Category Archives: Movies

S’no Go

Muddled ‘Snow White’ prequel-sequel mash-up can’t find its way

The Huntsman: Winter’s War

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Jessica Chastain, Emily Blunt and Charlize Theron

Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

PG-13

Hey Snow, where’d you go?

In 2012, Snow White and the Huntsman gave the age-old fairy tale a sassy new action-y feminist twist, with Kristin Stewart as the feisty, fair-skinned maiden—foretold by the Magic Mirror to be the loveliest in the land—and Chris Hemsworth as the evil queen’s “huntsman” ordered to take her into the woods and kill her.

Of course, things didn’t quite work out that way—and now we have The Huntsman: Winter’s War, a sequel. Actually it’s a prequel. Well, I think it’s a little of both, and a mash-up of several other things, too, and quite a bit of an all-around muddled mess.

Jessica Chastain

And Snow White seems to have wisely decided to steer clear from it all. So there’s no Snow in this Huntsman, unless you count the times she’s mentioned by name. But the movie certainly isn’t hurting for other talent. Hemsworth is back, and so is Charlize Theron as the wicked monarch Ravenna. Emily Blunt is newly aboard as Ravenna’s sister Freya, turned into a cruel “ice queen” by an act of heartless treachery. Jessica Chastain is Sara, who like Hemsworth’s rebellious Huntsman, grew up as an abducted child soldier forced to serve in Freya’s army of marauders.

British comedic actors Nick Frost and Rob Brydon, shrunk to wee size by the modern magic of digital effects, play a pair of dwarf brothers who provide most of the chuckles in this otherwise dull and dreary trek through a disjointed plot that feels like someone threw bits of Game of Thrones, Disney’s Frozen, Lord of the Rings and The Wizard of Oz into a blender with some crushed ice, black goo and gold flecks, then set it to puree.

Emily Blunt and Charlize Theron

If you’re into ornate costumes, you might dig the over-the-top duds in which Blunt and Theron get to vamp. In the couple of scenes they’re together, I kept wishing Cher would suddenly appear—maybe descending from the ceiling—for a full-on Las Vegas revue.

The storybook decor is lush and quite lovely, especially when the Huntsman, Sara, the two dwarves and their special-effect dwarf dates (Alexandra Roach and Sheridan Smith) take a day trip to Goblin Land, or something like that, to retrieve the purloined Magic Mirror, which looks like a huge polished cymbal from a music store. Some of the location filming was done in England’s Windsor Great Park, although I’m pretty sure you won’t find any big, blue ape-men, giant moss-covered snakes or tiny florescent flying fairies there.

Not campy and gonzo enough to be real fun, nor dark and dangerous enough to qualify as truly grim, this is instead a drab, disjointed stab by a first-time feature director who, bless his heart, can’t seem to find his target in all the icy, FX-laden glop. The best—and most amazing—thing about it by far is its all-star, A-list cast, all of whom who gamely give it their best in the service of something clearly less than “the fairest of them all.”

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Monster Mash

There’s big trouble above and below in ’10 Cloverfield Lane’

10 Cloverfield Lane

Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman & John Gallagher Jr.

Directed by Dan Trachtenberg

PG-13

Waking to consciousness after a car crash on dark highway, a young woman, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), finds herself on a pallet in a leg brace, hooked up to an IV drip—and chained to the wall of a subterranean concrete bunker.

“Please let me go,” she fearfully, tearfully begs when she meets the man who brought her there as he delivers a tray of food. “There’s nowhere to go,” Howard (John Goodman) calmly tells her. “Everyone outside of here is dead.”

There’s been an attack, he explains, a big one—maybe chemical, maybe nuclear, maybe Russians, maybe Martians. “Luckily,” he reassures her, “I’m prepared.”

