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It Chapter Two gives moviegoers a needed, yet mediocre, conclusion to a saga started by the previous, far-superior film.

Translation: If you saw and liked the first movie, you need to watch this one to get the full story. You’ll also be witnessing a decline in quality.

In a strange way, I’m happy It Chapter Two exists, because it does have some good scares, and Bill Hader rocks as a grown-up Finn Wolfhard. It closes out the Stephen King story in much better fashion than that spider sequence in that TV miniseries. If you look at It as one long movie consisting of two chapters, the overall experience is still cool. But if you look at this sequel as a standalone … it’s a big mess—an editing-room fatality.

The first movie focused on the Losers’ Club as children, concluding with them seemingly defeating Pennywise the Clown (an always-frightening Bill Skarsgard). This one picks up 27 years later, welcoming the likes of Hader (Ritchie), Jessica Chastain (Beverly) and James McAvoy (Bill) to the proceedings.

When evil seems to revisit their hometown, the adult Losers return for a rematch with the morphing clown … and that’s it for the plot. The adults split up, suffer some individual horrors at the hands of Pennywise, then wind up back together for the finale.

A big problem in this movie is that the kids from the first film, who actually play a large part in this one, have aged a lot since the first chapter wrapped. While there have been some nice advancements in digital de-aging, this film does not show that. The kid scenes are a mixture of newly filmed scenes and flashbacks. The kids, often filmed in the dark, look very odd with their digitally altered, disproportioned faces; in some cases, their digitally de-aged voices make them sound like chipmunks. The producers should’ve filmed the extra kid scenes during the original movie’s production, saved themselves some dough on special effects, and had a better-looking movie.

There’s a lot of whining out there about this film’s running time, as it clocks in at 2 hours, 49 minutes. I actually wish director Andy Muschietti would have taken three films to tell this story, because at nearly three hours, this movie actually comes off as oddly rushed and haphazard. There’s talk that the original cut for Chapter Two was four hours long. Perhaps that hour will be restored in a home-video release; it might fill in some gaps and make the experience feel more complete and less compressed.

Hader rules this movie in the same way Wolfhard ruled the original. He’s funny; he’s aces at looking scared; and he can handle the heavy drama. Surprisingly, McAvoy seems a little lost in the role of grown-up Bill, while Chastain doesn’t really have much to work with during her screen time. Hader and Skarsgard make good chunks of this movie worth watching.

After a solid start, the performers run around from set piece to set piece, setting the table for some CGI scares mixed with occasional practical effects. (The old lady freezing during her tea chat with Beverly is perhaps the scariest/funniest moment in the movie, and it required no software.)

Again, I have a feeling It Chapter 2 could be somewhat redeemed by a director’s cut that could reinstall some of the connective tissue between the scenes. Right now, the film is just a bunch of thrill sequences smashing into one another in the second half, with no real sense of direction.

The story of It, as a whole on the big screen, is easily superior to the TV series that came before. It Chapter 2 drags the overall grade for both movies together to somewhere around a B-minus.

It Chapter Two is now playing at theaters across the valley.

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Jessica Chastain takes the role of Molly Bloom—a real poker-game organizer and former championship skier—and nails it: Molly’s Game takes a true story that seems too crazy to be real and turns it into a great movie about a woman’s struggle against the justice system, as well as the perils of gambling outside the already-dangerous realm of a casino.

This is a great actress firing on all cylinders. Making the experience all the more enjoyable is screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), whose stylish, snappy directorial debut here shows he has a big future beyond the keyboard.

Bloom was a top-notch athlete, shepherded by her domineering father (an excellent Kevin Costner), who had all of her plans laid out before her. She was going to medal at the Olympics, go to law school and become an entrepreneur. Her plans started to hit a snag when it was discovered that she had spinal issues. Major surgeries later, she managed to get back on the slopes—only to be done in by a pine branch, followed by a colossal crash.

Post-slope disaster, Bloom found herself working high-stakes poker games populated by big gamblers and celebrities. Michael Cera shows up in the movie as one of the players (a character allegedly based upon notorious card player Tobey Maguire). Cera is great in the role, but it would’ve been very interesting if they could’ve gotten Maguire to play himself. That would’ve been fantastically weird.

Bloom graduates from working the games to organizing them. She works up to having the game in New York with the highest stakes before things go awry, eventually leading to massive legal problems.

That’s where Idris Elba, as Bloom’s lawyer, enters into the fray and scorches the screen alongside Chastain. Both benefit from precisely written, fiery dialogue, courtesy of Sorkin. The screenplay and direction are so good that the courtroom scenes in this film are actually some of the movie’s greater moments. (That statement comes from a guy whose eyes often glaze over during courtroom dramas.)

The film also manages to take the usual crutch of a narrator (in this case, Chastain) and make it exemplary, too. Narrators often signify a storytelling weakness, but in this case, the narration takes the excitement of the story to another level. Given the complexity of Bloom’s story and its intricacies, some notes from the narrator along the way don’t hurt. The whole movie has a snap reminiscent of the great Ray Liotta narration in Goodfellas. It feels slightly unoriginal in some ways, but who cares? The thing is fun to watch.

Cera, whose official role name is Player X, gets a chance to go darker and more dramatic here, and it pays off. Cera is one of the most underrated comedic actors in play right now, and his work shows he’s capable of so much more. If you need to cast a major prick, go ahead and put Cera on your list.

Costner’s resurgence continues in this film, after his triumph last year in Hidden Figures. He’s making his name for himself playing elder statesmen who seem like bastards, but who actually have hearts of gold. The cast is rounded out by strong, colorful characters around the poker tables and inhabiting the courtroom.

In Molly’s Game, Sorkin’s dialogue (adapted from Bloom’s autobiography) has the kinetic energy of the best David Mamet scripts. While there are quiet moments, the movie generally fires along at a high energy level that never becomes overbearing. This is also where Sorkin gets big kudos for his directing chops: He keeps a heavily worded, constantly moving movie tremendously entertaining and remarkably coherent.

In the end, this is another shining moment for Chastain. There were many great awards-worthy performances by actresses this year, and this among the best.

Molly’s Game is now playing at theaters across the valley.

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Four years ago, when Snow White and the Huntsman came out, Kristen Stewart was all the rage. The film made lotsa money, and it looked like the former Bella had a new franchise on her hands.

Not so fast. Kristen, in a moment of shameful and delicious wickedness, made out in public (well, in front of somebody’s unauthorized camera, anyway) with that film’s married director, much to the chagrin of then-boyfriend Robert Pattinson—and, consequently, her fan base. Plans for a sequel starring her were scrapped, and a whole new plan centering on co-star and budding movie giant Chris Hemsworth (Thor!) was hatched.

What producers didn’t realize at the time was that Hemsworth basically sucks when he’s doing anything other than playing Thor. Blackhat, In the Heart of the Sea, Vacation and now this mighty slice of hell are proof of this.

While Snow White was no creative party, it was a tolerable misfire. However, The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a complete mess. It probably looked good on paper or around the pitch table, but the finished product plays like a drunken, straining renaissance festival after the organizer was strung out on heroin.

Because sorcery and magic mirrors were involved in the original, Charlize Theron is allowed to return as the evil Ravenna, even though she was dead. Because Stewart is gone, there’s enough money for two new stars, so in come Emily Blunt as Queen Freya, and Jessica Chastain as Sara. Of course, you have Thor on hand as the Huntsman, the most useless, banal role this guy has taken on in his mostly useless, banal career.

Despite all of this talent on hand, the movie largely consists of the two main villainesses talking all slow and evil, as if they were related to the elves from the Hobbit movies. Meanwhile, Hemsworth is garbling all his lines through some sort of Scottish accent. Note to directors: Hemsworth, from Australia, is capable of American and Australian accents. That’s it. Attempt other accents at your own peril.

The plot involves some sort of bullshit involving the magic mirror that allows Ravena to come back. Ravena takes the time to explain just how she came back, and how she’s only sort of dead, but not really. It doesn’t make much sense, even with her detailed, slow, deliberately paced explanation.

The movie actually starts years before the first movie, with Freya all excited about having a baby with some married dude. An unfortunate event inexplicably turns her into an ice queen, and she freezes a bunch of the countryside (echoes of Disney’s Frozen). The movie then jumps over the events of Snow White into a new, sequel-type adventure. So it’s a sequel and a prequel, all in one.

It’s unfortunate to see Blunt embarrass herself like this. She’s coming off the triumph of Sicario and Edge of Tomorrow. Then again, Into the Woods sucked, too, so perhaps Blunt’s agents need to keep her far away from fairytale based films. Theron, who has an impressive track record, sometimes shows up in clunkers, so her presence here is no surprise, and should buy her another decent house. Chastain is clearly looking for a franchise, and she’s not going to get it here.

Hemsworth certainly has movie-star looks, and he’s perfectly fine when he’s playing exaggerated forms of himself. Beyond that, he’s possibly the worst actor on the planet when he has to do difficult accents and emote. If he’s not wielding Thor's hammer, he’s horrendous.

The lesson here, I guess, is that if you have Kristen Stewart in your movie, and she makes out with the director, don’t kick her out of your franchise; give her a raise! Christ, you are in Hollywood, so all bets are off as to who’s doing whom.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Director Guillermo del Toro has long praised Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride. He’s now made a startlingly beautiful and creepy ride of his own with, Crimson Peak, a twisted ghost story.

Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring writer, must pick up the pieces after a tragic loss. She finds herself swept away by Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a strange Englishman who looks a lot like Thor’s jerk brother. They marry and wind up in his family’s home, which rests atop a red clay mine.

The red clay seeps up through the ground and even the floorboards of the house. As Edith spends more time in the house—and gets acquainted with its ghostly inhabitants—she finds out the red stuff isn’t always clay.

Jessica Chastain is memorably psychotic as Thomas’s selfish and conniving sister. However, the visuals are the real star here, including some over-the-top, bloody ghosts that Walt would never allow in his Mansion.

As for the living characters, Hiddleston and Chastain steal the show as siblings who definitely need an extended time out.

Future del Toro projects, like sequels to Pacific Rim and Hellboy, were put on hold before this film’s release. Since this film inexplicably bombed at the box office during its opening weekend, those sequels will probably remain on the studio merry-go-round for a long time. For del Toro fans, this is bad news.

Crimson Peak is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Last year, Matt Damon’s character in Interstellar got stranded in space and wound up doing some rather rude things to Matthew McConaughey.

This year, Damon’s character in The Martian gets stranded in space, but this time, he refrains from trying to kill Matthew McConaughey (in part because McConaughey isn’t in the movie), opting instead to grow potatoes using his own shit.

Ridley Scott’s The Martian is a fun—and funny—movie that’s lighter than much of the director’s often-dark fare. Yes, it’s about some poor sap getting stranded on Mars, but, no, aliens don’t burst out of his belly after breakfast.

Damon spends a lot of time onscreen by himself as Mark Watney, a botanist on a manned mission to Mars who becomes the unfortunate recipient of a satellite dish to the gut during a storm—a violent squall that results in the evacuation of the rest of his crew. After an attempt by his commander (Jessica Chastain, also a veteran of Interstellar) to retrieve him, the crew leaves, thinking Watney has bought the farm. (Yep … that’s a botanist pun I just dropped right there.)

Watney awakens to find himself alone on the red planet—with a piece of metal stuck in his gut. After another Ridley Scott-directed self-surgery scene (reminiscent of that yucky self-surgery scene in Prometheus), Watney starts trying to find a way to survive. He fashions fertilizer out of jettisoned poopy-packs, finds a way to make water—and is soon up to his ears in potatoes.

The Martian has fun with science facts, involving things like the creation of fertilizer, the surprising effectiveness of duct tape and tarps, and attempts to make fire out of mostly fire-retardant materials. Scott and his writers present these overtly nerdy aspects of the movie with great humor and the right amount of intelligence.

Damon’s performance can be compared to the lone-wolf work of Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Hanks lost a lot of weight for that role, while Damon settles for an emaciated body double and digital overhauling in The Martian. It’s forgivable; Damon has done all kinds of body antics for prior films (most notably Courage Under Fire, in which he played an ultra-skinny drug addict). Let the special-effects wizards and body doubles handle the weight loss. It’s important to keep one’s heart healthy when in one’s 40s.

Damon has never been funnier before in a role, with his Watney constantly making light of his situation and using a running series of jokes to entertain himself. One of the storytelling gimmicks involves Watney videotaping messages for mission control, and each one of those messages is entertainment unto itself.

The supporting cast is terrific, from an icy Jeff Daniels (who is as cold-hearted and emotionally streamlined as they come—and he damn well oughta be) to Chastain as the mission commander suffering from guilt pangs after leaving a man behind. Michael Peña provides comic relief as a sarcastic crewmember, while Kristen Wiig does the same as a NASA spokesperson.

Scott has been in a bit of a rut lately, although I liked Prometheus despite all the plot holes and inexplicable behaviors. (By the way, Scott recently announced at least two sequels to Prometheus, so get ready for some more Noomi Rapace outer-space shenanigans.) The Martian affords Scott a nice chance to play around in his science-fiction sandbox while telling an optimistic story about humans, rather than one in which they are chased by a creature with acid for blood.

