Tag Archives: neil pond

Guillermo de Toro’s Pinocchio

Deliciously dark new take on the classic folktale takes you far beyond Disney

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Voices by Gregory Mann, Ewen McGregor, Christoph Waltz & Finn Wolfhard
Directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson
Rated PG

See it: On Netflix Friday, Dec. 9

Guillermo del Toro has always had a soft spot for monsters and misfits.

The Oscar-winning director of The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak and Nightmare Alley puts a deliciously dark, fantastically original spin on the enchanted tale of the wooden puppet who longs to become a real boy.

This isn’t the Pinocchio you grew up with, particularly if your baseline is the beloved Disney version from 1940, or even Disney’s ambitious hybrid (computer animation plus live action) from earlier this year, featuring Tom Hanks as Pinocchio’s creator,  Geppetto. With a vision rooted in the source material, the 1883 fantasia novel by Italian author Carlo Collodi, del Toro gives the fable a boldly creative, explosively imaginative retooling of magical enchantment, grotesque beauty, mythological mysticism, sweeping human emotion and existential wonder.

This Pinocchio has an eye-popping wow factor that’s practically off the charts. Visually resplendent and bursting with detail, its magnificent stop-motion animation (courtesy of Mark Gustafson, whose other work includes Fantastic Mr. Fox) elevates the craft far above cartoon-y kids’ stuff and into the rarified upper echelons of high art.  Resetting the story in 1930s Italy (as opposed to the vague, 19th century “once upon a time” of earlier versions), it uses the rise of brutal far-right fascism in Italy—dictator Benito Mussolini even makes an appearance—for a real-world, pre-World War II militaristic backdrop that becomes an integral part of its tale…and a callout to today’s unsettled modern world.

Ewan McGregor provides the voice of the movie’s narrator, Sebastian Cricket.

There are all-new songs (with a resplendent original soundtrack by Oscar-winning composer Alexander Desplat) and other enhancements to the familiar tale, including a recurring afterlife setting with grousing, poker-playing black rabbits, and a poignant backstory to the pine tree that provides the wood for Pinocchio. (And pinecones become a potent symbol of life, rebirth and regeneration.) Jiminy Cricket is now Sebastian Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor), a dapper bon vivant who lives in a knothole in Pinocchio’s chest—quite literally, inside his heart.  The glowing, translucent, blue-hued wood sprite (voiced by Tilda Swinton), peering into Pinocchio with hundreds of inscrutable eyes, is an otherworldly, awe-inspiring winged serpent that bestows Geppetto’s creation with life—and grants Sebastian Cricket a single, significant wish.

As for the puppet boy (evocatively voiced by young Gregory Mann), he’s a gangly, twiggy, wobbly oddity of a creature with more than a passing connection to another “unnatural” being, Frankenstein’s monster. And he has a fascination with yet another wooden creation, the life-size Jesus on the crucifix Geppetto makes for the village church. Pinocchio is puzzled why villagers adulate the somber figure on the cross, heaping high praises to him in song, but they hurl cries of “monster” and “demon” at him. “Why do they like him, and not me?” PInocchio asks Geppetto.

And like a crucified Christ, Pinocchio also rises again, in yet another twist to the story. The puppet boy discovers that since he’s not really “alive,” in a human sense—he’s made of wood, after all—so he can’t really die. At least, not for long: He keeps bounding back from various mishaps that turn him into heaps of splintered wood scraps. But there’s a difference, he finds out, between existence and truly experiencing life.

Like many “boys,” Pinocchio is full of energy, enthusiasm, curiosity and spunk. As a newcomer to the world of the living, he has a lot to learn—that hot chocolate is yummy, fire can burn, and other creatures—other creations—have feelings. He learns empathy. He stands up to the cruel carnival master (Christoph Walz) abusing his monkey assistant (Cate Blanchett), and he offers to work at the carnival’s puppet show, in a kind of indentured servitude, to keep his father out of a crippling debt. His infectiously sunny personality disarms a young village boy who starts out as his tormentor, turning him eventually into a friend and ally.

The A-list vocal cast also includes David Bradley as Geppetto, the lonely woodcarver who longs for Pinocchio to fill the aching hole created by the untimely death of his young son. Finn Wolfhard is Candlewick, the son of the town’s sternly militaristic podesta (Ron Pearlman), who sees the “stringless puppet” as an ultimate soldier who can’t be killed, conscripting him as fodder for the nation’s war machine. (Instead of a wild-boy romp Pleasure Island, there’s a major scene in a “youth camp” where Pinocchio and Candlewick are forced to compete in a high-stakes war-game exercise.) John Turturro is the village padre, a priest under the thumb of the oppressive regime.

This finely refashioned fairytale is a story of outsiders and nonconformists, imperfect boys and imperfect fathers, the heartbreaking burden of loss, about learning to love, and accepting people (and puppets) for who they are, not who, or what, we want them to become. It’s a reminder that no one lives forever but life goes on, that some rules—like telling the truth—aren’t absolute, and everyone “must try to do their best—and that’s all anybody can do.”

Even after nearly 150 years, this little puppet still has a few things he can teach us. And Guillermo del Toro has created one of his best, a film that spins magisterial new magic into an age-old folktale.

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Fine Young Cannibals: “Bones and All” review

They’re just a couple of kids in love…who love eating other people

Bones and All
Starring Taylor Russell & Timothèe Chalamet
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Rated R

See it: In theaters Wednesday, Nov. 11

Lee and Maren seem like a lot of young couples. They drive around, listen to music, have some tiffs with their parents. And when they grab a bite, well, it’s likely not from Chic-fil-A.  

You see, they’re cannibals. Yes, they eat people.

On one level, this insanely, savagely original young-love story is about a couple of outsiders in a harsh world that doesn’t understand or accept them. We can all relate to that, right?

What sets Maren and Lee apart, though, is the compulsion—the craving—they have for human flesh. It’s an acquired taste, we learn, one that’s rooted in both heredity and environment. They find out they’re not alone; they’re part of a gritty, grimy subset of other cannibals. They’re all outcasts, society rejects who refer to each other as “eaters.” The most, ahem, committed of eaters talk of going all in, dining on “bones and all.”

And Lee and Maren feel desperately fated, destined for a life that makes their road a rough, hardscrabble—and often horrific—one.

It’s a weird movie, crazily and often conversely beautiful and romantic, about two 1980s kids living outside the norms of convention—way outside. There’s blood and guts, as you might imagine, but that’s only one element of the bigger story, about a pair of ruggedly attractive castaways wrestling with who they are, and why. And Lee and Maren aren’t particularly happy about what they’re driven to do. But the rush it gives them—like a drug—is a hard habit to kick.

Taylor Russell (who played Judy Robinson in the Netflix reboot of the space sci-fi series Lost in Space) is Maren, abandoned by her father (Andre Holland) after she turns 18. On a quest to learn more about her family, particularly the mother she never knew, she hooks up with a lanky drifter (Timothèe Chalamet), and off they go in search of answers…and their next meal.  

The movie reunites Chalamet—who’s received acclaim (and awards nominations) for his work in Lady Bird, Little Women and Dune—with Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, who directed him inCall Me by Your Name. Guadagnino is a “painterly” director, known for his lush visuals, and the movie even begins with a series of oil renderings depicting serene pastoral scenes that we’ll later see in the film. They “paint” the way for Lee and Maren’s journey, seeking some peace in their unsettled—and unsettling—lives, like the tranquility in those picture-perfect paintings. But they’ll always be outsiders looking in, hunted and haunted.

Rebels on a road trip—if James Dean had a copious amount of blood soaked into his white T-shirt, plus a quirk of dining on carnival workers in an Iowa cornfield, well, he might have fit right into this cannibal club.

It’s a wild ride, for sure. Mark Rylance (below right) is an older, creepy cannibal who teaches Maren how to use her nose to sniff out fresh food. Michael Stuhlbarg and David Gordon Green play a pair of odd-couple “eater” buddies. Chloë Sevigny has a shocker of a scene, as a patient in a mental institution.

Maren, especially, contemplates the larger complexities and the implications of feeding her eating habit. Even cows in a slaughterhouse, she notes, have family, and maybe even friends. She advocates no-kill meals, dining on people who have already died. It may sound like a small distinction, but hey, some cannibals have principles.

The movie doesn’t really have a message, as such. But its depiction of cannibalism as addiction, as fate, as a consumptive lifestyle “appetite” alongside other hungers, like sex, lust and love…well, let’s just say I’ll never hear “Lick It Up” the same way again after watching the way that rockin’ KISS hit animates Lee.

Riding a wave of film-festival praise, Bones and All gnaws its way into theaters the day before Thanksgiving. It’s probably not exactly what most people have in mind for a celebratory family feast. But if you’ve got an appetite for the unusual, the unsettling, and for a gutsy spin on being young, angst-ridden, adrift in America and in love, well, lick it up.

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Back in Black

‘The Black Panther’ find its superhero footing after Chadwick Boseman

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Starring Letita Wright, Winston Duke, Lupita Nyong’o & Angela Bassett
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Rated PG-13

Angela Bassett reprises her role as Queen Mother Ramonda.

See it: In theaters Friday, Nov. 11

The specter of Chadwick Boseman looms large over this highly anticipated superhero sequel to the 2018 blockbuster.

Boseman, who starred in Black Panther as the first Black comic-book character to get a Marvel movie, died in 2020 of colon cancer. But his legacy endures, in more ways than one.

Wakanda Forever opens with the funeral of his character, the beloved King T’Challa, who became the crusading, wrong-righting Black Panther, the champion of his people, donning a sleek black bodysuit super-powered by a rare metal called vibranium.

T’Challa’s death is an emotional, gut-punch wallop to his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his scientist sister, Princess Shuri (Letita Wright). It also creates a power vacuum in the isolated kingdom, which has become a global superpower. The rest of the world wants what it’s got—the unique metal that’s made Wakanda the most technologically advanced place on the planet. Just think what other countries—and their military programs—could do with the wide-ranging wonders of vibranium.

And without the Black Panther to protect it, how can Wakanda defend itself?

That’s a question the movie takes nearly three hours to answer, as it constantly reminds us that Boseman’s T’Challa isn’t around anymore. The arrival of a strange visitor (Tenoch Huerta), a “merman” mutant who can zip through the air like a bug and live underwater like a fish, poses a new, existential threat: What it vibranium exists elsewhere, other powers use it for less-than-noble purposes, and Wakanda gets blamed for it?

Can the women of Wakanda rise to the challenge? Oh, yeah.

Director Ryan Coogler, who also wrote the story, returns to his role after the 2018 film, which was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture (losing, if you’re keeping score, to Green Book). Coogler seems to understand that the absence of Boseman, the franchise star, requires something else to fill the void, something big and substantial. And he pours it on.

Wakanda Forever is a spectacle, for sure, a sprawling, visually sumptuous, epic-sized moviescape itself superpowered with high-tech FX and eye-popping gee-whizzery. It’s big and bulky and sometimes beautiful, almost enough for two full movies packed into one. It has a major theme of Black female empowerment, of course, but also builds on the importance of global allies, the evils of colonization and the interface between ancient tradition, primal ritual and modern invention. Wakanda’s fierce female warriors still throw spears, but they also fly around in an arsenal of battlecraft, and inside armored suits.

The movie melds African culture, Pacific lore and Black experience into a tapestry of wide-ranging action and adventure.

It’s a good time to be “young, gifted and Black,” says Riri, a young college-student genius (Dominique Thorne) who becomes a new central character.     

You’ll plunge underneath the ocean to see the amazing sights of a vast aqua kingdom (it reminded me a bit of the fabulous wonder world touted in comic books advertising Sea Monkeys). There’s a warrior king with wings on his feet, and an aqua army riding around on whales—and wait until you see them swarm up the sides of a battleship and over it like ants on an anthill. The costumes are over-the-top fantabulous. A beloved character dies. And I won’t spoil it, but there’s at least one other golly-whopper of a surprise, too.

Key players from the original cast return: Martin Freeman as Wakanda’s CIA ally; Winston Duke as the mountainous warrior leader M’Baku; Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, T’Challa’s former lover, now running a Wakanda “outreach” program in Haiti.

But the central character of this tale remains the one played by Boseman, who may not be around anymore, but his influence casts a long, deep shadow. The movie has the muscle and heft of a comic-book blockbuster, but it also reflects profoundly on the human resonance of ancestry, remembering and moving on.

Can the Black Panther move on without Boseman, and without T’Challa? You’ll have to watch—all two hours and 45 minutes—to find out. But “forever” is in the title for a reason (and it’s not just how long the movie feels). And Wakanda Forever suggests that the kingdom, and the franchise, are in good hands.

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The End of the World (As We Know It)

Semi-autobiographical spin on childhood at the dawn of the 1980s has sobering messages about life

Banks Repeta with Anthony Hopkins in ‘Armageddon Time.’

Armageddon Time
Starring Anne Hathaway, Anthony Hopkins, Banks Repeta & Jeremy Strong
Directed by James Gray
Rated R

See it in theaters Nov. 4

From the New Testament of the Bible, the term “Armageddon” entered the wider lexicon to mean an epic battle to end all battles, a final clash between forces of good and evil.

It’s a metaphor for the turmoil of life in James Gray’s largely autobiographical coming-of-age portrait, which centers on an 11-year-old Jewish boy named Paul (Banks Repeta) in the New York City borough of Queens, and the ups and downs of his friendship with a Black classmate (Jaylin Webb) in 1980.

The two lads get in some trouble (toking on a joint in the bathroom) and are separated when Paul’s parents (Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway) send him off to a posh private school. But Paul has little interest in becoming someone else’s definition of successful. His kindly grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) encourages his dreams of drawing and becoming a famous artist.

Johnny has dreams, too. He wants to be an astronaut, like his Apollo space heroes. And despite his friendship with Paul, he knows they are from two different worlds, that some dreams will only take you so far, and some flight paths are unchangeable. Like the model rocket Paul launches in the park with his grandfather, life goes where it goes. It goes up, it comes down. It can be beautiful, exciting, thrilling—or it can misfire, or blow up, or crash, becoming a disaster. It’s not equal, it’s certainly not fair, but that’s the way it is.

Armageddon Time is set against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan’s election as U.S. president, and the hawkish prospect he represented for increased militarism in a fight against “communism.” Paul’s mother fears he’ll push America into global conflict, a nuclear Armageddon.

As Paul navigates this brief but formative period, he learns some valuable lessons about racism, antisemitism and how life isn’t always a delicious dinnertime dumpling. His grandfather, a Ukrainian Jew who fled the horrors of ethnic cleansing in Europe, tells him to stand up to bullies, to keep pushing back against evil and darkness, and to be a mensch, a person of integrity and honor.

His mother loves him, but thinks he’s “slow,” in need of remedial education. His blue-collar father thrashes him with his belt for misbehaving and worries he’ll never amount to anything. Both parents openly disapprove of his Black friend.

Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong play the parents.

Director Gray (whose previous films include the Brad Pitt space saga Ad Astra and the crime thrillers We Own the Night and The Yards) creates an effective, evocative sense of a specific time and place, the rush of childhood, the complicated dynamics of family and a depiction of adolescence on the uncertain threshold of adulthood. He especially draws out memorable performances from his two young central characters, the conduits for his story’s moods of youthful adventure, yearning, frustration and ache. Johnny turns Paul on to the happenin’ hip-hop of Harlem’s Sugar Hill Gang and “Rapper’s Delight.” Paul goes to the movies with his family to watch Goldie Hawn (a Jewish girl) in Private Benjamin. The dawn of the computer age sparks Paul’s imagination, in more ways than one. They make each other laugh, they run through the park, they skip a school field day to hang out and ride the subway.

It reminded me a bit of Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson’s gloriously golden retro ode to growing up and the rush of young love in California in the 1970s. But Armageddon Time is a bit darker than that, several shades more sobering, even a dollop depressing in its depiction of the creeping threats to Paul and Johnny’s friendship, in a world tainted by hatred and fear, and the reality that some dreams can never blast off into the bright, blue sky.

And as a nod to what’s coming, for Paul and America, the movie introduces the specter of Donald Trump, in characters representing his father, Fred Trump (John Diehl) and sister, Maryanne (Jessica Chastain).

Armageddon time may, it suggests, be any time. As Paul’s grandfather tells him, never give up, stand tall and keep fighting the “bastards.” There’ll always be bastards, the battle didn’t end in 1980, or after the Holocaust, and it sure doesn’t look like it’s over now.

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Murder, She Wrote

Kenneth Branagh returns to the canon of Agatha Christie for another twisty murder mystery

Kenneth Branagh directs and stars in ‘Death on the Nile,’ his second film based on a classic Agatha Christie novel.

Death on the Nile
Starring Gal Godot, Annette Bening, Tom Bateman, Russell Brand, Letitia Wright, Armie Hammer & Emma McKay
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Rated PG-13

In theaters Feb. 11, 2022

What do you do when there’s a crime, and everyone’s a suspect?

You get the world’s greatest detective, of course!

As Agatha Christie fans know, that would be Belgian crime-cracker Hercule Poirot, one of the late author’s most beloved, most famous and long-running characters of crime fiction. He has appeared in more than 30 novels, 50 short stories, numerous stage productions and more than a dozen films.

Poirot has been portrayed by a cavalcade of actors over the decades, including Orson Wells, Peter Ustinov, Tony Randall, Alfred Molina and John Malkovich. Britain’s acclaimed Kenneth Branagh first took on the role in 2017, in Murders on the Orient Express, which he also directed. He now returns to it, again as both actor and director, in this lavish new screen adaptation of Christie’s fan-favorite novel, first published in 1937.  

In Death on the Nile, Poirot must untangle a web of lies, deceit, greed and grievances swirling around a gorgeous young London heiress, Linnet Doyle (Wonder Woman’s Gal Godot), on her honeymoon cruise. When Linnet is discovered dead in her room, shot cleanly in her temple with a small-caliber weapon as she sleeps, the plot really begins to thicken

Armie Hammer & Gal Godot are at the center of wave of crime aboard a riveboat.

Soon she’s not the only death in Death on the Nile, as the paddlewheel steamer Karnak makes its way through the land of the pharaohs—and everyone comes under suspicion.

Good thing Hercule Poirot also happens to be on the boat!

As his investigation unfolds, Poirot finds no shortage of possible perpetrators, plausible motives—and murder weapons. Clues begin to add up as bodies begin to pile up: a dead woman caught in the boat’s paddlewheel; a pistol wrapped in a blood-stained scarf, dredged from the bottom of the river; a tense, jealous love triangle between Linnet, her new husband (Armie Hammer) and his former fiancé (Emma Mackay, the British Margot Robbie lookalike who stars in the Netflix series Sex Education).

The riverboat wedding party also includes Linnet’s lawyer and cousin (Ali Fazal), with a sheath of documents he seems anxious for her to sign; a renowned painter (Annette Bening) and her son, Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot’s confidante; a physician (Russell Brand) who was once engaged to Linnet; a maid (Rose Leslie, from Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones); and a brassy blues nightclub singer (Sophie Okonedo) and her niece/manager (Black Panther’s Letitia Wright), one of Linnet’s former classmates. The British comedy team of Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French play Linette’s socialite godmother and her companion/nurse.

As a director, Branagh (currently a top Oscar contender for his semi-autobiographical drama Belfast) takes a few creative liberties with Christie’s story, and fans of the English author will enjoy seeing the creative spins he puts on her classic puzzle—a few character tweaks here, a minor plot point there. He also crafts a compelling backstory for Poirot, with an opening scene that puts us alongside him, as a young soldier, in the muddy trenches of World War I—and provides the genesis of his florid, double-decker trademark moustache.

Gal Gadot: The ‘Wonder Woman’ star plays a London heiress

Gorgeous to look at, Branagh’s film—shot on a massive London soundstage, complete with a gargantuan water tank—is filled with sights and splash and splendor, from the pyramids and tombs and antiquities of ancient Egypt to the funky, dirty-dancing delights of a hoppin’ London speakeasy. Omens on the screen portend something bad is surely going to happen down the river as a crocodile lunges from the murky waters to snatch a squawking egret; a hissing snake strikes out, unexpectedly, toward the viewers; a massive piece of tumbling stonemasonry barely misses Linette and her husband.

And despite its title, and its centerpiece crime, Branagh has another theme on his mind. “It’s love,” as Linnet notes at one point. “It’s not a game played fair. There are no rules.” Romantic ties—and societal rule-breaking—run throughout the entire story, and cross-connect almost every character, in some way or another. Even Poirot himself, as the film’s beginning and ending suggest, is not immune to being gob-smacked by love’s primal power.

This new Death on the Nile—which has previously been the subject of two theatrical films, a TV movie, a Broadway play and a BBC radio serial—is a twisty, turn-y tale of love and lovers, murder and mystery, and passions that can sometimes turn poisonous. It may take place some eight decade ago, but its themes are timeless.

And not all the movie drama, as it turns out, appears onscreen. Like several other films, Death on the Nile faced a struggle to even be released—its opening was delayed six times due to the COVID pandemic. Meanwhile, the movie’s leading man, Armie Hammer, became an untouchable persona non grata in Hollywood after charges levied against him for sexual misconduct and rape, and his bizarre sexting comments about cannibalism. Disney reportedly considered—but ultimately abandoned—options that included reshooting the entire film, or digitally removing his character and replacing it with another actor.

But here we finally are, and fans of whodunnit riddles—from Agatha Christie to Knives Out and even the classic board game of Clue—will greatly enjoy trying to piece together the evidence to unravel this period-piece knot alongside Christie’s favorite sleuth.

There may have been some 46 other movies—and more than 50 TV and radio versions—based on the works of Christie, who died in 1976, many of them featuring Poirot or Christie’s other famous mystery solver, Miss Marple. But Branagh’s lively, exotic, star-spangled take on Death on the Nile proves there’s plenty of life left in finely crafted stories of love, murder and the messy matters of the human heart.

All aboard!

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Saving the Galaxy…Awesome!

Family matters in ‘Guardians’ sequel, but mostly it’s a wild ride of bonkers space-rocket fun 

nullGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker & Kurt Russell
Directed by James Gunn
PG-13
In theaters May 5, 2017

“We’re saving the galaxy again?” asks the rascally raccoon known as Rocket. “Awesome!”

Many fans will have the same giddy reaction at the return of Guardians of the Galaxy, the 2014 blockbuster about a ragtag, Robin Hood-ish crew of Marvel Comics space mercenaries. The gang from the original, which raked in more than $773 million at the box office, is also all aboard for the sequel, including writer/director James Gunn.

Leading the pack again is Chris Pratt as the cocky, roguish pilot Peter Quill, who still has an “unspoken thing” for the emerald-skinned she-assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Former professional wrestler Dave Bautista is a man-mountain of red-tattooed muscle as Drax (the Destroyer), whose hearty laugh sounds like it could rattle the rings around Saturn. Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), the mouthy raccoon genetically altered to become a master of weaponry and fighting, is given his own mini-story spinoff—which includes an especially zesty verbal spar with a dreadlocked baddie named Taserface (Chris Dowd, who plays Toby Damon on TV’s This is Us).

nullAnd even though you really can’t tell, that’s Vin Diesel once more providing the voice of Baby Groot, the new, little-sprout incarnation of the hulking tree creature that was part of the Guardians crew in the first film.

Baby Groot pretty much steals the show—and certainly every scene in which appears,  dancing, wiggling, running, grunting or simply saying the only thing he ever says: “I am Groot.”

GuardiansVol25897cd1f4c95f

Rocket & Baby Groot

This time around, the Guardians get into serious trouble when Rocket double-crosses some gold-skinned aliens, the Sovereigns, led by the imperialistic Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki).  That sets off an intergalactic bounty hunt by the Ravagers, a group of motley thieves, smugglers and space pirates.

But Peter Quill’s long-lost father, Ego (Kurt Russell), zooms to the rescue. When he takes the Guardians to his fabulous celestial home, a world he created, he lays the news on them: He’s actually a cosmic deity, a “celestial.” That makes Peter, his spawn, a bona fide star child.

“You’re…a god?” asks the incredulous Peter.

“Small g, son,” says Ego. “At least on days I’m feeling humble.”

The matter of Peter’s mixed DNA—his mother was an Earthling who died of a brain tumor when Peter was a child—looms large. And as most everyone knows, family matters can be complicated.

There’s a difference and a distinction between fathers and daddies, Peter is reminded by Yondu (Michael Rooker), the blue-skinned bandit who raised him. And Gamora is reunited with her sister, the cybernetically enhanced Nebula (Karen Gillan, Dr. Who’s Amy Pond), who has some major childhood grudges she still wants to settle.

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Gamora

All of this zaps and zooms along, as did the first movie, to a witty stream of pop-cultural riffs and references. Peter compares his slow-burn relationship with Gamora to Sam and Diane from the iconic rom-com Cheers, and he tells her how much he longed for his dad to be like dashing Knight Rider star David Hasselhoff. A wild, warping ride through space zones, in which characters’ faces contort in crazy, eye-popping ways, is a meta-reference to the work of legendary Looney Tunes cartoon animator Tex Avery. There’s a visual joke about Pac Man, and another very clever running gag that takes drone weaponry to an alien-videogame-arcade extreme.

And there are VIP cameos, one by someone Marvel fans always expect to show up in Marvel movies, and another by Sylvester Stallone, who mumbles a few mushy lines and then disappears for most of the rest of the movie.

Just like the original Guardians rocked out to Peter Quill’s “Awesome Mixtape Vol. I” cassette on his beloved Walkman, this one has an equally cool overlay of classic-rock gems to set the tone. It starts out with the Looking Glass super-70s hit “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” and continues through “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac, George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” Jay and the American’s “Love a Little Bit Closer,” Silver’s “Wham Bam Shang-A-Lang” and several more.

And you’ve probably never thought of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” as the musical backdrop for the battle of a gigantic glop monster, or Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights” as the soundtrack for a moonlit evening of finely orchestrated defensive-perimeter mayhem. But you probably will now.

It’s noisy, colorful, jam-packed and it ends—like a lot of superhero flicks—with a big, boom-y, blowout bang before a much softer, sentimental coda, one orchestrated to the meditative strains of the Cat Stevens song “Fathers and Sons.” But it’s a practically nonstop cascade of fast-paced, bonkers, high-spirited fun, a far-out space-rocket ride with a cast of endearing characters that have definitely found their movie niche and intend to hang onto it.

As the teaser at the end indicates, they’ll definitely be back—to save the galaxy again.

To quote Rocket the raccoon, “Awesome!”

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Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

‘Get Out’ blends scathing social commentary with full-on creep show

Daniel Kaluula and Allison Williams star in 'Get Out.' sinister reason for invitation.

Daniel Kaluula and Allison Williams star in ‘Get Out.’

Get Out
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford & Catherine Keener
Directed by Jordan Peele
R
In theaters Feb. 24, 2017

On the surface, it starts off like a lot of other horror flicks: After driving a long way out of the city, a young couple, Rose (Allison Williams) and Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) ends up at a house in the woods in the middle of nowhere. The nearest neighbors are miles away, across a lake.

Things seem normal and welcoming enough at first, but soon begin to feel creepy—then very creepy, and then extremely creepy.

Oh—she’s white, he’s black, and five months into their relationship, they’ve gone for him to meet her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) for the first time.

on.

Bradley Whitford & Catherine Keener

Now, in this modern age, interracial dating isn’t even a thing anymore, right? Certainly not among upscale, enlightened, encultured white liberal lefties, folks who “would have voted for Obama a third time” if they could, who love golfer Tiger Woods and who “admire” the culture and the achievements of the black race, all the way back to Jesse Owens besting the Aryan Nazis at the 1936 Berlin Olympics… Right?

There’s definitely a weird vibe in the house. The two black “hired hands,” the groundskeeper and the maid (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel), sure do act strange. And things get even weirder when the neighbors, all white, arrive for a big shindig on the lawn. Everyone is nice—a bit too nice—and the sole black man in attendance (Lakeith Stanfield, Darius on TV’s Atlanta) seems, well, spaced out or something…until he suddenly snaps, stumbles toward Chris and warns him, “Get out!!!”

Betty Gabriel

Betty Gabriel

If Get Out doesn’t exactly sound like any horror movie you’ve ever seen before, that’s because it is, and it isn’t. It takes familiar horror conventions and runs them through a filter of caustic satire about what it’s like—and what it feels like—to be a black man in an America dominated by white culture.

And it comes out as one of the most original horror movies in years.

What’s it like to be a black man with a white woman on a lonely stretch of two-lane when a cop demands to see your ID? What’s it like to be walking alone on street at night in an all-white neighborhood when an automobile rolls up ominously…then stops alongside you? When white people make fawning comments about you and your “people” as if you were different, genetically, physically, culturally?

What’s it like, in a movie like this, when all those things are amplified through a creepshow channel that keeps turning up the volume, slowly but  surely, until everything finally explodes?

The director and writer is Jordan Peele, of the Emmy-winning Comedy Central duo Key & Peele, and he makes a very impressive debut behind the camera, indeed, mixing real chills with generous dollops of genuine laughter—many of them thanks to comedian Lil Rel Howery, who plays Chris’ best friend, a TSA agent who was wary all along of “his boy” venturing upstate to the all-white enclave of Rose’s world.

Peele (who is himself married to a white woman, comedian-actress Chelsea Peretti from TV’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine) is playing with dynamite, and he knows it—especially in a nation, at a time, of #blacklivesmatter, when tensions in communities across the country continue to roil and rumble. You can certainly enjoy Get Out for the pure, giddy goosebumps it brings, but you’d be missing the film’s masterful layering of timely social commentary as well as Jordan’s bold, eventually bloody, cathartic critique of black-and-white relations and stereotypes.

And Peele doesn’t stop there. He draws a subtle, scathing line that connects American imperialism all the way back to its colonial roots, when white men essentially took whatever—and whomever—they wanted.

I don’t want to give too much away, but imagine Meet The Parents plus Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner crossed with Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Stepford Wives and given a twist of Twilight Zone and maybe even a shot of M. Night Shyamalan.

All with a bracing, blistering message about race and skin color—one meant to get under everyone’s skin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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After School Special

Charlie Day, Ice Cube put new shine(r) on classic Hollywood grudge match

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Fist Fight
Starring Charlie Day & Ice Cube
Directed by Richie Keen
R
In theaters Feb. 17, 2017

Hollywood loves taking a good idea, dusting it off and giving it a new shine.

Or a new shiner, as the case may be with Fist Fight, in which a hapless high school teacher (Charlie Day) is challenged to a brawl by one of his fellow instructors (Ice Cube) at 3 p.m. on the last day of classes.

If you’re old enough to remember, you may recall a wonderful little 1987 movie called Three O’Clock High, which had essentially the same premise with two students. If you’ve got a really good memory, you may recall that Three O’Clock High offered a contemporary cinematic nod to High Noon, the 1952 Gary Cooper classic about a marshal forced to face a gang of killers alone—as a clock tick-tocks down the anxious minutes in real time.

The grudge match in Fist Fight is played for laughs, and there are plenty, beginning with the classroom incident that gets mild-mannered English instructor Andy Campbell (Day) crossways with hot-tempered history teacher Ron Strickland (Cube). Day is slight, white and whiney; Cube is thick, dark and growly. They’re so temperamentally and physically at odds, anything they do together is practically pre-set to be funny.

To add to the comedic recipe for disaster, the fight isn’t all that’s looming for Campbell. His wife is pregnant and about to pop any minute. Rumors of school cutbacks are swirling, and he’s got a meeting with the superintendent at 2 p.m. to find out if his job is among them. Right after that, his daughter has a recital at her middle school, and he’s promised he’ll be there to join her in a dance routine from the musical Annie.

And it’s senior prank day. There are paint bombs on trip wires, classroom TV sets hijacked to show porn, naughty anatomical patterns landscaped into the grass of the soccer field, a mariachi band following the principal everywhere he goes, and a horse galloping down the hallways.

Tracy Morgan & Jillian Bell

Tracy Morgan & Jillian Bell

Director Richie Keen, a TV trouper making his first feature film, worked with Day on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and he packs the screen with familiar faces from other television shows. Saturday Night Live veteran Tracy Morgan, making his first movie appearance since his near-fatal 2014 auto accident, gets laughs as a wacky coach. Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) plays a freaky French teacher. Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris is the exasperated principal. Kumail Naujiani (Portlandia, Silicon Valley) plays the school’s by-the-books security officer. Young & Hungry’s Kym Whitley has a cameo as a 911 call center dispatcher—who gets a good laugh at Campbell’s unusual predicament.

Stephnie Weir from Crazy Ex-Girfriend has a moment as a school official. JoAnna Garcia Dahl, who plays Ariel in Once Upon a Time, is Campbell’s wife. Young Alexa Nisenson, 11, who made her movie debut last year in Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, plays Campbell’s daughter, who ditches Annie at the last minute for an explosively raw rap song by Big Sean that makes the talent show scene from Little Miss Sunshine look as quaint and sedate as something from Lawrence Welk.

Jillian Bell, whom you’ll probably recognize from several other R-rated movies (22 Jump Street, The Night Before, Bridesmaids) and numerous TV roles (Workaholics, Idiotsitter, Supermansion), brings her comedy-gold blend of deadpan delivery, raunchy spunk and fearless improv to Holly, the school’s hilariously misguided guidance counselor.

FIST FIGHT

This is Day’s show, and he does a nice job, channeling a comedic mojo that feels like a strain of easygoing, Steve Carell-ish everyman hot-wired with Casey Affleck’s unpredictable intensity. Cube doesn’t get near as much to do, but he does get to shine in very funny scene where the rumors about his fearsome teacher come colorfully to life as students tell of what they’ve heard about him and his past—soldier assassin, violent drug lord, renegade cop, crazy jazz pianist.

The jokes fly, but there’s some serious, timely messaging here, too—mainly about “the depths to which the school system has fallen,” as noted on one of the news channels covering (by helicopter!) the “#teacherfight,” which becomes a worldwide viral sensation driven and promoted by memes, Twitter, YouTube and other social media. Pick an education topic—inclusiveness, bureaucracy, job insecurity, funding, resources, bullying, drugs, vandalism, student behavior issues—and it’s there, in between the laughter.

Campbell has three scenes in front of his English classes, throughout the day, in which we see him unravel a bit more each time, becoming progressively more rattled as his appointment in the parking lot looms. Can he rally and rise to the challenge?

See you in the parking lot at 3 o’clock to find out!

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Lost in ‘Space’

‘The Space Between Us’ is a cheesy constellation of movie junk food

THE SPACE BETWEEN US

Britt Robertson and Asa Butterfield star in ‘The Space Between Us.’

The Space Between Us
Starring Asa Butterfield, Britt Robertson, Gary Oldman & Carla Gugino
Directed by Peter Chelsom
PG-13

Men are from Mars, as the saying goes, women are from…Colorado?

Well, that’s the case in this futuristic, young-adult sci-fi romance, in which a teenage boy born and raised on the red planet strikes up a (really, really) long-distance relationship with a high-school girl in the Rocky Mountains.

Gardner Elliott was just a little ultrasound blip—unbeknownst to NASA—when his mom, the team leader of a group of astronaut pioneers, blasted off to join a space colony on Mars. But Gardner’s mother died during his childbirth, and it’s decided to keep the reason for her death—and thereby Gardner’s entire existence—a secret by the eccentric space-privateer mastermind of the project, Dr. Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman).

THE SPACE BETWEEN US

Dr. Sheppard (Gary Oldman) introduces his astronaut pioneers.

So Gardner (Asa Butterfield) grows up 249 million miles away, in the “bubble” of the space settlement with a surrogate mom (Carla Gugino), older scientist buddies and a babbling robot companion. To let off steam, he goes outside and cuts angry, red-dust donuts in the Mars rover.

And like most teenagers, he spends a lot of time online. He’s transfixed by photos and video of his mom and a man he presumes is his father. And somehow, he connects with a girl named Tulsa (Britt Robertson) in Colorado.

(The movie doesn’t show us what happens when Gugino gets the monthly bill for the wireless data package—but you can only imagine.)

Anyway, Gardner convinces Tulsa that he’s really iChatting with her from a penthouse on Park Avenue in New York City, and that he’s suffering from a rare illness.

The “illness” part is partly true. Since he “gestated,” was born and grew up in the low gravity of Mars, his body and its organs are different from any Earthling. His bones are more brittle, his blood is thinner, his heart is larger and weaker. On Earth, now, he would have a hard time.

So, yes, you know what’s going to happen.

Gardner sets off on a shuttle for the far, far faraway place he’s only seen in movies and on his computer screen. Let the adventure begin!

There are some moments of sweetness, loveliness and humor. Gardner is overwhelmed with Earth—its vibrant colors, food, people, people everywhere and endless varieties of everything. He’s so much heavier in Earth’s stronger gravity; he has trouble walking. He thinks that Tulsa, when he meets her, is the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen.

Soon he and Tulsa are on the lam, on a cross-country road trip, to find Gardner’s father. And of course, Gardner is falling in love.

But trouble looms: Gardner’s weakened heart is a ticking time bomb, and Dr. Shepherd is racing to find the young man from Mars and send him back.

And there’s a twist, one you may see coming like a gigantic meteor long before it hits you.

THE SPACE BETWEEN USIf you’re a young teenager, you may be transfixed by this YA space goop, a cheesy constellation that feels like something Nicholas Sparks might have strung together on a sugar rush after eating too much freeze-dried astronaut ice cream and washing it down with gulps of lukewarm Tang.

The plot is a jumbled rush of events, a pileup of preposterousness and a clichéd cascade of Hollywood happenstance.

Gardner comes all the way from Mars, doesn’t know Tulsa’s last name or much anything else, but he walks right into her school, and right into her. (School security must not be of much concern in the future.) Things seem carelessly, jarringly, out of time. In the movie, we can live on another planet, nap in driverless cars and zip around in private space shuttles. But when Tulsa and Gardner need to make a getaway, they hop into a 1920s-era biplane (!), which she knows how to fly, and she’s equally at home on her vintage 1950s motorcycle.

More “refined” viewers might embrace moments when the movie seems to aspire to something deeper and richer, like its repeated references to the 1987 German romantic fantasy film Wings of Desire, about invisible, immortal guardian angels, Gardner’s inspiration; or how Oldman’s character’s last name shrewdly echoes that of NASA’s first Mercury astronaut, Alan Shepard.

At 19, Butterfield, a child star in the wonderful Hugo (2011), and more recently Jake in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, channels cinematic bits of Rain Man, Jeff Bridges’ Starman (1984) and even some of Peter Sellers’ Being There (1979), in which Seller’s character was also called Gardner.

But Britt Robertson may have finally aged out of playing a teenager. The star of Tomorrowland and The Longest Ride (both 2015), now 26, has pluck and poise, but surely there were other young(er) actresses who at least looked a bit more like they’d belong next to a row of high school lockers?

Director Peter Chelsom, whose resume includes Hannah Montana: The Movie (2009) and Funny Bones (1995), an obscure Jerry Lewis comedy that only played in a handful of theaters before closing, simply doesn’t seem to know how to put all the pieces of this Space puzzle together. Screenwriter Allan Loeb isn’t much help—there must not have been much to draw from in his experience as the writer of Adam Sandler’s raunchy Just Go With It, the dud movie musical Rock of Ages and the box-office flops The Switch, The Dilemma and Here Comes the Boom.

At one point, Gardner grabs an Earth snack, a Mars candy bar. It’s meant as a fleeting in-joke, but it’s a pretty good shorthand for The Space Between Us as a whole—movie junk food, empty calories, a satisfying yummy for a certain non-discriminating viewer with a sweet tooth for something soft, sugary, forgettable and disposable.

In one scene, Tulsa and Gardner stop off in Las Vegas, where she wants to give him a crash course in world geography. “Paris, Venice, Cairo—it’s like a big toy box!” she chirps. So many places, all their landmarks reproduced as casino cathedrals. But Gardner doesn’t have the reaction she hopes. It’s too much for him, a bombardment of sensory overload.

“It’s hurting my head,” he says.

Yes, too much candy can do that.

 

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Gold Rush

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

GOLD

Matthew McConaughey and Edgar Ramirez star in ‘Gold.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Kenny's wife.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Kenny’s wife.

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

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

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

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