloaded into theaters in November and December. It’s like when Mel and Mia tell Claire that she doesn’t have to “worry her pretty little head” about them, and Claire replies, “Oh, my head isn’t little—it’s just that my breasts are humongous.” It’s all in the comparison, and the proximity. This little cosmetics comedy caper is no Little Women, no Bombshell, and it certainly won’t end up on anyone’s awards list for this year.

But if you and your girlfriends want some straight-up, grownup laughs with a couple of “badass babes” who get “fiercst” with a makeup-mogul takeover queen, Like a Boss can add some (off) color to your winter blues.

The Great War (Movie)

Gripping WWI drama is also a masterwork of moviemaking

Film Title: 1917

1917
Starring George MacKay & Dean-Charles Chapman
Directed by Sam Mendes
R
In theaters Dec. 25, 2019

Sure, you’ve seen war movies. But you’ve never seen one like this.

Director Sam Mendes’ astonishingly immersive World War I drama, set in one 24-hour period, is filmed in what appears to be a “single shot” as the camera follows a pair of young soldiers on a perilous mission across enemy lines.

It’s much more than a gimmick—it’s epic, grandiose, spectacular filmmaking, which matches the story it’s telling: The two British lance corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, who played young king Tommen Baratheon on Game of Thrones) and Schofield (George MacKay) are dispatched by their general to deliver a message to warn unsuspecting front-line battalions about a German ambush set for the next day. It’s practically a suicide mission—lone soldiers sent across territory occupied by the German army. But if Blake and Schofield fail, some 1,600 troops will walk into a massacre.

And Blake’s big brother will be one of them.

Film Title: 1917

The camera technique of following the doughboys makes you feel like you’re also along on their sometimes absolutely harrowing odyssey as they make their way across muddy battlefields, strewn with corpses of horses, buzzing with flies; crawling across bloated bodies of fallen soldiers; barely escaping with their lives from a booby-trapped German bunker; or dodging the crash-landing of a German Fokker, coming down in flames and headed right for them.

They never know what they’re going to find, or what’s going to find them, or even if they’re going to make it. And neither do we.

The single-shot technique is a marvel of craft, timing, coordination, prep and moviemaking (even though there are obviously a couple of editing “splices,” especially since a period of one day, then a night, then another day elapses in the space of a two-hour film). But it’s a jaw-dropping wonder to behold, and it absolutely hammers home the horrors, the terrors and the details—from maze-like, fortified foxholes to uniforms that appear totell their own battle-weary tale in their very threads and tatters—of what its characters go through. This is a war movie, yes, but also a gripping human drama, a bracing history lesson, a bruising survival saga and a blowout adventure yarn, and its production pedigree is impeccable. Mendes won an Oscar, for American Beauty, and directed two ripping James Bond movies, Spectre and Skyfall. Director of photography Roger Deakins is probably the best in the business. And Thomas Newman, who composed the original music, has been honored with 14 previous Oscar nominations, including his work on the soundtracks for Saving Mr. Banks, WALL-E, Finding Nemo and The Shawshank Redemption. In 1917, they gave out medals; for 1917, I predict Hollywood will be doling out other kinds of recognition, to honor this movie that dazzles on several fronts.

Film Title: 1917

Colin Firth

Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth and Mark Strong have small roles. But the movie belongs to its two young stars, especially MacKay in his breakout leading part, who shows the spectrum of raw emotion—including the wrenching beauty of selfless compassion—that the theater of war can produce, as well as the terrible toll it can extract.

As Schofield and Blake banter, one of the things that comes up is Christmas, and hopes of getting home in time for the holiday. It’s a theme that connects many a wartime film. Some 40 million people never made it home for Christmas—or anything else—from the so-called Great War, and 1917 masterfully reminds us of how something that happened so long ago can, and should, still hit so crushingly, achingly, painfully, movingly close to home.

Me-Ouch!

Weird ‘Cats’ is part-human, part-pussycat faux-feline Hollywood hairball 

Film Title: Cats

Taylor Swift appears in ‘Cats.’

Cats
Starring Francesca Hayward, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, Robbie Fairchild, James Corden, Rebel Wilson & Jennifer Hudson
Directed by Tom Hooper
PG
In theaters Dec. 20, 2019

Hello, kitty!

In case you’ve been living under 20 feet of Meow Mix, you likely know that Cats, the smash Broadway musical, is finally hitting the big screen.

The Jellicle junkyard cats from the long-running Andrew Lloyd Weber stage fantasia get an all-star Hollywood makeover from British director Tom Hooper, who previously turned the stage musical Les Misérables into a 2012 movie starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway.

Any way you come at it, Cats is weird. Weber’s production—which played 18 years on London’s West End and 21 in New York City, where it set a new Broadway record—was a gonzo mash-up of musical styles based on a collection of strung-together verses by the poet T.S. Elliot, with only the slightest strand of a pop-theological narrative thread holding it all together: something about the cats wondering which lucky one would be chosen to ascend, at the end of the night, to the Heaviside, something like kittycat heaven.

Cats, the movie, didn’t exactly come in on little cat feet. The first trailer, released in July, caused an uproar when critics flipped out at seeing the actors bedecked in “digital” fur—making them appear with smooth, cat-hair feline bodies and cat heads, topped with the faces of Idris Elba, Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Jason Derulo, Ian McKellan and James Corden.

Film Title: Cats

Francesca Hayward

Francesca Hayward, the principal dancer in London’s Royal Ballet, is the movie’s top cat. Now making her film debut, she plays Victoria, the white kitten who becomes the story’s central character, often paired with Robbie Fairchild as Munkustrap, the tabby tomcat leader of the Jellicles.

As it turns out, the digital-fur effect is—ahem—somewhat jarring, indeed. With musicals, you pretty much just have to “go with it,” accepting the improbable, and a big part of that means music is going to swell and people are going to burst into song in the middle of the Swiss Alps, on a freeway in L.A., a rain-soaked street or beside a bale of hay in a Kansas barnyard. But Cats breaks ground on a new kind of film freaky when the singing—and the talking—is by dozens of cat creatures with human arms and human legs and human torsos, slinking around with celebrity faces on oversized sets, so the characters will appear “cat” size in comparison. It’s like watching a mad movie scientist’s DNA-splicing experiment come disturbingly to life.

Film Title: Cats

Judi Dench

And sorry, Cats lovers—the rest of the movie just doesn’t make the leap from stage to screen with the grace, agility and wowza you’d hope for such a big-deal project. The choreography often looks cheesy, a bit spooky and just plain odd, with cat-skinned people shimmying and strutting and swishing their tails, wiggling their ears, writhing and hissing and prissing and nuzzling, sometimes moving around on all fours and sometimes bi-pedaling on two legs, like humans. The dialogue is full of cheap cat puns—“Look what the cat dragged in!” “Cat got your tongue?” “Don’t mess with a crazy cat lady!”—but little true wit.

And I still can’t get over how Dench’s character, Old Deuteronomy, the ancient, revered leader of the Jellicles, looks like she could easily be the grandmother of the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz. Same gene pool, right?

It’s all just…weird.

Don’t worry about following the story—there’s not much of one. Might as well sit back and watch the spectacle. The performances—some 20 tunes from the Broadway original, plus an all-new song—are all big and brash and splashy and flashy. But the movie is so stacked and packed and stuffed and puffed, no celeb gets much more than one turn in the spotlight. Corden, as the roly-poly, upper-crust Bustopher Jones, vamps through a back-alley garbage-can buffet for his number; Wilson does her Rebel Wilson thing as the housecat Jennyanydots, who gets a cabaret-style blowout with dancing mice and marching cockroaches. The hip-pop singer Derulo rocks the grooves of “The Rum Tum Tugger,” lays down some smooth street moves and a brings it all home in a sexy finale for adoring kitties in a milk bar. As on Broadway, “Mr. Mistoffelees,” performed by the tuxedo cat of the same name (Laurie Davidson), is a “magical” highlight.

Film Title: Cats

Jason Derulo

Saving one of its biggest draws for last, the movie holds Swift, one of the world’s most successful pop stars, for an appearance toward the end. Appearing as the regal “red queen” Bombalurina, she descends in a moon-shaped hammock for a burlesque-like song and dance to hail the notorious criminal Macavity (Elba), who has a nefarious scheme for getting into the Heaviside.

If you’ve seen the musical, you’ll certainly notice the tweaks the movie adds, like the new tune “Beautiful Ghosts,” written by Swift and Lloyd Weber for Hayward and Dench’s characters to perform. (Swift sings the song in full over the credits.)

And of course, there’s the movie’s mega-signature centerpiece, “Memory,” performed by Hudson as shabby Grizabella, the former “glamour cat” who’s become a pariah to the other Jellicles for her stray-cat fall from grace. Grizabella sings it first in melancholy snippets, then in one long, single-camera-shot performance in the film’s second act. It practically blows you out of your seat, and reminds you why, after nearly four decades, that song is still so powerful; it’s been covered by Barry Manilow and Barbra Streisand and nearly 150 other acts, and according to Nielsen, the original London and Broadway recordings of “Memory” have been streamed a whopping 2.7 million times this year alone.

“Let the memory live again,” goes one of the lines in the song. A lot of fans of the Broadway or London shows—or countless local or regional productions—will find fond memories of the stage sensation rekindled by seeing Cats again, this time on a movie screen. But a lot of other folks may find this part-human, part-pussycat, faux-feline Hollywood hairball something of a me-ouch.

Big Deal

Director Greta Gerwig put a feisty new twist on an all-American classic 

Little Women 1 (72)

Little Women 
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep & Laura Dern
Directed by Greta Gerwig
PG
In theaters Dec. 25, 2019

Little Women has always been a pretty big deal.

The beloved novel by Louisa May Alcott was a coming-of-age smash from the get-go in 1868, a commercial success that spawned a couple of sequels and got the attention of Hollywood almost as soon as “motion pictures” became a thing. The first (silent) film version of the book came out in 1917, followed by a steady stream of nearly a dozen other big-screen and TV-movie adaptations over the years.

Director Greta Gerwig’s new version puts a fresh, lively, sumptuous, all-star spin on the story about the four March sisters in 1860s New England during and immediately after the Civil War. Bursting with life, pulsing with emotion and swirling with themes that resonate far beyond its period-piece setting, this Little Women is a thoroughly engaging blend of rich nostalgic detail, lively contemporary wit and sometimes heart-wrenching, timeless sadness. If you’ve seen any of the previous versions, or even if you haven’t, this “Little” one stands tall and on its own.

Saoirse Ronan stars in the lead role of Jo March, a passionate fledgling writer who values her personal and creative freedom and whose own novel-in-progress parallels Alcott and Little Women—especially when Jo spars with a publisher (Tracy Letts) over the rights to her work.

Little Women 5

Laura Dern (top right) plays Marmee.

Gerwig—who also wrote the screenplay—and Ronan worked together previously in Lady Bird (2017), which was nominated for five Oscars, including Directing, Actress and Screenplay (for Gerwig). Clearly, they’re a winning team, and if there were ever any doubts about Gerwig having arrived as a major-league filmmaker—especially one able to helm a “major” motion picture—this will put them to rest once and for all. Little Women is going to be huge this Christmas, and the awards buzz is already humming.

Jo’s sisters are Meg (Emma Watson), a budding stage actress who really just wants to marry, settle down and start a family; Amy (Florence Pugh), a frustrated artist; and the quiet, piano-playing Beth (Eliza Scanlen). Everybody gets plenty to do, especially when the rich, waggish boy-next-door, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), enters the picture, along with his handsome tutor (James Norton), a really bad case of scarlet fever comes around, and jealousy and vindictiveness break through the sisters’ stong bonds of affection.

Laura Dern is mom Marmee, a big-hearted social worker giving her all to the Union’s war effort, and waiting for the return of her husband (Bob Odenkirk) from the battlefield. Meryl Streep is Aunt March, who tries to point her young nieces’ down the time-honored path of tradition; she cautions them against pursuing any course other than finding husbands. But these girls, these “little women”—with dreams of music, the stage, literature and drama—aren’t all convinced, especially the rebellious Jo. “Women have minds and souls as well as hearts,” she says.

Gerwig scrambles the timeline by going back and forth across the years; it can be a bit confusing at first, but it does allow us to observe how events and characters overlap and interweave, and how certain “small,” seemingly insignificant interactions later become significant, indeed. And she gives the story a twist and a bold, delightful, dramatic meta flourish at the end, one different from the novel and all the other versions, that underscores the movie’s ultimate message of Jo’s rousing independence.

Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in Greta Gerwig' LITTLE WOMEN.

Ronan with Chalamet

Everyone in the cast is wonderful, but the crux of this sisterhood saga belongs to Jo and Amy, and Ronan and Pugh are galvanizing in their roles as their characters grow, evolve and mature. Throw in Chalamet—maybe you caught his buzz in Call Me By Your Name and, also with Ronan, in Lady Bird—for a real New England heart-bruiser of a slow-burn romantic triangle.

The movie’s also a visual delight, with more costumes than a three-week Las Vegas Cher extravaganza, and a parade of splendid settings, from parlors to festive balls, bustling city streets, New York City carriage rides, a play-filled day at the beach, winter ice-skating and leafy fall strolls. At just outside a stuffy soiree, Chalamet gets to bust a move or two that might not be 100 percent authentic to the Civil War era, but hey, he and his wrap-around porch groovin’ are awesome cool.

Or, as Jo exclaims, he’s “capital!

So is Gerwig’s Little Women. This handsome, heartwarming holiday treat is a reminder that some classics are, indeed, classic for a reason—and now it’s been relaunched by one of Hollywood’s top female filmmakers and a sterling female cast, reworking a familiar, old story with vibrant new zing and zest, and a celebratory message that will resonate anew with women of all ages in today’s modern world.

And oh, it’s capital!

Ka-Boom!

Supernova trio lights the fuse on explosive sexual-harassment drama

LD_D21_04710.dngBombshell
Starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman & Margot Robbie
Directed by Jay Roach
R
In theaters Dec. 20, 2019

It’s an explosive title for an explosive movie about an explosive story.

The first major mainstream Hollywood film dealing with high-profile sexual harassment in the media, Bombshell dramatizes how a group of female employees brought down the head of Fox News in 2016.

