Last updateFri, 03 Apr 2020 5pm

Michael B. Jordan stars in Just Mercy as civil-rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, a real attorney who has dedicated his life to freeing wrongly convicted death-row inmates.

Destin Daniel Cretton’s film focuses primarily on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man sentenced to death for the murder of a girl, even though evidence showed he was with friends and family at the time of the killing. What happened to McMillian is depicted competently in the movie, as are some other cases and Stevenson’s struggles to bring injustices into the light.

Jordan and Foxx are very good, as are supporting-cast members Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson and O’Shea Jackson Jr. The film is well done, but perhaps a little too routine in some stretches. Still, it’s a showcase for fine acting, especially by Jordan and Foxx. It’ll also get you thinking about problems with the death penalty, and the kinds of horrors men like McMillian have gone through.

Just Mercy is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Geeks like me have been bitching about director Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man exodus for several years now. Wright was hard at work on Ant-Man for the better part of a decade, but left abruptly during production due to “creative differences.”

My initial reaction to that news was: “Farts!”

We wound up getting an OK Ant-Man from director Peyton Reed, while Wright announced his next project would be a car-chase movie, written by himself. The final product is Baby Driver, starring Ansel Elgort as a getaway driver with tinnitus—and it truly is a great time.

It’s a nice antidote to The Fate of the Furious, a movie that made me never want to see a car-chase movie again. The Baby Driver soundtrack is one of the year’s best, and the guy in the title role is a major star in the making.

Elgort plays Baby; we see him in the film’s opening sequence driving the getaway car for a robbery, a kinetic chase choreographed to the great Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms.” The scene snaps with a colorful energy that’s been missing from car-chase films of late.

The best car-chase movie in recent years, Drive, also featured a lonely driver and great vroom-vroom scenes, but the soundtrack and look for that film were more meditative and hazy. (I’m not complaining; it worked beautifully.) Baby Driver opts for a more clear-eyed, zippy approach, and it pays off.

Baby winds up on various crews run by a criminal kingpin played by Kevin Spacey, here reliving the angrier portion of his Glengarry Glen Ross role. Baby owes the man, and he has to drive until he pays him off—at least that’s what he thinks the deal is.

The chases go off with precision editing, and are filmed in a way that makes you feel like you are in the car. The soundtrack, featuring music ranging from Simon and Garfunkel to Focus to Queen, perfectly complements the scenes.

The supporting cast includes Lily James, who enchants as Baby’s love interest, diner-waitress Debora. (Cue the Beck song.) Jon Hamm gets a chance to go psycho as Buddy, a role that is deceptively laid back until Baby flips his switch. Jamie Foxx has a killer turn as Bats, the hothead of the crew who is equal parts smart and paranoid maniac. In one of the year’s great cameos, the one and only Paul Williams (the man who penned The Muppets’ “Rainbow Connection”!) shows up as a gun dealer. I’m a child of the ’70s, and I love that little guy!

Wright has called the movie an homage to the likes of Reservoir Dogs, Heat and The Blues Brothers. He also cites Point Break, an influence that is evident in the use of Halloween masks during heists, and the presence of Flea as one of the robbers. In a different sort of homage, Elgort sports a jacket that has a Han Solo look to it—perhaps a nod to the fact that he was in the running for the role of young Han Solo last year.

If you plan on seeing Baby Driver in theaters, make sure that theater has a premium sound system. The one I saw it in had sound that was a little too muddy and soft. There was no bass in my theater. I was a little sad.

The summer movie season had stalled out a bit after that Transformers fiasco, but Baby Driver gets things back on track. Does this movie make up for the loss of Wright on Ant-Man? Nah; I’m still going to bitch about that. But it is a nice addition to the Wright movie canon, and proof that the guy can do no wrong.

Baby Driver is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Confession time: I have always hated the musical Annie, and I really hated the original movie, directed in 1982 by John Huston. I grew up in New York, and that damn play was shoved down my throat every day when it was playing on Broadway. Therefore, I had no hope for the new film version—especially after the first wave of scathing reviews came out.

I’m going against the grain a bit on the new Annie: No, it’s not a great film, but it’s surprisingly fun and pleasant. It still has that awful music in it, and no amount of auto-tuning and remixing can fix that crap. What makes the movie fun is a goofy turn from Jamie Foxx as the billionaire who takes in orphan Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis). The two have a good rapport, and their fun chemistry cancels out grating work from Cameron Diaz as Hannigan (played by Carol Burnett in the original) and Rose Byrne’s terrible singing.

I laughed at this movie a lot more than I thought I would, and Wallis qualifies as my all-time-favorite Annie. It’s a good family film.

Annie is playing at theaters across the valley.

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In my review of The Amazing Spider-Man two years ago, I suggested that director Marc Webb was not a good choice to helm a big-budget blockbuster.

After seeing The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which Webb also directed, I can say he’s a truly bad choice to direct a blockbuster.

Webb mucks it up big-time with this second film featuring Andrew Garfield cracking wise in Spandex. While Webb proves adept at drama and romance—Garfield and Emma Stone, as Gwen Stacey, are adorable—he botches the action elements and tries to juggle too many bad guys.

This movie features a goofy villain called Electro (Jamie Foxx), the Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan) and the robotic Rhino (Paul Giamatti). Electro gets the majority of the villain screen time—an unfortunate circumstance, given that he’s the most uninteresting of the three bad guys.

Electro starts off as Max Dillon, a geeky electrical engineer who gets transformed into a bluish, see-through monstrosity after electrocuting himself and falling into a tank of electric eels. He has the ability to move and stop things with electricity (which makes no sense), and disappear into wires and sockets (which also makes no sense). Yes, this is a comic-book movie in which impossible things are routine, but this stuff is just stupid.

Foxx is clearly trying to break out and do something memorable with this character. Given the sheer magnitude of characters vying for time in this mess, he’s winds up underdeveloped and uninteresting.

DeHaan, an actor I can’t stand at this point, makes me really, really miss James Franco as Harry Osborn. DeHaan speaks as if he just digs his own voice, even if it sounds like he has a sinus infection.

However, he is not completely to blame for this film’s mishandling of the Green Goblin. The blame mostly lies with Webb and his makeup folks, who come up with something tragically bad for Goblin’s looks. He basically has oily hair, like he hasn’t showered in a while, and a horrific skin problem.

Here’s something else that annoyed me: Harry, who has inherited Oscorp from his father Norman (Chris Cooper), is dying because he is slowly becoming a lizard, or something like that. He goes into some secret chamber at Oscorp to discover a possible cure using spider venom. He has a major reaction to the injection, and saves himself by crawling into the Goblin suit, which he is seeing for the very first time. Harry then takes to the skies, expertly, to battle Spider-Man, without reading a training manual or doing some practice flights. Again, I know I’m supposed to accept the outlandish with these movies, but come on!

Garfield and Stone annoyed me in the first movie, but I liked them this time out. Had the movie focused more on their relationship, and perhaps jettisoned a villain or two, this might’ve been something.

A big, dramatic occurrence happens deep in this film. That sequence is the best thing in the movie, and the film certainly should’ve ended directly after it. Instead, Webb and his writers forced a terrible, final battle with Rhino that destroyed any of the dramatic tension that was building. After a big shocker, Garfield just goes back to cracking jokes and fighting villains.

More bad news: Webb will be back as director of the next installment. All seems to be lost when it comes to Spider-Man for the foreseeable future.

Published in Reviews

Director Roland Emmerich has made fun trash before (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012). He’s a modern-day Irwin Allen, and I often get a kick out of his silly disaster movies.

But White House Down, starring Channing Tatum as a lawman who happens to be touring the White House when terrorists take over, is a complete bust. It’s too stupid to be fun, and it doesn’t offer enough cool special effects to offset the moronic storytelling. (The Capitol getting destroyed is the only memorable moment of carnage.)

Jamie Foxx plays the president as sort of an Obama clone; he’s taken hostage in a homeland-terrorist scheme that is beyond impossible. Throw in a precocious daughter (Joey King) and James Woods doing his James Woods routine, and you have a movie full to the brim with useless clichés.

Tatum, so much fun in 21 Jump Street, is left stranded in a movie that couldn’t be dumber if it tried. Emmerich has given us one of the summer’s biggest bombs.

White House Down is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Django Unchained, out today (Tuesday, April 16) on Blu-Ray, is still my least-favorite Tarantino movie—but it’s growing on me. I liked it the first time I saw it, but I wanted to love it. When watching it on Blu-ray, I was more relaxed, and it went up a notch in my book.

This is the first Tarantino film not to be edited by the great Sally Menke, who recently passed away. The first time I watched it, I really felt her absence in the beat of the film. However, on the second go-round, I allowed myself to take in the movie on its own terms. It’s a little clunky in spots, and a little long, but with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson propelling the story, some lags are forgivable.

Waltz got an Oscar for his portrayal of the bounty hunter with a heart of gold. His performance was great work, but if anybody in this movie deserved an Oscar, it was DiCaprio, as he went well beyond his safety zone, playing one of last year’s greatest scumbags. Tarantino got a screenplay Oscar; he won the same award for Pulp Fiction.

The plot involving a revisionist history/fantasy of pre-Civil War America has a similar vibe to the revisionist history of Inglourious Basterds. It feels a little bit like Tarantino is repeating himself. But Tarantino makes good movies, repeating himself or not. Still, I’m hoping his next film is a change of pace like Kill Bill was.

Tarantino has never made a movie I haven’t liked; he’s a master. Django is his weakest, but it’s still good.

I would love it if somebody gave him a superhero franchise. He would do some amazing things with something like the Fantastic Four.

Special Features: A few short behind-the-scenes docs. Tarantino doesn’t do commentaries (although I do remember that he did one for From Dusk Till Dawn with Robert Rodriguez). The supplements are underwhelming. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Quentin Tarantino is repeating himself a bit when it comes to his latest, Django Unchained.

Tarantino got off on revisionist history with Inglourious Basterds, changing the events of World War II for entertainment’s sake. He got away with it, because the movie was stylistically awesome, and Eli Roth wowed with his baseball bat.

This time, Tarantino has taken his crazy pen to the subject of slavery, and the result is an uncomfortable yet somewhat entertaining mixed bag.

The movie has all of the Tarantino-isms (super violence, awesome music choices, cutesy monologues), but it gave me that “been there, done that” feeling. For the first time ever during a Tarantino movie, I found myself a little bored at times.

Christoph Waltz, who played the evil Jew-hunter Nazi in Basterds, returns to Tarantino Land as Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter wandering around the South two years before the Civil War. He has the same ingenuity and flare for words that the Jew-hunter had, but he’s a much nicer human being. That is, unless you are one of his targets—then he will shoot you down like a dog in a spray of brains and intestine.

His character despises slavery, but purchases a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx), because he heard Django has seen some men he needs to shoot. As it turns out, Django is a crack shot; the two become partners; and lots of evil crackers are going to die violent deaths.

Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), has been sold to an evil slave owner named Calvin Candie (a slithery Leonardo DiCaprio), and Schultz agrees to accompany Django on a mission to rescue her.

When DiCaprio enters the fray, the movie hits its highest heights. Tarantino allows the usually virtuous actor a chance to be truly disgusting, and DiCaprio jumps at the opportunity.

The movie is long (two hours and 45 minutes), as are some other Tarantino films. However, this is the first Tarantino film that felt long. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that this is the first Tarantino film not to be edited by the late Sally Menke. Menke was a big part of the Tarantino universe, and her cuts were magical. Perhaps Menke would’ve made this gun-and-pony show fly by effortlessly, as she did with all of her other Tarantino projects.

Django Unchained is a sporadically entertaining film that feels a little off. It is also Tarantino’s most-sadistic film to date, and I say this while remembering the “Bring out the gimp!” scene from Pulp Fiction. Again, maybe Menke had a way of presenting Tarantino’s crazed visions that his current editor can’t summon up. The sort of stuff that is just plain nauseating here was actually kind of funny in past Tarantino efforts.

Waltz is terrific, and it’s refreshing to see him playing a crazy guy with a big heart. He’s usually such a prick in his movies, so it’s nice to see him in a heroic role. DiCaprio gives his part of the film a funny and sinister edge, although his monologue about the inner workings of a slave’s skull is a bit much. Foxx makes for a decent-enough hero.

Django Unchained is mediocre Tarantino at best, and I can only give the slightest of recommendations. See it for Waltz and DiCaprio.

I’m hoping this signifies the end of Tarantino’s revisionist-history and exploitation/grindhouse phase. Unfortunately, I just read a story where he teased an idea for a sequel to Basterds—so new and innovative ideas from Tarantino might be far away.

Django Unchained is playing in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews