'Birds Of Prey'
(R / 118 mins)
Overview: You ever hear the one about the cop, the songbird, the psycho and the mafia princess? "Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)" is a twisted tale told by Harley herself, as only Harley can tell it.
When Gotham's most nefariously narcissistic villain, Roman Sionis, and his zealous right-hand, Zsasz, put a target on a young girl named Cass, the city is turned upside down looking for her.
Harley, Huntress, Black Canary and Renee Montoya's paths collide, and the unlikely foursome have no choice but to team up to take Roman down.
Verdict: Beware of movies with long titles. I vaguely recall a Dustin Hoffman film, made in 1971, called “Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?,” but for the life of me I can’t remember the answer to either question.
An oversized title has no practical worth, its sole purpose being to give us a mandatory dose of wackiness. Hence the latest contender, “Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.” Don’t you feel kooked up just reading that?
The film, directed by Cathy Yan, follows on from “Suicide Squad” (2016), which ranked among the most thumpingly cheerless experiences of recent years. Sequels were therefore inevitable. This one begins—and, given the tone at which the movie aims, should perhaps have continued—with a high-speed cartoon sequence.
We are yanked through the personal history of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a bright kid who went on to become first a psychiatrist and then a frenzied felon. What wrought the change was her relationship with the Joker, a big cheese in the stink of Gotham City. (In case you’re wondering: no, Joaquin Phoenix does not appear.) Harley, however, has now split with her grinning swain and gone solo.
Comic-book films are plagued by a particular indecision: are the protagonists better off being lonesome or gregarious? When we describe them as clubbable, is that because they like to gang together or because, taken as individuals, they’re just asking to be hit over the head?
Needless to say, the plague is extremely profitable; Iron Man, for instance, has three Marvel movies pretty much to himself but also gets folded into the Avengers. The DC franchise, desperate not to be outdone, has tried something similar with Batman, forcing the poor fellow to sign up for “Justice League” (2017), when we all know that he’d be so much happier staying home, curling up in his little Bat-bed, and shedding idle tears over the Bat-days that are no more.
No one could call Harley Quinn a recluse. She loves to go out, get wasted, meet people, and fight them. In onscreen graphics, she proudly reports what it is about her that vexes her opponents. (“Voted for Bernie.” “Have a vagina.”) Yet Harley is often alone in the frame—marching toward the camera in her T-shirt and shorts, smiling madly through lips of fire-engine red, and peppering us with unceasing chatter, as if words were buckshot. She lives on her own, too, with a stuffed beaver in a tutu and a pet hyena named Bruce.
(As with the title, note the surfeit of nuttiness. Rarely have I seen a movie strain so hard to seem out-there.) Our heroine needs some kindred spirits, and quick.
So, a warbling welcome to the Birds of Prey: Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a teen-age thief; Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer and chauffeur; and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a cop who’s been passed over for promotion.
Last and loftiest is Helena Bertinelli—the one interesting card in the pack, the reason being neither her backstory (some Mafia-flavored baloney about revenge) nor her skill with a crossbow but the fact that she’s played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who, thanks to her low and Lauren Bacall-ish delivery, brings an amused aloofness to the fray.
All of the above team up with Harley to tackle Roman Siones (Ewan McGregor), a Gotham superthug, otherwise known as Black Mask. Why? Because he sometimes wears one. Scary.
The script is by Christina Hodson, who has also contributed to the creation of Highland 2, an app that enables you to submit your screenplay to gender analysis.
No surprise, then, that Yan’s movie, peopled as it is by women who talk among themselves, with only fitful reference to men, doesn’t so much pass the Bechdel Test as ace it, while also ticking the profanity box, the ear-splitting box, and the bone-snapping box—every box, in fact, except for the tricky one that requires a motion picture to be good. “Birds of Prey,” alas, is an unholy and sadistic mess.
“Nothing gets a guy’s attention like violence,” Harley says, and the action consists largely of female combatants breaking the limbs of hapless males and clobbering them in the groin.
Thoroughly deserved, I guess, and about time, too, though the point was more efficiently and more elegantly made long ago, in “Nothing Sacred” (1937), when Carole Lombard, in revenge for being punched by Fredric March, slugs him back. For a second, he teeters upright, whereupon she puffs at him, as if blowing the clock off a dandelion, and he keels over.
That gets his attention just fine.
'Bad Boys For Life'
(R / 123 mins)
Overview: The Bad Boys Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) are back together for one last ride in the highly anticipated 'Bad Boys for Life.'
Verdict: Damn. I was sure this third outing for squabbling Miami cops Mike (Will Smith) and Marcus (Martin Lawrence) was going to super-bad. As in dire.
The original came out in 1995, the sequel in 2003. Why scrape the barrel now? Yet with Michael Bay replaced by Belgian duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, the mood has lightened.
This action-comedy puts the emphasis on laughs, and Smith and Lawrence scoff at themselves with real panache. Even though Smith looks not a day over twelve, ageing is a theme (the dyeing of a goatee beard is a highlight).
The plot is daft – Mexicans are out for Mike’s blood – but it’s knowingly daft and even minor characters (Alexander Ludwig’s beefy pacifist, Dorn) manage to shine. Not bad. Not bad at all.
'The Grudge' 
(R / 95 mins)
Overview: After a young mother murders her family in her own house, a detective attempts to investigate the mysterious case, only to discover that the house is cursed by a vengeful ghost.
Now targeted by the demonic spirits, the detective must do anything to protect herself and her family from harm.
Verdict: A star-studded cast and filmmaker Nicolas Pesce’s skill with horrific gore can’t save a baffling and emotionally empty retread.
