Category Archives: Uncategorized

Big Deal

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

Little Women 1 (72)

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

Little Women has always been a pretty big deal.

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

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

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

Little Women 5

Laura Dern (top right) plays Marmee.

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

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

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

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

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

Ronan with Chalamet

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

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

Or, as Jo exclaims, he’s “capital!

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

And oh, it’s capital!

Ka-Boom!

Supernova trio lights the fuse on explosive sexual-harassment drama

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

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

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

Ka-boom!

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

LD_D33_07508.dng

Theron as Megyn Kelly with Lithgow as Roger Ailes

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

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

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

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

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

Bombshell 2

Margot Robbie with Kate McKinnon

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Word Up

Say it loud: Shazam! is zippy teen-centric superhero saga about family

SHAZAM_MAR8_0086.dngShazam!
Starring Zachary Levi, Jack Dylan Grazer, Asher Angel & Mark Strong
Directed by David F. Sandberg
PG-13

If you were a superhero, what would you want for your superpower?

Flight? Invisibility? Super speed?

In Shazam!, Philadelphia teenager Billy Batson (Asher Angel, star of the Disney Channel series Andi Mack) gets selected by an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to become a superpowered grown-up by speaking the magic word Shazam—an acronym that stands for the combined wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.

Billy gets uploaded with the ancient, legendary gifts of all six gods.

Shazam!

Every time Billy says it, lightning flies out of his fingertips, his body becomes solid as steel—and he magically, instantly zaps into the form an adult (Zachary Levi) in a colorful superhero costume. He’s got other powers, too, which he’ll soon discover.

“You’re super-stoked!” says Billy’s bud and foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). “You’re as cool as Superman, almost!”

SHAZAM!Shazam!, part of the DC Comics movie universe that also includes Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Joker and Aquaman, is a dandy addition to the cinematic canon. In the modern era, superhero movies too often tend to get bogged down in too much plot, too many characters, too much depth and heaviness—both DC and its rival, Marvel, refer—after all—to their cinematic playgrounds as “universes,” places which are vast, dark, ever-expanding and full of too many stars and other heavenly bodies to even begin to try to keep count.

Thank goodness Shazam! doesn’t try to explain that it’s a property with a pedigree that goes all the way back the late 1930s. The character even rivaled Superman for comic-book popularity in the 1940s, and was even called Captain Marvel for a while—before reverting back to Shazam for a TV series in the 1970s. But all that excess baggage is in deep superhero storage somewhere.

This Shazam!, a playful, witty, clever, teen-centric jaunt, soars with a simpler story, free of the past and full of both humor and heart—plus, not surprisingly, a nasty supervillain and a horde of supernatural CGI monsters, the Seven Deadly Sins, summoned up from the underworld. (Director David F. Sandberg knows a thing or two about scares, which you’ll recall if you’ve seen his horror handiwork in Lights Out or Annabelle: Creation.)

Everything in the film is there to service the plot about Billy, who’s grown up in a succession of foster homes after being separated from his mother as a toddler at a carnival. He’s spent most of his young life running away, trying to find her—and to find a family.

SHAZAM_feb28_0153.dng

Mark Strong, left, with Jack Dylan Grazer

Family is the buzzword of Shazam! You hear it mentioned several times. Billy has some major mommy issues. The villain, Thaddeus Sivana (veteran British actor Mark Strong), grew up with seriously toxic daddy issues. We see the two separate incidents that set the very different life courses for both Billy and Thad at the beginning of the film, and they’re both equally traumatic.

Years later, Billy meets up with Freddy, a superhero nerd, at his latest foster home, which buzzes with warm ramshackle life. There’s a group of other kids (Ian Chen, Faithe Herman, Grace Fulton and Jovan Armand) who immediately welcome him. When Freddy finds out about Billy’s secret—and secret identity—he desperately wants to become his sidekick. A montage (scored to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”) of adult Billy testing out his superpowers, while Freddy shoots videos (then uploads them to the internet) will certainly make you smile.

Grown-up Billy and Freddy get even with a couple of school tormentors, visit a realtor in search of a suitable superhero “lair” and thwart a convenience store robbery. Things get “serious” soon enough, though, when real trouble comes calling.

The movie takes place in a world where superheroes like Superman and Batman are already there; they’re the stuff of newspaper headlines, eyes-to-the-skies awe and dinner-table conversations, and a smushed-up bullet that’s bounced off the Caped Crusader’s chest is a real collector’s item. So there’s the matter of what a newcomer, like superhero-Billy, will be called. Thundercrack? Mr. Philadelphia? Captain Sparkle Fingers? Sir Zaps-A-Lot? Just like he has to grow into his responsibilities and his calling, he also has to grow into the name of Shazam.

