Tuesday, March 30, 2021

‘Godzilla vs. Kong’: Who’ll win? Who cares?


      The final battle between Godzilla and Kong takes place in Hong Kong, where the two behemoths wreak what appears to be billions of dollars worth of collateral damage, smashing high-rise after high-rise as they crash into buildings and exchange blows.
     With protesters filling the streets of Hong Kong and many of the city’s residents trying to stave off restrictions Beijing wants to impose  I couldn't help thinking that the city had enough trouble without two imaginary monsters stomping it into rubble.
    So, no, I wasn’t amused by Godzilla vs. Kong, the latest movie to bring the two classic monsters to life — or, in this case, digital life.
     The only interesting character in this blaring, disheveled movie is Kong, the sensitive but powerful mega-ape who, in this installment, displays affection for a Jia, (Kaylee Hottle), a child who can’t hear or speak.
     The movie’s human characters are reduced to gaping spectators by a negligible excuse of a plot.  As near as one can tell, the story involves an evil corporate czar (Damian Bichir) who attempts to harness an energy source, a trip to Kong’s home in Hollow Earth, and the tag-along efforts of a couple of adults --Alexander Skarsgard as a scientist and Rebecca Hall, the woman who has adopted Hottle's Jia and who presides over Kong's synthetic eco-system, the place where the movie begins.
     It’s possible, I suppose, to argue that acting, plot, and even clarity of storytelling hardly matter. What most folks want from a movie that pits a giant ape against a towering sea monster is rampant destruction.
   Mindful of that, the filmmakers not only ravage Hong Kong but an entire Navy fleet that's escorting Kong to Antarctica so that he can dive into the hole that will lead him to Hollow Earth and the much-coveted energy source.
    The movie's plot seems so preposterous that I half expect to find it being advanced by one or another of the various groups that currently specialize in bizarre conspiracy theories.
    A parallel story that seems to have been added for youth-appeal introduces a teen-age girl (Millie Bobby Brown),  her nerdy companion (Julian Dennison), and a podcaster (Brian Tyree Henry) who specializes in conspiracy theories related to the plot.
    The movie begins with Kong awakening in the artificial environment where he seems to have resided since his last big-screen appearance. Kong yawns, rises, scratches his butt, and showers under a waterfall. 
     The opening gave me hope that the filmmakers, under the direction of Adam Wingard, might be on the verge of delivering a comic take instead of the usual monster mash in which Kong celebrates his victory over various creatures by ripping off their heads and raising them as trophies. 
   But, no. 
   The case of Godzilla vs. Kong may triumph in the supreme court of movies otherwise known as the box office. But the movie sacrifices any hint of mystery and suspense for noisy displays of blunt force that leave us with only one question: Is this a movie or a demolition derby?

Thursday, March 25, 2021

A rousing tribute to Tina Turner


     In the mid-1980s, I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing Tina Turner’s voice. Friends endlessly played cuts from Turner’s Private Dancer album. At times, What’s Love Got to Do With It,  which became a signature song, seemed to be circling in a continuous loop in my brain. 
   As you’ll learn in Tina, a documentary about the singer’s life and career, Turner might have been the performer that Mick Jagger looked to for inspiration. I say this not to be snarky but to acknowledge, as the movies does, her influence on Jagger’s stage presence.
   Born Anna Mae Bullock in Brownsville, Tenn., Turner — now 81 — has had many careers. She launched with Ike Turner, whose abuse of her is well-chronicled in the 1993 movie What’s Love Got To Do With It  and in Turner’s autobiography, I Tina: My Life Story, written with Kurt Loder who appears in the film.
   Directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin wander around Turner’s life, not fretting too much about strict chronological order. It hardly matters because Tina touches all the bases before landing in the quiet of the Zurich mansion Turner now shares with her husband, Erwin Bach, listed as one of the movie's executive producers.
    After she jettisoned Ike, Turner became a Vegas act. She didn’t  renew her ascendance until Private Dancer, and today she’s a bona ride elder stateswoman -- of music, survival, and uncontainable energy. 
   Turner credits Buddhist chanting with having opened the door to tranquility in a life that kicked off with emotionally bruising abandonment by both of her parents.
    A 19-year-old Turner was selected for fame by Ike Turner, the guitarist who stood silently in the background as Tina began to command every stage that hosted the Ike and Tina Turner Revue.  
    Ike Turner was a skilled songwriter and musician, but Tina quickly became the draw. The abbreviated skirts, the kinetic hair, the sweat that resulted from her ability to turn her body into a perpetual motion machine of soul created a brand before performers became so obsessed with branding. 
    The movie finds its starting point with a 1981 interview that Turner gave to People magazine's  She talked frankly about the domestic abuse she had experienced with Ike.
      Tina walked away from Ike in 1978 with only one demand — that she keep her name. She seems to have understood that she not only had talent but possessed what might be called talent-plus, the extra ingredient being the sheer force of will.
    You may find yourself recalling the movie in bits and pieces. In 1966, Tina began distancing herself from Ike, pouring her soul into Mountain High, a record she made with Wall-of-Sound guru the late Phil Spector, who kept his contact with Ike to a minimum. The record flopped. 
    Lindsay and Martin's documentary brims with revealing observations. Tina took an immediate dislike to the song What’s Love Got To Do With It.  She thought the tune, recorded originally by a British pop group Bucks Fizz, was more pop than rock. She had to be convinced to make it her own.
    We hear from Roger Davies, one of Tina's most important managers, from Angela Bassett, who played Turner in the 1993 movie, as well as from Oprah Winfrey
   You’ll see enough of Turner in performance to remind you that her voice could soar but Turner always seems to have been more than a voice: She was and is an undeniable presence.


Need revenge? Better call Bob Odenkirk

 

    Nobody — a prime example of preposterous violence and brutal action tropes — feels derivative and self-conscious in its attempts to dish out as much cathartic vengeance as 91 minutes allows.
   But there is one distinguishing difference between Nobody and the rest of the field: Bob Odenkirk.
   Famous for Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, Odenkirk makes an unlikely avenger, a new champion of butt-kicking manhood.
    Director Ilya Naishuller begins in a minor key. Odenkirk plays Hutch, a drab guy living a resigned life of droning repetition.  Hutch sleeps next to the wife Becca (Connie Nielsen). She keeps a pillow between them to ward off any possibility of sex. 
    He takes a bus to the small factory where he handles accounting chores. He watches his kids come and go, indifferent to what appears to be Dad's meaningless life.
   Odenkirk seems to have opted to play an anti-Saul Goodman. No wheels churn as various schemes play out in a restless mind. There's no sense that he’s one step ahead of a disaster that he won’t be able to dodge.
   From the start, it looks as if disaster already has struck Hutch's nondescript life, void of even  the desperation that might have given it flavor.
   And then the movie begins in earnest. During a home invasion, Hutch finds himself poised to deliver a violent blow to one of the invaders. He demurs, allowing the man and woman to flee. 
    Non-violence comes with a cost. Hutch’s son (Gage Munroe) sees his father's choice as an act of cowardice, although some of Hutch’s co-workers say they respect the pragmatic nature of his decision. After all, no one was killed.
     A low body count, however, doesn't make for a thriller that draws its energies from violent vapors extending as far back as 1974's Death Wish and ably continued here by director Ilya Naishuller.
    A note of caution: The movie's violent choreography is no match for, say, the John Wick movies.
   Predictably, Hutch has a mysterious a past. And, of course, that past involves his ability to wreak violent havoc, to inflict punishment even as he takes beatings that would kill a lesser man.
   The first hint that Hutch isn't the man he appears to be arrives when he exposes a secret radio in his office that allows him to talk to his adoptive brother (RZA), a black man who we learn has had to go into hiding for reasons of his own.
    Hutch also visits his father (Christopher Lloyd),  a dad who knows that his son inevitably must rise like an avenging Phoenix and reclaim his true identity. 
     Of course, it's all nonsense. But then there's Odenkirk. 
     Odenkirk doesn't have the physically imposing stature of, say, a Liam Neeson, who, unlike Hutch, always seems to be trying to rescue an imperiled family member. Hutch isn’t saving his family, which the movie conveniently ushers to safety.  Nobody turns a nonentity into a capably violent avenger.
     What’s Hutch trying to save? Maybe his self-respect.
     The movie wastes little time getting down to its real business, staging explosive confrontations that lead to a showdown with a sadistic Russian mobster (Alexey Serebryakov). 
    A freelancer who launders money for the Russian mob, Serebryakov's Yulian is so vicious even the Russian mob finds him a bit over-the-top.
        If you're not part of the crowd that loves this kind of over-cranked violence machine, don't bother. Otherwise, Nobody sustains interest, even though the movie’s exaggerated finale feels like the filmmakers are paying off a genre debt, which they are.
     Nobody concludes with an epilogue suggesting that someone might be thinking franchise, an all-too-familiar prospect. I hope Odenkirk, who'll be wrapping up Better Call Saul this year,  finds something else to do. Wouldn't it be great if once were enough?
      
      

Thursday, March 18, 2021

A businessman caught in a web of intrigue

 

   The most interesting character in The Courier, a real-life tale of espionage set during Cold War days of the 1960s, isn't the man who gives the movie its title.
   The Courier revolves around Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a British businessman whose travels to the Soviet Union caught the attention of MI6, the agency that eventually would recruit Wynne to act as a courier.
    Under the guise of developing business relationships, Wynne made numerous trips to Moscow where he met a Soviet intelligence agent. The agent -- Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) --  provided Wynne with invaluable documents, including some pertaining to the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba.
      Thanks to Ninidze’s finely tuned portrayal, Penkovsky emerges as a dedicated military man who believes that the nuclear threat is far too grave to be subordinated to chauvinistic devotions. 
      You probably can tell where I'm headed. Penkovsky seems a deeper, more intriguing character than Wynne, a salesman with no talent for spycraft. As played by Cumberbatch, Wynne eventually allows his role as an amateur spy to go to his head.
     Cumberbatch handily shows how Wynne's ego inflates as he becomes more relaxed about what he's doing. His wife (Jessie Buckley) tells a friend that her husband's sexual appetites have been seriously boosted, although she doesn’t know why. She's not privy to her husband's secret life.
    The Courier is another example of a story that creates interest the movie can't quite match, particularly when it comes to suspenseful atmospherics.
    As told by director Dominic Cooke and screenwriter Tom O'Connor, Wynne feels responsible for helping Penkovsky and his family to escape to the West when things start to go bad. Penkovsky had been promised help exiting the Soviet Union.
     Willing to cut its losses, British intelligence watched as both men were arrested.  Wynne, who decided to act on his own in attempting to rescue Penkovsky, spent 18 months in a Soviet prison where he was beaten, tormented and starved. 
     He ultimately was released in a spy swap.
    The movie finds its greatest power in its prison scenes: Cumberbatch seems to have followed a physical formula during Wynne's imprisonment, shedding weight to the point of emaciation.
     Of the supporting performances, several are notable. Angus Wright portrays the MI6 contact who coaches Wynne and Rachel Brosnahan plays an American CIA agent, another of Wynne's contacts. Kirill Pirogov appears as the Soviet intelligence officer who begins to suspect that Penkovsky has become a traitor.
    John Le Carre this isn't: Late in the movie, Penkovsky tells Wynne that they are only two people but that they can change the world. I don't know if the real Penkovsky, who committed suicide in prison, ever said anything like that but the sentiment seems trite for a movie that tries to thrive on complexity and intrigue.
     These complexities (the willingness of intelligence agencies to exploit ordinary citizens and the torments of turning against one's country) don’t cut as deeply as they should.
     A sturdy cast and a story that may be unfamiliar to many viewers help sustain interest but The Courier never seems more than a minor addition to the big-screen espionage canon.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Oscar: more inclusion, fragmentation

     

