Category Archives: Movies

At The Movies: The Commuter

If you’re looking for a decent but hardly spectacular action-thriller, “The Commuter” offers a comfortable, familiar ride.

Liam Neeson stars as Michael McCauley, a former cop who has spent the last 10 years selling insurance. One day he hops onto the train for the long commute into the city only to learn that he’s been laid off. McCauley is 60, has no job prospects, and hasn’t managed to save a dime. Oh, and his son will be starting college soon.

MV5BMTc0NDg1MjI4OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDIwMTEwNDI@._V1_UY1200_CR73,0,630,1200_AL_After commiserating with former partner Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson) at a bar, McCauley boards the train for home. He’s seated across from a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who begins tossing odd hypotheticals at him: Would he be willing to locate a passenger on the train and point that person out for a large sum of money? No questions asked.

When the hypothetical becomes all too real, McCauley rejects the offer. At which point Joanna threatens harm to his wife and son if he doesn’t cooperate. McCauley has until the train reaches the end of the line to find the person of interest and decide what to do about it.

“The Commuter” is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who gave us other Liam Neeson action-thrillers like “Non Stop” and “Run All Night.” The pair know how to tell a tense and gripping story, even if it is a pretty stupid one.

Neeson continues to be a magnetic, if unlikely, action hero. He’s the centerpiece of the film, so it’s a good thing he’s up to the task. The rest of the cast is fine but they’re not really given much of anything interesting to do.

Like all films of this sort there are twists and turns and friends who may be enemies and enemies who may be friends. It all goes off the rails (literally) by the end when the good guys and bad guys have to be sorted out amid much chaos.

The central problem I have with the film is the central idea behind the film. The bad guys pulling the strings have eyes everywhere, ears everywhere, and can do pretty much anything. So why resort to bribery and threats to get a retired cop (who probably isn’t going to go along with your plan) to find your mystery person? Why not just hire a professional investigator?

It wouldn’t be as thrilling, but at least it would make sense.

 

 

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At The Movies: The Shape Of Water

Believe it or not, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is not the only movie opening in theaters this week.

“The Shape of Water” is about as far removed from the high adventure, high adrenaline rush of a “Star Wars” movie as you can get. And while I once again this week find myself at odds with all the critical acclaim a film is getting, “The Shape of Water” is a pleasant, unusual love story with a strong cast and an authentic, throwback feel.

DMiWF1nUQAAixrOThis is the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mild-mannered and mute woman living a quiet life in a small apartment in Baltimore in the early 1960s. Her closest — and pretty much only — friends are her eccentric neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

Elisa and Zelda are part of the custodial crew at a government research facility. One day Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in a half-human, half-amphibian creature (Doug Jones) he caught in the rivers of South America. Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) is the scientist in charge of studying the creature.

Elisa is strangely attracted to the “aquaman” and sneaks into his cage during her lunch breaks to feed him hard-boiled eggs and expose him to music. When the decision is made to have the creature destroyed, Elisa sneaks him out with help from the doctor and her friends. But how long can the creature survive in Elisa’s small bathtub?

“The Shape of Water” is a charming, stylish, strange fable from director Guillermo del Toro. But to be honest, I was expecting something a little more unusual from the man who gave us “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy” and “Crimson Peak.”

The movie is slowly paced and — despite its premise — very conventional. There isn’t a moment of surprise or tension to be had. You can predict how things are going to go down every step of the way. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in a world where far too many movies rely on far too many plot twists.

Sally Hawkins’ wonderful performance is what really brings life to this familiar beauty-and-the-beast tale. Her expressive face more than makes up for her character’s inability to speak.

At The Movies: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

It appears critics are falling all over themselves to sing the praises of the latest “Star Wars” film.

So I guess it falls to me to play the role of cranky old Jedi master.

Is it really the greatest “Star Wars” film since “The Empire Strikes Back” ? Maybe, but that’s not a high bar if you think about it. You’ve got “Empire,” then you’ve got the original, then the one with the Ewoks, then the prequels (less said about them the better), then the previous installment (I’m not counting “Rogue 1” or that “Clone Wars” cartoon).

Personally, I’d rate it third behind “Empire” and “Star Wars,” but then I’m not really into ranking things.

the-last-jedi-theatrical-blogShould we start with the good or the bad? Let’s get the bad out of the way and end on a high note.

It’s too damn long. 2.5 hours seems to have become the standard for blockbusters and that’s a shame because this could’ve been a great movie if it weren’t so bloated. Part of the problem is you’ve got too many characters — the originals, the newbies, more newbies — and they’re all fighting for attention.

Trying to give everyone something meaningful to do results in some of them not doing anything meaningful at all. I’m looking at you, Finn. There’s a whole subplot involving Finn (John Boyega) and his new bestie (Kelly Marie Tran) going to a casino and freeing alien horse-things while searching for the keymaster — err, codebreaker. It is pretty pointless when all is said and done. It’s also a waste of the great Benicio del Toro.

Oh wait, now I remember. They need the codebreaker so they can — because we have to do this in every “Star Wars” movie — disguise themselves and sneak onto an Imperial ship to turn off the tracking device/tractor beam/force shield and save the day.

Which brings us to our other problem — there appear to be no original ideas in the “Star Wars” universe. Let’s just keep borrowing from the original trilogy and tweak things here and there.

This time they’re taking mainly from “Return of the Jedi.” Rey (Daisy Ridley) decides that there’s still good in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and goes to confront him. He turns her over to the Emperor — I mean Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) — who can’t stop gloating because the resistance is about to be wiped out, and surely Kylo would never turn on him.

At least they didn’t come up with an excuse to bring back the Death Star.

So what is it that makes “The Last Jedi” overcome these flaws and take its place among the cream of the “Star Wars” crop? Luke Skywalker. Finally out of the shadow of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill is able to fully take the stage and make this movie his own.

Hamill’s portrayal of a broken down, emotionally drained Jedi master is fascinating and compelling. It’s worth sitting through the two hours of preliminaries just to get to the main event when Luke faces down the forces of evil.

As for the rest, well, you know — it’s “Star Wars.” The special effects are first-rate, the action is intense, the cast — old and new — is fine. Carrie Fisher gets plenty to do despite her untimely death. She also gets the best moment in the film that doesn’t involve Luke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Star Wars And Me

There is a new “Star Wars” movie coming out this week. I should be more excited, but I’m not.

Pretty much all of my enthusiasm for the latest “Star Wars” trilogy died when that goth loser Kylo Ren shoved a lightsaber in Han Solo’s chest and let him fall into blackness.

Yep, I should be more excited about a new “Star Wars” movie but I’m not.

It wasn’t always that way.

A long time ago

The year was 1977. My brother drove my sister and me to the Tower theater in Springfield to see this new sci-fi space adventure, “Star Wars.” Words cannot describe. I walked out of the theater wanting to walk right back in.

I feel nothing but a great swell of pity for everyone who never saw “Star Wars” for the first time in a movie theater in 1977 when it was all pristine and new. If you experienced “Star Wars” for the first time via videotape, DVR or TNT — you have my sympathies. You simply can’t imagine what life was like before “Star Wars.” Science-fiction space adventure movies were crap. It was as if a whole new universe had been opened up for us, thanks to George Lucas.

A few weeks later we went to Columbia to pick up my other sister from college and we saw it again. It was even better the second time. Keep in mind we were poor country folk, we rarely went to the movies at all. Let alone the same one twice.

star_wars_hildebrandt_artI was 15 years old at the time — the prime age for the merchandising machine that would follow. I bought the poster to hang on my bedroom wall (the Hildebrandt version is still one of the all-time great movie posters) and the soundtrack album (which I didn’t listen to much because, you know, it’s just instrumental). I got a watch for Christmas.

I loved “Star Wars” but it didn’t become an obsession. I didn’t buy any action figures, I didn’t bother with the comic books, I didn’t read the novels. The movies were enough.

Like all right-minded people, I believe “The Empire Strikes Back” is As Good As It Gets. The perfect mix of drama, humor, special effects, character bits, Yoda, the giant worm in the asteroid, surprising revelations, Lando, and those giant Imperial tanks that look like dinosaurs.

Sitting through the third film I started to feel that, yeah, maybe it is time to wrap this up. They’re taking down a Death Star — again? Why are trained Imperial stormtroopers being taken down by walking teddy bears? Why teddy bears? Getting a little tired of the Emperor going on and on about “the power of the dark side…”

A Bad Feeling About This

Lucas claimed early on that the plan was for three trilogies and the next one would be a prequel to the original. It took so long to get around to making the prequels that I began to think it would never happen. When “The Phantom Menace” finally showed up some 16 years after “Return of the Jedi,” the expectations were high. The disappointment would take a while to sink in.

starwars-02I don’t need to recite all the ills of the prequels, but let’s go over the major ones:

  • Darth Vader, one of the great villains of cinema, is reduced to a precocious child and a whining adolescent. I’m sure Hitler was a precocious child and a whiny teenager, but I don’t want to know about it.
  • The Jedi Knights, once thought of as samurai cowboys wandering the galaxy fighting evil, are reduced to clueless politicians sitting around debating what the hell’s going on and never figuring it out.
  • Ridiculously complicated plots involving trade federations and clones and the machinations of Palpatine.
  • The worst love story in the history of film.

You’re probably wondering why Jar Jar Binks isn’t on this list, but I think the hatred of JJB is overblown. He’s just another witless comedy relief character. He serves the same role as C-3PO but nobody complains about him.

The prequels do benefit from superior special effects, but here is where I learned that there is more to “Star Wars” than awesome FX. All the pretty planets and weird aliens and exciting space battles don’t mean a thing if you don’t care about the characters. And I just didn’t care about anybody in the prequels — except Obi Wan. And maybe Mace Windu, but even Sam Jackson was wasted in these films — and when you’re wasting a talent like Samuel L. Jackson — you’ve done something seriously wrong.  (I also liked Qui-Gon, but they kill him off in the first film).

For me, “Star Wars” isn’t about lightsabers, odd hairdos or the Millennium Falcon (although those are all important) — it’s about Luke, Leia and Han.

There is Another 

With the tepid reception to the prequels, and anger over Lucas tinkering with the originals, it seemed unlikely we would ever see that third trilogy. Then Disney bought out Lucasfilm and the next thing you know — Everything’s Star Wars.

starwarsjpg1445279779When I learned that Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford had signed on for the new movies — I was excited about “Star Wars” for the first time in a long time. Oh sure, they’re older and they’ve been through the wringer, but then, haven’t we all? I just wanted to see Luke, Leia and Han all back together, cracking wise and fighting the dark side, one more time.

And then that f—king Kylo Ren shoved a lightsaber in Han Solo’s chest and let him fall into blackness.

I mean, seriously? Han Solo and Princess Leia have a son and it’s this loser? We go from the great Darth Vader to this loser? I’d be more scared of the offspring of Jabba the Hut and an Ewok than I am of Kylo Ren.

The rest of the additions are fine but I’m not in it for them. I want The Beatles, not New Kids on the Block. Which leads me to my next great analogy.

Let’s say The Beatles announce they are planning a reunion concert (I know two of them are dead — work with me). You’re excited, right? You mortgage your home to buy a pair of tickets. You show up at the concert hall. The curtain goes up and there are Paul, George and Ringo playing all the hits. You’re enjoying the show, but at the same time you’re thinking “Where’s John?” Intermission. Act 2 begins and there’s John! with George and Ringo. But now Paul’s missing. You’re enjoying the show, but at the same time you’re thinking “Where the hell did Paul go?”

In the end, you did see The Beatles, but not all four together like you were hoping and expecting. Still a good show, but still somewhat disappointing.

And that’s where I am with “Star Wars.” I suppose they could bring Han back somehow but there’s no bringing Carrie Fisher back, so I’m not going to get what I really wanted.

At any rate, I’ll be sticking with “Star Wars” to the end (although now that Disney is in charge, I doubt there will ever be an end). I am excited to see Luke again and see where he fits into this strange, new galaxy. And I need to know what happens to Leia. And I am pretty fond of Rey. Maybe there is hope.

But I’d still like to see the Fab Three again.

 

At The Movies: Coco

This holiday week we should be thankful for Pixar Animation, which continually gives us quality, heartfelt animated feature films. It’s latest, “Coco,” is no exception.

Young Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) loves music. Unfortunately, his family has banned it. Three generations earlier, the family matriarch (and her daughter Coco) was abandoned by her husband — an aspiring musician. Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach) went on to form a successful shoe-making business in a small Mexican village. Music was never allowed in the house.

Coco, Miguel’s great-grandmother, is wheelchair bound and pretty much lost in her own world. Grandma Abuelita (Renee Victor) is in charge of keeping the home and business music free.

coco_payoff_ig_jpeg_v7_1_750x938_by_loldisney-dbn7ohsWhile everyone else in the family is content making shoes, Miguel dreams of being a great musician like his hero — the late Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Miguel decides to enter a music contest at the Day of the Dead festival, but needs a guitar.

He decides to borrow one from Ernesto’s mausoleum, but when he takes the instrument something strange happens. Namely, he winds up in the Land of the Dead.

Miguel wants to go home, but Imelda will not help him unless he vows to give up music. So instead he seeks help from Ernesto, but to reach the popular singer, he will need help from a questionable character named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal).

“Coco” has all the familiar elements of a Pixar film. A smart, tightly woven plot; charming characters; a moving, family-friendly message; a goofy animal; a few nice songs; some thrilling action scenes; and gorgeous, dazzling animation. The Land of the Dead is surprisingly colorful and inspired.

So why don’t I rank it among Pixar’s greatest films? Because it’s a little too familiar. So many elements here have been done before in countless animated features. Granted, that won’t bother the target audience, but it takes some of the thrill out of it for an old, jaded dude like me. And the final, climactic scene with Miguel and Coco doesn’t just tug at your heartstrings — it pulls at them like a power winch.

Still, “Coco” is shiny and pretty and funny and smart and follows its familiar path well.

 

 

 

At The Movies: Justice League

DC Comics’ long-awaited attempt at putting together an all-star super-team movie has arrived. While on paper, the Justice League boasts a more powerful lineup than the Avengers, on film the A-team has nothing to worry about.

“Justice League” is a mixed bag. While I enjoyed it overall, it suffers from the usual weaknesses that plague comic book movies.

THE GOOD: The cast is the film’s biggest strength, which is key since that’s the main reason anyone is going to this movie — to see DC’s big guns interact. And it is fun seeing these iconic characters hook up for the first time.

Gal Godot’s Wonder Woman continues to be the franchise’s strongest link. She’s always captivating on screen. Ben Affleck is just as good a Batman/Bruce Wayne as anyone else to don the cape and cowl and better than some. Henry Cavill finally brings some charm and light to the previously dour Superman. I guess being reborn improves one’s attitude.

As far as the newbies, Jason Momoa — while bearing no resemblance in look or personality to his comic book counterpart — does a good job with the role of smartass/badass that is, of all people, Aquaman. Ezra Miller is fine in the comic relief role of the Flash — again playing a part that really doesn’t mesh with the comic book persona.  Last, and by all means least, we have Ray Fisher as Cyborg. It’s not that he does a bad job with the character, it’s just that the character isn’t fleshed out (irony not intended).

The special effects and action sequences are decent, especially if you love the way director Zack Snyder directs action sequences. Because this is exactly like every other movie he’s directed. Highly stylized with lots of slow-motion, sudden stops and starts, and the action usually takes place at night or in darkened places.

To his credit, Snyder does the best Batman visuals put to film. He gets that Batman should be able to move, and move quickly. He also does great with the posing.

The movie boasts a lighter tone than its predecessors “Man of Steel” and “Superman V. Batman,” which is a good thing. Joss Whedon was brought in to help Snyder finish the film and his trademark sense of humor keeps the film from being too solemn.

c419877a2d86d41c98a4036da0eacf22

THE BAD:  “Justice League” certainly isn’t the first comic book movie to feature a weak, choppy plot and a boring, colorless villain. It’s another alien invasion story, this one led by the uninspired, uber-powerful baddie Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds — not the band).

Steppenwolf has come to Earth to bring together three Mother Boxes that will transform our planet into a hellhole, the better for it to be taken over by Steppy’s boss Darkseid.

I think. The movie doesn’t do a very good job of explaining the plot at all. Nor does it adequately give us background on the new characters. I would’ve liked to have seen more of Aquaman in his element, or Cyborg before his accident.

THE UGLY: Outside of the big three, the costume designs are hideous. Aquaman looks better in tattoos and swim trunks than the thing he wears to fight evil. Cyborg is a human head on a robot body, and it’s not a good look. But the worst fashion disaster is the Flash. A guy who’s talent is running should not be wearing such an oddly jagged, busy costume. There’s something seriously wrong when your TV version looks so much better than you do.

THE SUMMARY: I think DC would’ve been wise to follow Marvel’s playbook and introduce the characters individually before bringing them together. There’s just too much going on shoved into a 2-hour time frame. Still, it’s not as dark and bleak as Snyder’s previous DC movies and the cast is strong and it’s entertaining seeing them all together.

As Superman’s chest emblem would say — there’s hope.

 

At The Movies: Thor: Ragnarok

In Norse mythology, Ragnarok is the great final battle where the gods fight and die and the world ends. Think of it as the viking version of Armageddon.

So you wouldn’t think a movie about such an event would be a funny, fun-loving adventure — and yet that’s what you get with “Thor: Ragnarok.”

When last we saw the God of Thunder (at the end of “Avengers: Age of Ultron”) he had left Earth to seek out the Infinity Stones, which have been plaguing Marvel Studios’ movies for some time. As our new story begins, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is chained up in the subterranean lair of Surtur (Clancy Brown).

DIBDRP1UwAAtU6JSurtur is planning on bringing about Ragnarok, but his plans are thwarted by Thor’s hammer. Thor returns to his home in Asgard, only to find father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) missing and brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) on the throne. (He would’ve already known this if he had watched “Thor: The Dark World.”)

With help from Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Thor and Loki find Odin on a bluff in Norway. Odin warns that despite defeating Surtur, Ragnarok cannot be stopped. Only now it’s going to come in the form of Hela, Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett).

As if on cue, Hela arrives. After a very brief skirmish, Thor and Loki and hurtled into space while Hela makes her way to Asgard. She is greeted by Skurge (Karl Urban), who has replaced the missing Heimdall (Idris Elba) as guardian of the Rainbow Bridge. Together they cut a bloody swath through the home of the gods.

Elsewhere, Thor lands on the planet Sakaar, a world run by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). The thunder god is quickly captured by a bounty hunter who was once one of the Norse warrior women, the Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). She takes Thor to the Grandmaster for use in his popular gladiatorial games.

The Grandmaster’s reining champion turns out to be none other than Thor’s incredible avenging buddy, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Now Thor simply has to defeat the Hulk, escape the Grandmaster, deal with Loki, and return to Asgard to stop Hela. And all without his beloved hammer.

Director Taika Waititi (who also plays the friendly rock monster Korg) has put the Thor franchise back on top after a disappointing second outing. The laughs are welcome and plentiful, but there are also some grim, violent moments and some touching ones as well. The film has heart as well as humor, thrilling action, outrageous costumes and nifty special effects.

Some old favorites had to make way for all the new faces, but the additions brought a fresh feel to the film. The Thor franchise continues to prove it has the best villains in the MCU, with Blanchett’s Hela proving just as wickedly entertaining as Hiddleston’s Loki.

And it’s nice to finally see the Hulk get a voice and a personality beyond “smash.”

Granted, some of the comedy is overdone and the light-hearted tone doesn’t always mesh with the end-of-the-world plot. But as a big, goofy, sometimes absurd, superhero tale it gets the job done.

2017 hasn’t been a great year in many respects but it’s been an impressive one for superhero movies. “Thor: Ragnarok” joins “Guardians of the Galaxy 2,” “Wonder Woman” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” as stellar action-adventure entertainment. Will “Justice League” be in the same league? We’ll know in a few weeks.