CVIndependent

Sun12082019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

The Disney+ streaming service, launching today (Nov. 12), includes a brand-new version of Lady and the Tramp—a sweet little live-action redo of the classic 1955 animated feature. This film works, primarily due to the casting of both the actual dogs and their voices.

Justin Theroux, a well-known dog-lover, is perfect for Tramp, a schnauzer mutt living the street life. The dog he provides the voice for is a perfect match—and is the spitting image of his animated counterpart. Tessa Thompson provides vocals for Lady, a cute-as-all-heck cocker spaniel.

The live-action animal-talking is well done, and the film is more engaging than the recent remake of The Lion King. The plot remains simple: Rich dog meets stray dog; rich dog becomes stray dog; dogs fall in love.

There are some major changes (there’s no Siamese-cats song, for starters), but fans of the original will find a lot to remind them of the original (like the spaghetti scene!). Your kids will love it—and if this is any indicator of the quality of the new Disney+ streaming content, things are looking good.

Lady and the Tramp is now streaming on Disney+.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Between Two Ferns: The Movie gives a backstory to the terrific online acerbic talk show hosted by Zach Galifianakis—and while the whole thing is, frankly, unnecessary, the outtakes during the closing credits alone are enough to warrant a watch.

When Zach, doing his show in North Carolina, almost kills Matthew McConaughey due to a ceiling leak, Will Ferrell, his boss, sends him on a mission to tape a bunch of shows … or else. So Zach and his crew go on a road trip.

Yes, it’s a dumb premise, and not all of the jokes land, but the interviews with the likes of Paul Rudd and Tessa Thompson are a riot, and some non-show-related gags work. (I loved the moment when Zach checked his e mail on his laptop while driving at night.)

Ninety minutes of back-to-back Ferns interviews would’ve been better than this, but then we wouldn’t have the scene in which Zach and his crew steal Peter Dinklage’s Faberge eggs, so I guess I’m happy this exists.

Between Two Ferns: The Movie is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Men in Black: International, the fourth film in the MIB franchise, is the second-worst of the group, after Men in Black II. The original and Men in Black 3 were good; International, meanwhile, is a wasted opportunity—an admirable attempt to restart things that doesn’t hit all its marks.

Replacing Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin are Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, as agents H and M. H is the bold, brash, super-hot dude of MIB; he saved the world years ago, with Agent High T (Liam Neeson) of the London MIB branch, from an evil alien force called the Hive.

M is the latest recruit, having found MIB’s secret headquarters after years of searching. As a child, M witnessed an alien encounter (and saw her parents getting their minds erased), starting a curiosity fire that doesn’t get put out until Agent O (Emma Thompson) gives her a chance to basically save the world as a probationary agent.

Tessa Thompson is great in anything she does, and she is great here. She brings a fun energy to the role, with a slight wiseass edge. Hemsworth is a performer who seems to like himself a little too much, yet he still manages to be likable. The two make a good pair, as they did in Thor: Ragnarok.

While it is fun to see Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson onscreen together again, the screenplay they’re following is a bit baffling. Matt Holloway and Art Marcum, two of the many writers on the original Iron Man, take a hack at sending the duo on a global adventure. The globetrotting, which includes Paris, Italy and Marrakesh, lacks a true sense of purpose—which is surprising, since the characters are trying to save the world.

After a fairly strong start, the action, presented by director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton), devolves into sloppy boredom. With each passing location, it seems as if the movie is directionless, merely picking new locales and switching up the scenery to disguise the fact that it is actually going nowhere.

A “mole in MIB” subplot doesn’t help matters much, with villain’s identity being ultra-guessable. A finale in Paris (after opening in Paris) offers few surprises and no thrills. The movie ends with a big old “Huh?”

The special effects are pretty good, with a few new aliens, most notably a little one named Pawny (the voice of Kumail Nanjiani), adding sporadic fun. I also got a kick out of a mini-alien posing as a beard on some dude’s face.

F. Gary Gray has another sequel on his resume, that being the lousy Be Cool, a sequel to Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty. Sonnenfeld, of course, directed the other three MIB films. Conclusion: F. Gary Gray needs to cease and desist directing sequels to Barry Sonnenfeld films.

This project was originally supposed to be a crossover with the Jonah Hill 21 Jump Street franchise. I’m guessing Warner Bros. soured on the notion of turning MIB into a joke, figuring they could reboot and regenerate revenue on the franchise while staying within its own established universe. Given Gray’s failed film, they figured wrong. No doubt: A Men In Black comedy with Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill would’ve been automatic box-office gold. This one is a dud.

The Godzilla film sort of sucked. The X-Men are bombing … and now this. This summer-movie season so far has been a cruel, unforgiving place for big movie franchises.

Men in Black: International is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

I’ve always hated Rocky IV. I’m pretty sure my life as a movie critic started in 1985 when my heart sank as I watched it in a crowded, overly enthusiastic theater with a bunch of friends.

Walking out of the theater, my friends were all hyped after American Rocky Balboa vanquished the evil Russian Ivan Drago. I, on the other hand, thought the damn thing was ridiculous and hokey, especially when Rocky climbed a snowy, treacherous mountain with nothing but his beard and a dream. My sour attitude rendered me unpopular at the after-movie get-together at the diner. I don’t think I touched my pie.

Now, 33 years later, the franchise says hello again to Drago (a weathered Dolph Lundgren) and his boxing son, Viktor, with Creed II, the follow up to Ryan Coogler’s excellent Creed.

Coogler has not returned; he’s replaced by Steven Caple Jr. in the director’s chair. Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone are back, doing pretty much what they did in the first chapter, which is not a bad thing. Creed II doesn’t break any new ground and represents a step backward from the astonishingly good Creed, but it’s still a lot of fun.

This success actually surprises me, because the film dared to take the ridiculous story of Ivan Drago and expand upon it. While the first three Rocky movies were true sports-underdog movies with credibility, Rocky IV was a moronic play on 1980s patriotism and Cold War fears. Drago was a cartoon character, and by then, Rocky had become one, too. That final image of Rocky wrapped in an American flag had me grinding my teeth. Creed II tries to make Drago a real person, a defeated man living in shame for decades after losing to Rocky. His loss to Rocky came after killing Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in the ring, so when Drago comes looking for a fight using his young, up-and-comer son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu), Adonis (Jordan) can’t help but take notice. He’s got a score to settle, and he wants Rocky in his corner.

Does this sound stupid? It is a little bit, but Caple manages to continue the authentic vibe of Creed, even with the Dragos back in the ring. Lundgren actually gives one of the film’s best performances; a sense of humiliation oozes from his pores as he tries to regain former glory and the love of his estranged wife (Brigitte Nielsen). Caple and his screenwriters (including Stallone) manage to make Drago a real character rather than a stereotype.

The movie wisely jettisons the U.S.-vs.-Russia angle and just focuses on the characters. When Adonis and Viktor square off, it’s all about the two men and the sport, with no mention of democracy and communism. An actor playing Mikhail Gorbachev doesn’t stand and applaud Adonis after their final fight. That actually happened in Rocky IV: Rocky got a standing ovation from the Russian leader! Nuclear war was averted! God that movie sucked!

Jordan is as convincing of a cinematic son to Carl Weathers as there will ever be, and he makes a solid boxer. The movie’s fights are as good as any in the Rocky franchise, and it looks like some real blows are landed. Like his dad, Adonis gets his ribs cracked a lot in the ring, and it looks and sounds like it really hurts.

Tessa Thompson returns as Adonis’ songstress girlfriend, Bianca. Thompson is good at anything she does, but she is saddled with the film’s worst moment, a musical intro as Adonis enters the ring for his final fight in Russia. I have a hard time believing some Russian promoter sat down with Bianca to work out her light show and sound. Meanwhile, Stallone continues to be awesome as Rocky; he was robbed of an Oscar for his work in Creed.

As a Rocky fan, I’m happier than heck that somebody found a way to keep the franchise going, even if it involves revisiting the lesser parts of the Rocky mythology. Creed II isn’t good enough to be an improvement on Creed, but it is good enough to make you almost appreciate the awful Rocky IV 33 years later. That’s a notable accomplishment.

Creed II is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

First-time director and screenwriter Boots Riley (leader of musical group The Coup) creates one of the craziest movies you will ever see with Sorry to Bother You, a hilarious, nasty and even scary showcase for the talents of Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson.

This is comedic satire at its screwiest, with sci-fi, fantasy and horror elements inserted in such a way that Riley completely shatters the rules of conventional filmmaking. Stated simply: There are tons of “What the fuck?” moments in this movie.

Cassius Green (Stanfield) is living in a garage owned by his uncle (Terry Crews), looking for a better life and a job. His performance-artist girlfriend, Detroit (Thompson), encourages him to pursue what he wants—but tells him not lose his sense of self.

After procuring a job at a mass telemarketing agency, Cassius finds himself striking out with call after call. It’s here that Riley employs an ingenious visual trick, with Cassius physically showing up in the lives of the people he is interrupting with his telemarketing nonsense: Cassius’ desk is dropped into one situation after another (people having sex, people mourning, etc.). This does a great job of conveying the intrusiveness of that particular sales tactic.

A seasoned co-worker (Danny Glover) advises Cassius to use his white-man voice (supplied by the great, and very white, David Cross). This brings immediate success, and catapults Cassius up the ladder—and into the hallowed upstairs office where the Power Callers reside. However, the road to success involves him becoming more of a douchebag—and, ultimately, a revolutionary.

If the film were simply a caustic observation on the art of the sale and trying to get ahead in life, it would be funny enough. However, Riley doesn’t stop there: Sorry to Bother You winds up being a brutal look at class separation, racial divides, evil corporate conglomerates, slave labor, social media and, yes, bleeding head wounds. (Cassius spends a lot of time with one of those Revolutionary War-looking makeshift bandages wrapped around his head, complete with a big red blood stain.)

Stanfield—who had that masterful, turning-point scene in Get Out that featured a bloody nose, a camera and lots of screaming—takes his work to the next level in this movie. He occupies the role in a way that you could imagine nobody else doing it. Thompson, one of my very favorite actresses, does nothing but cement that status with everything she does in this movie.

Armie Hammer is funnier than you would ever expect him to be as coke-sniffing billionaire Steve Lift; things take some crazy turns after he shows up in the movie. Also showing master comic chops: Steven Yeun (Glenn from The Walking Dead) as a revolutionary co-worker, and Robert Longstreet as Cassius’ twisted boss.

Quite a while into this movie, you may be thinking: “Gee, Bob, this seems like straightforward satire to me. This isn’t as ‘out there’ as you suggested, you stupid, lying, ugly bastard.” Well, hang tight, because Riley is going to knock you on your ass with tonal shifts as violent as a volcanic eruption during a nuclear explosion. There was nobody watching over this movie and saying, “Oh, hell no, you can’t do that. Nope!” This movie is a pure example of what can happen when you don’t restrict an ambitious, talented filmmaker.

Sorry to Bother You falls short of being a classic, due to some glaringly loose-ended scenes and occasional jokes that fall flat. Riley’s scattershot style leads to some moments that feel a little sloppy and unfinished. Still, the brashness of this enterprise is absolutely breathtaking. I think Riley’s all-time classic is yet to come.

If you are suffering from sequel and/or superhero fatigue this summer, and you want something raw and new, Sorry to Bother You will not disappoint. It also might just fuck you up a bit.

Sorry to Bother You is now playing at the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 844-462-7342); the Century La Quinta and XD (46800 Washington St., La Quinta; 760-771-5682); and the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0333).

Published in Reviews

Annihilation, director Alex Garland’s film starring Natalie Portman, bills itself as a science-fiction/fantasy flick.

It is indeed sci-fi/fantasy—but on top of that, it is one of the scariest movies you will see this year. It’s also a legitimate horror film.

This alien-invasion movie, loosely based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, explores themes of self-identity and love (as did Garland’s 2014 debut Ex Machina) while mixing in environmental terror involving nightmarish creatures and transforming landscapes. It also features a startlingly brutal take on the ravages of infidelity. And did I mention it’s freaking scary?

There’s a lot going on in this movie—yet Garland and company balance it all out to make it a stunning piece of brainy entertainment.

In an opening sequence reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing, an object enters Earth’s atmosphere and crashes to the planet. The zone surrounding the crash site becomes something known as The Shimmer, an environmental phenomenon featuring a visually swirling, bendy, translucent barrier no one can figure out. Numerous expeditions into The Shimmer have resulted in the loss of many people—but one man, Kane (Oscar Isaac), does return a year after his disappearance.

Kane is the husband of Army biologist-turned-professor Lena (Portman), and he doesn’t seem all there when he sits down at the kitchen table shortly after his mysterious return. He starts convulsing and spitting up blood, which prompts a trip to the hospital. Agent types overtake the ambulance, and Lena wakes up in a strange facility next to The Shimmer, in the care of Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Before long, Lena is following Ventress into The Shimmer, accompanied by Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Josie (the increasingly amazing Tessa Thompson). Carrying guns and rations, their mission is to reach a lighthouse near the Shimmer’s origin; collect data along the way; and, unlike most who have preceded them, return with their observations.

Fat chance: It’s crazy in The Shimmer, unkind in so many ways to those who enter. Among its horrors: terrifying videos left behind by former explorers; messed-up wildlife, including mutated bears and alligators; and a general tendency to make those inside it batshit crazy. There are at least three scenes in this movie that made me want to die rather than watch them, because they were so damned scary; I was uncomfortable during a good chunk of the running time. That’s high praise for a horror movie.

To go with the dread, Garland adds a layer of sci-fi and mixes in some scary elements involving the Lena-Kane marriage. The results are a movie that goes to great lengths to challenge your mind—as much as it freaks you out.

Portman is great—Isn’t she always?—as a person determined to find out the root cause of her husband’s illness, so much so that she will endure psychological and physical fuckery. As her cohorts, Rodriguez, Novotny and Thompson all have shining moments, while Leigh provides a nice anchor. While he doesn’t have much screen time, Isaac (who also starred in Ex Machina) makes the most of his moments.

While he’s only two movies into his directorial career, Garland is proving he’s capable of many things. He’s a first-rate sci-fi auteur; he’s no slouch with pure drama; he captures stellar performances. And, without a doubt, he possesses some major horror chops. You think I’m exaggerating, but there are moments in this movie that will make even the most die-hard horror fans cringe and squirm. I would love to see him do a ghost story or pure monster movie.

Annihilation owes a lot to Ridley Scott (Alien), John Carpenter (The Thing) and any incarnation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers—yet it also feels very original. It’s 2018’s first masterpiece, a rare film that is a shining example within many genres.

Annihilation is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

They were smoking some wild shit and licking frogs when they put together Thor: Ragnarok, a film so nutty that it easily surpasses the Guardians of the Galaxy films as the screwiest offering in the Marvel universe.

When you hand the keys to the Thor franchise over to a director like Taika Waititi, you know you are going to get something bizarre—and Waititi doesn’t disappoint. Waititi is the New Zealand comic actor/director responsible for the hilarious vampire faux documentary What We Do in the Shadows and the funny family drama Hunt for the Wilderpeople. There’s really nothing on his resume that screams, “Hey, let’s have this guy direct an action packed, highly expensive Thor film!” but he got the gig, so there you go. Sometimes the wild card pays off.

Borrowing from a host of Marvel comics (including the famed “Planet Hulk” storyline), the hallucinogenic plot drops Thor (Chris Hemsworth) on a crazy garbage planet where everyone is bent on around-the-clock, violent entertainment, and led by Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, finally getting a worthy high-profile role outside of a Wes Anderson film—that was a long drought). The Grandmaster shaves Thor’s head, dresses him in gladiator gear and throws him into the ring for a weaponized bout with his prized competitor.

That prized competitor would be the Hulk, who has been held captive on the planet for the past couple of years. He’s been nothing but the Hulk the whole time, with Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) trapped inside him. Thor and Hulk have a battle royale for the ages, followed by some great scenes in which the Hulk actually speaks. (Ruffalo provides the voice, and this is the first time in the recent Marvel films where Lou Ferrigno isn’t providing Hulk’s growls.)

There’s also a whole other, apocalyptic subplot in which Thor’s long-lost sister Hela (a striking and devilish Cate Blanchett, decked out in black) is causing major havoc on his home planet of Asgard. Blanchett is now high in the ranking of Marvel movie villains. She’s played a baddie before, but never this entertainingly.

Thor’s mischievous brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) makes it into the mix, siding with his brother in the war for Asgard, although he’s still not 100 percent trustworthy. Waititi wisely plays upon the comic notes from Loki’s past Avenger films and makes Loki, more or less, a clown in this movie. It works beautifully.

The great Tessa Thompson plays Valkyrie, an Asgardian-turned-trapper for the Grandmaster who has a slight drinking problem. Karl Urban gets perhaps his best role outside of Star Trek as Skurge, an Asgardian who becomes Hela’s right-hand man; he boasts a collection of stuff that includes an infamous exercising tool.

To say the result of all this is trippy is an understatement. The movie looks like Thor meets Boogie Nights (minus the porn) meets The Lord of the Rings. It scores high marks in the fantasy genre realm while being one of the year’s funniest movies—and that’s high praise. Most of the cast members get to demonstrate both comedic and action chops, and the film never feels off balance. Goldblum, thankfully, gets to riff most of his dialogue, Goldblum-style. It all feels very improvised and loose.

As far as moving the stories of Thor and Hulk forward … in this respect, the movie spins its wheels. Ragnarok is largely a standalone, expensively silly curio that looks great and distinguishes itself without worrying much about connecting to plot threads in other films. It does do that (stay for the after credits scene), but it does so without being too obvious

This is not a problem. These are comic-book movies, and sometimes (like with Avengers: Age of Ultron), they can take themselves a little too seriously. Ragnarok embraces its insanity and takes it to highly entertaining, WTF? levels.

No, I don’t want to see this happen with every Marvel movie, because it could get tired and gimmicky. But, say, with every fourth movie, why not let a rogue director go crazy with some Avengers? It certainly works here.

Thor: Ragnarok is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

Writer/director Justin Simien makes a memorable debut with Dear White People, perhaps the best comedic film about race relations that American cinema has seen in the last 25 years.

Set at the fictional, predominantly white Ivy League college of Winchester University, the movie recalls the weeks leading up to a “race party” thrown by a white fraternity which encourages attendees to show up in black face. What results is biting, sometimes-nasty satire that can never be accused of playing things safe.

The film is named after a college radio show emceed by black female student Sam White (the mesmerizing Tessa Thompson). White plays music, occasionally speaking over the tunes with stinging observations about black/white student interactions. She’s a media major who, quite convincingly, argues that Gremlins is about suburban white fear of black culture with her professor. Fellow students suggest she might be the pissed-off baby of Spike Lee and Oprah.

Sporting a massive, epic Afro that white people can’t help but run their fingers through, black and gay Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is trying to figure out his place on the campus and in society. Thompson, who has been acting for about a decade, is a true contender for breakout performer of the year.

The movie might not hit the mark with every observation, but it hits a lot more than it misses. Simien throws caustic barbs at Tyler Perry, reality TV, Cosby and Tarantino. He is far more successful with his satire than he is with the film’s romantic relationships, which feel a little false and forced at times. That’s OK; with dialogue this sharp, I can forgive a few boring scenes with people lacking any real chemistry.

Dear White People opens Friday, Nov. 7, at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565).

Published in Reviews