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Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Writer-director Steve McQueen follows up his Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave with Widows, an above-average thriller made very watchable thanks to a terrific performance by Viola Davis.

Davis plays Veronica, the wife of lifetime criminal Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). When Harry meets an untimely end, he leaves behind a nasty debt—and some nasty people want it paid back. Veronica hatches a plan to pull a heist, and she looks to the wives of Harry’s also-dead gang mates to help her out.

Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki are good as the other widows, while Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell steal scenes as father-and-son politicians. The plot is fairly standard, and you’ll see some of the “big twists” coming a mile away. That doesn’t keep the movie from being a sufficiently stylized, serviceable thriller that gives Davis her best vehicle in years.

Widows also costars Lukas Haas as a mysterious boyfriend, Daniel Kaluuya as a scary henchman and Carrie Coon in a throwaway role. This is not the sort of greatness one hopes for from McQueen, but it’s no mishap: It’s a good movie from a very good director.

Widows is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Denzel Washington directs and stars in Fences as Troy Maxson, an ex-baseball player in the 1950s. It’s a role originated on Broadway in a 1987 Tony-winning performance by James Earl Jones. Washington starred in the 2010 Broadway revival (for which he also won a Tony), and now he’s taking another shot at this great character penned by August Wilson.

Viola Davis, who co-starred with Washington on Broadway (yep, another Tony), plays Rose, Troy’s long-suffering wife. The two try to raise a son of their own (Jovan Adepo) while contending with Troy’s children from past relationships and present affairs.

Some of 2016’s finest performances are contained in the movie, including that by Washington and, most notably, Davis, who should find herself in contention for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. The movie, however, suffers from that feeling that it is a filmed play: The staging is lackluster and drab, and some of the writing feels a tad melodramatic, far more suitable for a live performance than a motion picture.

Still, you can’t take away from the performances by Washington and Davis. Washington definitely has a knack for getting great work from his cast.

Fences opens Saturday, Dec. 24, at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342).

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was a skunk blast to the face for those of us looking for a fun superhero movie earlier this year. Well, Suicide Squad looked like a fine chance for DC Comics movies to get back on the right track. With David Ayer (Fury, End of Watch) at the helm, and a cast including Will Smith, Jared Leto and Margot Robbie, Suicide Squad had the potential to be a fun blast of movie mischief.

Sadly, Suicide Squad does nothing to improve the summer blockbuster season. In fact, it is the equivalent of a big, stinking torpedo of shit. After a first-half buildup that does a decent job of introducing bad-guy characters like Deadshot (Smith), Harley Quinn (Robbie) and The Joker (Leto), the movie becomes a spastic colon, resulting in that big turd referred above.

The script—if one could call it that—involves some nonsense with a government sort named Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembling a squad of villains to help in case a superhero goes bad. An alliance of bad guys is formed that includes Deadshot, Quinn, Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and others. When a kooky villain called Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) starts some sort of apocalyptic tornado in the middle of Gotham, the Suicide Squad launches into action.

I have no real idea what the Enchantress was up to with her blue-tornado dance show extravaganza; man, it’s weird and confusing. She’s busting moves on some sort of stage while carrying on strange conversations with those questioning her motives. The Squad has to fight mushy humanoid monsters on their way to the Enchantress, and it’s unspeakably odd … in a bad way.

At the core of this mess are potentially fun performances from Smith and, especially, Robbie. Actually, a movie that simply featured these two would’ve been more than enough. Other villains like Diablo, Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and Fantastic Mustache Man Pizza Pants (OK, I made that one up) don’t register and steal quality time from the characters that are interesting.

As for the much-hyped Joker: Jared Leto is reduced to a few preening moments; his part is nothing more than a glorified extended cameo. That marketing ploy that had you thinking the Joker was a leader of the Suicide Squad? It was a ruse. Much of his role consists of texts to Harley Quinn letting her know he’s on the way. Then he shows up, shows off his metal teeth and tattoos, and runs away laughing like an idiot.

Considering the power of some of Ayer’s past work, it’s surprising to witness such a mess. Perhaps this disaster is the result of studio meddling after the critical car crash that was Batman v Superman? Perhaps it’s because he never had a script worth shooting?

On the red carpet for this film’s premiere, Robbie and Smith both boasted that they signed on for the movie without seeing the script. They just wanted to work with Ayer. Well, I’m thinking Robbie and Smith should’ve gone against their instincts on this one. Demand a script the next time—and if that script involves a climax with somebody named the Enchantress delivering ponderous monologues while disco-dancing in front of a bright-blue dust devil, flanked by large humanoids with severe acne, run away … and run away fast.

Maybe there’s a three-hour cut of this thing somewhere that makes a little more sense. Or, based on the record-breaking opening weekend, maybe Warner Bros. knows by now that people will always shell out money for this crap, and quality is of no concern.

Suicide Squad is playing in a variety of formats at theaters across the valley.

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Turns out Chris Hemsworth isn’t all that interesting when you take away his hammer, strip off his cape and disguise that bitchin’ Australian accent.

He’s actually quite dull. At least he is in Blackhat, an atrocious cyberspace thriller from normally reliable director Michael Mann (Heat, Public Enemies).

Hemsworth plays Nick Hathaway, a hacker doing time in a maximum-security prison. When a hack job leads to an explosion at a nuclear power plant in China, authorities let Nick out of prison under the condition that he find the other hacker and save the day. If he fails to find the hacker, it’s back to prison, where his hair will still look spectacular, despite the fact that he does not have access to premium hair-care products.

Upon leaving prison, Nick instantly becomes some sort of super-detective. Joining forces with Chinese former roommate Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), he can shoot bad guys and beat the crap out of attackers in a restaurant—even though he lacks any real training. I guess a few years in a big prison automatically make you sharp with hand-to-hand combat and a Glock. (Fact: Most hackers lack Nick’s innate super-detective skills, but they will kick your ass in Call of Duty and Snickers-eating contests.)

Mann and Hemsworth make the fatal error of having Nick be an American. This means Hemsworth must don an American accent, something he cannot do without sounding really, really stupid most of the time. There are moments when he sounds Midwestern, and others when he sounds like he’s from Long Island. On occasion, he also sounds like he’s from Australia, because he can’t do an American accent.

This is one of those movies in which actors often mouth words that are different from the ones we are hearing, because of sloppy looping and editing. One or two slips in a movie is understandable, but this one looks almost like it was dubbed in another language at times.

It’s also a movie where … everybody … speaks … really … slowly … and … growly. The pace is sluggish, and the likes of Viola Davis (who plays some sort of FBI agent or something) look annoyed the whole damn time. The movie clocks in at 133 minutes. I would say there were actually about 30 minutes of plot-worthy material. Somebody seriously needed to light a fire under this film’s ass.

As many film aficionados know, Mann often includes super-cool shootouts in his movies. This film has a couple, and they’re the only parts truly worth watching.

As for the subject matter, Blackhat feels old before it even starts. When is somebody going to figure out that the sight and sound of somebody typing away on a computer keyboard is not something we want to see? People type a lot in this movie, which is so dynamic I just can’t stand it!

Nick gets a love interest, because a movie in which somebody doesn’t try to make out with Thor is implausible. It takes something like 15 minutes of knowing each other for Nick and Chen Lien (Wei Tang) to get it on. Who can blame her, really? Hemsworth’s shirt is often unbuttoned, revealing his Marvel-worthy chest. This is accompanied by those heavenly bangs hanging down the side of his head in strands of just the right length. Oh … I’m getting distracted.

It’s early, but I hated Blackhat enough to suspect it will make my list of the worst films of 2015. If it doesn’t, then bravo to those 10 idiots who will manage to make movies more moronic over the next 11 months. That, in a sad way, would be a significant achievement.

Blackhat is playing at theaters across the valley.

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The Godfather of Soul is the subject of a rollicking if ultimately milquetoast biopic with Get on Up, showcasing a dynamite Chadwick Boseman as James Brown. The movie is entertaining, and it does flirt with the more controversial aspects of Brown’s life—but it plays things a little too safe.

A true telling of James Brown’s often insane life would be a real powder keg of a movie. In this PG-13 film, director Tate Taylor (The Help) doesn’t avoid the domestic violence, drugs and brushes with the law that were a mainstay in Brown’s life, but he does treat those aspects as a side note. The film’s focus stays primarily on Brown’s tough upbringing and his music. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does result in a missed opportunity for greatness.

The movie, which is not told chronologically, starts with the events leading up to the infamous police chase that landed Brown in jail for three years. Boseman is nothing short of amazing in these scenes as a somewhat crazy, older Brown, brandishing a shotgun and seeking out the person who dared to take a dump in his bathroom.

The film then bounces around in time, showing Brown as a young child in Augusta, Ga., and going all the way up to his latter years as a performer. This narrative technique is certainly fun; Boseman even breaks the fourth wall to chat with the audience—something that is a bit jarring at first, but eventually works.

The film highlights many of the legendary concerts in Brown’s career, including his groundbreaking first concert at the Apollo and the healing experience that was a Boston concert shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In most of these scenes, Boseman is lip-synching to Brown’s voice, but he does sing a few passages in the film using his own vocals. Taylor puts it all together seamlessly.

As for the physicality of his performance, Boseman is a kinetic marvel. He truly becomes James Brown, immaculately re-creating the dance moves and stage theatrics that made Brown one of the all-time-great performers. His method of delivering dialogue is, quite appropriately, not always intelligible: Brown had a tendency to mumble and ramble as he got older, and Boseman doesn’t shy away from that. Somehow, I still managed to understand everything he was saying.

Viola Davis is good in her few scenes as Brown’s troubled mother. Dan Aykroyd and Craig Robinson impress as Brown’s manager, Ben Bart, and saxophonist Maceo Parker, respectively. The supporting cast’s most valuable player is Nelsan Ellis, as longtime Brown sideman Bobby Byrd. His part is essentially the voice of reason in the madness that was often Brown’s life.

This story took a long time getting to the big screen, with everybody from Wesley Snipes to Eddie Murphy rumored to play Brown. Spike Lee was attached to direct at one point; he was also attached to a Jackie Robinson biopic. The eventual 42 was not directed by Lee, but did star Boseman. I guess this sort of makes Boseman an enemy of Spike Lee by default.

If you want to see somebody kick major ass with the James Brown dance moves, Get on Up definitely delivers. If you are looking for a biopic that truly captures Brown’s amazingly crazy life, you’ll have to keep waiting. This movie, while fun, doesn’t even scratch the surface.

Get on Up is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Orson Scott Card is a pigheaded loser who has spoken out against gay marriage and has compared Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler. Hey, Orson: Go have an asshole tea party with Mel Gibson and Woody Allen!

Still, Ender’s Game and its sequels are prophetic and intuitive when it comes to modern technology.

The story has a protagonist named Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a genius boy who is a master of futuristic video games and strategies. He’s targeted by a colonel (crusty, craggy Harrison Ford) as the savior of the human race—somebody who can save Earth from a second attack by an alien insect species called the Formics.

Ender enters a training program in which he is secretly fast-tracked to the point where he’s commanding his own ragtag group of teens, including True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld, through elaborate exercises. One involves a zero-gravity room in which they play laser tag with paralyzing rays; another is a large video game featuring alien-annihilation scenarios.

The movie has some impressive special effects and some great ideas at its core. What it doesn’t have is an engaging performance by its central actor: Butterfield just doesn’t cut it as Ender, as he opts mostly for a quiet intensity that results in boring stretches. Steinfeld acts circles around him.

Something about this movie feels vastly abbreviated. I can’t help but think this franchise would’ve fared better as a series or miniseries. The Ender’s Game finale feels tacked on, super-condensed and rushed. Ender is required to switch emotional modes in a way that is too quick; it feels false.

Card’s “One who can save us all!” premise, with its biblical ramifications, acted as a prelude to the Harry Potter series and The Matrix series. The master-gamer aspect of Ender was conceptualized in a book that was published in 1985, when modern man was just saying goodbye to Colecovision and ushering in the age of Nintendo. The first Playstation was nearly a decade away. In other words, Ender’s Game was a masterfully intuitive novel.

Therefore, it’s a shame that director Gavin Hood has delivered such a muddled effort. The movie, while visually breathtaking at times, is a flat, joyless affair. I couldn’t help but think of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, and how much fun that was. Instead, Ender’s Game has a lot of moping and routine teen angst.

Ford is actually my favorite aspect of the movie. He manages to mix in occasional warm and funny moments as the determined engineer of Ender’s fate. Watching him in Ender’s, I found myself rooting for a deal with J.J. Abrams to have Ford reprise his Star Wars role. His work here could act as a nice bridge back to that franchise.

On the confusing side, Viola Davis is on hand as Major Gwen Anderson; she’s some sort of counselor/protector of Ender who is constantly at Ford’s side, telling him his plan sucks. I got the feeling Hood and Davis weren’t quite sure about the arc for this character; she virtually disappears for long stretches of the film.

There’s some barracks-bullying involving a character named Bonzo (Moises Arias) that doesn’t feel fully realized. I got the impression that there should’ve been more to this character’s story.

Ender’s Game is not a bad movie. It has many respectable aspects, but it is marbled with dullness. It’s supposed to be the start of a franchise—but I have a feeling that the films may end here for now.

Ender's Game is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Prisoners, the new kidnapping thriller starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, is one of those movies that is impressive while being watched—but it loses some of its power upon reflection.

By the time I got to my car after the screening, my head started going “Wait a minute … that part didn’t make much sense, now did it?”

I enjoyed the film on many levels. It’s 2 1/2 hours long, and the time went by fairly quickly. The two leads are at the top of their games, and you just can’t go wrong with the visuals when Roger Deakins is working the camera.

But somewhere around the third act, the kidnapping-mystery element starts going a little haywire. Director Denis Villeneuve and his writer, Aaron Guzikowski, are so determined to trip viewers up that the movie traipses over to the ridiculous side. This doesn’t derail the film, but it downgrades it a bit.

Keller Dover (Jackman) and his wife Grace, (Maria Bello), are having a Thanksgiving get-together with friends Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) when both of the couples’ daughters go missing. Keller’s son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) saw a messed-up looking RV near the house earlier in the day, and he reports it.

Det. Loki (Gyllenhaal) is called away from his Thanksgiving dinner at a greasy spoon when the RV is spotted. They arrest Alex Jones (a freaky Paul Dano), a man with an IQ of a 10-year-old, on suspicion of kidnapping.

Loki does his best to get info out of Alex, to no avail. The suspect is released due to a lack of evidence—and Keller goes ballistic. He takes matters into his own hands, resulting in Keller kidnapping Alex—and leading to some rather harsh torture scenes. Dano spends much of the film under heavy gore makeup.

Up until this point, Prisoners is a movie that focuses on the dilemma of what lengths a parent would go to in order to find a child. Keller brings Franklin to the torture chamber, and the two put Alex through hell. The victim keeps dropping possible hints, with no real solid info—so the torture amplifies. It’s brutal, and credit goes to all three actors for convincingly conveying the humiliation, fear, regret and sadism that must go with such a situation.

Det. Loki is in what sometimes feels like another movie; he’s trying to solve the kidnapping while stumbling upon other crimes along the way. Around the time he was uncovering bloody storage bins full of snakes, the movie started losing a bit of its cohesiveness. Still, Gyllenhaal is rock-solid as Loki, a quiet man laced with a bad temper that gets him and others into trouble.

The film is set in an often gloomy, gray, rainy Pennsylvania where everything looks plain and safe—but dark things are happening in those old houses. Villeneuve and Deakins use this setting to maximum effect, and the film is always interesting visually. (Film geeks know that Deakins is the go-to cinematographer for the Coen brothers.)

The film successfully keeps viewers guessing as to the identity of the kidnapper/kidnappers until late in the film. Everybody in the cast behaves suspiciously enough at one point or another, meaning almost nobody can be dismissed as a possibility.

This ambiguity hurts the film in many ways, as the film strays from a core moral message and becomes a preposterous whodunit. The eventual revelation struck me as a letdown—perhaps even a copout.

Stretches of this film will draw comparisons to the 1988 Dutch classic The Vanishing (Spoorloos). Unfortunately, stretches can also be compared to the crappy 1993 American remake of The Vanishing in which Jeff Bridges took a shovel to the mouth. At least Prisoners has a great final moment, so it ends on a good note.

The film contains some of the year’s best acting and best visuals, and it maintains a fierce intensity for much of its running time. That said, I can’t deny its flaws. With a slight rewrite and tighter editing, this could’ve been one of the year’s best pictures. 

Prisoners is playing in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews