Thursday, November 22, 2018


WRECK-IT RALPH was a hit for Disney in 2012, making fun of video games and stunted adolescence. Six years later, its sequel hits the theaters and is the rare one that equals its predecessor. In many ways, the internet is even more ripe for parody than video games, and RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET skewers its many online targets with a lot of wicked wit. It also bites the hand that feeds it, parodying Disney princesses in one of the film’s funniest scenes. Most pleasingly, it is even more emotional than the first one, showing the characters grow significantly from before, even if it means they have to grow apart to do so.

Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly again), the burly villain from the “Fix-It Felix” arcade game, toils away his days playing his role and spends his night hanging out with his best friend Vanellope von Schweetz (voiced by Sarah Silverman). She is one of the racers in the girlie video game “Sugar Rush” and has become bored with the same old races and victories in the program. When Ralph tries to rejigger the track to add some excitement for her, it ends up leading to the game’s steering wheel control getting busted.  

Together Ralph and Vanellope discover that the owner of the arcade doesn’t plan to spend the $200 to replace the steering wheel, but the intrepid duo discovers that there’s one available on eBay, so they set out to get to the Internet to save her game. Once they get there, a world that is laid out like one ginormous city out of THE JETSONS, the two of them are overwhelmed by all the websites clamoring for their attention. Pop-up ads take the form of humanistic characters hawking their offerings like drivers outside an airport. Transporting from one site to another happens via flying pods that whisk them away with super speed. The film displays a lot of imagination in how the webby world is presented, and most of it seems shiny and appealing, even if it’s all a bit chaotic.

This film both glorifies a lot of the web, but it savages it too. Directors Phil Johnston and Rich Moore, along with fellow writers Pamela Ribon, Jim Reardon and Josie Trinidad, make fun of the sleazy, money grubbers offering “get rich quick” schemes on the periphery, the silly video content that earns millions of hearts on sites like YouTube, and the snarky way online gaming lures susceptible teens in only to screw them over when they come close to conquering a level. In particular, the film has a field day lampooning amoral racing games like “Grand Theft Auto” with a vicious parody called “Slaughter Race.” It’s presented as the worst neighborhood in town, run by thieves, sluts, and flame-thrower yielding miscreants.

It’s a far cry from the candy-colored “Sugar Rush,” and Vanellope finds it rejuvenating. She not only keeps up with the racers there, but she bonds with Shank, the fierce leader of a gang whose car Vanellope tried to steal. Gal Gadot voices Shank with both grit and warmth, and her sly character becomes a mother figure to the young girl. Their relationship infringes on the one she has with Ralph, and the big galoot is very protective of his little sidekick.

With these scenes, Vanellope starts to establish herself as a woman who’s not dependent upon male protection. If anything, Ralph needs her to help him out of more jams in the intimidating world of the internet. Despite using a little kiddie voice, Silverman’s vocal performance ensures that we hear the edge in her Vanellope’s delivery to show that she’s growing wiser and apart from the more Neanderthal-ish Ralph. Her maturation is given either further resonance when the little girl visits the Disney princess website where she teaches every ingenue from Ariel to Belle to reject the fairytale clichés they’ve lived and move towards rejecting the male hierarchy. Vanellope even gets them to change out of their gowns to relax in hoodies and T-shirts like she wears. It’s a credit to Disney that they let the film tear down the traditional tropes of princesses waiting for their princes to come. Vanellope tells them to save themselves, and she leads by example.

To tell more about how their eBay quest gets resolved, or how Ralph deals with his friend’s burgeoning need to strike out on her own is resolved, would be to give away too many of the third act’s pleasures. Suffice it to say, the climax is colossal, literally and figuratively, but it never loses sight of its two characters driving all the action and comedy.

The film runs a bit long and probably could’ve been trimmed back some, particularly in the opening 30 minutes, but it has a lot to say, so it takes time to tell it. Despite all the action and color of their experiences in the internet, Ralph and Vanellope find that far too much of it is a lonely and superficial place. The film shows that wanting the “likes” of millions online is a shallow quest, and ultimately, both characters learn that genuine friendship can’t be characterized by a simple emoji.

Monday, November 19, 2018


Mahershala Ali gives one of the best performances of the year as Dr. Don Shirley in the new movie GREEN BOOK. Nuanced and witty, his take on the role of the virtuoso pianist being chauffeured around the South for a concert tour is filled with grace, humanity and wry humor. Too bad the rest of the film isn’t nearly as deft or subtle as he is. Instead, it’s riddled with clichés, some cringe-worthy humor, and a buddy comedy sensibility that mars the message. It feels like a film that might have been made 50 years ago, an outdated throwback compared to the likes of the more modern and immediate stories about race relations seen this year in movies like BLACKKKLANSMAN, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, BLINDSPOTTING, and THE HATE U GIVE. 

Granted, GREEN BOOK is filled with noble intentions as it attempts to be profound about prejudices and contains certain technical charms. It is a meticulous period piece, recreating the 1962 South with detail right down to the furniture in the hotel rooms. The cinematography is warm and shiny, even when the story takes its dark turns. And some of the banter between Shirley and his Brooklyn driver Tommy Lip (Viggo Mortenson) is rollicking, allowing for a prickly back-and-forth between the two wildly different men. Yet, at almost every opportunity to dig deeper into the great divide between the two men, or the issues of bigotry in the south, the script by director Peter Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie, and Nick Vallelonga refuse to burrow. Instead, it seems content to stay with surface differences and ignore potentially huge issues altogether.

The film is based on a true story of how Shirley, a concert pianist in the Liberace mode, playing light classical fare or giving popular ditties a touch of Mozart-style flourishes, went on tour below the Mason-Dixon line for the holiday season in ’62.  He hired Tommy as his driver for his muscle as well as his skills behind the wheel. Shirley and his record company knew that he’d face all kinds of discrimination down south, from restrictive restaurants and hotel rooms to name-calling and potential violence, so they hired the former bouncer from the Copacabana to provide cover. That story would seem to be ripe for a searing examination of the great divide in this country then and now, but instead, most of their run-in’s and experiences are fraught with clichés or heavy-handed humor. 

In one of the most egregious running gags in a movie in some time, Tommy has to teach “Doc,” as he calls him, an appreciation for fried chicken. Using a ‘dese’ and ‘dem’ accent like he’s Joe Pesci in MY COUSIN VINNY, Mortenson’s tough guy Tommy not only helps the musician come to appreciate the Colonel’s original recipe, but their dialogue contains a number of references by Tommy to the irony of a black man not appreciating such a meal. And the tin-eared gag comes back again and again. 

There are too many cringe-worthy moments like that where Tommy becomes Shirley’s ‘white savior,’ not only helping him avoid grievance bodily harm, but also teaching him to be more down-to-earth and likable. Sure, Doc helps Tommy write letters from the road to his long-suffering wife (an underused Linda Cardellini) with warmth and flair the Neanderthal could never muster on his own, but most of their ‘odd coupling’ concerns Tommy as a teacher while Doc plays his unwitting student. Throughout, the pianist tolerates Tommy’s vulgar language, blunt put-downs, and constant running commentary about the elite that Shirley is playing for, but the driver is presented as honest, unabashed, and a genuine 'salt of the earth' type. Tommy even becomes the moral center of the film, despite starting out the story tossing away two glasses that were used by two black handymen in his apartment. It’s not only a huge and frankly unbelievable leap in character and understanding, but it also places Tommy in the same kind of role as the heroic white figure as we saw mar THE HELP with Emma Stone’s character, as well as HIDDEN FIGURES with Kevin Costner's. Wouldn’t this film have been better if it had been Shirley who tutored Tommy the whole time, teaching him insights on how to be a more modern gentleman? Tommy's the one who needs the teaching, not Shirley.

Yet, the film refuses to run with such a shrewder slant. When Shirley is arrested for trysting with a white man in the YMCA in one of the southern cities, Tommy bails him out of jail but never seems challenged or even irked by his boss’ homosexuality or the fact that he was caught in such a public place. Where is the dialogue where Shirley talks openly to Tommy about what it means to be gay or cross the color line for love? Those were not only huge issues in the early 60’s, but they certainly would’ve challenged some of the bedrock macho beliefs of a neighborhood guy’s guy like Tony. Instead, it's never discussed, and the film blithely goes on to the next gag.

