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Monday, November 20, 2017

FILM REVIEW OF ''TYLER PERRY'S BOO 2! A MADEA HALLOWEEN"

Compared to the nine other movies about Mabel Simmons, “Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween!” (** OUT ****) qualifies as surprisingly lame and lightweight.  I’ve laughed myself silly at all of Madea’s madcap misadventures, but this sequel to last year’s box office sensation “Boo! A Madea Halloween” is the least maniacal Madea movie in the franchise.  Naturally, not only does the multi-talented Tyler Perry play Madea, but he also chews the scenery as Joe as well as the straight-laced Brian.  The problem with “Boo 2” is Madea winds up blending into the background.  Indeed, dope-smoking, promiscuous Joe with his profane lips lands all the best lines. Meanwhile, Madea ends up doing little if anything until this parody of “Friday the 13th” slasher movies enters its second half-hour.  The best Madea movies are those where Madea looms front and center as well as loud and proud.  She dominates everything and divides her enemies and relatives like Moses did the Red Sea.  Unfortunately, writer & director Tyler Perry has hobbled the world’s looniest lady.  She doesn’t engineer the outcome of his middling comedy of errors about a dysfunctional African-American clan.  Furthermore, Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis) and Hattie (Patrice Lovely) get more laughs than Madea. 
 
If you skipped “Boo” last year, you probably won’t understand why the situation has changed.  Bryant’s oldest daughter has finally turned 18, and she believes that this solidifies her status as an adult, particularly the things she sought to do before she was 18.  Brian and she initiate everything in “Boo 2” with their contentious father & daughter relationship, while Madea appears on the fringe like a guest star and exerts little, direct impact on these events in general.  In other words, she doesn’t save the day.  Nevertheless, Madea fans will find enough to laugh and smile at even when they aren’t laughing and smiling at Madea.  Produced at a cost of $21 million, “Boo 2” has lots of polish, atmospheric locations, and set-design, and the acting is tolerable. Those goofy fraternity brothers—Vin Diesel lookalike Yousef Erakat and his pal Mike Tornabene—return for more mischief.  However, Joe, Bam, and Hattie steal “Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween” from the monstrous matron.

“Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween” opens as Brian (Tyler Perry) waits at his teenage daughter’s prep school, wearing a cone-shaped party cap, and with a gift in a decorative sack.  Tiffany (Diamond White of “The Lion Guard”) isn’t pleased to see her father.  Usually, Brian takes her home where the family assembles to eat cake and celebrate the occasion.  Tiffany thinks the tradition stinks and wants nothing to do with it.  Brian presents Tiffany with a pair of headphones as her birthday gift, so he won’t have to contend with her music when she is in his car.  Tiffany labored under the delusion that Brian was going to give her a shiny, new car for her birthday, since she is an adult with plans to attend college.  Brian tells Tiffany that she is too irresponsible to have a vehicle.  No sooner has he asserted himself on the subject than his ex-wife, Debra (Taja V. Simpson of “The Preacher’s Son”), parks at the school and hands Tiffany the keys to a new red Mini-Cooper.  Naturally, Brian is disturbed because Debra has given Tiffany something that his daughter hasn’t earned.  Brian reminds Debra that Tiffany is hopelessly irresponsible and will probably get a ticket for reckless driving. As soon as she gets behind the wheel, Tiffany careens off to the Upsilon Theta Fraternity house where she crashed their Halloween party last year with her friend Gabriella (Inanna Sarkis of “A Killer Walks Amongst Us”) in the first “Boo.”  Initially, Tiffany learns that the Upsilon Thetas are throwing another party, but her interference in last year’s party has forced them to hold it somewhere else than their frat house. The fraternity leader, Jonathan (Yousef Erakat of “Natural Born Pranksters”), is relieved to hear that Tiffany is now old enough to drink. As it turns out, they are holding the party at the dilapidated, off-limits Derrick Lake campground where two savage killers attacked amorous couples necking in cars years ago.  Worse, the authorities never caught those homicidal maniacs! 

Back at Brian’s house, the unfortunate father must endure no end of ridicule from his relatives, including Madea (Tyler Perry), Joe (Tyler Perry), Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis of “Daddy’s Little Girls”) and Hattie (newcomer Patrice Lovely), for letting his ex-wife one-up him with her birthday gift.  So certain is Tiffany that Brian will not let her attend the Upsilon Theta party that she persuades Debra to let her sleep over at her mother’s house.  Furthermore, she convinces her mom to let her attend the Upsilon party.  As luck would have it, Madea eavesdrops on their conversation and warns Brian about Tiffany’s scheme.  None of this prevents Tiffany from attending the party, and the party goes into full swing with lots of drinking and drugs, until two boogeymen in gas masks wielding chainsaws attack an Upsilon Theta pledge.  A creepy girl who resembles the demons in those Japanese “Ring” horror movies watches them.  At this point, Madea cruises into the haunted campground with Joe, Aunt Bam, and Hattie, collides with another demonic girl, and then confronts the Grim Reaper.  Meantime, Jonathan, Tiffany, Dino, and Gabriella flee from Derrick Lake and take refuge in an abandoned house. Eventually, Brian and Gabriella’s father, Victor (UFC fighter Tito Ortiz of “Cradle 2 the Grave”), ride to the rescue.

“Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween” is harmless, half-baked hokum bristling with low-brow slapstick comedy.  Basically, the tenth Madea movie works on the level of an animated “Scooby-Doo” movie.  Of course, everything works out well for everybody, but Madea doesn’t dominate the shenanigans.  Instead, Brian has a large hand in what happens at Derrick Lake.  Far from qualifying as a treat, “Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween” amounts to little more than a trick.

FILM REVIEW OF ''THOR: RAGNAROK" (2017)



Chris Hemsworth looks like he had a blast making “Eagle Vs Shark” director Taika Waititi’s colorful, tongue-in-cheek, superhero saga “Thor: Ragnarok” (**** OUT OF ****), the third—and best--entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe about the Asgardian God of Thunder.  “Thor: Ragnarok” shares more in common with director Kenneth Branagh’s origins epic “Thor” (2011) rather than with Alan Taylor’s sequel “Thor: The Dark World.”  Unlike the first and third entries,” “Thor: The Dark World” (2013) maintained a serious and straightforward tone.  Basically, the second “Thor” spurned comedy, slaughtered Thor’s mom Frigga, and reformed Thor who had behaved like a blowhard.  Comparatively, Waititi and his three scenarists, Eric Pearson of “Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter,” Craig Kyle of “Planet Hulk,” and Christopher L. Yost of “Max Steel,” not only ridicule Thor, but they also challenge the Son of Odin as he has never been tested.  Typically, superhero sagas qualify as predictable since you know the hero will vanquish all adversaries and restore order to the cosmos before the end credits.  Although the original “Thor” was seldom surprising, our hero suffered the consequences of his hopeless arrogance.  Odin deprived his son of his supernatural hammer Mjölnir and banished him to Earth without powers.  Good movies run their heroes through a gauntlet, and “Thor: Ragnarok” pits the God of Thunder against a virtually invincible adversary--his heretofore unknown, elder sister Hela.  While she is more than enough to keep him occupied, Waititi and his writers have added the Incredible Hulk.  These adversaries keep Thor behind the eight-ball for three-quarters of its swiftly-paced 130 minutes.  Thor tangles with enemies for the first time who can withstand the worst he can dish out.  Hela ranks as one of his more memorable foes, and two-time Oscar winning Best Actress Cate Blanchett has a field day as Hela, the Goddess of Death.  Decked out in a black, dominatrix outfit, this Goth-looking gal resembles Angelina Jolie’s “Maleficent,” and the antlers that spring from her head before combat make her appear genuinely sinister.  When he isn’t dodging Hela, Thor tackles the gigantic Hulk in an off-world gladiatorial arena.

As “Thor: Ragnarok” unfolds, we learn the wicked fire demon Surtur (voice of Clancy Brown) has captured our eponymous hero and plans to execute him.  The haughty Surtur informs Thor that Odin no longer sits on the throne of Asgard.  Furthermore, he explains that a long, foretold prophecy referred to as ‘Ragnarok’ with bring about the impending destruction of Thor’s planet.  Once he plunges his crown into the Eternal Flame in Odin’s vault, Sutur boasts that he will conquer Asgard!  Trussed up like a turkey fit for a feast, Thor listens to Sutur’s boasts until the God of Thunder’s wayward hammer homes in on his location like a boomerang.  Thor smashes the fire demon’s dreams to smithereens.  He hastens to Asgard and discovers that his shape-shifting, half-brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston of “Kong: Skull Island”), has been impersonating Odin, who has been exiled to Earth.  While he awaits death, Odin warns them that his first-born child, Hela (Cate Blanchett of “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”), will break out of her prison and attack Asgard.  Earlier, Odin had incarcerated his daughter because she harbored ambitions far greater and destructive than his own!  No sooner has Hela returned to Asgard than she shatters Mjölnir as if it were glass and drives Thor and Loki off.  Afterward, Hela eliminates all of Thor’s compatriots, while the God of Thunder ends up on the remote planet Sakaar where gladiator combat is the rage.  

The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum of “Independence Day”) rules Sakaar and conducts himself like the Roman Emperor Commodus.  Commodus dictated which gladiator would triumph, even if he had to rig the outcome.  The Grandmaster has acquired an unrivalled champion in the form of the Incredible Hulk who vanished under mysterious circumstances after the battle at Sokovia in “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015). Thor surprises everybody when he clocks Hulk.  Previously, nobody left the arena alive after fighting Hulk, but Thor impresses the Grandmaster enough that the tyrant allows him to live.  Thor tries to recruit the Hulk to accompany him back to Asgard to overthrow Hela.  Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson of “Creed”), the bounty hunter who delivered Thor to the Grandmaster, keeps him restrained with a tazer. Eventually, Thor persuades her to join Hulk and he in a revolt against Sakaar’s founder. Further, Thor learns that Scraper 142 was a Valkyrie who fought against Hela and left after nearly dying in battle.  Meantime, Hela has lain waste to Asgard, but this doesn’t dissuade Thor from returning to rescue his people and then take them to a new homeland.  The scenes that depict thousands of Asgardians seeking refuge aboard a space freighter evoke memories of the British Army’s evacuation of Dunkirk during World War II.  

For the record, since it doesn’t take place on Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), and Jane’s assistant Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) are nowhere to be seen in this second sequel.  Heimdall (Idris Elba), the gatekeeper of the Bifrost on Asgard, went missing in “Thor: The Dark World,” but he reappears in “Thor: Ragnarok” and plays a vital role in getting the people of Ragnarok in their ill-fated rebellion against Hela.  Thor’s merry threesome: Fandral (Josh Dallas), Hogan (Tadanobu Asano), and Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) show up briefly for this apocalyptic opus, but Lady Sif isn’t around because actress Jaimie Alexander of “Blindspot” could not fit the third “Thor” into her schedule.  Chronologically, “Thor: Ragnarok” occurs two years after the events in ““The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” while it happens four years after “Thor: The Dark World.”  If you look closely at a skit staged in Asgard when Thor returns, you’ll spot Matt Damon of “The Bourne Identity” playing Loki in a play, while Chris Hemsworth’s older brother Luke Hemsworth impersonates him as Thor.  Scarlett Johansson has a cameo as Black Widow, and Benedict Cumberbatch has a scene with Thor where the Son of Odin’s drinking stein replenishes itself mysteriously.

“Thor: Ragnarok” provides new perspectives on the franchise and exposes a wealth of untold backstory not only about Odin but also Asgard prior to Thor’s birth.  The revelation about Odin’s bloodlust for the conquest of alien realms makes him appear unsavory rather than avuncular as he appeared in the first two “Thor” epics.  Visually, Hela’s clash with the Valkyries resembles an Italian Renaissance painting come to life.  A low-budget, little-known independent director, Waititi brings an entirely different vibe to the otherwise hackneyed material. Waititi and his writers rely on humor to give the lead character as well as several supporting characters a greater sense of depth.  They have breathed new life into the franchise by cutting Asgard out from under the Thor, exiling Odin, and demolishing Mjölnir.  Thor often behaves like a buffoon, and it feels liberating to laugh at his oafish antics. Comparatively, Cate Blanchett radiates a malevolent pugnacity as Odin’s first-born who lives to slay.  She makes an unforgettable villain.  The scenes where she massages her temples and antlers erupt is striking.  Hela’s comeuppance is as spectacular as it is satisfying. The comic touches in “Thor: Ragnarok” may not sit well with some fans who will frown on such shenanigans, but this refreshing irreverence is long-overdue.

Monday, October 9, 2017

FILM REVIEW OF ''AMERICAN ASSASSIN" (2017)



You’d think with gifted writers like Stephen Schiff, who wrote “True Crime” and “Lolita,” Michael Finch who penned “Hitman: Agent 47” and “The November Man,” and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz who teamed up for “Defiance” and “The Last Samurai,” that “American Assassin,” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) with “Maze Runner” star Dylan O’Brien, would have rivaled the James Bond movies and the Jason Bourne franchise as an international terrorist thriller.  Indeed, a sturdy cast gives their best, particularly Michael Keaton who radiates throughout, while the youthful O’Brien has grown up sufficiently so he appears credible as a vengeful adult.  Nevertheless, mediocre scripting sabotages “American Assassin.”  The chief problem lies with its bland hero.  Cinematic heroes should stand out.  As the gung-ho, ‘go-out-and-kill-all-terrorists-and-come-back-alive,’ O’Brien is given little with which to forge a charismatic character. Basically, Mitch Rapp qualifies as an adequate but nondescript hero.  The only reason we feel sympathetic toward him is the tragedy involving his fiancée’s death; this now fuels his every waking moment.  Conversely, as CIA survivalist specialist Stan Hurley who trains black ops agents, Michael Keaton energizes every scene with his brazen bravado.  You have fun watching Keaton soak up every second whether he is shooting at an enemy or withstanding the villain as the latter tortures him.  Similarly, as the evil villain, Taylor Kitsch is almost as captivating as Keaton.  Furthermore, he is the best kind of villain who manages to stay one step ahead of the heroes and keeps surprising us and them.  Adversaries like Keaton’s trainer and Kitsch’s terrorist make O’Brien’s Mitch Rapp look like crap.  Happily, “12 and Holding” director Michael Cuesta keeps things moving so swiftly that it is possible to overlook the colorless but driven hero.  Little of this ambitious plot, however, is original.  “American Assassin” appropriates characters and predicaments from earlier movies, specifically like “Black Sunday” (1977) “The Amateur” (1981), “The Peacemaker” (1997), and “Munich” (2005) about villains with nuclear warheads.

Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is vacationing in sunny Ibiza, Spain, with his beautiful, blonde, bikini-clad girlfriend Katrina (newcomer Charlotte Vega) when he surprises her with a marriage proposal.  Suddenly, murderous Islamist jihadists shatter their happiness and shoot everybody in sight.  The terrorists wound Mitch twice, and by the time that he reaches his fiancée, she is dead.  Over a year later, Mitch has learned to defend himself with his bare hands, practiced enough with firearms until he can obliterate bullseyes, and learned enough about his Middle-East adversaries so he can infiltrate their cells.  Little does our hero know CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan of “Love & Basketball”) has had him under surveillance.  Eventually, Mitch tracks down the monster who orchestrated the bloody Ibiza beach massacre, Adnan Al-Mansur (Shahid Ahmed of “Syriana”), to Tripoli, Libya.  Mitch has just gotten to meet Al-Mansur when CIA agents charge into the room and blast the terrorists.  Mitch watches in horror as Mansur dies from a shot in the head. This doesn’t keep Mitch from stabbing Al-Mansur’s corpse from repeatedly until the Americans drag him off the body.  The CIA keeps Mitch on ice for 30 days until Kennedy convinces CIA Director Thomas Stansfield (David Suchet of “Agatha Christie's Poirot”) to allow Mitch to join the Agency.  Initially, former Navy Seal veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton of “The Founder”) abhors the prospect of training a civilian.  Nevertheless, Mitch emerges at the top of his class, despite all of Hurley’s dirty tricks to run him off.  The action comes to boil when the Agency learns about the theft of weapons grade plutonium from an off-line Russian nuclear facility.  Worse, Hurley recognizes the thief as an ex-CIA agent, referred to as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch of “John Carter of Mars”), left behind to die on a mission.  Miraculously, Ghost survived and plans to use the plutonium as payback to construct an atomic bomb.  Ghost double-crosses everybody along the way who helped build the bomb, and CIA don’t discover his plan until it is almost too late to thwart him.

If you’ve read Vince Flynn’s bestseller, you’ll know director Michael Cuesta and his writers have scrapped the novel’s plot.  Indeed, they have preserved certain scenes, primarily the boot camp and the torture scenes.  The plot about Stan’s former student Ghost is a figment entirely of the screenwriters’ imagination.  Ghost doesn’t exist in the novel.  Instead of a saboteur like Ghost in the film, our heroes contend with Middle Eastern regimes clashing with each other in bombed-out Beirut.  While an entirely different character tortured Stan in the novel, the villain suffers the same fate as Ghost does in the movie.  Letting down his guard momentarily, the torturer gives Stan the chance to chew off a piece of his ear.  Comparably, Flynn dispatched Rapp and Hurley to Europe to kill an amoral banker who had been managing millions of dollars for the terrorists as well as Russian espionage agents in Moscow.  Further, Mitch’s girlfriend didn’t die on the beach in Flynn’s novel.  Instead, she died aboard the doomed Pan Am flight 103 that blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland.  Mind you, sticking Mitch and his fiancée together on the same beach gives our protagonist greater incentive to embark on a “Death Wish” style revenge spree since he saw her die.  Obviously, staging the beach massacre was easier than generating a CGI model of the Pan Am jetliner exploding.  The Mitch in Flynn’s novel didn’t experience his girlfriend’s death first-hand as his cinematic counterpart.  Most of the last part of the novel occurred in Beirut where terrorists abduct Stan, and Mitch launches a rescue mission.  The grand finale in the film occurs in the Atlantic, and Ghost is playing for far higher stakes than his counterparts in the novel.  Altogether, Schiff, Finch, Zwick, and Herskovitz have done an exemplary job of ramping up more larger-than-life derring-do, and Mitch takes greater initiative in his efforts to carry out his mission.  Although competently-made and fast-paced, the rated-R “American Assassin” is still far too derivative to rank as memorable.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

FILM REVIEW OF ''KIDNAP'' (2017)



Halle Berry lets nothing stop her in “Pusher” director Luis Prieto’s “Kidnap” (*** OUT OF ****) when two predatory rednecks target her six-year old son for abduction in contemporary Louisiana.  This white-knuckled, adrenaline-laced, highway thriller about a mad mom in hot pursuit who refuses to quit is reminiscent of an earlier Halle Berry movie “The Call” (2013) where she portrayed a veteran 911 operator troubled about the welfare of an abducted teenage girl. “The Call” heroine ultimately teamed up with the victim to wreak vengeance on the murderous dastard who had abducted her.  Similarly, Berry is just as driven to catch up with her son’s kidnappers, no matter what the police advise her.  At one point, a policewoman urges her to wait for the authorities to intervene.  Our protagonist relents momentarily until she notices the glut of child abduction posters on a nearby bulletin board and the years that those children have been missing. Mind you, “Kidnap” is one of those contrived, but entertaining Hollywood thrillers where the police are either off elsewhere when needed or useless when involved.  Ultimately, they show up, but they are too late to make a difference.  Nevertheless, in dramatic terms, their last-minute arrival puts the burden on the waitress mom, facing her own child custody battle with her ex-husband and his girlfriend.  When we see Berry for the first time, she is calm and collected. Before “Kidnap” concludes, she is both disheveled and desperate in her efforts to rescue her son.

In a shrewd but calculated effort to endear Karla Dyson’s son Frankie (newcomer Sage Correa) to audiences, director Luis Prieto has appropriated real-life video of the adorable toddler from Correa’s parents.  The prologue in “Kidnap” shows Frankie as a lovable little fellow.  When the story unfolds, he is six-years old, but still lovable.  Frankie is coloring pictures in the restaurant where Karla (Halle Berry of “X-Men: Days of Future Past”) works as a waitress, serving up dishes to diners who aren’t happy.  Sadly, Karla isn’t happy either because she was supposed to have gotten off her shift so she could take Frankie to the city park.  No sooner does she have Frankie at the park than her attorney phones her about her ex-husband’s plans to take her son away from her.  All the racket going on around Karla at the park interferes with her concentration.  She steps away briefly from Frankie to tell her attorney that nobody is going to take her son away from her.  During these short-lived moments, she loses sight of Frankie, and then spots an obese, white woman, Margo (newcomer Chris McGinn), dragging him into her late 1980s’ Green Ford Mustang with a bra over the grille.  Karla scrambles after them, seizes the luggage rack bars atop the car-roof, and is dragged along until the accelerating vehicle jars her hands loose.  Charging off to her red minivan, she drops her cell phone in the street and careens out of the park on the bumper of the Mustang.  As she closes on after them, these fiends hurl everything in the trunk of the Mustang at her.  Happily, Karla swerves out of the path of the debris, but some motorists aren’t so fortunate.  One vehicle tumbles sideways after a spare tire slams into it.  Eventually, the kidnappers hang Frankie’s head out of the passenger’s side door and hold a knife to this throat.  Reluctantly, Karla backs off, but she doesn’t give up her pursuit as easily as the abductors reckoned.

Things complicate quickly when Karla attracts the attention of a motorcycle police officer.  Initially, the cop orders Karla to pull over, but Karla keeps pointing at the Mustang.  Eventually, the cop gets the message, but he finds himself crushed between the recklessly driven Mustang and Karla’s red minivan.  The two cars plow off the highway and onto a grass median where the injured cop crashes his bike.  Karla comes face to face with the kidnappers and tries to bargain with them.  She tosses them her wallet with her credit cards and gives them her pin number in exchange for her son’s life. The tall, lanky, male redneck driver, Terry (Lew Temple of “Lawless”), takes her wallet.  Moments later Karla freaks out when Terry’s mother emerges from the Mustang with the wallet and suggests that Karla take her to the bank to withdraw $10-grand for Frankie.  Naturally, you would never let such a repugnant woman share the same car with you.  Margo slides into the back seat so she can control Karla.  While cruising through an underground, one-lane tunnel, Karla realizes her mistake, and the two women tangle like tigers.  Twisting Karla’s side belt around her neck, Margo strangles her.  Karla ditches Margo, but this isn’t the last that she’ll see of this despicable dame.

Basically, “Kidnap” puts us in the passenger’s seat with Karla as she chases the villains.  Initially, she has little luck catching up with them.  The filmmakers refrain from showing us what little Frankie is enduring until the end when the tension really comes to a boil.  Director Luis Prieto doesn’t pull too many punches because you know our heroine is going to rescue her son.  Nevertheless, our heroine must deal with one infuriating setback after another.  Chiefly, the villains are hopelessly unsavory and have no qualms about endangering innocent bystanders.  Indeed, one pedestrian gets in Terry’s way, and he smashes into her, somersaulting her off the windshield of his stolen car.  Not even the sight of a woman crumpled up on the asphalt in dire need of medical help distracts our brave heroine from letting her adversary escape from her!  Prieto keeps his camera focused tightly on Karla so she is up in our face for the duration of the harrowing chase.  You’ll be pulling your hair out by the roots at the unbearably suspenseful grand finale of “Kidnap” when our heroine finally tracks down Frankie! Clocking in at 95-minutes, “Kidnap” will keep you poised on the edge of your seat.