Movie Review: “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves”

I don’t know about you, but “jaunty” can cover a lot of sins and do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to movies based on flimsy, or should we say “less traditional” narratives — games, for instance.

“Dungeons & Dragons” fits that bill, and “Honor Among Thieves,” the latest attempt to make that role-playing game a fantasy film franchise, hits that jaunty sweet spot more often than not.

Jaunty here is the difference between two hours and fourteen minutes of dull nonsense, and a movie that plays.

It’s got Chris Pine as Edgin “The Bard,” a singing, lute-playing “leader” of a gang on a quest. Yeah, everybody else wonders what it is about singing Pythonesque Medieval ballads and dance jigs that qualifies him to lead.

“I’m a planner. I make plans.”

With mottos like “We must never STOP failing, because when we do, we’ve failed,” you can see why a two-fisted, sword-slinging badass like Holga, played by career badass Michelle Rodriguez, might lose faith.

“What’s tryin’ to kill us this time?

Holga’s nickname is “The Barbarian.” Go figure. And the answer to her query might be a witch, a morbidly obese dragon, or an “owl bear.”

There’s also a bumbling wizard, Simon (Justice Smith) and a no-nonsense “tiefling Druid” Doric (Sophia Lillis) on this “team” on a quest to retrieve a relic and free Edgin’s daughter (Chloe Coleman) from the clutches of Edgin’s former partner, Forge, given an apologetically-menacing twinkle by Hugh Grant.

His ally in evil is the Red Witch, given a take-no-prisoners harpy edge by Daisy Head.

Edgin’s fresh out of prison, having taken the rap for Forge when a caper went wrong years before. In the intervening years Forge has become Lord Forge, a cunning ruler with possibly malevolent intent, no matter how much he smiles. And and it turns out he’s a much better father to young Kira than Edgin ever was.

So this is personal.

There are magical talismans and big CGI action beats and droll hijinks — casting a spell to question the dead to figure out who might have what they’re seeking. And every so often Led Zeppelin turns up on the soundtrack, because “D&D” really is the classic rock of games.

The co-writers/directors have “Horrible Bosses” and “Game Night” among their credits, and a winner of a “Spider-Man” script that they didn’t direct, so they know something about tone. Daley and Goldstein “get” jaunty.

Honestly, I had forgotten there was a whole other trilogy of “D&D” screen adaptations, with Jeremy Irons, Thora Birch and a few other noteworthies drawing a king’s ransom to star in them. And honestly, I have no doubt this one will be just as forgotten in its own due time.

But the ever-charming and self-effacing Pine, singing? And starring in ANOTHER movie in which he lets a woman fight his battles for him?

Rodriguez, Grant, “Bridgerton’s” Regé-Jean Page as a guide, advisor and ally? And Lillis (“It”)? And again, Chris Pine SINGING?

It’s not high art and not much for big thrills. But there’s no sense fighting how light and fun this is if you give yourself over to it.

Rating: PG-13 for fantasy action/violence and some language

Cast: Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page, Sophia Lillis, Justice Smith, Chloe Coleman, Daisy Head and Hugh Grant.

Credits: Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, scripted by John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein and Michael Gileo. A Paramount release.

Running time: 2:14

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Movie Review: Seth Green goes Sensitive in “Changeland”

Comic actor, TV director and “Robot Chicken” co-creator Seth Green’s feature writing and directing debut ventures into Zach Braff “sensitive” territory, and never quite comes off.

“Changeland” is a mashup of Thai travelogue, morose man on a soul-searching quest and male wish fulfillment fantasy that’s built around the idea that the world wants to experience Seth Green on mute. Kind of a mixed bag, in that regard.

He stars as Brandon, a fellow who meets his “best friend” in the airport in Dubai, a meeting for a connecting flight that will take them to the stunningly-scenic, seriously-touristy Phuket, Thailand.

Brandon is the furthest thing from “excited” about this trip. His well-traveled pal Dan (Brecklin Meyer, veteran light comedy and TV sitcom lead) is going to have to be enthusiastic for the both of them.

Brandon’s figured out his wife is cheating, and decided that didn’t merit the “surprise” anniversary trip he put together for her or “them.” “Dan” it is.

The first jokes are at the resort, where the desk clerk (Kenneth Won) mistakes “them” for a couple. The fact that everybody involved recognizes that as a weary place to look for laughs doesn’t stop the script from repeating this comatose gag with tour guides along the way.

That sets the tone. This isn’t going to be that funny. And for all the gravity weighing on it, will it find something fresh to say about this sort of sad situation?

This trip, Dan decides, is about “one question.”

“You wanna fight for (the marriage) or not? You answer that and everything follows.”

Brandon mopes and Dan copes, the marriage is discussed and the guys’ “You’ve been a (bad) friend” issues surface.

Nothing novel or new about any of that. But at least they’re doing it on islets, in grottoes, mangrove forests and on boat rides in one of the most exotic places on Earth, nicely-showcased here in a way that suggests the whole project was a “paid working vacation” gig for Green and some pals.

Among those pals, is Macaulay Culkin, who plays a dive boat operator and general “You guys should come with me to the club” party goofball who might have been the life of the party, had this ever added up to a “party.”

It’s just Brandon dodging calls from his faithless wife, Dan trying to snap him out of his funk, with cute tour boat guides (Brenda Song and Clare Grant) showing up, right on queue, the “male wish fulfillment fantasy” side of things.

The scenery and sadness are what have value here, and noting the fact that there are still fun parts for Culkin to play. Green and Meyer, both in their mid-40s when this was filmed, feel like peas in a not-as-interesting-as-they-were-in-their-20s pod.

Which might be why no one involved labeled this what it is, a “mid-life crisis” comedy without the laughs or any meaningful life lessons attached.

Rating: R for language and brief drug use.

Cast: Seth Green, Brecklin Meyer, Brenda Song, Clare Grant, Rose Williams, Kenneth Won, Kedar Williams-Stirling and Macaulay Culkin.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Seth Green. A Hulu release.

Running time: 1:26

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Movie Preview: An IFC drama from Romanian Cristian Mungiu, “R.M.N.”

The current king of understated Big Theme dramas, “Beyond the Hills” “Four Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” were his.

This is now scheduled for April 28.

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Netflixable? Take a long drag on this Hong Kong Noir — “Hand Rolled Cigarette”

For years, the gold standard for savage physical beat-downs depicted on screen was Chan-wook Park’s “Oldboy,” whose most visceral scene is a long-held-hostage “hero’s” furious claw-hammer takedown of an entire gang standing between him and his enraged revenge upon his tormentor.

A couple of brawls in “RRR” surpass it in scale via epic fisticuffs, a lone policeman wading through the teeming masses of Colonial India. The furious fights in “Onk-Bok” and the slaughterhouse of “The Raid” made their mark. But “Oldboy” has proven hard to top.

A stunningly-realistic, pulse-pounding punchout at the climax of Kin Long Chan’s Hong Kong noir “Hand Rolled Cigarette (Sau gyun yin)” joins the list of tussles that come close to topping “Oldboy.”

Our hero, a military vet named Chiu, is trapped in a stand-off between gang leaders. Chambers have been emptied and blood has been spilled. And just as the dueling mobsters reach some sort of rapprochement, Chiu — out of desperation, self-preservation and an untapped reservoir of rage — lashes out.

He’s spent the entire film being pushed around, drowning in loan shark debt, unwillingly mixed-up in another lowlife’s getaway from a big drug theft, one more smuggling deal gone sour, all adding to his woes and the threats to his person.

“G.I. Chiu”(Ka Tun Lam) is also carrying guilt over what he has and hasn’t done to show loyalty to his old comrades.

So he’s got issues. He’s had enough. And these gangsters? They’ve been seriously effing around. It’s time they found out.

A prologue establishes Chiu’s late 1990s military background, a Hong Kong soldier with the British before the colony’s handover, denied a passport to emigrate, sentenced to a life of crime by his limited skill set.

His present-day hustle? Smuggling “lucky” and endangered Golden Coin turtles from Taiwan. Boss Tai (Ben Yuen) has to stake him on this deal. But Boss Tai doesn’t know that middle-man Chiu and smuggler Pickle (To-yin-gor) are partners, scheming to drive the price up on the boss and add to Chiu’s commission.

Chiu needs this deal to service an old debt. No one who tells him he needs to “find a girl,” settle down, can imagine how he lives — in a big apartment cluttered with the detritus of earlier deals gone awry. Our hero never heard Broadway impresario Billy Rose’s famous warning, “Never invest in anything that eats or needs painting.”

