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Late Night – A Movie Review


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Jumbled, simplistic and disappointing, Late Night is a significant let down for anyone who enjoys the typically sharp humor of Mindy Kaling and the usual engaging acting of Emma Thompson. The plot of the film is paper-napkin thin, the chemistry between the main characters is implausible at best and the themes of the movie (such as they are) are ham-handed to the point of ridiculousness.

Thompson sleepwalks through the movie as Katherine Newbury, a long reigning late night talk show host who cares little about her staff and less about her audience. Much is made of the face that the character hates women (though the film goes out of its way to mention that many of the guests she books are, in fact, women) so, in the kind of plot requirement that only movies as bad as this one employs, a diversity hire is made. A woman is added to her all male writing room – any woman as it turns out, even one with no experience and no credentials.

Enter the usually charming Mindy Kaling (who also wrote the movie). To call her Molly Patel 2 dimensional is too kind a description. Unconvincing and uninvolving, Molly never connects with the audience and each attempt at adding depth to her comes off poorly.

The movie wants to be a cross between the excellent The Devil Wears Prada and the very good Morning Glory. Instead it comes off as a high schooler’s interpretation of what writing for and producing a late night talk show is. Throw in some overly simplistic ideas about the role of women in society and sexual politics and you have the makings of a disastrous misfire.

This is a shame. Not only are Thompson and Kaling wasted but a broader impact is made here. Society could use more movies written and directed by women with women in lead roles. Movies like Late Night are not going to aid in that cause.

LATE NIGHT receives ONE FAKE EMMY AWARD out of a possible FIVE

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Toy Story 4 – A Movie Review


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While Toy Story 3 was an almost perfect swansong for Woody, Buzz, Jessie and the rest of the gang from Andy’s room, Toy Story 4 is not simply a nostalgic cash grab. The movie has a story to tell that is actually worth telling and, if the themes seem slightly revisited from previous installments, no one will be complaining when the lights come up.

As the movie begins, the gang is settled in with a new child and is fulfilling their life’s work of keeping her happy. Within a few moments, though, the audience comes to realize that Woody is in an existential crisis over his purpose as he has been left in the closet for a series of consecutive days. Looking for a way to remain relevant in a changing world, Woody discovers it in a very unlikely place: the new character called Forky.

Forky, an anthropomorphized piece of, well, garbage, is one of the least visually appealing characters ever introduced in the Toy Story films. Colorless, odd looking and weird, this spork is a strange choice around which to build a film but the minds behind Toy Story 4 make the character work and, further, make him the crux of a new story featuring some of the most beloved animated creations of all time.

Bonnie loves Forky and Woody decides that his life’s work is now ensuring that nothing happens to Forky.

Spoiler alert: something happens to Forky. Many somethings happen to Forky.

One of the subversive elements of the Toy Story movies has been the fact that most of the primary motivations of the characters are edgy and Woody’s actions in Toy Story 4 are no exception. As he goes to great lengths to save Forky from various impending dooms, it is never clear whether these actions are purely altruistic or if they come solely from a place of self preservation. The complexity of this dynamic has set these movies apart from other animated fare and the audience can expect no less than this kind of layered story-telling in Toy Story 4.

This is a very good movie. It is visually stunning, actually hewing closer to amazing in many scenes. The rendering is light years ahead of where it was when the original movie hit theaters some 24 years ago (a longer interval than between Star Wars and The Phantom Menace, by-the-way) and it should be. The characters are all the more charming, though, and the action all the more out-of-this-world. That the entire living voice cast returned speaks to the love they have for this world and Pixar does not waste their or the audience’s good will.

Toy Story 4 is a worthy addition to the franchise and the best family summer movie of 2019. While it does not plumb the emotional depths of prior installments, it is far better than most of the movies in theaters today. Provided they are always treated with the kinds of respect this movie affords them, Woody, Buzz, Jessie and the rest of the toy box gang will always been welcome on our screens.