So begins 10 Cloverfield Lane, the “little” movie—with a small ensemble cast of three, filmed almost entirely in a tight, enclosed set—that comes with such big expectations. Beginning as a script called The Cellar, it later enlisted the writer-director of the critically lauded Whiplash, Damian Chazelle, to “whip” the screenplay into something with a bit more bite. When Midas-touch superstar producer J.J. Abrams came onboard, fresh off the blockbuster buzz of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and changed the title, fans went crazy with frenzied speculation: How would this movie connect to Cloverfield, the 2008 surprise-hit monster-movie smash about an extraterrestrial attack, that he also produced?

Questions abound in (and about) 10 Cloverfield Lane, and if you want them answered, well—you’re just like the characters. And also like them, you’ll have to stick around to the end of the film, a terrifically tense, tightly wound underground psychological thriller that eventually explodes wildly, violently upward and outward.

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE

John Gallagher Jr., Mary Elizabeth Winstead & John Goodman share close quarters in ’10 Cloverfield Lane.’

Is Howard an overzealous doomsday prepper, a conspiracy-theorist nut-job, a grieving father, a U.S. Navy vet who went off the deep end, all of those, none of those, or something else entirely? Why was Michelle in such a hurry to leave town that night? And what about Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), the other guy in the bunker? What are those noises? Cars? Helicopters? Spaceships? Is the air outside really as contaminated as Howard says?

The mysteries mount, the clues pile up, the screws turn tighter and tighter, the distrust deepens, and claustrophobia and paranoia permeate every frame. Debut feature director Dan Trachtenberg, working with cinematographer Joe Cutter and production designer Ramsey Avery, creates an underground mini-labyrinth that teems with the details of Howard’s scarily obsessive mind—like a show home stocked from the Armageddon bargain bin of Bed Bath & Beyond.

Howard, Emmett and Michelle eat meals, play old board games, work jigsaw puzzles and listen to classic rock on an old jukebox in an artificial, increasingly edgy loop of normal domestic life. Frankie Valli’s “Venus” and Tommy James’ “I Think We’re Alone Now” never sounded so ominous and foreboding.

When things really break loose, in the movie’s final sequence, fans of the original Cloverfield will finally be able see just how this movie connects to the previous one. And as the address in the title suggests, monsters can come in all shapes and sizes, in all kinds of places, above us, below us and even right beside us.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Fly Like an Eagle

‘Eddie the Eagle’ soars with inspiring tale of unlikely Olympic star

 

Eddie the Eagle

Starring Taron Egerton & Hugh Jackman

Directed by Dexter Fletcher

PG-13

Ever since he was a tot, Great Britain’s Michael “Eddie” Edwards dreamed of becoming an Olympic athlete. But the odds were always stacked against him.

Weight lifter, pole vaulter, discus thrower, hurdle jumper—he didn’t care. But no amount of backyard “training” made any difference. With congenitally wobbly knees bolstered by leg braces and thick eyeglasses to correct his terrible vision, young Eddie was no one’s idea of the Olympic ideal.

Though it takes a few—or more—liberties, Eddie the Eagle is based on the rousing real-life story of Edwards, who proved all the naysayers wrong to become an Olympic competitor, representing Great Britain in the 1988 Winter Olympics as a ski jumper. The movie traces his improbable journey, against the wishes of his working-class father, who urges him to settle into a proper trade, and England’s stuffy Olympic committee, which thwarts his every attempt to qualify for their team.

“Frankly,” one official dismissively tells teenage Eddie (Taron Edgerton), “you will never be Olympic material—goodbye.”

Eddie counters that curt farewell with his usual optimism, tenacity and pluck. Nothing is going to deter him. He sets off on his own to a Winter Olympics training facility, where he meets former ski champ Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), who reluctantly, eventually agrees to take Eddie under his wing.

As the stocky, bumbling, socially awkward Eddie, Edgerton is miles—or kilometers—away from his best-known former role as a stylish, slick super-spy in Kingsman. Jackman provides American-cowboy grit (all the way down to his boots) as a washed-up one-time “whiz kid” of the slopes and former Olympic star himself, who finds his own path to redemption through Eddie’s relentless ambition.

