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Forty years after she first “dropped the knife,” Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) tangles, yet again, with the unstoppable killer Michael Myers—and this time, she’s got an arsenal and a panic room.

The original Halloween was an art film. John Carpenter put together a perfect little horror movie with an auteur’s eye, full of beautifully mapped shots, an expert use of lighting, that unforgettable score and that photogenic, painted-up William Shatner mask. It set the high-water mark for slasher films—a mark that has never been surpassed.

The new Halloween comes to us courtesy of writer-director David Gordon Green and writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley. Green is no slouch, responsible for a few highly regarded indies (George Washington, All the Real Girls) and classic comedies (Pineapple Express, banner episodes of TV’s Eastbound and Down). When it was first announced he and McBride would be working on a new Halloween, the initial, “What? Huh?” was quickly followed by “Say … this could work!” Thankfully, it works quite well.

This is the 11th film in the franchise, and the 10th to feature Myers. (Halloween III: Season of the Witch jettisoned the character.) It’s easily the second-best Halloween movie after the Carpenter original, mostly because it takes many of its cues from the 1978 offering. Also, it doesn’t hurt that the maestro himself, Carpenter, returned to rework his iconic theme and provide the film’s eerily effective score.

Forget all those chapters that have unspooled in the four decades since the original. Green even disregards the hospital-based Halloween II, which Carpenter wrote with writing partner Debra Hill. According to the new Halloween, Michael got apprehended shortly after Donald Pleasance’s Loomis emptied his revolver into him, and he’s been percolating in an insane asylum ever since.

A prologue scene features a couple of podcasters gaining access to Michael in his asylum’s courtyard, where they show him his original killing mask. This proves to be a rather bad idea, with Michael busting out of a prison transfer and returning to Haddonfield, where a reclusive, bitter and ready-to-rumble Laurie still resides. Michael promptly resumes his murderous spree, totally messing up candy day for everybody all over again.

A Halloween movie won’t work if the mask looks wonky. Green and his crew came with a good look this time out: The mask, now four decades old, has rotted out a bit, but maintains its contours and fine hair. It even has a puncture wound on the side from when ’78 Laurie put a sewing needle in Michael’s neck.

Green raises the gore quotient from the original, with some nasty head-stomping and brain splatters. It’s not easy to scare audiences who have seen it all before, but I assure you: Green and company will make you squirm and jump. The film’s best scene, a restroom slaughter, is reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Alien, when an exquisitely crying, cowering Veronica Cartwright was cornered, eventually meeting a merciless doom. It’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s proof Green knows his way around a slasher movie.

Curtis is clearly having a blast. Her hairstyle is identical to the style from her ’80s heyday, but her weapons of choice have most definitely been upgraded. Judy Greer plays her skeptical daughter, with Andi Matichak present as the third Strode generation.

Danny McBride’s writing is evident in key scenes where humor sweetens the mood and creates endearing characters—so we can feel extra-bad about them when they get dispatched. A scene in which a young boy explains to his father that weekend camping trips are fine, but dancing is his focus now, has McBride all over it. Huge credit to both Green and McBride for keeping the comic moments genuine and far from campy.

I, for one, would be totally OK if this is the last Halloween movie. It finishes on a satisfying note with a perfect final shot. However, after taking in nearly $80 million domestically on its opening weekend, something tells me we haven’t seen the last of Michael Myers.

Halloween is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Eccentric comedic actor Brett Gelman gets a much-deserved starring vehicle in Lemon as Isaac, a theater teacher going through some troubles with his blind girlfriend (Judy Greer).

She starts getting antsy, and his behavior gets weirder and weirder, especially when it comes to student Alex (a very funny Michael Cera). Let’s just say things don’t go well when Alex comes over to hang out … yet that occurrence is one of the more normal ones in Isaac’s life. As his relationship and acting career crumble—he’s the spokesman for Hep C!—he tries to date others. That ends with him escaping a party with his date’s grandmother. (To repeat: Isaac is weird.)

The film meanders a bit, and never has a true sense of purpose, yet somehow, it all works just fine. Director Janicza Bravo, who co-wrote the script with Gelman, makes an impressively strange directorial debut, thanks in large part to Gelman being her star.

Gelman is one of those character actors who basically shows up in everything and cracks you up—yet you never remember his name. Maybe now we will start to remember him, because he’s been kicking mortal comedy ass for years.

The supporting cast includes Jeff Garlin, Megan Mullally and Gillian Jacobs, who co-starred with Gelman on Netflix’s Love.

Lemon is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Lily Tomlin moves right to the top of my 2015 Best Actress list thanks to her performance in Grandma, a film that should put her in strong contention for an Oscar nomination 40 years after she got a nom for her first movie role in Nashville.

As Elle Reid—a grandma who will kick your boyfriend in the dick rather than offering him tea and cookies—Tomlin delivers a performance that runs the full gamut of emotions while being consistently funny. Every line delivery feels organic and natural, as if the role was created and written with her in mind.

Writer-director Paul Weitz, who worked with Tomlin a couple of years ago on Admission, did, in fact, write the role of Elle for Tomlin. It’s a role the legendary comedian richly deserves. It’s nothing short of a total blast watching Tomlin let loose in the sort of spotlight role that has evaded her for too many years. Grandma is her best role since playing Ben Stiller’s druggie mom in Flirting With Disaster nearly 20 years ago.

Elle’s granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), shows up at the door shortly after Elle has broken up with Olivia (Judy Greer), her younger girlfriend. Sage has an age-old problem: She’s pregnant; she’s scheduled for an abortion in a few hours; and she’s flat broke. Elle, a well-known writer, would seem like a good candidate to have some cash on hand. Unfortunately, she has used all of her cash to pay off credit card debts, and she cut up those credit cards to make some nice wind chimes for the front porch.

The two jump in Elle’s old 1955 Dodge Royal (a car actually owned by Tomlin) and set out to find some quick cash before Sage’s appointment at the clinic. Their travels include a stop at a café for bad coffee. (There’s a good cameo by John Cho, aka the new Sulu.) They eventually wind up at Sage’s boyfriend’s house, where said boyfriend (Nat Wolff) gets a hockey stick to the nuts courtesy of Elle.

Elle and Sage meet a lot of people on the way to the clinic, and each encounter gives Tomlin a chance to blow up the screen. There’s nothing stereotypical about this grandmother, a cantankerous woman with a good heart behind all of her sarcasm and staged coldness.

Coming out of nowhere with what might be his career-best performance is Sam Elliott as Karl, one of Elle’s former lovers. Elle and Sage drop by his house in their quest for monetary assistance, and Karl’s reaction to their visit goes from pleasant, to confusion, to utter disgust. Elliott only has one scene in the film, but it’s so powerful that he could find himself in Oscar contention as well. He’s that good.

Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden arrives late in the film as Judy, Elle’s daughter and Sage’s mom, a career-driven woman who has a treadmill set up at her workstation. Harden puts another charge into a movie that is already high-octane; she finds the humanity in a woman who is a bit neglectful as a mom, but can perhaps come through in the clutch. Harden, like Tomlin, finds some stinging laughs in Weitz’s script; it’s her best work in many years.

The late Elizabeth Peña, in one of her last performances, makes a memorable appearance as a former friend of Elle who lowballs her on some first-edition books she attempts to pawn. The film eventually wraps after a series of character resolutions that are completely satisfying and devoid of schmaltz.

It’ll be a shocker if Tomlin doesn’t attend the Oscars with a shot at gold next year. Elle is the kind of role that wins awards—or at least earns you a seat next to Brangelina for the show. Tomlin—who received an Emmy nomination for Grace and Frankie, a Netflix series co-starring 9 to 5 partner-in-crime Jane Fonda—is back in top form.

Grandma is now playing at the Ultrastar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100); the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342); and the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

After a shocking directorial exodus and a series of rewrites, Marvel’s Ant-Man has finally made it to the screen—and it’s a reasonably enjoyable piece of summer fare, thanks to the total charmer playing the title character.

Paul Rudd is Scott Lang, the professional, wisecracking thief who’s given a new lease on life when Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) shows him the wonders of his incredible shrinking suit.

Rudd was given the job by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), who left Ant-Man as its director after working on the project for years. While Wright still gets an executive producer credit and a writing credit, Peyton Reed (Yes Man), a virtual stranger to big-budget blockbusters, wound up at the helm with a script rewrite from Adam McKay and Rudd himself.

Reed does a good job—but not an outstanding job—in Wright’s place. The movie plays it mighty safe, with an emphasis on family viewing and few of the offbeat touches that are the hallmark of a Wright affair. A wonderful moment involving The Cure is as strange as this movie gets.

After a setup that involves Lang’s release from prison, some business with his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and daughter (Abby Rider Fortson), and a short-lived job at Baskin-Robbins, he winds up in the company of Pym, who is concerned that his technology has fallen into the wrong hands. Pym’s concern is justified, as sinister business partner Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) has uncovered Pym’s shrinking technology, and has created his own suit (becoming a character known to comic fans as Yellowjacket) for nefarious purposes.

Lang is handpicked by Pym to break into his own company headquarters and steal the new suit. Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily), who wants her own suit, reluctantly trains Lang in the ways of punching, shrinking and conversing with insect friends.

Rudd is so good as Lang that I’m convinced the film would’ve been a dud without his presence. He’s a naturally funny guy who can play schmaltzy drama and make it look cool. The soap-opera stuff with his daughter winds up having a silly edge and actually becomes almost heartwarming.

Michael Peña is consistently hilarious as the perpetually smiling sidekick Luis; in fact, he keeps grinning even when he’s revealing family deaths and marital strife. Peña is often cast in dramatic roles (Fury, End of Watch), but he’s proven in the past that he has major comedic chops, in films like Observe and Report. Douglas brings a nice dose of class and wisdom to the proceedings.

The special effects, mostly CGI, are well-done. The first shrinking sequence, which involves a bathtub and eventual placement on a crowded dance floor, is a true stunner. Lang’s interactions with insects reminded me of another shrinking movie, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, in which an ant was treated like a pet horse. It’s a little cutesy, and the kids will dig it.

Ant-Man acknowledges the Avengers universe in many ways, including a prominent appearance by Anthony Mackie as Falcon, and John Slattery as Howard Stark. The film, wisely, takes a tongue-in-cheek approach with the Avengers, playing things mostly for laughs. It will be interesting to see how Lang fits into future Marvel movies, like the next Captain America film. As always with Marvel movies, stay through the entire credits, folks.

Ant-Man is fun, if not remarkable, on par with the likes of Iron Man 2 and the first Captain America. It plays it safe; I imagine that’s why Wright left the scene. Knowing his work, I’m thinking he may have been shooting for something that was funny and outrageous—and that just won’t do in the firmly established, tightly knit Marvel world. Still, those who have followed the project from its beginnings will find some relief in the fact that it’s not a tonally messed-up disaster.

Ant-Man is not going to leave you breathless with delight, but for my money, it’s still a better all-around movie than Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Ant-Man is playing in various formats at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Director Jason Reitman delivers a boring, lethargic and woefully predictable look at humans and the way in which interact with the Internet: Men, Women and Children winds up being nothing more than an ugly commercial for the Ashley Madison dating services.

Adam Sandler plays a sex-addicted married man who jerks off to Internet porn and eventually begins using an escort service. Meanwhile, the wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) has started having sex with men she meets on Ashley Madison. Oooh … the Internet is bad.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Garner plays a mother who obsessively stalks the Internet activity of her daughter (Kaitlyn Dever), while Judy Greer plays a mom who has no problem creating a provocative website for her daughter (Olivia Crocicchia). That darned Internet!

Everybody in this movie is either maddeningly morose or completely deranged. Reitman may think he’s delivering some sort of time-capsule movie showing how technology is the destroyer of relationships and real human communication, but there is absolutely nothing provocative or probing about what he’s saying in this movie. It’s a total drag, squandering a talented cast and offering nothing new.

Men, Women and Children is now playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342) and Cinemas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730).

Published in Reviews

If you’ve read the 1974 Stephen King novel Carrie, and you’ve seen the 1976 Brian De Palma film, you know that the book and the film are very different.

Well, the new Carrie remake, which stars Chloë Grace Moretz in the role that netted Sissy Spacek an Oscar nomination for the 1976 film, has more in common with De Palma’s film than King’s novel.

King’s novel, about a bullied telekinetic high school girl who endures one prank too many at the senior prom, depicted a series of episodic news reports, flashbacks and interviews, for the most part, to tell the story.

The new film welcomes a few of the novel’s plot points back into the story, although it takes a lot of the same liberties that De Palma took with the novel. In the new version, a few more characters survive the fiery black-prom tragedy—and one character might be pregnant. Otherwise, this feels like a remake of De Palma’s movie rather than a faithful retelling of King’s book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: De Palma went to the core of that novel, massaged its great ideas, and made something akin to a horror masterpiece, with much thanks given to the brilliant Spacek.

Director Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry), unfortunately, doesn’t turn in anything that makes a Carrie remake worthwhile. Yes, the new film takes place in the present, where cellular phones and the Internet have become prevalent bullying weaponry—but much of the plot execution remains the same. In a lot of ways, this version even rips off De Palma.

Moretz (Kick-Ass) was a mere 15 years old during the filming—a little young for a high school senior. While Spacek did an exemplary job playing younger than her then 26 years for the original, Moretz looks like a freshman crashing the senior prom.

Still, the Moretz performance is, in many ways, admirable. She captures the pain and confusion of a young girl tormented by her classmates after receiving no valuable life-coaching from her religious-fanatic mother (played here by Julianne Moore in a role originated by the Oscar-nominated Piper Laurie). Interestingly, Goetz also played a tormented teen in this year’s awful Kick-Ass 2.

Moore goes to a darker place with the role of Margaret White when compared to Laurie’s campy, crazy take. This Margaret is far harder on herself (i.e. intentional cutting) and her daughter; she simmers with a dark, disturbing violence that makes her truly hateful. Goetz and Moore play well off each other during the movie’s major confrontation scenes.

As for supporting performances, Pierce gets it right with the casting of Gabriella Wilde as the virtuous Sue Snell, the popular student who regrets bullying Carrie and asks her boyfriend, Tommy Ross (a charming Ansel Elgort), to escort Carrie to the prom—with deadly results. Judy Greer is OK as the gym teacher who tries to get Carrie through everything in one piece.

On the down side, Portia Doubleday and Alex Russell are mere caricatures as villains Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan (notoriously played by the wild-eyed Nancy Allen and John Travolta in the ’76 version). Their dull portrayals offer nothing new.

The infamous prom scene, in which Carrie goes nuclear after getting doused with pig’s blood, was an operatic, gloriously torturous, expertly prolonged hell in De Palma’s movie. In the new version, the scene feels hastily edited and glossed over with a CGI polish. It totally misses the mark, and is the final reason that this remake is mediocre, at best.

I suppose if you’ve never seen De Palma’s film, the 2013 version might seem better. While the remake is, at times, skillfully made, its resources could’ve been put to a better cinematic use—like, say, an actual big-screen adaptation of King’s great novel, The Stand. A TV miniseries starring Molly Ringwald just isn't enough!

Carrie is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews