CVIndependent

Thu12122019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Bob Grimm

I was 18 years old in 1986 when the whole Chernobyl thing went down. If you think the anti-Russian sentiment in the United States is at a fever pitch today, it’s nothing compared to what it was in the mid-1980s—especially when the nightmare occurred.

I confess that my teenage self—worried about my first year in college and the fact that I had to drive a Volkswagen Rabbit through the Adirondacks—didn’t pay enough attention to what was going on in Russia. I knew that there was an accident, and that some radiation escaped. It wasn’t until years later that I started to understand what really happened: The planet was almost irreparably altered.

HBO’s excellent five-episode series about the Chernobyl disaster, which concludes tonight, does a heart-wrenching job of showing the human toll and sacrifice it took to keep Russia and the planet safe. Jared Harris is superb as a scientist sent in to figure the whole mess out, as is Stellan Skarsgard as the government stooge sent along with him. It’s grueling, scary stuff, and it’s educational.

I’m four episodes in, and I’m convinced TV will have a hard time topping this series this year.

Chernobyl is now airing on HBO, and is available on HBO’s streaming services.

Will Smith’s big blue Genie is the surprising highlight of the fair-to-middling Aladdin, the live-action remake of the Disney animated classic.

Smith does just fine in the role the great Robin Williams voiced in 1992, and the character gets fleshed out in a manner that is genuinely moving at times—even if his blueness is perhaps a bit creepy from some angles. (It also looks like he’s pushing a big poop out the top of his head, thanks to that hairstyle.) In fact, if they decided to make a horror spinoff where the blue genie starts biting off heads, that would be kind of awesome. He’s scary already.

Director Guy Ritchie goes the full musical route, and while he has a reasonably talented cast, the whole enterprise feels a bit unnecessary. This is not a bad movie by any means, but it is overlong—and one cast member in particular ultimately brings things down.

Mena Massoud is a halfway decent Aladdin, while Naomi Scott provides a luminous Jasmine. Both do good jobs singing the famous songs, and they certainly look the parts. Their magic carpet ride while belting “A Whole New World” is charming, and they make a cute couple. It’s a shame this is all in the service of something that, no matter how much money is being thrown at the screen, feels hollow.

Beyond the general been-there, done-that vibe, the film’s downfall is Marwan Kenzari being woefully miscast as Jafar. In the animated movie, Jafar was a demonic force. Here, he’s a little whiny guy wearing a goofy hat—and his parrot is nowhere nearly as memorable as the one voiced by Gilbert Gottfried in the original. If Kenzari’s Jafar registered even the slightest level of menace, it might’ve been enough to render Aladdin recommendable. But … man, this guy really stinks up the place. Each time he walks onscreen, it’s like a steel-tipped boot kick to the movie’s crotch.

Nasim Pedrad of Saturday Night Live fame is a welcome presence as Dalla, Jasmine’s handmaiden. She’s good here, and it would be nice to see her score some higher-profile roles, because she hasn’t been doing enough since departing SNL.

Many of the songs from the original make it into the new version, as do a couple of new tunes. Smith puts fun spins on “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali,” and Scott hits the post on “A Whole New World” and the new “Speechless.” Besides “World” and “Friend,” the music isn’t all that catchy. It wasn’t all that catchy in the original, either.

Disney is remaking its animated classics into live-action films like crazy. Aladdin winds up somewhere near the top of the bottom half. It’s not nearly as good as The Jungle Book or Cinderella, but it’s better than Dumbo and Alice in Wonderland. Disney isn’t stopping anytime soon, with The Lion King coming out later this summer and Mulan on the horizon.

So … Aladdin is not very good, but it’s not the travesty it looked like it was going to be. The blue Genie is indeed weird and a little scary, but Smith makes it a fun kind of weird. As for Jafar, he’s Jar Jar Binks bad—the kind of bad you just can’t get around. The film seems to be suggesting a sequel that would most assuredly include Jafar, so recast strategies should be put into play immediately. Recast Jafar! And get Gilbert Gottfried back as the parrot!