But native Chinese aren’t the only ones deep into crime in Hong Kong. The racist locals call South Asians “brownies,” and a couple of Indians — Kapil (Bitto Singh Hartihan) and his cousin Mani (Bipin Karma) — are in the drug dealing business with Boss Tai.

“Go back to your country” insults are on the tip of every tongue the minute a disagreement happens. Something goes wrong in their interactions, and next thing Mani knows he’s on the lam, leaving his nine year old brother to fend for himself as he waits for word from Kapil, who’s also gone underground.

A breathless foot chase is how Mani ended up in Chiu’s apartment. Chiu tries to work out a way to settle his debts via the hiding Mani without getting Mani or the both of them killed.

Kin Long Chan’s story shifts points of view — from Chiu to Mani to the mob that mistrusts one as it searches for the other. He loses track of the ex-military story thread, which probably was destined for a larger role in this story at some point in the script.

Still, there’s a glorious claustrophobia to the cluttered settings and the streets, rooftops and alleys Mani is chased through. And our first-time director knows that a proper “film noir” only gets labeled such if there’s fog, and he serves up a doozie of a payoff scene in the lowering gloom of night.

Lam’s stoic turn in the leading role helps underscore the John Woo influences here. There’s less gunplay, and no churches or white dove Christian iconography. But the grit and the violence and the “code” of Woo’s world seem intact.

The one funny line in this Cantonese (with English subtitles) thriller comes when Boss Tai thinks some outsider is crossing him right to his face, just not in his native language.

“You think I don’t know MANDARIN? I grew up on SHAW BROTHERS movies!”

The one lighthearted scene comes from Chiu having to fill in for his houseguest when the guy’s kid brother (Anees) is threatened with expulsion from school. No, Chiu’s not really “a relative” of this “brownie.” He proves it by grabbing the kid by the ear until he apologizes to his teacher.

“Realism” in a movie fight means every blow counts, nobody has supernatural powers of recovery from the kicking that broke a rib or two, the concussion that must have resulted when your head is bashed into furniture or the floor. The combatants stagger, bleed and have to will themselves to carry on, survive and finish what they started.

That’s what happens here, with “Hand Rolled Cigarette” earning a fine climax to a pretty tight and thoroughly-atmospheric debut from an actor-turned-director who looks like he knows what he’s doing.

Rating: unrated, graphic violence, drug content

Cast: Ka Tun Lam, Bipin Karma, Ben Yuen, Michael Ning

Credits: Directed by Kin Long Chan, scripted by Kin Long Chan and Ryan Wai-Chun Ling. An Edko release on Netflix.

Running time:

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Movie Review: “The School of Magical Animals,” Hogwarts-lite from Germany

The stakes that characters are struggling for in a story matter, even in kid’s literature. And you can’t wholly appreciate what the children and adults are battling over in J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world until you read or see a knockoff where the consequences of failure are much lower.

In “School for Magical Animals,” a couple of kids, arbitrarily gifted with a talking and cunning “detective” fox and a worldly old talking tortoise, are trying to figure out who is stealing stuff — including the tower clock at the entrance — from their school.

Based on a novel by the German kid-lit author Margit Auer, one installment of an award-winning series and turned into a (half-hearted) musical, the film version is never more than an account of far less “fantastic beasts” with no effort at all exerted to “find them.”

Milan Peschel plays Mortimer Morrison, an oddball seeker of “magical animals,” traveling Europe in a quirky vintage circus bus, quizzing a bear (no dice) and other critters with his magpie sidekick. Once he stumbles into some properly magical wildlife, there’s nothing for it but to visit a postcard-worthy Alpine town to hand them out, with the aid of a bewitching teacher (Nadja Uhl) who takes a job at the local school.

Ida (Emilia Maier) is the cute new “ginger” in class, destined to be bullied having just moved there with her hairdresser single mom (Marleen Lohse). The school is having a rash of thefts, with the martinet headmaster (Justus von Dohnányi) and hapless handyman (Heiko Pinkowski) at a loss as to who’s doing it.

Ida is given/teamed up with Rabbat the Fox. Equally bullied Benni (Leonard Conrads) gets the tortoise, who sails up on a raft of her own design.

Unhappy cool kid Jo (Loris Sichrovsky) is enlisted in their cause. But no other kids are gifted by magical animals, prompting protests.

A little song and dance later — pop and hip hop with German touches (the film is dubbed into English) — and we’ve learned not to fall for the obvious, not to judge a book by its cover, all that good stuff.

And the wily “detective” fox has figured out “I can’t do this on my own.”

Dominik Giesriegl cooked-up the pleasantly forgettable music.

The kids are cute, and the student body’s about as diverse as you’d expect from a German children’s movie filmed in Austria — not very. Only the leads are developed as characters to any degree, with generic blonde mean girls doing most of the bullying.

But the lower-than-low stakes render this adaptation barely serviceable as a harmless kiddie time-killer. There’s just too little going on, and dance numbers with middling choreography and chattering digital critters don’t change that.

Rating: PG, for mild language, peril and thematic elements

Cast: Emilia Maier, Leonard Conrads, Nadja Uhl, Heiko Pinkowski, Loris Sichrovsky, Marleen Lohse and Justus von Dohnányi

Credits: Directed by Gregor Schnitzler, scripted by Viola Schmidt, John Chambers, Arne Nolting and Alexander Dydyna, based on a novel by Margit Auer. A Blue Fox release.

Running time: 1:34

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Movie Preview: Universal’s answer to “The Little Mermaid?” The animated “Ruby Gillman: Teen Kraken”

Mermaids are Mean Girls, evil, the krakens are the real cool undersea kids. Got it?


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Movie Review: Lifelong Friends Journey from “Chantilly Lace” to “Chantilly Bridge”

“Chantilly Lace” was an all-star, largely-improvised 1993 “friends through the years” dramedy memorable mainly for its cast. This Sundance indie — that was its filming location and the place it premiered — featured Talia Shire from the “Godfather” and “Rocky” movies, “Supergirl/City Slickers” star Helen Slater, Lindsay Crouse (“House of Games,” “Places in the Heart”), JoBeth Williams (“Poltergeist,” “The Big Chill”) and, as sisters, Jill Eikenberry (“L.A. Law”) and Ally Sheedy (“The Breakfast Club”).

Director Linda Yellen’s feature earned comparisons to “The Big Chill” and its antecedent, “Return of the Secaucus Seven,” as well as George Cukor’s “The Women.” No men figured directly in this story of Boomer BFFs hitting their 40s and facing everything that comes with that — failing relationships, career challenges and death, a younger, out-of-the-closet sister begging her older sibling to be the one to tell their parents that she’s gay.

“Chantilly Bridge” picks up their story 30 years later, with less improvisation, with a few new additions to the cast, but a film built on the same sorts of personal relationships and personal challenges, more tempered with age and more bland in the rendering.

Williams’ character Natalie, a film critic and daughter of an actress who was laid off and then dies in the original film, narrates this new tale as the surviving friends and her character’s younger sister (Patricia Richardson of TV’s “Home Improvement”) come to the Finger Lakes region of New York in mid winter to clean out her late mother’s home.

Sisters Val (Eikenberry) and Lizzie (Sheedy) still feud, this time over Lizzie being a no-show for this gathering (Facetime).

Hannah (Slater) comes, with her 30ish daughter (Naaji Sky Adzimah), named for Natalie, in tow.

The spiritual Maggie (Shire) is transitioning into hospice work. Rheza (Crouse) works with caged wildlife — wolves and an elk — at a seasonal zoo just down the road.

They gather, reminisce, share stories about first kisses and first sexual experiences and workplace issues, “#MeToo” among them, drink a bit and make “a toast” or two.

This one is “super stuck” at this stage in her life, that one has realized that “friendships,” like marriages, “take effort.”

Val? She’s come to a conclusion about the absent Lizzie.

“My sister’s such a bitch!”

A little mourning, grief over a forced “retirement,” and discussions of age and the life cycle of any job in which younger people come in and shift the attention away from their elders, relationships and having children — there’s a universality to the themes and subject matter, and a dull overfamiliarity to everyone’s “take” on each subject.

But as I say, “Chantilly Lace” is best-remembered for that cast. Yellen, then and now, has better producing credits (the Holocaust TV movie “Playing for Time”) than writing (“The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana,” “The Last Film Festival”) and directing (“The Simian Line”) ones. This film, more scripted than improvised, is all generalized banalities, the shared trials of being “at that age.”

At least we’re spared the “organ recital” here, no “my hip” or “my kidney” or “my back” laments for this crew. Even though that might have been funny.

Our nostalgic attachment to actresses who had their share of iconic roles decades ago is worth something. And “Chantilly Bridge” does a service in reminding us that Slater, Richardson, Shire, Cruise, Eikenberry, Sheedy and Williams are still around, still good at what they do and still employable.

But the middling material they have to work with does them no favors in this scenic, sentimental trip down memory lane, a film that lacks even the few fireworks — seen in flashbacks here — that the tepid “Chantilly Lace” provided.

Rating: unrated, adult themes, sex toy

Cast: Helen Slater, Patricia Richardson, Talia Shire, Lindsay Crouse, Jill Eikenberry, Naaji Sky Adzimah, Ally Sheedy and JoBeth Williams.

Credits: Directed by Linda Yellen, scripted by Michael Leeds and Linda Yellen. A Quiver release.

Running time: 1:26

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Movie Preview: J.K. Simmons is more trouble than he’s worth to hitman Scott Caan — “One Day as a Lion”

Taryn Manning, Frank Grillo and Virginia Madsen also star in this dark –“I think I shot the cook” — action comedy.

Looks violently amusing. Caan goes all in. Tidy whiteys, the works.

April 4.

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Netflixable? A Colombian Male Wish Fulfillment Fantasy — “The Last Man on Earth”

Here’s another variation on the shlub whose only shot at a beautiful woman is if he’s “The Last Man on Earth,” this one a movie and not a Fox TV series.

This wan Colombian comedy — “El Último Hombre Sobre La Tierra” in Spanish — is as hard up for laughs as our dumpy, gauche and crude anti-hero, the “little pest” all the ladies in the office nicknamed “Piquiña,” is for love.

Roberto, played by the comic Jhon Álex Toro, is loud. He’s unkempt and unwashed. He’s boorish. He crushes on the gorgeous exec Liliana (Laura Acuña), and gets drunk enough at the office Christmas party to A) interfere with her plans to get close to hunky Camilo (Rodrigo Candamill) and B) confess his hiccupping devotion to her in the most poetic words he can summon up.

“Not if you were the LAST MAN ON EARTH,” she says, which sounds even more final and deflating in Spanish (with subtitles) than it does in English.

But when she wakes up to a depopulated world — Rapture? Plot contrivance? — that vow will be put to a test.

Naturally, the place they run into each other is the liquor store. She’s looking for signs of life. He’s looking to stock up for a bender.

Unbathed Roberto tries to push past the “Piquiña” nickname to realize his heart’s desire, as they’re thrown together searching empty streets, stores and an empty amusement park where the rides are still spinning away into oblivion.

The fit and beautiful Liliana can’t talk him into bathing or eating the healthy way she does. But with a generous serving of alcohol provided by him, they wind up in bed. Bliss with a smirking “repopulate the Earth” gag barely has time to set in before her bubbly assistant Martha (Jeka Garces) shows up.

And their unhappy “love triangle” barely has time to register, with Martha discovering Roberto’s gifts in the sack, when yet another “last man” shows up.

Guess who?

The script is by veteran Colombian scribe Darío Armando García Granados, aka “Dago Garcia” aka DAGO. While he deserves kudos for flipping an ethnic slur on its ear, the author of “Penalty Kick” and other Colombian film and TV laughers doesn’t find anything new or funny to do with this material.

Toro vamps it up and his over-the-top gaucherie is the only thing here with even a prayer of generating a giggle. Candamil is almost amusing as the hunky stiff. But nobody here is given enough help by the script for this thing to play as funny or touching and surprising.

The production has a nice sparkle to it, as this version of End Times loses the people, but not the electricity or the things that make make civilization civil.

But the script was never more than an under-developed, unfinished idea before Netflix came along and threw money in Colombia’s direction, begging the locals to come up with something, anything, even rejects shoved into a drawer and never polished.

Rating: TV-MA, profanity, alcohol abuse, off-camera sex

Cast: Laura Acuña, Jhon Álex Toro, Rodrigo Candamill and Jeka Garces

Credits: Directed by Juan Camilo Pinzón, scripted by Darío Armando García Granados, aka “DAGO.” A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:29

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Movie Preview: Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars in Nicole Holofcener’s latest — “You Hurt My Feelings”

A tale of the “little white lies” that people tell to stay married.


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