Angel Has Fallen

Much of the following will appear as if I don’t like this film. But despite the ludicrous plot devices used to tell the story, it was exciting, fast paced and engaging almost from beginning to end. But let’s start with my gripes.
If you haven’t noticed, technology has become a ubiquitous virtual character in many productions for TV and film. Cell phones go without saying. But another example is the omnipresent vital function monitor next to hospital beds, bigger than life and in your face, bleeping away in vivid colors and large enough for a Superbowl party. Way sexier than the real world’s beige box with green and white tracings. On TV’s The Good Doctor you can count on one hysterical staff reaction after another, usually preceded by a lull in the action, a calm before the storm that makes it an effective drinking game if you’re into that. Ok, here it comes—sure enough, time for a full screen shot of the monitor, alarms sound, colored lines spike and numbers plummet. Time to do something medical and yell orders for tests without doing any paperwork.
So it’s not surprising that in fact there is a scene in Angel Has Fallen where the President of the United States, played by Morgan Freeman, lays comatose in an Intensive Care Unit, monitored to the hilt following an assassination attempt. But do they use this new standard? No, they rely on the close-up finger-twitch signal that a patient is about to come out of a coma. They follow this with the not so subtle blink of the closed eyes, followed by full consciousness within seconds. Mind you, he’s been comatose for days, but he’s instantly able to shout orders and demand that Secret Service stop doing their job long enough for a suspected assassin to have his say.
Next we have drones. These are very trendy, but not at all the dumb Norelco triple-header that your nephew is flying over the neighbor’s pool. These are genuinely scary, able to do evil things and hard to defend against. In this case, we have a team of highly skilled assassins operating a vehicle-mounted launching battery, a large egg carton of short, black, steel tubes. Like a fireworks finale, it spews hundreds of tiny bat-like flying monkeys into the sky above a tranquil lake where the President is trying to have a brief fishing respite from the stresses of Washington. They swarm and dive onto targets, erupting with fireballs out of proportion to their ability to carry explosives, and with a precision determined by a monstrous video gaming bad guy in a truck who is pinpointing enemies with – wait for it – facial recognition, from cloud height.
That brings us to the guy in the truck or several guys later in a control center, literally a sleek, darkened war room, filled with huge video displays and computer terminals. Of course, these computer geniuses can hack into everything from car engines to a hospital’s oxygen delivery system, all at the behest of an unseen digitally disguised voice. You know, the one that’s altered to sound like a monster from X-men. And boy, is he angry if things don’t go his way. So the killer geeks start hacking like crazy, and you can tell they’re busy because a small black terminal window opens on their computer monitor. It is scrolling through hundreds of lines of green text command lines, and somewhere in that jumble they can tell that everything is at its sinister best, or going horribly wrong. That’s right, they have been reduced to frantically typing DOS programmers from 1988.
And then there’s the human element. How do you know that your best friend Wade (Danny Huston), bonded with you in the heat of battle in Iraq, is about to betray you, frame you, take your family hostage and blow up a whole wing of a hospital? Well, just have him over for dinner and give him a nice glass of wine. You can almost hear the sinister chuckle as he pats your toddler on the head and calls her “cutie-pie.” That same guy, far too old and gray-haired to be leaping around a rooftop and engaging in hand-to-hand combat, should be wincing at the pain in his arthritic knees. Instead, he takes a plunging knife wound to his heart. It’s the kind of wound that lets him rapidly bleed to death while remaining dramatically conscious so he can thank his friend/killer, “I’m glad it was you.”
After Banning is framed for the Presidential attack, it becomes predictably clear that the weenie of a Vice-President who assumes acting capacity as Commander in Chief, is up to no good. We can only hope that he gets caught.
So, yeah, I’ve made Angel Has Fallen sound dumb. But the reality is that they use all of these corny devices to great success. Gerard Butler, as Secret Service agent Mike Banning, has not become the Dwayne Johnson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone comic book action hero we’re used to seeing in this type of film. He’s a more relatable tough guy who doesn’t smile much, kind of resembling Russell Crowe. He is most known for his role as King Leonides in 300, and starred in the Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of Phantom of the Opera.
Morgan Freeman is certainly a draw for this film. Who doesn’t love Morgan? His gentle wisdom and soothing voice adapt him to just about any role, from God to Glory, with an insanely prolific career that began in the late 1960s.
A nice surprise is Clay Banning, played by, wait, is that Nick Nolte!? Sure enough, appearing to be “one step above the Unabomber” as his son describes him, he brings a strangely human element to Mike Banning’s personal history, and some humor when he starts blowing up the countryside surrounding his off-the-grid bunker in Virginia. A final scene in which the two of them indulge in some father/son therapeutic time leaves you laughing as you exit the theater. Nolte may be reason enough to see this movie.
Some of the action scenes are filmed so tight that it’s hard to tell what’s happening. The viewer is left to assume that the hero is winning, until it’s made painfully clear that he’s not. There are lots of explosions, including the reduction of a building to dust, filmed nicely from above. Perhaps a real demolition?
A silly little subplot has Banning suffering from post-concussive headaches. He keeps this a secret from his wife and the President. It’s hardly a big deal that he sees doctors but the President makes him promise, “no more secrets.”
If you’re in the mood for tons of military style action, predictable but believable characters and some really buttery popcorn, this movie feels much shorter than its two-hour length. The big screen draws you in, but your own living room might be just as good.
Angel Has Fallen (2019) runs 2 hours, 1 minute and is rated R.

Should I see this movie? 

The Peanut Butter Falcon

Sometimes we go to school for our education. Other times life tosses learning opportunities right in our path and hopes we do more than stumble over them. But we all take turns as student and teacher, and ultimately we choose whether to learn from life’s lessons or to simply become the victim of them. There’s a lot to learn from The Peanut Butter Falcon, a surprising little film that Mark Twain might enjoy. Judging by the applause from the small audience we joined, this film works at a personal and emotional level. Or perhaps we just sat with a really good group of people late on a Sunday evening.
There are more than passing similarities to “Huckleberry Finn” at work here. This is a modern buddy story with an unlikely pairing of two outcasts on the lam, each with their own destination, a raft and a bond that strengthens along their journey.
Bruce Dern is showing up in movies a lot lately. He has settled into his old age nicely, playing edgy characters with wild gray hair in over twenty roles since the beginning of last year. Here he is Carl, the nursing home roommate to twenty-two year old Zak, an aspiring professional wrestler who happens to have Down syndrome. Identified as a flight risk by his caseworker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) following several botched escape attempts, he eventually succeeds with a little help from Carl.
Thus begins Zak’s quest to attend a wrestling school somewhere near the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Professional wrestler and pitchman “The Saltwater Redneck,” played by Thomas Hayden Church, is Zak’s hero. Church is a familiar face from TV (Cheers, Wings), with a career going back to the late 1980s. His role in Sideways appears to be his segue into a film career that’s kept him busy since 2004.
Newcomer Zach Gottsagen becomes “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” an alter ego wrestler identity that evolves around a beach bonfire with the help of some moonshine and his new mentor Tyler (Shia LaBeouf.) Tyler’s struggle to support himself as a crab fisherman is hampered by his guilt over an auto accident that killed his beloved older brother. Although not directly resolved, Zak may be the surrogate brother he needs to begin healing that wound. Along the way, he teaches Zak to swim and shoot a gun, provides some frolicking training and saves his life while crossing a river. Redemption is complicated with their pursuit by two vengeful fishermen and Zak’s caseworker, all of whom eventual catch up with the two outlaws.
Shia LaBoeuf, best known for his Transformer series, Disturbia and early work for The Disney Channel’s Even Stevens (and some outrageous behavior around 2008) is at the top of his game in this film. At age 33, he’s got a long career ahead of him. As Tyler, he shows heart, vulnerability and strength. His is a hard-won cunning earned on the Carolina backwaters with a skiff and stolen crab pots. His innate wisdom reveals that there’s a lot more to this scruffy mongrel than meets the eye. He eventually helps Zak to fulfill his dream and wins the attention of Eleanor, who reluctantly joins them on their journey. She tackles her own disillusionment with a health care system that left Zak dumped by his family in a nursing home without rights, dignity or concern about what he wants from life.
Eventually, the initial adventure ends as a new one begins, and the three become a family of sorts, learning from each other as they head off together to Florida.
The cast, locations and music in The Peanut Butter Falcon are sweaty, salty and deeply Southern, reminiscent of DeliveranceSouthern Comfort or O Brother Where Art Thou. The topic of Down syndrome is handled frankly, at times in Zak’s own words, and at others with comeuppance for those who utter the word “retard.” Zak’s limitations are less a hindrance than a springboard to his unique effect on those who open their hearts to him. His honesty and genuineness are keys to expediting that process.
This is a very different feel good movie. Retaining the PG-13 rating despite some profanity will be important in reaching a wider audience. Parents should bring kids to see this one. It’s a good catalyst for continued conversation about potentially uncomfortable interactions with those who seem different. And rest assured we are all different, each in our own way.
The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) runs 1 hour, 33 minutes and is rated PG-13.
Should I see this movie? 

Good Boys (2019)

If you’re a fan of Director John Hughes, in particular Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or Paul Brickman’s Risky Business you may find moments that feel vaguely familiar in Good Boys. This is a coming of age film for friends Lucas, Max and Thor who are entering the social minefield known as sixth grade. So they may have one or two more coming of age periods yet to traverse.
I should warn you at this point that any comparisons to the classic films I just mentioned will set you up for disappointment. I can’t say that this movie is even as good as 2007’s Superbad, which succeeded on the strength of Jonah Hill and Michael Cera in lead roles and Seth Rogan contributing to both acting and writing.
Hill and Rogan have stepped into Executive Producer and Producer roles respectively for Good Boys. Younger actors with equally foul mouths now journey through a simple plot that has them learning to kiss for their “cool kid” friend Soren’s party with the aid of a highly forbidden drone Max’s Dad uses for work. They are caught spying on two “old girls” who capture the drone and must then trade it for the girls’ club drugs the boys grabbed as they fled.
Previews for Good Boys have been playing for months. As with the recent release of Stuber, many of the funniest lines populated the trailer. Also as was the case with Stuber, some of those lines were never used in the final cut. But Good Boys lacked comparable replacements, which weakened the product that was released to theaters.
From start to finish, this is a showcase for obscene sight gags and tons of vocabulary humor appropriate to eleven year olds, much of it profane. Thor claims that he has become a “Social Piranha” following several embarrassing events. The discovery of a parental treasure trove of sex toys is fodder for gags (pun intended) throughout the film.
As sophisticated as today’s tweens have become, I felt that the main characters were somewhat naïve for their age. But they fell at different points on a spectrum that eventually breaks up “The Bean Bag Boys” as they’ve called themselves to this point. It’s somewhat heartbreaking to see them realize that a chapter is turning, and Lucas (Keith L. Williams), for one, is “not going there.” In fact, he joins a school group called SCAB – School Coalition Against Bullying – where he can police the kind of bad behavior he’s personally incapable of. His performance is endearing, and his parents’ divorce becomes a mirror for his own growth and resulting need of a larger “hermit crab shell.” His screams when startled are ear-piercing notes that would do Minnie Riperton proud.
The eventual scramble to return the drone to its prominent resting place is the scene reminiscent of Risky Business. And several moments in the film had me longing for a John Hughes festival. The improbable journey through all too familiar suburbia had a “Twist and Shout” feel that this go-round culminated in Thor’s performance in the “Rock of Ages” school musical.
There are a number of side-splitting laughs spaced evenly through the film, with many chuckles and groans. Hill and Rogan are clearly penis-obsessed at the level of 14 year olds. If you’re not convinced, see Sausage Party. Camera angles and effective editing contribute significantly to scenes like a mad dash on foot across an eight-lane expressway.
Fans of Stephen Merchant (Extras, The Ricky Gervais Show, The Office) will enjoy his portrayal of a nerd in search of a prized gaming card. He comes away instead with something extra special from Max’s parents’ collection.
While I would recommend seeing Good Boys, the big screen adds nothing to the experience. You can wait to see this one at home.

Good Boys (2019) runs 1 hour 29 minutes and is rated R.
Should I see this movie? 

Ready or Not

“You think because it’s your family, it must be normal.”
So says Alex, handcuffed to a bed and threatening to kill his mother if anything happens to his new wife, who was married into the family just hours ago.
Welcome to game night with the Le Domas clan, heirs to the Le Domas gaming “dominion” as they prefer it to be called. That is about all Alex (Mark O’Brien) tells his new bride Grace (Samara Weaving), a pretty little thing who’s a bit crude and not at all what Aunt Helene would welcome into the family. Of course, Helene is a broadax-wielding psychopath with a gelled up Guy Fieri haircut, black devil eyes and a penchant for killing houseguests before sunrise. They resemble the Adams Family in family portraits.
Parents Tony and Becky Le Domas (Henry Czerny and Andie McDowell) have been dutifully performing a ritual since grandpa Victor Le Domas made a deal with the devil back in the old days. As a result, on wedding nights, brides must draw a card from a small, mystical black box imbued with magical directives from Mr. Le Bail, the benefactor of the family fortune, or maybe the Devil’s henchman. They’ve all done it, but rarely does the card “Hide and Seek” get drawn. And that is the game that must be played to be accepted as part of the family. But this particular game, unlike Old Maid, checkers or a variety of others, has a sinister twist. The bride needs to stay alive until dawn to win, and that’s what everyone is trying to prevent. They have a vampire-like fear of sunrise that motivates all kinds of awful behavior. Kill the bride or die, and the chase is on.
This is a macabre but deliciously dark comedy with lots of gore and a very modern feel. When folks get upset, they curse honestly and vociferously like the foulest among us. Weaving does a great job of acting terrified, and summons adrenaline-fueled fighting instincts to avoid her doom. Along the way, three family maids who dress like the guitar strumming, black mini-skirted girls in the Robert Palmer “Simply Irresistible” music video, are summarily dispatched by crossbow, gun or silent butler. They wind up in the barn at the bottom of a goat disposal well. Yes, goats have been periodically sacrificed by this Pagan, no, make it Satan-worshipping, clan.
Ready Or Not seems to borrow from the twisted and dark intensity of the recent movie Get Out. The ritual and deeply committed allegiance to family secrets feels familiar in that regard. Narrow escapes, failed attempts to flee and tons of blood and gore heighten the tension and keep it maxed out from start to finish.
Samara Weaving had a part in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, and a lead role in The Babysitter, another bloody and darkly humorous thriller that was completely underrated and very worth seeing. Her face is a cross between Emma Stone and Nicole Kidman, with a devilish toothy grin that serves her well in this role.
Adam Brody, as Alex’s brother Daniel walks the line between obedient son and disenfranchised ritual resistor. He wants to help Grace, but needs to tow the family line. He’s familiar from his recent work in Shazam!
Despite Andie MacDowell’s busy portfolio, we can’t recall seeing much of her lately. And Director Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, more often actor than Director, has made a successful move behind the camera for this release. Once again, a horror film has debuted a month or more early for the Halloween season. According to one industry expert, this results from competition for media buys. The number of horror films being released during peak periods can make it hard to raise awareness, to stand out from the crowd, for a particular film. August is also considered a “dumping ground” for questionable films. Hitting the big screen before kids go back to school and when vacations are over is a balancing act. As with many things, timing is everything. And the bottom line goal is to fill screens, get people in the door and at the concessions stands. In our area, we have one theater with 16 screens. The only other options require a 30-45 minute drive.
This is literally a dark ride. Once the wedding sequence ends and the game begins, the Le Domas mansion is plunged into deliberate darkness and “The Hide and Seek Song” is played on an old Victrola. Like any good mansion from the late 1800s, there’s a trophy and vintage weapons room and lots of hidden servant passages, a great vehicle for sudden appearances or sneaking up behind an intended victim. The lighting is subdued and warm, not that fake blue darkness often seen in “night” filming.
If you can handle the violence, gore and profanity, this is a fun and effective hour and a half. Just about the right length to get you home in time for a family dinner. Because well, you know, everything that happens there is…normal.

Ready or Not (2019) runs one hour, 35 minutes and is rated R.
Should I see this movie? 

Blinded By The Light

In 1973, Bruce Springsteen recorded the song “Blinded by the Light” on his debut album Greetings From Asbury Park. It was popularized, though overplayed all the way to number one, by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band in 1976 with confusing lyrics that couldn’t be Googled as we can today. It began:

Well she was
Blinded by the light
Revved up like a deuce
Another runner in the night

 It went on to mention Mozart, calliopes, curly wurly, the mumps, silicone and other poetic or seemingly psychedelic references in a catchy and up-tempo tune. What was this stuff? It was in 1975 that I picked up a copy of Time magazine that positioned Springsteen as the new Dylan. Newsweek called him “Rock’s New Sensation.” That kind of hype can be as damaging as helpful. A subsequent contract dispute had him take a year off to write songs, another risk and more fuel for his legend. 

As we later became familiar with Springsteen’s gutsy, stream of consciousness lyrical style the song’s source came to make sense, though was perhaps no better understood. Oh well, on to “Born to Run” for a more relatable ride through the streets of New Jersey.  Now shift your attention to real life Sarfraz Manzoor (Javed in the film), a young Pakistani boy living in Luton, England during Margaret Thatcher’s era of job loss, racism and 1980s synth-pop. As the film portrays Javed, a friend turns him on to “The Boss” and a superfan is born. Springsteen’s lyrics speak to him about the power of dreams and possibilities, even though the music is “what your parents listen to” according to a school DJ. 

Newcomer Viviek Kalra plays Javed, the aspiring poet and writer living amidst an influx of British Pakistanis and under the thumb of his oppressive father. Job loss hits hard as the family struggles to pay bills and save face. Dad, played by Kulvinder Ghir, wants nothing more for his son than to be more than a cab driver, but refuses to recognize Javed’s passion for writing as a possible means to that end. Family drama expands to include a sister’s wedding, impacted by anti-Muslim demonstrations (yeah, 30 years ago), blatant racist attacks and the concept of arranged marriages. “I’ll find a wife for you” says Dad to Javed. He continues, “Stay away from the girls! Make friends with Jews. They are successful people.” Javed is doubly mortified by his father’s loud, sexist and racist proclamations as he is dropped off at school from a malfunctioning car near a group of female students. 

The possibility of awkward music-video storytelling lingers early in the film. But there are several unlikely but fun musical interludes when Javed strolls the street with the E-Street Band blaring through his Walkman’s headphones. The music seemingly morphs him from shy “Paki” to red plaid/denim “Boss” when most needed. Who hasn’t pre-gamed a party with a favorite track or gotten musically pumped for a race? We’ve all seen Michael Phelps do it.  

Javed even falls in love with a cute activist, a renegade and misfit in her own right. Their romance becomes a nice subplot in the overarching story that finds Javed on a mission to attend college to learn writing and visit New Jersey – home of The Boss. An exchange with a customs official takes a positive turn in light of the prevailing racist sentiments. We can’t help but hear our stomachs churn in hindsight at the pre-911 world of airport security. 

Kalra, though limited to TV work and this being his first film, possesses an on-camera charm that legitimizes this journey. And being a true story, we get to see photos of the real Javed (Sarfraz) in selfies with Springsteen, who began to recognize him as the only Pakistani at over 150 concerts. Yes, he was blinded by the light, and timing is everything. A book he wrote about his quest came to the attention of Director Gurinder Chadha, who attended a red carpet event where they met Springsteen, quickly pitched the idea of a movie and gained acceptance from the musician. Very gracious and appreciative, Springsteen did not attend the film’s premiere for fear of taking away from the experience. He thanked Chadha for the beautiful treatment of his life’s work. What a guy!

The film culminates in a writing award ceremony. Javed’s English professor, played by an almost unrecognizable Haley Atwell, slimmed down from her Marvel role as Captain America’s sweetheart, Agent Carter, advocates for Javed and is instrumental in propelling him to success, to believe in himself and attend college at Manchester. 

The multi-talented Director of Bend It Like Beckham and a wide range of TV work, writing and acting, Gurinder Chadha capitalizes on the global immigration crisis without sacrificing the tender story of a coming of age dreamer. Positivity rules the day in this feel good film. My expectations weren’t particularly high, but I enjoyed the ride with this “scared and lonely rider.”  

Blinded By The Light (2019) runs 1 hour 58 minutes and is rated PG-13. 

Should I see this movie?  

Vix Flix Movie Review: The Kitchen

First, a little background: The Kitchen is based on the Vertigo imprint of DC Comics, started in 1993 to publish stories that are more graphic or adult than could fit within the restrictions of the Comics Code Authority formed in 1954. The label will be discontinued in 2020, with all content merging under the DC Comics brand, with age-specific ratings similar to the movie industry. I didn't know this-I looked it up for you.
This may be important to understand prior to viewing the film. It somewhat explains the storyboard feel of the film, especially at the beginning and during the Quentin Tarantino-like final credits. Titling is overused. I think we can figure out when the film is taking place. Give the audience some credit. This is no documentary, and the writers apparently couldn't come up with a segue to illustrate the passage of time.
Characters are rapidly introduced in a series of scenes that lack continuity. Kind of like, hurry up, establish that the three main characters played by Melissa McCarthy, Elisabeth Moss and Tiffany Haddish (Kathy, Claire and Ruby respectively) are all married to abusive Irish gangsters. Yes, they are all properly motivated for what is to come.
Set in Hell’s Kitchen in New York during 1978, the Irish gangs are doing a poor job of acting like their more sophisticated Italian counterparts over in Brooklyn. When the husbands of our three leading ladies are sent to prison for three years, the unskilled and unemployable girls take matters into their own hands and (with a bit of male muscle for backup) take over the business. It turns out, they do have skills.
Margo Martindale, who played a similar role in TV’s Justified as Mags Bennett, tries to push the girls around until she realizes she’s outgunned while three of her boys are in the slammer. She is Helen O’Connor, mother of gang member Kevin. Little Jackie Quinn, played by Myk Watford is the gang’s acting kingpin when she’s not humiliating him in front of the other boys. Hers is a corny character, the mother-in-law to Ruby. And you can imagine that Ruby, being black, was never considered part of her “family.”
By now, fans of The Handmaid’s Tale recognize Elisabeth Moss’s ability to make the journey from meek to sinister. Her abuse at the hands of her husband and others sets her up for a joyful ride into the world of murder and dismemberment, training for which is provided by her new “messed up veteran” and ex-con boyfriend, fresh out of hiding in Colorado and come to save her. He has skills and looks kind of like Keith Urban.
There are a couple of Fleetwood Mac songs in the soundtrack along with Heart’s “Barracuda” – typical radio fare of the time. But the movie opens to Etta James’ “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” a 1966 song she recorded in 2006. This point is relentlessly hammered home as justification for the ladies to, well, become just like their thug husbands. Along with a sudden influx of cash comes sleepless nights, betrayals and more broken relationships. There is no redemption on the menu. Eventually the new kids in town turn on each other and are no better off than they were in the beginning, but at least they’re in charge of their own destinies.
Bill Camp plays Alfonso Coretti, another corny character. He’s the tough but kindly Brooklyn Mafia boss who runs his operation out of the back of a piano showroom. I guess that’s the source of their piano wire when needed.
Eventually, the story comes together with a couple of twists and surprises. The plot gels when the Director allows relationships to develop. Melissa McCarthy is decidedly un-funny, much as she was in Can You Ever Forgive Me? She’s a budding dramatic actor, but I hope she keeps doing comedy, since she’s a favorite in that genre.
Tiffany Haddish, similarly, is tough, dramatic and not at all like most of her recent roles. Again, she’s hilarious when cast in a comedy, so hopefully she doesn’t go all Michael Keaton on us.
The film is moderately violent and appropriate in length, but I’d wait to see this when it comes to TV unless you have an unlimited movie pass and want to get out of the house.

The Kitchen (2019) runs 1 hour 42 minutes and is rated R
Should I see this movie? 

