Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Maybe it was because Emily Blunt opted to make A Quiet Place. Or perhaps it was because she agreed to star in the new Mary Poppins movie. Whatever it was that kept her from saying yes to a Sicario sequel, her refusal should’ve made producers say, “Oh, well. Maybe later, when Blunt frees up?” After all, she was the main reason to watch the original.

Nope. They went for it anyway, and the result is Sicario: Day of the Soldado, an excuse to trot out Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin in a nasty film that’s plotted in such a way as to assure it will give Sean Hannity and his ilk monster boners—ginormous, Fox News red boners right there in the middle of the theater.

The timing of this movie is … shall we say, interesting. As real-life tensions build along the Mexican border, with families being separated, along comes a movie that shows ISIS terrorists crossing over the Mexican border and blowing up strip malls. Wait a minute … wasn’t Sicario supposed to be about America’s beef with drug cartels? This ISIS stuff feels, well, tacked on.

The terrorism element is introduced near the beginning of the movie, but it later falls away in favor of a subplot about a kidnapping intended to start a war between the Mexican and U.S. governments. In fact, a character dismisses the terrorist element later in the movie by saying, “Oh, they were from New Jersey,” or something along those lines. It’s as if screenwriter Taylor Sheridan started one movie, got scared and finished with another one. To say the movie lacks focus is an understatement.

Brolin returns as agent Matt Graver, a nasty guy who will blow up your brother as you watch on a laptop if you don’t tell him what he needs to hear. Del Toro is also back as Alejandro, an operative once again hired by the U.S., this time to stir up trouble with the cartels and eventually kidnap Isabel (Isabela Moner), a drug kingpin’s daughter.

Moner—you might remember her from her unfortunate participation in the latest Transformers movie—is a big star in the making. She gives the kind of performance that breaks your heart, because it is so good in service of something so mediocre. There are moments when she makes you forget you are watching a very unimportant movie.

Del Toro works hard to bring some gravitas to the proceedings, but this is basically a sadistic action thriller with little brains. There are some decent sequences put together by director Stefano Sollima, who replaces the excellent Denis Villeneuve from the original. While Villeneuve provided real dramatic heft with the gunfights, Sollima gives us the shock minus the depth. The result is a hollow movie.

Catherine Keener shows up as Brolin’s boss, who makes him do things that only a truly despicable POTUS would put into play. It’s hard to tell if the movie is an indictment of U.S. policies, or a celebration, although the dudes whooping and drooling in the front row made me think it was more of a celebration. Matthew Modine is on hand as the secretary of defense, and plays it like a beefier meditation on his Stranger Things villain.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado avoids being one of the summer’s worst films thanks to Moner, who makes stretches of the movie worthwhile. She’s slated to play the title character in a live-action Dora the Explorer film. Whatever she does, she will probably wind up a star.

As for the Sicario franchise? It probably now has a place as what’s essentially Trump porn … intended or not.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Writer-director Jordan Peele, the comedic performer from TV’s Key and Peele and the adorable/funny cat movie Keanu, delivers a huge cinematic surprise with Get Out, a twisted, darkly satirical horror film that pulls no punches when it comes to race relations and dating.

Peele has cited Night of the Living Dead and The Stepford Wives as inspirations for this journey to the dark side of his creative soul. Those films’ influences are detectable; you could also throw in a pinch of Rosemary’s Baby and a side of Being John Malkovich.

Two of the hardest things to accomplish with a movie are making people laugh, and getting them legitimately scared. Get Out manages to do both throughout its running time. Peele takes taboo subjects and stereotypes, and doesn’t let his pen get restricted by a fear of offending anybody. This is an appropriately evil, scabrous movie.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young African-American man, is a little nervous. He’s going to visit the parents of Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), his white girlfriend. Allison is relaxed about the trip, but Chris is a little on the anxious side.

Upon their arrival at her family’s large estate, Rose’s parents like Chris. They really, really like Chris. Actually, parents Missy and Dean (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) like Chris at a level that is a bit unsettling. Chris shrugs it off at first, as does Allison, but strange things start happening.

For starters, Walter and Georgina (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel), two black people employed by the Armitages, have personalities that are a little off. They have vacant stares; they are overly polite; and Georgina can cry projectile tears while smiling and carrying on a conversation. Something is definitely wrong with them.

Chris smokes, and Missy doesn’t like that. When he gets up to sneak a cigarette in the middle of the night, Missy offers to hypnotize him. Chris is reluctant, but eventually finds himself under Missy’s anti-smoking spell. Or does the spell cover more than just smoking? I won’t give too much away other than to say Missy and Dean are not what they seem, and this movie will put a lot of people off of using hypnosis as a means of quitting smoking.

Kaluuya (Sicario) delivers a performance that should put him on the map for a long time to come. The role requires him to go to many extremes, utilizing both his comic timing and his ability to appear paralyzed with fear. His big scene with Missy is an acting powerhouse, with Keener setting the pace. It’s going to go down as one of the movie year’s most memorable scenes.

Williams absolutely nails her part. The movie simply wouldn’t work if Williams delivered one wrong note with her work. What she does here is a deft class on how to act in a horror movie. She will knock you on your ass.

Providing solid, pure comic relief, Lil Rel Howery is the perfect goofball as Rod, Chris’s TSA friend who thinks his buddy has been sold into sex slavery.

Stephen Root has a couple of memorable scenes playing a blind man, something he did so memorably in O Brother, Where Art Thou? His character is among the horde of people who show up for a family gathering. Also in attendance: Andrew (Lakeith Stanfield), another oddly behaved black man who really hates it when you take his picture.

Whether it’s trying to make you laugh, make you squirm or just plain freak you out, Get Out is a victory on all the horror and comedy fronts. Peele demonstrates a keen sense of what is scary and funny, and has also made one of the better-looking horror films in recent years. It should be pointed out: This is his first movie as a director. When it comes to daring, risk-taking directing debuts, Peele is toward the top of the list.

This is one of those times where a groundbreaking piece of work just comes out of nowhere and bedazzles. Don’t miss Get Out.

Get Out is playing at theaters across the valley.

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The early days of cinema had Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin risking their lives with daring stunt work, all in an effort to make moviegoers laugh.

Today, we have the immortal, deranged, considerably less-refined Johnny Knoxville.

Knoxville has tried to parlay his Jackass fame into an acting career—but he hasn’t exactly been setting the world on fire. Because huge paychecks are tempting, Knoxville has therefore returned to the Jackass well with movies—and his body has paid a tremendous toll. The man has thrown himself into the path of buffaloes and bulls to score good laughs—and, oh man, has he gotten those good laughs.

As big as those checks can be, internal bleeding and broken limbs lose their luster after a while. So now we get Bad Grandpa, a sort of Jackass movie that has a narrative mixed with hidden-camera stunts (very much in the tradition of Borat). Knoxville plays Irving Zisman, an 80-plus-year-old letch who has shown up in Jackass skits.

The “plot” involves Irving begrudgingly taking his grandson, Billy (Jackson Nicoll), on a road trip after the kid’s crack-addicted mom goes to jail. Along the way, of course, the two get themselves into all sorts of hijinks. Director Jeff Tremaine (who has piloted all of the Jackass films) includes some scripted scenes between Knoxville and the kid that are actually quite sweet at times. However, those scenes are mere buffers before and after the Jackass-type madness.

Early in the film, Irving is presiding over his wife’s funeral. He has gotten an audience full of strangers, including church-choir members, to sit in and help him mourn. The results are hilariously disturbing—and just about as evil as any hidden-camera gag has ever been.

Nicoll is quite the little scene-stealer. Knoxville has to labor for laughs, subjecting his body to a rapidly folding bed and a faulty kid’s ride that shoots him through a window. Nicoll needs only to put on a bemused face or keenly deliver a zinger to show up his older co-star.

The film’s best moment involves one of those disgusting child beauty pageants—and it belongs to Nicoll. The kid winds up in a rather convincing little princess getup and politely goes through the motions of a pageant—until the talent competition. That’s when he strips off his sailor outfit and does his best stripper dance to “Cherry Pie.” Nicoll flailing away on the ground while Knoxville showers him with dollar bills will surely contend for Funniest Moment of the Year honors.

If you go to this looking for Steve-O or Bam (Knoxville’s Jackass partners), you will be disappointed. The boys are nowhere to be seen, although co-producer Spike Jonze and actress Catherine Keener show up, unrecognizable in heavy makeup.

Speaking of makeup: Bad Grandpa should actually be a legitimate Oscar contender in that category. Knoxville’s old-age makeup is killer; I’m not surprised that he’s able to trick a lot of onlookers during the hidden-camera stunts. It’s some damn fine work, much better than the old-age makeup worn by Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer in J. Edgar. Those guys looked like California raisins.

There are a lot of good gags, as well as a few clunkers. Irving’s visit to an all-male dance club results in some ball-hanging fun, and a fart contest with his grandson has some hilariously explosive results. I also liked a bit involving a virtuous motorcycle gang, and a series in which Billy asks strangers on the street to be his new daddy.

Stick around for the credits, which feature some funny outtakes—and, best of all, scenes of the duped stunt victims finding out they are in a movie. It’s actually a relief to see those poor funeral attendees get the news.

To get primed for Bad Grandpa, I watched a lot of Knoxville’s old stunts, including the various hits he took from large animals. Those will always be funny, and I could watch them 50 times in a row and laugh each time. However, I would prefer to see him dial it down in future film ventures, as he does in Bad Grandpa. It’s the sort of movie that should please his fan base while blessedly lowering his risk for early, bone-smashing mortality.

Bad Grandpa is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Tom Hanks stars in another real-life-event film in which his character is stuck in a small, dangerous space for a long time—and we know how the story turns out.

Even though most of us know how Captain Phillips will end, Hanks and director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93) somehow make the story suspenseful. As he did in Apollo 13, Hanks makes us terrified and confused for his character. (If you somehow don’t know the outcome of the true story, go see the film, and be doubly frightened.)

Hanks plays Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship. While on its way to Kenya in 2009, his ship encounters Somali pirates who try multiple times to board his ship. They eventually succeed, putting into play a crazy hostage drama that results in Phillips being taken aboard a space-capsule-sized lifeboat with his captors.

In every stage of the thriller—from the moment Phillips spots the pirates, through his initial face-to-face confrontation with them, and into the search for the hiding crew members—Hanks is masterful. His Phillips maintains a certain level of calm and smarts, but isn’t superhuman or oblivious to the terror of his situation.

Augmenting the story with a terrifying yet somehow sympathetic performance is Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the pirate leader. One of the major strengths of this film is the relationship between Phillips and Muse—one that starts with Muse informing Phillips that he is no longer the captain of his own ship.

Without necessarily portraying Muse as a victim, Abdi’s performance and Greengrass’ direction hint that Muse is being forced into his reprehensible actions. We first see Muse in Somalia as he’s being bullied into action by a village elder who tails him in a bigger boat and seems to be suggesting dire punishment if Muse doesn’t comply with hijacking plans to extort millions from the Americans. Whether or not this is a true account, it definitely makes Muse a more-fleshed-out character. As for the interplay between Abdi and Hanks, it is chilling, fraught with tension and always on the edge of explosion.

In the supporting cast, Michael Chernus distinguishes himself as chief mate Shane Murphy. You might recognize Chernus from his geeky-guy role in Men in Black 3. This time out, he’s asked to show the dramatic goods, and he comes through nicely. Catherine Keener shows up in the first scene as Phillips’ wife, and then disappears completely. We don’t get any scenes of her biting her nails while awaiting word about her husband’s fate.

The movie seems to be a fairly accurate representation of what actually happened, although some crew members of the Maersk Alabama have taken issue with Phillips’ account in his book, A Captain’s Duty, on which the movie is based. Some of them are saying Phillips acted irresponsibly, ignoring warnings to stay at least 600 miles off the Somali coast due to pirates in the area, and not following proper procedures when the pirates boarded his ship.

Taking all this into consideration, the story in the film remains engrossing, with Greengrass keeping the action realistic and believable. Film buffs might be relieved to know that Greengrass and his crew are relaxing a bit with the shaky-cam, something that got a little tiresome in his Bourne movies. Yes, there’s some shakiness, but nothing that distracts from the action.

Hanks delivers the role in a sort of strange Boston accent that I had a hard time identifying. It’s not all that distracting, really; just pretend his character is Australian, and you’ll be OK. He’s so good here that he can butcher an accent and still be worthy of an Oscar nomination.

Captain Phillips is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews