Greetings! Have you ever wondered if a movie's worth blowing the money on to see at the theater or what to add next to your NetFlix queue? Then you've come to the right place! Enjoy!

"The Laundromat" Review

When the trailer dropped for The Laundromat it was hard to tell what the largest surprise was: That it was a Steven Soderbergh film made for Netflix, that it starred Gary Oldman, Meryl Streep, Antonio Banderas, Robert Patrick, David Schwimmer and more, or the crazy Dana Carvey-as-Hans (of SNL Hans and Franz fame) accent Oldman was working. Based on the Panama Papers, a scandal which exposed numerous celebrities and toppled several world leaders, The Laundromat attempts to explain the internecine and opaque world of off-shore shell corporations used for tax avoidance by the well-heeled and sometimes downright criminal element.

It opens with Meryl Streep and her husband (James Cromwell) setting off on a lake boat tour based on an actual accident when a rogue wave capsized the boat, killing 21 passengers. Presumably the tour operator's liability insurance would've covered the settlement, but due to a messy web of re-insurance companies and shell entities, it turns out there was no coverage.

Since her husband had provided sufficient life insurance to supplement the meager settlement, Streep plans to buy a Las Vegas condo overlooking the spot where she'd met her husband. But that is snatched away when the agent (Sharon Stone) informs her someone else had not only offered double the asking price, they wanted three adjoining units. Denied again, she begins to investigate how these Russians were able to swoop in and how the tour operator's insurance got so bollixed up.

The common factor is a Panamanian entity called Mossack Fonseca operated by Jürgen Mossack (Oldman) and Ramón Fonseca (Banderas), a mill which sets up shell corporations in various tax havens, utilizing "directors" who are merely secretaries or hired notaries of sketchy repute. The two serve as our narrators in some flashy visual sequences explaining concepts like money and credit.

If you're thinking this sounds like The Big Short, Adam McKay's 2015 film about the 2007-2008 financial crash which used celebrities like Anthony Bourdain, Margot Robbie, and Selena Gomez to explain arcane financial concepts in understandable terms, you'd be right, except Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who also wrote Soderbergh's Contagion, Side Effects, and The Informant!) fail to stay focused, ultimately leading to confusion and disinterest.

Instead of sticking to the relatable Streep character's quest, things go wildly astray in the 4th chapter, "Bribery 101", as we are introduced to a mega-wealthy African magnate (Nonso Anozie) living in Los Angeles whose college graduate daughter (Nikki Amuka-Bird), whom he's throwing a massive party for, catches him dallying with her roommate and best friend. In order to buy her silence, he offers her $20 million in bearer shares to a company he owns. When everything blows up with the family, she and her mother (who also got paid off by her husband) go to collect their money and discover their $20M corporations had less than $100 in the accounts. Where did the money evaporate to? We never find out.

The final chapter, "Make A Killing", is based on an actual poisoning of a businessman by a Chinese Communist Party honcho's wife involving bribes and shell companies and by this point I was thoroughly lost as to what was going on. After the last two segments, it was hard to remember what the point of this story was and what exactly Mossack Fonseca were doing and even whether they were swindlers or just enablers of these schemes.

The movie ends up on a soapbox railing against the fact that the bad part of these schemes isn't that they're illegal, but that they're LEGAL and how the politicians who instituted these laws must be pressured to change them which is adorably naive and silly especially when the movie gets very meta and mentions Soderbergh has five entities incorporated in Delaware and Burns one, a weird flex, but OK. (For all the hammering on Delaware, they conveniently leave out who the Senator from there whose cokehead loser son was given a position with the largest bank in the state while Daddy had legislation favorable to them before him.)

Despite a brisk pace, some amusing moments and good performances, The Laundromat feels like a much longer movie than its 96-minute running time would suggest. As it runs astray in its back half and loses the audience in a fog of poorly-explained concepts, it stops making sense. Why are we spending time with this rich family just to introduce the idea of bearer shares only to not explain why there were no assets left? What does the Chinese murder mean to Streep's widow? We don't know other than a vague "the system is rigged in favor of the rich at the expense of the poor" which is cheap and hypocritical bumper sticker philosophy coming from a writer-director team with a half-dozen tax dodge things between them. How about less lecture and more divestiture, fellas? Show us the way!

Score: 5/10. Skip it.

"You Might Be The Killer" Review

It's a frequent and legitimate complaint about how there doesn't seem to be any creativity in movies anymore; it's nothing by sequels, remakes/reboots, movies based on comic book/videogame franchises, etc. Looking at the top 25 grossing domestic box office films of 2019 at this writing, only FOUR aren't in the aforementioned categories: Jordan Peele's disappointing Us at #7; Elton John biopic Rocketman at #19; Yesterday (man wakes up in world where no one has heard of the Beatles and he exploits their songbook for profit) at #24; and cheapie horror movie Escape Room at #25.

What originality that seems to be out there seems to be coming from odd sources. Rather than books or magazine stories inspiring movies, social media posts have been snapped up by studios, though nothing appears to have come from them. A Reddit post musing on whether a Marine battalion transported back in time with their modern weaponry could topple the Roman Empire sold in 2011 and was never heard from again. Ryan Reynolds signed on to produce a horror movie based on another Reddit post, but it's early in the process.

An exception is You Might Be The Killer, a movie I'd never heard of until it popped up on my cheap movies app, but discovered was based on a funny Twitter thread (you may want to skip it since it's basically the whole plot) I'd actually read when it happened in 2017. Sci-fi writers Sam Sykes and Chuck Wendig had a deadpan back-and-forth where Sykes is asking for help about his job as a camp counselor and how everyone seems to be dying around him and Wendig trying to talk him through the situation and determine what's going on based on clues, ultimately realizing, Sykes may be the killer. It was hoot that took five minutes to read, but now it's been transformed into a 92-minute horror-comedy which has its moments, but is just too long for the concept to sustain.

Fran Kranz (the stoner from The Cabin in the Woods) is Sam the panicked summer camp owner and Alyson Hannigan (Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is Chuck (get the names?), the manager of a comic book shop, he frantically calls begging for advice on who's killing all his counselors. Since it's determined pretty early on that he's the killer - not a spoiler since it's the title! - the run time is padded out with flashbacks on how this came to be and how it turns out.

While there are a few laughs (e.g. the kill counter that starts with "LOTS") and a couple of decent bloody kills, there's simply not enough substance to the premise to draw it out to even a modest feature length. There's probably a concise 30-45 minute version of this story that'd work on an anthology series.

Kranz is good at conveying the freaked-out state of Sam and it's nice to see Willow Hannigan again, though all she does is play the horror movie rules expert from a Scream movie. The cast playing the counselors are all for the most part (literally) disposable randos with the exception of Brittany S. Hall who was Sam's former flame, but is best described as Supa-Hawt Black Girl Who Looks Like Young Angela Bassett Hubba Hubba.

While too long by at least a third, You Might Be The Killer is modestly entertaining, though if you read the linked Twitter thread, you've pretty much seen it all.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.(It's currently streaming on Shudder)

"Too Funny To Fail: The Life & Death of the Dana Carvey Show" Review

How often have you seen sports teams stacked with talent fail to make the playoffs or movies made by talented people with proven track records just fall on their faces? Plenty, probably. Even with that in mind, in retrospect it seems impossible that the short-lived The Dana Carvey Show couldn't have been anything other than a smashing success though as the Hulu Original documentary Too Funny To Fail: The Life & Death of the Dana Carvey Show aptly shows, talent, verve, and boldness wasn't enough and everyone involved realizes that they pretty much did it to themselves.

In 1995 Dana Carvey was a hot property. Between a brilliant run during Saturday Night Live's 2nd Renaissance where he created iconic, still-quoted characters as the Church Lady, Hans & Franz, Grumpy Old Man, defining impressions of George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot and saw him alongside Phil Hartman, Kevin Nealon, Dennis Miller, Jan Hooks and Victoria Jackson, later pairing up with Mike Myers as Garth to Myer's Wayne which led to two Wayne's World movies, he was The Man.

So when he and SNL writer Robert Smigel (who also created/performs Triumph the Insult Comedy Dog) were shopping a prime-time comedy sketch show, it's easy to understand why ABC eagerly agreed to air it and gifted it a golden time slot after the #1 show Home Improvement. They then went out and gathered a Murderers' Row of performers and writers including Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Louis C.K, Charlie Kaufman (writer of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), Dino Stamatopoulos (Star-Burns on Community), and Robert Carlock (showrunner on 30 Rock co-creator of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) to bring the party to life with a bold and innovative sketch comedy show.

Or at least that was the plan which exploded within minutes of the first episode's opening sketch which featured Carvey as Bill Clinton breast-feeding a baby (fake), puppies and kittens (real) after having eight functioning breasts added to his body. ABC thought they were getting Church Lady; they got....something else. Panic struck and sponsors bailed. While they tried to right the self-torpedoed ship, they were doomed.

With interviews with the biggest names involved - oddly, Carvey gets less screen time than Carell and Colbert - and lots of brief clips from the show, Too Funny To Fail memorializes the trainwreck. While it would be tempting to blame a timid network or the show being too ahead of its time, the participants freely cop to not understanding the environment they were airing in. (Smigel hadn't even seen Home Improvement until they'd been on a month and when he finally watched the show he realized just how catastrophically they'd erred and created an audience-banishing mismatch.)

If it had been on late at night or on cable, it probably would've lasted longer. As it was, it was impressive enough to those who saw it - a teen-aged Bill Hader bought a VCR just to tape it - that it launched Carell's and Colbert's careers with The Daily Show because producers loved a sketch they'd performed. Carvey himself is sanguine about the experience as it freed him to go back to his first love of standup and raise his two sons.

Score: 8/10. Catch it on Hulu.

"Cop Car" Review

While he is pretty much the undisputed King of the Universe with his stewardship of the 23-film (and counting) Marvel Cinematic Universe, one of the things Kevin Feige has struggled a bit with is working with left-of-the-dial directors. While Ant-Man suffered greatly from the loss of Edgar Wright, James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy was a boundary-expanding entry in the MCU.

The art-house tag-team of Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck were a poor fit for Captain Marvel leading to a lackluster (and polarizing for it) movie, but somehow Feige spotted something about Jon Watts' second effort, Cop Car - which grossed about what Avengers: Endgame made on a single screen in an afternoon ($143K) - to hire him to helm the franchise-saving, Tom Holland-starring. Spider-Man: Homecoming re-reboot and its impending sequel, Spiderman: Far From Home.

While I've had the DVD for a while, I try to avoid DVDs like I avoid VHS tapes, but it popped up on Netflix in HD so it was time to catch up and after seeing it, I guess there's a reason why Kevin Feige has grossed over $2.5 BILLION and I'm not because I wouldn't have thought, "Hey, this guy should make Spider-Man movies."

While Kevin Bacon is the top-billed star, Cop Car is the story of two young boys, James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford, who we meet walking across the prairies of Colorado taking turns swearing as they're apparently running away from home. They come upon a vacant sheriff's cruiser in a glade and in poking around it discover the keys and decide to take it for a joyride. Many youthful hijinks ensue as they do donuts in the fields or wrap themselves in crime scene tape, but when they start messing with the guns it gets tense as you're sure they're about to shoot their eyes out, kids.

We then flashback to how the car came to be there as Bacon drives up and parks and then proceeds to drag a dead body from the truck off to dump down a well a distance away that must not have been accessible directly by the car lest the setup for the movie not occur. When he comes back to find it gone, he naturally panics because he's the Sheriff and losing your car is a bad look especially when you're a Very Bad Man who wouldn't want your deputies to know what you're up to.

The rest of the movie alternates between the boys being boys, so clueless at the risks they're taking, and Bacon's increasingly panicked Sheriff trying to catch up. A woman who spots the boys driving (Camryn Manheim) feels wedged in to allow Bacon to know what happened to his ride. Shea Whigham is another familiar face who enters late in the picture to up the stakes.

While the overall running time is under an hour-and-a-half, Cop Car feels a little too empty for the length. The boys are realistic, but not interesting; their haplessly veering into peril worries us, but you get that same concern when you see a squirrel on the curb and you wonder if the idiot is about to bolt in front of your car. Bacon is Bacon, awesome, and he deftly straddles the bumbling crook/serious threat line.

Ultimately, it's Jon Watts' thin script (co-written with Christopher Ford) which reduces Cop Car into a generally flat experience with occasional waves of excitement which mirrors the landscape it's set in.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

"John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum" Review

Short Review: It's a John Wick movie. Liked the others? You'll like this one, too.

Longer Review: While the first John Wick movie was a magnificent example of ruthlessly efficient world-building and genre-redefining action - seriously, it's been five years and anyone still peddling shakycam and edit fu fight sequences is a hack - but I thought the attempt to broaden the scope in 2017's Chapter 2 left things feeling a tad flabby. It wasn't bad by any measure, but lacked the lean mean killing machine simplicity of the first.

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum - the last word coming from the Latin adage "Si vis pacem, para bellum" (translated as "If you want peace, prepare for war"); also a type of bullet - begins immediately after the conclusion of Chapter 2 (though it's darker and rainier because movie needs atmosphere) with John on the run, trying to figure out how to handle his being excommunicated from the world of assassins for his killing of a High Table member who'd betrayed him, with less than an hour before a $14 million contract on his life begins with seemingly half of the population of New York City literally gunning for him. Sure, it's hardly a fair fight - for the people trying to get him, that is - but that doesn't mean it's going to be easy.

Despite the plot taking him to Morocco and back, it feels smoother and less shaggy than last outing. We get some more glimpses of his past life, where he came from, his connection to Halle Berry's character who owes him a favor, how the High Table deals with disruptions in the system via an Adjudicator (Asia ) who is tasked with punishing Lawrence Fishburne's and Ian McShane's characters, but the central focus is action, action, more ACTION, and MOAR ACKSHUNZ!!!

Holy cow, this movie has the action, all presented in series director Chad Stahelski's signature clarity. There haven't been fight sequences this elaborate and visceral in ages (since The Matrix perhaps, which gets several meta references) and I lost count of how many times the audience and I shared in a collective "Ooooooh!!!" at a particularly savage kill. (The digital enhancements to the practical action are seamless and only noticeable because it's simply impossible to shoot people in the head and throw blades into faces like this.) Sure, it's all ridiculous and the Cinema Sins refrain of "He survives this" rings in your head as glass walls alternate between being bulletproof and shattering depending on the needs of the fight choreography, but if you're watching these movies with that skeptical an eye, you must be fun at parties.

Keanu Reeves has always been an actor of.....let's go with "limited" range, but he's lucked into a middle-aged Renaissance with this series in which benefits from his taciturn mien which has a slight wry edge. He puts in the work and while he's no match for the sheer insanity Tom Cruise brings to his action flicks, he's a boss in this world.

It can be hoped that Berry gets a career boost as well; she was a Bond girl, yet other than the X-Men movies where she didn't do any hand-to-hand brawling or gunplay, she hasn't made an action movie since the disastrous Catwoman, but she's legit here and with Angelina Jolie effectively retired and Charlize Theron unable to make every action movie requiring a beautiful Oscar-winning badass, her phone should be ringing.

John Wick: Chapter 4 has already had a May 21, 2021 release date announced. Bring it on!

Score: 8/10. Catch a matinee.

"Always Be My Maybe" Review

Hot on the heels of the girlfriend-recommended Netflix Original movie The Perfection comes yet another of her, "Don't read anything about it," suggestions, the Asian-American-fronted rom-com Always Be My Maybe. She was so hyped up about one particular section that she told me the time index in case I didn't want to watch a rom-com, me being a manly man and all. But I decided to watch it from the beginning and it's a perfectly pleasant rom-com.

Starring and co-written by Ali Wong and Randall Park, Always Be My Maybe is the story of two lifelong friends who grew up living next door to each other in San Francisco. Because Sasha's parents were always at their store, leaving her home alone, she'd frequently come over to Marcus' to hang out and she picked up cooking from his mother, who tragically passes away because it's like a Disney movie and mother's don't live long in those, do they?

Ultimately they end up impulsively having sex one night in 2003 in the backseat of his Toyota Corolla which makes things weird between them. She leaves to eventually become a glitzy celebrity chef while he stayed home to work for his father's HVAC company and play with his band, doing little with his life. 15 years later, she returns from Los Angeles to supervise the opening of a new restaurant and when she has to have the AC fixed in her posh rental (doesn't the landlord take care of this stuff?), Marcus reenters the picture and they have the usual rom-com foibles before the obligatory murder-suicide which ends all of these movies. (That's what happens in rom-coms, right? I never watch them so I'm just guessing.)

OK, they don't end up dead. They fall in love because they were always destined to because IT'S A FREAKING ROM-COM! Since the template is so rigid, the success and failure of one's enjoyment of a rom-com comes down to the execution and it does well enough. Wong and Park are appealing, albeit not deep enough for the more dramatic bits, but have a believable chemistry. Their script is also notable for the amount of laugh lines they dish out to bit players; the biggest LOLs are throwaway gags, sometimes from these near-extras.

But the secret sauce is the Very Special Guest Star whose participation has apparently been a big meme on the parts of the Internet I don't notice and is given away at the end of the trailer, which is why it's not included here. (Same as with The Perfection. Stop it, Netflix!) If you somehow have missed the surprise, DON'T LOOK AT ANYTHING ELSE IF YOU PLAN ON WATCHING ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE! Especially IMDB in iPad which lists them first! The surprise is worth it, especially with the performance they deliver. (If you've heard about it and wondered if it's all that, it is.)

Some are making a big deal about almost completely non-gringo cast, but ignore that divisive crap. Just as Crazy Rich Asians was only different because of its cast, setting and economic bracket, not its core story, same goes for Always Be My Maybe. With only the most superficial of changes, this could've been made with white, black or Martian casts.

Score: 7/10. Worth watching on Netflix.

"The Perfection" Review

My girlfriend tipped me to check out The Perfection, one of Netflix's seemingly endless string of original releases. As she'd done a few years ago with Knock Knock, she'd warned me to not watch the trailer - she's not kidding; I usually put trailers at the bottom of these reviews, but this gives away so much and it's the thing that autoplays while you're scrolling in Netflix! - or any reviews, but to just watch it because it was short (90 mins) and entertaining.

OK, but same as with Knock Knock how do you review a movie where the surprises are the whole point especially when even warning that there are surprises ruins the surprise because you're always trying to figure out what the [heck] is going on? (see: watching any M. Night Shyamalan movie) Here goes nothing...

Allison Williams (Marnie from Girls; she'll always be Marnie) stars as Marnie Charlotte, a young woman whose mother has just died. After she leaves her mother's deathbed, she travels to Shanghai where we're somewhat clumsily told she used to be a cello prodigy, but had to leave her uber-elite music academy as a young teenager when her mother had a stroke a decade before and in caring for her, sacrificed her musical career. (No other family? No father?) She's been allowed by the school's headmaster, Anton (Steven Weber channeling Ron Rifkin) to come and help select a student for a scholarship to the school in Boston.

Literally looming (on billboards) over her is Lizzie (Logan Browning from Netflix's Dear White People), a cellist five years younger than Marnie who was coming into the academy as she was leaving and went on to a celebrated career and is the lead judge in the scholarship hunt. Marnie is tentative around her, but put at ease when Lizzie confesses to being a huge fangirl of hers and an inspiration to her playing. This rapidly sets them on a path of drinking, dancing and, of course, lesbian sex, because of course it does.

The morning after, a very hungover Lizzie prepares for a roughing-it trip into the interior of China as an adventure and invites Marnie along. However, it isn't long before her hangover seems to be taking a severe turn and her ill-feelings of intense thirst and nausea lead to the pair being tossed off the bus in the middle of nowhere where Lizzie begins exhibiting serious body horror symptoms. What is happening to her and what can she do about it?

And here is where the synopsis has to end about a third of the way into The Perfection's run time because this is where the twists and reveals begin. As mentioned above, I hate even knowing something is going to happen in a story because my mind goes into overdrive trying to guess what's coming, so I hate having to spoil the reader's ability to go in blindly, but as a critic one has to criticize as best as possible. (Again, I'm not kidding about not watching the trailer. They blow it all 50 seconds in.)

While I was genuinely intrigued as to which path the story was going to take in the build-up, after the Big Moment (which I called just ahead of confirmation) and subsequent revelation as to what really happened, I was able to anticipate pretty much most of the twists and turns, albeit not until right before they occurred as the drift became clear. The problem with this structure is that after repetition, it makes it even easier to spot the twists. Also, the last act, which is meant to be truly bonkers, gets so ludicrous that it got annoying and I say this as an avid Riverdale viewer.

Browning is the MVP here with some really heavy lifting done making what could've been a shrill or hysterical caricature grounded. Williams is doing that slightly chilly, overly-engaged-yet-aloof thing that was her stock in trade as Marnie and the temptress in Get Out, but it works.

Director/co-writer Richard Shepard's IMDB stretches back 30 years with a couple of "I've heard of, but not seen that" titles, a dozen episodes of Girls (thus Marnie), and his feature debut was The Linguini Incident, a 1991 trivia answer starring Rosanna Arquette and David Bowie. (I'm not sure how he keeps getting work considering his movies make squat, but someone likes him.) Assisted by some snappy editing by David Dean, Shepard's storytelling is initial engaging, but somehow manages to end up simultaneously going too far and nowhere near far enough. (As crazy as it gets, it should've both gone crazier AND reign it in a bit.)

Score: 5/10. Worth watching on Netflix.

Trailer omitted because it really is a spoilerific thing, but if you just gotta see it, go here.

"The Dirt" Review

/taps microphone

The Dirt is a better movie than Bohemian Rhapsody. FIGHT ME!

Based on the autobiography of Motley Crue of the same name, The Dirt dishes the, well, dirt on the notorious 1980s metal band known for hits like "Looks That Kill" and "Dr. Feelgood" when they weren't committing vehicular manslaughter (singer Vince Neill killed Hanoi Rocks member Razzle while drunk driving in 1984 and served a whopping couple of weeks in jail), dying of overdoses (bassist Nikki Sixx, twice), marrying Heather Locklear (that would be Tommy Lee), and countless other shenanigans.

Using a brisk pace and multi-POV structure which lets each member have the spotlight (though guitarist Mick Mars gets less time because he was more restrained in his antics), The Dirt manages to cover the band's formation, rise to superstardom and then the obligatory valleys of despair as drinking and drugging take their creative, interpersonal and health tolls.

Director Jeff Tremaine hasn't appeared to have done a serious narrative film before - his previous oeuvre is the Jackass features and Johnny Knoxville's actually sweet-tempered Bad Grandpa mockumentary - but his anarchic CV lends itself well to depicting the chaos of the band's party all the time lifestyle  (the sequence where Tommy Lee runs us through a typical day is a hoot) while managing to slow down for the dramatic parts like Sixx's $1000-a-day heroin habit and Neill's young daughter dying of cancer, something I'd never known about.

So why is The Dirt is a better movie than Bohemian Rhapsody? Because while it condenses a 430-page book down to a 110-minute movie - my Facebook feed was awash in book-to-movie comparisons by musician pals - and has to leave lots of stuff behind, it gets the important events correct in the right places in history. None of the baffling shuffling of the songs and events that Queen fans spotted in an instant (and too many excused) for no reason other than because reasons. Sure, it glosses over the past three decades and ignores that it's been 30 years since they had a memorable album - quick: how many albums did they release after Dr. Feelgood? (A: Four) - but how many bands really stayed artistically potent after much more than a decade? The accuracy slows the movie down as dying children and drug debilitation aren't peppy subjects, but it's non-fatal.

The performances are pretty solid especially Douglas Booth as Nikki Sixx and Colson Baker (a.k.a. rapper Machine Gun Kelly) as Tommy Lee. Tony Cavalero has a great cameo as Ozzy Osbourne, Rebekah Graf is a double-take worthy Locklear doppleganger, and I don't know who Katherine Neff is but her resemblance to ScarJo was unnerving. Nothing against his performance, but Game Of Thrones' Iwan Rheon (he was Ramsey Bolton, last seen getting his face eaten off by his dogs) distracted from his Mick Mars and Pete Davidson (label A&R weasel Tom Zutaut) just did Pete Davidson; he's not Jimmy Fallon in Almost Famous.

While book-readers may complain about this not being a miniseries with all the stories, for causal and more involved fans of Motley Crue, there's plenty enough dirt to be found in The Dirt. Want more? Go read the book, kids.

Score: 7.5/10. Watch it.

"Mortal Engines" Review

Despite splashing Peter Jackson's name all over the marketing to leverage his Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit fame though he wasn't the director (that would be Christian Rivers), Mortal Engines ended up one of 2018's biggest flops, grossing a meager $83M worldwide against a reported $100M budget plus whatever marketing costs were. Based on the first of a quartet of dystopian future YA novels, there won't be any sequels, that's for sure.

Set over 1000 years in the future (the way they disclose this detail is cute) after the 60-Minute War eradicated most of humanity, the remnants live on moving cities and villages eking a hardscrabble existence with a watch on the horizon for predator cities like the mountainous London which run down and scoop up smaller cities for their resources.

After one such ingestion, a masked girl, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar, me neither), sneaks a weapon through refugee intake and it just so happens London's de facto boss, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving, the only name actor in this movie), is there and she wants to kill him because backstory vendetta. She manages to stab him, but is stopped by a young man, Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan, also me neither and looks like Ian Somerhalder and Eddie Redmayne had a son) who attempts to apprehend her as she flees into the bowels of London. Before she drops down into a trash exhaust funnel, she explains to him that Valentine killed her mother and scarred her face, but when he tells Valentine what she said, he gets shoved down the chute himself.

Now on foot in the trenches torn up my London's massive treads, Tom learns from Hester all sorts of backstory and do you think perhaps these crazy kids may fall in love? Meanwhile, Valentine is building some superweapon up in St. Peter's Cathedral atop London with the intention of breaching the Shield Wall protecting what was China. (Gotta get that international box office bait these days.) Fighting from there is the Anti-Traction League including the wanted Anna Fang (Jihae Kim, who is so androgynous that I looked up whether she was transgender) who flies a wild airship.

While the story is adequate enough - it was adapted by Jackson and his LOTR co-writers - to make you care enough for the characters, what really held my attention throughout Mortal Engines was the eye-popping production and costume design and visual effects (check out the VFX breakdown reel below) which brought this somewhat ridiculous steampunk-cum-Hunger Games milleau to vibrant life. I'm genuinely surprised that none of these categories garnered Oscar nominations and I felt sorry for the armies of artists who poured their talents into environments that were barely glimpsed, but without the world would've been empty.

Visually exceptional, but merely OK otherwise, it's not a big surprise it didn't blow up the box office, but it's still worth watching in HD on a nice home theater.

Score: 7/10. Rent it on Blu-ray.

"Blurred Lines: Inside The Art World"

Most modern art is rubbish. Ever since post-modernism replaced the need for talent with a need to bamboozle, "art" is whatever a bunch of herd animals have been told it is by their grifter masters and does the saying about fools and their money ever apply here.

While the trailer (below) implies that Blurred Lines: Inside The Art World rips the lid off the uber-high dollar market with interviews with the biggest players on the artist, gallery, auction house and journalistic sides of the symbiotic scene, the end result is as superficial as the subject matter because no way are any of these people going to blow up the scam that has made them rich or influential in the first place.

When you see the paranoia about how much art is "worth" which overhangs the decisions underlying what works and how many artists create, what galleries and dealers showcase them, what they initially sell for, whether art fairs are good or bad because they allow the rabble to see things usually reserved for the oligarchs, etc. it makes the few ponderings whether all this money is a good thing for art as "ART" seem a passing concern since there's hella chedda to be made, yo.

Me, I'll stick to buying pieces from local artists that I find appeal to what I want on my wall; not what will impress shallow art snogs or what may be a good investment.

Score: 4/10. Skip it.

"Mission: Impossible 2" iTunes 4K Review

Note: In the run-up to Mission: Impossible - Fallout, I'm revisiting the entire series in spiffy 4K HDR. Reviews for MI1, MI2, MI3, MI-Ghost Protocol and MI-Rogue Nation at respective links.

In all rankings of the Mission: Impossible movie series, 2000's second installment - surprisingly named Mission: Impossible 2 - is known as "the bad one." How bad is it? The only things people really remember about it are Anthony Hopkins' pithy retort to Tom Cruise's objection that Thandie Newton lacked training to help them, "To sleep with a man? To lie? She's a woman. She's had all the training she needs," and this zinger:

Har-har. Earn that paycheck, Sir Anthony! It's also best remembered as the movie that made Hugh Jackman's career despite his not even appearing in it. (More on this later.)

It's hard to know where to begin with M:I2 because there's so little to discuss plot-wise. In the cold open, Dougray Scott, masquerading as Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt, tricks a scientist who trusts Hunt into giving him samples of a genetically-engineered supervirus called Chimera and its cure before killing him and crashing the airliner to cover his tracks. Then we're treated to some impressive footage of Cruise free-climbing, his being given his mission and then over a half-hour of Cruise recruiting (by shagging her) Newton in order to have her get back in bed with her ex-boyfriend Scott to find out what his plans for the disease are. There's masks, diving while firing two guns, lots of kung fu, flying birds (pigeons, not doves) and hijinks and it's all dull and noisy.

I'm not susceptible to the things that trigger the easily-triggered outrage mobs, but egads the plot is skeevy and gross. Newton is introduced as a capable thief (a weird touch), but then is immediately reduced to being a sexual prop. Scott is on to her; Cruise is supposedly in love with her despite her crashing into his Porsche in the dumbest flirting scene ever filmed; it's all just dopey despite Newton being quite cute.

But really loading things down is Scott's creepy and unimpressive turn as the villain. His motivations are thin beyond "get all back up in the ex's guts" and making money selling bottled plague - this was written by Chinatown's Robert Towne from a story by Star Trek TV series guys Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga?! - but it's Scott's glowering mien that really kills things. He's awful and it's mind-boggling to realize that he was originally cast as Wolverine for the original X-Men only losing the role when a serious injury sustained while filming MI2 forced producers to scramble for a replacement. (They "settled" for a lanky Broadway musical performer named Hugh Jackman who had only two virtually unseen Australian films made a year before on his resume. If you look closely, you'll notice Jackman isn't as jacked in some scenes as he is during the cage fight where Logan is introduced. This was due to his needing to bulk up while shooting and the makers put the fight scene at the end of the shooting schedule so he could have time to get swole.)

Legendary Hong Kong action director John Woo had already had a couple of American hits in the 1990s with Broken Arrow and the truly bugnuts Face/Off and many of his trademark stylistic flourishes are present and accounted for, but the contribute to the flabby feel of the film, like he's trying to pad out Towne's thin script.

As before, it's hard to really judge audio quality on the Apple TV 4K, but the Dolby Vision image is sharp and richly-colored, though skin tones look a tad hot (reddish). The HDR effects really pop in nighttime scenes as the deep contrast lends a lush patina to the image.

It would be six years before J.J. Abrams would step in and radically revamp the Mission: Impossible series, setting it on the path it would follow to greater artistic and commercial successes.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

"Mission: Impossible" iTunes 4K Review

In the run-up to the release of Mission: Impossible - Fallout - the sixth installment in the Tom Cruise-led series which has been running for 22 years(!) now - the previous five movies have been re-re-released on UHD/4K Blu-ray and digital formats. While I already own them all on regular Blu-ray, I was able to rebuy the whole series for $15 by buying cheap iTunes codes and the first one directly from iTunes for $5 (meaning, if you can do the math, I overpaid for this one).

Other than watching chunks of the last two installments while playing with home theater stuff, I haven't seen any of the movies all the way through since they were in theaters. Hearing that Fallout called back to the previous chapters, I'm going to try and watch all of them before see the new one and that means starting at the beginning with the 1996 Brian De Palma-directed Mission: Impossible.

The TV series' lead character, Jim Phelps, originally played by Peter Graves is portrayed by Jon Voight meaning Cruise is the newly-minted Ethan Hunt, part of Phelps squad which also includes Emilio Estevez. (I'd completely forgotten he was in it, albeit briefly. Other than the then-controversial twist which )

In Prague to intercept the McGuffin, a list of the cover identities of covert operatives, things go incredibly sideways leaving everyone but Hunt on the team dead and his bosses at the IMF suspecting he is the traitorous mole, forcing him to go on the run to root out the mole. Along the way he discovers not everyone previously thought dead is dead and the who-do-you-trust factor ramps up quickly.

For a series which is now know for the insane stunts Cruise performs himself like swinging off the world's tallest building or hanging off the side of an airplane in flight without bluescreen trickery, it's remarkable how small the scale of the first M:I film was. Other than the final set piece with the Chunnel bullet train and a helicopter tethered to it (which really suffers from dated VFX) and a great practical aquarium explosion, the most involved sequence is the much-parodied infiltration of CIA HQ which is nothing more than expert framing and editing, you know, the way movies used to thrill us before pixels by the megaton got cheap.

De Palma is in his usual Hitchcock-channeling form, giving David Koepp's and Robert Towne's pulpy genre script flair, especially when Phelps' wife (Emmanuelle Béart) seems to be moving instantly past her widowhood to seemingly flirting with Hunt. The cinematography De Palma regular Stephen H. Burum and editing by ace cutter Paul Hirsch (who amazingly only has TWO Oscar nominations and one win, for Star Wars) is lush and crisp. Cruise's Hunt is clearly greener than later chapters have portrayed and flashing back to a time when he was closer to Maverick than what he's doing now makes her performance seem a little cocky, but fine.

Currently the Apple TV 4K doesn't do high-quality audio well, but the Dolby Vision transfer looks good, albeit with some warmer skin tones than we're used to. Many movies nowadays desaturate colors in their grading to the point that anything with some primary color heft seems artificial, but even allowing for the throwback style De Palma was going for - seriously, this is one of her more "I WANT TO BE ALFRED HITCHCOCK!" movies on a CV filled with them - reds seem a tad hot. Checking reviews of the disc versions, I found middling scores, mostly for image softness which is misplaced because that's the look of anamorphic lenses and film, kids.

For a series that has grossed nearly $2.8B worldwide, it's interesting to revisit the Mission: Impossible series' somewhat modest beginnings when it has grown so much larger; perhaps not as far from its roots as the Fast & Furious franchise has (remember when that was about street racing?), but certainly in a higher-rent district.

Score: 7/10. Buy it for $5.

"Skyscraper" Review

Die Hard - Bruce Willis + The Rock - good villain + The Towering Inferno + great VFX = Skyscraper.

Any questions?

It's really that simple. 30 years after the seminal action classic that made Bruce Willis a star and spawned countless "Die Hard on a [fill in blank]" imitators set on a bus (Speed) or a plane (Passenger 57) or a battleship (Under Siege), the premise of a guy facing down an overwhelming threat gets rehashed with the Biggest Movie Star in the World (literally and figuratively) fighting to save his family in the world's tallest CGI building in Hong Kong (because China is where Hollyweird panders to these days) that's on fire!

Rock "The John" Dwayneson stars as security analyst hired to independently evaluate the safety and security of The Pearl, a 3500-foot-tall, 220-story megatower featuring state-of-the-art everything, self-powered by wind turbines, an indoor park and waterfall and a crazy virtual reality top level which makes no practical sense, but is obviously there for a climax ripped off from Orson Welle's The Lady from Shanghai. (It's not a spoiler when it's so clearly telegraphed by everything in the setup.) 

Things are looking fine except for the offsite control center inspection (because they didn't have room in a 220-story building for a control room?) and Rock and his former squadmate who set him up with the job are in transit when they're mugged in an attempt to steal the plot's biggest stupid thing, a tablet with Ultimate Total Control Over Everything in the building - let's call it the "iMcGuffinPad" - which will allow the bad guys to shut off the fire suppression systems and allow them to set the 96th floor on fire. Unfortunately, Rock's family (wife Neve Campbell, daughter McKenna Roberts, and son Noah Cottrell) are staying in a suite on the 98th floor and are trapped when the place goes up. Hijinks ensue.

Since it's clearly ripping off paying homage to Die Hard, you can't help but match up the categories to see how Skyscraper fundamentally doesn't get what made the former a classic. The biggest difference is in the respective stars: Willis was a schluby Everyman, a NYPD cop caught literally barefoot and outgunned who ended up a sweaty, dirty, bloody pulp by movie's end. The Rock is, well, The Rock, and he looks like an invulnerable superhero already, so they give him a salt-and-pepper beard and a missing leg to try and even the odds, but all the lumbering and getting beaten don't seem to hurt him much.

As for other comparisons, the villains suck even by lame action movie standards. Granted, Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber is one of the all-time great movie baddies, but several of the other gang members were also memorable like Alexander Gudanov's enraged blonde with the dope assault rifle and wise-cracking nerd Theo cackling, "And the quarterback is toast!" Skyscaper's hodge podge of villains aren't interesting or compelling, boiling down to the most generic descriptors like "Euro Baddie" and "Asian Ruby Rose" and the other McGuffin is so lame as to make the whole endeavor ludicrous.

Finally, despite being written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber - best known for comedies like Dodgeball and We're The Millers - it is weirdly lacking in sorely needed self-aware humor. Other than one moment when Rock is about to embark on a crazy set piece and mutters, "This is stupid," the script barely has anything which would elevate the material above rote meathead actioner level. Die Hard had John McClane constantly commenting on what was happening, speaking for the audience. For some reason Skyscraper decided that a missing leg was all the humanizing the Rock needed, wasting his ace comedic chops. Seriously, Dwayne Johnson is a greatly underestimated actor due to his massive physique, but look over his IMDB and the range of roles and note how he always seems to know what kind of movie he's making and delivers a precisely calibrated performance.

But while being derivative as all get out and inferior in almost every way, Skyscraper is still a decent popcorn muncher flick suitable for getting out of a hot summer day into an air-conditioned theater. The VFX of the tower and fire are quite convincing and the action set pieces, even when they're simply ridiculous and cribbed from other movies - the wind turbine scene is Galaxy Quest meets Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol - are clearly and effectively staged. They're fun enough, but it's disappointing that they couldn't spice up the script with a little fire, too.

Score: 7/10. Catch a matinee.

"Incredibles 2" Review

Pixar's sixth release, 2004's The Incredibles, was their last unqualified great movie. They followed it with the massive stumble that was Cars and their subsequent output has wildly varied in quality from uneven (Up, Ratatouille, WALL-E), overrated (Inside Out, Toy Story 3) to downright mediocre, unnecessary and awful (Cars sequels, Finding Dory, The Good Dinosaur, Monsters University). For some reason Pixar has lost its way in telling focused, coherent stories - I blame the tragic passing of story guy Joe Ranft in 2005 (note the date) which gutted their story sense - and this inability to focus ultimately turns Incredibles 2 into a case of "We waited 14 years for this?"

Picking up literally where the first movie ended with the Underminer's appearance, we witness the Parr family unsuccessfully attempt to thwart his bank heist and minimize destruction. While things would've been much worse without their intervention, it only reinforces the opinions that led to Supers being outlawed in the first place. Even worse, the debacle leads to the government department of Super Relocation to be shut down, meaning the Parrs, whose house was destroyed in the climax of the first film, only have two weeks left in the motel before they're on the street.

Fortunately, benefactors appear in the form of Winston and Evelyn Deavor (voiced by Bob Odenkirk in full Saul Goodman mode and Catherine Keener), siblings whose DEVTECH company they inherited from their deceased parents. She's the Steve Wozniak tech genius and he's the Steve Jobs salesman who has a scheme to bring Supers back to respectability by putting Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) out front in a campaign to restore respectability. This bruises Mr. Incredible's (Craig T. Nelson) macho ego, but he's got too long a track record of collateral damage in his heroics, so he's benched with Mr. Mom duty, watching the kids, including the multi-powered Jack-Jack, in a big Sixties Space Age-styled mansion loaned by the Deavors.

With Helen out of town on her mission tracking a villain named the Screenslaver, who can hypnotize people with a pattern on any display screen, the movie wanders from Bob bumbling as a caretaker (because men, amirite?), daughter Violet's (Sarah Vowell) boy troubles caused by her date's mind being erased Men In Black style, Dash's (Huck Milner) problems with new math, Jack-Jack's random power set, a new bunch of Supers recruited by the Deavors, and so forth.

Though only a few minutes longer than its predecessor, Incredibles 2 feels simultaneously padded out and overstuffed. I saw a review that described it as feeling like a compilation of plots from an Incredibles TV series and that's spot on. The disjointed story problems appear from the very first moment as we're introduced to the mind-wiped boy scene, then jumping back to the Underminer battle followed by the family being cut loose by the government and Bob's mentioning he may've seen Violet unmasked. Why not just have the mind-wipe scene after the boy is mentioned? It wouldn't change how subsequent details play out. When the inevitable twist appears, it's such a non-surprise as to be surprising how weak the reveal is and how little sense the Screenslaver's plan makes.

Equally problematic is the decision to make Bob a passive bystander to what's happening. In the first movie, he and Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) were sneaking out and listening to the police scanner for action. When recruited by Syndrome's assistant, he snuck off behind Helen's back to get a new supersuit and to get back into shape. Even though the events of this movie are only days after the first one's, he's got none of the old mojo and rapidly devolves into a sleep-deprived, emasculated mess. Frozone barely factors much either.

Brad Bird's track record took a savage bruising with the shockingly cynical flop Tomorrowland and one can't help wonder if the damage of that experience combined with being forced to slink back to sequelize so long afterwards - though it was 11, 12 and 13 years respectively between Monsters, Toy Story and Finding Nemo sequels - on top of Bird being 46 then and 60 now has led to the lackluster consistency of Incredibles 2.

On the plus side, the rendering of CGI has made the requisite leaps forward, the action scenes are all crisp and dynamic with great uses of power and the Jack-Jack stuff is a hoot, particularly his initial faceoff with a raccoon (really!), though anyone who saw the Jack-Jack Attack short on the first Incredibles DVD will experience deja vu.

Despite suspicions, I don't think the disappointing Incredibles 2 is as much a matter of Disney's alleged demands for social justice agendas to be inserted, but more like Bird's uninspired storytelling, muddled themes, and Pixar's general slumping into a lazy sequel factory. Joe Ranft, oh how we miss you!

Score: 6/10. Rent the Blu-ray.

"Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story" Review

Most people these days only know Hedy Lamarr from the running gag involving Harvey Korman's Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles. I knew her because a stunning vector drawing of her graced the cover of my CorelDraw 8 package in the late-1990s:

As a nerd, I was also aware of an even less-known fact about her: She was an inventor who came up with the underlying technology upon which most of modern wireless stuff like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi rests.

Her career as a Hollywood starlet, her tinkering endeavors, and generally sad life (she married six times, never seemingly happy) is recapped in Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, currently on Netflix. It traces her life as a precocious teenager born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Austria - the scandalous film Ecstasy, which featured her nude, followed her everywhere - to her coming to America ahead of WWII, her struggles being taken seriously due to being a stunning beauty (she's hot by modern standards) and eventually her invention during the war effort for which she was denied a fortune in royalties and struggled for money in her later years.

Interviews with her children and film historians are augmented by a 1990 phone interview she'd done at age 75 that had been forgotten for a quarter century. Remarkably candid, she doesn't blame anyone in particular for how her life went and it's to the filmmakers credit that they don't focus on the obvious sexism which probably lurked behind her inventions not being taken seriously. (Admit it, though: If someone like Nina Dobrev showed up today at the Pentagon with some radical weapon idea she'd invented with an avant garde musician - as Lamarr had - no one would take her seriously either.)

While it feels a bit elongated and sketchy at 90 minutes - it should've been a tight 60 minutes - it's still an interesting portrait of a woman whose legacy in science turned out to be more enduring than her time on the screen.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable. (Netflix has it now.)

"Ocean's 8" Review

An overheated topic in movies these days is the gender flip - retelling old stories with female casts (never replacing women with men, mind you) - which has piled culture war drama on top of the underlying creative laziness of Hollywood. While trying to appeal to the female audience with traditional boys movies has a reasonable business rationale, it has come with some nasty militant feminists undertones of "men need to learn that they are inferior and to be erased" and reflexive attacks upon anyone not toeing the PC line that these flipped movies are just wonderful, ascribing sexist and racist attitudes to the critics in the attempt to inoculate bad movies from criticism.

2016's Lady Ghostbusters debacle was a prime example as the film's trailers hinted at the impending disaster to come and rather than power through, the filmmakers and media enablers decided to attack the audience as sexist trolls who hate women and are just toxic masculinity patriarchy manbabies blah-blah-woof-woof. It's not that previously successful and talented actors and filmmakers made a bad movie; no, the audience was WRONG and must be punished for their refusal to appreciate the Empress's new dresses. The past months' rage over Star Wars: The Last Jedi where Star Wars fans have been deemed "toxic" and in need of purging have only further poisoned the atmosphere.

So into this fraught environment comes Ocean's 8, an all-female spinoff of the George Clooney-topped Ocean's 11-13 series helmed by Steven Soderbergh which came out in 2001, 2004, and 2007, respectively. Considering the movie started shooting in late-2016, it's been in the works long before the culture war was joined in earnest, so it's safer to presume that this was just a chance to see if gathering a bunch of likeable stars to engage in breezy capering and for the most part it delivers just enough on basic expectations to make it worthwhile.

Sandra Bullock stars as Debbie Ocean, Danny's sister, who opens the film being paroled from prison after nearly a six year stint after pledging to the parole board that she just wants to have a quiet normal life, work a job, pay her taxes. Right. In actuality she has been plotting a massive jewel heist in the form of a Cartier necklace with $150 million and in order to pull off her ridiculously convoluted plan, she has to recruit some old pals: Cate Blanchett (the sidekick/talent wrangler), Sarah Paulson (the fence whose suburban family thinks she's eBaying all the stuff in the garage), Mindy Kaling (jewlry expert), Rihanna (stoner hacker), Awkwafina (pickpocket), Helena Bonham Carter (washed-up fashion designer) tasked with dressing the mule and inadvertent #8 in the scheme, Anne Hathaway as a ditzy actress.

If there is a basic problem with Ocean's 8 it's that everything goes too smoothly and there is no obvious nemesis like Andy Garcia and Al Pacino served as in the Clooney-Pitt-Damon movies. A fellow with whom Bullock has a legitimate beef with is a secondary target in her scheme, but his being looped in requires the same stratospheric suspension of disbelief every other detail in the plot requires, if not more. EVERYTHING goes according to plan with every single player able to get to the precise position they need to be. There is a clairvoyant ability to know exactly where and how people will react and the few minor hiccups that occur are resolved in a manner that's super easy, barely an inconvenience.

Everyone performs well enough considering their sketchy characters, though Bullock seems too restrained and dour. Blanchett is clearly having a blast as she did in Thor Ragnarok, but the MVP is Hathaway who deftly does ditzy though ultimately turns out not as dumb as expected. Hey, if Clooney et al can get paid for sliding through a heist film, why not let the ladies have some?

There's a weirdly tacked-on feeling third (or fourth) act which I suppose was supposed to add some tension, but turns out to be almost another part of the plan based on the investigator's (James Corden) past encounters with the Ocean family, but by then we're in the outro portion of the film and who cares?

While inconsequential to the max and too slick for its own good at times, Ocean's 8 delivers fully on its modest expectations as long as you don't think too hard about it. If you like the cast, you'll like the movie, but it won't change your life.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

"Death Wish (2018)" Review

High on the list of examples of remakes/reboots/reimaginings no one really needed is this remake of the notorious 1974 Charles Bronson vehicle Death Wish. The original tapped into the very real nightmare of Seventies New York City - Taxi Driver is almost a documentary of what the city was like before Giuliani cleaned up the place -  and vigilantism seemed almost necessary to fight back the tide of crime and predators. But that was then and this is not then and 2018's Death Wish relocates the story from Manhattan to the Murder Capital of America, but does so in an uncompelling and illogical manner.

Bruce Willis stars as a Chicago ER surgeon married to Elisabeth Shue with a spunky daughter (Camila Morrone). Life is wonderful until a valet decides to snap a photo of their SUV's GPS system to get their home address because reasons, namely to send three masked thugs to the home to rob the place while wife and kid are there alone. Mom ends up dead and daughter ends up in a coma. Frustrated by the lack of progress in the case, Willis picks up a gun that conveniently falls out of a patient's clothes in the ER, trains himself to shoot, and then becomes the "Grim Reaper", a vigilante that captures the public's imagination. As the trailer and obviousness give away, he eventually hunts down the killers. The end.

While I loves me some good man-on-a-mission-to-kill-everyone-between-him-and-someone revenge flicks like the John Wick series and Denzel Washington's Man On Fire (haven't seen the new Equalizer movies yet), Death Wish simply doesn't have any energy to it, primarily due to yet another lazy, smirky performance from the clearly-hating-his-job-and-needing-to-retire Willis. He simply doesn't deliver the angst and rage someone in his position would be feeling. I couldn't help but look at Vincent D'onofrio, playing his slightly loserish brother, and imagine how he'd spark up the role properly.

I normally hate when critics review the movie they wish they'd seen instead of what was on the screen, but I'm making the exception to call out the basic setup of this movie. It just strains credibility that burglars would be conducting a home invasion and despite one goon creeping on the daughter, not explicitly sexually assaulting her. With the Chicago setting, wouldn't a more relevant version have focused on a lower or middle-class black family beset upon by the very real predators that have made the Windy City the current Murder City and the father's quest for justice in an environment where "no snitching" enables the criminals who terrorize everyone? (While Denzel is busy with his own murderthon franchise, there are plenty of other compelling options like Sterling K. Brown.)

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

"Thoroughbreds" Review

To get a feel for why a lot of people disbelieve movie critics, take a look at the quotes in the poster above. I know Heathers and American Psycho quite well and I also know wickedly funny and Thoroughbreds is none of the above. Oh, the trailer below is typical false advertising as well, implying a much more crackling movie.

Former besties Amanda (Olivia Cooke, she was Artemus in Ready Player One) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, she was the final girl in Split) are reunited under odd circumstances when the latter is hired to tutor the former in the mansion Lily lives in with her mother and a-hole stepfather. It takes some time to get enough crumbs to start assembling the cookie of these girls' pasts, but we eventually learn that Amanda is an emotionless sociopath who killed her horse in a botched attempt of euthanization and Lily was expelled from her previous elite private school for plagiarism.

As they drift along in what the movie imagines to be artsy hip storytelling, the focus settles on Lily's desire to kill her a-hole stepdad who, other than being a pretentious self-centered jerk, doesn't seem to be in dire need of offing. He's not physically beating her mother or putting the creepy moves on his cherry bomb step-daughter. His capital crime seems to be using the rowing machine too often. Yes, the travails of upper-crust youth these days.

They attempt to contract out the hit to a small-time drug dealer (Anton Yelchin in his final performance; he died two weeks after the film wrapped), but stuff nonsense hijinks TWISTY ENDING yawn.

The original stage play intentions of writer-director Cory Finley's thin script come through despite the slick ivory cinematography of Lyle Vincent. There is nothing relatable about the leads despite OK performances. They're a pair of pampered teens with rich white people problems which aren't really problems. (That they don't even bother mixing in boy troubles or some obligatory teen lesbian hints really shows how empty things are.)

I don't know where the ludicrous idea entered the heads of the critics who gave Thoroughbreds an 86% RT score came from - probably next door to where It Follows 95% score came from - but perhaps they should be put down for being lame as well.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

Oscars 2018 Livesnark

Another year, another wasted Sunday night as the Virtual Signalling Olympics for movie stars were a thing and I was on the case via my @DirkBelig Twitter account. Now for your dining and dancing pleasure here's what I had to say:
  • we go. Another year of the circle-jerking, virtue-signaling, Festival of Hypocrisy bka the as gazillionaires lecture us about income inequality and demand serf disarmament, then wanting us to see Murderdeathkill 3 at theaters this weekend.
  • First orange flag (signifying Hollyweird's desire that be repealed for the Normals, while they have private armed security because shut up) spotted on Lin-Manuel Miranda, famous for his musical about a Founding Father who wanted the People armed against his ilk.
  • Only took a whole two minutes for the first of surely many, many cheap shots at Trump at the . So edgy. Really going on on a limb, Jimmy.

    Looks like they're broadcasting from inside of Elizabeth Taylor's jewelry box.
  • 63 million people are being punched in the face repeatedly by Jimmy Kimmel's monologue. Show business is the only business that believes insulting the PAYING customers to preen for their elite pals has no downside. Idiots.

    Helen Mirren as Price Is Right model.  :)
  • Best Supporting Actor goes to Sam Rockwell. I would've voted for Richard Jenkins, but this is fine. (That Armie Hammer wasn't nominated is nuts.) Fun speech.
  • MOI (about Gal Gadot): That's a nice dress.

    MISSUS: She could wear a paper bag and look good.

    MOI: This is true.

    MISSUS: So could [Armie Hammer] for that matter.
  • Whomever is cutting these montages deserves some acclaim. The stage is pretty classy, too.

    Best Sound Editing goes to Dunkirk. [shrug]
  •  The Dee Rees (who should've been nominated instead of Greta Gerwig for Best Director) Walmart- advert was cute and an instant "give her a comic book movie" moment, but note the lack of a father because SocJus demands men be erased.
  • Irony is sending out two actors who LEGALLY immigrated to America to lecture the Normals watching the that they need to STFU about the invaders among them.

    Best Production Design is The Shape of Water. Acceptable choice.

    What is up with that guy's sleeves?
  • Was there a sale at Too Small Velvet Jacket Warehouse? Must have been judging from the suits the menfolk are wearing.

    Best Supporting Actress goes to Allison Janney to the surprise of no one. (I would've voted for her, too.) Nice speech opener and long w/o notes.
  • St. Vincent = HAWT!
  • Best Editing goes to Dunkirk. Spare me. The movie was pure confusion narratively. Baby Driver would've been my vote. Not sure why The Florida Project wasn't nominated here.
  • t would be wonderful if the audience they're about to surprise on the was filled with people who just got out of prison a few days ago.

    Note that most of the stars participating are those in blockbuster movies who know hating the fans is bad business.
  •  Just realized that the black envelopes with YUGE gold type are probably to make it really, really, REALLY difficult to hand the presenters the wrong category undetected since they're visible from the lobby. Or orbit.
  • Common - who won an Oscar for the dastardly "hands up, don't shoot" lie - is back with more agitprop. At least this year he's highly unlikely to be rewarded for these antics. Oh, look, all the white liberals are standing up as ordered at the
  • Unlike the Golden Globes, the are paying some lip service to all the raping that went on with the silence and complicity of half of that crowd. No sign of Rose McGowan, though. No love for #rosearmy
  • Best Adapted Screenplay goes to to Call Me By Your Name checking off the pink box with a career win for a long-lived veteran. (I would've voted for Mudbound, then The Disaster Artist.)

    Best Original goes to Get Out, which was my vote. Watch it twice to appreciate the skill.
  • FINALLY!!! Roger Deakins wins Best Cinematography! Darkest Hour, Mudbound and The Shape of Water were all very nice, but Blade Runner 2049 was good and this bloke has been overlooked by the for too long. Huzzah!
  • And for the 38th straight year the Academy fails to use Jim Carroll's "People Who Died" for the people who died segment. FAIL!!! So who will be the biggest snubs/overlooks this year?
  •  Best Director goes to Guillermo del Toro for Grinding Nemo, which I'd be cool with if it hadn't been damaged by his usual slide into graphic violence & sex when it's simply not necessary. His movies are always lovely, but never quite gel. Would've voted for Jordan Peele.
  • Best Actor goes to Gary Oldman. When I saw the first trailer for Darkest Hour, I said it should've been title "Gary Oldman's Getting An Oscar This Year, Dammit!" and it is well-deserved.

    From Sid Vicious to Zorg to Churchill. All together now: EVERYONE!!!!
  • Best Actress goes to Frances McDormand to the surprise of no one. Didn't care for Three Billboards because it rang false over and over as there were no repercussions, but she was good and I support this win. Terrible dress. Obnoxious speech. Finance quality.
  • Best Picture is Grinding Nemo, aka Amélie F*cks The Creature From The Black Lagoon. BZZZZTT!!! The correct answer was Get Out or Darkest Hour.

    Quick, name GdT's last film? Nope, not Pacific Rim, it was Crimson Peak. Really.

    I didn't care for most of this year's films.

"Black Panther" Review

Marvel continues its just-can't lose streak to 18-0 (I don't count the weaker entries like The Incredible Hulk or the first two Thor movies as losses; just not home runs) with Black Panther, a quite good movie which unfortunately has been hijacked by SJWs seeking to politicize everything.

Introduced in Captain America: Civil War, Chadwick Boseman continues his journey as T'Challa, who became King of the fictional African nation of Wakanda after his father, T'Chaka, was assassinated, also inheriting the mantle of the Black Panther, protector of the nation, clad in a vibranium - the mythical metal that makes Captain America's shield - cat suit. As explained in a prologue reminiscent of the storybook expository scene in Wonder Woman, a vibranium meteor landed on Africa and the metal's properties fueled Wankanda's rise as a technologically-advanced Utopia, which they have hidden from the outside worth with a shielding dome, cut off from the outside world.

The debate of Wakanda's place in the world and how it could help poorer African nations is forced when an American ex-SEAL, Erik Killmonger (a malevolent Michael B. Jordan), arrives and challenges T'Challa's claim to the throne. He wants to use Wakanda's tech and weapons to basically topple all the nations he feels are holding the African diaspora down and if you think that sounds a little (OK, a LOT) like a race war, I'm touching my nose. But we'll deal with the politics in a moment.

What's remarkable about Black Panther is how little like a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie it is. Other than Martin Freeman's CIA agent character also introduced in Civil War and Andy Serkis' Ulysses Klaue first/last seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron getting his arm cut off (the replacement is literally a blast, along with Serkis' no-CGI-covering-him performance), there are no hints of the Avengers, no drop-bys from Tony Stark. Instead it feels like a Shakespearean family tragedy with the ancient, deeply African tribalism and customs rubbing against the questions of how should a 22nd Century superpower masquerading as a poor 19th Century agrarian land interact with the 21st Century world.

With the usually overqualified casting (two Oscar winners, two Oscar nominees, and everyone else is excellent) that typifies Marvel's serious approach to funny book flicks, there is a weight to Black Panther that seems more like Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight movies than the recent laugh-a-minute Thor Ragnarok. Not that there aren't laughs or it's grimdark like the DC Murderverse slogs, but it's got a lot on it's mind, though more is implied than explicated; it really would've benefited from a tad more breathing room to debate its concept instead of just getting to the final climatic boss battles.

It's not a flawless masterpiece, however. Some of the CGI is surprising subpar and rubbery physics make fights look more like videogames or the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies. The performance are so solid (though Jordan's street-level American jars compared to the mellifluous African patois of the others) that you don't realize until later we could've stood for more details, especially about Lupita Nyong'o's spy life and Danai Gurira's badass general. Letitia Wright's Shuri, T'Challa's super-brainiac little sister, feels too young for her precociousness - and are there no other scientists or doctors working with her? - and she gets a couple of ignorant racist comments stuffed in her mouth.

Which leads to the part we really shouldn't have to discuss, the inevitable co-option and politicization of yet another piece of entertainment by forces seeking to keep resentment, grievance, division and polarization whipped up in order to advance their agendas. Just a couple months after Star Wars: The Last Jedi was buried in vapid "think pieces" bashing the male characters, screeching "girl power" and proclaiming "diversity" (read: "less white men, yay!"), we're now assaulted by Time magazine covers and a tsunami of commentary about how landmark it is for a black-led superhero movie is in the Era of Trump as if the Blade movies didn't happen 20 years ago and Will Smith wasn't the Biggest Movie Star In The World before passing his crown to Dwayne Johnson.

It's depressing to see a narrative of "black people are finally getting something in AmeriKKKa" being fomented when if that was the case, no one would be making a reportedly $200M budget film with a 98% black cast, black writers, designers and director, female cinematographer (who's white, but she's a lesbian, so her victim class card is punched, twice) which is on track to make over $200M in its opening weekend. Focusing on the skin color, genitalia and sexual behavior of the filmmakers is insulting, not empowering. Unless they're studying the IMDB, audiences doesn't know or care whether the crew behind the camera are black, white, straight, gay, male, female or a left-handed Amish panda with a limp, just whether the movie is good or bad. That the faces are different is just a footnote to anyone not obsessed with scorekeeping.

Black Panther's existence and success moots the premise of those seeking division over what should be another opportunity for ALL people to commune with escapist entertainment which also has thematic gravitas. What's ultimately ironic about the grievance mongers who share Killmonger's rage is that they seem to miss the fact he's the villain and his internalizing of victimhood is what leads to his inevitable downfall. It's T'Challa's pragmatic peace-seeking that is considered the ideal which leads to victory and peace.

So try and tune out the noise and just enjoy another excellent offering from Marvel. As an added bonus, we're not going to have to wait 2-3 years for more of the Wakanda folks; they're going to be back in Avengers: Infinity War in just three months. Can't wait.

Score: 8.75/10. Catch a matinee.

"Collide" Blu-ray Review

I needed a second title in order to get the 2/$5 deal at Family Video and with zero desire to own Assassin's Creed or several other lame flicks and my buddy not wanting anything, I decided to get Collide based off the review which said it wasn't original, but it was well done. The alternative was to spend an extra 50 cents and just buy the other title alone.

Thinking now I should've spent the 50 cents and saved the other $2 and 100 minutes of time.

Slick-looking with some impressive car crashes, Collide is a forgettable trifle about a pair of ex-pat Americans played by Nicholas Hoult and Felicity Jones (because there were no American actors available it appears) in Cologne, Germany. He left behind one-too-many stolen cars in America and we never really know why she's there. He's been driving for Ben Kingsley's drug trafficker - something she appears familiar with already - and she won't date that kind of guy, so he quits the life in order to get all up in her business and we're treated to a montage of them being pretty and in love. And they lived happily ever af....[record scratch SFX]

Nope! She's got failing kidneys that she neglected to mention to him during all the kissy times and as a foreigner of unspecified "status" in Germany, ineligible for that sweet socialized medicine or something. In order to get the cash needed to pay for her transplant, Hoult returns to Kingsley's service to execute a heist of a truck full of either money or drugs (they never made clear which phase of the operation they were hitting) being run by Kingsley's master, the outwardly-appearing totally legit Anthony Hopkins. Of course everything goes wrong (or does it?) and Hoult is on the run and Jones is Pauline being imperiled and so on. Vroom vroom ensues.

Collide is one of those utterly forgettable films which clearly took a lot of care to make yet leaves no impression. It's not that the beats are cribbed from a half-dozen other heist/caper/chase/whatever flicks but that it all feels so inconsequential. Hoult and Jones are pretty and chipper, but Hopkins has this look behind his eyes that he's slumming for the check like so many other former Oscar winners like Nicholas Cage and Robert De Niro have. Kingsley, on the other hand, is having a hammy blast as the Turkish gangster with the golden gun and weird sunglasses he never takes off; he may be slumming, but he's reveling.

The Blu-ray's transfer is clean and colorful and the DTS-Master HD audio track will seriously boom your room with LFE effects, though I had to keep riding the volume between the talking and the chasing. So annoying. There are no extras other than other trailers.

If it wasn't so inconsequential, Collide could've provided some mindless rainy day it's on cable fare, but it just doesn't hit as well as it could have.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

"Blade Runner: The Final Cut" Blu-ray Review

Six years after my original review - and only 25 months before the events depicted were to have occurred! - my questions about how off the mark the futurists were about 2019 remain valid.

Score: 10/10. Buy it!

"Who the F*ck is That Guy? The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago" Review

Stumbled over this on Netflix. Who the F*ck is That Guy? The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago is the oral history of Michael Alago, a poor gay Puerto Rican kid who lived in the Hasidic Jewish area of Brooklyn and parlayed his time as a club kid in 1970s New York City into influential booking gigs and eventually a career in A&R where notable signings included Metallica and White Zombie. He eventually befriended and guided Nina Simone's final album.

With tons of photos and testimonials from musicians from the bands he signed and championed, plus some odd inclusions like Cyndi Lauper and John Lydon, it's brisk and entertaining, but probably mostly of interest to music industry junkies who actually care about managers and promoters as much as the talent they push.

While the seeming incongruity of such a flamboyantly out person like Alago working with bands in a genre with a reputation of not being particularly friendly towards practitioners of that lifestyle is discussed, it's not belabored. There are the usual late-film detours into the downsides of lots of drinking, drugging and promiscuity, but it obviously works out as Alago is our tour guide through his life.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable. (Recommended for music biz nerds mostly.)

An interview with Alago and the film's director, Drew Stone.

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" Blu-ray Review

Rewatched in prep for seeing War For the Planet of the Apes. Original review here and is still valid.

Score: 9/10. Buy it.

"Independence Day: Resurgence" Blu-ray Review

For Independence Day, the missus and I watched last Independence Day's flop, Independence Day: Resurgence because with the neighborhood sounding like Beirut with all the fireworks in the 'hood, we weren't going to bother with something deep. Even by the standards of dumb Roland Emmerich destructo-porn, it looked bad; the reviews were rough; and the Cinema Sins and Honest Trailers seemed sufficient to kill any curiosity in the endeavor.

But we still watched it because I'd picked up a cheap ($2.50) Blu-ray and, yeah, it's pretty terrible. Emmerich has always been the reference point to show that for all his myriad faults, Michael Bay ain't Roland Emmerich, but even Emmerich seems to be phoning in his work here. The original Independence Day was no great shakes despite its cheesy Nineties success and star-making performance from Will Smith (who declined to be in this sequel, his character killed off and replaced by a son who must've gotten his non-charisma from Mom's side), but ID:R doesn't even seem to want to try. I'm not even going to bother recapping the dumb plot, trite conflicts and cheesy story; it's not worth it.

The visual effects occasionally benefit from 20 years of technological advances (just as Earth did after looting the crashed spaceships from the first movie), but a frequently quite cheap-looking as you can tell they shot on empty soundstages and composited in the backgrounds as badly as The Martian did quite well. As laughable as some of the "they survive this" scenes of destruction were in 2012 or San Andreas, it's just ludicrous here.

I didn't watch the extras, but the transfer is clean and the audio booming. There are better movies as movies to show off your home theater with. 

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

The "They like to get the landmarks" line which closes the trailer isn't in the final movie. Weak.

"Baby Driver" Review

I've seen everything Edgar Wright has made, but the trailers for Baby Driver didn't really feel like one of his movies; they felt like an oddly dark crime flick at odds with the usual levity his films had. (It didn't help that the title sounded like a kiddie picture like The Boss Baby.) The critics have spooged over it (98% RT score), but they always go crazy for anything that's not a sequel and Wright has been the Wronged Auteur after putting in 8 years developing Ant-Man only to leave the project over "creative differences" with Marvel. I went into the show with mixed impressions and, unfortunately, the movie lived down to my expectations. (Though the missus thought it was awesome.)

Ansel Elgort (I remember when Hollywood imposed better names on their performers) plays Baby, a getaway driver (see how that works?) for Kevin Spacey's crime boss whose car with a trunk full of valuable MacGuffins he stole thus obliging him to work off the debt by being the wheelman for heists Spacey masterminds. He's almost paid up and his just One More Job to work before he's free.

He's made the acquaintance of a pretty waitress (Lily James from the live-action Cinderella, looking like a young Madchen Amick) and is smitten with her, but this being a gangster movie, that One Last Job rapidly turns into a You Didn't Think You Were Going To Just Walk Away From This Life, Did You? and with the arrival of a scary new shooter named Bats (Jamie Foxx, actually acting for a change), the stakes are raised to the roof with deadly results.

While the car chases and gunfights are snappily shot and edited to the hipster-bait soundtrack with gun blasts in time with the rhythm (a thing first noted in the terrific Suicide Squad trailer and aped by so many other trailers now), there is an inescapable thinness to the plot and characters. We know nothing about James' character other than she's pretty and sweet and Baby is nearly a cipher; what was he going to do if Spacey had let him go? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ When things get really dark in the last act, it's just too mean and gritty and less fun, despite being flashily executed.

I attribute these failings to Wright having sole authorship of the script. His "Cornetto Trilogy" (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World's End) were all co-written with Simon Pegg and the sublime Scott Pilgrim vs. the World had a co-writer and source material. Without the leavening of another voice, he's sort of exposed as more of a sharp director. There's no shame in that, but it unbalances the mix. There are some big laughs - a bit involving sunglasses is hilarious - and the performances are solid, but it just didn't  work well enough for me. It's not a complete wreck; more of a parking lot fender bender.

Score: 6/10. Rent it.

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