Vix Flix Movie Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Back in 2006 I had the privilege of meeting Guillermo del Toro at the Chicago premier of Pan’s Labyrinth, one of the creepiest movies I’ve ever seen. Del Toro has a uniquely deranged creative style that is completely out of sync with the Guillermo I met – a Teddy Bear of a man, soft spoken and generous with his time when speaking with fans. He talked about his childhood, growing up in Catholic schools and the influence his education by Nuns had on his monstrous, otherworldly niche, a genre that no one else really shares. He even autographed not one, but three small promotional mini-posters for me and my kids, taking the time to draw a cute little caricature of himself on the back of each one.
So it was easy for me to identify the monsters he oversaw as screenwriter for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, with the Directorial help of Andre Ovredal. They are the stuff of nightmares. Really twisted nightmares. And now that Del Toro has Best Director and Picture Oscars to his credit for The Shape of Water, it seems noble of him to allow a relatively obscure Director to dwell in the chair he has occupied from Hellboy to Pacific Rim and beyond.
This film initially caused me to feel as if Del Toro was taking a step back from the intensity of his previous films. Maybe relaxing his horror muscle a bit. It had a feel at the beginning of the movie similar to just about every other Halloween themed movie I’ve seen, including Halloween itself. There was also a slight Stranger Things camaraderie among the film’s handful of youthful costars, up to some mischief on Halloween night in 1968. All of this is set against the televised run-up to the Nixon Presidential victory several weeks later. If there’s a deeper meaning here, it’s lost on me. I mean, Nixon was creepy and monstrous, but no match for Alvin Schwartz’s very dark young adult books, the basis of this movie. And why is this movie being released in August instead of October?
We find ourselves listening to one of those kids, Stella Nichols, reluctant to go out with friends (Auggie and Chuck) and preferring to just stay home and practice her own scary story writing, narrating the beginning and end of the film by commenting that, “If you tell a story often enough, it becomes real.” A visit to a haunted house in fictional Mill Valley, PA offers little to stir the imagination. It looks like every other haunted house from Hill House to Casper, and maybe even The Adams Family. The sets are the extremely dark blue of filtered fake night in films and full of plastic-y cobwebs that would be enough to keep me out.
The house has a history. Young Sarah Bellows, albino daughter of the wealthy and sadistic Bellows family, has been locked away in a secret room her entire life. The family moved on without her, leaving her locked in a basement prison to die and for our heroes to discover, along with a magic book that writes itself…in blood – scary tales!
The book is what binds together the handful of stories acted out along the way. The first, a scarecrow in a cornfield episode takes The Wizard of Oz down a rabbit hole of death at the hands of a Del Toro scarecrow creation that clearly lacks more than brains. Follow the Yellow Brick Road – if you dare. Pitchforks are not optional.
This is where Del Toro’s vision starts to thicken the toe soup, or should I say stew. I don’t want to give away too much. The stories each have their own creep factor, and several good jump-out-of-your-seat moments to boot. A key Mexican character named Ramon may have something to do with the current immigration climate, or the fact that Del Toro is Mexican himself. But this kid’s brother came home from Vietnam in pieces. At this point it would have been a hoot if the multi-pieced monster unleashed against him queued Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces.” But it probably wasn’t the best time for a laugh. The town sheriff, played by Gil Bellows (PatriotShawshank Redemption) is clearly a racist, and local thugs whose leader Tommy Milner was earlier dispatched by the scarecrow, scrawled “Wet Back” on the hood and trunk of Ramon’s car. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The sets throughout the film were nicely adorned with 1968 memorabilia, but not in a subtle way. Set decoration is an art in itself, one that requires more than Google familiarity with a given period. But the choice of Bye Bye Birdie as the school play at which Chuck’s sister Ruth’s face explodes with swarming spiders (yeah, I hate spiders too) was almost cliché. That is, until you combine it with the discovery that Ramon was not “following the harvest” but rather a draft dodger. The draft weighs heavily on the fate of Conrad Birdie in the 1963 musical comedy too. So what’s up with that?
The anthology approach to compiling a larger story is distracting and predictable. Each time a chapter ends, we know we’re headed back to the book to watch another story get written in blood before our eyes. And it becomes fairly obvious that Stella will need to get her groove back and write the darned ending…in blood.
But overall, as the story begins to gel and the viewer accepts the fact that they’re watching a multi-act play, you can push back into your seat, like a rollercoaster where you know there’s a big drop coming, and you don’t want it to happen. Oh yes you do!

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) runs 1 hour 51 minutes and is rated PG-13
Should I see this movie? 

Vix Flix Movie Review: The Lion King

It is still the “Summer of Disney” at movie theaters everywhere, and we’re seeing our share of new or re-imagined Disney stories. When considering why they seem so intent on remaking old classics, often morphing from animation to either 3D or live action, I considered an event in my own life. Skip the next five (red) paragraphs if you don’t care to read my thought provoking analogy.
In high school I was the quiet kid in the back of the classroom who dreaded being called on - a virtually unknown student even by year’s end. As such, during my senior year English class following a segment on Shakespeare, we were given the challenge of a final project on any topic the Bard leveraged in the plays we studied. We could act out a scene – eee gads! – write and read a poem to the class – yikes!, write a paper or make a movie. Wait, what?
I chose to make a movie on the topic of “death,” since it factors prominently in Romeo and Juliet, and, well, just about any of Shakespeare’s works. My father died the year before, so it was morbidly therapeutic. Alas, poor Yorick, I knew some stuff about the topic first hand. I’ll skip the production and scheduling details of my filmmaking debut, and cut to the showing of my masterwork on the last day of high school. Keep in mind this was 1972. I used a Super 8 movie camera and an audiocassette recorder to get the job done. Mine was the last project shared that day, and we very nearly ran out of time with no next class for carryover. I was stressed, having worked for weeks with a manual film splicer, adjusting timing. Frantically working to thread the film into a clunky Bell & Howell projector I lugged to school on the bus, queuing the tape player with a poor quality external speaker for my audio track, I nodded to the teacher to shut off the lights.
Four minutes later, the short film ended to applause just as the bell rang on my final English class of my final semester. The teacher approached me, swimming upstream toward the back of the class amid the excited chaos of classmates chattering about summer vacation, just hours away. They said their goodbyes to the teacher, who was beaming.
“I can’t give you any better than an A Plus,” he apologized. I was grateful he hadn’t asked me for my name. He was at a loss for words, but those he spoke were effusive. So this point of recounting this fond memory is, as technologies rapidly changed through the years I periodically considered making the movie again with modern editing methods. But ultimately it was an entirely worthless collage of deathly images that really had no audience outside of 7thperiod English.
But the people at Disney think back too, and designers no doubt get really jazzed about re-creating classics such as the originally hand-drawn Lion King using 3D editing tools like the complex and expensive Maya software used for the 2019 reincarnation just released.
Director Jon Favreau really knows his stuff, which is kind of an obvious statement, but he learned a lot from making The Jungle Book, and freely admits that it was a learning experience that taught him about optimizing different “lighting” angles within a virtual environment on things like – well, Lion fur.
If you grew up with the 1994 version of The Lion King, or watched your kids grow up with it, you no doubt have fond memories of the story, its lessons, the clever animated characters that act it out, and the academy award winning music written by Elton John and Tim Rice.
The 2019 version of The Lion King is not live action, but you’ll swear it’s real. Computer animation has become so photo-realistic, beginning-to-end, that you forget to marvel at the texture and movement of muscles beneath fur and feathers. Water rippling, splashing and falling is no longer a one-off showcase of a multimedia designer’s best effort – the whole film is a showcase. There are no doubt shortcuts used to capture and template physical characteristics and movements of the many animals in The Lion King. After all, this is the age of digital image libraries. But instead of using the software to have the animals do things they can’t do in nature, the goal here was to have them perform in the most lifelike manner possible. And there are so many animals – you know the scene where they gather around Pride Rock to view baby Simba as he’s held up by Rafiki for all to see? There is scene after scene where so much is going on, layer upon layer in a Noah’s Ark of African species, bowing and trumpeting to welcome the future king, that you feel the need to watch it again and again.
James Earl Jones returns (his voice) as Mufasa, the only carryover from twenty-five years ago. As is usual with Disney, all the latest pop stars and personalities of the moment are lined up behind the characters. I honestly wish they wouldn’t do that. Does Beyonce have to be in everything? And I found it distracting to have Seth Rogan show up yet again with his Pumbaa voice. But then, he is the human embodiment of a warthog, so you can’t fault Disney entirely. But some of the best voices are often those you don’t recognize. Still, in Disney's defense, many years from now, the stars will be forgotten but the voices will live on, much like Edward Everett Horton (Fractured Fairy Tales), Paul Frees (Bullwinkle characters) and Daws Butler (Yogi Bear and others.)
The story is familiar and the music was not tampered with – in fact it has been produced with more conventional orchestration when compared with the original, more synthetic instruments. And one fun tribute came when Timon and Pumbaa began to launch into the Beauty and the Beast song, “Be Our Guest,” which was promptly cut short. It’s a nice little Disney-within-Disney nod.
The original animated film was rated G. This time around, the rating has been upped to PG, no doubt due to the intensity of animal fights and killing, though blood was nowhere to be seen. In fact, some of the major conflicts, especially on a cliff against a background of raging fire are so intense and the hyenas are so numerous and sinister I’d be reluctant to take a very small child to see this.  
The Lion King (2019) runs 1 hour 58 minutes and is rated PG.
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Vix Flix Movie Review: Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw

Signing up for the Regal Unlimited movie pass has resulted in our first questionable movie choice using this method. This film was not at the top of our list, but was showing at a suitable time and was more appealing to our visiting thirty year old son than Toy Story 4 or Aladdin.
I have not seen any of the Fast and Furious films, which have apparently spawned a franchise that includes films, soundtracks, video games, a TV series, merchandise and theme park attractions. It has become the tenth largest grossing film franchise and is Universal’s hottest property. And again, I’ve never seen a single movie. I feel negligent.
Because of this, I feel compelled to answer a few questions before reviewing the film:
1.    How many films are there in this franchise and what are they called?
2.    Where is Samoa, location of the final battle in the film?
3.    What universities have Badass curricula?
4.    When did “The Rock” get involved?
5.    What happened to Paul Walker?
Question 1: This is straightforward, given a fast and furious trip to Wikipedia. Here are the nine films in the franchise, ten counting Hobbs and Shaw, which is considered a spinoff. 
·     The Fast and the Furious
·     2 Fast 2 Furious (this is grammatically suspect)
·     The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
·     Fast & Furious (faster without the extra words)
·     Fast Five (even faster)
·     Fast & Furious 6 (right to the point)
·     Furious 7 (just plain furious)
·     The Fate of the Furious (where have they been?)
·     Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw
·     Fast & Furious 9 (to be released in 2020)
Question 2: Samoa is more than 2500 miles south of Hawaii in the middle of the South Pacific. It is almost 10,000 miles from the center of the film’s action in London. Interestingly, Hawaii was used as the set for the “Samoa” location, and Johnson’s mother is Samoan.
Question 3: I enrolled in a little known Badass program at the University of Illinois in 1973. At 6 foot 1 and 190 pounds, I was too small to succeed. I lacked the necessary tattoos, had an aversion to pain, and was generally unmotivated when it was suggested that I work out for eight hours per day, ride a motorcycle, cut all the sleeves off of my t-shirts and learn martial arts. I faired poorly in the classes, “Leveraging your rage,” “Screaming at people who are trying to help you,” and “Taking punches and crashing through windows.” I am unaware of other colleges with this offering.
Question 4: Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson got involved in the fifth film, a turning point for the floundering franchise. This is where Fast and Furious departed from a street racing theme, focusing on heist action involving cars. Gun fights and brawls became central, with only one car chase.
Question 5: Paul Walker, star of the first film, tragically and ironically died in a car crash in 2013, halfway through the filming of Fast and Furious 6. His scenes were completed with some rewrites and his brothers serving as stand-ins. His character was then retired.
This brings us to the movie at hand. The relationship previously established between Johnson (Hobbs) and co-star Jason Statham (Shaw), steeped in badassity and fighting that defies numerous laws of physics, works well if you like laughing during action films. The two are recruited in the US and England by CIA agents played respectively by Ryan Reynolds and Rob Delaney (Catastrophe). Reynolds, though uncredited, is a highlight, employing his snarky Deadpool humor to great effect.
In a more Mission Impossible approach than is typical for this franchise, the reluctant heroes (refusing to work with each other) are enlisted to retrieve a humanity-ending virus from the arm of Shaw’s sister, an MI6 agent framed for the murder of her team. This requires the assistance of a dorky scientist who invented and lost control of the virus, intending it to be used for vaccinations (see, vaccinations ARE bad). Enter Idris Elba as Brixton, a genetically and technologically enhanced “Black Superman” who takes orders from an unseen digitally masked and sinister voice. This voice is last heard at the end of the film, teeing up a sequel along with Ryan Reynolds’ frantic call to Hobbs for help.
An effective drinking game could be played based either on the frequent plot-supporting shouting directives out noisy vehicle windows between Hobbs and Shaw (they never say, “What?”) or each time a vehicle is going to accelerate, when the camera shifts to a close-up of Shaw’s foot hitting the accelerator. It seems Hobbs never drives and the Director never tires of this shot.
There is plentiful use of drones that are capable of far more than is realistic, software activated guns that can be hacked, and head’s up displays with analytics built into Brixton’s bioengineered eyes. These topics are newsworthy but no longer really the stuff of science fiction.
Helen Mirren makes several appearances, all in prison, as Shaw’s mother. She seems to have home schooled Shaw and his sister in espionage protocols and battle tactics that the kiddies gave code names like “The Mick Jagger” and “The Keith Moon.” I bet the tricks still work…wink, wink.
Several troubling relationships are worked out in the heat of battle: Hobbs and Shaw, Shaw and his sister, Hobbs and his brother, that all contribute to the unnecessary length of the movie. One particularly cringe-worthy scene has Hobbs kissed by Shaw’s sister. He then asks if they can do it again the next day after they save the world. Chuckle, chuckle, omg.
If you like action films, this one delivers a ton of chases, fights and shooting. Brixton’s interactions with his self-driving, morphing motorcycle are nicely animated, though it seems they repurposed old sound effects from a Jedi Starfighter.
Early in the movie, Shaw drives a McLaren 720S, with a sticker price of around $300,000 It is a joy to behold. I would be nervous parking this car. He uses it in chase scenes and drives it under a truck and out the other side.
In the end, the world is saved, the good guys win, and the bad guys lose for now. Sadly, the hapless female is strapped to a digital 30 minute countdown timer most recently parodied in M&M commercials, and although she does her share of ass kicking, inevitably she is saved by the big strong men. Oh, and a countdown timer? Fortunately that cliché didn’t lead down the path of “red wire or blue?”
The eventual trip to Samoa takes place without even a wardrobe change. This would be a grueling all-day series of flights. An earlier plane sequence served as an opportunity to introduce Kevin Hart as an Air Marshall and eager wannabe assistant to the perpetually bickering Hobbs and Shaw. His usual comic flair is welcome relief in a scene that otherwise should have been cut.
Despite the annoying, ceaseless bickering that defines the Hobbs and Shaw relationship, the two stars work well together. But the next time The Rock pulls a chain with a helicopter on the end of it, like some big green metallic balloon, I’m going to write him a strongly worded letter. From a distance.

Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw (2019) runs 2 hours, 17 minutes and is rated PG-13.
Should I see this movie?  

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Marvel fans are pushing this film to huge box office receipts. I’m not sure it’s deserved.  I recommend that you see  Iron Man 3  before see...