You probably haven’t heard of British actor-director Dexter Fletcher, whose films haven’t made much of a splash here in America. But he gives Eddie the Eagle a look, texture and sound perfect for its time and place, from Prince Charles and Lady Diana salt and pepper shakers on a kitchen table to the music, which combines pop and rock tunes of the era with instrumental synthesizer swooshes and swirls that would have been right at home driving the grooves of most any 1980s flick.

The movie shares its uplifting underdog spirit with Rocky, Rudy, Seabiscuit, Hoosiers and any number of other film sagas about individuals or teams that come from behind, power through roadblocks or are told they can’t, shouldn’t or won’t ever.

Hugh Jackman, left, poses with Eddie Edwards on the set of EDDIE THE EAGLE.

Hugh Jackman with the real-life Eddie Edwards on the set of ‘Eddie the Eagle’

When Eddie finally makes it to the Olympics, the crowd and the media love the naïve, effusively enthusiastic oddity who barely qualified for his team and who causes the announcers to declare, “The eagle has landed!” when he makes his climactic breathtaking, daredevil descent intact—and alive.

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part,” we’re told, a quote from one of the games’ founders. And no one embodied that spirit like Eddie, whose inspiring, soaring tale of determination and personal triumph in the heartwarming Eddie the Eagle is a joy to behold as it takes flight.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Something Wicked

Potently unsettling tale burrows into your head to where nightmares live

 

The Witch

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie

Directed by Robert Eggers

R

In the modern world, “devils” are mascots for sports teams and witches vex pretty Disney princesses. But once upon a time, such things were much more serious and much scarier.

That’s the serious, scary and seriously scary setting for The Witch, in which a devout family in early 17th century New England is exiled from their settlement—the father (Ralph Ineson, who played Amycus Carrow in the Harry Potter movies) is too overbearing in his religious beliefs even for his Puritan neighbors to bear. When their one-horse wagon finally stops, they homestead on a scruffy patch of ground at the edge of a remote, dense forest.

Just as they’re getting into the rhythms of their new life, things start to go woefully wrong, beginning with the disappearance of their new baby boy, giggling in the grass one moment and gone the next. Did a wolf gobble him up? Or was it something more sinister—maybe a shape-shifting, spell-casting, baby-snatching sorceress?

All eyes look to the woods—and to the oldest child, teenage daughter Thomasin (19-year-old Anya Taylor-Joy), who was in charge of watching the baby. She can’t explain what happened, and her inconsolable mother (Kate Dickie, from TV’s Game of Thrones) can’t forgive her. Her little brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), can’t stop casting guilty glances at her ripening signs of young-womanhood. And her very name itself includes the word “sin.”

Something wicked this way comes, indeed, especially when heinous accusations start to fly, pious prayers fill the air, crops fail, the chicken lays a bloody egg, and and the family goat, ominously named Black Phillip, begins to look, and act, more malevolent ever minute.

This super-creepy, potently unsettling film bowled audiences over last year at Sundance, where it took top honors for director Robert Eggers. It’s being marketed as a horror movie, and it certainly is that, but it has little in common with many other contemporary flicks sharing the label.

It’s a period piece rich in precise historical detail (including language), dedicated to an unflinching depiction of religious obsession driven to unholy extremes. Eggers drills into the same demonic DNA that made such movie classics as The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining such disturbing dynamite; some of his images get inside your head and nest deep into cracks where nightmares live and lurk. It’s the first movie I’ve ever noticed a credit for a mental health counselor.

The movie is an eerie, roiling brew of double, double, toil and trouble, to be sure. But it also makes no bones about how Christian fanaticism in early America sometimes ran off the rails and plunged straight into the devil’s playground, especially when fear, superstition, hysteria and the suppression and oppression of females helped stir the cauldron. You don’t have to squint to see, a few decades down the road and just beyond the movie’s frame of reference, the notorious Salem witch trials looming in the distance.

