Sunday, May 19, 2019

Leola preaches love in her Lady Land! Sermons

© Ron Glow

Move over, Dame Edna, there’s a new gurl In town!

by Stephen Mosher

There are some performers, some artists, some stars so larger than life, so original, so indelible as to require only one name. Cher. Halston. Madonna. Picasso. Liza. Prince. 


Leola is one of the artists in residence at Manhattan’s prestigious The Green Room 42, inside the Yotel on 42nd Street.  Another is Frances Ruffelle, Tony Award winner for the original production of Les MisĂ©rables, so these ladies are in great company. The Green Room 42 is ostensibly a cabaret room but Lady Land! Is an award winning solo play created by Will Nolan. In as much as Barry Humphries is the man who discovered Dame Edna, Will Nolan is the man who discovered Leola, a 72 year old redneck who came out late in life, leaving Gus, her husband of 42 years, to find her true self with a little help from her two greatest inspirations, Jesus and Kelly Clarkson. Leola came into the light during Nolan’s sketch comedy days, when he was working with a troupe called Naked Dog Walking. Now and then the newly gay septuagenarian would make an appearance in the comedy shows but as her popularity grew, Mr. Nolan realized that this force of nature he had created was on a path all her own, until Lady Land became a one-person play he was performing all over New York and New Jersey.  The demand for Leola grew and the duo found themselves as far west as Portland, Oregon and then smack dab in God’s country at the Greensboro Fringe Festival and the Atlanta Fringe Festival. For two years in a row the Flying Solo Festival in New York named Lady Land the best of the festival. That’s when The Green Room came a calling. They asked Leola to bring Lady Land to their theater for a sit down and she said Sweet Baby Jesus, Yes!

The show Lady Land is a series of six new healing sermons from Leola, so every time she sets foot on stage the audience is exposed to a brand new play.  In these plays Leola shares, to hilarious effect, the experience of discovering her sexuality at an age of advanced glamor.  She discusses her best friend and ex-husband Gus and their careers working at the Piggly Wiggly (she as manager of the deli and he as aisle clean up).  Leola preaches the importance of love, of following one’s bliss and of being a follower of Sister Kelly Clarkson.  She proudly announces that she is a redneck, that she is a LESBIAN (!) and that everyone can benefit from some group therapy in a cabaret theater.  AND at each performance one lucky audience member takes home a gently used lipstick!  These healing sermons have different themes seen through the framework of Leola’s Jesus loving life and voyage of self-discovery.    On February 1 I saw Lady Land!  (The Coming Out Origin Cabaret of a Jesus-Loving, Senior Citizen Redneck Lesbian Diva!).  On April 11 audiences were treated to Deeper Into Lady Land! (Or The Gospel According to Kelly Clarkson!).  For NYC Pride on June 13 I will be there for Hooray For Lady Land! (Gay History For Straight People!) On September 12 I will be front and center for Grab Me By The Lady Land! (Putting the #Me In #Metoo!).  October 24th will find folks enjoying Throw Mama From My Lady Land! (Shakin’ Off The Haters!).  And what is the holiday season without the December 5th presentation of Christmas In Lady Land!

I’ve been watching Leola come into her own for a few years and I can honestly say that I try to make every show she does. What Mr. Nolan has done here is to take drag in a direction that is unique, that is new, that is his own. A lot of people have been sold a bill of goods that drag is about being superficial and nasty. There are a lot of drag artists out there whom I admire who make beauty and happiness, and I love them. But the creation of this wonderful woman spreading love, joy and a message that we should live our best lives, being authentic to ourselves seems to be especially welcome at this time in our lives. There’s a lot of unhappiness in the world right now, in this country right now. Gay people and women are fighting to keep our rights and Leola is a gay person and a woman, telling us that we can continue to be who we are and live how we like. And that is a heck of an important message to hear, and one that makes us happy. I know I’m not alone in this estimation because every single time I sit in the audience of a Leola show I am treated to waves of positive energy, I am given the gift of looking at the grinning faces of strangers being bonded together by art, comedy, laughter and love. I am awed by Leola’s ability to fill a not particularly small cabaret theater with a drag act that is neither glamorous nor bitchy but that is hilarious, timely, touching and poignant. Leola’s connection to her audience (whom she refers to as disciples) is a strong and beautiful bond, the kind inspired by the great one-named icons and legends.  One of those disciples, in fact, declared her to be 'Dame Edna’s hillbilly cousin giving a Ted Talk.'

Now, in this day and age, what could be better?

Lady Land! runs about 75 minutes with no intermission. Find the list of scheduled performances at the Green Room 42 website and follow Leola on Instagram @leolasladyland.

Read more of Stephen's reviews at

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Melissa Mahoney is a Robot is out of this world

Melissa Mahoney
Hilarity and humanity rule this one robot performance piece.
by Stephen Mosher

The art of doing a Solo Show takes a special person To imagine, invent, write, create, perform all by yourself is to really put it out there, to expose your most vulnerable place as an artist. To go out on that limb takes extreme bravery.  Sometimes it pays off for the audience and for the artist and other times everyone who shows up on the night in question hears the painful strains of crickets chirping in the twilight of the night, somewhere in an Iowa cornfield.

No such crickets sounded the alarm when the audience at Dixon Place in New York City was treated to Melissa Mahoney Is A Robot on April 27th. The sounds that filled the venue known for taking a chance on unknown artists, experimental pieces and theatre with a vision went beyond laughter and screams of glee, though. At times certain audience members were heard to sigh a sympathetic 'aaaaaah!' as the Robot struggled to find happiness on a new planet. Other times watchers were heard to utter familiar dialogue or sing well-known tunes along with the Robot. And even once or twice there was the sound of a sniffle as empathy moved people of emotional elevation to respond to a character whose native language was one we did not even understand. All communications between the earthlings at Dixon Place and the titular character in Melissa Mahoney Is A Robot were visceral and relied on us understanding her and relating to her, even as she spoke a gibberish language we did not know ... except when she was using quotes from famous movies and songs, which also had great meaning to her willingly captive audience because those quotes and that music are old friends to us and we can always hear them. Especially when so brilliantly presented.

Melissa Mahoney Is A Robot is the eponymous creation of New York actress and Atlantic Theater Acting Instructor Melissa Mahoney. She is listed as the writer, director, choreographer, sound designer and performer for the piece but she is not alone up there. The play begins with an omnipotent voice (performed and digitally manipulated by Mahoney, then executed with genius technical timing by co-director Dan Tracy) that sets up the story but breaks down into an extremely frank and personal one-sided chat with the audience until the Robot is finally brought onto the stage, to the delight of that audience, one echoing with peals of laughter for the sixty-minute solo play.

The story of the play is simple. The Robot lives on another planet, a planet of drones who awaken each day and go to work. This Robot, though, is no typical drone. She has a great deal of personality and so, it seems, do the colleagues that she encounters upon leaving her home, all roles embodied perfectly by Miss Mahoney. Upon waking, we see the Robot get ready for work, go to work, communicate with colleagues and go about the monotony of the day (perfectly illustrated by Miss Mahoney through the use of onstage physicality, astonishingly dexterous vocal sounds that rise to the level of special effects, carefully hidden props and deft mime). This is the kind of performance art that might leave some members of the audience scratching their heads or shifting in their seats but the night I saw the play I looked around me to see a group of fifty or so people transfixed, laughing and listening. Indeed, we were the drones and Miss Mahoney was our Queen, dare I even say Borg Queen. Yes, I think I may.

