Category Archives: Movies

A New Mob-Sterpiece

Director Martin Scorsese’s sprawling, epic, all-star gangster’s paradise 

Irishman 1 (72)

The Irishman
Starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci & Al Pacino
Directed by Martin Scorsese
R

The old man in the nursing home doesn’t look dangerous, but he’s a stone-cold killer.

Or at least he used to be. He’s Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who gave up a job driving a meat truck to work for the mob, and now he’s outlived—literally—everyone he used to know.

That’s the terrific opening—a brilliant, extended tracking shot, scored to The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night”—of director Martin Scorsese’s sprawling new gangster opus The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro as Sheeran and featuring a who’s who of other mobster-movie all-stars.

Scorsese, of course, is the maestro of mob cinema, from Mean Streets to Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed. This one marks his ninth collaboration with De Niro, and his third with Joe Pesci, who came out of retirement to work again with the Oscar-winning director and with De Niro, his frequent costar.

Pesci plays Pennsylvania mob boss Russell Bufalino, who takes a liking to Frank as a younger man and ushers him into his crime family in the 1960s, beginning with smaller jobs that eventually lead to bigger—more dangerous, and more deadly—assignments.

The story is based on Charles Brant’s true-crime book I Heard You Paint Houses, which is actually a biography of Sheeran’s life of crime. The phrase is mob shorthand for inquiring about hiring a hitman, without actually having to come right out and ask him to kill someone. Frank becomes Russell Bufalino’s “house painter,” spattering walls, sidewalks and other surfaces bright red with blood.

Irishman 4

Al Pacino (left) plays Jimmy Hoffa, and Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) becomes his right-hand man in the powerful Teamsters Union.

The movie itself spans some five decades as it unspools the story of Frank, Russell and their intersection with the events of the turbulent 1960s and ‘70s, particularly as it pertains to the powerful Teamsters Union and its bombastic president, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, who’s two-time Godfather royalty, but—amazingly—never until now worked with Scorsese). Things start to get tense when Hoffa and the Teamsters begin to get sideways with the mob, and Frank—himself a Teamster, who’s been anointed Hoffa’s bodyguard and confidante—is caught in the squeeze.

Hoffa’s “disappearance” in 1975 was one of the biggest news events of the decade, especially since his body was never found and it was widely presumed that he was murdered. Brandt’s book—and The Irishman—have a tidy answer for what happened, but I won’t give it away here.

At three and a half hours, The Irishman fills out its epic proportions with epic performances and some of Scorsese’s best, most profound filmmaking—the signature cinematic touches of a master coming home again, working in his gangster-paradise element, and finding new depth, emotional richness and insightful resonance in old, familiar themes. Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, Pacino—you’ll never see these four lions roar like this again. This is Scorsese’s mobster-movie masterpiece, and a masterpiece in general. There’s no question it’s the year’s big-event movie.

This mob-life master class has it all, from quick, bloody, spasmic bursts of violence to long-game extortion squeezes; we learn the infrastructure of organized crime from the ground up. But the bloodshed is never gratuitous; it’s always “business.” One “hit” we see takes three minutes to explain and set up, in narration, and less than five seconds to execute. Most of the “house painting” is over in one, two or three quick, clean pops.

But make no mistake about it. These wise guys may be “businessmen,” they may be family men with wives and kids, they may cross paths with priests, politicians and even presidents. But they’re doing profane, down-and-dirty work, and they’re living in the shadowy underbelly of society, where it’s only a matter of time before the end comes for them, one way or another.

The movie has no less than three scenes of baptism, one wedding, and one scene that’s a symbolic “communion,” when Frank and Russell break bread, dip it into glasses of wine—and seal what will become their lifelong bond. But make no mistake about it: Theirs is an unholy bond, and nothing good can ever come from it.

You’ve probably heard about the high-tech, computerized and highly complicated “de-aging” technology that allows the actors to play themselves across the years, or the decades. It’s pretty amazing, but after a while you stop thinking about it—it’s just the magic of the movies.

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De Niro and Pacino (right) with Jesse Plemons (left) and Ray Romano as their character react to news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

The cast also includes a bunch of other recognizable—non-de-aged—faces, including Jesse Plemons, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale and Jack Huston. Anna Paquin plays Franks daughter, Peggy (played as a child by Lucy Gallina). Peggy has very few lines, but her disapproving, disappointed eyes broadcast a spectrum of emotion about the chasm that eventually comes between her and her father over his violent lifestyle.

The other females in the movie aren’t given much to do, or say, either—because the film, like the mob it depicts, was a man’s world. And The Irishman shows us that the men who choose to live its life of crime—though it may be “glamorized” in the movies—have a high job-related mortality rate. People who paint houses often end up covered in paint. Those who live by the sword, as the saying goes, often die by it.