Ka-boom!

With a supernova female trio as the axis of its ensemble cast, it’s anchored by Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman as real-life Fox News on-air personalities Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, and Margot Robbie as Kayla, a fictional character who’s recently come aboard the news crew with bright-eyed ambitions to become the network’s next on-air star.

LD_D33_07508.dng

Theron as Megyn Kelly with Lithgow as Roger Ailes

As Kayla soon learns, everything at Fox revolves around the company’s blustery, bloated CEO, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), who rules the archly conservative network with an iron fist—and treats his female employees like eye candy. Among the rank and file, he’s known as the Leg Man, and camera angles, glass desks and wardrobe choices—no pantsuits allowed—all support his fetish.

News needs to lean hard right, and women have to be “bombshells.”

“This is a visual medium,” he reminds attractive new female hires when he calls them into his office for private interviews. “Stand up and give me a spin.”

Of course, there’s more than standing and spinning going on, and Kelly, Carlson and Kayla gradually put their individual stories, and histories, together into a tapestry that reveals a much broader, deeper pattern of exploitation, harassment and perversity by Ailes and other higher-up rotten apples.

The movie weaves real news and TV clips with the actors’ performances, integrating with the story and the timeline—then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s ongoing spat with Kelly, sparked by his comments about her menstruation; Carlson appearing with her cohorts on the morning show Fox & Friends. Many of the scenes take viewers behind the scenes at the network, as characters break the “fourth wall” and talk to the camera, or have conversations to each other to explain what’s going on, who’s who and what’s what.

Bombshell 2

Margot Robbie with Kate McKinnon

The film is rich with an outstanding supporting cast, including Saturday Night Live all-star Kate McKinnon as a Fox staffer who doesn’t fit the expected stereotype; Connie Britton as Ailes’ wife, Beth; and Mark Duplass as Kelly’s supportive husband. Mom’s Allison Janney plays a lawyer assigned the challenging job of defending Ailes, alongside Rudy Giuliani (Richard Kind). Watch for Jennifer Morrison (from TV’s Once Upon a Time and This Is Us) as a Fox staffer trying to drum up support for their boss.

Theron almost completely disappears into her role as she makes the remarkable transformation into Kelly, the story’s central character, Fox’s then-rising superstar who’s conflicted about her feelings about Ailes—he’s a monster, but also her mentor. Kidman is outstanding as well as Carlson, the network’s long-time anchor and host whose controversial views have led to faltering ratings; how long can she hang on to her job? But Robbie, the real heart and soul of the whole film, gets the movie’s most pivotal scene; when she’s alone with Ailes in his office, he goes into full creep mode, and you watch the golden glow of her enthusiasm drain away from her body as he asks her to pull the hem of her skirt higher, higher and higher.

It’s that time of year, and there could be an Oscar in the wings for Theron or Robbie.

Director Jay Roach is best known for his comedies, including Meet the Parents and Dinner for Schmucks. But working from a script by Charles Randolph, who won an Oscar for his sharp, savvy screenplay for The Big Short, he’s crafted a powerful, punchy, driving, dynamite drama that chronicles a pivotal moment in modern history, when a group of women rallied and rose up—at major risk to their jobs and careers—lighting the way for the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements.

Ailes had warned his female anchors that their “likability” was the main thing that mattered to viewers. “I don’t care that you like me,” Carlson tells a pair of attorneys. “Only believe me.”

They did. We did. We do. Bombs away. Ka-boom.

 

Not So Funny

Adam Sandler proves he’s no goofball doofus in gritty character drama

U Gems 2 (72)

Uncut Gems
Starring Adam Sandler, Idina Menzel & Julia Fox
Directed by Benny & Josh Safdie
R
In select theaters Friday, Dec. 13; wide release Wed., Dec. 25, 2019

Think “Adam Sandler movie” and your mind probably goes to one of his memorable comedies, like Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison, The Waterboy or Grown Ups. Those were some funny films, for sure.

But there’s nothing funny—certainly not that kind of funny—in his latest, a dark, gritty, almost grimy slice-of-life character-drama crime caper about a small-time New York City hustler looking to score his next big moneymaker.

Sandler plays Howard Ratner, the owner of an appointment-only jewelry showroom in the Big Apple’s teeming diamond district. And Howard’s life isn’t anywhere near as glamorous as it may sound. His shop is one of many, many places where people come to barter, banter, bark, pawn and fawn over precious gemstones, pricey wristwatches and glittery, bling-y bric-a-brac. It’s a buzzing beehive of buying, braying and selling.

But it’s not enough for Howard, a compulsive, fast-talking, wheeling-dealing gambler who’s dangerously deep in debt, when we meet him, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. How so? We don’t know exactly. The movie, delirious with its own crazy momentum and nervous energy, barely pauses for breath, and we never really find out.

Thugs confront him at his store, rough him up, warning him to pay up, or else. They grab him by his legs, dangle him out an open window, hundreds of feet above the street, threatening him with his life. Howard yaks his way out of the jam, tells them he’s got a plan. He doesn’t tell them, but it’s a massive black opal from the mines of Ethiopia, a “million-dollar” rock pulled from the bowels of the earth, dating back to the time of the dinosaurs. When this potato-sized, uncut gem arrives, his ship will finally come in, it will be the bonanza of a lifetime, and it will make the world right.

He hopes.

Uncut Gems is the latest from the filmmaking Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny, best known for their edgy, artsy, propulsive 2017 film-fest favorite Good Time, with Robert Pattinson, about a botched bank robbery and a twisted neon-lit overnight odyssey through the criminal underbelly of New York. This movie is also edgy, twisty and propulsive, with a din of people constantly yelling and selling, an ever-churning undertow of scheming that you can’t imagine possibly ending well and a throbbing, synth-heavy, ’80s-tinged soundtrack that keeps pushing tensions higher and higher. It’s like a crazy, illegal party that could get busted at any moment—if someone with a gun and a grudge doesn’t make something much worse happen even sooner.

There’s not much to like about Howard. He’s a disreputable businessman, and also a heedless adulterer who’s having a torrid affair with one of his employees (newcomer Julia Fox, making a fiery debut) under the resentful glare of his long-suffering wife (Broadway star Idina Menzel, many movie miles away from her soaring vocal work as the Frozen franchise’s Queen Elsa) and the disappointment of their two children.

Uncut Gems_Idina

Idina Menzel

But it’s impossible not to totally admire the gut-punch, in-your-face performance from Sandler, who finally smashes through the comedy ceiling of the stunted man-child schlub roles that have mostly defined his acting career. Festooned with gleaming white false choppers, a dyed El Diablo goatee, tinted wire-rim glassed and tiny diamond pierced earrings, he plays Howard as a puffed-out blowfish splashing around in an ocean ruled by ruthless, cutthroat sharks. Sandler dives deep, and he bites down hard—but Howard is also a schlub, and he’s a dangerous, desperately deluded one, an addict controlled by dark passions and desires, driven by money and greed, an omnivore whose driving hunger can only be sated by the next big score.

Will that score work out the way Howard wants it—the way he needs it?

The plot gets thick with characters and cameos. Fans of the 1970s TV series Taxi will enjoy seeing Judd Hirsch as Gooey, a member of Howard’s big, extended Jewish family. John Amos, who has more than 100 TV and movie credits, has a 10-second appearance as Howard’s next-door neighbor, where he’s noted for his starring role on the sitcom Good Times. Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out) plays a customer “wrangler” for Howard’s shop, who becomes the middleman when a superstar basketball player (former NBA power forward Kevin Garnett, playing himself) covets Howard’s prized rock, believing it to be a talisman of good fortune on the court. Pop singer The Weeknd also appears as himself, causing a flareup of friction when he gets a bit too close to Howard’s workplace squeeze.

Uncut Gems isn’t an easy film to watch. It’s punchy, provocative and intentionally unsettling. Any movie that takes you along, as the camera goes deep inside a claustrophobic mining shaft, later just as deep into a character’s colon, then into the oozy opening of a bullet hole—well, you can certainly say it’s a wild, woozy ride.

But it’s one worth taking to watch Adam Sandler polish up a part to reveal there’s much more to him than being a genial, feel-good goofball—even in a movie that’s more slime than sunshine.

Whodunit?

The ‘game is afoot’ in the year’s sharpest, funniest, most entertaining movie puzzle

MORNING BELLKnives Out
Starring Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson & Toni Collette
Directed by Rian Johnson
PG-13

Somebody’s dead, it looks like a murder, and everyone’s a suspect.

Whodunit?

That’s been the setup and the starting line for many a movie, and sure enough, that’s how this one begins. But this insanely clever, thoroughly original all-star caper is full of razor-sharp surprises, and not the least are its wily, witty twists on the murder-mystery format.

For starters, we find out the “who” in the whodunit pretty early on—but, as you might expect, almost nothing in Knives Out is what, or how, you think it is. And the “who” is only the beginning of an even bigger mystery.

MORNING BELL

Ana de Armas & Daniel Craig

Daniel Craig trades his dapper James Bond British cool for a big ol’ slice of Southern-fried country ham to play Benoit (Ben-wah) Blanc, a private detective hired (but by whom?) to investigate the mysterious death of a wealthy mystery novelist, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer, who reappears repeatedly in flashbacks). Thrombey was found one morning a week ago by his housekeeper (Edi Patterson), bled out in his bed, his throat slit with a blade in his hand.

Was it suicide…or was it murder?

“Everyone can lie,” says Blanc, often wrapping his loquacious drawl around puffs of a cigar. “Well, almost everyone.” He’s referring to Thrombey’s longtime caretaker and confidante, Marta (Ana de Armas), whom Blanc discovers has a “regurgitative reaction to mis-truthin’.” In other words, when Marta lies, she throws up.

Blanc and Marta—a puke-prone lie detector—become the movie’s central axis around which it spins the rest of its delightfully prickly tale, but to reveal much more would give far too much away. (It is nice to see Craig and de Armas working together in a preview of their next team-up, in April’s No Time to Die, the 25th official James Bond film.)

This is the kind of movie where you need to pay close attention to everything—everything everyone says, everything that happens, and everything you see. Chances are, it will all come back around. Like the big coffee mug in the foreground of the opening shot—“My House, My Rules,” it reads. It may seem like just a cutesy coffee mug, but you’ll see it again, and it will mean something even…more.

You could call this a “family” film, in a way—because writer/director Rian Johnson (whose impressive resume includes the blockbuster Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the sci-fi mind-bender Looper and several TV episodes of Breaking Bad) has made everyone in Harlan Thrombey’s family a possible accomplice to his murder, naturally. Or at least they get drawn, in some way or another, into its tangled web, as Blanc and a pair of police detectives (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) spend days conducting probing interviews and combing through Thrombey’s maze-like country manor, full of hidden stairways, secret doors and promotional-oddity props—like a massive throne of blades—commemorating his murder-mystery novels. “Look around: This guy practically lived in a Clue board,” says one of the cops.

MORNING BELL

Everyone in the big, bright ensemble cast seems to be having a ball playing squabbling siblings, imploding in-laws and grousing grandkids. Jamie Lee Curtis is Thrombey’s real-estate mogul daughter, Linda, who remembers how fond her father used to be of writing cryptic notes and engaging her in games. Don Johnson is her husband, Richard, and the father of Ransom (Chris Evans), a slick, jaded playboy—and the only family member who skipped the funeral. Michael Shannon is Thrombey’s youngest son, Walt, steamed that his dad never gave him control of his $60 million publishing empire. Daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) is a hippy-dippy lifestyle guru; her daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford), was getting her substantial college’s expenses funded by Thrombey’s monthly checks. Everyone thinks grandson Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is a weirdo, if not a neo-Nazi internet troll.

Almost everyone, Blanc finds, seems to have some kind of axe to grind, a secret to hide, some sort of reason they might conceivably have for wanting a piece of Harlan Thrombey’s sizeable fortune.

And when they all come together with the family attorney (Frank Oz) for the reading of Harlan’s will, that’s when the knives really come out.

Blanc seems so close to solving the mystery, but something about it continually baffles him. All the pieces are there, but something is missing; something just doesn’t fit. “A strange case,” he tells Marta. “A case with a hole in the middle—a doughnut.” At one point, even the doughnut hole seems to have another doughnut, with another doughnut hole, inside it.

MORNING BELLKnives Out is great, galloping, fast-paced fun, and it harkens back to classic murder-mystery tropes that stretch across the decades. But it also launches a timely, pointed contemporary message in Marta’s character and her immigrant family, which becomes an important subplot—and a running gag of scathing social commentary as the Thrombeys, who claim to love Marta as one of their own, can’t ever recall which South American country she’s from. Is it Uruguay? Or Paraguay, or Brazil?

One scene offers a telling glimpse of a rerun of Angela Lansbury in the 1980s TV series Murder: She Wrote, overdubbed in Spanish. This is a movie that has quite a bit more than just murder and mystery on its mind.

“The game is afoot,” says Blanc, clearly relishing the challenge of digging into the Thrombey puzzle. You’ll relish it, too. The most entertaining movie puzzle of the year, it’s also a film with some of the sharpest edges where you least expect them.

And like the coffee mug suggests, it plays by its own rules. Whodunit? Oh, you’ll find out. But you’ll have even more fun filling in the doughnut holes.

In theaters Wed., Nov. 27, 2019

All Hail the Ice Queen

Disney’s coolest royalty returns for strong showing of sisterhood & girl power  

nullFrozen II
Starring voices by Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad
Directed by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee
PG

When it comes to Disney royalty, you can’t get much cooler than Elsa and Anna.

The plucky ice queen and her spunky little sis were, of course, the stars of 2013’s Frozen, the animated musical blockbuster that took home two Oscars and broke worldwide box-office records. It set off an earworm bomb with “Let It Go,” its soaring signature song. And its success has now led to Disney’s first-ever theatrical sequel to an animated “princess” film.

Even though it’s been six years, Frozen fans won’t have any trouble picking up the storyline. For one thing, the gang’s all here, just where we left them in their mythical, fjord-shore Scandinavian-like hamlet of Arendelle. Idina Menzel returns to voice the now young-adult Elsa, still dealing with her mystifying powers to create and control ice and snow. Her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) didn’t get any magical gifts, but she proves herself indispensable in other ways, as she did in the first movie.

FROZEN 2

Olaf buddies up with Kristoff’s reindeer, Sven.

And of course, there’s Olaf (Josh Gad), the goofball snowman, and Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Anna’s loveably bumbling suitor.

When Elsa hears a haunting, song-like voice calling from the distant northlands—the forbidding, mist-shrouded Enchanted Forest—the group sets off to find out where it’s coming from, and why. Maybe it’s a clue to Elsa’s mysterious magical abilities. Maybe it will lead them to answers about what really happened to Elsa and Anna’s parents, said to have perished in a shipwreck. Maybe it will be an opportunity to right some long-time political, cultural and historical wrongs.

Maybe the journey will set up several big musical numbers!

The plot gets a little thick and tricky, especially for younger viewers, who may get somewhat antsy and bogged down in the slower parts and just want to see Elsa and Anna do their sisters-united thing, or belt another big song, or see something slap-sticky funny. Some of the moments can be dark and gloomy and confusing. “Why is she crying?” asked one tyke in a seat behind me to her mommy, during one particularly somber scene. “Where’s Olaf?”

But mostly, Frozen II certainly fills the bill, especially for fans who’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for a frosty follow-up. It’s big, even epic-feeling, especially once our travelers enter the Enchanted Forest, where they encounter powerful nature spirits, a race of indigenous people, a time warp and exotic creatures—including a tiny, cute, combustible salamander and towering “earth giants” the size of mountains.

Listen for a few new voices, including Evan Rachel Wood (taking over for Jennifer Lee as Elsa and Anna’s mother, Queen Iduna, from the first movie); Sterling K. Brown as a loyal Arendelle soldier; Martha Plimpton as the leader of the tribe the travelers encounter; and Jason Ritter as Ryder, a young tribesman who befriends Kristoff.

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Returning Frozen directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee create some spectacular scenery and segments. Nudging the seasons just a bit, from winter to fall, gives the film’s pallet a striking new color shift—beyond ice and snow—to explore. You can tell there’s a lot of money on the screen, in expensive, extensive computer animation, like an impressive nighttime sequence when Elsa lights up a raging ocean with streaks and bursts of florescent colors to tame an elegant, translucent “water horse.” Or when Anna awakens the lumbering earth giants, taunts them into chasing her, hurling massive boulders—and doing exactly what she hoped they would do.

And not surprisingly, everyone gets a song. Just like in the original film, composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (who also won an Oscar for the score for Disney’s acclaimed Coco) wrote seven new tunes for Frozen II. And while, alas, there’s probably not a new “Let It Go” singalong among them, all of the songs are expertly crafted, sturdy Disney-musical showpieces. Menzel, the Tony-nominated Broadway star from Rent, Wicked and If/Then, knocks anything she sings out of the park, so it’s no surprise Elsa is given some big, soaring ballads, like “Into the Unknown” and “Show Yourself.”

Anna/Bell belts out “The Next Right Thing,” another ballad, and everybody joins in on “Some Things Never Change,” a peppy Broadway-style opener which sets the stage for things to come, as does the soothing lullaby, “All is Found,” sung by Queen Iduna to her two young daughters.

But a true standout goes to Groff, as Kristoff, who sings “Lost in the Woods” as a campy, ’80s-video-style power anthem, compete with a background chorus of oohing and ahhing reindeer. Groff, also Tony-nominated for his Broadway work (he was King George III in Hamilton) and known for his starring role on TV’s Glee, delivers the goods while the intentionally cheesy visuals play like a clip of vintage Bryan Adams on MTV. Kids might giggle, but mom and dad will totally dig it. It’s a trippy Frozen II treat.

FROZEN 2

Anna and Olaf take a trip on an ice boat.

And Gad, who provides running comic relief as the hyperactive, babbling magical snowman Olaf, is a font of commentary on practically everything, including how he’s become more self-aware. Or, as he puts it, “the ever-increasing complexity of thought that comes with maturity.” (In one cluelessly cheeky moment, he offers a critique of Elsa’s singing. “She’s a bit pitchy,” he observes.) Olaf’s whimsical “When I Am Older” is also a highlight, in which he walks through a “haunted” section of the forest, and all sorts of boo-riffic oddities keep popping and poofing up around him.

While not quite as fresh as the original, Frozen II still stands tall with its own proto-feminist message of strong girl power and sisters doin’ it for themselves—and each other—in a fantasy fairy-tale world where magic is real, the past shapes the present, memories have power and “lands and people” can be “connected by love.”

It’s a message that little girls, in little Elsa crowns and little Anna dresses, will soak up like little sponges—and one that we all need to hear, no matter who’s doing the singing.

In theaters Friday, Nov. 22, 2019

D.C. Drama

Adam Driver drives home timely message in true tale of Washington corruption

TTR_0542.dngThe Report
Starring Adam Driver & Annette Bening
PG-13
Directed by Scott Z. Burns

The Report is a crackling political-intrigue thriller about how the U.S. Senate spent years dogging the CIA about the agency’s covert use of torture to extract information from detainees after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

It’s a true story, and it centers around a young Senate staffer, Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), and his painstaking, five-year crusade to comb through more than six million online documents for a study that the CIA—not surprisingly—did everything it could to quash.

TTR_0164.dng

Annette Bening is Sen. Dianne Feinstein

Working under the direction of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) in a windowless, bunker-like basement office, Jones and his small team discover a web of deceit, deception and cover-up. It’s all linked to the CIA’s “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” (EIT), an outsourced paramilitary program of extreme human-rights abuse, including waterboarding, sexual humiliation, mock burial, sensory deprivation, beatings and enemas. The agency used the techniques in attempts to force “confessions” from more than 100 Middle Eastern men whom it suspected might have ties to the 9/11 terrorism, or information about upcoming attacks.

When Jones completes his nearly 7,000-page report, it concludes that not a single one of the detainees coughed up any credible information—and one died, in effect tortured to death. Not only did the CIA violate time-honored, international Geneva Conventions principles about human rights and treatment of prisoners, but its multimillion-dollar EIT program failed to produce any useful information, contrary to everything the agency had told—and sold—the public about its so-called “War on Terror.”

TTR_0322.dng

Jon Hamm plays the White House Chief of Staff.

The head of the CIA (Ted Levine) does everything he can to discredit Feinstein, Jones and the report. The White House chief of staff (Jon Hamm) isn’t really interested; he has bigger election-year fish to fry. And Jones finds himself the target of criminal charges when the CIA turns the tables in a nasty twist that illustrates just how down-and-dirty Washington politics can be.

Matthew Rhys, channeling some of the stealth he cultivated playing a KGB spy on six seasons of TV’s The Americans, has a couple of scenes as a New York Times political reporter who cautions Jones about going public with his findings. “Some people will think you’re a hero,” he tells him, “and some will probably think you’re a traitor.”

Fans of TV’s Dexter will enjoy seeing Dexter himself, Michael C. Hall, as a toe-the-line CIA staffer, along with The Affair’s Maura Tierney. Tim Blake Nelson plays a military physician with objections about the abuse he’s witnessing. A high-end lawyer friend (Corey Stoll) gives Jones some free advice, telling the young Senate staffer that he can’t even begin to afford the super-expensive legal help he’s going to need.

But the real star of the show, clearly, is Driver. After a string of solid roles—in films including BlacKkKlansman, Logan Lucky, Inside Llewyn Davis, Lincoln, Frances Ha, Paterson, as Kylo Ren in the Star Wars franchise, and a heart-rending co-lead opposite Scarlett Johansson in this year’s acclaimed Marriage Story—he’s now a sturdy leading mainstream man. With no car chases, foot races, spaceships, explosions or gunfire, the “action” in The Report often plays out in the features on Driver’s expressive face, a long, oval pallet—the glowering intensity of his dark eyes, the scowling frown of his lips—for the dueling cross-currents of passion, fatigue and frustration that defined a trying half-decade of Daniel Jones’ life.

TTR_1308.dngAfter crafting top-notch screenplays for other fact-based films, including The Informant! and Contagion, plus The Bourne Ultimatum, Scott Z. Burns—who also wrote this screenplay—makes his major-feature directing debut, and it’s a zinger. He builds a dense, immersive drama out of real-life characters and events from the not-so-distant past, cracking into the maddening machinations of Washington to unravel a chronic chain of corrosion and corruption under the George W. Bush administration—and he doesn’t let W’s successor, Barack Obama, completely off the hook, either.

The Report is a movie about big issues that matter, things that resonate beyond the scope of its story—about “who we were, who we are, and who we aspire to be,” to quote from a clip the movie uses from the late Sen. John McCain. And it’s impossible to miss its connections to contemporary events, especially given all the drama, controversy and constant news churn created by the current White House administration. When the movie gets around to whistleblowers, blocks of blacked-out, “redacted” text, elected officials who act not because of right or wrong, but because it’s what they think will help them win votes and elections… As the saying goes, what goes around, comes around.

“You ever wonder why history repeats itself?” asks Bening’s character, Sen. Feinstein. “It’s because we don’t listen the first time.”

History may repeat itself, but The Report suggests that, hopefully, there will always be someone, like Daniel Jones, to remind everyone the importance of listening, remembering—and never giving up in the fight for what’s right, especially against a system that seems impossibly stacked, packed and racked against them.

“You can’t torture people, lie about it and hide it from history,” Jones says. Thanks to his report, this story didn’t end that way. And thanks to The Report, we have Adam Driver in a great movie that shows just what a finessed, finely tuned, focused—and perhaps award-winning—actor he’s become.

In select theaters Nov. 15, 2019