The Robot is assigned an important task that will take her, via spaceship, to Earth. The rocket trip is a hilarious bit of mime, particularly when the spaceship crash lands, stranding the Robot forever on the third rock from the sun. In her exasperated attempts to find a way back home, the Robot finds an iPhone and a laptop and through these devices discovers pop culture and the music and movies of Earthlings. What follows is an Olympic event in lip-syncing and impressions, one which had the audience howling with laughter and applauding every few seconds. It was a remarkable feat that left me asking myself where actors like this powerhouse of a woman get it from? Where, I wondered, did Melissa Mahoney learn to impersonate so many famous people? How many hours did it take to perfect her lip syncing of these incredibly famous bits of movie dialogue and pop music? What place inside of her head gave birth to the Robot? And where is the well of energy that it takes for her to put forth the energy and commitment that overwhelmed the audience that was privileged to witness this incredible work of art?

I’ll tell you something honestly. I’m not really a performance art person. I’m not always apt to enjoy something that is off the theatrical beaten path. Experimental theatre and solo shows tend to be lost on me, as I prefer linear theatre with a proscenium arch. I don’t do wacky, I don’t do wild, I don’t do oddball. And Melissa Mahoney Is A Robot is wacky, wild and oddball. It is also wonderful, exciting, entertaining and human. I related to the Robot. I wished well on her. I wanted her to get what she wanted. I wanted her to keep on going so that I could fall more in love with her. The Robot is one of the most inventive and hilarious, personable and human creations I’ve seen in a while. If she were stranded on Earth and found her way into Midtown Manhattan I would offer her my guest room, and nobody gets the guest room, not even my son. The play Melissa Mahoney Is A Robot cannot be defined as one genre of theatre. It is equal parts play, performance art, dance, sketch comedy, clownery and self-help because after all of the entertainment that Melissa Mahoney pulls from what must be the deepest place of her being, there is a message that urges we can all find our place in the world, in any world, in any universe. Even a gibberish speaking, movie quoting, moonwalking Robot.

This evening of theatre was a one-off. It is not currently set to play another space in 2019. I am hoping that that will change because I think that people everywhere will enjoy this play that has been produced twice before, once at The Tank in NYC and once at The Pit for the Solocom Festival. I think if there are solo performance festivals, one-person play festivals and any other kinds of series where artists gather to perform the shows where they stand in that most vulnerable and lonely place, center stage alone, Melissa Mahoney Is a Robot should be featured on the bill. It is that surprising, that original, that enjoyable. Anyone interested in keeping an eye out for future performance of Melissa Mahoney Is A Robot can follow Miss Mahoney on Instagram or her official website.

As the sated audience was departing the seating arena, I heard somebody say, 'She’s a 21st Century Carol Burnett.'

I can wholeheartedly validate that endorsement.

Read more of Stephen's reviews at

Agents of SHIELD’s premiere is missing pieces


 Agents of SHIELD S06E01: 'Missing Pieces'

Don’t worry about 'Endgame' spoilers! There isn’t a one!

by Brandon Coulson

Agents of SHIELD has finally returned. After nearly a year since the last new episode, it’s felt like a lifetime and there was certainly a lot to unpack.

First off though before we get to everything that DID happen, let's address something that they most certainly did not: Endgame. That’s right, Marvel is owning this summer, this year, and nearly every box office record imaginable yet they decided to completely sever any ties to the greater MCU from this series. Without spoiling Endgame it can be said that nothing that happened in that or last years Infinity War have any repercussions, or even a mention in SHIELD.

After years of fans complaining about the one-sided shared universe, it seems the whole idea has just been given up, especially ironic considering Coulson’s featured role in Captain Marvel. Now I’ve heard many theories saying this is a pocket dimension or altered timeline as a result of last year's time travel shenanigans but regardless of that and barring any unseen explanations coming down the line it seems that Agents of SHIELD is officially annexed from the MCU. Personally, as someone who has invested a ton of hours into all of this content of the MCU shared universe, having them completely drop it is like a slap in the face.

Moving on from that though, how was this season’s premiere? It was decent, there were some interesting moments, but I have to say compared to previous season openers I wasn’t over the moon this time round.

The episode, 'Missing Pieces', started strong, with Fitz’s ship getting sliced in half by an unknown armada and jumping a year later where we find Gemma, Quake, and you know, those two agents whose names you hear and immediately forget, Davis and Piper, all searching deep space for Fitz.

It became very clear what the forward thrusts of our two storylines will be for at least the first half of the season. One side is the search for Fitz and a struggle between Gemma who acted selfishly to an extreme, and Daisy/Quake who has become a feared violent force in space. Back on Earth we see Mack adjusting to being in charge post-Coulson and dealing with a new threat to Earth. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Focusing on our space story for now, I will say I didn’t like a lot of what Quake and Gemma did but I appreciate the drama it’s setting up for later this season. Quake was a total badass, vibrating guns apart and just mopping the floor with her opponents, while Gemma took a page from Fitz’s book. During the interrogation scene she came across very Nazi-esque much like Fitz was in the Hydra world sim.

We got hints that Quake has done some atrocious things while in space which I’m sure will be explored more later but I hope they don’t try and make Quake into a monster. After the fear of her destroying Earth last season, we don’t need another 'Is Quake evil?' plotline. Gemma was frustratingly self-involved this week, after her team had been searching space for a year only to find Fitz’s ship destroyed and his hibernation pod empty. Gemma leaps at a thin and frankly stupid idea that he must’ve seen the manufacturer’s label inside the pod and surely went to that world, in much deeper space mind you. During her scene inside the pod I thought for sure her breath on the glass was going to reveal a message Fitz left or something to that effect, an intentional message he would leave for anyone looking for him. Instead we get this gut feeling theory and after being confronted by some kind of Space Confederacy, Gemma makes the decision to jump to deep space in a half busted, and low on fuel ship. Dragging the others along to a possible bad end, even after they point out Davis has a wife and kid he hasn’t seen in a year. So right now Team Space has me very irritated.


Back home we find out a lot has changed. Mack and Yoyo have split, Yoyo is already seeing another agent which feels like just a setup for her and Mack to get back together. There are portals opening around Earth letting in some Mad Max looking guys to do who knows what, including the 'not a surprise because he was in the trailers' evil Phil Coulson. Or at least a guy who looks like him.

Seeing how they made such a big thing about Phil is really dead and upcoming previews show him not recognizing the name Coulson, I’m putting my money on a Skrull impersonation. In fact any alien or Inhuman face stealer is preferable to any sort of clone/alternate timeline versions of a doppelgänger story. I want Phil to really be dead and this guy to be something or someone else entirely.

Also while the freaky girl who is with these mysterious villains was creepy as hell, with her talk of becoming a butterfly and general weirdness, it was really hard for me to see Clark Gregg as a badass. I mean he did a decent job of being a cold hardass but I just kept thinking he seemed out of place. Even when he shoots a SHIELD agent in cold blood it felt like they were trying to sell his evilness too hard.