Unless, against the odds, they live to face another fate—old age, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, last rites, nursing homes. They may play wheelchair bocce ball in a freezing courtyard, or remember fondly how much they liked someone they had to murder, or dip pieces of cheap prison bread in grape juice—in a melancholy bookend moment to that “communion” scene earlier.

But still, the Grim Reaper will surely come, to paint his own house, and all they can do is wait, and wait, and wait on the creeping darkness of the night, and hold on to whatever sliver of light is left, in a world they’ve help to make all the darker.

In select theaters Nov. 1, 2019 (and on Netflix Nov. 27)

Smashing

Nicole Kidman De-Glams as a Gritty, Wrecked, Wracked L.A. Detective

Destroyer_IMDB-2

Destroyer
Starring Nicole Kidman & Sebastian Stan
Directed by Karyn Kusama
R

She’s one of the most strikingly beautiful women in the movies, but in her latest flick, Nicole Kidman looks like a wreck.

The star of TV’s Big Little Lies and such box-office hits as Moulin Rouge, Far and Away, Days of Thunder and The Stepford Wives de-glamorizes to the extreme in Destroyer as a damaged-goods L.A. detective whose life was derailed after a deep-cover sting operation took a very wrong turn.

Now Erin Bell is a hollowed-out shell of her former self, haunted by the tortured trauma of her past, when she receives an unexpected reminder of the very thing that ruined her life.

“Do you really want to go back down that hole again?” asks one of her fellow detectives.

Kidman here is something to see—because you’ve never seen her looking anything like it. Rail thin, with dark, sunken eyes, blanched skin and drab clothes that look like they’re hanging off a scarecrow, Erin Bell doesn’t appear to have bathed, brushed her teeth or combed her hair in weeks, maybe months. And it probably took a lot of Hollywood makeup to make it look like makeup isn’t something she’s thought about for a long, long time. As she squints and shuffles in the scorching, searing L.A. sun, she’s a piece of walking beef jerky. And she’s certainly just as tough. This beef jerky can bite back.

Destroyer_IMDB-4

Kidman & Sebastian Stan

Some 17 years ago, Bell was a fresh-faced sheriff’s deputy recruit assigned to a dangerous assignment with an FBI agent (Sebastian Stan) that involved infiltrating a ruthless criminal gang with a thing for robbing banks. But one big heist went horribly wrong, the gang’s murderous, cultish leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell), got away, and Erin’s never been the same.

Now, apparently, Silas has resurfaced, and she’s driven to find him and finish the job.

As she burrows into L.A.’s seedy, seamy underbelly looking for people and clues, we’re taken into the cracks and crevices where criminals crawl like vermin. We meet an illegal gun merchant, a dying jailbird, and a cocky, money-laundering lawyer (Bradley Whitford) who reminds the battered, burned-out detective that she’s already fought this battle before—and it didn’t turn out so well.

“You chose to play cops and robbers, and you lost, big-time,” he smugly tells her.

Exactly what happened, and what was lost, is explained in back-and-forth flashbacks. Director Karyn Kusama—whose previous films include Girlfight with Michelle Rodriguez, AEon Flux with Charlize Theron and Jennifer’s Body, starring Megan Fox—has created a stark, tense, bleak-looking film-noir crime-mystery character study that challenges viewers with multiple layers and tricky time-shift changes, especially as things bear down into the home stretch.

It also challenges its audience with a character whose “appeal” is in the sympathy it generates for her being so doggedly unappealing. She’s bitter, morose, wracked with guilt and doesn’t seem to have a friend in the world—at least not anymore.

Detective Bell can’t even get her rebellious teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) to have a civil conversation. Her exasperated ex-husband (Scoot McNairy) longs for the life they might have had together. Her cop co-workers practically hold their noses when she walks by.

She does whatever it takes to do what she has to do—bashing heads with a gun barrel or a soap dish, bartering a sexual favor for a dollop of information, beating a bank robber to a bloody pulp then tossing her into her car trunk. It’s a Hollywood double standard that we’re accustomed to seeing guys—and guy cops—behave this way, but rarely women. It’s a down-and-dirty walk on the wild side that few actresses ever take.

Destroyer_IMDB-3

This isn’t really a movie to enjoy so much as to appreciate—for the skill of its storytelling, the craftsmanship of its filmmaking, and the performance and physical transformation of Kidman into something, and someone, eaten away from the inside by a cancer of regret, self-loathing, grief and an all-consuming need for vengeance.

You’ll probably feel a bit grimy and worn-out when it’s over, especially after the twisty-turn at the end that loops back on everything that’s come before. You may not be wrecked, but you could be due for a realignment.

Destroyer is no holly-jolly Christmas ride on the holiday express. But if you’re up for a gritty, grueling dive into a pummeling puzzle of bumps, bruises, gunfire, gristle, twists, turns, thumps, thwacks, slaps and surprises, climb on board.

