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Sat08152020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

When Doug Kenney died in 1980, he took a legendary comedic pedigree with him. It’s safe to say there was nothing like Animal House and Caddyshack before or after their releases. Kenney, one of the founding fathers of National Lampoon magazine, co-wrote both of those films. (He also produced Caddyshack.)

David Wain, the master comedy director of such wonderful things as Wet Hot American Summer and Role Models, gives the legend of Kenney a slightly uneven but ultimately enjoyable tribute with A Futile and Stupid Gesture. The movie chronicles Kenney’s everlasting contributions to American comedy, with Will Forte delivering strong work as the humor maestro.

The movie covers events from the late 1960s, when Kenney attended Harvard, through 1980, when Kenney either fell or jumped off of a cliff in Hawaii shortly after the release of Caddyshack. His little golf movie took a critical shellacking upon its initial release, something Kenney allegedly took hard. Of course, it has since endured and is now considered by many to be one of the funniest movies ever made.

The cast includes Joel McHale as Chevy Chase and Seth Green as Christopher Guest. Domhnall Gleeson co-stars as fellow Lampoon founder Henry Beard, while Martin Mull narrates the picture as, of all things, Kenney, if he had lived to be old. Thomas Lennon proves he was born to play Michael O’Donoghue, and Jon Daly does a sometimes-impressive take on Bill Murray.

The film never really finds a consistent tone, but the sheer magnitude of the subject matter makes it consistently watchable, as does Forte’s strong work.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture is now streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, we finally get the movie with both older Luke and Leia. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher get to do what Harrison Ford did in The Force Awakens: They spend a little more time (in the case of Hamill, a lot more time) in their iconic roles.

Both stars shine as they play in the Star Wars sandbox 40 years after the original’s release. When this film focuses on the saga of Luke and Rey, it is nothing short of epic. When the camera is on the late Carrie Fisher—who gets more quality screen time than she did with her glorified cameo in Force Awakens—it’s heartwarming and, yes, sad. (The Leia stuff gets a little kooky at times, but I’m trying to make this a spoiler-free zone.)

When writer-director Rian Johnson takes the action to the characters of Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and a new character named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), the film falters. Poe, so engaging in Force Awakens, seems underdeveloped here. While the Resistance fights an oddly prolonged and bizarre space battle against the First Order, Poe just whines a lot—the point where you’re actually happy when Leia smacks him across the head.

The film picks up where The Force Awakens left off, more or less, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Luke in a stare-down: Rey is looking for tutelage, but Luke wants nothing to do with that Jedi stuff anymore, and desires to be left alone with his alien milk. While on the island, Rey starts having some sort of psychic Force conversations with Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo (Adam Driver). Will Luke train Rey? Will Rey find out who her parents are? Will Adam Driver engage in his obligatory partial nudity in this film? I’m not telling.

What I will tell you is that there’s too much going on in The Last Jedi, and a lot of it feels like filler. Besides that stalled-out space battle, there’s a clunky sequence in a casino that goes on far too long; a lot of distracting cameos; and new characters inhabited by Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro who bring little to the proceedings.

Am I overthinking this? Yeah, I am—but I’m a dude who has spent the last 40 years worshiping Star Wars. Anything you put onscreen that’s a Star Wars production is going to have me (admittedly, a loser) breaking down that shit. I’m saying that some of this movie seems a little half-baked, and also overstuffed. If there’s any movie I want to be more than 2 1/2 hours long, it’s a Star Wars movie—but at that length, it needs to be a really good Star Wars movie, not a so-so one. The Last Jedi is so-so.

I’m of two minds when it comes to The Last Jedi. It’s part Best Star Wars Ever (Luke, Leia, Rey, Ben Solo) and part Worst Star Wars Ever (Poe, Finn, the girl with the flip hair, and just about any time Domhnall Gleeson speaks). I’m recommending it for the Luke and Leia goodness, Daisy Ridley’s continued greatness as Rey, and inspired moments of fun and humor. But, man oh man, it nearly goes into “Jar Jar” territory a little too often for my tastes.