    I’m not the first person to say this, but the Oscars have become another emblem of our deeply fragmented culture. 
     Times have changed in other ways, as well. Mank, this year's  most-nominated movie, had a limited theatrical run and was mostly seen on Netflix. The movie topped the list of nominees with ten.
   As many already have pointed out, the shift from theatrical viewing or at least toward theatrical-plus already has taken place. Sure there has been plenty of moaning about not being able to attend theaters, but I know more than few people who put theatrical viewing in the rear-view mirror even before the pandemic.
   None of this is to say that Oscar shouldn't be commended for making some long-overdue changes. Among them: two women (Emerald Fennell of Promising Young Woman and Chloe Zhao of Nomadland) nominated for best director; six black actors in major categories; and a willingness to recognize the accomplishments of small movies such as Minari, Nomadland, and (surprisingly) The Father in the best-picture category.
    If Oscar wants to broaden its base, though, why ignore a movie such as On the Rocks, which was generously entertaining and had something close to general-audience appeal -- albeit without sacrificing its smarts.
    I'm not going to dwell on other Oscar snubs. Some feel that Spike Lee should have gotten a best-director nod for his Vietnam movie Da 5 Bloods. Similarly, many argue that Delroy Lindo should have received a best-actor nomination for his incendiary work in the same movie. 
   I wonder whether Glenn Close will have to break out the smile she wears when someone else wins the best-supporting actress Oscar, although I wouldn’t bet against the Academy finally giving Close a statue after seven previous nominations and no wins. 
   Close is nominated in for best-supporting actress for her portrayal of a flinty, hardened grandma in Hillbilly Elegy.
   We should celebrate Chloe Zhao’s best-director nomination for Nomadland. She’s the first Chinese woman to be nominated for best director, even if we (by which I mean only me) feel Nomadland has been slightly overrated.
    The Academy did no favor to Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, nominating both of them in the best-supporting actor category. The only way that makes sense is if they tie and each takes home an Oscar for his work in Judas and the Black Messiah.
   Oscar always produces head-scratching contradictions.
   Judas and the Black Messiah, the story of how the FBI infiltrated the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, was nominated for best picture and best original screenplay. Shaka King, the movie's director was snubbed in the best-director category.
    The same goes for The Trial of the Chicago 7, which earned a best-picture nomination but recognized the movie's director Aaron Sorkin only in the best original screenplay category.
   Here’s a link to the full list of nominees in case you need one.
   Yes, I'll be watching when the awards are handed out on April 25th. But Oscar won’t regain its primacy until its various ambitions (diversity, independence, studio work and streaming) converge to create a movie that spends at least a month dominating the pop-cultural conversation.
    Quick. Without thinking tell me which movie won last year’s best picture?
    It was Parasite
    Well, wasn’t it?

Friday, March 12, 2021

A far-fetched but likable romance

 

    Many movies begin with a contrivance and some are impossible without them.
    That might be the case with Long Weekend, a romance about a young writer who meets a woman named Vienna and falls madly in love with her. She reciprocates. 
    Of course, there’s a catch. The young woman reveals little about herself until she offers an explanation that stands as the movie's central conceit. I won't reveal it here.
    Writer/director Steve Basilone had an opportunity to play with reality, perception, and perhaps even the power of wishful delusion.  Instead, Basilone opted simply to move ahead with a romantic comedy — an approach that may account for both the movie’s strengths and its weaknesses.
   Long Weekend doesn’t ask us to spend much time wondering whether Bart  (Finn  Wittrock) is having a real experience or whether a fantasy lover has sprung from Bart’s recent emotional wounds.
  Bart’s Mom recently died. He still hasn’t recovered from a recent break-up. He also may be suffering from a serious health problem — judging by the many calls he receives from his doctor. He ignores them.
    A movie such as Long Weekend  relies heavily on its actors. We must enjoy spending time with the characters they create, at least enough to forget about the many ways in which the movie willingly challenges credibility.
    Wittrock has soap-opera handsomeness and earnestness and Zoe Chao, the movie's real star, brings enough eccentric charm to her portrayal of Vienna to keep the movie watchable. 
    Damon Wayans and Casey Wilson add flavor as Bart's best friends, a couple that invites him to move into their garage when he (an aspiring novelist) runs out of money.
   Scenes depicting the brief but intense encounter between Bart and Vienna are easy to take, although they mostly stick to the surface.
   I suppose there may be a bit of underlying reality here: It’s probably true that every love affair begins with many unknowns and some unknowables. Love, after all, requires a leap of faith.
    Basilone creates a mostly likable romance that can't cross the finish line while keeping its many contrivances from spawning even more contrivances. When it concludes by focusing on Bart, the least interesting of the romantic duo, the story goes flat.
      For all that, Long Weekend remains an easy-going attempt to freshen romcom formula that’s best when it relies on the oldest of values, Chao’s lively appeal. 
     

Thursday, March 11, 2021

War-time trauma and drug addicition


      In Cherry, the Russo brothers (Anthony and Joseph) make a major  departure from their last movie, Avengers: Endgame. You won't find any superheroes in Cherry, a hard-core adaptation of an autobiographical novel by Nico Walker.
   Spanning the distance from the Iraq War to the inside of an Ohio penitentiary, Cherry tells a story of war-time trauma, post-traumatic stress, drug abuse and desperation.
  Tom Holland plays "Cherry," a former soldier who opens the movie with an account of the bank robberies he eventually commits to feed his massive drug habit. 
  Lame attempts at sardonic humor disrupt the movie’s reality. The banks we see are named "Capitalist One" and "Shitty Bank,” not the last time the Russos will attempt such snarky commentary.
   Best known to moviegoers for playing Spider-Man, Holland has the kind of gee-whiz innocence that lends itself to the character’s steady degradation. 
    Once home, Cherry reunites with Emily, his girlfriend played by Ciara Bravo. He's home, safe and with the one he loves. 
   Things should be great, right?
   Of course not.  Safe to assume that the movie's vividly presented combat sequences are replaying in Cherry's head throughout the movie. As a medic, he saw the worst of Iraq’s carnage but survived his combat experiences by learning how to shield himself from emotion. 
   Eventually, the movie settles into another addiction story as Cherry and his newly-addicted girlfriend stumble through AddictWorld with the Russos serving up more of the movie's seven chapters.
  An early chapter on Cherry’s basic training sets the tone as it attempts to capture the sadism, regimentation, and mind-snapping absurdity of the experience.
   The Russos squeeze a ton of story into the movie, telling us about the uneasy start of Cherry's courtship with Emily, how he discovers OxyContin, and the way Cherry and Emily abandon Oxy for heroin. 
   One of the dealers who supply them (Jack Reynor) goes by the name Pills & Coke. Daniel R. Hill plays a drug biggie to whom Cherry becomes indebted, never a good idea.
   The Russos sometimes succeed in delivering a visceral butt-kicker of a movie, but in its overall arc, Cherry feels an exclamation point on a tale that's been told before. 
    The Russos know how to speak the language of stylized grit and the problems of emotionally damaged veterans remain alarmingly real,  but Cherry can't entirely shake familiarity: One more journey down addiction road.


Shattering movie; shattering performance


     Anthony Hopkins is now 83 years old.
   That might not be especially relevant in reviewing a new movie starring Hopkins, but in the case of The Father Hopkins's age  gave me pause.
    It's nearly impossible for me to write about The Father, a story about a once competent man being overtaken by dementia, without wondering how much of the role Hopkins had to internalize. 
   How could he play a character named Anthony who's losing his grip without wondering whether he might encounter a similar fate?
   This is not to say that the Anthony in the movie is the Anthony Hopkins of real life, only that I couldn't watch The Father without wondering what emotional toll Anthony, the character, might have taken on Anthony, the actor.
   Adapting his own play in collaboration with Christopher Hampton, writer/director Florian Zeller has made a movie of shattering power. How awful to lose one's self -- or even to worry about the prospect as age advances.
    But the questions don't stop there: If the self -- strident and full of itself -- can be so easily vanquished, what was it in the first place?
    Olivia Colman portrays Anthony's daughter Anne. We quickly learn that Anne has decided to move to Paris to be with a new lover. As a consequence, she won't be able to look after her London-based father.
    Strains of bitterness and guilt underly Anne's worries about her father, a man who constantly makes it clear that he favors her sister, a character we never meet. Anne may be desperate for one last chance at happiness. 
    But wait. Before long, Anne turns up in the person of another actress (Olivia Williams). The story continues as if nothing had happened. The feeling of disorientation jars. Is this real? Are we seeing the world through Anthony's addled consciousness? 
   Identities plant themselves in our minds and then evaporate. Rufus Sewell and Mark Gatiss appear as different versions of Anne's husband.
    Zeller constantly overturns our assumptions. Anthony seems entrenched in his comfortable London apartment. We accept his reality until Zeller makes us wonder whether the apartment is his at all. 
    Later a new caregiver (Imogen Poots) arrives; her presence gives Anthony an opportunity to be flirtatious, imperious, and funny as if he's thumbing through an old catalog to find the personality traits that once defined him. 
   Once you accustom yourself to Zeller's approach, the movie acquires increasing power and its impact grows until we finally realize that Anthony is losing himself, a horrible situation made worse by Anthony's ability occasionally to apprehend the magnitude of the loss. 
    What could be more unsettling -- for the movie's characters and for its audience? I hope Hopkins, who gives one of the best performances of his career, was able to leave this character behind more easily than I could.
    Take that as both a wish and the deepest of compliments.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Winners of the 2021 Critics Choice awards


 

  
    Nomadland hit high notes as it took home four awards at Sunday's Critics Choice Awards. The Critics Choice Awards sometimes serve as a bellwether for the Oscars, but this is a strange year. Who knows? Maybe Oscar will chart its own course.
    Still, I suspect  that Nomadland now stands as the front-runner when it comes to best picture. 
    This year's race for best actress should be interesting. Andra Day, also a Critics Choice nominee, won the Golden Globe for her performance in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, but Carey Mulligan took home the Critics Choice award for Promising Young Woman
    On Oscar night, I wouldn't bet against Nomadland's Frances McDormand, another Critics Choice nominee for best actress. Nor would I rule out Viola Davis, also a Critics Choice nominee, for her performance in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. 
   Oh well, lots of Oscar talk awaits.
   Meanwhile, here’s the list of this year’s Critics Choice winners. Full disclosure: I'm a voting member of the Critics Choice Association.
     


Best Picture
Nomadland  


Best Director

Chloe Zhao, Nomadland


BEST ACTOR 

Chadwick Boseman -- Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 

 

BEST ACTRESS 

Carey Mulligan – Promising Young Woman 

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR 

Daniel Kaluuya – Judas and the Black Messiah

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS 

Maria Bakalova – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm  

 

BEST YOUNG ACTOR/ACTRESS 

Alan Kim – Minari 

 

BEST ACTING ENSEMBLE 

The Trial of the Chicago 7  

 

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY 

Emerald Fennell – Promising Young Woman 

 

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY 

ChloĆ© Zhao – Nomadland 

 

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY 

Joshua James Richards –  Nomadland

 

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN 

Donald Graham Burt, Jan Pascale – Mank  

 

BEST EDITING – TIE  

Alan Baumgarten – The Trial of the Chicago 7  

Mikkel E. G. Nielsen – Sound of Metal 

 

BEST COSTUME DESIGN 

Ann Roth – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom  

 

BEST HAIR AND MAKEUP 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 

 

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS 

Tenet 

 

BEST COMEDY 

Palm Springs 

 

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM 

Minari 

 

BEST SONG  

Speak Now – One Night in Miami  

 

BEST SCORE 

Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste – Soul 

 

Thursday, March 4, 2021

'Coming 2 America:' smiles more than laughs

    

    Zamunda -- the fictional African country that Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall called home in Coming to America -- tops my list of places I never thought merited a second visit.  The first movie was funny but didn't exactly leave a ton of unanswered questions.
    Coming 2 America emerges anyway and fans of the first movie probably will be happy that it has.
   A word on Murphy, who became a major movie star during the 1980s and 1990s, but fell off during the 21st Century when his movies often were less than dominant. Dolemite Is My Name (2019) received mostly positive reviews, but a Murphy movie no longer felt like a big-screen event.
    Still, Murphy has remained a revered star in the comedy universe and -- at least in my mind -- and Coming 2 America has the feel of what in non-Covid times would have been considered a major commercial statement.
    This time, it's back to Zamunda with only the briefest of stops in Queens, where Murphy and Hall don tons of makeup and reprise the characters who occupied the My T Sharp barbershop of the first installment. 
   Mostly, though, the movie flows in a less hilarious but generally palatable direction.
   In the original, Murphy's Prince Akeem came to America looking for  love. In the new movie, the borough of Queens heads to Africa, where Akeem's illegitimate son is groomed to take over the Zamundan throne. And, no, the prince didn't know he had a son and heir.
   Akeem's son Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler) dominates much of the movie. A typical Queens resident, Lavelle is lured to Zamunda by the promise of wealth and power -- not to mention the urging of his rapacious mother (Leslie Jones), the woman with whom Prince Akeem had a long-forgotten encounter.
    Lavelle struggles to adapt to Zamundan ways, which require him to pass a series of tests to prove his nobility. An encounter with a lion proves the funniest of the new prince's trials. If he survives cutting the whiskers off a lion, he must be the real deal.
   There's also a question about whether Lavelle will marry the voluptuous daughter of rival King Izzi, played by  Wesley Snipes who demonstrated his flair for comedy in Dolemite. For Izzy, it's either unity via marriage or war.
   Tracy Morgan signs on as Uncle Reem, the Queens-based father figure in Lavelle's life. 
   And, of course, Hall returns as Semmi.
   Also back: Shari Headley as Queen Lisa, the love of Akeem's life and now the mother of his three daughters, one of whom (KiKi Layne) would be the next ruler of Zamunda were it not for the country's insistence that only males can ascend to the throne.
    James Earl Jones and John Amos also reprise roles from the first installment.
    I could go on, but you get the idea: The movie can feel stuffed to the breaking point in the way sequels sometimes do.
    Director Craig Brewer, who handled directing chores on Dolemite, mounts a slick, showy production that goes heavy on musical numbers and includes cameos from Morgan Freeman and Trevor Noah, as well as musical appearances by Gladys Knight and Salt-N-Pepa.
     OK, enough.
     Coming 2 America isn't fall-down funny, but it has an infectiously likable vibe that makes the movie pleasurable enough as it traverses safe comic ground. Maybe that's why Coming 2 America left  me with a smile and no sharp regrets about a second visit to Zamunda.



Another take on basketball dreams


Boogie, a Chinese-American kid growing up in Queens, NY, dreams of becoming a basketball star. In its outline -- Boogie -- sounds like every other movie that mixes sports and coming-of-age tropes in search of uplift. But Boogie distinguishes itself by setting its story in a multi-ethnic environment where the melting pot sometimes comes to a boil. Director Eddie Huang also infuses his movie with immigration aspiration -- not only of Boogie, a.k.a.,  Alfred Chin (Taylor Takahashi) -- but of his parents, a calculating Mom (Pamelyn Chee) and a single-minded Dad (Perry Yung). Early on, we learn that Boogie's parents want him to land a full college scholarship and then transition to the NBA. Highly competitive, Boogie finds a rival in Monk (Pop Smoke), a black basketball player with major skill and rep to match. Boogie's best friend (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) tries to steady his volatile, self-absorbed pal. As if all that weren't enough, Huang adds a relationship in which Boogie falls for Eleanor (Taylour Paige), a young woman with a mind of her own.  Author of a popular memoir entitled Fresh Off the Boat, Huang falls short when it comes to telling a compelling sports story or delivering a heart-felt drama about cultural and parental pressures faced by a driven teenager. Boogie has a bit of both but not enough of either.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

'Chaos Walking:' A run might have been better

 

   First, a quick look at the world of Chaos Walking, a futuristic story about warring deep-space colonists that trips over one of its central conceits. In Chaos Walking, men can hear each other's thoughts, a power achieved upon arrival on this distant planet.
   Adapting a YA novel by Patrick Ness, director Doug Limon allows us to hear the thoughts of the male characters who live in the Prentisstown colony. Not only does the collective babble create confusion, it adds little by way of interest because so many of the thoughts we hear tend to be obvious or repetitive.
  Having been raised in Prentisstown, Todd (Tom Holland) only knows the world of men. The town's women all died shortly after Todd's birth: Todd has bought the official line, which insists the women were killed by the Spackle, the original residents of this unnamed planet.
   When we meet him, Todd mostly accepts the local philosophy, a kill-or-be-killed ethos that has turned Prentisstown into a grim dystopian outpost. Todd lives with his father Ben (Damian Bichir) and accepts the iron-fisted discipline of Prentisstown's mayor (Mads Mikkelsen). 
  Todd's world changes when Viola (Daisy Ridley) arrives on the planet after the crash of her spaceship during an interplanetary scouting mission dispatched by a larger vessel.
  Most of the story puts Todd and Viola on the run, as they try to find a way to signal Viola's mothership so that it won't leave her behind.
   Todd's dog Manchee tags along. Happily, there's no suggestion that anyone can read Manchee's thoughts or that Manchee can penetrate anyone else's mind. 
    Having never seen a woman before, Todd's thoughts often put him in an embarrassing position vis-a-vis Viola, who can hear his thoughts.  
    Men, by the way, can't hear women's thoughts, thus leading the movie toward a limp metaphor about gender differences: Transparent creatures that they are, men can't hear women. Some of the men are deeply opposed to any female intrusion into their private worlds.
   The supporting cast proves largely irrelevant. David Oyelowo portrays Aaron, a censorious preacher who occasionally pops up to orate. Cynthia Erivo's Hildy leans another colony, one that still has women and is far more peaceable than Prentisstown.
    Exoticism proves in short supply. The planet on which the movie takes place looks pretty much like Earth and the various encounters that Todd and Viola have with others aren't all that intriguing. The action (a white-water episode, for example) seems pretty familiar, as well.
     The chemistry between Holland and Ridley doesn't exactly sizzle, and Mikkelsen's low-key villainy breaks little new ground.
   Aside from the discovery of a vast, previously crashed ship, Chaos Walking lacks sci-fi scale. It almost feels as if the characters are playing at inhabiting a new planet without ever having left Earth.
   I've read that The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first in the Chaos Walking series.  My commercial instincts are extremely fallible, so take this with a grain of salt: It's difficult for me to imagine that more Chaos Walking movies loom.

A beautifully realized animated story

 

    Disney's Raya and the Last Dragon stands as a beautifully rendered piece of animated storytelling. The movie leans heavily on action before delivering a message about overcoming risks involved in trusting people who might otherwise be considered foes. 
    The story centers on Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), a young woman who lives in a world that has been divided into five distinct territories. Raya's father dreams of uniting the planet's various factions into a harmoniously idyllic country named Kumandra.
    The movie's mythology involves dragons, an evil force called Druun, and thwarted attempts to secure global peace that often lead to battles. 
    Eventually, Raya establishes a connection with the last dragon, a winsome creature named Sisu (Awkwafina). When necessary, Sisu assumes human form, turning herself into a feisty older woman.
    A melding of south-east Asian cultures, Last Dragon has a generic quality when it comes to ethnicity, but directors Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada wisely employ a large ensemble of Asian actors to give voice to the characters.
    Screenwriters Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen seldom allow the movie’s  better angels to overwhelm the action, creating an on-going rivalry between Raya and Namaari (Gemma Chan), a young warrior woman and Raya's long-time enemy.
    Both women are trying to retrieve pieces of a gem that 6has the power to ward off the Druun, an inky floating cloud that turns living creatures into stone. 
    Dragons once kept people safe from the Druun, but the dragons -- save the one of the title -- have been turned to stone. Clearly, the Druun must be contained and, by the end, the movie makes it clear that cooperation can be more powerful tool than combat when it comes to keeping people safe. 
    All of this is leavened with typical humor and colorful characters who join Raya on her quest to recover pieces of the shattered gem: 
    Izaac Wang gives voice to a young chef who joins Raya's quest, along with an ogre-sized character named Tong (Benedict Wong), and a battling baby.
    There's also Tuk Tuk a large snail-like creature that can roll into a ball. Tuk Tuk serves as the vehicle that transports Raya through her many adventures.
   Although the story may be a bit complex for younger audiences, the plot proves easy enough to follow. The dialogue has more to do with 2021 than any mythical past, but Raya emerges as a visually imaginative and involving  piece of animated entertainment.