Another moment that felt like it was trying too hard was the new recruit to the team, a drunken professor. Mack and May have plans, which I like, to start a new SHIELD academy. To do so they approach a professor who May’s ex knew and the actor himself feels like a good addition to the mix. Older, kinda grumpy but in a funny way, it's a good juxtaposition to everyone else. But we all have seen the genius who drinks too much and is self destructive before. Add to that they made sure to let us know he lost his male partner and that’s part of why he’s so bitter.

It just felt like they were delivering us his bio rather than introducing his character. Like a hat on a hat it was just so many traits given in I want to say four lines of dialog. From here on out let's hope he gets to grow and develop a little more naturally, maybe give him some students to play off of.         

Even with some of those complaints, the episode as a whole was entertaining, had some good action, and re-established our heroes and where they stand. While by no means a great episode, it was very 'Okay'. I found myself getting burned out last season and I’m hoping this year will help reignite my love for the show again.

Agents of SHIELD airs Fridays at 8:00 PM on ABC.

What did you think of the season premiere? Tell us in the comments section below!

Read more of Brandon's reviews at

Monday, December 4, 2017

A situation gets explosive on Gotham

There was a lot of action in this week's episode of Gotham and none of it featured Bruce Wayne. Yay! (Unfortunately, we'll have to deal with him again in the upcoming midseason finale.) This week was really about Sofia Falcone. Is she trying to help Jim Gordon or Penguin? The identity of the Pyg is sought, and a surprising turn of events puts Sofia in the possession of the Sirens. And while all that is going on. Lee and Edward are dealing with territorial disputes in the Narrows now that Lee is in charge.

We'll cover that first since it was a rather small part of the episode. It seems that with Cherry no longer running things, another crime lord of the Narrows is threatening to take over everything including Lee's clinic. But he refuses to bargain with her, and even after she tried to convince him he has a deadly virus that only she can cure, he goes so far as to trash her clinic to send her a message. But she finds one bottle of medicine undamaged and uses it as her bargaining chip. Returning to make a deal, she's managed to slip poison into his drink and tells him to leave the Narrows or else he dies. Sampson agrees and she gives him the antidote. This wasn't really an important part of the story for Lee, but it was important for Ed who is still fuming that Lee hasn't done anything to fix him. But Lee tells him there's nothing wrong with his mind. Ed was always one step ahead of Sampson and guided her through every step to get him out of the Narrows. She hasn't said anything to him because this is the Ed she used to be friends with, and she likes being friends with him again. Later, realizing that he's just had a mental block, Ed sees The Riddler taunting him in the mirror. But does Ed want to be that person again? It looks like he has no choice.

In another small part of the main story, Professor Pyg is incarcerated at Arkham and it's discovered that he's had massive facial reconstruction surgery to disguise his true identity. Gordon is confused by this because the Pyg is all about being in the spotlight. Jim enlists Lucius to do some facial reconstruction work using Pyg's x-rays and they discover he's really a Southern serial killer named Lazlo Valentine, who had escaped prison. Heading back to Arkham, Gordon finds a dead guard, a missing prisoner and a message painted on the wall in blood signed "Lazlo".

The main plot this week is the delicate dance between Penguin and Sofia, and a little bit of betrayal on the part of Penguin's "conspirator" Martin. Oswald is still angry about Martin's report that he saw Sofia kissing Gordon. But Matin confesses Sofia told him to tell Penguin that lie which leads to his banishment from Penguin's home and call in The Dentist to torture information out of Sofia. But Sofia was one step ahead, already having enough information on The Dentist and his family to convince him that any harm done to her would result in more harm to his family so he helps her escape. But there is a little wrinkle in Sofia's plan when the Sirens show up and kidnap her thinking she's still on Penguin's side. They make a deal with Penguin for full autonomy in Gotham and he agrees ... and then send Victor Szaza to blow them all up. Now Sofia has the power again and the Sirens side with her after their narrow escape.

Sofia then goes running to Jim with a sob story about how Penguin tried to kill her, but he pretty much tosses her out on her ear -- sending her back to the Sirens -- and makes a deal with Penguin after he realizes Sofia was trying to play the two off of each other and start a war which would leave her in power. Jim tells Penguin he'll get Sofia out of Gotham on the condition that Penguin ends his crime licensing program. He reluctantly agrees because he doesn't need a war with the GCPD. Gordon puts Sofia on a train back to Florida but Penguin discovers that Martin has been kidnapped so he sends Victor to extract Sofia from the train.

Sofia tells Victor to tell Penguin to meet her and the Sirens under a bridge and she'd turn Martin over in exchange for the entire Gotham crime underworld. At the meeting place, an enraged Penguin agrees to her terms and puts Martin in his car ... and then BLOWS IT UP! Out of all the jaw-dropping Gotham moments, this one is top of the list. Just as shocked as the viewers, the women find themselves under fire from Penguin's men and have to beat a hasty retreat. While Gordon and Penguin avoided their own war, Penguin is definitely now at war with the Falcones and the Sirens.

The twist of all is is that Martin is not dead. It was all a ruse, with the car parked over a manhole so the boy could escape before the explosion. But Penguin knows that keeping the boy around will only put him in more danger if anyone learns that he's still alive so Penguin reluctantly sends the boy away so he can't be used as a bargaining chip ever again. It was a truly heartbreaking moment to see Oswald lose yet someone else in his life that he loved, even though he'd never admit the boy was anything else more than a "conspirator."

Coming up next is the fall finale and the return of Carmine Falcone and ... Jerome Valeska! And then an interminable wait for new episodes in the spring.

Gotham airs Thursdays at 8:00 PM on FOX.

What did you think of this episode? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.  

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Favorite Movies of 2016

Top Ten lists are always subjective. No one can ever agree on what the best movies of the year are and this list will surely be no different. It's also hard to choose just ten movies to be considered the "best" when comparing a drama to a comedy is like apples and oranges – they're different genres that give the viewer completely different experiences, and comedies especially are hard to agree on sense different people find different things funny. Add sci-fi and superhero movies to the mix, and picking ten "best" movies becomes even more difficult. Mainstream critics usually consider "prestige" or how "important" a movie is (in their opinion) when selecting it as a "best" movie of the year. Not here! This Top Ten list consists of movies that made me laugh, made me cry, or just elicited some type of emotional response regardless of its chances of winning any awards – and most of the movies on this list stand no chance of winning anything. But they are popular movies, or movies that should have been hits and got overlooked, some are pure popcorn movies. With that in mind, these are the top movies of 2016 that I enjoyed and I hope you will consider if you have not yet seen them.

Presented in order of theatrical release:

Hail, Caesar! - The Coen Brothers returned to the big screen with a loving homage to the Hollywood of the 1950s when musicals, Westerns and Biblical epics were filling cinema screens. The studio, unfortunately, mis-sold the movie as a sort of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World screwball comedy with its all-star cast, but it was really the story of real life studio "fixer" Eddie Mannix, a man who put out fires and kept the secrets of his studio's stars just that, even with a pair of gossip columnists (twins, played by Tilda Swinton) snooping around. From the cast to the spot-on production design, this should have been a movie to make real movie buffs swoon.

Deadpool – With Marvel having pretty much cornered the superhero movie market with their brightly colored, family friendly action flicks, it came as a surprise that Deadpool got made at all. But thanks to a cleverly "leaked" video of supposed test footage featuring an over-the-top action sequence (pretty much as seen in the actual movie) and the profane "hero" played by Ryan Reynolds that instantly went viral, Fox and Marvel had no choice but to move forward with the project. Debate came when fans demanded the film carry an R rating to reflect the spirit of the comic, and it ended up becoming one of the biggest hits of the year. The anti-hero movie was dark, violent, and vulgar, everything the fans wanted, with some terrific action scenes, with some digs at the brighter side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Reynolds' roles as a mute Deadpool and his ill-fated turn as Green Lantern. Funny and extremely violent, Deadpool set the standard for superhero movies to come, including what is being billed as the last Wolverine movie (with Hugh Jackman at least) which will also carry an R rating.

10 Cloverfield Lane – As with Cloverfield eight years earlier, this film came out of nowhere, shocking fans of the original when the trailer broke at the beginning of the year. What was this? A sequel? A prequel? Or something altogether different? In reality, the film started out with a different title, but when the original studio was shut down the film went to Paramount which decided to launch a new Cloverfield Cinematic Universe, loosely tying the new film to the original. Fans of Cloverfield may have balked a bit that the movies were really not related, but what we got was a taut, three character thriller with a great performance from John Goodman (is he crazy, dangerous or both?). The film also established Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a modern "scream queen" following her role in The Thing and pre-dating her starring role in the summer TV series BrainDead. The ending may have been a little bit of a letdown, but the rest of the movie is an edge of your seat nail-biter.

The Jungle Book – Disney has had some success in the past turning its animated classics into live action films (101 Dalmations), and they found even greater success with Alice in Wonderland, Cinderalla and Maleficent. Thanks to the wonders of CGI technology, Disney took a gamble on bringing the classic The Jungle Book to life and the result was nothing short of breathtaking, especially when you realize that the bulk of the movie was filmed on a green screen sound stage. The animals are ultra realistic, the landscapes are never not believable and young Neel Sethi gives a remarkable performance acting against nothing but green walls and people in green body suits. The voice cast, including Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley and Christopher Walken, bring much of their own personalities to the characters with Walken literally bringing down the house with his rendition of "I Wanna Be Like You". Disney set the bar extremely high with this reimagining, and the upcoming Beauty and the Beast has some gigantic shoes to fill.

Everybody Wants Some!! - Richard Linklater, coming off of the 12-year production of Boyhood, sets his sights on a smaller film set in the 1980s and focusing on a college baseball team in Texas. Linklater populated his cast with some handsome faces, some known, some unknown, but all very much into their specific characters (and yes, each character is a specific "type"), all delivering Linklater's spot-on dialogue in a film where nothing really happens. But the characters and the script are so engaging that you don't mind spending a couple of hours with them. And if you grew up during that era, you can definitely relate to the questionable fashions and hairstyles, and you can probably recognize yourself or your friends in the characters as well.

Keanu – I can guarantee you won't find this movie on any other list. The comedy from Comedy Central duo Key & Peele was hyped constantly with the film's other star, the cutest kitten in the world. But the hype and the cute factor did not draw audiences into the theater and the film bombed, hard, with critcs and audiences. I thought it was hilarious, and you can't hate a movie that stars the cutest kitten in the world. The story has Peele's character Rell adopting the stray kitten, turning around his life after a break up. But the kitten belongs to some very bad people who steal Keanu, forcing Rell and his friend Clarence to impersonate a pair of dangerous criminals to get the kitten back. Funny, profane, violent, the film also features a scene that is now a tribute to the late George Michael, and contains a pretty hilarious cameo by an actress playing herself (we won't spoil it for you). This movie really deserves a shot at finding an audience.

The Nice Guys – Another film that tanked but really deserves to be seen is Shane Black's The Nice Guys. Set in the 1970s, the film stars Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as two different types of private investigators who are forced to team up to solve a case they were both working on. The mismatched partnership brings a lot of humor to the situation, and the period detail is amazing. Gosling's comedic timing is terrific, and Angourie Rice, as Gosling's daughter, should make casting directors sit up and take notice (she did nab a role in the upcoming Spider-Man movie). Only Shane Black could take some arcane piece of history – the scandal involving the auto industry, the EPA and catalytic converters – and make an interesting movie from it. All that, and he got Kim Basinger back on screen to boot. Definitely a must-see movie if you like witty dialog, good action and great acting.

Lights Out – While I am a fan of The Conjuring movies, I think Lights Out was the better of this year's crop of horror flicks (which included The Conjuring 2, Ouija: Origin of Evil and Don't Breathe). The film had a focused premise – a young boy is terrorized by something that seems to be somehow attached to his mother and only comes out in the dark – and some great scares, wisely avoiding until the very end showing audiences the terrifying entity in any great detail. It all worked terrifically well, but it all could have been completely derailed if someone hadn't wisely cut the film's original ending (which is available to view on the home video release). Like The Conjuring films, Lights Out (also produced by James Wan), does not resort to CGI trickery to bring its monsters to life, making everything feel more organic in the process. Watch this one and you may be sleeping with the lights on.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Last year, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens brought the Star Wars saga back to the big screen for the first time since the last of the three prequels unspooled in 2005. While a great return to form, the film ultimately felt a little too slavishly devoted to the original Star Wars trilogy, and when Disney announced that in addition to continuing the original series they would also be producing new stand-alone stories taking place within the established Star Wars galaxy, fans wondered if they were biting off more than they could chew. Everyone has breathed a sigh of relief with the release of Rogue One which tells a new-ish story that brilliantly links 2005's Episode III to 1977's Episode IV. The film tells the story of a band of rebels tasked with retrieving the Empire's blueprints for the original Death Star, giving us a whole new set of characters and sprinkling in a few familiar faces here and there, most notably Darth Vader (voiced once again by James Earl Jones). The film feels fresh while still giving us a sense of familiarity, but it never feels like a copy of what has come before. Now with the untimely passing of Carrie Fisher, the film's final moments are almost too poignant to bear, but it ends up now being a wonderful tribute to our fallen princess (and if you're wondering, Fisher had completed work on Episode VIII but how they deal with her loss in Episode IX remains to be seen). If you're one of the handful of people who have yet to see Rogue One … what are you waiting for?

La La Land – Musicals can be a hard sell for audiences jarred by characters suddenly breaking into song when reciting dialog is a perfectly reasonable way to address someone. But La La Land presents the classical MGM musical format in a fresh new way with some dazzling direction by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) and two marvelous performances from Ryan Gosling (his second appearance on our list!) and Emma Stone. The movie looks terrific, from the cinematography to the production design and editing, and has a collection of sparkling tunes including the sure to be Oscar nominated "City of Stars". The movie also features a delightfully poignant homage to the ballet scene in An American In Paris, and Emma Stone will tear your heart out with her audition story that turns into a lovely song. The film's bittersweet ending has divided audiences who expected one thing but got another, but in life we don't always get what we want. Regardless, La La Land is a wonderful throwback to a bygone era but with a modern spin, perhaps opening up Hollywood to a new era of big screen musicals.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Travel back in time – to 1993 – with Jurassic World

Any movie fan worth his weight has certainly seen Steven Spielberg's groundbreaking dinosaur movie Jurassic Park. You may have seen it on the big screen when it was released in 1993, or a few years ago when it was re-released in 3D, or on video or television. Even if you haven't seen you're probably familiar with it.

The story concerned a rich old coot who bought and island in the middle of the Pacific, set up a lab facility and began engineering dinosaurs from preserved DNA in the hopes of one day opening the island as a theme park for dino-crazy tourists. Except, it was the dinosaurs that were crazy and dangerous because the cloning process also included the DNA from other species to fill in the blanks. Many people die and the hope to bring visitors to the island seems to die as well. Two sequels followed, but they are inconsequential to the new film Jurassic World.

It's twenty-two years later and the late John Hammond's dream did indeed come true as the island is now home to the Jurassic World theme park with a Main Street promenade (complete with Starbucks, Margaritaville and other major retailers) and thousands of visitors enjoying relaxing trips down a primordial river surrounded by docile, plant-eating dinosaurs, and exciting tours among larger and faster creatures in gyroscopic orbs.

Of course, dinosaurs are still being manufactured (courtesy of Dr. Henry Wu from the first movie) and designed from scratch to be bigger and scarier, something to give even the adults nightmares. The island's newest creation is called the Indominus rex, smaller than a T rex but much more frightening because it's smarter and can camouflage itself visually and from heat detecting sensors (courtesy of the designer DNA). It also hunts for sport. What could possibly go wrong? If you've seen Jurassic Park, you'll have a pretty good idea.

It seems that everyone who has seen Jurassic World so far, and with earning almost a billion dollars worldwide in two weeks time, many have, is proclaiming this one of the greatest summer action movies ever made. Except it isn't. It's fun and entertaining and the CGI dinosaurs are as realistic looking as ever, but I've already seen this movie. In 1993! The story is virtually the same right down to the two brothers (replacing the brother and sister from the original) sent to the island to hang out with their aunt (replacing the grandfather) while their parents are going through a divorce. The brothers even get trapped in a gyro orb, coming face to face with the I rex in a scene that apes the Jeep scene of the original with the siblings and the T rex.

We have a new character in Chris Pratt's Owen, but he seems to be a bit of Sam Neill and Jeff Goldblum rolled into one as he comments that building dinosaurs and keeping them in captivity is not a good idea. The one new twist to the story is Owen's ability to train the original film's stealth killing machines, the Raptors. He is their Alpha, and he can actually take them on a hunt as if they were a pack of bloodhounds. The only problem is they're just as intelligent as the I rex, so together they could spell real trouble. Pratt, however, demonstrates that his on-screen charm and charisma was no fluke in Guardians of the Galaxy.

While, to me, Jurassic World is a tad too derivative of the original, there are some bits and pieces here and there that are interesting and disturbing. The massive aquarium housing an aquatic beastie was pretty cool, and the little nod to Spielberg as it munches on a Great White was amusing. Not so amusing, however, was the film's one needlessly horrific death of a peripheral character that makes one wonder exactly what that character did to deserve such an awful demise. It really puts a pall over the film because it's so out of place.

There's also been a lot of yammering about the sexism on display in the way the film treats Bryce Dallas Howard's character Claire, the aunt who is in charge of keeping Jurassic World financially viable. It started with a tweet from filmmaker Joss Whedon (who, himself had been accused of sexism after the way Black Widow was handled in Avengers: Age of Ultron) who questioned why Claire had to be the damsel in distress. He only saw one scene out of context, and then apologized, but the issue has remained and it's a silly one. People complain about how she dressed while running through the jungle. Umm, she was working when all hell broke loose, so she would naturally be dressed business professional and wearing heels. It's as simple as that. She really didn't have time to change while being chased around the island by things that want to eat her. Claire is actually a strong female character with a high position within the company, and the skills plus a good head on her shoulders to get herself and her nephews out of danger. And she basically saves Owen and the kids (again) in the film's last act. Take that as you will.

When Jurassic Park came out, people were awed by the amazing computer generated effects combined with actual mechanical creatures that were on the screen because we had never seen anything like that before. The wow factor, at this point, is not there because we can see pretty much anything any special effects artist can imagine these days, so a few CGI dinosaurs are no big deal. The effects are still nothing to sneeze at and are quite realistic, so the film certainly succeeds in that department. I just wish someone had spent a little more time developing a new story that didn't feel like it needed to rely on the original so much. If you just want a big, summer popcorn movie, however, Jurassic World is worth the trip, even if it does give you a sense of deja vu.

Friday, March 20, 2015

More action and twists make
Insurgent better than Divergent

I'm coming late, but not too late, to the Divergent series having only seen the first film in preparation for the press screening earlier in the week. The plot of the first film basically tells us that a post-something future which has ruined the world sees its surviving humans divided into factions which are supposed to help society rebuild with everyone in their proper place.

The factions all have names like Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (peaceful and welcoming), Erudite (intelligent), Candor (honesty) and Dauntless (bravery). In a bit of plotting that's not quite explained, every citizen is tested to see which faction suits them best, but at a certain point during their teenage years there is a choosing ceremony where they get to decide which faction they want to belong to. Once you choose, you can never go back and if you don't fit in you become "factionless." Some people test with traits belonging to more than one faction, the Divergent, and they are seen as a great threat to society.

The new film Insurgent (or The Divergent Series: Insurgent … the title is presented on screen both ways) picks up some time after the events of the conclusion of Divergent with Tris (Shailene Woodley), her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Peter (Miles Teller) and Dauntless leader Four (Theo James) hiding out with the Amitys until they can gather the rest of the Dauntless together and try to fight Jeanine (Kate Winslet) after she secretly starts a war with the Abnegations, fearing they are trying to take over rule from the Erudite.

Of course, there are many monkey-wrenches thrown into the plan when Four's mother, whom he believed was dead, shows up and offers to join him in the fight with her Factionless tribe. There's also a mysterious box which Jeanine has possession of, found buried in the family home of Tris, that only a 100% Divergent has the ability to open. One guess on who Jeanine needs. But is what she thinks is in the box going to help her cause or destroy everything she believes? (If you've read the books, you probably already know the answer to that question … and there is at least one more book/movie in the series).

I found Divergent to be an overly long origin story that had too many unanswered questions about this world, this society and who/why people are divided and why they can choose to go against their inborn faction. The sequel does amp up the action quite a bit, gives us some answers as to who came up with the factions idea, but has discarded the whole choosing thing as Tris, Four and their group have pretty much sent their society into a tizzy. There is action, betrayals and unlikely heroes by the time the second chapter ends, and of course it lays the groundwork for the next film (and hopefully they won't feel the need to divide it into two movies).

Woodley, James, Elgort, Teller and Winslet have all settled into their roles, but it's nice to see a little bit of shading as some of them begin to rethink what they're doing. Some flip, some don't and those make for some nice surprises. New additions to the cast include Octavia Spencer, who is woefully under-used as the Amity leader, and Naomi Watts, also under-used but will perhaps have a larger role in the next film. Bad guys Jai Courtney and Mekhi Phifer also return.

Robert Schwentke takes over the directorial reins from Neil Burger and he gives the film a bit of a different look, from the sunny outdoors of the Amity village to the cold, sleek lab where Jeanine uses a host of Divergents to try to open that box (which looks almost like a large version of the cube from Hellraiser). The film also features quite a bit of off-screen violence (people clearly being shot in the head by Tris, Four and others) but very little blood. The special effects are also amped up quite a bit, especially as Tris is hooked to Jeanine's machine. The film is also presented in 3D this time around which makes the environment feel bigger but rarely does anything leap off the screen at you.

Divergent was a bit over-long at two-hours-twenty-minutes, but Insurgent is a little leaner with a two-hour run time that doesn't seem to lag a bit. With the story now past the Tris origin story, it becomes more engaging, interesting and surprising. I even found myself getting a little teary-eyed at the end as I started to relate the Divergents to those in our society today that are seen as different and scary for no real reason. This social commentary does add another layer to the story and I'm now curious to see how it all ends.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Will Smith keeps a heist plot
in Focus

Heist movies are sometimes difficult things to pull off. Some are successful (like Ocean's Eleven) and some are not (like Ocean's Twelve). Some are very dramatic, some have humorous undertones. The new heist movie Focus falls in the latter category, and adds a bit of romance into the mix.

Will Smith stars as Nicky, a seasoned con man who runs a team of master pickpockets who target large events like conventions and sporting events. One night in a restaurant, Nicky is approached by the beautiful Jess (Margot Robbie) to help get her out of a situation … pretend to be her date. Turns out Jess is also a pickpocket, a rather amateur one at that, who is called out by Nicky for her technique. Realizing he's a master, she begs him to mentor her in the fine art of theft.

He does, reluctantly at first, but her skills win him over, the team pulls off a million dollar day at a vaguely Super Bowl-ish event, and he sends Jess on her way with no explanation, breaking her heart in the process. Three years later, Nicky is working a new job in Brazil and it just so happens Jess is there too, now the girlfriend of his new mark. But is she really, or is she working a game too? And just who is playing whom?

Focus, thankfully, is a fun heist movie with beautiful leads pulling off impossible crimes, and no one really gets hurt (well, not until the last third of the movie). Smith is back in fine form, turning on the charm and looking great at 45 (trivia: Smith is now older than Uncle Phil was at the start of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air). After a series of much too serious films which culminated in the bomb that was After Earth, Smith is actually having fun again as the romantic lead who can talk a good game.

Margot Robbie, who made a big splash in The Wolf of Wall Street (and who will play DC Comics villain Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad alongside Jared Leto as The Joker), should become a huge star after this movie. First of all, she's simply gorgeous (I have a little gay crush on her now). But besides her beauty, the girl can act! There is a pretty funny scene with Nicky trying to teach Jess how to be alluring, but she can never get the look on her face right. She shows her confidence and excitement during the pick-pocketing, and she is incredibly vulnerable when Nicky forces her to potentially gamble away all of the money they just took in. Robbie truly sells that Jess feels completely betrayed with such honesty you just want to jump into the movie and give her a big hug.

The film is filled out with some great character actors in key roles including Adrian Martinez as Nicky's closest friend Farhad, Brennan Brown as Horst (who really runs Nicky's game but disappears midway through the movie) and Gerald McRaney as Owens, the chief of security for Nicky's mark in Brazil (played by Rodrigo Santoro). The movie, however, belongs to Smith and Robbie who have a great scene with B.D. Wong at the aforementioned Super Bowl-ish game that is the highlight of the movie.

While the movie is great fun overall, it does suffer from a bit of disjointedness and has just a few plot holes. First and foremost, the first "meet cute" between Nicky and Jess. Was it a coincidence that two pickpockets just happened to cross paths in that restaurant, or was Nicky actually watching Jess from afar? Who knows. And in the second half of the movie, did Jess know Nicky was going to be in Brazil three years later, and was she really there just to steal a $200,00 watch or to play Nicky? Never explained. Too many of these coincidences can sink a movie, but the stars are just so engaging that you accept it all and go along for the ride.

Besides the star power, the film looks gorgeous, particularly in the first part of the film with some of the most beautiful lighting I've seen on film in a while. The look of the film also changes from that dark, but lush winter in New York lighting to harsh, bright Brazilian sunlight in the last part of the film but it all serves a purpose. The film also has one of the best soundtracks of recent memory, using the music to set the mood. Focus may not be the best heist movie ever made, especially with the major plot holes, but the twists and turns, the constant guessing of who is playing whom, the music and the great performances of Smith and Robbie make it a worthwhile getaway from our wintry weather.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

'Selma' is the most important movie of the year

Usually when a message movie like Selma is released during the holiday season, the first thing I think of is "shameless Oscar grab." But Selma is definitely anything but a brazen attempt by a filmmaker to win an award. Selma truly is the most important movie you will see this year.

If you don't already know the story of Selma, the film focuses on one moment of the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. organized African Americans to peacefully protest for their rights in the deep south. A time when blacks could not easily register to vote, or were forced to sit in special sections of restaurants (if they were allowed in at all), drink from separate water fountains, sit in the back of the bus...

While King is the leader and the face of the movement, the film wisely focuses on the movement rather than making King the central star of the film. King, his wife Coretta, and everyone else who was a part of the movement are integral to the film. The story does take some brief looks into the Kings' personal lives, with the alleged indiscretions of King being used against him by the FBI to destroy not only the movement but his family.

But the story here is about the Civil Rights Movement and the people who were affected by the racial discrimination of the time, and how they joined together to affect change in the country. It wasn't easy but they made it happen and this is a very important lesson that people today need to see, in the same way that the LGBT community needs to take lessons from the movie Milk.

Watching Selma, it's frightening how the story absolutely resonates today. There's that old saying that if we don't remember our history, we're doomed to repeat it and judging by the way the Supreme Court dismantled the very act this film depicts people of all races and religions fighting for – The Voting Rights Act – we are headed back to a time where white people seem to think it's okay to discriminate against black people.

King was the face of the Civil Rights Movement, but where is our King today? Where is our Harvey Milk? There are plenty of organizations like the HRC putting out press releases condemning the kind of discrimination that is currently being implemented against blacks, gays and anyone else who isn't a white Christian, but where are the movements, the peaceful protests, the public faces to get on TV and speak for the masses? A person speaking directly to the public can get much more done than a press release. Until we see those faces leading the charge, we will continue to slip back in time.

Director Ava DuVernay has done a magnificent job bringing this moment in history to life without being cloying or overly reverent. She lets us see the strife within King's camp, the rifts that began to form when he suddenly canceled the second march to Montgomery (thinking it was a trap when the police stepped aside to allow them to pass) after the disastrous end to the first march. If you aren't horrified and moved to tears by the violence inflicted upon the marchers as they peacefully walk across a bridge then you need help.

David Oyelowo is perfect as King, showing us both the personal and public sides of the man, and delivering his speeches (or variations of the speeches as the filmmakers were not grated the rights to use the actual speeches) with the power that truly moved people to act. Carmen Ejogo is stunning as Coretta, a doppelganger of the real Coretta, and Tom Wilkinson pulls off a credible LBJ (even in the face of much criticism that his portrayal is inaccurate, a move some think is simply a way to discredit the entire movie). Everyone in the cast, from Common to Lorraine Toussaint, is excellent and though much has been made of Oprah Winfrey's role in the film as Annie Lee Cooper, a woman who is constantly being denied the right to even register to vote by any means necessary, she's only in a few brief scenes.

The film closes out with the moving song "Glory" (which just won a Golden Globe) by Common and John Legend, and it is a very powerful accompaniment to the film. We should be seeing an Oscar coming its way as well.

If you've been hemming and hawing about sitting through a true-life historical film, put those doubts aside and head to your local cinema to see Selma. You'll be moved, you'll be entertained, but most of all, you will learn something that you can actually apply to your life and the lives of others today.

My 10 Favorite Movies of 2014

Happy New Year! As we prepare to begin a new year of movie-going, it's time to take a look back on some of the better films of 2014. This is a list of the films I enjoyed, not necessarily a Top Ten Best Films of 2014 list (some of the prestige films like Selma didn't open in Baltimore until after the new year). For this list, I chose the ten films of 2014 that entertained me the most.

Big Hero 6 – Disney hit one out of the park in the animation department, something usually reserved for their sibling company Pixar. But this tale of teenaged superheroes scored major points for introducing the world to Baymax, a medical droid who becomes pivotal in saving the world (or at least the fictional city of San Fransokyo) from destruction, and for injecting real heart-tugging emotion into the story. When children and adults are sniffling and wiping away tears, you know the filmmakers have done their job.

Dawn of the Planet of the ApesRise of the Planet of the Apes was better than it had any right to be, and with its combination of popcorn entertainment and amazing CGI characters and performances, a sequel was inevitable. Dawn, which takes place ten years after Rise, takes the performance capture and CGI to whole new levels (Andy Serkis really should be considered for an Oscar nomination as the ape Caesar) and takes the story to another, more thoughtful level as well. The film really sets out to make you think about our society and the directions we could go if we're not careful, and that's something you don't usually get from a summer SPFX blockbuster. It loses a few points for some of the much too stereotypical human characters, but overall it really whets your appetite for the next chapter.

X-Men: Days of Future Past – This is the film X-Men fans have been waiting for, the one that merges the key players from the original trilogy with the new cast from the most recent film. X-Men: First Class was a triumph in the way it showed us the younger versions of Charles Xavier/Professor X and Erik Lensherr/Magneto and other future X-Men and how the plot tied into the history of 1962. The new film also plays with the past, present and future using Hugh Jackman's Wolverine as the connective tissue, and even when it gets a little goofy towards the end, it's still hugely entertaining and shows that there's still plenty of life left in the franchise (unlike Sony's Spider-Man).

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – The first Captain America film was a real gamble, setting the main part of the story in the 1940s and bringing Cap to the present right at the very end. The new film was also interesting in that, while it has a modern setting, the tone is very 1970s political thriller like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. To strengthen this narrative, Marvel even went so far as to cast Condor star Robert Redford in a pivotal role as a top dog at S.H.I.E.L.D. The film even touched on a government's over-reach into personal privacy, something that Cap is against, and will continue to resonate through to the next Avengers and third Captain America movie. It was all brilliantly realized and a little CGI-heavy at the end, but still one of the best of the Marvel superhero flicks to date.

Into the Woods – Disney took a bold step in making a film based on fairy tales … but this isn't your traditional Disney fairy tale movie. Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical finally made it to the big screen, and for an adaptation it really works. The actors acquit themselves well handling Sondheim's complicated lyrics, and director Rob Marshall works his magic as the film goes from the bright, color tales that we (think we) know to a much darker place where "happily ever after" really is just a fairy tale. It's definitely not for little kids, and a downer of an ending may color how you feel about the film as a whole, but I enjoyed it immensely.

Marvel's Guardians of the GalaxyCaptain America: The Winter Soldier was the best Marvel film of the year … until this one came out a few months later. Marvel gambled hard on bringing a little-known cast of comic book characters to the big screen, but with director James Gunn's obvious affection for the material and a star-making performance from Chris Pratt, the gamble paid off. It was also one of the few summer blockbusters that wasn't a sequel or reboot, and proved that if the studios can produce a great movie that can make people talk, they can have a hit with original material. The film was great fun with a great 1980s mix tape soundtrack and some eye-popping visual effects and makeup. Definitely one of the most enjoyable films of the year.

Edge of Tomorrow – I'm still baffled as to why this tanked at the box office, but it's obvious the studio had no idea how to market the movie, changing the title from the source material's All You Need Is Kill to a more generic Edge of Tomorrow, and they still don't know how to promote it on home video, hiding the title in the smallest font possible and using the film's tagline "Live. Die. Repeat." as the title. The film is a clever Groundhog Day story of a man who has to re-live the same day over and over again in order to fight an alien invasion of earth. Terrific performances from Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt (who is getting notice for her Into the Woods role), some amazing action scenes and an ending that will keep you guessing should have had people lined up to see this. They didn't, and they missed one of the most exciting films of the year.

PridePride tells the story of a group of gay men and lesbians who started a group to help support British miners during a strike which shut down the country under Thatcher's rule in the early 1980s. Picking a small mining town to deliver their donation, they faced some resistance but were also welcomed by many in the town. The situation is one of those things that can only happen in the movies, but this is a true story! The film doesn't hold back in showing the fight for gay rights of the time (and touches on the beginnings of the AIDS crisis), both in London and in the small town, but it's ultimately an uplifting, emotional, funny, triumphant story that never becomes sugar-coated. There are also some great performances from Imelda Staunton, Ben Schnetzer and Jessica Gunning, all worthy of awards consideration. The only misstep now is the US home video packaging that has completed erased any mention of the gays. For a movie about acceptance, it's shameful that Sony felt they had to whitewash the video package to sell a few more copies (although it would be fun to sit with some unsuspecting viewer in the Bible Belt while the story unfolds).

Birdman – This is one of those movies that just puts your jaw on the floor for the entire running time. Michael Keaton stars as a washed-up actor, who once played the superhero Birdman (wink, wink), trying to get his star to rise once again by mounting a Broadway play … something he's never done before. As the production and his psyche spiral out of control, we're taken on the ride in what appears to be one continuous shot (even though it takes place over the course of several days). With ironic performances from Keaton and Edward Norton, and wonderful support from Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifiniakis and Andrea Riseborough, Birdman is one of those films that just stays with you long after you've left the theater. A definite Oscar contender for Best Picture, Birdman could be this year's Gravity.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – When this finally came out in March, we had already endured two months of lackluster films like The Legend of Hercules, At Middleton, That Awkward Moment and The Monuments Men, so Wes Anderson's twisted tale of romance and (possible) murder was a welcome respite from the winter dreck. I'm not even a fan of Anderson's films and I found this to be utterly charming from beginning to end, with Anderson's whimsical visuals firmly grounded by a bravura performance from Ralph Fiennes as the hotel bellman who keeps things running while attending to his own needs. The film becomes a caper when a painting goes missing, and then a jail-break movie, almost veering into Pink Panther-like slapstick before settling back at the hotel and a poignant ending. Incredibly enjoyable from beginning to end, and definitely a contender for Oscar gold.

If you missed any of these movies in theaters, you can still find Into the Woods and Big Hero 6 on the big screen. The rest are currently available on home video. Do check them out!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Big Hero 6 isn't just for kids

Everyone, by now, is familiar with the Pixar name and the high quality animated movies that studio produces, from the original Toy Story to WALL-E. Pixar has become known for the length of time they take to develop a story or nurture a script before even rendering a single pixel of information. They do have the occasional stumble (Cars 2), and are facing some backlash after announcing a fourth Toy Story movie, but for the most part they put out the best of the best in CG animated films.

