CVIndependent

Mon07222019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Bob Grimm

Alligators get their due as nasty cinematic monsters with Crawl—the biggest surprise so far this summer regarding simply having a damn good time at the movies. It puts Godzilla: King of the Monsters to shame.

Southern Florida is getting walloped by a hurricane, and collegiate swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) hasn’t heard from her dad (Barry Pepper) as the storm grows into a Category 5. Despite foreboding radio warnings, Haley drives to her old family home in an attempt to locate her wayward father and put other family members’ minds at ease.

With the family dog tagging along (of course), Haley ventures into the basement/crawlspace, where dad is unconscious with a suspicious wound. We’re not too far into the movie when the alligator baddies are introduced—and these toothy demons are using the rising waters as an excuse to swim around and party on human flesh. From the first gator to the final frame, Crawl aims to kick your butt with all-out horror thrills—with plenty of hurricane terror mixed in for good measure.

The vast majority of the film takes place in the house, and huge credit goes to director Alexandre Aja and his production team for making the basement a fun place for people to get rolled by an alligator. The alligators, mostly CGI, are terrific beasties—entirely convincing whether above or below water.

Unlike Jaws, Aja doesn’t hide his monsters for most of the movie. Like Jaws, this movie isn’t afraid to show somebody kicking and screaming as they slide into the mouth of a predator, or get thrashed around with their screaming upper half above the water level as the monster savages them beneath. Aja, who also directed the wonderfully disgusting Piranha 3D and the well-done remake of The Hills Have Eyes, does gore well.

This movie has jump scares you don’t see coming. There’s one involving a tree that almost sent me through the movie-theater ceiling. The jump scare seems to be a lost art these days, but Aja and his editors have the timing down to where not a single fright moment feels cheap.

Scodelario (a fun name to type if ever there was one) and Pepper are great together. The moments when they stop in the middle of all the terror to discuss his shortcomings as a dad or her insecurities as an athlete are actually interesting and don’t spoil the action. But make no mistake: They are best while screaming, grunting, crying and freaking when their various limbs are inside the mouths of alligators.

Many great things can be said about the CGI gators—and the same goes for the special effects that created a realistic hurricane with flash-flooding conditions. The stormy skies look very real; Scodelario and Pepper get sufficiently soaked. They are the wettest acting pair since DiCaprio and Winslet in Titanic.

By the time it all ends, Aja and crew have left us spent. At 87 minutes, the length of the movie is perfect—I was exhausted and didn’t want to see anybody else get eaten. I suppose there is room for a sequel, but I’m hoping they leave well enough alone. I’ve hit my terrifying-alligator-movie quotient for this decade.

Oh, and to those who marketed this movie: When you have a movie this good, knock it off with the review embargoes. Word of mouth on this movie didn’t start to spread until the day it came out because critic screenings came late, and embargoes were being enforced. As a result, your opening box office sucked. Have faith that your movie is good!

Crawl is playing at theaters across the valley.

Teen Spirit is Max Minghella’s directorial debut—he also wrote the script—and the film is a bit on the hackneyed side as it tells the story of a young girl’s rise to fame as a singer via a televised talent show.

What makes it all rather watchable is Elle Fanning as that girl, giving the talented actress a nice opportunity to show off an impressive singing voice. Fanning belts out songs by Tegan and Sara, Annie Lennox and Sigrid with refined assurance, making one believe she might actually win a TV talent show if she chose to compete.

The story around those singing moments is a little weird as Violet (Fanning), a Polish girl living in England, enlists the help of a former Russian opera star (Zlatko Buric) to be her manager. She makes it through the ranks despite little confidence in herself. It all has a Flashdance feel, although Violet is a waitress and not a welder.

You will forgive the cookie-cutter plot each time Fanning takes the stage and sings her heart out. She’s the real deal.

Teen Spirit is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

After two feature-directing credits, it’s safe to declare writer-director Ari Aster a master of horror. Midsommar, the sophomore effort after his masterpiece Hereditary, is 2 1/2 hours of nerve-fraying terror, staged mostly in broad daylight—and it’s a thing of demented beauty.

Dani (Florence Pugh, who is dynamite) and Christian (Jack Reynor, who is excellent) are having relationship issues. Dani is super-dependent on Christian during a major time of need; her sister is constantly bombarding her with toxic emails. Christian halfheartedly provides what he tries to pass off as sage advice, but his heart isn’t in it—and he’s starting to think a break-up might make sense.

Tragedy then strikes Dani’s family, and it’s time for Christian to step up. His solution? Take Dani along on what was supposed to be a bro trip to Sweden for a traditional family summer festival. He sort of asks her to go; she sort of says yes; and before you know it, Dani is on a plane to Sweden with Christian and his friends.

Christian’s crew consists of Mark (the always-good Will Poulter), Josh (William Jackson Harper) and the resident Swede, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), the smiley-faced dude who suggested the trip. His family is at the core of the festival, and he can’t wait to show his pals their idea of a good time.

Shortly after arriving, Dani and friends ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms. The weirdness kicks in immediately—and the movie comes off as a really bad trip. Take note of the paintings on the walls throughout the film; they provide fun hints of the terrors to come. When two elderly members of the happy tribe show a sick form of commitment to the festival, it’s an act that would make reasonable people flee. However … Christian and Pelle are doing a thesis for school, so they write off the strange goings-on as “tribal” and stick around until the very end. Bad, bad call.

That end is a real scorcher, a final testament to lousy significant others. Pugh, so good in this year’s Fighting With My Family, makes a grand statement with this movie: She’s an acting force. She puts everything on the table, and it pays off in a performance that will surely be one of the year’s most memorable (as was Toni Collette’s lead performance in last year’s Hereditary). Chris Pratt-lookalike Reynor is a well-placed and sound counterpart, but this is Pugh’s show.

One of the pleasures of Midsommar is that it’s obvious where things are going. Lots of clues are put right in front of your face as the sun shines brightly. While the movie is a deliberately paced slow burn, the 2 1/2 hours go by pretty quickly. Aster never loses the sense of dread, so while you could call the movie predictable in some ways, it’s not anything resembling a letdown. It’s a movie that constantly delivers on the dread it promises in its every frame.

According to Aster, he was going through his own dark relationship issues when putting this film together. I feel very sorry for the person on the other side of that relationship. Aster’s dark soul runs very deep, and he’s a great writer. Some poor soul had their ass handed to them in the final email exchanges.

Midsommar stands as a nice companion piece to Hereditary. I see myself enduring a delightfully miserable double-feature in the near future and purposefully bumming myself out—because, you know, that’s why we watch horror films. Aster has a way of putting a lot of pain and nightmare fuel on the screen while somehow making it all very entertaining. As he did last year, he’s made one of 2019’s best films.

Midsommar is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Tom Holland cements his status as the best-ever Spider-Man in Spider-Man: Far From Home, the goofiest—but still quite fun—Spider-Man movie yet.

Jon Watts once again directs as Peter Parker tries to vacation with his friends in Europe after the events of Endgame. When a strange breed of elemental monsters start striking the planet, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) interrupts Peter’s sojourn and gets him back into the swing of things. Jake Gyllenhaal enters the shenanigans as Mysterio, a crime fighter from another dimension who slides right into the Tony Stark mentor role.

Holland is good fun as Spidey, giving the character a nice, youthful effervescence to go with Holland’s great comic timing. Zendaya rules as MJ; Jon Favreau gets a lot more screen time (a good thing) as Happy; but alas, the film doesn’t have nearly enough Marisa Tomei.

Far From Home is a bit lightheaded at times, but it’s the sort of breezy affair that the Marvel Universe needed to get things revved up again. Hopefully, this is just the beginning for Holland, and he has a bunch of these in his future—because he’s perfect in the role.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is now playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

The third season is the best yet for Netflix’s Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers’ 1980s throwback series.

Much of the action, including a showdown with the Mind Flayer monster from the Upside Down, takes place in the Starcourt Mall, a mighty authentic wonder of art direction. (Sam Goody and Ground Round make notable appearances.)

Of course, the Russians now play a prominent part as Hopper (David Harbour) tries to protect his adopted daughter, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), from the Reds, demons—and, most notoriously, her new boyfriend, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), who likes to kiss way too much. Steve (Joe Keery) has his best season yet, working in an ice cream store with new cast member and major standout Maya Hawke (daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) as his co-scooper.

The special effects this time around are top-notch, with more nice nods to John Carpenter, Stephen King and The Blob. Harbour gets a little goofier in this season, and it’s a lot of fun watching his Hopper trying to date Joyce (Winona Ryder).

The finale provides some major cliffhangers for the inevitable Season 4, which could actually wind up in a completely different series. It’s good to see the show make a comeback after a middling Season 2. It’s a total blast, and it features a nice ode to The Neverending Story.

The third season of Stranger Things is now streaming on Netflix.

If movies had faces, I would have wanted to punch Yesterday in its stupid, stupid face for nearly its entire running time. It takes an interesting premise—a world in which the music of the Beatles doesn’t exist—and totally squanders it.

Danny Boyle (127 Hours, 28 Days Later …) directs the story of Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a wannabe musician working part-time in a grocery store while also busking on street corners and playing small gigs with his trusty guitar. Jack’s burgeoning music career is managed by Ellie (Lily James), who is fostering a decades-old crush on Jack.

While riding his bike home from a gig, the world suffers some sort of momentary power loss, and Jack gets hit by a bus, knocking out a couple of teeth and sending him to the hospital. Just before his accident, Jack swore to end his music career—a good idea, because he totally sucks.

After the accident, Ellie and some friends give Jack a new guitar and suggest that he bust out a song for them. He goes with “Yesterday” by the Beatles—and the group is moved as if hearing the song for the first time. Well, that’s because they are hearing it for the first time. A quick Google check by Jack confirms the impossible: Somehow, Jack now lives in a parallel world where John, Paul, George and Ringo never came together to make music.

So what does Jack do? Why he plagiarizes the entire Beatles catalog, of course. He plasters notes with their songs all over his room, and starts re-creating their tracks. He struggles with the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby,” but he gets enough right to catch the eyes and ears of agents and producers everywhere. Jack doesn’t really seem like a rock star, but no matter: With the music of the Beatles propelling him, this kid is going places.

This act—stealing the music of the best group in rock history—is a grievous action, is it not? Only a true prick would steal music and try to pass it off as his own, right? Well, this is where the movie goes terribly wrong: Rather than exploring the dark side of plagiarism in a comedic way, Boyle’s movie begs you to love Jack, and to sympathize with him while he tries to figure out his romantic interest in Ellie. This results in a movie that is uncomfortable to watch, because Jack is nothing short of a total dick. Rather than crafting a film that seriously addresses a world without the Beatles, the movie becomes nothing but a lame rom-com. An opportunity for some mind-bending dark comedy becomes nothing but an exercise in whether he will kiss her or not.

The movie does take a stab at something profound with a special appearance by an historical figure late in the film. Beatles fans will cry blasphemy, because the movie simply doesn’t earn this moment. Furthermore, the moment is treated with a strange kind of casual bemusement that struck me as offensive. As for the appearance of Ed Sheeran … I was actually OK with a scene in which the pop star got put in his place because, you know, fuck that guy.

Movies that feature Beatles music can be a great thing. Beyond the films the actual Fab Four participated in, Across the Universe stands as a fine exercise on how to use Beatles music in the modern film era. In contrast, Yesterday is a vapid, unimaginative mess. It has no real reason to exist other than trying to find a way to roll out Beatles music for a new generation of moviegoers.

The film actually had me wincing at the sound of their music, given the film around it. You have to really screw up to make the Beatles boring.

Yesterday is playing at theaters across the valley.

Bob Dylan peaked, in my opinion, during that strange time in the mid-1970s when he hit the road with a traveling circus of his music/poetry friends, covered his face with white makeup and delivered some of the rawest, most-straightforward rocking performances of his career. Thankfully, that’s the focus of Rolling Thunder Revue on Netflix.

Martin Scorsese, for the second time, has made a documentary focusing on the musical icon, combining archive concert footage with interviews (most notably a new chat with Dylan himself) to tell the story of the most-interesting tour of the man’s career. Dylan had just finished touring stadiums with The Band, and wanted to play more-intimate venues. So he did, and he brought the likes of Joni Mitchell, Allen Ginsberg and Joan Baez along with him.

The concert footage shows Dylan focused, driving and sometimes very funny as he delivers new music along with his already-classic songbook. New songs like “Isis” and “Hurricane” destroy alongside transformed versions of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” While watching these concert moments, it becomes immediately clear that anybody who was present for the shows was witnessing vital music history.

The interviews flesh out the “story” in what amounts to another triumph for Scorsese, who has given himself a nice side gig doing rock documentaries.

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese is now streaming on Netflix.

Toy Story 3 seemed like a definitive end to the story of Woody (the voice of Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and company. That movie was, in a word, perfect in the way it tied up the story of Andy and his lifelong toy companions.

I’m someone who thought Toy Story 3 should’ve been the final chapter in the franchise. And I’m now someone who is fine with one more chapter, thanks to the totally satisfying Toy Story 4.

Pixar and director Josh Cooley (making his feature directorial debut with the studio’s most-precious franchise) chose to mess with perfection and extend the story of Woody and friends. The results are less than perfect, but still very worthy of Toy Story lore; this is a welcome breath of fresh air in a summer movie season that thus far has been a series of big franchise stink bombs (Godzilla: King of the Monsters; Men in Black: International; Dark Phoenix).

After a recap in which Andy appears, the action goes to the home of Bonnie, the little girl Andy handed his toys over to at the end of Toy Story 3. Bonnie is gearing up for kindergarten and is a little freaked out, so Woody jumps into her backpack as moral support.

Woody witnesses Bonnie creating what will be a fantastic new character for the franchise in Forky (Tony Hale), crafted out of a plastic spork, pipe cleaners and Play-Doh. Woody immediately sees the importance of this new toy friend, and has himself some new missions: Make sure Forky accepts his new role as a toy instead of trash, and help Bonnie adjust to the rigors of kindergarten.

Bonnie’s day at kindergarten was only an orientation session, and her parents decide to take her on that ever-familiar movie trope: the road trip—in the family RV, no less. The family gets diverted, and the toys wind up getting themselves into trouble at an antique shop inhabited by Gabby Gabby, a deceptively adorable talking doll (Christina Hendricks). Gabby, of course, seems friendly at first (just like Ned Beatty’s purple bear in Toy Story 3), but she has evil intentions regarding a part of Woody’s anatomy—and she has an army of ventriloquist dummies to carry out her plans. Toy Story 4 ends up being as scary as it is funny when the action involves the dummy army. Damn, they are creepy!

Along with Forky and Gabby Gabby, other newcomers include Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) and, most spectacularly, stunt motorcycle-rider Duke Caboom, voiced by cinematic darling Keanu Reeves. Caboom, obviously modeled after Evel Knievel, is having his own existential crisis—low self-esteem, due to his prior child owner not being impressed with his jumping abilities.

Woody’s sweetheart, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), gets a prominent role in the new adventure. Sadly, the budding romance between Jessie (Joan Cusack) and Buzz that we saw in Toy Story 3 is not further explored. In fact, Jessie and Buzz are relegated mostly to background duty.

It’s not surprising that Toy Story 4 is the most visually impressive of the films. The folks at Pixar have had nearly a decade to hone their skills since the last chapter, so the likes of Woody, Buzz and Jessie have a new, refined beauty.

The ending of Toy Story 4 will again have fans and critics proclaiming that this must be the end for the franchise. The film certainly feels like a closing chapter, but we all said that about the last movie. The premise is still ripe for spinoffs (a Duke Caboom movie!), prequels—whatever. Heck, maybe Disney will do a live-action remake of the original, since that seems to be the trend.

Toy Story 4 is now playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

I’m a big fan of anthology horror movies and TV shows. Creepshow stands as one of my all-time-favorite horror movies, so when I see another anthology horror film getting good buzz, I get excited.

Word had it that Nightmare Cinema was a blast … but alas, it totally blows.

Mickey Rourke plays the Projectionist, a purposeless dude screening horror films in an old, mystical theater. The premise for the short films in this movie has something to do with the main characters walking into the theater, sitting down and seeing their story. Each one of those stories—including a demon-possession tale, a crazy-mother story, a cabin-in-the-woods scenario and a kid who sees dead people—is lame, lame, lame.

There isn’t an original moment to be had. It should just be called Mickey Rourke Actually Gets a Job, because that’s the only shocking thing about it. Standard gore effects, terrible writing and lousy direction abound. Even Joe Dante, the man who made Gremlins, accomplishes next to nothing with his stupid short about an evil plastic surgeon.

Nightmare Cinema seems like a bunch of studios took a group of throwaway horror scripts, repurposed them as an anthology, and tried to pass them off as having some sort of binding theme. There’s no point in any of these shorts being in the same realm, and the whole Projectionist gimmick doesn’t work. Nightmare Cinema is a disjointed, sloppy mess.

Nightmare Cinema is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

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.

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