TOY STORY 4 receives FOUR PLASTIC SPORKS out of a possible FIVE

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Dark Phoenix – A Movie Review


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Dark Phoenix, the latest and last of Fox’s Marvel mutants movies (since Disney has purchased back the rights to the characters) ought to be an epic swan song for the franchise which has seen highs (X-Men, X-2, X-Men: Days of Future Past) and lows (X-Men Last Stand, X-Men Apocalypse). Instead, the movie makes a second attempt at telling one of the most iconic X-Stories of all time and bungles it.

Again.

This time, the story is told with the “new cast” of younger actors and, for the casual fan, that is confusing in-and-of itself. Those who have passing familiarity with the franchise might know they have seen a version of this movie in the past. Perhaps that’s okay. That rendition was not much good either.

This movie starts off in fairly promising fashion, with some snappy effects in a set piece involving a space shuttle (remember when we had a space program?) and a daring rescue by the X-Women (more empowerment is always a good thing) which entangles super powerful mutant Jean Grey with some kind of cosmic force. Things go quickly downhill from there.

Following the rescue, the team realizes there’s something wrong with Jean and spend the rest of the movie in various states of denial about the changes she is obviously undergoing. Compounding her challenges is the realization that Charles Xavier (played, again, by the very solid James McAvoy) has kept part of her past from her. Between the increased power coursing through her and her anger at her mentor, Jean seems very motivated to break with the X-Men and go rogue.

And she does.

She seeks out bad/good guy Magneto (the fiercely talented and totally committed Michael Fassbender) for good/bad advice in a scene that advances the plot Not. One. Inch.

There are far too many scenes that amount to nothing here and one begins to suspect that the plot of the movie is almost entirely based on a comic book cover and not the story contained within. Nowhere in the movie is this more obvious than with a major plot point that NEVER comes together. Jessica Chastain is on hand to play an alien villain that wants Jean’s new power. I think. The characters’ motivations are ambiguous at best even though she is made to constantly explain what she is doing. It’s possible that a better and more coherent cut of the movie would have resulted from removing her and this plot all together.

The bottom line on Dark Phoenix is this: it is boring. Through no fault of the actors who are all doing their best with limited material, the movie never makes the audience care about the characters or their plight. When a major X-figure dies, the scene does not land because the death does not matter. It is just as underwhelming as the rest of the movie is.

Which is a shame. This could have been a good story. It should have made a good movie. We could have had a fitting end to Fox’s X-Saga.

We did not get one.

DARK PHOENIX receives TWO ANGRY MUTANTS out of a possible FIVE

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Rocketman – A SPOILER FREE Movie Review


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Taron Egerton has arrived. Make no mistake about this point. Following his work as Elton John in the explosive, propulsive and ebullient Rocketman, Egerton leaps from nice actor to leading man.

“Leaps” is it the correct verb.

His work in the movie will, likely, be endlessly compared to Rami Malek’s as Freddie Mercury in last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Obviously, Malek was terrific (and took home the Best Actor Academy Award) but Egerton goes him one better. In Bohemian Rhapsody Malek provided an almost note perfect impression of Mercury. In Rocketman, Egerton makes the audience believe he is Elton John and when the movie launches into a frame-by-frame recreation of one of the singer’s most iconic music videos, Egerton owns it in a way only a performer can. He does not simply ape Elton John, he becomes him and, for the run of the movie, manages to replace him.

It is amazing work.

From its opening scene, Rocketman tells the audience that it is not a rote biopic and, for some, I suspect that will be a bit off putting. The trailers have only hinted at the extent that the tagline “Based on a True Fantasy” is an operative directive for this movie. Believe it. This movie, while concerned with telling Elton John’s amazing and often quite sad story, is not preoccupied with delivering in pseudo-documentary fashion. Rather it invites the audience into the frenzy and fashion and frenzy of Elton John’s life and it does so rather well.

Egerton is terrific and does remarkable work with Elton John’s music. In the run up to the movie, it seemed an odd choice not to use the music icon’s voice and accompaniments during the movie, but the structure of the film more than justifies this decision and Egerton holds up his end of the bargain. Supported by Jamie Bell and collaborator Bernie Taupin and Richard Madden as unscrupulous manager John Reid (along with a dark turn by an all but unrecognizable Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton John’s mother), Egerton explodes off the screen in musical numbers that are electric and in despair that is endless.

The movie looks amazing with a production design that befits the flamboyance of the lead character and each time period in Elton John’s life is masterfully recreated. That director Dexter Fletcher was able to mount this production while pinch hitting in the eleventh hour on the troubled Bohemian Rhapsody is something of a feat in-and-of-itself.

There are a few moments where Rocketman seems to struggle against itself, losing its momentum as it illustrates scene after scene of Elton John’s struggles with self doubt and isolation. Perhaps this is by design – as the character bogs down in his challenges, the movie does as well. That it sacrifices a bit of the excitement of the early reels in this shift is to be expected and it does regain its energy with a terrific number by the end. Rocketman ends as a wonderful if sometimes distressing love song about one of the greatest pop artists of all time and does so – seemingly – without sugar coating its subject. It is not perfect, but it is perfectly earnest and engaging. And the performance by its star alone makes it worth seeing.

ROCKETMAN receives FOUR CRIES FOR HELP out of a possible FIVE

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Long Shot – A Movie Review


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Both Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen are incredibly likable in Long Shot, a romantic comedy, beauty and the beast story that places old acquaintances Theron (as the Secretary of State) and Rogen (as a crusading, social justice warrior) in each others’ paths 20 years after their last contact. That last contact was a particularly embarrassing one of Rogen and a particularly important one for Theron.

Long Shot‘s stars a loaded with charisma and share a surprising amount of chemistry as they make their way through a plot line that the audience has seen before: boy and girl re-meet after years, boy and girl think they like each other, obstacles get in the way of their budding romance, boy and girl have to decide what they will do for their love.

I’ve got chills. They’re multiplyin’.

No one, however, in under any delusions that Long Shot is Shakespeare and no one needs to be. Long Shot, primarily, falls nicely into the respected and time-honored genre of romantic comedies and it works very nicely as one. Theron is a remarkable actress, but she never feels here that she is above the material. Rather she seems like she is having a terrific time. And Rogen, who can be incredibly funny, tamps down his more overt antics in favor of creating a character that might actually be able to exist in Theron’s world. The movie does a great job selling this relationship and giving it just enough emotional heft to carry the film.

However, there are moments in Long Shot where it is clear the movie loses track of what it wants to be. Is it going to be a romantic comedy of old or a raunchy comedy of today. In trying too hard to straddle this line, Long Shot squanders potential. Much more a romantic comedy, the movie seems disjointed and trying too hard each time it introduces and over-the-top sequence in an attempt to shock to amuse.

But, as a slight and fun diversion, one could do much worse than taking a flyer on it. Long Shot delivers more than enough laughs as it relies on the wattage of its stars to justify a viewing… if you like this sort of thing. And it does something else that lovers of this genre demand: it gives the audience a wrap up to let us know where the characters go after the end credits!

LONG SHOT receives THREE AND A HALF SECRET SERVICE MEN out of a possible FIVE







LONG SHOT receives THREE AND A HALF SECRET SERVICE MEN out of a possible FIVE

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Avengers | Endgame – A SPOILER FREE Movie Review


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It is very difficult to review Avengers | Endgame without spoiling something. One of the recurring reactions during this movie was “how did they hide THAT?!?” In this age of spoilers, the fact that so much of this movie unfolded without the audience knowing what was coming next is something of a superheroic accomplishment in-and-of-itself. I found myself shocked and pleased by each successive surprise and, as I consider the movie a few days after seeing it, utterly pleased by each-and-every moment that directors Joe and Anthony Russo and the screen writers packed into this 3 hour movie, a runtime that never once felt long.

There is much to accomplish in this movie. If the title and the press is to be believed, it is the wrap up of 22 prior films and provides a coda to the story line that was originated in 2008’s Iron Man. The most impressive feat of the movie is that it lives up to those expectations. It accomplishes all it sets out to do and it is surprisingly funny in doing so.

We know the story: following the events of Avengers | Infinity War half of the population of the universe has been annihilated and the surviving Avengers are wrestling with what to next. Can they find a way to undo what Thanos’ snap accomplished? Do they continue to “avenge” in this new world? Are they done with the superhero game all together?

One of the most impressive things about the movie is that any and all of the above answers seem possible. The audience has very little idea of where this movie is going to take them (even if they assume that time travel is, in fact, involved). Somehow, the filmmakers manage to engage, amuse and surprise with this Tale to Astonish and the ride is terrifically fun.

But the stakes are real. They are high. There are repercussions. Deaths count. Actions have reactions. Decisions have consequences.

That’s a good thing after the emotional investment many have made in these movies and in these characters.

One of the things that have set these Marvel Studios films apart is the spot-on casting and the all-in nature of the performances that the actors have given in their iconic roles. Robert Downey, jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo and Jeremy Renner – the original Avengers – are all so very good in this movie as they have been in all of these Marvel films, that one hates to see the closing credits roll. Without question, things have changed. The endgame has been reached. Each of these actors has terrific moments in the movie and each deserves them. Likely we will never see them assembled together in quite the same way.

Telling a “last” chapter is a challenging thing. Think of the final installments that have preceded this movie. They are often less than fulfilling either as a conclusion to running plot lines. They are often less than fulfilling as a conclusion to emotional arcs. Avengers | Endgame satisfies on both of these fronts and on so many more.

If this is truly the end, what a magnificent end it is!

AVENGERS | ENDGAME receives FIVE CODAS out of a possible FIVE

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Breakthrough – A Movie Review


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I am glad we live in a world where movies like Breakthrough get made and are in wide release. I am glad there is a market for movies like this and I have found that, in the Easter season, they fill a emotional and thematic space that needs filling.

At least for me.

Starring Chrissy Metz of This Is Us fame, Breakthrough tells the (based on a) true story of John Smith, a eighth grader who falls through the ice of a St. Louis river and dies only to somewhat miraculously come back to life after doctors have given up hope. Metz is excellent as Joyce Smith, a devout Christian mother who is struggling with her son growing up and with the new pastor at her mega-church. The underappreciated Josh Lucas is, well, underappreciated here as her husband Brian and is given too little to do. Topher Grace (so creepily good in last year’s BlackKklansman) is Jason Noble, the pastor of the Smith’s mega-church and Joan’s foil for most of the film.

John’s death and recovery are, obviously, the engine that makes Breakthrough run. The horrific accident and the rescue efforts both in the water and at the hospital are really well documented and engaging. Metz proves her mettle as she prays for God to bring back her son and then spends much of the rest of the movie incredulously opposed to those who would suggest to her that the recovery is anything but a miracle and that those who would suggest that anything other than Joe regaining his former life before the fall are not welcome, that their support is not needed.

Where the movie has any conflict is here: Brian and Pastor Jason are not as fully faithful as Joyce and the tension among them on this point ignites a bit of theological debate on the nature of faith.

But only a little.

Breakthrough is a paint-by-number movie, holding no real surprises for the audience. Fortunately for me, I like this particular canvas and it gave me all I wanted.

(And Chrissy Metz has a terrific voice – that’s her over the closing credits)

BREAKTHROUGH receives THREE AND A HALF CHRISTIAN RAPPERS out of a possible FIVE

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