Just be sure to bring your own soap, makeup and toothbrush.

In theaters Dec. 25, 2018

Trick or Treat

New ‘Halloween’ Marks Fresh, Frightfully Fun Return to Franchise

Film Title: Halloween

Halloween
Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer & Andi Matichak
Directed by David Gordon Green
R

Trick or treat!

It’s that time of year—and Halloween is that kind of movie.

It’s certainly a treat seeing Jamie Lee Curtis back as Laurie Strode, slasher cinema’s most celebrated scream queen, in the role she created back in 1978.

And it’s a bit of a trick what this movie does with its own franchise, a hefty collection of 10 reboots, sequels and revisions by various directors, dozens of other actors and wildly divergent plot lines. This Halloween basically pulls a disappearing act on all of them, except the original, wiping the movie slate clean and operating as if all the events that came before, in all those other films, never happened.

Poof! They’ve vanished.

All orange and a-glow with fresh, new thrills, chills and edge-of-your-seat jolts, this frisky, frightfully fun return to the franchise is full of tense, taut, pulse-pounding scares, enough slashing, stabbing, skull-smashing and impaling to provide some gristle for the gore-hounds happy, and terrific nods to the movie that started it all. (The original’s director, John Carpenter, is one of the executive producers, along with Curtis.)

The new one picks up where the first left off, in Haddonfield, Ill., 40 years after masked, mute Michael Myers went on the horrific Halloween-night killing spree that came to be known as the “babysitter murders.” One resourceful sitter, Laurie Stroud, escaped—but grew up forever traumatized by the experience.

Michael was locked away in a looney bin for endless psychiatric probing. And Laurie became Haddonfield’s local paranoid crackpot, living in a fortified compound with an arsenal of weapons, floodlights on her roof, multiple locks on her doors—and the certainty that Michael would come back to hunt, and haunt her again someday…or some night.

Maybe Halloween?

And she’d vowed she’d be ready for him, even if everyone else thought she was crazy.

Film Title: Halloween

Judy Greer (left) with Jamie Lee Curtis

Laurie’s obsession has alienated her now-grown daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), despite the entreaties of Karen’s own teenage daughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), a high school senior who begs her grandmother to let go of Michael “and get over it!”

Of course, Michael (played by James Jude Courtney and Nick Castle, reprising his role from 1978) does escape, he does come back to Haddonfield and he does zero in on Laurie. The body count again rises as he blends in, hiding in mostly plain sight among the costumed ghouls and goblins on the sidewalks and streets on Halloween night. But another “trick” of the movie is how it sets up three Stroud women this time to ultimately confront him. Now, 40 years later, the world has changed in many ways, and the boogeyman meets a #MeToo generation with more than one score to settle.

Film Title: Halloween

Andi Matichak

Director David Gordon Green collaborated on the screenplay with Danny McBride—and that’s another trick. The pair is much better known for their rollicking, ribald comedy team-ups for TV’s Vice Principals and Eastbound and Down, in which McBride also starred. But give them a masked killer, some sharp knives, a fireplace poker or a tire tool and a shotgun and they can certainly deliver the goods. The opening credits sequence—a reverse time-lapse of a rotten jack-o’-lantern coming back to its original, freshly carved state—sets the stage for their agile horror romp that deeply honors its hallowed roots, “reversing” the outright awfulness of some of its other so-called sequels, while notching its own crisp, definitive design into the iconic tale.

Film Title: Halloween

Gas station bathrooms…yuck!

A couple of scenes are consummate, tip-the-hat homages to the original, and others are smart, stylish new additions to the horror-film canon, blending tension, dark humor and shocking crimson splashes, spatters and smears of blood. Some gas-station bathrooms are yucky enough already, but you may never want to go inside another stall after…well, it’s never good when someone leans over the door and drops someone else’s teeth on the floor. And I’ve always thought those motion-activated backyard security lights were a bit creepy; kudos to the filmmakers for finally exploiting their horror potential.

The movie dabbles a bit in predator-vs.-prey psychology, and whether Laurie might actually “need” Michael, live her life for him, around the idea of him—and look forward to confronting him again.

“He waited for this night,” she says. “He waited for me. I waited for him.”

Just like this is a movie that Halloween fans have been waiting for—like kids anxiously wait for Halloween itself, its candy, its costumes and its frightful fun.

Trick or treat!

In theaters Oct. 19, 2018

Blast Off

Ryan Gosling personalizes Neil Armstrong in moving, masterful moon-mission movie

Film Title: First Man

First Man
Starring Ryan Gosling & Claire Foy
Directed by Damien Chazelle
PG-13
In theaters Oct. 12, 2018

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first person to step foot on the moon.

Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is the focus of First Man, director Damien Chazelle’s monumentally intimate portrait of the former U.S. Navy aviator and engineer who became famous forever for taking “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Everything in the movie leads toward that climactic moonwalk moment; as one of the most documented events in modern history, we know it happened and we know it’s coming. But wow, is it ever an emotional journey getting there.

As space movies go, First Man isn’t a rousing character romp like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 or Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, nor a far-out cosmic mind-bender like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s much more sobering, introspective, contemplative and calculated in its depiction of Armstrong and the nuts and bolts of getting men into the great beyond.

The movie (based on Armstrong’s official 2005 biography, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, by James R. Hansen) makes you understand just how difficult, dangerous—and sometimes deadly—it was.

Film Title: First Man

Which isn’t to say it’s not beautiful. It’s gorgeous, immersive and often rapturous, a technically brilliant and sometime sublime bit of moviemaking that puts the audience inside the space program, and alongside the astronaut who would become the commander of Apollo 11, the first NASA mission to land two people on the moon.

We’re inside cramped, claustrophobic cockpits with Armstrong and other space jocks, surrounded by analog dials, panels jammed with buttons, flip switches and read-out gauges of primitive 1960s computers. We hear the whoosh and hiss of rocket fuel through pipes, the rattle and racket of metal, the monstrous rush and roar of the combusting engines. We feel—or at least think we do—the nauseating, violent, skull-jarring shaking, spinning and rolling.

And the void of space is a majestic, unfathomable symphony of silence.

In the opening scene, we watch Armstrong—then a test pilot—guide an experimental X-15 rocket plane up, up, up, until he perches on the cusp of space. For one beautiful moment, he hovers there, savoring the awesome beauty, gazing at the spectacle of the thin, blue sliver of the atmosphere on the horizon against the vast, endless blackness of the cosmos.

But then he has a bit of trouble re-entering, of getting turned around and returning to Earth. For him, shooting into space is the easy part. Coming back down is hard.

Film Title: First Man

Claire Foy

Reuniting with director Chazelle from last year’s Oscar-winning La La Land, Gosling portrays Armstrong as silent, withdrawn, nearly expressionless and emotionally distant. He feels much more at ease in space than he does at home, with his wife Janet (an excellent Claire Foy, who starred as Queen Elizabeth II in TV’s The Crown) and their two young sons. Perhaps some of that stems from the tragic death of their young daughter, Karen, from a brain tumor, an event which haunts him—and also spurs him on.

First Man is about getting to the moon, but Armstrong’s “small step” required a sequence of many, many other steps ahead of it. We see some of the details, like the rigors of preparation (hang on for the “Multi-Axis Trainer,” a vomit-inducing beast that looks like cross between a giant gyroscope and a crazy carnival ride). We get an understanding of the prodigious engineering feats as well as on-the-fly, make-or-break decisions that go into missions—and the many things that can go wrong. We learn of the fatal setbacks, and the public opposition to such high-dollar, risky science.

Film Title: First Man

Jason Clarke

There’s a pack of other astronauts swirling around as NASA scrambles to gets its Gemini and Apollo programs off the ground (literally) ahead of the Soviets in the space race. Jason Clarke plays Ed White, the first American to walk in space. Corey Stoll is motor-mouthed Buzz Aldrin. Lukas Haas portrays Michael Collins, and Shea Whigham is Gus Grissom, one of the original Mercury 7, the first group of solo astronauts. Kyle Chandler is Deke Slayton, also a Mercury 7 alum, now promoted to head NASA’s astronaut program.

And all are there to shore up the story around Gosling, who internalizes everything and distills it into an epic hero’s journey. Chazelle’s stupendous space saga—about America’s most significant astral achievement of all time—is grounded in a down-to-earth, existential tale of a man struggling to connect with his wife, his family and their children and his earthly life, even as—especially as—he zooms off to the moon.

The spectacular recreation of the lunar landing sequence, and Armstrong’s historic moonwalk, is punctuated with an immensely moving personal touch you never saw on TV. And the poignant ending of First Man suggests that sometimes, even when your job takes you on a trip of 478,000 miles, the journey you face when you return may be even longer, and much harder.

Like Chazelle’s La La Land, the lingering overtones of First Man aren’t celebratory, but something much more somber, reflective and meditative. It may not be the rah-rah, American-pie, flag-waving, space-race victory lap everyone’s expecting, but Chazelle and Gosling’s masterful moon movie is an out-of-this-world blast in a class all its own.

In theaters Oct. 12, 2018

Gold Rush

Hollywood sprinkles magic dust on real-life gem of a tale in ‘Gold’

GOLD

Matthew McConaughey and Edgar Ramirez star in ‘Gold.’

Gold
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramìrez & Bryce Dallas Howard
Directed by Stephen Gaghan
R
Wide release Jan. 27, 2017

For his latest starring role, Matthew McConaughey is 12 years, a big belly and a world away from his 2005 title as People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive.”

He on packed 40 pounds, shaved his head to wear a balding hairpiece, and popped in a mouthful of bad teeth to play Kenny Wells, a plucky, cigarette-huffing, third-generation Reno mineral prospector trying to hold onto the company his grandfather “scratched out of the side of a Nevada mountain.” But the late-’80s recession hits his company—built on the ups and downs of the commodities market—especially hard.

One night, at rock bottom after a bottle of tequila, Kenny has a dream—about gold on the Pacific island of Borneo, and Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramìrez, who played Dr. Abdic in The Girl on the Train), a maverick geologist he once met. Acosta has a wild theory about the fabulous riches to be found beneath the Earth’s “ring of fire.”

So Kenny, chasing his dream, hops a plane to the other side of the globe and partners up with Michael to go for the gold they both think is waiting for them through a rainforest, up a river, beneath a mountain, in a nation controlled by an unfriendly dictator and populated by headhunters.

GOLDThere’s more to Gold than just a treasure hunt, however. The story’s really only just beginning when Kenny and Michael strike it rich…

The movie is based on the 20th century’s most infamous gold mining scandal, which actually happened in the 1990s and centered on a Filipino prospector and a Canadian company, Bre-X Minerals. You probably never heard about it, unless you happened to see it on an episode of the History Channel’s Masterminds documentary TV series back in the early 2000s.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Kenny’s wife, who doesn’t really have much to do, except in one terrific scene in a lavish event. Corey Stoll, from TV’s The Strain, plays a smooth-operator investor trying to get a significant cut of Kenny and Michael’s fortune for his brokerage firm. Model-turned-actress Rachael Taylor, Stacey Keach, Craig T. Nelson and Bruce Greenwood round out the strong cast.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Kenny's wife.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Kenny’s wife.

Director Stephen Gaghan, whose Syriana (2005) helped George Clooney win an acting Oscar, builds a stylish house of cards, with shades of Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street) and David O. Russell (American Hustle), a dash of Boiler Room and even a distant echo of The Sting. As the story zooms along, you get a sense of the mad rush of “gold fever” that sweeps up everyone and everything, especially Kenny.

And what a rags-to-riches rush it is: One day you’re rolling in the jungle muck of mud and malaria, the next you’re having sex in a helicopter, ringing the bell on Wall Street or taming a Bengal tiger. Throw in the FBI, a former American president, Michael McConaughey in his birthday suit, a soundtrack of obscure ’80s tunes by the Pixies, Joy Division, New Order and Richard Thompson, and you’ve got a quite an intoxicating swirl of Hollywood gold dust sprinkled atop a little-known gem from the real-world archives.

“The last card you turn over is the only one that matters,” Kenny tells a magazine interviewer. And his last card, in the final scene of Gold, is a doozy.

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Hot to Trot

Tom Hanks runs down another cryptic puzzle in ‘Inferno’

Tom Hanks;Felicity Jones

Inferno
Starring Tom Hanks & Felicity Jones
Directed by Ron Howard
PG-13
In theaters Oct. 28, 2016

“Dante—Dante again,” says Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) as he gazes into the “face” of the late, great Italian poet of the Middle Ages. “Why always Dante?”

Well, it’s not always Dante—but it is this time. And it’s always something involving cloaks, daggers, art, religion and old, cold Mediterranean white guys, as fans of Dan Brown know. Brown is the author who wrote the books Inferno and its two predecessors, The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, both of which were also turned into movies with Hanks in the starring role. Brown created the lead character, Langdon, as sort of his own fictional alter ego, a globetrotting, puzzle-solving “symbologist” and professor of religious iconography who repeatedly uncovers conspiracies, solves murders and peels back the layers of other murky mysteries.

In Inferno, Langdon wakes up in hospital room in Florence, Italy, with amnesia and a bloody head wound. Soon he and his nurse, Sienna (Felicity Jones), are running for their lives from a Terminator-like policewoman (Ana Ularu) and connecting the dots from Renaissance-era painter Sandro Botticelli’s painting of hell, inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, to a plot by billionaire scientist Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), who just committed suicide. Zobrist’s radical idea of overpopulation control was “cleansing” the planet by wiping out most of the people on it with a viral-pathogen bomb, which he has timed to go off—tomorrow!

Langdon must find the bomb before it’s detonated, and before it’s located by anyone who might try to turn it into a weapon of war, ransom or terrorism.

Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Sienna (Felicity Miller) study 'The Map of Hell'

Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Sienna (Felicity Miller) study Botticelli’s painting of ‘The Map of Hell’

Director Ron Howard, who was also behind the camera for Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, keeps things moving, literally. As they put together the clues that will lead them to the bomb, Langdon and Sienna are constantly on the go—dashing through crowded streets, ducking in and out of cars, taxicabs, trains and planes, and across a gigantic attic, through a garden, over a wall, into side doors, back doors and hidden passageways.

Who can Langdon trust? What’s the deal with that dude from Slumdog Millionaire, Jurassic World and The Life of Pi (Irrfan Khan) and his drawer full of knives, and that mystery woman (Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen, currently starring in HBO’s Westworld) in Langdon’s unsettling flashbacks? Who knew there were so many unlocked doors in Italy?

 And the movie never stays put, either. It’s filled with beauty shots of recognizable tourist highlights from all the places Langdon’s search takes him. In Florence, he visits the Baptistry of Saint John and the palatial Palazzo Vecchio; he runs through Boboli Gardens and the Vascri Corridor. A side trip to Venice lets our characters linger on the steps of St. Mark’s Basilica, pontificating about the history of the four bronze horses standing guard there. In Istanbul, we’re treated to a lovely shot of the walls of Constantinople and the movie’s soggy, splashy climax, which takes place in the subterranean 6th century Basilica Cistern.

It all feels like a ridiculously expensive, high-stakes reality-show scavenger hunt, with a preposterously contrived plot twist. And like all of Robert Langdon’s adventures, it takes place in one tidy, 24-hour period.

Kids, if you want to grow up and see the world, by all means, see the world. If you want to solve puzzles, there are plenty of books of Sudoku and there’s always a daily crossword. I’m just afraid I can’t recommend becoming a symbologist—there’s far too much running involved, it’s very dangerous, and Robert Langdon seems to have the market cornered.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Odd Squad

‘Suicide Squad’ is a crazy, colorful, over-stuffed mess

SUICIDE SQUAD

Suicide Squad
Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis & Jared Leto
Directed by David Ayer
PG-13

The superhero summer gets a jolt of anarchy as a group of “metahuman” oddballs and outlaws commandeer the screen.

Based on obscure characters created by DC Comics, the Suicide Squad is a motley crew of death-row supervillains corralled by the government to combat threats too dangerous or deadly for ordinary defenses—like the “next” Superman, who might not be so people-friendly, or the slinky sorceress (Cara Delevingne) now building a doomsday machine to annihilate humanity—in exchange for lightened sentences.

Think The Dirty Dozen meets Guardians of the Galaxy, with a twist of Ghostbusters.

Will Smith

Will Smith

Will Smith is Deadshot, the world’s most lethal assassin. Margot Robbie is Harley Quinn, a psychiatrist turned psycho by her bonkers boyfriend, the Joker (Jared Leto). There’s also Aussie kleptomaniac Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), hulking human reptile Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, buried beneath a ton of rubbery prosthetics) and pyrotechnic homeboy El Diablo (a heavily tattooed Jay Hernandez).

Viola Davis is the iron-fisted black-ops recruiter in charge of the squad. Karen Fukuhara plays Katana, a samurai whose sword contains the souls of everyone its ever slain. Joel Kinnaman is elite soldier Col. Rick Flag, who has a special—though convoluted—tie to the Enchantress, the ancient, newly resurrected witch trying to destroy the world. Even Batman (Ben Affleck) and the Flash (Ezra Miller) drop in for cameos, as if they’ve casually wandered over from another movie.

Margot Robbie

Margot Robbie

Everyone has a backstory and a rockin’ theme song. Harley gets a reworked version of the old Leslie Gore hit “You Don’t Own Me,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s swampy “Fortunate Son” plays for Killer Croc, and as Diablo’s flames flicker in the night sky, we hear War’s “Slippin’ Into Darkness.”

Writer-director David Ayer—who also directed the Brad Pitt WWII tank flick Fury and wrote Training Day, for which Denzel Washington won an Oscar—has a lot on his plate. Ultimately, the huge cast, unwieldy story and muddled, sometimes downright cheesy special effects become just too much—for him, and us—and everything crashes, smashes, mashes and finally collapses into a big, boom-y blob.

Jared Leto

Jared Leto

There are some things, however, to like about Suicide Squad. Leto’s cackling Joker is an unhinged kick; you never know what he’s going to do, how far he’ll go or where. It’s good to see Smith in a semi-supporting role where he can lay back in an ensemble but still unload some great quips. Davis is deliciously ambiguous as a high-ranking agent who’ll do whatever it takes to do a dirty job. Robbie seems to be having fun as the wacko Harley, but her hyper-sexy shorty shorts, fishnet stockings, stiletto boots and smeared baby-doll makeup look like they came from a stripper’s closet—or a fanboy’s heated ComicCon dream—instead of a wacko supervillain’s lair.

In the end, the movie is a hot mess—but a loud, star-packed, proudly trashy one. At one point, Harley and the Joker jump into an industrial vat of paint, then make out, rolling around and laughing like the nut jobs they are in the swirls of blue, red, yellow and green. That’s pretty good snapshot of Suicide Squad as a whole: Stuffed full of everything, including itself, it’s mad, mucky and yucky and doesn’t make a lot of sense—but hey, look at all those crazy colors!

