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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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).

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There is a quick moment in the very first Star Wars (now known as Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope) when a character mentions rebels possibly obtaining secrets regarding the Death Star’s vulnerability.

Those rebels get their own movie in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a spinoff that is technically another prequel. In fact, it tells a story that leads right up to the point where A New Hope begins. It’s a strong, rousing action-adventure movie that should please both Star Wars geeks and newcomers to the franchise.

It’s also a little different than your typical Star Wars movie in that it doesn’t mainly deal with the Skywalker saga (although a couple of them make notable appearances) and doesn’t prominently feature the John Williams score (although that makes some appearances as well). Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) goes for something a little different here, making a tonal shift that reminds of the big change The Empire Strikes Back brought to the saga.

The film starts—sans the long crawl and theme music we’re used to—and goes straight into its story. Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), a renowned scientist, gets an unwelcome visit at his remote farm from the evil Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Krennic wants Erso to continue his work on this crazy new thing called the Death Star, but Erso isn’t interested. The whole emerging Empire thing has got him turned off, and he wants no part of it. Bad events ensue, and Erso’s young daughter, Jyn, goes into hiding.

The action picks up 15 years later, and Jyn has grown up to be played by Felicity Jones. Jones brings the same level of competent acting skills that Daisy Ridley brought last year in The Force Awakens (and they both have awesome English accents). Jyn eventually finds herself joining the Rebellion, and becomes a key player in retrieving the Death Star secrets and setting up the events that will become the original Star Wars trilogy.

She gets paired up with a generally grouchy rebel in Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his wiseass droid, K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). They go on that mission mentioned in Episode IV, leading up to an action-packed finale that reminds of the climactic A New Hope battle scene in many ways—some of them truly unexpected and wonderful. (There are some rather surprising cameos.)

Among the returnees from the original trilogy and prequels is Bail Organa, still played by Jimmy Smits, a surprising nod to the prequels that displeased so many. CGI trickery (some of it a little shaky) leads to the return of a major Empire figure that won’t be revealed in this review. Of course, the commercials have already shown that Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader (still gloriously voiced by James Earl Jones) is back in all of his evil glory. That’s a major Star Wars treat.

The score by Michael Giacchino isn’t all that bad. It does riff on the original John Williams themes, leading one to wonder why they didn’t use the original music throughout. There are moments when Giacchino’s music uses the first phrasings of the original score themes, and then goes off in another direction. It feels like a bit of a tease. Understandably, the goal here is to make a standalone Star Wars movie, but this is very much a Star Wars movie, so teasing the original score winds up being somewhat of a distraction.

This year has been a major letdown for big blockbusters (Ghostbusters, Jason Bourne, Independence Day: Resurgence, etc.), so it’s nice to finish the year on such a high note. Rogue One is a blast, and further proof that Mickey Mouse taking over Star Wars responsibilities from creator George Lucas is a very good thing. Star Wars VIII comes to us next year, and a standalone Han Solo origin story comes the year after that.

There was a time when we had to wait years for Star Wars fixes. In this, the New Age of Total Impatience, we get Star Wars every year. The New Age of Total Impatience most certainly has its perks.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is playing in a variety of formats across the valley.

Published in Reviews

I am grateful for the existence of Inferno, Ron Howard’s latest installment in his Da Vinci Code film series.

Without Inferno, Tom Hanks would’ve had no reason to be out promoting a movie around Halloween time. Because he was, he stopped by Saturday Night Live to host for a ninth time. While there, he was in a totally bizarre sketch as David Pumpkins, a weirdo in a haunted house elevator ride accompanied by two beatboy dancer skeletons. The sketch is already a classic.

That’s it … that’s the only reason I am grateful for the existence of Inferno. David Pumpkins.

The film itself is easily the worst of the series, a series that was already pretty terrible in that both The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons blew ass. Hanks returns as Robert Langdon, something the world’s most beloved actor shouldn’t need to do. This series needed to be put down after the first installment.

When Langdon wakes up in a hospital room, with a bullet scratch on his head and a loss of memory, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) is there to help. Then, somebody starts toward Langdon’s hospital room with guns a-blazing, and the so-called adventure begins.

Langdon is having hallucinations about something akin to Dante’s Inferno while trying to work his way through amnesia. He’s in Italy, and he doesn’t know why, but Sienna, for reasons unknown, is going to stay by his side until he works things out.

For starters … the amnesia gimmick is one of the most desperate plot gimmicks anybody could put in a novel or a screenplay. I was half expecting Robert Langdon’s evil twin brother, the villainous Michael Langdon, to appear and kick Robert in the balls. This feels like a cheap soap opera from beginning to end.

Also, if you are going to employ the amnesia gimmick, be consistent. Moments after barely being able to remember anything, Langdon manages to grab a laptop and use the Internet (even though he didn’t know what coffee was just seconds before). He then he remembers his password and surfs the net. So he has selective amnesia: He can remember intricate details about passwords and how to surf the net, but that darned coffee stuff mystifies him.

The main “puzzle” Langdon has to solve this time out is finding out where a doomsday bomb containing a virus that will wipe out the majority of the Earth’s population has been planted. If he doesn’t find the Make Everybody Sick bomb, it will be an apocalypse like no other. Gee, I wonder if he’ll find it. I wonder if the whole world will die in a Ron Howard movie.

