Movie Review: “Baby Driver” runs circles around other summer popcorn pictures

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You don’t see the “Baby Driver” practicing his craft, rehearsing for the getaways he’ll have to race through from bank jobs and armored car heists. He doesn’t have a hands-on interest in automobiles, which he can steer the wheels off of — instantly calculating drifts, handbrake-turns and relative rates of acceleration.

So let’s just call him a “driving savant.”

He can remember lengthy, detailed instructions about each caper despite listening to a vast range of music through his omni-present earbuds. Let’s just say he has Eidetic memory, or total recall. And really good focus.

“Baby Driver” doesn’t invite over-thinking. But as visceral, swaggering summer popcorn picture fun, it’s hard to beat. Impossible, as a matter of fact. Forget your comic books and sci-fi sequels. THIS is the movie of the summer.

Writer/director Edgar Wright (“Hot Fuzz,” “Shaun of the Dead”) has cooked up a jaunty, jolting getaway driver movie, perfectly-cast, dazzling in its speed and fraught with violence. It doesn’t greatly alter or improve on other movies of this mini-genre — “Drive,” “The Transporter” and the granddaddy of them all, “The Driver” with Ryan O’Neal (Netlfix it).

But Wright throws three tasty hooks onto that main idea.

The driver, in this case, is a “kid.” Not young, like Ryan Gosling’s “Driver.” He’s called “Baby” by the hood (Kevin Spacey) who summons him for his various jobs.

Baby is a music nut. He collects iPods and loads them with everything from Barry White, and Lionel Richie to Queen, T-Rex and Simon & Garfunkel’s title tune — “Baby Driver.” The music isn’t just to put him in the mood and deliver a soundtrack for bone-rattling car chases through Atlanta. Baby has tinnitus and needs the music to drown out the ringing in his ears.

The reason Baby has tinnitus is a childhood trauma, one that left a few scars on his face, one that — logically — should make him fear cars and reckless driving. And how can hear anything — instructions, what have you, with those earbuds in? Oh. Right. He secretly tape records conversations, but not as “notes,” just to play around with clips of sound in creating beats and jams.

Sure, that’s insane, in that it can get him killed. But again, no over-thinking.

Ansel Elgort, the lanky/gawky and intensely likable kid from “The Fault in Our Stars,” makes an unsurprisingly passive Baby. There’s not a hint of macho about the guy, not a whit of Ryan Gosling testosterone. Baby pulls the car forward to avoid seeing what the robbers he’s chauffeuring around do to that armored car guard, head-bobbing to whatever jam he’s listening to, intentionally oblivious.

It takes all the Buckhead-via-Britain charms of Debora (Lily James of “Cinderella”) and her spot-on Southern waitress drawl to give Elgort’s Baby something no Elgort character has ever enjoyed on the screen — sex appeal.

baby3Master of menace Spacey is a no-brainer casting decision as Doc, the omnipotent employer of hoodlums to pull “jobs” and Baby to help those hoodlums escape.

Jamie Foxx brings an amusing psychosis to Bats, a pathological thief and amoral killer who gives pep talks in the car before leading his team into the bank or whatever.

“They got what’s rightly ours.”

baby1Jon Hamm is more of a surprise, giving a tightly-coiled mania to “Buddy,” drug-loving triggerman who only has eyes for the sexpot gun moll half his age (Eiza Gonzalez) who goes by the moniker “Darling.”

Wright adds Lanny Joon as a dopey Asian robber who confuses “Michael Myers” masks with “Mike Myers” masks, Flea from The Red Hot Chili Peppers as another tattooed punk-for-hire, and singer-songwriter Paul Williams as an underground gun dealer to the mob.

All of them just seasoning for a lean, mean story about a kid wanting to escape the “blood money” business he’s trapped in, the girl who might join him in that dreamed-of dash west on I-20, and the murderous mob who don’t want to let him go.

The car stunts are almost entirely real, with little of the incessant digital manipulation one gets in such movies post-“Fast and Furious.” Elgort is a shockingly effective lead, and Wright renders the budding romance, his camera swirling around two would-be love-birds, invading their space and pushing them closer together, with disarming charm.

And if the picture turns darker and darker and the finale feels like an overdrawn cop-out, that’s small potatoes. “Baby Driver” delivers its genre story beats with verve, delivering a bracing thrill-ride of popcorn picture and a most-entertaining return-to-form for its writer-director, who scores tons of points for style, if not originality.

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The music of “Baby Driver” — hipster cred, or Baby Boomer’s fantasy? 

MPAA Rating: R for language throughout and violence.

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez

Credits: Written and directed by Edgar Wright. A Sony/Tristar release.

Running time: 1:53

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Today’s screening: “Hey Hey, we’re the Planet of the Apes!”

I haven’t kept the fact that this summer of sequels is just a-wearing me out. People asking, “What movie are you looking FORWARD to?” And I answer with any title that springs to mind that doesn’t have a number after it, or a colon.

I could tolerate “Pirates of the Caribbean,” because it got back to enough of what the first film had going for it, and promised — briefly — an end to this. But Johnny Depp’s broke, so, well…hell.

“Covenant” and “Transformers” and “Cars” and on and on. Ugh.

So I will be sitting, in all fairness to the film, expecting, nay DEMANDING, that “War for the Planet of the Apes” do something that distinguishes it from its CGI predecessors, AND its 1970s antecedents.

Fingers crossed. Meanwhile, here’s some fun that an Internet wit (Interwag) has cooked up.

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Daniel Day-Lewis “retires”

'Maggie's Plan' film premiere, New York, America - 05 May 2016I guess, in acting terms, 60 is the new 85.

Because Daniel Day-Lewis, just a couple of months past that milestone birthday, has announced he’s giving up a profession he seemingly mastered.

Acting will join a long list of many other professions, such as butchering (which he learned for “Gangs of New York,” for instance) that DDL took on, mastered and moved on from over the course of an Oscar winning/theater icon career that started when he was but a child of Britain’s academic/intellectual nobility (Dad Cecil DL was poet laureate).

His spokesperson announced the news to Variety.

Another Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will be Blood”) film will be his last, “Phantom Thread” — a period piece/drama set in the 1950s world of Euro-high fashion. It’s due out at Christmas. So, one more scene in a vintage Italian sports car (“Nine”), one more shot at one more Oscar, and that’s it?

Some people are mocking the decision, or at least paying tribute to his famously thorough reputation for preparation and staying in character all during a shoot, by suggesting that oh, he’s prepping to play an actor who announces his retirement from acting.

The wags.

I’ve interviewed him a few times, and he comes off as a serious man who delightfully refuses to take himself that seriously.

But what else has the man to prove? Like Streep, he commands Oscar-bait roles every time one in the appropriate age-range comes up. He gives, if we are to believe his myth, his all to each and every performance.

So unless the guy wants to Olivier/Hopkins/Kingsley himself with one great bit superhero movie paycheck, or more, why work for work’s sake?

I love Sir Ben, and to a lesser extent Sir Tony. But I can’t see them giving up greasepaint. They just work and work and work.

A lot of people do that, and it’s basically cultural brain-washing. If you’re not bored away from work, drained by the work itself and not really in need of the cash, why pile up more?

So he’s not Hopkins, Jimmy Buffett, Cher, KISS, et al. That’s worth admiring, not ridiculing. Living your life as if the acclaim, the distraction, the attention and the money is “never enough” is nothing to be proud of.

 

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Movie Review — “Transformers: The Last Night…er KNIGHT”

TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION

The summer of “ENOUGH already” continues at the cinema with the arrival of the fifth “Transformers” movie. The  cars are upgraded to AMGs, Astons and Lambos, and all those kids you’re tempted to take to it learn how funny using “shi-” is, in pretty much any situation.

“The Last Knight” is easily the worst installment in this endlessly awful series, probably the worst movie of the summer (“Cars 3,” you’re OFF the hook), a garbled action-and-edit-packed mess that bastardizes history and legend, defies coherence and proves that Anthony Hopkins will do anything for one last big, bad check.

The “satisfaction” of packing a mini “Big Lebowski” reunion — John Turturro, joined by the robot voices of John Goodman and Steve Buscemi — only makes you remember that Jeff Bridges has too much sense for this, and that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s the lucky one. He died before the temptation to take a payday picture could be floated his way.

Because this is Michael Bay’s “Inferno,” an action hack sentenced to the hell that these enterprises have become, addicted to the money when he might have, one day, redeemed himself with some violent, foul-mouthed buddy picture (“Pain & Gain” was as good as he will ever get).

The prologue makes the Knights of the Round Table a literal fact, embattled Britons “saved” when Arthur’s magician pal Merlin (an unrecognizable, but half-funny Stanley Tucci) summons a metallic dragon to fend off Saxon hordes.

The Transformers, with their XXXXL size, alien tech and willingness to “help,” have always been with us — crashing their ships, fiddling in Earth’s little affairs — like World War I.

Having Mark Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager quote sci-fi icon Arthur C. Clarke — “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” — may be the funniest thing any of these movies have demanded of him.

Cade is a fugitive, wanted by the Decepticons, hunted by the TRF (Transformer Reaction Fo—oh never mind). He hides out in “alien contamination zones,” defending the Autobots from TRF’s “Kill’em all, let God sort’em out” ethos. That throws him in with the Transformer-loving potty-mouthed 14 year old-gadget guru Izabella (Isabel Moner).

And being hunted by Josh Duhamel and a bunch of actors whose names nobody can remember eventually runs them from the devastation of New Jersey to the vast junkyard of South Dakota, and on to Jolly Olde Brexitland, where Hopkins plays the last member of an order of knights sworn to keep the Secret History of the Transformers on Earth a secret.

Say what now? I mean, I get the Mongol Hordes reference, but since when were these transforming gadget-bots “secret?”

Laura Haddock inherits the push-up bra role, this time a historian and blood relative of the Order who must help a “chosen one” (Guess who that is?) use a talisman to track down the Staff of Merlin, actually an ancient Autobot weapon.

Optimus Prime goes home (to Cybertron, his planet) and goes rogue, thanks to indoctrination by a villain named Quintessa, as in “The Quintessence of Evil.”

And all the cute robots, including a C3PO knock-off butler-bot voiced by Jim Carter, no longer a butler at “Downton Abbey,” show up, fight and cuss each other out in robot trash talk, as Duhamel and his drone-and-Osprey-equipped TRF team shout “Come ON, let’s GO, ”  hurtling us from Namibia to China, South Dakota to the White Cliffs of Dover.

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Three credited screenwriters came up with graceful exposition — “You got my message — You brought everyone here.” — and zippy one-liners.

“It’s OK to be a kid, Lil’ J. Lo.” “A big gun makes a big man.

Hopkins vamps it up, and utters “Has my life been wasted?”

We’d never thought so, before now.

In all seriousness, this is barely-coherent, not-worth-a-brain-cell-of-analysis garbage. And if there’s a sixth movie in this toys-to-theaters fiasco of a franchise, it’s on your heads.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, language, and some innuendo
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins, Laura Haddock, Isabella Monerp
Credits: Directed by Michael Bay, written by Art Marcum, Matt Holloway and Ken Nolan. A Paramount.
Running time: 2:25

 

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Movie Review: Netflix’s “Nobody Speak” captures the super-rich’s war on a free press

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In the months since filmmaker Brian Knappenberger wrapped his documentary, “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press,” a goon of a Montana millionaire tackled and assaulted a reporter for having the effrontery to ask him a question he didn’t like.

A West Virginia reporter was arrested for trying to question Donald Trump’s Health and Human Services director at a public event.

Both, to the universal derision and smirks of right wing talk show hosts, politicians and their thoughtless fans.

The Netflix documentary records the Gawker Media trial, a joke of a court case financed by an authoritarian, malevolent Pay Pal billionaire with a grudge, and the secret purchase of a critical newspaper by a Vegas  gambling mogul and GOP bankroller determined to silence his critics. It’s damning enough without adding on each latest right wing outrage against America’s watchdogs — the free and supposedly independent press.

But America is operating under new rules. The message, one participant in Knappenberg’s film suggests, is that a fact-averse class of oligarchs has decided “We are more powerful than the truth,” and the rabid lemmings who believe them. The oligarchs fear facts will upset the worldview they’ve been pushing, and their fans in the right wing media and those who only get their “news” that way buy into that fear.

Gawker Media was a rude and seemingly ruthless gossip, snark and  ridicule website group that mostly aggregated other reporters’ work, and did just enough reporting of their own to enrage silicon valley folks and others as the company earned a fortune “exposing hypocrites.” The late media critic David Carr of the New York Times described them as “the mean girls” of modern journalism.

British journalist Nick Denton and his minions gained their fame, and got into trouble, for pursuing vendettas.

You could see it all over their various platforms — Gawker, Jezebel, Valley Wag and Deadspin, among others. They hounded crackhead Toronto mayor Rob Ford, offering to pay for video of him breaking the law, sucking on a pipe. To this day, they never loose an opportunity to mock Gwyneth Paltrow, and various sites in the group developed odd fixations for low-level ESPN employees or former Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler’s wife. Their Internet artillery often seemed — and seems — aimed at not just the powerful, but gnats.

When they got their hands on video of Hulk Hogan having sex with bottom-feeding Tampa radio broadcaster Bubba the Love Sponge’s wife — with Bubba apparently taping it and getting his jollies — they posted it.

And threats from Hogan’s lawyer couldn’t make them take it down. When a Federal court tossed out Hogan’s laughable lawsuit — the wrestler Hogan, aka Terry Bollea, has bragged about his sexual prowess and adventurism in the media, and the right-wing-friendly TMZ website had first reported on the sex tapes — they moved it to state court, where an agenda-pushing judge got the kangaroos hopping mad enough to ensure Gawker’s ultimate destruction.

Knappenberger’s film uses media critics (David Folkenflik of NPR among them), academics and fellow journalists, as well as some of the principals, to paint a portrait of the shifting and shifty nature of that trial. There was accidental blowback — Hogan’s real fear was of tape of him exchanging racist and homophobic slurs with his dirtbag buddy Bubba would get out. That got him fired from World Wrestling Entertainment. The judge prejudiced the jury in rather naked fashion. And Gawker screwed up, its editors coming off as smug, amoral punks, something the film soft-peddles.

But odd twists in the case made one and all wonder just what Hogan REALLY wanted, and who was paying the bills and calling the shots on his suit, which dropped one accusation in its pursuit of a $100 million judgment solely to ensure that Denton, A.J. Daulerio (the editor/reporter who posed the video) and Gawker were not covered by insurance in that judgment. They’d be bankrupted by it.

Enter the Silicon Valley billionaire and political pal of Donald Trump, Peter Thiel, the puppetmaster who paid the bills, pulled the strings and got his revenge. Thiel’s extreme politics — he’d make Ayn Rand blush — and deep-seeded grudge are discussed and exposed, as is his connection to the whole Trumpian anti-press zeitgeist.

Anybody who follows the media has formed an opinion of Denton (the bearded bloke pictured above), and it’s not generally a nice one. Petty, vindictive, something of a hypocrite himself when it came to his own company and employees, the nicest one could say of him was you wouldn’t want to cross him. The film scrubs his image in the effort to make this Brit a crusader for American journalism.

But Knappenberger, of “We are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists” and “Truth and Power,” sensed that wasn’t going to fly. So he adds on a much more cut-and-dried David assaulted by a rich Goliath case to the film’s final third. The sudden 2015 sale of the only newspaper of note in the gambling and arch-conservative political mecca Nevada was secretive, and quite disturbing to the staff of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

speak4And being reporters who have covered the seedy world of Vegas deal brokering and backroom political payoffs, they found out who was actually their new owner. Sheldon Adelson, an aged, uber-rich casino mogul and big-time moneybags for GOP causes, now owned the newspaper that published a columnist, John L. Smith, Adelson had sued for a book that offhandedly mentioned Adelson as one of the “sharks” who now run Vegas.

You can guess the rest.

“Nobody Speak” is a little unbalanced, and top-heavy, thanks to the overwhelming focus on the more murky Gawker trial.

And its overall thesis of power-punishing-the-press, gets lost in a lot of other ideas. One of which posited by Leslie Savan of The Nation magazine, who argues that Hogan and Trump and their ilk are muddying the difference between truth — with real people like Terry Bollea and Donald Trump who can be held accountable for their lies — and “characters” they’re playing, whose “puffery” gives them a legal defense for being unaccountable.

It’s a lot to take in, and all of it distressing and depressing. Unless, of course, you aren’t fact-averse, and take no umbrage at being lied to — repeatedly — by people who think themselves above the law, beyond any nation’s reach, “traitors” only if you get mad enough to do something about them.

 

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MPAA Rating: unrated, with profanity, sexual subject matter

Cast: Nick Denton, Hulk Hogan, Peter Thiel, Donald Trump, Elizabeth Spiers, John L. Smith, David Folkenflik

Credits:Written and directed by Brian Kndappenberger. A Netflix/First Look release.

Running time:

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Writer/director Brett Haley on why Sam Elliott is “The Hero”

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Filmmaker Brett Haley was born and lived half his life in Key West and Pensacola, sleepy tourist/retirement towns in Florida.

So it’s natural that he has found a connection with a film audience that much of Hollywood ignores — filmgoers over 60. “I’ll See You in My Dreams” was a post-retirement romance starring Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott. And his latest, “The Hero,” is another showcase for Elliott aimed at an audience that, like the film’s titular character, grew up on Westerns.

“I don’t write for any specific demographic, because you’re not doing what’s coming natural to you,” he says. “I shoot from the gut, and the heart. But I sometimes get an idea of wanting to do something with a particular actor, and write with them in mind. I wanted to give Blythe and Sam a vehicle in the first film, and I wanted to create a showcase for Sam to show everyone what’s in him.”

All audiences want the same thing, and “people of a certain age,” he says, are no different. “They want a movie they connect with, with characters who they can identify with.”

And one thing Haley, 33, figured out with “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” is that the gravelly-voiced Texan with the “aw shucks” twinkle and epic mustache, has a huge following.

“We’d see it at screenings at festivals,” Haley says. “I’m just shocked nobody else figured that out.”

Well, maybe the Coen brothers, who had the good sense to park Elliott as the Old Cowpoke/Voice and Face of the West in “The Big Lebowski.” Whatever else he does, the actor really “ties” the film together, and that’s almost certain to lead his obituaries when he rides off into the sunset. Haley builds on that iconography, casting Elliott as a Western star reduced (like Elliott) to voice-over work in commercials, but proud of his past and the Hollywood that used to make Westerns as the ultimate expression of Americana.

Elliott, like Lee Hayden, his under-employed, on-his-last-legs-physically character in “The Hero,” seems like a man out of his time.

“He’s not exactly the character he plays — he just has a few things in common with him,” Haley says. “He does voice-over work, like Lee. He’s known for Westerns, like Lee. But Lee Hayden is a relic. He’s not cast any more. Sam? He’s got ‘The Ranch’ on Netflix,” and a recurring part on “Frank and Gracie” on the same streaming service. “It’s just that the sort of real man he’s played and represents doesn’t show up on screen. ‘Logan’ may be a comic book movie, but that’s a Western. It’s just that Hollywood doesn’t see that.”

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Attaching Elliott to the film made the rest of the casting easy. Haley made actress Katharine Ross, Elliott’s wife in real life, his ex-wife here.

“Nick Offerman (“Parks & Recreation”) is friends with Sam in real-life. Ask him to play Sam’s one-time co-star and pot dealer, and he was there. Laura Prepon (as an odd daddy-issues love interest) and Krysten (Ritter, who plays Lee’s estranged daughter) didn’t know Sam, but loved his screen image, his work, and jumped at the chance.”

“The Hero” has earned warmed reviews, with Ty Burr at the Boston Globe calling it “a welcome tribute to a lanky, taciturn presence” and Sara Stewart of The New York Post labeling Haley’s Elliott showcase “true cinematic Zen.”

Haley hopes the movie can re-start the cinematic argument about “what constitutes a real man, in the movies.” Elliott is, naturally, Haley’s paragon of this real man.

“Available emotionally, able to admit mistakes, tough, responsible and sensitive.”

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Movie Review: “Man in the Camo Jacket” takes the combat to cancer with his music

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You make a documentary about a rock star fighting cancer by donning military garb and starting a charity, you figure you’ve got your righteous uplifting side of the story covered.

What you can’t count on is the guy’s wife being diagnosed with cancer herself, after you’ve locked down and finished your picture.

That bit of knowledge would have added drama and pathos to Russ Kendall’s “Man in the Camo Jacket,” about Mike Peters of The Alarm and his crusade to get fans to sign up as bone marrow donors. It’s a nice, almost for-fans-only film about Peters, The Alarm, the New Wave/MTV era of rock and Peters’ post-stardom combat with leukemia.

Despite having scads of contemporaries, from Billy Bragg to Billy Corgan, Martha Quinn to Slim Jim Phantom (“The Stray Cats”) sing his praises, the film does a middling job at highlighting Peters’ importance in music, failing to decipher the lyrics for the uninitiated.

The songs — “Blaze of Glory,” “68 Guns” and “Call to Action” connect The Alarm to their sound-alikes, The Clash.

The hair connected them to Flock of Seagulls.

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The film charts the rise, plateau and fall of a rock band — Peters announcing his departure, on stage, at the end of a 1991 show, years past their peak.

There was novelty and chutzpah in the way they manufactured their “big break.” They pretended to be the opening act for The Stray Cats on a UK tour. They were found out and ordered to stop setting up their gear. But The Cats admired their brass, and assented.

It finds a little fun in Peters’ “45 RPM” stunt — cutting a hit, releasing it under an assumed name, with much younger musicians shown on the music video, highlighting the ageism of rock. A little cinematic immortality comes onscreen with “Vinyl.”

And then cancer hits, and the relentlessly upbeat Peters decides to don the titular camouflage jacket, to not let chemo or anything else keep him off stage and off the road. Two battles with it later, he’s still going, assisted by a fellow survivor in setting up his bone marrow charity — the Love, Hope and Strength Foundation.

And at his side, the entire time, was and is his bride and the mother of his children, Jules.

You don’t zero in on the film’s emotion remoteness until you Wikipedia Peters and realize Jules was diagnosed with breast cancer after “Man With the Camo Jacket” was filmed.

The picture is pleasant enough, righteous in its cause and inspiring in its “I’ve got no time for cancer” message. But the emotional body blow her discovery must have been would have upped the stakes in the movie just as surely as it shattered, or at least seriously rattled their lives.

Peters, never shown having a moment of very human and understandable self-pity or worry, would surely have presented a different face to the camera had it captured him dealing with her cancer, too.

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MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Mike Peters, Billy Bragg, Jules Peters, Billy Corgan, Duff McKagen, Martha Quinn, Fred Armisen, Slim Jim Phantom
Credits: Directed by Russ Kendall. An XLRator release.
Running time: 1:17

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Box Office: “Cars 3” opens Pixar small, “All Eyez on Me” blows up

Ho hum…another Pixar picture opening, another win at the weekend box office.

But “Cars 3” isn’t utterly outrunning the field, with a $51-52 million opening. You have to go WAAaaaaaaay down this chart to find a Pixar cartoon that has opened under $60 million.

Yes, they’re sucking the money away from “Captain Underpants,” but no, “Wonder Woman” still managed another $40 million in spite of that.

Premiere of "I Like It Like That" To Benefit Women In NeedAll the years of planning, abortive starts — different directors –– and reviews that didn’t overwhelm didn’t matter to the long-planned Tupac Shakur biopic, “All Eyez on Me.” It earned an astounding $31 million, with the director of “Next Day Air,” nobody’s idea of A-list, at the helm. No big names in the cast, none. Jamal Woolard reprising his interpretation of Biggie Smalls from”Notorious,” and that’s about it. Young Demetrius Shipp delivers the right look and intensity and the Roadside Attractions gamble pays off.

“Rough Night” is bombing, not anywhere within striking distance of $10 million. The cheap, briefly direct-to-video “47 Meters Down” cleared $10 million. After costs, it’ll probably end up with $10 million in the bank above and beyond what it would have made off video. Mandy Moore’s not big box office. Sharks? They draw.

“Pirates” has cleared $150 million. “Underpants” will top out at $65-70, “Guardians” will pass $375 by late Sunday, first shows Monday.

“The Book of Henry” didn’t crack the top ten in limited release, $1.65 million. Poor reviews didn’t help.

 

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Movie Review: “Cars” goes down for the third time

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Pixar may see “Cars” as its most sentimental franchise, one cooked up by founder John Lasseter as a way of getting computer-animated images of roadside America, memories of road trips and auto racing onto the screen.

I see it as Pixar’s most cynical, great-and-getting-greater animation in the service of selling movie tie-in toys. Three films into the series, and the filmmakers have finally perfected the look, and the format.

With “Cars 3,” at long last, Pixar makes a movie without a single laugh in it — not one. Its only utility to its audience — children — is giving them a taste of NASCAR history, or its cartoon equivalent — and mortality.

Because from Paul Newman to the big laugher of the” Car Talk” brothers, George Carlin (recast, vocally) to the film’s very themes, this movie summoning back the dead plays like a grim funeral — no jokes that work, little heart, nothing for it but to endure it.

“Ah’m about to commit a MOVIN’ violation!”

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has plateaued in the Piston Cup. Next Gen cars, represented by the fast clean lines of Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), have seen to it that he’s chortled his last catch-phrase “Ka-CHOW” in the winner’s circle.

Everybody’s telling him that he’s through, racing commentators to his new team owner, Sterling (Nathan Fillion),

All the high tech stuff, big bucks and “brand” protecting PR aren’t doing it for Lightning. “Don’t fear failure” isn’t motivating him.

So there’s nothing for it but to hit the highway, “get my tires dirty” on dirt tracks and seek out the guy who taught his mentor, Doc (Newman).

That would be Smokey (Oscar winner Chris Cooper), a tow truck/mechanic/guru lost in the weeds of one of the traditional, historic tracks the Piston Cup has abandoned as it became a big business. “Knocksville,” “Thomasville” and the like are the North Wilkesboro, Ontario and Rockingham of cartoon car racing.

To get to Smokey, Lightning and his “trainer” (an Aston Martin voiced by Cristela Alonzo) have to do a little “Crazy 8” demolition derby racing (Lea DeLauria is the demented school bus local favorite) and endure the taunts of the Big Timers they left behind.

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None of which offers much of anything of entertainment value. No funny voices, no funny lines that play as funny, nothing but digitally-animated races and lamenting the world that’s passed the old cars and the small towns by.

There might have been a backhanded “Make NASCAR Great Again” subtext, but co-writer/director Brian Fee doesn’t make it work.

NASCAR faithful may get something out of this nostalgia for the small town tracks that made NASCAR, which Big Business Racing has tossed aside (I drive by a few of these sad circuits visiting relatives in Virginia and the Carolinas.).

Kids? They may appreciate just how shiny, metallic and real the cars and landscapes look. And they might want the toy cars.

But they, like me, are going to be bored to tears by the story and the limp, half-hearted way it’s told. “Cars 3” surpasses “Monster University” as the dullest, dimmest Pixar movie ever.

 

 

 

 

MPAA Rating: G

Cast: The voices of Owen Wilson, Chris Cooper, Cristela Alonzo, Nathan Fillion, Lea DeLauria, Armie Hammer, Kerry Washington, Larry the Cable Guy

Credits: Directed by Brian Fee script by Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich, based on a story by Fee. A Disney/Pixar release.

Running time: 1:49

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Movie Review: Tupac’s place in music and culture is burnished in “All Eyez on Me”

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“All Eyez on Me” is a too-tidy/too-pat musical biopic that sheds light on the messy, provocative and watershed life that was Tupac Shakur, rapper, rebel and would-be revolutionary.

Overlong, more solid than inspiring, it makes a good go of illustrating just how much fame, music and controversy the man squeezed into 25 short years. It demands a lot of screen newcomer Demetrius Shipp, Jr., asking that he recreate the charisma of this rap and acting icon, too much. The screenwriters and director are often hellbent on presenting Tupac’s story the way he himself would have told it.

But whatever shortcomings it has, it makes a suitable companion piece to the George Tillman’s superior Biggie Smalls biopic “Notorious,” and even shares Biggies — the same actor plays that other late rapper in both films.

If there’s one takeaway that this film makes even plainer than the definitive documentary on the subject, “Biggie and Tupac, it is this — Tupac Shakur was no accident.

Named for an 18th century Peruvian revolutionary, raised by a fierce, radical Black Panther mother (Danai Gurira, superb) who carried him almost to term while in prison awaiting trial, educated to be proud, to make a difference and to embrace the arts, Shakur considered himself “a reporter,” someone channeling what he saw on the mean streets of New York, Baltimore and Oakland into lyrics.

He saw violence, drug dealers and pimps, witnessed his mother standing up to FBI harassment (stepdad was a bank-robber for “The Movement”) and the murder of a neighbor in Oakland. What he absorbed, along with the need to lead, to “drop some knowledge” into songs about police misconduct, racism murder, child abuse and the like, was the need to burn the candle at both ends.

“Tomorrow ain’t promised to NO man.”

Having a background in theater — committing Shakespeare to memory (He played Hamlet in Baltimore’s High School for the Performing Arts), studying dance, the guy was prepared for stardom as if he was born to it.

The limp comedy “Next Day Air” wasn’t great prep for director Benny Boom, but he and three credited screenwriters take us through the arc of Tupac’s life and career — going to school with lifelong friend Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham, perfect), getting his first break as a roadie, rapper and dancer with Digital Underground, getting a bigger break as an actor by pretty much stealing “Juice.”

We see a friendship (Jamal Woolard reprises his Biggie Smalls) sour and go terribly wrong.

And we watch a proud young man harassed by cops, baited by rivals and jealous fans wanting to beat up the rap star (Shipp is a bit too tall to play Tupac.), and bit by bit, falling into a life that imitates his art. He becomes as hard as his music — constant run-ins with the law, a singer who comes to believe he’s earned that “Thug Life” tattoo (actually an acronym) that he wears, along with guns and jewelry.

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The story is framed within a prison interview with Shakur, with a TV journalist (Hill Harper) occasionally challenging the guy to justify his actions, his pose and his life.

Music videos are recreated, the ill-fated meetings with the wrong sorts of people — including Death Row music mogul Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana, carrying some of the menace, charm and bulk of the real Suge) and assorting falling outs with friends and proteges (like Snoop Dogg, whose voice is dubbed for actor Jarrett Ellis) is detailed.

And the controversies are recalled, from Vice President Dan Quayle’s infamous criticism, to the shoot-outs and the crime that landed him in prison in the first place.

Truthfully, the only times “All Eyez on Me” raises the hair on the back of your neck are in the odd moment on stage, rapping, and in the final act — closed circuit video of Tupac’s last hours, intercut with the revelations and conversations behind the scenes that made fans wonder, then and now, just who was behind his murder.

But Boom has crafted a thorough overview, and Shipp captures some of the stage presence, bits of the charisma and much of the belligerence of this complicated young man with the 4,000 page FBI file. That “fact,” like much of what we see, is subject to at least some debate, and the film is fiercely in Tupac’s corner, telling the story from his point of view — victim, rebel, genius and egomaniac — the way his fans would have it.

It might remain for a future filmmaker to present this subject with all the edge, contradictions (Mama’s boy misogynist, etc.) that others have suggested.

Still, kudos to all involved for showing just enough of the flaws — he witnesses Suge Knight’s violence against those who cross him, and doesn’t raise a finger or his voice — to make this portrait of a man placed on a hip hop pedestal more human, and just as compelling as the pose he struck in life and in death.

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MPAA Rating: R for language and drug use throughout, violence, some nudity and sexuality

Cast: Demetrius Shipp, Jr., Danai Gurira, Kat GrahamJamal Woolard, Dominic L. Santana

Credits:Directed by Benny Boom, script by Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez and .Steven Bagatourian A Summit release.

Running time:

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