Category Archives: Pop Culture

Mummy Nation

The Mummy Breathes New Life Into Ancient Tale

Film Title: The MummyThe Mummy
Starring Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Russell Crowe & Annabelle Wallis
Directed by Alex Kurtzman
PG-13

She’s dark, sexy, mysterious and dangerous—and 5,000 years old.

She’s the freshly resurrected cadaver, the mummy, in Universal Studio’s big-budget, big-star reboot of one its classic horror franchise flicks.

Algerian actress Sofia Boutella (from Kingsmen: Secret Service and Star Trek Beyond) steps into the spotlight as Ahmanet, the former Egyptian princess awakened from her crypt with a serious chip on her mummified shoulder.

Film Title: The Mummy

Tom Cruise

Superstar Tom Cruise gets most of the movie’s screen time, however, as Nick Morton, a U.S. Army specialist on duty in Iraq whose sideline of treasure hunting leads to the discovery of Ahmanet’s tomb and the release of her malevolent powers.

Annabelle Wallis (from TV’s Peaky Blinders and the movies Annabelle and King Arthur) has a major costarring role as archeologist Jenny Halsey, who cautions Nick that he’s stumbled across “antiquity’s darkest secret.” Russell (Gladiator) Crowe has a hammy ball as London’s Dr. Henry Jekyll (yes, that Dr. Jekyll), constantly trying to rein in his explosively nasty id, Mr. Hyde.

Film Title: The Mummy

Russell Crowe

Emmy-winning Courtney B. Vance, who played attorney Johnnie Cochran on TV’s American Crime Story, appears briefly as Nick’s no-nonsense superior, a U.S. Army colonel.

The Mummy puts a new, energetic, action-packed spin on the age-old saga as Nick and Jenny spend most of the film fleeing from—or fighting with—Ahamanet and her resurrected mummy minions. (Think Mission: Impossible—Mummy Nation.) Nick soon figures out he’s been cursed, “chosen” by the princess to become her immortal partner. But he’s not at all interested, especially as it involves some unpleasant business with a big curved dagger and letting his human body become the vessel for the Egyptian god of death.

Following typical modern-blockbuster ratios and proportions, quips, comedic zingers and romantic conflict balance out the scares.

Alex Kurtzman, a former producer and writer whose only previous directorial feature was the 2012 Disney/Dreamworks comedy-drama People Like Us, steps up impressively into the big leagues. Boutella’s slinky, slithering mummy, wrapped in tattered strips of gauzy linen, her skin covered with tattoos of Egyptian hieroglyphs, is a bewitching villainess of terrifying, exotic beauty. But beware her kiss—it’ll literally suck the life right out of you.

Film Title: The MummyThere’s a spectacular escape from a military transport plane in a death-spiral nosedive, a sandstorm that sweeps through downtown London, and attacks by swarms of spiders and rats that will give almost anyone giddy goosebumps. An underwater chase by a horde of swimming mummies shows just how far everything has come from the lumbering, shuffling brutes in their earliest Hollywood incarnations at the dawn of the 1900s.

Speaking of which, hasn’t anyone in this movie ever seen a mummy movie before? Don’t they realize you can’t raid a creepy Egyptian tomb without likely running afoul of something awful? Why doesn’t anyone ever say, “Wow! It’s just like in the movies!”?

The mummy is one of our most enduring pop-cultural artifacts, featured on the big screen in more than 30 different titles for over a century, since the days of silent films. Horror fans hold Boris Karloff in high esteem for starring in the classic version in 1932, a year after he played “the monster” in Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Christopher Lee and dozens of other lesser actors have gone under wraps for the role. Though they weren’t mummies, Brendon Frasier and Rachel Weisz starred in a 1999 remake and its 2001 sequel.

Film Title: The MummyBut this Mummy is the biggest blowout yet, a $125 million spectacle of marquee stars, eye-popping special effects and flashy setup for Universal’s Dark Universe, a franchise-wide relaunch of its movie-monster properties of yore, including The Invisible Man, Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein.

As Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll says, “Welcome to a new world of gods and monsters.”

Indeed—and as The Mummy ends, it’s obvious something bigger is just beginning to get unwrapped.

In theaters June 9, 2017

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Superhero Smackdown

Batman and Superman duke it out in jam-packed double-bill epic

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Starring Ben Affleck & Henry Cavill

Directed by Zack Snyder

PG-13

In this corner, Gotham’s grim reaper—the Dark Knight! Opposite him, in blue tights and red shorts—the Kryptonion clobberer!

Two of pop culture’s most iconic superheroes face off in the year’s first comic-book-inspired double bill, director Zack Snder’s meaty, muscular epic in which Henry Cavill reprises his Superman role from Man of Steel (2013) and Ben Affleck capably becomes the latest actor to answer the big-screen Bat-Signal.

But why are two “good guys” fighting each other? What has brought them to this?

In this worlds-collide combo platter, people have mostly learned to put up with Batman’s fly-by-night vigilante crime fighting, even though he seems to care even less about “due process” than ever (especially when dealing with scumbags like human traffickers). With Superman, on the other hand, the honeymoon is over. People know he swoops in and saves people—but they’ve begun to question the heavy toll of his heroics, the death and destruction that often follow in his sonic-boom wake. And they’re worried about his true motives, his “alien” status (he did come from another planet, after all) and what he could do with all that power if he ever decided to use it against them.

Even Batman—and his billionaire/socialite/playboy alter ego, Bruce Wayne—thinks we’d be better off without Superman. Spurred by a dastardly plot twist, an even bigger crisis and a rising global tide of public opinion, the fight, as they say, is on.

BATMAN V SUPERMAN

Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) menaces Lois Lane (Amy Adams)

Jesse Eisenburg has a fidgety ball as Lex Luthor, a refreshingly younger version of the iconic DC über-villain and perennial pot-stirrer. Amy Adams returns as Daily Planet star reporter Lois Lane, Superman/Clark Kent’s love interest (their bathtub scene is surely one of the sexiest rub-a-dub moments in any superhero flick). Holly Hunter is a U.S. senator who supports the Man of Steel. Jeremy Irons is the “new” Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s hi-tech butler.

Gal Godot—from the Fast & Furious franchise—debuts as Wonder Woman in a blatant plug for future D.C. movies, including her own spinoff (next summer) and two Justice League flicks stretching into 2019. (You’ll also see quick cameos by a couple of other new, upcoming DC characters.) Anderson Cooper, Soledad O’Brien, Nancy Grace, Charlie Rose and Neil deGrasse Tyson play themselves, as talking heads talking about Superman.

It’s long (two and a half hours), jam-packed, sometimes overly so, mostly humorless and generally a bit grim. But at least it’s not all crash-boom-bam. The solid script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer often steers into think-tank territory—about gods and demons, politics and paranoia—and Synder (who directed Man of Steel and also steered Sucker Punch, 300 and Watchmen) pumps up the religious allegory and symbolism that have always been part of the Superman mythos.

And of course, there’s the Big Event itself, the “greatest gladiator match in the history of the world,” as Lex Luthor calls it, the sprawling slugfest when the Bat and the Son of Krypton actually come to blows—before their superhero smackdown is eclipsed by an even bigger call to arms. It’s big, all right, epic and operatic. Who wins? I certainly won’t spoil it.

Except to say the real winners will be viewers who keep eyes totally glued to the screen for the split second just before the screen goes dark and the credits roll.

—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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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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Gonna Fly Now

‘Creed’ soars as new Rocky saga

Creed

Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone & Tessa Thompson

Directed by Ryan Coogler

PG-13

“No one cares about Balboa anymore,” sneers “Pretty” Ricky Conlon (Tony Bellew), the young British boxer itching for a fight in Creed.

It’s been nearly 40 years since the first Rocky movie introduced the plucky palooka, which Sylvester Stallone continued to play in five sequels. Rocky Balboa became a boxing icon, a rock-’em, sock-’em legend and a rags-to-riches tale for the ages.

But, does anyone care anymore?

In Creed, the first Rocky movie in which Stallone doesn’t put on the gloves, Rocky is coaxed out of retirement to train the son of his late friend and former rival Apollo Creed.

Creed05720.dngThe son, Adonis “Donny” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), comes from L.A. to seek Rocky out at Adrian’s, the Italian restaurant named after his late wife that he now runs in his Philadelphia hometown. A born scrapper who grew up in a juvenile facility before finally being adopted by Apollo’s former wife (Phylicia Rashad), Donny appeals to Rocky’s own hardscrabble instincts—and their shared legacy, which Donny says makes them “like family.”

Can the grizzled former superstar help the feisty greenhorn learn the ropes, come to grips with his own legacy and face the cockney challenger from across the ocean, who’d love nothing more than to draw blood from a Creed—and the protégé of a Balboa?

Michael B. Jordan & Tessa Thompson

Writer-director Ryan Coogler, who worked previously with Jordan as the star of the powerful true-story drama Fruitvale Station (2013), draws deep on Rocky legacy while masterfully building a compelling, contemporary story that stands strong on its own, focusing on just a few central characters. Tessa Thompson brings sweetness and spunk as Bianca, an aspiring singer who lives in the apartment beneath Donny, whose music at first keeps him from sleeping—then later soothes his fighter’s soul.

Tony Bellew has a real swagger as the undefeated British heavyweight champ—because he really is one. As Apollo Creed’s widow, Phylicia Rashad (who played Bill Cosby’s TV wife, Clair) frets that boxing will wreck Donny the way it did her husband. “Your daddy died in the ring,” she tells him. “You’re better than that.”

Phylicia Rashad

Coogler’s technique is almost a character in itself, placing the camera inside the ring, between, behind and in front of the fighters, darting, shifting, bobbing and weaving along with them. One entire match is filmed as one breathlessly long, unbroken take, from the dressing room into the ring, through the final bell.

The blows land hard, and so does the sentiment—especially when the story shifts in the second act to another kind of “fight” that turns the tables on Rocky and Donny’s relationship. Creed packs a punch, in more ways than one.

There’s a lot to like and more to love about this movie, but most of it comes down to Jordan, whose performance as Adonis is raw, rousing and moving, and to Stallone, who at 69 does some of his best acting in years.

In one impactful scene, Adonis and Rocky ascend the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, immortalized in the original movie. “When you get to the top, you think you can fly,” says Rocky, this time a bit out of breath.

In making us care about Rocky Balboa again, in a big, big way, Creed indeed soars.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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The Gangsta Life

‘Straight Outta Compton’ tells the ‘real’ N.W.A. story

Straight Outta Compton

Aldis Hodge (MC Ren), Neil Brown Jr. (DJ Yella), Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre), Jason MItchell (Eazy-E) and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube) star in ‘Straight Outta Compton.’

 

Straight Outta Compton

Starring O’Shea Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins & Paul Giamatti

Directed by F. Gary Grey

R

Spawned from the mean streets of Compton, Calif., in the late 1980s, the controversial original “gangsta rap” act N.W.A. sent shock waves across America and spawned a commercial empire.

Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella and MC Ren created tough, provocative, dangerous-sounding music that modeled and mirrored the harsh realities of their time and place: drugs, crime, violence, racial discrimination, police brutality. How dangerous-sounding? Well, even their name had to be muzzled (the letters stood for Niggaz With Attitude), and one of their most “popular” songs, “F— the Police,” caught the attention of the FBI.

Straight Outta Compton

Hassled by police outside a recording studio.

N.W.A.’s rags-to-riches rise from the “ghetto” of southern Los Angeles County to the top of the music world is a classic tale of ambition, vindication and escape. Their crash-and-burn breakup—into angry bits of bruised egos, bad decisions and broken, betrayed friendships—was the fractured flip side to a decade of high living, heavy partying and the huge sprawl of the musical juggernaut they’d built from scratch.

Straight Outta Compton captures that—much of it, anyway. The beats are fly, the story is nitty-gritty and the timing is spot-on, with the movie’s release coming at a moment in time when a growing movement in America pushes back, once again, against police violence against unarmed blacks.

A young cast of newcomers does a fine job portraying the group. O’Shea Jackson Jr., the son of real-life rapper Ice Cube, plays his own father, and he certainly looks the part—he’s almost a perfect clone. Jason Mitchell is electrifying as Eazy-E, the diminutive, street-hustling, dope-peddling “investor” who became the frontman of N.W.A. after hooking up with Cube and production wizard Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins).

The two other members, DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), are relegated to the sidelines, however. Maybe that’s because executive producers Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and the wife of the late Eazy-E were more interested in telling “their” story.

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Paul Giamatti

Paul Giamatti’s towering white swoop of a hairpiece competes for attention in his role as Jerry Heller, the manager who steered the group to stardom—and into a crooked contractual labyrinth that eventually split them apart.

The movie credits N.W.A. as the architects of hardcore, “real” street rap. But it doesn’t depict them as saints: They spew profanity, take drugs, sling guns and indulge in the orgiastic excesses that you might expect of cocky young rock gods. There are moments of humor to lighten some of the heavier moods. At two and a half hours, it gets a bit overloaded in the final stretch with plot offshoots and cameo appearances by characters playing rappers Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur and record producer “Suge” Knight, depicted by the film as a bullying, brutish thug.

But in its recreations of live performances or studio sessions, and in other moments when its explosive songs kick it, the movie really comes alive, reminding us of just how shocking, raw and impactive N.W.A.’s music was 25 years ago—and how powerfully it echoes even today.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Say ‘U.N.C.L.E.’

Fresh young cast revives Cold War themes of ’60s TV show

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The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Starring Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer and Alicia Vikander

Directed by Guy Ritchie

PG-13

He wasn’t James Bond, but he was close.

Napoleon Solo was a suave, cosmopolitan American secret agent played by actor Robert Vaughn on the hit NBC TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. from 1964 to 1968. Solo was in fact fashioned by writer consultant Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, to be a small-screen version of his more famous British super-spy.

You don’t have to know that to enjoy this refreshingly retro-fied revival, which takes the name, characters and Cold War setting of the TV show and enhances them to modern-day Hollywood proportions.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.

Armie Hammer (left) and Henry Cavill

Henry Cavill (who’ll reprise his 2013 role of Superman in next year’s Batman v Superman) plays Solo, and Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger, The Social Network) is his Russian partner Illya Kuryakin. Rather than just picking up and running with TV characters established half a century ago, the movie wisely starts fresh and anew. (We don’t even hear the code word “U.N.C.L.E” and learn how it spun off from the CIA, the KGB and other international organizations as a separate super-spook division on its own, until the end of the movie.)

We learn backstories and see how Solo and Kuryakin first meet—not as teammates but as enemies, with cloak-and-dagger orders to eliminate each other if necessary, on opposing sides of the ’60s high-stakes political and military standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Their fateful collaboration makes for the fun in writer/director Guy Ritchie’s witty, snappy, stylish yarn spiced and sprinkled with Nazi fascists, Italian playboys, atom bombs, speedboats, femme fatales, fast cars, double crosses, triple crosses, some snazzy old-school spy do-daddery, and gorgeous, eye-popping fashions. It sometimes looks like the cast of Mad Men left their Madison Avenue ad agency and went into dangerous, daring Euro undercover work.

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Alicia Vikander

Alicia Vikander (who drew raves as a sexy robot earlier this year in Ex Machina) portrays the daughter of a brilliant German rocket scientist who’s been abducted and forced to apply his skills toward nefarious ends. She joins Solo and Kuryakin in a race—an “arms race,” to use the Cold War term—to find him.

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Elizabeth Debicki

Elizabeth Debicki is wickedly smooth as Victoria, a svelte, blond “lethal combination of beauty, brains and ambition” whose soft, seductive purr and pouty smile mask a deadly bite. Veteran British actor Hugh Grant makes a welcome impression as Waverly, a character whose motives become clear later in the film.

But the movie belongs to Cavill and Hammer, who seem to really enjoy playing off each other in two very different roles: Solo, the ultra-cool, unflappable ladies’ man who can steal almost anything, and Kuryakin, a towering Slavic hunk whose twitchy temper makes his bare hands lethal weapons—and who has trouble stealing even a single kiss. Their banter, comic bickering and constant bouts of spy-vs-spy one-upmanship keep the movie moving along crisply.

There are certainly louder, flashier, bigger spy flicks. If you’re dying for Bond, you’ll get your fix in November with Spectre. But for a classy, sassy bit of cool, Kennedy-era espionage hijinks, this new, revived Man From U.N.C.L.E. certainly delivers plenty of fresh, fun spy kicks—and hints at more to come.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Rocky Road

New ‘Vacation’ a raunchy retread of a comedy classic

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Vacation

Starring Ed Helms & Christina Applegate

Directed by John Frances Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein

R

Thirty-two years later, it’s time for another Vacation.

The first one, for those of us who remember it fondly, was National Lampoon’s Vacation, and starred Chevy Chase in the now-classic tale of a family’s cross-country misadventures on their trek to visit the wacky theme park Wally World.

The “National Lampoon” is gone from the title, but the basic structure remains in this raunchy reboot. Ed Helms stars as Rusty Griswold, the now-adult son of Chevy Chase’s character. Rusty wants to recapture the memories of his childhood by giving his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and their two kids the same vacation experience he had as a youth.

His idea: Pack up the fam and head to Wally World!

“You just want to redo your vacation from 30 years ago?” asks Debbie, doubtful.

“The new vacation will stand on its own!” declares Rusty, rarin’ to go.

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Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo

If only. Everything about the new Vacation invites comparison to the old—and not for the better. The setup is the same, gags in the new movie are throwbacks to the original—a sexy babe in a convertible, the Griswolds’ uncool monstrosity of a station wagon—the peppy “Holiday Road” theme song from Lindsay Buckingham opens and closes the show, and Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, his co-star in the 1983 Vacation and three sequels, make appearances.

The new Vacation has moments of mirth, yes, but the most distinctive “stand” it takes, alas, seems to be in its determination to get dirtier, darker, grosser and more all-around ickier than any Vacation before. When the Griswolds take a dip in what they believe to be a natural hot springs and it turns out to be something much nastier, you’ll giggle, but you’ll also gag. And you’ll only get cold chills when a creepy truck driver (Norman Reedus from TV’s The Walking Dead) explains why he keeps a dirty teddy bear tied to the grill of his rig.

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Chris Hemsworth

At a stopover in Texas to visit Rusty’s sister (Leslie Mann) and her cattleman-stud husband, Chris Hemsworth hams it up with a prosthetic body part that can barely stay in his jockey shorts (and doesn’t, later). Rusty’s youngest son (Steele Stebbins) continuously pelts his older brother (Skyler Gisondo) with sexual putdowns.

Pop-up appearances by a host of celebrity guests—Charlie Day, Keegan-Michael Key, Nick Kroll, Michael Peña, Collin Hanks, Ron Livingston—are brief zaps and zings of gonzo electricity. And they’re the best things about the movie, which forces so much indignity and so many crass jokes upon its headliners, and which has so little of the wildly subversive sparkle that made its predecessor a classic.

It took two directors and a pair of writers to roadmap this rocky retread. It’s just too bad that, after all these years, it gets such disappointing movie mileage.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Good Vibrations

Paul Dano, John Cusack share role of Beach Boy Brian Wilson

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Love & Mercy

Starring Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks & Paul Giamatti

Directed by Bill Pohlad

PG-13

The Beach Boys and their songs about surf, sand, hot rods and girls represented West Coast light, life, fun and frolic in the 1960s. But the story “behind the music” had darker undertones, especially when it came to the group’s leader, Brian Wilson.

This trippy, time-tunnel dramatization of Wilson’s troubled, tortured musical genius bridges two different eras, 20 years apart, with powerful performances and mesmerizing filmmaking that recreates pivotal Beach Boys moments along with other, lesser-known incidents in Wilson’s life long after the group’s heyday.

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Paul Dano as ’60s-era Brian Wilson.

The movie’s most striking feature is its use of two different actors to portray its central character. As younger Brain, Paul Dano is nothing short of phenomenal in an Oscar-worthy performance that captures and channels the drive, innocence, obsession and brilliance that coalesced into the 1960s Beach Boys album Pet Sounds.

The movie toggles back and forth between Dano’s Brian and “later” Brian, movingly played by John Cusack as a shattered shell of man in the mid 1980s, imprisoned in a toxic relationship with a greedy, manipulative therapist (Paul Giamatti) who over-medicates him into a stupor and bars him from contact with his family.

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Elizabeth Banks and John Cusack

Elizabeth Banks is terrific as titanium blonde Melinda Ledbetter, the Cadillac saleswoman who comes into Wilson’s life in 1985, falls in love with him—and leads the charge for his deliverance.

The movie takes its title from a 1988 solo song by Wilson, and if you want to hear it, you’ll need to stay through the credits. It’s well worth the wait.

Although the relationship between Brian and Melinda puts much of the dramatic spotlight on Cusack, Banks and Giamatti, it’s Dano who steals the show. Composing songs at a piano, singing on stage, tinkering in the studio or simply feeling his head swell with a symphony of swirling music that only he can hear (kudos to Oscar-winning composer Atticus Ross for his mood-perfect soundscapes), he conveys the sophisticated scope of Wilson’s prodigious talents, the heartbreak of his tumultuous relationship with his abusive father (Bill Camp) and the fissures that would later lead to full-blown mental and physical breakdowns.

“Who are you, Mozart?” Mike Love (Jake Abel) of the group asks Wilson as he seethes over Wilson taking more and more creative control—and leaving the rest of the Beach Boys on the sidelines. “It’s like you’re making your own record—we’re barely a part of the Brian Wilson band.”

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Beach Boys fans will love director Bill Pohlad’s almost documentary-style recreation of the group’s early promotional videos, album-cover photo shoots and TV performances. Sequences that depict Wilson in the recording studio, working with session players and band mates on what would become the 1966 pop-opus masterpiece Pet Sounds, feel like stolen, behind-the-scenes glimpses of the real thing.

But even more casual viewers will be touched by the romance at the heart of the tale, riveted by the acting, retro-grooved by the tunes, and entranced by the opportunity to learn more about a wounded pop-music Mozart who finally, fatefully found the Love & Mercy that healed him.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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