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Skyscraper – A Movie Review


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Skyscraper

When a movie shows you what it is, believe it.

If you have seen a trailer for Dwayne Johnson’s new action flick Skyscraper, you have seen the best parts of the movie and, conveniently, you have seen the only parts you need to see. The trailer promises a film high on action, low on logic and full of fiery escapes. The movie is high on action (though none of it is particularly compelling or engaging), low on logic (so-called “plot twists” are either telegraphed from the first reel or so outlandish as to be incomprehensible) and full of fiery escapes (each more ludicrous than the last).

So why did I pay my money to see this dreck?

Hope and Dwayne Johnson.

As the only major studio release for the rest of the summer (so I heard, at-any-rate) that is not a sequel or a movie derivative of another property, I wanted to like Skyscraper and I hoped it would be better than it appeared. I hoped for a modern Towering Inferno with an homage or two to Die Hard thrown in for good measure. Hopes dashed.

I also enjoy Dwayne Johnson, though I am not sure why. He is not a wonderful actor but he typically has a 200 watt smile and enough charisma to cover a myriad of sins in a movie. Such is not the case in Skyscraper. Even The Rock cannot save this one. Too many sins, too much silliness, too little room for Johnson to operate. When the best line of the movie involved using duct tape, you know there is a problem.

In Skyscraper, characterization is reduced to the broadest of strokes. Johnson is an amputee. His son has asthma. His wife is a former army nurse who can KICK ASS! His friend is… you get the picture. I was not hoping for David Mamet here, but would the smallest amount of nuance have killed the screen writers?

Apparently, yes. It would have. Oh, and extra credit is available to anyone who can explain the plot of the villains in this one. I sure cannot.

Typically, I know what I am getting from a movie and I am okay with that. I knew what Skyscraper could be and my bar was set pretty low. The movie failed to clear it. Utterly.

SKYSCRAPER receives ONE AND A HALF TITANIUM PROSTHETIC LEGS out of a possible FIVE

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Ant-Man and the Wasp – A Movie Review


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ant man wasp

Peyton Reed director of Ant-Man and the Wasp and his team of writers, which includes star Paul Rudd (in very fine form here) had an unenviable task ahead of them when they set out to make their film. Knowing they were going to follow the massive Avengers | Infinity War they had to decide, if you will pardon the pun, to go big or go home.

Surprisingly – and effectively – they chose to go home or, at least, to stay close to home. Of all the Marvel Studios films to date, Ant-Man and the Wasp might be the smallest (okay, that one was totally unintentional – I caught it on my proofread!) in terms of stakes and scope.

Picking up over a year after Ant-Man and almost a year after Captain America: Civil WarAnt-Man and the Wasp opens on lovable hero Scott Lang (Rudd) who is holding up as well as he can under the house arrest he agreed to in exchange for his release from prison following the events of Civil War – somebody get me his lawyer if I get into trouble. Violating the Sovokia Accords in Civil War was tantamount to treason. A year of house arrest? Nice job, counselor. Scott is waiting for the day, coming very soon, that he can take off his ankle bracelet, bid farewell to spot inspections by the FBI and leave his home.

Of course, completing his sentence will not be that easy. It turns out Hank Pym (a very fun, very game Michael Douglas) and Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly who is so good perhaps Marvel sound have titled the film The Wasp and Ant-Man) need help that only Scott can provide.

And off we go…

What is  bold about the movie is the change of pace tone it strikes. It is about as far removed from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as any one of these films to date and, following the heaviness of Infinity War, that is a surprisingly welcome change. The universe is not at stake. The fate of the world does not hang in the balance. The survival of the city is not in play. Rather there are personal goals at hand and family goals at that.

In setting the scale in this fashion, the filmmakers avoid one of the traps that hangs up superhero movies, namely how is tension created without building bigger mousetraps after bigger mousetraps? Ant-Man and the Wasp understands that its best assets are its sterling and delightful cast (Michael Pena is back as Luis!), the fantastic shirking/growing action scenes and a breezy plot (that may not hold up to very much scrutiny).

Paul Rudd is lovable, energetic and as excited by what he can do as the audience is watching him do it. He is all emotion and utterly convincing as a C-List superhero trying to simply be a dad. His comedic timing is spot on and his Ant-Man is the most grounded of all the Marvel characters – less silly than Star Lord and less angsty than Hawkeye. I could watch this shtick for a long time before it got old. Evangeline Lilly deserves a larger spotlight than she gets here, and the spotlight here is pretty large. Her Wasp is a no-nonsense, accomplished heroine who is more than capable of carrying the film and the caper on her own. Together, they are a wonderful team. The movie could have done a bit more with their dynamic, actually.

The set pieces are truly inventive and fun to watch. Peyton Reed does a remarkable job keeping them fresh and distinguishing them from the kind of action we have seen in prior films. There is some creativity at play here and the effects benefit greatly from being experienced on the big screen.

The plot of Ant-Man and the Wasp is intended to be light and airy. It succeeds. Perhaps too well. If there is a draw back its found in the success of these films. We expect them to be layered thematically, to swell with emotion, to make us cry while we laugh. Infinity War set that high a bar. Ant-Man and the Wasp is not that movie. It is something different. Once I allowed myself to settle into that, I had a great time.

You will, too.

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP receives FOUR GIANT SALT SHAKERS out of a possible FIVE

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – A Movie Review


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wont you be

After the showing I viewed of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I departed the theater (after a surprise, final scene embedded in the closing credits – watch for it!) and headed into the bathroom as is my habit. I recognized the other bathroom goers as patrons of the same movie I had just seen. This assembly of men, colliding in the restroom, was the most polite, most kind, most considerate group I have ever encounter in this context.

I wonder if our collective dispositions had anything to do with the movie we had just watched. No, I do not. It had everything to do with the film we had just watched.

Lovingly directed by Morgan Neville and featuring conversations with Fred Rogers’ friends and family, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? weaves the compelling history of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood over the course of a far too short 94 minutes. It is clear that Rogers’ colleagues, children, sister and wife loved the man and it is equally apparent that the man we saw in his program is very much the man Rogers was: gentle, kind, compassionate and loving.

One of the most poignant suggestions of the movie is that these very qualities are not only lacking in our world today, they have somehow become square or stale, unrealistic or weak. Watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is an exercise in recalling that kindness and compassionate are mindsets that can make a world of difference.

That is a message to share.

Much of the narrative work of the film is accomplished with archival footage of Fred Rogers himself, telling a series of interviewers why he does what he does. Additionally, the audience is treated to plenty of scenes from the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood shows, scenes which triggered many warm memories of afternoons at my childhood home watching PBS. It is almost impossible, I would think, for anyone to see this movie and not find her or himself moved by the earnest Rogers as he thoughtfully struggles with how best to connect with children. Likewise, some of the moments Neville chose to share in the documentary cannot help but tug at the heartstrings: Rogers talking about divorce? Check. Rogers explaining assassinations in the wake of Bobby Kennedy’s death? Check. Rogers post 9-11, coming back to television after his retirement to discuss the tragedy with children? Check. Rogers meeting and talking with Koko the gorilla? Check and pass the Kleenex.

An audience will have to work hard to find a more affirming, uplifting and challenging time at the theater this summer. It will likewise have to work hard to find as much joy. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? tells us that life is good, that we are good, and that Mister Rogers’ message of kindness and love is more timely than ever.

I could not agree more and I cannot wait to see the movie again.

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? receives FIVE CARDIGAN SWEATERS out of a possible FIVE

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Jurassic World | Fallen Kingdom – A Movie Review


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jurassic world official

It was amazing. It was revolutionary. It was genuinely thrilling. It was thought provoking. It was nuanced.

It was released 25 years ago.

My affection for and anticipation of movies with “Jurassic” in their titles owes everything to Stephen Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park. It is still a masterful work of art and hues most closely to the message and moral compass Michael Crichton, the author of the original novel, had in mind. Of the resultant sequels, Spielberg can only be held responsible for The Lost World: Jurassic Park. And I liked that one. No, while he has produced the other movies, they are not really his fault.

The fact that they are still being made (and the third in the Jurassic World trilogy will likely be coming soon to a theater near you judging on box office) is the fault of people like me. If I am honest with myself (and I do try to be), I will see the next movie, too. I will resist. I will say I am not going to see it. I will encounter the trailer. I will hear the latest re-arrangement of the classic John Williams theme. I will buy a ticket.

A friend of mine saw the trailer for this latest Jurassic and said “that looks like a movie I really would have liked as a ten-year-old.” As it turns out, that is an almost perfect review.

Jurassic World | Fallen Kingdom plays like some pre-pubescent’s fever dream mash-up of GI Joes and dinosaur toys if the dinosaur toys can be broken apart and spliced together in increasingly ridiculous combinations. It is a collection of homages to earlier films in the series (none of which actually pay off), an adventure movie where very little adventurous happens (unless you count increasing gory human deaths) and a “what if” scenario taken to absurd conclusions  (no, sorry, the conclusion will be forthcoming in Jurassic World | Final Cash Grab). I rushed to see the movie this weekend because I truly despise spoilers and I had read that there was a spoiler at the end of the film. There was one. It was not worth the price of admission. I had heard the movie sets up a wild and crazy sequel… to that I say “damn you all to hell” or something like that.

The movie does manage to do something we have not seen on screen lately: it manages to make lovable lead Chris Pratt boring. His Owen Grady had a shine of charisma in the first installment (or, perhaps, I was just picturing Star Lord running from raptors, another concept they will probably try to wrestle into the next movie) which is absolutely lacking in this one. And Bryce Dallas Howard, as Claire Dearing, undergoes a radical change of character between the films which is unexplained and unsupported. But at least the movie makes a point of the fact that she is wearing sensible, running around footwear this time out. Thanks for that. The rest of the characters, including a bland stereotype of a villain and a retroactively added character with links to the first movie, make little to no impression. Even the token child-in-danger (upon whom major plot points rest) is unengaging.

The filmmakers know we have seen this all before, so they try to up the ante. At almost every point, they fail. The dinos do not take ones’ breath away, the characters barely rise above cardboard cut-outs, the action is repetitive to the point of tedium, the stars are stripped of charm. Yes, there will be a third film and, God help me, I will go see it.

But all hope of succeeding the original is gone. Like the cloned and spliced dinosaur breeds in this movie, the franchise yields less bang for more bucks.

That is a shame because there used to be thrills here.

JURASSIC WORLD | FALLEN KINGDOM receives TWO AND A HALF MASSIVE PLOT HOLES out of a possible FIVE.

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Ocean’s 8 – A Movie Review


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Oceans

Ocean’s 8 owes much of its success (and it succeeds on almost every level) to the quality cast writer/director Gary Ross has assembled. If you plan to make an “Ocean’s” movie, you better reach for the coolest cats you can find and Ross scores with every choice. Led by a delightful Sandra Bullock (as George Clooney’s Danny Ocean’s sister Debbie), these 8 shine in a way that even the original 11 did not.

Bullock is spot on. Cool, collected, funny and fascinating, her Debbie Ocean is engaging from her first moment on screen as she talks a parole board into letting her out of prison (sound familiar?). From that moment on, Bullock’s Debbie sets out on executing a plan, assembling a team and pulling the con. And she is every bit as smooth as Clooney was in doing it. Cate Blanchette is Lou, Debbie’s old partner. Lou is every bit Debbie’s equal and the chemistry between the two actors is terrific and fun to watch. Blanchette is such a good actor, there seems to be no role she cannot play and she is in fine form here.

While Ocean’s 8 is at its best when one of its two leads in on screen, the rest of the team are not slouches. Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Paulson and Awkwafina each create distinct characters whose arcs may be flat but who are integral to the enjoyment of the movie. The standout is Rihanna as 9-Ball. Smart, sharp and hilarious, 9-Ball is the heart of the team and of the film. Rihanna plays her as resourceful, above-the-fray and unflappable. Smarter, perhaps, than either Lou or Debbie, 9-Ball seems as amused by the goings on of the plan as the audience is.

And the audience ought to be amused. The movie aims for the kind of laughs that only clever writing and nuanced performances yield. It had a lot to live up to especially as it does not shy away from references to the prior Ocean’s trilogy and it does not shy away from the challenge it meets it. The intricacies of the plot do not equal the hijinks of Ocean’s 11, but it surpasses the machinations of 12 and 13. When the cascading reveals are… revealed, the audience may see one or two of them coming, but will still be smiling as they unfold. This is a smart movie, solidly written, wonderfully acted and very entertaining.

And it features a leading cast of women.

That is a very good thing and, if one can draw any moral from a movie that is pitched to entertain, it might be that one of the keys to plan, mentioned in a line of dialogue that is almost thrown away, is that the team must be comprised of women. The audience can reflect on the reason given by Debbie at its leisure, but a point is absolutely being made here.

I cannot explain why Ocean’s 8 did not generate the negative reactions or vitriol that the similarly re-constituted Ghostbusters reboot did. Perhaps Ocean’s 8 is a better movie (it is). Perhaps the property is not as beloved (it is not). Perhaps it is simply better than the Ghostbusters film (it absolutely is). It is good that ugliness did not surround this release, for whatever reason.

Ocean’s 8 is not only a wonderful addition to the series, it is a great movie on its own. In actuality, all of the ties to the Clooney movies could be jettisoned and the film would, with few alterations, stand on its own. It is good enough (and it is situated 3 movies away from the first Clooney film) to inspire a sequel and I hope that it does. I would be very happy to spend a few more hours with Debbie’s team. I suspect most audiences would be, too.

OCEAN’S 8 receives FOUR YEARS (PLUS TIME SERVED) out of a possible FIVE.

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Solo: A Star Wars Story – A Movie Review


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solo-official-poster

Solo: A Star Wars Story has a lot of masters to which it is required to answer: it must appeal to wide audience, must appease a rabid and, sometimes, irrational, fanbase, must overcome a public skeptical of its troubled production history (not every movie survives when directors who have shot a reported 70% of the film are replaced late in the process) and must win over those opposed to its trying to bring to a life a new version of one of the most beloved characters in cinematic history. To achieve all these goals would like making the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.

Does Solo shorten the Run to 12?

Perhaps not entirely, but it comes very, very close.

I am not of the “nobody asked for a Han Solo movie” crowd and, while I love Harrison Ford and his steely-excellent work as Han Solo (who does not?), I have enjoyed various actors assaying interpretations of other, likewise iconic characters. Why would I be up in arms about Alden Ehrenreich giving Solo a shot? I, for one, liked the idea of seeing more adventures of Han and Chewbacca. I liked the idea of finding out just how Han won the Millennium Falcon in a card game or uncovering the origins of his clearly complex relationship with Lando Calrissian.

Therefore, I liked Solo. A lot.

It seems to me that the powers behind the Star Wars movies are taking a page from their corporate partners – Marvel Studios – book. That page suggests that one can create various genres of movie within established cinematic universes. Marvel has given us straight up superhero origin stories, political espionage films, science fiction comedies and more. Why can Star Wars movies not do the same thing? Rogue One: A Star Wars Story gave us Star Wars’ interpretation of a gritty war movie. Now we get Solo, an Ocean’s 11-like heist movie set in the universe of the Force, the Empire and the budding rebellion.

Give me more.

Ehrenreich does an excellent job in the title role. Stepping into such large shoes must have been daunting for him, but he handles himself very well. He does not offer a Harrison Ford impersonation, rather he creates a Han who is not quite as accomplished, but on his way, not quite as hardened but getting more coarse and not quite as wise-ass but we can see that coming. He gives us a Portrait of the Scoundrel as a Young Man and it works, especially in his interactions with Chewbacca. This pairing works so very well in the movie that I wished there was more of it, but the movie has more to accomplish than just a traveling, buddy picture will allow. Maybe next time.

Along for the thrill-ride (and the movie has thrilling moments) are Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, Olivia Clarke and Paul Bettany, all terrific in their roles. Each of their interactions with Han mold him and move him closer to the character we will meet in A New Hope and each of them knows exactly what they are doing in the film. They, along with Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3-37, will become established parts of the Star Wars mythos in no time and they deserve to be.

But Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian establishes himself right away in the role and provides a dare-I-say smooth bridge to Billy Dee Williams’ version of the character. Solo is at its best when Han and Lando are matching wits and watching Solo attempt to win the Falcon from Calrissian is one of the real joys of Solo. Any sequel, and I do hope there is one, that does not feature Glover would be making a mistake. Frankly, he could likely carry a Lando: A Star Wars franchise of his own.

Ron Howard does an amazing job pulling together this production. Unlike other movies that have lost directors (Justice League, anyone?), it is very difficult to see where the original directors left off and Howard stepped in. He brings an American Graffiti feel to the movie and that is a perfect choice. He scores winning performances from his cast, stays true to the Star Wars universe and delivers a terrific movie.

Whether you “wanted” Solo or not, if you are a Star Wars fan, there is nothing here to complain about, much to enjoy and a surprise cameo that left this particular audience goer mouth agape…

Solo: A Star Wars Story works.

For my part, I would love to see more installments.

SOLO receives FOUR KESSEL RUNS out of a possible FIVE.

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Book Club – A Movie Review


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Book-Club-posterGoing in, I was aware I was not the target audience for Book Club. That was fine be me, because who would miss a chance to see this collection of actors together? When four of the biggest names in show business appear in the same film, one ought to take notice.

Frankly, I found myself delighted and entertained more often than not during the breezy one hour and forty-four minutes of Book Club. While the movie holds no real surprises and unfolds in an almost entirely predictable fashion, the joy here is found in watching four talented actors (and we all should praise a movie that allows women to be the leads) enjoying working with one another. Book Club brings together Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergin and Mary Steenburgen as life-long friends who participate in a periodic book club. They are icons and while no one will confuse the characters they play in Book Club with any of their iconic roles, they each have an undeniable charm and are clearly having fun in the film.

Perhaps they are more successful than most people. Perhaps their lives are a bit too pat and the solutions to their problems a bit too simply achieved. Perhaps the relationships in their lives are a bit too stereotyped. Whatever. Give me more of them together. As the four friends wrestle with the reality of their lives and the effects of aging while discussing books and drinking wine, Jane Fonda (as hotelier Vivian) presents the next selection for the group: Fifty Shades of Grey. From this point, the focus of the movies shifts to sex and the effects aging has upon desire, dating and drama.

Rather than completely descending into silliness, the movie presents the subject of sexuality for older women in a relatively respectful context. Though it can be legitimately argued that some of the storylines for the characters work better than others, all of them treat the protagonists with respect and all of them are just amusing and entertaining enough to keep the audience engaged.

The four leads utterly upstage their counterparts. Candice Bergen outshines both Ed Begley, jr. and Richard Dreyfus (how the mighty have fallen). Craig T. Nelson is no match for Mary Steenburgen and Don Johnson (wearing a series of ridiculous costumes) is a clear second fiddle to Fonda. Diane Keaton’s paramour Andy Garcia does give her a run for her money, however, and theirs was the relationship for which I was rooting the hardest.

Look, seeing Bergin, Fonda, Keaton and Steenburgen together on screen is certainly worth the price of admission. I completely bought their lifelong friendships and the characters’ commitment to one another and, even when the plot of the movie begins to strain credulity, the cast is more than up to the challenge.

While Book Club is not going to be confused with an Academy Award worthy film, it is a more than enjoyable. Come for the cast. Stay for the cast. Do not expect more than you are offered by Book Club and you will not be disappointed.

BOOK CLUB receives THREE SHADES OF GREY out of a possible FIVE.

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