Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

A grumpy Harrison Ford sporting a David Letterman beard stars alongside a CGI dog in this latest cinematic take on the Jack London classic The Call of the Wild.

The filmmakers went for a kid-friendly PG rating, so much of the novel’s violence, against humans and dogs alike, has been removed in favor of a more-family-friendly take—and the dumbing down of the original text might’ve been forgivable if some of the CGI animal antics weren’t so jarringly unrealistic.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m in no mood to see real dogs getting hit with clubs and pulling sleds across frozen tundra, but Buck the cartoon dog would’ve been far more suitable in a completely animated affair. It’s actually the humans who sometimes throw things out of whack: Neither the humans nor the CGI beasts look like they belong together. The scenes where it’s just humans sitting around, or a bunch of dogs fighting on their own, look OK.

Ford plays John Thornton, a character who showed up much deeper in the novel. In the novel, Thornton was one of the many men prospecting for gold; in director Chris Sanders’ film, Thornton is a grieving loner who has left his wife after the death of their son. He drinks a lot of booze, and when he joins forces with Buck, they discover a gold-filled river while just sort of passing through. They weren’t even really seeking it, and I, for one, don’t see why this change was made.

Buck, who will eventually lead a sled-pulling dog team, is a curious-enough technological creation. He doesn’t look bad; he just doesn’t look and act “real.” He’s smart in ways that are complete bullshit, including figuring out that booze is bad for John and stealing his bottles. Again, this is the stuff of cartoons, not live-action/cartoon mixes.

Another big change from the novel is the portrayal of Hal; he’s a negative presence in a small part of the novel, but a full-blown villain in the movie. As played by Dan Stevens—with a mustache-twirling spin—he’s a little over the top. Karen Gillan might’ve been fun as his spoiled sister, Mercedes, had she been given more than five minutes in the movie.

The Yukon scenery is breathtakingly shot by famed cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, so that’s a plus. While most things might look out of place in this movie, the outdoor scenery is never short of gorgeous.

Chewbacca was essentially a big walking dog, so who better than Ford to play a drunk guy who talks to his dog a lot? Ford narrates the movie with his huffy grumble, and his onscreen persona has surprising nuance. (He smiles sometimes!) He makes much of the movie watchable, at times even heartwarming … then Buck the dog bounces around like Scooby-Doo and kills the moment.

Because the violence has been toned down, I can give the movie a mild recommendation if you are looking to take the kids out for the night. Yes, this movie slips into that category of clumsy family fare that will please the kids and allow the parents to watch a movie comfortably knowing that nobody gets fully naked or rips somebody’s tongue out. Hey, it might even inspire a nice conversation on the ride home: “Say kids, alcohol is bad for you. … Don’t drink like grouchy Harrison Ford in that movie!” As straight-up adult viewing, with no kids, The Call of the Wild, however, doesn’t suffice.

The Call of the Wild is playing in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The Avengers team takes a swift kick to their (remarkably muscular) collective ass from a super-baddie named Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, the best blockbuster you will see at the movies this year.

While Marvel has been on a nice roll lately (Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, Captain America: Civil War), the last “Avengers” movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, was a misguided, boring dud. This third installment (the first of a two-parter, with the second being released next summer) lets it all hang out with a massive collection of characters and a true, scary sense of impending doom.

There are many, many storylines at play servicing so many superheroes and villains. Infinity War feels like the Magnolia of Marvel movies in that it takes all of those storylines and balances them in a cohesive, entertaining manner. The film is 2 1/2 hours long, but it’s never close to boring.

The balancing act is performed by directors Anthony and Joe Russo, the team that made Civil War such a winner. The magic of that film carries over into this one, which picks up directly after the end of Thor: Ragnarok. That film ended with Thor and his fellow Asgardians feeling somewhat triumphant despite losing their planet while defeating emo Cate Blanchett. A mid-credits scene saw their ship coming into direct contact with one owned by the mighty Thanos (Josh Brolin).

In one of the great motion-capture achievements, Brolin is the best of monsters—one who manages just enough of a sensitive side that he falls well short of stereotype. At one turn, he’s obliterating planets and torturing horrified people under his large feet. Then he’ll shed a tear that shows there’s a big, obviously misguided heart pumping in his Infinity Stone-seeking chest. He’s much more complicated than your average CGI character.

I won’t go into the whole Infinity Stone thing, other than to say they’ve played a part in many past Marvel films—and they all come together and show their purpose in this movie as Thanos adds them, one by one, to his Infinity Gauntlet. Each time he gets another, a palpable sense of dread builds.

The gang is pretty much all here, so it’s easier to tell you who doesn’t show up in this installment: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Ant Man (Paul Rudd) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) are nowhere to be seen, but Hawkeye, Ant Man and a newish Marvel superhero will play into the next chapter.

Robert Downey Jr. continues his magnificent trek as Tony Stark/Iron Man, who is trying to arrange a wedding and babies with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) when yet another apocalypse begins. Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/The Hulk) and Chris Hemsworth (Thor) continue their streak of weird humor after Ragnarok while Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America) continues to smolder after the events of Civil War. Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange) provides the sensible-guy arc, and has some of the movie’s best scenes with Stark.

Tom Holland continues his joyful portrayal of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and the Guardians of the Galaxy join the fray with a welcomed—and quite substantial—contribution, especially from Zoe Saldana (Gamora) and Karen Gillan (Nebula), estranged daughters of Thanos. Some of the best banter in the film happens whenever Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) encounters an Avenger trying to out-cool him.

There’s a lot at stake in this movie—perhaps too much for one film. That’s not necessarily a complaint, but a slight sense of overload and an abundance loose ends keep Avengers: Infinity War from being a masterpiece. Hey, maybe it’ll get an upgrade to “part of a masterpiece” next summer, when the next chapter plays out.

For now, get thee to a big screen, and be prepared to have your face melted with superhero/bad guy greatness. It’s dark; it’s funny; it’s thrilling; it’s action packed; it’s fantastically performed ... and it’s just Part 1.

Avengers: Infinity War is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

I was surprised as heck when Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, still doing relatively well at the box office, beat the new Star Wars movie to iTunes. Man, the significance of in-theater revenue dips with each passing second.

Well, I missed this in theaters, and I feel a relative amount of shame about that. As a critic, I should’ve raced out to see this box-office darling. Sometimes, I’m just a lazy asshole. Anyway, I’m not so lazy that I can’t click “download” and watch and stuff on my iTunes account, so I jumped into the latest from Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart as soon as the damned thing showed up as rentable.

I can see why people flocked to it. It’s a lot of fun, and much more enjoyable than the Robin Williams original, a movie I enjoyed, even though it was definitely flawed. In this one, a bunch of high school kids in detention wind up in a video game (instead of a board game). They become avatars that don’t necessarily represent their real-life personalities: The geek becomes the muscle-bound explorer (The Rock); the cheerleader becomes a middle-aged chubby guy (Jack Black, killing it); the jock becomes a scientist (Kevin Hart); and the introverted girl becomes a badass akin to Lara Kroft (Karen Gillan).

The results aren’t groundbreaking, but they are consistently enjoyable, especially in scenes dominated by Black and Gillan. Gillan has a scene in which she is forced to flirt that is one of the film’s best.

This was a big hit, so a sequel is certainly on the way. I’ll probably see that one in theaters.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is available via online sources including iTunes and, as well as on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Trippy Marvel fun continues with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a big, nutty, spiraling sequel that brings the fun—along with a lot of daddy issues.

Star-Lord, aka Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), had him some major mommy issues in the first movie; this time out, dad takes a turn at messing with his head. Dad comes in the form of Ego (Kurt Russell … yes!), who we see hanging out with Quill’s mom in the 1970s during the film’s prologue. (Both CGI and practical makeup were reportedly used to de-age Kurt Russell, and it looks great.)

After a killer opening-credits sequence that features a battle with a giant slug thing while Baby Groot dances to Electric Light Orchestra, the Guardians—Quill, Baby Groot (the voice of Vin Diesel), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (David Bautista) and Rocket (the voice of Bradley Cooper)—find themselves on another quest. They are quickly diverted to Ego’s planet, where Quill finds out more about his celestial origins.