Johnson has been given a new Star Wars trilogy on which to work—a saga supposedly away from the Skywalkers. I’m hoping the guy gives us something a little more balanced. He’s made great movies (Brick, Looper) and crap movies (The Brothers Bloom) in the past. The Last Jedi falls somewhere in between.

So, as Yoda would say: A great Star Wars, this is not. Like it just fine, I did, but there is a tremor of over-indulgence in the Force. Be mindful of this for future times in edit bay, you must.”

One final note: Porgs are awesome.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

The messed-up life of pilot Barry Seal gets a movie that’s not messed up enough in American Made, a sufficiently entertaining film that plays it a little too safe. Drug cartels and Iran Contra are played for laughs—in a story that should not be very funny.

The movie winds up being moderately enjoyable thanks to Tom Cruise, who sweats it out in the lead role. While his work here may not be his best, it’s miles better than what he put forth in The Mummy, that shit-storm that damaged his career this summer. Director Doug Liman (who teamed with Cruise on the sci-fi masterpiece Edge of Tomorrow) rips off Catch Me If You Can, The Wolf of Wall Street, Goodfellas, Blow and many others in telling the story of the notorious TWA pilot-turned-pawn for the CIA.

Inspired by Seal’s true story (and, yes, some of the more outlandish stuff depicted in the film actually happened), the movie starts with Seal grinding out flights for TWA—smuggling the occasional box of Cuban cigars, perhaps, but otherwise simply trying to support a family that includes his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright).

During a layover, Seal is approached in a bar by Monty (Domhnall Gleeson). After a brief discussion, Barry is given an opportunity to fly arms to Central America as an unofficial courier for the U.S. (He’s set up with a fake flying company as a front.) The gig soothes the adrenaline junkie in Seal, but it doesn’t pay enough.

That’s where smuggling drugs for the Medellin drug cartel comes in, something Seal starts doing on the side. The movie depicts Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia) and Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) almost as fun-loving goof balls, and Seal becomes regular pals with them. Along the way, Seal’s operation expands to include an entire airport in Mena, Ark., on property large enough to fit a training ground for the Contras. Seal basically has his hand in everything.

The movie is a whirlwind of activity, but it skimps on some of the details that could have made it more than just a silly blast. The likes of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. are reduced to stock news footage (although W. makes a brief appearance, portrayed by an actor).

One element clearly stolen from Goodfellas is the tactic of breaking the fourth wall to narrate. Liman is able to pull this off through a series of videotapes Seal makes when he’s on the run; bits are used throughout the movie as story-framing devices. It’s a way to help out the viewer with all the different plot threads and time jumps going on.

This story might’ve played better as an HBO or Netflix miniseries than as a big motion picture. It feels far too slick for the story, and needed some more meat on the bone. A good 10-hour running time probably wouldn’t even be enough to cover everything into which Seal got himself.

Cruise brings his reliable movie-star prowess to the project, and while the movie might get a little messy, it is never boring. That’s because Cruise, as he often does, puts his everything into the role. Gleeson is decent in his fictional representation of the CIA; he provides some of the movie’s bigger laughs. Wright does all she can with a thinly written role.

American Made can’t seem to decide whether it’s an action movie, a dark comedy or a dramatic re-telling of a scandalous life. It keeps up the balancing act admirably until its final minutes, where everything crashes down on a discordant note. Anybody who knows anything about Seal knows things will eventually take a dark turn, but the film’s final tonal shift is handled poorly.

Still, you can do worse at the movie theater than seeing a cocaine-coated Cruise paying some kid for a bicycle and then riding it down the street, with the cocaine leaving a smoky powder trail. American Made is not a waste of time … but it is passable moviemaking, and nothing more.

American Made is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The Revenant didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar, but it damn well should have.

Leonardo DiCaprio won a much-deserved Oscar for playing the legendary Hugh Glass, a real man who actually survived a bear attack and sought revenge from the men who left him to die.

Director Alejandro G. Inarritu (winner of the Best Director Oscar two years in a row) made a film that doesn’t stick to Glass’s actual storyline all that much. (The real life guy was actually too tired to do anything to the guys when he eventually found them.) His script works in a Native American son (Forrest Goodluck) and a deranged trapper (Tom Hardy, also nominated) along with Glass’ insatiable revenge lust. DiCaprio doesn’t say much with his mouth in the movie, but he says an awful lot with those eyes. His performance is a masterwork.

Equally good is Hardy, who portrays John Fitzgerald as a man operating under what turns out to be a rather naïve sense of justice. It’s his best work to date. Other supporting performances worth noting are Domhnall Gleeson as the leader of Glass’ expedition, and Will Poulter as a fellow trapper with a good heart who winds up getting into a lot of trouble.

It’ll be interesting to see what DiCaprio does next. This is a hard act to follow.

Special Features: The Blu-ray includes a near 45-minute documentary containing behind-the-scenes footage and great interviews with DiCaprio, Inarritu and others.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

For the second year in a row, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has delivered the year’s best film.

Inarritu was responsible for last year’s Birdman, and the best movie of 2015 is The Revenant, an eye-popping Western thriller that gives Leonardo DiCaprio the role that should finally score him his first Oscar.

DiCaprio gives it everything he’s got as Hugh Glass, a scout working with fur traders on the American frontier in the early 19th century. Glass, while doing his job, gets a little too close to a couple of bear cubs—and mama grizzly is not happy about such an occurrence.

What follows is a lengthy and vicious bear attack during which Glass tangles with the nasty mother not once, but twice. Inarritu, DiCaprio and some amazing visual technicians put you right in the middle of that bear attack—minus the searing pain of actually having a bear’s claws and teeth rip through your flesh. It’s an unforgettably visceral moment when that bear steps on Glass’ head.

With Glass seemingly at death’s door, the remaining party—including a conniving, paranoid trapper named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy)—is left to decide what to do with him. Fitzgerald wants to put him out of his misery, much to the chagrin of Glass’ Native American son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and the expedition’s leader, Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson).

Henry decides to soldier on without Glass, leaving him behind to die with Fitzgerald, Hawk and young Bridger (an excellent Will Poulter). Fitzgerald takes matters into his own hands, with Glass eventually buried alive and left for dead. This doesn’t set well with Glass, who slowly recovers from his wounds and sets out to exact revenge.

Yes, this is a revenge tale—and a rather simple one at that. Those looking for a spiritual and psychological examination of revenge containing long monologues need not see this. The Revenant is about the forces of nature, stunningly photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki, trying to take down one man as he sets out on a killing mission. An uncaring wilderness throws everything it can at Glass to stop him in his tracks.

Some of what Inarritu does in the film’s few quieter, more-meditative moments reminds of the work of Terrence Malick, and that’s a good thing. For the most part, the movie is less about beautiful running rivers and more about surviving neck wounds while fending off attacking Native Americans and antsy fur trappers. What Inarritu and company achieve during these attack sequences is monumental: No movie has ever looked or felt like this. Throw in that bear attack, and you have a movie that will forever dent your skull.

DiCaprio doesn’t have much spoken dialogue. The majority of his performance consists of grunting, contorting his face and crawling on the ground (something he did memorably in The Wolf of Wall Street). His character has very few moments to smile, but when he does, it’s like having a warm blanket and hot cocoa after a week in sub-zero temperatures: It’s a major relief from the torment. 

Hardy and Gleeson, two of the hardest-working men in Hollywood right now, are magnificent in the film. Given the notoriously long and nasty shooting schedule they had to endure for The Revenant, I have no idea how they managed to appear in those other films. (They both appeared in four major 2015 movies.) They have truly mastered the art of scheduling events and tasks on their iPhones.

The Revenant is a masterpiece, and I suspect DiCaprio will finally get his Oscar. I also suspect camping numbers will take a plummet in the next year, while bear-repellent sales spike.

The Revenant is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Brooklyn in the 1950s is sumptuously captured in John Crowley’s wonderful story of an Irish immigrant trying to choose between two lands.

Saoirse Ronan is a pure delight as Eilis, who gets a job in New York and quickly falls in love with blue-collar worker Tony (Emory Cohen), a charming Yankees fan with eyes set on marriage. When family tragedy calls Eilis back to Ireland for a spell, she’s forced to decide between Tony and Jim (the ever-so-busy Domhnall Gleeson), a hometown boy who is also trying to win her over.

The film does a splendid job of depicting an immigrant’s life, from the woozy boat trip to the derogatory remarks in diners. Ronan finally gets the role she deserves, and will certainly be a front-runner for an Oscar.

Crowley has not only put together one of 2015’s best-acted films; he’s also turned in one of the best-looking ones, and the score is a true winner.

This is a great movie for anybody looking to experience a little bit of New York history in a truly romantic way.

Brooklyn is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Men playing with microchips learn that highly intelligent robots aren’t the best of ideas in Ex Machina, a competent and exciting directorial debut from Alex Garland, who also wrote the script.

Computer-programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) gets a weekend to hang out with his eccentric, reclusive boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), at a secluded house in the middle of nowhere. Shortly after arriving, Caleb learns that he is to take part in an experiment in which he must interact with Nathan’s latest creation: a mightily attractive and lifelike robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander).

Caleb is told to analyze Ava’s legitimacy as full-blown artificial intelligence—a thinking robot with emotional capability. He does this, and develops a crush along the way. In many ways, Ava seems constructed to be Caleb’s ideal woman—and Nathan’s motives are quickly called into question: Not only is Nathan playing god, but he’s using Caleb as a guinea pig.

While Garland could’ve easily made this a Caleb vs. Nathan affair, he tosses in enough variables and curveballs to keep the audience guessing. The film works as a thriller, a science-fiction piece and a mystery; it even passes a few horror-movie tests.

As the tensions mount, and the film races toward a surprising conclusion, the performances become more tour de force, especially that of Isaac. Thanks to a Garland script that harbors a huge brain, Ex Machina winds up being a convincing piece of sci-fi. The future depicted in this movie feels like it could happen within the next 10 years. Heck, judging by all the crazy shit my iPhone can do, it probably will happen within the next 10 years.

Ava is a nice special effect, fortified with nice acting from Vikander. Ava has many human attributes, including her beautiful face, her charming demeanor and her otherworldly butt. (Creator Nathan is clearly an ass man.) Much of her body is see-through, allowing her mechanical innards to be in full view. She is consistently visually interesting to behold, and Vikander fleshes her out nicely.

Gleeson, who has been doing a lot of outstanding work recently (Frank, About Time, Unbroken), doesn’t break his streak with this one. His Caleb is a confused young man being used as a pawn in somebody’s game. He also brings a sinister edge to later scenes that make Caleb far from one-dimensional.

While those two performances are exceptional, Isaac’s work is even better. Isaac is developing into one this generation’s best actors—and he’s quite the chameleon. His Nathan is a slithery, hard-drinking, narcissistic brilliant mess of a human, a far cry from the grouchy folk singer he played in Inside Llewyn Davis.

Given the isolated setting for the film, this is largely a three-performer show, although Sonoya Mizuno does give a haunting performance as Kyoko, Nathan’s live-in servant. Kyoko rounds out the general nastiness of the Nathan character: He’s a control freak with a god complex who has some nice, chummy moments, but is really somebody who is looking out for himself, and himself only.

Garland’s debut is quite original, although he does take some visual cues from Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, who combined (posthumously, in Kubrick’s case) for the great robot epic A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Ex Machina plays like A.I.: Artificial Intelligence’s first cousin.

Garland has been kicking around Hollywood for years, delivering solid screenplays for the likes of 28 Days Later …, Dredd and Sunshine. His work behind the camera here definitely points to a directing future.

Isaac and Gleeson will be together again this year in Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens; I would say they are the two front-runners for Science Fiction Kings of 2015. Vikander’s 2015 slate includes The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Light Between the Oceans, the latest from director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines), so she has a shot at Breakout Performer of 2015. At this point of the year, she’s my pick.

As for a future with robots that act and think on their own: Ex Machina will have you wishing for a future that draws the robotic line at Siri and Roombas.

Ex Machina is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Angelina Jolie directs the harrowing story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), a real life Olympic-runner and American soldier who was shot down over the Pacific during World War II. Zamperini wound up at sea on a lifeboat for a grueling stretch until he and his co-survivor, Phil (Domhnall Gleeson), were picked up by Japanese soldiers and put into a prison camp. That’s where the real hell began.

Unbroken shows Zamperini going through a nasty amount of torture at the hands of the camp commander, Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara). In fact, some of the stuff Zamperini endured—like an entire prison camp population punching him in the face, one person at a time—seems like it must be embellished. (Nobody could survive all those haymakers in a row … could they?) Still, the story is uplifting, and Jolie makes a good-looking movie.

The script was co-written by the Coen brothers along with Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, based on a book by Laura Hillenbrand.

Zamperini died in July 2014. The film acts as a nice tribute to his courage.

Unbroken is playing at the UltraStar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100), 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

Director Lenny Abrahamson has made a profound yet silly film about the soul-sucking madness that can come from the creation of art—as well as the perils of pursuing celebrity.

In Frank, Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson) clumsily tries to write music while living with his mom and dad in England. His attempts are pathetic—and he knows it. Jon happens upon a strange band, the Soronprfbs (yes, it’s impossible to pronounce), while their keyboardist is attempting to drown himself in the ocean. The band is fronted by Frank (Michael Fassbender), a possible musical genius who insists upon wearing a large mask with big bug eyes. He wears it all the time, whether he’s in public, performing or sleeping.

The character is based a bit upon Frank Sidebottom, the singing alter ego of the late British comedian Chris Sievey, who wore a mask similar to the one Fassbender wears in the film. Jon Ronson, a former member of Sidebottom’s band, co-wrote the script.

As terrific as Fassbender is, it is Gleeson (Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter movies) who commands most of the movie. Watching the previously grounded Jon nearly go insane is one of the film’s many pleasures. When Frank sings “I Love You All” in the final scene, he’s managed to create his most “likable” and accessible song yet—and it’s the catchy byproduct of madness, despair and the artistic birthing process.

Frank is now playing at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

I missed About Time in theaters last year. (Hey, I can’t see them all!)

That’s a shame, because this film is deserving of high praise. Writer-director Richard Curtis (Love Actually) has made his best film yet, and finds a way to use time-travel that requires no special-effects budget.

Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), a slightly nebbish but somewhat cute and alluring Brit, finds out from his super-laid-back dad (a wonderful Bill Nighy) that the men in his family have the gift of time travel: They just need to go to a dark place (preferably a wardrobe cabinet), clench their fists, and think of where they want to be in their own past. Then, boom—they are there, able to live that piece of life again, and make adjustments where necessary.

However, this power comes with rules—and hazards. They can’t travel back beyond their own life, so there’s no killing Hitler. They can’t go into the future. And they have to be mindful of birth dates, because screwing around with history before a child’s birth can change the identity of the child.

Tim uses his power to woo numerous women, mostly Mary (Rachel McAdams, queen of time-travel love stories with this, The Time Traveler’s Wife and Midnight in Paris on her résumé). He eventually marries Mary, after traveling back in time to redo their first meetings and sexual encounters. He cheats a bit, for sure, but it’s abundantly clear that the two are meant for each other—even without the time travel tomfoolery.

It’s a fun premise, employed quite entertainingly by Curtis and his cast. Gleeson is charming; McAdams is enchanting; and Nighy steals scenes. This is a good one to watch if you’re planning a romantic movie night at home.

Special Features: The disc is fairly stacked, with director and actor commentaries, behind-the-scenes featurettes, a blooper reel, deleted scenes and more. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing