Shaft (2019)

I like music and movie themes are always a favorite, but you can count on one hand the number of movie themes that can single-handedly rescue a movie from mediocrity and make you care about something that is average. Whatever residuals Lalo Schiffrin gets for Mission Impossible, he has earned ten times over for that movie series. Isaac Hayes is gone but his estate should get a big check for making these movies work as well as they do. As much credit as I want to give to the theme song however, there is one other essential component that also fills the film with the value that it has, the lead actor. In the 1970s Richard Roundtree became a star playing the part of the cool private dick who is a sex machine to all the chicks, and he swaggered through three films magnificently. I don’t really know why it took 19 years to get back to the character after the 2000 version of the film, because the lead actor then and now makes the theme song real.

Samuel L. Jackson may have matinee idol good looks like Roundtree did, but he has all the attitude and charisma needed to power a movie like this. I have seen Jackson act. In “Pulp Fiction”, “Jackie Brown” and “Jungle Fever”, he is a real character with quirks unique to each story, but in a lot of films he plays “Samuel L. Jackson” the poet laureate of the “F” word and the bad ass with a mouth that won’t quit. “Shaft” gives him the chance to use those basic cartoon skills in a pretty standard action film, but elevate that action to something more entertaining than gunfights and car chases. Jackson makes the movie he is in fun because he is having fun being in it. This is his fourth film released this year and it’s only June.

The twist in this version is that Shaft is passing the baton so to speak to his son, an MIT nerd who does data for the FBI. Jessie Usher plays J.J. Shaft as if he is a newb in the big world because he has stepped out from behind his computer screen and stepped into Harlem proper. There is a lengthy backstory about the relationship, or lack thereof, between father and son. Shaft doesn’t really know his child and finding out his faults and strengths are the main beats of the story. The movie is filled with offhand putdowns and double takes as Shaft tries to connect with his long lost son. Regina hall gets a female role that is much more substantial than any other in the franchise history, although it is still mostly a side part and primarily for comedic purposes. As a helicopter Mom, who never really stopped loving the man who was her son’s father, she has kept the two apart, so naturally she is aghast when they reconnect. Usher let’s his wardrobe do most of the acting in the first part of the movie but as he and Jackson begin to settle into a relationship, he is much more effective.

The plot deals with the usual investigation of a death that is actually connected to illegal drug trafficking. Because the story is in a hurry to get Junior and Dad back together, it is a bit rushed, and I’ll be damned if I can explain why the victim was killed in the first place, but none of that matters. What matters is that there are insults, badass behavior and some fun fight scenes. Director Tim Story does not have a track record that inspires much faith in an action film. His two Fantastic Four Movies are not very popular among the comic book geeks. I don’t really know his comedies, having skipped them entirely. He does seem to understand the milieu of  urban comedy and that all works in his favor because this is the Shaft movie that is supposed to be funny. There were occasional lines in the other films that would amuse but clearly this movie deserves it’s classification as a comedy on IMDB.

One final note, this movie also features Richard Roundtree in the last quarter of the film. In the previous version he was supposedly Uncle John Shaft, and the part was a brief cameo. The producers made a wise decision to make his role more central to the story and characters and it gives us a lot more to care about and laugh at as well. “Shaft 2019” may not be the classic that the original film was, but it is an entertaining night at the theater (or in front of your TV if you are not in the U.S.), so enjoy it and don’t think to hard about it. Just let the song wash over you like a warm memory of awesomeness past, and listen to Jackson go off, you should be fine.

The Interview

 

The most controversial movie of the year. Yep, I said it and as hard as it is to believe it is true. This stupid, vulgar, lazy excuse for killing two hours and a tub of popcorn became the focus of international tension, craven corporate decision making, and judgement by movie fans around the world. All of you who read anything on line already know what the battle lines are. Now it is to to discover what we are fighting over.

“The Interview” is basically a comedy in the vein of “Spies Like Us”. It pairs two well known comic figures in an outrageous espionage story that no one would mistake as a James Bond movie, much less a piece of political propaganda. The Soviets were not as thin skinned as the North Koreans, or perhaps they were more worried about their citizens living conditions and so ignored drivel that is not a real affront to any state or sovereign. This movie is arrested development, adolescent, shart humor, financed by money grubbing studios and narcissistic performers.  I don’t think it is anyone’s patriotic duty to see it simply because you support free speech, but it is a good example of why we have  protection from the government for free expression, so that the stupidest ideas in the world can be expressed.

If you have seen any of the comedies from Seth Rogan in the past, you know that the humor relies on stoner jokes and vulgar language. The frequency with which the f-word is bandied about in this film could be dangerous to the comics themselves. If people really used the term as frequently and with such reckless abandon as the characters in these films, it would lose any taboo status and stop being funny when inserted into conventional conversation.

So far, I have probably given you the impression that I did not like the movie. far from it, I laughed hard at a number of things. The movie has random violence done for comic effect, I like that. It is full of stupid people being judged by others and by themselves in pretty harsh terms, that is funny also. It lampoons the most xenophobic and dangerous nation on the planet, and guess what, it’s not the U.S., I like that too.  Are the characters engaged in racist and sexist stereotyping, uh duh. As is usual with these kinds of movies, we are supposed to see that they are morons and laugh at them for their stupidity, it is called satire, a concept that the politically correct in this world seem to be unable to comprehend.

When Katy Perry’s “Fireworks” becomes an anthem for revolution, it is not hard to guess that sarcasm is part of the mix. Not everything works in the movie, but there are enough but jokes and penis references to make the average college fraternity laugh a dozen times in the movie. One brief shot of nudity is included to be titillating, unless you are thinking of the longer shots of Seth Rogan’s naked character or Kim Jung Un’s backside.

Finterviewor me the real political controversy is over the use of streaming services to deliver movies. On a Sunday night, my network slowed down enough to stop the film three or four times. Until the delivery is seamless, theaters should not be too worried about day and date VOD releases. Plus, this way, all the pot smokers will be at home watching instead of on the road driving to the movie in a highly lit condition. This movie is exactly what you think it is, and if that appeals to you, as it did to me, you will enjoy it well enough.

Back to the Future Trilogy

why-drew-struzan-deserves-an-honorary-oscar-back-to-the-future

OK, this is a good way to start the New Year on a movie blog. Last night I had the chance to see the three films from Robert Zemekis that cemented his position as the most commercial director of the 1980s outside of Steven Spielberg, who of course was a producer on all three films himself. This was a digital presentation at the Egyptian Theater and the house was packed. I saw several attendees wearing down vests and one guy with Griff’s hat on from the second movie. It is now 2015 and that was the year in the future that Marty and Doc went to to try and straighten out Marty’s kids. Unfortunately we don’t have the Hoverboards, Flying cars and self tying shoes predicted in the film, but we do have skype, flatscreen TVs, Google Glass, and more channel choices that someone could watch at the same time than anyone should find necessary.

Back to the Future 1This will not be a full review on each film but rather just a quick recap and a few comments. These movies are pretty well known and are beloved by millions. The first in the series is one of the great pop entertainment surprises ever. While the follow ups struggle to achieve the same kind of magic as the original, they manage to do the one thing that every consumer of films wants, entertain us.

back_to_the_future_ver2The original film roared out of no where in 1985 to incredible popular success and made Michael J. Fox an entertainment icon rather than simply a good character on a successful TV show. The cleverness of the concept and it’s execution are hard to match. This film is funny, exciting and it manages to raise our awareness of family history and it’s significance along the way. While Fox is clearly the star, the secret weapon in this film is Christopher Lloyd, who got laughs from an intake of breath and a bug eyed scream. He manages to make some of the slapstick work where so often it does not in modern films. I will also mention that Lea Thompson is best used in this film and she does the “good girl with a bad side” 50s character just perfectly. She is also strikingly attractive in the film.

back_to_the_future_part_ii_ver3Four years later, the second film was released at the Thanksgiving holidays. It was a success but came nowhere close to matching the original box office draw of it’s predecessor. Maybe too much time had elapsed or maybe it is the sour tone of the movie. Fox is still great, but the complicated movement between time periods and the inconsistency of some of the rules make it a little sloppy. Having to invent a character fault in Marty, in order to justify the story line is also a bit frustrating. Thomas Wilson as Biff/Griff does a great job in building his malignant character, but because the movie uses him in such cartoony ways and so frequently, the movie feels shrill. Doc Brown gets short shrift in this chapter of the story and Elizabeth Shue, as the new Jennifer, is put to sleep a third of the way into the movie and does not return until the coda of the third film. When I first saw this thirty years ago, it was a bit of a letdown. Last night however, it was pure joy. The future sequences play even more effectively now that we are in 2015 and the suspense bits still work. While I feel as if this is the weakest of the three films, that does not mean it is not a success. There is plenty here to enjoy.

back_to_the_future_part_iiiThe third chapter was awkwardly set up in the second film, but once it gets started it works just fine and it feels seamless rather than forced. The historical context is fun and the western tropes that are lampooned were amusing. Marty adopts the “Man with No Name” persona, and gives him a name, Clint Eastwood. The fact that Clint was a big star at the time but also the only star who tried to keep Westerns alive during the 80s was a big whoop for film fans. Familiar Western character actors are sprinkled through the film and the gulf between the real west and the movie west is explored just a bit. The addition of Mary Steenburgen to the cast was a nice touch and gives Doc a great conclusion to his story. Watch Wilson copy Lee Marvin from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance” in his portrayal of “Mad Dog Tannen”. He gets the walk, swagger and body movement just right, and in case you missed it, he carries a riding crop in his non-shooting hand. This was a simpler version of the time travel story and it effectively wrapped up the story lines they had created in the second movie. The fact that the two sequels were shot simultaneously saved some money and allowed this film to be released just seven months after the second installment.

Back to the Future 2A pleasant evening was had by all and I am much more ready to come back to these films than I have been for a while. They really were terrific entertainment even when there are some issues in the time story sequences.

 

 

The Other Woman

I think everybody knows the answer to this before it opened, but I’ll go ahead and ask and answer the question anyway. Is there any way that this movie will be any good?     No.

I have liked Leslie Mann in other films, she is an every day kind of attractive. She is a talented comedic actress. She should have looked at this script and run the other way. Having made the movie, she should now sue the producers for turning her into a whining, needy, idiot, character who is made to look unattractive and stupid in nearly every sequence in the film. I have always had a thing for women in hats, maybe I saw Casablanca and and fell in love with Ingrid Bergman at a young age. This movie may have cured me of that fetish. Whenever the director wanted her to look awful, he put her in a hat that not even Bergman could have sold.

Cameron Diaz is still an attractive woman, but she is a little older now and sometimes looks a bit well worn at times. Her smile still twinkles, and her hair is cute in whatever form it shows up in, but either the sun or plastic surgery have given her a tougher look than she probably deserves. Now I will say there was a trailer for “The Sex Tape” playing before this movie and she looked terrific in that, so maybe the director of photography needs to share some of the blame here. She has been funny in a dozen movies. Many of which I liked but others have dismissed (eg. “Knight and Day”) Here she has nothing funny to do or say. There are moments when I wondered if she knew what the tone of the film was supposed to be.

I don’t really know Kate Upton. She is a beautiful woman and apparently world famous, probably for being beautiful. It turns out she has made three films now and I have seen all three of them. I have no memory of her from the other two at all. So while beauty is certainly a calling card, it is not a memory card, because unless she is on the beach in a bikini, I suspect her acting career will be limited. I hope that doesn’t sound too mean, I don’t want it to. I was just not convinced that she needed to even be in this movie.

This could almost be a remake of “The First Wives Club” from 1996. Except instead of three philanderers, we have one serial philanderer and the women he has cheated on. It’s a woman’s empowerment revenge story. Unfortunately, none of the main characters is likable enough to feel much sympathy for and at times they are downright irritating. The male character in the story is played with a tone that guns from suave James Bond sex machine to doofus Jeff Daniels in “Dumb and Dumber”. Nothing in the way any of these characters act is in the realm of reality, which would be alright if it was all revenge fantasy, but it isn’t. There is another romance shoehorned onto the story, a superfluous character played by Don Johnson, who looks great by the way, that is distracting and totally predictable, and some cultural references to  the French that might have worked if the story had stuck to the comedy and not veered into melodrama.

It doesn’t work. I did not expect it to, and the two women who went with me agreed. It’s the only new wide release this weekend, so maybe it will make some money, but you can look for a quick exit from theaters and an even quicker exit from your memory.

Cuban Fury

I looked at two other blog sites today that both reviewed this movie. That is something I do not usually do before seeing a film. I want my perspective to be untainted as much as possible. The thing of it is though, I had no plan to see this movie before today. I’d only heard of it a day or two ago, and I knew next to nothing about it except that it featured dancing and Nick Frost. I let my curiosity get the better of me and I peeked at what others had said. It was not promising. The reviews that I saw were not terrible but they were at best lukewarm to the movie. They did however fill in enough details to let me know that this might be a movie I would appreciate.

Since I have the week off at one of my work sites, I thought I’d be able to take some time and sneak in several films. No such luck and to be honest I was not excited about anything I’d not already seen. I took my AMC Stubbs points, marched down and caught the matinee of this movie. I’m 56 years old and I was the youngest person in the theater. It was on one of the four big screens at the multiplex with 17 screens. There were maybe a half dozen of us there so the house seemed cavernous. All that said, everybody had a pretty good time. I heard the 70 year old ladies a dozen seats down from me laugh several times and I was doing the same. The film was a little predictable, but all romantic comedies are. What sets this apart from most of the others is the salsa-dancing background and the star.

For some reason I have usually enjoyed movie dancing. From the classic Hollywood musicals of the golden age, to the 80’s revisionism of Fame, Flashdance and Footloose (the three big “Fs” of the 80s), a little fancy footwork seemed to do it for me. This film takes a big dose of “Strictly Ballroom” and crosses it with a goofball comedy sensibility to entertain for the nearly two hours that it ran. A dancer who has lost his way and seems to have settled for a more mundane existence, gets a chance to reconnect with his roots. All the while being slighted by an obnoxious co-worker and romantic rival. I liked the dialogue that reveals what a pig the rival really is and the performance of Chris O’Dowd  as the odious Drew was at least a third of the fun in the movie. So it is an underdog story set in England centered around salsa dancing.

The underdog here is Nick Frost, as Bruce, the man who gave up salsa as a child when bullied by a group of other boys. His sweetheart of a sister was his dancing partner and she still bravely faces the world with her own quirky way of coping. It is the arrival of a pretty new American woman who stirs Bruce’s romantic inclinations, and when he discovers that she also salsas, he returns to the art, twenty-five years out of practice. Frost is best known to me as Simon Pegg’s counterpart in the “Cornetto Trilogy”(there is a “blink and you’ll miss it” appearance by Mr. Pegg in this film as well). He is a sweet faced, overweight, lump of an actor, who manages to bring real personality to his roles and sweep aside the stereotypes of his visual image. In this film, the whole goal is to subvert those sterotypes while also exploiting them for laughs. It worked really well for me.

It is not a classic that you will want to return to over and over again, but it has it’s moments. There are some great scenes with an effeminate Persian man who encourages Bruce that are very funny. The showdown between Bruce and Drew is hysterically staged and full of mad ingenuity. The peripheral characters, including Ian McShane as Bruce’s old salsa coach, fill the movie with little bits of charm and mild laughter. It was better than I was expecting and the credit has to go to Nick Frost, who manages to make us care that a dumpy guy might have bigger dreams than what he seems doomed to live out. 

The Grand Budapest Hotel

I suppose everyone knows that Wes Anderson films are an acquired taste. He has directed thirteen films and I have only seen five of them. I enjoyed “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore”, I was largely indifferent to “The Royal Tennenbaums” despite the presence of my favorite actor, Gene Hackman, and I really enjoyed “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”. For some reason I have been unable to work up enough enthusiasm for “Moonrise Kingdom”. So I have not been pulled into the hypnotic world of his movies entirely, but I can say that I am not an novice either. The current offering does however threaten to drag me into the pool with the other Anderson fanatics, because “The Grand Budapest Hotel” works incredibly well for my sensibilities and I expect that it will be a movie that I return to on many occasions in the future.  

Let me divide my comments into three particular sections so that you will be able to see the discrete joys contained in each element of the film. I’ll start with the look of the movie. Anderson has shot this for a nearly square ratio. I don’t remember if his other films have been does this way or not but I did think it worked pretty well for this story. This film is set for the most part in the early years of the Twentieth Century, when movies were presented in the nearly square format that became standard for televisions and was retaliated against by movie makers in the fifties by using widescreen formats. Even though the film is presented in a muted palate of colors, it still feels like a traditional thirties film in many ways. The set design and costumes also recall the grand days of Europe before the war with attentive concierges and lobby boys dressed in smart uniforms that contrasted well with the elegant designs of the hotels they worked in. There is wall paper in some of the rooms that recalls the complex geometric design of the carpets from the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining”. The worn down modern designs in the lobby and the baths suggest a standard of beauty and wealth that are no longer within reach of the times or the culture.

Still on the look of the film, it would be unwise to ignore the photographic styles that are used to achieve some of the effects in the movie. There are clever animated bits with ski lifts and trollies that look just normal enough to fit into the movie but also just ethereal enough to make the images look slightly magical. The stairwells and kitchens also have an otherworldly film on them which makes the story feel distinctive. The prison is a cinematic tribute to movies from the past with convicts in striped uniforms and barred doors that look like meat lockers. The escape using two different ladders is completed by exaggerating each one in a way that is comic and acknowledges the cinematic roots of the comedy we are watching. There are a thousand little details that make the look of the film so distinctive. I would say that it bears more in common with the “Fantastic Mr. Fox” than it does with most of the other films of Anderson’s that I have seen.

The second element that demands a recommendation is the script. The plot itself is clever enough and it is reminds me of one of those stacking Russian dolls, with another doll contained inside the first and than another inside the second. For instance, Tom Wilkinson plays a writer as an older man, who is portrayed by Jude Law as a younger version, who interacts with F. Murray Abraham who is portrayed as a younger man by newcomer Tony Revolori. It does not quite go back infinitely, but the story definitely reflects three distinct time periods and two of those get quite a bit of development. I won’t say that the story is unimportant but I will say that what is most memorable for me is the dialogue. There are passages of script that just demand to be listened to. Much like Quentin Tarantino, the spoken word is poetry in the hands of Wes Anderson. Where Tarantino speaks the language of pop culture with lines that burn like lyrics to a song that you can’t get out of your head, Anderson’s dialogue is more like poetry. In fact the lead character speaks poetry on a regular basis but the poems are never completed although the thoughts behind them are always clear. There is great humor in the language and the way it is used in context and frequently broken up by the context as well. It always feels like there is narration, even when the narration has stopped because the characters style of talking is so in sync with the style of story telling.

Finally, I’d like to mention the depth of acting quality that permeates the film. Take a look at the cast and you will see nineteen Academy Award nominated performers and four winners lurking in the foreground, background and center stage of the film. Ralph Fiennes is a comic revelation, his manner is controlled mania. He eyes the other characters with the view of a man used to evaluating others and being able to sum them up in an instant, but still not understand how to appropriately interact with them. His manner is winning, even in the face of circumstances that should have his character screaming and running away. That’s what makes those moments when he does just that feel so great, because he breaks free of the mannered style that he is accustomed to. F. Murray Abraham should work more in films. His career has not achieved the level of excellence we might have expected after his Salieri, but he has a weight to his presence and a manner in his voice that makes him perfect for his role as the older version of Zero the Lobby Boy that is Fienne”s protege. Saoirse Ronan has a lovely demeanor that shines through even though she has only a small amount of dialogue and has to work with a splotch on her face in the shape of Mexico. There are a dozen other surpises along the way and the casting is ninety percent of the success here.

This film will need to be seen a second or third time for me to absorb all the intricate pieces of film making that delighted me. It has an off beat charm and it provoked laughter in both visual and auditory stimuli. As I started off saying, the Wes Anderson filmography may be a little off putting for some, but if you are looking for a starting place, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a delightful and amusing way to start an addiction to his weird charms.

Muppets Most Wanted

I may need to see a doctor or a dentist next week. My mouth and jaw are sore from smiling so much this morning, I’m not sure if I need a pain killer or another injection of Muppet hysteria to make my brain start functioning normally again. I can’t say that this movie will win over any non-Muppet converts, but if you are among the initiated in the ways of Kermit, Piggy and the rest of the gang, you too will likely find that the smile you wear for the rest of the day is a pleasant penance to pay for the nearly two hours of felt and foam pleasure.

Let me say that I hope this will be a two or three year repeat event for the rest of my life. Like James Bond, a new Muppet film is something that I will always look forward to. The characters always entertain me and if the movie is put together with some thought, it should be a memorable experience. “Muppets Most Wanted” lives up to my expectations and it will be a film that any fan can return to and enjoy from almost any point in the run time. The story is an almost immediate follow up to the rebooted version of the Muppets from 2011. The character of Walter is now just another one of the cast and the focus is on the whole crew of Muppets with special attention to Kermit. His resemblance to the most dangerous frog alive, the number one criminal right above the “Lemur”, is what propels the story. “Constantine” is a vaguely Eastern European amphibian, locked up in a Russian gulag, who makes good his escape and manages to replace Kermit in the Muppet Troop as Kermit is banished to the Siberian prison that held the criminal. It’s sort of like “The Prince and the Pauper” or “The Prisoner of Zenda” only with frogs.

The master criminal is going to use the Muppet Show as cover for a series of crimes aimed at gaining access to the crown jewels. This means that we will have several bits that harken to the original Muppet Show. There are guest stars dancing with Muppets and Piggy trying to hog the spotlight and Gonzo with another weird act he is trying out on the road. I would have been perfectly happy with those moments but we get some other elaborate productions also. There are plenty of singing and dancing guest stars and Muppets to go around the world a couple of times. As the crimes are being investigated, a mismatched pair of vaguely French Interpol agent and Sam The Eagle from the CIA pursue the trail of the criminals and try to break the case. Meanwhile, Kermit plots escape and survival in the Siberian Gulag he has been cast in.

The movie features eight original songs by Bret McKenzie, one half of “Flight of the Concords”, and they are all a kick. “We’re Doing a Sequel” is self mocking and enticing at the same time. The Muppets are joined in singing by a couple of guests, but the focus is clearly on them and their desire to figure out what it is that they are doing next. “I’m Number One” is a status defining character piece that uses the amusing Ricky Gervais as the straight man to the nefarious Constantine. The esteem crushing lyrics will go a long way in making sense of a twist payoff that is silly and memorable and involves the dumbest costume for a master criminal this side of the sixties Batman TV show.

All of the non-Muppet stars in the movie get moments to shine, but many could use a little more screen time. After seeing some clever jokey TV promos featuring Danny Trejo, I could have used a couple more scenes with that craggy faced, tattooed treasure. Tina Fey is coy and tough at the same time as the Russian officer in charge of containing the prisoners in Siberia. She gets carried away just enough during rehearsals for the prisoner review that we can accept the crush she seems to have on our main hero. Ty Burrell is pleasingly goofy as the E.U. weenie who gives we Americans something to laugh at in the European settings. There are cute little surprises in the background casting and several big stars get into the movie for just seconds because it looks like they like the Muppets as well as we do. If you never find the Muppet characters to your liking, I’m sorry for you, and this movie is something you can stay well away from. If you love the Muppets like I do, then this is the most sensational, inspirational,celebrational, muppetational, film you are going to see this year. You should love it.

Come on, get in the picture Muppet Fans.