Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Sandra Bullock lends her supreme talents to a Netflix movie that’s become a media sensation—even though Bird Box features a bunch of overused horror gimmicks mashed into one, messy entity.

Malorie (Bullock) is a gloomy painter (they show Bullock only painting the black background to make it look authentic), going through the motions and dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. Her sister, Jessica (Sarah Paulson), takes Malorie to the doctor for a checkup—shortly after seeing a strange report on TV about masses of people killing themselves in Russia.

While visiting with the doc (Parminder Nagra), all hell starts to break loose in the hospital and, especially, on the streets. It appears as if people are seeing some sort of entity and deciding it’s far too much for them to handle, so they kill themselves in creative ways (stepping in front of buses, bashing their heads into windows, walking into fires, etc.). Malorie manages to navigate through a hellish urban landscape before winding up trapped in a house with a few others.

Up until this point, the film looks promising. The street-suicide scenes are genuinely scary, and flash-forward scenes show Malorie trying to find some sort of safe haven with two children while they all wears blindfolds to avoid seeing the killer vision. Those scenes work OK, although they are a play on last summer’s A Quiet Place, with characters prohibited from seeing rather than making noise.

Alas, the movie hits a total dead end once Malorie goes in that house. It’s pretty much the same scenario as that remake of Dawn of the Dead, right down to the pregnant women and shopping scenes.

John Malkovich is one of the house survivors, and he’s just doing a variation on his usual John Malkovich thing. After witnessing the death of his wife, he gets Malkovich angry, yelling at Malorie in that deliberate, pause between the words kind of way. (“You … are the reason … she … is dead!”) The average male would be curled up in a fetal position bawling his eyes out after witnessing such a thing, but Malkovich just gets pissed, Malkovich-style. I was laughing, and I’m quite sure that wasn’t the desired reaction from filmmaker Susanne Bier.

As for the other survivors, there’s a young punk, a female cop, another pregnant woman, an older mom type and a Malorie love interest. While Bullock is trading lines with most of these folks, it’s clear they are obviously outmatched, especially in some of the moments that seem more improvised. They shouldn’t be in the same room with Bullock, who is top-notch despite the hackneyed scripting.

The title of the film refers to a shoebox Malorie keeps birds in as a monster alarm. This makes no sense: It’s established that if you are outside, and you look, you will inevitably see “the monster” that will make you off yourself. Why put a bunch of birds through hell? There’s no escaping the monster, who inevitably shows up within seconds of you opening your eyes. A bird chirping is just incidental.

The scenes with Bullock and the children on the river, while not all that original, are nonetheless, riveting and tense. Much of this is due to the excellent child actors; their characters are simply named Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair) and Boy (Julian Edwards). The expressions they make while Malorie lectures them on how one stupid move could kill them are heartbreaking.

There is one thing totally amazing about Bird Box: BD Wong, who plays one of the house survivors, is 58 years old. The man looks like he’s 35! As for the movie itself, I credit Netflix for doing a great job of hyping it and Bullock for acting her ass off—even when the material drifts into dreck.

Bird Box is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

The little yellow things from Despicable Me now have their own film, Minions. Their banana shtick is fun for a while—but it’s not enough to sustain an entire feature film.

Things start out funny enough, with a brief history of the Minions since the beginning of time. They’ve always wanted to be henchmen, and they are attracted to bad guys. We meet a lot of their former, unlucky bosses (Dracula, T-Rex, Napoleon, etc.). They wind up settling up north, worshipping the abominable snowman, when three of them (Stuart, Kevin and Bob) decide to head out on a journey to look for a new master.

Their travels take them to New York in 1968—which happens to be the year of my birth, and arguably one of the worst years in American history. The pop-culture references when they first arrive, including a fantastic Richard Nixon billboard and The Dating Game, are well done. The movie has a cool Mad Magazine vibe going for it in its first half.

However, things start going off the rails when the three minions leave New York for Orlando, Fla., where they seek out the world’s greatest villainous, Scarlet Overkill (the voice of Sandra Bullock), at something akin to Comic-Con for villains. She has some cockamamie scheme for the minions to steal the queen of England’s crown, co they all travel to England—where things get even wackier.

Perhaps the best thing in the movie is the queen (Jennifer Saunders), who is portrayed as a happy-go-lucky goofball, and who remains good-natured even when she loses her crown and the throne to Overkill due to a technicality. In fact, the film lights up when the queen is in the room; it could’ve used more of her.

