Oh, What A Girl Can Do!

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Nostalgia comes in great waves today, with all manner of films revisiting classic themes — from Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 to War for the Planet of the Apes, Hollywood is, more accurately, in a nostalgic monsoon, but in the case of this week’s new release, Atomic Blonde, we have said nostalgia tailored for an R-rated audience. This movie belongs to the 80’s kids and their parents, but with the modern sensibility of a commanding female lead who owns the show.

Based on the comic book The Coldest City, the story is set in November 1989, days before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) plays MI6 Agent Lorraine Broughton, a super-spy at the top of her line, sent on an extraction mission to East Berlin. With the help of ridiculously rogue agent David Percival (James McAvoy, Split), she must locate a stolen list of active operatives in the Secret Service, or it’s game over for the free world.

Let’s not mince words — this film is an audio/visual feast, showing wanton violence with an almost poetic look to it, and yet the action is surprisingly grounded, given director David Leitch’s background with the John Wick movies. The sound is not as invasive as I thought it would be — while bullets fly above your head, you can still hear the dialogue clearly, all set to a litany of 80’s pop songs for much of its soundtrack. All that being said, the script isn’t much to write home about — too many curveballs are thrown into the works; even the viewer begins to doubt what is true or not. There are at least three twist endings, one of which you see coming miles away, so that’s no good.

Despite the handicap of the script, the acting is brilliant — If you expected hammy acting amidst a violent script, you’ll be proven wrong, but anyone expecting a cold-blooded feminist blockbuster tailored for the “reSister” of today will get something wholly other — Theron plays Lorraine more as a femme Timothy Dalton-era James Bond — one who would snap your neck like a twig for Queen and Country, all while wearing a coy smile on her face. She owns the screen on which the movie plays, but in any lesser situation, the requisite male lead would be mere eye candy. Thankfully, such is not the case here — co-star McAvoy brings the perturbing filth one usually sees in the movies he makes across the pond to a mass-market American release, and he owns his character with disgusting pleasure. Notable supporting cast members include John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane), bringing a shot of humor into the film as a bumbling CIA agent, James Faulkner (Downton Abbey) as C, Lorraine’s superior and head of MI6, and Sofia Boutella (The Mummy) in a role that, if I told you, would spoil the movie.

Atomic Blonde is not very good, but it’s no sin to see it — it’s a fun film that, while it won’t quite scratch the itch of those begging for a female 007, is a symphonic example of an action film, embodying the best of Guy Hamilton and Robert Rodriguez, set to the tunes of liberation. That is what we came to see, is it not?

Rating: 3/5

Drink Up, Me Hearties, Yo Ho!

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HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is something of a brilliant fluke that printed lots of money and occasional awards in its heyday, but let’s not mince words — the sequels thus far, made with the potential of being a seafaring Star Wars saga, were land-locked crap. With the much-publicized “final film” that was released last week, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, I was hoping with bated breath for one last hurrah to make amends for the sequels that sucked. Having seen it, patience is clearly a virtue!

In this film, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, Alice Through The Looking-Glass) is a battered ol’ drunkie, with little to sustain him but the next rum bottle that touches his lips. Fate (read: sheer dumb luck) brings him into contact with Henry Turner (Brenton Twaites, Maleficent), the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) and Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightley, The Imitation Game), and he brings with him a threat from the ghostly Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men) and a desire to free his father from unending servitude. Teaming up with Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario, The Maze Runner), a young astronomer accused of witchcraft, and Jack’s resident frenemy, Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech), they seek the Trident of Poseidon, an artifact capable of freeing anyone from a curse of the sea.

In all seriousness, this is not the best Pirates movie in the series — it does, however, have the luxury of being the best one since the immaculate original. Depp, as always, blends into character as if no years have passed, with all the wit and twit we love about Captain Jack, and yet this is not just his movie — just about everyone gets a chance to shine, with Thwaites finally beginning to prove his mettle as an actor beyond a pretty face and a haircut, and Bardem embodying all the creepy he had in Skyfall with a bit of a dark comedic edge to it. At times, Rush seems to be fulfilling a contract, but he brings all the necessary “arrr” to the role he created in 2002. Scodelario isn’t as bright in her role as I hoped she’d be, but she’s clearly having a good time making a costume drama in the company of great people. Speaking of, Sir Paul McCartney (A Hard Day’s Night), a Beatle in the flesh, appears as Jack’s uncle and namesake — try not to miss him!

Fresh eyes arrive to the series in the form of seasoned action directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon Tiki), giving a stronger sense of action choreography and an ability to see the beauty in locations, something they exhibited as producers on Netflix’s Marco Polo, but the real beauty of this movie is in its having a new writer — Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can). In addition to bringing a fresh eye, relatively unbound to the conventions of the previous sequels, and while there are rehashed lines and some plot holes, he seems to know exactly what the fans want, and in the end, he gives it to us — not only are Henry and Carina lovers by the end, Will and Elizabeth, longstanding mainstays of the series, are finally, definitively reunited in an ending that, while it should have been that of the third film, is warranted, welcome and warmed my greasy little heart to 450ºF! Bravo!

In its last-ditch effort for a return to form, this final Pirates largely succeeds. The script is definitely riddled with clichés; the acting ranges from nominal to yuckin’-it-up, but in the end, the franchise has met a graceful end and its fans, myself included, have finally gotten the happy ending that we deserved! So do yourself a favor and board a ship for a joyous voyage in 3D at your earliest convenience!

Rating: 3.5/5

I’d Like To Do It Again

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I grew up on stuff that meant nothing to my generation — from vintage comedies to Victrola records, my house was in 1950 while 1997 happened in the outside world. As a direct result, I was alienated from most of my class, but I did acquire a, dare I say, more refined sense of humor compared to my contemporaries. That being said, not enough comedies in theaters today make me laugh — I tend to groan throughout (Superbad) or take the story dead seriously (Tropic Thunder), so I rarely see them in theaters. In point of fact, the last one I saw as such was 2012’s Hit & Run, and I guffawed all the way through. Almost five years later, I found myself seeing Going In Style, and loving it from head to toe!

A remake of the 1979 film of the same name, Going In Style showcases the lives of three friends in their sunset years — Joe (Michael Caine, The Italian Job), Willie (Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption) and Albert (Alan Arkin, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming!) — robbed of their pensions and near broke. With no other way to live and expenses needing to be paid, Joe gets the idea to rob a bank — the same bank that managed the liquidation of their pensions. It does sound extremely dumb in synopsis form, and while the trailers paint a better picture than my words, they don’t do it enough justice — this is a very cute, touching film that happens to have some of the best laugh-out-loud moments I’ve ever seen (and the best ones are actually kept from the trailer! Bravo!)! Caine, Freeman and Arkin have never been funnier, and they’re joined by a grand cast of co-stars — among them, Ann-Margret (Bye Bye Birdie), Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future), Matt Dillon (Over The Edge), Siobhan Fallon Hogan (Holes) and Joey King (Oz: The Great and Powerful), each one getting a moment or two in the spotlight that make them indispensable to this film. No one present in this film is an unnecessary addition, which is something I can’t say about most movies in history.

Still, when the movie gets sentimental, it never stoops to sappy, Mitch Albom-y levels. It’s a movie made for the generation who grew up on the Billy Wilder compendium of comedies; movies that weren’t afraid to fiddle with your heartstrings as they tickled your funnybone, and that is made all the more impressive by its 42-year old director, Zach Braff. Known as the man behind romantic dramedies such as Garden State and The Last Kiss. Braff’s direction is a loving one, kind and courteous to the audiences watching this film with no real alternatives in a day and age of uninspired drivel like Trainwreck and Neighbors. There is no other movie this year like Going In Style — it’s a trip down Memory Lane that never takes its foot off the gas. True, it does slow down a bit in its third act, and that’s a bit of a pity, but on average, it’s a rollicking, fun ride through the pitfalls of old age.

Let’s be clear, Going In Style is not Oscar bait, despite advertisements billing its leads as “Academy Award Winners,” but it’s not made for the Hollywood elite, nor the moviegoer expecting to see The Hangover on Ensure; it’s a comedy that isn’t afraid to be poignant and adorable. You just don’t get movies like that anymore, and kudos to Zach Braff and all affiliated — this is a love letter from our generation to the past.

4.5/5

Perfect, A Pure Paragon

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If you are as much of a Disney fan as I (few are), then the thought of a live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast gave you cause to salivate — one that kept the songs and its composer, eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken! I was sold, but as the days to release got closer, I found myself getting more and more cautious — suppose the end result sucked, a la Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables? I am proud and thankful to say that this adaptation, directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls), is nothing short of brilliant. I write this review assuming that you are familiar with the base of the story (and you had better be!), and as such, spoilers follow.

One thing viewers of the 1993 Broadway show may not be aware of is that none of the songs written for said show carry over into this film, but fear not, as Menken and lyricist Sir Tim Rice write new songs that both make up for the missing ones and craft a new experience for the viewers of the show. Speaking of the songs, the movie is filled with brilliant performances, beginning with the Harry Potter franchise’s Emma Watson, who can sing, rest assured, and in spite of her promoted desire to modernize Belle, I was, as a feminist, glad to have seen her more resolute than openly militant — we’re bordering on the political, but I’m super happy this wasn’t rewritten as “Steinem and the Beast.” Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) makes a brilliant Beast, with one hell of a set of pipes — his signature number, “Evermore,” brought tears to my eyes, but it’s Luke Evans (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) who brings his latent background in musical theatre to the forefront and aces the role of Gaston with a great voice and the right levels of smarm, condescension and cruelty — just the right type of villain! Acting as his toady is Josh Gad (Back To You) as LeFou, who gets a larger story arc in this version, which fleshes him out without totally changing him. Kevin Kline (Silverado), as Belle’s father Maurice, brings a befuddled persona to the character, reminiscent of Buster Keaton in Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with an equally kind nature requisite of the character. He doesn’t get much of a song — less than two minutes — but his necessity isn’t in his singing, and you’ll find out when you see this.

The servile characters of the castle just about steal the show, with Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge!) and Ian McKellen (Cold Comfort Farm) leading the pack as Lumiere and Cogsworth, respectively. With great singing voices (although Sir Ian doesn’t get to show his much), they make “Be Our Guest” a showstopper even better than the original (there’s even a visual nod to Esther Williams’ swim ballet pictures!)! Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) is adorable and kindly as Mrs. Potts, with a more knowledgeable nature than in the animated film, and alongside her is relative newcomer Nathan Mack as Chip, who is freakin’ adorkable. Here’s to your long career, boy!

Underplayed, but still appreciated, are Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Concussion) as Plumette, the featherduster and Lumiere’s flame (…groan…), Audra MacDonald (A Raisin in the Sun) as Madame de Garderobe, a soprano-cum-wardrobe, and Stanley Tucci (The Whole Shebang) as new character Maestro Cadenza, a court composer turned harpsichord. They each get their moment to shine, to be sure, but a little more couldn’t hurt. Still, not a big enough gripe to warrant a lesser grade.

Again, those fearing too much modernization in this edition need not worry — what wasn’t broke (or baroque) in the 1991 classic mercifully remains unfixed in this version. Sure, there’s the much-publicized “gay-making” of LeFou, but if it wasn’t publicized, I guarantee nobody would have even suspected it. It’s mercurial, and those of a discriminatory position needn’t fear their children’s safety — you never needed to anyway. Other plot points that warranted expansion are done brilliantly so, from the whereabouts of Belle’s mother and what happened to the Enchantress, and that speaks volumes of the talents of writers Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being A Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War), both writers I didn’t care much for prior to this, and director Bill Condon, who may have directed both parts of the Twilight saga closer, Breaking Dawn, but aside from giving him experience in visual effects work, there’s nothing resembling those two duds in this film.

Bravo to all involved in this adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, who have created something as memorable as the musical and film that preceded it. It’s a pity it wasn’t released in time for last Oscar season, but it was better they take care of the film and not rush a single thread. I will happily see it again in IMAX 3D, and I urge all readers of this to see it too!

Rating: 5/5(?!)

Feels So Good

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Though their bank statements may differ, I have personally felt that Marvel Studios had been resting on their laurels from Phase One — for every Captain America: The Winter Soldier, there was an Avengers: Age of Ultron; for every Guardians of the Galaxy, a Thor: The Dark World. My thoughts on their other release this year, Captain America: Civil War, were less than savory (and can be found in the backlogs of this blog), and yet, in spite of my dislike for the aforementioned film, I found myself adoring Doctor Strange. Normally, I have a three-strike rule when it comes to franchises, but having the fortune of knowing a privileged duo of Marvel crewmembers, the rule need not apply, and with Strange, they are absolved!

To understand the story of this film, your reading is heavy, happen you are not familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon. Those who are well-versed need not worry, and fans of the comics are in for one hell of a treat — several, in point of fact. First among them, Benedict Cumberbatch (The Hollow Crown: Wars of the Roses) and his portrayal of Dr. Stephen Strange, a sorcerer supreme in the making, but an arrogant bastard of a neurosurgeon at first, rendered humble by the circumstances that befall him — an avenger after my own heart. As Robert Downey Jr. became Tony Stark, Cumberbatch effortlessly becomes Stephen Strange, not so much in bringing actual life experiences to the character, but insofar as his knowledge of Eastern religion and deep spirituality — Strange is something of an extension of the Cumberbatch the world knows, and that is great.

As Dr. Christine Palmer, Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) plays a worthy romantic foil to Cumberbatch, parrying every zinger and wry remark he throws, sometimes hurls, at her. She has come a long way from playing the token wispy ingenue in drivel like The Notebook and State of Play, and I look forward to seeing her again in the MCU. A further welcome addition to the cast is Benedict Wong (Marco Polo) as the aptly-named Wong, wisely rewritten from Strange’s tea-making manservant to the librarian of the Mystic Arts with vicious late fees in tow. Speaking of vicious, Mads Mikkelsen (The Three Musketeers), previously in contention to play Malekith in Thor: The Dark World, is exponentially better utilized here as the borderline satanic Kaecilius, a disciple of the Mystic Arts who took a darker path — elements of Mikkelsen’s portrayal of the title character in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal are extremely prevalent here — he oozes villainy. Tilda Swinton (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), going bald and almost androgynous as The Ancient One, possesses all the gravitas of a leader with the control of a schoolteacher. The somewhat weak link in this great cast is Chiwetel Eijofor as Baron Mordo, an aide-de-camp of sorts to The Ancient One. He doesn’t seem to do much more than exist, but when the plot takes a turn for him, he portrays hurt feelings much like a child being told that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Props go to him, but here’s hoping there’s better meat for him to chew on next time.

That being said, standing at Cumberbatch’s side for this film’s success is director Scott Derrickson (Sinister), a man who brings his experience in horror films to the best possible use in a film of this caliber. Make no mistake, this is the trippiest and, dare I say, darkest Marvel film yet, and that is in part what makes it a success — this is no cut-and-paste job of previous efforts. What’s more, Derrickson’s horror experience means that the film moves briskly and without sacrificing story for action — this is a stellar origin story, and without him, I doubt the film would have held up. I have no control in the matter, but I hope Cumberbatch and Derrickson are signed for the next five (I hope) sequels! Another problem remedied from most Marvel films is the score, composed by Academy Award winner Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles), who takes the emotions of his Star Trek scores and merges it seamlessly with the electric grittiness of Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire.

Doctor Strange stands, in this reviewer’s eyes, among Marvel’s best — right above Thor and just under Marvel’s The Avengers. It’s spiritual without being cloying; it’s full of action without losing to the story, and it’s an origin story not bogged down by exposition. Full marks, and see it in IMAX 3D for the best viewing experience possible.

Rating: 5/5

Dial Tone

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Seriously, what’s the final title?

I am seriously at complete odds with what I just saw-who in their right mind okayed the script for this new version of Ghostbusters? Before saying anything further, I am a feminist and this movie is like a flat, heated bottle of Diet Coke that has gone out of date by about five years. Let the idea of that simmer on your tongue for a second or twelve. It isn’t appetizing, is it?

The all-lady cast of Ghostbusters (or is it Ghostbusters: Answer The Call? Set the title straight, Sony!) is not the problem with this reboot, either in decision or performance. Rather, I reiterate, it is the lousy script, whose writers seem wholly uninterested with making a feminist blockbuster, or making a good movie at all, and instead focus on laying groundwork for a sequel and spinoffs.

It starts out innocently enough — Columbia University professor Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig, The Martian) is dragged back into a past she’d rather forget when a book she co-wrote on the paranormal resurfaces online, thanks to her estranged childhood friend, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids). Tracking her down leads her to a haunted house nearby, where a spontaneous experiment conducted by Abby leads to the both of them stumbling upon the discovery of a malevolent ghost. Caught on camera professing her findings, one thing leads to another, and Erin is fired days short of receiving tenure, and more or less forced to join forces, as it were, with her girlhood chum and her partner in scientific experimentation, Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live). Together, and with new recruit Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones, The Company We Keep), they set out to rid New York City of a rising threat.

It sounds better than it actually is — this is boring. So damn boring, and boy, does it show. While the new ladies in the jumpsuits are damn good with this lousy script (particularly Ms. McKinnon, a knockout!), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), as the receptionist, is as dead as a doornail/knob/knocker. He reads every single line in the style of the lead in a middle school play. Between this and the reboot of Vacation, he should never do a dedicated comedy again — his taste is ass. Renowned English actor Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) is in two scenes in the opening and is gone for the rest of the picture — why cast an actor of his caliber if you won’t use him to his fullest? The same applies to actors Michael Kenneth Williams (RoboCop) and Andy Garcia (The Ocean’s Eleven Trilogy), both in dry, one note roles. Even though no one made them take these blasé parts, why couldn’t they have been better utilized? The kingpin insult committed by this film is the use of the original Ghostbusters actors (sans Harold Ramis, God rest his soul) in pathetic wink-and-nod cameos. Bill Murray’s is the best-written of the bunch, but that’s not saying much, while Sigourney Weaver’s is insultingly relegated to the end credits scenes. So much for a feminist blockbuster.

Further, the script – it’s as if Sony got pitched an all-female Ghostbusters and gave writers Kate Dippold and Paul Feig (the latter of whom is also the director) final cut and no script doctor. Riddled with a bland villain, broken PG-13 sexual epithets and lousy gender and ethnicity jokes, this film offends more than it inspires, and its ending is the worst finale to a summer movie since Spider-Man 3Almost as bad as the script are the visual effects. While other films make you believe in ghosts, this film gives you no reason to — Slimer and his ghoulish crew look like they belong in a PlayStation 2 full-motion video cutscene. These paltry effects are utter hogwash, and while I didn’t see the film in the director’s intended format of IMAX 3D, I shouldn’t have to shell out extra cash just to get a better experience, not that an added dimension could save this film.

The final insult is that Sony intends to make a shared universe of Ghostbusters films, as evidenced well before its post-credits scene by a logo for a subsidiary company they’ve set up – “Ghost Corps, A Columbia Pictures Company.” Really, Sony? Filching the multi-film universe shtick is pathetic in and of itself, but to do so with Ghostbusters signifies the first of many nails in the proverbial coffin.

Under the circumstances, the crew behind this Ghostbusters had a lot to work under — salvaging what could have been Ghostbusters III, balancing the expectations of new fans with the disappointment/rampant sexism of old fans and filling the pocketbooks of studio suits, but the fact is that they weren’t forced to make this film and, in the end, it still sucks. It isn’t one of the worst films I’ve seen, but it is, hand to heart, the biggest disappointment of the year.

Rating: 1/5

I Can See Clearly Now

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Oh Alice, dear, where have you been?

I rarely go see a sequel to a film I hated, let alone one I hated on a cellular level, but Alice Through The Looking Glass is a horse of a different color in that it greatly improves on the previous film and still keeps much of the same creative team intact.

Continuing where the 2010 pseudo-remake left off, Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska, Crimsom Peak), now Captain of her late father’s trading vessel, the Wonder, has returned to London at the turn of the century from a three-year voyage across China and finds her benefactor dead (and his funding in the hands of her ex-fiancee), her home and her ship under the threat of repossession and her mother less proud of her than before. All seems hopeless before the reappearance of Absolem (Alan Rickman, Galaxy Quest) — a butterfly friend of hers from Wonderland, who leads her through the proverbial looking glass back into the world of the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, Black Mass), who is not at all well. To help him, she must gain the assistance of Time (Sacha Baron Cohen, The Brothers Grimsby) himself and, together with the White Queen (Anne Hathaway, Interstellar) and her subjects, face her old nemesis, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech) once again.

Like most films on the Disney release slate, I had been following Looking Glass since it was announced, but it really took my eye when the studio announced that James Bobin, director of 2011’s The Muppets was signed to direct — if anyone could save the sequel, it would be the man who, temporarily, revived Jim Henson’s brainchildren. Sure enough, he does, making the jump from puppets to CG quite nicely, even if some visual effects (i.e.: the destruction of Time’s castle) are milked for amazement a bit too much. The performances are sound, with Depp and Hathaway slipping effortlessly back into their respective roles, but the true stars of the film are Wasikowsa’s Alice and Lindsay Duncan as Helen Kingsleigh, Alice’s mother. Having found her voice in the previous film, Alice has found her place as a strong woman, completely disregarding the norms of the year she lives in, and Wasikowska plays that brilliantly (perhaps having played a contrary sort in Crimson Peak helped!), while Duncan’s Helen, no longer in mourning for her husband, seems to gradually learn from her daughter’s adventurous spirit and is now a character worth rooting for!

For what little time the late, beloved Alan Rickman has in the film, it is still nice to hear his dulcet tones one last time in a new release. Bonham Carter seems bored with the Red Queen, and, forgive me if this is uncouth, peeved to be working alongside her ex-husband again, even with him as producer? Cohen, however, brings to this his finest feature film role in nearly a decade — his protrayal of the mysterious Time parts Ludwig Von Drake and John Cleese circa Fawlty Towers. He’s worth the price of admission alone! Also, keep an eye out for small roles portrayed by Rhys Ifans (Anonymous), Richard Armitage (The Hobbit Trilogy), Andrew Scott (Spectre) and Ed Speelers (Downton Abbey). It’s a real treat to see them, even for a moment!

The script, once again written by Linda Woolverton, is much more coherent, but does seem to borrow from other fairy-tale properties — the plot point of the Hatter dying due to Alice not believing him reminded me all too much of Peter Pan (I distincly remember she even says to Hatter, ‘I’ll always believe in you.’ Hmm.). Also, the aforementioned mother-daughter relationship is a little reminiscent of Woolverton’s own Maleficent, which I loved, but pangs of fear of familiarity ran through my mind for a bit. These fears were more or less unfounded, but the ending did seem a bit similar in tone. Nevertheless, the film is greatly satisfying and empowering without being suffocating. While the film’s dismal box-office gross so far probably won’t grant it a sequel, it’s good enough where it ends here.

I was surprisingly satisfied with Alice Through The Looking Glass, leaving the theater feeling warm and fuzzy inside, and if you’re one of the many who saw the first film, please do yourself a favor and see this one, even if you’re not that interested — it’s very much worth it!

 

Rating: 3.5/5

No Skies of Gray on that Great White Way

SIDENOTE: This is (hopefully) to be the first in a weekly series through July, reviewing classic films that often get brushed under the rug. Enjoy and encourage!

A cinematic breakfast snack of some kind!

A triumph! A cinematic breakfast snack of some kind!

As renowned actor Ciarán Hinds said in a January 2011 interview with The Wall Street Journal, movie heaven is “anything with James Stewart or Cary Grant, plus regular doses of Singin’ in the Rain.” What that wonderful man seemed to forget was most of the MGM musicals, even before Arthur Freed’s arrival at the studio, are enjoyable romps that, at the very least, come close to the glory that is Singin’. The film in question for this week’s lesson is one that, in this reviewer’s eyes, equals it — Broadway Melody of 1940. The final completed film in MGM’s Broadway Melody series, 1940 strikes a tone that seamlessly blends Leopold Stokowski, Glenn Miller and Spike Jones in a bright and joyous trip down Melody Lane.

Two down-on-their-luck dancers, Johnny Brett (Fred Astaire, Holiday Inn) and King Shaw (George Murphy, later a California Senator) are both dancing for peanuts and actively avoiding the long arm of the IRS when talent agent Bob Casey (Frank Morgan, The Wizard of Oz) asks to meet with Brett, the better of the two dancers. However, Casey doesn’t know Brett from another, and when the latter mistakes the former for a tax collector, Brett introduces himself as King Shaw. In the days to follow, the actual Shaw accelerates to the top of the dancing world, gaining ground with Clare Bennett (Eleanor Powell, TV’s The Faith of Our Children), a rising dancer whom Brett is quite sweet on, causing a rivalry that builds as many bridges as it burns.

Truly, 1940 is the first of my viewing any of the Broadway Melody series, but unlike The Big Broadcast, Paramount’s competing series of yearly musical revues, MGM’s is focused on telling a story first, whereas Paramount seemed to build up the ensemble and songs first, then tack on a story to link them all together. The difference between them is akin to Yeston & Kopit’s Phantom and Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera — one expounds, the other extends. That being said, 1940 is cute, fluffy stuff that makes one laugh and cheer at all the right moments.

Astaire is in fine form, as usual, in dancing up a storm and, on occasion, singing sweet tra-la-las between taps. He also brings a fair amount of pathos in playing Johnny Brett, clearly jealous of his partner’s rise to fame and quite angry at himself for giving Shaw’s name to Casey. Powell, purportedly one of the few dancers who could out-dance Astaire (causing him to fear her), performs on equal footing with her leading man, and they share some impressive routines together, from a tap number in a café to a luscious Harlequin masquerade waltz toward the end of the second act. As for Murphy, the only thing I had seen or heard of his work was a bitingly funny song named after him, composed and sung by Tom Lehrer, so while it feels wrong to criticize him, I will say this: he is no Astaire or Powell, but anyone who can keep up with either of them in a number is respectable in that regard. Morgan gets some of the best gags I have seen in a musical revue, usually having to do with the absurd talent he attempts to bring in for his shows, the best of which is a thoroughly mutilated take on Il Bacio akin to a performance by Spike Jones and his City Slickers — I want more.

After Broadway Melody of 1940, a planned Technicolor installment was planned for 1943 (bizarrely enough, 1940 was designed to shoot in color, but was filmed in black and white). One tap number was filmed with Powell, but the film was cancelled not long after, and the footage was reworked into another ensemble picture, Thousands Cheer. A shame it never came to fruition, and an even bigger shame that musical revues are shunned from Hollywood today, barring jukebox musicals filled exclusively with creations of the last fifty years (i.e.: Rock of Ages, Mamma Mia!, Across the Universe), because if they would only go back a few decades further, they would find a myriad of brilliant compositions in film and music that could only help the film and music industries as a whole. Why settle for “Wrecking Ball” when you could “Begin the Beguine?”

Rating: 4.5/5

Buy the DVD from Warner Archive

Second Best is Still Among the Best

Y'know, I like the English poster a whole lot more.

Y’know, I like the English poster a whole lot more… though they forgot a comma between “Frears” and “Director.”

Philomena is a beautiful film, and ranks as my personal second best film of 2013, above The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and just below Saving Mr. Banks. As before, spoilers will be detailed, so go see the film if you haven’t already (as of this writing, it’s still in my area theaters).

Are we ready? Okay, here we go. The performances by Mr. Coogan and Miss Dench are well-thought and refreshingly believable; these leads never stoop to caricature or needless emphasis on a singular facet of the very real people they play — they are human beings, and little else, which is as it should be. Coogan’s portrayal of Martin Sixsmith (the straight man, if you will) is appropriately dry and wry, but he gives him a heart, with many moments of bonding throughout and notably exemplified in the film’s climax (which I will not spoil for you all; it has to be seen and/or heard).

As for Miss Dench, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so cuddly and innocent in a film before. She has acted in such a way before (i.e.: Ladies in Lavender, Tea with Mussolini), but in playing Philomena Lee, she isn’t happy-go-lucky from the get-go. In her first scenes in the film, she is a woman with a lot on her mind, her faith at a crossroad, and a heart that is empty, gradually improving as the film goes on, and in spite of the fact that she finds that her son is dead midway through the film, she then decides to learn about him from those who knew and loved him.

There’s a lot of faith to be found in Philomena, not just with Philomena’s faith that she’ll find her son, but learning to find footing in your faith — in this film’s case, Catholicism. As a Catholic myself, I am struggling to regain my faith due to a few past hardships, and while this movie doesn’t “cure” me or anyone (it doesn’t seek to, anyway, nor is it supposed to), it is somewhat inspirational, for reasons that should become evident if you have seen the film, and if you haven’t, definitely do so and as soon as you can!

Rating: 5/5

Well, it Hurth

Sums Up The Movie For Me.

Thor: The Dark World is a wet, cold mess. I have nothing good to say about it, so fasten your damn seatbelts, true believers — no good can come from bad.

Spoilers are all around this review, so if you don’t know the plot of this film yet, try Wikipedia or IMDb.

As a guy who not only adored 2011’s Thor but saw it five times in theaters and owns the Blu-ray, I got sick when I realized what I saw on a cold Thursday night in November. My biggest qualm lies in the story — it’s never focused; it twerks all over the place. The scenes on Asgard are too long and, I say with a heavy head, much too wordy. The first film got the science/magic of the story down pat because it was quick and didn’t dwell on the technical aspects, while this joint is lost in translation to Lehman’s terms.

With that in mind, the writing is apalling, which is probably the result of having six writers (five of which are credited) whose ideas do not merge, but crush each other. The scenes on Asgard and Svartalfheim move much too fast and, in some cases, seem cut abruptly short, while the scenes on Earth (why bother calling it “Midgard” in this one when you didn’t use the term in movie number one?) are reduced to Fantasia-length interstitials and try too hard at being comedic. Scale is also a problem — where the first film was massive, this is too small, or at least it feels that way, given how we are rushed through these what-should-have-been massive locales. The battle in Vanaheim, for example, is so small in size and importance that I do not feel that much is at stake.
In point of fact, I never felt like much was at stake for any of the characters, and because of that, I didn’t care much for them at all. Thor doesn’t change much while Jane never seems to be in much danger or care about the fact that she is marked for death thanks to the film’s MacGuffin, and the romance between the two of them seems stale and contrived. Meanwhile, Odin is too much of a king and not enough of a father to Thor and Loki — and why does he insist on leading Asgard to certain massacre after Frigga’s death? Not even the death of a loved one should completely impede the judgement of someone like him, especially when he is the one who banished Thor for restarting war with Jotunheim. There are too many problems abound — why should I care about Sif and the Warriors Three if they have no material? Why cast Zachary Levi as Fandral if he isn’t used much and we can barely catch a glimpse of his face? Where the hell is Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), the villain of the story? Was that Alice Krige as an Asgardian nurse in one scene? Why is Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) running around naked for half of his screentime (was Lars von Trier the Second Unit Director?)? Why isn’t Sif steaming with jealousy over Thor choosing Jane over her, his childhood friend? Why is Hogun, one of two culture quota fillers in the film, shoved out so abruptly? Why does this movie feel like it was shod together in one night? Also, the subplot about paths between worlds, hinted at by Loki in the first film, are almost untouched — perhaps another casualty of rewrites?

Speaking of Loki, I wonder if the creative brains behind this knew that the film is called Thor: The Dark World, not The Mischievous Misadventures of Loki, or Thor: The Dark World. Don’t get me wrong, I do love Tom Hiddleston’s acting and he has an eye for quality that I’ve not seen in any other actor… but like Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, there is such a thing as too much of your favorite character, and in spite of Mr. Hiddleston’s desire to see Loki redeemed, he seems to be made up on the fly, with no defined path of character development; first he’s bad, then he’s sympathetic, then he’s bad, then he’s a hero, then he’s a dirty, lying bugger who murdered his adoptive father for a seat on the throne of Asgard. Thanos can’t come for his head fast enough.

Add to this the fact that the movie feels butchered from its intended length (what should have been a two-and-a-half hour film feels sliced-and-diced into one hour and fifty-one minutes), and what you have is, as said before, a wet cold mess.

Rating — 1/5. In truth, there are about five enjoyable lines; rent it from your local library.