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Last updateFri, 03 Apr 2020 5pm

A couple of British World War I soldiers stationed in France face a harrowing time in 1917, a war action/drama from director Sam Mendes that is one of last year’s greatest technological achievements in cinema—and one of last year’s best movies.

Mendes—along with his special-effects team, his editing crew and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (finally an Oscar winner for Blade Runner 2049)—designed the film to look like one continuous shot. They do a seamless job, to the point where you’ll stop looking for the places where edits might be happening and just take the whole thing in. The story never suffers in favor of the filmmaking stunt.

Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are napping at the beginning of the movie. Blake is ordered to wake up and report to command; he takes Schofield along with him. The two pals figure they have some sort of assignment coming their way involving food or mail delivery.

That’s not the case. In a plot that reminds of Saving Private Ryan, Schofield and Blake get their unusual assignment: They are told to go beyond a recently abandoned German front line and reach the next British battalion. It’s up to them to save the lives of 1,600 soldiers, one of them Blake’s older brother.

The movie is set in motion … and it never really stops. Schofield and Blake venture into a body-riddled, fly-infested battlefield with little time to spare. Deakins’ camera follows as if you are a third party along for the mission. The result is a completely immersive experience. Lesser talents may have made a film with a first-person-shooter video-game feel, but Mendes gives us something that feels hauntingly authentic and very real. He paces his film masterfully.

Familiar faces show up along the way, including Colin Firth as the no-nonsense general who must use two soldiers to deliver his life-saving message, because the land lines were cut by the exiting Germans. Other officers along the way are played by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong, displaying varying degrees of regimental disgust and, understandably, only mild compassion. The actors all do a fine job of showing the frustrations that must’ve been grinding on these men.

As Mendes’ film clearly displays: World War I was awful and horrifyingly nasty. Captains stand in trenches weeping furiously as their officers try to advance. Sleeping soldiers are propped up in trenches, in such a way that you’ll wonder how anybody could’ve survived these conditions. Crashed pilots lash out at their rescuers. Rotting corpses float in every body of water the soldiers come across, be it a large pond or raging river. Large rats cause all types of mayhem.

Chapman and, especially, MacKay deserve credit for crafting two well-rounded, deep characters within this spectacle. Mendes and his performers achieve a nice balance of dramatic heft and technical wizardry. The story the film is telling is straightforward and uncomplicated, but it feels big and important, helped along by a magnificent score from Thomas Newman. Mendes, who co-wrote the film, dedicated the movie to his grandfather, Alfred, a World War I veteran. It was the stories Alfred told his grandson that birthed the idea for this movie.

The film 1917 is a mammoth achievement, and a fine tribute to the men who fought in the Great War.

The film 1917 opens Friday, Jan. 10, at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The Avengers team takes a swift kick to their (remarkably muscular) collective ass from a super-baddie named Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, the best blockbuster you will see at the movies this year.

While Marvel has been on a nice roll lately (Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, Captain America: Civil War), the last “Avengers” movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, was a misguided, boring dud. This third installment (the first of a two-parter, with the second being released next summer) lets it all hang out with a massive collection of characters and a true, scary sense of impending doom.

There are many, many storylines at play servicing so many superheroes and villains. Infinity War feels like the Magnolia of Marvel movies in that it takes all of those storylines and balances them in a cohesive, entertaining manner. The film is 2 1/2 hours long, but it’s never close to boring.

The balancing act is performed by directors Anthony and Joe Russo, the team that made Civil War such a winner. The magic of that film carries over into this one, which picks up directly after the end of Thor: Ragnarok. That film ended with Thor and his fellow Asgardians feeling somewhat triumphant despite losing their planet while defeating emo Cate Blanchett. A mid-credits scene saw their ship coming into direct contact with one owned by the mighty Thanos (Josh Brolin).

In one of the great motion-capture achievements, Brolin is the best of monsters—one who manages just enough of a sensitive side that he falls well short of stereotype. At one turn, he’s obliterating planets and torturing horrified people under his large feet. Then he’ll shed a tear that shows there’s a big, obviously misguided heart pumping in his Infinity Stone-seeking chest. He’s much more complicated than your average CGI character.

I won’t go into the whole Infinity Stone thing, other than to say they’ve played a part in many past Marvel films—and they all come together and show their purpose in this movie as Thanos adds them, one by one, to his Infinity Gauntlet. Each time he gets another, a palpable sense of dread builds.

The gang is pretty much all here, so it’s easier to tell you who doesn’t show up in this installment: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Ant Man (Paul Rudd) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) are nowhere to be seen, but Hawkeye, Ant Man and a newish Marvel superhero will play into the next chapter.

Robert Downey Jr. continues his magnificent trek as Tony Stark/Iron Man, who is trying to arrange a wedding and babies with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) when yet another apocalypse begins. Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/The Hulk) and Chris Hemsworth (Thor) continue their streak of weird humor after Ragnarok while Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America) continues to smolder after the events of Civil War. Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange) provides the sensible-guy arc, and has some of the movie’s best scenes with Stark.

Tom Holland continues his joyful portrayal of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and the Guardians of the Galaxy join the fray with a welcomed—and quite substantial—contribution, especially from Zoe Saldana (Gamora) and Karen Gillan (Nebula), estranged daughters of Thanos. Some of the best banter in the film happens whenever Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) encounters an Avenger trying to out-cool him.

There’s a lot at stake in this movie—perhaps too much for one film. That’s not necessarily a complaint, but a slight sense of overload and an abundance loose ends keep Avengers: Infinity War from being a masterpiece. Hey, maybe it’ll get an upgrade to “part of a masterpiece” next summer, when the next chapter plays out.

For now, get thee to a big screen, and be prepared to have your face melted with superhero/bad guy greatness. It’s dark; it’s funny; it’s thrilling; it’s action packed; it’s fantastically performed ... and it’s just Part 1.

Avengers: Infinity War is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

Doctor Strange is certainly one of the weirder Marvel movies, with Benedict Cumberbatch starring as the title character, a sorcerer who can cast spells and slip through passageways in time.

The film is an origin story, showing how Strange loses his surgeon’s hands in an accident, travels to India and learns about the mystical arts from The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). I have to admit … I didn’t always follow exactly what was going on, and I found some stretches a little convoluted and boring. But when the movie soars, it soars high, and Cumberbatch winds up being a decent choice for the role, even with his weird American accent.

Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) seemed like an odd choice for a Marvel movie considering his horror-film pedigree, but he acquits himself nicely. The movie often plays like a Matrix/Inception mash-up with a little bit of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon thrown in for good measure. The special effects are first-rate.

Doctor Strange is a bit of an oddball character, and he’s supposed to factor into future Avengers movies. I’ll be curious to see how he fits into the mix with the likes of Ant-Man and Hawkeye.

Doctor Strange is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

A bad film sticks in the craw more when it’s made by somebody capable of genius.

Ben Stiller is one of the great modern-day comedic actors. He started, more or less, with The Ben Stiller Show, a project that basically gave birth to Mr. Show and Tenacious D. The man is directly or indirectly responsible for about 78 percent of the laughter that has come out of my face over the last 24 years. As a director, he started with a clunker (Reality Bites), but followed it up with an underrated gem, The Cable Guy. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is much better than it gets credit for, and Tropic Thunder is a bad-taste masterpiece.

Of all the comic creations Stiller has come up with and directed, Zoolander is the most bothersome. It’s a skit that wasn’t funny in the first place—stretched into a feature that feels flat and in-jokey. Well, Stiller has returned for another shot of unneeded male-model parody with Zoolander 2—and it’s far and away the worst thing he’s ever done. It’s so bad that it’s a formidable if early contender for 2016’s worst film. It represents Stiller at his most lost and foundering.

It’s 15 years after the events of the 2001 original, and Derek Zoolander is living a hermit’s life in remote New Jersey, mourning the loss of his wife (Christine Taylor) after the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Who Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too collapsed and crushed her to death.

Note to Stiller: Zoolander came out just a couple of weeks after Sept. 11, and will be forever associated with that event in the minds of many, because the Twin Towers had to be digitally removed from the film. Is it really a funny idea to have your wife’s character killed in a New York City building collapse that takes place in 2001? I didn’t laugh, so I’ve answered my own question.

Meanwhile, Hansel (Owen Wilson) is living a secluded life in the “deserts of Malibu” with his orgy family (including a very sensitive Kiefer Sutherland). He’s visited by a message-delivering Billy Zane and goes on a quest to find Derek. Unfortunately, he succeeds in finding him, and a boring comic duo gets another chapter.

A search for Derek’s son and some other nonsense leads them to Rome and an eventual showdown with fashion bad guy, Mugatu (Will Ferrell). The Mugatu subplot feels tacked on, as if they only had Ferrell for a week. Ferrell is given close to nothing to work with, forcing him to mug for his paycheck.

At times, the film feels like a total rip-off of Austin Powers, with Zoolander and Hansel becoming spies; Penélope Cruz stepping in as the tightly clad female sidekick; and a daddy-issues subplot involving Zoolander’s long-lost son. Mugatu is something of a sad riff on Dr. Evil.

The first half-hour of the movie is actually less than terrible. Benedict Cumberbatch shows up as a hauntingly androgynous model called All who has married himself, and Derek’s comeback when somebody calls him a narcissist is the best line in the movie. So … I laughed twice.

There are too many cameos to count, many of them by fashion icons most of us could not care less about. When a big moment in your movie hinges upon the dramatic talents of Tommy Hilfiger, you’ve got a problem. Did I mention the great Kristen Wiig is in the movie, too? No, I didn’t—because her bizarre character is something that needs to be forgotten.

Stiller got lazy and perhaps a little distracted with Zoolander 2. He needs to get his edge back after this tremendous miscue.

Zoolander 2 is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Johnny Depp breaks his shit slump with a riveting performance as James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious Boston crime lord who acted as an informant to the FBI while killing people and destroying lives.

Depp goes under some heavy makeup—including some disgusting teeth—to play the infamous brother of William “Billy” Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) and pal of FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). The movie examines the strange dynamic that occurred between one of the worst criminals in Boston history, his high-ranking brother and his meat-headed FBI friend. All three are very good in a film that, alas, feels like it was supposed to be a lot longer. I suspect there’s a four-hour cut of this movie somewhere in director Scott Cooper’s basement.

Depp is scary-good, yet his work feels strangely abbreviated; he feels like more of a supporting player. Edgerton’s Connolly feels a more well-rounded; this continues a fine year for the actor after The Gift. Peter Sarsgaard, Kevin Bacon and Dakota Johnson are all good in supporting roles.

As mobster movies go, this is good, but it should’ve been great. If anything, it’s good to see Depp truly digging into something rather than acting like a goofball for a paycheck.

Black Mass is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

As the Hollywood A-listers began arriving at Palm Springs Convention Center for the 26th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival's Awards Gala on Saturday, Jan. 3, hopes ran high among the fans gathered along the sidewalks across from the red-carpeted entryway.

Whether the fans were locals or visitors to the Coachella Valley, they all had favorites they were hoping to see.

Palm Springs resident Diana Doyle has joined the crowd for three years running. “I’m one of those people now,” she said. “I’m hooked!”

Has she had luck meeting celebrities in the past?

“Last year, I had a great picture taken with Bradley Cooper, and it went into the Los Angeles Times, and now it’s my screensaver,” she laughed. This year, her good luck continued as she got a chance to grab “selfies” with Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell.

For Connie Hale of Palm Desert, this was her eighth year of braving the crowd.

“We got her about 12 noon today,” she said. “I’ve met lots of celebrities over the years, and this is the spot to do it. I’ve met Brad Pitt and Robert Downey Jr. already, but this year, I’d like to meet any of the stars coming.”

At one point, Hale found herself face-to-face with Michael Keaton—but the moment passed without her getting the autograph she wanted.

KESQ/CBS Local 2 meteorologist Rob Bradley and fiancée Kristina Guckenberger were among the fortunate fans who obtained access to the grandstand seating area next to the red-carpet entrance.

“I’ve had to work in the studio the last two years doing weather updates during down time in our Awards Gala red-carpet live special coverage, so this is my first time being here at the event,” Bradley said.

Did they have any favorites they wanted to see up close this evening? “My mom said I should meet Robert Downey Jr. and Brad Pitt. And for my dad, Reese Witherspoon,” Guckenberger said. Unfortunately, neither Downey nor Pitt appeared out front to greet fans.

Still, the crowd’s mood remained festive as the almost-full moon rose and the temperature dropped, before the fans dispersed as the awards dinner got under way inside.

Scroll down to see some pictures from the red carpet.

Published in Snapshot

In The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, who helped win the war against the Nazis when he helped invent a machine capable of breaking the Enigma code. Morten Tyldum’s film, while a tad cumbersome at times, does a good job of illustrating the impossible odds Turing and his team were up against.

Keira Knightley (who had a nice 2014 with this and Begin Again), Matthew Goode and Charles Dance contribute to a strong supporting cast.

Cumberbatch portrays Turing as a disagreeable, unlikable social outcast who just happened to play a huge part in saving the free world, thanks to his talent for solving puzzles. The film also delves into some of the more controversial times in Turing’s life, and the order of things sometimes gets a little confusing. However, Cumberbatch keeps the whole thing afloat with a typically strong performance.

The Imitation Game is playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342) and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

Tracy Letts’ play came to the big screen with a big cast featuring Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper and others.

After a family tragedy, a group of sisters and their husbands/boyfriends return home to Texas and their dying mother (the Oscar-nominated Streep). Mom was mean when they were growing up, and she remains mean in her dying days, much to the annoyance of daughter Barbara (Roberts, also Oscar-nominated); she is doing her best not to follow in mom’s footsteps.

The cast is strong, with most of them turning in great work, including Juliette Lewis, who does her first truly good acting in a long while. The lone exception would be Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays the slow sibling. He’s just all wrong for the part.

Sam Shepard makes a brief but memorable appearance as the family patriarch. While his screen time is short, his character plays a large part in the film.

The movie is super-dark and ugly, and full of people acting like true jerks. While the story isn’t anything all that new, the cast makes the film worth seeing.

The ending feels a bit tacked on; in fact, it was tacked on: The studio didn’t find the original ending to be suitable, so they insisted on this new one.

Special Features: There’s a director’s commentary (something that’s been rare on recent Blu-ray releases), deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Tracy Letts’ play has come to the big screen with a big cast, including Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper and others.

After a family tragedy, a group of sisters, accompanied by their husbands/boyfriends, return home to Texas and their dying mother (played by Streep). Mother was mean when they were growing up—and she remains mean in her dying days, much to the annoyance of daughter Barbara (Roberts), who is doing her best not to follow in mother’s footsteps.

The cast is strong, with most of them turning in great work—including Juliette Lewis, who turns in her first strong performance a long while. The lone exception: Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays a slow member of the family. He’s just all wrong for the part.

The movie is super dark and ugly, and full of people acting like true jerks. While the story isn’t anything new, the cast makes it worth seeing, thanks to the power of their performances.

August: Osage County is playing at the Century Theatres at the River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940); Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 760-323-4466); and the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 760-770-1615).

Published in Reviews

I had the misfortune of watching the High Frame Rate 3-D version of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Man, do I hate technology sometimes.

Only a small percentage of movie theaters had the technology for 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but that has changed—so many of us now have the opportunity to see just how bad this technology looks when hobbits are involved. (In fact, four Coachella Valley theaters are showing the film in HFR 3-D.)

I am sure there will be films in the future that will be a proper fit for the High Frame Rate presentation—films that are primarily set outside, boast a leisurely pace, and don’t have too much makeup.

As for Peter Jackson’s decision to shoot The Desolation of Smaug in HFR 3-D, it’s a disaster: Like its predecessor, the film is a task to watch. The look of the movie simply doesn’t jibe with the technology, and the result is a visual nightmare, even after one’s eyes adjust to the stunt.

Smaug is guilty of the same flaws that marred the first film. It’s overstuffed; the dwarves are severely uninteresting; and the action scenes lack urgency. It’s just a big, boring stunt film with people looking silly in their getups.

The film starts with a flashback in which Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has his first meeting with moody dwarf Thorin (Richard Armitage). (Actually, it really starts with a very obvious cameo by Jackson, who makes no Hitchcockian effort to blend in.) We then pop ahead to the end of the first movie—and the continuation of Bilbo Baggins’ long, extremely tedious journey.

As Bilbo, Martin Freeman labors to make things interesting during action scenes that feel redundant. (Hey, it’s another giant icky spider attack!) However, he stands out among the cast of otherwise bland actors playing bland dwarves. Oh, Gimli, how you are missed!

Jackson finds a way to bring back Orlando Bloom as Legolas; these scenes could easily be cut from the film’s 161-minute running time. Jackson has also created a new character in Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), an elf warrior and the apple of Legolas’ eye. Legolas and Tauriel were not present in the original Tolkien novel—and movie viewers would be better off if such were the case in this film.

Too many scenes feel padded and bloated. With each passing minute, Jackson is doing further damage to his legacy. His original Lord of the Rings trilogy was a major triumph, while these Hobbit films feel and look like parody.

From the moment the Warner Bros. logo comes up, the film looks weird. Movies aren’t supposed to be this crisp. The shots of mountain ranges are breathtaking—but every close-up of an actor’s made-up face destroys the illusion.

When Smaug the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) finally shows up, he easily becomes the best thing in the Hobbit films thus far. He should’ve arrived in the second half of the first film—and the whole damn thing should’ve been completed in three hours: One movie would’ve been sufficient to cover this story. These Hobbit movies are an overblown, messed-up slog.

The movie ends abruptly, with a big cliffhanger. Normally, that sort of thing would have me all huffy and disappointed. Not this time: I was simply happy to see the movie finally over.

I loved the Lord of the Rings films. They consistently made my year’s-best lists. Conversely, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is one of 2013’s worst.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

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