The performances are riveting, especially from the youngsters, all newcomers. The soundtrack’s combination of synthesizers, dissonant orchestral tones and wordless choral pieces gives everything an unnerving underpinning of constant tension and dread. Director Eggers, a former production designer making his feature-film debut, is certainly a new talent to watch.

And The Witch, in limited release, is a knockout of a movie you should seek out—especially if you’re seeking something nightmarishly new that will chill you, and haunt you, like it’s the 1600s all over again.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Super Raunchy

Marvel’s new superhero is fast, funny—and definitely not for kids

DEADPOOL

Deadpool

Starring Ryan Reynolds and Morena Baccarin

Directed by Tim Miller

R

For the past few years, there’s been some major comic-book movie buzz about one of the minor characters on the superhero-spandex spectrum.

Deadpool, a latecomer Marvel Comics anti-hero introduced onscreen in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), had actually been making appearances in comic books since the early 1990s, later appearing in videogames, TV cartoons and in a line of promotional toy figures.

Originally a mentally unstable, mutated villain, he reforms a bit, morphing into more of a motor-mouthed, smack-talking, skull-cracking vigilante, for his first feature film.

Returning to the role after the X-men flick, Ryan Reynolds rips into the part with something-to-prove gusto—namely, that he can, indeed, headline a comic-book movie that doesn’t stink. The funky jade juju of The Green Lantern had been following him around since 2011, and he addresses it head-on—and crushes it—in the hilarious, snarky opening credits…and a couple of times later, too, just for good measure. The smart, razor-sharp script, from Zombieland scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Warnick, is a nonstop comic spray of R-rated barbs, f-bomb zingers, sarcastic spatter and wide-ranging pop-cultural riff-ery that often lampoons even itself.

This is clearly not your comic-book movie of yesteryear, or even yesterday, and Deadpool is no clean-cut Captain America. “I may be super, but I’m no hero,” he tells us in an opening scene, an extended, operatic clash in which he lays into an armada of bad guys like a psychopathic Spider-Man on speed, quipping nonstop as decapitated heads fly, brains splatter, bones snap and bodies are sliced, diced and impaled on his twin samurai swords like pieces of juicy kabob meat.

Deadpool (his name comes from a wager about who’d be the first to die) isn’t afraid of getting injured. Torturous laboratory experiments that left Wade Wilson, his real-life alter ego, hideously scarred and disfigured also gave him the “superpower” of cellular regeneration. That means when a body part gets shot through, smashed, hacked off, stabbed, incinerated or blown to bits, he just has to give it a little time—it’ll grow back.

Ryan Reyonlds and Morena Baccarin

Ryan Reynolds and Morena Baccarin

Of course, the movie has an obligatory cameo by Marvel’s founder, Stan Lee. Groundbreaking 1960s-‘70s singer-actress Leslie Uggams appears as Blind Al, Deadpool’s sightless roommate. Fanboys will be delighted to see lovely Morena Baccarin, from TV’s Gotham, The Flash and Homeland as Wade’s beautiful girlfriend Vanessa, who helps give the story a thumping romantic heart. And stay until the credits are over for one parting bon mot, a movie postscript that—unlike other Marvel outings—looks not to the future but instead to the past, to another memorable movie afterword.

Randy, raw and gleefully gritty, nastier, bloodier, more violent and riotously raunchier than any Marvel movie ever, Deadpool is just what a lot of fans have been waiting for—especially if they’ve been waiting for a “superhero” who swears, farts, babbles, jokes, listens to Wham!, loves unicorns, enjoys rough sex…and sure seems to get into his job a lot more than Thor, Batman or Superman ever did.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Where The Wild Things Are

Leo DiCaprio is an unstoppable force of nature in ‘The Revenant’

The Revenant

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy and Domnhall Gleason

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

R

Had a tough week? Well, chances are your tales of woe won’t stack up very high against Hugh Glass, the 19th century American frontiersman portrayed by Leo DiCaprio in The Reverent. In the course of this rip-roaring winter wilderness tale, Glass is mauled by a grizzly bear, buried alive, attacked by Indians, swept into the rapids of a freezing river and chased—atop his galloping horse—off a high cliff.

