Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

I’ve had it up to here with zombies (I stopped watching The Walking Dead after Season 2)—but Cargo, set in the Australian Outback, is actually pretty good.

Martin Freeman stars as a man who is surviving a zombie apocalypse on a houseboat with his wife and baby daughter. Things go very badly not long after the movie starts—and he must battle on land to ensure a future for his family. Directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke (Ramke also wrote the screenplay) keep the origins of the apocalypse shrouded in secrecy, and that’s a good move.

There are cool elements, like government-provided survival (and disposal) packs for those who become infected, and the fact that Freeman has a baby strapped to his back during a rather harrowing medical emergency. The film relies more upon a sense of dread and impending doom rather than straight-up zombie violence. The humans who aren’t sick turn out to be a lot scarier than the ghouls.

The movie is more The Road than Dawn of the Dead, and Freeman’s stellar work makes it worth seeing, even if you’ve had your fill of flesh-eaters.

Cargo is currently streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Selecting Ryan Coogler to helm Black Panther is a major triumph: His entry into the Marvel universe is a majestic, full-bodied, exhilarating treatment of the African-king title character (Chadwick Boseman) with the crazy-cool suit. Marvel has yet another big success with a grand future.

Coogler has three feature films to his credit now—one masterpiece (Fruitvale Station) and two very good movies (Black Panther and Creed). He’s officially one of the best directors currently calling the shots. This is also his third collaboration with actor Michael B. Jordan, who brings a fleshed-out, complicated villain to the screen in Erik Killmonger. Man, you need to be bad with that last name.

The pre-opening-credit scenes involves Black Panther’s dad and predecessor having a confrontation in 1992, in Oakland, Calif. A major event takes place as some kids playing basketball look on. It turns out to be one of the more brilliant and heart-wrenching setups for a Marvel-movie character yet.

The action cuts to present day, where Black Panther/T’Challa is dealing with the death of his father due to an event that took place in Captain America: Civil War. (The producers and screenwriters linked these films together very well.) He’s set to become king, but must pass through a ritual with some risk involved. He overcomes the obstacles, gets his throne and prepares for his rule. However, his kingdom doesn’t get a moment to breathe before trouble ensues.

Elsewhere, Killmonger has come across an ancient weapon forged in Wakanda (the Black Panther’s homeland), made from vibranium, a precious resource that fuels much of Wakanda’s advanced technology, including the Black Panther suits. With the help of Wakanda enemy Klaue (Andy Serkis, acting with his real face as opposed to a motion capture suit), Killmonger obtains the weapon, threatening world stability.

The story is told with a stunning level of social relevance for a superhero film, especially when it comes to Killmonger’s motives. He’s not just some guy looking to enrich himself for selfish purposes; he’s got some big reasons for having gone bad, and they make him a far more sympathetic character than, say, Loki from Thor.

As good as Boseman is, and he’s really good, Black Panther is a big success thanks very much to the cast around him. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o plays the possible love interest in Nakia, getting her finest post-Oscar role yet. The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira makes a confident graduation to big-screen action hero, while Letitia Wright gets a lot of laughs as T’Challa’s mischievous and extremely smart sister, Shuri.

There are so many great performers in this movie that there isn’t enough room here to give them all praise, but here are a few more: Angela Bassett, Martin Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Winston Duke, Daniel Kaluuya and Sterling K. Brown all play formidable roles. It’s early in the year, but this will surely stand as one of 2018’s best ensemble casts.

Coogler proves he can handle a big-action blockbuster. His action scenes mostly snap with precise energy and efficiency, but some of them are a bit jumbled and hard to follow due to low light or ill-advised camera angles. I saw the film in IMAX 2-D, so perhaps some of what I was seeing played better in 3-D. There was nothing too sloppy, but some moments were not as tight as the rest of the film.

Black Panther is a superhero saga rich with culture and gravitas, and yet it does not skimp on the good humor and action thrills we’ve come to expect from Marvel. DC’s recent offerings (Justice League, Suicide Squad) make everyone involved with them look like goofballs in comparison (with Wonder Woman being the lone recent exception). Black Panther and Marvel show us that big-screen superhero entertainment can be about much more than suits and explosions.

Black Panther is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

Tina Fey makes a seamless transition to slightly more dramatic fare with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the story of a female journalist dropped into the middle of the war in Afghanistan.

Based on the book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker, the film has a M*A*S*H vibe to it when it is at its best. Fey gets plenty of chances to be funny, but this is her meatiest role yet; it allows her to show off a more serious side as an actress.

When her life in New York gets too humdrum, Kim (Fey) winds up in Afghanistan—despite having no major field-reporting experience. Before she knows it, she’s dodging RPGs and filing stories nobody cares about. She has standard long-distance relationship problems on top of that, along with an onsite romance with a freelance photographer (Martin Freeman).

Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (co-directors of Crazy, Stupid, Love and Focus), the film pops on occasion, but spends a little too much time in dusty apartments rather than out in the field.

Margot Robbie is great, if a little underused, as another field reporter, while the likes of Billy Bob Thornton and Alfred Molina perform admirably in supporting roles. The film doesn’t always click, but it remains watchable thanks to Fey and, to a lesser extent, Robbie. It stands as an interesting turning point in Fey’s career.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

And with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the Hobbit movies mercifully come to an end.

No more stretching a one-hour story into three overly long films. No more Orlando Bloom making love to his stupid face with his own voice.

The third, much-unneeded chapter in Peter Jackson’s ill-begotten treatment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s wonderful novel is less an event than it is a final cash grab. If you must see it, don’t waste your money on high-frame-rate or IMAX options, because the result is a visual disaster. I stand by my guns: HFF technology is fine for the home theater, but it sucks balls on the big screen.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is reduced to a supporting role (in a film named after his character!) after the dragon Smaug is slain. Five armies—including dwarves, orcs, elves and … uh, who gives a shit—start battling over the riches Smaug gathered, with a glowing stone being the final prize. Thorin (Richard Armitage), a dwarf leader, gets “dragon sickness,” and things get dumber from there.

It all amounts to a big nothing, with the charms that were present in Jackson’s masterful Lord of the Rings trilogy lost in a sea of special effects and terrible, terrible acting.

A few years back, I was championing Jackson’s efforts to get this made. When Guillermo del Toro bowed out as director, I saw it as a blessing, because Jackson would inevitably take over.

Boy, was I wrong.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

I had the misfortune of watching the High Frame Rate 3-D version of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Man, do I hate technology sometimes.

Only a small percentage of movie theaters had the technology for 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but that has changed—so many of us now have the opportunity to see just how bad this technology looks when hobbits are involved. (In fact, four Coachella Valley theaters are showing the film in HFR 3-D.)

I am sure there will be films in the future that will be a proper fit for the High Frame Rate presentation—films that are primarily set outside, boast a leisurely pace, and don’t have too much makeup.

As for Peter Jackson’s decision to shoot The Desolation of Smaug in HFR 3-D, it’s a disaster: Like its predecessor, the film is a task to watch. The look of the movie simply doesn’t jibe with the technology, and the result is a visual nightmare, even after one’s eyes adjust to the stunt.

Smaug is guilty of the same flaws that marred the first film. It’s overstuffed; the dwarves are severely uninteresting; and the action scenes lack urgency. It’s just a big, boring stunt film with people looking silly in their getups.

The film starts with a flashback in which Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has his first meeting with moody dwarf Thorin (Richard Armitage). (Actually, it really starts with a very obvious cameo by Jackson, who makes no Hitchcockian effort to blend in.) We then pop ahead to the end of the first movie—and the continuation of Bilbo Baggins’ long, extremely tedious journey.

As Bilbo, Martin Freeman labors to make things interesting during action scenes that feel redundant. (Hey, it’s another giant icky spider attack!) However, he stands out among the cast of otherwise bland actors playing bland dwarves. Oh, Gimli, how you are missed!

Jackson finds a way to bring back Orlando Bloom as Legolas; these scenes could easily be cut from the film’s 161-minute running time. Jackson has also created a new character in Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), an elf warrior and the apple of Legolas’ eye. Legolas and Tauriel were not present in the original Tolkien novel—and movie viewers would be better off if such were the case in this film.

Too many scenes feel padded and bloated. With each passing minute, Jackson is doing further damage to his legacy. His original Lord of the Rings trilogy was a major triumph, while these Hobbit films feel and look like parody.

From the moment the Warner Bros. logo comes up, the film looks weird. Movies aren’t supposed to be this crisp. The shots of mountain ranges are breathtaking—but every close-up of an actor’s made-up face destroys the illusion.

When Smaug the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) finally shows up, he easily becomes the best thing in the Hobbit films thus far. He should’ve arrived in the second half of the first film—and the whole damn thing should’ve been completed in three hours: One movie would’ve been sufficient to cover this story. These Hobbit movies are an overblown, messed-up slog.

The movie ends abruptly, with a big cliffhanger. Normally, that sort of thing would have me all huffy and disappointed. Not this time: I was simply happy to see the movie finally over.

I loved the Lord of the Rings films. They consistently made my year’s-best lists. Conversely, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is one of 2013’s worst.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

Director Edgar Wright teams with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost for the raucous conclusion to their “Cornetto” trilogy with The World’s End, a twisted homage to male bonding, beer crawls and John Carpenter sci-fi. This movie works because of the sense that anything can, and will, happen.

Pegg plays Gary King, a somewhat troubled but good-natured man who is determined to get his old crew back together to complete a pub crawl in his hometown—20 years after the gang failed to make it to the last pub on their infamous crawl, an incident providing King with a nagging sense of unfinished business.

A good chunk of the film is actually a warmhearted, funny and well-written gathering of old friends, told in straightforward fashion. Some of the men from the old gang are fairly happy to see King, while others, like Andy (Nick Frost), would prefer he piss off. Still, even the apprehensive Andy joins the crew for what looks to be a taxing crawl of 12 pubs.

If The World’s End had just been a story about arrested adolescence, the dangers of going “back,” and the perils of drinking too much, it would have been a great movie. Pegg and Frost display solid dramatic chops to go with their comedic instincts. But thankfully, Wright and Pegg (who co-wrote the screenplay) have more—much more—in mind. The film takes a crazy turn in a manner akin to the big twist in From Dusk Till Dawn, and it suddenly becomes an alien-invasion movie. (This is prominently mentioned in the film’s ad campaign; I hope I didn’t ruin your day.)

Their hometown has become overrun with blue-blooded robots from another world—robots who are determined to replicate earthlings and dispose of their bodies (featuring shades of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing). This sets the stage for some awesome man-on-robot fight scenes. The choreography is hilarious and nasty.

On top of everything, the film works as a scathing satire of the infiltration of technology in our society, and how those damned iPads and smartphones are taking over. (I love my gadgets, even if they are swallowing my soul. They’re just so damned cool to play with!)

The cast also includes Rosamund Pike as Sam, who does a fine job of kicking ass and looking flabbergasted. Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins!) reminds us that he is a master comedic actor; he plays an uptight real estate agent who never, ever removes his earphone, even when he’s pub-crawling. Eddie Marsan breaks hearts as Peter, a once-bullied man who is actually distraught when his former bully (Darren Boyd) fails to recognize him.

In terms of the Cornetto trilogy (named for a brand of ice cream that appears in all three films), this one is just a notch below Shaun of the Dead, yet a little better than Hot Fuzz. All three are solid, funny, smart films that make me wish they were part of a 10-movie series.

Many of the summer blockbusters have been big, bloated messes that delivered messy action with little to no thrills. Well, The World’s End makes up for a lot of the summer garbage with its big heart, numerous laughs and eye-popping visuals. Wright and Pegg are sick in the head—and we moviegoers all benefit from their particular brand of insanity.

The World’s End is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

After watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at home, I determined that director Peter Jackson managed to stretch The Hobbit into three movies by getting all performers to speak slowly … oh, so slowly.

Everybody in this movie speaks and moves as if they were drunk on Hobbit Amber Ale. Most of the dialogue is spoken at a snail’s pace with those not-quite-British, not-quite-American affected accents that make everything they say sound SO DAMN IMPORTANT.

I just can’t stand much of this movie. It has its highpoints for sure, especially the wonderful Gollum scene. Gollum alone almost makes the movie worth watching, and Martin Freeman does have great potential as everybody’s favorite Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. Freeman injects life into the proceedings, often bringing scenes back from the dead.

But on top of the encumbered speech patterns, I despise the scenes of dwarves eating and singing. They are dopey, long, Three Stooges-like, unfunny moments that stop the film in its tracks. And while I loved Ian McKellen in the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, I can’t handle his strange mugging this time out.

The movie looked weird in cinemas, but it looks better on the home screen. I prefer it visually in 2-D on the home screen over the hard-on-the-eyes 3-D theatrical presentation.

Part 2 in the trilogy arrives later this year. That one promises massive dragon action. Let’s all hope that the dragon spends most of his time blowing things up rather than delivering massive, elongated, stilted soliloquies. Peter Jackson: Please pick up the pace in the next chapters, and keep the alcohol off the set.

Special Features: They include Peter Jackson’s production diaries, which are sporadically interesting, as well a short on the New Zealand locations and a code allowing you to witness Jackson’s March 24 online tease of the next chapter, The Desolation of Smaug

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing