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Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Let’s face it: The Dark Knight has been really living up to the word “dark” since Tim Burton’s Batman came out 28 years ago. He can certainly be a morose sourpuss.

Wait a minute … has it really been 28 years since Burton’s Batman came out? Holy crap! I just totally freaked myself out. Hang on … I need to catch my breath and gather my thoughts. It’s been nearly three freaking decades since Nicholson played The Joker? I need to drink five beers.

All right … OK, I am back. As I was saying, Batman has been a downer at the cinemas. Even when he wasn’t being quite so dour, he was just plain sucking in the Joel Schumacher Batman movies that started coming out 22 years ago.

Wait a minute … did Kilmer really do Batman more than two decades ago? I think I’m having a panic attack. I have to do the breathing-into-a-brown-bag trick … I’ll be right back.

OK, back. Granted, Batman is inherently dark by nature, being all orphaned and inspired by bats and dispatching vigilante justice at night and whatnot. But, hey, sometimes it’s good to have a laugh or two while watching the Caped Crusader do his thing, if only because some of us have a sweet spot for the time when Adam West played the character for laughs in the original Batman TV series, which went off the air 49 years ago. Wait … 49 years ago?

OK … seriously. I have to take a long break and contemplate my life before finishing this review. I’ll be back in the morning after a good cry and extended sleep.

Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, Batman. Batman’s a trooper all right, having survived the debacle that was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. (Ben Affleck is a good Batman; his cinematic vehicle was not.) Thankfully, The LEGO Batman Movie is the great Batman story that Batman v Superman failed to be.

Even better, it has Will Arnett voicing Batman in a new, super-amped, yet dark incarnation that is surprisingly well-rounded. After all of these years watching dark (and sometimes brilliant) Batman movies, it’s nice to have a vehicle where we can just have fun with the character.

Director Chris McKay, along with a long list of writers, has come up with a story that will please adult Batman fans as much as kids. Arnett’s Batman not only faces off against the Joker (a very funny Zach Galifianakis), but he finds himself in a scenario in which he’s battling a smorgasbord of movie villains including King Kong, the Gremlins, Dracula, evil British robots and Voldemort (Eddie Izzard), to name just a few. It’s a nutty plot element that also allows for Batman mainstays like Bane, Two-Face (Billy Dee Williams, who voiced Harvey Dent in Burton’s Batman) and the Riddler (Conan O’Brien!) to get in on the act.

It’s a geek-fest—a movie-lover’s delight that has funny little trivia at nearly every turn, and an emotional center (Batman has family issues; the Joker longs to be hated) that gives the movie a surprising depth among the chaos.

Michael Cera and Ralph Fiennes bring good humor as Robin and Alfred, although Fiennes doesn’t voice Voldemort, which seems like a wasted opportunity: You had the real Voldemort on hand! It just seems like some money could’ve been saved. Oh, wait, maybe Fiennes actually costs more than Eddie Izzard, and Fiennes would’ve demanded full scale for two characters rather than one. OK … I’m distracted again.

The LEGO Batman Movie gives us a Batman tale that is a little brighter than those brooding Nolan films, and way better than last year’s Zack Snyder atrocity. It’s loaded with funny nods to the entire history of Batman, and fully functions as a standalone Bat story. May sequels abound!

(Writer’s addendum: After mentioning Adam West above, I was reminded that West and Burt Ward revisited Batman and Robin last year, voicing the characters in Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders. I watched it, and it’s not as good as LEGO Batman, but still pretty cool!)

The LEGO Batman Movie is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

From the makers of ParaNorman and Coraline comes Kubo and the Two Strings, another stop-motion wonder that’s a fantastically fun combination of puppetry and CGI. It’s the best animated film I’ve seen so far this year.

The title character is a young boy (an amazingly expressive creation voiced by Art Parkinson) who must go on a quest to deal with a nasty family war that has claimed the lives of his parents. He searches for a suit of armor needed to combat his evil granddad (Ralph Fiennes … of course). He’s assisted on his quest by a monkey (Charlize Theron) and a beetle (Matthew McConaughey, in his first animated film).

The visuals are constantly breathtaking; the writing is often very clever and funny; and the message is sweet and enduring. As with some of the Laika studio’s past creations, some sequences might be too much for the young ones, but it’s nothing the average 8-year-old can’t handle.

Special Features: They include an audio commentary from the director, and a solid making-of doc. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

So Hail, Caesar! is a film with virtually no plot, but it gives Joel and Ethan Coen a chance to adapt the styles of films from the ’40s and ’50s into their weirdo universe?

Hell yeah. Sign me up!

The Coen brothers bring a blast of creativity to early 2016 with a movie that, frankly, had a lot of their fans (including myself) a little worried. Its release was moved out of the 2015 award season and dumped into February—usually a cinematic graveyard. It wasn’t screened for critics until a couple of days before its release, a tactic usually reserved for the likes of Deuce Bigalow and Transformers movies, not the Coens.

In truth, this movie probably will score the highest with diehard Coen fans—those who react with glee to the notion that it takes place at a studio called Capitol Pictures. That’s the same fictional place where Coen creation Barton Fink suffered writers’ block all the way back in 1991.

While there are obviously nods to Barton Fink, the film Hail, Caesar! feels most like from the Coen collection is The Hudsucker Proxy, another period piece that featured fast-talking caricatures, unabashed silliness and astonishing period detail. Like Hudsucker, Hail, Caesar! features a bunch of great performers playing with great writer-directors in a movie that looks great.

It follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio enforcer at Capitol Pictures tasked with keeping stars out of trouble and assuring moving pictures stay on schedule. In the middle of filming a biblical epic, huge star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by Hollywood communists, who demand $100,000 in ransom money.

Mannix must figure out how to get his star back while dodging two gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton, in increasingly hilarious wardrobes), navigating the latest scandal of studio star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) and comforting director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who has had a marble-mouthed stunt actor named Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) forced into his romantic comedy.

The plot is paper-thin, but it does give the Coens a chance to do their quick interpretations of old-timey movie Westerns, screwball comedies, Esther Williams-style pool epics, overblown Bible movies, Gene Kelly-type musicals and more. The film includes of short homages to all of these cinema genres, and each one of them is a total blast. The movie features communist writers in a manner far less serious than the recent Trumbo.

The Coens have a way with making minor moments so grandiose. While Hobie Doyle waits for a date, he opts to play with his lasso in a way that reminded me of the kid in Hudsucker sampling a hula hoop. Fiennes and Ehrenreich have an exchange over a simple movie line that is easily one of the funniest things the Coens have ever put to screen. A close second is a moment involving a scarf and Coen staple Frances McDormand. And if you don’t laugh when Clooney’s Whitlock beholds the Christ, well, there’s something wrong with you.

In a show-stopping homage, Channing Tatum does career-best work in an On the Town-like bar sequence that has him dancing and singing up a storm. It’s at once gloriously perfect and seriously demented—the kind of thing only the Coens could pull off.

I wish the Coens had a lot more time on their hands, because it would be a delight to see the further adventures of Mannix, Hobie Doyle and DeeAnna Moran. They each deserve their own movie. Hail, Caesar! gives total silliness a grand treatment, and reminds us that nobody does silly better than the Coens.

Hail, Caesar! is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The Daniel Craig-led James Bond movies have represented the franchise’s high point.

The films starring Craig have included a little thing called “genuine emotion.” The series peaked with 2012’s Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes and featuring Javier Bardem as a classic Bond villain.

Mendes has returned for the latest installment, and this time out, the action is amped up. Spectre has some terrific set pieces, including a dizzying helicopter sequence to open things up, as well as a nasty fight on a train. That’s what’s good about the movie.

What’s bad? Regrettably, a good chunk of it is bad. After the full experience that was Skyfall, Spectre feels incomplete and shallow.

During a layover in Italy, Bond finds out a few hard truths about his origins, and that much of the pain he’s gone through in his last few chapters is attributable to one man. Christoph Waltz shows up (barely) as Oberhauser, a past acquaintance of Bond who is now leading a dark society called Spectre—responsible for terrorist attacks worldwide.

Of course, Bond will get a girl along the way. This time out, it’s Madeleine Swann, played by Léa Seydoux of Blue Is the Warmest Color. Not only does she fall for Bond; she falls for Bond in a way that kind of makes her look like an idiot.

Throughout the film, there’s a sense that Craig is getting a little tired of the Bond shtick. He just doesn’t seem fully committed at this point. Also—and this is a rather strange observation, but I’m going to just put it out there—he looks totally gross when he’s kissing women. I’m going to go ahead and call him the worst Bond kisser ever. (Yes, worse than Roger Moore!) He looks like he’s out to eat somebody’s face. Seydoux probably had to check for her lower lip after takes.

Waltz is fun in his few scenes, but saying his villain is underdeveloped would be an understatement. He barely gets a chance to register. Ralph Fiennes returns as M, and his portion of the story—regarding the Secret Intelligence Service being in danger of getting shut down—is actually interesting. It’s a bad thing when the subplot is more interesting than what Bond is actually doing.

At 148 minutes long, with a price tag in the $250 million range, Spectre suffers from some serious bloat. For all of that money, couldn’t the art department come up with a better-looking staged photo of Bond during his youth? This movie has one of those photos in which young pictures of the actual actors are Photoshopped together to make it look like the characters co-existed in a past moment. The staged photo looks like somebody used scissors and Scotch tape.

I have no complaints about the action sequences. Dave Bautista shows up as a Spectre goon named Hinx; he’s the one who dukes it out with Bond on the train. He makes for a good Bond monster. In addition to the aforementioned excellent action sequences, the film includes a building collapse in which Bond narrowly escapes. It’s good stuff.

It’s the emotional stuff that drags the movie down. Yes, it was welcomed in Skyfall, but this film feels like it is trying too hard. There are certain things we don’t need to know about James Bond and his past. The past the film paints is completely unnecessary.

Craig is under contract for one more picture, but something feels final about Spectre. If he should return for another go, somebody needs to find a way for Bond to have fun again—because Spectre is a drag.

Spectre is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Writer-director Wes Anderson does it again with The Grand Budapest Hotel, another unique, beautiful and quirky movie that could’ve only been made by him. The man has never made a bad movie—and this one stands as one of his best.

In a performance that must be remembered come awards time, Ralph Fiennes is magically hilarious as M. Gustave, the concierge at the fictional hotel named in the film’s title. Gustave has a penchant for older women—much older women—and his life takes a drastic turn when he is suspected in the murder of an elderly lover (Tilda Swinton in heavy makeup).

Stolen art, scary train rides and a high-speed chase on skis ensue, with Anderson even employing stop-motion animation at times, as he did with Fantastic Mr. Fox. The movie is often laugh-out-loud funny, largely thanks to Fiennes, who nails every piece of dialogue. His is the best performance by any actor so far in 2014.

Supporting performances by Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Saoirse Ronan and many others make this a-can’t miss film.

This is a remarkable, tremendously enjoyable achievement, and will stand as one of the year’s best films.

Special Features: Anderson films often get a rushed home-video release, which is later followed by a more-extensive package from the Criterion Collection. That seems to be the case here: This one features a couple of behind-the-scenes featurettes, and little else.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Writer-director Wes Anderson does it again with The Grand Budapest Hotel, another wholly unique, beautiful, quirky movie that could’ve only been made by him.

In a performance that must be remembered come awards time, Ralph Fiennes is magically hilarious as M. Gustave, the concierge at the fictional hotel named in the film’s title. Gustave has a penchant for older women—much older women—and his life takes a drastic turn when he is suspected in the murder of an elderly lover (Tilda Swinton in super-heavy makeup). Stolen art, scary train rides and a high-speed chase on skis ensue, with Anderson even employing stop-motion animation at times, as he did with Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Supporting performances by Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Saoirse Ronan and many others make this a can’t-miss film.

There’s something so joyous and fun about the way Anderson makes movies. This is a remarkable, tremendous enjoyable achievement.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 760-770-1615); the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 760-323-4466); 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