Russell proves to be perfectly cast as Quill’s bombastic father, as Pratt possesses many of the legendary action film star’s alluring traits. Seeing them onscreen together—at one point playing catch with an energy ball Quill conjures with newfound powers—is one of the film’s great joys.

That scene also proves to be misleading, as writer-director James Gunn isn’t going to settle for an easy story about a wayward son reuniting with a dream dad. As it turns out, Ego makes Darth Vader look like Mike Brady as a father: Vol. 2 is as dark and nasty as it is silly and action-packed.

Quill’s daddy issues don’t end with Ego. Oh, no, that would be too easy. Gunn and his cast have come up with a story that is far more complicated than that of your average comic-book movie. Of course, there’s also the whole sibling-rivalry thing between Gamora and her twisted sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan). When these two fight, it goes way beyond kicking each other in the shins.

Another subplot—the film has quite a few—involves Michael Rooker’s disgraced Yondu looking for redemption. This storyline results in one of the greater surprises offered by the franchise so far. Rooker, an underrated actor, makes Yondu’s journey compelling.

All the story threads hold together well as the film ratchets up the action at a frantic pace that Gunn always manages to keep under control. The director has a way of going crazy with his visuals and pacing—yet making it all comprehensible and coherent.

Bautista, good in the first film, graduates to greatness here, providing most of the film’s big laughs. His newly minted relationship with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Ego’s travelling companion, and his frankness about her physical appearance make for one of the film’s great running gags.

Sylvester Stallone makes a brief appearance as a renegade thief; while he doesn’t share screen time with Russell, we’ll just go ahead and call this a Tango and Cash reunion.

A couple of years back, Yes album cover illustrator Roger Dean took James Cameron to court, claiming Avatar’s production designs looked a lot like his work. He might want to fire up the lawyer brigade again, because Ego’s planet looks like it was completely inspired by Dean’s paintings. Whenever there was a pan of the planet’s landscape, I had Yes’ “Starship Trooper” playing in my head.

While Yes doesn’t make the classic-rock soundtrack, songs like Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” and Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” do. Like its predecessor, Vol. 2 works as an ode to classic vinyl rock.

The Guardians will be back in another sequel, along with an appearance in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War, so the fun is just beginning. As always, stick around for the credits; there are scenes still to be had after the main movie is over.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is playing at theaters across the valley in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

The Circle is a clueless movie based on the novel by Dave Eggers, a lame attempt at satire regarding social networking and the invasion of privacy during this digital age.

The setup is certainly interesting—but the execution seems like something perpetuated by a 14 year-old student who waited until he or she was on the school bus to scribble out a paper on the perils of social networking, just before it was due.

After slaving away at a temp job, Mae Holland (Emma Watson) lands a gig at The Circle thanks to her friend Annie (Karen Gillan), a top player at the company. The Circle is essentially all of today’s ubiquitous tech entities—Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.—wrapped into one. It’s run by a friendly looking, coffee-cup-toting, Steve Jobs-like entity named Bailey (Tom Hanks) and his sidekick, Stenton (Patton Oswalt, aka TV’s Son of TV’s Frank on the new incarnation of Mystery Science Theater 3000).

Mae progresses from being a customer-service rep to being a big player in the company seemingly overnight—and let’s just say that ascension is a wee bit unconvincing. She starts as an apprehensive but competent newbie, who thinks some of what The Circle offers is a bit much and invasive, and suddenly becomes a full-on advocate and believer of what she’s peddling. How does Mae become a pawn in Bailey’s evil scramble for world digital domination? She has a kayaking mishap, and is saved because The Circle had a camera on a buoy in San Francisco Bay.

The film went through some major reshoots, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the kayaking sequence was pushed into the movie as a last-minute plot device. It also wouldn’t be surprising if the kayaking thing was in there from the start, because everything in this movie feels arbitrary and tacked-on.

Mae’s relationship with her friend Annie goes sour with very little warning and no real explanation, other than Annie is envious of Mae’s success. Annie is a pal in one frame, and then an adversary a few frames later. It feels like the movie is missing something with her character. The same thing goes with Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), a friend of Mae’s who takes a lot of flack after she posts a pic of the antler chandelier he made. That flack is mostly from animal activists, as well as, presumably, people who have good taste, because his work is ugly as hell.

Watson’s portrayal of Mae’s turmoil and opinion swings lacks dimension, wit and shock value. Much of this can be blamed on the screenplay, written by Eggers and director James Ponsoldt; it lacks the sort of insight and dark humor this sort of film needs. It’s also possible that the likable Watson lacks the talent to pull off a roll like this—one that requires her to be unlikable in many ways.

The film is clearly aiming for satire, but it has no bite, and its tone is often grating. Sequences like Mae’s interview and job-orientation sessions feel like they belong in another, less-reality-based movie. They are also horribly acted and staged.

This film’s level of stink is stunning, considering that it’s directed by Ponsoldt, who was on a roll after the 1-2-3 punch of Smashed, The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour. It’s also sad that this is the last film appearance for Bill Paxton, who plays Mae’s ill father. He’s a great actor who deserved a better sendoff than this miserable reunion with Hanks, his Apollo 13 co-star.

For those of you plunking down the bucks to see a Tom Hanks movie, know that he is only in a few scenes—and he, like Watson, looks lost.

The Circle is obnoxious, sloppy and full of aimless arguments that have no true conclusions. You know … it’s like most of your Facebook and Twitter news feeds.

The Circle is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

A crazy, killer mirror causes problems for a family portrayed by a mix of mediocre actors in Oculus, a horror film that offers a couple of creepy moments—that are surrounded by an incoherent mess.

Kaylie and Tim Russell (Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites) lost their mother, father, family dog and a bunch of houseplants in a strange incident that involved a mirror in their father’s home office. Their dad (Rory Cochrane) had started his own company, and was working out of that home office most of the time. His behavior got increasingly strange, much like that of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and much to the dismay of his wife, Marie (Katee Sackhoff).

The film starts off years after the deaths. Tim is leaving a mental-health facility after killing his suddenly insane father, and Kaylie is hatching a plan to “Kill the mirror!” that was in their dad’s office, determined to prove that both Tim’s actions and her dad’s strange behavior were the results of the mischievous mirror.

While we do see strange reflections in the mirror, ghostly apparitions with white eyes walking around the house, and people behaving strangely, it’s never apparent why all of this is happening. Kaylie’s research reveals that the mirror has been sucking up souls for centuries, but how and why? Who knows?

Kaylie and Tim return to their home and set up a bunch of Apple products in the room with the killer mirror. Kaylie makes a long-winded speech to the cameras to show that she has it all mapped out, and she’s going to get to the bottom of all this evil, dammit. It was somewhere during this speech that I started to not give a crap about anything she had to say.

Director and co-writer Mike Flanagan uses a lot of flashbacks to show what happened to the Russell family; it’s all quite disorientating and unnecessary. I will say that the two kids (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) are far more interesting than the adults playing the same characters. I found myself getting bummed out when the story would flash back to the irritating adult actors.

Sackhoff, who made a name for herself in TV extravaganzas such as Battlestar Galactica and 24, does decent work as the tortured mom. Her performance, as well as that of Basso as young Kaylie, are the film’s best.

The Most Annoying Award goes to Gillan, who delivers almost every line as the adult Kaylie with a snarky, “I told you so!” tone that grinds on the nerves. Thwaites is required to carry some of the film’s heavier moments—and he drops said heavier moments through the floor and straight into bad acting hell.

The film does score a couple of OK scares and gross-out moments, including one involving a light bulb that’s pretty hard to watch. The ghosts in the film—the ghosts of prior people the mirror has killed or sucked in or whatever—can be a little chilling, too. However, they occupy very little time in the film. There’s a sequence involving a Boston terrier in which the doggie just runs out the door, never to be seen again. As a Boston terrier owner, and major fan of that particular breed, I want to know what happened to that dog!

But as for the people in this movie, I could care less. Oculus leaves the door open for a sequel, but there’s no need for such a thing. No need at all.

Oculus is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews