Movie Review: Spielberg tests the patience of parents and tykes with “The BFG”

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Steven Spielberg reunites with his “E.T.” screenwriter to adapt Roald Dahl’s “The BFG,” which stands for “Big, Friendly Giant.”

He cast his “Bridge of Spies” Oscar winner, Mark Rylance, in the title role, and showcases the current state-of-the-motion-capture-animation art in the film, a tale of an orphan and the vegetarian giant (who doesn’t eat orphans) whom she befriends.

It’s a movie that takes the time to marvel over the production design — a Britain of the early ’80s (oddly filled with 1960s cars), and over the comical conceit Dahl built into this “runt” among giants —  his mangling of the English language.

“You has me wrong,” the BFG says to Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), whom he’s kidnapped and taken to Giant Land because he can’t have her going around claiming she’s seen a real giant. “I’m no man-gobbling cam-iable. I’s a feature of habit.”

His habits include capturing “human beans'” dreams in bottles, and fending off the much bigger giants all around him (Jemaine Clement and Bill Hader are animated beyond easy recognition) who bully “Runt,” as they call him. Their diets aren’t compatible. BFG, as Sophie calls him, eats nasty-looking snozzcumbers (snotty cucumbers) and bottles up Frobscottle, a fizzy drink that gives him gas — prompting many a “whizzpopper.”

The other giants? “I ‘ates vegi-terribles,” their leader (Clement as Fleshlumpeater) bellows. “I eats only (human) beans!”

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Orphaned Sophie must hide from these brutes, so she settles into the BFG’s lair, as does the movie, as Spielberg is entirely too content to let the camera linger over the oddities found there and Sophie’s (somewhat) wide-eyed reaction to them.

What Spielberg had to work with was a darkly funny and dangerous Dahl story with fart jokes (whizzpoppers), the Queen and a battle with giant bullies. What he’s made is a dawdling comedy built on gags of scale — big guy in a human-sized world, little girl in a giant sized world — and gags of English formality.

For when, in the third act, the Queen (Penelope Wilton of “Downton Abbey,” delightful and perfect) enters as Sophie and the BFG seek her help, we’re treated to the always-formal Buckingham Palace staff stumbling to accommodate Her Majesty’s new guest for tea. Bit of a bother, that, with substitute chairs, tables, cups and desserts improvised to a giant’s size.

The third act’s tea party and action beats are just lively enough to awaken anybody under the age of 5 and over the age of 10, lulled to sleep by the lovely images, dreamy effects and long stretches of understated wordplay.

So “The BFG” isn’t the “BFD” it might have been. Lovely as it often is, it’s a one hour and fifty-seven minute long kids’ movie designed to be watched, at home, with interruptions. And believe me, you’ll know it.

2half-star6

 

MPAA Rating: PG for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor

Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Rebecca Hall, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Bill Hader
Credits: Directed by Steven Spielberg, script by Melissa Mathison  based on the Roald Dahl book. A Walt Disney release.

Running time: 1:57

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Box Office: “Resurgence” isn’t –“Independence Day” will be gone by July 4?

boxA weak Thursday night, strong Friday left prognosticators thinking “Independence Day: Resurgence” might hit $45 million this weekend.

No. Bad reviews and a general audience ennui about what was never more than dumb fun — dumb even by 1996 standards — watered down Saturday and left “Resurgence” with about $41 million — a little more, maybe — for its opening weekend.

The brand had less value than folks expected, Fox tried to limit the damage by hiding it from critics, and that may have paid off. Because they found $41 million worth of suckers. Didn’t even better the original film’s 1996 opening weekend.

You can’t go home again, Jeff Goldblum.

“Finding Dory” is still owning the box office, over $70 million for its second weekend.

“The Shallows” did about $17. It deserved better. It should hang onto audience.

“Free State of Jones” makes the famous Samuel Goldwyn crack about “No movie about the Civil War ever made a dime” true. For once. Under $8 million.

“Warcraft” fled the top ten in near record time. Got to figure “ID:R” will do the same.

 

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Character actor Ciaran Hinds: Best reason to visit Ireland?

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I’ve been a fan of the tall, imposing Irish actor Ciarán Hinds at least since “Persuasion,”perhaps my favorite Jane Austen adaptation. His quiet, vulnerable and austere turn in that one – he’s a soldier in love with the heroine, but kept from her – is a subtle masterpiece of understatement. I’ve tried to get hold of him for interviews a few times over the years, so when the studio behind “The Eclipsr” offered, I went for it. The interview follows.

Ciarán Hinds is so Irish – so very Irish – that he spends his days in puzzled wonder at how rarely he’s asked to play his lineage.

“I’m out there in the desert with Dwayne Johnson making ‘Race to Witch Mountain,'” he recalls. “And I think, ‘Wait a minute. I’m playing an American agent. Chasing aliens? I’m supposed to be playing priests and members of the IRA.’ ”

Hinds, 63, is one of the busiest and most versatile character actors in the business, playing Israeli secret agents (“Munich”), ancient rulers (Caesar in “Rome,” Herod in “The Nativity Story”), a Texas dad with a kid in the military (“Stop-Loss)” and period-piece Brits (“Amazing Grace,” “Persuasion”). That’s not counting “Game of Thrones.”

Oh, and the occasional Catholic priest (“In Bruges).

But when the chance came to work in his native accent in his native land (he was born in Belfast, but he and his partner have lived in Paris for years), he didn’t hesitate. “My soul is still Irish,” he says. The Eclipse not only would bring him home, to Cove in County Cork, but he’d be an Irish leading man – a grieving, troubled, would-be writer who sees ghosts and longs to start something with the fetching horror author visiting his town. Hinds won the best actor prize at the Tribeca Film Festival and glowing notices as “the wonderful and always underrated Ciarán Hinds” (Boxoffice Magazine) for the film, now opening in some U.S. cities.

“It’s so tough to get movies made in Ireland anymore,” Hinds says. “A whole generation of Irish filmmakers doesn’t have the resources to get a movie made. Whatever film industry we had built up – and it’s a land of great writers, always has been – has gone on this awful hiatus.

“But you live in hope, you know. We have stories to share. When [co-writer and director] Conor McPherson, whom I’d done ‘The Seafarer’ with on Broadway, offered me The Eclipse, I knew it would be a tight schedule and wrestling with some uncomfortable dark emotions, but I had to do it.”

Hinds, whose first show business job was as an Irish dancer, says that Ireland needs to be able to tell its own stories and not be a slave to whatever version of Ireland Hollywood or others want to serve up.

“Sometimes, there’s not an honest engagement of Ireland in Hollywood movies,” he says. “Our film, it doesn’t have a lot of diddly-aye music, there’s no IRA, no guns, no priests.”

Ciaran Hinds in the Eclipse

But it’s still an exception, a one-off project. Afterwards, it was back to the character parts for Hinds – a role in the upcoming sci-fi blockbuster John Carter of Mars, and a small, tasty piece of that haven for the cream of British and Irish character actors, the Harry Potter movies (“four days of concentrated, joyous and frightening work”).

He’s starred in theater on Broadway and in Britain, and has turned up in hit thrillers, comedies and kids’ films, and TV series in the 30 years since he left the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Potter has already changed his profile.

“Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, they’ve been doing these roles their whole lives. They know who they are and what they’re playing. I come in, and I have no idea who or how or what. I mean, I’m supposed to be Michael Gambon’s [Dumbledore] younger brother. But he’s 190 and I’m probably 156 or so. And I’m much grumpier than him. But it’s such a great honor to be asked, to be a part of that world.

“But my dream is still to be offered these wonderful little Irish films, in Donegal or Derry. It’s good for my Irish soul.”

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Box Office: “Dory” decks “Independence Day”

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They waited twenty years to make it, there is no Will Smith, but “Independence Day: Resurgence” didn’t come out of the gate a total bust. The lack of early warning reviews (Fox didn’t preview this POS because they knew what they had even if some easy lay critics didn’t) had to help Thursday night and Friday sales.

A $45 million opening weekend isn’t a blockbuster by current comic book franchise standards. But they’ll take it.

“Finding Dory,” the similarly delayed “Finding Nemo” still owns this month, though. On its second weekend, it will take in nearly $75 million. It is racing to $300 million, and should reach it by Wed or so.

“The Shallows,” the best reviewed wide release opening this weekend, is underperforming for a shark attack thriller. For a Blake Lively star vehicle, it’s doing OK — an $18 million weekend, or right around there.

The smaller studio STX rolled out its Civil War parable “Free State of Jones” and is only managing about $7 million.

“Warcraft” is one weekend from dropping out of the top ten, as are the “Ninja Turtles” and maybe “Now You See Me # 2.” Good riddance.

 

 

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Movie Review — There’s no celebrating “Independence Day: Resurgence”

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“Independence Day: Resurgence” is all big effects, big explosions, epic battles rendered in state-of-the-art digital strokes. 

But really bad writing, achingly bad acting, groaning scenes and a serious lack of suspense and surprise all add up to zero fun, this time around.

I saw this on a semi-crowded opening night showing, and a more joyless, silent group I could not imagine.

The plot? All you really need to know is “They’re BACK!” And Will Smith isn’t.

It’s 20 years since America’s then-president (Bill Pullman) invited the rest of the Earth to celebrate “Independence Day” by slaughtering the invading/rapacious/marauding aliens.

The bug-eyed deep space kind, not the Donald Trump whipping boys.

We’ve got all this wondrous technology thanks to our rebuilding — early warning systems, gravity-defying warbirds, the works. Remember, we have alien captives and alien tech, thanks to the last effort.

And what’s the first challenge facing the latest president (Sela Ward)? An alien intruder. Being American, she votes that Earth shoot first and ask questions later.

Turns out there’s another alien species, perhaps a friendlier one on the run from the bug-eyed monsters. They might help, if we can ever figure out what to do with their Apple-designed volleyball orbs.

Jeff Goldblum is still advising governments about science, but he’s lost the snap in his meandering, stammering revelations. His dad (Judd Hirsch, the worst he’s ever been) has devolved into an even bigger mensch — still a dull, corny Jewish papa cliche.

The old pres (Pullman) has nightmares that the monsters are returning. So does the gay mad scientist (Brent Spiner).

It’ll be up to a new generation of fighter jocks, including Liam Hemsworth, the daughter of the president (Maika Monroe of “It Follows”) and Will Smith’s character’s son (TV actor Jessie T. Usher). He’s just interesting enough to make you grateful that we didn’t get Smith’s real-life son in the part.

Everybody but everybody has a love interest, it seems — Goldblum is paired up with a French one (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Spiner has a gay one (John Storey).

And a couple of the pilots are hooking up, with others thinking of hooking up.

The movie makes more of an attempt to present a United Nations, with the usual sops to the Chinese, the Russians, even an African warlord.

It’s an appeal-to-all-audiences attempt in a movie that plays as if it was written in the board room and produced in a lab.

The dialogue is endless blasts of “Don’t let us die for nothing!, “No one else dies today!” and expositional piffle such as “This old radar truck was supposed to go to the Smithsonian!”

Not every line is shouted, but way too many are. That’s to compensate for how un-alarmed, under-awed and underwhelmed the players are at these massive alien “harvester ships” and their crews.

The whole thing feels less sprawling, less epic, less chaotic and seat-of-the-pants and most importantly — less URGENT. Even the tragic moments are shrugged off.

As indeed the movie should be. It’s not like every popcorn picture coming out this summer is a better bet. But if you’re wasting your time with no Will Smith, you’re probably missing Blake Lively and the shark. And that would be a pity.

1half-star

 

MPAA Rating:PG – 13 for sequences of sci – fi action and destruction, and for some language

Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Liam Hemsworth, Maika Monroe, Jessie T. Usher, Bill Pullman, Sela Ward, William Fichtner, Judd Hirsch, Brent Spiner, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Credits: Directed by Roland Emmerich, script by Nicolas Wright, Dean Devlin, James Vanderbilt . A 20th Century Fox release.

Running time: 1:59

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Movie Review: Never bet against a “Dark Horse”

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A sentimental documentary about a race horse and the little town that bred and raced him, “Dark Horse” is a feel-good movie that sneaks up on you, even if you know what’s coming.

Because it’s not just about a moody, plucky horse who beats the odds. Being British, it works in subtexts of class conflict and hope springing out of a Welsh town left for dead when its coal mines closed.

Cefn Fforest has young people in it. But filmed, in lonely snippets in its back alleys, they’re a shrinking minority. Almost everybody interviewed for this film is old enough to be missing teeth, to have a lazy eye that was never corrected.

A local barmaid and sometime dog and pigeon breeder got it into her head that she could breed a racehorse. She talked friends and locals from the pub into pitching in. They found an inexpensive, injured mare, bred her with an American stallion with a decent track record, and Dream Alliance was born.

Dream Alliance was a steeplechaser, a turf-track horse who jumps hedges and dodges the horses that often take tumbles in such races. And he was, one and all agree, “a street fighter.”

Moody, with undistinguished bloodlines and inconsistent, he’d prompt “When’s that donkey running next?” from the locals. He was “a real Welsh boy,” Janet Vokes, the barmaid-turned-breeder purrs. “You can’t always trust’em.”

But despite the dismissals of the serious horse-racing community, despite their own lower than low expectations, he started winning. And then he got hurt.

Louise Osmond’s film gets a real feel for the town and its people. And there’s a little drama here, if you’ve not heard of the horse named after pretentiously-titled Simpson-Bruckheimer (“Crimson Tide”) film production company.

But if you’ve not surrendered to its thin and predictable charms by the time the horse takes a fall, you will.

2half-star6

 

MPAA Rating: PG for some mild thematic elements and language

Cast: Bookies, horse racing experts and the plucky people of  Cefn Fforest, Wales.
Credits: Directed by Louise Osmond A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 1:25

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Movie Review: “Genius”

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You’d think that the vital but thankless and tedious process of editing a book wouldn’t make much of a movie. And you’d be right.

“Genius,” about the greatest editor of them all, Maxwell Perkins, is all dimly-lit offices, train rides and sitting in one’s living room after the kids have gone to bed, marking up pages and pages and pages with a red pencil.

Even the promising character study of a man, played by Colin Firth, content to do Herculean labors in the shadows of the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Erskine Caldwell and Thomas Wolfe, feels superficial, dry and somewhat unsatisfying.

But actor-turned-director Michael Grandage’s debut feature bubbles to life thanks to casting.  Guy Pearce is a blocked, forgotten but plainly brilliant Fitzgerald, Dominic West puts his stamp on 1930s vintage “Papa” Hemingway, and Jude Law, all manic energy, vomits up paragraphs and pages and more pages of the purplest prose as Wolfe, the tempestuous relationship that is the heart of this story.

Wolfe desperately wants to be published, to release his “little testament, faith cast out into the dark night.”

It was the toughest editing job the legendary Perkins ever took on — shaping the fiction of a wildman of letters of the North Carolina mountains whose rough drafts deforested whole states. Turning 5000 pages into “Of Time and the River,” or rendering the mad meandering navel gazing of “O, Lost” into a Great American Novel — retitled “Look Homeward, Angel”were Perkins’ severest tests, and it is suggested, his most rewarding.

Law’s Wolfe is brash, needy, rude and drunk much of the time. He is in awe of Fitzgerald until Perkins agrees to edit and publish him. Suddenly, Wolfe is overly familiar with the “Great Gatbsy” novelist, cruel to Scott and his mentally unstable wife.

Nicole Kidman is just the right touch of theatrical as stage designer Aline Bernstein, Wolfe’s married lover and sponsor. Wolfe grasps at the hem of her skirt until instant fame arrives. His “sweet Jewess” bridles at being shunted aside for his new “love,” Perkins — the man who will make all his dreams come true.

Laura Linney plays Mrs. Perkins, long-overshadowed mother-of-five and wife to a confirmed workaholic. Perkins is so wrapped up in the important business of “putting good books in the hands of readers” that he never, ever takes off his fedora. He’s a mild-mannered Walter Winchell, living vicariously through the mercurial Wolfe, always seen in his hat.

A telling scene straight out of Screenwriting 201: Defining Characters, pairs the two up at a Harlem speakeasy, with Wolfe comparing his “grandiose” and verbose style to jazz, and Perkins confessing an affection for the squarest tune of all time — “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton.”

Law’s Wolfe is a “monster,” “Caliban,” he says, comparing himself to Shakespeare’s troubled servant/beast of “The Tempest.” He sucks all the oxygen out of any room, and Firth has a hard time registering as anything other than a dull pedant in awe of Wolfe’s prose and way of devouring life.

The relationship is so uneven that the lovely, muted colors that recreate the period, the dazzling casting all around and Law’s breathless way with a Wolfeian phrase barely right the scales.

“Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?” he asks in a florid Carolina drawl. “Ghost, come back again!”

Law’s overpowering performance is funy, but “Genius” adds up to just a little more than a lovely bore. And any hint that Perkins was the “true” genius never pulls clear of the shadows cast by the blinding light of Law’s Wolfe.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive content

Cast: Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney, Dominic West
Credits: Directed by Michael Grandage, script by John Logan, based on the A. Scott Berg biography. A Summit/Roadside Attractions release.

Running time: 1:44

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Movie Review: “Free State of Jones”

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The road to the “Free State of Jones” is paved with good intentions.

Ambitious, with a vivid turn by Matthew McConaughey in the lead role, its also timely, a story worth telling and remembering.

But the film woven out of this open-ended Civil War saga is preachy, cumbersome and patronizing, to boot. Whatever lessons anyone — especially any Southern one — might pull from this historic parable are muted by a film that is epic in length only.

The Civil War isn’t really over and wasn’t exclusively about slavery are its messages. And those are underlined, at every turn, by Gary “Seabiscuit” Ross’s script and direction and Matthew McConaughey’s righteous and committed performance.

In 1862, Newton Knight, McConaughey’s character, discovers the war’s class war subtext and isn’t shy about sharing it. It’s a war to help the rich folks stay rich by having slaves to pick their cotton. Hardscrabble Mississippi farmers like himself, his neighbors and his kin? Just cannon fodder in this “poor man’s fight, rich man’s war.”

We meet him as a medical orderly, toting the wounded back to the hospital tents in mid-battle. He switches the coats of some of the badly injured.

“They think you’re an officer, they’ll fix you sooner.”

When he cannot save a young relative for just that reason — the rich, whose war this is, come first — he’s had enough.

And back in Jones County, the injustice of it all is even more pronounced — wealthy plantation owners living in the style their slave labor cultivated, with the poor losing their boys, their livestock and their harvests to forced conscription and tax seizures.

It’s when he crosses swords with the rear echelon Confederate enforcers that Newt must go on the lam. And in the swamps, taken in by escaped slaves, this blacksmith/farmer comes to see the real enemy — the Antebellum One Percent.

Newt surrounds himself with like-minded dirt farmers. Gradually, some of them start to see past their racism and understand shared interests with the runaways. Jones County, and a couple of others, eventually fall under their control. The Free State of Jones may hope for help from the Union, but its founders have even higher aspirations — fairer taxes, freed slaves and a redistribution of wealth.

The story, the larger scope of which is true, is told in a fictive present in the 1860s and ’70s, with flash-forwards to a court trial about marriage and racial purity of the Mississippi of the 1950s. That’s an unsatisfying way of highlighting how little has changed, and sort of the first place the movie goes astray.

Newton Knight’s wife (Kerri Russell) and young son flee when he has a bounty put upon his head. That leaves the door open to a relationship with the Creole healer slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and some awfully forward-thinking living arrangements.

The combat sequences are vivid, thanks to Ross keeping the camera and the carnage right in our faces. This “noble” conflict was gory beyond imagining, bathed in blood, something the stark black and white photography of the day (sampled, here and there) left out. But the battles are Hollywood-style stand-offs — ambushes that lead to massacres.

Ross keeps his camera in McConaughey’s face, too. Every dirt stain, every twitch, every glower, wink and wince, is hard to miss. It’s not a bad performance, but it is an absurdly busy one.

Mahershala Ali, as a freed slave, and Mbatha-Raw are the standout supporting players. But “Free State” is peopled with legions of unknowns and non-actors in bit parts. Like “Gettysburg” and most under-budgeted Civil War movies, too many roles were cast based on who could grow (or fake) a decent beard, who could handle a horse or who fit into the overly-elaborate Confederate uniforms.

The “romance” is played down, as it almost certainly has to be in these more enlightened times. There’s too much exploitation inherent in the relationship for the old-fashioned she-saves-his-sick-kid/he’s-kind-and-generous-to-her dynamic to work.

But more of “Free State of Jones” comes off than you’d expect. And if modern fans pick up on the idiocy of falling for political race-baiting and the moral bankruptcy of 150 years of Southerners blindly following the burning cross, or relying on armed intimidation to preserve an unjust status quo, then Ross, McConaughey, Mbatha-Raw and Russell’s faith in this malnourished and overreaching project seems justified.

2half-star6

 

MPAA Rating:R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keri Russell, Mahershala Ali
Credits: Directed by Gary Ross, script by Leonard Hartman and Gary Ross. An STX release.

Running time: 2:19

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Movie Review: “The Shallows”

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Blake Lively, a swimsuit and a shark — that’s all the titillation and terror most of us will ever want.

“The Shallows” turns out to be just what the summer cinema needed, a little reminder to be afraid to go back in the water.

Horror and action specialist Jaume Collet-Serra (“Orphan,” “Non-Stop”) serves up a harrowing serving of sea food in this simple, somewhat sensible shark-attack thriller.

Clever, funny and gripping, it goes all far-fetched in the third act. But for 75 minutes or so, we’re stuck with a bloodied Blake out on a rock, waiting for high tide to bring a 24 foot shark into her lap to finish his meal.

Lively shows off her between-babies beach bod to good effect as Nancy Adams, a free spirit who bailed out of medical school to find her way to a beach her late mother once frequented.

Anthony Jaswinski’s script establishes her pluck, her back story and her sense of humor as she mangles Spanish communicating with the friendly local (Oscar Jaenada) who drives her to a Mexican cove with distinct off-shore islets guarding its bay.

“Cuidado,” he tells her (“Be careful.”). “Siempre,” she replies. “Always.”

There are a couple of Mexican surfers there. One has a GoPro mini-camera. And we all know what that means.

While they swim for shore at dusk, Nancy goes for the “one last wave.” And we all know what THAT means, too.

Next thing she knows, she’s stumbled into a shark in a very logical place to find one. She’s grievously bitten, loses her board and finds herself on a low-tide islet with only a shark-injured seagull for company.

Corny touches — Nancy talks to the gull, and the shark.

“Where are you TAKING me?”

And she talks herself through the inevitable surgery-on-oneself moment — not for the weak of stomach.

Lively gives Nancy a hint of shock, a touch of panic and a trace of resignation at her situation. She lets us see the wheels turning as the surfer tries to reason her way out of this jam.

Collet-Serra treats us to stunning underwater slo-mo, establishing Nancy’s ease with a board and a wave, and the hint of menace just beneath the surface. The seas are Tanqueray clear, but the bottom is a minefield of jagged rocks, fire corals and the shark we know is on his way.

Things get into the area of “Oh come on” before they’re done. But “The Shallows” never tries to pass itself off as deep. It’s a straight, simple and primal thriller playing with our darkest deep sea fear — getting eaten.

And Lively, with every bruise, cut and abrasion added to her makeup, with every grunt and scream at a fresh injury, puts us on that rock with her, trying to outsmart one pitiless fish between low tide and high.

2half-star6

 

MPAA Rating: PG – 13 for bloody images, intense sequences of peril, and brief strong language)

Cast: Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada
Credits: Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra , script by Anthony Jaswinski. A Sony/Columbia release.

Running time: 1:25

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Movie Review: “Can We Take a Joke?”

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An important, hot-button topic gets an amusing, convincing if cursory treatment in “Can We Take a Joke?”, a documentary about the war on free speech in America.

It’s not a film about government censorship or old-school State Sponsored Religion restrictions on what people can say or write. It’s about the political correctness that has so infected college campuses and the Internet that stand-up comedians are spending a lot of time apologizing, when they should be trying out new jokes that prick the orthodoxy and challenge sensibilities.

Insult comics from Lisa Lampenelli to Gilbert Gottfried marvel at how emboldened hecklers have become, at how colleges — supposed bastions of airing challenging ideas and hearing others out — have become the home to the “mob censorship” movement.

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Director Ted Balaker begins with a parade of public apologies, from Don Imus and Jimmy Kimmel and others, for jokes they’ve made. It shows us video of coed fascists, shouting down plays they take umbrage to, charging the stage to snatch the microphone from comics who offend them.

And scholars, comics and others weigh in on the public’s runaway “right to be offended,” stunned that a generation has grown up to “become what they hated” — censors.

Penn Gillette and Gottfried and a Lenny Bruce biographer marvel over the legendary martyr for free speech who must be rolling in his grave over battles he fought with the anti-free speech conservatives of his day made moot by anti-free speech liberals.

Bruce, whose challenging work of the 1960s is generously sampled here, pushed boundaries that George Carlin and Richard Pryor exploited after him, and generations of comics have enjoyed great freedom in the decades since.

As anybody who has spent 15 minutes studying stand-up could tell you, NOTHING should be off-limits. Or is supposed to be. Gottfried famously told the first post 9/11 joke about 9/11, and was more far famously fired from a duck-quacking insurance spokesman gig for making Japanese earthquake/tsunami/meltdown cracks “too soon” after that tragedy. Thanks to a “Let’s get him FIRED” Internet campaign.

The movie wanders off topic, sidetracked by Internet shaming and its consequences. Considering how brief “Take a Joke” is, that deflates the message and feels like filler.

After all, everybody from Jerry Seinfeld on down the comic hierarchy has complained about this campus-fueled assault on free speech. More voices would have been nice, and just one person, on camera, defending the whole tyranny of “safe space” where “hate speech” and “bullying” is banned on campuses is a grievous omission.

Hearing from the “other side” in a movie that advocates advancing knowledge and understanding through free speech seems like, um, a no brainer.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity

Cast: Gilbert Gottfried, Lisa Lampenelli, Karith Foster, Penn Jillette,
Credits: Written and directed by Ted Balaker. A Samuel Goldwyn release.

Running time: 1:19

 

 

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