Disney's CG animation arm has not been as successful, at least as far as critics are concerned. Most of their animated films are geared more towards the younger crowd … who will want all of the merchandise that goes along with the movie … and scripts usually are too juvenile for adults to bear. But, since Disney has folded Pixar into the company (complete with Pixar's John Lasseter heading up the animation unit), their CG films have grown up. Their Secret of the Wings was a pretty solid effort considering it was a direct-to-video film with limited theatrical release, and that also seemed to be a test run for the studios best (and most popular) CG animated film yet, Frozen. And now Disney has released a new CG animated film with the curious title of Big Hero 6.

Big Hero 6 tells the story of Hiro and his older brother Tadashi (who live in the mash-up city of San Fransokyo). Both are scientific geniuses, and while the older Tadashi has made something of himself, the teenaged Hiro spends time gambling in (illegal) robot fights. Knowing he can't stop Hiro from going, Tadashi offers to give him a ride to the next fight but ends up taking him to the institute he attends. A new world opens up before Hiro's eyes, and before long he is creating a new type of robot to present for consideration for admission into the institute.

The robots are a success, a "shady" businessman offers to buy them from Hiro but he is convinced it is better to accept the invitation to join the institute. After leaving the competition, the building bursts into flames, Tadashi runs in to save his professor, but an explosion spells the worst for anyone left inside the building. Depression takes over Hiro's life, but his brother's invention Baymax, a personal medical robot, Tadashi's friends and a mysterious supervillain who seems to have replicated Hiro's microbots give Hiro a new purpose in life – find out who stole his invention and killed his brother.

This really is some heady stuff for something that could be looked down upon as just a kids' movie. There certainly is more than enough colorful scenery and laugh-out-loud humor (courtesy of Baymax) for the kids, but the idea of death, revenge, retribution and sacrifice will keep adults heavily invested in the story and the characters. Tadashi's funeral scenes are very reminiscent of the wordless life story of the characters in Pixar's Up, and it will definitely leave you with some very moist eyes. Even though these characters are animated, you feel real human emotion from the "performances" that just tug on your heart.

Another scene near the end of the movie, the one involving selfless sacrifice, not only had tears rolling down my face but had the children behind me having complete emotional meltdowns. That certainly demonstrates the power of the characters to make you believe in them, and the power of the writing to fully engage you in those characters' fates. The only real weak link in the story is the villain, who comes out of nowhere and wears a kabuki mask for no other reason than associating it with the city in which they live. The final battle between Hiro and his friends (the Big Hero 6 of the title, a name they give themselves as they become real superheroes through science) is action-packed and made even more impressive with the stunning use of 3D.

Of course, the real star of the movie is Baymax, a big marshmallow of a robot that is designed to attend to anyone's medical needs, from a slight rash to emotional heartbreak. Baymax is designed to be non-threatening, hence the squishy inflatable look, kind of like a Christmas lawn decoration come to life, but he's equipped with everything one would need for medical assistance. To help fight the villain though, Hiro has to alter Baymax's programming to make him a badass fighting machine, which sometimes confuses the robot, but once Hiro pulls the disk containing the medical programming, Baymax changes into something morally questionable. It certainly is a bold move on the filmmakers' part to take what and who should be the film's good guys and turn them to the dark side, especially in a film with children as its main demographic. But by the end of the movie, you will be wanting your own Baymax.

For some reason, I find myself getting drowsy during CG animated films maybe because of the over-stimulation of the colors or the movement, or maybe even the 3D, but Big Hero 6 had me fully engaged for the entire running time. If you think cartoons are just for kids, then have your attitude readjusted by Big Hero 6. As an added bonus, the animated short Feast precedes the film, a story about the life of a cute pooch (and his owner) as they go from bachelorhood to romance and break-up, all told through the dog's eyes (and appetite). It's a charming film that has as much, if not more, heart packed into its short running time than most live action, feature length films can muster. Together, these films are a real treat for all ages.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy is the
most comic booky comic book
movie yet

There's been a lot of talk about what the movie of the summer will be. A few weeks ago, everyone seemed to be in agreement, for the most part, that that movie was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. But it looks like Marvel Studios has hit another home run ... make that a Grand Slam with their latest offering, Guardians of the Galaxy.

The studio has certainly been cranking the hype machine for several months now trying to get audiences who only know Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the rest of the Avengers familiar with this new group of characters from a comic that has many fervent fans, but that fan base is considerably smaller compared to those who are at least familiar with the characters who have already hit the big screen from the Marvel Universe.

Guardians of the Galaxy tells the story of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a human who had been abducted from earth as a child moments after his mother dies. The story moves from that moment to Peter as an adult, apparently some kind of treasure hunter working with a blue alien, Yondu (Michael Rooker), to retrieve an orb for a client. Quill gets the orb, but also finds himself captured and incarcerated after a fight for the orb with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) that draws the attention of Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered creature that looks like a racoon, and Groot (Vin Diesel), an ambulatory tree whose vocabulary consists of "I am Groot" (only Rocket seems to understand what he's really saying).

Needless to say, things escalate as the four escape prison (with another prisoner, Drax the Destroyer, played by Dave Bautista) and they learn what the orb contains -- an Infinity Stone -- and who wants it to potentially destroy the galaxy -- that would be Ronan (Lee Pace) who is supposed to deliver the orb to galactic villain Thanos (Josh Brolin).

Guardians of the Galaxy, as directed by James Gunn, is a visual feast. It is the most comic booky comic book movie that's come along in quite some time. It really is one of the most wildly colorful movies out there with a color wheel of aliens of all hues: blues, green, pink, just about any color in the crayon box. The film, for the most part, is also very bright with most of the major scenes taking place in full daylight. It's far from a depressing movie.

But all that light and color doesn't mean the movie is light and fluffy. Yes, the movie is very, very funny with a script full of one-liners fans will be sure to be quoting for the rest of the summer (one of my favories involves the words "pelvic sorcery"). But with all of the comedy and action, the film has a great big heart too. You'll laugh a lot and you'll cry (or get a little weepy) a couple of times too. It's this great balance of action, laughs and heart that makes the movie work so well.

The cast, of course, also gets as much credit as Gunn and his scriptwriters. Pratt, whom most people know as paunchy, lovable oaf Andy on Parks & Recreation, cuts a fine form as the film's hero. Most people know he can pull off the comedy, but he puts all of his heart into the role too and makes Quill a fully rounded character, even when he's being an "a-hole." Saldana kicks ass with the best of them, and Bautista is surprisingly good delivering his very funny dialog with dead-on earnestness.

But whodathunk the film's real breakout stars would be a talking racoon and a talking tree? The CGI artists have done some amazing work bringing them to life, but Cooper and Diesel have done outstanding work lending their voices to a couple of characters that could have ended up as the butt of the joke and brought the movie way, way down. But they both elevate their characters to the same level as their human counterparts, becoming just as integral to the story and just as heroic as Quill by the end.

There really isn't much more to say about Guardians of the Galaxy. It's definitely a movie that needs to be seen to be appreciated, and it needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible. After seeing the 17 minute IMAX preview, it was a bit of a letdown to see it on a regular screen but credit must be given to Gunn for really planning and composing each shot for 3D. This is a conversion, but it's one of the finest conversions I've seen. Thank you, James Gunn, for really using the format to its best advantage. If you've had any reservations about seeing Guardians of the Galaxy, put them aside now and make plans to see what is undoubtedly the most entertaining movie of the summer.