Shazam poster crop (72)Zachary Levi, 38, best known for his starring role in TV’s Chuck and for his season 2 appearances in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is perfectly cast as the big-boy superhero, a teenager in a man’s body, suddenly endowed with abilities he never dreamed about. If he makes you think of Tom Hanks in Big, the movie gives you a knowing wink-wink you’re not wrong. During a chase scene in a department store, big Billy pauses on a giant electronic keyboard and accidentally stumbles over a few discordant notes. It’s not “Chopsticks,” but it’s enough to make the connection.

Levi is perfectly paired with young Glazer (he was Eddie in It); not only do they have a great “buddy” chemistry, but their characters demonstrate the broad intergenerational bond, and the reach, of the comics and comic-book movies.

Shazam! is a movie about a superhero and how he came to be, certainly, but it’s built on a foundation of friendship and family. “I’m a Foster Mom. What’s your Superpower?” reads a bumper sticker on a vehicle at Billy and Freddy’s foster home. Family, clearly, is where you find it, and superheroes are all around us.

Early in the film, after his first “zap” into Shazam and his costume—a bright red bodysuit, a big gold belt, boots and cuffs, a curtain-like white cape and a glowing chest plate in the shape of a lightning bolt—suddenly big Billy finds himself riding in a subway car, where another passenger is giving him a candid assessment of his, ahem, unusual getup.

“It shouldn’t work,” the fellow rider says, “but damn—it does!”

Shazam! has a lot going on, and hot damn, it works, too—good guys, bad guys, fun, fights, laughs, bullies, beasts, jokes and a genuine embrace of the wonder, wow, camp, comedy and gee-whiz that grease the wheels of the best comic-book movies.

And especially at the end, it reminds us how little boys and little girls, in homes of every kind, anywhere and everywhere, can all grow up to be superheroes—or supervillains. Family matters, words matter.

Shazam!

In theaters April 5, 2019

Black Dynamite

Incendiary history lesson exposes ugly truths about racism in America

BlacKkKlansmanBlacKkKlansman
Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver & Laura Harrier
Directed by Spike Lee
R
In theaters Aug. 10, 2018

That’s not a typo—there’s an extra “k” in there, between “Black” and “Klansman.”

Director Spike Lee’s new movie, his 30th feature film, is the wildly true tale of a black Colorado cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, the KKK, in the 1970s.

Lee has never pulled punches with his films, like Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, She’s Gotta Have It, Mo’ Better Blues, School Daze and the Oscar-nominated Do the Right Thing. You never leave one of his movies wondering where he’s coming from, what he means, or what you’re supposed to think.

BlacKkKlansman is a straight-up, fire-breathing story about the long, painful scar of racism in America.

John David Washington (he’s the son of actor Denzel Washington) plays Ron Stallworth, who becomes the first police detective “of color” in Colorado Springs in 1972.

Working his way out of the file room, rookie Stallworth soon lands a much more interesting assignment. Cold-calling a recruitment ad in back of the local newspaper for the Klan, he impersonates a white racist on the phone and sets up a meeting to learn more about how he can join.

Of course, this presents a problem—since Stallworth is black. So the police chief (Robert John Burke, from TV’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) pairs him with another, more seasoned—white—detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), and the two of them become “one.” Flip will be the fake Ron that actually meets the Klan in person; the real Ron will continue to cultivate sources over the phone, take photos and gather intel.

So, if you’re keeping score: Stallworth is black, Zimmerman is Jewish, and they “doubly disguise” themselves to dupe the most dangerously racist organization in America—from the inside.

BlacKkKlansman

John David Washington and Laura Harrier

It sounds crazy and absurd, but it all really happened—as told in Stallworth’s 2014 memoir (Black Klansman) on which the movie is based. Lee sets everything up with juicy, funky, ’70s retro detail, and there are touches of humor and sweetness and light to leaven the toxic bigotry at the dark heart of the story, especially in scenes between Ron and Patrice (Laura Harrier, who played high-schooler Liz in Spider-Man: Homecoming), the passionate local soul sister and civil rights organizer who has no idea he’s really an undercover cop.

The movie really kicks into gear when Flip meets the Klan—or “The Organization,” as they prefer to call it. Walter (Ryan Eggold, Tom Keen on TV’s The Blacklist) is the local leader, reminding attendees at a weekly meeting that, for the next cross burnings, “the highest hills get the most eyes.” As the sloth-like Ivanhoe, Paul Walter Hauser lets it slip that he actually likes Sammy Davis Jr., because he can dance. Nicholas Turturro plays an explosives expert, brought in covertly for a special occasion. Felix (Finnish actor Jasper Pååkkönen, who plays Hafdan the Black on Vikings) smells a rat—or more specifically, a Jew.

BlacKkKlansman

Topher Grace

There are some tense moments when Felix tries to hook Flip up to a “Jew” detector polygraph, and when Flip and Ron risk exposure by bumbling facts of their fabricated story. Everything builds to an explosive climax, an event with a young Klan Grand Wizard-to-be David Duke (Topher Grace) at which both the real Ron and the fake Ron/Flip are present.

Alec Baldwin opens the film as a racist “intellectual” raging about the “mongrel race” of “black beasts” and “Jewish-controlled puppets” on the Supreme Court. Toward the end of the movie, musical legend Harry Belafonte plays a speaker addressing a rapt civil rights rally crowd, telling the true story of Jesse Washington, a young black man who was horrifically lynched in Texas in 1916 after being accused of raping a white woman.

Corey Hawkins (Eric Carter on TV’s 24: Legacy) galvanizes an audience as black activist Stokely Carmichael, nè Kwame Ture, forcefully reminding them that Uncle Sam wants to send young black men to fight and die in Viet Nam, while cops are shooting them (“in the back!”) in the streets.

The movie is set in the early 1970s, but make no mistake—director Lee draws a scalding, shameful timeline from America’s past to its present. He uses clips from director D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915)—a seminal but controversial and wildly racist film, one that glorified the origin of the Klan and demonized blacks—and Gone With the Wind, which hyper-romanticized the downfall of South and slavery, all to the wistful tune of Dixie.

Lee incorporates footage of the deadly 2017 white nationalists rally in Charlottesburg, Va. (“Jews will not replace us!”), and a clip of modern-day David Duke aligning himself with President Trump, who proclaimed that there were “good people” on both sides of the event.

And when Duke rallies his faithful with the phrase “America first,” it rings as a harrowing reminder of where audiences have heard it most recently elsewhere—used by the current Commander in Chief as his mantra in his inaugural address, and repeated as his diplomatic policy.

One of the movie’s producers is Jordan Peele. You might recall that he was the director of last year’s Get Out, in which a young black man finds himself trapped in a racist nightmare. BlacKkKlansman is about a nightmare of another kind, an ugly national one, in which America has been mired, one way or another, since its beginning.

BlacKkKlansmanIn one scene, Flip and Ron discuss their differences about their assignment. “For you, it’s a crusade—for me, it’s a job,” Flip tells him. Ron counters by pressing Flip about his Jewish background, about why what he’s seeing and hearing, in the actual physical presence of such hateful spew from such noxious characters, doesn’t bug him.

“Why you actin’,” Ron asks him, “like you ain’t got no skin in the game?”

That’s a question Lee’s powerful, potent gut-punch of a movie asks us all, no matter what color our skin might be.

Courting Justice

Chadwick Boseman plays a young Supreme Court Justice-to-be

MV5BODliOGUyMTItNjIyYi00YjZmLWE0YTgtZmNiYjMzMDYzMmY1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1500,1000_AL_(72)

Josh Gad, Chadwick Boseman and Sterling K. Brown in ‘Marshall’

Marshall
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Dan Stevens & Kate Hudson
Directed by Reginald Hudlin
PG-13

For black history, Chadwick Boseman is becoming Hollywood’s go-to guy.

In 42, he starred as Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play pro baseball. He was the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, in Get on Up. In February, he’ll step into the spotlight as Marvel’s Black Panther, the first black superhero to get his own movie.

And he puts the Marshall in Marshall as Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice of the United States Supreme Court, in one of the early defining cases of his career.

We meet Thurgood in the early 1940s as a young attorney for the N.A.A.C.P. in Hugo, Okla., dispatched to Bridgeport, Conn., to represent a black man, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown from TV’s This Is Us), accused of raping and attempting to murder a wealthy white woman (Kate Hudson).

MV5BOTNkM2IzMjQtYWUzZC00M2U4LThkZGUtZjIyZTBkMTI3ODk0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_SX1500_AL_

Kate Hudson

As an out-of-state attorney, Marshall must enlist the aid of a local lawyer—a legal technicality—in order to work the case. He partners with Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a whiz at insurance and accident cases but zero experience in criminal law.

This being the 1940s, and the case being a “negro” accused of “ravishing” a white woman, the climate in Bridgeport isn’t exactly welcoming to Thurgood. The crusty judge (James Cromwell) begrudgingly allows Marshall to accompany Friedman in the courtroom, but bans him from speaking, arguing or examining witnesses.

After early years of forgettable movie comedies (unless you count Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang or Tim Meadows’ The Ladies Man as milestones—and I’m guessing you won’t) and later TV, director Reginald Hudlin makes his first big-screen drama in a fairly old-school, traditional mode. Marshall is essentially a courtroom showdown, with the story spinning around the odd-couple pairing of Boseman and Gad’s characters, the difficult circumstances in which they have to work and the high-pitched racial tensions and prejudice of the times.

And of course, the question: Did Joseph Spell do it?

There are flashbacks and recreations, from various characters’ points of view. Both Thurgood and Friedman—who is Jewish—are harassed by local thugs. Marshall gathers evidence and, as Friedman’s “silent partner,” gives him a crash course in the basics of criminal law and courtroom procedure.

MV5BYzkzNDBiN2EtYjUzMi00YTI5LWE3M2UtZTlmYTRhNzAzMjgxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1500,1000_AL_

Dan Stevens

Legion TV star Dan Stevens, who played the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, plays a real-life “beast,” a smarmy defense attorney. Keesha Sharp (Trisha Murtaugh on TV’s Lethal Weapon) is Marshall’s supportive wife, Buster. And fans of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, as well as the Chicago P.D./Med/Justice franchise, will recognize Sophia Bush, who plays police detective Erin Lindsay in all those shows. She has one scene as a woman in a bar who provides Thurgood with an observation that becomes a case breakthrough.

The movie looks handsome and polished, but the production values are just a little too tidy. The automobiles all appear to be restoration-shiny, and everyone is dressed to the nines, like they just came…well, from the wardrobe department. Nothing about Marshall really looks or feels lived-in.

And modern audiences, with appetites primed by violent, graphic, gory TV crime procedurals, might not have the patience for the more stately, dignified pace of Marshall. It’s closer to Perry Mason than How to Get Away With Murder.

Brown gives a powerful standout performance as Spell, a character who becomes the heart and soul of what the movie is truly about—a black man seeking justice in a white man’s world, in the grinding gears of a white man’s system, and fearing for his life, no matter what he says. The film’s resonance today with themes of racial division and ugly displays of hate and bigotry are impossible to miss.

Can a black man get a fair trial with an all-white jury in Bridgeport, a gaggle of white reporters asks Marshall. Can blacks expect to treated fairly at all? “The Constitution was not written for us,” Marshall tells them. “But we’re gonna make it work for us.”

In one scene, Marshall counsels Spell about a plea deal he’s been offered, in a conversation couched in a discussion about the slavery in both their family’s pasts. Spell recounts a moving story about his grandfather fighting for his freedom, and Thurgood spurs him to never stop fighting himself.

“We’ve got weapons we didn’t have before,” Marshall tells him. “We’ve got the law.”

During Marshall’s 24-year tenure at the U.S. Supreme Court, beginning in 1967, he would argue more than 30 cases, prevailing in all but three. This feel-good biopic reminds us of a formative chapter in the life of a lifelong crusader—for civil rights and justice, for African Americans and all—who never gave up the fight.

In theaters Oct. 13, 2017

 

2017’s ‘2001’

Denis Villeneuve’s bold, beautiful, brainy return to ‘Blade Runner’

DSC01666.ARW

Blade Runner 2049
Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford & Jared Leto
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
R

Last Christmas, Ryan Gosling was waltzing with Emma Stone in the stars over La La Land.

Now he’s zipping around in a flying car in the cold, grey, grungy skies above a very different Los Angeles—a dystopian, disorienting future world where humans coexist and interact with nearly human, biologically engineered androids known as replicants.

Welcome to Blade Runner 2049, director Denis Villeneuve’s sprawling, hyper-stylish, long-awaited follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 neo-noir sci-fi classic. The original film famously starred Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a former police office working as a “blade runner” to track down and retire—kill—renegade replicants.

TBR209_dtlr4_dtlr5_source_string_r709_2k.088615.tif

Dave Bautista

Now, set 30 years later, Gosling’s character, an LAPD officer known as K, is also a blade runner. The movie opens when he pays a routine visit to an outdated replicant, a farmer (Dave Bautista) who’s passed his expiration date. Before K pulls the plug, the farmer has a cryptic message for him: “You’ve never seen a miracle,” he says.

Those words get into K’s head—already throbbing with troubling visions from something that happened in his past. Or did it?

When K makes a startling discovery—a seeming impossibility—that sets everything in motion, it threatens to bring down the fragile social order between humans and replicants. “This could break the world,” K’s police boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), tells him. She orders him to erase the evidence and keep the case under wraps. “What you saw didn’t happen.”

But the secret gets out, putting K on a dangerous course to solve the mystery—the one that seems so impossible, as well as the one inside his head.

DSC06268.JPG

Sylvia Hoeks

Jared Leto is great-balls-of-fire creepy as Niander Wallace, the rich, blind, tech-guru industrialist with a god complex who plans to super-colonize the cosmos with trillions of replicant-slaves. His icy aide, the ruthless replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), is on the trail of the same thing as K, but for a vastly different reason.

K’s companion Joi—a life-size, lifelike, 3D “application,” like a sexy Siri—longs to know what it’s like to be real, to have flesh, to be able to feel K’s touch and to be felt in return. Whenever she goes into active mode, her programming sounds a few notes from “Peter and the Wolf,” the Prokofiev musical play about animals that come alive. Played by Cuban actress Ana de Armas, it’s one of the film’s most emotive, poignant performances.

Mackenzie Davis (Cameron Rendon on TV’s Halt and Catch Fire) makes the most of her supporting role as a mysterious prostitute named Mariette. If there’s a sequel, she definitely gets my vote for more screen time.

And of course, eventually K’s path leads him to Deckard (Harrison Ford), holed up in casino hotel in Las Vegas, now a radioactive wasteland.

Director Villeneuve—whose other films include Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival—has created a brilliant new sci-fi benchmark, an epic movie yardstick against which future science fiction flicks will be compared and measured. It’s the 2001 of 2017. Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, with 13 Oscar nominations, should certainly expect another. His spectacular view of this majestic, grotesquely beautiful futurama is a feast for the eyes.

BR-CC-7645

The score, by Oscar-winning Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, sometimes stretches the limits of what typically might be considered music, with booming, bowel-rattling bass-note rumbles that pile-drive the action and anchor the deep-dive philosophical musings—on memory, belief, faith, love, life, reality, what it means to be alive and what it means to be human.

When Deckard and K meet, Deckard quotes a line from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island—appropriately enough, since something that’s been unearthed, a buried treasure, brought the two of them together. Before they bond, they brawl, in a casino showroom where a flickering hologram of Elvis Presley performs onstage, a high-tech ghost of future past, flanked by holographic showgirls.

Later, a neon billboard promises, in gigantic, glowing letters, Anything You Want. In this future world, anything can indeed be purchased—companionship, pleasure, a thrill, a high, a lover, memories, a past.

For sci-fi fans, for movie lovers who want to see something truly spectacular, for cinephiles who’ve been waiting for the next big thing: Here it is. The bold, beautiful, brainy Blade Runner 2049 is anything you want, and quite likely much more.

In theaters Oct. 6, 2017

It’s Good To Be King

Hollywood’s mega monkey returns in a rip-roaring, monster-movie romp

Kong: Skull Island
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson & John C. Reilly
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
PG-13

It’s good to be king.

King Kong, the movie mega-monkey, has reigned since his debut in 1933, when he first scaled the Empire State Building, angrily batted biplanes out of the sky—and carefully cradled a beautiful young actress (Faye Wray) in his giant paw.

Over the decades, Kong’s tale would be retold in various remakes, sequels, spinoffs, parodies and even a Saturday morning cartoon. It became the basis for theme park thrill rides and a stage musical.

It’s probably safe to say that the legacy of the king has been watered down a bit by men in monkey suits, cartoonish buffoonery and other pop-cultural permutations of his pure, towering, primordial badass-ery. Which is why director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ exhilarating new version comes as such a jolt of super juiced-up, monster-movie energy, restoring some of the raw edges of wild, wooly excitement to the Kong saga while giving it a fresh new, retro-rollicking spin.

Thomas Mann, John Ortiz, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson and Corey Hawkins adjust to their new surroundings.

Its premise is familiar, basically: A team of explorers ventures to an uncharted, forbidding Pacific archipelago, but they encounter much more than they anticipated.

The original Kong story was set in the era of the Great Depression, but Skull Island unfolds in 1973, just after the end of America’s involvement in Viet Nam. That timetable is more than just a colorful detail, because the theme of war—and warfare—is vital to this version of the story.

A rocking soundtrack, with tunes by David Bowie, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Black Sabbath, the Hollies, Jefferson Airplane and Iggy Pop, deepens the groove of the era. If you’ve never seen a colossus ape on a helicopter-swatting rampage while the soundtrack is blaring Ozzy Osborne singing “Paranoid,” well, trust me: It out-apocalypses anything from Apocalypse Now.

(A snippet close to the end of the film of British singer Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again,” a famous WWII ballad, hints that we might not have seen the last of Kong, and some of his mega-monster ilk, a suggestion definitely reinforced if you stay through the closing credits.)

Samuel L. Jackson plays Preston Packard, a U.S. military commander itching for one final mission, still smarting from America’s humiliating retreat in Southeast Asia. He’s accompanied by crackpot conspiracy theorist Bill Randa (John Goodman), who has convinced a reluctant U.S. senator (Richard Jenkins) to bankroll the exploration of the island before the Russians can find it—in case there’s anything of value there.

But what is Randa really looking for in this place where “God didn’t finish creation… where myth and science meet”?

Brie Larson

Also aboard: a British tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and cool “anti-war photographer” Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). And a bunch of other scientists and soldiers (Toby Kibbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Marc Evan Jackson, Thomas Mann, Tian Jing).

It’s a motley, multi-ethnic crew, all right, and a perfect “movie mix” when they all end up scattered, spread and separated across the island. Don’t get too attached to anyone; the number of casualties gets pretty high, pretty fast, and keeps climbing.

The original King Kong, and its remakes in 1976 and 2005, had overtones of imperialism and outright racism—of American and British explorers going to “exotic” parts of the world in earlier ages of exploration, and taking away whatever they found of interest. This one has a not-so-subtle message, one that echoes down the ages through today, about swaggering American military might, unwanted and unwarranted interventionism and solving problems with bullets and bombs.

“Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist until you go looking for one,” one character notes.

Kong, understandably, doesn’t exactly meet his new guests—and their assault of shrapnel, napalm and machine-gun fire—warmly. And after it’s over, you know this is no Saturday-morning cartoon, or a joy ride of amusement-park thrills and chills. It’s full-on monster mayhem.

John C. Reilly

And for the survivors of that initial encounter, Kong isn’t the only unpleasant surprise the island has in store. There are gigantic octopuses, towering jungle spiders, screeching pterodactyls, massive lizard-like “skull crawlers” and other mutated hazards lurking around every cinematic corner. It’s a very, very dangerous place, and you never know what may pop out of the weeds, the water, the sky, the mist, the ground or the trees.

Eventually, you’ll meet Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a pilot who’d been living on the island—with its indigenous people—since his plane was shot down during a WWII dogfight with a Japanese Zero (depicted in the movie’s boffo opening scene). His character provides some well-calibrated comic relief, but he and his poignant story also become the beating human heart of the movie.

It all adds up to a fantastic, rip-roaring, tropical-island romp. You get to see plenty of Kong, and he’s a fine beast, indeed—a noble savage, a tragic hero, the fierce defender of his home, the “last of his kind.” He “speaks” only in grunts, growls and huffs, but his message is loud and clear: Why can’t everyone just leave him alone and let him do his thing—which, it turns out, might just be pretty dang important in the bigger, grander scheme.

One of the movie’s most interesting new angles is how it uses its central female character, Brie Larson’s photographer, as a revisionist homage to the other females who’ve played “opposite” Kong. Her gutsy, earthy Mason Weaver is no swooning Faye Wray. But she nonetheless is the only character to connect on an emotional level with the “beast.” And in the thrilling climatic scene, which takes place not on top of a skyscraper but in a river, Kong battles a monstrous skull crawler and Weaver is caught in the fray—and is eventually cradled, delicately, doll-like and unconscious, in Kong’s massive paw.

When you’re the king, some things never change.

Even Wick-ier

Keanu Reeves returns to his ultraviolent past 

Keanu Reeves stars as 'John Wick' in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2.

John Wick: Chapter 2
Starring Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Common & Ruby Rose
Directed by Chad Stahelski
R
In theaters Feb. 10

You know John Wick, right?

“The man, the myth, the legend,” as one character refers to him admiringly. The nattily attired hitman of few words who lets his lethal skills do the talking—who once dispatched three assailants in a barroom with only a pencil. The brooding one-man-army known in underworld circles as a ghost, the Boogeyman and mors ipsa emissarium, “death’s very emissary.”

The character of Wick marked a comeback for Keanu Reeves in 2014, when he blasted his way onto the screen in the original pulpy, action-packed tale of a former killer-for-hire grieving the death of his wife, seeking vengeance for the murder of his adorable puppy and hell-bent on getting back his stolen, high-performance 1969 Mustang.

But you know how it is with former hitmen: They never can really, truly get out of the life—at least not alive.

John Wick: Chapter 2 does exactly what its title suggests, picking up where the first movie left off and moving the story along even further down the road, even deeper into a world teeming with Russian gangsters, international racketeers and murderous multicultural muckety-mucks. Wick is pulled back into his violent past when a former connection (Riccardo Scamarcio) calls in a “blood marker” requiring his assassination services.

Then Wick gets double-crossed with a $7 million contract on his own head that sends every other hitman scurrying to collect.

JW2_D25_7230.cr2Directed once again by Chad Stahelski, a former top Hollywood stuntman who handled all Reeve’s action sequences on his Matrix films, it’s a blast of stylishly orchestrated physical mayhem and ballet-like ultraviolence as Wick dispatches what must be nearly 100 adversaries with knives, handguns, rifles, machine guns, his car and even another pencil.

I lost count of how body parts he broke with his bare hands.  If you like this kind of thing, it’s an action junkie’s all-you-can-eat buffet, and it’s certainly well done. Once again, director Stahelski draws on his own rough-and-tumble on-camera experience, as well as the obvious inspirations of Japanese action, kung-fu and martial-arts cinema and good ‘ol splatter-y spaghetti Westerns. The explosive gunfire has real kick, bam and boom. You “feel” the thuds, thumps, whacks, whams and cracks of the bruising body blows.

And some of the fight scenes are truly spectacular extended sequences of choreography—you’ll wonder how no one was actually injured in the knockdown, drag-out melees. One standout, in particular, extends from the catacombs underneath Rome into the streets above and down a looooong stone stairwell, before finally crashing into the lobby of a hotel.

Ruby Rose

Ruby Rose

The rapper-turned-actor Common plays a former associate who’s now one of Wick’s most formidable foes. Veteran actor Ian McShane is Winston, the underworld kingpin in charge of The Continental, a posh “safe zone” for warring hitmen. Ruby Rose, from TV’s Orange is the New Black, is silent but deadly as a mute assassin with Wicks in her sexy, savage, silent sights.  Peter Serafinowicz has a dryly humorous scene as the proprietor of a secret boutique weaponry shop where Wick selects instruments for his evening’s assignment as if he were choosing wine. “I need something robust and precise,” Wicks says. “Could you recommend something for the end of the night—something big and bold?”

“Big and bold” certain describes John Wick: Chapter 2, especially if you like your action with a capital A. It’s fitting that its climatic showdown takes place in an art museum, because there’s certainly an artistry to its over-the-top violence, its extreme body count and the blood that spews from heads and torsos onto walls and other surfaces—in the art gallery, the crimson splatters, sprays and smears blend in with other exhibits like pieces of morbid, minimalist modern art.  But of course, it won’t be for everyone—and probably not for much of anyone who’s not a hardcore action aficionado, or a diehard fan from the fist John Wick flick. This one’s just as Wick-y, and in many ways Wick-ier.

So it’s hard to be subjective. I can’t really give it stars in the traditional sense. I can, however, rate it four snapped necks, three pencils in the head, two slashed forearm arteries in a big Roman thermae and one dagger to the aorta, if that helps.

This Bat’s Where It’s At

Caped Crusader gets spotlight in zipping, zany ‘Lego Batman Movie’

115fs_070_layerpack_review_stereo_v006.1157

The Lego Batman Movie
Starring the voices of Will Arnett, Rosario Dawson & Michael Cera
Directed by Chris McKay
PG
In theaters Feb. 10, 2017

The fun begins even before the film does.

“All important movies start with a black screen,” intones Lego Batman, kicking off his riffing, running commentary on the movie’s pre-show parade of corporate logos and opening credits.

This movie, Batman is letting you know, is an important one—because it’s all about him.

When the movie starts, seconds later, it’s another geyser of fast-paced inside jokes, meta commentary and rapid-fire satire, just like its Lego Movie predecessor, such a wildly popular, multi-generational smash in 2014. Batman (voiced once again by Will Arnett), who made an indelible impression in that explosion of plasticized pop culture with his Master Builder skills and gruff, heavy-metal rapping, now gets his own full stage to strut.

lgb-trl3-0469And, once again, it looks terrific, and often bedazzling—a crazy, colorful, teeming Lego world, brought alive through the marvels and magic of computer-animated wizardry to make characters, cityscapes, interiors and more look like textured, 3-D creations composed entirely of millions of interlocking Lego blocks and accessories.

This time, the iconic Caped Crusader faces off against his longtime nemesis the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) while dealing with his own existential crisis: How long can the shadowy, egotistical, ridiculously self-absorbed, adamantly go-it-alone crime fighter—who is also, of course, Gotham City’s most eligible bachelor, Bruce Wayne—wall out the rest of the world?

How long can he go home to microwaved Lobster Thermidor dinners for one in stately Wayne Manor, figuratively and literally cut off from everything and everyone—including his loyal butler, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes)—on Wayne Island? How many nights can he spend cackling derisively, all by himself, mocking the most romantic scene in Jerry Maguire on his mega-den’s mega-mega big-screen TV?

Barbara Gordon & Batman

Batman eventually takes aboard—by mistake—the young orphan who becomes his sidekick, Robin (Michael Cera), and gets gobsmacked by his first look at lovely Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), the daughter of retiring police commissioner James Gordon (Hector Elizondo). Barbara takes her father’s role at the top of Gotham City’s official law-and-order pyramid seriously, and—unlike Batman—sees crime-fighting as a collaborative, it-takes-a-village effort.

The movie gives this premise one hilarious, deliciously deep dig after another, drilling into the rich veins of Bat-mythology from DC Comics and its many offshoots on television and the movies, especially the broody Dark Knight films. You don’t have to be a big Bat fan to get on board the masterful joke-mobile, but the more you know, the more you’ll laugh.

“Words describing the impact will spontaneously materialize,” Batman explains to Robin as he introduces him to his first big bad-guy fracas—just before “Bap!” “Bam!” and “Pow!” appear above the action. There’s another gag about shark spray repellent that will be a lot funnier if you remember the cheese-tastic, cult-favorite scene from the 1960s TV series in which Adam West’s Batman actually used it—or have come across some of the memes and postings online that it has since spawned.

LEGO BATMANChris McKay, the animation director of The Lego Movie now making his official directorial debut as he takes over the reins from creators Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who remain on board as producers), never lets the bar drop or the cleverness droop. You certainly feel some of his former experience as a director and editor of the Cartoon Network’s stop-motion, pop-culture-skewering series Robot Chicken.

The movie parodies Batman’s long pop-cultural legacy with genius as well as genuine affection, particularly in his relationship to the Joker. These guys have been arch-“frenemies” for such a long, long time—finally, here’s a portrayal that explores how much they really, truly need each other.

