Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016, Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Alessandro Carloni) English 5

Voices of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, J.K Simmons, Bryan Cranston, Seth Rogen, David Cross, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, Kate Hudson, James Hong, Randall Duk Kim, Jean-Claude Van Damme

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(5-Okay Film)

Amiable. Attractive. Worn.

The third installment in the saga following the legendary dragon warrior, Po (voiced by Black) features more backstory as we meet his father (Cranston) and an entire Panda community. Meanwhile, an undead warrior, Kai (Simmons) returns to wreak havoc and establish himself  as the ultimate kung fu master. Like its predecessors, it goes down easily enough, and some of the diverse animation is spectacular, but the substance isn’t there. There’s nothing very compelling pushing the story forward and the humor isn’t there. It relies too heavily on the cuteness factor of the new panda characters.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(782)

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016, Directed by Tim Burton) English 6

Starring Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Terence Stamp, Samuel L. Jackson, Judi Dench, Chris O’Dowd, Allison Janney

(6-Good Film)

Creepy. Colorful. Secondary.

Based on the bestselling young adult series, Tim Burton’s latest film about a boy, Jake Portman (Butterfield), reeling from his Grandfather’s bizarre death, and the secret community of strangely gifted children that he discovers isn’t thrilling enough for mass appeal. However, if you enjoy creepy content aimed at younger audiences, in the vein of ’80s classics like Something Wicked This way Comes (1983), there’s a flock of eyeball-digesting scientists in this film that might appeal to you. Not all that inventive in the wake of Potter-mania and all of its clones, but it is entertaining and just the right amount of scary. Eva Green is particularly good in the title role.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(780)

Red Riding Hood (2011, Directed by Catherine Hardwicke) English 5

Starring Amanda Seyfried, Gary Oldman, Shiloh Fernandez, Max Irons, Julie Christie, Billie Burke, Virginia Madsen, Lukas Haas

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(5-Okay Film)

Intriguing. Squandered. Dopey.

I love a good whodunnit, but this one is directed by Catherine Hardwicke whose previous film was Twilight. That’s not to say anything about her competence as director, but there’s a definite audience I feel Red Riding Hood is hoping to attract that squanders its good elements. Amanda Seyfried is Valerie, the Red Riding Hood of the story, living in a small, remote village and her sister has just been murdered by the legendary Wolf. Father Solomon (Oldman) arrives into town with his group of mercenaries to investigate, informing the village that the wolf is, in fact, a werewolf and someone among their set. It could be anyone, of course. It’s a classic mystery setup but a good one when executed well. Red Riding Hood is entertaining. Seyfried and Oldman are interesting characters. Ultimately though, there were two or three overwrought scenes of teen romance that bog the picture down and the Wolf’s appearance is a disappointment.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(760)

 

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019, Directed by Joachim Rønning) English 5

Starring Angelina Jolie, Michelle Pfeiffer, Elle Fanning, Harris Dickinson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Reilly, Ed Skrein, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton,  Juno Temple, Robert Lindsay, Warwick Davis

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(5-Okay Film)

Uninteresting. Competent. Muddled.

I don’t remember the first Maleficent. I haven’t seen it since it hit theaters back in 2014 and surprisingly made a great deal of money. I do remember the feelings I had about it and they pretty much align with my feelings about this sequel. Angelina Jolie looks great and is a perfect choice for the role. There’s a couple of nice visual touches. Most of the characters are flat and uninteresting. There’s no real romance or adventure. The costumes are worthy of an Oscar nomination. The fairy tale creatures are uninspired. The story could use a stronger villain. At least the last one isn’t true of this sequel since Michelle Pfeiffer plays a terrific evil queen. As Aurora (Fanning) prepares to marry her Prince Charming, or Phillip (Dickinson), her kingdom and the kingdom she’s marrying into prepare for all-out war, secretly instigated by Pfeiffer’s Queen Ingrith. Specifically, the film needs more romance to center it. Without it, the proceedings seem boring. I also would love to see shades of ’80s fantasy worked in. You know, when kids’ movies were creepy? I think Maleficent would benefit from some creepiness.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(759)

Scaramouche (1952, Directed by George Sidney) English 7

Starring Stewart Granger, Janet Leigh, Eleanor Parker, Mel Ferrer, Richard Anderson, Nina Foch

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(7-Very Good Film)

Extravagant. Spirited. Thrilling.

Rafael Sabatini’s fantastic adventure novel is adapted and condensed into this colorful, lively film starring Stewart Granger as Andre Moreau. Moreau is a fun, gregarious type living as an actor in France right before the revolution. Apathetic to his best friend,  Philippe’s political causes, Moreau’s attitude changes once Philippe is killed by the Marquis de Maynes (Ferrer). Heart set on vengeance, Andre bides his time training under swordmaster, Doutreval, and hides from the authorities seeking to imprison him by assuming the disguise of Scaramouche, a stock clown character in early European theater. Beautiful Janet Leigh and Eleanor Parker play love interests for Andre, his love life proving as complicated as the political plot. Actually, most of the politics from Sabatini’s novel seemed to be scrubbed out of this movie. It’s probably for the best. Scaramouche’s 2-hour runtime is already filled to the brim with plot and intrigue. Still, a little more historical context might have made the picture more substantial. Instead, you’ll have to use what you remember from history class to piece together some of the setting and background. Scaramouche’s focus is on fancy swordplay and sparkling romance, assuming correctly that these are what we care about most. Stewart Granger doesn’t quite possess the lightness of other great stars of swashbucklers like Erroll Flynn or Ronald Coleman in Prisoner of Zenda. His supporting cast is excellent, however.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(756)

Joker (2019, Directed by Todd Phillips) English 7

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Brian Tyree Henry, Marc Maron, Brett Cullen, Frances Conroy

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(7-Very Good Film)

Memorable. Gripping. Derivative.

The world can seem pretty dark when you’re depressed. No film off the top of my head paints a more vivid picture of this than DC’s newest flick, Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, perhaps a surprising choice after a couple decades worth of comedies (The Hangover trilogy, Old School, Starsky and Hutch), and starring Joaquin Phoenix, following in the footsteps of a couple iconic film Jokers (Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger) and one lousy one (Jared Leto). This Joker is a film in close-up. Even when the camera pulls back, the focus remains, the cast, the plot, the tone all revolve around its titular “hero,” here named Arthur Fleck. It’s his world. That may seem like an odd thing to say about a character struggling as profoundly as Fleck is over the course of this movie, but we see Gotham as he sees it. He’s an unreliable narrator. The extent of how much of what we’re seeing is influenced by Fleck’s mental state is, I believe, debatable, but, in any case, the Gotham we see is a hellish landscape populated by powerful bullies and hostile bottom-feeders. Fleck just wants to bring laughter into the world.

The movie kicks off: 1981, Gotham City. Living with his mother and struggling through a dead-end job as some sort of clown-for-hire, Fleck kills a group of yuppie jerks on the subway one evening. It’s a downward spiral from there with fate offering one blow after another to make Fleck break down. The list of his life struggles throughout the film would seem over-the-top, maybe melodramatic if the tone wasn’t so consistently grim. He loses his job, has the funding for his medical treatment cut, gets beat up a couple of times, etc. The most interesting part of Joker is its take on Gotham. It’s a city cut-off from the rest of the world. I don’t recall any mention of life beyond its city limits. Where did everyone else go? It’s like the setting of This is the End, where most people have gone off and those left are expected to rot. It’s also a world without superheroes. There’s no Batman, no Superman, nor anyone else from DC’s roster of supers. There don’t seem to be any blue-collar heroes either or average men looking out for their peers. Thomas Wayne, usually portrayed as a champion of lost causes, is played here by Brett Cullen as another big-money politician. Fleck idolizes late-night host Murray Franklin (De Niro) but that plays out in predictable yet satisfying fashion. Ultimately, Fleck’s gradually building Joker persona makes sense (perhaps this is what some object to) and he becomes a wake-up call to a large portion of Gotham’s citizens (reminding me of the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore scene in Network).

Films like these, where the protagonist descends into madness are rarely made and difficult to watch. If done right, they can be fascinating but can hardly be considered fun experiences. I would argue that Joker is done right (Phoenix is mesmerizing in the role), though it’s not easy to remember a mainstream movie this polarizing in recent years. Is it irresponsible? Is it validating angry loners? I don’t buy those indictments in general. I don’t believe films are responsible for social ills the way that some do, so I feel no need to defend Joker on that level. It’s a good film, a very good film, not a great film. It has too many endings for one thing (I prefer a strong abrupt finish to letting a film like this peter out with several long sequences). It’s also too reminiscent of Scorsese’s classics Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy without deriving any value from those influences. Some argue that it’s a breakthrough comic book film. I don’t give it that much credit. Did it change the rules of comic book adaptations or surprise us with the direction it went in? No. Spiderman 2, The Dark Night Trilogy, Unbreakable. Those were the game-changers.  Joker’s simply better than your average.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(755)

 

 

American Made (2017, Directed by Doug Liman) English 6

Starring Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, Domnhall Gleeson, Lola Kirke, Jesse Plemons, Caleb Landry Jones

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(6-Good Film)

Solid. Interesting. Unspectacular.

Barry Seal, a TWA pilot in the ’70s, spirals into the ’80s as a gun and drug-runner for the CIA, Pablo Escobar, and much of Central America. I knew none of this, and as a story, apparently true, I found it fascinating. As a movie, I found it competently done, but rather safe. Tom Cruise plays Seal, and he still has enough star power and charisma to guide us along the course of the film. I feel American Made aimed for some of that Wolf of Wall Street chaotic, stranger-than-fiction true story energy and it only partly comes off. It’s a good film, but not one you need to see twice.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(748)