Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Rock Show

Rami Malek Rules Royally Rockin’ Queen Biopic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

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Bohemian Rhapsody
Starring Rami Malek, Gwilyn Lee, Ben Hardy, Lucy Boynton & Allen Leach
Directed by Bryan Singer
PG-13

“We’re four misfits who don’t belong together, playing for the other misfits hanging together in the back of the room,” explains Freddie Mercury to a record company exec in an early scene of this royally rockin’ biopic about the British band Queen.

As we see, the “rooms” Queen played got bigger and bigger, as the band became one of the most successful, acclaimed arena acts in the world—and Mercury became the most flamboyant, theatrical, front-man “misfit” in all of rock music.

Rami Malek, the Emmy-winning star of TV’s Mr. Robot, pops in a set of prosthetic teeth to play Freddie, who is clearly the star of this show as well. To cop a line from one of Queen’s hit songs, he…will, he…will…rock you!

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Malek with Gwilyn Lee as Queen bandmate Brian May.

Bohemian Rhapsody, titled after the group’s epic, progressive, majestic, multi-layered sonic soufflé from their 1975 album A Night at the Opera, traces Mercury’s timeline from the early 1970s, when he first met the other musicians who would become his band mates.

In an alley outside a London club where he’s just watched them perform, Freddie convinces guitarist Brian May (Gwilyn Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) to let him replace the recently booted lead singer in their band, Smile, dazzling them with a quick vocal audition. “I was born with four additional incisors in my mouth,” he explains. “More space means more range.”

Mercury’s impressive range becomes a movie metaphor for the expansive effect he has on the group—he changes their name to the universally regal-sounding Queen and widens their horizons to a recording contract, international touring and worldwide hit records. He transforms them into a band that doesn’t sound like any other band anywhere, at any time, a unique performing and recording ensemble that doesn’t fit into anyone’s idea of a rock group, a pop act or anything else.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODYHe tells the head of a record company that Queen wants to make “a musical experience rather than just another record.”

Mercury loved entertaining, experimenting in the studio, and living with his cats—and he loved other men, a fact that he discretely kept secret from the public. The movie is delicate—although direct—about how it addresses this part of his life (and lifestyle), even as it becomes the thing that leads to his eventual death from complications due to AIDS, in 1991.

The film is dramatically bookended by the band’s triumphant reunion appearance at the Live Aid charity event in 1985, culminating in a monumental, masterful, moving recreation of the concert at London’s Wembley Stadium, where Queen performed their greatest hits in front of a rapturous crowd of more than 70,000 people. It was watched worldwide on television by an audience estimated to be nearly 2 billion, the biggest ever for a TV event, much less a rock show.

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You likely know some, or perhaps even a good deal, of Queen’s music. You may even be a super-fan who knows a lot about the band itself. But you’ve probably never been where this movie takes you, particularly as it depicts the home life of teenage Freddie as he was “becoming” Mercury. Before that, he was Farrokh Belsara, the son of Parsee Indian parents who had immigrated to London after a revolution. One of the film’s most emotional parts is Freddie’s relationship with his father, who disapproves of his musical career—and his homosexuality—and who tells his son his mantra should be “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.”

And you may not know about Mercury’s romantic relationship with his early girlfriend, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). Their enduring bond, even beyond heartache and heartbreak, stirs one of the movie’s most tender undercurrents.

Allen Leach (he was Tom Branson on Downton Abbey) plays Paul Prenter, Mercury’s duplicitous manager. A truly delicious treat is the inside joke of casting Mike Myers as a flummoxed record exec who can’t see why his label should release “a six-minute quasi-operatic dirge” when the band brings him their latest project, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” One of Myers’ best known comedic bits, of course, is the scene in his movie Wayne’s World where his character rocks out to that very song.

Director Bryan Singer layers on the musical detail, and a parade of characters. (Queen’s bass player, John Deacon, capably played by Joseph Mazzello, unfortunately seems to disappear into the much more colorful swirl all around him.) Aaron McCusker, who played astronaut Wally Schirra in the 2015 TV series The Astronaut Wives Club, portrays Jim Hutton, Mercury’s life-mate and partner during the final seven years of Freddie’s life.

It’s a kick watching recreations of the band’s classic hits germinate and blossom, in the studio or on a piano bench, from the stomp-stomp-clap of “We Will Rock You” to the experimental rehearsal noodlings that eventually coalesce into the funky “Another One Bites the Dust.” An everything-but-the-kitchen-sink studio session—an amp swinging through the air on a rope, loose coins buzzing on a timpani head, a tambourine inside a piano—hints at how far the band wanted to push the norms of conventional pop music.

And Mercury’s rousing “Day-Oh!” chant, which could captivate massive arena crowds, also becomes shorthand for a much more private, poignant personal moment.

BH-1-72Malek struts like a peacock through Mercury’s constantly churning fashion evolution, from skintight catsuits to leather military jackets, glittery glam-rock capes and finally the iconic white tank top he wore at Live Aid. His immersive acting—and the grand, sweeping arc of the story—is the kind of thing that makes Oscar voters perk up, take notice and dole out little golden men.

He doesn’t do his own singing—what you hear coming out of Malek’s toothy mouth is a combination of Marc Martel, a professional Queen tribute singer, and actual Mercury tracks isolated from Queen master recordings. But the illusion, and the performance, are perfect, Hollywood movie-music magic at its finest. Close your eyes for a moment—but just a moment, because there’s so much to see—and it’s almost impossible to detect the difference, to convince yourself that what you’re hearing, and seeing, is really a quasi-Queen with a faux Freddie.

And at the center of it all, at the apex of this magnificent, music-packed movie tribute, is Malek. His remarkable, spellbinding performance reminds us of what we had, what was lost, and of the band, the songs and the singer who once made the whole world sing and clap and stomp along.

“We are the champions,” Mercury and Queen sang. And yes, day-oh, they were.

In theaters Nov. 2, 2018

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The Kids Are All Right

Jonah Hill Moves Behind the Camera for Coming-of-Age Skateboard Drama

 

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Mid90s
Starring Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges & Katherine Waterston
Directed by Jonah Hill
R

Jonah Hill has made us laugh in raunchy comedies including Superbad, 21 Jump Street and its sequel, This is the End and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. He played Moneyball with Brad Pitt, howled with Leonardo Di Caprio in The Wolf of Wall Street and voiced dragon trainer Snotlout Jorgenson in two animated How to Train Your Dragon flicks.

Now he’s taking us skateboarding.

Mid90s, which marks his first feature as a director and screenwriter, is a poignant, grittily realistic depiction of kids growing up in working-class Los Angeles circa 1994.

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Sunny Suljic

Sunny Suljic (recently in The House with a Clock in Its Walls) stars as 13-year-old Stevie, who admires his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges, Oscar-nominated for Manchester by the Sea), even though Ian is an abusive, loutish bully. Ian slams back orange juice by the gallon, works out obsessively, collects sports apparel, plays videogames—and pummels Stevie whenever he finds out he’s been poking around in his bedroom, which is often.

Their single mother (Katherine Waterston) is too distracted, self-absorbed and caught up in her own life to notice them, or whatever they’re doing.

With no anchor at home, Stevie drifts—and is drawn into a group of high school slackers he sees on a street corner, razzing a local shop owner, talking smack and showing off with their skateboards.

Stevie “trades up” his kiddie board for a real skateboard and is gradually assimilated into the group, given the affectionate nickname “Sunburn” (because of a comment he makes that amuses everyone). Almost everyone in the group has a nickname—except Ray (Na-Kel Smith), the oldest, and wisest, of the bunch, who dreams of “going pro” with his formidable skilz; and Ruben (Gio Galicia), closest to Stevie’s age, who initially takes the youngster under his wing and schools him on what’s cool…and what’s not.

“Listen to me,” Ruben tells him. “Never say ‘Thank-you.’ People will think you’re gay.”

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The camera loves “F—ks—t” (Olan Prenatt), a shaggy-blonde screw-up whose profane nickname comes from his favorite expression. The group gave “Fourth Grade” (Ryder McLaughlin) his moniker as a knock at his limited vocabulary; but he’s an aspiring filmmaker who documents everything with a handheld camcorder.

Hill grew up in upper-class L.A., and this isn’t his autobiography, by any means. But he clearly has an affectionate feel for these dead-end kids. Rich with textures and details of its era and its place, Mid90s is a confident coming-of-age slice of characters and situations that will resonate with anyone who was around during the time—even if you never set foot on a skateboard, or weren’t anywhere near Southern California.

The soundtrack—a mixture of tunes from a diverse slate of artists, from the Mamas and the Papas to A Tribe Called Quest and Cypress Hill, mixed with original sonic-scapes from Oscar-winning Trent Reznor and fellow former Nine Inch Nails member Atticus Ross—sets a tasteful, moody, meandering backdrop, especially for scenes of young ‘boarders drifting breezily down the middle of a freeway at sunset, or teeming like lemmings all over a local park, then scattering and skittering away from “Five-O,” the cops.

It might shock some viewers when young Stevie and his friends talk scatological trash, or do things that push the film toward the far edges of its R rating. They smoke. They drink. And they have sex…sort of. (That scene actually quite accurately presents teenage “sex,” its prelude and its aftermath, as an awkward spectrum of emotions, from both sides of its young gender gap.)

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Alexa Demie & Sunny Suljic

The slightly older teenage girl (actress-singer Alexa Demie) who takes Stevie into a bedroom at a party is one of only two female characters in the whole film (the other is Stevie and Ian’s mom). This movie is about the boyz in the ’hood, and they’re mostly played by unknown actors; sometimes it feels like a documentary—maybe the one Fourth Grade is shooting throughout the actual movie itself.

These youngsters flirt with injury and danger; it’s part of the “lifestyle.” Stevie throws himself into it, partly to show he’s a scrapper who’s got what it takes, but also because he’s been tempered by the beatings of his older brother. Learning to master his skateboard, he repeatedly falls off. Later, he accidentally skates off the roof of a building. And later still, he’s involved in a much more serious incident.

“You literally take the hardest hits of anyone I’ve ever seen,” Ray tells him.

Bumps, bruises and broken bones aside, the movie is kinda sweet, often dreamy, and ultimately a tribute to a type of camaraderie among young, outlier, outsider friends of any stripe, anywhere, anytime. These kids have found each other, even if they haven’t found—and aren’t interested in—a place where they fit in the larger, grownup world.

Mid90s has an edgy, indie feel, and it probably won’t make a big splash with a big audience. It’s a small movie about a small group of friends, a scrappy “family” of wayward L.A. kids who live to “push on a piece of wood” on wheels. But it’s a formidable debut from a first-time director that announces his official arrival into a new filmmaking circle.

And its big accomplishment is heralding that Jonah Hill has found a place, another place, where he fits—and that’s behind the camera.

In wide distribution Oct. 26, 2018

Star Maker

Lady Gaga Shines in Bradley Cooper’s Sensational Directorial Debut 

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A Star is Born
Starring Bradley Cooper & Lady Gaga
Directed by Bradley Cooper
R

In theaters Oct. 5, 2018

What’s that sound?

It might be the early Oscar buzz for this film, which has already wowed audiences and critics at key film festivals that often point the way to the Academy Awards.

With A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper makes the leap to directing, as well as starring in the soaring, song-filled saga about a ragged superstar musician (Cooper) who falls for a younger, much greener singer-songwriter, played by Lady Gaga.

That “sound” might also be the tinnitus, the ringing in the ears of Jackson Maine, Cooper’s character. Combined with raging alcoholism and drug use, it’s put a serious drag on his once-thriving career—at the very moment he happens to meet Ally (Gaga), performing in an East Village drag bar, where Jackson has ducked in to get even more sloshed after a show.

Their eyes meet, their hearts sync and pretty soon they’re making music together, in more ways than one.

The sound you’re hearing could also be the songs—elemental, essential building blocks of the movie. But Cooper’s A Star is Born isn’t a musical; it’s a character-driven drama about two people who live and breathe music. The songs—almost all of them written originally for the film, and some by Gaga herself—become passionate, purposeful swaths of the story.

A-Star-Is-Born-5-72And Gaga, in her knockout debut leading movie role, sings the heck out of them. Cooper gives much of the spotlight to her, and she shines in a spectacular, rags-to-riches performance. We watch Ally emerge (we see her in the opening scene, literally, strolling past trash dumpsters in an alley) from her lowly street life to a become a dazzling, media-sensation pop princess.

Gaga built a real-life entertainment career out of being a popster chameleon, and part of the bedazzlement of her portrayal of Ally here is seeing her “bare,” with all that artifice and masquerade stripped away—down to her talent, her voice.

In one early scene, Jackson, fascinated by her fake eyebrows, wants to peel them off to reveal the real her. She tells him she’s always been self-conscious of her looks, in particular her big nose. “Your nose is beautiful,” he says, delicately caressing it with his finger.

In the movie’s many gorgeous, sweeping close-ups of Jackson and Ally’s faces, you see plenty of that beautiful nose—plus their lovely eyes, and their tears, when it comes to that.

Because, of course, what good is any love story that doesn’t give a good ol’ yank to the heartstrings? And this one has at least one major yank some folks might know is coming, especially if they’re familiar with how it’s been told before. A Star is Born was originally a movie in 1937 (with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March), 1955 (Judy Garland and James Mason) and 1976 (Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson).

As Ally’s star rises and burns brighter and hotter, Jackson’s flickers and falters. Will her success eclipse his? Can their love survive? Is there a way she can save Jackson on his road of self-destruction?

A STAR IS BORN

The movie gets so many of the modern musical details right, from backstage scenes, limo rides and private airplanes to songwriting and recording sessions and live performances. It drills down into the business of music without ever losing the human touch around which the story evolves and revolves.

As an actor-director, Cooper shows particularly strong promise, with an eye for solid craftsmanship and visual detail and a willingness to let his co-stars shine. A scene at an awards show is a particular standout, when a drunken Jackson stumbles onto the stage to join Ally, accepting her trophy, in front of a giant, pixelated screen image of themselves.

We all knew Lady Gaga could sing; she’s sold more than 27 million albums, recorded and toured with Tony Bennett, performed at a Super Bowl halftime show and won six Grammys. She’s got some serious pipes. And if you saw her in her role as the Countess on the FX series American Horror Story: Hotel, you won’t be surprised to find out she can act. But A Star is Born is aptly titled—she has arrived. A movie star is born.

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Sam Elliott plays Billy, the brother of Cooper’s character, Jackson.

There are some outstanding supporting performances as well, including Andrew Dice Clay (as Ally’s father), Dave Chappelle (as Jackson’s buddy) and Sam Elliott, who provides a meaty layer of backstory family drama as Jackson’s older brother, Bobby, a former musician.

There are only 12 notes on the musical scale, Bobby says. Every song ever written uses those same tones, just arranged a different way. “It’s the same story told over and over, forever,” he tells Ally.

Watch A Star is Born and you’ll see a dynamic, dramatic spin on an old, forever love story, a sensational, stupendous, star-making performance by Lady Gaga, and a super-impressive directorial debut by Bradley Cooper—and you’ll hear what everyone else has been buzzing about.

In theaters Oct. 5, 2018

Moms, Martinis & a Missing Person

‘Gossip Girl,’ ‘Pitch Perfect’ Stars Plunge into Fun, Twisty Tale

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A Simple Favor
Starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively
Directed by Paul Feig
R

Something small and seemingly insignificant turns into something huge, tangled and terrifically complicated in this tale of a missing person…who may not be so missing at all.

Oh, sure, that sounds familiar. But you’ve never seen it played out quite like this—with a former Gossip Girl (Blake Lively) and the perky Pitch Perfect darling (Anna Kendrick) plunging deep into the murky, steamy noir.

Kendrick plays Stephanie, an over-achieving, work-from-home mommy blogger who develops an unlikely friendship with Emily (Lively), a glamorous, mysterious PR exec for a Manhattan designer.

Their young sons go to the same school, but they’re on totally opposite sides of the mommy spectrum; Emily wears stilettos to the playground, Stephanie shops for bargain socks by the bundle at Target. But they bond nonetheless over stiff martinis, French songs swirling on the stereo, saucy girl talk and spilled secrets in Emily’s bedazzling mansion.

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When Emily calls Stephanie one day and asks her for a “simple favor,” to pick up her son after school and keep him for the afternoon, it’s no big deal. But when Emily doesn’t come home that day, or the next, or even the next, Stephanie starts to worry that something may be wrong…

And boy, is she right!

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Henry Golding

Emily and Stephanie’s hunky writer-turned-professor husband, Sean (Henry Golding, hot off his other hit movie, Crazy Rich Asians), bond in their search for answers. But can she trust him—or resist his charms—especially after she catches him cozying up with one of his female students?

“Are you trying to Diabolique me?” Stephanie asks Sean at one point, a reference to the classic 1955 French film about a wife, a mistress and a murder—and a perfect alibi.

Stephanie puts on her Nancy Drew sleuthing hat and goes on the hunt, and one clue leads to another—a $4 million insurance policy, a crazy woman (Jean Smart), a wrist tattoo, a dead body in a lake, a massive nude painting, a struggling artist (Linda Cardellini), an old T-shirt, an heirloom ring, a burning house, a fatal car crash.

And especially in a movie like this, things aren’t always as they seem and the truth can be a slippery subject. There are certainly shadings of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train and other films where a woman has “disappeared” and the story is presented to the audience by an “unreliable narrator” who doesn’t have all the information. Like those movies, this one is also based on a best-selling novel, in this case by Darcey Bell.

ASF_D02_PI_00245.CR2Those kind of movies are typically pretty heavy and dark, but this one is definitely not—thanks to the spark, sizzle and snap of Kendrick and Lively, and to director Paul Feig, who brushes everything with brisk, confident comedic stokes honed from his previous work on Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters, The Heat and Spy. There are numerous laugh-out-loud moments, particularly when Kendrick is given room to romp—like scenes when she encounters a robotic office receptionist, gets “stuck” in one of Emily’s slinky dresses, or rocks out to a rap song in her car. She’s the feisty firecracker that makes this film pop with wit as well as wile.

A SIMPLE FAVORLively has appeared in several movies (The Deep, The Age of Adeline, All I See is You, Café Society) after Gossip Girl went off the air in 2012, but this role is her juiciest yet. Emily is beguiling, manipulative, dangerous, damaged, sexy, sad and seductive—and Lively seems to relish every moment she gets to explore each luscious, plum angle of her character’s personality.

Andrew Rannells (Elijah on TV’s Girls) has a campy part as a dad in Emily’s school moms group, and Bashir Salahuddin (referee Keith Bang on GLOW) plays a detective who pops into a couple of scenes. “I’m just following breadcrumbs wherever they lead,” he says.

Follow these breadcrumbs to your local theater and see A Simple Favor—a deliciously, deliriously twisty tale of moms, martinis and a far-out gone girl that’s way more fun than you’d likely ever expect.

In theaters Sept. 14, 2018

Hard Candy

Jennifer Garner Delivers Mixed Messages in Pulpy Revenge Drama

PEPPERMINTPeppermint
Starring Jennifer Garner, John Gallagher Jr. and John Ortiz
Directed by Pierre Morel
R

“What’s in your wallet?” That’s what Jennifer Garner wants to know in TV commercials for a popular credit card.

In her latest movie, she’s wants something else, and raises some much harder questions.

The title may suggest a sugar-sweet, candy-coated treat. But this flick is a violent, hardcore action revenge fantasy about a woman who takes the law into her own hands when her husband and daughter are killed in a drive-by shooting by members of a Mexican drug cartel.

Her daughter was eating a cone of peppermint ice cream when she died.

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Juan Pablo Raba plays a ruthless cartel boss.

The cartel members, affiliated with a powerful drug czar (Juan Pablo Raba) with connections everywhere—including the LAPD and the courts—are rounded up and arrested, but walk free from the courtroom.

Garner plays Riley North, who is also seriously injured in the shooting, and ordered to a psychiatric hospital to recover. But she escapes and disappears, reemerging five years later to find the men who killed her family and become their judge, jury and executioner.

And while she’s taking out the trash, so to speak, she does the same to a lot of other guys, too.

“What do you want?” one of her victims-to-be asks her. “I want justice,” Riley answers.

PEPPERMINTWe know when we see her, in the back of her beat-up van, closing up a gaping wound with a staple gun and duct tape, she means business. A couple of LAPD detectives (John Gallagher Jr. and John Ortiz) are always one step behind her.

This theme—of the citizen vigilante—has certainly been explored in movies before. Most famously, Charles Bronson launched the whole Death Wish franchise back in the 1970s, and the Taken series made Liam Neeson an action star. (French director Pierre Morel, who directed the first Taken, is also the director of Peppermint.)

The twist here is that it’s a woman—not Bronson, not Neeson, and not Denzel Washington, Clint Eastwood, Jamie Foxx, Keanu Reeves, or any one from a long list of other macho male Hollywood stars—doling out the deadly damage. But Garner isn’t exactly an out-of-nowhere choice. Remember she was a lethal weapon in the action-packed TV espionage series Alias from 2001 to 2006, playing double agent Sydney Bristow, a globe-trotting killing machine?

And she certainly hasn’t lost any of her, ahem, skills. I lost count of just how many guys are dispatched in Peppermint, but it’s certainly upward of 40. How many places can a guy be shot? Well, as Riley demonstrates, with an arsenal of weaponry that looks like a PSA for the NRA, there’s the face, the foot, the leg, the chest. They can also be stabbed, especially in the throat. Or crushed by a falling desk. Or blown to smithereens (with “explosive cord”).

PEPPERMINTIt’s not just the body count that might make you wince. The sight of a white woman laying waste to just about every Hispanic and Latino character she encounters doesn’t exactly align with what a lot people might think of as racial sensitivity, especially at a moment in time when tensions are heightened about issues of immigration and cultural assimilation.

Early in the movie, in a flashback, Riley tells her young daughter that it’s not OK to be a bully, because “then you’re just as bad as they are.” The movie can’t keep its messages straight; when Riley goes on her wholesale slaughter spree of cartel members, and everyone associated with them, doesn’t it make her “as bad” as they are?

Director Morel doesn’t do anything terribly original here; he’s working from a paint-by-numbers script and using stock characters that look and sound like they came straight from central casting. But he doesn’t have to do much; this is a red-meat movie for people who are fed up, like Riley. She’s lost her family, but a lot of other people are just fed up, and pent up, period, about, well…whatever. And maybe this will be like a big stress valve, a relief and release, like a vicarious shooting gallery. Watch Riley mess up the bad guys—bam, bam, bang, bang, stab, stab—and maybe you’ll feel a little better.

Or maybe not.

Peppermint won’t be for everybody. It’s pulpy, gritty, trashy and down-low, and its racial overtones are difficult to dismiss. But Jennifer Garner is a dead-serious “avenging angel,” action-flick fans will likely lap it up, and it’s a welcome, you-go-girl gender-twist on the format.

So…what’s in your wallet?

In theaters Sept. 7, 2018

Puppets Behaving Badly

Melissa McCarthy Stars in Raunchy Novelty Comedy 

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The Happytime Murders
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Elizabeth Banks & Bill Barretta
Directed by Brian Henson
R

Hey kids, wanna see a puppet show?

Well, stay away from this one—a crude, lewd comedy for grown-ups in which puppets smoke, drink, curse, snort drugs, visit porno shops and have sex.

Just like real people!

In The Happytime Murders, puppets and people coexist; but puppets are regarded as second-class citizens, and the “socks” are mostly segregated from the “meat bags.” The movie follows puppet P.I. Phil Phillips (voiced and animated by puppeteer Bill Barretta) as he investigates the mounting homicides among the former cast members of a 1980s puppet TV series, The Happytime Gang.

Melissa McCarthy stars in The Happytime MurdersPhil’s work brings him back in contact with his former LAPD partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). Several years ago, during their time together on the force, they were L.A.’s first human/cop team—and then an unfortunate on-the-job incident made them the last, and cost Phil his badge.

This all sounds like rather serious stuff, and it is—the movie’s basic framework follows traditional, familiar buddy-cop, film-noir formulas, and that’s its comedic setup. Then it puts puppets into it—puppets doing, and saying, the kind of raw, raunchy things “people” would say in R-rated, buddy-cop comedy-action movies.

As Phillips and Edwards weave their way into the city’s seedy puppet underbelly in search of a serial killer, they find a trail of puppet violence—puppets torn apart by dogs, or blasted into fluff by shotgun blasts—and encounter a spectrum of colorfully coarse characters. In the porno shop, Phil sees an octopus pleasuring a cow, and a dominatrix Dalmatian with a guy dressed as a fireman. Druggie puppets addicted to sugar snort pure sucrose in a “smack house.” A sexual tryst between two puppets ends in a…well, let’s just say you may never look at Silly String the same way again.

Elizabeth Banks stars in The Happytime Murders

Elizabeth Banks

Joel McHale plays an uptight FBI agent. Elizabeth Banks is an exotic dancer, and the only non-puppet former member of the Happytime TV cast. Maya Rudolph is Phil’s longtime assistant. Leslie David Baker (Stanley from TV’s The Office) is continually flustered as Edwards’ police lieutenant. Watch for McCarthy’s husband, Ben Falcone, in a quick cameo.

It’s grim and grimy…but it’s also twistedly funny, full of quips, a parade of puppet oddities, crisp one-liners and some caustic comedic sight gags. (Despite the talents of its capable cast, not every joke works, and a couple land with deadening thuds.) Director Brian Henson, the son of late puppeteering pioneer Jim Henson, certainly knows his stuff; he came out of Muppet land and directed the G-rated Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island flicks.

The Happytime MurdersThe movie comes from an “adult” offshoot of the Henson production company, Henson Alternative. The film’s production company was sued, unsuccessfully, earlier this year, by the producers of Sesame Street, to stop The Happytime Murders from using the tagline “No Sesame. All Street.”

No one should worry about anyone being confused about that; the freakish, four-letter funk of Happytime is a long way from the sunshine and smiles of Sesame Street. But the puppeteering expertise is certainly there, as you’ll see in the end-credits montage, which reveals some of the behind-the-scenes moviemaking magic. And many of the film’s richly experienced puppeteers—including the director and Barretta—have pedigrees that extend, in fact, all the way back through The Muppets and Sesame Street.

There are several words you might use to describe what you see. Shocking, tasteless and disgusting could be among them. On the other hand, you might think it’s hilarious, wickedly original and crazily quirky. Comedy is like that, especially when it dares to push toward the edges; some people are going to get pushed off.

But I’m hanging on. I dug the dirty jokes, off-kilter humor and subversive spin on a crazy world with puppets and humans trying to make their way together. It may not be for everybody now, but give it time, and I predict this nasty, naughty novelty will eventually keep adding to its crowd of dig-it devotees.

In theaters Aug. 24, 2018

Asian Invasion

Constance Wu Headlines All-Asian Cast in Can’t-Miss Summer Rom-Com

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Crazy Rich Asians
Starring Constance Wu, Henry Golding & Michelle Yeoh
Directed by Jon M. Chu
PG-13

This splendid, wildly sumptuous wedding-themed romantic comedy is, as the saying goes, something old, something new.

It’s as old as a fairy tale and as new as the history it’s making, as the first major Hollywood movie in more than 25 years with an all-Asian cast. And it’s got all the ingredients to be the big date-movie comedy of the summer—waves upon waves of humor and heart, gorgeous characters, a fabulous setting and a story that resonates across time and place.

Director Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s best-selling 2013 novel centers around Rachel (Constance Wu, fresh off TV’s Fresh Off the Boat), an economics professor at NYU. Her history-teacher boyfriend, Nick (Henry Golding), wants her to return with him to Singapore to attend the wedding of his best friend.

It’ll be a great way for Rachel to meet his family and see his home turf, Nick says.

Rachel has no idea that Nick’s family is practically royalty in Singapore, where they’re a real-estate dynasty that owns much of the island republic. They are insanely wealthy, crazy-rich.

Raised by a single mother, Rachel is stunned to find out that Nick is basically “the Prince William of Asia.” The movie unfolds as she (and the audience) gets to know her Prince Charming’s relatives and friends—and gets her bearings among the ultrarich and famous.

Crazy Rich Asians

Yeoh, Golding & Wu

But she’s not exactly welcomed with open arms. Nick’s mother, Eleanor (the great Michelle Yeoh, best remembered from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and as the “Bond girl” in Tomorrow Never Dies) not only puts the chill on Rachel, she openly disapproves. American-born Rachel is Chinese-American, not fully Chinese—and Eleanor tells her she’ll never be good enough for her son. And Nick’s scheming ex-girlfriends and jealous wannabes all want to send the “commoner” packing.

Do Nick and Rachel stand a chance, with the odds—and the force of his family—stacked against them? Don’t count the commoner out.

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Awkwafina & Wu

Thank goodness Rachel can turn for support to an old college friend, Peik Lin, who’s played with spritely glee by rapper-actress Awkwafina (from Ocean’s 8), who becomes her comedic sidekick, consultant and advisor.

The movie is a swirl of supporting characters, and it’s sometimes hard to keep up. Gemma Chan (from AMC’s TV series Humans) is Astrid, Nick’s beautiful, big-hearted cousin, whose mega-money can’t cover the cracks in her own crumbling marriage. Ken Jeong (from the Hangover movies and TV’s Dr. Ken) plays Peik Lin’s father, whose family’s “newer” affluence is a crass comedic clash with the older, much more established wealth of Nick’s family. Jimmy O. Yang (from Silicon Valley), plays one of Nick’s old classmates, throwing a randy bachelor party that defines toxic male excess.

But at this core of any Cinderella story is, of course, Cinderella. And Wu is terrific in her first leading movie role, bringing the audience along for every magical moment of feisty Rachel’s emotional journey. She’s now officially a movie star.

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The movie is a sensory feast, a buffet of couture, customs, cuisine and mind-boggling over-the-top opulence. Wanna see a $40 million wedding? Hear a Madonna song sung in Cantonese? Sit in on a dumpling-making session? Go on a wild island shopping spree? It’s like being suddenly transported to the other side of the world in a frothy, fizzy explosion—and exploration—of culture, history and impossibly high-rolling lifestyle. There are themes of family, friendship and tradition woven into a heartwarming love story about belonging, assimilating and accepting.

A celebratory tale of two cultures coming together, it’s a fresh twist on a familiar rom-com format, set in an exotic place that few Americans have ever been, featuring a cast that signals a major milestone for Asians and Asian-Americans—who rarely see themselves depicted on screen in such a positive, diverse, non-stereotypical way.

In the movie, we’re told that Nick’s wedding, whenever it happens, would be the “event of the century.” Crazy Rich Asians is a major movie event of the summer. You’d be crazy to miss it.

In theaters Aug. 15, 2018

Up From the Depths

Jason Statham wrangles a mega-chunk of summer-movie shark cheese

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The Meg
Starring Jason Statham, Rainn Wilson, Bingbing Li & Ruby Rose
Directed by John Turteltaub
PG-13

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” said stunned Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) when he got his first glimpse of the shark in Jaws back in 1975.

A much bigger boat, indeed, is what’s needed in The Meg, about a much, much, much bigger shark—a prehistoric behemoth, nearly 100 feet long, that could swallow up the great white from Jaws like a sliver of sushi.

Based on Steve Alten’s 1997 science-fiction novel about the discovery of a “living fossil” in the Pacific’s Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans, the movie is built around British action star Jason Statham as rugged rescue diver Jonas Taylor, called back into duty when the Megaladon—long believed to be extinct—rises from the depths to terrorize the seas.

Turns out Taylor has met Megaladon before—and it made him vow to never go in the water again…

Director Jon Turteltaub came up through the Disney system, most notably with National Treasure and its sequel, Book of Secrets. He’s got a light, breezy touch—golly-whopping action and effects; easy on the violence; a wholesome sprinkle of romance and flirtation; B-movie quips and banter; and laughs to go along with the gasps. The Meg is nothing that will make anyone’s year-end awards list, but it’s certainly a mega-chunk of summer-movie shark cheese.

In addition to Statham, the movie features a cast of international players from all over the globe. A co-production between American and Chinese companies, it was obviously made with plans to extend its box-office “bite” far beyond the territorial waters of the United States.

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Bingbing Li

Chinese actress Bingbing Li plays an oceanic researcher with a precocious young daughter (the scene-stealing newcomer Shuya Sophia Cai) and a supportive scientist father (Taiwanese actor Winston Chao). Australian Robert Taylor (star of TV’s Longmire) plays a doctor. There are two other Aussies, model-turned-actress Ruby Rose and Jessica McNamee (she was tennis player Margaret Court in the 2017 movie Battle of the Sexes), Japan’s Masi Oka (Max on Hawaii Five-0), and New Zealand’s Cliff Curtis (Travis on Fear the Walking Dead). You might recognize Page Kennedy (Gerald from TV’s Rush Hour). Rainn Wilson, best known as Dwight from TV’s The Office, plays an American billionaire who doesn’t want the Meg jeopardizing his research investment.

But the biggest star, so to speak, is the shark. The Meg is a real beast, a computer-generated colossus the size of a battleship, and the movie has some serious fun when it finally goes on the loose. If you think seeing a shark fin in the water is scary, wait until you see one as tall as a house slicing through the chop. If you gasped when the shark in Jaws leapt out of the water, just wait until…well, just wait.

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The legacy of Jaws looms large over any shark flick, and The Meg certainly gives Steven Spielberg’s 1975 opus a big tip of its enormous fin. That’s particularly true for a big—there’s that word again—beach scene, when the Meg cruises China’s Sanya Bay packed with hundreds of frolickers enjoying the surf, sand and sun. Who’ll become chum? The tubby kid with the popsicle? The little dog that fell overboard? The doofus running in the water ball? Those horndog boys wooing the raft of bikini-clad girls?

Oh, the dread! The horror! The shark show!

And what a shark show it is, with high-tech underwater gizmos meeting elemental, old-school vendettas and legends and lore from the bowels of the Earth and, well, practically the beginning of time. When Statham’s character, Jonas—it’s hard to miss how close that name is to Jonah, who, you know, got famously swallowed by a whale—goes mano-a-mano with his nemesis, he’s going full Moby Dick, harpoon and Ahab and all.

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Shuya Sophia Cal and Statham

The plot can barely stay afloat, logic flies all over the place and character development is as shallow as the ocean is deep. And the movie seems kind of stuck in a PG-13 limbo, between what could have been a gutsier, bloodier, gonzo R rating, and a more Disney-fied, hokier, jokier, family-friendly adventure. (There’s even a subtle Finding Nemo reference.) It ends up feeling rather neutered, like something awesome, powerful and truly terrifying has been throttled back, tamped down and packaged as mass entertainment for wide consumption.

Which, of course, is exactly what it is.

“That thing is the devil!” one character says, watching anxiously as the Meg trails his watercraft. Hardly. But The Meg is one hellishly huge fish fix for pop-culture shark fans. TV’s “Shark Week” is over. Summer’s coming to a close. So c’mon in—the water’s not exactly fin-tastic, but it sure does make a massive movie splash.

In theaters Aug. 10, 2018

Hot Rock

Dewayne Johnson Rocks Classic Disaster-Flick Mojo

Film Title: Skyscraper

Skyscraper
Starring Dwayne Johnson & Neve Campbell
Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber
PG-13

 

After leaving the wrestling ring for the silver screen more than a decade ago, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has confronted a battalion of beasties, bad guys and boogiemen on his way to becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest, most dependable box-office draws.

In his latest action-thriller, he channels the mojo of classic 1970s and ’80s big-screen disaster-epic, danger dramas, fighting to rescue his wife and kids from inside the world’s tallest hotel that’s been set on fire by terrorists.

In Skyscraper, Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a former U.S. Marine and FBI hostage negotiator now working as a security consultant—the movie’s opening sequence shows us the tragedy, 10 years ago, that cost him half of a leg and made him vow to “lay down his sword.” Sawyer has just landed a plum assignment, overseeing all the security and safety systems for the Pearl, a new, high-tech, 240-story Hong Kong skyscraper that’s three times taller than the Empire State Building.

Film Title: Skyscraper

Chin Han

A news reporter breathlessly aligns the Pearl and its billionaire builder, Zhao Long (Chin Han), to humankind’s ancient “quest to reach the sky” and the construction of the biblical Tower of Babel. Hmmm—and that story didn’t turn out so well, did it?

Film Title: Skyscraper

Neve Campbell

Naturally, there’s a villain—a nest of them. Of course: They want something, and they’re willing to kill to get it. Of course: Sawyer’s wife (Neve Campbell, whose role becomes much more than just a spousal second banana) and two young kids are caught in the middle of it all. And, yes: Sawyer’s on the outside of the skyscraper, his family is inside, and everything’s on fire.

And Sawyer’s been framed for starting it!

Then things really get cooking.

“A 6.5-billion-dollar chimney,” proudly proclaims one of the terrorists as he disables the Pearl’s fire-safety systems, allowing the roaring blaze to spread throughout the tower.

All of this is just so much smoke, sizzle and setup, however, for what audiences really came to see: The Rock springing into action, flinging his wall of movie muscle against an obstacle as formidable as the tallest structure on the planet. Just to make things interesting—don’t forget—he’s only got one “good” leg.

And he’s on the wanted list of the entire Chinese police force, especially a couple of top cops (Bryon Mann and Elfina Luk) who are suspicious about why anyone would want to try to break in to a burning building.

Film Title: Skyscraper

But don’t ever bet against the Rock. And don’t overthink things or you’ll get caught up in the impossible physics of how a guy with a prosthetic leg can climb up the outside of a giant construction crane, smash a hole in the hotel—then leap into the air, pulling himself into the building by his fingertips…of one hand!

And I knew duct tape was pretty amazing stuff—but I never knew that, turned inside-out, it could help me cling to the outside of a building. (Not that I’ll be trying it, though!)

Film Title: Skyscraper

Roland Moller

Can Sawyer rescue his family, clear himself, turn the tables on the terrorists, especially their coldly vicious leader (Danish actor Roland M⦰ller, who also played bad-guy roles in The Commuter and Atomic Blonde)—and figure out why everyone is so nuts about a little bitty computer drive?

Neither a sequel nor a superhero saga—two of the most common big-screen options these days—this is the kind of gonzo, go-for-it standalone action movie that Hollywood typically doesn’t make anymore. Decades ago, it might have been a Bruce Willis movie, an Arnold Schwarzenegger romper-stomper or a Jean-Claude Van Damme flick. Skyscraper tips its tall, towering hat to those macho-movie icons of yesteryear, and to classic disaster-danger epics like The Towering Inferno, Die Hard and Cliffhanger.

It’s a sky-high stack of cheese, sure, but it’s pretty good cheese, especially for a lite summer snack. Director Rawson Marshall Thurber—whose resume includes Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and We’re The Millers, plus working with Johnson in the comedy Central Intelligence—keeps things moving briskly enough that there’s not really much time to dwell on the preposterous plot and sometimes stilted dialogue that pad the spaces between the Rock doing what everyone really comes to see the Rock do.

“This is stupid,” says Sawyer nervously as he heads out a smashed window of the Pearl, into the night and the wind, thousands of feet above the streets of Hong Kong, on one wild part of his crazy, life-risking mission. What sane person would, under any circumstance, ever do a thing like that? Sawyer knows it’s stupid. We know it’s stupid.

And the Rock knows it’s stupid—and exactly what we want to see, what we came to see, what has made him Hollywood’s $3.3 billion man.

So go on out that window, DJ, leap from that crane, dangle from that ledge with your fingertips—and Rock on!

In theaters July 13, 2018

Honey, I Shrunk the Superhero

Paul Rudd & Evangeline Lilly Couple Up For Big Fun  

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

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

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

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

He trained Lang to become the new Ant-Man.

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

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

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

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Walton Goggins

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

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Hannah John-Kamen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In theaters July 6, 2018