Fifty Shades Darker Movie Review

There’s a scene towards the end of Fifty Shades Darker where we find ourselves in Christian Grey’s childhood bedroom. He is engaged in deep conversation with Anastasia Steele. Instead of giving anywhere near a damn about what they were discussing, I found myself distracted by the movie poster in his room: The Chronicles of Riddick starring Vin Diesel.

For the next couple of minutes, my mind wandered to the following questions: What made the set designers pick that 2000 sci-fi flick? What made them deduce that their lead character with a penchant for dominance and sadism would choose that film over any other? I thought about what age Christian would have been when it was released. 13 maybe? Here’s a guy, even as a youngster, that could have bought any movie poster, yet he chose The Chronicles of Riddick. Then I realized the fact that I was preoccupied with this minor piece of set decoration said a lot. I didn’t really care about anything else in that bedroom and anyone in it.

Fifty Shades Darker is the sequel to 2015’s smash hit Fifty Shades of Grey and continues the saga of that man with the Riddick poster (Jamie Dornan) and book editor Anastasia (Dakota Johnson). Their romance was originated in a series of wildly popular E.L. James novels. As I opined in my one star review of Grey, I tried my best to understand its mass appeal to viewers and readers, but just couldn’t get there. Yet here we are again. When we last left the lovers, they had broken up because Anastasia just couldn’t quite get there with Christian’s kinky preferences. It takes about ten minutes of screen time for her to inexplicably change her mind and they’re back at it.

Part two does bring some new dynamics and characters into the fold. Anastasia’s new boss (Eric Johnson) wants more than her editing services. Christian’s sexual mentor (Kim Basinger) keeps popping up, as does a former lover (Bella Heathcote) who’s still subservient to her former master. These subplots lead to jealousy on both ends. There’s also a bit of exploration of Christian’s troubled childhood. All of these items seem like wind up to whatever the inevitable third picture will bring. There’s no pay off.

Instead we get a whole lot of conversations between our two leads and two underwhelming actors playing them. More than anything, the Fifty Shades series rises and falls with the chemistry of Dornan and Johnson. Once again, its mostly non-existent. The franchise’s selling point is the sex scenes and even they’re nothing more than what you’d see on cable after dark.

That said, I’m awarding Fifty Shades Darker a whole half star more than Grey. Why? Good question. Johnson’s acting is probably a half star better. There is perhaps a half star’s worthy more plot developments than in the first. Or maybe the Riddick poster distraction put me in a better mood. Who knows? The more likely reasoning is I’ve become more numb to the pain this unfortunate series has inflicted on me.

*1/2 (out of four)

The Autopsy of Jane Doe Movie Review

Andre Ovredal’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a brisk and largely effective experience that focuses on a profession not often explored in the movies: morticians. They’re the father and son team of Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin Tilden (Emile Hirsch), Virginia coroners given an unusual late night assignment.

The title character has been delivered to them after being discovered at a grisly homicide scene. Jane Doe (Olwen Catherine Kelly) is a beautiful twenty something found in the basement of a house where the crime occurred. The other victims are marked with the bloody injuries you’d come to expect. Her corpse is in pristine condition.

As the duo pry away at her body, the cause of her demise becomes even more confounding. What’s inside of Jane Doe can’t explain her outward appearance. The Tildens begin to question who or what they have lying on the slab. And that’s when the supernatural elements kick in.

The screenplay doesn’t dwell much on character development or backstory. There is a couple minutes on Tildens family history that’s not really necessary, but it’s thankfully brief. What is dwelled upon is close ups of Jane’s cold gray eyes and other cut open features. You begin to wonder when and if those eyes will blink or move. In many ways, it is Kelly’s performance that’s the most expressive and she never utters a word.

The screenplay succeeds at turning Cox and Hirsch into amateur sleuths as they go about their assignment. Cox’s Tommy is the veteran who thought he’d seen it all while Hirsch’s Austin is still his apprentice in the nearly 100 year old family business. This is a different and often original kind of detective story before the scare tactics take over the second half.

It’s the first half that succeeds the best as we wonder where this is all leading. Once we’re clued in, the explanation makes some sense (not always the case in this genre). The Autopsy of Jane Doe is also sensible in being quick and efficient with enough suspense to keep horror enthusiasts happy.

*** (out of four)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Movie Review

It’s all about family in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the follow-up to the wildly successful 2014 entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Three years ago, Star-Lord, Gamora and company brought a humor and irreverence to the comic book picture previously unseen at that level. Of course, we saw flashes of it with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and others, but Guardians felt fresh with its Top 40 oldies soundtrack and constantly winking screenplay.

James Gun is back as writer and director and the elements that made the predecessor successful are here again. Our second helping manages to provide enough material to admire, even if it can’t match what made the first one so special. We have a lot of subplots competing for screen time as the MCU continues to expand. The bulk of the characters here and elsewhere in Avengers world will eventually congregate and it’ll be a real test of script allocation for attention.

The attention here primarily focuses on Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and his backstory. As we recall from the original, he’s got some Daddy issues and after three decades plus, he mets him in the form of Ego (Kurt Russell). Dad is a part human and part Godlike being who quickly seduces his offspring with his nifty own planet that’s a marvel itself in production design.

The other Guardians are here with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) still dealing with her super jealous sister Nebula (Karen Gillian) and unspoken chemistry with Star-Lord. Drax (Dave Bautista) reminds us that he can charmingly insult people with the best of them and a lot of that is saved for Ego’s right-hand woman Mantis (Pom Klementieff). And Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel’s vocal stylings) return to provide comic relief. The nefarious Rocket and seriously adorable Groot are certainly allotted their share of smile inducing moments. Our family drama also means the return of Yondu (Michael Rooker doing fine work under all that makeup), who raised Star-Lord.

Pratt reminds us why Guardians rocketed him into silver screen stardom and Russell, with swagger to match, is an inspired casting choice. The action sequences are of the highest caliber and I’ll give the opening battle sequence credit for incorporating recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Electric Light Orchestra.

So while Vol. 2 is totally acceptable popcorn entertainment, it didn’t leave me grinning from ear to ear like during the first one’s conclusion. Perhaps the attitude that made 2014’s pic so effective feels more familiar now (Deadpool in its own more R rated way continued that trend). Perhaps there are too many plot lines competing against themselves. And perhaps the revelations in the aforementioned familial situations are a bit predictable. That said, Vol. 2 keeps the MCU assembly line pleasantly humming along.

*** (out of four)

Gold Movie Review

Stephen Gaghan’s Gold tells another fairly recent “inspired by true events” tale of excess and greed. Instead of nefarious Wall Street types (though they’re here), our story takes place in the gold mining industry. Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) is a third generation prospector trying to keep his business Washoe afloat.

A prologue shows happier times for the company in 1981. At that juncture, Kenny’s dad (Craig T. Nelson) is running it successfully and his offspring is merrily working at it. Seven years later, dad has passed and son isn’t so lucky. He runs Washoe from a bar where he indulges in their key product heavily.

Kenny has a dream that leads him to Indonesia to seek out Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), a geologist who’s also run into lean times. They believe there might be gold in them Indonesian mountains. Finding it isn’t easy and Kenny even catches malaria, but eventually their fortunes turn.

As the company becomes an extremely hot commodity, Kenny must stave off the vultures of the corporate world, his competitors, third world governments, and the FBI. He also must battle his own issues, which includes the fact that he’s way out of his league suddenly running an operation of its size.

Gold is McConaughey’s show and we get the full Matthew here. That means effective dramatic moments mixed with comedic and quirky ones. He goes through a physical transformation here as he’s done before. Here, the effects of Kenny’s constant boozing shows. Magic Mike physique Matthew is nowhere to be found.

There’s plenty to admire about the lead actor’s work here. The problem is that none of the other characters are very interesting. Bryce Dallas Howard is Kenny’s wife and their relationship goes through the familiar ups and down that massive success brings. Ramirez’s Michael is a bit of a blank slate for most of the running time.

There are a couple of legit crises after Kenny hits its big. One is quite a surprise in the third act and it left me wishing the screenplay spent more time on it. Another involves shady Indonesian politicos and it might have been another subplot worth exploring. It could have provided a chance to give us characters matching the dynamism of what McConaughey brings.

Yet the screenplay doesn’t go there. While its star provides some memorable moments, too much of the rest of Gold feels standard.

**1/2 (out of four)

Allied Movie Review

Allied is director Robert Zemeckis’s throwback to old school romantic thrillers and especially if those features were allowed to be a bit more risqué and violent. In case you’re unclear about its influences, our two beautiful leads literally meet in Casablanca  in the year that landmark picture was released.

Those two leads are Brad Pitt’s Air Force commander Max Vatan and Marion Cotillard’s French Resistance agent Marianne  Beauséjour. When we open, the two are paired on a rather unconventional blind date. They’ve been set up from the get go to pretend they’re married. They are on a mission to assassinate Nazis officers. Marianne is of the belief that getting emotionally involved in her work is a necessity. Max disagrees. For a while at least. Soon, the pretend couple is a real couple and it leads to marriage and a child.

Mr. and Mrs. Vatan experience about a year of wedded bliss. His spy game is still going strong while she’s settled into motherhood. The bottom falls out when Max is told his wife is actually a German spy. He doesn’t believe it, but it initiates what’s referred to as a “blue dye” mission. P.S. – Blue Dye would have been a cooler title than Allied. The mission entails Max passing on false information to her and waiting a few days to see if it ends up in the enemy’s hands.

Steven Knight’s screenplay does a commendable job at keeping us guessing just who Marianne really is. The World War II look and feel is one that’s familiar, but the production design and other technical aspects are first-rate.

A pic like Blue Dye (err Allied) hinges on the chemistry of its leads. There are supporting characters here, but they’re relegated to smallish parts. Lizzy Caplan pops up as Max’s sister (whose sole character trait seems to be that she’s a lesbian) and Jared Harris is Max’s superior. Luckily, Pitt and Cotillard form a nice partnership. There’s a sensuous scene in a sandstorm that’s memorable.

Mr. Pitt is in leading man mode and is solid. Cotillard has the more challenging role and proves again her abilities. Zemeckis has certainly made some genuine classics. Allied isn’t. It’s content to be an homage to other classics. Yet it’s a well-made one that generates enough suspense to make it effective.

*** (out of four)

Lion Movie Review

Garth Davis’s Lion, simply by the nature of its true origins, is both heartwarming and heart wrenching. Yet this doesn’t completely excuse some faults in the rendering of its tale. It tells the incredible story of Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a five-year old boy circa 1986 in a poor Indian village who becomes separated from his mother (Divian Ladwa) and older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) one fateful evening.

The lost journey leads the child many miles away in Calcutta where Saroo is placed in an orphanage that is more like a prison. He doesn’t know the language of the new land he’s stranded in and knows his mother only as “mum”. One of the amazing realizations while viewing Lion is the remembrance of lack of technology in the 1980s that basically made it impossible for Saroo to be reunified with his family.

While Calcutta couldn’t be more of a foreign land to him, he’s soon taken to a much more faraway land in Australia when a kind couple (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) adopt him. They treat him well and he’s a good kid, which isn’t the case with the troubled second child they adopt a year after Saroo.

The film eventually flashes forward to 20 years later and Saroo is now played by Dev Patel. In his late 20s, he still resides in Australia and is embarking on a career in hotel management. Lucy (Rooney Mara) is his American girlfriend. He’s still close with his adoptive parents (though not without some complications) and there’s still issues with his younger brother. The memories of his former life still consume him, however. A chance suggestion of Google Earth now having the ability to possibly locate his Indian village feeds his obsession.

Thus begins Saroo’s journey home. While he focuses myopically on finding his long-lost mother and brother, it has dramatic consequences with the current individuals in his life. Lion‘s plot is inherently fascinating. The screenplay by Luke Davies succeeds better in exploring some relationships than others. Saroo and Lucy’s is rather uninteresting, while his dynamic with Kidman provides some fine moments. Kidman’s mother is complicated and caring and the actress gives a touching performance. The same can be said for both versions of Saroo with Patel and Pawar.

When Lion reaches its conclusion with a moment we’ve been pining for, it is powerful and includes some unexpected revelations. An epilogue left me curious as to whether a documentary about the subjects may have been more potent. The answer is probably yes, but the picture does a competent and admirable job of telling a remarkable story.

*** (out of four)

Kong: Skull Island Movie Review

Some stuff is considerably bigger and louder in the newest iteration of the 84 year-old franchise featuring cinema’s most famous plus sized ape. The sound effects are turned up to a higher volume. Since it’s set in the mid 70s, the fashion is louder. The cast of characters we have to keep track of is more populous and filled with familiar faces. And King Kong, himself, is quite bigger. He’s the size of a building this time around. What’s not larger is the running time and that’s a good thing. It was something that hindered Peter Jackson’s lovingly constructed remake of the 1933 classic in 2005. That version ran three hours plus, which was about an hour too long. Kong: Skull Island gets the running time right (two hours) and it gets other things right, too.

I liked the fact that our title character is truly monstrous in size this time around. I enjoyed that it’s set in the Watergate era right as the Vietnam War is winding down. I appreciated the sense of humor and B movie escapism that this Kong often gleefully exudes. Yet when the credits rolled, I couldn’t shake a feeling that the idea of Kong: Skull Island was cooler than the overall execution.

The pic opens with a prologue during World War II where an American and Japanese fighter pilot crash-land on a deserted island. Confronting one another, they mistakenly believe they must only fight each other for survival. Turns out there’s another inhabitant hanging around and he’s about the size of a building.

Flash forward to 1973. John Goodman is Bill Randa, who works for a government agency called Monarch. He’s seen as a crackpot with wild conspiracy theories and one of them involves Skull Island, a remote South Pacific island. Bill convinces his higher-ups to fund a mission to the location and he takes along a whole crew of military guys. They include Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s looking for any action as the Vietnam War is closing out. There’s also British Captain Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), who’s charged with navigating through this unknown jungle terrain. Brie Larson is Mason, an anti-war photojournalist fresh from the war and she’s there to document Skull Island. I could continue listing the supporting players. There are lots of them and few of them are very interesting. This is not a screenplay where the human beings are given preferential treatment.

When the team reaches their destination, they discover they are not alone. Kong is there, of course, but so are the island’s natives and that American WWII fighter pilot who is now John C. Reilly with a beard that rivals what David Letterman looks like now. There’s other creatures, too. “Skullcrawlers”, as Reilly coined them because it sounded cool, are reptile like menaces that are the real villains around these parts. That doesn’t matter to Colonel Packard, however, as he’s determined to wipe out Kong for protecting his territory and destroying some of the Colonel’s men along the way.

While 2005’s overstuffed King Kong attempted to be a five-course meal in the giant ape’s filmography, Skull Island is junk food. It mostly knows it is. Many of the actors involved (some fun overacting by Reilly and Jackson) know it is. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts allows moments where the kitschy 70s vibe provides some smiles (watch that Richard Nixon bobblehead shaking during some helicopter escapades). The special effects are, as expected, state of the art. Having said that, I didn’t really feel the Kong we see here is much more impressive than the 2005 version, even though he’s much more ginormous.

The film may have been more effective had it not introduced so many humans and their threadbare subplots and focused instead on – say – three or four of them. Better yet, the focus could have been on the mutated animals and their battle royales. After all, the point of this picture is to eventually produce a King Kong vs. Godzilla extravaganza. In that sense, the 2014 Godzilla reboot directed by Gareth Edwards was a more satisfying appetizer while Kong is a bit less filling.

**1/2 (out of four)

The Founder Movie Review

Michael Keaton can convey so much with an expression. There are scenes in John Lee Hancock’s The Founder where he doesn’t need dialogue to show what’s going through his head. Luckily, a lot of the writing here is quite good and often gets close to matching the lead’s masterful performance.

The pic has Keaton playing Ray Kroc, the man who started McDonald’s. Well, sort of. We open in 1954 as Kroc is a struggling traveling salesman in Missouri who stumbles upon a restaurant in San Bernardino, California. It’s doing things differently from the endless drive-in joints across the nation. Run by Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald, McDonald’s makes its food fast in an era the term fast food was yet to be coined. The brothers also take their work seriously and have chosen not to franchise after their first try resulted in poor service and quality. There’s a scene where Dick recalls how the restaurant’s burger making assembly line was perfected that’s an absolute joy to watch.

Ray immediately realizes the cash cow that Dick and Mac are sitting on and his relentless salesmanship gets them to relent on opening more locations. This brings forth a flurry of activity as Ray gets those Golden Arches up while constantly clashing with the actual founders.

Director Hancock’s last effort, Saving Mr. Banks, showed another 1950s era titan of industry with an unending drive and ambition in the form of Walt Disney. Kroc is just as much an icon in many ways, though his motives are often far more ruthless. The screenplay by Robert D. Siegel doesn’t exactly make him a villain, but you won’t exactly sympathize with him either. With rare exception, Kroc’s actions are all about his personal gain. He barely speaks to his wife (Laura Dern) and has his eye on a business partner’s wife (Linda Cardellini). Yet at the same time, it was him who had the vision to expand a chain of restaurants that now feeds 1% of the world every day. And it probably took his kind of personality to do it.

The work of Lynch and Offerman is top-notch. Offerman’s Dick sees the writing on the wall with Ray, while Lynch’s Mac can’t quite get there. This is Keaton’s movie, though. Like Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko in Wall Street and Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, Keaton gives us another corporate honcho to kind of despise and kind of love. The Founder may not be as fantastic as those two pictures, but the star is and it’s quite entertaining watching the intrigue unfold.

***1/2 (out of four)

Office Christmas Party Movie Review

A good portion of the populace can probably relate to that work holiday gathering we’d rather forget. Maybe one or several drinks too many. Perhaps a comment to a coworker that doesn’t seem wise later in the light of day. There’s a lot of funny directions you can go with the concept of Office Christmas Party, but the film mostly misuses them as it hurls in too many directions. The end result is one we’ll forget quickly after we’ve experienced it.

Director Will Speck and Josh Gordon give us their third major feature. It’s not as good as their first (Blades of Glory) nor as bad as their last (The Switch). The latter featured Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston and so does this. Bateman is chief tech officer of Chicago corporation Zenotech, a family business run by Aniston. She’s the unfriendly task master and bottom line efficiency expert that her employees are afraid of. Her brother (T.J. Miller) is the free spirit who runs the day-to-day operations. He’s not great at his job, but his minions adore him.

Tough financial times cause the possibility of the Windy City branch closing. Bateman and Miller decide to throw an all-out Yuletide bash in a last-ditch attempt to woo a big money client (Courtney B. Vance, last seen gloriously chewing scenery as Johnnie Cochran in “The People Vs. O.J. Simpson”). Here, instead of memorably defending America’s most notorious running back, he gets sprayed in the face with a snow machine filled with cocaine.

There’s plenty of R rated comedy as the employees let loose and there’s a lot of them and their subplots to keep up with. We have the single mom (Vanessa Bayer) looking for companionship (it’s one of the more humorous ones). There’s Bateman’s assistant (Olivia Munn) and their romantic tension (it’s one of the more boring ones). And supremely talented comedic actors like Kate McKinnon (who has her moments) and Rob Corddry are in the mix as well. Jillian Bell, who made a hilarious villain in 22 Jump Street, plays a drug dealer here and her inclusion is mostly wasted. The main plot involves the love/hate relationship between siblings Miller and Aniston and it doesn’t provide much (other than a chance to see the former “Friends” star berate a little girl in an airport).

With this cast, there are bound to be some decently humorous bits here and there, but Office Christmas Party might have been more successful with a little more focus among the ribaldry.

** (out of four)

 

Patriots Day Movie Review

Patriots Day marks the third collaboration between director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg recounting recent tragedies. After Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, their latest continues their work of solidly crafted dramas that fall far short of greatness. Yet there’s enough powerful material to make it recommendation worthy.

The picture recounts the Boston Marathon bombing and its manhunt for the two suspects that carried it out. It was that April 2013 day that marked the largest domestic terror attack since 9/11. Wahlberg is police sergeant Tommy Saunders, who’s on duty near the blast sites at the finish line. He’s witness to the horrific loss of lives and limbs and determined to see the attackers brought to justice.

Berg’s film tells not only the tale of law enforcement response, but also shows us the Tsarnaev brothers as they attempt to flee to enact more destruction in New York City. Older brother Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) is the mastermind while younger brother Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) is portrayed as a more Westernized stoner college kid who still believes strongly in their cause. It is in the time spent with them that provide a number of chilling moments, including their abduction of a college student as their make their escape. An interrogation scene with Tamerlan’s wife is also a dramatic highlight.

Patriots Day does a commendable job of showing many of the parties whose lives became intertwined by the day’s events. This includes some of the bombing victims as well as individuals calling the shots. John Goodman portrays city police commissioner Ed Davis, Kevin Bacon is the FBI special agent in charge, and J.K. Simmons is a sergeant in the suburb of Watertown where the manhunt culminates. They are all real life characters while Wahlberg’s is not. The lead actor is solid enough in the part, even though the pic may have more effective if the screenwriters had just stuck to the actual players.

Those with decent knowledge of these events may feel a lack of suspense, especially as we build toward the conclusion. The prologue spends some time with people the actors are playing and it made me ready to watch a documentary about their lives since. Overall, it’s worth the time to see this version which sticks mostly to the facts and reminds us of a city’s strength that gave way to an earned slogan.

*** (out of four)