At this rate, Disney is going to run out of animated movies to remake somewhere around 2023, at which time it will probably start remaking the remakes. I’m expecting a live-action redo of the live-action Beauty and the Beast remake somewhere around 2025.

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

Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein deliver star-making performances in Booksmart as Amy and Molly, two super-smart high school students looking to get crazy on graduation eve after years of hitting the books and missing all of the fun.

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is smart and funny; this is a film that feels like a relative of Superbad, which makes sense, considering Feldstein is Jonah Hill’s little sister. (They both have those those wide eyes while dryly delivering wise-ass asides.)

Besides this dynamic duo, the film is blessed with the presence of Skyler Gisondo (of Santa Clarita Diet) as Jared, the super-sweet and dorky rich kid; Jason Sudeikis (Wilde’s longtime partner) as the school principal; and Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s parents. However, the best member of the supporting cast would be Billie Lourd, daughter of Carrie Fisher, as the oddball student who keeps magically showing up at every party Amy and Molly visit.

The film is consistently funny—and just a little dark and nasty, with Wilde and cast navigating nicely from very funny to very awkward. Feldstein has comic chops that rival her brother’s, so here’s hoping this is the start of her headlining career.

Booksmart is playing at theaters across the valley.

Well … this oddity came out of nowhere.

Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island cronies recently dropped The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience on Netflix. This nutty 27-minute “musical poem” chronicles the late ’80s insanity that was the Bash Brothers—the steroid-enriched combo of Oakland Athletics baseball players Jose Canseco (Samberg) and Mark McGwire (Akiva Schaffer).

The short film chronicles their rise and fall, taking a hilariously esoteric deep dive into psyches that were apparently a lot more complicated than their athletic exteriors revealed. The Lonely Island guys grew up in the Bay Area, so this is something that is close to home for them. It’s also an inspired and unexpected choice upon which to base a half-hour music video.

Musical group Haim shows up with Maya Rudolph to do an ass-shaking routine that reminds of Janet Jackson’s “Nasty,” while Sterling K. Brown makes an appearance as, yes, Sia. This is actually as visually impressive as it is musically, in line with the Lonely Island’s hilarious Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.

The highlight actually comes during the credits, when Jorma Taccone shows up as a dorky, singing Joe Montana, another Bay Area sports legend. Popstar didn’t get any traction in theaters (although it deserved it), so maybe the shorter format will catch fire on Netflix, and we will get a bunch of these. That would be nice.

The Lonely Island Presents: The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience is now streaming on Netflix

The gun opera that is the John Wick franchise keeps on rolling with gory gust—and some great dogs to boot—in John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum.

When we last saw Keanu Reeves as John Wick, he had gotten kicked out of his assassination group, losing all of the perks. His killing a fellow assassin within the walls of the Continental Hotel means no more room service or dog-sitting. He’s got a multimillion-dollar bounty on his head, and no place to kick his feet up.

John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum picks up right where the last one left off, with a battle-wary Wick running in the streets, putting distance between himself and the hotel, and trying to figure out his next big move. As for the level of action in this chapter, it makes the fun Chapter 2 look like a sleepy intermission.

I’ll just say this right up front: John Wick gets no time for rest here, and he seriously gets his ass kicked while kicking ass. Credit Reeves for playing this part perfectly, on a level where we can believe that this dude, who keeps getting stabbed and shot, can turn on his afterburners and keep shooting people in the face.

Wick basically runs from one action set piece to another, with returning director and former stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski making each something to behold. A gun battle inside a weapons museum counts as a franchise highlight, as does Wick’s gunfight atop a motorcycle.

Yes, dogs play a major role in the shenanigans, which makes this dog person very happy. Wick’s travels take him to fellow assassin Sofia (Halle Berry), looking for assistance. Sofia has two German shepherds who get into the action during a gun battle, and they add an interesting element of violence to the proceedings. Stahelski isn’t just a master of human stunts; he’s capable of getting bad-ass performances out of canines, too. Wick’s beautiful pit bull does have a place in the film, so those of you who have missed that pup will be pleased.

As for Berry, she may’ve been missing her calling all these years. She’s beyond awesome in this movie—a veritable action star who actually outshines Reeves during her major battle scene. I’m calling for a Sofia spinoff right now!

As good as Berry is, the best supporting player in the film is Mark Dacascos as Zero, a sushi-chef/assassin who goes up against Wick while dealing with feelings of hero worship for him. He’s the funniest thing in the entire franchise.

Another stop along the way has Reeves sharing screen time with Anjelica Huston as The Director, a stern Russian who talks dirty business while punishing ballerinas. Huston hasn’t been this much fun onscreen in years. Laurence Fishburne returns as the Bowery King, so the coolness of that Matrix connection continues.

Asia Kate Dillon is the film’s weak link as the Adjudicator, a representative of the High Table sent to set matters straight with the Continental, Wick and the Continental’s manager, Winston (an always growly Ian McShane). Dillon is dull, basically killing all the scenes in which the character shows up. There’s just something off in her line deliveries.

As for Parabellum’s place in the series, it’s the best in the franchise after the original. It’s got the largest scope, and Stahelski and Reeves continuously top themselves with each action feat and gun ballet. Stahelski is making a serious run at becoming one of cinema’s best action directors. You really feel every shot, every hit and every fall in this movie. The action scenes have a major clarity to them, with crisp and concise editing that makes it very easy to follow the mayhem. It’s insanely beautiful.

This chapter, like those before it, ends with a big cliffhanger, so it’s a safe bet the story will continue. Like the character himself, this money train won’t be bleeding out anytime soon.

John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum is playing at theaters across the valley.

Mary Harron, director of American Psycho, helms Charlie Says, a film about real-life psycho Charles Manson (Matt Smith) and three female members of his “family”: Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón) and Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon).

Harron and longtime screenwriting partner Guinevere Turner try to take an insightful look at the three women during the early portion of their prison sentences, while utilizing flashbacks to show the buildup to the crimes that got them there. Unfortunately, the film makes the mistake of trying to portray the three women as brainwashed victims, with every line delivery accompanied by that patented Manson Family smile.

The film works fairly well when showing life on the ranch with Manson, and the ways in which he manipulated those around him; the brief depiction of the murders is chilling. As for the prison scenes, during which the three women are going through a form of therapy, they alternate between pretty good and very bad.

Harron is a gifted director, and a full-fledged movie about Manson and his followers in her hands might’ve been something fantastic. However, this semi-sympathetic depiction of his “family victims” leaves a slightly bad taste.

Charlie Says is available via online sources, including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Writer, director and certified nutball Gaspar Noé (Enter the Void, Irreversible) makes another technically impressive movie with Climax—but this one comes up short in the narrative category.

The film chronicles a crazed night for a dance troupe that winds up drinking a bowl full of sangria spiked with LSD. Rather than exploring the comedic aspects of a dance troupe freaking out, Noe goes for straight-up violent horror, and the movie doesn’t come together in the end.

The audience has no emotional investment in any of these characters, so when they go from vivid (and impressive) dancing to nasty behavior, it feels hollow.

Noé is interested in impressive technical feats, with numerous scenes strung together in one shot. The camera trickery is awesome, for sure, but here, it’s at the service of a generally flat, unimaginative story. Only the numerous dance scenes really pop.

The setup could have elicited prime Noé (Enter the Void was amazing), but Climax winds up feeling like a long, boring improvisational piece laced with hallucinogens. It could have been funny and crazy, but it turned out to be a real slog.

Climax is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com; it will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on May 27.

I know that there is a thing called Pokémon GO that people play on their phones. I know that there are TV cartoons and all sorts of trading cards and merchandising involving Pikachu and other wacky creatures … but that’s about the extent of my Pokémon knowledge.

Problem: In Pokémon Detective Pikachu, there’s an established mythology. It’s not an origin movie; it’s an “If you don’t know anything about Pokémon, none of this is going to make a lick of sense” movie.

Still … Ryan Reynolds voices the title character, a little yellow fur ball with a Sherlock Holmes hat; that could be fun, right? Well, it’s fun for about the first 15 minutes—before everything gets lost in a haze of sloppy action and convoluted plotlines.

No doubt, they got some good performers to participate in this moneymaker. Along with Reynolds, you get Bill Nighy as the creator of the Pokémon world, or something like that. (I’m still not sure what he really did.) Justice Smith plays Tim, the main protagonist, a young adult who has lost his father and befriends Pikachu. And then there’s the very talented Kathryn Newton, under-utilized as TV reporter-wannabe Lucy Stevens. Heck, even Ken Watanabe shows up in this mess, doing pretty much what he did in Godzilla (looking up to the sky in awe).

Tim reunites with Pikachu after his dad dies in a car accident. Pikachu was Dad’s Pokémon. (The world is a place where lots of folks walk around with a Pokémon partner.) Tim’s Dad and Detective Pikachu were investigating some heavy stuff involving a purple gas that makes all the Pokémon go nuts.

By the time this thing wrapped, I honestly had no idea what had really happened, nor did I really care. The movie didn’t pique my interest in the Pokémon enterprise; it solidified my indifference. Let’s just say I’m not going to be downloading any of that shit to my phone.

Director Rob Letterman (Goosebumps) labors to make all the mayhem make sense, but his large team of screenwriters came up with something that baffles more than marvels. It also rips off the likes of Tim Burton’s Batman in its finale, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner for the look of the Pokémon city. This isn’t an original piece by any means.

Smith, a normally likable and capable actor, seems like the wrong pick for the role. His face is perpetually contorted into an expression that looks like he could laugh or cry at any moment, and he seems like he’s straining to find his place in the Pokémon world (a world that was probably a bunch of green screens on the set). It’s hard to watch Nighy delivering his goofy Pokémon-centric dialogue like he means it. He probably knew less about Pokémon than I did when he took the gig.

If anything works in this movie, it’s Reynolds, who provides Pikachu with enough character, warmth and humor to make one wish the little guy had a better movie to run around in. Watch out, parents: Your little Pikachu fans will be asking you what other movies the Pikachu voice has done, and this could fire up their curiosity to watch something like Deadpool. Get your “There’s no goddamned way you are watching Deadpool!” responses ready. As for this, it’s relatively harmless, so if your kids like the TV show or the playing cards or that stupid thing that has them running around in the streets looking for Pokémon on your phone, they’ll probably like this.

If you are uninitiated, as am I, this movie will come off as a useless blur. If you love you some Pokémon, perhaps you won’t hate it like I did, but I’m guessing few people are going to fall in love with this movie. Either way, I’m glad it’s out of the way so we can bring on the John Wick and Godzilla sequels.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Almost a quarter-decade ago, The American President came out; it’s a cutesy romantic comedy starring Michael Douglas as a Bill Clinton-like president and Annette Bening as the lady he wants to date. America swooned, but I threw up. I hated it.

Now, in the Trump era, we get Long Shot, a different twist on a high-profile politician dating a commoner. This time out, Charlize Theron stars as Charlotte Field, secretary of state and potential presidential candidate. Her eventual romantic interest is Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), a journalist-turned-speech writer who, not surprisingly, smokes lots of weed.

Long Shot is better than The American President. It’s a lot better than The American President.

Flarsky is a dweeby, wind-breaker-wearing columnist whose alternative-weekly newspaper is sold to a conservative media mogul (an unrecognizable Andy Serkis). He quits his job and finds himself attending a high-society party featuring Charlotte and Boyz II Men along with his best pal, Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr., showing he’s a lot funnier than his reasonably funny dad, Ice Cube).

It turns out that Fred knows Charlotte; she was a neighbor when he was a kid, and she (being three years older) baby-sat him. They get reacquainted; Fred gets a job as her speech writer; one thing leads to another; and there you have it—one of the year’s most unlikely rom-com pairings. It works swimmingly, because Theron and Rogen have serious onscreen chemistry.

Before you go squawking that a woman of Theron’s caliber would never date a Rogen-type in real life, I’d like to point out that Theron seriously dated the scrunchy-faced Sean Penn. Seth Rogen kicks Sean Penn’s ass in many categories, including looks. Just saying.

Whatever you may think of this pairing before you see the movie, trust me: Theron and Rogen pull it off. Their courtship is funny, awkward, hilariously drug-laced and utterly convincing. There are many fantasy elements to this movie, but most of those play out on the political side. As for the romance part, that’s the most realistic thing happening in this film. Charlotte likes to party, and much of the Fred character is modeled after Rogen—and Rogen is the king of partying. It’s a good match.

The political stuff is hyper-satire, with Bob Odenkirk scoring big points as the former TV star-turned-president who won’t be seeking re-election, because he wants to make the big leap into film. (He idolizes Woody Harrelson.) Oh, if only this were this the case in 2020 …

Long Shot is directed by real-life Rogen buddy Jonathan Levine. (The two worked together on 50/50 and The Night Before.) Levine proves to be the right choice to pull off the wacky screenplay by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah, a script that gives equal time to environmental issues and accidentally jacking off into one’s beard (a moment reminiscent of There’s Something About Mary). It’s a daring script that takes chances, like a nuclear-bomb thriller portion. Not all of the jokes hit the mark, but enough do.

Theron is one of the best actresses at work today, and she’s also one of the funniest. (See her stint on Arrested Development for further evidence.) She’s actually funnier than Rogen in this movie. That’s not a dig on Rogen; he’s funny, but Theron wins the funny war in Long Shot. As for Jackson, his Lance deserves his own spinoff movie.

Sadly, Long Shot got its clock cleaned at the box office by a little movie called Avengers: Endgame. It looks like America isn’t convinced it needs to see Theron and Rogen making out while high on molly. Whatever. If you are skipping this because you think the pairing looks ridiculous, know that it is indeed a ridiculous movie—but the pairing is the least-ridiculous thing about it. They are a good onscreen couple. I hope they work together again, and I hope Long Shot finds life in the future on streaming platforms.

Long Shot is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Director Joe Berlinger is no stranger to dark subjects. He directed the documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, a movie that arguably helped release three innocent men from prison. Earlier this year, he directed Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, a four-part documentary series on the infamous serial killer.

Now comes this, a narrative film about Bundy’s life, focusing on the years in which he was killing women while having a relationship with Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), a single parent he met in a bar.

Zac Efron steps into the role of Bundy in a way that is downright frightening. If you mess with Efron’s hair a bit, he’s a dead-ringer for Bundy, but his work here goes well beyond physical resemblance. There was plenty of footage of Bundy for Efron to study (his murder trial was televised, a first in American history), and Efron definitely captures Bundy’s creepy, deceptive charisma.

Berlinger’s film focuses on the charms that fooled many who knew Bundy; he was a mostly affable, cheerful guy in the public eye. There was something supremely evil boiling behind his movie-star eyes, though, and Berlinger mostly avoids his depraved deeds in favor of examining his life away from the murders. It’s a risky approach—Berlinger could have been accused of romanticizing Bundy with the casting of Efron and the lack of carnage in the movie—but it mostly works. This movie is far from romantic, and those watching it probably know what a sick man Bundy was. This is a horror story, but one that favors creeping terror over massive bloodletting.

Berlinger covered the details of Bundy’s crimes (using Bundy’s own words) in the documentary. This film is something different, and it’s mostly successful at showing the public another frightening side of Bundy, thanks to Efron’s strong work.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is now streaming on Netflix.