“I ain’t afraid to die anymore,” he says at one point. “I done it already.”

Glass eats birds, raw fish, bison guts and moose marrow, and de-bowels an animal carcass to crawl inside, naked, for a cold night’s sleep.

DiCaprio’s already received a 2016 Golden Globe award and a Critics’ Choice acting prize for his visceral, punishingly physical performance, and The Revenant took other top Golden Globes for its director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and for best motion picture drama. Now it’s headed for the Oscars in late February, and buzz is building about how this year and this movie could be the one to finally net Leo his first Academy Award.

Based on a 2002 novel by Michael Punke, The Revenant is a gritty, brutal tale of tragedy, betrayal, survival, endurance, violence and vengeance. (Its title means someone who has returned, especially from the dead.) It begins as Glass, an experienced wilderness guide, and the hunting expedition he’s been hired to lead are ambushed by Arikara Indians somewhere near what is modern-day South Dakota. In a magnificent, sweeping sequence that’s like Saving Private Ryan only with bows and arrows, most of the party is mowed down in mud by a river; Glass and several others escape, including his young, half-Indian son.

Tom Hardy (right) and Will Poulter

And troubles are just beginning—especially for Glass. In one of the film’s most harrowing sequences, a bear mauls him almost to death when he comes between her and her cubs. He gets no sympathy from the vicious, greedy Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who considers Glass dead weight and thinks they’d all be better off if he was put out of his misery.

Fitzgerald also doesn’t care very much, either, for Glass’ son, whose mother—Glass’ Pawnee wife—was killed in a raid by American cavalrymen.

Fitzgerald’s dastardly deed sets the rest of the movie in motion, and director Iñárritu—who last year won acclaim and awards for Birdman—makes the stark, inhospitable desolation of the frontier (much of the filming was done in Alberta, British Columbia) look stunning, lyrical and often beautiful as Glass claws his way back to “civilization,” like an unstoppable force of nature, seeking the man who robbed him of the only thing he had left.

This is a raw, richly elemental movie. The screen swells with earth, air, sky and water. You don’t just watch it, you feel it—the cold, the wet, the pain, and the primal emotions that drive the characters. At times you almost lose DiCaprio beneath his gnarly beard and matted hair, and there are long stretches where the only sounds are grunts, growls, whoops or howls. Trees figure prominently into symbolism and hallucinogenic dream sequences. There’s a strong underlying message about America’s indigenous peoples, their mistreatment and the exploitation of America’s resources.

It’s strong stuff, and won’t be everyone’s cup of frontier stew. But if you’d like a reminder of just how “wild” the western wilderness really was—just how much will, resources and resolve it took to survive in it—The Revenant serves up a spectacularly jarring, frequently jolting dose.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Dueling Dads

Ferrell & Wahlberg star in high-spirited co-parenting comedy

Daddy’s Home

Starring Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg & Linda Cardellini

Directed by Sean Anders

PG-13

 

“What do families need more—fathers or a dad?”

That’s the question posed at the beginning of Daddy’s Home by Brad (Will Ferrell), who wants more than anything else to be a dad—because he can’t become a father, at least biologically. Since an unfortunate snafu in a dental office years ago rendered him sterile, stepdad Brad is working hard to become part of the household—and the world—of Sarah (Linda Cardellini) and her two young children.

It’s not easy. And it certainly gets harder when the kids’ real father, Dusty (Mark Wahlberg), shows up—and sets up the “good, old-fashioned dad-off” hijinks of this high-spirited holiday comedy.

Motorcycle-riding Dusty is scuffed boots, big belt buckles, bulging biceps and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” Minivan-driving Brad is button-down blue Oxfords, neckties and the smooth jazz of the middle-of-the-road radio station at which he’s a mild-mannered middle exec.

Her ex is “crazy and wild: like Jesse James and Mick Jagger had a baby,” offers Sarah. Ever-optimistic Brad is unfazed—at first. “He sounds like a rascal,” he says. “But I don’t think he’s anything I can’t handle.”

That’s before Dusty takes over Brad’s home-improvement projects, his home and even his job, triggering all sorts of comedic shenanigans—dueling bedtime stories, a gonzo backyard tree-house, a visit from “Santa” in April, a fertility-clinic fiasco and a wild motorcycle ride that turns Brad into a wall-piercing projectile.

Ferrell and Wahlberg, who worked together previously in the shoot-’em-up cop comedy The Other Guys (2010), are two very funny guys. It’s nice to see them both back in a PG-13 setting, especially after Wahlberg’s raunchy excursions with his furry, foul-mouthed teddy-bear friend in Ted and Ted 2, and Ferrell’s crude 2015 prison-comedy flop with Kevin Hart, Get Hard.

And it’s good to see them in something this funny. Much credit goes to director Sean (Horrible Bosses 2) Anders and his tight, bright screenplay collaboration with Brian Burns and John Morris, which keeps the laughs coming and works many gags for “overtime” payoff later. Anders also knows how to guide his supporting players—Thomas Hayden Church, Bobby Cannavale and Hannibal Burress—into comedic grooves with just the right harmonic undertones. Keep your eyes peeled as well for L.A. Lakers hoops superstar Kobe Bryant, actor-comedian Paul Scheer, and a cameo at the very end that puts the ideal capper on all that’s come before.

But there’s a soft, sweet spot in Daddy’s Home, too, about parents and kids and the realities of divorce—about how it takes teamwork to make a family, how parenting is hard work and no two dads are the same.

Brad tries to see beneath Dusty’s tough exterior. “I think, in here,” he says, pointing to his heart, “there’s a creamy center.” Daddy’s Home has one, as well, and it gives this rollicking co-parenting comedy a burst of sweet, flavorful feel-good that could make it a new seasonal repeat long after its theatrical run is done.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Sibling Revelry

Poehler, Fey launch sweet, raunchy ‘Sisters’ into comedic orbit

 

Sisters

Starring Tina Fey & Amy Poehler

Directed by Jason Moore

R

If you’re looking for a popcorn alternative to Star Wars, here’s something that will send you sailing into a different kind of movie orbit.

In Sisters, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler play a pair of grownup siblings who try to recapture their younger days by staging one final raucous, riotous house party.

Poehler is Maura, the helpful, respectable, responsible younger-sis do-gooder nurse. Fey is Kate, a little older, a good deal wilder and much brassier—but “not a hothead!” as she continually reminds folks. When they find out their mom and dad (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) have decided to downsize, they return to their childhood home to do everything they can to ward off the potential buyers.

Kate’s teenage daughter (Madison Davenport) thinks her jobless-cosmetologist mom is an embarrassment, and she doesn’t want to live with her anymore. Can one night of abandon help Maura break free of her dull, nice-girl past—and a lifetime lived in the shadow of the more adventurous, more daring Kate? And will stopping the sale of their home solve their problems—or create bigger ones?

Fey and Poehler, of course, worked together on TV’s Saturday Night Live before going on to even greater heights in various other projects, including solo stardom in Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock. Sisters is their first full movie collaboration in seven years, since Baby Mama (2008), and once again they strike comedy gold.

Not only are they funny, they know that things get even funnier by surrounding themselves with funny people and letting them do their stuff. Working from a script by former SNL writer Paula Pell, and under the direction of Jason (Pitch Perfect) Moore, they generously fill the talent pool with current SNL players (Kate McKinnon, Bobby Monynihan), fellow alums (Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch), rising stars (Samantha Bee, whose new TBS show, Full Frontal, premiers in January) and a cavalcade of supporting players (John Leguizamo; WWE superstar John Cena; Matt Oberg).

James Brolin & Dianne Wiest

Even Brolin and Wiest, the two veterans of the cast, get plenty of opportunities to joist and jab with their funny bones.

But the movie belongs to its two co-stars, who rock, roll and rule with a crackerjack chemistry that fuels everything, firing on all cylinders from start to finish. Some of it is raunchy, although well within bounds of today’s R-rated comedy sandbox. And it’s all brisk, bright, some of it even quite sweet, and very, very funny. Somehow grownup jokes Christmas-gift-wrapped by these two smart, classy leading ladies make the dirty seem merely naughty.

There’s a giant phallus painted on the wall—and Tina Fey’s taking suggestive selfies with it! Haha! What are they pretending to do with those majorette batons? Teehee! Are they really talking so much about sex, drugs and private parts? Hardy-har-har!

The humor is rapid-fire, especially when the banter is zipping, zapping and zinging between Fey and Poehler, whose timing, sense of teamwork and ease around each other suggests that they really might be Sisters, after all. And they’re great dance partners, too—they bust a righteous move at their party to the 1993 rap-dance song “Informer” (“a licky boom-boom down”) and end the movie with a sweet slow-dance groove that becomes a joyously goofy send-off.

The (comedy) Force is definitely with them.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

 

 

 

 

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Not So Far, Far Away Anymore

‘Star Wars’ comes roaring and soaring back in ‘The Force Awakens’

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Issac

Directed by J.J. Abrams

PG-13

Deep into the most anticipated movie of the year, two central characters—one old, one new—are on a desperate mission and in a very tight spot.

“People are counting on us,” veteran smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) growls. “The galaxy is counting on us.”

That pretty much sums up the lofty expectations placed on the movie, as well. The first new Star Wars film in nearly a decade, the seventh in the franchise, and the first since Disney bought the rights from founding father-director-creator George Lucas, it comes cloaked in secrecy and with a mothership of baggage. Diehard fans have been waiting for it for years. Speculation has been building for months. What will J.J. Abrams, the director of two Star Trek movies, bring to it—or do to it? It’s expected to be the biggest box-office moneymaker of the year, if not the decade, and maybe of all time.

So people—and perhaps the whole the galaxy—are indeed counting on this new Star Wars, and I don’t think they’ll be disappointed. It’s got everything any fan could want: powerful nostalgia, exciting new characters, rousing action, stirring emotion, spectacular scenery, eye-popping effects, and a plot that threads things that happened decades ago with things unfolding now—and points to things yet to come.

Harrison Ford as Han Solo

Harrison Ford as Han Solo

You probably already know that several iconic actors return. Harrison Ford’s Han Solo is still the coolest space cowboy of all time. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) has become a general. And Jedi legend Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)…well, everybody spends most of the movie looking for Luke, and so will you.

You’ll delight in seeing some very familiar other things again—X-Wings and TIE Fighters, the Millennium Falcon, two particular droids, a tall, hirsute biped and one very special light saber, in particular. And you’ll hear a couple of familiar phrases, too.

And there are some very impressive newcomers, as well. British actress is Daisy Ridley is terrific as Rey, a spunky junk scavenger on a desert planet who becomes a major player on a much larger stage—and provides young female Star Wars fans a rockin’ role model the likes of which they’ve never had before. Newcomer John Boyega makes a fine leading man as Finn, a stormtrooper who defects when his conscience won’t let him continue to fight for a cause he knows is wrong. Oscar Issac plays Poe Dameron, the cocky top-gun pilot of the Resistance.

Oscar Issac is Resistance          pilot Poe Dameron

Adam Driver is Kylo Ren, a disciple of Darth Vader, whose formidable powers were shaped by a treacherous past. Domhnall Gleeson drips evil as the fascist intergalactic general Hux. Lupita Nyong’o is cool but completely unrecognizable as the alien proprietress of a way-out-there interplanetary saloon frequented by a spectrum of crazy cosmic characters.

And the new little bleeping, beeping, cooing, purring “snowman” of a robot, BB-8, is a real scene-stealer.

With composer John Williams’ spectacular, swelling orchestral score once again providing the soundtrack, Star Wars has come roaring and soaring back, a fabulous, bountiful, richly rewarding payoff for anyone who’s been waiting, patiently or otherwise. You’ll cheer, you’ll chuckle, you’ll gasp, you’ll be giddy and you’ll maybe—likely—even shed a tear, or possibly two.

And come next December, when Disney’s eighth installment, Rogue One, hits theaters, you’ll be back in the ticket line again—won’t you?

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Thar She Blows

‘In The Heart of the Sea’ is one whopper of a whale tale

HEART OF THE SEA

In the Heart of the Sea

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Brendan Gleeson & Tom Holland

Directed by Ron Howard

PG-13

No one who’s read Moby-Dick can forget when the stunned first mate, spying the great white whale for the first time, turns to captain Ahab, like he’s just seen a ghost. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” he informs him.

No, wait—I’m confusing my culture and my pop culture. It’s easy to do. Director Ron Howard kinda-sorta mixes it up a bit, too, in telling the story of the (true) story that inspired author Herman Melville to write the (fictional) story that became the (familiar) story we all know as the biggest, baddest whale tale of all time.

Ben Whishaw as budding novelist Herman Melville

In the Heart of the Sea begins with a young Melville (Ben Whishaw, who plays gadget-master Q in the new James Bond movies) coming to visit crusty Tom Nickerson (veteran Irish actor Brendan Gleeson). The fledgling writer wants to coax from the old salt the truth about a doomed whaling ship, the Essex, its encounter with a legendary monster from the deep—an alabaster-white demon of a whale—and the adrift-at-sea horrors endured by the surviving members of the crew before they were finally rescued.

Chris Hemsworth

Nickerson was an orphaned lad (played by Tom Holland) when he shipped out on the Essex, to which we’re introduced as the movie switches into flashback mode as it prepares set sail in 1820. The capable Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) was promised he’d be put in charge, but a squeeze on whale-oil supply-and-demand pressure Essex company men to appoint their benefactor’s under-qualified, over- gentrified son, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), as captain. So Chase reluctantly signs on as first mate, promising his pregnant wife (Michelle Fairley) he’ll be home soon—maybe a year instead of two, in 19th century whaling terms.

Once the Essex hits the open water, the movie hits its stride—especially if you’re a fan of old-fashioned seafaring-adventure epics. The heavy canvas of the sails swells with the wind; ropes whip, whap and whoosh; metal clangs; swarthy men holler, hustle and clamber; and, of course, there’s water, water everywhere.

The whaling scenes are special-effect marvels. Howard melds the rush of adrenalized excitement, the ever-present, life-or-death danger, and the existential melancholy of slaying such magnificent creatures to provide oil to “fuel the machines of industry and move our great nation forward,” as a clergyman prays.

And heaven forbid you get stuck with blowhole-reaming detail.

When the gigantic white whale finally makes an appearance, well, it’s very bad news. And then things just keep going from bad to worse, to unspeakable.

It’s hard to look at Chris Hemsworth and not see Thor, the movie role with which he’s most associated, especially when the drama takes a deep, desperate dive into darker places. (Forget the harpoon—just break out your hammer, dude!) It’s hard not to sympathize with, or root for the whales, after seeing them impaled and bloodied with iron toggles, spikes and spires, and knowing that some of them have now been hunted now to near extinction.

And it’s impossible to miss the movie’s undertone, which eventually becomes its overtone: Yesterday’s whale oil is today’s petroleum, and humans are still driven to the ends of Earth to get it. Howard’s history-based high-seas yarn has a contemporary message about hubris, greed and resource exploitation that resonates today by land or by sea.

“We are kings, circumventing the globe,” boasts captain Pollard. “To bend nature is our right.” His first mate disagrees—we are but mere “specks,” Chase counters, compared to the vastness of the world, the unfathomable mysteries of the sea, and the monstrous majesty of a creature that can smash a ship into splinters.

They really do need a bigger boat—and sometimes, don’t we all?

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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