The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part

Lego 2

As surprisingly great as the first The LEGO Movie was, the latest LEGO movie, by comparison, is a bit of a disappointment. It’s not bad. It just lacks the magic that the first film delivered with its story, its songs, its characters and its surprises.

The story in The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part is less coherent than in its 2014 predecessor. The songs, while amusing, don’t come close to those in the earlier film. The characters Emmet (Chris Pratt), Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) and Batman (Will Arnett) are back as the focus of the meandering tale.

Other voices you may know include Tiffany Haddish, Nick Offerman, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Cobie Smulders, Jason Mamoa (Aquaman!), Ralph Fiennes and Bruce Willis, among many more.

The interaction between the imaginary LEGO world and the real world is not quite as emotional as the live action bit in the first movie. (That segment with Will Ferrell was truly touching.) Maya Rudolph is the real-life mother as the narrative shifts back and forth between the two settings in this newest film.

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part is colorful and the animation is impressive. It will make you chuckle and it will make you happy. Just don’t expect to be blown away like many of us were by the first The LEGO Movie.

 

 

 

 

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What Men Want

WHAT MEN WANT

What Men Want takes the 2000 movie What Women Want and casts it with black lead actors, moves it from Chicago to Atlanta and rides with an R rating. (The Mel Gibson-Helen Hunt romcom was PG-13.) The R is mainly for language but there’s also a bit of sex. However the sex is comedic, not erotic.

Taraji P. Henson as sports agent Ali Davis has tons of charisma. And talent. Her smile lights up the screen. Richard Roundtree of Shaft fame plays her dad. Tracy Morgan shows no signs of damage from the wreck a few years back that nearly killed him. Morgan plays the father of a college basketball star who the agency is trying to sign.

Ali’s romantic interest is bartender Will (Aldis Hodge). In a well-worn Hallmark Channel trope, he is a single dad, a widower with a cute kid.

Ali has a group of girlfriends (Phoebe Robinson, Wendy McClendon-Covey and Tamala Jones) who hire a psychic (Erykah Badu) for a party. The seer offers Ali a cup of tea, which Ali thinks is the cause of her new ability to read men’s minds. Ali’s friends are key figures in a wedding ceremony where Ali can’t keep her thoughts to herself. (Badu returns for a coda during the film’s closing credits.)

What Men Want plays for laughs but it is also a story of a black woman trying to achieve success in a man’s (mainly white guys) world. A script that with a few more laughs might’ve made What Me Want a slam-dunk smash. It’s a fun film but one that maybe should’ve been just a bit funnier.

As the setting is a sports agency, a handful of sports personalities have cameos: Shaq, Grant Hill, Mark Cuban, Adam Silver and Devonta Freeman. Also in the cast are Max Greenfield and Jason Jones as Ali’s agency co-workers.

 

They Shall Not Grow Old

theyshallnot

World War I is not exactly a forgotten war. But it has been eclipsed by WWII, Korea, Vietnam and recent Mideast action in popular U.S. memory. Even the long ago Civil War is more familiar to most Americans than WWI, thanks to Gone With The Wind, Ken Burns and recent statue controversies

They Shall Not Grow Old may elevate WWI’s profile just a bit. The film focuses on British troops from their enlistment through their return home from battle with the German enemy.

The technical achievements used to make archival film footage from a century ago appear realistic are impressive. But it is the faces and the voices of the young men who endure the horror of war that make this documentary a must-see.

Director Peter Jackson of Lord Of The Rings fame and his team have added color, speed correction and ambient sound to take the viewer into the trenches and onto the battlefield. The actual hand-to-hand combat is presented via illustrations, but the damages of battle—dead and injured soldiers—are impossible to miss.

Over a hundred men who fought in the war narrate the film. Their recollections, recorded in mid-century, are edited into brief soundbites to tell the story. Some of the British accents are harder to decipher than others. A captioned version of the film would be welcome.

They Shall Not Grow Old reveals the stereotype of bad teeth among Brits to have been a particularly acute problem back then. The few men shown wearing kilts and knee socks to the frontline seems odd. The pleasantries between British troops and some of the Germans they have captured are surprising.

“Man’s Inhumanity To Man” is timeless and unending. To see it up close and personal with real people, not actors, arouses multiple emotions. Among them, empathy for the young men in this film, as well as every other soldier who has seen combat action in every war.

Because of its graphic depictions, They Shall Not Grow Old is rated R.

 

 

 

 

Vice

Vice

Bale. Christian Bale. He’s the reason to see Vice.

The chameleon/actor portrays former U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney. And, although Bale doesn’t really resemble the ex-veep, his transformation is pretty amazing. Not just Bale’s weight gain but also his accurate mimicry of Cheney’s speech patterns and Cheney’s penchant for talking out of the side of his mouth.

Cheney’s story as told in Vice is not a flattering one. Though not quite “gonzo journalism” a la Hunter S. Thompson, this “sort of” biopic has a lot of what David Letterman used to call “writer’s embellishment.” Yes, there is a framework of true facts here but parts of this narrative are bent to poke holes in Cheney’s legacy and deliver laughs. And, yes, Vice is funny!

Writer/director Adam McKay presents Cheney as a guy with little direction until his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) sets him straight. He’s a bit of a bumbling conniver when he gets to Washington and soon goes to work to establish his own sphere of influence.

(Cheney’s career included tenures as a White House Chief of Staff, a U.S. Representative, Secretary of Defense and Vice-President, so he must have demonstrated at least a modicum of competence.)

As with The Big Short, his previous comedy rooted in fact, McKay tries to simplify a complicated story that has many nooks and crannies. Should America blame Cheney for everything that has gone wrong with our nation’s involvement in Middle Eastern politics this century? McKay would have you believe that Cheney should shoulder much of the blame.

Admirably, Cheney is shown to be sympathetic and loving when his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out to her parents as gay. (Lynne is not so understanding.)

Other key players in the film include Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). They are sources of some of the funnier moments.

I called The Big Short a failure in my review of the film in 2015. Click HERE to read it. Like Vice it was wickedly funny but as an explainer for what happened to cause the financial crisis, it fell short. Vice, on the other hand, is focused and proceeds in a linear manner with few course changes. It tells its tale well, however with a liberal bent (which McKay acknowledges in a hilarious coda).

See it. Enjoy it. Don’t take it as gospel.

 

 

Welcome To Marwen

Marwen

Welcome To Marwen is weird. The film’s first trailers hinted at an Oscar push for Steve Carell who portrays a man damaged in many ways by a savage gang beating. The trailers also showed a tiny village the character has created where he depicts scenarios using dolls, including one that looks like him.

The story of the challenges Mark Hogancamp (Carell) faces after the attack dials up audience pity as he flashes back to the encounter with local rednecks. His mental state is fragile but Carell never goes “full retard,” to use the non-PC term coined by character Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) in the 2008 film Tropic Thunder.

The weirdness comes in those scenarios with the dolls and their depictions in the film as animated narrative episodes in which his attackers become Nazi soldiers. In many of the episodes, several of the women in his life become a gang of voluptuous babes who come to his defense.

On one hand, the dolls provide subject matter for Hogancamp’s artistic photos, which he manages to get booked for a show at an art gallery. On the other hand, they fuel his nightmarish replays of the attack as well as other fantasies. One imagined scenario involves new neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann) who spurns his romantic intentions.

It’s an ambitious attempt to bring to the screen the mental goings on of this troubled man whose recovery appears doubtful. But it is too much. The doll scenarios occupy huge chunks of screen time and many are redundant. The fantasy world becomes tiresome.

The women, seen as dolls as well as real people, include Gwendoline Christie, Meritt Wever, upcoming R & B singer Janelle Monae, Eiza Gonzalez and Leslie Zemeckis, wife of the film’s director Robert Zemeckis. (Diane Kruger appears only as a doll.)

But… does Carell stand a chance at getting awards love? His performance is good in a flawed film. Carryover from his work in the film Vice and the general good will he seems to convey in real life may go along with Welcome To Marwen to get his name in the mix. Playing a damaged individual is often the path to an acting nomination. As long as one does not go “full retard.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns

You need this movie. Mary Poppins Returns will make you smile. It will make you happy.

Unless you’re a hard-edged grouch. Or a person who thinks nothing could ever capture the magic of the original Mary Poppins. Hey, the new version brings some new and different magic.

They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Well, not often. Director Rob Marshall successfully brought Chicago and Into The Woods to the screen in this century, but the big movie musical is a rare bird these days. He was a natural choice to bring Mary back.

Mary Poppins Returns has trippy visuals, catchy songs and a pair of lead actors who are perfect. Emily Blunt in the title role blends the prim and proper Poppins temperament with a touch of whimsy. Lin-Manuel Miranda as lamplighter Jack delivers a thousand-watt smile and big time charisma.

Set in early 20th century London, the Banks kids from the original Mary Poppins are grown now. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is a widower with three kids. (“Dead mom,” you know, has become a Disney trademark.) The children are cute but not sickeningly so. Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer), Michael’s sister, is unmarried and provides a vague romantic possibility for Jack.

The family is about to lose their house during an economic “slump” because Michael took out a loan and failed to pay it back. Banker Wilkins (Colin Firth) is foreclosing on as many homes as he can. Something has to be done to save the home! Of course, the nanny who mysteriously reappears plays a big role in getting the mission accomplished.

The film’s highlights are the fantasy segments and the songs. Blunt’s “Can You Imagine That” is an earworm. Miranda’s performance (with a company of dancers) of “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” is a showstopper. It’s the song that will likely lead into intermission when the inevitable stage version appears. (Although the sight of all the lamplighters marching down the street carrying lit torches triggered a Charlottesville flashback for a brief second.)

The film has just enough of Dick Van Dyke to satisfy fans of the 1964 original Poppins film. Julie Andrews chose not to do a cameo. Her spot was taken by Angela Lansbury. Nonagenarians rock!

Meryl Streep’s turn as Mary’s cousin Topsy and the song she shares with the cast are less than great but her wacky upside down curiosity shop has strong possibilities as a future attraction at Disney parks. Topsy’s over-the-top Russian accent elicits a comment from Jack which may be an inside joke about Meryl’s proclivity to employ accents in her many roles.

Mary Poppins Returns is an upbeat film for the whole family. (Rated PG.) If you can stand a little bit of goodness and light and joy and fun in your life, don’t miss it.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian

The musical performances in Bohemian Rhapsody are brilliant. Exciting. Thrilling. The biopic that surrounds the music is okay but not as special as trailers might have suggested.

Freddie Mercury’s (Rami Malek) story follows that familiar showbiz path: obscurity, success, excess, debauchery, downfall and, finally, redemption. Whether it’s vital that an actor resemble the real-life person he/she is portraying can be debated, but Malek does look like Mercury, especially with the moustache.

But his prosthetic teeth eventually become distracting, almost like the ones Mike Myers wore in the Austin Powers movies.

Speaking of Myers, he plays a record exec who snubs the song Bohemian Rhapsody because of its length. Interestingly, the song is not performed in its entirety in the movie. Too long, maybe? (Snippets are heard.) The depiction of the recording of the song is one of the film’s highlights.

Myers’ casting appears to be payback for his giving the song new life in the 90s by using it in Wayne’s World.

I like Queen. I played their music on radio. I appreciated that they delivered a variety of sounds and styles in their tunes. The song Bohemian Rhapsody stands tall among the mostly tired and overplayed music genre known as “classic rock.”

Hardcore Queen fans will find much to like here. Boomers and Gen-Xers who thrived on Queen’s music will enjoy the nostalgia and may pick up unknown or unremembered tidbits about the band’s time in the sun. Millenials and Gen-Zers who adore Malek in Mr. Robot will want to check him out in this role.

With all those constituencies already titillated by the preview trailers, Bohemian Rhapsody should be a gorilla at the box office. Enjoy the music!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

canyoueverforgiveme

Lee Isreal (Melissa McCarthy) is not an easy person to like. She lacks the social graces. She drinks to excess. She is a bit of a slob.

She does have writing talent. She’s a published author. When her career hits the skids, she turns to another kind of writing.

One might be prone to feel sorry for her. However, as her agent (Jane Curtin) and her ex-partner (Anna Deavere Smith) point out, her off-putting behavior is of her own doing. Isreal even admits she like cats more than she likes people.

Isreal’s scheme is to produce notes and letters she claims were written by now deceased literary figures. “Can you ever forgive me?” is the tagline on a note she crafts and presents as having come from Dorothy Parker. She sells these letters to bookstores who sell them to collectors.

[Sidebar: I went to my first baseball card show in Willow Grove PA in 1981 and saw autographed photos of big league ballplayers for sale. I noticed the signatures all looked alike. In 1998, Mark McGwire went into card shops around the US and found items alleged to have been autographed by him. He said they were not authentic. Two conclusions, which Isreal also reached: People are suckers and there is a lot of fake stuff out there.]

Isreal buys vintage typewriters and consults old printed matter to crib material for these letters. But she and her drinking buddy Jack (Richard Grant) make a couple of errors that lead to her getting caught by the feds for her fraudulent practice.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? features a different Melissa McCarthy. She’s not completely unfunny. Her character has a nasty sense of humor. But the energetic, vibrant, fearless McCarthy from her comedy roles is dialed way, way down. Her look is muted, plain. And her character is, as mentioned, a sad sack of a human. Is this a role that can net McCarthy an awards nomination? Stay tuned.

There’s a flash of the more familiar Melissa McCarthy when Isreal makes a statement to the judge during a court proceeding.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not a crowd-pleaser type of film. But for all who have appreciated Melissa McCarthy’s comedic work in movies and TV, this movie reveals that she definitely can handle a wider range of roles.

 

 

 

Mid 90s

mid90s

Jonah Hill is a good actor. Two Oscar nominations! His directorial debut Mid 90s, however, is a tedious slog. Run time is a mere 80 minutes; it just seems longer.

Mid 90s is a coming of age story centered on Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a 13-year-old who is physically abused by his older brother (Lucas Hedges) and mostly ignored by his single mom (Katherine Waterston).

Stevie is small and shy. He finds acceptance by a group of older teens who hang out at a skateboard shop. They become a sort of surrogate family for Steve. Stevie becomes a more skillful skateboarder. The older boys introduce Stevie to tobacco, weed, booze, sex and other temptations.

The aftermath of a climactic event reveals the gang’s true feelings for their younger friend. And that’s about it.

For some reason the film is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Narrow screen. Like certain old TV clips look on Youtube. Original music is by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Jonah Hill also wrote the script. A meatier story line might’ve made Mid 90s a more memorable movie. The characters Hill has created are good. They deserve a better narrative.

Here’s hoping Jonah Hill polishes his directing talent and his next effort achieves some of the heights he’s reached with his acting ability.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Old Man And The Gun

Redford

The Old Man And The Gun has all those classic indy film elements: quirky characters, quirky plot, a few slow periods where little happens, a mediocre song and a general low budget look.

But this one also has Robert Redford! He may have lost some speed on his fastball, but he still cuts an impressive figure on a movie screen. And he is fun to watch in this one. (Redford just turned 82 in August, FYI.)

Forrest Tucker (Redford) was a real life bank robber. (Not to be confused with the “F Troop” actor.) For Tucker, robbing banks is a bit of a sport. He’s polite to bank staff (and to the authorities who arrest him), not like the fearsome trigger-happy criminals often seen in films and on TV.

As he flees the film’s opening heist, Tucker stops to help a woman whose truck is broken down on the side of the road. He invites her to join him for a bite. So begins his relationship with Jewel (Sissy Spacek). She is charmed and they begin to get together often for apparently non-carnal reasons.

Casey Affleck mumbles his way through his role as Dallas police detective John Hunt. After the feds take over the pursuit of Tucker, Hunt sniffs out Tucker’s backstory, which features a life of crime and incarceration. Also in the cast are Tucker’s sometime accomplices played by Danny Glover and Tom Waits.

For a movie about a bank robber, with car chases and other tense situations, The Old Man And The Gun is relatively light entertainment. Redford’s smiles and chuckles play a big part in softening the feel of the film.

David Lowery is the movie’s writer/director. He did an interesting crime drama I enjoyed (also featuring Affleck’s mumbles) in 2013 with the puzzling title Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

Supposedly this is to be Redford’s last movie. But, as with many music acts who’ve had farewell tours and then later reappeared on stage, there’s a Bond title that applies here: Never Say Never Again. Whether he returns to the screen again or doesn’t, it’s good to have one of one of filmdom’s greats back in a starring role right now.