As for the Minions themselves, they get a little grating after the first 45 minutes. The banana joke is funny the first seven times or so, but it grows a little tired around the 1,756th time. They speak that strange Minions gibberish, and that, too, is funny for a little while, but trying to figure out what they are saying eventually gets a little exhausting. When I could figure out what they were sort of saying … well, it just wasn’t that funny.

By the time one of the Minions grows to the size of King Kong and terrorizes London, many adult eyes had glazed over. The opening sequences that included things older people would know about prove to be a tease: Minions is strictly a kiddie affair for most of its running time.

The screening I saw had plenty of kids guffawing—and that’s really what this thing is supposed to do, right? It’s supposed to make kids laugh and give them something to drive their parents crazy with for the next few months. Parents: Start gearing up to buy the large variety of Minions toys sure to be assaulting stores in the next few months.

Bullock’s supervillain isn’t all that interesting, and neither is her husband (voiced by Jon Hamm). Michael Keaton and Allison Janney take part in one of the film’s more amusing sequences, as parents who take their children on armed robberies.

The film does have some sick fun with the back-history of the Minions. Most of their masters before Gru (Steve Carell’s character in Despicable Me) are accidentally killed. They manage to get a caveman eaten by a big bear; they blow up Dracula; they crush the abominable snowman, etc. Seeing powerful and nefarious male figures as no match for the Minions is good for a laugh or two.

I won’t spoil any surprises, but the film does feature a big cameo. Actually, you can probably guess who it is. Want me to tell you? Nah … screw it. I won’t tell you.

As for the future of the Despicable Me series, a third film featuring Carell’s Gru is slated for 2017. However, given the huge box-office take of Minions in its opening weekend, the little yellow guys have more drawing power than Gru.

Minions is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The Palm Springs International Film Festival kicked off over the weekend with some of the fest's biggest events.

On Friday, Jan. 3, the Opening Night Gala Screening, featuring the film Belle, took place at Palm Springs High School. And on Saturday was the biggest event of all: The Black Tie Awards Gala, at the Palm Springs Convention Center.

Here's how the Los Angeles Times described the awards affair:

The Palm Springs International Film Festival gala or, as Tom Hanks called it, "This little, intimate, Sonny Bono rec-room chicken dinner get-together for two-and-a-half-thousand people," took place Saturday night. Meryl Streep picked up an award. So did Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, Bruce Dern and Matthew McConaughey, among others.

And though they were all seated within a few feet of one another in the airport-hangar-sized Palm Springs Convention Center, these Hollywood stars were more or less allowed to eat their pot-roast dinner in peace.

That's because Bono was in the house.

That's Bono, the singer from the Irish rock band U2, not Mary Bono, the widow of another singer named Bono—Sonny, the man who started the film festival 25 years ago when he was mayor of Palm Springs.

The Independent was there; here are just a few pictures from the events. And watch all week for more coverage of the festival. Enjoy!

Published in Snapshot

With Gravity, we finally get a big-event movie that delivers the thrills that have been absent from too many large-scale films this year. This is what going to the movies is supposed to be about.

I sound like a movie-critic quote machine, and I don’t care. I want to make this perfectly clear: You should see this movie—and shell out the extra couple of bucks for 3-D, because the whole idea is to physically make you feel like you are lost in space. This is a rare 3-D movie in which those glasses really add to the experience. The film often puts the viewer inside a spacesuit, looking down at the Earth or, if the character happens to be tumbling in space, looking through a helmet as the Earth rhythmically passes by.

If you are one of those people getting nauseated by your iPhone IOS 7 update and all of those crazy moving graphics, you might want to go see Don Jon instead.

In her first true science-fiction role since Demolition Man, Sandra Bullock puts herself through the ringer as Ryan Stone, an astronaut on her first space shuttle flight. Her mission commander, played by a charismatic and calming George Clooney, ribs her about her upset tummy as he flies around space in a jet pack while she works tirelessly on the Hubble.

They then receive an ominous message from Earth: The Russians have purposefully destroyed one of their satellites, and this has set off a chain reaction, destroying multiple satellites—and creating loads of fast-moving space debris. They’re told it shouldn’t be a problem. Moments later, mission command revises that theory and lets the astronauts know they’re totally screwed. Space debris collides with the shuttle, and the movie is off and running.

Director/co-writer Alfonso Cuarón delivers the action seamlessly, and the effect is unrelenting. When Ryan reaches out to grab something to prevent herself from spinning out into space, you will be straining right along with her. However, Cuarón isn’t just about the thrills: He and son Jonás have written a screenplay that packs plenty of emotional wallop. Bullock, who has discussed how difficult the shoot was, is both physically and emotionally taxed, and her haunting performance will surely put her in Oscar contention.

Actually, just about every aspect of this film should find itself in an Oscar race, from the amazing cinematography, to the gripping writing, to the amazing feats achieved through sound. Gravity would be a trippy experience if you took it in with your eyes closed. What Cuarón and his crew do with sound will astound you.

Clooney, in a part that originally was meant for Robert Downey Jr., looks like a guy who should be floating around in space. The man’s mug just screams “Astronaut!” The actor appears to be relishing every second he spends onscreen. His Matt Kowalski is on his last mission, trying to break spacewalk records and prove his iron resolve. He even displays a good nature when space debris has just whizzed by his head and pulverized his spacecraft.

Gravity is a true cinematic achievement, so much so that I can’t really compare it to any other film. Gravity is its own beautiful beast, a unique experience that will leave you very happy you didn’t wait to watch it in your living room. See Gravity on the biggest, boldest screen available—and prepare to have your mind blown.

Gravity is playing in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Sandra Bullock might receive top billing, but Melissa McCarthy is the reason folks should go see The Heat. McCarthy, reuniting with her Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, gets more laughs in her first 10 minutes here than the Wolf Pack got in the entirety of The Hangover Part III.

As Mullins—one of those Boston police detectives who can only exist at the movies—McCarthy reminds viewers that she is one of the best comic actresses working today. When she’s on a roll, anything she says is funny (especially when that “anything” is tagged with a creative array of obscenities). Not since Eddie Murphy was in his heyday has a performer spun an abundance of vulgarity so eloquently. She is the goddess of four-letter words.

Bullock complements her well as the straight-laced Ashburn, an FBI agent who is in Boston to take out a notorious drug lord—and hopefully score a big promotion in the process. Bullock has played this type of role before, most notably in Miss Congeniality. This time, however, she isn’t hamstrung by a PG-13 rating and family-friendly themes. Instead, she’s trading verbal punches with McCarthy, and she’s up for the task.

Mullins and Ashburn find their mismatched selves teamed up in usual movie buddy-cop style. They hate each other at first, but they will learn to respect and work well with each other as they take out the bad guys. En route to doing so, they will, of course, have a drinking sequence during which they bond and dance, and they will learn a little something about themselves and each other that will make them better people.

Yes, The Heat is contrived, with many elements we’ve all seen before. But Bullock and McCarthy are such a winning pair that you will forgive its lack of originality and occasional slow parts. When the film is firing on all cylinders, it has genuine laugh-out-loud moments.

I love the fact that one of the Drug Enforcement Administration agents is an albino (Dan Bakkedahl)—an albino with a bad temper who Mullins suspects could be dirty, simply because he’s an albino. (There are shades of Gary Busey in Lethal Weapon.) It’s also great to see Tom Wilson (Biff from Back to the Future) as a frustrated police chief prematurely aged due to Mullins and her rule-breaking.

I expect McCarthy to be funny, and she often is. I didn’t like her in this year’s Identity Thief, but that was a poorly written vehicle, and its failure in my eyes wasn’t necessarily her fault. Bullock, on the other hand, has never struck me as remarkably funny in her comedy films (although she has gotten a few giggles out of me on awards shows). The Heat proves that she might be most at home in an R-rated comedy with somebody funnier holding her up.

Is The Heat the first pure female cop-buddy picture? If there is another one, it probably wasn’t that good, because I can’t remember it. This one, although well short of being a classic, does stand proud in the genre.

While Feig couldn’t talk Kristen Wiig into making a Bridesmaids sequel, he may have better luck getting McCarthy and Bullock on board for more with these characters. Bullock hasn’t had a film this good in a long while (The Blind Side was overrated), and McCarthy should be game.

If you are looking for laughs, this or Seth Rogen’s This Is the End will do the trick. Don’t see The Hangover Part III, though. That thing will cause you immeasurable damage.

The Heat is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews