Tag Archives: neil pond

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.”

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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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Getting Crowded In Here

M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Split’ spins a devilish multi-personality web

Film Title: Split

Split
Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy & Betty Buckley
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
PG-13
In theaters Jan. 20, 2017

Most actors work for years to get single juicy part in a major movie. Not everyone is as lucky as James McAvoy.

In the thriller Split, the Scottish star—best known for his portrayal of Professor Xavier in the X-Men movie franchise—gets almost two dozen, all at once.

As Kevin, a deeply disturbed young man with “dissociative identity disorder,” sometimes he’s Mr. Glass, a fastidious maintenance man. At other times he’s Hedwig, an unbridled 9-year-old boy; or Miss Patricia, a cross-dressing matriarch, or Dennis, Orwell, Jade, Norma, Hamlet or one of his other distinct personalities, 23 in all, each with his own manner of speaking, dressing, walking and talking.

Betty Buckley

Betty Buckley

The title refers to all those different personas, split into separate slices. Kevin—or is it Dennis?—is seeing his longtime psychiatrist (veteran actress Betty Buckley), Dr. Fletcher, who’s trying to sort them—and him—all out. She considers him a puzzle and a prime example of the mysteries of the mind.

But Kevin also has a much darker side: Dr. Fletcher has no idea that he’s also a psychopath who’s kidnapped three young women (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sulu) and is holding them captive in a subterranean lair. Where are they? What he’s planning on doing with them—or to them? Can they escape? What—or who—is “the beast” he keeps telling them about? Why does he keep talking about “purity” and “evolution”?

Director M. Night Shyamalan is practically a brand name unto himself, known for his twists, turns and last-minute surprises in movies like The Sixth Sense, The Village, Unbreakable, Lady in the Water and The Visit. Here he takes somewhat standard horror movie stereotypes—teenage girls stripped to their undies, tormented by a crazy, creepy guy—but gives them a unique, Shyamalan-ian spin, and he doesn’t take the story where you’re probably thinking it’s headed…or where other movies with similar setups have gone.

Mental health professionals may disagree with the director, who also wrote the screenplay, especially about whether childhood traumas and suffering can “unlock the brain to the unknown and the supernatural.” That, you might remember, was somewhat of a theme in Shyamalan’s movie Unbreakable (2000), starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson.

But you certainly can’t deny Shyamalan’s imagination and his style. He weaves a devilishly demented web of clues, and you never know exactly where he’s going until he gets there. And when he does—well, hang on. It gets wild, in more ways than one.

Anya Taylor-Joy

Anya Taylor-Joy

As the lead hostage, Casey, Anya Taylor-Joy (terrific in last year’s breakout horror movie The Witch) proves her resourcefulness—mainly because of a backstory, explained and unfolded in flashbacks that reveal how her own childhood “scars” gave her some formidable survival skills.

But this is McAvoy’s show, as he switches from one “alter” to another, sometimes in a single scene. It’s a bravura acting job, unsettling and terrifying. Taylor-Joy gives a great performance in a role that calls on Casey to contain her panic, call on her past and confront more than one kind of beast.

Shyamalan, known for his final-scene shockers, saves a whopper for the very end. I won’t give it away, but I will say it made me wonder if the director might be thinking that Split could be split off into even more films, bridging Shyamalan’s own movie past with his future. Based on what I’ve seen, I say start splitting, Mr. S!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sounds of ‘Silence’

Martin Scorsese’s epic new drama looks for God, not gangsters

Liam Neeson plays a 17th century Portuguese priest on a difficult mission in 'Silence.'

Liam Neeson plays a 17th century Portuguese priest on a difficult mission in ‘Silence.’

Silence
Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver & Liam Neeson
Directed by Martin Scorsese
R
In wide release Jan. 13, 2017

The director best known for hoods, gangsters and thugs turns his eyes to God in this epic tale of two Catholic priests who face persecution and death as they travel to Japan in the 17th century to spread their Christian faith.

Martin Scorsese, the cinematic maestro whose iconic work includes Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street, transforms the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo into a sprawling historical drama about faith, centered on God’s “silence” in the face of human suffering.

In the movie, two young Portuguese priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) set sail across the globe to Japan to seek their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). In the Land of the Rising Sun, Christianity has been outlawed, Ferreira is missing and there are rumors that he’s dead—or worse, that he’s renounced his faith, or apostatized, and become a Buddhist monk.

Adam Driver & Andrew Garfield

Adam Driver & Andrew Garfield

And in Japan, talk about a “war on Christians”: Local villagers are rounded up and subjected to various heinous tortures if they do not publicly disown their faith—crucified in the ocean, burned alive, beheaded, scalded with hot water, hung upside down and slowly bled to death.

When a missionary priest is captured, he’s forced to watch the torture until—unless—he will apostatize and publically denounce and deface his God.

For Rodrigues and Garrpe, this is no exotic Japanese vacation—it’s some 350 years before Disneyland Tokyo, BTW—and they are the only two Catholic priests on the whole island. How far, and how long, can they spread the seeds of their faith without being caught? Can they find out what happened to Father Ferreira? Can they come to understand why a benevolent, loving God continues to let Christians suffer, if holding on to faith is worth all the terrible pain it causes—or if God is even listening at all to their prayers?

These are big, unwieldy questions, and Scorsese tackles them head-on. Silence is a big, sometimes unwieldy movie. It’s two hours and 40 minutes long. Its majestic cinematic scope, grand scale and thorny theological themes will probably put it out of the mainstream, at least for a lot of viewers, down at the multiplex. And it doesn’t have one single note of music, even on the opening or closing credits; it begins and ends with the sounds of nature, a symphony of crickets and frogs.

But it looks gorgeous. Working with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, his collaborator on Gangs of New York and Casino, and Oscar-winning production designer Dante Ferretti (Hugo, The Aviator, Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), Scorsese depicts Japan as a lush, sprawling wonderland. Even the film’s horrors have a savage, artful beauty, like modern-day movie paintings of Christian martyrs rendered on the big screen.

SILENCEAndrew Garfield is having a great run, coming off director Mel Gibson’s critically acclaimed Hacksaw Ridge and now right into this role, making a back-to-back pair of exceptionally strong performances that show his depth and range. Adam Driver continues to impress, and I was disappointed when his character was dismissed halfway through the movie to go his separate way. He’s a much more interesting actor than Garfield, but Garfield has better hair, so hey, I get it.

But one of the movie’s most memorable performances comes from Asian TV veteran Issey Ogata. As the ominously nicknamed Japanese “Inqisitor,” Inoue Massashige, he gives forceful pushback to Rodrigues and his message of Christian evangelism. By turns sinister and menacing, comical and humorous, and sympathetic and pragmatic, he’s one of the film’s most compelling, complex and pivotal characters.

“Am I just praying to nothing, because you are not there?” Rodrigues, near madness, asks God at one point. It’s one of the questions that ring deep and long in the powerful, potently quiet spaces of Silence, long after the last cricket chirp has faded away.

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You Rang?

‘A Monster Calls’ scares away terrors of childhood

A MONSTER CALLS

A Monster Calls
Starring Lucas MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver & the voice of Liam Neeson
Directed by J.A. Bayona
PG-13

J.A. Bayona knows that childhood can be a scary, perilous time.

The Spanish director’s first major movie, The Orphanage (2007), was a poignant, unnerving haunted-house horror tale about ghosts of the deep past. His second, The Impossible (2012), swept a couple (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) and their three children away in the great Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

Now A Monster Calls finds a 12-year-old boy, Conor (Lucas MacDougall), visited in the night by a giant “tree monster” who tells him a series of stories to help him cope with the inevitable consequences of his mother’s incurable cancer and the bullying of his schoolmates.

_MG_5478.CR2Is the monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) a fantasy creature from Conor’s dreams, a figment of his fertile imagination, or one of his pencil drawings come magically to life?

Like the ancient, towering tree that “becomes” the monster every night, just past midnight at exactly 12:07 a.m., there’s a lot going on both above the surface and beneath it in this beautiful-looking film of great depth, heart and soul. It’s a coming-of-age tale of a boy and his mom (Felicity Jones, who’s terrific), and how he gets tangled up by his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and his estranged father (Toby Kebbell), who’s now remarried and living stateside.

Not to mention those bullies, who tease and threaten him, push him around, ambush him in the schoolyard and debase his artwork.

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Felicity Jones plays Conor’s mom.

Conor is haunted by a recurring nightmare about being on the maw of a dark, seemingly bottomless pit, where he’s holding on for dear life to the hand of his mother, who’s fallen over the edge. Curled up one evening on the couch with her, watching King Kong on late-night TV, it’s no wonder Conor can relate to the great beast, dogged by biplanes peppering him with gunfire until he can no longer hold on to the top of the Empire State Building. The mighty Kong loses his grip and falls to his death.

Conor’s eyes fill with tears and he asks his mom why Kong had to die. Why did people hate him? Why did they kill him? “People don’t like what they don’t understand,” she tells him.

A MONSTER CALLSYoung people will certainly be able to relate to Conor and his plight, an adolescent symphony of anger, resentment and righteous rage that will ring true in a variety of circumstances. Grownups will appreciate the movie’s craftwork and gorgeous artistry, especially when the monster tells Conor his stories; each one is a mini-parable with a lesson, illustrated and animated differently.

Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. If they more of them were as cool as a storytelling tree that sounded like Liam Neeson, maybe the world might not seem like such a scary place.

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Space Racers

Spotlighting black female brain power that boosted America’s space program

DF-03283_R3 - Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae, left), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) celebrate their stunning achievements in one of the greatest operations in history. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer star in ‘Hidden Figures.’

Hidden Figures
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe & Kevin Costner
Directed by Theodore Melfi
PG
In theaters Jan. 6, 2017

Behind every successful man, the old saying goes—as archaic and sexist as it may be—there’s a woman.

In the case of this movie, it’s literally, historically true.

Hidden Figures is the story of a group of black women who broke through racial and gender barriers in the late 1950s and early ’60s to work as mathematicians and other number crunchers and help NASA get America’s first astronauts, and its space program, off the ground.

In the pre-digital age, there were known as human “computers,” doing complex calculations about flight trajectories, orbit, reentry, splashdown and recovery with pencils, paper and pure brain power.

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and singer-actress Janelle Monáe star as their real-life counterparts Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson.

Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner is the director of the Space Task Group, spurring his engineers to find a way ahead of the Soviets, who’ve already moved into an early lead in the space race. If you got a rousing rah-rah pep talk from the guy from Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Draft Day and McFarland, USA, wouldn’t it make you push that pencil just a little bit harder, a little bit later into the night, to beat the ruskies?

Jim Parsons—Sheldon Cooper on TV’s The Big Bang Theory—plays another egghead, time-shifted here to suit the situation: He’s a prickly lead engineer wary of a woman—and a Negro woman, at that—coming into his group. As the gentlemanly military man who courts Johnson, Mahershala Ali continues to add to his growing resume, on top of his breakout in the movie Moonlight and his recurring appearances in TV’s Luke Cage and House of Cards. Kristin Dunst is a supervisor who struggles to overcome the era’s hurdles separating employees into whites and coloreds.

John Glenn (Glen Powell) meets the "computers," the female mathematicians with whom he would come to trust his life.

John Glenn (Glen Powell) meets the “computers,” the female mathematicians with whom he would come to trust his life.

Glen Powell plays young hotshot astronaut John Glenn, who won’t get into his space capsule for blastoff until NASA brings in Johnson to double-check the crucial—life or death—math on his orbit and re-entry.

But the clearly movie belongs to its three central stars, and director Theodore Melfi (who also directed Bill Murray in the wonderful St. Vincent) gives them all plenty of room to shine in a story that oozes inspiration and rings with righteous pride, thanks to the zippy, well-rounded script by Melfi and Alison Schroder, based on the nonfiction book by Margo Lee Shetterly. Henson, Spencer and Monáe all bring spunk, sass, heart and humor to their roles.

The title “hidden figures” refers to just how deep behind the scenes women like Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson were at NASA—and elsewhere—in the early 1960s. Even though their contributions proved to be immense to the space program, they were practically “lost” in a sea of white men in white shirts. But it also refers to the math required to get America into space and headed to the moon—numbers “that aren’t there yet,” as Costner’s character tells Johnson, calculations so advanced, they hadn’t been invented, figures waiting somewhere yet to be found.

Katherine Johnson was the woman who found them.

The movie tells the “hidden” story of three super-smart, headstrong women who made tremendous strides in a time of shameful segregation and civil unrest, a time when a group of black women helped white men get into space—but couldn’t use the same bathrooms, coffeepots, water fountains or schools.

Three women, it reminds us, who had another kind of “the right stuff.”

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Over The Fence

Powerful leading performances move ‘Fences’ from stage to screen

FENCES

Fences
Starring Denzel Washington & Viola Davis
Directed by Denzel Washington
PG-13
In theaters Dec. 25, 2016

Fences can keep things in, keep things out, make it difficult for people to see what’s happening, and mark lines of division, separation or conflict.

Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington directs as well as stars in this big-screen adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 Broadway play, an epic domestic drama about a black family in Pittsburgh in the mid 1950s.

Washington reprises the lead role of Troy Maxson, a garbage collector and former baseball player haunted by his glory days in the Negro leagues. It’s a role Washington also performed on stage in the play’s 2010 Tony Award-winning Broadway revival, alongside Viola Davis, who also returns to her role as Troy’s long-suffering, loyal wife, Rose.

Much of the movie is set in the scrappy, cramped, grassless backyard of Troy and Rose’s modest brick home, in the shadows of the town’s smoke-belching factories, where Troy spends his weekends working on the construction of a wooden fence. It’s to separate his home from the eyesore of the abandoned house next door.

And it’s obviously a metaphor for much more.

Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Troy (Denzel Washington) watch Cory (Jovan Adepo) work on Troy’s backyard fence.

Troy is a fiercely proud patriarch who crows about how much he loves Rose, how hard he works, how he deserves a promotion, and how much he’s done to provide for his family. He boasts about what a great baseball player he was (better than the new black players, even Jackie Robinson), and how he danced with death more than once and lived to tell the tale.

But Troy is a jealous bully to his youngest son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), blocking his promising athletic path to college. He’s stingy and dismissive of his oldest son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), whose easygoing musical ambition doesn’t seem like “real” work. And when his secretive philandering puts his marriage to the test, the world of which he so loudly proclaims himself to be the center begins to crumble.

In a powerful performance, Washington makes Troy both sympathetic and pathetic, a tragic character of almost Shakespearian proportions grappling with fate, family responsibilities, work, racial injustice and carnal desires. You may not like him, or love him, but Washington makes Troy a force of nature you cannot ignore.

And Davis, too, is formidable; she’s already won a Critic’s Choice award, and she’s all but certainly bound for an Oscar nomination. The emotional, confrontational scene where Rose stands up to Troy, and her wounded pride comes spilling out in a fierce spew of anger, hurt, betrayal, tears and snot, goes far deeper than any of the holes Troy’s put in the yard for his fence posts.

Mykelti Williamson plays Gabriel.

Mykelti Williamson plays Gabriel.

Familiar character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson does a great job in a supporting role as Troy’s longtime friend Bono, who serves as the moral compass Troy mostly ignores. Mykelti Williamson, best remembered as Bubba in Forrest Gump, gives a touching performance as Troy’s brother, Gabe, who came back from World War II with a metal plate in his head—and an otherworldly gift.

Sometimes Fences betrays its roots as a Broadway play, with more words than action. But any stilted “staginess” is offset by its commanding performances—especially by Washington. As the star and director, he’s created a majestic movie with both gravity and grace that feels too big, and too significant, to be fenced in by anything.

 

 

 

 

 

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