Category Archives: Movies

At The Movies: The Great Wall

History books tell us that the Great Wall of China  was built to protect the public against the invading Mongol hordes. The alternative facts presented in “The Great Wall” tell us the structure was built to keep out monsters from the pits of hell (or rather a green meteorite).

At least that’s the plot of this visually interesting but otherwise flat and predictable movie.

William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are a pair of mercenaries who have come to China to bring back the explosive, mysterious “black powder.” Neither of them have seen the stuff, because no one who has gone in search of it has come back alive.

One night the group is attacked by a monster and all die except Will and Pero. William kills the beast and keeps one of its arms as a souvenir. The next day they’re being chased through the hills by some horde or other when they run smack dab into the Great Wall. William decides to take his chances with the people behind the wall and surrenders to them.

p_ho00004241On the other side of the wall are a large contingent of soldiers of various skills. They are shocked when they find the monstrous arm among William’s possessions and even more surprised when he claims to have killed the monster to whom it was formerly attached. In no time everyone is called to battle stations as a screeching, endless swarm of monsters begins an assault on the wall.

Although prisoners, William and Pero join the battle, killing several monsters and saving lives. This endears them to the soldiers, especially  Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian), the only officer in the group that speaks English.

She learned the language from Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a fellow European who came China 25 years ago in search of the black powder and has been a prisoner ever since. Ballard would love to help the duo escape — and with plenty of black powder — but William isn’t ready to leave just yet.

“The Great Wall” is directed by Zhang Yimou (“Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”) so you can expect some lovely and exciting visuals. In that regard the film doesn’t disappoint. The highlight comes in the initial siege on the wall, as the Chinese soldiers pull out all the stops to fight the monsters — including bungee-jumping women fighters with long spears.

But alas, you can’t get by on just good special effects anymore — if ever. The story between the action sequences is as lifeless and pedestrian as movies get.

It’s a great wall alright. Just not a very great movie.

 

At The Movies: John Wick Chapter 2

I did not see “John Wick” when it first came out. The plot — retired assassin goes on revenge spree after his dog is killed — just sounded too stupid. But it kept getting rave reviews so I eventually checked it out on video.

Wow. What a great film. Sure, it’s a heaping pile of revenge movie clichés, but it’s so well done.  Naturally, success breeds sequels, so here we are with “John Wick: Chapter 2.” Again, I had my doubts. The first film told a complete story — was there really anywhere else to go with this character?

Once again I had made the same mistake common to many of his enemies — I had underestimated John Wick. Fortunately, I am not John Wick’s enemy, so I am alive to tell the tale.

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The movie opens by cleaning up some leftover business from the first film, as John (Keanu Reeves) goes tearing through New York City to retrieve his stolen car. The car is in the possession of a thug (Peter Stormare) who calmly explains to his aide — and anyone in the audience who hadn’t seen the first movie — just how dangerous John Wick is. In the first of many dizzying, brutal, and expertly choreographed action sequences, John goes through a dozen or so of the chop shop owner’s employees before driving away in his now totaled (damaged in the fight, of course) Mustang.

John goes home, intending to continue with his retirement, when a visitor from the past shows up on his doorstep. Italian crime lord Santino D’Antonio ( Riccardo Scamarcio) is calling in a marker — a blood debt that John owes him. Insisting he’s still retired, John refuses Santino’s request. Santino responds by blowing up John’s house.

Now, in the world of John Wick there are many rules and regulations overseeing the assassination trade. John goes to Winston (Ian McShane) for advice. Winston runs the Continental Hotel, a safe haven for assassins, and he pretty much oversees the rules of the business.

Winston tells John he has no choice but to pay off his debt. John meets with Santino and is told his job is to kill Santino’s rival-and-sister, Gianna (Claudia Gerini). She’s well protected, of course, and killing her could lead to even more trouble for our retired assassin.

Directed once again by Chad Stahelski, this sequel features the usual excesses that sequels often have, but in this case that works to the film’s favor. The fight scenes, the chases and the gun battles are all bigger and more explosive than last time around. But unlike bad sequels, this one doesn’t lose the heart or imaginative style that set the first film apart. Keanu’s portrayal of John Wick continues to evoke our sympathy and support, even as he’s shooting people in the head again and again and again.

“John Wick: Chapter 2” is a clever and fitting continuation of the John Wick saga. And it sets things up nicely for the next installment, which I will not be so quick to prejudge.

At The Movies: The Lego Batman Movie

Oh Batman, is there anything you can’t do?

Star of countless comic books, movies, TV shows (mainly cartoons), lunch boxes, T-shirts, coloring books, video games and so much more.  Now, he’s been shrunk down and turned to plastic for “The Lego Batman Movie.” But he’s still just as bad-ass as ever.

As voiced by Will Arnett, Batman was the break-out character of surprise hit “The Lego Movie.” So naturally Lego and DC wasted no time in putting the Dark Knight at the forefront of a film based on little plastic blocks you use to build stuff.

Lego Batman loves to narrate. In fact, he can’t wait for the movie to start before he has something to say. Arnett’s gravelly tone perfectly brings the character to life. This Batman is a bit more egotistical than other Batmen, with a sarcastic bent and sense of humor. Ah, humor — the newly forming DC movie universe could learn a lot from Lego Batman.

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The film opens with Batman taking down pretty much his entire rogues gallery in one dizzying action sequence. After basking in the cheers of the crowd, Bats heads home to a life of solitude. Trusted butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) wishes his surrogate son would take a break from crime fighting and maybe settle down, but Batman will have none of that.

That night Bruce Wayne (you know who he is) attends a retirement party for Police Commissioner James Gordon (Hector Elizondo). Gordon is being replaced as top cop by his daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson). Bruce becomes tongue-tied and googly-eyed at the sight of Barbara. In fact, he gets so distracted that he absent-mindedly agrees to adopt an earnest orphan named Richard Grayson (Michael Cera). Dick, of course, goes on to become Batman’s unwanted (at least initially) sidekick, Robin.

Meanwhile, the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) has concocted a scheme to bring together the greatest villains of all time to help him take over Gotham City. Maybe that will make Batman admit who is his true arch-enemy.

“The Lego Batman Movie” is silly fun for Batfans of all ages. The movie pays homage (or rather takes shots) to every Batman movie and bat-related character out there.  There are even guest appearances by Superman and the Justice League.

The action pieces are frenetic and colorful and sometimes go on too long. The jokes come at a rapid clip as well and are for the most part successful. The most tiring aspect of “The Lego Batman Movie” is the theme that Batman Needs A Family — which is really beaten to death. But then that’s fairly common in kids’ movies. And to be fair, subtlety isn’t really one of Batman’s traits. Especially not Lego Batman.

Movie Batmen have been in grim-and-gritty mode for quite some time so it’s refreshing to see the lighter side of Batman take the stage for a change.

 

At The Movies: The Space Between Us

“The Space Between Us” has an interesting germ of an idea — astronaut unaware she’s pregnant when she and her crew blast off for Mars — and then crash-lands it with a sappy, predictable teen romance on Earth.

To be fair, the warning signs were there in the opening scene, with some truly cringe-worthy dialogue. Gary Oldman stars as Nathaniel Shepherd, the mastermind behind plans to begin a colony on Mars. The first six astronauts to live in the oddly-named East Texas compound are led by Sarah Elliott (Janet Montgomery).

Apparently Sarah had a little too much pre-flight entertainment and as the months-long trek to the red planet progresses, it turns out her space sickness is really morning sickness.

the_space_between_us_posterThey can’t turn the ship around and so Sarah gives birth on Mars, and promptly dies  from the stress of Martian childbirth. Back home, Shepherd and his staff are debating how to deal with the new development. Shepherd concludes the public would not approve and funding for the project would dry up. So the boy’s existence is kept a secret.

Now, this could’ve been interesting — especially the thought of a half-dozen men (Sarah was the only woman on the team) trying to raise an infant in a hostile environment without diapers or milk or pacifiers. But we’ll never know how they pulled it off because the next thing you know the baby is 16 years old.

Gardner (Asa Butterfield) seems to be living a pretty well-adjusted life, considering the circumstances. Astronaut Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino) has taken over as surrogate mother, and Gardner has a pen pal on Earth named Tulsa (Britt Robertson). Mars has an impressive internet connection.

While going through his mother’s belonging, Gardner finds a video of Sarah and a man he assumes is his father. Gardner becomes determined to visit Earth and meet dad. Shepherd rejects the idea, fearing that Gardner’s body could not adjust to life on the home planet. Shepherd is overruled, and Kendra and Gardner catch the first rocket to the third rock from the sun.

Gardner is put in quarantine until they can determine if it’s safe for him. As is the way in these kinds of movies, Gardner grows impatient and escapes. Not only does a teen who’s never been to this planet, not to mention has trouble adjusting to the gravity and atmosphere, manage to escape NASA and stay one step ahead of his keepers — he also manages to travel cross-country to find Tulsa.

Gardner is earnest, optimistic and lacks social skills. Tulsa is cynical, streetwise but has a heart of gold under that tough exterior. They crash an airplane, steal multiple cars, fall in love, all while making their way to dad’s place. Shepherd and Kendra are always two steps behind.

“The Space Between Us” has its enlarged heart in the right place, but it’s just too sappy, silly and predictable to recommend. There is some nice scenery, I’ll give it that.

At The Movies: Gold

I really wanted to see the (supposedly) last “Resident Evil” movie this week, but alas, it didn’t get a screening. Now I’ll never know if Alice went through all that hell for nothing. OK, I’ll probably sneak out and catch a matinee this weekend or next. I didn’t come this far to skip the ending.

Meanwhile, I settled for watching Matthew McConaughey put in a decent performance in the uneven but somewhat interesting movie “Gold.”

McConaughey stars as Kenny Wells, a down-on-his-luck prospector who’s looking for the next mother lode. He’s from a long line of gold seekers, but he’s driven the family business into the (not gold filled) dirt. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Kay, his very patient girlfriend.

gold-movie-posterWells is convinced geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) knows where to find the next big score. The two strike a deal — Wells will raise the money to fund the dig and Acosta will raise the gold. The gold, Acosta believes, lies in the jungles of Indonesia.

Wells nearly dies of malaria before they have success. Sure enough, Acosta declares they are sitting on a huge gold reserve. Wells and his old buddies back home are back in business. Naturally, this draws in the vultures in expensive suits (chief among them a sleazy investment banker played by Corey Stoll) who offer their services to these backwards prospectors.

But Wells is determined to maintain control of the find and rebuild the family business, even if he is playing in a whole new league.One where the rules are stacked against him.

Inspired by true events, “Gold” tells a rags-to-riches-and-back-and-forth story that should be familiar to many. Wells becomes intoxicated by success, Kay warns him he’s being used before leaving him, you know the drill. But there are a couple of twists that I didn’t see coming. That — along with some strong performances and lovely cinematography —  pushed “Gold” from “meh” to “worth my time.”

 

 

 

At The Movies: Silence

I can’t say that “Silence” is an entertaining film, but it’s certainly an emotionally charged and thought-provoking one.

A long-simmering pet project of director Martin Scorsese, “Silence” is based on the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo. Set in the 1600s, the film opens with Jesuit priest Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson) watching a half-dozen Christians being tortured to death in Nagasaki, Japan. Father Ferreira has come to the land of the rising sun to spread the gospel of the son of God. The authorities will stop at nothing to make sure Christianity doesn’t take root in Japan.

Back home in Portugal, word reaches Jesuit priest Alessandro Valignano (Ciaran Hinds) that Ferreira committed apostasy while in Japan and has not been seen since. Two of Ferreira’s students, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) can’t believe their mentor would renounce the faith, so they decide to travel to Japan to seek the truth.

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Assisting them on this dangerous mission is Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a broken-down, alcoholic young man who was the best guide they could come up with. Kichijiro plays a recurring role in the film, always seeking forgiveness for his sins — of which he commits many in the course of the story.

The trio arrive in a small village where there is an underground community of Christians. The authorities show up soon after, taking three of the villagers prisoner in hopes this will convince the others to give up the priests. When that doesn’t move the peasants, the prisoners are slowly, and publicly, tortured to death.

Not wanting any more innocent blood on their hands, the priests separate and continue their search for Ferreira. From here the story focuses on Father Rodrigues, who is quickly captured and imprisoned. The bulk of this 2-hour, 40-minute film centers around the attempts to break Rodrigues.

The preferred method of breaking a priest is to torture and murder his fellow Christians. In between these unspeakable acts of violence, Rodrigues debates religion and how it relates to Japan with his interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) and the Japanese Inquisitor (Issey Ogata).

It’s one thing to be a martyr with your own life but to let others die in your stead? How many people should be killed before Rodrigues renounces his faith? And will he? Should he be trying to spread the Christian faith in Japan in the first place?

“Silence” offers no easy answers. It’s a brutal yet compelling film. The acting is powerful and the cinematography is first-rate. It’s a long film, especially since so much of it is taken up by suffering and torture. I don’t know if “Silence” provides enlightenment but it certainly gives you a lot to think about.

 

 

At The Movies: Hidden Figures

It’s always nice when the first movie you see for the year is a good one. Especially when it’s a really good one.

“Hidden Figures” is the heartwarming, compelling, true story of three African-American women who played important roles in the early days of NASA and the U.S. space program.

hidden-figures-posterThe central figure is Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a mathematical genius who works for NASA as a research mathematician, or “human computer,” double-checking the calculations of the white, male engineers. Her two best friends are Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who runs the division where Katherine works but is denied the title, respect, and pay of being promoted to supervisor; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), another “computer.”

As the space race between the U.S. and Russia heats up, Katherine is pulled out of the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center and across campus to work directly at NASA’s Space Task Group. The department is headed by the no-nonsense Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Chief engineer in the department is Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). No one is terribly excited to see Katherine walk through the door.

Meanwhile, Mary’s mentor suggests she go back to school and get an engineering degree — something unheard of for a black woman in 1961. Even her husband has his doubts, but Mary decides to take the challenge — even if it means going to court to gain access to an all-white school.

Meanwhile meanwhile, Dorothy is dealing with an unhelpful supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) who continues to be a roadblock to her advancement. Dorothy quickly realizes that her entire department will soon be out of a job once those new IBM computers are put to work, unless she gets ahead of the curve and figures out how to run them.

Back at the Space Task Group, Katherine is dealing with the dual challenges of conquering space flight and overcoming segregation. There are no facilities in her new office for colored folk, so Katherine must make long treks daily to use the restroom, among other indignities.

Eventually Katherine’s brilliance can no longer be hidden and not only is she double-checking other’s calculations but she’s calculating flight trajectories. Much to the dismay of Paul.

Directed by Theodore Melfi and based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, “Hidden Figures” is a captivating, important story that has remained largely untold until now. It’s not all NASA all the time, the film also delves into the characters’ personal lives.

All the performances in this large ensemble are excellent and the movie captures the look and feel of that bygone era. It’s a fine film and sure to be a crowd pleaser.