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Arts and Culture (Movie Reviews)

The bad guys get a bad script

What do you do when a superman breaks bad?
    That’s the worry of intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis: Custody). Her solution is a squad of the worst villains America has ever known.
    Her villainous team includes:
    • Enchantress (Cara Delevingne: Pan), a millennia-old deity possessing the body of an archeologist;
    • Deadshot (Will Smith: Concussion), a mercenary named for his aim;
    • Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie: The Legend of Tarzan), a violent psychotic and girlfriend of …
    • The Joker (Jared Leto: Dallas Buyers Club);
    • Boomerang (Jai Courtney: Man Down), a violent thief;
    • Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje: Concussion) an amphibious mutant;
    • Diablo (Jay Hernandez: Bad Moms) a flame-shooting gangster.
    Waller believes she can keep them under her control with the help of military man Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman: House of Cards) — who is a bit compromised as he’s secretly in love with the woman inhabited by Enchantress.
    The plan does not go well. Waller loses control of Enchantress, who creates a super weapon to destroy the earth.
    An incoherent blend of weak performances, an awful story and poor editing, Suicide Squad is almost impressive in its total failure. The script is challenged by logical fallacies. Production was plagued by studio meddling, meaning that director David Ayer (Fury) might bear the whole blame. Tone is off balance between dark drama and goofy comedy. Repetitive flashbacks have nothing to do with the story and offer no new information.
    Smith and Robbie work hard to charm their way out of the mire, creating characters that might hope to return in interesting solo films. On the other hand, Leto’s Joker is a bizarre mishmash of villainy, and Delevingne’s Enchantress is distinguished only by jerky belly dancing and intense staring.
    It could have been great. Instead, it’s a disaster.

Terrible Action • PG-13 • 123 mins.

Old-school effects and good storytelling make a cool chiller

Something is scratching at Martin’s (Gabriel Bateman: American Gothic) bedroom door. While he shivers in terror, his mother chats with an invisible friend, Diana.
    There is something lurking in the dark, ready to attack when the bedside lamp goes out. Martin watches in vigil night after night as the thing in the dark tries to come closer.
    When it gets Martin’s father, he turns to his estranged stepsister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer: Triple 9), who has had her own troubles with a creature that lived in bedroom nooks.
    Can Rebecca save her brother from a menace no one can see? What is the hold Diana has over their mother? Why hasn’t everyone in this movie run to Eddie Bauer to buy camping lanterns?
    This movie about primal fears both thrills and entertains. For his feature directorial debut, David F. Sandberg expanded a short by the same name (available on YouTube) into a thoughtful, interesting, old-fashioned horror movie that focuses on creating a sense of dread. He plays smartly on the idea that Diana can come from any dark space, be it an empty room or an archway in an old house. He then fills the frame with shadows, making us unsure of where the threat will come from. This sense of uncertainty builds tension and keeps visual interest.
    Sandberg also chose to use mostly practical effects. This means that when someone is thrown across a room or a shadow disappears behind a door, it’s not a trick of a computer but an actual event captured on film. This gives the events weight and realism often lost in a world of CGI.
    The other strength of Lights Out is its cast. Bateman is the rare child actor who isn’t cloying and who can carry a scene. Palmer is also a rarity for a horror lead as she neither gets unnecessarily naked nor acts like an idiot when problems arise. The bond between the two is believable and sweet.
    Lights Out gives us storytelling rather than quick jump scares. If you want bloody monsters popping out from every corner, you may be disappointed. Check out the short version on YouTube to get a sense of the movie’s tone before you plunk down your cash. But if you’re looking for a thrilling reason to run up your light bill, Lights Out is worth the ticket.

Good Horror • PG-13 • 81 mins.

Boldly focusing on character development makes this the best of the new Trek films

For Captain Kirk (Chris Pine: The Finest Hours), boldly going where no man has gone before is surprisingly boring. As his five-year mission to explore the universe as a diplomat for Star Fleet continues, he’s looking for a way to break the routine of space travel.
    Kirk seeks a position on a space station. Meanwhile, his second in command, Spock (Zachary Quinto: Tallulah), plans to leave the Enterprise to ensure Vulcan survival. Before they abandon their crew and seek out new futures, they are sent on one final rescue mission to an uncharted planet.
    Things go wrong, as they often do when on one final mission. The Enterprise is ambushed and destroyed by Krall (Idris Elba: Finding Dory). Most of the crew is captured.
    That leaves big jobs for the few who escaped. Spock and Bones (Karl Urban: The Loft) seek to uncover Krall’s origins. Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin: Green Room) search for their captured comrades. Scotty (Simon Pegg: Ice Age: Collision Course) searches for signs of life.
    With interesting characters and an exciting plot, Star Trek Beyond is the best of the newest set of Star Trek movies. While past sequels have rehashed classic plots, director Justin Lin (True Detective) moves beyond the Kirk/Spock dynamic to give the characters room to grow.
    It’s a refreshing take on familiar characters, based on a clever script from Simon Pegg and Doug Jung.
    The Bones/Spock pairing is especially successful, with Urban doing some fine comedy as the curmudgeonly doctor. We also meet an interesting new character. Jaylah (Sofia Boutella: Kingsmen) is neither a love interest nor a damsel in distress. Kirk remains a smug jerk, perhaps as a send up of William Shatner.
    It’s not perfect. Despite the fearsome Krall, nothing much is at stake. You know from the beginning that no one important will die. Hints are so obvious that you know how it will end. Some action sequences are too dark to see.
    Star Trek Beyond has no deep message, but it does have an excellent rescue sequence that features transporters, phasers and motorcycles. All together, it’s the perfect film to help you beat the heat.

Good Sci-Fi • PG-13 • 122 mins.

I ain’t afraid of no all-female reboot!

Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig: Zoolander 2) hopes to earn tenure at Columbia. The professor is smart, serious and laser focused; but her career is put in jeopardy when a book resurfaces on Amazon. Co-authored with her former best friend Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy: Central Intelligence), the book considers the science of ghosts.
    Erin co-authored the book on ghosts with her former best friend Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy: Central Intelligence). When no one believed them, Erin walked away from ghosts — and Abby.
    All that changes when MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones: Saturday Night Live) finds a mysterious device attracting ghosts to the Big Apple.
    Erin, Patty, Abby and her new partner, the slightly unhinged engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon: Finding Dory), the newly formed Ghostbusters set out to save New York.
    Smart and funny, Ghostbusters is a worthy reboot of a classic. It is, however, a very different beast. It pays tribute, with all six original cast members making appearances, but it’s astute enough not to copy. With humor that’s more modern and self-referential, the reboot focuses on what it’s like to navigate the world as a woman.
    When director Paul Feig (Spy) announced his all-woman take, internet comments ranged from mildly misogynistic to vile.
    Instead of dismissing the vitriol, Feig leaned in, making internet commenters part of the story. The women are constantly harassed online and dismissed because of their gender.
    Ghostbusters works so well because of this cast of women. Both Jones and McKinnon do comedic heavy lifting, earning laughs and kicking butt. McKinnon creates an unforgettable oddball.
    A surprisingly strong member of the ensemble is Chris Hemsworth (The Huntsman), with his brilliant take on the bimbo secretary.
    Though humor and cast are refreshing, there are flaws. Like most movies about the supernatural, it doesn’t stand up to close examination. And Feig spends too much time on Wiig and McCarthy when he has an ensemble of stronger characters to pull from.
    Still, as far as summer blockbusters go, you’ll laugh, reminisce and even see Slimer. I was heartened by young girls leaving the theater excited about careers in physics so they could create cool machines like Holtzmann. It’s about time the princess culture was bucked for careers in ghost busting.

Good Comedy • PG-13 • 116 mins.

Two dogs learn how to navigate the big city in this cute comedy

Max (voiced by Louis C.K.: Horace and Pete) is a terrier living an idyllic life in New York with his owner/soulmate Katie (Ellie Kemper: The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). They go for bike rides, share dinner and snuggle up to sleep. Max couldn’t be happier.
    Except that every day Katie does the almost unforgivable: She leaves. Most pets in Max’s apartment building spend their time alone socializing and binge eating, Max waits doggedly for Katie’s return. He stares at the door. He whines. He consults the neighbor cat.
    Max’s loneliness ends when Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet: Modern Family). The new dog is loud, big and attention-getting. Max hates him on sight and plots to rid himself of the interloper.
    Duke thinks the same about Max.
    Trying to one-up each other, the feuding dogs get lost far from home. It’s a big city out there, filled with loud noises and scary creatures. With no idea where home is, they find themselves hunted by a demented band of human-hating ex-pets.
    If the story sounds familiar, it’s probably because you saw it in 1995 when it was called Toy Story. Similar in plot points and major themes, The Secret Life of Pets is a furry version of the Pixar classic. It doesn’t delve so deeply into themes like fear of being replaced, jealousy and learning to accept others. But it does provide some great jokes about dog and cat behavior.
    Chances are, if you’re a pet owner, you’ll find a character that reminds you of your own fuzzy friend, from loyal Max to indifferent, taunting Chloe (you guessed it, a cat). The world of pets is given interesting little touches, and it’s fun to watch dogs shout at squirrels to get off their turf.
    The brilliant voice cast is loaded with comedians, from C.K. to Kevin Hart to Jenny Slate, each knowing exactly when to push a line or pause for comic effect. Albert Brooks (Finding Dory) is particularly delightful as Tiberius, a hawk who wants friends but must fight his raptor urge to eat them.
    Filled with silly laughs, clever observations and just a bit of scatological humor, The Secret Life of Pets will appeal to little ones and keep adults entertained. Jokes are solid and performances strong.
    If you have children who don’t like creepy crawlies, be aware that the 3-D show features snakes and gators snapping directly at the audience. There’s no need to pay extra to traumatize your child.

Good Animation • PG • 87 mins.

Neither scary nor entertaining, it may be time to kill off this franchise

In a semi-near future, America has a novel way of coping with crime: The Purge. One evening a year, all crime — including murder — is legal. The New Founding Fathers tout the Purge as a ritual release that’s good for society. In practice, it’s opportunity for social engineering as rich whites kill poor minorities.
    Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell: Crossing Lines), a Purge survivor, seeks to end the bloody tradition. It’s her campaign pledge as a presidential candidate. Lest she ruin their murderous fun, the New Founding Fathers make her the target of this year’s Purge.
    Roan’s ally is Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo: Captain America: Civil War), who couldn’t bring himself to purge his son’s killer.
    Will Leo change his mind about the benefits of the Purge? Can Roan survive the night? Will this franchise survive its simplistic philosophy?
    The problem with The Purge: Election Year is that its message comes before its story. Rather than sympathetic characters, you get preaching about bad old white men. Worse still in a film about the oppression of racism, most of the minority characters are underwritten, stereotypical and appear only to save whites or offer them emotional support.
    Leo, the star of the second film, has little to do in this one. Once his character had a full emotional arc; now he’s reduced to grimacing, running and shooting. Roan is a screaming damsel. She chides all the killers, while the movie makes it obvious that killing is the only way to survive the night. This paradox makes her look weak and foolish.
    Director James DeMonaco (The Purge Anarchy) makes the colossal mistake of abandoning the gritty B-movie feel that made the second Purge fun. On three he’s returned to his roots, ineffectually proselytizing to the popcorn-eating masses. This film sounds like a poorly researched philosophy paper. Without charm, pacing or creativity, it becomes a slog on par with surviving Purge night. Even the threats are laughable: Half the movie features a pack of teen girls in skimpy dresses menacing people in a car illuminated with twinkle lights. The other big bad is a pack of frail old men who may gum our heroine to death.
    Neither scary nor entertaining, The Purge: Election Year is the kind of mass-market thriller that will satisfy no one. There’s not enough blood to satisfy horror buffs, and political thriller junkies will find the simplistic story unbearably dull. Avoid this purge night.

Poor Thriller • R • 105 mins.

A little girl learns the importance of friendship and family in this charming tale

Orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill: The 4 O’clock Club) leads a lonely life in London. Already very grown up and smarter than her peers, she follows the matron to ensure that bills are filed and snipes at the drunks who wake the other orphans. Her only friend is an orange tabby cat. Sophie’s busy life also means she doesn’t have time for frivolities, like sleeping. She’d much rather stay up and read.
    Late one night, Sophie spies something peculiar out her window. Lurking in the alley is a very tall man — some 30 feet tall. Terrified, Sophie does what any child would do: She hides under the covers. Her strategy doesn’t work, for she is scooped out of her bed and taken to Giant Land.
    There, she learns her captor is the BFG, short for Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance: Bridge of Spies). He is the only non-cannibal giant in all the land. That’s good news for Sophie, but she’s still captive, and the BFG refuses to take her home now that she’s seen him.
    As Sophie and the BFG bond, the other giants catch a whiff of the child. Hulking brutes that dwarf the BFG and feast on the bones of children, the giants want Sophie.
    Can the BFG keep Sophie safe? Will she ever return to England?
    Based on the beloved children’s book by Roald Dahl, The BFG is a sweet, silly film that should appeal to older children and Dahl fans. Director Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies) makes a story that is both delightful and visually stunning. He carefully crafts a distinctive London and Giant Land with storybook appeal.
    As the Friendly Giant, Rylance is a wonderful fusion of technology and performance. Created through motion capture and technological rendering, Rylance’s giant is wonderfully detailed; you can even see his pores. But all the fancy computer graphics in the world can’t guarantee a good performance. Here Rylance delivers, filling the BFG with such warmth and kindness that you find yourself charmed.
    In her big-screen debut, Barnhill is also charming, equally at home bossing the BFG around and helping him catch dreams. She’s a good actress who doesn’t push her childlike enthusiasm too hard.
    Still, this is not a film to see if you have a low tolerance for whimsy and quirk. The BFG speaks in a language of Seussian terms and malapropisms.
    Dahl fans and families with children about six or over should delight in this tale of two lonely people creating their own dreams.

Good Children’s Film • PG • 117 mins.


A great comic team in search of a worthy project

Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart: Ride Along 2) peaked in high school. A star athlete, top student and class president, Calvin had it all. He was the prom king and married the prom queen. Everyone knew he’d be the big success in his class.
    Too bad.
    Calvin grows up to be a boring accountant resentful of the rut his life has become. He balks at his wife’s suggestion they go to their high school reunion, fearing that his old friends will mock him.
    Bob Stone (Dwayne Johnson: Ballers) has the opposite trajectory. A friendless nerd in school, he was tossed naked into a school assembly by bullies. As Bob stood, the target of laughter, Calvin gave him his jacket to cover himself.
    After high school, Bob changed his name, dropped a ton of weight, picked up a ton of muscle and joined the CIA. At least that’s what he tells Calvin when the two reconnect via Facebook.
    Calvin is pleased to reconnect — until bullets start flying. Is Bob CIA or a rogue agent hunted by the agency?
    Silly and unimaginative but with a stellar cast, Central Intelligence is a rare film where flaws are overcome by the chemistry of the lead actors. Johnson’s natural charm allows him to sell even the most ridiculous lines, and it’s a treat to see him as the wacky one instead of the buff action guy.
    The usual source of buffoonery, Hart is also playing against type. As the straight man to Johnson’s loony Bob, he shows a great aptitude for reacting to chaos instead of creating it, proving himself a more nuanced actor.
    The chemistry of its leads is about this movie’s only virtue. Director Rawson Marshall Thurber (We’re The Millers) is so ham-fisted that every plot twist is easy to guess and tension is absent. Celebrity cameos are a distraction, but not a very good one.
    Johnson and Hart make a great comic team in search of a project worthy of their talents.

Fair Comedy • PG-13 • 114 mins.

The sequel to Pixar’s Finding Nemo is a less nuanced tale but no less enjoyable

A year after blue tang Dory (Ellen DeGeneres: Ellen) helped clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks: Concussion) find his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence), Dory remains forgetful. She never remembers where she is or what she’s doing. Marlin finds her short-term memory loss annoying.
    When a trip to the migrating grounds of the Pacific triggers a memory, Dory becomes obsessed with finding her family. Now a vague idea of her parents’ whereabouts sets her off. Because Dory’s too forgetful to go alone, Nemo and an increasingly fed-up Marlin accompany her to a marine rehabilitation center in California.
    Of course the trio gets separated. Thus Dory must find both her parents and Marlin and Nemo. Helping is Hank (Ed O’Neill: Modern Family), a seven-tentacled rehabilitated octopus who is terrified of release.
    The sequel to Pixar’s Finding Nemo, Finding Dory is a less nuanced tale of aquatic families, but it is no less enjoyable. Directors Andrew Stanton (John Carter) and Angus MacLane (Toy Story of Terror) give us a story with no one too villainous. Marlin is a bit of a jerk, but then again Dory’s disability can be extremely frustrating and dangerous. It’s an interesting lesson about understanding and accepting differences.
    The film adds news characters in the ocean park excursion. Hank is a loveable curmudgeon of an octopus. His dream is to live in an aquarium in Cleveland, where little kids won’t poke him. With his camouflages, he keeps park staff on the constant hunt.
    Kaitlin Olson (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) stands out as a sweet but nearsighted whale shark who has trouble swimming. Wire fans will be delighted by daffy sea lions Fluke and Rudder, voiced by Idris Elba and Dominic West.
    Finding Dory sacrifices some of the emotional depth of Finding Nemo to make itself funny. Instead of delving into the hurt of cruel comments or the terror of Dory’s forgetfulness, the film focuses on jokes. It’s not a bad strategy for a kids’ movie, and the little ones with me in the theater were enraptured with Dory and her friends.
    Finding Dory is a great movie with a lot of heart. Adults and kids will find characters to root for, jokes to laugh at and understanding of how tolerance and patience help the world.

Great Animation • PG • 103 mins.

A girl learns that money and a sick boyfriend have advantages in this gross romance

Lou (Emilia Clarke: Game of Thrones) needs a job. So when the Traynor family advertises for a companion, she signs on — despite her lack of experience or training in healthcare. Her charge is Will (Sam Claflin: The Huntsman: Winter’s War), a former financial wiz and extreme sports enthusiast who’s now quadriplegic. Will is angry, depressed and in no mood to deal with bumbling Lou.
    Eventually, he warms to her — because what men want is a girl who smiles while taking a litany of abuse. Soon they fall in love, but there’s a hitch in Lou’s happily-ever-after: Will wants to die.
    Can Lou convince him to give life with her a chance? Or is this romance doomed?
    Me Before You isn’t a movie; it’s a manipulation. Director Thea Sharrock (Call the Midwife) makes do with close-ups of pretty people shedding tears. There’s no hint of the demanding work of caring for a quadriplegic, no mention of managing bodily functions, no inkling that Lou understands what she’s getting into. Her job is to make tea, wear outfits seemingly assembled by a demented toddler and smile relentlessly while looking vaguely confused. She’s shown helping in Will’s physical care only twice, lifting his head (don’t strain yourself, Lou).
    There is no substance to their relationship.
    Would the story be so sweepingly romantic if Lou worked at a government-run facility instead of a stately manor. Would she have fallen in love with Will if his family’s money couldn’t afford a private plane to Tahiti (complete with nursing care so Lou can continue to smile and work on her tan)?
    The only actor unscathed by performing in this film is Stephan Peacocke (Wanted), Will’s nurse.
    In the interest of disclosure, I will admit that my seatmate vehemently disagrees with my assessment. And people cried, but not me. I’m saving my tears for where this film is leading the romance genre.

Poor Romantic Drama • PG-13 • 110 mins.