Movie Review: Universal sells China “The Great Wall”


We will see worse movies this year than “The Great Wall.” But we won’t one more cynical.

It’s Chinese pandering — pure agitprop — packaged as Hollywood poppycock. I can hear the pitch now — “Get your MESSAGE out! Chinese ‘order,’ Chinese know-how, China as the hope of civilization!’ Monsters and heroes, special effects and costumes, we’ll build a DIGITAL Great Wall — you provide the money, the thousands of extras, a few local stars, one of your great directors!

“And the money! Did I mention the money?”

The People’s Republicans probably never knew what hit them.

Seriously, if you’d wagered me that you could throw a big budget, director Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “Hero,””House of Flying Daggers”), screenwriter Tony “Michael Clayton” Gilroy and Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe at a movie and have it come out this silly, I’d have taken that bet.

But many hands made this mess, many more credited writers strained to get their Chinese image polishing in.

Damon and Pedro Pascal are two Medieval soldiers of fortune, the last survivors of an expedition bent on trading for China’s “Black Powder.” That would be the world’s first Weapon of Mass Destruction — gunpowder.

But on their way, they’ve been attacked by a beast — green, reptilian, a Wildebeast with claws for feet and a cavernous, toothy mouth. When the Chinese — a cultural model of order, organization, mass discipline, high tech and color-coded haute couture armor — capture them, they’re intrigued. Spies? Probably.

Still, the English archer-swordsman William (Damon) killed a Tao Tei monster. They’re impressed. They let the English mercenary live and keep his Spanish sidekick around for the banter.

“I haven’t surrendered in a while.”

“Follow my lead. It’ll come to you.”

The Westerners are most impressed by this wall. What on Earth could they need something this big for?

Alien monster invasions! Every sixty years!

wall3A whole civilization, a great bureaucracy and a vast army have been organized around fighting this menace. The Nameless Order raises warriors — female and male — to battle the beasts. Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) gives the order of battle when the hordes wash against the wall like a tidal wave.

“Crane Squad!” Those are lance-armed women bungee jumping up and down off the wall, poking the Tao Tei. “Death Squad!” And so forth.

Meanwhile, their guests are taken into the confidence of an earlier Western prisoner (Willem Dafoe) who wants their help escaping. There’s money to be made by the first to get back West with the “black powder.”

The script posits China as a bulwark of civilization, the only defense against slaughter by monsters. OK. So why the supernatural silliness? China served that function in history, battling the Mongols.

Oh. Right. The Mongols overran the pre-People’s Republican kingdoms before turning West and laying waste to much of Western, Indian and Islamic civilization. There’s no hopeful ending provided by history.

This is basically a zombie movie, a “Dark Ages World War Z,” borrowing imagery and story-beats such as the “evolving”  Tao Tei piling on top of each other, like ants, to scale the wall, just as in “Z.”

The moral of the story — “greed” destroys mankind, “A man must learn to trust before he can be trusted,” seem like addenda to Mao’s “Little Red Book.” The Chinese image here is of self-sacrificing masses — not a coward in the bunch — giving their all to the common good. All that’s missing is a patriotic song. Perhaps that’s in the Chinese version.

The only acting in this thing comes from the light touch Damon and “Game of Thrones” star Pascal have with their exchanges. Tian Jing is a slip of a thing with runway-ready hair and a toothy scowl she flashes in combat.

The Great Dafoe, like way too many people involved in this, was here for the check.

Yimou’s earliest films were filled with coded criticism of the totalitarian state he worked in. Here, he’s just cashing in, rolling his eyes and letting Hollywood have the “credit.”

But all this credit-sharing/buck-passing is no way to earn big bucks. Perhaps its Chinese box office covered the budget.

For the rest of the world, here’s the only value judgement that matters.

It’s as bad as the trailers promised it would be.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence

Cast: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Pedro PascalWillem Dafoe, Andy LauHanyu Zhang

Credits:Directed by Zhang Yimou, script by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy, story by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz. A Universal release.

Running time: 1:36

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Movie Review — “Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe”


It’s odd to think that the ancient art form of burlesque has any place in our exhibitionist age. If Lady Gaga and legions of wannabes are willing to bare all, for free, on a red carpet, on Instagram or Facebook Live, who has time for striptease, fan dancing or pasties?
Fifteen years into the “Neo-Burlesque” revival of the old bump-and-grind, it’s obvious that we do have the time and that burlesque still has relevance — at least to its practitioners.
“Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe” isn’t a Hollywood take on the art form. That came out years ago, starred Christina Aguilera and Cher and was set in Los Angeles at the height of this “comeback.” This “Glitter Tribe” is in Portland, Oregon, where nobody gets rich, no dancer becomes famous and these people do what they do for “love” — or some reasonable facsimile.
When Babs Jamboree, Sandria Dore’, Zora von Pavonine or the Stage Door Johnnies take the stage at clubs like the Funhouse Lounge or Lovecraft Bar, they’re in a costume they’ve designed and hand-made, doing a routine they’ve dreamed up and maybe had a little help choreographing.
burl2“It’s more than  a hobby,” it’s a passion, Zora declares. Filmmaker Jon Manning follows Zora and her mom as she preps for an appearance, hand-bedazzles assorted parts of her costume and prances on stage to take it all off. Well, most of it.
One dancer has taken the “Gyspy” show-stopper “Ya Gotta Have a Gimmick” to heart, building her mostly-nude act around torches and fire.
Isaiah Esquire is a Portland institution — a black man whose dance act transcends drag and once took him all the way to “America’s Got Talent.”
And then there’s Babs Jamboree — got to love these stage names. She’s a pastie-pasted pixie straight out of “Portlandia” — a tree surgeon by day, stripper going for laughs as a burrito peeling away its ingredients (layers) during one of her routines.
It’s more an overview than an up-close-and-personal documentary, letting us sample acts (Ivizia Dakini works with a puppet and does a striptease based on “Jesus Christ: Superstar”) and watch dancers prepare and talk about their motivations and sense of rebellion.
They talk about sexuality, redefining masculinity and what’s “sexy,” but freely acknowledge the comic edge that strips titillation out of the equation. Sometimes.
Still, if you want to get the full backstory of Angelique DeVil, a Grand Forks, N.D. blonde good enough to dance professionally in Los Angeles would walk away from “the competitiveness” and take on the tattoos and piercings and invent “assles,” tassles for the bum, and gyrate them before an audience, that isn’t revealed. Not really.
There are hints of hidden hurt, coming out and finding “my tribe,” here. Nothing terribly revealing. Some parents might disapprove, but most seem to encourage their kids and indulge their exhibitionist passions.
But what, beyond that, what is the drive — personal, psychological , body image or otherwise — that they must have in common? “Glitter” never gets close to that.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with nudity, profanity

Cast: Zora von Pavonine, Babs Jamboree, Angelique Devil

Credits:Directed by Jon Manning. An XLrator Media release.

Running time: 1:17

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Movie Review: Ukraine’s long beef with Mother Russia gets an airing in “Bitter Harvest”


Telling the full story of Ukraine’s tortured history as a subservient state to Russia, then the U.S.S.R., and more recently Russia again would take a mini series. So “Bitter Harvest” zeroes in on the most infamous Evil Empire crime against Ukrainians.

It’s an historical drama set during Holodomor, the Stalin-made famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s. It was genocide, a crime against humanity.

Young Yuri (Max Irons) is a boy with an artistic bent growing up in a Ukrainian village between the World Wars. All he wants out of life is to draw or write, and to be with his childhood love, Natalka (Samantha Barks), and to leave his rural town for the big city of Kiev.

But Ukraine was and is “the breadbasket of Europe.” And Uncle Joe Stalin (Gary Oliver) has other plans. Collectivize, ship your grain, livestock, fruit and vegetables to Moscow, or starve.

A nervous adviser pleads that “this will mean the death of millions,” but Stalin is unmoved. “Who will know?”

Thus begins the Sovietization of the region. A ruthless regiment of the Red Army, led by the sadistic Commisar Sergei (Tamer Hassen) shows up, beats and bullies the large landowners whom everybody works for.

And Sergei’s Cossack grandfather (Terence Stamp) and father (Barry Pepper, in an elaborate Cossack haircut) take up arms.

“No one can ever take away your freedom,” Grandpa, a former general nicknamed “The Wold Boar,” intones. “Remember that.”


Yuri is an artsy disappointment to him. But as the slaughter to force compliance begins, the boy must choose between the artistic life and love he dreamed of and the reality of one of the worst genocides in history.

Writer-director George Mendeluk conjures up a pastoral idyll of harvest greens and golds, followed by the mayhem of mass murder and resistance. “Bitter Harvest” coasts along on a story arc so conventional — Natalka’s virtue threatened, Yuri’s decision to fight — that you’ll swear you’ve seen this before in dozens of Hollywood films set in Occupied Europe, or elsewhere.

And while Stamp always gives fair value and Hassen makes for a marvelous villain, young Irons (“The Woman in Gold”) never rises above bland, giving a colorless performance that rests on his good looks and his surname (he’s Jeremy’s son) and little else. There’s no spark, no heat or passion here.

It’s an important subject, and a timely one, given Russia’s designs on re-occupying Ukraine and a new U.S. president who doesn’t seem to mind that.

But “Bitter Harvest” never amounts to more than a colorful misfire, a picture with much of the pageant of the period, but little of the roiling passions that dominate politics in the Breadbasket of Europe, even today.




MPAA Rating: R for violence and disturbing images

Cast: Max Irons, Samatha Barks, Terence Stamp, Barry Pepper, Tamer Hassan

Credits:Directed by George Mendeluk, script by  and George Menduluk,  A Roadside Attractions release.

Running time: 1:43

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Movie Review: “Brimstone” is cinematic Old West Hell


The Old West has never seemed bloodier, grimmer, more Godless or lawless than the version rendered by Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven.

The director of the pictorially striking and tense World War II in the Occupied Countries drama “Winter in Wartime” brings a picture postcard eye to the landscapes, homesteads and rustic towns of “Brimstone.”

But this grimly unpleasant two and a half hour endurance contest is an almost unwatchable, frustrating smorgasbord of blood, guts and gore. Eviscerations and head-shots, summary hangings, gooey childbirth and sickening self-surgery land in almost every scene of this fable.

He tells the story out of order to further muddy/bloody the waters of comprehension. The last thing this stupidly overlong saga needs to be doing is demanding our concentration.

“Brimstone” is the story of a mute farmwife, Liz (Dakota Fanning) raising her little girl, caring for a resentful stepson and married to a much older man ( William Houston).

It’s a tough life, but Liz endures it with an admirable stoicism until a new Dutch pastor shows up in town. The Reverend freaks her out. And since he’s played by Guy Pearce garbed in black, facial scars and hellfire sermonizing, we get it.

But they have history. When he hisses, “I’m here to PUNISH you,” she believes it, even if her husband doesn’t. As that husband is gruesomely murdered and she grabs the children to make her getaway, we start to understand.

A flashback takes us to the rescue of an abandoned girl, Joanna (Emilia Jones), tattered and wandering the wastelands. Chinese immigrants sell her into a life of prostitution lorded over by the pitiless pimp Frank in his Inferno Bar.

We piece together the story that connects the film’s opening to that pre-history through chapters Koolhoven titles “Revelation,” “Exodus,” and the like. We glimpse The Preacher’s early years  out west, with Carice Van Houten (“Black Book”) as his abused wife.

We see sheep gutted “as punishment,” a man disemboweled, murderous highwaymen shooting and hanging one another and prostitutes beaten, abused and hung when they dare to fight back against the assorted depraved cowpokes who frequent Frank’s establishment.

brime2Pearce takes to the omnipresent crack-shot preacher/tormentor with his usual relish. But there’s no pleasure in this monster, or in the fight against him. Fanning doesn’t give us anything more than her usual inadequate reactions to every situation, the curse of her adult acting career. Carla Juri and Vera Vitali, playing hookers, make stronger impressions.

There’s a grim illogic to it all, as if Koolhaven got all his research from “Worst Crimes of the Old West” books. Even though I can buy that in this world, cruelty comes easily and is every man’s default mode, characters act against their self-interest and the relentless, remorseless savagery makes the viewer ache for a justice that never comes, “Retribution” that one chapter in this morbid tale promises but refuses to deliver.


MPAA Rating: R for brutal bloody violence, strong sexual content including disturbing behavior, graphic nudity, and language

Cast: Dakota Fanning, Guy Lucas, Carice van Houten, Kit Harrington

Credits:Written and directed by Martin Koolhaven . An eOne/Monument release.

Running time: 2:28

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Box Office serves up a blockbuster weekend for “LEGO Batman”, “Fifty Shades” and “Wick” sequels


The first animated film to finally suck the life out of “Sing!” has arrived, and “The LEGO Batman Movie” is packing them in to the tune of $55 million on its opening weekend, per 

Parents may already own earlier direct-to-video LEGO movies that cover much of this same ground, but they’ve thrown a few big-name actors at this and the result has been almost universally praised by critics. I found it a bit wearying and patience-testing. Some of the freshness has gone out of the novelty of seeing toys talk and joke and dance and save Gotham City. But cute enough, even if it is a bit long.

50shades“Fifty Shades Darker,” the “Fifty Shades of Grey” sequel, is as awful as the first one. But a big-name director made the 8 or sex big sex scenes more titillating. And that’s all audiences come for. Ahem. A $45 million weekend in the US, a HUGE opening abroad.

And then there’s “John Wick: Chapter 2,” a gonzo gunfight/fistfight revenge sequel that’s doing wonders for Keanu Reeves’ bottom line. The world of assassins/code among murderers created for this franchise are cool and fascinating, so it’s gotten good reviews and has great word of mouth and looks to be clearing $30 million by Midnight Sunday.

Much has been made of “Hidden Figures” passing “La La Land” as the number one movie of an otherwise desultory new year. Both are in the $125-135 range. “LEGO” will pass them both by next weekend.

“The Space Between Us” has one last weekend in the top ten and is looking like the biggest bomb of the new year.

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Movie Review: Poet turns policeman into his personal persecutor in “Neruda”

neruda1The Great Poet played his part, almost too well.

An egoist and charmer, he could be relied on to recite verse, on demand, at parties, at brothels, to strangers on the street.

Callous, yet soulful, devoted yet a womanizer, he lived, walked and spoke (in his public “poet’s voice”) like the national/international treasure he knew himself to be.

Pablo Neruda knew how to carry himself like his pal Picasso, both of them “rock stars” before there was such a thing.

“Neruda”is a playful, picaresque look at the poet at his peak, a man of letters, fame and public service who could turn his voice and withering way with words on his proto-fascist foes in the Chilean Senate as a member there, and a whimsical hedonist who went underground when communists, like himself and his miners’ union friends were being rounded up and killed, or sent to concentration camps in the Chilean desert.

The world already knew Neruda, given a wry, bemused resignation by character actor Luis Gnecco, as the Great Love Poet, author of lines such as ““I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair.Silent and starving, I prowl through the streets. Bread does not nourish me, dawn disrupts me, all day I hunt for the liquid measure of your steps.”

But in his native Chile, he was known for his politics — a man of privilege who served as foreign consuls overseas, a communist convert in the Spanish Civil War, a champion of the working class, the campesinos of his native land, whom he celebrated and urged to action with his political poems.

But when he insults the sitting president on the floor of the Senate, a warrant is issued for his arrest. Neruda, his long-suffering wife Delia (Mercedes Moran) by his side, is spirited off into the night, hidden in safe houses by his fellow communists.

Writer Guillermo Calderon and director Pablo Larrain turn this period of Neruda’s life into a cat-and-mouse game. They over-reach for a tone, an interpretation of Neruda not unlike the one that came out of the Italian romance “Il Postino,” where Neruda gives advice to the lonely postman who delivers his mail on a remote Italian island where the poet was exiled, for a time. Here, the “comedy” comes from the poet’s chief persecutor,  the prefect of the State Police, Inspector Oscar Peluchoneau. Gael Garcia Bernal plays him as Neruda’s personal Javert, a fedora-wearing dandy who narrates the chase that Neruda sets him on.

In this telling, Peluchoneau is a tormented man, unacknowledged by his famous policeman father, sneering at the decadence and hypocrisy of wealthy leftists like Neruda. Let the “revolution” come, and they’d be the first to flea to the comforts of decadent dictatorships that surrounded Chile in the South America of the ’40s and 50s.

neruda2Peluchoneau is as Neruda imagines him, an officious fop to be toyed with, led hither and yon all over Chile in a merry but deadly chase. For while Neruda is in genuine fear for his safety and his friends are frantic to get him out of the country, he is also determined to make a game of it, to entertain the people and rally them to his cause.

He leaves paperback detective novels with autographed taunts inscribed inside the covers for the cop to find. He flaunts his fugitive status at brothels and parties, a man all of Chile is talking about even as its government is labeling him a communist traitor.

And along the way, as Neruda takes foolish chances and is foiled at this border crossing or that Chinese merchant ship getaway, he writes and bickers with his protectors and wife, hugs and kisses his adoring public and turns on “the Poet’s Voice” — the sing-song incantation of a priest reciting his famous lines — for one and all.

It’s a playful film, in Spanish with English subtitles, with melodramatic undertones, a score filled with romantic yet urgent strings — the music of Ives, Grieg and Penderecki — telling us “the fat communist” is in peril, even if he seems to be having a pretty good time of it.

Bernal is content to play the straight man in this morbid comedy, tormented by the pursuit and determined to see it through. But Gnecco, a Chilean comic actor well-known all over Latin America for assorted TV series, smirks and recites and plays Neruda as the legend he was and the role of a lifetime he’s become.



MPAA Rating: R for sexuality/nudity and some language

Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Luis Gnecco, Mercedes Moran

Credits:Directed by Pablo Larrain, script by Guillermo Calderon. A The Orchard release.

Running time: 1:47

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Movie Review: “The Lego Batman Movie”


It’s still as pretty as a toybox, eye candy in the brightest plastic colors and textures.

The creators of the second big screen LEGO toys movie stick to the rest of the formula, as well. There’s one original pop song. Yes, Batman sings in “The LEGO Batman Movie.”

The pop culture gags and one liners, most of them delivered by famous actors this time around, pepper the picture.

But you only get to take big screen audiences by surprise once. And as comfy as the Lego film folks have gotten with a winning formula that extends back to their many direct-to-video “adventures” with toy tie-ins, I can honestly say that this time around, they start to seem a little spent.

At 104 minutes, this CG/looks-like-stop-motion cartoon, drags. The screen is overcrowded with characters and gadgets that make it feel like a long, LEGO commercial.

And the song Batman sings is instantly forgettable, unlike that ear worm “Everything is Awesome.”

It’s still fun, a self-conscious parody that warmly references every big screen Batman dating back to the 1940s movie serial, and the vampy Adam West Batman TV show from the ’60s.

And Will Arnett? The funnyman was born to voice the Caped Crusader,  a self-absorbed, self-promoting “night stalking crime fighting machine” who lives in “sweet, sweet isolation.”

But the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) senses something is missing in their relationship. Like, a relationship. He wants to be known as Batman’s “number one enemy.” But the vainglorious Bat doesn’t give hugs and doesn’t admit that he needs anybody — even a nemesis.


With a new Commissioner Gordon, the former Commissioner’s daughter (Rosario Dawson) vowing the clean up “the most crime-ridden city in the world” with pro-active policing and social service, and with a new haphazardly-adopted ward, Dick Grayson (Michael Cera, perfect), Batman’s going to need to share.

“You can’t be a hero if you only care about yourself.”

We have our lesson to be learned, sharing is caring and work is all about “teamwork.”

And we quickly get a crisis that pushes our hero toward that lesson. Reluctantly. Alfred the Butler (Ralph Fiennes) may revoke Batman’s computer privileges for not sharing, and he’s not shy about letting the Bat know what “fatherhood” demands. But the Bat isn’t biting.

“Vigilantes don’t have ‘bed times.'”

The picture’s giddy opening is topped by some trippy later moments — Batman crashing Superman’s (Channing Tatum) “57th Anniversary of the Justice League” party at his Fortress of Solitude– “What, I didn’t get an invitation?”; visiting every bad guy, from Bane to Penguin, Scarecrow to Tw0-face, in a LEGO version of Arkham Prison.

Then there are the villains Joker releases from The Phantom Zone, a space purgatory where Superman and others have shipped everyone from the Wicked Witch of the West to Sauron of “Lord of the Rings,” Daleks from “Doctor Who” and Medusa from mythology and “You Know Who” from the Harry Potter universe.

Yeah, its a little funny to hear Eddie Izzard do Voldemort with Ralph Fiennes, the “real” Voldemort, playing a butler.

But few characters outside of Batman’s inner circle register, either as written gags or as voices (Jemaine Clement does Sauron. Who knew?).

The jukebox load of pop music montages — “One” “is the loneliest number,” George Michael, Rick Ashley, “We Are Family” and “Fly, Robin Fly” among them — aren’t amusing enough to warrant buying the rights to them.

And while the LEGO lair of the Batman, the LEGO Fortress of Solitude and LEGO Batboat, Batmobile, Bat Zepellin and Bat Kayak, are cute, they only seem to be here for the product placement.

“Mommy, what do I need to build THAT?”




MPAA Rating: PG for rude humor and some action

Cast: The voices of Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Zach Galifianakis, Ralph Fiennes, Jenny Slate, Eddie Izzard

Credits:Directed by, script by . A — release.

Running time: 1:44

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Movie Review: “Fifty Shades” isn’t “Darker” — duller? Maybe.


Those “Fifty Shades” dullards are still flirting, fornicating, breaking up and tying up in “Fifty Shades Darker,” a film which promises “darker” but delivers “funnier” — with some of the laughs intentional.

It’s a soapy sequel, a drinks-in-the-face/masked ball/helicopter crash/melodramatic mediocrity that a better director (James Foley of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “At Close Range” and “A Perfect Stranger”) can’t lift above laughable.

Meanwhile, English author E.L. James, creator of the ridiculous names Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, typist of such bon mots as “I don’t know whether to worship at your feet, or spank you,” laughs all the way to the bank.

And yes, Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) opts for “the second option.” Otherwise, there’d be no movie.

That’s an achingly obvious flaw in this S&M female wish-fulfillment fantasy. Anastasia (Ana) has broken off with the uber rich “most eligible bachelor” of Seattle (Jamie Dornan), eschewed the pleasures/pains of his “red room” of torture/teasing delights and started her career. But all he has to do is throw flowers her way and promise “New rules” for their sex-play/relationship, and she’s on her back or on her knees again.

The “Darker” of the title refers to the consequences of Christian’s form of sexual release. One of his former “subs” (submissive to his dominance), a tortured soul played without a hint of pathos by Bella Heathcote, is stalking Ana. His initiator (Kim Basinger) into the world of bondage, whips, etc. is still in his life, warning Ana off, disapproving of her in every way.

S&M creates bonds for life. Apparently.

And all the poor girl really wants to do is impress her stubbly, hair-flopped-over-one-eye boss (Eric Johnson), the fiction editor at a Seattle publishing house. The novelist James seems to think it daring or telling that Ana would pursue professional ambitions when her celebrated suitor, who shows up everywhere in a convoy of Audis, could just say “It’s been taken care of” to her every want and need.

The film takes a stab–or cigarette burn — at creating motivations for Grey’s sexual deviance, flashbacks to a tortured childhood and “crack whore” mom. Yawn.

Give Foley credit for making the sex scenes — ten of them — some actual sexiness. He can’t give the fourth-choice actors cast in the leads chemistry, but he can make their copulation titillating and believable. Johnson isn’t outgrowing her mousy screen presence, but at least she’s mastered her orgasm face. Ben Wa balls, elevator gropes and the like have certainly given her enough practice.


It’s all so opulent, from the penthouse Grey calls home to the family mansion (Marcia Gay Harden is his mother, giving this film two Oscar winners) that spawned him, to the stunning, cavernous apartment that Ana manages on an office assistant’s salary.

And it’s all so decadent and empty, designer duds gained without struggle, “trust” and “win her back with the Big Romantic Gesture” moments with no heart, sex without love.

Worst of all, this two-hour clock watcher that doesn’t really go anywhere is the merely the set-up for a third film, whose title at least promises some relief.

“Fifty Shades Freed.” Can’t wait for that.


MPAA Rating:R for strong erotic sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Kim Basinger, Marcia Gay Harden, Bella Heathcoate

Credits:Directed by James Foley, script by Niall Leonard, based (screenplay), E.L. James . A Universal  release.

Running time: 1:53

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Movie Review: “Rings” goes for a mashup reboot


Paramount has revived “The Ring” cycle with “Rings,” a middling update that has few of the chills and little of the suspense of the J-horror original, or its Hollywood version.

The ever-cloudy Pacific Northwest is still home to “the videotape that kills you if you watch it.” That’s a story related by one young passenger to another on an airline flight.

He looks at his watch, figures he’s safe unless something happens “in the next five minutes.” And, well, you know.

Two years later, Julia (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) says her sweet good-byes to her college-bound beau, Holt (Alex Roe). She wonders what’s up when, within weeks, his Skype sexting sessions stop and he won’t answer his phone. She dashes to Spokane to investigate.

The foreshadowing here is that their love is to be as strong as Orpheus and Eurydice, from Greek myth. He was the lover who pursued his dead love to the underworld in order to save her. Julia has let Holt and us know that the days of women being damsels rescued by dudes are gone.

And Holt, it turns out, is in need of her commitment and sacrifice. He’s watched the tape, a hodgepodge of black and white images of a suicide, a well, flies and assorted other images — “clues” as to who haunts the tape, and who is coming to get you.

Holt has seen it. As it turns out, a careless/callous college professor (Johnny Galecki of “Big Bang Theory”) has loosed his students onto the tape, and loosed it onto them. It’s some sort of biology/afterlife experiment. No, it’s not likely to get him tenure.

rings2Julia experiences the horror first-hand, is warned away from watching the tape by Holt, but plunges into the nightmare he and others are living and the mystery their somewhat-clever professor hasn’t quite solved.

“Rings” then loses itself in that mystery, which if you remember the original films, was about a hirsute, murdered child rising out of the well to avenge herself on the world. The mystery is expanded and explained further here, which unravels the story’s inherent mystique.

It’s the random ruthlessness of Samara, the child ghost, that was so hair-raising in the earlier films. Knowing about her mother, changing the timeline of how long ago this crime happened, doesn’t improve the tale or the telling of it.

The deaths cooked up by three credited screenwriters aren’t creative and are only mildly creepy. Director F. Javier Gutierrez manages the lighting, but never the dread tone of the film that made Naomi Watts famous.

None of the cast brings anything like genuine terror or urgency to the proceedings. Only Vincent D’Onofrio, making a third act appearance, acquits himself with honor.

And the finale kind of spoiled the generous mood I was in up to that point — “Well, I’ve seen worse.”


MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence/terror, thematic elements, some sexuality and brief drug material

Cast: Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Alex RoeJohnny Galecki, Vincent D’Onofrio

Credits:Directed by F. Javier Gutiérrez , script by  David Loucka, Jacob Estes and Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Koji Suzuki. A Paramount release.

Running time: 1:47

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Movie Review: The action’s tailor-made for Keanu in “John Wick Chapter 2”


The fists fly, the bullets blaze and the mayhem borders on magnificent in “John Wick: Chapter 2,” a sequel that ups the artistic ante even as it boosts the body count of that sleeper hit about the assassin’s assassin played by Keanu Reeves.

John Wick is “the legend, the myth,” “a man of focus, commitment and sheer f—ing will,” “the boogeyman,” “the ghost, ‘lo spettro,'” and “death’s very emissary.” So everybody in “Chapter 2” says.

It doesn’t matter that Wick, in Keanu’s spare, hoarse voice, mutters “I’m not that guy any more,” to one an all. To everyone who knows him — and that means pretty much everyone in the movie — he still is.

In a bravura opening gambit, stuntman turned “Wick” director Chad Stahelski hurls us back into the action of the first film — a noisy, nervy vintage car (1970 Chevelle SS) vs motorcycle chase that brings Wick to the Russian mob that stole his Boss Mustang and shot his dog.

Peter Stormare is the mob boss — Russians make the best villains, everybody except for Trump knows this — who fearfully regales a subordinate with the chaos that is coming their way. His hilarious reactions, simply hearing the sounds of Wick shooting, stabbing, beating up his minions and retrieving his car, reset the tone.

This is going to be bloody. Those in Wick’s underworld are going to be damned funny, comically querulous and resigned to their fates. And Keanu? He’s not going to say much, just the way he and we like him.

“Chapter 2” is about “a marker,” a chit Wick owes to a fellow member of the elite international underground mob. The oily, polished Santino (Ricardo Scamarico) is owed a hit. And he’s willing to blow up Wick’s house to make him repay a debt.

The code of killers means Wick will take the job. No honor among thieves means he’ll be double-crossed. And it doesn’t matter that the Italians and the rest of the elaborate underworld invented for the movie come after this killer with a staggeringly high price on his head. John Wick cannot be stopped, will not be denied his vengeance.

I love the world screenwriter Derek Kolstad and director Stahelski concoct for this. There’s a chain of mob hotels run by the likes of the glorious old pros Ian McShane and Franco Nero, hostelries where “no blood” can be “spilled,” safe havens for the likes of Wick or whatever mobster he is hunting. The sommelier of the Rome Continentale (Peter Serafinowicz, plummy perfection) doubles as a Fine Firearms for the Well-Dressed Murderer dealer. Guns, like wines, are “robust” or “dessert. The concierge of the Manhattan Continentale (Lance Reddick, deliciously decorous) takes personal service to even greater heights, taking in Wick’s pitbull. There are tailors (with sweatshops) catering to bulletproof fashions, map dealers offering underground escape routes, a panoply of professionals serving other professionals. 

Lawrence Fishburne is a laugh riot as “the Bowery King,” a sophisticate with a homing pigeon  (microchip delivery) scam and an army of “homeless” killers who sit, beg for change or ramble on in dementia as they watch the city, guns with silencers under their tattered ponchos. Ruby Rose is  sexy/scary as the deaf-mute killer in a lesbian chic bob who signs her oblique threats to Wick, who speaks sign language himself.

wick1Reeves is stoic and focused and his adept, showboat gun handling has hints of TV cowboys of the ’50s, though his line-readings are as stiff as ever. Oscar winning singer/rapper Common doesn’t give us much in his scenes as Wick’s chief rival, the man hunting him down. They’re both overly concerned with the epic fight choreography they must master. At times, the overdone staging reveals itself as Reeves or Common can be seen waiting for the other’s next stage punch or lunge before throwing theirs. Jump cuts suggest the action is sped up for the actors’ benefits.

Shootouts — and there are oh-so-many — take place in glamorously-lit catacombs, an ancient crypt turned mafia queen’s boudoir and candlelit bath, Roman ruins turned into an elaborate laser light/house music rave, and in an art exhibit’s hall of mirrors.

It’s all too much, but also too much fun. The best thing one can say for “Chapter 2” is that it’s not spoiled by the knowledge that yeah, they’re hellbent on making Wick into a franchise, even as they shoot themselves into a corner. Again.


MPAA Rating: R for strong violence throughout, some language and brief nudity.

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Common, Peter Stormare, Ruby Rose, Ricardo Scamarcio, Ian McShane, Lawrence Fishburne,

Credits:Directed by Chad Stahelski, script by Derek Kolstad. A Summit release.

Running time: 2:02

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