The Martian could be in play for some Oscar honors. It’s an all-around solid movie with a truly winning performance at its core. Yet again, stranding Damon on a planet and watching him squirm reaps big entertainment dividends.

The Martian is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The cast and crew do admirable work in A Most Violent Year, but the script and pacing make the movie a near-miss.

Considering the talent on hand, that’s a shame.

The film is a shining example of art direction, and it boasts a firecracker cast with the likes of Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks and Jessica Chastain. It’s set in New York in 1981, and the look of the city is perfect. (I lived a half-hour outside of Manhattan at the time, so I know.) If only the storytelling had been done better.

Writer-director J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost) takes a slow-burn look at the life of Abel Morales (Isaac), a fuel-company owner trying to grow bigger in the face of lawsuits and constant criminal attacks on his drivers. The film opens with one particular driver (Elyes Gabel) getting hijacked outside of a New York City tollbooth; he suffers through a vicious beating. His story becomes one of the threads that run throughout the movie.

Meanwhile, an assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) has informed him of impending charges that will threaten the life of his company. This puts Abel’s wife, Anna (Chastain), on edge: She’s the one keeping the books, and she claims everything is on the level. Abel’s business associate Andrew (Brooks) fears for the company’s business future while advocating that, perhaps, their drivers should arm themselves against attackers.

The plot seems to be going somewhere at first, but it never really does. Chandor gives his film the look of an early Coppola production (that toll-booth scene echoes Sonny’s execution in The Godfather), but a lack of depth, and inexplicable behavior by some characters, doom the film.

There are moments in the movie that, while dramatically impactful, don’t make sense. An example: When Anna puts three slugs in an injured deer, she fails to tell her husband before firing the shots. She just walks up right next to him, a few feet away, and fires a gun into the injured animal. This sort of thing would give a somebody a heart attack. Yes, Anna is a tough hombre, but this particular action seems far-fetched in a movie that’s supposed to be grounded in realism. Year has a bunch of moments like this. Meanwhile, Brooks’ character is present in the film for no apparent reason. His Andrew winds up providing little along the lines of plot development.

Much of this movie focuses on Isaac, talking really slowly, sitting at tables and trying to work out details for loans. It gets tedious. Isaac almost always fascinating, in any role, but he can’t save the movie.

It’s appropriate that a substantial aspect of A Most Violent Year involves the robbing of fuel trucks, because the movie is full of talented performers who have been robbed in the last few years. Isaac should’ve been Oscar-nominated for his performance in Inside Llewyn Davis, and his Year co-star Brooks was unbelievably passed over for Drive (also which happened to co-star Isaac). Oyelowo was perhaps this year’s biggest Oscar snub after he failed to garner a nod for his remarkable work in Selma. Chastain is the only one who has actually gotten Oscar nods in recent years (Zero Dark Thirty and The Help.)

I’ve watched the film twice, and it stands up even more poorly during a second viewing. Despite how real it looks, with some credible moments and performances, the film is dull and implausible.

You can do a lot worse than watching Isaac, Brooks and Chastain performing together. But that doesn’t make A Most Violent Year worth your time.

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

Published in Reviews

I have read some reviews stating that the CGI monster in Mama—out today (Tuesday, May 7) on home video—isn’t effective. I politely disagree; the ghost in this thing is scary as all heck. She truly is a memorable monster.

The ghost in question is a strange, protective apparition who looks over a couple of young girls (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse) after a tragedy in the woods. Jessica Chastain stars as the girlfriend of the girls’ uncle, who finds herself having to take on parenting when she would rather be playing lousy music in her stupid band.

The movie isn’t great, but it does pack in a couple of good scares while maintaining a decent eerie quality for part of its running time. Having Chastain on hand elevates it beyond below-average horror. Guillermo del Toro produced this, with Andrés Muschietti directing.

My biggest gripe: Why make this a PG-13 film? Good horror movies need to be R-rated. When you see that a horror film is R-rated, you are scared already. PG-13 … well, that just means you are in for something that will pull punches.

Special Features: You get the original short that inspired the film, a director’s commentary, a look at the visual effects and some deleted scenes. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

This genuinely chilling haunted fairy tale comes from producer Guillermo del Toro and writer/director Andres Muschietti, and is based on Mushcietti’s original short film.

Two little girls are abandoned by their demented father in the forest. They are discovered years later and adopted by their uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend (Jessica Chastain). The little girls have taken on the characteristics of feral beasts and are convinced they are being watched over by a force they call “Mama.”

As it turns out, Mama is very real—a decent CGI creation that is both scary and just the right touch of funny. The film works well, not just because Muschietti knows how to construct a good scare, but also because he does a great job getting you to care for the little girls and the Chastain character.

Chastain, looking rather gothic, delivers another good performance, even though she isn’t very convincing as a bass player in a punk band. I was scared throughout much of this movie.

Mama is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The controversial Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow’s excellently crafted version of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, has a bunch of politicians and CIA officials crying foul. This makes me think the movie must contain some harsh truths and grim realities about the war on terror.

The film is virtually absent of politics, or any of that “America, fuck yeah!” nonsense. It offers an interpretation of the steps that were taken, and the deeds that were done, to rid the world of a true menace. Many of those deeds are done in a calm, calculated and perhaps even cold manner; at times, the film is spooky to watch. The people depicted in this movie mean business, and will do whatever it takes to get a job done. That includes waterboarding and literally scaring the shit out of detainees.

The film starts with a black screen and some terrifying messages left by Sept. 11 victims as they were close to death in the Twin Towers. It sets the tone for the unsettling film that’s about to happen.

We see Maya (Jessica Chastain)—a new, determined CIA officer (apparently a composite character of actual people) on the Bin Laden case—about to witness a torture chamber. Dan (Jason Clarke), another CIA agent, will use waterboarding, isolation boxes, dog collars and psychological mind games to try to draw some names out of a strong-willed detainee (a powerful Reda Kateb). Dan eventually gets a big name out of the detainee, and a long hunt that will see many casualties, including CIA agents, begins in earnest.

Is the movie pro-torture? Definitely not. Is it anti-torture? It isn’t that, either. The film is supposedly being investigated for using classified information when it comes to American interrogation tactics. Thankfully, I am no expert on the matter. This is a movie that leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether these types of interrogation methods were necessary in the pursuit of bin Laden.

Zero Dark Thirty clocks in at 157 minutes, with all but 40 of those devoted to Maya’s behind-the-scenes, dogged pursuit of public enemy No. 1. The last 40 minutes completely switch gears, as the film becomes an intense depiction of the final SEAL Team 6 mission that ended with “Geronimo.” All 157 minutes are top-notch, provocative and incendiary filmmaking. Bigelow has most certainly topped herself, including her Oscar-winning effort The Hurt Locker.

As for the raid itself, it’s dark and quiet. From the muffled “fwup, fwup, fwup” of the experimental helicopters (one of which crashed) as they swerve through mountain ranges, to the quick and decisive shots ending lives in that now-familiar structure in Pakistan, it’s all precise and stealthy. The aspect of the raid that unsettled me the most was the way Navy SEALS are depicted quietly and invitingly calling out the name “Osama?” before they shoot him.

Chastain, in just a couple of years, has become one of the world’s most dynamic, downright-reliable actresses. From her Oscar-nominated turn in The Help, to her beautiful supporting work in The Tree of Life and Take Shelter, she is creating one memorable character after another. Maya is her crowning achievement, and the role should get her another Oscar nomination.

Clarke is eerily effective as an interrogation man who needs a break and heads back to Washington, D.C., for a desk job. Kyle Chandler is appropriately complicated as Joseph Bradley, the CIA station chief in Islamabad. Jennifer Ehle plays a strangely happy and charged-up CIA agent, who goes so far as to bake a cake for an interviewee. (I know Bigelow and crew added some fiction to their story, but this seemed a little far-fetched. I was more convinced by the Maserati that somebody got for an interview than I was by the cake baking.)

As for the Team 6 sequence, Joel Edgerton (Warrior) and Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation) are standouts. (Pratt’s character is listening to Tony Robbins as the helicopter approaches its final destination.) He tells his comrades that he has plans after the mission. Perhaps Bigelow is suggesting that the Pratt character is the Team 6 member who eventually wrote the best-selling No Easy Day.

Ultimately, Zero Dark Thirty is a film epic and efficient enough to be compared to the great films of Coppola, Scorsese and Kubrick. It’s an important and engaging piece of work from a director who looks like she is just starting to hit her stride.

Zero Dark Thirty <i>opens at theaters across the valley on Friday, Jan. 11.</i>

Published in Reviews