Sweet Hats, Plenty of Cattle

The Harder They Fall

by George Wolf

Who doesn’t love a good Western?

If you’re the one, I’ve got two reasons not to saddle up with The Harder They Fall.

  1. It’s a Western
  2. It’s good

Ruthless Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) is getting out of jail, and that’s mighty interesting news to Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), who has no love for Rufus.

Nat has a serious score to settle, so he re-assembles his old gang, led by sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), and sets out on horseback. Along the way, Nat rekindles a flame with saloon owner Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz) and earns the trust of Mary’s silent-but-deadly bodyguard Cuffie (Danielle Deadwyler).

And even though Nat is a wanted man, Marshall Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) decides he’d rather be on the team that finally takes Buck down.

But Rufus has some pretty solid support in his corner, too. Treacherous Trudy Smith (Regina King) speaks softly but shows no mercy, while quick draw legend Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) leads a posse of men helping Rufus kick Sherrif Wiley Escoe (Deon Cole) out of Redwood and take over the town.

And that town ain’t big enough for both Buck and Love.

Director and co-writer Jeymes Samuel (aka The Bullitts) plants his flag early, with onscreen text telling us that he may not be telling a true story, but these people did exist. So while you may be reminded of Tarantino (or his many shared influences), this film’s history isn’t alternative. Samuel and his committed ensemble are here to remind us that it’s the whitewashed Hollywood version of the Old West that’s fiction.

Yes, these dusty roads are well traveled and the dialog can be a bit musty (“love is the only thing worth dying for…”), but there’s so much stylish bloodshed, gallows humor and terrific acting in every frame that the film wins you over on pure entertainment value alone.

Plus, it looks fantastic. Samuel frames the landscape with gorgeous panoramas, while wrapping some nimble camera movements and pulsing rhythms around those steely stare downs, frantic shoot ’em ups, freshly-pressed hats and dusters and plenty of other delicious period details.

The Harder They Fall is big, bold, visionary fun. It takes characters, races and lifestyles that have been hijacked by history and reclaims them all with the brashness of an early morning bank job.

This crew ain’t shootin’ blanks, and they rarely miss.

Squad Goals

The Suicide Squad

by Hope Madden

What, did you think Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, glorious goddess that you know she is) only did that supervillain black ops thing that one time? No. Don’t fix what ain’t broke—she has access to expendable bad guys and lots of very sticky situations to deal with.

Now is just the time for another Suicide Squad.

Actually, writer/director James Gunn’s clear purpose is to fix what David Ayer broke last time. And what did he break? An exceptional idea that rid us of those tedious superheroes and gave us an adventure strewn with the far more colorful characters: the bad guys.

How did he fix it? Step 1: an R rating. He’s not kidding, either. If you only know Gunn from his family-friendly Guardians of the Galaxy adventures, then you may not expect quite this much carnage. If, however, you know him from his early Troma work or his sublime creature feature Slither, then you might have a sense of what’s in store.

Also fixed—the cast! Bring back the good ones (Ms. Davis, Margot Robbie), add exceptional new faces (Idris Elba, John Cena), pepper in Gunn-esque cameos (Michael Rooker Nathan Fillion, Sean Gunn, Lloyd Kaufman), and voila! Joel Kinnaman’s back, too, and he has to be elated that his character gets to have a personality this time around.

The very James Gunn soundtrack delivers from the opening seconds through the closing credits and brings with it a wrong-headed sense of fun that pervades the entire effort. Gunn’s writing is gawdy, bedazzled, viscera-spattered glee, but there’s a darkness along with it that suggests he understands better than most the ugliness of these characters and their assignment.

Robbie’s Harley Quinn steals scenes, as is her way. Cena’s true talent shines brightest when he’s put in the position to be the butt of jokes, and as such, his Peacemaker gets off a lot of great lines. Elba is the solid skeleton to hang all this nuttiness on.

Not everything works, though. Stallone’s shark man feels like little more than this film’s version of Groot, only with less purpose. There’s a rat subplot that goes nowhere, and the film is as leaden with daddy issues as every comic book movie in history.

But the way Gunn handles the mommy issues that plague Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian, unnerving as ever) is nothing less than inspired.

Is The Suicide Squad a cinematic masterpiece? It is not. It is, however, a bloody, irreverent good time.

Look What the Cat Dragged In

Cats

by Christie Robb

People say that you’re either a cat person or a dog person. I’m a cat person, but definitely not a Cats person. But if you are, there’s a lot to enjoy in the new film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 musical based on poems by T.S. Eliot.

