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On Chesil Beach (2017)
layered, profound and affecting
"On Chesil Beach" (R, 1:50) is a drama from first-time feature film director Dominic Cooke (known mainly for helming TV's "The Hallow Crown" and "National Theater Live: A Comedy of Errors"). The screenplay is by British writer Ian McEwan, adapting his own 2007 novella of the same name. The film stars multiple Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle - and was released one week after another literary adaptation, "The Seagull", in which the same two actors played young Russian lovers. This story follows two young Brits as they meet, fall in love and get married, focusing mainly on the wedding night.
Florence Pointing and Edward Mayhew have just been married and have arrived at a hotel at the titular beach for their honeymoon. Through an uncomfortable dinner in their room and awkward fumblings with their clothes, it becomes painfully clear that they are equally inexperienced and nervous regarding sex. As the evening slowly progresses, we see flashbacks of how their romance developed, with hints at what makes the prospect of sleeping together so uncomfortable for them - especially Florence. When things come to a head, the young marrieds have a seaside conservation which reveals much about who they are (and the era in which they live) and has very important consequences for the rest of their lives.
"On Chesil Beach" is one of the most layered and most profound movies you are likely to see in 2018. Woven in with the development of the romance, the developments on the wedding night and the repercussions of all of it are themes of sexual repression, gender roles, class differences, pride, regret, communication, forgiveness and, of course, love and marriage. Some will say that not much happens in this film, but there is still a whole lot happenING. And through it all, the considerable acting chops of the two leads (bolstered by solid performances from multiple Oscar nominee Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff, Samuel West, Adrian Scarborough and Bebe Cave) make the characters exceedingly sympathetic and relevant. This is a very well-done film without much action, but with plenty to show all of us. "A-"
sometimes sweet, engaging and fun, but too weird to really enjoy
"How to Talk to Girls at Parties" (R, 1:42) is a (kind of) sci-fi (sort of) romantic comedy, with a heavy dose of music. The film is directed by John Cameron Mitchell ("Rabbit Hole", "Shortbus", "Hedwig and the Angry Inch") and co-written by Mitchell and Philippa Goslett ("Mary Magdalene", "Holy Money", "Little Ashes"), based on the short story by Neil Gaiman. While calling this movie a romantic comedy is technically correct, it's not the sweet, coming-of-age rom-com you might expect based on the title and the movie poster. This a very unusual (some might say weird) story about punk rockers and aliens.
It's 1977 in the London suburbs. Punk rock is a mostly underground movement, but thriving. It's a youth-focused lifestyle of hard-driving music, edgy fashion and strong belief in individuality, with a side goal of social chaos - and Enn (Alex Sharp) and his friends are all in. They love, live, breathe and eat punk culture. After the punk club which they're attending one Friday night hits closing time, they head for an after-hours party. They get lost trying to find the party, but stumble upon a condemned house that is full of life. Several groups of people in color-coded vinyl/rubber outfits are inside dancing strangely to other-worldly instrumental music. Somehow, these three outsiders get invited in. One of Enn's friends gets into the dancing, the other becomes involved in a highly unusual sex act (implied, but not directly shown) and Enn starts talking to a shy and clearly unhappy yellow-clad girl called Zan (Elle Fanning).
When Enn leaves the house party, Zan gets permission from her "parent teacher" (as she and her peers call their elders) to spend 48 hours with Enn before she and her people have to leave (and commence to something they refer to as "the eating"). Zan is fascinated by Enn and says she wants to "see the punk". She spends the day with Enn and his friends and that night, they all go to a punk club, where the club's "Queen" (played by Oscar winner Nicole Kidman) encourages/forces Zan to go on stage. Meanwhile, through all of this, Zan's people keep finding her and expressing the group's concern about the ways she is expressing her new (albeit temporary) freedom and tries to make her choose between them and Enn.
"How to Talk to Girls at Parties" is creative, but too odd for many to find entertaining. Some of the cinematography and editing resembles stop-motion animation, which some may find cool, but more will find annoying. The mannerisms of Zan's people might seem clever and/or funny in small doses, but eventually cross the line to simply over-the-top and... weird. The script is often illogical, while also original and includes interesting metaphors... but that only goes so far towards making the movie entertaining. Wolfe and Fanning give good performances and their love story is touching and fun, but the rest of the movie that surrounds them chokes much of the joy out of watching them. "C"
The Seagull (2018)
an entertaining version of Chekov's classic play - mostly because of the excellent ensemble
"The Seagull" (PG-13, 1:38) is a drama directed by television movie and series helmer Michael Mayer and written by Stephen Karam ("Speech & Debate"), based on the oft-performed classic play of the same name by renowned 19th century Russian theater and short story writer Anton Chekhov. This American version features an all-star cast with multiple Oscar and Golden Globe nominees/winners.
The story is very character-driven and more about the development and journeys of the various characters than an overarching narrative. The action takes place in and around the Russian country home of Irina (Annette Bening), an actress who still works, but whose glory days are behind her. Also living there are her brother, Sorin (Brian Dennehy), a man in failing health who never realized his dream of becoming a writer, and Irina's son, Konstantin (Billy Howle), who is a manic-depressive aspiring playwright who wants nothing more than to earn the respect of his cruel, self-absorbed mother.
Others at the house include the groundskeeper (Glenn Fleshler) and his wife (Mare Winningham). They're treated like members of the family, but subject to the arbitrary and capricious whims of the lady of the house - and worry about what would happen if they anger her. Irina herself is married to a man named Boris (Corey Stoll), who is a successful writer. She seems to want to be with him mainly because of his fame, but he's the kind of man who may not be satisfied with the same woman for too long.
And that brings us to the various love triangles. Konstantin has a girlfriend, an aspiring actress named Nina (Saoirse Ronan) who has trouble reaching out to him when he's in one of his moods, but she's also attracted to another. An unassuming school teacher is pursuing the groundskeeper's jaded daughter, Masha (Elisabeth Moss), but she's interested in someone else in the household. And so it goes. Not much happens outside the estate, but the characters develop and some of their conflicts are resolved.
"The Seagull" is an entertaining version of Chekov's classic play. His 19th century sensibilities may not be to the taste of modern Movie Fans and the Russian setting (although the characters all speak in English) may be just too foreign for some, but the story explores life, love and longing, universal themes to which most people can relate. This is a great actors' showcase, and every member of the cast rises to the challenge. Every one of those characters are interesting and well-developed, but also basically selfish... although that's kind of the point. "B+"
one of the best balanced and most entertaining movies of the first half of 2018
"Upgrade" (R, 1:35) is an action horror sci-fi comedy written and directed by Leigh Whannell, writer of the "Insidious" movies, the early "Saw" films, plus "Dead Silence", and director of "Insidious: Chapter 3". This movie was shot in Australia and Whannell and most of his cast are Australian. However, with the accents and the sets, you wouldn't know the movie wasn't American - and with the (lack of) quality in the last two "Insidious" movies, you wouldn't guess that Whannell was behind this gem of a film.
Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green, looking a lot like Tom Hardy) is an "old school" auto mechanic in a near future where intelligent, driverless cars are increasingly commonplace. He's married to Asha (Melanie Vallejo), an employee at a high-tech company. They live in a house that's suitably high-tech as well, operating with voice commands and equipped with a powerful computer embedded in a table top. They're very happy... until one night when they're on their way back from meeting one of Grey's clients, a reclusive computer genius named Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson). Their car crashes and they get mugged. Asha is killed and Grey is paralyzed from the neck down, with only his mother to care for him.
Eron visits Grey and offers him the opportunity to regain control of his body, with the help of a neck implant called Stem. The surgery succeeds spectacularly, Grey signs a non-disclosure agreement and heads home, promising that, at least for now, it appears to the world that he's still a quadriplegic. Grey quickly learns that Stem can talk to him (as voiced by Simon Maiden). Given the lack of progress by a police investigator named Cortez (Betty Gabriel), Grey takes advantage of Stem's Alexa-on-steroids capabilities to find the men who killed his wife. Normally not a violent man, Grey finds himself overmatched by these men, who themselves are technologically enhanced, until he learns how Stem can also help him fight. But, alas, avenging his wife's death isn't as satisfying as Grey might've expected.
"Upgrade" is a very appropriate title, given some of the writer-director's mediocre movies - and as a comparison to other films in the AI subgenre. This one is a combination of "Deadpool", "Ex Machina", "Transcendence" and the "Bourne" movies, but still feels fresh and creative, visually and narratively. The occasional comedy comes from the combination of Grey adjusting to having Stem's cells in his brain and some gallows humor as he pursues his wife's killers. The film also features one of the best recent casts you never heard of. The high-quality cinematography, editing, acting, pacing, directing and screenplay (with some late-game twists) makes this one of the most balanced and entertaining movies of 2018. "A"
great chemistry between the leads - and terrific use of flashback structure
"Adrift" (PG-13, 2:00) is an action-adventure drama-romance produced and directed by Baltasar Kormákur ("Everest", "2 Guns", "The Deep") and written by David Branson Smith ("Ingrid Goes West") and Aaron and Jordan Kandell ("Moana"), based on the book by Tami Ashcraft. Unlike most movies dramatizing something that actually happened, this one doesn't begin with the usual qualifiers of "Based on a true story" or "Inspired by a true story". This one tells us simply, "This is a true story."
Tami Oldham (Golden Globe and Emmy nominee Shailene Woodley) is a single 24-year-old adventurer, originally from San Diego, who works her way from place to place on a worldwide voyage of self-discovery. As the film opens, she gets off a boat in Tahiti and responds to the custom agent's questions by admitting she doesn't have an occupation or any idea how long she'll be staying in the country. In spite of her apparent aimlessness, she gets her passport stamped and starts working at the docks doing maintenance on various pleasure craft. That's where she meets the handsome and charming Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin), who is in the process of sailing around the world on a journey similar to Tami's.
Tami and Richard are well on their way to falling in love when a wealthy older couple ask Richard to sail their yacht to San Diego, in exchange for $10,000 and a First Class airline ticket back to Tahiti. Make that two First Class tickets. Tami says she's not ready to go home yet, but she doesn't want to be separated from her new love, so she comes along for the ride... and, as a novice sailor herself, to help out where she can. Unfortunately for the young lovers, they get caught up in a monster storm at sea that damages the boat - and each of them - severely. The best solution seems to be allowing the prevailing currents to carry the boat east, try to navigate towards Hawaii - and try to survive long enough to get there.
"Adrift" is this film's title, but the story is anything but. Appearing in flashbacks, the story of Tami and Richard is told parallel with the story of the journey to Hawaii. It's an especially effective plot device in this intelligent screenplay. The two leads are each first class actors who play their roles expertly and with undeniable chemistry. This film compares well with Robert Redford's "All is Lost" and Tom Hanks' "Cast Away", with the added allure of the romance and the strong foundation of being a true story. "A-"
Show Dogs (2018)
ignore the bad press and enjoy a wonderful movie
"Show Dogs" (PG, 1:32) is an action-adventure comedy which was directed by Raja Gosnell, who has two Smurfs movies, two Scooby-Doo movies, "Beverly Hills Chihuahua", "Big Momma's House" and "Never Been Kissed" on his resume. The film was written by Max Botkin ("What Happened to Monday") and Marc Hyman ("Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted", "How to Train Your Dragon") and produced using a combination of live action and CGI. It has, unfortunately, also been the subject of some controversy. Some people have interpreted one canine character's struggle to learn how to deal with being handled during competition as some secret message teaching children to accept fondling. This minor subplot could also be interpreted as encouraging men not to be afraid of prostate exams. Or maybe it's just a relevant plot point for an alpha dog preparing to be in his first dog show. Either way, the rest of this review will ignore the controversy and talk about the movie, which is more than a bad press magnet.
Max (voiced by Ludacris) is a Rottweiler working as a tough-as-nails NYC police dog. Max is tracking some rare animal smugglers when he runs into Frank (Will Arnett), an FBI agent working on the same case. Max's human supervisor convinces a reluctant Frank to work with Max on their joint venture. The two new partners develop a love-hate relationship as they follow the clues to Las Vegas, where they believe an international dog show there is being used as a front by the animal traffickers. A dog groomer named Mattie (Natasha Lyonne) works with Frank as he poses as a dog handler participating in the competition. Of course, Max is forced to endure the indignities of a primped pooch paraded about during the various challenges in the dog show as he does his own undercover work. Along the way, Max gets help from an unhinged former champion named Dante (Alan Cumming) and a fellow participant named Daisy (Jordin Sparks). RuPaul, Gabriel Iglesias, Shaquille O'Neal and Stanley Tucci also voice CGI dogs, while Anders Holm, Blake Anderson and Kate Micucci voice a trio of pigeons who are fans of Max.
"Show Dogs" is cute, clever, comedic and compassionate. Sure, this movie could be seen as just another man and mutt police pairing, in the vein of "Turner and Hooch" and "K9" (both from 1989), or a hairy rehash of 2000's "Miss Congeniality", but those comparisons really do a disservice to this delightful comedy. The story is simple enough for most kids to follow, but involved enough to hold the interest of most adults. The voice work is great and the performances and plot combine to make for a very enjoyable (mostly) family-friendly film. "A-"
Book Club (2018)
predictable, but sweet and funny, buoyed by a talented all-star cast
"Book Club" (PG-13, 1:44) is a comedy directed by Bill Holderman, in his directorial debut (after producing a couple documentaries and a few Robert Redford films). Holderman co-wrote the movie with actress Erin Simms, here writing her first produced feature-length screenplay. This film stars four women who are legends in their own time, with 6 Emmys, 12 Golden Globes & 4 Oscars between them.
The titular book club is made up of four very different life-long friends: Vivian (Jane Fonda), an oversexed hotel owner; Diane (Diane Keaton), an insecure widow; Sharon (Candice Bergen), an uptight judge and Carol (Mary Steenburgen), the only member of the group who is currently married - to Bruce (Craig T. Nelson), the love of her life. The women get together once a month to discuss their lives and the book that one of them chose for the group to read that month. When it's Vivian's turn, she hands out E.L. James' "Fifty Shades of Grey", which meets with varying levels of resistance from the others.
Reading the book leads all four women to reassess the state of their love lives. Vivian's attitudes towards sex without attachments are challenged when she runs into an old flame (Don Johnson). Just as Diane is on the brink of being talked into moving to Arizona by her two overprotective daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton), she meets a rich and dashing airline pilot (Andy Garcia). Sharon takes steps to possibly end her 18-year-long dry spell - and deal with the engagement of her ex-husband (Ed Begley Jr.) to a much younger woman - and ends up dating a couple of very different men (Richard Dreyfuss and Wallace Shawn), while Carol just wants to revive Bruce's youthful passion for her.
"Book Club" is predictable, but sweet and very funny. It's basically four rom-coms rolled into one, combined with the friendship dynamic of "Steel Magnolias". As such, it's formulaic, but the script has plenty of laughs (although most come during the first act) and the all-star cast is talented and charming enough to make this film more than the sum of its parts. "B"
Deadpool 2 (2018)
not quite as fresh and effortlessly entertaining as the original, but still pretty damn fun!
"Deadpool 2" (R, 1:59) is a superhero action-adventure comedy, which is a sequel to 2016's boundary-shattering "Deadpool". This is the 11th of the X-Men films. Although Marvel Comics properties, neither the X-Men or Deadpool films are considered part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This one was written by returning scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, but this time with help from franchise star Ryan Reynolds. Version 2.0 has a different director, David Leitch ("Atomic Blonde", "John Wick"), after original director Tim Miller left the project due to "mutual creative differences" with Reynolds.
Much like the original, the sequel has plenty of sarcasm, inuendo, social political satire, meta humor, 4th wall breaking... and bloody violence. Fan favorite characters are back too! The titular "merch with the mouth" remains devoted to his one true love, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), is still friends with his former roommate, Blind Al (Leslie Uggams), and continues to receive support from his best friend, Weasel (T.J. Miller), and favorite cab driver, Dopinder (Karan Soni), while still being frenemies with X-"Men" Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). D2, however, has more heart, as Mr. Pool's capacity for love and self-sacrifice extend beyond his relationship with Vanessa and he begins playing nice with others... kind of. Well, some early narration does refer to this as "a family movie", so...
After a shocking tragedy early in the film (so early that the opening credits get all meta with it), Wade Wilson / Deadpool is acting darker than usual. Colossus and NTW take Wade to the X-Mansion and try to break him out of his funk by getting him involved in X-Men business. When they take him to a mutant rehab facility to try talking down an overweight mutant teen named Russell (Julian Dennison) who is threatening violence against the facility's manager (Eddie Marsan), the way Wade handles the situation drives a fresh wedge between him and the X-Men. Wade decides that Russell needs his protection (and that Wade himself needs to do some protecting), so he forms a paramilitary mutant group that he calls X-Force. This puts him, and new recruits like Domino (Zazie Beetz), Zeitgeist (Bill Skarsgård) and Bedlam (Terry Crews), up against a huge mutant called Juggernaut and a another known as Cable (Josh Brolin) who has come from the future for the sole purpose of killing Russell. Yeah, there's a lot going on here.
"Deadpool 2" would be a blockbuster if it were the first in the series, but can't quite match the original. Well how could it? 2016's "Deadpool" was a shock to the system, a real game changer. This one keeps in place the attitude and the actors which made the first one so popular and expands the title character's world to give us more to look at, but the sequel isn't as fresh and effortlessly entertaining as the original. D2 may be a little bit less slick than its predecessor, but in and of itself, it's still a damn good time. "A-"
fascinating and fun
"RBG" (PG, 1:38) is a documentary about the life of U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It is directed by documentary film producers Julie Cohen ("American Veteran") and Betsy West ("The Lavender Scare"). The film was released in U.S. theaters on May 4, 2018, after making the festival circuit in the first few months of the year during which it won a couple Best Documentary prizes.
The film traces Ginsburg's life from her childhood in Brooklyn, New York through her years struggling to be taken seriously as a young female law student and practicing attorney (but racking up impressive accomplishments nonetheless) and through her tenure on the highest court in the land and improbable emergence as a pop culture icon. The storyline is basically linear, but includes frequent jumps backward, forward and even sideways as it examines different aspects of her life, personality and public image.
Along the way, there's a good mix of historical photos, videos, audio clips and graphics, but the main driving force is the well-edited interviews. We hear from Ginsburg's children, her childhood friends, colleagues, admirers and even a few detractors, as well as fellow feminist hero Gloria Steinem, former President Bill Clinton and, of course, Ginsburg herself - at various public appearances, with her personal trainer and sitting down to discuss her life, even reacting to Kate McKinnon's portrayals of her on SNL.
"RBG" is a fascinating and fun documentary. It's unclear how much credit goes to the compelling subject matter vs. the skill of her documentarians, but Cohen and West do keep things moving and paint a well-balanced picture while keeping the audience's interest. Some will find it as difficult to separate their feelings about Ginsburg as a jurist from how they feel about her politics as the filmmakers probably had making their film relatively apolitical, but they did it. They manage to tell Ginsburg's story - and make clear what she believes in (even including a little bit of controversy) - while keeping the focus mainly on Ginsburg as a person and on this strong film as an interesting and entertaining historical document. "A-"
Breaking In (2018)
a fairly predictable, but above-average thriller
"Breaking In" (PG-13, 1:28) is a thriller directed by James McTeigue ("Survivor", "Ninja Assassin", "V for Vendetta") and written by Ryan Engle ("Rampage", "The Commuter", "Non-Stop"). It stars Gabrielle Union as a mother who risks life and limb to protect her children under extraordinary circumstances.
Shaun Russell (Union) is a married mother of two kids, a teenager named Jasmine (Ajiona Russell), and a younger son named Glover (Seth Carr). Shortly after the mysterious death of her wealthy estranged father, Shaun has to drive to his estate (which is where she grew up) to prepare it for sale. Her husband (Jason George) can't get away for the weekend, so it's just Shaun and the kids on a road trip to the country. The only other person Shaun plans on seeing that weekend is her realtor (Christa Miller), who's bringing Shaun paperwork for her to sign. But the weekend ends up including some... uninvited guests.
So, this little family settles in, Jasmine retreating to a bedroom to listen to her music and spend quality time on her phone, Glover to play around with the home's sophisticated electronic controls and then fly his little camera drone around the house, and Shaun calling in town to order some pizza. But before she can finish that call, some bad men suddenly appear in the house, grab the kids and try to grab her.