To widen the playing field a bit beyond Batman, the tempest-in-a-toy-box storyline brings in a host of pop culture’s most villainous villains—the Eye of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings films, the Wicked Witch and flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, King Kong, Godzilla, gremlins from Gremlins and Harry Potter’s Voldemort.

And in between all the zipping, zany fun, there’s a message about what makes a “family,” working together, the importance of good abs, and why “Fly, Robin, Fly” or “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” just don’t cut it as superhero theme songs.

lgb-trl-bc-0024-72The vocal cast is outstanding, particular Arnett, the hub around which all the other zingers fly. And he’s got a chorus of great support, including Jenny Archer (Harley Quinn), Zoe Kravitz (Catwoman), Channing Tatum (Superman), Ellie Kemper (Phyllis, the keeper of the Phantom Zone) and Mariah Carey (Mayor McCaskill). Pay attention and see if you can match up Seth Green, Billy Dee Williams, Eddie Izzard, Adam Devine and Doug Benson to their Lego counterparts.

But this is definitely Batman’s show. There’ll be other superhero movies to come ripping and roaring down the pike this spring and summer, as always. But they won’t be any smarter, funnier or any more fun than this. Trust me, the Lego Bat is where it’s at.

 

Welcome, Oddballs!

Tim Burton makes misfits feel at ease at ‘Miss Peregrine’s’

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children
Starring Asa Butterfield, Eva Green, Ella Purnell & Samuel L. Jackson
Directed by Tim Burton
PG-13

The teenage years can be rough, making kids feel like outsiders, outcasts, oddballs. Wouldn’t it be awesome if there were a place young misfits could feel welcome, safe, protected, understood—and important?

And no, I’m not talking about the chess club.

In Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, director Tim Burton creates just such a place—or, more specifically, brings it spectacularly to life from Ransom Riggs’ 2011 young adult novel, a sprawling tall tale of mystery, monsters, a young boy on a tick-tocking, time-looping quest to discover his past, and some very, very peculiar kids.

“Did you ever feel like nothing you do matters?” asks teenage Jake (Asa Butterfield) in the opening scene as a crab scuttles across a footprint on a Florida beach seconds before a wave washes it away. Soon enough Jake himself will be swept across the water on a journey to a magical place that previously existed only in his imagination, fueled by colorful bedtime stories of his beloved grandfather (Terence Stamp), where he’ll find out just how needed he can be.

Visiting a remote, mist-shrouded island off the coast of Wales with his father (Chris O’Dowd), Jake discovers a decrepit old mansion bombed to rubble by German air raids in World War II. But stumbling into a “time loop” leads him back to 1943, just before the raids—when Miss Peregrine, her home and all the “peculiar children” were in full swing.

MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDRENThere’s lovely, lighter-than-air Emma (Ella Purnell), who must use steampunk-ish lead boots and rope tethers to keep her from floating away. Hot-handed Olive (Lauren McCrostie) can set things ablaze with a simple touch. Millard (Cameron King), an invisible boy, likes to run around naked—not that you’d notice. Tiny Bronwyn (Pixie Davies) has the strength of a brute. Whenever Hugh (Milo Parker) opens his mouth, bees that live in his stomach come swarming out. Sweet-looking Claire (Raffiella Chapman) has a nasty surprise underneath the blonde curls of her hair. Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) has a creepy power to animate inanimate objects—including the dead.

The faces of two “twin cousins” are always covered, in spooky white hoods with holes for their eyes and mouths—for a reason not revealed until close to the end of the movie.

MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN

Eva Green plays Miss Peregrine.

And as the exotic, pipe-smoking Miss Peregrine, Eva Green (Bond girl Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale) superbly channels her character’s enchanted mission with steely British resolve and flinty maternal focus. She can also morph into a bird, a fleet, regal peregrine falcon. How cool is that?!

Samuel L. Jackson is the evil Mr. Barron—no actor mixes campy humor and genuine menace with such unsettling ease or malevolent charm. There’s Allison Janney and Judi Dench. There’s danger, derring-do, adventure, excitement, laughter, young love and a couple of gross-out creature-feature moments that might be too much for little eyes.

But mostly, there’s director Tim Burton’s thematic signature, everywhere. Burton has always had a thing for outsiders and outliers, misfits like Pee-Wee Herman, Sweeny Todd, Beetlejuice and Willy Wonka, and for classic Hollywood quirk. The topiaries in Miss Peregrine’s courtyard—an elephant, a dinosaur, a centaur—look like they could have been the whimsical snip-snip artistry of Edward Scissorhands. And one major scene is a huge nod—an homage, certainly—to the cheesy highlight of a specific 1960s movie (with stop-motion effects by the late special-effects guru Ray Harryhausen) that Burton has admitted is one of his all-time favorites.

Burton even slips into the action for a super-quick, gob-smacked cameo. Blink and you’ll miss him!

So outsiders, outcasts and oddballs everywhere, of all ages, let your freak flag fly—courtesy of Miss Peregrine, and Tim Burton!

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,