How else could you possibly get tickets to see a show with this cast? Taylor Swift. Idris Elba. Rebel Wilson. James Corden. Jennifer Hudson. How else can you watch a feline Dame Judi Dench curl up convincingly in a basket? Or glimpse Sir Ian McKellen lap from a bowl of milk?

A movie is a very egalitarian way to enjoy a Broadway musical. This one is about an assemblage of cats who have gathered together under the full moon to decide which one of them will be chosen to be reborn into a new life. Their best life. They pitch their case by singing the song of themselves. There’s very little in the way of traditional narrative structure although director Tom Hooper (Les Misérables) does tinker around with the play a bit to try to tease one out. It’s more like a musical revue designed around a central theme.

Initially concerned about falling into the uncanny valley of CG feline effects on the actors’ familiar faces, after some early creepy moments I got used to it. The realistic tail twitches and subtle changes in the angle of an ear serve to give additional cues as to the interior life of a cat that mere facial expressions alone can’t provide. (The opportunity to see emotional reactions through closeups is another advantage of a screen version.)

Occasionally the feline illusion is broken (most often by Swift and Elba) and instead of seeing a cat you are confronted with a dancing furry naked person with Barbie-doll genitalia. But most of the time, it works.

Wilson and Corden are amusing. Watching Francesca Hayward (principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet) dance the role of Victoria is a delight. But the true star of this show is Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella, a former “glamour cat” now old and suffering through hard times.

As in Les Mis, Hooper has his cast sing live, and it is Hudson’s performance of the signature song “Memory” that far outshines every other musical number here. It’s likely what you’ll be humming as you walk out of the theatre, and the one thing you’ll most remember about these Cats.

Bald & Bickering

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

by Hope Madden

Somewhere around its 6th installment, the Fast & Furious franchise tweaked its direction, abandoning logic and embracing ludicrous action as it jumped cars from skyscraper to skyscraper and waterskied off the back of launched torpedoes.

But things took off for real around Episode 7 when some mad genius decided to pit mountainous government operative Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) against Limey nogoodnik Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), each of them playing a self-lampooning version of themselves. Fun!

Where to go from there? How about we drop that whole car heist and espionage thing, expel Vincent Toretto and gang, bring in Idris Elba and see what happens?

And for the very first time, I was kind of looking forward to a F&F film.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw boasts more than ampersands. Internal logic? Cohesive plot? Thoughtful insights on man’s inhumanity to man?

Why, no.

Cheeky fun? Indeed!

The film indulges in the best elements of F&F (action lunacy, self-aware comedy) and dispenses with its weaknesses (schmaltz, Diesel). F&F: H&S consists primarily of fistfights, gun fights and vehicular chicanery stitched together with comic lines. Unfortunately, there is a plot, but it doesn’t get in the way too much.

A virus meant to thin the herd falls (or is injected!) into the hands of a rogue
(or is she?!!) MI6 agent. The CIA (or is it?!!!) pulls together the two old enemies for no particular reason, but Ryan Reynolds shows up in a decidedly peculiar cameo (one of several to look out for) that draws your attention away from the first of many gaping plot holes.

By this point (about 7 minutes into the film) we’ve been through three separate fight sequences, each meant to articulate the character of one of our leads: down-and-dirty badass (Hobbs), smoothly lethal sophisticate (Shaw), smart and efficient and highly contagious (Vanessa Kirby as MI6 virus thief Hattie), and Black Superman (Idris Elba, who gives himself the name, but if it fits…).

Right. Enough with plot, on to stupifyingly illogical and imaginative action. Hobbs & Shaw offers quite a spectacle.

It bogs down when it gets away from the explosions, wheelies and punches. Whether devoting excessive time to pissing contests or to dysfunctional family backstories, director David Leitch—who proved his action mettle with Atomic Blonde—too often forgets that words are not this franchise’s strongest suit.

Still, there is something compelling about watching Black Superman V Samoan Thor. I don’t know that there’s enough here for a franchise springboard, but there’s plenty for a wasted afternoon.

Hot Hand

Molly’s Game

by Hope Madden

As screenwriters go, few have as noticeable a presence as Aaron Sorkin. A Sorkin screenplay = smart people saying smart things really quickly, over top of each other, often while walking.

His are dialogue-driven character pieces where brilliant people throw intellectual and moral challenges at one another while the audience wonders whether the damaged protagonist’s moral compass can still find true north.

That struggling hero this time around is Molly Bloom, played by the always-sharp Jessica Chastain. On first blush, the idea that Sorkin—directing his first feature—would choose to focus on a gossip-page celebrity criminal seems wrong. Bloom became tabloid fodder after her arrest made her high stakes, celebrity-filled poker games big news.

Gossip is not Sorkin’s wheelhouse, but unsung, solitary brilliance is and that’s what he hopes you see in Bloom, an Olympic-class skier with Harvard Law plans who found herself hosting insane poker games before realizing she had the wherewithal to build an epically lucrative business.

This is clear movie-of-the-week stuff elevated to something worthwhile because Sorkin is more interested in the evolution and entrapment of a brilliant mind than he is in movie stars playing poker. Although there is some of that, too, and it is provocatively handled by Michael Cera.

Playing against type and relishing the opportunity, Cera’s “Player X”—the Big Movie Star who just likes to ruin lives—is a spoiled brat and the performance is stand-out nasty.

The always underused Idris Elba is underused but excellent as Bloom’s reluctant-but-coming-around attorney Charley Jaffe. His slower, looser style counters Chastain’s machine gun cadence and the chemistry helps to keep the courtroom preparation interesting.

The problem with Molly’s Game—aside from its sometimes amazing similarities to Chastain’s 2016 courtroom drama Miss Sloane—are its many Sorkinisms. Chastain opens the film with an incredibly lengthy voiceover monologue providing all Molly’s backstory in the film’s first big misfire, but the almost dream-sequence bad scene between Molly and her psychoanalyst father (Kevin Costner) on a park bench is nearly insurmountable, Sorkin fan or no.

Appreciating Molly’s Game helps if you are a Sorkin fan. He has a particular style and, since he’s directing this one as well, there is no getting away from that style. There’s no David Fincher or Danny Boyle to supply a bit of visual flair to offset all of Sorkin’s writerly tendencies. Sorkin is everywhere, which is not necessarily a bad thing if you like sharp performances about smart people doing fascinating things.





What We Do on Asgard

Thor: Ragnarok

by Hope Madden

What if the next Avengers movie was a laugh riot? A full-blown comedy—would you be OK with that?

The answer to that question has serious implications for your appreciation of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok.

You’re familiar with Thor, his brother, his buddies, his hair. But how well do you know Waititi? Because he’s made a handful of really great movies you should see, chief among them What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Waititi’s films are charming and funny in that particularly New Zealand way, which is to say equal parts droll and silly. So a total goofus has made our latest superhero movie, is what I’m trying to tell you, and you’ll need to really embrace that to appreciate this film, because Thor: Ragnarok makes the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise seem dour and stiff.

There’s a real Thor movie in here somewhere. Thor (Chris Hemsworth and his abs) learns of his older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett—hela good casting!). Sure, Thor’s the God of Thunder, but Hela’s the Goddess of Death, so her return is not so welcome. But daaayumn, Cate Blanchett makes a kick-ass Goth chick.

Indeed, the film is lousy with female badasses. Tessa Thompson (Dear White People, Creed) proves her status by taking all comers, Thor and Hulk among them.

But can you get behind the idea of Hulk and dialog? Because he has dialog in this movie. Like whole conversations. Dude, I don’t know about that.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) returns, as does Idris Elba, so this is one bona fide handsome movie. Mark Ruffalo makes an appearance in a vintage Duran Duran tee shirt. It’s like Waititi thought to himself, how many of Hope’s crushes can we squeeze into one film?

One more! Jeff Goldblum (don’t judge me) joins as a charming and hysterical world leader. His banter with his second in command (Rachel House—so hilarious in Wilderpeople) is priceless.

Also very funny, Karl Urban (who brings a nice slap of comic timing to every bloated franchise he joins), Waititi himself (playing a creature made of rocks), and one outstanding cameo I won’t spoil.

Thor: Ragnarock lifts self-parody to goofy heights, and maybe that’s OK. There’s no question the film entertains. Does it add much to the canon? Well, let’s be honest, the Thor stand-alones are not the strongest in the Marvel universe.

You will laugh. You’ll want to hug this movie, it’s so adorable.

Unless you’re totally pissed about the whole thing, which is entirely possible.





Strangers on a Plane

The Mountain Between Us

by George Wolf

The Mountain Between Us is the type of film that wants to reach us by watching two wary characters slowly reach each other. Through talented actors, it wants to speak softly but cut deep.

Well, it nails the talented actors part.

Kate Winslet is Alex, who’s getting married tomorrow in Denver. Idris Elba is Ben, a neurosurgeon who’s also headed to Denver to perform delicate surgery on a ten-year-old. Problem is, they’re both in Idaho and all the flights are canceled due to weather.

They team up to charter a private plane from Walter (Beau Bridges), a local pilot with a lovable pooch, but when he suffers a stroke not long after takeoff, two strangers and a dog are left alone in the snow-covered mountains.

Screenwriters J. Miles Goodloe and Chris Weitz adapt Charles Martin’s novel with enough contrivance and melodrama to render Goodloe’s credit on a Nicholas Sparks film (The Best of Me) anything but surprising.

Director Hany Abu- Assad (Omar) serves up some majestic scenery and a nifty crash sequence, but settles for Sparks meets Castaway. Somehow, Winslet and Elba get us invested throughout the convenient, telegraphed plot turns. It is their seasoned talent and effortless likeability that ultimately saves the film from becoming a complete eye-rolling travesty.





“It” Looks Good, though, Right?

The Dark Tower

by Hope Madden

So, there’s this tower, see. And it sits at the center of all the parallel worlds of the universe and as long as it stands, it keeps the monsters away. Why? How did it get there? No time!

Anyhoo, an evildoer (Matthew McConaughey) wants to knock it down, let in the monsters and rule it all. But there’s this kid – you know what, let me not summarize what amounts to little more than a summary in the first place. Suffice it to say, The Dark Tower is not very good.

There are a lot of bad Stephen King movies. But even Dreamcatcher, The Night Flier and Sleepwalkers (three of the worst) offered a sort of B-movie charm. The Dark Tower is not even the fun kind of bad. It’s tedious, lumbering and schmaltzy, visually unappealing, narratively embarrassing and a woeful waste of Idris Elba.

McConaughey, on the other hand, makes the most of his time onscreen as Walter – which is a much funnier name for the prince of darkness than Man in Black. As the antagonist, he brandishes a restrained evil and moves with a little swagger, plus there’s that wig. Glorious! Real Shatner – hell, even Travolta-esque.

But McConaughey and Elba – true talents, no doubt – are hamstrung from the beginning by the production’s meat-cleaver-and-band-aid approach to screenwriting.

Nobody is more convinced than I am that Stephen King uses too damn many words. Too damn many! Succinct he will never be. But to believe you can boil his multi-volume, many-thousand-page Dark Tower series into a coherent 90 minutes is just brazen idiocy. No offense to the team of writers working on the adaptation – some of whom have talent; the other one is Akiva Goldsman.

Director Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair– also credited with writing) is zero help, managing to take this Cliff’s Notes version of King’s prose and still produce something bloated and slow.

I remember reviewing the Tom Cruise debacle The Mummy earlier this year and thinking, this isn’t even any fun, it’s just bad. Dark Tower makes The Mummy feel like a rollicking good time.

But, hey, the trailers for It look great, don’t they?

Verdict-1-5-Stars





Animal Planet

The Jungle Book

by George Wolf

Much like the “man-cub” Mowgli prancing gracefully on a thin tree branch, director Jon Favreau’s new live action version of Disney’s The Jungle Book finds an artful balance between modern wizardry and beloved tradition.

The film looks utterly amazing, and feels nearly as special.

Impossibly realistic animals and deeply nuanced landscaping completely immerse you in the jungle environment where the young Mowgli (a wonderfully natural Neel Sethi), after being rescued as an infant by pragmatic panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), lives happily among the wolf pack of Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o).

But after threats on the man-cub’s life by the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), Bagheera decides it is time to lead the boy back to the “man village” for good.

Based on the stories of Rudyard Kipling, Disney’s 1967 animated feature showcased impeccable voice casting and memorable songs to carve its way into the hearts of countless children (myself included). Clearly, Favreau is also one of the faithful, as he gives the reboot a loving treatment with sincere, effective tweaks more in line with Kipling’s vision, and just the right amount of homage to the original film.

And this group of voices ain’t too shabby, either.

Kingsley is perfectly elegant, Elba commanding and scary, while Scarlett Johansson gives Kaa the snake a hypnotic makeover oozing with seduction. Then, in the heart of the batting order, along comes Bill Murray to fill Baloo the bear full of sarcastic gold and Christopher Walken to re-imagine King Louie as an immense orangutanian Godfather.

All the elements blend seamlessly, never giving the impression that the CGI is just for flash or the cast merely here for star power. The characters are rich, the story engrossing and the suspense heartfelt. Credit Favreau for having impressive fun with all these fancy toys, while not forgetting where the magic of this tale truly lives.

Verdict-4-0-Stars