What Men Want

[3 stars]

I wanted to like this more than I did.  It is funny and distracting, but, for me, the humor was just a little too stretched at times. Over and over again, just as I would invest and believe, the characters would fall into broad slapstick and lose credibility. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t funny, or even poignant at times, but it lacked consistency and an over-all believability.

Taraji P. Henson (Ralph Breaks the Internet) gives a fine comedic and emotional performance, backed by Aldis Hodge (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back), Josh Brener (The Front Runner), Max Greenfield (Hello, My Name is Doris). And with ultimately throw-away performances by Jason Jones and Kellan Lutz (The Expendables 3), there are a lot of avenues to travel. However, despite the female empowerment message, and even plotting, you’ll notice that the cast is dominated by men rather than women. There are female characters, Erykah Badu in particular, but it is the men that stand-out around here. Some of that is the focus of the story…it is the men’s heads she’s focused on…but it’s far from a woman’s movie (like Sex and the City or even Mama Mia!); it is more a comedy for women than about them.

Director Adam Shankman (Hairspray) is no stranger to outlandish comedy. This movie, however, slips in and out of that sensibility rather than holding onto an approach. The effect is like being whipsawed on a roller-coaster as the transitions are abrupt from scene to scene rather than eased into and out of, generally. I had fun, but this isn’t a new classic comedy, or even one I’d likely go back to watch again, because it just isn’t that smoothly done. Once the jokes are delivered and the message complete, there isn’t much left there to return to. See it once and laugh with someone, but then you can confidently forget it and move on to the next empty comedy.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix

[2.5 stars]

How often do you get a second bite at the apple? Even with all the time-travel in the X-Men universe, I never thought we’d get a chance to see Dark Phoenix after the horrible rendition of it in X-Men: The Last Stand. I mean, it was done, they’re not going to go back and pick it up again, right? Better to leave it buried and forgotten.

Well, nothing is ever really dead and gone in the MCU (or apparently Star Wars either). But why do you give this last of the pre-merger Marvel films to a basically untried director, Simon Kinberg? He may have a lot of producing and writing credits, including the previous two First Class films, but there was a lot to make up for after Apocalypse that no amount of Logan (or even Deadpool) was ever going to wash away.

So what we’ve been offered, as a wrap up to this cycle of X-Men, is a great idea with a talented cast, and some of the worst direction I’ve seen in a major in years. When Jennifer Lawrence (Red Sparrow), James McAvoy (Glass) and Michael Fassbender (The Snowman) can all come off as disingenuous, or worse: wooden, the director has failed them. (At least Lawrence managed to deliver the best line in the movie.) Even returning and proven up-and-comers Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One), Alexandra Shipp (Spinning Man), Evan Peters (Pose), and Kodi Smit-McPhee (A Birder’s Guide to Everything) felt disconnected from their previously portrayed versions of these younger X-Men. Sheridan, in particular, just had no leadership qualities whatsoever, and no chemistry with Lawrence.

Only Jessica Chastain (Woman Walks Ahead) and Scott Shepherd (Bridge of Spies), who were integral but not amongst the major characters, gave us any kind of performance. Neither was a brilliant performance, but at least they felt real. Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones), in the title character, was somewhere between the ineptitudes of her younger colleagues and these established two. In better directorial hands, she may have actually, fully delivered.

The story of the Dark Phoenix is legend, and Kinberg’s script had some really good ideas and structure…even some good dialogue. But the final delivery and handling of the material was amateurish, at best. The result isn’t quite as bad as Last Stand, which killed the franchise for years, but the damage is done. Should the X-Men be folded back into the Marvel Universe now that they’re all under the same banner again, they’ll have to wait for the disappointing taste of this movie to fade before they try again.

Ultimately, if you like this storyline and these characters, you do have to see this final installment (for now). It isn’t unwatchable, but it is lacking in the humor and emotion of the previous movies that made them work so well. It feels like they filmed a dress rehearsal rather than a full performance, with some characters just hitting their marks and saying their lines rather than acting. This all comes back to Kinberg who directed the takes and selected the edits. He just wasn’t ready for this kind of challenge, no matter how familiar he was with the story and involved with the earlier movies. I wish I could be more enthusiastic…I waited a long time only to be disappointed again. I’m sure I’m not alone in that sentiment.

The Scarlet Hour

[4 stars]

Remember when films were ephemeral events…before it was all stored and streamable from the cloud? How exciting is it that we’re still in an era where movies can be rediscovered after vanishing from screens for decades. Thanks to The Palm Springs Noir Fesitival one of these, The Scarlet Hour, was presented with a pristine new print supplied by Paramount. And what a treat.

Noir is definitely a matter of taste. The style is delightfully (or painfully) arch and the character types are amusing or insulting, depending on your point of view. But when lines like, “If I were dead, you couldn’t take me to the morgue,” get bandied about, I lean more toward the amused entertainment side of interpretation.

But this isn’t just about femme fatales, malleable good guys, and mustache twirling bad guys, not to mention just simply bad choices, it is about moral indignation and escapism. And, when done well or with the right cast, a rewatchable classic.

OK, Scarlet Hour, despite its pedigree director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, White Christmas) isn’t quite a classic. But it has a number of aspects going for it, thanks to Curtiz’s ability to discover new talent. Scarlet Hour boasts several new, or relatively unknown, actors at the time including Carol Ohmart, Tom Tryon, and Jody Lawrance.

But it is Elaine Stritch (Just Shoot Me), in her film debut, that steals this movie utterly. She is the most believable and displays the trademark wit and timing that would distinguish her career for the next 60 years.

In addition, a number of recognizable faces of the time were around. Among them, James Gregory, E.G. Marshall, Edward Binns, David Lewis, and Richard Deacon. Each elicited applause or sighs of appreciation upon their appearance from the audience.

The movie knows what it is…even going so far as to have a copy of White Christmas in a bargain box at a record store in one scene. It doesn’t apologize for the heightened emotions and choices. It gobbles down the genre while still providing some nice variations and unexpected moments. It probably helped that Frank Tashlin adapted his own novel for the script, with the help of John Meredyth Lucas and Alford Van Ronkel. The final moments are all very much in question as the story unspools. It isn’t entirely satisfying, but it is certainly genre-acceptable.

There are many reasons to see this flick if you get the chance. The actors, the director, the silly fun of it all. But it is also a piece of history and a lens into time and style. And Curtiz distills a lot of it nicely and with a bit of a knowing wink.

The Scarlet Hour Poster

Godzilla: King of Monsters

[3 stars]

It isn’t the movie, it’s the nostalgia that creates the joy in this latest Godzilla sequel…and the huge spectacle doesn’t hurt. The very fact that the production design keeps the CGI monsters very close to the original men-in-rubber-suits look is one of the biggest indicators of just how hard they lean into that sensibility. And, frankly, that’s OK. It strikes all the right chords on that level, but with an updated look and feel.

Returning to continue their story are Kyle Chandler (First Man) and Vera Farmiga (The Front Runner) and they’re joined by Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things) as their grown daughter. Wait, you don’t remember them from the first movie? There’s a reason for that, they weren’t there. However, the flick does a good job of convincing you they were. I have to give them credit on that point alone. However, it is only Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water), David Strathairn (November Criminals), and Ken Watanabe (Bel Canto) returning to connect the flicks. Additionally new to the mix, and to varying degrees of low-end success, are Charles Dance, Bradley Whitford (Destroyer), and Thomas Middleditch (Replicas). Honestly, none of them are at all believable.

Writer/director Michael Dougherty has a mixed set of results in his past and this movie is no exception. From Trick ‘r Treat to Krampus to X-Men: Apocalypse he often has good ideas and partial execution. In the case of this Godzilla installment, there is some real attempt to make the science work by him and collaborator Zach Shields; at least as much as it can. It is still a lot of hand-wavy nonsense, but the veneer does help. And there is an over-arching plot that is being set to tie together the past movie with this and those to come.

In some ways, the driving eco-terrorism plot the writers concoct is true to the roots of Godzilla, but comes across in a sort of uncomfortable way. While the original movies were about what was wrong in the world and what needed to change, this is much more negative on the side of those who see the truth and want to fix it all. But that isn’t the reason we all show up anyway. We’re there for the big monster fights and crazy situations. All make an appearance. This is also mainly just a bridging movie to get us to Godzilla vs. Kong.

I never expected much of this film… and, in fact, I got more than I anticipated. Is it great? No. But it is sufficient to the purpose of entertainment and it is a BIG screen movie. So grab some popcorn and settle in for the silly and the mayhem. As long as you like the genre, you’ll like the movie. If you don’t, well, it’d be a waste of your time. It doesn’t rise above its roots in any way that will reach beyond its core audience.

Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor)

[4 stars]

Few movies can sustain 3+ hours of narrative. Fewer still can do so absent some amount of action. Avengers: Endgame had story, but also a fair amount of pure adrenaline moments to keep it all going. Never Look Away has only story and still manages to remain riveting through to the end. It does employ, like other longer films, a somewhat episodic approach to revive the story every so often. In this case, it has three distinct chapters that cover the childhood and young adult life of Tom Schilling’s (Woman in Gold) Kurt.

Schilling, along with Sebastian Koch (Bel Canto), dominate the story that starts in 1937 Germany (outside Dresden, no less) and tracks through the early 1960s. I had no idea how writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s (The Tourist) was going to keep me interested for so long and through so many frustrating situations, but the script is nicely segmented and filled with enough genuine emotion and moments to keep you going.

Supporting roles by Oliver Masucc (Dark), Saskia Rosendahl, and Paula Beer were also a help. It is easy to see why this was an Oscar contender, not to mention other awards. It packs a punch without, usually, using a hammer to do so. It is an honest story of the war, but it is mostly about the meaning and communication of art. Where springs the impetus? What is an artist trying to communicate? Should they be trying to communicate? Is it just a craft or something more? All highly philosophical stuff, but they are discussions that are happening around the romance and dangers of Schilling’s life, which remains the focus.

This is also just a simple story of deep, abiding love of all kinds: familial, romantic, erotic, ideological, political. The world created by von Donnersmarck is seductively drawn and subtly appointed. And its central message in the title is not so much a challenge as an invitation and reminder that life is happening. Even with its somewhat ironic penultimate scene, its point is made. Though I will say that while I had anticipated and awaited the final moments of the film, it didn’t quite reach the pinnacle my emotions wanted, even if it did logically. That small gap was more my desire for complete closure on one of the threads, which was left to the imagination rather than on-screen resolution. Missing that, however, my anticipation made me trip over the last moment and caused cracks in the nearly perfectly constructed journey for me. And yet, I’d still highly recommend the film; it will surprise you.

One slight warning…some of the subtitles seemed to just blink on for a split second before vanishing. Honestly, I was able to fill in the gaps very easily, but it was frustrating. This is the second film I’ve run into this and I’m not sure why (it doesn’t appear to be a setting I can control, like the positioning on the screen). This seems an easy thing to avoid and quality control should be picking this kind of gaff up. It certainly knocked me out of the story more than once. Had this been a lesser movie, it probably would have lost my faith completely.

Rocketman

[4.5 stars]

Are you more interested in the truth or the lie? What sets this biopic apart from other musical tales is that Lee Hall (Victoria & Abdul) wrote a fantasy that tells the truth rather than a fantasy that replaces it. In the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, fun as it was, it was a fantasy that obscured the truth and was empty of message. Rocketman is a soaringly beautiful but honest account, in idea if not specifics, about John’s life growing up and, finally, accepting himself and getting sober. And, of course, there is the music.

Taron Egerton (Robin Hood)delivers an Elton John that is charismatic, warts and all, showing yet again his ability and range. And, unlike Malik’s Freddy Mercury, Egerton actually sings the role (though admittedly John’s voice is much easier to replicate than Mercury’s).

Director Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle) reteamed with Egerton for this musical. He took Hall’s script and made it sing, literally and figuratively. It is a non-stop reimagining of John’s catalog of songs, giving many of them new life. Just to see John’s debut at the Troubadour as conceived by Fletcher, Hall, and Egerton is worth the price of admission. It is a perfect example of fantasy making reality more real. If I have any gripe about how the story was told, it is that chronology is challenging…to be fair, it isn’t clear if John knew what year it was at that point either, so perhaps it was more a disorienting choice rather than a gap.

While Egerton is certainly at the center of all that is Rocketman, he is surrounded by talent that completes the story. Bryce Dallas Howard (Pete’s Dragon) as his mother, Steven Mackintosh (Robot Overlords) as his father, Jamie Bell (Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) as lyracist Bernie Taupin, Richard Madden (The Bodyguard) as John’s manager and lover, and Gemma Jones (God’s Own Country) as his grandmother all add important aspects and deliver great performances. Howard, in particular, walks a terribly difficult line to bring John’s mother to the screen in a consistent and believable way.

The story is exhilarating and will have you rethinking the pop phenomena and music that is Elton John. His songs may be pap, most of the time, but it is pap that wrote a good part of the score for world over the last several decades. And his story, as cautionary or exemplar is worth seeing. This is the honesty I wanted from Bohemian Rhapsody which had no sense of truth to it, even if it was entertaining. I’m glad Fletcher got a second bite at the apple, after finishing Bohemian for screen, to do this kind of story right. Rocketman is triumphant in the right ways, even if its underbelly is quite a bit more scuffed by life.

Replicas

[1.5 stars]

How do you ruin an interesting idea? Well, first you throw a weak director at it, Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who’s entire sense of credited science fiction is The Day After Tomorrow. Then you pass him a script by Chad St. John, who’s most recent flicks, Peppermint and London Has Fallen, were painful at times. And to top it off, put Keanu Reeves (John Wick 3: Parabellum) in the lead.

Reeves works in some roles, especially those where stoic is the anchor word for the character. But he requires a strong director to help him navigate a script with real emotion. He had no such help here and it shows. Even Alice Eve (Iron Fist) and John Ortiz (Peppermint), who have some proven range, can’t get past the bad stewardship of this story. Only Thomas Middleditch (The Final Girls) manages to come off as somewhat credible, but only because he’s playing himself…and he is more natural than credible in the role.

The movie is full of bad choices and contradictions, stupid decisions and ridiculous science. I mean REALLY ridiculous science that had me yelling at the screen. And it doesn’t just hit that science once as a Macguffin and run away. Oh no, it harps and harps on it, building upon shaky foundations with even more outrageous claims. And yet, with all that, the script doesn’t even attempt to get to the interesting aspects of the issues it raises, though it manages one clever choice in its 100ish minutes. This isn’t a horror tale masquerading as science fiction, nor is it philosophical conversation of the possibilities, like Ex Machina, it is simply a badly written, weakly executed waste of your time.

Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur)

[2.5 stars]

Juliette Binoche (Summer Hours) is always worth seeing, but it helps if she has a good story to work with. The problems with this movie begin with the miss-translation of the title (which is closer to: The Beautiful Light Within). That more-direct translation makes slightly more sense than the published choice, though in an ironic way. The movie is really a dark (French) comedy rather than a hopeful journey of a middle-aged woman looking for love and connection; a sort of anti-Gloria.

Claire Denis directs Binoche through a constantly shifting emotional landscape very naturally. But her co-written script just never comes together. In fact, as untethered as it is through its episodic view of Binoche’s life, it manages to go completely into the woods during the final credits.

I can’t honestly recommend the film. I didn’t find it all that funny or even all that dark. It is just sort of sad and frustrating. And, ultimately, I felt I was cheated of my time. So either I really missed the point, or this movie did. Given the talent involved, I’m open to either reality. You, however, will have to decide for yourself.

Life Partners

[3.5 stars]

What kind of difference can the right casting make? This is a movie that is emblematic of the answer. There is nothing much new in Life Partners, but Leighton Meester (Like Sunday, Like Rain) and Gillian Jacobs (Life of the Party) make the film work. Both women are entertaining comediennes on their own, but here they are perfectly paired as best friends in this very sweet indie. Their humor and delivery makes it feel like they grew up together which, in turn, makes the script disappear into the performances.

To be fair, they don’t do it alone. Adam Brody (The Oranges) adds a nice tension to the friendship and, dutifully, hangs in the background of it all. Mark Feuerstein (In Your Eyes) and Gabourey Sidibe (Tower Heist) also provide a few nice moments in smaller roles. But this is Meester and Jacobs’ film.

Honestly, it’s a surprisingly effective film…it is done with such honesty and warmth that you can’t help but enjoy it. In her feature debut as director and co-writer, Susan Fogel shows she has both heart and talent. She was able to breathe life into the story and control the energy and flow of the performances to bring it all together in delightful ways. For a light and sweet evening that can give you hope without making your teeth ache, this one is worth your time.

Brightburn

[3 stars]

Is there anything scarier than a 12-year old going through puberty? How about one with untried superpowers? The result is really more a horror flick than science fiction. Think We Need to Talk About Kevin, if Keven were Kal-El, more than Carrie with a guy.

Jackson A. Dunn’s Brandon Breyer isn’t so much an anti-hero as anti hero. He plays it nicely deadpan, but with enough confusion about  his new “feelings” to make it recognizable. Elizabeth Banks (The Happytime Murders) and David Denman (Puzzle) struggle as his parents to deal with his oncoming adulthood, as every parent does. Their concerns are essentially the same, but the price of failure and miscommunication are just higher. Watching them navigate the situation is as much fun as watching their son begin to come into his own. It makes Brightburn at once a tense trainwreck of a horror film and a darkly funny metaphor for adolescence. And the costuming for Brandon’s alter ego is a wonderful and subtle gift.

Brightburn isn’t exactly drawing in a wide audience. In some ways, it is timely in the superhero glutted days of movies as counterpoint. But we, as a population, flock to superheros when things are bad and we need hope. Is it surprising that during today’s struggles most people want their heroes to be heroes rather than … well, not? Go to this for the evil glee and mayhem that it offers. It isn’t brilliant in script or direction, but it is solid and delivers what it intends without the stupidity on the part of characters that most horror films provide and rely on. Frankly, I had fun with it, even as I found it disturbing as heck.

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…