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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Men in Black: International, the fourth film in the MIB franchise, is the second-worst of the group, after Men in Black II. The original and Men in Black 3 were good; International, meanwhile, is a wasted opportunity—an admirable attempt to restart things that doesn’t hit all its marks.

Replacing Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin are Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, as agents H and M. H is the bold, brash, super-hot dude of MIB; he saved the world years ago, with Agent High T (Liam Neeson) of the London MIB branch, from an evil alien force called the Hive.

M is the latest recruit, having found MIB’s secret headquarters after years of searching. As a child, M witnessed an alien encounter (and saw her parents getting their minds erased), starting a curiosity fire that doesn’t get put out until Agent O (Emma Thompson) gives her a chance to basically save the world as a probationary agent.

Tessa Thompson is great in anything she does, and she is great here. She brings a fun energy to the role, with a slight wiseass edge. Hemsworth is a performer who seems to like himself a little too much, yet he still manages to be likable. The two make a good pair, as they did in Thor: Ragnarok.

While it is fun to see Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson onscreen together again, the screenplay they’re following is a bit baffling. Matt Holloway and Art Marcum, two of the many writers on the original Iron Man, take a hack at sending the duo on a global adventure. The globetrotting, which includes Paris, Italy and Marrakesh, lacks a true sense of purpose—which is surprising, since the characters are trying to save the world.

After a fairly strong start, the action, presented by director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton), devolves into sloppy boredom. With each passing location, it seems as if the movie is directionless, merely picking new locales and switching up the scenery to disguise the fact that it is actually going nowhere.

A “mole in MIB” subplot doesn’t help matters much, with villain’s identity being ultra-guessable. A finale in Paris (after opening in Paris) offers few surprises and no thrills. The movie ends with a big old “Huh?”

The special effects are pretty good, with a few new aliens, most notably a little one named Pawny (the voice of Kumail Nanjiani), adding sporadic fun. I also got a kick out of a mini-alien posing as a beard on some dude’s face.

F. Gary Gray has another sequel on his resume, that being the lousy Be Cool, a sequel to Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty. Sonnenfeld, of course, directed the other three MIB films. Conclusion: F. Gary Gray needs to cease and desist directing sequels to Barry Sonnenfeld films.

This project was originally supposed to be a crossover with the Jonah Hill 21 Jump Street franchise. I’m guessing Warner Bros. soured on the notion of turning MIB into a joke, figuring they could reboot and regenerate revenue on the franchise while staying within its own established universe. Given Gray’s failed film, they figured wrong. No doubt: A Men In Black comedy with Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill would’ve been automatic box-office gold. This one is a dud.

The Godzilla film sort of sucked. The X-Men are bombing … and now this. This summer-movie season so far has been a cruel, unforgiving place for big movie franchises.

Men in Black: International is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

Cold Pursuit stars Liam Neeson in yet another revenge film, this time set in the snowy Rocky Mountains.

There’s some impressive scenery … and that’s about the best thing I can say about this one.

It’s not good when the best parts of a murder-mystery are shots of a snow plow cutting through large quantities of white stuff. That, oddly enough, is a beautiful thing to watch, and had me wishing this were a documentary about a guy trying to keep a mountain pass clear in the winter rather than another Fargo rip-off.

Neeson plays Nels Coxman, and, yes, the film contains plenty of jokes about that last name. Nels has just won a Citizen of the Year award for keeping the roads clear—just in time for his son, Kyle (Micheál Richardson), to be killed by a forced heroin overdose. Turns out Kyle interfered in some drug-dealings with a major dealer nicknamed Viking (Tom Bateman) and got put in a fatal predicament meant to look like an addict’s accident.

Nels knows better and seeks out answers. When he starts getting them, he kills off those responsible, one by one, until the path leads to Viking. When he gets there, the plan involves Viking’s young son. (“You took my son’s life. … You have a son. … HE’S GOING TO BE TAKEN!”)

This is a remake of the 2014 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance, which had Stellan Skarsgard in the Neeson role, and also had the same director, Hans Petter Moland. Moland straight up repeats much of what happened in his original film, shooting many of the scenarios identically. There’s no reason for this remake to exist, other than cashing in on Neeson’s name.

By the way, Skarsgard’s last name in the original was Dickman. Get it? Dickman becomes a Coxman? Give me a break.

In the original, the drug lord’s misinterpretation of what’s going on leads to a turf war between Norwegians and Serbians. This time out, the misbegotten turf war is between some typical American assholes and guys from a nearby Native American reservation. Oh, hey, I just figured out that the character named Viking is an ode to the original Norwegian film. There you have it—another lame change posing as clever.

Laura Dern shows up as Nels’ wife and Kyle’s mom, but her paycheck apparently wasn’t all that sizable, so she bolts from the film fairly early. Emmy Rossum is given the role of the only police officer on the force trying to make a go at solving what’s going on. That, mixed with the frozen tundra and the attempts at dark humor, gives the film that feeling of a Fargo rip-off.

As for Neeson, this is a role he’s played many times before. He’s picking his roles slightly better than, say, Bruce Willis, but he’s definitely allowed himself to get typecast at this point. His small role in last year’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was his best work since his other frozen tundra actioner, The Grey. Actually, if you have a hankering for Neeson running around in the snow, and have never seen The Grey, get on it. That one is a classic.

If there’s a stand-out performance in Cold Pursuit, it’s probably Bateman as Viking. He’s the only one who seems to understand that it’s supposed to be a little funny and outlandish. His compulsive tweaking of his son’s diet, and his strange take on bullying, make him a nightmare dad—but a pretty funny bad guy. He deserved a better movie.

If you must see a movie about a snow-plow driver killing a bunch of people, Charles Bronson-style, watch the original. (Hey, Bruno Ganz is in it!) As far as a snow-plow-driver-killer movies go, Cold Pursuit is boring ride.

Cold Pursuit is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Writer-director Steve McQueen follows up his Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave with Widows, an above-average thriller made very watchable thanks to a terrific performance by Viola Davis.

Davis plays Veronica, the wife of lifetime criminal Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). When Harry meets an untimely end, he leaves behind a nasty debt—and some nasty people want it paid back. Veronica hatches a plan to pull a heist, and she looks to the wives of Harry’s also-dead gang mates to help her out.

Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki are good as the other widows, while Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell steal scenes as father-and-son politicians. The plot is fairly standard, and you’ll see some of the “big twists” coming a mile away. That doesn’t keep the movie from being a sufficiently stylized, serviceable thriller that gives Davis her best vehicle in years.

Widows also costars Lukas Haas as a mysterious boyfriend, Daniel Kaluuya as a scary henchman and Carrie Coon in a throwaway role. This is not the sort of greatness one hopes for from McQueen, but it’s no mishap: It’s a good movie from a very good director.

Widows is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Netflix is becoming a haven for the very best directors. Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma will debut on the streaming service on Dec. 14 after a very brief theatrical run. Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Paul Greengrass, Guillermo del Toro and Steven Soderbergh all have had, or will have, projects with Netflix.

The true stunner is that Joel and Ethan Coen also teamed up with Netflix for their latest, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The film is a six-part Western anthology that fits snugly in their repertoire, which includes No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Barton Fink and Raising Arizona. The movie’s arrival on Netflix, after a one-week theatrical run, establishes Netflix as a true original-film force.

The film opens with a story about the title character (played by Tim Blake Nelson), a singing cowboy who is frighteningly adept with his gun, casually killing many in the segment’s few minutes. The musical ending tells us we are in true Coen territory—where weird, beautiful things can happen.

The other shorts involve an unlucky bank robber (James Franco), a sad and greedy show-runner (Liam Neeson), a wily prospector (Tom Waits), an unfortunate cross-country traveler (Zoe Kazan) and a creepy stagecoach. All of the segments are good enough that they could be expanded into stand-alone films, and all of them successfully convey the overall theme—that the old West was a tricky, dark place.

For any Coen fans concerned that this represents anything less than their usual brilliance because it’s a streaming/TV affair: Fret not. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will go down as one of the year’s best movies, as their films often do. It’s also a nice companion piece to their other fine Western, their remake of True Grit.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Martin Scorsese’s Silence, aka How to Torture a Jesuit Priest Until He Says “Ah, Screw It!” and Looks for Another Gig, is the auteur’s most inconsistent offering since his misguided and sloppy Casino.

It’s clear that Scorsese poured his heart into this passion project, which makes it even more disappointing that it doesn’t live up to his usual standards. The movie is far too long (2 hours and 41 minutes!), and repetitive and boring to the point where it becomes laughable rather than having the desired effect of moving the viewer. Based on the Shusaku Endo book, Silence is a project Scorsese has been trying to mount since the ’80s—and it winds up being nothing but a waste of a great director’s time.

Two Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and Garrpe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver), head to Japan in search of their mentor priest, Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Ferreira went missing during a mission years ago, and is rumored to have gone into hiding as a civilian with a wife. The whole setup feels a bit like Apocalypse Now, minus the excitement, capable storytelling and Fat Brando.

After the two priests split up, the film basically becomes a series of scenes in which Rodrigues witnesses Japanese Christians being tortured by samurais trying to cleanse the country of Christianity. He watches men and women getting drowned, hung upside down, beheaded, etc. To Scorsese’s credit, the violence, while horrifying, is never gratuitous.

Garfield’s character is essentially a Christ figure reminiscent of Willem DaFoe in The Last Temptation of Christ. He’s being followed around by what amounts to the film’s Judas, a guide named Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka). Kichijiro screws Rodrigues over repeatedly, constantly asking for confession, and even getting paid in silver at one point. His actions almost feel like a running gag.

The film does get better in its final act, when Rodrigues finally crosses paths with Ferreira. Neeson is so good that you’ll wish he had shown up a little sooner. As for Garfield, for every scene where he’s powerful, there are others where he’s overwrought and feels slightly miscast. Driver is excellent; the film might’ve benefited from him and Garfield switching roles.

The movie does feature some typically great Scorsese flourishes. A scene in which three men are tied to crosses in the ocean, continuously being pummeled by waves, is an absolute marvel. Rodrigues’ interrogation at the hands of an evil feudal Samurai governor (a creepy Issey Ogata) is mesmerizing. Had Scorsese and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker taken a pair of scissors to the film and made it no longer than two hours, it might’ve done the movie a big favor. (I will sit through a five-hour movie if it is well done. This isn’t.) The sound and camerawork, as with all Scorsese films, are exemplary.

Coupled with Steven Spielberg’s The BFG, Silence represents the second movie that was technically released in 2016 by one of my very favorite directors to disappoint. It’s just another reason to hate 2016.

I didn’t like Silence, but I feel like I should have and could have; there were a lot of things in the movie I did enjoy. Scorsese just needed to rein himself in on this one.

Silence is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

This is a well-meaning movie with good heart—but it was better when it was called The Iron Giant.

J.A. Bayona’s film based on the Patrick Ness book tells the tale of Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a young boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying. Conor is, understandably, having issues—not just with the impending loss of his mother, but with bullies at school and a domineering grandma (Sigourney Weaver) he doesn’t quite understand. When things come to a boil, a tree monster (the voice of Liam Neeson) shows up to offer guidance and tough love.

MacDougall gives a respectable performance, as do Jones and Weaver, but the film never really works. The relationship between the boy and the imaginative monster does not make much sense, so the human interactions wind up being far more interesting. Problem is, this movie is called A Monster Calls, and much of the film leans on the effectiveness of the monster scenes. There are moments where everything jells—but it never lasts.

For the most part, the movie feels disjointed, uneven and too similar to films that have come before it. It doesn’t earn the tears it wants you to shed at the end. It’s just kind of manipulative and weird

A Monster Calls is now playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342).

Published in Reviews

Liam Neeson plays a former policeman and recovering alcoholic in director Scott Frank’s sometimes-interesting, always-unpleasant serial-killer drama, A Walk Among the Tombstones.

Neeson’s Matt Scudder, after accidentally killing a civilian during a shootout, has gone rogue. Eight years have passed, and while he’s quit drinking, he’s doing some pretty unsavory jobs as a private investigator. He gets pulled into the world of a drug-dealer after his wife has been kidnapped, and a lot of bad, bad things start happening.

Neeson is very good in the film, but the script, written by Frank and based on the novel by Lawrence Block, has too many cardboard characters. Worst of all is a homeless kid/sidekick (played by Astro), a character who makes no sense and is completely out of place. There’s also the strung-out heroin addict, the whispery-voiced abductor of women, and the creepy guy who tends the cemetery and keeps pigeons on the roof … and who knows something.

I liked Neeson here, and I wouldn’t mind seeing the character again. Hopefully, the next film with this character (if there is one) gets the fat trimmed.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

It’s been 10 years since writer-director Paul Haggis, quite surprisingly, won some Oscars for his Crash, a fine but overrated movie. That film had a bunch of storylines woven together, and offered good actors decent showcases. It also seemed to be setting the stage for a promising directorial career.

However, Haggis did not capitalize on his Oscar triumph. Since then, he’s made a very good movie that nobody saw in the U.S. (the Tommy Lee Jones-helmed In the Valley of Elah) and a so-so, tepid thriller (Russell Crowe’s The Next Three Days). Otherwise, he’s generally fallen off the radar.

His latest film, the ambitious Third Person, won’t do much to change that. It’s a respectable but divisive effort that will confound a lot of viewers, much like Cameron Crowe’s complex and unjustly maligned Vanilla Sky did. It tries to do a lot—and it doesn’t always succeed. Some will see Third Person as a train wreck; I see it as a flawed but reputable effort.

What we get is a puzzle movie with Michael (Liam Neeson), a struggling Pulitzer Prize-winning author, as its centerpiece. The once-prolific author can’t get on track with his latest novel as he struggles to produce words in a Paris hotel. His tempestuous lover, Anna (Olivia Wilde), comes to visit. The two have a strange, sadomasochistic relationship that will be explained later on.

Within the story of Michael and Anna, we get connected characters that I won’t reveal, because they are part of the puzzle. The film also gives us two other major plot threads: One involves Adrien Brody as Scott, some sort of fashion spy in Italy, getting involved in bad things with a troubled woman (Moran Atias). This plot thread proves to be the film’s least-interesting, although Brody is quite good. The other thread involves Julia (Mila Kunis), a disgraced former soap-opera star who is being barred from seeing her son. She’s accused of trying to harm him, and Rick (James Franco), the boy’s finger-painting father (yes, he’s a professional finger painter), believes she is guilty.

The locations change, in a somewhat confusing manner, between Paris, New York and Rome, with all of the characters connecting through unexplained misery or loss. The film clocks in at 137 minutes, and it frustrates at times, because it takes its sweet time revealing its ultimate purpose. However, that revelation is clever. I’m not going to say it ties the film together perfectly, but it does result in some clarity and qualifies as a decent twist.

Kunis—an actress who can range from absolutely terrible to pretty damned good—leans toward her better tendencies here. Yes, there are moments when she delivers a line or two as if she has no sense of what is going on. Conversely, she has moments, including her final big scene, in which she is absolutely dynamite.

After her endearing work in Drinking Buddies, Wilde continues to show she’s an actress with exceptional power. Anna is her most complex character yet—alternately mean and vulnerable, while being completely unpredictable.

Neeson proves again that he knows his way around a drama. Michael is seemingly a good man, but he has some ruthless capabilities; Neeson is astute at showing both sides of the coin. Franco, who is in half of the films being released this summer, delivers his most realized, sturdy work in years as a man struggling with his sense of obligation to his child and an unstable former lover.

I think Haggis has yet to deliver his best film; Third Person, while worth seeing, is definitely not it.

Third Person opens Friday, July 11, at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730).

Published in Reviews

Nothing cinematically sucks more than a comedy that makes you yawn.

A Million Ways to Die in the West is one of the summer movie season’s biggest bummers. Seth MacFarlane’s second feature directorial effort (after the breezy and hilarious Ted) is a lumbering enterprise. It’s not awful, and it does have its share of giggles, but it can’t be classified as anything close to a good movie. That’s a kick in the balls, because some slicker editing and a dial-back on the gross-out gags could’ve kept this thing closer to 90 minutes (instead of nearly two hours) and would have gotten rid of the moments that go too far.

Like Mel Brooks with the classic Blazing Saddles, MacFarlane tried to make a satirical Western that truly looks and feels like a Western. He gets the cinematography right, but his tempo is way off. While Blazing Saddles had the exuberance of a grand Western, MacFarlane’s dependence on comic violence and slow pacing feels like he’s trying to make something like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, but funny. It doesn’t work.

MacFarlane plays Albert, a snarky, ahead-of-his-time guy trying to survive in the great American West. He’s a sheep farmer, but he’s terrible at it; one of his animals constantly winds up on his roof. He’s always getting into trouble with his wise mouth, and his inability to stand up for himself in manly gunfights has earned the ire of his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried).

After getting dumped, Albert is determined to win Louise back. Enter newcomer Anna (a stunningly sweet Charlize Theron), who befriends Albert and tutors him in the ways of women. She also must show Albert how to shoot a gun after he challenges the evil Foy (Neil Patrick Harris)—Louise’s extravagantly mustachioed and arrogant new beau—to a gunfight.

Instead of going for something goofy with the relationship between Albert and Anna, MacFarlane tries to make their budding romance feel “real.” It is completely out of place in a movie like this. And, let’s face it: MacFarlane has his charms, but he doesn’t seem like a likely romantic partner for Theron. They look unintentionally funny together, like Peter Brady trying to kiss Marilyn Monroe.

Liam Neeson appears in the thankless role of Clinch, a resident killer and the husband of Anna (unbeknownst to Albert). Neeson sneers his way through his role with nothing funny to do, unless you regard the sight of him having a daisy shoved in his butt as funny.

A subplot involving a hooker (Sarah Silverman) and her virgin boyfriend (Giovanni Ribisi) is full of jokes too obvious and too old for them, although they try hard to rise above the material. (I did like the moment in which Ribisi referenced his deranged dance moves from Ted.)

MacFarlane drags out some gags way too long. For example, Neil Patrick Harris crapping in hats after ingesting laxative powder is kind of funny. However, we don’t need to see the results of an accident spill out of a hat. As for the violence, the first few deaths get laughs, but they grow tiresome, fast.

MacFarlane’s attempt to emulate Mel Brooks has fallen flat. He has Ted 2 on the boards as a producer. He should just go ahead and direct that film, and return to some familiar territory for recalibrating. If he were to, say, announce a Frankenstein or Robin Hood spoof in the near future, that would be a bad sign.

A Million Ways to Die in the West is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Liam Neeson is again a thinking-older-man action hero in Non-Stop—which is essentially Taken on a plane. This time, though, it’s an airplane being kidnapped as opposed to an overacting, obviously-not-a-teenager Maggie Grace being kidnapped.

While the Taken movies sort of stink, I enjoyed Non-Stop. It’s one of those trashy movies that you can’t help but like because all of its implausibility and overwrought performances combine into something strangely entertaining. There’s nothing wrong with well-done trash cinema.

We first see Nelson’s Bill Marks drinking an alcoholic beverage in an airport parking lot before he boards a plane. The opening passages slowly reveal what we already know from every commercial for this movie: Bill is an air marshal, and his plane … IS GOING TO BE TAKEN!

The twist: The hijacker, through text communications and various manipulations, will make it look like Bill is the one hijacking the plane.

The film has your basic assortment of terrorist suspects, from the seemingly sweet female seat neighbor (Julianne Moore, classing the place up) to the mysterious fellow (Scoot McNairy) who asks for a light before Bill boards the plane. There’s also a Muslim doctor, a grouchy New York cop, a computer programmer, suspicious flight attendants and so on. You get a gold star if you can figure out who is bad before the big reveal.

One twist after another hits; the movie goes beyond ridiculous and into some forgivable zone where you get the feeling it’s all being done with a big wink at the audience. The folks making this movie must’ve been aware that their thriller is completely nuts.

This is the second time Neeson has teamed up with director Jaume Collet-Serra, who helmed the also-ridiculous-but-far-less-fun Neeson vehicle Unknown, and the creepy Orphan. As he did with Orphan, Collet-Serra does a decent job keeping his audience off-balance when it comes to the mystery in Non-Stop.

The film has an overall feel of a ’70’s disaster flick, like Airport or, better yet, Airport ’77. (That would be the cinematic piece of awesomeness that saw a 747 sink in the ocean, with the plane staying intact and the survivors searching for options to reach the surface—eventually opting for really big balloons!)

There was a missed opportunity here: The producers should’ve thrown in a couple of disaster-film vets to augment the cheese factor. How much more fun could this have been with, say, Robert Hays (Airplane!), Robert Wagner (The Towering Inferno) and Richard Roundtree (Earthquake) occupying some seats? That would’ve been a sweet, daring way to acknowledge this film’s goofiness and obvious obligations to 1970s disaster epics.

Non-Stop is one of those movies that you will stop to watch if you are flipping through channels a few years from now. It won’t win any awards for smarts, but it will keep you riveted.

Unfortunately, there are plans for Taken 3—but only time will tell whether Bill Marks gets another air adventure. Let’s hope he does.

Non-Stop is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

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