The Star cannot possibly be as interesting as the pitch that preceded it:
“Hey, the birth of Christ is great and all, but you know what’s missing?”
“How about – a talking, praying donkey leading the way.”
Oh, Sony Pictures. Of all the pitch meetings in all the world, I wish I could’ve seen that one.
And in the end, in a twist worthy of Shyamalan — as the money-men sat, enraptured on Aerons, spiced lattes forgotten — behold, it was greenlit! Abandon belief, ye hordes. Whatever rational world you think you live in, you’re wrong. The world is this. It is only this.
And I’ll dial it back now, partly because that last bit was a shade too much but mostly because The Star is a pretty dialed-back movie.
The Star tells the story of Jesus Christ’s birth (loosely retold in the most gentle, Sunday-school way), as witnessed by a donkey named Bo (voiced by Stephen Yeun).
Bo dreams of something more than his life in a mill, and sets off on a grand adventure with Dave (a dove, Keegan-Michael Key), and Ruth (a sheep, Aidy Bryant), ultimately crossing paths with a trio of camels (Tracy Morgan, Tyler Perry, and Oprah Winfrey) and other animals (Kelly Clarkson, Kristin Chenoweth, Patricia Heaton, and others) as they follow the titular star. We see King Herod (Christopher Plummer) dispatch a couple of mean Roman dogs (Ving Rhames, Gabriel Iglesias) to chase them down and ferret out the prophesied King. Meanwhile, Mary (Gina Rodriguez) and Joseph (Zachary Levi) make their way to More >
Check out our interview! Our very own Haus filled in for Manny The Movie Guy (KMIR, NBC Palm Springs affiliate) today on the Nov. 17, 2017 broadcast of Phil Hulett and Friends, doling out the Haus Verdict on THREE films opening today: Justice League, The Star, and Wonder.
In case you’re not familiar with the program, Phil is a veteran LA radio guy and voice-over announcer, as well as the PA announcer for the Anaheim Ducks for the past 21 years. He and his gang of Friends run a great and very professional show — this was their 340th weekly episode. Many thanks to Phil & the gang!
If you missed the live broadcast, click the link below to jump right to 38:08 (where we start), or check out the full episode in podcast form on your favorite platform.
Haus’s full Justice League review is up today; The Star and Wonder are coming soon.
Kids these days are so darned ungrateful, and I’m about to be one of them: Sure, DC’s Justice League assembles popular actors to play well-loved childhood heroes; sure, it’s full of slow-mo fights and splashy, big-dollar effects; and sure, it’s directed mostly by Duke-of-Nerds Zack Snyder (tag-teaming with Nerd-Prince Joss Whedon). But sigh and yawn and whip out the iPhone, because it’s just not enough to entertain me. Or, probably, you.
Which will come as a big blow, because Justice League was meant to be DC’s answer to Marvel’s Avengers: Namely, a grand cinematic vehicle uniting everyone’s favorite heroes in a colossal fight to save the planet. And while it ostensibly is this, Marvel can rest easy: Justice League is a thematic muddle, an also-ran with an irrelevant and ho-hum villain, no clear character arcs, a hodge-podge of action scenes, and a mad tangle of secret backstory weighing it down.
Problem the first: To understand what’s going on in Justice League, you really need to have seen Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — which, to be clear, is something no one should have to do. (For DC even to suggest that anyone ingest that gloomy, overlong Nutraloaf of a film falls one step shy of a war crime.) Too long; didn’t watch: Superman died in that one.
Moving on, Justice League assembles a team of heroes, including Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman. Three of these characters haven’t had their own movies yet. This is a bit awkward, since this will be many More >
Fans of these pages will remember that Mr. Waititi, a Maori New Zealander, co-directed and starred in one of my favorite films ever, What We Do in the Shadows: A madly funny mock-doc about vampires sharing a house in Wellington, NZ. I wasn’t initially so taken with Waititi’s 2016 offering, the Hunt for the Wilderpeople, chiefly because I went in hoping for another barrage of improv genius but got something quite a bit more serious (though still very good). But taken together, these two films will tell you pretty much what you need to know about this director: He’s a Kiwi with serious comedic skill and an ability to chisel meaningful personal connections from some downright strange situations. And he’s an indie guy through and through.
At least he was, until Marvel handed him the keys to Thor: Ragnarok, with its 1,000-person crew and $180 million budget. The hitmakers unquestionably took a gamble on Waititi, one that could easily have cost them dearly — the urge to play it safe with a successful franchise must be strong as all heck, and it can’t be easy to pair a small-set director whose credits include The Flight of the Conchords with an acre of green screen and a VFX team that could fill a small town.
But they did, and good thing: The result is a masterpiece of entertainment, as close to popcorn-and-ICEE perfection as a blockbuster Norse-themed juggernaut can be.
Of course More >
Only rarely does a sequel match, and occasionally outclass, its parent. I’ll spare you the oft-trotted-out examples dotting that particular shortlist and jump right to the punchline: Blade Runner 2049 is straight-up better than the first.
I mean it. And I’ll take on any insta-pout nerd-poseur fanboi who huffs and puffs and disagrees.
Let’s not forget that the original as released was neither particularly popular in its own day, nor especially good. (It took two much later Director’s Cuts in 1992 and 2007 to fully knead it into the cult totem it now is.) And much like it was a lot easier to make partner at a law firm back in the day, or get into Harvard or whatever, our old standards for movies weren’t always so high. If you dare, go back and watch those old classics you love. My bet? Six of ten will seem pretty darned middling today.
The original Blade Runner was a solid movie for sure, but for me, memorable mainly for its sci-noir damp-dark-neon multilingual LA — a steamy, dripping gritpool that was four parts Walled City of Kowloon with a jigger of flying cars and a dash of skyscraping corporate heraldry. Visually striking, instantly recognizable, and a marked departure from the clean-and-gleam futurescapes we so often see on screen. Beyond this, I remember it chiefly for what it lacked — namely, any explicit resolution to the decades-old stumper of whether Deckard (Harrison Ford) was himself a replicant.
Well, there’s an answer to that here, but there’s much more besides. More >
For anyone who wants a better angle on Deep Throat, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House chronicles the famous Watergate leaks that catalyzed President Nixon’s resignation from the perspective of the Washington Post’s famously secret source. One of the best-kept secrets in journalism, it wasn’t until more than thirty years later, in a 2005 Vanity Fair article, that Mr. Throat finally outed himself as Mark Felt, assistant director of the FBI who’d served three decades as J. Edgar Hoover’s right-hand man. The revelation was a bit anticlimactic: Decades of speculation surrounded a whispered shortlist of high-profile could-bes, but when the truth came out, it seemed no one really knew who Mark Felt was. The world shrugged.
But Felt was the one, and this is his story. And boy, is it timely. For contemporary relevance, director and screenwriter Peter Landesman could hardly have timed it better. I’m told he started work on the script over a decade ago, and was already filming a year ago — well before the shock of the 2016 election. Nixonian levels of rot and scandal in the White House must’ve seemed very foreign in those halcyon days of 2016.
In an interesting casting choice, Landesman enlists a calm, collected, suave-suited-and-silver-foxed Liam Neeson to play Felt – the “G-man’s G-man,” a model of discipline, loyalty, and reliability, and a thirty-year veteran of the Bureau. Neeson’s Felt is even-keeled, no-nonsense, and wholly dedicated to the Bureau. Felt is a More >
Thirties gangsters fascinated audiences for quite some time, and my working thesis this evening posits that the Colombian drug trade now fills that same role. A subject captivating even to its eighties contemporaries (see Miami Vice and Scarface), it’s since left a trail of cinematic breadcrumbs (Clear and Present Danger, Traffic, Blow, Sicario) that today lead squarely to a bounty of thematic navel-gazing: Narcos, The Infiltrator, and now Tom Cruise’s American Made.
Cruise’s installment in this blowcaine canon is a fun period piece and a solid base hit for the genre (as well as a treat for plane buffs), but it lacks the coherence and gravitas of its recent stablemates.
Cruise plays Barry Seal, a TWA pilot in the late 1970s. He’s a bit of a maverick (sorry) in a ho-hum life, getting his jollies jostling sleeping passengers with quick-stab rudder work on his 727. He has a period-correct Firebird, a period-correct blonde wife, and the attendant midlife ennui of the workaday suburban dad.
But while banking a couple bucks smuggling cigars, he’s approached by a CIA handler (Domnhall Gleeson, coming admirably close to nailing the American accent) about ditching his airline routine and flying low and fast for God and country. Cruise’s Seal takes the bait, seduced at least as much by the Piper Aerostar in the government hangar as by the promise of international intrigue. (Remember that Tom Cruise is a commercial-rated pilot himself, and certainly got the av-geek part right – his More >
My Victorian-fiction professor once told me that any work, highbrow or low, can rightly be subjected to serious criticism and review. Of course, he hadn’t seen Kingsman: The Golden Circle. This is a film whose success should be measured not in stiff-collared discourse about heteronormative allegory or in spelunking for meaning in its meandering plot, but on a giant, rainbow-lit wacky-meter.
Put somewhat differently: Citizen Kane it’s not, but The Golden Circle sure aims straight for the rosebud.
The sequel to 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, Golden Circle returns to its predecessor’s proven formula of swagger, wire stunts, lifestyle branding, and ultra-violence. (If you liked the first one, you ought to like this; but do see it first, as ping-backs come fast here.)
This time around, when the Kingsman HQ, shop, and most of its agents are obliterated in Act One, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong) seek the help of “Statesman,” Kingsman’s American equivalent. Cue the cowboy hats, lassos, molasses drawls, and bourbon, and trot out Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, and Pedro Pascal. Then marvel as do-no-wrong director Matthew Vaughn expertly molds his Savile Row spy tropes around hokey Kentucky charm. The whole thing’s a total hoot.
Before long, Kingsman & Statesman join forces to pursue another wild and hyperbolic villain, this one played not by Academy Award nominee Samuel L. Jackson but by Academy Award Winner Julianne Moore. I’ll leave her character’s More >
Birth of the Dragon weaves a strange, anachronistic, and ultimately limp story around a one-off 1960s fight between young Bruce Lee, who was at the time teaching Kung Fu to locals in San Francisco, and the perfectly-named Wong Jack Man, an unflappable papaya-robed Shaolin master. While this battle of titans, we’re told, actually happened, I’d wager that the rest of this movie most certainly did not.
Which is probably a good thing. Besides struggling under a decidedly direct-to-streaming feel, Birth of the Dragon curiously paints its alleged hero — the legendary Lee, played by Philip Wan-Lung Ng — as a self-important and preening side-note, a two-dimensional braggart whose main contribution is teasing his students and brooding in a just-so little clapboard office about how best to display his greatness. Lee himself may actually have been this way for all I know, but even so he probably deserved to at least play the leading role in what’s ostensibly his own picture.
Alas, he’s relegated to the sidelines in favor of Billy Magnussen — you’ll remember his brief stint as one of the bro-tastic mortgage brokers in The Big Short — who plays Steve McKee, one of Lee’s students. McKee improbably makes friends with Wong Jack Man, the swift-kicking monk who’s visiting Fog City to wash dishes (stay with me), and even more improbably wanders into a Westworld-worthy meet cute with a comely Chinese waitress, Xiulan Quan (Qu Jingjing). She’s captive, a work-slave to evil Chinatown masters More >
Through experience, a true aikido master pares his movements to the bare minimum, doing just enough to twist and deflect an assailant. It’s mesmerizing to watch such efficiency in action — the lightest touch deals a devastating result. That’s Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
Faithfully depicting a real military event — the stranding and largely extemporaneous civilian-assisted rescue of some 400,000 allied troops from the French shores in the early months of the Second World War — Dunkirk is split into three stories: One, told from the perspective of troops on the beach, unfolds over a week. Another follows the civilian boats that sailed to effect their rescue, and is told over the period of one day. The third takes place in a single hour, featuring a group of Spitfires waging war in the air. These overlapping stories criss-cross, so the same events unfold at different times and from different perspectives. It’s a clever and effective way to draw in the full scope of the events, without cramming the soldiers’ multi-day ordeal into the span, say, of a single tank of fuel.
Dunkirk is a war movie stripped bare of context and politics, focusing from its first frame on the utter immediacy of conflict. Nolan keeps the cameras close in on his characters; we join them on the beach, at sea, and in the air. It’s More >