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Go! Sit! Stay!

Manhattan menagerie has wild adventure in fetching family flick

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The Secret Life of Pets
Starring the voices of Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Lake Bell, Kevin Hart & Jenny Slate
Directed by Chris Renauld & Yarrow Cheney
PG

Like Toy Story did with playthings, this wildly imaginative animated family flick—from the makers of Despicable Me and Minions—starts with a very simple premise: What do our domesticated animals do when we’re away?

Quite a lot, it turns out!

In a Manhattan high-rise, we’re quickly introduced to Max, a well-groomed Jack Russell terrier (voiced by Louis C.K.); Chloe, the tubby tabby cat next door (Lake Bell); and Gidget (Jenny Slate), a prissy puffball of a Pomeranian down the street who has a crush on Max.

Max’s walking buddies include Buddy, a slinky dachshund (Hannibal Burress), and Mel, a squirrel-obsessed pug (Bobby Moynihan).

Things are sailing along fine for Max until his owner brings home a second pet, a big, slobbery, rescue-dog mongrel named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Max and Duke don’t get along, and soon they’re in a real doggie dilemma, rounded up by Animal Rescue without their collars or tags—and about to begin an even bigger, wilder adventure.

2426_SMX_DS_S1230P0220_L_COMPO_RENDER_0127RThis involves even more colorful characters, including a Snowball, a gonzo white rabbit (Kevin Hart), leader of an underground activist group called the Flushed Pets—animals who’ve been “thrown away by our owners; now we’re out for revenge!” There’s Tiberius, a rooftop hawk (Albert Brooks) comically torn between his longing for companionship and hard-wired predatory instincts. Pops (Dana Carvey), an elderly basset hound, may be paralyzed in his back legs—but he sure knows how to get around town!

Director Chris Renauld, whose resume includes the Despicable Me franchise and The Lorax, and co-director Yarrow Cheney, a former production designer and animator, keep the jokes flying fast and funny and the plot moving at a brisk, lively trot as Max and Duke try to make their way home. Things get especially hairy when Snowball’s subterranean army—a motley crew of critters, from alligators, turtles and snakes to cats, a tattooed pig and “Sea Monkeys”—turns against them when they find out they’re really “domesticated” and not truly “liberated.”

2426_TP4_00079ARThere’s a chaotic traffic-jam cliffhanger on a New York City bridge, with a bus driven by a Max and Snowball (“You drive like an animal!”). In one dream sequence, hot dogs dance to “We Go Together,” the “rama lama lama ding dong” song from Grease. A poodle rocks out to heavy metal the second his owner is out the door. One tiny pooch, with a camera atop his head, films funny cat videos and uploads then to a Times Square jumbotron.

It’s all great, clever, whimsical fun, with a heartwarming, cuddly overlay of friendship and “family.” You may not (or may!) have a dog or cat as adventurous as Max, Duke, Gidget, Chloe, Buddy and Mel, but just about anyone can relate to the montage at the end of the movie—when all the pets exuberantly welcome their owners home to the tune of Al Green’s “Lovely Day.”

Any pet owner knows, and it’s no secret: That display of loyalty, love and affection from a pet—no matter where they’ve been or what they’ve done—makes it a positively lovely day, indeed.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Naughty & ‘Nice’

Crowe and Gosling mix action and laughs in ‘The Nice Guys’

Ryan Gosling, Maddie Compton, Angourie Rice and Russell Crowe in 'The Nice Guys'

Ryan Gosling, Maddie Compton, Angourie Rice and Russell Crowe in ‘The Nice Guys’

The Nice Guys

Starring Russell Crowe & Ryan Gosling

Directed by Shane Black

R

The opening shot of The Nice Guys pans across the back of the iconic Hollywood sign, grimy and tagged with graffiti, as the lights of the city below glitter in the night like a gigantic box of jewels.

After the Temptations set a ’70s groove to “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” we’re off and rolling ourselves on a raucous, retro-rollicking comedy-adventure romp as a pair of mismatched investigators-for-hire (Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling) team up to look for a missing girl (Margaret Qualley of TV’s The Leftovers). But soon they find themselves in a much deeper drama involving porn stars, pinkie promises, menacing thugs, Kim Basinger in full L.A. Confidential mode, and a shocking conspiracy of catalytic converters and high-ranking collusion.

Writer-director Shane Black made his mark back in the late 1980s with the screenplay for Lethal Weapon, starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. He went on to refine his format—a high-octane mix of cheeky quips and pulpy, explosive action—behind the camera with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) and Iron Man 3 (2013).

TNG_Day#48_02022015-325.dngThe movie takes place in 1977, and it revels in the details of its smoggy, sometimes smutty setting. The background hums with tunes from Kiss, America, Rupert Holmes, the Band, Herb Alpert and Earth, Wind and Fire. Chevy Camaros, Caprice Classics and Dodge Coronets line up for 69-cent-a-gallon gas. Billboards trumpet the hottest movies: Jaws 2, Airport 77. Newspaper headlines spread the dread about killer bees from Brazil.

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Matt Bomer

You’ll recognize versatile character actor Keith David as a villain. Matt Bomer from TV’s American Horror Story plays John Boy, an assassin sharing a certain facial feature with the Waltons TV character of the same name. And young Angourie Rice, 14 at the time of filming, almost steals the show as Holly, the daughter of Gosling’s character. She’s the soft heart of this rough-and-tumble story, the tender conscience in the midst of its outbursts of casual violence.

But the real treat throughout is the pair-up of two actors not known for baring their funny bones. Crowe’s Jackson Healey is a rumpled, jaded tough guy who leads with his fists—often sporting brass knuckles. Gosling plays Holland March as a mopey, bottom-feeding P.I. with a drinking problem and a tattoo that reminds him, “You will never be happy.” Their oil-and-water styles initially clash, of course, but eventually smooth into some major movie mojo. (Pay attention and you’ll even catch their nod to classic Abbott and Costello.)

It all builds into a spectacular shoot-out showdown at a gleaming auto expo, where everyone is scrambling to get their hands on a canister containing a reel of film as it rolls, bounces and spins across the floor, out a window, down a street and into the flames of a burning car. That’s one hot movie, as it turns out, in more ways than one.

And so is The Nice Guys, a juicy, slam-bang action-comedy cocktail punched up, pimped out and powered down with rowdy, new-fangled film-noir fun. Hot stuff—catch it.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Oh Mama

All-star cast sinks in overly sweetened, sentimental sap

Mother’s Day

Starring Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, Kate Hudson, Timothy Olyphant, Jason Sudeikis, Britt Robertson & Shay Mitchell

Directed by Garry Marshall

PG-13

 

Mother’s Day the holiday is all about moms, and so is Mother’s Day the movie, which has them of every shape, style, size, temperament and hue.

And life sure looks beautiful, bountiful, wacky and whimsical when it’s played out against a picture-perfect backdrop of suburban affluence by Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, Kate Hudson, Timothy Olyphant, Jason Sudeikis, Shay Mitchell (from TV’s Pretty Little Liars), Britt Robertson, Jennifer Garner, Jon Lovitz and comedian Loni Love.

This is the third holiday-themed ensemble comedy from Garry Marshall, the veteran TV writer/producer (Happy Days, The Odd Couple, Mork and Mindy) and movie director (Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride) who also previously brought us Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve. In both of those films, as in this one, an all-star cast of unrelated characters manages to somehow intersect with each other, as improbable as it might seem.

MOTHER'S DAY, l-r: Sarah Chalke, Jon Lovitz, Kate Hudson, Margo Martindale, Aasif Mandvi, 2016.Marshall is a maestro of this kind of comedic mixology, plied and played over the decades. But it seems to have run out of a lot of its steam, at least for contemporary times. Most of his movie gags feel like they’re waiting for a sitcom’s laugh track to back them up, and his bawdy, brusque, broad brushstrokes of humor aren’t what anyone would exactly call enlightened.

“I don’t get that joke, but I think it sounds racist,” says one character when another makes a crack about her ethnicity.

Young boys shock their mom (Aniston) by talking about their genitals; a teenage girl embarrasses her widower dad (Sudeikis) by asking him to buy tampons; a lesbian couple (Sarah Chalke and Cameron Esposito) makes a pink “womb” float for a Mother’s Day event—which another character refers to as a “parade of vaginas.”

Are you laughing yet?

Then maybe you’ll titter when a good-ol’-boy grandpa (Robert Pine) addresses his Indian son-in-law (Aasif Mandvi) as a “towelhead,” or when grandma (Margo Martindale) sizes up a situation by asking herself, “I put on a bra for this?”

MD-01174.CR2The large, talented cast is largely wasted with little do but go with the flow of the overly sweetened, sentimental twists and turns, the not-so-surprising surprises and the eventual resolutions and wrap-ups. But the sap eventually sucks all of them under.

Coincidence is one thing, but here, worlds collide like particles in some kind of bizarre cinematic quantum theory, where strands not only cross and overlap, they magically weave into a crazy Mother’s Day movie smock of American flags, a careening RV, a Tao-dispensing clown, soccer, Skype, llamas, teenagers, toddlers, babies, a cute guy in a comedy club, Aniston with her arm stuck in a vending machine and Sudeikis singing “The Humpty Dance.”

And Hector Elizondo, an actor you should recognize if only because he’s been in every movie Garry Marshall has ever made, all the way back to 1982.

I’d love to see what Garry and Hector—and who knows who else—could do with Election Day. Now that could really be fun.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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