Four ex-cons, an ex-military guy (Mark Furze), a less-than-dependable wannabe thug (Levi Meaden), a psycho gang-banger (Richard Cabral) and their controlled but ruthless leader (Billy Burke), didn't think anyone was going to be at the house, but they still want what they came for - to find a safe that supposedly contains millions of dollars. Shaun finds herself locked out of the house, while the bad guys are inside threatening her children. She needs every ounce of strength, smarts and resourcefulness to make sure her kids (and she herself) survive the night. As the movie poster says, "Revenge is a Mother".
"Breaking In" is a fairly predictable, but above-average thriller. The film's advertising pretty much tells us what to expect, but Burke makes a pretty mean villain and Union makes for one tough mother. The action starts refreshingly early and really never lets up. The movie is intricately plotted, with plenty of twists (even if we do see many of them coming). This is a thriller which is actually thrilling - and entertaining. "B+"
Life of the Party (2018)
an unfunny, unprofessional mess
"Life of the Party" (PG-13, 1:45) is a comedy directed by Ben Falcone and co-written by Falcone and his wife (and star of the film), Melissa McCarthy. That's bad news for Movie Fans. The only feature films that Falcone has written and directed were star vehicles for his wife - "Tammy", "The Boss" and this one - and they're ALL terrible! McCarthy is an Oscar and Golden Globe nominee and Emmy winner whose best comedy movies - like "Spy", "Ghostbusters", "Heat" and "Bridesmaids" - were all directed by Paul Feig. HE knows how to use McCarthy's considerable comedic talents. Too bad Feig didn't direct this one.
McCarthy plays Deanna, a sweet suburban mom whose only child, Maddie (Molly Gordon), is starting her senior year in college. Immediately after Deanna and her husband, Dan (Matt Walsh), drop off Maddie at her sorority house, Dan tells Deanna that he wants a divorce so he can marry his mistress (Emmy winner Julie Bowen). All of this comes as a complete shock to Deanna who leans on her parents (Stephen Root and Oscar and Golden Globe nominee Jacki Weaver) and her best friend (Maya Rudolph). Deanna bemoans the years wasted in her marriage, which included her dropping out of college (because she was pregnant with Maddie) a year before earning her archaeology degree. But then she has an idea.
Deanna re-enrolls in her old college for her senior year, which makes her classmates with her daughter. Maddie has mixed emotions, especially when Deanna starts hanging out at Maddie's sorority house, but Maddie's friends really like having Deanna around and Maddie goes along with it. All of this opens the door for Deanna to go to college parties, sleep with college guys (well, one guy), encourage her creepy roommate (Heidi Gardner) to be less creepy and help Maddie's friends figure out their lives, including inspiring Maddie's academically challenged friend (Gillian Jacobs) to make archaeology her major too. As all this happens, a couple mean-girl college classmates, the divorce proceedings and Dan's impending remarriage become growing sources of frustration for Deanna (or Dee-Rock, as her classmates call her).
"Life of the Party" is an unfunny, unprofessional mess. The movie's premise has potential, but lazy writing gives us precious few good jokes and the dialog and plot points have most characters speaking and acting in ways that don't make sense, even in a silly comedy. Meanwhile, amateurish directing puts too much of the burden on McCarthy to make "lemons out of lemonade" (one of the movie's so-called jokes). The acting isn't much better. McCarthy is fine, but almost everyone else has smiles glued on their faces (even at times most normal people would be frowning) in a desperate attempt to convince us they're having a good time, so we should too. I hope McCarthy and Falcone have a long, happy marriage, but it would be nice if their professional partnership would stop making the rest of us so unhappy. Creatively, they're now 0-3. There's simply no life in this party. "D"
You Were Never Really Here (2017)
too derivative and odd to enjoy
"You Were Never Really Here" (R, 1:29) is a drama-mystery-thriller which arrived in U.S. theaters in April 2018, following a series of European releases in late 2017 and a prestigious festival run in places like Cannes and Sundance. It's directed by Lynne Ramsay ("We Need to Talk About Kevin"), who also wrote the screenplay, adapting Jonathan Ames' 2013 novella of the same name. (Ramsay won the Best Screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival.) The movie stars multiple Oscar nominee (and Golden Globe winner) Joaquin Phoenix whose work won him Best Actor at Cannes. Prestigious... but is it good?
Joe (Phoenix) is a man with skills - and demons. He's a former FBI Agent and combat veteran with PTSD. He funnels his anger and uses his experiences in his self-appointed role as a savior of missing girls. But he doesn't just save the girls, he takes revenge on their captors. He's Batman, Dexter and Rambo all rolled into one. (The movie also feels like a combination of the "Death Wish" and "John Wick" movies.) When Joe is hired by a New York State Senator to track down his missing daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), Joe finds himself fighting all the sex traffickers and corrupt politicians he can handle.
"You Were Never Really Here" is compelling, but too weird to enjoy. Joe seems just short of being a superhero, but not an appealing one. His cause may be just, but his excessive use of violence makes it hard to empathize with him. The choppy edits are also distracting. The film compares well with the aforementioned characters and franchises, but can't manage to be entertaining on any level. The comparisons with Robert De Niro's "Taxi Driver", are more fitting regarding subject matter and characterization than quality. Phoenix turns in another singular, raw, compelling performance, but he can't make the character sympathetic, and the excessively disturbing images only make things worse. Watching this movie is more difficult than worthwhile. "C-"
Spinning Man (2018)
unusual and frustrating
"Spinning Man" (R, 1:40) is a drama-mystery-thriller directed by Swedish television director Simon Kaijser and written by Matthew Aldrich ("Cleaner", "Coco") based on a novel by George Harrar. The film received a limited release in U.S. theaters on April 6, 2018, the same day it was available via VOD.
Golden Globe nominee and Emmy winner Guy Pearce plays Evan Birch, a college professor with a history of having affairs with his students... most recently, an intelligent and beautiful coed named Anna (Alexandra Shipp). Evan teaches a class called Philosophy of Language and many of the conversations he has involve word play and/or abstract philosophical concepts - including when he talks with his young daughter, Zelda (Eliza Pryor), his longsuffering wife, Ellen (Oscar nominee Minnie Driver)... or the police.
Golden Globe nominee Pierce Brosnan is Detective Malloy, who is investigating the disappearance of a student named Joyce (Odeya Rush). When details of Professor Birch's extracurricular romantic history surface, along with information about his possible connection with the missing girl, Malloy naturally focuses on Evan as his prime suspect... but getting straight answers from the good professor proves... challenging. Even as the questions about the young woman's fate and whether Evan has anything to do with this case are answered, other questions emerge about the professor's past, present... and future.
"Spinning Man" is an unusual and frustrating film. The use of language, not just by the characters, but almost as a character in its own right, is sometimes clever, but too often annoying. The plot is fairly unpredictable, but the answers the story gives us are a combination of surprising, open-ended and... yes, annoying (especially regarding the symbolism referenced in the title of the film and revealed as it ends). The film is short on entertainment value and even shorter on meaning. "C-"
sweet, touching and even important, but also kind of predictable and dull
"Tully" (R, 1:36) is a drama (with a bit of comedy mixed in) which pays tribute to motherhood in a touching and creative way. It is directed by multiple Oscar nominee Jason Reitman ("Up in the Air", "Juno"), written by Oscar winner Diablo Cody ("Juno") and stars Oscar winner Charlize Theron ("Monster"). This film represents a reunion for Reitman, Cody & Theron following 2011's "Young Adult".
Theron plays Marlo, an overburdened mother of three. Her oldest child is an 8-year-old daughter who is growing self-conscious far too early. Her son is too often described by people as "quirky" and acts like he may be autistic. Her youngest is a newborn daughter. Marlo isn't a single mother, but she often feels like she is, with her loving, but overworked and clueless husband, Drew (Ron Livingston) offering little help.
As a baby gift, Marlo's brother, Craig (Mark Duplass) pays for the services of a night nanny, someone to take care of the kids (especially the baby) at night, so mom can get some sleep. Marlo feels like using the services of such a person would be cheating and feels guilty about even considering accepting Craig's gift, but pushed to her physical and emotional limits by the demands of motherhood, she finally accepts.
One fine night, a young woman named Tully (Mackenzie Davis) shows up at Marlo's door. The once-again new mother is still hesitant, but turns her newborn over to Tully's care, goes to bed and sleeps... well, like a baby. Marlo quickly warms up to Tully, drawn to the woman's free-spirited nature and appreciative of her help. Besides helping to take care of Marlo's infant daughter, Tully becomes Marlo's friend and confidant and helps her understand how to take care of herself - and improve her marriage.
"Tully" is original and sweet, but rather dull. The message of the importance of motherhood and the window it provides into the challenges of the world's second oldest profession are commendable, while the film's approach is fresh, but the story starts off slow, never really picks up much speed and is fairly predictable. The authenticity and empathy in the outstanding performances of Theron and Davis definitely give this film a boost, but it still only warrants a mild recommendation. "B"
Bad Samaritan (2018)
an expectedly good thriller
"Bad Samaritan" (R, 1:51) is a thriller directed by actor-turned-producer Dean Devlin ("Geostorm"), written by Brandon Boyce ("Wicker Park") and starring television actor (and erstwhile Dr. Who) David Tennant. There's a bit of horror in here too, but this film is primarily an intricately plotted thrill ride.
The title character is named Sean Falco (Irish actor Robert Sheehan), a young man whose step-father brought him and his mother to the U.S. because of a job opportunity (for which Sean resents him). Sean is an aspiring photographer with a beautiful and intelligent college girlfriend named Riley (Jacqueline Byers) who knows nothing of Sean's real passion - stealing. Sean and his best friend, Derek (Carlito Olivero) work as valets at an expensive Italian restaurant... which is where they choose their marks. As one of them mans the valet stand, the other uses the vehicles, GPS devices and garage door openers of their unsuspecting customers to rob the patrons' homes, while they're just trying to have a nice meal.
One not-so-fine evening, after Derek has to abort his attempt to rob the home of one family enjoying a night out at the restaurant, it's Sean's turn. For his next victim, Sean chooses Cale Erendreich (Tennant), a man who seems very rich... and very mean. As Sean is searching Cale's home, he comes across a door with an unusually strong lock. He figures that a door secured that well, must have something especially valuable behind it. He uses Cale's keys to gain entry and finds Cale's computer - and a young woman (Kerry Condon), who is gagged, bound with straps and chains and sitting in a chair bolted to the floor.
Sean spends the rest of the movie trying to do right by Cale's captive. Sean tries his best to free her, but Derek tells him via cell phone that Cale has come outside to get his car. Conflicted but panicked, Sean promises the girl that he'll come back... and races back to the restaurant. This guy tries calling the police, breaking back into the house and any number of other things to save Cale's victim, but it's no small task going up against the highly intelligent Cale with his extraordinary attention to detail. This guy knows how to cover his tracks and seems to enjoy messing with the lives of anyone trying to stop his evil plans.
"Bad Samaritan" is an unexpectedly good thriller. Tennant and Sheehan are terrific in the lead roles. The rest of the actors are pretty good, but the overall quality of the movie may have been improved with a more talented cast. Regardless, this film's strength lies in its writing and directing. The plot has very few holes and plenty of twists and turns. The story is very well constructed and well executed, making the viewer sharply attentive, suitably tense and well rewarded with an entertaining cinematic experience. This film may fly under the radar of many Movie Fans, but it's well worth the effort to seek it out. "A-"
"Overboard" (PG-13, 1:52) is a romantic comedy which is a remake of the 1987 film starring Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell and directed by Garry Marshall. The 2018 version is directed by Rob Greenberg (in his feature directorial debut) and written by Leslie Dixon, Bob Fisher and Greenberg. It maintains the same basic plot as the original, but swaps the genders of the two main characters and adds some spice (and a lot of comedic opportunities), by casting a well-known Hispanic actor as the male lead.
Popular and influential Mexican actor-comedian-writer-director-producer Eugenio Derbez stars as Leonardo, a rich and totally self-absorbed Mexican playboy. As his entrepreneur father lay ill back home, the heir apparent to lead his father's company gallivants off of the U.S. Pacific coast on his hugely extravagant yacht (or "floating orgy", as his sister calls it). Meanwhile, his sisters, Magdalena (Cecilia Suarez) and Sofia (Mariana Trevino), hold vigil at their father's bedside, the former angling to see how she might become the one to take over her father's company when he dies, and the latter trying to mend fences after a contentious history with her father and make up for lost time, while there is time.
Anna Farris plays Kate, a working-class single mother of three girls. Kate works two jobs (as a pizza delivery driver and a carpet cleaner), while she struggles to pay the bills, raise her kids and finish studying for her nursing exam. She has the emotional support of her friend, Theresa (Eva Longoria), and Theresa's husband, Bobby (Mel Rodriguez), but that only goes so far. Things go from bad to worse when Kate's mother (Swoosie Kurtz) backs out on her commitment to help take care of the girls so she can pursue her dream of acting and then Kate has a run-in with Leonardo while cleaning the carpets on his yacht, he treats her very badly and causes her to get fired. And then... Kate receives an eviction notice.
One night, Leonardo gets drunk, falls off his yacht, washes up on shore and develops amnesia. Seeing his picture in the newspaper (and spurred on by Theresa), Kate shows up at the hospital and claims Leonardo as her husband. It takes some convincing, but Kate gets Leo (as she calls him) to come home with her, get a construction job (working for Bobby) and cook, clean and help take care of the girls so she can devote more time to studying. Leo eventually takes to this life (and even starts to thrive in it), while Kate and her daughters take to him. But what will happen after Kate finally takes her test?
"Overboard" is thoroughly enjoyable! Farris and Derbez are both great comic actors who make a terrific comic duo - each doing some of their best work to date. Greenberg surrounds them with wonderful characters and gives everyone funny (and sometimes touching) things to say and do. This movie is predictable and not terribly realistic or original, but it sure is entertaining! "A-"
Public Schooled (2017)
quirky, creative, sweet and funny
"Adventures in Public School" (NR, 1:26) is a comedy from two guys who've spent most of their movie careers as actors and have only recently started working the other side of the camera - Kyle Rideout, who directs and, along with Josh Epstein, co-wrote the screenplay. (Each did the same for 2015's "Eadweard".) This movie was originally titled "Public Schooled" which seems a more fitting title. It's about a high school senior who was always home-schooled, but decides that, before he heads off to college, he wants to spend time in public school - and he really gets "schooled". (See what I mean?)
Daniel Doheny plays Liam, an extremely intelligent, but socially awkward young man. For what seems to be the entirety of his young life (the father's absence never being explained), Liam's mother (Judy Greer) has been his only teacher - and only friend - and they both seem perfectly happy with that - proud of it, even. Then, in a classic case of doesn't-know-what-he's-missing, when Liam goes to the local high school to take the exam he needs for his graduation certificate, he looks around at the school and all the students and decides he wants to finish his education there - but mostly so he can pursue the pretty Anastasia (Siobhan Williams). He intentionally fails his exam, giving him an excuse to enroll in the school.
The story's fairly formulaic, but not stale, in that it displays its own quirky charm. Liam makes mistakes, doesn't talk like most high schoolers and is atypically open and honest for his age group. The scenes of him adjusting to high school aren't laugh-out-loud hilarious, but they are cute, sweet and not uncomfortably awkward. For her part, Liam's mom, who was initially horrified that her son wanted to go to public school, soon gets with the program. Having taught Liam everything else so far, she helps him figure out how to make his rebellious phase as productive as possible and gets personally involved in this new world that's opening up to him. Meanwhile, Liam's socially awkward principal (Andrew McNee) is trying to date Liam's mom, and grandma (Maxine Miller) adorably observes events from the sidelines.
"Adventures in Public School" isn't a typical fish-out-of-water comedy. Liam's challenges never get too serious and his social awkwardness is nicely underplayed. Doheny brings his limited acting resume but considerable charm to the lead role. Rideout has the courage not to make him a stereotypical nerdy kid and the skill to make Liam sweet and adorable - not just because he's socially awkward, but also in spite of it. More experienced actors might've done a better job with some of the roles, but it's the fresh faces in the cast which account for much of this film's appeal. The same could be said of the lack of experience of the filmmakers vs. their fresh approach to the sub-genre of high school comedy. All things considered, it's this combination of elements that works well and makes for such a quirky, fun, feel-good movie. "A-"
The Rider (2017)
both boring and touching
"The Rider" (R, 1:44) is a western drama written and directed by Chloé Zhao, who discovered the story (and the characters who lived it) while researching her first feature, 2015's "Songs My Brothers Taught Me". Her 2017 effort (which transitioned from the festival circuit to limited releases in several countries in early 2018) is the story of a cowboy who suffered a career-ending rodeo injury and is deciding what to do with the rest of his life. The film stars the title character as himself - and his family as themselves.
Brady Jandreau (looking like a young and lean Heath Ledger) plays the titular cowboy. Training and riding horses is what he loves and all he knows. After a devastating fall from a horse, he has a gash on the side of his head, his skin and his skull held together with staples. He struggles through his recovery - and to get used to the idea that he may never ride again. He's not sure whether he can give it up, in spite of the risk to his health and his life. He takes a job in a grocery store, but keeps gravitating back to horses. As he works through his issues, there's no shortage of advice - from those who want him to ride again - and those who know he can't, while caught in the middle is his family - his dad and his mentally challenged sister - and the person he admires most, a fellow rider who is permanently paralyzed.
"The Rider" is both touching and boring. Although this very personal and realistic story sheds light on the lives of modern cowboys, the whole thing is very slow and uneventful... for most of the film's runtime. However, along the way, something surprising happens. The tedium is gradually replaced by something emotional and relatable. It is then that Movie Fans realize that the time spent getting to know these characters and understanding this way of life has made them invested in the story, which pays dividends before it's over. Of course, the main actors playing themselves (not to mention the people playing the smaller roles) yield some acting that is less than stellar, but everyone and everything in this film feels raw and real, and for those Movie Fans who can make it through the slow parts in this slice-of-life western, they may well feel like they have won the gold buckle themselves. "B-"
"Kings" is a personal window into the lives of average people during one of the most upsetting and violent moments in recent American history.
"Kings" (R, 1:32) is a crime drama, with romantic undertones, written and directed by award-winning director Deniz Gamze Ergüven (2015's "Mustang"). Although the title is never really explained, the film is about a family of foster kids in South Central Los Angeles who struggle to deal with endemic racial discrimination - and to survive the L.A. riots following the 1992 Rodney King beating trial verdict.
Oscar winner Halle Berry stars as Millie Dunbar, a foster mother who loves children and has a special place in her heart for troubled kids. She has a house full of them - boys and girls of different races and ages. She loves all of them as if they were her own and she works multiple jobs to take care of them. That last part means she's often away from home, and care for the younger ones often falls to her oldest, Jesse (Lamar Johnson). Jesse is intelligent and responsible, but he struggles against the instincts of his short-tempered best friend, William (Kaalan "KR" Walker), and a short-tempered neighbor, named Obie (Daniel Craig), who complains about Millie's parenting - and the noise coming from her house.
The film uses a re-enactment of the fatal March 16, 1991 shooting of teenager Latasha Harlins by an L.A. Korean convenience store owner and news of the shooter's conviction, but subsequent sentence of probation, to set the stage for the events to come. As frustration in the black community builds, the film's plot remains focused on Millie's make-shift family and their relationships with their friends and other members of their neighborhood, including Obie. When it is announced that the police officers who beat Rodney King on the night of March 3, 1991 have been acquitted, rioting begins. Millie's kids are involved in the mayhem in various ways and she fights to find and protect them, with Obie helping her.
"Kings" is a personal window into the lives of average people during one of the most upsetting and violent moments in recent American history. Although fictionalized, the story is nevertheless affecting and the film is dedicated to one of the young men who lost his life during the riots. Some of the plot points feel contrived, but the film's effective at delivering greater understanding of and compassion for those affected by the L.A. riots - and the issues that led up to that episode - some of which clearly continue to plague society today. "B+"
a good thriller focusing on an important social issue, but somewhat contrived and melodramatic
"Traffik" (R, 1:36) is a 2018 crime thriller. And it IS important to have the year in my initial description of this film, because not only is this not the first movie to use that word as its title, but it's not even the first one to leave off the "c" in an attempt to distinguish itself from earlier similarly-titled films. Of course, regardless of how it's spelled, a movie with that word in the title is practically guaranteed to be about bad people doing bad things across borders. Written and directed by Deon Taylor ("Meet the Blacks", "Supremacy", "Chain Letter"), 2018's "Traffik" flirts with a home invasion plot, but is primarily about the brutal subject of human trafficking.
Paula Patton and Omar Epps star as Brea and John, a couple who haven't been dating very long, but who are very much in love and seem ready to take their relationship to the next level. Brea is a Sacramento reporter struggling to please her demanding editor (William Fichtner) and John is a very skilled mechanic who has some big birthday surprises in store for Brea. Darren (Laz Alonso), John's loyal but obnoxious sports agent buddy, is letting John use his fancy house in the mountains for the weekend. It's just the break from work that Brea needs - and just the romantic hideaway that John needs for his big plans.
But this movie is more thriller than romance and the romance soon takes a backseat to the thrills. On the way to this house in the woods, John and Brea stop at a gas station where John is harassed by some backwoods locals and Brea sees a woman (Dawn Olivieri), who is bruised, shaken and seems in need of her help. Brea is unsure what she can or should do for the woman and when a local sheriff (Missi Pyle) sees what's happening with John and those bad ol' boys, she steps in and Brea and John drive away.
Unfortunately for John and Brea, that gas station stop has repercussions for the rest of their weekend - and the rest of their lives. One of the tough guys from the gas station revs up his motorcycle, follows the couple and tries to run them off the road. John loses him, but Brea is still haunted by her encounter with the woman in the gas station restroom. At the house, the couple manage a brief romantic interlude, but it's cut short when Darren and his girlfriend (Roselyn Sanchez) show up at the house unannounced. Soon following suit is the woman from the gas station, her "boyfriend" - and his boss. They want a satellite phone that the woman slipped into Brea's purse and they're very... insistent. (Romantic weekend over.)
"Traffik" is suitably thrilling and serious-minded, but feels contrived. The plot points seem randomly generated, far-fetched and melodramatic, yet the story deals creatively with an important issue. Overall, the strong performances, the thrills and the drama are sufficient to make for an entertaining movie. "B"
Super Troopers 2 (2018)
silly, but effective escapist comedy
"Super Troopers 2" (R, 1:40) is a crime comedy mystery which is a sequel to the 2001 cult classic "Super Troopers". Version 2.0 is again written by the Broken Lizard comedy group and again directed by cast member Jay Chandrasekhar. Most of the actors from the first one are back in action (although some merely in cameos), while the core cast includes returnees Brian Cox as Captain O'Hagen, Paul Soter as Jeff, Chandrasekhar as "Thorny", Steve Lemme as "Mack", Erik Stohlhanske as "Rabbit", and, of course, Kevin Heffernan as Rodney "Rod" Farva, the fat, obnoxious trooper the rest of his unit loves to hate.
As the action begins, this comically inept group of officers are... former officers, having all been fired for an incident which took place in between movies and is only described verbally in this one (until an amusing payoff at the end of the movie). But Captain O'Hagen comes out of retirement and gets the band back together when an unusual opportunity arises for which this group of misfits is uniquely semi-qualified. It seems that a government reassessment of the exact border between U.S. and Canada has shown that one French-Canadian town is actually in the U.S. - and is very close the area where these super ridiculous members of the Vermont State Police used to "work". The re-instated troopers are called upon to set up a Vermont State Highway patrol station in this soon-to-be added U.S. territory.
The troopers encounter plenty of challenges as they help the tiny Quebec town and its residents transition to being Americans. Besides the natural resistance of the life-long Canadians in the area, a prank-filled rivalry develops between the Super Troopers and a small group of Canadian Mounties (Will Sasso, Tyler Labine and Hayes MacArthur). The small town mayor, former Canadian ice hockey legend Guy Le Franc (Rob Lowe) seems amenable enough, and the beautiful Canadian government attaché Genevieve Aubois (Emmanuelle Chriqui) is as helpful as she can be, but the guys from Vermont are... well, themselves - and as jingoistic as you'd expect them to be. But matters get even more complicated when the guys stumble on evidence that there's more going on than simply correcting a border mistake.
"Super Troopers 2" is a silly good time. It'll likely appeal to devotees of the original and may win some new fans as well. "Super Trooper" fans will "get" more of the gags and enjoy the film a bit more than those who haven't seen the first one, but it doesn't take much to join this franchise mid-stream. (For the unitiated wanting a frame of reference, good cinematic comparisons include "Reno 911", "Dumb and Dumber" and "Talladega Nights".) This sequel brings back many of the characters and gags from the first film and features a plot that's wonderfully suited to this troupe's comedic talents. Of course, there is little that's realistic about the story or remotely high-brow about the humor, but what's there is fairly well-done and makes for enjoyable escapist comedy. "B+"
I Feel Pretty (2018)
a respectable but muted nod to the undervalued
"I Feel Pretty" (PG-13, 1:50) is a comedy (with a good bit of drama and some fantasy mixed in) starring Amy Schumer as an insecure young woman who gets the chance to find out what it's like to live the life of a beautiful woman. The movie is co-written and co-directed by both Abby Kohn and Mark Silverstein.
Schumer plays Renee Bennett, one of two workers in the online division of a fictional make-up company called Lili LeClaire. She works across from a skeezy co-worker named Mason (Adrian Martinez) in a small office under a Chinese restaurant. She dreams of working in the main office on Park Avenue - and being as beautiful as someone like Mallory (Emily Ratajkowski), another woman in her spin class. But alas, she feels stuck in her dead-end job, in her unremarkable overweight body, with all of her insecurities and practically invisible to everyone but her two best friends, Vivian (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Philipps).
Then, one otherwise ordinary day (the night after watching "Big" on TV and then literally wishing for beauty as she throws coins in a fountain), as Renee is feeling especially inspired by the exuberant leader of her spin class, she gets a little too excited on her bike, falls off and her hits her head. When she comes to, she looks in the mirror and believes that she has suddenly become supermodel-beautiful. Renee practically explodes with excitement and triumphantly meets her confused friends in a bar, convinced they won't recognize her anymore and works hard to "convince" them that it's really her - Renee!!
Convinced that she's now thin and beautiful, Renee suddenly has a confidence that has significant and immediate effects on her life - personally and professionally. In a dry cleaner's, she meets the kind but shy Ethan (Rory Scovel), who doesn't understand her apparently exaggerated confidence at first but soon starts dating her (which has repercussions for her relationship with Vivian and Jane). Renee also improbably gets a job in the Lily LeClaire headquarters, where her confidence and capabilities come to the attention of the beautiful, but insecure Avery LeClaire (Oscar nominee Michelle Williams), who is running the company for her kind, but demanding grandmother, founder Lily LeClaire (Lauren Hutton).
"I Feel Pretty" is well-intentioned, but wholly predictable and only mildly entertaining. Its strength is its life-affirming, empowering and timely advocacy of self-worth and confidence in (and in spite of) the age of Facebook and Instagram, but it's only marginally effective in delivering that message. Based on the character and plot set-up in the previous paragraphs (assuming that this wouldn't be your first time seeing a movie), you can probably write the rest of the story in your head and be pretty accurate. Much of the supporting cast is bland in their roles (except for Williams who is game, but annoying in hers) and even Schumer's considerable comedic talents only give us an occasional chuckle. This movie is, at best, a respectable but muted nod to the undervalued. "B-"
unusual, engaging and educational
"Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero" (PG, 1:24) is an animated adventure, based on the true story of an American Army unit's canine mascot during World War I. Stubby (so named because of his small tail) was a stray and hadn't received formal training as a military working dog, but his contributions to his unit during the trench warfare at the Western Front during the Great War made him the first canine promoted to the rank of sergeant and, ultimately, the most decorated dog in U.S. military history. This computer-animated movie is directed and co-written by Richard Lanni, whose resume includes writing and directing big and small screen depictions of the final year of World War II. Lanni's co-writer, Mike Stokey, is a combat veteran who has served as a military advisor for numerous films and TV shows.
The titular mutt latches onto Army private Robert Conroy (voice by Logan Lerman) after Robert tosses him a cookie during a military parade. Stubby follows Robert to the make-shift basic training area for the Connecticut National Guard on the grounds of Yale University and won't leave him alone. Robert is afraid that Stubby's presence will get him and his tentmates, Elmer Olsen (Jordan Beck) and Hans Schroeder (Jim Pharr), in trouble, but Stubby charms their drill sergeant (Jason Ezzell) and gets to stay.
When the unit prepares to go fight, Robert bids Stubby a sad farewell, but Stubby refuses to let his best friend leave him behind. Stubby manages to jump on the troop train and then stow away on the ship taking the soldiers to France. Stubby continually manages to charm everyone around him - including the military powers-that-be - to whom he also demonstrates his usefulness - and stays with New England's 26th Infantry Division all the way to the front. When Robert is assigned to join a burly French soldier named Gaston Baptiste (Oscar nominee Gérard Depardieu) on his scouting missions, Stubby comes along, which is just the beginning of the pooch's exciting, dangerous and heroic wartime adventures.
"Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero" is an engaging and educational animated adventure. In spite of the horrors of war surrounding him, Stubby's charming, happy and loving nature clearly shines through. Meanwhile, there's a lot of educational value here (aided by sparse narration by Oscar nominee Helena Bonham Carter as Robert's older sister) - especially for younger Movie Fans who don't yet understand what war is (or know much about history), but are too young to be exposed to more graphic or complex depictions of man's inhumanity to man. That all makes this an unusual, but valuable and entertaining animated movie which is likely to appeal to kids, dog lovers and history buffs of all ages. "B+"
smart, multi-faceted and very entertaining
"Beirut" (R, 1:49) is a drama thriller directed by Brad Anderson ("The Call", "The Machinist") and written by Oscar nominee Tony Gilroy ("Rogue One: A Star Wars Story", the "Bourne" movies, "Michael Clayton"). The titular Lebanese capital is the place where the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks killed 241 U.S. servicemembers deployed there as peacekeepers during the Lebanese Civil War. This movie takes place mainly during 1982, set in the broader context of Lebanon's multi-faceted political and religious conflicts and focused on a fictional but plausible story of intrigue, danger and violence.
Golden Globe winner Jon Hamm plays Mason Skiles, an American diplomat who suffered a very personal tragedy while living and working in Beirut in 1972, leading him to return to the U.S., become a specialist in conflict resolution (mainly local labor disputes) - and develop a serious drinking problem. Mason is contacted by an old acquaintance, on behalf of people who offer to pay him to come back to Beirut, ostensibly to give a lecture at the American University. Mason realizes that is just a cover story, but is unhappy with his current work environment and needs the money, so he reluctantly returns to Beirut.
Mason quickly finds himself in the company of State Department employees and C.I.A. operatives (played by Dean Norris, Shea Whigham and Larry Pine) who finally tell him the real reason he's back in Beirut. A co-worker of theirs, and an old friend of Mason's, by the name of Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino), has been kidnapped by terrorists to trade him for someone else - and one of the terrorists insists that they will only deal with Mason in person. As Mason applies his considerable negotiating skill and understanding of the conflicts he's navigating, it remains unclear who's working with whom and to what ends, but a C.I.A. field officer (Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike) does her best to protect and help him.
"Beirut" is a smart, entertaining multi-faceted film. It works well as a personal drama, a political thriller and a spy story. The setting and the historical context give the plot significant gravitas. Gilroy's script is very intelligent - in terms of the dialog and its ability to avoid predictability and genre clichés. Anderson's direction is well-paced and keeps the story engaging. The stars do their usual excellent work and the supporting actors more than pull their weight. A great break from the mundane. "A-"
Truth or Dare (2018)
a thin premise, but a pretty good movie
"Truth or Dare" (PG-13, 1:40) is a horror thriller, based on the adolescent party game, which has existed in some form for centuries and traces its roots to the ancient Greeks. Of course, this being a Blumhouse production, it gives the old game of "Questions and Commands" a scary supernatural twist. This obvious new horror franchise (calling it so seems to be a pretty safe bet) is directed by Jeff Wadlow ("Kick Ass 2", "Never Back Down") and is written by Jillian Jacobs (not Gillian Jacobs from TV's "Community"), Michael Reisz, Christopher Roach (all of whom are brand new or fairly new at writing feature films) and Wadlow. The cast is made up of little-known actors, who've done most of their acting to date on TV and online.
Olivia (Lucy Hale) is a pretty and friendly (and dull and responsible) college senior who focuses on doing good deeds like organizing Habitat for Humanity builds, but always seems to make time for her friends, especially her best friend, Markie (Violett Bean), whose father died by suicide years earlier. It's not easy, but Markie convinces Olivia to put her good-deed-doing on hold to join her and her boyfriend, Lucas (Tyler Posey), and some other friends, in going to Mexico for their last spring break together.
They all have a grand old time south of the border and, on their last night of vacation, they don't want the good times to end. When the bars close, they follow a guy called Carter (Landon Liboiron), who has spent much of the evening talking to Olivia, to an abandoned (and trashed) old church on a hill. There, Carter suggests a game of Truth or Dare, which goes pretty much as the game usually goes (some uncomfortable truths, some awkward kissing and groping and a naked butt or two)... until Carter has a turn, chooses "truth", tells the group he lured them there and tricked them into playing... then leaves.
When Olivia and company come back to their lives and back to reality, it seems that the game has followed them home (as Carter said it would, before he apologized and disappeared). They all learn that the rules of Truth or Dare 2.0 (Evil Edition) are that if you fail to choose an option (truth or dare) when asked (by people or writing only you can see), you die. If you fail to answer a question totally truthfully or perform a required task completely, you die. If you insist on always choosing "truth" to avoid some dangerous assignment, you... well, you get the point. As Olivia's friends start dropping dead for various violations of the rules, the only hope of the survivors is to find out how to break this curse they're under.
"Truth or Dare" does a pretty good job with its thin premise. It puts an interesting story behind an evil incarnation of what is basically a silly kids' game and serves up a combination of "It Follows" and "Final Destination". Not bad. "B"