The film does show the terrible places that Shirley is forced to stay in, areas that the Green Book travel guide points black travelers to, but not enough is made out of the discrepancies between his lodgings and those of Tony and Shirley's two white traveling companions - his fellow musicians - in the other car. In fact, the story fails to give either man in the pianist’s trio any real personality. And he seems to have virtually no rapport with either. Were they even friends? The film just doesn’t bother exploring it one iota.

Instead, we get more buffoonery with caricatured moments like Tony rolling up an entire pizza like one would with a single slice to eat it while he’s in bed. The movie makes a big laugh out of Shirley getting them out of extended jail time for Tony’s belting of a police officer by calling in a favor from his friend Robert Kennedy. And Shirley forces Tony to retrieve the litter he’s thrown onto the road like he’s Felix Ungar forcing Oscar Madison to pick up a discarded cigar.  

Peter Farrelly, of the famed Farrelly Brothers (THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY), does yeoman work here as director, resisting gross-out humor and outrageously naughty, visual gags as in his previous films, but he glosses over too many ideas worth exploring. Shirley drinks a bottle of Cutty Sark every night, but his apparent alcoholism never seems to become a problem when he plays piano, nor is it given much dialogue other than Tommy scolding his boss for drinking too much. 

By the end, they get back to New York in time for Christmas, and all is well. Tony learns just enough about curbing his bigotry to tell his friends not to use slurs when describing people of color, and Shirley learns to step down off his high-horse and rubs shoulders at a Christmas Eve dinner with his new buddy and his family and friends. It doesn’t seem like a strong enough lesson, even in a comedy taking place in 1962, and it indeed fails to make enough of a statement for today’s horribly divided world. 

Monday, November 12, 2018


Original caricature by Jeff York of Rosamund Pike in A PRIVATE WAR. (copyright 2018)

In a week when the POTUS continued to rail on the press corps as “the enemy of the people” and rudely maligned some reporters, along comes a film about journalist Marie Colvin that couldn’t be timelier. The story of her intrepid career is the focus of A PRIVATE WAR, particularly the many conflicts in the Middle East and her battle to bring the truth of the atrocities there to the forefront. Each day she proved that journalists are not only necessary to shine the light on such sins, but as is often the case, they are the ultimate truth tellers when regimes and countries resort to lies to cover their crimes. The film’s message of bravery and righteousness is a call to arms for everyone in the media, and in relation, the world. 

The film, directed by Matthew Heineman, and adapted by Arash Amel from the Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War” by Marie Brenner, starts with Colvin (Rosamund Pike) restless and anxious to do more with her life than write silly features for the London Times and bed her charming rogue of an ex-husband. Neither are her cup of tea, and she wants better opportunities. She jumps when her ambitious editor Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander) plunks her down in Sri Lanka to cover the turbulence there.

Colvin is lithe and womanly in many ways, but she clearly sees herself as one of the boys. She’s chain smokes, talks rough, and runs into danger as readily as any of her macho brethren in the press corps. She pays for such rashness by losing the use of her left eye when a Sri Lankan army rocket-propelled grenade goes off, and shrapnel and rubble hit her in the face. It doesn’t get her down though. If anything, having only a single eye propels her to double-down on her commitment to uncovering the truth as she sees it in these hellacious war-time settings.  
Even when she’s in the hotel with her journalistic colleagues, Colvin is a hardened trouper. She drinks too much, talks trash with the best of them, and isn’t above sleeping with a colleague to get her rocks off. Pike tears into the vivid role and gives her best screen performance to date. That’s saying a lot, given that she was so outstanding in GONE GIRL and HOSTILES, but she apparently feels a kinship with Colvin. They both are pushing to do extraordinary work in a world dominated by men, and like Colvin, Pike is peaking by calling her own shots. 

The film continually shows Colvin going up against men who want to protect her or doubt her acumen. The ambitious Ryan is just this side of supercilious, but it’s a credit to an actor as superb as Hollander that he shows his character coming around to seeing things Colvin’s way long before the script lets him find the truth. Photographer Paul Conroy (a stalwart Jamie Dornan) becomes her photographer and as tough as he is, even he has trouble keeping up with the intrepid Colvin.

Colvin may have overdone the “I can be macho too” themes at the time, showing a restlessness and stubbornness that borders on bullying and endangerment of her colleagues, just as the film sometimes goes out of its way to make Pike look haggish. Her hair is almost always a rat’s nest, and the yellowed fake teeth are unnecessary to persuade us of how she left girlishness back in London, but Pike manages to mix in a vulnerability that makes her essaying of the role all the more impressive.

Pike often hesitates mid-sentence, as if Colvin barreled into the conversation loaded with bear and chutzpah but then stops to be careful about the words she’s parsing in such dangerous locations. 
Her expressive eye does a fantastic job too of showing how Colvin processed the horrors all around her. It glazes over on more than one occasion when witnessing wounded children as well as her fallen colleagues. Colvin had a motherly side to her, even though she never had children, and it came out even in the worst of times, and Pike ensures we see it. 

In fact, it’s such sensitivity that Pike finds in Colvin that makes the character one of the most multifaceted characters placed onscreen in 2018. Being so courageous helped the reporter run in where only fools dared, but it was her empathy that helped her make all that she found understandable and relatable to all those reading her stories. Her exposure of “fake news” and “official stories” ginned up by autocratic leaders helped the world see the actual carnage being perpetrated, and she presented the atrocities through a lens that made a difference worldwide. 

One of the most ironic, yet clever, conceits of the film is how the narrative sets us up for Colvin’s end from the get-go. It starts with the siege of Homs in Syria where she lost her life while covering Assad’s bombing of his own people but then flashes back to all of the critical events in her life leading up to it. Despite accolades back home, and a brief but passionate affair with Tony Shaw (an underused Stanley Tucci), almost every chapter in her journey was one filled with extreme danger. Colvin could’ve been killed in any of the tempestuous places she was covering. It's not like Homs was all that different.

Still, Colvin would have had it no other way. She thrived on the adrenaline of doing something so important. It gave her purpose and what she exposed truly mattered. It gives Pike purpose too as an actress to play such roles as she clearly has no interest in repeating herself. Pike wants to play characters of range and importance, and in Colvin, she found a perfect vessel. It’s one of the year’s best roles, performances, and contained in a film that undoubtedly matters. Now, more than ever. 

Thursday, November 8, 2018


In THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB, Claire Foy picks up the mantle from Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara in rendering the role of Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larsson’s Swedish punk heroine from his Millennium Trilogy. It’s a million miles from her turn as Queen Elizabeth on THE CROWN and she runs with the chance to play someone surly, sexual, and feral. If only the story were as inspired as she is in the role. Instead, the new tale, adapted from David Lagercrantz’s 2015 novel, who picked up the mantle after Larsson’s death from a heart attack in 2004, has too many plot holes and coincidences to be called an assured rebooting of the property and character. 

How does Foy compare with Rapace and Mara in her take on the role? Like Rapace, she’s small and compact, and they both have infused Salander with a feisty, trapped animal quality to their physicality. Foy bustles through crowds similar to Rapace, bumping aside those who get in her way without breaking her stride. As Mara did, Foy also imbues her heroine with a vulnerability expressed through her big, doe eyes. Foy looks less punk than either of her predecessors, and her accessories aren't trying as hard. Still, all three actresses aced the role, but it is Foy who manages to blend tough and tender the most seamlessly.

While the character of Salander still remains fascinating, and a character worthy of a franchise built around, there is too much else that lets the idea down. For starters, the main character in the three Larsson books is actually Mikael Blomqvist, the intrepid and seasoned reporter she starts an unlikely alliance with, not to mention a complicated romance. In this new movie, that character is younger and dreamier, as evidenced by the casting of Sverrir Gudnason, but his Blomqvist is now relegated to a supporting role. That hurts the material as their tension in working together sparked so much of the original story. 

Hurting the new film is Salander’s thought-to-be-dead sister Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks) as the main foil. If Larsson made one mistake in his sequel books, and the Swedish-made films suffered from it too, it was it filling in far too much of the heroine’s backstory. The second and third book turned into family vendetta stories, and the fourth telling continues in that vein with Camilla out to punish her sister for abandoning her in their youth. And, as coincidence happens, Camilla also happens to be the criminal mastermind behind the theft of a computer program that could annihilate the world via nuclear holocaust. The exact same one that sis was hired to hack by Swedish authorities.

It’s a long way to go for a family reunion. But director Fede Alvarez, Jay Basu, and Steven Knight gloss over too much of Camilla's backstory to make her have true impact. (Her red wardrobe and blonde hair do not a character make.) Even worse, the script piles up more conveniences and coincidences, and they start to become laughable as the film goes on. At one point, Salander is injected with poison by one of Camilla’s henchman, and she recovers by inhaling some amphetamines from a medicine cabinet nearby. Later, a thug is blinded and stumbles into the path of a getaway vehicle conveniently stopping the bad guys from getting away. 

Every script takes some leaps of faith, but the writers here should have found a way to have Salander get out of her attack more logically, perhaps by breaking the hypodermic during the fight, so she’s never pricked, than to allow such silliness. As for the opportune car crash which enables Salander to confront the bad guys, wouldn’t icy roads in the Stockholm winter have been enough to disable the vehicle?

The attempts to soften Salander by having her turn protective of the son of the scientist (Stephen Merchant) who developed the computer program is misguided too. August (Christopher Convery) is one of those precocious prodigies who can win a chess game in seven moves, but it's doubtful a leather-clad, no-nonsense type like Salander would act so motherly. Even Foy has trouble working up a rapport with the inert Conversy.

There’s not enough of supporting player Lakeith Stanfield and his B story never quite gels properly. And there's too much action throughout, though it is shot well. Alvarez and his cinematographer Pedro Luque make excellent use of the frigid locales and watching Salander leap into her bath to escape a burgeoning explosion of fire is a nifty stunt. The close-up of Foy holding her breath underwater while the flames travel across the ceiling above her is one of the film’s best shots.  

Unfortunately, Salander acts too superhuman throughout, escaping all of her scrapes with little real damage. She fights off half a dozen men with relative ease, demonstrates superb cornering skills driving a Lamborghini stick, avoids suffocating in a smothering rubber bag, and takes a number of beatings and still stands up to fight another day. Thank God, Foy’s eyes look wounded because little else of her seems to be. She even gets grazed by a bullet and merely grunts when Blomqvist staples her wound together. No wonder the icy tundra doesn’t seem to rattle her as she walks everywhere without a proper winter coat! 

Hopefully, as the franchise continues, they will give Foy more time to develop a nuanced character and also explore the romance angle with the able Gudnason as Blomqvist. The filmmakers would be wise to stop exploring Salander’s past too. Show us more of Salander turning her efforts towards the future by helping others through her expert hacking and unblinking righteousness. All the navel-gazing in this franchise is starting to numb as much as those Swedish winters. 

Friday, November 2, 2018


The new Disney film THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS is many things: a children’s adventure story, an eye-popping spectacle, and a 109-minute endorsement of animated mice. (CGI rodents, actually. Mickey’s heirs?) What it isn’t is the Nutcracker story in any traditional sense. Here, the famous ballet and score are almost treated as afterthoughts. Instead, this new take on the holiday material owes more to properties like Disney’s version of ALICE IN WONDERLAND or THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA than it does to the famous ballet and Tchaikovsky’s iconic suites. Children, particularly young girls, will love the female empowerment angle, the extravagant CGI, and the kitschy star turns. Adults? Probably not as much.

As adults, let alone film critics, it’s difficult to assess such material aimed at younger children as they tend to play broadly with nary a hint of subtly. What will make children howl with pleasure will likely make those over 15 roll their eyes with exasperation. Still, this could have been a movie that pleased the whole family equally, much like most of the Disney catalog. Instead, this Nutcracker is played so broadly, with every emotion and action underlined, that it becomes a confounding work. The tone of Kenneth Branagh’s live-action CINDERELLA from 2015 should’ve been the template to follow with its sophisticated mix of the old and new. Instead, this film feels more like one of those over-the-top afternoon programs on the Disney Channel aimed at kids just home from school.

The story is jacked from the get-go as we follow a tenacious little mouse running all over town as the camera speedily follows him up and down the London streets circa the late 1800’s. He finally ends up at the upper-class home of the Stahlbaums, who provide a gloomy contrast to the manic beginning. Even though the old town is done up like a fantastical winter wonderland, the Stahlbaums are not in the Christmas spirit. Mom has recently died, and patriarch Matthew Macfayden gloomily gets his three kids ready for a party. 

At the gathering, middle-child Clara (Mackenzie Foy) is particularly glum, wandering away from the other guests, and finding joy only in discussing the inner workings of a clock with her eccentric godfather Drosselmeyer. He’s played by Morgan Freeman, in a distracting Frederick Douglas wig and pirate-ish eyepatch, putting the sage in the season as he helps clue her in on how to unlock the puzzle box gift from her late mother. Before you can say, “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date,” Clara unlocks some magic and is transported to the enchanted world of the Four Realms.  

There, she meets Phillip, the Nutcracker Guard (Jayden Fowora-Knight) patrolling the bridge to the Four Realms. He explains a ton of exposition to her and us in the audience, and it turns out that Clara’s mother was the queen of this imaginary place and now her daughter is earmarked to be the next one. That doesn’t sit well with the jealous Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), a scarred battle-ax who commutes in a giant toy of her likeness. Phillip saves Clara from the giant’s clutches by partnering with that frisky mouse and a thousand of his brothers who band together to turn into a monster of mice to topple the toy. Kids may find that cool, but it reminded me of the multiple vermin crawling all over Ernest Borgnine in 1971’s WILLARD. Yuck.

Then, at the Queen’s castle, the two young people meet the other key supporting characters, ostensibly pulled from the lore of the Nutcracker, including Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), the flowery Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez), and Shiver (Richard E. Grant). They seem to be set up to be her cohorts for her pending adventures to regain control of the Four Realms a la THE WIZARD OF OZ, but alas, Derbez and Grant all but disappear from the narrative after 20 minutes. Why cast such skilled comic actors as those veteran performers and give them so little to do? Their performances literally begin and end with their elaborate costumes.

That allows Sugar Plum to take center stage when she’s revealed to be the real villain of the piece, a pissy pixie who wants to usurp Clara’s claim to the throne. Knightley clearly relishes playing a baddie, but her character is pitched too manic as well. Sure, Sugar is given a few funny bits by Ashleigh Powell’s screenplay, like when she nervously eats her cotton candy hair, but the character is written too daft to become a genuine threat in the story. Knightley’s take on the roll doesn’t help matters as she does an overly mannered goo-goo voice, half Marilyn Monroe whispers, half Elizabeth Banks sing-song from THE HUNGER GAMES.

As the film goes on, it continues to increase in size, noise, and effects. Each land, each set-piece, each visual is so dazzling and excessive, it starts to become irritating to the eye. The editing and music huff and puff through each scene, never letting anything breathe. Worse still is the fact that Clara is turned into an action hero to cover for the fact that there’s very little character for Foy to play. Perhaps this film’s two directors Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston were too busy corralling all the CGI in every frame to make their heroine memorable, but clearly, the importance of ensuring an interesting protagonist got lost in all the eye candy.

Perhaps they too were eating Sugar Plum’s hair as the film plays like one big, nerve-jangling sugar high. The action is too hellzapoppin, the editing far too jumpy and abrupt, and the climax is so rushed, some shots don’t match in the cutting. Was the film truncated to accommodate kiddies with short attention spans, or was it edited haphazardly to gloss over the film’s excesses? Even the film’s niftiest effect of adult-sized toy soldiers wears out its welcome as there are too many of them and they dominate too much of the third act action. 

The one time the movie does take its time and indeed, become truly magical, is early in the film at the party scene when the guests watch Misty Copeland lead a troupe of dancers to bring moments of the Nutcracker ballet to life. It’s effortlessly gorgeous and effervescent in all the ways the rest of the film strains to be. As incredible as all the CGI effects are in throughout the movie, this sequence shows that human grace is inarguably more captivating. At least it was for this adult in the audience. Kids under ten? They can have the tower of rodents.