Sunday, February 25, 2018
Movie Reviews
Movie Reviews

Insidious The Last Key Insidious: The Last Key (2018) Movie Review

Lin Shaye returns as an intermediary between humans and the ghosts who scare them in the fourth franchise installment, directed by Adam Robitel.

Before we’re all done marveling at the fact that 2017’s three biggest hits were led by female actresses, here’s a more modest but noteworthy fact: 2018 will begin with the fourth installment of a hit franchise whose hero is not just a woman, but a septuagenarian who takes on boogeymen the youngsters can’t face. Adam Robitel’s Insidious: The Last Key, a sequel to the prequel to the series’ first two outings, brings the saga full circle in a way that should, true to the title, conclude the adventures of Lin Shaye’s ghost-whispering character Elise Rainier. A workmanlike but fan-pleasing picture, it may well earn enough to make producers reconsider that whole “Last” thing — not that such promises are often kept in the horror biz.

Elise, of course, was killed at the end of the first film, only to reappear for Insidious 2 in “The Further,” this saga’s vision of a spirit world where icky-looking baddies torture the souls of mortals. The third film took us back to an earlier episode in Elise’s career as a paranormal investigator-slash-problem solver.

The Last Key, which mostly occurs shortly before the events in the first film, begins with an extended flashback: We meet Elise as a child, being raised in 1950s New Mexico by a stern prison-guard father. She’s seeing ghosts even at this age, and while her mother accepts the reality of her daughter’s spiritual gift, Dad is prepared to beat it out of her. When Elise won’t deny that she’s seeing things, he locks her in the basement, where a hidden portal leads to very scary things. Unwittingly, she helps an evil being enter our dimension. His hands have keys where the fingertips should be, so let’s call him The Man With the Keys.

Back in this century, Elise gets a call from a stranger whose house has a ghost infestation. Trouble is, it’s Elise’s childhood home, where the furniture has for some reason been left as-is (down to the blanket-fort built on the bunk beds) for the half-century or so since she fled home.

Understanding that whatever she unleashed as a child is still attacking the living, Elise heads to New Mexico with her eager young employees Tucker (Angus Sampson, of Mad Max: Fury Road) and Specs (Leigh Whannell, screenwriter of all four Insidious pics). These dudes, to be honest, aren’t good for much: They’re armed with high-tech gizmos but far too few flashlights; they flirt in a more-icky-than-cute way with Elise’s young nieces; and most important, with only Whannell’s rudimentary dialogue to go on, they’re pretty limp in the comic relief department. Their best line is when, introducing themselves to a client, Tucker points at Elise and says, “She’s psychic; we’re sidekick.”

As has been the case since the first film, this one centers on shock cuts and sudden appearances of figures in the shadows. While the franchise’s technical overkill may have mellowed over time (sound effects are far less oppressive here), the delivery of the “boo!”s remains on the cheap and arbitrary side. (Which isn’t to say it doesn’t make you jump on occasion.) In only one gag is the film’s obvious manipulation of the viewer structured in a clever and elegant way. Sure, it comes in the middle of one of those “there’s no way anyone would do something this stupid” sequences that fright flicks rely on. So what.

While it’s finding ways to tie real-world horrors into this The Further business, the pic makes good use of Elise’s childhood, both as a reason for us to care about overfamiliar haunted-house stuff and as a means to introduce new blood: those aforementioned nieces (Caitlin Gerard and Spencer Locke), who may be positioned to pick up the ghost-hunting torch should the need arise. Given the economics of the milk-it-’til-it’s-dry horror business (Whannell’s other franchise, Saw, just released its eighth installment), that’s far from impossible.insidious the last key ver2 Insidious: The Last Key (2018) Movie Review

Production company: Stage 6 Films
Distributor: Universal
Cast: Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Kirk Acevedo, Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke, Josh Stewart, Tessa Ferrer, Ava Kolker, Pierce Pope, Bruce Davison
Director: Adam Robitel
Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell
Producers: Jason Blum, Oren Peli, James Wan
Executive producers: Bailey Conway, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Charles Layton, Couper Samuelson, Steven Schneider, Leigh Whannell
Director of photography: Toby Oliver
Production designer: Melanie Jones
Costume designer: Lisa Norcia
Editor: Timothy Alverson
Composer: Joseph Bishara
Casting director: Terri Taylor

Rated PG-13, 103 minutes

the commuter The Commuter (2018) Movie Review

Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra team up for the fourth time in this thriller set on a Metro-North train heading out of New York City.

Throughout his late renaissance as an action hero, Liam Neeson has battled wolves (The Grey), evil Albanians (Taken), evil Turks (Taken 2), flight turbulence (Non-Stop), an unwanted TV show adaptation (The A-Team), an unwanted board game adaptation (Battleship), more evil Albanians (Run All Night), evil Germans (Unknown) and even evil Nazis, if you want to go all the way back to Schindler’s List.

But in The Commuter, which marks the 65-year-old star’s fourth collaboration with Spanish director and Hitchcock enthusiast Jaume Collet-Serra, he may be facing his greatest challenge yet: trying to take the Metro-North Railroad home from New York City during rush hour. (Had he been using the disastrous NYC subway system, Neeson would have been doomed from the start. At least here he has a fighting chance.)

Thoroughly enjoyable to watch if totally forgettable once you leave the theater, The Commuter feels like one of those films they simply don’t make anymore, at least in Hollywood. It’s a certified B-movie without superheroes or interplanetary travel, drawing its power from a whodunit, race-against-the-clock scenario that plays as if The Lady Vanishes and Strangers on a Train were chopped up and tossed into the blender along with a slab of CGI and a full bottle of Dexedrine. Given the dearth of solid thrillers to come out of the U.S. last year, this Lionsgate domestic release stands to turn a strong profit when it hits movie houses worldwide starting in mid-January.

Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, an Irishman in New York (no need to justify the brogue) whose backstory is dished out in an expedited 10 minutes, including a whiplash opening credits sequence that shows him repeatedly taking the same Hudson Line train from his picturesque suburb to his job selling insurance in the city. But on this particular day, MacCauley is beset with a slew of problems before the story even begins: He has to figure out how to pay college tuition for his children at the same time that he’s been laid off from work just a few months shy of retirement. We also learn that he used to be in the NYPD, which will help explain why, later on, he’s so good at handling a gun or beating the bejesus out of anyone who gets in his way.

Such is the setup when Neeson boards a packed 6 p.m. train at Grand Central Station and quickly finds himself face-to-face with Joanna (Vera Farmiga), a flirty femme fatale who makes him a curious offer: If he can identity a certain someone named Prynne who isn’t part of the usual commuting crowd, then he will be awarded a decent chunk of change. Oh, and also, if he doesn’t help out, his family will be killed.

Anyone who’s seen Neeson in the Taken franchise — part of an action subgenre sometimes referred to as “daddy porn” — should know by now that you do not mess with the man’s brethren. Yet even if it’s easy to predict that MacCauley will come out on top, part of what makes The Commuter so watchable is the way Collet-Serra and writers Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle tease out the tension throughout the protagonist’s long voyage home, keeping the pyrotechnics to a minimum until the final reel.

Making the most of the setting and scenario, the filmmakers dip into Hitchcock’s toolbox many a time, starting with a Vertigo-style dolly zoom the moment MacCauley realizes what a jam he’s in. Indeed, if Collet-Serra has already proven himself an earnest admirer of the Master of Suspense in the Neeson vehicles Unknown and Non-Stop, this movie seems like a veritable fanboy letter — from plot points ripped out of the aforementioned train-set flicks to a fight scene that takes a few cues from Shadow of a Doubt to the fact that the story kicks off in Grand Central Station, where Cary Grant headed out West with Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest. All that’s missing is the giant phallus of a train that ended that movie, whereas here it’s more a case of coitus interruptus when MacCauley’s Metro-North literally flies off the rails at one point, leading to a final showdown.

In terms of MacGuffins, the one that The Commuter uses is not the most convincing, nor does there seem to be any real psychological depth to the proceedings. Viewers looking for Hitchcockian subtext should probably exit at the first station, but if you simply want to ride along without thinking too much about it, there is plenty to chew on, with a script that keeps the guessing game going as MacCauley tries to figure out which of his fellow passengers is his target and which one may be targeting him.

Neeson has definitely done this role a lot as of late, but that doesn’t make him any less good at it. There’s a world-weariness in the way he plays guys like MacCauley that could almost be a running joke by now — time to save the day yet again, daddy — but he brings enough gritty conviction to the table to make it feel like he’s never dialing it in. He’s backed by a solid supporting cast, including Farmiga, who only appears in a few scenes but quickly makes herself a pivotal player; Patrick Wilson, playing an old cop pal who becomes increasingly suspicious; and a slew of character actors depicting a multiethnic New York straddling many classes, from the douchey Wall Street banker to the part-time nurse with an attitude.

Like in Collet-Serra’s other films, tech credits are slick and definitely showy, with Paul Cameron’s camera gliding back and forth through the cars as if it were attached to a zip-line. One memorable fight sequence is done in a single take — or at least one that was seamlessly stitched together in post — and involves Neeson contending with an ax, a gun, several seat cushions and lots of glass. It’s totally over the top, yet impressive in the way it uses every element in the train as a suspense mechanism.

The same goes for The Commuter, which admirably transforms what’s usually the most boring, annoying, frustrating, smartphone screen-staring part of the day into a matter of life and death.commuter ver10 The Commuter (2018) Movie Review

Production companies: StudioCanal, The Picture Show Company, Ombra Films, TF1 Film Production
Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Sam Neil
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenwriters: Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, Ryan Engle, from a story by Bryon Willinger, Philip de Blasi
Producers: Andrew Rona, Alex Heineman
Executive producers: Michael Dreyer, Juan Sola, Jaume Collet-Serra, Ron Halperin, Didier Lupfer
Director of photography: Paul Cameron
Production designer: Richard Bridgland
Costume designer: Jill Taylor
Music: Roque Banos
Editor: Nicolas de Toth
Casting: Red Poerscout-Edgerton

Rated PG-13, 104 minutes

all the money in the world All the Money in the World (2017) Movie Review

Christopher Plummer stepped in on short notice to replace Kevin Spacey in Ridley Scott’s fact-based kidnapping thriller, which stars Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg.

Twilight years? Ridley Scott will hear none of it — he has just made the paciest, most dynamic film ever made by an 80-year-old director. And as for Christopher Plummer, he delivers the best screen performance ever given by an actor who, a month before the film’s debut, hadn’t even been cast yet. These two old pros show what they’re made of in All the Money in the World, a terrifically dexterous and detailed thriller about the Italian mob’s 1973 kidnapping for ransom of the grandson of the world’s richest man, John Paul Getty.

It may be that all the hoo-ha about Plummer replacing the disgraced Kevin Spacey at three minutes to midnight will actually increase public interest in a gripping film that otherwise had little advance profile and is unfortunately arriving on the scene too late to have been seen by critical awards groups. All the same, the Sony release provides a welcome alternative to the assorted franchise leviathans and long-ballyhooed specialty titles in release over the holidays.

It should be said upfront that Michelle Williams is also outstanding as the heart of the film, the mother of sweet-looking 16-year-old Jean Paul Getty III (appealing Charlie Plummer, no relation, also seen recently in Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete). In the opening scene, he is pulled off a Rome street and thrown into a van by Red Brigade ruffians, to be held until old man Getty, now a British subject, forks over $17 million for his return, a demand that is refused.

What follows is a tense thriller wrapped in one-of-a-kind circumstances. David Scarpa’s script, based on the 1995 book by John Pearson originally titled Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, efficiently supplies the nuts and bolts of the abduction and its aftermath. But the film is at its best charting the determined behavior of the mother, Gail Harris, who is grief-stricken but also imaginative and resourceful in her approach to numerous adverse circumstances. Given that her useless husband, John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan), is a dissolute druggy strung out in Morocco with Mick Jagger, it’s essentially up to the virtually penniless mother to try to free her son.

It’s a true-life yarn loaded with extremes, of wealth, personal eccentricities, grief, tension, daring, criminal means to political ends, maternal drive and luck, both bad and good. It is also a peek into a rarefied world where money knows no bounds and yet means everything.

The opening scene could scarcely be more intoxicating, as La Dolce Vita comes back to life while the camera moves slowly down Rome’s teaming Via Veneto late at night in glorious black-and-white. Boyish, long-haired young Getty seems very much at home here, sparring good-naturedly with some ladies of the night before being aggressed and whisked away.

The filmmakers take a risk by immediately interrupting the present-tense drama with flashbacks that both illuminate the sources of the Getty wealth (a scene showing the American oil man purchasing vast tracts of empty Saudi Arabian desert land in the late 1940s carries strong vibes of Lawrence of Arabia) and provide a look at family life chez JPG II, his wife Gail and their kids, including then-7-year-old JPG III, in burgeoning hippie-era San Francisco (where, very anachronistically, the film has it snowing at one point).

However, the quickly dispatched glimpses of the past do provide useful insight into the old man’s eccentricities (he’s so cheap he installed a red London phone booth inside his country mansion, forcing guests to pay for outside calls) and his relationships with family members. “A Getty is special,” the tycoon confides to his little grandson, “a Getty is nobody’s friend,” while also showing him around Hadrian’s Villa, which he claims as a former home since he was the Emperor Hadrian in a previous life. Also revealed are Gail’s priorities: When she and her husband split in 1971, she forewent any money in exchange for full custody of her son.

Gail therefore has little but unending resolve and sheer pluckiness to call upon, other than for the services of former Special Forces and CIA operative Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg). This handsome, diffident guy knows how things work in the world of high-stakes good guys and bad guys and can get dirty things done. He can also provide access and protection she wouldn’t have otherwise, while she has surprising instincts and guts in the face of vast challenges.

Scott moves the dramatic story along at a propulsive clip that never flags. The young captive is initially kept at an isolated farmhouse by a faction of the Red Brigade, a violent left-wing urban-terrorist organization that specialized in kidnapping for large ransoms. Little time is spent on the internal dynamics of the group, which almost at once seems fraught with tension. But the young Getty is mainly looked after by a combustible ruffian named Cinquanta (Romain Duris), who rather takes a liking to his charge.

Commanding the most screen time is Gail, whose distress and frustration are increasingly surpassed by moods that encourage her to leaps of boldness and imagination. The woman’s background is never revealed; Williams affects what sounds like a very slight British accent, but what this protean performer most impressively does is to push Gail beyond the stock “I just want my son back!” type of hysterics to a point where the character seems to be oddly feeding on her anxiety in a way that makes her more creative and strategic.

Williams and Wahlberg develop some nice odd rhythms in their back-and-forth. Fortunately, any temptation to cook up an intimacy between them has been resolutely resisted, but a bit of layering in the script for Wahlberg’s seen-and-done-it-all character would have been welcome.

As it is, Gail and Chace are always on the move, sometimes to legal and press offices, other times out to see Getty at his country estate. Considerable appalling humor is generated by the old man’s staggering cheapness and orneriness, which make Scrooge look like a world-class humanitarian. But the filmmakers gratifyingly give him more dimension than this caricature. His initially astonishing refusal to pay any ransom at all is at least fractionally rationalized by his belief that, if he paid, it would provoke an open season on the kidnapping of his 14 other grandchildren.

To be sure, he’s a mean old crank, parsimonious and callous to an extreme. But he’s also a unique figure and a genius of sorts who’s not just held up to represent the far extreme of human privilege and disdain for others. Christopher Plummer confers Getty with an authority and sense of resolve so complete that we’re entirely seduced into thinking we’re getting a taste of the real man, of what it’s like to be so far above the fray of normal human concern. What could have been simply a tasty cameo is fleshed out just enough to go beyond caricature into something truer and deeper, to get a real sense of the power of a self-made man who has traveled so far as to have become something entirely singular. The fact that the actor could step into this role on a moment’s notice and achieve something so precise and resonant — and which will no doubt be remembered as one of his most iconic performances — is an astonishment to be prized.

Unavoidably, the scene in which the kidnappers, after four months of frustrated waiting, slice off young Getty’s right ear in order to press the seriousness of their demands is central, and it’s adroitly handled for requisite impact, but without sensationalism.

End credits acknowledge that some liberties have been taken with the historical record in the dramatization, but only specialists will likely take issue with them; there’s a shoot-out with the radicals, young Getty is seen escaping at one point, and the manner of the exchange of money for the boy seems oddly illogical. Most egregiously, the old man’s death is indicated as coinciding with his grandson’s return, which was not the case at all.

The locations are terrific, as are all behind-the-scenes contributions by Scott regulars, including cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, production designer Arthur Max, costume designer Janty Yates and editor Claire Simpson. Daniel Pemberton provided the fine score.

Production companies: Imperative Entertainment, Scott Free, Redrum Films
Distributor: Sony, TriStar Pictures
Cast: Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Romain Duris, Timothy Hutton, Charlie Plummer, Charlie Shotwell, Andrew Buchan, Marco Leonardi, Giuseppe Bonifati, Nicholas Vaporidis
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: David Scarpa, based on a book by John Pearson
Producers: Dan Friedkin, Bradley Thomas, Quentin Curtis, Chris Clark, Ridley Scott, Mark Huffam, Kevin J. Walsh
Director of photography: Dariusz Wolski
Production designer: Arthur Max
Costume designer: Janty Yates
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Editor: Claire Simpson
Casting: Carmen Cuba

Rated R, 132 minutes

Father Figures Father Figures (2017) Movie Review

Owen Wilson and Ed Helms play brothers looking for the father they never knew in Lawrence Sher’s comedy, with Glenn Close as their evasive mother.

Why do movies and sitcoms keep giving us stories about children who don’t know who got their mothers pregnant? Do these crises represent a cultural fear of uncontrolled female sexuality? A lament for fathers who, even if physically present, never showed up emotionally? Or do they subconsciously express a nation’s confused feelings about its own founders, with those who are most eager to “return to our roots” having the shakiest understanding of the ideals from which America emerged?

Whatever the answer, the latest entry in this overworked genre is Lawrence Sher’s Father Figures, a textbook example of hackwork both behind and in front of the camera. Playing variations of characters they’ve played many times before, Owen Wilson and Ed Helms are brothers hoping to find the daddy they never knew. Largely but not entirely inoffensive, the Warners Bros. release may enjoy a short success among moviegoers who’ve been informed of the bounty of good films currently in cinemas but who resent being told what to see. (To be fair, few if any of those year-end treasures are unchallenging comedies.)

Helms and Wilson play respective brothers Peter, a divorced proctologist whose son thinks he’s an “asshole,” and Kyle, a beach bum who became rich when somebody put his likeness on a bottle of BBQ sauce. Since they were children, their mother Helen (Glenn Close) has told them their father died of colon cancer before they were born. When an unlikely coincidence forces her to come clean, she admits this was a lie: Helen simply got around a lot in the ’70s, and none of the guys who might have knocked her up were people she thought of as good-dad material.

Uptight Peter is incensed at this; Kyle takes ‘er easy. (Are we still straight on which actor plays which brother?) But both are thrilled when Helen says quarterback hero Terry Bradshaw sired them, and together, they rush off to bond with the NFL star.

Sharp moviegoers who’ve seen the jumble of older men on the film’s poster will realize that Bradshaw does not, in fact, prove to be the sperminator in question. The brothers have just enough time to get comfortable in his presence (and to hear the first of several rhapsodies about how great Helen was in bed) before learning that the timing is off. Terry isn’t the man, but he thinks he knows who is.

Kyle and Peter rack up frequent flyer miles as they trek from man to man, having dramatic “We’re your sons!” encounters before learning they’ve got the wrong senior citizen. (The candidates include Ving Rhames, J.K. Simmons and Christopher Walken.)

Each time, Justin Malen’s script offers a nugget of novelty that might have led to something amusing, but Sher (a cinematographer making his directing debut) and his cast can’t bring them to life. As the narrative limps along from one encounter to the next, a suspicion grows: Father Figures doesn’t need to exist; but if it’s going to exist, perhaps some sharper comedic talents could have developed it as a limited-run Netflix show, with each encounter developed as a half-hour episode.

Things do pick up some in the second half, but in a very mixed-bag sort of way. Katt Williams is refreshing as a hitchhiker, however oddly the film treats him. The reliably sharp Katie Aselton appears, but her character might as well be wearing a T-shirt reading “character-redemption one-night-stand”: In a sad kind of man-centric wish-fulfillment, this woman drinking alone at a bar refuses to discuss any of her own problems, encourages our hero to talk about his and vanishes quietly in the morning after a night of confidence-boosting sex. There’s a bit more to this story in ensuing scenes, but come on.

Without giving anything away, it must be said that the mystery’s ultimate resolution makes the story preceding it feel like a cruel prank. And that a viewer would have to be quite a soft touch to respond to the pic’s attempts to generate fuzzy family-bonding vibes. Our two fatherless heroes will discover their own capacity to be good dads, as is required by such films. That’s rarely the way things work in real life, of course. But if it means we can go without paternity-puzzle movies for a while, who’s complaining?

Production company: Montecito Picture
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Ed Helms, Owen Wilson, Glenn Close, Katt Williams, Katie Aselton, Terry Bradshaw, Ving Rhames, J.K. Simmons, Jack Mcgee, Christopher Walken, Ali Wong, Retta
Director: Lawrence Sher
Screenwriter: Justin Malen
Producers: Ali Bell, Broderick Johnson, Andrew A. Kosove, Ivan Reitman
Executive producers: Timothy M. Bourne, Chris Cowles, Chris Fenton, Scott Parish, Tom Pollock
Director of photography: John Lindley
Production designer: Stephen H. Carter
Music: Rob Simonsen
Editor: Dana E. Glauberman
Casting: Chris Gray, John Papsidera

Rated R, 112 minutes

Crooked House Crooked House (2017) Movie ReviewCrooked House
2017 ? Drama/Crime film ? 1h 55m
Someone poisons the patriarch of the wealthy Leonides family, leading to an investigation.
Initial release: 14 September 2017 (Germany)
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Adapted from: Crooked House
Budget: 10 million USD
Producers: Joe Abrams, James Spring, Sally Wood

The second Agatha Christie adaptation, after ‘Murder on the Orient Express,’ to hit theaters in a matter of weeks features an ensemble that includes Max Irons, Glenn Close, Terence Stamp, Christina Hendricks and Gillian Anderson.

“A hothouse of suppressed passion” — that’s how Glenn Close’s character sums up her extended family of loonies in Crooked House. It’s a juicy line, masterfully delivered, but the problem is that it sounds like wishful thinking; there’s not a drop of heat in this clinically outré murder mystery.

The ace cast provides delicious moments, to be sure, but mainly they’re playing caricatures in search of a compelling plot. Adapted from a 1949 novel of the same name by Agatha Christie, one that’s considered by many fans to be among her best, the movie unfolds methodically as a variation on the locked-room mystery subgenre. The room in this case is a sprawling English estate, complete with turreted towers and flaunted animosities, and the dead man is the patriarch of the Leonides family, for whom dysfunction would qualify as a significant improvement.

Moving the action to the late 1950s, director Gilles Paquet-Brenner and his cowriters, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and Tim Rose Price, stir around a few ideas without stirring up much in the way of tension or momentum. The dialogue can be darkly funny, but it also stumbles into a few tone-deaf anachronisms — “control freak,” “eyes on the prize” — that stop the verbal interplay cold. Though filmgoers seeking a midwinter divertissement could do far worse, they should prepare to be seriously underwhelmed.

Max Irons is blandly likable as struggling private detective Charles Hayward, who’s summoned to the Leonides’ stately property by Sophia (Stefanie Martini), granddaughter of the deceased business magnate. Suspecting foul play behind his heart attack, and believing that the killer is someone who lives on the estate, she asks her former flame to quietly investigate before the press gets a whiff of the case. On that front, Charles is allotted a brief window of sleuthing time from the Scotland Yard chief inspector who’s played to gin-crisp perfection by the inimitable Terence Stamp. The movie could have used more of him.

From the drab clutter of his office, Charles enters the Technicolor affluence of the Leonides clan’s manor house, where each set of living quarters is a highly distinct world of its own. Production designer Simon Bowles has fun with the opulent, character-defining interiors, beginning with the pink sitting room of Brenda (Christina Hendricks), Leonides’ flame-haired, breathy-voiced young American widow, whose background as a Vegas dancer is never far from the contemptuous thoughts of the man’s warring children.

With little sense of narrative flow, the movie uses Charles’ investigative interviews to introduce the estates’ residents, and the story’s cavalcade of red herrings. As Lady Edith, the sister of Leonides’ first wife, a terrific Close is the de facto matriarch and the most reasonable of the bunch, even if the way she wields a rifle at garden pests reveals something other than reasonable zeal.

Julian Sands and Christian McKay exchange putdowns and venomous glares as brothers who hate each other; Gillian Anderson and Amanda Abbington are their respective wives. While they each get their chance to bellow at the unwelcome gumshoe in their midst, Anderson is given the most room to inhabit her role, making dipsomaniac stage actress Magda’s sorrow over her faded glamour as convincing as her toxic disregard for her children. They include, besides Sophia, the perpetually angry teenager Eustace (Preston Nyman) and 12-year-old Josephine (Honor Kneafsey), both well on their way to being horrid grownups.

When she isn’t being rude to her nanny (Jenny Galloway), the precocious Josephine is snooping at doors; a fan of detective stories, she fancies herself the knowing Holmes to Charles’ Watson. Rounding out the bitterly divided household is the children’s tutor (John Heffernan), who has his own barely concealed secrets, while farther at the edges of the drama are flavorful turns from Tina Gray, as Charles’ secretary, and Roger Ashton-Griffiths as the Leonides’ attorney.

Irons (who costarred with Stamp earlier this year in Bitter Harvest) conveys Charles’ earnestness and smarts, as well as the sense that he’s in over his head with the houseful of divas and gargoyles. But the character generates no sparks or twinges that would lift him above the two-dimensional. As Sophia, Martini (Prime Suspect: Tennison) is essentially Marilyn Munster amid a bunch of ghouls, but far less sympathetic than that cheerfully normal Munsters character. The backstory of Sophia’s Cairo romance with Charles, when he was a spy posing as a diplomat, never comes to life, notwithstanding several flashbacks, and the way she runs hot and cold toward him in the present day is more wearying than interesting.

The direction by Paquet-Brenner (Dark Places, Sarah’s Key) wavers in tone between old-school melodrama and winking camp. There’s style to spare, though, in his staging of the crime story. With Colleen Kelsall’s costumes and period tracks by Billie Holiday, Donald Byrd and Connie Stevens (the latter two names misspelled in the closing credits), he taps into the particular sensibility, edgy and vibrant, of the cusp between the ’50s and ’60s.

Yet the film’s excellent seasoned performers, Sebastian Wintero’s elegant camerawork and the insinuating slink of Hugo de Chaire’s score promise more than the movie ultimately delivers. The letdown is already evident by the halfway point, when a requisite dinner-table scene, redolent of wealth and formality, devolves into a stilted roundelay of recriminations and bile. At the story’s conclusion, the director musters not the intended surge of emotion, but only the mildest “aha.”

Distributors: Sony Pictures/Stage 6 Films, Metro International
Production companies: A Brilliant Films, Abrams/Wood Venture and Fred Films production in association with Hindsight Media, Enigma, Twickenham Studios, Headgear and Metrol Technology
Cast: Glenn Close, Terence Stamp, Max Irons, Stefanie Martini, Julian Sands, Honor Kneafsey, Gillian Anderson, Christina Hendricks, Christian McKay, Amanda Abbington, Preston Nyman, John Heffernan, Jenny Galloway, Tina Gray, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Andreas Karras, David Kirkbride
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Screenwriters: Julian Fellowes, Tim Rose Price, Gilles Paquet-Brenner, based on the novel by Agatha Christie
Producers: Joseph Abrams, Sally Wood, James Spring
Executive producers: Paul B. Edgerley, Will Machin, Natalie Brenner, Lisa Wolofsky, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Sunny Vohra, Andrew Boswell, Anders Erdén, Jay Firestone, Tim Smith, James Swarbrick, John Story, Stewart Peter
Director of photography: Sebastian Wintero
Production designer: Simon Bowles
Costume designer: Colleen Kelsall
Music: Hugo de Chaire
Editor: Peter Christelis
Casting: Reg Poerscout-Edgerton

Rated PG-13, 115 minutes

pitch perfect 1 Pitch Perfect 3 (2017) Movie Review

Pitch Perfect 3 charms as a short and decent final installment

Pitch Perfect 3
2017 ? Musical/Comedy ? 1h 34m
Initial release: 21 December 2017 (Netherlands)
Director: Trish Sie
Budget: 45 million USD
Producers: Elizabeth Banks, Max Handelman, Paul Brooks, Marc E. Platt, Scott Niemeyer
Music director: Christopher Lennertz, John Debney

All things must come to an aca-end. And so after five years, three outings, and an uncountable number of pitch puns, the house that multipart harmonies built is signing off — and if its swan song sometimes feels more like a wild goose chase, plotwise (or maybe a day-drunk penguin), the sheer nutty charisma of its sprawling cast still carries the series out on a pretty sweet high note.

As the movie opens, our heroines the Bellas have left the warm cocoon of college for the cold hard slap of adulthood, and life post-capella is uniformly grim: Beca (Anna Kendrick) has a thankless job producing tracks for a white rapper so dim he makes Vanilla Ice sound like Sondheim; Chloe (Brittany Snow) spends most of her days as a vet tech with her hands up the backsides of gastrically distressed farm animals; Cynthia (Ester Dean) can’t stop flunking out of flight school; and Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), well… she’s great actually, but happy oblivion was always her M.O. So when their onetime leader Aubrey (Anna Camp) floats the idea of reuniting to performing for troops overseas, the group goes all in, packing up their tightest pants and soprano parts and flying straight to Spain for the first gig.

But it wouldn’t be a Perfect storyline, of course, without some high-Pitched bitchery, or at least a decent rival. And the group finds more than one in the other artists on the tour — including a vampish all-girl rock band called Extra Moist and fronted by the smug, whippet-thin vixen Calamity (Orange Is the New Black’s Ruby Rose). Aside from entertaining men in uniform, they’ll also be competing for the attention of the tour’s A-list headliner DJ Khaled (playing an air-quotes version of himself). There’s also a middle-aged mystery man (John Lithgow, delightfully slumming) who seems to keep showing up wherever the Bellas are, well past the point of coincidence.

Mostly this is all just pretext for dreamy postcard shots of Europe, a metric ton of slapstick, and as many highly specific vocal riff-offs as one empty airplane hangar can handle. (“Artists You Didn’t Know Were Jewish — go!”). Director Trish Sie (Step Up All In) doesn’t bring it together quite as smartly as Elizabeth Banks did on the last outing; she feels more like a babysitter than a boss. (Though it’s fun to see Banks onscreen again at least, as the batty commentator Gail). At a scant 93 minutes, PP3 is really more like an extended short than a movie anyway; one last daffy victory lap for the ladies who taught us how far friendship — and a franchise — can carry itself on hard work, matching halter tops, and a whole lot of mouth music.

the greatest showman The Greatest Showman (2017) Movie Review
P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) comes alive with the oddities in Twentieth Century Fox’s THE GREATEST SHOWMAN.
The Greatest Showman
2017 ? Drama/Biography ? 2h 19m
Initial release: 20 December 2017 (USA)
Director: Michael Gracey
Music director: John Debney, Justin Paul, Joseph Trapanese
Nominations: Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, MORE
Producers: Laurence Mark, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping

The legendary ringmaster and huckster P.T. Barnum probably never even uttered the phrase he’s most famous for, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Though he did say a lot of other things — including “The bigger humbug, the better people will like it.” And that’s one dictum The Greatest Showman takes on faith, delivering a lavish candybox musical bursting with broad strokes, bright colors, and bearded ladies.

Born a poor tailor’s son, Barnum is a scrappy kid with brass-ring dreams and an enduring crush on the unattainably rich and lovely Charity (Michelle Williams) to match. Somehow, in a setup so brief it hardly pauses for puberty, their childhood friendship blossoms into a grownup passion deep enough to make her leave her cushioned life behind and bear him two daughters, Caroline and Helen (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely, respectively). Life is rough and laundry is hard, but P.T. is determined to give his girls the world he promised them, see? Which begins, misguidedly, with a sort of DIY museum (a vintage guillotine, a dusty stuffed giraffe) before evolving into the circus as we know it today. Or did for decades, at least: A wild cavalcade of sword swallowers and contortionists, trained elephants and human curiosities (Dog Boy, Tiny Napoleon, Guy With All the Face Tattoos).

First-time director Michael Gracey, working from a script by Jenny Bicks (Sex & the City) and Bill Condon (Chicago, Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls), plunges ahead in a giddy rush, carving out ample opportunities for his stars to sing the soaring rock-opera compositions penned by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the gifted musical duo behind La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen. What he doesn’t make much room for is subtlety; every emotion is signaled to the peanut gallery, every story beat landed with a foot stomp and a handclap.

The movie never quite stops feeling like Moulin Rouge! written in extra-large block font, or Broadway projected straight onto a big screen, which certainly isn’t bad news if that’s exactly what you love. Though it doesn’t help that the 49-year-old Jackman, one of the most charming men in two hemispheres, is asked to play roughly half his age for nearly half the movie—or that Williams isn’t given much to do besides twirl and nod and smile sweetly, unless she’s frowning sweetly. There must have been real collateral damage from the kind of single-minded ambition that drove a man like Barnum, but there’s nothing here that a tip of his top hat and a step-ball-change can’t seem to smooth over by the next scene.

Zac Efron, as a high-society swain with a secret affinity for circus folk, and Zendaya, as a trapeze artist with a swirl of cotton-candy hair and a fine-tuned sense of social justice, bring a gentler, more life-size sensibility to the story (as well as the requisite Millennial romance). And Rebecca Ferguson and Keala Settle, playing songbirds of distinctly different class strata and mustache capacity, make the most of their supporting roles; in two of the movie’s best scenes, each explores the psychic pain of a lifetime spent feeling like the Other in almost every room they enter. But The Greatest Showman hasn’t come to linger on that kind of self-reflection; it’s too busy delivering great spectacle, and a lot of swirly, shiny humbug.

The Thousand Faces of Dunjia The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (2017) Movie Review

Courtesy of Well Go USA

Martial arts legends Yuen Wo Ping and Tsui Hark step away from their roots for an effects-heavy fantasy adventure.

Members of an ancient clan of do-gooders must retrieve an all-powerful magic orb in order to restore peace and order to the — well, you know the drill — in The Thousand Faces of Dunjia, a lively if very familiar-feeling fantasy adventure from writer/producer Tsui Hark and director Yuen  Wo Ping. Those two names will ensure attention in the West to this aspiring franchise-starter; but Americans who know Yuen for his thrilling fight work in Kill Bill, The Grandmaster, Drunken Master and countless other films will not see his signature here. Viewers with a high tolerance for computer-generated fantasy are the target this time, and may well enjoy the ride.

Hong Kong pop star Aarif Lee plays Dao, an enthusiastic rookie constable who is being hazed by his elders — sent throughout the countryside pursuing villains who don’t exist — when he encounters a real challenge: a magic, three-eyed fish that can swell to the size of a man and appears to be part of some evil conspiracy.

The ensuing fight introduces him to a mysterious woman called Dragonfly (Ni Ni, of Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War), a member of the Wuyin clan. Despite her efforts to avoid him, the two continue to cross paths, and when a monster chops an arm and a leg off Dao, Dragonfly is forced to introduce him to her brother Zhuge and the rest of the Wuyin team. (Tsui’s screenplay invests little in this motley handful of associates; aside from Zhuge and Dragonfly and the leader Big Brother, the warriors get little to do.)

As it expands on the hunt for the eponymous Dunjia, your typical Orb Of Infinite Power, the film makes extensive use of its CGI departments. Three main baddies are pure CG creations, and the powerful leaders of rival clans are distinguished solely by their various video game-like powers. (One creates infernos, one whooshes vast streams of water around, and so on.) Action choreography by Yuen Cheung Yan and Yuen Shun Yi, therefore, consists largely of moving the humans around a green screen; the chopsocky or swordplay we might expect from Yuen Wo Ping is not to be found.

Opening action sequences project a cartoony comic flavor that has promise, but that peters out as the battles grow increasingly cosmic. Instead, the pic starts milking mild double-entendres for comic relief and focusing on gags involving an adolescent girl, called Circle, who may be destined to become the Wuyin clan’s new leader. More than once, the action contrives to have her fall, topless, onto the prone Zhuge, and her clinginess to the adult who has rescued her is a little uncomfortable in this season of revelations about grown men with a taste for young girls. With luck, Circle will be an adult before filmmakers get around to the sequel they promise in closing scenes.thousand faces of dunjia The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (2017) Movie ReviewProduction companies: Flagship Entertainment Group, Gravity Pictures, Heyi Pictures
Distributor: Well Go USA Entertainment
Cast: Aarif Lee, Da Peng, Dongyu Zhou, Ni Ni
Director: Yuen Wo Ping
Screenwriter: Tsui Hark
Producers: Tsui Hark, Nansun Shi, Wei Junzi, Jiang Wei, Anthony Wong
Executive producers:
Director of photography: Choi Sung Fai
Production designer: Wu Ming
Costume designer: Shirley Chan
Editors: Li Lin, Tsui Hark
Composers: Li Ye, Tsui Hark

In Mandarin
112 minutes

permanent 1 Permanent (2017) Movie Review

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Patricia Arquette and Rainn Wilson star in Colette Burson’s comedy centering on a young girl dealing with bad hair issues.

It may be presumptuous to assume, but it seems a safe bet that writer/director Colette Burson once got a really, really bad haircut when she was a teenager. At least, that’s the impression one gets from her new comedy starring Patricia Arquette, Rainn Wilson and Kira McLean in a breakout performance as a young girl who suffers a disastrous perm. While it doesn’t break any new ground and strains too hard for quirkiness, Permanent didn’t deserve its fate of opening theatrically without being screened for critics.

Set in 1982 in a Virginia suburb, the story concerns 13-year-old Aurelie (McLean), whose name practically invites ridicule from her classmates, and her financially struggling parents Jim (Wilson) and Jeanne (Arquette). Jim has recently lost his job serving as a steward serving on Air Force One (he has the signed autographs from several U.S. presidents to prove it) and is attempting to start over by going back to university to get a medical degree. Jeanne supports the family by waitressing at a fried chicken joint, spending so many hours on her feet that she’s desperate for a foot massage when she comes home at night. Neither that desire nor her sexual needs are being met by her husband.

Desperate to fit in at her new school, Aurelie begs her parents to let her get a permanent. When her parents take her to a “beauty school” to save money, the results are a disaster. “Her hair looks like it had a stroke,” the owner whispers to the stylist who made Aurelie resemble the Bride of Frankenstein. Her father tries to comfort her by assuring her that her hair will soon “relax.” When her classmates see Aurelie’s new hairdo, they mock her for having an “Afro.”

Jim has hair issues of his own, since he religiously wears a lavish toupee to cover his bald pate. His vanity threatens to derail his future when he’s informed that he’ll have to take a swimming course as part of his university curriculum and he tries to pass it by doing the breast stroke.

Other subplots include Jeanne’s flirtation with an eccentric neighbor (Michael Greene) who at night plays recordings of the sounds of mating whales and is eventually revealed to be a family therapist, and Aurelie’s growing friendship with a young black girl at school (Nena Daniels) who has been relegated to a special needs classroom simply because of her race.

Writer/director Burson, who co-created HBO’s Hung, doesn’t fully succeed in navigating her more outlandish plot elements. Many of the would-be comic bits, especially those involving the kooky neighbor, fall flat, and the storyline goes in too many directions at once. But the film displays genuine heart in its quieter moments exploring the strains in Jim and Jeanne’s marriage and Aurelie’s insecurities and desperation to fit in with the kids at school who respond by bullying her.

The performances are another plus. Arquette is charmingly endearing as the frustrated Jeanne, Wilson movingly conveys his character’s vulnerability as well as his bluster and McLean is terrific as the beleaguered young girl desperate to have a mane like Farrah Fawcett’spermanent 2 Permanent (2017) Movie Review

Production: Magnolia Pictures, 2929 Productions, Park Pictures, Washington Square Films Productions
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Cast: Patricia Arquette, Rainn Wilson, Kira McLean, Michael Greene, Nena Daniels
Director/screenwriter: Colette Burson

Producers: Mary Ann Marino, Haroula Rose, Sam Bisbee, Joshua Blum
Executive producers: Ben Cosgrove, Mark Cuban, Todd Wagner, Jackie Bisbee, Lane Acord, Danielle Renfrew Behrens

Director of photography: Paula Huidobro
Production designer: Christian Kastner

Editor: Chris Plummer
Costume designer: Sasha Long

Composers: Craig Wedren, Joe Wong
Casting Erica Arvold

Rated PG-13, 94 min.

Beyond Skyline Beyond Skyline (2017) Movie Review

Frank Grillo leads a band of humans fighting off alien invasion in Liam O’Donnell’s sci-fi actioner.

With strong effects work belying what was surely a tiny budget, Liam O’Donnell’s Beyond Skyline finds the first-time director relying on his experience in VFX departments of much bigger Hollywood productions. While O’Donnell would have been smart to hire a screenwriter instead of doing double-duty behind the scenes, the fanboy crowd won’t complain too loudly with one of their favorite character actors, Frank Grillo, kicking extraterrestrial ass in a space opera that could plausibly launch a very niche franchise.

Grillo (who had a more three-dimensional toplining role in Netflix’s recent Wheelman) plays Mark, an LAPD cop on leave after his wife’s death. Mark and son Trent (Jonny Weston) are trapped on the Metro when a giant alien mothership attacks the city, hypnotizing Angelenos with some kind of blue ray and sucking them up into the sky. There, we soon learn, their brains are harvested to somehow animate the bodies of individual soldiers in the alien army.

Soon, the two men and a few fellow train riders (including Bojana Novakovic’s Audrey, the train conductor) have escaped the tunnels only to be hauled up into the mothership themselves. Here, they learn a bit about the otherworldly beings. (Using man-in-suit tech and practical effects along with CGI, the design team offers some pretty geek-pleasing visions.) Not only do they find that the human brains inside the beasties can sometimes remember their past selves, but they see the aliens’ effect on pregnant humans: Mark has to deliver a baby who is somehow growing so quickly she’ll be a teenager in a matter of days.

Before Mark has to worry about the infant’s sullen, rebellious phase, though, the movie takes quite a left turn: The humans escape the ship and find themselves in Laos, where they team with an impromptu rebel army bunkered beneath centuries-old Angkor-style temples. Their main new ally is Sua (Iko Uwais of The Raid), who introduces some hardcore Southeast Asian martial arts to the mix. Uwais is Indonesian, not Laotian, but some practical inconsistencies will be overlooked by action fans who are excited to see Uwais leap at aliens with knives in both hands.

Less forgivable is the pic’s unimaginative screenplay, whose biggest attempts at humor are lame zingers that appear to have been added in postproduction after someone realized how dull the dialogue was. Sadly, lines like “Hola, puta” and “Bring it on, bitch” don’t scratch that “Hasta la vista, baby” itch.

O’Donnell also winds up devising one of the lazier “I’ve found their weakness!” eureka moments in recent memory, suggesting that a drug dealer can make himself an expert on alien immune systems after a few minutes with a microscope. But viewers who push through this silliness will be rewarded with an action climax that, while just about as ludicrous, is at least enjoyable. If a sequel does in fact materialize, here’s hoping O’Donnell has the modesty to step out of the writer’s chair and focus on the action.

beyond skyline Beyond Skyline (2017) Movie Review

Production companies: Hydrae Entertainment, M45 Entertainment, XYZ Films
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Frank Grillo, Bojana Novakovic, Iko Uwais, Callan Mulvey, Pamelyn Chee, Antonio Fargas, Lindsey Morgan, Jonny Weston
Director-screenwriter: Liam O’Donnell
Producers: Matthew E. Chausse, Colin Strause, Greg Strause
Executive producers: Maguy R. Cohen, Allen Dam, Phil Hunt, Roman Kopelevich, Joe Listhaus, Allen Liu, Emilio Mauro, Li Kitty Rong, Compton Ross, Mike Wiluan
Director of photography: Christopher Probst
Production designers: Ian Bailie, Lauren Fitzsimmons
Costume designers: Anastasia Magoutas, Tania Soeprapto
Editors: Sean Albertson, Banner Gwin
Composer: Nathan Whitehead
Casting director: John McAlary

Rated R, 106 minutes

the last jedi 1 Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) Movie Review

Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac return for the Rian Johnson-directed second film in the ‘Star Wars’ sequel trilogy.

There are a handful of truly spectacular moments in The Last Jedi—some as visually sumptuous and others as emotionally poignant and raw as anything in the intergalactic ring cycle so far: The sight of Rebel X-wing fighters emerging from light speed and skidding to a halt; a kamikaze crash rendered in giddy, gasp-inducing super slo-motion; a vertiginous, ground-scraping dogfight on a salt-mining planet that kicks up plumes of velvet-cake red dust. These, along with a few touching reunions and farewells from beloved characters that some of us have known like family for 40 years, will go down as instant classics that will be catnip for fans young and old. That said, I’d stop short of calling director Rian Johnson’s undeniably impressive initiation into the Star Wars fold the masterpiece that some desperately want it to be. The film simply drags too much in the middle. Somewhere in the film’s 152-minute running time is an amazing 90-minute movie.

When Hollywood’s greatest sci-fi franchise (sorry, Star Trek fans) was resurrected two years ago with The Force Awakens, a lot of people including myself, groused that while J.J. Abrams captured the spirit and tone of the original trilogy, he played it too safe. That the film was a deja-vu carbon copy of A New Hope, albeit with a welcome dose of diversity in its casting. Some argued that it felt more like Star Wars Greatest Hits than an album full of fresh material. That may have been a necessary evil. That after the lame prequels we needed to be reminded what it was we first fell in love with. Abrams accomplished that not-insignificant task, leaving off on a note-perfect cliffhanger ending between Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Mark Hamill’s shaggy, haunted Jedi hermit Luke Skywalker in self-imposed exile. It was a reminder of the Saturday-afternoon to-be-continued serials that George Lucas was originally inspired by. But there was also a hope that the next film in the series would take more chances and spin off into its own new thing. The Last Jedi does take chances. And many of them pay off beautifully. But Johnson (who also wrote the script) seems to subscribe to the theory of ‘Why make a point once when you can make it three or four times?’

Even though it’s only been two short years since The Force Awakens, Lucas’ franchise is so iconic, so mythically ingrained in the deepest nostalgia pleasure centers of our brains that you have to be a churl not to feel goosebumps raise on your arms when the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” first appear on screen and John Williams’ triumphant clarion-call to adventure strikes up. The opening crawl that follows informs us that the evil First Order is ascendant. Supreme Leader Snoke and his Dark Side apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and bureaucratic bully boy General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) have culled the resistance down to a few hundred ragtag insurgents. Things are looking bleak for the rebels. But under the wise and steady hand of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), they fight on. Martyrs to the cause, underdog champions of capital-G Good. Leia’s last hope of rallying the downtrodden is to convince the reluctant Jedi Master Luke (now more an idea of revolution than a one-man savior) to return from hiding.

In a way, we’ve been here before. The rebels are against the ropes just as they were at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Thankfully, this time, they have their three newly-minted Next Generation heroes—Oscar Isaac’s hotshot and hotheaded fighter pilot Poe Dameron, John Boyega’s conscience-stricken stormtrooper-turned-resistance folk hero Finn, and Ridley’s Rey, a gung-ho young heroine whose innate powers she’s just beginning to understand. The chemistry and interplay between these three new faces was so electric and promising the last time we saw them that it’s a bit of a shame that the trio is separated for most of the new film. They’re all cast off in separate parts of the same grand mission. While Isaac’s Poe grows impatient about the play-it-safe approach charted by Leia and her purple-haired second in command (the always welcome Laura Dern), Boyega’s Finn teams up with a Resistance mechanic named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to track down a a codebreaking scoundrel (Benicio Del Toro) to sabotage the First Order’s new ability to follow the rebel ships in and out of light speed, preventing their safe evacuation to a new hideout where they can reteam and rebuild. Meanwhile, Rey is just where we left her—on the remote Jedi temple island of Ahch-To, hounding Luke not only return to action, but also to tutor her in the ways of the Force the way Yoda once taught him on Degobah. This last strand of the three has the most pay off by far. Not just because the push-pull, master-apprentice dynamic between Ridley and Hamill is so crackling it nearly sets off sparks, but because we know that this is the crux of the story. That this is where the torch (or lightsaber) will be passed.

Johnson toggles back and forth between these three narrative yarns well enough as the stakes grow more desperate. But after the first third of the film, when the table is set, the second act gets a little bloated and unwieldy. There’s a lengthy diversion to the casino planet of Canto Bight (a ritzy Monaco for the galaxy’s one percent that’s like Mos Eisley with tuxedos and baccarat) that feels pointless and tacked on just for the sake of giving us a cool new corner of the galaxy to feast our eyes on. Meanwhile Driver’s Kylo Ren and Ridley’s Rey have formed a telepathic connection that plays out like a slightly cheesy sci-fi version of Ghost. Each in their own way is trying to woo the other to their side. Is it romantic? A manipulative power play? Maybe both? Either way, Isaac and Boyega seem to be sidelined or stuck in idle for long stretches. Unfortunately for the future of the franchise, it’s the old faces that provide the most poignant moments. We know that The Last Jedi will be Fisher’s final film, and we savor every moment with her like we’re saying goodbye to a loved one. And Hamill, who once created one of cinema’s most iconic characters but would never be considered by anyone to be a great actor, gives the single best acting performance of his career. When he first enters the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon and first reunites with his old friend Artoo, you might even get choked up.

Despite the flabby mid-section of the film and its menagerie of new alien creatures that are a mixed bag (Yay, Porgs with their squat guinea pig bodies and sad Anime saucer eyes; boo to the others that look like exiles from The Neverending Story), Johnson really delivers with the third and final act. The climactic last 45 minutes of the film is as thrilling and spectacular as anything Star Wars has ever given us. There are cool, mythic hand-to-hand battles, breathtaking aerial sequences, and one mano a mano showdown that’s as epic as anything Sergio Leone ever dreamed up. And again, the film ends on a note that feels…just…right.

The Last Jedi is a triumph with flaws. But through those flaws, it leaves us with a message as old as time. Our heroes don’t live forever. Death is inevitable. But their battle, if passed down to the right hands, will continue along with their memories. Both in front of and behind the camera, Star Wars has been passed to the right hands. The Force will live on. In these troubled, angry, and divisive times, that message of resistance isn’t just the stuff of innocuous tentpole diversions, it’s the closest thing we have to A New wars the last jedi ver11 Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) Movie Review

Production company: Lucasfilm
Distributor: Disney
Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio Del Toro
Director-screenwriter: Rian Johnson, based on characters created by George Lucas
Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Ram Bergman
Executive producers: J.J. Abrams, Tom Karnowski, Jason D. McGatlin
Director of photography: Steve Yedlin
Production designer: Rick Heinrichs
Costume designer: Michael Kaplan
Editor: Bob Ducsay
Music: John Williams
Casting: Nina Gold, Milivoj Mestrovic, Mary Vernieu

Rated PG-13, 162 minutes

Jumanji Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) Movie ReviewAn enjoyable modernization of Chris Van Allsburg’s storybook source material.

High school nerd Alex Wolff transforms into The Rock in Jake Kasdan’s action-fantasy sequel.

Stepping far enough away from Chris Van Allsburg’s 1981 children’s book Jumanji to appeal to older kids while remaining just connected enough to justify keeping the name, Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle reimagines the book’s magic-board-game conceit for the era of video games. By transforming its teen heroes into adult avatars, this outing both gets beyond the discomfort of throwing small kids into peril (a complaint some critics made against Joe Johnston’s 1995 adaptation starring Robin Williams) and finds a way to milk a talented crew of A-list grownups — toplined by Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart — for comic value. Young audiences should enjoy the body-swap adventure, which has a few dopey moments but in general is funny enough for their parents to enjoy as well.

Modernization only goes so far here. Instead of making Jumanji, say, an augmented-reality smartphone app — a promising way to have fantasy and the mundane world collide — the screenwriting team reimagines it as a 1990s-style gaming console. In a prologue, a lone teenager stumbles across the game in 1996, turns it on, and is immediately transported from his bedroom into some world we do not see.

Cut to the present day, as Spencer (Alex Wolff) squirts some sanitizer on his hands, packs his EpiPen, and heads into the germ-filled world of high school. After a brisk sequence of events, he winds up stuck in detention alongside football player Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), narcissistic Bethany (Madison Iseman), and the introverted Martha (Morgan Turner). They’re supposed to be cleaning up the school’s vast storage closet as punishment for their assorted transgressions. But when they find this relic of a videogame among the detritus (who knows how it got to school from that kid’s bedroom), the four decide to try it out. They, too, get sucked into another dimension.

Thrown into a dense jungle, each kid is transformed into the character he or she selected, Mortal Kombat-style, when they fired the game up. Luckily for the film’s comic side, each unwittingly chose someone very unlike himself: Scrawny and skittish Spencer becomes The Rock’s Smolder Bravestone, the expedition leader. The jock is now a diminutive zoologist, Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), and is none too pleased about it. Mousy Martha is kick-ass Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, Doctor Who‘s Amy Pond), and immediately complains about her dumb Lara Croft-like wardrobe of exposed midriff and breast-hugging shoulder holsters. And Instagram-addicted Bethany, so proud of her hotness, has turned into a tubby, balding middle-aged man, Jack Black’s Professor Shelly Oberon.

The script winks at videogame conventions as it explains its heroes’ strengths and weaknesses, gives them a mission, and reveals that each has three lives to expend before it’s Game Over for real. They’re supposed to find a magical “jewel of the jungle” and return it to a giant statue’s eye socket. But that stone is also hunted by a villain (Bobby Cannavale) who has somehow become one with the jungle’s beasts, making his body a skin-crawling home for millipedes and scorpions.

Structuring its challenges in the level-by-level mode familiar to gamers, the movie’s action has a much more ordinary feel than that of the earlier picture. But while each stage of their quest seems like it would make for a pretty easy-to-beat video game, the action suffices in big-screen terms.

The film’s main appeal is in watching familiar actors pretend to be ordinary kids grappling with their new selves. Johnson is predictably charming, imagining himself as a kid suddenly blessed not just with a spectacular physique but a superpower defined as “smoldering intensity.” And Jack Black gets the expected kind of laughs as he mimics the voice and gestures of a mean girl who recoils at being stuck in this unbangable bod but is then, I don’t know, kind of fascinated to have a penis? Gillan and Hart more than hold up their end of things, and while the choice of music could be much better, Ruby Roundhouse’s demonstrations of her “dance fighting” skills are crowd-pleasing.

Occasional character-development interludes reek of group screenwriting sessions: “Guys, how can we use the fewest possible lines to get across the idea that these kids are learning important lessons about themselves?” But a shy romance between Spencer/Bravestone and Martha/Roundhouse charmingly exploits some of these choose-who-you’ll-be-in-life notions, and an encounter with a stranger who has also been trapped in the game gives even Bethany a credible shot at redemption.

jumanji welcome to the jungle ver18 Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) Movie Review

Production companies: Matt Tolmach Productions, Seven Bucks Productions, Columbia Pictures
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Bobby Cannavale, Nick Jonas, Rhys Darby, Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner
Director: Jake Kasdan
Screenwriters: Chris McKenna, Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg, Erik Sommers
Producers: Ted Field, William Teitler, Matt Tolmach, Mike Weber
Executive producers: Dany Garcya, David B. Householter, Jake Kasdan
Director of photography: Gyula Pados
Production designer: Owen Paterson
Costume designer: Laura Jean Shannon
Editors: Steve Edwards, Mark Helfrich
Composer: Henry Jackman
Casting directors: Nicole Abellera,Jeanne McCarthy
PG-13, 118 minutes

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