Movie Review: “The Shape of Water”

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Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is a lovely but hard-edged romantic fantasy,  a thriller built on a sentimentalized science fiction fan’s memories of the Cold War, the Space Race and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

The director of “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone” has turned some of his “Pacific Rim” clout and effects expertise loose on a 1960s parable of science, humanity and loneliness.

And while it doesn’t really work as a parable and suffers from an uneven, contrived script riddled with violent, jarringly bloody shifts in tone, it’s a great showcase for a quartet of the finest character actors in the movies and a vivid recreation of a time via the lens of the movies that era produced.

Sally Hawkins (“Happy-Go-Lucky”) is Eliza, a lonely mute living above a movie theater in Baltimore in the early 1960s. She boils her eggs, lives in her head and masturbates in the tub, her limited life revolving around looking in on her aged, laid-off illustrator neighbor, “the proverbial starving artist” (Richard Jenkins), a gay alcoholic with too many cats and a misplaced passion for pies.

By night she’s a custodian, listening to the amusing prattle of her pal Zelda (Octavia Spencer) as they clean a secret, baroque government lab where the scientists and government functionaries would never give them a second look, and they themselves would never think to ask questions about what goes on there.

And then “the asset” arrives, something aquatic, locked in a tank. And with him comes a cruel security chief (Michael Shannon) and curious, quiet and sensitive scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg) in charge of experiments.

Just in case the archetypes and symbolism aren’t clear to all, the uptight sadist is named Strickland, and he carries a bloodied “Alabama how-de-do,” a cattle prod. He’s not sentimental about the “asset,” and he doesn’t want the cleaning crew getting attached to a science experiment with manatee eyes.

“That thing in there is an affront!”

Strickland’s a racist thug given to explaining commonly used words — “affront” and “trivial” to the woman who doesn’t talk and her black colleague, when he isn’t telling threatening tales from the Bible.

But Eliza isn’t dissuaded. She connects with the creature, which Strickland tortures. And as she does, teaching him (actor Doug Jones wears the rubber suit) sign language, she resolves to do something about his inhumane situation.  Cold War intrigue and an old-fashioned, officious “What we don’t understand, we vivisect” ethos complicate that.

I love the world the film conjures up, all tail-fins, neon, oppression and cathode ray tubes. Melding a save-the-cute-critter caper — “Turtle Diary” or for that matter, “Free Willy” — to a romance is inspired, if not a wholly original idea. 

That “romance” has a certain “ick” factor. But then, this is del Toro, and he’s felt the need to show our heroine masturbating in the tub to an egg timer and our villain brutishly getting “satisfaction” from his obedient wife. No, this isn’t del Toro’s “Starman.” It’s alternately touching and off-putting.

The cast is very good, with Shannon throwing everything he has at his menacing Role Model for Old Fashioned White Male Privilege. He’s so good he throws the picture out of balance. Hawkins may be getting the Oscar buzz, but for what? Learning sign language? This is Shannon’s movie and he is so ferocious you almost forget about the plot implausibilities that keep putting this character in that spot at a particular time.

The casting overall is so unimaginatively on-the-nose as to muzzle the effect of seeing great character actors play so deep within their comfort zones.

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Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as a sassy maid? Michael Shannon as a scary-eyed brute?

Michael Stuhlbarg as the intense, sensitive scientist with a secret? Richard Jenkins as a lovelorn neighbor?

Even Sally Hawkins, a wonder in many a movie, seems no stretch at all as our lonely spinster who makes the leap to interspecies romance with no more thought than “That’s what the script perfunctorily calls for.” Watch her in the grim primitive artist bio-pic “Maudie.” No sign language, but there’s a performance that sticks with you.

Whatever its larger goals, remembering how myopic and hateful the culture was before “tolerance” became the norm, “The Shape of Water” is first and foremost a genre picture. And as that, it’s a loving homage to cinema from an age where movies couldn’t be as obvious about this forbidden subject or that unspoken sexuality. It’s a good film of its type, just not a great one.

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(Is “Shape of Water” borrowed from this student film?)

MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg

Credits:Directed by Guillermo del Toro, script by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor. A Fox Searchlight release.

Running time: 2:03

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Preview: “Annihilation” is what smart Creature Features Look Like

Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, “It” girl Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac and a mysterious alien “shimmer” that threatens humanity itself.

It’s from the people who gave us “Ex Machina.” Smart sci-fi, got to love it. Feb. 23.

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Movie Review: Aliens Continue their Depradations in “Beyond Skyline”

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You always cut a little slack for trash cinema that knows it’s trash.

So props to the folks who made the green screen monstrosity “Beyond Skyline,” a creature-feature sequel to the 2010 aliens-invade-LA thriller “Skyline.” Nobody involved took this fight aliens, kill aliens or die a noble death going out with a badass one-liner B-movie seriously. That’s why they filled the closing credits with funny outtakes, green-screen “So THAT’S how they did that” clips and such.

Aliens that look like Predators who fly ships that could have been parked in “District 9” on “Independence Day” attack LA, and we see this from fresh characters’ perspective with one holdover from the first film rather illogically connecting the two films.

Frank Grillo plays Mark, a hard-drinking cop trapped on the LA subway when the blue-light loving monsters from space attack.

That light, emanating from their ships, draws humans towards it like fundamentalists ready for the Rapture. They’re literally hauled skyward into the ships in a scene both chilling and Biblical.

Mark finds himself dragging assorted passengers — including the material Audrey (Bojana Novakovic) — around LA, dodging the aliens until the aliens nab them and tuck them into a hive, straight out of “Alien.”

And that’s when things get really weird — aliens made from absorbed humans, one with conflicting loyalties, brawls within the ship, fights with alien robots of the “Pacific Rim” variety, and finally a crash landing in the Golden Triangle, not far from the shores of the Pacific Rim.

Because the investors wanted martial arts stars Iko Uwais and Yaan Ruhian (“The Raid”), actress Pamelyn Chee and the ruins of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat to figure in the proceedings. Somehow.

Hurling Angelinos and aliens into the middle of a drug war, where everybody’s armed with rocket-propelled grenades, claymore mines, flame-throwers and automatic weapons, certainly evens up the odds. At least in this silly movie.

“Tactical” nukes and Stealth bombers can only do so much. Such is the convention of the aliens-invade genre.

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Writer-director Liam O’Donnell must have given the cast license to concoct at least some of their pithy one-liners, most of the “F—–g aliens,” and “ISIS don’t have no f—–g space ships” and “Hijo de puta” variety.

The martial arts fights with the monsters are an interesting twist, the effects surprisingly good — the ships, hive, assorted alien incarnations and that “Rapture” scene are striking.

But it’s trash cinema, start to finish. Not smart, not particularly ambitious, sort of an exploitation film with aliens.

And Antonio Fargas. That’s right, America’s favorite pimp-snitch of the ’70s plays Sarge, a blind veteran who gets off a little testy trash talk.

Probably all you need to know about “Beyond Skyline” is packed into that last paragraph and that one funny bit of casting.

1half-star

 

MPAA Rating: R for sequences of bloody sci-fi violence, and language throughout.

Cast: Frank Grillo, Bojana Novakovic, Pamelyn Chee, Iko Uwais, Antonio Fargas

Credits: Written and directed by Liam O’Donnell. An XYZ release.

Running time: 1:46

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Movie Review: “Ferdinand” takes a Knee over Bullfighting

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Truth be told, Fox’s beautifully-animated and whimsical take on the tale of Ferdinand the Bull lost me for a bit. OK, for almost an hour.

The new “Ferdinand” is still based on the classic Munro Leaf book, is still about a Spanish bull who’d rather sit and smell the flowers than fight Matadors, Banderilleros and Picadores. Yeah, he still sits on a bee — which makes him at least appear fierce — just for a moment.

Disney told that story in under eight minutes in a classic cartoon of the 1930s. “Ferdinand” may add a cute little girl who raises him from a calf, adorable hedgehogs, a funny (ish) goat pal, rival bulls and prancing/snarking Lippizaner stallions mit zilly Austrian accents. There’s still a lot of down time and comic dead weight in those middle acts.

But then the extraordinary third act arrives, and the movie finds its heart and its message. And darned if the bulls in this cartoon from the folks who made “Ice Age” don’t do something that a lot of NFL players would recognize.

Raised in the Casa del Toro farm, Ferdinand is taught from birth that he must live to fight.

“That’s what bulls do.”

His peers buy into that unquestioningly. So does his dad (voiced by Jeremy Sisto). It’s Dad’s dream to be brave and tough enough to be chosen by a matador to fight in Madrid. Little Ferdinand has just one question.

“Is it OK if it’s not MY dream?”

Ferdinand loves flowers and the serenity of sitting and sniffing them, which leads to the inevitable bullying by the other calves.

When Dad is “chosen,” events conspire to put Ferdinand to flight. He runs away and into the arms of a little girl (voiced by Lily Day) who raises him to be her best friend. But when he’s grown up, Ferdinand (John Cena) becomes too much to handle, and finds himself right back at Casa del Toro, huge but still “soft.”

“The soft ones always go down,” Valiente (Bobby Cannavale) says, echoing what his tough-guy dad always said. They’ve totally bought into a fate that Ferdinand doesn’t accept.

Kate McKinnon is the wacky “calming goat” sent to stay with Ferdinand to keep him mellow between fights, Gabriel Iglesias is one of the hedgehogs who have the run of the farm and Anthony Anderson, David Tennant (hilariously Scottish) and Peyton Manning voice Ferdinand’s fellow bulls.

The best gag among the supporting players is a trio of “Hans und Franz” impersonating stallions at the farm, mincing, sneering Austrians led by Boris Kodjoe.

“I’ve fallen und I kan’t GIDDY-up!”

And there are other kid-friendly critter hijinx, here and there.

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But it’s the film’s “Babe” turn in the third act that makes it watchable, Ferdinand’s grasp that “the game is fixed,” that bulls don’t come back from their triumphant “choice” to go to Madrid raises the stakes and gives the film weight.

And that gives its broader message, one echoed through decades of Pixar pictures and yes, “Ice Age” cartoons, a warmth and timely resonance that lift “Ferdinand” out of its dull middle acts. Whatever it says about the enduring barbarism of bull-fighting, this what “Ferdinand” is really about.

“If we don’t look out for each other, who will?”

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MPAA Rating:  PG for rude humor, action and some thematic elements

Cast: The voices of John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Anthony Anderson, Jeremy Sisto, Peyton Manning, Gabriel Iglesias, David Tennant

Credits:Directed by Carlos Saldanha , script by Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle and Brad Copeland, based on the children’s book by Munro Leaf illustrated by Robert Lawson A Fox/Blue Sky  release.

Running time: 1:46

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Movie Review — “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

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The perfunctory predictability of “The Force Awakens” is mostly-abandoned for Rian Johnson’s venture into that “galaxy, far far away.”

His sentimental sequel, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” starts with laughs and finishes with a somewhat heartfelt flourish. He’s too smart to show us another Death Star. Thank the Maker. He’s clever enough to know which old favorites the fans want to see and panders accordingly.

“Change” and “kill the past” are the bywords of this middle film in the new trilogy. It’s filled with surprises, and I’ll try not to spoil those. He gives us a lot to process in his over two and a half hours of “Star Wars,” some of it recycled, some of it less than wholly satisfying dramatically.

The summarizing quote is what Luke Skywalker says to young Rey, who wants to learn at the feet of the last Jedi master and thus save the Rebellion.

“This is not going to go the way you think.”

Luke (Mark Hamill) is still on his Fortress Isle of Solitude. Leia (Carrie Fisher) is leading a dying rebellion, with every Imperial ambush reducing its ranks. Her son with Han Solo, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) remains a Vader-in-training beholden to monstrous First Order leader Snoke (motion-captured Andy Serkis) and competing with sneering General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) in villainy.

Rey seeks Luke’s counsel. Poe (Oscar Isaac) and ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) are all about the combat, plunging into battle, leading a lot of rebels to their deaths, which enrages Leia.

“Get your head outta your cockpit!”

C3PO (Anthony Daniels) is still at General Leia Organa’s side. BB-8 tries to keep Poe flying, and digitally nags him as she/he? does.

“Happy bleeps,” Poe demands. “Happy bleeps.”

There are new spacecraft on both sides as feasts to the eyes, spectacular space battles, more populous light saber fights, a “connected” ongoing argument between the galaxy’s Yin and Yang, the Dark Lord (ish) Kylo and the green but good Rey (Daisy Ridley).

Its brisk open and anti-climactic climax underscore that Johnson (“Brick,” “Looper”) is not a visionary director, but a competent one. He’s smart to let some disasters in space play out in silence, but struggles to make this unwieldy “middle installment” fly and flow. The contemporary dialogue mixed in with the arch, sci-fi serial speak Lucas channeled makes for jarring listening.

He put more effort into showing us the “new” — Dreadnoughts, not Death Stars, cuddly critters who aren’t Ewoks — and finding the laughs in putting our vernacular into a galaxy far far away.

“Hi, I’m holding for General Hux? Skinny guy? Kinda pasty?”

Where “A New Hope” had the Mos Eisely cantina scene, a saloon setting for a shoot-out, “Last Jedi” has Canto Bight, a high-end casino visited ostensibly to fetch a code-breaker (Benicio del Toro, a pointless detour with a pointless character), but really to deliver a lecture on the slavery it takes for the galaxy’s One Percent to live like moguls.

Enough already with the desert planets. Instead we get a version of The Ice Planet Hoth called Crait, a world covered by salt and featuring crystalline foxes. And of course, Luke is still laying low by the rocky seas of the Scottish-looking Ahch-To — fishing, brooding, keeping the faith (sort of) and resisting training Rey when she and Chewbacca show up for a visit. The puffin-penguin bird critters there (a stocking stuffer) are cute enough to make Chewy consider going vegan. That swamp cave where Luke met his destiny “Empire Strikes Back” destiny? It’s in a hollow tree, here.

It’s a more feminine film, with a lot of new female faces, on the bridge, in fighters and bombers, chief among them is the plucky plebe Rose, ineffectually played by Kelly Marie Tran. Yes, Laura Dern’s also in it, in purple hair and a leadership position.

Women fight and lead and weep and slap men and try to point out that standing and fighting kills people and is not always the best solution.

That feminizing fails to cure what has been the Achilles Heel of this franchise for the past 20 years, one rendered crystal clear with the superior prequel “Rogue One.”  A corporate decision to stray from the formula of classic Westerns, martial arts and combats films has all-but-outlawed that any hero in our ranks dies a sudden death (giving the films a needed shock) or a noble “death with purpose.” That lowers the stakes in these movies, robs them of emotion.

Compare “Rogue One’s” layers of heroic sacrifice to “Force Awakens” or “The Last Jedi.” It’s like comparing classic “Star Trek” to “Star Trek: Voyager.”

Isaac handles the action well and the comic vernacular with flair, and Gleeson takes to General Hux with a certain malign, old school British character actor glee.

But as mean and sullen as Driver can play, the pouty, slouch-shouldered mop-top seems out of place here, unthreatening as a villain, just sensitive enough to be the Wrong Guy for Rey to attempt to…you’ll see.

The late Carrie Fisher has the look of someone who botoxed the expressiveness out of her face during her “I’m a writer, not an actress” years. The novelty’s worn off of Boyega’s “Ex-Storm Trooper Who Cries.”

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Hamill’s Luke is expected to transform into a new Obi Wan in this series, the wizened elder statesman and soulful wizard. I think he’d be the first to say he’s no Alec Guiness, whose imprint over the original films was far larger than his small, serene, twinkling, performance.

And it does the hardcore fan’s heart no good at all to compare the pretty but impassive Ridley with the fierce, physical and emotional Felicity Jones of “Rogue One.”

Where’s the glint in the eyes, the bravado, the confidence that points towards a swashbuckling future?

There’s a lot to be said for making this universe less Anglo and more diverse, less butch even. But the whole storyline in the original “Star Wars” universe has become a Big Tent political party, compromised via a party platform that promises a little something for everybody. The films pander in the worst Harry Potter tradition.

That means nobody’s character is fully served by the script. Even at two and a half hours, there are jumps in logic/setting/action that don’t flow.

Given what I said about “The Force Awakens,” I really wanted to like this. It starts more promisingly, has its moments. Some innovations work, others make things worse.

Intentions and inspiration aside, “Last Jedi” doesn’t add up to an “Empire Strikes Back” for this trilogy. There’s no romance, little pathos and no real punch-in-the-gut moment. Its emotionally sterile tone was set with “The Force Awakens,” and that’s proven hard to shake, new innovations and plot twists aside.

“Last Jedi” is just another middling movie with a rabid fanbase, a Harry Potter-style placeholder picture for lump-in-the-throat moments to come. Or so we hope.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence.

Cast: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Domhnall Gleeson, Benicio del Toro

Credits: Written and directed by Rian Johnson, based on characters created by George Lucas. A Disney/Lucasfilm release.

Running time: 2:32

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Movie Preview: Spielberg’s tech Support Pulls Out all the Stops for “Ready Player One”

Yes, even billionaire moguls who usually just make Oscar bait like to get paid.

This is one dazzling bit of VR/inside the game “rebellion” movie eye candy from the guy who all but invented that term. “Ready Player One” is about a future where a VR game has become the most valuable piece of the global economy, and an Easter Egg planted in it is the prize the best players must pursue, a clever idea by the dead creator of the game (Mark Rylance, in long hair) but not at all appreciated by the Big Corporate Villain (Ben Mendelssohn).

To be honest, this looked pretty cool until the soundtrack shifted and made it feel lame and dated and trying too hard. Van Halen’s “Jump” must have tested well in marketing.

“Ready Player One” comes our may March 30.

 

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Movie Review: “Stratton”

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Genre pictures are, by definition, less demanding — of the cast, who are playing archetypes, and of the audience, who share their knowledge of the conventions and tropes these films traffic in , with the filmmakers.

But because crime thrillers, nut-with-a-knife horror movies, combat films, Westerns and the like are so very familiar, you’ve got to raise the bar on those tropes and action beats just to surprise and impress us.

“Stratton” is a special forces thriller that fails to do that. The idea of making a Navy SEALs movie built around Britain’s version of those elite warriors, the “Special Boat Service,” got action veteran Simon West (“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”) and stars Dominic Cooper (“An Education,” “Need for Speed”) and Austin Stowell (“Colossal,” “Whiplash”) interested.

It landed Connie Nielsen as Brit-intelligence’s “M” this time out, Derek Jacobi as the “old salt” pal of our hero and the great Thomas Kretschmann as its villain, with Tom Felton along for good measure.

And there’s just nothing to it, nothing surprising anyway.

Cooper has the title role, a scuba-diving soldier who loses a close mate on a mission to destroy a nerve gas factory in the Middle East. It was a joint operation, allowing Stratton to make “Join the Navy, see the world” jokes, only to be corrected by that American pal (Tyler Hoechlin) for stealing the U.S. Navy’s advertising motto.

But that factory penetration (swimming up big water pipes, etc.) and extraction didn’t pay off. Everybody there was already dead, and a master assassin of Russian origin (Kretschmann of “The Pianist”) took the poison and took out that pal.

Time to buck up, get a little pep talk from the geezer who lives on the boat a few slips down in the Thames marina (Jacobi), accept new orders from the chief (Nielsen) and chase down the missing WMD with another Yank (Stowell).

The American has motives beyond his “You go where you feel you can do the most good.” The fact that he says this while inexplicably wearing his medal-bedecked dress blues doesn’t make it any more convincing.

Gemma Chan plays the Julia Stiles or Naomie Harris role in this “Bourne/Bond,” the beautiful field-capable agent on tech duty in support of our team as it ventures to Rome and beyond, hunting the villain Borovsky (Kretschmann), “the most dangerous man I’ve ever met,” a villain with a grudge.

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“I WILL have my REVENGE!” Like that needed saying.

There are drones, a double-decker London bus chase and occasional calls to “Cowboy up” from the American, meaning “Draw yer weapon, boy. The Russkies are pulling a fast one!”

Jacobi twinkles, Nielsen fixes one and all with a steely stare and Kretschmann, condemned to such roles by his German accent, always gives fair value.

It’s just all so played.  Even the shootouts and chases feel like they’re unfolding at half-speed, at least partly because we’ve seen this gag before more times than we can recall.

They might have been better served making the whole enterprise more British (there’s no buddy chemistry between the leads) and letting the rest of the world realize that yes, the Americans have their SEALS, but we’ve got Special Forces, and this Special Boat Service thing.

But that would have relied even more upon Cooper, and he brings little of the spark he’s shown elsewhere to this tired, half-hearted genre flop.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, and language

Cast: Dominic /Cooper, Austin Stowell, Gemma Chan, Connie Nielsen, Thomas Kreutschman, Tom Felton, Derek Jacobi

Credits: Directed by Simon West, script by Warren Davis II and Duncan Falconer, based on his novel. An eOne release.

Running time: 1:35

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It’s “Star Wars” time in Florida, next screening, “The Last Jedi”

A few winters ago, and a couple of “Star Wars” away, “The Force Awakens” opened. J.J. Abrams’ take on George Lucas’s creation made its billion and got absurdly undiscriminating, fawning praise from a lot of “Let’s get on this bandwagon” critics, who saw it as the best thing since killing off Jar Jar.

But not me. 

I was bothered by its check-this-box casting — here’s a black hero, here’s a woman, lets get somebody in this role from Asia, and have we taken care of the LGBT community? It looked like what it is, tokenism as a marketing exercise.

There was blatant toy-sales-pandering, ridiculous amounts of pointless traveling sequences — “Let’s go here…no no THERE. Because we can digitally create any setting we want!” In TV, they call those “door slammer” time-killers, prevalent on cop shows especially. Sit with the grandparents through “Blue Bloods,” five minutes of car “door slamming” per 48 minute show.

I was infuriated by the general J.J. joylessness, and the stultifying repetitiveness of it all. What, another Death Star? Hasn’t the Empire learned that classic Sun Tsu lesson, “Don’t re-fight the last war? Especially as you’ve already lost it? Twice?”

Anyway, I was the first critic to puncture its “perfect” rating, took a lot of crap for that, but only for a while. Within a month, a lot more people were agreeing with me. It was just “Star Wars Redux,” a remake.

All these “Think pieces” started to appear, parroting points that I brought out, right after seeing the movie. Plenty of blowback built up. A lot of “Maybe he was right” mentions  and links peppered those pieces, and emails I got.

And then the far superior “Rogue One” showed up, the best “Star Wars” movie since “The Empire Strikes Back.” Yeah, it’s got a Death Star, but back-engineering an alternate timeline, showing how Princess Leia got “those plans” that Darth Vader was so worked up about, was a stroke of genius.

Here was a “Star Wars” with gravitas, pathos and big heart and humor. The diverse cast was organic, without a hint of cynicism about its inclusiveness. Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, martial arts master Donnie Yen, Diego Luna, Jimmy Smitts, sparkling actors playing self-sacrificing fatalists, one and all.

Yen took “Star Wars” back to its “The Hidden Fortress” martial arts myth origins.

The heroine? Felicity Jones acted rings around perky younger Brit Daisy Ridley.

And again, I pointed all this out. Better movie, better story, better heroine, better villain, better sidekick heroes. Similar, a lot of repeated action beats. But Better.

Which explains why I have a very long drive ahead of me this AM. Because even though Disney and Disney/Pixar and Disney Marvel movies are screened in Orlando…for some reason, NOT Disney/Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars.” Not this time.

Go figure.

Maybe they’ve found new directions to go in, new characters (and old) to care about, new jokes and new ways to generate pathos. Adam Driver is still their villain. Maybe he got better.

But sending me to a screening far, far away, punitive or not, isn’t a sign of confidence. Still, it’s a beautiful Florida day, I drive an open-top roadster, so the trek will be fun and I’m fired up. It’s all good. Let’s just hope the movie is.

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Today’s first screening, “The Greatest Showman”

This Christmas musical (Dec. 20 release) is a screen original, based on the same subject as “Barnum,” but with new relevance and topicality and new tunes.

It’s about acceptance and diversity and finding your showbiz tribe and seems especially timely with what’s going on with civil rights for all, the rise of bullying and pushing harassment into the foreground in the America of 2017.

And it’s about building a show for Hugh Jackman to remind us what a “triple threat” looks like in an age where nobody can sing and dance AND act.

It may not get him an Oscar nomination, but “The Greatest Showman” is sure as shooting remind everyone how great he was in “Logan,” which could not be more different from the guy who invented “Show Business.”

 

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Movie Review: “Just Getting Started” is Mostly Wrapped Up

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We get old, the AARP come-on arrives in the mail, we settle into retirement communities.

And old, if not-quite-over-the-hill movie stars make movies about retirement communities. Old directors? They direct them.

Thus Ron “Bull Durham” Shelton follows Amy “Clueless” Heckerling, who is behind TV’s “Red Oaks,” and Susan Seidelman, who stopped “Desperately Seeking Susan” and settled into the “Boynton Beach Club.”

“Just Getting Started” is Shelton’s tepid take on old age among the well-heeled in Palm Springs, a Ron Shelton comedy (a little sex, a little sports, a little profanity, a threat of violence) as seen from the front seat of a retiree’s golf cart.

It’s got Oscar winners Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones vying for the attentions of Rene Russo. It’s got golf and “Good Sex After 70” classes, tai chi, drunken revels and weekly poker games.

What it doesn’t have, in any abundance, is laughs. “Started” plays like a Ron Shelton comedy for people too old to enjoy Ron Shelton comedies. Tame, winded.

Freeman plays Duke Diver, cock-of-the-walk and resident manager of Villa Capri, a relatively high-end senior community where he’s beloved by all, especially the “harem” he keeps on a no-strings-attached boudoir rotation (Glenne Headly, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Elizabeth Ashley).

“Happiness is not a condition,” is Duke’s mantra. “It’s a CHOICE!”

Then this rich Texan and “man of mystery” Leo (Jones) shows up to ruffle his feathers and tempt his lady friends away from him. He’s followed by Suzie (Russo), a barfly with a Yorkie and a quick brush-off to anybody who sidles up to her offering to “get the next round.”

Duke’s “boys” (Joe Pantoliano, George Wallace and Graham Beckel) are no help against these threats to his position, or the not-exactly-“accidents” that start befalling him, from a rattler in his golf bag to an explosion that takes out his Humvee-styled golf cart.

Yeah, Duke’s got a secret, one that puts him in danger. Suzie has a secret. And this new guy, Leo? He’s all secrets.

It’s a tricky thing at any age, cooking up funny lines for a cast of your contemporaries when you’re plainly not overhearing conversations in bars yourself any more.

“I need a cup’a coffee!”

“You need a new LIVER.”

Jones recites a Robert W. Service poem, Freeman sings “Silent Night, but they never have the lines that will turn their wariness (as big deal actors and famously prickly guys to deal with on a set) into on-screen “buddy picture” warmth. They’re pushing hard for laughs, like a car you’ve floored with the hand-brake still on.

just1Russo has the sass that Shelton immortalized in “Tin Cup,” but nothing funny to say or to play.

Jane Seymour comes off the best, as a metallic-haired mob moll (she plays all her scenes into a cell phone) trying to get somebody killed.

The villain she is talking to on those calls is a non-entity, the murder attempts aren’t funny, bit players make zero impression, with only one sight gag — Christmas carolers walking around the pool at Villa Capri, in Dickensian garb and flip flops — paying off.

“Just Getting Started” thus conjures up way too many feelings that one and all, especially Shelton, are just wrapping up their comic careers.

1half-star

 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language, suggestive material and brief violence

Cast: Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones, Rene Russo, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Glenne Headly, Joe Pantoliano, Jane Seymour

Credits: Directed by Ron Shelton, script by . A Broadgreen/eOne release.

Running time: 1:31

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