The first quarter of the movie does have some decent visuals as Langdon has nightmares about a plague-infected Earth, although it makes little sense why he’s having them at all. Much of the rest of movie consists of Robert and Sienna running around, pausing to talk about some sort of puzzling business that needs to be solved, and then running around again. The puzzles, as in the prior films, are ridiculous.

Hanks is just going through the motions, having to spend much of the movie looking confused and sweating profusely. Jones is a good actress, but she’s given nothing to do with a completely ridiculous part. If you’ve seen the commercials for this one, you already know the fate Ben Foster’s character suffers. He wastes his time here (after a great performance in this year’s Hell or High Water) as a billionaire who thinks the world is due for a cleansing.

Apparently, author Dan Brown is at work on a new Langdon novel, due out in 2017. Given that Inferno is a bomb by all accounts, let us all hope we have seen the last of Hanks and Howard wasting their precious time on this series.

And if you haven’t seen the David Pumpkins SNL sketch yet, you need to Google that shit, pronto.

Inferno is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The marriage of Stephen and Jane Hawking takes center stage in The Theory of Everything, director James Marsh’s sweet and powerful depiction of love in the face of adversity.

The film showcases the talents of Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables), who gives a remarkable performance as Hawking, renowned physicist and eventual Pink Floyd vocalist. Redmayne depicts a relatively healthy Hawking at first, a slightly awkward but brilliant Cambridge student smitten with classmate Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones of Like Crazy). Redmayne transforms as the film progresses, slowly but surely depicting the physical deterioration of Hawking as he suffers from ALS.

Jones is equally powerful as Hawking’s first wife, a woman who refused to let him waste away after his diagnosis. The two marry knowing that the road ahead will be a rough one. Hawking’s initial prognosis had him living no more than two years. That happened about 50 years ago.

The movie is first and foremost a love story first, with Hawking’s musings about black holes taking a back seat. Redmayne and Jones are utterly convincing as a couple; Marsh treats their courtship in a magical, glimmering sort of way, involving awkward school dances, followed by a memorable wedding sequence. The film unabashedly celebrates their romance.

The film does feel a bit false in its portrayal of Stephen and Jane’s separation after 25 years of marriage. Jane eventually winds up with Hawking caregiver and music-teacher Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), while Stephen goes off with his nurse, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), and it’s depicted in a very neat and tidy way. There are no jealous fits, and there’s no pain in the loss of the relationship. Stephen and Jane just sort of nod at each other, with Stephen acknowledging that “Jane needs help,” and they part ways as a couple.

By many accounts, it was Hawking who left Jane, although the film depicts it the other way around. For entertainment purposes, I’m OK with Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (who based his script on a Jane Hawking book) focusing on the fairytale element of Stephen and Jane’s coupling. They managed to stay together for quite awhile, longer than many couples. If the filmmakers had chosen to make this a movie about their true relationship struggles, it would’ve been a different movie altogether. There’s a palpable beauty and sweetness in the time they spent together, and that’s what the film stresses. It cops out a bit, but that doesn’t wind up being a deal-killer. The movie stops when the two separate in 1990. For the true story of where they stand now, and what happened in their new relationships, you must consult the Internet.

Seminal moments in the life of Hawking are covered, including the introduction of his computer-aided voice and electrical wheelchair. It’s uncanny how accurately Redmayne captures that radiant Hawking smile. It’s a performance so good that you forget you are watching an actor portray somebody, and not spying on the real guy.

While Redmayne surely has the showier role, Jones provides the emotional core of the film as Jane. Her work here is her best since her breakthrough performance in Like Crazy, although she did shine earlier the year in The Invisible Woman. Both Redmayne and Jones will probably find themselves in the running for an Oscar.

As biopics go, The Theory of Everything isn’t terribly introspective or revealing. It’s an idealistic love story involving an iconic figure, and it winds up being very romantic. Since it stops nearly 25 years ago, a sequel involving Hawking’s second marriage and his cameo on Big Bang Theory would afford Redmayne a chance to revisit the role, right?

Yeah, that’s probably not going to happen.

The Theory of Everything is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565); the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342) and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

There was a time when The Invisible Woman—a movie that takes a speculative look at an affair Charles Dickens had toward the end of his life—would’ve had “Oscar” written all over it.

Ralph Fiennes directs himself as Dickens, and he presents the author as the John Lennon or Elvis Presley of his day. (Dickens was indeed a literary rock star, and one of the first to deal with print-media scrutiny and hordes of fans when he tried to take a walk or go to the theater.) The married Dickens also created quite a bit of controversy by having an affair with a young actress named Nelly (played here by Felicity Jones), whose full name was Ellen Ternan.

Jones, the stunning actress who broke through with an amazing performance in Like Crazy, is this film’s best asset. As Nelly—an aspiring actress with questionable talent who displayed big fan crush on Dickens—Jones brings a smoldering sophistication to her role, and goes toe-to-toe with Fiennes in many scenes.

Much of what happens in this movie is based on true events, including the 1865 Staplehurst rail car crash that many blamed for Dickens’ subsequent health woes and decrease in writing output.

This is the second directorial effort for Fiennes after 2011’s very good Coriolanus. He’s a director to be reckoned with; he has a crafty touch with sensitive subjects.

The Invisible Woman is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565), and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews