Preview: Summer Movies 2019

Tarantino takes on Hollywood circa 1969 with a couple of “newcomers.” His new film got a 6-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival.

Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story? The Russo Brothers have the top-secret answers to the world’s biggest superhero cliffhanger as summer movie season unofficially opened in late April with their epic Avengers: Endgame. Expect variety to be a spice of life more potent than popcorn salt at the multiplex this summer with superheroes, talking plush toys, remakes of animated films, hot rod hijinks, glimpses at bygone eras, girl power extravaganzas and whimsical musicals coming to a theatre near you.

This month’s Marvel multiverse ensemble adventure is just the beginning of a summer superhero season also touting a globetrotting Spider-Man: Far From Home, in which Tom Holland’s arachni-teen faces off against Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio. The X-Men spinoff, June’s Dark Phoenix with James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, will strive to keep the long-running series afloat longer than a Cher farewell tour.

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes as Ryan Reynolds voices the title character of the film noir comedy adventure Pokémon: Detective Pikachu. In fact, every doll will have its day this season as Kelly Clarkson and a bunch of misfit toys sing their way through the animated UglyDolls, and “Chucky” returns for a new terror-filled round of Child’s Play.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters, featuring Kyle “Coach Taylor” Chandler, and John Wick: Chapter 3, with Keanu Reeves still on the run, promise to give moviegoers the action they crave. But summer isn’t summer without the “Will Smith effect,” and this movie star’s presence or lack thereof can make or break a summer tentpole (Did you see the Smith-free Independence Day sequel? Neither did we!). Despite no Will in a title role, Men in Black: International marches on with Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth as the central alien-fighting duo. Smith’s actual summer movie is Aladdin, a live-action film of the hit Disney cartoon, and typically macho director Guy Ritchie (Snatch) is betting you ain’t never had a friend like “Blue Genie” Will Smith, and a whole new world of profits are sure to stimulate the economy of Agrabah.

Family films are center stage with another live-action Disney remake, Lion King (Beyoncé and Donald Glover are part of the crooning pride), plus Woody and Buzz are back for Toy Story 4. Even Dora the Explorer is making her primero trip to the big-screen in The Lost City of Gold.

Car buffs will revel in the action of Hobbs and Shaw, the movie spinoff of the Fast and Furious franchise with Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham. Christian Bale and Matt Damon also star in Ford v. Ferrari, the true story of the battle between racecar rivals to win Le Mans in 1966.

Set in the Golden Age of filmmaking in 1969, Quentin Tarantino’s much-anticipated Once Upon a Time in Hollywood features Leo DiCaprio as a fading TV star, Brad Pitt as his stunt double and general retro craziness. Other prestige pics include Nicholas Hault as Middle Earth maker Tolkien, hallucinogenic horror movie Midsommar (some are calling it Wizard of Oz for adults-only, from the director of Hereditary) and the hypnotic The Last Black Man in San Francisco with Jimmie Fails as a man refurbishing his grandfather’s Victorian home in a rapidly changing city that seems to have left him behind.

Woman take center stage in The Kitchen, as in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen, starring Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Hadish as women with a score to settle. Director Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart features a sassy duo of straight-A women letting loose in epic fashion.

Summer is also a great time for movies with music. Yesterday is a drama by Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle in which the catalogue of The Beatles is mysteriously erased from memory in modern day, and the one guy on earth who remembers the Fab Four’s songs embarks on a mission to make bank by introducing the world to these catchy originals. Folks rhapsodic for musical biopics will be over the moon to watch the story of Elton John in Rocketman, embodied by The Kingsman’s Taron Egerton.

Get ready to binge screen!

Movie Review: Long Shot (2019)

Jonathan Levine’s comedy set in the high stakes world of international diplomacy, Long Shot (B+), is equal parts shock and aw-shucks. Its central odd couple pairing is a meeting of hive minds and makes a wry statement about not always playing it safe, even in love and politics. Charlize Theron’s character is living in the bubble of a secretary of state role with eyes on the presidency when she encounters Seth Rogen’s schlubby ex-journalist turned speechwriter, and it’s a burst of unexpected laughs and chemistry as they embark on a world tour to save the planet, boost her likability polling and dodge a few unexpected hazards of the job. June Diane Raphael and O’Shea Jackson Jr. are supporting delights as the central duo’s witty advisors. If you’re not easily offended by vulgar sex and drug references, par for the course on the Rogen milieu, you’re in for one of the snappiest rom cons in quite a while. Theron steals the show as she reveals the vulnerability behind the statuesque veneer, especially in a sequence when she diffuses a global crisis while recovering from a night of particularly hardcore partying. Rogen enjoys his best role in years and gets to demonstrate his earnest side. The state of this union is quite satisfying. 

Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

Bring on the ballet of bombast! Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (B-) delivers more of what fans desire – the stoic Keanu Reeves as the titular retired hitman now with quite a bounty on his head, brutally graphic action sequences and elaborate fights and stunts staged against epic and ultra-cool set pieces. A few Oscar winners and nominees are thrown in the mix – Halle Barry, Laurence Fishburne and Angelica Huston chief among them – and none should expect a repeat nomination from this outing. Barry is particularly hit or miss. But for sheer propulsive action and energy, this flick brings the goods. Front-loaded with some of its best sequences including a fight in a library with books as weapons and a more straightforward showdown in an actual weapons store, the film ultimately gets a bit campy with elaborate lairs resembling Bond villain hideaways re-imagined by Max Headroom’s electronica DJ nephew. Following the rules and lore of the assassin underground becomes a bit puzzling, but by the time the travelogue has taken viewers from NYC to Casablanca and back, you realize it’s all just a big canvas for grotesquerie, kung fu and bloodsport.  Nothing seems to slow down this earnest and absurd series.

Movie Review: Pokémon Detective Pikachu

The film is based on a popular international video game.

The bar is set low for movies based on video games, and Rob Letterman’s Pokémon Detective Pikachu (D+) lurks right below that threshold. Justice Smith is a bit adrift as an insurance agent who lost his estranged father in a mysterious accident near a lab on the outskirts of a utopia where humans and Pokémon (plural!) live mostly in harmony (like humans and toons in Roger Rabbit‘s milieu). Smith’s reluctant hero is joined by the spry voice of Ryan Reynolds as the titular adorable yellow creature at the heart of the story. The film fails to take full advantage of its film noir set-up nor does it add many compelling layers to chase and action sequences, so it basically isn’t interesting, funny or exciting enough to justify all the average special effects bouncing around its screen. Because Pikachu’s dialogue can only be heard by his human friend, there could have been something wry or subversive here, but alas it’s all aimed at a very young audience. And to that end, it doesn’t really set much of a life lesson or warm the heart either. Perhaps there’s a demographic to whom this will have exact appeal, but Letterman and his intrepid detectives didn’t make the case to many new fans with this one.


Movie Review: Avengers: Endgame

This is the fourth of the Avengers movies including nearly all Marvel Cinematic Universe characters.

Joe and Anthony Russo’s sprawling and satisfying superhero ensemble Avengers: Endgame (B+) is likely the most emotional of the Marvel series. It comes after the previous film’s conceit of killing off half the world’s population, and much of this installment addresses how people grieve and marshal the will to move forward. Two favorite characters have some stunning physical transformations which are subjects of consistent humor. Characters’ witty jabs at each other are a franchise hallmark, and these too are in ample supply. Action sequences are rare but quite CGI heavy and almost seem perfunctory in a film more centered on human bonds. Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth get many of the highlights in a sometimes overstuffed narrative. Come for the action; stay for the interaction.

Movie Review: Shazam!

Shazam! stars Zachary Levi.

A fun hybrid of Big and The Goonies, the DC Universe gets a lively dose of life and levity with the introduction of David Sandberg’s Shazam! (B). The film’s teen protagonist is grappling with new powers which cause him to toggle back and forth between awkward adolescence and transforming into a full-fledged adult superhero just as he joins a foster family with a bunch of precocious step-siblings. Asher Angel and Zachary Levi are superb and funny as the boy and his adult alter ego, respectively, and the film’s family includes Jack Dylan Graser as a cunning sidekick and Cooper Andrews as a lovable lug of a foster dad. The movie is aimed squarely at a family audience, despite a few early scares courtesy of Mark Strong’s viciously one-note villain and a bunch of beguiling CGI monsters. It’s a touch overlong, but the comedy, action and surprises pile high with fairly consistent success, and there are even a few moments of genuinely moving domestic drama. The movie creates characters for whom the audience can truly cheer in an environment largely well imagined. Expect the origin stories explored here to bring further marvels to DC.

In the Spotlight: 2019 Atlanta Film Festival Trailer

The event is April 4-14, 2019, with festival passes and single tickets available here: https://www.atlantafilmfestival.com/

Movie Review: Dumbo (2019)

Dumbo by Tim Burton

Nearly eight decades after the animated original, Tim Burton’s live action Dumbo (C+) has flown onto the scene again, and the pachyderm protagonist remains a charming silent star, no matter what’s going on in the peanut galleries around him. Disney executives appear to operate under the premise that, unlike elephants, moviegoers sometimes forget, so there’s liberty to color in some detail around the original 64-minute cartoon’s plot for those with only a hint of familiarity about the circus-set story. Burton adds generous dollops of fussiness around what was formerly a pretty simple storyline about a misfit animal who finds his big ears actually enable him to fly and become a sensational performer. The human actors including Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton and Eva Green have very little to do in underwritten roles. Characteristic of all but about a half dozen of Burton’s films is his propensity to deliver style over substance or story, and this entry comes up short on all of those metrics. The art direction and costumes are quite lovely, and there are some nice homage and heartstrings moments, but largely it’s a mediocre show at the multiplex.

Movie Review: Us (2019)

Us by Jordan Peele

Anyone who’s ever fantasized about having a twin has probably not seen many horror movies, because doppelgänger-dom is typically hell one earth when your double turns out to be trouble. In telling the suspenseful story of a privileged family facing off with unfortunate duplicate “others,” Jordan Peele’s Us (B+) peels back lots of layers about Modern America and reveals a complex and fascinating motion picture experience. The terror – set largely in West coast enclaves near a lake and a beach amusement park – is taut and the tone of unease singularly stirring, but the imaginative writer/director overreaches at times in his ambition to top Get Out with this unsettling sophomore effort. Lupita Nyong’o is simply fabulous in two distinct and challenging performances, but the problem with all the players is that allegorical characters aren’t that fundamentally interesting. Winston Duke doesn’t fare quite as well with a ho-hum husband character who can only be described as not wearing the pants much, literally or figuratively. Peele’s parade of timely topics spans from red state politics to the digital divide, from defanged authority figures to upper class malaise as clones endeavor to claw their way into the mainstream. A viewer could enjoy the fresh and breathless action without absorbing all the creative points of view the auteur is trying to convey. Ultimately although everything doesn’t add up in this creative piece of speculative fiction, film fans and horror enthusiasts will relish the journey. Peele’s undeniable style and subversive commentary about a country of haves and have nots is sly and smart.

Movie Review: Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Here’s a heroic hot take: It took 21 Marvel Cinematic Universe films for the creators to accomplish the hat trick of making it all not look so damn hard. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s easy, breezy entertainment Captain Marvel (B+) places its plum protagonist in a hybrid mystery/prequel set in the ‘90s, and it reveals its plot and characters with leisurely delight and a stunning lack of urgency. The easygoing ensemble includes Brie Larsen being cool and collected in the title role, a special effects de-aged Samuel L. Jackson as ultra-chill Young Nick Fury, Ben Mendelsohn as a funny and super casual alien menace and a fetching feline stowaway low-key stealing its sequences. Aerial dogfighting, mind bending, light speeding and urban outrunning its way into the beloved comic book franchise, the movie builds atmosphere and drama without Thor sledgehammering or strange doctoring into too much needless complexity. The unfussy story: find yourself, find a secret charged object and set the stage for saving the universe. Plus it’s fairly woke in the casting and character departments. Mawkish supporting performances by Jude Law and Annette Bening are thankfully eclipsed by the nifty grunge-era songbook, splendid visuals and generous helpings of heart (Lashana Lynch and Akira Akbar are wonderfully warm as the captain’s surrogate family). The cast and crew clearly worked hard on this one, and it’s nice they put on a show without being so showy.

Industry News: Oscars Predictions – 2019 Telecast

Stephen at the Oscars

Get ready for the biggest party in Hollywood—The Academy Awards telecast is Sunday, February 24, 2019 at 8 p.m. EDT on ABC. For many of us, the best part of the evening is pre-gaming to red carpet arrivals (E! Entertainment is the place for stargazing). Be on the lookout for fashion plates like nominees Emma Stone, Michael B. Jordan and Regina King. But, the movies are the main event, so here’s a look at what to expect as you prepare to win your own preferential ballots.

Oscars So Woke

This year’s Oscars ceremony is infamously host-free (there are rumors of Whoopi Goldberg gearing up to be a stealth emcee) and promises to tickle and tick off just about everybody as both Hollywood hits and artier indie fare compete for top prizes in a year when representation on screen has been paramount. This juried juggernaut is the culmination of a prolonged awards season in which anything is possible, and surprises and snubs will undoubtedly own the night.

And the Winner Might Be…

Many films and featured artists are sure to blow up your Twitter feed to “Grammy Michelle Obama proportions,” so you’ll want to binge up on any movies you’ve missed. Expect to hear the swirling sounds of Gaga – the Radio Gaga variety, as Rami Malek is a frontrunner for his flamboyant frontman role as Freddie Mercury in the Queen music biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, and the Lady Gaga type as she sings her A Star Is Born hit single “Shallow” opposite co-star and snubbed first-time director Bradley Cooper. Both in this romantic duo are nominated for their searing performances in the hit remake. Black Panther was the $700 million juggernaut of 2018 and blew peoples’ minds with its Afrofuturist take on the epic action odyssey. The first comic book adaptation ever to compete for best picture, it’s a long shot for the top prize but wouldn’t surprise anyone as Wakanda has forged its forever place in cinematic history. Spike Lee is also making history with his latest joint, finally up for competitive prizes after a sterling career as a cinematic trailblazer. He’s vying in directing, writing and best picture categories for BlacKkKlansman, a winning real-life story with John David Robinson (Denzel’s son) and the nominated Adam Driver infiltrating a hate group in Colorado. The film is alternately funny, ferocious and fascinating. You’ll also hear lots about Roma, a black and white film set in 1970s Mexico City about a housekeeper (newcomer Yalitza Aparicio) who quietly watches over the family she lives with during a time of contemporary revolutions. Expect Alfonso Cuarón’s deeply personal Spanish-language film – which premiered on and is now streaming on Netflix – to get mucho praise come Oscar night. The sleeper film still charming multiplex audiences is Green Book, a real-life buddy comedy with Viggo Mortensen of Lord of the Rings as a Brooklyn bouncer who must transport a classical pianist played by True Detective’s Mahershala Ali through the late-‘60s Deep South with only their emerging friendship and a race relations guidebook to steer their destiny. Expect Ali, a recent Oscar winner for Moonlight, to score a second trophy for this classic Hollywood road picture with an acting pair reminiscent of Shawshank Redemption. Also worth viewing before the big show are Glenn Close as a spouse with a secret in The Wife, Sam Rockwell and Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in the political satire Vice, and Olivia Colman as a droll and debauched queen in the offbeat dark comedy The Favourite. My predictions: Black Panther upsets Roma for Best Picture with Cuarón winning director and best foreign film, Glenn Close and Rami Malek take first-time featured role wins and Mahershala Ali and The Favourite‘s Rachel Weisz land second-time supporting wins. There will be lots of awards to go around and the movie faithful will watch until the very end to see if their predictions hold true.

My video predictions:

Movie Review: Friedkin Uncut

Acclaimed and criminally under-appreciated motion picture director William Friedkin is known for the gritty near-documentary reality he imbues in projects such as The Exorcist, The French Connection, Sorcerer, Cruising and Bug, so it’s fun to witness the man behind the movies sounding off about his approach. Francesco Zippel‘s Friedkin Uncut (B) stitches together interviews with the titular director and many of his contemporaries about his place in history and examines sequences from the seminal works of his outrageous oeuvre. He’s a cunning subject with a POV on topics such as staging a great car chase, mounting an opera, embedding with priests and police for ultimate authenticity and getting deep in the heads of filmmaking pioneers. Quentin Tarantino, Ellen Burstyn, Willem Defoe and Francis Ford Coppola are among the most compelling storytellers about Friedkin’s influence. One of the greatest tricks Friedkin pulls is the art of filming with one simple take. Some behind the scenes and archival footage is better than others, but Zippel captures a compelling portrait of an exacting auteur.

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