Death isn’t dark enough for the haunted characters that populate the unwieldy “Grudge” franchise. Instead, it’s what happens after that’s worse, when the vengeful (and always very moist) spirits appear and attempt to exact cosmic-level revenge on whoever happens to be around.
The fourth American film based on Takashi Shimizu’s wildly popular J-horror films functions as both a reboot of the series and a strange sequel to the first Americanized remake of the franchise.
The new entry has all the hallmarks of the first round of remakes, but the pitiful retread only succeeds at proving that the potential for this franchise died long ago.
Like its predecessors, director Nicolas Pesce’s “The Grudge” utilizes cheap tricks both on a narrative scale (a baffling, fragmented timeline is impossible to follow) as well as with tired genre conventions (jump scare after jump scare, occasionally broken up by a weird presence floating in the background).
Yet Pesce’s skill with gore — used so masterfully in his black-and-white breakout “The Eyes of My Mother” — and a stacked cast that includes the likes of Andrea Riseborough, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Demián Bichir, Lin Shaye, and Jacki Weaver, hints at what could have been a compelling new horror outing.
Brief moments of brilliance, including a riveting performance by Riseborough and a number of gorgeous frames, only shine with momentary appeal before the whole thing slips back into vapidity and convention.
Familiarity with the original American remakes isn’t necessary, but will prove to be more entertaining than a slapdash flashback that attempts to explain the connections: Opening outside a familiar Tokyo house in 2004, “The Grudge” soon zips through three time periods, two countries, and four sets of characters, before landing in 2006 Pennsylvania and what may (or may not, the film is edited to the point of nonsense) serve as our central story.
The convoluted timeline only briefly pays off dramatically, and the rhythms of it remain difficult to track until the very end. It’s a silly way to spice up a familiar enough story — a visitor to a haunted house is infested with some sort of evil spirit, brings it back into her own life, and sees it end in only murder and terror.
Unlike the rest of its Americanized brethren, the ostensible lead of this “Grudge” isn’t the one who was initially haunted; instead, it’s picked up second-hand by Riseborough’s flinty Detective Muldoon (who has no first name for no good reason), thanks to a complex case that starts with her and her new partner Goodman (Bichir) finding a long-dead body and working backwards to her last known stop.
Built on such cheesy, exposition-heavy dialogue as a cute kid whimpering “I miss Daddy” (oh, is Daddy dead?) and a no-nonsense cop sighing, “Looks like we got another one” and huffing away (another…spirit-based killing?), “The Grudge” chugs along until eventually reaching the barest of plots.
In 2004, a rage-based spirit (you know the one) pushed a woman to kill her family, and then herself. The guy who found their bodies? He murdered his loved ones in gruesome fashion.
The next family that moved in suffered their own casualties. Whoever comes next, they’ll find something awful there, too.
And yet it’s not as if Muldoon’s discoveries — made by use of some of the flimsiest law enforcement techniques recently committed to film — aren’t believed, that her fears aren’t founded, that anyone (even her haunted partner and cute kid) doesn’t quite believe she’s found something nefarious in a clearly nefarious house.
Instead, Muldoon is up against what every audience member is: terrible plotting, truncated scenes, and enough idiotic jump scares that involve bathrooms that you have to wonder why she’s even bothering to wash her face while she’s alone.
The question isn’t if Muldoon will find answers, but when the jumpy editing and non-linear storytelling will calm down long enough for her (and the film) to capture any sort of forward momentum.
The real villain of “The Grudge” isn’t a pissed-off spirit; it’s the choppy editing.
Chilling! By the time the final act pads out the film’s mercifully slim 90-minute running time with what amounts to a montage of disgusting deaths and at least one flashback so unnecessary you almost have to wonder if its inclusion was a genuine mistake, both Muldoon and the audience will be praying for the end credits. (Amusingly enough, the end credits are actually quite terrifying.)
For all its wasted opportunities, there are some compelling ideas about the nature of the genre lingering just beneath the surface. “The Grudge” series has always invoked the corrosive power of rage, death, and grief.
Pesce and Jeff Buhler’s script makes sure to outfit their film with a coterie of characters already in the grip of such pains, even before the spirits show up.
It’s a concept that goes a long way toward selling the series’ biggest, weirdest idea — that even seemingly “normal people” can be attuned to great supernatural unease, emotions so horrific they can’t be suppressed for long.
That’s an idea worth considering, but “The Grudge” never digs any deeper, instead opting to resurrect gimmicky frights that never deserved a resurrection.
(R / 110 mins)
Overview: At the height of the First World War, two young British soldiers, Schofield (Captain Fantastic's George MacKay) and Blake (Game of Thrones' Dean-Charles Chapman) are given a seemingly impossible mission.
In a race against time, they must cross enemy territory and deliver a message that will stop a deadly attack on hundreds of soldiers - Blake's own brother among them.
Verdict: The most vulgar visual effect that I saw in a movie last year wasn’t Marvel-ous or otherwise superheroic; it was in “1917,” and depicted the death of a soldier in combat. The soldier is stabbed, and, as he bleeds out, his face is leached of pinkness and turns papery white just before he expires.
The character’s death would have been as wrenching for viewers if the soldier’s appearance remained unaltered and he merely fell limp. Instead, the director, Sam Mendes, chose to render the moment picturesque—to adorn it with an anecdotal detail of the sort that might have cropped up in a war story, a tale told at years’ remove, and that would have stood for the ineffable horror of the experience.
Instead, rendered as a special effect, the character’s end becomes merely poignant—not terrifying or repulsive—making for a very tasteful death.
That tastefulness is a mark of the utter tastelessness of “1917,” a movie that’s filmed in a gimmicky way—as a simulacrum of a single long take (actually, it’s a bunch of takes that run up to nine minutes and are stitched together with digital effects to make them look continuous).
Yet that visual trickery isn’t the fakest aspect of the movie. Rather, the so-called long take serves as a mask—a gross bit of earnest showmanship that both conceals and reflects the trickery and the cheap machinations of the script, the shallowness of the direction of the actors, and the brazenly superficial and emotion-dictating music score.
The story is a sort of “Saving Private Ryan” in reverse, and that reversal is by far the most interesting thing about “1917,” with its suggestion of an antiwar ethos. Somewhere behind the lines in France, a young British lance corporal, Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), dozing during downtime, is awakened by a sergeant and told, “Pick a man, bring your kit.”
Blake chooses a fellow lance corporal, Will Schofield (George MacKay), a friend who’d been napping in the grass alongside him. The sergeant sends the duo on a special mission: to cross the former front lines, now abandoned by German forces, and take a letter to a colonel who’s with his troops at a new forward position.
That colonel is about to launch an offensive against the apparently retreating Germans, but aerial reconnaissance shows that the Germans are luring the colonel’s two battalions into a trap, and the letter is an order calling off the offensive. What’s more, the battalions to which Blake is being dispatched include his brother, a lieutenant.
Blake is outgoing and earnest, Schofield is a sarcastic cynic, and the implication is that Blake has been chosen for this mission not because he’s necessarily the best soldier to undertake it but because he’s uniquely motivated to complete it—because he knows that, if he doesn’t reach the colonel in time, his brother will be among sixteen hundred soldiers who will be entrapped and massacred.
The darker suggestion, utterly unexplored, is that morale and commitment were issues in the British Army at this latter stage of the Great War (the action begins on April 6th, 1917, and concludes the next morning), and that a soldier without Blake’s personal motive for saving the two battalions might not be trusted to put himself at risk to fulfill it.
What’s clear is that Schofield is dubious about the mission and resentful of Blake for choosing him as his partner. Of course, because “1917” is a film of patriotic bombast and heroic duty, Schofield’s mind will be changed in the course of the action.
It’s only one in a series of painfully blatant dramatic reversals that wouldn’t be out of place in any of the comic-book movies that are so readily contrasted with “authentic” cinema. (For example, while Schofield has the cynicism knocked out of him, Blake—in another overlap with “Saving Private Ryan”—has to confront the painful consequences of his own warm-heartedly humane idealism.)
The script is filled with melodramatic coincidences that grossly trivialize the life-and-death action by reducing it to sentiment: Schofield fills his canteen with fresh milk that he finds in a pail at a recently deserted farm, and eventually feeds an abandoned baby with it; Blake’s reminiscence of the blanket of cherry blossoms that covers his family’s garden is echoed in Schofield’s discovery of cherry blossoms scattered on a river, which serves as a reminder of his duty and a spark of motivation; an ugly but inconsequential swarm of rats in one part of a battlefield presages a single fateful encounter with a rat in another.
Whereas Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” presents an entire army mobilizing to save the life of one soldier, Mendes’s “1917” depicts two ordinary, obscure, and low-ranking soldiers thrust into a mission to potentially save sixteen hundred, and, by implication, the entire British Army, and change the course of the war.
This is a classic idea, one that comes packed with an elegant irony. (For instance, it’s the idea at work in John Ford’s brief and brilliant Civil War episode in “How the West Was Won,” depicting the fateful encounter of two foot soldiers and two Union generals.) And it’s that very irony which Mendes replaces with a lumbering portentousness.
He endows Blake and Schofield with no comparable sense of their own mission, their own disproportionate moment. The script (written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns) is imagination-free, which is to say that it endows the characters with no inner lives whatsoever. Have Blake and Schofield ever killed before in hand-to-hand combat?
How far along are they in their military experience? What have they experienced of the war? For that matter, who are they? What do they think? Where are they from? What did they do before the war? What are their ambitions beyond survival?
What’s especially revealing about Mendes’s superficial and externalized practice in “1917” is that he’s not averse to presenting his characters’ inner visions and states of mind. In “American Beauty,” he famously showed the middle-aged male protagonist’s sexual fantasy of a naked teen-age girl being covered in a sprinkling of rose petals.
While Mendes didn’t shrink from displaying the vivid imagination of a suburban horndog, he’s unwilling to face the imagination of the valorous combatants of “1917.” It’s as if whatever might be on the minds of his protagonists in the course of their dangerous journey toward the front lines, whether fear or lust, frivolity or hatred, would get in the way of the unbroken solemnity and earnestness with which he approaches the subject of the Great War.
(On the other hand, he may fear unleashing his characters’ imagination, because, when, in “American Beauty,” he let his own imagination loose, the result was a cinematic ickiness of historic dimensions.)
Instead, Mendes shuts down Blake and Schofield and envelops them in a silence of the mind in order not to probe or care what they think. What he substitutes for their inner lives are sequences that exist solely because they make for striking images (a big fire at night, a run through a crowd of soldiers going over a trench wall).
These shotlike compositions that arise from the flow of long takes come at the expense of plot and character, as in a scene of hand-to-hand combat that’s framed in the distance without regard to its mortal stakes and intense physicality.
Once more, violence is moved offstage and prettified. The movie’s long takes, far from intensifying the experience of war, trivialize it; the effect isn’t one of artistic imagination expanded by technique but of convention showily tweaked. Its visual prose resembles a mass-market novel with the punctuation removed.
The film is dedicated, in the end credits, to Lance Corporal Alfred H. Mendes—the director’s grandfather—“who told us the stories.” In honoring the recollections and experiences of his grandfather, Mendes remains trapped in the narrow emotional range of filial piety that, far from sparking his imagination, inhibits it.
His sense of duty yields an effortful and sanctimonious movie that, at the same time, takes its place in a lamentable recent trend. Mendes joins such directors of proud and bombastic craft as Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Peter Jackson, and Damien Chazelle, who’ve recently made films that are fixated on the heroic deeds of earlier British and American generations.
These filmmakers, celebrating their truncated yet monumental versions of history’s heroes, are separating the public figures from their private lives, their visible greatness from mores that might not pass current-day muster.
(It’s worth comparing their films to the work of Clint Eastwood, who’s upfront about the powers and limits of his stunted heroes.) The vision of heroism that these directors present bleaches the past of its presumptions and prejudices, cruelties and pettiness, but also of its genuine humanity, courage, and tragedy.
'Jumanji: The Next Level'
(PG-13 / 100 mins)
Overview: In 'Jumanji: The Next Level,' the gang is back but the game has changed. As they return to Jumanji to rescue one of their own, they discover that nothing is as they expect.
The players will have to brave parts unknown and unexplored, from the arid deserts to the snowy mountains, in order to escape the world's most dangerous game.
Verdict: Feeling that something is missing in his life, Spencer (Alex Wolff) restarts in Jumanji. When his friends Bethany (Madison Iseman), Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), and Martha (Morgan Turner) discover the game console has been rebuilt, they go after him, starting another new adventure in Jumanji, but this time around they unknowingly bring some additional help from Eddie (Danny Devito) and Milo (Danny Glover).
Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, Jake Black, and Nick Jonas all return to reprise their roles of the playable avatars within Jumanji, along with the addition of Awkwafina as an avatar named Ming Fleetfoot, a thief with her own set of skills and Rory McCann as the new villain of the film, Jurgen The Brutal. His name seems to say it all.
Jumanji: The Next Level is directed by Jake Kasdan, returning after directing Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle (2017), but this time around he also wrote the script and as the title states, takes this film to the “next level”.
Kasdan introduced this body swapping element which allowed the cast to play with a range of personalities and add more fun and humor to the film.
Karen Gillan and Jack Black discover this mechanic and creatively express their distress and frustrations with the lack of control of the situation. After swapping roles, they do a convincing exchange that will have the viewer believing they are those specific characters.
Johnson and Hart, once again provide comedy gold as they banter, but this time playing the characters of Eddie and Milo, initially played by Devito and Glover.
Johnson with his stubborn old man attitude and Hart with an inability to “get to the point” when talking, both embody the characters and actors they portray with charisma and charm, no matter how weird it feels to see.
Johnson looked to be having a lot of fun with his departure from his typical upbeat personality and this new look did not disappoint. Hart, in particular, absolutely played his part perfectly.
Indeed, he defined the impression of a positive minded old man, ready for an adventure. He could have spoken the entire film without it getting stale.
These two interacting with their very much polar opposite personalities continued to keep things lively.
Awkwafina, while not as large of a role, was a surprise and definite standout character for the franchise. Her stand-up persona meshes well within the tone of this film and effectively molds to the characters that her avatar are meant to be.
She quickly establishes herself as a comedy contender with her fellow veteran cast members.
The entire cast had wonderful chemistry among each other. The humorous character interactions and banter continue from the last film, but this time the cast takes the dynamics we all loved and shifts it around for a fresh take.
Modified character traits were also introduced for the avatars, which added for comedy and plot points needed for characters. Traits existed before, but now weakness and strengths have been added to throw these characters off.
Some characters had many weaknesses like weather conditions and were played to be completely useless for comedic value, while others had an added specific weakness that moved the plot along or creative concern for a character’s welfare.
It was a nice addition to provide the characters with new hurdles and challenges to overcome.
While Jumanji did contribute plenty of new elements to keep it feeling new, it did have some issues. The plot was simple and unfortunately lackluster and felt like it was secondary to the characters interacting.
The main villain, specifically, has a very minor role and really has no fleshed out motives for doing what he does, other than he’s the bad guy.
Perhaps this is a play on cheesy retro games having loosely connected narratives to string the levels together, but when an actor such as Rory McCann is cast, he should be used for those abilities.
We know he can play the brute warrior, but he can also act and give emotion to that character, which was never really an option with such a thinly painted antagonist.
Of course, this film has an overlining message for the audience, as most modern films tend to. The message, while isn’t necessarily unique, does cement itself as an important one for young individuals growing and learning who they are in the world. It is heartfelt and works well to tie up the film.
In summary, Jumanji 2 is a fun sequel adding more laughs, action, and character dynamics that expand on the world, highlighting the creative potential this franchise has to grow.
'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker'
(PG-13 / 155 mins)
Overview: No one's ever really gone. Rey's journey continues and the Skywalker saga concludes in 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.'
Verdict: I will begin by making it clear that I found The Rise of Skywalker, the last film in the Skywalker saga, boring. There, I said it!
And it was not even a long movie, and I'm a fan of the director's (J.J. Abrams) work (particularly Mission: Impossible III—the best in that franchise), and many of the visual effects are impressive—particularly the haunting business of bringing the late Carrie Fisher back to life.
But all together, the film is burdened by too much sentimental family stuff (you are my granddaughter, you are my son, you killed my parents, and so on), and its end did not know how to end for a very long time.
That said, let's talk about a scene that involves Finn (John Boyega), the film's main black character.
Now, The Last Jedi concluded with something going on between Finn and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran, and Asian American). But only a year later, when The Rise of Skywalker is set, nothing seems to be going on between Finn and Rose.
They do not look at each other in that special way that lovers always do. We must assume their romance came to an end in forests of the moon Endor. Also, Finn seems to be focused on Rey (Daisy Ridley, a white Brit) in a way that's not entirely unromantic.
But then on the oceanic moon of Kef Bir, near the ruins of the Death Star, he meets Jannah (Naomi Ackie). She is black like Finn. She was also once an Imperial stormtrooper.
These two appear to be a match made in that galaxy's heaven. Jannah, who clearly has a thing for Finn (though Finn is not into her as much), joins the Resistance and follows Finn to the heart of the final big battle, on Emperor Palpatine's dark planet of doom (Palpatine is also not dead).
And it is during this battle we have one of the most numinous moments in the Star Wars franchise.
The rebels have landed on the top of the main Star Destroyer. They are heading to its communication tower, which is guiding a fleet of planet-destroying ships up to space.
The mission is to bomb the tower. The rebels from the ocean moon are charging on horse-like animals. Finn and Jannah run to their target while under heavy fire. It is then we see morning light in the sky above the destroyer.
The alien clouds, falling X-wing Starfighters, blasted TIE fighters, flying stormtroopers, the warrior courage of the black man and black woman—all of this happening under a darkling blue sky.
The scene lasts for about three or so seconds, but it's incredibly beautiful. The rest of the film was dead to me. Sorry! Not Sorry! [CM]
(PG-13 / 130 mins)
Overview: Acclaimed writer and director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) pays tribute to mystery mastermind Agatha Christie in 'KNIVES OUT,' a fun, modern-day murder mystery where everyone is a suspect.
Verdict: 45-year-old writer-director Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) loved Agatha Christie books growing up and now, thanks to his growing influence in Hollywood, he gets the chance to create a murder-mystery of his own for the big screen.
There’s nothing understated or restrained about the set up. A character describes the case as being like a game of Cluedo and it’s an apt description given its clichés and farcical nature.
The location is a huge, lakeside mansion adorned with statues, ornaments and paintings. The victim is a renowned mystery writer (Plummer) who has been found dead at his 85th birthday party. The suspects are an eclectic group of family members who are all given a plausible motive to within the film’s opening half-hour.
The detective (Craig) is an mysterious individual described as “the last of the gentlemen sleuths”. The only thing missing is Colonel Mustard and a candlestick!
There’s a catch though. In a recent interview for Variety magazine, Johnson stated that the “whodunit” element of such movies is often the weakest part and he wanted to take that onus off viewers.
I don’t want to give too much away but you won’t have to wait until the final scenes to see all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. The film changes tack at several points and becomes more of a quirky, offbeat comedy as opposed to something borrowed from the pages of Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle.
I’ve read some glowingly positive reviews for Knives Out thus far but my thoughts are mixed. It boasts a huge ensemble cast but the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon and Toni Collette are given next-to-nothing to do.
The opening sequence of interviews are unnecessarily drawn-out and the film is overstaying its welcome at 130 minutes. I’d preferred something more fast-paced.
The two positives are easy to spot. Daniel Craig (Casino Royale) gets the best of the dialogue as the humorously named Detective Benoit Blanc. He keeps everyone guessing (including the audience) throughout the film as to whether he’s incredibly astute and ridiculously goofy.
Ana de Armas will be lesser known to mainstream audiences but her career is on an upward trajectory following her memorable performance as a hologram in Blade Runner 2049. She too has fun with her role as an anxious nurse with a propensity to vomit when telling a lie.
Rian Johnson deserves credit for giving the whodunit genre a good shake-up and whilst Knives Out wins points for creativity, I didn’t care about these characters as much as I should. Sorry.
(PG / 102 mins)
Overview: Universal Pictures and Working Title's 'Cats' is a most-unexpected film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's beloved smash musical "Cats" and the poems from "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," by T.S. Eliot. Oscar (R)-winning director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech, Les Misérables, The Danish Girl) brings astonishing new technology to transform his cast members.
Verdict: Sometimes a movie struts its awfulness with such glee that it becomes an enjoyably sadistic pleasure rather than a chore to watch.
Such is the case with “Cats,” the big screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1982 musical that became one of Broadway’s longest-running shows.
The stage version of “Cats” has grossed over $4 billion dollars, so of course Hollywood had to get their greedy claws in the mix and bring it to the local cineplex (where it promptly flopped).
Anyone with a brain could see that all of this would prove to be a huge mistake, because when the source material is god-awful, how would you expect the film to turn out?
Let’s start with the good: the costuming and makeup artistry are both brilliant, if creepy. At first it’s disturbing and laughable to watch humans prance around and groom themselves but it doesn’t take long until you actually start to see them as cats (and yes, it’s precisely the type of disconcerting feeling that will provide haunting nightmares for years to come!).
The dancing is beautifully proficient and the choreography creative, with some lovely ballet numbers. Those who enjoy classic theater and dance will find plenty to keep them engaged.
That’s where the positives end.
The movie’s plot closely follows the Broadway play, which means it’s just as awful. The gist is that a tribe of street cats all gather together on the night of the Jellicle moon and perform in a feline talent show so head cat Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) can decide which cat is worthy to ascend to a new life.
It’s a creepy story that’s made even more disturbing when you stop and think about it.
To keep today’s idiot audiences engaged, director Tom Hooper throws in your standard issue fatty-fall-down slapstick gags and crotch hits that are sure to elicit a tornado of laughter.
And although every cast member appears downright terrifying as a human/cat hybrid, the worst is the cameo from Taylor Swift as a sexed-up feline provocateur and purveyor of enchanted catnip. Yikes.
Weber’s repetitive songs are even more grating when translated to the screen (but hey, at least there’s “Memory”). The vocal performances are second-rate too.
Jennifer Hudson has become a self-parody with her overacting and over singing. Hudson’s angsty, tear-filled, snot-flying rendition of “Memory” is hilariously awful.
Rebel Wilson‘s tap dance feels like an acid trip gone wrong as she trains her army of child-faced mice to dance for her pleasure (as she gleefully bites live cockroaches with human faces in half as they scream for mercy).
I’m not sure if anyone should see this movie of their own accord, but it absolutely could have legs as a midnight movie a’la Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room.”
(R / 118 mins)
Overview: Starring Academy Award (R) winner Charlize Theron, Academy Award (R) winner Nicole Kidman, Academy Award (R) nominee John Lithgow and Academy Award (R) nominee Margot Robbie, based on the real scandal, 'BOMBSHELL' is a revealing look inside the most powerful and controversial media empire of all time; Fox News, and the explosive story of the women who brought down the infamous man who created it.
Verdict: There was one thing Roger Ailes knew that made him a brilliant network executive: that even when delivering news, it's the performance that matters.
Bombshell is a film that's all about performance. Indeed, it has secured several major awards nominations for its performers, among them Charlize Theron, who plays Megyn Kelly.
We see her in the film's opening scene, slipping into the back of a cab, her face covered by that distinctive make-up that marks out most of the FOX network's women.
Its uncanny valley plasticity gives her the look of a woman whom men might fail to recognize as human, but there's a lot going on behind the mask.
In approaching this film, which deals with the allegations of sexual harassment made against Ailes by a number of women working at FOX, it should be noted that none of their claims was ever proven in a court of law (though out-of-court settlements were reportedly made), so it could me dismissed as unsavory speculation.
Given the weight of evidence brought against him, however, it seems not unreasonable to speak ill of the dead.
Based on the accounts of his accusers yet allowing for a little bit of artistic license (which also helps to obscure the identity of accusers never publicly named), Jay Roach's film takes Ailes' guilt as a given and focuses on two adjacent areas: the distinctive culture of the network and the practical and psychological factors that enable some of those who engage in workplace harassment to get away with it for decades.
Theron is riveting as the presenter who, at the top of her game, is derailed by misogynist attacks by Donald Trump which few people then expected him to get away with.
Though this experience doesn't form part of the primary narrative, it's fundamental to the set-up because it demonstrates the sudden sense of dislocation experienced by a woman who thought she had power but suddenly realizes its fragility in the face of widespread mockery and even hatred based on her gender.
At pains to point out that she's not a feminist - a term almost as loathsome as socialist as far as her colleagues are concerned - she has no established set of tools with which to respond to such a discovery.
It clearly touches on older, long-buried experiences, and it prompts her to start looking out for younger female presenters like would-be weather girl Kayla (Margot Robbie).
A newsroom is an environment in which there are always a lot of things happening at once and Roach's film captures this very effectively as we move back and forth between different threads of the complex developing story.
Whilst Kelly is dealing with her sudden unpopularity, another unhappy employee, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is talking to lawyers about the possibility of suing Ailes for suggesting that she could only make progress in her career by sleeping with him, and Ailes is making moves on Kayla.
This is a classic Robbie role, giving her the opportunity to alienate many viewers upfront by passionately espousing a love of FOX and of the traditional values of the US religious right, yet it's precisely those values that make Kayla so vulnerable when the world doesn't work as she expected it to, and watching her compromise herself is heartbreaking.
Roach strikes a fine balance here between the titillation necessary to explain how the women are being used - in terms of how they're taught to present their bodies on camera as well as in Ailes' office - and stressing the ugliness of it all.
Jon Lithgow is excellent as Ailes, capturing different facets of a complex personality and showing us why his staff continue to believe in him despite the way he treats them.
The ease with which Ailes manipulates Kayla, who has been taught all her life to respect the authority of older men, emphasizes that sexual harassment isn't simply a matter of physical aggression or direct threats to job security.
His power stems in part from the way that he makes her feel complicit in his crimes. As we watch her over time, she becomes a Lolita-like figure, her confidence gradually ebbing away, the life draining out of her eyes.
There is no critique here on FOX itself nor of the values it promotes (though several characters express concern about Trump, whom Ailes would go on to work for after the events depicted here).
Kayla's friendship with a secretly lesbian colleague emphasizes the difference between the political polarization we see onscreen and the more nuanced behaviors of real human beings.
Setting the larger political drama aside makes it easier to observe that abusive cultures and predatory behavior can develop anywhere. Roach's bright color palette and Barry Ackroyd's glossy cinematography maintain the image of a lively, upbeat workplace quite at odds with the depression lurking behind those cosmetic masks.
Though it occasionally misses a beat or overreaches itself with snappy little asides, Bombshell is a finely crafted film which benefits from one of the best acting ensembles of the year.
It tells its story well but never forgets that viewers want style as much as substance.
'Ford v Ferrari'
(PG-13 / 152 mins)
Overview: Academy Award-winners Matt Damon and Christian Bale star in 'Ford v Ferrari,' based on the remarkable true story of the visionary American car designer Carroll Shelby (Damon) and the fearless British-born driver Ken Miles (Bale), who together battled corporate interference, the laws of physics, and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford Motor Company and take on the dominating race cars of Enzo Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France in 1966.
Verdict: This is certainly not a film for our times. Drawn from recent history, it’s a nostalgic celebration of gas-guzzling fast cars and the people who risked their lives racing them.
Yet it’s wholly seductive. Cars may be its focus but its underlying theme dwells on the deadening effect of corporate conformity. Its villains are company men.
Their adversaries are the mavericks who see the path ahead and are canny and courageous enough to forge through the politicking blocking the way. Maybe it is a film for our times, after all.
Director James Mangold has made a few false steps in his career but his Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line (2005), left you in no doubt of the empathy he has with working-class heroes of an ornery disposition.
And it’s on show again here. He has a couple of first-rate examples of the breed in Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and his friend and colleague, Ken Miles, a racing driver with a Birmingham accent, World War II experience as a tank commander in the British Army and an unshakeable sense of his own worth.
Christian Bale, at his most angular and hard-bodied, seems born for the role. You fancy he found something very familiar about Miles. While his stubbornness can be supremely annoying, his faith in himself is justified by his dedication to getting things right.
To him, cars and their engines are something more than instruments to be tuned to perform at their best. When he gets behind the wheel, he could be slipping into a second skin.
He can sense the precise nature of the car’s relationship with earth and air. And he can pinpoint the most efficient way of adapting it to reach a perfect balance.
But he has a forthright contempt for men in suits, and a hot temper. Fortunately, he also has Shelby, a former chicken farmer who turned himself into a champion racing driver before a heart condition forced him off the track.
As well as knowing as much about cars as Miles does, he has enough tact and guile to hold his own in any corporate brawl.
The two begin to tangle with big business in 1966 after Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and his chief lieutenants, Lee Iacocca (John Bernthal) and Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), make Shelby an offer.
They want him to design a racer that will win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a brutal contest long dominated by Ferrari.
Iacocca has persuaded the others that Ford can revive its fortunes by throwing off its reputation for stodginess and attracting younger customers. As winner of Le Mans, he reasons, the company will acquire a glamour that will cast a reflected glow on its commercial models.
Mangold has firmly fixed the film in its time. It’s not a matter of lengthening sideburns, raising skirts and planting hippies among the extras.
Its more subliminal. The cinematography has a rough texture that speaks of time’s passing. The cars may be shiny but there’s no gloss in the rest of the décor.
His crew re-created the Ford’s Michigan plant in an old steel factory in Los Angeles, going so far as to buy a fleet of 1960s Ford Falcons on eBay and Craigslist to stock the assembly line, and the racing sequences, shot with an array of rigs, platforms and camera cars, are simply breathtaking.
But some of the most absorbing action takes place off the track as the film’s cast of insatiable egos goes to war. The most withering put-down comes from Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) after he rejects a merger offer from Ford with a torrent of invective directed at the company’s “big ugly factories and ugly little cars”.
Then comes the coup de grace. Ford, he says, is not Henry Ford. “He’s Henry Ford the Second”.
Damon anchors the whole thing with his Everyman looks and adaptable amiability. He’s the most unlikely Hollywood star but perhaps that’s where his secret lies.
In this case, he keeps us with him because his is the sanity of a character who never loses sight of the big picture.
(R / 2O9 mins)
Overview: This biographical crime thriller follows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as he recalls his past years working for the Bufalino crime family.
Now older, the WWII veteran once again reflects on his most prolific hits and, in particular, considers his involvement with his good friend Jimmy Hoffa's disappearance in 1975.
Verdict: 'The Irishman' is a great movie, easily one of the best of the year, one of the best of the great Martin Scorsese’s career — and all anyone wants to talk about is Marvel movies.
That’s too bad. Because the merits of this film considerably outweigh self-indulgent debates about whether someone thinks 'Ant-Man' qualifies as cinema.
Who cares? Like what you like. Don’t like what you don’t.
But love “The Irishman.” It’s brilliant.
Yes, it’s Martin Scorsese making a mob movie, sort of. And he re-teams with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci (with Al Pacino thrown in as icing in a very expensive cake).
If you’re hoping for a thrill ride like 'Goodfellas,' however, you’ll be disappointed, although that’s the only way you could be.
Instead you get a lonely old man’s meditation on life and loss, by which I don’t mean Scorsese. No, it’s about Frank Sheeran, played by De Niro. He’s the Irishman of the title, a truck driver turned mobster who eventually serves as union boss Jimmy Hoffa’s bodyguard, enforcer, head-cracker, whatever.
The film is based on Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Painted Houses,” which is a much better title — when one of the characters utters that phrase I couldn’t suppress a smile. (Brush up on your mob lingo.)
Pacino — he’s been in a couple of pretty decent mob pictures himself — plays Hoffa, brash and fearless and not a little reckless.
Pesci is Russell Bufalino, a mob boss who quietly goes about his often deadly business in a matter-of-fact manner. Again, if you’re looking for Pesci’s Tommy DeVito from 'Goodfellas' (“You think I’m funny?”) rent it. This isn’t that.
Yes, as you’ve doubtless heard, Scorsese uses digital de-aging technology to make them all look younger at various points in the film. It’s odd but not off-putting, and it doesn’t take you out of the movie. Whatever is going on on the surface, there is some tremendous acting going on underneath.
The film is structured somewhat oddly — a framing device within a framing device. One of its joys is its celebration of Scorsese’s genius. Remember the long tracking shot at the Copacabana in 'Goodfellas'?
Here he creates another, only this time it’s into the nursing home where Sheeran is whiling away the end of his life. For whatever reason, he has decided to tell an unseen visitor the story of is life.
This gives way to another story, about a long, excruciating car ride to a fateful wedding, with Sheeran driving Bufalino and their wives over a few days. Sheeran uses this as a way to trace the events of his life.
If the details were different, the overall arc would be mundane; as if to emphasize the point, Sheeran is feted at a banquet later in life. It’s pretty regular gold-watch stuff — except for the privately issued threats and warnings in corners of the room that lead in only one direction.
Sheeran is a loyal soldier, to a surprising degree. Part of that surprise is learning to whom he’s loyal. Not his family, really — he ignores his wife and four daughters for long stretches.
His daughter, Peggy (Anna Paquin, who says about 10 words in the whole movie), won’t have anything to do with him. (She loves Hoffa but is creeped out by Bufalino, despite the latter’s lifelong queasy efforts to make her like him.)
Yes, women are underrepresented here — it’s a boy’s club. If there’s a saving grace, it’s not really a club anyone would want to belong to.
Impeccably shot by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto — some shots look and feel like washed-out photos from a long-forgotten family album that maybe no one wanted to find — the film is infused with melancholy.
It doesn’t glorify the mob life. It makes it seem mundane.
If Henry Hill was a rockstar mobster in 'Goodfellas' (sorry for the continual comparisons, but that’s the most obvious precedent, given the talent and themes involved), Sheeran is just a grunt.
Hits aren’t calculated events, for the most part. More likely they’re just a matter of walking up to someone and shooting them in the face. And everywhere else.
That said, at times Hoffa and Bufalino crop up in a lot of historical events, not quite mobster versions of Forrest Gump, but something like that.
You can probably guess most of them. Even then it doesn’t seem like part of a grand scheme, but a bunch of guys just going about their work. It just happens to be uniquely unsavory.
The acting is superb. Harvey Keitel shows up as a mob boss — you know he’ll be appropriately scary. Ditto Bobby Cannavale as a mid-level thug. But how about Ray Romano as a mob lawyer?
When tensions reach their height, there is Jesse Plemons as Hoffa’s stepson, explaining why he transported fish in the back seat of a car, to everyone’s disgust.
If the details of the story seem prosaic individually, together they’re not. They capture something, the elements of one man’s life. He worked adjacent to larger-than-life characters, if he himself was not.
He soldiered on — a quality that can be heroic in some characters, when they’re not guilt-free killers.
But 'The Irishman' is also a flawless weaving of those details. Scorsese turns them into something greater than the sum of the parts.
Scorsese has taken heat for saying he didn’t consider Marvel movies “cinema.” Again, argue among yourselves. But there is no doubt about this: 'The Irishman' is> cinema, of the highest order.
(PG-13 / 127 mins)
Overview: Director Elizabeth Banks takes the helm as the next generation of fearless 'Charlie's Angels' take flight.
In Banks' bold vision, Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, and Ella Balinska are working for the mysterious Charles Townsend, whose security and investigative agency has expanded internationally.
With the world's smartest, bravest, and most highly trained women all over the globe, there are now teams of Angels guided by multiple Bosleys taking on the toughest jobs everywhere.
Verdict: A concept in search of a movie, 'Charlie’s Angels' wants to take the venerable franchise in a new direction. The goal is exemplary, the execution nothing to write home about.
When it came out in 1976 on ABC, there was nothing about the crime-fighting exploits of three women (Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith starred) that would predict five seasons on TV followed by a pair of motion pictures.
But here we are more than 40 years later with yet another feature film, written (from a story by Evan Spiliotopoulos and David Auburn) and directed by Elizabeth Banks, who also has a key role.
Banks made her directorial debut with the very successful 'Pitch Perfect 2,' about the further exploits of an all-female a capella group, so it’s no surprise that her version of the Angels (“Sworn To Secrecy, Bound By Sisterhood” is the tagline) feels pitched to please a similar audience.
First and foremost, this “Angels” has its empowerment of female credentials in good order. The film’s opening features a montage of girls doing it all, its first line of dialogue is “I think women can do everything,” and the closing montage shows us powerful women like race car driver Danica Patrick and former mixed martial arts champion Ronda Rousey doing what they do best.
This is all to the good, not to mention long overdue, but outside of public service announcements good intentions do not necessarily make for an involving viewing experience.
Instead of engaging what we get is a plodding, unfocused effort with few genuine thrills to speak of, the kind of movie that would play best on an airplane when you are eager to kill time.
In its defense, 'Charlie’s Angels' would say it’s not trying to be 'Captain Marvel,' that it’s intentionally going for a light comic effect. But the comedy feels largely forced, and if you are old enough to get the film’s “Birdman of Alcatraz” joke — yes, there is one — the proceedings are unlikely to involve you.
The film’s core idea is a solid one. Taking advantage of the notion that it’s been more than 40 years since that first TV appearance, this 'Charlie’s Angels' imagines the Townsend Agency, founded by the mysterious Charlie with the closed-mouthed Bosley as his No. 2, having expanded with bureaus all over the world.
In fact, the name Bosley has now become a rank (“like Lieutenant”, as someone helpfully explains), and as the film opens, a former Angel turned Bosley (played by Banks) is spearheading a retirement party for the original John Bosley (Patrick Stewart); a senior citizen headed for retirement after all those decades on the job.
As for the Angels, at the film’s start we deal with only two, starting with Sabina Wilson (an unexpected Kristen Stewart), a wild and crazy individual introduced in a long blond wig vamping a criminal figure in Rio as part of a sting operation.
Coming in to help with the job is former MI-6 agent Jane Kano (Ella Balinska), as pulled together as Sabina is off the wall.
Naturally these two do not get along, and when they are reunited in Paris a year later, with Jane training under Edgar Bosley (Djimon Hounsou), their lack of harmony is still front and center.
We also meet Elena Houghlin (Naomi Scott, 'Aladdin’s Princess Jasmine). She’s a key cog in a company that created Calisto, a new sustainable alternate energy source that has an unfortunate side effect: It could kill people.
When her bosses won’t let Elena fix the flaw, she goes to the Angels for help.
This seems like a simple assignment at first, but soon enough "really bad people" get involved, epitomized by the tattooed and dangerous Hodak (Jonathan Tucker), the only opponent in the film who comes off as legitimately threatening.
When Hodak goes on the attack, Elena becomes a blubbering wreck, a situation that is played, not successfully, as broad comedy. Fortunately, the other two women take Elena under their wing, so speak, and she becomes an Angel-in-training.
This much sounds simple, but as the Angels try to stop Calisto from falling into the hands of those "really bad people", the pace slackens and the plot gets overly complicated.
Despite all its hand-to-hand fighting, the latest 'Charlie’s Angels' never really gets a proper grip on things.