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Sun08092020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Bob Grimm

The new Disney+ series Muppets Now—the umpteenth incarnation of the Muppets on TV—proves to be a good one, with Kermit and pals assimilating into the world of Zoom and cooking-competition shows.

The premise is simple: Kermit presides over a different kind of show, one in which he remains the emcee, and Scooter continues as a stage manager, of sorts. But this time, Kermit is hosting things on a Zoom-like platform, while Scooter labors away trying to upload show elements on time to the satisfaction of Miss Piggy, Gonzo, etc.

It may sound trite and unoriginal, but the writing and flow turn out to be perfect fits for Muppet sensibilities. I’m four episodes in—the show is being released to the public in weekly installments, and the first of six first-season episodes was released July 31—and they get progressively funnier. Human guests such as Linda Cardellini and Taye Diggs are fun, but they never overshadow the puppet horseplay.

Miss Piggy gets a fashion show called Life Stye, the name of which makes her very angry for obvious reasons. The best segments involve the Swedish Chef in a cooking competition during which he cheats and refuses to tip delivery drivers. (The Swedish Chef is pure insanity in this new show.) Scientist Bunsen Honeydew now has a sadistic edge in his wont for destroying things, while assistant Beaker remains petrified.

The show pops with energy. Muppets Now could have felt like producers were trying to shoehorn the classic characters into a new, modern format—but instead, the show feels natural. This will appeal to younger fans and heritage fans alike.

Muppets Now is now streaming on Disney+, with new episodes released on Fridays.

Dave Franco, brother of James, makes his directorial debut (and also co-wrote the screenplay) with The Rental, a serviceable slasher film that proves the newbie director can successfully create a creepy vibe.

The film isn’t all that original, and you won’t feel any major sense of surprise when the story ends. You might, however, refrain from renting a vacation home on the Oregon coast anytime soon.

Charlie and Michelle (Dan Stevens and Alison Brie) are looking to get away for the weekend. They rent a fancy house and bring along Charlie’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White), and Josh’s girlfriend, Mina (Sheila Vand), for company. After an awkward meeting with the caretaker (Toby Huss, amassing a nice horror-film resume with this and the recent Halloween), the weekend gets off to a pleasant-enough start. Then the drugs come out … and bad things happen. When Mina discovers a camera in the shower, justified paranoia reigns—and then the bodies start piling up.

Franco keeps the audience guessing about who is creating the bloody mayhem. The resolution irked me at first, but it’s growing on me. The performances help put the film over the top, as does the effective score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. They definitely use sound to keep you on edge.

While The Rental owes much to previous films like Vacancy, it’s a promising start for Franco, who manages to give the film enough coolness to warrant a rental if you are a horror aficionado.

The Rental is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

When Apple bought the distribution rights to Greyhound, the new Tom Hanks movie, and announced the film would be released via Apple TV+, my first thought was: “It must suck!”

This knee-jerk reaction was due in part to the utter disaster that is Artemis Fowl, the big-budget shitshow that Disney+ “gifted” to us as a streaming choice during the pandemic. That happened because the film was clearly terrible, and sending it to the streaming service had the appearance of a grand gesture during “these unprecedented times.” (Ugh … I’m getting really tired of those three words.)

Fortunately, Greyhound, with the screenplay penned by Hanks himself, is a solid World War II thriller that actually seems better-suited for home viewing: It’s not a grand-enough spectacle to cut it as a blockbuster, but it is a solid 91 minutes spent in close quarters with the most famous person yet to catch the coronavirus.

Greyhound chronicles the real-life odyssey of the USS Keeling, code name Greyhound, an escort for a convoy of supply ships heading across the Atlantic toward Liverpool during the war. The ship is targeted by German U-boats, as are other members of the convoy, and Greyhound, captained by Commander Ernest Krause (Hanks), must go into protect mode. They fight a brave battle, and not all of the ships will make it.

The movie stands alongside the likes of Das Boot and Crimson Tide as solid entertainment spent inside a tin can passing for a floating arsenal. Director Aaron Schneider provides some excellent torpedo thrills and does decent work with a relatively modest budget. Hanks is Hanks—which means he’s terrific.

Apple scored a good one with this film. I’m sure they will have an Artemis Fowl-style dud or two in their future, but Greyhound proves that having Apple TV+ is starting to be worth the money.

Greyhound is now streaming on Apple TV+.

The Outpost—based on a real-life battle that took place at an American base poorly placed in the middle of a mountainous Afghanistan—is a harrowing and frustrating experience.

The frustration is not the result of bad filmmaking—quite the contrary, because the film is superbly directed by Rod Lurie. It’s frustrating because you know American soldiers were dropped into a situation in which they would surely be ambushed—a modern-day Little Bighorn. The battle they had to fight occurred under appalling circumstances that should’ve been avoided.

Staff Sgt. Clint Romesha (Scott Eastwood, son of Clint) and his fellow soldiers are hunkered down at Combat Outpost Keating, a base located at the bottom of mountains in Kamdesh, Afghanistan. In a frightening, foreshadowing moment, an American soldier looks at the camp through the sights of his rifle while on patrol in the mountains above, and accurately narrates the sort of attack Taliban soldiers will mount in the coming days.

Lurie, a veteran, knows the business of warfare, and his staging of the ambush will cause you to sweat off 10 pounds. It goes on for what seems like forever, and many Americans fall. It’s absolute chaos, with Romesha being one of the saving graces that helps hold the band of soldiers together. Eastwood is terrific, while Caleb Landry Jones depicts a heartbreaking combination of supreme valor and total hysteria. Their performances anchor the film.

Barack Obama was a great president, but this shit happened on his watch in 2009, albeit in a war he inherited. It’s a war that is still being waged today with a sketchy Taliban peace deal that calls for some American troops to withdraw within a year. The base in Kamdesh has been abandoned, and that’s a good thing.

The Outpost is now streaming on a variety of sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Will Ferrell used to be a sure-fire comedy guarantee: There was a stretch when it seemed he could do no wrong.

Alas, that stretch is long behind him now, and Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga continues his recent streak of lousy-to-mediocre films. This one falls somewhere in the realm of mediocre.

On the eve of the infamous Eurovision contest—the song competition that birthed the career of ABBA in real life—Lars (Ferrell) and Sigrit (Rachel McAdams), lifelong friends and members of the rock-duo Fire Saga, are taking one last bid at fame. However, they are terrible, and are hated by most of the people in their Icelandic hometown, including Lars’ father (Pierce Brosnan). A tragic boating accident thrusts them into the competition in which they represent their country—and many unfunny musical sequences ensue.

Ferrell’s wigged schtick grows tired early on—and since the film is two-plus hours long, we are talking a lot of unwanted shtick. McAdams, who can lip-sync with the best of them, is actually quite good here, and nearly saves the film with a warm, funny, earnest performance. Her character’s obsession with magical elves is a potential funny subplot that isn’t adequately explored. Directed by David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers), this movie would’ve benefited from a shorter running time.

It’s hard watching Ferrell founder in stuff like this; his career is in need of some major adjustments. He’s too funny to be goofing around with subpar material.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is now streaming on Netflix.

A confession: I didn’t like Hamilton the first time I watched it on Disney+. The music felt unoriginal; Lin-Manuel Miranda’s face and voice were annoying me; and I had problems following the plot.

But … I loved the ending, and really liked the women in the show, especially Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton. I liked those so much that it made me ponder whether I had made some sort of mistake. So, I waited a couple of days and watched it again.

During that second viewing, I loved Hamilton from start to finish—and Miranda grew on me to the point that I found him adorable. I am not sure what happened the first time; perhaps I was distracted, or perhaps I was just grouchy. (These are tough times, after all.) This sort of thing has happened to me only a couple of times over 25 years of film reviewing. (I made a similar about-face on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.)

That second time, my brain clicked into the Hamilton frequency. I heard all of the lyrics; the melodies jumped out at me; and the choreography was stunning. It’s deserving of all the hype, and boasts a boldly original concept. The cast is superb, including Miranda as the title character, Leslie Odom Jr. as friend-turned-enemy Aaron Burr, and a host of talented performers, often playing two parts.

The Best Comedic Turn Award goes to Jonathan Groff as the sassy King George—so confident the American colonies will be back under his reign, and gloriously spitting while singing in vivid HD.

As good as everybody is, Soo steals every one of her scenes and gives the musical major heart. She’s the reason I took a breath and watched the show again—allowing me to realize my near mistake. The filmed version of the Hamilton musical is the gem it was rumored to be.

Hamilton is now streaming on Disney+.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, after taking several years off from starring roles to become a new daddy, returns with the standard but sometimes tense airplane thriller 7500.

Levitt does competent work as Tobias, a nebbish co-pilot on a night flight that includes his girlfriend (Aylin Tezel) on the crew. After a short time in the air, a band of hijackers takes hostages and demands entry into the cockpit, banging relentlessly on the cockpit door.

Director and co-writer Patrick Vollrath does very well with the film’s first half. Actually, the film is quite good while the plane is in the air. Tobias communicates with the hijackers by banging on his door and via black-and-white video—and it’s scary to watch. The film recalls the tense final moments of Paul Greengrass’ United 93, about a similar, real-life situation on Sept. 11.

Once the plane lands, Tobias ends up in the cockpit with one of the hijackers (Omid Memar)—and this is when the movie sputters. The two actors give it their all, but the script calls for paint-by-numbers conversations, and the moments simply don’t deliver on the promise of the film’s first half.

Still, it’s good to see Gordon-Levitt. It’s a demanding role, and he shakes off the rust fairly well. Too bad the movie as a whole doesn’t match the quality of his performance.

The film 7500 is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Spike Lee follows up BlacKkKlansman, one of his best movies, with another great one, Da 5 Bloods, now out on Netflix. Delroy Lindo and Chadwick Boseman lead a strong cast as Lee examines the lives of five Black veterans before and after Vietnam.

Lee and his co-writers send the five characters back to Vietnam to search for the remains of their former platoon leader (Boseman) and a bunch of gold bars they stashed during battle. Boseman appears via flashback; the older actors appear as the same age (with no de-aging makeup or technology) in both time periods—and it’s a style choice that works amazingly well. There’s something deep and moving about seeing these characters at their present age in the war they fought a half-century ago.

Lindo does career-best work as Paul, a man who is fraying a bit at the edges and is looking for redemption in the jungle. His son, David (Jonathan Majors), provides a twist when he unexpectedly tags along, forcing David to deal with a lot of demons. Lindo has delivered one of the year’s best performances so far.

The movie is shot beautifully—and is perhaps the most violent film Lee has ever made. It’s also one of the more adventurous, and best-timed, films in his repertoire.

Lee has made two stellar films in a row—indicating he is back in full creative force.

Da 5 Bloods is now streaming on Netflix.

It seemed as if we were getting a little gift when Disney announced it was sending Artemis Fowl directly to its streaming service: A big-budget, Kenneth Branagh-directed adventure was coming directly into living rooms, because most theaters are closed. What a treat, right?

No. As it turns out, the film is awful.

You’ll realize within five minutes of viewing that this thing stood zero chance of captivating folks in movie theaters. It would’ve just pissed them off and sent them home grouchy. So this was actually a blessing for Disney: It’s better to just let people be grouchy in the comfort of their own homes, saving them gas and concessions money.

The movie, about the titular child protégé (Ferdia Shaw) trying to solve a mystery surrounding his dad (Colin Farrell), makes zero sense from beginning to end. You know Branagh has a mess on his hands when he employs the narrator angle—having a character (a raspy-voiced Josh Gad, with his part filmed in black and white) staring into the camera and explaining everything as the movie plays out. It comes off as a lame attempt to fix a crap movie with re-shoots.

Not only is the storytelling poorly handled; the movie doesn’t even look good. The special effects are bad, and the costuming is strange—there are fairies in this movie that look sort of like Willem DaFoe’s Green Goblin from Spider-Man. The editing is haphazard, too.

Judi Dench plays some sort of boss of the fairies, and she also employs a raspy delivery. Dench seems to be a harbinger of bad things now: This is her cinematic follow up to Cats, meaning she has the distinction of being in one of the year’s worst movies for two years in a row.

Branagh usually puts together a good film, and his chance to do big-budget fantasy seemed like it would lead to great things. Instead, this fiasco leaves a big, nasty mark on Disney+ and Branagh. It’s easily the worst thing he’s ever done behind the camera, and there’s no chance for a franchise here—this is a one-and-done affair.

Artemis Fowl is now streaming on Disney+.

Pete Davidson—who barely registered on Saturday Night Live during the recently concluded season due to prior commitments and a resulting lack of screen time—comes roaring back with The King of Staten Island, another quality comedy from director and co-writer Judd Apatow.

Davidson plays Scott Carlin, a thinly veiled version of himself. The film depicts a scenario of Davidson’s life in which he doesn’t get his big break on SNL and is, instead, an aspiring (and not very good) tattoo artist. As happened with Davidson, Scott’s firefighter father died on duty, and he lives with his mom, Margie (Marisa Tomei), and little sister, Claire (Maude Apatow).

Davidson doesn’t have to stretch too much to deliver a convincing performance as a wisecracking, self-esteem-challenged, neurotic guy with a severe case of Crohn’s disease (from which he suffers in real life). He, in fact, nails the part, thanks to deft comic timing and solid dramatic chops. He holds his own against veterans like Tomei and Steve Buscemi, who plays a boss at the local firehouse. Davidson might not match them in every scene, but, hey, he’s a rookie, and he’s pretty damn good.

The plot involves Scott hanging out with a motley crew of friends and contending with his mother’s new boyfriend, Ray Bishop, played by Bill Burr in a hilarious performance that takes Burr’s acting career to the next level. Ray has a Monopoly Man mustache and a suspiciously sunny personality, and Scott develops trust issues with him—leading to turmoil in the household and comedically rich strife.

With this 136-minute long film, Apatow uses a grittier, messier visual approach, and it pays off, suiting the unpredictability of its central character and his scrappy Staten Island locale. The movie feels different from past Apatow ventures—so different that I didn’t even realize I was watching his daughter Maude (who is excellent, by the way) until the movie was over.

Davidson’s performance is also bolstered by a supreme supporting cast that includes Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) as the love interest in a very unconventional love story. While the movie is good, it wouldn’t be nearly as good if it weren’t for the presence of Burr, Buscemi and Tomei, who provide the movie with a solid dramatic and comedic base.

Will Davidson one day become a legitimate movie star? Maybe. He has The Suicide Squad, slated for release next year, on his slate, and he’s going to voice Marmaduke in an animated film.

The King of Staten Island will be available via streaming services on Friday, June 12.

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